Amidst the ongoing racist comments and actions of the current president, the temptation grows to define racism as only overtly discriminatory or hateful acts based on race. Indeed, that virulent racism is deadly, like when a white supremacist murdered nine Black church members at Mother Emanuel AME Church in Charleston, NC. (Duncan’s book has a chapter referring to this hateful act, titled “Dylann Roof and I Are Lutheran.”) Yet what white Christians and white churches must come to grips with are not the blatant acts, but the insidious forms of racism that are embedded in both our history and how we do church today.
Duncan and Tisby both prove, from their own perspectives, that personal relationships with a “Black friend” are not enough to stop or to divert systemic racism and our complicity in it.
With degrees and expertise in history and theology, Jemar Tisby puts his finger on potential turning point after point in American history when churches could have stood up for the Gospel of Jesus Christ — that people of every race are siblings of Christ, beloved children of God, inherently worthy of the dignity of those made in the image of God. Yet time and time again, churches instead collaborated with the slave trade and its legacy, stayed silent on lynching, then battered their theology into a shape that sealed a lid on top of their racism.
New denominations were formed to protect slaveholders in their ranks. Tisby’s focus is on evangelical churches, which exploded with political power in the form of the Christian Right, a movement galvanized by the defense of segregated “Christian academies” during the 1960s. Yet the chapter on “Remembering the Complicity in the North” jolts readers with the reality that it is not just The South or evangelicals who perpetuate systemic racism in their churches or culture at large. The rise of Fundamentalism was laced with a racialized understanding of theology which “dissuaded other Christians from certain forms of political involvement and encouraged them instead to focus on personal holiness and evangelism” (Tisby, p. 116) and has certainly seeped out into our society as a whole.
Racism absolutely adapts, and one of the best ways it has adapted is through coded language and policies that cannot be traced back to race without a little work, baptized as they are in “American” values of individualism and private consumerism. Interpreting a verbatim quote of Lee Atwater in a 1983 interview, Tisby says:
Atwater articulated what has become known as ‘color-blind conservatism.’ By excising explicitly racial terms like ‘black,’ ‘white,’ or ‘n*****’ from their language, practitioners can claim they ‘don’t see color.’ As a result, people can hold positions on social and political issues that disproportionately and adversely harm racial and ethnic minorities, but they can still proclaim their own racial ignorance. As Atwater articulated, it is clear that the switch from racial language to supposedly color-blind discourse was once a conscious and deliberate choice. Today, it has become second nature – and the unconscious practice of many American Christians. (p. 153)
Church, if we do not know our history, it is even more difficult to repent in the present. We got here gradually, one compromise at a time, over centuries of convincing ourselves that the economics of slavery and racism are somehow separate from our faith. The Color of Compromise concludes with a remarkable chapter of actionable items (some of which are repeated in Dear Church), but I wouldn’t skip to the end. We ought to feel the weight of all those eschewed opportunities to stop this sin, and the risk to our future if American churches and Christians do not outright oppose racism in the present.
Lenny Duncan takes a completely different approach in his book Dear Church: A Love Letter from a Black Preacher to the Whitest Denomination in the U.S., to get us to recognize our complicity with racism. From the “big picture” view of Tisby’s work, Dear Church zooms in, until it seems like the author is sitting in our own nearly empty, echoing sanctuary. As the subtitle suggests, this book is aimed at Duncan’s specific denomination and mine, the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, but believe me, there are many, many things in here for every kind of Christian.
Duncan gives specific examples of how churches reinforce racism, sometimes subtly or unconsciously, often coded as something else: that “traditional” picture of white Jesus hanging in the nursery; the persistent “light and darkness” themes of church seasons; the punitive assimilation of leaders, who can only get a job when they act white enough to be acceptable. It is really our lack of action, our silent complicity with racism, that keeps such churches so white. Yet, everything Duncan writes clearly comes from a place of love. His personal stories throughout, about how he was accepted and welcomed just as he was by congregations within this whitest denomination, testify to potential for faithful change and its fruits.
Not so tied to the chronology of historical events, Dear Church can veer off to explore the boundaries of white supremacy, exposing the ties between racism and capitalism, toxic masculinity, and nationalism. Basically, everything is an opportunity to talk about and repent of our complicity with racism. And bringing it out into the open air is the only action that is likely to heal that festering wound, but it is going to hurt first. Lenny Duncan also gives advice – deeply faithful, hard-earned advice aware of the consequences.
Dear Church, truth that is not grounded in love is just brutality. You are that love, and you can convey that truth. Be the line in the sand; say that you will no longer allow a false gospel narrative – based on fear and a lack of understanding of the deep wells of mercy and grace that God offers – to be sold as ‘church.’ Assert that this is the generation when it stops, and you are the people who will turn the tide. We will never see this change if we aren’t committed to seeing this through (Duncan, p. 133).
White American Christians, these prophetic voices are calling for our repentance and re-directed commitment to God’s anti-racism work in our time. The historical account bathed in theological understanding AND the personalized memoir and pastoral guidance are epistles to the Church of our day to convince us of the forces of white supremacy ripping apart our witness.
Whoever writes about this next, I want the Holy Spirit to put me on their mailing list. Pentecostals, maybe? We may be different across denominations in many ways, but we are woefully similar in perpetuating a culture of white supremacy. It is past time to listen to the prophets and repent!
Throughout the Gospel narratives, the Jesus we most often encounter is one of kind and encouraging words delivered with a divinely-inspired and gentle grace, purposeful poise, radical hospitality, and an unconditional love — which is why it can be startling to read many of his interactions with the religious leaders of his day.
Jesus wasn’t nice to them.
He called them names: hypocrites; white-washed tombs, full of rotting corpses; unwashed dishes; serpents; a brood of vipers; murderers. He even called them “children of the devil.”
He challenged their God-concept within the public square and warned others not to follow in their wicked footsteps. He mocked their prayers as “meaningless repetition,” and challenged both their integrity and ability to make a distinction between what is morally right and wrong, or to even speak anything worthwhile to the people.
“You brood of vipers, how can you, being evil, speak what is good?” ( Matthew 12:34)
Jesus accused his contemporary religious leaders of creating and employing heavy burdens on people which they themselves were either unable or unwilling to follow, warning the crowds not to emulate their hypocrisy. He called out their motivation to feigned and self-righteous piety as nothing more than a desire for public recognition and a hope put not in the God of Abraham, but rather in their positions of prestige and their coveted seats of power and honor.
He told the religious authorities their attempts at proselytizing merely made folks “twice as much a child of hell” as themselves. In one story, Jesus even has himself a “Temple Tantrum,” taking the time to make a bull-whip which he used to interrupt the religious leaders while zealously running the animals of sacrifice out of the area, flipping over tables, and pouring their ill-gotten sacramental coinage out onto the floor.
He said they turned the holy place of prayer into a “den of thieves.”
Jesus wasn’t pulling any punches.
Neither should we.
Much ink has been spilt analyzing the fact that an overwhelming 81% of white American evangelicals voted for Donald J. Trump in 2016 — and just over two years into his first term, an astonishing majority continue to pledge their allegiance to the president. Trump enjoys a favorability rating nearly double the rest of the country among white evangelicals, which make up the majority of his GOP’s #MAGA base.
Despite a litany of what many previously hoped would be moral deal breakers for the party once described as, “the party of family values” (such as his braggadocious admission to sexual assault in the Access Hollywood tapes, the proven hush-money-payments to cover up his adulterous affair with a porn star, and at least two dozen credible accusations of rape and other sexual misconduct, etc.), Trump continues to reap the benefits of an almost cult-like support from the voting bloc which traces its roots to the 1980s Moral Majority movement.
