On Washing Trump’s Feet–Or Kissing Him

Source: Vatican News

I rarely, rarely watch night time news shows.  I find them annoying and predictable.  Sometimes, though, predictable is what I want.

The other night, I watched a steady stream of CNBC news shows. I tuned into three shows for a total of about three hours.  Righteous anger and indignation, like incense at high worship, filled the airwaves, with gospel exhortations non-stop, from “Anyone paying attention saw this coming!” to “This is what you get when you elect a President like this.”  It felt great.

Up to last week, I’ve had no animosity toward Mr. Trump, only deep sorrow and frustration.  But I have to admit that the last few days I’ve come to hate him. And the barbarians who invaded the Capitol. And those Christians who carried “JESUS” banners, sang hymns during the siege, and justified the chaos. I want them all punished, to the maximum allowed by law.  No, I take that back. Beyond the law. Up to last week

Then I read this tweet by the novelist and essayist @annelamott, who over the last few years has released an avalanche of criticism at Mr. Trump.  But in a tweet on January 12 she said,

I hope Trump and his kids go to prison. But God loves this gross, violent, insane man. That’s the mystery of grace. I’ve said I’d wash Dick Cheney’s feet and I know he’d wash mine; while I’m not there w/Trump yet, I’d get him a glass of water. God and the pope would. Biden would.

We are suffering through an era when every thought, word, and action has to answer to the bar of justice.  And once we’ve determined what is just, we proclaim our verdict to the world (because, after all, if you remain silent, you are simply justifying the status quo), and righteously condemn the guilty to their just punishment (from being publicly ridiculed, to losing their platform, to going to jail).  We’re especially energized when the facts seem indisputable; then we can really let our righteous torrents fly.

I said we are “suffering” through an era of justice.  And I chose the word deliberately.  To be sure, I’m deeply grateful that we’re more alert to all manner of injustice in our nation and world. But when justice is the only song we sing, it begins to feel like a funeral dirge; it makes the world a scary and depressing place. As much as I enjoyed my righteous hate fest the other night, I felt a little sick when I shut off the TV.

Make no mistake. I’m the guy who said a year ago Trump should be impeached. Nothing’s changed. I’ve directed a fair amount of commentary against the idolatrous behavior of the Christian right. I stand by my remarks. Like most Americans, I was horrified by the violence let loose at the Capitol.  I think anyone guilty of breaking any laws on January 6, starting at the top, should be prosecuted.

But I’ve concluded that I must also be willing to see these guilty with the eyes of mercy.  Mercy without justice is mere sentimentalism and will destroy a community. Justice without mercy is soulless, and will do no less.

To put it in political terms, Abraham Lincoln had it right as the Civil War was coming to an end.  That conflagration was surely justification for stoking the embers of bitternesss–my God, the suffering and death caused by the obstinate South is still difficult to fathom. But Lincoln would have none of it.  In his second inaugural address, he concluded,

With malice toward none with charity for all, with firmness in the right as God gives us to see the right, let us strive on to finish the work we are in, to bind up the nation’s wounds, to care for him who shall have borne the battle and for his widow and his orphan–to do all which may achieve and cherish a just and lasting peace among ourselves and with all nations.

What does charity/mercy look like in regard to Trump and all those who encouraged or abetted the rioters, as well as the rioters themselves?  I’m groping for an answer.  Lamott’s biblical allusion gets me part way there.  If Donald Trump were to show up at a Maundy Thursday service at a church that practices footwashing on that holy day, and I ended up right behind him in line as we went forward, so that I would have to wash his feet—well, I’ve need to get to the place where I would do that not only because it is my Christian duty, but because I loved him.

I think my aversion to this imagined scenario (let alone the real thing) is perhaps not unlike the disgust Francis of Assisi felt toward lepers.   In an arresting passage from Thomas of Celano’s First Life of St. Francis, we read,

… he said in his Testament: “When I was in sins, it seemed extremely bitter to me to look at lepers, and the Lord himself led me among them and I practiced mercy with them.” So greatly loathsome was the sight of lepers to him at one time, he used to say, that, in the days of his vanity, he would look at their houses only from a distance of two miles and he would hold his nostrils with his hands. But now, when by the grace and the power of the Most High he was beginning to think of holy and useful things, while he was still clad in secular garments, he met a leper one day and, made stronger than himself, he kissed him.

That I might be made stronger than myself.

 

 

 

Posted in Character, Justice, Mercy, Soulwork, St. Francis | 12 Comments

Whatever Happened to Evangelicalism?

As editor in chief of Christianity Today, I often argued that evangelicalism is not disappearing and that the term evangelical, while controversial and misunderstood in some quarters, was still the best term to describe the movement.  However, after leaving my editorial post as well as moving my primary religious allegiance to Roman Catholicism, I think I have a better understanding of evangelicalism.

It’s like painting a landscape—when you are up close with brush in hand and eyes close to the canvas, you can see some things better.  But when you put the brush down and step back a few feet, and especially as you view the painting as someone seeing it for the first time—well, you gain a perspective you could not appreciate when your nose was on top of your work.  That analogy describes the sense I’ve had over the last few months since I retired.  And I think my Catholicism has helped me see American evangelicalism more clearly, enough to suggest what’s happening to the movement right now.

I write this not as someone who has left evangelicalism with a sour taste in my mouth.  Far from it.  Evangelical faith shaped me in so many positive ways, it’s hard to know where to begin.  Well, that’s not quite true.  I know exactly where it began.

The Evangelical Heritage
Soon after my mother’s conversion, my brother, cousin, and I were dragged to church with her—the Evangelical Free Church in Felton, California.  We’re not talking church lite, but Sunday morning and Sunday evening worship, as well as Wednesday evening prayer meetings.  And of course, Sunday morning included Sunday school.

During one class, the teacher read a passage in which Jesus had commanded something of his disciples—the particular passage and command has long left my memory.  The teacher asked the class of restless junior high kids, “Why should we do what Jesus tells us to do in this passage?”

