Michael reflects on his recent trip to Luton, England, the possibilities of interfaith partnership, and Donald Trump's unhelpful contribution to the fight against violent extremism.
After my post last week in response to the Comment Magazine review of Reclaiming Hope, I thought I would share some of the other reviews that have come out since the book's release.
REVIEWS OF RECLAIMING HOPE
I absolutely loved Michael Wear's brand new book, Reclaiming Hope: Lessons Learned in the Obama White House About the Future of America (Nelson Books; $25.99; see our 20% off sale price at the order link below.) I think many readers will enjoy it, will learn much, and that regardless of one's affiliation (or non-affiliation) with a political party, it will be a valuable, even important read. The book is graced with bunches of rave reviews from significant political leaders from across the political spectrum (from several countries, no less) and many respected Christian leaders - from Tim Keller to Russell Moore, pundits, (from Kirsten Powers to E. J. Dionne) and writers as different as J.D. Vance and Ann Voskamp, all insisting this is an important, graceful book. You see, I'm not alone in highly recommending it although it really is a "Hearts & Minds" kind of book. We think our customers and friends will really appreciate it.
Let's get this said right away: Yes, Michael is a life-long Democrat and, yes, he worked for the Obama campaign and landed a job as one of the youngest White House staffers ever. And, yes, he finished his job well but didn't seek another season of service - not exactly in protest, but certainly with great sadness and inner conflict - before the 44th President finished his final term. Which is to say that if you loved, sort of liked, or significantly disliked President Obama, you will find something interesting and helpful in these reflections from this insider.
THIS IS A PRE-TRUMP book with serious questions for our politics in the age of Trump.
A political memoir from Michael Wear, a young evangelical strategist who worked in Obama’s faith office, it tells stories from the fights of those years and offers a vision of a future faith-in-politics.
I’m a sucker for this kind of memoir: a chastened idealist tells how people worked well together. His ideals have met reality, but Wear still believes politics can help people.
More than merely telling old war stories, Reclaiming Hope makes a sustained case for public service. It argues well that Christian love should motivate us to become active within existing political institutions. Wear highlights specifically race and religious freedom as fields needing further work (a great combination, designed to irritate people all across the ideological spectrum). We need to figure out how to live together and build cultures that respect people and enable them to live without fear.
If you asked me what the American republic needs most right now, at least at the human level, I would say: “more Democrats like Michael Wear.” And if you asked me what the American church needs most right now, on the human level, I would say: “more Democrats like Michael Wear.” Wear’s Reclaiming Hope: Lessons Learned in the Obama White House About the Future of Faith in America is more than just another good political memoir; it’s a window into how Christianity can find its way back toward a faithful and responsible participation in American public life.
I’m an unlikely candidate to say that what we really need is more progressive Democrats. I was a Republican from my 18th birthday until the day they nominated America’s answer to Silvio Berlusconi. I was a diehard conservative right up until the moment, sometime last year, when the word “conservative” ceased to mean much.
But there are thousands who can say the same; the church and the nation don’t need more of them. Wear—who worked for Barack Obama as a White House staffer and re-election campaign official—is what we need more of.
Wear, founder of Public Square Strategies and former White House staffer for the Obama administration, argues for voters—especially young adults—to take a less cynical and apathetic approach to politics, especially the intersection of politics and religion. After a chance meeting with then-Senator Obama as a college freshman, Wear signed on to assist with his campaign in 2008, eventually landing a position in the White House doing outreach to evangelicals and helping to manage the Obama administration’s engagement on issues important to religious communities, such as adoption and efforts to stop human trafficking. While Wear witnessed the dark underbelly of politics at times, he is able to maintain a balanced and nuanced approach to writing about it, even offering critiques of Democratic strategies when appropriate. It takes a mature observer to understand the ambiguities involved in ethical and religious issues, and Wear is savvy enough to comprehend and cogently explain some complex and thorny policies, such as the ACA contraception mandate. This is not a political tell-all; instead, Wear’s book provides clear, actionable ways to rethink political engagement within the frame of fostering healthy religious communities.
