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.

Crisis

English-only version

Alexander is, I suppose, to blame
For anguish in Nogales, Laredo,
McAllen, Del Rio, and El Paso—
Towns baked crisp under an unflagging sun
Yet wobbly with unspeakable horror:
Rachel weeping, weeping for her children.
More doctrine, or gall, than guns, germs, or steel,
One stroke of Inter Cetera venting
Europe’s pride onto what you don’t own,
Discovering so many things long known.

Thousands of years of solitude crashed
By a half-millennium of conquest
Could not unmake a people tethered to
Black soil, maize, potatoes, and rainforests—
To the land that they delight to show you,
A country flowing with milk and honey.
From Aconcagua to Ixtaccíhuatl—
No less theirs in Spanish than Nahuatl,
Quechua, Itza’, or Ngäbere.
Empires egress, yet here they remain.

Cortés and Pizarro and Balboa
Gave way to filibustering yanquís,
Manifesting their destiny beyond
Borders, national or rational, yet
Scott nor Taylor, Villa nor Zapata,
United Fruit, Contras, coups, nor mosquito,
Canal zones, cartels, Marines, Chavismo,
The CIA, foil blankets, nor cages
Instead of asylum can wrest dignity.
But, if we still have our bread and onions….

We cannot go back to where we came from,
Mostly because we’ve been here all along,
Standing in faith, bad faith notwithstanding,
Standing in judgment, silent as the years—
For the desert where you leave us dying
Remains our old, our most beloved home.
It is only in your cold-tempered hearts
Where place shatters and bad weeds never die—
We are your children, prodigals returned.
Look in the eye what you’ve sown, reaped, and burned.

Original

Alexander is, I suppose, to blame
For anguish in Nogales, Laredo,
McAllen, Del Rio, and El Paso—
Pueblos horneados bajo el sol
Y frente al horror indecible,
Rosita que llora por sus hijos.
More doctrine, or gall, than guns, germs, or steel,
One stroke of Inter Cetera venting
Europe’s pride onto what you don’t own,
Discovering so many things long known.

Thousands of years of solitude crashed
By a half-millennium of conquest
Could not unmake a people tethered to
Black soil, maize, potatoes, and rainforests—
La tierra que les ha mostrado,
El país fluye leche y miel,
De Aconcagua a Ixtaccíhuatl—
No less theirs in Spanish than Nahuatl,
Quechua, Itza’, or Ngäbere.
Empires egress, yet here they remain.

Cortés and Pizarro and Balboa
Gave way to filibustering yanquís,
Manifesting their destiny beyond
Borders, national or rational, yet
Scott nor Taylor, Villa nor Zapata,
United Fruit, Contras, coups, nor mosquito,
Canal zones, cartels, Marines, Chavismo,
The CIA, foil blankets, nor cages
Instead of asylum can wrest dignity.
Si ya tenemos pan y cebollas….

We cannot go back to where we came from,
Mostly because we’ve been here all along,
Standing in faith, bad faith notwithstanding,
Standing in judgment, silent as the years—
El desierto donde morimos
Es nuestro hogar más querido.
Solo está en sus corazones
Donde yerba mala nunca muere.
We are your children, prodigals returned.
Look in the eye what you’ve sown, reaped, and burned.

Image: Palo Duro Canyon, Texas. February 2018.

The Color of Compromise

The story of relationship between ethnicities in the U. S. is typically thought of by white Americans as something of a three-act play.

Act I starts 400 years ago, when English colonists in Virginia bought 20 or so men and women from Africa. These people had been stolen from their homes (likely in Angola) by the Portuguese before being seized by English pirates on the high seas and then traded unceremoniously for food on the shores of a strange land. They, their descendants, and millions of other captives would spend the next 246 years being defined down from human beings to chattels, governed not by inalienable rights but laws concerning property, treated with all manner of cruelty and made to extract untold wealth from North America for their captors. Even at that, we’re pretty sure it was mostly a Southern problem, and the national figures from that region that “owned” humans (like 5 of the first 7 presidents) were at least deeply unsettled about the morality of it, though they almost never felt the need to actually act on that feeling.

