Monday, May 11, 2015

Gettin' Crunked On Conservative Christians

"Professor Crunk", Brittney Cooper of Rutgers University, successfully made a Holy Week splash by flaming conservative Christians who don't share her particular views on race, feminism, homosexuality, and religious freedom.

"If your politics are rooted in the contemporary anti-Black, misogynist, homophobic conservatism, then we are not serving the same God. Period." 

"I often ask myself whether I really do worship the same God of white religious conservatives."

"This God isn’t the God that I serve. There is nothing holy, loving, righteous, inclusive, liberatory or theologically sound about him. He might be “biblical” but he’s also an asshole." 

Fun!

I'm not overly interested in the main thrust of the article. The piece is basically a rant designed to be click-bait and it worked. However, one comment stood out as particularly odd to me:
To be clear, because I’m an academic, I get static often from folks who wonder how I could dare ally myself in name and religious affiliation with the kind of morally misguided, politically violent people who think it reasonable to force women to have babies they do not want and who think their opinions about whom and how others should marry matters even a little bit.
So for Professor Crunk, imagined political violence trumps the actual physical violence of burning and dismembering unwanted babies. I mean, they're babies these women don't want. These ladies shouldn't have to experience the political violence of right-wing misogynists peacefully advocating for the end of brutally violent practices such as late-term abortions.

Because she's an "academic," Professor Crunk has to explain to the intelligentsia why she would associate with such riff-raff. Thankfully she has a helpful explanation: Christians who don't support abortion on demand aren't Christians at all. They serve a different god.

I appreciate Prof. Crunk's openness and transparency. As Dennis Prager often says, "I prefer clarity over agreement." This subject has actually been a point of discussion and debate for decades. As far back as 1921 J. Gresham Machen stated in an address later published as Christianity & Liberalism: "The chief modern rival of Christianity is 'liberalism.' An examination of the teachings of liberalism will show that at every point the liberal movement is in opposition to the Christian message."

Gresham would probably agree with Prof. Crunk's conclusion that they serve different gods. Gresham wrote, "Christianity differs from liberalism, then, in the first place, in its conception of God. But it also differs in its conception of man. Modern liberalism has lost all sense of the gulf that separates the creature from the Creator; its doctrine of man follows naturally from its doctrine of God." Crunk states this perspective of modern liberalism plainly when she writes, "We refuse to pretend as though the main story of Jesus’ resurrection was that he ‘died for our sins.’" She goes to state, "We need to reclaim the narrative of Jesus’ life and death from the evangelical right." Because she is an academic, I'm certain that Prof. Crunk's failure to mention "resurrection" along with "life and death" was no oversight. Jesus minus atonement for sins and a bodily resurrection, then, would certainly qualify as a Jesus very different from the Jesus of Scripture.

I agree with Ms. Cooper when she states, "We need to be better in discussing the ways Jesus represented a threat to his empire, that his teachings disrupt power structures." Conservative Christians have begun to do a better job of addressing these aspects of Jesus's ministry in recent years thanks to the work of scholars such as Tom Wright and Scot McKnight.

Cooper might possibly have found a foothold of common ground with conservative Christians had she invited conservatives to explore these areas of empire and power structures in relation to "people of color, queer people and poor women." Instead, she settled for making it clear to her fellow "academics" that she's not one of those bigoted, misogynist, white supremacist Christians.

Professor Crunk may be right: "This white, blond-haired, blue-eyed, gun-toting, Bible-quoting Jesus of the religious right is a god of their own making." But if her alternative Jesus is merely, "a man who came, radically served his community, challenged the unjust show of state power, embraced children, working-class men and promiscuous women and sexual minorities (eunuchs)," then Brittney Cooper also has a "made-up God." I'll put it as Cooper did: "This God isn’t the God that I serve."

Jeff Wright, Jr. is the founder of Evangelicals for Liberty. He is a Chaplain in a "city of lost souls" and holds a Master of Theology (ThM) from Dallas Theological Seminary. His other areas of interest include the kingdom of God, American evangelicalism, the ministry of the local church, obstacle course racing, and all things Star Wars. You can also find him @jeffwrightjr.  