In a hyper-politicized age like our own, intellectual honesty is one of the first casualties. Hewing to the ideological line prevents otherwise honest people from admitting error when things go wrong. Inevitably, every side falls prey to this. So when a book comes on the scene that reminds readers what an honest critique of one’s own tribe looks like, we’re surprised by such honesty and we find it refreshing—because something about self-assessment reminds us of our own predilection to myopia.
Intellectual honesty is the theme I came away with after reading Michael Wear’s Reclaiming Hope: Lessons Learned in the Obama White House about the Future of Faith in America. Wear does not shy away from issuing honest, blunt critiques of the modern Democratic Party’s foreignness to faith and of the tension inherent in being an evangelical in a party whose platform flatly contradicts biblical teaching at many irreconcilable points. For conservatives who believe that the modern Democratic Party is uncompromisingly hostile to evangelical and conservative Catholic beliefs, Wear’s book in large part confirms this angst.
Conservatives will have a hard time finding a more like-minded guide to the decision-making inside the Obama White House than Michael Wear. Wear served in the White House Office of Faith-Based and Neighborhood Partnerships during Obama’s first term, and then directed faith outreach for the president’s reelection campaign. His memoir of his time in the administration, Reclaiming Hope, is a spectacularly readable portrait of a unique niche in Obama-world to which many progressives grew hostile over time, representing as it did faith in general and Christianity in particular.
You won’t find Donald Trump in the index of Michael Wear’s new book, Reclaiming Hope: Lessons Learned in the Obama White House About the Future of Faith in America. Yet Wear recently told me he thinks that part of why our country has seen so much social division during the bruising 2016 election was in part because the Left hadn’t spent enough time understanding America’s religious conservatives, many of whom supported Trump.
With polling showing deep divides in American culture, Wear offers a new book with ideas on how to repair these fissures. Reclaiming Hope acknowledges that Obama’s remarks degrading religious people who “cling to guns or religion or antipathy to people who aren’t like them” were damaging for outreach to people of faith. Yet Wear said he believes that the next four years offer a time of reconciliation between people of faith on the Right and secular people on the Left.
Ta-Nehisi tweeted a few pointed questions about Christianity and moral resistance.
His main point:
In short, Coates is saying that Christians fight for justice because of the outcome (meek will inherit the earth), and Coates wants to fight for justice simply because it is right and inherently worthy of our sacrifice. When you fight because of the outcome, your attention is oriented towards the future; when you fight because of the principle, then you are suspended in the present, careless of what the future holds.
But it seems to me that a “Christian framework” is concerned about both the future and present, about both outcome and process.
Dietrich Bonhoeffer is one of the first Christians that come to mind when we think of role models for resistance. A bright, young German pastor and theologian who initially went to America to escape the rising Nazi regime, he quickly returned to Germany because he felt that he had to "share the trials of this time with my people." He was later imprisoned in 1943 for conspiring to rescue Jews, and executed in a concentration camp a few weeks before the Allies liberate it.
This is what he writes, while in prison, about who will stand fast in the face of evil:
“Who stands fast? Only the man whose final standard is not his reason, his principles, his conscience, his freedom, or his virtue....”
It is not that Bonhoeffer is against moral principles. On account of them, he condemned Hitler’s treatment of the Jews, America’s treatment of African-Americans, and so on. For Christians, moral principles matter a lot, for they are not the abstract creations of humans, but the very structure that, by the Creator’s design, undergirds the world. But Bonhoeffer led a complicated life in Germany: he had to lie and deceive almost everyone in his life to play his part as a double agent in a larger conspiracy to assassinate Hitler. So for him, his resistance went beyond standard moral principles.
