An Important Apology Shows the Path Past Christian Trumpism

Leaving behind the days when strength was weakness and courage was cowardice.

On January 15, Hunter Baker, the dean of arts and sciences at Union University—a Baptist college not far from me in Jackson, Tennessee—did something exceedingly rare in our highly polarized time. He published an apology. In an essay in Public Discourse, he forthrightly declared that he “severely underestimated the threat posed by a Donald Trump presidency.” He acknowledged that Never Trumpers were correct that “there were significant risks involved with Donald Trump that could very well outweigh the policy outcomes.”

In a particularly poignant passage, he wrote, “I have awakened on too many days with gratitude on my lips for the blessing of living in a peaceful, orderly, democratic, and free society to see such hard-won advances thrown away for immoderate political ambition. Those who realized our inheritance was at risk saw more clearly than I did.”

In our present environment, it takes guts to write an apology. It’s countercultural within our broader society, and it’s even more countercultural within the MAGA community. As my colleague Jonah Goldberg noted on Friday, even after the calamity of January 6, most MAGA voices are busy doubling down, demanding continued loyalty to Trump and seeking punitive actions against the 10 House Republicans who voted to impeach.

Baker was the brave exception, and the correct response to Baker’s words is simple: Thank you. Apology accepted.

But Baker did more than just say he was sorry. He did us the favor of not just explaining why he rejected Never Trump arguments, but also candidly explaining exactly what he once thought of Never Trumpers like me. It’s important to hear, and it’s not pretty. In sum, he thought we were weak and fragile. Here’s Baker:

The Never-Trumpers—who never seemed to stop issuing their warnings and critiques—struck me as psychologically and emotionally weak people with porcelain-fragile sensibilities.

More:

My judgment of colleagues and of various conservatives who opposed Trump was privately severe. On the surface, I fully granted the strength of their concerns. But in the confines of my mind, I concluded that they were moral free riders. 

Later, he says that he believed we were seeking to “court favor with elites.” 

I highlight his thoughts not to pick on Baker (who’s a good man) but rather to demonstrate the extent to which Christian Trumpism turned morality and reality upside-down. If even someone like Baker can fall for the illusion, then just imagine how widely the deception spread.

In fact, if I had to pinpoint the single most common personal attack throughout my years of opposition to Trump, it would be that I was “weak” or a “coward.” Baker was hardly alone in his thoughts, and that same critique rang out across the length and breadth of MAGA media.

I was “weak” in 2015 when I decried the rise of the alt-right as my daughter’s face was photo-shopped into gas chambers and slave fields and my wife was bombarded with gruesome pictures of murders, suicides, and assassinations.

I was “fragile” in 2016 when the harassment escalated to the point where online threats culminated in a screaming, profane person hacking into a phone call between my wife and her elderly father.

I was a “coward” in 2018 when the FBI came to our home and told us that Trump superfan bomber Cesar Sayoc had searched for my address, and we had to warn our neighbors to be on the lookout for suspicious packages.

I was “courting elites” in 2019 when the “David Frenchism” controversy ignited, someone damaged our front door apparently trying to enter our house, suspicious vehicles cased our home, and individuals began contacting drug rehab and porn addiction centers around the country posing as me, saying I needed help, and providing detailed personal contact information.

I was allegedly just as weak as recently as this month when someone again found my cell number, texted racial slurs, and began calling all hours of the night from unknown numbers, sometimes leaving voicemail messages that sounded like recordings of people screaming.

And all of that was happening amidst a constant avalanche of personal insults, angry attacks on my employers, threats to withhold donations, calls for my termination, and a steady stream of online lies so voluminous that there are people who are simply furious at me for positions I did not take and beliefs I do not hold.

My wife has her own stories, including of individuals online mocking her and lying about her experience of sexual abuse at the hands of a pastor when she was only 12 years old.

