Robert Jeffress suggests that Tim Keller is a “wimpy Christian” who has “cloaked” his “cowardice in theology”

Jeffress SWBTS

Listen to this recent conversation with Eric Metaxas and Robert Jeffress, two leading court evangelicals.

Jeffress is pushing his new book Courageous: 10 Strategies for Thriving in a Hostile World.  After listening to this interview, it is unclear whether Jeffress’s book is about showing courage in the midst of warfare against sin and evil or showing courage in the culture war against the Democratic Party and the opponents of Donald Trump. I have not read the book, but I don’t think Jeffress sees any difference between these two kinds of “courageous” spiritual warfare. Metaxas, however, uses the interview to push Jeffress in a culture war direction. The host chastises evangelical Christians who are “not bold in encounters with other people.” Metaxas wants a fight. Jeffress quickly enlists on his side.

It is in this spirit that Metaxas brings up Timothy Keller, founder of Redeemer Presbyterian Church in New York City and a leading evangelical thinker. (Keller has co-authored a forthcoming book with Washington University law professor John Inazu titled Uncommon Ground: Living Faithfully in a World of Difference. The book focuses on showing respect to those with whom we differ and cultivating a robust pluralism in our nation). Metaxas says, “I was sorry to read that my friend Tim Keller talked about how Christians shouldn’t get in bed with any political party as though the two political parties were equal.” I am assuming Metaxas is referring to this New York Times opinion piece.

Jeffress then offers his take on Keller and others (he does not mention Keller by name) who are not willing to engage in “courageous” culture war politics:

What [people like Keller] have done  is they have cloaked their cowardice in theology.  They have found a theology that will excuse their unwillingness to take a stand. They don’t want to take unpopular stands in their church. They can’t stand any kind of criticism. They are wimpy Christians. And I think it’s increasingly hard to be a wimpy Christian in this culture.  There’s no mushy middle. You’re either on the side of righteousness or unrighteousness.

Metaxas then asks Jeffress about his role as a surrogate for Donald Trump in the upcoming election. Jeffress responds:

I am a well-known supporter of president Trump…Because of my role as a Fox News contributor there are limits to what I am able to do in organized ways but I don’t intend to back off at all in my vocal support for the president.

This is not surprising.  But notice what Jeffress said.  The reason he doesn’t organize for Trump is because he is a Fox News contributor, not because he is a minister of the Gospel.

Jeffress then talks about his evangelical critics:

I think there is an attempt to shame evangelicals like you and me for our support of president Trump and they think if they can try to tie us to everything he’s ever said or done in his life maybe we will disassociate ourselves from the president and not support him any longer.

On one hand, Jeffress says that the church should be involved in politics. But he only wants the church involved in matters related to his political views, which he believes are the only political views based on the Bible.

But a truly engaged church should call out corruption and immorality in our leaders with the same kind of zeal that it praises particular politicians. When Trump acts in ways that are blatantly immoral, people like Jeffress and Metaxas say nothing. The silence is deafening.

On this point, Metaxas says that he doesn’t like everything Trump does, but he won’t say anything about it publicly because he does not want to join the “drumbeat” of criticism. Silence in the face of evil is not a Christian response. It is people like Jeffress and Metaxas who lack courage. They seem to be the evangelicals who have cloaked their “cowardice” in theology. The call of the church, to quote theologian N.T. Wright, is to “denounce what needs denouncing.”

Kristen Gillibrand’s Wacky Pro-Choice Theology

Gillibrand

Recently New York Senator and Democratic presidential candidate Kristen Gillibrand claimed that laws against abortion are “against Christian faith?”  This should raise a host of red flags for people who know something about Christianity.  Most American evangelicals, who the last time I checked were Christians, oppose abortion.  Roman Catholics also oppose abortion.  The Orthodox Church also opposes the practice.  So do many mainline Protestants.

So why does Gillibrand believe that a pro-life position on abortion is anti-Christian?  She claims that Christianity teaches “free will” and, as a result, laws preventing a women’s choice to abort a baby are not Christian.

Wow.  I just read a draft of this post to my eighteen-year-old daughter and she gave me a puzzled look before saying, “Wait, that’s not how it works.”

