- Growing up in Community
- Marriage Lessons
- Our Cultural Divide
- Critical Theory and the Biblical Narrative of Liberation
- A Christian Response to Oppression
- What Marriage Illuminates
- Concerning Abp. Vigano’s Letter
The following is a reflection on the current condition of our nation and the nature of a Christian response. This has brought together aspects of my upbringing in Northern Virginia, my experience of marriage and of following Jesus in that, as well as the core ideas behind critical theory and how this has been influencing the race conversation amongst Christians – and all of these things in light of the overall scriptural narrative. I conclude with a response to Apb. Vigano’s recent letter to President Trump. Bringing these seemingly disparate themes together in an organized way has taken time, but this aspect of time also seems fitting given the profusion of rapid-fire, destructive words that we encounter in our public discourse. It seems now, more than ever, crucial for people who say they love and follow Jesus to humbly and carefully examine the words that we speak.
In light of that, I cannot help but see something prophetic in the fact that mask wearing is a prominent feature of our experience right now. Masks are said to be a protection from what comes out of our own mouths and noses as we breath and communicate with each other, since the virus enters shared airspace through our breath and speaking. I see a very striking parallel between this and the spiritual sense of breath (pneuma). We are told in scripture that what comes out of our mouths has the power to kill or to bring life, highlighting the fact that human action and speech is never a matter of mere, isolated individualism, but that that what we speak, do, and choose affects others around us in ways that are impossible to quantify simply or to contain. I have in mind Proverbs 18:21, but also passages such as Matthew 12:37 and 15:11, Ephesians 4:29, James 1:26 and 3:3-12. In light of this, I wonder if it is possible for Christians to see masks as a kind of prophetic reminder of the power and danger of our words, and a possible opening for redemptive conversation with others, rather than viewing them simply as a threat to individual rights and freedom.
With that said, I share the following reflection.
Growing up in community
I grew up in Northern Virginia and, except for seven years living in Scotland, have spent most of my life in the D.C. Metropolitan area. I would describe my experience growing up in this area as pervaded by an ever-present sense of politics and of political identity. It seemed that almost everything could be boiled down to politics, particularly the political perspectives of “the conservative right” and “the liberal left.” The lines and boundaries were considered to be very simple. It also seemed that the people associated with each group were viewed just as simply. I witnessed with my teenage and young adult eyes varying degrees of disdain, contempt, and condescension towards whatever and whoever was seen as the opposition. What it meant to be a Christian seemed also to be bound up within these basic categories. When with other Christians, I often encountered situations in which it seemed that political identity was equivalent with being for or against the gospel.
Despite growing up in this environment, I seem to have been given a desire to look beyond simple boundaries and to seek the underlying motivations and the deeper foundations of things. Thankfully, I had parents who encouraged this and allowed me to ask questions and think, and we had many lively discussions, which were enriched by my parents’ own very different perspectives – my father grew up Roman Catholic with a love of, and career in, physics, and my mother grew up Baptist with an education in, and love of, English literature. In the time and place in which they met and married, their union was considered controversial and countercultural, but they had a common love of Jesus, an appreciation for each other’s very different cultural backgrounds and a deep love for each other, and they married despite this complexity.
Even with this background, I have found it challenging to navigate relationships in our divided culture, which continues to increasingly encourage us to see and interpret everything and everyone through the lens of our current political and ideological categories. I had, and still have, relatives and friends who identify with either “side” of our current right/left divide, and I have had experiences of encountering correction, and even anger, when something I said did not appear to fit the accepted view or vocabulary in some way. Because of this, I have tended to try and avoid discussions that have the potential to move in this direction. Even so, sometimes something inadvertently gets said, setting something unintended in motion. My observation has been that, instead of conversation and open dialogue, there seems to be a requirement to declare one’s political “shibboleths” (see Judges 12:6), creating a requirement for political correctness that reduces people’s ability to listen, seek clarification, and grow in greater understanding of another person, issue or topic. I have noticed that this tendency is not restricted to “the left” or “the right,” but is characteristic of our culture as a whole.
The subsequent trajectory that my life has taken has given me another perspective on our cultural-political divides, and I believe this perspective sheds some valuable light on how we inhabit our culture as Christians and the way we are cultivated to view and interact with each other. I write with other Christians in mind as an audience, but hope that this reflection might also have some kind of appeal for non-Christians as well.
