Race, Grace, and Warm Fuzzies

8 10 2019

Because I would never dare to presume to know what was in the heart of either Brandt Jean or Amber Guyger at the time of this embrace – the photo of which has gone viral – I’m going to be careful in making assumptions or calling others to model their behavior.  I have no desire to speak for people of color, presuming that my privilege has given me the wisdom to know how they should respond to a systemic form of American racism that continues to take the lives of too many young Black men.  And, as a pastor and person of faith, I in no way want to minimize the healing power of repentance and the transformative nature of forgiveness.  But having said all that, there is something about this photo that just doesn’t sit well with me.

Brandt knows that hating the police officer who killed his innocent, unarmed brother Botham . . . as he sat in his own apartment, watching TV, and enjoying a bowl of ice cream . . . will only harm his spirit and hurt his soul.  His remarks at the trial revealed a forgiving spirit and deep love of God.  And he made it clear that he wanted only the best for Amber, and that he hoped one day she would give her life to Christ.  Amber too revealed a distraught and tender spirit at the trial, tearfully apologizing for taking the life of a beloved brother and son.  Both she and her mother spoke mournfully about how the killing had so tragically ruined the lives of so many people.

So at first glance, it is easy to see why people were so powerfully moved by the photo!  But when set in the context of all that is going on in our nation today, and when interpreted in light of the Christian faith, things become far more complex.  And here’s why.

First, Amber is part of a culture in which systemic racism still rules the day; and throughout the trial she failed to acknowledge that.  She admitted that she made a mistake, and that she didn’t know she was in the wrong apartment until she had already pulled the trigger.  But she failed to acknowledge the role race had played in her sudden fear and overreaction to seeing a Black man sitting on what she thought was her sofa.  And she never apologized for that.  In fact she actually stated during the trial that she had fired to kill!  Because that’s what fear of another does.  And Amber’s fear was not the fear of an intruder!  It was the fear of a Black man.  And so she killed him.  Had Botham been White, the confusion over which apartment the officer was standing in would have likely become quickly apparent, laughter over her mistake would have ensued, and no shots would have ever been fired.  But Botham wasn’t White.  He was Black.  And so Amber made all kinds of false assumptions, and wound up committing murder.  Her racism was put on display for all the nation to see, and she never acknowledged that . . . not once, during the entire trial.

Second, Brandt appears to be part of a church that fails to see repentance and forgiveness as part of the larger reign of God in this world: a reign in which shalom – justice, wholeness, and rightness – are required to truly transform creation.  For as important as repentance and forgiveness are, without shalom, they are little more than a warm sentiment or a kind embrace!  Shalom is justice: and where there is no justice, there is no shalom.  There may be repentance, and even forgiveness, but they are only the first steps.  And if justice does not follow, shalom will never come, and the reign of God will cease to become a reality!

Dietrich Bonhoeffer wrote about “cheap grace” in his 1937 book, The Cost of Discipleship, and defined it as the preaching of forgiveness without requiring repentance.  I would add that it is also the seeking of peace without requiring justice.  For without justice and repentance, peace and forgiveness mean very little!

So Brandt may have forgiven Amber for killing his brother, but she has still not repented of her racism.  And Amber may have stumbled into the arms of a reconciling peace with the brother of the man she murdered, but there continues to be little justice for Brandt, and for millions of other people of color in America.  America’s version of White Supremacy is one that too many still refuse to acknowledge and confront.  And until we do, pictures like the one above will continue to go viral, and give well-meaning White folk ‘goose bumps.’  But nothing will change.  And people of color will continue to die.

America does not need pictures of Black people forgiving and making peace with White people in a hug.  Forgiveness and peace, without repentance and justice, are nothing more than warm fuzzies!


I long to be inspired again!

19 09 2019

inspireIn President John F. Kennedy’s Inauguration Day speech, on January 20, 1961, Americans were encouraged to . . . “ask not what your country can do for you, ask what you can do for your county.”

Two years later, on August 28, 1963, in Martin Luther King’s “I have a dream speech”, our nation was inspired to imagine that day when people will . . . “not be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character.”

January 28, 1986, after the explosion of the Space Shuttle Challenger, President Ronald Reagan comforted a country mourning the loss of seven courageous astronauts by beautifully articulating the tragedy as their having . . . “slipped the surly bonds of earth and touched the face of God.”

