Joel Wentz

contending for thoughtful Christianity

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My Uneasy Relationship With Our Pro-Life Politics

The reader hardly needs me to point out that there has been a media firestorm surrounding controversial new laws in both New York and Virginia in recent weeks. Both New York State bill S240 and Virginia House Bill 2491 have proposed significant changes to legislation around reproductive rights, particularly loosening restrictions around abortion, which has unsurprisingly ignited massive backlash from more socially-conservative people. As a moderate-left individual (politically) who is at the same time conservative on this particular issue, I have to admit that there is something about the broadly Christian rhetoric I’m seeing that makes me uncomfortable, which is what I want to dig into in this post.

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But before progressing any further, I want to state clearly and unequivocally that I am both pro-life and anti-abortion. I believe that legally protecting an individual’s choice to quickly and easily terminate unwanted pregnancies is a tragic direction for a society to pursue, and I do lament, along with the pro-life community, that this seems to be the trajectory our culture is continuing in. This discussion is about to complicated, so hear me loud and clear at the outset: loosening restrictions around abortion is a bad idea, normalizing abortion is morally problematic (to say the least), and I want the number of abortions in our country to be as close to zero as possible.

Having taken that stance, I want to confess 2 areas of tension I experience with the way American Christians engage our culture on this issue.

Concern #1: On being politically manipulated.

The political history regarding the prominence of abortion as a rallying-cry for evangelicals is much more complicated than most realize. There is an ugly and oft-ignored racial component to the movement that has been exposed by historians like Randall Balmer. As the argument goes, the founders of the “Moral Majority” shrewdly leveraged abortion as a unifying cause to rally evangelicals against electing Jimmy Carter for a second term. While defeating abortion was the presenting issue, a deeper motivation was to protect the many recently-founded private Christian schools’ tax-exempt status, which was under threat in a post-Brown v. Board of Education society because most of these schools did not admit black students. They were even commonly referred to as “segregation academies.” The looked-for “savior” of these institutions was then-governor of California, a man named Ronald Reagan, who specifically promised to protect their tax-exemption, if elected as president, during an early campaign speech at Bob Jones University. Running on explicitly-segregationist rhetoric, however, is not palatable to ostensibly-Christian voters, and alas, abortion was discovered to be much more motivating as a cause. If this narrative is true, and I think the data is convincing, then people voting against abortion were at the same time voting for racial segregation and the continued disenfranchisement of black people, even if they didn’t realize it.

The point I’m trying to make here is that we should not be naive about the motivations of our political system. We should be much more careful about allowing worldly political agendas to define our voting patterns, and by raising any single issue to non-negotiable status, we signal to politicians that “it doesn’t really matter what else you believe or contend for, as long as you say that you are against abortion” and the result is that we evangelicals become a all-too-easily-manipulated voting bloc.

Rather than being the “conscience of the state,” to use MLK’s memorable phrase, I fear we have become a simple lever that the state can pull to get votes, knowing we won’t think twice if we hear the right rhetoric about abortion laws.

The church can, and must, be better than that.

Concern #2: On the unmet expectations for a moral America.

There’s a striking theme in the social media uproar that I consistently see from Christians regarding abortion, and it goes something like, “This is yet more evidence of the continued moral degradation of our society!” Our culture, the thinking goes, is careening into a moral cesspool, and the loosening of abortion laws is simply confirming this trajectory. This is an important spark for the emotional panic and outrage.

But there’s an unspoken logic behind this thinking, because you can’t lose something you never had. So if our society is, in fact, morally de-volving, the implication is that we had already morally evolved. Or, to put it more bluntly, once we were good. Now we aren’t.

And I’m not so sure about that.

Christopher Columbus claiming the “New World.” Colonization was justified on religious grounds by the Doctrine of Discovery.

Christopher Columbus claiming the “New World.” Colonization was justified on religious grounds by the Doctrine of Discovery.

Time and space don’t permit an in-depth discussion of this, but I contend that any intellectually honest reading of history exposes troubling moral issues (indeed, right alongside high moral aspirations, what Lincoln famously called the “better angels of our nature”) at the core of our nation’s founding. Such issues notably include the Enlightenment-drenched racial doctrines that protected the practice of chattel slavery, and explicitly-religious ideas like the “Doctrine of Discovery” that sanctified the expulsion, forced assimilation, and slaughter, of Native people.

