November 30, 2010 / Theology
This essay is neither for nor against Glenn Beck. The philosopher Michel Foucault warns us …
The Other Journal (TOJ): The first question I want to pose to you is regarding your 2006 New York Times article “Wayward Christian Soldiers,” which emerged from the book your were completing at the time. One thing you note in that article is that the power that Evangelicals have amassed in the last decade has compromised our witness and our message and that our drive for access and power has been what you call a Faustian bargain; I was wondering if you could give our readers a brief genealogy of that bargain and how it is playing out in our culture.
Charles Marsh (CM): I think that, certainly, we have seen over the past several decades presidents courting the Evangelical community. But I have not seen anything like the veritable marriage of the Republican Party and white Evangelicalism that we’ve observed in the first six years of the Bush administration, and I try to talk about the historical origins of that Faustian bargain in the book, Wayward Christian Soldiers. There are a variety of reasons; I would say that at the very heart of this marriage is a theological mistake, and it’s one that is very familiar. I mean, Karl Barth, in thinking about the dead end of the Protestant Liberal establishment in Germany in the early part of the twentieth century, talked about a tradition that had started to speak of God, or grown accustomed to speaking of God, by speaking of humanity in a loud voice. I think that despite all of our self-righteous talk and our very loud piety we’ve grown accustomed to speaking of God by speaking of our own preferences, ambitions, and values in a loud voice. So there are profound theological mistakes at play in our confusion of patriotism and discipleship as well as in our seeming willingness to allow the language of the gospel to be used as partisan talking points.
You know, certainly Evangelicals—and I grew up in an Evangelical community, my father is a Southern Baptist minister, I was educated in an Evangelicalcollege prior to going to graduate school—I think some of us grew impatient on the margins of power and so this opportunity to move from the margins to the corridors of political power proved too great to resist. We offered our blessings on this marriage between conservative politics and white Evangelicalism—and was it not a marriage that benefited hugely the conservative Evangelical politicos? But as you noted in your question, it is also [a marriage] that has inevitably led to the profanation of the gospel in our time, [to] the cheapening of the proclamation. That’s one way I would begin talking about it.
TOJ: I think one thing that would be good to name for the readers is, specifically, when you say that Evangelicals have compromised the witness and the message with this joining of power, what do you think is the biggest part of that witness and message that has been compromised?
CM: Well, I mean let’s look for example at the war sermons preached by Evangelicals in the fall of 2002 and the spring of 2003. One of the most depressing exercises I’ve ever undertaken is sitting at my desk looking at the dozens of sermons preached to Evangelical congregations that had the effect of rallying the laity to [nearly] unanimous support of the invasion of Iraq, 87 percent of white Evangelicals according to a Pew poll. You asked what was most cheapened; well, one of the things that I discovered in the sermons was that Jesus made only a rare appearance and even then he appeared more as a pain in the ass than the Lord of all creation, you know, someone who spoiled all the fun in our national military ambitions—which of course he did! So Jesus appears [in these sermons] only to be quickly ushered out the door as soon as possible. Much more attention in the war sermons is given to esoteric passages in First and Second Kings—or a nod or two in the direction of the Just War doctrine, but that doesn’t work because of the criterion of last resort. In the end, one hears a kind of hallowing acquiescence to President George W. Bush’s authority to mediate God’s will to the nation. There is a perception that he is a brother in Christ, and he discerns the will of the nation, that we are to go to Iraq, and that he gets these messages directly from his Heavenly Father. Never mind scripture and tradition and all those aggravating moral rules we are obliged to practice as people baptized into the Body of Christ. Our president has an immediate relationship to the divine, and we will comply to his will by any means necessary. You have ministers like Charles Stanley, who are saying in their sermons that churches must accommodate the war by whatever means necessary.
In the end, not only are scripture, tradition, and the global ecumenical church marginalized, but the sermons give voice to a Christian piety without discipleship, which is to say, a piety without Jesus.
TOJ: A piety that seems to play out in a kind of foreign policy that, like you said, has nothing to do with Jesus.
