Damon Linker of This Week, Penn, and suburban Philly, says “The lies, corruption, graft, racism, xenophobia, hucksterism, and demagoguery of President Trump and leading members of his administration are so brazen and diverge so sharply from the political norms of the recent American past, it’s easy to lapse into misplaced hope that the pathologies swirling around us will dissipate as soon as the man leaves office.”
I was in a house full of grandchildren as I read those lines — their presence made Linker’s prediction even more alarming. Are my grandchildren destined to navigate some terrible pathology? I hope not. But if they are so troubled, it will give Jesus an opportunity to prove, once again, that he is greater than our hearts.
Trump may catalyze the worst in us for his own benefit, but he couldn’t do it without the rest of the country providing him opportunity and giving in when he takes his liberties. We of Circle of Hope mildly talk about our “alternativity,” but how far have you been driven, in truth, into some individual bunker from which you plot your safest route to your personal desires? Our recent dialogue about consolidating two of our congregations, although amazing and encouraging (and alternative!), also highlighted what we are up against these days. We are tempted to conform to the pathology around us either by adopting it or endlessly rebelling against it – either way it dominates us.
Linker lists six features of the United States society that often threaten to become features of our church, as well. I hope commenting on his list contributes to finding a way to avoid the pitfalls of our time.
Skepticism about leaders
- There’s the spread of skepticism, rooted in radical egalitarianism, about the capacity of any authority to judge fairly among competing truth claims.
If we desert our families and can’t listen to our leaders, can we learn to follow Jesus? Aren’t we tempted to perfect autonomy, thinking that is a good thing? I think our pastors talk about our skepticism all the time — but that doesn’t mean anyone thinks it is right to listen to them, or that they actually do listen. People tend to wake up to “who’s in charge” or “what’s the process” when they discover some change actually impacts their “personal lives.” Otherwise, they assume that everyone in charge is self-interested or corrupt and try to steer clear of any process that might require their responsibility or sacrifice. Skeptics need to be questioned: Are all the region’s police self-interested and corrupt? Is everyone in government out for profit? Are the Cell Leader Coordinators unaware of your reality? Are protesters wasting their time? What kind of person is your skepticism making you?
- There’s the technological amplification of extreme views, which allows those on the ideological margins (and other bad actors) to spread and organize with unprecedented potency in virtual space.
The Russians would not be able to corrupt the U.S. system if the echo chambers in which citizens are trapped intersected and if they were not all atomized into individual interpreters of the day’s news. Our church, designed as it is to span usually-distinct territories and people groups often has a terrible time getting people to follow Jesus together if their ideological underpinnings are not satisfied. I have convictions I consider elemental to my faith in Jesus and which bind me to prophesy to society, but should they exclude others who don’t know what I’m talking about yet?
- There’s the thoroughgoing transformation of our public life into a forum for mass entertainment aimed at the lowest common denominator.
Last week one of my grandchildren so skillfully lobbied for watching the The Two Towers we spent hours of a cloudy vacation day doing it. Afterwords, we had a long talk (long for elementary attention spans, that is) about what the movie means. One of them questioned my authority to begin such a discussion, of course (back to point one), but we talked anyway. I pointed out that the movies corrupt Tolkien’s story, since the filmmakers use extraordinary, powerful technology to tell the story of the meek inheriting the earth. This thought came to mind after I was informed that the spectacle of Helm’s Deep is much more interesting than the Hobbit scenes, and it is time to hit the bathroom when Gollum is dithering about his soul. They might be children of their age, in danger of spiritual lobotomy by the powerful scenes from the entertainment industry. The news is infotainment and the presidency a reality TV show. It is no wonder people have a tough time taking their faith and their church seriously.
- There’s ideological polarization combined with a regional (urban-rural) split along both cultural and political lines, which is exacerbated by our country’s multiple counter-majoritarian institutions.
We passed around an article a few weeks back about the interesting divides in the country. We could see the cultural stereotypes played out in some of our own dialogue as the church. We don’t have to look hard to find evidence of the country’s division among us. One might say many of us are obsessed with what divides us — condemned by their “identities” to perpetual otherness instead of welcomed into the community we crave. Lately, our email list of covenant members has been the scene of some brilliant practical theology after our leaders called us to a course of practical necessity and creative adaptation – a change. I am glad to see we gravitated toward unity in Christ instead of mere diversity of choice.
Distortion as strategy
- And there’s the willingness of cynical, power-hungry political functionaries to traffic in outright lies and distortions in order to win and hold office.
I was in Barnes and Noble with five 7-11 year olds, enough said. While we were buying books I spotted a surprising title: The Faith of Donald J. Trump. I pondered it the day after the news of Cohen’s and Manafort’s legal issues came to a head, both which point to the corruption and brazen immorality of the leader, who the books calls, “the one guiding figure who can return us to the traditional values –hard work, discipline, duty, respect, and faith — that have long been the foundation of American life.” It is small wonder there will be a whole generation of people who assume any leader, including a church leader, is lying. After all, we don’t need Trump, just a few bishops in Pennsylvania will make us wonder.
No love of enemies
- Justice has been reduced to the friend/enemy distinction: Whatever damage is done to the other side in the name of progress for my own mission is acceptable, even laudable.
Are people, in general, really losing all capacity to have conflicts that result in mutually beneficial outcomes? In our church, people often solve difficult relationships by refusing to ever have the conflict they feel. They kill love to avoid conflict. They neuter their faith in the name of some “acceptance” that masks their fear. They don’t want to be a loser and they have reduced love down to not making anyone else lose. This is politics conducted without any notion of a common good. The interests of the whole community no longer transcend the competing, perpetually clashing, and conflicted parts. Such a “politics” could kill a church, of course.
I felt a lot of these influences tempting us during our dialogue last week; so I was nervous. I wasn’t sure I could trust our trust system. We purposely designed our church so people could wreck it by being unloving or irresponsible (since Christians love and care and share or they should not be called Christians). I was not sure we would be Christians when we felt hurt or threatened or needed to fail and change. I went to prayer. Jesus came through and we came through. We’ll all be fine. But we will still be living in a world that is clearly not fine, these days. It will try to drag us down with it, so we’d better keep praying.