While we’re all (mostly at least) pretty certain that Act I is evil, we’d rather not really talk about it much. Act II begins with the Emancipation proclamation, the sainted martyr Abraham Lincoln, and the virtuous northern states defeating the menace of slavery in a fair contest on the cathartic battlefields of the Civil War. This is where things began to get particularly fuzzy. As the institution of slavery gave way to other forms of oppression, with the emergence of Jim Crow and the sharecropper system, we tend to localize blame in the South. And even though Southerners spent those decades mythologizing Robert E. Lee and Stonewall Jackson, that must’ve been just remembering martial glories (and maybe licking their wounds a bit), so it’s probably OK that this habit continues into the present even though I’m not willing to participate in it personally. Because this was the time period that gave the world the Harlem Renaissance and DuBois and Hughes and Hurston and Jazz, though, life in the North must’ve been tolerable, right?

Act III looks like Martin Luther King, Jr. speaking on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial, and the Civil Rights Act and Voting Rights Act, and we’re all fine now, right? Sure, Martin (and Malcolm, and Medgar, and…) was killed in the fight, and sure, some of my black acquaintances still talk about the ways their concerns aren’t being heard, and sure, the news keeps talking about the deaths of innocents, and sure, it seems like the legal system can’t wait to ruin a black man’s life. But racism is just an attitude, and if I don’t have that attitude personally, I’ve done all I can for the struggle (never mind the things Grandma says at Thanksgiving). Can’t we all just get along?

Of course, if you can’t tell from the tongue-in-cheek tone there, this isn’t a terribly accurate or complete telling. But it’s not all that different from a general narrative I absorbed growing up in the 90s, and one I’m sure I’ve parroted in full or in part until fairly recently. The real story starts long before 1619, and it’s not over yet, but to speak even these simple facts can stir controversy.

This is why, one of the best tools for shining a light on the African American experience (which is inextricably intertwined with systemic sins on a massive scale in the United States and the general history of this continent) is to look into the past. In the prudent exercise of history, the issues of today can be given context, and thus, their proper weight and understanding.

This is of particular value to the church, where most discussions of cross-cultural reconciliation have been carried on in the realm of theology, sociology, or personal narratives—all of which have tremendous value (would that we had all believed Galatians 3:28 and countless other passages firmly enough to avoid the mistakes of the past!). To avoid the roots of why there hasn’t been “conciliation” all along, though, it is necessary to understand the breadth and depth of sins committed in the past—sins of individuals and evil or cowardly actions taken by groups that flowed out of those sins. Only in this way can we really begin to build toward a humble, honest, unity in the family of God.

TTisby Coverhis is the task that historian (and trained theologian) Jemar Tisby sets his hand to in The Color of Compromise: The Truth about the American Church’s Complicity in Racism. If that provocative title invites a spark of indignation, it’s already doing some of work of the book as Tisby sets out to disabuse us of the notion that the church somehow floats above the historical currents in a society, untainted by the fray. Moreover, he pushes hard into examining how the church oftentimes shaped, not just reflected, the culture’s attitudes toward racial distinctions and white supremacy and the systems that have propped them up over the past four centuries.

Covering so much ground in a slim volume is ambitious, and Tisby, for the most part, pulls it off. He starts off with a short discourse about the discipline of history and acknowledges that his project here is to offer a survey, a necessarily shallow introduction to a massive subject. His goal is to illuminate the big arc of the story and encourage readers to go “upstream” into the multiplicity of deeper sources he cites.

