Online Conversation | Christian Pluralism: Living Faithfully in a World of Difference
On Friday, June 12, 2020 The Trinity Forum along with The Carver Project welcomed John Inazu, Trillia Newbell, and Michael Wear to discuss a robust vision for Christian pluralism.
The painting is Newburyport Meadows by Martin Johnson Heade, 1881
Transcript of “Christian Pluralism: Living Faithfully in a World of Difference” with John Inazu, Trillia Newbell, & Michael Wear
Cherie Harder: The last few weeks here in the United States have brought a great deal of unrest, division, and dissension. Navigating such times under the best of circumstances is difficult. And we are not in the best of circumstances. We are in the midst of an isolating pandemic and a frightening recession. So I wanted to welcome each of you to a conversation today that is about something quite different – that is ultimately about hope, justice, faithfulness, and love, even in the midst of change, challenge, and conflict – as we discuss “Christian Pluralism: Living Faithfully in a World of Difference.” Given the number of discussants on our program today, we’re going to actually go fifteen minutes longer than we usually do – so we’ll go an hour and fifteen minutes – to allow time to hear from all of our discussants, as well as to work in your questions. Our three discussants today are uniquely equipped and experienced to speak to these questions. I’m really excited to introduce them to you. John Inazu is the Sally Danforth Distinguished Professor of Law and Religion at the Washington University of St. Louis, as well as the author of many publications, not only academic ones, but also “Liberty’s Refuge: The Forgotten Freedom of Assembly,” “Confident Pluralism: Surviving and Thriving Through Deep Difference.” He also co-edited the book “Uncommon Ground: Living Faithfully in a World of Difference” that we’ve invited him here today to discuss. Trillia Newbell is also the author of several books, including “Sacred Endurance,” “If God Is For Us,” “Fear and Faith,” and the children’s book “God’s Very Good Idea,” as well as the contributor of a chapter in “Uncommon Ground.” She has worked as the Director of Community Outreach for the Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission, part of the Southern Baptist Convention, and is the current acquisitions editor for Moody Publishers. Michael Wear is the founder of Public Square Strategies and a leader within the AND campaign. He is also the author of “Reclaiming Hope: Lessons Learned in the Obama White House About the Future of Faith in America,” and he co-authored with Amy Black of Wheaton the report on “Christianity, Pluralism, and Public Life in the United States,” which can be downloaded at the link in the chat box for free by anyone on this program. He also writes frequently for The Atlantic, Christianity Today, USA Today, Relevant Magazine, and many other publications on faith, politics, and culture. He is also, I’m very proud to say, a Senior Fellow of the Trinity Forum. John, Trillia, and Michael, welcome. Great to have you all.
We’re going to jump right into this, and it seems only appropriate to start off by defining our terms. The term ‘pluralism’ is definitely one that has been subject to misunderstanding – even misuse – over the past several years. When we hear the term ‘pluralism,’ some listeners may have the idea of simply a multiplicity of opinions. Others might think of a sort of moral relativism that affirms your truth and my truth, no matter how contradictory they may be. Others still might think of this as some sort of squishy interfaith unity that denies matters of ultimate importance. So, starting at the very beginning, let’s talk about what we mean when we talk about pluralism. Michael, we’ll start with you. What is pluralism?
Michael Wear: It’s just so great to be with you, Cherie, and with John and Trillia – two people I respect a great deal. In the report that you mentioned, we offer the following definition of pluralism (we view it as a descriptive, definitional sort of term): it is “the presence of socially or politically meaningful diversity of various kinds in a society.” Now, it takes on a value when you talk about whether you want to create or undermine a pluralistic society. But when we refer to pluralism, really, we’re just looking at the society in which we are and recognizing that there’s difference. There are differences of religious belief, of political persuasion, of race, of background. That diversity has meaning in our life together that we can choose to ignore or that we can choose to navigate in a number of different ways.
Cherie Harder: That’s great. Thanks, Michael. John or Trillia, anything to add to that definition?
Trillia Newbell: Well, the only thing I thought of was diversity. As he was talking, I was kind of waiting for that word to come up, because that’s what it sounds like to me. What I’d be interested in hearing more from Michael is how he would think we could live in a pluralistic society in a way that’s Christian. We’re to love our neighbor as ourselves, right? So I would be interested to hear more about how he thinks we should live and function in the society, as we are diverse in our views – politically, culturally, and racially. I was focused mostly on the politics and didn’t think [about] all of the aspects of our world, so I’d be curious to hear more about that.
Cherie Harder: I’m confident we’re going to get to that. John, anything to add before we move on?
John Inazu: First of all, I’ll add my delight to be with all of you. It’s fun to see your faces even though we’re not in person. I’m thinking back to many fond memories with all of you. Also, to reinforce what Michael said, I think it’s very helpful to think of pluralism in two ways. There’s the descriptive claim of pluralism: the fact of difference in the world. That’s not a normative judgment. It’s just a description of how the world is. Now, within that difference, there are good differences and there are bad differences. For Christians, it’s really important to recognize both of those. Some moral relativists would say all difference is good – it doesn’t matter. But Christians don’t ascribe to that. We can say it’s great that I like mint chocolate chip ice cream and you like vanilla and that’s just a great difference of the world. There’s difference even in the Godhead of the Trinity, so we know that difference is a good thing. There are also bad and painful and evil differences in the world, and it’s important to name those as well. And then, how Christians should respond to that fact of pluralism is the normative or political claim. So it’s worth unpacking this term a bit, because it’s very complicated and really important that we get it right.
