Tuesday, December 19, 2023

This Then Is The Answer? - Where is Jesus? An Excerpt: The Kingdom, The Power, And The Glory



This then is the Answer... Why we are fighting for the Soul of our Nation? If you agree, Speak for Jesus and Spread the Word... It is not just my saying what I've been saying all along... These are His Words: Thou Shalt Love the Lord our God with all our heart, with all our mind, and with all our soul... And Love Your Neighbor as Yourself... This, then, is all that we need to know... We must find Jesus once again. Find our Love Through Him... Knowing, that,yes, we are fighting for the Soul of America--of This World... For The Kingdom, The Power, And the Glory... Amen...


Volf would certainly know. A renowned theologian who heads Yale University’s Center for Faith and Culture, Volf had traveled to France to share the dais with his fellow scholar Hovorun. Raised in the former nation of Yugoslavia, Volf was the only Protestant in his high school. He was the son of a Pentecostal minister who, like most Protestants, was monitored closely by the governing authorities. Volf grew up buffered by ethno-religious boundaries: The republic of Croatia was predominantly Catholic, the republic of Serbia was predominantly Orthodox, the republic of Bosnia and Herzegovina was predominantly Muslim, and the churches in these and other states preached a dogmatic nationalism as Yugoslavia careened toward civil war in the late 1980s. “The world was uniting but Yugoslavia was falling apart,” recalled Volf, a lanky, bald-pated professor, his accent still distinctly Eastern European. 

“What we experienced was a religiously motivated reassertion of ethnic identities.” The result was a decade of genocide and ethnic cleansing. The carnage is difficult to quantify, but scholars generally believe that some 150,000 people were killed and as many as 4 million others were displaced by the violence in the Balkans. The chief instigator was Serbian president Slobodan Milošević, who rose to power by vilifying the Muslim Kosovans within his state. 

Historians point out that Milošević, in delivering a national address that sparked the civil war, cited the recorded persecution of his people by rival religious factions. He delivered the message flanked by Orthodox priests. This is the world from which Volf emerged. Having returned to his native Croatia to teach after completing his theological studies in the West, Volf left in 1991, the year Croatia declared independence, and watched from the United States as his homeland was ravaged by internecine violence. The professor has since dedicated much of his career to preventing a historical encore. 

His advocacy of nonviolence—“I take seriously the commandment of Jesus that one should love one’s enemy,” Volf said, citing it as a cornerstone of the Christian faith—can only accomplish so much. To head off what he fears is a resurgence of religious totalitarianism, Volf was attempting to reclaim his own faith tradition from the extremist fringe. The narrative arc of the Bible tells of an aspirational evolution in mankind’s thinking, Volf said. What began in Exodus—the story of God’s chosen people escaping bondage and eventually coming into the covenant state of Israel—was finished by the arrival of Jesus, who taught His disciples to take His message to all the nations. 

The transformational effect of this cannot be overstated. Immediately, all but overnight, a people who had refused to associate with anyone outside their ethnic tribe began calling them brothers and sisters. “There is neither Jew nor Gentile, neither slave nor free, nor is there male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus,” Paul wrote in his letter to the Galatians. 

The Bible’s final book, Revelation, paints a utopic vision of Christ living among His followers in a New Jerusalem. This is the believer’s pluralistic destiny, a heavenly melting pot where descendants of every nation, ethnicity, and race are unified, forevermore, in the body of Christ. That vision can be difficult to see, Volf said, when professing Christians are engaged in a “twisting of the religious landscape” that rationalizes social antagonism, clannish nihilism, and even physical violence. 

None of this is unprecedented. 

Religion and politics are natural enemies; both provide a sense of belonging and self-actualization to the masses. Tension between the two is healthy and necessary. When one appropriates the other, history shows that oppression—leading to death and human suffering at a woeful scale—is the inevitable result. 

