Alive in Negative World
Even if America falls apart, God is still at work, still on His throne
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Frederick Douglass, the former slave turned ardent abolitionist, was not easily shut down, but despair sometimes got the better of him. At an anti-slavery event in the 1850s, Douglass was so pessimistic about his country’s will to outlaw its gravest evil, he feared only armed conflict could overcome it—a shooting war with horrible consequences.
At that point, he was interrupted. Sojourner Truth, another former slave turned abolitionist, stood almost 6 feet tall and had a voice like a foghorn. “Frederick,” she boomed, “is God dead?” Douglass’ speaking gifts were legendary and heckler-proof, but the question left him speechless.
There’s some discrepancy about where this happened—Salem, Ohio, or Boston’s Faneuil Hall—but little doubt that it happened. Douglass recalled it in one of his memoirs and “Is God Dead?” is chiseled on Sojourner’s gravestone. As we know, the dreadful armed conflict occurred, but the institution of slavery ended.
Martin Luther King’s battle against gross racial inequity cost him his life but shocked the national conscience. On another front, the rise of Nazi Germany seemed unstoppable to the millions of Jews herded toward gas chambers. But it was stopped. Through all the horrors of history, God was not dead, and He isn’t dead now.
Obvious, but easy to overlook in today’s political squabbles, especially among Christians. We have always disagreed about political involvement, or whether to involve ourselves in politics at all, but both the volume and the stakes seem higher today.
Aaron Renn, formerly a senior fellow at the Manhattan Institute, is now cofounder of American Reformer, an online journal of Protestant political thought. His article “Welcome to the Negative World” paints a grim picture of a political culture drifting—or speeding—to outright hostility. His scan of recent history sees a generally positive view of Christianity up to the mid-1990s, in spite of culture-war rhetoric and moral-majority protests. Then, a shift toward “Neutral” (Christians seen as quaint, perhaps, but harmless) inspired a strategy of winsome cultural engagement, exemplified by Tim Keller and churches like Hillsong.
Now Renn sees the church struggling to define itself in “Negative World” where, in some circles, being a Christian could harm one’s reputation rather than enhance it.
Negative World doesn’t mean the culture war is lost or that cultural engagement is useless. But we haven’t decided what it does mean, or if it’s even a thing. Hasn’t the world always been essentially negative toward Christians? In the early 1970s I remember my delight at finding two fellow believers (one left-leaning hippie and one black lay pastor) on a bus trip between Dallas and Abilene, because the church already seemed like a desert island in a hostile culture. But maybe the fact that three of us could disagree respectfully about politics was a more positive sign than I realized.
I miss that respectful disagreement. Donald Trump, for all the judges, job growth, and low gas prices, threw a grenade into Camp Evangelical. Writing in First Things, Associate Editor James R. Woods recalls his admiration for Kellerite social engagement and his distaste for Trump, but, “During the 2016 election cycle, I still approached politics through the winsome model, and I realized that it was hardening me toward fellow believers. … I didn’t like what this was doing to my heart and felt that it was clouding my political judgment.” Exactly: The way my pro- and anti-Trump Christian friends talk about each other is more discouraging than the way the left talks about all of us.
Yet God lives. He’s alive in the world but even more so in us. That’s why we should relate to the world the way Jesus did and does: with compassion for harassed and helpless sheep (Matthew 9:36). Can we do any less for our brothers and sisters, whether they’re banging the drum for right wing politics or watching with disdain? If the United States is falling apart, God is still at work. If our own house falls apart, we will have to answer for it.
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