The point here is not to paint America as the worst country in history, as that would also be unnecessarily simplistic, but rather it is to acknowledge that, in spite of Winthrop’s vision of our country as a “city on a hill,” the functioning of our laws and institutions has always been deeply morally-compromised. Abortion is awful, but we aren’t suddenly sliding into a moral abyss. The Trail of Tears was also awful. Practicing race-based chattel slavery, and literally going to war with ourselves because we couldn’t disentangle ourselves from the systemic and economic implications of it was also awful. Currently holding one of the highest incarceration rates in the global community is awful.

Now hear me carefully on this, because I am not arguing that we have no grounds to declare abortion immoral simply because our country does other things that are also immoral (a logical fallacy popularly known as “whataboutism”). Rather, I am arguing that if you want to make broad statements about the moral state of America, pointing specifically to legislative changes as evidence, you must broadly consider our legislative history.

Here is why this matters: think about what perpetuating this narrative about America’s morality signals to all the communities of people who were already suffering (and continue to suffer) the effects of immoral legislation for decades and centuries before Roe v. Wade. Convict leasing, redlining, the school-to-prison pipeline, and mass incarceration are American legislative issues that have been disproportionately harming black and Latinx Americans for a long, long time, and to say that we are now a “country with immoral laws” indicates that you either didn’t know, or worse, didn’t care, about the very real injustices happening on a legislative level before these recent changes.

Don’t stop calling abortion immoral. But do stop selectively utilizing it to perpetuate a false narrative about the moral state of America’s legal system. Better yet, let go of your expectations for a morally-perfect American government. That was never God’s plan for the world. The actual plan has already been launched in the life, death and resurrection of Jesus, and it’s called the “Kingdom of God,” which you can participate in right now.

Conclusion: A Kingdom-Witness Against Abortion

I’m proud of the historic stance Christian communities have always taken against abortion, even within the ancient Greco-Roman world in which child-exposure was practiced when infants were not wanted. Contending for life, in every sense of that word, is an important and necessary implication of what it means to believe that the divine image is imprinted in every individual, regardless of how society might define their worth.

But the way in which we contend for life must not be controlled and manipulated by worldly politics and social media virtue-signaling. We risk compromising our witness, and our integrity, when we give such corrupt systems undue influence in how we operate. Yes, we happen to live in a participatory democracy, so by all means, vote against any and all laws that are diametrically opposed to the way of God’s Kingdom. But even more importantly, live as if that Kingdom was present and breaking through right now. Because I believe it is, and that’s the best news we can offer to a confused and hurting culture.




One Christian's Thoughts on the Kavanaugh Debacle (and the state of our culture)

Just last week, my wife and I finally got around to finishing the drama mini-series “The People vs. OJ Simpson,” which is obviously based on the real-life events surrounding the infamous double-homicide case that enthralled the entire country in the mid-90s. It’s a powerful story, and a well-done adaptation that captures the many variables and complexities that ultimately resulted in a ‘not guilty’ verdict for Simpson. After reflecting on the cultural forces at play during the Simpson trial, I was struck by a notable parallel to our current political and media storm surrounding the Kavanaugh hearings.

See, in the Simpson trial, the prosecution was concerned about, and constantly working to direct the jury’s attention towards, one very specific thing: the evidence (DNA, witnesses, clues, etc.) that pointed to the guilt of Simpson in this one, particular event (two people that were found murdered).

On the other hand, the defense was concerned about, and constantly working to direct the jury’s (and, arguably, the entire culture’s) attention away from the specific evidence in question and instead towards cultural issues surrounding the homicide itself, most notably pervasive racial prejudice in the LAPD that was well-known, well-documented, easy-to-prove, and also systemically unchecked.

In short, while the prosecution was focused on putting OJ Simpson (an individual) on trial, the defense seized the opportunity to put the entire Los Angeles Police Department (an institution) on trial. The result is a complicated mix of questions surrounding an individual’s actions (Did OJ do it or not?) and whether the culture/system surrounding all these events was fundamentally broken and trustworthy (Can a police force that knowingly employs racist and misogynistic officers really be trusted to properly handle evidence that could convict a black man of homicide?).