In the midst of marital separation, and later divorce, I came to clearly discern Jesus calling me to an obedience that I have since discovered is often highly controversial regardless of right or left political association. This was a call of obedience to remain faithful in my broken marriage, which entailed not seeking a divorce so that I could potentially “start over” and enter a new relationship, but to honor what Jesus was saying to me about my marriage, which was that he still had a redemptive purpose in it that transcended my capacity to understand or envision at the time. This journey of marriage faithfulness has provided a unique perspective on what it means, and how it is possible, to see another and love redemptively when there is relational breakdown and the presence of seemingly irreparable wounds. During the twelve years that I have been on this journey, I have been led to ministries that have taught me about how to live fruitfully and constructively within this context. Although it does not always happen (and has not yet in my situation, and is certainly not the only reason I made this choice), I have witnessed many families who have been reconciled and radically renewed, even when things appeared broken beyond repair by any natural or rational measure. This journey has entailed for me a deep reexamination and rediscovery of what it means to know and follow Jesus, to hear and obey his teaching, and I have discovered that there is much in my Northern Virginia upbringing (and this includes my upbringing within Christian community), with its focus on rights, power, self-assertion, self-determination, and a certain vision of self-fulfillment, that did not teach me the basics of the Christian life.
One of the first and foundational principles that the marriage ministries that I found began to teach me is the nature of the surrender that we have to make in order to be able to pursue this call, and which I have since discovered, lies at the heart of what it means to follow Jesus. This is the perspective that we are an innocent victim while our spouse (or any other person) is a hopelessly unchangeable oppressor. It is necessary to surrender a simplified “us versus them” vision of our spouse and the situation. Before saying more, it is very important to emphasize that making a choice to remain faithful in this way is in no way an endorsement or encouragement to remain materially, emotionally, or spiritually unprotected in situations of abuse, nor does it exclude the possibility, or even necessity, of temporal and material separation. It may be the case that a spouse is making tremendously sinful, family-destroying choices. However, what this choice does mean is that whatever our current relational and household context, we choose to surrender the condition of the marriage and behavior of our spouse to the Lord. This sense of surrender is comparable to what is articulated in the first step of Twelve Step programs.
Meanwhile, we begin to allow Jesus renew our minds and transform our own hearts, which includes addressing our own brokenness, where we ourselves remain stuck in sinful patterns and vision (see Matthew 7:3-5). We discover in this process that a renewal of our vision can begin to take place – our vision of ourselves, of our spouses, of the scope of the grace Jesus offers us, and what He is capable of in the situation. Again, this does not mean we approve of, or enable, bad behavior, and it does not mean that nothing needs to change. It also does not mean that we deny our own need for healing. But what it does mean is that we move away from a primary stance of focusing on our spouse’s behavior and a stance of anger, resentment, and fear. Instead, we are taught and given grace to learn to walk closely with the Lord, to cultivate our relationship with him, and to seek his wisdom regarding how to respond in our concrete and often very painful and complex circumstances. Learning how to do this is by no means something that can be done by leaning on a system or a formula, but rather, it requires cultivating a direct relationship and connection with Jesus through the Holy Spirit. This has been no easy task for me, having been raised in a culture that exalts autonomous self-determination as well as the positivity and systemization of all knowledge! This has required a radical renewal of my mind and metanoia regarding many things I previously had taken for granted.
Our cultural divide
I see something very similar to this “us-versus-them” mentality in our cultural divides. Bear with me while I unpack the nature of this. I am not advocating laying down all sense of right and wrong or the necessity to discern, nor am I am saying there is no place for taking active, public stands when we see systemic abuses of power, where sin is endorsed and established in the very structures of society, causing immediate and unambiguous harm to human beings. Just as with the marriage context, this is not an endorsement of abuse or enabling abuse, nor is this an examination of whether or not to respond actively to something or not. This is rather an examination of a basic vision of reality that we hold and a basic stance of the heart towards others that we cultivate and live out of. Proverbs 4:23 tells us to “keep our heart with all vigilance, for from it flow the springs of life,” and Jesus repeatedly emphasizes that our heart (Matthew 15:10-20) and our vision (Matthew 6:22-23) are the foundation out of which we speak, live, and act.
