The 'Emerging Church': Christianity That the Beltway Crowd Can Love

Although I still read the Sojourners "God’s Politics" blog on a semi-regular basis, unfortunately for me, some of my earlier comments have resulted in my being banned from writing things there in the future. (I questioned some of their theology, among other things, and since God directs the political comments of the Sojourners cult, I guess I fell out of favor with the Almighty Himself.)

Nonetheless, until recently, I was puzzled by some of the responses I was reading. Here were people who claimed to believe in many of the basic doctrines of Christianity, yet were coming to some conclusions that I did not think could square with the historical Christian faith of the past two millennia. In other words, something did not quite fit.

It was recently, however, that I "discovered" the ecclesiastical "niche" of this group, a movement that calls itself the "Emerging Church." (It also is called the "Emergent Church.") This is a movement that has grown from discontent from the so-called "Seeker Movement" in which churches have tried to appeal to the larger population by creating "seeker-friendly" services that would appeal to people who have grown up either with no church background at all or who stopped going to church in their adolescent or young adult years. (The Willow Creek Church near Chicago and Rick Warren’s Saddleback Church are a couple of examples.)

The "Emergent" development also hails from discontent with the so-called megachurch movement in which churches have thousands of members, and Sunday services pretty much are patterned after entertainment variety shows complete with one-act plays, rock bands and an "inspirational" speech from the church’s main attraction: the pastor. Those who have gravitated to the "Emergent Church" include young people who want more "spirituality" but also have "urban" values, are allied with left-wing causes, are hard-nosed environmentalists, or who oppose the ties that many evangelicals have with the conservative wings of the Republican Party.

None of these reasons for abandoning the "traditional" churches are wrong in and of themselves. Indeed, neither I nor my family are drawn to megachurches and we currently are members of a small church that has people of widely-variant backgrounds, a fellowship of people with earned doctorates and people who make a living repairing automobiles, of white-collar and blue-collar members.

Granted, most of my fellow members are political conservatives of the sometimes-irritating background (expressing shock that "under God" might be taken out of the Pledge of Allegiance or something like that), yet there also are people who are politically liberal and some who even voted for Barack Obama. However, our church clearly is not part of the "Emergent Church" and theologically is a gulf-fixed distance away from that group.

Still, because of the current regime in Washington, D.C., it is imperative to look more closely at the ecclesiastical movement that claims to be bridging the gulf between "orthodox" (or at least semi-orthodox) Christianity and political leftism. Moreover, I believe that it is wise to examine some of the theological constructs of this movement, for they are much more insidious than even some of the harshest critics of the "Emergent Church" might realize.

A recent article in the Christian Science Monitor claimed that modern American evangelicalism is a dead church walking. Michael Spencer writes:

This collapse will herald the arrival of an anti-Christian chapter of the post-Christian West. Intolerance of Christianity will rise to levels many of us have not believed possible in our lifetimes, and public policy will become hostile toward evangelical Christianity, seeing it as the opponent of the common good.

Millions of Evangelicals will quit. Thousands of ministries will end. Christian media will be reduced, if not eliminated. Many Christian schools will go into rapid decline. I’m convinced the grace and mission of God will reach to the ends of the earth. But the end of evangelicalism as we know it is close.

The reasons he gives are many, but they include the identification of evangelicals with political conservatives and the conservative side of the "Culture War," the inability of evangelicals to give a coherent account of their faith, and the coming economic collapse that will dry up a lot of money that goes into these megachurches and evangelical organizations.

I tend to think he is right, but my response is much different than that of the "Emergent Church" movement that seeks to replace the current shell of evangelicalism. In a "God’s Politics" post, Troy Jackson claims that the hard-left "communitarian" church will be a ready replacement.

Here lies the crux of this whole new movement. This is not an "evangelicalism" which supports the traditional Christian doctrines that many Protestants, Roman Catholics, and Orthodox believers have espoused: that Jesus Christ was the sinless Messiah who came to earth, born of the Virgin Mary, who died for sinners by being crucified, was buried, and rose again on the Third Day, and then ascended to Heaven and will return for the final judgment.

