In the 34th chapter of Charles Dickens’ sweeping yet incisive novel, “Dombey and Son”—a novel throughout which themes of alienation, separation, and reconciliation run deeply—Dickens, through the voice of a perspicacious narrator, offers this observation:
In this round world of many circles within circles, do we make a weary journey from the high grade to the low, to find at last that they lie close together, that the two extremes touch, and that our journey’s end is but our starting place?
As I reflect upon the long and complex history of the Christian church, it occurs to me that Dickens’ metaphor of “circles within circles” is at least partially applicable to the church’s many schisms. The people of the Church, ostensibly united in their conviction that God has acted uniquely, definitively, and salvifically through the life, ministry, death, and Resurrection of Jesus, have never lacked vigor in finding things over which to separate. Divergent understandings concerning Baptism and Eucharist; contrasting perspectives on the relationship between God’s sovereignty and human agency; opposing viewpoints on Papal authority and church governance; incompatible convictions related to gender roles and race; doctrinal conflicts emerging from differing hermeneutical approaches to Scripture—these things and many others throughout the centuries have resulted in an ecclesiastical complexity in which manifold denominations often function (to borrow Dickens’ imagery) as “circles within circles,” sharing an affirmation of the Christian faith, yet encompassing disparate interpretations of its sacred text, its creeds, and its theological priorities.
It is popular to conceptualize the various denominations as streams that were once a river together but that now flow separately. Frequently, though, I am led to believe that denominations are often more like what Dickens’ narrator describes—circles spinning meaningfully within and around one another, touching one another and thereby reminding those within each circle that “our journey’s end is but our starting place.” If that is at all true, then not even a church schism can eliminate the continuing connection that the separating parties experience within a grander circle. The remembrance of this has been an encouragement to me in recent days.
On May 1, a new Methodist denomination called “The Global Methodist Church” (GMC) experienced its official launch. Seeing itself as the provider of a necessary corrective to what it believes to be the theological and missional distortions of the current United Methodist Church (UMC), the GMC has cultivated a very specific understanding of orthodoxy and its implications.
While the UMC’s continuing disagreements over human sexuality are at the forefront of the GMC’s origins, some within the GMC have asserted that the divide over human sexuality is merely the presenting issue of a much deeper theological crisis within the UMC—a crisis that includes widespread deficiencies in the denomination’s Christology, its understanding of the authority of Scripture, and its theology of holiness. I do not wish to debate the matter in this context. My concern, however, is that the larger theological criticisms articulated by several proponents of the GMC do not represent an accurate characterization of either my personal theology as a United Methodist clergyperson or the theological worldview of the vast majority of United Methodist clergy and laity with whom I serve. This fact leads me to believe that the church’s current schism is primarily fueled, not by a rampant problem with United Methodism’s Christology or its doctrine of Scripture (both of which are clearly and sufficiently described in the UMC’s Doctrinal Standards and General Rules), but by two connected realities: first, a significant and longstanding divide over how best to interpret, understand, and apply the Biblical verses about homosexuality; and, second, clearly divergent convictions about how the UMC should respond to situations of intentional noncompliance with the prohibitions enumerated in its Book of Discipline.
I maintain, then, that the current schism is not a division between Christians and apostates. It is rather a division between faithful followers of Jesus who have come to radically different conclusions about the ways in which the principles and priorities within Scripture are best identified and honored.
Friends and colleagues whom I dearly love and deeply admire have already made the decision to become a part of the GMC. Others will join them in the months and years ahead. These are people whose leadership and ministry have shaped and encouraged me throughout my life beyond what I can capture in words. I hold them in my heart, praying that their discipleship continues to bear vibrant fruit and that their love for God and neighbor grows exponentially in their new denominational context.
Other friends and colleagues have already made the decision to remain in the UMC, which will no doubt become a very different denomination as a result of all that is taking place. These are people whose leadership and ministry have shaped and encouraged me throughout my life beyond what I can capture in words. I hold them in my heart, praying that the integrity of their faith and the joy of their salvation will help the UMC to become more faithfully the church that God is calling it to be.
Other friends and colleagues (and congregations) are currently uncertain of precisely where they will land. These are people whose leadership and ministry have shaped and encouraged me throughout my life beyond what I can capture in words. I hold them in my heart, praying that their discernment in the days and weeks and months ahead will become a time of deepening intimacy with God and increasing clarity about where and how they might best live out their faith.
If this season of new ecclesiastical realities is to unfold in as healthy a way as possible, I believe that the divided but still-beautiful portion of the church called United Methodism will need to embrace several important priorities:
First, we must commit ourselves to the spiritual discipline of refusing to believe the worst about one another. Refuse to believe, for example, that those who choose to remain in the UMC are driven by idolatrous institutionalism or an eagerness to downplay Biblical truth, when, in fact, they may very well be motivated by a deep commitment to denominational legacy and a Biblical hermeneutic that inspires them to prioritize what they believe to be a Christ-honoring justice over an adherence to a Biblical prohibition they believe causes harm. Likewise, refuse to believe that those who choose to become part of the GMC are driven either by legalism or homophobia, when, in fact, they may very well be motivated by the conviction that the church’s integrity and holiness are at stake and that faithful discipleship demands nothing less than a diligent and sacrificial stewardship over one’s own sexuality. In the intense rhythms of schism, it is frighteningly easy to demonize or disparage those whose decisions and perspectives do not align with ours. One of the most reliable ways to guard against this tendency is to pray our way into a stubborn refusal to assume the worst about one another so that what is potentially best about one another might be affirmed instead.
Second, church leaders (Lay Leaders, Bishops, District Superintendents, clergy and laity across the theological spectrum) must commit themselves to the hard work of helping one another into the denominational future to which they feel called. In order for this to happen, they must prioritize accountability, integrity, and graciousness while resisting resentment, territorialism, and punitiveness. In the Annual Conference in which I serve, I am grateful for a Bishop who has consistently expressed her heartfelt desire for people to “land well” wherever it is that they feel called to land. The particulars of what that might mean in present circumstances remain to be discerned. At the very least, however, it will require a shared devotion to doing good, avoiding the doing of harm, and attending upon the ordinances of God. As a District Superintendent, I commit myself to this work and invite you to do the same.
Finally, our part of the church must make peace with the fact that the road ahead will be hard, just as it has already been. Quite frankly, it needs to be hard. Leaving the connectional covenant of the UMC, after all, should not be easy or cost-free. But neither should it feel punitive or exploitive. Likewise, remaining in a changing denomination should not be easy or without sacrifice. But neither should it feel burdened by unnecessary institutional weight. Daily prayer for the church’s ministry and daily acceptance of the hardness of the road before us are nothing less than essential.
In the interest of transparency, I will tell you that I write this post as a Christ-follower and clergyperson who has chosen to remain in the United Methodist Church. In the days ahead, I may write more about how I arrived at this decision, not for the purpose of convincing anyone else, but simply to share deeper portions of my heart, my faith, and my priorities. For now, I will simply ask you to respect my decision, as I respect yours, and to pray for me, as I pray for you.
I return to the words of Charles Dickens:
In this round world of many circles within circles, do we make a weary journey from the high grade to the low, to find at last that they lie close together, that the two extremes touch, and that our journey’s end is but our starting place?
I am praying that the various circles continue to lie close together—close enough to touch, in fact—and that our ending places and starting places are both close to Jesus.
Throughout the years of my childhood and youth, this is the language that I heard the pastor use whenever persons were received into the membership of a United Methodist congregation:
Dearly beloved, the Church is of God and will be preserved to the end of time, for the conduct of worship and the due administration of God’s Word and Sacraments, the maintenance of Christian fellowship and discipline, the edification of believers, and the conversion of the world. All, of every age and station, stand in need of the means of grace which it alone supplies.
In many ways, this language shaped my ecclesiology before I even knew what ecclesiology was. In hearing these words on a regular basis, I came to believe that the church, at its best, is something more than an institution or denomination. In fact, the church is nothing less than God’s sacramental instrument in a fallen world—a Christ-centered and Christ-shaped community that God will preserve “to the end of time.”
I still believe those things about the church. If you are a person of the church, I hope that you believe them too.
I am inspired to invoke that paragraph from United Methodism’s liturgical history so that it might become the theological backdrop for everything else I am about to write. These are challenging, frustrating, demanding, and at times heartbreaking days for the denominational tribe known as the United Methodist Church. My prayer, however, is that United Methodist Christ-followers will find encouragement in the truth that the Church is well worth the struggle and that the Church “will be preserved to the end of time,” even if we are uncertain at present of exactly what part the United Methodist Church will play in that preserved church.
As most United Methodists have heard, the Commission on General Conference issued a press release last week (Thursday, March 3) stating that the long-delayed 2020 General Conference will be postponed once again, this time until 2024. The following link will take you to the Commission’s press release in its entirety:
This news, while perhaps somewhat anticipated, has fallen heavily on the hearts of many persons throughout the denomination, irrespective of where they might locate themselves in the theological spectrum. In a meeting that I attended recently, one pastor phrased it this way: “I feel like we are stuck in an administrative quagmire that is preventing us from doing the ministry that we are called to do. And the mechanism for getting out of the quagmire has just been pulled away from us for another two years.”
