Wednesday, September 25, 2013

Re-entering History Through the Gospel: An Interview with Tyler Wigg-Stevenson on Christianity and Activism, Part II

Interview by Matt Johnson

Ground Motive: I gather from your book and from talking to you that you consider the Gospel to be more than just a list of five things you can put in a tract. It has to include pursuing peace and justice. So first of all what is the Gospel to you, and secondly, what is our responsibility as Christians with regard to it? 

Tyler Wigg-Stevenson: Well, here's the tension: You want to be able to give an answer and then you also want to be able to say it's bigger than that. I would default to the Pauline language of the Gospel in terms of the good news, the things of first importance: that Jesus of Nazareth is the Messiah of Israel, that he died for our sins, that he was buried, he was raised on the third day, that he appeared to the apostles and to the many. 

Then within that one declaration of a historical event, it blossoms like a flower, and there are thousands upon thousands of petals that come out of that. So part of my trouble is that I don't want to limit it to one thing. Is it the forgiveness of sins? Yes, it's that. Is it reconciliation with God? Yes. Is it reconciliation with a neighbour? Yes. Does it redefine your disposition toward creation? Yes. If you re-enter history and your own life through this truth then everything is transformed, and you will spend a lifetime unpacking what it means and coming to understand what it means. 

GM: It seems problematic to me when we as Christians enter into situations with the mindset that if we can communicate these five truths that will save your soul if you believe them, we’ve done our part, and our hands are clean. On the other hand, I don’t think the answer is to leave the content of the Gospel out of our activism entirely. So how do we keep the Gospel intact in our activism without cheapening it, and how we do we avoid emphasizing the action of justice or pursuing peace over the actual truth of the Gospel? 

TWS: I wonder how much that dichotomy between the Gospel and activism perpetuates a problem. I find problematic the idea that the Gospel is separate and distinct from the activity it generates, or that the activity it generates is not grounded in a sense of what has been done for us in Christ. 

So to what extent is the situation you describe (that the Gospel is just these five truths that you have to believe before breakfast and then your soul is safe) smuggling in a problematic way of thinking about the Gospel? How much does an understanding of the Gospel as only cognitive assent ride remora-like on the critique of forms of Christian activism that purportedly fail to keep the Gospel intact? Does that critique still smuggle in a vision of the Gospel that interprets our commitment to its message solely as a kind of cognitive assent? 

I struggle to answer this question because I don't know if there's a technique that’s capable of giving us an answer to this problem. 

I started the Two Futures Project (which was the anti-nuclear organization I started primarily to reach evangelicals in the United States who weren't known for being associated with “ban the bomb” type activity) because all the religious and anti-nuclear vocabulary I heard would have caused an allergic reaction in the evangelical Christians I knew. It just wasn't speaking to their core principles. And so I wanted to articulate an indigenous case, one that was in the native tongue of evangelicals so that anti-nuclearism wasn't a foreign construct but was something that could be indigenously generated. 

In order to do that, we made a choice very consciously at the beginning of the effort that we were going to be upfront about Christian identity. Now, we did that because I thought it was necessary that evangelicals be able to feel evangelically anti-nuclear. In a certain way I feel like we accomplished that, and now what I'm asking people to do is to go be Christians in situations that are indifferent to religious claims, but to do so with their own integrity, putting their shoulder to the same wheel as people who might have different final commitments than they do. 

So are they now able to bring the Gospel into their activity? I hope so. But there were different stages of development. You see, at one point you might have alternated your sentences: anti-nuclear, Gospel, anti-nuclear, Gospel (what we would identity as Gospel, the central Gospel story). Now maybe we’re able to do activism differently, but maybe that slides too far, and then maybe we need a correction at the end. 

But if you re-enter your own life and history through this central claim of the Gospel that Jesus died for our sins and was raised, if you re-enter everything through that claim then you can ask the same question of every aspect of our privatised, modern world. Part and parcel of modernity is social differentiation. So there is the economic sphere, the political sphere, the social sector, religion. There are these differentiated spheres of expertise, and the idea is that each functions according to an autonomous logic. Well, a Christian has to approach this differentiated reality by saying all of these spheres are contained within the truth claims embedded within this Gospel claim. So you can equally ask the questions: How do we approach our politics without leaving the Gospel behind? How do we approach our economics without leaving the Gospel behind? There's nothing fundamentally or categorically different about those questions than the question of how we approach our activism without leaving the Gospel behind. 

If there is an answer to this question, I tend to think that it's grounded in a commitment to a local congregation and the liturgical expression of that congregation, whether or not it's a "liturgical congregation." Every congregation is liturgical, it's just we have different liturgies, we have different orders. Because that's where we go to remember that time and space and are remade by the claim of the Gospel, and we hope that once a week is frequent enough to reorient our lives. 

So I would say the truest answer to the question of how do we do activism without leaving the Gospel behind is that we do that which is simply and fundamentally Christian, which is to be full members in the body of Christ, and then the rest falls into place. That's not to say that Christian activism doesn't require its own intention, but that the intention is probably context-specific, and I couldn't give a general answer to it. So what I would say is a matter of first priority is this: are you living a life where you are part of a congregation of the faithful and are you doing so faithfully? 

If you're doing this, you’ve at least taken a step in the right direction, and from within that space you can start to answer the question for whatever that means for you. 

GM: As a final question, for those interested in the Two Futures Project, how can they get involved? 

TWS: The Two Futures Project, at this point, represents a locus of concern for Christian commitment vis-à-vis nuclear security and ethics, specifically related to weapons, not power. So for people who are gripped by that concern, I hope that the website (when we get it back up – it’s down for maintenance) can be a resource for thinking through those two things in conjunction with each other. But my main suggestion right now, if anybody asks, my answer to them is please go find a place of activity and occupy it faithfully as a Christian whether or not the overall umbrella has any confessional content to it at all, because there are good efforts right now that are underway and we need faithful Christians in there in the exact same way that we need faithful Christians in the so-called autonomous spheres of politics and economics and anything else.

Tyler Wigg-Stevenson is the founder and director of the Two Futures Project and currently serves as the Chair of the Global Task Force on Nuclear Weapons, an initiative of the World Evangelical Alliance. He is the author of Brand Jesus: Christianity in a Consumerist Age and The World is Not Ours to Save: Finding the Freedom to Do Good and is currently pursuing a ThD from Wycliffe College at the University of Toronto.

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