Last month, when President George W. Bush delivered the commencement address at Calvin College in Grand Rapids, Michigan, a significant number of faculty members signed a petition dissenting from the President's policies.
Calvin College, with roots in the Dutch Christian Reformed Church, is situated in the Reformed wing of American evangelicalism and rightly prides itself as a center of rigorous faith-centered intellectual inquiry. Yet, despite President Bush's broad appeal to American evangelicals, the fact that a significant number of Christian professors at Calvin College would so sharply disagree with his policies illustrates how diverse and complex Christian opinion about public discourse can be.
Indeed, there are many evangelicals in America who oppose much of the current administration's policies - especially on issues not related to abortion, euthanasia, and same sex marriage. These evangelicals are concerned about how the President has led Americans into what they believe to be a misguided war in Iraq. They are worried that the President's policies have hurt America's international standing, ravaged the poor, and privileged the rich. After all, as Jim Wallis of Sojourners says repeatedly, the Bible speaks more about peace and justice than family values.
How should Chinese American Christians respond to this complex political debate? Should we ignore social and political issues in order to focus on proclaiming the gospel and building up our congregations? Should we choose sides as the Southern Baptist minister in North Carolina did during last year's election when he allegedly threatened to excommunicate church members who voted for John Kerry?
I believe that Chinese American Christians can no longer ignore social issues and politics. Over the past three decades, the Chinese Christianity in the United States (and world-wide) has grown from small Chinatown missions and Bible Study groups into flourishing congregations. Many of our members are educated, affluent, and knowledgeable about United States politics. There is also a sense that increased social status is accompanied by greater social responsibility. This development parallels the growth of conservative evangelicalism in the United States. As evangelicals have become more engaged in politics and social issues, I believe that Chinese Christians will also get involved. Ron Sider of Evangelicals for Social Action told me that in the past, the great challenge was to help evangelicals see that engaging social action and politics is part of the Christian vocation. With the recent rise of the Religious Right, he believes that the battle for a socially engaged discipleship has been won. However, the challenge today is how to choose the side of an issue that is closer to biblical principles and the historical witness of the Church. In other words, the challenge for Christians is to rightly "discern" God's will in the public arena. As Paul says in Romans 12:2 "Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your minds, so that you may discern what is the will of God, what is good and acceptable and perfect."
In my opinion, "discernment" is the most important spiritual gift (cf. I Cor. 12:10) for 21st century Christians to cultivate. As the Chinese Church grows and engages social issues, its leaders need wisdom to discern "the mind of Christ" and therefore not be "tossed to and fro and blown about by every wind of doctrine, by people's trickery, by their craftiness in deceitful scheming" (1 Cor. 2:16, Eph. 4:14). In the next two columns, I'd like to suggest some ways to help us better discern God's will in the area of public witness.
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Rev. Timothy Tseng, Ph.D. is an Associate Professor of American Religious History and Director of the Asian American Center (asianamericancenter.org) at the American Baptist Seminary of the West in Berkeley, California.