THE BLOG
10/28/2016 05:32 pm ET Updated Oct 29, 2017

Make The Church Great Again

Dear Christians,

I am one of you. Or, at least, I have received Christian baptism, assemble regularly, participate in communion, share of my goods, submit to the authority of trusted others, regularly confess my character defects and sins, and work to change when needful. I believe Jesus is Lord, and I believe in the resurrection, and all the rest of the Apostles' Creed. Or, at least, I work at believing these things and often find it hard work. And, on that note, I do believe in hard work and grow sharply annoyed with instances of excess in government spending, and thus my tax bill; and I believe in the beauty and hard work of traditional marriage and the beauty and hard work of receiving children as a gift of God; and I believe in the importance of loving one's community and contributing to social goods and good will. And, for whatever it's worth, it even turns out I'm a middle-class white man.

But I am embarrassed: our petty and pusillanimous public behavior in American public life is a mockery. The sort of pious drivel that comes out of the likes of Lynchburg and Colorado Springs may have done more to damage the witness of the church in America than any supposed heresy or any supposed liberal ever could. It's like a Death Eater sucking the life out of Sirius Black.

The partisanship, and the quest for power, are much greater threats to Christianity in America than POTUS, SCOTUS, or Congress.

The root of the problem, it seems to me, is that we think America is the problem, and that the most important public work we can do is fight for our vision of America. So we fall prey, in vast, outrageous numbers to stupid rhetoric like "Make America Great Again."

Here's an alternative: "Make the Church Great Again." And though my academic snobbery can lead me to be contemptuous (one of those apparent character defects we white Christians apparently have in spades these days) of pop culture and social media, I think I'll just go ahead and acknowledge my hypocrisy, and suggest a hashtag: #MakeTheChurchGreatAgain

Look, America is not the problem. Nation-states have never had the calling to be the primary locus of the "wisdom of God." Our job as Christians is to give the world a different picture of greatness, an alternative wisdom: to conquer death through long-suffering love; to overcome evil with good; to feed our enemies when they are hungry, and give them drink when they are thirsty; to enjoy sex rightly ordered for the goods of human intimacy and the bearing of children within committed monogamous relationships; to share our money and our goods and our time generously, and even in costly fashion; to let our yes be yes and our no be no; to care for the widows, orphans, and foreigners; to practice hospitality; and so on.

There has been no "fall" in America, because America was never on a pedestal. America was never a "Christian nation," nor any sort of Garden of Eden. The effort to suggest that it was understands neither American history, nor orthodox Christianity.

The U.S. has, in some respects, been better than other empires and nation-states: her tradition of respect for persons and the rule of law against arbitrary or capricious power; respect for a free press; encouragement of industry and creativity; respect for the beauty of the human spirit; her non-violent transfer of the reins of executive power; her distrust of unchecked power and thus the genius of three branches of government; and more.

And the U.S. has in some respects been much worse: her practice of making space for herself through genocide; building her economy on the backs of slaves; her cavalier disregard for unborn children; her mass slaughter of civilians in warfare; her celebration of conspicuous consumption; her continued practice of Jim-Crow-like oppression through mass incarceration; and more.

If we feel the need to go all preachy in public, we'd do better to practice self-introspection rather than nation-bashing. In other words, it may be more fruitful to speak of the "fall of the Church" than lamenting the perceived sins of America.

One common interpretation of the "fall of the Church" goes this way: Christianity began to go astray when it began getting in bed with the powers-that-be. Its status evolved from persecuted; to legally protected; to the only legal religion. It evolved from non-violent minority; to war-justifying sub-majority; to war-making majority. The cross of Christ evolved from a symbol of suffering love to symbol of crusading militarism. In other words, the cross was transformed from a soul-shattering embodiment of love which refused to "make things turn out right"--to a feared symbol of violent self-righteous that would do whatever it had to do to win, by hook or by crook.

This interpretation is undoubtedly over-simplistic and fails in presuming some golden age of the Church, subsequently lost. But it also, undoubtedly, has a ring of truth to which we would do well to pay attention. And it highlights some alternative possibilities for thinking about "greatness."

My friends who are grieved over the scourge of abortion have focused their time and energy on adoption, foster care, and efforts to support single mothers. My friends who are grieved over the social scourge of mass incarceration have focused their time and energy being present to those in prisons, and working for reform. My friends who are grieved over the enslaving bondage of consumerist kitsch have given themselves to music and art and community and craft. My friends who are grieved over the brokenness of those living in the streets have given themselves to listen and befriend, patiently helping navigate challenging circumstances, and speak truth to the powers that inhibit healing. My friends who are grieved over the damage social policy does to human lives have schooled themselves well to find creative solutions to social problems, without becoming arrogant or ideological crusaders.

Such friends are making the church great again, sowing seeds of justice and righteousness in our communities. If you want more reading on such fruitful social and spiritual action, there are a great host of witnesses to such non-partisan reflection: Dorothy Day, Thomas Merton, Wendell Berry, Will D. Campbell, David Dark, William Cavanaugh, Alasdair MacIntyre, and the like.

Such a posture actually gives us the possibility to offer constructive and creative alternatives, without getting caught up in the partisanship that is sucking the life out of the church. We can begin to find what is true and helpful about both right (such as critiques of overweening and intrusive governmental power, for example) and left (such as critiques of social exclusion and systemic injustices). And we can voice what we see to be problematic with both right (such as a naivete about the goodness of supposedly unfettered market mechanisms, which often yield more power in the hands of the already powerful, and thus undercut the right's concern with the amassing of power in the hands of a few) and left (such as a naivete about the goodness of supposedly unfettered personal freedoms, which often yield more oppressive power to the our passions and desires which leave a wake of destruction and dissolution, and thus undercut the left's concern for personal moral freedom).

Let us recollect that the fundamental calling of the church is not U.S. political partisanship, not social hostility, not fear-mongering. It is, in the language of the Apostle Paul, a "ministry of reconciliation."

God have mercy on us.

#MakeTheChurchGreatAgain