I would like to thank Ambassador Seiple for sharing with the Seminary and the Princeton community his reflections on the necessity of Christian witness to the world as well as on the risks and responsibilities that accompany it. I couldn't help but think when listening to his lecture last night that these were words which had been weighed and chosen carefully from a life of challenging experience. In this there is no surprise: his work in the government and in the academy, his service as a citizen and as a soldier, and his example as a follower of the gospel and as global leader are themselves inspiring and convicting. To those of us with the honor of responding to his words, they are in fact intimidating. I find it humbling if not daunting to offer a response to Ambassador Seiple. As a graduate student it seems much too much a job for one such as me to give his contribution its due. But taking his own words to heart, I have reminded myself that, hey, it's not about me! And this has helped me to get on with the task at hand.
Ambassador Seiple in fact used this very exhortation last night to drive home several lessons about the urgent need for American Christians to reclaim what he calls the gospel's "Kingdom theology," a theology needed to orient properly the message, the motivation, and the methodology of Christians' witness today. The stakes in doing so, he stated, are nothing less than the gospel's credibility and the lives of the Christians attempting to share it. Ambassador Seiple powerfully illustrated this from beginning to end with tragic-comic examples of the literal throwing of Bibles upon non-Christian peoples in foreign lands; he also described the repercussions that have followed such eager believers and their native associates.
In contrast, Ambassador Seiple told us, a new orientation toward Christ's kingdom rather than ourselves and our timetables – can be a welcome corrective to contemporary Christian culture. It can challenge therapeutic inquiries about God's will for lives that remain concerned with worldly goods, political ideologies, or western cultural priorities. He went so far as to state that Christ's Kingship is critical to personal faith and life in God because without it, these other concerns will not only seep into the Christian message but also into its motives and methods. Christians and those with whom they interact will be "left with a partial Gospel … a [malignant] counterfeit that is unworthy of the persecution it often unwittingly exacerbates."
Ambassador Seiple's essay is timely in the most uncanny way. News and commentary about Christian missionary and other activity has filled the media over the last several months, weeks, and days. I'd like to spend the next few minutes listing some of these as evidence of how relevant Ambassador Seiple's observations are, and in doing so I'd like to pose to his additional questions that these examples raise.
On January 29, the NYT Magazine's cover story by Daniel Bergner described how today's American evangelicals are trying to convert the remaining non-Christians of Africa. His profile of the Maples family, formerly from suburban CA, detailed how they seek to convert the Samburu people in a new way. Their two year assignment has turned into eight, and they are still developing what they called a Samburu-style church. Instead of western sanctuaries, they hold Christian services under the trees. They teach Bible lessons not through preaching written verses but through expansive storytelling that fit with the native oral tradition. Once the people have accepted Jesus, the Maples hope to coax them to judge their traditions by the standards of the Gospel. In this way, they plan to inspire - not impose, they stressed - crucial elements of transformation in the culture. The Maples want to elevate the lot of women, to end how they are treated as property, and to stop the rite of female circumcision. The Maples are here, they say, because "there is unbelievable need." "How do they know the truth," they paraphrase from the book of Romans, "unless they are told…?"
After it was published Missions Scholars across the world debated over e-mail whether Bergner's piece was respectful of or biased against Christians. The consensus was that he had portrayed the Maples family empathetically - considering their struggles over dealing with local customs, and how to convey their Christian message while addressing native social issues and attitudes. There were no Poisonwood Bible stereotypes to be found.
Indeed, one scholar observed that Bergner's article, like his earlier book featuring a missionary family that had served for twenty-five years in Sierra Leone, continued to puzzle over the dedication and sacrifice of ordinary Americans serving in hard places. Perhaps these are precisely the kind of missionaries engaged in an incarnational ministry that Ambassador Seiple called for last night. Perhaps the reporter is one of the many secular Americans who are intrigued and impressed by them? Who inwardly thirst for what the gospel offers? I pose these possibilities because it was tempting to believe that the negative examples outweighed the positive from last night's lecture. So my question to Ambassador Seiple is this: Is there really a one to one correspondence of good to bad stories? In other words, Have American Christians learned so little over the last half century since "Rethinking Missions," have we not adequately listened to Andrew Walls and Lamin Sanneh or put their histories of incarnational missions into practice? If not, why not? I acknowledge as you did last night that there may be as many methods as there are Christians, and that believers held accountable by denominational structures may be further along on the learning curve than others. If this is so, how can such churches help other communions and organizations? What is your vision for the church in this realm? Are interdenominational and ecumenical mission programs the answer?
In addition to articles, several books on missionaries and foreign policy have recently been published and garnered much press: Allen Hertzke's Freeing God's Children: The Unlikely Alliance for Global Human Rights documents how evangelical Christians have worked over the last decade with both the Clinton and Bush administrations to bring US power to bear on peace making efforts in Sudan and other war torn places. The book was recently featured on several National Public Radio programs, the latest being two weeks ago. A less flattering portrayal of Christian influence, however, can be found in Stephen Kinzer's Overthrow: America's Century of Regime Change from Hawaii to Iraq. Its first case study of Hawaii documents how missionaries and their descendants developed a sugar industry that became the compelling reason for Hawaii's unjust annexation by the US. One book for, one against, to cancel each other out. Perhaps I've answered my own question about the one to one ratio/correspondence! But the point here is that the mainstream media is picking up these stories, articles, and books about the present and past activity of Christians in the world. Can this in itself be reason for encouragement – even an opportunity – for the church to engage a wider audience about the Christian message, our methods, and our motivations?
