On Singing O Holy Night In White Evangelical Churches

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One of my favorite Christmas songs is O Holy Night. The music carries you from quiet meditation to a rousing conclusion, and the lyrics are not the stuff of ordinary Christmas carols. I’m always especially struck by these lines:

Truly He taught us to love one another;
His law is love and His gospel is peace.
Chains shall He break for the slave is our brother;
And in His name all oppression shall cease.

If Wikipedia and the image above are to be believed, the music was created in 1847 by the French composer Adolphe Adam. The lyrics originate from the French poet Placide Cappeau that same year. But his lyrics are not the ones we sing.

In 1855, the American Unitarian and transcendentalist John Sullivan Dwight translated and reworked Cappeau’s text into the English form we sing today. Dwight was unorthodox in his theology (Unitarians do not believe in the Trinity) and radical in his politics.

Dwight was an associationist, a radical reformer who sought to construct a form of Christian socialism in the United States. In an 1849 manifesto of principles, Dwight declared, “We are disposed to take the name of socialist for better or for worse, and challenge all the world to prove that there can be a better Christian…than is the genuine socialist who feels and understands his reconciling mission.”

He continued, “Our watchword is the peaceful transformation of the subversive, false societies of competition into the co-operative society of unity and harmony under God’s perfect code of love.” In the emerging tenets of Christian socialism, Dwight foresaw “a science which shall reconcile all interests, all parties, do away all terrors, and effect a peaceful transition out of these ages of industrial competition, with its attendant train of poverty, ignorance, crime, war, slavery, and disease, into an age of universal co-operation, union, competence, refinement, peace, and Perfect Liberty with Perfect Order.”

Grand ambitions indeed. When the Civil War came, Dwight was a staunch supporter of the Union cause. He hated slavery. During the war he wrote a song for the soldiers of his alma mater that included these lines of anti-slavery patriotism:

As the war transformed from a limited conflict to restore the union to a revolutionary attack on slavery, the United States had become, in Dwight’s eyes, “now a Country grand enough to die for!”

What had been prophesied in the Christmas song nearly 20 years before was now coming to pass: “Chains shall He break, for the slave is our brother.”

Dwight’s words in their context of the 1840s, 1850s, and 1860s were irrevocably radical, unavoidably political. They were words to cause offense and inspire hope, words to cut and wound, words to which one could not help but have a strong reaction. They were words of heresy or of utopianism.

Some 170 years later, I stood in the sanctuary of a white evangelical church on a Sunday morning in December. As Ferguson smoldered, the quiet opening strains of O Holy Night washed over the worshipers. As the song built to its emotional center, people around me raised their hands and closed their eyes in praise. We sang:

Truly He taught us to love one another;
His law is love and His gospel is peace.
Chains shall He break for the slave is our brother;
And in His name all oppression shall cease.

Anger welled up in my spirit and I thought of the words of the prophets: “These people honor me with their lips, but their hearts are far from me.” I didn’t know who had written O Holy Night, or when, but I knew something was wrong with us singing it.

When we sang these lines without knowing the context of their creation, the messy politics of the lyrics became little more than spiritual allegory. When Dwight wrote these words, they were earthy and practical, carrying in them a hard to miss call to repentance. The unavoidable implication was that thousands of white evangelicals in the south were oppressors. God was going to strike them down.

But in our mouths the lines took on the uncomfortable aspect of bystanders. Our privileged and removed position rendered the perspective of the songwriter in a new light. Now it was not in solidarity that we sang; it was as spectators. The people singing are not enslaved or oppressed; they stand off at a distance, claiming to be brother to the oppressed.

When we sang it that December morning in the shadow of Ferguson, I knew all too well that many of us could sing those words precisely because they meant so little. I knew that oppression was of little concern to some of those around me. I knew at first hand how cold and hard of heart some of these worshipers were toward the descendants of the enslaved.

O Holy Night was sung in churches all over the country this morning, the brother slave an allegory signifying almost nothing. If we sung a Christmas song this morning that was true to Dwight’s ethos, how many worshipers would have walked out?

“Chains shall he break, for the immigrant is our brother.”

“Chains shall he break, for the gay man is our brother.”

“Chains shall be break, for black lives matter activists are our brothers.”

