God’s Little Platoons

Kingdoms in Conflict, by Charles Colson with Ellen Santilli Vaughn (Zondervan and William Morrow, 400 pp.; $15.95, hardcover). Reviewed by Beth Spring, a CT contributing editor and author of The Infertile Couple (D. C. Cook, 1987).

For an adult education class on contemporary issues last year, I searched extensively for a single volume that would address our increasingly urgent need to “think Christianly.” Beyond the fine works of several British authors, including John Stott and Harry Blamires, there was nothing on the market with a broadly gauged, critical, and objective view. Now there is.

Charles Colson’s latest book combines the tale-telling style of his earlier book, Loving God, with incisive commentary about contemporary issues in light of timeless biblical truth. With assistance from writer Ellen Santilli Vaughn and editor Judith Markham, he charts a straight path through the thicket of confusion that envelops Christians in politics today.

In a chillingly realistic 40-page prologue, Colson muses about how a born-again U.S. President, elected in 1996, copes with an international crisis in the Middle East. The President and his top advisers prayerfully neglect the threat of Jewish extremists to blow up Islam’s holy Dome of the Rock, rationalizing, “You can’t help but wonder if these could be events we’ve all waited for.” Meanwhile, the “Christian Broadcasting Company” urges its viewers to express “unqualified support for Israel.”

Tainting the President’s view of international events are grim political realities in an America where militant Christian believers have wrested control of one political party. Widespread disgust over moral deterioration led to an election in which the “Christian Republican” candidate promised to run the nation “on the Bible” and to “speak for God as well as the American people.”

No Imagination Needed

Colson did not have to use his imagination to come up with slogans like that: some of Pat Robertson’s followers have said the same. But Colson is no separatist; he believes such Christians blunder their way through the political process because they fundamentally misunderstand Christ’s message. Add to that a fascination with the methods of the world, a healthy dose of arrogance, and an inability to compromise, and the body of Christ in America finds itself dangerously close to becoming little more than one special-interest group among many.

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Without balance and cooperation between the civic structures necessary to preserve order and justice, and shared Judeo-Christian values, Colson writes, America will “continue in turmoil.” Therefore, before the American experiment is damaged irreparably, Colson calls for a truce, proposing a different “path of reason and civility that recognizes the proper and necessary roles of both the political and the religious.”

Colson is uniquely equipped to describe that path. His years in the Nixon White House were spent conjuring positive publicity for presidential policies. Colson admits to having manipulated religious leaders, even scheduling preachers for Sunday worship at the White House with an eye toward political advantage. Lesson number one for today’s politically ambitious Christian leaders: Don’t fall for the blandishments of high officials, and reserve the right (and the capacity) to critique any ruling party.

Watergate sent Colson to prison, where he encountered the power of the gospel. He was stunned when then-Congress-man Al Quie offered to serve out Colson’s prison term so the disgraced White House aide could be with his family during a time of trouble. To Colson, this is the heart of Christ’s power to change lives. The kingdom law of love for others makes a difference in personal relationships; and it explains why “the influence of the Kingdom of God in the public arena is good for society as a whole.”

Lesson number two: Social involvement for the Christian is not a substitute for spirituality, but a natural consequence of commitment to Christ. Colson writes that the church’s primary functions are evangelism and ministry to spiritual needs, but at the same time, “as the principal visible manifestation of the Kingdom of God, it must be the conscience of society, the instrument of moral accountability.”

To illustrate how this can be accomplished, Colson recalls William Wilberforce’s antislavery fight in England, conducted from inside the British Parliament. Wilberforce did not want to impose a church-ruled state. Colson emphasizes that “the critical dynamic in the church-state tension is separation of institutional authority. Religion and politics can’t be separated—they inevitably overlap—but the institutions of church and state must preserve their separate and distinct roles.”

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The Risk Of Irrelevance

In contrast to the success of Wilberforce’s Clapham Sect, Colson portrays the horror at the beginnings of World War II, as Hitler co-opted the church; and the British, blinded by utopian and mind-science philosophies of the day, failed to take the Nazi threat seriously.

Today’s challenges and pitfalls for the kingdom of God are no less compelling. Colson cites Poland, Nicaragua, and the Soviet Union as current battlefields. Meanwhile in the U.S., the church runs the risk of becoming irrelevant. Noting the PTL debacle and the heresies of feel-good evangelism, Colson writes, “Post-World War II Christianity is a religion of private comfort and blessing that fills the holes in life that pleasure, success, and money leave open.”

