Fighting For Our Soul

November 3, 2020
1 Comment

We were in the basement of the parsonage in south central Wisconsin. A parking lot of fresh yellow lines sat between us and the church my dad pastored.

My dad stood up from his recliner and walked upstairs. After a pause, my mom broke the silence. “You cannot tell anyone. But I’m voting for John Kerry.” We rarely talked about politics in the house. “You can’t tell dad,” she added.

I was surprised by the heaviness and secrecy of this confession that had to be kept between mother and son. I realized only in hindsight that if the election came up at church, it may be best for my dad not to know that my mom voted blue. When I asked her about sharing this memory, 16 years and 3 moves later, she paused, still worried about the repercussions.

In the midst of an election that makes Bush-Kerry look like an episode of Cheers, what was true in 2004 is true today: it is not safe to disagree in church.

While division is not new, this year feels different.

Both parties paint pictures of a dystopian future if the “enemy” wins. Historians like Kristen Kobes Du Mez and Jemar Tisby remind us that while the volume has been turned up, the beats are still the same. Othering, fear mongering, and name calling are not new ingredients in a presidential election. Strategies to polarize and demonize, usually outliers sprinkled on top, have become the main dish. Both campaigns have published graphic images of the dystopian and catastrophically un-American future the other candidate would usher in.

Christians have carried this polarization to a dangerous conclusion. Christ Himself compels our division.

For Christians supporting Trump’s reelection, it is their obedience to Christ that compels them to stand against liberals who want to take God out of our public life, who want abortion to be available to anyone at any time, and who are ashamed of Christianity’s influence in America. President Trump, like it or not, is the best hope to defeat this enemy. And so out of their faithfulness to Christ, they stand by the President.

For those embracing Biden, it is out of obedience to Christ that they stand against President Trump who incites racism and inspires white nationalists, who denigrates immigrants, indigenous people, and the elderly, who has kept lifesaving information to himself. Trump is not Cyrus; he is Pharaoh. Horse and rider must be thrown into the sea!

Either way, Christ is not the common ground Christians return to. This year, He is the source we cite for our dissent. The church is in a precarious situation. Can our faithfulness to Jesus motivate our vote yet inspire unity among those who vote differently?

Here’s the good news: the church is incredibly adept at cultivating unity amidst deep difference. Over decades and centuries, we have pursued the ability to listen to one another with empathy, put aside our selfish ambitions and put on the same mind that was in Christ Jesus. Today, when we disagree about wearing masks or whether systemic racism is real or how we ought to vote, we find ourselves hosting these disagreements in a rich garden of resources that have helped us navigate differences with grace for millennia.

Checks church history notes

Actually…we might be in trouble.1 Unfortunately, the American church needs an ecclesiology that it does not have. We do not have an understanding of our ecclesial identity in Christ resilient enough to contend with the cultural onslaught we find ourselves in. We have not valued our unity in Christ as a gift worth laying our weapons down for. We have not viewed our differences as gifts to be celebrated. We recoil at perspectives other than our own. As soon as ideological cracks form in the church, we debate how to formalize the separation. We have made our beds, now we lie in them. The church is caught in a current of polarization washing us onto shores of hatred. The muscles we need to swim against this current are weak.

Hope is not coming easily right now, but stubbornly, and with little evidence, I believe the church’s unity may yet bear witness to the goodness of God.

I came across a passage in 1 Clement recently that brought me to tears. 1 Clement is a non-canonical letter written at the end of the 1st century by the church in Rome to the church in Corinth. Recalling better days for the Corinthians, the Roman church writes, “You were sincere and simple, free from malice towards one another. All subversion and every schism was abominable to you. You mourned over the transgressions of your neighbors. You judged their shortcomings to be your own.”

I wept at the intersection of the glorious possibility this letter recalls and how far removed we are from that possibility. After the election, could churches be transformed into communities where the very scent of division is abominable and the sense of belonging in Christ so thick that I understand my sister’s sin to be mine, and mine, hers?

No. Not overnight, at least. Many people, for good reason, have given up on the church. But God hasn’t and I am trying not to. Here are three resources that help in that pursuit.

Take communion every week.

One of my new answers to the question, “Why do you serve communion every week?” is: You may find yourself in the midst of a global pandemic during the most contentious election of your lifetime, and when you find yourself there, you will be grateful that communion shaped your community every week for years.

I’m grateful for the ways that weekly communion shapes the congregation I’m serving. The sacramental reminder of who we are is the sword of the Spirit we desperately need during this pandemic. Communion reminds us that those receiving the body of Christ in front of us and behind us, no matter how differently they engage the world, are beloved children of God. Communion reminds us that we pledge allegiance to no one but Christ. Communion reminds us that as the grain and grapes have been gathered together into one loaf and one cup, so too will the church be gathered one day.

