Jeff Haanen

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Work

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Faith and Work MovementVocationWork

CityGate: Launching a New Initiative for Leaders

It was 2016. I was two years into launching Denver Institute. One day I woke up and realized a painful truth. I have no idea what I’m doing. 

So, I got on the phone and started calling friends and peers around the US. Geoff Hsu at Flourish San Diego; Lisa Slayton, then at Pittsburgh Leadership Foundation; David Kim at the Center for Faith & Work. I invited about 15 leaders from Atlanta to Toronto for three days in Breckenridge to eat, share, discuss, and learn from each other. I gave a simple name to that first gathering: CityGate. 

At about the same time, we were launching our first class of 5280 Fellows. To be honest, as Jill (Hamilton) Anschutz was designing the website and Brian was designing the curriculum, we had no idea if this would fly either. But behold, at our first retreat we met 27 bright, faithful, engaged emerging leaders working in law, architecture, social entrepreneurships, psychiatry, engineering, and more. 

Each of these two communities was a gift of grace. And now, five years later, they come together. 

Today we announce a new initiative at Denver Institute for Faith & Work. CityGate is a national community of leaders in churches, businesses, and nonprofits committed to learning, investing in relationships, and encouraging human flourishing as we bring the gospel to the city gate of our respective communities. It is also our initiative for recruiting, equipping, and supporting leaders who want to launch a fellowship program in and for their city. 

Why would we do this? I’m glad you asked. Below are some of the top questions we’ve received from donors, friends, Fellows, and peers. 

Why name it CityGate?

In the ancient world, the city gate was the center of city life. It was the place of commerce, public assemblies, judicial activities, sacred ceremonies, and cultural life. Today, in a secular age, faith is often divorced from the core activities — business, government, justice,  education, health care, arts — that make up a city. 

We chose the name CityGate as an expression of our value of bringing the gospel into our work, our shared public life, and our culture. 

Why did you start CityGate?

For years we’ve had inquiries from leaders who wanted to run our Fellows program in their own city. We’ve been building out training programs, curriculum, and administrative infrastructure that would position a leader to effectively launch and operate their own program. We started by testing out the idea in one city. The talented David Bell, leading the Circle City Fellows in Indianapolis, has built a strong program over the last two years. So, with what we’ve learned, we’re ready to take the next step in coming alongside leaders in other cities as well. 

Yet we’ve seen that many cities are not quite ready to launch such a comprehensive program and instead have questions that range from how to build a faith and work organization to what emotionally healthy leadership looks like. So, we decided to reignite the early CityGate community of leaders and invite in more leaders into the conversation for monthly “learning labs,” a place where we hear from leaders about best practices in leadership, formation, all-of-life discipleship, and its application across sectors. 

But really, why did you start CityGate? Thanks for asking. Because we believe in a culture as broken as this, the gospel of Jesus Christ is the first and last answer — for our hearts, our relationships, and our shared civic life. 

What will CityGate do?

In 2021, we’re launching two programs: monthly learning labs and CityGate Fellowships. The learning labs are open to the public and will feature speakers, tools that we use in the fellowship, and the chance to learn from peer leaders in their contexts. 

Also, in 2021 we’ll accept applications for CityGate Fellowships, a program designed specifically for leaders who want to launch their own fellowship program. The training offers not only comprehensive content, systems, and training for your Fellows, it also provides comprehensive training for the leaders from marketing a program to alumni retention Our first training for accepted leaders is September 2021. 

Later in 2021, we’re exploring ways more deeply to serve our monthly donors and generous supporters with curated content, leadership tools, and workshops that strengthen the “gospel-ecosystem” across the US. We’re also exploring ways to partner with and strengthen churches, businesses, and peer nonprofits into 2022 and beyond. 

Why should I join?

Well, I’m glad you asked! 

There is a growing, organic community of people who hunger for leading, working, and creating out of a holistic and coherent life deeply rooted in the gospel. Many have been in this space for years. Others are seeking wisdom, support and guidance for their own calling and leadership. 

We invite you to learn, participate, and join CityGate as a community of peers committed to helping you build, grow, and strengthen your leadership as you take the gospel to your own city gate. All can join the free, monthly learning labs. We also invite you to consider either launching a fellowship program or joining the generous community at the heart of CityGate sharing ideas, prayers, tools, insights, and networks. 

We need to collaborate. We need to learn from each other. And we need to strengthen not just ourselves, but the whole ecosystem if we’re going to start healing our communities with the transformative power of the gospel. 

Five years after our first conversation in Breckenridge, I do have a bit more knowledge about leading at the intersection of faith, work, justice and culture. But I’m still learning…and I look forward to learning alongside you. 

Want to learn more about CityGate? Visit citygate.com and register for the next learning lab.

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CultureTheologyWork

Easter is More than a Metaphor (Op-Ed for the Denver Gazette)

When I think of Easter, I think of the pink crabapple trees blossoming in early April along the north side of Caley Avenue in my home town of Littleton. 

I think of Easter egg hunts on budding green church lawns packed with girls in pastel dresses and boys in clip-on ties, carrying baskets filled with eggs, chocolate, and plastic green grass (that ends up on my carpet). I think of Easter brunch: fruit, egg bakes, and mimosas. And I think of leisurely walks through garden centers, smelling fresh soil, fresh seeds and new beginnings. 

Yet for me at least, the metaphor of Easter as a mere symbol is falling short. This year was simply filled with too much pain. 

This last year, I remember looking into a hazy, yellow sky and feeling the ash fall on my face from raging Colorado wildfires. I remember a friend of mine telling me about the piercing anxiety he felt as he watched from his balcony the dumpster fires move closer to home after the George Floyd protests. I remember walking along Civic Center Park and running my fingers along the splintered plywood now covering the windows of the old Denver Post building on 101 West Colfax. I remember the ghostly feeling of walking through an empty 16th Street Mall on a sunny April afternoon. I remember the tears my daughters cried when I told them their summer swim team, the Franklin Fish, had been canceled.

