“I hope this person believes this. Some days I am not even sure I do.”

Like most people, I sat down early Tuesday evening, November 8, 2016, to watch election returns fully expecting that, by the time I went to bed, Hillary Clinton would be declared the country’s first female president.

Instead, I saw my home state of Pennsylvania fall to Trump, followed by the Clinton “firewall” states of Michigan and Wisconsin. I was shocked. I was saddened. I was angry. But my emotions were less about the new president-elect and more about the large number of my fellow evangelicals who voted for him.

Five days later–the Lord’s Day–I took my seat in the sanctuary of the central Pennsylvania megachurch where I had worshipped with my family for the last sixteen years. As I looked around at my fellow worshippers, I could not help thinking that there was a strong possibility, if the reports and polls were correct, that eight out of every ten people in that sanctuary–my brothers and sisters in my community of faith–had voted for the new president-elect. This seemed to reflect deep divisions in how we understand the world, and it was deeply distressing.

I still attend that church, but I have not visited in person since the outbreak of COVID-19. I wish I could say that COVID-19 is the only reason I haven’t returned. It’s been four years since that post-election Sunday and there are days when my anger and disappointment are still raw. This is not an indictment of the pastoral staff at my church or most of the members–past and present–of the church elder board. They are serious Christians who have been doing their best to navigate this season without dividing the church. I appreciate the work they are doing and I can tell when they are trying to bring biblical faith to bear on the times without naming names or “getting political.” I do not attend a pro-Trump church.

But I also get the sense that my church is keeping me at arms length. This is probably a smart move. I am a divisive figure. I have tried to use my voice and platform to criticize a morally corrupt President of the United States and the conservative media infrastructure, including the Christian media, that props him up.

Some of my fellow churchgoers have read Believe Me and have sent me wonderful notes of encouragement and support. Others have made it clear that I am a negative influence in the Christian community. When I taught a Sunday school class on Christianity and politics (a class in which I don’t think I ever mentioned Trump), I got a lot of positive feedback. I also got some pretty strong negative feedback.

Why am I bringing this all up right now?

Today I had an emotional conversation with a Christian I love. This person does not understand how friends, family, and fellow Christians can support Donald Trump. Tuesday night’s debate really set this person off. How could Christians vote for a man who refuses to condemn racism, lies endlessly, and lacks basic empathy? This person is considering giving-up on church and the Christian faith generally. She/he is trying to hold together her/his friendships with Trump supporters, but does not know how to do it and still be true to her/his deepest convictions.

We both had tears in our eyes. I didn’t know what kind of advice to give this person, but I certainly understood. Over the last four years I have had old friends cut me off because of my strong criticism of the president. I have had present friends pull back. I have had dozens and dozens of people tell me that they have stopped going to church (COVID-19 has become a convenient excuse). People who I have not communicated with in over thirty years have come out of the woodwork to condemn me in public forums.

I don’t want this person to give-up on Christianity. I encouraged this person to lean into our shared faith and not pull away. Current events have led me to read the Bible with new eyes, pray in different ways, and rethink how I live my Christian life. It is all a work of progress, but I feel like I have started a new spiritual journey of sorts. I shared all of this with this person. We must continue to live as people of hope and try not to let the anger overwhelm us. I hope this person believes this. Some days I am not even sure I do.

Many Americans do not see this as an ordinary election between two candidates committed to basic principles of decency, civility, truth, science, reason, and human dignity. This is not a choice between Mitt Romney and Barack Obama (2008) or Al Gore and George W. Bush (2000) or Bill Clinton and Bob Dole (1996). This is an election between one man who believes that the president should be a steward of democracy and another man who is a racist, nativist, and narcissist willing to undermine democracy with almost every word he speaks.

And the majority of white evangelicals, whether they love Trump or held their nose and voted for him, are complicit. I know that statement will anger a lot of people. But how long will evangelicals support–either directly or indirectly through their silence– this immoral president?

When Trump is gone, I hope and pray I will be ready to participate in the healing work that needs to be done. But right now the cancer at the heart of the republic must be cut out. Americans have the chance to do this on November 3rd. As I have said before at this blog, let’s remember that Abraham Lincoln’s Second Inaugural Address (“bind up the nation’s wounds” and “achieve and cherish a just and lasting peace”) occurred after the Northern victory over the slave-holding Confederacy was all but secured.

UPDATE: I wish the President and First Lady well as they deal with COVID. I am praying for them and for all who are struggling with this terrible virus.

Theologian Miroslav Volf on Christian Trumpism

Here is the Yale theologian yesterday on Twitter:

The Author’s Corner with Baird Tipson

Inward BaptismBaird Tipson is Adjunct Professor of Religious Studies at Gettysburg College. This interview is based on his new book, Inward Baptism: The Theological Origins of Evangelicalism (Oxford University Press, 2020).

JF: What led you to write Inward Baptism?

BT: The two and a half centuries following the Reformation (c. 1500-1750) saw critical changes in how people understood Protestant Christianity. For many, a religion that had once occurred largely invisible sacraments presided over by an ordained clergy became located primarily in the individual conscience and–for many–in perceptible experiences of the inward activity of the Holy Spirit.

 JF: In two sentences, what is the argument of Inward Baptism?

BT: Inward Baptism argues that accepting Luther’s fundamental insights would eventually shift the balance from encountering the divine in clerically-controlled church services to encountering the divine in personal, largely interior, experience. Where Luther urged Christians to draw assurance of their being in God’s good graces from their having been baptized as infants, Wesley insisted they must–as adults–perceive the Holy Spirit at work in their hearts.

JF: Why do we need to read Inward Baptism?

BT: I hope I can convince conscientious readers of two things (1) the enormous differences between a sacramentally-oriented Christianity and one based primarily on knowing Jesus as a Christian’s personal savior, and (2) the possibility that evangelical Christianity is not some recent aberration but a virtually inevitable result of Protestantism’s commitment to justification by faith.

JF: Tell us a little bit about the source material you worked with in the writing and researching of Inward Baptism.

BT: Since this is a work of historical theology, I worked chiefly in printed sources, primarily the writings of individual theologians. (I did use a few manuscript sources as well). Since for the most part I was working beyond my own areas of specialization, I tested my interpretations against a raft of secondary sources. In the first three chapters, the printed sources were rarely in English, so I compared my own translations with those of other scholars wherever possible. Fortunately, much of my source material is available digitally, particularly in Early English Books Online and on the website of the Post-Reformation digital library.

JF: What is your next project?

BT: I am presently working on differing understandings within the Anglican tradition of The Book of Common Prayer. Recent scholarship has demonstrated to my satisfaction that Thomas Cranmer’s two prayer books (1549 and 1552) were transitional products that reflected his evolving theological commitments; had he lived and circumstances permitted, he would undoubtedly have made further modifications. But the Anglican tradition has come to understand The Book of Common Prayer as reflecting something called “Anglicanism,” in the process gliding over areas where Cranmer’s language was purposely imprecise. I am particularly interested at the moment in how participation in the sacraments does or does not “assure” the worshipper of God’s favor

JF: Thanks, Baird!

The court evangelicals respond to Donald Trump’s RNC convention speech and the aftermath

metaxas and Graham

Eric Metaxas and Franklin Graham were both in action (so to speak) at last night’s GOP convention

Last night I thought Franklin Graham offered a good opening prayer to kick-off the last night of the GOP convention. Today he sat for an interview with David Brody of the Christian Broadcasting Network. At times Graham tried to be bipartisan, but in the end this was pure court evangelicalism. This idea that the socialists (and other secular enemies) are coming to close our churches has a long, long history in American evangelicalism. As I wrote in Believe Me, evangelicals said the same thing about Thomas Jefferson in the run-up to the election of 1800. On another matter, it is disingenuous for Graham to claim that he is “just one man” and does not speak for a significant portion of American evangelicalism. There are white evangelicals who hang on every word he says.  Watch:

Court evangelical Eric Metaxas showed us how to blind-side a protester and backpedal to safety. In this August 22, 2020 interview, Metaxas talks with fellow court evangelical Greg Laurie about “the role of virtue in the public square.” Metaxas notes how Jackie Robinson and Rosa Parks were known for “turning the other cheek.” He laments the way “rage” and “violence” are “setting the [Christian cause] backward and confusing people.” He even speaks of non-violence as a Christian virtue. This 15-minute interview is interesting (to say the least) in light of what Metaxas did last night. Jab and move, jab and move.

