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.

A Sermon Suggestion for Tomorrow

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Michael Gerson has an idea for tomorrow morning’s sermon:

You know I don’t preach politics from this pulpit. There are many political and policy views among Christians, and many represented here in this sanctuary. But our faith involves a common belief with unavoidably public consequences: Christians are to love their neighbor, and everyone is their neighbor. All the appearances of difference — in race, ethnicity, nationality and accomplishment — are deceptive. The reality is unseen. God’s distribution of dignity is completely and radically equal. No one is worthless. No one is insignificant. No one should be reduced to the status of a thing. This is the changeless truth in our changing politics. You can argue about what constitutes effective criminal-justice policy — but, as a Christian, you cannot view and treat inmates like animals. You can disagree about the procedures by which our country takes in refugees — but you can’t demonize them for political gain. And you can argue about the proper shape of our immigration system — but you can’t support any policy that achieves its goal by purposely terrorizing children.

Those of you who are churchgoers, what do you think? Would this message be welcomed in your church?

I wonder if most Trump followers in the pews would be ok with this sermon because they would just say Trump isn’t actually doing any of these things. If people just sidestep this message, what’s a pastor to do? I don’t envy pastors in this time.

On Being Changed By The Other

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I’ve watched with some astonishment as people defend the separation of children from their families. I’m not talking about the people trying to shift blame or deflect attention. Those efforts to defend Trump are asinine, but they reveal people’s moral discomfort with the policy. There’s another set of more extreme arguments on my facebook feed: these parents are law breakers, they’re getting what they deserve, they’re bad parents.

When people make these arguments, my impulse is not to fire back with a counterargument. Instead I simply want to say, “What happened to you?” Or perhaps better, “What hasn’t happened to you?” Let me explain.

Entering deeply into the pain and experience of people who are not like us is among the most life-changing things that can happen to human beings. And when it happens, it doesn’t just change our understanding of that particular group of people. It colors our whole moral sense and the way we see people to whom we have no connection. It rocks us back on our heels, it disrupts our certainties. It moves us. Try as we might to get back to our comfortable starting place, the effect turns out to be enduring. We find ourselves permanently decentered. The needs and perspectives of others are not so easily dismissed.

I’m very worried that our churches are full of people who have never experienced this at all. This is what hasn’t happened to them. We are formed by media that teaches us to fear others, by a culture that tells us things are more important than people, by a church that preaches a narcissistic gospel.

We approach the other as a matter of Christian duty, with an episodic and paternalistic sense of free agency. I will be happy to help you. But I will not be changed by you.

I grant that this question of entering into the pain and experience of people unlike ourselves is not an all or nothing proposition. My failure to do this much more than I have is probably my greatest sin. And yet the hint of it that I’ve tasted is the most transforming thing I’ve known.

I’m concerned that many Christians have not even glimpsed this. Which, by the way, would be deeply ironic. The message of salvation we claim to believe in is all about this. Jesus entered into the pain and experience of human beings, emptying himself of that to which he was entitled. When Jesus does it, it’s more than an example. It’s salvific. We can’t do that. But it tells us something about the way God has ordered the world. The fact that rescues us is the same principle God uses to make us a little less monstrous and a little more caring. When we encounter the other in a deep way we become a little more like what we were meant to be.

In this age of Christian callousness, I sometimes fear that the old advice to “read your Bible and pray every day” has become an exercise in self-absorption. Without neglecting those spiritual disciplines, we must add to them an openness to seeing God in unexpected places, like in the faces of strangers.

Why Are White Evangelicals So Selfish?

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Migrants and their children. Also known as: someone else’s problem. (Carolyn Van Houten/The Washington Post)

There is a lot of evidence that white evangelicals are in some ways more selfish and callous toward others than are Americans who do not claim to be Christians. Surveys indicate that white evangelicals are more likely than religiously unaffiliated people to:

support torture of human beings

believe the United States does not have a responsibility to accept refugees

oppose interracial marriage

blame the poor for their poverty

be bothered by immigrants who do not speak English

think that discrimination against whites has become as big a problem as discrimination against blacks

support Donald Trump

believe African Americans do not face a lot of discrimination

In fact, white evangelicals are more likely to believe we face a lot of discrimination than to believe that African Americans do.

