Introductory Column

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Author Ray Roberts

This is an inaugural column that I hope will become a regular feature in Justice Unbound. I have decided, with good input from Chris Iosso, to call this column Redeeming Realism. The purpose of this column is to engage in theological reflection in support of faithful participation in God’s world. While I expect that I will share my opinions about particular issues, the central purpose of this column will be to reflect on current events and thinking in light of the riches of the larger Christian tradition of faithful witness and engagement.

I don’t expect readers to agree with me. Indeed, I anticipate that at some point I will have to muster the courage to admit that I have been magnificently wrong about something major. In addition, I am persuaded that while the call to follow Jesus Christ is singular, God is able to redeem the different ways we respond to God’s call.

Some hear a call to stand outside of institutions and clearly witness against sinful aspects of the culture. I stand with those inclined to hear a call to work within institutions to transform sinful aspects of the culture. Both can be faithful responses to Christ’s call to repent for God’s reign is near. In God’s providence both modes of witness may be of use. Hopefully, readers will contribute their differing perspectives to Unbound as well. This column will have done enough if it sparks a vigorous Christian conversation about important issues.

A word about the title I’ve given this column: Redeeming Realism.

One way to understand the title is to view “redeeming” as an adjective that describes the noun “realism.” Viewed this way “Redeeming Realism” gives a nod to 20th Century Christian Realism and to Political Realism. Alongside 20th Century Christian Realism and with the Realist School of political thought, I accept the necessity of organizing and exercising power (including force) in human social, political, and economic life. However, I also acknowledge that the dynamics of self and group interests contend with one another in ways that are often oppressive and that do not always admit to easy resolution.

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From the vantage of our time and place, we see that 20th Century Christian Realism was a creature of its time; largely the product of educated white males, it reflected their blindness to structural oppression of many sorts.
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Stephen Walt, a Political Realist, says that “realism tries to explain world politics as they really are, rather than describe how they ought to be.”

In response to this, and with many 20th Century Christian Realists, I must insist that the disclosure of God in Jesus Christ does give us a vision of what “ought to be.” God’s eye is on the sparrow. Jesus identifies with “the least of these.” Followers of Jesus Christ can never be content with suffering and injustice, real as they are.

Yet, I acknowledge that policy recommendation must be rooted in a sense of politics as “they really are.” The scriptural witness gives us a sense of the glory from which the world and we have fallen. It helps us spot the clinging human sinfulness that corrupts all human life, even our noblest efforts to change the world. While upholding the value of prophetic dissatisfaction with the world’s injustice and violence, that sense of human sin cautions me against optimism that sinners can fully realize the ideals of Jesus in history. And certainly millions feel the effects of sin more acutely than I.

Yet empathy does not push me to despair, or self-protective cynicism. Hope in God the Redeemer has sustained believers in the face of massive evil, setbacks, and failure, and I join myself to that tradition. Just as the cross reminds us of the human capacity for evil, the resurrection reminds us that God has overturned the miscarriage of justice that nailed him to a Roman cross, ratified his way of love, and defeated the powers of sin, evil, and death. I hope for my redemption and the redemption of this world.

This brings me to a second way to read the title of this column, wherein “Redeeming” is viewed not as an adjective, but a verb. You see, 20th Century Christian realism also needs redeeming. They knew this and did not for a moment believe they were exempt from the sinfulness common to the human condition. From the vantage of our time and place, we see that 20th Century Christian Realism was a creature of its time; largely the product of educated white males, it reflected their blindness to structural oppression of many sorts.

Inspired by their example, yet aware of their failures (and my own), I hope this column will extend and develop a way of thinking Christianly about the world.

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Author Bio: The Rev. Dr. Raymond Roberts is pastor of River Road Presbyterian Church in Richmond, VA. He attended Columbia Theological Seminary and received a Ph.D. in History and Theology from Union Theological Seminary. A former member and co-chair of ACSWP, Ray is also an active member of the Society of Christian Ethics.

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