Doctrine as Guide to Social Witness

By Hunsinger, George | The Christian Century, April 19, 2000 | Go to article overview
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Doctrine as Guide to Social Witness


Hunsinger, George, The Christian Century


PROGRESSIVE POLITICAL movements in the church are often portrayed--by their adherents and their critics--as opposed to "traditional" faith, as if the two were mutually exclusive. That this is a false choice is plain to anyone who knows such figures as Dorothy Day, William Stringfellow, Fanny Lou Hamer, Oscar Romero, Andre Trocme, Desmond Tutu and Karl Barth. These Christians saw no reason to choose between their love of Jesus Christ as confessed by faith and their love for the poor and oppressed. For them, traditional faith was not a hindrance but an incentive for political witness.

One striking accomplishment of the recent Presbyterian Study Catechism is that it deliberately draws out the political implications of fundamental doctrines. In doing so, it takes a significant step toward erasing the false opposition between traditional faith and progressive politics.

The Study Catechism was one of two catechetical documents approved at the 1998 General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.). That the catechisms were overwhelmingly approved (by an 80-20 margin) at a time when the church is wracked by division over various social issues is significant in itself. The catechisms are slowly seeping into the life of the church as they are used in confirmation, leadership training and congregational education.

The shorter "First Catechism" is designed for children of nine or ten. The longer "Study Catechism," which I will focus on here, unpacks the basics of the faith--the Apostles' Creed, the Ten Commandments and the Lord's Prayer--in a manner suitable for people 14 and older. It addresses traditional catechetical topics, such as Christ's incarnation, death and resurrection, as well as contemporary concerns, such as the problem of evil, faith and science, and Christianity's relation to other religions. And, as I hope to show, the catechism exhibits a generous orthodoxy as it balances concern for the church with concern for the world. Consider some examples:

THE INTEGRITY OF CREATION: Whether the human race will survive the next century in not clear. What is clear is that the means and mechanisms of self-extinction already exist. Ecological destruction is the slow version, while the quick version is nuclear war and its military analogues, and the intermediate version is overpopulation and the gross maldistribution of resources.

At the level of technology and social policy, Christians have no special expertise with respect to details, but they can offer orientation and direction. By ordering their common life and taking direct action in the world, they will always stand for the possibility of repentance and the reality of hope. They can challenge the technological imperative of "if it can be done, it will be done," seeing it as the symptom of a larger idolatry of human self-mastery and deceit. They can seek to break with destructive habits of consumption, heedless waste of earth's resources and unrestrained pursuit of private gain at the expense of public good. They can discuss and implement simpler, more sustainable ways of ordering the church's life and their individual lives. This becomes clear in the catechism:

   Question 19. As creatures made in God's image, what responsibility do we
   have for the earth?

   God commands us to care for the earth in ways that reflect God's loving
   care for us. We are responsible for ensuring that earth's gifts be used
   fairly and wisely, that no creature suffers from the abuse of what we are
   given, and that future generations may continue to enjoy the abundance and
   goodness of the earth in praise to God.

Here the catechism undertakes a modest act of theological repentance. Widely publicized criticisms have shown how the biblical injunction to "fill the earth and subdue it" (Gen. 1:28) has served to underwrite ecological irresponsibility. Such criticisms overlook the theological resources that scriptural communities possess, and the possibility of their learning from past mistakes.

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