Our Dysfunctional Family Values: On Believe Me by John Fea

img_9395.jpegThere is nothing quite so painful nor so beautiful as delving into the study of your own family.  Where there are wounds or unresolved questions, such study becomes all the more necessary yet somewhat halting and – even, at times – haunting. As Oscar Wild wrote in his classic The Picture of Dorian Gray, “I can’t help detesting my relations. I suppose it comes from the fact that none of us can stand other people having the same faults as ourselves.”

Believe Me: The Evangelical Road to Donald Trump, by John Fea, offers fellow white American evangelicals a chance to study the harsher realities of our family legacy by illuminating the detestable parts of our past and laying bare the faults of our present.

For many of us within the church the current era of Trumpism has confirmed our worst fears and challenged our most defensive reflexes about the faith community we call home.  This has been a time of reflection and repentance, but also one of bewilderment.

In describing his first reaction on election night Fea shares his emotions, which to many of us are all too familiar. “I was shocked. I was saddened. I was angry.”  Trump’s victory brought about disillusionment not really because of who lost, but rather because of who and what so many of our fellow brothers and sisters in Christ appeared willing to endorse, enable or empower.  As Fea notes, realizing that eight out of 10 of his fellow church goers most likely voted for Trump “seemed to reflect deep divisions in how we understand the world, and it was deeply distressing.” (5)

For those who, like me, share these sentiments of shock and uncertainty, Believe me offers a renewed explanation for why this happened and sketches tentative suggestions for the road ahead.  He offers us a historical framework mixed with contemporary analysis through which to understand our present time, particularly by focusing on the religious leaders and prominent Trump supporters Fea terms “Court Evangelicals.” In all, the book reads as a satisfying catharsis for unresolved questions about why and how we got to this point in our family history.

Grounded in an overview of the modern dance between evangelicals and the Supreme Court, Fea describes how and why evangelicals have turned to political solutions as a means for devotional salvation, especially in the second half of the 20th century. Also acting as primer on the darker moments in religious American history, from the faults of Salem and Massachusetts Bay Colony, to the theological justifications of slavery and Jim Crow, to the rise of the “Know Nothing Party”, the Scopes Trial, Operation Wet Back and many more, Fea’s book offers us a colorful family album of evangelical foibles, sins, and woes.  He explains:

“Evangelicals have worried about the decline of Christian civilization from the moment they arrived on American shores in the seventeenth century.  They have celebrated values such as ‘freedom’ and ‘liberty’ while simultaneously building exclusive communities that do not tolerate dissent.  They have revealed their fear in the ways they have responded to the plight of the people who do not share their skin color.  White evangelical fear of newcomers – those who might challenge the power and privilege that white evangelicals have enjoyed in a nation of Protestants – has been present in every era of American history.” (65)

Seen in this light, the voting habits and rhetoric of the 2016 election were a continuity of our worst impulses, an almost inevitable outcome for a people who have yet to reckon with the their own darker past.

Playing up the thesis that the evangelical embrace of Donald Trump is driven most prominently by fear, Fea recounts the events leading up to the election by wryly noting, “The evangelical candidates stoked fears of a world they seemed unfit to tame.” (33) The rhetoric, developed over almost forty years by the leadership of the Religious Right, mixed with age-old concerns about foreigners, criminals, and encroaching secularism, is not to be seen as an abrogation but rather as a continuation of the more troubling legacies within the American church.  As Fea explains: “In a sin-cursed world, we should expect anxiety-induced emotions to rise in response to social change.  But evangelicals have not always managed their fears in a healthy way.” (65)

Crucially, he identifies how the over glorification, or nostalgia, of our past has led to a confused mentality of how best to confront the concerns of the present.  While addressing the complex historical implications of the controversial campaign slogan Make America Great Again, he asks for us to question more deeply what message that fourth word conveys.  Which America, which season of American evangelicalism, do we wish to reclaim? What is meant by great AGAIN?

“It is easy for white evangelicals to look back fondly on American history.  There is, of course, a lot to celebrate… At the same time, America is a nation that has been steeped in racism, xenophobia, imperialism, violence, materialism, and a host of other practices that do not conform very well to the ethical demands that Christianity places upon our lives.”  (137-8)

Looking back to this darker past is the key to understanding a path to a brighter, more hopeful, future.  It also helps us put in perspective the widening political gap between white evangelicals and our minority brethren in the faith.  As Fea pointedly queries, “Why would any African-American want to ‘reclaim’ a history steeped in racism?” (134) Yet somehow these voices remain unheard or unheeded and the sins of our forefathers, or perhaps the sins of our own hearts, are the reality we still must confront, repent, and mourn.

What then should we do about these dysfunctional family values?  Fea ultimately concludes with a call to hope over fear, humility over power, and history over nostalgia.  Through further self-reflection and an embrace of values exhibited in the civil rights movement, he thinks we can find creative and faithful ways to respond to the unique (and not so unique) challenges of our times.

Moreover, Fea suggests that we should respond in such a way that is inclusive and welcoming of the entire multi-racial, multi-ethnic body of Christ, seeking after an understanding of the great promise offered by this land of the free that is relatable to all.  “For too many who have been the objects of white evangelical fear,” he says, “real American greatness is still something to be hoped for – not something to be recovered from an imagined past.” (154)  Adopting a posture of humility, we should therefore see both the future of our faith and the future of our polis as one in the making, a work in progress ripe for healing and new growth.

While Believe Me is a helpful and insightful addition to the burgeoning literature seeking to explain how a thrice married, notoriously bankrupt (in more ways than one) former reality tv star ended up as President of the United States of America, I do have three critiques to offer.

First, for a book that proclaims to specifically offer an understanding of the evangelical embrace of Trump or Trumpism, Fea fails to adequately define the distinct roots and branches of our family tree.  Since the 2016 election there has been an ongoing discussion, particularly among scholars of theology and church history, regarding the meaning of the label “evangelical” and the authenticity of the poll numbers which Fea readily cites as the basis of his book.  Not only did Fea choose to overlook this discussion about the contemporary use of the term, but his historic examples of “evangelicals” are quite generous in definition, including faith groups as diverse as puritans, members of mainline protestant denominations, prosperity gospel preachers, and pentecostal churches, among others.

The closest Fea comes to defining what he means by American evangelicalism is found in his categorization of the so-called “court evangelicals” who “come from three primary streams of American evangelicalism: the Christian Right, the followers of what has come to be known as the ‘prosperity gospel,’ and the Independent Network Charismatics.” (106)  While I found this to be a helpful way to group the personalities he features, I am certain some of his peers will question if these are all fair representatives of evangelicalism as a historically defined religious movement.

Even if these are all fair representatives of white evangelicalism, Fea still fails to define with greater clarity what he means by the term. (Personally, I am inclined to give him some latitude for accepting this type of self-identified “evangelicalism” as representing an important sociological grouping, if not a precise theological label.)  A significant part of reflecting on our family roots is looking into our DNA, the unique genetic ties that connect us together throughout time.  In Believe Me, Fea fails to even attempt to make these ties apparent.  He uses the term “evangelical” so broadly at times it ceases to mean much more than just a generic, interchangeable, title for the American Christian.

Second, I am afraid this book is not written in a way that makes it fully approachable to the 81% who voted for Donald Trump.  While the dedication “to the 19%” who voted for someone (or no one) else in 2016 seems quite fitting, this book offers an opportunity to bridge the political divide and invite us all onto a mutual path of familial reflection.  Unfortunately, where Fea diverges from the necessary detachment of historical inquiry, there is a touch of off-putting bias.  More than once I caught myself noting how he describes the fears of those who have embraced Trumpism as merely reacting to perceived threats, while at the same time he qualifies the prejudices of both the present and the past as definite and real.  This pattern is particularly evident in his discussion of the Obama presidency where, for example, he fairly critiques the racism behind birtherism but understates both the political and judicial threats to religious liberty posed by the Obama administration both at home and abroad.