Most of the Christian bodies I mentioned in the first paragraph of this post also believe in free will.  Yet they oppose the practice of abortion because a person’s free will is always understood in the context of other principles–like the common good, the preservation of life, and duties to others, including the unborn.  When one becomes a Christian they are called to deny self for the life of others.  There are times when individual choice must be subordinated to larger moral issues.

Please note that this post is not an endorsement of the Alabama bill.  I have argued that overturning Roe v. Wade is not the best way to reduce the number of abortions.  Rather, this post is a plea to politicians to stop doing theology.

“Every age needs its Puddleglum”

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Over at Mere Orthodoxy, John Shelton invokes a well-known C.S. Lewis character to describe the life and work of Duke theologian Stanley Hauerwas.  A taste:

Every age needs its Puddleglum. For without Puddleglums, we cannot escape the web of lies and see the world as it is truly meant to be. It is the work of the Puddleglums, often with stink and pain, to show us that there is something wrong with the way things are, and that there is a better country to long for. Prophets (which are much the same as Puddleglums) are always met with stones and crosses in their own age, and only in later ages are those stones and crosses used to build them venerable graves. We need, then, only follow the trail of projectiles to learn that our own Puddleglum is an American theologian named Stanley Hauerwas, and he is every bit as odd, exaggerated, and discomforting as the marshwiggle of C. S. Lewis’ novel.

Hauerwas is a bundle of contradictions. A theologian, he is infamous for matching brusque, blue-collar vulgarity with a thoroughgoing call for christocentric pacifism. In a nutshell: “Jesus is Lord, and everything else is bullshit.” Time Magazine has heralded him as “America’s best theologian” but, perhaps more than any other living theologian of his stature, Hauerwas has railed against American identity in all its manifestations. For this, Hauerwas has been accused of peddling “anti-world theology” (James Davison Hunter), “inflam[ing] Christian resentment of secular political culture” (Jeff Stout), and demonstrating remarkable unconcern towards “the tens of thousands of lives being lost to violence,” and ignoring “America’s singular capacity, and thus unique responsibility, to stop the slaughter” (Jean Bethke Elshtain).

Some think Hauerwas’ penchant for profanity discounts him as an ethicist. Others hear “pacifist” and mistake him for a liberal sentimentalist. To dismiss him out of hand, however, would be a mistake. Odd though he may look, especially to the tribe of Christians called “Evangelical,” Hauerwas packs a punch necessary to shake us from our small, settled understanding of the gospel. Like the protagonists in Lewis’ The Silver Chair, we are lost in the sweet smoke of a sinister spell and desperately need a marshwiggle to drive his stinky duck-feet into the fire. We need someone to expunge the witch’s magic with an offensive odor. As should be clear from the litany of invectives against him, Hauerwas, the bricklayer-turned-theologian, is that abominable stench.

Just as Puddleglum cleared the air for the others to think, Hauerwas shocks us awake and offers another way of seeing the world unleashed in scripture. Often, we cannot begin to name the smoke until we have been so jolted. But with Hauerwas we will come to see that Modern Americans (especially modern American Christians) suffer under disordered loves of liberalism, nationalism, and individualism. Hauerwas delivers the antidote to these in the cocktail formula of narrative, community, and the alternative politics of the church.

Read the entire piece here.

Michael Gerson is Doing Theology from the Pages of *The Washington Post*

c0d8e-gersonThe election of Donald Trump has really lit a fire under Michael Gerson.  His columns on the POTUS do not mince words.  He is speaking with a prophetic Christian voice and we need him to keep writing.

But this post is not about one of Gerson’s Trump columns.  Rather, I want to bring your attention to his piece written in the wake of the Vegas tragedy.  As I read this column I wondered at what point we should start calling Gerson a public theologian.

Here is a taste:

That said, I do come at these events from a religious perspective, as some of the victims surely did, and as some of their loved ones surely do. The Christian faith involves a whisper from beyond time that death, while horrible, is not final — that the affirmations of the creeds and the inscriptions on tombstones are not lies. And for many, this hope is a barrier against despair.

Yet faith also encompasses something deeper and more difficult — what theologian Jurgen Moltmann has called “God’s terrible silence.” In that silence, only the scarred God, the weak and victimized God, the God of the cross seems to communicate. Not in words, but in a shocking example of lonely suffering. Christians turn to a God who once felt godforsaken, as all of us may feel in the nightmare of loss.