Along the way, Tisby invites readers to consider the origins of chattel slavery in the Colonial and Revolutionary period, and how theories of racial stratification took hold in the Antebellum era as a way to justify continued enslavement and brutality. He critiques the ways that powerful outpourings of the Spirit during the First and Second Great Awakenings were channelled away from applying the Gospel’s implications toward justice for enslaved people, even as God raised up African American preachers, churches, and denominations. He excoriates Southern churches for their support of slavery and secession during the run up to the Civil War and their support of segregation during the development of the Jim Crow system (not to mention their damning silence on lynchings and KKK terrorism). At the same time, he breaks down the narrative of Northern virtue, detailing institutionalization of racism through redlining, real-estate covenants, etc., following the Great Migration.

Tisby is at his strongest in exploring the second half of the 20th century. His overview of the Civil Rights movement looks at how the church (North and South) began to shift from overt racial attitudes to a “moderation” (with Billy Graham and the beginnings of modern evangelicalism standing in as representatives for this phenomenon) that too-often shied away from supporting justice. His chapter on the development of the Religious Right in the 1970s and 80s carefully explains how there was much more continuity with segregation than the received narrative of the pro-life movement has been willing to acknowledge. This part is most helpful, perhaps because it has been most under-examined.

He concludes the book from there, tying together the political shift of much of the church toward the Republican party with a growing tone-deafness of American Christians toward the real-world concerns of our African American brothers and sisters in an age of mass incarceration, police brutality, poverty, and other systemic injustices from the 1990s to the present. His closing argument is for the church to stare this history in the eye, repent of the ways that we continue to ignore it, to lament the sins of our fathers, and learn anew to weep with those who weep so that we can also rejoice and glorify God together.

As a whole, Tisby succeeds admirably in his aims, producing a very accessible popular-level introduction to a vitally important topic. It is very engaging, and overall strikes a much more humble and conciliatory tone than I imagine that I would be able to muster covering such painful facts. If anything, though, I think the book’s length may be a slight disadvantage, as its attempt to be thorough in scope leaves many aspects of the story so abbreviated as to undercut some of the dramatic force of his arguments. My hunch as an editor is that there was a lot left on the cutting room floor—a few minor mistakes that slipped into the finished copy (i.e. last names stated before people are introduced, chopped sentences, etc) seem to indicate content removed and rearranged.

I know that publishing is a tricky game, and testing readers’ appetites for such a hard subject probably makes brevity the path of prudence. Still, I hope that Tisby (or others) will continue this project in greater detail. I would have enjoyed seeing a hundred more pages in this volume, and would gladly pay for a much more in-depth book from Tisby on the history of the Religious Right alone.

The audience that most needs to hear this story—theologically conservative Christians who profess a reticence to engage with justice issues and insist on a personally “colorblind” outlook on racial issues—may not receive it well, but I hope many among that group give it a hearing and respond with reflection and prayer. Public and private lament requires a knowledge of the depth and breadth of sins committed. We need to learn the story before we can bring it to God in the fullness of sorrow and hope, and experience the godly grief that leads to “fruit in keeping with repentance” (Luke 3:8).

Tisby very effectively asks why this subject tends to stand out as a blind spot for the majority of American Christians and urges us to look into the abyss not just to convict but to rejoice in the ways that God has preserved the witness of Christ among a people who had every reason to reject the religion of their oppressors. In particular, he asks readers to hold in tension the contributions of our ancestors and an honest reckoning with their sins.

Christians of all people should be able to understand this, for “all have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God,” and it’s always possible to turn the orthodox religious observance into a sacrifice that God does not desire (see Isaiah 1, for instance). In many ways, we are denying the essence of the Gospel when we refuse to acknowledge that God has used, does use, and will use imperfect vessels (e.g. slaveholders like Whitefield and Edwards) to proclaim His truths—one can both appreciate and critique public figures whose sins become as well-known as their accomplishments, but continuing to whitewash their participation in evil as a way of “protecting” their reputation ultimately leads to people rejecting both message and messenger.

