The Trouble with Comparing Politics in the Roman Empire to America

I can’t recall how often I’ve heard Christians quote Paul’s approach to the Roman Empire as the blueprint, more or less, for Christians living in American democracy.

Then again, I’ve also lost track of how many times I’ve heard Christians quote Jesus’ approach to the Roman Empire as the blueprint, more or less, for Christians living in American democracy. The trouble that I have found in both approaches is that both assume too many things when aligning the Roman Empire and America today.

Sure, there are plenty of ways that America has brought benefits to its citizens and to people around the world. However, America has also been a force of colonial power and oppression both to the Native Americans in our land and among certain nations around the world. And having said all of that, there is no American leader who claims to be a deity and demands the worship of its citizens.

Dissent in America is welcome and protected by law. Even in the worst case scenario of a citizen taking up arms against the government, there should be a legal process—although that will play out differently in some cases since a black man holding a cell phone may be shot dead by police, while a group of white extremists can take over federal land and then walk out of court free men. Inconsistencies aside in American justice and policing, no one is going to be tortured for days via crucifixion for leading an opposition political party or for opposing the government. The closest America came to this Roman practice of “justice” was the lynching of black Americans, although David Cone points out that this traumatic act of intimidation and terrorism was intended to suppress the black population and to enforce white supremacy.

Jesus and Paul operated in a time of Roman colonial power and exploitation. There were no elections to determine if Caesar would be in charge. There were no political parties. Any kind of political organizing was viewed with extreme suspicion, and it was the mere perception of Jesus’ political aspirations that drove the Jewish leaders to conclude that they would lose their city to a Roman army if Jesus was allowed to continue walking around when people called him their king and Messiah. Their fear of Roman reprisal was so great that Caiaphas concluded it was better to kill a single man, even if he was innocent, then to risk calling the attention of Rome’s touchy imperial leaders.

Living when and where he did, it’s preposterous to use the example of Jesus to assert that Christians shouldn’t be involved in politics at all or that Jesus never would have supported government programs like healthcare or social security. Rome just plundered people, period. Under the circumstances of crushing military rule, extreme taxation, and minimal resources or political friends, the Jewish people at the time of Jesus had no other option than to be generous with each other. If they asked the Roman government to give them better services, they would have likely ended up on a cross. If the government only serves the interests of an imperial power, the best that you can hope for is to stay out of its way and to help others when you can.

In the case of Paul, there were even greater concerns that the Roman government and local officials reporting to them would get in the way of his missionary work. Paul and his companions faced imprisonment, beatings, and death, among many other daily attacks and slanders. We shouldn’t expect Paul to suggest working with this government, and we certainly shouldn’t expect him to rally anyone to lobby for legislation. He knew that his only option was to stay off the radar, to be cooperative as often as possible, and to avoid any kind of agitation that would hinder his missionary work or put the churches in danger.

Today, we can elect our government officials and enact policies that can help or hurt individuals. We can charitably debate which political party or ideology is most in line with the command to love our neighbors, honoring the God-given dignity of individuals, and cares for the sacred creation of God, but I don’t think you can argue against the need to vote on politicians and policies for the sake of our neighbors and creation.

I can’t imagine that Jesus or Paul thought of themselves as setting up a once and for all time policy on government and voting. They were trying to survive under the boot of a powerful Empire, avoiding allegiance to an idolatrous and corrupt regime without raising suspicions unnecessarily.

Can we imagine a Civil Rights movement today without the language of Scripture and the law of love resonating throughout the sermons, speeches, and marches?

Today we have the power to use our votes for the welfare of our neighbors, to set up a government that treats all with justice and equality. We all have a part to play, provided that we are wary of being played by the government when it hopes to exploit religious groups for its own gains.

It’s My Wounds vs Your Wounds: Finding the Path to Mercy

How often are the wounds from my past fighting the wounds from someone else’s past? Would that help me to respond to others with more compassion and mercy?

Seeing my interactions from this perspective drives home the importance of my own soul work. If I don’t make the space for healing and grounding my identity in my true self that is united with God’s love, then there isn’t much of a chance that I’ll show mercy to others. I’ll either react out of defending my false self, which has become a safety mechanism for my pain, or I’ll just react out of the anger that I’m feeling in the moment.

Richard Rohr writes often that we can’t dismiss our pain until it teaches us what we need to know about ourselves. My anger has been an unwelcome but important teacher.

What is feeding this anger? What drives it?  For a while I couldn’t even put my finger on it. It was just present, and when something or someone agitated me, I could feel anger rising up to explode.

The agitations and conflicts of daily life have been too much for me some days, and I’m learning that there is a reason for this.

Yes, anger is the perceived denial of a right, but is there a legitimate reason for the anger in my life? Did its formation come from the denial of something that was an honest to goodness right? I think that is often the case.

That begins to move us away from an unhelpful view where anger is always wrong or sinful. Anger can go horribly wrong, but it may well be the symptom of an issue that can be faced with compassion and mercy.

If my anger is repressed, then it continues to boil and simmer in unseen but very real places in my life. And anger has to be faced because it is a teacher.

