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.

A Tribe of Grace

This morning, driving to work, I was between audiobooks and so tuned in to our local NPR affiliate.

Morning edition co-host Steve Inskeep introduced a bottom-of-the-hour human interest story about a husband and wife by alluding to Valentine’s Day. That’s pretty unremarkable, but something about it got my hackle up.

He said something along the lines of “It’s the day before Valentine’s Day—did you hear that? The day before. You’ve been notified.” It was a throwaway line, signifying nothing more than a popular radio host yukking it up for listeners, but my mind started to go toward how I perceived that nod to societal pressure to do something above and beyond for my wife because of the arbitrary yet sacrosanct commercialism of February fourteenth. Then I drifted to thinking of how single friends might feel about that, and before a few seconds had passed I was mad at someone I’ve never met about something I don’t really care that much about, all while trying to merge onto an interstate at rush hour.

Mercifully quickly, though, another thought pushed in, and I cut Steve the slack he’s certainly due as someone who spends a few hours each day with a hot mic stuck in his face.

In politically right-wing circles, a popular bogeyman is the politically correct, “woke”, “social justice warriors” who supposedly want to police our thoughts. On the left, people are equally incensed at the insensitive, boorish, racist, sexist, talk and actions emanating from locker rooms (and often the White House) these days.

Of course the traction these stereotypes get is due to the fact that their worst expressions do actually exist (though likely in much smaller numbers than either side perceives). In reaction, we keep pushing ourselves to ever greater hyperbolic contrast to distinguish our own virtue. In the froth, we’ve accelerated our sociopolitical sorting, with a default setting of anger at the other side (never mind that the lines between me and the “other” are ever shifting).

This isn’t news to anyone with eyes and ears in America today. But what hit me after my momentary bristling this morning is how much both broad camps that we’ve sorted ourselves into suffer the same core problem.

One group is so sensitive to any transgression against any historically oppressed group (or chosen identity) that the day is filled with microaggressions—many of which are very real, but many of which are as ephemeral as my NPR rage (call it “centering commercial-romantic synthesis” if you will). They cannot brook any dissent from their campaign to purge judgment and negativity from public discourse.

Another clustering of people is so self-assured in their own normalcy that can barely be bothered to extend sympathy to anyone who is different, broken, scarred, or scared. They increasingly delight in stepping on toes for the sake of breaking them, with “owning the libs” serving as more of a motivator than any substantive statement.

Both of these subsist on a failure of grace, practicing the same excessive self-interest—whether it is expressed as moral codes decoupled from repentance or stumbling blocks unhitched from a meaningful path forward. And as we pull in opposite directions, rifting an entire society, the legitimate concerns of racial injustice, family disintegration, lack of economic mobility, freedom of speech, mistreatment of women, care for the unborn (and their mothers), environmental degradation, etc., to just so many tribal shibboleths. And our media outlets act as gasoline on this fire, reducing the public square to all outrage, all the time.

This is getting us quickly into a hole that I’m not sure we can find a way out of, and the church of Jesus Christ too often hastens to leap in to the fray by joining one side or another rather than presenting a transcendent community that addresses earthly problems with the perspective of the kingdom of God. Neither trying to be right as a bludgeon nor trying to be kind at the expense of eternal truths does our calling any favors.

I’m not going to try to offer solutions today (though there’s plenty of other spots on this site where I’ve tried to do so). I’d simply like to say that I’m embarrassed by how seldom I think before I emote, and how my emotions are so culturally and politically malleable. It’s a complex world out there, and the complexity is a feature not a bug—designed to keep us humble, both dependent on and freely bestowing grace. As C. S. Lewis has a character put it in The Great Divorce: “‘But of course!’ said the Spirit, shining with love and mirth so that my eyes were dazzled. ‘That’s what we all find when we reach this country. We’ve all been wrong! That’s the great joke. There’s no need to go on pretending one was right! After that we begin living.'”

Steve, I’m sorry.

