I Ain’t No “Pietist” (well, maybe)
Am I a “Pietist”?
In a recent review of The Myth of a Christian Nation in Christianity Today, James Smith labels me a “pietist.” Is he right?
I want to respond: “absolutely not” as well as “yes – and proudly so.”
I am absolutely not a “pietist” if one means by this someone who thinks Christians should focus on individual piety and leave all social transformation to government. In my book I repeatedly call on Christians to engage in social activism. In fact, I argue that this is what the Gospel is all about! Using the unique power of Christ-like love, the Church is to take responsibility to address issues such as homelessness, hungry, racism, sexism, greed, social injustice, drug abuse, sexual brokenness, domestic violence, and AIDS (see, e.g. Myth, pages 115-16, 119-26; 141-46; 178 -86).
So why do Smith and others (such as Chuck Colson) think I’m advocating a “pietistic” withdrawal from social issues? I strongly suspect that it’s because Smith, like so many others today, work with a paradigm in which social transformation and political involvement are inseparably connected. In this paradigm, “social activism” pretty much means “political involvement.” (For more on this, see my essay, Trapped in a Constantinian Paradigm). Since I emphatically deny that there’s a unique “Christian” way of being politically involved, Smith concludes I must be divorcing the Christian faith from social activism. This is what Smith means when he says my view is “simply resurrected pietism.”
Now, of course political involvement is one way of being socially active, but why should Christians think this is the way of being socially active that is unique to our calling as followers of Christ? As I argue in my book, social transformation was at the center of Jesus’ life and ministry, and yet he never so much as commented on the politics of his day. Jesus lived in politically hot times, and people were constantly trying to get him to throw his weight behind this or that political issue, but Jesus consistently refused. (One wonders, would this make Jesus a “pietist?”). The fact is that Jesus was a radical social activist, but he simply refused to let politics define the terms of his social activism. As those who are called in imitate Jesus (Eph.5:1-2), I contend that we should do the same.
We who pledge ultimate allegiance to Christ should individually and collective engage in social activism in a unique, Christ-like, kind of way. Our focus as Christians shouldn’t be on trying to run society through political means, but on individually and collectively transforming society by humbly serving it in every way possible. And our focus should be on modeling to the world a community in which the ills that plague humanity are being overcome through the love and power of God. We are to manifest and expand the unique, beautiful Kingdom of God.
Now, as people who live in a free country, we certainly can and should participate in the political process however we feel led. But we must always remember that our unique authority as followers of Jesus doesn’t reside in how we cast a political vote, but in how we vote with our lives. Being a follower of Jesus doesn’t mean we know more than others, but it should mean that we’re willing to sacrifice more than others. And our willingness to following Jesus’ example of self-sacrificial love, even for our enemies, is our unique power to transform society.
Unfortunately, the western Church has on the whole not done a rather poor job of manifesting this kind of love and power. Consequently, it’s hard for many to even imagine that this kind of social activism could be effective. The only kind of power most see as influential is political power, which is why most assume that if the Church is going to be socially relevant, it has to borrow capital from politics. But the truth is that self-sacrificial love is the greatest power in the universe, and this is the only kind of power the Church should trust and be focused on manifesting. If Christians in significant numbers would collectively sacrifice for the poor, the afflicted and the oppressed, the Church would have a transforming effect on individuals and on society that politics, police and armies could never dream of having. And if significant numbers of Christians engaged in this sort of self-sacrificial service, the credit for the social transformation it brought about would go to Jesus Christ, influencing more people to put their trust in him, rather than to Uncle Sam. This is the primary way the Church is to witness to the world that Jesus Christ is real and the primary way the Kingdom of God is to expand in the world.
In any event, if Smith and others think I’m advocating that Christians withdraw from the public sector, it can only be because the Christ-centered model of transformation I’m calling for simply doesn’t fit their politically-orientated paradigm of social activism. And if “pietism” is understood to refer to this sort of withdrawal, then I am most certainly not a pietist.
In another sense, however, I am a pietist. While Smith’s understanding of pietism is very common today, the truth is that some of the best examples of a unique, Christ-like approach to social transformation are found among the pietists! As a matter of historical record, most pietists in the 17th and 18th century were not at all focused on personal piety at the expense of social transformation. To the contrary, many were renowned for the way in which they placed the onus of social transformation squarely on the church instead of government. Independent of the government, they established schools, orphanages, shelters for the homeless, soup kitchens, and many other socially impacting ministries.
So, while I adamantly deny I am a “pietist” in Smith’s sense of the term, if one is speaking with historical accuracy, I proudly wear the label.