Even those who were less enthusiastic about the proposed Protocol for Separation (a portion of separation legislation upon which the General Conference was to have voted) are feeling the pain of this most recent postponement. “I will be a United Methodist come what may,” said a lay person to me this week. “But I hate the thought of people in the United Methodist Church feeling like they are being held hostage by a denomination that they no longer feel called to be a part of.”
As a District Superintendent in the denomination, and as one who has served gratefully at various levels of United Methodism over the last 33 years, I hold the dynamics of the current situation deeply in my spirit. Like many, I too am weary with the waiting, even as I cling to my conviction that God is still redemptively at work in the nooks and crannies of the struggle. I am also weary of the cynicism and rancor that many are all too eager to embrace in their frustration. Wherever it is that I have been either an agent of such cynicism and rancor or its inspiration, I offer prayers of repentance, even as I type these words.
A second announcement made last week concerns an updated launch date for a new traditionalist Methodist denomination called the Global Methodist Church. Leaders had originally planned to launch the new denomination later in 2022 in conjunction with the General Conference that was to have been held in late August and early September. Motivated by the most recent postponement of General Conference, the Global Methodist Church has moved up its launch date to May 1, 2022.
What does all this mean for United Methodists in the Western Pennsylvania Annual Conference and elsewhere?
Given the fact that this news is so recent, denominational and conference leadership is still in the process of responding to it. The Council of Bishops met last week and will meet again this week for the purpose of clarifying information and achieving consensus on how to lead the denomination in a manner that addresses the current circumstances and navigates their implications. The episcopal leaders of the Western Pennsylvania, West Virginia, and Susquehanna Annual Conferences (Bishop Cynthia Moore-Koikoi and Bishop Sandra Steiner Ball) have kept their Cabinets up to date on the general progress of these important meetings while guarding completely the confidentiality of the meetings’ specific content. I am confident that reliable guidance and leadership from the Bishops will be offered in the days, weeks, and months ahead. I invite your patience in that regard.
Worth noting is that coordinated, sustained, and prayerful work has been done in the Western Pennsylvania Annual Conference over the last year to envision, develop, and, I hope, eventually propose some strategic ways forward for the Conference related to the current denominational division. While I cannot share the particulars of this work (since the work is still in process), I know that the work has taken place at Bishop Moore-Koikoi’s initiative and with her active involvement, and that the participants in this work include traditionalist, centrist, and progressive laity and clergy, all of whom have voiced a commitment to helping the people of our Annual Conference to “land well,” no matter what happens in the denomination. I am deeply encouraged by the fact that Western Pennsylvania’s Bishop and Conference leaders have been forward-thinking enough to begin strategic conversations about how this Conference can approach denominational realities in a manner that is attentive and gracious to all parties. With you, I look forward to more detailed information about this work when that information becomes available.
I am also encouraged by the fact that Bishop Moore-Koikoi and her Cabinet (including this District Superintendent) are wholeheartedly committed to providing the kind of leadership and assistance that will help the laity and clergy of Western Pennsylvania to navigate the complex territory that is before us. We are seeking to lead in a manner that, in accordance with our tradition’s “three simple rules,” avoids the causing of harm, manifests the doing of good, and prioritizes an attendance upon the ordinances of God.
As the dust settles upon recent developments in the denomination, I encourage the United Methodists who are reading these words to commit themselves to those practices that best reflect the love of Jesus and the integrity of our Gospel:
Pray with fasting and a renewed sense of urgency for our part of the Body of Christ called the United Methodist Church. Even if you are unsure of exactly how to pray at this point, spend daily time in wordless attentiveness to the presence of God on behalf of the denomination, allowing the Holy Spirit to intercede on your behalf and to translate the deepest groans of your soul into articulate petitions. Pray for the members of the Commission on General Conference as they process the various reactions to their recent decision. Pray for the Council of Bishops (including Bishop Moore-Koikoi) as they discern how best to lead. Pray for the entirety of the denomination in a without-ceasing kind of urgency, that we might become more vibrantly and faithfully the church that God is calling us to be.
Engage in the essential spiritual work of providing non-anxious leadership among anxious people. Some of the people in your church will approach these matters with fear, anger, and perhaps even resentment. Amid such responses, behave in a manner that helps those around you to envision what it looks like to rest and live in God’s peace, even when the circumstances feel less than peaceful.
Model consistently a graciousness that stubbornly refuses to dismiss, belittle, or demonize the viewpoints and perspectives with which you disagree. Remember that the divide in United Methodism is not a divide between people who love Jesus and people who don’t, or between people who believe in the Bible and people who don’t. Rather, it is a divide between faithful Christ-followers who have arrived at significantly different conclusions about how the Bible is to be read, interpreted, understood, and applied. I am not suggesting that each conclusion is equally right. I am simply calling for agapic love across the theological divide and a stubborn refusal to weaponize one’s own sense of certainty.
Be intentional about caring for those voices and hearts in your church that might reflect a minority viewpoint that runs counter to your church’s majority perspective. In most if not all of our United Methodist congregations, there is a spectrum of thought that includes a diversity of convictions. While many congregations may have a dominant theological viewpoint, it is unlikely that it is unanimously affirmed.
Remember that there are LGBTQ+ persons who are part of your congregation or who are connected to your church, community, or family who feel particularly vulnerable and who bear with great pain the emotional wounds and scars of this ongoing divisive conversation. Irrespective of your theological stance, look for ways to incarnate an intentional ministry of love and care on behalf of the LGBTQ+ persons in your network of relationships.
Help the people of your church to cultivate the kind of patience that will prevent them from acting irresponsibly or hastily (ahead of pending guidance from episcopal and denominational leadership) and that will enable them to practice discernment at a healthier pace. I realize that a call for patience might sound unhelpful and even offensive to those who feel they have been waiting too long already for an intended outcome. In my experience, however, significant and trajectory-altering transitions demand much more time than many are willing to afford to them. It is the responsibility of experienced leaders to set a pace and tone that make holistic discernment a greater possibility.
Stubbornly resist anything like cynicism during these days, since cynicism both distorts our spiritual vision and stifles the joy of our salvation.
Finally, amid denominational division, help the people of your church not to get sidetracked or distracted to the point that they lose their focus on the church’s mission, which remains as urgent and critical as ever: Making disciples of Jesus Christ and equipping them to offer transformational love, ministry, and witness to a fallen and hurting world.
Within my network of friendships and certainly within the ministry of the United Methodist Church, there are Conservatives/Traditionalists whom I dearly love and who will eventually find their way into the Global Methodist Church; there are Liberals/Progressives whom I dearly love and who feel strongly called to become a very different kind of church than that which the Global Methodist Church envisions; and there are those whom I dearly love who locate themselves somewhere in what might be described as “the wide center,” holding strong convictions but refusing to treat them as either theological litmus tests or a compelling reason to divide.
I am praying daily and fervently for the many souls in all three of these categories, believing that the unity we share in Jesus Christ is durable and trustworthy enough to permit hearts to connect even over significant theological differences and perhaps even different denominational identities.
I conclude where I began, with a portion of the church’s liturgy that speaks powerfully into the circumstances in which we find ourselves:
Dearly beloved, the Church is of God and will be preserved to the end of time, for the conduct of worship and the due administration of God’s Word and Sacraments, the maintenance of Christian fellowship and discipline, the edification of believers, and the conversion of the world. All, of every age and station, stand in need of the means of grace which it alone supplies.
May the truth of those words resonate loudly in the hearts of United Methodists, that their discipleship might reflect unwavering integrity and that their church might illuminate the very priorities of God.
Artwork: “Christ Healing the Blind” by Thobias Minzi (Tanzania, 2010)
The lectionary Gospel reading for this weekend (Mark 10:46-52) describes an encounter between Jesus and a blind beggar by the name of Bartimaeus. Jesus settles for nothing less than a personal, face-to-face, and highly countercultural interaction with this marginalized soul whom the crowd had attempted to silence and dismiss. The end result of the encounter is the restoration of Bartimaeus’ sight and, one would presume, the reaffirmation of both his belovedness and his sacred worth.
Many years ago, after a service of worship in which I preached on this Bartimaeus story, a blind woman, guided by her husband, approached me in the church lobby with an expression of anger on her face. “I hate that story in the Bible,” she said to me, “and I hate the way you talked about it today. You celebrated Jesus’ healing of the blind man, but you didn’t ever acknowledge the fact that many of us have been waiting decades for a healing that still hasn’t come. How am I supposed to relate to a Jesus who gives sight to one person but not to me and many others?! Where’s MY healing?! Don’t I deserve it as much as Bartimaeus did?! Don’t other blind people deserve it?! Why won’t Jesus respond to our pleas the way he responded to Bartimaeus’ outcry?!”
Her words, difficult as they were for me to hear, compelled me to realize that I had preached insensitively, inattentively, and insufficiently. I had assumed that, as a preacher with full use of his eyes, I could simply celebrate the restoration of Bartimaeus’ sight without naming and honoring the continuing pain of those who find in the story a distressing reminder of a healing longed for but not yet experienced. I had been so eager to express my own interpretation of the story that I had failed to seek out or even consider the perspectives of those in the congregation for whom a story about blindness might become a painful trigger. Bartimaeus’ experience of “cure” had received my full sermonic attention, while the crowd’s mistreatment and rejection of Bartimaeus had gone largely ignored. His physical sight had become my central emphasis, but his deepest healing in the presence of Jesus—a healing that ultimately had little to do with his physical sight—went uncelebrated by this preacher.
