A Letter to my Brothers & Sisters in Christ in the Midst of a Storm
My dear brothers and sisters in Christ in America,
We have entered over the past week into a dangerous cultural reality not seen since before the Civil War. It’s more dangerous even (and I hesitate to say this) than the realities of the 1950’s civil rights fights. That fight was largely played out in the South. Today’s divide is pervasive nationwide because of social media and political parties.
This is why I’m writing you this letter: I believe that how the followers of Jesus respond in the coming weeks, months and years will shape the witness of the Church for generations to come.
The confirmation process for Brett Kavanaugh has ripped off any façade of a desire for unity or a shared vision of our nation. We are in all-out cultural war. It is a raging storm, not a cloudy day. David French outlines it excellently here, for more background. Bob Costa and Michael Scherer also captured it with painfully clear data in their Washington Post piece entitled Rock Bottom:
“After Ford and Kavanaugh had testified before the Senate about the alleged high school assault, 86 percent of Democrats told Quinnipiac pollsters they believed her account, compared with 84 percent of Republicans who said they believed Kavanaugh.”
Political partisan warriors from both sides are turning up the volume. They could not be further from one another — literally living in different worlds, with different world-views. They are thoroughly and completely convinced the other side is wrong, dangerous and evil. How could such a deep divide possibly be bridged? It feels a chasm too wide to possibly cross with human effort.
What’s more, as Costa and Scherer point out:
“Under the pressure of these divisions, no public official has been able to rise above the fray to chart a path forward toward greater national unity and mutual understanding. Moral outrage has been accepted as the basic currency of political debate, opponents regularly attack each others’ motives along with their positions, and honest reflection, when it cuts through the maw, is often dismissed as a sign of weakness or posturing.”
This is where it starts to get really dangerous. Watch the progression: Our nation grows hot with anger and discord. This anger pours out in the “moral outrage” mentioned above — but quickly turns to the dismissal of the perspective of those with whom we disagree. Dismissal of their perspective then leads to dismissal of them, as people. Once you can dismiss someone as a person, you can justify almost any action against them, including their murder. We have seen this tragic progression play out time and time again in the history of our broken world — most recently in Nazi Germany, with Tutsi’s and Hutu’s in Rwanda, and with African-Americans in the Jim Crow South.
This is a dangerous but well-documented path we must not go down.
It is in moments like these when we, the Church — those who are genuinely and humbly professing that Jesus Christ is Lord and He is in charge of our lives — must be most vigilant to guard our loyalty and committed to finding the “third way” of Jesus.
I say “genuinely and humbly” here because it is quite evident that many — from the political left and right — are not submitted first and foremost to the lordship of Jesus and his teachings. Instead they wear Christian faith as a small badge of identity or attend church as an activity rather than submitting themselves fully to the teachings of Jesus as revealed in Scripture. It is important that we reflect on our own consistency here. But we should clearly call out instances where people professing to follow Jesus are obviously not applying scriptural Truth to everyday life — either in their own behavior or the standards they apply to others. It is foolish to ignore this reality.
If we follow Jesus, we also can’t forget to whom our loyalty belongs. It does not belong to a political party. It does not belong to the president. It does not belong to the supreme court. It does not belong primarily to our race, our tribe, or even our family.
Our loyalty, if we say we follow Jesus, belongs to Him. First. Foremost. Fiercely. And when loyalty to Him clashes with loyalty to anyone or anything else, we must always choose Him.
So in this dangerous storm of cultural war, what should political engagement look like for followers of Jesus? Let’s go back to the basics for a minute.
Here’s what those of us who follow Jesus say we believe: His love for people — all people for all time — goes so deep that He was willing to leave the comfort of Heaven and endure the hardship of Earth — including the excruciating pain of rejection, torture and death — to become the final sacrifice necessary for all people to be reconciled to God the Father. Following him will mean taking up our own cross, dying to ourselves daily, and enduring, at times, rejection and pain so that others can experience reconciliation and peace.