Jack Graham ran into some trouble last night, along with dozens of other court evangelicals:

Two things are going on in this tweet. First, Graham’s story appears to be true. I am not sure how Graham was able to interrogate the “thugs” and “infidels” about their political ideology (Marxism), but he is right to suggest that this kind of harassment needs to stop. Second, Graham is playing to the base. He did not punch the protesters like Metaxas did, but Graham is obviously hoping his tweet will serve Trump politically by scaring evangelicals to pull a lever for the president in November.

If I recall correctly, in the New Testament Jesus stopped on the road to Golgotha with the old rugged cross on his shoulder and called his tormentors “thugs” and “infidels.” He then asked God to stop the insanity.

The same goes for Paula White:

I am guessing that Gary Bauer believed Trump delivered last night for the Christian Right

Ralph Reed saw his “good friend” Jack Abramoff Rudy Giuliani:

Reed and Giuliani

Robert Jeffress spent some time at the court today:

And then he talked with Lou Dobbs about it. There is no one “kinder and more gracious” than Donald Trump “and that’s what “makes him such an effective leader”:

67 days to go. I am afraid it is going to get a lot worse.

The Author’s Corner with William Hart

For the good of their soulsWilliam Hart is Associate Professor of History at Middlebury College. This interview is based on his new book, “For the Good of Their Souls”: Performing Christianity in Eighteenth-Century Mohawk Country (University of Massachusetts Press, 2020).

JF: What led you to write “For the Good of Their Souls”?

WH: I wrote my book, “For the Good of Their Souls,” in order to complicate our understanding of indigenous “conversions” to Christianity. Historians have begun to realize that the term “conversion” is inadequate to explain how and why Native peoples negotiated their relationships with missionaries and Christianity. I wanted to examine a nation that historians have long thought was nearly wholly Christian. Hence, my decision to study the Mohawks, who until not long ago, were commonly referred to as the “faithful Mohawks,” a term that carries a double meaning: Christian and loyal (to the English). In graduate school, I found the scholarly conversation among ethnohistorians about how to write about Native communities in contact with missionaries when the documentary evidence is so one-sided fascinating and challenging. My book is the first book to re-examine Mohawk Christianity in over eighty years.

JF: In two sentences, what is the argument of “For the Good of Their Souls”?

WH: I argue that most baptized Mohawks, which in time constituted a majority of that population, did not convert to Christianity (although some did), but rather “performed” Christianity–especially Protestantism–in order to continue to survive as Mohawks in a rapidly changing world. Performing Church of England Protestantism enabled many to acquire literacy, to attain social standing in their communities, to receive more favorable diplomatic and trade relations with the English, and for some to live by a new moral code.

JF: Why do we need to read “For the Good of Their Souls”?

WH: My book, the first full-length study of Mohawk Christianity since 1938, reveals the myriad ways baptized Mohawks controlled, manipulated, and shaped according to their needs their relationship with English missionaries and schoolmasters. My research revealed that such relationships were complicated and usually did not meet the expectations of their assigned missionary. Rather most baptized Mohawks–but not all–
“performed” the rites and rituals of Protestant Christianity situationally in the presence of English surveillants. In the process, they “translated” Protestant Christianity to fit their needs and understanding.

JF: Tell us a little bit about the source material you worked with in the writing and researching of “For the Good of Their Souls.”

WH: My research drew heavily upon documents, Haudenosaunee culture, and scholarly research. My primary documentary sources included the Records of the Society for the Propagation of the Gospel in Foreign Parts (manuscripts), the foreign missionary society founded in 1701 affiliated with the Church of England, which contains voluminous correspondence and reports exchanged between Anglican missionaries in the British colonies and the Society in London; the multivolume records for the colonial history of New York, which contain the correspondence of civil and ecclesiastical leaders in the colony; the fourteen volume collection of the Sir William Johnson Papers; and calendars of the Dutch Reformed Church, and late eighteenth–early nineteenth-century records for early Canada. I also used evidence gleaned by anthropologists, historians, genealogists, material culturalists, linguists, archaeologists, and scholars of comparative religion, among others.

JF: What is your next project?

WH: I am interested in understanding the choices that racially marginalized people made living in the “Others’” hegemonic world in order to survive and thrive, which is the abiding theme of the Mohawk book. My next book project–“I Am a Man”: Martin Freeman, Race, Manhood, and the Cant of Colonization–examines the American Colonization Society through the life of Martin Freeman (1826-1889), a graduate of Middlebury College (salutatorian, Class of 1849), who became the first Black president of an American College–Avery College near Pittsburgh (1856-1863)–and who migrated to Monrovia, Liberia, in 1864 to teach at and become president of Liberia College. The book will take a microhistorical approach to colonization in that the details of Freeman’s life before, during, and after Middlebury will illuminate the larger cultural debate around the place of free Black Americans in nineteenth-century American society that informed the relationship between American colleges and the ACS.

JF: Thanks, William!

Michelle Obama’s DNC convention speech was deeply Christian

After the first night of the Democratic National Convention I tuned into Fox News. Laura Ingraham was on the air and, as might be expected, she was trashing the convention. I stopped watching after about forty minutes of analysis from Eric Trump, Ted Cruz, and other conservative pundits.

Cruz actually said that the reason the Democrats are pushing for mail-in-ballots and the funding of the United States Postal Service is because they know it leads to voter fraud.  Cruz has no evidence for this claim. Nor is there any evidence to suggest mail-in-voting leads to voter fraud. But I digress.

Former Pennsylvania governor Ed Rendell was also on Ingraham’s show. He is a very patient man.

I was struck by the fact that none of the conservative, pro-Trump pundits mentioned Michelle Obama’s speech. They just couldn’t touch it.

Watch it:

Though Obama only mentioned “faith” and “God” a couple of times, this was a deeply Christian speech.

  • She talked about the inherent dignity of human beings.
  • She talked about truth.
  • She talked about the character of a leader.
  • She talked about health care.
  • She talked about care for the environment
  • She talked about racial justice
  • She talked about the evil of racism and white supremacy
  • She talked about empathy
  • She talked about caring for others
  • She talked about raising children with a strong moral foundation
  • She talked about the coarseness of our culture under Trump
  • She talked about selfishness
  • She talked about greed
  • She talked military violence
  • She talked about using the Bible for a photo-op
  • She talked about being a mother.
  • She talked about being a neighbor
  • She talked about meekness
  • She talked about confronting “viciousness” and “cruelty”
  • She talked about finding common ground based on the value of all human beings
  • She talked about the need to speak truth to power
  • She talked about family
  • She talked about compassion
  • She talked about grief

After covering Trump’s court evangelicals for the last four years, it was nice to hear such a Christian speech in this kind of public venue. I left the speech encouraged in my faith and hopeful for America’s future. Thank you Michelle Obama.

Christianity is more than the mere embrace of a Christian Right view on abortion politics

Listen to court evangelical Robert Jeffress’s recent commentary on Fox News:

Jeffress addresses Trump’s recent claim that if Joe Biden is elected in November there will be “no religion.” He added that Biden would “hurt the Bible” and “hurt God.” As any good court evangelical must do, Jeffress defends Trump’s remarks.

Jeffress comes just short of suggesting that Biden is not a Christian. (I realize I may be too generous to Jeffress here). Why? Because Biden is “pro-choice” on abortion.

