Recently, I watched Netflix’s 2019 film, The King. The film depicts English King Henry V’s victory over the French in the Battle of Agincourt. It all happened 606 years ago today, October 25th, 1415.
What I didn’t expect was the end of the film. It brilliantly illustrates a challenge that continues to derail US Evangelicals today: pragmatism. For too long, evangelicals have acted in ways that betray Jesus while arguing we are actually loyal to Jesus.
In the name of culture war victory, evangelicals have lost our integrity and with it our ability to make plain the gospel hidden in our name.
The climax of the film is a shocking revelation: King Henry V, a peace-loving-king-turned-reluctant-warrior, was betrayed by his own court into war with France. The scene where he confronts his traitorous advisor William is brilliant.
In defense of his betrayal, William offers a masterclass in evangelical self-justification; William shows us what we sound like when we justify our actions to Jesus. These actions betray our King, even while we’ve committed them in his name.
For evangelicals, this betrayal has taken many forms: whether a cultish loyalty to Trump in defense of “our Christian nation”, or a reticence to deal with homefront failures on race and abuse in the name of “church unity”, or our reduction of a pro-life ethic to supporting a political platform. We argue these betrayals are actually displays of loyalty, just like Henry’s traitorous advisor.
In the movie, which is loosely based on Shakespeare, Henry confronts his traitorous advisor William in a castle chamber. Outside the chamber is an exuberant crowd, enthralled with the English victory over France, united in loyalty to their King. But Henry V knows the machinations that created this moment. And he’s sickened.
Words are exchanged. Only Henry leaves the chamber to greet the crowd, with William executed. A gritty and graphic scene. But the scene yields one bit of dialogue from William that needs to be heard & heeded by US evangelicals, because it sounds like us:
“Listen. [Crowd outside chants “Henry!”] That is the sound of peace. This is how peace is forged; it is forged in victory.”– William to King Henry V
William pled for his life by justifying his betrayal in terms of what military victory accomplished for King Henry. William argued that Henry’s wishes for peace could only be fulfilled by a path the King was unwilling to take, the path of war & violence. This argument, biblically speaking, is Satanic.
Jesus faced a similar temptation in the wilderness. Satan argued that Jesus’ wishes for a Kingdom could best be fulfilled by a path Jesus wasn’t willing to take. Satan would deliver the world’s Kingdom, but Jesus needed to take a different path: worship Satan instead of suffering on the Cross.
US Evangelicals continue to argue this case with our own King. We continue to believe that Jesus is pleased by a culture war that prefers the path of preservation but not Crucifixion. We increasingly assume our interests, inherited from our evangelical forebears, align with Christ. We increasingly defend these interests by means and methods uncharacteristic of the Kingdom. We defend betrayal of Jesus as loyalty to Jesus.
It’s important to note that our evangelical ethic of pragmatism is tied up in our evangelical interests in America. This is dangerous. Evangelical integrity will never be restored so long as our interests lay with myths and visions of white Christian America, not the Kingdom.
What French ethicist Jacques Ellul described in his day is also true of our evangelical ethic: “Everything that is done in the interest of the nation, the race, or the proletariat is good. Everything that is against it is bad.” This interest-based morality is infecting US Evangelicalism as it maintains agreements with Trump, the GOP, or its many financial commitments to protect its institutions.
US Evangelicals are fast on the way to hearing these words again from Jesus, “Not everyone who says ‘Lord, Lord,’ will enter the Kingdom. Truly in that day many will say: “did we not do many mighty works in your name?” and I will say to them, “I never knew you. Depart from me you workers of lawlessness.”
Better to join him on the Cross in faithfulness than win a Culture War without His Spirit. One leads to life, the other to judgment. I’d rather spend my life with integrity and the Spirit of Jesus in the ruins of cultural evangelicalism, than lose my integrity in the pristine halls of man-made power and influence.