It's one thing to discuss the differences between imposing and proposing in concept, but real-life examples may make the difference even more clear. The first such example that jumps immediately to my mind is William Wilberforce.
Wilberforce was the British member of Parliament in the late 18th and early 19th century who is best known for abolishing the slave trade, and later slavery itself, throughout the British empire. He joined Parliament as a young man, and his charisma and powerful rhetorical skills all but guaranteed him a long career of power, success, and self-indulgence. That all changed when God interfered, and Wilberforce committed his life to Jesus. Over the next few years his priorities and goals in life all radically shifted, and it is instructive to see how this career politician lived out his faith as a legislator. (A great brief summary of Wilberforce's life and what made him unique can be found here).
Two things stand out to me about Wilberforce's life. First, he was a passionately committed Christian. In today's parlance Wilberforce was a "conservative evangelical," and many of his opponents would label him with the modern-day term "fundamentalist." Wilberforce's book Real Christianity is a head-on, no-holds-barred assault on the shallow, meaningless Christianity of his day. He lambastes the the fact that almost all 19th century Englishmen called themselves Christians, but in truth they lived secular lives that were guided by secular goals. The book is incisive, biblically accurate, and intelligent, but it is not diplomatic or delicate - Wilberforce minces no words. If an American evangelical wrote that book today he would immediately be pilloried as a narrow-minded bigot. Of course Wilberforce was no bigot. He was simply a (very intelligent) man who had the audacity to believe that the Bible was actually true, and should actually inform our lives and our priorities. And that's the case he proposed to his countrymen.
Which leads me to the second thing about Wilberforce: his faith was not a segregated component of his life, it was the driving force behind everything he did. Wilberforce understood that Christianity is a worldview, and his commitment to Jesus formed the basis of his entire political career. In a 1787 journal entry Wilberforce famously wrote "God Almighty has set before me two great objects, the suppression of the Slave Trade and the Reformation of Manners [moral values]." Wilberforce sought not only to end slavery, but to re-awaken morality in a secular, decadent age. In other words, Wilberforce didn't just intend to end slavery by seizing political power and forcing an end to the slave trade by law (impose). Rather, he recognized that he needed to appeal to the conscience of his fellow countrymen - to persuade them of the evils of the trade, and make his case in their hearts, not just in Parliament (propose).
To this end, Wilberforce and his allies engaged in many public efforts outside the halls of government. They went directly to the British people through speeches and rallies, petition drives, books and pamphlets (one a first-hand account from a former slave). They initiated campaigns which thousands of people joined, such as a refusal to buy or use sugar from slave plantations. They enlisted the help of famous British artistic potter Josiah Wedgewood, who created a medallion that was one of the enduring images of the abolition movement (pictured right).
In all these efforts, Wilberforce and his friends were appealing to the hearts and minds of their fellow countrymen. They were proposing a much better way of life: a humanitarian, life-honoring, compassion-saturated, truth-dedicated way. And it worked.
Wilberforce began his political quest to abolish slavery in 1787, and his first official bill to abolish the slave trade was handily defeated. But on February 23 of 1807, after twenty years of work both inside and outside government, a bill abolishing the slave trade was passed by a whopping 283-16 vote. It was the death-knell of British slavery, and in 1833 (more than 45 years after his quest began) slavery itself was outlawed in the British Empire. Wilberforce died three days later.
In all of this, Wilberforce was a great proposer. He frequently took unpopular stands (even against his own party), and was routinely mocked by his opponents. If job-approval polling had existed back then he would have made the even the least popular American presidents look like rock stars in comparison. In fact his moral stands likely cost him a chance to become Prime Minister. Being a Proposer doesn't mean we're always trying to make the public happy. It often means just the opposite.
Wilberforce was after the truth, not just popularity or re-election. And over time, with perseverance, he was able to persuade the majority of his countrymen of the rightness and justice of his cause, and re-awaken their conscience.
So, my fellow Christians, what about us? How do we become Proposers today rather than merely Imposers? How do we advocate for a better way of life, rather than just try to get our way? On issues of great concern to evangelicals, such as the breakdown of traditional family structures, moral laxity, and other things we believe are hurting our nation: are we making that case? Are those who disagree with us hearing a well-reasoned, passionately-believed, and consistently-lived explanation of why we think what we think about poverty, the environment, abortion, marriage, national security, immigration, etc.? We generally know where we stand on these issues, but we may need to become better at making the case for those issues - making a great Proposal.
One thing this definitely implies is that we can't just sit in our churches and bemoan the sorry state of affairs, emerging only briefly to vote in a given election. We have to engage people, and not just in election years. We have to think carefully about how to make our case in this era where politics and religion are taboo subjects. These are not easy things to do. It wasn't easy to get the British to talk about slavery either, but thank God Wilberforce didn't let that stop him.
If you haven't yet seen the film Amazing Grace which chronicles the life of Wilberforce and his fight against the slave trade, I highly recommend it. It's a high quality and entertaining film, but it also effectively captures the faith and actions of this man who did so much to propose a better way of life based on God's truth... and succeeded like few others have.
