Is This The Religious Liberty We Need?


President Donald J. Trump displaying Executive Order Promoting Free Speech and Religious Liberty (Official White House Photo by D. Myles Cullen)

Last Thursday, May 4, two significant government actions dominated the news. One was the narrow passage in the House of Representatives of the AHCA, legislation designed to roll back a number of provisions of the Affordable Care Act. The other was the signing by the President of an Executive Order on Religious Liberty, surrounded by religious people of various faiths.

As a religious person, I do care about religious liberty and think the First Amendment protections in our constitution important to uphold, and indeed strengthen, because of the long and global history of religious persecution. We do not do it perfectly but we have a system that allows an incredible diversity of religious expression in our country and works hard not to privilege any one over the others. This is a relatively singular occurrence in human history that is a mark of American greatness.

One thing that is important to note about the executive order, available to be read on the White House website is that it is a directive to federal agencies that does not repeal laws but only addresses the approach taken to enforce them. Only a new law can repeal a law. Only court decisions can overturn laws. What is significant, from what I can read in the executive order, is it suggests a disposition on the part of government to defend religious liberty rather than undermine it. Section One on policy says:

“It shall be the policy of the executive branch to vigorously enforce Federal law’s robust protections for religious freedom.  The Founders envisioned a Nation in which religious voices and views were integral to a vibrant public square, and in which religious people and institutions were free to practice their faith without fear of discrimination or retaliation by the Federal Government.  For that reason, the United States Constitution enshrines and protects the fundamental right to religious liberty as Americans’ first freedom.  Federal law protects the freedom of Americans and their organizations to exercise religion and participate fully in civic life without undue interference by the Federal Government.  The executive branch will honor and enforce those protections.”

These are broad statements that amount to saying that the executive branch will uphold the Constitution, which is in fact what the President says he will do in taking the oath of office. But to go on record in this regard is heartening.

Much has been made of Section Two. Contrary to popular belief, it does not repeal the Johnson Amendment banning the endorsement or opposition to political candidates by churches or other 501 (c)(3) organizations. David French (a lawyer I had the chance to work with on a religious liberty issue), writes in The National Review:

In fact, a lawyer will commit malpractice if he tells a pastor or director of a nonprofit that this order allows a church or nonprofit to use its resources to support or oppose a candidate. Even if the Trump administration chooses not to enforce the law, a later administration can tear up Trump’s order and begin vigorous enforcement based on actions undertaken during the Trump administration.”

What may be the case is that this will presumably make some feel bolder in talking about political issues or even endorsing candidates because they need not fear enforcement. French’s warning is, “for now.” I certainly wouldn’t use this as a warrant to endorse candidates not supported by the current administration!

Section Three concerns conscience exemptions to the preventive care (read contraceptive) mandate. It says that several government agencies “shall consider issuing amended regulations, consistent with applicable law, to address conscience-based objections to the preventive-care mandate.” In fact, this has already been mandated by the Supreme Court during the Obama administration.

French makes an important point in his article–executive orders are no substitute for law-making. At best they are only a start. John Inazu, in his book Confident Pluralism, articulates three areas where substantive law-making is needed to protect religious and speech freedoms in the public square (summary is quoted from my review of his book):

The Voluntary Groups Requirement:

“Government officials should not interfere with the membership, leadership, or internal practices of a voluntary group absent a clearly articulated and precisely defined compelling interest” (p. 48).

The Public Forum Requirement:

“Government should honor its commitment to ensure public forums for the voicing of dissent and discontent. Expressive restrictions in these forums should only be justified by compelling government interests. Private public forums that effectively supplant these government-sponsored forums should in some cases be held to similar standards” (p. 64-65).

The Public Funding Requirement:

“When the government offers generally available resources (financial and otherwise) to facilitate a diversity of viewpoints and ideas, it should not limit those resources based on its own orthodoxy” (p. 79).

French notes in his article the attacks on religious groups in universities that infringe on the first and third of these requirements and the attacks on dissenting views that would infringe on the second.

I would argue that the protections Inazu talks about include but are broader than just religious liberty. They protect the freedom of conscience and associative and speech freedoms of all citizens, not just religious citizens. I would argue that these are the liberties for which we need robust protections, not simply in executive orders but in law.

There is one other religious liberty I long for. I have written often about the way the American church has offered itself as a voluntary captive to the political process. Actually, one of the concerns I have about the relaxation of enforcement around political speech in pulpits is that in so doing, I think the government is helping the church dig its own grave. Perhaps it is anecdotal, but I am watching not only younger, but also older evangelicals angered by this political captivity, leaving evangelical churches, even churches not overtly engaged in this kind of behavior.

I long for the day when churches cast off the chains of partisan politics and repent for how they have alienated people from the gospel of Christ that unites people across all the divides of our contemporary politics. I long for a church that speaks prophetically to both left and right (currently it seems only late night television is doing that). This is the kind of speech for which you actually need religious liberty protection.

I have to admit to being troubled by the setting in which this order took place. Religious leaders are gathered around in the Rose Garden celebrating the protection of their own liberties while down the street the party of the President is passing legislation to make the protection of one’s health increasingly difficult for the most vulnerable in our society to obtain (“the Unaffordable Health Care Act”?). I’m torn. I’ve had to advocate against real attempts to undermine religious liberty. Yet I was telling a friend recently that religious liberty concerns me less than the attack on the liberties of the poor, children, the elderly, the most vulnerable in our society. Perhaps the only way to reconcile this is the idea that all liberties are important and that the attack upon the liberty of any of us is in fact an attack on the liberty of all of us. Might we agree upon that?


