Being Decisive Without Being Divisive Amid The Zig-Zags Of History (William Yoo)

Current Events

The following is the fourth of a series of articles under a general symposium title of “Being Church in the Age of Trump,” which will appear in hard copy in January as part of the fall/winter edition of the journal @ this point: theological investigations in church and culture.  The journal, published by Columbia Theological Seminary and oriented toward laity, offers CTS faculty and others a chance to engage our wider constituencies around a particular issue/idea.  The title for this edition of @ this point will be “Reflections After the Election.”

On the day after the election, President Obama addressed the nation from the White House Rose Garden. He congratulated President-elect Trump and ensured there would be a smooth transition of power from one administration to the next. He also observed the “nature of democracy” is sometimes “contentious and noisy” and “not always inspiring.”

Echoing the insight of his favorite theologian, Reinhold Niebuhr, President Obama acknowledged progress in the United States has never occurred in a “straight line” fashion but that “we zig and zag.” In 1952, Niebuhr argued in The Irony of American History that a proper reading of history suggests positive social change is not the product of steady progress but rather comes to us as a drama of conflict with opposing forces that confront and challenge one another at every step of the way.

Niebuhr advocated a Christian realism that cautioned against notions of American exceptionalism positioning the United States as a virtuous redeemer nation with a divine commission to save the world.  At the same time, Niebuhr contended that American Christians had a moral duty to vigorously combat unjust systems of economic and racial oppression at home and abroad.

Perhaps the presidential election confirms both Niebuhr’s sober criticism of American exceptionalism and his clarion call for Christians to speak and act with a combination of courage and humility as creatures caught between the dimensions of divine grace and human nature on this side of heaven.  As we prepare for a new president who maligned immigrants, racial-ethnic minorities, disabled persons, women, and Muslims – with staffers and supporters trumpeting white supremacist, homophobic, and anti-Semitic ideologies – on his way to the Oval Office, we must be vigilant in defending our neighbors, especially those on the margins of our society.

Those of us in the Reformed tradition continue to repent of our human sinfulness and the specific ways we have fallen short as disciples, but we do so with hope and faith in the God who bestows grace upon us through Jesus Christ. John Calvin informs our understanding of the twofold nature of grace in which we are justified before God through the righteousness of Christ and sanctified by the Holy Spirit to aspire to holiness and purity in our daily living.

During the Great Awakening movement in colonial North America, Presbyterian revivalist Gilbert Tennent emphasized the necessity of “sanctifying grace” in converted Christians to underscore orthopraxy (right practice) alongside orthodoxy (right belief). More recently, Presbyterian and womanist theologian Katie Geneva Cannon has articulated how divine grace transforms African American Christians in offering liberation from systems of discrimination and empowerment to seek new possibilities for creative change.

As a thirty-something Korean American minister in the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) who teaches at one of its seminaries, the overwhelming majority of people I rub shoulders and break bread with on a daily basis did not vote for the President-elect. But I am well aware of the various narratives of plight that define white mainline Protestantism today. A myriad of scholars of American religion have commented upon the decreasing numbers and increasing irrelevance of denominations like the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) and proposed different pathways moving forward.

Diana Butler Bass summarizes this wide-ranging analysis in three competing streams. One proposal for white mainline Protestant churches entails retreat from political engagement to focus instead upon the spiritual formation of faithful individuals. Another proposal maintains a pantheistic understanding of God that encourages churches to abdicate their unique role as God’s sole agents of good and partner with all kinds of agencies, including interfaith and secular organizations, to promote social change.

The third proposal seeks to align the everyday experience in churches with explicitly social justice commitments in order to reclaim the progressive vision of twentieth-century pioneers like Walter Rauschenbusch, Jane Addams, and Martin Luther King, Jr.

I believe our churches need not choose one of these three options. We can invest in robust educational ministries for persons at every life stage from infancy to elderly, support effective interfaith and secular organizations, and actively engage in efforts that seek to identify and dismantle oppressive cultural, economic, political, racial, and religious forces.

In response to the election of Donald Trump and the imminent threat of a dangerous agenda of white supremacy arising from not only some of his supporters but also appointed White House officials who will reside in the halls of power, the important thing for Christians is to be decisive in our speech and our action. As 2 Timothy teaches us, God gives us the ability and responsibility to speak and act with a spirit of power, love, and sound mind.

In my American church history classes, my students and I are often most frustrated with white Protestant moderates who believed that slavery in the nineteenth century was wrong or that the civil rights movement in the twentieth century was right, but nonetheless did not speak out for the sake of preserving the peace and unity of their ecclesiastical bodies.

We shake our heads at the fact that prominent northern Presbyterians who held abolitionist positions wrote assuring letters to their Southern colleagues throughout the 1830s and as late as 1861, promising them that slavery would not be discussed at the General Assembly. When we read Martin Luther King, Jr.’s Letter from Birmingham City Jail, we feel his deep pain and anguish over the white moderates who agreed with his cause but instructed him to be more patient and less controversial.

We are angry when we discover that the Presbyterian Montreat Conference Center in North Carolina refused racial integration until 1960, despite their General Assembly’s recommendation for integration in 1954 and the U.S. Supreme Court decision banning segregated public schools in the same year.

The historical enterprise offers the benefit of the distance of time. We can look back into the past and learn from the successes and failures of our predecessors in the faith. The present is always more complex to assess because making history is more difficult than studying it. Yet now is not the time to be a moderate. We seek to be decisive without being divisive in our Christian witness, but we also recognize there are times when grave injustice must be met with a bold and unequivocal response that may confront, disrupt, and even upset some of our neighbors. As we rise from our knees in humble prayer, we must courageously speak the truth in love and stand up for whatever is just.

William Yoo is Assistant Professor of American Religious and Cultural History at Columbia Theological Seminary.  His research interests within the history of Christianity in the United States include the expansion of the American foreign missionary enterprise, the formation of immigrant religious communities, the religious cultures of the American South, the Presbyterian experience, and the transnational encounter between American and Korean Protestants across both nations.

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