Most of my friends knew evangelicalism only through the big, bellicose voices of TV preachers and religio-political activists such as Pat Robertson, the late Jerry Falwell and James Dobson. Not surprisingly, my friends hadn't experienced an evangelicalism that sounded particularly loving, accepting or open-minded.
After eschewing the descriptor because I hadn't wanted to be associated with a faith tradition known more for harsh judgmentalism and fearmongering than the revolutionary love and freedom that Jesus taught, I began publicly referring to myself again as an evangelical. By speaking up, I hoped I might help reclaim "evangelical" for what it is supposed to mean.
For every American student, September starts a new year. September was a time to put away the suntan lotion and refocus on studies -- on more serious pursuits. Gone were the carefree days of summer, and in came the weather that lives perfectly in my memory -- those almost orange leaves, crisp blue skies, and the faint smell of autumn in upstate New York.
I remember it like this 10 years ago. Fourteen and gearing up for a Varsity volleyball season, I had it all. I had only one worry -- that my dad would forget to pick me up from practice, which he never did.
My class had just finished homeroom -- it was my friend's 15th birthday. I don't remember singing, but I'm sure we did. I moved into my world history class, I think we were on the Greeks. And then, it changed. My choir teacher rushed in and frantically told us to turn on the television. We saw the hallways fill with teachers.
I woke up on the morning of September 11, 2001 both nervous and excited. I had spent the last two months slowly proceeding through the application and interview process for an entry-level editorial position at Christianity Today to work with their Christian History and Christian Reader magazines. I'd had multiple interviews and had to write a few research heavy articles along the way. For someone with degrees in English and History and a graduate degree in Missions, it seemed like the perfect job. My final evaluation involved joining the staff at an all day off-campus retreat, where they would be evaluating potential articles for magazines. I was a bit nervous, but an insider in the company had told me the job was mine, so the excitement of finally landing my first real job after school prevailed.
So on the morning of September 11, I arrived at the country club where the retreat was being held and situated myself at the conference table in a room with a panoramic view of the far west Chicago suburbs.
On the morning of September 11, 2001, I was at home in Washington, D.C. getting ready to go to Sojourners' office. I was upstairs listening to the news on NPR when I heard the first confusing report of a plane crashing into the south tower of the World Trade Center. I immediately called downstairs to Joy and asked her to turn on the television to see what was going on. Moments later, as we ate breakfast together with our three-year-old son Luke, we watched the second plane strike the north tower. I still remember my first response to Joy, "This is going to be bad, very bad," I said.
Of course, I meant more than just the damage to the Twin Towers and the lives lost, which became far greater than any of us imagined at first. Rather, my first and deepest concern was what something like this could do to our country and our nation's soul. I was afraid of how America would respond to a terrorist attack of this scope.
Did anyone else get the feeling, as we watched weather reporters wave their arms frantically in swirling motions across oversized maps of the eastern seaboard -- with their eyes bulging as they pushed out whole paragraphs without a single breath for a period -- that this was all hype?
Last weekend, as Irene passed over town after town in the mid-Atlantic, memories of Katrina did not materialize. By the time Irene huffed over New York City on Sunday morning, and the flood of the century was actually just a really big puddle in Battery Park and a floating lifeguard stand in Long Beach, my fear had transformed into complacency. From there I became cynical. By Sunday afternoon I found myself watching the weatherman's bulging eyes as he repeated the mantra of the day: "It's not as bad as we thought it would be, but it's not over." And I thought: "Boy, they'll do anything for ratings."
But it wasn't all hype.
The evangelical world expands to a far-off horizon and the topographical valleys and peaks cover landscapes that are both long and wide. Many in the media seem to have little knowledge of how large of a space the evangelical map covers. So, with this said, I welcomed Ross Douthat's thoughts in Monday's New York Times. His column, "American Theocracy Revisited," places good markers on the fears that Rick Perry and Michelle Bachmann's presidential runs are nothing more than an attempt at theocracy.
In much of the coverage of these two campaigns, the evangelical world gets flatten, stereotyped, and portrayed as only coming from one narrow point. Whether or not you agree with this view, the fact remains that any group that includes Miroslav Wolf, Jim Wallis, RC Sproul, Rick Warren, Joyce Meyers, Philip Yancy, Chuck Missler, Rob Bell, Albert Mohler Jr, TD Jakes, Amy Grant, Tony Campolo, Lucy Swindoll, Debrah Joy Winans, and so many more hues and colors of evangelicalism should not be placed in one bag and shaken into one lumpy mess, while saying that any one of their diverse views politically are the one true color. I know many will view this list and say who should or should not belong, and then justify their choices. A coherent political agenda could not be drawn from such a list of people. But following Jesus and making Jesus known in the world is at the core of each of these people's identity. Many on the list may disagree as to the best way to provide for the widows and orphans, but all would agree that we must care for them.