She has endured lost career opportunities, lost income, and lost relationships as confrontations would flare at church—or at our kids’ Christian school—when Christian men would angrily confront her about Trump (or even Roy Moore), sometimes when she was conveniently alone and they didn’t have to deal with me.

We could have stopped this abuse at any time simply by our silence. But silence was assent, and we could not assent to the cruelty, lies, and ultimate attempted insurrection of Donald Trump’s single, terrible term in office. 

In short, aside from my Iraq deployment the last five years have been among the most difficult of my life.

But, hey, I did publish a handful of pieces in the New York Times, the Washington Post, and The Atlantic. So, I guess it was all worth it, right?

What happened? How did the world turn upside down? How did compliance with the Republican Christian crowd become courage and dissent become cowardice? How did support for perhaps the least courageous and most dishonest man ever to sit in the Oval Office become a litmus test of strength and bravery for many millions of followers of Jesus Christ?

Here’s a chilling truth. More than two decades ago, Christians predicted the wages of moral compromise and then — during Trump’s term — many of these same Christians fulfilled their own prophecy. In fact, Baker’s own denomination most clearly articulated the awful consequences of deficient moral character.

The year was 1998, Bill Clinton was president, and the Southern Baptist Convention issued a Resolution on Moral Character of Public Officials. At the time, it was hardly controversial in Christian Republican circles. Bill Clinton had been caught dishonoring his office with a tawdry affair and attempting to hide it behind a smokescreen of lies. The conservative moral outrage was palpable.

It thus seemed self-evidently and immediately true when the Baptists declared, “Tolerance of serious wrong by leaders sears the conscience of the culture, spawns unrestrained immorality and lawlessness in the society, and surely results in God’s judgment.” After all, there were partisan cultural elites who tried to normalize adultery. They shamed Monica Lewinsky. They engaged in behavior that would shock the conscience of the #MeToo generation.

But fast-forward to the end of 2020 and the beginning of 2021. Did Christian Trump supporters tolerate “serious wrong” by Trump? Yes indeed. They tolerated porn star payoffs, multiple corroborated allegations of sexual assault, boasts about sexual misconduct, an avalanche of lies, and abuses of power they’d never excuse in a Democrat. Even now, many of them are tolerating Trump’s incitement of a violent attack on the Capitol—an attack that featured a host of Trump supporters seeking to lynch Trump’s Evangelical Christian vice president.

Why do I say they are tolerating that intolerable event? Because they steadfastly argue that Trump should not be held accountable and instead that Republicans who voted to impeach should pay a political price.

Let’s examine the consequences in light of the Baptist resolution. Christian consciences have been seared. In fact, if you talked to the average Christian Trump supporter in 2014 and asked them if they would ever defend all the misconduct I described above, they’d be insulted. “How dare you,” they’d say. “I would never stoop so low for any politician.”

Yet stoop they did. And all too many stoop low now, believing and spreading the wildest and most destructive conspiracy theories and radicalizing fellow believers. Did this sin spawn unrestrained lawlessness? Yes, and it was shocking to see:

Did all of this result in “God’s judgment”? I don’t know. I’m very leery of proclaiming when and how God judges His people, America, or anyone else. I will note, however, that even the most cold-eyed pragmatist has to acknowledge the political disaster that’s been visited on the GOP. Not since Herbert Hoover has a one-term president also cost his party the House and the Senate.

Yet in spite of the heartbreaking facts, I’m already getting bombarded with requests to “move on,” to turn the page and focus on Joe Biden. Paying continued attention to Trump is further evidence of my alleged Trump Derangement Syndrome. However, no one can truly “move on” until we properly and justly finish the last lingering act of Trump’s term.

His second impeachment trial is expected to begin within days, and his principal political defenders will include Evangelicals in the Senate. His grassroots constituency demanding acquittal will include millions of Evangelicals in the heartland. And many of those same Evangelicals will continue to seek to ostracize and punish fellow Christians who call for meaningful accountability for serious, proven wrongs.

