It has been a very difficult couple of years for the United States. We have become a deeply divided nation and the harsh rhetoric coming from both sides of the aisle has alienated families, friends, and neighbors. It has changed social networking into social distancing and transformed One nation under God into two nations under political interest. The seeds of discontent, however, were not planted by Donald Trump but came to fruition during his presidency.
It is difficult to pinpoint the exact time or the specific events that initiated this divide but I think it can be argued that our societal embrace of postmodernism has not only widened the cultural gap but made it much more difficult to bridge. Postmodernism prioritizes feelings over reason, reduces truth to individual preference, and allows the fringes to determine the norm. It is difficult to create harmony in a cultural milieu like this because emotions make for an unstable starting point to begin a dialogue, group unity is impossible when the focus is on the individual, and the common-sense thoughts of the silent majority are ignored.
A recent episode of Unbelievable? discussed some of these important issues. Presenter Justin Brierley was joined by Johnnie Moore, who chaired Trump’s Evangelical Executive Council and defends Trump’s administration, and Christian justice activist Shane Claiborne, who has been an outspoken critic of the outgoing president.
Still Small Voice of Reason
I live in a country of ever-increasing numbers of identity groups all wanting control of the public square. Sadly, they believe that if they yell louder and break enough stuff then they will be heard (see our recent blog on the Capitol riots). The problem is that reasoning is impossible when people act like three-year olds having a temper tantrum, so the only solution is that both sides take a time-out and reflect on better ways to play nice. Sadly, national news, media and politicians have modeled this kind of childish behavior for years and our media saturated young people have bought into the lie that progress is made by demonizing opponents and that anger is the engine of change.
In the Unbelievable? debate, Johnnie Moore pointed out that the rarity of civil conversations between opposing sides is an indicator of just how bad the problem has become. Unfortunately, dialogue between opposing viewpoints is viewed as a weakness in one’s position rather than as a civil attempt at reconciliation. I would argue that most Americans just want to get along and want a government that will work for all people. They are by nature non-confrontational but find their still small voices drown out by the earth rattling hot air of the purveyors of identity politics.
51 percent of the popular vote is not a mandate but a warning. When half the country disagrees with you then you have inherited a very volatile situation and you have a choice – pour on partisan propellant or douse it with dialogue. To dismiss the other half of the population is to court four more years of continued anger and division. I pray that Joe Biden will make good on his promise for unity by bringing both sides to the table and having a dialogue about complicated issues rather than catering to special interest groups. Harmony will not be accomplished by just tweeting less but will require open dialogue on the big cultural issues of our time.
Sadly, it is far too common for an incoming president to immediately put contentious policies into place through executive action just to please their political base, which in essence reduces their first act of unity to a poke in the oppositions’ eye. The American People are tired of hearing calls for unity only to find that unity has been redefined as winner takes all. I hope that Biden is serious, but I am skeptical because politicians seem more enamored with wielding power than practicing public service.
The Church, however, doesn’t get off the hook because it has also contributed to this situation. It took its preeminent position for granted for far too long, and when it found that culture had moved on it scrambled to regain control. But rather than modeling Jesus, it began to look more like Pilate. The Church rightly recognized that culture had drifted away from God but chose to fix it through political affiliation, thereby reducing the body of Christ to just one more political interest group, a demographic to be courted, and not the moral voice of reason. We underestimate the power of the gospel if we think Jesus would be more popular if we just got Him a few more votes.
Shane Claiborne was right to point out that by supporting Trump evangelicals lost the moral high ground that they thought they had gained when they tried to take down Bill Clinton for moral impropriety. Stunningly, rather than call out Trump for his behavior, many leading evangelicals made him into a God-ordained Cyrus who would allow them to rebuild a Christian nation. Claiborne pointed out that 80 percent of evangelicals supported Trump, but my experience is that it wasn’t because they believed he was a savior, but rather because he was the lesser of two evils. Our country is divided along conservative-liberal lines, and for many evangelicals the key issue is abortion, so in the end the character of a candidate is of secondary importance to their stance on the abortion issue.
Public Service Announcement
C.S. Lewis famously stated:
“The world does not need more Christian literature. What it needs is more Christians writing good literature.”
I would take his statement and apply it to our political situation:
“The world does not need more Christian politics. What it needs is more Christians who are good politicians.”
