Christians Engaging Contemporary Culture with Paul Louis Metzger
Christians will be led by the Holy Spirit to care for others, reflecting the communion within the Triune God.
JMF: You’re partnered with Dr. John Perkins in an organization called Drum Majors for Love, Truth, and Justice. Can you tell us what that’s about?
PLM: The drum majors partnership is something that started a little over a year ago when Dr. Perkins had asked me to join him for this partnership where it brings to bear the theology of engagement that I have developed that’s based in Trinitarian thought, and then also his work as a practitioner with community development motifs…and to join those two in a word of inspiration and exhortation to the church at large in terms of how we should engage and challenge and build up the church in terms of confronting race and class barriers in American Christianity and beyond today.
We’ve gone out and spoken in different places. The Luis Palau Association sponsored the Drum Major’s Conference in Portland. We spoke at the CCDA Convention last year together in Miami, Florida, and we spoke at Calvin College for a conference earlier this year. We’re looking for opportunities to speak and encourage other people to join the band, so to speak.
The imagery for this work comes from Dr. King’s sermon where he talked about being remembered as a drum major for justice. We’re about love, and love is the impetus, or it’s the momentum building for issues of justice and truth. We want everything to be captured by God’s holy love in Christ, and then truth and justice.
We live in a culture where biblical truth is not often taken seriously, and we want everything to be grounded in biblical truth. And justice…we live in a culture of greed and consumerism, where people are taking advantage of the system to get rich as the poor get poorer. So we want love propelling or moving truth and justice forward. That’s our message to encourage, invite, challenge the church at large, to join in this movement of God’s Spirit as we seek to be catalysts for this work under God’s direction.
JMF: If a church wants to join that movement, what does that look like in terms of the effect on the local church or what the church would do?
PLM: We would look for opportunities to speak together to a church or churches or schools, institutions. We do several things in terms of our speaking because it’s an inspirational work. We’re not trying to do the work for people, but to come in and give biblical theology, practical applications and illustrations, talk to leaders and work with them on things that they can be doing in their communities, and maybe we can talk a little bit about what Dr. Perkins has stood for, by way of relocation, reconciliation, and redistribution—his three principles that he’s been known for for decades—advisor to several U.S. presidents on these matters…on poverty and racism.
With relocation, it’s a matter of following God’s incarnation, where Jesus was incarnate—he relocated from heaven to earth…and so to be intentional about locating or relocating into communities in disrepair. There are different ways in which that can be done, but one way is a group of people moving in and living in the community and staying in a community to build the community up from the grass roots—a community that’s been in disrepair.
Reconciliation, first the vertical component of being reconciled to God, because that’s huge: On issues of race and class divisions, we need to be born from above, because the movement of God’s Spirit is essentially important if we’re going to move beyond those historic and present tensions of jealousy, envy, greed, hatred, whatever you want to call it, and even those more benign forms of simple indifference. We need the movement of God’s Spirit. Reconciliation with God then flows forth in a love for neighbor, reconciliation with our neighbor—black and white, Asian, Hispanic, you name it, breaking down those divisions. It’s not just race—it’s class divisions and beyond. That’s reconciliation.
Then redistribution. It’s not simply about giving money to a situation, because you can throw money at something and not be very relational or communal or caring—it’s just easing a bad conscience. With redistribution, it’s a life-on-life form of solidarity, where people are moving into a community, or people coming in from outside. As long as there’s an incarnate presence working amongst the people, other people can come in and associate too, in sharing not only financially in a work, but also with talents and resources—expertise.
It has to go beyond charity. Perkins has written a book called Beyond Charity, and what I would add to that, is that Jesus wasn’t condescending in his engagement of the Samaritan woman. He was really in need. He needed water in John chapter 4, and she gave him a drink. There was that sense of Jesus coming in this humility and love, of equality. He saw her as a precious human being created in the image of God, and so he cared for her, I would say, even as an equal.
We need to get beyond charity, where we keep the poor, as I like to say, at the far end of our outstretched arm. We are into token gestures rather than really entered into relationship and seeing the value in them—and also our need for them, because there are many ways in which we benefit from that relationship with people who are in impoverished situations.
Not that poverty is sexy, but at the same time, how many stories have you heard of missionaries or churches going to Mexico or elsewhere and coming back and saying, “These people had so little and yet they had so much in Christ, and we have so much, and yet so little in Christ.” They are moved toward a greater sense of discipleship and concern for Christ having his way in their lives. In those encounters, there’s a sense in which people come away impacted and can be built up. The need is mutual rather than a token gesture of condescension. It has to be incarnational and communal.