And this week, I remember the 10 lives lost in the Boulder King Soopers shooting, opening yet again the 20-year-old wound of Columbine that casts a shadow over our “best-state-to-live-in” reputation. 

Springtime sentimentality is no match for the harsh finality of death. 

And yet, Easter is not a metaphor. 

American poet and novelist John Updike once wrote:

Make no mistake: if He rose at all

It was as His body;

If the cells dissolution did not reverse, the molecules

Reknit, the amino acids rekindle

The Church will fall.

In other words, the Christian church and faith rests on a single, historical event: the resurrection of Jesus’ physical body. 

Updike writes, “Let us not mock God with metaphor, analogy, sidestepping transcendence,” alluding to the categorization of Christian faith as myth. The resurrection was not like a spring garden nor a parable of well wishes. Christians assert, “the same valved heart / that – pierced – died, withered, paused, and then / regathered out of enduring Might.” 

The early apostles struggled to believe in an actual, physical resurrection. Thomas famously said, “Unless I see the nail marks in his hands and put my fingers where the nails were, and put my hand into his side, I will not believe.” John the apostle reports Jesus’ reply: “Put your finger here; see my hands. Reach out your hand and put it into my side. Stop doubting and believe.” 

The New Testament authors were making a clear claim: Jesus was no ghost. He could be touched. He ate food with his disciples. He had a body. Here was no ancient mythology of life, death and rebirth. Death itself was being unraveled by the Author of Life. 

Denver can feel like a polarized place, like the rest of our country. Yet on Easter morning, men and women across the city declare a single truth with a rare unity. 

From the Episcopalians at Saint John’s Cathedral to the evangelicals of Fellowship Denver Church; from the multicultural worshippers at Colorado Community Church to the Pentecostals at Potter’s House; from the Anglicans at Wellspring Church in Englewood to the Wesleyans at Trinity Methodist tucked between skyscrapers at 18th and Broadway; from the professionals at Cherry Creek Presbyterian in the Tech Center to the homeless at Denver Rescue Mission to the online worshippers quarantined in their homes from Northglenn to Castle Pines — for one morning, each echo the words of an angel, “Do not be afraid, for I know you are looking for Jesus, who was crucified. He is not here; he has risen, just as he said. Come and see.” 

So what? What does the resurrection mean for a city still aching with emptiness, loss, and pain?

I believe it means three things. First, it means death is not the end. Second, it means that Christ has come not just to give meaning to life after death, but to bring his life to this world. His bodily resurrection is the beginning point of a new way to be human. And third, it means that the hard work ahead of reopening restaurants, helping students catch up, and rebuilding our economy is indeed work worth doing, because God seems to think this world is worth saving (John 3:16). 

Easter may not be a metaphor, but it is a new beginning. It reminds us that today is a time to plant, to hope, and to begin new projects that can bloom, like a budding crabapple blossom lining the streets of a waiting city. 

Jeff Haanen is the founder of Denver Institute for Faith & Work and the 5280 Fellowship, a nine-month experience in spiritual formation, professional development, and civic engagement for emerging leaders in Denver. This op-ed first appeared in the Denver Gazette.

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Work

How Effective is the 5280 Fellowship?

“How do you measure your results?” It’s usually not the first question I receive from a donor interested in our work, but it is the second or third. And it’s not always easy to answer. 

Measuring impact in the nonprofit sector can be tricky business. In the business world, it’s much more straightforward: profitability is still the standard-bearer for an “effective business.” But in the nonprofit sector, especially educational organizations like Denver Institute, our goal is to shape human lives. How would we know if we were effective at a program like, say, the 5280 Fellowship? 

The Process

In early 2020, we recruited two outside researchers — Stephen Assink (MAR) and Andrew Lynn (PhD), both from the University of Virginia — to help us with that question. As trained social scientists with experience doing research for the Institute for Advanced Studies in Culture and the Thriving Cities Group, Stephen and Andrew brought both objectivity and expertise to our question. So, how did we tackle this question of impact?

First, we clarified our outcomes, which are all built around our five guiding principles. What do we mean by “effectiveness”? We mean people who think theologically about their work, embrace redemptive relationships, create good work, seek deep spiritual health, and serve others sacrificially in their communities and city. 

Second, we gave them an overview of the 5280 Fellowship program, and the elements we’ve built into the program to bring about real formation. City leader meetings, cohort discussions, mentoring triads, retreats, Saturday sessions, personal formation projects, professional impact projects — each element is carefully chosen to fuel change around our five guiding principles.

From there, Stephen and Andrew conducted both qualitative (interview) surveys and quantitative (online, multiple choice) surveys of pre-program participants (Year 5), and alumni — both recent graduates (Year 4) and our initial cohort (Year 1). 

Between 65 participants and 4,000 unique data points, what did they find?  

Measurable Results

Today we’re publishing 5280 Fellowship Assessment results, which is the first step in a multi-year study measuring the impact of the 5280 Fellowship. 

Here’s a sample of what we learned:

OutcomeIndicatorBefore After
Vocational MissionI view my work as a mission from God. 50%88%
Redemptive WorkI know how my work makes my city or culture better.71%100%
Spiritual GrowthI do weekly spiritual disciplines beyond Bible study or prayer.36%71%
Work RelationshipsMy spiritual disciplines improve my work habits. 78%95%
Civic EngagementI’m active in a nonprofit or civic organization. 29%50%

In the study, we measured the Fellows’ change in five areas: theology, relationships, views about their work, professional leadership, and civic engagement. 

We found strong growth particularly in three areas: theological thinking about their work and our culture, new and lasting relationships between  Fellows and leaders in our city, and adopting spiritual practices that lead to internal wholeness and health. 

