I believe this moment of constitutional crisis could take us deeper than politics, to the moral foundations of our lives, our country and, even deeper, to the foundations of our faith. The spirituality that always underlies and shapes politics could now be revealed, and that could enable us to rediscover Jesus — Christians and non-Christians alike. Please let me explain.
Formal impeachment proceedings have begun based on alarming allegations from a whistleblower about President Trump asking the Ukrainian President to do him “a favor,” with critical aid to Ukraine still pending: intervene in the U.S. election by “investigating” to find some “dirt” on one of his political opponents. This is the latest unprecedented revelation in what has, since the beginning, been the most unprecedented presidency in American history. This alone would be enough to end other presidencies, but comes as just the latest in a long line of unlawful and, even deeper, immoral actions by this president.
Already this is being politicized and partisan battle lines are forming. Congress is beginning its official inquiry into this latest incident with dramatic hearings to come.
At many points in this process, there will be lots of questions. There are already so many, in fact, that it often seems difficult to know where to start. It becomes hard to know what questions to ask and what to believe.
Like many of you, I really don’t know the answers to all those questions, but I believe strongly that the moral, spiritual, and gospel questions we bring to those ongoing national questions will be absolutely crucial for us. Impeachment is indeed a political process, but we must also see it as a moral and even religious moment for the nation. Are there conversations about moral impeachment that should take place alongside the discussion of political impeachment? Who are the political leaders and even religious leaders who should also be subject to moral impeachment?
I struggle, too, to know where to begin. I’m losing sleep — as I imagine many of you are, overwhelmed by the danger and uncertainty of the dramatic events playing out on the national stage. I look at my family, my children, my neighbors in jeopardy, our churches, and even our planet — and see so much of our future at stake. As we look ahead to the formal impeachment inquiry and everything that will follow, I don’t know how it’s all going to turn out, and neither does anyone else.
So I do what I always do when I am struggling — I return to the Bible, especially to the words, acts, and teachings of Jesus, as I have done so often over these past several years.
This new moment of impeachment has dramatically reminded me of what happened to me after Donald Trump was elected.
The election of Donald Trump, and his first six months in office, kept me waking up before dawn every morning. “What does this mean?” and “what do we do?” were questions I couldn’t answer at first, even when legions of calls asking those very questions came in to me. The questions took me back to the Book of Acts, to the crisis the first followers of Jesus faced at the beginning of the church — surrounded by both massive injustice and pervasive religious hypocrisy. I was stunned how virtually everything they said and did — healing, preaching, teaching, gathering a new community together — was done in the name of Jesus. When arrested by the authorities who deemed them “uneducated and ordinary men” who were “companions” of this Jesus, they weren’t afraid of them, but were afraid of Jesus. The ruling powers warned these early disciples, “To keep this from spreading further among the people, let us warn them to speak no more to anyone in this name. So they called them and ordered them not to speak or teach at all in the name of Jesus.” They were afraid of the name of Jesus. Where and how is the name of Jesus being lifted up right now in the midst of this crisis? And where has Jesus been silenced, co-opted, politicized, and even sabotaged? I was deeply, deeply struck by how Peter and John answered the authorities, “Whether it is right in God’s sight to listen to you rather than God, you must judge; for we cannot keep from speaking about what we have seen and heard.”
So that is what I decided to do, to stop just reacting to one Donald Trump scandal or “unprecedented” offense after another, but, rather, return to what we have seen and heard from Jesus and find a way back to him in this critical historical moment. In re-studying the gospels for the last three years, it became clear to me that this “crisis” that everyone felt was revealing how so many Christians have become disconnected from Jesus. How to reconnect to Jesus became my primary task, more than just reacting to the everyday actions of Trump. And that became the purpose of the book I decided to write.
I found some fundamental questions Jesus asked or were prompted in others by the things he said and did — eight Jesus questions — that resonate as so completely relevant to the time we are in. A crisis is both a danger and an opportunity, a great danger to marginalized people who have been put in such risk, but also an opportunity for all of us to re-discover Jesus — to reclaim Jesus, to go back to him. That’s why I wrote this book Christ in Crisis: Why We Need to Reclaim Jesus, to lift up these core Jesus questions, which are both so timely and yet so timeless. I knew the book would likely be timely when it came out this fall; but couldn’t have imagined how dramatic that timing would be.
