It was the summer of 2020. I was gathering with local pastors, for prayer and reflection. The day before, President Trump had taken his now infamous picture outside St. John’s Church holding up a Bible, ironically upside down. Seeing that image, for me, was sickening, and one of many signposts pointing the way out of white evangelicalism. The Christian Scriptures used as a prop for power.
The world rightly asks, is this Jesus? Is this Christian? In days before and since, these two questions have been answered in surprising ways. In ways divergent of the very life and witness of Jesus. And so, Christian witness is fractured, and the world is left wondering. What I didn’t know was I’d be leaving that meeting of pastors asking the same thing: is this Jesus?
Back to 2020. To get to the church that day, President Trump walked from the White House. It was a scene made for the movies. No doubt premeditated along those lines. But protestors stood between him and the church. So the protestors were cleared to make way for the President. Media outlets have a timeline from that day’s events. Their account (not surprisingly) disputes the government account. Today, the US Government claims the protestors were violent. While videos and media members tell a different story—one where the government violently dispersed peaceful protestors. In a telling statement, the head of the Joint Chiefs of Staff apologized for standing by the President near St. Johns. He felt the military shouldn’t have been visible in the President’s decision to clear protestors over what amounted to a photo-op.
As I sat in that room of pastors, I felt like I was entering a place of unity. Where the Scriptures weren’t a prop. Where the coercion of Christianity was not through violence but through ways that were characteristic of its Lord. We have to agree, right? Christianity isn’t a coercive force fueled by violence. Its subversive nature flows from the character of its Savior, who gave himself up to the violence of the Cross. His kingdom is a reflection of him as King. Just as America became a bitter reflection of its 45th President. Jesus’ Kingdom though is like himself, one of justice tempered with mercy, love offered by sacrifice, and grace to the undeserving. Believing this, I spoke up.
I shared these and other frustrations with the photo-op the day earlier. It was a bearing of wounds to brothers. At the time, I pastored on secular college campuses. The President’s photo op burned bridges we had built. Bridges meant to help twenty somethings separate Republican Jesus from the risen Jesus. A co-opted Christ is not worth your life. Only the risen Jesus is.
But then, pastors began to disagree. “What are you talking about?” said one pastor after I suggested the President’s actions had damaged Christian witness. He was incredulous. Confused as to why I’d be against the President “using the Bible”, as if that was what Jesus meant when he said “any of you who hears these words I’ve spoken to you today and does them will be like a wise man…” The pastor added “I thought it was great.”
Other pastor’s chimed in. Some were diplomatic, others said nothing. It strikes me as strange that silence on “politics” carries with it a reputation for greater piety. To say “we don’t speak to politics” is a political statement, one that shows theology too. Jesus has a word to speak even when we won’t.
The Kingdom of Jesus speaks to politics in ways that break the chains of political captivity. The Kingdom of Jesus is breaking into every arena of human existence. And if politics can warp the human heart, as they do, then the Kingdom of Jesus is a word to the political machinations of our day. He may not tell us to support big or small government, but he does tell us to render to Caesar and to care for the oppressed.
The weight as Americans is heavier because of our two fold responsibility. We are Caesar by virtue of our civic power. Citizens and rulers. And We The People will stand before Jesus to be judged over whether we used our power to bind the wounds of the oppressed or cozy ourself up to the same power.
But all I could do that day was sit in silence.
The room shrunk. I quickly bowed out of the conversation, realizing I had stepped on a landmine in this space. But my phone vibrated. A text from a pastor across from me in the circle. He was encouraging, supportive. I was grateful. But the “in-meeting text” is a signal to what topics are acceptable, and what topics aren’t. The room wasn’t hostile, but it was divided. Deeply.
How is it that not only American Christians, but also American Pastors, could support this violence & coercion, not as an extraordinary regrettable decision, but as an essential demonstration of Christianity? They justified and celebrated a faithful “Christian” response to protestors. Really? Is this Jesus? And yet how many other fault lines have been exposed, before that day and up to the present, where Christ has been made a puppet, a “lobbyist for our ambitions” as Sho Baraka says.
The chief questions worth answering as Christians in our day seems to me to be this, who is the risen Jesus? What does he stand for? Where is he at work? Of what I know of Jesus, the King’s power is never through coercive violence. That day was just one among many in ministry where I sensed, deeply, somewhere it all didn’t add up. No, not that Jesus wasn’t alive. I sensed he wasn’t welcome in this brand of Christianity. How else could these actions (and others) add up for some Christians?
I fear we are like Jonah, waiting (excitedly) for God to rain his judgment and justice down on the world. But, like Jonah, we are upset when we encounter Jesus’ plan to rescue the world. We forget where we came from. My fear is tempered with faith that this rescue is God’s work. But for many, “God’s work” continues to be just the opposite–a religious enterprise of our own devising for our own ends, devoid of Jesus’ spirit, content to pit ourselves against the world, instead of witnessing to the goodness of Jesus’ kingdom within the world.
The risen Jesus is at work, if we have eyes to see, and ears to hear.
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