Cherie Harder: [There are] two resources that are sort of the jumping-off point for our discussion today. In addition to the “Christianity, Pluralism, and Public Life” report that Michael authored along with Amy Black that we (The Trinity Forum) produced, there’s also this wonderful book, “Uncommon Ground,” that John was the co-editor of along with Tim Keller. John, in the opening to “Uncommon Ground,” you mentioned that this book grew out of a correspondence that you had with Tim Keller, the incredibly respected and much-beloved senior pastor of Redeemer Presbyterian Church who I understand has just gotten the diagnosis of pancreatic cancer. I wanted to ask you what prompted the correspondence between you and Tim and then led you to write the book.
John Inazu: Tim and I first met five or six years ago at a small gathering. We were talking on a break and realizing – at that time he was still at Redeemer full-time – that what he was preaching and what I was writing had a lot of similarities. We were writing for very different audiences, but we were saying very similar things. As we talked through that and then started corresponding afterward, we realized we wanted to write a short piece together. So in 2015, I think, we wrote a piece in Christianity Today that laid out the basic framework of how Christians might engage in a pluralistic society. That piece then really became the springboard and the launching-point for the “Uncommon Ground” book. When I pitched to him the idea of a book a couple of years ago, as we began talking, we very quickly realized [that] rather than a book-long treatment of our thoughts, it would be much better to have some stories of friends and collaborators in that book. My own sense in the last few years is that Christians have, in a rather dramatic way, lost the art of good storytelling and forgotten how our faith really goes back to the textured importance of the stories of people’s lives in the Gospels. For whatever reason, many of us have become more propositional and less story-telling. So we wanted to tell stories with friends who are in very different vocational lanes with very different audiences listening to them, very different perspectives, but who are all committed to a similar kind of vision – and Trillia was one of them. We brought together a group of twelve of us, and then by God’s grace and by lots of airline workability and so forth, we all connected in person in St. Louis about two years ago. To me, that in-person gathering with all twelve of us around the table, sharing each other’s stories, was a transformative moment where this became not an edited volume but a shared project of twelve people committed to each other. I’m not trying to overstate the significance – I don’t feel like we’re all best friends. But there is a shared commitment to one another and to this project. It was in that way one of the more exciting intellectual enterprises I’ve undertaken.
Cherie Harder: Trillia, as John mentioned, you were one of the storytellers who contributed to this project, “Uncommon Ground.” In your chapter, you mention several times that you believe yourself called to be a reconciler. I wanted to ask you about that. What does it mean to be called to reconciliation, and how does that play out in practical terms in your day-to-day life?
Trillia Newbell: That’s a great question. First of all, we are all actually called to be reconcilers. Any one of us who has professed faith in Jesus Christ is called to a ministry of reconciliation, as Paul tells us, I believe in Second Corinthians. And so I, as a representative and ambassador of Jesus, am called to reconcile and be a reconciler in the world. First and foremost, that means a proclamation of the gospel: sharing the good news of Jesus Christ to the world around me, to my neighbors, to my friends. I would believe, and I think Christians in general would believe, that the greatest love that we can extend to others is Jesus. So that is one of the ways. And then, of course, we know that Ephesians 2 lays out that we have been reconciled to God and we have been reconciled to each other. It’s a cosmic reality that has been accomplished through Jesus Christ: He tore the veil of hostility, making one new man. So we are reconciled to each other – at least that’s our cosmic reality. The [earthly] reality is, we are not walking this earth reconciled consistently. I see more division than anything else. So when I was invited to contribute to this chapter and to share my story, I thought it would be an encouraging way to show how even in hurt and pain (because I explain some of the racism that I’ve experienced), I can still be a reconciler: someone who walks in this ministry of reconciliation. But how does that work out? I don’t believe we can reconcile without first repentance. That means that people have to recognize – and I’m going to speak real frankly about race, and just kind of narrow it, because we could be talking about friendships and arguments, we could be talking about all sorts of things, so I’m just going to focus in on race here – in regards to race, we need to evaluate where we have been racially biased, where we have discriminated, where we have been partial (the sin of partiality), where we have had any ethnic pride against other image-bearers. We have to confess that. So we need to repent, and then get to the work of reconciliation and restoration. We really can’t start with restoring relationships and reconciliation without repentance. [Repentance] has to be the beginning. I have tried to walk this out through learning to be forbearing. There have been many times when people have said things, and they don’t actually recognize that they are saying things that are harmful or hurtful. I’m learning that I have been forgiven much, so I forgive much. And then I think part of being a reconciler is helping people see where they’ve wronged. Confronting sin where it is, and being someone who loves someone enough to speak truth in love so that they can be reconciled, is part of it. If you’ve noticed, I’ve been talking about being together and talking to people, and it really requires relationship. It’s even in our Christian faith: we are reconciled to God in a relationship. We then are relationally connected to our Lord, our Savior, our Creator. [In the] same way, in order for us to be reconcilers, it really does require a bit of a relationship. I think part of that is developing relationships with people who are not like us, whom we may not have common ground with, and loving our neighbor as ourselves. So, I just said a lot – but I think we are all given this ministry of reconciliation, and we should go into the world and and walk and do as Christ did.
Cherie Harder: Left to our own devices we, as you implied, often hang out with people most like ourselves. But by any measure, the United States is going to rapidly grow increasingly diverse over the next decade or so – not only much more racially diverse, but also religiously diverse. There are certain studies that indicate that right now over 75 percent of senior citizens would identify as Christian; those under 30, only around 25 percent. So big changes are coming down the pike, and how we engage and respond is important. Michael, you along with Amy Black from Wheaton literally wrote the report after interviewing more than 50 different ministry leaders, senior pastors, and the like about exactly these kinds of trends. I wanted to ask you, how are they thinking about these trends? What are they doing? Are there big changes or differences between the way clergy and laity are thinking about the changes ahead?