The echoes of that era’s cries to “Make America Great Again!” come aligned with a renewed, emboldened, and even blatant racism. From Trump’s imagined Obama-birther-ism conspiracy, to announcing his own presidential campaign by calling Mexican immigrants “murderers and rapists,” to hailing tiki-torch-toting Nazis in Charlottesville as “very fine people,” culminated this week in his tweeted attacks of four freshman Democratic Congresswomen of color to ‘Go back’ where they came from, Trump’s propensity to pander to white supremacists is nothing new.
His lack of compassion to the plight of migrant families from Central America at the country’s southern border is now accompanied by sworn testimony of the horrific conditions in the detention camps from journalists and government representatives alike, along with irrefutable images, court documents, Congressional testimony, and all kinds of definitive evidence of innocent young children and toddlers lacking even basic sanitary conditions or care. This, on the heels of being forcibly removed from their parents and guardians and housed under armed guard on overcrowded concrete floors surrounded by chain-link fencing as a result of the “Zero-Tolerance Policy” enforced by the administration.
As I review the president’s executive orders, his press interviews, and daily Twitter feed while simultaneously reading the supportive reactions from folks within my own religious tradition of Evangelicalism, I’m reminded of another seemingly harsh saying from Jesus:
“Whoever receives a child in My name receives Me; but whoever causes one of these little ones to stumble, it would be better for them to have a heavy millstone tied around their neck, and to be drowned in the depth of the seas” (Matthew 18:6).
Damn. Seems a bit harsh.
So might this — yet it is entirely appropriate and perhaps necessary to avoid confusion over what it means to be a follower of Christ. One simply cannot be a follower of the life, teachings, and example of Jesus and also support Donald J. Trump and his policies.
It’s just not possible.
While most often a unifying figure, the Jesus of the scriptures was downright divisive regarding his willingness to stand up against bigotry and religious hypocrisy, and equally steadfast in his commitment to standing in solidarity with the marginalized and the oppressed. Imputed with divine wisdom, Christ was deeply dedicated to defending the defenseless, and seemed entirely comfortable with calling out the fundamental errors found in what he described as the faithless teachings of the religious leaders of his day.
If we are unwilling to do the same, how dare we call ourselves followers of Christ?Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. once said, “So often the contemporary church is a weak, ineffectual voice with an uncertain sound. So often it is an arch-defender of the status quo. Far from being disturbed by the presence of the church, the power structure of the average community is consoled by the church’s silent — and often even vocal — sanction of things as they are.”
Even our secular institutions are doing more. Recently, the United States House of Representatives voted to condemn Trump’s use of race-baiting language by a vote of 240 to187. Only four Republicans broke with their conservative colleagues and called his racist attacks unacceptable, while others such as Sen. Lindsey Graham obfuscated the context and instead directed his animosity toward the Congresswomen whom he described as “…a bunch of communists. They hate Israel. They hate our own country.”
In coming days, it seems we’re destined to repeat a familiar dynamic that has thus far defined this administration in the midst of deep-seated partisan disagreement. Republicans will continue to claim the condemnation is clearly inspired by partisan politics and a Democratic party preoccupied with bitterness and hatred toward the president and country. On the other side of the aisle, Democrats are literally going on-record offering a formal rebuke from Congress of a sitting president for the first time in more than 100 years, sending what one lawmaker called “a message that the country will not tolerate bigotry, racism, hate, xenophobia, Islamophobia.”
But what about white evangelicals?
Are Trump’s biggest and most staunch supporters willing to abandon the teachings of the founder of their faith in favor of supporting the politics of this president? Will white evangelicals continue to turn a blind eye to his repetitive racist rhetoric and willfully voice their support of Trump?
Will they remain relatively apathetic to the mental, emotional, physical, and sexual abuse — even deaths! — of immigrant children confined to cages at our nation’s southern border simply because they don’t have appropriate documentation?
Will these self-professing Christians carry on ad nauseam with their excuses of supporting Trump’s immoral actions and policies, regardless of their direct conflict with even the most simple and elementary teachings of the very Jesus they claim to follow?
As unfortunate as it is unconscionable, it appears many are…and while saying so may not be popular, and is likely to invite ample amounts of criticism and disagreement, it must be said again: One simply cannot be a follower of the life, teachings, and example of Jesus and also support Donald J. Trump and his policies.
Based on the red letters in the scriptures, I am convinced if Christ were physically present, he too would join me in unleashing his harshest chastisement for those who hypocritically claim to follow his teachings, yet are seemingly marching in the opposite direction.
When I was an impressionable college student exploring “the ministry,” a well-intentioned someone gave me Good to Great by Jim Collins in hopes of helping me increase “my reach” as a future pastor. When I was a maybe less impressionable seminary student (who knew everything already thank you very much), several professors invited me to read books about “adaptive leadership” and “corporate strategy” as a way of keeping up with the organizational demands of leading fledgling nonprofit institutions in a down market. As a cynical associate pastor in one of those very fledgling nonprofits I was sent weekly links to articles and TED talks outlining how exactly corporate leaders “turned around” their companies, grew their market shares, and created “a culture” of innovation.
I guess the institution wanted the same from me, but I foolishly studied the humanities, spent three years mastering divinity, and struggled to see the similarities between CEOs making (in some companies) 150 times the average employee, and pastors working in an industry where the company owns your house and doubt is a fireable offense. So I eventually quit because I was depressed, anxious, and confused about how being a pastor had anything at all to do with working for a church in America. I’m now a psychotherapist and the father of a 4 year old who let me know the other day — in the midst of a tantrum because I asked him to use the bathroom — that I am “unnecessary.”
I, too, found it a bit on the nose.
If you have met at least one toddler, you might already be familiar with this sackcloth-and-ash approach to following directions they don’t particularly enjoy receiving. A hurricane force meltdown occurs, all while you recall the last time a tiny version of yourself yelled at you because you refused to let him or her sit in a pile of his or her own excrement under your favorite lamp. Speaking of which, do you know what’s funnier than being mercilessly yelled at for attempting to remedy a scorching case of self-inflicted diaper rash? Watching an adult version of yourself attempt to reason with a tiny version of yourself who is rather content to live the rest of his life with a trouser-full of whatever it is in your living room that currently smells like grocery store trash…generally speaking. It’s hilarious, once you get the smell out of the carpet.
However, do you know what’s even funnier? Watching people in their 40s and 50s attempt to convince other people in their 40s and 50s that there is a preferred style of “worship music” that our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ finds most amenable to his Sunday morning experience. And by “worship music” please feel free to insert: “new sanctuary carpet” or “new building plan” or “new annual budget” or “new ply of toilet paper throughout all church bathrooms.” (This one is depressingly true.) It’s hilarious, after the fact, when your mortgage isn’t dependent upon the outcome.
What I’m saying is that people arguing with one another in church buildings about things none of us know for sure is eerily similar to people arguing with their children about screen time at the grocery store, in that, rationality, creativity, and intelligence are almost never invited to the bargaining table.
In his book The Righteous Mind: Why Good People are Divided by Politics and Religion, UVA psychologist and researcher Jonathan Haidt compares the power of our dis-regulating emotionality during a particularly tense argument to that of a 6-ton elephant, and the power of our higher level rational thought to that of a 150 lb. human riding atop the 6-ton elephant.