Various answers came forth, all of which amounted to one version of pragmatism or another: it would be good for us, it would be good for others, and so forth.  The teacher kept shaking his head, saying, those things may be true, but those are not the reason we should obey this command.

When we finally admitted we were stumped, the teacher said, “We obey this command because it was given by Jesus.”

Even at age 13, I marveled at the simple and profound wisdom of this answer. For reasons too mysterious and complex to fathom, this has become an unshakable conviction for me ever since. We obey the teachings of Jesus, and of Scripture in general, because of their divine origin.  Today I recognize how difficult it is sometimes to hear the voice of the Lord in Scripture, as well as how varied our interpretations of what that voice is saying.  But I’ve never been able to seriously doubt that the Bible is the Word of God and Jesus the focal point of Scripture and, naturally, the Word of God in another sense.

Such is one of many gifts evangelical religion has bestowed upon me.  And despite being a journalist of evangelical faith at Christianity Today—thus seeing time and again the seamier side of the movement—I nonetheless have continued to admire evangelical faith.  Just one example.

Today we take it for granted that Christianity is a worldwide religion. But that would have been laughable in 1800, when Christianity was more or less a European religion. Then came the 19th century missionary movement in which evangelicals feverishly worked to take the gospel to the four corners of the earth.  Yes, they made mistakes and sometimes confused Christianity with western culture, but overall more people in more continents know Christ more personally because of those missionaries and their sons and daughters in the faith.

So when I talk about evangelicals today, I often still use the first person plural, “we” evangelicals,” because I still consider myself an evangelical in my personal relationship to Jesus, my belief in the authority of the Bible, and in the need to spread the gospel.  I may be an evangelical Catholic, but I still am proud to be associated with the history and legacy of the mostly Protestant movement.

A Dying Movement
And yet–I have to admit that the evangelicalism that transformed the world is for all practical purposes dying, if not already dead.  The symbol of that was the passing of Billy Graham, who even in old age managed to preach now and then, calling men and women of all ages and many cultures to come into a personal relationship with Jesus Christ. He was also the glue that held evangelicalism together for so many decades. Unfortunately, the symbol of what evangelicalism has become is epitomized by his son Franklin.

Franklin stands for evangelicals on the right and left who have come to believe that politics is an essential work of evangelical faith.  It started on the left with Jim Wallis and on the right with Jerry Falwell, each of whom have had their disciples and successors. Today too many evangelicals on the right think that to be truly evangelical is to be politically conservative.  And many on the left believe that to be truly evangelical is to be politically liberal.

In this battle, the conservatives have clearly won, as white evangelicals anyway have voted for the Republican presidential candidate by 67 to 81 percent in the last many elections. While the leaders of the Religious Right talk about Israel or abortion or religious freedom, when polled evangelicals on the ground consistently say that the economy (and currently, healthcare) is by far the most important issue to them. They believe, as they have traditionally, that the Republican candidate could improve their job prospects and economic security better than the Democratic candidate.

The identification of evangelicals with conservative politics is in part the doing of the mainstream media, who tend to make everything political. They assume in their reporting and polling that the most important thing about evangelicals is their politics.  A more serious problem is that evangelicals left and right have begun to believe this themselves, as they find it harder and harder to imagine that an evangelical from the other party can be a real Christian.

We’ve also bought into this in another way: for a few decades now, we’ve come to believe that if we’re not engaged in social justice or cultural change, we’re no longer relevant.  As a result, we’ve started to let the agenda of the world determine the agenda of the church, and we’ve sidelined evangelism and church renewal as a result.

I saw this transformation at Christianity Today in the hiring process.  Starting in the 1990s, candidate after candidate said the one thing they were most interested in was not evangelism or spiritual renewal but bringing cultural analysis is to bear in CT.  And when we had brainstorming sessions for what to cover in CT, for every 10 ideas about reporting on this or that social justice ministry, there might be one that argued for an article on evangelistic outreach.

Another troubling sign is our efforts to put evangelicalism into the service of politics.  We saw this most disturbingly when an Evangelicals for Trump rally was held in January 2020.  In describing themselves in that way, they had become just another political interest group, taking the great name of evangelical, with all its rich theological and gospel history and meaning, and putting in the service of a political candidate.   What’s really troubling to me is that instead of decrying this coopting of the term evangelical for political gain, the evangelical left has only mirrored this tragic move when they recently formed a group called “Pro-Life Evangelicals for Joe Biden.”

Whatever Happened to Evangelicalism?
This to me is the clearest sign that we have forgotten our first love.  By this I mean two things.  The first is something I have written about in When Did We Start Forgetting God?  In that book, I argue that we’ve become less interested in a deep personal relationship with God for ourselves and others and more in doing lots of good things for him in his same.  The second is our loss of interest in evangelism and church renewal.  In fact, I’m going to go so far as to say that our fascination with social amelioration and political activism has watered down the evangelical faith to the point that it looks little different than mainline Christianity.

We’ve forgotten that the genius of evangelical faith was its singular focus: spiritual renewal.  “You must be born again” was preached to individuals and to whole churches and denominations, from George Whitefield and John Wesley to Charles Finney to Dwight Moody to Billy Graham, in the first and second great awakenings to the circuit riders to local Baptist revivals. The focus was clear and simple: “You must be born again and enjoy a personal relationship with Jesus Christ, who died for the forgiveness of your sins and the promise of eternal life with him.”

The hymns of the movement drove this home. From:

He lives! He lives! Christ Jesus lives today!
He walks with me and talks with me
along life’s narrow way.

To:

In the sweet by and by
We shall meet on that beautiful shore
In the sweet by and by
We shall meet on that beautiful shore

What Denominations Are For
Now, let me be clear–or maybe a little confusing at this point. I absolutely believe that Christians take their place in the public square.  To love our neighbors, we must work for their well-being and for justice in our political and social commitments.  Christians should not run away from culture but dash right into the middle of it and do whatever it takes to show forth the love and righteousness of God.

