Salt and Light in a Political World

About 35 minutes into Terrence Malick’s A Hidden Life (2019), we see Austrian dissident Franz Jägerstätter assisting a fresco painter in the small alpine church he serves as sexton. As he works, the painter muses:

I paint the tombs of the prophets. I help people look up from those pews and dream. They look up, and they imagine that if they had lived back in Christ’s time, they wouldn’t have done what the others did. 

They would have murdered those whom they now adore. I paint all this suffering, although I don’t suffer myself; make a living of it. What we do is just create sympathy. We create, we create admirers. We don’t create followers. 

Christ’s life is a demand. We don’t want to be reminded of it, so we don’t have to see what happens to the truth…I paint their comfortable Christ, with a halo over his head. How can I show what I haven’t lived? Someday I might have the courage to venture; I have not yet. Someday I’ll, I’ll paint a true Christ.

Several reviewers have seen the director himself in the Painter, with Franz’s holy suffering as his “true Christ.” Whether or not this is Malick’s intent, the scene is a turning point. From this day forward, Franz has set his face toward obedience to Christ’s hold on his conscience—he cannot, will not, swear loyalty to Hitler.

Jägerstätter resisted not simply the evils perpetrated by the Nazi regime, but the very idea that he could be compelled to swear an oath of complete loyalty to a human being in the place of God. He attacked the foundation (the führerprinzip) on which others based their trust in Hitler to bring prosperity and protect cultural “Christian” values. As a result, he endured the scorn of erstwhile friends and even family long before he faced the wrath of the state. He is today regarded as a martyr.

His life reminds us that action doesn’t always look the same as activism, but quiet, honest faithfulness in deliberate resistance to the spirit of anti-Christ is often the profoundest political act. His story, as told in Gordon Zahn’s In Solitary Witness is said to have inspired resistance to the Vietnam war in Muhammad Ali and Daniel Ellsberg among others.

A Costly Witness
Jägerstätter’s example provides a starkly drawn case, but whatever worldly system you find yourself in will eventually come into conflict with the grace-filled (chesed) system of God’s kingdom. The world, under the sway of Satan, doesn’t have a category for the covenant love of God (cf. Ex. 34:6-7) that He pours out on His people and its outworking in their community ethics (the Mosaic law, especially as exposited in the Sermon on the Mount and New Testament epistles). In this conflict, the way of life of the people of God is designed to contradict and convict the world’s systems so they could be transformed by the witness of the church.

Courtesy Fox Searchlight Pictures

More often the powers that be will demand that the church bow to them. Whether the demand to bow down comes in large ways (like Nebuchadnezzar’s image and furnace), small ones (the proverbial pinch of incense to Caesar), or the trivialities of being misunderstood and questioned by your neighbors and coworkers, it will come. The world forces the issue of faith. You can never isolate enough to avoid the confrontation.

The church’s call is to stand out enough that the confrontation is clear, living together in such a way as to silence the ignorance of evil men (1 Pet 2:15), and if we are called to suffer for the name and way of Jesus, we are to suffer as He did (1 Pet. 2:20-25).

But we do not like to suffer.

The Compromise of Christian nationalism
Not only do we dislike suffering, but we dislike getting anywhere near it. Wealth is attractive because it promises to insulate us from discomfort.

The slide starts with an implicit deal—the promise of peace and prosperity in exchange for silence about the violence against God and man inherent in the system. We grow accustomed to the prosperity, and before long, the church is willing to bless the violence so long as it gets to partake of the benefits. This is the shift at the heart of Christian nationalism.

If we find membership in any political party or allegiance to any government to be a more pressing concern than our adherence to all of Jesus’ teachings, we are well on our way down a dangerous road. When we find ourselves justifying our comforts and our political positions when the Spirit, through conscience and prophets, coaxes us to see and reject our idolatries, digging in our heels, we are in grave danger indeed.

Christian nationalism is a ready temptation for all of us, as it bubbles up from conflating God’s kingdom with our comfort, wealth, and power—even Jesus’ disciples were banking on it, after spending 3 years listening to His teaching and witnessing the clarifying events of his death and resurrection! As he prepares to ascend to the Father, their burning question is “Lord, are you at this time going to restore the kingdom to Israel?” (Acts 1:6).

