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The battle of ideas in America

"The battle of ideas in America" Continued...

Issue: "Food fight," May 3, 2008

The declaration does not call for big government, though: It asks us to remember and emulate the "vital but little known Evangelical contribution to the rise of the voluntary association."

The declaration also calls for neither a Christian America nor a secularized one, neither a sacred nor a naked public square, but rather "a civil public square-a vision of public life in which citizens of all faiths are free to enter and engage the public square on the basis of their faith, but within a framework of what is agreed to be just and free for other faiths too. Thus every right we assert for ourselves is at once a right we defend for others. A right for a Christian is a right for a Jew, and a right for a secularist, and a right for a Mormon, and a right for a Muslim, and a right for a Scientologist, and a right for all the believers in all the faiths across this wide land."

The declaration's bottom line: "We should neither privatize nor politicize faith; the church should be identified neither with the religious right nor the religious left." In contrast with "being unquestioning conservatives and unreserved supporters of tradition and the status quo, being Evangelical means an ongoing commitment to Jesus Christ, and this entails innovation, renewal, reformation, and entrepreneurial dynamism. . . . Evangelicals part company with reactionaries by being both reforming and innovative, but they also part company with modern progressives by challenging the ideal of the-newer-the-truer and the-latest-is-greatest by conserving what is true and right and good."

Will the declaration lead to the useful reform of American evangelicalism? It takes as a model Britain's William Wilberforce (see WORLD, Feb. 10, 2007), the evangelical who two centuries ago fought both slavery and moral decline by asserting that Christians should "boldly assert the cause of Christ in an age when so many who bear the name of Christian are ashamed of Him. Let them be active, useful, and generous toward others. Let them show moderation and self-denial themselves. Let them be ashamed of idleness. When blessed with wealth, let them withdraw from the competition of vanity and be modest, retiring from ostentation, and not be the slaves of fashion."

Wilberforce proceeded boldly but not arrogantly, knowing that he could commend belief but not command it. He stated, "the national difficulties we face result from the decline of religion and morality among us. I must confess equally boldly that my own solid hopes for the well-being of my country depend, not so much on her navies and armies . . . as on the persuasion that she still contains many who love and obey the Gospel of Christ. I believe that their prayers may yet prevail." This new declaration, which takes aim at slavery to fashion on both the left and the right, should hearten those who love and obey the gospel of Christ.

The battle of ideas in Africa

By Marvin Olasky

As American evangelicals attempt to define themselves, so do African Christians: Are they only the spiritual descendants of European missionaries unfairly tagged as "agents of imperialism," or does their lineage go back further? Can African Christian theologians conscious of their own heritage deepen and broaden their work so that various denominations and national churches will gain courage in the face of surging Islam?

U.S. theologian Tom Oden is working to challenge the attitude of some Africans that is an import from the north (see WORLD, Feb. 23). He points out that Africa shares in the incarnation, since Jesus spent part of His childhood there (in Egypt), and that Africa was the center of Christian thought in the early centuries after Christ: Augustine, Tertullian, Cyprian, and Athanasius were all African. Oden wants key texts of early African Christianity to be examined, translated, and distributed.

Research, though, does not always affect reality. Benjamin Franklin during the American Revolution suggested that he and other leaders should hang together lest they hang separately. Will African Christian leaders, facing surging Islam and internal division, hang together lest (if worst comes to worst) they be decapitated separately? A conference of African Christian church leaders and scholars last month in Addis Ababa took a first step toward bringing together Christians as divided as those in America.

The conference included Orthodox, Anglican, Catholic, Lutheran, and evangelical denominational leaders, along with academic leaders from a variety of seminaries. These Christians from Egypt, Ghana, Zaire, Kenya, Nigeria, Ethiopia, the Central African Republic, and elsewhere have often not gotten along. It's said that one way the North deviated from the South in the United States is that the Northern question, on meeting a new person, became "What do you do?"-and the Southern question remained, "Who are your people?" Individual accomplishment vs. family or tribal connections: Africa is Southern.

The April 11-12 conference paralleled an inaugural meeting of U.S. pro-life leaders that took place two decades ago at a time when some groups seemed to spend almost as much time criticizing each other as they spent on criticizing abortion. That meeting inaugurated a once-per-quarter tradition that has led to significant harmony and the saving of many lives.

Last month's conference started jaggedly when the first person to speak, Benezet Bujo, a Catholic priest from former Zaire (now the Democratic Republic of Congo), who is currently a professor in Switzerland, provocatively asked, "Shouldn't we speak of Christianities? There are many ways to understand God's revelation."

The responses of (Orthodox) Metropolitan Bishoy, (Anglican) Archbishop Mouneer Anis, and others, were consistent: One Lord, one baptism, one faith, one holy catholic church, within a variety of cultural situations and languages.

Oden moderated the conference and occasionally asked pointed questions, such as, "Is Athanasius your ancestor?" He spoke of how ancient Christian writers have much to teach us in many areas, including "care of the less" and "the role of Providence in history." He noted that Augustine lived at a time when the political order was collapsing, but he had "a long view of history." Today, "We become too disturbed about Islam if we do not see it in historical perspective."

Archbishop Anis spoke about his dialogue with Muslims: "They don't respect us if we say there are no differences." He proposed that Christians and Muslims acknowledge differences but work with each other by starting with common ground and then pushing on to discuss hard issues: "It takes years to develop heart-to-heart talks, as with a friend."

Anis noted that both Christianity and Islam are missionary religions. He noted that imams "are offended by Muslims converting to Christianity, but what can we do? We must be true to the gospel." He asked what Jesus would do if He today came to Cairo: "Would He sit on the bishop's chair, or would He go to the Muslims and talk with them in the shops?"

He proposed engagement in the shops and a method for dialogue: "We should not be apologetic. We should not compromise. We should love."

Marvin Olasky
Marvin Olasky

Marvin is editor in chief of WORLD News Group and the author of more than 20 books, including The Tragedy of American Compassion. Follow Marvin on Twitter @MarvinOlasky.

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