David Gushee: Christians, Conflict and Change Faith General story Opinion Politics

On being strangers in a strange land

New York Avenue Presbyterian Church in Washington, D.C. RNS photo by Kevin Eckstrom

In my experience there are three main kinds of American Christian attitudes when it comes to our national politics.

There are those who feel quite comfortable with a Democratic president and during those times generally feel little tension between their Christian commitment and the direction of their country.

There are those who feel quite comfortable with a Republican president and during those times generally feel little tension between their Christian commitment and the direction of their country.

And there are those who feel quite comfortable with no president and at all times feel high tension between their Christian commitment and the direction of their country.

As the United States prepares to inaugurate Donald J. Trump as its 45th president, I find myself moving from the first to the third group.

That may be because I remain so astonished, appalled, and disconcerted at the character of this particular person that I have temporarily taken leave of my senses.

But, while it is true that I would rather go into Kroger and pick any random person to serve as president than accept the one we are about to get, I still think that my move from left-Christian comfort to resistant Christian discomfort goes further than that.

If I might be so bold, I would describe it as an expression of repentance.

I repent that my left-leaning politics left me too comfortable with America-when-led-by-Democrats, especially when led by Barack Obama. It is not too much to say that I “believed in” him, in the sense that I trusted his character and was reflexively inclined to support his policies. I felt “at home” in his America.

But this then made it difficult for me to muster a terribly serious critique of the many ways in which his, and his party’s, policies fell short of the Christian moral principles that I have promised my life to uphold.

More deeply, the election and re-election of Barack Obama made me feel overly complacent about the general goodness of America — and a perceived movement of our nation toward what the Rev. Martin Luther King would have called “the beloved community” and Jesus would have called “the kingdom of God.” I shared that reformist-liberal-Christian comfort that though America was flawed, the general trend line was in the direction of progress.

It feels nice to believe in the goodness of your country, the high character of your political leaders, and the congruence between your national identity and your Christian commitment.

But what if your country is not good, your political leaders do not have high character, and any congruence between your national and Christian identities is a dangerous illusion?

What if the Anabaptists and their successors were right, that the best posture of Christians toward any state is to reclaim that New Testament understanding that we are “exiles” (1 Peter 1:1), strangers in a strange land, situated in a particular earthly nation but at home nowhere on this earth?

I was struck by a comment from a Jewish colleague of mine. We were at a professional meeting talking about the election, and she said, “Why are people surprised when Chaldeans act like Chaldeans?” This was the term in the Hebrew Bible for the Babylonians who attacked, plundered, and destroyed Jerusalem in the 6th century B.C. and carted Jews off into exile.

What if, in fact, America has evolved into Babylon, the world’s reigning empire? This is not a new suggestion. And what if people of faith should retain a critical, distrusting distance toward whoever the reigning emperor of the reigning empire should be at a given time?

Perhaps Christian proximity to political power for two millennia has tempted us to forget that the rulers of this world are indeed the rulers of this world, that they are not our friends, that they are not to be trusted, and that no earthly nation, political party, or leader is ever to be believed in. Jews, who have spent most of their history as aliens and exiles, have much to teach us here.

So an inauguration will take place on Friday.

For the first time in my life, I will feel no sense of connection to or interest in the event at all. The Empire is changing leaders. I will pray, as instructed in my faith, that the new leader will rule with justice and wisdom (Psalm 72). I will pray for the well-being of my neighbors and of the world. But I will fear, and trust, and obey, God alone.

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David Gushee

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  • That’s kind of how I understood the New Testament regarding the secular authorities. Our constitution is by nature secular which means it doesn’t have to track with all Christian values, as we see happening now.

  • I’m genuinely curious. As a someone trying to live according to the example Jesus gave, how did you not feel this way when Reagan won? Or Bush I or Bush II? They may have talked the talk, but they didn’t walk the walk. The big difference with Trump is he doesn’t even bother with the talk.

  • “But I will fear, and trust, and obey, God alone.”

    If so, you should be concerned about our country and push to keep government and religion separate as our secular constitution requires. Otherwise, the government will tell you who to fear, trust and obey.