Michael Wear: I’m really struck by Trillia’s comments – the idea that we’re called to be reconcilers and that reconciliation requires difference. In a way, the presence of difference in society is something God anticipates and calls us into. Hopefully we’ll be able to get into that a bit more. It was amazing to partner on this report with Amy Black, who’s a renowned professor of political science at Wheaton. I would urge people to read the report – the link is available. I just want to discuss four quick takeaways. First, resoundingly, Christian leaders – primarily leaders of Christian institutions – recognize pluralism. It’s not something that you need to convince them exists and is important. And overwhelmingly, they choose to view it and frame it as an opportunity. I think that’s really important. Trillia just talked about the proclamation of the gospel. The proclamation of the gospel takes on new meaning and significance when you’re in a religiously diverse society, and many of the Christian leaders we spoke to are invigorated by that. The second thing I was really struck by and encouraged by: there is great pluralism within Christianity, so there is a robust history of debate among Christians themselves about important matters of society and politics and theology. I was struck by the clear through line, though. Whether you were talking to Christians in different regions of the country, even on different places on the theological spectrum, we share a moral vocabulary that has held up. When we ask Christian leaders of very different political stripes what should motivate Christian social engagement, so many of them answered, either directly and specifically or in essence, [that] we ought to be guided by the biblical command to love God and love neighbor. That was true for so many of the leaders we spoke to. It was really encouraging to me in this time of polarization, in this time of great difference and different forces that contend to pull people apart or [put them] in different camps. Yes, there were real disagreements. If you read the report, we get into those. But it was so encouraging to see that there is a through line, that we can have a shared conversation. The third thing I’d say is, we unpack and collect such a wide array of Christian resources in a pluralistic society. Everything from biblical history – so many of the Christian leaders we spoke to referred to the early church, the very origins of the church. Obviously, the introduction of the gospel itself was in a pluralistic environment. It was introducing something new into the world. The early church operated in a pluralistic and at times certainly antagonistic environment and found ways to thrive. There are also theological truths. Christian leaders believe that Christian ideas of justice and forgiveness and mercy and neighborly love are needed and essential contributions, not just for Christians, but for all of society – for a pluralistic society. They were excited about bringing those to bear. There are institutional resources. The social service landscape of Christians in this country is crucial to holding countries together – serving those in need, providing health care, housing, and food to the hungry. These are all things that contribute to a healthy society. The last thing I’d mention is a bit on the caution side, something we need to be aware of and discuss: the leaders we spoke to were also very aware of the push and pull that politics and culture exerts on Christian communities when it comes to how they think about diversity and pluralism. Christians aren’t operating on an island. Part of what being a part of a pluralistic society means is that you need to be confident and know where you stand as a Christian if you’re going to engage and be able to navigate those pushes and pulls of the broader culture in a way where you maintain faithfulness. So those were a few of the reflections that were shared by Christian leaders in the report. It was just an incredible experience to be able to talk to so many who have been stewarding Christian institutions in such a time of change in this country.
Cherie Harder: Related to that, John, I know that in “Uncommon Ground” you said, “We can find common ground with others even when we lack a shared understanding of the common good.” I wanted to press you a bit on that and ask you, “How?” One of the realities of our time, or indeed any time, is that there are differences between people – often deep differences. And those differences matter. The great three religions of the world all have exclusive truth claims. As Christians, as people who have ordered our lives around trying to live into and out of an exclusive truth claim, how do we find common ground when we lack a shared conception of the common good?
John Inazu: I think there’s a top-level easy answer and then a harder answer that I’d like to explore and maybe connect to some of the earlier comments. As Trillia and Michael were talking, I was just thinking, “There’s so much to say.” But the top-level and straightforward answer is, of course we have all kinds of ways to have common ground with other human beings. The way that we live and exist in the world, starting with the fact that we’re all born and we all die, and we all grieve and laugh and and mourn and rejoice – these are very human experiences no matter who you are, and we can look for those. I think of my friend Eboo Patel, my Muslim friend, who’s been part of the Trinity Forum with me in the past. We have a lot we don’t agree on. We have a lot of uncommon […], different visions of even the common good in a big sense. And yet we have all kinds of common ground. We’re both dads. We both, at least until recently, traveled a lot. (Now, neither of us is traveling at all.) We both take hits sometimes from people of our own faith. So we talk about these things. And in those conversations and in those shared experiences, we’ve both been protested off of the same campus at the same time before. To Trillia’s point, in pain, you can actually find lots of solidarity. That’s another point of common ground. And so I think on one level, it’s really easy to identify common ground even when we don’t have a common good. Now, let me then talk about why it’s hard – and sometimes even harder when we assume the shared common good. Cherie, you mentioned [a while] ago the very striking demographic of people 75 and older and people 25 and younger when it comes to percentage of Christian faith. For those who claim the name of Christ in those two very different demographics, think of how different lived experience is and has been for them in this country. So even [when you’re] starting with a shared common good, recognizing common ground can be hard. If you’re in the boomer generation, you grew up in this country maybe with required Bible readings in school, where everybody from the pulpit would certainly assume that people understood the basics of the New Testament, where there would be Christian words and language all over the place. If you weren’t Christian, you didn’t have much of a voice in the country. And if you weren’t white, you didn’t have much of a voice in the country. If you’re in the 25-and-under demographic, that has not been your experience at all. You’re a Christian, and yet you’ve grown up in a very diverse society where you walk into a room and you can’t assume that everybody understands or has heard of Christianity. You can’t assume that your baseline is going to be the right one. And you’re also hearing from a lot of voices. My kids have this in school; I have this in my job teaching. These are not the same consensus set of voices. With that recognition of greater voices, sure, it’s sometimes harder to navigate everything that’s coming at you. But it also gives you a very different perspective. So then, how do the seventy-five-year-old in the church and the twenty-five-year-old in the church find common ground? We haven’t even talked about possible racial differences yet, but let’s just talk about the age differences and how you find that common ground. That’s hard! One of the greatest resources in the church is its intergenerationality, and yet it’s extremely hard to get people from other generations talking to each other. Now, I was thinking, I was on a panel with our friend Russell Moore (some of you might have been there), and Russell was talking the whole time about the boomers and the millennials. And I finally said, “Look, Gen X, we’re here too! The 80s were a thing! It matters!” Gen X has been shaped differently than both of those generations, and we have our own strengths and weaknesses. I know this isn’t the question you asked. I totally hijacked your question. But I wanted to go on about this, because we do have the ability to find common ground with those who don’t share the common good. And it’s really hard to find common ground even with those with whom we do share the common good.
