Repentance and the Christian Mind

Photo by 胡 卓亨 on Unsplash

It is typical to think of “repentance” as a highly emotional experience, often arising from a sense of one’s sinfulness and need for God. Perhaps the comic image of a bearded man carrying a sign saying “Repent or perish” comes to mind. We may think of a revivalist setting with an “earnest bench” or an altar call for the repentant turning to Christ.

I do not want to deny the reality of such experiences. In fact, there is an element within them that I want to focus on. All of these involve a mental understanding of a need to turn from one way of thinking and living to another, combined with actions that reflect this change of mind.

“Change of mind.” That phrase is a good way to translate the Greek word metanoia which is often translated as repent in the Bible. It reflects what happens in genuine Christian conversion, or other forms of conversion. A person who has been thinking, seeing the world, and living one way, begins to think, see the world, and live differently. Christians believe this involves both human agency, believing and following Christ, and divine intervention–forgiveness and the indwelling of God’s Spirit, initiating and empowering this new life.

I’ve written from time to time as one who works among academics of the idea of the Christian mind and how this is formed. The title of a chapter in Who Created Christianity titled “Metanoia: Jesus, Paul, and the Transformation of the Believing Mind” written by Alister McGrath stimulated my thinking about some of the ways metanoia or repentance shapes the Christian mind.

Humility. The awareness that one’s prior way of thinking was subject to error ought lead to humility in our thinking. We may believe that the faith we have embraced is true but we don’t confuse our own grasp of that faith with the one we believe to be true. I think this makes us more willing to be proven wrong in other areas.

Passion for Truth: When we turn from being our own source of truth, we become more passionate for truth in whatever field we pursue it. We discover that truth is bigger than us and that if someone else has an insight or even shows where we have gone wrong, we are glad and open to learn, because we have been freed from a life that sees ourselves as the source of truth.

Dependence: Understanding in any field, whether Christian doctrine or any field of academic study doesn’t come easy. The change of mind that is repentance means turning from autonomy to dependence upon the God we trust. If we believe that God is creator and the source of all knowledge and wisdom, it only makes sense to turn to God for insight in our studies. It’s not that God does this for us, but that God wants to do this with us.

Doxological wonder: I draw this phrase from Jeff Hardin, an embryologist, who hopes to foster that sense of wonder in his students. So many who are drawn to academic work come to this with a profound sense of the wonder of some aspect of the world, whether it is how tone, harmony, meter, and rhythm make music or for how four nucleotides paired together in a double helix can encode all the instructions needed for the “program” that creates all living things. Whereas we’ve wondered what to do with this wonder, with this newfound way of thinking and seeing, we find that worship is the proper outlet of wonder.

Realism: In life among the academics, I’ve observed this interesting fluctuation between ungrounded optimism about the human project and unremitting cynicism (usually directed toward the institutions within which one must work). We are quite skilled in seeing what is wrong with “them” but pretty clueless to what is wrong with us. Repentance recognizes the worst in human beings because we’ve seen it in ourselves and yet believes in a God who does not give up on us. We live with a kind of critical realism that holds together our newly won self-knowledge of our finiteness and fallibility and hope in one who is devoted to the world he has created and is redeeming.

Peacemaking: To repent is to accept God’s peace offer ending our rebellion against God. Of all people, Christians ought be people of peace because of our peacemaking God. We often work in contexts of contended ideas. Often these reflect societal binaries–the either/ors that often polarize and separate us. While contradictory ideas cannot both be true (they both can be false!) it is rare that people are utterly wrong. Might the role of Christians in at least some of these disputes be to listen to both sides and help reconcile the connections to a possible larger underlying truth and place of agreement? Often, instead, we side up and add to the acrimony.