One CEO said about the program, “I can’t stress enough how I’ve seen people’s mentality change as a result of the program.” A seminary lecturer commented about the program, “I think the biggest change for [the Fellows] is a shift from … an instrumental versus intrinsic value of work.” They now ask, “Does my work actually contribute toward the mission of God to reconcile all things to himself?”

Assink and Lynn also measured the 5280 Fellows in comparison with a control group of their evangelical peers across the US and found a marked difference in values and practices, especially with respect to weekly church attendance (49% national average compared to 76% for Fellows), participating in monthly in Bible study or prayer group (28% nationally, 80% Fellows), and pursuing excellence in their work because of their faith (78% nationally, 89% Fellows).

What It Means

Here’s what the report means for us and those we serve:

  1. Leading a Commitment to Measurable Change. Our goal is to lead the way in for similar programs across the nation to both measure their impact and to commit to the rigor of testing their hypotheses. Looking to larger studies like D. Michael Lindsay’s study on the White House Fellowship, we believe that early-career fellowship programs can and should be measured — and are critical in an emerging leader’s life. DIFW is a standard-bearer here for other faith-motivated and secular programs. 
  1. We Can Still Improve. The value of outside researchers is that they’re not there just to tell you how great you are. They found areas where we see less growth in our Fellows to date: growth in professional leadership and commitment to civic engagement and community involvement. As we plan and prepare to train leaders in other cities to launch their programs through CityGate, we are seeking to invest in improved processes, curriculum, and training that helps our Fellows truly live “from the inside out” and make a measurable impact on their workplaces, industries, and cities. We also need to do more study over time to see stronger correlations between the program and Fellows’ lives, careers, and civic impact. 
  1. It Works. The 5280 Fellowship — and the forthcoming CityGate Fellowships — really are effective. The educational model is a unique blend of spiritual formation, professional development, theological learning, network-building, leadership growth, and community engagement. Research has found that one’s twenties are an even more important time for career and leadership formation than college or even childhood. The 5280 Fellowship is blazing new ground in shaping men and women to love God, serve their neighbors, and demonstrate the gospel to an unbelieving world

For more information about becoming a Fellow, visit 5280Fellows.com. For information about how to financially support either the 5280 Fellowship or the CityGate initiative, please email [email protected]

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Work

Responding to the Changing World of Work (Part 2)

“God is our refuge and strength, an ever-present help in trouble,” writes the author of Psalm 46. “Therefore, we will not fear, though the earth gives way and the mountains fall into the heart of the sea, though its waters roar and foam and the mountains quake with their surging…. Nations are in uproar, kingdoms fall; he lifts his voice, the earth melts…. The Lord Almighty is with us; the God of Jacob is our fortress.”

The changes to the world of work since the pandemic began feel like this psalm: waters roar, mountains quake, nations are in uproar, and my daily work rhythms just got blown up.  

Yet in this cultural context of change, Christians bring a unique perspective: the unchanging reality of God. If you’re a secular person, focused just on the individual and your ability to control your own destiny, the storyline is actually chaos. Each day is a grasping attempt to bring security and stability in a world being tossed by the fierce winds of an economic, social, and cultural storm.

In contrast, the Christian can breathe. “The Lord Almighty is with us; the God of Jacob is our fortress.”

She believes Jesus is the same yesterday, today, and forever (Hebrews 13:8). God is a rock and a fortress, an anchor that allows for stability, resolve, and peace even amidst turmoil (Psalm 18:2, Hebrews 6:19). It’s this foundation that both brings down the decibel level around current debates and allows people of faith to be reformers as citizens of another kingdom.

Following up on my first article, here I will suggest three macro changes to our world as a result of the pandemic, as well as how Christians might understand those changes and what practices we might consider in light of those truths.

Systemic Change #1: The tech sector will continue its pervasive growth into the economy.

Eventually we will go back to in-person gatherings and offices, but digital connectivity is speeding up. The world’s most powerful companies (Apple, Amazon, Microsoft, Facebook, and Google) are all in the tech sector and during the pandemic, each saw record stock prices. Zoom (and dozens of other video chat services) are here to stay.

Former Fed Chair Jerome Powell said that the pandemic accelerated technology trends that were already there, and many workers (especially women) lost competitive ground on their peers in 2020.  

Theological Frame: Vocation. How should we think about the pervasiveness of digital technology in our lives? Vocation isn’t first about job choice or “meaningful” work. Vocation calls us first to love God, and then our neighbor. It is a summons to offer ourselves completely to God in all areas of life, including our hearts, our family lives, and our work.

I believe vocation also puts a certain priority onproximity and place. When God speaks, He wakes us up from being connected to everyone and everywhere, and reconnects us to our real, daily lives. “I have a spouse and children. I have neighbors. I have family. I have co-workers.” Vocation pushes back on the “everything, anywhere, right now” culture of tech.  

There are positives and negatives to the tech sector and its growing influence on our work. But vocation reminds us first to be present to God and to our actual, embodied lives.

Practice: “Identity, Context, Practice.” Here’s a simple practice you might consider to interrupt the domination of screens over your working life. Close your laptop, find a notebook, and write down answers to three questions:

  • Who am I? (Identity)
  • Where am I? (Context)
  • Based on my answers to these two questions, how should I respond? (Practices)

Putting limits on tech resituates us back into our real, embodied lives, and can reattune the heart to hear the voice of God.

Systemic Change #2: Everything is politicized and workplace culture is anxious.

We’ve been on this train for a while, but the pandemic accelerated this trend. We also feel it at work. CEOs make statements on nearly every new social issue. We find it difficult to have a conversation with coworkers about issues we disagree on. People come to work on pins and needles, caught in an anxious cycle of news, performance, loneliness, and more news.