  • You are effing useless. Gonna block you and suggest others do the same. There’s no likelihood of anything besides crude as hominem insults from you. Bye bye.

  • I’m not that rattled, but…Sometimes as christians we just get distracted.
    I still believe I can govern myself pretty well in this county. I didn’t vote for the current president, twice. I didn’t vote for the next president, I’m pretty I’ll be okay.
    If you’re doing well don’t imbrace your doing wellness so much that you lose the ability to remember we self govern ourselves. If you’re not doing well don’t imbrace your not doing so wellness so much that you lose your ability to remember we self govern ourselves.

  • Again with that word, I appreciate that you get exercised by certain types of posts and posters, but I have a hard time finding the distinction between the ad hominem approach of some and the vicious visceral responses of others to them.

  • The government is already doing that without reference to religion, unless one wishes to classify secular humanism as a religion, which some thoughtful individuals already have done.

  • While I am prepared to accept Dr. Gushee’s deep felt unease as it relates to his Left leaning Christian philosophy/theology, I wish that his commentaries were more incisive with less of his anguished pathos/bathos. As a Right leaning fellow Christian, I voted for Mr. Trump less as an endorsement of his character but rather as a protest against what I found deplorable about his opponent. In my own state of Oregon…the vote mattered not, which I well knew when I cast it. I do endorse Dr. Gushee’s point about being “strangers in a strange land,” from the 1st epistle of Peter, and I will hope that He remembers that when the pendulum swings back to the Democrats in the future.

  • Whether any of the aforementioned Presidents “walked the walk,” or not, is bound to be a subjective judgment depending on one’s own framing of what Jesus intended by His teaching. Surely, concern for the poor, ill, and disadvantaged was a distinct commandment of the Lord. How these Presidents failed or not in this regard can be legitimately argued. On the other hand, as a Christian, I have a difficult time discovering within the recorded teachings of Jesus, whether by implication or inference, an endorsement of say, abortion, gay marriage, or the whole LGBTXYZ me’lange. While in profound disagreement with the current President over a range of issues, I applaud him fully for his faithful execution of his role as both a husband and a father, and when a man can be praised these days for that accomplishment, he is indeed worthy of praise.

  • I’ve found James Davison Hunter’s “To Change The World” a very helpful reflection on these postures, including the Anabaptist one. There are faithful choices between the extremes of compliance and resistance.

  • Why the hell did you come here?

    Just to fling poo at the author and provide nothing intelligent in response?

    Why bother?

    You sound like an idiot.

    Essentially saying, “I’m a bigger Christian than David Gushee”. Well I am sure that makes you feel big. But it certainly shows whatever Christian belief you may have, must be pretty worthless to require you to engage in such vain puffery.

    David Gushee knows how to write to make his point known and at least worth reading. I can tell eight now you have nothing of value to say, and your opinions are not worth reading.

  • What if America has always been Babylon–no evolution… That would be the “American” experience of the first peoples within “Turtle Island” [a native term for “America”] and the peoples from Africa kidnapped and enslaved, wouldn’t it?

  • I think America is in the process of evolving out of Babylon. However, one has to factor in the personal story in which the average individual goes from a somewhat protected childhood to a growing awareness of sin in adulthood. This all too often fools people into thinking things are becoming worse. That said, Trump is a very severe setback. I remember trying to interest people in the growing death rate of middle-aged working class white men a few years ago and being disheartened that no one else saw it as a problem.

  • Thanks, David, for this significant article. I, too, upon reflection think I spent too much time and energy on trying to elect Democrats in the last election instead of doing more important things.

    As a lifelong Baptist until past the age of 70, I decided to formally identify with the Anabaptists by joining a Mennonite Church, and I am happy with that decision. Even though that just happened five or so years ago, it was partly due to a book by an Anabaptist author I read back in 1972. I have written about that in my most recent blog article:
    https://theviewfromthisseat.blogspot.com/2017/01/what-about-christian-radicalism.html

    As I indicate at the end of that article, I am an advocate of what I (and a few others) refer to as Neo-Anabaptism, the position which Art Gish articulates to a a degree in the book just referred to. It seems to me that there is a position between the first and the third of those you wrote about in your article.