And on July 25, 2016, Michelle Obama spoke about the power of not meeting evil with the same evil.  “You don’t stoop to their level,” she said.  “. . . when they go low, we go high!”

Oh, how I am longing to be inspired again!  Every time I turn on the news I’m longing to hear from a national leader who can speak in a way that lifts my sights to the highest of human goodness, and who can give me picture of the world not as it is, but a vision of the world as it should be . . . as it could be!

My wife and I are binge-watching “The West Wing,” and it is not unlikely that this fictional account of the work of the people in the White House is raising my already high standards, and leaving me with expectations that may be slightly unrealistic!  But surely we cannot allow the uninspiring times in which we are living to become the norm.  Surely we cannot continue to put uninformed and unimaginative people in positions of power.  Surely we cannot continue to condone leadership that lacks moral and ethical integrity, that denies facts, and that scorns those with differing perspectives.  And surely we cannot continue to embrace leaders whose preferred vehicle of communication is a mere 140 word tweet, and whose only method of debating important concepts and ideas is by name-calling opponents.  Regardless of the political party with whom one identifies, surely these are all things upon which we can agree!

How often have we all heard someone say, “I want your average Joe in the White House, and in Congress . . . common people . . . just like me!”

Well I DON’T want people in the White House, OR in Congress, who are just like me.  In fact I want women and men who are not at all like me.  I want leaders who are smarter than I am.  I want leaders who are more informed than I am.  I want leaders who are more articulate than I am, and who are more knowledgeable of all that is going on in the world than I will likely ever be!  I want leaders who will inspire me — who will call me and this nation to a higher version of ourselves, and who aspire to their own better nature!

Is it really too much to expect our leaders, like the West Wing’s Josiah Bartlett, to be less concerned about reelection, and more concerned about speaking the truth?  It is too much to expect our leaders to communicate in a ways that builds others up, and that edifies our people – all people, of every gender, race, ethnicity, and ideology?  And is it too much to expect our people, to walk into a voting booth and put character before charisma, and principles before party?

I hope not.  Because I don’t think I’m alone in my thinking these days.  Something has gone terrible wrong in our nation, and we need leaders who can lift our sights to all that is right, and good, and beautiful, and pure! We need leaders who truly understand service before self, and who know in their bones that in a great nation, no one succeeds unless everyone succeeds!  We need leaders who, in the words of Dwight D. Eisenhower, “have unquestionable integrity”; and we need leadership, that in the words of Stanley A. McChrystal, “builds trust and . . . inspires.”

Oh, how I long to be inspired again!

Would someone, please, for God’s sake, and for the sake of our nation . . . inspire me.  Inspire us!


Religious, but not Spiritual!?

10 09 2019

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERABy now most of us are well aware that America, and perhaps the world in general, is more spiritual than religious. Survey after survey, book after book, sermon after sermon, all tell us that people have been driven away from the historical forms of Christian religiosity in favor of a more personal and self-defined understanding of spirituality.  And this is certainly understandable.

The largest and most visible religious movements of our day tend to be inclined toward fundamental extremism, and are accurately judged by many to be naive and narrow, anti-science and anti-intellectual, and morally hypocritical and ethically inconsistent.  And while many of these right-leaning churches have let go of empty rituals and traditions, and managed to engage culture and society in meaningful ways; their relevance has often come at the expense of a theology with any modicum of intellectual integrity.

Meanwhile, many left-leaning churches have worked hard to create a theology that is intellectually credible and morally consistent, but in so doing they have neglected the task of being relevant to an ever and always changing world.  As a result they appear to be in a perpetual state of decline.  Far too often they are more concerned with maintaining their religious rituals and traditions, than finding new ways to reach out to, and connect with, the community and the culture.  They embrace a faith centered around the incarnation, and a God who in the words of Eugene Peterson “moves into the neighborhood,” but their talk about incarnation appears to have little if any impact on what they do and how they do it!

As a result, religious activity and church membership continue to decrease around our nation.  Rather than ‘going to church’ on Sunday mornings, people are now attending the soccer games of their children, visiting their local Starbucks to read the morning paper, or merely surrendering to the simple desire to sleep in!  Because people remain spiritual beings they want to hang on to their spirituality; but as far as religion goes, they want out!  They want nothing to do with our religious institutions and traditions because they have rightly concluded that we have lost our spirituality.  They regard us as more religious, than spiritual: and that conclusion that has left the future of the institutional Church hanging in the balance.

