Being Church in a Post-Trump Society

10/10/2016 10:58 am ET

Let’s suppose the democracy gods are merciful and Donald Trump loses the presidential election. What then? And will the church have anything positive to offer?

I believe the church offers unique gifts toward our national healing, but we also have to be realistic. The church is hardly pure, and we must change our ways.

Our nation may have dodged a bullet, but great harm is already done. I cannot recall a public moment more cringe-worthy than our second presidential debate. Ours is a broken society.

At the moment it looks like the Donald will win just over 40 percent of the popular vote, a clear majority of the white vote, and an overwhelming majority of white evangelicals. As I meet fellow white men in social settings, I’ll wonder: “Did this guy actually support Donald Trump?” I’ll reason that most of them did. We all saw Trump mock a disabled reporter, call Mexicans “rapists,” conjure the word picture of a menstruating woman reporter, advocate “emboldened” policing in the face of Black Lives Matter, and boast of seducing married women and grabbing other women’s genitals. We saw and heard all those things. Yet 40% of us are hoping he’ll be our president. In some people’s minds none of these things disqualify Trump from being president.

Donald Trump isn’t our primary problem. This broken society is our problem. When Trump is back to cheating at golf and starring on reality TV, we still have to face one another. Trump’s campaign set loose some of the racism, misogyny, and resentment – not to mention base crudity – already latent among us. In public people now shout the hateful things they once would restrict to themselves and their cronies. Now they post it on social media under their own names. But let’s be clear: in public or in secret, the ugliness was already there. Now we’re confronted by it.

We’re experiencing a fundamental crisis of trust among our neighbors. Only a few Trump-Pence signs greet me as I drive around my community. But almost no Hillary Clinton signs do. For this middle-aged white man, the visuals feel hostile. How many of these people, I wonder, share Trump’s hostility toward minorities and his disdain for women? And if I feel this way, what about my black and brown neighbors, who feel personally targeted by the police and dismissed by white society? Social media tells me how they feel.

I’d like to think the church offers healing to our society. Unfortunately, Christians have contributed more to this crisis than we have offered to heal it. Despite dissent from some significant leaders, white evangelicals are among Trump’s biggest supporters. The spate of televangelists and the like who declare Trump as “God’s anointed” for this moment in history only makes things worse. In Hebrew and Greek, the terms “messiah” and “Christ” simply mean, one who is anointed. Is Trump a mini-messiah? Please.

Before we declare the church a source of healing, we must step back a bit. Sin and deception roam just as freely within the church as without. Hypocrisy? We excel at it. Sexual violence? Lord, you know. Racism and misogyny? Lord, count the ways. Hunger for power and influence? How eagerly do religious leaders press their way into photo ops with political figures!

One of my seminary professors, the great Wayne Oates, warned future preachers of sexual misconduct: “Don’t think you’re above it.” We are not above any of it.

Yet I maintain that the church has something precious to offer our society. We see this gift most clearly in what our churches call the Lord’s Supper, Holy Communion, and the Eucharist. We gather before God, and we confess our sins – promising to forgive the sins of others. Having acknowledged our own brokenness, and the broken relationships among us, we wish one another the peace of Christ. Then we do something that rarely occurs among enemies in any society: we share a meal together in the presence of God.

Think about it. We sit among the very people who threaten us. Knowing many of them harbor the very sentiments we detest, we confess our own own sins and extend toward them divine peace. We share a sacred table.

Where else in the world do these things happen? That alone is a wonderful gift.

But we need more than ritual reconciliation. Ritual reconciliation is important, even invaluable, but it does not put an end to resentment, hatred, and hypocrisy. We also need to change our society. We need a social and spiritual revival.

The sort of cultural change I’m describing requires that religious communities step out and do something we haven’t done well. We have to name things as they are. This applies to every aspect of our common life: preaching, worship, education, communal events, social ministry, you name it. We have to step up and denounce racism, misogyny, xenophobia, and religious bigotry. We must confess their presence among ourselves and in our histories. We must be clear that these things have no place in the church and will not be excused. We will name them as we see them, and we will do so boldly.

It doesn’t come naturally for religious communities to get real and name things as they are. We want to avoid partisanship. We don’t want to alienate anyone. We know our own sinfulness, so we’re reluctant to call out public sins, however dangerous they may be.

For all these reasons, the church cannot play the hero. Our contribution to a cultural revival requires the church to enter partnerships with other movements that seek justice and accountability. White churches must support, rather than criticize, movements like Black Lives Matter. Although the church has traditionally suppressed sexual minorities, we will sit at the feet of LGBT advocacy movements. Christians will learn to serve Muslims – and speak out for their dignity.

This is no time for heroes. It is a time to turn to our deepest roots, to our common need for grace and reconciliation. And it is time for the church to embrace the world from which we called and within which we serve.

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