Led by conscience, here I kneel

Nov 15, 2017 by

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Tabor College associate professor of Bible and religious studies Del Gray posted these reflections in late October on Tabor’s “Wittenberg Door” for campus discussion in honor of the Reformation’s 500th anniversary and in response to conversations about issues of church and state.

Preamble

Exactly 500 hundred years ago on Oct. 31, 1517, Martin Luther posted 95 Theses on the Wittenberg door in protest of abuses that he perceived in the dominant church of his culture. Some historians say there might be a bit of legend in this account, but let’s not allow that to ruin a good story. This act of protest led to an entire new branch of the church in western society. The majority of us at Tabor College (except our beloved Catholic and Orthodox brothers and sisters) historically trace our denominational identity back to Luther’s bold act of courage and conscience that opened the door to a variety of other protest movements, including Mennonites, Baptists, Lutherans (duh), Methodists and basically all other American church denominations. This protest was so successful that it has lasted 500 years, and hundreds of millions of people today still identify themselves with a name that pays homage to Luther — Protestants, those who protest.

On this anniversary week of Luther’s protest, I offer my own protest against the heartbreaking movement of the dominant church in America away from the teachings of Jesus. I have written this in a way that attempts to honor Luther’s own 95 Theses.

95(ish) Theses

“Out of love for the truth and from desire to elucidate it, the Reverend . . . (insert other titles here if you want to) Del Gray, and very ordinary lecturer therein at Tabor College, intends to defend the following statements and is willing to discuss on them in that place. Therefore he asks that those who cannot be present and discuss with him orally shall do so in their absence by letter (writing is a much better way of making and evaluating careful arguments anyway). In the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, Amen.”

1. The evangelical church has lost its soul, trading the teachings of Jesus for politics. As a follower of Jesus, I cannot stand for this.

2. The evangelical church has become the latest in a long history of churches that have sought to transform their culture but ended up being transformed by it. Instead of the world looking like the church, the result has become the church looking like the world.

3. I protest that the evangelical church has come to equate conservative politics with Christianity.

4. It is not wrong for Christians to come to conservative political conclusions on issues, but it is a betrayal of conscience and of Jesus when we do so on an issue by ignoring the teachings of the Bible.

5. I protest when Christians make theological or ethical decisions based purely on aligning with the “right” political party. Christians often say Jesus would not fit neatly into either party, but then that is exactly what we do.

6. I protest where the church has blatantly disregarded Jesus in favor of politics in the following issues:

  • Immigration
  • Death penalty
  • Racism
  • Nationalism

As a follower of Jesus, I cannot stand for this.

Immigration

7. I protest both the active agreement and passive complicity of the evangelical church in disregarding the Bible’s teachings about how God’s people should welcome immigrants. As citizens of a country, there are complicated social issues involved, but the nation is not our highest priority. As Christians, our first allegiance is to the undeniable call in the Bible to welcome foreigners, refugees and outsiders, even when they are undocumented and studying in our schools, as an act of loving our neighbor. When Christians forget that they have a higher calling than doing what is best for the nation, we flirt with idolatry. As a follower of Jesus, I cannot stand for this.

Death penalty

8. I protest as forcefully as I can the evangelical church’s support of state-sponsored execution by the death penalty. When Jesus said “love your enemies,” I am absolutely, positively, certain that he did NOT mean to kill them. As Christians, we witness to a higher way of valuing all life, even when the consensus of our nation or our political party holds that killing is the right thing to do. As a follower of Jesus, I cannot stand for this.

9. As a Christian, I am pro-life, but Jesus’ version of pro-life does not mean the same thing as the political platform. Pro-life means ALL life; unborn and born, innocent and guilty, citizen and immigrant, rich and poor. The Bible clearly and repeatedly affirms that all life is valuable to God and equal in Christ. This means that we don’t kill criminals, we don’t kill babies and that black lives DO matter.

Racism

10. Racism has been called America’s original sin. Racism is a founding attitude in which our nation has been rooted and grew. I protest in the strongest language possible the so-called Christians who affirm one race as superior to another, and I protest the complicity of the evangelical church that denies racism and looks the other way because it is someone else’s problem.

11. I protest and condemn white supremacist groups that are marching in our city streets with guns and torches, yelling hate speech and threats against people of color, ordering them to leave or be killed. Failing to condemn this because of political ambitions is a lack of integrity that puts the kingdom of the world above the kingdom of God. As a follower of Jesus, I cannot stand for this.

