We are at a critical juncture for the church, and the decisions we make in the next five years will largely determine the trajectory of the church for the coming decades.
This new century has already experienced great change when it comes to the place of Christians and Christianity in America. We have seen a rise in religious disaffiliation as well as a racial diversification of the Christian body in America. Additionally, Christianity no longer provides the shared and sole backdrop for our national debates and cultural conversations. And we know now that for better or worse, the public witness of the church is tied to the role of faith in our politics.
How Christians think of politics, how we relate the machinations of politics to the promises of God and reality of the gospel, will determine how we respond to the challenges and opportunities that lie ahead. This is why I wrote Reclaiming Hope. The book is the result of my deepest convictions and experiences working at the center of American Christianity, politics, and culture over the last decade.
During the course of my research for the book, I came across two passages that might help you understand more deeply why I believe this is such a crucial moment.
The first is a little-known work by the social critic, politician, and lay leader of the Reformed Church of France, Jacques Ellul. In Hope in Time of Abandonment, Ellul describes the crisis of the modern human in way that sounds familiar to us today:
In the most pacified and guaranteed society which has ever existed, man is living in uncertainty and growing fear. In the most scientific of societies, man is living in the irrational. In the most liberal of societies, man is living “repression,” and even hyper-repression. In a society in which the means of communication are the most highly developed, man is living in a sort of phantasmagoria. In a society in which everything is done to establish relationships, man is living in solitude….It would seem as though each advance nurtures its exact opposite in man’s living experience.
Ellul analyzes this situation at some length, and when satisfied, arrives at his major realization:
But with regard to helping man and finding an answer to his anguish, his longing, his misfortune…it is not the proclamation of the faith which is decisive, but the proclamation of hope.
What I mean, quite simply, is that the central question for man (and for the Christian) today is not whether to believe or not, but whether to hope or not.
I share Ellul’s impression that hopelessness was at the core of many of the problems created and faced by our country and the American church. A proclamation of hope, real hope, is a direct confrontation of the crises of our day, and a necessary guide for how we should proceed.
The second bit of confirmation was found in N.T. Wright’s immensely helpful book, Surprised by Hope, which explores how the hope of Christ ought to inform and guide us in the present as well as the future. In the closing chapter of the book, Wright explains that hope propels us to work for justice in the here and now. He then writes:
[People] will tell the church, again and again, to get back to its proper business of saving souls. That radical distortion of Christian hope belongs exactly with a quietism that leaves the world as it is and thus allows evil to proceed unchecked. This is where the surprise of hope catches people unawares, and they react by telling us Christians what they think our hope ought to be—a hope that will cut the nerve of, and the need for, any attempt to make thing better in the present world of space, time, and matter.
It is at this point that the church must learn the arts of collaboration without compromise and of opposition without dualism. There are good things going on in the wider world, and we must join in while always remaining on the lookout for the point where we will be asked to do something that goes against the grain of the gospel. There are wicked things going on in the wider world, and we must stand out against them while always remaining on the lookout for the point where we become mere dualists, retreating from the world, which is already charged with the grandeur of God. All this is difficult enough at the best of times and all the more so now because we in the West have simply not thought in these terms for a couple hundred years. Once again, William Wilberforce and other like him have something to teach us. And suddenly all those shrewd remarks of Jesus come home to roost. It is time figure out what it will mean, in the real world of the twenty-first century, to be wise as serpents and innocent as doves.
The circumstances of today are different than those of yesterday, and they will require new thinking grounded in enduring ideas. We must understand how faith and politics interact today, if we are to be wise as serpents and innocent as doves.
Reclaiming Hope is an honest book about the successes and disappointments working in the highest-pressure situations and environments for President Obama and with many of the most effective Christian leaders of today. I share lessons I learned—some very difficult—about the way our politics and faith intersect, because I believe we must learn from the lessons of the Obama years if we are to be lead well moving forward. After walking the reader through those experiences, I share what I know about hope, real hope, and how it can guide us in the days ahead.
I hope Reclaiming Hope will serve two needs: First, after an election where our deep polarization and lack of mutual understanding became clearer than ever, Reclaiming Hope will help you understand better the folks on the other side of that divide.
If you are a strong supporter of President Obama who believes religious criticism of him is overwrought and insincere, you will likely gain from Reclaiming Hope a better understanding of those criticisms, and even why some are legitimate (though you may still disagree with their substance).
If you are a religious conservative who believes the Obama Administration was diametrically opposed to Christian values, you will find in Reclaiming Hope stories you might have never heard about this president and his time in Office. You will hear that God was working in politics over the last eight years. And on issues where you still vehemently disagree with the president, you will disagree with the substance of what happened, not with the phantoms of propaganda and political advantage.
We know now that we can no longer afford to talk past one another, to accept the politics of demonization that serves politicians and political interests but harms our country. We must seek to understand one another, even those with whom we disagree.
Secondly, I hope Reclaiming Hope will provide some of the resources we need to navigate the public square with faithfulness. There will be voices in the days ahead, as there always have been, urging that we should withdraw from our neighbors. They will remind us of our past failures, and tell us to give into despair and futility. They will warn us of our neighbors’ intent, and confine God to our prayer closet.
We must reject these voices. We must show up even when victory seems unlikely, because our goal is not victory, but faithfulness. We must be present when disappointment leads to cries for help, when injustice requires a response that will go unrewarded by the chattering class. We always have the opportunity to follow God right where he has placed us.
I am grateful to be on this journey with you. This community has been so important to me, and has contributed to this book in profound ways. My prayer is that Reclaiming Hope will help you and your families, churches and organizations, as you seek to be faithful with that which you’ve been entrusted.