Is There a Lot of Pain Behind Strong Political and Religious Opinions?

There’s a deep suspicion of the Federal government in my region of Kentucky, and as someone who came from the northeast, I didn’t understand it at first. Once I learned about the history of the region, some of that suspicion started to make sense.

When the Federal government formed the Tennessee Valley Authority in order to create jobs and affordable electricity in our area, the dammed up Cumberland River resulted in flooding that required the removal of several towns in the region now known as the Land Between the Lakes.

In addition, the Land Between the Lakes region was designated a recreation area, and the few remaining homes were purchased by the government so that residents could resettle.

Although there were some excellent benefits from this project, including extremely cheap electricity in a region that has struggled economically, homeowners in the Land Between the Lakes region alleged that the government undervalued their homes and then paid them less than the home’s value. In addition, several long time communities were unwilling to move from land that had been in their families for generations.

Such incidents hardly account for ALL of the suspicion of the Federal government in our area, but they surely don’t help. From what I can tell, the good of providing jobs and electricity was undermined by some extremely troubling exploitation of people who already didn’t have a lot of resources.

When I hear someone’s strong views about government overreach around here, I’m mindful that there’s some history that I haven’t lived through that could be influencing such perspectives.

I’d also qualify that by saying there’s a history in our region (and to the south) of resenting the government for liberating slaves and assuring the rights of black citizens. Such resentment should be understood, but it’s certainly not a belief that should be honored or accommodated.


Looking a bit more broadly, it’s fair to say that when someone is deeply committed to religious beliefs, political ideology, or a certain school of philosophy, there’s sometimes (if not often) a good bit of pain involved in that person’s story leading up to those strong beliefs.

Looking back at my own history, I am strongly opposed to the politicization of the Christian faith for the ends of any political cause, but those strong beliefs are driven in part by my disillusionment with Christianity being exploited by the religious right in America.

I know I’m hardly unique in that sense. It feels like well over half of the Christians I know in my age range share my disillusionment with politics co-opting the Christian message.

I’ve met plenty of Christians who were disillusioned by organized religion, especially Christian churches with strong pastoral figureheads, and all of them have a story of a leader abusing his (it’s almost always a man) position to the detriment of others.

People end up supporting political leaders, rejecting religious beliefs, swinging from one extreme to another, and engaging in who knows what else because of pain from their past.

Perhaps they can’t draw a straight line right away from their pain to their current convictions, but it sure seems like pain changes us and prompts us to make really big shifts that we’d otherwise resist. At the very least, our pain prompts us to make changes that we feel very strongly about.


I had some extremely negative experiences with Catholic priests who were quite dismissive of me and who were quite authoritarian in their use of power. They more or less said, “I’m the priest who represents the authority of the church, so your beliefs need to fall in line with what I’m saying.”

Such things were said with a smile that belied an assumption that I would surely take their view of things and merely fall in line. They never thought that I’d want to read the Bible and consider ideas outside of their own.

To this day I find the Catholic mass almost suffocating and unbearable. The last place I want to  be is under the authority of a priest, even in the course of leading a mass.

I can read Catholic writers because there’s a different dynamic present with an author and a reader. I can go to an Episcopal Church because our priest doesn’t claim a kind of unlimited and unquestionable religious authority that is linked to a Pope. It’s quite clear in my mind, but I’m sure it doesn’t make sense to everyone.

The common link between myself and those who are suspicious of government, religious leaders, organized religious groups, or politicians pandering to religious groups is a history of pain and disappointment.

It’s easy to judge people based on how they act today. I’ll admit that it would be much, much easier to dismiss someone who doesn’t make any sense to me or who holds views that I find wrong or even harmful.

Yet, such a dismissive spirit falls well short of how I’d want someone to handle my own pain from my past.

I also know I haven’t been as kind and gracious to some Catholics or politically driven Christians because of my own past.

We all want to be understood. We want our pain to be acknowledged and seen for what it is, even if it can make us a bit hard to handle at times.

Maybe if we can talk about our shared pain, we can even more toward a common healing where we can drop our defenses just a little bit so we can see how much we hold in common.