Once I’ve faced my anger, I’m able to move toward healing and to recognize that the many times my anger boils, it’s often not because of a particular person or event. If I can ever get beyond the sources of my own anger, then perhaps I can find the capacity to hold the anger of another person with compassion and mercy. Perhaps I can imagine that this person has his/her own pain and wounds that are fueling the anger directed at me.

I confess, I’m not there yet, not by a long shot.

This gives me a deeper awareness and appreciation for the ministry of Jesus. He was a man of sorrows who suffered alongside humanity. He bore our sins, weaknesses, and failures as one of us. He had the capacity to bear the weight of the world’s wounds, and he came as a doctor intent on healing all who trusted themselves with him.

Jesus could see beyond the ambition, power, and evil of his executioners, pleading with God the Father, “They know not what they do!” Even as he bore the wounds of their torture and the excruciating pain of his final moments, he remained compassionate on the people set on destroying him.

There are plenty of barriers that could keep me from showing compassion to others, but perhaps the most limiting are my own wounds that keep me burdened with my false self and my anger over the very real failures of my past.

With the stakes so high over my ability to show compassion and mercy toward others, let alone to bear their burdens alongside them, the soul work of facing my anger takes on even greater urgency and importance.

May God’s presence and healing bring us the healing and wholeness we need in order to love and serve others with the compassion they so badly need.

The Pain from the Past Will Always Come Out

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The other day I wrote down a little list that was more honest than I wanted to admit:

I spent my 20’s angry over my pain.

I spent my 30’s anxiously avoiding my pain.

I hope to spend my 40’s healing from and transforming my pain.

There’s a lot of overlap to this list, but it rings true to me. There was plenty of pain in my childhood, but I think as a kid I tried to rationalize that I needed to get on with things and keep going like my friends.

My anxiety and fear came out in the forms such as rapidly blinking my eyes, chewing on pens, tapping my foot, and stomach aches every morning. My body knew that something wasn’t right in some of my family relationships, but I didn’t have a baseline to hold them up against, so I tried to just ignore it.

Most people know me as a typical 9 on the enneagram chart who seeks to make peace, to hear all sides, and to work toward common goals. That is who I am, but it’s not ALL of who I am. Underneath it all is a simmering anger. Some days the anger doesn’t appear to exist anymore. Some days it feels like a raging storm that I can barely contain. Part of the root of that anger is the pain from my past, and it will not be denied.

The pain will come out, whether through blinking eyes, anxiety attacks, or an angry outburst, I can’t run from my pain forever.

In the process of doing my soul work, I keep bumping into the reality that I need to face this anger from my past. It’s going to come out, and it has been coming out.  I could very well pass on my anger and pain to future generations if I don’t deal with it sooner than later.

The question though is, “What does it look like to confront and heal from the anger of my past?”

For my 20’s, I thought that the core problem of my pain was the church and the betrayal of institutions and individuals who promised certain results if I could only buy in with the program and do what the leaders wanted. My anger at the church was rooted in a sense of abandonment and criticism of a wider Christian culture that has been exposed as power-hungry at all costs.

In my 30’s I tried to stuff the anger down, to move on with my life. I had so many exciting things going on. I published a book before turning 30, and I imagined that I had many exciting ministry opportunities opening up before me. I served in prisons and spoke at churches. I thought that I had the right path to pursue.

And yet… something wasn’t right. The anxiety grew stronger and stronger. The anger never really left me alone, and I became more and more dependent on checking out from life. I began to rely on distractions to deliver me from the anger and anxiety that had become so powerful in my life.

This is where contemplative prayer began to offer an alternative path for my pain. I have been learning through contemplation and related spiritual practices to remain present before God just as I am. In my surrender and sacrifice of self, I am learning that the wounds I had long identified with are not who I am.

My pain has been a part of my identity for so long that I didn’t know who I was without it. It never occurred to me, for instance, that I could look back at my past and rage on behalf of the terrified little boy who faced so much conflict. I could stop running from my anger and sit with it because that anger had a basis, even if it lacked the authority and power to come out during my childhood.

God is present in that anger in its pure original form. If I run from it, then I’m running from the God who wants to bring healing and presence into my life. God wants the anger of my past to come out. The methods of avoidance and distraction are doubly tragic because distraction hardly offers the healing it promises and I miss out on the healing that God could bring to my life.

I don’t dare tell anyone what to do with their own anger, but I do have a thought for folks who meet someone who is angry.

When I expressed my anger against the church, I generally heard some variation of this, “Quit complaining and do something useful.” Anger is denied and stuffed down among good, polite Christians.

While I didn’t always present my valid or constructive criticisms of the church with tact, I did have a lot of pain. Lacking a healthy way to face it and to seek healing meant that I opted for the nearest target for my frustration and anger.

The most helpful conversation I had at that time was with a pastor who said, “I hear your frustration. Can we talk a bit?” The more we talked, the more he gained my trust enough to tell me, “I know that you’re frustrated by the church, but I don’t think this is just about the church.” He knew that my anger and rejection was part of a larger challenge in my life, and so he was free to listen to me without feeling attacked or defensive.

This is a tall order, but if I don’t seek healing for my own wounds, how can I expect to be present to help others process their own wounds?

If I’m still living in defense of some false self that is grounded in my religious identity, how can I respond with grace when those with wounds rage against it?

