After Trump: Achieving A New Social Gospel (The Church As Sacramental Demonstration)

After Trump: Achieving A New Social Gospel (The Church As Sacramental Demonstration) June 2, 2020

Donald Heinz, professor emeritus of religious studies at California State University and Lutheran minister in the ELCA graciously sent me a copy of his new book, After Trump: Achieving A New Social Gospel.

The book has a quirky kind of meandering way to it which took me just a bit to adjust to, until I realized that Heinz was inviting me slowly into a new way of thinking and meditating on the social gospel movement writ large, mixing social reflection with straightforward systemic theology in ways I hadn’t considered.

It’s taking me some time to get through this book, but not because of the book. It’s because it rides so close to the utter complexity of the moment we’re.

“In Washington the activities of the current president are beyond understanding – doubling down on the very system the protestors are mostly peacefully asking us to examine and address.  The ‘perfect storm’ of economic and health concerns mixed with social isolation just got a little bigger, adding social unrest to the mix of stressors.  These stressors have of course always been there for communities of color, but adding pandemic and the health and economic impacts it is bringing is just unprecedented in so many ways.  The Washington Post noted yesterday that throughout our history we’ve had pandemic, we’ve had economic depression and recession, and we’ve had social unrest, but for the love of God we have all 3 right now!”

A classic locus of Lutheran theology has always been the deus absconditus, the God who hides. For Luther, this hidden God was any way of thinking about God disconnected from the cross of Christ. Jesus is God made visible. Other things, for example an avalanche or a thunderstorm, though certainly events in God’s creation, are not interpretable because they are hidden in God.

Much the same could be said, I think, of riots. It’s hard to understand them. If a picture is worth a thousand words, a riot is worth 100,000 words but all spoken in a cacophony of simultaneous voices.

Many, perhaps the majority of peaceful protestors (differentiated from the rioters) are out seeking justice for George Floyd, and more generally justice in our nation.

But there are many motivators for those out protesting, and so others are protesting for other causes and reasons. Just read the signs to see.

Then there are the rioters and bad actors, and although the president wants to label on the “leftist” rioters (as antifa) the truth is, at least in my part of the world, and other parts of the country I know, the rioters and those committing violence are frequently white supremacists, accelerationists, or straight up anarchists. Or sometimes they’re just people who are very, very angry, and perhaps not without reason.

Place all those “meanings” together into a pot, add a pandemic, recession, and general social unrest, and voila, you have a boiling pot, even an exploding one.

Nevertheless, a Christian voice is still going to attempt to speak the word of Christ even in the midst of protesting and rioting, because there is the God made visible to whom we can look even when the rest of what is going is hidden in God and not really known to us.

This is where Heinz’s book comes in. In the fourth chapter, Heinz offers a theology of parade. He writes, “One idea of a Christian pilgrimage is to show up in unexpected places.”

Sometimes this would mean the church organizing protests. Often it does. Like MLK at Selma, one such example frequently featured in images these days.

But when the whole nation is protesting, then the church takes on a unique (and small) role in the larger events. For Heinz, the church IS a parade, “moving, through public space. The point of pilgrimage is to stay on the journey, to keep moving towards an ultimate destination while being mindful along the way.”

“Pilgrimaging towards a new social gospel is the task the times require if we are not to continue our descent into Trumpism–white racism, resentment, selfishness, a rapacious free market, and government in the interest of the 1 percent” (79).

So when President Donald Trump used tear gas to clear peaceful protestors from the church yard of St. John’s Episcopal, parading his way to the church for a photo-op with a bible held high, the bishop of that diocese needed to speak, and speak clearly and immediately, to reframe Christian parade over against the blasphemy and desecration of the president.

Bishop Mariann Edgar Budde, Episcopal Diocese of Washington wrote:
“Let me be clear – the president just used a Bible, the most sacred text of the Judeo-Christian tradition, and one of the churches of my diocese without permission, as a backdrop for a message antithetical to the teachings of Jesus and everything that our churches stand for. And to do so, as you just said, he sanctioned the use of tear gas by police officers in riot gear to clear the church yard.
I am outraged.
The president did not pray when he came to St John’s, nor, as you just articulated, did he acknowledge the agony of our country right now and in particular, that of the people of color in our nation who wonder if anyone ever, anyone in public power will ever acknowledge their sacred worth and who are rightfully demanding an end to four-hundred years of systemic racism and white supremacy in our country.
And I just want the world to know that we in the diocese of Washington, following Jesus and his way of love, do not – we distance ourselves from the incendiary language of this president.
We follow someone who lived a life of nonviolence and sacrificial love.
We align ourselves with those seeking justice for the death of George Floyd and countless others through the sacred act of peaceful protest. And I just can’t believe what my eyes have seen tonight.”
Or as another pastor friend wrote:
“It’s 9:51 pm. Two military helicopters are constantly circling over our block (1.5 blocks from Capitol). There are no people on the streets here for as far as I can see (all the way to the Capitol from my from porch and 10 blocks to the East. The US military is being used to intimidate us. I will not be intimidated by this Administration. Today the President committed blasphemy by violently clearing our streets and then parading with a Bible in front of a sibling congregation of ours. We shall not bow to his idolatry.”
Both of these pastors are striving to find their way toward parade, toward pilgrimage, in the way of Jesus. As are the churches in downtowns all across the country providing water and medical aid, and the pastors marching with the protestors striving for peace, and the millions of Christians themselves.
So here is Heinz’s offering, midway into his book, that I find so compelling and worth sharing with everyone protesting in various ways during this time:
“Inside the parade, a life of faith happens, tempered by humility. People in the parade practice caring for each other and model the life of Christ before onlookers. Diverse people achieve unity walking together. A Christian parade wants to reach out and ‘pass the peace’ to the crowd, just as they do every Sunday right after the prayers in common. Those who walk the parade and those who watch catch sight of a salvation demonstration. They carry banners, but not only what you would think. To remind themselves of Jesus’ parable in Matthew 25, Christians might carry photos of children that say “Missing,” Amber Alerts, Amnesty International pleas, announcements of meals for the homeless, pleas for prisoners, proposals for social justice through workers’ unions. All together they constitute a social gospel. The marchers keep looking for people on the edge waving, who might need a friend. This is what God visiting earth and making friends with all the people looks like.
To call the church a sacramental demonstration means that wherever the parade leads, including city council or congressional chambers [or in front of the White House], they make sacred what was profane ground and effort, which is to say they make visible God touching down. Something holy happens, as when you are walking through a redwood grove and experience an epiphany. The parade happens because the world wants to be touched. Or the oligarchs do not want to be touched and you nevertheless persist in touching them anyway. A new social gospel after Trump will be performative and not just propositional.
When the church is moving it can be amazing, because not everything is conveniently laid out and expected. Pilgrims are open for course corrections and detours, for God’s directions. The church is more than memorized answers to questions on a religious test. Sometimes the parade looks unwieldy and unpredictable as everyone with their instruments are running to keep up. Jesus, in his final commissions to the disciples, anticipated the parade would be led by the Holy Spirit who blows the church in new directions, off designated religious maps. Hence new social gospels” (80).
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