Jeffress knows that the Christian faith is more than merely the embrace of a Christian Right view on abortion, but if he can use abortion to demonize Biden by questioning the legitimacy of his faith, he will gladly do it. Let’s face it, Jeffress is not interested in developing a public theology informed by the entire message of the Bible. Neither is the Christian Right movement that he represents.

Those who read this blog know my position. I am pro-life. But I do not believe that overturning Roe v. Wade is the best way of reducing abortions. Just search “abortion” or read Believe Me: The Evangelical Road to Donald Trump for my views on this.

Abortions are on the decline in America. Let’s keep this downward trajectory going by electing candidates who care about poverty, systemic racism, the economic plight of families, and the health of women.

GOP: Let’s stop using “pro-life” as a political litmus test for the purpose of fundraising.

Democrats: let’s start talking again about abortion as a serious moral problem facing our society. And yes, I am referring to the Biden-Harris ticket here.

Wilfred McClay on Historical Monuments

Kosciukso

Whether you agree or disagree with him, Wilfred McClay is always thoughtful. If I see his byline at First Things or another conservative outlet, I will always read the article. As one of America’s best conservative historians (not a historian of conservatism, a historian who is politically and intellectually conservative), and a winner of the prestigious Merle Curti Award, he plays an important role in public discourse.

I always learn something from Bill, as I did last Fall when we spent a couple of hours chatting in the Chattanooga airport.  (We talked about a lot of things as we waited for our flights–mostly small talk– but I distinctly remember his suggestion that we should think of the word “evangelical” more as an adjective [as in “evangelical Christian”] than a noun. I am still thinking that one over). I remember when Bill visited Messiah College in 2003 to deliver our American Democracy Lecture and, as a member of the board of the National Endowment for the Humanities, gave us some tips about how to get funding for our Center for Public Humanities. (We eventually landed an NEH grant to create the Center). I have long considered him a mentor and he has always been supportive of my career.

I am a bit embarrassed that I had to preface this post in this way, but I felt it was necessary because I am guessing a lot of people who read this blog are going to be upset with his recent piece at First Things, a short reflection on what is happening right now with American monuments.  Some may also get upset about my thoughts at the end of the post.

A taste:

But I think the most disturbing aspect of this episode, which perhaps indicates how deep our societal rot goes, has less to do with the rioters than with those in positions of authority. Rioters and miscreants we will always have, but that is why we have authorities. Ours, however, seem to have utterly abdicated. In city after city, mayors and governors decline to act against vandals, the police stand down, and the devil is allowed to take the hindmost. Corporations fall over themselves to advertise their virtuousness, and give what looks very much like protection money to organizations whose goals are openly subversive of the fundamental American political and social order. University administrators are all too willing to side with those who suppress free inquiry, and routinely cave to protestors rather than defend even the most fundamental tenets of academic freedom. 

The pulling down of statues, as a form of symbolic murder, is congruent with the silencing of dissenting opinion, so prevalent a feature of campus life today. In my own academic field of history, it is entirely of a piece with the weaponizing of history, in which the past is regarded as nothing more than a malleable background for the concerns of the present, and not as an independent source of wisdom or insight or perspective.

Those caught up in the moral frenzy of the moment ought to think twice, and more than twice, about jettisoning figures of the past who do not measure up perfectly to the standards of the present—a present, moreover, for which those past figures cannot reasonably be held responsible. For one thing, as the Scriptures warn us, the measure you use is the measure you will receive. Those who expect moral perfection of others can expect no mercy for themselves, either from their posterity or from the rebukes of their own inflamed consciences. 

But there is a deeper reason. It is part of what it means to be a civilized human being—it is in fact an essential feature of civilization itself—to recognize the partiality of all human achievement, and to cherish it and sustain it no less for that partiality. 

Read the entire piece here.

There is a lot to agree with in McClay’s analysis. I think McClay’s thoughts on Jefferson and his monuments echo the ideas I am hearing from Annette Gordon-Reed, Manisha Sinha, and Sean Wilentz.

Let’s also remember that McClay is writing in a Christian magazine. If we take Christianity seriously, we must reckon with McClay’s suggestion (I am not sure how he can know this for sure) that those who tear down monuments are motivated by “pure and unmitigated hate.” It does seem that one can be morally correct about a particular social cause, and still respond to such a matter in a manner defined by “pure and unmitigated hate.” I struggle with this on a daily basis as I write about Donald Trump. I have had to do a lot of confessing of sins in the last four years and have tried to distinguish between a legitimate, Christian-based, critique of Trump and his court evangelicals and the kind of angry rhetoric that is not good for my spiritual life or the spiritual lives of others. I have found that prayer–for Donald Trump and his administration, for the evangelical church, and for the best way to strike an appropriate prophetic voice– is often an antidote to this kind of anger. But I’m not always good at it.

McClay’s remarks about the white privilege enjoyed by the middle-class, suburban, college-educated students engaged in some of the violence is also on the mark. There seems to be white privilege on both sides of our current conversation on race in America. I wish these young people would be more thoughtful.

Finally, McClay writes, “In my own academic field of history, it [the tearing down of monuments] is entirely of a piece with the weaponizing of history, in which the past is regarded as nothing more than a malleable background for the concerns of the present, and not as an independent source of wisdom or insight or perspective. Here I think McClay is half-right.

As I argued in Why Study History, we need to understand the past in all its fullness in order to make sense of the complexity of the human experience. I am largely talking here about the classroom, where I teach American history as if all voices matter. Please don’t get me wrong. Yes, Black lives matter. I am disgusted when I hear the political Right screaming “all lives matter” as a way of avoiding tough conversations on racial injustice, systemic racism, and the experience of African Americans. Responding to the phrase “black lives matter” with the phrase “all lives matter” represents a failure to address the pain and suffering of Black men and women in this particular moment. It is reprehensible. Anyone who reads this blog knows where I stand on this, so I ask you to think about my words here as part of my larger body of work.

But when I teach history, especially when I do broad sweeps in a survey class, I am charged with telling the story of the United States. In this sense, my students must be exposed to all American lives. They must encounter these lives in their context, and in all their complexity, even if it makes them (and I am talking about white students and students of color here) uncomfortable. We can’t erase the past. We must confront it.

Yet, I also believe that historians can and must use the past, and especially historical thinking, to speak to the present. I tried to do this in Believe Me. As I have said before, I have never understood Believe Me to be part of the same historical genre as The Way of Improvement Leads Home, The Bible Cause, Was America Founded as a Christian Nation? (to an extent), or the book on the American Revolution that I am currently writing. But there are times when historians must speak to current events by teaching us how we got to a particular moment in the present. And once they understand their subjects thoroughly and empathically, there is a place for moral critique. This, of course, may require getting political. As I recently told a friend, I have spent much of my career trying to understand conservative evangelicals. My critique is rooted in over two decades of historical work.

And finally, let’s talk about “law and order.” As I argued in Believe Me, it is hard to understand this phrase without thinking about racial unrest in America. Nixon used it as a dog-whistle to win votes among white voters. Trump uses it in the same way. And let’s recall that the tearing down of monuments, riots in the streets, and destruction of property are as as old as the American republic.

McClay gives us a lot to think about here. When does government intervene to stop the destruction of property? How much is too much? Where do we draw the line between law and order on the one hand, and racial injustice on the other?

One of the best ways to do this, I have found, is to think historically. The years leading-up to the American Revolution were very violent. After the revolution, when the Whiskey rebels rose-up in Western Pennsylvania, George Washington sent out the army to crush the rebellion. Martin Luther King Jr. protested peacefully. Other American reformers, like John Brown, did not. There debates between law and order on the one hand, and American protest on the other, are not new. Go listen to the Hamilton soundtrack or watch it next week on Disney+.

And what should Christians think? Was the dumping of tea in Boston Harbor in December 1773 justified? Is destruction of someone else’s property ever right? What about pouring hot tar on peoples’ skin, covering them with feathers, and parading them through the streets? What about our moral responsibility as the church to speak truth to power and disobey unjust laws–codes that are out of harmony with the moral law for God?  Sometimes these questions do not have easy answers. But are we even asking them?

