Christians and the Third Space: Voting, Justice and Righteousness
“There’s nothing wrong with being political. All of us are political beings, all of us live in structures and governments, and communities in which all of us need to come together to make important decisions that impact the common good.” –Jenny Yang
“The fine line is between being political and being partisan, because oftentimes, partisanship can mean blind allegiance to a specific political party or candidate without realizing that there are faults with specific candidates and parties. And not a single political party or person will ever encompass the fully, perfectly balanced agenda that I believe we’re supposed to pursue in our society.” –Jenny Yang
“Faithful political engagement means that you’re willing to put faithfulness over short term political gain. It also means that you’re not just in politics for your own self-interest, that you’re not just going to politics to get your own needs met.” –Michael Wear
“I’m convinced people are going to politics a lot these days for spiritual and emotional needs. We find those needs met in Christ, and so we’re freed up to go into politics to affirm human dignity and advance justice.” –Michael Wear
“There has to be a separation of who I am as an American and a citizen of this democracy, and who I am as a citizen of the kingdom of heaven. And I think oftentimes we blend those two things together as if America is a Christian nation, and it doesn’t matter that we’ve made an idol or that we live in a way where those identities are blended.” –Kathryn Freeman
About Kathryn Freeman
Kathryn is a writer and advocate. She previously served for five years as the Director of Public Policy for the Texas Baptists Christian Life Commission (CLC). Kathryn has worked for several non-profits on public policy issues affecting low-income families. She has also worked as a press secretary for two members of the Texas Legislature. Kathryn is finishing a Master of Divinity at Baylor University’s Truett Seminary. Kathryn has a degree in English with a minor in Political Science from Texas A&M University. She also has a Juris Doctorate from the University of Texas School of Law. In her spare time, Kathryn writes about the intersection of faith and pop culture. Her work has appeared in Christianity Today, Christ and Pop Culture, and Think Christian. She loves Jesus, books, Tex-Mex, and iced coffee.
About Jenny Yang
Jenny Yang is the Senior Vice President of Public Affairs at World Relief where she provides oversight for all advocacy initiatives and policy positions and leads the organization’s strategy regarding public relations. As the chief media strategist at World Relief, she coordinates and leads the marketing, programs, and strategic engagement division teams on public engagement and brand elevation strategies. She also represents the organization’s advocacy priorities to the U.S. government and leads mobilization efforts for churches on advocacy campaigns. She has worked over a decade in refugee protection, immigration policy, and human rights and is on an active deployment roster for the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees. Previous to World Relief, she worked at one of the largest political consulting companies in Maryland. Jenny is co-author of Welcoming the Stranger: Justice, Compassion and Truth in the Immigration Debate and contributing author to three other books.
About Michael Wear
Michael Wear is a leading strategist, speaker and practitioner at the intersection of faith, politics and public life. He has advised a president, as well as some of the nation’s leading foundations, non-profits and public leaders, on some of the thorniest issues and exciting opportunities that define American life today. He has argued that the spiritual health and civic character of individuals is deeply tied to the state of our politics and public affairs. Michael is the author of Reclaiming Hope: Lessons Learned in the Obama White House About the Future of Faith in America. In 2020, Michael was the co-author of a major report on “Christianity, Pluralism and Public Life in the United States” that was supported by Democracy Fund. He also writes for The Atlantic, The New York Times, The Washington Post, Catapult Magazine, Christianity Today and other publications on faith, politics and culture. Michael is a Senior Fellow at The Trinity Forum, and he holds an honorary position at the University of Birmingham’s Cadbury Center for the Public Understanding of Religion. Michael and his wife, Melissa, are both proud natives of Buffalo, New York. They now reside in Northern Virginia, where they are raising their beloved daughter, Saoirse.
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The full episode transcript is below.
Latasha Morrison 0:02
Today, millions around the world are suffering as a result of violence, oppression, extreme poverty, and more. This endless cycle of suffering is overwhelming and it can feel neverending. If you’re like me, you long to see the cycle end, but you’re not sure how to make a difference. That’s why today, I’m so excited to tell you about a brand new community from my friends at World Relief: it’s called The Path. The Path is a community of bold and compassionate women and men of faith, who are committed to going the distance to see our world transform. Each month this group gives to fight back against suffering and injustice in pursuit of lasting change. Whether it’s building a home for a widow in Rwanda, or providing legal services to a refugee family in the US—Path-makers commit to walking toward those who feel like the rest of the world has walked away. Learn more at www.WorldRelief.org/thePath.
You are listening to the Be the Bridge podcast with Latasha Morrison.
Latasha Morrison 1:11
[Intro] How you guys doing today? This is exciting!
Each week, Be the Bridge podcast tackles subjects related to race and culture, with the goal of bringing understanding.
Latasha Morrison 1:21
[Intro] …but I’m gonna do it in the spirit of love.
