Karl Barth, a German Theologian who helped organize the Confessing Church in opposition to the Nazi regime, once said that the church ought to be an “unreliable ally” to any and every political system. That is to say that our primary allegiance to Jesus and his kingdom will often come into tension with our subordinate allegiances to political parties, ideologies, movements and organizations. In Nazi Germany, non-cooperation with the political system seems a matter of course; are we in such a moment now? The comparisons are commonly made. Many smart people are legitimately concerned that this November’s presidential election is just like Germany in 1934. Interestingly, I have seen comparisons that liken both the “radical left” and the “far right” to the Nazis. That’s the moment we live in. What a mess! I’m not sure the consequences are as dire as the most alarmed alarmists fear, but Donald Trump is undeniably an unprecedented person in U.S. history. His presidency is drawing the worst out of the American people. We are in bad shape. What kind of ally can the church be right now?
“Ally” is a term that has taken on new meaning in recent decades. I think it started with LGBTQ+ folks looking for solidarity, but historians reading this can correct me. Not too long ago the idea was born that straight folks could be an “ally” to gay folks who were having trouble finding a place in the world (and dying by suicide and hate crimes in droves for the lack of anywhere safe). This ally language was incredibly successful in changing public opinion. A Gallup Poll about support of same-sex marriage, for example, showed that support went from 27% in 1996 to 67% in 2020. I’m not sure that every one in that 67% would consider themselves an “ally”, but we can see the trend.
The term “ally” is also used to describe white people who want to dismantle white supremacy. They are allies to the people of color in their lives, co-laborers in a groundswell of social change that is sweeping the country (and receiving significant reaction), specifically in support of black lives. Michelle Ferrigno Warren of Christian Community Development Association (an organization with which Circle of Hope has long standing ties) recently described herself as a “long standing white ally” in a piece published at ccda.org this June, “To My People, the White Ones” (a very succinct and difficult list of suggestions for white folks).
But I have had conversation with folks in Circle of Hope who do not want to accept this language. They are concerned that this is actually a Karl Barth moment when allying with “the Black Lives Matter movement” ought not to be a matter of course. They are suggesting that our church is too reliably allied with this political system, and is losing the thread of our primary allegiance to Jesus and his Kingdom. Some will quickly say, “That’s racism!” Others will quietly wonder if there isn’t some merit to some friendly critique. But friendly critique does not seem possible right now, especially coming from white men like me. I understand this.
Staying at the Table
Reading Michelle Ferrigno Warren’s post, I am convicted by her suggestions, as painful as they appear. My favorite suggestion is this one, “Sit in the back of the proverbial bus, on the floor – this is NOT your Rosa Parks moment.” She can turn a phrase, can’t she? I’m trying to push through the discomfort of this myself. Kind of like I’m actually sitting on the floor with my legs in a pretzel and my feet are falling asleep, I feel how difficult this is, but I am calling us to persevere. Another thing Michelle Ferrigno Warren suggests is to stay at the table. “At the table you are going to hear new things that hurt your feelings, don’t leave. At the table you are going to have to work alongside people you might not agree with, don’t leave. At the table you are going to be asked to use your voice to help white people understand – do it. At the table you are going to be asked to give up your power by leveraging it, resolve to do that work no matter what it costs.”
I would add more reasons to stay at the table: this is your opportunity to love, to be a minister of reconciliation, to be of one mind and heart despite disagreement, to do justice and love mercy and to walk humbly. There is so much opportunity for growth in this moment. Being the church is not ignoring our differences, so everyone can feel safe;being the church is seeing our differences and loving each other long enough to make real peace so that everyone can actually BE safe. The difficulty of this task requires all of the gifts we were naturally given and all of the spiritual gifts the Holy Spirit is supplying for right now. This is how Christ can be all and in all, because the project of being the church at any time, but especially when it is hard, will transform us in every way. We who are part of the church have decided to follow Jesus with our everything. That’s what we mean when we say “Jesus is Lord.” Staying at the table requires us to love long and hard enough to be the new creation in Christ. And Jesus will be with us, equipping us the whole time. “I’m sure about this: the one who started a good work in you will stay with you to complete the job by the day of Christ Jesus.” (Philppians 1:6 CEB)
But what then do we do with the friendly critique? What to make of the sneaking suspicion that the church is too reliably allied with a political movement that is not entirely just and pure and good? Well, first I would remind that no political movement is entirely just or good or pure. Jesus said, “No one is good except God alone.” Second, I would gently wonder aloud if the discomfort with the black lives matter movement is not indeed connected to the discomfort of the demands the movement is making of white people. Third (and I have been doing a lot of this), I would listen. The current trajectory of social change is not unimpeachable. Of course there are problems. Of course our Kingdom of God project is bigger than Black Lives Matter, but I would argue that it is not oppositional as some of my conversation partners have. Staying at the table is in general an even more difficult task for Black people in our church. Let us not forget that being at the table uncomfortably is not an option for a Black person in the United States like it is for most White people. White people can leave the table — that’s part of why this is so hard — white people have a very different experience than everyone else. And it is not just.
I’m wishing you joy
Lastly, I think the best thing we can collectively offer this moment is joy. Miroslav Volf said on the most recent episode of his podcast, For the Life of the World, “Modernity is perfectionism… and perfectionists have no joy.” Unfortunately or not, our difficulties are not unhinged from the country we live in or its rancorous dialogue. So right here, in the messy middle of a pivotal time in our country and subsequently in our church, we CAN have joy. Because we are freed from the graceless demand of perfectionism, because our project is not solely the “progress” of modernity, we can “laugh though we have considered all the facts” as Wendell Berry says in a poem I love. We can wish joy in the face of despair. We can love one another well despite the assailing rancor, and pray for more grace that we think is possible — more grace than we can rightly bear. Let us offer joy to the opportunity to have God again knit us together in love. Let us offer joy to the opportunity for justice to flow where it has never flown before. Let us offer joy to the difficulty of starting again when we fail because we are convinced than nothing will separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus.