Irenic, Inclusive, and Incarnational Theology
A Feature Review of
The Church of Us vs. Them:
Freedom from a Faith That Feeds on Making Enemies
Reviewed by Leroy Seat
that introduce this book!
Seminary professor and pastor David Fitch is the author of several books, including The End of Evangelicalism? Discerning a New Faithfulness for Mission (2011). An ordained pastor with the Christian Missionary Alliance, Fitch is currently the Betty R. Lindner Chair of Evangelical Theology at Northern Seminary in Chicago. In addition, he was the founding pastor of Life on the Vine Christian Community and is presently one of the co-pastors at Peace of Christ Church (both churches in the suburbs of Chicago).
As has been widely recognized—and aggravated as well as criticized by both the secular and religious news media—a “culture war” has raged in the U.S. between the conservatives and the liberals, the Right and the Left, for more than three decades now. In Christian circles, that culture war has been supported by fundamentalists or conservative evangelicals on one side and a wide array of “moderates” or “liberals” on the other side. Both camps have seen the conflict as a struggle between “us” (the correct/righteous ones) and “them” (the wrong/ungodly ones).
Even though Fitch is clearly on the evangelical side of the spectrum, the side that has, arguably, been the more “militant” in provoking the cultural/religious “war” in recent decades, his book is remarkably irenic and offers many thought-provoking suggestions on the way Christians can move, together, beyond the either/or, us/them stance that has produced so much ill will and animosity on various levels.
This reviewer has written books on both Christian fundamentalism and Christian liberalism and has called for the formation of a “radiant center” between fundamentalism on the right and extreme liberalism on the left. What author Fitch presents throughout this book positively promotes the kind of radiant center envisioned.
Fitch begins his book with the words, “We’re living in angry times.” That is one reason the label “cultural war” has been aptly used. People are angry for various reasons—and often blame those with views differing from their own as the reason they have for being angry. Unfortunately, many people in the Church are angry also, and that anger often extends to Christians who have a different view on various matters related to the faith—or to the faith’s relation to various social/ethical issues. People on both “sides” (the Right and the Left) are caught up in that mutual antagonism—and that is the type of us vs. them mentality that Fitch seeks to overcome.
He writes in the Introduction: “I aim to push us to go beyond this space of antagonism to a space I’d like to describe as ‘beyond enemies’” (10). The underlying reason for his pushing in that direction is that of helping the Church fulfill its mission, which is “to bring the gospel of Christ’s kingdom to our culture” (13).
After writing more about “the strife among us” in the first chapter, “The Enemy-Making Machine” is the title of the second chapter. Here Fitch introduces the role of banners in the development of the enemy-making machine. When what begins as a statement of distinctiveness becomes a banner, it usually becomes something that distinguishes “us” from “them” and that, consequently, becomes the basis for varying degrees of antipathy. That is the way “banners create enemies” (33).
In the third chapter Fitch writes about one of the most prominent banners of the past few decades, one that has caused considerable strife among Christians. He calls it “the banner of the ‘inerrant Bible.’” By constant use of that banner, the Bible itself has become “a tool of the enemy-making machine,” as it is used “to shape the church into a place of us vs. them” (56, 57). Countering that incorrect use of the Bible, in the next chapter Fitch emphasizes the Bible as the record of “God’s grand drama.” In that great drama, he asserts, “us vs. them is overcome. No more racism, misogyny, patriarchy, economic oppression” (77).
Fitch goes on in the next chapter to describe, and denounce, other enemy-making banners, such as the “decision for Christ” banner or the “anti-LGBT” banner. And then in the seventh chapter he writes about the banner of “Christian nation.” He contends that “millions of Christians have been convinced to vote for candidates and work for organizations advocating the return of the United States to its roots as a Christian nation” (p. 128). This leads to what seems to be a rhetorical question: “But was the evangelical banner of the Christian nation ultimately what lay beneath the ‘Make America Great Again’ banner?” (134).
In the eighth chapter, Fitch declares “the local church is my politics.” Indeed, it is there he finds “the space beyond enemies” (p. 141). In that connection he admirably refers to the exemplary work of Clarence Jordan and John Perkins and cites Mennonite scholar John Howard Yoder.
In “Appendix 1” Fitch gives a pregnant discussion sub-titled, “Rudiments of a Political Theology of Presence.” There he briefly describes missiologist Paul Hiebert’s concept of ‘bounded set’ and ‘centered set,’ a significant viewpoint first made public more than forty years ago but one which probably has not been adequately considered by either missionaries or local church pastors.
Despite some minor disagreements—such as Fitch apparently seeing moral equivalence between Jerry Falwell and Jim Wallis” (see pages 131-132)—this reviewer found Fitch’s book to be the type of irenic, inclusive, and incarnational theology that is badly needed and distinctly helpful in this age of widespread polarization.
Fitch apparently wrote his book for a broad Christian readership, perhaps thinking about the people in the churches, past and present, he has served as pastor. At the same time, in the nearly twenty pages of endnotes, he introduces writers, terms, and scholarly discussions that clearly show his academic side as a seminary professor. (Although this reviewer’s career was teaching theology and writing scholarly essays/books, he was happy to learn for the first time about the Slovenian philosopher and cultural theorist Slavoj Žižek.)
This book certainly needs to be widely read and put into practice in local churches and in denominational circles—both by conservative evangelicals who tend to demonize “liberals” as well as by those in the liberal camp who tend to denigrate “fundamentalists.”
C. Christopher Smith is the founding editor of The Englewood Review of Books. He is also author of a number of books, including most recently How the Body of Christ Talks: Recovering the Practice of Conversation in the Church (Brazos Press, 2019). Connect with him online at: C-Christopher-Smith.com