We believe understanding can move us toward racial healing, racial equity, and racial unity. Latasha Morrison is the founder of Be the Bridge, which is an organization responding to racial brokenness and systemic injustice in our world. This podcast is an extension of our vision to make sure people are no longer conditioned by a racialized society, but grounded in truth. If you have not hit the subscribe button, please do so now. Without further ado, let’s begin today’s podcast. Oh, and stick around for some important information at the end!
Latasha Morrison 2:00
Remember our last podcast when Jemar Tisby said this?
Jemar Tisby 2:04
We need to say, “If you want to talk about threats to Christianity, let’s talk about Christian nationalism.”
Latasha Morrison 2:11
Yep, nationalism. Well, today I had three conversations that dealt with us as Christians and the third space, but specifically as it relates to voting, justice, and righteousness. “The third space” is a term that may be new to some, so let me explain. The first space is home. The second space is more civic, like work or school. The third space is more social, like gyms, clubs, coffee shops, etc. It is in social settings where discussions of justice and righteousness and granular, nuanced issues like voting are grappled with often. Well, let’s start with one of my three guests today, Kathryn Freeman. Kathryn is a writer, lawyer, advocate, and podcaster! She previously served for five years as the Director of Public Policy for the Texas Baptist Christian Life Commission. Now you see why Kathryn was so perfect to pick up where our last episode left off. So let’s jump in! So, basically the whole…it got distorted.
Kathryn Freeman 3:27
Yeah, no—well, and it’s so funny, because literally Tasha, I was having these exact conversation with one of my theology professors last week, or this week, because I have been really kind of disturbed in my spirit about conversations about, “Oh, the soul of America, the roots of America,” and I couldn’t figure out why that was, like, upsetting to me. And so I was talking to her and she basically was like, “Well, if you think about, you know, nations as a body, like what kind of body would America have?” And she was saying, like, it would be really distorted. But then she told me that the whole idea of a nation as a body, that language was stolen because Christians were such a threat to the governments and the sort of nationalist ideal in Europe. So that this idea of like, well, if we talk about nations as a body, this is a rival body to the body of Christ. And so you have to be a part of this body because Christians of that era were such a threat to this idea of like, I don’t know, national cohesion, body politic…and then if you think about like—
Latasha Morrison 4:34
Cuz they were going against culture!
Kathryn Freeman 4:36
Yeah they were going against culture! They wouldn’t name emperors as god. The thing that always comes to mind—and this particular professor had done her PhD work on Dietrich Bonhoeffer. But like, the idea of like the Nazis, Hitler was very intentional about going into the church and (she told me this) that Hitler had his SS soldiers, he specifically told them go to the state church in your Nazi uniform. So their idea was, like, “We need to infiltrate the church. And if we can get the church to like, get on board with a sort of nationalist socialist project that we’re working on, when we start this genocide, no one’s going to speak out.” And that’s exactly what happened! There was very, you know, Dietrich Bonhoeffer was part of like a radical [group], there were very few people. But I mean, like, her telling me that was like, mind blowing. Like literally [Hitler] knew, like, “if I can get these Christians to be more bought into German-ness than Christ-likeness, they’re not going to speak out or fight back against these really destructive and harmful and ungodly policies.” And so, yeah, like Christians were a threat. And so this language about nations as bodies arises from this, like, we have to create a rival structure to get Christians out of the idea that they’re a part of something separate than our nation.
Latasha Morrison 6:11
Okay. Nationalism can seem like an extreme way of describing conservatism. So let’s bring this closer to home. Should we be partisan as Christians? Is there a political view that more fully encapsulates our worldview as Christians? There’s no one better equipped to answer this question of how to handle partisanship than my next guest, Jenny Yang. Jenny provides oversight for all advocacy initiatives, and policy positions at World Relief. She has worked in the resettlement section of war relief as the senior case manager, and East Asia program officer, where she focused on advocacy for refugees and East Asia region and managed the entire refugee caseload for World Relief. I guess you see why I asked her view on partisanship. Honestly, there was some sonic issues with her recording, and we did our best to make the sonic adjustments. But the most important part is the wisdom she shared throughout our conversation. So check out her take on partisanship.
Jenny Yang 7:22
So I think there is a lot of concern or fear from a lot of Christians about what does it mean to “get political.” But I think there’s a fundamental difference between being political and being partisan. I believe that we are supposed to be political. But we’re not necessarily called to be partisan. And by political I mean, the art of engaging in public policy, the art of actually engaging in conversations around the “polis”, which is the way that our society is structured. And so being political basically means engaging with our neighbors, with those who are elected officials, in conversations about decisions that impact our common community. And so there’s nothing wrong with being political, all of us are political beings, all of us live in structures and governments, and communities in which all of us need to come together to make important decisions that impact the common good. Now the fine line is being political and being partisan, because oftentimes, partisanship can mean blind allegiance to a specific political party or candidate without realizing that there are faults with specific candidates and parties and not a single political party or person will ever encompass the fully, perfectly balanced agenda that I believe we’re supposed to pursue in our society.