In the face of such data, white evangelicals of integrity have to ask themselves whether it would be better for everyone if the number of white evangelicals continues to decline.

Some people might be quick to point out that this data doesn’t tell us much about how white evangelicals behave in their personal lives. They might be very kind and generous to the people around them.

In a way, that’s precisely the point. What is it about white evangelicalism that has made its adherents support racism, hatred, and oppression in the public sphere while acting kindly in our private lives? (We appear to give more of our money away than religiously unaffiliated people, for example).

There is no excuse for this behavior, but it is possible to understand it. Why do you think white evangelicals are often so hateful and selfish?

I took a crack at this several months ago.

In my view there are four big temptations that fatally undermine white evangelicals’ posture toward our fellow human beings. In each temptation, an idea, institution, or thing is valued more highly than people. For Christians, such a devaluation of human beings is practically the very definition of sin. Here are the temptations:

1. Nation is more valuable than people

2. Whiteness is more valuable than people

3. Economic security is more valuable than people

4. Church is more valuable than people

That last one might be surprising but it’s important. I should write about all of these in the near future, but for now I’ll just say this: The through line in all of these temptations is an attenuated, unbiblical sense of public good and public responsibility. When white evangelicals call Jesus our “personal savior” it is more apt than we might realize. In much of white evangelical theology, Jesus has come to save us from private and personal sins—anger, lust, gossip, pride—while the world and its systems are passing away, going to hell in a handbasket.

The idea that he is making all things new gets lost in translation. The kingdom of God, if we even think about it at all, is an otherworldly place to which individuals will go in the future, rather than an expansive, growing force that reorders the here and now. This is exquisitely contradictory, as the black evangelical Bill Pannell has pointed out:

On one hand they want to say that this world is a sinking ship and want to do evangelism to get people off this “sinking ship” before it goes under, and on the other hand they are always voting conservative to maintain their property rights and the status quo. That’s the problem, that’s the contradiction. It is difficult to deal with but it is very real. I think it is a real challenge to the so-called Christian institutions.

The here and now is important enough to make sure we live in nice neighborhoods and send our kids to good schools, but not important enough to make public investments that might make all neighborhoods and schools better. But we’re not hoarding our resources. We’re merely enjoying God’s blessings, don’t you see? If white evangelicals were homeless itinerants calling people to repent, you could at least respect their radicalism. But when we invest in the status quo like we have no eternal hope it’s hard to take us seriously.

Trump Supporters Can’t Make Credible Moral Claims

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Michael Gerson is at it again:

At the Catholic Prayer Breakfast in Washington, House Speaker Paul D. Ryan said: “We see moral relativism becoming more and more pervasive in our culture. Identity politics and tribalism have grown on top of this.” Ryan went on to talk about Catholic social doctrine, with its emphasis on “solidarity” with the poor and weak, as “a perfect antidote to what ails our culture.”

There is a profound disconnect when a Trump supporter says “moral relativism” and imagines that people of goodwill can believe he is sincere. So Gerson goes in for the kill:

And how did Ryan address the issue of Trump’s habit of dehumanization at the Catholic Prayer Breakfast? By avoidance, under a thick layer of hypocrisy. The Wisconsin Republican complained that politicians are too often in “survival mode” — trying to “get through the day,” rather than reflecting on and applying Catholic social teaching.

Ryan was effectively criticizing the whole theory of his speakership. He has been in survival mode from the first day of Trump’s presidency, making the case that publicly burning bridges with the president would undermine the ability to pursue his vision of the common good (including tax reform and regulatory relief). This, while a weak argument, is at least a consistent one. But by making the Christian commitment to human dignity relative to other political aims, Ryan can no longer speak of “moral relativism” as the defining threat of our time.

It is instructive to think about what moral claim Ryan could have reasonably made. Is there anything he could have said that people of sincere Christian belief could take at face value? Is there any moral principle he could have laid claim to without it ringing hollow? I can’t think of one. I believe that Ryan is sincere in his Catholic faith. We’re all pretty good at living with contradiction. But I find it fascinating that Ryan doesn’t feel a profound sense of shame when he talks about morality in a public setting (or private for that matter). This is what supporting Trump does to you. You become a hypocrite simply by telling your kids to be honest and respectful.