He also gives us clear words about what He expects from us as a response to His love — He says, in Mark chapter 12, among other places, the Greatest Commandment is this:
“Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind and with all your strength.”
And then adds, “The second is this: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’ There is no commandment greater than these.”
We must understand then, that our call in Him is first to know and love the Father — a love that manifests in obedience — and then to love those around us in the same sacrificial, incarnational way He has loved us. That sounds great, you may say. But what does that possibly look like in this polarized moment? Do I really have to? Can’t I just be quiet, serve at my local homeless shelter, do my bible study and keep to myself on political issues?
I wish it were so. Believe me, I do.
While I don’t believe every follower of Jesus must engage in political discourse every day, I also don’t believe we can ignore it — especially now. But before you click away discouraged and deflated, take heart. I’m not saying you have to take an open position on everything. It’s a complicated time. Instead, let me make a much simpler and clearer plea.
I believe the most fundamental and urgent call to followers of Jesus in our current political discourse is this: We must speak calm into the storm by refusing to demonize those who disagree with us and instead, seek first to understand them and look for pathways to relationship.
This will not be easy. Remember that chasm that feels too wide to possibly cross with human effort? It is.
But do we so easily forget that between us and God exists a chasm so deep, so wide, so full of our own sins that separate us from His Holiness, that no persuasive argument, eloquent words or angry diatribes will create a bridge of return to right relationship with Him? If you are a Christian, you have said that you believe there is no way to be reconciled to God apart from a supernatural intervention, namely, the birth, life, death, burial and resurrection of Jesus Christ.
Yet somehow when this belief crashes up against a supreme court confirmation, an election or a controversial issue, we abandon this Truth instead of submitting our politics to it. Our first reaction is to assume the other person is wrong, probably evil and beyond hope. They aren’t worth our time and will just raise our blood pressure anyways.
What if instead, our first reaction as followers of Jesus confronted with a person with whom we disagree politically, was to love them? I’m talking about the in-the-flesh relationships and our online interactions. Don’t forget — behind every smartphone and keyboard is a human being.
What if that love looked like listening first? Like trying to understand where that person was coming from — including perhaps most importantly their own history, hurts, hang-ups and biases as we also consider our own?
We should ask ourselves if we’re willing to forever alienate that person, to end that relationship, to give them the impression that following Jesus, to us, means anger, judgment and exile instead of love, grace and reconciliation.
This is so hard! How do I stick to truth but also interact in love? Here again, Jesus points the way.
If you read the gospels you see something remarkable in the person of Jesus, no matter your opinion of his divinity: he offends nearly everyone. He isn’t concerned with public opinion or the perception of others. And yet, he never leaves it simply at offense. He always offers a third way.
A few examples:
One moment He was the ultimate swamp-draining, anti-establishment conservative — railing against the entrenched power of the Pharisees while calling for a strict obedience to the moral laws of God. He called not only for marital faithfulness but — gasp! — said if you’ve even looked at someone else lustfully you’ve already committed adultery in your heart. “How bigoted and restrictive of you, Jesus! You’re such a right-wing nutjob!”
But the next moment He was the bleeding heart progressive, calling for using our own hard-earned money and resources to take care of widows, orphans and, hold your breath — immigrant refugees from outcast societies! “What does he want, open borders and complete amnesty!? Jesus, you’re such a liberal! You must be a socialist!”
Amazingly, He never backed down from truth. Especially when people from any side were clearly misaligned with the priorities of God as revealed in the Scriptures. Listen carefully for the wisdom: if someone was obviously not interested in the dialogue or open to the Truth, he had harsh words. He called the Pharisees “white-washed tombs.” Told them they were trying to look good on the outside while inwardly their souls were like rotting corpses. It was clear they had made up their minds, he knew it and he called them on it. So we too should be wise to those on any side of an issue who, like the Pharisees, are clearly out of line with God’s truth as revealed in scripture and have hardened their hearts so obviously that they wish our demise.
I have personally been the target of harsh criticism from left, right and center just this week because of stances I’ve taken that I believed were in line with Truth.