A candidate, political party or special interest group will not save you, only Jesus can do that, so we need to raise up public servants who model Jesus leadership and not political leaders who “lord it over them”.
Politicians often offer hope as a slogan for their candidacy, but can they actually deliver? Is the government capable of giving us hope? The answer appears to be “no” because our country continues to experience unprecedented amounts of anxiety, depression and meaninglessness.
The reason the gospel is powerful is because it offers hope to the hopeless and not control to the controlling. People will ask us about Jesus because of our hope and not our political affiliation, so we need to be prepared to give our answer with gentleness and respect because it will be the kindness of our responses that will set us apart from a world intent on shouting each other down. Hope can only be found in Jesus, so why do we persist in promoting political advantage over gospel proclamation?
“But in your hearts honor Christ the Lord as holy, always being prepared to make a defense to anyone who asks you for a reason for the hope that is in you; yet do it with gentleness and respect, having a good conscience, so that, when you are slandered, those who revile your good behavior in Christ may be put to shame.” (1 Peter 3:15-16)
As we honor Martin Luther King Jr. this week we need to remind ourselves that the non-violent peaceful protests that he encouraged were powerful in their passivity. The images that were burned into my mind as a young child growing up in the 1960’s were the peaceful protests conducted by the civil rights movement. I saw black people asking for equal rights, gathering peacefully and then being beaten by the authorities.
It was the good behavior of these Christians that put the authorities to shame and gave their movement a power that could never be achieved through politics alone. Unfortunately, people today find non-violent, peaceful protest too difficult because it requires restraint, turning the other cheek and praying for enemies. Instead, they take the easy way out and resort to angry violent protests fueled by nothing but primal scream therapy.
Actions Speak Louder Than Words
The early Church didn’t grow through political power but through the lived-out hope of its members. The Christian apologist, Athenagoras, writing around 170 AD, defended Christians to the emperor Marcus Aurelius by explaining the gospel lifestyle.
“But among us you will find uneducated persons and artisans and old women, who, if they are unable in words to prove the benefit of our doctrine, yet by their deeds exhibit the benefit arising from their persuasion of its truth: They do not rehearse speeches, but exhibit good works; when struck they do not strike again: when robbed they do not go to the law; they give to those that ask of them, and love their neighbors as themselves.
Should we, then, unless we believed that a God presides over the human race, thus purge ourselves from evil? Most certainly not. But, because we are persuaded that we shall give an account of everything in the present life to God, who made us and the world, we adopt a temperate and benevolent and generally despised method of life, believing that we shall suffer no such great evil here, even should our lives be taken from us, compared with what we shall there receive for our meek and benevolent and moderate life from the great judge.”
It can be argued that Christianity went off the rails when it hooked its cart to the Constantinian horse and forged an uneasy alliance between church and state. Maybe we need to stop clamoring for the throne and instead change the world through “a temperate and benevolent and generally despised method of life”, because in the end, our actions will speak louder than our words.
If the Church is the Body of Christ then it would be instructive to ask how Jesus dealt with the state. Perhaps the most illuminating example was when Jesus went toe-to-toe with Pilate. It was a clash between two different kingdoms with two different power structures. Ironically, their one point of agreement was that crucifixion would settle the matter. Power as Roman overlord or power as suffering servant, one maintains order in an earthly kingdom while the other inaugurates a heavenly Kingdom to come.
Christians often get into trouble when they flex their muscles rather than offering suffering service. If we represent the body of Christ then people shouldn’t see boots on the ground or picket signs in the air, but pierced hands and feet.
And Now for Something Completely Different
I fear that political division will continue to intensify with the new administration but I also believe that it will be an opportunity to truly set Christianity apart. However, if our behavior is no different than the world around us then we will just be another club with a banner, some talking points and an attitude. But if we truly represent the body of Christ then the contrast will be stark.
Bringing Unbelievable? to the American shores may be a first step in this direction because it models friendly and thoughtful dialogue between opposing points of view. The show has never been afraid to tackle difficult topics yet it has done so with gentleness and respect. The show began by hosting discussions between atheists and Christians and has branched out to tackle other controversial issues such as transgenderism, homosexuality, abortion, race relations and politics – and the amazing thing is that nobody was harmed in the process.
The Church may be in for some rocky times but let us not yell and scream. Let us rather be a model for civil dialogue and offer the world something completely different.