Now, at the end of the second decade in the 21st century, something new is hitting many of our churches: a social justice ideology that is, as I wrote a few weeks ago, “anti-biblical, borrows heavily from the postmodern worldview which aims to redistribute power (Marx aimed to do the same with wealth), and…is becoming a kind of false religion.” Has a postmodern version of the old social gospel reared its ugly head inside churches where it once, at least during the fundamentalist era, was rejected?
The opposition between evangelism and social action started in early 20th century conflicts between Christ-preaching evangelicals who treasured the Bible and social gospel advocates that believed real Christianity had to make a difference in society first of all. Now, in the early decades of the 21st century, the old conflict has largely subsided and is alien to current university students. But, should evangelism and social action be linked, and, if so, why?
© 2014 Robert Osburn
The headwinds of political disengagement are buffeting Christian young adults. There is overall cynicism about the political enterprise, in the wake of feeling like much has been promised and little has been delivered. A general lack of trust in institutions including government is widespread. A preference for “really doing something” by providing tangible help to fix immediate and proximate needs is clear. And the illusion of the compelling witness of libertarian peers, who promote a supposed live and let live political philosophy that seems so much less controversial and complicated, is rampant.
These words, recently penned by the CEO of the Center for Public Justice, Stephanie Summers, are an almost perfect snapshot of the American college students I teach at the University of Minnesota. There’s something beautiful about their earnest desire for tangible, practical solutions to human problems, and yet behind it all lurks a tragic suspicion about our institutions, especially our political institutions.
Besides the reasons offered by Summers, there are at least four more. There is the general effect of postmodern discourse, that way of talking and writing about reality that is laced with jaded caution and suspicion that someone, especially those who lead institutions, is out to rob you of power while proclaiming their ideology has the answers to what ails humanity. Even Christian evangelism is seen as nothing more than a ploy to lash poor benighted souls under the tyranny of Christian religion.
Besides postmodern discourse, today’s technology conveniently lets students bypass most institutions (except social networking institutions like Facebook) in favor of multiple direct personal encounters mediated by endless technologies. Churches, associations, clubs? Strictly optional when all you need is a cell phone.
Postmodern discourse, electronic technology, and, thirdly, a fractured culture add to the disengagement. Ever since the 1960s, America has been a nation without a cultural consensus, and that lack of cultural consensus is making it much harder to find political consensus. It’s easier to write off political institutions that fight all the time than it is to try to understand why they work so poorly. 1960s cultural fragmentation has created 21st century political fragmentation.
Finally, to complete the portrait of collegiate political disengagement, remember that this generation has their parents to thank for up to 50% of them having experienced family fragmentation owing to divorce, etc. We know from research that divorce has devastating effects, among them a much greater propensity to steer clear of religious institutions and to settle for the private comforts of a saccharine spirituality.
So, the typical politically disengaged American college student is the product of postmodern discourse, electronic technology, political fragmentation, and family fragmentation that adds up to one word: dystopia. However, many students stop short of full-blown anti-utopianism and say, “Things will turn out tragically lest we somehow get engaged to make our world a better place. “ That’s the socially conscious part of students that really does look attractive and hopeful. Dig wells, teach literacy, save rainforests, and so on. Direct action looks so much better, as Stephanie Summers points out, than working with and through institutions that are failing (families and politics).
Unfortunately, lacking a Christian anthropology, many socially-engaged students will find their sails completely whipped apart by the desperate brokenness of those they have come to help. Combine that with the sense that the “system” (whatever it is in any given society) ensures the continued misery of the poor, and the picture clouds up quickly. Students may, after all, end up with truly dark and hopeless visions unless they joyfully welcome the liberating bondage (Romans 6:18) of a Savior who straightens out our minds while He saves our souls.
Is my truncated portrait of many American college students (politically disengaged but socially conscious) the end of the story? We already know that students are weary of institutions. Add to that the prospect of many becoming truly dystopian after their save-the-world efforts come up drastically short, and, well, the prospect of dark anti-institutionalists running the world is not pretty. Were it not for generous doses of common grace that Jesus seems to freely dispense, this is a recipe for chaos, disorder, and darkness. Gloom and doom.