At this type of moment, even those with tenuous ties to religion offer their thoughts and prayers. But how should we pray? Concerning grief, as many can attest, it is not strength or struggle that matters most; it is perseverance. And that is as good a thing to pray for as any, for those who cannot see a future without their friend, without their child. Our attention is temporary; their suffering will not fade easily, if ever.

Read the entire piece here.

What Did Christian Scholars of Religion and Public Life Say About Bill Clinton in 1998?

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Tickets to the Clinton Impeachment Trial (Wikimedia Commons)

One of my Facebook followers recently called my attention to a 1998 document that has some implications for our present moment.  The “Declaration concerning religion, ethnics and the crisis in the Clinton presidency” was signed by religious leaders and scholars seeking to bring some moral clarity to the nation during the Clinton-Lewinsky scandal.

Look closely at the people who signed this statement. The signers include Catholics, theological liberals, mainline Protestants, progressive evangelicals, evangelicals who might be described as theologically “conservative,” and everyone in-between.

There are parts of this statement that are still useful as we deal with our current president.  I am struck that the writer of this statement is reflecting on how to deal with a president–Bill Clinton–who has asked forgiveness for his indiscretions.  How does this statement hold up today with a president who does not believe in asking for forgiveness?

Here is the entire document:

Declaration concerning religion, ethics, and the crisis in the Clinton presidency

POSTED ON NOVEMBER 16, 1998 BY ADMIN IN PRESBYTERIAN NEWS AND ANALYSIS

Declaration concerning religion, ethics, and the crisis in the Clinton presidency

The following declaration can be found at moral-crisis.org, November 16, 1998

The following declaration can be found at moral-crisis.org

To be released on 13 November 1998

As scholars interested in religion and public life, we protest the manipulation of religion and the debasing of moral language in the discussion about presidential responsibility. We believe that serious misunderstandings of repentance and forgiveness are being exploited for political advantage. The resulting moral confusion is a threat to the integrity of American religion and to the foundations of a civil society. In the conviction that politics and morality cannot be separated, we consider the current crisis to be a critical moment in the life of our country and, therefore, offer the following points for consideration:

1. Many of us worry about the political misuse of religion and religious symbols even as we endorse the public mission of our churches, synagogues, and mosques. In particular we are concerned about the distortion that can come by association with presidential power in events like the Presidential Prayer Breakfast on September 11. We fear the religious community is in danger of being called upon to provide authentication for a politically motivated and incomplete repentance that seeks to avert serious consequences for wrongful acts. While we affirm that pastoral counseling sessions are an appropriate, confidential arena to address these issues, we fear that announcing such meetings to convince the public of the President’s sincerity compromises the integrity of religion.

2. We challenge the widespread assumption that forgiveness relieves a person of further responsibility and serious consequences. We are convinced that forgiveness is a relational term that does not function easily within the sphere of constitutional accountability. A wronged party chooses forgiveness instead of revenge and antagonism, but this does not relieve the wrong-doer of consequences. When the President continues to deny any liability for the sins he has confessed, this suggests that the public display of repentance was intended to avoid political disfavor.

3. We are aware that certain moral qualities are central to the survival of our political system, among which are truthfulness, integrity, respect for the law, respect for the dignity of others, adherence to the constitutional process, and a willingness to avoid the abuse of power. We reject the premise that violations of these ethical standards should be excused so long as a leader remains loyal to a particular political agenda and the nation is blessed by a strong economy. Elected leaders are accountable to the Constitution and to the people who elected them. By his own admission the President has departed from ethical standards by abusing his presidential office, by his ill use of women, and by his knowing manipulation of truth for indefensible ends. We are particularly troubled about the debasing of the language of public discourse with the aim of avoiding responsibility for one’s actions.

4. We are concerned about the impact of this crisis on our children and on our students. Some of them feel betrayed by a President in whom they set their hopes while others are troubled by his misuse of others, by which many in the administration, the political system, and the media were implicated in patterns of deceit and abuse. Neither our students nor we demand perfection. Many of us believe that extreme dangers sometimes require a political leader to engage in morally problematic actions. But we maintain that in general there is a reasonable threshold of behavior beneath which our public leaders should not fall, because the moral character of a people is more important than the tenure of a particular politician or the protection of a particular political agenda. Political and religious history indicate that violations and misunderstandings of such moral issues may have grave consequences. The widespread desire to “get this behind us” does not take seriously enough the nature of transgressions and their social effects.

