When Christians talk about influencing culture, one of the time-proven proof texts is Matthew 5:13, in which Jesus said, “You are the salt of the earth.”

As salt penetrates food and flavors it, Christians engage society and influence its tenor, or so goes the traditional discussion within centrist Baptist and mainline Protestant circles.

Members of these kinds of churches prefer the biblical image of salt, and the theme of influence, instead of the biblical stories about military conquest and occupation that fundamentalists prefer. The former want to shape society; the latter want to have dominion over it. These two strategies for social change are at the heart of competing moral visions.

My Sunday school class this week heard the traditional Baptist note about shaping society in a lesson from Real Baptists, titled “Influencing Culture.”

Karen Zurheide, the lesson author and a Baptist Center for Ethics board member, wrote: “Salt penetrates and preserves food. A dash of salt can change the flavor of an entire meal. The image of salt suggests that a few Christians engaged in culture can influence the much larger society.”

Our class teacher reinforced Zurheide’s correct interpretation of Scripture with an analogy about salting eggs. He said that if the top of the salt shaker accidentally falls off into the cooking eggs, then the flavor of the eggs get dramatically changed.

After a brief chuckle, the class took a sharp turn when a member observed that as too much salt can mess up eggs, too much Christian involvement can mess up society. The class member sheepishly acknowledged that his observation probably didn’t fit the analogy for which the teacher hoped.

Nevertheless, the “too much salt” commentary set off another round of chuckles before the class settled down into a discussion about salt as a metaphor for Christian engagement in society. One member talked about cooking salts and a restaurateur noted the different types of salt, including salt at the bar.

The Immanuel Baptist Church class seemed to agree both that the amount of salt was critical to the wanted effect and that the type of salt was essential for the intended purpose.

Applying the analogy, is it possible that too much salt can damage the Christian efforts to influence society? Are different types of salts needed for different types of influence?

The answer is “yes” to both questions. Rather than a pinch of influence, overzealous Christians can choke a culture to death. An example of this is the religious right’s stranglehold on the Republican Party, a party that at one time adhered to some positive values, including a commitment to ecological conservation and fiscal responsibility.

Similarly, the wrong type of influence can damage the Christian witness. An example of this is rush of some Christians to validate all of the Democratic Party’s agenda, instead of selectively expressing support for specific initiatives.

Society needs the right amount and kind of influence from the Christian community.

Jesus told his followers that they were the salt of the world and left us to figure out how much and what type of salt to use.

Robert Parham is executive director of the Baptist Center for Ethics.

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