What to write?  I have often asked myself that question every other week when my turn to post a blog here on The Twelve comes along.  Twice in the last 2 years it fell to me to post on Election Day in the U.S.: the 2018 midterms and the 2020 general presidential election.  And now today it falls to me to post on the last full day of the presidency of Donald Trump.  It’s been 2 weeks since I last blogged here and it feels like a year ago.  Never could we have guessed what would happen on January 6 and never did we think a week after that a President would be impeached for a second time.  Most of us feel disoriented.  And fearful ahead of tomorrow’s events.

So what to write?  I think I will write about a theme I have been writing about for the last 5 years: the net effect on society and above all on the church when we consistently tolerate intemperate, cruel speech.  And my biggest concern has been the tone set by Donald Trump.  So I revisited a number of my past blogs. 

Now I want to be clear: last week during the impeachment debate, a Democrat representative told his Republican colleagues that what finally happened because of the President’s words on January 6 was from a certain point of view inevitable.  “In short,” he said, “we told you so.”  And I know some will read this blog as my saying “I told you so” but honestly that is not my intent.  I reflect on what I have written before because I still believe this is of paramount importance for the church going forward.  If we do not pay attention to our words and the witness we bear when we tolerate violent and mendacious speech, then the Gospel suffers and the church is tarnished.

So what to write?  What I have written before.

In September of 2015 when we were dimly beginning to suspect that Trump could actually become a nominee for President, I discussed how many people feted Trump because he was not politically correct and even many Christians seemed to think that was a good thing.  “But why? Trump is arguably offensive, arrogant, egotistical, and rude. He has made comments that would spell the end of Jeb Bush or Bernie Sanders or any other candidate, Republican or Democrat. Yet Trump survives excoriating John McCain, calling women ‘fat pigs,’ and making unsubstantiated broadsides against Mexicans. Why? According to [a New York] Times article, the reason is because his supporters love the fact that he is not politically correct, and many of the people interviewed for the article said that Trump is saying what they feel . . .  But perhaps one reason that now upwards of 30% of people polled are favoring Trump is because they are satisfied with just hearing their darker resentments being voiced for them.  But at least some of those ideas should not receive public validation.”

I came back to this theme four months later in January 2016 when I suggested that a different PC should dominate in the church and in our conduct in society than Political Correctness and that is the PC of the New Testament virtue of Public Civility.  “When we cheer those who lambast political correctness and then use that as an excuse to disengage from also public civility, then we as Christians distort the image of Christ in us.   As conservative political commentator David Brooks wrote recently about another front running politician, Ted Cruz, there is a “pagan brutalism” that has taken hold this election season and it’s something we Christians should lament not join, not cheer, not endorse.”  (Curiously and perhaps tellingly, one of the many comments that blog garnered was this one: “Why don’t you start listing Hillary’s sins. I’d rather see a leader like Trump than someone like Hillary, who lies and thinks she above the law and has a total conscious disregard for her position.”   Lies, above the law, and disregard for high position . . .  Hmmm.)

By late September of 2016 a few weeks ahead of the presidential election that year, I anticipated the wonderful work of my colleague Kristen Kobes DuMez in her 2020 book Jesus and John Wayne when I noted a distressing dismissal of Christian virtues like the Fruit of the Spirit as being soft and sissy.   Again, my concern was how our words matter and have a huge effect on our wider Gospel witness.  “There is sufficient confusion in this country between flag and cross, nation and gospel that I suspect a false gospel of hairy-chested macho manliness is being promulgated in too many churches.   Those who sneer at softy sissy types in society while sipping coffee at the local diner on Friday morning are unlikely to prize such traits in themselves or others when sitting in the church pew on Sunday morning.  In fact, if you listen to the comments of the swaggering evangelical leaders who have injected themselves into this year’s presidential race–a couple of whom have proudly indicated they are gun-toting swaggering evangelical leaders at that–and if you pass those comments through the filter of what Jesus and Paul and others hold out in the New Testament as the ideal of discipleship, you will almost certainly find good reason to be highly distressed at what’s happening to the Christian witness in this land.” 