My anger and pain will come out. that can feel humiliating sometimes, as if I’m not strong enough to resist it, to soldier on, and to put on a happy face.

The instant I encounter some conflict or my BS detector goes off with a compromised religious leader, anger almost overwhelms me.

Other times I run into a stressful situation, and my anxiety overtakes me before I even realized what has happened.

The anger and pain will come out, and so the matter isn’t whether I have the strength to stuff it all away. I need a different kind of strength. I need to be strong enough to face the truth, to be strong enough to look at the sources of my anger and anxiety, and to be strong enough to carry this pain to the God who bears our burdens, letting go of them without a guarantee of what will come next.

Evangelical Men Raised on Braveheart Became Cowards

Imagine you’re standing in a line of soldiers preparing to charge the field in battle.

Your commanders ride back and forth on their massive horses, neighing and rearing up in preparation for the coming battle. They shout about honor and bravery, calling you to fight to your dying breath for the high ideals of your people.

Falling back at this moment is a betrayal to everything you believe.

All of history is pivoting on this battlefield, and your duty is to charge forward in fighting for these ideals that your enemy despises.

You’ve trained yourself for years for this moment. You’ve deprived yourself of things that many others take for granted. You’ve learned how to become a warrior and have surrounded yourself with many others committed to the same ideals and values.

As the enemy slowly advances, you charge the field with your fellow soldiers, willing to give your life for this cause that could turn the tide of history.

Then, you notice something out of the corner of your eye…

There’s only a small group of you who charged forward.

The enemy army on the other side of the field of battle is laughing at you, and their commanders are meeting with your generals. They’re shaking hands and forming an alliance.

As you return to the ranks of soldiers who didn’t charge the field, they’re still praising the commanders and shouting insults at the enemy who threatens them. They’re even more committed to the cause.

Your commander assures you that you’re going to do an even better job defending your values and goals by working with the enemy. They have real power and influence to help you.

“Wait, you shout, our commander just made an alliance with the people opposed to everything we believe in! That’s wrong!”

“Liar! Traitor! You’re not one of us!” they shout. “Don’t you lecture us about what’s right! Who made you our judge?”

And so you walk away, not sure what you just gave your life to, and you ask how much of it all was a lie and complete sham designed to glorify your commanders and generals who had rigged so much of it for their our benefit.

That is what it feels like to be an evangelical Christian these days.

* * *

I was raised in an evangelical subculture of sexual purity, manhood defined by bravery and honor, and benevolent patriarchy that said women had more limits than men, but men were duty-bound to protect and defend women.

Rather than pursuing sex at every turn like the godless masses, we were supposed to open doors for women, defend women the way a knight would defend a princess, and stand up for the truth as people of principle who knew right from wrong.

We were supposed to be honorable and courageous, willing to make sacrifices for the good of others and for our values and morals. If we could make some sort of gain by betraying our values, we were supposed to reply, “No compromise!”

Then Trump and Kavanaugh came along, and the majority of the evangelical culture said, “Compromise is great if the guy can help us!”

It feels like everything I was raised to believe in and value was given a middle finger.

I left the illusion of “benevolent patriarchy” behind a long time ago (and it should be deconstructed in its own time and place), but the evangelical embrace of Trumpism and Kavanaugh is an ultimate act of betrayal against everything we were told our movement stood for. We haven’t even touched on the racism and xenophobia pulsating beneath the surface of the movement. I’m just talking about what the ideals and beliefs that we were told to believe in.

Even the window dressing that masked our many other sins is a sham.

If I had still been immersed in the evangelical subculture and its benevolent patriarchy, I still would have told you that there’s no chance evangelicals would ever support a Supreme Court nominee who had so many credible accusations of abuse and financial impropriety attached to him.

I was naïve. I had thought that our lionizing of courage, bravery, honor, and moral consistency meant something.

The people who criticized Nietzsche based on a Wikipedia skim of his philosophy became the ones to embrace a crass will to power that has destroyed everything they were supposed to believe in.

The people who spent their weekends watching Braveheart and not having premarital sex have fled from honor, morality, and courage in order to support men like Trump and Kavanaugh who have numerous credible accusations of sexual assault and financial mismanagement against them. The promise of power and the protection these men promise is too appealing.

Instead of demanding higher morals, defending the honor of women, and demanding honesty, too many evangelical men have joined the chorus Kavanaugh supporters and doubters of Dr. Ford. They have made themselves fictional victims, imagining an instance of being falsely accused of rape instead of actually addressing the real instances of rape.

They have defended their fragile honor by undermining the God-given dignity of women, thus ensuring the farce of their honor and courage.

The Southern Baptist Convention, whose leadership and leading pastors have been among the most vocal (though not only) supporters of Kavanaugh without reservation or condemnation, are among the most visible of this group of cowards. Even Russell Moore, who entertained that the accusations against Kavanaugh could prove disqualifying, never even once personally tweeted in support of Dr. Ford or the women who have been traumatized (or re-traumatized) by the Kavanaugh hearing.

I can only hope that they recognize right from wrong but are too cowardly to stand up for truth and morality because of what they could lose. I also know that plenty of evangelical leaders have privately expressed their horror at Kavanaugh without publicly standing against him.

