In Marilynne Robinson’s recent book of Essays, The Givenness of Things, Robinson calls America a Christian nation. I disagree with her label, but I can affirm the broad road she uses to arrive there. She writes that “Most [American] people, if asked, will identify themselves as Christian, which may mean only that they aren’t something else…We [American’s] are identified in the world at large with this religion because some of us espouse it not only publicly but also vociferously. As a consequence, we carry a considerable responsibility for its good name in the world, though we seem not much inclined to consider the implications of this fact.” Please don’t misunderstand what Robinson is saying. This is not some kind of Christian American superiority or America as the new Israel babble. This is all about PR. American media, for better or worse, is influential in the world. I remember a friend of mine telling me how TBN, for example, was affecting the church in Africa. African pastor’s were trying to sound like T.D. Jakes when they were preaching. (In fairness, I think most of us want to sound a little like Jakes every now and again.) I have plenty of issues with TBN but that’s not my beef here either. My issue is the way that Christians are portraying themselves on mainstream American media because, like it or not, there are worldwide consequences concerning witness.
Let’s talk about witness for a moment. Witness is not just what comes out of our mouths. It’s not less than that, of course, but it is more. Witness is how we represent Jesus. The very term Christian implies that the one who bears that title somehow represents Christ. My point of clarification here is not to somehow create a dichotomy or hierarchy between actions and words, rather it is to point out that both actions and words, for the Christian, are either a good or bad witness. There are many wonderful Christian’s who represent Jesus well in America. The problem is that those whose witness is beautiful don’t usually make an appearance on Fox or CNN. It’s not just that they aren’t invited – for the most part they wouldn’t want to make an appearance. They know that media publicity is rarely the kind of publicity that is cohesive with the way of Jesus. The temptation of the crowd is a strong one though, and it’s easy to get pulled in. Still, Eugene Peterson warns that “a crowd destroys the spirit as thoroughly as excessive drink and depersonalized sex. It takes us out of ourselves, but not to God, only away from him.” Recently I saw two videos posted on Facebook where the crowd was strong enough to take someone out of themselves “but not to God.” The problem is that they were taken out of themselves – and not to God – in God’s name. The first video I saw was from the Republican National Convention. Pastor Mark Burns gave this benediction prayer:
Pay attention to how the name of Jesus is invoked:“I’m going to pray and I’m going to give the Benediction. You know why? Because we are electing a man in Donald Trump who believes in the name of Jesus Christ. And Republic, we got to be united because our enemy is not other Republicans, but is Hillary Clinton and the Democratic party! Let’s pray, let’s pray together. Father God, in the Name of Jesus, Lord, we’re so thankful for the life of Donald Trump…that we together can defeat the liberal Democratic party to keep us divided and not united, because we are the United States of American, and we are the conservative party under God to defeat every attack that comes against us. Protect the life of Donald Trump. Give him the words, give him the peace, give him the power and authority to be the next President of the United States of America. In Jesus name – if you believe it – shout amen!”
In Jesus’ name he claims that the enemy is Clinton.
In Jesus’ name he prays for God to give Trump the authority to defeat the Democratic party and Clinton.
He prays for peace, power, and authority for Trump – all in Jesus’ name.
A week or so later I saw this video from the Democratic National Convention:
“We have an opportunity, oh God, to give undeniable evidence of our commitment to justice and equality by nominating Hilary Rodham Clinton as our candidate – hallelujah [praise God] – as our candidate for the highest office in the land…unite us, oh God, in one [democratic] party. It is in your mighty name that we pray, amen.”
Notice that she prays – in God’s name – that commitment to justice and equality would come not through the peaceable Kingdom of Jesus, but through nominating Clinton (hallelujah?). She prays that God would unite us – in one party.
There is so much that can be said but I’m going to try and narrow this down to just two points.