Meaning that when our emotions are under control, we can typically direct the movements of the elephant to accomplish tasks we would never be able to on our own. But if and when the elephant encounters a mouse or a tube of toothpaste squeezed from the middle instead of the end of the tube, YOU BETTER HOLD ON CAUSE PAPA BEAR IS GOING TO LOSE HIS TEMPER AND SHAME EAT ONE DOZEN ORIGINAL GLAZED KRISPY KREME DONUTS IN HIS CAR UNTIL HE FEELS BETTER…generally speaking, all the elephants I know love carbs.
As a psychotherapist trained in a school of thought known as “family systems,” my approach to working with one person exhibiting a dysfunctional pattern of behavior is to explore the network of relationships comprising the totality of this one person’s experience — because humans never learn who they are as individuals in a vacuum, but as participants in a generational, geographic, institutional, religious, and sociological approach to being human. It isn’t just the gills and the fins that make you a fish; it’s also the water.
A primary belief of this approach to understanding the complexity of humanity is the idea that dysfunctional patterns of behavior that are true of one person within a couple or family, are typically true of an entire institutional framework, as if that institution itself was but one person exhibiting profound dysfunction in a multitude of directions and personalities. “The Family,” in this example, is the client, rather than a short-hand description for a loosely connected group of individuals with the same last name who all have their own preferred dysfunctions. Which is probably why you’ve noticed, without maybe being able to articulate exactly why, some rooms, and buildings, and schools, and houses, and churches can feel incredibly anxious, and toxic, and like all the air has been sucked out of them.
Spaces — like brick and mortar kinds of spaces — can actually be conduits of the emotionally dis-regulating fear and pain of the people who gather in them. So when people say that “church” harmed them, or shamed them, or rejected them, or lied to them, I don’t correct their experience smugly with the reminder that: “No, people hurt you. Church is just an institution or a faceless ordering entity, because institutions become the incarnation and manifestation of the lives, souls, hearts, fears, and baggage of the humans within them, humans whom the Apostle Paul once called the eyeballs and toenails of ‘the Church.’”
When I come across resources for “fixing” Church, or “healing” Church, or “saving” Church that focus on data points, and statistical analysis, and sociological info gleaned from cold calling Millennials on their preferences for Christian cover bands before noon on the weekends, I typically delete those emails. Not because they aren’t well-intentioned or full of earnest ideas fueled by reading too many blogs on Twitter, but because they ignore the fact that when bodies (both collective and individual) are emotionally dis-regulated — which I think we can all agree that Church in America is a bit emotionally dis-regulated about its place in the world — higher level thought turns off.
The elephant has seen a mouse, and now we’re all just holding on for dear life.
As the budget dwindles, and the congregation dwindles, and the influence dwindles, and the professional staff dwindles, and the spirit dwindles, and when faced with red lines in every direction, churches (in my experience) haven’t typically produced their most creative, intelligent, and insightful work. They usually just argue about “the young people” and “worship music” and how the next CEO can right the ship because he (It’s always a he isn’t it?) practices the 5 Habits of Highly Successful People.
However, when a pastor is able to non-anxiously empathize with “church,” with its pain and its confusion and the fact that it used to have more money in the bank but now seems like it’s going to outlive its savings, we’re able to start getting a better handle on what the moment before us actually requires, which, for the record, is almost never an “alternative” worship service or more synergy. That answer usually comes from a place of pain, which is why you’ve heard it brought up at least once every five years whenever your institution’s budget comes up short. If we can, together, push through the pain and the fear and the anxiety stemming from the very real problems besieging our institutions and our world, we might find that our creativity and intelligence and insight starts flickering to life like the lights on the dash of my old Civic when she finally turns over on a cold February morning.
An example of this was when a historic Baptist congregation in North Carolina, instead of institutionally buying a corvette and marrying someone half her age, decided to donate a rather chest-pain-inducing-portion of their budget for the creation of a homeless shelter for LGBTQ adolescents (even though those adolescents are probably not likely to become tithing deacons anytime soon). This move didn’t “fix” their church, but it did give everyone who gathers within her walls a different sense of why they’re there and what they can do together for their community when they stop panicking about who isn’t showing up for group singing and a lecture on Sundays.
Another example of this was when a dwindling, aged, majority Caucasian congregation on the West Coast decided to join forces with a fledgling multi-ethnic church plant, because “we had the building and they had the spirit.” They recently moved, as one church, into the hallowed out carcass of a once mighty megachurch in their city, not by being a poor facsimile of the (now defunct) megachurch, but by being its opposite.
A final example of this was when a traditional church in your town decided that they were missing out on all the young families in their community, so they desperately started a “contemporary” worship service before “Sunday School” at 9:00am, had parishioners put signs in their yards, stickers on their minivans, and links to the revamped church website on their Facebook feeds. Rather quickly, the sanctuary was filled, everyone stopped arguing about the pastor’s sermons, and the TOWN WAS SAVED!
Just kidding, that almost never works.
In my experience as a churchgoer, a pastor, and now a psychotherapist to both churchgoers and pastors, sometimes the best thing we can do for one another, whether we’re 3 or 83, is — whenever one of us is rolling around on the floor screaming through the delivery of information they never wanted to hear —for all the non-anxious someones (occasionally there’s only one of you) to bend down, sometimes on both knees, get eye-to-eye, and say that you’re sorry, that you know this is hard, and that even though it seems impossible right now, we aren’t going to make anyone go through this alone. But we will go through it, even if there are more tears.
You do this, even when they’re yelling at you about a diaper rash they caused and now refuse to let you remedy. You do this, even when they threaten to leave, and stop paying your salary, and blame you for their family’s lack of spiritual maturity, and send you punctuation-less emails in the middle of the night.
You do this, because somewhere inside of you, like maybe at the bottom, you know that being a pastor (and a parent) isn’t about the lapel mic, and the board meetings, and the weddings, and the standing ovations, and the graduation slideshows, and the Subaru commercials we all imagine our lives to look like. But it’s actually about sitting with the thing you love the most, and unflinchingly, non-anxiously willing it to love itself enough to let you wipe the excrement off of it. (Succinctly, you do this work because you signed up for it, and if you didn’t, then please use this as whatever sign you needed to finally start selling life insurance.)
Arguably, at no other point in our lives than when we’re emphatically staring down a hurricane force meltdown by something we inexplicably love on a cellular level can we know more about what it means when the scriptures remind us that God isn’t an unflappable CEO, but is our Parent and our Partner and our Priest and our Prophet and our Spirit and our Soul and our Strength and our Savior and our Friend and the one thing that refuses to give up on us, even when we’ve soiled ourselves yet again.
God leads with empathy, God follows with solidarity, and God finishes with collective action, and when we do too, we might be surprised at what comes “out of the mouths of babes,” as the Bible once famously put it.
Via RNS — The Dominican sisters sat in silence, eyes closed, palms upturned, couches and chairs pushed together into a circle in the room at the Dominican Center at Marywood in Grand Rapids, Michigan.
Their reading that evening came not from Scripture, but from poet Mary Oliver: “Though I play at the edges of knowing, / truly I know / our part is not knowing, / but looking, and touching, and loving.”
And the candle flickering in their midst didn’t invoke a saint, but author and activist James Baldwin.
Joining the Catholic women religious in contemplation was a group of young women who aren’t sure they’d describe themselves as religious in any sense.
