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There are so many depressing stories of evangelicals getting things wrong lately, I thought it might be nice to hear a story about a time an evangelical organization got it right.

Bill Starr

In July, 1968, on the heels of the assassination of the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., when many American cities were reeling from racial unrest and white Americans were insulating themselves by moving to the suburbs, the evangelical youth ministry Young Life put a photo of an African American male in sunglasses on the cover of its magazine with the words: “I’m not a problem. I’m a man.” The idea came from Young Life’s President, Bill Starr. Young Life had prided itself on reaching “every kid.” Bill Starr didn’t want any confusion about who every kid included.

Of course there was fallout. This was too much for some donors, particularly in the American South, where a few areas closed. The great majority, however, supported what Starr had done, and committed themselves to the long and difficult task of changing a white organization with roots in Texas into a truly multicultural and multiethnic ministry. That work has never been simple or easy, and at times, like when people of color walked out of a staff conference in the early 1970s, it seemed like there was no progress being made. Over the decades, though, the commitment from the top level of the organization to staying together has made a difference.

It’s easier not to try.

It’s easier not to say anything.

When four students from the Agricultural and Technical College of North Carolina sat down at the lunch counter of a Woolworth’s in Greensboro, North Carolina, in 1960, and asked to be served, they were told the store did not serve people of color. They stayed in their seats and ignited similar sit-ins throughout the South. What was the response from the F. W. Woolworth headquarters in New York? Silence.

Woolworth’s could have said something, but didn’t have the courage to do so. With the benefit of history, we see that Young Life is still going and Woolworth’s is gone. The lunch counter in Greensboro is now part of a Civil Rights Museum.

Woolworth’s froze in the moment because they saw what saying something could cost them. They didn’t consider what not saying something might cost them.

I appreciate that decisions to take a stand can be costly. A friend who served as a trustee at a Christian college related that as their board was discussing the presence of LGBTQ groups on campus, he did a little math and estimated by looking around the table that about $25 million was riding on how the president reacted. In biblical times, prophets like Jeremiah were thrown into cisterns. Today, they just lose donors. The way to avoid that—because there are donors to be lost on any side of any issue—is to say nothing.

Saying something can cause trouble. The most damning accusation made of Christian organizations or churches after they take a stand for justice is that they have veered into politics. “They used to be about sharing the gospel, but not anymore.” The old line, attributed to the French literary figure Charles Baudelaire, is that “Satan’s greatest trick is convincing the world he doesn’t exist.” Today’s version of that might be, “Satan’s greatest trick is convincing the church that making a statement about injustice is political.”

“Politics” is one of those words we toss around without a common agreement of what we mean. And “common agreement” is what politics is all about. Politics is how we use power and reach agreement. The Bible is very political. A better word for what’s objectionable is “partisan.” I agree the church should not be partisan. When American churches are partisan—which happens on both sides of the spectrum—there ought to be consequences, like losing an IRS exemption. But the church can’t help being political. The church cannot afford to be silent.

I admire Kyle Meyaard-Schaap’s approach to reframing the climate crisis as a Christian discipleship issue, not a partisan issue. In the introduction to Following Jesus in a Warming World, he writes, “Those of us who have come to Christian climate action have come to it circuitously, via some combination of lonely epiphany, painful deconstruction, and growing isolation from friends and family who view our Spirit-breathed conviction as political radicalization rather than Christian discipleship.” The church didn’t help Kyle get there, but the time has come for the church to help others.

In his time, Bill Starr took a prophetic stand on race and helped move a white evangelical ministry forward. Kyle Meyaard-Schaap is doing the same in relation to the climate crisis today.

What other issues are we facing that should be viewed as Christian discipleship issues instead of partisan issues? Number one in my mind is gun violence. It is time for all expressions of the church across the United States to say this has to stop. Can that be said without making it partisan? I believe it can. It’s not up to the church to figure out how to stop gun violence. I have opinions about how to stop it, but those are simply my opinions. Others have different opinions. Too often our different opinions paralyze us. Can we get together to say—as loudly and frequently as we can—that this has to stop? I’d love to see Young Life put out its magazine today with a picture of a young person on the cover with the headline, “Don’t Shoot Me.” But that burden shouldn’t fall to Young Life alone. All expressions of Christianity—indeed all expressions of religious faith—should stand up and say this has to stop.

Gun violence is political because our elected officials have the power to enact laws that will stop it. Other voices have been in their ears for decades, telling them a different message, and it’s easy (and satisfying) to fall into blame. I am asking if it is possible to get past blame and try something different? Can we come together long enough to say this isn’t right? Can we lay down our swords and shields and huge animosity and take a stand together? Doing that will take a special form of courage too often missing in our society.

Who has the courage to stand with their partisan opponents and say something?

Jeff Munroe

Jeff Munroe is the editor of the Reformed Journal. 


  • Daniel Meeter says:

    Right on. Plus gun violence is not merely political. Even David Brooks recently called it “idolatry.” Guns in America are deeply spiritual, even “religious” in the common sense, and certainly sacred. Why mere political efforts are not going to be enough.

  • Sue Poll says:

    There will be no quick fix to this horrible problem, of course. But the church needs to be on the front line in changing hearts and minds regarding guns and gun ownership and needs to stay on the front line.

  • Mike Smock says:

    Hi Jeff, just curious about which law or laws you think our “elected officials have the power to enact” that will stop “gun” violence?

    Two comments.