There are, however, micro-alternatives (e.g., Wilberforce Academy) that are popping up. Our objective is not in any way to undercut students’ social consciousness, but, rather, to give them philosophical and theological legs so that, rather than drifting into despair when their valiant efforts hit brick walls, they bounce back into institutions with a robust political theology that aims to transform what seems hopeless. William Wilberforce lived in dark times at the end of the 18th century, but a few others like him in the Clapham Community were well-instructed by Wesleyan and a few godly Anglican pastors who taught them the ways of God. Wilberforce and his colleagues (whose story is richly told in the 1953 book Saints in Politics) worked with and through institutions to effect dramatic and positive changes that no one could have anticipated, least of all the abolition of the slave trade.
Turn around is possible, but we will need far greater efforts (like Wilberforce Academy) to give our students the biblical, theological, and philosophical grounding that creates the leaders our institutions will need to endure, and for civilization to be renewed.
It wasn’t just New York Times columnist Nicholas Kristof who told the world that evangelicals have something positive to offer society. Word is slowly seeping out of ivory towers and old and new media outlets: Following Jesus doesn’t just involve Culture War negations; much of the time Jesus’ disciples are laying awake nights dreaming about how to find solutions to pressing human needs. They aren’t just about enlisting draftees for Heaven; they are working for human flourishing.
Wilberforce Academy is all about training international (and a few American) students and visiting scholars to creatively, courageously, intelligently, and skillfully apply a Christian worldview to challenges facing their societies and workplaces. And just this past week, five of the students enrolled in our Spring 2014 thirteen-week Politics After the Fall course demonstrated how to find redemptive solutions to pressing problems.
Ameido explained her quest to find out why Togo’s best-educated 18 to 30 year olds lack an entrepreneurial mindset. The very people with an abundance of training, skills, and potential solutions, are waiting around their parents’ homes for government jobs that rarely materialize. What can Ameido and her friends do to arouse an entrepreneurial mindset? Stay tuned for some potential answers sometime in early 2015.
Pastor Dave is crafting a remarkable piece of historical fiction---crafted around a phenomenal and little-known incident in World War II---that may become one of those page-turners like the bestseller Unbroken. Dave dares to believe that our cynical, crumpled populace will more likely discover the Gospel in a great piece of literature (think C.S. Lewis’ Chronicles of Narnia) than most of what passes for Christian literature today.
Debbie’s academic background has prepared her well for writing a book about a Christian understanding of the idea of equality. Articulating and expressing that vision takes enormous research. She shared with us one of her latest chapters where she exposed the tragically weakened secular foundations for equality. In fact, says Debbie, the foundations may well not exist, and that leaves Westerners, for whom equality is a foundational assumption, exposed on an international stage where there are massive crosscurrents working against the idea. Ultimately, equality will have to be re-grounded in a Christian worldview.
Then there is Jordan’s modest but important effort to help a local Christian ministry face up to serious internal management problems. A biblical perspective on reality infuses Christ’s followers with the passion to make a positive redemptive difference in society, but also counsels a sober analysis of the ways humans, even some Christians, project and maintain power at the expense of human flourishing. Among other truths, I regularly remind Wilberforce Academy Fellows that the measure of our organizations and institutions is the degree to which they foster the development of the image of God in their constituents. Heavy-handed, close-minded management does not foster the image of God among colleagues and workers. That is the blunt and simple truth.
Finally, Abigail shared with us her project, which is to win a seat in the Minnesota House of Representatives. A millennial herself, Abigail is determined to create a millennial “take back” strategy that is both politically shrewd but also deeply Christian in its vision. She notes how many millennials have dropped out of all American institutions, a fact duly noted in the very recent Pew Research Center report Millennials in Adulthood: Detached from Institutions, Networked with Friends. Abigail will not only knock on 4,000 doors in her district but she hopes to simultaneously arouse a powerful, but currently immobilized group of conservative millennials to help her.