When standing up for victims and for their values could cost these men their positions, influence, and power, they have retreated and made compromises that will surely do much to advance their own prestige in their circles of influence but completely undermine what they claim to believe.

Is this not the very embodiment of cowardice?

This is a dramatic fall for men who lionized the warriors of Scotland and who imagined themselves the defenders of women. Reality has shown us that these men are only honorable and courageous in their Braveheart-inspired fantasies.

The Smartphone and Social Media Trap for Christians

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There is no good time to post about the challenges facing the church regarding social media and digital devices. We are living in a time when social media and smartphones can be useful for civic engagement and activism, sharing the knowledge of wise leaders and instant analysis on breaking news events.

However, living in a time when the church could stand to be a place of renewal and spiritual transformation so that we can better engage with the pressing issues of our time, I have seen too many church leaders and Christian media experts who are far too willing to adopt technology without paying sufficient attention to its dark side.

As I offer updates on my research into digital devices and spirituality, I wanted to share a bit about the urgency of this kind of reflection for the church today: 

Growing up evangelical, I learned that sharing the Gospel message matters the most. Any means that I use to share the Gospel is just a “tool.”

So Billy Graham adopting radio was a necessary, if not vitally important “tool” for sharing the Gospel. Of course he should have done that, right? Thousands if not millions heard the Gospel through his radio broadcasts!

Of course there are factors to consider when sharing the Gospel in this manner:

  • What kind of message travels the best over the radio? Are there modifications being made to the message for the sake of the medium?
  • Are the radio messages appropriate for the people listening to them?
  • What becomes of the people who hear these messages on the radio?
  • Can those responding to radio sermons figure out their next steps toward discipleship and Christian community?

That isn’t to say Christians shouldn’t be on the radio. Rather, Christians have generally believed that reaching more people, more efficiently should always be pursued, regardless of the adaptations that must be made or the unintended consequences.

The medium of blogging has tended to reward those who are the most revealing, most sensational, and most combative, so I dare not throw stones from a glass house here. Each medium for sharing the message of Jesus can present particular challenges

If radio and blogging come with such a laundry list of potential concerns, then we should pay particular attention to the movement of most churches to adopt social media in one way or another. More and more denominations and congregations are asking members to bring their smartphones into the service and to USE them.

There are opportunities to tweet questions to sermons, to leave comments on Facebook posts, or to share images from worship on Instagram.

The folks in favor of these innovations use words like engagement, interaction, and community to justify this embrace of smartphones in church.

If we dare to speak about the outreach opportunities on social media, then the barriers between social media marketing executives and church outreach teams start to blur really, really fast.

Social media is where people are spending their time. So, regardless of whether this is good for them, Christians have reasoned that this is the place to have a presence, sharing the Gospel, sending invitations to church, and inviting the “unchurched” to “engage” in the big questions of life.

Once again, writing from my glass house, I share my own writing about Christianity on social media because that is where people are spending their time, whether or not it’s good for them. I am part of the hyperlink game, trying to “capture” the attention of readers with the hope that they may even buy one of my books on Christian topics or sign up for my newsletter.

The only way I can even begin to justify going about the whole social media game like this is whether I can offer a respite, a bit of a refuge in my blog posts, newsletters, and books:

Can I empower people to take more initiative in their daily searches for God?

Can I give them greater awareness of the game being played to suck in their attention?

We’re all compromised to one degree or another, but perhaps we can begin to live with more intention and healthier boundaries by understanding how conflicted the goals of Christianity can be when stacked up against social media and digital devices, such as smartphones.

A smartphone can be useful. It can be a tool. Heck, it even has a flashlight built into it!

But a smartphone exists and the apps on that smartphone exist to collect data about you. The more data they collect, the more profitable they will become.

Yes, Google will help you figure out where to go, but Google is also collecting data.

Yes, YouTube will help you complete a household project, but it also wants you to watch more videos and will continue to suggest another video, then another video, and then another video. The data and ads begin to flow, and it doesn’t really matter what’s good for you as long as the data and ads flow.

Yes, Instagram can be a fun way to share your life with friends and family who are far away, but at a certain point, does it not become a carefully curated presentation of a self and a life that aren’t real? Is this the kind of “curation” we want to invite into church when it’s already challenging enough for folks to be their authentic selves?

I use all of these tools, but having examined the ways they function and the goals behind their designers, I’m not sure about them being neutral tools anymore. They are all designed with an agenda that does not have your well-being or my well-being in mind. Whether or not they “can” be beneficial is beside the point.

The benefits of smartphones and social media are the bait set up in an attractive trap that is designed to maximize user attention and, that word Christians love to use, engagement.

While I don’t think we should necessarily give up on smartphones or social media altogether, we should use them with our eyes wide open. We should know when the goals of these “tools” run counter to the deeper goals of the Gospel to bring us to a greater awareness of God’s love and to love our neighbors more completely.

Engagement and attention on social media or smartphones doesn’t require virtue, love, or community. These industry goals can defy human well-being, let alone flourishing.

If our goal is to draw near to God and to truly become present in love for our neighbors, we should remember that the makers of the smartphones in our pockets (or hands) won’t benefit if we are sitting in silence before God or embracing our neighbors.