And yet they should do that as Baptists, as Presbyterians, as Lutherans, and Evangelical Free, and so on and so forth.  They should do that in church structures that require them to work together, that can hold them accountable, that can help them speak from platforms that have historical and doctrinal integrity, in church structures that strive to live out the whole counsel of God.

And in these denominations and church structures, one prays that there will be a particular group with a particular passion—to win the lost for Christ, to bring ongoing spiritual renewal to their churches.  That’s their passion; that’s their mission; that’s their calling.  They are, if you will, not unlike a Catholic order, like the Franciscans or Dominicans or Carmelites or the Catholic Worker movement.  The Franciscans are known for their poverty; the Dominicans for preaching and teaching; the Carmelites for intimate prayer, Catholic workers for social justice.  And while each of these has been modified over the years to embrace other concerns, at their heart and in their history they are known for one thing. And that one thing is a great blessing to the larger church and to the world.

The mistake of evangelicals in our generation is that we want to be all things to all people and do everything that a denomination is called to do—discipleship, social outreach, encouraging the arts, neighborhood food closets and homeless shelters, tutoring programs, prayer, worship, and on it goes, as well as evangelism and spiritual renewal.

As a result, evangelicals today no longer have a laser focus on evangelism and spiritual renewal.  The current people called evangelicals have become nothing more than a group that have a common history but have lost the vision that explains so much of their influence in previous generations.  As a result, they will fade away, as will the very term: We’ve seen a recent sign of that: the group Evangelicals for Social Justice, founded by one of my heroes, Ron Sider, has just renamed itself as Christians for Social Justice. This strikes me not only as an appropriate name change, given my argument above. But it also a sign of things to come for all groups who currently identify as evangelicals.

That being said, I don’t believe that what evangelicalism has historically stood for will ever die.  In every generation, the Lord raises up some Christians to whom he gives the charism of evangelism and spiritual renewal.  What they will be called in the future, who knows. But if church history is any teacher and if the Lord is one on whose words we can depend, the gospel of the forgiveness of sins and spiritual renewal will continue to be preached and spread to the four corners of the world, and it will be carried by men and women who in a previous times were called Waldenians, Lollards, Hussites, Pietists, New Lights, and most recently, evangelicals.

 

Posted in Uncategorized | 9 Comments

What Moral Leadership Looks Like

Image by Art Bromage from Pixabay

 

The following is the transcript of my video contribution for the Convention on Founding Principles, held August 24 to 27, 2020.

 

*****

 

We’re not electing a pastor-in-chief.

That was one of the main criticisms of my now infamous December 2019 Christianity Today editorial in which I argued that President Trump is morally unfit for office. “We don’t elect political leaders for their morals,” goes the sentiment, “but for their ability to get things done.”

To many so-called “realists,” anyone who suggests that moral leadership is just as necessary as political skill is considered woefully naïve. If so, a whole school of political philosophers, starting with Aristotle, don’t know what they are talking about.

Such critics are inspired by Machiavelli, who argued that in a hostile and brutal world, political leaders are not merely justified by but are required to lie, cheat or otherwise do wrong “to get things done.”

Of course, anyone who has been a leader knows that one does not have to play moral idealism off against real politik.  They’ve had moments when they are faced not with a simple choice between good and evil, but between two goods, and worse sometimes two evils, and  they must choose the greater good or the lesser evil. As such moments, a leader’s ethics and wisdom are more crucial than ever. So we don’t have to deny the moral complexity of leadership to insist that we need men and women of character to lead us.

Which is why it’s natural to seek leaders who do not lie or steal, who are faithful to their spouse and friends and political allies, men and women who prize doing their duty over political expediency. A populace can hardly trust leaders if such baseline ethics are habitually violated.

At the same time, we know human nature, and nobody expects leaders to be “pastors in chief.” To be fair–and realistic–some of our most effective presidents and social justice champions have struggled in one or more of these areas of personal morality. Longing for moral leadership is like the line from the Pledge of Alliance that talks about “liberty and justice for all.” This is not a description of the way things are but an ideal toward which we continually strive.

The list of virtues needed in leadership are many of course: courage, patience, forbearance, among others. Yet at this perilous moment in our history, there is one moral virtue that is needed more than ever.

It was one modeled by Abraham Lincoln at the end of the Civil War, when he said in his second Inaugural Address that as he strove “to finish the work we are in to bind up the nation’s wounds,” with “all the firmness in the right as God give us,” we should not judge lest we be judged and proceed “with malice toward none [and] with charity for all…”

It was modeled by the United States government when it created the Marshall Plan at the end of WW2 to help a devastated Europe, including the nation that had taken over 200,000 American lives in battle and had murdered millions of Jews out of mere spite. As George Marshall put it, “Our policy is not directed against any country, but against hunger, poverty, desperation and chaos.”

It was modeled by the great John Lewis, recently deceased civil rights warrior, who talked about how to heal the deep wounds left by any injustice:

It is a love that accepts and embraces the hateful and the hurtful. It is a love that recognizes the spark of the divine in each of us, even in those who would raise their hands against us, those we might call our enemy . . . It is the ability to see through those layers of ugliness, to see further into a person than perhaps that person can see into himself….

Lewis of course was inspired by Martin Luther King Jr. who said in regard to his life-long crusade,

The problem is not a purely racial one, with Negroes set against whites. In the end, it is not a struggle between people at all, but a tension between justice and injustice.

And further:

A mass movement exercising nonviolence is an object lesson in power under discipline, a demonstration to the white community that if such a movement attained a degree of strength, it would use its power creatively and not vengefully.

In short, the most important moral trait of a political leader, especially in times of deep conflict, is that they not use power for vengeance but for justice grounded in mercy. It’s a refusal to treat others with whom one disagrees as “enemies” but only as opponents.  It is to remember that even our opponents are created in the image of God and, despite their views and projects that we find unsavory, they still retain an inherent dignity we are called to respect.

