Saturday, January 09, 2010

Is the Manhattan Declaration a Kind of Church Covenant?

When I read the Manhattan Declaration, my first question was one of genre - what type of document is it?

I first thought of the Declaration of Independence and various declarations of war. The Declaration of Independence was a resolution of colonial citizens to separate from England by force. It enumerates various injustices of the king of Great Britain against the colonies. It concludes with a pledge "to each other our Lives, our Fortunes, and our sacred Honor." Similarly, the Manhattan Documents lists a series of offenses against Christian values by local and national government in the United States and frames its pledge in a similar way: "We pledge to each other, and to our fellow believers, that no power on earth, be it cultural or political, will intimidate us into silence or acquiescence." So, it could be that the Manhattan Declaration is a non-martial appeal to refound a Christian culture in America.

At the same time, the Manhattan Declaration bears certain similarities to a church covenant (see this helpful description at Wikipedia: Church covenant). A church covenant is a voluntary dedication of individuals to live with values aligned with the Gospel. In Jonathan Edwards's 1742 church covenant (see midway down the page, beginning with "COPY OF A COVENANT"), the congregation of Northampton confessed their sins and asked for God's grace to live a life in accordance with Christian values: "And because we are sensible that the keeping these solemn vows may hereafter, in many cases, be very contrary to our corrupt inclinations and carnal interests, we do now therefore appear before God to make a surrender of all to him, and to make a sacrifice of every carnal inclination and interest, to the great business of religion and the interest of our souls." While the Manhattan Declaration mainly stresses the evils of 'the culture of death,' it also includes the personal moral language of a church covenant. For example, "We confess with sadness that Christians and our institutions have too often scandalously failed to uphold the institution of marriage and to model for the world the true meaning of marriage. Insofar as we have too easily embraced the culture of divorce and remained silent about social practices that undermine the dignity of marriage we repent, and call upon all Christians to do the same." This passage clearly expresses the need of Christian individuals to call their human institutions (denominational bodies) to reform. The Declaration is also distinct from a church covenant in that church covenants are typically defined by membership in a particular congregation or denomination - whereas the Declaration is explicitly ecumenical in scope.

Below, I asked three questions:

  • what is Christianity?
  • what is charity?
  • how is culture generated?
It seems to me that the Manhattan Declaration conveys certain assumptions about the answers to these questions. A call for Christian unity in the public square ought to be clear on these issues. The Christianity described in the Declaration is that of a group which has promoted a renewed morality, which is persistently reforming human structures. The notion of charity is one which stems mainly from stewardship and duty to those with less. Although the Declaration clearly defines 'the culture of death', it is less clear on how to foster a cultural renewal. Culture is inherited to be sure, and a culture expresses specific values, but beyond that, it leaves open the question of cultural renewal. [my wife tells me that this paragraph is weak but I would really like to see some discussion particularly on these points].

The Manhattan Declaration frames itself as a call to Christian unity on moral issues. However, the unity it proposes is essentially an individualistic, congregationalist one. I praise it for promoting the common good, but believe that the unity and renewal needed must be more radical than a public resolution.
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