To illustrate how a certain vision of reality shapes our thinking, speaking and acting, it is helpful to look briefly at critical theory, which has come into the public discourse lately. From my understanding of it, in a most basic sense, it is a philosophical stance that views reality and human society through a primary lens of conflict, with fundamental divisions grounded in the possession or absence of power. Society is divided between dominant cultural groups who are oppressors, who hold and maintain cultural and social power, and groups who are oppressed. The resulting imbalance of power in this oppressor/oppressed relationship requires resolution, which occurs when oppressed groups gain power through a process of liberation from the social and cultural structures that enable the oppression, while oppressor groups should likewise be divested of power, willingly or unwillingly. The process of liberation extends beyond simply oppressor groups, but also includes any cultural structures and institutions that appear to benefit the oppressor group. There is more substance to critical theory than simply this, and addressing those things in a more in-depth way would require a longer discussion. However, it is this basic framework of oppressor/oppressed and process of liberation that I want to examine and respond to here.
Critical Theory and the Biblical Narrative of Liberation
It is important to emphasize that these categories of oppressor, oppressed and liberation are not in themselves unscriptural. The language of oppression and liberation clearly occurs throughout the narrative of Israel’s deliverance from Egypt. It is clear that equity and justice in the Mosaic law entails commandments requiring balanced scales, rejection of partiality, and structural, legal protections for the vulnerable and oppressed. Additionally, the Sabbath commandment of rest, which is the sign of God’s covenant with Israel, is given to include all levels of human society, even the working animals. In the New Testament, stories like the rich man and Lazarus in Luke 16:19-3 emphasize the very serious consequences of abuse of power and prideful neglect of those who are vulnerable. Jesus saves his harshest language for those who use religious and cultural power for unholy purposes in Matthew 23. Throughout Acts and the letters, the themes of protection of, and generosity towards, the socially vulnerable abound. It is clear that these categories are of vital importance in scripture. There are, however, important differences between the Biblical account of the oppressor/victim relationship and the nature of liberation and critical theory’s account.
A very basic distinction is that in scripture, liberation is never a singularly human-led effort. People do not liberate themselves, but instead are liberated through a direct reliance on a relationship with God, who initiates and takes an active lead in the liberation process. This does not mean God does not interact with, use, and encourage human agents in bringing about liberation, but people are participants in an effort led by a transcendent God rather than the sole acting agents. The ethical directives Israel are given after their liberation from Egypt include frequent reminders of this relationship, since remembrance of their history was central for ensuring their future and the very continuance of the principles of justice and equity they were being taught. The words of the prophets and the records of history make clear that when this transcendent sense of accountability and objectivity is forgotten by the people to whom this understanding of justice was given, matters of justice quickly begin to lose their quality of absoluteness, and instead become matters of merely immanent pragmatism and negotiation of power, eventually degrading into systemic corruption, exploitation and oppression.
The necessity for an engaged relationship with the transcendent Creator is the central focus of the narrative in Genesis 3, where the concepts of oppression and liberation make their first appearance in scripture. Up to this point, humanity’s metaphysical parentage and representatives, Adam and Eve, occupy a creation given to them as fundamentally good. This includes a natural relationship with the Creator, a natural relationship and fruitfulness with each other, and the fact that this gift is open to a yet-unspecified form of transcendent life, expressed in the presence of the tree of life. They are also given a warning to avoid the tree of the knowledge of good and evil.
Not long afterwards in Chapter 3, they encounter the serpentine figure who presents a perspective that differs somewhat from the one they have just been given by the Creator. This “perspective representative” (for that is all he really does here) implies that this Creator, who they think they can trust, is actually an “oppressor,” whose real goal is to keep them down and to prevent them from becoming fully like himself, fully God-like. The implied solution is to liberate themselves from this Creator by throwing off the deceptive and oppressive directive he has given them, as well as the naiveté of their relationship with him, and take unilateral control of the acquisition of knowledge, as well as of judgment of the nature of, good and evil. In throwing off this relationship, they effectively take upon themselves unilateral control of how their history and destiny will unfold. This is the heart of the fruit that comes to appear good to eat, a delight to the eyes, and desirable for wisdom in Genesis 3:6.