Image: North Carolina Museum of Art, “Swan Attacked by a Dog”, Jean-Baptiste Oudry, 1745. Photo by me, January 2019.

Tasteless, but Excusable?: Dehumanization, Women, and the Church

The first of four pieces reflecting on some of the cultural threads at work in the mistreatment of women, particularly within the church.

“Because I’ve been catcalled and leered at twice just while walking to work this week, #MeToo. The worst part is that the safest option in those moments—on foot, on the street—is passivity as people consume me and treat me as property. And the past year…shows that far too many people—even in the church—think [sexual abuse & harassment] is tasteless, but excusable sin.”

Seeing these words last fall in a series of Tweets from a good friend called my attention to what the #MeToo moment was dredging up—a breadth of pain, fear, filth, violence, and injustice endured by women on a daily basis. Many had been reluctant to speak out, cowed by threats or simply exhausted from responses of disbelief, but the growing groundswell of shared stories has helped them bring all manner of individual and institutional offenses to light. More troubling, such attitudes show up and seem to hold sway in far too many corners of the #ChurchToo.

As multitudes of women have broken the silence of shame, the rest of us (i.e. men) have been given an opportunity to reflect on all the implications of a side of life and culture that far too many of us had previously had the privilege and position to ignore. Their stories have shaken the foundations of companies and institutions that covered up such things and protected the powerful men who perpetrated them.

I want to respond to the courage of my friend and so many others both by digging into the higher-level cultural phenomena they’ve uncovered and in trying to help plot a path for a different future.

Dignity vs. Consumption
Blatant evils like sexual harassment and assault can only become, as my friend said, “Tasteless, but excusable,” when we deem victims as somehow less than human. Her choice of words there is telling: dehumanizing people always leads to their consumption or disposal, replacing inherent dignity and worth with cold value-assessment or “taste”.

As was often the case, novelist and essayist Walker Percy sniffed out this tendency well in advance of the cultural mainstream. In his 1966 novel The Last Gentleman, Percy crafts a revealing exchange between his protagonist, Will Barrett, and Kitty, the suburban Southern girl he thinks he loves, who he thinks might finally help him find a “normal” life. Will is concerned with the on-again-off-again nature of their relationship and can’t seem to figure out how to relate to her as person. He nervously recounts a story of how his grandfather took his father to a brothel on his 16th birthday to avoid having him “worrying about certain things.” Kitty responds to that grotesque thought by trying on different personae to get Will’s attention and affection. She first offers, “I’ll be your whore,” which he ruefully accepts (to her dismay), leading her to say instead, “Very well. I’ll be a lady.”

Later, Will is lost in thoughts of existential angst, musing: “But what am I, he wondered: neither Christian nor pagan nor proper lusty gentleman, for I’ve never really got the straight of this lady-and-whore business. And that is all I want and it does not seem too much to ask: for once and all to get the straight of it.”

Percy’s jarring either/or reveals more than we may be comfortable with about our culture’s understanding female personhood. What Will couldn’t “get the straight of” while lying awake that night, it seems, is that we (in the rich, comfortable, “liberated” echelons of the Western world) still don’t know how to appreciate women as humans qua humans. We perpetually want to classify them in relation to men. In this telling, women exist for men as a sort of “consumer product”—either in marriage and polite society (as “ladies”) or in sin and secrecy (as “whores”), and various shades between the two extremes—rather than as fully formed persons and citizens of God’s kingdom in their own right. Both categories demean, measuring every woman’s worth not by the content of her character, but by the man that chooses her, or doesn’t.

As a result, we don’t know how to understand men as humans either. We can never dehumanize others without also losing a proportional part of our own humanity. This is also a part of Will’s question above. Is there a path to fully formed manhood aside from becoming the “proper, lusty gentleman” his family and culture expected him to be?

Church: Part of the Solution, or Part of the Problem?
That this pattern of dehumanization shows up in the wider culture seems like a given. And if we are struggling, in the midst of an open, liberal culture, to welcome women as full participants in humanity, how much more in other parts of the world. Under Islam? Under Hinduism? In poverty? In slavery?

