In less than three weeks, Donald Trump will be the president of the United States. As I think about how Christians are called to live in the midst of this global moment of increasing populism, authoritarianism, and nationalism, these are some of the texts I find myself returning to.
William Stringfellow, An Ethic for Christians and Other Aliens in a Strange Land. For the last eight years, it’s been possible to think that society is on a steady march forward. Not always in a straight line, of course, but we’ve had enough evidence to think that “the arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends towards justice.” That view seemed to shatter in the early hours of November 9.
The Trump presidency demands that Christians reclaim the apocalyptic. Early Christians didn’t believe in gradual incrementalism. They understood themselves to be fighting against powers and principalities that needed to be overthrown. One author who consistently and compellingly articulated these themes is the late William Stringfellow, Episcopal layman, lawyer, and theologian. An Ethic for Christians is an extended exegesis of the book of Revelation and the need to defeat “Babylon.”
The biblical topic is politics. The Bible is about the politics of fallen creation and the politics of redemption; the politics of the nations, institutions, ideologies, and causes of this world and the politics of the Kingdom of God; the politics of Babylon and the politics of Jerusalem; the politics of the Antichrist and the politics of Jesus Christ; the politics of the demonic powers and principalities and the politics of the timely judgement of God as sovereign; the politics of death and the politics of life; apocalyptic politics and eschatological politics.
Stringfellow is consistently challenging and creative in his writing and this book is an excellent introduction to his thought.
John Paul Lederach, The Moral Imagination: The Art and Soul of Building Peace. Lederach has traveled the world to teach peace-building skills in zones of prolonged conflict. In this book, he sums up a lot of what he has learned. What we need to move beyond violence, he writes, is a new “moral imagination.” This has four aspects:
the capacity to imagine ourselves in a web of relationships that includes our enemies; the ability to sustain a paradoxical curiosity that embraces complexity….; the fundamental belief in and pursuit of the creative act; and the acceptance of the inherent risk of stepping into the mystery of the unknown that lies beyond the far too familiar landscape of violence.
In addition to reclaiming the apocalyptic, Christians in the Trump era need also to learn deeply from the witness of Anabaptist Christians. Lederach starts us down that path.
The Kairos Document. In 1985, as the anti-apartheid struggle reached a crisis point, an ecumenical group of South African Christians published a document that critiqued what it called “state theology” and “church theology” and began to articulate “prophetic theology.” While it is shaped by its time and its context, it is still a document that speaks to our present moment.
There is nothing that we want more than true reconciliation and genuine peace–the peace that God wants and not the peace the world wants (Jn 14:27). The peace that God wants is based upon truth, repentance, justice and love. The peace that the world offers us is a unity that compromises the truth, covers over injustice and oppression and is totally motivated by selfishness. At this stage, like Jesus, we must expose this false peace, confront our oppressors and sow dissension. As Christians we must say with Jesus: “Do you suppose that I am here to bring peace on earth. No, I tell you, but rather dissension” (Lk 12:51). There can be no real peace without justice and repentance. (3.1)
Others might point to the Barmen Declaration, written by confessing Christians in Germany during World War II. You should also read that.
(The entirety of the Kairos Document is available online.)
P.D. James, Children of Men. James’ dystopic novel (set in 2012) envisions a world in which people have lost the ability to have children. It was turned into a pretty good movie about a decade ago, one I’ve thought of often in recent years, but the movie strays pretty far from the book. The novel is well worth reading in its own right, especially for the way in which childlessness comes to stand in for godlessness. I remember being struck particularly by the quiet insights into the role of the Christian liturgy in sustaining communal life in desperate times. Reclaiming the meaning of the liturgy (a cause that Stringfellow championed, among many others) is a vital task.
Harvey Cox, The Market as God. There is a lot of talk about economic inequality, both within countries and globally. But we don’t tend to talk about the penetration of market-based forms of thinking into more and more areas of our life and the resulting impact this has on how we see the world. The recent Christmas season is an annual reminder of the way in which a Christian holiday has been taken over and subverted by the great god of consumerism.
Harvey Cox recognizes all of this and in this recent book (itself an expansion of a 1999 article in The Atlantic) he argues that the market has become a god in our society.
To begin exploring the market theology is quickly to marvel at just how comprehensive it is. There are sacraments to convey salvific power to the lost, a liturgical year, a calendar of entrepreneurial saints, and even what theologians call “eschatology”—a teaching about the “end of history.”…. I want to demonstrate that the way the world economy operates today is not simply “natural” or “just the way things work,” but is shaped by a powerful and global system of values and symbols that can best be understood as ersatz religion.
To live in a Christian in this day and age means to be clear-eyed about the other gods that roam the religious landscape of our day and compete for the faith and trust of believers. The market is chief among them.
That’s my (non-exhaustive) list. What’s on yours? Recommendations for fiction are especially welcome.
UPDATE: Several good recommendations have been arriving on social media and other forms. They include:
- John Steinbeck, The Grapes of Wrath (“or anything by Steinbeck”)—heartily agreed! I re-read Grapes for the first time since high school last fall and was struck by how painfully good it is.
- “Something by Boenhoffer.” Also agreed. Recommendations welcome.
- Paul Aster, In the Country of Last Things
- Walter Wink, Naming the Powers
- Ched Myers, Binding the Strong Man
Keep the suggestions coming!
Jesse Zink (@jazink) is the director of the Cambridge Centre for Christianity Worldwide and author, most recently, of A Faith for the Future.