Pentecost Sunday

Descent_of_the_Holy_Spirit_icon,_12th_century._National_Museum_of_Georgia

When the day of Pentecost had come, they were all together in one place. And suddenly a sound came from heaven like the rush of a mighty wind, and it filled all the house where they were sitting. And there appeared to them tongues as of fire, distributed and resting on each one of them. And they were all filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak in other tongues, as the Spirit gave them utterance.

Now there were dwelling in Jerusalem Jews, devout men from every nation under heaven. And at this sound the multitude came together, and they were bewildered, because each one heard them speaking in his own language. And they were amazed and wondered, saying, “Are not all these who are speaking Galileans? And how is it that we hear, each of us in his own native language? Par′thians and Medes and E′lamites and residents of Mesopota′mia, Judea and Cappado′cia, Pontus and Asia, 10 Phryg′ia and Pamphyl′ia, Egypt and the parts of Libya belonging to Cyre′ne, and visitors from Rome, both Jews and proselytes, 11 Cretans and Arabians, we hear them telling in our own tongues the mighty works of God.” 12 And all were amazed and perplexed, saying to one another, “What does this mean?” 13 But others mocking said, “They are filled with new wine.”

Peter Addresses the Crowd

14 But Peter, standing with the eleven, lifted up his voice and addressed them, “Men of Judea and all who dwell in Jerusalem, let this be known to you, and give ear to my words. 15 For these men are not drunk, as you suppose, since it is only the third hour of the day; 16 but this is what was spoken by the prophet Joel:

17 ‘And in the last days it shall be, God declares,
that I will pour out my Spirit upon all flesh,
and your sons and your daughters shall prophesy,
and your young men shall see visions,
and your old men shall dream dreams;
18 yea, and on my menservants and my maidservants in those days
I will pour out my Spirit; and they shall prophesy.
19 And I will show wonders in the heaven above
and signs on the earth beneath,
blood, and fire, and vapor of smoke;
20 the sun shall be turned into darkness
and the moon into blood,
before the day of the Lord comes,
the great and manifest day.

21 And it shall be that whoever calls on the name of the Lord shall be saved.’

22 “Men of Israel, hear these words: Jesus of Nazareth, a man attested to you by God with mighty works and wonders and signs which God did through him in your midst, as you yourselves know— 23 this Jesus, delivered up according to the definite plan and foreknowledge of God, you crucified and killed by the hands of lawless men. 24 But God raised him up, having loosed the pangs of death, because it was not possible for him to be held by it. 25 For David says concerning him,

‘I saw the Lord always before me,
for he is at my right hand that I may not be shaken;
26 therefore my heart was glad, and my tongue rejoiced;
moreover my flesh will dwell in hope.
27 For thou wilt not abandon my soul to Hades,
nor let thy Holy One see corruption.
28 Thou hast made known to me the ways of life;
thou wilt make me full of gladness with thy presence.’

 

29 “Brethren, I may say to you confidently of the patriarch David that he both died and was buried, and his tomb is with us to this day. 30 Being therefore a prophet, and knowing that God had sworn with an oath to him that he would set one of his descendants upon his throne, 31 he foresaw and spoke of the resurrection of the Christ, that he was not abandoned to Hades, nor did his flesh see corruption. 32 This Jesus God raised up, and of that we all are witnesses. 33 Being therefore exalted at the right hand of God, and having received from the Father the promise of the Holy Spirit, he has poured out this which you see and hear. 34 For David did not ascend into the heavens; but he himself says,

‘The Lord said to my Lord, Sit at my right hand,
35 till I make thy enemies a stool for thy feet.’

36 Let all the house of Israel therefore know assuredly that God has made him both Lord and Christ, this Jesus whom you crucified.”

The First Converts

37 Now when they heard this they were cut to the heart, and said to Peter and the rest of the apostles, “Brethren, what shall we do?” 38 And Peter said to them, “Repent, and be baptized every one of you in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of your sins; and you shall receive the gift of the Holy Spirit. 39 For the promise is to you and to your children and to all that are far off, every one whom the Lord our God calls to him.” 40 And he testified with many other words and exhorted them, saying, “Save yourselves from this crooked generation.” 41 So those who received his word were baptized, and there were added that day about three thousand souls. 42 And they devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and fellowship, to the breaking of bread and the prayers.

Life among the Believers

43 And fear came upon every soul; and many wonders and signs were done through the apostles. 44 And all who believed were together and had all things in common; 45 and they sold their possessions and goods and distributed them to all, as any had need. 46 And day by day, attending the temple together and breaking bread in their homes, they partook of food with glad and generous hearts, 47 praising God and having favor with all the people. And the Lord added to their number day by day those who were being saved.

Three Sundays in April (Part 4)

If you had thirty minutes to say something to the most powerful man in the world, what would you say?

This is how I started our short series titled “Three Sundays in April.”

On April 19, 2020, the Sunday after Easter, Donald Trump watched the service at Jack Graham’s Prestonwood Baptist Church in West Plano, Texas.

What did he hear?

Jack Graham is sixty-nine-years-old and a life-long Southern Baptist. He has a Masters of Divinity from Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary and a Doctor of Ministry from Southwestern in “Church and Proclamation.” After serving several Southern Baptist Churches in Texas, Oklahoma, and Florida, Graham came to Prestonwood, a prominent Dallas-area megachurch, in 1989. Today the church claims 45,000 members. Graham was president of the Southern Baptist Convention from 2002-2004.

Graham has strong court evangelical credentials. Here are some of his greatest hits:

  • Has has defended Trump’s immigration policies.
  • He is part of the Southern Baptist faction who opposed Russell Moore’s criticism of Donald Trump.
  • He has supported Trump’s handling of the coronavirus.
  • He believes that Trump is the “most pro life president” in his lifetime.
  • He rarely misses a photo-op with Trump.
  • He was one of the several evangelical leaders who prayed for Trump at the “Evangelicals for Trump” gathering in January 2020. (I wrote about this event at USA Today).
  • He signed a letter criticizing Christianity Today after former editor Mark Galli wrote an anti-Trump editorial. (He said the magazine was “increasingly liberal and out of step and out of touch with conservative Christians and churches”).
  • He defended Trump during impeachment, calling the proceedings against the president “ludicrous” and a “sham.”

When Donald Trump pointed his browser toward Prestonwood Baptist Church he watched a few praise songs and then saw Graham interviewing Texas governor Gregg Abbott. The Republican governor knew that his primary audience was not Graham or those sitting on their couches at home awaiting Graham’s sermon. Abbott was talking to the President of the United States. Abbott said that “Texas wants to lead the way” in opening the nation’s economy. He told Graham, “put your faith in God and Texas will once again rise-up to be the number one economy in the United States of America.”

Graham’s sermon was titled “We are Alive.” It was based on Acts 2, a passage chronicling the coming of the Holy Spirit and the first days of the early Christian church. Christians around the world celebrate these events on Pentecost Sunday. This year, May 31 is Pentecost Sunday. Since Southern Baptists do not follow the historic Christian calendar, Graham felt comfortable preaching on Acts 2 six weeks early.

Graham’s delivered a standard 3-point message. Based on the text, he exhorted his listeners to “exalt” Christ, “evangelize” the world, and “engage” the life of the church. Because several listeners had made professions of faith (by contacting the website on the screen) the week before–Easter Sunday–Graham wanted to make sure that these people got connected with a church characterized by these three practices. Those in the evangelical world call this “follow-up.” Billy Graham (no relation to Jack Graham as far as I know) would have new converts fill-out “decision cards” and the Graham organization would “follow-up” with them to make sure they got connected with a local congregation. This became very controversial during the 1957 Billy Graham New York Crusade when some of the decision cards were distributed to the “liberal” churches of the Protestant mainline. Jack Graham does not want this to happen to his new online converts.