Curiosity: I do not think that curiosity is unique to the believing mind. In fact, curiosity strikes me as one of the things that drives the academic enterprise. Questions drive research as well as the peer-review process that tests and advances that research. I would simply suggest that repentance punctures all our mental pretensions, challenging us to question our questions, to doubt our doubts. Curiosity coupled with a new way of seeing might lead us to ask different questions. One education researcher I know, caught in the tension between social justice and academic performance asked the questions, why aren’t advances in academic performance for ethnic minorities not social justice? and, why shouldn’t social justice be concerned about academic performance? This led to crafting a novel approach attempting to bring these two polarized streams in educational theory together. (This is also an example of peacemaking!)

Excellence: People in the academic world care about excellence. Often career advancement and reputation become obsessions that drive excellence. Repentance de-centers the self. Someone else and what that Person cares about becomes the center of our lives. Excellence is no longer a competition with others over who gets the most citations or the biggest grants. It is a passion for the reputation of God showing through how we teach, the quality of our work, our care for students and collaboration with colleagues. It shapes not only how we work but our ethics. Nor is it one dimensional. It concerns our families, our community life.

You might think of other implications of repentance for the development of the Christian mind. The development of a Christian mind is a lifelong project as we seek to see God’s world God’s way. Likewise, repentance is not a moment but a way of life. We keep turning from a self-centered to God-centered life. I would propose, as I have here, that this means a change from a mind closed in on our selves to a mind set afire by the grandeur of God. To my mind, that is a project worthy of our lives.

My Generation’s Failure

The YMCA where the signers of the Chicago Declaration of 1973 met.

It was a wet, cold day at the end of November in 1973. We were in the middle of Watergate. It was during this month that Richard Nixon said, “…people have got to know whether or not their president is a crook. Well, I’m not a crook.” The Vietnam war was winding down. Arab cartels were limiting oil production. To conserve speed limits, the U.S. lowered speed limits to 55 mph. A group of evangelical Christians met in the basement of the YMCA in Chicago and hammered out a statement declaring the incompatibility of racism, economic materialism and inequality, nationalism, sexism, and unholy political alliances with biblical teaching. Here was the statement they came up with, titled The Chicago Declaration of Evangelical Social Concern. This is the statement in full, reproduced from the Center for Public Justice site:

As evangelical Christians committed to the Lord Jesus Christ and the full authority of the Word of God, we affirm that God lays total claim upon the lives of his people. We cannot, therefore, separate our lives from the situation in which God has placed us in the United States and the world.

We confess that we have not acknowledged the complete claim of God on our lives.

We acknowledge that God requires love. But we have not demonstrated the love of God to those suffering social abuses.

We acknowledge that God requires justice. But we have not proclaimed or demonstrated his justice to an unjust American society. Although the Lord calls us to defend the social and economic rights of the poor and oppressed, we have mostly remained silent. We deplore the historic involvement of the church in America with racism and the conspicuous responsibility of the evangelical community for perpetuating the personal attitudes and institutional structures that have divided the body of Christ along color lines. Further, we have failed to condemn the exploitation of racism at home and abroad by our economic system.

We affirm that God abounds in mercy and that he forgives all who repent and turn from their sins. So we call our fellow evangelical Christians to demonstrate repentance in a Christian discipleship that confronts the social and political injustice of our nation.

We must attack the materialism of our culture and the maldistribution of the nation’s wealth and services. We recognize that as a nation we play a crucial role in the imbalance and injustice of international trade and development. Before God and a billion hungry neighbors, we must rethink our values regarding our present standard of living and promote a more just acquisition and distribution of the world’s resources.

We acknowledge our Christian responsibilities of citizenship. Therefore, we must challenge the misplaced trust of the nation in economic and military might–a proud trust that promotes a national pathology of war and violence which victimizes our neighbors at home and abroad. We must resist the temptation to make the nation and its institutions objects of near-religious loyalty.

We acknowledge that we have encouraged men to prideful domination and women to irresponsible passivity. So we call both men and women to mutual submission and active discipleship.

We proclaim no new gospel, but the Gospel of our Lord Jesus Christ who, through the power of the Holy Spirit, frees people from sin so that they might praise God through works of righteousness.