While we Church folk are quick to label many of the unchurched and dechurched people in our communities as being spiritual but not religious; perhaps it would do us well to consider their assessment of us; for they regard us as religious, but not spiritual.  And as someone who has spent his entire life in the Church, I’m inclined to agree.

Churches on both the right and left — as well as countless that would be described as ‘purple,’ ‘middle of the road,’ or as I’m more likely to say, ‘lukewarm’ about anything that really matters — have lost their voice and no longer have much to bring to the public square.  We were once respected, and brought a great deal of wisdom and integrity to our communities.  We had much to contribute to the national dialogue about the important issues of the day, and while not always consistent with Biblical values, we were never the less at least attempting to do good around the world.  But this is no longer the case.  Sunday morning worship attendance continues to decline, growing Churches are merely ‘stealing sheep’ from other congregation and NOT making new disciples, and the respect for and admiration of clergy is now as low as it is for attorneys!


Because the world’s assessment of us accurate.  The American Church is far more religious, than spiritual!  We love our buildings more than we love the people in our communities.  We are more concerned with budgets and bulletins, than with the hungry and the homeless.  And the only thing we’re interested in changing, are light bulbs!  . . . and even then, only after three committee meetings and congregational vote!  We’re still singing the same hymns we sang 200 years ago, reciting creeds that were written to address issues from a different time and place, and memorizing passages of Scripture without the slightest knowledge of Biblical history or the task of Biblical interpretation.  Most tragic of all, we believe that our mercy ministries absolve us from entering the world of politics, where we might become the justice-seekers we’re called to become as followers of the most-high God!  It is as though we’ve become content with debates about the virgin birth, musical styles, whether or not wine can be served on church property, and how long someone can remain on our prayer chains.

Are any of these matters spiritual?  Do any of them have anything at all to do with one’s spirituality?  Some perhaps come close; but most are not . . . by a long shot!  So what if our theological discussions were less about telling people why Jesus had to be born of a virgin, and instead focused on what it means to understand God as “the one in whom we live and move and have our being?”  What if we stopped telling people that worship was about getting together for an hour on Sunday morning, singing, and telling God how much we love Jesus; and instead helped people find ways to worship God Monday thru Saturday, in the ways they engaged with their neighbors, their colleagues work, the students with whom they go to school, or the strangers on the street?  What if we stopped even thinking about wine before we got the coffee issues solved, and stopped serving warm dishwater simply because it was on sale at Cosco; and instead sought to make our fellowship times opportunities for real and genuine sharing, where people were not afraid to be authentic in their interactions, vulnerable with their struggles, and honest about their faith journeys?  And what if we we began to understand prayer as less about telling God what we’d like done over the next few weeks; and instead more about becoming mindful of God’s presence in our world and the Spirit’s movement in our lives, so that we might become agents of reconciliation and transformation?

After 34 years in ministry, I’m becoming more and more convinced that the world needs far fewer religious people and far more spiritual people.  And if that means that the Church as we know it needs to die; then let it die.  Perhaps then something new can be born.  Perhaps then resurrection will become something more than a simplistic and naive interpretation of the activity of Jesus on the third day, and more about what it means to be “born again!” Perhaps then the Church can become what it was meant to be: Christ’s living body in the world: seeking justice, loving mercy, and walking humbly with God.

Church, let’s stop worrying about everyone outside of our walls, and better deal with those inside!  Let’s stop trying to make spiritual people more religious, and instead focus on making religious people more spiritual.

The Cult of Community: White Men and American Evangelicalism

15 08 2019

Ivanwald.jpgCommunity is at the heart of the Gospel!  The Book of Genesis teaches that “it is not good for us to be alone”; and the New Testament is all about God’s ‘kin’dom being fully realized when we understand our connectedness to God, to one another, and to all creation.  The incarnation story – which sets Christianity apart from so many of the world’s other great religions – is about God ‘moving into the neighborhood’ and living among us.  And that is Gospel!  The life, death, and resurrection of Jesus confirm the reality that God is here and that we are never alone. If the Christian faith is about anything it is about relationships!  They matter; and community is essential to our lives.

