(This is a devotion I offered to the SPU Board of Trustees meeting on 17 November 2016)
It is a great pleasure to be with you this morning, and I want to express on behalf of the faculty a heartfelt thank you for the work you do on behalf of this institution. Much of that work is behind the scenes, no doubt, but that does not take away from its importance. So thank you so much for your time and energy in helping make this place thrive and grow.
As it so happens I have been studying the term “evangelical” for a book project that I just finished. It is a controversial term on the American scene, and there are many layers to the term. Of course, the term “evangelical” comes from the same root as “evangel,” which itself suggests in Greek “good news” or “gospel.” One could say that Protestantism on the whole is evangelical, as some do, but really this is a broadly Christian term: All Christians are called to be “evangelical,” that is, about the business of embodying and promoting the “good news,” “the gospel,” that Jesus has shown and made possible through his life, death, resurrection, and ascension.
But as you and I know, this term means something particular as well in our context. Having gone through this election season, we have heard time and time again the term “evangelical” used, in particular for some supporters of Donald Trump. The term is often thought of in this country as a Republican term, thanks in part because of the rise of the Moral Majority in the 1980s and other events. But also, this term is functionally racialized, for I have often heard during this election cycle the term “evangelical” tied to so-called “whiteness.” Surveys have shown that a high number of self-proclaimed evangelicals in this country, 80 to 90 percent at times, are identified as “white.” And so, the story goes in this aftermath, that the vast majority of white evangelicals voted for Trump, a remarkable outcome given the many things Trump has said, promoted, and represented throughout the campaign. I know there are plenty of complex reasons for all of this, but the numbers and the differentials are simply astounding.
As you know, the term “evangelical” is used as one of our institutional markers here at SPU. It is possible that the term meant something different when it was first adopted than it does now in the public square. I perhaps owe it to inform you that there have been some vibrant discussions among the faculty about the usefulness of this word, again, because of the current situation and the term’s ties to politics and race. As one of the theologians on our faculty, I hold out hope that we do not abandon words simply because of their misappropriation; but at the same time, I want to be a realist and not an idealist, especially in this case given the sensitive nature of the matters involved.
I would like to leave us this morning with a particular charge in relation to our current situation and our institutional identity. Rather than attempting to claim or modify a specific term, I believe what this country and the Church in this country need is a renewed sense of just how expansive, challenging, and radical Christian identity can be. It is true that our country is deeply polarized. And so is the Church. Part of this polarization is due to the inability of people generally and Christians in particular to imagine something beyond “red” and “blue” constructions of public life. But I cannot help but think that the only way forward in such a divisive situation is for a bold agenda to take root in which the identity of “Christian” is recalibrated from the bottom up — not so much with attention to “blue” or “red” constructions but really with something altogether different. We need another color, if you will. We need another construction or conceptuality. We need a different way of being Christian in the public square than the impoverished alternatives we have now before us. Christian Identity has to be dislodged from the way that it has been coopted, manipulated, and put to service for political and hegemonic purposes in this country.
Our institution has within its very DNA an activist and mission-oriented identity that can address this challenge. It is rooted very much in our Free Methodist heritage and our institutional origins. Our context desperately needs to hear and see that heritage embodied anew. We do that work now in many ways. But we cannot relent. In our day, the urgency is overwhelming for an account of Christianity that is truth-telling, compassionate, justice-oriented, critical in its thinking, and very much engaged in its activism.
For years, I have grown weary of people saying that a Christian liberal arts education is not useful, that its utility is hard to make a case for. Well, I have an example now that I will announce repeatedly when I’m presented with this. The presidential election of 2016 is “exhibit A” for why we need the Christian liberal arts, for I believe that in such an intellectual and formative apprenticeship people can come to see the complexity of the world and the possibilities for Christian witness within it. The call to be a Christian is to be discerning, that is, to be a Spirit-led critical thinker. The call of a Christian is to be engaged, to know how to account for the complexities of this world so that a political party does not represent the borders of God’s kingdom. The call of a Christian involves showing compassion and solidarity, so that others are genuinely treated as divine image bearers, as beloved in God’s eyes. On all these scores, I cannot imagine a better place than a Christian liberal arts institution like SPU for the cultivation of women and men capable to step into such a call.
So to conclude: However you may be dealing with this election and its aftermath, I hope you will join me in admitting that there is much work to do. And we at SPU have a role to play in addressing the polarization of our society and our Church. I am not trying to be grandiose, but I am calling for us to claim our agency in a Wesleyan kind of way. We have a role to play. Let’s play it. Let’s show another alternative, and this for the sake of the gospel, the good news of Jesus Christ.