Editor’s Note: This essay is taken from Keeping the Faith: Reflections on Politics and Christianity in the Era of Trump and Beyond. For the past few weeks leading up to Election Day 2020, we have been sharing new excerpts from this anthology of dissent. This piece is the final in the series.
“For now we see in a mirror dimly, but then face to face. Now I know in part; then I shall know fully, even as I have been fully known.” 1 Cor. 13:12 (ESV)
Like Jacob, I have often wrestled with God over the politics of my own identity. From a young age, I had attained what many around me attested to be profound maturity in my Christian faith. I could quote Bible verses in the proper context, with sound interpretation, appropriate for any circumstance. I had a solid theological answer for every question of faith, and even for those questions I had not yet thought to ask, I could always conjure an immediate response using finely tuned spiritual reasoning. I was wise in the eyes of others, and admittedly in my own eyes as well. Again, this was called maturity.
Then war broke out in Syria, and my faith was shattered. I had been residing in Lebanon for over a year at the time. This was not the shaken faith of, “If God is good, then why do bad things happen?” nor the simple, yet gut-wrenching “God, why?” It felt more complex than that. Somehow all of my biblical reasoning seemed to be in turmoil. My theological platitudes fell short. I found that I did not have all the answers, and I was lost; drowning in a sea of blood, and destruction, and despair. In the place of words of comfort, all I could offer was tears. In the place of fervent prayers, tears. And then came what I feel we seldom talk about – the silence after the tears. The silence that is not sated, it is empty. I resented those who could rest at night, assured that “this was the will of God.” I resented those who could pray, and weep, and find comfort.
Yet somehow, in the midst of this pain and suffering, God was still at work. I remember one Saturday at a food aid distribution for Syrian refugees, a mother presented me with her infant with a brain tumor so massive that it had rendered the previous curvature of her head unrecognizable. The infant’s eyes stared up at me unblinking. Her mother lamented that her baby had long ago ceased to even cry from the pain. And the UN would not pay for her surgery. Reading over the dirty, crumpled prognosis, I didn’t have the heart to tell the mother that it was because there was no hope for this child. They would not waste their limited resources on certain death. And all I could do was weep with her, standing there shivering in the cold. I called my friend over, and we laid hands on the baby and prayed for her together. I didn’t have the strength to do it alone. That night I couldn’t sleep. I tossed and turned and prayed for that child. I was heartbroken and angry.
Two weeks later I learned that the UN had, against their standard policy, agreed to pay for the child’s surgery to remove the tumor. The doctor expected a full recovery. Life from death. That’s what God can do in the midst of suffering. But I still don’t understand how, or when, or why.
What I have learned is that I am so small, and God is bigger than I ever imagined.
The concept of the Christian worldview has received considerable attention over the past few decades. Yet, I must confess that I have found an unexpected theological kinship with post-structuralist thinkers like Levinas and Derrida. These fathers of post-modernism warned against the dangers of totalitarian systems of thought. Though I may not agree with all of their premises, for example, Derrida’s perpetually absent Messiah, I do agree with doing away with neatly packaged discourses that conveniently order the world. And here’s why: any system of thought, no matter how complex, that has a humanly obtainable answer for everything is essentially atheist, or at the very least, agnostic. Oftentimes, we’ve taken God out of the equation by making it about the equation. But while God is a God of order, God is not an equation; God is a Being of triune existence. And God is by definition, Other. God is by definition, beyond comprehension.
When we attempt to make sense of the world by ordering the mind of God, we are fashioning God in our own image, because the human mind is never free of prejudice. This is idolatry.
I often ponder Gandhi’s confession, “I like your Christ, I do not like your Christians.” Yet its historical significance did not fully dawn on me until recently. I was reading Thomas Merton’s The Seven Story Mountain, when the following description of the then tragically misled solidarity of the Church of England pierced me to the heart:
It is a class religion, the cult of a special society and group, not even of the whole nation, but of the ruling minority in a nation. That is the principal basis for its rather strong coherence up to now . . . The thing that holds them together is the powerful attraction of their own social tradition, and the stubborn tenacity with which they cling to certain social standards and customs, more or less for their own sake. The Church of England depends, for its existence, almost entirely on the solidarity and conservatism of the English ruling class. Its strength is not in anything supernatural, but in the strong social and racial instincts which bind the members of this caste together; and the English cling to their Church the way they cling to their King and to their schools: because of a big, vague, sweet complex of subjective dispositions . . .