12. In the name of Jesus, I protest anyone who claims to be a Christian and instead of condemning them calls these groups “very fine people.” I CAN’T BELIEVE THIS IS HAPPENING AGAIN. This is not 1962; this is 2017. The church needs to wake up and speak out against this and witness to the truth we know in the Bible, even if it goes against the mainstream of our political party.

13. I protest that the evangelical church compromises its moral witness in the world when it uses theological and biblical justification for giving 81 percent of its support to a politician who blatantly disregards the teachings of Jesus with vulgar, hateful, demeaning speech targeting people of color, the marginalized and oppressed. As a follower of Jesus, I cannot stand for this.

14. I propose that Colin Kaepernick is the contemporary voice of Martin Luther inasmuch as he has courageously and publicly protested abuses that are rampant in the dominant church in our society today. This makes him one of my great heroes of the past few years. I join him in this protest because as a follower of Jesus, I cannot stand for racism.

Nationalism

15. I protest when Christians equate their nation with Christianity. God and country are two very, very different things and should never be confused.

16. Because the evangelical church has now identified itself almost exclusively with a political agenda, I can no longer use that label for myself. This is painful for me because I was raised and educated in a strong evangelical tradition of which I once was proud but now am ashamed.

17. Because the evangelical church has now identified itself almost exclusively with a political agenda, the Mennonite Brethren should have a nationwide conversation to reconsider whether we want to call ourselves “Anabaptist-evangelicals.”

18. The flag and the national anthem are NOT sacred, but are symbols of an earthly kingdom to which I owe no allegiance. Treating the flag or anthem as sacred cheapens that which is truly sacred and is tantamount to idolatry.

19. God is our highest loyalty, and as followers of Jesus, we can have no allegiance to any other master. Our citizenship is in heaven as members of the kingdom of God, not the kingdoms of this world. My loyalty to God’s kingdom is absolute, even if that means disloyalty to my nation. No one can serve two masters, so I choose to serve God alone.

20. Therefore I cannot and will not say the pledge of allegiance to the flag of the United States of America, since it would be dishonest to say it knowing that I would break my oath as soon as my duty to nation comes in conflict with my ultimate allegiance to a different kingdom.

21. I have respect for some of the values and ideals of some nations, and I have no respect for other values and ideals of some nations. As a follower of Jesus, I evaluate these according to how well they agree with God’s values. I give respect where it is due and do not feel compelled to show respect for ideas that run counter to Jesus’ teachings. The Bible likewise models both of these attitudes toward the state when it urges respect some times and other times refers to the state as a dragon and beast that acts on behalf of Satan. I protest when the evangelical church insists that we uncritically respect all elements and symbols of our nation.

22. America is a great country (after having lived in many other countries, I say this with some measure of expertise), and I respect many things about it. But it is also a deeply flawed and broken nation that regularly pressures me to participate in a system that looks nothing like the kingdom of God. When Christians begin to celebrate not just what is good but also what is broken and wrong in this nation because their ethical filter has become politics instead of Christ, I refuse to participate. Warriors who killed people as a result of their racist values should not be celebrated and honored as heroes. As a follower of Jesus, I cannot stand for this.

23. Because the kingdom of God is upside down from the kingdoms of this world, there should always be a counter-cultural identity to the church that continually protests against the world.

93. (OK, I skipped some numbers, but it had to add up to 95 at the end.) When athletes respectfully kneel in peaceful protest of unbiblical racism during the national anthem, they are witnessing to God’s values on this issue.

94. Because kneeling is an inherently peaceful and respectful symbol and protesting racism is an inherently just message, it is dishonest when leaders of the evangelical church and our nation label these athletes “disrespectful” in an effort to discredit them and deflect attention away from the real issues of racism.

95. For these reasons, I no longer stand for the national anthem.

With inspiration from Martin Luther King and apologies to Martin Luther, I join Colin Kaepernick and many other people of faith who witness to Jesus’ call on our lives on these issues.

“Unless I am convinced by the testimony of the Scriptures or by clear reason (for I do not trust either in the evangelical church or in their populist leaders, since it is well known that they have often erred and contradicted themselves), I am bound by the Scriptures I have quoted, and my conscience is captive to the Word of God. I cannot and will not recant anything, since it is neither safe nor right to go against conscience.”

As a follower of Jesus, I cannot stand for racism. Therefore, here I kneel; I can do no other.


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  • Phillip O’Reilly

    Perhaps the author should get out of his seminary office more. He might find that his caricature of them is just that and bears little resemblance to reality.