What Volf watched take root in Yugoslavia has been seen throughout the centuries and continues to repeat itself. In his view, there are three features of creeping totalitarianism in the name of religious conviction. The first can be seen when leaders assert the primacy of an ethnic or cultural identity over shared humanity. The second is when they stress the purification of those identities (inevitably leading to forms of ethnic cleansing). The third is when violence becomes legitimized for the protection of group identities. People of the modern world are “living in a gap,” Volf said, stuck between a pre-technology age that is fading away and a futuristic world that has yet to fully arrive. The resulting anxiety—around the crumbling of institutions, the instability of cultures, the insufficiency of economies—creates a crisis at the intersection of religion and politics. 

Volf fears that Christians are claiming to navigate this rupture via religious identity but are actually navigating it via political identity. When believers invoke eternal symbols to advance an earthly goal, those symbols become cheapened to the point of ultimately meaning nothing. This is what happened in the Yugoslavia of Volf’s youth. This is what is happening in Ukraine today at the hands of Vladimir Putin and Patriarch Kirill. And this, he warned us, is what could happen elsewhere if current trends go unchecked. Volf threw up a hand symbol—like a peace sign, but with the thumb jutting out—that was commonplace among Christian soldiers in Eastern Europe. Its aim was religious. Instead of two fingers calling for peace on earth, three fingers, representing the Trinity, meant to summon God’s blessing. “But if you see a fighter riding on a tank flashing this sign, none of that theological content is on their minds,” Volf said. “That is a religion that has been completely hollowed out of its internal content. It is functioning simply as a marker of identity.” I could think of a few markers like that. 

ALTHOUGH THIS WAS A CONVERSATION BETWEEN TWO EASTERN EUROPEAN scholars, taking place in France, about a war between Russia and Ukraine, the subtext very much centered on the American evangelical Church. Hovorun fought a smirk while describing how Putin manipulated his countrymen into buying a revisionist “founding myth” of their nation, his ultimate goal being to “Make Russia Great Again.” Volf, noting the hard conversations he’s having with his American students, detailed the ways in which religion and nationalism were motivating “today’s totalitarian movements” (the plural was not lost on anyone in the room). Neither one of these erudite, dignified gentlemen seemed eager to discuss the sordid details of what was transpiring across the pond. But the rest of us were. America was not engulfed in a land war; it was not waging holy war against a sovereign nation. There was, however, a war for the essence and the character of American Christianity, and it was reverberating the world over. 

In recent years, I had spoken with missionaries and evangelists spanning multiple continents, and they all shared the same fundamental concern. Was all this nationalistic talk from the American evangelical Church just that—talk? Or was it indicative of a serious effort to restructure the relationship between the state and the country’s dominant religion? And if it was the latter, why weren’t sane Christians doing more to stop it? This last question haunted me most. 

{As is has haunted me...}

In the years following September 11, 2001, as the Taliban and al-Qaeda and ISIS slaughtered innocents in the name of Allah, Western intellectuals fixated on the idea of finding and elevating “moderate Muslims” who could help reclaim the religion from its violent extremist fringe. The wisdom and efficacy of this strategy was dubious, yet it struck me that Christianity was probably overdue for a similar conversation—globally, in Russia, and in the United States. This was not to equate suicide bombers with January 6 rioters, or to compare body counts between Putin and Osama bin Laden, but rather to observe that there are consequences when religious doctrine becomes infected with political ideology. While the scope of the American crisis at present seemed trivial relative to, say, the Crusades, things had gotten very bad very quickly and would only get worse unless something was done about it. But what? 

Having spent a lifetime immersed inside this world, it was unclear to me what—or, more realistically, who—might help to bring American evangelicalism back from the brink. There was no longer reason to believe that some calamitous intervening event could unify the Church; we had just endured a once-in-a-century pandemic, and it made existing divides that much deeper. The situation seemed almost hopeless. It was an unfair fight for the soul of American Christianity. On one side were decorated veterans of the culture wars, archconservatives Christians who live for conflict. 

Meanwhile, their more “moderate” counterparts—in temperament, not theology are inherently reluctant to enter the fray. (Those who believe that their struggle is not against flesh and blood, I had learned, were the least likely to struggle against flesh and blood.) Unpacking all this for Volf and Hovorun—with an apology for viewing their universal discussion through a narrower prism—I asked what hope they had for the American evangelical Church. 

