Sunday, June 11, 2017

The Great Divorce - Trump and American Christianity

Yesterday I stumbled upon a magnificently-written article analyzing why American evangelical Christians have largely decided to go to bed with Donald Trump, a man whose life is so obviously contrary to the high biblical standards of Christian living. And then last night I couldn’t sleep. I woke up this morning after a fitful night, realizing that everything that I had been feeling about American Christianity towards the Trump campaign just lined up with my own experience of growing up in church in NYC.

Since the 1980s, with the founding of the Moral Majority, politically engaged evangelicals have tried to impose their moral outlook on the country through political means.
But many evangelicals tried to keep to themselves, walling themselves off from secular culture. All the while, the tectonic plates of culture shifted beneath their feet. When the Supreme Court legalized gay marriage in 2015, that set off alarm bells inside a community that had tried its hardest to sing praise hymns and hope for the best. It was a break-the-glass moment that alarmed many who had tried to ignore the changes in culture to that point, and it put them in a more darkly pessimistic mood.

    The independent Chinese church that I grew up in wasn’t technically evangelical, and in a lot of ways, it would have looked similar cosmetically to GracePoint or any CPC/CCC in Sydney. But in a few keys areas like cultural conservatism and its church members’ emotional feelings towards social issues like gay marriage, it aligned squarely with the sentiments of more Bible-belt, Baptist churches.

Trump’s reductionist promise of protection politics was the inevitable culmination of decades in which evangelicals did little to enter the dominant institutions in the public square and popular culture, instead choosing to hurl rocks at them, create pale imitations of their products or isolate themselves from them. Having forfeited the game of culture formation by leaving most areas of the playing field, evangelicals now had no choice — in the view of many — other than to throw in their lot with a man whose life and values were in stark contrast to their teachings, because he was their only hope for maintaining political power.

The damning words of this article resonate so strongly with my own experience of church growing up in the U.S. that when I read it, I also felt at fault for the type of cultural retreat that Christians made in the public sphere.  So much of  church culture was about building a wall and hermetically sealing itself off from the corrupt, outside, non-Christian world. I was taught implicitly through the songs that we sang and the activities we did in youth group that the purpose of being a Christian wasn't to preach the gospel of saving grace to the lost but to have a safe place to go to on Friday nights where uptight Chinese parents who are obsessed with their children's future worldly success could be assured that their precious kids aren't being subjected to bad influences like drinking or smoking or partying or swearing. And I 100% sh** you not, I'm not exaggerating because I just had a PTSD style flashback of the time angry Asian parents stormed into youth group when I was in year 10 to complain to my youth leader (who actually did care about reaching the lost) about rumors that there were actually kids attending church who SMOKE CIGARETTES. Seriously I didn’t  even realize I still had that memory buried deep down somewhere.

Jonathan Edwards likes to use the metaphor of sun and shadow to describe the difference between worldly pleasure and joy in God. Just as God is the sun, worldly idols are like shadows of the reality. I think that could be an apt metaphor for secular art and the embarrassing Christianized facsimiles that cropped up to appropriate it. Everything we sang at church, from Chris Tomlin’s edgeless, flavorless, pseudo-alt rock, to those yearly WOW Worship releases, were pale, shamelessly derivative imitations of truly beautiful and groundbreaking things that non-Christians were doing from the big bad outside. Every now and then we would watch the latest awful, awful, low-budget, heavy-handed, moralizing Christian movie that was always either about the end times (pretty much the only part of the Bible where you can drum up any Hollywood-worthy drama) or the good Christian kids getting through to their gangster school friends with the Bible in scenarios so laughably unrealistic that I would call it evangelism porn.

We American Christians are one hundred percent at fault for the mess we made when we chose the wide road of political power and cultural wall-building over the messy, narrow path of cultural engagement. We forgot that God called us to do evangelism and cultural renewal in the trenches of daily life and faithfulness in all the little areas of life. Instead, we choose to believe the far simpler lie that if we could just win a few key battles,  then the West would once again be ours. Think Roe vs Wade, Obergefell vs Hodges, righteous Mitt Romney (Mormons count as Christians, right? Ah, he's close enough for our purposes) versus Barack "Antichrist-wasn't-even-born-here" Obama.

As an American Christian, I repent and take responsibility for the part that I had in creating the current political quagmire where millions of people who profess to love Jesus feel that they have to, for the sake of their nation, throw their lot in with a clueless, thrice-married, arrogant, disrespectful, egomaniacal, compulsive liar.

I think that the way forward now is to acknowledge that we now have a beautiful, if scary, opportunity to be witnesses from the margins of society. We have a chance to shape culture from where Jesus himself was, as socially irrelevant, politically powerless outcasts whose mindbogglingly selfless way of life won over the elect even while eliciting scorn from the damned, just as the recipients of the Apostle Peter’s letters did. And we do it by rejecting the notion of being a Moral Majority and embracing what Russell Moore called the Prophetic Minority. It won’t be easy. It will be risky, costly, and sometimes infuriatingly unfair. That last part is what gets me the most; just how unfairly we will be represented in popular culture and the media, but that’s part of the calling to be foreigners and aliens in this world, and to have our citizenship in heaven.

Christians of the gospel were always the most powerful when they were at their most powerless. They left the most lasting impressions in the moments before their lives ended in between the jaws of lions. We Western Christians enjoyed a brief moment of reprieve in church history, where life was comfortable for a while, but the rubber band of history is snapping back. I confess that I am equal parts terrified and exhilarated for my future and the future of my children, because the stakes are getting higher. The costs of discipleship are rising. Instead of getting made fun of at the workplace, it’s getting refused work for my oppressive belief in the exclusivity of salvation. But the fires that our enemies are lighting down the road for us are the same fires that our God will use to purify and refine his people. I for one, am ready to face the future, albeit with hot urine in my pants, but also with resolve in my heart.

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