While I concur that the Christian Right, among others, ginned up excessive hyperbole and fear in our recent history, I also think that Believe Me as a whole misses the mark in examining the trends in European and American culture that elicited genuine fear and anxiety among orthodox Christian believers.  As many astute observers of our age such as Rod Dreher in The Benedict Option have noted, some evangelicals (presumably including those within the 81%) are responding to shifts in belief and behavior which could lead to actual persecution over time – more than mere social change or inflexibility as Fea implies.  We certainly need to debate the best, most Christ-like way to respond to such threats, but it is folly to gloss over the actual ways these changing public policies and mores may inhibit our freedom of religion in the days to come.

Fea’s overarching thesis, that our fears should be met with hope and humility, remains timely and significant.  Yet by discrediting most of these fears as over exaggerated, or simply as part of a legacy of religious bigotry, he limits his most likely audience to those already inclined to agree with the prescient warning that fear and nostalgia can all too easily lead to ungodly racism, bigotry and exclusion.

Finally, any great examination of family history eventually needs to look fully and fairly at the entire family tree.  When newly exposed to the foibles and abuses of our elders or peers it is only natural to want to keep digging, to find all the hidden or forgotten skeletons, and to reflect upon them through grief.  This process of emotive truth-telling is an important part of healing, but it is not the entirety of the healing process.  What Believe Me starkly overlooks, a bit oddly given the intended audience, is the historical context for evangelicals who currently dissent.  Be they the 19% who didn’t vote for Trump, or part of an unknown percentage who cast their votes for him but still vocally object to policies and behavior which run counter to the Christian Faith, these white evangelicals are standing in an important tradition that also reaches back before our founding.

Family histories are complex, and any readings that are all positive or all negative tend to miss the mark and fail to give complete justice to the truth of our heritage.  Where Fea fairly derides the positive revisionism of David Barton and his ilk for an all-too-simple storytelling of a mythic Christian America, reading Believe Me in insolation risks leaving us with the impression that the legacy of white evangelicalism is mostly negative: a long, sad, solitary tale of bigotry and hypocrisy.

Such a uniquely sordid picture could not be further from the truth.  Look to every moment of ugliness and shame in our nation’s history and there you will find evangelical dissenters, missionaries, and advocates.  While the darker parts of our past must be reckoned with, a feat Fea does quite well, we should not lose sight of the many ways throughout our own history that evangelical Christians have stood with the marginalized, the poor, and the oppressed.  That story of compassion and sacrifice is just as if not more significant to tell, not so as to lead us into a nostalgic triumphalism but rather to inspire those who are currently distressed with the knowledge that we are not alone.  Others have stood here before us and stayed faithful to God, upheld human dignity for the downtrodden, and fearlessly spoke truth in the face of persecution, isolation, and apparent powerlessness.

I find Fea’s ultimate answer, for us to look to the civil rights movement as a model to follow in these times, quite compelling.  But I also hope we do not forget the legacy of the abolitionists, the suffragettes, and the urban social movements of the 19th century, among so many others.  The examples of fear and hatred in our past run deep and wide and current events suggest this legacy still lives with us, possibly within each of us, to this day.  But there are also so many examples in our history of rugged perseverance, crusaders for justice, and generous biblical hospitality.  Those saints, many of whom were white American evangelicals, offer us ready examples of what it means to live our lives with a bold, unapologetic, public witness in often dark or confusing times.

These concerns aside, Believe Me is a helpful and ultimately hopeful read worthy of further reflection.  Going into this week of national celebration, I hope we can come to see the role of our familial engagement within the public square not as an opportunity to worship the perfection of what we think our country once was, or what it might already be, but rather, using Fea’s description of the outlook found within the civil rights movement, as “a gesture to what” we hope “the United States might become.” (164)

 

Fea, John. Believe Me: The Evangelical Road to Donald Trump. (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans Publishing Co., 2018).

I received a free advanced copy of this book to review.  Special thanks to Eerdmans for this opportunity and apologies for not publishing sooner! Reading and writing with four under five is quite the adventure. 🙂 

 

Reversing Roles: The Clinton Presidency that Wasn’t

636325546921131441-ap-comeyNearly one month into the young presidency of Hillary Clinton, The Wall Street Journal publishes reports that Huma Abedin, now working as a Senior Advisor in the White House, is currently under investigation by the FBI for unreported ties to Iran and Iranian lobbyists. It is also reported that the Iranians knew certain payments and meetings were left off of Abedin’s security clearance application, thus compromising Abedin and opening her to a threat of blackmail.

Allegedly, Abedin made several contacts with key Iranian diplomats to suggest offers during the transition to renegotiate the Iran deal with the promise of lessing even more sanctions and helping to rebuild their economy. There are also reports of her contacts or ongoing relationships with Iranian surrogates during the 2016 campaign. Finally, The Journal notes that the White House was informed of this information two weeks prior, but that there appears to be no change in Abedin’s position within the White House.

After the report is published, Vice President Tim Kaine is embarrassed and enraged, for he had spoken on Sunday morning talk shows regarding concerns about Abedin last month when he publicly denied any efforts by the Clinton Transition Team to discuss sanctions with Iran. Abedin had lied to him. The Vice President is so upset by these reports and his damaged credibility that President Clinton decides she has no choice, regrettably, but to fire Abedin. She releases comments a few days later blaming the press for reporting about these leaks and suggests she already misses having Abedin – who in her view has done nothing wrong – as part of her team.

In the following weeks, the concern about Iran and potential ties to the Clinton administration grows. Congress opens multiple investigations into the possible connections and conflicts of interest between the campaign and Iran. It is leaked to the press that the NSA believes that an Iranian hacker was behind the release of sensitive financial information about Donald Trump a week before the election, widely speculated to have contributed “Bigly” to his loss. Multiple members of congress, both Republicans and Democrats, confirm this report to the press.

Tensions between President Clinton and the FBI Director remain high. The White House continues to insist that there has been no wrong doing on the part of either the Clinton Campaign or the Clinton Transition Team.

After failing to get key legislation through Congress, and one week after Director Comey testified that there was an open investigation into ties between the Clinton Campaign/Transition and Iran, Hillary Clinton fires James Comey. In an abrupt letter released to the public, she thanks him for informing her three times that she is not under investigation by the FBI for any ties to Iran.

An accompanying statement says she made this decision on advisement of a memo authored by the newly confirmed Deputy Attorney General. Director Comey finds out about this decision from a cable news ticker while addressing FBI agents in LA.

The White House appears caught off guard by the actions of President Clinton, briefing reporters among the WH bushes in the early evening hours and suggests they have no immediate plans to announce a replacement. White House aides, the Vice President, and the Assistant Press Secretary claim the next day that the rationale behind this decision was related to how Director Comey handled public statements during the 2016 campaign season and that she took acted under advisement of the memo from the Justice Department.

The next day, Presdient Clinton hosts the Iranian ambassador and foreign minister at the White House where they hold a private meeting in the Oval Office closed to American journalists. Within 24 hours, pictures emerge from the meeting on Iranian State television. President Clinton appears down right giddy.

Several days later, under a public backlash to the decision of firing Director Comey, Presdient Clinton has a sit down interview with Lester Holt where she insists that she has no ties to Iran, that she was very frustrated by the investigations, and that she decided to fire Comey on her own, before receiving the memo from the Justice Department. She notes her frustrations over how the FBI Director handled her email investigation, but implies her decision was linked to frustrations about the growing Iran investigation. She goes on to insult and question Director Comey’s character in her defense.

Over the next several weeks, information is leaked to the press nearly every day. More Clinton associates are reportedly linked to Iran or Iranian associates, including daughter Chelsea who is now working in the White House and receiving intelligence briefings. Evidence mounts that Iran did seek to meddle in our election. A special prosecutor is eventually appointed to investigate the entire Iran controversy, including efforts to influence the election and any possible collusion with the Clinton campaign.