The comment code of conduct for the God's Politics blog includes familiar commitments to civility, courtesy, and respect, and even connects these pledges to biblical passages. But what if we went a step further in our understanding of blog comments -- and, for that matter, all of our online communication? What if we recognized our forays into online commentary as doing theological work?
Karl Barth invites that kind of thinking in his 1963 Evangelical Theology: An Introduction. In his chapter on the "community" -- a word that he argues is, theologically speaking, much better than "church" to describe the body of believers -- Barth makes the case that each member of the community of faith has the responsibility to bear witness to the Word. We do so, Barth says, in our very existence, in our service to "the handicapped, weak, and needy" in the world, and in our prayer. The community also does so in spoken and written words by which it "attempts to make its faith audible."
"Do you think God sent Hurricane Irene?" a young man asked me with a curious look in his eyes that was as innocent as it was pensive.
My mind flashed back to a headline I remembered reading yesterday about Glenn Beck pronouncing the hurricane as "a blessing" from God.
As I heard the kid's question, my heart sunk, as I thought of all the rhetoric that has made God out to be a monster, or at least a punitive judge on a throne ready to zap folks with lightening bolts or hurricanes
More than 140 prominent Protestant leaders from 12 Latin American countries have signed an "open letter to the Christian churches of the United States," asking American Christians to stand with "the most vulnerable members of US society" who would be affected by proposed budget cuts to the social safety net.
Citing the Circle of Protection as a positive Christian witness, the signers also expressed their dismay. "We view with deep concern recent decisions in the United States that will add to the suffering of the most vulnerable members of US society," the letter read. It was signed by a broad array of Latin American religious communities, including leaders of the Latin American Council of Churches, the United Bible Society of Latin America, evangelical councils and alliances in Peru, Ecuador, Honduras, Argentina, Brazil, Bolivia, and Uruguay, the Fellowship of Evangelical Churches (CONELA), the Association of Reformed and Presbyterian Churches of Latin America (AIPRAL), Micah Network, Indigenous Association of Peruvian Amazonia, and the Latin American Biblical University in Costa Rica.
A week or two after the 2004 election, I was dining with some friends in New York when the conversation turned to religion and politics -- the two things that you're never supposed to discuss in polite company.
George W. Bush had just been re-elected with the help of what was described in the media as "evangelical voters." And knowing that I am an evangelical Christian, my friends were terribly curious.
"What, exactly, is an evangelical?" one gentleman asked, as if he were inquiring about my time living among the lowland gorillas of Cameroon.
I suddenly found myself as cultural translator for the evangelical mind.
"As I understand it," I began, "what 'evangelical' really means is that a person believes in Jesus Christ, has a personal relationship with him and because of that relationship feels compelled to share their experience of God's love with other people. "How they choose to share that 'good news' with others is entirely up to the individual. Beyond that, the rest is details and style."
Earlier this summer I attended a church service where the pastor, a man struggling with what appears to be his final bout with cancer, preached about the hope that Jesus promises to those who trust in him. After describing the returning Jesus brandishing a sword and dripping with the blood of all our vanquished enemies, he invited the audience to share what they saw as the hope that this Jesus promises. The responses ranged from no cancer, to no pain, to no worries about paying the bills, to the promise of an upgraded body -- all of course in heaven someday after we die. The congregation was encouraged to find contentment in the present from the possibility of realizing these promises someday. Our souls are what matter; the body just has to endure until our souls reach heaven. No mention of help with how to pay this month's rent or what it means for a cancer-ridden body to be the temple of the Holy Spirit, just the spiritual promise that someday all will be well.
Sign Language. Fashion Tips. Thank You. Interns. Today we say goodbye and thank you to this year's Sojourners interns. Among their other invaluable contributions to the work and mission of Sojourners, the interns wrote 72 blog posts for God's Politics! Here is a little round up of links to a few of them:
- Jesus Knows Sign Language by Taylor Johnson
- 7 Essential Tips For Fitting in With the Christian Literary Underground Scene Near You! by Betsy Shirley
- Justice For All Means Justice for Gays and Lesbians by Hannah Lythe
- Who Goes to Hell is Not the Most Important Question by Kiran Thadani
- Saleswoman + Creative Inspiration = Marketing Maven! by Alie Jones
- Deportation is Not a Family Value by Andrew Simpson
Picture this: Hundreds of thousands of women, men, and children plod across barren cracked earth. Dead cows and human corpses litter the roads, revealing to us evidence of two things: 1) the hottest summer on record in Somalia, which caused the worst drought and famine in 60 years; and 2) twenty years of a truly failed Somali government swallowed up in cycles of violence.