An “Outsider” Can Show Us How to Love Our Neighbors

There is a significant benefit to explaining the Bible to our preschool age children: they ask a mountain of questions that help me see the stories with fresh eyes.

For instance, have you ever considered whether the robbers who attacked the man in the good Samaritan story also stole his lunch? What did he eat while he was stuck on the side of the road? Did he have more food at home? Would someone bring his lunch back to him if the robbers stole it?

No doubt the illustrations in our children’s Bible fueled this line of food-related questions, but as I’ve thought of this story over the past few week’s in light of the American government’s increasingly aggressive and cruel immigration policies on the southern border, my children continued to prompt me to look at this story. Outside of their concerns over the man’s lunch, it truly hit home how this story reveals the Samaritan as the hero.

At a time of manufactured crisis and unnecessary cruelty that has been condoned by far too many Christians or simply explained away with “law and order” arguments, many of us have spoken about loving our neighbors.

Are we loving our neighbors if we send asylum seekers back to their violent countries?

Are we loving our neighbors if we separate asylum-seeking parents from their children?

Are we loving our neighbors if our government shrugs its shoulders about reuniting parents and children?

These are all necessary and important discussions about loving our neighbors. There is no doubt that loving our neighbors will have political dimensions because government policies impact real people. Laws and policies aren’t just static givens that must be accepted with resignation.

Immoral or unjust laws and policies that deface the image of God in others should be countered by those who believe that “the earth is the Lord’s and everything in it.” It shouldn’t be a stretch to believe that God cares for the well-being of his creation. However, the Good Samaritan story doesn’t approach love of neighbor from such an angle of advocacy or helping those in need from a majority culture position, let alone privilege.

In this story, the foreign man whose views of the Torah surely offended the listeners in Jesus’ audience was the hero. Jesus brought this outsider front and center, showing that despite his national and religious “barriers”, he had grasped what it meant to love a neighbor well. Love of neighbor extended beyond national and religious boundaries. You could even say that this love eradicates such boundaries.

The man going on the journey in this story is nondescript. His lack of defining features helps us identify with him. He could be all of us.

Any one of us could set out on a journey with certain plans and goals in mind. Any one of us could suffer an unexpected tragedy.

In a moment of need, perhaps I’ll turn to a pastor for help, but he may be on his way to a meeting about electing more conservative political leaders and leave me behind.

Perhaps I’ll turn to the leader of a ministry group, but she has big plans for a revival that she can’t neglect.

Finally, help arrives. It’s not the help I asked for. It’s not the help I expected. The help isn’t from the country or religion that I would have chosen. This is the person who meets me in my moment of crisis and cares for my wounds.

As Jesus sought to pull his listeners out of their national and religious prejudices, he challenged them to consider that the people they tried to avoid at all costs could be the ones who grasped the message of the Gospel best. It could even happen that one day their well-being would depend on the help of one such person.

Politicians seek to inflame hatred and suspicion of immigrants and asylum seekers to ignite the racist, nativist passions of their base for an election.

Jesus asks us to consider that our policies against asylum seekers could keep out the very people who may stop along their journey to help us in our moment of need one day. There’s a good chance that many have already done so on their journey north.

 

 

Do I See Jesus in the People Around Me?

Why don’t I help people who are in need?

The possible reasons are plentiful:

Am I in a hurry? Are financial concerns making me less generous? Do I have other priorities for my time and resources? Do I think someone isn’t worthy of help and needs to be more responsible? Do I believe the other person is just looking for a way to take advantage of me? Do I feel unsafe because the person in need may be high or intoxicated?

Depending on the situation, I’ve been all over the map when it comes to helping others. Sometimes I’ve initiated help, sometimes I’ve responded positively, sometimes I’ve offered limited help, and sometimes I have not offered any help at all. Perhaps money really is tight during that month, but other times I just don’t want to be a sucker. Thoughts of self-preservation can be legitimate at times, but often it’s just a convenient way to sound reasonable in my own selfishness.

When I refuse to help others, the focus is often myself. I’m considering my needs and my personal comfort. I don’t identify with them. That is what makes a passage like Matthew 25 so striking. Jesus identifies with those in need to the point that any generous act toward others is considered a generous act toward Jesus.

Am I able see Jesus in other people?

More importantly, do I see Jesus in the people I am most likely to overlook or to dismiss?

That is the whole crux of how Jesus judged those who helped or neglected to help the sick, immigrant, poorly clothed, imprisoned, and hungry. Those who cared for these people were the ones who, perhaps unexpectedly, served Jesus by serving the overlooked people of this world. Those who neglected them had neglected Jesus himself.

“And the king will answer them, ‘Truly I tell you, just as you did it to one of the least of these who are members of my family, you did it to me.’”
Matthew 25:40, NRSV

“Then he will answer them, ‘Truly I tell you, just as you did not do it to one of the least of these, you did not do it to me.’”
Matthew 25:45, NRSV

It’s as if Jesus is trying to snap us out of our self-centered daily outlooks in order to perceive the God-given worth and dignity of each person.  He wants us to imagine that we are serving Jesus himself so that we don’t get lost in the situation or the worthiness of the other person.

