A LETTER TO MY ANXIOUS CHRISTIAN FRIENDS: From Fear to Faith in Unsettled Times. By David P. Gushee. Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2016. 130 pages.
We live in unsettled times, when fear seems to be the driving force in our lives. It is reflected at times in our religious life, and it is especially prevalent in our political life. What is a Christian to do? Perfect love may cast out all fear, but sometimes love is in short supply, even in Christian communities. This leads to anxiety. This current 2016 election cycle is one of the most angst producing seasons I’ve known in my life. The political season is causing Christians to wrestle with uncomfortable questions about our relationship to culture and nation.
Having written two books on faith and public life, one being a collection of essays and the other a meditation on the Lord’s Prayer, I have given some attention over the years to this question. Even if my first allegiance is to God, and therefore God is first not America, I am an American citizen, and I love my country, warts and all. I believe in voting and participating in public life. I believe that we have a role to play in the common good. So, how do I determine how my faith and life in public connect? What we need is a wise and calming voice. One of those voices is David Gushee, a professor of Christian Ethics at Mercer University. It is out of his professional capacity as a teacher of ethics and his commitment to Christ that informs this “letter.” In an earlier age we might call this a broadside.
In this book-length letter Gushee covers a multitude of issues that have arisen in recent years, ranging from a conversation about what it means to be a Christian in a democracy to a conversation about climate change. For the most part, Gushee urges calm. Calmness doesn’t mean complacency, but it does require that we listen carefully. There is one area in which Gushee has chosen not to advise calmness, and that is regarding climate change. This is an issue he believes must be tackled now not later. Perhaps one reason why he writes of this is that his primary audience (evangelicals) have largely dismissed climate science, and as the son of a scientist who dealt with climate issues he knows that this is nothing to trifle with.
Because Gushee's roots are evangelical, and his primary audience is the white evangelical community that seems beholden to a particular political party, he wants to challenge that linkage. He raises the question of third party candidates in part to help stimulate a conversation about political allegiance for Christians. That is, he warns us to not be overly beholden to a particular party. In other words, neither political party belongs to God! Whether or not one is an evangelical who has tried to merge with a political party, this is a prescient book that addresses our anxieties. It calls on us to have the courage and wisdom to go against the grain. Even if, as is true for me, you are a member of a political party and support its overall platform, just remember your loyalties!
Gushee is an ethicist and a public theologian. As such he theologizes about public life in a way that is accessible, thoughtful, and challenging. You're going to find yourself in agreement with him at points and disagreement at others. That's the way it should be.
The book is comprised of twenty chapters, most of which are relatively brief. The first half of the book focuses on foundational issues, such as American identity, the role of Christians in America, the relationship of Christianity to democracy, political parties, divisions in the country, the role of judges, character, and patriotism (this is a must read chapter because Gushee helps us better understand what it means to be patriotic in a way that is not nationalistic). In each of these chapters Gushee invites us to consider what it means to be Christian and American. He reminds us, much as John Fea does in his books, that the debate over whether America is a Christian nation is a diversion. The fact is, Christians have formed a majority of residents since the beginning of the nation. At the same time, the authors of the Constitution never established Christianity as a national religion. In fact, the Constitution prevents the government from initiating a religion test for office holders. Whatever was true in the past is likely no longer valid, as this nation has become increasingly diverse and pluralistic. So, even if Christianity remains the majority religion, it is no longer as dominant as it once was. Nonetheless, while democracy isn't a Christian way of governing, it does reflect certain Christian insights. Thus, the two are compatible.
The remaining chapters focus on specific issues ranging from race to health care. In between he discusses police, sex, abortion, immigration, guns, money, climate, war, executions, and education. On abortion he stands on the pro-life side of the equation. On sexuality, he's conservative in one sense, but he has embraced the full inclusion of LGBT folks in church and culture, emphasizing the extension of covenant marriage to gay and lesbian couples. If you were to judge Gushee's positions according to party, he looks more Democrat than Republican, but while he recognizes the role of parties, and that the two party system isn't going away, he wants us to think beyond party.
As we traverse this difficult season, he would like us to live faithfully. That means looking to faith not fear as our guide, even as we recognize our responsibility for each other. That is one important reason why he takes such an impassioned position on climate change. As the son of a climate scientist he has a good background on environmental issues. He challenges the "global warming is a hoax" crowd with science, but he also reminds us that it's the poor who are most vulnerable. For that reason alone, we should attend to this issue immediately.
This is a book for our times. It addresses important issues thoughtfully, calmly, but with passion. He calls on us to be faithful in our public life. That means keeping things in perspective. Nation and political parties are not primary. Our allegiance goes to God, and everything else follows. As I noted earlier, he addresses patriotism in a most helpful way—that is it’s not either/or. We can put God first and still love our country! Please take and read, and do so before the November elections!