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.

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.

Two Presidents: One Godless, One Christian

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President Obama in Charleston, South Carolina, June, 2015.

Shout out to Alicia for drawing my attention this morning to the following juxtaposition. In the first video, we have President Trump speaking this week to the Values Voters Summit:

In the second video, we have President Obama delivering a eulogy after the church massacre in Charleston, South Carolina:

In the first video, you see a President with no understanding of Christianity. He has no internal knowledge of faith to draw upon that might render his religious words credible. And so he speaks in the only language he knows: that of transaction and identitarian symbols. He speaks to an interest group, muttering tinny phrases remarkable only for their shimmering hollowness.

The words he uses are only those he has figured out his audience wants to hear. This base kind of cunning is perhaps his only distinguishing feature of intelligence. It’s a calculation not unlike that of a puppy which has learned how to get a treat.

Trump would find it impossible to explain why Christmas might be theologically important. But he’s damn sure going to say the word!

President Trump has not tried to hide his distaste for Christianity and what it stands for. While Christians look out on a world governed by grace and seek to be agents of reconciliation and forgiveness, Trump boasts that might is right, that power and power alone counts in life. And he promises to deploy his power on behalf of scared Christians. They love him for that.

The “Christian” Right’s affection for a Godless president is not so surprising. For among the many things and people the Christian Right has always seemed to dislike is Christianity itself. They’re too busy trying to take over the country to bother with someone as naive as Jesus.

In the second video, you see a President immersed in theological reflection, attuned to Christian idioms, inviting his audience explore the possibilities of Christian hope. President Obama’s extended meditation on grace shows a thorough understanding of orthodox Christian theology. It is moving and profound. It comes from a place of understanding. It is impossible to imagine President Trump delivering such a message.

There are reasons to be cautious about President Obama’s religious language. He often deployed it for nationalist purposes, using Scripture meant for the church and applying it to America. That’s dangerous. But if white evangelicals believed their own claims—that this is a Christian nation—they ought to have loved Obama’s rhetoric.

Why were most white evangelicals unable to appreciate the faith of President Obama? As Alicia pointed out this morning, the problem was not only that Obama often spoke in the tradition of the social gospel. The problem was that—as you see in the Charleston eulogy—his faith was black. In the white evangelical mainstream, true Christianity—that which is mature, biblically correct, normative—is implicitly white.

You might argue it’s not fair to compare speeches given in such different contexts. But that’s actually part of the point: President Trump is incapable of giving the kind of speech President Obama gave. And the reason for that is not only because President Trump is an inferior public speaker. It’s because he’s so hostile to Christianity.

On The Origins of a Dumb Meme

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Have you ever heard a Christian say that racism is a sin problem not a skin problem? Cute, right? This phrase has some nifty alliteration going for it, but that’s about all. I still can’t figure out what it’s supposed to mean. As soon as you generalize the idea to other topics its emptiness seems apparent. “Greed is a sin problem not a money problem.” Yeah ok, but the money thing seems kind of important.

(My best theory for what the “sin not skin” statement actually does comes from my wife Alicia. Her idea is that the phrase removes the power dynamic of white supremacy by labeling it generic sin. It makes us all sinners in the same colorblind boat. The phrase allows us to speak against racism while absolving white people of any particular responsibility.)

Yesterday it occurred to me that I had seen this phrase before. Like way before. So I went back to try to find it, and here it is in a letter from 1968:

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Wheaton College Archives

The context: it was the Spring of 1968. After Dr. King’s death Wheaton College hosted a memorial service. When word got out, a lot of alumni and friends of the college were upset, including this particular woman in Landsdale, Pennsylvania. She had sent two of her children to Wheaton, and her pastor was also a graduate. She loved the school and did not want to see it leave the straight and narrow. She wrote to Wheaton’s President to see if the rumor about the King memorial service was true. She also wanted to emphasize that she knew black Christians who didn’t support all the marching and agitating and rabble-rousing of people like King. Here’s the larger quote in which the sin not skin phrase appears:

As a church we have been working with an inter racial organization known as CURE — Christians United Reaching Everyone. I had the opportunity to ask one of the Colored brothers Rev Andrew Bluford what he thought of Dr King and he said, “humanly Dr. King was doing a job.” He went on to say that Dr King never tried to reach his people thru a Crusade or mentioned Sin. And he said you leave Christ and Sin out of your program and you have nothing but a social organization. Rev King was not held in esteem by this group of Colored brethren. Rev Bluford said the problem is not skin but sin and Christ is the Cure.”