When it shows up just as vividly in the church, we’re left with two ways to interpret this tendency (and I should emphasize that it is a tendency, a general bent from which many, many men faithfully dissent and diverge). Is it a holdover from a fallen, unconverted world? A brokenness and sorrow from which we should flee, repent, and repair? Or is it, like in so many other religions, just the logical outworking of an understanding of the world shaped by its ancient text (with a simple caveat that the lustful side of the consumer coin should be avoided)?

I’m tipping my hand in the way this question is phrased, for I do believe repentance is called for as the only biblical response—even from those whose ministries and churches have not willfully engaged in these patterns. If #MeToo, #ChurchToo (and #YesAllWomen before that) have shown nothing else, they’ve shown that half the image-bearers in the world have routinely been given a lesser status than the other half. This is a systemic sin, often as invisible to its perpetrators as it is pervasive. Time does not heal sin. Injustice may fade in its visibility, but when the Spirit brings conviction, we have no choice but to see, grieve, repent, and restore, and then call others’ attention to the sin so that they may do likewise.

Lastly, lest we think that the church—the embodied family of Christ on earth—has better things to worry about than what gets hashed out on the Internet, my friend adds: “There is a reason the corporate lament and community of [this moment] happened on social media, even for your sisters in Christ. It’s because, as a general trend, that corporate lament isn’t happening in our churches.” With that in mind, what follows in these next few pieces is, to be sure, a theological and social reflection, but with a firmly pastoral focus. How we think through these things should inform how we weep with those who weep.

Part 2: Men, Women, Image-Bearing and Scripture
Part 3: Cultivation v. Coercion
Part 4: A True and Better Way to Be

Image: Madonna di Campagna, 15th-Century Italian painting

Reforming for What?

Writing the history of this era will demand that shark jumping be elevated to poetic art.

We open news feeds with trepidation (but also a twinge of sadistic glee?), wondering which formerly trustworthy person or institution is going up in flames today. In a particularly painful twist of irony, this fall has seen American Christians by turns celebrating the liberation of the religious conscience and then re-enslaving it in service of a false god.

October 31, 2017, marked 500 years since then-obscure German theologian Martin Luther wrote up a list of disputations with abuses of Roman Catholic doctrine and practice, publishing it in the accepted manner by nailing it to the church door in Wittenburg. Luther’s act is traditionally viewed as the start of the Protestant Reformation, which forever altered Western culture and religious practice (though, it should be pointed out, much of his inspiration came from beyond Europe). His theological descendants have enjoyed an anniversary victory lap this year, reveling (not without merit) in Scriptural authority and historical doctrines the Reformation restored.

At almost the same time, news broke that the always-controversial Alabama politician (now Republican Senate nominee) Roy Moore stood accused of numerous instances of sexual harassment and general creepiness toward young women over many years. Several of the same Christian media personalities who had earlier compromised to publicly support Donald Trump’s presidency have beclowned themselves defending Moore. Some maintained Moore’s denial of the accusations, others have gone so far as to urge Christians to continue to support him even if every claim proves true. The stakes are too high, they say, to let a pro-abortion senator even finish out an abbreviated Senate term.

What do these events have in common? Surely #Reformation500 is not to blame for Christians thinking it OK to vote for a theatrical (and possibly criminal) huckster as the “lesser of two evils”?

New York Times columnist (and outspoken Catholic) Ross Douthat certainly sees a connection, if not to Moore directly then to the general climate that allows him to even have a leg to stand on.

Reaction to Douthat’s tongue-in-cheek trolling tweet was fairly hostile. To distill our current political moment to a centuries-old theological dispute is facile at best, especially considering that “Luther was responding to chaos, not creating it.” Still, Douthat may be on to something beyond a joke. In a fragmenting culture, is it really that far of a leap from the priesthood of all believers to setting up the pragmatic individual conscience as final arbiter of right or wrong?

