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Can Christians Engage Social Issues and Remain Faithful?

NORTH NEWTON, Kan. – A cultural philosophy centered on Christian ethics requires a delicate balancing act, according to a Bethel College religion professor. Duane Friesen’s Artists, Citizens, Philosophers: Seeking the Peace of the City, published by Herald Press in 2000, has been enjoying a flurry of academic discussion in recent months.

This assessment continued at a gathering Feb. 12 at <?xml:namespace prefix = st1 ns = “urn:schemas-microsoft-com:office:smarttags” />Bethel, at which Friesen’s efforts to define an Anabaptist cultural philosophy were discussed by some of his colleagues.<?xml:namespace prefix = o ns = “urn:schemas-microsoft-com:office:office” />
In his book, Friesen tries to define what the modern church should be, not only as a haven of spirituality but as a social body engaging other beliefs and agendas.
Friesen’s book also addresses artistic and other social standards, and bases a new definition of culture on the pattern of the Christian Trinity.
The balancing act comes in deciding how far to go in these outward forays, Friesen said. Does the church risk being overly influenced by the culture around it, or should it remain more removed from the world than responsive to it?
“I think the vision for the church needs to be more ecumenical,” Friesen said, noting this can apply to all Christians, not just Mennonites. “I think this is a view of the church that is relevant to everyone living at this time.”
Friesen calls for an outlook in which social engagement is essential.
“The key intellectual construct in the book is to see that the Christian vision is a cultural vision,” affecting all aspects of daily life, he said.
In writing about Christian social engagement, Friesen often found himself at odds with noted theologian Stanley M. Hauerwas, a Duke Divinity School professor who has become an influential voice for Christian ethics and pacifism.
In Hauerwas’ view, the Christian church is called out from society to be a place of apprenticeship, where people learn the Christian way of life by living with other Christians. To Hauerwas, the church should be a witness to truth, not a vehicle for liberal social activism.
The engaged church risks being absorbed by the culture around it, Hauerwas believes, compromising its spiritual and social currency.
Friesen, while acknowledging such a risk, does not preach isolation.
The often confrontational Hauerwas, Friesen said, “always overstates things, he always polarizes.”
Friesen said a tension naturally exists between a church’s social engagement and the alternative of remaining isolated. Dealing with this tension must lead to “a stronger sense of what it means to be a church.”
Friesen said the concept of the “church being a disciplined body that stands for something is absolutely critical.”
Friesen believes deeper social engagement, and translating one’s faith into the vocabulary of the culture around it, are vital. The function of the morally formed church, he said, should be to exist as a discerning community.
“Let’s discern together how we carry out these responsibilities” in society, Friesen said. “A theology of culture has to have some framework where we ground our faith.”
Taking part in the discussion were Gail Lutsch, professor of art at Bethel; Thomas Heilke, associate professor of political science at the University of Kansas; and John M. Janzen, professor of anthropology at the University of Kansas.
Heilke, who tends to side with Hauerwas when it comes to social engagement, said the church should remain cultural outsiders in many ways, to prevent “the cultural leakage into the church” of questionable influences.
Heilke cited the example of mainstream churches display- ing American flags in their sanctuaries, a clear result of the patriotic fervor outside their doors.
Heilke said the church should “embody an alternative cultural vision. . . . There’s a lot of cultural leakage that we need to be attentive to,” to ensure that Christian values – and particularly the radical stances of Anabaptism – are not softened or lost.
In exploring the kind of engagement and dialogue Friesen calls for, Heilke said, “we want to be very careful in the kind of vocabulary we use and the cultural artifacts we absorb.”
Janzen said he was intrigued by Friesen’s cultural vision, because of its focus on Anabaptist theology and ways it can influence and possibly even change society.
“I’ve never seen anywhere that culture comes close to being derived from the Christian Trinity,” Janzen said. “Does the Anabaptist view of culture have anything to say . . . about creating a better world?”
In his book, Friesen uses trinitarian metaphors for different aspects of Christian culture. The Creator is seen as an all-pervading power of good; Christ represents a living presence of redemption in society; and the Holy Spirit reflects a reconciling, grace-bestowing moral compass.
Lutsch said she appreciated Friesen’s call for Christians to express their faith in outward ways – whether by creating fine art or by building and maintaining orderly farms that embody Christian values.
Friesen said art and aesthetics should not only include “high art,” but serve as a compelling “dimension of life for ordinary people.”
He said this kind of expression can enrich the spirit and help safeguard the church from being co-opted by mainstream society. The church would set its own standards of quality, based on Christian values.
“How do we deal with the concept of excellence?” Friesen said. “Without aesthetic standards, we’ll just adopt the mainstream culture uncritically.”
The discussion of Friesen’s book was sponsored by the Friends of the Mennonite Library and Archives at Bethel.
This article was reprinted with permission from the Mennonite Weekly Review.
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