In the past three weeks, I’ve published a couple pieces with Comment: This review of Daniel Vaca’s Evangelicals, Inc. and this essay, “Vocation in a Time of Precedented Uncertainty”, which reflects on the relevance of C.S. Lewis’ “Learning in War-Time” to the ways we see our callings in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic.
There’s something about both of the essays that makes even me, the author, a bit uneasy. (This, I think, is okay. I don’t expect my writing to resolve all my unease. In fact, if my own writing doesn’t make me uneasy on occasion, I’m probably doing it wrong.)
It made me uneasy when I wrote the essays, and it makes me even more uneasy now, in the midst of the country’s pain and turmoil caused by ongoing racial injustice. It’s this: Each of them could be misread as giving blanket support to the status quo. And there are so many ways in which that status quo – a status quo that robbed George Floyd, Ahmaud Arbery and Breonna Taylor of their lives – is evil and unacceptable.
The review of Vaca’s book centers on the fact that evangelical entanglements with broader cultural influences are both real and not necessarily bad. Though that is, I think, entirely true, if I’m honest with myself, I worry about actually saying it. Unqualified, that is too easily taken to be a tacit endorsement of complacency when, what I want instead is for evangelical Christians to admit that these entanglements are real so that they can see them, and then, seeing them, to weigh them, sift them, see what is good and what is evil, and then cultivate the good and dismantle the evil. I say as much here:
We can acknowledge that what evangelical Christians share with the mainstream or dominant culture stands alongside religious belief and spiritual practice in shaping our communities. This doesn’t mean that we should get comfortable with all the ways in which religious communities are shaped by mainstream and dominant cultural beliefs and practices. Rather, we should be vigilant about those influences, affirming, channelling, and even reshaping those that might be good and worthy or neutral, while negating, rejecting, and even opposing those that are unworthy and bad. But before we can measure them against Scripture and the Christian tradition, we have to see our entanglements clearly....
When I wrote this paragraph, I had in mind evangelical entanglements with racial injustice. The book wasn’t on that topic, and so the review wasn’t going to lean heavily in that direction, but what was on my mind was the entanglement of evangelical Christianity in the United States with the country’s “original sin” of racism, racial hierarchy, and racialized violence. That entanglement, both past and present, is a reality that we must face, and we must accept the possibility that facing it with any seriousness whatsoever may affect or change us in profound ways. Or, better yet, that facing that reality with clarity and serious resolve, we might also affect or change it.
Which brings me to that second piece. In it, I argue that if something was worth doing before a time of disruption and uncertainty, it is worth doing in the midst of that disruption and uncertainty:
Even if our work is harder in many ways, even if the pandemic has distracted our attention, diminished our effectiveness, disrupted our rhythms, or dealt us pain, worthy things that captured our attention, time, and investment before are not suddenly unworthy because of the pandemic and the uncertainty it brings. Was it valuable, before the pandemic, to compose music, teach math, or learn Spanish? Then it is still valuable during the pandemic. Was it a worthy endeavour, in 2019, to build homes, tend gardens, and share meals? Then it is a worthy endeavour in 2020. Was it commendable for any generation to birth new enterprises and steward older institutions? Then it is commendable for this one. Was it ever worthwhile to preach the gospel, to make disciples, to love neighbours, strangers, and enemies? Then it is worthwhile now.
Another piece that could easily be mistaken for a tacit endorsement of the status quo. Continuing to do what we’ve been doing seems a bit complacent, doesn’t it? But there are three important qualifications:
Whatever it is to which Christians are called in the midst of disruption, the midst of turmoil, it’s not complacency. It’s wisdom and action.
So if we’re not simply going to accept the status quo, what do we do with it? Where should we start?
According to Paulo Evaristo Arns, the deceased former archbishop of Sao Paulo, we should start by “subverting” it. Arns, an opponent of Brazil’s former military dictatorship, taught that “to subvert means to turn a situation around and look at it from the other side, the side of those who have to die so that the system can go on.”
Today, I offer a few subversive recommendations.
Jesmyn Ward, The Men We Reaped
Tyehimba Jess, Olio
Janet Abu-Lughod, Race, Space, and Riots in New York, Chicago, and Los Angeles
Miles Davis, A Tribute to Jack Johnson
If Beale Street Could Talk (When you watch this, pay attention to the number of times that white supremacist institutions and practices prevent characters from fulfilling promises made to one another. At least, that is one of the things that stood out to me when I watched it.)