The Reformation itself is not a fit scapegoat for our crisis of moral authority. Indeed, most of Luther’s complaints centered around the leadership of the church in his day acting like pagan kings. The recovery of Scripture as authority (which stood over church and civil leadership alike) was the goal, not the casting off of all authority. Moreover, a proper doctrinal understanding of the work of the Holy Spirit should constrain the conscience of the believer to the whole counsel of Scripture, never contradicting it on any point.

We’re not sent out on our own as free-thinking Spirit-buckets to make utilitarian choices in each situation. Supporting flagrantly immoral leaders is wrong, even if it appears to preserve perceived freedoms or achieve desirable ends. To believe otherwise is Enlightenment hubris, not Reformation thinking. If anything, the Reformation recalls the core truth that our would-be secular saviors (whether clothed in the mantle of religious authority or not) are nothing but idols. They disappoint at best and destroy at worst, using and abusing Christians for their own ends.

But secular saviors we want. Even the disciples were, at first, dejected that Christ turned out not to be the political Messiah they longed for. The church has often been so hungry for the pottage of political power that we have suppressed a bottom-up design of societal transformation that begins with the household of God, is refined through suffering, and flourishes to God’s glory in perseverance (see 1 Peter). This failure of vision often leads us to turn inward, choosing piety and order over justice and peace, despite Scripture’s insistence that these are not mutually exclusive pursuits (see Isaiah 58, among many, many other passages).

The energy of hope, desire, and growth so vital to a healthy community is not sustained by a church that trades the bounty of God’s kingdom table for the scraps of an individual pie-in-the-sky gnosticism. That joy may fade from the church, but even in times of unfaithfulness, God will not be without a witness, allowing (for a time) the mantel of social reformation to pass from the church and onto the shoulders of a no-less-zealous progressive irreligion. The heirs of New England’s Puritans are not churchmen but the elites of liberal democracy. If we fear the loss of religious liberty in such a world, surely a measure of blame lies at our doorstep.

How else can one explain why, on October 31, that venerable bugaboo of conservative Christianity, NPR, tweeted all of Luther’s 95 Theses. Some thought their account had been hacked, but I didn’t see any incongruity there. Whatever one thinks of NPR, it’s hard not to see that their leaders are pursuing a certain vision of a better society. Why not hearken back to a historical restoration of free speech and democratization?

While the political party pursuing (on paper) an end to abortion-on-demand is willing to cheerlead for the likes of Moore and Trump, the party of Planned Parenthood understands the wisdom of putting a Franken and a Conyers away for their transgressions. While some Christians make a public show of sweeping sexual sin under the rug, Hollywood’s empire of lust is throwing its newly exposed villains under the bus.

I’m not so naive as to think that public pressure, political posturing, and damage control have as much to do with these things than any latent morality, but they illustrate the failures of cultural Christianity nicely. Ceding the moral high ground to a secular culture can’t be good for Gospel witness (especially because it comes with all law and no grace), but it should wake us up.

It is deep in our humanity to long for the restoration of all things. The creation groans. If the church does not answer that desire with the fulness of God’s good plan through Christ, people will look elsewhere. When the church is rejected by a culture, it may indeed be persecution, but we ought also examine ourselves to see if what is being rejected is actually an incomplete and unholy vision.

It is time, now as always, for the church to declare the breaking in of God’s kingdom, already here but not yet fully seen. Why settle for power when we can rejoice in redemptive confrontation with the brokenness of mankind? Why settle for trying to make a temporary home “great” when we could be building on our imperishable inheritance? Why settle for burnishing our credentials to one or other political party when we serve the king to which they must one day bow? This is the good news of the Reformation, the one that began at Calvary and carried right through Wittenburg and on to the New Jerusalem. May we not settle for anything less.

Semper reformanda

Photo: 13th-century Gothic archway & stained-glass window, Philadelphia Museum of Art, September 2017.