I have little reason to doubt the basic veracity of this woman’s testimony. There certainly were black Christians who did not approve of the civil rights movement, or at least its tactics. And CURE really was an interracial Christian organization that existed in Philadelphia at that time, and its public statements tended to fit with the sensibility we see in this letter: that racial progress will come through spiritual regeneration more than through social reform.

So I suspect that Reverend Bluford, in about 1967 or 68, really did tell this woman that racism was a sin problem not a skin problem.

Then I got to thinking. If a black pastor in Philly was using this phrase in the 1960s, where did it come from and how long has it been around? I did some more searching and couldn’t come up with anything else. I can’t find the phrase or even a derivative of it anywhere before 1968. But I bet it’s out there. There are lot of old fundamentalist magazines and denominational publications I’ve never looked at.

Can anyone find an earlier usage of this phrase? I can’t offer you a large cash prize but you can buy yourself a cookie or something, ok? Besides, the joy of historical exploration is its own reward.

From the Archives: Invoking Christian Unity to Promote Diversity

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When you google “Christian unity” you get lots of sappy pictures like this.

A few days ago I shared an example of a white evangelical student using the rhetoric of Christian unity to silence the concerns of black students. Today I offer an example of a Hispanic evangelical student writing about Christian unity in a very different way. This time the example comes from the Spring of 1994. At this particular college, chapel had become controversial. As the student body became increasingly diverse, the chapels continued to reflect a white middle-class culture. This was a big problem considering that chapels were mandatory daily gatherings meant to unite the community in worship. It also was a symptom of broader problems, this student believed. She wrote:

The Bible does not call us to love and accept each other when we become like each other and when there are no differences. Rather it calls for love and unity in spite of our differences.

As Christians we should strive, not only to tolerate each others differences, but to embrace them as our own, and it can be done. Many students, such as myself, have done it when we came to [this] College from a strictly Spanish-speaking church where hymns are not the norm. Although at first I found this worship style awkward, as I was exposed to it I grew to love it as my own…

One of the deepest convictions that I have is that actions speak louder than words. The actions taken this year by the administration speak loudly, they scream. They say that the Asian, African-American, and Latino student have not yet been embraced in every way in [our] College, and will not be embraced until the lies which say that we are inferior people and we need to become “Europeanized” or “Americanized” are accepted. Minorities have two deeply significant choices to make early in their…experience [here]; either we go through our four years frustrated, with the understanding that we are receiving a “half-truth” education, or we kill off any trace of our heritage in order to fit in or feel that we have progressed. You can find evidence of that among our students.

Believers need to understand that Christian colleges are doing this all over the country to “minorities” time and time again. We then wonder why so many are despising the Gospel. I wish I could say that it is only because of man’s depravity but I think that it is also due to the fact that for too many Christians, the Gospel is something that is more political and American than anything else. I fear that it has become a means for political and economic gains which do not take the poor and oppressed of our backyards into consideration. The Gospel has been made irrelevant to the oppressed…

The easy way out of this is to tell “minorities” that if they are not happy here they should leave. However, to ask someone to choose between (1) a higher education which might affirm one’s cultural identity while attempting to destroy one’s spiritual foundations or (2) an education which affirms one’s spiritual foundations but degrades cultural identity is not an easy choice. It is also not a choice which a Christian should ask a brother to make.”

This is often what it looks like when evangelicals argue about race and culture. Their Bibles are never far away. They bring their theology to bear. The discussion may become overtly political. But it is almost always ecclesial too. People are wrestling with what the “Body of Christ” is actually supposed to look like.

Both this student and the white student I wrote about the other day are talking about what it means to be united together in Christ. But their conclusions are dramatically different. For this student, unity means reckoning with real differences and sharing power. For the colorblind student, very similar unity language becomes a tool to deny the power dynamics involved.

We might also think about the boundaries of evangelical identity in the context of this letter. Here’s a Hispanic student who wanted the evangelical theological training she was receiving, but felt that the cultural cost of the education was extremely high. Even as she embraced an evangelical world, she received the message that good evangelicals didn’t act or think like she did. As a result, she and others faced the horrible choice of submerging “any trace of our heritage” just to belong.

