That question may sound like an all-too-simple way to press a Democratic-Party-collectivist-big-government structure of society over against a Republican-Party-entrepreneurialist-small-government structure of society. Many believers would argue that the way to change the world is one believer at a time extending grace and mercy to one needy person at a time. Others insist that world change comes as collective efforts overcome systems and structures of injustice and discrimination.
For the folks in Chester, Pa., that question arose often, but not as arguing points about competing political philosophies. That question haunted them because they were scared of getting burned. They didn’t enjoy the security taken for granted but many of us, namely, that firefighters just down the street are poised and on the ready to save life, limb, brick, and mortar, if ever – God forbid – we should need them.
Many pastors will kiddingly say they’re in the firefighting business — protecting folks from an eternal inferno. Pastor Johnnie Monroe realized that his effectiveness in ministry would call for firefighting of the more immediate kind. When, in 1973, he was called to be pastor of the Thomas M. Thomas Memorial Church, in Chester, he perceived the collective anxiety a community feels whose safety nets are tattered. He set out to reweave that net. No, he didn’t channel his bake sale experience to sell buckets from tables on the church’s front lawn. He set about to advocate the construction of a firehouse.
It took a couple of decades but finally the building was built, and the community honored his diligent efforts by naming the structure the “Rev. Dr. Johnnie Monroe Fire Station of Chester” in 1995 — fully nine years after he had left town to teach at Pittsburgh Theological Seminary.
Here in 2009, we Presbyterians wrestle questions like these in abstract terms, often to the point of fierce rage, all the while missing the on-the-ground realities they disguise. In spite of all the internecine battles getting kicked around the denomination, we at the Outlook find that the greatest rage screams through letters to the editor when we publish an opinion piece that challenges the actions or beliefs of either one of our national political parties. Whether we question the “enhanced interrogation techniques” approved by a Republican administration or challenge the Democratic president’s reference to people of sincere religious conviction as “ideologues,” the resulting letters and, even, cancelled subscriptions make us wonder, “So what values do we Christians really value?”
Have we become so defined by our political party affiliation that we must also loyally choose either to watch Fox news or, on the other hand, MSNBC? Have we so narrowed our focus that we feel the need to defend our party’s positions with blind loyalty, even if they are promoting practices we would outright condemn if the other party was promoting them?
And have we become so detached from the world God loved enough to send a Savior that we think fire stations and fires only exist for the sake of philosophical debates?
In the PC(USA), one of our greatest, and most unnecessary, causes of conflict is the fact that for a generation or more our denominational leaders have largely believed in collective bargaining, collective advocacy, and collective care of the needy. Many folks in the pews are more given to individualistic approaches. So the one group accuses the other of being socialists. they, in turn, accuse the rest of being fascists, or something like that.
Fact is, both parties exist in our country because each reflects some truths about how life works best, and each has blindsides within it. Both approaches to social change — collective and individual — are effective in their own ways. Frankly, buckets can help us in the short term while we build fire stations. And we can be protecting from the eternal inferno by the proclamation of the gospel and be protecting against arsonists by installing fire hydrants.
Is it even remotely possible for us to pull ourselves away from blind partisanship long enough to admit that the mission to the world is a both/and process?
Maybe we can take a field trip to Chester, Pa., so those folks can explain how it all works.