After many weeks of speculation and shocking leaks, Fmr. Director Comey confirmed via congressional testimony that shortly after the inauguration Hillary Clinton asked – in a closed door, one on one meeting – for the FBI Director’s loyalty, saying “I need loyalty. I expect loyalty.”

On a separate occasion, also alone with him, she brought up the Abedin investigation, saying that Abedin hadn’t done anything wrong in speaking with the Iranians, noted that she was such a nice and loyal friend, and told him, “I hope you can see your way clear to letting this go, to letting Abedin go.”

In subsequent phone calls, she requests that he “lifts the cloud” on this whole Iran investigation and strongly and repeatedly presses him to make public statements clearing her name of any wrongdoing in the situation. He chose not to do this during the public hearing before Congress and instead confirmed the existence of ongoing investigations. One week later he was abruptly fired.

—-

No big deal, right? What a witch hunt.

 

First published here.

Learning from the Women of Buckhannon: A Conservative’s Reflection on the Legacy of the Women’s March

huddlegroupPBS NewsHour feature published this week focuses on the small but growing movement of women protesting the policies of the Trump administration in the heart of self-proclaimed Trump country: Buckhannon, West Virginia. I find this article inspiring for two reasons.

First, it is a heartening example for anyone who finds themselves holding a minority position within their community, or to those who fear they are the only one.

Second, it is illustrative of some of the most powerful aspects (in a good sense) of what we saw and heard at the Women’s March. You don’t have to agree with all their policy preferences to value or be touched by their courage, tenacity, and desire – in the case of some – to finally have a voice.

What I feel like so many of my conservative friends missed at that time, while busy feeling insulted by cat ears – yes, cat ears – for hats and widely sharing memes and posts declaring that pro-life women are more beautiful (and often apparently whiter and blonder) than pro-choice women, was this widespread sense, a groaning of sorts, of helplessness in the face of a genuine moral wrong.

It was never really about Hillary Clinton losing (although some turned it into that for sure), rather it was about Donald Trump winning. It was a collective grieving for all that had transpired in the 18 months leading up to that moment and how so much was sick and twisted and reprehensible and yet somehow that didn’t matter in the end.

I realize it got all muddled – I realize it is a message that will likely continue to get muddled – by a buffet of DNC pet policies, some of which I would certainly label as moral wrongs in their own right.

But what I think really drove so many people out that day, what I think compels people like these women to speak up even now, is a sense that something was condoned and empowered in this country which is not right. That somehow this past election said to the world that the bullies and abusers and mockers and hurters and liars of the world were just fine.

In fact, it said they were more than fine, it said that they were admirable. It said that so long as you keep on winning, so long as you are successful, so long as you promise the right people the right things, you too can say and do whatever you want to whomever you want and you will not have to pay any consequences for even the worst behavior.

And so what I saw in January, what I see in these people in WV, is a collection of the bullied, and abused, and mocked, and hurt, and lied to, all coming together to just say “this is wrong, and we won’t stay silent anymore.”

I don’t think you have to join the Resistance, or even approve of it, to hear that message and have some compassion. To know that even amidst the politicization of their response there is something deeply human here, something we could all take some time to listen to and learn from. To understand that some of their points need to be heard, and to cry for the brokenness of this world and the yearning inside us to be whole once more.

Maybe we look for this wholeness and healing in all the wrong places. Maybe no matter who won this last election there would have been an outpouring of collective grief (I certainly think so). But to understand each other we need to try to look past the political talking points and look at the people, look at their stories. We have things to teach each other. We have people to find and get to know. And we have work to do together.

“At first we all felt like we were little creatures crawling out from under rocks, just reaching out to each other,” said Hollen. “Then we found a few, and a few more.”…

…An older woman speaks up next, her voice trembling a little. “I was sitting here earlier thinking, I never really had a voice before.” She begins to cry, and another woman comes over and takes her hand. “I was raised to be seen and not heard. Then I got married right out of high school and it was the same thing. And I was abused for 14 years. [You all] gave me a voice again.” The woman touches her chest. She is still crying. “So sorry.”

“Don’t say sorry,” Hollen says.

“It’s like we were all sleeping,” says Howard-Jack. “Now I think we’re awake.”

This post originally appeared here on my Facebook account 

Proceed With Caution: National Division, President Trump, and Bull Run

bullrun3It is not lost on me this week that I live but a few miles from the site of the first battle of our civil war. No doubt the creek I stare at each day from my kitchen windows was once trod by both the blue and the gray; men who shared the kinship of country and yet also the enmity of war.

We like to think our current world is too refined, too developed, and too safe to see such sights again in this land. The violence that once tore this country apart and cost the lives of at least 1 million Americans is a mere memory and tale of the past.

But I can’t shake the image of those men and women of Washington society who packed up their picknicks one morning and headed out for a country carriage ride to watch what they assumed was just a mostly harmless chapter in the political debates of their age. What were they thinking that morning? What were they seeking?

An entertaining diversion? A laugh? An easy answer to the country’s problems? A sense of satisfying superiority against the other side?

One thing I know they weren’t expecting was the extent of the destruction, division, death, and chaos that followed.

There, on the very dawn of the bloodiest conflict that this nation has ever known, was just a group of refined men and women who thought they could have a little fun witnessing a skirmish of partisans and then go on with their lives unchanged. To them, on that morning, the reality of what that conflict so infamously became was foreign and unthinkable.

I believe we must be very careful in these times. Perhaps open war is still a distant or unlikely reality, but the nature of our divisions is stark and alarming. We must be on guard for the ways that we are increasingly coarsened to the callings of our common life, our common good, and our common virtue.

I see little point in trying to convince each other about our differences right now. What language can we even use with one another when we have our own sets of facts, our own headlines and news outlets, our own moralities, and our own truths?

There is no clear right in these confusing political times. At least not in the choices before us within this temporal kingdom. And if someone tells you they know for sure which side is best beware them most of all.

But what we can do in the midst of our conflict is choose empathy. What we can do is choose to see the inante dignity of all men and women, most especially within each person with whom we disagree. What we can do is choose first to listen and then, when the time is right and the message vital, we can choose to speak truth with love.

We can choose a path of caution. Caution with our protests and caution with our accolades. Caution with the battles we seek to wage and the swords we choose to draw. Caution with our words and our memes and our thoughts and our actions.

Lest one morning we wake up to laugh at twitter or duel on facebook or demonstrate in our streets only to find that our war of words has turned into something all the more darker, something all the more painful, something we can’t just take back, something we will all regret.

Originally published here on Facebook, January 19th, 2017.

Wilderness Voices: The American Church In the Age of Trump

bedouin_in_wadi_rumWe are a generation that yearns to feel significant and successful.  A people who see themselves as destined for greatness. A nation that believes our unique qualities represent some special place in the gospel narrative.

Perhaps not all these notions are wrong in certain forms, but in recent years we often made an idol out of our own greatness on multiple levels: personally, institutionally, and nationally.  Such idolatry has contributed to the dire straights we find ourselves in today.

No, I am not referencing the impending coronation of Donald Trump as president of the United States of America.  Although carrying with it weighty concerns for the future of believers, the church, and the county, this political development is not what mourns my heart most.  Instead, as I reflect on our present times, I grieve the extreme weakness of the public testimony currently offered up by the Christian church in America.

There is much deliberation in political circles about what comes next for the conservative political movement in this country and the future of the Republican Party.  These discussions are important, but not as significant as another question we should all be asking: What is the future of the American Church in post-2016 America?