After having eaten this fruit, the Creator asks where Adam and Eve are and seeks dialogue with them. They hide, however, remaining within the vision of God-as-oppressor/humanity-as-oppressed in their attempt to escape detection and extricate themselves through multiple levels of finger-pointing and blame. Unrepentant, they are now given an account of the consequences they will experience and see play out in history as a result of this severance of trust and relationship. This includes the fact that the relationship between the man and woman will now be characterized by abuse of power on the part of the man and disappointment and lack on the part of the woman, and that the relationship of humanity with the natural world will become a ceaseless struggle. Ironically, in attempting to be freed from a perceived sense of transcendent oppression, a very real and pervasive experience of immanent oppression became the dominant characteristic of historical human experience.
Whether one believes in the scriptural account of the fall or not, it is clear that oppression and abusive behaviors and systems have indeed occurred throughout human history at every level of existence – between men and women, in families, communities, cultures, institutions, and nations, and with regards to our relationship with creation. Scripture clearly locates the source of this oppression in humanity’s detachment from a relationship of trust and accountability with the transcendent source of our being.
What is most remarkable about this turn of events is that it took nothing but a subtle perspective shift and a minimal amount of consideration for this fruit of suspicion and desire for self-sufficiency to appear good and desirable to eat. And as if to prove the point, what the serpent-figure said about their being deceived also seems to have initially proven true since, in apparent contradiction with what the Creator warned them of in Genesis 2:17, they did not die in any immediate sense upon eating the fruit. The full nature and depth of the death they entered into only becomes more clear as history progresses (and as it continues to progress), and does not become fully clear outside of the revelation of Jesus Christ.
It is possible to see this pattern revealed in the events of Genesis 3 playing out and driving much of the alienation and bitterness that leads to breakdown and divorce in individual families. Spouses begin to view the other spouse through a very similar oppressor/victim lens. Within this vision of reality, it then becomes very easy to nurse grievances and self-pity. Resentment and contempt eventually creep in and become a basic stance of the heart, coloring every interaction and interpretation of events. Eventually, trust and capacity for relationship is replaced by fear, blame and suspicion. I have seen this pattern play out in my own life (in my own heart!) and in the lives of many others.
When this heart stance and the types of interactions it drives bears fruit in material separation and divorce, the potential for hellish destruction is profound, and it is sown at every possible human level – spiritual, emotional, physical, financial, social, generational, educational.… The scale and depth of the devastation divorce causes is overwhelming to experience and witness, although the widespread destruction that divorce (and its systemic, structural social support system) inflicts on individuals and the wider culture rarely makes the nightly news. Nevertheless, this is the standard “solution” that most of us take for granted, whether we are Christian or non-Christian, whether we are politically conservative or progressive. When there is no desire on the part of the other spouse to seek a solution, the only option is for oppressed spouses to liberate themselves from their intractably oppressive situation through divorce, which is perceived to be a final and irreversible severance of relationship. This solution seems so obvious that most Christians simply do not wrestle anymore with the meaning of Jesus’ strange and challenging words in Matthew, Mark and Luke.
A Christian Response to Oppression
Despite the human separation from God described in Genesis 3, the Creator in the Genesis narrative continues to pursue dialogue and relationship with his creatures, a dialogue that eventually culminates with the coming of Jesus Christ. His life and revelation reveals the full nature and consequences of this divorce from God, which is that it not only leads to natural destruction and death, as described in Genesis 3, but it also leads to spiritual and eternal disintegration and death, represented by the removal of the tree of life in the garden. The event of Jesus’ crucifixion and resurrection reveals the utter falsity of the God-as-oppressor-humanity-as-oppressed framework that the Genesis 3 snake proposes, turning it completely on its head. At the same time, Jesus’ relationship with the Father and his death and resurrection reveals what it truly means to be “like God.” Rather than a stance of distrust and self-reliance, he operates and speaks from a stance of radical trust and intimate relationship with creation’s Creator. He himself re-enacts and restores this relationship on behalf of fallen humanity, redeeming our transgression and reopening the possibility of this relationship for us.
