Thursday, December 3, 2009

THE MANHATTAN DECLARATION

A friend recently e-mailed me that he was anxiously awaiting my analysis and comments on my blog on The Manhattan Declaration. I wrote back and told him that I hadn’t planned on commenting on it on my blog; in fact, I hadn’t even heard of it.

I Googled it and found there were over 206,000 entries on it, so I don’t think what I have to say will add much to what has already been said. I read it rather hastily and made a few comments which I e-mailed to my friend, asking for his thoughts, which he sent back to me.

I have now printed it out and studied it, along with some (very few) of the 206,000 posts. However, before I give my analysis and comments, here’s a brief summary and description of the document.

It is called THE MANHATTAN DECLARATION: A Call of Christian Conscience. It claims to be a joint effort of Orthodox, Catholic and Evangelical Christians. It was released on November 20, 2009. It has a long and impressive list of signers, many of whom are well-known religious leaders and scholars, whom I greatly respect.

It begins with a historical Preamble, tracing Christian moral stands and actions through the centuries.

The actual body of the Declaration begins by stating that the signers are signing as individuals and not as representatives of their organizations.

In the second paragraph “the whole scope of Christian moral concern” is mentioned, but in the third paragraph narrows these to three which it affirms:
1) the profound, inherent, and equal dignity of every human being as a creature fashioned in the very image of God, possessing inherent rights of equal dignity and life;
2) marriage as a conjugal union of man and woman, ordained by God from the creation, and historically understood by believers and non-believers alike, to be the most basic institution in society; and
3) religious liberty, which is grounded in the character of God, the example of Christ, and the inherent freedom and dignify of human beings created in the divine image.

The signers say they “affirm … embrace our obligation – to speak and act in defense of these truths.” They claim “It is our duty to proclaim the Gospel of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ in its fullness …”

There follow three sections.

The first is entitled Life and while it pays brief attention to a few life issues, it concentrates chiefly on abortion.

The second is entitled Marriage and does a pretty thorough job of defining the biblical/theological basis for marriage. It addresses the other problem areas of sexual morality but then homes in on homosexual marriage as though this were the major problem

The third section is entitled Religious Liberty. It states that “The nature of religious liberty is grounded in the character of God Himself.” It criticizes recent trends in our country to “weaken or eliminate conscience clauses,” and thus force pro-life health workers and others to take part in actions that violate their conscience. This section concludes by advocating civil disobedience in various cases.
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Now for my comments, for what they’re worth, though I doubt if I’ll say anything that hasn’t already been said.

First, were it not for the fact that I hold many of the signers in high regard, I would probably be tempted to simply ignore the Declaration. I feel uncomfortable with joint efforts at making moral/political pronouncements.

I am also left wondering as to the specific purpose of the Declaration. Is it a political manifesto, an ethical treatise, a call to Christian unity on certain issues, a call to civil disobedience, a line in the sand?

The drafters/signers claim that they “sign as individuals, not on behalf of our organizations, but speaking to and from our communities.” I’m not quite sure what that means. They “call upon people of goodwill, believers and non-believers alike.” They speak of “our fellow citizens, including some Christians.” So along with the lack of specific purpose, it seems to lack a specific target audience. This makes it appear overall to be not much more than an opinion piece.

The Preamble contains, as my friend noted, “distorted revisionist history.” Its rewriting of history is almost shameful. How can we “claim the heritage” of some Christians while ignoring “the heritage” of others? How can we commend “Christians who combated the evil of slavery” while ignoring the fact that it was practiced and justified among Christians from medieval days right up into the 19th century?

It is almost laughable to say that “Christians challenged the divine claims of kings” while ignoring the fact that other Christians used “biblical” arguments to enforce those rights. And how can we as evangelicals claim credit for the civil rights’ crusades of the 50s and 60s when (white) evangelicals in the South fought them tooth-and-nail, while evangelicals in the North turned our backs?

And what about other areas of church history that have been completely ignored? -- the inquisition? The bloody wars of the Reformation?

The Preamble starts the Declaration off on a triumphalist note. I believe it would have been better to have begun with a confession than what almost reads like a boast. It is not enough to speak of “the imperfections and shortcomings of Christian institutions and communities in all ages”; I believe we should recognize and confess them as sins.