The temptation will call out to us from any political direction, from the left and the right, in moderate or extreme positions, from imperialism, monarchy, republicanism, democracy, communism, oligarchy, anarchy, etc. The church of Jesus Christ can (and has, and does, and will) exist and even thrive under each of them. It cannot, however, fully and faithfully *co-exist* with any of them. Absolutizing any political position—even in the name of justice—makes politics an idol, not a tool. And a politically empowered idol becomes a cult.

Politics is Downstream from Desire
Christian nationalism doesn’t come knocking with a tract or appear on the street corner with a poster outlining its explicit aims (well, it did not used to). It is a subtle enemy, attacking from within—more like the favoritism condemned by James or the heresy of the judaizers than the wholesale persecution endured by our brothers and sisters in many countries.

It can sneak in because our politics is downstream from our desires. Political allegiances masquerade as righteousness, but are usually just emblematic of our idols. And our idols are always outworkings of our pride and greed—we follow after that which promises power & wealth. Our economic dreams are inseparable from our political actions.

See, for example, Solomon. He was supposed to be the great king, the promised Son of David who would build God’s house and reign in the promised land with wisdom, justice, and peace under the blessing of God—a picture of the coming, perfect, glorious reign of Jesus Christ over all the earth. 

But Solomon longs for a more tangible “secure” blessing, something that has cash-value among his peers on the thrones of surrounding nations. While building the temple—which was designed to speak God’s glory to the nations (1 Kings 8:43)—he builds his own house to be even more magnificent (1 Kings 7). Against God’s commands (Deut. 17:14-20) he pursues military power (1 Kings 9), gold (1 Kings 10), and the lust of the flesh (1 Kings 11). These pursuits lead him to idolatry, and even enslavement of his fellow Israelites (1 Kings 9:15ff). 

The Lord judges Solomon, in part by having the northern tribes rebel against him and his son Rehoboam. But the lesson continues—the rebellion could have been a righteous confrontation, exposing and addressing injustice. Indeed the separation is accomplished somewhat peacefully, with Rehoboam heeding God’s instruction not to fight through the prophet Shemaiah. Instead of resolution, though, the rebel leader Jeroboam decides he would rather hang on to his newfound power, setting up idols to keep people from going to Jerusalem to worship (1 Kings 12). The people of the Northern Kingdom never look back, doubling down on Jeroboam’s idolatry, and chasing after Ba’al and all manner of wickedness. 

Lusting after wealth & power always leads us to sacrifice faithfulness. It’s a predictable progression. Lust leads to idolatry (spiritual failure) which leads to injustice (ethical failure). Injustice seeks justification, furthering idolatry, but in greater blindness. “Those who make [idols] will be like them” (Ps. 115:8). Idols demand sacrifice, but offer no blessing in return. In the same way, we demand ever-increasing sacrifices to our pride, which eventually comes out in political action to gain what we want from others and keep it.

Our Present Apocalypse
None of this repudiates legitimate petition of powers and authorities to do what they are called to do (to preserve the good and punish evil—Rom 13, etc.), but seeking to wield the worldly power of the sword under the aegis of “the people of God” is always going to go poorly. We need to cultivate a political theology of humility that recognizes that various temptations of Christian nationalism are always knocking at our door, hoping to be let in by our pride and overconfidence.

It will result, in the long run (and sometimes in an astonishingly short one) a church that looks less and less like Jesus, the embodiment of God’s mercy and provision, and more and more like the cutthroat, corrupt systems of the world. 

In America, most churches are pretty deep into this ditch. My prayer—and it is a prayer not, sadly, a hope based in any empirical evidence—is that the current crisis (of Covid-19 and its disastrous economic effects) can catch us in our tracks, and lead our churches back to being communities that demonstrate God’s love in all our social and economic arrangements. I pray it may be a moment to take stock, to repent, and to rebuild in ways that show just how distinct the church is. I pray for a spiritual revival in our country, and with it a revival of justice and mercy in our churches, and how we interact with politics. This time is an apocalypse—unveiling the depth of cultural depravity in ways that I hope will not be allowed to ignore any longer.

The church needs to re-assert its distinctiveness from the world, boldly proclaiming an alternative witness against the status quo. This, I think, is precisely what Jesus speaks of in his statements about salt and light (Matt. 5:13-16). We are to season the world, to preserve God’s image & likeness in how we live among one another. We are to illuminate the world, to reveal injustice & light the path to restoration. 