Among the many moral failings of our current president, his failure in this regard is the most egregious.  Just take his Twitter feed alone. Mr. Trump habitually ridicules his opponents, describing them as “unhinged,” “crazy,” “lying,” “disgraced,” “losers,” “crooked,” “phony,” “fake,” and people “of low I.Q.” His comments, which rage every day of the year, are the epitome of contempt for other human beings. Those who disagree with him are enemies who should be  humiliated.  He claims to be pro-life, and yet has no respect whatsoever for the lives of those who disagree with him. He is the most divisive, mean-spirited, and vengeful president in the history of the United States. One might argue he makes Richard Nixon look like a saint.

And while it is true that national divisiveness precedes his presidency, who cannot help but see that he has only made our divisions ever deeper; we now look across the chasm of differences with hate for one another, so that the American experiment in democracy threatens to collapse.

But let us not judge lest we be judged. We who seek to displace Mr. Trump from office are tempted by a great irony: in the cause of repudiating his moral legacy, we may merely sustain it by mirroring his caustic behavior. We are wise to remember that Donald Trump is also made in God’s image, as are all his advisers, as are Republicans who have sold their souls to sidle up to power, as are white supremacists emboldened by his contempt of others, as are those evangelicals, my brothers and sisters in faith, who talk about Mr. Trump in messianic terms.

This doesn’t mean we should become models of  sunshine and sweetness, ignoring  injustice and immoral leadership for the sake of a false peace. Far from it.  But it does mean we should not talk about our opponents as if the only solution is that they need an exorcism.

In short, let us fight not to humiliate them and then glory in our victory, but so that justice and peace may prevail for all.

And if our anger is too deeply embedded in our hearts, and in bitterness we cannot think of them as anything but enemies, okay—I get it. Let us then at least remember the bracing words of the One who called us to love not just our neighbors but also our enemies.

We will not have any right to take up moral leadership in any capacity, from the local school board to Congress to the presidency, if in achieving a strategic victory, we simply seek to punish the losers. Bearing as they do the imprint of divine dignity, we respect them still, not because they are right, but in spite of the fact that we believe them wrong, catastrophically wrong in some cases.

We do so with the hope of healing a nation afflicted with the pandemic of  polarization and helping us once again become a people whose pursuit of truth and justice is ever tempered by mercy.

Posted in Character, Leadership, Morals & Manners | 10 Comments

When Diversity Challenges Excellence and Efficiency

multi colored pen lot on black background

The pressure to sideline technical, discipline-specific expertise for the sake of diversity continues to mount.  The latest is the demand that orchestras stop using blind auditions, which require musicians to play behind a screen so that judges cannot see their gender or race but only hear them play.  By the usual measures, it has been a huge success for women and Asians, who previously were hard to spot in the orchestra pit but now are found in every section. The complaint, however, is that this hasn’t help African Americans in particular, so the suggested solution is to drop blind auditions and insist that orchestras hire a certain percentage of African Americans.

The core issue at play can be seen in many fields.  Even math, the most objective and rational of disciplines, has been called racist or “white math” (see here and here).  We’re seeing a push to challenge the very idea of excellence in many fields, or at supplant it with the ideal of diversity.

The Rise of Excellence

Our criteria of excellence is in large measure a product of the Enlightenment and the growth of science, rationalism, and specialization in all the disciplines.  Each profession and field has unique skills one must master to acquire proficiency in that field:  teaching, business, coaching, television, medicine, aeronautics, music, and so forth. And one reason many African American activists are frustrated with America is because blacks are not well-represented in many of these arenas.  The argument often made is that the criteria of excellence have been created by the white majority, which have consciously or inadvertently sidelined African Americans.

I must say that although I am instinctively biased toward such traditional criteria of excellence, as a Christian, I admit that technical excellence in many instances should be subordinate to other values, in particular love of neighbor.  I have a friend who has fought to retain an elderly secretary in his department, despite her many inefficiencies and increasing inattention to detail.  Colleagues argue that she her weaknesses are preventing excellence in their work.  On the ground of efficiency—a high, high value in an Enlightenment world view, not to mention capitalistic economics—she should be replaced.  On humane criteria—that she has given 20-plus years of faithful service and will retire in a few years—she should be retained.  I think my friend has it right: there are times when love trumps excellence and efficiency in an organization.

And this is why I’m open to arguments that there is something more important than technical or discipline-specific excellence in any given field. I can especially appreciate the argument in the field of journalism, which is the only one in which I have first-hand knowledge.  I’m not convinced the dynamics I’m about to outline are inherently racist as much as economic and cultural—especially that demand for efficiency and excellence–but the phenomenon certainly has racial consequences, nonetheless.

How It Worked at CT

When I was managing editor and then editor in chief at Christianity Today, I was responsible for the hiring of staff, even if subordinates did much or all of the leg work leading up to applications and final interviews.  Though we asked African American, Hispanic, and Asian friends to recommend candidates, they rarely did (one African-American journalist actually recommended only white candidates!). Even though the job openings were publicized broadly, very few minority candidates applied. And when they did, we rarely hired them.

When a minority candidate did apply, we found in most instances they did not have the journalistic skill set that we prized.  Our mistake, in retrospect, was that we valued journalistic excellence and efficiency more than anything else.

As I wrestled with this problem, I slowly realized that we were not as pure as we imagined. CT has very high journalistic expectations of its writers.  Anyone who has written for CT knows what a pain CT is to work with.  That’s partly due the demands CT makes on writers (we’ll ignore the less noble reasons for now).

However, if some venerable evangelical leader, usually with a broad network, wanted to say something in the magazine and yet wasn’t a good writer, we welcomed him or her with open arms nonetheless.  We did this whether the leader in question was white, black, Asian, Hispanic, Democrat, Republican, Libertarian, or whatever. And we worked with this leader—and sometimes it took lots of work–to make the piece publishable, if not excellent journalistically.  Why?  Because we valued the network or perspective this person represented, that is, we wanted to be seen as a magazine that was interested in that network or who included those who held that opinion.  In other words, having a strong network or having a certain life experience or having a unique perspective trumped journalistic excellence, as such, in those cases.