5. We urge the society as a whole to take account of the ethical commitments necessary for a civil society and to seek the integrity of both public and private morality. While partisan conflicts have usually dominated past debates over public morality, we now confront a much deeper crisis, whether the moral basis of the constitutional system itself will be lost. In the present impeachment discussions, we call for national courage in deliberation that avoids ideological division and engages the process as a constitutional and ethical imperative. We ask Congress to discharge its current duty in a manner mindful of its solemn constitutional and political responsibilities. Only in this way can the process serve the good of the nation as a whole and avoid further sensationalism.

6. While some of us think that a presidential resignation or impeachment would be appropriate and others envision less drastic consequences, we are all convinced that extended discussion about constitutional, ethical, and religious issues will be required to clarify the situation and to enable a wise decision to be made. We hope to provide an arena in which such discussion can occur in an atmosphere of scholarly integrity and civility without partisan bias.

The following scholars subscribe to the Declaration:

1. Paul J. Achtemeier (Union Theological Seminary in Virginia)

2. P. Mark Achtemeier (University of Dubuque Theological Seminary)

3. LeRoy Aden (Lutheran Theological Seminary in Philadelphia)

4. Diogenes Allen (Princeton Theological Seminary)

5. Joseph Alulis (North Park University)

6. Charles L. Bartow (Princeton Theological Seminary)

7. Donald G. Bloesch (University of Dubuque Theological Seminary)

8. Carl Braaten (Center for Catholic and Evangelical Theology)

9. Manfred Brauch (Eastern Baptist Theological Seminary)

10. William P. Brown (Union Theological Seminary in Virginia)

11. Don S. Browning (University of Chicago)

12. Frederick S. Carney (Southern Methodist University)

13. Ellen T. Charry (Princeton Theological Seminary)

14. Karl Paul Donfried (Smith College)

15. Richard Drummond (University of Dubuque Theological Seminary)

16. Jean Bethke Elshtain (University of Chicago)

17. Edward E. Ericson, Jr. (Calvin College)

18. Gabriel Fackre (Andover Newton Theological School)

19. Robert Gagnon (Pittsburgh Theological Seminary)

20. Joel B. Green (Asbury Theological Seminary)

21. Robert H. Gundry (Westmont College)

22. Scott J. Hafemann (Wheaton College)

23. Roy A. Harrisville (Luther Theological Seminary)

24. Stanley M. Hauerwas (Duke University)

25. Gerald F. Hawthorne (Wheaton College)

26. S. Mark Heim (Andover Newton Theological School)

27. Frank Witt Hughes (Codrington College)

28. Robert Imbelli (Boston College)

29. Robert Jenson (Center for Theological Inquiry)

30. Robert Jewett (Garrett-Evangelical Theological Seminary)

31. Jack Dean Kingsbury (Union Theological Seminary in Virginia)

32. Paul Koptak (North Park Theological Seminary)

33. John S. Lawrence (Morningside College)

34. Walter Liefeld (Trinity Evangelical Divinity School)

35. Troy Martin (Saint Xavier University)

36. James L. Mays (Union Theological Seminary in Virginia)

37. S. Dean McBride (Union Theological Seminary in Virginia)

38. Sheila E. McGinn (John Carroll University)

39. John R. McRay (Wheaton College)

40. Robert Meye (Fuller Theological Seminary)

41. David Moessner (University of Dubuque Theological Seminary)

42. Grant Osborne (Trinity Evangelical Divinity School)

43. Carroll D. Osburn (Abilene Christian University)

44. William A. Pannell (Fuller Theological Seminary)

45. Jon Paulien (Andrews University)

46. John Piper (Bethlehem Baptist Church)

47. Stephen Pope (Boston College)

48. J. E. Powers (Hope College

49. Mark Reasoner (Bethel College),

50. John Reumann (Lutheran Theological Seminary at Philadelphia)

51. David Rhoads (Lutheran School of Theology at Chicago)

52. W. Larry Richards (Andrews University)

53. Daniel E. Ritchie (Bethel College)

54. Joel Samuels (University of Dubuque Theological Seminary)

55. David Scholer (Fuller Theological Seminary)

56. Keith Norman Schoville (University of Wisconsin)

57. J. Julius Scott (Wheaton College)

58. Mark Seifrid (Southern Baptist Theological Seminary)

59. Christopher R. Seitz (St. Andrews University)

60. Klyne Snodgrass (North Park Theological Seminary)

