Online Conversation | Public Faith in Polarized Times with Mark Labberton, Claude Alexander, and Walter Kim
In a public square increasingly riven by tribalism, identity politics, and polarization, how can Christians wisely and faithfully engage? On Friday, August 13th, we hosted a timely conversation with Mark Labberton, Claude Alexander, and Walter Kim on ways of understanding and approaching Christian public engagement beyond the ruts of timid quietism or belligerent culture-warring. With diverse experiences leading the church during challenging cultural moments, the three discussed the public witness of the church during times of political polarization and the civic implications of the biblical injunction to seek justice and love one’s neighbor.
The song is “Requiem” by Joaquin Mans.
The painting is ‘Guernica’ by Pablo Picasso, 1937.
Special thanks to this event’s partners:
Transcript of “Public Faith in Polarized Times” with Mark Labberton, Claude Alexander, and Walter Kim
Tyler Castle: Good afternoon and welcome. My name is Tyler Castle and I’m the director of the American Enterprise Institute’s Initiative on Faith and Public Life. It’s our privilege to be partnering with the Trinity Forum and the Center for Public Justice on a three-part webinar series of which today’s discussion is a part. For those of you unfamiliar with our initiative, our mission is to help Christian college students and faculty think critically about the challenges facing our country and to discern the role that they might play in tackling those challenges in their lives and careers. We host intensive programs for students and professors and also produce a variety of educational resources on topics of faith, politics, economics, and society, including a feature-length documentary on Christian engagement in politics entitled For Love of Neighbor: Politics for the Common Good. You can learn more about our work at faithandpubliclife.com.
The topic that we’ll be exploring today is at the very center of our mission, as I know it is for the Trinity Forum and the Center for Public Justice. And it’s a thorny, complicated topic as well. In the context of shifting social norms and the political turmoil of the past few years, how can orthodox Christian believers play a constructive role in American politics and society? While there certainly isn’t one perfect answer to this question, we do think there are riches of theological and practical wisdom that can help us navigate these tumultuous times. And we’re delighted to have three exemplary church leaders and experts who will lead us in this important discussion today. I’ll now turn it over to our moderator, Trinity Forum President Cherie Harder.
Cherie Harder: Thanks so much, Tyler. And on behalf of all of us at the Trinity Forum, I’d like to add my own welcome to you to joining us for today’s Online Conversation on public faith in polarized times with Mark Labberton, Claude Alexander, and Walter Kim. We’ve been so pleased to collaborate with our friends at the Center for Public Justice, ably led by Stephanie Summers, as well as the Initiative on Faith and Public Life at the American Enterprise Institute, led by Tyler Castle, whom you just heard from. And I want to give a special shout-out to Tyler. Today is actually his last day on the job where he has served with great distinction, and it’s really been a pleasure to work with him. So thanks for that, Tyler.
This is actually the second in a three-part conversation series the Trinity Forum has been doing in partnership with CPJ and FPL. We kicked this off just a little while ago, earlier this summer, with an Online Conversation on Christian nationalism led by Mark Noll and Vince Bacote. And we’ll be holding our third such Online Conversation shortly. Stay tuned for more details about that. If you are one of those 300 people joining us for the very first time or are new to the work of the Trinity Forum, we work to cultivate, curate, and promote the best of Christian thought leadership and provide a place where leaders can wrestle with the big questions of life in the context of faith and come to better know the Author of the answers. We hope today’s conversation will provide a small taste of that for you today.
The question that we’re discussing today—how do we live faithfully in a world often skeptical to or even hostile to our loves and deepest convictions?—is a timeless one. But it takes on increased urgency and complexity in polarized times, and by any measure, we are in such times. Some studies have shown that America is more divided and polarized than at any point since the Civil War. The nodes of ideological consensus have not only grown further apart and more extreme, but also more philosophically incoherent. And the most significant increases over the last decade have come in the rise of what’s been called affective polarization, the belief that those who disagree with you are not only mistaken but malicious, such that, by some studies, nearly one in five partisans on either side of the extremes believe that the country would be better off if large numbers of the opposing party simply died.
Unfortunately, the church has not been immune from these trends. Instead, we’ve all seen examples of friendships, communities, churches, even entire denominations torn apart by political disagreements and our inability to reckon with them. So how do we live faithfully, do justice, and love mercy in an often unfair, angry, and merciless world? How do we reconcile the competing claims of doing justice and seeking peace? What does it mean to have a public faith in polarized times? These are obviously big questions and there’s no easy answers. So I am particularly glad and grateful to welcome to the conversation what could be called three wise men who have wrestled with such questions over a long period of study, service, and leadership marked by thoughtfulness, insight, and grace: Mark Labberton, Claude Alexander, and Walter Kim.
Mark Labberton is the president of Fuller Seminary, having previously served as the Professor of Preaching and the director of the Ogilvie Institute for Preaching at that same seminary. Before coming to Fuller, he served as a Presbyterian minister for 30 years, including as the senior pastor of the First Presbyterian Church of Berkeley, California. He’s also served as the co-founder of Scholar Leaders International, the chairman of John Stott Ministries, and a senior fellow of the International Justice Mission, and currently hosts a podcast entitled “Conversing,” where he explores a large range of topics ranging from civility, suffering, race, gender equality, and many other topics.
