I had the privilege of attending the 2014 Justice Conference this past weekend at the satellite venue Hillside Community Church. I attended the event because I thought it might move my heart more in the direction of God’s heart as I learned more about issues of world suffering and injustice that I had little or no understanding of before. I’ve recently been moved toward greater compassion and empathy to see the world as God does. The conference had a long list of speakers most of whom I was unfamiliar with before but for a few notable exceptions like Rich Stearns, Lynne Hybels and Jim Wallis.
My preconceived notion was that the conference would begin by defining its terms since the concept and definitions of “justice” seems to have been hijacked into the Liberal Progressive political movement of late. At the end of the Friday evening sessions I must admit that I was tempted to blow off the rest of the conference because of my disappointment at the lack of genuine scriptural basis for most of the comments and positions espoused. The speakers used mostly anecdotes to bolster their various claims of injustice in the areas close to their individual hearts. Yes a few “facts” and “statistics” were provided but mostly without context or sourcing. I felt as though the focus was not on truth but rather on the emotion of each cause célèbre. Yes there were notable exceptions, but by and large the use of anecdotes over both scripture and demonstrable facts is disturbing when discussing issues that may be close to the very heart of God and ultimately demand a heart response. I believe that Christians must be able to discern truth based upon scripture and facts but when facts and scripture are not the driving measures for the basis of an argument, discernment becomes difficult.
Each of the 18 speakers highlighted a different issue. One highlighted “education inequity” in America, another – global hunger; still another discussed economic inequity in America, One fellow claimed that what we need is a conversation about the justice that matters to God, but went on to say that we should only listen to those who don’t “put a voice into a straw man”; by this he meant that those with any dissenting argument must be ignored, silenced and discarded. One speaker used a tear-jerking anecdote to claim that the American Free Trade Agreement had caused the economic collapse of a Latin American Country’s farming but provided nothing more than the story to make her case for why the subject of her tale should be allowed into the US – no strings attached. One speaker believes the biggest injustice in America is in the criminal court system; and while there certainly are inequities and areas where improvements can surely be made his use of anecdotal evidence to call for a repeal of the death penalty seems like a knee-jerk reaction at best. This speaker’s tag-line was “Why do we want to kill all of the broken people?” This line and type of “discussion” and “argument” and “call-to-action” was unfortunately the fair served up by speaker after speaker at the Justice Conference 2014.
I returned to the conference on Saturday morning hoping that the tone and tenor of the speakers might lend to more learning and a greater understanding with a biblically based call to action. After listening to and carefully taking copious notes throughout the morning I began to question. I questioned whether the speakers thought they were directing their comments only to individuals who were automatically in their camps and already knew the various details of the issues to which they broad-stroked each disputation? I wondered whether they realized that the audience members were not automatically tracking to their conclusion? I began to wonder who these speakers were and from where they came. This last question spurred me to find out more, which in some cases led to interesting, even disturbing conclusions. (At this point I must confess that by the noon lunch break I determined that I was not going to realize my original goal of learning more from the heart of God and abandoned the final sessions in favor of mowing my lawn, enough time wasted).
There were a couple of threads of commonality between most of the speakers which got me to thinking and researching more deeply; partly because I like to know where people and groups are coming from, also because my own home church had sponsored the event as a satellite venue which means by extension that they formally support the event and its message. The very first speaker on Friday evening called for a “conversation”. The term clicked a memory of something that I had read before about a movement within the greater church called “Emergent Theology” which I knew nothing about. I recalled that a number of the speakers used similar jargon which caused me learn a bit more about this “Emerging Church Movement” or “Emergent Village”. I discovered that these two terms while not quite the same are indeed co-mingled in real and tangible ways. Further I learned that there are some disturbing red-flags to be aware of such as how this theology views the cross, the Trinity, the inerrancy of scripture and orthodoxy. While it is clear that there are some good and valid focal-points with the “Emerging Church Movement” such as “missional living” and creative and varied worship styles, which I’m all for, there are also some points of contention that I’m not for, such as their view of the cross. I is helpful to ask questions like “What is the meaning of the atonement?” and “Did Jesus actually pay for or purchase anything on the cross?” How are Emergent Village leaders answering? One movement leader has written in a fictional narrative to help explain the theology that …”I realized that I don’t know why Jesus had to die.” “Well, neither did Jesus.” Jesus certainly did know why He was here