1. The phrase “Jesus is Lord” would not fit in either of these events. Both of these conventions exist to empower a political leader (who is not Jesus) by uniting a group of people against another group of people. The problem is twofold. First, Jesus is not interested in backing a political leader, American or otherwise. This doesn’t mean that God isn’t interested in their soul, obviously. Prayer for political leaders is good – God knows they need it. Prayer for them to have God’s authority to defeat their political enemy, however, is massively problematic. Simply put: Jesus doesn’t back your candidate. When we confess that “Jesus is Lord,” we mean more than just ‘Lord of my heart.’ He is Lord of the entire cosmos. The New Testament confession “Jesus is Lord” packed a double punch. First, it equated Jesus with the one God of Israel (YHWH) that we read about in the First Testament. Second, it had huge Roman political overtones. “Caesar is Lord” was the chant of the Roman Empire. When followers of Jesus confessed “Jesus is Lord,” they very clearly meant that Caesar was not. Such a statement (which was the churches first creed), with all of it’s political overtones, is not welcomed at environments like this. How could it be? Second, the end game of Jesus’ Lordship is the uniting of all peoples under his name. To pray against another people group in the Name of Jesus, while praying for power and authority for a political leader is to fundamentally misunderstand and demean the claim of the Jesus’ Lordship.
2. Not only are these prayers awkward and inappropriate, they are also an example of what the third commandment is all about. Exodus 20:7 reads “You shall not misuse the name of the LORD your God, for the LORD will not hold anyone guiltless who misuses his name.” What does that commandment actually mean? Growing up I was (rightly) taught that it was really wrong to say “Oh my God.” This is part of the meaning of the verse. The name of God was considered so holy that it was unpronounceable. Because of the lack of vowels in YHWH (these four letters are known as the Tetragrammaton), we still don’t know how to properly pronounce God’s name. Frequently Jews would refer to God as HaShem, which is Hebrew for “the Name,” as to avoid pronouncing God’s name. The name of God is not to be taken lightly. But that is not all the verse means. Israel was a people who were in a unique covenantal relationship with God. In writing about this unique relationship that YHWH had with Israel, Christopher Wright notes that “The name (reputation) of YHWH among the nations was at stake…”. God’s name and God’s reputation are inextricably linked. To misrepresent God, therefore, is to take God’s name in vain. As I watched both of these prayers I was troubled because I knew that God’s reputation was on the line. God’s name was being misused.
To revisit Robinson’s point – the world is watching. I remember how someone from another country was recently telling me how embarrassed she was by how Christians were representing themselves – and the rest of us – in the media, particularly in the arena of politics. Her work of bearing witness to Jesus in her country was made much more difficult because of the way Jesus’ reputation was being publicly demolished in the media – by Christians. Her unchurched friends watched prayers like these in their living rooms. Would they think Christianity is like that? That she was like that? To be clear, the point here is not to come against the American church. I’m a part of it! My current vocation, and most of my ministry, has taken place in American. The point is to remind this segment of the church – of which I am a part – that the world is watching and it’s God’s reputation that is on the line. God still takes the misuse of His name seriously. So should we.
So what should we do? First, I think that we need to call foul when things like this happen because they are that serious. I don’t mean that we need to destroy Pastor Burns or Reverend Hale, but their actions do need to be addressed and Christians need to be vocal. Avoid the temptation to point out how your side wasn’t as bad the other side. The main concern here is God’s reputation, not the reputation of a political party. Second, we need to immerse ourselves in the beatitudes and realize that they are the politics of Jesus. The beatitudes are what Jesus is up to and what we are invited to participate in. Finally, we need to be a people who carry God’s name well ourselves. This will rarely be loud. It will probably look more like a woman kneading yeast through 60 pounds of dough than a political rally. The Kingdom moves slowly. It creeps along inch by inch, but it never stops. Kings come and go. Presidents come and go. The Kingdom of Jesus, though, has been on the move since his resurrection and will never end. We are invited to represent that Kingdom to the world. Let’s do it well.