Joining him is Claude Alexander, who has served as the senior pastor of the Park Church in Charlotte, North Carolina, for more than three decades. Under his leadership, Park Church grew from one local congregation of around 600 people or so to a global ministry of many thousands with three locations and a weekly international reach. In addition to his work at Park Church and within the community of Charlotte, Claude also serves on the boards of the Charlotte Center City Partners, Christianity Today, Mission America Coalition, the Council for Colleges and Universities, Intervarsity Christian Fellowship, Movement.org, and is the chairman of the Board of Gordon Conwell Theological Seminary.
Last but certainly not least, Walter Kim is the president of the National Association of Evangelicals. He ministered for more than 15 years at Boston’s historic Park Street Church, as well as serving as the senior pastor for leadership at Trinity Presbyterian Church in Charlottesville, Virginia, where he currently also serves as teacher-in-residence. He has spent nearly three decades preaching, writing, and engaging in collaborative leadership to connect the Bible to the significant intellectual, cultural, and social issues of the day.
Mark, Claude, and Walter, welcome. It’s great to see you.
Claude Alexander: Thank you.
Walter Kim: It’s great to be here.
Cherie Harder: So just to start out, those of us who share a Christian faith would seem to have a basis and a bridge to extend beyond differences, as well as an imperative to love one’s neighbor, live humbly, and seek justice. But in our sort of crazy times, it hasn’t always worked out that way. And in fact, by most studies and most measurements, there’s not a big difference between the church and outside of the church in terms of the levels of polarization that we find. So just as we start out, why is the faith community as fractured and divided as the broader public? And, Mark, I want to throw that one to you to start us off.
Mark Labberton: Thanks, Cherie. It’s an honor to be part of this. I think the first thing that comes to my mind is that we’re in a period of a very deep confusion around Christian identity. And so much of the polarization really arises out of that because our identity hasn’t really, it seems to me, been fundamentally formed by the gospel nearly so much as it’s been formed by our sociology. And the sociology is, by definition, incredibly polarized and diverse in any case and a reality that is the circumstances of living in a highly multicultural context, but also just a very self-interested nation, a very self-interested position, and a defender of the kind of tribe that we are a part of over and against some other tribes, rather than an identity that really grows out of an understanding of our identification in, with, for, under the leadership of Jesus Christ. And I think it’s that that then inevitably leads to the confusion and eruption of polarization that sometimes have little or nothing to do with the character of the God that we claim to worship.
Cherie Harder: Yeah, that’s fascinating. You know, just to dig into that for a second, and, Walter, I’d love to get your perspective on this as well. There have been many indications, as Mark just said, that in many ways Americans— more of our identity has become political. It used to be that faith was one of what was called the unmoved movers of identity, one of the bedrock forms of identity. But several studies and indeed some of our more recent guests, including Jonathan Haidt, have done research showing that actually that is shifting in America. Just one kind of indication of that, which I think is quite revealing: In 1960, only five percent of Americans said that they would be displeased if their child married someone outside their party. They would be very displeased, on the other hand, if they married someone outside their faith. But that has flipped. And at this point, more people would be displeased if their child married someone of a different political party than a different faith. And so I’m curious, as someone who has been a minister for many years and now leading the National Association of Evangelicals, what do you believe is driving us to increasingly self-identify as well as identify others predominantly or primarily along political lines and actually sublimated our religious identity to our our political?
Walter Kim: Thank you for the question and for hosting this conversation. I want to begin with where Mark ended in terms of this notion of Christian identity and to add another layer of complexity. It’s not merely that we have these struggles with Christian identity. That’s deeply a part of our struggle. But our perspective on even what Christian identity is, what serves as Christian identity, is at stake. And that’s because we all begin with different cultural and therefore conversational starting points. I’ll use a very homey example. When I was in the process of discerning a call to leave a possible medical profession and to go into ministry, when I asked my Caucasian friends, deep believers, deeply formed by Jesus, what I should do, invariably the advice or questions followed along the lines of, “What do you feel called to do? What are you gifted to do? What gives you joy and passion?” When I asked my Asian-American friends this very same question, their first response was almost invariably, “What do your parents think?” Again, each of those were deeply formed by a biblical worldview, one shaded toward the notion that God has given each of us gifts, the other shaded us toward the notion that God has placed us in community. I think what we’re encountering is that in moments of stress, complexity comes forward and we don’t know how to deal with it, so we seek to simplify, because that’s what humans do in order to face a complex, challenging, and endangering moment and because our culture has sought to simplify the politics by creating a couple of tribes and categorizing people in those tribes. What is an underlying, extremely complicated issue now, just by virtue of self-preservation, is reduced to simplified terms in order to help us navigate it. But that’s just not life. And so not only have we compromised the notion of human existence in its complexity, we’ve compromised our notion of the complexity of Christian identity itself.
Cherie Harder: Claude, I’d love to hear your thoughts on that, but I’m going to ladle another question on top of it as well as we go to you, which is: in addition to just our identities becoming increasingly political, at the same time, there have been some deep divides, including those within the church, that are about real issues of justice, including our inability to fully reckon with a long history of racism or revelations over the last few years about the ways that the church, some ministries, have even enabled and covered up abuse. And I think about the Martin Luther King Jr. statement that peace is not merely the absence of tension, but also the presence of justice. And we know that there are Christian organizations who have sought an absence of tension by ignoring injustice. And so would love to have your thoughts, not only what is happening sociologically kind of writ large, but also more specifically, how do we within the church learn to distinguish between those kinds of issues that do require redress and are worth bearing tension for the sake of justice and those controversies that perhaps only provide heat rather than light?
