H. Richard Niebuhr once wrote a book. Well, I suppose he wrote several books. But perhaps his most well known piece of work, “Christ and Culture,” was a sort of instant classic in the field of thinking about how the church is to interact with the world around it. He presents several ways in which the church has approached the culture at large over the centuries, one of which includes thinking of “Christ as the Transformer of Culture.”
Christ as Transformer resonates a lot with me. Niebuhr does say that no Christian answer exists for all time, which is a fair enough opinion. Whether or not you as a reader sympathize with Niebuhr on that score doesn’t really matter for the moment. My argument here (and to be developed more in later posts) is simply that we think of Christ as Transformer of Culture now.
As hackneyed as the quote may be, Abraham Kuyper was right when he said, "There is not a square inch in the whole domain of our human existence over which Christ, who is Sovereign over all, does not cry, Mine!” Christ has created all things (Jn. 1:1), and he’s coming back to redeem all things (Rev. 21:5). All creatures are His, whether they realize it or not, because they have His image stamped on them. That being the case, it seems to stand to reason that the church should be the most zealous about social justice.
Now, it’s critical that we define our terms here. When we think of social justice as the body of Christ, we must think of it in biblical terms and we must engage in it as it is biblically informed. This means acknowledging the personhood of all humans, born or unborn. Bound up in that too, especially for white folks, is listening to our brothers and sisters of color as they speak about their lived experience. On the flip-side of that coin, though, it also means that we must not call evil good and good evil (Is. 5:20). If God in His Word has declared something sinful, the church must do the same while simultaneously acknowledging and promoting the personhood of those involved. God speaks to human flourishing much better than humans can.
It’s here that the church must push back against Big Evangelicalism, which tries to align Christianity with the Republican party, especially as it exists in its Trumpian incarnation. Christ transforming culture is not bound up in the President’s entreating of NFL owners to fire players who exercise their right to free speech. Rather, such is an example of culture attempting to transform Christ, or more precisely those who claim His name. If Big Evangelicalism is the best representation of an attempt at culture transformation from a Christian perspective, then indeed there is No Church in the World.
When Christ transforms the culture of first-century Palestine, he does so in two phases. Derek Rishmawy, quoting Miroslav Volf, says this: "He was no prophet of “inclusion”…, for whom the chief virtue was acceptance and the cardinal vice intolerance. Instead, he was a bringer of “grace”, who not only scandalously included “anyone” in the fellowship of “open commensality”, but made the “intolerant” demand of repentance and the “condescending” offer of forgiveness (Mark 1:15; 2:15-17). The mission of Jesus consisted not simply of re-naming the behavior that was falsely labeled “sinful” but also in re-making the people who have actually sinned and suffered distortion. The double strategy of re-naming and re-making, rooted in the commitment to both the outcast and the sinner, to the victim and the perpetrator, is the proper background against which an adequate notion of sin as exclusion can emerge."
This, to my eye, is at least a start at biblically informed social justice. Re-naming always comes with re-making, and vice versa. May the complaint never be that there was No Church in the World, for it is the Church’s responsibility to proclaim freedom to the captives; to say, “All creatures of our God and King, lift up your voice and with us sing, O praise Him! O praise Him! Alleluia! Alleluia!” God will draw people to Himself, both re-naming them as justified children of God and re-making them into sanctified believers.