White evangelicals often wonder when evangelicals of color will stop “complaining” and we can stop talking about these things. That misunderstands the project. The discussion is permanent, because our differences are real and unity will always be hard work. That’s not to say things can’t get better. One measure of change would be this: when the costs of belonging to the Body of Christ are equally borne by all.

Thoughts for Sunday

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Is it true that life comes from death?…

The evolutionary rhythm — from life into death, from death into life — which seems to meet us at the central point of the Bible, where the New Testament, in fulfillment of the Old, speaks of the sufferings and the glory of the Messiah — is this rhythm credible, rational, real?

Let us not be too hasty in answering this question positively: our positiveness might be wanting in specific gravity! Let us not contrast ourselves too quickly with those to whom the cross is a stumbling-block and a foolishness, for as a matter of fact we all belong with them…For the sake of the suffering of the millions, for the sake of the blood shed for many that cries against us all, for the sake of the fear of God, let us not be so sure! Such sureness is only a synonym for smugness. If any utterance at all is in need of substantiation, attestation, and demonstration in corresponding moral, social, and political action, it is the Biblical utterance that death is swallowed up in victory. But if we really believed this, our actions would manifest the possibility that lies beyond human thought: Behold, I make all things new. And if we were only aware how little that possibility is manifested in our conventional and self-reliant lives, we should assuredly take the utterance upon our lips only with the greatest shame, confusion, and restraint.

The only real way to name the theme of the Bible, which is the Easter message, is to have it, to show it, to live it. The Easter message becomes truth, movement, reality, as it is expressed — or it is not the Easter message which is expressed…

Karl Barth, “Biblical Questions, Insights, and Vistas,” April, 1920.

The Heresy of Nationalist Christianity

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Is it time to think of Trumpism as heresy? Catholic scholar Charles Camosey believes so:

Though it seems to be waning a bit now, Catholic support for Donald Trump in the 2016 election was disturbingly high. It was disturbing on multiple levels, but especially because the primary vision for Trump’s campaign was to “make America great again” by putting “America first.”

If accepted and supported by Christians, this is a classic example of heresy – which historically has taken something true and pushed it well beyond its proper place…

In addition to heresy, “Trumpism” is a classic form of idolatry. Stanley Hauerwas, perhaps the most important Protestant thinker of the last two generations, pulled no punches in calling out Trump’s deep faith in Americanism.

For an orthodox Christian, Hauerwas insisted, America cannot be first. The Gospel of Jesus Christ must be first.

Hauerwas was right to describe Trump’s inaugural address as a “stunning example of idolatry.” When the president said, “At the bedrock of our politics will be a total allegiance to the United States of America and, through our loyalty to our country, we will recover loyalty to each other,” this was, using the words of Hauerwas, “a theological claim that offers a kind of salvation.”

Just one problem, though. When made by a Christian, it is an idolatrous and heretical claim.

Christ knew we would come to know people “by their fruits,” and the fruits of a Trump administration are already quite clear. The heresy of “America first” overshadows the Gospel…

It is one thing to vote for Trump as the lesser of two evils. I strongly disagreed with this strategy, but it is defensible from a Catholic point of view. And I fully understand the views of those who did so in defense of prenatal children.

What is not defensible, however, is positive, formal support for “America First.” That so many Catholics have expressed such support, however, may indicate that the time has come to name “Trumpism” a heresy.

Though Camosey is writing from a Catholic perspective, his words are even more relevant for all the “God and country” Christians of white evangelicalism. Their intense investment in the American national project recalls the heretical 19th century liberals who conflated the Kingdom of God with the progress of the American nation. It also brings to mind the 20th century German liberals whose belief in German exceptionalism prepared them to glorify war and endorse an anti-Christ.

What we’re seeing from many Trump-supporting Christians is not just a political disagreement, but a different gospel altogether.

