Here in this final post, I want to reflect back on Envision 08 by looking at (1) the learning tracks, (2) what was missing from this conference, and (3) the conference’s historical significance.
1. The Learning Tracks
Perhaps the most innovative feature of Envision was the learning tracks. Instead of workshops or break-out sessions, each attendee chose a learning track to attend throughout the entire conference. The learning tracks met twice on Monday and twice on Tuesday, each time right after the plenary sessions. These groups then get to know each other in an intimate classroom-like environment. Scholars or activists in a particular field lead these groups. The goal is to foster critical and insightful dialogue that builds off of the plenaries, offers concrete applications, and anticipates future developments in the arena of Christianity and political engagement.
While the tracks themselves are a brilliant idea, the conference leaders are also to be commended for organizing a broad spectrum of learning tracks. The topics included consumerism (with Ron Sider), religious pluralism (with Miroslav Volf), evangelism (with Vincent Bacote), and the one I chose, on evangelicalism and empire (with Bruce Benson and Christian Collins-Winn). Some were quite creative and even groundbreaking: reconciliation in the Holy Land (Andy Saperstein), human trafficking as slavery (Kathy Maskell), and good news for the First Nations and Native American peoples (Terry LeBlanc). A couple other learning tracks were unnecessary, including one called “On-Ramps to the Highway of Christian Activism” and another on “shalom theology.” The former was too general to have any real purpose, and the latter was a rather annoying demonstration of the influence of Lisa Sharon Harper, who is one of Envision’s organizers. A “shalom theology” may be worthwhile, but certainly not at the expense of other issues that are more important (e.g., HIV/AIDS, post-colonial Africa, the emerging church, the church in the Global South, Christianity and Islam, etc.). Sadly, David Gushee’s learning track on “Peace in a World of Perpetual War” was cancelled for some reason. I had originally signed up for this track.
I heard some complaints about the lack of practical solutions to the problems that were presented, but overall people seemed to like how these groups were set up. My group, on evangelicals and empire, was a very good learning track, put together because of a volume titled Evangelicals and Empire, edited by Bruce Benson and Peter Heltzel. (I saw the proofs for the book at the conference, and it looks like a spectular volume.)
2. What Was Missing
While no conference can address everything about a topic, there were certain issues regarding the gospel and politics that should have been addressed. Without question, the most important topic that received almost no discussion at all was that of war and peace, or militarism and pacifism. Certainly, people brought up their opposition to the war in Iraq and war in general, but there was no focused discussion of peace in the plenaries. After Gushee’s group was cancelled, the issue was absent from the learning tracks as well. This was a massive oversight in the conference. For starters, the issue of war and peace is perhaps the most basic and foundational topic in politics. Any dialogue about how the gospel and politics interrelate has to address Christianity’s relationship with violence. Moreover, since the conference focused so much attention on “shalom theology,” it is rather ironic that almost nothing was said about peace! Instead of Obery Hendricks and/or Lisa Sharon Harper, the organizers of the conference should have asked Glen Stassen to speak about the politics of Jesus. Or, if not Stassen, then Willard Swartley should have come to speak about the politics of the New Testament. Swartley has recently released a groundbreaking book on the NT witness to peace entitled, Covenant of Peace.
While Stassen is a Baptist, Swartley is a Mennonite, a group that did not receive a fair hearing at the conference. And this raises two issues: first, the question about which Christian groups were present and which were excluded, and second, the tension between Anabaptist and Constantinian ecclesiologies that I brought up in my reviews of the conference. Regarding the first issue, Envision was marked by the absence of Roman Catholic and Eastern Orthodox Christians, in addition to Anabaptist/Mennonite voices. The conference was a decidedly Protestant gathering—or, rather, a mainline and evangelical Protestant gathering—and that’s a huge limitation for a group trying to be ecumenical and multicultural. Christians from almost every ethnic/racial group were represented, but not Christians from the largest branches of the global church. Why not? The Catholic emphasis on social justice is arguably one of their great legacies in the 20th century. And the Quaker witness against slavery and war is perhaps second to none. The emphasis on American evangelicalism was good, but a bit one-sided, and most likely a reflection of who was organizing the conference.
