Last time Quaker activist Parker J. Palmer divided life into the private, public, and political spheres, wherein the three most fundamental meeting places are the classroom, the congregation, and the workplace. This time I’d like to discuss how Christian congregations approach the three spheres.
Many frustrations surely begin in the private realm. This is the space we reserve for ourselves and those we trust—family, friends, and God. But it also bears our greatest disappointments. Most honest adults will agree our lives are not where we would like. Caryn Dahlstrand Rivandeira, author of Grumble Hallelujah, believes we can do something about that.
If we believe God takes an active interest in human affairs, then surely God shares our grief that life lets us down. This gives us permission to weep for the life we expected, freeing us from our burdens and letting us move onto life’s next stage. When we do that, we shed the shame which impedes us.
For many, private life offers the firm foundation to face the public and political spheres confident in our beliefs and positions. When private live shackles us to past expectations, be it in family, work, or friendship, we aren’t free to serve God. Drawing on the Book of Lamentations, Rivandeira insists we have a God-given right to face the present by mourning the past.
Unfortunately, for many Christians, church is the last place we feel free to speak our frustrations. Too often, congregations treat disappointment as apostasy. We need to shed that, because Christianity’s public sphere, the congregation, should heal and nurture. I feel this lack keenly at the heart of Ronnie Floyd’s Our Last Great Hope.
Reverend Floyd has a long history of working to advance the Great Commission. Unfortunately, he and I disagree on the word “disciple.” He holds forth at length on the importance of witness and outreach. While evangelism is an important aspect of Christianity, Floyd uses it in a way that I fear diminishes others we meet in our public lives.
Floyd makes a persuasive case that Christian outreach follows a concentric pattern, from families to communities, through the nation, into the whole world. However, he presents this outreach, and indeed all public interactions, as an urgent opportunity to make converts. This saps “the other” of basic humanity.
If I see everyone I meet as a potential convert, I reduce all other persons to numbers on a checklist. I make all other persons unequal to me, because they must submit to my point of view. Christ calls us to make disciples, not converts. Discipleship is a relationship based on sharing, teaching, and nurturance.
The public sphere does not exist to give us a soapbox to transform the world. It exists to let us build relationships with equals. I may try to persuade equals to my opinion; but if I see my opinion as the only one, and strangers as either with me or ripe for change, I make them unequal, even subordinate. This violates my own interest.
This also explains the frustration many Christians have in the political arena. As journalist Alisa Harris reveals in Raised Right, many sincere Christians equate their faith with a certain outlook—often conservative—and, because they believe one is absolute, the other must follow suit. Sadly, reality has a way of upsetting that apple cart.
More memoir than manifesto, Harris’ narrative contrasts her childhood certainty with the struggle she encountered carrying Christian conservatism into adulthood. When she received her views from parents and church leaders, claims like Ronald Reagan’s goodness and liberalism’s perfidy could hold water easily. But real life doesn’t permit such certitude.
College and working life provided tensions that Harris couldn’t reconcile with rightist dogma. Some people, she learned, are so downtrodden that they needed government assistance. Some capitalists don’t run their businesses along Christian lines. The tension forced her to evaluate her prior presumptions.
Harris embodies a movement many Christians experience: from family to adult life to political engagement. Her struggle to create a mature politics around her Christian faith mirrors my own struggle a years ago, and if Harris is like me, she has more upheaval to come. Conventional liberalism will prove as unsatisfying as inherited conservatism.
Good Christianity carries the same demands as Parker J. Palmer says good citizenship carries. If we believe in America’s Christian heritage, as many do, then bolstering our faith will make us better citizens. Here’s hoping people of faith have the courage to engage the spheres of life with complete fairness.