25 February 2012

Renewed Part 3. The Rhetoric of Faithful Witness

Mark Steiner led off the first morning session of Westminster Reformed Presbyterian Church's Renew Conference with a lecture entitled "'Faithful Witness' As a Model for Faith and Politics." Far less intense a rhetorical exercise than his comments from the previous evening. (See my thoughts about it here). Steiner’s features for such a faithful witness are well taken. Christian political engagement should be characterized by (1) modesty (about ourselves, what we can know for certain, the limits of persuasion, and what we can expect from the political process); (2) a primary concern for truth and God’s glory; (3) an embrace of complexity and mystery; and (4) respect for the importance of ethos (IOW, the right to be heard must be earned).

Steiner  reminded his audience or the reality that we are finite and affected by sin as well as the necessity of compromise in the political process and the risk of co-optation by far more shrewd political operatives. He lobbed a few grenades in toward Scottish Common Sense Realism (we can know the truth by simply “reading-off” our sense perceptions of nature and, in its evangelical guise, by simply reading the Bible) but left me wondering about his epistemological commitments; too much a rhetorician may not be a good thing. In fact, Steiner’s subsequent invocation of the outspoken Christian Civil Rights leader Fannie Lou Hamer as an example of one committed to truth and God’s glory puzzled me. Hamer doesn’t quite fit Steiner’s model Christian political activist; I’m sure she seemed neither modest nor one committed to “mystery and complexity" by Lyndon Johnson or Hubert Humphrey in 1964. (Check the “Democratic National Convention” heading on the Fannie Lou Hamer Wikipedia page here.) Steiner needs to do a little work relating points (1) and (2).

For Steiner, “embracing complexity and mystery” finds its foundation in the narrative model of knowing while his last point means that we must understand the arguments of others better than they do if we want to persuade rather than hector. To be sure we know only in part but I don't want to concede that we can't know. While we will never know everything about anything, that doesn't mean we can't know some things with certainty.

I still left concerned about Steiner’s conclusion that Christians, even in the political sphere, should worry less about political work than sharing what we have with others. That the process is what really matters. One hopes that folks can do well in both, getting the policy right and winsomely sharing in the process. One need not be a contemporary culture warrior to believe there are better and worse solutions to political problems.

Finally, I had suggested in my previous Steiner post that Paul's summary Christian confession "Jesus in Lord" had and has political implications. Caesar was Lord for Paul's Roman audience and YHWH was Lord for his Jewish readers. The Christian confession that Jesus was Lord was treason to Roman ears and blasphemy to Jewish ones. Jesus' earlier statement to render to Caesar what is Caesar's and to God what is God's made the same point. Caesar had his limits and so does the modern civil state. That Jesus is Lord is Lord continues to rebuke both the hard totalitarianism of certain regimes like North Korea but also to softer ones whose creeping scope of government authority continues to crowd out all competitors.

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