He concludes that passage by saying the only man who will stand firm is "the responsible man, who tries to make his whole life an answer to the question and call of God."
So he fought and resisted because he felt called to do so.
We have a name for this type of resistance: “faithfulness.” One might be responsible to a principle or to an outcome, but one is ultimately faithful to a Person, who is the source of all that is good. And sometimes He calls us to resist. And when we do so, we do it because it is good and important to do so, but, more importantly, because we are accountable to the One who calls us, whose voice doggedly persists even in our most humanly isolated moments. There is no neutral, distanced response to the voice; we either love or hate it. Resistance, then, possesses a relational dynamic.
Does this “relationship” lens change much of anything? After all, yes, in the future, cosmic sense, all that Coates said about Christianity is true: God will overcome, bring the meek along with him, and usher in justice. But this eschatological future is ultimately God’s business. Our business is Now.
Oliver O’Donovan, an Anglican theologian and scholar known for his work in Christian ethics, warns in Self, World and Time that while the Kingdom of God is a real promise, "we must not think that we can reach out and grab it… I may hope for, but cannot plan to bring about, the coming of the Kingdom of God." Even the Son of God, Donovan notes, does not know the date and time in which the Kingdom will come.
What then do we focus on? "The possibility that lies open to our action… The price of agency is to know the future only indirectly, that we may venture on it as an open possibility."
So we faithfully act within our present sphere of responsibility, and let God handle what consequences may come. This is, ultimately, a freeing thing. You become fearless, for you know that whatever he calls you to is worth it, even if you fail.
I think of Bree Newsome, reciting these verses as she climbed up a flagpole to take down the Confederate flag:
"You come against me with hatred and violence. I come against you in the name of God. This flag comes down today… The Lord is my light and my salvation. Whom shall I fear? The Lord is the stronghold of my life. Whom shall I be afraid?"
Coates writes that he suspects “process is underrated. The value of the fight, itself, is underrated.” For Christians, process is actually invaluable; it is the means by which God shapes and transforms us. For God cares not just about what we do, but who we are. Think of the transformation that Moses or Mary, biblical characters, personally experienced in their own lives as they followed His call.
“Calling is not only a matter of being and doing what we are but also of becoming what we are not yet but are called by God to be.”
- Os Guinness, author and social critic
In an article for Christianity Today, I respond to critics who refuses to seriously take the faith of the Charleston Nine Families who extended forgiveness to Dylan Roof.
The confounding forgiveness of the Charleston Nine families has led some to ignore its motivation and propose their own... Hanna Rosin, for instance, seemed to suggest that black forgiveness was a legacy of white supremacy. Others turned the conversation to whether or not forgiveness provided an easy out to the public, allowing whites to move on from the systemic injustices and racist doctrines that permeate much of our society. By the end of Roxane Gay’s op-ed in The New York Times, the autonomous, self-initiated (to our knowledge) motivation of the black family members was replaced with uncited references to “demands for forgiveness” from “white people,” and a universal declaration that “black people forgive because we need to survive.”
Is it really that difficult to imagine that these families forgave for reasons other than to please white bystanders or advance a social cause? If the family members identified their forgiveness with their faith, is it right to insist that their willingness to forgive is a result of their race? They did not forgive to express the values of their race or to represent the character of their country, but to be faithful to their God.
... Explaining away black Christians’ exercise of their faith, and equal access to Jesus, has deep roots.
Read on here.
Kelly Gissendaner has the perfect redemption story--without the ending, as of yet.
She is, for those of who are unfamiliar, awaiting execution by the state of Georgia for planning the murder of her husband. More than 500 Georgia clergy and other faith leaders have signed a petition asking for clemency based on evidence that she has experienced a profound spiritual transformation and has changed her life and the lives of others for the better.
Christianity Today published an editorial asking for her life to be spared because she has "turned her life around," citing her confession of guilt, her stated faith in Christ's redemption, as well as testimonials from inmates, overseers and officers. Neither the editorial nor the petition addresses the legitimacy of the death penalty.
