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To Change the World VIII: Presence, Place and Politics


This is the eighth post in a nine-part series for the Spectrum Summer Reading Group. The nine posts will be drawn from the chapters of To Change the World by James Hunter. You can find the reading schedule here.

Whether we like it or not, we have arrived at a time in the Western world in which no one can convincingly lay claim to some special access to truth. Appeals a universal rationality, to sacred texts, or tradition or cultural superiority are all equally unacceptable. There is no special vantage point where Christians can claim to see the world as it really is, even if we deeply believe that we have a special view of the world. In other words, the culture is not going to assist us in our project promulgating the universal claims of our faith. If what Christians want in the culture wars is some sort of epistemic advantage over others, well, those days are over.

This comes a bad news to most Christians. The church’s first, instinctual response to this state of affairs, it appears to me, is to try harder, to speak louder and more slowly, as though the world were simply hard of hearing. Our reflexive response is to double down on techniques and strategies that have worked in the past. All of this is a sort of denial that the world has fundamentally changed.

Or has it? Just because the modern Christian era was built on the bedrock of philosophical foundationalism doesn’t mean that this is woven into the DNA of Christianity. In fact, the opposite appears to be true. Much of Christian history is the story of Jesus-followers living out their faith in the face of severe political opposition and religious pluralism. Since Constantine the church has enjoyed the support of the culture, more or less, in establishing its dominance in the world. Christianity is today the largest religion in the world as a result.

Rather than longing nostalgically for a former Christian era or rail against the pluralism of the present day, our role is to carry the faith of Jesus into the public square and live it authentically and convincingly. This is what James Davison Hunter calls “faithful presence” in contrast to the “defensive against” (conservative), “relevance to” (liberal), or “purity from” (Anabaptist/sectarian) positions. There is a strong theological resonance between Hunter’s “faithful presence” and the missional theology of the past 20 years. When Hunter says,

For the Christian, if there is a possibility for human flourishing in a world such as ours, it begins when God’s word of love becomes flesh in us, is embodied in us, is enacted through us and in doing so, a trust is forged between the word spoken and the reality to which it speaks; to the words we speak and the realities to which we, the church, point(241).

Here he is channeling missiologist Lesslie Newbigin who says,

How is it possible that the gospel should be credible, that people should come to believe that the power which has the last word in human affairs is represented by a man hanging on a cross? I am suggesting that the only answer, the only hermeneutic of the gospel, is a congregation of men and women who believe it and live by it. I am, of course, not denying the importance of the many activities by which we seek to challenge public life with the gospel—evangelistic campaigns, distribution of Bibles and Christian literature, conferences, and even books such as this one. But I am saying that these are all secondary, and that they have power to accomplish their purpose only as they are rooted in and lead back to a believing community.[1]

This, says Newbigin, is how the gospel is credible in a pluralist society. Not by building an unassailable edifice of truth on the foundation of human reason, like Descartes, or by appeal to some absolute, universally applicable (and often abstract) truth in “heaven,” like Plato, but by appeal to the lived experience of people in specific contexts. As Hunter says, “In all, presence and place matter decisively” (240).

In all of this I find Hunter to be on the mark. At the same time, through these three essays, I have found his antipathy to what he calls “politics” incomprehensible. Hunter defines politics rather narrowly as the, in his mind, crass administrative mechanisms by which elected representatives enact policies that attempt to govern a body of people with fairness. We can work within this framework if we must, though I would still insist that politics with a little ‘p’ is nothing more or less than the process of a group of human beings determining how they will organize their life together. It is necessary and unavoidable; the very stuff of this place, which Hunter rightly says matters so decisively.

That argument aside, however, I still do not see why politics, as a mechanism for embodying the good we envision, is to be so stridently avoided, even granting the problems with the Religious Right and the Religious Left’s (if such a thing actually exists in as robust a fashion as Hunter claims) grasping after power in the name of Christianity.

At the end of chapter 4, Hunter writes, “I would suggest that a theology of faithful presence first calls Christians to attend to the people and places that they experience directly…. The call of faithful presence gives priority to what is right in front of us—the community, the neighborhood, and the city, and the people of which these are constituted” (253). Exactly! And how does he suppose people are to engage with these arenas? Through transformational person to person relationships in which we practice forgiveness and kindness? Yes. But some of the issues effecting my neighborhood have to do with the substandard education many of the children of Los Angeles receive and the fact that thousands upon thousands of those same children cannot see a primary care physician because they lack the financial means or adequate health insurance, or the fact that certain groups of people are routinely targeted for arrests and incarceration. To solve these issues, Christians who wish to be faithfully present in their communities will have to dirty their hands with “politics.”

Karl Marx famously referred to religion as “the opiate of the masses.”[2] This criticism cannot be dismissed lightly. The problem with opium religion is not that it alleviates personal anxiety that results from the uncertainty of the world, but that it anesthetizes people and thereby shuts off their engagement with public life altogether. If what really matters is my personal salvation resulting in my evacuation from this world with all its brokenness, or private protest expressed in non-participation in local or national political life, then I have foreclosed on my personal responsibility for human flourishing of those beyond my tribe.

Under the influence of this opium I can also indulge in a sense of moral superiority about my non-involvement. “This world is not my home” on the one hand, or “I’m not going to justify this corrupt system by participating in it and instead create an alternative” on the other hand, both of which tend to avoid the obvious needs that are right in front of us; needs that Hunter, I think, rightly claims are primary for those who want to change the world (if, indeed, it can be changed).

We live in perilous times. The stakes are high for human existence, to say nothing of its flourishing. If Christianity (or any religion) is not contributing the flourishing of human life and increasing the possibility of the mutual survival of the human race I cannot see that it serves any good purpose.


[1] Lesslie Newbigin, The Gospel in a Pluralist Society (Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1989), 227.

[2] Robert C. Tucker., ed., The Marx-Engels Reader, second edition (New York: Norton, 1978), 53-54.



Ryan Bell is pastor of the Hollywood Adventist Church in Los Angeles, a clergy leader with LA Voice/PICO (a community organization working for social change in Los Angeles), a teacher and a writer.

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