Claude Alexander: So, Walter, you talked about the complicated and the simple. That was a very complicated question. I’ll tried to bring some simplicity to it by saying, first of all, the polarity of our times really calls into question the notion of the integrity of our witness. And as both Mark and Walter have spoken, this notion of identity—how we identify ourselves, even in Christ. And the integrity of our witness is rooted, for me at least, is rooted in, one, the God who does not change. Whose claim upon us has not changed. Whose desire for human flourishing has not changed. And whose standards, the things to which he calls us, has not changed. And so the notion of shalom, the notion of justice and righteousness, you know, those are unchanging. Justice and righteousness are the habitation of his throne, the psalmist says. Those are unchanging. And so I think it begins by recognizing that, giving myself to that, and seeking to be shaped, seeking to be shaped by that.
If there has been, and Yuval Levin speaks to this, if there’s been something about the church that has gone missing it’s that we have moved towards being more performative than shaping. Than shaping. And how does that play itself out when we deal with specific issues? So do I see matters of racism, sexism, xenophobia, do I see that as discipleship? If I don’t see those things as a matter of discipleship, then there will not be any formation, no theological thought and consideration, no rigor given, such that congregants are able to really recognize that the tensions hold them and live in them and then be called to resolve them. I think that is some formative formation. That is something that we have to really begin to address. It’s not just being formed around prayer, Bible reading, worship, fellowship, but it’s also being formed by those things that God, by his Word, has said are critical. You know, justice is not a peripheral thing in the Bible. It is central. And so how do we develop formation in individuals around that?
Cherie Harder: That’s great. Thanks, Claude. I want to pick up on that in just a second, but before doing that, I’ll throw out a question, and I’ll throw this to you first, Mark, but anyone should feel free to jump in. You know, one of the difficulties that one often hears people talk about in regards to Claude’s question about formation is people will affirm the fruits of the spirit and the ways of Jesus as true and good and beautiful and this is what we are called into, but then also express concern, hesitancy, even a sense that, “Well, but that doesn’t work in politics.” And because more of our life is political, that becomes increasingly important that that example just doesn’t work. And in some ways, one has to acknowledge that one can look at different indicators and say perhaps they have a point. Whether it’s the political arena or even the arena of social media, there are rewards for belligerence, aggression, self-promotion, slander, snark, and speed, all of which are quite contrary to many of the fruits of the spirit. And so I guess just to really kind of boil it down to a crass question, does following the ways and means of Jesus, Mark, mean one is destined to be a loser?
Mark Labberton: Well, I suppose you could ask that at the foot of the cross, right? If there’s ever a demonstration that “apparently the way of Jesus is the way of a loser,” you would have thought that that was the proof positive, that that is actually the necessary outcome. And I think it has to do with really what we do with issues of power, and all of us, I think, would want to affirm that one of the most profound affirmations of Jesus is that he is Lord or that he reigns in mercy and love and justice, and that our life is meant to be resorted in light of his power rather than in chasing or protecting or projecting other forms of power. But this is not something the church has actually dealt with very well over the years. And it means that we haven’t been formed as disciples to take issues of power seriously. And I’ve written a bit about the fact that I think all of Christian worship is meant to be a regularizing practice of reordering power, when I remember that I’m not God and God is God. I remember that I’m not only not God, I have utterly failed to even be responsible for the amount of power and influence that I may have actually been given, that my task is a task of being transformed by the renewing of my mind, which is a yielding to the power of God’s spirit to rewrite the scripts of power in my life.
Now to the secularist or to the person who’s just a weary person in the face of an assault from some direction or another that can feel like just so much abandonment of, quote, reality. But in fact, in the life and ministry of Jesus, it’s meant to be the crucifixion of power for the sake of its being redefined for the outcome of what I think the Bible sees as communion, this union with. Now in the face of that, will we suffer? Obviously, Jesus says yes. Will people fail to understand? Absolutely. Will you win the day? I don’t read the Gospels believing that we are going to win the day. God will ultimately win the day. But between here and there, it’s not going to be a matter of winning the day as though we think the goal is in short-term frameworks to simply win the day. Now, that doesn’t mean we lay down. It means that we try to use power for the sake of good and just and righteous outcomes. But to achieve that, we don’t start with our sociology. We have to start with the life and character of God revealed in Jesus Christ, through the Holy Spirit, by the power of God’s guidance to renew us and manifest the fruits of the spirit as we do this.
So what I’m getting at is that I think there’s really some fundamental substructure that is showing itself to be largely absent in the life of the church. We are therefore flailing on top of a faith that hasn’t actually done it’s— we haven’t allowed it to do its work of deep personal and interpersonal and communal transformation. So the mess that we’re in, in some ways, feels like it’s the most logical outcome of so many other things that are much more powerful but absent of the power that is the distinctive power of Jesus. So are we, as the apostle Paul says, those who will look like fools? You know, did Jesus look like a fool? Yes. Did he stop doing righteous and just things? No. So I think we’re having a battle of outcomes and timelines, and all of that gets even more confusing because we haven’t actually allowed the gospel to address the substructures of our life in our perceptions, in our compassion, in our recognition and imagination, the plausibility structures we live in, in our response to injustice and suffering.
Cherie Harder: That is actually, it’s a fascinating point, Mark. And Walter, I’d like to go to you first on this, then maybe Claude, to talk a little bit about what that missing substructure might be. And just to embroider upon Mark’s point a bit, it does seem like often there is not a robust understanding of what does it mean to live a public faith. Often there is an equation of living our faith out in public with certain distinct issues, political issues that one might get involved with, as opposed to those broader questions that Mark just raised about power itself. And so I’d love to hear from both of you what that building up of that substructure or a robust public theology might actually look like. Walter, maybe we can start with you.