61. Max Stackhouse (Princeton Theological Seminary)

62. W. Richard Stegner (Garrett-Evangelical Theological Seminary)

63. Jeanne Stevenson-Moessner (University of Dubuque Theological Seminary)

64. R. Franklin Terry (Morningside College)

65. David Tiede (Luther Theological Seminary)

66. Reinder Van Til (Eerdmans Publishing Company)

67. Warren Wade (North Park University)

68. J. Ross Wagner (Princeton Theological Seminary)

69. David H. Wallace (American Baptist Seminary of the West)

70. Timothy P. Weber (Northern Baptist Theological Seminary)

71. Merold Westphal (Fordham University)

72. Jonathan R. Wilson (Westmont College)

73. Edward and Anne Wimberly (Interdenominational Theological Center)

74. Harry Yeide (George Washington University)

The Problem With Mixing Christianity and Nationalism

Jeffress 2

Kyle Roberts is Schilling Professor of Public Theology and the Church and Economic Life at United Theological Seminary of the Twin Cities.  He explains, from the perspective of Christian teaching, some of the problems with what happened last Sunday at First Baptist Church in Dallas.  I am glad that a theologian has commented on this story.  As a historian, my level of analysis is limited.

According to Roberts, there are 10 “negative consequences” when a church conflates nationalism and Christianity.

  1. It contributes to false assumptions of God’s special blessing or privilege
  2. It confuses the power of God with the power of the State
  3. It confuses the gospel of grace with the “good news” of material wealth and security.
  4. It undermines the separation of church and state
  5. It undercuts the prophetic power that Christianity needs in order to be salt and light
  6. It makes us forget that nation-states are a recent development
  7. It undermines the cross
  8. It replaces transcendence with immanence
  9. It disrespects those who have been marginalized by the configuration of powers in the nation-state
  10. It suggests that the basis of Christian hope is not the counter-cultural Messiah, but the “worldly” powers of the State.

Click here to see how Roberts develops each of these points at his blog Unsystematic Theology.  Great stuff.

Even More on the Niebuhr-Comey Connection

COmeyWe have done a few posts over the past year about James Comey’s undergraduate thesis at The College of William and Mary.  The thesis compared the political theologies of Reinhold Niebuhr and Jerry Falwell.

Over at Christianity Today, University of Pennsylvania religion professor Steven Weitzman probes deeper into the Comey-Niebuhr connection, especially in light of very current events.

Here is a taste of his piece “The Theology Beneath the Trump-Comey Conflict“: 

Many Christian theologians in Niebuhr’s day embraced love as the solution to the world’s problems. As Comey explains in the thesis, Niebuhr rejected that view. Since human selfishness gets in the way of perfectly emulating Jesus’ sacrificial love, they must instead inject love into the world through justice.

Reading Comey’s description of Niebuhr’s views suggests a theological-moral logic at work in his career as FBI director. A Christian has an obligation to seek justice, the theologian argued, and this means entering the political sphere because that is the realm where one can find the power necessary to establish whatever justice is possible in the world. Comey’s decision to work for the FBI can be understood as a way of fulfilling Niebuhr’s vision of Christianity as a defender of justice.

At the same time, however, the Christian commitment to justice can also compel one to behave like a prophet, to speak truth to power, as Niebuhr himself did during the era of Comey’s most infamous predecessor, J. Edgar Hoover.

By the late 1960s, Niebuhr had cofounded an anti-war clergy group deemed suspicious by the FBI, and one of his cofounders, the Jesuit priest Daniel Berrigan, had been the subject of an FBI manhunt, arrested and sentenced to three years in jail. Niebuhr, a subject of FBI surveillance himself, was no fan of the bureau and felt moved to speak out against it.35ad1-niebuhr

In an essay called “The King’s Chapel and the King’s Court” published in 1969, Niebuhr rebuked Hoover himself, comparing his spying on Martin Luther King, Jr. to the actions of the biblical Amaziah, a priest who abused the prophet Amos in an effort to suppress his critique.