The framing is clear: the plea for clemency is not about whether capital punishment is legitimate, but rather it is about making a special exception for those transformed into new persons. It is an intuitive argument, especially for Christians, but it is ultimately incoherent. One cannot plead for clemency for Kelly, without pleading for clemency for all.
First, let's recognize that the only way most of us know about Kelly's story – and thus have the opportunity to petition, protest, and tweet with the hashtag #Kellyonmymind -- is largely contingent on factors outside of her control. She happened to have access to a theology studies program for prisoners run by several divinity schools in Atlanta. Her teachers have testified to her genuine transformation in her clemency petition, rallied Georgian faith leaders, and have connected her to the renowned theologian Jurgen Moltmann, who became her pen pal and wrote a letter in support of her clemency, resulting in a feature in the The New York Times. We are pleading for clemency for a case that is circumstantially cherry-picked. What about other inmates who have similar stories of transformation but are alone in jail cells with a single bible?
Moreover, what about other stories of repentance that do not look the "perfect" Christian redemption narrative: those who are repentant but who are Muslim or hold no faith, or those who repent but are simply not as saint-like as Kelly, who was described as "an amazing beacon in a very dark place” by a correctional officer? Melissa Browning writes that she likes Kelly’s story because, as a Christian, she "love[s] a good redemption story.” Lets also admit that we prefer redemption stories that fit our faith-narratives, even though repentance is certainly not an exclusively Christian act.
Of course, one might counter, other stories probably exist and likely merit our advocacy as much as Kelly's does, but it is humanly impossible to fully know them because we are not omniscient and objective. Sure, but if we acknowledge that we do not have the capability to "objectively peer into people’s hearts" and thus cannot accurately determine all those who are truly repentant, then why are we in the business of (selectively) choosing who gets pardoned and a chance at life? Moreover, if we lack the ability to determine who is genuinely repentant, then that throws into radical doubt our ability to "objectively peer into people’s hearts" to decide who is truly guilty (an estimated four percent of defendants sentenced to die are innocent).
We, of course, have to make judgments about the intentions of others; there is no escaping this fact. But it is quite another matter to do so with life and death at stake, which means we cannot avoid the larger question, in petitioning for Kelly's pardoning, of whether we, through the institution of the state, have the authority to essentially rationally gamble with someone's life in the act of pronouncing them "guilty" or "repentant."
We, through the state, have the authority to mete out punishment for those who break our laws, or the “terms and conditions” for living in our society. Our authority means that we can, as punishment, legitimately exclude people from our society (e.g. deport) or relegate them to the margins (e.g. imprison), but as a society, we do not have the authority to exclude people from the human race.
Christians have the additional question of what kind of authority God has granted to the state. The debate tends to hinge on Romans 13 where Paul writes that if you "do wrong, be afraid, for [the ruler] does not bear the sword in vain." As Chaplain Dale Recinella points out, the word for "sword" used is "machaira," which means a dagger; it was not used for decapitation. "Rhomphaia" is a broadsword, which was what was used to execute criminals, indicating that Paul was using the word "sword" to indicate the authority to inflict punishment in general, but not explicitly capital punishment. There is still, obviously, disagreement among scholars as to the implications of "machaira" versus "rhomphaia," but it is worth noting that, according to N.T. Wright, "almost all the early Christian Fathers were opposed to the death penalty, even though it was of course standard practice across the ancient world."
So what are we really asking when we are asking for Kelly Gissendaner to be pardoned? We are asking, legitimately, that she not be executed – not because of her now-virtuous life, but because her life, or anyone's, is simply not ours to take.
Sarah Ngu lives and works in New York City as a freelance writer for businesses. She was a fellow at the Trinity Forum Academy and a graduate of Columbia University. She writes occasionally for Fare Forward.