Walter Kim: I want to connect it back to a comment that you made about the fruit of the spirit, the kind of personal qualities, and it’s easy to think about public faith in terms of our public character, in other words, how we conduct ourselves in public. And that’s critical. It’s very important, the posture, the characters of integrity, the ability to bring joy and peace to others. But there’s a deeper issue at stake of not merely character, but the very presence of the gospel in society, the presence of faith in society. And, you know, the Old Testament makes it very clear in the Old Testament laws, there was everything from laws that governed the ecology of the life of Israel—in terms of how you handle animals and giving them rest on the Sabbath, as much as you would take rest—to laws about how you handle your finances and crops. Don’t glean the crops on the edge of your fields so that those who are in need will always have access to food. So when you think about the Old Testament laws and the breadth of the Old Testament laws, you’re envisioning the ways that faith is working out in every sector and domain of life. So the gospel no longer becomes this narrow vision of personal and characterological transformation, which it is including. But it also encompasses a very expansive vision of the implications of faith for every sector of human existence and endeavor.
I also think about the very nature of scripture itself and its structure. I mean, the book of Deuteronomy in which these sets of laws are found, they’re modeled after a Hittite political treaty. Now, this is a treaty of an enemy country. But it served as a model for how the book of Deuteronomy was even written. That is an extraordinary statement about common grace, that there was a boldness and a confidence that the image of God in even those people who do not share faith, that God is so gracious that we might have something even to learn from the pagan nations, so to speak, from the Israelite point of view. This is an extraordinarily expansive understanding of the Christian life and the applications of the gospel. When we talk about faith in the public square, we need to encompass not only, again, the character, but the underlying understandings that would sustain this expansive view of the implications of faith.
Claude Alexander: So what I would add to that is I think we must be heard making a critical point of distinction. The Christian faith is deeply personal. But not private. And I think we confuse what is personal with being private. And so, the Christian witness from Genesis to Revelation is extremely personal. But it’s never private. As Walter delineated, we are designed, we are called, to be public witnesses. From the very beginning: “dominion over the world.” We are called to be light and salt. That’s not private. That’s very, very, that’s very, very public. And so it’s personal, but never private. While it is individual, it is never isolated. We are not called to be isolated from the world. And therefore, this concern is never simply limited to us as individuals without concern of our connection to the world. I think the third point along those lines is the notion of systems and structures: “We wrestle not against flesh and blood, but principalities, powers, rulers of the darkness of this world, spiritual wickedness in high places.” Systems, structures—we are called to engage systems and structures. And I think that if we are able then, as we’re dealing with formation, to emphasize those points and reinforce them, I think that that will help us in our development of a public theology. And public engagement.
Cherie Harder: That’s fascinating. Just to follow up on that and add to your point about systems and structures, I’d love to ask you all about liturgies. And of course, liturgies embody practices which form our loves and can also deform our loves. And they form our loves not only as a person, but presumably as a people. And I’d love to hear from each of you your thoughts about some of the liturgies that you have found have been most formational or deformational of our views as a people, you know, about this topic, but also what liturgical practices would be part of the kind of robust political theology that you all have been talking about? And, Mark, we’ll start with you on that.
Mark Labberton: Well, when I was serving as a pastor in Berkeley, which is a weird and wonderful place to be a pastor, it was a very important thing to try to understand what we were doing and how we’re trying to set the table for this very thing that we’re talking about on this call. And I remember we gradually developed a liturgy that we would periodically use in worship that was what was quite literally a liturgy that began with me saying, “I’m not God.” And the congregation saying back to me, “You’re not God.” And I would say then, “You’re not God.” They would say back to me, “We’re not God.” And then it would go into a variety of other things: “Our political views are not God. Our denomination is not God. Our economics and our financial resources are not God.” And it was a liturgy of trying to practice naming the things that are the potential idols before which we bow in need rather than the living God who is actually wanting to resort all of those important areas of our life, but which none of us ourselves can do alone and none of us ourselves are free from failing to do so. Therefore, we need to come as a community regularly as the practice of saying, we need to remind ourselves over and over again to lay down these delusions, which are sometimes also idols. But not all delusions are idols; not all idols are delusions. But many and most are. So my point is that it was a liturgy of practicing what you’re, I think, getting at, Cherie.
It also meant a liturgy of naming things that we find hard to grasp, like “we follow an enemy-loving God.” That’s a very challenging liturgical affirmation: “We follow an enemy-loving God.” How do we know that? Because we are worshiping God and we were God’s enemies. So it’s not somebody else who was an enemy. We start with the proof positive that we are enemies of God who are being loved by God. But that also means—and in the liturgy in this regard, we go on a different direction—and God’s love includes review. It includes accountability. It includes laying down and naming the distractions and absorptions of our life that distract us from really being able to be an expression of the love and mercy and justice of God. So I think we tried to make liturgical statements that were as concrete about the very places of the real rub. Now, that’s sometimes very hard to do because people will object to such prayers. So you have to be careful, as we should be anyway. You have to be wise. We’re not trying to be political per say. You are being honest, though, about power in all of its forms and letting that become a part of the liturgical frame.
Cherie Harder: Walter, interested in your thoughts on that as well.