This act of radical trust and surrender is the act of liberation that serves not only to defeat evil, but it also radically overturns and reframes our fleshly, fallen conceptions of power and the nature of human (and God-like) perfection. Jesus Christ reveals that the source of creation is a triune communion of persons and that the perfection of God is self-giving, self-sacrificial love, trust and relationship. The way to reenter the possibly of being God-like (always God’s intention after all) is to repent of our self-focused autonomy and die to self (John 12:24-26) into an entirely renewed life and perspective on reality that always includes the whole picture – this triune God, others, and ourselves, as well as creation itself, all in right relationship. It is crucial to emphasize that what Jesus does and teaches does not just bring about something ontologically transcendent and supernatural in our own lives, but it calls those of us who say that we love and follow him into a continual conversion regarding how we interpret and respond to everything and everyone we encounter.
Another principle of Christian life that has become clearer to me through my marriage journey is that another person is never our primary enemy, but it is rather the spiritual enemy who continues to propose to each of us the original Genesis 3 perspective. There is a sense of fundamental conflict and potential for oppression within this context, but this conflict cannot ever be reduced simply to a human level or to human behavior alone. This conflict is engaged with an entirely different way as a result. We engage from within a radical reliance on relationship with Jesus Christ through the Holy Spirit, and we communicate with others through testimony and dialogue instead of out of a self-driven struggle for power and control. In Revelation, those who follow Christ are told that conquering comes through only two things – the blood of the lamb and the word of our testimony (Revelation 12:11). This means that we only have two things at our disposal – 1) what Jesus Christ already has already done for us, and 2) the lives we live and the words we communicate in response – that is it! What Jesus Christ does for us enables the possibility to inhabit his life and freedom. We are liberated to respond to unjust, imbalanced situations with transcendent generosity of vision and creative faith. We also never have to respond alone, but have the promised help of the Holy Spirit. We are liberated to engage with people, including those whom the world tells us are intractable enemies, in unexpectedly creative ways that transcend the world’s fallen frameworks.
I think of people like Corrie Ten Boom and how she and her family responded within the cultural moment of WWII Europe. Because her family protected Jews in their home, she and her sister were taken to Ravensbrück concentration camp. Corrie ten Boom’s post-war ministry of the hope and forgiveness of the gospel after this experience extended to all nations of Europe (and later the world). Her account of being enabled to forgive a German guard who approached her at a speaking engagement, one whom she concretely remembered from her experience at the concentration camp, is one that has deeply formed my understanding of the power and nature of following Christ.
I think of someone like Richard Wurmbrand, who was jailed for 14 years for his faith in communist-controlled Romania, and later founded the organization Voice of the Martyrs. He spoke of his deep love for the Russian people and desire to engage with them, despite the system they had imposed upon his nation and his own life.<p value="<amp-fit-text layout="fixed-height" min-font-size="6" max-font-size="72" height="80">
The line separating good and evil passes not through states, nor between classes, nor between political parties either – but right through every human heart…even within hearts overwhelmed by evil, one small bridgehead of good is retained. And even in the best of all hearts, there remains…an uprooted small corner of evil.
The Gulag Archipelago
No matter how badly individuals or nations might be caught up in an ideology, and despite encountering very real and personal consequences of profoundly oppressive systems, these Christians refused see reality through the lens of simplistic oppressor/oppressed categories, nor did they see other human beings primarily through the lens of ideological associations. As Christians, we must always seek and be ready to affirm that “one small bridgehead of good” in anyone whom we encounter. Likewise, we must always be aware of the evil within our own hearts, and join the tax collector of Luke 18:9-14, who beat his breast and proclaimed, “God, be merciful to me, a sinner!”
What Marriage Illuminates
Marriages do not heal unless at least one of the spouses can break out of the victim/oppressor, us-versus-them perspective. We must learn to be humble and listen, even if we feel the other spouse is currently making choices that unjustly affect us or that we disagree with. It takes patience and requires trust in something and someone greater than ourselves who has indeed already redeemed the situation. Through this journey, I have come to see that marriage is meant to teach us the heart of how to love as Jesus loves. It gives us a framework where, if we are his followers, we cannot seek a simple escape, we cannot rely on control, manipulation and abuse, nor can we hide in silence and denial, but we are instead called to love in radical, self-denying, life-sacrificing, totally grace-dependent, ways. The gospels tell us that Jesus loves us this way – giving himself to the end, and he himself commands us to do the same in John 13:34-35. He tells us to love our enemies in Matthew 5:43-48. How we are called to love as Christians and how we are called to love in our marriages is not fundamentally different.