Is Evangelicalism Dying?

Duisburg, Veranstaltung mit Billy Graham

Billy Graham in Duisburg, Germany, 1954.  Bundesarchiv, Bild 194-0798-29/Lachmann, Hans/CC-BY_SA 3.0

Recently apologist Hank Hanegraff converted to Eastern Orthodoxy, joining the exodus of prominent evangelicals to Eastern Orthodoxy or Roman Catholicism. Ed Stetzer, in a column in Christianity Today, noted the attraction for many thoughtful evangelicals of the liturgy and sense of authority and unchanging belief when belief seems to be a “choose your own adventure” story for evangelicals and many Protestant churches are trimming their belief sails to the winds of culture.

A friend of mine, who has recently converted to Catholicism described the evangelical church as “fading away” and that it will probably not exist in 50 years. His judgment was that were this to occur, the movement won’t be missed. I’ve been thinking about his remark all week. You see, both in terms of the organization I work with, and the church where I worship, evangelicals are the “people” within the larger Christian family with which I am identified. And truth be told, I am unashamed of the core distinctives David Bebbington and others have said mark this movement within the larger Christian family: a focus on the work of Christ, the authority of the Bible in our lives, the need for conversion, and a commitment to live out our beliefs in action. I should also say at the outset that I both deeply respect and learn from believers from these other parts of the Christian family, as I hope they might from our part of the family as well.

If there is anything that is dying, it is white, boomer evangelicalism. The evangelical movement globally is rapidly growing, particularly the Pentecostal segments of it. In the U.S., ethnic minority churches are rapidly growing and they share the theological convictions, if not the ethno-cultural trappings of boomer evangelicals. There has been a great deal of commentary about white evangelicals since the presidential election. What I think it all really comes down to is that large swaths of the white evangelical church have exchanged gospel power for political clout and have associated themselves with partisan politics rather that the impartiality of the gospel. We’ve forgotten our own conversions and what it was like to be lost…and found, and we’ve become indifferent to others or even judgmental. The Bible is often simply the launching board to justify whatever we want for ourselves or want others to do. Crosses are just part of the “Jesus junk” we adorn ourselves with and we think little of this as the place where God’s love and justice meet. Activism is going to political rallies and posting yard signs.

I know this is sweeping and there are many exceptions. I had a chance to visit with some of them on Thursday. They are bright, talented graduate students. They were simply talking about the Christian community of which they are part. It is diverse in majors and the ethnic background of people and they love that and want it to be even more true. They love to read and think deeply about the Bible and not beat others over the head with it but rather do what it teaches. They love conversations with those who differ from them–that is the nature of grad school. They love Jesus and each other. They care about the poor in their midst. Several worship in a church in a rough area of town that is a “food desert” and they are dedicated to serving the people there. They encourage me to hope and pray for better evangelical days ahead. And their example makes me want to do all I can both to encourage them and call the evangelicals of my generation to repent and to recover.

  • To repent of our political captivity and to recover our prophetic calling.
  • To repent of our forgetfulness of our lostness and the wonder of being found by Christ and to recover our sensitivity to the least, the last and the lost.
  • To repent of our “solo scriptura” approach to the Bible where each of us are our own pope and we read into the Bible what we want. Will we test our reading against the creeds, the confessions, and how our brothers and sisters from other classes and cultures read the same text?
  • To repent of sin management and censoriousness of others and recover the sense that we are all equally in need of the work of Christ at a cross that brings down the privileged and raises the powerless.
  • To repent of our culture wars and to recover a sense of culture care that seeks to preserve and strengthen what is good, and to bring healing to what is broken.

I mentioned earlier how I learn so much from Eastern Orthodox and Catholic believers and the rich resources of this part of the family. At the same time, I would entertain the humble hope that there are riches within the evangelical part of the family line, and that it would indeed be a tragedy for this to die out. As sad as the break of the Reformation was, it led to reform in all parts of the church. The evangelicals who came from this fomented a missionary enterprise, that despite its imperfections, brought the light of Christ to many people, who in some cases are now re-evangelizing the West. Even as evangelicals have played a key role in the modern day fight against human trafficking, so also they led the fight against slavery. In the world of the university where I work, I’ve seen a generation of Christian researchers arise coupling academic rigor and Christian thought in fields as diverse as philosophy, education, and technology.

I do think there are things in evangelicalism as it has developed over the past 40 years that deserve to be laid to rest. But I would also suggest that to talk about a branch of the family dying is a regrettably sad, and even cruel thing. I wonder if a better conversation might be one where we seek to learn from the best of each part of the family. Will we heal the rifts of the Great Schism, or the Reformation? I doubt it. But we might begin to draw closer as we pray and wait for the Great Return when all wounds and rifts will be healed, and a single, pure and spotless Bride will greet her Lover. Come, Lord Jesus!


“The Dogma is the Drama”

Dorothy sayers

Dorothy L. Sayers

Is contemporary Christianity in America on the ropes? Have Christians engaged in culture wars and lost? Why are increasing numbers of people identifying as “nones” religiously? And if this is indeed so, what might be done to recover and re-engage, if not in culture wars, in an effort to capture the hearts and minds of the rising generation.