“I’m wondering how many American Christians, even conservative evangelicals, think in those purely spiritual terms,” Volf replied. He didn’t think it was a fair fight, either, though for somewhat different reasons. Whereas I was suggesting that the silent majority needed to speak up, Volf wasn’t sure they were a majority anymore at all. 

He told us that something had changed during his decades spent teaching and engaging with Christians in America. A generation earlier, this militant approach to theology was discernable only below the surface. But the Church had since been “captured by nationalist ideals” that saturated the evangelical ecosystem. Volf said he believed that Christian nationalism was now “the predominant form of evangelical Christianity” in the United States—and he “frankly had no idea” what to do about it. “There’s something really powerfully insular about this vision that it’s almost like I have experienced it as impenetrable,” he told us. “Just as it’s very difficult to talk to your neighbors who disagree on political grounds, so also it’s difficult to have theological discussions at all.” 

I asked Volf whom he held responsible for this tapering of our theology in the American Church. “There is a loss of educated, thoughtful leadership,” he said. “Leaders of evangelicals have become media personalities. Paula White is a very good example of somebody who is highly, highly influential, but has the thinnest of all possible understandings of the complexities of faith.” The gates to Mar-a-Lago were flung open now. Emboldened by the mention of Trump’s pastor, the British journalist Emma Tucker—who, soon after this convening, was named editor in chief of the Wall Street Journal—followed my question with an even better one. She asked Hovorun whether, given the nature of Putinism as a “secular religion” in Russia, he saw the same forces at play with Trumpism in the United States. 

“Certainly, we are dealing with a similar sort of secular religion,” Hovorun replied. Under this canopy of secular religion, however, he stressed a key distinction: “political religion” versus “civil religion.” The former is imposed by the state, while the latter is practiced voluntarily. As Hovorun explained the history behind these definitions, it became obvious why he was so invested in our understanding of them. “Political religion is [not] optional,” he said. “That was exactly Hitlerism, Nazism, communism. They were political religions. They were much more violent, and that is exactly the transformation that happened to Putinism. It started as a civil religion with a set of rituals, quasi-religious rituals, ideas that were optional for the Russian people. Now it’s not optional anymore. It’s a political religion with [the] power of imposition upon the Russians.” 

He added: “In Trumpism, we are still dealing with civil religion—a form of civil religion. It’s not yet political religion.” Hovorun stabbed a finger into the air as if to suspend his thoughts. After Trump won the presidency in 2016, he told us, he submitted an article to the conservative ecumenical magazine "First Things" arguing that Trumpism could become America’s first political religion. The article was rejected. 

Surely the editors found his premise a bit exotic. The brilliance of our kingdom is in its curbs on autocracy: term limits, checks and balances, a peaceful transition of power. And yet, long before the mayhem of January 6, Hovorun argued that all of this was beside the point: Just as the political theology of Putinism was now bigger than Putin himself, Trumpism as a religious ideology was taking root in ways that would endure after Trump left office. The magazine editors spoke for most American Christians in refusing to entertain the notion that what had transpired in Russia—an abrupt, ensanguined transition from civil religion to political religion—could happen here. “I still believe it is possible, unfortunately,” Hovorun said. 

TO THE EXTENT HOVORUN REMAINED OPTIMISTIC, IT WAS BECAUSE OF A basic difference between American evangelicalism and Russian Orthodoxy. “Political evangelicalism, at least rhetorically, is Christ-centric,” he said. “Political Orthodoxy is not. It avoids speaking about Christ. If you take Putin or others, they don’t speak about Christ. They speak about other things in the faith.” But Volf wasn’t sure that the rhetoric mattered anymore. “I’ve come to believe . . . that the Christ of the gospel has become a moral stranger to us,” he said. 

