Early one Sunday morning in the spring of 2003, in the quiet hours before services would begin at the evangelical church where I worship in Charlottesville, Va., I opened files compiled by my research assistant and read the statements drafted by Christians around the world in opposition to the American invasion of Iraq.
The experience was profoundly moving and shaming: From Pentecostals in Brazil to the Christian Councils of Ghana, from the Greek Orthodox Patriarchate of Antioch and All the East to the Anglican Bishop of Jerusalem, from Pope John Paul II to the Waldensian Reformed Church of Italy and the Christian Conference of Asia, the voices of our brothers and sisters in the global ecumenical church spoke in unison.
Why did American evangelicals not pause for a moment in the rush to war to consider the near-unanimous disapproval of the global Christian community? The worldwide Christian opposition seems to me the most neglected story related to the religious debate about Iraq: Despite approval for the president’s decision to go to war by 87 percent of white evangelicals in April 2003, according to a Pew Charitable Trusts poll, almost every Christian leader in the world (and almost every non-evangelical leader in the United States) voiced opposition to the war.
In their enthusiastic support of the White House’s decision to invade Iraq, evangelicals in the United States practiced an ecumenical isolationism that mirrored the prevailing political trend. Rush Limbaugh may have pleased his “dittoheads” in mocking the dissenting pastors, archbishops, bishops, and church leaders who stuck their noses into our nation’s foreign policy, but the people in the United States who call themselves Christian must organize their priorities and values on a different standard than partisan loyalty.
These past six years have been transformative in the religious history of the United States. It is arguably the passing of the evangelical moment — if not the end of evangelicalism’s cultural and political relevance, then certainly the loss of its theological credibility. Conservative evangelical elites, in exchange for political access and power, have ransacked the faith and trivialized its convictions. It is as though these Christians consider themselves to be recipients of a special revelation, as if God has whispered eternal secrets in their ears and summoned them to world–historic leadership in the present and future.
One thing, however, is clear: Any hope for renewal depends on the willingness to reach out to our brothers and sisters abroad. We must reshape the way we live in the global Christian community and form a deeper link to the human family and to life. To do this, we must begin by learning to be quieter, and by reaffirming the simple fact that our faith transcends political loyalty or nationhood.
In a German concentration camp in 1944, the theologian, pastor, and Christian martyr Dietrich Bonhoeffer pondered the future of the church in Germany as it lay in the ruins of its fatal allegiance to Hitler. “The time of words is over,” he wrote. “Our being a Christian today will be limited to two things: prayer and righteous action.”
Bonhoeffer, who had actively opposed the Nazis since the passage of the Aryan Laws of 1933 and was executed in April 1945, believed that the church had so compromised its witness to Jesus Christ that it was now incapable of “taking the word of reconciliation and redemption to mankind and the world.” The misuse of the language of faith had humiliated the Word; any hope for renewal would need to begin with the humble recognition that God was most certainly tired of all our talk.
It is time to give Bonhoeffer’s meditations a new hearing. With many other Christians in the United States and many more abroad, I have watched with horror in recent years as the name of Jesus has been used to serve national ambitions and justify war. Forgetting the difference between discipleship and partisanship, and with complete indifference to the wisdom and insights of the Christian tradition, we have recast the faith according to our cultural preferences and baptized our prejudices, along with our will-to-power, in the shallow waters of civic piety.
By the time American troops began bombing Baghdad before sunrise on March 20, 2003, the collective effort of the evangelical elites had sanctified the president’s decision and encouraged the laity to believe that the war was God’s will for the nation. Evangelicals preached for the war, prayed for the war, sang for the war, and offered God’s blessings on the war.
Sometime after Operation Iraqi Freedom began, I made a remarkable discovery. I had gone to one of my local Christian bookstores to find a Bible for my goddaughter. On a whim, I also decided to look for a Holy Spirit lapel pin, in the symbolic shape of a dove, the kind that had always been easy to find in the display case in the front. Many people in my church and in the places where I traveled had been wearing the American flag on their lapel for months now. It seemed like a pretty good time for Christians to put the Spirit back on.
But the doves were nowhere in sight. In the place near the front where I once would have found them, I was greeted instead by a full assortment of patriotic accessories — red-white-and-blue ties, bandanas, buttons, handkerchiefs, “I support our troops” ribbons, “God Bless America” gear, and an extraordinary cross and flag button with the two images interlocked. I felt slightly panicked by the new arrangement. I asked the clerk behind the counter where the doves had gone. The man’s response was jarring, although the remark might well be remembered as an apt theological summation of our present religious age. “They’re in the back with the other discounted items,” he said, nodding in that direction.
I have thought of this visit to the local Christian bookstore many times in the past several years. I remember the outrage I felt when I saw a photograph in Time magazine during the 2004 presidential election of Christian Coalition activists in Ohio. Two men, both white, and both identified as Coalition members, are holding two crosses aloft. The crosses upon closer inspection appear to be made of balloons twisted together. Across the beam-section of one of the crosses was the “Bush-Cheney” logo, and alongside the president’s name was the image of an American flag. In the second cross, the president’s name appeared in full at the places where Jesus’ hands were nailed.
Like Bonhoeffer, I fear that the gospel has been humiliated in our time. But if this has happened, it is not because the message — the good news that God loves us unconditionally in Jesus Christ, that we are freed and forgiven in God’s amazing grace — has changed. Nor is it due to the machinations of secularists, or because the post-Enlightenment world has dispensed with the hypothesis of God. The Christian faith has not only endured modernity and post-modernity, but flourished in its new settings.