It is ironic that Comey admires a figure who felt he had to denounce a previous FBI director. What is even more ironic, however, is that the essay anticipates the predicament Comey himself faced when, on January 27—in the midst of the FBI’s investigation of Michael Flynn for his contacts with the Russians—he was invited to dinner with Trump and asked to declare his loyalty. At the time he wrote his thesis, Comey could have had no idea that he would one day be summoned to the court of the king and then, like Amos, driven out for not saying what the king wanted to hear.

It is tempting to read Comey’s thesis as an explanation for how has conducted himself as FBI director over the last year.

Niebuhr’s writings supply a moral argument for Comey’s aggressive assertion of the FBI’s power—some describe him as the most aggressive FBI director since Hoover himself. His influence also sheds light on another side of Comey’s conduct as FBI director. Niebuhr noted that while humans can’t change the animal nature that makes them so selfish, they can achieve a kind of freedom from their situation by becoming self-conscious, by recognizing the truth about themselves. Comey has sought to institutionalize such self-awareness in the FBI through programs that encourage FBI trainees to learn about Hoover’s mistreatment of Martin Luther King Jr. and the complicity of law enforcement in the Holocaust.

But the theologian’s influence potentially sheds light on yet another side of Comey’s conduct as well. For a student of Niebuhr, justice is about using power to balance the power of those not predisposed to recognize any limits on their self-interest. Perhaps this helps to explain why Comey felt he had to criticize Clinton even though he found no reason to pursue a legal case against her. At that time she seemed to be on her way to becoming the most powerful person in the world, and her email troubles suggested someone who did not sufficiently respect limits.

Read the rest here.

Can Progressive Evangelicals Claim the “Anabaptist” Label?

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Alexanderwohl Mennonite Church: Goessel, Kansas (Wikipedia)

Richard Beck of Abilene Christian University has written a very interesting piece explaining the difference between progressive evangelicalism and Anabaptism.   The election of Donald Trump has led many progressive Christians to claim the Anabaptist mantle But as Beck explains, this progressive approach to politics does not always conform to Anabaptist political teaching.

Here is a taste of Beck’s piece at Mennonite World Review:

The story starts in 2003, with George W. Bush and the invasion of Iraq. Many progressive Christians mobilized against that war. At the time, social media was just exploding. Blogging was in its Golden Age. Twitter would show up in 2006, just in time for the 2007-2008 Presidential campaign where we debated the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, torture and Guantanamo Bay.

As these debates raged on social media, Anabaptist theology, with its criticisms of nationalism and war, became a powerful theological tool in the hands of progressive Christians to level indictments at the Bush administration.

In addition, emergent and post-evangelical expressions of Christianity were going strong. Many disaffected and disillusioned evangelicals were looking around for theological positions that critiqued how evangelicalism had been co-opted by politics. With its strong criticisms of Constantinianism, Anabaptist theology also fit that bill.

And so it was during these years that many progressive Christians, in using Anabaptist theology so effectively to critique the Bush administration and the politicization of evangelicalism, convinced themselves that they were Anabaptists.

But they weren’t Anabaptists, not really.

Why weren’t progressives Anabaptists? Two reasons.

First, there’s more to Anabaptist theology than its peace witness. Anabaptist theology also espouses a robust ecclesiology, the church as the locus of life and political witness. This aspect of Anabaptist theology doesn’t sit well with many progressive Christians, who would rather work as political activists than invest in the daily life of a local church. To be sure, many post-evangelical progressive Christians harbor nostalgia for the local church, memories of hymn sings, youth camps, vacation Bible school and pot luck casseroles. But at the end of the day, progressive Christians tend to think calling Congress, community organizing and marching in protests are the best ways to make the kingdom come on earth as it is in heaven.

Second, the robust ecclesiology of Anabaptist thought and practice works with a strong church-vs.-world distinction. This contrast has been famously captured by Stanley Hauerwas: “The first task of the church is not to make the world more just but to make the world the world.” In Anabaptist thought the church is set apart from the world, its goal to be a witness to the Powers by making a stark contrast between the kingdom of God and Babylon.

Read the entire piece here.