I have thought differently about the Bartimaeus story since my encounter with that blind parishioner.
More specifically, I have come to appreciate that the restoration of Bartimaeus’ physical sight in the story, while perhaps serving as both an isolated sign of Jesus’ ultimate authority over physical affliction and an echo of God’s restorative grace, was actually the least compelling portion of Bartimaeus’ healing. It is true, after all, that, while cured of blindness, Bartimaeus ended up dying of some other physical affliction. Perhaps cancer. Or a heart attack. Or a stroke. Or the striking of his head upon a rock during a bad fall.
Such is the transitory nature of physical cures. Their glory lasts only as long as it takes for the next physical affliction to come along.
Bartimaeus’ most significant and lasting healing, then, must have had precious little to do with his eyesight. Perhaps his most significant and lasting healing had to do with the fact that, in the middle of a community that had consistently ignored his needs, silenced his voice, and devalued his personhood, Jesus had seen him, heard him, brought him out of the societal margins to which he had been consigned, and pursued his heart in the context of a sincere, face-to-face conversation.
Perhaps it had been a very long time since anyone had initiated a meaningful conversation with Bartimaeus. Perhaps his begging on the side of the road in the heat of the midday sun had become nothing more than a dreaded nuisance to the people passing by, an inconvenience to be ignored and resented. On that day, however, Jesus saw Bartimaeus and singled him out. “Bring that man to me,” he said. “Don’t ignore him! Assist him! Help him up! Guide him to me! He may not matter much to you, but he matters deeply to me. He cried out to me with a desperation that none of you possess. I will honor his personhood and his preciousness in a way that you have not. Guide him to me!”
Therein, I suppose, one glimpses Bartimaeus’ lasting and most miraculous healing. On that day, because of Jesus, Bartimaeus had been seen, heard, valued, sought after, cared for, and elevated in the context of authentic relationship. In a crowd that, moments earlier, had commanded him to shut up, Bartimaeus’ voice was now being called for and honored. Somewhere beyond the sharp edge of the crowd’s antipathy stood Jesus, inviting Bartimaeus into a connection with the Divine Heart and reminding him that, in the transformational grace of God, no one slips through the cracks—not Bartimaeus, and not any of us.
And, by the way, this trajectory-altering affirmation of Bartimaeus’ sacred worth (his grandest healing, if you will) happened well before the restoration of his physical sight. It is almost as though the restoration of his eyesight is an afterthought—an allowance offered to Bartimaeus so that, in that moment of transformation, he might look upon the face of the One who had already blessed him with a healed vision that would last far longer than his eyesight ever could.
As I reflect upon the story of Bartimaeus, I hear the voice of Jesus—
calling us to be the kind of community that works hard to accommodate people’s unique needs and allowing them to accommodate ours;
calling us to seek out the marginalized and mistreated souls that have been forced to the proverbial roadside and to walk with them toward the Savior who beckons us into his presence;
calling us to remember that, in the peculiar economy of God’s grace, every soul is sacred, every voice is heard, and every hurt matters deeply to the heart of God;
calling us to embrace the deeper vision that Bartimaeus experienced—a deeper vision that has nothing at all to do with his eyesight.
When I was in my teens, my youth group would occasionally engage in an exercise that one youth director used to call “Points of View.” Three different youth would be asked to leave the room for three minutes, each with a piece of paper and pen. During the three minutes, their task was to describe from memory the room they had just left, writing down everything that they could remember about the setting. After three minutes, the three youth would rejoin the larger group and read their descriptions of the room. What was most entertaining and illuminating about the descriptions, of course, was how significantly different they were from one another. One person remembered the style or color of the carpet. Another person, the color of the walls or the painting beside the bookcase. Another person referenced the furniture and the kinds of chairs in which people were sitting. Some of their memories of the room were spot on in their accuracy. Others were a bit distorted. No two descriptions included the exact same details about the room.
The purpose of the exercise, as I remember it, was to help the members of my youth group to appreciate the fact that differing perspectives and points of view are a significant part of human community—that human beings are inclined to differ with one another in the ways they conceptualize reality and in their perceptions of the world around them. I remember the youth director making the point that such divergences in perspective occur, not only in the way people see a room, but also in the way that people understand issues. “Just as people see a room differently,” he said, “so will they see politics differently. And social issues. And the Bible. And Christianity.” He went on to make the point that, while not all ways of looking at things are equally right, each way represents a perspective that is strongly held and that most likely reflects the priorities and principles of its holder. “And there’s the challenge of being a nation or a church or a youth group,” the youth director said. “It’s the challenge of maintaining a lasting unity around shared core beliefs while respecting one another’s differing perspectives and viewpoints, and perhaps even learning from one another in the process.”
I have reflected often upon that “Points of View” exercise over the last few years, especially as divisions in our nation’s political and moral thought have become seemingly sharper and more rancorous than they have ever been, at least in my lifetime. If one were to ask a thousand randomly chosen Americans to leave the metaphorical room and write down their perspectives and perceptions of what kind of nation America currently is, what its priorities should be, and where it should be headed in its continuing development as a nation, I suspect that one would receive a mind-boggling variety of seemingly divergent observations and convictions. As one youth group member said during the “Points of View” exercise, “it’s as though they are describing two different rooms.” Frequently, after spending time listening to perspectives on MSNBC, Fox News, and CNN, I feel as though the various pundits are describing different nations—different “rooms”
Journalist George Packer recently wrote an article that appeared in the July/August 2021 issue of The Atlantic (Vol. 328). The article, entitled The Four Americas: Competing Visions of the Country’s Purpose and Meaning Are Tearing It Apart, is an insightful exploration of four political worldviews (or four streams of political philosophy) that Packer believes have become primary in America’s national ethos. These “rival narratives,” as Packer describes them, have taken the place of the dominant two narratives that the nation’s two-party political system once generated—two narratives in which “Liberal Republicans” and “Conservative Democrats” once had sufficient political air to breathe and significant roles to play in the functioning of the nation’s political machinery. To Packer’s credit, he is critical of each of the four rival narratives without demonizing any of them. He believes that each narrative offers something important that Americans dismiss at their own peril. He also believes that each narrative, without the correctives and counterbalances provided by the others, is, at best, inadequate and, at worst, destructive to the nation’s moral and philosophical integrity.
Packer calls the first of the four rival narratives “Free America,” and describes it as the most politically powerful and influential narrative of the past half century. The “Free America” narrative places a philosophical emphasis upon the elevation and protection of individual rights and liberties, the furthering of libertarian ideals, and the three-engine impetus of small government, consumer capitalism, and rugged individualism. According to Packer, many who embrace the Free America narrative have “interpreted the Constitution as a libertarian document for individual and states’ rights under a limited federal government, not as a framework for the strengthened nation that the authors of The Federalist Papers envisioned…The purpose of government [in Free America thought] is to secure individual rights, and little else. One sip of social welfare and free government dies.”
As I understand it, the strength of the Free America narrative is that it reflects the very spirit of independence out of which America was born—a resistance to tyranny and governmental oppression that both strengthens political accountability and clarifies the moral vision of America as “the land of the free.” The Free America narrative also gives an important voice to portions of the American population that feel marginalized and, in some cases, silenced by political and social elites. (“I don’t watch the Oscars anymore,” one person said to me recently, “because Hollywood elites are so in love with their own opinions that they act like my opinion and the opinions of many others don’t even matter anymore.”)
The pitfall of Free America thought, however, is that its emphasis on individual rights, if unchallenged and unqualified, can lead to a spirit of isolationism that, while championing freedom FROM government, loses sight of the urgency of freedom FOR responsible and sacrificial citizenship. In such isolationism, paranoia can inspire a person to see tyranny where it is not really present (like in a governmental mask mandate for the protection of a school or community), which tends to result in an outrage that is often more obstructionist than righteous, and frequently more parochial than it is patriotic.
Another criticism (highlighted by Packer) is that the Free America narrative accommodates and, in many ways, depends upon the presupposition that everyone in America has an equal shot at the individual freedom and liberty that the narrative celebrates. If history has taught us anything, it is that such a presupposition is not grounded in truth.
Packer entitles the second narrative “Smart America.” Emphasizing higher education, professional advancement, cultural engagement, and the nurturing of expertise, embracers of this narrative celebrate their cosmopolitan identity and this nation’s long-held prioritization of personal advancement and holistic improvement. Packer describes the narrative in this fashion:
The new knowledge economy created a new class of Americans: men and women with college degrees, skilled with symbols and numbers—salaried professionals in information technology, computer engineering, scientific research, design, management consulting, the upper civil service, financial analysis, law, journalism, the arts, higher education. They go to college with one another, intermarry, gravitate to desirable neighborhoods in large metropolitan areas, and do all they can to pass on their advantages to their children. They are not 1 percenters—those are mainly executives and investors—but they dominate the top 10 percent of American incomes, with outsize economic and cultural influence. They’re at ease in the world that modernity created. They were early adopters of things that make the surface of contemporary life agreeable.
Like Free America, Smart America champions capitalism and a government that does not interfere with advancement. But Smart America tends to believe that “some government interventions are necessary for everyone to have an equal chance to move up.” Proponents of the narrative affirm that “the long history of racial injustice demands remedies…the poor need a social safety net and a living wage…and poor children deserve higher spending on education and health care.”