In Graham’s first point, “exalt Christ,” he came closest to reminding Trump that because of the events of Holy Week there is another leader in charge. (Unlike Greg Laurie on Palm Sunday and Robert Jeffress on Easter Sunday, Graham never acknowledged the fact that Trump was watching). “Christ is King,” Graham said, and “there is no president or King above him.” I am not sure Graham meant this as a political statement addressed to the current President of the United States, but he said it nonetheless and it is true. But such a statement does not seem to match-up with Graham’s court evangelicalism. I don’t think he has teased out the full political implications of Christ kingship. He is not alone. Most evangelicals have not thought about the Kingdom of God in this way. As a minister, Graham represents an alternative Kingdom. Yet he wants to rely on the corrupt king of an inferior kingdom to advance the mission of the superior and victorious Kingdom to which he holds his higher loyalty. If you view the world through the eyes of faith, this does not make sense. It is also a form of idolatry.

Graham’s second point, “evangelize” the world, represent the classic evangelical understanding of the church’s mission. Christians should preach the “simple” message that Jesus died for the sins of the world, rose again on Easter Sunday, and offers eternal life to all those who believe. When Christians do this, Graham notes, they are following the Great Commission of Matthew 28:16-20. In that passage, Jesus tells his followers to “go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you.” (Italics mine). Jesus had a lot to say during his ministry about the ethics–including the political ethics–of His Kingdom. The Great Commission is not just about evangelism as Graham defines it. It is also a call to discipleship.

Graham calls himself a “gospel preacher” and subtly distinguishes this kind of preaching from the kind of preaching that helps Christians grow in their faith. “Gospel preachers” like Graham are always trying to ignite a revival. They want to get people saved in the way I described above.  Revival is thus a major theme in Graham’s April 19 message. Such an appeal to revival might even perk-up the ears of Donald Trump, especially since Graham talks about “revival” during this service in both spiritual and economic terms. The message is clear: President Trump and Governor Abbott will revive the American economy and spur a spiritual revival. People will return to church, preach the Gospel, and lead more people to salvation. We know that Trump already thinks his presidency is responsible for a great revival in the church. Now Graham, by inviting Abbott to his service, is implying that Trump will continue to be such a spiritual leader by opening the economy. These two ideas are inseparable in the mind of this president.

But again I ask, what might such a revival look like? Graham said that once the economy comes back, the church will “turn the world upside down.” If this is true, did Trump get the message? Does Graham understand the meaning of such a message?

Graham believes that a revival will come when people accept Christ as Savior, but “turning the world upside down” seems to be a revolutionary political act. I imagine that Graham thinks this means revived Christians will turn the world upside down by reclaiming it as a Christian nation characterized by conservative Supreme Court justices, the overthrow of Roe v. Wade, a restoration of biblical values related to marriage, the defense religious freedom, and the flourishing of a free-market economy. When the revival comes, America will be great again.

As I listened to Laurie, Jeffress, and now Graham talk about the large numbers of people making “decisions for Christ” after watching their coronavirus services, I thought about the mid-20th-century theologian Reinhold Niebuhr‘s critique of this kind of evangelism. Writing in the context of Billy Graham’s New York crusade, Niebuhr said that Graham’s success depended on “oversimplifying every issue of life.” Evangelicals like Billy Graham, he added, failed to address “the social dimensions of the Gospel.” Billy Graham’s gospel, Niebuhr argued, “promises new life, not through painful religious experience, but merely by signing a decision card” (Life, July 1, 1957).

So I return to my question: What might Jack Graham’s revival look like? Will it announce the Kingdom of God by speaking truth to the corruption and immorality of this presidential administration? Will it cause Christians to address the structural problems of race in America? What will such a revival mean for the “least of these”–the poor, the immigrant, the unborn, the elderly? How might such a revival inspire Christians to care for the creation?  Or will this be a Christian nationalist and capitalist revival? Or perhaps it will be solely a pietistic revival, with little effect on sin-infested social institutions and practices.

N.T. Wright has been a lodestar for me during this series.  Here Wright in The Day the Revolution Began:

True, in recent years several thinkers have made a distinction between ‘mission’ (the broadest view of the church’s task in the world) and ‘evangelism’ (the more specific task of telling people about Jesus’s death and resurrection and what it means for them); but the word ‘mission’ is still used in the narrower sense as well, often referring to specific events such as weeklong ‘evangelistic rally.’  Part of my aim in this book has been to widen the scope of the ‘mission’ based on what Jesus did on the cross without losing its central and personal focus. I hope it is clear, in fact, that this task of telling people about Jesus remains vital. But I have also been arguing that the early Christian message is not well summarized by saying that Jesus died so that we can go to heaven  That way of looking at the gospel and mission both shrinks and distorts what the Bible actually teaches. It ignores Jesus’s claim to be launching God’s kingdom ‘on earth as in heaven’ and to be bringing that work to its climax precisely on the cross. It ignores the New Testament’s emphasis on the true human vocation, to be ‘image-bearers,’ reflecting God’s glory into the world and the praises of creation back to God.” (p.356-357)

According to Wright, the vocation of the image-bearing Christian extends beyond Christian Right talking points.

Finally, in point three of his message, “engage the church,” Graham talks about how the church grew in numbers, prayed together, and studied the scripture. This is good. But it is also a pretty selective view of Acts 2. For example, Graham fails to mention Acts  2:42-47:

They devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and to fellowship, to the breaking of bread and to prayer.  Everyone was filled with awe at the many wonders and signs performed by the apostles.  All the believers were together and had everything in common. They sold property and possessions to give to anyone who had need.  Every day they continued to meet together in the temple courts. They broke bread in their homes and ate together with glad and sincere hearts,  praising God and enjoying the favor of all the people. And the Lord added to their number daily those who were being saved.

What might this passage mean in the larger context of debates over the opening of a capitalist economy defined by individual accumulation of property and possessions? How might this passage in Acts relate to the “spiritual awakening” Graham believes is coming to America and the world?

I have been reading Eugene McCarraher‘s provocative book The Enchantments of Mammon: How Capitalism Became the Religion of Modernity. In his discussion of early 20th-century businessman Edward Filene, McCarraher writes, “‘The right and power to buy must lead to a great new religious awakening,’ Filene proclaimed, ‘a religious experience such as humanity has never had an opportunity to know before.”

If Trump managed to make it through the entire service, he learned that his attempts to open-up the economy will lead to a religious awakening that will make America great again and secure him the evangelical votes he needs in November.

Back in the Zoo: The Church Has Left the Building

FB_IMG_1532791182356 (1)Annie Thorn is a sophomore history major from Kalamazoo, Michigan and our intern here at The Way of Improvement Leads Home.  As part of her internship she is writing a weekly column titled “Out of the Zoo.” It focuses on life as a history major at a small liberal arts college. In this dispatch, Annie writes about what it means to be the church in the midst of a global pandemic–JF

Back in 2018, the summer after my Senior year of high school, I went on one last service trip with my youth group. I had spent all year on my church’s leadership team and looked forward to spending one final week with my Gracespring family before moving away for school. My friend Becca and I were in charge of the Vacation Bible School portion of the trip, and we had been busy writing lessons and planning activities for the kids that we would meet in Pawleys Island, South Carolina. Before loading up in our caravan of vehicles, we posed in front of a few dozen parents and family members snapping pictures of us on their smartphones. Our shirts were red with bold black script reading “The Church Has Left the Building.” We tossed around a few different ideas for the shirts, but I was glad we settled on this one. The saying reminded us that the Church was not the building we worshiped in. Instead, we were the Church, the body of Christ meant to go out and do his work in the world. 

Nearly two years later, churches around the world have also “left the building.” Ever since our governor limited large gatherings back in March, my church–the same church that sent me to Pawleys Island back in 2018–has been using the phrase on repeat. For even on Easter, when sanctuaries are usually packed with congregants gussied up in pastel-colored wares, pews were empty and doors remained closed. Some still dressed up and took family photos in their living rooms, others stayed in their pajamas and streamed a service from their couches, but almost everyone stayed home.