I became most powerfully aware of this reality in college!  I pledged the Alpha Epsilon Pi fraternity my first semester, was elected ‘Master’ my sophomore year, and found my closest relationships to be among the men who quickly became my new brothers!  All-night road-trips, induction ceremonies, intramural football games, and the “Good and Welfare” portion of our weekly Sunday might meetings (where we all shared some of the most intimate details of our lives) all profoundly influenced my college years.  I will never forget the guys who so powerfully shaped and enriched my life; and while my daughter jokingly tells me that fraternities are just about men buying their friends, my experience was far more genuine and authentic!

I’ve experienced this kind of community at other times in my life: on my freshman football team in high school, with a bunch of guys I took golf lessons with when I was in my 30s, in a couple of different book groups that I’ve been part of over the years, AND in groups that were not just limited to men!  Each of these experiences left an indelible mark upon my soul, and I have not forgotten the men, AND WOMEN who shaped the person that I am today!

Unfortunately, we still live in a world where latent homophobia haunts the male psyche, and inhibits many men from becoming the relational beings we were created to be.  Too many of us have been raised to believe that any longing for male relationships is a threat to our heterosexuality, and as a result many men continue to live isolated lives, with few male friends, and even fewer opportunities for non-sexual intimacy.  We wallow in emotional immaturity; and persist in relational ineptitude!

In some situations, sports teams, fraternities, and other forms of male groupings provide opportunities for us to flex our relational muscles; but sadly, too often, the testosterone in such situations appears to perpetuate thinking, and lead to behavior, that can only be labeled as sexist, misogynistic, and patronizing.  In other situations, men are drawn to religious groups designed to satisfy men’s longings for friendship and acceptance, but too often these groups also fail to move men toward relational and spiritual  wholeness.  They DO offer male friendships, but in ways that are relationally shallow and spiritually superficial.  And no where is this more evident than in the world of American Evangelicalism.

While the cult of community can be provocatively destructive to men of any faith, the new Netflix series “The Family” reveals that when coupled with the powerfully privileged class of white men that dominate the American Evangelical Church, community can become extremely harmful and hurtful. On the surface, the evangelical church may appear to ‘do relationships’ well!  But any in depth study of their community will reveal that the friendships being fostered and the community being developed, particularly among men, is falling short of God’s ‘kin’dom goals.  Their literalistic approach to Scripture – which far too often leads to the most selfish and legalistic aspects of extreme, right-wing, political conservatism – quickly becomes seductively arrogant, rigid, and patriarchal.  And in my experience, in the end, despite the stated goals of such groups, men actually become less and less like Jesus, and more and more like traditional ‘bros,’ living hipster lives, in college frat houses across America!

I attended several of the Bible Studies at the Ivanwald House, in Arlington, VA, when I was a college student at The American University in Washington, DC.  I attended one of their ‘retreats’ in Norfolk, VA in 1982, and even had a one-on-one meeting with Doug Coe when I was struggling with my call to ministry in the early 90s.  And in spite of what may have been their best intentions, something just wasn’t right in . . . ‘the family!’  I knew it in my bones.

In the 30 years that followed I remained involved with the plethora of men’s groups that are part of the evangelical world.  I wrote my dissertation on Male Spirituality more than 20 years ago, at the height of my involvement with the Promise Keepers movement in America.  I spent 15 years in a national, all-male, evangelical pastors covenant group; and I have been part of  various “men’s groups” for most of my 33 years in ordained ministry.  Needless to say I remain extremely grateful for the many ways these experiences and groups have helped to me to learn what it means to be a man, and how to best participate in the creation and cultivation of the ‘kin’dom of God that is at the heart of the Gospel.  

But guys – we need to be careful!  For while we DO need relationships with other men – deep, meaningful, and yes intimate relationships – those relationships can not be permitted to lead us into the cult of community.  If such relationships are not making us more like Jesus, something is wrong.  If the groups of which we are a part are only helping us grab more power, in order to convert more people to our way of living and being in the world, so that we might garner more control over our own lives as well as the lives of the people around us, then these groups are failing us!  If they are making us louder and brasher, and filling us with more pride in ourselves and a deeper prejudice towards those not ‘lucky’ enough to be like us, then our groups are leading us astray.  And just because they allow us to experience things that we may have never felt before, doesn’t mean that they are necessarily healthy, or leading us to more Godly lives.