Cherie Harder: There is so much we could go into on that. We’re just skimming over a lot of different ideas. But one of the aspects of trying to find that common ground, which is something I think each of you have mentioned individually in your writings, although not yet on this program, is the idea of bridge-building: bridge-building within ages, bridge-building within races, bridge-building politically and the like, towards being able to to live together even if there is not a common good understanding. But it’s worth noting that in culture wars, as it is with land wars, there’s usually at least one side that has an immediate strategic interest in blowing up the bridges. So I wanted to ask each of you your thoughts about how one carries on that kind of work amidst the inevitable opposition. Trillia, why don’t we start with you.
Trillia Newbell: I believe Michael was kind of alluding to this: you’ve got to have conviction. If you have a conviction of something, then you don’t have to go with the society that’s being blown up. You can be different. We are called to be unique in the world, to be in the world and not of the world. Right now is a really good time to talk about [this]: in our current moment, we see a lot of things blowing up and potentially bridges being annihilated. But I think that because we are called to that ministry of reconciliation, we can be bridge builders and be a light in the world even when things seem impossible. I feel like I’m like John right now – I’m not sure if I’m answering your question or if I’m going on a different way here. But I think one of the things that I have been grateful for in our current moment in the United States – I know we have international people viewing – is seeing Christians protest peacefully. I think there is something about that – it’s a bridge-building. It’s a face. You can see it. You can see people who are singing hymns, marching and walking, praying and kneeling. I think that speaks volumes to a world that’s exploding. So I do think that there’s a lot of hope there. But again, for the Christian, we get our marching orders from a different King. When we are thinking about engaging society, engaging our communities, we are going to look to what the Word of God says, and that’s going to motivate us. To something that John said, and what I’m going to say is potentially simplistic: I don’t actually feel it’s difficult to be with people of different ethnicities and different religions, because of the call to love God above all things and to love our neighbor. I don’t find that a difficult thing. I will share the gospel out of love. Their rejection of that is not a rejection of me, so I don’t find those things to be difficult. Now, it may be because I am an African-American woman who’s had to constantly live in the space where I am the one and only. That could be part of it. Diversity of thoughts and diversity of ethnicity – I just don’t find that difficult. But I do think for the Christian who’s trying to be a bridge-builder, we just have a different call. If you are convictional about it, if you have a conviction, it makes your marching orders a bit different. And one other thing about bridge building: recently I said to someone, “I’m not a safe place.” What I meant by that was, you can’t come to me and say whatever you’d like and think I’m not going to correct you. I’m going to correct you, with love, if you say something that’s out of step. I’m again thinking racially: If you say something racist, I’m going to correct you. So part of bridge-building isn’t being a doormat or being a yes-man or going along with what we think is acceptable in society. That is not bridge-building. That is something else. So I just wanted to say a word of caution there: To love is to speak truth. It’s not to ignore or pretend when we see something wrong. That’s not building a bridge in any way, shape, or form. So I want to put that caution out there. But our marching orders are [to] love God, love neighbor, and execute that in the world around us.
John Inazu: First, Cherie, I just want to alter a little bit of the premise of your question. You said in culture wars, with bridge-building, there’s sometimes one side that wants to blow up the bridge. And I would say in culture wars, there are always people on both sides that want to blow up the bridge. And if anyone listening finds yourself in the position where you don’t think that’s the case, then chances are you’re trying to blow up the bridge. That makes it hard, because if you are interested in bridge-building, you’ve got to check your rear flank all the time, because there are people who don’t want to build bridges, as well as people on the other side. And then to Trillia’s point, I was struck by your recognition of how bridge-building is built into your DNA, particularly in the experience that you grew up in. It made me think of [how] whatever majority culture is, if you are in majority culture, you don’t have to do bridge-building. You might be compelled to do it. You might have gospel reasons to do it. You might think it’s nice to do. But you’re not forced to do it. But if you are not the majority, you have no other option than to try bridge-building. The Gospels and the early church were not the majority. They had no option but to do bridge-building. When Paul writes about the early church, the assembly, the ecclesia, as a different kind of politic over and against the existing order, they were the minority, and they did not have the option of not doing-bridge building.
Cherie Harder: Michael, you look like you’re about to say something.
