Hoping in Herod: An Election Day Lament

This was first published in my newsletter earlier this year.

On the appointed day Herod, wearing his royal robes, sat on his throne and delivered a public address to the people. They shouted, “This is the voice of a god, not of a man.” Immediately, because Herod did not give praise to God, an angel of the Lord struck him down, and he was eaten by worms and died.

But the word of God continued to spread and flourish. (Acts 12:21-24)

This quick narrative is among my favorites in the Bible. King Herod has come down to Caesarea and a group of his subjects who’d previously been a nuisance to him now sought an audience to flatter his fragile ego. “They shouted, ‘This is the voice of a god, not of a man.’“

The timing of this little story is important. Acts is a book all about the spread of the early church and, until this point, very little has been said about Herod or any other governing authority. But then, in chapter twelve, Herod begins to persecute the church, including imprisoning the apostle Peter. Peter is freed from his chains by an angel, but the point has been made: the young church can no longer escape the attention of political power.

It’s interesting, then, that a few verses later Luke sets up the scene in Caesarea. Having flexed on the church, Herod now basks in the blasphemous praises of his subjects before suffering a dramatic and ignoble death. Herod, it turns out, despite his fawning crowds, is not all that impressive.

And then, revealing why he included this strange occurrence at all, Luke adds that God’s word continued to flourish. Neither Herod’s persecution in life nor his humiliation in death were enough to stop the Christians from announcing the arrival of God’s reign.

Lately I’ve thought a lot about the grief of the past few years. We’ve had our own Herod on the throne, a fragile and corrupt man whose need for the crowd’s adoration has proven insatiable.

But this is not the source of my grief. After all, we’ve known plenty of Herod’s kind of ruler in our history and there will certainly be more to come. No, the grief is provoked by the fawning crowd, singing the praises of a violent and deceptive man prone to dehumanizing those over whom he exerts his fickle power. This assembly is filled with my fellow Christians, heirs of the word of God which extends the divine welcome not because of this world’s kings but despite them.

I’ve spent some time with Dr. King’s reflections over the past few weeks and I hear this grief in him too: the lament over the silence of his supposed friends, the white Christians who continually urged him to slow down, the many Christians whose faith seemed to make them more violently opposed to their neighbor’s flourishing.

I’m not sure King ever got over that grief. I’m not sure we should either. God’s vision for his people is beautiful: reconciled to one another, bound together in our baptismal waters, a witness to Herod that his oppressive reign will not last. How can we help but to lament when we don’t find our sisters and brothers offering comfort and hope in Herod’s destructive wake but standing with the crowd, urging him on?

God’s love extends to the crowd; about this I have no doubt. I’m no more worthy of the love of God; about this, too, I’m sure. In fact, it’s this shared experience of God’s love which has made these years so hard. The gospel of Jesus’ kingdom is going to spread and flourish regardless of the outcome of this election, but too many of my own kin have pinned their hopes to Herod.

There will be a lot of reactions to the election today. For Christians though, our witness compromised by another arrogant and manipulative ruler, lament will mark our response no matter who wins.

Your vote matters less than you think. But also, way more.

This was first published in my newsletter earlier this year.

No matter who wins the election, God is still sovereign! How many versions of this sentiment have you heard expressed during an election cycle? In my experience, this sort of exhortation is common in white Christian circles. It’s deployed to lessen partisan tensions and to remind people that politics should not be divisive.

Can we break this down?

On the one hand, yes! Of course God is still in control regardless of who wins any election. But why is it that we need to be reminded of something so ridiculously obvious. I think it’s related to how many of us have been shaped to understand the U.S.A. as a sort of Promised Land. It is exceptional, John Winthrop’s “city upon a hill.” In a land flowing with milk and honey we look to our leaders to be more than slightly better versions of ourselves; we’re looking for a source of redemption, salvation, and hope. Someone to affirm our greatness or to return us to it.