Walter Kim: So I would have two areas of reflection on that, and that is, what are the sources of our liturgy? One of the things that we’ve been doing at our church here in Charlottesville Trinity is accessing liturgies from different parts of the world. And so we have this practice of morning prayer that we create a devotional and distribute it online to parishioners, and the liturgy that’s contained in that, it’s not simply from the Book of Common Prayer or other Western traditions, but we draw upon the church in Ghana. Or just this past week, one of the worship songs that was included was a song translated from Farsi and the Persian Church. And in each of these things, there’s this global perspective that expands our imagination. Even the language that’s chosen to be spoken or sung is different. You can sense the difference and that causes you to pay greater attention. So, one is I would encourage us to access global liturgy.
The second thing is to think of liturgy not merely as cognitive, which is very much the ways that we as Westerners, as Americans, would think about it—what can we say, think, speak, together?—but to think of it in physical terms as well. So the Old Testament talked a lot about prayer, not simply about the content of our prayer, but the posture of our prayer. Lift up your hands. Clap your hands. Even the very terminology for worship was physical—bending, bowing— and that was a symbol of worship. So the very word of bowing was, you know, the basis for the word for worship, one of the words for worship, in the Old Testament. So the very physicality of it, I think, also does something. So when I think about liturgy, I think about it globally, but I also think about it as embodied. What do we do with our bodies? What do you do when you’re on the subway commuting to work? What are the habits that form you in that experience? What do you do when you first come home from work? What’s the habit that is forming you? So I would invite us to think of liturgies not merely as what we do on Sunday morning in terms of what we say, but the habits and the rhythms of life through the week that form us quite deeply in how we embody, navigate, our life as embodied creatures.
Claude Alexander: To what they’ve said, I would then talk about the ends of our liturgy, and there would be several. One is humility. And that comes from, one, the recognition of you being in the presence of God. Secondly, contrition. And lament. But then also empowerment and commission. I think that whatever form of liturgy that we use those elements are crucial, especially if we’re talking about then engaging a polarized world. The fact that I am empowered and commissioned to do so.
Cherie Harder: We have a number of questions that have come in, but before we go to that, one last question, before we turn to those from our audience, and that is, in many ways, this has been a heavy topic and there’s a lot of reason to feel slightly discouraged as we kind of look out over the landscape. But I was just recently rereading a short quote by G. K. Chesterton, who had written about the fact that at least five times in the history of human events, he wrote, “The faith had by all appearances gone to the dogs. And in each time it was the dogs who died.” And even in the midst of discouragement, we all have faith that Aslan is on the move, and I would love to hear from you about what gives you hope, not only in the long term, but also in the shorter term. What trends, actions, have you seen recently that have been energizing and helpful to you. And, Mark, we’ll start with you again.
Mark Labberton: Well, it’s a great question and a really, really important one, because I think there are many, many deeply despairing Christians right now who feel weighed down right, left, middle or otherwise. And so it’s a critical issue. I do think, for me, there’s the assurance that God is not the least bit surprised or undone by this moment. In fact, it’s quite familiar. If you look back in the pages of both the Hebrew scriptures and the New Testament, you find plenty of evidences of makings of such moments as this. So the sense of faith against staggering power or resistance to change or to deep confession or all of that, that’s familiar biblical terrain. That’s why it required the death of God in Jesus to be able to actually take all of this with a deep seriousness that it requires.
In a more pragmatic sense, I’m very heartened by many, many, young believers—young in their faith who may be old in their wisdom—who are to me just great inspirations. I’m really inspired. I continue to be deeply inspired by the Black church and by places of its way of helping to lead us in this season. It feels to me like it’s one of the most important elements in what could renew the American church is really the Black church and the experience of what it means to be formed as faithful people in a context of suffering and often even abuse and persecution.
But I also think of so many young immigrant churches that I’m connected to where joyous, living, vital, honest faith is just being lived out. And they face all the inherent personal and racial and political challenges—again, right and left—and yet they stand into the wind. They’re absolutely prepared to assume that standing into the wind is the posture of a Christian, as opposed to looking for a salve that reassures me that I have it and I have all that I need in my own tribe. Instead, their assumption is, “I don’t in any way. And the God who holds all things together is leading us—not me only, but us—into a new reality, which is the flip side of despair.” This is a moment when it feels like the church is having mirrors held up to itself that tells a more honest story than the church has been willing to tell about itself. It’s tragic, it’s brutalizing, it’s discouraging. And it’s not a surprise to God. And there’s plenty of evidences of God’s enduring faithfulness.
Cherie Harder: Claude?
Claude Alexander: Well, that we’ve seen this before. And it is really the context out of which the early church grew, right? And so this is our legacy. And therefore, there are things that we can pull upon in this present moment. And the God who was faithful then is a God who is faithful now and gives us that opportunity.
Cherie Harder: Yeah. Walter?
Walter Kim: I would concur with that. I mean, 2 Timothy, to the final word from the apostle Paul, in it weaves in this story that he’s in prison and he’s lamenting the fact that it seems that everyone has abandoned him, and the gospel, what effect has it had? It’s like the entire Church of Asia Minor is gone and no one’s visiting him in prison except for a handful of people. And yet this was the precursor of the most explosive growth of Christianity in the deepest opposition of the Roman Empire. And this is not simply a one-off. I again appeal to the global church. Places where the church is thriving are places of deep suffering, that distilled this sense of what is the main thing and a profound dependance upon God. And there’s also this sense that we have in a pluralistic society both problems and promise. There’s the complexity of navigating cultural differences, conversational starting points, as I alluded to earlier. But it’s the most fertile opportunity to present Christ in a fresh way to an audience that increasingly does not have the baggage of the cultural Christianity and are asking fresh questions of what is it that Christianity really is all about, because I don’t know. What a unique moment in the American church’s life! And it invites us to a fresh perspective on what it means to be a follower of Jesus in this moment.