When it came to hiring staff, we were more consistent. None of those things were considered nearly as valuable as the ability to report and write and edit English prose of a certain journalistic style–that used by many of the elite publications of America.  And we expected them to be efficient at doing this—”excellence on demand” is how one editor put it.  Make no mistake, these are valuable skills, and when in the hands of talented journalists, it makes the world a better place.  So we never hired anyone of any ethic group or demographic—including white leaders—if they didn’t show journalistic excellence. To be frank, it was often due to economic pressures: we believed we could not afford to take the time or trouble to spend months training them journalistically—we had a magazine to get out, both monthly and daily. So we wanted talented people who could hit their keyboards running.

Does this mean that there really are not highly qualified minority journalist candidates?  Of course not. To take examples just from the African American community, note the number of superior journalists and writers at major media today–Eugene Robinson (Washington Post), Thomas Sowell (academic), Clarence Page (Chicago Tribune), Ta Nehisi Coates (writer), just to begin with. But for various reasons too complex to go into, talented African American journalists have usually had little interest in applying to CT (fortunately there have been some stellar exceptions).

I suspect this phenomenon can be found in many disciplines and fields, and it is often economic pressures for “excellence on demand” that make organizations so impatient in their hiring.  It’s the rare organization that will set aside a few spots for people they will patiently train up.  And yet it’s also the rare organization that doesn’t have a “good-old-boy network” that it looks to from time to time. One can understand the charges of hypocrisy when an organization proclaims its pure pursuit of excellence while making exceptions for its preferred demographic.

Ongoing Tension of Values

So, as the examples of music and math suggest, some in the U.S. now argue that the traditional criteria of excellence in many fields needs to be bracketed immediately for the sake of diversity, or one might say, to pursue excellence in diversity.  As I said, I recognize that humane values must sometimes trump excellence and efficiency, no matter the dictates of the economy—so I get it.

Fortunately, we’ve already made diversity a crucial criterion in many fields, certainly in television, movies, and the stage. Excellence now often demands that no visual production can be considered so if its cast is not diverse—even if the production is set in a historical period when only whites played significant roles. Thus the genius of the musical Hamilton, whose cast is a perfect example of this trend, in which black actors play key white leaders during America’s founding era.

The question now is: how many other fields should diversity be the reigning criteria?  Classical music?  Math? I could see an argument for the first (though I would finally demur), but not at all not for the second.  For journalism, yes, but not for medicine.  And so forth.  But the issue is not the mindless junking of excellence—as some conservative minds see it.  And race as such is not  the only issue at play, as some liberals would have it. There is something deep within us that respects Enlightenment assumptions as true and good, and something there that longs for human values to check the brutal coarseness of our excellent efficiencies and to name our hypocrisies. In short, we have two goods fighting with one another, which is why this debate will not be settled anytime soon.

[Photo by Sharon McCutcheon on Unsplash]

 

 

Posted in Race | 12 Comments

After the Protests, Now What?

Image by Tom Sramek Jr from Pixabay

After absorbing the video of George Floyd gasping for breath under the knee of a policeman, the country erupted in protest.  The anger and frustration of blacks especially, but also of people of all races in many nations across the globe, is palpable. While the protests continue, people are starting to ask, “What do we do now?” Indeed. What can we do about intractable racism?

I believe one answer comes from our Lord, of course, but what that answer looks like is seen in a little-known moment in the life of Francis of Assisi.

It occurred at a general chapter of the Franciscan order in September 1220.  From its small beginnings ten years earlier, where a dozen men lived together in humble dwellings, the order now numbered thousands of men from all over Europe. It was everything Francis had dreamed of since the beginning—a large and devout movement that would reform the church to live the teachings of Jesus in poverty and humility. Surely the Lord had made all this possible and put him at the head so that he might continue to guide it at this crucial moment. And no one in the order would have disagreed—Francis was the man of the hour and the era, and his leadership was desperately needed more than ever.

But Francis pulled a fast one on his brothers. He announced at the general chapter that he was going to step down as head of the order. He would turn matters over to Brother Peter of Catanio.

The brothers were stunned. Many wept openly. They pleaded for him to change his mind. But Francis refused. To drive home his decision, he bowed before Peter and asked him to appoint him a companion, “who will represent your authority to me and whom I shall obey as if I were obeying you.”

/———/

In the course of human events, some groups, some ethnicities, some races end up dominating a society. And human nature being what it is—addicted to sin–that empowered group schemes (sometimes consciously, sometimes unconsciously, sometimes inadvertently) to maintain their privilege and then marginalize and oppress one or more other groups. The longer the history of oppression, the harder it is for the dominant group to stop oppressing—even when its members see injustice for what it is and believe it a terrible wrong. The dominant group becomes as addicted to their privilege as an alcoholic is to the bottle. They will talk change, they will advocate change, they will even march for change–but it will be a long time coming. In the meantime, let’s have just one drink to settle the nerves.

I agree with my black brothers and sisters when they complain that change is taking too long in America.  So we have to ask, “Why is it taking so long?”  I know there are Americans who are vocal and conscious racists, but I dare say they are very few these days. Many right-wing conservatives also lament the murder of Lloyd and police brutality against minorities. Everybody and their uncle believes that racism is a terrible blight on our history and insidious in our present.  But year after year, very little seems to change this reality.

Since I came of age in the 1960s, I’ve watched many a demonstration and riot in the name of racial justice. The same slogans and mantras appear time and again, from “Justice now!” to “Work the system!” But my conclusion after six decades is that the system is broken.  That’s because it is run by the ideas of the dominant political and social class, which now includes a fair number of minorities who have gained access precisely because they have agreed to abide by these ideas.  They are all addicted to privilege—even when these elite say they ardently desire change. It complicated, they say.  It takes time, they say.  You just doesn’t understand, they say. (And yes, we say.  I said such things a few too many times as editor in chief of Christianity Today.)

