A Manifesto from Manhattan for urban faithWith the Manhattan Declaration, a who’s who of evangelical leaders take a stand on the non-negotiables of Christian discipleship in the 21st century. But will its message reach the ones who need to hear it most?

On November 20, over 140 Christian ministry and lay leaders (the number is now at 180) signed off on a document they labeled The Manhattan Declaration, so named because the meetings leading up to the unveiling of the document happened in Manhattan. The document is designed to affirm belief in, and demonstrate a commitment to act in defense of, certain key principles of Christian discipleship as identified by the signers. Whether we agree or disagree with the document, its existence does call us to consider: our own stance on the declaration issues; the role of public, joint statements of faith and action; and the real and perceived effects of documents like this.

The Manhattan Declaration has an impressive list of signatories, including Chuck Colson, Dr. Richard Land, Kay Arthur, Jim Daly, Dinesh D’Souza, Dr. Michael Easley, and Dr. Ron Sider. Some commentators have noted the absence of other notable personalities on the list, for example Sojourner’s Jim Wallis, and CBN’s Pat Robertson, but I’m not sure that type of analysis is helpful. We don’t really know why certain people did not sign, and what does it really add to the discussion to speculate? The larger and more noteworthy point is that those who did sign represent a coalition that cuts across traditional ecclesiastical lines; there are evangelicals, Catholics, Baptists, Presbyterians, Episcopalians, and Anglicans. This bold show of unity speaks volumes about progress being made in the body of Christ, and in and of itself is an effective witness to the world.

The Declaration is a lengthy 4,700 words but worth the time to carefully read through it. It focuses on three principles: 1) the sanctity of life; 2) the sanctity and character of marriage; and 3) religious liberty.

I am perhaps most impressed by the comprehensive life ethic espoused, which incorporates not only traditional pro-life concerns like abortion, embryonic stem cell research, and euthanasia, but also addresses racism, discrimination, and poverty. Moreover, they have not limited their concern to people of this country, but have explicitly mentioned abuses occurring against citizens of other nations. Many of the leading signatories have in the past been strongly criticized for their apparent lack of concern and attention to these types of social justice issues, so they should be applauded for their willingness to embrace more of the gospel’s tenets that speak to these matters. Not only are their words beautifully written, but I believe they will profoundly touch the hearts of African American and other minority Christians for their acknowledgment of wrongs perpetrated based on “race” and other vulnerabilities:

A truly prophetic Christian witness will insistently call on those who have been entrusted with temporal power to fulfill the first responsibility of government: to protect the weak and vulnerable against violent attack, and to do so with no favoritism, partiality, or discrimination. … Our concern is not confined to our own nation. Around the globe, we are witnessing cases of genocide and ‘ethnic cleansing’, the failure to assist those who are suffering as innocent victims of war, the neglect and abuse of children, the exploitation of vulnerable laborers, the sexual trafficking of girls and young women, the abandonment of the aged, racial oppression and discrimination…We see these travesties as flowing from the same loss of the sense of the dignity of the human person and the sanctity of human life that drives the abortion industry and the movements for assisted suicide, euthanasia, and human cloning for biomedical research. And so ours is, as it must be, a truly consistent ethic of love and life for all humans in all circumstances.

When I read these words, I must ask myself: Do I actively believe this? Do I believe it with my life or just my head? Am I faithfully and consistently living a life that shows my concern for people outside my immediate circle of identification? Do I ever give a thought to oppressed workers or victims of war? Or am I so caught up in our self-declared “culture war” that all other causes for alarm are pushed to the back of the priority bus?

A Christianity Today article on the Declaration asks, “What Does the Manhattan Declaration Really Mean?” Good question. The tone and content of the Declaration make clear that the drafters are speaking not only to general citizens and other Christians, but to government leaders as well. Will an outward-speaking statement really affect politicians and other public figures? Or is it a more realistic goal to simply let the Declaration serve as a rallying cry to other Christians, as the Declaration’s subtitle suggests, “a call to conscience”? Yes and yes.

President Obama has shown himself to be a leader acutely interested in, and in many cases responsive to, the opinions, positions, and desires of his constituency. In fact, transparency and a willingness to actively engage the citizenry on issues of public policy has in large measure defined his presidency thus far. So if there ever was a time when Christians have a legitimate shot at influencing governance, now is that time. What better season than now to take a stand regarding critical issues facing the current administration? Furthermore, if Mr. Obama is, as he has at times professed, a Christian, then this Declaration is not only addressed to him as the country’s leader, but it is also his conscience to whom the call is issued.

It’s true that, in some respect, the Declaration might be limited in its effect because of its concentrated scope, but if we evaluate it on the principles which it does address, it is a fine summary of those issues. Most importantly, it clings faithfully to the letter and spirit of the biblical text in a loving and compassionate tone that evidences thoughtful reflection. This is no mere lip service tome. The words of commitment are strong and unequivocal. Hearkening back to forefathers of our faith, the signers conclude the Declaration with these words:

Unjust laws degrade human beings. Inasmuch as they can claim no authority beyond sheer human will, they lack any power to bind in conscience. [Martin Luther] King’s willingness to go to jail, rather than comply with legal injustice, was exemplary and inspiring.

Because we honor justice and the common good, we will not comply with any edict that purports to compel our institutions to participate in abortions, embryo-destructive research, assisted suicide and euthanasia, or any other anti-life act; nor will we bend to any rule purporting to force us to bless immoral sexual partnerships, treat them as marriages or the equivalent, or refrain from proclaiming the truth, as we know it, about morality and immorality and marriage and the family. We will fully and ungrudgingly render to Caesar what is Caesar’s. But under no circumstances will we render to Caesar what is God’s.

Time will tell how willing and able the signers prove to be to stand behind their words, but I for one am just as concerned about myself as I am about them. I’m checking my ability to first stand against the injustice I might be perpetuating against others, and I’m reading my own “rubber-meets-the-road” meter.

Will I have what it takes when the stakes get really high and everything is on the line? I pray that I will, and that my brothers and sisters in Christ who have taken this very public stand might be strengthened to walk faithfully this line they’ve drawn in the sand.

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