Interestingly, Smart Americans, according to Packer’s analysis, “are uneasy with patriotism.” They appreciate their country, the freedom it affords, and the sacrifices that have been made to ensure those freedoms, but tend to look upon excessive patriotism as either narcissistic or self-aggrandizing. As Packer puts it, “[Smart Americans] have lost the capacity and the need for a national identity, which is why they can’t grasp its importance for others.” To put this into a contemporary context, in a debate over the issue of kneeling during the national anthem, one of the other narratives might be quick to express offense and outrage over the perceived disrespect. A Smart American, by contrast, might be inclined to wonder why such a big deal is being made about a simple act of protest and might focus instead on gaining a deeper understanding of what is being protested.
The strength of Smart America is its consistent emphases upon intellectual scrutiny and holistic comprehension, both of which help the nation to avoid the toxic danger of being dominated or governed by extreme worldviews and irresponsible conspiracy theories. One of the narrative’s noteworthy dangers, however, is that its championing of knowledge and expertise can breed condescension, classism, and artificial hierarchy, all of which tear at the fabric of national unity. Likewise, Smart America’s ambivalence toward patriotism tends to resonate like unpleasantly dissonant music in the concert hall of a nation that is struggling with its national identity.
Packer calls the third narrative “Real America.” It is, according to Packer, “a very old place,” and is built upon the conviction that “the authentic heart of democracy beats hardest in common people who work with their hands” and that the fullest truth is to be found, not in specialized learning, but in “the native wisdom of the people.”
Here is Packer’s more detailed description of the narrative:
From its beginnings, Real America has been religious, and in a particular way: evangelical and fundamentalist…The truth will enter every simple heart, and it doesn’t come in shades of gray…Finally, Real America has a strong nationalist character. It’s attitude toward the rest of the world is isolationist…but ready to respond aggressively to any incursion against national interests…[In Real America] the villagers can fix their own boilers, and they will go out of their way to help a neighbor in a jam. A new face on the street will draw immediate attention and suspicion.
Real Americans are fiercely loyal to their ideals, which tend to be grounded in a vision for America that emphasizes things like protection, prosperity, tradition, religious freedom, nationalistic pride, and the valuing of the industries upon which this nation was built. They want government to be small in its interference but big in its fight for the working class and in its opposition to any form of elitism that would diminish the middle class. Phrases like “Make America great again” and “Drain the swamp” and “Build the wall” resonate with particular power among Real Americans because such phrases tap into the nationalistic priorities and anti-elitism that Real Americans hold dear.
At its best, the Real America narrative brings to the nation a strong sense of patriotism, an honoring of important segments of tradition and history, and a stubborn refusal to allow leaders to forget about either the working class or the protection of the nation’s citizenry.
If unchecked, however, Real America’s patriotism can quickly and easily degenerate into jingoism; its anti-elitism into a resistance to important expertise; and its fierce Americanism into an accommodation of white Christian nationalism.
Finally, the fourth rival narrative is what Packer calls “Just America.” Fueled by the injustices and inequities (past and present) that our nation has both enabled and accommodated, this narrative grounds itself in a vision for an America where things that are painfully wrong are made right. The governing principle for Just Americans is “justice for all,” and they tend to evaluate the nation’s health and integrity by the degree to which it realizes this principle for its people. As Packer notes, “for Just Americans, the country is less a project of self-government to be improved than a site of continuous wrong to be battled.” According to the narrative, America’s best and most urgent priority is “the historical demand of the oppressed, [which is] inclusion as equal citizens in all the institutions of American life.”
Just Americans long for a government that shares its vision for justice and participates actively and dynamically in the realization of that justice. They long for a citizenry that refuses to remain complacent or indifferent to the struggles of the oppressed and the marginalized. They long for a nation that takes its painful history of racism and sexism seriously while creating a future where such sins no longer have sufficient American air to breathe. According to Packer, Just America “forces us to see the straight line that runs from slavery and segregation to the second-class life so many Black Americans live today—the betrayal of equality that has always been the country’s great moral shame.”
Naturally, the Just America narrative generates a sense of urgency within America’s national consciousness, thereby deepening the country’s heart toward the hurting, the oppressed, and the mistreated. The narrative itself helps to stimulate the nation’s moral sensibilities, even among those who question or oppose the narrative. Case in point, when some Americans respond to the phrase “Black lives matter” with the retort, “No, ALL lives matter,” the Just American might be inclined to take the conversation into deeper moral territory: “Of course all lives matter. But you are missing the point of the phrase. All lives won’t truly matter until we stop doing systemic harm to black and brown lives.” Such conversations help to clarify a nation’s response to racism, even when there is disagreement over some of the particulars.
A fair criticism of the narrative, however, is that the ferocity of its moral vision can lead to a distorted worldview that demonizes all persons and perspectives that do not fully embrace the totality of the narrative. As Packer notes,
What had been considered, broadly speaking, American history (or literature, philosophy, classics, even math) is explicitly defined as white, and therefore supremacist. What was innocent by default suddenly finds itself on trial, every idea is cross-examined, and nothing else can get done until the case is heard.
Also, in the Just America narrative, the intense focus on systemic injustices and institutional policy can obscure the urgency of personal choices, individual initiative, and interpersonal skill. “Structural racism is real,” Packer writes, “but so is individual agency.” Any holistic vision for justice must surely emphasize both.
Four dynamic stories, each of which a multilayered attempt to interpret a nation’s identity and trajectory and to clarify a nation’s priorities.
Packer does not argue for the superiority of any of the narratives. Neither will I. In fact, I agree wholeheartedly with Packer’s assessment that “each [of the narratives] offers a value that the others need and lacks ones that the others have.”
I have to believe that the healthiest way forward for a divided nation involves a commitment to understanding the different narratives, appreciating the values upon which they are built, affirming their various strengths, acknowledging their various weaknesses and dangers, and clarifying their various distortions. This is hard work, to be certain. It is always far easier to compartmentalize than it is to collaborate. I believe wholeheartedly, however, that America will become a far grander nation when it learns to accommodate its various narratives as important and necessary stories within a shared anthology instead of reducing them to rancorous rhetoric or, worse, battle lines in a civil war.
Our best and only way into a healthy national future is to figure out what it means to become multilingual enough to converse meaningfully and strategically across the spectrum of narratives, thereby generating a national identity that embraces a wide range of important and unifying values—values such as Free America’s freedom, Smart America’s intelligence, Real America’s patriotism, and Just America’s justice.
Packer’s concluding paragraph resonates with important truth in this regard:
We have no choice but to live together—we’re quarantined as fellow citizens. Knowing who we are lets us see what kinds of change are possible. Countries are not social-science experiments. They have organic qualities, some positive, some destructive, that can’t be wished away. Our passion for equality, the individualism it produces, the hustle for money, the love of novelty, the attachment to democracy, the distrust of authority and intellect—these won’t disappear. A way forward that tries to evade or crush them on the road to some free, smart, real, or just utopia will never arrive…But a way forward that tries to make us Equal Americans, all with the same rights and opportunities is a road that connects our past and our future…Neither separation nor conquest is a tenable future.
If you have read this far, perhaps you will travel with me into one more personal reflection:
I am struck by the way in which Packer’s analysis of the nation applies to the current climate in the ecclesiastical setting in which I live out both my vocation and my life of faith: The United Methodist Church.
Like the nation, my Christian denomination is divided over principles and priorities—over different understandings of identity, purpose, and vision for the future. There are at least four (and probably more) rival narratives that are fighting for dominance within United Methodism at present.
To borrow George Packer’s nomenclature, there is a strong “Free Church” narrative within United Methodism—an ethos that advocates for a more congregational (and less connectional) model of church that eliminates denominational ties and accountabilities and places decision-making, prioritization, and even the selection of pastoral leadership entirely in the hands of the local church. The strength of such a narrative is its passion for local ministry and contextualized community impact. Its weakness is its proclivity to the kind of congregational isolationism that limits and perhaps even prevents the kind of global impact (and global sense of community) that a connectional system of polity makes possible.
There is also a “Smart Church” narrative within the denomination. Smart Church clergy and laity believe that the church’s best future depends upon theological and ecclesiastical education, leadership training, and professional expertise. The Smart Church rightly emphasizes the urgency of well trained and well educated leadership and lifelong learning. Its weakness is that it can become dismissive of the important voices and perspectives that often emerge from untrained and non-professional congregants and members of the community.
One of the strongest narratives in contemporary United Methodism is what might be called “Real Church.” With a clear, specific, and almost absolutist set of convictions about what constitutes orthodoxy, correct biblical interpretation, and right practice, Real Church people (on both the right and the left) envision a church that is pure and unified in its doctrine, its teaching, and its behavioral standards. Currently, nowhere is the Real Church narrative more clearly manifested than in the denomination’s divide over human sexuality, with many across the theological spectrum convinced that the particular church they envision is the most “real.” Those who embrace the Real Church narrative help the denomination to clarify its doctrine and deepen its theological understanding of both the church’s ministry and individual discipleship. The danger of the narrative is that the purity and homogeneity of doctrine it pursues can be both elusive and difficult to maintain without theological myopia. Likewise, Real Church thought can feel cold, rigid, and dismissive to those who might bring a differing perspective to what it means to be fully “real” as a church.