Katie Gordon, a member of Nuns & Nones’ operational team, described the group as an experiment in what “different sort of forms of what community can look like and what action can look like today.”
“We know that there a much larger moment of reinvention and spiritual life that we’re a part of,” she said.
Both Sisters & Seekers and Nuns & Nones started in 2017 and quickly connected with each other, according to Gordon, who co-founded the Grand Rapids group. Neither had a mission, per se, she said — just a curiosity about what would happen if women religious and millennials came together.
Gordon, who identifies as agnostic, said she first met the Dominican sisters in Grand Rapids through her interfaith organizing work. She’d often see the sisters marching at protests. Then, as she got to know some of the sisters one on one, she began to see the possibilities for building relationships between them and her fellow millennials.
She had been raised Catholic, but she felt that the sisters she met represented a different Catholicism from the one she had known, she said.
“It’s really ironic and also beautiful to be able to engage with the tradition that I was raised in, but in a totally new way,” she said.
Gordon invited a handful of millennials to those first meetings. Sister Barbara Hansen of the Dominican Sisters, now a sister collaborator with Nuns & Nones, gathered the sisters.
The two groups started meeting together in the evenings for about two hours, usually at the Dominican Center, a brick building sitting on a lush, green campus with a sculpture garden and a sign in the lawn reading, “In this house, we believe: Black lives matter, no human is illegal, science is real, love is love, kindness is everything.”
Meantime, Nones & Nuns was hosting its first gatherings of about 20 people — half sisters, half millennials — for two-day retreats in Cambridge, Mass.
Since then, those gatherings have spread across the country.
A group in Washington, D.C., met for the first time this week and is planning a series of potlucks as members get to know one another this summer. In Burlingame, California, five millennial men and women of different religious backgrounds just completed a six-month pilot residency with the Sisters of Mercy.
While the gatherings may look different, they all revolve around the same question, Gordon said: “What can these two groups learn from each other?”
Gordon believes women religious and millennial women have more in common than might meet the eye. Both are interested in community, in social justice and in asking hard questions about faith and spirituality.
“Any conversation with a sister is a master class in building community,” said the 28-year-old Gordon.
“We millennials have so much hunger for spaces of community, belonging, meaning, depth, and we aren’t finding that in our social media. We aren’t finding that often as we move city to city. And so to be able to find that with these Catholic sisters who hold wisdom of their traditions from centuries is a gift for us to be able to translate that into our own life.”
Hansen, 80, said the women religious find their faith deepened by the millennials in the group.
“I’m deeply impressed with their goodness,” she said. “I’m deeply impressed with their wanting to make the world a better place, with their questions, with what they’re seeking. That’s not any different from what I’m seeking or we’re seeking.”
There’s no proselytizing at the meetings. And the sisters aren’t looking for their millennial friends to join their order or to seek out a religious vocation. Instead, they want to build bridges between beliefs and generations, something Gordon calls “a welcome antidote for our time.”
“To see seemingly two groups that might be very different actually come together and find so much in common is one thing that resonates,” she said.
As the meeting wound down on Sunday night in Grand Rapids, Ellie Hutchison, one of the group’s leaders, passed around postcards with messages like “Build bridges, not walls” and “None of us are free until all of us are free.” The group planned to write to lawmakers about the crisis at the United States’ border with Mexico.
Discussions at Sisters & Seekers meetings often center on what’s happening in the world and how to “stay healthy and centered and respond in effective ways,” Hutchison said.
In the past, that’s included everything from conversations about the existence of God and the afterlife to discussions about consumerism and capitalism, she said.
The group isn’t afraid of difficult conversations. Or to talk through their disagreements.
One discussion several months into the group’s meetings about queer identity and the Catholic Church left some feeling hurt or misunderstood. And the sisters and their millennial friends ran headlong into some generational differences around the topic.
But even that helped the group develop conversation guidelines as they continued to engage in difficult topics.
“I just so appreciate the sisters’ spirit because they are just generally so curious in getting to know us and hearing about our experiences and our thoughts on different issues. That curiosity is something that I haven’t often encountered with people who are several decades older than me,” said Hutchison, who is 26.
The biggest thing she’s taken from the group is a sense of friendship and community.
She said that can be hard to find in West Michigan, where the first question many people ask often is, “Where do you go to church?” That can leave people who aren’t part of a church or another faith community feeling left out.
Hutchison grew up in the mainline Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, at a church that had more of a “megachurch evangelical feel,” she said. But she hasn’t attended a church regularly since coming to Grand Rapids to attend a Christian college.
Sisters & Seekers has become her faith community.
“Even though we have different ideological beliefs on certain issues, it still is the place that, when I leave, I feel refreshed and more connected and more encouraged and hopeful than when I came, which is just, I think, the greatest gift,” she said.
Kendra Avila, 29, left the Seventh-day Adventist tradition in which she was raised several years ago. Sisters & Seekers has helped her find some of the spiritual depth she felt she was missing.
“I think spiritual life, spirituality allows you to live and have staying power in places where hard things at some point will burn you out,” Avila said. “But when you are doing it with others in community, you know that there are other people who are struggling with the same questions that you have. It helps you stay a little bit longer.”
That’s one thing the two groups share, said Sister Jarrett DeWyse, 77. The sisters have had a few more years of practice dealing with doubts and wrestling with questions that come up about faith, and they have centuries of spiritual practices to draw on.
“It’s OK to ask questions without answers,” DeWyse said. “We’ve had that for a long time.”
The major reason seems to be dwindling attendance at Cumorah and other pageants, which were once a vital missionary tool as well as a source of family fun. The president of the “Mormon Miracle Pageant” in Manti, Utah, which just shuttered production last month after more than fifty years, told the Deseret News that younger audiences have more entertainment options, and therefore aren’t that interested.
That’s definitely true—Netflix, anyone?—but I also wonder if the attrition doesn’t run deeper, stemming from the production’s message and not simply its medium. The Hill Cumorah pageant is a pastiche of Book of Mormon stories and the history of Mormonism’s beginnings in upstate New York, when a young Joseph Smith asked God which church to join and was eventually led to uncover the plates of the Book of Mormon and found a church of his own.
I’d like to think that the Church’s origin story is as compelling and timeless for young adults today as it was for me when I converted to Mormonism in my early 20s. But as someone who researches religion and generational change, I don’t think the story itself has the same pull that it used to.
We are still behaving as though “Which church is true?” is the question most people are asking. Our missionaries tell the story of Joseph Smith’s First Vision, in which he asked that question and the Lord clarified that none of the existing churches were true. Missionaries today affirm that this was because priesthood authority had disappeared from the earth, and that the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints is the one true religion because it still has that priesthood authority.
Fair enough. That’s church doctrine. But it no longer speaks to the questions young adults (in this culture, at least) are actually asking.
“Which church is true?” is a question that’s predicated on certain cultural assumptions. For starters, it assumes a situation of Christian pluralism, but not interfaith pluralism. In the 1820s, when Joseph Smith was a teenager, nearly everyone he knew was at least nominally Christian. The only confusion was about which kind of Christianity was optimal—Congregationalist or Catholic? Methodist or Baptist? If Baptist, the freewill folks or the footwashers?
Our culture still has a proliferation of Christian choices, but they’ve been joined by world religions that were not a part of daily life in America in the 1820s. Today Islam is growing faster in this country than Christianity. Buddhism, while still a small minority of the population, is also on the rise, from both immigration and conversion. And the fastest-growing religion in the country is . . . not having a religion.