Gerson continues:

My tradition of evangelical Protestantism is, if anything, even worse. According to a recent Pew Research Center poll, white evangelical Protestants are the least likely group in America to affirm an American responsibility to accept refugees. Evangelicals insist on the centrality and inerrancy of scripture and condemn society for refusing to follow biblical norms — and yet, when it comes to verse after verse requiring care for the stranger, they don’t merely ignore this mandate; they oppose it.

This represents the failure of Christian political leadership — not only from the speaker but from most other elected religious conservatives, too. Even more, it indicates the failure of the Christian church in the moral formation of its members, who remain largely untutored in the most important teachings of their own faith.

Christians who are following Trump (by that I mean they feel a strong sense of support and approval for him) are not following Jesus. To love the one is to hate the other. We shouldn’t shrink back from exposing their sin and calling them to repentance. Christians who say we need to work hard to maintain unity in the church in this divisive era are correct in a limited sense, but risk making a serious category error. Trump followers are not engaging in reasonable political behavior; they are separating themselves from Christianity and working to oppress their fellow Christians. It is hard to stay unified with people who do that.

 

Chosen Nation: A Conversation with Benjamin W. Goossen

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Benjamin W. Goossen is the author of Chosen Nation: Mennonites and Germany in A Global Era (Princeton, 2017). He is also the co-founder, along with Devin Manzullo-Thomas, of the Anabaptist Historians blog. In a recent email exchange, I asked Goossen a few questions about his excellent book.

What is the argument of Chosen Nation?

My book is an exploration of the relationship between Mennonites and German nationalism over the past two centuries. When members of the general public think about Mennonites, they probably think of two things right away: 1) Mennonites are German, and 2) Mennonites are pacifists. Chosen Nation describes how, in fact, neither of these assumptions is necessarily true. Prior to about 1850, few to no Mennonites worldwide thought of themselves as German (that’s a self-identity that came later), while since about 1990, most Mennonites worldwide are people of color. Perhaps even more surprising, by the end of the First World War, most Mennonites in Europe had given up pacifism, and during World War II, thousands fought for the Nazis.

I use these stories in Chosen Nation to make a larger point about the relationship between religion and nationalism. As a case study, Mennonite history demonstrates that religious and national identities are not necessarily distinct. Rather, they are often quite fluid and can even be swapped in and out with each other.

Why is it important for American Mennonites to read this book? 

Chosen Nation tells a story of Mennonites’ involvement with Nazism and the Holocaust that, until now, has not been widely known. At the height of the Second World War, about a fourth of the denomination lived in Hitler’s Third Reich, and Mennonites in Europe disproportionately benefited from racism and genocide. After the war, church organizations on both sides of the Atlantic helped to cover up that story, arguing that those Mennonites involved had been peaceful anti-fascists who suffered like Jews. It’s important that Mennonites talk about this history and think critically about how we as a peace church can and should respond.

More generally, I hope that Chosen Nation can help many people – Mennonites, but also others – recognize that many of the identities we inhabit have unexpected histories, and that often, the beliefs we hold are not as clear-cut as we might think. What does it mean to be an American or a Christian or a Mennonite or a pacifist? These are some of the questions that I hope readers will come away thinking about for themselves.

One of the really striking things about your book is the way you describe historical narratives (or myths) being constructed and contested in efforts to define who Mennonites were and where they belonged. It seems to me that in the act of describing and analyzing this, you are becoming a participant in it. Did you consciously set out to give Mennonites new usable pasts? Or is the sustenance religious communities want from historical memory hopelessly separated from what academic historians are prepared to provide?

Historians have for decades been uncovering how the stories that groups tell themselves about their pasts are frequently “invented traditions.” This doesn’t necessarily mean that such stories are fabrications (although some are), but more often that the way they’re told reveals a carefully curated process of selection, and that such tales are intended to advance certain political or ideological objectives. A classic example would be the mythology that we in the US have built up around the American Revolution and our “founding fathers.” Early colonists had many things on their minds – such as military expansion and slavery – but a lot of that gets lost in, say, stories about chopping down cherry trees, sewing the star-spangled banner, or sharing the first Thanksgiving.