From this vantage point it’s clear that we do need to be reminded of God’s sovereignty over our politics. We are prone to forget and to make idols of frail and greedy men in suits.

But what does this exhortation sound like to those who’ve never been confused about this country’s identity? What about those for whom the American day-to-day feels more like imperial exile than the land of promise? It seems to me that this heart-felt charge might ring ignorant. After all, elections have consequences and not only of the ideological variety. For communities who have long suffered and survived this nation’s politics, the notion that any elected official can save us is ridiculous and demonstrably wrong. But just as wrong is the sentiment that there aren’t lived implications at stake on election day.

Let me try to get at it this way: When I hear white pastors assure their congregations about God’s sovereignty, I’m left wondering if they realize how their neighbors of color will be disproportionately impacted by foolish politicians and their equally foolish policies. And when I hear the Black pastors in our community urge their people to vote, I don’t question for even a second their belief in the sovereignty of God. After all, they’re clear about where we live and what we can actually hope for from our cracked and corrupt systems.

A friend of color recently described his voting philosophy as selecting the least worst options. There are a bunch of assumptions baked into that straightforward perspective and those of us who’ve confused imperial exile for the Promised Land would do well to pay attention to them.

Scapegoating the Racists

I first wrote this for my weekly newsletter which you can subscribe to here.

My family moved to southern California the summer before my freshmen year of high school. That was the summer the Lakers lost to the Bulls in the NBA Finals. I think that loss was totally incidental to my decision to become an LA Clippers fan because the Clippers were so much worse than the Lakers. Sure, the Lakers may have lost to the Bulls but at least they got to the finals. Or made the playoffs. Or had a winning season. Oh man, the Clippers were horrible.

(Why did I choose the Clippers when most of my new friends were Lakers fans. I’ve no idea, though it probably reveals something about a contrarian personality that persists to this day.)

We all knew the Clippers were bad – it was so gratifying, and surprising any time they won – but most of us casual fans didn’t know about the particular badness of their owner, Donald Sterling. I had pretty much forgotten about my days as a Clippers fan until Sterling fell into the news a couple of years ago, his racism on public display thanks to recorded voicemails courtesy of his mistress. “In your lousy f**ing Instagrams, you don’t have to have yourself with – walking with black people.”

Apparently Sterling’s racism was an open secret and eventually he was forced to sell the team. (The Clippers are now consistently decent. I was a couple of decades early.) All of this came back in vivid detail as I listened to ESPN’s 30 for 30 podcast about the Sterling saga. It’s a really interesting look at the backstory that led to Sterling and his wife owning the team, the shady ways they build their fortune, and the racism that shaped how Sterling thought about his players, the black players particularly.

One of the things that caught my ear was how the host described the racist things Sterling was recorded saying. I’m not sure it was quite hyperbole – it was, after all, terrible stuff – but I got this sense that she wanted all of us to understand that she understood just how terrible it was. In a later episode one of the players who was on the team when Sterling’s racism broke into the open talks about his confusion about everyone’s reaction. He says something to the effect of: Everybody knew this guy. Why are you acting shocked now? Just because it’s public? It was an interesting contrast with the host’s disdain.

I thought about the collective reaction to Sterling back when the story broke. Here’s part of what I wrote then:

Sterling has been known for years to be prejudiced in his real estate dealings. He didn’t want to rent to Hispanics because they “smoke, drink and just hang around the building.” He opined that “Black tenants smell and attract vermin.” The Department of Justice sued Sterling in 2006, accusing him of housing discrimination. Where was the anger then? Perhaps it’s just easier to direct outrage toward those who make their racism explicit. Prejudiced systems and policies are more complicated, a fuzzier point to rally around. Maybe that’s why Sterling’s implicit racism didn’t elicit calls for his ouster. Or maybe it’s because acknowledging radicalized systems and policies implicates a whole lot of people and not just one, unlikable individual.