    • John Gingrich

      I assume by “them” you mean “the evangelical church”. I agree that there is something sad in the prejudice and ignorance of reducing the tremendous diversity and richness of “the evangelical church” to what you call this caricature. This diatribe against imagined political sell-out is countered with a liberal but equally political substitution of the gospel. Of the four political issues listed, all except immigration were many degrees worse in Jesus’s world but they were never addressed directly in any of Jesus’s teachings. Fundamentalism and more recently “the evangelical church” have been favorite objects of scorn by the religious intellectuals. Is this article an attempt to cast out the beam or the mote?

      • Phillip O’Reilly

        Yes, by “them” I meant evangelicals. That is what happens when you edit your posts on the fly!
        .
        Our kids are scattered hither and yon, and I have not attended any evangelical churches that resemble the description here.

      • Greg Murray

        Thank you, John Gingrich

  • Berry Friesen

    Professor Gray is an evangelical teacher of post-high school youth in an evangelical college. He writes as if his heart has been broken by the way the evangelical church has and is responding to public events of our times. Should we to dismiss him because within the confines of a short op-ed, he does not speak of the evangelical exceptions to this broad trend, nor to the errors of Pentcostal, Mainline, Anabaptist and Fundamentalist communions?

    I regularly read Rod Dreher at The American Conservative. He’s a devout Christian (Eastern Orthodox), a tested conservative in matters theological, cultural and political and a blogger of national reputation. His hair is on fire because conservative Christians have come to see their salvation as tied up in conservative politics. And because this error is causing our secular society to increasingly regard the Christian faith with contempt. He’s written The Benedict Option to persuade us step back from that error and redirect our loyalty to Christian wisdom and the way of Jesus as our salvation.

    In a similar mannter, Bro. Gray is attempting to start a conversation within his college and his part of the church. I bless him for that. And no, he’s not offering liberal politics as our solution. He’s rejecting nationalism as our salvation (remember Jesus’ rejection of the Zealots?), he’s rejecting social exclusivity as our salvation (remember Jesus’ words to the Pharisees?), he’s rejecting the official violence of the death penalty (remember Jesus’ words to the woman caught in a capital crime?).

    • Richard Worden Wilson

      Berry, you might be being a bit too charitable in this. I appreciate the content, sentiments, trajectory, and empathize with Gray with a likewise broken heart regarding how the evangelical churcheS seem to be aligning themselves with one political tribe in America. There isn’t, however, one monolithic evangelical church and it may be a symptom of other equally unJesuslike commitments that compels people to speak as if there were. Though Gray may not be offering liberal politics as the solution, it should be noted that he isn’t calling out the unJesuslike values and commitments of the progressive churches either. It is probably a lot easier to speak politically these days than it is to speak more simply in a strictly spiritual manner about the various spirits misleading us today–there are heavenly powers willing to push us in any direction that is away from Jesus and his agenda. If we were like Luther seeking to purify the spiritual lives and practices of those in the Church (I just read most of the 95 Theses {verses!} and you all might do well to do so also), we might want to follow more closely his purposes, and train of thought, and call out those who too easily grant pardon to partizans of both/all sides of the politically christian spectrum rather than just calling out the conservatives for ignoring the moral obligations in following the teaching of Jesus. Protestants of all tribes still expect the “indulgences” implicit in Protestant beliefs and practices, whereby both ends of the spectrum are absolving the guilty without the serious discipleship, repentant, and restoration necessary for close communion with Jesus. We should all, like Luther, rather point all to Christ and His cross: “Christians should be exhorted to endeavor to follow Christ their Head through Cross, Death, and Hell, And thus hope with confidence to enter Heaven through many miseries, rather than in false security.” To be clear, both evangelical and progressive christian churches today give the assurance of pardon from sins in ways not altogether different from that of late-medieval Roman churchianity, (without explicit requirement of payment), but participation in the cultural bondage of christian churches no matter the tribe is still done with an excess of indulgences for sins.

  • Rainer Moeller

    My personal objection here is the use of that catchword “racism”. (Words ending with -ism are nearly always catchwords.) Jesus didnt need it. He would have spoken about concrete behaviour and about benevolence or malevolence. A racist can do a lot of good if he concentrates on being benevolent to his co-racials.

  • Audrey Unruh

    I am so grateful to finally see a follower of Christ call out in print these aberrations on the part of Evangelicals in today’s political environment. Thank you for saying what seems so obvious.