That last point is important. More Americans, especially young adults, are opting out of religion altogether. As one of them said to me recently, “Why do I even need religion? Like, at all?”
Such general pondering about the core reason for religion is a far cry from a pointed question like “Which church is true?” The latter presupposes not only a quaint club in which everyone is Christian but also that propositional truth is something that is a) discoverable and b) potentially salvific.
The non-LDS young adults I speak with today—the very people the Church wants to reach through missionary work—inhabit a different set of assumptions. To them, your perception of the truth is determined by where you’re standing and the tribe you belong to, but truth itself is neither contingent upon, nor exclusively owned by, that tribe. In other words, life isn’t about finding the “right” church so that you can pledge your loyalty to it and congratulate yourself ever after for being among the righteous few who hold correct doctrinal beliefs.
This makes reaching them both more difficult and more basic. Missionary efforts that begin with a promise of propositional truth (which Millennials don’t care about) and end with an assurance of exclusive priestly authority (which they also don’t care about) are going to go over like a lead balloon. Those approaches are asking the wrong question for this people in this age.
What, then, are better questions?
In addition to “why religion?” we could be asking ourselves, for a generation that privileges making the world a better place, “How does the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints bless the world?”
For a generation that focuses more on lived experience than propositional correctness, we could be asking ourselves, “What experiences do we have to offer that will help individuals flourish?”
And for a generation that still believes in heaven and the supernatural despite declining involvement in organized religion, we can say, “What hope does our religion provide people of a better life to come, even if they aren’t members of our faith?”
We don’t need to change our doctrine to do this. We need to listen to the questions that people are actually concerned about.
Via RNS — In April of last year, on the 50th anniversary of the assassination of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., a group of seven aging Catholic activists assembled outside the Kings Bay Naval Submarine Base in St. Marys, Georgia, and cut a padlock at a maintenance gate.
They were in no rush. It was nighttime. No one was around. And they knew from previous actions that stealing their way onto a nuclear weapons facility was actually quite easy.
So before cutting the padlock, they stopped to pray and to photograph themselves carrying three banners protesting nuclear arms. They proceeded to the next security fence, assembled for another photo and then, using bolt cutters, cut the fence.
At that point, they had broken into a U.S. Navy base that houses six Trident submarines carrying hundreds of nuclear weapons, many of which have up to 30 times the explosive power of the bomb that destroyed the Japanese city of Hiroshima in 1945. The activists split into three groups: One headed to the base’s administrative building, where the members spilled blood on Navy insignia affixed to a wall and spray painted anti-war slogans on the walkway; another ran to a monument to nuclear warfare to bang the statuary with hammers.
The third group went to an area near a set of storage bunkers for nuclear missiles, where the activists prepared to cut the heavily electrified fence with bolt cutters fitted with rubber handles. At that point, roughly an hour after they first entered the base, emergency lights started flashing and they knew they had been caught.
The Kings Bay Plowshares 7, as they are known, each face a possible 25-year prison sentence, charged with three felonies and a misdemeanor. Next month (Aug. 7), they are scheduled to appear in federal court for oral arguments, followed by a trial at a later date.
At a time when many faith-based social activists have moved on to other issues — refugees, poverty, abortion and climate change — these Catholic pacifists aim to draw attention to the most ominous threat facing human civilization: nuclear weapons and the danger of global annihilation.
“What kind of world are leaving our children?” asked Patrick O’Neill, 63, one of the activists, who runs a Catholic Worker house in Garner, North Carolina, and is out on bail but wearing an ankle monitor. “Now is a good time to say, ‘Don’t go to sleep. Don’t think these weapons are props.’ We’re on alert 24/7.”
Crusading against nuclear weapons has become a lonely battle. For most Christians, like most Americans, it is a distant concern.
“Those who do take this seriously are few and far between and wouldn’t represent anything like a mass movement within American Christianity,” said Tyler Wigg-Stevenson, an Anglican priest who formerly chaired the World Evangelical Alliance’s nuclear weapons task force.
“Then you have these incredible saints that believe so strongly they’re willing to do these prophetic acts.”
A vision of peace
The Kings Bay Plowshares 7 are part of a 39-year-old anti-nuclear movement called Plowshares, inspired by the pacific prediction of the biblical prophet Isaiah that the nations of the world shall “beat their swords into plowshares.” Its activists have made a signature of breaking into nuclear weapons bases to hammer on buildings and military hardware and pour human blood on them.
They’ve been at it since 1980, when a group led by the brothers Philip and Daniel Berrigan, both Catholic priests, broke into Building #9 at a General Electric weapons plant in King of Prussia, Pennsylvania. The Plowshares 8, as they were called, hammered on some missile nose cones and spilled blood on some blueprints. They were found guilty and sentenced to prison.
The Berrigans had first come to national attention during the anti-Vietnam protests of the 1960s for burning draft records. But by the 1980s, the era of direct nonviolent action had peaked, replaced by more conventional tactics such as rallies, petitions and media campaigns. Plowshares remained the one of the only groups to extend their confrontational but nonviolent tactics into the no-nukes activism.
All seven of the Kings Bay defendants are members of the Catholic Worker movement, a collection of about 200 independent houses across the country that feed and house the poor. Among them are the Rev. Stephen Kelly, 70, a Jesuit priest; Elizabeth McAlister, 79, a former nun; and Martha Hennessy, 64, granddaughter of Dorothy Day, who founded the Catholic Worker in 1933 and was an ardent pacifist.
The seven spent nearly two years plotting their invasion of the base, planning between rounds of prayer. There was no one event that prompted the group, though some have cited the U.S. withdrawal from the 2015 Iran nuclear weapons treaty and escalating tensions with that country as a factor.
More than anything, the group wanted to bring renewed attention to an issue that no longer inspires much public concern: the very real possibility of a nuclear weapons catastrophe, whether through war, terrorism or human error. The seven set their sights on Kings Bay, about 40 miles north of Jacksonville, Florida, because it houses a quarter of the nation’s nuclear weapons cache and because there had never been a Plowshares action there.
“I have no doubt that nuclear weapons will be detonated,” said O’Neill. “I don’t know if it’s going to be by a terrorist or by accident. How do we wake people up?”
Several said they had no regrets. All seven had been jailed before and were fully aware they faced years-long prison sentences this time around, too.
“There’s never been a single case in which I’ve been arrested that I’m not proud of what I’ve done or would not defend to this day,” said Carmen Trotta, one of the seven who has participated in numerous civil rights demonstrations. He helps run the St. Joseph Catholic Worker House in New York, one of the original sites established by Day in the area of Manhattan historically known as the Bowery.
Facing jail time
To these Catholics, the teachings of the church on nuclear weapons are clear: They are morally unacceptable. The group welcomed Pope Francis’ recent statement in which he appeared to say that even possession of nuclear weapons for deterrence purposes was wrong.
“Do we really want peace?” Francis tweeted last year. “Then let’s ban all weapons so we don’t have to live in fear of war.”
So determined is the group that three of the seven activists — Kelly, McAlister and Mark Colville — declined to accept the conditions of the bail offered them (an ankle monitor and $50,000 bail) and have remained in the Glynn County Detention Center in Brunswick, Georgia, since the break-in 15 months ago.
That’s not to say they welcome their prison sentence. They have asked for dismissal of the charges because they say nuclear weapons are illegal under U.S. treaty law as well as international law and, using the Religious Freedom Restoration Act, they argue the government must take their claims of sincere religious exercise seriously.