There is more I could say, but this is already a long review and I’d rather people read the book for themselves than have me explain it all. Perhaps the unstated message of The Color of Compromise is that we lose a lot when we fail to listen to our brothers and sisters from other cultures. Few if any of the insights Tisby lists here are unique to him. The evidence has been in plain sight all along, if we were willing to hear the voices that were calling out for us to listen. The fact that a book like this still needs to be written in 2019 is proof enough that hard hearts and stopped ears are more common in our houses of worship than we want to admit.

Image: Aaron Douglas, Harriet Tubman, 1931, oil on canvas. On loan to North Carolina Museum of Art from Bennet College for Women Collection, Greensboro, N.C. Photo by me, January 2019.

Cultivating Trust: Institutions and the Crisis of Confusion

Originally written as a submission for Comment Magazine‘s 2018 Seerveld Prize.

Trust is adhesive, often unseen and nearly always assumed. It binds together individuals and groups, currencies, software systems, networks, and even the various species in an ecosystem. If we ever do notice and consider trust, we tend to associate it with emotion—a feeling of comfort and goodwill toward a person, object, business, or organization. In reality, trust is more a condition of support, a predictability and consistency of nature that requires continual cultivation.

In that sense, the collapse of trust in America’s institutions has been exaggerated. Gallup may report that our confidence is declining precipitously over the past few decades in some apparent pillars of society: the news (-26 percentage points from its high), banks (-30), the healthcare system (-44), the presidency (-35), the congress (-29), the public schools (-33), and the church (-30). Paradoxically, trust in the military has increased (+22) and even the police have held steady.

Our practical trust in the face of these numbers, though, stays blindly faithful. Only 11% of Americans claim trust in Congress, but nearly all of us at some point today drove on roads constructed and maintained by their authorization (or travelled in trains or planes regulated by their fiat) without a second thought. The 30% of us who trust banks were likely joined by the other 70% today in buying or selling something within the economy made possible by their systems. 20% of us trust the news media, but everyone, it seems, has an opinion on what it has told us to think about today.

Trust and Power
This dynamic illuminates a critical reality—we will have institutions, whether we want them or not, whether we “trust” them or not. Much as they’re taken for granted, every human institution was created—person or a group went to the trouble of planning out the structures and processes to secure or deliver a perceived social good, from a neighborhood hot dog stand to the International Criminal Court.

In Playing God, Andy Crouch describes institutions as tools that men and women develop to extend their gifts, abilities, and desires—their power—across time and space. As Lin-Manuel Miranda’s Hamilton might say, “I wanna build something that’s gonna outlive me.” Crouch leans into the word “power” to remind us that whatever euphemisms (authority, leadership, influence) we may cover it with, the human experience is defined by the exercise of our power to make a mark on the world. In this, we reflect the image of our Creator, who by His very words called forth the universe. Whatever power we wield is His gift, meant for stewardship and the extension of His wondrous creative spirit through the whole earth.

If this picture is accurate, why the rampant reported distrust? Because institutions are human-created and human-maintained, the power they ostensibly wield for good can be turned toward such evil or apathy as is common to man. Since the Fall, our God-given power is often twisted toward these unjust ends, transforming cultivation into coercion and turning our fellow image-bearers into objects to be used and abused. Moreover, institutional injustice is capable of spreading man’s sin and destruction on a massive scale, with police brutality toward African Americans, re-emergent abuses and coverups within Roman Catholic clergy, and the raft of rape and sexual harassment incidents and coverups in churches, businesses, and government offices representing just a few recent examples.

Beyond that, we recoil against having our personal power constrained by accountability and responsibility. If institutions, when abused, magnify sin and its effects, when they function well, they can curtail our baser instincts and our tendency to avoid difficulty. Acting on eroding trust to tear down failing institutions fits well within a sensory, experience-centric culture. Iconoclasm seems to come naturally to us. Institution-building doesn’t have the same appeal, though. It is a slow, often painful process of binding your freedom to a greater cause. It takes courage to tear down broken systems, but immeasurably more courage to stand pat drafting processes, procedures, and policies that can, in time, bring about good.