Stanley Hauerwas and Jonathan Tran on Christian Support for Trump

9143b-hauerwasStanley Hauerwas, considered by many to be one of the turn of the twenty-first century’s greatest theologians, has written an essay with Baylor theologian Jonathan Tran which, as far as I can tell, is his most thorough treatment of his views on the role of Christians in the age of Trump.

Here are a few snippets from their piece at the Religion and Ethics page of the Australian Broadcasting Corporation website:

On the failure of the Christian political imagination:

To us the most troubling thing was not that Christians voted for Trump when they had plenty of reasons and ways not to do so. While regrettable, that mistake follows a more basic one. We are most troubled by the ongoing belief Christians hold that the nation-state, not the church, is the arbiter of Christian political action. This belief obligates Christians to modes of statecraft in order to fulfil their moral commitments. In order to play at statecraft – again, for one’s “vote to count” – Christians will have to prioritize those commitments that will survive the state’s political processes over those that will not.

On abortion:

Take for instance the political issue of abortion, which some Christians cited as their reason for voting for candidate Trump. When Christians think that the struggle against abortion can only be pursued through voting for candidates with certain judicial philosophies, then serving at domestic abuse shelters or teaching students at local high schools or sharing wealth with expectant but under-resourced families or speaking of God’s grace in terms of “adoption” or politically organizing for improved education or rezoning municipalities for childcare or creating “Parent’s Night Out” programs at local churches or mentoring young mothers or teaching youth about chastity and dating or mobilizing religious pressure on medical service providers or apprenticing men into fatherhood or thinking of singleness as a vocation or feasting on something called “communion” or rendering to God what is God’s or participating with the saints through Marian icons or baptizing new members or tithing money, will not count as political.

On populism:

The nationalism of senior Trump advisor Steve Bannon and the so-called “Alt-Right” presents itself as a compassionate friend to those dispossessed by capitalism, bemoaning the loss of virtue and character and intoning a crisis of Western civilization. But when its antidote to global capitalism turns out to be the establishment of a 1950s version of Judaeo-Christian Victorian society without the recognition of that culture’s stewardship of capitalism or America’s guiding role in its operations, then its nationalism turns out to be only that, nationalism, and of the most nostalgic kind: to make America white again. The end result will be a nationalist-because-anti-globalist agenda that can achieve little more than a protectionist version of capitalism and a pseudo-intellectual endorsement of white supremacist activity. Not particularly original, but highly dangerous.

On lying:

Much has been made of President Trump’s shaky hold on the truth. When everything disagreeable is “fake news” then reality goes out the window. One approach to this state of affairs is to get the media to pile on as much discrediting evidence as possible with the expectation that Trump will be found to be caught in a lie. While this strategy has worthwhile benefits, we think it also has serious limitations, not least of which is that it positions the media politically in an endless troll/counter-troll game that will over time erode the public trust that is the source of its authority. The strategy also presumes that Trump is capable of lying. The way he presents himself makes us unsure that he is. Lying first requires an ability to distinguish truth from fantasy, an initial capacity to differentiate how things are from how one wants them to be. For anyone who has given himself to self-deception as constantly and continuously as Trump seems to, no amount of evidence will matter.

On sanctuary churches:

Acting as the church hospitable, Christians welcome those fleeing poverty, violence and oppression. As the powers threaten this hospitality because it challenges unjust political orders, the church militant responds with the grace and truth expressed in the sanctuary statement, against the grain of a crucifying world and with the grain of the universe. Upending oppressive arrangements, the church as sanctuary, a true international, attests to the absurdity of borders when millions starve and the thievery of states in a world given as gift.

On fear:

Shockingly there remain to this day Christians who support Trump’s anti-migration policies because they believe his policies will “keep us safe.” Surely one could not wish for a more misleading understanding of what it means to be Christian. Christians worship at the church of martyrs; they seek fellowship with the crucified Lord. Being a Christian is not about being safe, but about challenging the status quo in ways that cannot help but put you in danger. Thinking it possible to be safe in a world where Christians are sent out like sheep among wolves is about as unfortunate an idea as thinking that war is necessary to secure peace. We can only guess that those Christians who voted for Trump because of his willingness to use questionable tactics to keep them safe have forgotten what it means to be Christian.