Theological Frame: Reconciliation. In such a tense environment, God calls his people to a message of reconciliation, as if “God were making his appeal through us,” (2 Corinthians 5:20). The New Testament idea of reconciliation conjures images of making peace between two warring parties — an image we’re not unfamiliar with in a culture of deep divisions that find their way into homes, churches, hospitals, schools, and workplaces. 

Practice: Spheres of Influence. How do we really become people of reconciliation in a hyper-politicized environment? How can we model gentleness, conviction, and real love for others as we seek to live out our faith amongst our coworkers and our areas of influence?

Part of the answer is to think through what we can control, what we can influence, and what we cannot control.

The temptation is to think that the news and the thick anxiety of our culture is something that we can and must change right now. But the constant influx of media fools us and fuels the workplace and personal anxiety that acts like an acid, burning through our most precious relationships and most important tasks.

With what we can control (attitudes, motivations, behaviors, use of our time), let’s offer them in worship, surrendering to God and living life “with God” at work. With what we can influence (other people), let’s witness, demonstrating the reconciling love of God to others through our work and with our words. And finally — this is important — what we can’t control, we release. Don’t hang on to the news and global events, believing you can control more than you can. Pray and release those things to God and ask him to do the cosmic work of reconciliation that only he can do (2 Corinthians 5:19).

Systemic Change #3: Social and economic disparities are vast — and growing.

You’ve probably heard the term a K-shaped recovery. It comes from looking at a graph: as we recover from the pandemic, those connected to education, technology, and financial capital will come out ahead. Those with less education, less connection to tech, and in a lower income bracket are bearing the brunt of the negative impact of the pandemic.

The pandemic didn’t cause these macro trends, but again, it is accelerating trends that sociologists like Robert Putnam at Harvard University have seen growing since the mid-1960s. Inequality is now as vast as the Gilded Age (the late 1800s).

Theological Frame: Shalom. Shalom is a word that encompasses ideas of both peace and justice. It is about right relationship with God, with ourselves, and with others in our community. Shalom is about wholeness spreading from peace with God to restoration in our cities. The prophet Jeremiah insists that there can be no shalom until there is an end to oppression, greed, and violence in our social relationships (Jeremiah 6:1-9; 8:11). In an age of vast disparities, which the pandemic has made worse, the call of God is to “establish justice in the gate” (Amos 5:15).

Practice: Creation and Compassion.If you’re one of the lower- to middle-income workers, let me say this to you: God is with you. Feel his hope and his power. He has called you to himself and sent you to serve him with the talents he’s entrusted to you (1 Peter 4:10). You may be serving him in a job you don’t like, or you may be struggling to find a job. Either way, God is with you. Your secular counterpoints may cheer you on, too — but it’s just cheerleading. As a Christian, you actually have the Triune God at your side. He is with you and calling you to create (Genesis 2:15).

If you’re a higher-income worker who hasn’t been very affected by the pandemic, now’s the time to get in the game. You’re called to love and serve those with less power than you. There are so many opportunities to get involved: through your church, by offering opportunity to an entry-level employee, by getting involved with charities serving low-income communities. God is calling you to compassion (1 John 3:17).  

The world of work has changed. Yet Christians have a unique foundation and calling to rest in God’s character, listen to his voice, seek reconciliation, and work for justice through our work.

“The Lord Almighty is with us; the God of Jacob is our Fortress.”


The first article of this series took a look at three macro trends and how the pandemic changed our work. For more resources on faith and work, subscribe to the Faith & Work Podcast or sign up for a free account on the Faith & Work Classroom  

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Work

The World of Work Has Changed (Part One)

It was the second week of the pandemic. Late March 2020. I was driving back home from the office, trying to figure out what this would mean for Denver Institute, and for my own work. As I headed south on Santa Fe, just across from Aspen Grove mall, I stopped at a stoplight. I could feel my scalp tingling, at the base of my neck. At that moment, I realized I was holding my breath. I put my hand over my chest. My heart was racing.

I could feel in my body the tension and anxiety of a changing world.

At a recent online event we hosted for nearly 200 people from all walks of life, 86% said they had felt deep anxiety in their work since the pandemic began.

The news cycle often drives this constant stream of anxiety, but rarely do we have a chance to really step back and take a look at the big picture and calmly evaluate our role in that big picture.

First, in this article, I’d like to give a wide-angle lens to how the pandemic has shifted our work on a macro scale in three main ways. Second, in a subsequent article, I’d like to narrow in on three systemic trends that I believe are here to stay, and ask both how we might understand them in light of our faith and what practices we might consider in response.

A Wide-Angle Lens to the Changing World of Work

The first major change is dislocation. That is, nearly all of us have experienced some kind of uprootedness in our work. The most obvious is physical dislocation. Millions of offices emptied. Hotels, restaurants, children’s activities — literally, billions were ordered to go home. The places we worked shifted drastically. We lost a sense of place as those who could work in front of screens went home, and others had to find rides to work and mask up.

Also, millions actually moved homes. Pew reports about one in five Americans either moved due to the pandemic, or know somebody who did. We experienced new neighborhoods, but not necessarily new relationships. Our work and weekly rhythms were immediately interrupted.

We also were socially dislocated. By this I mean the obvious things: how do you now greet a co-worker? Fist bump? Elbow? Handshake? Or no touching at all? If you’re wearing a mask, should you still smile and say hello to somebody you walk past on the street? Does it matter if you smile? Is it possible to socially distance and remain relationally close? 

How we interact with people at work and in our communities changed drastically in the course of just weeks, causing stress and uncertainty in a bobbing sea of unknowns.

The screens of the tech sector kept many industries going. And for that we can be thankful.

Yet the CDC reported that two in five Americans have faced real mental health challenges since the pandemic. Now millions are uprooted and placeless, grasping for norms even as we feel far from home. 