Michael Wear: So many interesting things have been said. To Trillia’s point, if you’re going to build a bridge, it only makes sense if you know where you stand and if you know where you’re trying to build the bridge to. Sometimes these little videos that circulate of people on different sides of an issue or from different walks of life getting together actually flatten those issues. So I think there is a caution towards something that’s overly sentimental. But I also want to say that I think there’s a part of us that knows that reconciliation is right, that knows that finding common ground with folks who are different than you is right. I agree [that] in the political space, there are operators that do want to blow up the bridge, and I do think it’s a danger. There was an Atlantic essay recently about the growth of political hobbyists: those who think that they’re participating in politics because they talk about it a lot and read a bunch of articles and have a bunch of opinions, but they’re actually just viewing it as entertainment, as sort of a boxing match, and not really participating. There is a danger that we all become political strategists. I’m an actual political strategist – that’s my vocation. I get worried when I hear folks [saying], “Well, can we really sit down and talk with them” – what are you talking about? When we all become political strategists, I think that becomes a harmful thing. What we found in the report is that at the local level, most people aren’t thinking that way. But most pastors are finding that it actually benefits their people and their community when they get to know different clergy, even those from different faiths in their city, and when they’re able to partner together in times of need like [in] disaster relief efforts. [They’re finding] that it’s important to have functioning relationships with civic leaders, even if the civic leaders come from different backgrounds. So I do agree that there is this impulse in our culture now to be strategizing everything and to view civility and bridge-building as a kind of disarmament. I just want to express how deeply contrary that is to the basic thrust of Scripture, the basic thrust of the best of the Christian tradition.
Trillia Newbell: Can I chime in, Cherie? One of the things that you said and I just want to highlight, because I would hate if it was missed – you started mentioning the local pastor and the local context. Sometimes I wonder if some of these conversations, when we talk about [the] national, don’t really translate to the local level. We talk about these national divisions – now of course, right now, we see our nation marching. So locally, it’s affecting us deeply in our current moment, and it has since the beginning of the United States. But in regards to some of the ways that we actually engage and communicate with each other, I wonder if there is a massive difference between the local community and the local church, and the national conversation?
Michael Wear: Trillia, I think your point is apt, and I think we’ve even seen it in the last couple of weeks. I found it striking to watch local news coverage of some of the events and compare it to national news. On national news coverage, some of this is an abstraction about warring sides and different interests. At the local level, it’s a story of people who are part of the life of a community together. The sides just aren’t always so clear. So I want to really affirm that at the local level, when you’re dealing not with abstraction, but with people that you live with, that are actually part of a common life together, the tone is different. I think part of the question is, can we bring up and filter up that view that we have a common life together into our national discourse? Can we stop talking at the national level as if these things are abstractions and actually understand that under the surface of what seemed like purely ideological or theoretical debates are people who have to live together?
Cherie Harder: There’s so much more we could go into on this, but during this last half hour we’re going to turn to questions from our viewers. There’s quite a few stacked up here, so we’ll try to get through all those that we possibly can. Just a reminder to all of our viewers: not only can you ask a question, you can ‘like’ a question. The more ‘likes’ a question has, the more likely we’ll be able to pose it to our panelists today. The first question comes from Nick, who asks, “My university often boasts of the statistics of diversity and how many groups are represented on campus. Presumably, this is boasted as it is meant to be seen as providing students a holistic glimpse at life. In reality, there is no culture. At best, students are indifferent or apathetic towards each other. At worst, a tension permeates their thoughts and feelings. Is true pluralism, or at least a healthy sense of it, possible without some commonly-held unifying reality?” John, why don’t you go first on that?
John Inazu: It’s a really important question, and I love that the questioner tied it to the university. I will say this massively against interest, since I am employed by a university, but the modern university lacks a purpose. It cannot identify a purpose. And without a purpose, you can’t set the conditions necessary for shared vision or a pluralistic society that exists within it. That’s a real problem. I’m not sure it’s recoverable, quite frankly. Within higher ed, there are some small subset of institutions that can name their purpose. I think Christian colleges and universities and non-Christian religious schools are some of those. I think some state schools can, but not all state schools, and perhaps some small liberal arts schools. But by and large, the modern research university cannot name its purpose, and absent a purpose, it cannot call or aspire people to a shared vision of the good within the institution. That’s why time and time again, on any major issue, you see universities coming out with statement after statement that really doesn’t say much. It points to very broad words that don’t have a lot of meaning in them. So I don’t want to be overly discouraging, but I do want to say that that project of the university is hard. Maybe all the more reason for Christians to be there in the university, naming what their purpose is and then working really hard to love others who don’t have that same purpose.
Michael Wear: Just to quickly affirm [that], Dallas Willard often pointed out that the most common emblem phrase for universities is Jesus saying that the truth will set you free. That’s a pressing issue to press not just in universities, but in our public life together. Yes, pluralism recognizes that people have different views on that subject. It also creates the environment [in] which you can press the question. I think part of the issue here is that Christians need to know what they believe and be willing to present it and advocate for it in an environment that isn’t going to melt in their very presence – that actually it involves standing up for what you believe in a culture and in an environment where those things are contested. So I just want to affirm what John pointed out.
Cherie Harder: Trillia, this next question is for you. Our anonymous attendee says, “Trillia, I appreciate your comments on reconciliation, especially the need for repentance before reconciliation. I’m hearing a number of my African-American friends say that blacks have nothing to reconcile since they are the group that has been abused by whites. Therefore, the burden to reconcile is on whites. That seems to make some sense to me, but I would welcome your insights on this part of the need for healing.”