O Holy Night is a wonderful song. But do you really want to sing it?

Thoughts for Sunday: The Radical Politics of Christmas

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Growing up, I was taught to read the Bible literally and take the plain meaning of a text at face value if possible. But I don’t believe this is the approach we took to Mary’s Song:

And Mary said,

“My soul magnifies the Lord,
    and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior,
for he has looked with favor on the lowliness of his servant.
    Surely, from now on all generations will call me blessed;
for the Mighty One has done great things for me,
    and holy is his name.
His mercy is for those who fear him
    from generation to generation.
He has shown strength with his arm;
    he has scattered the proud in the thoughts of their hearts.
He has brought down the powerful from their thrones,
    and lifted up the lowly;
he has filled the hungry with good things,
    and sent the rich away empty.
He has helped his servant Israel,
    in remembrance of his mercy,
according to the promise he made to our ancestors,
    to Abraham and to his descendants forever.”

Luke 1.46-55

Impeachment Is Obviously Right. How Do We Live With That Knowledge?

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On a historic day like this, it is all too easy for us to take refuge in moral sanctimony (“Can you believe how awful the other side is?”) or moral relativism (“Whose to say what is right on something as messy and partisan as impeachment? Let’s just agree to disagree”).

In reality, impeachment is a moral question, and defending Trump is an immoral answer to it. (Yes, I hear myself. I know I’m socially located and all the rest of it, but this is not a close call. Sorry!)

But we must not suppose that the lesson to take from this is one of Republican perfidy and Democratic virtue. On the contrary, the sobering truth is that we rarely do the right thing simply because it is right.

We are experts in aligning our perception of what is moral with our self-interest. When the two of them come into unavoidable conflict, it is self-interest that wins the day most of the time. Some people do escape this trap. We tend to remember them as saints and sages.

It is self-serving and unrealistic to suppose that the moral clarity of the event tells us a great deal about the moral stature of its participants. Republicans face the difficult choice of doing the right thing or protecting their self-interest. In choosing self-interest, they are merely doing what most of us do in most such situations. Democrats are in the much more enviable (and unusual) position of alignment between truth and partisan interest. We should not be sanguine about how they would behave if the shoe were on the other foot.

So today, I don’t want to deaden my conscience with the pretense that both sides in the impeachment struggle have equal moral claims. That’s an absurd proposition. It’s alluring because it allows us to better get along with others and think well of them. But it’s a cheap shortcut. The real challenge is to be openhearted and generous and kind without searing our conscience in the process. Trying to downplay the evils of Trump’s hatred against women, his cruelty and racism, might make some of your social circles more peaceful. But at what cost?

Neither do I want to reach for the self-righteous escape hatch. I recognize Republicans’ hypocrisy and self-interest precisely because I’m so experienced in my practice of these character flaws. Rather than assuming the moral clarity of this moment tells me something profound about the moral fiber of Trump supporters, I want to implicate myself in their unjust behavior.

Thoughts for Sunday

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The father of the prodigal son gives himself totally to the joy that his returning son brings him. I have to learn from that. I have to learn to “steal” all the real joy there is to steal and lift it up for others to see…

This is a real discipline. It requires choosing for the light even when there is much darkness to frighten me, choosing for life even when the forces of death are so visible, and choosing for the truth even when I am surrounded with lies. I am tempted to be so impressed by the obvious sadness of the human condition that I no longer claim the joy manifesting itself in many small but very real ways. The reward of choosing joy is joy itself. Living among people with mental disabilities has convinced me of that. There is so much rejection, pain, and woundedness among us, but once you choose to claim the joy hidden in the midst of all suffering, life becomes celebration. Joy never denies the sadness, but transforms it to a fertile soil for more joy.

Surely I will be called naive, unrealistic, and sentimental, and I will be accused of ignoring the “real” problems, the structural evils that underlies much of human misery. But God rejoices when one repentant sinner returns…

For me it is amazing to experience daily the radical difference between cynicism and joy. Cynics seek darkness wherever they go. They point always to approaching dangers, impure motives, and hidden schemes. They call trust naive, care romantic, and forgiveness sentimental. They sneer at enthusiasm, ridicule spiritual fervor, and despise charismatic behavior. They consider themselves realists who see reality for what it truly is and who are not deceived by “escapist emotions.” But in belittling God’s joy, their darkness only calls forth more darkness.