Picture this: Posturing politicians claim to stand up for the rights of Americans, even as they hijack the proverbial steering wheel of America. They hold a proverbial gun to the heads of every American, and say outright that they'd have no problem driving us all off a proverbial cliff if millionaires and billionaires don't remain protected from raised taxes, and if we don't cut more programs that protect working and poor people.
Over the past few weeks various news outlets have run stories on the so-called feminism of Sarah Palin and Michele Bachmann. Typical of the media, in order to make that claim, they, of course, had to assume that any woman doing anything in public equals some sort of feminist revolution. It is, however, a rapidly spreading idea. If the concept of successful women must be blamed on feminist action, then successful conservative women must be the result of feminism as well. Granted this new definition of "feminist" is, as Lisa Miller wrote for the Washington Post, "a fiscally conservative, pro-life butt-kicker in public, a cooperative helpmate at home, and a Christian wife and mother, above all." But apparently it's still feminism.
While many from the left were outraged by the idea of associating these arch-conservatives, who stand against many of the things historical feminists have supported, with feminism, others supported the idea. Naomi Wolf, who seems to have a love/hate relationship with feminism, wrote that the problem some have with calling those women feminists is that we don't understand the history of feminism. She argues (rightly in my opinion) that feminism has only become associated with leftist agendas since the 1960's, but was, in its origins, more balanced and open to conservative values. But then she explains her reasoning why:
They say at some point in their lives great leaders experience a "dark night of the soul," or a period in life when your feet, knees, and face scrape and stick to the proverbial bottom." It is a time when even your soul feels forsaken. Ultimately, the dark night is not about the suffering that is inflicted from outside oneself, even though that could trigger it. It is about the existential suffering rooted from within. St. John of the Cross, the 16th century Carmelite priest, described it as a confrontation, or a healing and process of purification of what lies within on the journey toward union with God.
"Whenever you face trials of any kind," explained the apostle James, "consider it nothing but joy, because you know that the testing of your faith produces endurance; and let endurance have its full effect, so that you may be mature and complete, lacking in nothing." (James 1:2-4)
Lean and lanky, the 30-something teacher probed the congregation with a practiced eye as he wound down his presentation. Ezekiel, or "Zeke" (pseudonym), teaches at a secondary school in another country. Backed up by a carefully constructed PowerPoint presentation, Ezekiel shared his passion for sensitively pouring truth and grace into the lives of his students, particularly the girls. His blue eyes blazed as he asked if a woman in the Community Christian Church (not its real name) congregation would be willing to come forward and pray for the women of his host country.
No one moved.
Mark O. Hatfield's political witness shaped a whole generation of students, teachers, pastors, and social activists in the evangelical community and beyond. The voice of Christians today who plead for social justice and peaceful alternatives to war would not have emerged with its strength and clarity in the 1970s without his leadership. His death underscores the vacuum of such spiritually rooted voices uncompromising in their commitments to peace and justice within the cacophony political rhetoric today.
One of my life's greatest privileges and joys was to work as an assistant to Senator Mark O. Hatfield for nearly a decade, from 1968 to 1977. I saw first-hand what courageous leadership, combined with unswerving compassion and civility, looked like within the political life of that turbulent and formative era. Those experiences are shared in my book, Unexpected Destinations (Eerdmans).
Similar to many of my Western counterparts, my first thoughts when I first heard about the attacks in Norway went to extreme Islamic terrorism. I had heard about the growing tensions in Scandinavia because of the increasing Muslim population and cultural shifts arising as a result. Thus, when I heard through a friend that a Norwegian school had been attacked, I assumed the attack to be a response from a Muslim terrorist group. I asked if it was al Qaeda or such other organization. My friend responded, "Probably." Thus, you can imagine my surprise when I saw the picture of the suspect who appeared very Scandinavian with fair skin and complexion.
According to the New York Times, the attacks in Oslo killed at least 92 people and the orchestrator left behind "a detailed manifesto outlining preparations and calling for Christian war to defend Europe against the threat of Muslim domination." If I had read that statement out of context, I would think one was talking about the Christian Crusades of the 12th century.
John Stott died this Wednesday. He was 90 years old. What many people don't understand is that he was the most influential 20th-century evangelical leader in the world, with the exception of Billy Graham. Stott became the Anglican rector of All Souls Church in downtown London at the age of 29 in 1950, and he stayed there for his entire ministry. But from his parish at Langham Place in the city's West End, and right across from BBC headquarters, John Stott spoke to the world with 50 books that sold 8 million copies. He also traveled the globe , speaking, teaching, convening, mentoring, and bird watching -- a personal passion.
Perhaps the most telling thing about this man is all the personal stories about "Uncle John" that the world is now hearing, from many Christian leaders around the world who were profoundly influenced, encouraged, and supported by John Stott. And secondly, how such a giant in the Christian world remained so humble, as testified to by those who knew him who say how "Christ-like" he was.