Books by Ed Cyzewski

Photo by Nijwam Swargiary on Unsplash

The Apostle Paul Would Have Loved Critical Race Theory

Critical race theory for Christians in America

The future of early Christianity hinged in part on the merging of Jews and Gentiles into one people in Christ. A Gentile could be from Rome, Greece, Asia Minor, Egypt, or another region, but all Gentiles were united in not being Jewish by race, religion, culture, and politics.

There was a lot more than race wrapped up in this division among different peoples, but there is no doubt that race was certainly part of the mix.

As the Apostle Paul left his post as a powerful religious zealot among the Jews, he became an ambassador to the Gentiles, pursuing a seemingly impossible task. He didn’t see one group dominating the other in a colonial sense. Rather, he sought to unite two very different groups as one new, equal people in Christ.

The regulations of the Jewish law no longer applied to the Law of the Spirit in Christ, but the wisdom and philosophy of the Gentiles also fell short. The history of both groups and their religious frameworks were essential for understanding both groups and for pursuing reconciliation under Christ.

In fact, the entire Christian idea of repentance hinges on an honest accounting of one’s past. Collective action of a group or system was also quite relevant beyond personal reckonings with sin.

Paul had to face the ways he had relied on his knowledge of the Jewish Law and his special place as a chosen member of God’s people before he could see the superiority of a new identity in Christ.

Gentiles had to face the ways that Christ’s foolishness overturned their wisdom and philosophy, not to mention their own sense of cultural superiority over groups like the Jews.

The impact of racial divisions and the underlying challenges of racism in the laws, practices, and institutions at the time of Paul simply couldn’t be overlooked when trying to create one people in Christ.

There is no escaping a phrase like Critical Race Theory in America today, especially in the political realm. Conservative media and politicians have generally emptied the term of any real meaning and stuffed it with every fear, reaction, and grievance of white American culture for the purposes of political activism.

We are living at a time when allegedly small government “conservatives” want to regulate what teachers can talk about in schools, to the point that they are willing to ban discussions of Critical Race Theory. It’s a shocking overreach of the government, especially for people who supposedly dislike an overreaching government.

Even worse, the mere attempt to ban discussions of Critical Race Theory is based entirely on bad faith, unserious misrepresentations of what it is. If such conservative politicians actually presented the reality of Critical Race Theory, their Christian constituents would be forced to reckon with a very uncomfortable reality: Critical Race Theory rightly identifies many of the systemic sins in America.

If white American Christians aspire to live with their black brothers and sisters as one people in Christ, there is a lot more to reconcile than personal racism or racist attitudes in one’s family history. There are systems and cultural histories in America that have afflicted black people in ways that white people would find intolerable.

Mind you, there are enough white Americans who find merely talking about the suffering of black people in America intolerable. Can you imagine what these white Americans would do if they had to face actual discrimination and systemic injustice.

The uncomfortable truth for white American Christians is that a Christian like Paul would have likely loved Critical Race Theory. It succinctly and quite accurately labels the structural sins that black Americans face.

In the hope of cutting through some of the fog and misunderstanding of our times, let’s pause to consider what Critical Race Theory actually is. According to the NAACP Legal Defense Fund’s website:

Critical Race Theory, or CRT, is an academic and legal framework that denotes that systemic racism is part of American society — from education and housing to employment and healthcare. Critical Race Theory recognizes that racism is more than the result of individual bias and prejudice. It is embedded in laws, policies and institutions that uphold and reproduce racial inequalities. According to CRT, societal issues like Black Americans’ higher mortality rate, outsized exposure to police violence, the school-to-prison pipeline, denial of affordable housing, and the rates of the death of Black women in childbirth are not unrelated anomalies.

Let’s ask ourselves a few frank questions.

  • Is it God’s dream for anyone to receive inferior education based on the color of their skin?
  • Is it God’s dream for anyone to be denied the purchase of a home based on the color of their skin, as has happened often with red lining in cities?
  • Is it God’s dream for anyone to be denied a job, higher wage, or promotion based on the color of their skin?
  • Is it God’s dream for anyone to suffer higher infant mortality rates due to inadequate healthcare?
  • Is it God’s dream for anyone to suffer harsher treatment from the police or legal system based on the color of their skin?

I can’t imagine anyone affirming these afflictions as good, and there is no denying the fact that these things have happened regularly in America for generations and still continue in some communities. Sometimes even worse things happen based on the color of someone’s skin.