By this declaration, we endorse no political ideology or party, but call our nation’s leaders and people to that righteousness which exalts a nation.

We make this declaration in the biblical hope that Christ is coming to consummate the Kingdom and we accept his claim on our total discipleship until he comes.

November 25, 1973

I came across this statement recently in something I was reading, and it was the saddest page I’ve read in a long time. It was an indictment of the failures of my generation.

I was a college sophomore in November of 1973. I learned of this statement, and a similar one at Lausanne 74 the following summer during the summer of 1974. This statement expressed the rallying cry of my generation of young evangelicals, written by a group barely a few years older than I was.

Here I am 47 plus years later. I’m dismayed by the continued complicity of white evangelicalism in the racist divisions in our country. I’m dismayed by the unholy alliance of at least three-quarters of white evangelicalism with one political party. I’m dismayed at the rise of Christian nationalism. I’m dismayed by story after story of abuse of women in Christian circles. I’m dismayed by the indulgence in and defense of economic materialism and inequity–more pronounced than 47 years ago. I’m dismayed by the trillions of dollars spent on endless wars. I’m dismayed by the climate change-induced dislocation and hunger faced by millions of the world’s poorest.

I’m dismayed because we knew better, and aspired to better. I’m dismayed because we used power to perpetuate and enlarge all these things we knew were incompatible with biblical teaching. I’m dismayed because instead of not proclaiming a new gospel, we are not interested in proclaiming the gospel of Jesus Christ at all, preferring endless partisan political harangues, whether on the left or the right. I’m dismayed that about the only things that carry over and are as true in 1973 and 2021 are these:

We confess that we have not acknowledged the complete claim of God on our lives.

We acknowledge that God requires love. But we have not demonstrated the love of God to those suffering social abuses.

Perhaps most of all, I am dismayed at our unrepentance, at our hardness of heart. We are in the midst of a global pandemic, a near coup attempt upon our government, natural catastrophes, and deepening social divisions that should drive us to our knees, but seem to only drive us to endless tweeting and posting, and trying to act as if life is “normal” in a most abnormal time.

I write this on Ash Wednesday evening. When ashes are applied to the forehead it is customary for the officiant to say either “Repent and believe in the Gospel, or more customarily, “Remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return.” Ash Wednesday begins a season of self-examination and repentance as we look toward Eastertide. It is a time to renounce all earthly powers, all our idolatries of money and power and earthly kingdoms, and to acknowledge the gospel of Jesus, his death and resurrection for us as our only hope as we approach our own inevitable death.

Perhaps it is too much to hope that the white evangelical church will use the Chicago Declaration of 1973 as a statement against which to examine ourselves and as a call to repentance. And yet I do, because this is my “tribe,” those with whom my life and work has been most closely identified. But whether or not this happens for others, it will for me, along with prayer that the generation rising will not go our way.

Review: The Awakening

The Awakening

The AwakeningFriedrich Zuendel. Walden, NY: Plough Publishing, 2000.

Summary: An account of Pastor Johann Christoph Blumhardt’s victorious ministry with a demonized woman, Gottlieben Dittus, the awakening in the village that followed, and the miraculous works and the reactions that followed.

Pastor Johann Christoph Blumhardt at thirty-three was assigned to ministry in Mottlingen in 1838. Very soon he learned of a woman in his parish suffering a strange illness, accompanied by bizarre symptoms that her doctor had been unable to alleviate. The symptoms were not limited to her body, but also in her surroundings. There were sounds of tapping, objects moved and more. Sometimes she reacted with great fear or hostility to prayer. Ruling out other explanations, Blumhardt entered an extended fight to rid this woman of demons, which eventually is accomplished. Blumhardt attributes the victory to Jesus. We see a pastor who quietly persists in invoking the name and power of Jesus in commanding the demons, who sometimes try to negotiate the terms of their departure, to leave.