What can be done? Hunter Baker has shown us one path. More Christians can demonstrate his humility and courage. And when or if they do, it’s important for even those who suffered profoundly for their anti-Trump stands to grant forgiveness immediately and without hesitation.

But there’s more. Christian Trump supporters can no longer say, “We won’t tolerate serious wrongs.” That ship has sailed. They can, however, say “Enough. No more.” And it’s vital that they do. Only they can impose true accountability on Trump. Without them there simply isn’t sufficient support to bar Trump from public office and limit his malign influence on American life.

And if they do choose hold Trump accountable, they won’t be “weak.” They won’t be “fragile.” And they won’t be “courting favor with elites.” They’ll be demonstrating at long last the courage of their professed convictions and living up to the promises of their own past words.

One more thing …

My newsletter last week generated more heartfelt correspondence — especially from southern Christians — than virtually anything else I’ve written. So very many readers recognized shame/honor patterns in their homes, their towns, and their churches. They experienced the culture and sometimes felt its bite. I wish I could have responded to all your messages with the same thought and care with which you wrote me. But I read them all, and you’ve given me much to think about. Thank you.

One last thing …

I’ve been really enjoying listening to Ellie Holcomb of late, and I think this song is just marvelous. Come for the song, and stay for the poem in the middle. The ending is particularly powerful. I hope it blesses you as much as it blessed me.

Biden's Two Tasks: Repairing Deep Divisions and Defeating a Deadly Disease

How history will judge the 46th president of the United States.

Late last year, the Ronald Reagan Institute commissioned me to write an extended essay about Reagan’s first inaugural address. When I re-immersed myself in the American world of the 1980 election and the 1981 inaugural, I was struck by some powerful similarities to the present.

No, there was no pandemic. No, there had been no uprising at the Capitol. But America was in a state of stagnation and malaise. Americans feared their nation was in a state of terminal decline. If you could mark the course of American history from the Tet Offensive to Reagan’s inaugural, it was a long story of defeat in Vietnam, corruption in the Nixon White House, energy shocks at home, and humiliation at the hands of the Iranian ayatollahs abroad—all against the backdrop of the seemingly-invincible Soviet menace.

In that context, Reagan had two great tasks, one intangible and the other tangible. He had to revive the American spirit, and he had to restore American power. He accomplished both, and he did so convincingly enough that by the end of George H.W. Bush’s term (the culmination of the Reagan era), the United States stood astride the world as its lone superpower, a “hyperpower” without recent historical precedent.

Joe Biden has two great tasks, one intangible and the other tangible. He has to restore a significant measure of American unity, and he has to defeat a deadly virus. Accomplish those goals, and (barring additional unexpected crises) he’ll almost certainly be deemed a success.  Fail and, well, brace yourself.

Biden’s intangible challenge is by far his most difficult. He assumes the presidency of a nation divided. It’s arguably more divided than any time since the 1850s. As I chronicle at length in my book and have chronicled time and again in the pages of this newsletter, American polarization isn’t just a matter of differences and disagreements, it’s a matter of fear and loathing. 

The conspiracy theories that dominated right-wing media since the election do not spring from healthy communities. The illiberalism that has choked out discourse in influential quarters of the left does not spring from healthy communities. And the violence that tore apart American cities this summer and that played out live and in shocking detail on January 6 comes from a very deep well of grievance and outright hatred.

To even begin to address mutual contempt and loathing, Biden has to relentlessly and clearly distinguish—not just in his rhetoric, but also in his actions—between good-faith disagreement and divisive provocation. I think he put it well in his inaugural:

To all of those who supported our campaign, I am humbled by the faith you have placed in us. To all of those who did not support us, let me say this: Hear me out as we move forward, take a measure of me and my heart. If you still disagree, so be it. That’s democracy, that’s America. The right to dissent peaceably within the guardrails of our Republic is perhaps this nation’s greatest strength. Yet hear me clearly. Disagreement must not lead to disunion, and I pledge this to you: I will be a president for all Americans, all Americans.