Perhaps most importantly, thinking about institutions as power structures reminds us that our aversion to use power for good in no way prevents institution-building by less noble actors. When we neglect or cast off the institutions we have, we are not left with unfettered freedom, but have pledged unwitting allegiance to institutions that we may not yet recognize.

Ordained or Supporting?
The best institutions exist for the benefit of the people they purport to serve, the worst exist to perpetuate themselves at their expense. Institutions begin to fail once they cross this line, to borrow from Miranda again (Burr this time), when they become “just a legacy to protect.” Few, if any, are started with such failure in mind. Trouble arises when institutions lose touch with their constituencies or create unintended consequences. The shortcomings of human nature lead many institutions to “bake in” cultural biases or discriminatory acts that then blossom into massive injustices down the road. When we say that our confidence in institutions is flagging, we perceive that our institutions are ill-suited to the times, or perhaps were never designed for the fullness of human flourishing.

Much as we speak of them abstractly (a transgression I’m guilty of even here), institutions are the antithesis of abstraction. Institutions don’t coolly attempt to enshrine ideology but to enact and sustain the longings of a person or a group. For better or for worse, they push toward the fulfillment of desire.

When our desires are anchored in the ultimate goodness and truth of God, it would be appropriate to speak of the institutions which sustain and work to fulfill those hopes as ordained. Thus we speak of the Church (which shapes and sustains our proper worship and anchors us in an eternal perspective), the family (which is designed to channel the forces of sexual desire and economic need into paths of trust and faithfulness), and government (which, ideally, protect good and punish evil to allow for greater flourishing on the earth until Christ returns). While these institutions can be turned toward evil periodically, there is something of God’s will in them that prevents their dissolution and periodically calls them to reformation and restoration.

Our desires for things less than ultimate can be sinful, to be sure, but can also be healthy outflows of God’s good design. When these subordinate desires are legitimate, it is possible that they will be put into practice through supporting institutions. These, perhaps make up the bulk of what we think of when we think of institutions (schools, civic organizations, businesses, etc.), and even the less noticeable structures that make these visible systems possible (specific laws and policies, denominations, accreditation associations, etc.).

Secondary, supporting institutions necessarily draw their design and authority from the primary, ordained institutions. As a result, over time, it is easy for them to assume a comparable character and status and to demand a level of respect and obedience that they are not due. When our secondary desires become ultimate, the institutions we create to fulfill them drift from supporting flourishing to become consuming idols. The gravest peril there is that “those who make [idols] will be like them, and so will all who trust in them” (Psalm 115:8, NIV).

This, as Patrick Deneen has argued in Why Liberalism Failed, seems to be the case with many of the political and cultural institutions that we veritably worship in the West (representative democracy, capitalism, tolerance, etc.). These are shaped by, and shape us into, the enacted ideas of the Enlightenment. They are designed to protect an individual, de-cultured, displaced and disembodied concept of freedom. Ultimately, though, these systems have crowded out older structures which drove us to family, community, and place and have, paradoxically, trapped us in the tyranny of our own unchecked desires.

Trust and the Church
As the only group founded on the explicit content of Jesus Christ—incarnate, crucified, and resurrected—the Church is the one indispensable, foundational institution. Lest we fall into modernist conceit, I will stretch the definition of “Church” here to include the fullness of God’s covenant dealings with His people from Eden to Israel to the Apostles to the present day and on through the coming of the New Jerusalem. The other ordained institutions draw their life and significance from this story. Marriage and family serve as emblems reflecting its holy order (as Ephesians 5 tells us). Government, however flawed, is designed to reflect the good rule of our righteous King. All the supporting institutions man creates can only peripherally and for seasons overlap with the underlying reality of the Church. They succeed and endure to the extent that they enact the liturgical rhythms, community, justice, and equity prescribed by our good and holy God.