I have a few ideas to add to the early stages of this discussion, and I hope you will join with me in engaging these thoughts and suggestions.  This series is meant to be the starting place for a conversation, not a presumption of offering final answers.  If we are serious as a church of maintaining a credible witness to the gospel of Jesus Christ in this country, we need to ask these questions and be open to the idea that some of our long held assumptions regarding our public expression of faith must change.

First, we must acknowledge that our immediate future as a church is drifting toward the role of Jeremiahs, Isaiahs, and Ezekiels; not Davids, Daniels, and Esthers.  This shift in thought will not be easy, and I am sure not all will choose to agree.  Yet if we hope to get anywhere in shining the light of Christ in the darkness of our age we must first deal with the reality of the culture we live in and the role we are called to play in it, not a fantasy of the one we wish existed.

Second, I propose three steps we can take as a community to address the problems that have led us to this very dark place as a society.  We must repent, we must restore Biblical teaching and accountability, and – finally – we must dare to reimagine our political Christian witness.

Jeremiahs, Not Daniels

A common teaching I heard growing up in the church, repeated in a wide spectrum of denominations, is the notion that we are a Daniel Generation.  While the interpretations for practical application vary, most contexts where I encountered this notion charged that we have a fundamental responsibility to influence the powerful sectors of society for the cause of Christ.

While this can be wise advice in a general sense, it seems we have abused the notion, especially in how we form our Christian youth.  Many young Christians are advised and even trained to specifically seek out roles of influence so that they may in turn use the power of the world for the good of the gospel.

Perhaps it is still an ok goal for some, although we have clearly downplayed the temptations to abuse or covet this power once it is within our grasp.  However, I’d point out that in the cases of Daniel, Joseph, and Esther, while they were differing models of empowered members from a captive nation in a hostile land, they also were chosen by God and put in their positions of influence through circumstances mostly beyond their control.

Instead of fantasizing about how we can scheme and manipulate our ways to the halls of power, the church of the future must be prepared to stand on the metaphorical street corners of our communities and do crazy counter-cultural things while faithfully declaring the Word of the Lord to an often ambivalent or even hostile world.

I get why this vocation isn’t all that appealing.  I mean, if I had a choice I’d rather be Daniel (lion den and all) sitting in the halls of the king as a radical vegetarian than a seemly crazed robeless and barefoot messenger wandering about the countryside unable to get the attention of my own people.  But I worry that we have so glorified the goal of being a Daniel that we have lost sight of what might actually be required of us in order to preserve the integrity of the message and testimony of the gospel.

For fellow Christians, particularly us Millennial Christians, the type of public sacrifices to this integrity exhibited by many of our leaders in the past year went far beyond what we will wish to imitate or support in the future.  Some might argue that “dirtying our hands” by defending or supporting undesirable candidates or policies is just the cost of working within a sinful culture, but I think that we have a responsibility to respond with integrity, love, and truth at all times no matter the apparent consequences.

The real sacrifices we are called to make are ones that will set us apart, not lead us to become further intwined with the powers and principalities of this world.  Remember that the ends never justify the means, and far too often unseemly means invariably also lead to unseemly ends – irrespective of initial intentions.

There will still be some modern examples following in the pattern of Daniel, Joseph, and Esther in the years ahead, hopefully even some Davids.  But the true cases will come about by the divine appointment of God, not by the willful scheming of man.  So instead of forcing our way to the king’s table, perhaps we need to take a step back and acknowledge that  – for most of us, at least – our calling is to humbly walk out a radically gospel centered life in the midst of a dominant and often hostile pagan culture.

To do so means embracing the pluralistic reality of our society, not in a way that lessens or damages our theological purity, but rather by amending our expectation that most everyone around us will live and think as we do.  It means risking being the genuine weirdo at the lunch table, in the work place, or with the other moms at the playground, who testifies of a wholistic way of life that runs counter to the driving force of culture.

It might mean choosing to surrender certain things we’ve allowed into our daily lives in order to strengthen our witness: our favorite t.v. shows, our favorite music, our favorite pastime, our love for material goods, our acceptance of worldly philosophy, or the platitudes and policy of our favorite political party.  It also might mean making choices that cost us: financially, professionally, and – on occasion – relationally.  We, as orthodox Bible believing Christians, aren’t a majority in America and it is time to stand out and stand apart because of it.

I know a lot of you have already seen, accepted, and done these things.  But I wonder how many churches preach to this reality of separateness rather than accommodation or prepotence.  I look at most church leaders and public figures today and I see a lot of hip and trendy messages with packaging and even fashion designed to sell or to dominate.

We have our Jesus smiles, our Christian music and our Christian bookstores, our Christian decor and our special Christian conferences, but how radically do the bulk of these messages, products, and events diverge from their secular cousins of community building, generic spirituality, and self-fulfillment?

Surveying the most successful within our ranks I often see the hard things overlooked, while the light and feel good messages of self-help, worldly success, and generic life purpose apart from eternity are raised up and promulgated.  While certain sins are addressed head-on, others are ignored or outright condoned.

Reaching out to where people are is all well and good, but denuding the hardness, mystery, and depth of the message of Christ in the process defeats the point.  Sometimes (perhaps most times) the gospel will be rejected, spat on, mocked, and despised but we still ought to lovingly preach that depth of truth anyway.

I think the question we need to ask ourselves is this: if called to modern day versions of camel hair vests and brutally shaved heads like the prophets, or prisons and persecution like the early church, will you still follow Him?

God most certainly uses people and movements who broker power in and of this world for His good.  But lest we not forget, particularly in this advent season, He Himself came down to dwell and minister among us, to live as one of us.  Not as a king or a conquerer, but as the humble son of a carpenter who rejected calls for temporal revolution and political dominion to instead sacrifice his own earthly life for the eternal gain of all.

The Savior born in the line of David never once sat at a king’s table, lived in a palace, dressed in the finest clothes, amassed a great fortune, or wore a golden crown on his human head.  As we walk forward to herald his birth, let us remember and rejoice in both the humility of the stable and the humility of the cross.

Our callings on earth are often not very grand or marked with the power, wealth, and success of this world.  But as our Savior triumphed over the grave and now sits upon His true throne for all eternity, so shall we triumph when we look past the vestiges of this age and this place and instead work – with true humility and love – to reveal His glory in the lowly places, in surprising ways.

Stay tuned for further posts on repentance, restoration of Biblical teaching, and reimagining our Christian political witness in the next several weeks.  

We welcomed our third child last month, so finding time for writing is even more of challenge but I plan to keep it up.  Many thanks to all who have offered words of encouragement and support as I continue to grow in this writing venture.  May the words of my mouth and the meditations of my heart be acceptable in His sight, O Lord, our rock and our redeemer.

 

O Come Emmanuel: After November 8th, 2016

We look around at our world right now and there is so much that breaks hearts, plays on fears, and isolates those who are different than ourselves.

Many this week legitimately question if they are really welcome in this country or their communities. Others rightly fear if they are safe in a world where violent protests follow the outcome of a lawful and legitimate election.

On the right and the left, you are weary of being labeled all kinds of evil just because of the political party you vote for. Many of us are confused, for our understandings of the world and our competing narratives of facts can’t fully account for the polarizing and angry actions or thoughts of our peers, our neighbors, our family members, or our fellow countrymen. 

Some are wondering if anyone is left who will stand up for us and our hurts and wounds. Loss, of all kinds, rises to the surface only to pour out into the streets and onto our screens exposing our inner pain. Others finally feel vindicated, only to discover that power does not shield you from the sting of criticism. Victory, it turns out, may not be so sweet when it is bought at a price.

Most ponder if we could have done something, anything, long before November 8th, to have helped make this country less divisive, less reactionary, less hateful; more understanding, more empathetic, and more kind.

We are a bruised and bruising people, searching for some guidance in the midst of our collective pain.

It’s been a difficult week in this country. Sadly, there may be many more yet to come.

But the real truth is that there is a Healer seeking to bind our wounds; there is a true Savior who can and will redeem us in the midst of all this mess.