JMF: Is there an example of that you can give? Of a church that made a transition like this and began to experience their Christian walk in a fresh way?
PLM: There are churches that have been concerned for this. I think of Irvington Covenant in Portland, Oregon, formerly pastored by Henry Greenidge. He’s an African-American pastor, and is intentional with people in the community, people with different ethnicities being intentional in concern for the plight of the urban poor. They have a ministry to the ex-offender population, amongst others, and work with the elderly. Irvington Covenant in Portland would be an example.
Another church would be Lawndale Community in the Chicago area. Coach Wayne Gordon is the person who is responsible for founding that work, I believe, and he’s a close associate of Dr. Perkins. And there are other works around the country.
A movement that’s concerned for multi-ethnic (and I had mentioned this before in another segment) is the Mosaic Global Network. Mark DeYmaz and others are seeking to be intentional along those lines.
I’m excited that different works are developing. There’s the Christian Community Development Association that meets annually. It’s a network to encourage groups working in this regard. I also mention your denomination’s Office of Reconciliation Ministries, which is an outreach ministry of Grace Communion International. Curtis May, whom we both know, runs that ministry, and it’s a vital work that the denomination is developing, with Curtis as the leader of that. So that would be a work that people within the denomination and beyond could connect with to learn more on how to go forward in this regard.
Then there’s the John M. Perkins Foundation in West Jackson, Mississippi. All these works are great resources to help along the lines of what we’re talking about.
JMF: How does Trinitarian theology come to bear on this work?
PLM: In the context of consumerism, for example, we have to move beyond the commodification of human identity. What I mean by that is where we treat people as objects; we use them to get what we want. If you go back to the slave days, the trade triangle of sugar, slavery, and shipping, it was all bound up with what we might call materialism, or what have you. They needed slaves to get the sugar to put on the ships to send back to Europe, and it was the commodification, the using of people for financial value, financial gain.
We don’t do that in the same context today, but when we use people for whatever means or end we have in sight, rather than seeing them as people having inherent dignity and value, as I was talking about before, even amongst the poor, we should look at them as equal. Especially among the poor! Looking at them as equal, rather than as people we can give to and look down upon and feel good about ourselves. That’s commodifying them for our own spiritual growth, so to speak.
Trinitarian theology is about communion of persons, but we don’t use people as means to the end, of individuals in isolation using people for our own individualistic gain, but really a communal reality, where we become the community of God reflecting what it means to be the people of the Triune God, three Persons in communion, giving sacrificially to one another for all eternity. That is the model, and the basis, and the foundation stone, and the inspiration for living life today.
Jesus Christ incarnate—what greater example could there ever be? He had everything—he who was rich became poor so that we could become the riches of God [2 Cor. 8:9], and he who knew no sin became sin so that we could become the righteousness of God [2 Cor. 5:21]. Instead of upward mobility and the yuppie dream, it’s downward mobility and getting beyond homogeneity, of like attracting like—we move toward the “other” to embrace the other in all our distinctiveness to build a community that’s diverse and a profound example and illustration of what the kingdom of God that is dawning in our midst is all about.
JMF: In your book, you talk about “beyond moralism” and “beyond escapism.” What is that referring to?
PLM: With the “beyond moralism” aspect, I’m getting at the issue that it has to move beyond simply doing good deeds, because Paul in 1 Corinthians 13 talks about anything not done for love will profit us nothing. Even giving all of our possessions to the poor, surrendering our bodies to the flames, speaking in the tongues of men or angels, but having no love, it profits us nothing [1 Cor. 13:1-3].
In the context of dealing with the Corinthian church (where there wasn’t much love…and we’re talking about the works of the Spirit and the like), Paul puts it in the context of the moral axle, in a way, and says you can have all these things and do everything right, but if it’s not birthed from God’s love, which according to Paul comes from the Spirit’s movement in our hearts, that as Paul says in Romans 5:5, “The love of God is poured out into our hearts through the Holy Spirit.”