Sunday, May 10, 2015

Politics As Spiritual Formation

Political engagement shapes us. It forms us. Politics affect, not just our thoughts, but the inclinations of our heart. Political engagement is a type of spiritual formation.

I mean "politics" in the common sense as when someone says, "I hate politics." "I enjoy watching my political shows on Sunday mornings." "My grandfather and I always talk politics when we get together." Politics, generally speaking, is that which deals with government, public policy, and things that affect the community as a whole.

Since most of us are not elected officials, politics is a spectator sport. It's something we hear about in the news, listen to talk-show hosts discuss, or pay attention to when it's time to vote for a president every four years. Political engagement is typically a passive affair. We pay attention to the more important issues of the day, form some sort of opinion on the matter, and hope that our side prevails.

Politics is merely an intellectualized task for the vast majority of us. We might take some sort of action now and then such as driving somewhere to vote, placing a yard sign out front or maybe even attending a political rally. For the most part, however, politics is something confined to the domain of ideas. Or at least we think it is.

In his book, Desiring the Kingdom, James K.A. Smith explores how a society's formative practices ("cultural liturgies") influence us at a fundamental level:
Liturgies - whether "sacred" or "secular" - shape and constitute our identities by forming our most fundamental desires and our most basic attunement to the world. In short, liturgies make us certain kinds of people, and what defines us is what we love
What about the formative practice of "following politics?" Although we tend to consider politics to be mostly something we think about, in reality, how we engage with politics affects us at a deeper level.

Without breaking down some of Smith's more loaded phrases (I highly recommend the book!), I do want to share one helpful section I will use as a jumping off point to discuss the spiritual formation of political engagement.

We will not adequately grasp what's at stake in given cultural institutions if we just look at what appears in the present or on the surface; we need to "read" these institutions and practices in order to discern the telos [end, goal] at which they're aimed. It is at this point of teloi that we'll discern the antithesis between a Christian vision of the kingdom and the visions of human flourishing that are implicit in so many current configurations of cultural institutions. Thus our cultural criticism should not be asking what ideas or beliefs are being bandied about in "culture"; rather, we should be discerning to what ends all sorts of cultural institutions are seeking to direct our love.

A major area of focus in Desiring the Kingdom is Christian education. "What if education was primarily concerned with shaping our hopes and passions - our visions of 'the good life' - and not merely about the dissemination of data and information as inputs to our thinking?...If education is primarily formation - and more specifically, the formation of our desires - then that means education is happening all over the place (for good and ill)"...The goal is to get us to appreciate what's at stake in both [Christian education and Christian worship] - nothing less than the formation of radical disciples who desire the kingdom of God."

The "world of politics" serves as a secular cultural liturgy, i.e., it shapes our identity; it influences the formation of our fundamental desires and attunement to the world. There is a fundamental difference between the secular visions of human flourishing (the "good life") expressed through politics and the Christian vision of human flourishing. How we engage with politics is making us into a certain kind of person. It shapes our affections. Are we passively engaging in politics on the world's terms, failing to look and discern below the surface?

What if "politics" functions as a certain type of education? What if listening to talk radio, watching cable news shows, and reading web articles is "not merely about the dissemination of data and information as inputs to our thinking?" What if political education is not just informing us but forming us?

Let’s apply this idea of politics as formation to a specific area by looking at how politics influences the formation of our identity.

Political Engagement and “Identity”
Who are we? The political world operates in the context of "us" and "them." We can't let them get a nuke. We need to win so we can appoint the next round of Supreme Court justices. We pulled out of Iraq and now they're messing everything up. We need to close the gap between the "haves" and the "have-nots." Who is this "we"?

We Americans can't let those Iranians get a nuke. We Republicans/Democrats need to win the next election. We Americans ("our" military) pulled out of Iraq. We Americans ("our" politicians) need to find a more effective means of redistributing wealth in our society.

When we’re talking politics and say “we,” it means we Americans versus another nation, we Republicans versus those Democrats, we conservatives versus those liberals, and so on. Is this perception of our identity acceptable for Christians?