    First, you’ll never eliminate violence, whether gun, fist, bomb, vehicle, etc. Do you really believe there is some form of magical legislation that politicians can enact that will stop it?

    Second, the cause of almost all violence is dysfunctional families. Not guns. Not mental health. Not poverty. Not racism.

    Men getting married, staying married, raising their sons, and most importantly, shepherding a Godly family is the solution that will have the best impact. Is there a law for that?

    • Daniel Meeter says:

      To my mind, “you will never eliminate violence” is a dodge. No one is saying that. However, over the centuries, sober political thinking, especially during Christendom, maintained that the state should have a “monopoly on violence.” Even the Scripture agrees that “the sword is given to the ruler,” acknowledging the (sad) reality of violence. Mature reflection understands that violence can be limited. But because of American idolatries, we no longer want the government to have the monopoly on violence. And I certainly dispute that the cause of almost all violence is dysfunctional families. The Bible is full of stories, going back to Cain and Abel, of violence committed by men who got married, stayed married, raised their sons, and shepherded godly families.

    • Barbara yandell says:

      I was going to write these very convictions. Thank you for doing it for me! Blessings.

    • Jack says:

      There are too many dogs at the humane society. The one beside me isn’t. Lacking a solution or narrowing it to the singular will never ever be reasons for hiding from creating goodness. In my Bible, no one was more a failure at solving than Jesus.

  • Greg Warsen says:

    I am pleased to see that time has not diminished but only enhanced your wisdom. I appreciate your insights here as well as the writing acumen. And the check we send to YL every year is among the most rewarding.

  • Daniel Walcott says:

    Thanks Jeff,
    It always amazing me that being pro-gun is part of the “conservative agenda.” I am always reminded that when Jesus said such outrageous things like, “turn the other cheek, love your neighbor, do not kill, ..” he never said, “Just kidding.” It also amazes me that the leaders in my denomination wish to declare that a certain observance of the seventh commandment (sixth for Lutherans) is a “confessional matter,” but observing the sixth commandment, either in practice or rhetoric, is not.

    • Marlyn Visser says:

      The leaders of our denomination recognize that its members understand and accept the prohibition which God requires in the sixth commandment of His law. Where as of recent time numerous members refuse to acknowledge the prohibition of God”s law as prescribed in the seventh commandment.

  • Rodney Haveman says:

    Thanks Jeff
    A few things.
    I don’t think politics is how we use power and come to an agreement. That’s part of it of course. It’s a type of politics, compromise, democracy, a shared vision with different paths to get there, but I think politics comes from polis, the Greek word for city, which means politics is about the life of the city, how we live, organize, and give shape to our life together. If the church has nothing to say about that then we might as well close the doors, because that’s 99% of what Jesus talks about.
    As for legislators who can end gun violence, we should be careful. As said above, that might not be possible, and it’s just that sort of BS that some use to do nothing. “If it’s not perfect, then we can’t do it. If it’s not 100% successful, then it’s 0% successful.” It’s this binary thinking that has stifled almost everything in our legislatures nowadays. I know that’s not what you meant, but I guess I just wanted to say it.
    Thanks again for “saying something”
    The church must make a call to end gun violence! And I don’t know a single Christian who would disagree. This should be easy.

  • Alicia Mannes says:

    Thanks Jeff! For those of you who live in Holland, on Saturday, June 4, from 2 to 4 PM there will be event called Wear Orange for gun violence prevention! Please stop by Centennial Park for this event. The link is below.

  • Harold Gazan says:

    Thank you for your challenging essay. I believe that our society has made guns its “golden calf.” Is not the prohibition to possess military-style weapons also a pro-life issue?

  • Albert Veldstra says:

    Thank you Jeff. Of course gun control is not going to end gun violence! But we need to start somewhere. Every human is born with a God given inherent reluctance to take a human life, however the farther one is from the “target”, the easier it is to do it. Guns give the opportunity to do the deed without being close. I am a victim of gun violence in that I had to take a life while looking the other victim in the eyes from 3 feet away. The consequences of that event (and many years of trauma as a part of my career) were PTSD, years of depression and all the misery that goes with it.
    The reluctance to take a life can be dampened through training. The gaming industry has and is doing a great job of removing that reluctance through the video games our youth spend hours playing where they kill with all the very realistic graphics. Do that long enough and taking a life is no big deal. No wonder the mass shootings are happening.
    It amazes me that so many of our religious leaders can remain quiet while our children are being slaughtered. It’s as if we are sacrificing our children to the “gun god” and we Christians are just standing by and many are condoning it. I don’t think this is what Jesus has in mind as the way we should live.

  • Jack says:

    Thank you, Jeff. It requires those with your fusion of intelligence, outrage, ethical backbone, and recognition that many will poke easy and inane holes in your compassionate eloquence to shout out.
    I think as of this morning, we have ALLOWED
    1302 people to be murdered. We’re only a third of the way through the year. And lest anyone play the total depravity/fall card, there are nations with a murder total of 0.

  • Jasxhepper says:

    Otherwise a great thoughtful piece.

  • Jasxhepper says:

    We should empower people to think differently about their guns, as highly critical thinkers and “Shardblade” holders. Only use them in those mythical once in multiple generational moments, but care for them and tell the stories that will revere the awe duo and awestricken power guns can have. Wake up the elderly in the homes to talk about the wars. Invest in peace, but don’t let América lose the pieces we all should own.

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