And if imagining such a thing remains a stretch for us when we serve others, perhaps we have a clue to consider the state of our own hearts and our awareness of God’s love for us. If we are even uninclined to serve Jesus himself, then we know we have a focus on self that must be addressed.

The hope is that the generous love of God in our lives transforms us, reminds us daily of how great God’s mercy has been for us, and prompts us to show the same love and mercy to others.

Meet Fear with Silence, Not Social Media and TV

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I’m one of the many Americans who has been a walking ball of nerves since the 2016 election, and that baseline of anxiety has made it difficult to bear other unsettling and troubling aspects of life at times.

While I’ve managed to deal with my anxiety in the past through a mix of prayer and exercise, some days 20 minutes of silence or a 20-minute run just don’t cut it. I still feel the pull of anxiety and the temptation to check out from life to avoid it and the fears driving it.

Telling an anxious person “Do not be anxious about anything…” is just about the least helpful thing. The body is reacting to something. That reaction is completely understandable.

Unfortunately, the alternative to denial is often evasion. Turning to social media drama or a television show becomes a quick way to check out. There’s no need to face the darkness afflicting my soul if I have the pleasant glow of a computer or tablet in front of me.

I have been practicing contemplative prayer for quite some time now, but reading the book Into the Silent Land has offered a few helpful dimensions to my approach to prayer. These were things I had partially uncovered of in the past, but the author, Martin Laird, spelled them out in a very helpful way.

For starters, the practice of contemplative prayer is rooted in stillness, sitting upright and breathing deeply in your nose and out of your mouth, meeting each thought with a simple prayer word or phrase. Laird speaks of three doors into contemplation, as we begin to meet our thoughts with silence, enjoy the vast space of silence before God, and gain greater control over our thoughts.

Toward the end of the book, Laird specifically addresses the ways that contemplation can help us face our fears and anxiety. This approach is the complete opposite of denial or avoidance.

Laird suggests that we meet each fearful or anxious thought with stillness and silence. The discipline of contemplative prayer teaches us to shut down negative or fearful thinking loops with a prayer word, letting go of the fears and thoughts as they come to us. However, building on that discipline, we can begin to look at why we are fearful and what is behind our anxieties.

Staring into the darkness of our fears and anxieties is no easy task, but over time, I have found a greater capacity to disarm them as I meet them with silence and faith.

Some days I’m more tightly wound up than others. These are anxious times, and while there are people and events that we may rightly fear, there also is no need to let these fears overtake us.

In the daily practice of contemplative prayer, I’ve found a lifeline where I can release my fears and anxieties to God. I still bear them to a certain degree, but I can at least face them now with faith that the loving presence of God will bring healing.

What Should a Trump Survival Guide for Christians Include?

A podcast billing itself as a survival guide for the Trump presidency recently announced on “the Twitters” that it would be sharing an interview with a prominent evangelical author who has frequently endorsed Trump. There was quite a bit of pushback (**me waving**), and then there was pushback on that pushback (**friends I respect waving back**), and well, you know how Twitter goes.

While I respect that we all need to find out own way to survive the belligerency, racism, xenophobia, deception, and manipulation of this man’s administration that would surely cause Thomas Merton to break out in hives, I want to share what I think Christians seeking to “survive” this presidency need right now (as opposed to ANOTHER interview with a Trump supporter). I also want to share my reasoning for my particular focus on what will help us survive Trump and what will not…

DON’T YOU CARE ABOUT DIALOGUE?!?!?!

The premise of the podcasters is that we need to understand the people who support Trump in order to survive the Trump presidency. I respect the makers of this podcast, and I saw respected friends stick up for them.

From where I sit, it is useful to understand what motivates people to support Trump in the grand scheme of things.  It’s not a waste of time to listen to Trump supporters to a point, but actually “surviving” the Trump presidency day-to-day is quite another matter. I would argue that we need a different toolbox in order to be healthy and constructive under Trump.

The reason why I’m not interested in hearing another Trump supporter interview is…

We Know Why People Support Trump

To begin with, most people know why voters chose Trump, even if many Trump supporters probably don’t actually see the full implications of the racial, protectionist, sexist, or Christian nationalistic aspirations that have driven their support of Trump.

For progressive Christians, especially progressive evangelicals, we’re especially aware of what evangelical Trump supporters are going to say. This has been our world for longer than the 2016 election.

I grew up with these people. I wrote research papers in my Christian high school about the topics that Trump voters care about. I can pick up the phone and call Trump supporters. I’ve been up to my eyeballs in people who voted for Trump since I was in middle school.

Even so, if I feel the urge to refresh my knowledge of Trump supporters, I can read the many softball profiles offered up by the NY Times about the sensitive white supremacist who lives down the block but trolls people of color online when he’s not at work.

And while many Christians and progressive evangelicals are rolling their eyes at the thought that we need more dialogue with Trump supporters, that isn’t to say that I want to shut Trump supporters out of my life. I’m just done hearing why they love Trump. In fact, if we actually want to build bridges and to transcend what divides us, experts say that we need to make connections with people on topics other than the partisan politics that divide us.