When Christians merely look at what appears on the surface of political discourse, we allow ourselves to be shaped by secular visions of the common good. These secular visions contain ready-made definitions of "us" and "them" and these definitions are antithetical to the vision of the kingdom of God.

How often have you said, “We need to ______,” during a political discussion or while reading a news article? It happens all the time. We love to share our two cents on what it will take to make things right. But when you say “we,” how often have you meant “Christians,” “the Church,” “my church,” or “the kingdom of God?” My guess is, not very often.

Our identity as Christians is found in Christ but unreflective and undisciplined engagement with politics shapes us to think of “us” and “them” according to secular political visions of humanity. “We” are citizens of the kingdom of God and our primary allegiance is to Christ our King. Conceiving of our identity in primarily nationalistic and partisan terms is a result of allowing our affections to be formed by secular political visions.

“We” Go to War, “We” Redistribute Wealth 
Here are two examples of how American Christians miss this concept in the context of our political engagement. After the terrorist attacks of 9-11, “we” needed to respond. One of the ways America responded was by invading Iraq. By and large, Christians failed to conceive of “we” as our brothers in sisters in Christ spread throughout the world. Therefore, millions of American Christians were passionately rooting for the American military to be victorious in Iraq. By equating “we” with “America,” Christians failed to consider the plight of fellow brothers and sisters in Christ who were on the receiving end of “our” bullets and bombs. Citizens of the kingdom of Christ in America were praying to God for the military defeat of citizens of the kingdom of Christ in Iraq.

Another example of misplaced identity in politics can be found in efforts to redistribute wealth. “We” need to close the gap between the rich and the poor. “We” need to create more effective ways to help the poor. “We” need better ways to take from those who “have” and give it to those who “have not.” Millions of American Christians think of “we” in terms of the federal government when it comes to helping the poor rather than “me,” “my church,” “the churches in our city,” “the cooperative efforts of my denomination,” or “Christian ministries.” By equating “we” with the government, Christians fail to consider the plight of fellow brothers and sisters in Christ who are having their property confiscated by the government. “We” turn to the State to coerce others into turning over the fruits of their efforts, benefits derived from the pouring out of their life’s blood, under the threat of violence. In the name of “ministering to the least of these,” citizens of the kingdom of Christ in America steal from their neighbors in order to “bless” other neighbors (often while failing to consider whether these bureaucratic solutions are “blessing” anyone at all). By equating “we” with “America,” Christians delegate (avoid) their responsibility to minister to the poor, forcibly coerce their neighbors, and end up doing more harm than good.

Politics as Spiritual Formation 
It takes purposeful counter-formation to resist the pull of competing secular visions on “our most basic attunement to the world,” as James K.A. Smith put it. This is politics as spiritual formation. Counter-formation in the area of politics could be training ourselves to view politics through the paradigm of the kingdom of God; conceiving of ourselves primarily as citizens of the kingdom of God above any other competing allegiances. This is a version of the spiritual discipline of Personal Reflection: focusing on your inner self in order to grow in love for God, others, and self.

How would we respond to calls for war if “we” included our fellow brothers and sisters in Christ in foreign nations? What would loving our neighbor look like if “we” was the Church taking direct action without coercing others into meeting our obligations?

How we engage politically shapes the inclinations of our hearts. It makes us a certain kind of person. If we engage haphazardly, we’ll find our desires being subtlety formed toward aims hostile to the kingdom of God. Understanding politics as spiritual formation enables us to train the affections of our hearts in ways that work toward, rather than against, our formation as radical disciples of the Christ who desire the kingdom of God.

Jeff Wright, Jr. is the founder of Evangelicals for Liberty. He is a Chaplain in a "city of lost souls" and holds a Master of Theology (ThM) from Dallas Theological Seminary. His other areas of interest include the kingdom of God, American evangelicalism, the ministry of the local church, obstacle course racing, and all things Star Wars. You can also find him @jeffwrightjr.

