In his first Inaugural Address, President Abraham Lincoln appealed to “the better angels of our nature.” That is what our political and religious leaders should always do — appeal to our best angels. But at the other end of the moral spectrum, political and even religious leaders now often appeal to our worst demons: fear, anger, resentment, greed, prejudice, division, and hatred. And the danger we are discovering is that our demons in America have been lying just below the surface and have been aggressively brought forth in the past few years. We see white supremacists marching openly with torches aloft in Charlottesville and elsewhere, and a growing white nationalism feels emboldened by the White House. We see children in cages and families torn apart at the southern border because of policies made in the same building where they call immigrants “invaders.” We now see the worst elements of America’s history rekindled by some who see these elements as their plan for this nation’s future, often with the language of Christianity painfully deployed in defense of that.
The crank of the Jack-in-the-box has been turned, and Jack’s not going back into the box.
So mere political activism (as important as that is) won’t defeat our demons alone. The moral, religious, and political battles between our angels and our demons have become the “spiritual warfare” of our time, using the language of the Apostle Paul.
As a result of the political, religious, and moral crises we face today, both the soul of the nation and the integrity of faith are now at stake. This crisis is fundamentally about our chance and our choice of whether those who call themselves Christians are ready to go back to the teachings of Jesus, and whether such a call might be taken up by others beyond the churches. Many of us share a deep hunger for reclaiming Jesus instead of falling into more political polarization — we want theology to trump politics.
The dangerous political crisis we now find ourselves in has revealed how disconnected from Jesus many Christians in America have become. Closing the gaping distance that presently exists between Christians and the Jesus that too many Christians desperately try to avoid often seems a daunting challenge — where can we even begin? Are there fundamental truths of Jesus’s ministry that can help us find our way back to him, even and especially amid this fearful moment? Yes, I believe there are and that some of the key questions Jesus asked or provoked would help show us the way forward. That is what my new book, Christ in Crisis: Why We Need to Reclaim Jesus, is all about.
During a crisis, the best thing for Christians to always do is to go back to Jesus. German pastor and theologian Dietrich Bonhoeffer suggested in a similar time, in the 1930s, that we must always ask, “Who is Jesus Christ for us today?” That’s exactly what I am asking us to grapple with right now. My deepest belief is that the conversation around Jesus’ teachings and the questions he raised will move us forward to help find the answers that the country — and the church — most need right now.
The questions Jesus raised or prompted show us most vividly the difference between choosing the triumphalism of wealth and power or the way of Jesus, with his servanthood and solidarity with the poor and vulnerable? These questions as relevant as ever today. And they are questions we need to answer if we want to be followers of Jesus. They go to the heart of matters today, as Jesus questions always do. In the midst of this crisis, returning to Jesus’s teachings will clarify where we should stand and help us reset our path forward.
I believe there is an ever-widening audience for Jesus message, and this book’s readers will have several choices. Some may respond to Jesus by insisting that his teachings are just for our private lives, not for our public behavior, or he is irrelevant to our times — but that is hard to do for those who call themselves Christians, if we believe that “God so loved the world.” Others will argue over how to interpret all the teachings of Jesus that are lifted in this book; but that is the very conversation we need to have. Finally, if the things Jesus said and did do urgently need to be reclaimed and applied today, then we can all join the journey together to explore and discover what our discipleship to Jesus means for us in this moment of great danger and uncertainty; but also opportunity.
The other good news is that we will not be alone; we can take that journey with our brothers and sisters in our congregations, our families, and our communities; a pilgrimage — a sojourn — of prayer, study, discernment, and action.
We may not all have the same answers to the questions Jesus asked and prompted, but they must be asked; and perhaps it is our conversation about them together that could help heal a broken nation. In the midst of the painful, shameful, and embarrassing examples of religion selling its soul for power, more and more of us will make clear that we are reclaiming Jesus.