As I’ve been following the recent developments regarding immigration in the United States and the varied responses from both those inside and outside the faith of Christianity, I’m left asking a familiar question, “Why is it so easy for the church to lose its way.” This question isn’t tied to or rooted in a particular party ideology or political platform, instead it’s rooted in a pastoral angst, whereby, those that give confession to following Jesus often fail to wrestle with deeply meaningful issues in a way that bears witness to a counter-cultural presence.
As followers of Christ, our presence in this world ought to be one of light, life, justice, hope, and redemption. We are to bear witness to God’s Counter-Cultural Kingdom of God. We are to think, speak, and act in ways that forces the broader world to reckon with its public, political, and prideful (often idolatrously violent or manipulative) postures.
We are to be different.
In following our public discourse as a church, I’ve discovered what I believe to be four elements that threaten our capacity to bear alternative, faithful witness. This isn’t an exhaustive list nor do I believe I’ve “figured out a solution.” However, I believe that awareness can illicit conviction which prompts confession, giving space and hope to transformation.
Here are four of the ways the church loses its way…
Punditry: We live in a culture fascinated by loud, obnoxious, divisive, seemingly larger than life personalities. Most of these personalities have built an extensive and sprawling spin zone, where information and news are often filtered through a particular perspective, warped and twisted to pander to mass appeal (a particular mass appeal depending on one’s political stances). These pundits:
· Privilege voices that reaffirm their stances.
· Sensationalize every element of a story, preying upon ignorant fears.
· Presume the historical ignorance of their listeners and followers, shrouding current events in novelty without investigating historical precedent.
· Suggest “fairness” in reportage, all the while intentionally spinning the information, moving followers in a predetermined direction.
· Play the martyr, suggesting that those that disagree with them are evil persecutors of the truth.
When followers of Jesus unthinkingly give credence, support, and authorization to those voices, we contribute to the chaos of a “post-truth” culture where “alternative facts” and “exploitive tactics” set the agenda for public discourse. We must challenge these voices by staying informed and prayerfully testing all spirits. DISCERNMENT and WISDOM couldn’t be any more important in today’s culture.
Pragmatism: We are pragmatists. This is a philosophically loaded word, but for the purposes of this article, I will suggest that pragmatism asks only “what works” and “what is beneficial to me (or my niche group)” in this particular moment. Pragmatism is absolutely disconnected from any overarching (and especially transcendent) framework that might serve as a filter through which to run our decisions. We act in the moment for the purpose of the moment. For a pragmatist, might often makes right. Our ability to act is authority enough to do so, when the action is immediately beneficial to those with the power to act. All decisions are ad hoc and disconnected to a broader and more reflective framework.
As followers of Christ, pragmatism isn’t an option. We are rooted in an extended tradition that forces us to reckon not only with “what works and what could we do in the moment,” but instead asks, “In light of the gospel of Jesus Christ and the announcement of the Kingdom, how should we be in this world?” Our decisions impact the evidence of our confession. Followers of Christ play the long game of God’s redemptive reign and make decisions consistent with that long game. Expedience based on pragmatism often fails to recognize the injustices, prejudices, and violent tendencies often implicit in urgency and power.
Populism: Also a loaded word in our culture, I believe populism as I will define it in this article contributes to the corruption of the church. Populism is often defined as concern for the interests of the ordinary person. This alone isn’t a bad thing. We ought to be concerned with the “ordinary,” refusing to create systems that privilege wealth, intellectual elitism, or status. However, populism is a concept in today’s culture often corrupted by identity politics. The “ordinary” are those with whom I belong and my perceived placement on the margins. We divide ourselves up into marginalized groups based on race, political/moral categories, economic class, or ethnic difference (leading often to a nationalism that creates a supremacy over and above others.) This populism can lead to a “mob effect” in which voices of dissent are quickly mobbed by public ridicule, social media shaming, and the threats of violence. Voices of dissent are enemies and thereby threats to the well-being of the masses (defined arbitrarily).
As followers of Christ, we have forgotten that “identity politics” just doesn’t work. Paul speaks against this in Galatians 3:26 So in Christ Jesus you are all children of God through faith, 27 for all of you who were baptized into Christ have clothed yourselves with Christ. 28 There is neither Jew nor Gentile, neither slave nor free, nor is there male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus.
For those that follow Christ, we’ve entered into a new humanity no longer bound to politics of difference, but bound by mutuality, respect, and love that extends beyond my narrow grouping. This passion moves beyond the limits of the baptized community into the broader humanity. Paul also writes in 2 Corinthians 5: 16 So from now on we regard no one from a worldly point of view. Though we once regarded Christ in this way, we do so no longer. 17 Therefore, if anyone is in Christ, the new creation has come: The old has gone, the new is here! 18 All this is from God, who reconciled us to himself through Christ and gave us the ministry of reconciliation: 19 that God was reconciling the world to himself in Christ, not counting people’s sins against them. And he has committed to us the message of reconciliation. 20 We are therefore Christ’s ambassadors, as though God were making his appeal through us. We implore you on Christ’s behalf: Be reconciled to God. 21 God made him who had no sin to be sin[b] for us, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God.
Polarization: This is the final element I want to suggest is problematic for the church. We start with the assumption that we are naturally at odds with one another, poised every day for the defensive. Punditry that plays on our fears, naturally divides us into groupings making conversation nearly impossible. We are told there are only and ever two sides and it is incumbent upon you to pick a side, plant a flag, and defend your ground. Failure to do this is irresponsible and naïve. Participation in polarization creates an edge of anger, malice, sarcasm and ultimately leaves us prepared for verbal and physical violence. In a culture where conversations at work, in the home, or on social media feel like playground skirmishes, we are now living in the post-traumatic edginess that is always looking over our shoulder for the next fight.
As followers of Christ, we believe in the shalom of God. The peace of God, not as a failure to act or an absence of conflict, but as the proactive posture of the people of God that refuse to jump headlong into divisiveness, must be our priority. This does not mean we don’t act when necessary or cast our lots in divisive situations. It means that we refuse to constantly see and suppose one another as enemies. It’s a refusal to attribute evil and enemy willy-nilly based only on disagreement. When standing on divisive issues, it stands vulnerable, sacrificially, with the hopes of redemption, reconciliation, and restoration for all as the priority and hope. It doesn’t seek to win as much as it does to bear witness to the Kingdom of God, on earth as it is in heaven.
It is important that in today’s culture that the church once again embrace its counter cultural identity as the people of God, refusing to wear that identity in arrogance, but as reconciling servant to the world. We must learn to speak, act, converse, and love in ways that bears witness to difference, that bears witness to the Kingdom of God. Lord help us on our way as the “People of the Way.”