Subsequent to this, an awakening breaks out in Mottlingen and the neighboring parish of Haugstett. A parish that had been indifferent to the things of God suddenly becomes stricken with their sins, coming to Blumhardt to confess those sins. As he hears their confessions, he experiences the Spirit’s prompting to absolve them in Christ’s name, a controversial act, but one marked by transformed lives in many who came to him.

Then miracles began. Blumhardt was eventually banned from personal ministry, limited to urging people to attend to the preaching of the gospel, and responding in faith to what was proclaimed, and still more miracles occur. This extends to deliverance of Blumhardt from several enemies who sought to kill him, including one who had broken into his home at night who was miraculously transformed when Blumhardt cried out, “Jesus is victor.”

This phrase, “Jesus is Victor” could have served as the title of this book. What is striking about Blumhardt is the combination of humility and authority that characterize this man. He has a humble estimate of his own abilities, but acts with conviction and confidence in the power of Jesus to counter the powers of sin and evil that he meets. One has the sense that the fight with Gottlieben was one engaged reluctantly, not sought. He refuses to use manipulative techniques to stir people up, trusting to the ministry of the Word and the work of the Spirit.

The book also makes a powerful case for the reality of spiritual warfare, the real existence of demonic personalities that may invade and afflict individuals. Much of this is connected in this narrative with engagement in magical and occult practices which opened people to these dark powers.

Blumhardt also contends that all he did was ask for and do what he saw in the gospels, coming importunately in prayer and exercising the authority Jesus spoke of to forgive sins. He wrote:

Jesus says, “I have authority from my Father to forgive sins, and those whom I forgive are forgiven.” What the Lord did ought to continue, for everything he did as a man shall be done by other human beings until the end of days. The Father authorized him, and he authorized others. He said to the disciples,”As my Father has sent me, so send I you.” Thus his disciples could say to repentant sinners as decisively as Jesus himself did, “Take heart, your sins are forgiven.” And what is to shake our conviction that this power remains in force for those proclaiming the good news today–that they, too, should have authority to forgive sins.

Blumhardt’s words offer a bracing challenge to those who seek revival. Are we prepared for spiritual warfare, and have we fostered a life of dependence upon the power of God? Are our revivals marked by deep grief and repentance for sins, and do we offer the assurance of the Lord’s pardon warranted in the finished work of Christ? His book also reminds me that we live in dark times where our nightly news carries reports of acts of singular evil. I’m troubled by our tendency to reduce all of these to mental illness, though in some instances, there is clear prior evidence of illness. In a society increasingly open to dark powers, might it not be possible that at least some individuals, or even groups have been invaded by such powers, giving themselves over to destructive evil. Blumhardt raises the issue of the call of the people of God to confront such evil under the greater authority of Jesus. Will a politically captivated, culturally co-opted, and personally compromised church be able to respond? Who are the Blumhardt’s of our day? Where is the repentance that marks a truly reviving church?


Disclosure of Material Connection: I received a complimentary review copy of this book from the publisher. The opinions I have expressed are my own.

I Hadn’t Thought of it This Way…

becoming curiousI’ve just begun reading Casey Tygrett’s new book titled, Becoming Curiouswhich proposes that the asking of questions, of being curious, is actually a practice that may be spiritually transforming (and one we often lose as adults as we think maturity equates with having answers and certainty).

That’s not actually the point of this post. Rather I want to focus on an observation he makes about the word “repent.” We most often hear it as an imperative, but he asks the question of whether it might be understood differently, similar to an ad he saw for a certain airline saying, “Fly _____”. The ad is not a command, but an invitation in the imperative form, kind of like what I am doing when I answer the door at my home, see a close friend standing on the doorstep, and I say “Come in!” It’s not a command but an invitation of welcome.