Trillia Newbell: I think what most people are saying is, we were the ones who were wronged, and therefore we’re the ones who should be pursued towards reconciliation. John mentioned earlier that often those of us who are people of color or minorities, however you want to put it, are put in that position where we are the reconcilers – we are the ones pressing into [reconciliation]. I believe the general consensus is that in our context in the United States, we were built upon slavery and then systems that continued to harm and discriminate against black Africans. So we now are at a place where there is a need – well, we’ve always been at a place for reconciliation. The need has been there forever. But I also think that we shouldn’t be the ones who have to continually call [for] it. I’m hoping that the Michaels and the Johns and the Cheries of the world will be the ones to call for that reconciliation so that we are not carrying that burden. That, I believe, is what most people are saying. They are not saying that we have no responsibility in the relationship. Obviously, we will have a choice whether we receive that person or not, which then will [either] result in the true reconciliation or not. But I think we are so often the ones leading in that area. And we should be speaking to this topic. But I believe that it is about who really should take that step – and it would be the majority culture.
Cherie Harder: This is a great question from Brooke, who asked, “How can Christians, as Trilla is speaking about, peacefully protest for certain causes or ideas while not being associated with other beliefs that often go hand-in-hand with the one they want to protest for?” As the political strategist, Michael, I want to toss that one to you first.
Michael Wear: Well, I think we set an interesting model for that in D.C. just last week, following the leadership of Pastor Thabiti at Anacostia River Church, joined by David Platt at McClain Bible, David Hanke at Restoration Arlington, [and other] pastors around the Washington D.C./Virginia/Maryland region. It was a lay-mobilized effort, led by congregants, [that] gathered in D.C. last week for a Christian protest of racial injustice. A lot of things were incredible about that. Thousands of Christians of different races and different denominations gathered, singing “Amazing Grace” as we walked past the reflecting pool, praying right by the steps of the Capitol, marching to the White House. On that march, we were joined by United States Senator Mitt Romney, who was attracted, I think, to the different witness that we were offering. You know, I think you need to do it. You need to express where you stand; you need to have integrity and faithfulness. But there’s also a value of co-belligerence. In other words, there will be opportunities to make distinctions about where you disagree. The question is, can we say where we agree? I really want to push back against this idea that it’s a fair depiction of the current state of things and history that there has been a burden placed on white people in this country that has not been carried by black people. One way of telling the history of black people in this country, in my view, is repeated, unanswered requests for conciliation, repeated unanswered calls for a recognition of basic dignity. So this is an opportunity for people to answer the call that has never ceased being issued. The demand has never not been placed at our feet. There has been a little debate about, you know, should Christians really be protesting as Christians? Shouldn’t they just blend in? No, I think Christians have something unique to offer in this moment. That’s not to say that there aren’t opportunities where they could be part of the crowd. But I think, speaking for those who protested last week, there’s real value in offering a distinct Christian witness. That’s certainly part of what we try to do at the AND campaign. And that’s the challenge that lies ahead of us. Is Jesus speaking now? Is there an application of Christian truth to the problems of today? Or is this just something that happened two thousand years ago that we tell stories about? I think the scriptural tradition is quite clear that Jesus is very involved in the restoration of all things – even now, even in the midst of where we are today.
Cherie Harder: I want to throw out a somewhat related practical question from viewer Lori Kepner. John and Trillia, I want to give you the chance to either answer the question from Lori or the question that was just asked here. Lori asked, “How do you decide when to engage with someone who feels oppositional and when just to forbear and move on without getting defensive, but not really engaging? Relationship is key, as Trillia said, but there is still a wisdom required. What are some of the best practices as you seek to start the conversation so that it is inviting them into dialogue and seeking understanding?” Trillia, why don’t we start with you on that?
Trillia Newbell: I want to say one thing to the last question. We know what you’re talking about – you’re talking about the hashtag. You can have freedom not to use the hashtag and still march. We don’t have to be hashtag apologists here. We can have that freedom to speak truth in love, march, do whatever in a peaceful way without using a hashtag. In regards to this question, I am pretty particular about who I engage with. The days are evil; time is limited. So I will choose online conversations if I just barely engage. I might ‘like’ a comment, or I might answer one question, and if it looks like, OK, we might have a conversation – but often, if there’s not a real relationship, I don’t engage. Online is very different than in my local church. There’s a distinction there. In my local church, it’s my family; it’s my local context where we’re going to eat and break bread together. So there is an extra effort and desire to reconcile and to have hard conversations. And [you have] to know when to lay down arms and say, “You know, I’m just gonna pray for you.” Because there is a time when it’s clear that the conversation is just not going to go anywhere. We’re talking about pluralism – we should have those basic common [goals], love God, love our neighbor, but we’re not all going to land on the same political ideas. Those moments are when I can have grace and be forbearing. But I’m not going to withdraw in fear just because there’s a question. So I say, press into those real-life relationships, and be really wise online.
John Inazu: That’s great. Amen to Trillia’s answer to Lori’s question – with the added counsel of love God, love neighbor, and love your enemies. The standard is pretty high for us. To the earlier question that Michael was answering about the degree of participation and when do we compromise, I guess I would just say, we live in a world where everything we do is compromised. I’m a professor at Washington University. Washington University does things I love, and they do some really bad things. I’m a veteran of the United States Air Force – same thing. I’m a citizen of the United States – same thing. I don’t second-guess myself and say, “I don’t know if I’m going to say I’m an American today.” We own the compromise of the world in which we find ourselves, and that’s unavoidable. I think the same principle applies here.
Cherie Harder: This next question comes from Walter Smith, who asked, “Considering Michael’s point that reconciliation requires recognition of difference, how has the idea of ‘not seeing race’ impact the social unrest we are experiencing right now? Can we find reconciliation without violently facing these differences, or will it necessarily be painful?” Trillia, let’s start with you on that, and then John and Michael, if you have things to add, feel free to jump in.