Here Biden is laying down an important conceptual marker: He’s declaring that he knows disagreement isn’t a synonym for division. Our Republic was built to accommodate disagreement.

I’m not naïve. I know that it’s far, far easier to welcome dissent in the abstract than it is in the actual heat of American political debate, where overreaction seems to be the only acceptable reaction to any political position. But the aspiration is there, at least, and an aspiration is a start.

The concrete task of combatting the pandemic is likely the easier of Biden’s tasks, involving the application of massive government resources to a defined public problem. But here’s where competence matters. To go back to Reagan, pouring money into the Pentagon didn’t automatically make the military more lethal. Resources could have been siphoned off into unacceptable bureaucratic bloat. Weapons systems still had to work. Strategies and tactics had to be refined.

In Reagan’s inaugural, he didn’t just pledge to limit government, he pledged to make government work. Here’s a forgotten passage for those who think Reagan’s sole focus was on shrinking the government footprint:

Now, so there will be no misunderstanding, it is not my intention to do away with government. It is, rather, to make it work—work with us, not over us; to stand by our side, not ride on our back. Government can and must provide opportunity, not smother it; foster productivity, not stifle it.

Reagan was addressing an American nation that had been afflicted by government failure after government failure. Biden is addressing an American nation that is also groaning under the weight of government incompetence—and not just federal incompetence.

If I were to chisel out a Mount Rushmore of shame in the response to COVID-19, I’d place Andrew Cuomo and Bill de Blasio right alongside the president who lied to the American people about the worst public health disaster since the Spanish Flu. I’d place the countless politicians who imposed punitive policies and then failed to abide by their own guidelines. Models of effective governance do exist, but they are few and far between.

There is a clear way forward, and that’s getting as many vaccinations in as many American arms, as fast as reasonably possible. Sounds easy? No, it’s an immense logistical and persuasive challenge. The logistical challenge is clear, and we’re faltering. Our Morning Dispatch crew has been on the case:

In the five weeks since the U.S. began rolling out COVID-19 vaccines, the biggest issue has not been supply—it’s been getting doses into people’s arms. That dynamic appears to be changing, however, with the federal government’s vaccine stockpile dwindling in recent weeks as states ramp up the pace of their inoculation efforts.

The Washington Post reported on Friday that—despite Health and Human Services Secretary Alex Azar announcing earlier in the week a shift toward “ship[ping] all of the doses that had been held in physical reserve”—no such reserve exists, and states should not expect to see the dramatic uptick in allocations they were hoping to receive.

I’d urge you to read the entire, troubling report, but even if we overcome the logistics, we can’t ignore the enormous challenge of persuading almost every American to roll up their sleeve and take the shot. This poll is sobering:

Plainly, the challenge of dealing with American division is inextricably linked to the challenge of the pandemic (just as Reagan’s need to revive American power also depended to a great degree on reviving the American spirit.) There is no sensible partisan reason for the vaccine divide. None. It is a product of American dysfunction.

And that brings me to a final, crucial question. How should conservatives like me—people who disagree with any number of proposed Biden policies—respond to this incoming administration? There’s an easy answer. Call balls and strikes. Agree with Biden when he’s right, and disagree and oppose his policies when he’s wrong. That’s a constructive response that we should apply to all presidents, including to presidents of our own party.

But in a moment of profound crisis, there’s also a deeper answer. Recognize the moment. Recognize the inherent necessity of addressing the crisis of division and the crisis of disease. And that means taking a rooting interest in the success of the core aspirations Biden expressed today.

That’s how history will ultimately judge Joe Biden. Did he ease the two great weights on the American people? If he succeeds, we’ll come to read Biden’s inaugural address as I read Reagan’s: as the beginning of a hinge point in history. If he fails, our challenge will be to persevere until we find a different president, one who is finally worthy of the challenge we face.

