April 29, 2010
by Patrick Lafferty
Love is patient and kind.
1 Corinthians 13:4
James Davison Hunter is a sociologist at the University of Virginia whose most recent book, To Change the World, is causing quite a stir.
As an incisive observer of culture who happens to be a Christian, he has particular interest in how the church ought to be influential in the societies that surround it. Too often, he finds, Christians have reduced their responsibility of being salt and light in the world to obtaining and exercising influence through purely political channels. Problem is, efforts by Christians to effect policy have just as often run aground into morally dubious methods (One thinks of Cal Thomas’s lament of some Christians’ foray into the corridors of power in his book Blinded by the Light). More to Hunter’s point, focusing attention at the policy-making level is based, he argues, on a flawed premise that cultural change occurs through primarily political means.
Hunter theorizes that a tide turns in a society when networks of people situated in positions of institutional authority exercise principled influence. Cultures change when those in academia, business, scientific inquiry, medicine, law—to name just a few—don’t just fulfill their job descriptions, but align their work with human flourishing. That’s principled influence.
And what sort of principled influence does Hunter argue Christians must wield? Why, love that is patient and kind, of course, just as we heard unpacked last Sunday. Hunter calls it “faithful presence.” As Christ became fully present to our condition in the incarnation—fully aware of and concerned for our need—He engaged Himself fully in attending to our need. He became one of us, awakened us to our true condition, solved our greatest need in His death and resurrection, and left His Spirit with us to discover the fullness of the life He intends for us. He was faithfully present in His unparalleled expression of longsuffering kindness to us. As we recognize how much we are the beneficiaries of that kindness, the only logical response is to imitate such kindness, and, in turn, exercise faithful presence to others. We notice them, sit with them, take note of their need, marshal our resources, and do unto them what is good for them, as Jesus defines what is good and with the love He supplies; in other words, in Jesus’ name.
This sort of commitment has implications far beyond our interpersonal encounters with others. Hunter documents how it led automotive companies to formulate their core philosophy with the question “What do we owe our customers and employees?” It inspired art galleries to take their exhibits of what is true and beautiful into places mostly overlooked by the art world. The commitment to faithful presence moved music aficionados to provide an alternative to those art publications that tended to glorify what was degrading. In these and other varied industries, those with influence took the time to understand the needs of others and, as an expression of thanksgiving to the One who was faithfully present to them, went and did likewise.
Those small stories confirm that patient, kind love has implications for every domain of existence—including the boardrooms, the think tanks, and the strategy sessions of all movements and industries. Anyone with any influence in any industry ought to be asking the Lord how to manifest His patient and kind love in his or her sphere. The needs are too great and the Lord is all too willing to answer for us to reduce our work to just earning a paycheck or managing a business plan.
But what if you’re not in those higher echelons of cultural influence? Is the act of faithful presence reserved only for those who strategize and supervise, who purchase and manage vast resources? Consider one more of Hunter’s examples of faithful presence, “a woman who rang up and bagged groceries and whose sphere of influence was only six square feet”:
Every day she greeted her customers with genuine enthusiasm, remembering customers’ names and asking about their families. She would end every conversation by saying that she was going to pray for their family. Over time, this caused problems, for people wanted to get in her aisle, which resulted in larger lines. People would wait, though, because they enjoyed being with her, encouraged just by her presence. At her funeral, years after she retired, the church was packed to standing-room-only capacity, and she was eulogized again and again by people whom she had encouraged for years. (p. 269)
From conference rooms to cashier lines, love that is patient and kind plays everywhere. Because it is needed everywhere, and because the Lord Jesus means for it to go everywhere. Where does it need to go in your neck of the woods today?