My point is that the stories we as communities tell about the past – whether as Americans, Mennonites, or anyone else – are at once deeply political and also vitally important. Chosen Nation offers an account of Anabaptist history that is factually grounded in extensive archival research and through dialogue with previous historical scholarship. But to the extent that all historians must make choices about which stories they tell and what elements of those stories to emphasize, I have very intentionally tried to construct a history that pushes Mennonites to be the best church that we can be. We should be honest about the dark parts of our past, and we should constantly strive to recognize and alleviate injustice in the world around us. That’s a project shared by a great number of other historians of Christianity, including my wonderful fellow contributors at Anabaptist Historians.

Writing academically about a religious community to which you have a personal connection can be complicated, to say the least. How have you navigated that tension?

Being Mennonite is actually what got me interested in history. Many historians learn about their subjects through the research process, so in some ways I did it the other way around. Chosen Nation began as a way for me to learn about and think through some of the incongruities I felt between my religious tradition and my theological faith. For example: why did I grow up thinking about myself as a member of a persecuted minority when I am in fact a white Christian male – someone with about as much privilege as it is possible to get? Why did I grow up in an ethnically exclusionary community proud of being “German” when in church every Sunday I heard preaching about the value of humility and the universality of God’s love?

As a historian working within the broader social sciences, I’m lucky to be part of an academic tradition that has considered extensively how scholars can and should interact with the communities that they study. There are many schools of thought here, but I’d like to highlight a distinction made by Kim TallBear, a professor of Native Studies at the University of Alberta. Rather than “giving back” to the indigenous communities she writes about, TallBear prefers to think about her scholarship and advocacy as “standing with” those people. For me, similarly, the Mennonite church is not a separate entity, but a community with which I am entangled; our futures develop together.

How does your book help scholars of other religious and national communities to think more carefully about the intersection/fluidity of religious and national identities?

My hope is that other scholars who read Chosen Nation and who read it in light of their own research projects will come away with a desire to think about religion and nationalism together. Instead of separating them into distinct categories, it’s important to acknowledge that religious and national factors, strategies, and ways of being often influence each other. Too many scholars, not to mention members of the general public, still think about religious and national history as being separate from each other – but I don’t think it’s possible to tell the full story of, say, American Christianity without thinking long and hard about how that first part – “American” – is modifying “Christianity,” and vice versa.

The second idea is that the fundamental practices and beliefs espoused by religious and national communities can and frequently do change dramatically over time. I don’t think it makes sense to talk about “Mennonites” or “Germans” (or any other group, such as, say, “Buddhists” or “Brazilians”) as having stable, eternal essences or identities. It’s worth differentiating exactly what these labels mean to individual practitioners as well as how they develop in particular moments and spaces. At the same time, it’s important not to get lost in debates about tiny differences between branches of otherwise similar groups. We should keep in mind larger pictures of how group narratives and myths cohere. As often as not, disunity and discontinuity are in fact critical to how collective identities are both formed and articulated.

Thanks Dr. Goossen!

A Must-Read White Evangelical Self-Critique

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If white evangelicalism is ever to become a force for good in the world (you may disagree with the premise but I take it as axiomatic that it is not that now) it must confront its history and tell it anew. It must realize that the story of an evangelicalism that held fast to the faith while the modernists betrayed it is a self-serving myth.

In reality, the white evangelical mainstream in the 20th century was generally a heresy. Instead of carrying the undiluted good news faithfully through the choppy waters of modernity, it bowed down to the most insidious gods of the age—race, nationalism, materialism. White evangelicalism was often the opposite of good news. It was not, to put it in evangelical lingo, a saving faith. It was not news worth sharing.

As both a historian and an evangelical, I reject the idea that the bleak picture sketched above is the whole picture. There were moments of redemption, places of good news, people of noble faith. But when white evangelicals turn this happy story into the whole story they don’t just obscure the darker side, they actively reinforce the hubris of a religious community seeking to avoid repentance.

