by Jeff Haanen
Scrolling through my Facebook feed, last week I noticed a rare delight: Edith Franco was beaming. Recently graduated with a masters degree, she posed in black cap and gown in front of the Texas State University sign smiling ear to ear.
Almost a decade ago I was her youth pastor at a small church in Brighton. Optimistic, kind and bright, Edith was the first to volunteer, the last to complain and she ran circles around her AP classes in high school. As I wondered where the time had went, I also worried for her: What will an undocumented immigrant do with all that potential?
This week I was one of 180 entities and individuals representing business, law enforcement and faith communities to urge the new Biden administration to reform our nation’s outdated and broken immigration system.
I come to this debate not as a business leader, clamoring for an updated immigration system that meets employment needs of our modern economy, nor as a police officer, wanting to bring security to communities that live in lawless limbo because of unenforceable immigration laws that haven’t been substantially changed since 1965.
Instead, I support immigration reform primarily as a person of faith.
From 2011-2013, I pastored “Dreamers,” youth who were brought illegally to the U.S. by their parents as children, often infants. High school students like Edith, so eager to contribute to the only country they had ever known, lived under a constant cloud. The fear of deportation and separation from their family — not to mention minimal job prospects in a shadow economy — gave me an introduction to the ways outdated laws could oppress rather than “establish Justice, ensure domestic Tranquility, and promote the general Welfare,” as our constitution states.
My experience as a pastor of a Hispanic congregation led me to investigate what the Bible said on the topic. I was surprised to learn that the Hebrew word for foreigner or stranger, ger, occurs 92 times in the Old Testament. And some of the most well-known figures of my faith were immigrants. Abram was called “out or Ur” to leave his homeland and move to Canaan. Joseph was an immigrant in Egypt, as were Moses and the Israelites (Exodus 2:22) Reminding them of this fact, God commanded his people to not mistreat the foreigner, but instead to “love them as yourself,” because they too were once immigrants in a foreign land (Leviticus 19:33-34).
Jesus himself was a refugee as a child, fleeing persecution with his parents as an infant (Matthew 2:13-15). Later in life, Jesus made foreigners the heroes of his parables (Luke 10:25-37) and even claimed that welcoming the stranger is the same as welcoming him (Matthew 25:44-45).
Friends in my own theologically conservative circles are quick to point out the importance of the rule of law, citing Romans 13: “Let everyone be subject to the governing authorities, for there is no authority except that which God has established.”
To this I wholeheartedly agree. Because laws must be obeyed, when they cease to serve the common good, they need reformation.
Indeed, all 180 signatories believe in the need to make changes to our immigration law which strengthens communities, addresses border security, grows our economy, expands visas for high tech and agricultural work, and regularizes the status of the estimated 10-12 million undocumented immigrants in the U.S., including more than 800,000 Dreamers like Edith.
In my work at Denver Institute for Faith & Work, we teach that all people are made in God’s image and created to work (Genesis 1:28, 2:15). We believe all work has value, must be fairly compensated (Deut. 24:15), and both workers and employers should obey the rule of law. And all should have the opportunity to reach-their God-given potential.
I recently called Edith to catch up. Two years ago she married a Puerto Rican and is now a legal resident. She’s working in a law office, using her masters degree to help other immigrants navigate a broken immigration maze that desperately needs reform.
“There are so many people who want to be here and want to contribute to this country,” Edith said. “Shouldn’t they be able to?”
This op-ed first appeared in the Boulder Weekly. It is the rare piece of advocacy I do on an issue I care about. If you’d like to learn more about the topic of immigration, here’s a nine-minute Scripture reflection focused on the theme of the “foreigner.” Also, here’s a series of talks from leading Christian thinkers and practitioners on the topic of immigration from a Christian perspective which I helped produce at a conference nearly 8 years ago. Finally, I should mention that Edith’s new married last name is “de Cardona.”
It’s hard to find the right metaphor for our current political moment. Are we in an echo chamber with megaphones? Are we, like a nuclear reaction, splitting atoms and roasting all our opponents? Or perhaps we’re more like vikings on social media: we land ashore, pillage and plunder all who oppose us, and then sail off once again to hang out with our village people.
Whatever the metaphor, we’re in an election season, and the weight of pandemic-soaked culture is turning up the dial on every debate. How should people of Christian faith think about and respond to the politics of our day?
There are as many answers to that question as there are people, yet few have more insight than Reinhold Neibuhr. His book, Christian Realism and Political Problems, first penned in 1953, is a hidden gem. In his chapter on “The Christian Witness in the Social and National Order,” he masterfully diagnoses our situation, turns a critical eye toward secular society and then the church, before landing the plane with a beautiful, yet uncomfortable, answer to the question of Christians in politics.
Here are 11 insights from Reinhold Neibuhr on the question of how Christians should respond to politics.
11. Don’t blame those “godless” people for all our problems. That’s too easy.
“The natural inclination of the convinced Christian, when viewing the tragic realities of our contemporary world, is to bear witness to the truth in Christ against the secular substitutes for the Christian faith which failed to anticipate, and which may have helped to create, the tragic world in which we now live.”
Neibuhr starts by saying that it’s just too easy to blame the “secular substitutes,” like many of the ideologies prevalent in Neibuhr’s day and the idolatries present in our own, for our current political mess. He starts at a better position: have we brought “the word of God to bear upon the secular roots of our present predicament?” Rather than simply blaming, have we actually done the hard work of thinking through how Christian faith challenges the broader secular culture that we live in?
10. The real problem is that our culture thinks “sin” is an outdated notion.
“The liberal part of our culture thought that the Christian idea of the sinfulness of all men was outmoded. In its place it put the idea of a harmless egotism, rendered innocuous by a prudent self-interest or by a balance of all social forces which would transmute the selfishness of all into a higher social harmony.”
First, we traded the idea of sin for mere selfishness, which we thought was more of an inconvenience than a fundamental human condition. Others thought that we could overlook sin and simply call people to be socially conscious and virtuous through their own good will. The problem: our will actually is the problem.
Niebuhr doesn’t hold much hope that capitalism can save us, but he doesn’t think much of Marxism, either. Marxists believed “in the revolutionary destruction of property” and promised “redemption through the death of an old order and the rise of a new one.” But this idea was not the promise of life through death in the Christian gospel; it was the promise of “new life for us through the death of our foes.” Sound familiar?
Secular visions of the fall have fallen short, and so have secular versions of redemption. Both are rampant in politics today.
9. Both Right and Left have grains of truth, yet when they are the only frame of reference for our politics, they plunge us into a never-ending battle that cannot be won.
“Perhaps it is because there is a little truth and so much error in both secular alternatives to the Christian faith that they have involved the world in such a hopeless civil war in which each side had enough truth to preserve its sense of high mission and enough error to frighten the other side with the possible consequences of its victory.”