The second change is major job loss and job change. Since February, the US has lost 9.8 million jobs. Before the pandemic, average unemployment claims were around 350,000 per week. At the outset of the pandemic, jobless claims spiked to 3.3M and 6.8M in less than 30 days. Even as late as mid-January 2021, 847,000 people still claimed unemployment in a single week, high above normal levels.

Some estimate over 30 million people lost their jobs (I’ve seen articles claiming anywhere from 22-40 million). Many of those people had to quickly find new work, change industries, or simply wait it out until businesses could re-open. Others never did find new work and dropped out of the workforce altogether. Low-income and minority workers in industries like retail and restaurants have been hit hard in particular.

About 100,000 businesses had to shut down due the pandemic, and 60% of them are estimated to stay closed. Just the other day, I headed to one of my favorite pubs here in Denver with my friends for a reading group, which I hadn’t visited since the pandemic. There was simply a sign that read: closed until further notice, March 2020. It was a stark reminder of an estimated 60,000 businesses that have gone under, and with them, the jobs they provide.

Losing a job can crush the spirit and cause deep pain and questioning. (Actually, Denver Institute just did an honest, emotional podcast on losing your job.) But if you either lost a job or had to change jobs, you’re in good company with millions around the US.

Third, entire industries were transformed. On a macro scale, just think of what we saw this last year.

  • K-12 Education rapidly had to shift to an online format. Parents had to scramble to work and get their kids online as the world sent 1.5 billion kids home in April 2020. Teachers struggled to connect online with distracted kids and adjust to new rules and teaching norms on an almost daily basis.
  • The Film & Entertainment Industry had to stop releasing movies to theatres and instead went straight to streaming with its blockbuster releases, impacting movie theaters in almost every city in the US.
  • As the Mental Health Industry saw a spike in cases across the US, hospitals had to make rapid changes to prepare for COVID patients, often delaying important medical attention to those who still needed it.
  • In Government and Public Life, we saw a deeper erosion of social trust. NY Times columnist David Brooks made the convincing case in an essay for The Atlantic that eroding social trust is devastating America, accelerating the politics of resentment.  COVID regulations caused even further anger in many communities, especially rural communities, bewildered by big city regulations on sparsely populated cities and communities.  
  • The Hospitality Industry was deeply changed. Hotels still remain largely empty and restaurants either had to adapt (will we ever forget the sudden rise of ice-fishing tents outside of restaurants?) or die.
  • Retail changes accelerated as people stopped shopping in malls and further expanded the reach of online retail giants.
  • Early in the pandemic we saw huge shock waves in the Oil and Gas Industry, with the price of oil dropping briefly to zero dollars a barrel.
  • The Stock Market has been on a tear, showing a deeper decoupling of the stock market and the jobs economy, causing even further resentment.
  • Airlines, Travel, and Tourism Industries were also shocked as the world stopped traveling.
  • The Global Nonprofit Sector saw significant losses in the global fight against poverty.
  • And even the Used Car Industry got weird. Prices soared as supply lines were interrupted and demand grew with the shuttering of mass transit.

Pause.

Let’s breathe.

The world of work has changed. And many feel deep anxiety and loss. Many feel overwhelmed and helpless.

What can we really do in such a tidal wave of change?


Editor’s note: Part two of this series answers this question by looking at three systemic changes to our economy and how people of faith can respond to the changing world of work. This post first appeared at Denver Institute.

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PoliticsWork

Faith & Immigration (Op-Ed for the Boulder Weekly)

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.”

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TheologyWork

Why Faith & Work? (Pt. 1) – Gospel

It was a Sunday afternoon. I walked out my back garage to toss the trash. I opened the green can, heaved in the white plastic bag, and breathed in … the stench of smoke. As I shut the can I moseyed out to my driveway to investigate. I looked up in the sky. The sun was a dull yellow, filtered through an unnatural cloud that covered the horizon. Smoke from the worst wildfires in Colorado history hung like a lingering ghost. Ash slowly fell around me and the street in my neighborhood was completely empty.

As I turned to walk back inside I heard something. It was a song coming from a truck around the corner. As I paused and peered through the sullen glow, I saw an ice cream truck, driving as if children were going to happily skip outside, eager for an afternoon treat. Yet none emerged from their homes, sequestered by their parents from the pandemic. The truck jingled by, as if from the set of a post-apocalyptic movie.

What a fitting metaphor for our world today, I thought. Our society is burning and our consumer culture offers us an “ice cream cone” to forget our troubles. Of course, as we grow, the “ice cream cone” changes: new car, job promotion, dinner parties, binge watching endless movies in our homes. But each can be a thin veneer that masks what each of us senses: the world we live in is frightfully broken. So many of us live a life distracted by entertainment, but we sense internal emptiness and desolation, one that spreads from souls to jobs to cities. 

We long for a deeper hope that can animate our daily lives. 

Why faith & work? Of all the pressing causes in our world, why care about this one, especially in a time of growing economic disparities, decaying social trust, and the shrinking of the church? Why invest time, attention, and resources in a vision that prioritizes both historic Christian faith and its influence on our daily work?

In this first of three articles, let me suggest three theological truths that open up new horizons for the meaning of Christian faith for our work and world today.  

Gospel. The word simply means “good news.” In the ancient Roman empire, Caesar had his own euangelion, whose reign through military strength was thought to be the guarantor of peace and prosperity. One ancient coin even called Caesar a “Son of God.”

Yet a small group of Jews said that there was another gospel. They claimed that a carpenter from Nazareth was the true Son of God, not Caesar. They said that though he was crucified as a criminal, he had been raised from the dead by God and freely offered forgiveness of sins and eternal life to any and all as free gift. And the essence of this “Son of God” was not power to conquer his enemies but love. Even for one’s enemies.

