As we got the word out to Christians across the United States and beyond about tonight’s Reclaiming Jesus service and candlelight procession to the White House gates (which you can live stream on the Sojourners Facebook page starting at 7 p.m. EDT), I just loved the question that came from some of the people planning to come on Thursday night. “Do we need to bring our own candles?” (For the record, we are providing candles for up to 1,000 participants — and if there are more, candle apps on smart phones or flash lights will suffice!)
It’s a practical question, but it drew me to thinking about what we are doing tonight in stark, almost elemental terms: This vigil, and our declaration calling us to Reclaim Jesus in this moment, are both figuratively and literally about light and darkness. A candlelight vigil has clear theological significance for us: The good news of Jesus Christ — his life, death, resurrection, and teachings — must be our light that we shine amid the current darkness in this time of political and religious crisis.
Before we can understand the need for the light of our faith, we need to talk about and acknowledge the darkness. Or to put it another way, why is this a time of crisis for our political system and our faith? Consider the context in which we march to the White House tonight. The leader of our country has done a number of things that would be unprecedented for any other president. He has:
- Attacked the FBI and Department of Justice for investigating his campaign and presidency,
- Refused questions about revelations of government corruption by greed and business interests,
- Continued to assault the idea of a free press and the First Amendment,
- Regularly dehumanizes others, especially people of color, immigrants, women, and those who are poor and vulnerable,
- Shown total disregard for truth and the rule of law, which he has demanded to stand above,
- Put personal self-interest over national interest and even national security, and,
- Put the ethics of power over the ethics of servanthood and narcissism over public service.
Keeping up with all of the daily scandals and outrages can be a morally and spiritually exhausting task.
This is the darkness that has infected the heart of our democracy. And the truth is that it’s almost certainly going to get worse before it gets better. Why do I say that? Put simply, the authors of the U.S. Constitution envisioned the possibility of a venal and corrupt demagogue somehow becoming president. They did not, however, envision that a separate branch of government, the U.S. Congress, would refuse to constrain or conduct meaningful oversight of such a president.
The reason Congress has not and perhaps will not act to constrain such power is fairly straightforward: The Tweeted messages are popular with the white American and, embarrassingly, white Christian, base that also keeps congressional Republicans in power because they approve of his messages and policies.
And that’s the reason why our situation is so dark. Some of the messages and policies favored by that white political base are profoundly at odds with the gospel of Jesus Christ and the teachings of the word of God. You will hear tonight from the elders who created this declaration that we must use our faith to speak up against the resurgence of white nationalism, racism, and xenophobia, as well as attacks on immigrants, refugees, and the habitual mistreatment of women. Along with the regular disrespect for the truth, the law, and the ethic of service over power — these all threaten the future of our democracy, and challenge the courage and independence of religious communities and the poor — all of which we have seen articulated as policy from this administration.
I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again tonight: What’s at stake in this time of crisis is nothing less than the soul of our nation and the integrity of our faith.
So that’s the darkness — but here’s where the light comes in. Our gathering tonight and the response of people around the country and the world, more than 2 million of whom have encountered our message of Reclaiming Jesus via the short video we released just nine days ago, represent both individual and collective light in the darkness. It shows that there are Christians everywhere who are determined not to be complicit or silent as their faith is hijacked for political ends, nor as their democracy and rule of law are hijacked for the personal gain of a corrupt leader and his family and friends. The at least 1,000 people gathered in this church, ready to process to the White House, are merely the vanguard of a much larger host that is bringing the light of Jesus to this dangerous moment in our nation’s history. This isn’t about politicizing our faith — it’s about bringing the wisdom, the insights, the truth, and yes, the light, of our faith to bear upon our politics and our politicians. This isn’t bringing politics into faith but, rather, bringing faith to politics, to confront it, transform it, and as Jesus did in the temple just before his death in another capital city — to upend politics.
This is neither the first nor the last time in history that the symbolism of a candlelight vigil — of a host of lights together shining in the darkness — has been used in dark political or religious times and made a difference. Candlelight vigils were widespread in South Africa during the struggle against apartheid, and were among the tools that helped end it. In the mid-1980s in the Philippines, peaceful demonstrations including candlelight vigils culminated in a nonviolent intervention in 1986 led by Cardinal Jaime Sin that toppled the dictatorship of Ferdinand Marcos. In South Korea just last year, the president was impeached and forced to leave office in large part because the revelations of her corruption led to what has been called the “candlelight revolution,” with hundreds of thousands of people taking to the streets each weekend for 20 weekends in a row, the number growing from week to week, peacefully shining hundreds of thousands of lights to show that South Koreans were demanding that their elected leader be subject to the rule of law.
Perhaps the most powerful example of the power of a candlelight vigil to capture national and even global imagination and spur changes many thought impossible is what happened in Leipzig, East Germany, in October of 1989. After seven years of weekly “Prayers for Peace” at St. Nicholas Church, where a sign outside proclaimed the prayers as “Open to All,” a series of “Monday Demonstrations” gained steam. Two days after the East German government violently put down demonstrators on the 40th anniversary of East Germany’s founding on Oct. 7, about 8,000 people attended the Oct. 9 prayers at St. Nicholas. After the service, they joined a crowd of 70,000 people holding candles and marched through the streets of Leipzig; the images were broadcast around the world. The rest, as they say, is history, as 120,000 people took to the streets the following week and 300,000 the week after that. On Nov. 9, exactly a month after the Oct. 9 candlelight vigil, the Berlin Wall came down. That’s the power of light in the darkness. That’s the kind of power we’re harnessing starting, but clearly not ending, tonight — to reclaim Jesus in this time of crisis.
The Gospel of John so memorably begins with an image of Christ as light. “The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it (1:5 NIV).” I like this translation of this verse best. Another common translation (the NRSV) reads “the darkness did not overcome it,” but I like “has” better. It implies that the struggle between the light and the darkness is eternal and continues today. Even while our faith tells us the light will prevail, it is an issue of faith, because we can’t know that the light will prevail for certain. In our current situation, it tells us two things: First, it tells us that we must always let our light shine and always remain vigilant for threats to that light, because the darkness will always seek to overcome it. Second, we can take heart and take hope that the light of Christ is indeed the Light of the World, and it is our best and ultimately only reliable tool to keep the darkness at bay. As the Reclaiming Jesus declaration says, “Jesus is our light.”
With that knowledge, let’s worship together, and get ready to take our light into the darkness — and just maybe change history. Yes, brothers and sisters, this is a dark time. But I have good news: We brought enough candles for everybody!