Finally, I began to worry as far back as March of 2016 what all of this was going to do to pastors.  In a blog titled “Pastoral Agony,” I said this: “There is an agony afoot among pastors and other Christian leaders.   I see it all over Facebook.   I read about it in leading Christian periodicals and in other blogs.   The agony surrounds what to say as a Christian pastor/leader about this crazy political season and specifically about the man who seems to be garnering a sizable number of evangelical votes: Donald Trump.  Again and again Facebook posts from fellow pastors begin with some version of “I don’t like posting political stuff but . . .”    “I have never as a pastor endorsed any candidate but . . .”    Even prominent leaders like Max Lucado have broken their silence as have many other leaders . . . But with that as background, I raise the question: When does a pastor/leader reach a point where NOT saying something counts as pastoral dereliction of duty?”   

Alas, the perilous position many pastors found themselves in continued to grow ever-more dodgy until the pandemic broke things wide open with the politicization of everything—as I wrote about two weeks ago—and the departure of many pastors who had been burned to a crisp or so spiritually demoralized they could not continue.  So very many more pastors are to this day hanging on by their fingernails.

“Words matter,” so many columnists, leaders, and ordinary citizens have been saying since the traumatic events at the Capitol on January 6.  But it was not just two months’ worth of lies about an election and incendiary speech that brought things to a head.  It was years of also the church’s tolerating what the Bible tells us ought not be tolerated.  I have no idea what it will take to heal the church after and in this divisive time.  In one of my past blogs I quoted a David Brooks column in which he noted that when long-term damage happens to a society, things don’t just snap back into place because someone else gets elected.  The process can take years.

But here is hoping we in the church can take the lead to make at least a beginning toward healing by speaking the truth in love and minding so very, very vigilantly what we say and what we cheer in the words of others.

Scott Hoezee

Scott Hoezee is Director of the Center for Excellence in Preaching at Calvin Theological Seminary.

16 Comments

  • Rowland Van Es, Jr. says:

    James 3 has some good warnings about taming the tongue because of its power, “it corrupts the whole person, sets the whole course of his life on fire” or as Peterson said in The Message, “By our speech we can ruin the world, turn harmony into chaos, throw mud on a reputation, send the whole world up in smoke and go up in smoke with it, smoke right from the pit of hell.” DJT has in many ways sent the whole world up in smoke and has gone up in smoke with it and many in the Church watched it happen, allowed it to happen, encouraged it and even cheered it on when it happened.

  • Daniel J Meeter says:

    Thank you for this reprise of your consistent message these last years. Your words have mattered to me. It’s strange, how in our national system of justice, it is only violent actions that are criminally indictable, while violent words get a pass. Is this arrangement inevitable when we protect the freedom of speech? I think it’s clear that the consistently violent words of Donald Trump have caused more actual injury, damage, death, and destruction than the violent actions of any of his followers. And he knew this, as he predicted that he could shoot a gun on Fifth Avenue and get away with it. That was a metaphor for shooting off his mouth. Words can be more powerful than bullets. And whether or not he actually did the sexually violent things he boasted of in the Access Hollywood tape, just the words themselves were sexually violent and certainly hurtful, as anyone who has ever suffered any sexual abuse can tell you. And as you point out, we consistently allowed it, the destruction of our common norms. Words are life and death. For Christians, our freedom is not an end in itself, but to provide for the free exercise of (sacrificial) love. Christian speech, in private on weekdays, no less than on Sundays, is free, but free only for the purposes of love. Thank you again.

  • Kenneth Bos says:

    Thanks Scott.

  • Jan Zuidema says:

    “For by your words you will be justified and by your words you will be condemned”. All of us are guilty of harsh, hateful, intemperate words because of the ease with which words flow from the mouth and, ultimately, the heart. Jemar Tisby, speaking yesterday at the January Series, called out, in an unflinching manner, the Christian Nationalism that has wormed it’s way into our churches over decades of careless thought and word. Words do matter. Thank you for continuing to stand on the street corner of the Twelve and challenge us to follow our higher calling.

    • George Vink says:

      Amen, Jan. A powerful message from Tisby and good reminders from Scott.