Those of us in positions of cultural privilege and power lose nothing when we call for Sterling to step down. It costs us nothing to distance ourselves from his racist language and perspectives on the world. But the same wouldn’t be true were we to call out the underlying racist structures that have made Sterling a very rich man while marginalizing his tenants, employees, and players. Shining a light into these shadows may well mean shining the light on ourselves. Much better, don’t you think, to direct our attention at one pitiful man?

All of this is a long way of getting at a tendency those of us who pursue racial justice should aim to avoid, especially those of us who are white and Christian. Scapegoating the obvious racist feels good for how I’m distanced from racism, but it does very little beyond feed my self-righteousness. The good work comes when I wonder about the similarities between Sterling and myself. Where is the propensity toward (racist) sin shared between us? Where might his public shame provoke personal repentance and confession?

Self-righteous scapegoating feels really nice for a few minutes, but it does nothing to address the racial injustices that persist long after Sterling was forced to sell his team. For that, we need a bit more honesty and humility.

For White Christians Who Keep Supporting the President Despite Most Other Christians Asking Them to Reconsider

It’s election time again and during the two years since the last one I’ve thought about you a lot. Your enthusiastic support for the president sent a shiver through the American church which many of us are still trying to make sense of.

It’s not that we’re surprised that so many white people voted for the president. As we listened to his dehumanizing rhetoric about immigrants, heard his plans to ban people from Muslim-majority countries, and remembered his racist language and actions towards African Americans, it was clear that a segment of white America would be attracted to this man. No, what was – and remains – so disturbing was your support. It seems that every poll since the last election shows white Christians among the president’s most fervent defenders.

Here’s the thing: I’m not interested in telling you how to vote. The amount of variables in any local election are significant and require great discernment from any Christian voter. What is interesting to me is your ongoing ignorance of why so many other Christians – Christians whose racial identities are different from yours but whose faith has been placed in the same God – are disturbed and even frightened by how you continue to support this president.

Does this distinction makes sense to you? It’s not your preferred political party that is the issue. It’s your disinterest toward your family in Christ that troubles so many of us. Over the past two years I’ve listened as you have described your attraction to this president. Yet not once have I seen the cares and concerns expressed by Christians of color be met in any way other than dismissively or defensively. I’m still waiting for the Trump-supporting white Christian who will show genuine interest and concern for those people of color who she is related to in Christ, and whose lives have been made less safe by this president.

I’ve heard some of you, in response to what I’ve said so far, complain that I’m picking on white Christians. Given the nature of cultural differences, you’ve told me, the ignorance across racial differences goes both ways in our churches. But this is plainly wrong. Our family members in Christ who exist outside the boundaries of racial whiteness don’t have the privilege of remaining ignorant about us white people. It might surprise you to know that many, many Christians of color can describe precisely – even sympathetically – why you voted for this president. That they know more about us than we do about them is a simple function of a society which contains a racial majority.

But what is normal within our racialized society should be alien to our churches. We who have been grafted into the family of God have no rationale for maintaining our ignorance about our fellow family members. When, for example, black Christians describe the fears raised when the president wants innocent black men sentenced to death, it must be the response of the entire church to attend closely to these fears, to make them our own. Or when the president releases a patently racist ad directed, once again, at Latino/a immigrants, all of our churches must feel the attack and sit with one another in solidarity and lament. Our churches, as witness-bearers to our reconciling Savior, are meant to stand together in response to every injustice that affects any of us.

I’ve spent the last couple of years looking for any example of this sort of solidarity without any luck. So what would you have us do? We, your fellow Christians, who are asking not for your vote but for your compassion?

It’s an honest question. As best I can tell, you would prefer to support an administration that actively harms members of the Body of Christ without believing those members when they describe the harm they’ve experienced. To say it slightly differently: You have made yourselves the authority about the lived realities of Christians of color in order to disregard their own descriptions of their realities.