CM: That’s right. It is a foreign policy that is baptized in all the jingoistic fervor of American values and American patriotism. There is a profound confusion between loyalty to nation and loyalty to the Christian tradition. And that is the anatomy of idolatry, isn’t it?
TOJ: If this is the case for us, what would you say the Evangelical community needs to do to rescind this bargain that we’ve made?
CM: Well, first of all, I want to say that I am speaking as an Evangelical Christian. I wrote this book in a couple of stages. The first draft, with its numerous revisions, was written before the midterm elections of 2006. The midterms changed the whole landscape of religion and politics and so the manuscript needed to be recast. I wrote the book initially as a jeremiad. I was angry, as many of us were angry, with all the insanity, and the book included more (by now) familiar criticisms of the Christian Right. But after the midterm elections, it seemed to me that some important new notes were being heard, particularly among the Evangelical laity, and I took a few months to perform some deep surgery on the book, looking critically at my authorial tone, and to make more clear the fact that I’m really speaking as an Evangelical and someone who is complicit in this.
Although I do offer some very direct criticisms of Evangelical church leaders, my purpose became more of [a response] to the question “Where do we go from here?” That seemed to me a question that was beginning to be heard after the midterm elections—not just as a result of the loss of political power but out of a sense of theological mistakes made. I continue to hear these sentiments among the laity but not among the leaders. The conservative elites still seem unapologetic. Charles Colson wrote an article in the Washington Post a couple of weeks ago in which he tried to make the case that the continued occupation of Iraq fulfills Just War criteria—a real extraordinary feat. I didn’t hear a sense of, “we have made mistakes, and so what do we do now?” or any concern with the undeniable fact that the “cause of Christ,” as we used to say in the churches, had been hurt severely by our political behavior.
I mean, can Christianity Today not take some time to ask how we shall then live after this period of compromise, of accommodation, of theological mistakes so great [that] they have aided in the unleashing of enormous violent forces in the world? I think that’s where I really wanted to move in the final revisions of the book, and obviously the first step was a willingness to think honestly about the damage done and a willingness to engage in serious soul-searching and a penitent heart, to be quiet before the Lord with a repentant and truthful heart. When I appeal to the discipline of silence in the book, this is not some media ploy or a sensationalistic call to shut up. John Wilson in Books and Culture, who attacked my book in a July review, though without any engagement with the theological substance of the book, titled his piece, “Be Silent and Buy My Book.” Surely he is aware of the time-honored practice in the Christian tradition of being quiet before the Lord. Dietrich Bonhoeffer spoke of a silence that brings “purification, clarification, and concentration upon the essential thing.” CanEvangelical Christians in America seriously deny that churches desperately need this kind of discipline? So I wrote about a time of confession, a remembering of who we are, of having the humility to say that we have made grave mistakes, mistakes with far-reaching global consequences. And we must humbly stand in God’s presence and seek forgiveness.
In my wildest dreams, I sometimes imagine that one of Billy Graham’s final calls to revival and renewal will be a convening in Washington—on the same mall where Dr. King shared with us his dream—a gathering of hundreds of thousands, maybe millions, of Evangelicals in repentance for the church’s support of the devastation of Iraq. I think in smaller groups and individual devotionals and churches, Christian colleges, magazines, and institutions, we all need to be thinking seriously about what repentance looks like.
TOJ: It is interesting that you went in that direction, because in this issue, TOJ is talking about both individual and corporate psychopathology; we are focusing on the way sins form our psyches. In doing this, and I think we’ve been good about it so far, we are trying to name the malformations that Evangelicals have fallen into.
CM: Well, there are a lot more. If you’ve read the book, you know. This whole kind of messianic impulse that drives so many of us in the Evangelical world, which I’ve noted and you’ve certainly noted too, I have been thinking about for a long time. My three books that preceded Wayward Christian Soldiers all treated in some degree the culture of Southern Evangelicalism in the 1960s. The current situation seems too familiar, like a Southern-Evangelical-segregationist-Gnostic heresy writ large. You know, good Lord, I thought I’d gotten away from that, and now we’re all that way!