We usually think of the word “repent” being spoken in angry tones by an adult (like a grim father figure) who is really put out with how awful we are and is warning us to clean up our act or face the consequences (“turn or burn”?). Most of us usually respond pretty negatively to this kind of stuff. Perhaps it is a “sez who” response. Or maybe it is disbelief that people could be so obsessed with “sin.” Maybe we just put our hands over our ears.

What if this were framed, and heard as an invitation? What if we heard it as the chance for life to begin again, anew? What if we heard it as a second chance being offered, saying that we can change our minds, change our ways, and this will be honored and received with gladness? What if we heard this as the words of the father to his prodigal son, saying “come home”?

Are there any of us who has not desperately needed this invitation? We know we have screwed up, made bad choices for which we are utterly responsible, done things that have deeply hurt another. We know in our deepest selves that our “transgressions” were not noble acts of rebellion, but rather a self-absorbed descent into the darkness. In our most honest moments we wonder and despair whether there is any way to escape the cloud of shame and the pangs of guilt. We cover it well, put a brave face on our self-justifications, and maybe even start believing the lies we tell ourselves.

What if we heard in the invitation of repentance a chance at forgiveness, a chance at a new beginning? This only stands to reason, when you think about it. Wouldn’t the invitation to repent be the most ultimate act of cruelty were it followed by condemnation? That, I think is why the invitation to repent is often followed by the words “and believe the good news.” What if there were One who so radically loved us that he paid what we could not possibly pay or repay? What if there were one who could empower us to live differently, to become the self we know we ought to be, even as we are delivered from self’s tyranny?

What if repentance were an invitation into this kind of life? Would you say yes? Will I?

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.”

Review: America’s Original Sin


America’s Original SinJim Wallis. Grand Rapids: Brazos Press, 2016.

Summary: Explores our nation’s deeply ingrained history of racism and particularly the challenges facing white Christians in bridging these racial divides.

“The United States of America was established as a white society, founded upon the near genocide of another race and then the enslavement of yet another.”

The author of this book contends that this sentence, in a 1987 issue of Sojourners, was the most controversial sentence he ever wrote. The controversy behind that statement supports the thesis of this book, that racism is America’s “original sin,” a part of our beginnings as a nation that we have wrestled with throughout our national existence, but never truly repented of.

Wallis begins with his own story of growing up in Detroit and working with Butch, a black man who opened his eyes to two very different Detroits and two different realities–for example “the talk” that all black parents have with their children when they learn to drive that white parents do not have with theirs. This concerns how to act if stopped by the police, where to put one’s hands and so forth. He considers Ferguson, and Baltimore, two cities riven with turmoil after police-involved shootings of black men as parables revealing the racial fault lines in the American story. He then reviews our past history and current demographics and events to show that our attitudes around race are indeed our national “original sin” that only profound repentance can heal.

The next chapters explore the nature of true, rather than superficial, repentance, and that this means for the white community to which he writes a “dying” to our whiteness as we recognize the “white privilege” we have enjoyed. I suspect that for many this may be some of the most controversial material. I find this language uncomfortable. I grew up in a working class neighborhood and didn’t feel terribly “privileged” compared to more affluent people in the suburbs ringing my city. It was not until later years that I understood blacks had been red-lined out of our area of the city and I had the benefit of attending one of the best city schools with over 95 percent of the students being white. I began to realize the privilege that I had enjoyed in a racialized society. It also separated me from blacks in my city, made them an “other” who were treated differently in retail establishments, by the police and more. Real repentance means, even though I didn’t choose this “privilege,” to acknowledge that I have benefited from a sinful division of people, to not hold onto or idolize “whiteness” and to begin to intentionally seek a very different future.

The place, Wallis contends, where we begin, is the church, still a highly segregated entity. It means listening to different ethnic voices, and submitting to leadership from ethnicity other than one’s own. Another important place to begin is in the policing of our communities, where police move from being warriors to guardians and where police become integral part of the communities they protect and serve so that both they and their communities affirm both that black lives matter and that blue lives matter. It begins with advocating for restorative justice rather than a new form of Jim Crow justice with differential incarceration rates for the same crimes depending on one’s race.