One more thing …

I was so very impressed with Amanda Gorman, the youngest inaugural poet in American history. You can watch and listen to her poem below. Make sure you don’t miss the moment when she quotes Micah 4:4, the poetic and powerful verse that captures the essence of a peaceful and just nation:

One last thing …

The NFL conference championships are this weekend, and you know what that means? More Tony Romo. I can’t remember the last time I watched a great football game and honestly didn’t know what I enjoyed more, the game itself or the color commentator losing his mind. Romo’s awesome. Catch the fever:

Where Does the South End and Christianity Begin?

Understanding the role of shame/honor culture in the roots of Christian rage.

“What is going on?”

That’s the question that’s pouring into my inbox, into my text messages, and into every one of the (too many) social media apps I use. It’s a question usually accompanied by a news article about a furious Christian leader, a screenshot of a Facebook post by an enraged Christian friend, or an account of a troubling conversation with an angry client or customer. While the insurrection of January 6 caused some Christians to suddenly wake up to the danger of the rage in their ranks, others doubled down. And the fury is leaking out everywhere. 

The answer to that question is obviously complex—almost absurdly complex. I’ve written about many of the near-term motivations, including the corruptions of Christian nationalism, partisanship, and conspiracy theories. But this week, let’s go even deeper. I’ve written at length about the danger of American Evangelicalism becoming too Republican. But I also have come to believe there’s a danger in American Evangelicalism becoming too southern.

Yes, there’s a lot to say about this topic and the reasons that white Evangelicals are such outliers on a number of racial issues, including expressing less concern about racism and police brutality, and a heightened sensitivity to allegedly “woke” arguments about race. Simply put, if American Evangelicalism is disproportionately southern, then it’s more likely to carry the South’s racial baggage into broader American life. That is true, but it’s not my focus today. 

Instead, I’m going to talk about something that’s crucial to understanding race in the South but also transcends race. That “something” is southern shame/honor culture. And I submit that what we’re watching right now in much of our nation’s Christian politics is an explosion not of godly Christian passion, but rather of ancient southern shame/honor rage.

There’s an enormous amount of literature describing shame/honor culture in the South and shame/honor culture generally, but I like this succinct description from David Brooks:

In a guilt culture you know you are good or bad by what your conscience feels. In a shame culture you know you are good or bad by what your community says about you, by whether it honors or excludes you. In a guilt culture people sometimes feel they do bad things; in a shame culture social exclusion makes people feel they are bad.

Shame/honor cultures are very focused on group reputation and group identity. Again, here’s Brooks:

People are extremely anxious that their group might be condemned or denigrated. They demand instant respect and recognition for their group. They feel some moral wrong has been perpetrated when their group has been disrespected, and react with the most violent intensity.

Brooks was writing about the general growth of shame culture in America, including in left-wing circles on campus. But doesn’t this sound familiar on the right? Have you noticed how much of the GOP, the party of white Evangelicals, is often positively obsessed with grievance, how it marinates in anger at the insults of the “elite” or the “ruling class”?

We experience this reality constantly. It sometimes appears as if the bulk of the conservative media economy is built around finding and highlighting leftist insults, leftist disrespect, and leftist contempt. And yes, it exists, but there is a difference between highlighting a problem and marinating in grievance over the rejection of the left.

This has old, old roots. In his book Desire, Violence, and Divinity in Modern Southern Fiction, Kent State professor Gary Ciuba writes that “honor meant that southerners beheld themselves as others beheld them,” and that meant that “their self-worth lived in the look of the other.”

I found that quote in an illuminating essay by Jody Howard, writing in Covenant. Howard amplifies Ciuba’s point:

In the honor-shame culture of the South, allowing a perceived inferior to best or embarrass you was to experience more than personal insult. It was to witness a hole punched in the myth that undergirded antebellum and segregationist society. Maintenance of the myth was paramount: face had to be saved and respect salvaged through the use of violence and intimidation, or else one risked becoming the subject of societal violence in turn, as neighbors sought to reestablish the equilibrium, to save the myth.