That changed heart creates faith, as I read the Bible, because Paul says, “I’ve been crucified with Christ,” Galatians 2:20, “and I no longer live, but Christ lives in me. The life I live in the body, I live by faith in the Son of God who loved me, who gave himself for me.” Faith is an empty hand. We don’t bring anything to the table. Luther said, “Faith is an empty hand.” Faith is created by God’s Spirit moving in our hearts giving us a new love, creating in us, instead of self-love where we turn inward on ourselves, the selfless love of God poured out from God into our lives, and that gets us from beyond self-concern to concern for others—especially those who can do nothing to elevate our own status—the distressed, the downtrodden.
But we go beyond rights, our own rights, and the like, and that will lead us into issues of getting beyond escapism out of concern for people who have no rights and benefitting them because of God’s compassionate loving overflow of salvation in our lives. The love-transformed heart births ethical action. Otherwise, it can be pharisaical; it can be just a “dutiful” Christianity. It has to be birthed from God’s love. That’s what I mean by living beyond moralism… the intent, and the heart transformation.
But some would take that to mean, “Okay, so as long as we have this heart transformed and feel different, things are fine, and then we don’t have to do anything about it.” No. If we’re truly converted… It’s not that we’re supposed to analyze our spiritual navels and the like, but a true conversion will always lead toward care for the other. I think of Zacchaeus the tax collector. Jesus said, “Salvation has come to your house, Zacchaeus” [Luke 19:9], it’s because he who had usurped people’s significance, had taken money from them, had been a robber, so to speak, as a tax collector, he says, “I’m going to pay you back and then some and give bountifully to those whom I’ve taken from.”
It’s in that context that you see the transformation having fruit. The transformed heart always gives rise toward a life of concern for the other. That’s what I mean by moving beyond escapism. Often our Christianity has been how to show non-Christians that Christians can have fun, too. I think that’s a very weak view of what it means to be caring for others. While it’s good to have fun, all the more important is to have love, and to be concerned for the needs of those in our community—especially in a culture so captured with affluenza. I think that the problems are intensifying.
PLM: There was a PBS documentary a while back about the problems of affluenza, affluence, and how it’s sickening our society. There’s not a problem with having money, it’s what you do with money that’s the issue. Do we distribute our wealth to benefit all, or do we take it to ourselves like the rich fool and say, “I’m going to build more and more and more for myself,” and God says, “Your life is going to be taken from you this night because you haven’t been concerned for the things that are on my heart” [Luke 12:18-20].
If I’m concerned for what’s on God’s heart, that shows that I love God and have concern for his concerns, and I want to please him just because he loves me. It’s not so I can find my merit or my worth ultimately, it’s just because I’m captured with God’s love and therefore I would want to give because he continues to give to me. It’s gratitude, not guilt trip. It’s not sense of obligation as in guilt, but that sense of obligation that comes from gratitude. I have a debt to pay to God’s love which I could never repay, nor should I try, but that I would love on others as he has loved on us.
That’s what Paul says: “The love of Christ compels us” [2 Cor. 5:14]. Jesus is saying, “Those who are forgiven much, love much” [Luke 7:47]. That’s what we need to see in the American church. We’ve been too concerned for our own image and too concerned, in so many contexts, out of fear of having our rights taken away from us. It’s all fear, fear, fear, and it’s not missional, it’s all insular. That reflects to me a spirit not of God but a spirit… Paul says, “We have not been giving a spirit of timidity or fear, but a spirit of power, of love, and a sound mind, and discipline” [2 Tim. 1:7]. That’s what we’ve been given, and so it should move us from even beyond seeking our own rights to seeking the rights of others.
As Karl Barth, whom I’ve written about, once said and once wrote, “A church that is always demanding its rights in the sphere of the state is a spiritually un-free church.” What Dr. Perkins and I are about (somehow with our respective vocations and our partnership together) is not about somehow taking back America from our enemies, but laying down our lives as the church for those who have often been seen as those outcast and shunned by the church that we would have that concern, that compassionate concern of co-existence and of the sacrificial love of the Savior poured out through the Holy Spirit.
JMF: You’ve also written about Karl Barth in The Word of Christ and the World of Culture: Sacred and Secular Through the Theology of Karl Barth, published in 2003 by Eerdmans. What does Barth bring to the question of Christ and culture in this context?
PLM: Barth is often misunderstood in terms of his engagement and understanding and reflections on culture. He’s often looked on as a despiser of culture. It’s an issue, a problem, in Barth studies that hasn’t gone away readily. One of the things that I wanted to show (and others have done this in certain contexts as well) is that Barth had a very nuanced, multi-faceted approach to engaging culture. There’s much there that is advantageous to someone who is seeking to develop a theology of culture.
