As American culture has become less deferential, not to mention at times more hostile, to traditional Christianity, a variety of theories as to what has gone wrong and how it should be fixed have been set forth. The four authors of “Forgive Us” – Mae Elise Cannon, Lisa Sharon Harper, Troy Jackson, and Soong-Chan Rah — suggest that the anger that many have for the American church is justified. In that vein, they have penned this work as an expression of repentance, asking both God and people to forgive the church for various sins.
While such a call to repentance and confession is not entirely unusual, their particular vantage point may be to many readers, as “Forgive Us” expresses repentance from the perspective of the evangelical left. Over the last several decades, those of evangelical faith who hold more liberal political views have been frustrated by the dominance of the religious right in public awareness of evangelical political engagement. Recent years have brought more awareness to the fact that some evangelicals hold liberal political views and tend to engage the culture in more collectivist terms, with a greater focus on cultural discrimination and economic privation rather than the individualized and often sexual issues addressed by conservative Christians.
Thus, the sins repented of in the seven chapters, while expressed in biblical terms, largely reflect the grievances commonly expressed by secular leftists: sins against the environment, American Indians, African Americans, women, the “LGBTQ community,” immigrants, and Jews and Muslims. While the book is not a call for political action – to the authors’ credit, it retains throughout a consistent focus on confession and repentance – many of the sins discussed are described in political terms: failure to support Al Gore’s environmental crusade, not favoring the Equal Rights Amendment in the 1970’s, and so forth.
Though left wing in politics, the authors are ardently evangelical. While they leave that term largely undefined other than to say that they have a “high view” of Scripture, they clearly identify with evangelicals in the way that they take the exposition of Scripture and biblical ideas seriously in their discussion of issues and in their defense of evangelizing non-Christians, even as they warn against triumphalistic approaches to other cultures. However, that is not to say that the book is not without theological problems. The focus on Creation (in discussions of both duty to the environment and of the image of God in man) without an adequate consideration of the Fall leads to an over realized eschatology that seems to indicate that the Kingdom of God can be established by political means – or that pursuit of cultural ideas that the authors disapprove of represent an effort at establishing the Kingdom of God. Also of note, the claim that I Kings 21, in which King David makes restitution to the Gibeonites for Saul’s misdeeds, unequivocally supports modern political theories of restitution for historic grievances against slaves and American Indians is a questionable use of the text. Finally, while the authors are correct that mistreatment of homosexuals should be repented of – like all other sinners, they should be treated as persons created in the image of God – it is unfortunate that the writers refuse to address the “controversial” question of whether homosexual conduct is sin.
In addition, as is common with ideologically driven writers, the authors frequently paint with brushes that are a bit too broad: they fail to distinguish between the sins of the church versus those of the culture versus those of individuals. In alleging “twisted readings” of Genesis 1, they only reference Francis Bacon and Rene Descartes as examples in the footnote. Those persons are hardly representative of Christian theology. In discussing anti-semitism, they strain to find relevance in the views of Henry Ford, who they acknowledge was only a “nominal” Episcopalian. They twice describe the extremist pastor of a small church in Florida, Terry Jones, as an evangelical while illustrating sins against Muslims. Referring to Jones as an evangelical stretches the definition beyond recognition and associates evangelicals with views and practices that they would firmly oppose.
Nonetheless, when reading this book, a more fundamental question comes to mind. The late political columnist Robert Novak, a convert to Christianity and conservative, once said that the rise of the religious right had been good for the Republican Party and disastrous for the church because of the way that it had reduced the church to an interest group with a partisan agenda. Indeed. Certainly, it would be unwise for Christians to entirely disengage from the culture, as there is an obligation to bring to bear the claims of Christ on every area of life. However, a church that presses partisan politics at the expense of Great Commission responsibilities has reduced its glorious pulpit to a lesser bully pulpit. Ministers and Christians should exercise greater caution before bringing the church into the political fray, whether on the right or on the left.
There is much for which the church should ask forgiveness – and we have culpability with regard to many of the mentioned sins. Nonetheless, this is a flawed confession.