Moreover, while I understand what drives Trump voters and I can also acknowledge my blind spots and bias, I have yet to have an interaction with a Trump supporter who can meet my arguments against Trump with reasoned understanding–not a rebuttal, just an acknowledgement of understanding where I’m coming from. I’ve had lots of Trump supporters express their disappointment at how deceived I am, I’ve had many shouts of fake news, and I’ve been told how they just can’t understand why I believe what I do. I’m not trying to be dismissive. This has just been my experience up to this point.

All of that to say, I think it’s more productive to develop compassion, to develop real day-to-day survival strategies, to understand the infrastructure that has helped give rise to our current situation, and to then explore ways we can either challenge it or undermine it through direct action.

Praying through the Anxiety of Trumpland

I had a severe panic attack on the night of Trump’s election. It was the first time I ever lost an entire night of sleep because I was literally shaking in fear. How could anyone trust such an unstable man with the nuclear weapons and military power of America?

Contemplative prayer has been a bedrock for my daily life under Trump. I have had to routinely let go of my fears and anger as I approach God in silent surrender.

You can learn the basics of contemplative prayer at www.contemplativeoutreach.org or pick up the book Into the Silent Land for a helpful introduction and guide to the basics of contemplation. Also, consider how people of color have integrated contemplation into their activism with the Mystic Soul Project.

Surviving Trump with Better Information

The anxiety of the Trump Administration has also resulted in major changes in how I use social media. We need to stop seeing the information on social media as roughly equal. Social media is where propaganda, speculation, and anxiety can thrive. We are living in a time of information warfare. This is why Russian influencers spent so much time and money on ads and fake bots on social media.

Surviving this presidency means looking at world events with a more critical eye. We have to enter into the realm of the speculative at times, entertaining various “what if” scenarios. What if Twitter is being used as a psychological weapon against us? I personally have a lot of questions about how the North Korean missile tests seemed to pop up with a kind of regularity for a season and then disappeared.

I try to avoid scrolling through social media. I use apps like Self-Control to block social media for long stretches and “Kill News Feed” for Chrome so that I’m not tempted to scroll through Facebook. I don’t have social media apps on my phone.

Most importantly, I’m very careful about my news sources, avoiding sensationalized outlets or articles. I look for lawyers, former law enforcement officials, and reputable organizations like the Southern Poverty Law Center to offer analysis on events.

Surviving the Divisive Politics of Trump

After Trump’s election, I started following a lot of Republicans, conservatives, and independents on social media, the majority were “never Trump” Republicans. My Twitter feed is a mix of progressive evangelical activists and conservative thinkers some days, with the likes of Richard Painter, Rick Wilson, Evan McMullin, and Bill Kristol showing up to offer takes on events that I wouldn’t have sought out in the past.

We need strong coalitions with people who would otherwise be our opponents in order to defeat Trump and those who share in his ideology of white supremacy and unchecked power. These conservative and independent thinkers have changed my mind at times, but most importantly, they have confirmed my suspicion that many Americans share a great deal of common ground.

The truth shouldn’t be partisan. Under Trump, it has become partisan to state reality. There aren’t two sides when one side is lying. Coming to the “center” in the case of collusion with a foreign power just means… collusion. Coming to the center for compromise with unbridled corruption is still corruption.

Further discussion of common ground on certain issues could be truly productive for people of all political persuasions, and that is something worth exploring further. When Americans discuss which policies work and which don’t apart from the echo chambers of political ideology, there is a great deal that we can sort out. For instance, many gun control measures have popular support behind them, but politicians who are owned by the NRA have “shot” them down.

Surviving with Political Activism

We have learned that calling elected officials can help change votes on key legislation.

We have learned that marching together can create momentum and energy.

We have learned that voter turnout is essential for swinging an election.

We have learned that sometimes a centrist candidate can be effective.

We have learned that the voting rights act really is needed as voter suppression laws continue to disenfranchise voters.

I am turning to the activists who have generations of experience in direct action to help me move forward. Rev. William Barber II and Jonathan Wilson-Hartgrove are a great starting point for those who want to fuse their faith with biblically inspired activism.

I am very interested in learning from the many, many activists in my own evangelical movement and those activists who have a history of working toward positive change in our country. If the activism of the Christian nationalist right created the atmosphere for Trump’s rise, it’s my hope that the moral fusion politics of Barber will offer one of the  alternatives that we badly need.

We All Want to Survive Trump

I have no doubt that there are many other productive ways to forge ahead and to survive the Trump presidency. I do, however, doubt the value of more interviews with Trump voters/supporters. If Trump voters want to talk to me in order to understand my beliefs, I have a contact form that is open to anyone.

Most importantly, I welcome everyone, whether a supporter of Trump or not, to join me in the Christian practice of contemplation, to sit at the feet of activists working for justice, and to listen to a broad range of qualified, well-sourced political thinkers, journalists, and lawyers.

Christianity has language for change and repentance. Christians value truth and mercy.  There is room for everyone in this place who wants in. I have no interest in preserving a kind of moral high ground that is apart from Trump supporters. If you want to chat with me, you are welcome.

By the way, I’m not writing off that Trump survival guide podcast—even if I am critical of the first episode. Future episodes will most likely be better. Hey, we all want to survive this administration together. Like I said, we have a lot of common ground.

Why Many Evangelicals Struggle with Prayer (TLDR: We’re Winging It)

Pastors experts in church

We can learn a great deal about “spirituality” of American evangelical Christianity when we consider a 2006 Christianity Today  list of the most influential books over the past 50 years that shaped evangelicals.

