“The promise of grace is not to be squandered; it needs to be protected from the godless. There are those who are not worthy of the sanctuary. The proclamation of grace has its limits. Grace may not be proclaimed to anyone who does not recognize or distinguish or desire it. Not only does that pollute the sanctuary itself, not only must those who sin still be guilty against the Most Holy, but in addition, the misuse of the Holy must turn against the community itself. The world upon whom grace is thrust as a bargain will grow tired of it, and it will not only trample upon the Holy, but also will tear apart those who force it on them. For its own sake, for the sake of the sinner, and for the sake of the community, the Holy is to be protected from cheap surrender. The Gospel is protected by the preaching of repentance which calls sin sin and declares the sinner guilty. The key to loose is protected by the key to bind. The preaching of grace can only be protected by the preaching of repentance.” (Bonhoeffer, Cost of Discipleship)
Christian Scripture is perhaps most remarkable for the way it bears witness especially against the very community that cherishes it as holy.
For example, the Hebrew Scriptures (what Christians call the Old Testament) can be seen as one long record of how God was faithful to Israel in spite of Israel’s unfaithfulness.
It contains account after account of the sins of Israel and the ancestors in faith. Although there are still portions that are more a kind of propaganda text for the glories of Israel (think of Chronicles), for the most part what we find remarkable about the historical record and the prophets is its consistent steely-eyed resolve to bear witness to the stark reality of Israel’s faithlessness.
This approach continues into the New Testament. Read the gospels, and you encounter a group of disciples who repeatedly fail to understand Jesus, fall sleep, misstep, sink, and fail. The most poignant of these many failings is the principle disciples’ denial of Jesus three times the evening before his crucifixion.
In this way Christian Scripture renounces the ways of the nations, because the nations like to only tell their story as propaganda. Nations that can’t confess, that are unwilling to admit wrong-doing, are like Israel in the time of the Golden Calf, melting down their gold to make statues they then love more than God.
The nations generally speaking hate repentance. Repentance forces them to take account of themselves, and let God be God.
Apparently a large percentage of American Christians have decided to follow the lead of the president, and take the faithless approach to American history.
I am familiar with this kind of propaganda. It’s the kind I was raised in. In this way of telling the American story, ours was a manifest destiny. The land was here for the taking, each war was glorious, and our national leaders could do no wrong.
I can’t remember learning a single negative side to Columbus and his “discovery” of America. God bless my elementary school teachers, but I think they together with the whole culture needed a narrative of American greatness and preferred it to reality.
But the thing is, I’m a Christian. The first two theses in the 95 theses posted by Luther on that famous bulletin board in Wittenberg reads,
- When our Lord and Master Jesus Christ said, “Repent” (Mt 4:17), he willed the entire life of believers to be one of repentance.
- This word cannot be understood as referring to the sacrament of penance, that is, confession and satisfaction, as administered by the clergy.
In other words, not only is the entire life of the Christian to be one of repentance, but the clergy, a pastor like myself, has an especially important role: we are to administer such penance.
If I don’t, I’m like Aaron and his golden calf, faithlessly grasping at material wealth to buttress his faith during the temporary absence of Moses up on the mountain conversing with God.
There’s probably no closer contemporary approximation of that golden calf moment than Donald Trump standing in front of an Episcopal church for a photo shoot with an upside down Bible.
All of this gives me some guidance on how I’m supposed to react to a moment in history when statues are coming down. For Christians, statues are ALWAYS supposed to be coming down. No earthly statue is sacred. That would be idolatry.
And if a statue comes to stand as a false record glorifying something through repentance we’ve now realized was sinful and wrong, then by all means tear it down and offer a more clear-eyed account of history.
Last week Donald Trump stood in front of Mount Rushmore and gave a Stephen Miller speech. He said, for example:
“Mount Rushmore will stand forever as an eternal tribute to our forefathers and to our freedom.”
An eternal tribute, eh? Shouldn’t faithful Christians have a few doubts about a claim like that?
Or try this one: “No nation has done more to advance the human condition than the United States of America. And no people have done more to promote human progress than the citizens of our great nation.”
In the speech, Trump goes on to paint July 4th, 1776, and the founding of America, as the most salvific moment in the history of the nations. It’s pure propaganda.
And then he makes a divisive turn in his speech, and it’s here I want to rest for a bit. He says,
“Our nation is witnessing a merciless campaign to wipe out our history, defame our heroes, erase our values, and indoctrinate our children.”
Now, I think Trump says this because Stephen Miller wrote it. But he also says it because if we’re honest, we now know from long experience that Donald Trump doesn’t know how to do repentance. He can’t say sorry, and he honestly doesn’t know how to admit wrong-doing.
This makes me very sad for him, since it means he can never really be a Christian. He can’t get started on the first call of Jesus, “Repent.”
But that doesn’t mean Christians should bail on repentance, just because the president doesn’t know how to repent.
And let’s be honest, Donald Trump simply embodies a problematic of the United States itself. As a nation, we haven’t been particularly good at repentance. We have trouble admitting our complicity in the suffering of the world. Whether it’s global warming, or the oppression of Native Americans, or poverty and war across the world, we so frequently wash our hands of it or accuse others.
But this just goes to show the extent to which Trump (Miller) has it wrong. We are not witnessing a merciless campaign to wipe out our history, defame our heroes, erase our values, and indoctrinate our children.
We’re just witnessing a faithful, Christian campaign modeled in Scripture to tell history honestly, paint our heroes with authenticity, make sure our values are good ones, and teach our children a more complex and just so more true story of our history that helps them (by the grace of God) practice repentance.
What Trump calls in his speech far-left fascism, readers of Scripture call simply Christian repentance.
What he calls a left-wing cultural revolution, Jesus called the kingdom of God.
Now, to be fair, I say these last two sentences with a bit of flair. Obviously, the left-wing is not the kingdom of God, and far-left folks like myself are just as likely to fail at repentance as anyone else.
But the current moment, when we are attempting to tell the story of our founding fathers, and other historical moments in America with greater accuracy and more repentance, are not attempts to teach children to hate their nation, or repaint heroes as villains.
Only a total ideologue confuses repentance with hate-mongering. Only those who need the propaganda of history to continue their own power-games feel fragile in the face of real repentance.
I’ll conclude with a final statement from Trump’s speech, perhaps the most heretical claim anywhere in the speech:
“We will state the truth in full, without apology: We declare that the United States of America is the most just and exceptional nation ever to exist on Earth.
We are proud of the fact — (applause) — that our country was founded on Judeo-Christian principles, and we understand — (applause) — that these values have dramatically advanced the cause of peace and justice throughout the world.”
No country, and no president, who actually espouses Judeo-Christian principles could ever authentically claim that this nation, the United States, is the most just and exceptional nation ever to exist on Earth.
A Judeo-Christian nation would instead regularly say, “By my fault, by my own fault, by my own most grievous fault. God forgive us, and to you alone be the glory. Help us, O Lord.”