Dealing with the sin of race extends to our immigration policies. Until our recent election cycle, there was a growing conversation in the evangelical community supporting immigration reform. Reading this post-election seemed like reading from a different world. Even the chapter title, “Welcoming the Stranger” seems foreign. Wallis then concludes the book talking about “crossing the bridge to a new America.” One of the most compelling passages for me was the interaction Wallis had with a group of fifth graders in a Washington, DC public school, who asked Wallis why Congress seemed afraid to change the immigration system. He writes:

     “I paused to consider their honest question and looked around the room–the classroom of a public school fifth-grade class in Washington DC. I looked at their quizzical and concerned faces, a group of African American, Latino, Asian American, Native American, and European American children. Then it hit me.

     ‘They are afraid of you,’ I replied

     ‘Why would they be afraid of us?’ the shocked students asked, totally perplexed. I had to tell them.

     ‘They are afraid you are the future of America. They’re afraid their country will someday look like this class–that you represent what our nation is becoming.'”

Re-reading this passage, I think of a Sunday School song I grew up with, admittedly one that indulged in some stereotypes about skin color for which I apologize, and yet that represented the underlying gospel values of my white evangelical congregation:

“Jesus loves the little children; all the children of the world.

Red and yellow, black and white, all are precious in his sight.  

Jesus loves the little children of the world.”

Wallis’s quote challenged me with the reality of whether we will love all the children of the world that God is gathering in our country, or fear them. Will we see that fifth-grade classroom as the realization of our deep gospel values, and strive for churches that reflect this in our love and our life. Or will we remain racially separate, hiding behind walls of fear, saying that it is OK for Jesus to love these children as long as they are somewhere else in the world.

Wallis contends we stand at the approach to a bridge between the racist America of the past and a different America that values “all the children of the world” in our midst. His book is an invitation for white evangelical America to walk the way of repentance and cross that bridge rather than walk away from it. I’m reminded that God does not forbear forever. If we miss this chance, dare we presume there will be another?




Do We Need More Than Lament?

black ribbonAnother mass shooting. At least 14 dead in San Bernardino. Once again there are the expressions of grief and appropriate expressions of sympathy to families who lost loved ones today.  Once again expressions of outrage against what was plainly an outrage against every standard of decency. Men [and, according to reports after I wrote this, one woman] with long semi-automatic rifles decimating a gathering in a conference room.

And in the outrage, it seems the conversation begins to deteriorate. Some cry for gun control, others for arming ourselves against the violence. Meanwhile I see posts on social media about how rhetoric feeds the anger that ends with attacks on Planned Parenthood clinics. Others raise the question of whether similar anti-police rhetoric leads to shootings of police. Advocates for safe space fight with advocates for free speech. While domestic gun violence is claiming thousands on our streets and in our schools, churches and public spaces, we live in fear of enemies from without.

It is right and appropriate to grieve and lament, comfort and pray. Yet I also wonder if we have taken stock of how far we are from a healthy and flourishing good society. What I wonder is whether we are reaping the society we have sown. Can we constantly glorify violence in our games and media and contemplate committing violence against humans with many of the guns we purchase and not have a violent society? Can we constantly foster a vicious rhetoric of us versus them and not have it turn from words to violence, as much as the words are defensible as free speech?

I wonder if it is enough to lament if our lamentation does not also include confession and repentance. While it is true that neither you nor I pulled triggers in the events of today, do we see ourselves as part of a society that has made its peace with a violent way of life, violent in thought and word and sometimes deed? Repentance doesn’t simply mean mourning our sin. It is metanoia, a change of mind. It means a mental “one-eighty”, turning decisively away from violence and our constant celebration of violence, except when it happens in real life (and even then the incessant media cycle serves to celebrate the deeds of the violent, especially in a violent subculture who emulates them).