People who have come to know the joy of God do not deny the darkness, but they choose not live in it. They claim that the light that shines in the darkness can be trusted more than the darkness itself and that a little bit of light can dispel a lot of darkness…

Henri Nouwen, The Return of the Prodigal Son

Thoughts for Sunday

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Rembrandt, The Return of the Prodigal Son.

At issue here is the question: ‘To whom do I belong? To God or to the world?’ Many of my daily preoccupations suggest that I belong more to the world than to God. A little criticism makes me angry, and a little rejection makes me depressed. A little praise raises my spirits and a little success excites me. It takes very little to raise me up or thrust me down. Often I am like a small boat on the ocean, completely at the mercy of its waves. All the time and energy I spend in keeping some kind of balance and preventing myself from being tipped over and drowning shows that my life is mostly a struggle for survival: not a holy struggle, but an anxious struggle resulting from the mistaken idea that it is the world that defines me…

‘Addiction’ might be the best word to explain the lostness that so deeply permeates contemporary society. Our addictions make us cling to what the world proclaims as the keys to self-fulfillment: accumulation of wealth and power, attainment of status and admiration; lavish consumption of food and drink, and sexual gratification without distinguishing between lust and love. These addictions create expectations that cannot but fail to satisfy our deepest needs. As long as we live within the world’s delusions, our addictions condemn us to futile quests in the ‘distant’ country,’ leaving us to face an endless series of disillusionments while our sense of self remains unfulfilled. In these days of increasing addictions, we have wandered far away from our Father’s home. The addicted life can aptly be designated a life lived in ‘a distant country.’ It is from there that our cry for deliverance rises up.

Henri Nouwen, The Return of the Prodigal Son

Thoughts for Sunday

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I’ve been slowly reading some of the church fathers in recent months. I come out of an evangelical tradition that had little use for the historic church. It has been fascinating and enriching for me to discover these ancients texts beyond the Bible. Here are a few lines from Augustine’s Confessions:

Who will enable me to find rest in you? Who will grant me that you come to my heart and intoxicate it, so that I forget my evils and embrace my one and only good, yourself? …

The house of my soul is too small for you to come to it. May it be enlarged by you. It is in ruins; restore it. In your eyes it has offensive features. I admit it; I know it; but who will clean it up? Or to whom shall I cry other than you?

What’s A Pro-Life Democrat To Do?

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I’m a pro-life Democrat. You wouldn’t know it from the positions of party leaders, but there are millions of us. Joe Biden’s reversal on the Hyde Amendment last week signaled that, whoever wins the party nomination, millions of pro-life Democrats are unlikely to have their views represented in 2020. Indeed, activists appear to want to drive pro-life Democrats out of the party entirely.

What in the world is a pro-life Democrat to do? I second what John Fea said a couple months ago in a post about Jimmy Carter’s brand of pro-life politics: “I think there are a lot of pro-life Democrats out there who would agree with Carter, but they do not make their voices heard for several reasons:”

1. They do not want to be ostracized by the Democratic Party.

2. They are afraid that if they defend the unborn they will be accused of not caring about women’s rights.  (This, I believe, is a false dichotomy).

3. They do not want to be associated with the divisive and unhelpful “baby-killing” culture war rhetoric of the Right.

4. They do not endorse the Christian Right/GOP playbook that teaches the only way to reduce abortions is to overturn Roe. v. Wade.

I think this is exactly right. To put it simply, let’s unpack the phrase, pro-life Democrat. I’m pro-life because I’m a Christian and cannot be otherwise. I’m a pro-life Democrat because I don’t believe patriarchy and free market radicalism have anything to do with protecting life; indeed, they are inimical to it.

I can’t make common cause with the right-wing anti-abortion movement. It is thoroughly embedded in the broader activist right, which tends toward dishonesty, racism, and sexism. The imperatives of capitalist extremism govern their activism, so that policies that would reduce abortions are not pursued simply because such policies would upset wealthy people.

But before I become too critical of right-wing activists for letting capital dictate the extent of their efforts against abortion, I can, as a pro-life Democrat, ponder my own similar position and my own complicity. Do I not speak up for fear of causing a break with Democratic activists with whom I otherwise agree? Do I fail to speak with appropriate moral conviction for fear of electoral or social consequences?