Now, some in the "Emergent Church" might believe at least some of those doctrines, but the way that the belief is channeled is quite different from the belief system held by Christians over the last 2,000 years. The standard creed of confessional Christianity has been that believers are "in the world, but not of it." That is, they live in the world, take part in its institutions, and play a constructive role in society (or at least claim to take a constructive role), but still do not believe that the world’s institutions are the end of the Christian’s actions.

Christians have tried to be careful not to make their theology dependent upon earthly institutions such as government, but rather use their theology to influence those institutions. Much of the criticism that has been directed against evangelical Protestants in these pages (read the recent articles by Laurence Vance for some of the better salvos fired at the alliance of pro-war Republicans and evangelicals) was for their support of the U.S. wars abroad and the drug war at home.

Yet, even the most conservative, right-wing Republican evangelical will not make the claim that the U.S. Government and the United States of America are synonymous to the Kingdom of God. Theologically, they wish to influence the government to take certain actions, but I never have read any evangelical conservative who makes the claim that state action is theological in nature. In fact, Christianity over the centuries has survived and even thrived in situations in which government was overtly hostile to such religious beliefs and used murder and torture in a vain attempt to stamp it out. Christianity clearly does not need state approval or force to exist.

However, if one wishes to get at the core of the "Emergent Church" theology, as loose as it might be, one finds that state action, and especially the government-led welfare state, is the earthly theological manifestation of Christianity. In other words, Christianity is not complete without the welfare state, as the welfare state is the essence of Christianity.

That has been part and parcel to Sojourners since its inception more than 30 years ago. Founded near the end of the Vietnam War, editor Jim Wallis and his friends were not content with simply criticizing U.S. involvement in that war (and I agree that they had every right and even duty to be against that war). No, the key part of their opposition was the belief that communism would be the true manifestation of the Church on Earth.

For example, in 1979, as thousands of Vietnamese were leaving the country in tiny, rickety boats, many being lost at sea or killed by pirates, Wallis unleashed a broadside at them for abandoning the communist utopia. These were people, he claimed, who had received a "taste" of "western lifestyle" during the U.S. presence in Vietnam, and that had turned them into people seeking to "support their habit" of "consumerism."

Yes, we are supposed to believe that the chief reason that people would risk their lives, be forced to live for years in the squalid conditions of refugee camps, be subject to levels of poverty unimagined by most of us, just for the slight chance that some day, they, too, could shop at Wal-Mart. (Wallis, for the record, also hates Wal-Mart, which is a regular target of the Sojourners group.)

As one reads not only the Sojourners literature, but the works of Brian McLaren, Wallis, and others who are influential in this whole movement, one realizes that this is a theology (if one can call it that) which is grounded in the state engaging in welfare and distribution. If they are united in anything, it is not in Jesus Christ, crucified and raised again, but both in hatred of capitalism and the ascendancy of Barack Obama and the re-making of U.S. society.

For example, next month Sojourners will host a conference called Mobilization to End Poverty, which really should be named the "Mobilization to End Capitalism." Indeed, what the conferees will be told is that the very essence of the Christian Gospel is government action to transfer vast sums of wealth from the "rich" to the "poor." They will be told that the so-called governing philosophy of the last 25 years — that markets and private enterprise are superior to socialism — is evil, and that socialism or at least massive interventionism are the proper "Christian" response to poverty.

Now, even discounting the view that the statism of the last three decades had been shunted aside in praise of free markets (I had no idea Bill and Hillary Clinton were supporters of unvarnished free-market capitalism, let alone the Bushes or even Ronald Reagan), anyone who knows anything about free markets knows that free-market capitalism has not been the governing philosophy in the USA. In fact, what we have seen is a form of fascism, and if the organizers of this "Mobilization" conference are advocating anything, it is an even more virulent form of fascism than has been in place.