  • So you agree that the conservative message has become less and less legitimate an expression of the teachings of Jesus over time.

  • There is only one worthy to be praised… and that’s God.
    Man can talked of in praiseworthy comments. We can laud and speak well.
    My Bible says only worship ( I it’s many forms) The One True God.
    There is nothing wrong with our world, only the people in it .

  • No Christian wants anyone to end up in Hell..
    Christ said,
    Go out to ALL the world preaching the gospel.
    That is an emphatic command.

  • Ask the newcomers here. “Cretin” may be insulting but it is a perfect term to describe the latest group of posters here.

    People who come here strictly to call others names, hurl insults and make bigoted aspersions about posters and leave no cognizable, intelligible argument or statement whatsoever. Its one thing to make a point in a spirited fashion, it is quite another to simply come here to insult others. Cretin is an appropriate description for such active disdain of propriety.

    I am at least willing to defend my “name calling” of others in a manner which is not entirely immature and spiteful. To justify why such a name is appropriate.

  • “Now we know that God does not hear sinners; but if anyone is a worshipper of God and does His will, He hears him.” John 9:31

  • The people in it have caused quite a bit of harm to our world. We would be remiss in our stewardship if we failed to note that fact.

  • “I remain so astonished, appalled, and disconcerted at the character of this particular person . . . it is true that I would rather go into Kroger and pick any random person to serve as president than accept the one we are about to get.”

    Dr. Gushee, that made me LOL, in part because it fits me too and reading it here served as a relief valve. I’ve heard similar expressions many other places too.

    I have felt a need to write an LTE to some major European newspapers to apologize. I also want to apologize to any non American I meet. When I go out of the country I’m going to wear a large sticker that says, “I didn’t vote for him.”

    People like you and I are far from alone. 35% of the population is all that approves of him and his behavior. 3 million more Americans voted for Secretary Clinton than him. His total votes percentage was far short of 50%.

    In short, a sizable majority of Americans did not want that candidate to win. However, he will be inaugurated later this week as president. I have a sense his term will be short because evidence of election collusion with his pal Putie is beginning to be uncovered. While I would not have voted for Pence, he has a level of intelligence, knowledge and maturity the pres-elect is sorely lacking. I don’t think he is a threat to the well-being of the USA.

  • “Do not put your trust in princes, in mortal men, who cannot save. When their spirit departs, they return to the ground; on that very day their plans come to nothing.” Psalm 146:3-4, NIV.

    Two Comments in Reaction to David Gushee

    1. I am not quite sure how David Gushee moved from his category one to his category three. How did opposition to Republican candidates (a restatement of his category one) morph into his category three—disillusionment with (or at least distance from) all candidates? While I think his position is Biblical (see Psalm 146 above), what caused his change?

    2. While it is true that Christians are always aliens and that all leaders are infinitely far from being the Messiah, this does not mean that all leaders and all parties are always equally unrighteous. There are Cyruses and there are Caligulas, and much of the time leaders are somewhere in-between.

    Winfield Casey Jones, D. Min, Pearland, TX.

  • I don’t know about the others, but I believe I would find a much greater pleasure in them seeing themselves sharing hebbin with all those people they don’t believe deserve to be there.

  • As an admirer of Lyndon Johnson and Richard Nixon I believe I have always been the third sort. As Bokonon said, “Pay no attention to Caesar. Caesar has no idea what’s really going on.”

  • That is not at all what I said. You have taken one supposition in my entire comment and made it the basis of my position without regard to other observations and provisos.

  • In no way was I uplifting Mr. Obama to the level of God, praiseworthy is a general term that we use among men, nor is it meant as a term of worship in the context I used, please don’t hyper-textualise my intent. I simply found that despite my profound disagreement with the President on a host of issues, his performance as a father and husband, as you use the term, laudable. Sadly, today that is no mean feat.

