The Church’s Challenge in the Age of Trump

The church’s challenge in the age of Trump, perhaps its biggest challenge, is to somehow follow Jesus as “light in the darkness” when light is shining out from every corner of our country and our world. For a people whose hero proclaimed release to the captives, recovery of sight to the blind, the advent of the justice of God, we find ourselves in very good company these days.

The best Christian social movements have always been willing to work toward common aims with folks who disagree with our particular theological motivations, convictions, or interpretations. Christians faithfully following Christ right now have myriad partners in the work of following Jesus, of setting literal and figurative tables for the “wrong” people, of ensuring that economic, social, and political hierarchies do not become our systems of value.

The Year’s Best Sermon

This weekend at the Screen Actors Guild awards, David Harbour went off in his acceptance speech on behalf of the Stranger Things cast.

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It might be the best sermon I’ve heard in the past year.

He creates a vision of an more empathetic society. One in which the work of actors reminds people that “when they feel broken and afraid and tired they are not alone.”

He articulates a common bond: “we are all together on this horrible, painful, joyous, exciting, and mysterious ride that is being alive.” When was the last time you heard a Christian paint human life with such compelling, startling, resonate hues?

“We 1983 mid-Westerners will repel bullies, we will shelter freaks and outcasts—those who have no hope.”

Are you kidding me?

“We will get past the lies. We will hunt monsters.”

If I sent a class full of seminary students to write a manifesto based on what they had read in the Gospels, this is what I would want them to produce. Yes, hunt life-sucking monsters. Yes, repel bullies. Yes, shelter the freaks. Yes, protect the weak!

“… we will punch some people in the face when they seek to destroy the weak and the disenfranchised and the marginalized. And we will do it all with soul, with heart, and with joy.”

Protecting the weak and disenfranchised with soul, heart, and joy? Yes!

But…

On Violence

I get the zealous desire to protect that drew out the “punch some people in the face” line. But we have to be careful. The non-violent resistance of the 1960s, and of Gandhi’s advocacy earlier, show us a better way. A way put on display by the crucified Christ.Screen Shot 2017-01-31 at 9.35.37 AM

I understand that hyperbolic language and metaphorical language can powerfully express the rage and depth of commitment Harbour was channeling. But we also have to be always aware that violent words can lead to violent actions. If we are fighting for justice in Trump’s America we cannot mimic the violence of a Trump rally.

On the other hand, the metaphorical “face punch” finds a way comfortably into the gospel story:

“They tie up heavy loads and load them on people’s shoulders—but they’re not even willing to lift a finger to move them.”

“Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! You keep locking people out of the Kingdom of Heaven!”

“Woe to you, blind guides!”

“Blind guides! You strain out a gnat but swallow a camel!”

“Fill up the measure of your ancestors, you snakes! Brood of vipers!”  —Jesus. Matthew 23

Jesus pulls no punches (metaphorically speaking) as he articulates the failures of people who exploit their positions of power and privilege for their own benefit at the expense of the people who are subject to their leading.

The Way of the Cross

When the values of the kingdom of God are being so beautifully and passionately trumpeted from Hollywood, it does raise the question, How is the church distinctively the church?

For all of the strength of Jesus’s condemnation of his contemporaries, it is the paradoxical strength of the cross that must continue to lie at the heart of our story and at the heart of our actions on behalf of the world.

The temptation to meet bluster with bluster is almost impossible to overcome. The temptation to meet manipulation with manipulation is excruciatingly acute. The temptation to meet violence with violence holds the nearly irresistible pull of the obvious.

But Jesus is clear: Yes, the rulers of the earth lord it over their people. But, “it shall not be so among you.”

We do not win by taking the same script and writing ourselves into the roles of destructive power. We win by being willing to play by another script altogether. 

In this script, humility wins. In this script, self-sacrifice accomplishes what sacrifice of the enemy couldn’t possible dream of. In this script, the awesome power of God is unleashed from the peaceful below, where the mighty swords of violence would never imagine they should strike.

That vision of society Harbour articulated? I learned it from Jesus. The Jesus who also said that if you enemy slaps you in the face, turn your other cheek to him as well.

“We will shelter freaks and outcasts”—as our own refusal to strike makes us freaks as well.

About J. R. Daniel Kirk

Daniel Kirk writes and speaks about the big story of the Bible and how it intersects with life, faith, and culture. He earned a Ph.D. in New Testament from Duke University and taught in a variety of institutions over a ten-year teaching career. He lives in San Francisco with his wife Laura and two school-aged children. His back yard has been overrun by chickens who have no interest in being confined to their designated space, and his refrigerator is regularly stocked with his homebrewed Cursing Reverend beer.