Every bit as strong as the “Real Church” narrative is the “Just Church” narrative. In the Just Church’s ecclesiastical vision, nothing is more important than the pursuit and expanding realization of the justice that it believes accompanies God’s reign and the righting of those wrongs that prevent the church and world from being a reflection of that reign. The Just Church looks upon areas of focus such as the dismantling of racism, ministry with the poor, and caring for the sick as being nothing less than the church’s most urgent work in a fallen world where distortions and injustices abound. This narrative helps the United Methodist Church to honor its longstanding emphasis upon social holiness and community transformation. Its weakness is that it can lose sight of the denomination’s other historical points of emphasis, such as personal transformation, individual holiness, and the salvation of souls (as well as bodies).
Many within the denomination believe that these narratives can no longer healthily coexist under one denominational roof—that the “big tent” of United Methodism is no longer big enough for all the narratives. These are the voices that are advocating most fervently for a denominational split in order to allow the different narratives to exist without having to accommodate (or battle) other perspectives. On many days, I am inclined to agree with those voices calling for split. After all, as I wrote earlier related to the nation, compartmentalization (or division) is ultimately easier than navigating collaboration across a diverse theological spectrum.
But there is a significant portion of my soul that believes that George Packer’s words about the nation apply even more to my denominational tribe:
We have no choice but to live together. We’re quarantined as fellow citizens [or fellow disciples]…Neither separation nor conquest is a tenable future.
Both divided. Both searching for a way forward. Both faced with the daunting challenge of deciding between collaboration and division; between staying together and separating; between creating space for multiple narratives and limiting the space so that only the preferred narrative can fit.
It may very well be that you are able to find your own voice easily in one or more of the narratives that Packer identifies and that I have described. If so, I hope that you will resist the temptation in this forum to argue for the rightness of your narrative(s) or the wrongness of someone else’s. Instead, I encourage you to discern the values that fuel other perspectives and listen to the echoes of truth that may resonate within those narratives that are different from yours.
I do not presume to know with any certainty the best way forward. My prayer, however, for both a nation and church I dearly love, is that integrity, compassion, respect, and unity will flourish from sea to shining sea—and from sanctuary to prayerful sanctuary.
Many occupations have borne particularly heavy weight througout the pandemic.
Medical professionals were in harm’s way every single day.
Educators and educational staff had to accommodate the risks and challenges of maintaining the work of education in new and unusually demanding settings.
Restaurant owners, staff, and employees faced uncertainties and, in many cases, financial crisis.
Political leaders had to deal with the insults and accusations of those who often assumed the very worst about their motives.
Workers in many different professions who were not given the option of working from home had to deal with the stress and struggle of managing a work schedule while worrying daily about their exposure to the pandemic.
Even as I type these words, I pray for those I know (and those I do not know) who, for the last 16 months, have carried the heavy vocational weight that I am describing. I hope that my prayers, and the prayers of many others, become conduits by which God’s healing and sustaining grace might enter their lives.
An often overlooked segment of the workforce in the conversation about pandemic-related burdens is the segment composed of those who work in faith communities—clergy leaders and staff members—many of whom are weary with the challenges of caring for the people they serve, protecting the most vulnerable in their communities, and processing the anger of those who disagree with their leadership decisions or their faith community’s response to the pandemic. Leaders in all faith communities (Jewish, Islamic, Buddhist, Hindu, and Christian, to name the primary American religious affiliations) have faced unique and painful struggles over this last year-and-a half. As a Christian pastor myself, and a United Methodist pastor in particular, I see and hear evidence every day of this struggle and its significant impact.
I am what my denomination calls a District Superintendent, meaning that I am not currently serving a local church. Instead, I provide oversight to the 77 churches and 61 clergy (active and retired) of the district that I superintend. As I tell my clergy frequently, I still do not know what it means to pastor a local church during a time of pandemic, since I have never had to do that. Throughout the last 16 months, however, I have listened attentively to the stories of the clergy alongside whom I serve. I have heard them describe the anguish of not being able to pray at the hospital bedside of someone who was dying; of not being able to visit their homebound parishioners who have felt isolated and afraid; of having to deal with the rage of those who believed that the church was either overreacting or underreacting to the pandemic; and of having to steward the pressures of an expanded online ministry while, at the same time, adjusting to a substantial reduction in congregational giving.
Said one of my clergy recently, “these last 16 months have been the longest decade I have ever experienced.”
In a recent article written by Bob Smietana for “Religion News Service” (May 7, 2021), Smietana describes the experience of several clergy, including Jeff Weddle and Brandon Cox:
Jeff Weddle, a 46-year-old, wise-cracking, self-deprecating, Bible-loving, self-described ‘failing pastor’ from Wisconsin, was already thinking of leaving the ministry before COVID and the 2020 election. He was, as he put it, fed up with church life after two decades as a pastor.
Then, what he called ‘the stupid’—feuds about politics and the pandemic—put him over the edge. People at church seemed more concerned about the latest social media dustup and online conspiracy theories—one church member called him the antichrist for his views on COVID—than in learning about the Bible. Sunday mornings had become filled with dread over what could go wrong next. He eventually decided, ‘I don’t need this anymore.’ Weddle stepped down as pastor, walked out the door and hasn’t looked back…
For Brandon Cox, serving as a pastor had been a joy until last year. In 2011, Cox and his wife, Angie, had started a new church in Bentonville, Arkansas, called Grace Hills. ‘Up until 2020, we had a fantastic time,’ Cox, 46, told Religion News Service in a phone interview. The trifecta of the COVID-19 pandemic, the 2020 election and the racial reckoning in response to the death of George Floyd hit like a ‘wrecking ball.’ Grace Hills shut down in-person worship at the beginning of the pandemic, which prompted people to leave. More left when the church reopened and required masks. When Cox and a Black pastor preached a Sunday sermon together after Floyd’s death and said that yes, Black lives matter, that caused more turmoil. No matter what Cox did, someone was angry. ‘It was sort of relentless,’ said Cox, who stepped down as pastor at Grace Hill at the end of April. ‘My wife and I just found ourselves in the place of exhaustion.’ Cox talked to RNS nine days after his last Sunday as a pastor and said he hasn’t given up on Christianity—he hopes to find a new church to attend in the coming months—but pastoral ministry is no longer for him.
While neither Weddle or Cox is United Methodist, their vocational struggles compare to many that I have heard described by my United Methodist colleagues in recent months. As clergy have attempted to speak words about racial justice as it relates to the Gospel, they have often faced the angry accusation of being too “political.” As clergy have committed themselves to helping their churches adhere to CDC guidelines, they have often dealt with the harsh resistance—and even departure—of those who believe that that the pandemic is nothing more than an exaggerated flu undergirded by a political narrative. Add to these dynamics the ongoing conversation about the possibility of a denominational split over human sexuality, along with the continuing demands of everyday ministry (which never go away), and the end result is a pervasive weariness among church leaders (lay and clergy) who, on some days, struggle to find their voice and place in a setting that may no longer feel hospitable to them.
Perhaps some of you can relate to what I have described. I know that I can.
I am not suggesting, of course, that clergy and church leaders do not make their share of mistakes—talking when they need to be listening; pushing when they need to be collaborating; weaponizing the pulpit instead of speaking the truth in love. Books could be written about the mistakes I have made over the course of 32 years of ministry.
Still, mistakes and all, my heart is all in for clergy and church leaders and for the ministry they offer. They are my mentors and guides—my devoted colleagues and my spiritual heroes. Most often, they are the ones who remind me of what it means to be a pastor—and a Christian—when I am tempted to forget. They stand with their congregations in good times and bad, helping their people to know that the grace of Jesus covers all of it and that none of it goes wasted.
I believe in them.
I trust them.
I pray for them.
I love them.
And, I know that many of them are hurting—hurting in the way that many church leaders are hurting. In fact, according to a recent survey of Protestant pastors by the Barna Group, 29 percent of those clergy surveyed said they gave serious consideration to quitting full time ministry within the last year.
Given this reality, what might be done? How can those of us who are part of the church better the situation?
While there are no formulaic or definitive responses to such questions, I feel compelled to offer these words of encouragement to congregations in the hope that they will be instructive:
Be sensitive to the fact that your clergy and church staff (if you have a church staff) have been carrying particularly heavy burdens during this past year, and allow that sensitivity to soften your spirit toward their leadership.
Offer spoken, written, personal, and public words of affirmation and support to your clergy and church leaders, especially since such words are nothing short of life-giving to the hurting spirits of weary leaders.
Make certain that your support of your clergy and church leaders is vocal and consistent, since the frequent criticisms and resistance they face are also vocal and consistent.
Resist all temptations to sabotage or undermine the leadership of your clergy and church leaders. Instead, do all in your power to help them to be the best leaders they can be.
Exhort your clergy and church leaders to practice good self-care, encouraging them to devote substantial energy to their primary relationships, to nurture their own spiritual and physical health, and to guard their time away from the church.
Bless your clergy and church leaders with tangible expressions of your gratitude and support. For example, consider providing a night out at a nearby restaurant; or a weekend at an area hotel or retreat center; or an extra Sunday off.
