Rev. Timothy Keller was my pastor, at New York’s famous Redeemer Presbyterian Church. I have for years listened to his sermons, both in person and from a distance – first on those ancient cassette tapes, and more recently on podcasts. I have read most of his books, and discussed them in small groups at my church.
So I was naturally delighted to see that one of my favorite magazines, The New Yorker, published an article of his under the title “Can Evangelicalism Survive Donald Trump and Roy Moore?” I hope you will follow the link and read it for yourself. But because of my familiarity with and respect for the author, I wanted to offer my own reactions.
Rev. Keller’s answer to the question begins with real promise – unflinching acknowledgement of the present-day shame of the white American evangelical label:
“People who once called themselves the ‘Moral Majority’ are now seemingly willing to vote for anyone, however immoral, who supports their political positions…. Many younger believers and Christians of color, who had previously identified with evangelicalism, have also declared their abandonment of the label. ‘Evangelical’ used to denote people who claimed the high moral ground; now, in popular usage, the word is nearly synonymous with ‘hypocrite.’ When I used the word to describe myself in the nineteen-seventies, it meant I was not a fundamentalist. If I use the name today, however, it means to hearers that I am.”
Wow. What a start! I read on, eager for the thoughtful analysis to come. And sure enough, there’s good stuff in here. Keller points to the chasm dividing the typical American “white evangelical” – a tiny minority in worldwide Christianity by any measurement – from the robust growth of Christianity in the non-European global South. He points to the vibrancy of multi-ethnic urban churches in America planted among immigrant communities by non-Western missionaries. And he finds racial justice and care for the poor prominent in the lives of such churches.
As Pastor Keller describes it, there is a vibrant movement in the American church – aided by immigrants and missionaries from abroad – that addresses one of the fundamental flaws of Christianity in this country. That flaw is summarized well by Robert Phillips Russo of Christians for the Mountains:
“Most of the church is split into two camps – either focused on personal salvation and holiness, or focused on social holiness and social justice. While we can say that we all care about both personal and societal well-being, many of us fall into one of these two camps.”
I think Russo has got it just about right. And if it’s true for the personal beliefs of individuals, it’s all the more so for church communities. Our churches tend to opt primarily for one of these choices or the other. Personal salvation. Societal justice. Seldom both with anything approaching equal fervor.
But what if Rev. Keller is right? What if American Christianity is being transformed by multi-ethnic “small-e evangelical” churches with a new-found passion for social justice? As Keller tells it, the media stereotype of evangelicals misses this movement entirely. Those “big-E Evangelicals” you see on TV or read about in polling data are not what you find in our churches. Young people are not abandoning the urban “small-e evangelical” churches like ours. We are adopting a full-orbed commitment to gospel justice in ways that defy both political poles.
Well, I hope so. But I’m in those churches, and I’m not so sure. For the most part, I find that while we concern ourselves with personal salvation, we don’t dare to seriously address thorny societal issues beyond the traditional causes of the Christian Right. Coming out of the closet (as a Democrat or progressive) is still really awkward. Young people ARE leaving us due to our complacency about societal injustice. And efforts to address structural injustice (as opposed to alleviating its consequences) are still generally too hot to handle.
And I’m afraid that Rev. Keller’s own words would seem to reveal a pretty clear choice on his own part in the divide described by Russo. “Jesus didn’t come primarily to solve the economic, political, and social problems of the world,” wrote Keller in a recent Tweet. “He came to forgive our sins.”
Well, okay. But does our gospel force us to make this choice? Do we have to choose between the personal and the societal? It looks to me like this good man has chosen the personal – not the societal – redemption offered in the Christian gospel.
Jesus didn't come primarily to solve the economic, political, and social problems of the world. He came to forgive our sins.
— Timothy Keller (@timkellernyc) December 18, 2017
To be fair, Rev. Keller did qualify his choice with the word “primarily.” But there is still a choice to be made, isn’t there? Primarily, God did not love the “cosmos” so much that he gave his only begotten Son; rather, he loved the individual sinner. He loved me. He saved me. Personally. That’s the primary message of this particular gospel narrative, isn’t it?
But as I read them, the Gospels don’t force us to choose. To begin with, they tell us that “God so loved the world that he gave his only begotten Son…” (John 3:16). The world. He loved the world. The gospel writer could have used the word “anthropos” – meaning the human world, individual people and mankind. And that’s the way my religious tribe usually presents the message. It’s human; it’s personal; it’s about God’s love for me – at least for starters.