Trillia Newbell: I think he’s talking about people saying that they are colorblind. And I would just say, you’re not colorblind. When you see me, you see an African-American female. What people often are trying to say is, “I’m not racist.” But what you’re really doing is erasing me. You’re erasing how God has created me. You’re erasing all of the history. It’s going to be hard to be empathetic if you are trying to erase my color and the way that God has created me. And that’s the same for other people, other cultures, other nationalities. We want to get away from that erasing people and actually celebrate [them]. God has created us, so we can celebrate this. In Revelation, we see that every tribe, tongue, and nation will be worshipping together one day – all of us, united. We will no longer have this divide and sin. God could have decided to erase those distinctions; He did not. So we can celebrate them. And when they become a problem, I think [there] is a deep-rooted sin issue. It shouldn’t be a problem. When we look at people who are different and not like us based on the color of their skin, and we decide that they are subhuman or that we are superior, that isn’t an issue with the person with the skin. It’s an issue with us. So we need to face those things and repent, like I called [for] at the beginning, and ask ourselves the hard questions: why do we have the thoughts we have about that certain person? So I don’t think we should erase cultural and ethnic difference, because God doesn’t. Instead, we should celebrate and see them. And the truth is, you do see it.
John Inazu: If I can maybe direct this comment specifically to white Christians (and I’m half of one, so take it for what it’s worth): I think one of the reasons that discussions of race are further complicated is that the level of discourse and discussion and understanding operates at so many different degrees at the same time. People come at this necessarily from different levels of exposure. So if you’re kind of new to the discussion and are just kind of trying to wrap your head around some of these questions, I would just urge you to listen and to read. Read Trillia, read Jemar Tisby, read Richard Rothstein’s “The Color of Law,” and learn some of the massive histories that you probably weren’t taught, quite frankly. But then to the other side of the equation, if you are a white Christian who’s been woke since 2017 or something, slow down on the moral judgment in the other direction a little bit. Help bring your fellow brothers and sisters along, and recognize that you were there not that long ago. I do think that this is an urgent time to move from words and hashtags to action, and I hope that Christians are a part of that. But we’re going to be most able to be part of that if we can work with grace and truth with each other.
Cherie Harder: Our next question from an anonymous attendee asks, “How do Christians live in and celebrate pluralism in our culture when others in our culture do not want or respect pluralism, especially when it comes to differing opinions and practices on sensitive topics like sexuality?” Michael, why don’t we start with you on that?
Michael Wear: One term that hasn’t come up, though it’s been alluded to, is the importance of mutual consideration. Mutual consideration is central to a healthy pluralism. I think part of the fear is, I can’t ensure the mutual part. That’s absolutely right. You can’t. I think one position that helps the Christian is that our ultimate security is elsewhere. Our ultimate commitment is faithfulness to God. If we take an ‘L’ on something, if we don’t always get the upper hand in a situation, if our expressions of love and consideration aren’t always reciprocated, that’s not the end of the world. As Trillia has been so insistent on pointing out in this conversation, the love of neighbor flows out of love of God. John’s written about this as well. So I think that’s a critical thing. I do think that the example of consideration is compelling. I do think that, to get a bit into political and cultural strategy and be a bit more instrumental about this, there’s a great pushback in our culture right now against those who are viewed as aggressors, those who are viewed as seeking to use power in an unfair way. I do think that there is a recognition when you offer that kind of consideration and it’s not reciprocated. I do think that has a practical way of playing out. But whether or not that’s true in every instance shouldn’t dictate the extension of decency, of fairness, of goodwill, of a pursuit of justice.
Cherie Harder: We have a question related to that which comes from Mike and which, John, I want to direct your way. Mike writes, “It seems that for a pluralistic society to live in relative peace, the people as a whole must assent to a certain understanding of human beings: e.g., that they are inherently worthy of respect, they are rational, and they’re ultimately free to choose what they believe. Do you think there is any way to sustain this understanding of the human person without a shared commitment to Christian (or at least classical) principles?”
John Inazu: Well, I hope so, because that’s where we are. It’s worth thinking about. The proper answer to that question would involve a whole lot of philosophy and history that we don’t have time for, but we need to be thinking about these questions. I think ultimately, the answer is yes, but it will depend upon an ongoing discourse about reminding people, regardless of their faith or lack of faith, that we have these minimal commitments to one another. We have to agree that other people are human beings, and we have to agree that other people in this country are part of a shared civic project and should have equal rights. Those baselines are not shared by everyone living in the United States today. So we can’t afford to put our guard down or assume that everyone is even going to agree on those principles. There are people in this country today who do not think that other people are human beings. You’re not going to have a shared civic project with that view. Now, at the margins, you can allow those people to exist. But you’ve got to do the really hard work of making sure that they stay at the margins.
Cherie Harder: The next question [is] from Roger Trigg. Trillia, I’m going to direct it your way. Roger asked, “Divisions are deepening within Christian denominations, and splits occur. How can we preach a gospel of reconciliation when we as Christians so obviously cannot be reconciled with our fellow Christians?”