As I’ve written elsewhere, Rod Dreher has stimulated a national conversation with his new book, The Benedict Option, which advocates a kind of strategic withdrawal of Christians into a counter-cultural communal life with practices that shape the beliefs and behavior of their people. James Emery White writes in Meet Generation Z of reaching those born after 1993, and believes the church must embrace a similar counter-cultural model that combines savvy communication with integrity of life and belief. He argues that the faith of the church must be translated, but not transformed into something different. Gregory Alan Thornbury, in Recovering Classic Evangelicalism, contends for those who embrace the evangelical label, that the task is not to try to distance ourselves from our roots in order to be relevant but to recover them. In particular, he considers Carl F. H. Henry, and the model of his carefully argued work on epistemology, biblical authority and cultural engagement as worthy of reconsideration.

One thing each of these writers put their finger on is a contemporary uneasiness about or even active movement from central doctrines of the Christian faith. We associate dogma with dogmatism, which seems to be a cardinal sin–an intellectual rigidity about certain beliefs that seem to be “out of step” with modern times. The image is often of a sterility of belief divorced from a life of compassion. And what often seems now to be advocated is a life of compassionate concern for people and for the creation that mutes discussion of ideas and doctrines that may be “disagreeable” or “cause offense.”

The concern of these writers seems to be that when we make this move out of concern for relevance and not to cause offense, we run the risk of losing our “saltiness.” Salt in a wound may sting, but it also kills bacteria and preserves. The danger of moving away from dogma is that we move away from the faith altogether. Conversely, these authors would argue that it is the dogma that provides life and vibrancy and energizes Christian faithfulness.

Dorothy L. Sayers would agree. The title for this post is drawn from an essay by the same title. In her essay she writes about reaction to her play, The Zeal of Thy House:

“The action of the play involves a dramatic presentation of a few fundamental Christian dogmas — in particular, the application to human affairs of the doctrine of the Incarnation. That the Church believed Christ to be in any real sense God, or that the Eternal Word was supposed to be associated in any way with the work of Creation; that Christ was held to be at the same time Man in any real sense of the word; that the doctrine of the Trinity could be considered to have any relation to fact or any bearing on psychological truth, that the Church considered pride to be sinful, or indeed took notice of any sin beyond the more disreputable sins of the flesh: — all these things were looked upon as astonishing and revolutionary novelties, imported into the Faith by the feverish imagination of a playwright. I protested in vain against this flattering tribute to my powers of invention, referring my inquirers to the Creeds, to the Gospels, and to the offices of the Church; I insisted that if my play was dramatic, it was so, not in spite of the dogma but because of it — that, in short, the dogma was the drama.”

What I think Sayers is saying is that the real story of the Christian faith, embedded in the Creeds and Confessions of the Church, is indeed far more dramatic than anything she, or we, can come up with. True, these things may be presented in a “dry as dust” fashion. But Sayers would argue that the alternative to this is not relevance but chaos. Rather than mere religious sentiments, or inchoate beliefs we affirm, “I believe in God the Father almighty, creator of Heaven and Earth.”

I wonder if the contemporary aversion to doctrine comes in part from either the actual experience of, or more likely, media portrayals of orthodox and yet loveless believers, or the argumentativeness that is a theological form of chest-bumping. Far less common, it seems to me are the models of those who have thought long and deeply and wonderingly on such statements as, “He suffered under Pontius Pilate, was crucified, died, and was buried. He descended into Hell. On the third day He rose again.” Such things can turn a life upside down, or right side up.

As I write, we are approaching Holy Week, where the Church remembers and re-tells the story of Christ’s most amazing week, from the Palm Sunday entry to Jerusalem to the Last Supper to arrest and trial and crucifixion, the Saturday of waiting and the incredible news, shared first with the women at Jesus grave, “He is not here, He is risen!” It is the story we summarize in the Creed. But it probes us as we wonder, “why did Jesus die? And what do I do with one who undoes and conquers death?” When has anything occurred with greater significance? What could be more dramatic?

The dogma is the drama.

Should Taxpayers Support Arts and Humanities?

It has been widely reported that our current administration is proposing to completely cut the budgets of the National Endowment for the Arts and the National Endowment for the Humanities. This would mean cuts of $148 million to each of these agencies. According to an article on Snopes, the combined total represents 0.006 percent of the Federal budget or less than $1 per person.

I have to be honest. I’m deeply torn about this. The creation of great works of art in all its forms–visual, performance, written–is one that lifts us above what is often a “least common denominator aesthetics” of the marketplace. They capture both the greatest aspirations and painful realities of our human condition. Furthermore, there is a role of the humanities in educating us for citizenship, for our common life in the republic. The website of the National Endowment for the Humanities states:

“Because democracy demands wisdom, NEH serves and strengthens our republic by promoting excellence in the humanities and conveying the lessons of history to all Americans.”

Their work of creating and preserving culture includes funding resulting in seven thousand books, sixteen of which have won Pulitzer prizes. Did you like the Civil War series? NEH funding helped make that possible. We have a set of bookshelves in our living room filled with Library of America works by the best of America’s writers. NEH made that possible. Over 63.3 pages of newspaper have been digitally archived through the United States Newspaper Project. It can be asked how we can possibly aspire to greatness as a nation if we do not know our story.

