When the seminarians cohort met last week to do some theology, Corinne quoted a speech by Fuller Seminary’s President, Mark Labberton (from our mutual alma mater!), as an example of an Evangelical who is struggling with us:
Abuse of power is central in the national debates of the moment. Whether we think about US militarism, or mass incarceration, or the #MeToo movement (or mistreatment of women in general), or the police shootings of unarmed, young, black men, or the actions of ICE toward child and adult immigrants, or gun use and control, or tax policy—all this is about power. The apparent evangelical alignment with the use of power that seeks dominance, control, supremacy, and victory over compassion and justice associates Jesus with the strategies of Caesar, not with the good news of the gospel.
He went on to talk about race, nationalism and economics as other notable places where the Evangelical movement has long been off the rails in the United States, noting that someone told him when one Googles “Evangelical” one gets “Trump.”(I tried it. Sure enough, the last three entries on the first page concerned Trump). A Christian is in big trouble when Trump is associated with their spiritual convictions.
That kind of “evangelical” is why people leave the church
One of the generators of the post-WW2 Evangelical explosion was Fuller Seminary. Now Fuller is facing decline as the white church causes an exodus of millennials. As a church founded by an evangelical-influenced Anabaptist and twentysomethings, Circle of Hope regularly hears and feels the abhorrence associated with the label “evangelical.”
Carolyn Custis James asks the church what they are going to do about their reputation in the Huffington Post:
What would inspire [millennials] to return [to the church] if the only vision we offer is negative and isolating? Why would they want to be part of a church that rejects and insults their friends? Is Jesus’ gospel rigid, petrified, and unbending, or is it nimble and robust enough to equip millennials and the rest of us to engage the changes and challenges of every new generation, no matter how unexpected that future may be? Does Jesus’ gospel fill our lungs with hope and passion for his world, or suck the oxygen out of the room? Does it equip us to send the same enduring indiscriminate invitation to a lost and hurting world? Does the twenty-first century evangelical church say “come!” or “stay away”?
To begin with, if you want people to stay or return, how about not labeling them? — like calling them “millennial?”
We’ve been creatively answering Custis’ questions and many others for many years. At our meeting to do some theology we pondered the question “What’s up with Evangelicals?”
- We considered how to affirm Evangelicals who keep the faith while jettisoning the label that has been hijacked by powerful racists seeking to control the domination system.
- We considered how we are not an exclusively Evangelical church, by any stretch of the imagination, but how we care about all the traditional emphases that mark the movement.
- We noted that while we share some convictions with historic Evangelicals, at the same time we care about the contemplative prayer movement from the Catholic church, the spiritual immediacy of the Pentecostals, the social action of the Mennonites, as well as all sorts of art, thinking and influences from movements that most people have never heard about from all over the world. We aspire to transcend labels.
Jeff Sessions is a good reason to wear the label “Evangelical” lightly
The big “for instance” about Evangelicals came up during our “Ask Me Anything” session on South Broad last Sunday. One of our friends asked Rachel what we are supposed to do about Attorney General Jeff Sessions offering a traditional Evangelical interpretation of Romans 13 to justify the Trump administration’s policy of separating immigrant parents from their children after they enter the U.S. illegally. Sessions said,
“I would cite to you the Apostle Paul and his clear and wise command in Romans 13, to obey the laws of the government because God has ordained them for the purpose of order. Orderly and lawful processes are good in themselves and protect the weak and lawful.”
What are we supposed to do with that? Let’s be kind of Evangelical about it right now and actually care about what the Bible says. I think it is obvious that Paul is not writing the Romans as if he were Jeff Sessions! Jesus was killed by evil-doing authorities and the Apostle would soon be killed likewise. Neither of them were notably obedient to the established order out of principle. If anything, Paul is recommending in Romans 13 that the church obey the authorities so they don’t all get killed before the church takes root in Rome! Nero will shortly try to get rid of all of them after the big fire (Trump is like Nero). Even a cursory reading of Romans 12-15 reveals a vision that far transcends something as measly as obeying worldly powers as a goal for Christian behavior:
- Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good (12:21).
- Let no debt remain outstanding, except the continuing debt to love one another, for whoever loves others has fulfilled the law (13:8).
- You, then, why do you judge your brother or sister? Or why do you treat them with contempt? For we will all stand before God’s judgment seat (14:10).
- We who are strong ought to bear with the failings of the weak and not to please ourselves. Each of us should please our neighbors for their good, to build them up (15:1-2).
As our dialogue developed among the cohort, I was happy to see us shrug off the label “Evangelical” as well as others plastered on us by the world while affirming the goodness that can be found in most containers (like “Brethren in Christ”). We ended up wanting to help people who think Jeff Sessions might be a member of Circle of Hope find their way out of the thicket of lies growing up around them. Really, I don’t think any of us even know Jeff Sessions; much less is he one of us. Besides, the trap he is in makes him about as real as reality TV and he probably knows he is just playing a role — he might not like it either. Regardless, our debt to him is love. And though he deserves contempt, we are not going to treat anyone with contempt. If we are convicted to be more faithful than others, we will bear with the weak and build them up. We are going to overcome evil with good.
Rhett Butler also has some Paul-like convictions we need
I have been in many discussions lately in which the convictions I just described have been labeled as “not enough.” From what I understand of the persistent arguments thrown at me, I am supposed to wear a label from the most recent political fight and defend it. I am supposed to get power and use it rightly. I am supposed to be with the Evangelicals or against them, as if our endless strife were Lord and not Jesus. It is tiring.
So I was glad to find some actual edification as I was zoning out in front of the TV on my day off. I tuned into Gone With The Wind again after flipping through other possibilities — I love to watch finely-done movies, even if they are philosophical travesties. I only got to the part in the movie where the disreputable but moral Rhett Butler convinces the daring but disreputable Scarlett O’Hara to violate all standards of public mourning by dancing with him at the charity ball. She mildly laments that her reputation is going to be shot after all their unseemly waltzing. He tells her, “With enough courage you can do without a reputation.”
I may have gotten as much from that line as I have from Paul’s letters on today’s subject. I’m not sure why he didn’t write it himself; he surely thought it! As people who take our faith, the Bible, the Church, and its mission seriously, we need a lot of courage these days, because, as one of the cohort noted, “Evangelical” might as well be an “F word;” and Jeff Sessions represents the church on the news! Our reputation is shot with the so-labeled millennials. We live among Americans and they like to fight, not love. They love power, not pleasing their neighbors – even the weak ones seem to wake up every day wondering who stole their power! We need courage! Because I can’t help thinking we were made for this very moment, good reputation or not.
There are a lot of loving Evangelicals (I hope you said, “Of course!”). Their movement has roots in all the serious-Christian movements in the history of the Church. I can be one of them, or not, because I am serious about following Jesus, too. Wherever the Lord is followed, I’m fine. We all have the future in Christ to receive and build; we need to avoid fighting to do it right now. We are meant to end strife, not conform to it.
That’s not to say I don’t think a good argument can be usefuI! — but I would hardly let one label me. As Paul said (in Romans 13, Jeff!), “The hour has already come for you to wake up from your slumber, because our salvation is nearer now than when we first believed. The night is nearly over; the day is almost here. So let us put aside the deeds of darkness and put on the armor of light.” There are great labels yet to be born, like “There goes that effin’ armor of light guy!”