The Scottish preacher John Philip Newell has suggested that times of turbulence and chaos in our common lives are often a sign that something new is being born into our midst – that a meaningful change is happening. Newell encourages us to be so bold as to even go to the very site of that chaos and turbulence to see that new birth up close.
I have found his counsel to be of some consolation and encouragement in apocalyptic times such as these, when so much about the state of our national and global community is being revealed in a manner that is tumultuous and often traumatic. I believe there are some things that have to die so that other things can be born; but the dying process is painful and despairing and full of great suffering for those of us who have to experience it (or in the case of trauma, relive it).
“Self-confrontation – whether it be on a personal or corporate level – is never easy.”
As a Christian clergyman, activist and pastor, few things have been more jarring to me in recent years than the unapologetic betrayal of basic Christian values regarding the treatment of others by those in the evangelical community. This has been encapsulated in their unwavering support of Donald J. Trump, in spite of everything that he has said and done leading up to the 2016 presidential election and in the more than two years since. Many evangelical leaders and their followers have persistently shown themselves to be more invested in providing cover for profound ignorance and provincialism than any of the virtues with which they desperately want to be associated publicly. Whatever moral credibility American evangelicals once had, they have lost. They have chosen to die on the 45th hill, and it has been painful and despairing to watch.
The late James Cone first wrote 50 years ago about the historical corruption of Christianity by racism, bias, bigotry and prejudice, but certain Christian sectors have assiduously refused to confront this reality. Many of the rest of us who advocate for the cause of Christ have recognized this corruption clearly for years, decades, generations even, because it requires only a cursory review of American (and world) history to see it. Black communities around the world have been victimized by it since long before Portuguese traders landed on the shores of Virginia in 1619 with the first set of African slaves. But self-confrontation – whether it be on a personal or corporate level – is never easy; in fact, history suggests that elaborate cultural conspiracies are often constructed in order to avoid it.
The conscientious resistance to personal and corporate self-confrontation is not limited to the evangelical community, of course. It has been seen in sharp relief this week as President Trump stood before Congress appealing for unity while once again peddling xenophobic lies about Central American immigrants and as two of Virginia’s top elected officials fumbled repeatedly while dealing with their own dark pasts. It has been suggested in recent years that America is in a battle for its soul, and this week reminded us of that struggle. More than ever before, our nation desperately needs strong faith communities that are able to articulate a clear moral voice, even if it convicts them, too.
“Our nation desperately needs strong faith communities that are able to articulate a clear moral voice, even if it convicts them, too.”
In this context, the choices of evangelical community have been tragic and have put the rest of what remains of Christendom on the defensive as we seek to disassociate ourselves from the actions of these fellow Christians. As I have said to my congregation on several occasions, sometimes you have to pray for them, and save yourselves. It appears, though, that something is shifting in the evangelical atmosphere; it appears even that something new is being born – or at least fighting for life – amongst this community of our Christian brothers and sisters. There is an apocalyptic moment of revelation that is going on as some within this community are speaking boldly about the brokenness that has been there for so, so long.
The recent publication of Jemar Tisby’s The Color of Compromise reflects an emerging voice from within the evangelical Christian community that is calling it to account for its complicity in what he calls “the fallacy of white supremacy.” In presenting a critical survey of the history of American Christianity’s racial divide, Tisby is hoping to nurture both a courage and an empathy that will invite the sort of repentance that can “lead to salvation without regret,” invoking the Apostle Paul’s appeal to us in 2 Corinthians 7:10. That process begins with telling the truth about this history, it continues with people accepting the truth about this history, and it moves earnestly forward as we deal with the truth of that history while being guided by the best teachings of scripture. It is a process that sounds straightforward on paper, even though it has proven to be a tedious journey, at best, in practice.
Unsurprisingly, Tisby’s efforts are being met with a mixed response by his community. Some are receiving his work in the spirit with which he intends it. Others are clearly unready to advance into self-confrontation, preferring instead to accuse him of poor theological reasoning in his historical analysis (or of trying to convert them all to Democrats). All of this affirms both the promise and the peril of this present moment in our country.
“Revival will make it possible to reposition ourselves as the moral voice of clarity and prophetic power that God has always called us to be.”
As we move closer to this year’s Lenten season, however, I believe that we must choose to favor the promise and steadfastly believe that it can and will be fulfilled. We must cling to the hope that something new will be born, and that the painful death of today will not preclude the new life of tomorrow. That new life will bring with it the potential for reconciliation not only within one sector of the Christian community, but across the ranks of the entire Jesus Movement itself.
An evangelical community that is reconciling within will be learning the spiritual disciplines that will invite a wider reconciliation with others in the Christian community – and beyond – who have been so alienated by evangelicals’ past complicity in oppression. It will also teach the rest of us as we learn how to be reconciled over our own particular brokenness. That level of reconciliation leads to revival. And revival will make it possible to reposition ourselves as the moral voice of clarity and prophetic power that God has always called us to be, never more so than now.
If we are sincere in our desire to be delivered from our present suffering, then maybe this sort of revival is the expression of resurrection that we should be looking for in 2019.