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And all this brings me to last week, and the chaos surrounding the Brett Kavanaugh hearings. To my mind, there are actually very similar questions at play today. On the conservative/pro-Kavanaugh side of the equation, I am seeing posts and hearing comments focused on his individual guilt or innocence pertaining to this specific instance of alleged assault over 30 years ago. These are questions and comments like, “How can a 36 year old testimony be trusted?” or “How can we let hearsay, memories and conflicting personal stories drive the process of sorting out whether or not an individual is qualified to serve as a supreme court justice?” or “Well, most individuals couldn’t stand up to such ruthless scrutiny of how they acted in high school.” And on the progressive/anti-Kavanaugh side, most of what I’m seeing is instead pointing towards the systemic and pervasive nature of sexual assault against women in our culture, particularly the ways in which our institutions are designed to reflexively protect men in power, the real and longstanding trauma that sexual assault inflicts on victims, the cost of coming publicly forward with an experience, and the damaging message that would be sent towards the many, many victims of sexual assault that are watching this situation play out, especially if Ford’s testimony is simply dismissed and Kavanaugh is placed on the highest court in the land.

So do we focus exclusively on the question of individual guilt/innocence and the qualifications of Kavanaugh, as the conservatives would like? Or do we take into serious consideration the systemic-cultural implications for both our culture and legal system, especially for women and victims of sexual assault throughout our country, as the progressives would like?

My contention is that both matter, and that we cannot so easily tear them apart. It is indeed important to know, if possible, whether the individual in question is guilty of the specific charges that have been brought forward. Similarly, the public deserves to know whether or not he (or Ford, for that matter) has lied under oath in these testimonies. But it also remains true that this event cannot be torn out of its cultural context. More than any other time in my life, our culture is openly reckoning with the ways that men in powerful positions have abused their influence and done real harm to women, and the ways in which our institutions have perpetuated these patterns by protecting men and silencing their victims.

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From what I can see, there is no way forward in our cultural moment. Perhaps Kavanaugh is innocent of all wrongdoing, and this entire situation been stirred up by shrewd political maneuvering on the Left, who knows that weaponizing a story of sexual assault will strike a chord in the era of #MeToo and Trump, all to keep a conservative judge off the court. Or perhaps he actually is guilty of attempted rape, and then proceeded to lie about his past behaviors while under oath, which should fully disqualify him from serving. But if he is confirmed on the court, victims of assault will see this as yet more evidence that it simply isn’t worth coming forward with their own painful and vulnerable confessions, that our institutions are more interested in self-preservation than just and equal treatment of all, even if that means running roughshod over marginalized people. If, on the other hand, Ford’s allegations do ultimately keep Kavanaugh off the court, an entirely different segment of the population will interpret it as another step on our mass descent into moral relativism in which truth and evidence no longer matter.

And this might feel like a curveball at this point, but this is where I believe deep Christian thinking can save us. And we do need saving.

At the risk of using religious jargon, I truly believe that only a robust understanding of what Christians mean by “sin” can account for the state of our culture. Because “sin” is not simply a matter of doing things you aren’t supposed to do, or breaking rules, or harming people on an individual basis (though it does include all the above). “Sin” is, in a deeper sense, our inability to fix ourselves, to rid ourselves of greed, of the temptation to grasp for and abuse power, of extreme self-protection even at the cost of harming the most vulnerable, and our propensity for constructing systems and institutions around us that, as we participate in them, amplify all these behaviors. If, as Christian orthodoxy claims, we are all individually “sinful,” then so are our institutions, and here’s the really chilling part, we can’t fix them. After all, we are the ones who build them.

So regardless of where you personally land with Kavanaugh, I think we can all agree that the deep brokenness (dare I say, “sinfulness?”) of our political/media institution has been on full display throughout this whole ordeal. And if you believe we humans have what it takes to pull ourselves out of the mess, then more power to you.

I, for one, will be looking for a savior elsewhere.




Is it possible to be a Christian and a Patriot?

It’s no secret that our culture is deeply and bitterly divided right now, particularly along the lines of political partisanship. In fact, Pew research has found that the Democrat-Republican fault line seems to be the single strongest dividing wall in our population right now, no small feat in a country with our history.

“Let him begin by treating the Patriotism . . . as part of his religion. Then let him, under the influence of partisan spirit, come to regard it as the most important. Then quietly and gradually nurse him on to the state at which the religion becomes merely a part of the ‘cause,’ in which Christianity is valued chiefly because of the excellent arguments it can produce. . . Once he’s made the world an end, and faith a means, you have almost won your man, and it makes very little difference what kind of worldly end he is pursuing.”
— -Screwtape to Wormood in The Screwtape Letters (C.S. Lewis)

As a Christian, and as someone who has recently watched people leave my own congregation over sharp political disagreements, I have particular concerns about how these divisions are impacting the American church. What does it communicate to a watching world when Republicans and Democrats can’t worship alongside each other? When people identify with these partisan groups to such an extent that the ‘other’ must become a hated enemy? Is our only choice, then, to form homogenous, politically-like-minded congregations that all go their separate ways on Sunday mornings? And, most importantly, what does this all this imply about how powerful we believe the Gospel of Jesus really is?