We won’t act righteously in the present without rebuilding our story from the ground up. The task at hand is not to hold true to the faith of our ancestors as much as to recognize and repent of the sins—their and ours—that have formed us.

At a recent meeting of evangelical leaders at Wheaton College, Dr. Mark Labberton, the President of Fuller Seminary, gave a speech showing what this can look like. The speech is remarkable for its honesty, moral clarity, and historical consciousness. There’s very little excuse-making here. Instead, in a spirit of humility, he reckons not only with what white evangelicalism has become, but with what it has long been:

This is not a recent crisis but a historic one.  We face a haunting specter with a shadow that reaches back further than the 2016 election—a history that helps define the depth of the sorrow, fear, anger, anxiety, and injustice around us. Today’s egregious collusion between evangelicals and worldly power is problematic enough: more painful and revealing is that such collusion has been our historic habit. Today’s collusion bears astonishing—and tragic—continuity with the past.

Right alongside the rich history of gospel faithfulness that evangelicalism has affirmed, there lies a destructive complicity with dominant cultural and racial power. Despite deep gospel confidence and rhetoric, evangelicalism has been long-wedded to a devastating social self-interest that defends the dominant culture over and against that of the gospel’s command to love the “other” as ourselves.  We are not naïve in our doctrine of sin that prefers self over all, but we have failed to recognize our own guilt in it.

Our professed trust in Jesus has not led evangelicals to die to ourselves, but often to justify our own self-assertion—even when that means complicity in the suffering and death of others. The scandal associated today with the evangelical gospel is not the scandal of the Cross of Christ, crucified for the salvation of the world.  Rather it is the scandal of our own arrogance, unconfessed before the Cross, revealing a hypocritical superiority that we dare to associate with the God who died to save the weak and the lost.

Labberton goes on to identify “the top four arenas in which this violation of spiritual and moral character has shown itself.” He names power, race, nationalism, and economics. Here he is on the question of race:

The Bible knows all people to be fully human, fearfully and wonderfully made in God’s image, knit together in our mother’s womb. All have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God, not just those who arrive as poor, hard-working immigrants fleeing violence or those wasting away in private prisons.  All are dead and in Christ made alive, and the evidence of the resurrection is that the peculiar body of God’s people, a new humanity of Jew and Greek, slave and free, male and female, are to be the evidence of a resurrected God. This is the glory of creation and new creation.

Those of us who are white evangelicals must acknowledge that our story is intertwined with, and often responsible for, much of the violence and oppression around racial injustice in our American story.  The stories of Native American, African American, Latino/a, or Asian peoples in the history of the United States cannot be told truthfully without naming the role of white evangelicals who testified to a God of redemption but whose theological, political, social, and economic choices contributed to suffering and injustice.  Stories of devastation are often absent from a happier white evangelical narrative of promised-land life, or buried in a sanitized story that claims that past injustice is not relevant for people of color today—despite the fact that nearly all people of color experience racism and its implications every day around the nation, including those in this room today.

This unreckoned-with reality of white evangelical racism permeates American life, and its tinderbox was lit on fire by the rhetoric of our national life in recent years—whether in reference to Ferguson, or Charlottesville, or “shithole countries” deemed without value. White history narrates the story of America’s heroes, and white evangelical history views those “good guys” as the providence of a good and faithful God.  When some white evangelicals triumphantly pronounce that we now have “the best president the religious right ever had,” the crisis it underscores to millions of people of color is not an indictment of our President as much as it is an indictment of white evangelicalism and a racist gospel.

Read the whole thing. Note the lack of defensiveness and simple honesty. Insofar as his views represent the kind of training seminary students are receiving at Fuller, will these future pastors be able to get jobs in the white evangelical mainstream? I don’t know, but it’s encouraging to see such careful Christian thinking from a white evangelical leader. If only the average white evangelical cared even a little bit about Christian thinking.

Martin Luther King 50 Years Later

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King at the front of a march that descended into violence. Memphis, March 28, 1968

In his last Sunday sermon before he died, Dr. King said this:

It is an unhappy truth that racism is a way of life for the vast majority of white Americans, spoken and unspoken, acknowledged and denied, subtle and sometimes not so subtle—the disease of racism permeates and poisons a whole body politic. And I can see nothing more urgent than for America to work passionately and unrelentingly—to get rid of the disease of racism.