Thursday, March 12, 2015

Is America the Last, Best Hope of the World?

This post originally appeared at Evangelicals for Liberty.

MYTHS OF AMERICAN EVANGELICALISM
 
The idea that America is the last, best hope of the world is the spirit that animates a great deal of political activity in our country. The “last, best hope” is one of the most enduring rallying cries preached to garner support and enthusiasm for major government initiatives throughout American history. It has become such a widely accepted notion that its veracity and relevance for lawmaking and executive action is simply assumed, even among Christians.

In his first inaugural address in 1801, Thomas Jefferson reasoned, “I know, indeed, that some honest men fear that a republican government cannot be strong, that this Government is not strong enough; but would the honest patriot, in the full tide of successful experiment, abandon a government which has so far kept us free and firm on the theoretic and visionary fear that this Government, the world's best hope, may by possibility want [lack] energy to preserve itself? I trust not.” Jefferson lifted America’s republican form of government up as the world’s best hope.

 Abraham Lincoln returned to the theme six decades later while the world’s best hope, as embodied by the Union, was in danger of dissolving. Speaking in his Second Annual Message to Congress in 1862, Lincoln movingly declared, “Fellow-citizens, we cannot escape history. We of this Congress and this Administration will be remembered in spite of ourselves. No personal significance or insignificance can spare one or another of us. The fiery trial through which we pass will light us down in honor or dishonor to the latest generation. We say we are for the Union. The world will not forget that we say this. We know how to save the Union. The world knows we do know how to save it. We, even we here, hold the power and bear the responsibility. In giving freedom to the slave we assure freedom to the free — honorable alike in what we give and what we preserve. We shall nobly save or meanly lose the last best hope of earth.” For Lincoln, an intact Union personified the cause of freedom in the world. The freedom provided by a united America was the last best hope of the earth.

Ronald Reagan famously revived the theme in 1964 in an effort to strengthen Barry Goldwater’s presidential candidacy during his nationally-televised “A Time for Choosing” speech: “You and I have a rendezvous with destiny. We will preserve for our children this, the last best hope of man on earth, or we will sentence them to take the first step into a thousand years of darkness. If we fail, at least let our children and our children's children say of us we justified our brief moment here. We did all that could be done.” Reagan persuasively championed “the maximum of individual freedom consistent with order.” He exposed governmental force, coercion, and control of the people and warned against a path that would lead to “the ant heap of totalitarianism.” For Reagan, the destiny of the nation and therefore the entire world rested upon the outcome of this presidential election.

On the campaign trail in 2008, Barack Obama carried the theme to new heights preaching, “The journey will be difficult. The road will be long. I face this challenge with profound humility, and knowledge of my own limitations. But I also face it with limitless faith in the capacity of the American people. Because if we are willing to work for it, and fight for it, and believe in it, then I am absolutely certain that generations from now, we will be able to look back and tell our children that this was the moment when we began to provide care for the sick and good jobs to the jobless; this was the moment when the rise of the oceans began to slow and our planet began to heal; this was the moment when we ended a war and secured our nation and restored our image as the last, best hope on earth.

A bipartisan foursome worthy of their own Mount Rushmore – the author of the Declaration of Independence, the Great Emancipator, the Great Communicator, and the personification of Hope and Change – all upheld the United States of America, its form of government, its influence for freedom, and even its ability to heal the very planet itself as the last, best hope of humankind.

While Barack Obama represents a leftist vision of America as the last best hope, conservatives have their versions of the theme as well. Conservative thinker Bill Bennett responded to what he perceived to be a decline in young Americans’ understanding of what makes America so great, despite its imperfections, with his three-volume set: America – The Last Best Hope. Fellow conservative sage, Dennis Prager, recently offered his contribution, Still the Best Hope, in which he contrasts the competing visions of “Leftism,” “Islamism,” and, what he calls, “Americanism”: a “trinity” of core values - “Liberty,” “In God We Trust,” and “E Pluribus Unum”. While there may be competing ideas as to which values best represent the American ideal, it is widely held across the political spectrum that America is the last, best hope on earth.