I do not believe the right-wing anti-abortion movement is promoting a helpful pro-life agenda, nor do I think overturning Roe v. Wade will usher in the utopia they imagine. But my alienation from the most viable and visible pro-life movement does not free me to sit on my hands. In fact, it adds to my responsibility to act creatively to protect life outside those right-wing channels.

I don’t pretend to know at this point what that should look like. I am already trying to pursue a lifestyle that I believe aligns with a Christian ethic of life, but I do not intend to trumpet those personal choices here. In this case I’m thinking more of public advocacy and financial support. What organizations are worthy of our money, our voices, our retweets? Yeah, I said it, retweets matter!

If any readers have given significant attention to these things or are already supporting an organization that you recommend, I’d like to hear about it. I’d like to put my money where my mouth is. Given the data we have on why women choose abortion, it seems intuitively obvious to me that we can significantly reduce abortions simply by empowering poor women. Imagine that.

Previewing My Summer of Learning about Early Christianity

On a bit of a whim I’m hoping to delve into the history of early Christianity this summer. In recent years I’ve become increasingly interested in learning about my faith beyond the fundamentalist roots in which I grew up. In the old days, learning about social contexts, historical developments, and critical scholarship on the Bible would have been scary. In more recent times it’s not only fascinating to me, it’s devotional. God is unlikely to be particularly impressed by my knowledge, nor shaken by my doubts. So it’s fun to learn more.

The following list reflects what happened to be on Temple’s shelves on the last day before Paley Library’s permanent closing. So this is not a recommended way to build a reading list. But I’m going to start with this:

It’s pitched as an accessible book for students and laypeople, which is probably exactly what I need to orient myself to the historical context and the field.

This one looks like a fun follow-up:

I’m also kind of excited about this comparative collection surveying the rise of Christianity and Buddhism, respectively:

I imagine these two books will speak to each other:

And then there’s kind of a grab bag of random stuff:

Wealth and Poverty in Early Christianity
Image result for The Last Pagan Emperor: Julian the Apostate and the War against Christianity
Being Christian in Vandal Africa by Robin Whelan

If all goes well, I’ll know a lot more about Christianity by the end of the summer! And I figure previewing my study marginally raises the chances that I’ll actually follow through.

A Review of Jemar Tisby’s The Color of Compromise

In a note to the reader at the beginning of his monumental study of Reconstruction, W.E.B. Du Bois announced, “I am going to tell this story as though Negroes were ordinary human beings, realizing that this attitude will from the first seriously curtail my audience.” Du Bois frankly announced that he was “not trying to convince” the white supremacist majority. He understood that he had to assume certain truths so he could get on with the business of useful scholarship. Americans who didn’t already know the self-evident truth of black equality needed more help than Du Bois could give them.

There is an echo of this sensibility in the beginning of Jemar Tisby’s new book, The Color of Compromise: The Truth about the American Church’s Complicity in Racism. As a prominent black voice in the small world of evangelical racial justice discussions, Tisby has become well-acquainted with a committed cadre of racist evangelicals who loudly attack Christians who dare to oppose racism. So in his introduction he anticipates the critics who will dismiss him as “liberal” or “Marxist,” or accuse him of “abandoning the Gospel.” After naming these criticisms, Tisby turns to his real audience, the people who are willing to be persuaded, and says, “After reading just a few chapters, these arguments will sound familiar. These arguments have been used throughout the American church’s history to deny or defend racism.”

Tisby is not DuBois, and it’s not 1935, but it still takes a certain fortitude to put this book out with the knowledge that it will be systematically misrepresented, its author slandered and maligned. So Tisby knows his audience. And he wants to try to reach people who are open to learning. Those acting in bad faith, he implies, are just another sad example of the centuries-long history he’s tracing.

Now, what of the book itself? It is a 400-year survey of American Christianity’s complicity in racism. Along the way, Tisby tries to keep several key themes in view: the worst abuses of American racial systems have been enabled by Christian complicity; it didn’t have to be this way (history is contingent); and racism adapts over time.