One side, represented by a totally unregulated capitalism, minimizes the state in hopes that the free market will save us, only to find grueling injustices spread throughout our country; the other side, exemplified by a totally planned economy (such as in Marxism), minimizes individual liberty and the free market with the hope that the right technological or policy solution will bring about a just republic. Both contain hints of truth, yet neither system can save us because there are sinful people inside of both systems. So we live in fear that “the other side” will finally take control and we might one day live under “their authority.”
Progressive and conservative visions of political life may be inevitable, but they both incomplete and need a larger frame.
8. But Christians shouldn’t be too quick to throw darts at secular culture: the Church is far too implicated in this current mess to wash our hands of politics.
“Society in both its liberal and Marxist variety came into being partly because of the deep involvement of Christianity in the social sins of our day and in the stubbornness of the social injustices.”
You say Christians in America actually helped to create this mess? How so? Read on…
7. Christians have often “sanctified” the social evils of our day, making them even harder to change.
“There is no social evil, no form of injustice…which has not been sanctified in some way of other by religious sentiment, and thereby rendered more impervious to change.”
How can that be? Wasn’t it Christians who abolished slavery? Yes. But it was others who used Christianity to tighten the stranglehold of slavery. Wasn’t it Christians who led the civil rights movement? Yes again. But it was other Christians who resisted desegregation in the name of “order.”
Christians have been reformers, but if we’re honest, we must recognize that others clung to the unjust, broken status quo to protect themselves and their own interests rather than to seek biblical justice.
6. Other times Christians have declared politics irrelevant to religious life, deepening secular ideologies and helping them to grow.
“A part of the Church, fearing involvement in the ambiguities of politics, has declared the problems of politics to be irrelevant to the Christian life.”
When the Church is “neutral,” it more often than not is “an ally of the established social forces,” like the ones we are so apt to criticize.
If we say that faith has nothing to do with politics or with our culture, how can Christians complain about what’s happening to politics or to our culture?
5. “Just be nice” isn’t very helpful.
“A part of the Church, facing the complexities of the political order, has been content with an insufferable sentimentality…It has insisted that the law of love is a simple possibility when every experience proves that the real problem of our existence lies in the fact that we ought to love each other, but do not.”
Just be nice. Love each other. Do random acts of kindness.
The Church has often succumbed, both in Neibuhr’s day and our own, to a “sentimentality” in our praise songs, our bullet-pointed sermons, and our attitude toward politics that calls people to “be nice” but often overlooks the harsh truth that our wills are depraved. We should be nice, but we can’t; we are in bondage.
And though Neibuhr points the finger at the Church here, I’d also say this is even more prevalent in the slogans, hashtags and bumper-sticker wisdom of our consumeristic, secular society than in churches. In most churches you’ll get hints, at least, of a divine drama that involves good, evil, and the fallenness of our own hearts. You get very few of those hints in the never ending newsfeed of our society today. Many articles or tweets are bubbling with a respectable disdain for “the other side” that just doesn’t get it. Our culture would still have us believe the problem is in others, not me.
Efforts at communal and political reform without acknowledging the devastating sinfulness of humanity will always fall short.
4. Still other parts of the Church have turned faith and politics into a never-ending scheme to legislate righteousness into every part of our society.
“A part of the Church, conscious of these perplexities, has been ready to elaborate detailed schemes of justice and of law for the regulation of the political and social life of mankind, below the level of love and of grace. But it has involved itself in a graceless and inflexible legalism. It does not know that all law can easily be the instrument of sin; that inflexible propositions of justice, particularly in the rapidly shifting circumstances of modern technical development, may hinder rather than help the achievement of true justice.”
Neibuhr says that because this is true, we need to put laws in their place, “recognizing that none of them is sacrosanct as some supposedly Christian or secular system of law has made them.”
Galatians warns that when our freedom devolves into legalism, the law itself becomes a “power and principality” that sets itself up against the ultimate authority of the living Christ. We must not absolutize passing the right laws as the only goal to which Chrisitans in politics are completely committed. Laws are good servants, but bad masters.
So, what hope does the Gospel offer politics?
3. Christians must first recognize that the promise of new life is both for individuals as well as nations, and that if sin affects systems, so can grace.
“Positively our task is to present the Gospel of redemption in Christ to nations as well as individuals…It is possible to live truly if we die to self, if the vainglory of man is broken by divine judgement that life may be truly reformed by divine grace. This promise of new life is for individuals; yet who can deny its relevance for nations and empires, for civilizations and cultures?”
Without faith there is only sorrow. Without faith, says Neibuhr, there is only despair and meaninglessness and confusion. Yet with faith, grace makes possible both a new life individually, but also collectively—but only after we acknowledge our individual and collective sinfulness We are all subject to judgment, but, as James says, “mercy triumphs over judgment.”
The biblical notion of shalom – commonly translated as peace – carries broad connotations of inner peace, peace with God, and peace between others, even in the complex relations of nations, states, classes and culture.
Christians cannot be so pessimistic about politics that we block the flow of divine grace through us as his Body into the cities, states, and nations that we call home.
2. A faithful Christian engagement of politics cuts against both parties and our personal interests in a way that is often offensive because God’s kingdom is the aim, not this present political order or our personal comfort.
“Must we not warn powerful and secure nations and classes that they have an idolatrous idea of their own importance…and must we not remind those who are weak and defrauded and despised that God will avenge the cruelties from which they suffer but will also not bear the cruel resentment which corrupts their hearts?”
“Must we we not say to the rich and secure classes of society that their vaunted devotion to the laws and structures of society which guarantee their privileges is tainted with self-interest; and must we not say to the poor that their dream of a propertyless society of perfect justice turns into a nightmare of new injustice because it is based only upon the recognition of the sin which the other commits and knows nothing of the sin which the poor man commits when he is no longer poor but has become the commissar?”
How these two statements from Neibuhr offend us!
When the gospel confronts our political life, we all have reason to be uncomfortable because it confronts us. How easy is it to criticize and condemn the other party and wish for real reform, and not recognize that if we were the ones in power, the world may indeed be worse off than it is now!
We err when we too closely align with one ideology, and we also err when we too closely identify our personal identity with a political party. The Christian is forever a citizen of another heavenly country, and this gives her the freedom to look squarely at injustices in the world that mirror the injustices within.
Humility is the key.
So what is left? Is there anything that can be done?
1. Christians must make their peace with “proximate justice” and do our small part in taking the next step toward the health of our communities through our vocations and through the political process.
“There is the promise of a new life for men and nations in the Gospel; but there is no guarantee of historic success. There is no way of transmuting the Christian Gospel into a system of historical optimism. The final victory over man’s disorder is God’s not ours; but we do have responsibility for proximate victories. Christian life without a high sense of responsibility for the health of our communities, our nations and our cultures degenerates into an intolerable other-worldliness….Only a small leaven is needed, only a little center of health can become the convalescence for a whole community. That fact measures the awful responsibility of the people of God in the world’s cities of destruction.”
