Common Ground: Duane W.H. Arnold, PhD
Earlier this week, I made the following observation.
“In D.C. peaceful protestors were cleared with tear gas and rubber bullets so that Trump could have a photo op holding a Bible in front of St. John’s Episcopal Church. It kind of says it all – harming others for publicity in front of a church he does not attend, holding a Bible he does not read. Such is the state of civil religion in America today…”
That, however, is not the full story. Of equal interest has been the reaction to what we all saw unfold in real time. In watching and listening to the reaction it has occurred to me that the religious right (Evangelicals) are framing the conversation of what took place in terms of politics and culture, while the religious left (overwhelmingly mainline churches) are framing the conversation in terms of Christ’s teachings, spirituality and justice. While I tend to be conservative in my theology, I find we may need to say that the Left is right and the Right is wrong.
This is a world turned upside down.
As always, I want to look for common ground, but there is little agreement as to what common ground there might be for people of faith. We all tend to see what we want to see. Moreover, these days, owing to body cams and smart phone videos, “seeing” is no longer a metaphor. It’s a reality. While one person can produce a video montage of police violence against individuals or groups, another person will produce a video montage of looting or violence against police. It seems that you choose your side and post your video on social media.
Yet, I would suggest that as people of faith there are, or should be, areas of agreement. These areas of common ground are not based upon the ‘incidents and accidents” brought to us daily by news outlets or social media. Instead, I think that they arise out of a fundamental understanding of the teachings of Christ and the long moral and ethical sweep of the Judeo-Christian tradition.
The first and most basic area of common ground is that we are all made in the image of God. Without agreement on this most basic assertion there can be no agreement on anything else. Recognizing this as fundamental places concepts such as white supremacy and white nationalism as not merely abhorrent social constructs, but also recognizes such thought as falling outside of anything that has to do with Christian faith. Moreover, in the Incarnation, not only did God become man, but in the words of the Athanasian Creed, “Who although he is God and Man; yet he is not two, but one Christ. One; not by conversion of the Godhead into flesh; but by assumption of the Manhood into God.” In the Latin, the phrase is even more explicit, “sed assumptione humanitatis in Deum.” All humanity was assumed, not varieties of humanity or some “superior races” of humanity, but ALL humanity. In creation and in the Incarnation, humanity stands upon an equal footing, before God and before one another. The denial of that fundamental equality, in thought or in practice, is not simply a denial of the stated laws of most modern nation states, it is a denial of God’s work in creation and of Christ’s Incarnation.
Now, I’m a theologian, not a lawyer. Nonetheless, as a theologian, I think the concept of justice is yet another fundamental area in which there can, or should be, a broad area of agreement among people of faith. “He has told you, O man, what is good; and what does the Lord require of you but to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God?” Please notice, this is not about “believing in justice”. What is required is that we “do justice”. In its simplest definition justice is about fairness in the way that people are treated. In our current crisis, can we honestly say that people of color have been fairly treated over the course of the last four centuries? Can we honestly say that George Floyd was fairly treated on the streets of Minneapolis? Can we say honestly say that immigrant families and children are being fairly treated along our southern border? Can we honestly say that the protestors in Lafayette Square were fairly treated in order to provide a politician a photo op in front of a church he doesn’t attend, holding up a Bible he doesn’t read?
Creation. Incarnation. Justice. Fairness.
This is, or should be, common ground. These are concepts upon which we should all be able to agree, as they are fundamental to Christian faith, to Christian doctrine, to Christian ethics and to Christian practice. They should be, but they’re not. If in the future we see the diminishment and/or fall of evangelicalism, most will attribute that fall to politics. For myself, if I live to see it, I will attribute it to an abandonment of the common ground of faith, doctrine and practice in pursuit of an ill conceived illusion of their own making.