For starters, most evangelicals are lucky if they know their movement’s historical background from the past 50 years. It’s safe to say that many evangelicals today have a very limited understanding of church history that has deprived us of the wisdom and practices developed over the centuries. Most telling about the limits of evangelical spirituality, the number one book on the Christianity Today list of influential books is Prayer: Conversing With God by Rosalind Rinker.

I don’t doubt that readers have benefitted from this book that was developed by a missionary who offers practical instructions in group prayer as well as some tips on personal prayer. Many small groups and Sunday schools have found much-needed direction from this book, and I can see the need for it in certain settings.

However, this book’s emphasis on spoken prayer and the overall disconnection from the prayer tradition of the church is quite typical of evangelicals. It’s not that Rinker is wrong or even misguided. The issue is that she doesn’t know what she doesn’t know, which is pretty much the story of the evangelical movement since it began. We have forged ahead with our own advice, spiritual practices, Bible studies, sermons, churches, and ministries without a clear sense of where we’ve come from, what has come before us, and what we may gather from the devout Christians of the past.

The main word that jumps out at me in Rinker’s subtitle (and all of the book’s marketing copy) is “conversation.” For many evangelicals today, we have come to think of prayer as a conversation with the goal of speaking our minds to God, and if God directs us, then we’ll be able to say even more things. In fact, many evangelicals may fear that prayer isn’t working if they don’t receive specific direction or guidance from God.

The goal though is for a conversational prayer, especially for us to speak up in this conversation. There is very little emphasis on silence or to even make silence the point. I don’t get the sense that evangelicals reading Rinker’s book would consider that a completely silent time of prayer, where there is no discernible conversation between God and the person at prayer, brings about any benefit.

Silence isn’t really on the radar of this book, even if silence was a central part of Christian prayer for centuries. On the other hand, a conversation directs us toward a goal or outcome that is measurable and easily understood, such as sensing the Lord’s direction to say certain words in prayer. This is a good thing in and of itself, but when this is our foundational concept of prayer (perhaps ONLY concept of prayer), we run the risk of missing the deeper streams of silent prayer and contemplation that have run throughout the history of the church.

Interestingly, Rinker published her book in 1959, which makes her a contemporary of Thomas Merton who, along with Henrí Nouwen and Thomas Keating, helped Catholics delve deeper into the prayer traditions of the church. However, each of these writers pointed us back to the desert fathers and mothers, the mystics such as Thérèse of Liseux, and the Eastern Orthodox monastics. They drew deeply from these streams while offering their own ideas on prayer for the church and produced rather different works.

That isn’t to set them up in opposition to Rinker. I don’t doubt there are even places of overlap. However, it’s tragic to think that Rinker lacked the deep grounding of the church’s prayer tradition in her book. How much richer and beneficial would it have been?

The phrase that comes to mind for me about evangelical spirituality is: “Winging it.” Before I grounded myself in the writings of the desert fathers and mothers or the contemporary teachers of contemplative prayer, I have felt like I have been winging it with prayer. Every Christian joke about prayer eventually gets to the “Lord we just…” or “Father God, we just thank you…” way that evangelicals have learned to pray because it sounds respectful and officious.

Before we go too hard on evangelicals here, let’s keep in mind that the evangelical movement emerged as a reform. There were real issues that needed to be changed. It’s unhelpful to assert that evangelicals were completely off-base. Put into their shoes, we would have desired to make changes as well.

The central problem with evangelicals, as is illustrated with our “winging it” approach to spirituality, is that we are unaware of our roots (especially our most toxic and problematic roots). We don’t know much about what came before us. The many denominations and off-shoots of denominations in Protestant Christianity should give us pause.

In fact, as I read about the history of the evangelical movement, I was struck by how often groups split off from each other under the auspice of calling themselves “Christians.” They thought of themselves as somehow preserving a pure version of the faith and didn’t see how they had any kind of bias or distinctives that set themselves apart.

Of course, years later, these groups of “Christians” took on more set identities as Nazarenes or the Church of Christ, developing their own history and doctrinal distinctives, but at their formation, these denominations saw themselves as somehow able to transcend their roots in order to claim the label “Christians” for themselves.

This pattern has shown up over and over again among evangelicals seeking to correct mistakes or to separate themselves from evangelicals who are in error over a particular doctrine or practice. As evangelicals debate whether to keep the label itself, some have even suggested just calling themselves “Christians” again.

While I am more than sympathetic to the sentiment, I am concerned that we are once again repeating the mistakes of the past. We need to know our roots and to own them so that we can understand where we come from, what has impacted us, and what we perhaps don’t know.

Our ignorance of our history and of the traditions developed among other Christian around the world has become one of our greatest weaknesses. We have often adopted inadequate practices and institutions as a response to flawed practices and institutions—some certainly were more flawed than others. If evangelicals desire to move away from some of our most toxic elements in the future, we need to look back at our roots in order to see what is healthy, what needs to be removed, and where we can learn from Christians in other traditions.

This post was adapted from book three in the series
Evangelicals After the Shipwreck: Evangelicals Need Roots to Grow

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