“If you read the gospels, the things that profoundly mattered to Christ, they marginally matter to most evangelical Christians. And the things that really profoundly matter to them, marginally mattered to Christ.” He added: “In the sense in which Christ is the key to Christianity—you cannot have Christianity without Christ—we are, in a certain sense, in this crisis of Christianity precisely because of a certain alienation from Christ.” One of the journalists asked Volf to be more specific. 

Could he offer some examples of the things that mattered profoundly to Christ? The professor’s eyes danced at this open-ended invitation to proselytize. Christ concerned himself greatly with the poor, Volf said, but the poor are “hardly mentioned” in today’s evangelical discourse. Christ actively avoided fame, Volf said—asking the people on whom He performed miracles not to tell anyone—but today’s evangelical leaders are “drunk on fame.” Christ demanded that we love our enemies, Volf said, but “not even lip service is being paid to this” in today’s evangelical churches. “I can go down the line of the fundamental values of modernity—the fundamental values of most of us—and contrast them to what one finds in the gospel. You find incredible discrepancy,” the professor concluded. “I find it deeply, deeply disturbing.” 

Thomas Chatterton Williams, a Paris-based journalist who was born in the United States, offered a final thought on “the American situation” Volf was describing. “My maternal family are evangelical Christians, and my aunt is someone that I think of as keeping Christ very personally in her life,” Chatterton Williams said. “She voted for Trump twice and said that he’s a very flawed human being, but the only way she could get herself motivated to block a truly evil woman”—i.e., Hillary Clinton—“was to think that God works with flawed human beings all the time to do a greater good.” That same aunt, he said, had just moved from California to Georgia. During a recent phone conversation, she told him that she was planning to vote for Herschel Walker, the Republican candidate for U.S. Senate. It didn’t matter that a proliferating number of news reports, beginning with a blockbuster story in the Daily Beast, offered credible and compelling evidence that Walker had paid for at least one abortion. It didn’t matter that Walker’s son—the one child he had publicly acknowledged, not the three others—had responded to the news by tweeting that his father, a self-professing “moral, Christian, upright man,” had in fact abandoned him and his mother to “bang a bunch of women” and then “threatened to kill us.” None of these flagrant character flaws were relevant to his aunt, Chatterton Williams said, because Walker, like Trump, was playing for the right team. “I’m trying to square this,” he said to Volf. 

“How can Christianity accommodate itself to such appalling anti-Christian conduct? And once you get to a point where you can say anybody’s conduct can be excused because God has a larger plan and uses flawed vessels, then what is left of an actual Christianity at that point?” 

Volf could only shake his head, searching for the words. “I think you’ve identified the problem really well,” the professor said. THAT HERSCHEL WALKER WOULD CLOSE THAT U.S. SENATE CAMPAIGN BY likening his Democratic rival to Satan incarnate was not surprising. After all, the success of Putinism and Trumpism owes to a literal demonizing of the other—casting adversaries as not just wrong or obnoxious but as wicked and diabolical. Because these political-religious movements depict opponents as evildoers, it is intrinsically difficult to defeat them on theological grounds. 

And yet, both Volf and Hovorun argued, this is the only way of defeating them. Denouncing cruelty and malice and violence in a political context only achieves so much, because politics are naturally cruel and malicious and violent. To expose the shallowness of these secular religions, Hovorun told us, “they need to be deconstructed theologically.” That term, deconstruct, had come to represent a great rift within American evangelicalism. The concept was hardly new, yet it took on heightened significance during the Trump era: Christians who’d been raised in the evangelical tradition—reared in churches that effortlessly synthesized conservative theology with the zero-sum tribal politics that led to Trump—began to question their beliefs. If their parents and pastors had been so mistaken about the politics, the thinking went, what had they gotten wrong about the theology? I never considered myself a deconstructionist, though I empathized with the underlying sensibility. 

In my view, biblical Christianity requires a constant reassessing of one’s beliefs and biases; deconstruction is something that should be done every single day, not in response to some black swan event. (Very Important) 
Tellingly, much of the modern evangelical lobby had condemned deconstructionism writ large, claiming (wrongly) that it was some progressive political device and fearing (rightly) that it would stir uneasiness in their churches. 