In the final months of his life, Dr. King wasn’t beating around the bush. White Americans, he said, embraced racism as a way of life. One way to honor him half a century after his death is to speak in similarly blunt terms. Racism is not just acceptable among white Americans in 2018, it is often honored. Racism is honored every time someone proudly tells you they support the President.

This reversal of norms against public racism is a tragedy. It’s a tragedy when the President of the United States speaks in proto-genocidal language and the American people don’t even realize it. It’s a double-tragedy because it is harmful all by itself while also inflicting wounds by distraction. Many of us (myself very much included) have withdrawn our attention from the ongoing crises of poverty, segregation, incarceration and police brutality. Instead, we focus on the lowest of low-hanging fruit: critiquing the racism of Donald Trump and his supporters.

It’s as if Martin Luther King had spent a lot of time and mental energy trying to convince white people that, actually, George Wallace really was racist. You almost laugh out loud at the thought of it. Of course he didn’t bother with that. King kept his focus on the bigger picture.

50 years after his death, we’re reluctant to face the man who appeared in the Spring of 1968 as a despised and declining figure. Heckled by black power advocates and hated by white conservatives, King struggled to stay relevant in a society that seemed to be coming apart at the seams. The left increasingly saw his program of militant nonviolent activism as irrelevant, while the right looked on it as a profoundly cynical method of extortion.

We honor him now, but 50 years ago most Americans just wanted him to admit defeat and go away. When he died, some white evangelical leaders implied he had only reaped what he sowed.

In our time, American across the political spectrum find their way toward admiration of Dr. King by erasing key parts of his theology and agenda. Much of the left doesn’t want to learn from King about the moral and strategic imperative of nonviolence. To them, King’s Christian activism reeks of respectability politics. The right doesn’t want to learn from King’s radical challenge to the American economy and way of life.

Plenty of people are happy to think of King as a Christian or as a radical. It is harder for us to grasp that there was no or for Dr. King. He was both. Switch the order of the words and you get slightly different connotations—radical Christian, Christian radical—but both connotations work for King.

King’s Christian activism has much to teach us. Among the lessons are these:

The ends don’t justify the means. Your goals don’t make you righteous. Your actions do.

Love is not a sentimental abstraction. It is what enables oppressed people to pursue justice without the struggle devolving into zero-sum score settling.

Formal equality is hollow without economic empowerment.

The purpose of economic empowerment of the poor is not to expand the debt-addled money-worshiping middle class. It is to promote the dignity and worth of every human being. Economic justice for the poor is not possible without a spiritual assault on the lies of materialism. People are more important than things. And people will not have their deepest needs satisfied by things. A materialistic society can try to buy off the poor with charity, but it cannot do justice to the poor because materialism causes us to treat human beings as disposable.

Nonviolence is not merely a tactic. It is a way of life that rebukes everything from the violence of American policing to our obsession with guns to our militaristic foreign policy around the world.

Nonviolence does not mean acceptance of double-standards or treating all violence as equal. King rejected violence, but refused to put all violence in the same category. With black neighborhoods engaged in a series of deadly uprisings in the 1960s, King refused to provide the condemnation the white media craved. The violent selfishness of the oppressor is of a different kind and magnitude than the violent groans of the oppressed. King kept the focus where it belonged and rebuked the real purveyors of violence.

Nonviolence does not mean passivity or accepting the premises of your opponent. King bluntly called most white Americans “racist” and “sick.” They saw this as deeply unfair and mean-spirited. But if you limit yourself to discourse within the boundaries of the oppressor’s epistemology you can’t be truthful.

With these lessons in mind we can begin to see why at the end of his life King was talking about the need to fight the interrelated problems of racism, materialism, and militarism. All three are dehumanizing forces. All three are alive and well today. 50 years after Dr. King’s death, we have so much work to do.