Come, let us adore Him. Hallelujah!

 

Of Two Swords and Two Evils: Trump, Clinton, and Chesterton’s Nightmares

bc_ch1_2__15813-1392762861-1280-1280The breeze off the Bosporus calmed my nineteen year old nerves.  I was having tea in a garden at the residences of a historic Ottoman mosque with the Turkish son of an imam and an American pot-smoking sorority member, my female travel companion for the day.  As all three of us talked about life, beliefs, and interests, I came to realize that I had far more in common with this devout and polite young Muslim man than I had with my fellow female American college student.

In one breath she told stories of breaking international drug-smuggling laws while studying in Paris, in the next she declared her intention to become a lawyer to fight for “justice”.  I still have no idea what that word meant to her, especially given her decided relativism on just about every topic of ethics we encountered.  Hers was a sadly vapid and transitory worldview, one that was almost impossible to engage directly for its sheer lack of discernible foundation.

The son of the Imam, on the other hand, believed in universal absolutes and moral law.  He asked questions about matters eternal and how they related to this present world, genuinely interested in hearing my perspective while defending his own.  We engaged on the perceptions about our faiths versus the actual teachings we claimed as truth, and discussed the vapid and rootless dangers found in secularism.  As we spoke, my fellow American was fairly bored, apathetic, and disinterested.

He was a young student who kindly opened his home and life to two foreigners with the solitary goal to exchange thoughts and ideas.  He did so in a way that respected our dignity and sheltered us from the ugly behavior that runs rampant in the tourist quarters of his city.  We did not need to minimize the critical theological differences between our creeds in order to recognize in each other a kinship.  Ours was a kinship forged in an earnest search for truth and righteousness.

You see, that young man sought after truth, knowledge of God, and the root dignity of man, with more passion than most people I have encountered in my life so far – in or out of the American church.  I still pray to this day that he is an Emeth, be it either on this earth or before the thrown of God.

How certain are you about who is on your side?  As we approach a major election in this country I often hear the imagery of teams used to suggest a clear discernible line between who or what is defensible and who or what it not.  Those on the “other side” are evil, while those deemed to be on our own political side – no matter how flawed – are seen as fundamentally good, perhaps just misguided.  The people most like us are surely the ones who are for us.  Those who are the most different are met with suspicion and often fear.

But what if our sense of teams is wrong?  What if we’ve chosen to join a movement that actually undermines everything that we claim to hold most dear?  What if we aren’t looking clearly enough for the dangers of our own teams and our own battles?  Then what are we to do?

For those who feel caught between two evils, for those who wish to speak against lies but find precious few willing to join them, for those wondering how to stand for truth and justice in a depraved and cynical world, this is for you.

In 1910 G.K. Chesterton penned an allegorical tale, The Ball and the Cross, about two Scotsman dueling for truth in the streets of London and throughout the British countryside.  Evan MacIan, a devout Catholic, and James Turnbull, a devout atheist, both take up swords with the intention to fight the other to the death in defense of their core beliefs.  Labeled madmen by their fellow countrymen, the two embark on a fanciful journey of engagement that leads to some surprising conclusions, including the formation of an indelible companionship based on their common defense of eternal truth.

Toward the end of the novel both MacIan and Turnbull are met with dreams that promise to show the fulfillment of what each is fighting for only to reveal two different, yet similarly rooted, evils.  Each are led away in flying boats by men with no names to the frontline of two dystopian visions for the future of London.  In these depictions of evils we find a reflection of our own times, and our own temptations.  To see them, to understand them, and – finally – to forsake them both for the embrace of Christ: this is our calling.

We long to be drafted for a fight.  In the opening sequence of both dreams, Chesterton’s dueling Scotsmen are met with appeals to come and join the real fights their hearts have longed for.  As the mysterious man first tells MacIan, “you have remained here long enough, and your sword is wanted elsewhere.”  There is something in these lines that speaks to those of us who desire to be wanted, needed, and appreciated.

It beckons to those of us who are dissatisfied with the life we are living or who deeply desire to be a part of a greater cause.  The men with no names in both dreams know of this temptation and desire, for they know the hearts of their would-be warriors.  The call to come fight in their battles is how they lure each truth-fighter into their midst.

Sometimes I think we are drawn to politics because of all it seems to promise.  The power, yes, but also a sense of importance or mission that maybe we don’t feel in our day to day work.  Think of the common political rhetoric we hear and how elevated the language has become, how grandiose the goals are for a better tomorrow.

Politicians promise to fix our problems, ease our fears, and provide hope and purpose for our lives.  When a political candidate asks for your support, for you to join their team and fight for their visions of a certain kind of country, it can be compelling in ways that we are rarely moved.  We all want our lives to mean something greater than ourselves.

And for many, the temptation is strong to believe that how we vote, who we support, or what policies we advance, presents just such a battle to wage that will reward us with the dignity and honor our hearts desire.  We may not have swords of steel, but many of us are called upon by the political causes of our day to rise up with the swords of our mouths, our intellect, our social influence, our pens, and our votes.

When we choose to become a surrogate for a certain politician, when we decide that we will support them for one reason or another, we can often find ourselves enlisted in a battle where our sword is wanted and our life appears to have new purpose and fulfillment.  Perhaps at first we are reluctant or disillusioned, but once suited in the armor of these wars our instinct and heart’s desire for mission leads us to fight on their behalf.

The truth is that it feels good to have a tangible cause to claim as our own.  To have a visible enemy and a measurable path for declaring victory.  We desire to be on the winning side and to feel all that comes with hard fought success.  We long to be drafted for a fight.

And yet…

Without God, security forged in the name of law and order leads only to tyranny.  Donald Trump has declared himself the law and order candidate, and his claim is that this mission will keep us safe and secure as a nation.  But he is not the first to use these terms or proffer these ideas.

In MacIan’s dream, the man driving the flying ship told Evan, “I must not say who I am until the end of the world; but I may say what I am.  I am the law.”  This figure, who claims to represent the law, notably as we shall discover, a law without God, reveals what a world under his dominion would be like.

Claiming that “The king has returned”, he takes MacIan up through the stars.  Foreshadowing the state of the nation, the man who is the law notes of the heavens:

“There is an answer to all the folly talked about equality.  Some stars are big and some are small; some stand still and some cycle round them as they stand.  They can be orderly, but they cannot be equal.

“They are all very beautiful,” said Evan, as if in doubt.

“They are all beautiful,” answered the other, “because each is in his place and owns his superior.  And now England will be as beautiful as the heavens, because our kings have come back to us.”

In this world there is no equality, merely order. Perhaps, at first blush, this doesn’t sound so bad.  Isn’t it supposed to be that way, after all?  The man who is the law claims that the world he is creating with the return of the king is one that reclaims “…all that was ever lost by insolence and overwhelmed in rebellion.”  It is a world with pageantry, cathedrals of armed guards, and stoic greatness.

When the sole object is the law, the borders of one nation can be managed with ease.  As they draw closer to London in their journey, MacIan asks if the war is still raging.  The response of his would be captain is telling and somber:

“It rages like the pit itself beyond the sea wither I am taking you,” answered the other.  “But in England the king enjoys his own again.  The people are once more taught and ruled as is best; they are happy knights, happy squires, happy servants, happy serfs, if you will; but free at last of that load of vexation and lonely vanity which was called being a citizen.”

“Is England, indeed, so secure?” asked Evan.

England won her security in this dream, but at what cost?  At the cost of an enduring chaos and war for the rest of the world, a world completely left behind when the goal of establishing the might of the ancient kings and kingdom was made paramount.  At the cost of their own dignity as citizens.  At the cost of a hard earned freedom, all relinquished in order to become secure from the battles of the outside and the fears from within.