The salt without savor is a church in which the character of God has been pushed aside in favor of the characteristics of the world. The light under a bushel is a church that is not doing justly and loving mercy and so has nothing to offer to those seeking hope in the midst of oppression. If we think we’re upholding Christian values but see no conflict with worldly political power, we may already be worshipping the false god of Christian nationalism. That’s what Franz Jägerstätter was trying to teach us.

“Dear children, keep yourselves from idols” (1 John 5:21)—or as another John (Prine) sang, “your flag decal won’t get you into heaven anymore.”

Image: The church of St. Valentin in Seis am Schlern, Italy, used in filming A Hidden Life. Courtesy Fox Searchlight Pictures.

The Glow, or Recommendations for Isolation

No, the pixels will not contain your grief.
There’s not an app to bear the weight you feel
Pressing on your chest. The shortness of breath
That might be pangs, or tears, or worse? (you fear),
Or the steady terror of getting news
You don’t want from a loved one you can’t hold.

What can these ones and zeroes, (vapors!) hold?
Can push notifications deliver grief
As surely as they bring you breaking news?
A post, a text, lacks the heft to make you feel
What you should, like a phone call or knock—fear
That rises fast, before you take a breath.

But these screens we trust already trace breath.
The pulse-oximeter puts a choke-hold
On his finger, grasping to measure fear,
A glowing green EKG observes grief,
Making sure to mark precisely when you’ll feel
You missed her last moment like last night’s news.

Bury the scream that comes with all such news.
Shut up! Keep silent, while you catch your breath—
How dare you show the children what you feel,
That there are things which put your life on hold.
You can’t spend many resources on grief
When you’re working hard stocking up on fear.

But you weren’t born to live in whirling fear
Of whatever is swirling in the news.
Closer in, there is more to grief than grief—
Death, yes, but missing your niece’s first breath,
Weddings with no one to have and to hold
Promising things that it’s too soon to feel.

Whatever you do, please don’t forget to feel.
Don’t let a blue glow medicate your fear.
Let your eyes, ears, nose, tongue, skin take and hold
All the wonders that never make the news.
Flex your ribcage to draw the deepest breath.
Whisper a prayer of thanksgiving for grief.

Home alone, you’ll feel all news is bad news,
As you scan for fear and hear your own breath
Craving someone to hold you and your grief.

Image: Fog and Sun, Hamilton County, Tenn., March 2020.

Breastplates

Saint Patrick prayed, “Christ, protect me today
Against every poison, against burning,
Against drowning, against death-wound,” finding
Jesus behind him, Jesus within him,
Beneath, above, right, left, before, with, by,
And I wonder why this bit of truth is
Buried in context of shamrocks, green beer,
Cabbage, corned beef, Guinness, and potatoes.
But torrid mid-March is also longing,
The throes of Lent, writhing in Christless dark,
Silent, waiting for a break in routine
Between ashes and tombs and quarantine.
Is it only the dead, voiceless prophets
Who now behold wonders and rest from fear?

Image: Wakerobins, Hamilton County, Tenn., March 2020.

A True and Better Way to Be

The last of four pieces reflecting on some of the cultural threads at work in the mistreatment of women, particularly within the church. Part 1. Part 2. Part 3.

Nothing I’ve said in this series is truly original to me (or even to this millennium, in terms of Scriptural exposition), and there is much more left unsaid. Why then does the suggestion that the church could and should do more to elevate and affirm the dignity of our sisters cause so many Christian men to squirm?

Perhaps it is better to ask why anything going by the label of “feminism” (however accurate) under a Christian header is likely to draw condemnation from theological conservatives—in long, deconstructive blog posts, sharp Tweets, and nuanced sermons—while blatant sexual abuse and an entrenched culture of misogyny requires a society-wide mass movement to even begin receiving a second look. Increasingly, it must look to those outside the church as though any attempt to use Scripture to prop up a hard-and-fast division of gender roles is little more than a fig leaf for powerful men who want to keep women from that same power so that they can continue to abuse them whenever, wherever, and however they choose.

The body of Christ should be at the forefront of overturning this imbalance, but Satan is no fool, and he has divided us here as in so many other places. The congregations and denominations that give this a running shot are typically already well down the road of letting the world interpret Scripture for them on multiple other points, undercutting their witness and effectiveness in changing the larger church conversation. A Christ-like feminism has to look to Him and His Word as its sources, not “dumpster-diving” for ideas in the trash bin of history, as Carl Ellis would say.