In short: the way forward is clouded, difficult, and riddled with potholes. And our hope is ultimately not in this world, but in the next. And yet, because of the love of neighbor and the call of God to be His Body in the world, we must do what we can. We must take small steps in the right direction and do what we can to bring healing to our communities and our countries.
It would be nice if we could say that God condemned the world and washed his hands of it all, but instead, we must listen once again to the apostle who wrote, “For God so loved the world that he gave…”
Blue-collar labor often goes unappreciated and under-rewarded. How can that change?
When I was growing up, the best TV shows all featured blue-collar characters. Cheers, The Simpsons, Love and Marriage, The Wonder Years—each centered on the lives of loveable laborers. Cliff from Cheerswas a postman, Homer Simpson pulled levers in a nuclear power plant, and even the disgruntled Al Bundy sold women’s shoes. One episode of The Wonder Yearsfeatured Kevin learning about his dad’s career path from a loading dock worker to a distribution manager. “You have to make your choices,” Mr. Arnold told his son. “You have to try to be happy with them. I think we’ve done pretty well, don’t you?”
What a difference two decades makes. Since 1992, nearly every Emmy for Outstanding Comedy has gone to shows depicting white-collar adults working in Los Angeles, Seattle, Boston, New York, or Washington, usually without kids. The exception would be The Office, but its humor is based on the idea that selling paper is an utterly miserable and meaningless job. In the NBC drama This Is Us, the story of a construction worker is told in a flashback to the 1970s and 1980s, as if Hollywood believes manual-labor jobs only existed three decades ago.
Not only has the working class gone underappreciated in modern America, but over the past 50 years, lower-wage workers have seen their lives get progressively harder. Oren Cass’s The Once and Future Worker: A Vision for the Renewal of Work in America sheds light on the plight of the working class, arguing that the distress that millions of workers feel today owes largely to federal policies that were supposed to help them.
In the past generation, the central focus of policymakers has been the growth of the economy, as measured by Gross Domestic Product (a monetary measure of all goods and services produced in a time period) and rising rates of consumption. And it’s worked. From 1975 to 2015, America’s GDP has tripled, and consumption has ballooned.
The problem is that this period of economic growth has coincided with rising rates of suicide, drug abuse, and social isolation. The nation’s suicide rate climbed 24 percent from 1999 to 2014, deaths from overdoses have risen every year since 2000, and loneliness has now become an “epidemic,” for everyone from older adults to Gen Z.
Though the economy has grown, the standard of living afforded to low-skilled work has declined—and so has our collective appreciation of the work done by millions of lower-wage workers.
The critical issue, says Cass, a policy expert affiliated with the right-leaning Manhattan Institute, is that we’ve prized consumption over production. We’ve built a larger “economic pie” and attempted to redistribute its benefits to those left out rather than build a labor market that allows the majority of workers to support strong families and communities.
Cass’s central idea is that “a labor market in which workers can support strong families and communities is the central determinant of long-term prosperity and should be the central focus of public policy.” Cass calls his big idea productive pluralism, the idea that “productive pursuits—whether in the market, the community, or the family—give people purpose, enable meaningful and fulfilling lives, and provide the basis for strong families and communities that foster economic success too.”
Against those who dream of a post-work future filled with robots and artificial intelligence—underwritten by a universal basic income to cushion the impact of surging unemployment—Cass affirms both that the “role of the worker in society is fundamental” and that “it is within our power to ensure its vitality.”
In The Once and Future Worker, Cass turns high ideals into concrete proposals to actually heal the fractures splintering the American workforce.
The most compelling is the “wage subsidy.” Rather than luring large corporations to town with big tax breaks (like the Amazon HQ2 hysteria of 2017) or levying payroll taxes on low-income workers and then redistributing the money through entitlements, why not “pay for jobs” directly? What if a worker saw a “Federal Work Bonus” on her next paycheck, adding three extra dollars for every hour she had worked?
Cass also advocates building an educational system better suited to the four-fifths of students who do not complete the high-school-to-college-to-career path. Around two-thirds of Americans don’t have a four-year college degree. To better ensure that more of them can get good jobs and contribute to their communities, Cass proposes reinvesting in vocational training and shifting toward a more “tracked” form of schooling—similar to systems found in Europe—where students are grouped according to educational ability rather than lumped together in the same classroom.
Yet there’s one area that government policy can’t do much about: our cultural views about the value of lower-wage workers.
“Waiters, truck drivers, retail clerks, plumbers, secretaries, and others all spend their days helping the people around them and fulfilling roles crucial to the community,” writes Cass. “They do hard, unglamorous work for limited pay to support themselves and their families.” Why shouldn’t we admire those who do harder jobs for lower wages on a broad scale? We’re capable of doing this with police officers, teachers, and firefighters. Why shouldn’t the work done by trash collectors, housekeepers, and janitors deserve the same degree of respect?
For that, we need not just policy reform but a different story about work altogether.
It’s not every day that I pick up a book on the finer points of public policy—or review one for a Christian publication—but pausing to consider the markets, systems, and other largely invisible entities that shape our working lives is well worth the effort. It’s like pulling back the curtain on our workplaces and industries—and the perceived worth we bring to our communities.
Cass is the unusual conservative voice willing to cut both ways. He pushes back on both the left’s commitment to government spending and the right’s unwavering faith in economic growth. And he moves even heady policy discussions down to a level I understand: The goal is to create the conditions for people to have good jobs, raise healthy families, and contribute to their communities. As a Christian, there’s clearly much that resonates here.
Yet I also wanted to hear more about the moral, emotional, and spiritual elements that make for both healthy laborers and healthy labor markets. Tim Carney’s Alienated America makes the case—from sociology, political science, and research, not theology—that local churches are the critical element in the renewal of America. If churches account for 50 percent of American civic life, as Robert Putnam famously pointed out in Bowling Alone, do they not also have a central role in reviving the fortunes of American workers, many of whom experience the pangs of meaninglessness and loneliness?
In a time when economic divides mask the growing dignity divide between professionals and the working class, between prestigious high-wage jobs and unspectacular low-wage jobs, the church can and must play a central role in reviving a vision for work.
The Shaker spiritual “Simple Gifts” reminds us of Protestant traditions that deeply value work, even “undignified” work. “‘Tis the gift to be simple, ‘tis the gift to be free, ‘tis the gift to come down where we ought to be. … When true simplicity is gained, to bow and to bend we shan’t be ashamed.” Turning the other cheek, doing hard and dirty work, and being overlooked by the world—these are familiar notions to those of us who worship a carpenter and a washer of feet.
Christians should join in Cass’s call to restore the dignity of work in America, rounding out his policy argument with the rich resources of our own tradition. We should also recommit to studying which of our favorite policies—on both ends of the political spectrum—actually do more harm than good.