The last thing I would say is new alliances, new opportunities, are growing. I was recently working on a video project with Asian-American and African-American church leaders in expressing solidarity with one another in experiences of discrimination and racism. And, again, rather than staying just in a posture of lament, which is necessary for a moment, there was a deep posture of discovery. Here are friends that we did not know we had! And so, again, this is a moment to discover that in Christ we have so much in common. And this is a little bit of insider talk, right. I’m talking and addressing the church now in this. But a church that, if we can live into this moment of building fresh bridges, of learning each other’s stories and languages, that that also represents to a country deeply fragmented and polarized, unable to have these conversations, that “Wait, wait, there’s a group of people that can do this? That’s extraordinary. Is this what Christianity is about?” I would love for people to take a step back and say, “That’s the kind of Christianity that I think adds something to our society, that is a blessing in this deeply polarized moment.”
Cherie Harder: Thanks, Walter. We’re going to turn to questions from our viewers, and we have many dozens that have come in, so we will not be able to get to all of them. But if you’re joining us for the first time, want to let you know that you can not only ask a question, but you can also “like” a question. And that helps give us an idea of what some of the most popular questions are. And I’m actually going to combine two somewhat similar questions and, Claude, I think I’ll throw these to you. Craig Higgins asks, “Many churches and pastors try to balance speaking out for public justice while seeking to be as nonpartisan as possible. I, as a pastor, find this increasingly difficult. Any advice or does the assumption itself need reworking?” And similarly, an anonymous attendee asks, “How can we demonstrate a political engagement as individuals/congregations/organizations without reflecting today’s political polarization? How does one boldly take a stand while simultaneously not allowing that stance to be limited to specific politics?”
Claude Alexander: So the first thing, the first call as a preacher is to preach the Word. Period. And the thing about preaching the Word of God is the Word of God cuts against every political party. Right? It cuts. It is nondiscriminate in how it cuts, and so when you proclaim God’s call to justice, it convicts whom it convicts. That’s not— now. So that’s number one. I think secondly, the notion of engaging in the public square for matters of human flourishing. If I come to the realization that I am operating under God’s claim, God’s call, God’s leading, people will try to name that one way or the other. That’s not my concern. My concern is the representation of God and the seeking to enact God’s kingdom on the earth. And if we can begin to do that and anchor people in that, then people will be less prone to say, “well, that’s Democrat,” “that’s Republican,” and simply say, “That’s God. That’s Christ. That is the Kingdom of God.” That’s my role as a pastor. In helping shape that.
Cherie Harder: Thanks for that. Our next question comes from Diane Smith and Diane says, “Mark mentioned the church is missing the substructures so we are flailing. I wholeheartedly agree. However, I wonder how we can rebuild this when we have stopped trusting our institutions.” Mark, since you’re mentioned, I’ll toss that your way.
Mark Labberton: It’s a really important question, and I think Diane has put her finger on one of the problems. Do you do this in a kind of grassroots noninstitutional sort of way, or do you do it in an institutional way? And I think both are needed. So I’m not going to say that one without the other. But I do think you have to have both. And I don’t necessarily think that we know because we wouldn’t want to presume on God’s ultimate strategy. Where will the hope come from, humanly speaking? Will it come through grassroots expressions of what might in the past and still can be called revival that comes less institutionally and more through simply an awakening of God’s spirit that taps people who-knows-where, who-knows-when? And the buoyancy of that touch can renew and regenerate the life of the church. But it can also be the case that sometimes this can happen institutionally. But I think that the institutional side of it right now is in a different place of crisis because institutions, as she said, are really themselves at the core of the skepticism of hope. Is there hope for institutions? I think many Christians feel hope for the gospel, hope for Jesus Christ, hope for the reality of how the hope that is in Christ is going to be manifest, but they’re completely confused—as I will confess, I am often completely confused—about whether or not or how it will be that institutions will actually be the seedbed, the catalyst, the forming places where this occurs.
I tend to think that it’s a bit more in the zone that Walter was touching on when he was describing the video work that he had just recently been doing. I think it’s a season of the building of new network realities that I think will ultimately supplant and redefine both institutions and individual life. It’s not going to happen individually only; it has to happen in communion. And I think it has to happen in communion of unlike people. And I think it needs to happen overall in a very organic, spirit-led way with new networks that don’t look like old networks. And all of us on this call, I know—I would I would certainly say and know that we would all agree—that in the last two years, three years, four years, five years, six years, I am in many, many new kinds of relationships than I was in years before that. And I’m just hugely grateful for the fact that I now get to regularly see, hear, and understand worlds that I simply did not either take the time or find the avenue to discover and know.
Cherie Harder: Great. Walter, this next question will go to you. It comes from Keith Clumber who asks, “How do you see Christians’ habits of media consumption shaping how we think and conduct ourselves in relationships with one another and with non-Christians? What advice, if any, would you give?”
Walter Kim: You know, the dictum “nature abhors a vacuum”—I would say the same thing applies to a brain. We’re always craving input. And if the input is not from our biblically-formed liturgies of life, they’re going to come from someplace because this is how God has created us to be—fundamentally curious, engaged people with the world. And so part of the formation that we need to engage with is an honest appraisal and naming of what are the liturgies that are shaping us. The liturgies can include social media, the habits we have of waking up first thing in the morning and going to our news feeds or to regularly check throughout the day. What’s the latest tweet? Who am I following? Because the choices of who you follow, actually that’s your liturgy, that is what’s shaping you.