TOJ: You mention silence and repentance as possible ways out, but I wonder if you’d speak about more? While focusing on sins, what we’re also trying to do in this issue of TOJ is to talk about virtues that lead toward healing. With this notion of a conflation of flag and cross that kind of dominates the Gospel—and I would include myself in this category, Evangelicalism is where I’m coming from as well—what are some virtues or practices of discipline that we can inculcate to pull apart the tentacles of flag and cross that we have allowed to intertwine so completely?
CM: We are living in a critical period of time, and one wonders whether it may not be now appropriate to call it a day on the American Evangelical project. Nonetheless, in this time, if we have any hope of moving forward, we must reaffirm the Christian faith’s essential affirmations and seek to live in simple devotion to Jesus. What are these essential affirmations? Practicing hospitality to strangers; affirming the sacred character of all created life; learning how to engage the world as healers and participants rather than as manipulators or as people who control the script; learning to be still in God’s presence; keeping the mysteries of the faith from profanation; [and] remembering our citizenship in the global, ecumenical Body of Christ [by] living as builders of just and human community [and] working, as Dr. King admonished in his extraordinary sermon [at] the end of the 1956 Montgomery Bus Boycott, [toward] redemption, reconciliation, and the creation of beloved community. Learning to be peculiar rather than to be relevant. We must remember that God is fully God without America. It is really learning all over again what it means to say yes to the call of Jesus and what it means to take that first step.
Bonhoeffer in the Cost of Discipleship said that the first step changes everything, that acts of obedience are a step into a new world. Discipleship means learning to practice the citizenship of this new world in the world that we are all in.
TOJ: Well, I was going to ask you in one of the later questions, but I guess I’ll ask you now. Your earlier work (and I guess you continue to work on him in some of the pieces you’ve written that I have seen) was on Bonhoeffer, and you know the context of Bonhoeffer was vastly different than our present context and yet there are also many things that are somewhat similar—military hostilities, domestic oppression, and persecution of certain people groups—and one of the points that you have made is that Bonhoeffer was not just a pastor but a theologian working through some of these issues and even a philosopher. My question is, how do you as a professor of religion and an Evangelical see yourself as struggling with this mixture of the public/private that is written so deeply into our culture? How do you find yourself wrestling with that and working off of Bonhoeffer to do that?
CM: Yeah, that’s a great question. I have been mindful time and again of one of the letters from Tegel Prison to [Eberhard] Bethge, when Bonhoeffer writes that the time of words is over. Our witness must now be limited to two things: prayer and righteous action. Bonhoeffer had a sense that the language of the gospel, its ability to speak to the world with power and freshness, and not just to communicate but to instantiate the reconciling love of God, had been obliterated in its misuse, by its misuse. He imagined a certain kind of necessity in righteous action and prayer. You might remember, too, in a passage in Ethics there is a similarly mind-boggling passage. I would love to convene a symposium of theologians and pastors around this one paragraph. Bonhoeffer says, “In earlier times the church could preach that a person must first become a sinner, like the publican and the harlot, before he could know and find Christ, but we in our time must say rather that before a person can know and find Christ he must first become righteous like those who strive and who suffer for the sake of justice, truth and humanity.” I mean, that is an extraordinary remark that speaks to us in this moment.
The way that I try to negotiate the private and public right now is by recognizing that this is a time when Evangelical Christians, and all Christians, must learn what it means to affirm humanity. Many of us, in all of our post-liberal zeal to retrieve Christian particularity, have spent a lot of time emphasizing our linguistic, contextual uniqueness, our own peculiar sort of logic, the special sense of our distinctive truth claims—and I’m not at all suggesting that Christians relinquish the particularity of the gospel or the specificity of the gospel, not at all—but one of the forms that repentance might take is a renewed commitment to humanity and a humility that leads to a greater service of the world. We might begin to live out our particularity in service to humanity.
TOJ: That seems to me a very interesting concept. Then, at the end of the age of the humanist, Christianity was defining itself against that kind of ideology, and now, at the end of the age of the secular humanist, it might be Christianity’s challenge to proclaim the humanity of people.
