A Letter to My Anxious Christian Friends, David P. Gushee. Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press, 2016.
Summary: Written as a series of letters, this is an exploration of what it means as a Christian to both love and be anxious for one’s country as people of faith committed to the global kingdom of God.
David P. Gushee thinks there are good warrants for American Christians who love their country to be anxious–the erosion of a Christian consensus, the economic jolts we have faced as a country, the deep fractures along lines of race and values that we have experienced, the violence of our streets, and the instances where police have also exercised force unjustly. Written in the run up to the 2016 presidential election, Gushee explores what it means both to face the issues that arouse such fear, and step back from the fractured political discourse to try to think as Christians about what it means to live into our faith instead of being governed by our fears (and perhaps those who play upon them).
“…the assumption lying behind this book is that it is okay for Christians to care enough about the country they live in to be anxious about it. It is, indeed, perfectly acceptable for Christians to be patriots, to love their country with a robust and full heart. Many of my fellow Christian leaders do not agree with me on this, and they have good reasons for their views. Mainly their worry is that American Christians, in particular, have a hard time distinguishing between God and country when they attempt to love and serve both. I think that I can point to a path of critical, informed patriotism through the various reflections offered here. But I acknowledge that I do love this country, and precisely because I do, I want it to be the best country it can be. If you agree, read on.”
The rest of the book consists of twenty reflections (letters) divided into two parts. The first eight are an exploration of who we are as a country of Americans, the place of Christians within that, how we understand our form of government and the development of political parties, the state of our civic character, and how Christians might think about patriotism. He helps his readers understand the changing place of the church in this country and how we might think about that. What I appreciated best were some of his reflections on how we are and are not a Christian nation–both the Christian influences upon our institutions and the fact that no nation can be a “Christian nation” as Israel was the people of God. Gushee is able to speak honestly both about our flaws and injustices as a nation, as well as commend the cultural goods that might be observed and built upon. He commends a kind of patriotism that is not an “America first” mentality but rather a wanting what is best of this country for all of its people while being mindful of our place in the world.
The second part of the book then considers how we might move from fear to faith in addressing some of the fearsome challenges we face:
- Race: a call for white majority Christians to listen.
- Police: while commending most law enforcement personnel, pressing for greater oversight and rooting out of unjust policing practices.
- Sex: as one who has previously endorsed gay marriage in the civil sphere, he argues that our focus is better spent on the more casual and thoughtless expressions of sexuality and its heart-wrenching consequences.
- Abortion: while deeply troubled by a casual approach to abortion, especially late-term abortions, and favoring some legal restrictions on abortion with exceptions for rape, incest and threats to the life of a mother, he argues for greater focus on preventing pregnancies that would lead to abortion.
- Aliens: here, he would like to see reforms proposed before our recent election cycle for comprehensive immigration reform that both secures borders while providing some path for undocumented persons who have not broken other laws to gain some kind of legal status.
- Guns: this is one he speaks deeply and passionately about, questioning whether the founders had in mind the proliferation of weaponry we see.
- Money: he calls us beyond competitive greed to a generosity with our resources.
- Climate: he decries that denial of climate change and the partisan impasse that leads to doing nothing while creation suffers, and with it many of the most vulnerable.
- War: we have been at war for most of the last century. While nations must protect themselves, he argues there are many tools and Christian should press for the nonviolent ones to be used insofar as possible and for constitutional processes to be protected.
- Executions: the death penalty is an anomaly, the consequence for only a handful of murders, and often inequitably applied at great cost to our system.
- Education: a call to pursue the best possible education for all our people. Surprisingly, he calls for removing tenure and union protections of incompetence while saying students, teachers, and parents all are required to make this work.
- Health-care: all of God’s children should have access to affordable and adequate care. A generous patriotism doesn’t want any to fall through the cracks.
The strength of this book is that it articulates an ethic that is broadly pro-life, and expands upon what would be a generous and faith-informed vision of patriotism. Obviously, not all will agree with all he commends. I personally took issue with what I thought a cavalier treatment of Romans 13 about authority that imputed Paul’s statements to his privileged status as a Roman citizen. I thought this was biblical eisegesis and unnecessary to make his case against unlawful use of police force.
Because Gushee tries to cover so much ground, especially in the second part of the book, in a series of short reflections, many of his recommendations, which tend to echo more progressive positions in most cases, come with relatively little biblical or theological argument, nor is there much of an effort to address opposing views. As a result, my sense is that the book will be re-assuring to those of Gushee’s “anxious friends” from a more progressive outlook, but dismissed by his conservative “anxious friends.” Nor do I feel it will promote dialogue between these factions within the Christian community who are anxious for very different reasons (it’s telling to me for example that he is silent about issues of religious liberty). I found Russell Moore’s Onward (reviewed here) a far more helpful resource for promoting this kind of engagement.
Perhaps the two might better be read together. Perhaps the places they differ might open up the safe space for Christians to wrestle toward an ethic of societal engagement that is neither left nor right but distinctively Christian. I think that is what both authors would want. And for Gushee, an ethic of faith working through love is much preferable to one that resides and responds in fear.
Disclosure of Material Connection: I received this book free from the publisher via a pre-publication e-galley through Edelweiss. I was not required to write a positive review. The opinions I have expressed are my own.