I’ve been told by progressive friends that any suggestion the left is equally to blame on any issue is ridiculous. I’ve been told by conservative friends that I must be out of my mind to suggest some of the things I’ve suggested about the Kavanaugh confirmation process. One even said, “you’ve completely lost me, Joel.” And I’ve been accused by friends in the center of either focusing too much on controversial issues (“You’re pro-life? We can’t talk about that.”) or even suggesting that a coalition of left and right is possible (“Ben Sasse is a conservative! How dare you suggest he could be part of a middle governing coalition.” or “Chris Coons is a Democrat. They hate Christians.”) I’ve been fully attacked from every angle.
This hopefully means I’m right where I need to be. I hope it means that I’m trying to follow the model of Jesus. I pray my journey on earth doesn’t end in being murdered for standing for Truth, but I have to be willing for it to be so.
But here’s the amazing twist: The real power — the life-changing power — didn’t come because Jesus was right. It also didn’t come because Jesus was loving. It came because He was uniquely able to be both. He was simultaneously unwilling to compromise the Truth and unwilling to leave us without a way forward. He told us the hard truth about the consequences of our sin — and then paid the price himself. It reminds me of the beautiful metaphor I’ve heard told of the judge who gavels down the death sentence, then takes off his robe, walks down from the bench to the bailiff and holds out his hands to say, “I will take his sentence.”
So in light of His amazing love for us, my brothers and sisters, I call us to the third way in this dangerous time.
This way is not the squishy middle. No, it is far from squishy. Authentic Christian witness in this political environment cannot compromise on the Truth. Nor can it be aimed at a “middle” way that seeks compromise only for the sake of peace at the expense of Truth.
This way is not a new political party. Exchanging one form of power-seeking for another does nothing to address the root causes of division and injustice in all its forms.
This way is not a new organization. Jesus already gave us the blueprint — it’s the book of Acts — His church in all its glory and diversity.
No, it starts with our own way of relating to one another within the church and then teaching others to do the same outside the church, even if they don’t follow Jesus. If we believe His way to be best, we should apply it to the way we interact with others whether they follow Him or not. This is the embodiment of the Lord’s prayer — we not only ask for, but live toward, His Kingdom coming and His Will being done on Earth as it is in Heaven.
I believe my personal calling is to stay engaged in politics and help chart a new way. That will take many forms and require hard work. Your calling may not be to politics. Be thankful! But please, for the sake of our nation, don’t bury your head in the sand on the one hand or slide thoughtlessly into a tribe on the other.
We must, if we believe what we say we believe, be ever-vigilant about keeping our first love and loyalty where it belongs. And we must be thoughtful — seeking both grace and truth in our interactions with others. We must speak calm into the storm by refusing to demonize those who disagree with us and instead, seek first to understand them and look for pathways to relationship. I am convinced that if the Church will lead on this, there is hope for our nation to re-center, calm down, and heal.
I am reminded of one of Jesus’ miracles. A storm had come up unexpectedly and it was tossing a boatful of frantic disciples. It went like this, from the book of Mark:
“Leaving the crowd behind, they took him along, just as he was, in the boat. There were also other boats with him. A furious squall came up, and the waves broke over the boat, so that it was nearly swamped. Jesus was in the stern, sleeping on a cushion. The disciples woke him and said to him, “Teacher, don’t you care if we drown?”
He got up, rebuked the wind and said to the waves, “Quiet! Be still!” Then the wind died down and it was completely calm.
He said to his disciples, “Why are you so afraid? Do you still have no faith?”
They were terrified and asked each other, “Who is this? Even the wind and the waves obey him!”
The same Spirit that raised this same Jesus from the dead lives in us, His disciples. What if, just maybe, we can tap into the same power and speak calm into this cultural moment? What if with our actions and our words, we, the people of Jesus, can say to our nation, “Quiet! Be still!”
Then, and only then, will we find calm and get back to the business of sailing the boat together instead of frantically arguing over the cause of the storm.