For Paul, who sought to join different races together as one people in Christ and who believed that confession precedes repentance, I can imagine him finding CRT’s clear articulation of cultural and systemic sins quite helpful.

It’s awfully hard to be unified with people who deny your pain and who can’t comprehend your personal story. Critical Race Theory is one tool we can use to simply articulate the pain of a group of people in America who are God’s beloved children and who have an equal share with every other race in God’s Kingdom.

It’s not controversial to say that God’s Kingdom includes all races. However, it is unfortunately controversial to say that some races have suffered and are suffering a great deal more than some others. To deny the suffering of black Americans by turning Critical Race Theory into a political punching bag only drives enormous wedges among God’s people.

Acknowledging the suffering of black Americans at the hands of some in white America isn’t anti-white or reverse racism. This is an opportunity for knowledge and wisdom, to learn and to grow so that we can repent of the systems that have caused a lot of suffering.

The goal of someone like Paul wasn’t to drag down or diminish the Jews or Gentiles. He simply critiqued where the two cultures got stuff wrong and identified how their cultural assumptions about race prevented them from becoming one people in Christ.

I don’t believe it’s God’s dream to tear anyone down. God doesn’t want us to hate our race. Such unfounded fears have been drummed up in bad faith and prevent us from acknowledging the pain of others.

We have an opportunity today to pursue the joining of different races together as one people in Christ in a way that both acknowledges the failures and the pain of the past and elevates everyone to an equal position as beloved children of God. Acknowledging the truth of our past through a tool like Critical Race Theory can help us get there.

Photo by Sam Balye on Unsplash

Christian Prayer and Spiritual Gaslighting During a Crisis

At the start of the pandemic in America during March 2020, a friend and I emailed several large churches in our town encouraging them to take their services online as the pandemic began to spread in our town.

This was during the early days of COVID-19 when we didn’t know much about how it spread other than the fact that it was airborne. We politely urged them to consider that limited time in enclosed public spaces was the best way to prevent it from spreading and mutating into more virulent forms.

As many states announced quarantines and lock downs in order to slow down the spread of COVID-19, churches were a vital piece of the puzzle. Although the president at that time and his administration downplayed COVID-19 and politicized safety measures such as indoor masking, we saw that many churches in our region were meeting to discuss safety measures.

Some of the largest Baptist churches in our town did take their services online in response to the pleas of public health officials and doctors, despite some higher level leaders in the SBC saying that they should still meet in person and “preach the Gospel.” It felt like public health or preaching the Gospel were mutually exclusive.

Yet, the most disturbing response of a local church in our area, a nondenominational church just outside of town, came on its Facebook page.

The church posted an image of a man’s silhouette standing with his arms spread open in front of a blinding light. The bold lettered caption read, “Freedom from fear.”

The post announced that they would continue to meet despite the fears of the pandemic. They would meet this pandemic with FAITH, not fear.

I’ve seen a lot of absurd stuff on Facebook. I’ve seen a lot of absurd stuff posted by Christians on Facebook. But this post was damaging on many levels.

It was bad enough for a church to ignore a public health emergency that threatened thousands of lives. Yet, the entire premise of the post pitted medical caution against Christian faith.

This isn’t the first time I’ve seen Christians resist the advice of medical experts or avoid the benefits of preventative medicine like a vaccine. Yet, it was the first time that I saw scientific and medical ignorance paraded as a greater act of faith.

I could understand that some may not be as cautious about masking as I am. And since then, I can understand that some may want to wait for a larger sample size of vaccination before getting a COVID vaccine. Yet, framing a reckless decision that defies medical advice as an act of faith is on par with a guy suffering from high cholesterol and chest pains downing steak dinners every night and boasting of his faith in God’s protection.

Ignoring sound medical advice isn’t an act of faith, just as heeding sound medical advice isn’t an act of fear. If that guy with high cholesterol dramatically changes his diet because of his doctor’s advice, would we chide him for not “trusting his heart with Jesus”?

Of course not. That would be absurd and actually quite cruel to a man who is trying to care for his body. In fact, it would be an attack on reality itself, which is exactly where too many Christians have ended up today.

When that church posted their “Faith over fear” announcement, they were, in effect, spiritually gaslighting people in our community.

Gaslighting attacks someone’s judgment or perception of reality. It’s manipulative and advances a false version of reality that aims to sow doubt and may even cause someone to doubt his/her own sanity. Adding a spiritual twist to gaslighting can make it even harder to pin down.