Most importantly, since policy is downstream from culture, we need to rediscover the habit of being public about our own story for work. And perhaps, like Mr. Arnold in The Wonder Years, we could start around the dinner table by telling our kids what we actually do all day.
The article first appeared in Christianity Today online.
Who doesn’t love a good adventure story? In my opinion, there are few contemporary stories filled with more hope and tragedy than those of Central Americans and Mexicans taking their chances and migrating north to America. I recently published a review of Jacqueline Maria Hagan’s Migration Miracle: Faith, Hope and Meaning on the Undocumented Journey (Harvard Press, 2012, paperback) in The Review of Faith and International Affairs. Here it is:
Suffocating from the sweltering heat, Cecelia, a migrant from Puebla, Mexico, crammed into the back seat of a sealed van. She and a dozen other women and children dared not speak, despite the lack of oxygen, because their coyote insisted immigration officials were close behind. During the seemingly eternal trip across the U.S. Border, in tears Cecelia remembered, “I prayed in silence to God and pleaded with him to let me live.”
Compelled by stories like Cecilia’s, sociologist Jacqueline Maria Hagan tells the harrowing tales of undocumented migrants traveling from Central America and Mexico to the United States in Migration Miracle: Faith, Hope and Meaning on the Undocumented Journey (Harvard University Press, 2008). In contrast to books that explain immigration solely in social or economic terms, Hagan sets out to investigate the central role of religion in migration. From Pentecostal ayunos (fasts) in the Guatemalan highlands to the shrines of Catholics saints checkered along the desert journey, Hagan gives voice to stories of faith among these “desperate and dignified people,” and so attempts to put a human face on the immigration debate.
Hope on the Border
Drawing on interviews with over 300 migrants from Mexico, Guatemala, Honduras and El Salvador, Migration Miracle elucidates the importance of religion from making the decision to migrate through arrival. Margot, an evangelical from Guatemala, fasted and read her Bible for a “sign” from God as she agonized over whether to leave her family. She prayed that if a local coyote (a guide who transports migrants across the border for money) would accept the $1500 payment after she arrived in the U.S., she would accept it as a divine sign. When the coyote agreed, and Margot’s pastor confirmed the sign, she decided to leave. Though sociologists tend to bristle at attributing human behavior to the supernatural, Hagan rightly notes signs are “powerful agents of action” that are “real in their consequences.” Migrants like Margot not only look for divine signs but also pray, fast, consult clergy and even make pledges of reciprocity (called la promesa) to saints in exchange for safe travels. The study found that 9 out 10 migrants sought spiritual guidance from God before making the final decision to journey north.
To ward off danger, many migrants turn to shrines and images, such as Guatemala’s popular El Cristo Negro (Black Christ) de Esquilipas, a darkened wood image revered for its miraculous powers. Miguel, who left Honduras in 2001, purchased a medallion of El Cristo Negro and promised not to remove it until it fell off his neck. He credits his safe arrival in the U.S. to the image. Nearly 90% of Mexicans self-identify as Catholic, and devotion to saints and icons deeply shapes their migration experience.
Perhaps the keynote of the discordant migrant song is an undying hope. One group of migrants sought a priestly blessing before crossing the U.S.-Mexico border. Apprehended by U.S. Border patrol officials, they were brought back to Mexico. They promptly returned to the priest for another blessing. With a touch of irony, the priest asked “So the blessing didn’t help you that much, did it?” One of the young men responded with genuine devotion: “Father forgive me if I contradict you, but with that blessing we arrived as far as Houston. If we had not had your blessing, who knows how far we might have gone? Probably not even to the border.”
Religion is not only important on a personal level, but institutions also help to pave the migrant trail. Churches, nonprofits and humanitarian organizations form a transnational network of advocacy and aid. Among the most notable are the Scalabrianian Missionaries, a Roman Catholic order of priests and nuns whose primary mission is to provide pastoral care to migrants and refugees. Their international network bandages wounds, provides water and food, and gives spiritual guidance to thousands – their Casa del Migrante in Tapachula, Mexico sees as many as 500 migrants a day. The Scalabrianian missionaries stand squarely in the camp of Catholic social theology which practices a theology of solidarity, advocacy and hospitality, defending migration as a fundamental human right for those those who cannot find employment in their own countries to support their families.
Even smaller Protestant organizations contribute to the international aid network. Humane Borders, Inc., has placed dozens of water tanks in the arid Arizona desert for migrants on foot suffering from dehydration. Father Bob Carney, founder of the interfaith organization Healing Our Borders, commented, “The gospel demands that we act…We must respond to what we are witnessing along the border. If not, one day our Savior will ask why we didn’t do anything in the face of death.” Many Protestant and Catholic leaders view the vulnerable migrant as a stranger they are commanded to serve as if he was Christ himself (Matthew 25:44; cf. Luke 25:15-16).
A Humane Sociology
Jacqueline Maria Hagan’s panoply of first-hand testimonies successfully brings a human face to immigration. One mother prayed for her child’s forgiveness for leaving without first waking him to say good-bye. Another migrant remembered the soul-convulsing guilt of leaving a teenage girl behind because she could not keep up with the group. The stories are heart-wrenching. Even the surprising anecdotes of hope—like the virtuous coyote who took his human cargo to an Arizona emergency room to be treated for dehydration—have a way of humanizing an otherwise political issue. It is difficult to read this book and remain detached from the harsh realities of immigration.
Yet the book also succeeds sociologically; her depiction of migrant religious practice is both fascinating if not bizarre. For example, legend has it that Juan Castillo Morales, a private in the Mexican army wrongly accused of murder, was told he would be freed if he could run across a marked line. Although he was killed by his commanding officer, he came to represent immigrants crossing the U.S.-Mexico border, seen by outsiders as a criminal, but by the faithful as a saint. Today Juan Soldado (as he’s known) is revered in Tijuana among migrants. As such, travelers stock up on Juan Soldado trinkets, beseeching his favor before crossing over to California. Similarly, thousands flock to the shrine of St. Toribio in Jalisco, Mexico each year. Known as the “coyote saint,” St. Toribio is worshiped for the reported miracles he has granted to migrants in peril. Hagan’s religious survey manages to strike a balance between compassion for migrants and objective sociological research – it’s no wonder Migration Miracle won a prestigious award in 2010 from the American Sociological Association for distinguished research.
Some may criticize Hagan for not offering policy solutions to the perplexing debates surrounding immigration reform (many of which were discussed in the Spring 2011 Issue of The Review of Faith and International Affairs). Issues like security, the American labor force, and social integration won’t be resolved by this book. But that wasn’t her purpose. Migration Miracle delivers readers a vision of both human suffering and dignity by not so much speaking for or against migrants as speaking to them. Their stories of struggle, hardship and faith make readers ask a simple question: “What if I was in their place?” It wasn’t long ago that European migrants to the U.S. (my ancestors included) were telling similar tales of woe and hope.
