We now come to Chapter 8, the concluding chapter of Part III in Making the Best of It, by John Stackhouse. This chapter is called “Principles of a New Realism.” Stackhouse begins the chapter:
There are four sections to the this chapter:
- A Mixed Field , Mixed Motives, and Mixed Results
- The Normal … and Beyond: Steering Societies, Converting Communities, Improving Individuals
- Faith and Faithfulness: Faith in God’s Providence
- Liberty and Cooperation
Today we begin with first section.
A Mixed Field , Mixed Motives, and Mixed Results
Stackhouse begins with Jesus’ parable of The Wheat and Tares in Matthew 13:24-30, where an enemy sows weeds in among a farmer’s wheat. The weeds must be left to grow with the wheat until harvest because uprooting would destroy the wheat. (I remember reading elsewhere that the tares looked so similar to wheat that even experts have difficulty telling the difference with the naked eye. Only when the head matures does the difference become obvious.)
Jesus explains that the field is the world. Two kingdoms are mixed together in our present reality. Referencing Augustine, Stackhouse notes that now is not the time for apocalyptic confrontation with enemies of Christ. Some may yet become his friends before the harvest.
So what does it mean to be seeking shalom in a world where “the tares” are alongside us? First, we should expect sin and plan for it.
Stackhouse is critical of both Christian liberals and conservatives who see the world in stark polarities of good and evil, and fail to truly wrestle with ambiguity that exists in our present context. This is a concern I’ve had more and more with each passing year. I understand the frustration many Christians have with cultural accommodation, particularly younger ones. But all too often the response borders on millennialism; an implied, if not explicit, belief that the Church will usher in the Kingdom of God. This unchecked idealism is the root of any number of well-intended destructive movements throughout history. The antidote to both cultural accommodation and the variant forms of idealism is a realism of the variety Stackhouse is espousing.
Second, Stackhouse wants us to deal not only with the “bad out there” but “the bad in here.” What about the evil in ourselves, our families, or our churches and Christian Organizations? Stackhouse writes:
Our Constitution and foundational documents take a much dimmer view of human proclivities, carefully separating powers to avoid concentration of government with any one group or branch of government. Yet so much of evangelicalism is driven by powerful personalities in large churches with highly centralized power.
I don’t think evangelicals are alone in peculiar thinking on these issues. The Emerging Church movement is mostly anti-institutional, with most folks believing in small, highly decentralized faith communities that are only loosely connected. Therefore, one might presume a heavy sympathy for libertarian politics. On the contrary, I find considerable affinity with big government solutions to almost every problem that confronts society. Emergents often seem to be a mirror image of evangelicals, having an almost a hyper-resistance to powerful leaders in big churches or organizations while readily embracing considerable concentration of societal power in centralized governmental institutions; some virtually identify “social justice” with government action. I suspect this may be due to a reaction against the large church with a powerful pastor model, as well as the libertarian leaning nature of many evangelicals, more than a well reasoned theological response to culture.
Third, we should not despair because evil is always among us. There is fruit that is growing as well. Law will not bring about total righteousness but it can establish minimal boundaries that will allow us to flourish. (Personally, I like to think in terms of Chesterton’s language of “making room for good things to run wild.”) We can always live better than the law but we also recognize we will not achieve life as it will be in the new creation. All or nothing attitudes (left or right) toward societal engagement are usually destructive; sacrificing actual incremental improvement for idealistic principle. Picking our battles and nudging the world toward greater shalom in all we do is our mission in the mixed field we live in.