I no longer believe that the privileged will ever get around to the justice demanded by the marginalized, and so it’s time to turn the problem over to someone else. We privileged have had our historical moment in the sun. And I’m proud of what we have accomplished in our time. We’re not nearly as evil and clueless as the woke make us out to be. To use a football analogy, we’ve carried the ball of justice into the red zone. But there is some defect in the way we think and the way we execute that prevents any significant progress from this point forward. It’s apparent we can’t get the ball across the goal line. Time for some new coaches, new offensive coordinators, and new quarterbacks.

/——–/

Concerning what this means for the nation, I have nothing new to offer. The best one might hope for is a new crop of candidates from marginalized communities to run for office, from city boards to Congress—and candidates that will not use the playbook of the privileged class once in office. We need some fresh thinking here. The current ruling class has run out of ideas; it is exhausted and out classed by the problems of the hour.

But when it comes to those of Christian faith in groups and organizations that are faith-based, I have a thought experiment for us to consider.  It applies to those of us who lead anything from small groups to a Sunday school class to a church committee to a non-profit. It’s not a thought experiment, really.  More of a command from our Lord, and something modeled by St. Francis: He who wishes to be first must become last; he who has authority over others, must become their servant.  He who is in a position of authority must relinquish that authority and hand it over to someone who is marginalized.

It’s unclear in my mind exactly how that would work in various circumstances—whether one is employed or managing the household or retired, whether volunteering or paid, whether one has financial obligations for others or not. The principle as it stands—give up authority–is naked as it stands.  It will have to be dressed in justice, mercy, and wisdom.

But this much is clear: it is the eye of the needle that the privileged must walk through. It will not be easy, for it shakes the foundation of our souls. As Alexander Solzhenitsyn put it,

If only it were all so simple! If only there were evil people somewhere insidiously committing evil deeds, and it were necessary only to separate them from the rest of us and destroy them. But the line dividing good and evil cuts through the heart of every human being. And who is willing to destroy a piece of his own heart?

If we’re going to sacrifice our privilege, each of us is going to have to destroy a piece of his own heart.

This move alone, if done by enough Christians in churches, community groups, and non-profits, could revolutionize the face of Christianity in America.  Seeing Christians of privilege take the gospel sayings of Jesus seriously, following in the footsteps of St. Francis—why it might give unbelievers cause to question their unbelief and cynicism.

Martin Luther King Jr. expressed Christian eschatology eloquently when he said, “The arc of the moral universe is long, and it bends toward justice.” It also bends the mighty and the proud, and puts them on their knees, so they can wash feet and raise others up, as did their Lord.

Posted in Justice, Leadership, Morals & Manners, Race | 14 Comments

There Is More than One Gospel

The current riff about it is a distraction from urgent matters.

Image by Amy S from Pixabay.

For a few years now, certain players in the evangelical stratosphere—John Piper, Trevin Wax, N.T. Wright, Scot McKnight, among others—have been arguing about “the gospel.”  Each in turn wonder, What is it exactly?

To simplify matters (recognizing their complexity): On the Reformed side, the gospel is justification by faith.  That is, we are justified before God and his tribunal by faith in the work of Jesus on the cross, where he endured the just punishment for our sins.

Critics respond: “The good news is that the crucified and risen Jesus is the Messiah of Israel and therefore the Lord of the world.” (N.T. Wright). This Scot McKnight, in many blog-posts and a whole book, summarizes as “Jesus is King!”

[Addendum: to be clear, Scot’s views are much more complex and interesting than this, and one thing I especially like about his view is that Jesus must be seen as  a fulfillment of what God has been doing with the Jews since the days of Abraham. The church’s sorry history of anti-semitism could have been avoided had the church kept this in focus.]

Both parties acknowledge that their gospel has many consequences, including forgiveness of sin, eternal life, and so forth, but they each keep insisting that the gospel is one thing, and not surprisingly, it is the thing they have identified as the one thing. [Addendum: to put it less rhetorically and more accurately, they continue to insist on one definition.]

In addition, each argues that to misunderstand this one thing/[definition] leads the church into practical error.  McKnight, for example, worries that the gospel as justification by faith encourages decisionism—that is, a simple statement of heartfelt faith is all that matters for one’s salvation, which undercuts discipleship and leads inevitably to lack of concern for personal ethics or social justice.

Never mind Paul saying this much in Romans, among other places: “If you declare with your mouth, ‘Jesus is Lord,’ and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved” (10:9).  Never mind that the thief on the cross was saved with the utterance of mere words.

Maybe the roots of paltry personal ethics and anemic social justice lie elsewhere than in a definition.

On the other side, there is concern that if we removed justification by faith from the center, then Christianity itself is doomed. In an overview history of the church, the site Monogerism, concludes: “The history of justification by faith alone is the development of two ways for one to be forgiven of sin. One way says the merits of man’s works plus Christ are need for forgiveness. The other way says the merits of Christ alone received through faith are all that is needed.”

In this view, church history really began with the Reformation.  There’s Paul, and then there’s Luther.  So much for the 1500 years between, which this view considers a millennium and a half of works-righteousness in one form or another, with only brief candles of hope flickering here and there.

Let me be clear. I love reading about justification by faith and admire the many theologians who expound it eloquently.  And I love reading about the Lordship of Christ, and have learned much in reading Scot McKnight over the years (although he is an annoyingly good golfer for a guy who rarely plays—and this I do hold against him). And yes, I get that each side makes a number of qualifications that makes room for a fair portion of the other’s arguments.  But in the end, the whole business is repeatedly presented as an either/or matter. With apologies Kierkegaard, I beg to differ. My annoyance is not personal, but it is theological.

Can I remind us that the New Testament opens with four books, which have been rightly and traditionally titled:

The Gospel According to Matthew

The Gospel According to Mark

The Gospel According to Luke

The Gospel According to John

As New Testament scholars are wont to point out, each gospel presents a slightly different take on the story of Jesus. To oversimplify with one example: Matthew is a gospel for Jews and Luke for Gentiles.  Another example: in a completely different vein, John is considered the metaphysical gospel.  Other distinctions abound, with nuances assumed.