Read the entire piece here.

A Theological Narrative of America

serenejonespress

Serene Jones

In my book Why Study History?: Reflecting on the Importance of the Past I wrote:

How might the reality of human sin influence our work as historians?  Herbert Butterfield, a twentieth-century philosopher of history, informed us that “if there is any region in which the bright empire of the theologicans and the more murky territory of the historians happen to meet and overlap, we shall be likely to find it at those places where both types of thinkers have to deal with human nature.”  Historian George Marsden adds, “Of all traditional Christian teachings the doctrine of original sin or of pervasive human depravity has the most empirical verification.  The modern world, rather than undercutting this doctrine, seems increasingly to confirm it.”  Indeed, anyone who studies the past realizes that there are no heroes in history.  While people may perform heroic acts, all humans are tainted by sin and are susceptible to acting in ways that preference themselves over others and God.  Historians understand, perhaps better than most, the reality of the pain, suffering, injustice, anger, and vice brought on by sin.  In other words, they understand the tragic dimensions of life. (p.90-91)

In my book Why Study History?: Reflecting on the Importance of the Past I also wrote:

…the imago Dei should…inform the way a Christian does history.  The doctrine should guide us in the kinds of stories we tell about the people whom we come across when visiting the “foreign country” that is the past.  It should shape the way we teach the past, write about the past, and interpret the past.  An approach to the past informed by an affirmation of the imago Dei can make the Christian historian’s work compatible with some of the best scholarship that the historical profession has to offer…. Theologian Miroslav Volf reminds us that “God sees each human being concretely, the powerful no less than the powerless.  God notes not only their common humanity, but also their specific histories, their particular psychological, social and embodied selves with their specific needs.”  What might this reality look like in our historical writing and thinking about the past?…A history grounded in a belief in the imago Dei will not neglect the elite and privileged members of society, but will also demand a fundamental reordering of the stories we tell about the human actors we meet in the past.

My attempt to connect theology and history in these passages came to mind again when I read Serene Jones‘s recent piece in Time titled “How to Heal the Spiritual Pain of America.”  Jones, the President of Union Theological Seminary in New York City, calls for a new national story informed by theology.  Here is a taste of what she means:

Over the past year, streams of commentaries have analyzed the ferocious and alarming combat marking this year’s presidential campaign. Few among them, however, include wide-ranging spiritual or theological accounts of what is transpiring. From where I sit, as a religious and spiritual leader, I see it as the manifestation of a profound spiritual crisis in our nation, one grounded in a deeply distorted view of ourselves, and our past and future.d94aa-whystudyhistory

As a theologian, I think about stories all the time because theology is nothing but big stories we tell ourselves about the universe and the meaning of our lives. We find these “ultimate” stories everywhere; they are conscious and unconscious, and not just in religious communities, but also broader, secular cultures.

 

As Americans, we have a “theological” national story we tell about our country. It begins with the Constitution and typically describes the constant progress that good people have made since the start. It’s a relentlessly positive story.

From a spiritual perspective, the problem is that this story has not incorporated a serious account of our wrongs. Our enduring flaws, profound failures, egregious harm and horrendous evils–none of these are part of our core story. The clearest example of this is our failure to sufficiently deal with our two most obviously horrific wrongs—the carefully orchestrated genocide of Native American and the 300-year-long story of the most brutal social system ever created, chattel slavery.

Why is this absence a spiritual problem? There is no religious or spiritual tradition, at least any worth their salt, that does not begin with a serious account of both the good and bad that people can do. There are many names for the negative side of human existence, such as sin, evil, illusion, moral absence, iniquity, transgression and negative karma. All recognize that human beings, alone and collectively, can do really bad things. This doesn’t mean we don’t have a good side. But these stories insist that if we do not existentially reckon with the ugly side of our beliefs and actions, we will not have healthy communities. Egregious harms will continue to unfold and profound despair and alienation inevitably set in. Why? Because deep down, we are living a spiritual lie.

I should add that in many traditions, spiritually reckoning with moral flaws and egregious harms is not considered debilitating but liberating and freeing. It allows people to be honest about their lives, and with this comes insight and fresh possibility. Any well-trained therapist would agree, as would evolutionary biologists, positive psychologists and a growing list of behavioral scientists.

Read the entire piece here.