A key part of my work is on the theology of culture. That’s not just systematic theology, which is dealing systematically with the various themes in church doctrine. With theology of culture, it’s focused even more on the matter of “What does that entail for how we engage in our contemporary cultural context?” and seeing that all theology, every aspect of theology, always arises within a cultural context.
That doesn’t mean it’s relativized, as some would fear, but it means it’s particularized—these things aren’t coming out of a hat like a rabbit—they’re not pulled out willy-nilly in that way. They arise, whether people are conscious of it or not, from a cultural context. Every theology is that way, so we need to be aware of it and be attentive to it, so that we can engage thoughtfully and meaningfully the biblical text, and bringing that home to how we engage in contemporary culture.
One other point along those lines… John Stott, the famous Anglican evangelical minister, said that evangelicals are very good at engaging the Bible, but not so good on engaging culture. Liberals are good at engaging culture, but not so good on engaging the Bible. As ministers of God’s word, we need to be concerned for both. As Barth said, having one finger in the bold print of the Bible and the other in the bold print of the daily newspaper. We need to be in those two worlds, bridging those two worlds as ministers of the gospel.
Barth had a multi-faceted approach to culture, and all of his theology arises within various cultural contexts, because it was written over many decades and developed. He was responding in one way or another to the situations that he faced, such as Hitler in Nazi Germany. Barth was one of the key opponents of the Hitler regime.
Barth would often attack “cultural Christianity,” but it wasn’t that Barth lacked an appreciation for culture in its various manifestations, such as Mozart. He had a great appreciation for the music of Mozart, which is striking to people and puzzling to many, because Mozart was a Mason, was perhaps a nominal Roman Catholic, and Barth was a Protestant theologian, and what might he see in someone like Mozart? He saw him as the theologian of providence par excellence in terms of his music. Barth would listen every day to Mozart’s music.
Barth was a great student of politics. He read and studied on politics and spoke to issues throughout his theological career, on the issues of the Soviet Union, democracy, what was going on in Hitler’s Germany and beyond…working with the miners in their crisis in his early days as a pastor in Switzerland, where he was from.
Barth was engaging culture in a variety of ways—not always negatively, sometimes constructively and positively. That was one of the things I wanted to bring out in the book — showing this multi-faceted approach. There’s a famous book by H. Richard Niebuhr called Christ and Culture, and it has merit in terms of certain typologies, but I also think it’s lacking. I’ve written on this with my colleague, Brad Harper, in our new book Exploring Ecclesiology, where I deal with Niebuhr’s categories and see they have a place, because you can use them to classify. But Barth’s model doesn’t quite fit any of Niebuhr’s categories. It’s not Christ against culture, it’s not Christ of culture, it’s not even necessarily Christ transforming culture, to use Niebuhr’s categories. There is a sui generis [one of a kind] quality to Barth’s work. It’s very multi-faceted, and he was a complex theologian.
Those are some of the things that intrigued me about Barth, including his opposition to Hitler, because the work of most theologians is not taken seriously in terms of having much say in the broader sphere. Barth’s work did have that kind of import for the political issues of his day. I don’t think we should politicize the faith, where we use the faith to baptize this or that political party, but the kingdom of God revealed in Jesus Christ does impact all kinds of political issues.
When Jesus said to Pilate, “My kingdom is not of this world” [John 18:36], he wasn’t saying, “My kingdom is irrelevant”—he was saying, “I’m not going to be manhandled by you, but my kingdom will intersect, will call into question, will judge your culture and even your reign and rule, Pilate, because I am a king of a different kingdom and that kingdom is coming, and it will be the eschatological reign of God in Christ’s person.” I appreciate that in Barth’s thought—he had a robust theology that had import for all kinds of issues in his day, and I believe also beyond.
I’d like to talk to that issue of how his theology, in many respects, gives rise to a missional engagement in a post-Christian America. When I talk about missional Christianity, I don’t mean a church with a missions program. You can have a missions program and not be missional, because you’re not thinking about how to engage the world around you—you just have a program and everything has to fit inside that mold. When I talk about being missional, it’s getting outside of our doors, trying to think in a way, communicate in a way…not that necessarily people are going to agree with it, but at least they understand.