Judges have never imposed maximum sentences against Plowshares activists, and the defendants are praying for the same leniency this time. With the exception of Trotta, who is 56, the others are in their 60s and 70s and dealing with various medical problems.
“I’ll be relieved if I get one year,” said Trotta. “Two years is a lot harder. Three years is hard to imagine. Five years is unimaginable. But it’s quite possible.”
Still, they view any prison sentence as a form of witness to what Colville called the “criminal justice industrial complex” and as a way to minister to those confined in it.
Prison, wrote Colville in a letter from jail, “provides the incredible daily privilege of walking with Jesus in the person of the prisoner, and of seeing the world the way He did: from the perspective of the bottom.”
Prophetic witness or pride?
Plowshares actions — there have been about 100 — take planning and volunteer expertise.
“You can’t pull it off just the seven of us,” said O’Neill. Others helped with logistics, too, but the defendants deflected questions about details, careful not to tip off the government to their conspirators.
They took equal care in every detail of the action.
Hennessy carried a copy of Pentagon-official-turned-peace-activist Daniel Ellsberg’s 2017 book, “The Doomsday Machine: Confessions of a Nuclear War Planner,” in her raincoat pocket. As planned, she left it in the base’s administrative building.
O’Neill secured hammers from Christian social activist Shane Claiborne that were made of steel melted down from guns returned through law-enforcement exchange programs. O’Neill used one on the nuclear monument display at the base, which he refers to as a shrine to an idol.
Even the words the activists spoke as security forces arrived to arrest them were carefully selected and memorized: “We come in peace. We mean you no harm. We’re American citizens. We are unarmed.”
All seven served two months in jail after their arrests on April 5, 2018, before the federal courts allowed them the option of bail.
Now they turn their sights to the upcoming trial.
Magistrate Benjamin Cheesbro of the Southern District Court of Georgia has recommended that the motions to dismiss the charges, including the Religious Freedom Restoration Act argument, be denied. The seven are appealing.
O’Neill, who is representing himself, said he doesn’t want an adversarial relationship with Cheesbro. And when he meets U.S. District Court Judge Lisa Godbey Wood prior to their trial, he’ll tell her what he told Cheesbro:
“The way I feel is, there’s a fine line between prophetic witness and pride. If what we have done is prophetic witness, then it’s of God. But if it’s a matter of pride, then this whole act was fraudulent,” he said. “I spent a year and a half with these people prayerfully preparing for this action, and I believe our intention was to serve God.”
Modern American evangelicals have made salvation something altogether different than discipleship. This was true of the kind of evangelicalism that nurtured my faith in my teens and twenties. Billy Graham–style evangelism and Campus Crusade’s “Four Spiritual Laws” shaped the way I imagined evangelism. As I understood it, my role was to bear witness to Jesus in cooperation with the Holy Spirit who would convict people of the truth. Together we would work toward the goal of “getting people saved.” Once they were “saved,” we could make suggestions regarding next steps. With a fistful of yellow “Four Spiritual Laws” booklets, my goal was to plunder hell and populate heaven. But in my experience these varied forms of follow-up normally did not produce healthy flourishing disciples. Years later I would come to realize this method of evangelism wasn’t what Jesus had called us to do.
Jesus didn’t say, “Go into all the world and get people saved.” He didn’t say, “Get people to ask me into their hearts.” He didn’t say, “Go make good citizens of the empire.” Jesus said, “Go therefore and make disciples of all nations” (Matthew 28:19). His words conveyed a clear command: Go into every person’s world and invite people to become followers of Jesus. We are not called to manipulate people into making a decision. The way of Jesus is the way of invitation, not the way of manipulation. The constant call of Jesus wasn’t “ask me into your heart,” but “come follow me.” The question we ask is not when did we “get saved,” but when did we start participating in the life of salvation? Faithful followers of Jesus will make good citizens because Jesus teaches us to “render to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s” (Matthew 22:21). However, making good citizens isn’t the primary task of the church.
We come to Jesus in order to follow him because salvation is not found by asking Jesus into our lives, but by entering the life of Jesus where, as disciples, we find ourselves immersed in God’s rescue plan. Much of the language in the New Testament is about our experience “in Christ.” We enter into the life of Jesus more than Jesus enters our lives. If we go about asking Jesus into our hearts then it becomes easy for Jesus to become a character in the one-act play called “Me.” A better way of talking about salvation is to talk about coming to Jesus and following him in order to walk in his ways by entering into his life. In this way, salvation and discipleship are much more intertwined.
The way of Jesus is the way to life, real life, real human life, the good life we have all innately longed for. Jesus said, “I am the way, and the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me” (John 14:6). We all want the life Jesus offers, even if we cannot completely articulate it. The life of Jesus is the water that will quench our deepest thirst and the bread that will satisfy our deepest desires. Jesus is the living water and the bread of life. Sadly, far too many people have assumed all that is necessary to experience that life is to confess the truth about Jesus. They have been told, “Pray this prayer. Say these words. Acknowledge this truth about Jesus. That’s it. Do these things and you will experience eternal life.” The problem is that people confess the Jesus truth and when they don’t experience the Jesus life, they get frustrated and give up on the faith. What they are missing is the very thing Jesus called us to do. They are frustrated because they haven’t yet learned to walk in Jesus’ ways as disciples.
Confessing the truth about Jesus includes a kind of allegiance to Jesus. When we confess that we believe Jesus is Lord and Savior, we are trusting Jesus alone to lead us and to save us. Confessing the Jesus truth is what gets us into what Jesus is doing. Walking in the Jesus way keeps us in. We need both. As Eugene Peterson observed, “The Jesus way wedded to the Jesus truth brings about the Jesus life. We can’t proclaim the Jesus truth but then do it any old way we like. Nor can we follow the Jesus way without speaking the Jesus truth.” Authentic disciples cannot cling to the truth about Jesus while avoiding the way of Jesus. The Jesus truth plus the Jesus way equals the Jesus life.
The Jesus truth is that he is God’s Son and our Lord. Jesus is very God of very God, showing us what God is like. Jesus is equally our Lord, a rather archaic way of speaking of a person with authority. Our British neighbors across the Atlantic have a House of Lords and so perhaps the title “Lord” still carries meaning for them. For Americans the only time we use the world lord is when we are talking about a landlord. Those of us who have rented a house or apartment understand what a landlord is. My wife and I rented for the first five years we were married, two houses and one apartment. When we were in the last house we rented, Jenni wanted to hang a wallpaper border in the kitchen. As much as we wanted to add some color in the kitchen, we couldn’t without the permission of the landlord. If we wanted to paint the walls, we couldn’t apply one drop of paint without permission because the walls of that house did not belong to us. They belonged to the landlord. When we confess the truth that Jesus is Lord, we are confessing that our lives no longer belong to us. They belong to Jesus. We just live here. Jesus now owns the right to our lives.
Confessing the Jesus truth is not enough to experience the Jesus life. We must also walk in the Jesus way. Paul’s words are clear: “Therefore, as you received Christ Jesus the Lord, so walk in him, rooted and built up in him and established in the faith” (Colossians 2:6-7). Jesus is the way to be truly and fully human, because Jesus is fully human. We were created by God as human beings to bear God’s image, to reflect God’s image into creation, and to reflect creation’s praise back to God. Sin twists us out of shape, so that we reflect a broken image. The way of Jesus is the way to be fully alive and thus fully human. The way of Jesus has been laid out for us in the Sermon on the Mount. It is the way of forgiveness, peace, and reconciling love. It is the radical way of truth, faithfulness, and enemy-love; the way of prayer, faith, and self-giving love. Not only do we experience the Jesus life when we walk in the Jesus way; we also become the means by which God is rescuing the world.