Unless our object is to become a nation of barbarians, it seems to me that it is unarguable that we must continue to support our arts and letters. But it seems to me that this begs the question, should this be via government agency through compulsory taxation? And this is where I’m torn. Our 20 trillion dollar deficit (nearly $61,000 per person) tells me that we expect far more government than we are willing to pay for. Now the $300 million for these two agencies is just a drop in the bucket, even while we expand spending on our military and propose to build a hugely expensive border wall.  But if we aren’t willing to pay more taxes, we have to cut somewhere and truthfully, most of the rest is entitlements for both rich and poor, as well as our defense spending.

I wonder if it is time to make agencies like NEA and NEH into private foundations and to encourage private philanthropy to invest in the arts. One thinks of the Gates Foundation, which has given away as much as $5 billion to causes it supports in a single year. I for one would be happy if most of the money spent on political campaigns were given to the arts instead. Instead of the grief of robo-calls and endlessly coarse and repetitive advertising, we could have great art and great ideas. Probably not going to happen, but I can dream.

On a more serious note, my home town of Youngstown has a nationally known museum of American art because an industrial magnate made it possible to build an outstanding collection and provide free admission. Will a new generation of philanthropy step forward to fill the gap and sustain our artistic greatness? Could some of our wealthiest citizens step forward and replace what may be lost to budget cuts?

But support of the arts is not just for the rich. Most of us can think of at least one arts organization or artist that has given us joy. It could be a community arts center. You might do like a friend of mine and set aside money to buy original works of art and start your own art collection. Maybe it is your local public radio station. Perhaps it is a poet just starting to publish their work. I sing with a choral group, and I know that our ticket sales only cover a small portion of our budget. The joy of making great music together makes it worth investing not only my time but my money. Do you know that if just one million of us contributed $25 a month to such efforts, it would equal the budget cuts we have been talking about? And many of us could do more.

There is something else that can come of more of us personally supporting the arts and humanities. We tend to pay attention to what we invest in. We get to know artists and writers whose work we like. We come to understand what it means to give birth to works of beauty, and what many of these people sacrifice to do so. We break the walls of impersonality that have separated artists from the rest of us and enrich each other’s lives.

On one hand, I wonder why trifle over such a “drop in the bucket” when we propose to spend huge amounts on a wall that I doubt will make us any safer (the “really bad dudes” tend to have lots of money to circumvent things like walls). But I also wonder if organizations like NEA and NEH might be better off, and more accountable to the public, if they cut their ties with government. I can see why not all taxpayers get paying taxes, even a minuscule amount, for such things. Why not let those who do more directly support such efforts, and other arts organizations and artists from national to local levels. What is stopping us?



Word Care as Culture Care

Caring for WordsAs a reader, a singer, and a writer I love words. I love that moment when I find just the right word or sequence of words to convey a thought. I love when we find the right words to give a name to something a group I’m a part of is trying to express. I delight in the varieties of expression I find in great writing. There is the spartan economy of a Hemingway, the rich description of a Tolkien, and the evocative writing of Alan Paton in Cry, the Beloved Country that makes you realize how much he loved South Africa, and grieved for her. Last year I found myself moved to tears at the sheer beauty of words set to music in Ola Gjeilo’s setting of St. John of the Cross’s Dark Night of the Soul.

I’ve written recently about the idea of culture care instead of culture war and Makoto Fujimura’s fine book on Culture Care. I am in the midst of another book that explores this theme, Marilyn McEntyre’s Caring for Words in a Culture of LiesSome might think that the book was just published in a political season where accusations of lying seems rampant. Rather, it came out of the Stone Lectures at Princeton in 2004. McEntyre covers the range of ways we might care for words in conversation, in long sentences(!), in poetry and story, in reading and writing well, and in resisting lies and telling truth. I’m finding every page a rich reflection on the use and power and wonder of words, and the necessity of using them well. She speaks to me, and for me when she writes in the beginning:

“If you’ve ever loved and learned a poem by heart, or underlined sentences just because they were beautiful, or labored over a speech about something that mattered, I know we share the concerns and the pleasures of stewards who recognize that we hold a great treasure in trust. It is my hope that a sentence here and there will start a conversation or encourage some of you to speak the truth that is in you, to find a sentence that suffices in a hard time, or simply listen into the silences where the best words begin.”

Word care is indeed an important part of culture care. To care for words, to expose their deceitful use, and to strive in our own use to speak truly and well is the work of those who realize the stewardship of a “great treasure in trust.” Words can be used to appeal to “the better angels of our nature” or to our basest instincts. Words can commend what is most noble in thought and character and deed, or they can be used to pollute our minds, debase our character, and bid us to sordid acts. Words can edify or tear down. How we use words can strengthen the warp and woof of a culture or rend the garment of our life together.

Words matter.

For those who claim to follow Christ, we claim to follow one spoken of by John as “the Word.” He is the one who equated contemptuous words with murder. His brother James wrote, “If anyone thinks he is religious and does not bridle his tongue but deceives his heart, this person’s religion is worthless” (James 1:26, ESV). Jesus said, “I tell you, on the day of judgment people will give account for every careless word they speak” (Matthew 12:36, ESV).