The picture offered of this secure world is one of ordered domestic tranquility with a unsettling undertone:

“As they were sailing down Ludgate Hill, Evan saw that the state of the streets fully answered his companion’s claim about the reintroduction of order.  All the old black-coated bustle with its cockney vivacity and vulgarity had disappeared.  Groups of laborers, quietly but picturesquely clad, were passing up and down in sufficiently large numbers; but it required but a few mounted men to keep the streets in order.  The mounted men were not common policemen, but knights with spur and plume whose smooth and splendid armor glittered like diamond rather than steel.

Only in one place – at the corner of Bouverie Street- did there appear to be a moment’s confusion, and that was due to hurry and rather than resistance.  But one old grumbling man did not get out of the way quick enough, and the man on horseback struck him, not severely, across the shoulders with the flat of his sword.

“The soldier had no business to do that,” said MacIan sharply.  “The old man was moving as quick as he could.”

“We attach great importance to discipline in the streets,” said the man in white, with a slight smile.

“Discipline is not so important as justice,” said MacIan.

At first, you might think, ‘how splendid!’  The criminals, the beggars, the unruly crowds all cleared away for the sake of order, safety, prosperity, and efficiency.  And yet there is a darkness that lingers.  A darkness that silently queries as to the fate of the drunkards, the poor, and the foreigners.  A darkness that wonders at the nature of the people’s hearts and souls working under this state of discipline.  As the man who is the law enlightens:

“The people must be taught to obey; they must learn their own ignorance.  And I am not sure,” he continued, turning his back on Evan and looking out of the prow of the ship into the darkness, “I am not sure that I agree with your little maxim about justice.  Discipline for the whole society is surely more important than justice to an individual.”

Where respect for the individual dignity of all men is traded for law and order, where discipline is bought with the currency of fear, there can be no true justice.  The man in white, who is the law, continues:

“In our armies up in heaven we learn to put a wholesome fear into subordinates.”…

“Besides,” continued he, in the prow, “you must allow for a certain high spirited haughtiness in the superior type…Just as the sight of sin offends God,” said the unknown, “so does the sight of ugliness offend Apollo.  The beautiful and the princely must, of necessity, be impatient with the squalid…”

And here is revealed another truth of the law without God.  The value of people is determined not by their character or innate dignity, but by their physical and material worth.  The spiritual value of each life ceases to matter, at least not with dignity or reference to a greater dominion than the one created on earth.

Thus we see the creation of two laws and two standards, one for the leaders and the beautiful elite and one for the common people.  What began as resurgence for the supposed good of the people to reestablish the greatness of their nation ends in a horrific vision of inequality and elitism enabled by a rule of fear.

Faced with claims and actions of this nature, the defender of truth, a lover of Christ, will speak out.

“Why you great fool!” cried MacIan, rising to the top of his tremendous stature, “did you think I would have doubted only for that rap of a sword?  I know that noble orders have bad knights, that good knights have bad tempers, that the Church has rough priests and coarse cardinals; I have known it ever since I was born.  You fool! You had only to say, ‘Yes it is rather a shame,’ and I would have forgotten the affair.  But I saw on your mouth the twitch of your infernal sophistry; I knew that something was wrong with you and your cathedrals.  Something is wrong, everything is wrong.  You are not an angel.  This is not a church.  It is not the rightful king who has come home.”

The law, instituted by a return of an earthly king and peddled by the as yet unknown man, is false.  The horror of this dystopian world represents more than the failings of a single person or leader.  It represents the wholesale surrender of justice, freedom, and individual dignity, all in the name of security and a restoration of mythical greatness. It represents the death of the soul, a callousness that demeans and destroys the inner life and worth of men for the sake of external order.  Without God, security forged in the name of law and order leads only to tyranny.

Without God, revolution for the sake of humanity leads only to death.  Hillary Clinton has declared that we are stronger together.  But what if someone is unable or unwilling to move in the direction of what is deemed fair or best for all?  What if some lives are an inconvenience to the whole?

James Turnbull, like his dueling partner, was met by a man with no name who came with news that Turnbull had been waiting his whole life to hear.  After declaring, “I want you”, the unknown man wearing a red scarf clarified:

“I want exactly what you want,” said the newcomer with a new gravity. “I want the Revolution.”

Turnbull found himself conflicted, for he started to worry about the fate of his new friend.  Yet he was ultimately persuaded to leave him behind for it would interfere with the mission “to destroy the Pope and all the kings.”  In contrast to the world of surreal order revealed to MacIan, this was a world of chaos.  As the unknown man explained:

“The heavens are full of revolution – the real sort of revolution.  All the high things sinking low and all the big things looking small.  All the people who think they are aspiring find they are falling head foremost.  And all the people who think they are condescending find they are climbing up a precipice.  That is the intoxication of space.  That is the only joy of eternity – doubt.”

In this world of revolution, God is the ultimate enemy to be overthrown.  As the unknown man says, “I mean nothing in God’s name.”  Traveling over the city of London, he explains to Turnbull just what is taking place below:

“We arrive at a happy moment,” said the man steering the ship.  “The insurgents are bombarding the city, and a cannonball has just hit the cross.  Many of the insurgents are simple people, and they naturally regard it as a happy omen.”

With the cross and all it stands for demolished, the glory of mankind is meant to rise.   Such rising is not without great cost, however.  The unknown man clarifies that he has brought Turnbull to London “to take part in the last war of the world.”

“The last war!” repeated Turnbull, even in his dazed state a little touchy about such a dogma; “how do you know it will be the last?”

The man laid himself back in his reposeful attitude, and said:

“It is the last war, because if it does not cure the world forever, it will destroy it.”

Seeking to cure all the ills of the world, it seems, is a dangerous task.  A task destined to either great success or complete failure.  Wars of totality, wars of annihilation, wars aimed to supplant the dominion of God that claim His work of completion and perfection as their own, can only end in this way.

James, looking to understand the uprising at hand and the nature of the fight, seeks clarification from his guide:

Turnbull wrinkled his forehead.  “Are all the poor people with the Revolution?” he asked.

The other shrugged his shoulders.  “All the instructed and class-conscience part of them without exception,” he replied.  “There were certainly a few districts; in fact we are passing over them just now – ”

Turnbull looked down and saw that the polished car was literally lit up from underneath by the far-flung fires from below.  Underneath whole squares of solid districts were in flames, like prairies or forests on fire.

“Dr. Hertz has convinced everybody,” said Turnbull’s cicerone in a smooth voice, “that nothing can be done with the real slums.  His celebrated maxim has been quite adopted.  I mean the three celebrated sentences: “No man should be unemployed.  Employ the employables.  Destroy the unemployables.”

The reign of Science and “equality” had come.  Without God, without an anchor or a compass other than the collective good of mankind, hell on earth had arrived.  If the world is to be perfect, if progress is to be final, some lives must be sacrificed for the good of the whole.

There was silence, and then Turnbull said in a rather strained voice: “And do I understand that this good work is going on under here?”

“Going on splendidly,” replied his companion in the heartiest voice.  “You see, these people were much too tired and weak even to join the social war.  They were a definite hindrance to it.”

“And so you are simply burning them out?”

“It does seem absurdly simple,” said the man, with a beaming smile, “when one thinks of all the worry and talk about helping a hopeless slave population, when the future obviously was only crying to be rid of them.  There are happy babes unborn ready to burst the doors when these drivelers are swept away.”

Perhaps the revolution began with the intent to help these very people, but as they started progressing toward a godless, rootless, social justice an irreverence for the weakest life set in.  Turnbull began to object:

“These people have rights.”

“Rights!” repeated the unknown in a tone quite indescribable.  Then he added with a more open sneer: “Perhaps they also have souls.”

“They have lives!” said Turnbull, sternly; “that is quite enough for me.  I understood you to say that you thought life sacred.”

