To those I consider co-laborers:

It is four in the morning, and I have kept watch. I have kept watch after another day of disappointment and grief over sin of which has nothing to do with me and everything to do with me.

It has been a difficult year. The Christian witness in this country has been undermined from within and without. People who have never cared what Christians have to say are now eager to condemn our silence and malpractice. People who speak the loudest for Christians bring condemnation unto us.

It has been a long year. It has seemed like a century, and this young century feels longer still.

It is a long wait for Jesus. It feels as though evil is pursuing new ways to extend our experience of time, knowing that the kingdom is at hand, closer in this moment than the last.

I do not think what we’re doing is sustainable.

I am moved this morning to write to you, dear sisters and brothers, who feel as though this church is not yours: What we are doing is not sustainable.

We have spent years railing against false teachers and false doctrine. We have spent years as outsiders waiting and pushing for a time of correction. We have seen the wrong leaders with megaphones, and we have sought to shout them down, to turn the tide, to claim the ground for truth. There is a franticness that has no recourse but cynicism. A striving that has no end but disappointment.

We keep waiting for the future, for our future.

But while we feel as though we are looking toward the future, and while our activity is consumed with the present, I am convinced that in reality we are stuck in the past. I think God is way ahead of where we are right now. The present is the past.

So many of you are waiting for your turn, when we need to realize our turn is now. It’s happening right now. We feel like outsiders, but the ones we protest are running on fumes. They have made their decisions, and they have their reward. What are we building?

Let me be explicit: The hucksters do not represent Christ.

Let me be even more explicit: Roy Moore does not represent Christ.

And we need to stop treating them as if they do. We keep waiting for some magical moment when they will be unequivocally, ceremoniously dethroned while their throne rests on our backs. We say we’re queasy about identifying as evangelicals, or as Christians even, while they claim the same title, but our queasiness is ceding the territory to the very ideas we oppose.

So much has been building up in me over the last decade, as I’ve seen faith and politics and culture all intermingle from a number of different perspectives and positions. I’ve become more firmly convicted in all of this over just the last couple of years through individual and corporate prayer, discernment and analysis. But I felt it rush to me now when I saw this from Tyler Burns.

This is my conviction this morning:

Christianity belongs to no man. The church belongs to no man. It all belongs to Jesus. Some may have forgotten this, but let us never forget. Let us never forget that the way this world counts power and influence means nothing to our God. He will settle all accounts, we can be sure of that. This year, the story we have allowed to be told about us is what we are in reaction to the hucksters and the charlatans, but all the while we have been seeking to live a different story: who are we in relation to Christ? What are we building?

We have built so much this year as we live out our callings, as we pursue Jesus who is the standard-bearer of our faith.

I see what Jemar Tisby and Tyler Burns are building: a bold, Christ-centered Witness that is neither ashamed of the gospel, nor timid in the face of injustice.

I see what Michelle Higgins, Christina Edmondson and Ekemini Uwan are building as they generate new power through their work that is redirecting stagnant waters, and carving out new territory for Christ to work His will.

I see what Ann Voskamp is building as she stewards her influence to raise money for a radical, Preemptive Love. I saw her on a cold February morning protesting outside of a hotel where political leaders would gather to publicly pray while denying welcome to the stranger.

I see Sharon Hodde Miller and Tish Harrison Warren and Alan Noble and Duke Kwon and Scott Sauls and Sarah TheBarge and Ray Chang and Sho Baraka and Laura Turner and Trillia Newbell and Beth Moore and Charlie Dates and Wesley Hill and Matthew Loftus and Sarah Bessey and Russell Moore and Justin Giboney and on and on and on.

I see young Christians in politics who want to build their careers by faithfulness, not utilitarian power-grabbing.

I see seminary students who are pursuing sound doctrine and sound practice, who believe the gospel is for all of life and will preach a gospel that changes everything.

I see young Christians in “secular” fields who are neither arrogant because of their faith nor ashamed of it, but believe in living a life of integrated integrity in light of the security they find in Christ.

I see COGICs and Catholics and Baptists and Quakers and Anglicans and Presbyterians—Christians pursuing God rooted in many different expressions—all like streams of living water, nourishing the ground for a new harvest.

I do not name people here as exceptions—that is to miss the very point. I would encourage you to share the stories of brothers and sisters you see that are building, but this is most useful when it points to the One they’re building for. That you or I know or recognize someone does not vindicate their work. What a gift it is to be introduced to someone new! This, of course, requires that they were unknown to us prior to that very moment. And there are many who labor in obscurity who are no less integral to the body.

We act as if we must wrest control of the witness of the church from those who are getting the attention, but the work of the church belongs to Jesus and all that does not belong to Him stands no chance against Him.

The main challenge that faces us is not the hucksters, but ourselves. Our own sin. Our own pride. Our own specific tastes. Can we root each other on even in our diversity? Can we support one another though there may be areas where we disagree? The main challenge we face in our accentuated diversity is the recognition that we are all part of one body in Christ. What weapon formed against us will prosper if we grab hold of that truth, if that love for Christ and one another is embedded in our hearts?

I do not recognize the name on the hucksters’ lips, this name they use of obfuscation and self-protection, this alibi for sin and degradation, this tactic for maintaining self-serving power. They are running on fumes. I do not recognize the name on their lips.

We must condemn what must be condemned. We must repent for what requires repentance. But we must not spend our present days in reaction to their transparent distortions. The world has done a fine job recognizing those things. Is our primary task to point to them?

Of course not.

Let us proclaim Christ in our time, now. We do not need to wait for more influence, we can build right now. We are building. We have built.

While we have breath in our lungs, let us point to Jesus. Christian leaders, even the best of them, have never been worth anyone’s ultimate trust, devotion or faith. There is only One who is always faithful. He is ever worthy to be praised.

America's New Export

America's New Export

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.

Reviews of Reclaiming Hope

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. 

If these reviews spark your interest, you can buy Reclaiming Hope at Amazon, Barnes & Noble, Hearts & Minds, IndieBound or your favorite local bookstore. 

REVIEWS OF RECLAIMING HOPE

Hearts & Minds Bookstore/Byron Borger

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.

Sojourners

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.

The Gospel Coalition

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.

Publisher's Weekly (Starred Review)

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.

The Public Discourse

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.

The National Review

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.

Opportunity Lives

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.

"Stop Explaining Away Black Christian Forgiveness"

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.

Ad Hoc Justice and #KellyOnMyMind

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.