This gives me pause. I speak and converse and write a good bit. It is all an open book to God. Whether it is “petty” deception or cutting speech, it will be accounted for. By the same token, I take great encouragement that gracious words, or maybe even the restraint from the gratuitous cheap shot will receive God’s “well done.” Proverbs 16: 24 says, “Gracious words are like a honeycomb, sweetness to the soul and health to the body.” Words well-spoken contribute to the health of a culture and enjoy the approbation of God.

I hope I can live up to this at Bob on Books. When I write about books, I want to portray them accurately so that the prospective reader is not misled, and the author can say I understood what he or she was trying to say, whether I agree with that or not. I aspire to use words with care, both in the art and the intent of the writing. I hope I can inspire those who read me to the love of words, both in books and life, and to a better conversation about all the things that make up our life and culture. And I long that my words might at least dimly reflect the beauty of the God I love and the unspeakable grandeur of the future hope that grounds my life, that others might long with me for these things.

This to me is to care for words.



Reflections on “The Future of Work”


Derek Thompson (far right) and panelists at “Future of Work” Photo (c) 2017, Robert C Trube

The other day, I ordered food at my favorite Panera without talking to a person. A kiosk allowed my to swipe “My Panera” card, greeted me by name on screen, displayed the menu by categories, allowed me to select items, check out and make a payment with my credit card. A receipt was emailed to me. It took people to prepare my food, but only one person was working checkout. Most people were using kiosks.

A few years ago, three or four people would have been doing what the kiosks did. My experience illustrated what several speakers at an event I helped host Tuesday evening were exploring. Work is changing, and automation in various forms is either changing our work, or requiring that we change jobs, if we can.

The event was called “The Future of Work.” Derek Thompson, a senior editor at The Atlantic moderated a discussion with three academics, a development economist, a labor economist, and a marketing and information technology professor. It was a rich conversation that opened my eyes to some vitally important issues.

Thompson came to my attention a year ago when he wrote an article titled “A World Without Work.” It explored what happens when technology change and market forces put people out of work. And significantly for me, the article centered around time he spent in my home town of Youngstown, Ohio, a city that knows all too well the dislocations of the loss of jobs, shrinking from a high of 170,000 people when I was young to just over 60,000 at present. Talking personally with Derek, we talked about the “Youngstown diaspora” in my own city of Columbus, Ohio, which has a growing rather than shrinking population. We noted how so many who could leave Youngstown, because of education and other factors, did so, and how this changed the fabric of the city, and so many others like it.

Thompson, both in his talk, and in the article made the observation that “many people hate their jobs, but they are considerably more miserable doing nothing.” One of our panelists, reflecting his Christian beliefs (it was a religiously diverse group) noted that work came before the fall in Genesis. It reflects something of what humans made in the image of God are like. God worked, and it seems work, as well as rest, is important to being human. It was after the fall that work got laborious and frustrating, hence the tension we live in between not always liking our work, but hating not working more.

The panel explored the implications this raises in a world where technology might both put people out of work, and possibly mean others will work less. What will we do with the disparities of income between those who profit tremendously from either making the technology or using it to entertain–and the others who don’t? They explored the idea of the “universal basic income”– a guaranteed level of income for all whether they have employment or not. Most were pretty ambivalent or even opposed to this idea–kind of like society rather than parents supporting us while we live in our basement playing video games.

Another question that was discussed was what will we do should we need to work less to earn sufficient income on which to live? Will we just consume? Or will we find other ways to work, perhaps to create things, or to serve others? Or will we work and earn more than we need, simply because work is what we do? There is a question of what a life well-lived looks like should remunerative work be less of a necessity.

One of the clearest things to come out of the night is that many jobs face automation. Thompson had us consider clerical workers, for example the grocery clerk who grabs an item, scans an item, bags an item, and repeats. There might be some good that comes out of eliminating hard, repetitive, and tedious work. But automation is spreading far beyond this. We are talking about computers driving cars and trucks on one hand, and computers doing radiological diagnostics on the other. It is either people in the service economy doing very relational things with other humans, or people in the knowledge industry, those who create, maintain, or utilize the technology, who will be the last to be automated. Computers do not compose great music or write great books–or invent iPads!

Even if new technology creates as many jobs as it eliminates (about which I am uncertain), the people who lose a livelihood are in great pain. Such things raise questions about what kinds of inner resources do we cultivate against such possibilities, and also what kind of society will we be when change causes such dislocation and pain. Will we be a zero sum society with winners and losers, or will we find ways to stand with those who suffer–to make our neighbor’s pain our own and get through it together?

It seems to me that we cannot afford either a mentality of entitlement for ourselves or indifference to our neighbors. Our families, our schools and our religious institutions alike need to form people to embrace change rather than to hate it or cling to the familiar past. Perhaps it is the bedrock of belief that enables us to cope with the changes in our environment. It is a danger that some of our panelists discussed, that we make work, especially in a particular career, that bedrock. Yet, in a time of great change, this is shaky ground at best. Do we not need something else that gives us the wherewithal to grow and change, grieve and embrace, and discover an abiding joy that sustains us through the changes of life, including changes in how we work? The truth is, none of us knows what the future holds. For some, the answer is in the cliche’ of “knowing Who holds the future.” Whether you buy that or not, the changing world of work poses the question of “what grounds my life?”

[Derek Thompson, in addition to his editorial post at The Atlantic, is the author of the recently published Hit Makers, reviewed here.]