Thoughts for Sunday

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Ecuadorian theologian C. René Padilla

In 1974, C. René Padilla shook up the Lausanne Congress on World Evangelization with his criticisms of American evangelicalism. Here’s an excerpt that remains relevant today:

A Church that is not faithful to the Gospel in all its dimensions inevitably becomes an instrument of the status quo. The Gospel is meant to place the totality of life under the universal lordship of Jesus Christ, not to produce cultic sects; it is an open break to the status quo of the world. Therefore a Gospel that leaves untouched our life in the world — in relationship to the world of men as well as in relationship to the world of creation — is not the Christian Gospel, but culture Christianity, adjusted to the mood of the day.

This kind of gospel has no teeth — it is a gospel that the ‘free consumers’ of religion will want to receive because it is cheap and it demands nothing of them…The gospel of culture Christianity today is a message of conformism, a message that, if not accepted, can at least be easily tolerated because it doesn’t disturb anybody. The racist can continue to be a racist, the exploiter can continue to be an exploiter. Christianity will be something that runs along life, but will not cut through it.”

The Power of a Good Biography

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I’m reading George Marsden’s Bancroft Prize-winning biography of Jonathan Edwards, and it’s reminding me of being a kid. When done well, biographies can be incredibly immersive experiences, far more so than any movie or television series (in my humble opinion, of course). When I was young biographies were key entry points into history and they made my imagination run wild. It was, and still is, hard to believe that other people have existed and lived different lives from mine. (Think about it).

Entering into the life of a person in another time and place and following it through to its conclusion can be extremely sobering and inspiring. It also has the happy effect of assuring me that I’m thoroughly average, will always be average, and can bask in the freedom of not being A Great Man of History.

I think I would like to write a biography in the future. But I am puzzling over the ethical dilemmas of the genre. I remember when I finished my master’s thesis (which, though not strictly a biography, had some biographical features and focused in particular on John Stennis) the chair of the history department asked me, “Wait, do you like this guy?” Because Stennis was a white supremacist it was a loaded question! And I thought the answer ought to have been obvious, but perhaps it wasn’t. I had tried very hard to understand Stennis, and I firmly believe that there’s no such thing as a historian understanding their subjects too well. But…who we try hardest to understand is an important choice, one with consequences.

At the outset of Jonathan Edwards, Marsden asks us to try to understand Edwards in his time. He wasn’t an American or an evangelical, and he couldn’t imagine social hierarchy as anything but a good thing. So far so good. But I’m not sure Marsden’s commendable sensitivity to understanding Edwards extends very well to other actors in the book.

As much as I feel I understand Edwards, so much of the world around him seems largely invisible in this book (so far; I’m 300 pages in). Why are the Indians so opaque? Why are the enslaved so invisible? To say that they were so for Edwards for long stretches of his life tells us a little about Edwards but isn’t itself a reason to render them so in a new history.

These are old qualms that have been much discussed and argued over, but I’m still confused about them. And it seems to me that biography may be a genre particularly vulnerable to this problem. Nonetheless, I see why Marsden won the Bancroft Prize. It’s a great book.

Jonathan Edwards strikes me as the sort of person I want to encounter from the safe distance of the printed page and several hundreds years. From that distance he is quite fascinating. I don’t know that I would have wanted to hang out with him. He was incredibly intense about everything.

That reminds me: the other biography I’m just now getting into is Victor Sebestyen’s new life of Lenin. If only to prove that you can always make connections between things, I would say what makes Edwards and Lenin similar is their singular focus to see their principles through to their conclusion (I admit the results were considerably bloodier in Lenin’s case).

Back to Edwards: I didn’t know anything about him beyond the sorts of things you read in general surveys of the era. (Indeed, the dirty little secret of this whole enterprise I’m engaged in is that I don’t yet know much about the history of evangelicalism!). I’m fascinated by the way Edward’s views appear to scramble and upset so much of the evangelical tradition that in one way or another claims some descent from him.

He was a revivalist who believed deeply in hierarchical authority. He sought and achieved ecstatic spiritual experiences, and he was obsessed with reason. He brooded over the machinations of the Devil and the depravity of people, and he believed the millennium might be close at hand.

I’m especially interested in Edwards’ views of the relationship between church and state and of God’s plan for New England. Do we see in Edwards the “poisoned root” I referred to the other day? I need to know more.