Even so, I still regularly see many Christians who love the Lord and read their Bibles and attend church (myself included) who still remain within a fallen vision of reality over and over again. I see this fallen vision playing out in how Christians inhabit the political “left/right” divide. If we are on “the right,” the oppressor is “the left” and everything and everyone associated with it. If we are on “the left”, the oppressor is “the right” and everything and everyone associated with it. We retreat into a hermeneutic of suspicion such that we can only solve our problems by asserting our rights and taking back, or retaining by whatever means possible, control of the structures of power as we seek to overthrow and cast off the influence of the oppressive (and irrelevant) other. Many of us seem to jump headlong and uncritically into critical theory’s vision of reality and its destructive necessities and reductions as easily as the rest of the non-Christian world does, if not even more so.
However, the more I see our misunderstanding of marriage and Jesus’ words regarding it, the more I see that the world is the way it is, lost in diabolical (this term means in the Greek literally “to throw apart”) division and visions of reality, because the church as a corporate institution has historically lost the sense of what it means to follow Jesus and love as he loves. We have not loved him within intimate relationship and the radical trust and obedience that he speaks of. We have not sought his help to love in the way that he teaches, exemplifies, and enables.
We like to say that the greatness of western culture flows out of its Christian roots, and in some ways it does, but it is also striking how much of this same history is tainted by the dynamics of worldly possession, power, partisan politics, self-indulgence, unexamined injustice, and pride. Many of the problems we are dealing with today seem to be both a judgment and a deeply radical call to repentance, not a justification for an increasingly deepening stance of fear, self-defense, and suspicion and further retreat into the categories of oppressed/oppressor. Yet, now that Christianity is losing cultural and social power, the temptation seems to be to retreat into fear and suspicion of whoever we perceive to be “the enemy.” Whatever temporal political views we hold, I would argue that we simply do not yet see, on the right or on the left, the scope of the church’s own historic participation in the cultural dissolution we are experiencing at this point in time, as well as our own need for radical repentance.
I would also argue that, even for most conservative Christians, we also have not yet fully grasped the true nature of marriage – its nature as a covenant grounded in total self-gift, the co-illuminative gifts of being male and female at every level of human experience and relating, what it means to be a child, and the essential truths of love, and what it means to be human that each of these facets of marriage and the family are meant to teach us.
Even our history of racial injustice and race relations today cannot be understood outside the foundational realities of marriage and the family. Enslaved men and women were stripped of dignity and personal agency. As part of this dehumanization, they were actively discouraged from marrying or sustaining a meaningful family life. The families that were attempted were often forcibly broken up as husbands and wives, parents and children, and brothers and sisters, were routinely, permanently separated from each other. Generations of family lines and human souls were damaged in profoundly deep ways. When identifies have been destroyed, souls ravaged, and hearts routinely and repeatedly broken over the course of many generations, the consequences do not go away quickly, nor do they go away simply through laws and public policy (although these things can help). We will not get anywhere by telling people to simply “move on,” or to pick themselves up by their bootstraps and be thankful that things are better than they were. These wounds will also not be healed by critical theory driven solutions that continue to seek to destroy the truth of family and what it means to be men, women, and children, all of whom are vital in their unique way of embodying what it means to be human, and all of whom are meant to know love and formation within a family founded on self-giving love.
Because of the history of critical theory and its close association with Marxism and the fact that critical theory reductively associates race with a host of other oppressor/oppressed dialectics, terms like social justice and racial justice have now come to be associated with a particular political perspective and ideology. Because of this taint by association, I have noticed in recent conversations on race that the resulting suspicion either causes the conversation to cease entirely, or it gets bogged down in trying to figure out what “side” people are on. It seems that it is difficult for many American Christians to discuss our history and people’s experiences of race relations in a way that enables our ability to think, speak and act cohesively, creatively, and redemptively. We seem more willing to allow critical theory itself, as well as our own unconsidered “us-versus-them” perspectives, to frame our discourse, which only serves to further the movement of destruction that this mindset drives and feeds on. Is it possible that we can step out of a stance of suspicion and self-defense?