Black Blocs and Free Speech


Ben Schumin, Own Work – March on Crystal City CC BY-SA 3.0

One of the more disturbing trends coming to university campuses as well as other public settings is the rise of the “black bloc.” Black blocs first came into being in Germany in the 1980’s in Autonomists movement protest against squatter evictions. These spread to the U.S. in 1990 and became prominent in the World Trade Organization protests in Seattle in 1999.

What is a “black bloc?” Wikipedia gives the following description:

“A black bloc is a name given to groups of protesters who wear black clothing, scarves, sunglasses, ski masks, motorcycle helmets with padding, or other face-concealing and face-protecting items. The clothing is used to conceal marchers’ identities, and hinder criminal prosecution, by making it difficult to distinguish between participants. It is also used to protect their faces and eyes from items such as pepper-spray which law enforcement often uses. The tactic allows the group to appear as one large unified mass.”

It should be noted that the term “black bloc” refers to the clothing worn by the groups and not the racial identity of the participants. 

Recently, black blocs have come into the public awareness during the Trump inauguration, when they smashed windows and destroyed property in Washington, DC and elsewhere in the country.

More troubling yet were the riots that broke out in Berkeley when controversial conservative writer Milo Yiannopoulos was slated to speak. About 1500 Berkeley students gathered to peacefully protest, something quite appropriate under their First Amendment rights. This protest was broken up and turned into mayhem by a group of 150 using black bloc tactics. According to an Inside Higher Ed article, they came:

“…to start fires, break windows and hurl rocks at police officers — and who accomplished all of those things. They wore black and concealed their faces with masks. They brought — and used — bats, metal rods, fireworks and Molotov cocktails to get their message across, in the process undermining ‘the First Amendment rights of the speaker as well as those who came to lawfully assemble and protest his presence,’ a spokesperson for Berkeley said in a statement.”

Perhaps the most troubling incident took place recently at idyllic Middlebury College. Charles Murray, author of the controversial The Bell Curve was slated to speak there. A political science professor, Allison Stanger, would be moderating a question and answer session afterwards. In this case a group of students and faculty shouted and chanted so long that Murray could not speak. Then Stanger was attacked by protesters afterwards who yanked her hair so violently she needed to wear a neck brace. Then about 6 to 12 who may not have been students and using black bloc tactics attacked her car until police were summoned when they fled.

Many of those who have engaged in black bloc actions have been described as anarchists, and indeed, it seems that the effects of their actions are the destruction of civil order. In most cases there is a protest against something, and often the destructive acts have been against symbols that represent what they are protesting (e.g. smashing the windows of a Starbucks).

One of the troubling aspects of black blocs is how they undermine legitimate but peaceful protest. It is likely for example that all those at Berkeley were tarred with the same brush as a result of the black bloc tactics. Yet there were two different groups present, one acting legitimately and one illegally.

The Middlebury incident tells a more nuanced tale. It would suggest that black blocs represent an extreme of what has become acceptable in many public fora–to simply shout down and suppress speech we do not like or disagree with. It is troubling to me that faculty, those who should represent reasoned discourse and collegiality joined in these protests, even against one of their own colleagues.

Most faculty I know would repudiate such things, yet it is troubling that some will join in. It suggests how deeply the disease of poisoned discourse has penetrated not only our social and news media, but even the halls of education.

I wonder if some of it comes down to our loss of a capacity to have a good argument. I speak of good in two senses: both in being able to support a contention with cogent reasons and in being able to do so with charity toward the person with whom we differ. When all we speak in are soundbites, we may lose the capacity and intellectual heft for substance.

I also wonder if it arises from a belief that there is a “right not to be offended.” That has always puzzled me. I have always believed that being offended was not something others could do to me but a choice I made, which means I have other options when I hear something to which I could take offense. I could be curious to know why someone would hold such an idea. Or I might simply decide that they are acting the fool–someone impervious to reason, in which case I might change the subject or just walk away.

While I never approve of such violence or anarchy, I do wonder if sometimes it arises from a perceived or real sense that speech is being ignored, or even suppressed. Nihilism and anarchy seem to be close cousins. Do people turn to anarchy when they become convinced that reasoned discourse and civil protest are meaningless? Do people act in these ways when they see others doing immoral but legal things because it is within their power to do so? Only those with a very different outlook can take the long view of a Martin Luther King, Jr. who said, “the arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice.” In the wake of police violence and efforts to suppress basic human rights, King chose the way of love and non-violent resistance.

This leads me to ask whether our present inability to foster civil discourse, and the increasing incidents of the suppression of free speech reveal the paucity of the spiritual resources in our lives. Do we feed our lives on anger and outrage because we have no reason for hope? Do our tantrums reveal that we have given up on truth? Have we give up on the faith of a King, a Desmond Tutu, a Karol Wojtyla to embrace the blackness of nothing? These are the questions the rise of black blocs, and other forms of suppressing free speech and civil discourse raise for me. What about you?

Culture Care Instead of Culture War

culture-careRecently I went with a group of friends to see Martin Scorsese’s film rendition of Shusaku Endo’s Silence.  It is not an easy movie to watch but one with gorgeous cinematography and one that raises profound questions about suffering. What was also a point of reflection for me was the violent, dark, special effects heavy, and loud trailers of coming attractions that preceded the film. The feature was a work of beauty, an enrich work of art. The trailers, and perhaps the movies they represented were a war on the senses and perhaps the spirit.