As I read the section on Life, I find myself in essential agreement on the ethical issues addressed. Yet, I find the directions it takes rather disturbing. Why is the focus narrowed to abortion? Did the “license to kill” really begin “with the abandonment of the unborn to abortion”? Abortion is horrible, but we could make a pretty good case that the “license to kill” is programmed into our (sinful) nature. Remember Cain? What about America’s murderous history and her bloody wars of extermination of native peoples?

Though in the last paragraphs the issues are expanded to include global concerns, such as genocide, sexual trafficking and other related matters, there still seems to be an effort to link these to abortion.

Similarly, while I agree with most of the arguments in the long section on Marriage, why is the issue of homosexual marriage singled out for such fears?

Also, I am troubled by what appears to me to be a not-so-subtle hidden agenda: the overemphasis on reproduction. In contending against “same-sex and polyamorous relationships,” the claims are made that marriage “includes bodily unity of the sort that unites husband and wife biologically as a reproductive unit,” that “the spouses become one flesh … by fulfilling together the behavioral conditions of procreation,” etc. etc. Uni and I are in our 70s. Did our one-flesh relationship cease when we ceased being a “reproductive unit”?

This is one area where, I believe, the Evangelical signers have conceded too much to their Roman Catholic counterparts. Sexual morality, in or out of marriage is not based, and should not be based on how it contributes to procreation.

I am in essential agreement with the arguments of Religious Liberty. It is “grounded in the character … of the God who is most fully known in the life and work of Jesus Christ.” Every believer in Jesus Christ is free, no matter what his/her external circumstances. Our religious liberties as guaranteed in the U. S. Constitution are not, however, the same as our rights as believers in Christ. The fact that sometimes these rights have been taken away is well illustrated in the Declaration, though I do not share the signers’ fears concerning proposed hate crime laws.

The call to civil disobedience is commendable, though again, it is narrowed down to certain areas concerning abortion and related issues and homosexual marriage.
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Some final thoughts.

First, despite claims to the contrary on the website, it seems to be as much a political statement as a religious/ethical one. The criticism of “the present administration,” “the President,” “many in Congress” makes that clear, as well as the fact it selects to primarily address the issues of abortion and homosexuality while giving only token attention to others. What about war? Poverty? The environment? The integrity, sexual and otherwise of our Christian and political leaders? If we make a declaration on only certain moral issues, we tip our hand and show that our political position has influenced our choices.

Secondly, and perhaps this should be first, what about the Gospel? The signers claim to be from three very different backgrounds. We are told that “Christians today are called to proclaim the Gospel of costly grace,” we aren’t told exactly what that Gospel is. There are great differences between the three groups as to what the nature of the Gospel is. When we gloss over these differences, we are in danger of compromise, by basing our Christianity on a moral code rather than on the finished work of Christ appropriated by faith alone.

Bill Ball
12/3/2009

2 comments:

John Kulp said...

Manhattan Declaration Comments.

I began this response to your comments by composing a 6 page treatise on the declaration. I abandoned that after concluding that the core issue was the separation of church and state. I re-wrote a two page treatise on my view that the price of the freedom of Christians from government coercion to do or not do something which violates our conscience, is the willingness to allow that freedom to others. This morning after watching the Today show, I abandoned that also.

This morning on the today show a family was featured who had adopted 9 children and clearly, by their comments, raised them in a Christ centered home. The father had died, but the faith of the family in the work and power of Christ remained strong. Another guest was the young woman who had been kidnapped by an escaped murderer and talked him into surrendering as they discussed their past family roots in Christian homes. She spoke openly about her changed life after that event by faith in Jesus Christ.

As I basked in the joy of the message of the gospel going out on a widely watched network program, a sad comparison came to my mind. These simple uneducated believers displayed something to the world. They displayed love, the declaration displays righteous indignation. They displayed joy in the face of trials, the declaration displays anxiety over the current political administration. They displayed peace, the declaration displays fear of government action against Christians.

These simple believers showed a total focus on the light of the gospel of Jesus Christ. The declaration is whitewashed with references to love for sinners, but it is at heart a dark document focused on the evils of homosexuality and abortion. The core message of the declaration is not celebration and joy in the power of an omnipotant God who holds thefuture in his hands. It is instead a message of fear of a rising darkness in the secular world.

A wise friend once told me that there are two kinds of Christians; “prodicals” who fall on their knees and pray “God be merciful to me, a sinner”, and “pharisees” who stand tall and pray “God, thank you that I am better than those evil and sinful people who don't understand your law as I do”.

Bill Ball said...

Amen!