If your pastor and church leaders ever make a decision or share a heartfelt conviction that challenges your perspective or with which you disagree, allow the energy of that disagreement to inspire dialogue instead of rebellion, relationship instead of rancor, and a spirit of “moving toward” instead of a spirit of “turning away.”
Listen to the hearts of your church’s leaders, just as you expect them to listen to your heart. Take the relational risk of asking them questions that move the conversation beyond the sharing of information and into the sacred territory of soul care. Come alongside them in a way that honors their personhood and their struggle and not simply their function.
Pray for your pastor and church leaders, believing that your prayer will become an instrument through which God will both encourage your leaders and soften your own heart toward them.
And, finally, be intentional about reminding your clergy and church leaders that the church, the precious Bride of Christ, is worth the struggle, since there will be many things that tempt them to believe that it might not be.
A pastor emailed this to me recently: “Eric, one of my parishioners took me out to lunch last week—not to complain; not to chastise me for all the mistakes I’ve made; not to rebuke me for my wrong opinions…But just to pray for me over some good food, to tell me that he loved me and appreciated my ministry, and to ask me how it is with my soul…To tell you the truth, it felt like Communion.”
I am inviting you to experience a more frequent “Communion” with your clergy and church leaders. They are hungering for it, probably more than you—or they—even realize.
The voices are loud. Demanding. Angry. And often unnuanced.
“This ‘cancel culture’ has to stop! If something offends you, then just don’t listen to it! Or don’t watch it! Or don’t read it!”
Other loud voices emerge from a different portion of the philosophical spectrum:
“This isn’t about ‘cancel culture!’ This is about correcting wrongs that we have tolerated for far too long!”
As people entrench themselves in both intensified anger and fortified viewpoints, accusations and presuppositions often begin to take priority over nuanced discernment. One group asserts that a portion of its history is being taken away. Another declares the moral high ground en route to what it perceives to be a nobler future. The end result is a lingering fracture that no doctor can heal (not even Dr. Seuss).
Some respond to the fracture with defensiveness or territorialism. Others with dismissiveness. Still others with retaliatory ridicule and an eagerness to belittle perspectives that run counter to their own. In the often complex and sometimes confounding sociological maelstrom and philosophical commotion, faith communities (like the church) have a unique opportunity both to speak a countercultural message and to model the kind of distinctive priorities that bear witness to the theological narrative by which they are endeavoring to live. Sadly, instead of incarnating a different way, the church too often settles for one of the viewpoints handed to it by a divided culture, the segments of which are all too eager to have faith communities on their side.
So where does that leave the church? What sense might the church make of the “cancel culture” debate? And how might the church respond to it in a manner that reflects the priorities of Jesus, a commitment to justice, an appreciation of history and its complexity, and a vision for our nation’s integrity?
While I can offer no definitive answers, I am led to believe that the church’s navigation of the current territory will require the continued consideration of these practical and theological convictions:
Conviction #1: The work of “canceling,” even when deemed morally necessary, will always illuminate both the noteworthy inconsistencies of the cancelation process and the inherent hypocrisies of those claiming to be its overseers.
Critics of “cancel culture” rightly point out that decisions about who or what gets canceled (and who or what does not) are often subject to the inconsistent priorities and proclivities of an erratic culture and its flawed arbiters. Racism is rightly condemned, but by a nation built largely upon the back of slavery. Misogyny is rightly decried, but by a culture that often sexualizes even its children and youth. Intolerance is rightly rebuked, but often by the intolerant. These manifestations of moral inconsistency and hypocrisy do not in any way justify an abandonment of public moral censuring. They do, however, elucidate a shared fallenness that should, at the very least, inspire both intensified caution and a resistance to weaponized sanctimony when it comes to the activity of public condemnation. To borrow the imagery of Jesus, the ones who endeavor to cancel, irrespective of their sense of moral rightness, do well to recognize the “plank” in their own personal histories, even as they endeavor to remove the offending “speck” from a variety of different eyes.
Conviction #2: At its worst, public rebuke becomes the moral posturing of a nation seeking to castigate a convenient scapegoat. At its best, such rebuke becomes a nation’s rightful rejection of that which we tolerate or accommodate only at our own moral peril.
The challenge for the church is to bring to the conversation about public condemnation the kind of steady critical thinking that distinguishes between the pursuit of justice and the demonization of dissenting voices. Only then can the church’s people move beyond image management and virtue signaling in order to add their hearts, voices, and energies to the complex and critical work of helping our nation’s narrative to reflect the truth of who we have been, the reality of who we are, and the vision of who we aspire to be.
Conviction #3: When there is a public denunciation of something or someone based upon a general moral consensus, the church’s most Christ-honoring response is to choose patient attentiveness instead of cynicism and to practice repentance instead of deflection.
A common criticism of “cancel culture” is that it focuses on all the wrong things. “How can people possibly worry about cartoons and a handful of Dr. Seuss books,” the argument goes, “when popular musicians are free to render highly sexualized performances with sexually graphic lyrics at the televised Grammy Awards?” Such deflection illuminates both the complexity of cultural cancelation and the strong disagreement that exists over its priorities. The church would do well to remember, however, that repentance is not a resource that becomes depleted with frequent usage. Rather, repentance is a way of life that makes redemptive room for all the wrongs that demand correction and all the distortions that demand reconfiguration. To put it another way, the church’s people must not allow the current ABSENCE of repentance over some issues to harden their hearts to the current PRESENCE of repentance over other issues. Disagreements about what requires repentance will certainly continue. The church, however, reflects the heart of Jesus most vibrantly when it joins the work of repentance wherever it is occurring instead of belittling that work for not yet finding expression in other places.
Conviction #4: In a climate of “cancel culture,” the church is called to elevate the conversation by becoming more fluent in its own unique and redemptive theological language.
The culture’s emphasis on “cancelation” becomes an opportunity for the church to reengage the deep rhythms of confession, repentance, rebirth, justification, and sanctification. When the culture traffics in the ethos of punishment, the church articulates afresh the importance of social holiness, the urgency of correcting injustice, and the moral necessity of taking responsibility for one’s behavior and being held accountable for its consequences. When the culture demands retribution, the church calls for transformation. And when the culture labels a soul irredeemable, the church tells the old, old story of a grace in which, mercifully, a soul’s cancelation is simply not an option.
Conviction #5: “Cancel culture” has the potential to become either a toxic methodology by which to ruin the lives of identified opponents or a means of refinement that helps to purify the cultural air.
Where publicized denunciation is weaponized without accountability—where it becomes, in other words, less of a prophetic denunciation of wrongdoing and more of a calculated effort to silence all dissent and incapacitate all dissenters, the church has a moral responsibility to name the harm being caused, to advocate for the ones harmed, and to work toward a just rectification. On the other hand, where such denunciation reflects a nation’s earnest and disciplined journey of sanctification, the church can join the effort rightly, since sanctification is a central and beautiful theme in the church’s own grand story.
The convictions that I have enumerated here reflect my belief that “cancel culture” need not be conceptualized or treated as the church’s enemy. I am more inclined to look upon it as the imperfect and inconsistent methodology of a culture that is seeking to clarify its ever-expanding vision for what it wants to be and what it does not want to be—what it wishes to elevate and repudiate. Naturally, the church cannot expect a complete alignment between its priorities and the culture’s when it comes to the shared work of public remonstration and moral correction. I am convinced, however, that prayerful and consistent scrutiny will illuminate far more common ground than one might at first assume—as though God is steadily at work to bring both the church and the world into the kind of salvific symbiosis that moves the entirety of creation toward the redemption for which it groans.
Someone said to me recently, “But what if ‘cancel culture’ tries to cancel the church?”
I offered the only response that came to me in the moment.
“Someone already tried to cancel the church two-thousand years ago. The result was an empty tomb, a ‘Hallelujah’ that still resonates, and a life that not even death can nullify.”
Do you ever experience nights in which sleep becomes secondary to prayer and in which outcries to God become as natural as breathing and every bit as desperate?
The last several nights have been like that for me—and, I suspect, for many others—simply because of the sense of urgency around the presidential election and all that is at stake in the days ahead.
May I speak to you about the specific nature of my current prayer, in the hope that my feeble petitions might resonate with your own prayerful spirit?
I am praying for President-elect Joe Biden, that his heart will break for the issues that matter most; that the noblest portions of his character will find dynamic expression in his leadership; that repentance, where necessary, will become authentically transformational for him; and that his presidency will be devoted to the kind of work that broadens our country’s grandness, deepens its integrity, and strengthens its unity.
I am praying for President-elect Biden’s family members, that they will be protected from the harm that global scrutiny so frequently causes and that they might be inspired to love and nurture one another with intentionality and attentiveness throughout these days of important transition.
I am praying for Vice President-elect Kamala Harris and her family, adding my voice and heart to the celebration of what her election represents in our country’s history. As the first woman and woman of color elected to the Vice Presidency, her election stands as a strong and vibrant repudiation of the sexism and racism that have been so painfully prevalent throughout our history.
I am praying for President Donald Trump, his family, and his staff, and for Vice President Mike Pence and his family, that they might know the sustaining and lifechanging grace of God in every portion of their journey.