But Colson does not allow gloom to settle for long. He takes the reader on a tour of three unlikely places where the “little platoons” of the kingdom of God are exercising their faith appropriately. First, a dank prison in Walla Walla, Washington, where Colson’s Prison Fellowship volunteers helped alter a climate of violence, despair, and degradation by ministering to prisoners and pushing for legislative reform. Second, the Philippines, where “people power” challenged corruption and rigged elections. And finally, Northern Ireland, where reconciliation between warring Catholics and Protestants is occurring inside the prisons through the common bond of new faith in Christ.

In 1988 our own sectarian strife promises to heat up past the boiling point as two ordained ministers seek nomination for the presidency, claiming moral authority for vastly different agendas. While we are well insulated, for now, against the sort of street violence that mars Irish debate, our battles are waged by high-tech manipulation of public opinion and political image.

Colson worries that a church preoccupied with comfort, titillated by tales of Jim and Tammy, and (when convenient) incensed by moral decay is easy prey for manipulation—by Right or Left. Learning from the past and from the unfolding sagas around us is essential for Christlike social engagement. And attentiveness and obedience to God’s call on the lives of ordinary people is where authentic involvement begins. Christians must not ignore their duty to the city of man, but to botch their opportunities or to bully their way into control is grievous sin.

The Mufti Of Morality

Occupied Territory, by Cal Thomas (Wolgemuth & Hyatt, 232 pp.; $14.95, hardcover). Reviewed by Doug Bandow, senior fellow at the Cato Institute and a nationally syndicated columnist with Copley News Service.

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Columnist Cal Thomas views his role in the news business a little like that of the military’s Special Forces in war. “The editorial pages of the nation’s newspapers are the territory, or marketplace of ideas, that must be penetrated and occupied in order to influence enough people to make a difference in our culture,” he writes, and hence Occupied Territory, his chosen title for this collection of his articles. If he is occupying the enemy’s territory by means of talent rather than force, that fact does not diminish Thomas’s confrontational edge.

A one-time aide to Jerry Falwell, Thomas may be the most unabashedly religious syndicated columnist writing for mainstream newspapers. Others, like William F. Buckley and Joseph Sobran, touch upon some of the same issues as Thomas, but Thomas makes morality the mainstay of his writing. “Clearly the values of the secular elite have failed,” he writes: “One need only look at the drug abuse, unwanted pregnancy, and illiteracy rates as proof.”

Overall, Thomas does his job well. Abortion, for instance, is one of his major concerns; he devotes more columns in Occupied Territory to this subject than to any other.

Thomas’s willingness to interject biblical morality into contemporary political debate—though without the direct scriptural references that would tire a secular audience—is also obvious with regard to AIDS. “The best way to avoid getting AIDS,” he writes, “is not to engage in the activity that causes it.”

He may be at his pungent best, however, in discussing the hypocrisy that often surrounds church-state issues. After Fresno, California, yanked Salvation Army ads, which proclaimed “Sharing Is Caring … God bless you,” from city buses, Thomas tartly commented that the city’s action “proves that intolerance has more than one face.”

He also took the unfashionable position of defending the Alabama parents in the school textbook case. Of the ACLU and the People for the American Way, which defended the texts’ humanistic ideology, Thomas observed “it is hypocritical to say that a view you support must not be censored and that one you oppose must be excluded, but hypocrisy has always been one of the liberal’s strongest suits.”

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And as much as he worries about the issues that animate the Religious Right, he warns that movement against being seduced by secular power. “If the Church appears to be nothing more than a ratifying body for the policies of secular authorities, then the Kingdom of God risks being perceived as the kingdom of this world and thus loses its distinction.”

Using The Law To Send Signals

Nevertheless, there is a troubling aspect of Thomas’s advocacy of traditional values—namely, his willingness to use government to enforce intensely personal moral norms. For example, he applauds the Supreme Court’s refusal to void Georgia’s antisodomy law: “Had the court legitimized sodomy throughout the country by striking down the Georgia statute, it would have sent the wrong signal.” Yet there is something fundamentally offensive about police barging into bedrooms to monitor people’s sexual behavior. The criminal law should penalize coercive activities that threaten others, not send “signals” about what a majority considers proper or improper behavior.

Finally, Thomas is an unreconstructed hawk. Though his revulsion of the horrors of communism offers a welcome change from the naïve views of some religious leaders on the Left, Thomas ignores the moral ambiguities and practical problems arising from U.S. intervention in, for instance, Nicaragua’s civil war. Unfortunately, American military intervention has often caused more problems than it has solved.

Nevertheless, Thomas offers a refreshingly honest perspective in today’s political dialogue. He concludes Occupied Territory by arguing that “it is now time to replace timidity with boldness and to speak truth to a world that desperately needs something to believe in and someone of integrity to follow.” That is true for every Christian journalist.

Each Word Must Be A Sacrifice

Talking About God Is Dangerous: The Diary of a Russian Dissident, by Tatiana Goricheva (Crossroad, 103 pp.; $11.95, hardcover). Reviewed by Brian F. O’Connell, program coordinator of the National Association of Evangelicals’ Peace, Freedom and Security Studies.

