On the morning of the 2nd June I woke up to see this image and different versions of it splashed across my news streams and social media accounts. I felt physically sick. A man who epitomises a set of values opposite to mine standing outside a church and aligning himself to the same Anglican Communion I am part of and claiming a symbolic relationship to me that I did not accept (something the bishop of the Episcopal Diocese of Washington quite rightly publicly disavowed).
As I have reflected on this, over a month later; I wonder whether as a Christian I should have been surprised. Indeed this picture is actually simply the logical conclusion of the dangerous narrative that the church has sought to broker in terms of the power and privilege that it wields on both sides of the Atlantic Ocean while repeatedly protesting that it is in fact weak, powerless and on the backfoot. This is uncomfortable journey to take, it is one of fragility but needs to be thought through at both an individual and coporate level.
One of the podcasts I listen to, On the Media shortly after this took place interviewed Candida Moss (a Christian and professor of church history) for her reflection on this moment and she makes the point wisely (I think) that the interesting point about Trump is on the one hand he wields the power of the most powerful nation in the world but at the same has built his support on the insecurity of those who long for a nation that seeks to reassert its past glory, that seeks to turn the clock back and therefore seeks to see its nation through the lens of faded glory and powerlessness that needs a political saviour (aka Trump) to reawaken it.
This danger in this of course is that this narrative of ignores the truth that the US is still the world’s largest economy, is dominating the world through its tech companies and that the decisions over inequality are largely because of internal ones around the distribution of wealth. It is also a misnomer that there was ever a period of unparalleled universal wealth and prosperity. We can also safely say that in today’s world the US and its policies affect billions of people around the world in profound ways, often in ways which are devastating.
The challenging point that Moss makes though is that this deal is mirrored in Trump’s relationship with the church where he has managed to hook into its own insecurity and sense of persecution, threat and powerlessnes. Particularly for Trump with many ‘evangelical’ Christians in the US; where leaders and congregations have been persuaded to ignore some of Trump’s more dubious value based credentials for a narrative of potential future greatness and a restoration of what has been in the past.
Moss makes the point that we should not be surprised by this; the Church in its very broadest sense has repeatedly built a narrative of persecution at odds with its true position of strength and power; more often and not completely false premisse. Indeed, reflecting on my own upbringing, I have sat through countless sermons talking about the dangerous times we find ourselves in and bemoaning the world we now find ourselves within with the underlying threat of being a persecuted minority. I am not a historian but Moss’ book is worth a read as she develops how entrenched the persecution myth is.
It seems to me in responding to challenges raised in our time, not least the Black Lives Matters movement the Church and all who are Jesus pilgraims must be clear that in the western world Christianity is still central to the institutions of power. Christianity is not a persecuted faith; its failings therefore are fully and squarely of its own making. Just in the US alone evangelicalism (and a narrow interpretation at that) remains at the heart of the US narrative and church attendance in many parts seen as the norm. In the UK the Church of England remains firmly an established state church with at least £6 billion of investment reserves through the Church Commissioners and significant other income as well as reserves locked nationally within its cathedrals, diocese and parishes.
So what am I suggesting? Personally, I think these are my three starting points:
- Let’s stop with the persecution rhetoric and reflect that gospel message is one above all else of faith, hope and love as Paul writes. If we believe in a God that is real and at work today we do not need figures who promise to pass the right laws, promise to look after Christian interests or preserve our influence – in any political environment. We need the discipline to remember that God (often despite the Church) will be at work, in ways we simply do not see.
- We need stop avoiding political questions from out pulpits and platforms but to do so wisely; to make value-based decisions about the people we chose to support give our platforms to. Jesus chose to engage with people on this basis and so should we. Jesus chose to highlight examples of Kingdom building behaviour outside his own narrow Jewish perspective; often casting the hero in his stories as the reprehensible in that society and so should we. He chose to call out behaviour across the political spectrum that was unjust, disempowering and inconsistent and so should we. He did so particularly of the Romans and their behaviour as the dominant empire of the time and called out religious leaders who chose to preserve their place in the system and the status quo over championing God’s values.
- Let’s start thinking through what the gospel positively brings to the table in the world we live in. We live in a starkly polarised world yet the Christian faith from its Jewish roots has been able to hold a huge tent of views including some stark cultural differences while remaining in meaningful relationship.
In short my prayer today is to see a church that acknowledges its true resource and power and that lets go of the persecution and precariousness it wraps itself as a safety blanket. Instead it sees the role it has to heal, release and empower those it encounters… to build God’s Kingdom; perhaps dare I say it just like the example we see in Jesus.