Faithfulness in difficult times

Last week an email appeared in my inbox from a friend we first met in the early 1970’s in New Mexico. Lauri Reiter lives there, with her husband, and so we only get to see her when they come to Minnesota occasionally to visit family. We wish we could see them more.

Lauri wrote to me after reading an article that appeared in her news feed about the state of things in America. In responding to it, she made a simple observation of genuine insight and significance. “I don’t know if I’m a pessimist,” she said, “but I believe very difficult things are ahead for our country.”

One doesn’t need to be a pessimist to agree with that. All one needs is to be clear sighted, able to sense the spirit of our age in light of the things that matter most. The deep divisions fragmenting our society with so many unwilling to discuss the underlying issues calmly and with civility. The name-calling, demonization of those with whom we disagree, and the profusion of lies and misinformation already take a toll on our humanity and are only getting worse. The politization that has captured the evangelical community and drawn it into politization, an idolatry in our world of advanced modernity. My spiritual mentor, Francis Schaeffer, used to warn that evangelicals would, in difficult times, support “law and order” candidates into “authoritarian” regimes. We see this pernicious process unfolding in real time.

We can also consider the growing threat of violence. In “American Hatred Goes Global,” Bruce Hoffman and Jacob Ware of the Council on Foreign Relations explains “How the United States Became a Leading Exporter of White Supremacist Terrorism,”

            In its decades-long fight against terrorism, the United States regularly criticized countries such as Iran, Pakistan, and Saudi Arabia for exporting extremist ideologies and violence. Ironically, today the United States stands accused of doing the same. The spread of homegrown American conspiracy theories, beliefs in racial superiority, antigovernment extremism, and other manifestations of hate and intolerance has become such a problem that some of the United States’ closest allies—Australia, Canada, and the United Kingdom—have designated both American groups and citizens as foreign terrorists.
            Although little reported by the U.S. press, the October 2022 killing of two people at a gay bar in Bratislava, Slovakia, by a man espousing racist and homophobic views is an example of the pernicious effects of this “made in America” ideology. In a now all-too-common pattern, the gunman posted a manifesto explaining his intent just before the attack. Written in English, the document displayed all the racist, anti-Semitic, and homophobic justifications that have become de rigueur for this type of hate-filled violence. More significant, the manifesto expressed a solidarity and affinity with a U.S.-centric white supremacist ideology that has gained greater currency in both the United States and other countries in recent years. “The number of non-White invaders in America continues to grow and grow, unchecked,” the killer wrote. The gunman also cited a white supremacist terrorist attack earlier that year on a supermarket in a Black community in Buffalo, New York, as having inspired him. After decades of insufficient and ineffective efforts to suppress a racist antigovernment fringe, the United States has become the exemplar of far-right extremism and terrorism.
            Far-right violence today is increasingly fueled by a deadly combination of ideology and strategy imported from the United States.

I responded to Lauri, saying I believe the “difficult things” are not just “ahead,” they are already here.

Thankfully, because Christian Faith provides a Third Way, we are not torn between Left v Right, Democratic v Republican, Pessimist v Optimist. For citizens of God’s Kingdom all the bedrock norms remain unchanged. The tomb remains empty, God remains sovereign, Christ remains King, the Spirit remains at work, and the Church, for all her abject failure and poverty will not be overcome by the gates of Hell. So, I remain hopeful regardless of how things look, or whether we seem headed into difficult or comfortable things.

I am not called to change or save the world—or America, for that matter. I am called to be faithful to Jesus as Lord across all of life and culture in the ordinary things of life in the small corner of reality where I find myself. As Steve Garber wrote so wisely on Facebook: “My great hope is that we can come together into a more holy and honest life, where what we believe about life and the world is more and more the way we live in the world, from our most personal relationships to our most public responsibilities.”

And to the extent things are changing, moving into difficult times, to that extent the details of what makes up my faithfulness may need to be tweaked. That is hardly newsworthy, however, since all change—kids going off to college, illness, a devastating storm, job switch, inflation, aging—always requires us to reflect on how we can best live out our calling given that things in the ordinary and routine of our lives have changed. All that’s different is that now we need to do it as hopeful people because we have entered difficult times in America.

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