I believe it is because of what Jesus has already done to bridge our cultural divides (the blood of the Lamb of Revelation 12:11), that we in the church can come together in ways that transcend our political and cultural divisions, as well as the pride and the wounds that accompany them. In this process, we must allow the Holy Spirit to help us recognize our own eye-logs and consent to their removal, so that we can see his radical, redemptive, creative vision. Only when the church does this work of radical humility, prayer, and repentance, when we learn to listen, love and be family to and for each other in ways we have not yet done, will we have something to say to the world, a common testimony and witness grounded in Jesus’ prayer of John 17:20-23. The family of the church is only place I believe this is possible. Laws, culture, and social structures will only follow on, and flow out of, this primary spiritual work.
Concerning Bp. Vigano’s letter
Because of the wide circulation of the recent letter of Archbishop Carlo Vigano to President Trump, I feel it is important to reply, especially since it touches on much of what has been said in this reflection. I do not doubt Abp. Vigano’s good will, nor do I doubt the possibility that he has witnessed some profoundly disturbing things from his vantage point. There are, however, aspects of his letter that cause me great concern, things that seem to participate in and perpetuate some of the same unhelpful patterns that have just been discussed.
Regarding the Nature of the Battle Between Good and Evil
One of my concerns is the reference it makes to there being an eternal battle between God and Satan that is paralleled in our circumstances on earth. Scripture does not reveal an eternal battle between God and Satan. Instead, Satan is a fallen angelic creature, in no way on the same level of being as God. According to scripture, Jesus Christ has definitively defeated Satan in the past-tense, historical event of the crucifixion, resurrection and ascension. This event is never in question, no matter how much human sin and Satan’s schemes continue to interact and play out in human history as we continue to suffer the consequences and outplaying of what was described in Genesis 3.
Another concern is the framework of a fundamental division of basically good people on one level and deeply evil people at another level, who are attempting to control everything unilaterally from the top. Scripture does indicate that there is a difference between unintentional sin and willful treachery. At the same time, all sin has real, concrete consequences and as such, we are accountable to the Lord and to our fellow human beings, to seek his grace and the cleansing from sin and renewal that only he can provide.
Scripture does reveal a higher level of accountability for the sins of those in authority because much is at stake, and sin does in some way flow down from “the top” to everyone in a social context. However, the way that this letter frames the distinction of basically innocent and good people at lower levels of authority, while evil is mostly concentrated in leadership tends to detract from the responsibility and agency of ALL of the people of God to seek repentance and renewal. Repeatedly throughout the scriptures, it is precisely those who seek the Lord in this way at the lower levels of society without apparent cultural or political power who are his agents of prophetic speech, healing and reform.
Regarding Conspiracy Theories
I also find the references to conspiracies such as the “deep state” perhaps the most deeply concerning. My concern is rooted in my experience within my own marriage. I have seen what plays out when one spouse suspects or discovers that the other spouse is unfaithful. While it should never be understated how painful and damaging this is, and how necessary it is, indeed, for truth to come into the light instead of remaining hidden; nevertheless, all of us who have chosen the faithfulness path find out very quickly that falling into a perpetual stance of suspicion, fact-finding, and accusation only feeds bitterness and a tendency to speak and act in ways that further the sowing of division and spiritual darkness.
Again, scripture tells us repeatedly that our real battle is against the spiritual enemy of human souls (see Eph 6:11-13, 2 Cor. 10:3-5). In this sense, there is a conspiracy. It is a profoundly deep deception and it seeks the corruption and betrayal of all that is true, good and beautiful in creation. Its source is Satan and the pit of hell, and its focus is always on the goodness and trustworthiness of the self and the distrustfulness of the other, whoever that might be (always first God, then other human beings). If we think that the only location of deception is found in “the other”, “the enemy”, “the oppressor”, then we are deceived by the very deceiver we claim to have an upper hand over. If we persevere in a stance of suspicion and accusation, we simply will not become agents of spiritual truth, healing or redemption (the Kingdom of Heaven, as Jesus puts it) within a fallen, human context.
It goes without saying that power does have a particular way of attracting corruption. The halls of power and corruption are always tightly intertwined in this fallen world, and the tendency to want exclusive control seems to be universal. (J. R. R. Tolkein’s fiction provides excellent perspective on this tendency!) That diabolical principalities seek to align with human perspectives and efforts, and that human beings willingly participate, is also not in doubt. However, conspiracy theories tell us that it is only through their special “inside” knowledge that we are able to discern what is truly good and what is truly evil in a given situation. This has the distinct smell of a certain fruit of a Genesis 3 tree. No matter how true certain isolated aspects of these theories may prove to be, the fruit that that I see them bearing in our culture is that they feed fear and suspicion, they sow distrust, and deepen division, which results in the perpetual questioning of other people’s motives, who we fear now may be inadvertently serving the goals of these conspiracies.