The trailers seem to reflect the dominant metaphor of our society–war or battle. We hear of culture war. There are those who believe precious values and cultural goods have been threatened or lost and the ground needs to be recovered. Others dig in, believing progress and liberty are under threat.

Perhaps war is sometimes a sad and necessary corollary of the human condition–cultural or military. But perhaps, at least in the dimension of culture, if not international relations, there is an alternative. In a recent book (Culture Carereview forthcoming), artist Makoto Fujimura proposes an alternative to culture war, and that is culture care.

Rather than contesting Fujimura wants to focus on creating, fostering a movement that results in fresh works of goodness, truth and beauty in the arts that inspire the soul and feed our common life.  His assumption is that culture is something to be cultivated and nourished, not captured and conquered. It is not enough to make a living if we do not also have that which is worth living for.

It does strike me that culture warriors rarely create works of beauty. It is perhaps instructive that the acceptance of gay marriage was not accomplished simply by a court decision but also prepared by expression in visual media, music, literature, and fashion that swayed the mind of a nation. Meanwhile a culture-warring church was undermined by divorce, sex scandals and abuse, power struggles between men and women, and often ugly rhetoric.

Perhaps it is too late to know but one wonders what it would have meant to cultivate a culture absorbed not in banal Christian romance fiction, sentimental art, and “Jesus is my boyfriend” pop music, but works of depth and realism and beauty with power to capture the imagination not simply of an insular Christian sub-culture, but a wider culture hungering for an alternative to “the wasteland” of modern mass culture.

I look forward to seeing more of Fujimura’s vision of culture care. It seems that it is never too late to create and preserve cultural goods. Augustine’s City of God cast a vision that buoyed a church facing a crumbling Roman empire. Bach’s chorales and cantatas did as much to nourish the Reformation of the church as did the writings of Luther and Calvin. Rembrandt’s portrayal of the Return of the Prodigal deeply embeds the truth of this parable in our mental vision.

I’ve wondered about the wisdom of the trillions spent in the American wars of the last decade. Did we squander opportunities to rebuild our national infrastructure and equip our people for the new economy? I equally wonder about the squandering of energies in the culture wars of the last thirty years. Might it be time and past time to pursue an ethic of culture care?



The Scandal of the Church in America: Part Two


Claude Vignon, Lament of St. Peter CC BY-SA 3.0

Yesterday I made the contention that the scandal of the Church in America is that it is deeply divided within itself, that we have deeply rent the body of Christ, and that these divisions reflect the divisions in our country rather than the unity of people across our differences in Christ.

So what can and must be done?

I am not proposing that we all just try to gather in some kind of circle around a campfire, hold hands, and sing “Kumbaya.”

First of all, I believe we must awaken. I wonder whether most of us are all that disturbed that the Church in America is divided within itself and that we often include fellow believers in “the enemies” we are fighting and attacking (even when we’ve been told that our warfare is not to be against flesh and blood). I wonder if we are caught up so much with the urgency and the grievances of our particular tribe of Christians, and those with whom we have made common cause that we are woozy like boxers who have been punching each other too long.

Second, I believe we need to lament our sad state. We may not have a clue how we can mend the wounds between us. That tells us how desperate things are. It acknowledges that we need an intervention from on high. Lamenting takes us into a place where we realize our desperate need for God, and that to go on in the way we have is increasingly intolerable.

Third, as we begin to grasp our own contribution to the deep divisions that exist among believers, and the ways we have wronged in word, thought, and deed, in personal acts and unjust structures, we need to repent. Repenting is to call our own sins for what they are, to acknowledge them to God, and the wronged person as wrong, to come to terms with the real hurt and harm we have caused, and to acknowledge our intent, with God’s help to live differently and to determine what that difference will look like. Often we need to do this with the offended.

Repenting is hard, particularly when we think the other might have more to repent of than do we. Often the others think it the other way around. The question sometimes is simply, who will end the rounds of accusations and begin the process of repentance and restoration?

Fourth, we can begin to engage with our fellow believers across our differences and often at this point, what is most needed is simply to attend.  To attend is to listen to understand rather than to refute. Can we listen well enough that we can repeat what is said in a way that the other recognizes that we understood them? We may have to ask ourselves beforehand whether we are truly open to such dangerous listening, because it may open us to different ways of seeing things.

Fifth is that I believe there is a necessity at times to contend. We cannot start here, I think, because I think so many of the things we would contend for are things in which we are deeply invested. The process of awakening, lamenting, repenting, and listening, may help us discern where we are healthily and unhealthily invested, enabling us to advocate for the right reasons, as well as with the right demeanor. But there are things where we really do disagree. The question is whether we will ever seek to come to a meeting of the minds, or at least to identify what we can agree upon and work from that. So often, differing parties only contend in their books and talks directed toward those who agree with them.

Sixth, this may lead us to amend our ways toward each other and toward how we address each others concerns.

I dream of several changes that might flow out of this:

  • I hope this would lead our churches into a similar process of listening deeply to God, the Holy Scriptures, and one another, more intensely than to the political echo chambers that form many of our views.
  • I would hope public Christian leaders would sit down with those who differ greatly to practice these steps and model them for others. Imagine if Franklin Graham, from Samaritan’s Purse, and Jim Wallis from Sojourners met each other as believers and modeled this effort toward coming to a common mind and communion of heart.
  • I dream of the day when Christians, instead of aligning with one political party or another, would line up together to advocate for public policies that reflect the whole of the counsels of the Bible and challenge both parties to end the either-or approaches that characterize so much of our politics that set our people against each other.