The community Jesus came to create, that which we know to be the living body of Christ in the world today, was designed to help us love God with all our heart, soul, mind, and strength, and our neighbors as ourselves.  But too many of the men’s groups in so much of American Evangelicalism are all about “making disciples of all nations.”  And this is generally understood to be convincing everyone to think the way we think, and to believe the way we believe.  They are about promoting a purity culture for women; while at the same time dismissing male promiscuity and sexual aggression as little more than a forgivable aspect of our ‘fallen nature’ that simply needs to be confessed.  And they claim to want reconciliation between the races; and yet remain so fragile, and so frightened at the possible implications, that such groups never really get around to considering how to participate in the dismantling of systemic racism in the Church or the world!  So instead of seeking these ‘kin’dom goals, they instead settle for memorizing verses of Scripture, as the way to write God’s word upon their hearts, and that then allows them avoid truly experiencing the transforming and conforming power of God’s Spirit.

Ironically, I started this blog in a Starbucks several days ago, with a men’s small group meeting right beside me!  At the same time I was both envious of, and repelled by, what they were doing.  When done well, men’s groups have the capacity to teach us about the best of what it means to be masculine because we are men; as well as the best of what it means to feminine because we are also human!  They have the capacity to mold and shape our hearts to become more and more like Jesus; and to move us closer to the Holy so that we might become forces for good in our world.

But when done poorly; when led by spiritually immature and emotionally shallow leaders, who are simply looking to teach men to feel, cry, and talk about things that men don’t normally talk about, then such groups become nothing less than cult-like.  When they simply teach men how to become comfortable hugging other men, or help us to cultivate friendships that simply reinforce traditional male machismo, then such groups have lost their Christ-centeredness, and wind up hurting and harming both men, as well as the world men inhabit!  And that is NOT the Gospel.

The Church and the world do not need any more men like the the men in ‘the family!’  We need strong men, with passion and commitment.  We need men who are emotionally secure and relationally skilled.  We need men who take a genuine interest in raising other men, and who are eager to become ambassadors for the Gospel in our world.  We need kind and compassionate men, who model both the humility AND the convictions of Jesus.  But we do NOT need any more arrogant men: men who think they have all the answers, to all of life’s questions.  We do NOT need any more men who don’t know when to stop talking; and whose only goal in life is to amass as much power and prestige as possible, so they can escort us back to the days when they had complete control over . . . everything!

No, we do NOT need any more men like the men in ‘the family!’  Rather, we need men who can resist the cult of community; and who instead, simply want to learn to live like Jesus.  It’s that simple; and that hard!



Tulip Calvinism and Total Depravity (And this is not about the American President!)

7 08 2019

TulipBecause the tulip is my wife’s favorite flower, she loves to come home with bouquets of  them to brighten up our townhouse: yellow bunches in the spring, purple double-petal blooms in the summer, and even red ones mixed with boughs of green pine in December.  And they always do their job – boldly transporting the beauty of God’s creation from the outdoors, to the indoors.

But they also do something else.  They bring a bit of redemption to one of the church’s most misunderstood theological doctrines: Tulip Calvinism!  For the past 500 years this belief system, conceived in a world burdened by the harshness of life and born in the heart of a Church obsessed with purity, has marred the national flower of the Netherlands.  So it’s time for the Church to finally grow some bulbs that will give rise to a new way of thinking about Tulip, and let a few of the old beliefs whither and die.  And this is particularly true of the “T” in Tulip, which stands for “Total Depravity.”

I heard mention of Total Depravity far too many times at a recent Presbyterian conference.  And while I understand the tendency to want to emphasize the depth of human sin when talking about things like racism, misogyny, and xenophobia, I fear it does more harm than good, and radically distorts the truth of God’s creation.

Building upon the Roman Catholic understanding of creation’s fall, Calvin purported that the brokenness of humanity means that every aspect of human nature is touched, tainted, and enslaved by sin.  As a result, people are not only never able to freely choose to follow God, or to live the way of Jesus, but we are too broken, too evil, too . . . depraved . . . to experience the oneness that exists between Creator and creation!

Now it has been said that the one theological doctrines that requires the least proof of it’s existence is the doctrine of sin.  It’s consequences abound: from the destructive nature of hatred and war, to the traumatic injuries of poverty and injustice.  Most of us are more than willing to acknowledge sin’s presence and power in the world because it is all around us.  It brings harm and hurt to our lives all the time.  However the doctrines of original sin and total depravity often blind people to another more important doctrine: the Doctrine of Original Blessing.

