Culture At Large

A call for cautious co-belligerence

Stephen Woodworth

“We are too busy withholding mercy from the living so that we might display a big spectacle of how much we want mercy to be shown to the unborn.”

With these words, Michelle Higgins sparked a controversy and drew national attention to a missions conference in St. Louis last week. Higgins, the director of Faith for Justice and an activist for the #BlackLivesMatter movement, shared her comments during this year’s Urbana Student Missions Conference. The gathering, primarily hosted by InterVarsity, has taken place every three years since 1946 and serves as a catalyst for thousands of missionaries around the globe.

Unfortunately, headlines for this year’s conference have been dominated more by debates rather than a celebration of new commitments to a life of service. While Sojourners referred to Higgins’ talk as “a watershed moment in American evangelicalism,” others accused her of “bash(ing) a social justice movement that aides her cause.” In response, InterVarsity issued a public statement in which they defended their decision to invite Higgins:

InterVarsity does not endorse everything attributed to #BlackLivesMatter. For instance, we reject any call to attack or dehumanize police. But — using the language of Francis Schaeffer and Chuck Colson — we are co-belligerents with a movement with which we sometimes disagree because we believe it is important to affirm that God created our Black brothers and sisters.

The key word here is “co-belligerents.” While it originated as a military term, it was made popular in Christian circles by Schaeffer, who offered it as an approach to cultural engagement. As a theological concept it has achieved various levels of acceptance by the church. In a recent article by Bethany Jenkins, co-belligerence is supported within the framework of common grace, by which God allows the sun to shine upon both the wicked and the righteous (Matt. 5:45). Jenkins writes, “Co-belligerence, then, is a way of working with others — even those with whom we radically disagree — against a common enemy. It allows otherwise questionable partnerships in order to further a particular social, political, economic or cultural cause for the common good and human flourishing.”

Co-belligerence is a helpful philosophy and a desperately needed one in our current cultural landscape, where Christians are divided over everything from gun control to refugees, from Islam to climate change. And yet it is not without potential pitfalls. In a thorough article for the Jubilee Centre, Daniel Strange cautions, “While co-belligerence may be a necessary activity in our current context, it is also an activity requiring constant care, attention and mature theological reflection from those involved.”

When Jesus sent His disciples among “the wolves,” He urged them to be shrewd as snakes and innocent as doves. This means that those calling for Christians to engage in co-belligerence need to regularly guard against the temptation of replacing their first allegiance with a secondary movement. While I agree that Kingdom values can be pursued with a plurality of like-minded partners, Christians must demonstrate a constant watchfulness to avoid a slow fade into theological ambiguity for the sake of pragmatic unity around a cause rather than Christ. So by all means, enlist as a co-belligerent, but just remember that the only reason that anything matters — be it black lives, the unborn or refugees from Syria — is that they matter, first and foremost, to Christ.

Topics: Culture At Large, Theology & The Church, Faith, Theology, The Church, News & Politics, Justice