Fast forward to 21st century America. Today we’re used to hearing the word “gospel” in reference to gospel music or to the notion of “getting saved.” In many conservative Protestant circles, believing the “gospel” means soul salvation: Jesus died, I receive forgiveness, and I go to heaven when I die. Yet this version of the gospel would have seemed very strange to the early Christians. The apostle Paul believed there were four essential elements to his “gospel”: the incarnation of God himself in the person of Jesus (Romans 1:2), the crucifixion of Christ for our sins (1 Corinthians 15:2-3), the resurrection of Christ for our salvation and the salvation of the world (John 3:16; 2 Corinthians 5:19), and the Second Coming of Christ to judge the world and ultimately restore the world as God had originally intended it (Romans 2:16).

In our modern world, we’ve reduced the “gospel” to an individual, private experience involving only me and God. But this is a severe reduction of the breadth of the historic Christian faith. The truth is that sin is much worse than we thought. It has not only infected my heart, but has spread like a cancer into workplaces, industries, cultures, and cities. But the good news, the gospel, is also much better than we thought: Jesus is healing not just our souls but also those same workplaces, industries, cultures, and cities (Colossians 1:20). Indeed, he is not just light for my heart, he is the Light of the World (John 8:12).

Why, then, should we care about work? Teaching kindergarten, practicing law, manufacturing air filters, serving tables: work is the public arena in which the breadth of the gospel can heal our fractured world. When George Washington Carver discovered new uses for the peanut, he listened to the voice of God for scientific discovery. When Bach wrote symphonies, he did so soli Deo Gloria for the glory of God. And when the salesperson wonders if he’s wasting his life in retail, it’s the good news that crowns him with glory and dignity, even in difficult circumstances.

Christians have been entrusted with a spark of good news — one that claims salvation is far bigger and deeper than we had once thought.

Kingdom. The central message of Jesus’ own earthly ministry was about the Kingdom of God (Mark 1:14-15). To Americans who are used to electing their highest political authority to office, talk of kings and kingdoms can seem strange. Yet it’s a common theme in the Old Testament (Psalm 10:16; Isaiah 37:16; 2 Chronicles 20:6). And Jesus insisted on emphasizing it, even commanding his people for all generations to pray, “may your kingdom come, and your will be done, on earth as it is in heaven” (Matthew 6:10).

What does the Kingdom of God have to do with our work? First, saying that Jesus is the very highest authority both in your life and in the world is a deeply political, and public, commitment. Every nation, as well as every company, school, or hospital, has a set of values. Immediately, the Christian comes into any work situation first being a citizen of another country (1 Peter 2:13-17). That means when working at Amazon or at the local gas station, some of your values align with your workplace; others are different. This stubborn declaration that Jesus is king over all means your work is a contested arena between His Kingdom and the kingdoms of this world (Revelation 11:15). Each meeting, each project, each task, each relationship takes on a new significance in an age-old battle between darkness and light (Colossians 1:13). Whether you’re in politics, business, or education, the Kingdom of God makes every Christian a reformer.

But second, and more importantly, Jesus is inviting us into a new reality. I’ve often heard Protestants speak of “building the Kingdom.” But this is not how Jesus speaks about the Kingdom. He simply calls people to enter and receive the Kingdom (Matthew 7:21, 23:13, 25:34). That means, in a sense, there is no work to be done. Simply receive the gracious gift of living in a new creation, partaking in the divine nature, and resting in the “easy burden” of the way of Christ. Work is the sphere of life in which we live, day-to-day, in the fullness of the life of God (John 10:10b). Rather than believing spiritual matters are just for church, spiritual depth and joy can spill over into your daily work.  

Mission. Old Testament Scholar and framer of the Lausanne Covenant Dr. Christopher Wright popularized the term the Mission of God. When we hear the word “mission” we often think of missionaries overseas or paid Christian professionals sent by a church either to evangelize or serve the poor. Yet Wright makes the strong — and lengthy! — case that God himself has a mission. From the calling of Abraham and the people of Israel to the culmination of human history in the book of Revelation, God himself is initiating a grand project to restore his fractured creation (Genesis 3).

How, then, does this involve our daily work? The marvel of the grand narrative of Scripture is that God calls us — flawed, deeply broken human beings — into his purposes to heal and restore his world. This may include overseas work in microfinance. Yet it may be far closer to home. John Stott, the preeminent 20th-century missiologist, pastor, and author, believed our vocations are the central way we partake in “mission.” Police officers protect and serve, farmers feed their neighbors, teachers educate the mind, janitors and mechanics clean and repair our buildings. It’s through our work that we reflect Jesus’ own high calling “to serve, and not to be served” (Mark 10:45).

So, why faith & work? Ultimately, we live in a story of good news. Death is overcome. The darkness does not win. And God summons all people first to himself, and then sends them back into the world as his ambassadors (2 Corinthians 5:20).

In a time when it feels like our culture is burning and sending smoke into our nostrils and lives, our spiritual lives can feel desolate like an empty street on a dull Sunday afternoon. Yet the breadth of gospel, the promise of a coming Kingdom, and a call to participate with God in his mission reframes how we live and work. 

This is good news indeed.

 This is the first article of a three-part series on “Why Faith & Work?” The next article will focus on the reality of our jobs and working lives. 

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NonprofitWork

Why Give? Kahlil Gibran on Generosity

Crammed in my drawer next to my bed are years of arts and crafts, given to me with almost ecstatic anticipation by my four daughters over the years. A Beauty and the Beast coloring page; a blue, yellow, and green woven bracelet; a pink and yellow glazed pot, just perfect for a few coins. In each instance, my daughters worked, wrapped, and then gave gifts to their daddy out of a freedom, delight, and self-forgetfulness. 

