With his usual blend of passion and keen insight, Dr. Anthony Bradley, Associate Professor of Theology at The King’s College, delivered a lecture entitled “Lost in Policy? The Person Beyond Public and Social Utility.”
Continuing our series on The Church & Reconciliation, Dr. Bradley delivered a thought-provoking talk on our frequent inability to see people as people. Drawing on cultural observations and Christian social thought, Dr. Bradley decries the current state of public policy debate and its tendency to reduce people to a set of beliefs and categorize them into binary categories of “right” vs. “wrong” – a mentality that has infiltrated evangelicalism with harmful consequences. The way forward, according to Bradley, is to recover the idea of individuals as persons created in the image of God.
Current State of Affairs
There is a troubling trend in our culture today towards ideological polarization and tribalism. We no longer love and appreciate the beauty and dignity of every person as a fellow human being, but we label them, size them up, and accept or discard them based on their assent to a particular set of principles, namely, one that is in agreement with our own. Love is conditional, given to others on the basis of whether they love what we love and hate what we hate. Politics and principles are sadly placed above people.
Evangelicals are not exempt from this poisonous mindset. Conservatives and progressives alike adopt the same attitude when formulating a “Christian” response to social issues, reading their preferred ideology into the Bible and cherry-picking verses “What if we thought about our politics and economics from the person up?” – Anthony Bradleyout of context to support their pre-existing tribal political views. The result is a “biblical” framework that can now be freely declared, with those agreeing placed on the same team and those disagreeing filtered out as threats. The rhetoric of “the gospel” becomes the battle cry for each tribe ready to defeat their opponents (or at least claim superiority) in the name of God.
There was a day when Christians with differing political ideologies would worship and partake in the sacraments together, united by the death and resurrection of Christ. But in the 1960’s, conservatives began fleeing to the suburbs to build alternative safe communities for orthodoxy while progressives remained in the cities. Today, conservative Christians continue to isolate themselves because they are allegedly the only ones to “get the gospel right”, while progressives isolate themselves because they are allegedly the only ones who care about justice and changing the world.
Personalism and Theology
What is the way forward? A recovery of the theory of personalism, which emerged after WWI. Ideological tribalism became more about who “wins”, dehumanizing people for political and economic ends rather than caring for their needs. Personalism calls us to love and care for others simply because they are people. Variations of this theory influenced Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. and his thinking about social justice; Pope John Paul II and his opposition to the Soviet Union and his ethics of abortion and euthanasia; and even Francis Schaeffer and his creation of L’Abri. Unfortunately, personalism began to dwindle thereafter.
In Christian personalism, there is an inherent sense of worth and dignity in all humans because we are made in the image and likeness of God. We are endowed with intellect and reason, making observations about the world around us through our senses. We have been given royal status from God as stewards over all creation. We are also given the gift of creativity, expressed through the arts, agriculture, and technology. All of these point to and reflect the character of God.
When we see people, we don’t see autonomous individuals abstracted from the rest of humanity; instead, we see persons wired for community, interdependent and deeply integrated into its social fabric. Persons are not means to political, economic, or even evangelistic ends. They are not objects of mission or projects to be served. As persons made in God’s image, they were made for the end purpose of living in relation to and in communion with the triune God.
Dr. Bradley closed his lecture with a vision for the future as well as some concerns.
“Every encounter with a human person is an opportunity for liberation: it’s an opportunity, in union with the other, to explore together what it means to be truly human as God designed. This does not and cannot mean that we only do this with people like us.”
“Christian personalism shows the world that because our neighbors are people, not because they are simply ‘like us’, they are worthy of love and connection and relationship. They are worthy of a mutuality that establishes a context by which we can speak Truth into the life of the other to love and be loved by another so that he or she can be what God designed them to be as peers and friends. Not objects of ‘mercy ministry’ or a ‘service project’ or a ‘missions trip.’”
The lecture was followed by an equally stimulating discussion. If you missed the lecture and would like to hear Dr. Bradley’s insights and exhortations, check back with our resource page within the next month.
The Henry Center continues its lecture series with a Scripture & Ministry lecture on Wednesday, October 22 as John Perkins will share an autobiographical journey of pursuing justice in a world overwhelmed by oppression & brokenness.