by Fleming Rutledge
The combination of the coronavirus pandemic and my commitment to my husband’s needs in our seventh decade of marriage has snuffed out all my energies for sustained writing and creative thinking. Tonight, however, I feel that I must sit down and write something.
We find ourselves living in an empire of lies. Indeed, we have been living in one for more than just the past four years. Some people date this to the “birther” movement started by Donald Trump long before he ran for president; he fabricated a story that Barack Obama was born in Kenya. To this day, many people believe that Obama was an illegitimate president, despite the evidence of his birth certificate from Hawaii. Others might point out that even earlier than that, Americans started referring to “my truth” (instead of “the truth”), as though one version of the truth were equal to any other. Since the election of 2020, however, this strange and unfamiliar landscape of a nation awash in lies has taken hold of masses of people in our country to a previously unimaginable degree. I never imagined that I would live to see such things in our beloved United States of America, which, I have always believed, received a divine commission to represent a new kind of country where our “better angels,” in the phrase of Abraham Lincoln, could hope to triumph over the ever-threatening worst of human nature. Today it seems that our worst demons are taking hold of our population, with results more pernicious than most Americans have ever imagined possible.
Who would have thought that fully one-third of the members of one of our two political parties would declare that they refuse to be vaccinated in the midst of one of the worst pandemics the world has ever seen? We have prayed for a vaccine and the Lord in his mercy has given us several, more than a year ahead of expectations, and we are refusing to receive them? How can this even be believed? Did anyone except a tiny number on the extreme fringe ever refuse to have their children vaccinated for smallpox? Does anyone except extreme outliers drive without seat belts?
Who could have imagined that 70% of Republicans in a CNN poll in April would say that they don’t think Joe Biden legitimately won enough votes to win our national presidential election? In spite of all the fact-checking in the media, people are operating on instincts, fixations, and self-deceptions in fragmented groups of “true believers,” with no one—absolutely no one—able to play the role of Walter Cronkite and be believed. It is generally recognized that social media has unprecedented power for both good and evil, but we do not seem to know how to harness what we have unleashed.
Today, May 3, the eerily skillful manipulator of lies who is Donald Trump peered out from Barad-dûr and issued a dominical statement to the world. His peculiar capitalizations are present as usual, but note the elevated, almost liturgical phrasing that he atypically chose:
Who will fall into line behind this dictum? Many, it appears. THE BIG LIE will be the standard phrase, like “drain the swamp” and “lock her up,” only worse because it refers to the very foundation of our republic. A few voices from within what used to be the Republican Party are appalled—George W. Bush has uncharacteristically begun to make his voice heard—but Republicans like former senators Jack Danforth and Mark Hatfield scarcely exist today. Even Mitt Romney, no one’s idea of a left-leaner, was tempestuously booed by his own party members yesterday. Republican voices like that of Peggy Noonan, once widely respected, seem to be speaking into a void.
In the midst of all this is the Christian church, the Body of Christ, who said, “I am the Truth.”
I want to use whatever voice remains to me to express my dismay that the group within the Christian church that I identify with—call it “apostolic evangelical”—is so singularly silent in this crisis. If this is not a status confessionis, I don’t know what is. If this is not a time for courage in the pulpit, I can’t imagine what time that would be.
Dietrich Bonhoeffer drew upon the Lutheran idea of status confessionis when he wrote (and taught) that under certain circumstances—like Nazi rule—the church could take only one true position, rejecting the alternative.
Over the four years I have been on Twitter, I have pleaded with my “followers” to take seriously their responsibility to risk their safety and comfort on certain occasions, in order to preach and teach about Christian responsibility in times of social and political crisis. If “likes” are anything to go by, this has fallen on mostly deaf ears. And yet, my collections of sermons and my Crucifixion book continue to find new readers. I am baffled and distressed by this apparent contradiction. For forty-seven years, ever since I began to preach in 1975, I have sought to model a way of preaching that is unashamedly derived from the living Word and the everlasting gospel of Jesus Christ, yet always directly in dialogue with the pressing issues of the day. Most of my preaching has attempted this sort of dialectic (at least I hope it’s dialectic and not just diatribe). Many people seem to like the voluminous numbers of sermons that I have published, yet for the most part I simply do not see a kind of adventurous engagement with socio-political issues in the prayers and sermons of the many, many worship services I have seen online this past year. Studious avoidance is what I see, more often than not. Or is it indifference, or blind ignorance? How to account for the fact that the name of George Floyd has never even been mentioned in many (white) church services?
I am speaking largely to my fellow evangelicals. The liberal mainlines do not fail to speak of—and often act in response to—the issues of the day: race and the police, the plight of immigrants at the border, the assault upon the voting rights of minorities, the tissue of lies that surrounds us—but we do not hear the apostolic gospel from these pulpits. Who is going to take up this challenge? Who will seek to speak to injustice and lies precisely in the context of a high Christology and firm grounding in the Word written? Who will redeem the time from pusillanimous failure of imagination and lack of courage? The New York Times and other organs are continually publishing journalistic pieces full of illustrations about the failure of the evangelical churches to confront the empire of lies. We should hang our heads in shame that they find such articles so easy to write and such examples ready to hand.
I am no person of great influence. I read about these “influencers” with hundreds of thousands of Twitter followers. I don’t deceive myself about whatever minuscule impact I might have. But I have stayed up late tonight to pour out this plea to anyone who might care. If the gospel of Jesus Christ—the Way, and the Truth, and the Life—means anything, it does not mean it exclusively as a message to individuals about their individual problems. “No man is an island,” wrote John Donne, one of the greatest Christian preachers of all time. If we continue to live in this empire of lies and never speak out, we are no better than the liars. We cannot be disciples of Christ and live in individual spiritual isolation as though we had nothing to do with the larger society.
This is not any great masterpiece of writing. It is all that I have been able to write for 15 months. I doubt if I will even have the focus to go back over it and improve it. I offer it for what it is worth, “a message in a bottle.” By God’s ever-surprising grace, perhaps it will wash up on someone’s doorstep, find its way into a pulpit, and thence into the world where the living Spirit is ever-present and ever-powerful to overthrow the kingdom of lies through the efforts of small people who put their trust in the Lord who is the Truth.