We don’t want Jesus to be the stumbling block, he is the stumbling block, and we have to deal with him, too. I don’t want to be the stumbling block. I don’t want to be an obstacle to faith, but Jesus will be a stumbling block to people, and I don’t want to stand in the way of Jesus in one way or another. So when we’re talking about missional, it doesn’t mean tickling people’s ears, it doesn’t mean being politically correct, but it does mean presenting the gospel in ways that people around us can understand and can engage meaningfully, constructively.
The evangelical movement in the church at large in America, if anyone’s reading the newspapers and listening to the airwaves and reading carefully, people are going to see that in our scene, America’s changing rapidly. A lot of Christians are threatened by what they see as the rise of secularism in America—things may not be going politically, ethically where many evangelicals would like them to go. It depends on which aspect one’s thinking of.
I’m glad, I’m thrilled that we’ve had the civil rights movement. I think there’s been progress there for America. Some Christians don’t seem to take all that too seriously and just think everything’s getting worse. In some ways, things are getting better. But secularism, nonetheless, is on the rise. There’s a lot of talk today about Christianity and religion in general being antagonistic and not good for the common good, and evangelical Christians and Christians more broadly in America… We’ve moved from the Simpson-esque version of the evangelical Christian and the Christian as Ned Flanders, if you’re familiar with that…you know, nice guy, a bit naïve…to looking more like a fascist. We’re made to look like Adolf Hitler, that we’re antagonistic toward the common good, rather than caring for our society at large.
How do we engage in that context? Do we close the doors and retreat and develop even more a fortress mentality, which I hear about? This is a challenge to people, and I ask people to keep thinking and keep dialoging. But all this talk about going back to the religion of our founding fathers… I really struggle with that, because not all of our founding fathers (this is one of these delicate issues) were God-fearing biblical Christians. There were many Deists in the American government. Thomas Jefferson was no Bible-believing Christian. He had a cut-and-paste Reader’s Digest version of the Bible. He cut out the miracles. We didn’t have just the government and American culture at large filled with Bible-believing, God-fearing Christians. There were some of those, that was a big part, but there were a lot of other sectors. We’ve always dealt with this.
I like what John Perkins said, “If we go back to the religion of our founding fathers, I’m still a slave, and I don’t want to be that.” It’s this funny historiography about what we value and what we think is meritorious and that we want to go back there. I want to live now. I want to engage in biblical Christianity now, and I feel that there’s this fear of losing “our rights,” losing our power. I don’t see Jesus or Paul and others having that fear factor. As a Christian, I want to influence my society, and to the extent I can, influence government in the ways that I think honor the society at large.
In the light of that Barth statement, I think he was reflecting on Scripture when he said, “The church that demands its rights in the sphere of the state is a spiritually un-free church.” There’s that fear of rights, and our rights, and you’ve got to preserve those rights. We’re not caring for the other. We’re not caring especially for the dispossessed, like a William Wilberforce, the leader of England’s parliament on the race issue—he lost his wealth. His life was threatened numerous times because he was willing to use all of his affluence and influence for the sake of people who could not benefit him—the slaves. That speaks volumes to me.
That’s the kind of evangelical Christianity we need—not because we’re trying to tickle ears, but because God is moving in our midst, and we’re willing to lay it down, like Esther in the Old Testament, where Mordecai says, “Who is to say that you weren’t raised up for a very hour like this, Esther? [Esther 4:14] Do not preserve your role as queen to gain more affluence and wealth and influence. Give your life for the people, otherwise God might dispose of you and put someone else in as queen.” Esther’s response should be all of our responses, “If I die, I die” [v. 16]. She put her life on the line for the sake of her oppressed people with Haman’s holocaust ambitions.
That’s the kind of sense of urgency we need to have—not taking back the centers of power from the left or the secularist and the atheists. I want righteousness and I want good government. Sometimes I think that there are people who are non-believers who have a better sense of that than we do, though. Our greatest concern should be how can we live compassionately and live of ourselves, because then we should influence as much as we possibly can.
Jesus and Paul and others, they didn’t have this “moral majority.” They didn’t have places of power and affluence. The church often works best as a missional outpost where we haven’t been given power, and we have to depend on the power of the cross. As Paul says, “The cross is foolishness and it’s weakness to most, but it is the power and wisdom of God.” 1 Corinthians 1:18, 24. That excites me, that challenges me. I long for us as the church in America to move into that sphere of engagement. I think Barth’s theology resonates with that and gives a theological platform for cultural engagement along those lines in a post-Christian context.