So what I would strongly encourage is the breadth of understanding of the scriptures. Again, I refer to Deuteronomy. It is not possible to read through the book of Deuteronomy, for instance, and avoid the fact that there are social implications to the life of faith. I was doing a little bit of research on Calvin’s sermons and was struck profoundly by how, when he was preaching through the Book of Deuteronomy, Calvin had some very strongly-worded statements about the upper class in Geneva and actually confronting the upper class in their lack of paying the wages due to those in their employ. And I think, wow, this is the writer of The Institutes, whom I normally would think of as in this esoteric world of the mystical union of the believer with Christ and the outworkings of justification and theology that is in the rarefied air. And yet, as a preacher, preaching through the book of Deuteronomy, he had a profound confrontation with the social implications of biblical faith. So, again, I would encourage those in church leadership to begin to talk openly about the fact that we all have liturgies—media news feeds have become our liturgies—and to robustly warn of that. And to replace that with a broad biblical diet that encompasses all the scripture, most of which will be very challenging to the ways that we go about life.
Cherie Harder: That’s great. Our next question comes from Hannah Smith—I’ll direct this to you, Mark—and she asks, “What counsel do you have for young people who want to be part of the solution to this problem of polarization?”
Mark Labberton: Live honestly in your faith, bring to the table everything that you are and all that you are questioning, but all that you’re believing as well and all that you want to help others see. I’m not particularly drawn to the categorization of people by ages because I know so many young people who have far more wisdom than people that are much, much older. And therefore I don’t like this idea of “let’s give it to the young people” in that kind of act of generous condescension, you might call it. Instead, it feels to me like I have so much to learn from people that are significantly younger than me. So one of the reasons why I love being in college university settings, and it’s one of the reasons why I love what I’m doing at Fuller. It’s one of the things that I love about being a pastor because of the multigenerationalism. So I think I would say, name honestly where you are and what you’re seeing, but also grow in love in your ability to listen well, to hear honestly what others have to say, to be attentive and to be bold. I do think finding allies as emerging young adults in communities of faith where you can find the people that are your heart people, not as a new tribe, but as a support unit in a way, for a countercultural life, and here I’m meaning countercultural often to the culture of church, not only to the culture of secular society. I think they have a great deal to bring and certainly a great deal of hope.
Cherie Harder: Claude, our next question comes from Christy Vines, and she says one of the things that she’s found is that we have few shared definitions of what justice looks like in the context of civil and public life and asks if you could share your definition of justice and how we should pursue it as followers of Christ.
Claude Alexander: Well, I would start with justice as being the making of something right. The making of something right. The keeping of something right. The doing of that which is right. Justice speaks to judgment involved in determining rights and assigning rewards and punishment. It’s what one is entitled to under law. OK? What one is entitled to. And equal justice is that which is equally entitled, right? Equal. So we start there. Another image is the balancing of scales. Right. That is another image of justice. And so if we can just look at that, right, and then ask the question, “What would you consider being right unto you?” So there are those who might say that racism is a topic, right? Is a topic. Racism is a topic only if you are not affected by it. If you are affected by racism, it’s not a topic. It’s your life. And so then the question of justice would then say, “OK, if it’s simply a topic for me because I’m not affected by it— Ok? If I were affected by it, what would I want to be done for me, to me, received by me?”
Cherie Harder: Thanks, Claude. Our next question comes from Mingzi Chin and Mingzi says, “Thanks, Walter, for your point about common grace and public witness. Christians tend to take either a confrontational approach or an accommodation approach towards culture. Is there a middle ground?”
Walter Kim: I would turn to the cultivation model. So there’s a sense in which, if we take seriously the fact of the imago dei in all of us, the image of God in all of us, however damaged that may be in a broken, fallen world, there is still the possibility, the mandate, the human impulse, because we are created in the image of God to work toward the ordering of this world that has been disordered. And this would be shared—out of Christian theology—this would be shared by people who are inside and outside of the Christian faith. I mean, we affirm that the image of God is part of human existence. And so if that’s the case, the call to order this world is actually even upon people who do not acknowledge God’s existence. The impulse that we all have for fair play, no matter whatever religious tradition or nonreligious tradition we may come from, is reflective of that impulse. And Christianity actually has a doctrine that accounts for that reality.
And so if that’s the case, I think we can begin with this notion that there is some space in which Christians can collaborate in the mutual cultivation of good in this world. Even with people who have no faith, or at least expressly religious faith. Because we have faith on their behalf that they have been created in the image of God and therefore have this call—however incomplete, from a Christian worldview, that might be—on their behalf we actually believe that they have it and that it’s our job to cultivate creation along with them. I think it’s in that collaborative effort that new forms of conversation begin to happen. When you live the neighborly endeavor of common good, you all of a sudden have openings to talk about your faith. And this is an extraordinary moment for us to think, frankly, like missionaries think. We want to inculcate this attitude that the great missionary movements—and however complicated that may be with colonialism—the great missionary movements have always entered into various societies, presenting the gospel in expressions that resulted in the building of hospitals and schools, in the building of orphanages, with no bifurcation of this notion that proclamation of faith in Christ means personal salvation and public good. There was no bifurcation of that. And again, that reflects this expansive view of the implications of faith in Christ that accounts for and calls for a mutual cultivation of creation, even as it calls for and aspires to a deep and personally transformed life in Christ.