It can be especially disorienting when pastors, who are assumed to be spiritual caregivers, spiritually gaslight the Christians they are supposed to care for.

When someone takes a precaution for the sake of their own safety or the safety of their family based on sound medical advice that is widely accepted and proven, there is no reason to call that person fearful or to doubt that person’s faith.

We all know that a healthy dose of fear can help us make good choices. Faithful people engage with “fear” all of the time.

We don’t let our 3-year-old daughter out front of our house without us outside as well. You could say that we fear for her safety, but the reality is that we are taking reasonable cautions based on how close our home is to the road.

Christians also hardly bat an eye at the concept of fearing God. In fact, if you have faith in God, then you also likely fear God, for you recognize that God is merciful AND powerful. There is respect and awe for God’s power, even if you find comfort in God’s patience and love. We obey because we take God’s mercy and power seriously.

All of this brings us back to why a church would spiritually gaslight people in the first place. Why would a church challenge the very foundations of reality during a national health crisis and twist the knife with a spiritual challenge?

We can’t underestimate the impact that manipulative and false information has had on our society. A small group of doctors and “experts” continue to push false information about masks, vaccines, and other safety measures during the pandemic.

Manipulative, agenda-driven news stations, social media personalities, radio hosts, and podcasters continue to agitate their listeners with false medical advice and agitating conflict. They’ve effectively created an “us vs. them” mentality where their fans are the truth seekers and the rest of society is just “sheeple” at the mercy of “agenda driven” doctors and scientists.

It’s hard to believe how effective and widespread these false narratives have become, and it’s quite challenging to respond to this gaslighting with patience and empathy. The place where I need to begin is clarity, because spiritual gaslighting, like any kind of gaslighting, can be upsetting, angering, and disorienting.

We can only respond with prayerful charity when we understand the full nature of the offense against us. If an absurd attack on reality is being spiritualized, we must say that it is such regardless of the person’s motives.

Without some clarity and a firm grounding in the reality of the situation, gaslighting will continue to frustrate and enrage us. Spiritual gaslighting can lead to guilt, uncertainty, and a deep unsettling of one’s faith.

Since that church’s poorly conceived post on social media, I’ve made two significant changes to the way I interact with information online.

First, I pay attention really well to stories I read in the news. I look at what experts say and try to evaluate how unanimous they are in their opinions so that I won’t be unsettled by gaslighting and false narratives.

Second, I try to avoid reacting outright to gaslighting or false narratives. If something unsettles me, I try to sit with it, pray about it, and dig down into what exactly is weighing on my mind.

Oftentimes, there’s nothing I can do to change a gaslighting situation. But I think it counts for something if I avoid responding with anger or letting gaslighting seriously disrupt my thoughts.

There aren’t easy times, but I believe we can find a bit of peace and hope by guarding our own hearts, examining what’s on our minds, and entrusting ourselves to God, even as we also trust in the proven advice of medical professionals.

Read more about the way Thomas Merton responded to the absurd challenges of his time in my eBook The One Original Cloistered Genius: Enduring Adversity and Absurdity through the Savage Humor of Thomas Merton.

Image credit.

It’s Always Jesus Plus Something

Jesus plus nothing image

“Jesus plus nothing” is a mathematical impossibility for our beliefs. 

I’ve started watching The Family on Netflix, a dramatized documentary of the Jeff Sharlet book by the same name. I always thought that I wouldn’t need to read Sharlet’s book because I knew enough about the dark underside of American evangelical Christians and politics.

I was extremely wrong.

Sharlet describes something larger than a secretive group seeking to influence politicians on specific policies through their offers of spiritual counsel and support. There is a kind of fraternity of young men who are trained on the surface to be simple devotees of Jesus alone while absorbing an extremely toxic authoritarian theology that believes these men are set apart by God to do great things, placing them on a level above the common person.

I have long wondered why so many evangelicals in politics don’t believe the rules apply to leaders exercising great power. This is because their status as leaders proves their blessing from God and thus overrides the other moral teachings of the Bible in service of the “higher” call to lead.

There is more than enough judgment for a woman who is labeled as a Jezebel or a “loser“ “brother” who leaves the group. Yet, a powerful Christian leader affiliated with the Family who lies, cheats, rapes, swindles, and commits any other sin to satisfy an insatiable pit of greed or envy is above all judgment and rebuke by virtue of his power and position.