The early church with providential wisdom, let all four stand together, despite their differences, and despite the many problems it caused early apologists and preachers sometimes (a gospels harmony is no easy thing to pull off!). They understood that the gospel is a many splendored thing, that to make it one thing was essentially to distort it.

They also understood that the gospel is first and foremost not a doctrine but a story, a story which, like all stories, includes a great deal of ambiguity, misdirection, plot twists, and endings that are new beginnings.

In short, the gospel is about King Jesus and the justification by faith and forgiveness of sins, and eternal life and empowerment of the Holy Spirit, and becoming like God and Jesus’s defeat of Satan and the assurance of the coming of the Kingdom and the radical ethics of love and faith alone and so on and so forth. There is a great deal of good in the good news, which lest we forget is what gospel means.

God in his wisdom has offered a variety of insights into the goodness of the many splendored good news.  I usually find the message, “Jesus is King,” intellectually interesting.  I believe it, but it doesn’t tend to quite touch my heart.  Preach to me about the unfathomable mercy of God in dying for my sins—well, I’m moved to tears.  Apparently, many find just the opposite to be the case. And many others, find other splendored aspects of the good news to be really good.

If I may be so bold as to suggest: This argument about the gospel-is-one-thing is a display of a typical Protestant problem: the need to prove to others that your interpretation of Scripture is not only right but must be adhered to else the future of Christendom hangs in the balance. It’s what’s lead to thousands upon thousands of denominations–a lack of unity in this portion of Christ’s body that is beyond scandal.  That is very bad news indeed.

(An interesting piece that examines exactly how many thousands is found here—it’s more complicated than many make it out to be.  It’s not 33,000.  But it’s not nothing.)

Can we just let the justification by faith crowd preach the message God has placed on their hearts? And can we let the Jesus is King crowd do the same with their message?  And can we let the divisive ramblings of theologians be replaced by attentiveness to God’s Word as it comes to us week by week? Meaning, when the week’s reading in worship is about justification, preach justification; when it’s about Jesus’s lordship, preach Jesus’ lordship; when it’s about the power to become like God, preach that; and when it’s about the resurrection of the dead, preach that.  And so on.

Of course, there are boundaries to what the gospel is and is not–of course! And theologians need to be attentive to such matters–that’s one of their jobs. But really, upon consideration, is this matter really the hinge upon which the future of the church hinges right now? Perhaps history will prove me wrong, but I think not.

Instead of arguing about the gospel, or even arguing with one another, let us use our intellectual gifts to argue with the real enemies of the many splendored gospel, about intellectual matters that display deep fault lines in our world, like pervasive relativism, idolatrous materialism, humanistic secularism, and attacks on all forms of religious belief across the world.

The world is dying in unbelief and is threatened with worldviews and practices that endanger people’s souls.  Arguing for a one-thing gospel is, to people like me anyway, a distraction from baptizing and discipling the world.

(Of course, in publishing this, I recognize I’m doing the exact thing I preach against—arguing about the gospel!  Which just goes to show I’m just as Protestant, and perhaps just as divisive, as by brothers and sisters.  Lord have mercy on us all.)

===

Naturally, my publisher will rightly consider me remiss if I didn’t encourage readers to check out my recent book:  When Did We Start Forgetting God?: The Root of the Evangelical Crisis and Hope for the Future (Tyndale, 2020).

Addendums (nuances!) added on 5/5/2020 after conversations with Scot.

Posted in Church, Morals & Manners, Soulwork | 5 Comments

My Latest Book Just Released

That book would be When Did We Start Forgetting God? The Root of the Evangelical Crisis and Hope for the Future.

Regarding the book, there is some good news and bad news. The book is (as of this writing) #1 on Amazon’s “New Releases in Christian Church Growth” list. Bad news: they upped the Kindle price! If the topic interests you, the paperback is cheaper for now.

As most of you know, I spent 30 years embedded in various magazines at Christianity Today, most recently as editor in chief of the flagship. This book is my take on the state of evangelical spirituality—the good, the bad, and the beautiful.

I’ll be honest I only allude to the way forward, because frankly, I’m a fellow struggler in trying to understand what exactly it means to love God with all my heart, soul, mind, and strength. Still, I believe I’ve tapped into a pressing need in my own life and that of Christians in general.

If you want a taste of what I’m driving at in the book, you can read a few essays from my The Elusive Presence series, which I published last summer. They constitute the opening chapters of the book, more or less.

Posted in Church, Morals & Manners, Soulwork | 1 Comment

Who Made Us God?

I failed to note this article in the National Catholic Reporter when it was first published.  Unfortunately, it is perennially timeless.  Some readers have been concerned I’ve been hard on the religious right and have gone easy on the left.  But as this article shows, I’m an equal opportunity offender. Some excerpts:

What does it profit a person if he should gain all his political wishes but then lose his soul? Most of us answer, “Quite a bit, really,” especially if we can throw religious believers under the bus for their political views….

… attacks on the sincerity and worthiness of another’s faith are wielded by the religious right and the religious left. It is the air we breathe in our Christian churches — well, maybe not in worship, but apparently, in Protestant churches at least, during the coffee hour. It’s not only Trump’s gaffe during the prayer breakfast. It’s also our gaffe day in and day out at our breakfast and dinner tables at home and at church….

… if our democracy is to have any future, we need to get out of the business of judging the internal state of others’ hearts.

Read the whole piece here.

Posted in Character, Morals & Manners | Comments Off on Who Made Us God?

‘Essentials’ in a Pandemic

Perhaps you are aware of the “essential controversy”—meaning the umbrage some Christian leaders have taken because the state has determined that only grocery stores, medical facilities, gas stations, and the like are considered “essential” services.  By implication (it is argued), the state is saying that religious services are “not essential,” thus forbidding worship and other religious gatherings.

