I earnestly anticipate that in a couple hundred years historians and thinkers will look back at our era in a similar manner to which we reflect upon the Reformation. I may be guilty of hubris, thinking of our times as this important. Or maybe I’m spot on. Time will tell. In the mean time, the prophet/poet Stephen Stills’ words come to mind:
“There’s something happening here
What it is ain’t exactly clear…”
While it may not be entirely obvious what is happening in Christendom these days, in particular among Christian culture in America, there’s one theme that keeps emerging in various conversations I’m having (online and in person) with fellow Christ followers. And, after hearing from a good friend of mine the other day, as well as revisiting some things I’d written in the past, I had something of a lightbulb moment.
I may not know exactly what is going on in the Church, but I’ve got a hunch it has something to do with the fact that we’re all scared, suspicious, and worried.
It appears that there is a (rather large) subset of Christians who could best be described as “fear-vangelicals,” a title coined by Skye Jethani. Jethani proposes that it is an assumption that some “other” is working to disrupt, discourage, or destroy Christianity. We hear it described in various ways. You’ve likely heard (or said) something like this:
“Things have just gotten worse since they took God out of schools.” (Which implies there’s a ‘they’ we must combat)
“We need to take back America for God.” (Which implies we need to take America back from someone)
This attitude also fuses with political conservatism in various ways. I think it’s behind the Christian support of Donald Trump. His fear-based rhetoric serves to advance his agenda, both through slogans (“Make America Great Again”) and policy (i.e. immigration, “Build the Wall!”). But never mind the president. This isn’t simply a political issue. This is a theological issue.
This kind of fear-based thinking is pervasive, even among pastors. Robert Jeffress, Franklin Graham, and Jerry Falwell Jr. all speak in terms of protectionism, nationalism, self-defense, and warn of the intrusion of the “other.”
“I’ve said I want the meanest, toughest SOB to protect America…” Jeffress said.
Regarding muslim immigrants, Graham said he would tell them to “go back to where they came from.”
It doesn’t take an expert linguist to note some sense of fear in those quotes. You don’t need protected if you feel secure. So why are these Christian leaders — and many Christians in our country — feeling so insecure?
Because someone is out to get us, and when we are afraid we do one of two things — fight or flee.
In examining this illustration, I wouldn’t say it’s perfect. I think there is some extra strong language that probably isn’t fair. I’m not sure Robert Jeffress “rejects” the Sermon on the Mount when he advocates for blowing up America’s enemies instead of loving them (although I think he’s certainly rejecting part of it). Another flaw is that I think this illustration is mostly critical of the behavior of more conservative fear-vangelicals.
I think a similar graphic could be made depicting the habits of progressive fear-vangelicals, too. On the “fight” path, it probably would include the dehumanizing of conservative types — calling them monsters, for example — and the citing of worthy causes to justify hateful tone. On the “flight” side it may include a refusal to participate in dialogue, citing the other side’s lack of intellectual capacity.
Bottom line: We have two guilty parties, and the content isn’t the sole issue. There is also the problem of tone.
“These two terrible tendencies now feed off each other, growing stronger every day: the more smugness, the more satisfying it is to poke holes in it; the more toxic the trolling, the greater the sense of moral superiority. The result: an odoriferous stew of political rhetoric that is nearly irresistible to those on the inside and confusingly abhorrent to those on the outside.”
I’m wondering if this smugness, this tone-deafness, this mutual sense of superiority, this resulting “odoriferous stew” that has invaded our politics, our theological debates, and even our family reunions are motivated by one singular factor– we are all scared silly and aren’t sure what to do about it.
So we fight.
Or we flee.
But in the face of all our fears, we don’t have much faith any more.
What if the division we observe is not the product of a broken Washington, but a lack of faith in the human heart — all of our hearts — that causes us to fear a boogyman that isn’t even there.
When the Christ follower grows fearful, and when that fear causes them to act in unChristlike ways, we’ve not only lost our way. We’ve lost our purpose. We’ve lost our influence. We’ve lost our Christ.
It has been often said that the most common command in the Bible is “Fear not.” The Bible also says that “perfect love casts out all fear.” Yet conservatives are terrified that a gay person might be able to legally marry, and progressives tremble that certain kinds of weapons might remain legal.
So, what will the question be that historians will reflect upon us asking ourselves during this tumultuous time? The Reformation leaders had to answer the question of unity in the face of false doctrine. Our question may well be whether or not we are able to answer our fears with faith, rather than fighting or fleeing.
I pray we can, because this historical moment insists upon it.
I mentioned poet Stephen Stills above. His poem ends this way, and I think it serves as an adequate summary and worthwhile warning to us all.
“Paranoia strikes deep,
Into your life it will creep,
It starts when you’re always afraid.”