Well, if you can’t be in a Jesus-shaped faith community alongside someone with conflicting political views*, then on a functional level, your country’s political ideologies have more formative power in your life than the Gospel of Jesus. By letting these political antagonisms determine where and with whom you worship, you have effectively handed meaning-making power over to what Paul called the ‘principalities.’

And that, to my mind, is beyond tragic.

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To be clear, I understand the temptation here. I even feel it, regularly. I was just as emotionally engaged in the last presidential election as many people, and I also struggle at a deep level when I find out someone in my community voted for a political candidate who is diametrically opposed to what I believe is best for my country. And the struggle has weight, precisely because my political values are formed by my religious convictions (as are, most likely, the values of the person on the ‘other side’). So what are we to do? Pretend the differences don’t exist on Sunday mornings? Swing the pendulum back and completely disengage from thinking about anything deemed “political?”

Historically speaking, we live at a pretty amazing time. It’s not only possible for the average American citizen to have deeply informed political ideas, but it’s also possible to work towards the implementation of those ideas in our own nation-state. We aren’t cut off from the actions of our political leaders, simply trusting in the “divine right of Kings” and hoping for the best. Nor are we living in a feudal society that is rigorously stratified by clan, family name or caste. There’s a way in which we should be thankful for all of this (I’m personally pretty happy that I don’t need to pay fealty to some Lord/Noble that I have no reason to trust, just in order to keep my land and eke out an agrarian existence), but there are other ways in which we should be cautious. I believe the current divisions mentioned above are a result of how we have not been as careful as we should be in forming political identities, particularly in the American church.

In the age of the classically-liberal, democratic, highly-individualistic, nation-state, one great temptation is to believe that my ideas about how political governance should be executed are the most important thing about me. And if the flourishing (however you define that word) of your nation is indeed the most important earthly project you have access to participate in, then this actually makes complete sense.

But if you’re a Christian, you (we) should be operating within a radically different paradigm. The success of the nation-state is decisively not the most important thing we invest our lives in. And this is especially thrown into sharp relief when the success, growth, or even simply ongoing existence, of a nation is advanced through the destruction of other image-bearing humans, who may also be our own co-citizens (to use Paul’s word in Philippians 3) of God’s Kingdom.

A 12th-century mosaic depicting the 3 temptations of Christ.

A 12th-century mosaic depicting the 3 temptations of Christ.

Jesus was offered significant political power at the beginning of his earthly ministry (Matthew 4), which is written as a genuine temptation that he had to refuse in order to instead inaugurate God’s Kingdom. Paul was found repeatedly at-odds with the Roman government throughout his life, and was ultimately executed by that Empire, as eventually was every apostle that we have record of. Jesus himself (the one we profess to follow) was put to death through political machinations (see especially John 18) and executed as a treasonous criminal.

So, can one be a Christian and a Patriot? Well, obviously the way you answer that question hangs on how exactly you define those two labels. Paul exhorted us to practice benevolent citizenship in his letter to the Roman church. In the old testament, the exiled Jewish community was to work for “the good of the city” in Babylon, in the midst of a pagan culture (Jeremiah 29). So to the extent that practicing good citizenship is in alignment with Kingdom work: turning the other cheek, or loving one’s neighbor, then by all means, bring Christ-living to bear on your citizenship. Do it for the glory of God.

But zealous national-loyalty (in the form of Patriotism) is not the same as “good citizenship.” And when the demands and values of one’s national identity begin to conflict with one’s allegiance to the King of Kings, one's "hidden identity in Christ" (see Colossians) a choice must be made. We are called to find meaning and purpose, not in the power and ensured success of the nation-state we happen to find ourselves in, but in the one who gave his life for others, forgiving those who killed him, so that we could go and do likewise. In the one who did not consider a short-cut to political authority as a worthy end, but instead emptied himself to unleash the world-renewing power of selfless love.

Jesus has launched a new Kingdom. Will you join?

 

*Please note how I worded this sentence. It’s one thing to leave a community because of how it is being led, and quite another to leave because you just can’t be in the same room as another peer who thinks differently. It may be a legitimate choice to walk away from a faith community that is being led into dangerous, or harmful ideology that intersects with political partisanship. But that gets complicated fast, and should never be done flippantly.