The question for American evangelicals is: Is America truly the last, best hope of the world? Let me begin to respond to this question by first asking, are there any alternatives that ought to come to mind when Christians begin to consider this question? Is there anything else Christ-followers might believe is the hope of the world? Do we as “little Christs” have a competing theory? Any “good news” on the topic? What’s that? The gospel of Jesus Christ, you say? Yes, I think that may be it!

 “C’mon, that goes without saying!,” you might reply. Does it? Early Christians promulgated the New Testament creed that is commonplace and almost boring today: “Jesus is Lord!” Yes, we say, Jesus is Lord of my life. He’s the Lord of my heart. This may be what “Jesus is Lord” means to many Christians today but in the 1st century it was a competing pledge of allegiance that directly contradicted the loyalty oath of the Roman empire: “Caesar is lord.” Jesus came to establish his own kingdom, the kingdom of God. When a Christian declared “Jesus is Lord,” the obvious and deliberate implication was, “Caesar is not.”

 Just as a Christian in the first century would never make the claim that Caesar or the Roman Empire is the last, best hope of the earth, Christians today make a mistake by elevating any kingdom of this world to the status of “the hope of mankind.” When we slip into the mindset that America is the best hope of the world along with the assumption that we must do something to preserve this status, we will eventually find ourselves supporting acts by the government that are contrary to the kingdom that deserves our first and ultimate allegiance, the kingdom of God.

The kingdoms of the world and the kingdom of God offer radically different visions for the world. American evangelicals along with all Christians ought to reject the idea that America is the last, best hope of earth because this is a form of idolatry. It is giving a status that ought to be reserved for God to someone or something else. If America is the best hope of the world then the good news of Jesus Christ and his kingdom is not.

Unless we strongly affirm the earliest of Christian creeds, Jesus is Lord, we will tend to give the agendas of earthly kingdoms undue importance. Unless we me make it clear that our ultimate allegiance is to Jesus Christ and his kingdom, we will tend to look to the State rather than the church for the solutions to life’s challenges. If America is the hope of the world then the State ought to export this hope to the world and Christians should enlist in that cause. However, if Jesus Christ is the hope of the world then the church ought to be about the business of the kingdom of God.

America as the last, best hope of the world was chosen as a “myth of American evangelicalism” because it is one of the underlying assumptions of both conservative and progressive evangelicals. Both camps believe that if they can just gain control of the State then they can use its powers for good. They just differ on what “good” looks like. And when they’re implementing their version of good, they’re "restoring" America’s status as the last, best hope of the world as Barack Obama put it.

Preserving a grip on the reins of governmental power causes evangelicals to embrace or overlook what was “evil” when their opponents held the reins of power. Progressive evangelicals who howled in righteous indignation over the war in Iraq and American imperialism under President Bush fell silent when their preferred “Peace President” bombed seven different nations. In November of 2011,
President Obama boasted to troops returning from Iraq, “That’s part of what makes us special as Americans. Unlike the old empires, we don’t make these sacrifices for territory or for resources. We do it because it’s right.” Same means, just the “right” ends (and notice the language of “empire”). On the other hand, many of the conservative evangelicals who applauded the civil liberties violations of the Patriot Act under President Bush are now decrying the Obama Administration’s use and expansion of these same policies as a “police state.” Contradictions such as these are tolerated because of the larger aim of controlling the do-gooder powers of the last, best hope of the world.

Liberty-minded evangelicals support the furtherance of peace and the preservation of civil liberties during all administrations. We don’t need the State to coerce others into doing good. We have the superior resources of the kingdom of God. The State, American or otherwise, is not the last, best hope of the world, Jesus Christ is. Jesus Christ is Lord and, therefore, all other Caesars are not.

Jeff Wright, Jr. is the founder of Evangelicals for Liberty. He is a Chaplain in a "city of lost souls" and holds a Master of Theology (ThM) from Dallas Theological Seminary. His other areas of interest include the kingdom of God, American evangelicalism, the ministry of the local church, obstacle course racing, and all things Star Wars. You can also find him @jeffwrightjr