Like my daughters, Americans are generous. Yet Americans aren’t exactly joyful. Today 3 of 5 Americans report being lonely and 1 in 6 struggle with mental illness. During the pandemic, as we see philanthropic needs mount, some are skeptical that generosity will really help the painful world we live in. Many are asking a basic question about their money: can my giving really make an impact on problems this big and far-reaching? 

Motives for giving have shifted even in the past couple of decades. Fred Smith, president of the Gathering, a group of Christian philanthropists, has pointed out that a sophisticated industry has emerged in the last generation that stresses the cleverness of avoiding taxes through giving. Instruments for facilitating tax-advantaged transactions, often sending money to special accounts to be given at a future date, are seen as smart philanthropy. The underlying motive is just as much about redirecting funds away from the government as is about supporting your favorite cause. Why give? Evade Uncle Sam. 

The rise of socially conscious business has also called into question the habit of generous giving. Many organizations see business, not the nonprofit sector, as a better medium for social change. As such, impact investing — sometimes even with dollars already given to foundations or donor advised funds — is seen as a “smarter” investment. After all, this way we can earn a return and invest again later, rather than “lose our principal for good” by giving money away. Why give? Hold off and focus on investing instead.

For everyday givers like my wife and me, our ability to give is so small that we sometimes  wonder whether we can make an impact. As we recently walked through Hudson Gardens, a public garden on the south side of Denver, I mentioned that we should consider making a gift to support the water lily garden. “But what good will our $100 really do?” my wife asked. “They must get support from much larger foundations.” We questioned whether our giving can make a sufficient impact. Why give? Don’t bother. It won’t make an impact anyway. 

Of course, the much larger reason many couples don’t give is more basic: we have lots of expenses. Shouldn’t we pay off debt, save for my kid’s next soccer season, or just “give” the money to the furniture company that’s going to deliver a new ottoman for my living room in three days? And minimally, shouldn’t I save the money in case of a rainy day? Why give? Just wait until you’re rich. And then give when you can be sure the nonprofit will make a big splash one day in the future.

I recently read a book from one of the 20th century’s most prominent artists that challenged my perspective on philanthropy. Kahlil Gibran was a Lebanese-American writer and poet living at the turn of the 20th century. His little book The Prophet has been translated into more than 100 languages. He asked many of the same questions we’re asking about giving, yet had an attitude about giving that restores the freedom and joy to an activity that many of us often can make a utilitarian exercise. Here are four insights from Kahlil Gibran on giving. 

First, free yourself from the fear of tomorrow. 

“For what are your possessions but things you keep and guard for fear you may need them tomorrow? And what is fear of need but need itself? Is not dread of thirst when your well is full the thirst that is unquenchable?”

How much, exactly, is enough? Andrew Carnegie said that the art of capitalism is turning luxuries into necessities. At what point, then, do we finally reach contentment and say, “I have enough for myself and those I love. Now I can give”? Gibran’s point is that even if our wells are overflowing, we still may be gripped with a fear of tomorrow. Internal peace that there is enough for me must precede our ability to freely give and freely receive. 

In the Christian tradition, we point to Jesus’ teaching about the lilies in the field. If they are adorned with splendor greater than that of the uber-wealthy King Solomon, yet are here today and wilt tomorrow, will God not all the more take care of the children he loves (Matthew 6)? 

“These are the believers in life and the bounty of life,” says Gibran, “and their coffer is never empty.”

Why give? There’s enough for all of us. 

Second, because our money and possessions are temporary, the best time to give is now. 

And is there aught you would withhold? All you have shall some day be given; therefore give now, that the season of giving may be yours and not your inheritors.” 

My house. My car. My business. My bank account. My kitchen countertop, my backyard, my clothes, and my book collection. This is a particularly poignant view at the outset of an economic recession, when the fear of tomorrow tends to cloud our view of the future. 

They all will soon be in the possession of another. This insight of Gibran is simple but profound: you can hang onto nothing. Because this is true, drink in the peace and satisfaction of giving now, and let its blessings flow into your life and the life of your family, company, or community. 

Why give? We can’t keep our possessions anyway. 

Third, give generously because ultimately we’ve first been given to. 

“You often say, ‘I would give, but only to the deserving.’ The trees in your orchard say not so, nor the flocks in your pasture. They give that they may live, for to withhold is to perish.”

Will the organization use the money well? What are your metrics of success? Can you share with me how this money will impact others and create permanent change? 

Embedded in these questions is a good instinct: to be responsible with the wealth and resources we have and to use them well. Yet the human heart twists this good instinct and we like to think that we came across the money through our own hard work and intelligence, and we only want to then pass on our hard-earned wealth to “the deserving.”

Yet Gibran questions this attitude. Nature gives its fruit because it was made to produce and to give; to do anything less would make it less than it was created to be. Have we “worked hard” for our wealth? Yes, many of us have. But do we then “deserve” what we have?  

Gibran reverses the question: do you, who have received so much free of charge, “deserve” to give to the receiver? Who really is being charitable? The giver, the recipient of the joy of generosity, or the receiver, who humbly and “charitably” opens himself to receiving? 

Gibran says it bluntly, “See first that you yourself deserve to be a giver, and an instrument of giving.” 

Why give? We’ve first been given to. 

Finally, the deepest satisfaction is reserved for those who give neither out of joy nor pain, but simply because it is their nature. 

“There are those who give with joy, and that joy is their reward. And there are those who give with pain, and that pain is their baptism. And there are those who give and know not pain in giving, nor do they seek joy, nor give with mindfulness of virtue; They give as in yonder valley the myrtle breathes its fragrance into space.”

The final stage in generosity is neither to sacrifice for a cause, to experience pleasure, nor even to develop virtue. It is simply an act that flows from their nature, like a flowered tree gives its fragrance for free to any who pass by.