 



 

Dear Christians, Your Vote Is (Not) A Big Deal

As you may (hopefully) be aware, the American Presidential election is (finally) happening next week. As you may also be aware,  Christians have been tying themselves into knots over the choice placed before them. Particularly the moderate-conservative end of the spectrum (the majority of American Evangelical Christians) cannot seem to stomach a vote for either pro-Abortion Hillary, or pro-himself Trump. Some are resorting to protest, Third-Party votes, or resigning themselves to simply not voting at the top of the ticket. Others are passionate about Hillary taking the office, viscerally driven by an unholy terror of the prospect of Donald Trump obtaining the codes for our nuclear arsenal and hearing "state of the union" addresses from him for the next 4 years.

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Whatever way you cut it, pretty much everyone seems to be having an existential crisis.

My personal hope is that we Christians can come out on the other end of this election cycle with surer footing, because right now it feels like our community is gasping for air and frantically questioning everything we've ever been told about America's religious history, moral center, and future trajectory. And from my perspective, frantic gasping is not conducive to making healthy choices, so let's collectively take a deep breath.

Your Vote Is A Big Deal

No, I do not mean this in the sanctimonious, overly-individualized, idealistic, first-grade-classroom-mock-election sense. Frankly, your vote is one drop in a Pacific ocean of ballots, and for those of you who live in a state that consistently swings to the opposite party, your vote feels particularly worthless.

However, it certainly is a big deal that we live under a representative government that is ostensibly driven by the voice of the people. It is crucially important to remember that the body of Christ, of which we in America are but one member, exists throughout the world. Many of those other members live under totalitarian regimes, dictatorships, and war-ravaged continents, and for them a representative democracy may feel like a far-off dream that will never be experienced in their lifetime. For their sake, we dare not take for granted what we have been given.

I am also convinced that when the church is functioning in a healthy manner, it becomes the much-needed "conscience" and "critic" of the state.* We are not to be simply a tool of said state, a lever to be pulled and manipulated when strategic votes are needed, although I am afraid this is precisely what is happening concerning hot-button issues like Abortion and Supreme Court Justices; rather, we must maintain our prophetic zeal for a world that should look closer and closer to the Kingdom inaugurated by Jesus. In America, one of many ways that this zeal can be expressed is through the ballot box, not only for presidential bids, but for local propositions and city council members, which, frankly, have a more immediate impact on the life and health of your community anyways.

And do not forget, as we Americans are wont to do, that the rest of the world is watching this election. The de facto "leader of the free world" will be sworn in based on our choices next week, and throngs of people throughout the globe will be affected by an election they do not have a voice in. Use your voice for them.

Vote on November 8th. It's a big deal.

Your Vote Is (Not) A Big Deal

But please, dear Christians, do not helplessly fall victim to the lie that the way you cast your vote on November 8th is the sum total of your entire Christian expression and social ethic in this life. I'm convinced this lie is a major reason so many Evangelicals are developing ulcers this year, for we live in the shadow of a moral majority movement that has conditioned us for decades to believe that the implementation of a Christian government in America was a feat of near-eschatological importance. Furthermore, this implementation was narrowly defined as requiring a pro-small-government (but pro-large-military?) conservative leader who would be our shield and strong tower amidst the growing threat of a increasingly-secularized America. 

It's a good thing we have a model in David, who also turned to the power of the state when he was feeling threatened by enemies. Oh, wait a minute.....

Remember, God's plan for humanity was never dependent on a certain vision of governance for the American experiment. Instead, this globe-spanning plan was successfully launched over 2,000 years ago through the faithfulness of the Son in walking to the cross. Our vote cannot change that.

Remember, Jesus does not need America to be "Christian," however that is defined. He is (and will remain) seated on his throne, regardless of who occupies the White House. Don't defile this truth by placing inordinate emotional weight on the outcome of the American election.

Remember, when you were baptized into the Kingdom of God, your citizenship was transferred into a global Kingdom without end that would ultimately destroy every Kingdom that humans can build. Unnecessary hand-wringing over this election only points to the fact that you aren't convinced of this reality. 

Remember, our ability, as the body of Christ, to love both God and neighbor is neither hindered nor enabled by the outcome this election. We are still called to go forth with God's ministry of reconciliation, just as our brothers and sisters in Syria are doing in the midst of relentless persecution

Don't misplace your hope. Lift your eyes. Seek God's face. Go vote next week, and then, regardless of the result, be Christ in the world.

 

*Martin Luther King, Jr.; A Knock At Midnight