This religious cohesion was the very force that drove colonialism. It shaped the worldview that sought to “tame the Orient” and “convert the heathen.” It produced the privileged social class that E.M. Forster and Tagore decried, and against which Gandhi so famously protested.
Mournfully, I cannot help but reflect: does the predominant worldview of white evangelical Christians like me create more problems than it solves? Not for us, mind you, but for the world? Does it serve to perpetuate our own comfort and peace of mind at the expense of the Other? Does it oppress and even destroy? Does it try to absolve us of our bloodguilt, when a truly righteous view of the world would bring us to our knees?
The idolatry of remaking God in our own image leads to such evil in the world. It perpetuates systems of oppression, racism, and hate. Its fruits are genocide, apartheid, and rape. Tell me that the Church’s hands are clean from the blood of even the past century, and I will tell you that you are complicit in upholding the kind of bloodguilt the Church lives with every single day.
Yes, I am talking about white supremacy, but the kind comfortably ensconced in a leather chair smoking a cigar. I am talking about xenophobia, but the kind safely domesticated behind a white picket fence. I am talking about homophobia, the kind that scapegoats before an audience of well-dressed parishioners. I am talking about Islamophobia, the kind that tenderly tucks in its babies at night, never questioning the drones that take the life of another’s child. I am talking about churches that offer enough of the antidote to our middle-class angst to keep us focused on how to solve our own problems, rather than opening our eyes to see the suffering of the Other and moreover, the ways that we are complicit. I am talking about answers that help us sleep at night, when we should be awake praying.
As it pertains to the current epoch, I am talking about the Trump administration and the hatred and bigotry that it normalizes, thrives upon, and propagates. I am referring to the distorted lenses that allow the Church to be not merely apathetic, but enabling. This administration has exposed the dark underbelly of the white American evangelical church and laid bare the banality of the evil that lurks in our pews. We have seen the enemy. It is us.
It is in times like these when what is required is not triumphalism but lament; not complacency but dissent. It may be that the prophets of the age are not the ones shouting from the pulpit, but the voices crying out through bullhorns in the streets. Perhaps, the words of the prophets are indeed written on the subway walls …
Several years ago, I read an article exposing numerous facets of the politically expedient re-fashioning of God in America. The candid reflection of the author – as an academic, woman of color, and woman of faith – really stuck with me:
I often ask myself whether I really do worship the same God of white religious conservatives. On this Holy Week, when I reflect on the Christian story of Christ crucified, it is a story to me of a man who came, radically served his community, challenged the unjust show of state power, embraced children, working-class men and promiscuous women and sexual minorities (eunuchs). Of the many things Jesus preached about, he never found time to even mention gay people, let alone condemn them. His message of radical inclusivity was so threatening that the state lynched him for fear that he was fomenting a cultural and political rebellion. They viewed such acts as criminal acts and they treated Jesus as a criminal. And all who followed him were marked for death.
This is why I identify with the story of Jesus. And frankly, it is the only story there really is. This white, blond-haired, blue-eyed, gun-toting, Bible-quoting Jesus of the religious right is a god of their own making.
As theologian Walter Brueggemann reflects in his seminal work, The Prophetic Imagination, “… for those who regulate and benefit from the order of the day a truly free God is not necessary, desirable, or perhaps even possible.” If we have managed to successfully put God into a box and chain him to our bandwagon, then this god is surely not God. He must be an idol.
Now going back to the politics of my own identity. My identity as mature. My identity as wise. My identity as Christian. I cannot help but begin to question the pat answers I knew oh-so-well, the sound reasoning that let me sleep at night. And I cannot help but ask: Was my identity truly in Christ? Was this truly evidence of a well-rounded biblical worldview? Or was it all backwards? Did I have the answers because of intimate knowledge of the Holy, or because of an intimate knowledge of Self? Was my certainty a sign of solid faith or a symptom of my cultural conditioning and socialization?
My identity is in Christ. But who is Christ? And who am I? And who is my neighbor? These are the questions that I will grapple with the rest of my life. And the moment I think I’ve found all the answers, I have bowed to a familiar idol that bears no image other than my own. The first Other we do violence against is always God.