The visible churches we are part of so often fall far short of this reality. The Scriptures are ignored or mishandled. The cultural conceits of particular times, places, and groups become entangled with ecclesial authority. Churches are turned into the handmaidens of various political or social systems. We have so seldom seen churches that lovingly shine forth as the “pillar and foundation of the truth” (1 Tim. 3:15, NIV) in all its theological and ethical facets.

This is nothing new. Closing the gap between the model of Christ and the visible realities in the beloved community was the chief concern of Paul, Peter, John and all the New Testament epistles. It is the core animating discussion of the church fathers, and the great ecumenical councils. Who is this Jesus, and what does He ask of us? We are a wicked and deceitful people, and the best that our visible churches can attain to this side of glory is a humble posture of semper reformanda.

To the extent that today’s crisis of trust is a real phenomenon (at least in the West), perhaps it is simply a coming to terms with the reality that we’ve confused the ordained power of the Church with its supporting institutions. So much of ministry of has been co-opted from local churches and corporatized in parachurch organizations, denominational entities, and businesses. Discipleship and community ministry have been professionalized, with the basic faithfulness of church members buried under curricula and certifications or simply outsourced to a proliferation of paid staff. The cooperation of churches for global evangelization and relief and development has spawned agencies and NGOs that are now seen as the primary face of the work. There is a predictable pathway to a certain sort of “rich and famous” through the Christian publishing and conference circuit, and the organizations that facilitate that do a tidy business in their own right.

None of this is inherently wrong, but there is a very strong sense that our support structures are masquerading as the church itself. Theologian Lesslie Newbigin in The Gospel in a Pluralist Society wrote that “[parachurch ministries] have power to accomplish their purpose only as they are rooted in and lead back to a believing community.” The entrepreneurial rise of the parachurch sector, particularly in the 20th century, allowed churches to turn inward, focusing their ministry on the comfort and happiness of their members while still feeling like the larger ministry objectives commanded by Scripture were being addressed by external organizations. The people in the pews no longer feel able or responsible to undertake their core callings to follow Christ, love their neighbors as themselves, and make disciples. It’s as though the church were a business where some 80-90% of employees think of themselves instead as customers. Every parachurch and trendy ministry strategy will ultimately pass away, but the Church remains.

I said above that our crisis of confidence exists “At least in the West,” because much of the situation I’ve just described has only been made possible by the church’s de facto alliance with the dominant culture. We’ve operated out of a sense of power and entitlement, and that is breaking down. Paradoxically, our anxiety about the loss of power has led many to join themselves to political parties and to create organizations that have served to accelerate that loss and alienate the very people we’re called to love. The collapse of the structures we are accustomed to here could be simply a return to the status the church has always lived with in much of the world and even the subdominant communities within our own culture.

What’s Next?
The church seems poised to undergo a season of great humbling. In God’s good provision, I expect it to also be a period of true growth. Amid the rubble of unholy alliances and fallen celebrities, the faithful remnant continues to gather for worship through Word and sacrament, week in and week out. The body of Christ, particularly in her most under-appreciated and unloved corners, stands, facing down the calumny brought on by the fall of misguided efforts to make her great.

The tools of confession and forgiveness were given by Christ to His church to address inevitable outbreaks of sin and division. These practices are extensions of His grace, enabling us to speak the full truth with full love. This mutual truth-telling is the only way to build the trust that allows the visible church to grow and flourish. In other words, confession and forgiveness are the solid foundations of any successful institution. Without them, people can only bite and devour one another, tearing down one structure after another, whether or not it needs to go. The question of whether our society maintains and regains confidence in the church and the rest of our public institutions seems to depend a great deal on our recovery of these disciplines. When we do, we may be astonished by what we can then begin to build together.

Image: Chicago’s Gold Coast at sunset, October 2018.