Frankly, I wonder if we are really ready for that. Yet I would suggest that if, as a society, we are not, our expressions of grief and lament are a bit hollow, as sincerely as we think we mean them. We have not truly decided to lean into the long, hard work of writing and living stories where conflict ends in peacemaking rather than a hail of gunfire, or verbal or physical abuse. We have not truly decided to write and live stories where grievances are acknowledged, repented of and forgiven rather than nursed into deep bitterness and raging revenge.

This has been a year of staring into the abyss of violence. I wonder if it is also a year of seeing the abyss of the human heart, the abyss of violence in my own heart. I wonder…

Review: Christian Political Witness

Christian Political WitnessWe were once told by a friend that she would not consider joining our church because it would mean she would have to change her political affiliation. Thankfully, if that ever was true, it is no longer. Yet when some hear the phrase “Christian political witness” it conjures up ideas of church support of a particular political agenda of one of the major political parties or an effort to gain political leverage to impose an agenda on a dissenting public. For many, that is alienating and smacks of the polarized politics so many of us detest.

I found that this volume, consisting of a collection of papers from the 2013 Wheaton Theology Conference, explores a very different, and much more nuanced political engagement. Stanley Hauerwas’ opening paper set a tone for the volume challenging the church to think of itself neither as allied with the state in some form of re-constituted Christendom nor simply a marginalized, privatized community in a secular culture but rather its own polis that exists as a public, material witness to the Lordship of Jesus over and against all other powers. The collection returns to this theme at the end as former Archbishop of the Anglican Church in Kenya, David Gitari, in his account of his own courageous witness confronting Daniel arap Moi, proposes an analogy between politics and fire. He writes,

“Our relationship with powers that be should be like our relationship with fire. If you get too close to the fire you get burnt, and if you go too far away you will freeze. Hence stay in a strategic place so that you can be of help. You can support the authority, but when they become corrupt you can criticize fearlessly.”

In between these “bookends” ten other scholars explored various aspects of this topic. Mark Noll looks at the antebellum use of scripture around the issue of slavery as a warning about our use of scripture in political witness, including an example of a more careful hermeneutic. Scot McKnight explores the idea of the kingdom and comes down against popular fashion in arguing that the presence of the kingdom is most visibly expressed through the church.  Timothy Gombis considers the political witness of Paul while George Kalantzis recounts the political engagement of the pre-Constantinian early church with Rome, particularly its refusal to engage in pagan sacrifice and of military service.

The following papers turned to more contemporary issues. Jana Marguerite Bennett suggests that the existence of the church challenges the public/private split and the relegation of family to the private sphere. William T. Cavanaugh explores the Citizens United decision that defines business corporations as persons. His objection to this decision is not the defining of corporations as “person” but the exclusive application of this to business, ignoring the long-standing idea of Christian communities seeing themselves as “bodies” in which individuals exist as part of a larger corporate whole. Peter Leithart turns to the often contested concerns about violence and God’s actions to destroy enemies, which he distinguishes from the unjust and sinful use of force, which he would define as violence.

The next two papers were, for me, the most thought-provoking. Daniel Bell gives us a fresh take on “just war” theory that moves beyond the “public policy checklist” approach to a “Christian discipleship” approach that considers the virtues the church nurtures related to just war criteria. Following this, Jennifer McBride challenges the triumphal and self-righteous approach often taken by churches with a repentance-based approach that acknowledges our own complicity in sin and invites others to join us in turning from it toward God.

The penultimate paper by David P. Gushee observes the absence in evangelicalism of a social teaching tradition similar to that found in Roman Catholicism or mainline Protestantism. He proposes a “social ethics of costly practical solidarity with the oppressed” and works out in brief form how this might apply to ten contemporary issues.

The question of how one engages or does not engage our political and power structures is unavoidable for any thoughtful citizen, believing or not. What ethic will inform that engagement? What ends will one pursue? The papers in this book provided helpful perspectives toward political engagements and structures that foster flourishing societies while resisting church or state tyranny and corruption.