I have seen this at work in the race conversation that has opened up amongst Christians following George Floyd’s death. Instead of being willing to meet people with generosity, humility, and love, listening with grace and engaging with deep, historical wounds in a life-giving, truly spiritual way, I have seen evidence of fear, suspicion, and a desire to protect unsuspecting, innocent people from being deceived by things like the “deep state” agenda. While it is true that race, along with the family and the role of authority (which is never meant to be oppressive, but life-giving and protective), is being targeted by the prevailing philosophies that are trying to direct the conversation in particular ways, this should not stop Christians from engaging together, and with others outside the church, in creative, redemptive, spiritual (versus fleshly) ways.
Both Jesus and Paul clearly warned us that there would be an increase in lawlessness and tribulation as history progressed, and that this would be so until the true nature of the mystery of lawlessness is fully revealed (2 Thessalonians 2:3-7). Jesus told us that in this progression, the love of many would grow cold (Matthew 24:9-14). Scripture also repeatedly emphasizes that the stance of God’s people is not to remain in a position of fear and focus on tribulation, but to humbly worship him and seek his revelation for spiritual strategy. Who is in charge? If we believe in the resurrection and ascension of Jesus Christ, he is, whatever anyone else’s agenda happens to be. If we are playing into the hands of fear and suspicion, we are not fully in sight of this fact.
What is the best warning we can give those we care about? I believe it is to take very seriously the condition of our own hearts and how they are being formed (Prov. 4:23). What are we letting in to our hearts? What and who are we allowing to cultivate our minds and hearts? There may be evil that we have to deal with and speak to, but if we are Christians, we can only speak redemptively from a perspective that transcends the fears and divisions of this world. The battle for the heart of our culture and that of the next generation will not be won by unquestioningly taking one of the political “sides” or by relying on or amplifying various conspiracy theories. Neither will it be won by adopting a view of human history or of ourselves that can only see evil oppressors and innocent oppressed.
I believe that, on the contrary, it will require digging deep and again allowing Jesus Christ to transform our hearts and minds on some things we have taken for granted and not lived out adequately, or have misunderstood. This is particularly true regarding the deep anthropological and spiritual truths of the family and how its truths of love relate to everything that we are as human, including the true nature of authority that Jesus Christ reveals and of the nature of human interdependence. It will depend on our becoming humble so that we can learn to speak truth in love with grace, perhaps very unexpected grace, with ALL whom we encounter.
I close with some scriptures:
You shall be careful therefore to do as the Lord your God has commanded you. You shall not turn aside to the right hand or to the left. (Dt. 5:32)
Only be strong and very courageous, being careful to do according to all the law that Moses my servant commanded you. Do not turn from it to the right hand or to the left, that you may have good success wherever you go. (Js. 1:7)
Do not swerve to the right or to the left; turn your foot away from evil. (Prov. 4:27)
“Enter by the narrow gate. For the gate is wide and the way is easy that leads to destruction, and those who enter by it are many. (Mt. 7:13)
Commit your way to the Lord; trust in him, and he will act. He will bring forth your vindication as the light, and your right as the noonday. Be still before the Lord, and wait patiently for him; fret not yourself over him who prospers in his way, over the man who carries out evil devices! Refrain from anger, and forsake wrath! Fret not yourself; it tends only to evil. For the wicked shall be cut off; but those who wait for the Lord shall possess the land. (Psalm 37:5-9)
I therefore, a prisoner for the Lord, urge you to walk in a manner worthy of the calling to which you have been called, with all humility and gentleness, with patience, bearing with one another in love, eager to maintain the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace. There is one body and one Spirit—just as you were called to the one hope that belongs to your call— one Lord, one faith, one baptism, one God and Father of all, who is over all and through all and in all. (Ephesians 4:1-6)
I include this link to an article by Kelly Hamren as further food for thought: Social Justice, Critical Race Theory, Marxism, and Biblical Ethics