A key to understanding the worldview of the "Emergent Church" is to understand what happened in Cambodia more than 30 years ago. The Khmer Rouge took over and decided to turn the country into a series of agricultural communes. They emptied the cities, murdering millions of people in the process, and ultimately reduced people to squalor and starvation, all in the name of ending poverty.

I mention the Khmer Rouge because Wallis and Sojourners failed to utter even one criticism of what was happening in Cambodia at the time. Their silence was not borne of ignorance; it was borne of approval. Now, the G-P blog recently had an entry about a chief torturer of the Khmer Rouge being on trial, but only three decades after that group was removed from power. While the mass murder was continuing, Wallis was approvingly silent.

It was not just Cambodia. Wallis and Sojourners and the leaders of the "Emerging Church" hold that governments must redistribute wealth from the rich to poor by any means possible. Now, they prefer high rates of taxation, heavy-handed regulation, socialist medical care, and other such means that help preserve the veneer of private ownership. In other words, they want some form of fascism, in which the state directs participants in the economy to work toward a state-approved "public" purpose.

However, if it takes mass murder, that is fine, just as long as it is done in the name of helping the poor. While the blog rails on about Darfur, no doubt if the people doing the murdering and raping and destruction were doing so in the name of redistribution of wealth from rich to poor, then the G-P blog would be silent.

Now, this is a different viewpoint than the traditional liberalism of mainline Protestant churches or even the U.S. Roman Catholic bishops and other Catholic activists. Most theological liberals do not believe in many aspects of orthodox Christianity, so to them the life of Jesus, his death, and even the doctrine of the Resurrection, would be seen as symbolic in their essence. They will support leftist policies because they seem to be right, an earthy manifestation of their liberal theology.

One does not have to believe in the Resurrection of Christ (and certainly not in the substitutionary atonement of Christ) to call oneself a "liberal Christian." To the liberals, these doctrines only are symbolic; they don’t represent real historical events, but rather are a form of "faith lessons" in which that amorphous thing we might call "God" tells us that we have to be nice to each other and feed hungry people and put them into nice houses. Perhaps, one even can call it a form of "salvation by works," but the "salvation" really is a term of niceness, not an actual condition by which people are forgiven by God for their sins and spend eternity in Heaven. (And don’t even mention the Scriptures, as they are a series of wonderful stories of things that really did not happen, but nonetheless warm our hearts and spur us to good deeds.)

The difference between liberals and the "Emergent Church" leaders is that the emergents tend to have a somewhat higher view of Scripture (although they would not agree with evangelicals and others that the Bible is inerrant), and they tend to believe in the deity of Christ. Although they don’t hold onto some of the orthodox doctrines, nonetheless they do tend to believe that there was a real and historical Jesus who really did die and rise again.

However, the thing to remember is that their theology itself is directly tied into state action to redistribute wealth. When they speak of "voting out poverty," what they mean is the election of politicians who will carry out the tasks of building a fascist society. It is a theology of fascism, and while that sounds harsh on my part, nonetheless it also is the brutal truth.

In other words, in their view, Jesus came to earth, was killed because he stood up against the Roman and Jewish capitalists, and rose again, victorious against the bad things of earth such as capitalism, and now wants us to craft the kind of world he wanted, in which people work together under the direction of the state to create a society in which everyone has free medical care, and there is no "gap" between rich and poor. Of course, this is the prescription for tyranny, but this is the end game of the "Emergent Church." It is the creation of a state that is eternally at war with people who are productive, and it ultimately is the creation of the state that is eternally at war with anyone who does not hold to the same religious beliefs as the "emergents" and liberal Protestants and liberal Roman Catholics.

It is difficult to know where this whole movement will lead. Like the Republican evangelicals who have endorsed state violence against others, this movement, too, will support government violence against capitalists and others who are out of favor with Jim Wallis and Brian McLaren. They will seek political alliances with the academic postmoderns (the same people who gave us the infamous Duke Lacrosse Case), and they will continue to espouse a "Christian Gospel" that holds to some orthodox events, but interprets them in a way that is tied directly to state action.