My hope for writing Christ in Crisis was very simple, and far beyond just selling a book. Rather, it was to offer a tool and a resource for sparking a new conversation about Jesus in America — both inside and outside of the churches, and especially among a new generation of seekers who are deciding to turn toward or away from faith, because of what many churches are saying or not saying.
I believe that if we have questions, or, perhaps even more importantly, if we don’t know what questions to ask, we should start with some of the core questions we know that Jesus asked or answered during his ministry. The questions we have in the gospel are, or at least were, to the earliest Christians, the most important questions for those seeking to live out the way of Jesus in the world.
And now, at this moment in the life of our nation and our democracy, I believe these are the questions that should root us as we seek to find a way forward together. To sum up those eight Jesus questions that will take us deeper than the polarized politics all around us.
- The Neighbor Question: In an environment where the question of whether we will love or hate our neighbor is dangerously at stake, Jesus told us what it means to love our neighbor, which includes, according to Jesus’ definition, those who are different from us. “Who is my neighbor?” is the gospel question that underlies everything now in American politics.
- The Image Question: When people face constant attack for their racial background, gender identity, who they are, how they pray, or who they love, Jesus reminds us that he was present at the universe’s creation, when all human beings were made in God’s image and likeness. If we love and honor Jesus, we will acknowledge that every human being is a child of God and must be treated accordingly. Who is valuable and who is not is at the core of our political decisions.
- The Truth Question: When the number of official lies told becomes legion to the point that people doubt the existence of truth anymore, Jesus says, “You will know the truth and the truth will make you free.” Our very freedom is vitally connected to the truth. Whether the facts and the truth matter anymore in America, in the Congress, in the media — and even in the churches — will be a defining question.
- The Power Question: When leadership becomes utterly defined by power, and by winning and losing, Jesus says leadership is about service and washing each other’s feet. “Who is the greatest?” cuts to the core of how a society is led, and by whom. Where do we see or long for public “service” to prevail over private political aggrandizement?
- The Fear Question: When people don’t just fear the things that are reasonable to be concerned about, but are now living in the “spirit of fear,” Jesus repeats this phrase more than almost any other: “Be not afraid.” When political leaders run on fear, we must learn to break free of it and dispel it.
- The Caesar Question: When the “Caesar test” is being defined by strongmen who say everything is about them, Jesus instructs his followers to render to Caesar only the limited things that belong to him; and to God, everything else.
- The Peacemaker Question: When accusation, slander, and attack become the norms of public discourse, Jesus says that those who are the peacemakers, the conflict resolvers, will be called “the children of God.”
- The Discipleship Question: When wealth and power become the definitions of society and politics, Jesus makes the extraordinary judgment that the ultimate measure of our lives, including God’s evaluation of the kings of the nations, is what we have done for “the least of these,” which was Jesus’ final discipleship test.
Each chapter in the book asks a question that Jesus asked or prompted as he walked and lived among us. And he expected a response — both then and now. These questions are for us today, too, and we all need to answer them again — right now.
In order to take this conversation even deeper, we’re going to explore more deeply the theology and practical implications of each of these “Jesus questions” in the weeks to come.
As a part of this conversation, I’m excited to announce the launch of season one of a brand new Sojourners podcast called Reclaiming Jesus Now with Jim Wallis, co-hosted by me and two younger leaders who give me a lot of hope about the future, William Matthews and Allison Trowbridge. You can get a sneak peek of that podcast, before it launches, right here.
Starting next week — in the podcast and this column — we’ll talk about a particular Jesus question, both in terms of its timeless wisdom and importance and in terms of its timely application to the issues of this moment in our nation and world. As I say more and more these days, don’t go right, don’t go right, go deeper. I have discovered how these Jesus questions are the best way to go deeper.
So, I am asking all of you to not just watch the dramatic hearings and the news around the impeachment inquiry of Donald Trump, I am also asking you to study the questions of Jesus and how applying them to this moment could change us, change the churches, change the conversation outside the churches, and perhaps even help change and heal this country —which is urgent now.
My hope is that Christ in Crisis: Why We Need to Reclaim Jesus, and the Jesus questions it prompts us to examine together, can serve you as a spiritual survival guide for following Christ in a time such as this.
Here is a little preview of Sojourners’ NEW podcast, Reclaiming Jesus with Jim Wallis >>