Matthew Fox — expelled from the Dominican order of Roman Catholicism because of his ‘protests’ against ancient Christian teachings which he believes to be flawed, and who is now ministering in the Episcopal Church — has been attempting to deconstruct AND reconstruct Christian teaching about sin for decades.  And his concept of “Original Blessing” is the doctrine that deserves more of our attention and focus.  For before any mention of sin, brokenness, a fall, or eternal separation, Scripture references human beings as the ‘very good’ creation of God.  And nothing has, will, or can, ever change that reality!  Not even sin.

This was the message of Jesus, and it is what makes the grace he came to reveal so amazing.  In spite of the Church’s centuries-old teaching about original sin, God is a God of love and mercy.  And the Spirit of God dwells in each one of us.  There is a “Divine Spark” in all humanity, and Jesus reveals that when fanned, that spark has the capacity to burn brightly within us.  It is a spark that can fuel the making of choices and decisions that eradicate racism, that reject misogyny, and that refuse to embrace xenophobia.

The human race is not a broken, eternally lost species, that has the capacity to do good on occasion: when widows and orphans, when the blind and the lost, when prisoners and refugees just happen to get lucky.  The human race is the very good creation of a loving and grace-filled God, that has the capacity to evil when we deny or reject the movement of the Spirit.  We are not bad people with the capacity to do good.  We are good people with the capacity to do bad.  And the sooner we realize this, the better we will be able to live into our identity as members of the great human family.

Why is this important?  Because humanity has spent far too much time living up to the belief that we are nothing more than “sinners in the hands of an angry God.”  And if this is what we truly believe about others and ourselves, then is it any wonder that we live so fearfully, and angrily, and violently?  We have lived into this identity and well for more than 2000 years! We have given into fear and greed because we have believed that we are nothing more than fearful and greedy people.

But what if we shifted out thinking a little bit?  What if we began to understand ourselves and others as the very good creation of a gracious and loving God?  Could that change us?  Might that begin to change the world?  Is it possible that a shift away from original sin and toward original blessing might alter the way we live our lives, and give way to a little more kindness and compassion?

Well how about we give it a try?  The centuries we’re spent talking about original sin and total depravity have not helped us.  So maybe Calvin got it wrong!  Maybe the Church still has a little more reforming ahead of us.  Maybe, the Spirit isn’t done with you just yet!  I know she’s not done with me.  For the more I understand myself as the very good, and dearly loved creation of a merciful God, the more faithful I become!  Am I perfect?  Of course not!  But I live more like Jesus when I nurture the seeds of original blessing before original sin.

How about you?  Give it a try.  See what happens. Perhaps the Spirit of God might truly be able to do with us, and in us, more than we hope, dream, or even dare to imagine.



The Gospel According to Trump

18 07 2019


Most people who know me well know that I am a huge fan of Amy Grant.  A friend introduced me to her albums when I was in college almost 40 years ago, and since that time she and her music have ministered to me in important and meaningful ways.  I know that sounds cheesy — like a grown man who still has a crush on his childhood babysitter — but Amy’s music has always spoken to my soul.  Her lyrics are raw and real, and parts of her faith journey have been very similar to my own.  So yes!  I have all of her CDs, and I’ve seen her in concert almost two dozen times, including a concert just last month in Alexandria, VA. This last concert was particularly enjoyable; and as I listened to songs that I know by heart, and that I have sung in the car over and over and over again, I found myself wondering how my congregation might respond to a “Gospel According to Amy Grant” sermon series.

Too much?

Perhaps!  But the notion of such a series has gotten me thinking about all the different versions of the Gospel that exist in our nation today, and how many of them do not bear much resemblance to the Good News that Jesus proclaimed.  Many versions seem way off track; and some, the ones whose adherents seem to be the most vocal right now, are downright frightening!  They seem to be lacking in anything that could even be considered close to the “good news” found in Christian Scripture.  And this is  particularly true of the version being offered to us by Donald Trump.

Our president claims to be a Christian: and a Presbyterian at that.  So naturally he would like us all to believe that he has a worldview that is rooted and grounded in the Gospel.  There is little evidence that Trump is a very religious person: he is neither a weekly church-goes nor a daily Bible-reader!  And I’ve never heard him refer to himself as a Christ-follower: that kind of a declaration would likely involve him thinking a little too theologically.  And thinking too deeply about anything doesn’t seem to be his strong suit.  So for the sake of this blog, let’s just accept his claim to be a ‘Christian.’  And let’s also remain open to the possibility that if this is indeed the case, that his faith will be evident in his worldview and revealed in his politics.