Recently a young Mexican man was apprehended by INS in southern Arizona. After being kicked by border patrol agents and attacked by dogs, the crouching migrant was turned over and revealed a Bible pressed desperately to his chest. After seeing the faith of these travelers, perhaps those who set immigration policy, like the border patrol agent, might consider calling off the dogs.
This is an Author’s Original Manuscript of an article submitted for consideration in the The Review of Faith and International Affairs [copyright Institute for Global Engagement]; The Review of Faith and International Affairs is available online at http://www.tandfonline.com/eprint/XnwEFgYNhsDjb4W73WrH/
Occasionally I’ll post on this blog an article I really like. And I really like this one by Dr. Jonathan Chaplin, who’s on the divinity faculty at Cambridge University. It’s about an unpopular topic that should be popular: the importance of institutions. One of my convictions at the founding of DIFW was that in order to change the conversation about faith and public life in Denver, we needed not just an event or a “network” – we needed an institution that can last for years, decades…generations. And that meant doing things like admin work, building a board, building long-term relationships, writing emails, and zillions of other unsexy tasks.
Happy reading – and I hope you’ll commit yourself to building strong, healthy institutions as well.
Postmodern Christians won’t get very far in transforming society until they learn to love institutions again.
Institutions and organizations are out; networks and relationships are in—or so goes conventional “postmodern” wisdom on how to transform society, at least among those who hold out hope that societal transformation is still possible, who resist the despair implied in a consistent logic of deconstruction.
Yet I want to propose that a credible twenty-first century Christian voice on the theme of economy and hope needs to affirm loving institutions as key building blocks in any constructive response to our current economic and political malaise. To complicate this thesis, I also propose that Christians need to reckon with the fact that all institutions are in some sense faith-based, and that Christians should be unapologetic both about working to shape existing institutions from within according to their own vision of hope or, where necessary, founding their own institutions.
The current narrative favoured by many Christian progressives isn’t very congenial toward these proposals. Institutions, so the story goes, are the classic instruments of social control generated by “modernity.” Shaped according to the imperatives of instrumental rationality and bureaucratic efficiency, they serve the interests of oppressive global capital—entrenching economic inequality, stifling human creativity, and suppressing dissent. They march toward their hegemonic goals regardless of the welfare of the people they purportedly exist to serve—those whom they promised to liberate from the supposed bondage, ignorance, and squalor of preindustrial society.
But many critics now observe that modernity and its leading institutional bridgeheads are beginning to teeter. They point to deep fault lines appearing on the smooth surface of institutional bureaucracies and to new social formations emerging in the wings. To many people, the cumulative and interconnected failures of modernity—economic, political, environmental, and spiritual—seem to herald the decline of institutions and the arrival of new models of social interaction rooted in open, dynamic relational networks. These networks, it is said, are flexible enough to adapt to ever-changing contexts, and spacious enough to allow human beings to continually redefine their identities and projects and to realize greater freedom and authenticity.
Read the rest of the article at Comment Magazine.
How do we restore civility to American public life? This will be the topic of conversation on October 13 at a lunch in Denver “Civility: Becoming People of Peace in an Age of Deep Division.” This book review, originally published on The Gospel Coalition, evaluates religion scholar Stephen Prothero’s attempt to bring civil discourse back to a raucous political culture in Washington DC by looking back at her most sacred, formative texts: what he calls, “The American Bible.”
America is not just a country; it’s a religion. The faithful sing her praises at baseball games, pay homage to her heroes in Washington, D.C., and recite her pledge of loyalty in schools. They remember the tale of her exodus from England, and fancy themselves as a chosen people. They chide themselves for the original sin of slavery, and praise redeemers like Abraham Lincoln and Martin Luther King Jr. who shed their blood in atonement for the sins of a nation. They spread the gospel of freedom, equality, and democracy, and when doubts arise, they return to America’s most hallowed center to define themselves: their holy scriptures.
Stephen Prothero, professor of religion at Boston University, has done us the favor of compiling these “holy scriptures” of American public life in his latest book, The American Bible: How Our Words Unite, Divide, and Define a Nation. This book is not a translation of the Bible, nor is it even about American religion per se. It is an anthology of classic American texts—legal documents, songs, books, speeches, and letters—that form what Prothero calls “The American Bible.” From the Constitution and “The Star-Spangled Banner” to Atlas Shrugged and The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, Prothero aims to assemble America’s “canonical works” in order to bring civil conversation back into a Washington characterized by caustic partisan bickering. But as one of America’s leading religion scholars, Prothero has given us much deeper insights than mere political wisdom. In unveiling America’s sacred texts, Prothero sheds light on an uncomfortable truth: America has indeed become a religion.
The American Conversation
A thick volume, as if designed to resemble a family King James Bible, The American Bible gathers the near mythic voices of American history. Thomas Paine’s Common Sense incites a revolution, George Washington’s Farewell Address warns of divisive party politics, and Abraham Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address defines America as a nation “dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal.” Dissenting voices like Henry David Thoreau’s “Civil Disobedience,” Chief Joseph’s declaration “I will fight no more forever,” and Malcom X’s The Autobiography of Malcom X all find a place in America’s holy writ. From Irving Berlin’s “God Bless America” to Thomas Jefferson’s “wall of separation between church and state,” The American Bible is a one-volume cornucopia of America’s most hallowed and fiercely debated texts.
Following the pattern of an “American canon,” the book’s table of contents employs themes from the real Bible to organize its ideas. “Genesis” includes texts on America’s founding period, “Chronicles” includes excerpts from classic American novels (Uncle Tom’s Cabin triumphs as most influential), and “Gospels” includes classic speeches from Jefferson, Franklin Delano Roosevelt, and Ronald Reagan. Prothero gives each entry in The American Bible a three-part structure: an introduction written by himself, the primary source text, and an extended commentary of disagreeing voices through the decades, forming a kind of “American Talmud” that embraces spirited disputation in much the same way Jewish rabbis debate the Torah.
For Prothero, the heart of America is not a common creed, but a common conversation. He writes, “The United States is not held together by a common creed. . . . What brings us together is practice—the practice of listening to and arguing about voices from our shared past.” The key to fixing our “obviously dysfunctional” Congress and our common life that has “devolved into a shouting match” lies not so much in finding agreement as in learning how to argue with civility for America, not just for your own party. A return to the sources of American life—figures Jefferson, Lincoln, and King—provides the foundation of American identity, even without coming to an agreement on their meaning. For Prothero, to criticize your country is not to opt out of the American experiment, but to opt in. And in this debate he hopes to unify a creedless people around the Great Conversation of what it means to be an American.