If we are going to make disciples, then we must start by becoming disciples ourselves. So ask yourself, “Do I want to follow Jesus?” In the end we all do what we want to do. So do you want to follow Jesus? Maybe you are struggling with that desire. Maybe you know intellectually that you ought to follow Jesus, but your desires are headed in a different direction. That’s okay. You can ask for God the Holy Spirit to change your desires, so that your ought to becomes your want to. So what do you want to do? When blind Bartimaeus stood before Jesus his need was clear, but Jesus still asked, “What do you want me to do for you?” In this moment, Jesus is asking you, “What do you want? Do you want to follow me, confessing my truth, walking in my ways, and experiencing my life?” If your answer is yes, then join us in this adventure of becoming a disciple of Jesus.
Have you ever watched a TV commercial or read a print advertisement that made something look deceivingly easy? I’m thinking about those weight loss companies that put out their most extreme “success” stories. You know the ones, featuring the before and after image of some average joe that lost mega pounds and now looks transformed thanks to the product or system being promoted. These oversimplified ads don’t tell the whole story.
Just what exactly went into that transformation? Does the transformation on the outside reflect what is going on inside? Is it possible that the transformation is merely an image projected to the world for its approval?
The problem is that when the rest of us average joes try this ourselves, we expect similar results and are thus set up for failure. To know the truth, one must read the fine print. Upon doing so, one will notice a disclaimer resembling something like this: Results not typical…
This is what I think of when I view social media. People are putting forth their most edited, engineered, manicured images for the world’s consumption. What is the reality behind those images? What was sacrificed in the quest for the perfect photo? Was there a genuine moment to be cherished that was missed, never to be recaptured? Or was the opportunity to engage in a genuine moment never given a chance? The price of those picture-perfect images can be relational, emotional, spiritual, or even physical, costing one their God-given life.
Social media aside, the most heartbreaking disclaimer worthy of advertisement is not an advertisement at all. It is dangerous, and it is happening inside Christian churches, often with what Christians consider good intention. A friend with such intentions recently told me of a speaker her church hosted. This speaker was a woman who had once been living a “homosexual lifestyle.” But through prayer and intentional living, chose to no longer pursue same-sex relationships. How simple. Results not typical.
While the speaker disclosed that choosing to remain single is not the path for all, still I am left with many questions. What was the church’s motivation in presenting the speaker? What were they hoping to accomplish? Would they also consider hosting an LGBTQ speaker with a different story? How may the listeners have been influenced by what they heard, and how will that message affect their relationships and beliefs? Maybe those with gay loved ones can pray the gay away; they just need to “try harder.” Or say the right words. Or point them to scripture. Or maybe, just maybe, if one is willing to sacrifice a loving, committed relationship, and their God-given soul, then they too can be “healed.”
Another similar story recently came from a woman in my Bible study group. She told of listening to a podcast in which a mother prayed for years for her son to be brought out of homosexuality. It wasn’t until he went to jail, and in reading a Bible he found in his cell, was able to turn from his “sinful ways.” How simple. Results not typical.
My friend and fellow Bible study member shared these stories I imagine to offer hope, or as an example that people could be brought out of homosexuality or choose not to act on it. But the danger lies in this: When Christians and churches parade such examples in front of their masses, they run the risk of their listeners oversimplifying the messages and interpreting them as truth. They don’t see what was sacrificed in order to achieve the transformation in question. I wonder if the woman who shared her story recognizes that her words may be met with expectation and comparison, undoing or further damaging relationships when such expectations remain unmet.
When religion and scripture are misused, it is deeply and profoundly dangerous, leaving indelible relational, emotional, psychological, and spiritual marks. Rather than being a shelter for the wounded, the church in this way inflicts the wounds. Instead of welcoming the marginalized and oppressed, the church furthers oppression and marginalization.
It should be no surprise that LGBTQ youth are almost five times more likely than their heterosexual peers to attempt suicide. Those who come from rejecting families are up to eight times more likely to attempt suicide than those coming from more affirming families. Eight times.
Imagine the results if the family, friends, and communities of LGBTQ people prayed for their own transformation. What if we prayed for our hearts to be transformed rather than our loved ones’ sexual orientation? What if we called out damaging theology when presented with an opportunity? Perhaps relationships would be restored. Community built. Safety established. Love lived out. Lives saved. What if?
The truth is that God does not need us to do his advertising for him. What God wants is for us to be in a relationship with one another, regardless of “results.” Now that’s a success story worth claiming.
Who is God? Any human answers fall far short. God is beyond our comprehension and formulation. Anything we say of God is little more than stuttering and mumbling. But that doesn’t mean that every utterance is equally empty of truth. Those of us who look to Jesus as the definitive revelation of God believe that his life and teachings present to us as much truth of God as we can grasp. For us, Jesus is the measure by which we evaluate all claims about God.
Likewise, Jesus is the measure by which we evaluate all claims about what counts as an “imaginary God.” This week the Rev. Robert Jeffress, Dallas megachurch preacher and one of the chief clergy mouthpieces for President Trump, accused Democrats who speak of their faith as having an “imaginary God.” He declared, “When they talk about God, they are not talking about the real God — the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, the God who revealed Himself in the Bible. These liberal Democrats are talking about an imaginary God they have created in their own minds: a god who loves abortion and hates Israel.”
I have no great interest in defending the Democratic Party. But I do care about truth about God and truth in general. Jeffress isn’t telling it. Liberal Democrats express neither love for abortion nor hate for Israel. Supporting legal abortion is far from “love for abortion.” People who deplore abortion often oppose banning abortion while supporting measures to reduce abortion that have proven to be far more effective: easy access to contraceptives, universal sex education, and a strong social safety net. And it is not “hate” toward Israel to insist that Israel be judged by the same standards of justice by which every other nation is judged.
Despite claiming to be nonpartisan, Jeffress places partisan commitments at the forefront as he determines what counts as an “imaginary God.” And he ignores Jesus. Jesus never mentioned abortion, and he didn’t hesitate to criticize the shortcoming of Israel even though he loved his nation (Luke 19:41). Regardless, Jeffress insists, “The truth is that when you talk about righteousness and unrighteousness, it is becoming clearer and clearer that the Democrat Party has truly become a godless party. It is a godless party.”
This come from a minister who has blatantly displayed his astonishing moral and spiritual blindness by saying, “I don’t know any policy the president has that is non-Christian,” and by claiming that Trump is “the most pro-Christian president that we’ve had in history.”
Jeffress’ use of the word “Christian” is disconnected from the Jesus of the Gospels. Jesus never favored the rich over the poor. He never supported the interests of the strong over the weak. He never stood with the privileged against the marginalized. He never sanctioned deadly force or threats of violence against people. He never justified ignoring the desperately needy in the name of security. Jesus used every means available to him to care for the poor, weak, marginalized, and threatened. If God is revealed in Christ, then the accusations of being “godless” and of having “an imaginary God” are more justly directed at those who support policies and practices that essentially do what Jesus didn’t and neglect what he did.
