The campus Navigators Christian Fellowship had our final Thursday Night Fellowship of the term last week. It struck me as a very special evening – the annual quotes-and-pictures slide show is so much fun, there seemed to be something extra in the worship, and the mingling with friends was even better than usual. But I mention it here for a more serious reason. The last TNF of the term is also the seniors’ open mike night, and my friend James Throckmorton, a graduating super senior, said something I found to be very important.
I wish I had gotten to know Jim before this term (but as he is quick to point out, I’m gonna have to see his ugly name ahead of me on the fantasy baseball scoreboard all freakin’ summer long). He noted that Dartmouth Christians seem to split into two groups – the social justice Christians, and the personal purity Christians. The social justice Christians are those who emphasize service, believing that Christianity means giving to the poor, serving at soup kitchens, and opposing violence. Assistance is ministry. The personal purity Christians emphasize sin and behavior, saying that to please God you must avoid premarital sex, read your Bible everyday, and work hard. Evangelism is ministry. Certainly, there is crossover; the social justice Christians admit that sin is serious, and the personal purity Christians acknowledge that service is part of Jesus’ message – but let’s admit it. This split does exist, not just on campus, but also in the larger church. On the one hand, you’ve got James Dobson, Pat Robertson, and Peter Akinola. On the other hand, there’s Jim Wallis, William Sloane Coffin, and Katharine Jefferts Schori. I personally fall into the latter camp, as you may have noticed.
Jim said that these two facets of Christianity are two sides of the same coin. You can’t have a coin without two sides, and you can’t have true Christianity without both service and an effort to go and sin no more. The two Christian camps should stop quarreling, and recognize one another’s validity and importance. Nevertheless, it is a good thing both camps exist; it is well that they are not one. We need challenge, and our natural inclination to focus on only one part of faith provides us with that challenge. Without challenge, we would grow complacent and lifeless in our faith. Challenge keeps us fresh and on our toes. We split into our respective camps, rather than mutually embrace both points, for just this reason. The personal purity believers are challenged to improve their service, to heed Matthew 25: 32-40 and to incorporate it into their central faith, and we social justice folk are challenged to look inward more often, to listen to John 8:1-11 and remember it each day.
I think Jim’s message is incredibly important. It may very well lie at the heart of reconciliation, not just for our wounded Anglican Communion and beloved Episcopal Church, but for the larger Christian faith, as well.
UPDATE: Jim left the following comment on this post. "My prayer is that as we draw closer to Christ, he would draw us closer to each other. My vision is that we (conservative and liberal Christians) are climbing opposite sides of a pyramid. We can come together - and we can only come together - as we draw closer to He who is at the peak."