Obviously, this is not an ideal situation. We like worshiping alongside our brothers and sisters in Christ. We look forward to chatting with them after the service. We cherish having a place where we can gather, socialize, and drink a cup of coffee. We appreciate packed-out sanctuaries, well-executed sermons and meticulously planned music sets. It’s certainly not wrong to enjoy these things, or to long for the day when we can have them again. But we must understand that they are not the Church–we are.

I love the book of Acts. Maybe it’s because I’m a historian, or maybe it’s because Acts was the first book of the Bible I read after re-committing my life to Christ, but I could read stories of Paul, the apostles, and the early Church over and over again. Sometimes when we study the past, or read Bible stories, they seem foreign and strange to us. But more often than not, we catch glimpses of familiarity too. Two thousand years ago when the Church was just getting started there were no coffee shops or praise bands or packed-out sanctuaries. When Paul brought the Gospel to the Gentiles he couldn’t do it from the stage of a megachurch. Instead, he shared the love of Christ wherever he was. He was creative, he was zealous, and he was bold. He wasn’t quarantined at home, but he was jailed, beaten, and shipwrecked–and let nothing hinder his witness.

Acts reminds us that the Church is so much more than the place we worship. It shows us that we can share the Gospel no matter where we are. It assures us that Christ’s love can not be hindered by any hardship, trial, or global pandemic. May historians remember 2020 as the year the Church left the building.

This is a “Father, forgive them, for they do not know what they are doing” moment

Whitmer help

Jeff Kowalsky/Agence France-Presse — Getty Images

Above is a picture of some of the men protesting at the Michigan state Capitol in Lansing.  Yes, you do see machine guns.

Michigan mayor Gretchen Whitmer will not open the state to business yet and continues to stand behind her stay-at-home order in the midst of the protesters call to “lock her up.” Whitmer is trying to save lives. But some people in Michigan believe that their rights are more important. They seem to be defending their “right” to die from the coronavirus.

I am guessing many of these protesters would say that they are Christians. But Christian faith teaches that we must submit our own interests–as a mark of our kindness and love of neighbor–with the needs and suffering of others. Jesus is our model here.

As I have written before, there is also a secular political tradition–it is called civic humanism–which calls the citizens of a republic to occasionally sacrifice self-interest for the public good. The founding fathers of the United States, many of whom wrote the Constitution and the Bill of Rights, called this “virtue.”

It does not look like the protesting crowds are very large. Most residents of Michigan appear to be obeying Whitmer’s order. But what if such protests degenerate into a riot? What if these men with guns stormed the Capitol building or tried to depose the governor by force? It would seem at a moment like this, Whitmer (or any governor for that matter) might need military help from the federal government to protect her. Would she get such help from a U.S. president who is encouraging the protesters?:

Trump is not just encouraging protests in Michigan. In Virginia, he is connecting his call to protest with guns:

And let’s not forget the political angle here. Whitmer is a Democrat. Michigan is a battleground state that Trump desperately needs to win in November.

There is also an anti-intellectual/anti-science dimension to these protests. Andrew Sullivan’s captures this well in a tweet covering protests in Texas:

Yes, you heard them correctly. They are chanting “Fire Fauci”–a reference to Dr. Anthony Fauci, the director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases and the lead scientist on the White House coronavirus task force.

Whitmer deserves our support and prayers right now. So do all of the governors–Democrat and Republican– trying to lead their states in this time of crisis. Most of them are trying to save lives.

As for the protesters, they also need our prayers.  Father forgive them.

And where are all of Trump’s evangelical supporters? Trump has announced he will be watching the church service tomorrow at Rev. Jack Graham‘s Prestonwood Baptist Church in Dallas:

I am not a fan of politics in the pulpit. But sometimes the church must speak out–either directly or indirectly–against a President who is fomenting armed rebellion. (These court evangelicals seem to love Romans 13. Does it apply to governors as well?). Jack Graham has the ear and eyes of the president tomorrow morning. How will he respond?

ADDENDUM (Sunday, April 19, 2020 at 1:15pm):  Apparently some folks are upset because I have said that these men are carrying machine guns.  I apologize for the confusion.  They look like machine guns to me, but I don’t know anything about guns.  But those who are criticizing me for getting the model of gun wrong are missing the point.

Evangelical Christians: Today the Press is Doing What the Church is Supposed to be Doing

Here is theologian N.T. Wright:

These two methods of speaking truth to power–official opposition parties and the media–regularly fail. As we all know, opposition parties often collude with governmental folly and wickedness, and newspapers can easily egg them on in precisely those areas where critique is most needed. The church’s vocation of speaking truth to power has thus been taken over by two systems that aren’t up to the job. We urgently need the voice of Christian wisdom to approve that which is excellent and to call to account that which isn’t. Of course, when we try to do that, the media regularly tries to rule the church out of order, not just because it doesn’t like what we might say but because we are treading on turf they took from us, and they don’t want us to have it back. So, once again, we have colluded with this diminishing role and God-given vocation; or, worse, we have been herded like sheep into the lobby of this or that party, swept along on agendas we assume too readily to be God’s agendas and unable to differentiate between the whim of the party and the conscience of the Christian.

If you are a Christian reader who has issues with the so-called “mainstream media,” then please step-up to the plate. The press is doing our job for us.

Today, Trump showed the following video during his coronavirus press conference:

This, of course, is little more than a carefully-edited propaganda video.

Then the questions began. Here CBS reporter Paula Reid:

Here is my transcript of that exchange:

Reid: What did you do with that time that you bought. The argument is that you bought yourself some time and you didn’t use it to prepare hospitals, you didn’t use it to ramp-up testing. Right now nearly 20 million people are unemployed. Tens of thousands of Americans are dead. How is this video or this rant supposed to make Americans feel confident in an unprecedented crisis?

Trump: You’re so disgraceful. You’re so disgraceful the way you say that. Listen, I just went over it. I just went over it. Nobody thought we should do it and when I did it…

Reid: But what did you do with the time that you bought? The month of February? That video has a gap. The entire month of February.

Trump: You know what we did. You know what we did. What do you do when you have no cases in the whole United States…

Reid: You had cases in February.

Trump: Excuse me, you reported it. Zero cases. Zero deaths. On January 17th

Reid: In January. The entire month of February? Your video has a complete gap. What did your administration do in February with the time that your travel ban bought you?

Trump: A lot.

Reid: What?

Trump: A lot. And in fact we’ll give you a list what we did. In fact part of it was up there [on the video].

Reid: It wasn’t there.  There was a gap.

Trump: Look. You know you’re a fake. You know that. You’re whole network, the way you cover it, is fake. And most of you, but not all of you. And the people are wise to you. That’s why you have a lower approval rating than you’ve ever had before times probably three.

Reid: 20 million people are unemployed. Tens of thousands are dead.

Trump: Why did Biden apologize. Why did he write a letter of apology…

Reid:  I don’t think the American people care right now about why Joe Biden apologized.

Trump: No, that’s very important. Why did the Democrats think that I acted too quickly? You know why, because they really thought that I acted too quickly.

Reid: [Inaudible]

Trump: Now, I could have kept it kept it open. And I could have done what some country’s are doing. They are getting beat-up pretty badly. I could have kept it open. I thought of keeping it open. Because no one’s ever heard of closing down a country, let alone the United States of America. But if I would have done that, we would have had hundreds of thousands of people that would right now be dead. We’ve done this right. We really have done this right. The problem is the press doesn’t cover it the way it should be covered.

Some fact-checking is in order:

  1. Travelers from China continued to come into the country after Trump apparently closed down travel from China.  This was not a ban on Chinese travel to the United States. Since Trump claimed he stopped travel to the United States from China over 40,000 people have arrived in the United States on direct flights from China.
  2. We also know that the president was warned about the potential for a pandemic on multiple occasions well before the virus hit American shores and did little about it.
  3.  We know that several previous U.S. presidents warned the country about this possibility.

