I’m in despair. I have great hope. I’m not optimistic. There is a clear path forward. Yes, I am of two minds.
The topic is the state of the church today in North America. I browsed the “religion” aisle at Barnes and Noble today and was struck how “Christian” books could sit side-by-side on the same shelf. There in my line of view were Jesus and John Wayne, and a book calling Christians to stand their ground against “cancel culture” before it’s too late. There were anti-racist books next to Christian nationalism books. These contrasts seem to me to be less options within a shared faith, and more two completely different faiths. I’m not optimistic.
I am not optimistic that there are terms for reconciliation. But the greater problem in my estimation is the public beating the reputation of the church is taking. Part of the public damage is the de facto schism between these two or more versions of Christianity. But the bigger reputation problem, in my estimation is related to the ugliness of public Christian discourse. Though not all Christians are guilty of public ugliness, it is prevalent enough that all Christians are painted with the same brush. Fair or not, this is a problem for us all.
Evidence that this is our lot may be found in the series of “Jesus gets us” commercials, a multi-multi-million dollar effort to rehabilitate the reputation of Christians. I have no doubt that this massively expensive undertaking has strengthened something most people already believe, namely that Jesus gets us. Jesus needs little PR help. People think favorably of him. It has done little, though, to convince people that the “church gets us.” In fact, the irony is that some Christians have complained that the Jesus presented in the commercials is too woke. The irony here is that Jesus doesn’t get “us,” the “us” being Christians. Put the other way, these critics don’t get Jesus.
I doubt that this public reputation problem will improve much in my lifetime (I am, after all, on the back nine). It leaves me with the question of how best to spend my energies. I’m not sure, though I have some hunches that I’ll explore later. But I have a read on where we are, that could be mistaken, that gives me hope.
We are in a place of public humiliation. Our brand is diminished. We have sold ourselves into bondage, imposed exile on ourselves, and nailed ourselves to a cross. It is important to realize that we have put ourselves in this position. This is our own doing. “Secularists” didn’t do this to us. This isn’t the result of pluralism or globalization. This is a self-inflicted wound. To see ourselves as victims would be to misread the moment and fail to do what is needed the most, to be humiliated.
I imagine this is not yet all the way to hopeful yet as a proposal. Perhaps it would be more palatable if I had said “humbled” instead of “humiliated.” But I think “humiliated” puts us in better company. It puts us in company with Hebrew slaves dealt with ruthlessly in Egypt. It puts us in company with the Servant of Yahweh who was humiliated in exile. It puts us in company with the one who was publicly humiliated on a Roman cross. It puts us in the company of those whose only hope is God, the God who raises from the dead. We find ourselves where God does God’s best work. I have hope.
The wrong move, I am convinced, is to claw our way back to a place of prominence wherein we call the shots and control outcomes. Not only is it the wrong social goal for a group that follows a homeless Galilean peasant who dies outside the city gates on a Roman cross, but the effort will require only more of the same that got us in this place to begin with–more judgment, more condemnation, more moral superiority, more hypocrisy, more strange political alliances, more corruption related to the quest for power, more of all of the wrong things.
The church has ultimately nothing to fear in losing its life for the sake of the kingdom. It has much to fear in winning, in triumph, in grasping its life through its own doing, and as a result losing its life.
The way forward, I believe, is to embrace exile, but in a new way. It begins by confessing that the public critique of others is true and just. This does not make them right about everything. It’s only that they’re right about us in this case. No self-justifications, no defensiveness. Just saying the truth of the matter. We are no longer publicly trustworthy.
And for awhile, this means acting like exiles: not trying to make our lives bigger, the program grander, the show more spectacular, but to instead find simplicity and humility the shape of our footprint in the world. And it means to make league with all of the other disempowered, marginalized groups. As the “Jesus gets us” commercials have made clear, these are our people. To make league with them not to be their savior, but to share life with them, to find Jesus among them. Not to advocate for our own sake, but for theirs.
It will require that we hold still long enough for one version of Christianity to die so that another might emerge from the rubble. Again, the gospel teaches us that those who lose their life will find it. I remember Bonhoeffer’s line that the church enters the world, like Jesus, to die. My hope lies here, in the irony that this diminished church will in fact be a more powerful church. That humility and self-forgetfulness is more powerful than casting our shadow to appear bigger than we are. That this way is more winsome. But most of all it is more in line with the Jesus who gets us.