From the 19th century to the 21st, debate over the motives and methods of Christians in other lands has continued. This leads me to my fourth example: the discovery of the body of Christian peace maker Tom Fox in early March dumped in a pile of trash in Baghdad. His three colleagues (Harmeet Singh Sooden, Jim Loney and Norman Kember) were rescued two weeks and a day ago (3/23/06) by British and American forces. Since then the airwaves have buzzed with questions about the legitimacy of such teams that send people to conflict zones in order to promote human rights and peace. Philadelphia's WHYY program Radio Times directly posed the question on Monday (4/3/2006): Are such Christians crazy or commendable? Christian PeaceMakers's stated mission in Iraq is to put themselves in harm's way to "get in the way" as a form of protesting war, so the host went on to ask: what motivates individuals to engage in such high-risk behavior? Is this form of protest effective as a means of promoting democracy and ending conflict? Or does it only encourage lawlessness, kidnapping, and the like? Since volunteers' first assignment is to write a will, and because there is a chance that they might die in the mission, can these Christian peace keepers be considered, as one caller dubbed them, suicide peace protestors? In light of these queries, I ask Ambassador Seiple: are these examples of precisely the kind of questionable method you cite that unnecessarily invite persecution? Or is it the kind of principled life lived and sacrifice made in faith? Where do we draw the line between acting to right a wrong with religious conviction, and irresponsible even fatal gestures? How do we parse out the dove and the snake in these troubled times when many of us feel helpless and yet desperate to help change the world around us? We may not all agree with the gentleman who told President Bush yesterday at the World Affairs Council NC that he has never felt more ashamed to be an American, but we may all face the task of helping others in foreign lands distinguish between our Christianity and our nationality.
Even more controversial is this Tuesday's edition of the blog The Revealer.org which describes the Vision America conference in Washington, D.C. (4/5/06). Vision America is an organization committed to "restoring the original American vision," and its conference last week was called, "The War on Christians and the Values Voter in 2006." Its goal was "to contribute to a genuine revival of the Christian faith in America and to advance a proper understanding of the role of the church in American life." So far so good. It even sounds like Kuyperian spheres! But – and here I quote liberally from the blog itself – Vision America's rhetoric describes a country God gave to Christians to establish a providential nation based on biblical precepts, a city Founded upon a hill as a refuge for puritans escaping religious persecution. It lacks, however any reference to the land's prior occupants, or to the deistic leanings of several founding fathers.
As a student of American church and religious history, I question parts of this narrative. But what is relevant for our discussion this morning is that Vision America's keynote speakers like Tom Delay repeatedly cited the often dire situation of Christians around the globe as an apt analogy for the American situation. Organizers asserted that "Every day brings new evidence that Christianity, worldwide, is under assault." As an example of this, one panel compared the Navy chaplain recently disciplined for praying in Jesus' name (in violation of Navy protocols) at public Navy-sponsored events to Abdul Rahman, the Christian convert who had recently been on trial in Afghanistan for abandoning Islam. In the conference's analysis, the Chaplain and Rahman were the same in every way that mattered: both persecuted Christians, both equal victims of the suppression of religious freedom, both casualties in the war on Christianity.
To some of us this comparison is valid, to others, it is seriously flawed. On one hand we see aspects of the American spiritual exceptionalism that Ambassador Seiple rightly identified as dangerous to an effective Christian witness, and on the other hand, we see legitimate points of the American culture wars.
Most interestingly, this Vision America movement denies that it is theocratic. It dismisses that characterization as cynical, linking right-wing politicized Christianity to radical Islamism. At the same time, however, it is a movement that argues that political, social, and moral life must be solely grounded in scripture -- that there is no tension between the Bible and the American founding documents, and that the separation of church and state demands an unacceptable compromise since, "if Jesus is your Lord, he is the Lord of everything," as one conference preacher put it. Now this blurring of the line between church and state, couldn't sound less Kuyperian if it tried.
Ambassador Seiple used the word theocratic last night to describe at least part of the phenomenon in Washington. I would like to ask if you would be willing to explain more what you mean by this. I ask because whatever else is happening in our nation's capital, there is evidence that a Kuyperian influence is also inside the beltway. President Bush for instance cited Abraham Kuyper in his 2005 commencement speech at Calvin College, in much the same glowing terms as President Torrance did last night. The question then becomes, how is Kuyperian thought being used today? Does it critique theocracy? Or does it encourage it? Do the separate spheres promote a more delineated mission for the church, the family, and the state vis-à-vis each other, or do they sanction religiously-motivated ventures into newspapers, schools, and politics? Or is it a little bit of both, with the promise of equal access for all to the parochial parties, universities, and platforms of their choosing? As a recipient of the 2006 Kuyper Prize, how do you see Kuyper's legacy best interpreted and employed today?
Finally, I want to echo your statement that denominations, with their seminaries, organizational structure, and accountability, have been effective in helpful rather than harmful missions. Having had the privilege of teaching introductory courses here for two years, I can attest that the history department has endeavored to trains its students to understand, articulate and evaluate arguments both for and against persecution and martyrdom. What has the church gained by its fallen brothers and sisters? What has it lost? Did the Cordoba martyrs fearlessly challenge civil law? Or did they merely pick a fight? Students at Princeton seminary have already grappled with these questions, and we trust that the exercise has not been in vain. Your lecture has in fact made it clear that it is not, so we thank you for contributing to their, and to our, education.