This is an extreme form of Calvinistic fatalism that places virtually unlimited power in the hands of those presumed to receive it via divine decree.

The young men described in The Family have a well-meaning but malicious naivety and simplicity about the Bible made all the more menacing because of the rigid authoritarian structure imposed under the guise of brotherhood and fellowship. They claim to have a simple faith that is Jesus plus nothing, but in applying this formula to real life, there is a millstone’s worth of additions to this formula.

No matter how hard we try, something else will always spoil our illusion of clear vision.

If we dare to believe our faith is Jesus plus nothing, there most assuredly will be Jesus plus something.

Since it’s bound to be Jesus plus something, then we need to interrogate what that “something” is that we attach to Jesus. We have roots to our faith. Some roots are deeper than others, but each person who claims to only follow Jesus is living in an illusion of purity and clarity while carrying the obscurity of what has been passed from others.

When I read the story of the Prodigal Son, I don’t read it as a story of immigration and migrant labor. That’s because I read the Bible as a Christian with Jesus plus something, namely American prosperity.

When I read the story of Elisha and his care for widows and mothers in their times of need, I didn’t notice the ways that God was countering the unjust patriarchal systems of the time. That’s because I read the Bible as a Christian with Jesus plus something, namely white male assumptions of power.

When I read the story of the Good Samaritan, I tend to focus on the ways I can be a good neighbor rather than recognizing the ways prejudice and racism in my life prevent me to see how God is working among other races and nationalities. That’s because I read the Bible as a Christian with Jesus plus something, namely the assumptions of white privilege in a culture still influenced by white supremacy.

That isn’t to say that our goal to remove the things that obscure our vision of Jesus is hopeless. And there is still a space for simple practices of spirituality. In fact, I would argue that theology will be more complex than we would hope or believe, while our practice will most likely benefit us most if it’s simpler than we expect.

The people involved in the Family and other conservative branches of the faith tend to insist on keeping the beliefs simple, while imposing complex hierarchies and practices that seem to have a vague biblical grounding. Yet, these leaders insist that they are above scrutiny since there isn’t much to scrutinize. They just believe in Jesus plus nothing–and a long list of practices and rules and hierarchies that allegedly stem from Jesus and dare not be questioned by the rank and file lest they undermine their God-appointed leaders.

Jesus plus nothing gets complicated immediately.

In my book Coffeehouse Theology, I argue that we can have a simple faith and trust in Jesus, but it is necessary to also analyze, if not interrogate all of the other things we add to our faith on our own.

We each add something to our approach to Jesus based on our faith background, experiences, and awareness of other members of the faith. That doesn’t have to be a bad thing.

If anything, that should leave us humble and aware of our deep need for God’s mercy and the guidance of the Holy Spirit.

We should ask more questions, not less, about our beliefs, but in the day to day grind of life, we can practice a simple faith and trust in our Lord who is present and with those who call out for guidance and help.

If we have any hope in holiness and conversion, then we will surely need to rely on Jesus alone–although even our practices require discipline to set aside time and attention for God. If we hope to be present for Jesus without our assumptions and cultural baggage clouding our view so drastically, then we need to figure out what those somethings are and address them with clarity.

It’s never Jesus plus nothing when it comes to theology. It’s always Jesus plus something, and that something will change how we see Jesus until we figure out what it is.

 

Photo by StellrWeb on Unsplash

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.

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)

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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.

 

Read More about Contemplative Prayer…

After years of anxious, hard-working spirituality, I found peace with God by practicing contemplative prayer. I’ve written an introduction to this historic Christian practice titled:

Flee, Be Silent, Pray:
Ancient Prayers for Anxious Christians

On sale for $8.49 (Kindle)

Amazon | Herald Press | CBD

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Simple Advice for Christians: Trust Your Instincts

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If a leader is too combative and controlling, there’s a reason for that.

If a spiritual teacher keeps giving you tasks and obligations, you’re not learning spirituality or how to abide in Christ.

If a theology system makes God sound like a monster, then you’re not learning about the God who is love.

If you are fearful of God, then your teachers and guides are in error.

You aren’t crazy. Trust your instincts.

