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.