Mark Labberton: Cherie, I think one of the things that I have loved about what Claude and Walter just shared is that it really is a moment for a fresh Christian imagination. And so much of what the backdrop has been is really the evidence of an imagination that has gone to seed and that is unproductive. It’s literally not fruit-bearing. And part of what both of them are pointing to is an honesty, a reality, and a vision, theologically, biblically guided, which actually opens our imagination rather than shuts it down. And what they both illustrated, I think, is a very significant part of that. Which is another contribution that especially younger adults could particularly help with.
Cherie Harder: Our time is rapidly dwindling and we have lots of unasked questions, so what I want to do at the end is combine three questions from three different people, and you can each pick whichever question you like. So we’ll essentially go in the order of Mark, Claude, and Walter. So the three questions. From Richard Millet: Richard asks, “As we struggle for justice, we confront the danger of hubris and self-righteousness. How do we deal with this?” Susan Graham asks, “What would be your first step to moving a congregation to formation over performance?” And then Richard Melzal—and Richard, apologies if I’ve mangled your name—asks, “How do we and the Christian witness manage to keep the main thing the main thing when there are so many subcauses?” So you can take any questions you wish. Mark?
Mark Labberton: I’ll tie a little bit of the last and the first together. So I’ve said to myself that I should never be more than about five minutes away from reading the Gospel at any given moment, because the danger of missing the first thing and devoting yourself to things that are other than the first thing or not tied to the first thing is really critical. And I think the question that was asked at the beginning about how do you nurture and cultivate a humility in the face of all the issues of power that are at stake in debates over justice and racism and so forth has to do really with our ability to stay rooted to the one who alone sees and perceives and names the reality of who we are and the honest admission, as part of the liturgy that we’ve been talking about, of being able to name the failure to do that, to be conscious of an inventory that helps me keep in touch with the things that I fail to see. It’s part of why the practice of taking an audit at the end of the day about things that have really— or places where I really radically misperceived or mis-saw or perhaps misnamed what was really going on and being candid before God about that. And my nearness to failure is continuous. So that I think is at least part of what I would say.
Cherie Harder: Claude?
Claude Alexander: So on the notion of moving from the performative to the formative, I think intentionality is key and motivation, right? And so it means a shift in how we view ministry effectiveness from the number of people who gather at a given time to how well, whatever number that is, is living a life that bears witness to the glory of God. That’s fundamental. And I think if there was a gift that Covid brought us, it was the shutting down of the formal gathering which caused us to have to look. What does it mean to still be the church when we’re not performing as we would? And what does it mean to help form people who are able to live within this reality with all of its pushes and pulls and disappointments. It pushed us to look at formative, forming. If we can continue to lean into that, right, and really give ourselves— now, what that may mean is a total readjustment of budget, of programing, of staffing, right? A reformation, to become a formational community.
Walter Kim: I would say when you’re a hammer, you think everything is a nail. So in other words, when you have a certain calling in life or a certain bent, you think every problem is related to that and every solution is related to that. And yet scripture would tell us that the world is broken in a million billion ways and a multifaceted problem requires multifaceted solutions. And so the body of Christ is given to us. Not everyone’s a hand, not everyone’s a foot, not everyone’s an eye. We need all of it. So when we think about the multifaceted problems of injustices in this world or why a certain issue seems to be repeatedly brought up as the top issue, I think there’s a basic humility that needs to be combined with justice, that with multifaceted injustice, because of multifaceted sin, we need a salvation and a work of the body of Christ that is equally multifaceted and to grant each other the grace of saying, “Hey, you are going to be working on this issue? Great. I’m going to be working on this issue.” But what binds us together is this common vision of the Lord’s Prayer: Thy will be done. Thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven.
Cherie Harder: Mark, Claude, and Walter, thank you so much. It’s been just a joy and a privilege to be with you. Mark, Claude, and Walter, as we close out our time together, I’d love to give each of you the last word. So, Mark, let’s start with you.
Mark Labberton: I’ll just say that the last word is not this moment, and it is not this period in history. It is a moment. And the hope of what we’re facing in the really, really challenging, desperate, and needy, needful times that we live in is a Word that is beyond this moment. That is the final Word and that holds hope now and is meant to call the church into living hope now, as evidence of a Word that is beyond any Word that you or I or anyone else could offer. So it’s not about despair. It’s about trusting in a Word that is beyond this and a Word that is for this as well.
Cherie Harder: Claude.
Claude Alexander: First lesson: unmute before you’re going to talk. In audio engineering, there is this notion of equalization, where you seek to raise and lower different registries to get a certain sound. And no two persons’ EQ is the same. And we often are prone to believe because we don’t hear a predominance of what’s on our EQ from someone else, we assume it’s not even in their registry. It may be in their registry just at a different frequency. And it goes back to Walter’s point about the multiplicity that is needed for the complexity of the problem. All of us have our own sound mix. And we each seek to bring them to the witness of the Lord Jesus Christ. Here’s the thing: a bad mix can make a good singer sound average. The call for all of us is to bring our mixes together, to make the good singer sound great. That is Jesus Christ.
Walter Kim: The task before us really is arduous, and we have deep, deep aspirations that we’re called to this particular moment in time and have to bear witness in this moment. But the way of Jesus is really hard, really challenging, very complex. And it reminds me of a quote from G.K. Chesterton: “The Christian ideal has not been tried and found wanting. It has been found difficult and left untried.” I would exhort us to enter into the difficulty of following Jesus in this moment and not to leave that untried because it’s too difficult.
Cherie Harder: Mark, Claude, and Walter, thank you so much for joining us. This has been a real joy. To all of you watching, thank you for your time and the honor of your attention. Have a great weekend.