The Good, the Bad, and the Haunting
It’s not difficult to find things to praise about The American Bible. It is a treasure trove for understanding American culture. Far too many Christians try to understand culture by analyzing the latest social media trend or MTV top ten list, forgetting all the while the truly distinct features of American life. If an alien landed in modern America and wanted to know its essential features, Facebook may not help much, but The American Bible would. Benjamin Franklin and Patrick Henry shape the American ethos more than Lady Gaga or Mark Zuckerberg ever will.
Moreover, Prothero’s book offers a clear, even-handed treatment of enduring political debates. His assembled “rabbinic” commentary draws from both the right and the left, giving credence to his aim of bringing civility back to fiery contemporary debates. Written in crisp and concise prose, Prothero also has a knack for selecting only the best sources and making complex issues understandable for the average reader.
However, Prothero’s main thesis that America isn’t defined by creed but by common debate doesn’t hold up under scrutiny. He declares:
It is not un-American to criticize any book in the American Bible. Look Lincoln in the eye and tell him you don’t give a hoot about equality. . . . More power to you. . . . No idea is dogma. But as you criticize Lincoln or King or Bush or Obama, know what you are doing. You are not opting out of America; you are opting in. . . . [Americans] come together to argue. This is our shared practice (489).
For Prothero, the only bond of unity for Americans is the argument itself. But if there is no American creed—even something as broad as “freedom, justice, and equality,” however they’re defined—then why are we arguing at all? Is there no hope for ever arriving at truth? It’s problematic to write a book with the aim of restoring civility to American politics and yet claim that arguing is our most central feature. To declare that there are no American dogmas or doctrines is to disagree with most authors of The American Bible who, judging by their colorful use of language, certainly believed they had arrived at the truth. Taken to its logical extreme, Prothero’s thesis leaves us not with thundering King, brilliant Jefferson, or determined Washington, but the wet noodles of postmodern uncertainty.
But his thesis isn’t what caused me to shudder; it was his metaphors. For example, Lincoln, Jefferson, and Washington form the “American trinity.” Slavery is the great “original sin,” the Gettysburg Address our American “Sermon on the Mount,” and Noah Webster’s Blue-Back Speller a sort of “federal catechism” for colonial America. Whether portraying Woodie Guthrie’s “This Land Is Your Land” as a national psalm or blatantly tagging classic American texts as national scripture, the reader is forced to honestly ask, “To what degree does America function like a religion?”
Although nationalism is nothing new, the idea of “American civil religion” is relatively recent, introduced during the 1960s by sociologist Robert Bellah. American civil religion is generally thought to be a distinctive faith, complete with myths of origin (the Revolution, the Boston Tea Party), a pantheon of saints and martyrs (the Founding Fathers, the fallen Lincoln), a liturgical calendar (the Fourth of July, Memorial Day), and an all-embracing worldview. Prothero’s American Bible falls squarely in this camp. Though he certainly wouldn’t claim this as his own worldview—he’s far to “objective” for that—he makes the case that the real Bible “stands alongside other texts that Americans have long been held as sacred.” Borrowing Christian language for American ideas is not just metaphor for Prothero; it’s an allusion to the nation-state’s ultimate supremacy in all matters of faith and practice.
It’s debatable how widespread American civil religion really is. The line between admiration of national heroes and hero-worship can be blurry. But at bare minimum, ministers must honestly ask, “When does the flag displace the cross on the altar of American Christianity?”
A Better Country
The American story is a good one. For centuries immigrants have flocked to America for liberty, justice, and opportunity. And it’s worth reading the foundational ideas behind the American experiment, even if it means buying a lengthy (and rather heavy) anthology.
But the mystique of America is no match for the eternal kingdom of God, a heavenly country God’s people have desired for centuries (Heb. 11:16). When America tries to make itself the gospel, the great story to which all other worldviews and religions must bow, pastors have the distinct privilege of reminding us that the United States will eventually pass away, but Christ will reign forever and ever (Isa. 9:6).
Photo credit: Capitol
Tickets are available for the luncheon on civility on October 13 by visiting the event website.
“Against stupidity we are defenseless.” German pastor and martyr Dietrich Bonhoeffer could have written this about the 2016 GOP election race.
I’m like most Americans. Religious, white, middle class, and ticked off.
But far from supporting either Trump or Bernie Sanders, after months of feeling outrage and then disbelief, my anger at the American political machine has subsided, and now I find myself looking for hope far outside of Washington—and much closer to home.
Here’s what I mean: the past six months of political campaigning have given me emotional heartburn. The unpleasant reflux came in three phases.
The first emotion was shock. When Trump calls Mexicans who cross the border rapists, enthusiastically endorses torture, hints that Supreme Court justice Antonin Scalia was assassinated, and advocates the killing of terrorist’s families, my blood boils. How could Americans be voting for this man to lead the party of Abraham Lincoln? And how could 37 % of evangelicals support him? What on earth is going on here?
Second, moral outrage gave way to disbelief. Twitter battles about Melania Trump and Heidi Cruz grab headlines, Ted Cruz threatens to “make the sand glow” by flattening the Syrian city of Raqqa (innocent families and all), and Ben Carson’s friend supposedly gets a divine vision telling him to endorse Trump. And he does it.
We have entered the Twilight Zone.
Bonhoeffer saw the same inexplicable stupidity overtake so many of his countrymen during Christmas of 1942: “In conversation with him [the stupid person], one virtually feels that one is dealing not all with him as person, but with slogans, catchwords, and the like that have taken possession of him.”
Make America great again. Feel the Bern.
Finally, disbelief gave birth to apathy. The world is going to pot (quite literally here in Colorado), and what can I do about it? News pours into my iPhone, and I’m no longer surprised at anything. Nor do I feel responsible.
And this creeping cynicism is what turned my heartburn into shame. Czech playwright, philosopher and former president Václav Havel (pictured above) once said:
“Whenever I have encountered any kind of deep problem with civilization anywhere in the world — be it the logging of rain forests, ethnic or religious intolerance or the brutal destruction of a cultural landscape that has taken centuries to develop — somewhere at the end of a long chain of events that gave rise to the problem at issue I have always found one and the same cause: a lack of accountability to and responsibility for the world.”
After reading this, I thought, Maybe the problem isn’t our dysfunctional political system. Maybe it’s us.
Working for Good
Several months ago, Pastor Greg Thompson of Trinity Presbyterian Church in Charlottesville, Virginia spoke to a small group of leaders in Denver. Speaking at the Taxi Development in the RiNo (River North) district, which overlooks the Mile High city, he said, “Politics does not in fact create culture change, but actually expresses a larger cultural system of which it is a part.”
For Thompson, a civil rights scholar and social theorist, culture isn’t created by government officials. Instead, it flows from “the public,” or a network of institutions in fields like economics, energy, art, medicine, religion and education that form a “social ecology.”
Culture, in other words, is formed by our work.
When I heard this, I felt a release of tension from my neck. So many Americans believe the next president will either save us or doom us. But neither is the case. Politics is downstream from culture. In reality, we create culture everyday.