This approach represents a dramatic contrast with biblical commands to “turn the other cheek” or to “bless those who persecute.” Instead, the shame/honor imperative is to punch back, hard. Any other approach isn’t just weakness. It risks the well-being of the community.

Make no mistake: The South is better than it was on this score. But the influence remains. For example, in a famous 1996 examination of honor in the South, researchers Richard Nisbett and Dov Cohen found that southern male students experienced higher levels of testosterone and cortisol when “bumped into or sworn at in a hallway.” It’s a small data point, but it’s interesting when connected both with history and with contrasting contemporary cultures in North and South.

So, why is all this so relevant to the present day? And what does it have to do with Christianity? Because when we talk about American Evangelicalism in a secularizing world, we’re increasingly talking about southern Evangelicalism. American religious practice is clustering in the South. Though this data is a bit dated (2014), this Gallup map provides a vivid illustration of reality:

Or, look at this 2016 Pew chart showing the percentage of adults by state who are classified as “highly religious.” What do you notice about the top 15?

One of the enduring realities of the Christian Gospel is that it does not conform to any specific human culture. Elements of biblical truth will contradict our cultures and call on us to transcend the culturally implanted desires and inclinations of our hearts.

However, one of the enduring temptations of the human heart is to conform the Christian Gospel to our cultural inclinations, to find a way for the desires and inclinations of our hearts to find biblical sanction and rationalization. 

In the South, this conflict between Gospel truth and human rebellion is reflected in the debate as to whether much of the South is merely “Christ-haunted” as opposed to “Christ-transformed.” There is no question that the South is religious—often very religious. But how much has that religion changed human hearts? As Howard notes, when the church in the South has failed, it failed because it was “never sufficiently counter-cultural.”

Now, let’s make this more concrete by referring to recent American Christian outbursts, especially the otherwise-inexplicable outbursts by two of American Evangelicalism’s most prominent voices: evangelist Franklin Graham and Christian financial-advice guru Dave Ramsey. In two separate instances last week, when they or their tribe was challenged, they responded exactly the way southerners respond. They punched back, hard. 

Franklin Graham, Billy Graham’s son, has done an immense amount of good through his organization, Samaritan’s Purse. He and his legion of Christian employees and volunteers have sacrificially served the sickest and most vulnerable members of society. But when it comes to politics, Graham’s voice is radically angry and viciously tribal. Look, for example, at his incredible response to the decision of ten Republicans to vote for impeachment:

The comparison is absurd. Christians who voted their conscience to impeach a man who tried to steal an election and helped incite a violent insurrectionary attack on the Capitol are like those who betrayed Jesus Christ? That’s not a Christian response to politics. It’s a very southern shame/honor response from the very southern Franklin Graham. You have come against us. We will come against you.

How about Dave Ramsey? On January 15, the Religion News Service published a long, reported piece by Bob Smietana that described working conditions at Ramsey Solutions, Ramsey’s large and very successful for-profit enterprise. To be clear, Ramsey, like Graham, has done an immense amount of good for many, many Americans. When I was in Iraq, my wife followed his radio show, read his book, and followed his advice. After she took extra jobs to help pay off our debt, she even tried to call in for the famous “debt-free scream.”

But after Smietana detailed a troublesome response to COVID-19 and potentially unlawful employment practices at Ramsey’s company, the corporate response was—well, you have to read it to believe it. Here’s the beginning, full of vicious sarcasm:

Thanks for reaching out. We want to confirm for you that you are right, we are horrible evil people. We exist to simply bring harm to our team, take advantage of our customers, and spread COVID. And YOU figured it all out, wow. Who would have guessed that an unemployed guy, oh I am sorry, a “freelance reporter” would be the one to show us how horrible we are so we can change and to let the world know of our evil intent, secrets, and complete disregard for decency…..but YOU did it, you with all your top notch investigative skills have been able to weave together a series of half-truths to expose our evil ways. You are truly amazing.