“Yes, indeed!” cried his mentor with a sort of idealistic animation.  “Yes, indeed! Life is sacred – but lives are not sacred.  We are improving life by removing lives.  Can you, as a freethinker, find any fault in that?”

What a poignant and direct condemnation of the philosophy behind the pro-abortion movement.  Then again, what poignant and direct condemnation of any philosophy that degrades, devalues, or destroys the life of any individual for the sake of the whole.

Think of the fear of disability in the young and the subsequent advocacy to end life before it has begun on the sheer basis that their life might be hard, diseased, or imperfect.  Think of the one-child policy and all the human pain that has caused. Think of those who advocate that we must limit human life for the sake of the planet.  Think of the glorification of euthanasia as a way to ease the pain of an individual and the collective burden such pain presents the wider community.  Where individuals are not loved unto life, death shall reign.

The dialogue continues, after Turnbull replies that he can, indeed, find fault with that argument:

“Yet you applaud tyrannicide,” said the stranger with rationalistic gaiety.  “How inconsistent!  It really comes to this: You approve of taking away life from those to whom it is a triumph and a pleasure.  But you will not take away life from those to whom it is a burden or a toil.”

Turnbull rose to his feet in the car with considerable deliberation, but his face seemed oddly pale.  The other went on with enthusiasm.

“Life, yes, Life indeed is sacred!” he cried; “but new lives for old! Good lives for bad! On that very place where now there sprawls one drunken wastrel of a pavement artist more or less wishing he were dead – on that very spot there shall in the future be living pictures; there shall be golden girls and boys leaping in the sun.”

Such is the vision of a social revolution without God.  It starts with seeking justice for the oppressed.  Kill the kings!  Kill the bankers! Kill the powerful! Kill the rich!  But then the mission quickly becomes about maximizing the best life for the most number of people.  Kill the weak.  Kill the unwanted.  Kill the inconvenient.  Kill the unproductive.  Kill the uncooperative.

Their sacrifice is needed for the good of the whole, is it not?  Surely equality for most is worth the destruction of a few.  Such is the logic of the godless revolution. Such was the horror of the godless authoritarian regimes of the 20th Century.  It happened in our past, in some corners of the world it is happening in the present, and it can most certainly happen again in our future.

Where only certain lives are valued, no one can be truly loved or loving.  To honor all life means to honor the innate dignity of each human being as creations with a Creator.  Without God, revolution for the sake of humanity leads only to death.

The goodness of God always respects and loves the dignity, sanctity, and equality of every individual life.  The dystopian visions offered by Chesterton over 100 years ago remain remarkably relevant, for these are the extremes of a world without truth and without God.  I have a feeling that to some of you one outcome likely seems worse than the other, but such an assessment would fundamentally miss the point.  Both are evil.

Both revoke the sovereignty of God for futures where men seek to take His authority as their own.  One offers the vision of a pretender, a human savior who alone can fix all that ills us.  The other offers the vision of a revolt, the overthrow of God and His standards of life for the supposed good of the whole. Both turn the State and its rulers into gods, creating an idolatrous worship of man and government in the place of Christ.

Our current candidates for president and the ideals they represent may fall along different places on this spectrum of danger and death.  It is up for interpretation just how close to each nightmarish future the current candidates comes in their policy prescriptions and personas as supposed balms to our fears and unmet desires.

You may see a little of each dream in both candidates, or perhaps you see this election in stricter ideological terms.  Regardless, neither candidate espouses a vision of life and authority that aligns with the love and truth of God.  The goodness of God always respects and loves the dignity, sanctity, and equality of every individual life.

All evil leads to the same place.  The notion of the “lesser” evil is typically a false concept.  Either your options represent true evil, and therefore are all equally bad, or they really aren’t evil to begin with.

I fear we have deluded ourselves into buying into a great lie of civil religion, a lie often claimed to have God on its side.  This lie tell us that our desired policy preferences are all moral goods, and therefore those of the other side are inherently evil or immoral.

What if both sides to a policy solution are legitimate moral goods, for their ends are morally desirable?  What if they are just different ideas on how to walk out similar principles?  Or what if they are just preferences?  What if both sides to a policy solution are merely secular in nature, for the stated goal carries little to no moral significance?

I genuinely believe in the economic efficacy and importance of free trade, but are those who are against it fundamentally evil?  Some people believe the government has an obligation to take care of those struggling at the margins of society while others see this as the work of private organizations.  Perhaps we disagree about how best to achieve the goal, but do we not both agree that those who are in pain or poverty need to be helped?  Why create enemies where there are none?

We live, for now, in a democratic republic.  We compromise and work with people who have different ideas of how to achieve similar ends.  Just because we disagree about how to solve problems does not mean we must also disagree that there are specific problems most Americans want to address.  Compromising on issues like healthcare, immigration policy, taxes, or criminal justice reform does not automatically make you an enemy of truth or a hypocrite in representing your fundamental values.

In contrast, because it seems every deviance from our chosen party affiliation is labeled an apostasy to not just the political good but also the moral good, we have obscured the true evils that dwell among us and ask for our allegiance.  Sure, we can usually identify the dangers present in our political opposition.  But when we, say, list praise for abortion alongside the embrace of food stamps, a dovish foreign policy, or a particular tax rate, all as evil things worthy of equal condemnation, we weaken our voice and testimony on the issues that truly matter.

Moreover, when we obsess over the particular evils of the “other side”, we risk blinding ourselves to the evil that dwells within our own causes and among our fellow compatriots.

An exclusive and authoritarian nationalism, the flagrant abuse of power, an unashamed display of greed and success at all costs, a desire to torture or even kill innocents for our own security, a callousness to the suffering or failure of others, a disregard for personal virtue in political leadership, the superiority of one culture, ethnicity, or person over another, all these evils must be guarded against no matter the bearer.

Likewise, a socialist mindset that values the collective “good” above the individual, that labels some life as less important than others because of the pain, inconvenience, or financial drain they represent, a belief that truth is relative and therefore lies are permissible, a denial of a common morality or the existence of a creator, these are all evils that cannot be endorsed or advanced.

In the contrast offered by Chesterton’s dreams there are no lesser evils.  Both dreams are equally unrighteous and worthy of condemnation.  Both dreams were designed to warn each truth fighter of the dangers in their own thoughts and to bring them closer to the true king and the true battle, a battle won through surrender of self.  Both dreams served to bring each man closer together, to remind them of the goodness they shared, and to instruct them about the evil they needed to reject.

Lack of equality, justice, and freedom for individuals as found in the fight for “the law” is not rendered right or good because crime and vulgarity is banished from the streets (although perhaps not in the rulers themselves) and authority and order reigns supreme.

Lack of protection for the sanctity of all life – no matter how inconvenient, ugly, or painful – as found in the fight for the “revolution” is not made acceptable just because institutional abuses of power are finally upended or avenged.

Don’t fool yourself.  All evil leads to the same place.

In the end, we always have a choice.  Contrary to the popular lies spreading throughout our contemporary discourse, when brought face to face with representatives of evil we have a choice to say no. We have a choice to do the unexpected.  We have a choice to take the narrow path and the hard way.

Chesterton understood this point well.  When told that he had no choice but to see the returned king, presumably in submission, Evan MacIan refused:

“Do you desire death?”

“No,” said Evan, quite composedly, “I desire a miracle.”

“From whom do you ask it? To whom do you appeal?” said his companion sternly.  “You have betrayed the king, renounced the cross on the cathedral, and insulted an archangel.”

“I appeal to God,” said Evan, and sprang up and stood upon the edge of the swaying ship.

The being in the prow turned slowly round; he looked at Evan with eyes which were like two suns, and put his hand to his mouth just too late to hide an awful smile.

“And how do you know,” he said, “how do you know that I am not God?”

MacIan screamed, “Ah!” he cried.  “Now I know who you really are.  You are not God  You are not one of God’s angels.  But you were once.” The being’s hand dropped from his mouth and Evan dropped out of the car.