But is it?  Is his faith evident in the work of this administration?  Such questions have me wondering what exactly is the Gospel according to Donald Trump?  The Gospel according to Amy Grant reveals adherence to way of life that is full of grace and mercy, and that surrounds all people with divine love and forgiveness.  If someone were to look at my life, I would hope they would discover that the Gospel according to Bob Melone embraces the goodness of creation, calls us into community with one another, and encourages us to always side with the lost and the least.  But what about the current occupant of 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue?  What is . . . the Gospel according to Donald Trump?

My answer is “I’m not sure there is one” — at least not if we understand the Gospel (big ‘G’) to be about the Good News of Jesus Christ!  Trump might indeed have a gospel (small ‘g’) — a guiding principle that shapes his life — but it is nothing at all like the big “G”  Gospel proclaimed by Jesus.  Which is why so many of us are so confused about his support among Evangelical Christians: women and men who believe that siding with him is like siding with the “Good News.”

Some might easily be deceived into believing that the Gospel is all about things like growing the economy; and since Donald Trump appears to be doing that, he is in line with the ways of Jesus.  But is growing the economy really a Gospel value?  Is strengthening an economy in which approximately 1/10th of the population will always be living under the poverty level really reflective of the ways of Christ?  Is encouraging economic policies that only serve to deepen the wealth gap in our country in any way reflective of the teachings of Jesus?

Others appear to have been led to believe that adherence to the Gospel involves taking a strong stance on behalf of America around the world — for after all, America is God’s ‘city on a hill,’ and a ‘beacon of light’ to all the nations.  Trump is certainly attempting to do that!  But once again, is that really a Gospel value?  How is cozying up to dictators, and failing to condemn the evil practices of tyrants in places like North Korea and the Philippines, in any way reflective of the teachings of Jesus?   How is anything that even smacks of an “America-first” ideology reflective of a Christ who came for ALL people, and who calls his followers to make disciples of ALL nations?   And how does the notion of American exceptionalism stand alongside the anti-empire message that is so central to the Christian Gospel?

Still others might say that Trump’s stance on immigration reflects a commitment to a faith that respects the rule of law and that honors governing authorities.  Surely those are Gospel values, aren’t they?  And in normal times the answer would certainly be yes!  But these are not normal times; and those Gospel values are in direct conflict with another set of Gospel values, namely those calling us to care for immigrants and aliens.  So when this happens, a good theology teaches us that we are to always err on the side of love.  Therefore followers of Jesus have no choice but to reject any law or Executive Order that seeks to do anything but call us to care for and show hospitality to immigrants.  Christ-followers can and will have differences of opinions on a variety of issues, but the treatment of immigrants is not one of them.  Scripture is very clear on that subject, and there’s really not much room for debate.

Finally, there is yet another group of people, perhaps the most outspoken of all, who will say that Donald Trump’s pro-life policies reveal his commitment to the Gospel. But while Donald Trump may be pro-birth, he is NOT pro-life . . . not by a long-shot!  Last year, there were approximately 650,000 abortions in America, and the Trump administration wants to reduce that number by making abortions illegal.  But is that all it means to be pro-life?  In 2018 there were also more than 690,000 children who spent at least a portion of the year in foster care; and it is estimated that more than 15 million children in America live in poverty.  More than 3.9 million children in America do not have health care, and 1 in 5 American children go to be bed hungry on a regular basis.  Surely a “pro-life” president would be concerned about these matters as well, and would be attempting to do something to reduce those statistics too!  But Trump is doing nothing to address any of them.  How can a President of the United States who wants to wear the “Pro-Life” label continue to avoid addressing all these other important matters of life, and death?

So what exactly is the Gospel According to President Trump?  There isn’t one.  At least not one having to do with the Gospel that Jesus came to proclaim.  Donald Trump doesn’t know that Gospel, and he apparently has no desire to get to know it.  In fact, if his administration has revealed anything to the American people over the past two years, it is that he has rejected that Gospel. His language, his treatment of people who disagree with him, his attitude towards women and people of color: they all reveal Trump’s cluelessness when it comes to faith, the way of Jesus, and the heart of Christianity.  Donald Trump’s only gospel is a small “g” gospel, and it is the gospel of greatness.  And his version of greatness has nothing at all to do with the way of Jesus.