Tisby understands something that many academic scholars struggle to practice: the public is actually eager to engage history, but people want to learn from the past more than they want to learn about the past. This can make us uncomfortable because it is a presentist and morally-charged posture toward history. Still, we need to try to engage the public on precisely this level.

That’s what Tisby does. In the chapter on “Making Race in Colonial America,” Tisby writes, “Through a series of immoral choices, the foundations were laid for race-based stratification. Yet if people made deliberate decisions to enact inequality, it is possible that a series of better decisions could begin to change this reality.” As historical analysis, historians might shrug at this (or even wince!). But as popular history told with moral urgency, this is pitch perfect.

A 400-year survey in a slim volume like this is an ambitious task—probably too ambitious. Tisby seems most at home in the civil rights era, where the argument is clear, the anecdotes well-chosen, and the complicity of the church horrifyingly apparent.

At other points, the link between the historical events being traced and the complicity of the church in racism becomes tenuous. At times, such complicity is asserted more than it is shown. In some cases, Tisby makes powerful use of the testimony of black Christians to drive home his points (Olaudah Equiano’s autobiography is quoted to good effect), but other anecdotes feel like a lost opportunity. We learn, for example, what Ida B. Wells thought of the 1893 Columbian Exposition in Chicago, but not of her scorching criticisms of D.L. Moody’s compromises with white supremacy.

In parts of the narrative I wished for less historical survey and more complicity. It is doubtful that any reader approached the book expecting to learn that dysentery was the leading disease killer of civil war soldiers, or that the New Deal created the Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation. These digressions did not shed light on Christian complicity.

None of these critiques should overshadow the broader achievement: the ordinary Christians to whom Tisby is writing are likely to find much in this book that they’ve never heard before. More importantly, they are likely to be disturbed and inspired.

Tisby concludes the book with a series of recommendations to take action against racism now. It’s a helpful set of suggestions running the spectrum from mundane actions that ordinary people can take to mass movements that, right now, seem impossible. But the urgency of the moment and the scale of the problem require us to imagine beyond what seems possible.

I was most struck by Tisby’s call for “ecclesiastical reparations.” This is not a reprise of the 1969 Black Manifesto. He intends to enlighten rather than shame, and he comes across as an activist-thinker with earnest suggestions rather than all-or-nothing demands. He writes, “Churches could lead society by independently declaring a literal or figurative ‘year of Jubilee’ for black people. They could pool resources to fund a massive debt forgiveness plan for black families. Or they could invest large amounts into trust funds for black youth…”

The simple logic and justice of proposals like these can at once inspire action and serve as an indictment of the church. Why indictment? Because most white Christians would probably leave their churches before they give their money to such a productive and just cause. And so the work of undoing the church’s complicity in racism continues.

It took many decades for Du Bois’s achievements to be truly recognized. Let’s hope evangelicals don’t wait so long to admit that Tisby was right.

How Can Trump’s Presidency Cause A Crisis of Faith?

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Is it possible for Christianity to be true if it doesn’t appear to have any significant effect on most Christians? Evangelical Christianity, in particular, makes rather grandiose claims about what happens to people when Jesus saves them. They are fundamentally transformed and given new lives. The love of God spills over, from the inside out, to every dimension of their being. They are not only given a new relationship with God and a subjective consciousness of the nearness of his love, they are empowered by the Holy Spirit to make practical changes in their lives leading to ethical improvement and concern for others.

In the Trump era, this looks an awful lot like fake news.

In recent years it’s been like one punch in the gut after another as people who seem to be sincere followers of Jesus reveal themselves as followers of Trump. Before it happened, I never would have dreamed that they were capable of this kind of behavior. At my most cynical, I couldn’t imagine it. But then it happened.

I don’t think I’m wrong to be bothered by this. It is reasonable for me to be saddened and angry. The betrayal I feel is real; there’s no sense denying the potency of these feelings. And I have to admit that all of this has made it much harder to be a Christian. If my faith says Jesus changes people but my eyes say he doesn’t, what am I supposed to think? I know I’m not alone in feeling this.

If you feel this too, I encourage you to take it seriously. Don’t tell yourself you’re wrong for feeling it. Do the work you need to do to make your way through it. Find support and fellowship if possible. What follows below is my story and my processing of it. It may be very different from yours. If it resonates with you, wonderful. But I hope you won’t use it to diminish what you’re feeling or to think that you should just “get over it.”