This has offended some in more sacramental traditions, especially some conservative Roman Catholics, but also a fair number of Pentecostals.  They argue that corporate worship is essential, and for some the receiving of communion is especially so.  The feeling is that if at a time like this church is not seen as essential, and allowed to operate like these other services, it will seem even less so once the crisis is over.

This is poppycock. And shows a great deal of confusion among believers who should know better.  Of course corporate worship is essential. But when the state talks about essential services, it is not doing theology.  It’s not talking about all the dimensions of human life, but only those that concern the physical well-being and safety of its citizens. This is one of its proper concerns.

For the Christian, especially those in sacramental traditions, there is no fundamental divide between the spiritual and the physical.  That is the point of the incarnation, after all, when God became flesh and dwelt among us.  It was an act of divine blessing, making holy all of our physical existence.  To care for and preserve human life, then, becomes a divine calling.  It’s the reason Jesus spent so much of his energy healing people of their physical infirmities—it was a demonstration that the tangible, physical world God created is to be treated with the deepest respect and care.

Thus Christians, of all people, can applaud the state for anything it does to contain a virus, even if that means temporarily closing down religious gatherings.  For the state is more or less doing the work of Jesus at this point, working for the health of every one of its citizens.

This does not mean corporate worship is no longer considered essential—of course it is!  Is there any Christian on social media who is arguing that virtual worship and virtual prayer meetings are sufficient?  In fact, sheltering in place has made us more aware than ever of the inadequacy of virtual gatherings and of the absolute need to be physically with other believers. On the one hand, these virtual gatherings deeply encourage us.  At the same time, they only exacerbate the longing we have to be physically together again.

This is not a new phenomenon, this longing:

Dear brothers and sisters, after we were separated from you for a little while (though our hearts never left you), we tried very hard to come back because of our intense longing to see you again.     — 1 Thessalonians 2:17

Why Jesus Fasted from Worship

And then there is this: Even in normal times, we sometimes temporarily forsake something essential.  Fasting is the best example.  We give up that which is physically essential for our survival to deepen our relationship with God.  Solitary retreats are of the same species.  Jesus himself did both, fasting alone for 40 days and nights, forsaking corporate worship (for at least five Sabbaths) and food, both essentials.  It is not much of a stretch to say that, by God’s providence, we are today asked to fast from corporate worship and the sacraments for a time, and that this will not decrease our faith but only allow us to ground ourselves deeper in him.

How can this be so?  Here’s one aspect: Fasting from corporate worship forces us to recognize that God is to be met not in just some ethereal space of the mind and heart, but most deeply when we are in the company of his friends.  This helps us see one continuing consequence of the incarnation, that is, of how God makes himself known today.  Worship is not merely fellowship on steroids—otherwise any gathering would do. Worship is not a spiritual pep rally, where we are privately lifted into God’s presence while enjoying the therapy of praise choruses. Instead, worship in the presence of other human bodies is that mysterious event in which we find that loving God and loving the neighbor are not really two commands but one, that one cannot be had without the other.

It’s Not About Us

And that leads us to one more dimension, which has little to do with us.  The act of refusing to meet is an act of love for our neighbor.  We abide by the state’s order first and foremost because it’s a way to help prevent the spread of a disease that can devastate the lives of millions. How can we love our neighbor at a time like this?  We can willingly give up something essential, like corporate worship and the receiving of the sacraments, so that we won’t inadvertently make life more risky for our neighbor.

As Dietrich Bonhoeffer noted in his The Cost of Discipleship:

If there is no element of asceticism in our lives, if we give free rein to the desires of the flesh (taking care of course to keep within the limits of what seems permissible to the world), we shall find it hard to train for the service of Christ. When the flesh is satisfied it is hard to pray with cheerfulness or to devote oneself to a life of service which calls for much self-renunciation.

In the end, I think our complaints about having to forsake anything at any time boils down to one thing. We mask it as concern about creeping secularism or the freedom to worship or lack of faith in God’s protection. But, if I may hazard a guess based on my own weaknesses, for most of us, we just loathe self-renunciation.

And yet self-renunciation is about the essential act of faith, beginning with forsaking sin and evil at our baptism. Despite all the bad news surrounding recent events, it doesn’t take a theology degree to understand that this is an opportunity for self-renunciation like none other. 

Posted in Church, Morals & Manners | Tagged | 7 Comments

Refocus

As readers of this site know, when I retired, I was in the midst of a media flurry. The cause was my December 19 editorial questioning Donald Trump’s moral fitness for office. Since I wrote that as editor in chief of Christianity Today, it aroused substantial interest across the world. I’ve had requests from not only major US media, but also print and video outlets in Japan, France, Canada, and others. They have all seemed eager to talk to an evangelical who questions a controversial president heartily supported by so many evangelicals. They are also interested in learning more about evangelicals.

I’ve tried to be accommodating, as my schedule has allowed, because in nearly every interview, I was able to give insight into current evangelical life to reporters unaware of its nuances, and sometimes I’ve been able to talk about the Christian faith to unbelievers. To be frank, I’ve not been particularly enthusiastic about all of this (well, except talking about our Lord), but I felt that providence had opened a door and it was my duty to walk through it. I was also convinced there would come a time to move on.

Well, that time has come–or better the time to move back to what I’m really interested in, what I believe is the core calling at this stage of my life: trying to increasingly understand the dynamics of the spiritual life. At times, that pursuit will attend to politics, but I rarely feel compelled to write about this intersection–I’m just not that interested in politics, to be frank. But I’m fascinated with the relation of faith and culture, and that of the individual believer and the church–and especially in what’s going on in the deeper recesses of our souls.

This Lent–and the forced retreat demanded by current pandemic–have helped me refocus, or better, remind myself of what I need to be doing in the next stage of my life. In the coming weeks, you’ll see changes to this site to match this new focus, and I’ll explain those as they evolve.

In the meantime, if you are interested in my emerging thoughts on the dynamics of the spiritual life, you’ll want to register to receive email updates–just go to the top of the right column on the home page to subscribe.

More to come….!

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