As a result, Trump’s spiritual bankruptcy needs to be named; and his version of the Christian faith needs to be questioned, challenged, and ultimately declared to be the heresy that it is!  And this is true of the gospel of his followers as well. There is NO Gospel according to Donald Trump — at least not for anyone who understands the Gospel to be the good news of Jesus Christ.

So if by chance you’re a church-goer, and you are either not hearing your pastor challenge the gospel of Trump, or not hearing your pastor offer a different gospel than the one being proclaim by this administration, then you need to find a new church!  And if you don’t believe me, might I suggest you simply reread the Gospels according to Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John.  Because it’s all right there: clear as day.  See for yourself: the Gospel of Jesus is nothing at all like the gospel according to Trump!



Whatever happened to decency?

15 07 2019

decency“Whatever happened to . . .” books abound!

“Whatever happened to faith?”  “Whatever happened to truth?”  “Whatever happened to justice?”  “Whatever happened to worship?”  “Whatever happened to the human race?”  Some people even want to know “whatever happened to penny candy?”

But as for me, I want to know whatever happened to decency?

Author and cultural commentator David Brooks recently wrote that a “decent society rests on a bed of manners, habits, traditions and institutions.”  But today, it appears as though the goal of a “decent” society is all but gone.  Manners are labeled ‘old school’ and seem to have been discarded with the all those big ‘ol cathode ray tube television sets; and traditions appear to have been forgotten, only to be replaced by whatever is easy, practical, and convenient.  Respect is nothing more than a 1967 song by Aretha Franklin; and a courtesy is merely that which we can get for free.

In considering the state of decency today, Brooks quickly references our current president, proclaiming “Trump is a disrupter. He rips to shreds the codes of politeness, decency, honesty and fidelity, and so renders society a savage world of dog eat dog.”  And I agree!  Wholeheartedly!  But as true as his words may be, Donald Trump is at the same time both the problem, and a symptom of the problem.  He continues to lie, cheat, and even in the eyes of many of his supporters, behave in ways that are unbefitting of the President of the United States.  But the absence of morality and respectability is overlooked by far too many, as they deem other objectives and agendas to be more important.  Which is why America’s problem is far greater than Donald Trump!  America’s problem is all the people that continue to support him– those who fail to condemn his lies, his treatment of those who disagree with him, and his mockery of the Christian life.

America’s problem is that we are becoming a nation willing to sacrifice morality and respectability on the altars of partisan power. And when a culture or society does that, decency is threatened. Standards are lowered and expectations are forgotten, and behavior becomes so personal and privatized that goodness and rightness become secondary matters.

But sadly, few people seem to be talking about this today! There are those who are ready to impeach the president because of his obstruction of justice in the Russia investigation; and others are quick to proclaim the ineptness of his countless cabinet appointments, many of whom are unfit for their respective positions.   Some of us are quick to speak out against his positions on child separation at our southern boarder, abortion rights, gays in the military, climate change, Obamacare, the Iran deal, the emoluments clause in the constitution, the role of a free press, and on and on and on.

But as important as all of those issues are, no one seems very interested in talking about decency. No one seems to have found the courage to address the issues of morality and respectability. Of all the political issues dividing our nation today, nothing is more disconcerting than the divide over the importance of decency; and yet no one seems to be willing to tackle it: not even the Church – the very community gifted with the task of growing a more decent world. So I’m encouraging Presbyterians to change this reality!

I’ll likely continue to speak out against the politics of the current administration.  But more than being one to PROTEST, I also want to ATTEST!  I want to attest to the value of decency.  I want to lift up the importance of honesty and truthfulness.  I want to call us back to ways of living that are respectful, and courteous, and polite!  I want to stand not just on the side of love, but on the side integrity as well. We need not stoop to the level of 45, and can at the same time promote both whatever political philosophy we espouse, AND decency!  It is possible to do both; and people on both sides of the aisle can replace Trump’s politics of hate with a politics of love, and in so doing bring decency back to our country.

Some values are higher than political values; and decency is one of them.  As the very good creation of God, decency is a mark of the Spirit on every human soul; for if I might dare quote Christopher Hitchens, “human decency is not derived from religion.  It precedes it.”  So let’s tap into that part of our created nature.  Let’s become more mindful of the Spirit’s mark upon each one of our lives. And let’s remember that being a great society, begins when we learn to be a decent society!