As much as I respect Franklin Graham, this is why his nationwide tour to “Pray. Vote. Engage.” feels like an empty drum of water. Rod Dreher, columnist at The American Conservative is right: “Voting Republican, and expecting judges to save us, is over. It’s all about culture now.”
And culture change starts when we pull into the office.
For example, Karla Nugent, the Chief Business Development Officer at Weifield Group Electrical Contracting, created an apprentice program that hires would-be electricians from Denver Rescue Mission, the Stout Street Foundation, and other programs for men coming from addiction, incarceration or homelessness.
It’s one thing to gripe about jobs and the economy, as so many Americans do. It’s yet another to take responsibility for the issue and create career-track jobs for the American underclass struggling to keep pace, as did Nugent.
For thousands of Christians, work is the best avenue to obey Jesus’ teaching to “love your neighbor as yourself” and take responsibility for the direction of society.
Robin John, for example, CEO of Omaha-based Eventide Funds, a mutual fund, expresses his faith by only investing in businesses that create genuine value for communities, especially customers and employees. He believes an ethics-based approach is more socially responsible and also more profitable.
Similarly, Josh Mabe, owner of Twenty1Five, a reclaimed wood furniture business, believes he can reflect Jesus own vision of cosmic renewal (Rev. 21:5) through crafting artistic tables and chairs. Mabe says, “The ugly wood I use is a metaphor for our lives. Most of this stuff,” pointing to a knotted board, “is beat up, discarded lumber. But if you see beyond some of those scars, you can make something really beautiful out of it.”
Work isn’t only a paycheck for Mabe. It can also be an act of beauty.
I’m often tempted to fall prey to cynicism when I see the cycle of anger and disillusionment with presidential candidates turn into a blazing cannonball of destructive rhetoric. But people like Nugent, John, and Mabe give me hope.
And hope starts with seeing Monday morning with new eyes.
A Hopeful Exile
Whatever might happen at the Republican convention in July, three things look likely:
1. The exile from the Republican party, especially among millenials, will continue. Today half of all millennials are politically unaffiliated. Blame Trump, Cruz, or Fox News, millions of us now largely share the sentiment of evangelical writer Trevin Wax, “I don’t feel at home in the Republican Party anymore.”
2. New methods of Christian public engagement will continue to surface. From Rod Dreher’s “Benedict Option” to sociologist James Davison Hunter’s paradigm of “faithful presence,” in post-Christian America, more believers will continue to experiment with new ways to live out their faith in public.
3. We’ll still have to go to work. And when 148 million working adults in America arrive at offices, clinics, schools, stores, and construction sites, they’ll have to make decisions about what is good, true and beautiful. And in so doing, they’ll shape American culture, for better or worse.
I’m not saying that voting doesn’t matter. It matters deeply. But the best way to affect cultural change is through our daily work, not voting.
In an election year like this, it’s tempting to imitate Pontius Pilate, wash our hands of a messy world, and ask, “What stupidity must I endure next?”
But that’s the wrong question.
“The ultimately responsible question,” says Bonhoeffer, “is not how I extricate myself from a situation but how a coming generation is to go on living.”
Tim Keller once said we’re now living in the autumn of Christianity’s influence in the West: the leaves are falling to the ground and winter is approaching.
For many of us, the cold wind that reminds of us the coming winter storm is the loss of religious freedom so many evangelicals see in American life today.
A Christian student group at Vanderbilt University loses official school recognition; Chick-Fil-A gets grilled by the Denver City Council for trying to move into theDenver International Airport; in California an Intervarsity Christian Fellowship is forced to elect non-Christian leaders.
Many evangelicals feel like a cat backed into a corner. A combination of fear and outbursts of rage (usually on our Twitter feeds and Facebook pages) often define our response.
Times have changed. Christians committed to the public implications of their faith are now a minority in American life.
Today many Christians are frantically searching to find a way to live in American society without cultural power.
New options are being proposed.
For example, Rod Dreher, the conservative editorial writer, has suggested the “Benedict Option. Keep the flame of faith alive in private communities as the larger culture deteriorates. Though I’m not sure Benedict — who believed his monastic communities were essentially a missionary endeavor — would opt for this route, I’m not sure how this option works with the essential Christian confession, “Jesus is Lord of all.”
In response, Michael Gerson, columnist for the Washington Post, has suggested the “Wilberforce Option,” which advocates for defending human rights in the seats of power. Yet the “Wilberforce Option” assumes Christians actually have power to change laws, which seems to be less true with each passing year — and has been untrue of Christians of ethnic minorities for centuries.
Where in church history should we look for faithful, public responses to persecution, discrimination, and marginalization? I suggest we look to the preeminent expression of public faith in American history: the American Civil Rights Movement. Perhaps moving forward, we should embrace a distinctly American legacy: The MLK Option.
The MLK Option
Instead of a non-stop protest against unfairness or unequal treatment, we’d be wise to embrace Martin Luther King Jr’s model of social change and cultural witness. MLK can help the white church see what has been true for hundreds of years for the black church: the meaning of a faithful public life without cultural power.
Now more than ever the entire American church needs to come and learn at the feet of MLK’s counter-cultural, yet deeply Christian, vision of nonviolent love, even for our enemies.
In an age of caustic political debates and divided communities, Martin Luther King Jr.’s words echo as true today as they did a half century ago: “Along the way of life, someone must have sense enough and morality enough to cut off the chain of hate and evil. The greatest way to do that is love.”
What would the way of love look like for evangelicals in America today? Here are four places we could start:
1. Acknowledge that Christians are a minority in American culture (and this isn’t going to change any time soon).
What does it mean to be a minority people in a majority culture? The black church could be a wise counselor to white churches that are now experiencing this for the first time.
Suffering and lament choruses, like the blues, might need to become just as common as praise and worship songs. Being prepared to respond to discrimination with dignity may be just as important to church discipleship as quarterly marriage seminar. I admit, as a white evangelical myself, I have a lot to learn here.
But it’s important to first recognize that we’re not going to “take America back for God” and become a majority culture any time soon. That ship has sailed. As MLK said in 1956, “We must prepare to live in a new world.”
2. Embrace the central principle of Martin Luther King’s leadership: love your enemies.
After centuries of oppression, public shame, and suffering, it’s incredible that MLK could conjure such character to counsel African Americans “to meet the forces of hate with the power of love…We’ve got to learn not to hit back. We must learn to love the white man.”
This makes me wonder: could Christians be known centrally for their acts of grace in American culture?
To do this would require us to bring gourmet meals to pro-choice co-workers; to pray deeply and honestly for our political leaders of that other political party (whether that be Democrat or Republican); it would mean finding those we despise in our neighborhoods and treating them as if they were Christ himself.
In the famous words of Abraham Lincoln, “Do I not destroy my enemies when I make them my friends?”