CM: Lovely. You know Barth said somewhere in the Word of God and the Word of Man, “we must be more romantic than the romantics, more humanist that the humanists, but we must be more precise . . . ” and honestly, more precise might be the most important part of that admonition. I think that that precision has often been claimed as a possession that we wield over others rather than as a gift that really enables genuine community. Why not think of Christian discipleship as a journey to authentic humanism.
We [The Program on Lived Theology, University of Virginia] have John de Gruchy, a South African theologian, coming to speak on his new book, Confessions of a Christian Humanist. And yes, it seems like an important theme at the moment. I can’t say that it is an important theme for the church in Latin America or the church in Europe—I don’t know—but I think that in our context, and particularly in light of the contempt for the global, ecumenical church, displayed by bothEvangelicals and liberals in the United States, this theological theme speaks to us with a kind of urgency.
TOJ: Dr. Marsh, please let me ask one final question. Given that this is what some people are referring to as a post-civil rights era, how do we begin to work toward, or how do we see, reconciliation in this time? What does it look like? What language do we use to talk about this very important idea of reconciliation and opening ourselves in hospitality to other people? So taking what we’ve learned from civil rights and the shortcomings we’ve learned from the civil rights movement, how do we go forward?
CM: My dear friend, the civil-rights saint and Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) field secretary, Victoria Gray Adams, who passed away last winter of a brain tumor, was a church woman and a business leader in Hattiesburg, Mississippi, who became a field secretary for the SNCC and a sister-traveler with Fannie Lou Hamer, an extraordinary woman of faith. I was privileged to get to know Ms. Adams and to work with her in the Project on Lived Theology over the past seven years. She lived in Petersburg, Virginia, and served as the Wesleyan chaplain at Virginia State University. The last time she visited with me she was speaking to my Bonhoeffer-King seminar in my home. It was a winter afternoon; we had a fire going, and there was just a wonderful spirit in the room. She was a riveting storyteller. She had us singing and praying; and she had a gift of invoking the spirit of the Movement in a way that was palpable. I am so sorry that she is gone, although I am moved by the thought that Ms. Gray and Ms. Hamer are breaking bread together in heaven. In what proved to be our last conversation, Ms. Adams was asked by a student about the mission of the civil rights movement today. Without hesitation she said, “It is learning to speak the language of peace.” And I think she put her finger precisely on the need, the kairos, of our situation. I certainly think that the practice of peace and learning to speak the language of peace includes a variety of attendant practices, but her answer would be the first response I would give to your question.
TOJ: Given the scenario that we find ourselves in, it is amazing to me how much Evangelicals have a dearth of the language of peace. Within a survey ofEvangelical sermons I would think that peace is something that pops up either infrequently or not at all. So there is a deep need to regain that as a theological concept, and not as a concept but as a practice, a lived practice that is deeply important to us.
CM: Absolutely. Let’s hope that this exchange helps usher in a renewal of this language.
Charles Marsh is the author of Reclaiming Dietrich Bonhoeffer: The Promise of His Theology and Strange Glory: A Life of Dietrich Bonhoeffer, which won the 2015 Christianity Today Book Award in History/Biography and was shortlisted for the PEN/Jacqueline Bograd Weld Award for Biography. A recipient of a John Simon Guggenheim Fellowship for Creative Arts and an Ellen Maria Gorrissen Fellowship at the American Academy in Berlin, Marsh teaches in the Department of Religious Studies at the University of Virginia and lives in Charlottesville, Virginia, with his wife, Karen Wright Marsh, and their Craigslist rescue, Ginger. His new book, Evangelical Anxiety: A Memoir, will be published by Harper/One in February 2022.
Dan Rhodes is Editor-in-Chief of The Other Journal. He is also Minister of Political and Missional Life at Emmaus Way in Durham, North Carolina, and the author (with Tim Conder) of Free for All: Rediscovering the Bible in Community (Baker Books, 2009). He is currently a candidate for the doctorate of theology at Duke University Divinity School. He lives in Raleigh with his wife, Elizabeth.