This morning’s New York Times front page drives me to my laptop to write what I intend to be the most important blog post I have ever written (I have posted 355 messages on my Ruminations in the past 5 years, and 420 in Tips for the Times). This new post follows along with my immediately preceding one in Ruminations, called “We don’t deserve the black church”).
If I, at the age of almost 79, am ever going to put my reputation (such as it is) for preaching and teaching on the line, it’s now. If I have ever written or spoken about anything whatsoever, I venture to put this post at the top of the table of contents. If I have ever been helpful to anyone seeking my guidance in the church at any time for any reason, now is the moment for me to throw all the small weight I have, God being my helper, behind what I have to say today.
My beloved professor and mentor Paul L. Lehmann used to throw around the phrase status confessionis a good deal–too often, I sometimes thought. From time to time I have wondered if the status confessionis weren’t upon us, for example during the buildup to the invasion of Iraq. I am quite sure that it is upon us now. Here is a definition:
status confessionis: “a state of confessing,” is a dire situation in which the church must stand up for the integrity of the gospel and the authority of the Word of God it confesses, or else lose its soul. The Latin term arose during Lutheran doctrinal debates in the 16th century, but it has grown out of its original context. Today it is particularly associated with Dietrich Bonhoeffer, a Lutheran, who used it in the context of the church’s response to the rise of the Third Reich.
I believe that the soul of the American church is at stake as it has not been since the Civil Rights movement fifty years ago, when the white churches presented a very mixed and sometimes shameful face to the nation. Today I believe that all the congregations of this country–Roman Catholic, Protestant mainline, the various mainline breakaways, Pentecostal, nondenominational, Anabaptist, Seventh Day Adventist, black, Hispanic, Korean, Chinese, liberal, conservative, orthodox, revisionist, you name it–are called to the same vocation in these deeply threatening times when the American experiment is at stake. I believe that any preacher in the American church today who fails to speak out in no uncertain terms, not just on one Sunday but on many Sundays, about the climate we suddenly find ourselves in, has forfeited his or her claim to preach the Word of the living God.
In the African-American church, it is customary to invite political figures to speak and even to endorse some of them. It would probably be a mistake for white churches to take up this custom. However, it is quite possible to preach many biblical sermons on the themes of mutual love and forbearance across racial, religious, ethnic and other lines without ever mentioning the name of a political candidate or a political party. The message of the old Adam and the new Adam in Romans 5:12-21 (for example) is universal and can be made unmistakably relevant to our current plight. Most of us know that Jesus taught that we should love our enemies and bless those who curse us, but we Christians are not setting a good example. I do not hear prayers for our enemies in our churches, only prayers for “our troops.” This is meant to be a correction of our failure to support our troops in Vietnam, but we are in a new situation now. Never were prayers for our enemies more important to our identity as disciples of Christ. The prayer “for our enemies” in the Book of Common Prayer, p. 816, no. 6, is superb, but I have never heard it actually used in worship.
There are countless biblical texts that can be expounded from the pulpit in the current situation, and not all of them are from the teachings of Jesus in the Gospels. To give just one obvious example: Deut. 24:11-22, with its repeated reminder that “you shall remember that you were a slave in the land of Egypt.” (In fact, I’ll venture to say that almost any passage from Scripture will lead to the same conclusions when read from the perspective of our crucified Lord.) The conservative churches have shied away from this sort of preaching because of antipathy toward what’s seen as the substitution of social justice messages for the biblical gospel, but now, if ever, is the time to shuck off that false dichotomy. President Obama gave us some good texts in his address at the memorial service for the five police officers: “I will give you a new heart, and put a new spirit in you,” says the prophet Ezekiel…and Obama pleaded, “That’s what we must pray for, each of us: a new heart.” He also quoted I John 3:18, “Let us love, not with words or speech, but with actions and in truth.”
If the preaching and teaching of the church, week in and week out, is grounded in the gospel of a Lord who was crucified for all sinners (Romans 8:3-4), it would not be so easy for us to fall back into tribal patterns, fear of people not like us, guilt by association, the demonizing of perceived enemies, and other non-Christian habits of mind. If we were so grounded, it would be easier for the average Christian in the workplace or club or family gathering to speak up against these pernicious divisions that we now see coming out from under the rocks. When a sincere, albeit naive, Christian like Tim Tebow is led astray by false teaching, we see that anything can happen.
A dear friend in South Africa called yesterday and asked me what was going on in the United States, how this sudden unleashing of xenophobia and nativism could have happened. I groped for an answer. My best thinking is that the often-invoked factor of “anger” is not a sufficient explanation. I believe the Bible and all great literature teaches us that there is a fault line in all of human nature, not just in certain subgroups. In those fortunate enough to have grown up in a strong culture of respect and forbearance, this fault line is more deeply suppressed, not so likely to break through the restraints of civilized behavior. In those who are estranged from such familial and group cultures, the ugly instincts that lie within us all are just waiting for permission to appear in public. Thus, many people who have not been brought up in a Christian community like “Mother Emanuel” in Charleston, where the black members of a Bible study refrained from grabbing guns when nine of their number were murdered by a white man, will react in a fashion not consonant with the evangelical message, no matter how they may identify as evangelical. Similarly, there are a great many Jews who are so strongly grounded in their own story (“you were slaves in the land of Egypt”) that they are disproportionately represented in philanthropic groups supporting the oppressed and needy; whereas other Jews not so deeply grounded (e.g., Bernie Madoff, the “Den of Thieves”) will drift away from their own roots and commit crimes against their own tradition.
The Body of Christ, when it is working the way God means it to, is a living illustration of what God intends for humankind. It is a “culture,” if you will, that is stronger than the flawed individuals who are its members. Great heroes like Bonhoeffer have emerged from the church, but every day there are ordinary, nonheroic people who rise up and resist injustice in the name of Christ, in small ways perhaps, but “God gets in the midst” as the black Christians say, and he magnifies it. This is the Christian community acting as the branches of the Vine which is Christ.
A few months ago, when the primaries were just beginning, I heard a commentator say that he hoped Donald Trump would soon have to step out of the running, because the longer he stayed in, the more Americans would feel that they had permission publicly to express hostile and violent thoughts about blacks, Jews, immigrants, Muslims, Hispanics, and other perceived enemies. Now it has come true; the genie is out of the bottle. Christians in America are on the verge of committing crimes against the gospel. Let us who are preachers and teachers and church leaders rise up and meet this challenge, not counting the cost but being faithful to the Lord who promises that he will be with us to the end of the world. He has guaranteed that his Word will not return to him empty.