The Role of the Christian Scholar In An Era of Darkness

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A Scholar in his Study. Thomas Wyck

In this awful time, as barbarism is accepted at the highest levels of national leadership and heresy becomes routine in the church, what must the Christian scholar do? Scott Culpepper, a professor of history at Dordt College, has a guest post at the Anxious Bench that deserves to be widely read. He writes:

Christian scholars across the spectrum of theological traditions share a common commitment to fostering intellectual and spiritual maturity, rationality, integrity, and humility in our students, the church and in our cultures.  The Trump presidential campaign and transition phase descended to the level of rejecting in both words and very public deeds each of these fundamental ideals.  Careful consideration of facts, disciplined analysis of sources, and respectful treatment of other human beings assumed the position of secondary considerations as people rushed to express their angst over the perceived failures of the amorphous “establishment” by elevating a man to power who cares for none of these things.  Those of us who invest our lives daily in advocating the alternative stand at best as an inconvenience and at worse as an impediment that must be undermined or removed…

Christian scholars are indeed a subversive influence.  Critics are right in labeling us a subversive influence if what they mean is that we subvert the subordination of facts to falsehoods calculated to sway popular opinion, the substitution of shallow shibboleths for deeper reflection, and the sacrifice of principle on the profane altar of political expediency.  And there will be a greater need for us to keep on subverting these things with all the energy we can muster in the age of Trump.

The times call for renewed conviction, creativity and courage on the part of Christian scholars.  The masses may not know they need us, but they need us.  The endorsement of popular influence as a virtue in the framing of our American republic was predicated on the hope that education and character formation would equip people to exercise their rights intelligently.  No one is better prepared than Christian scholars and the institutions they serve to provide this kind of education infused with serious attention to character formation.

Read the whole thing. And let there be no mistake: fulfilling our calling in this time may mean that we will become exiles from our own communities. Our very existence as people who are both Christians and scholars is a threat to the white nationalist church.

Books for Our Moment: Wayward Christian Soldiers

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During the Christmas break I had the opportunity to read Charles Marsh’s Wayward Christian Soldiers: Freeing the Gospel from Political Captivity. When it was published in 2007 it would not have occurred to me that there was any political captivity from which the gospel could be freed and, in any case, I didn’t read books like this.

The book makes for fascinating reading now because–just 10 years later–it has so obviously slipped into history. To read it now is to open a window to another time. Marsh was appalled by the Iraq War and the ways evangelicals in the United States had cheered it on. They had traded in the credibility of the gospel and got in return death and devastation. He insisted this was not a minor event. The damage to Christianity had already been done and there would be no easy recovery from it.

Thinking evangelicalism in the United States had hit rock bottom, Marsh sought a way forward from the wreckage of a faith that had been “ransacked” and “trivialized.” He didn’t know then that there were further depths to plumb.

Because of those additional depths we’re now exploring, the path he described a decade ago still seems compelling and urgent. Marsh urged us to look to the global church, to hear the perspective (and the rebuke) of Christians outside the United States, and to listen to Christians of color within the U.S. He asked us to draw on the long and broad tradition of Christian orthodoxy stretching back 2000 years. He implored us to take theology seriously, to speak carefully, and to learn to be quiet in a “nation of noisy believers.” And then, in the last chapter, is a passage worth quoting at length:

I am struck by the absence of resistance, dissent, and critical judgment in the moral repertoire of contemporary evangelicals. These disciplines–and let us call them disciplines–are rarely intoned in our sermons, publications, and seminaries, and when they are, they are most commonly regarded as manifestations of pride. Evangelicals are quick to admonish unity when there is a whiff of disagreement in the air. Dissent must be quashed for the sake of harmonious ideals, which we consider spiritual virtues. But perhaps the situation only masks our swift retreat from the costs of discipleship…

Part of what I admire about the book is Marsh’s evident conviction that the Christian scholar must not stand on the sidelines, retreating to the comforts of the archive or the academic conference in a moment of trouble. What if dissent is required of us in this moment?

Marsh did not offer a counterpolitics, a cheap inversion of that which he resisted, rage for rage. Instead, he offered theological reflection and a call to return to Christian orthodoxy. In this posture we see Marsh’s conviction that Christianity is not a political program. The Kingdom of God, wholly other, utter righteousness breaking through to unrighteousness, is far too profound and terrifying a thing to be contained in a political program. And yet, its very otherness means that always and everywhere it will have subversive political implications.

So the upshot of all of this is that I’m going to try to take Marsh’s advice. I’ve got some unusual stuff on my shelf, from Basil of Caesarea to Karl Barth. But really, I’m just flying blind. Tell me, friends, to where should we turn for sustenance and dissent in this moment?