Hundreds of you responded to my post about those frightened by this election. I’m not used to this. Thank you all! Most comments were positive, but several good friends were concerned that I was “catering to a spirit of fear,” that people needed instead to be encouraged to trust more in God. These conservative friends seemed to read my motivation as primarily political.
But my comments had little to do with Trump or Hillary beyond the hidden spiritual allegiances they exposed. Each of you, I expect, faces similar conversations. So here is how I respond. I see Jesus as providing us a Third Way, a neither-liberal-nor-conservative-but-transformed alternative world view. But world views take time to express, so please take your time with this. I think it is tremendously important.
Because of the faith my parents instilled in me, Jesus’ world view became my life’s theme. At first it meant simply that Jesus provides our only sure security. In the 1980s, my most frequent sermon was “The Delicious Fear of Insecurity.” (Link) But my Board of Directors convinced me I was freaking people out – that instead of freely admitting our human insecurity and trusting Jesus, most Christians were desperately seeking “real” measurable security wherever they could find it. So back in the 80s I began to challenge congregations to step out of their comfort zones and risk, trusting only in Jesus (including in politics). This definitely is NOT a recent argument to favor “my” politician.
An analogy: as a child, a friend of mine cried herself to sleep many nights for several years, convinced she could never be good enough, that God would probably throw her into hell. Obviously her parents never said that. And theirs was a standard evangelical church. No one intended to give children such insecurity. But that message, unspoken, unintended, which the pastors would have forcefully rejected, got through nevertheless. Her scars endure today. I have talked to many others with a similar story. This judgmental evangelical spirit is a primary reason most of those in their 20s and 30s have given up on the institutional church. Fortunately some still are intrigued by the possibility of a living Jesus, one who does not demand that we shape up before he can find us acceptable.
I identify as an evangelical, but I believe the evangelical movement is dying because of misplaced faith in the “strengths” of conservative American culture (read The Bible They Never Told Me About). Our crisis is as major as during the Reformation, and I pray that the Church becomes changed that radically. Today’s evangelicals, for instance, reject as naïve the Jesus who said to love our enemies, from what is, to become more faithful to the spirit of Jesus. Evangelicalism is splitting, much of it becoming like the State churches of Europe – happy to be a voting bloc in a nationalistic power – while a growing minority want to forge a faithful alternative to conservative and liberal idolatries. A Third Way. This is the dynamic opposite of “catering to the spirit of fear in others.” Jesus encourages us to walk securely into the real dangers of this life with open eyes and a radical trust, not seeking political might, nor power, but his Spirit. “Though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death…”
A local black pastor expresses a similar tough spiritual analysis in “A message for people whose backs are against the wall.” (Link) Could he express his honest opinion and be as transparent in our churches, or would his faith be questioned?
I feel embarrassed by the ease with which so many white pastors move quickly from a brief confession to a one-sided celebration of God’s grace. (Whites’ freedom to move beyond others’ problems into our own comfort is the central meaning of “privilege.”) Would Jesus have praised a Samaritan who said to the one beaten up “You simply have to pray more and depend more on God”? No, the story Jesus told was opposite to that. Today, many non-white Christians and others who feel excluded, threatened and abused by our culture are crying out for our sacrificial incarnational support.
To me, the unspoken, unintended message in those dismissive words is that people are wrong to feel threatened. They are not praying enough, or in the right way, and their faith is not as strong as the speaker’s. That sounds like the Pharisee in Luke 18:9. I believe pastors should be challenged by those who genuinely love them, when they convey an unspoken message of prideful judgement. Other people will not tell them. They will just stop going to church.
But what if peoples’ fears, grounded in bloody history, have some merit? Can the white Body of Christ simply dismiss the insights and experience of most black Christians? A missionary friend, a long-time resident of South Africa, wrote me:
“This whole crazy election feels eerily like when the Nationalists came to power in South Africa and the country woke up in shock. Dark times!! Calling for courageous actions in the coming years. Nothing subtle about these guys, yet, as a young black American pointed out, already the press is working to normalize them. Chilling!! Our democracy is more fragile than this country realizes. South Africa taught me how fragile it is and how potent tribalism remains in our world!”
Even if things do not work out as darkly as some fear, is it really as simple as they need more faith? Can we really disparage the immense faith of slaves while they were lynched by Christians? Or the faith of South African blacks under Christian Reformed Apartheid? Or the fears of today’s black parents over police shootings? The missionary said “courageous actions” will be required. Either this is our shared problem as one Body or we are supporting the abuse! What could that mean? Millions of us seeking to pay (as the Good Samaritan did) for others’ health care? Possibly another MLK? I don’t know.
It is biblical to enter an extended lament while waiting for God’s guidance. I encourage you to read Prophetic Lament – A Call for Justice in Troubled Times, by Soong-Chan Rah, an evangelical seminary professor. Eldin Villafane of Gordon Conwell Seminary calls it “needed medicine for a Christianity enamored with a theologia gloriae and not the wisdom and power of a theologia crucis. It critiques our success-centered triumphalism and calls us to repent of our arrogant hubris.” Why is it always “others” who need to stop trusting in themselves? The proud triumphalism of the “haves” easily drowns out God’s cries for the “have-nots.”
On a personal level, for months Claire and I prayed for both Trump and Hillary, that God would answer whatever prayers they had that were in accord with the values of Jesus. I always prayed for George W and called him my brother in Christ (unlike many Christians’ character assassinations of Barak Obama). I am sad so many Christians put their hope in one who is the antithesis of every Gospel value I hold dear. The Bible warns against the idolatry of trusting in “a strong man.” The primary biblical idolatry is our trust in the power of money, political power and military strength. (See The Bible They Never Told Me About, p. 19)
Most who wrote negative comments assumed incorrectly that I trusted in Hillary. But there were not just two options. True, the third way of Jesus does not show on a ballot, but that is not defining for one whose real allegiance is not to this country. (My parents sang “This world is not my home…”) I avoided posting until after the election specifically to avoid being dismissed as being merely political. My concern is to share the real Jesus, the nonreligious Jesus, the one almost totally obscured by this election.
At my age, I soon will stand before my Savior. No political agenda is worth seeing Jesus’ disappointment because I misused his name for political gain. I am cynical about political claims that the answers for our country’s problems lie in either party’s platform, in the next funding bill, or in the Supreme Court.
It is in everyone’s interest for President Trump to succeed beyond his wildest dreams, to achieve all the positive things his people think he will do. I pray sincerely that I am wrong about my interpretation of his goals and attitudes. But when people say to be patient with Mr. Trump, I hear no rejection of the Republicans’ opposite strategy! By now in Obama’s first term, even before he assumed office, Senator McConnell had told Congressional Republicans that their chief goal was to insure that President Obama totally failed! They were to oppose everything the first black president did without regard to its merits, even to shutting down the government. I pray for Mr. Trump, but the difference is hypocritical.
I hope that white pastors will not ignore the leaders of those whose backs are to the wall.