Trillia Newbell: The reality is, we do have a deep divide, and churches split. He said, “How do we preach it?” And I would say, you open your mouth and use those words. How people respond to truth is not our job. We can’t transform hearts. I have no way of changing someone’s heart; I can’t control someone’s mind. But I know what I can say, and so that is what I’m going to be faithful to. I’m going to be faithful to speaking the truth; I’m going to be faithful to what I believe God has called me to. But I can’t make someone’s mind change. I can’t physically transform hearts. But God can, and I believe that. The Scriptures say that the gospel has power. So I am going to continue to preach that, continue to work in that understanding, knowing that the fruit is up to the Lord. So my hope is that we would do that as a Christian people – do the work of ministry and leave the results up to the Lord, and be faithful in that call. It is not going to always result in unity. I have stood before a group of people and given a message of unity and love – it was non-controversial, even-keeled – and had someone come up to me afterwards and still try to convince me in the Scriptures that I was subhuman, [that] I was not like him. He told me, “But what about the curse of Ham?” And I explained. I don’t want to take the conversation a different direction – but I spoke truth again. And I said, “Well, Lord, you’re going to have to do that work.” Because I can’t. But I can be faithful. That is what God has called me to, and that’s what I hope we would be as a people. We won’t always see that unity. We won’t always see the reconciliation. But we are called to faithfulness.
Cherie Harder: There are so many more questions, and our time is rapidly dwindling. So what I’m going to do is essentially pose two related questions and ask each of you to respond. You can respond to either one. One of them comes from Walter Henegar, who asked, “What are the greatest opportunities and the greatest threats to constructive Christian engagement in the current moment?” And another question from Kara, who asked, “What are practical steps that we can put into place from this rich conversation?” Michael, let’s start with you.
Michael Wear: Well, I love those questions, so it’s OK that you went with me first. I think it’s actually two sides of the same coin. The greatest opportunity is the greatest challenge. John spoke about this earlier, and we’ve all touched on it to an extent: Perhaps for the first time in American history, we now have a generation that’s fully lived in a culture that has not assumed itself to be Christian. I think the challenge is apparent. The opportunity is, it’s the greatest missional opportunity the church in America has potentially ever had. What an incredible blessing and honor it is to be able to present the gospel and what it means to live with religious conviction, what it means to live in a way that you feel you are answerable to God, to a culture that doesn’t feel like it understands that already – to a culture that has many people to whom that idea is foreign. Now, I don’t want to exaggerate this. America is still a profoundly Christian-infused country. We have not completely lost an understanding of Christian hymns and language, and the Christian ideas of justice and forgiveness still infuse our culture. But it is a different environment, and it’s one of tremendous, tremendous opportunity. Practically, what that means is, we have an opportunity to build new institutions and for individual Christians to think anew about what it means to evangelize, what it means to talk about their faith, which may include re-explaining in your faith back to yourself in a way that it can be literate for the public. If we’re able to do that, then we’ll be able to speak truth into a pluralistic society. [Regarding] one of the earlier questions, I agree with John – the idea that there has to be some shared sense of meaning for society to work is true. I also agree with Trilla that that is not something you can enforce. That’s something that has to happen of free will and discourse – and that’s what we have an amazing opportunity to to participate in.
John Inazu: That’s a big question. I would echo what Michael said as answer number one. For the second, I agree, it’s two sides of the same coin. If the church in the United States can be an authentic, multi-ethnic witness, then there is tremendous opportunity. And if we can’t, then we will be irrelevant. God will still work, He will just work without us. But the stakes are high. This moment is important. And if this moment is going to happen, it’s going to be costly. This means that Christian foundations and Christian networks and pockets of wealth – there are going to have to be risks and meaningful steps taken by Christians. And this is not a two-week project; this is going to take a lot of work. But I think because of where we find ourselves in history – and because I agree that it’s also a gospel principle, we look at Revelation among other places – if we can be a credible, multi-ethnic witness as the people of God, then there is tremendous opportunity no matter what comes. Now, again, God will work without us. I’m not worried about God showing up. But I am worried about the church in the United States at this moment.
Trillia Newbell: I hope I don’t step on toes by saying, I don’t know if we were ever a Christian nation. I actually think that this is a great opportunity, because we get to speak truth. I think we’ve been maybe culturally good, spiritually dead. Again, it’s coming from my own contexts, and thinking about how we were founded. Even the Southern Baptist Convention [was] founded on slavery and divided. So I think there’s an opportunity, as Michael said, that is absolutely unique and wonderful, to be that city on a hill that I long to see. I am excited for that opportunity. But I actually think the greatest hindrance or challenge for us, to seeing us united and walking in this beauty that we’ve been talking about, is apathy. I think people don’t care – if it doesn’t affect me, then it doesn’t matter. I’m seeing this swelling in our communities now about our current moment, this desire: “Wait a minute, there’s something wrong here.” I am hoping that the apathetic will become aware that we’re neighbors and that we should care about the well-being of our neighbors. So apathy is, I think, a danger. And practically speaking, we want to put our faith into action. I’ll just say that. Faith into action, however that can look – whether it’s through preaching and proclaiming the gospel, which I think is number one; actively being a part of our our civic duty; being a part of our local communities and actively engaging in our local communities; or growing in our understanding of various policies and how they affect others. Taking our faith and putting it into action in the world will help heal some of these wounds.
Trillia Newbell: I’m an author, so I’m going to read Toni Morrison: “This is precisely the time when artists go to work. There is no time for despair, no place for self-pity, no need for silence, no room for fear. We speak, we write, we do language. That is how civilizations heal.”
Cherie Harder: Thank you, Trillia. John?
John Inazu: I can’t compete with Toni Morrison, but I will say, because of the person and work of Jesus Christ, I hope that Christians will be people of hope and confidence and not fear and anxiety.
Cherie Harder: Michael, the final word is yours.
Michael Wear: I’ll reiterate John’s point. This is a time for Christians to enter the public with joyful confidence – a pervasive, constant sense of well-being that can bring great calm and also conviction to public debates that often lack both.
Cherie Harder: Michael, John, and Trillia, thank you so much for joining us and for your wisdom and insight. It has been a delight. Thank you to all of our viewers for joining us today and for the compliment and honor of your time and attention. Have a great week.