  • I am lately finding it hard to perceive you as any more civil in your responses. I know that is not a matter of concern to you. As a sensible man who can assemble facts and form a reasoned analysis from them, you can more effectually wield those weapons with passion without the rancor.

  • In the America that I grew up in, Christians were not aliens. They were the only ones allowed, and all nonChristians were aliens whom they felt should not be tolerated.

  • “Christians” that felt nonChristians should not be tolerated? That does not square with my understanding of love or discipleship or anything of God’s character as revealed in scripture. Not only do I want a country that “tolerates” nonChristians, I want Christians to love others like Jesus.

  • Your understanding does not square with the facts on the ground. Christians have been holding rallies condemning nonChristians since the late 70s. That’s 40 years now.

  • I wonder when or if you will figure out the number of people who believe or believed Obama was either god or messiah could probably be counted on two hands.

  • Quite easily, thank you, by comparing his values with those of Christ’s, which are much closer in spirit than that of any nominee of the other party in the last 50 years.

  • Agreed. Those opposing plutocracy are certainly not as unrighteous as those enabling it. Thank you.

  • Disagree. Pence is Trump’s all but foolproof impeachment insurance. Pence sought to enact state law as a Governor which gave special privileges to hatemongers.

  • Nonsense. Obama and the Democrats have anti-Christian platform. They are for the perversion of marriage and the murder of the unborn.

  • Kangaroo, you’ve got a good point which I’ve heard before. While I find Pence’s policies reprehensible, at least he’s sane. (I know. What an incredibly low bar.) I don’t think Pence will dump NATO, attack Russia or China, or blurt or tweet out whatever thoughts cross his mind. Therefore I’m saying, given 2 horrific, pathetic choices, Pence is the least terrible.

  • ridiculous. The opinion you express has nothing whatsoever to deal with Chrisitianity. “perversion” is nothing but name-calling and abortion should always be legal.

  • “…an endorsement of say, abortion, gay marriage, or the whole LGBTXYZ me’lange…” TOO EASY – THE WOMAN

  • “…an endorsement of say, abortion, gay marriage, or the whole LGBTXYZ me’lange….”

    Too easy. The woman at the well and the part in Matthew 8 about the centurion and his servant.

    The last item in that series is a deliberate employment of bigoted speech for which you should be sorely ashamed.

  • Assertions without evidence, both of the irrationality and of the existence of the things you assert are so.

  • We will have to disagree on that. Better an unpredictable man who can be influenced than an ideologue who believes an evil ideology.

  • The examples you cite (Samaritan woman, Centurion) do not make your case biblically speaking, those cases of bigotry were not founded in the moral precepts of either the Old or New Testaments, which is precisely why Jesus received those individuals. On the question of abortion, gay marriage, and transgenderism, the record is also clear from a proper parsing of the biblical language. However, I will stipulate to your charge of flippancy with respect to the term I used in the final series. I hereby withdraw it.

  • Not sure who hijacked my account to make the first comment… but I feel compelled to mention that Christians have also been working hard to do good for their fellow man for hundreds of years.

    Some Christians are compassionate, some are judgmental. Some are selfless, and some are self-servingly manipulative.

    I generally find religion to be in and of itself neither positive nor negative. The people that practice it are generally one or the other of those things…. much like the people of any other group.

    Unfortunately religion lends persuasive power to some to do great harm, but it also lends persuasive power to do great good for those that are so inclined. Just my two cents.

  • I think if you spend time with conservative Christians you will find little that resembles love or any other virtue Jesus preached.

  • I disagree vehemently. There are a great many conservative Christians that preach judgement and exclusion under the guise of divine imperative, but there are also conservative Christians that show phenomenal love and compassion to their friends, family, and community, especially during hard times.

    As I said before, there is a great deal that is ugly and manipulative in religious circles. There is also a great deal that is beautiful.

  • But that “phenomenal love and compassion” is only shown around the edges and never challenges the great evil being done by Conservative Christians. That makes it largely a distraction technique.

  • And yet, somehow, those loving compassionate conservative Christians never find the strength to clean their churches of the bad apples who abuse others and, in the process, restore their reputation. That is why I have little compassion and no respect for them.

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