It seems as though the first thing most Soviet dissidents do when they emigrate to the West is write a book about their travails. Some of these are important political statements, others detail the hardships of imprisonment in psychiatric hospitals and gulags, still others are narrations of the everyday Soviet life. In just over 100 pages, Tatiana Goricheva integrates all of these with a remarkable story of the sacrifices of following Christ in the Soviet Union.

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In contrast to many other books by Russian dissidents, Talking About God Is Dangerous is a brisk and well-written account that deeply moves the reader. It is more than a mere diary; it is the public and political declaration of a believer.

Tatiana’s transformation at age 26 was the explicitly miraculous work of the Holy Spirit. She was raised in an atheistic culture by rather ordinary nonbelieving parents. She went on to become an outstanding philosophy student, the pride of a Marxist society. Predictably, she was still unsatisfied.

“I was on a journey from nowhere to nowhere: I had no roots and would go into an empty, meaningless future.” After never saying a prayer in her entire life, she ran across the Lord’s Prayer in a yoga book and began to say it as a mantra. “I said it about six times, and then I was suddenly turned inside out. I understood—not with my ridiculous understanding, but with my whole being—that he exists. He, the living, personal God, who loves me and all creatures, who has created the world, who became a human being out of love, the crucified and risen God.”

“My life only began when God found me,” Tatiana states as she goes on to describe her personal spiritual pilgrimage, her involvement with the women’s movement in the 1970s, and the religious awakening in the Soviet Union today.

Of great interest is the interaction she experiences with other Christian faiths and nonbelievers. From these events we learn about the distinctives of her Orthodox Christianity as well as the practices of Soviet Catholics and Baptists. The tension-filled relationships between evangelical Baptists and Orthodox believers are intriguing, reflecting similar arguments in the West over mariology and icons.

The Value Of Suffering

Tatiana describes a vibrant Soviet Christian community, growing not despite persecution, but often because of it. “It is a pity,” she says, “that the West does not understand the value of suffering, its power to renew and purge. The experience of the persecuted Russian Church says to us quite clearly that suffering for God does not take us away from him, but on the contrary brings us nearer to him.” It is due to the stringent restriction and persecution, she continues, that the church in the Soviet Union “is attracting the best people in Russia.”

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Her views of the Christian community in the West are equally strong. While lauding our freedom, she speaks to our often shallow religious experience. The reaction to her first viewing of a Western TV evangelist is revealing. “I thank God that we have atheism and no religious education. What this man said on the screen was likely to drive more people out of the Church than the clumsy chatter of our paid atheists. Dressed up in a posh way, the self-satisfied preacher had to talk of love. But the way in which he presented himself excluded any possibility of a sermon. He was a boring, bad actor with mechanical and studied gestures. He was faceless. For the first time I understood how dangerous it is to talk about God. Each word must be a sacrifice—filled to the brim with authenticity. Otherwise it is better to keep silent.”

While talking about God may indeed be dangerous, listening to Tatiana Goricheva speak about Christ and his effect on her life makes one glad she took the risk.

Diaries Of Spiritual Growth

Cry Pain, Cry Hope, by Elizabeth O’Connor (Word, 181 pp.; $11.95, hardcover); and Catching Sight of God, by Cheryl Forbes (Multnomah, 151 pp.; $9.95, cloth).

“The journey from the head to the heart, as we all know, is the longest distance we will ever cover,” writes Elizabeth O’Connor. It is a lifelong quest. And in Cry Pain, Cry Hope she probes a part of that journey, in search of a new sense of calling.

Cry Pain, Cry Hope combines meditation on the Book of Exodus, a search for a new ministry, and an exploration of O’Connor’s heart. She finds a calling, and Sarah’s Circle, a new ministry to the elderly and the homeless, emerges.

O’Connor deals with fear of change, aging, calling, and creativity, the place of small groups in ministry, empowerment of the elderly, money, mutual trust between the pilgrim and God, and praise. Her self-disclosure beckons the reader to walk with God.

From time to time, we each need to reaffirm our vocation or find a new one. Then we scan not only the Word and the job listings, but also our hearts.

Forbes’s Catching Sight of God offers a spiritual corneal transplant. In this year-long journal, Forbes lends us her eyes in order to open our own to the ever-present fingerprints of God. She begins with the tension between a November death and a Thanksgiving celebration, and then walks month by month through Advent, Lent, March house and yard cleaning, Easter, and on into the delights of summer and the gifts of fall.

Along with seeing God more clearly in the world, there is the bonus of a deeper acquaintance with the writer. Forbes offers us a sense of full personhood in the presence of God.

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