Even worse, the corporation blind-copied a number of Ramsey allies on the letter and then called for those allies to confront Smietana personally. Is that a Christian response, or a shame/honor response from the very southern Dave Ramsey? It’s shame/honor to the core. You have come against us. We will come against you.

Putting aside the celebrities, it’s still so very hard to miss the combination of group grievance and Christian presence on January 6. In addition to the Christian symbolism I detailed last week, troubling individual accounts are rolling in. For example, read this astonishing story, from the Montgomery Advertiser:

Investigators say an Alabama man joined the deadly attack on the U.S. Capitol last week in order to "plead the blood of Jesus."

More:

“We just wanted to get inside the building," the [government] affidavit quotes Black saying. "I wanted to get inside the building so I could plead the blood of Jesus over it. That was my goal.”

Black said he carried a knife with him but "wasn't planning on pulling it." 

I’d also urge you to read about Doug Sweet, from Gwynn’s Island, Virginia. A veteran of the infamous “Unite the Right” rally in Charlottesville, he described praying on the threshold of entering the Capitol on January 6:

He says he hesitated. He says he felt the need to go inside to share his views with Congress but wanted to consult God first. He prayed aloud: “Lord, is this the right thing to do? Is this what I need to do?” He says he felt God’s hand on his back, pushing him forward.

“I checked with the Lord,” he says. “I checked with Him three times. I never heard a ‘No.’”

The examples just keep coming and coming:

Online and in the streets, this intense, personalized anger and expression of group grievance are an increasingly prevalent form of Evangelical Christian expression. It’s so very important to understand that this is not new for the South. What is new, however, is the increasing dominance of Southern demographics and Southern culture within the whole of American Evangelicalism. It’s the population center. It’s the power center. And now it’s the cultural center. 

But there’s hope for change. There is always Gospel hope. As I noted above, the South and the southern church have already changed considerably since the days of slavery and Jim Crow. But we must respond against an obvious angry and violent retreat to the patterns of the past. 

That means targeting the Gospel message specifically to the challenge of the culture. My good friend Curtis Chang, a writer, teacher, and senior fellow at Fuller Theological Seminary, reminded me in a text conversation that scripture directly addresses the shame/honor dynamic:

Ancient (and modern) Middle Eastern culture that is the Biblical context, is thoroughly shame-based. But traditional Western (as in European) readings of Scripture are more guilt-based, and have tended to … impose their guilt-based worldview on Scripture. This is why the penal substitution metaphor for the Cross (we’re guilty and deserving of punishment, Jesus takes on our guilt) has so dominated Western theology. Much of the movement of theologians of color, especially from Asian-Americans, has been to recover that original shame-based context and message. So, the Gospel is not just “We’re guilty; Jesus removes our guilt” but “We feel shame—and we have no way to deal with it effectively—but Jesus absorbs our shame.”

So, what do we do? What is the Christian response? It’s to realize (in Curtis’s words) that “the promise of the Gospel is that if we ‘stand down’ from our culture’s broken attempts to restore our own honor, then in Jesus we are ‘raised to glory.’” “Glory,” he says, “is not some mystical, ethereal, after-life reality. It is the honor of bearing God’s true image: the Jesus who refused to defend himself, who absorbed the shame, and who trusted his Father God to defend and justify him.”

Those are powerful, countercultural words. They don’t relieve us from the biblical obligation to “act justly,” to humbly and faithfully seek justice in the public square. They do, however, rebuke the worldly urge to demand respect. They do rebuke a culture of grievance. And they place our hope outside and beyond the old southern urge to fight harder and with more fury against the opponents all too many Christians have grown to hate. 

One more thing …

If you’re interested in diving even deeper into the subject, this Bible Project Podcast contains a fascinating discussion of the conflict between the Christian Gospel and the shame/honor culture of the Roman Empire.

One last thing …

It’s been a dark week. It’s been a dark month. Let’s end with a song of hope and faith from my friends at We the Kingdom:

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