I once heard a Native American Christian describe his many years of being ignored and disbelieved by white Christians. Despite his best, thoughtful attempts, the majority of white Christians simply wouldn’t take seriously his painful experience of the country. He finally came to see white Christians as the weaker sibling described by Paul in his letters to the Romans and Corinthians. He decided he had to change his expectations about them, imagining white Christians as immature children rather than emotionally mature and compassionate adults.

I realize how that characterization stings. I feel it too. But you’ll understand, I hope, how many of us are grasping at explanations for why you remain content in your detachment and disinterest from the rest of your Christian family.

What do I want for you? I’ve asked myself this a lot over these two years. I’m still working it out, but here’s what I’ve got for now: I want my fellow white Christians to take our allegiance to the Kingdom of God more seriously than our American citizenship. Which is to say, I want white Christians to love and believe the rest of our Christian family.

It doesn’t seem too much to ask.

Photo credit: Jake Guild.

The Priority of Prayer

Wendell Berry, in an interview in The New York Times on October 1, makes this important point:

Both of the political sides, so far as I am concerned, have to accept responsibility for the emergence of Donald Trump, the autonomous man, the self-made man, economically “free” and sexually liberated, responsible only to himself, starting from scratch and inventing his own way of doing things. To get outside the trajectory that produced Trump, we will have to go back to tradition. I am unsure when we began to think of, for instance, the 15th Psalm and Jesus’s law of neighborly love as optional. They are not optional, as I think the Amish example proves, and as proved by present failure.

I think Berry is exactly right to identify the fundamentally bipartisan nature of the president’s emergence. While we’re watching the Republicans fall in line and the Democrats engage in varying levels of resistance to this administration, we shouldn’t forget that the culture that gave rise to current resident of the White House is the same one that continues to animate our country’s partisan politics. To be clear, I hope that more Democrats will get elected in the midterms; a check on this administration’s powers is overdue. But such political victories should hold very limited hope without, as Berry notes, an alternative to the assumptions and ideologies that led us to this sad place in the first place.

Jacques_Ellul.jpg
Jaques Ellul

Christians ought to be able to think about these sorts of moments differently than others. In the afterword of his fascinating new book, The Year of Our Lord 1943, Alan Jacobs introduces the reader to one of my favorite Christian thinkers, Jaques Ellul. In the years immediately following World War II, Ellul, a Frenchman who spent the war years aiding the resistance and giving shelter to Jewish refugees, wonders about the role of Christians in rebuilding war-ravaged communities and countries. Jacobs’ book is all about the rise and eventual preeminence of a cultural mindset that elevated technology – the machine, science, etc. The old Christian humanism championed by C.S. Lewis, T. S Eliot, and the others Jacobs’ chooses to highlight would fade in the gleam of powerful technologies. Ellul understood the inevitability of technology’s ubiquity – and the human instinct to worship the glittering, gleaming machines – and still wondered what a distinct Christian response would be.

His answer, as he thought about Hitler’s rise, was that the unique thing Christians should have done – as Christians – was to pray. “But Christians,” writes Jacobs, “while they certainly did pray, failed to give prayer the priority and centrality they were required to give it. Had they done, then ‘perhaps the result would not have been this horrifying triumph of the Hitlerian spirit that we now see throughout the world.'”

And this brings me back to Berry and his observation about the emergence of Donald Trump. While Christians ought to think about how best to mitigate the damage inflicted by the presidential administration, we must do so from a very particular starting point. Voting and organizing are activities in which Christians ought to participate, but we will also remember that there is nothing inherently Christian about these things. Prayer, on the other hand, as a posture of submission and allegiance to Jesus Christ is something only available to those who confess Jesus as Lord. Our confession will lead to the kind of sober-minded assessments exemplified by Berry – we’re all responsible for this president – as well as for creative and humanizing responses that will remain invisible or irrelevant to our fellow citizens.