Jonathan Merritt is a journalist. His most recent book “A Faith of Our Own” is written in a journalist’s rather than a policy-advocate’s or theologian’s style. He employs metaphors and anecdotes which occasionally seem forced, but manage to keep the reader engaged. He prefers to let others make his strongest points for him in well placed quotations. He is not primarily making an argument but describing a landscape, a narrative, and its characters. This is in keeping with the trend in the church to employ a narrative approach to the scriptures and to ministry. If the reader comes to this book looking for something to agree with or disagree with they may be frustrated.
“A Faith of Our Own” tells the church how to stand rather than where to stand. This is an important word to the church today. Poised at the end of an era of Christian participation in politics, the current generation knows something went wrong over the last 40 years, but many of us lack an understanding of the history of the events that shaped us. We know we want to do better than our parents. We want the Gospel that we share to reflect Christ’s love. We want to practice good stewardship of all the resources entrusted to us. But we also know that obstacles have been constructed in the past which require our attention and honest repentance before we can expect the world to be willing to listen to us, or to be ready to accept God’s love through us. Merritt shows how our generation is moving in that direction.
But he is not providing a blueprint, nor really even asserting a strong position. This book is not about taking a stand, but about an attitude of standing. He is reporting. Which is, perhaps, the correct approach for this time. If Merritt has a goal, it is to re-engage some of us who grew up steeped in the religious right and to provide a model of repentance and humility. He appeals both to those who remain in the fold, and to the many who were turned off by what he describes as the “culture wars” of our fathers. I searched in vain for strong statements, but there are precious few in “A Faith of Our Own.”
Merritt is almost hipster in this regard. If he were not sincere, his image would fit that mold, and in truth, he is probably most appealing to the hipster-Christian fold. They will probably get it. What feels like “anything goes” reading from the right might retain an echo of dogmatism reading from the left, while intentionally being neither. This will annoy older Christians who will write him off as either a hippie or a poseur. But he is genuine, and humble. He should be heard and considered in earnest. He is right that the appropriate approach “is not reaction or response, but reflection.”
I would go further than Merritt on most points. I would, if it is possible, seem more conservative to the liberals and seem more liberal to the conservatives. More importantly I would bring an analysis, rather than a report, of politics which demonstrates why the religious right movement of the last generation played out the way it did, why the liberal elements are progressing the way that they are, and why confusion about the appropriate role of Christians, and in particular the church as an institution, in politics remains among the most contentious issues within evangelicalism.
He claims that “Government can be a powerful tool for justice and goodness, and often Christians must advocate for policies that punish injustice, restrain evil, and promote a healthier society.” But I only agree in part. That government is effective, though flawed, at punishing injustice and restraining evil may be true, but I believe only the love of God can motivate us into goodness. This may help resolve some of the confusion surrounding Romans 13.
When Merritt says “politics itself is not the problem,” he is hedging against the conservative-styled small-government movement which is yet another form of “foolish participation in politics,” un-nuanced and hypocritical in the hands of Tea-Partiers. I agree with his concern, but I agree more with Jacques Ellul that politics “is the trap continually set for (the church) by the Prince of the World.”
Merritt identifies characters to some extent so entrapped, who thought very much was at stake in the culture wars, without explicitly identifying what those claims were, and whether they were right. He does not go into depth searching what really was at stake and who really stood to gain or to lose in particular situations. A more Ellulian approach might have sought out and described by way of a warning the ways that well-intentioned actors found themselves compromised by participation in and proximity to power. There is no explication of the way of Jesus as a subversive power-under response to the demonic power-over ways of the world. I’d recommend Mark Van Steenwyk’s recent “That Holy Anarchist” to Merritt and his readers on this count.
Merritt gets closest to this perspective in the excellent climactic chapter, “A Touch Closer.” Taking his cues from folks like Shane Claiborne, Merritt describes a Christianity in action which is acutely attentive to the least of these. “Follow Jesus. Live like He did, give yourself to others, and share the good news that God has brought freedom to us all.” I’ve written before that those of us who believe in regeneration ought to perceive it as an event which adjusts human nature radically, changing us from primarily self-interested individuals, into God-and-others interested servants, living out a form of sacrificial altruism which rescues the oppressed while simultaneously providing a way of redemption for oppressors. Claiborne emulates this beautifully in his work. He is focused entirely on how to live out the way of Jesus before the world. Merritt says, “When the religious leaders attempted to make Jesus choose sides, He declined. When one of His disciples attempted to employ the world’s tactics at His arrest, Jesus rebuked him and displayed a radically different approach. Through His life and ministry, Christ made it clear that His kingdom could not be pursued by marginalizing those who seek to marginalize you, attacking those who attack you, or combatting ‘anti-Christian’ earthly kingdoms by installing ‘semi-Christian’ earthly kingdoms. Instead Jesus calls His subjects to begin ‘loving, serving, and hopefully transforming the enemy who seeks to destroy you.’”
Merritt’s concerns with the “brutal tactics” and “sour tone”, and his appeal for “passionate but reasonable discussion” lack the insight that when the pile of political goodies gets stacked too high, the competition for those goodies, which in politics in a democracy are allocated by argument, is bound to become vicious. As Christians we can help reduce the negative tone primarily by removing some issues from the realm of political contention. We do this best through voluntary sacrificial altruism, or what Merritt calls “sacrificial followship.” It is for this purpose which we can apply the words of Merritt’s mentor, “As Christians we may be compelled to enter the political arena from time to time. But we should always be uncomfortable there.”
Instead we should get involved. We should say with Merritt, “If you are a woman who feels you cannot bring your child to term for any reason, come see us first. We will walk beside you during this process to ensure that you can bring your child to term and provide for that child’s needs in infancy. We will purchase diapers and pay for the doctor visits.” Our true concern for the unborn can best be communicated by what we are personally willing to sacrifice for their sakes. Political activism is mere cheap talk in comparison.
Merritt recognizes the coalition-building element of politics as being close to the root of many problems. I’d recommend a survey of public choice economics, my own discipline, in this regard. A good place to start would be, ironically, Bruce Yandel’s “Bootleggers and Baptists” theory on regulation. The same free market economists espoused by the religious right when politically expedient have a great deal to say about the dangers of political expediency!
Can I recommend this book to others? Yes, though don’t look to Merritt for strategy, or answers to specific questions regarding policy. Instead, read the story of a young man who has watched much of what has happened in the last twenty years, as the evangelical strongholds have begun to crumble, from positions particularly close to the action. Merritt operates well as a reporter in part because he has a great deal to report. But also read how Merritt has sought out a way to walk within the church, as it grows out of a peculiar stage, with incredible grace.
I could go more into the details of the text, describing the conversations recounted, the history as told from the inside, the close encounters with power and with love. But this is what Merritt does well. Instead I would encourage others, and myself, to imitate his attitude, his humility, and his passion for Jesus, as we proceed deeper into our understanding of how to advance the Kingdom of God in this present age.