Read the Belhar Confession.

Our congregation has also turned to the Belhar Confession. The Belhar Confession, written in South Africa by those seeking reconciliation post-apartheid, powerfully calls the church to unity. Section 2 of the Belhar prophesies:

We believe that {the church’s} unity must become visible so that the world may believe that separation, enmity and hatred between people and groups is sin which Christ has already conquered, and accordingly that anything which threatens this unity may have no place in the church and must be resisted.

Using this confession weekly in worship has drawn our attention to the radical nature of our unity. It has increased our ability to see dissension in our own community and will hopefully shape us into a church more ready to seek God’s justice in the world. What if we had been using the Belhar Confession regularly in our worship for decades? How might it have prepared us for this season? What if we use it over the next 5 years? Where might it lead us?

Practice Soft Difference.

Theologian Miroslav Volf commends an approach to Christian public engagement that he calls Soft Difference. In the article linked above, he commends this approach based on his understanding of 1 Peter. Those who practice Soft Difference: “reject the idea ‘become like me or get away from me.’ They have no need either to subordinate or damn others, but can allow others space to be themselves. For people who live the soft difference, mission fundamentally takes the form of witness and invitation.”

In Matthew 22, the Herodians and Pharisees (ideological enemies) approach Jesus together. In important ways, these gospel antagonists know Jesus better than we do. Over years of clashing in the temple and synagogues, they have come to know Jesus well. They recognize that he is a mutual enemy of their power. These foils  have the good sense to approach Jesus with apprehension, knowing that they both benefit if He falls. They ask Jesus a question about paying taxes which He brilliantly turns back on them.

I’m struck by the fact that among Jesus’ disciples listening to this encounter are Simon the Zealot and Matthew the Tax Collector. It must have been odd for Simon and Matthew to find themselves bound to one another through Jesus. Simon thinks collecting taxes for Rome is criminal, heretical, and an embarrassing vocation to have among the disciples. Matthew thinks Zealots like Simon are impractical, out of touch, and dangerous. Simon sides with the Pharisees. He leans in, hoping Jesus will denounce the Tribute Tax and start the revolution.

Both are disciples of Jesus, and I suspect they’re both disappointed by Jesus’ cryptic answer to the Herodians and Pharisees. Maybe each of us, confronted by the ever-confounding Christ, would be slightly disappointed, not affirmed in our own political convictions but challenged to love the person we despise the most. Maybe our churches, confronted by the living Christ, would find ourselves lamenting how earnestly we have sought to be right and how apathetic we have been about clinging in love to one another.

What seems true to me is this: Jesus does not want Simon to become more like Matthew or Matthew more like Simon; he wants them both to become more like him. He wants Simon to wash Matthew’s feet, not because Matthew has become more like Simon, but because Simon has become more like Jesus.

In the wake of this election, there are important conversations that still need to be had among families and congregations across the United States. Creating space for those we disagree with is the important work that lays before us.  That work will require each of us to look more like Christ. That work will not happen if we wait for them, the other, to look like us.

We’ll remember this year for the pandemic, the protests, and the election. But what has crushed congregations and pastors across the country this year has not been the pandemic or the protests or the election. What has crushed the American church this year is our absolute inability to love one another through disagreement. What ailed the church in the 1st century, and kept us silent in 2004, has decimated us this year.

May the Christ that inspires our votes, even more so inspire our love and unity.

About the Author
  • Caleb Schut recently moved to Australia with his family. He graduated from Western Theological Seminary in 2016, served as the associate pastor at Grace Chicago Church in Chicago, IL for six years, and currently is an Assistant Pastor at an evangelical church in Sydney. Additionally, Caleb and his wife run a non-profit called Beautiful Response in partnership with leaders in Uganda and Haiti.

  1. It feels worth mentioning here that my own denomination, the Reformed Church in America, was spared a contentious General Synod this summer due to the pandemic. This gathering would have, in all likelihood, led to a split.  

What are your thoughts about this topic?
We welcome your ideas and questions about the topics considered here. If you would like to receive others' comments and respond by email, please check the box below the comment form when you submit your own comments.

Leave a Reply

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

  1. “Not every wave of political enthusiasm deserves the attention of the church in its liturgy. Judging when political questions merit prophetic commentary requires a cool head and a theological sense of priorities. The worship that the principalities and powers seek to exact from mankind is a kind of feverish excitement. The first business of the church is to refuse them that worship. There are many times – and surely a major Election is one of them – when the most pointed political criticism imaginable is to talk about something else.” Oliver O’Donovan