But back to Reid and the other journalists who challenged Trump today.  I’m not sure I can put it any better than Christian writer David Dark:

Back In The Zoo: Trust in the Valley

Erasmus Club dinner

Messiah students engaged in discussion at the latest Erasmus Club dinner with Dr. Bernardo Michael. Photo by Keanan Wolf

Annie Thorn is a sophomore history major from Kalamazoo, Michigan and our intern here at The Way of Improvement Leads Home.  As part of her internship she is writing a weekly column titled “Out of the Zoo.” It focuses on life as a history major at a small liberal arts college. In this dispatch, Annie writes about a recent discussion with fellow history major about COVID-19 –JF

How will COVID-19 be remembered in 50 years? What about 100 years? What about 500?

Will future generations condemn us for the way we handled the pandemic? Will they look down on us for not doing enough? How will the hardships we experience today compare to the sufferings experienced by the generations that came before us?

I don’t have answers to these questions, and I’m not convinced anyone does right now. Yet, it is these questions, and many more, that we wrestled with at the history department’s Erasmus Club dinner earlier this month. We pushed two round tables together in Martin Commons, piled our plates with various dining-hall entrees and began our discussion. We were supposed to discuss the intersection of history and memory, but within minutes our conversation veered off course and steered toward the coronavirus. No one consciously tried to bring it up, but because COVID-19 was already on everyone’s minds the topic was inevitable. The Saturday before the dinner, I found out that the first two cases of coronavirus had been discovered in Pennsylvania. Now, three weeks later, there are a few thousand cases in Pennsylvania and my home state of Michigan is a week and a half into a stay-at-home order. It’s crazy how fast things change.

How will I remember COVID-19? Right now it’s hard to be sure. Cases are still rising, the markets are still plummeting, and it’s hard to tell just how big of an impact it will have on my life, and on the lives of the people I love. I have never experienced anything like this in my entire life, and neither have my parents or my grandparents. It seems like whenever I think I have a grip on what’s going on, things change yet again.

But in the midst of all the uncertainty, I am sure of one thing: I worship a God who is working all things out for my good and his glory. At the beginning of the year, I started reading this book called Trusting God by Jerry Bridges. My boyfriend and I started it as a kind of New-Year’s resolution for the two of us. The book is all about trusting that God is in control, even when bad things happen. Even when we lose our job, even when our vacation is rudely interrupted, even when death and disease run rampant, God is still sovereign and worthy of our confidence. Romans 8:28 says, “And we know that in all things God works for the good of those who love him, who have been called according to his purpose.”

God doesn’t promise that bad things won’t happen. As long as we live on this side of eternity, there will be trials, there will be suffering, and there will be tears. But he does promise to be with us through it all. He promises us peace and strength to endure. He tells us that when our foundations are shaken, when the world falls apart before us, He still remains. Isaiah 41:10 says, “So do not fear, for I am with you; do not be dismayed, for I am your God. I will strengthen you and help you; I will uphold you with my righteous right hand.” 

I hope that future historians will be able to look at this season in my life and see that I trusted God with everything. I hope they will see that I chose to trust God even when it wasn’t easy, even when I didn’t feel like it, even when my heart ached. I am not there yet, but I hope I will get there someday. Will you join me?

What is the Role of the Church During This Pandemic?

Christianity

As readers of this blog know, I have taken some comfort and instruction during this pandemic from the writings of Anglican clergyman and Oxford University theologian N.T. Wright.  Churches may be closed, but the church–as the Christian people of God–still speak and act in the world.  But what should this kind of acting and speaking look like?

In his book God in Public: How the Bible Speaks Truth to Power Today, Wright writes:

…when God wants to change the world he doesn’t send in the tanks…he sends in the meek, the mourners, the merciful, the hungry-for-justice people, the peacemakers, the incoruptibly pure in heart. That was never a list of qualities you  need to try to work at in order to get to heaven. It was always a list of human characteristics though which God would bring his kingdom on earth as in heaven. That is how God works. And by the time the bullies and the arrogant have woken up to what’s happening, the meek and the mourners and the merciful have built hospitals and schools; they are looking after the sick and the wounded; they are feeding the hungry and rescuing the helpless; and they are telling the powerful and the vested-interest people that this is what a genuinely human society looks like…

The church has another role in times like this.

Here is Wright from Surprised by Scripture: Engaging Contemporary Issues:

From pre-Christian Judaism to the present, God’s people have claimed the right and responsibility to speak truth to power, sometimes with words, often with bodies. Martydom has frequently been the most powerful statement of all. The post-Enlightenment world has developed two other ways of speaking truth to power, but neither has done the job well.

On the one hand, we have opposition parties, which easily generate a two-party-culture-war polarization, which both Britain and the United States suffer from. Every issue is seen in black-and-white terms of us and them…

On the other hand, we have the electronic and print media, the increasingly complex world of journalism that takes on itself responsibility of holding government, and indeed the opposition, to account…

These two methods of speaking truth to power–official opposition parties and the media–regularly fail. As we all know, opposition parties often collude with governmental folly and wickedness, and newspapers can easily egg them on in precisely those areas where critique is most needed. The church’s vocation of speaking truth to power has thus been taken over by two systems that aren’t up to the job. We urgently need the voice of Christian wisdom to approve that which is excellent and to call to account that which isn’t. Of course, when we try to do that, the media regularly tries to rule the church out of order, not just because it doesn’t like what we might say but because we are treading on turf they took from us, and they don’t want us to have it back. So, once again, we have colluded with this diminishing role and God-given vocation; or, worse, we have been herded like sheep into the lobby of this or that party, swept along on agendas we assume too readily to be God’s agendas and unable to differentiate between the whim of the party and the conscience of the Christian.

Acts of love and mercy. Speaking truth to power. That is pretty good advice to build on.

“It is part of the inalienable task of God’s people…to speak the truth to power.”

Wright God in PublicI have been reading a lot of N.T. Wright lately.   The Anglican New Testament scholar and theologian has been helpful as I try to think about how to speak faithfully in our current political moment in the United States.  In his book God in Public: How the Bible Speaks Truth to Power TodayWright offers what he calls a “rough sketch of a Christian political theology.”  His sketch includes four points:

First:

…the creator God wants the world to be ordered, not chaotic. The order in question is to be a human order: that is to say, God intends that there should be human structures of government.  God does not want anarchy.  Just as God intends the world of plants and crops to work under human management, so God intends that human societies should be wisely ordered under human stewardship.  This pattern, of delegated authority if you like, goes all the way back to the human vocation to be God’s “image bearers.” It corresponds to the pattern of God’s actions in and through Jesus Christ.  That is what Paul says in Colossians 1:15-17.

Colossians 1:15-17: “The Son is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn over all creation. For in him all things were created: things in heaven and on earth, visible and invisible, whether thrones or powers or rulers or authorities; all things have been created through him and for him.  He is before all things, and in him all things hold together.”

Second:

…if God intends that there should be power structures; if he wills that humans should find ways of running the world and bringing it to wise order–then, within a world in rebellion, this call to power translates all too easily into a temptation to the abuse of power.  As soon as you make someone a steward of creation…you challenge them to navigate past the temptation to use that power for their own advantage, to become, in other words, part of the problem to which they are supposed to be part of the solution….

Third:

…it is part of the inalienable task of God’s people, of those who worship the creator God, whom we see in Jesus and know through the Spirit, to speak the truth to power.  This calling will mean reminding governments, local councillors, authorities in every sphere, including church leaders, of their calling to selfless stewardship. It will mean pointing our fearlessly (but also humbly: arrogance will spoil the whole thing) where this trust is being abused, in whatever way. Once more, God is not nearly so interested in how rulers get to be rulers as he is in how they behave as rulers. That is why the church has the vital task of reminding them of their proper vocation and of calling them to account.