Christianity shouldn’t be a series of inconsistencies and shocking incongruities to be accepted at face value.

There should be mystery and uncertainty when encountering the divine, but if you’re repeatedly running into one red flag after another, you can stop explaining away the obvious problems or treating them as inevitable.

You can stop listening to the leaders who demand the acceptance of inconsistencies.

If a system of theology appears to be controlling, oppressive, and harmful, then trust your instincts.

Ask questions, seek the wisdom of trustworthy women and men with more experience, and explore other traditions and perspectives within the faith. What you find may surprise you.

There’s a good chance that other people have already asked the same questions and raised the same concerns.

My faith has evolved from assenting to a doctrinal checklist to consenting to the loving presence of God without any expectations or demands.

My hands are no longer clutching lists of things to do or inconsistent doctrinal statements that require defending.

When all is well, my hands are open, ready to receive from God.

I’m still angry some days at the Christian machine with its demands, obligations, and hoops to jump through. I forget that God is present, views me as a beloved child, and desires that I share this love with others.

At the very least, I can approach each day with the relief that I’m not crazy, that so many of my instincts about Christianity have led me toward a more loving and generous spiritual practice.

I don’t have to run from questions, doubts, uncertainties, and incongruities. There is a lot that I’m still sorting out and recovering from, but the survival of my faith no longer rests in defending insufficient answers to eternally complex questions.

I can rest in the mysterious presence of God with open hands and a mind that is no longer trying to fit square pegs into round holes.

 

The Wilderness Is Where Christians Go to (Eventually) Move Forward

 

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Growing up as an evangelical, I learned a simple question that determined what I should believe and how I should put my faith into practice:

WHAT DID PAUL DO?

If Paul did it, believed it, or even suggested it as maybe a good idea, then it was good enough for me. To my shame, I remember telling one of my Bible professors in college that it was more important in my eyes to study the epistles than the Gospels.

He gently suggested that I should reconsider that… and I certainly have.

Prioritizing of Paul aside, it is the great fortune of American evangelicals today that Paul offers us unequivocally excellent advice for our current situation where evangelical Christianity appears to be fragmenting, if not altogether collapsing due to political and cultural compromise.

Far too many evangelicals have aligned the Kingdom of God with a single political party and a patriarchal, white supremacist culture that idolizes power and wealth.

Christians throughout America are dropping the “evangelical” label because it has either become meaningless or has taken on far too many negative associations.

Evangelicals are mocked and disparaged because of the ever-shifting values and moral “standards” of a few talking head leaders who continue to work the political system for their own gain and a sizeable evangelical group that fails to see serious issues such as overt racism and xenophobia as deal breakers in their leaders.

Thoughtful hashtags are emerging around questions of evangelical identity and an evangelical future: #stillevangelical #exevangelical. Back in the early 2000’s we used terms like “younger evangelicals” (via Robert Weber) and “post-evangelical” to describe this fragmenting. Should we drop the label “evangelical”? Abandon the movement? Fight for it?

Significant portions of the evangelical movement are corrupt, but there are many positive members and hopeful signs emerging. Regardless, I am not personally interested in preserving a movement or a label. It may be more helpful to understand where we are, what God is saying, and to sort out what to do next with a clear head.

I’d like to suggest that there is a very simple and productive next step every evangelical can take in response to the failures and chaos of our current evangelical situation, and it conveniently meshes with what Paul did. You can even call it a “biblical response” for bonus points. Here is the plan, ready?

Retreat.

Not forever, but for a while. You could say that many of us evangelicals need to take a retreat of sorts from whatever we’ve been doing. We need to surrender for a season instead of constantly forging ahead, trying to make an overhaul on the fly.

I suggest this because many evangelicals are discouraged, confused, and uncertain about the future. We could stay in the chaos of our movement and try to sort out a next step, or we could retreat, wait on the Lord, and then move forward when we gain a bit of clarity.

Throughout the Bible and the history of the church, there is a pattern of reform emerging from prophets and communities in the wilderness or in solitude. From Elijah to John the Baptist to the desert fathers and mothers, to the many nuns and monks who reformed the church from the solitude of their cloisters, reform and prophetic direction has come from those who retreated in order to seek God before spreading their ideas more widely.

There’s a principle for prayer taught by Henrí Nouwen that we first need to let go of what we’re holding before we can receive something from God. A time of surrender and retreat before God can help us let go of the negative influences on our lives.