I am praying for the healing of a nation that is starkly and frighteningly divided and whose divisions reflect substantial ideological differences that cannot be reduced to Facebook pronouncements and a smug dismissal of opposing viewpoints. I hold in my heart today my dear friends who, with me, see this election’s outcome as a long-awaited answer to prayer. I also hold in my heart my dear friends who are disappointed, angered, or heartbroken by this election’s outcome. Both types of people are part of the nation that President-elect Biden is preparing to lead. Both must be taken seriously.
I am praying for those who have felt wounded, mistreated, and diminished throughout this election season, that their vision and hope might be fully restored.
I am praying that the people of our great country (elected leaders and neighbors close by) will move toward a more comprehensive, reasoned, authentic, and respectful way of talking with one another about the vitally important matters that this election season has illuminated—including issues of race, gender, immigration, abortion, economics, and healthcare. I long for the kind of sustained and integrated dialogue in which people refuse to become so exclusively fixated on their own viewpoints that they can no longer value the perspectives and experiences of others.
Finally, I am praying for the church, which is the portion of the world where I spend most of my time and where I invest most of my energy. May the church commit itself afresh to the healing of a nation and to the hearing of all voices. May its people devote themselves anew to the work of justice, mercy, and Gospel-grounded transformation. And may its sacrificial ministry be a prophetic indication to the world that, while the church approaches the election of our political leaders with reverent seriousness and commitment, our deepest hope lies in the reign of God and the reconfigured lives and communities that God’s grace makes possible.
Breathe in, friends. Breathe out. Pray deeply. Be gentle with one another. And then meditate on this:
He has told you, O mortal, what is good; and what does the Lord require of you but to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God?—Micah 6:8
We are approaching a presidential election that represents a culmination of the most politically and philosophically divisive campaign season that I have ever experienced.
Throughout the last several months, strongly held convictions and deeply felt emotions have put a strain on many families and friendships, on many pastors and congregations, and on many hearts and lives. After Tuesday, no matter how the election turns out, there will be excitement and a sense of victory among some, and deep frustration—perhaps even anguish—among others. And, as citizens of this great nation, we will all bear our share of emotional scars, irrespective of for whom we cast our vote.
I know that most of the people reading these paragraphs hold plenty of strong opinions about the election, and that anything like consensus is elusive at best. Further, I understand that you most likely encounter a diversity of political viewpoints in your network of relationships that sometimes causes your head to spin and your heart to hurt.
The last four years have illuminated a divide in our culture—and even in our faith communities—that, while perhaps long present, has never been so starkly and painfully delineated. The church, which is the faith community in which I both live out my vocation and nurture my spiritual formation, currently accommodates a divergence of perspectives related to the Presidency of Donald Trump that can sometimes lead to what feels like either severe ecclesiastical schizophrenia or a bad case of spiritual whiplash.
An articulate Christian defense of Trump’s Presidency can be found in the writing of Eric Metaxas, who included these words in his op-ed article for the Wall Street Journal (January 7, 2020):
If slavery was rightly considered wicked—and both a moral and political issue—how can this macabre practice [abortion] be anything else? How can Christians pretend this isn’t the principal moral issue of our time, as slavery was in 1860? Can’t these issues of historic significance outweigh whatever the president’s moral failings might be?…The pejorative du jour is to call evangelicals ‘transactional,’ as though buying a loaf of bread and not simply praying for one were somehow faithless. But what is sneeringly called ‘transactional’ is representational government, in which patriotic citizens vote, deputizing others to act on their behalf for the good of the country. Isn’t it conceivable that faithful Christians think Mr. Trump is the best choice?…Christians are staggered to see good souls who stand by millennia-old religious convictions portrayed as deplorable bigots. Democrats—and many Republicans, too—simply look away, seemingly resigned to a culturally Marxist future in which they too may at any minute be rent asunder by woke mobs. Given this new reality, is it any wonder Mr. Trump’s bellicosity often draws cheers? Or that the appointment of originalist judges has become so urgent that some people are willing to countenance a chief executive who tweets like a WWE figure?
In stark contrast to Metaxas’ conceptualization of Trump as Christianity’s “best choice” and a necessary response to an American culture that is bounding headlong toward a “Marxist future,” John Pavlovitz, another articulate Christian voice, recently published a provocative blog post entitled “No, I Won’t Agree to Disagree About This President. You’re Just Wrong” (October 18, 2020). In his post, Pavlovitz gives expression to a moral anguish that he believes is worth dividing over:
At this point, with the past four years as a resume, your alignment with this president means that we are fundamentally disconnected on what is morally acceptable—and I’ve simply seen too much to explain that away or rationalize your intentions or give you the benefit of the doubt any longer. I know what your reaffirmation of him is telling me about your disregard for the lives of people of color, about your opinion of women, about your attitude toward Science, about the faith you so loudly profess, and about your elemental disrespect for bedrock truth. I now can see how pliable your morality is, the kinds of compromises you’re willing to make, the ever-descending bottom you’re following into, in order to feel victorious in a war you don’t even know why you’re fighting…This isn’t just a schism on one issue or a single piece of legislation, as those things would be manageable. This isn’t a matter of politics or preference. This is a pervasive, sprawling, saturating separation about the way we see the world and what we value and how we want to move through this life. Agreeing to disagree with you in these matters, would mean silencing myself and more importantly, betraying the people who bear the burdens of your political affiliations—and this is not something I’m willing to do…Your devaluing of black lives is not an opinion. Your acceptance of falsehoods is not an opinion. Your defiance of facts in a pandemic is not an opinion. Your hostility toward immigrants is not an opinion. These are fundamental heart issues.
The divergence of theological thought reflected by these two Christian writers is as compelling as it is unsettling. These are contrasting worldviews that, while not mutually exclusive, bring to light differing moral priorities and disparate ideas about what matters most to Jesus. Would the starkness of the disparity be different if there were a greater number of pro-life Democrats? Or more Republicans concerned about racism, the climate, and access to healthcare? Perhaps. As it stands, however, faithful followers of Jesus, along with many other faith communities, find themselves every bit as divided as the culture that surrounds them, if not more so.
I do not offer solutions in these paragraphs. In fact, I am not at all convinced that a solution exists. The cultural and ecclesiastical divide is not a problem to be solved as much as it is a formative tension to navigate—a moral strain that, if stewarded with both an attentiveness to what is at stake and a stubborn refusal to demonize, has the potential to make us into a more compassionate nation and a more virtuous church.
Of course, it will always be easier to make enemies of one another, protecting our preferred categories and clarifying the battle lines. Moral strains and formative tensions, after all, are excruciatingly difficult. Weaponizing our priorities in order to excoriate those who do not freight them as we do is a perpetual temptation, and an enticing one at that.
But I am hoping that there is another way. I am hoping that Biden supporters might force themselves over the next several weeks and months to listen patiently to the hearts of those Americans who will cast their vote for Trump, not because they are racists or misogynists, but perhaps because of their conviction that a nation’s governing ethos is at stake and their belief that abortion is a monumental moral crisis that outweighs all other concerns and upon which the integrity of America hinges. Likewise, I am hoping that Trump supporters will compel themselves to appreciate the priorities of those who will vote for Biden, not because they gravitate toward socialism or an indifference to the unborn, but because they have come to the conclusion that both the character and actions of the current President are toxic to our nation’s vitality, corrosive to our national integrity, and ruinous to our noblest aspirations.
My vision for this “other way” is based upon neither a desire for moral equivalence (since not all positions can be equally right) nor a contentment with shallow civility (since the issues at hand are far too important to be swept under the carpet of an anemic geniality). Rather, my vision finds its impetus in the two-fold conviction that the betterment of our nation depends on the navigation of our moral tension and not its militarization, and that our grandest future is far more comprehensive than what can be generated by any one party’s platform. To put it simply, for the sake of moral accountability and philosophical holism, we need one another, even if we do not want to. Such a recognition of the need for the “other” is woven into the very fabric of the American dream. In fact, this very principle often leads to the righting of agonizing wrongs during those periods when the American dream becomes nightmarish for many.
All of this inspires me to offer the following hopes—not because I think I know any more than you do, but simply because my heart will not allow me to be silent:
First, if you are someone who prays and believes in the power of prayer, then I hope that you will be intentional about praying your way into a deep and durable preparedness as we head into the election. More specifically, I hope that you will pray with urgency
for peace and integrity in our nation, before, during, and after the election
for your personal strength to become an active agent of the peace for which you are praying
for the hearts and spirits of the people in your network of relationships—both the people with whom you agree and those whose viewpoints you oppose
for President Trump, former Vice President Biden, Vice President Pence, and Senator Harris and their families
and for your own heart, that it might not succumb to despair, cynicism, or resentment.
Second, if you are someone who embraces the Bible as a source of spiritual revelation or guidance, then I hope that you will experience a healthy engagement with Biblical truth so that you might keep the election in perspective and help those around you to do the same. For example, in recent weeks, I have found great encouragement in Isaiah 40—a wonderfully evocative section of Scripture in which the prophet speaks urgent and powerful words of comfort, hope, and assurance to God’s people. Verses 22 and 23 of Isaiah 40 have resonated for me with particular clarity: “It is the Lord who sits above the circle of the earth…who brings princes to naught, and makes the rulers of the earth as nothing.” I hear in these words a compelling reminder of the fact that a presidential election, while tremendously important, will not diminish the sovereignty of the One we worship, nor will it impede God’s authority over “the circle of the earth.” The prophet concludes by reminding us that “The Lord is the everlasting God” who renews the strength of the faint so that “they shall mount up with wings like eagles” (Isaiah 40:28-31). I am hoping that you will nurture your own spirit in this kind of Biblical truth, so that you might resist the temptation to kneel at the wrong altar in the days following the election.