and why He would die Matthew 20:28? “…just as the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give His life a ransom for many.” And what about Jesus’ words to his disciples at the Last Supper? “And when He had taken a cup and given thanks, He gave it to them, saying, “Drink from it, all of you; for this is My blood of the covenant, which is poured out for many for forgiveness of sins.’” Surely Jesus knew why he had to die. One cannot read the New Testament and conclude otherwise. One cannot become a “committed follower of Jesus” without knowing why Jesus had to die? Another area of concern is the authority of the Bible. We need to ask questions like “Is the Bible inerrant?” and “In what sense the Bible is God’s communication to us?” How are Emergent Village leaders answering? “…we refer to the Bible as a member of our community of faith—an essential member that must be listened to on all matters on which it speaks. This approach is meant to strengthen rather than diminish the Bible’s authority.” “At bottom, our trust in the Bible does not depend on information that ‘proves’ the Bible to be credible. We believe the Bible because our hopes, ideas, experiences, and community of faith allow and require us to believe.” This to me is spiritual gobbledygook if there ever was any! If what this Emergent Village leader says is the case, who then has the real authority? It is not the Bible but the community. On this view, the Bible’s authority is grounded in the community, rather than in the fact it is the very word of God. Notice, it is nothing about the Bible itself that makes it authoritative on this view. The Bible is what it is despite what one’s community says about it. Communities do not confer authority upon the Bible. The Bible is authoritative because of the kind of book it is. Sadly, rather than strengthening the authority of the Bible, the Emergent Village view actually removes that authority. The most serious concern regarding Emergent Village and their influence on the larger Emerging Church Movement is the real potential for a move away from historic Christian orthodoxy. One Emergent Village leader describes the view of orthodoxy this way: “We do not think this [the Emerging Church Movement] is about changing your worship service. We do not think this is about…how you structure your church staff. This is actually about changing theology. This about our belief that theology changes. The message of the gospel changes. It’s not just the method that changes.” What he is saying seems to be this: as culture changes our understanding of God changes. There is an intersection between culture and theology and as we get new information from culture, be it through anthropology, biological science, or other disciplines, our theological understandings must not merely be adjusted but changed. This is how we do postmodern theology. According to this Emergent Village leader, postmodern theology is 1) fluid – it’s moving and we hold it loosely, 2) it is local, meaning there is no universal structure that guides the conversation for all time, and 3) it is temporary, meaning these things are changing faster than we can keep up with them. In contrast, “In the modern quest for universals, we tricked ourselves or deceived ourselves into thinking that theology is universal, absolute, it’s for all time.” I got the strong impression from several of the speakers (especially those speaking as clergy) that they are adherents of this “new” way of thinking about God and the church. I do not know this with certainty but it is my impression from those I heard none the less.
Another undercurrent of the Justice Conference seemed to be a strong notion of ecumenism. Ecumenism is a movement toward unity or cooperation among the “faith communities”. Meaning any and all churches but not limited to Evangelicals, Catholics, Later Day Saints (Mormons), Jehovah’s Witness, Muslims, Jews Buddhists, etc. While it surely is true that God loves all of the people within each of these groups, the groups themselves do not all share the same or even similar doctrine and theology. Truth matters and because of the beliefs that we (Christians) hold it is impossible to find legitimate common ground with many. The idea of is not very realistic despite the pleasantness of the sentiment. One call at the Justice Conference was for more “conversation” and “dialogue” between Arabs and Jews over the “occupation” by Israel in Gaza ostensibly subjugating the Palestinians. The specific rhetoric implied quite clearly that 1) the speakers believe the Israelis to be occupying ill-gotten ground that does not belong to them and 2) a two state solution will resolve the conflict if only Israel would cooperate and 3) that we conference goers should clearly see the light of this “truth”. It is interesting to note that the global “apartheid” protest against Israel begins this week. These Christian leaders/speakers expect us to simply buy into and believe that things in Gaza are the way they are due to a single factor and that if only one side would budge the whole Middle East would lay down arms and sing harmoniously together. Peace and freedom from war and strife are laudable goals but it is harmful to the “conversation” to ignore what scripture teaches and attempt to put some burden of responsibility where it doesn’t necessarily belong.
All in all I was very disappointed in the Justice Conference 2014. I was disappointed that little or no attempt was made to clearly define terms. I was disappointed in the lack of scriptural basis for many (not all) conclusions. I was disappointed that so much suffering in the world is ongoing and the people who drive the conversation seem so myopically focused on the emotional side of the discussion rather than the scriptural kingdom side and what God thinks and wants us all to do.