With so many offices and issues on the electoral ballot this coming November, I’ve found myself thinking about the bigger picture lately. As I brace myself for the two major party conventions and the onslaught of political information and advertising that will drown us after Labor Day, I’ve been thinking about a much larger question: why are Christians involved politically? Or to put it another way, what exactly are we trying to do when we vote, campaign, call or write a congressman, or use our political voice in some other way?
I want to suggest that broadly speaking there are two very different ways that politics can be approached. And I submit that most people make one of these two assumptions whether they realize it or not. The first way is to Impose, while the second is to Propose (I’m borrowing the terminology from Chuck Colson, but what follows is pretty much my own thinking). I should also add that these assumptions apply equally to those within the Christian faith and those outside it, but consistent with the purpose of this blog I’ll focus on Christians.
Impose: using our voice to make things the way we think they ought to be.
This view sees politics as a debate over power: a gigantic dogfight over who will get the biggest slice of the public policy pie. And the winner is expected to use his bigger slice of power to further his agenda, running roughshod over the loser in the process. The impose view:
- Sees politics as a tool to shape culture
- Views politics as the primary battlefield. This is the feeling that “our guy won, so therefore we’re making progress!” A legislative win is a life win.
- Is what focused. This perspective rarely reaches beyond which candidates get elected, which laws get passed, and where the dollars are flowing.
Propose: using our voice to advocate for a better way of life.
This view sees political involvement as one of many facets of my life. Further, it recognizes that my entire life as a Christian (including politics) is a witness to the truth of Jesus and the reality of the Biblical worldview. In contrast to the impose view, the propose view:
- Recognizes that politics is downstream from culture. In a representative government like ours, public policy is a reflection of the attitudes and values of the citizenry, rather than the other way around. In other words, passing laws isn’t likely to change many people’s opinions.
- Guards against a “salvation through legislation” mentality. This view recognizes that there’s more to it than getting the right people elected or the right laws passed. The hearts and minds of people are in view.
- Is why focused. While not ignoring laws or candidates, in this perspective I stay focused on why people disagree with me. And I make it my aim to propose a better way of life than the one they’re convinced of.
The impose view seeks to defeat the opposition. The propose view seeks to convert them.
The impose view talks down to opponents. The propose view talks with them, and anyone who will listen.
The impose view gloats with victory. The propose view recognizes political wins as one piece of a much larger puzzle.
The impose view shouts and demeans opponents. The propose view learns how to make the case that its ideas are a better way to live: a great proposal.
Things are looking up!
First, Elizabeth and I headed for the mountains last Friday for some good daddy-daughter time. There are distinct advantages to owning a real 4x4 and living in Western Oregon at the same time, and the Tillamook State Forest is one of them! We drove the 40 or so miles to the Western end of the TSF and hit the offroad portion of our adventure: six miles of steep logging roads winding waaaaaay back up into the mountains to a remote trailhead. By the time you're 2 miles off the highway you've already climbed over 1,500 feet, and the views from these remote areas are stunning. Though my Scout is basically a stock vehicle with no hard-core off-roading modifications, it blasts up the steep, loose terrain like it's flat ground. International Harvester: 4x4 the way God intended! By the way, notice Elizabeth's hat which says "My Daddy Drives A Scout." But all this Scout love is distracting me from the story...
After the 6-mile offroad adventure we parked the Scout at the foot of the Cedar Butte trail (pic right is looking down on our ride from the beginning of the trail). Due to its remote location and inaccessibility to grocery-getter wheels, this trail isn't heavily used. It was a pretty narrow track in most places, was mildly overgrown (we never had trouble seeing the trail, but brush and wild flowers were thick) and it had several downed trees across it in numerous spots that we had to clamber over, under, or around. The trail itself is only 3/4 mile long but the Ranger District listed it as "difficult." Well, I'm here to tell you, it is in fact "difficult." Most of the relatively short distance is a very steep climb up the backside of the butte. We scrambled and slipped our way, getting much worse traction with our feet than the Scout got on its wheels. But when we finally made it, the view was breathtaking!
The Pacific Ocean is underneath all those clouds behind Elizabeth - unfortunately they were pretty thick down on the coastline so we never saw the water, which you can when it's clear. But where we were it was a perfect sunny and about 80 degrees with a light breeze.
Which leads me to the other cool thought for this post: just when you thought there couldn't possibly be any way Peet's Coffee could get better... they just installed free wireless internet at my local store! Are you kidding me!?!? I used to say half-jokingly that Peet's is my other office. Now I'm saying more seriously that my actual office is my other office - I'm moving in to Peet's permanently! I'm already on a first-name basis with half the baristas, and now I can get e-mail there too!
We managed to get back to the Scout without breaking any bones (going down was even more...adventurous, than going up) and then enjoyed the 6-mile trail ride back down to the highway. We finished off the afternoon with a stop at Peet's on the way home where two hot travellers imbibed a couple fruit tea coolers. It was a great day!
Yesterday one of the high school girls at the church heard me saying "I'm working at Peet's now," and she said "really, you work at Peet's? That's cool!" So I had to clarify for her: "Well, I work for Harvest, but I work at Peet's!"
*sighs contentedly* This has been a good week.