Third, I hope that you will think about how to create safe spaces of prayer and healing silence for the people in your family, neighborhood, social network, and faith community during the next several weeks—even virtually. My sense is that people need such safe spaces more than ever, whether they realize it or not. The current noise in our culture is loud, complex, and relentless. Help the people in your corner of the world to find their way into quiet spaces of prayer in which the Holy Spirit can begin to heal wounds, restore hope, and illuminate the many convictions that unite us.
Fourth, I hope that you will practice good and attentive stewardship over all of your communication, spoken and written, remembering that you are addressing a political spectrum of which no single portion can lay claim to the entirety of either the Gospel or the moral high ground. Hold your personal convictions, but do not weaponize them. Preach the Gospel, but do not reduce the pulpit to an instrument through which to vent your personal spleen. Advocate for justice, but recognize that there are differing perspectives in your community concerning what the fullness of justice looks like and which portions of justice warrant the highest prioritization. Speak into social media, but speak graciously and carefully, so that you do not become “a noisy gong or a clanging cymbal.” There will be plenty of voices crying out following the election. In the midst of that outcry, work hard to ensure that your voice is helpful rather than hurtful.
Fifth, if you are a leader in the church, I hope that you will make certain that your congregational worship on the weekend of Saturday and Sunday, November 7 and 8, is rich with fervent hope, energized prayer, and the proclamation of a Savior who cannot be claimed by any political party or confined to any party’s platform. Your congregation will need that kind of worship. Help them to experience it.
Finally, if you are Christian, I hope that you will commit yourself afresh to the bold, creative, and tenacious love that Jesus himself describes in his Sermon on the Mount—a love extended even toward our “enemies” and those who persecute us (Matthew 5:43-48). This kind of love, of course, has nothing to do with how much we agree with a person or even the amount of affection we hold for her or him. Rather, the love to which Jesus calls us is deeply rooted in the often countercultural work of respecting the personhood of those with whom we are ideologically conflicted, showing compassion to those who are on the other end of a variety of spectrums, and blessing our philosophical opponents with our refusal to assume the worst about them. Practically speaking, such love produces authentic concern for the heartbroken (instead of gloating) if our preferred candidate is elected and authentic graciousness (instead of vitriol) if our preferred candidate is not elected. Jesus seemed to believe that this kind of love reflects the very character of God and that its embodiment among his followers illuminates both the nature of God’s reign and the heart of God’s vision for what the world can be at its very best. I am hoping in prayer that the people called Church are known primarily for their love, both throughout this week and beyond this week.
On October 6, 1774, John Wesley wrote these important words in his journal:
I met those of our society who had votes in the ensuing election, and advised them
1. To vote, without fee or reward, for the person they judged most worthy
2. To speak no evil of the person they voted against, and
3. To take care their spirits were not sharpened against those that voted on the other side.
May we find in these words a call to both civic responsibility and continued graciousness. May we also embrace the wisdom of Wesley’s counsel to resist the sharpening of our spirits against those whose political perspectives (and votes) differ from ours.
If you have read this far, please be assured that I am with you in this hard and important journey, praying in a spirit of deep gratitude for the honor of walking alongside you. If you feel that I have not gone far enough in what I have written, or if you find in my words what sounds far too much like a support for unholy compromises, I certainly receive that criticism. Likewise, if you feel that I have gone too far, or that I have strayed dangerously beyond the boundaries of that for which I am trained, you may very well be right.
At the heart of the post, though, is nothing more (and nothing less) than my personal and unrelenting belief that our nation and its faith communities have a deeper and more expansive greatness in their future. Getting there, however, will require courageous navigation and an unwavering commitment to choosing hope over fear, cooperation over partisanship, and, perhaps most importantly, integrity over demagoguery.
[They asked Jesus], ‘Is it lawful to pay taxes to the emperor, or not?’ But Jesus, aware of their malice, said… ‘Give to the emperor the things that are the emperor’s, and to God the things that are God’s.’ When they heard this, they were amazed; and they left him and went away. (Matthew 22:17-22)
At first, it all seems tidy and efficient, does it not?
During a time when the Jewish people lived under the weight of an often oppressive and corrupt Roman system of taxation (which would have required them to pay large sums of money to the very empire whose rule was a daily affront to their theological sensibilities), Jesus is asked a straightforward question about tax responsibilities as they relate to the faith community. Jesus, after asking to see a Roman coin and pointing out to the people the likeness and title of the emperor imprinted upon it, responds succinctly: Give to the emperor the things that are the emperor’s, and to God the things that are God’s.
Easy and clean, right? Jesus is defining an organized set of compartments. “Here’s your citizen compartment over here, and there’s your faith compartment over there. This part of your life is your obligation to the empire, and that part of your life is your commitment to God.” Problem solved. Next!
But, hold on for a minute. Think with me about the deeper layers of this moment of Scripture.
If Jesus’ response had been nothing more than a practical reinforcement of tidy social compartments (as in “Just go ahead and pay your taxes and be a good citizen—and don’t forget to pray!”), it would hardly have generated amazement from the questioners. And amazement, says the Scripture, is precisely what Jesus’ response inspired.
It compels us to ask the question—What was so amazing about Jesus’ response?
Perhaps part of the questioners’ amazement had to do the fact that the question itself was designed to draw Jesus into a conceptual no-win scenario. If, for example, Jesus had simply said, “Yes, by all means, pay your taxes to the empire,” he would have alienated a large portion of the Jewish community that had regularly experienced the exploitive nature of Roman taxation and that would have been looking for something more than institutional compliance from Jesus. Likewise, if Jesus had answered, “Absolutely not—Don’t give a single coin to this twisted empire,” he would have quickly been charged with sedition and likely arrested, which would have brought his earthly ministry to closure before its time.
Jesus offers neither of these responses to the question. Instead, he expands the landscape of the question in a manner that invites the questioners (and listeners nearby) to shift their focus from taxation to theology—from the emperor and his tax laws to God and God’s perfect sovereignty.
Give to the emperor the things that are the emperor’s, and to God the things that are God’s.
In order to appreciate the nuance of Jesus’ response, ponder this: What, ultimately, belongs to the emperor? In fact, what truly “belongs” to any emperor?
In a word, nothing.
Every emperor, ruler, monarch, prime minister, or president who has ever lived (including the one Jesus references) holds authority and power for a season, but eventually returns to dust, as does his or her illusions of control and ownership. What, then, does this Roman Emperor (to whom Jesus refers) own today, and what belongs to him?
By contrast, what belongs to God?
In a word, everything.
Our coins and our capabilities. Our accumulated resources and our well-developed skill sets. Our deepest allegiance and our very lives. All of what we have and all of what we are is looked upon rightly only when it is seen as being under the proprietorship and dominion of the One about whom the Psalmist writes these words: “The earth is the Lord’s and the fullness thereof, the world and those who dwell therein” (Psalm 24:1). In theological terms, what emperor could ever claim rightful ownership over a person’s taxes when the emperor’s very breath is breathed only by the sheer grace of the Creator?
With this perspective in mind, listen to Jesus’ response to the question once again, and picture how someone with strong convictions about God’s sovereignty might have interpreted it:
Give to the emperor the things that are the emperor’s, and to God the things that are God’s.
It is less of an answer to the question about taxes and more of a theological statement about who God is and who the emperor is. “Wait,” Jesus seems to be saying, “Not so fast. You are looking to force me into the trap of a straightforward answer. But try this response on for size: Go ahead and give to the emperor what ‘belongs’ to the emperor. Just don’t forget to render to God all the things over which God has rightful claim!”
Any Roman official within earshot might have muttered, “Well, at least he didn’t tell people NOT to pay taxes.”
Likewise, any person of faith might have heard in Jesus’ words nothing less than a clever affirmation of several truths: that, in the end, everything is God’s and nothing is Caesar’s; that even a tax payment comes under God’s holy proprietorship long before its absorption into the empire’s machinery; and that, even if a Jewish person pays taxes to Rome to preserve a necessary peace, s/he does so, not because the tax belongs to the emperor, but because both the taxpayer and the emperor belong to God.
What, then, do we find in this “deeper-than-we-may-have-thought” portion of Scripture?
We find a Jesus who can simultaneously avoid a conceptual trap while at the same time calling people to grander narratives.
We find an affirmation of the truth that any tax we pay, any vote we cast, and any allegiance we pledge to a flag is an act of God-given conviction and not the rightful property of any empire.
Most of all, we find a glimpse of a Kingdom where the reign of God in a human life defines a soul far more than an empire ever could and where God’s sovereignty over all things makes even an oppressive system of taxation seem temporarily bearable.
No wonder the questioners “were amazed…and went away.”
There may be truth in this Scripture that Christ-followers would do well to embrace or re-embrace in 2020, especially during a season that tempts us so relentlessly to align with “the empire” (in one way or another) with a fervor that borders on idolatry and a zeal that distorts the priorities of a Jesus-shaped life.
Thank you for traveling deeply into this moment of Scripture with me. I hope that it was worth the trip.