[Kurt Note: Zach is someone that I respect. A lot. In fact, he and I are kindred spirits in lots of ways. I hope that this excerpt from his brand new book, The Light is Winning, will inspire you today!]
In the early days of my Reformed and Calvinist fervor, I made a mistake that has stuck with me. I’m sure I made a bunch of them back then, but this one, in my mind, represents the big problem with my deeply held beliefs at that time.
This big problem eventually was revealed to me and caused my wife and me to move on from that exclusionary Baptist church and its harmful institutionalism. But years earlier, before I met Kalen, I wasn’t aware of any problem. I was just thrilled to have grabbed hold of something solid in my spiritual searching.
It was a couple of years after the September 11th attacks, just before President Bush and Congress issued a declaration of war against Iraq. I joined a friendly political discussion in the staff room of the ski resort where I was working. I knew that most of my friends and coworkers were politically progressive, if not ideologically, then just by osmosis, being decent people who cared about the planet and the poor and wore Patagonia.
This was Vermont, after all, a haven for peace-loving liberal folks and their causes. (That the Green Mountain State gave us Ben and Jerry’s Ice Cream and Senator Bernie Sanders is no accident.)
Deep down, I admired my friends and their progressiveness, which they seemed to inhabit so effortlessly. But I was also filled with ideas about God and politics culled from the theologies of Luther and Calvin (and their modern representatives) and the rantings of conservative talk radio. It was quite a cocktail, and it placed me in an antagonistic position—one that I was simultaneously insecure and prideful about.
I’d like to think I wasn’t a jerk, but I was at least overconfident in order to mask that insecurity. I used harsh words and a sharp tone. I was defensive. Looking back on this episode, I can almost feel my zeal edging into jerkiness, and it makes me wince.
After trying to shut down the argument being made by my good friend, I set my sights on the new ski instructor we had just hired, a women’s studies graduate student who was about to go out to teach a telemark lesson. She sat quietly as I peppered her with questions:
“Don’t you know Saddam Hussein harbors Al Qaeda? Have you read Bin Laden’s manifesto? Regardless of whether there’s WMD, do you really think we can win the war on terror if we don’t change the regime in Iraq and gain ground for democracy in the Middle East?”
If it weren’t for the snowboard pants I was wearing, you’d think I was an FBI interrogator.
She was steady in the face of my questioning. It had to be intimidating to have one of your bosses getting all political on your first day of work, right before your first lesson. Nevertheless, calmly and simply she answered, “I’m a pacifist. I know it’s not practical, but I just think war is wrong in all circumstances.”
My confidence melted, and I was dumbfounded. I could have argued against her position, but I couldn’t argue with her heart. Something about the peace she was talking about felt true. What was I supposed to do with that?
This exchange didn’t change my views or curb my talk radio habit. But my verbal onslaught indicated a crack in the bedrock of my new beliefs, because the God I had come to believe in approved of the American empire’s violent reactions to the world’s brokenness. He was a God who wanted war. I wanted war too.
My cringeworthy debate in the ski resort staff room manifested a popular perspective that merged evangelical theology with political warmongering, Christian values with a right-wing agenda. I had bought into a perspective that made me, the lone Christian in that awkward debate, less Christian than the non-Christian ski instructor who gently held her impractical pacifist ground.
She argued for peace in a peaceful way; I argued for war in a combative way.
I’m not saying that the only Christian view is absolute political pacifism. But I am saying that one of us in that debate was much closer to defending the good news (gospel) of peace, and it wasn’t me.
The 2016 political season saw one of the most shocking and offensive presidential candidates in history experience a meteoric rise to popularity. The attraction seemed to be his brazen, no-nonsense, hardline stance on a number of conservative political issues, including abortion, gun rights, immigration, the military, and international trade.
He also happens to be a millionaire real-estate tycoon, a man who has lived his life indulging in the oppressive wealth of the empire. And despite his relentless sexist, racist, and xenophobic rhetoric and policymaking, he claimed faith in Christ throughout his campaign and boasted of his belovedness among “the evangelicals.”
In a strange turn of events, the son of a famous Religious Right leader was one of the first well-known Christians to give his wholehearted endorsement to this Republican candidate. I suppose it shouldn’t have been surprising. Because this same man, the chancellor of the conservative Christian college founded by his culture-warrior father, is famous for telling his students to take up arms against potential domestic terrorists:
“It just blows my mind that the president of the United States [then Barack Obama] says that the answer to circumstances like that is more gun control…I’ve always thought that if more good people had concealed-carry permits, then we could end those Muslims before they walked in, and killed them. I just wanted to take this opportunity to encourage all of you to get your permit. We offer a free course. Let’s teach them a lesson if they ever show up here.”
In that same address, he even joked that he had a gun in his back pocket and didn’t know whether it was okay for him to take it out. All to thunderous applause.
These military consumerist expressions of faith serve as an eruption of the real, revealing to us, in the starkest terms, the unholy merger between Christian faith and an American politic drunk on power, wealth, and war.
Has American Christianity become compromised with the military consumerism of the empire? Has my faith become compromised? Has yours?
I would venture to say yes.
But there’s another way, if we have eyes to see and ears to hear before it’s too late.
Zach Hoag is an author, preacher, and creator from New England. Planting a church in one of the least churched cities in the U.S. (Burlington, Vermont), and pursuing ministry beyond that in a variety of spaces, Zach has learned a few things about the power of a deeply rooted life in Christ. Zach has found belonging in the Vermont countryside where he lives with his wife, Kalen, and their three girls. Find him writing at zhoag.com and follow him on Twitter @zhoag.