The gospel has been humiliated because too many American Christians have decided that there are more important things to talk about. We would rather talk about our country, our values, our troops, and our way of life; and although we might think we are paying tribute to God when we speak of these other things, we are only flattering ourselves.
If holiness were measured by the volume of incessant chatter, we would be universally praised as the most holy nation on earth. But in our fretful, theatrical piety, we have come to mistake noisiness for holiness, and we have presumed to know, with a clarity and certitude that not even the angels dared claim, the divine will for the world. We have organized our needs with the confidence that God is on our side, now and always, whether we feed the poor or corral them into ghettos.
To a nation filled with intense religious fervor, the Hebrew prophet Amos said: I hate, I despise your festivals, and I take no delight in your solemn assemblies. Even though you offer me your burnt offerings and grain offerings, I will not accept them. … Take away from me the noise of your songs; I will not listen to the melody of your harps. … you who have turned justice into poison (Amos 5:21-23; 6:12).
Psalm 46 tells us, Be still and know that I am God. Dietrich Bonhoeffer, in his classic work on Christian community, Life Together, spoke of a silence “before the Word.” He affirmed the wisdom of the Psalmist, and spoke of a listening silence that brings “clarification, purification, and concentration upon the essential thing.”
After all the talk and the noise, it is time for Christians in the United States to enter a season of quietness, being still, and learning to wait on God (perhaps for the first time.)
Bonhoeffer wrote Life Together during the years he directed an illegal seminary in the North German village of Finkenwalde. The school’s mission was training pastors in the Confessing Church, a reform movement that opposed the nazified German Evangelical Church. Bonhoeffer had served in the Abwehr, the Nazi counterintelligence agency, as a double agent — helping Jewish families escape to Switzerland and organizing a coup attempt against the Nazi regime, and he participated in several assassination attempts on Hitler. For Bonhoeffer, being still in a time of enormous historical and ecclesial crisis was no invitation to idleness or indifference; rather, it was a call to discernment and responsible action.
Indeed, there are times when silence is an admonition fraught with danger.
Martin Luther King Jr. warned of the “appalling silence of the good people” and those who turned their faces from suffering and oppression. But Dr. King also knew that careful and respectful speech was born of honest discernment of God’s moral demands for the present age, a discernment that begins in humility and quiet introspection.
I came of age in the American South in the 1960s, and the moral values shared by most families in the churches of my childhood were deeply interwoven with our culture’s hold on white supremacy. The vigilant and quite often neurotic defense we made of the Southern Way of Life blinded us not only to the sufferings of African-Americans — the victims of our collective self-righteousness — but also to our spiritual arrogance and group pride. We believed that our conception of Christianity and our cherished family values were the most wholesome and pure the world had ever known. Inside this serene delusion, we presumed ourselves to be paragons of virtue, although we rarely lifted a finger to help anyone but our own.
It was unsettling to learn, sometime in my adolescence, that the moral values I inherited as a white Southerner were not the marks of true Christian piety.
When Jesus spoke of the family, he had in mind the new community of God. Who is my mother and who are my brothers he asked one day upon hearing that his family was asking for him. Here are my mother and my brothers! Jesus said, pointing to the people gathered around him, who marveled at his words. For whoever does the will of my father in heaven is my brother and sister and mother (Matt. 12:48-50). Jesus knew that loyalty to the Kingdom of Heaven often would require the renunciation of family traditions, habits, culture, and custom.
Today, in the national debate on faith and politics, there are signs of hope as an emerging generation of Christian leaders holds out the promise of a more comprehensively just and moral account of faith than the narrow agendas of the Christian right. In particular, the success of Sojourners magazine editor Jim Wallis’ 2005 book, God’s Politics, introduced many Americans to a vibrant culture of progressive Christianity ready to exert its growing influence over national politics and mobilize the churches around global poverty and AIDS relief.
And there are other encouraging signs: Criticisms of torture and detention practices of the U.S. military by prominent Christian conservatives have been symbolically powerful moments. The emerging environmental consciousness among an increasing number of evangelical leaders and laity signals a more holistic social mission.
Even so, as welcome as these developments are, no explicitly partisan movement — left or right — to reclaim the soul of politics can reckon successfully with the grave effects of the Christian saturation of the American public square. Unless conditioned by clear and public confession of our support of the immoral and catastrophic war in Iraq, and our complicity in the humiliation of the Word, these efforts will lack coherence and a vital center.
Franklin Graham, the evangelist (and son of Billy Graham), boasted that the American invasion of Iraq opens up exciting new opportunities for missions to non-Christian Arabs. This is not what the Hebrew or Christian prophets meant by righteousness and discipleship. In fact, the grotesque notion that preemptive war and the destruction of innocent life pave the way for the preaching of the Christian message strikes me as a mockery and a betrayal.
But if Franklin Graham speaks truthfully of the Christian faith and its mission in the world — as many evangelicals seem to believe — then we should have none of it. Rather, we should join the ranks of righteous unbelievers and big-hearted humanists who rage against cruelty and oppression with the intensity of people who live fully in this world. I am certain that it would be better for Christians to stand in solidarity with compassionate atheists and agnostics, firmly resolved against injustice and cruelty, than to sing “Amazing Grace” with the heroic masses who cannot tell the difference between the cross and the flag.
Charles Marsh is professor of religion and director of the Project on Lived Theology at the University of Virginia. This essay is adapted from his new book, Wayward Christian Soldiers: Freeing the Gospel from Political Captivity (Oxford University Press).