As I said last week, Reclaiming Jesus is not a statement to sign — it’s a call to answer.
When a small group of older church leaders, elders from across our Christian families, went on a retreat together over Ash Wednesday, we came to feel an obligation to speak as “followers of Jesus” into the moral and political crisis in which we find ourselves — where our faith values are being politically exploited while our democratic values are being dangerously threatened. We felt we had to respond but had no clear sense of how other Christians in our churches would react to any “declaration” from us. We were astonished as views of the video of Reclaiming Jesus declaration signed by 23 elders were quickly climbing into the millions and have continued to climb.
As we launched Reclaiming Jesus at the Pentecost service on May 24 amid the voices of the elders and the beautiful sounds of the Howard University Gospel Choir, the crowd overflowed from two large downtown churches and then into the streets of Thomas Circle, with nearly 100,000 more people around the country following the live stream. As the early Christians were empowered by the Holy Spirit at Pentecost when they took their faith to the streets in the capital city of their nation, we flowed out of our worship space in a powerfully moving candlelight procession of almost 3,000 people (many of them clergy wearing their collars) to the White House to bring our Pentecostal prayers to power. With our candles passed out at the church, we established candlelight prayer vigils as the sign and symbol of this new Reclaiming Jesus movement in our country. First in the over-crowded church sanctuaries and then on the sidewalk outside the White House gates, we declared that “Jesus is our Light” and that the “light of Christ” is our way of pushing back the darkness.
During the service and as we walked side by side with our old legs to the White House, the elders said to each other, “This feels like Pentecost.” But as we entered retreat the next day at the National Cathedral, the big question for us was “What’s next?” The news coverage of the declaration, the service, and the White House vigil had reached millions more people — people of Christian faith, other faiths, and even no faith at all, but who were very encouraged by what they read and saw. It showed us that “Reclaiming Jesus” was something that was breaking through.
While the Reclaiming Jesus declaration has now been encountered by millions— it had only been signed by the 23 elders. Now, many more wanted to “sign on.” We were very grateful for that so many wanted to now signify that they were “another kind of Christian” than those who had been embarrassingly speaking up for the current political powers or remaining silent in the face of such hypocrisy.
But we decided that Reclaiming Jesus could be more that than a statement to sign, but rather should be a call to answer.
We even invoked the old notion of “an altar call,” when people come forward to the altar in response to the call of Jesus. Despite some negative historical memories and images of that term, we thought it might be a time to recover and redeem it as we “reclaim” what it means to be flowers of Jesus today, as American Christianity is going through a time when racial, ethnic, gender, class, and national idolatries have captivated Christians — especially white American Christians. For Christians to find their way back to being “followers of Jesus” must become the urgent call of our time. The declaration says, “It’s time to be followers of Jesus before anything else — nationality, political party, race, ethnicity, gender, geography. Our identity in Christ precedes every other identity.”
The Jesus we have been called to obey and serve offers a powerful alternative to the moral crisis that exists at the highest levels of political leadership in this county and to its bitter fruits of racial bigotry and white nationalism, the mistreatment of women, the rejection of immigrants and refugees, the abandonment of the poor, the denial of truth, and the dangerous replacement of public service with autocracy. We believe these issues are not just political problems but pose pressing dangers to authentic Christian faith.
Make no mistake — this is a true time of crisis for our country and it is almost certainly going to get worse before it gets better. A Reclaiming Jesus movement will be more and more needed in the days ahead as we face both a moral test for our faith and, increasingly, a moral test for our democracy. It seems that each week, and sometimes each day, bring further erosions of our norms around truth and morality, our constitutional structure and the role that checks and balances have traditionally played, and a growing danger to racial and religious minorities and to the most vulnerable. Often these dangers begin in bursts of 280 characters or less that land on Twitter like live grenades as the accusations, proclamations, and bald-faced lies blow up the news cycle for the next 24 to 48 hours. These attacks on the truth and the rule of law are being accompanied by both rhetoric and policy that consistently and callously demean and attack the most vulnerable members of our society, whom Jesus instructs us to protect, in ways that are truly dehumanizing and thus extremely dangerous. It’s often difficult to see where the trends are going or to predict what dangerous lines will keep being crossed. Each day, we live our lives with the knowledge that a genuine constitutional crisis and true national emergency could occur at any time, with no clear indication that the current leadership of our legislative branch would or could act to stop the executive branch from seizing unchecked power.
Just as institutions like the press, the judiciary, Congress, and political parties are being morally tested, so too is the faith community, and especially the churches where apologies for political power and silence in the face of faith contradictions are being regularly seen. It is time for a more authentic and more prophetic church witness, and Reclaiming Jesus is a good way to start.
We as elders deeply believe in this Pentecost season that the Holy Spirit is at work, even in the darkness of this political moment. We feel it calling us to reclaim Jesus from those who have appropriated, co-opted, and hijacked his name for worldly political and financial power. We are now asking each of you to help show the world that the followers of Jesus refuse to be complicit and refuse to be silent. Will you answer the call to Reclaim Jesus? As elders we are inviting all of you to join us in committing to bringing this declaration into your personal and public lives: into your conversations, into your churches, into communities, and into your nation.
A closing word on why candles and candlelight vigils represent this movement: The symbolism of a candlelight vigil — of a host of lights together shining in the darkness — has often been powerfully used in dark political or religious times and has often made a situation-changing difference. Candlelight vigils were widespread in South Africa during the oppression of apartheid. In the mid-1980s in the Philippines, peaceful demonstrations including candlelight vigils helped topple the dictatorship of Ferdinand Marcos. In South Korea just last year, the “ candlelight revolution,” helped impeach a corrupt regime. One of the most powerful examples of the power of a candlelight vigil that spurred change 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, a new candlelight vigil began on Oct. 9, which spread to the streets each week and eventually gained 120,000 people. After only a month, the Berlin Wall came down — showing again the power of light in the darkness.
I keep going back these days to the Gospel of John, which begins with an image of Christ as light. “The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it (1:5 NIV).” As many have done before it is time again to trust the light of Christ, join the light of Christ, and take the light of Jesus into the world — believing that the darkness, in the end, cannot overcome that light.