I suspect that we’ll look to different leaders and teachers as well as shift some of our priorities on the other side of this retreat.

Here is what Paul reported about his own retreat following his Damascus road experience when his entire world came crashing down:

“You have heard, no doubt, of my earlier life in Judaism. I was violently persecuting the church of God and was trying to destroy it. I advanced in Judaism beyond many among my people of the same age, for I was far more zealous for the traditions of my ancestors. But when God, who had set me apart before I was born and called me through his grace, was pleased to reveal his Son to me, so that I might proclaim him among the Gentiles, I did not confer with any human being, nor did I go up to Jerusalem to those who were already apostles before me, but I went away at once into Arabia, and afterwards I returned to Damascus.” (Galatians 1:13-17 NRSV)

We don’t exactly know what Paul did in Arabia, but whatever God revealed to him brought him in unity with the rest of the church (Galatians 2:1-2).

At a time when evangelicals are distracted, divided, and uncertain about what to do about a movement that appears destined for the rocks, there aren’t simple answers or clear next steps. Perhaps we can relate to Paul, finding out that the cause we’ve given our lives to is, at least in part, misguided, corrupt, and even, at times, opposed to the very people Jesus dearly loves.

It’s safe to say that our own wisdom got us into this mess, so it surely won’t get us out of it. If anything, it’s going to just lead us into another mess.

I believe that God has not abandoned us, but if we have any hope of hearing God’s voice, we need to create space for God to speak. It’s not a mistake that John the Baptist proclaimed his message of repentance and restoration in the wilderness—preparing the way for the Lord. Jesus spent the majority of his ministry in relatively isolated spaces as well.

If you’re a discouraged or uncertain evangelical who is dispirited by our movement, then perhaps it’s time to step back. You may even hear the whisper of God to guide you forward, but first you need to venture up to the mountain to hear it.

You can read more about the evangelical retreat by downloading my new book for free on most eBook sites or just $.99 on Amazon

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Jesus Told the Bride of Christ to Remove a Plank from Its Eye

The top defense of the abusive and authoritative in the church in recent years has become a kind of projection that reframes legitimate allegations into an attack on the church. The leaders who abuse power, harm people, and cross boundaries can assure themselves of safety by turning attention away from their misdeeds, claiming their accusers are attacking the bride of Christ (the church), and then presenting themselves as its defenders.

It’s a slick play that has become far too commonplace. In addition, they can bolster their positions by pointing fingers at individuals who may have been unfair with the scope of their criticism or who have failed to adopt a more constructive direction for their criticism. It shouldn’t surprise us that those who are wounded by the church will struggle to find the “perfect” way to critique it!

However, regular examination and critique are exactly what Jesus called his listeners to do in Matthew 7. It would be naïve for us to assume that such examination is only personal. There surely are systems, positions, and institutions that are worthy of the same scrutiny.

When addressing hypocrisy, Jesus said to first remove the plank from your own eye before attempting to scrutinize others. In other words, if we don’t want folks to criticize us, then we need to criticize ourselves first. Some have used the word “interrogate” today to describe this process. That captures the seriousness of our examination.

Of course, savvy church leaders committed to their own preservation can twist this verse against those who expose their misdeeds. This is the danger of religious professionals. They can always find a loophole for themselves if they want it.

The words of Jesus remind me that we should expect to find “planks in our eyes.” We will have serious oversights and problems to find and to address.

What makes the Bride of Christ beautiful isn’t the ability to overlook these ugly planks or to deny that they exist. The beauty of the bride of Christ is a redemptive trust in the restoration of God when we expose these ugly planks.

When we have experienced the grace and mercy of God to heal our flaws and errors, then we have grace and mercy to share with others. Whether others have a speck or a plank in their eyes, we will have more to offer than clarity. We will remember what it felt like to live with the pain and confusion of a plank obscuring so much of life.

As we work with others for their healing, we’ll transform our previous pain and confusion into a fellowship forged in the love and acceptance of God.

The stakes of exposing our planks are quite high, but on the other side of God’s healing and mercy, we will find clarity, freedom, and a capacity to minister that we could never touch while denying our deepest flaws. When Jesus points us to a time of examination and healing, he is giving us one of the greatest gifts we can share with others.