As I wrote yesterday, I am convinced that if we do not work at composing and reconciling our differences in the American Church, we have little right or hope of expecting our American politicians to do it. I believe this is urgent for several reasons:

  • Christ is grieved and not glorified by how we have torn asunder his Body.
  • Our divisions sow seeds of doubt about the power of our gospel.
  • Our children are abandoning many of our churches because of our behavior around these divisions.
  • If we allow our divisions across race, gender, economics, and politics to continue, we will only aid and abet the inflaming of differences that could lead to a very scary future, and not one from powers outside our country.

Where am I beginning? I’ve decided that from now through Lent I am not going to post political posts or comments in social media in order to work on the six steps above in my own life. I’ve become increasingly aware of my own participation in the divisions about which I’ve written. I’m also going to look for at least a few fellow believers with views different from mine who would be open to practice this with me (anyone interested?).

Do me a favor, would you? If you think these posts on target, pass them along to church leaders you know, locally or nationally. I don’t want to see our generation repeat the error of church leaders in the pre-Civil War era. I hope instead they will say, “we must reconcile our differences and lead our country in doing the same.”

The Scandal of the Church in America: Part One


Dunkard Church, a key landmark in the Battle of Antietam, and some of those who fell.

The scandal of the Church in America is that there is no apparent Church but only churches. I suppose you could argue that it has always been this way, although I do not think this lessens the scandal. The proliferation of denominations and independent churches reflects our strong independent streak and that we do not wish to be answerable to each other. I do think it is a contributing factor, but I think the scandal goes deeper.

The scandal is that our captivities to racial, sexual, economic and political identities and ideologies has left the Church in America a deeply divided body–divisions that reflect and in fact parallel American society. We are a far cry from the beautiful and radical ideal that the Apostle Paul proclaimed in a similarly divided society: “There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free,there is no male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus” (Galatians 3:28).

I am deeply troubled for what this means both for the Church in America, and for America itself. I have lived here all my life, and through the cataclysmic year of 1968, but I have never been so troubled. What disturbs me most is not the newly installed administration, nor all the push-back by others who oppose it. It is that I see believing people lining up on one side or another of these fault lines, and many others, and often not the least troubled at the things they are attributing to their fellow believers–sometimes vicious things. Nor are we troubled that we are often advocating diametrically opposed positions and invoking the name of Jesus as we do so. Often we are engaged in a tribal warfare of words between conservative evangelicals, progressives, Catholics, mainline churches, and churches of people of color. Often, we aren’t listening to what anyone outside our own “tribe” is saying.

My pastor made an observation in the midst of preaching through the gospel of Matthew that I have been mulling over. He observed that when the religious establishment colluded with the political powers of their day, the result was the killing of Jesus. While I believe that Jesus is risen, I also believe that the visible manifestation of Jesus, called “the body of Christ” is being torn apart, perhaps as the scourges used to whip Jesus before crucifixion turned his back into bleeding ribbons of skin. Church, do we see that this is what we are doing to ourselves? Is it a wonder that so many churches are declining?

Perhaps it has always been this way in our national history. The churches of the North were deeply divided from the churches of the South before (and after) the Civil War. They preached the same Christ from the same Bible, but the North advocated abolition while ignoring its own racism and complicity in a national economic system that depended on slavery. Southern preachers defended “the peculiar institution” even as slaves and former slaves turned to the same Christ, formed churches, and yet were excluded from being consider full human beings or the opportunity to worship at the same altar.

We often talk about in our American history of the breakdown of political efforts to avert war, but has the Church in America ever reckoned that the blood of the 600,000 who died in the Civil War is also on our hands? Our dividedness then aided and abetted and inflamed the divides in our land and tore country apart even as it tore many denominations into northern and southern counterparts, some lasting to this day. One wonders what might have been if church leaders from North and South, who may have been educated in the same seminaries, had reached across the lines and said, “we must reconcile our differences and lead our country in doing the same.”

I am not an “America First” person, but rather a “kingdom of God” first person. The greatest commandment to love God and neighbor and the great commission to take the gospel to the nations has precedence in my life. Nevertheless I deeply love this country and the constitutional structures and freedoms that allows us to be many and yet one, e pluribus unum. What troubles me as a kingdom person who regularly affirms “the communion of the saints” is that this communion often does not extend beyond the church doors–sometimes not even within them! If we cannot model a unity that would consider it a scandal to speak with a divided voice as a church (and often bitterly against each other), then how dare we call on our political leaders to act with civility and to consider the common good when we will not do this even within the body of Christ!

I believe this is urgent, my brothers and sisters. We have had one civil war in our history that the Church made no effort to stop but in fact aided and abetted by our conflicting messages and inflammatory rhetoric. Another may take a different form where our political factions take up arms (Lord knows we have enough of them) in our cities if they cannot resolve their differences or be heard in the halls of Congress and the office of the President. We could fall into anarchy or tyranny. I like to say that children who play with matches inside the house often do not realize they can burn the house down until they do. Our incendiary and inflammatory speech may not stop there. It didn’t before the Civil War. Church, I’m asking, is it time to say “we must reconcile our differences and lead our country in doing the same?”

[Tomorrow, I explore what I think must be done.]