But the apostle instead chose a different word for the world God loved: “kosmon.” God so loved the kosmon, from which we get the word “cosmos.” God loved the cosmos – the world of all things. Jesus uses the same word when he asks “What does it profit a man if he gains the whole world (kosmon) and loses his soul?” It would seem that “the world” that God loves excludes nothing at all. God loves the world of “all things” without limit, whether people, or societal relationships, or ecosystems. And we learn from scripture that God sent his Son to reconcile “all things” to himself; and that at the culmination of history, he will make “all things” new. The entire cosmos. Everything.
So, is our gospel primarily personal? Or is it societal? Or is it ecological? Or do we really have to decide? If God’s love for the cosmos undergirds the gospel, maybe we don’t have to.
And yet we evangelicals (or whatever we now call ourselves) have indeed decided, I’m afraid. The personal, individual message has it hands down. And if we mention societal holiness at all, it’s generally in broad, non-specific terms. We’re fine with God’s love for the poor. But the Medicaid that keeps them alive? Well, that may be too delicate for us to act on.
As a case in point, my wife Barbara and I traveled to Charlottesville, Virginia last August, at the same time that white supremacists and neo-Nazis were descending on the college town for a brazen show of gun-toting, torch-bearing racial intimidation. Mainline-denomination and African American Christians were everywhere, mobilizing opposition, operating church sanctuaries for those in danger, organizing transportation networks to evacuate the injured, and confronting the armed rally-goers with scripture, songs and prayers.
We began with planning in an Episcopal Church; we greeted the sunrise with prayer at an African-American church; the Methodists provided a sanctuary space for us all. These were people of many faith traditions. And, yes, we even saw one white evangelical church joining in the effort, led by their pastor.
But Virginia is teeming with evangelical churches. Where were they? Evangelical pastors from my own denomination (and Keller’s) had, by chance, congregated in Charlottesville at that very moment to deal with routine issues of church governance. But they stayed indoors, far away from the messy business of racism and ethnic hatred. Meanwhile, out on the streets, the white evangelicals such as ourselves were nearly invisible in a sea of diverse people congregating in mainline churches, acting in defense of Jews, African Americans, and general decency. Personal salvation, or societal reconciliation? In Charlottesville, the evangelicals appeared to choose the personal.
I don’t think this experience is isolated. In my experience, wherever action to address structural injustice is found, American evangelicalism is most notable by its absence, by its silence. Surely Pastor Keller must see some cases where evangelical churches genuinely relate their faith to the urgent social issues of the day. But to me, he’s arguing more from the exception rather than the rule.
More than anything, I wish Pastor Keller would address this question: Let’s assume that the worst of the bigotry voiced under the “big-E Evangelical” banner is in fact emanating from those without true faith and consistent religious practice. Even so, why is it that the remaining white evangelical church is generally silent or complicit in the face of rampant economic, ethnic, racial, gender and ecological injustice? We are born again, for goodness sake! Unless that’s just a get-in-free pass to Heaven, it has to mean something on Earth, doesn’t it?
(Warning: A response of “Christians-aren’t-perfect” simply will not do. If you are indwelt by the Spirit of God, you actually live somewhat more like Jesus did. And in his own words, Jesus came bearing good news and practical aid to the poor, the oppressed, the prisoner and the blind.)
Pastor Keller ends his article by siding with those who think the name “evangelical” will likely be abandoned or demoted. Personally, I think that’s a courageous prediction for a leading pastor in a conservative denomination. But beyond that, he predicts no change in belief among those in the movement. That’s where I think he would do well to explore a bit further. Current or former evangelicals will – indeed they must – ask themselves: What have we believed, or failed to believe, that has made us feel so comfortable with our place in a religious tribe which is so little devoted to the justice and mercy that defined our Savior’s life and mission? How could “God’s elect,” those indwelt by the Holy Spirit, have actively supported or silently acquiesced in some of the darkest societal ills seen in our generation? And how could we do so in greater numbers than those we regard as lost?
In the meantime, my thanks to Pastor Keller for making a good start. He has acknowledged the shame we feel. He has highlighted the role of world Christianity in shaping a more just mission for the Christian church. He has pointed us to examples of redemptive church life in our own country. But I pray that he won’t stop there. We are still forced to make choices that are foreign to the life and teaching of our Lord. We’ve got to look with brutal honesty at where we have lost our way. Because if Jesus came bringing hope and help to the poor and the powerless, then we’ve simply got to figure out why it’s so hard for us to follow him there.
To read Rev. Keller’s article, please follow this link.