Footsteps to follow: Engaging with church and state

Let me introduce you to a funny little word that has had a big impact on me as a faith leader: “praxis.” I first learned about praxis from a book by Paolo Freire, a Brazilian educator who, among other things, was jailed for a short time for teaching common folks to read. Freire defines praxis as “theory+practice.” Simple enough, isn’t it?

The concept of praxis departs from much of education. Much of the time students receive information like passive storage units, and the most that students can hope is they will be able to regurgitate their learned information at the appropriate time. According to the praxis method, however, students engage with information. They turn it over in their minds and perhaps with their hands as well. Students should put the theory into practice immediately, preferably while they are in the process of learning. Theory+practice=praxis.

I can’t help but see the importance of praxis in this patriotic season of mid-summer. We recite the Pledge of Allegiance, quote the Founding Fathers and drape ourselves with red, white, and blue. Displays of patriotism are wonderful, and we even perform them at church functions. God bless the U.S.A.!

However, we must perform our patriotism as praxis. We must be able to define what the American dream is, understand how our civil institutions function, and then work our way through them. And don’t be afraid to change them along the way to the achievement of the American dream.

Does praxis still intimidate or fluster you? If so, go to a local church, and you will see praxis at work. When we worship, we often recite our core beliefs in creeds, songs, and prayers. We also put those beliefs into practice by our welcome, our collection of money for our ministries, and, if you come on the right day, our abundance of food at a pot-luck dinner. It’s praxis — theory+practice.

I think it’s only natural that we people of faith transfer our tradition of praxis to our civil institutions. Like church, American democracy works best when as many people as possible participate. Like church, American democracy requires more than just memorizing names, dates, and the lyrics of some songs. Like church, American democracy needs multiple generations to work together toward a goal which we do not expect to complete in our lifetime.

Then again, for all their similarities, church and American democracy also diverge in some crucial areas. Most important of all is that the church does not derive her authority from the consent of the governed but from the submission to an absolute authority. As Jesus Christ teaches, “A disciple is not above the teacher, nor a slave above the master; it is enough for the disciple to be like the teacher, and the slave like the master.” Christians submit to following Jesus’ commandments. Christians submit to the praxis of Christ.

Churches in America and American democracy have learned from each other and borrowed from each other over the years. I think that is a good thing. I think both church and democracy should be a bit messy. A good mess invites better theory and more robust practice. Theory+practice=praxis. An active American praxis is just what we need.

Hopkins is the reverend at Avis United Methodist Church