A couple years ago, Jeffress proudly revealed, “A Christian writer asked me, ‘Don’t you want the president to embody the Sermon on the Mount?’ I said, ‘Absolutely not.’” That answer says a lot about the emptiness of his claim that Trump is “the most pro-Christian president that we’ve had in history.” Jeffress touts the words “Jesus” and “God,” but it is the symbolic value that he cherishes — not the moral and spiritual content found in the teachings and example of Jesus.
I believe all presidents fall far seriously short of being disciples of Jesus. But it is one thing to acknowledge that fact and quite another for a high profile, Christian leader to declare he doesn’t even want a president who would actually follow the teachings of Jesus, infamously saying on several occasions that he wants for president “the meanest, toughest SOB.” So Jeffress can say, “I don’t know any policy the president has that is non-Christian,” only because he can’t even recognize what counts as “non-Christian.”
Consequently, Jeffress has no problem with supporting repugnant policies and doing so in the name of the Bible. Of course he has a couple passages he frequently points to, among them Romans 13:1-7, the last refuge of religious scoundrels and a favorite among clergy allies of dictators. Close to it is another frequently abused passage that tumbles from Jeffress’ lips: “Render unto Caesar the things that are Caesar’s.” But Jeffress uses these passages to render to Caesar the things that are God’s and to call people to “submit to the governing authorities” even when those authorities are practicing unjust, heartless policies.
Among Trump’s heartless policies that Jeffress considers as not “non-Christian” is the zero-tolerance policy regarding undocumented immigrants and the family separation and detentions of refugees and migrants at the southern U.S. border. Though study after study has shown that undocumented immigrants are less likely to commit violent crimes than native born Americans, Trump continues defending his cruel policies by claiming they protect the country from an invasion of criminals. Jeffress echoes that lie.
Jeffress has ignored Jesus’ lesson in the parable of the Good Samaritan by insisting that overwrought concerns over safety be put ahead of compassion and mercy when it comes to refugees and migrants. He thinks the U.S. should “say no to immigration and refugees until the government starts performing its God-given responsibility of securing the borders.” On the other hand, he has not loudly raised his voice to object to the horrible conditions children, women, and men have been enduring in detention facilities. Yet those who have studied such things say that what is taking place meets the definition of a mass atrocity.
Excuse making, blame-shifting, and minimizing the cruelty and injustice of the Trump administration, as is done by Jeffress and the others in what has been called “the Four Horsemen of evangelical hypocrisy,” seems to be strong evidence that he and those like him are the ones with the “imaginary God.” It is certainly not the God revealed in Jesus Christ but a god that deserves no honor at all.
Attending church services around the 4th of July always makes me uneasy. As I walked up the steps to the sanctuary at my church this year, I knew what to expect. And true to form, I found the sanctuary adorned with the red, white, and blue of American mythology. To be fair, the decorations were very understated and tasteful. The sanctuary did not contain any American flags or other national symbols standing alongside the symbols of our Christian faith. Nor did we sing “The Star-Spangled Banner” before whispering the Lord’s Prayer. In fact, the only “patriotic” song we sang was “America the Beautiful.” If you’ve never sung the entire song, the second verse is particularly relevant.
O beautiful for pilgrim feet,
Whose stern, impassioned stress
A thoroughfare for freedom beat
Across the wilderness!
God mend thine every flaw,
Confirm thy soul in self-control,
Thy liberty in law! (emphasis mine)
The subdued patriotism displayed by my church stands in stark contrast to the display at First Baptist Church in Dallas. The worship service there in 2018, led by pastor Robert Jeffress, was a display of unbridled nationalism paired with Jeffress’ peculiar brand of Christianity. Huge electronic flags waved behind the communion table while the mass choir and orchestra sang “Make America Great Again,” a song commissioned specifically for the event.
More and more, I’m seeing deliberate attempts to tie Christianity to American nationalism, and, as a Christian, I’m concerned. First, let me make the distinction between patriotism and nationalism using the words of Brian McLaren:
“Patriotism is the love for what is good, wise, and beautiful in a country, along with a corresponding desire to improve the parts of that country that aren’t good, wise, or beautiful. When we treat a nation as quasi-inerrant, and therefore God-like, we tip from patriotism to nationalism. We lose our ability to name and identify what is not good, wise, or beautiful about our country.”
Patriotism faces our shortcomings, learns from them, and seeks to improve. Patriotism. admits its mistakes and apologizes when appropriate. Patriotism will not rest until the promise of America holds true for each and every citizen.
Nationalism brooks no dissent. Nationalism admits no fault or shortcoming. Nationalism is unconcerned about the plight of the underprivileged, caring only about the wealthy and powerful. Nationalism says, “my country right or wrong,” “America, love it or leave it,” and “America for Americans.”
When combined with a religion giving the state ethical cover and a God-ordained mission, nationalism becomes a dark force that endangers us all.
The alliance of state power and religious fervor is nothing new. Throughout history, even to this day, nation states seek the blessing of religious authorities because they know how powerful a motivator religion can be.
When we think of the Pilgrims, we tend to think only of their flight to America seeking religious freedom. What we don’t speak of is the fact that many emigrants to this country did so to escape the incessant wars in Europe, many that were prosecuted based on disagreements on some fine point of Christian doctrine. A prime example is the Thirty Years War, fought between various Protestant and Catholic states in central Europe between 1618 and 1648, a conflict that caused some eight million casualties.
With this war fresh in their minds, the Framers of the Constitution decreed that the new government of the United States would never endorse an official state religion. The separation of religious and secular power was so important, the Framers enshrined it as one of our three revered rights — along with freedom of speech and freedom of the press in the 1st amendment to the Constitution.
The National Socialists of 1930s Germany understood the power of religion when married to the state all too well. While there is some debate about Hitler’s Christianity, most scholars agree that he was not a practicing Christian, and often derided its institutions and practitioners. This did not mean he did not use the faith of Christians in Germany to solidify his power and further his goals. Nazi propagandists often juxtaposed Christian symbols with Aryan mythology to conflate the two.
Now I’m not suggesting that America is facing the rise of a Nazi-like fascist state. The conditions in Germany in the 1920s and 1930s were unique to that time and place. Nonetheless, that does not preclude the rise of a form of fascism unique to American history and experience.
I’m sure many of you have heard this quote, often attributed to Sinclair Lewis: “When fascism comes to America it will be wrapped in the flag and carrying a cross.”
As it turns out, Sinclair Lewis is not the source of this quote. Nor can I find any reference to its origin. However, in 1944, John Thomas Flynn wrote As We Go Marching, considered by many to be a classic treatise on fascism in America. The following excerpt speaks a warning to us even today:
“But when fascism comes it will not be in the form of an anti-American movement or pro-Hitler bund, practicing disloyalty. Nor will it come in the form of a crusade against war. It will appear rather in the luminous robes of flaming patriotism; it will take some genuinely indigenous shape and color, and it will spread only because its leaders, who are not yet visible, will know how to locate the great springs of public opinion and desire and the streams of thought that flow from them and will know how to attract to their banners leaders who can command the support of the controlling minorities in American public life. The danger lies not so much in the would-be Fuhrers who may arise, but in the presence in our midst of certainly deeply running currents of hope and appetite and opinion. The war upon fascism must be begun there.”
The state provides the fuel, and religion provides the fire. Christians must hold true to the words of Christ: “Render to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s; and to God the things that are God’s” (Matthew 22:21).
We must resist attempts to conflate our Christian faith with the power and goals of the state. Christ calls us to build the kingdom of God on earth in the here and now. We cannot accomplish that by aligning ourselves with the secular state and, in doing so, justify the acts of the state as being ordained by God.