Regarding the second issue, the lack of representation for Anabaptists resulted in an overall failure to address the question about whether Christians can and/or should serve in positions of power. All too often people spoke as if the state government is responsible for bringing about the kingdom of God, or at least as if Christians need to focus their energies on making the nation as Christian as possible. Anabaptists focus the attention on the church itself. Instead of making the nation Christian, they seek to make the church Christian. Envision 08, however, was so interested in exploring how to transform the world that it failed to acknowledge and address the views of Anabaptists who fundamentally reject this impulse. While I am glad space was given to people like Shane Claiborne alongside Rich Cizik, I am convinced that the church will not be able to move forward properly until we examine the relationship between Christianity and state/secular power.
Other topics were missing as well, besides that of war and peace. There was no discussion of “missional theology,” despite the fact that it addresses many of the issues of evangelism, culture, and the relation between the gospel and society. There was also no presentation on a theology of God’s reign or God’s kingdom, despite the fact that almost every single person talked at length about the kingdom of God. But what does this term mean? What does Scripture mean by the kingdom, and what is the kingdom’s relationship with the church? Is the church identifiable with God’s reign, and if not, then what is the role of the church in relation to this eschatological reign? While torture was mentioned by certain people in passing, the issue of human rights was also not addressed. In a future conference, I would like to see David Gushee give one of the plenaries with a panel of human rights advocates and scholars responding to his talk. On a final note, I really wanted to hear from Jay Bakker, leader of Revolution Church NYC, who was scheduled to be a panelist for Harper’s plenary. Apparently, he couldn’t make it for some reason, but I hope he will be there at the next Envision.
3. Envision’s Significance and Future
For all its flaws, Envision 08 was a significant event, and it marks an interesting moment in the history of evangelicals in the United States. We often hear from political pundits that evangelicals are starting to branch out beyond the Religious Right. This movement away from the traditional evangelical issues was embodied in this conference. We saw vanguard leaders within the RR (Rich Cizik and Rev. Harry Jackson, Jr.) speak on stage side-by-side with people like Randall Balmer, Brian McLaren, Shane Claiborne, and others. The significance of that is hard to overstate. Sure, the dialogue between these people was very limited, but the historical importance of the event remains. In the future, I expect there will only be more interaction between these parties, as the RR dies and evangelicals begin to think about their relation to politics in altogether new ways.
The next Envision will be held in 2010. I imagine we’ll see many of these same people back again. While I applaud the attempt to be as broad, ecumenical, and multicultural as possible, there is much more work to be done. I already mentioned groups that need to be represented in larger numbers. Here I want to mention something more important: how those of us not in these groups should speak so that we make such people feel welcome, rather than excluded. The leadership of Envision 08 was focused in a few areas: InterVarsity, New York Theological Seminary, and New York Faith and Justice. While I am glad these groups (and some others) partnered together to make the conference happen, at times it felt like the people on stage were speaking to themselves or to their own group of friends. The InterVarsity influence was especially strong: in addition to Harper, Jeannette Yep spoke about her experience with InterVarsity on the opening night and the worship band members came from the Urbana conference. But it’s not so much where people come from as how people speak. If the leaders of Envision really want the mainline people to feel welcome, they need to employ gender neutral language, especially when speaking about God. Throughout the conference, you could tell who was “evangelical” and who was “mainline” by whether or not they used a masculine pronoun in reference to God. Evangelicals certainly do not care if others do not use such language, but a number of mainline/liberal Christians will most definitely care about it. The evangelicals need to be more sensitive to this issue. Unfortunately, I don’t think it crossed any of their minds. We have an obligation to demonstrate hospitality to all groups, perhaps centrally through our language. I would like to see this issue addressed in the future.
Finally, I am very thankful for having attended this event. I am critical only because I want to see Envision be as fruitful as possible. There is much to gain from dialoging with others about how the gospel shapes our politics. Since this was the first conference of its kind, I expect only greater things the second time around. I eagerly look forward to 2010!