Hovorun and Volf were prescribing deconstruction on an industrial scale. This went far beyond challenging individual interpretations of scripture. What they envisioned was a collective and decentralized effort on the part of serious, kingdom-first Christians of all partisan persuasions to strip these secular religions of any theological legitimacy. The best antidote to bad religion, as Volf noted, is good religion. 

Hovorun pointed to a hopeful precedent. It was Volf’s mentor, the German theologian Jürgen Moltmann, who helped to lead an interconfessional effort that rectified so many deadly distortions of Christianity in post–World War II Europe. This was no easy feat. For decades, Hovorun said, “totalitarian theology” had seized much of Europe. Christo-fascists had a foothold inside the Roman Catholic Church. The Deutsche Christian faction in Germany was rabidly anti-Semitic. Orthodox leaders in Romania and elsewhere in Eastern Europe spewed anti-democratic propaganda. 

It took the extermination of six million Jews—at the hands of soldiers wearing a twisted cross—for Christians to deconstruct this fascism, anti-semitism, and authoritarianism.
“Putinism is a mosaic consisting of all those pieces,” Hovorun said. “We need to come together and figure out how to deal with this new monster, which is so similar to the totalitarian theologies of the thirties.”
What made the old monster so difficult to slay, Volf told me over lunch afterward, was that it feasted on the trembling heart of man. Jesus instructed His followers to “take heart!” because He had overcome the troubles of this world. But most of us don’t listen. Christians remain just as susceptible to panicky groupthink and identity-based paranoia as anyone else. Despite Jesus promising His followers that they would suffer—or perhaps because of this promise—Christians since the age of Constantine have run anxiously into the arms of the state, desperate to be protected by the rulers of their time and place. 

The irony, Volf said, is that Jesus Himself was killed by the state because He was daring enough to “offer an alternative to the powers that reigned in the domain where He was.” 

A willful blurring of lines—between those powers and the alternative—led to calamity in the last century. History might repeat itself, Volf warned, if we don’t heed the words of Karl Barth, the legendary Swiss theologian who prosecuted the theological case against Hitler and Nazism. If the Church is to practice the teachings of Christ, Barth wrote, it must be “an unreliable ally” to every social, political, and government order of this world. This is not always an easy message to preach. 

Volf’s mentor, Moltmann, possessed a singular credibility because of his proximity to the Nazi cause. Drafted into the German army at age sixteen, he surrendered to the first British soldier he encountered and spent three years as a prisoner of war. An American chaplain supplied the Bible that would alter the course of his life. Moltmann’s reflections on the atrocities of Auschwitz—and his teachings on the benevolence of a sovereign God, one who took the form of man in order to bleed and grieve alongside us—did as much to shatter the spell of Nazism as any B-17 bomber. 

Listening to Hovorun during our time in France, I could tell he was following a similar blueprint. The onetime Russian Orthodox insider turned dissident-in-exile was traveling the world at considerable personal risk to warn of the dangers of Putinism. He was proving highly effective. It made me wonder about Trumpism and the American evangelical movement. 

Was deconstruction even possible without atonement from the people who’d been part of the problem? We probably shouldn’t expect any sweeping, transformational contrition from the likes of Robert Jeffress or Greg Locke. Maybe the best we could hope for was a course correction at the grassroots level, a model of reconciliation in miniature, some wrongs made right by the rank-and-file pastors who’d led their churches into crisis. The problem with this hope: Most of these pastors couldn’t see the crisis at all.

Alberta, Tim. The Kingdom, the Power, and the Glory: American Evangelicals in an Age of Extremism (pp. 236-246). HarperCollins. Kindle Edition. 

Highlights are my own

I'm about 40% through the book; however, when I read this section, it seemed that I should share immediately... I will be returning to visiting at Amherst, tomorrow, as I continue reading this important book--maybe the most important book you should read to understand just why America has become so divided. I found the answer here, because I had already guessed the answer. I've been reading books, confirming my hypothesis, doing the research...This book is a must-read to save America from...itself...

In Jesus' Name


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