People who survive cancer often call it a gift. It comes as a great disruption and forces a kind of personal reckoning. Something similar could be said about the election of Donald Trump for churches in America.
As we saw in Part 1, the default mode for most churches is to cooperate with the political and economic powers that be. It is only when a great disruption occurs that churches realize that the “go along/get along” strategy doesn’t square with Jesus’ words about the impossibility of serving two masters, whether God and Money, God and Country, God and Party, God and Race, or God and Violence.
A great disruption such as the one being provided by Donald Trump and his supporters are motivating surprising numbers of Christians to look for the next exit ramp from the Highway of Cooperation, seeking instead the Path of Spiritual Activism.
Activism means that we must not only resist evil but overcome it with good. And Spiritual means we must dig deep beneath our political, economic and social controversies and grapple with the deep questions of life: who we are, why we’re here, what is good and beautiful and true, where we want to go, and how we plan to get there.
When Christian communities put their feet on the path of spiritual activism, they experience a conversion: from a quiet chaplaincy of the status quo to a dynamic “school of revolutionary love” — a formative space where people of all ages can learn the values, skills and practices of working for the common good. Take this path and you’ll shelve all repetitive religious busy-work and instead you’ll start aligning every sermon, prayer, Bible study, meeting and song to build joyful resilience during oppressive times. The more the untruth, demagoguery, and hostility, the more you’ll be energized to overcome evil with good.
What might that look like?
When the President incites racial or religious fear, you will build relationships with congregations of different races and religious. When the Administration incites Islamophobia or anti-Semitism, you will form circles of protection around mosques and synagogues. When Trump’s supporters scapegoat and dehumanize immigrants, you will find ways to protect, humanize, and serve them in love. When Trump guts environmental protections, you will launch solar energy programs and create watershed protection teams. When Trump spreads lies, you will speak the truth … in sermons, in prayers, online, in mass demonstrations, in phone calls to political representatives, in a needed conversation with a misguided relative, or even in a political campaign of your own in the next election cycle.
At the very least, you will create space for needed civil dialogue. At the very least, you will take a stand against abuse of power, corruption, and misinformation – wherever they occur. At the very least, you will call for the civic virtues that our nation needs – starting with a concern for truth and a commitment to nonviolence. At the very least, you will not pretend that all is well and you are pristine and spiritual, above the fray.
Settling into cruise control on the Highway of Cooperation might look easy in comparison to the Path of Spiritual Activism. But do not think for a minute that the easy choice is safe and all will be well. If you hold back from the Path of Spiritual Activism, don’t be surprised when your best and brightest members, your young and visionary members, your most compassionate and courageous members leave you and never come back. Your choice for inaction will be your legacy in the history book of these dramatic times.
If you are a member of a congregation that is firmly on the Highway of Cooperation and you feel your conscience troubling you, don’t leave – not yet.
Instead, make an appointment with your pastor or priest as soon as possible. Prayerfully prepare for that meeting by writing down what you want to say. Explain how you feel about what’s going on in our country. Explain why you are uncomfortable with your church’s relative silence. Explain why your faith requires you to care and take action. Offer specific proposals or requests. And then explain that if your church stays on the Highway of Cooperation, you will need to find a new faith community.
Be gracious. Be humble. Be grateful for all that’s good about your church. Understand the complex struggles of church leadership and show sincere empathy for the tough situation your pastor or priest is in. But be clear that your conscience won’t let you be complacent — or complicit. (And if you find it helpful to share this article with your pastor or priest, please do.)
If he or she wants you to stay and assures you that your voice and influence are needed and welcome, commit yourself to raising relevant issues in prayer, in classes, Bible studies, and conversations. Express your concerns visibly, audibly, persistently, passionately and winsomely. Organize and act, nurturing spiritual health and depth to empower and guide you. Learn how to communicate effectively, with humility, and avoid self-sabotage. Learn from your mistakes (you will make some, you will need to admit them, and that’s OK). And when you are criticized or opposed (as you most certainly will be), respond graciously and with kindness, neither returning insult or attack in kind, nor backing down.
If your pastor or priest makes it clear that they are committed to the Highway of Cooperation, don’t spew insults or criticism on your way out; you’ll simply harden people in their resistance. But don’t slip quietly out the back door either. Instead, with kindness and sincerity, with gentleness and humility, explain to people (through appropriate channels) how you feel and why you need to go elsewhere. Don’t burn bridges. Others may contact you and follow your lead a month or a year from now, when they’re ready. As I’ve written elsewhere, I believe a great spiritual migration is underway, and the intensifying stress of this time in history will mean people will make difficult decisions when they are ready — or required — to do so.
Resources are available to help you find a new congregation that supports Spiritual Activism. (See https://convergenceus.org/churches/). If there are no churches in your area, you can also find resources to help you form a faith community committed to Spiritual Activism. And if you are in a similar situation from a Jewish, Muslim, Sikh, Buddhist or other tradition, there are also great organizations with resources to help you. (See www.brianmclaren.net for resources.)
And what if you’re a pastor or priest? Ask for support and prayers from your board, vestry or other leadership group as you lead them onto the Path of Spiritual Activism, and seek guidance from respected mentors and coaches as you proceed.
But whether leader or congregant, the time for moral courage and spiritual action has arrived. When so much is at stake, we cannot keep investing our time, energy, gifts and money in the wrong side of justice, peace, decency, foresight and love.
American Christianity in the early part of the 21st Century is at an historic crossroads. Look in one direction, and you’ll see see Jerry Falwell, Jr., Franklin Graham, Paula White, Robert Jeffress, Pat Robertson, Janet Parshall, Mike Huckabee, Tony Perkins, Ralph Reed, Eric Metaxas and others like them leading the way on the wide and smooth Highway of Cooperation.
Look in the other direction and you’ll see Christian leaders on a more challenging Path of Spiritual Activism: William Barber, Jacqueline Lewis, Diana Butler Bass, Rachel Held Evans, Michael-Ray Matthews, Lisa Sharon Harper, Jim Wallis, Tony Campolo, Peter Heltzel, John Dorhauer, Cameron Trimble, Shane Claiborne, Glennon Melton, Eugene Robinson, Otis Moss III, Minerva Carcano, Laura Truax, Doug Pagitt, Amy Butler, Jonathan Martin, Aaron and Shauna Niequist, Brandon and Jen Hatmaker, Simone Campbell, Patrick Carolan, Raphael Warnock, Gene Robinson, Yvette Flunder and others like them leading the way.
The path you choose will make all the difference.
Brian D. McLaren is an author, speaker, activist, and public theologian. A former college English teacher and pastor, he is a passionate advocate for “a new kind of Christianity” – just, generous, and working with people of all faiths for the common good. He is an Auburn Senior Fellow, a contributor to We Stand With Love, and a leader in the Convergence Network, through which he is developing an innovative training/mentoring program for pastors and church planters.