We are hearing from a number of quarters that American society is in trouble like we haven’t seen in a long time. I share this worry. We feel it locally, among our neighborhoods and acquaintances. The blight of hatred spreads through our social media feeds. Our divisions have become so sharp and so personal that talk of civil war seems not so far-fetched. We do need to remember, after all, that it has happened before.
For these reasons, the church, embattled and battered though she be, is more important than ever. To see the church’s value in the present age, we need to refocus. This is a form of repentance, the kind John Wesley expounded in “The Repentance of Believers.” Christians always need to demonstrate willingness to course-correct as we get knocked around and off track in the rough-and-tumble of daily life. Right now is a good time for us to course-correct.
It calls to mind Nehemiah’s example. He is in a foreign country enjoying a prestigious career, far away from his shattered homeland. It has been long-enough after the exile (which began in 586 BCE/BC) that Nehemiah could be forgiven for thinking that that sad bit of history had nothing to do with him. We find Nehemiah in the city of Susa, in the king’s court, almost a full century (ca. 440s BCE/BC) after the exiles began trickling back into Jerusalem. By our standards, he is far removed from the problem, and, as I mentioned, he enjoys a really good job.
And yet, when Nehemiah’s brother, Hanani, shows up with news of the “trouble and shame” of the returned exiles, of Jerusalem’s broken down walls and burned gates, Nehemiah responds, “I sat sat down and wept.” He mourns and fasts and prays, and in the prayer he confesses, “I and my family have sinned.” Feel Nehemiah’s heart. He is not directly culpable for any of the mess, yet he so identifies with his people that he shares their plight. He takes responsibility for conditions with which he had had nothing to do. May this same penitent, responsive, heart emerge and grow across the church.
Many church leaders already know this. The question is, how? What forms would our penitence take?
First, we need to know our communities. This means more time getting to know our neighbors, which means we need to release people from so much church programming so that they have time to know their communities.
But second, we need to see our communities through our convictions about God’s nature and work, rather than through secular categories of interpretation. Our core beliefs about reality, about God’s world-saving mission in Christ, are not optional accessories. What we learn from secular sources, from the natural and social sciences and from culture criticism can be and often are a big help, but they must not replace thoroughly Christian perspectives.
Yes, I know, this is scary talk. Isn’t “Christian” thinking precisely the problem? Who doesn’t know about “the white evangelical vote?” Notice the paradigm of political identity, not scriptural identity. The problem is that Christians have forgotten who we are (if we ever knew) and how to think and see and function in the public square as real Christians. We need to admit that we have let various forms of secular identity tell us and the world who we are and what we value. The church’s true identity comes from the faith once delivered to the saints. It does not trouble us that others disagree and have other faith commitments (the world’s peoples have always disagreed about ultimate reality.) We serve others – of any faith and no particular faith – precisely because the one true God, who made heaven and earth, who in the Incarnate Son shares our nature, shows us how to love and serve our neighbors.
So, we American Christians need a mindset shift, which is to say, we need to repent. We need to grasp once again that metanoia, biblical Greek for “repentance,” involves a change of direction, which also entails a change of mind, a change of perspective, a change in understanding. In repentance, we see things differently. That bit about seeing our neighbors – Republican, Democrat, Independent, Socialist, whatever – as God’s image bearers, which is exactly how God sees them, that bit is non-negotiable. We will stand before the Great Assize and the Judge will evaluate how we treated our neighbors.
Recently I read an instructive piece in Hedgehog Review (a journal I highly recommend), called “Dissent and Solidarity.” It’s written by James Davison Hunter, the founding director of the Institute for Advanced Studies in Culture at the University of Virginia. Looking at the failure of secularized ethical humanism to accomplish human dignity and liberation it envisioned, Hunter finds the realization of that vision in African-American clergy, most notably of course, Martin Luther King, Junior. They, and he, had a vision for social changed rooted in a Source that transcends human power. It made his leadership effective precisely because of its theological vision. Because King believed that all people are created in God’s image – the oppressed and the oppressor – then both dissent and solidarity needed to occur.
In our current climate, we have lots and lots of dissent. Solidarity is alarmingly absent. This is what prompted Hunter to go looking for insight into our present difficulties and to note the importance of having a vision of human dignity and freedom grounded in something beside ourselves.
I think Hunter’s insights serve as a prod for Christian leadership in local communities. The concerns there are broader than Hunter’s focus, but inclusive of it. Christian leadership in the name, power, and character of Christ, made visible in local communities, is now more needed than ever. Because it is done by servants of Christ in his name, it cannot be the power-grabbing kind of “leadership” we see on display most of the time.
Some of you are already doing this. Thank you. Lots more of us need to join you. Now more than ever.