Likewise, Turnbull has a similar moment of revelation where he, too, decides to jump out of the flying ship taking him to the frontline of a battle that was not his to fight.  Both came face to face with the epitome of evil and rebellion.  Both visions, both worlds – of law and of revolution – came from the same fallen angel.  Once the source of their evils was revealed, the two truth duelers knew how to respond.

But what are we to do?  This is the resonating question that remains unresolved by much of our national discourse at present.  Drawn from Chesterton, I have a few tentative suggestions of how best to proceed:

Step 1: Find your Turnbull 

Chances are that you are not alone in the passions now cultivated in your heart as you confront these societal questions of goodness, evil, dignity, and truth.  Perhaps your life is full of Turnbulls, of fellow travelers seeking after truth with the same earnest questioning and resistance to popular movements and ideas that hold others captive.  Or perhaps you need to go out and find at least one other person with whom you can engage.

One of the Turnbulls in my past was the imam’s son.  Be they fellow Christians, or those seeking from starting places outside of divine revelation, find your friends and dialogue with one another.  Band together.  Sharpen each other.  Help each other.  Bless, minister, and engage.  In a world gone mad, these friends of truth are a great gift from above.

Step 2:   Don’t be deceived

It would have been so easy for MacIan and Turnbull to say yes to the fights they were recruited to join.  These were, after all, earthly manifestations of the battles their hearts had dreamed of and yearned for.  These were great narratives wrought in an attempt to address all they felt was wrong with the world.  How desperately our hearts want to be given a mission and told that we have an important role to play.

It is empowering to believe that we can be a part of something great, be it the ordering of the world in the name of security or the last battle of the world in the name of the common good.  But we err when we let our desire to fight overlook the root evil that lies behind those who would beckon our swords.

Ask yourself, who is calling you and for what purpose?  Keep your eyes open in this treacherous world and resist the cunning spirit who would use your best intentions to enlist your services for a cause that is neither just, nor holy, nor righteous, nor true.

Be not deceived; God is not mocked: for whatsoever a man soweth, that shall he also reap. For he that soweth to his flesh shall of the flesh reap corruption; but he that soweth to the Spirit shall of the Spirit reap life everlasting. And let us not be weary in well doing: for in due season we shall reap, if we faint not.  –  Galatians 6:7-9

Step 3: Jump out of your ship

We live in a world that often assigns us to certain kinds of boats.  Our race, our citizenship, our families, our denomination, our favored sports team, our political affiliation.  We can choose different labels at times, but no matter where we find ourselves it is easy to go along with a human narrative or cause because it is the rallying call of the ships that we sail within.  Sometimes these boats are harmless, for they provide our sense of community or identity.  But sometimes they seek to take us to places that are contrary to the calling of the Lord.

When we find that our boats of birth or choice seek to sail upon winds counter to the glory of God, to take us to the frontline of battles we are not called to fight, then we must be like MacIan and Turnbull.  We must call out to God for help, pray for a miracle, and jump out of the supposed safety of these berths into the protective arms of our Savior.

In a world that treasures labels and tribes of all kinds, this can be a frightening prospect.  Perhaps you have always been a Republican or a Democrat and to not vote as such (or for at least one of the two) seems like a direct challenge to your identity or your very calling in this world.  How desperately we want to believe that our causes and boats are right and true!  But this is where we must recall that our true identity is found in Christ, not in any label or power or battle the world can offer.  Dare to jump, dare to leave all labels and vessels behind but one: Christ follower.

It’s time to reevaluate what the work of God in this world is meant to look like.  It’s time to question our preconceived notions of what God is asking of us as a people.  I cannot tell you what that future will look like, but I can promise that as we forsake the boats of this earth, we will be met with the power of God, not man, that shall rise us up on wings like eagles to carry us and – we pray – our Turnbulls, to our true eternal home.

Step 4: Put down your sword and kneel

In the final pages of Chesterton’s saga, in the midst of a great battle against those who wish to silence the cause of truth, MacIan, Turnbull, and the friends they made during their crusade encounter another man without a name – the one who was labeled by the authorities as both the most dangerous and the most insane.  Yet this man turned out to be the true King, the true answer to all the world’s ills.

Both MacIan and Turnbull find their swords cast aside as they and their companions fall to their knees before his Holy presence.  Having resisted the temptations of evil battles and evil leaders, they found the true battle and the true leader their hearts longed for.

It is through surrender to Christ, through death in Him, that we will conquer the ills of the world.  It is in rejecting calls to join in these worldly fights as the false gods they really are that we will be fulfilled and our heart’s desire shall be met.

Come before the Lord in prayer, worship, and holiness.  Stay true to Him regardless of the cost, regardless of what others call you, regardless of the temporal consequences some are quick to proffer in admonishment.  Fear not the ways of man.  Rather, take heart in the ways of God.

No eternal fate of a community or country or soul is won or lost in a single worldly election.  No fate of a country or a court, no earthly fight, is worth selling your soul or compromising your values and your Spirit-breathed conscience.

God is in control and He is sovereign.  He always has been and He always will be.  We know the end of the story.  Let’s choose to serve the One who has already overcome and work for the advancement of His kingdom, which is not of this world.

O God of earth and altar, Bow down and hear our cry, Our earthly rulers falter, Our people drift and die; The walls of gold entomb us, The swords of scorn divide, Take not thy thunder from us, But take away our pride.

From all that terror teaches, From lies of tongue and pen, From all the easy speeches, That comfort cruel men, From sale and profanation, Of honour and the sword, From sleep and from damnation, Deliver us, good Lord.

Tie in a living tether The prince and priest and thrall, Bind all our lives together, Smite us and save us all; In ire and exultation, Aflame with faith, and free, Lift up a living nation, A single sword to thee.

~ A Hymn: O God of Earth and Altar, 

We must refuse to call something “good” that is not in any way representative of God’s goodness.  We must reject any temptation to believe that because we, or our favorite church leader for that matter, is a part of one of these fights that certainly renders the battle worthwhile.

Unless God is present, and He is not present in the evils set before us, no amount of our perceived personal light or the supposed goodness in one facet of a candidate’s platforms, will be enough to overcome their own wretched ends.  Our swords, once commissioned for a battle of darkness, will be used only for the advancement of the evil we choose to represent.

We can remain mindful that each person of faith, each person actively seeking truth, may walk out the four prescriptions above in slightly different ways when it comes to the upcoming election.  Not voting.  Supporting third parties or write-in candidates, of many different types and varieties.  Voting for a leading candidate with a humble and silent grief.  But the most important feature for us to embrace is the refusal to take up requests to fight on behalf of the fallen angels of law or revolution, on behalf of these angels of death.

In the context of our times and our communities, those who engage one another for the sake of truth, those who choose not to be deceived by the popular movements of our times, those who will jump out of the safe categories and labels offered by our culture to instead lay down their swords at the feet of Christ, could well be deemed lunatics.  We may be cursed, or mocked, or criticized.  But such is the calling of Christ.

We cannot afford to loose our witness to this madness.  And yes, the truly mad are those committed to the lies proffered by the philosophies of tyranny and death, found on both the political left and right.  We must disregard attempts to make those who resist or stand apart look like the ones who just don’t understand or who aren’t doing their share to save the country or save the world.

Take courage friends! Our identity is not found in our political allegiance, nor is it found in the fate or morality of our country.  We have a Creator in Whose image we are made.  We have a Savior in Whom we can find refuge.  Look to Him.  Look for Him.  And leap into His arms in times of trouble, believing in the miracle of His salvation and the power of His dominion.

The good news is that God has already conquered and Christ has already won.  His Bride will rise resplendent and His Body shall one day be made whole.  We can follow Him into the fire knowing that He will protect us from the flames.  In the end we always have a choice.

 

* Image credit to Ben Hatke