Scripture is shot through with a robust vision of both male and female dignity and power, affirming God’s good design and honoring His authority. This is not a tacked-on or optional back-reading that has to be shoehorned into a Christ-centered understanding of the Bible, but quite foundational to the Gospel message. As we explored in the second post of this series, if denouncing violence and mistreatment of women seems, through our theological lenses, as so much creeping liberalism, our understanding of gender relationships has indeed been built around evil and oppression—not Scripture—all along.

A vision of Christ’s love for women, seeking their dignity, protection, and flourishing is not hard to find in the gospels. Christ pauses His “important work” to have compassion on desperate, shamed woman and heal her (Luke 8). Christ pours out the joy of living water on a woman running from her past (John 4). Christ protects a sinful woman from the over-harsh judgment of a hypocritical mob of men so that she might receive grace to repent (John 8). Christ allows a woman who has been used up and cast out byJohannes_(Jan)_Vermeer_-_Christ_in_the_House_of_Martha_and_Mary_-_Google_Art_Project men to bathe his feet with perfume and wash them with her hair (Luke 7). Christ entrusts the testimony of His resurrection to a woman, who could not even bear witness in a court of law in that day (John 20).

Christ’s very existence in human form is our model (Phil. 2:5-11). Incarnation is the opposite of both abuse and paternalism. It inverts the world’s idea of power, subsuming infinite strength and privilege into loving, sacrificial service. Christ empties Himself, voluntarily sheds the trappings of power to exercise it most fully in submission to the lowly and bearing the most unjust of deaths for us.

In God’s grace, this present apocalypse—this unveiling of secret sins—should be seen as an instance of judgment that begins in His own household (a la 1 Peter 4:17), purging us and fitting us to “bear fruit in keeping with repentance” (Matt. 3:8). May He rip away all our idols of toxic masculinity (and toxic femininity) that deface the image of God with broken alternatives. May He use it to lift up the work and voices of men and women who can demonstrate Christ’s restoration to the used, abused, and sorrowing. May the church repent from reflecting the worst of our culture and grow to leading us all in the way of Christ—defending the weak, freeing the captives, holding evildoers to account, and teaching a true and better way to be—as many already are, and have throughout her history.

This is the way to “get the straight of things,” to take justice and righteousness from the realm of “taste” back to the center of what it means to faithfully follow Christ together.

One Next Step
If we’ve come to grips with the scope of the problem, and begun to own the diagnosis that God’s church is experiencing an “epidemic of denial,” what do repentance, corporate lament, confession, and mutual accountability look like?

I’ll return again to my friend quoted in the first post of the series. I’ve left her voice anonymous out of respect for her privacy (though she’s more than welcome to change that at her discretion). She is a biblically grounded, faithful follower of Jesus, an active member of a church in a theologically conservative denomination, and employed at an internationally recognized ministry organization. If you need all that context in order to hear what she says, though, instead of being willing simply to listen to the concerns of a daughter of the King, you’ll understand why I’ve tried to write what I’ve written.

“As a woman in the church who is oh so very tired, I’ll say this: if you are pastor or leader within the church, particularly in theologically conservative circles where women do not hold direct positions of leadership, it’s essential that you acknowledge this moment. We need you to acknowledge what it’s like. If you aren’t, you are shirking your pastoral responsibilities.

“Start simply. As a first step, add five sentences to your congregational prayer next week. Each week, your sisters hear prayers about natural disasters, shootings, abortion, or decisions and crises facing our immediate church body. Expand your horizons with something as simple as:

‘Jesus, in the midst of seemingly endless stories and revelations of how our sisters experience hurt and degradation, even and especially in the church, I pray for my sisters in this room. Would you give them peace and courage in the absolute reality that they bear your image and are precious to you. As their brothers, we repent of the ways each of us individually and collectively have been passive, dismissive or perpetrators of transgressions against our sisters. We have failed to reflect your image in how we have treated them. God, bind up the broken-hearted in this room, and help all of us to be agents of your mercy and holiness toward one another.’

“If you think that this prayer would set off a firestorm of controversy within your church, you need to pray it all the more. Because your sisters even more desperately need it, and your brothers need to hear it, too.

“I can tell you with complete vulnerability and honesty, if I heard this prayer, I would burst into tears of relief. And I guarantee you I wouldn’t be the only one.

That’s where I pray we can go next.”

Image: Christ in the House of Mary & Martha by Jan Vermeer