In stark contrast to the giving that is looking for an ROI, whether social, economic, cultural, or spiritual, this kind of giving is truly done freely. It is unconditional and it flows naturally from the character of the one who has been released from the bonds of accumulation and pride. 

Why give? It flows from the nature of the whole, complete person. 

As I look next to my bed stand, I see a small pillow, stuffed and sewed by my oldest daughter, given to me for my 35th birthday. I imagine her sewing, intently, not for thought of reward, but simply to give. When I see the stitches, I simply smile. “Through the hands of such of these God speaks, and from behind their eyes he smiles on the earth.”

This post first appeared on the Denver Institute website. A big thank you to Chris Horst for reading an early version of this article.

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Work

What Is Denver Institute for Faith & Work?

The following is a brief introduction to my work at Denver Institute for Faith & Work that I gave at a recent fundraiser. It first appeared on the DIFW website.

It doesn’t take much to make the case that the world is deeply broken. 

Even as you read this, my guess is that today – in your own experience – you can feel the fallenness of our culture all around. From anger and fear in the news to our day-to-day experience of broken relationships, we know that something is amiss. 

As the executive director and founder of Denver Institute for Faith & Work, I, too, feel that something is deeply wrong with the world. I’m often asked by donors, “What problem are you at Denver Institute trying to solve?” Let me try to answer by briefly sharing about the why, the how, and the what of our mission at Denver Institute.

First, why? Take a moment to think about the ways you long for healing in our world today. We know that our society is deeply broken; loneliness, division, and economic disparity are growing. The Church in the U.S. is shrinking rapidly: today, there are 30 million more people who claim no religious affiliation than just 10 years ago, according to Pew Research. We live in a time of pain and uncertainty, not just for Christians, but for our entire culture.

Yet, as Christians, ultimately we live in a story of hope. We believe Jesus’ life, death, and resurrection was not just for the salvation of our souls, but for the salvation of the world. This salvation includes my heart, but it also includes cities and cultures. Isaac Watts once wrote, “He comes to make his blessings flow as far as the curse is found.” At Denver Institute, we talk about the depth and the breadth of the gospel; we believe that if sin has infected both souls and systems, so can grace. 

But I think there’s a question we must ask about each of these: the pain of our culture and the breadth of salvation Christians embrace. What do these have to do with me?

This is where our daily work comes in. 

Our mission at Denver Institute for Faith & Work is to form men and women to serve God, neighbor, and society through their daily work. Why work? We spend one-third of our waking lives at work. Work is where we make culture, from legal systems to art to carburetors. It’s also where we come into contact with our pluralistic world through co-workers, clients, patients, and students. Work is central to God’s mission in the world to redeem both souls as well as systems and structures.

So, how does Denver Institute think about its own role in equipping the saints for works of service through their work (Ephesians 4:12)? Let me briefly share about our “how.”We believe in “transformation from the inside out.” That is, rather than first looking at the world’s problems, we must first look at our own souls.

We believe there are three major movements of transformation. First is the interior life. We believe change first happens as people seek deep spiritual and emotional health and as they learn to think theologically about their work. This is why we talk about spiritual disciplines, Christian theology, and a deep interior renewal as the basis for a whole life and Christian mission. 

Second, we believe faith also changes our exterior life. Namely, we at DIFW come alongside people to create good work and embrace redemptive relationships. The community needs your work. From investing to teaching in public schools, we believe work is an act of loving our neighbors. Rather than work only being about personal success or earning a paycheck, we believe the work we do and the relationships we form are central to God’s calling in our lives.

Finally, we at DIFW talk about civic life. The onset of the pandemic in March 2020 has made it clear that we are economically, politically, socially, and culturally connected. We believe that as Christians set their faces toward culture, the posture of a sacrificial servant – the way of the cross – is the way to show people the gospel through our deeds. We at DIFW deeply care about the pressing social issues of our day because we believe they’re a category of neighbor love. Indeed, “for God so loved the world… .” If God loves the world and sent his Son to save it, we too must commit to healing this fallen world as those sent by God the Healer. 

So, what on earth does Denver Institute do? I’m glad you asked! We’re an educational nonprofit and we do work in three primary categories: public engagement, thought leadership, and intensive formation. In the category of public engagement, throughout the year we host a podcast and we host events. Each year we do two larger events called Women, Work and Calling and Business for the Common Good, and we do smaller events on topics such as the sciences, arts and culture, work and calling, and poverty and opportunity. We want to engage the public with the meaning of the good news for our work and world.

Second, thought leadership. We create short courses, books, articles, and other educational resources that connect Christian thinking with the wide world of work. Resources such as Spiritual Disciples for Your Work and the Faith & Work Classroom help you and those at your church or in your place of work dive deeper into the radically transformative nature of Christian faith for our world today. 

And finally, intensive formation. We are now in our fifth class of the 5280 Fellowship, a nine-month program for emerging leaders in spiritual formation, professional development, and civic engagement. Years ago, we built a program around the idea of transformation from the inside out that has deeply shaped the hearts and careers of our fellows. For years, leaders in other cities have asked us to help them develop similar programs in their cities, and as we look to the future, we are prayerfully considering helping additional leaders launch fellows programs in their cities throughout the U.S. 

But for now, what is Denver Institute for Faith & Work? An educational organization? Yes, but not only that. We are a network of people.We are a community of people who care deeply about our faith in Christ and our work, and our commitment to engaging the needs of the world while staying rooted in God’s love.

There it is: an answer to the question, “What is Denver Institute for Faith & Work.” 

But don’t click away quite yet. I want you to find a co-worker or family member today and simply share your own dreams for what gospel impact might look like in your work and community. Where is God calling you into his great story of redemption?  

To learn more about Denver Institute, sign up for our monthly newsletter.

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PoliticsWork

How Should Christians Think About Politics? 11 Insights from Reinhold Neibuhr

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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…”

Image credit.

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