For me, there is something deeply provincial, even narcissistic, about my faith being upset by Trumpist Christians. Christians enslaving and commodifying people didn’t give me a crisis of faith. Christians conquering a whole hemisphere and slaughtering people in the name of Christ didn’t give me a crisis of faith. Christians colonizing the whole globe in pursuit of power and wealth didn’t give me a crisis of faith. Christians supporting the Holocaust didn’t give me a crisis of faith. Christians opposing the civil rights movement didn’t give me a crisis of faith (ok, well, maybe a little since I study it so much).

But now Christians support the latest American President and my foundations are shaken. Obviously this final act is real to me in a way the others are not. The immediacy of experience and emotion and relationships in a given time and place is part of what makes us human. We are here, not there, we are of this time, not another. We feel it more. This is inevitable.

But a Trump-induced crisis of faith is not inevitable. It shows how invested I have been in ideas and hopes far beyond what Jesus has promised. If you just read the gospels, I’m not sure you would expect there to be many Christians. And I’m not sure you’d expect many of the people who are Christians to actually give a whit about following Jesus. I mean, these passages are not exactly thrilling:

Enter by the narrow gate. For the gate is wide and the way is easy that leads to destruction, and those who enter by it are many. For the gate is narrow and the way is hard that leads to life, and those who find it are few.

If anyone would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross and follow me. For whoever would save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for my sake will find it.

Not everyone who says to me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ will enter the kingdom of heaven, but the one who does the will of my Father who is in heaven. On that day many will say to me, ‘Lord, Lord, did we not prophesy in your name, and cast out demons in your name, and do many mighty works in your name?’ And then will I declare to them, ‘I never knew you; depart from me, you workers of lawlessness.’

The kingdom of heaven may be compared to a man who sowed good seed in his field, but while his men were sleeping, his enemy came and sowed weeds among the wheat and went away. So when the plants came up and bore grain, then the weeds appeared also. And the servants of the master of the house came and said to him, ‘Master, did you not sow good seed in your field? How then does it have weeds?’ He said to them, ‘An enemy has done this.’ So the servants said to him, ‘Then do you want us to go and gather them?’ But he said, ‘No, lest in gathering the weeds you root up the wheat along with them. Let both grow together until the harvest, and at harvest time I will tell the reapers, ‘Gather the weeds first and bind them in bundles to be burned, but gather the wheat into my barn.’

The message of Jesus is counterintuitive and humbling. It is upsetting to people who are moralistic, wealthy, or successful. It is upsetting to people who want to live comfortably. That most people would not want to follow Jesus is about the least surprising news in the world.

So why would I be so disillusioned by Christian followers of Trump? My disillusionment reveals that I have been invested in narratives of Christian progress and evangelical truth.

I have assumed, often subconsciously, that contemporary Christians are more apt to get things right than Christians in the past. We’ve learned from the past, I often thought, and have stripped away many of the cultural blinders that so clearly got in the way of prior generations of Christians. I have assumed that our generation is the tip of the spear in a long forward-moving story of Christian progress. Maybe, instead, we’re just another iteration of the usual reality: selfishness the norm, faithful following of Jesus the exception.

And for all my quarrels with evangelicalism, I have continued to believe in its truth. I have thought of it as the most potent and “correct” form of Christianity. These are my people. In other words, it is not that big a deal if those Christians over there go off the deep end. What could we really expect of those [liberals, Catholics, etc., etc.,] anyway? But evangelicals—my people, bearers of truth—can’t go wrong.

My hopes have been built not only on the life of Jesus. I have also erected an elaborate and far more unstable scaffolding of cultural Christianity dependent on illusions of progress and evangelical innocence. This has come crashing down.

Ironically, this brings to my mind a very evangelical hymn. It has a line that goes like this: “My hope is built on nothing less than Jesus’ blood and righteousness. I dare not trust the sweetest frame, but wholly lean on Jesus’ name.” I thought I could rely on evangelicalism. I thought I could trust in the things I had been taught and the people who taught me. It turns out I couldn’t. But what I really want to say, to myself and to everyone who shares the ache of disillusionment, is that Jesus himself does not disappoint.