Fourth:

…it is the task of the followers of Jesus to remind those called to authority, in whatever sphere, that the God who made the world intends to put the world rights at the last. It isn’t simply a matter of reminding the authorities of duties they have always had.  It is a matter of calling them to acts of justice and mercy which will anticipate, in the present time, God’s final setting of all things to rights, God’s wiping away of every tear from every eye. This calling–which many authorities and rulers dimly recognize, though many alas glimpse it and turn away to more seductive options–is, whether people recognize it or not, the call to live under the lordship of Jesus Christ.

Wright summarizes:

The doing of justice and mercy in the present time by those called to power locally, nationally and globally is thus to be seen within the framework of the historical victory of Jesus in his death and resurrection and of the future, coming, final victory of God over all evil, all violence, all arrogant abuse of power.

And this:

It’s no good saying “Jesus is telling you to do this” to someone who has no time for Jesus. But if the church can translate what we believe Jesus would say into the language, and the coherent argument, of the wider world then such obedience can become a possibility.

I Refuse to Become Numb to the Daily Immorality Emanating from the White House

Trump-Bachmann-Pence-religious-right

I had a long conversation this weekend with an evangelical Trump supporter.  We had a lot of disagreements, but we also found some common ground.

We both agreed that evangelical leaders who support Trump have failed to rebuke the president’s immorality.  And the list of his immoral behavior is long:

  • He separated children from their parents at the Mexican border.
  • He claimed that there were “very fine people on both sides” after white supremacists invaded Charlottesville, VA.
  • He made derogatory comments about the appearance of multiple women.
  • He said the people of Haiti, El Salvador and Africa come from “shithole countries.”
  • He lies regularly to the American people.
  • He not only demonizes the free press, but he attacked the dignity of individual reporters.
  • He attempted to get Ukraine to interfere in the 2020 election.
  • He is teaching kids to bully other kids.

When Trump has engages in these activities, many of his followers, including Franklin Graham, Robert Jeffress, Paula White, Eric Metaxas, Jerry Falwell Jr., James Dobson, Jack Graham, and Ralph Reed, look the other way.  Because Trump holds them captive, they are unable to speak truth to power. I challenge my readers to find five examples of pro-Trump Christian Right leaders making a strong condemnation of the president’s tweets, speeches, or actions.  These men and women have placed political power and expediency over their call to be effective witnesses for biblical truth in the world. They have millions of followers who hang on their every word.

It was at this point in the conversation that my pro-Trump friend pushed back.  Yes, he said, Trump did all these things and the court evangelicals have indeed failed to respond with moral clarity. But then he added: “What about the Democrats? Haven’t they also lied, demonized their enemies, and acted in a hypocritical manner?” Of course they have.  But that’s not the point.  I do not have any illusions about the world of politics.  It is a corrupt sphere. The political world contains more darkness than light. The last two Democratic debates (Nevada and South Carolina) reminded me that I never want to pursue a career in politics.

But I do have high standards for Christians–men and women who, while sinners, should strive to rise above this broken world through God’s grace and the power of the Holy Spirit. Christians don’t justify immorality by pointing out the sins and flaws of other people and say “what about them?” Since when is the moral behavior of Christians in public dependent upon the behavior of others? Christians are called to live faithful lives according to the standards God has given them through the sacred scriptures. When they see sin at the highest level of government they don’t ignore it, they call it out.

Many evangelicals will vote for Trump again in November because they believe he will continue to appoint conservative federal justices, oppose abortion, defend religious liberty (as evangelicals understand the term), and support Israel.  Other evangelicals will vote for him because the economy is doing well. As an evangelical who is pro-life, a defender of religious liberty, and a believer in a strong economy, I strongly disagree with the choices these voters will make. Read my book Believe Me to understand why.  But please don’t stand by and let this president’s words, tweets, and actions degrade the character of this country and the witness of the evangelical message–the “Good News”–with his nativism, racism, xenophobia, narcissism, fear-mongering, and disrespect for American institutions.

I don’t think America is or should be a Christian nation, but I do believe, with the founding fathers, that republics only survive when they have some kind of moral compass. By sitting silently and watching Trump run roughshod over this country, evangelicals fail to do their part in contributing to the moral fabric of this republic.  Trump-supporting evangelicals no longer have the moral authority to speak out on matters related to government corruption, pornography, sex and violence in movies and television shows, racial reconciliation, school bullying, and the decline in civil discourse.

My views on evangelicals and Donald Trump have caused many of my fellow evangelicals to hold me at arms length. I have lost friends.  Some tell me directly–through snail mail, e-mail, and social media–that I am mistaken in my views.  Others, I sense, are quietly and subtly keeping me at a distance. Still others have told me that I have Trump derangement syndrome or, as someone recently wrote to me, I am only “singing one note these days.” But I continue to believe that Trump is bad for America and bad for the Church.  I have a small platform to say something about this, so I simply refuse to become numb to the daily immorality emanating from the White House. If that means I am a broken record, then so be it. Believe it or not, being a broken record on this issue helps me sleep better at night. 🙂

Jon Meacham on Why We Need Religion in Times Like These

MEachamHistorian Jon Meacham‘s latest book is titled The Hope of Glory: Reflections on the Last Words of Jesus from the Cross.  In his recent op-ed at The New York Times he argues that “religion is the best hope against Trump.”  Here is a taste:

Given the state of the nation two millenniums on, it is difficult to conceive of something more counterintuitive than the Christian ideal. For many Americans, especially non-Christians, the thought that Christian morality is a useful guide to much of anything these days is risible, particularly since so many evangelicals have thrown in their lot with a relentlessly solipsistic American president who bullies, boasts and sneers. The political hero of the Christian right of 2020 has used the National Prayer Breakfast to mock the New Testament injunction to love one’s enemies, and it’s clear that leading conservative Christian voices are putting the Supreme Court ahead of the Sermon on the Mount.

And yet history suggests that religiously inspired activism may hold the best hope for those in resistance to the prevailing Trumpian order.

I’ve come to this view in publishing a small book of reflections on the last sayings of Jesus from the cross — a devotional exercise, to be sure, but one that’s brought to mind the motive force of a Christian message based not on Fox News but on what those first-century words meant then and can mean now. “Father, forgive them”; “Assuredly, I say to you, today you will be with me in Paradise”; “Father, into thy hands I commend my spirit” — these remarks from the Gospel accounts of the Passion form a kind of final sermon from Jesus, one about forbearance, duty, love and mercy.

I am a Christian (a very poor one, but there we are), but I am also a historian, and contemplating the beginnings of the story of my ancestral faith has led me to think about the uses of Jesus down the eons. Yes, Christianity has been an instrument of repression, but in the living memory of Americans it has also been deployed as a means of liberation and progress — which feeds the hope that it can become a force for good once more.

Read the entire piece here.

Evangelicals Defend Mark Galli and *Christianity Today* in An Open Letter

CT Trump

It was published today at Religion News Service.  Read it here.

The signers:

Amy Julia Becker, author and speaker

Dale Hanson Bourke, author

Mae Elise Cannon, author and executive director of Churches for Middle East Peace

Rob Dalrymple, author and pastor

Richard Foster, founder of Renovaré

Marlena Graves, author

Chris Hall, president of Renovaré

Daniel Hill, author and pastor of River City Community Church, Chicago

Evan B. Howard, author

Sam Logan, president emeritus of Westminster Theological Seminary and associate international director of the World Reformed Fellowship

George Marsden, professor of history emeritus, University of Notre Dame

Rich Mouw, president emeritus, Fuller Theological Seminary

Natasha Sistrunk Robinson, author, diversity consultant and leadership coach

Ron Sider, Distinguished Professor Emeritus of Theology, Holistic Ministry and Public Policy, Palmer Seminary at Eastern University

Nikki Toyama-Szeto, executive director, Evangelicals for Social Action and The Sider Center