    • Tom Ackerman says:

      Thank you Jan. As I read Scott’s column, I also immediately thought of Jemar Tisby’s words. He spoke powerfully and urgently about the cost of Christian Nationalism. As someone who has had the good fortune to live in another country for a time and to worship in many different countries, I am repelled and angered by the idea that the United States is somehow God’s own “country”. The kingdom of God does not belong to the USA.

  • Gregory Van Den Berg says:

    What an excellent article! Jesus said his kingdom was not of this world. Then why do Christian Nationalists advocate a worldly kingdom. Jesus’ example always needs to be followed. Unfortunately, secularism in the form of Christian Nationalism has crept into the Church. We need to heed the message of the prophets of the Old Testament as well. A follower of Christ follows him and not the rhetoric of a political party. The Church needs to be a mirror of Christ and not of a political party or ideology. Thank you for this most timely essay.

  • Ria says:

    I truly think that the problem of the last 4 years was created because of Christian Nationalism. When you are a Christian nationalist, I believe that Nationalism comes first instead of Christ. They may say that it isn’t true, but you cannot serve two masters.
    When you support a poitical leader despite his retoric and actions, then you are putting your hopes for the country above the desire to serve Christ. We are called to only two things, to love God and reflect the love of Christ to our neighbors. When we are blinded by a desire to control the narrative in government, we are not serving God, but circumventing him.

  • Pam Adams says:

    Scott, thank you for another wonderful article. We should be reading and acting on articles like this. Where are they?

  • George Vink says:

    Thanks, Scott. You always articulate the issues/thoughts so well. It’s appreciated. Words matter, so I am delaying my words of reaction to Isby whom I heard speak so clearly regarding Christian nationalism. I was about to say, “No more preaching in churches that display the flag!” Would that be going too far, too fast for folks to come along?

  • Leo Jonker says:

    I will say it from Canada where, thankfully, it is easier to say it: “no more preaching in churches that display the flag!” I belong to a denomination with churches in the US and in Canada. What sort of message does it send about being one in Christ when there is a national flag in the worship space?

  • Daniel J Meeter says:

    As for no more preaching in churches that display the flag, those are just the churches that we need to keep preaching in, faithfully, pastorally, prophetically. Preaching is its own kind of pastoral care, and it’s certainly healing and edification. It took along time to teach our people to reverence the flag, and you have to honour their feelings in order to then show them a better way.

    Of course I would never want to display it as a sacred object, and I can even say that I had the rare run of serving five RCA congregations that did not display it. flag. The first one who too traditionally Hungarian, the second one was in Canada, the third was mostly Gujarati immigrants, in the fourth the flag was famously removed by its war-veteran retired officer pastor, and in the fifth one, they had just lost track of it. But I know of a Christian college in Michigan (Hillsdale) where they say the Pledge of Allegiance as part of chapel worship!

  • Gary VanHouten says:

    Thanks Scott. Your words, along with the words of so many others here, have helped us get through these last 4 years. Today, Inauguration Day, hope stirs, but there is so much to repair.

  • Tom says:

    It’s easy and convenient to lay the blame on DJT and ‘Christian Nationalism’ I continue to see that as a symptom, not a fundamental cause. And, the ‘intemperate, cruel speech’ comes from both sides (and, yes, DJT has amplified that to a degree previously unseen). If David Brooks believes that “pagan brutalism” has only taken hold in THIS election, then he has not been paying very close attention to what’s going on in the rest of our culture.

    James Madison knew that the system of government he helped established depended on a “moral and religious people. It is wholly inadequate to the government of any other.” A moral and virtuous people would not have elected Donald Trump. A moral and virtuous people would not slaughter 1,000,000 innocent unborn children every year. This is a list that could go on for a long time . . .

    It’s easy to point disapprovingly at those who are some distance from us – politicians, “swaggering evangelical leaders”, etc. The challenge is to look honestly at ourselves and then to see those around us as fellow members of the family of God, not enemies, or deplorables, or whatever invective Twitter encourages people to throw around (Jesus died for Donald Trump too, I’m told to believe). Judge not – leave that to God. A ‘virtuous nation” would be one that loves God and loves neighbor; that happens one-by-one and whoever is president has nothing to do with it.

Leave a Reply