Prayers and Petitions: A Personal Response to the Manhattan Declaration

If you are anything at all like me, you are not naturally predisposed to be “a joiner.” I am actually tempted to run the other way when I see well-meaning activists with clipboards canvassing Ninth Street downtown. Sadly, I tend toward cynicism, and thus almost always wonder what the real, lasting and meaningful effect of signing anything will be. Yes, I want to believe that those who hold power in our culture would actually listen to the voice of the people, and yet my first inclination is not to emulate Nehemiah by praying to God for a favorable response from the king (and then immediately going ahead, full-throttle, with “the big ask”).

Nehemiah 2:1-5 (ESV, added emphasis mine)
In the month of Nisan, in the twentieth year of King Artaxerxes, when wine was before him, I took up the wine and gave it to the king. Now I had not been sad in his presence. And the king said to me, “Why is your face sad, seeing you are not sick? This is nothing but sadness of the heart.” Then I was very much afraid. I said to the king, “Let the king live forever! Why should not my face be sad, when the city, the place of my fathers’ graves, lies in ruins, and its gates have been destroyed by fire?” Then the king said to me, “What are you requesting?” So I prayed to the God of heaven. And I said to the king, “If it pleases the king, and if your servant has found favor in your sight, that you send me to Judah, to the city of my fathers’ graves, that I may rebuild it.

Growing up in an American Baptist church, one of the single-most effective means by which I was turned off to Christianity altogether was by being exposed to the intramural rivalries between differing denominations: “Yeah…we don’t really like that church all that much…they don’t use a pipe organ when worshipping the Lord.” I’m exaggerating (slightly) to make my point, but we all know that you don’t have to look too hard to find congregations splitting over these kinds of secondary issues and church traditions. Conversely, one of the things I find most encouraging is when churches and Christian leaders set aside their ecclesiastical differences to join together in defense of the less fortunate and/or to affirm the basic tenets of the Christian faith. Here in Columbia, for example, believers can be enormously encouraged to see how many churches have banded together to support Love INC and thereby introduce some efficiencies in the distribution of funds and material goods to those who truly need them.

On a national scale, then, I am very encouraged by the Sept. 2009 Manhattan Declaration, originally drafted by Robert George, Timothy George and Chuck Colson. I first became aware of this document while listening to a Ravi Zacharias podcast; I was actually quite surprised to hear Dr. Zacharias endorse this document as a signatory, since this type of “advocacy” is almost completely alien to his ministry. So the mere mention of it on Ravi’s weekly show caught my attention, and the fact that so many other Christian leaders that I admire have added their names to the List of Religious Leaders Signatories forces us to take this document very seriously. Bryan Chapell, Jim Daly, Tim Keller, Erwin Lutzer, Chuck Swindoll…these were the names that jumped out at me, a veritable “Who’s Who” of Christianity in 21st-century America.

When I actually read the declaration itself, I was pleased to find that it completely lacked the type of condemning language that has historically alienated so many others from taking a serious look at the Christian faith. Quite the opposite, in fact; the Declaration goes to great pains to demonstrate that we are all sinners in desperate need of an atoning Savior. The following sample is taken from the section on Marriage (added emphasis mine):

We acknowledge that there are those who are disposed towards homosexual and polyamorous conduct and relationships, just as there are those who are disposed towards other forms of immoral conduct. We have compassion for those so disposed; we respect them as human beings possessing profound, inherent, and equal dignity; and we pay tribute to the men and women who strive, often with little assistance, to resist the temptation to yield to desires that they, no less than we, regard as wayward. We stand with them, even when they falter. We, no less than they, are sinners who have fallen short of God’s intention for our lives. We, no less than they, are in constant need of God’s patience, love and forgiveness. We call on the entire Christian community to resist sexual immorality, and at the same time refrain from disdainful condemnation of those who yield to it. Our rejection of sin, though resolute, must never become the rejection of sinners.

If you have not done so already, I would like to strongly encourage you to read the Declaration in its entirety, remembering that this document was written by Christians crossing over many denominational lines. I found the document simultaneously challenging and edifying to my own faith, and well worth the time spent reflecting on its contents. Whether you decide to sign on to the Declaration is totally up to you and your own conscience; I’m not advocating one way or the other.

What I am saying (echoing Dr. Zacharias) is that I find it absolutely mind-blowing that our nation has descended to a level where it has become necessary to affirm everyone’s right to live, remind us of the sanctity of marriage (God’s invention, not mankind’s) and the importance of maintaining religious freedom for all. I guess I just naively assumed that these important, foundational precepts were protected in our Constitution. (“Caught me looking” on that one, I guess…)

I’m left to wonder if Chuck Colson and the rest of the religious leaders supporting the Manhattan Declaration are finding themselves, to some degree, in Nehemiah’s shoes. Looking around at their country, mourning the destruction of what used to be foundational truths upon which our country was built and determined to rebuild the values we have lost, they are asking all Christians to consider joining them. It’s not so different, is it? I mean, at this point, no one can say for sure what (if anything) the lasting impact of the Declaration will be, but then most of the great movements birthed by the agonized souls of other Christians had humble beginnings (and no clue where they might end up). William Wilberforce almost single-handedly brought about the end of the African slave trade and Martin Luther King Jr. fought against incredible odds to launch the Civil Rights movement in the United States. Significantly, neither of them had any reason to be impressed with the state of things when they started out.

Who’s to say that the Manhattan Declaration is not the start of a much-needed reversal of the American “culture of death” (Pope John Paul II)? Who’s to say that this does not represent the first step in what might be (dare I say the word) an American revival? I really don’t know, but I certainly admire these leaders for asking us to stand up for what we Christians say we believe in and suffer the consequences that faithfulness might require of us further on up the road.

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