“Love your enemies” and “turn the other cheek” is not an impossible ethic. It is a logical plan of action for a persecuted minority.
3. Expect to suffer.
In September 1958, Martin Luther King and his wife Coretta accompanied Ralph Abernathy to the courthouse. Abernathy had been assaulted by police and spent several days in the hospital.
As King began to explain their reason for coming, two officers raced up to King, grabbed him and yelled, “Boy, you done it. Let’s go.” King later recalled, “The police tried to break my arm. They grabbed my collar and tried to choke me…When they got me to the cell, they kicked me in.”
King endured injustice at the hands of those in power in order to awaken the conscience of America. He suffered for his cause. We should be prepared to do the same.
Very few white evangelicals in America have ever experienced this kind of persecution for their faith. But should the day come, and it might, suffering for doing what’s right is perhaps the most powerful act of public witness possible.
“Do not repay evil with evil or insult with insult,” the apostle Peter commands us, “On the contrary, repay evil with blessing, because to this you were called.”
4. Remain resolutely hopeful.
In 1963 Martin Luther King Jr. said, “The forces that threaten to negate life must be challenged by courage…This requires the exercise of a creative will that enables us to hew out a stone of hope from a mountain of despair.”
We need not despair over American culture, nor believe that we will return to a golden age of American Christianity.
We have lost cultural power, but to live in the fullness of Christ requires neither influence nor power. It merely means we are willing to take up our cross and walk in the way of the Suffering Servant.
In the end, the goal for Christians in American culture today is not triumph but love.
“It’s riskier than ever,” Jill said, “to tell people you work with you’re a Christian.”
Jill worked at a public policy communications firm in Denver. Having worked with people of all and no faith for over 7 years, her sentiment about being a Christian in pluralist America was one I hear often. Fear. Isolation. Better to be quiet about my faith, and not risk the professional repercussions.
Clearly, for Christians in America, we’re not in Kansas anymore.
For many evangelicals who sense a deep loss of cultural power over the past decade, a debate has developed about how cultures change. The need to reimagine a Christian cultural presence has become a hot topic – and so have ideas about how cultures emerge and develop.
The debate essentially boils down to two approaches: (1) Top-down elites who are in power shape culture by imposing their perspectives on society. These elites sit in positions of institutional power, sit on one another’s boards, and have disproportionate influence on culture.
The other side argues for a bottom-up approach: (1) Cultures change through grass roots movements. When large numbers of people organize, they’re able to shape the beliefs of society through building a large, powerful platform dispersed over wide ranging networks.
Little known political philosopher J.P. Nettl can shed light on this debate about culture change. He thinks we can learn a lot about effective social movements through observing cave formations.
If you’ve even been spelunking, you’ve seen two type of rock formations: stalactite rock formations come down from the top of the cave. Stalagmite formations, however, come up from the bottom. When stalactite and stalagmite formations meet in the middle they form a single column. J.P. Nettl believes social movements are strongest when both top-down and bottom-up approaches are united.
When I spoke to Michael Lindsay, President of Gordon College, about this phenomenon, he mentioned two examples. First, the International Justice Mission. “Gary Haugen, IJM’s president, speaks at the Davos World Economic Forum,” Lindsay said. “That is literally where the world’s power elite gather.” From, local police to high powered attorneys, Haugen works with high level leaders across the world to bring about justice for the world’s poorest and most vulnerable populations. So, here’s a top down approach.
Yet IJM also has an army of college students who advocate for their work across the US. From Washington D.C. to Los Angeles, they’ve built a grass roots movement that has spread throughout evangelical (and non-evangelical) world. IJM has become a strong social movement because both top-down and bottom-up approaches meet in the middle to form a single column.
Lindsay shared another example: AIDS in Africa. Huge progress has been made over the past two decades on AIDS. AIDS is no longer a death sentence for millions in part because of the wide spread grass roots efforts from NGOs, churches, businesses, and local leaders. But there’s also a story of a key person of influence who changed the course of history: Condoleezza Rice.
When Rice was serving as National Security Advisor to George W. Bush, she was in the room when a crucial decision about PEPFAR (President’s Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief) was made.
A conversation had been going on for about a year that tested the President’s compassionate conservative agenda: would the federal government contribute $15 billion to extend the lives of AIDS patients across Sub-saharan Africa?
The final meeting takes place in the Oval Office with about 15 core advisors. They turn to Rice and essentially ask, “Is this a good use of money?” She tells the story of her mother who battled cancer and survived through 15 critical years of her adolescence and young adulthood. During that time, Rice graduated from high school, graduated from the University of Denver, changed from being a concert pianist to an expert on the Soviet Union, earned a degree from Notre Dame, and became a faculty member at Stanford.
With resolute conviction, Rice said, “It changed my life that my mother was able to be involved in those 15 years. If we can do that for an entire continent, and don’t do it, it’s a moral failure.”
That decision swayed the history of Africa in a major way.
And here’s the point Lindsay was making to me. He said, with equal conviction to that of Rice, “In order for evangelicals to have influence on key decisions that affect millions of people, you have to be in the room. Elite networks matter.”
When we were designing the 5280 Fellowship, this truth was being seared deeply into my mind. Leadership matters – for the well-being of us all. And yet, when we look at the evangelical landscape, we have broad and wide grassroots efforts aimed at serving the common good, from billion dollar nonprofits like World Vision to the 16,000 student strong annual missions conference Urbana. But what evangelicals lack are enough intentional efforts to form men and women for positions of significant leadership in American culture.
James Davison Hunter has made this point resoundingly in his book To Change the World: The Irony, Tragedy, and Possibility of Christianity in the Late Modern World. Evangelicals are almost completely absent – explicitly as people of faith – from leadership roles in culture-shaping institutions like elite private schools, fine art or mainstream media.
In other words, our evangelical cave formations are almost all bottom-up stalagmites.
One of my great hopes for the 5280 Fellowship is that more men and women early in their career will be prepared not just for influence in American society, but for influence in a particularly Christian way.
As Lindsay shared with me, “The reason I care deeply about having more serious Christians in positions of responsibility is because there are very few world views that preach a gospel of self-sacrifice, and none that are built around the very concept of self- sacrifice like the Christian gospel.”
Should we really be encouraging young Christians to pursue positions of institutional power, I finally asked Lindsay?
His response quieted me with a deep peace and hopefulness: “The antidote to the pernicious effects of power is not giving up power. It is using power sacrificially. Why, then, would we not want more people with these values? Why would we not want more people like that setting the example in the upper reaches of society?”
This vision of the 5280 Fellowship is not of an evangelical “transformation” of America, but neither it is being bound to fear for being a Christian in American society today.
This vision is simply this: love God by serving the well-being of all our neighbors — whether Christians or otherwise — through our work.
This is the first of a series of articles about the formation of the 5280 Fellowship, a new nine month program for emerging leaders in the Denver metro area.