And so I think for many of us, we fear getting political because we don’t want to become partisan. And I think that means that we don’t pick up the phone and call our elected officials, we don’t go out and protest and raise our voice. And we don’t do these necessary actions to actually love our neighbors into structures in which that neighbor who’s maybe vulnerable can actually thrive. And so when you look, especially in the history of our country at specific injustices around people not being able to vote, or women not having full voting rights, or you know, even what’s happening at the border with families being separated, or, you know, systemic injustices around police brutality. All of these specific stories we’ve heard about injustice relate to larger systemic issues. And I think it’s really hard for us to love our neighbor without also engaging in the structural systems in which our neighbors live. And so being political means using our voice, using our experiences and our values, to inform conversations that really structure the way in which our society exists and is structured. And so I think oftentimes if we are political and we can raise our voice, we are able to influence conversations and topics that especially impact us and our neighbors. But if we become overtly partisan, we can actually become tools of empire to really perpetuate injustice in very specific ways. I think especially right now, where we have the opportunity to vote, we have the opportunity to help our neighbors vote and engage in political conversations, it’s a really important time to raise our voices on topics that are very important to us. And I think, you know, God calls us to be stewards of our resources and our finances and our time. But God also calls us to be stewards of our influence. To steward our influence well means to use our positioning, our voice and our power, to not just vote but to actually speak up and use our voice on matters that are important to us and to God.
Latasha Morrison 10:51
Meet the author of “Reclaiming Hope: Lessons Learned in the Obama White House about the Future of Faith in America,” Michael Wear. He also co-authored “Christianity, Pluralism, and Public Life in the United States.” And you gotta check out his latest book, “Compassion and Conviction.” When dealing with today’s discourse, it’s important to have a leading strategist, speaker, and practitioner at the intersection of faith, politics, and public life as a participant. So let’s move towards a touchy area in the third space: engagement. It’s so good what Michael Wear says here. Listen.
Michael Wear 11:35
Yeah, Jenny’s a good one to get that definition from. We love Jenny! So, you know, when we talk about faithful engagement, part of it is understanding that politics is not ultimate. If you are confusing sort of political decisions with religious dogma, with sort of, with the facts of the gospel, then you’re gonna get some things conflated and you’re gonna disrupt your witness in a way that’s just not not healthy. Faithful political engagement means that you’re willing to put faithfulness over short term political gain. That’s one. And it also means that you’re not just in politics for your own self interest. That you’re not just going to politics to get your own needs met, whether they’re in material or, you know, I’m convinced people are going to politics a lot these days for spiritual and emotional needs. We find those needs met in Christ. And so we’re freed up to go into politics to affirm human dignity and advance justice. And that’s a big piece of faithful civic engagement. It also means that, you know, again, we’re going to prioritize—there are some tools in the political toolbox that we will just not pull out as Christians because they’re not faithful. So we’re not going to be running around maligning people, viciously maligning people. We’re not going to run around and manipulate people for our own purposes. We try and tell the truth as we know it. We try to treat people with dignity, even our political opponents. When we go to politics, I like what Paul says in Galatians. He’s talking to a community that’s divided, he tells them that they ought to bear one another’s burdens. That’s what we ought to do in politics. And so yeah, faithful civic engagement is not about, oh, “this is what your position has to be on this issue and that issue,” it’s allowing and believing that Jesus actually has something to offer our politics in this moment. And not cordoning God off from your politics and saying, “Well, you know, politics? That’s too messy for God to deal with. So I’ll just go in there and do what I think is best however, I think it needs to be done. And then maybe that’ll allow me to follow Jesus in my personal relationships and with my finances.” No, no, God has a claim over everything. And so we got to be thinking in politics, what does human flourishing look like? What are humans made for? And try and pursue that the best that we know how.
Latasha Morrison 14:36
After the engagement, we have to deal with advocacy, which is in Jenny’s wheelhouse. Check this out.
Jenny Yang 14:43
I think for all of us, it’s important to recognize that when we advocate or speak up for many of those who are disenfranchised, we’re actually doing a biblical spiritual discipline, I think. Proverbs 31:8 says to “speak up for those who cannot speak for themselves, the rights of all who are destitute.” And you see throughout the Bible that there are specific individuals that God called and anointed to be advocates on behalf of those who are oppressed. So Moses, before Pharaoh, literally was used by God to speak up before Pharaoh and to free the Israelites from slavery. Esther is another person that we can see who was used to save the Jewish people from genocide. Even Nehemiah was someone who was called by God to rebuild the wall around Jerusalem. And so these are specific individuals that God used in the Bible. And I think God continues to use his church to really address systemic issues and speak on behalf of those who are oppressed in front of people in positions of significant influence.
But Jesus Himself actually is an advocate as well! It actually says in 1 John 2:1, “we have an advocate with the Father, Jesus Christ, the righteous one, he’s the atoning sacrifice for our sins.” And literally, the word that we have for advocate in Scripture is “paraclete.” And it literally says Jesus was our advocate on behalf of humanity. And we are called to be Christ ambassadors, like it says in 2 Corinthians 5:20, that for us to be an advocate is an extension of what Christ did for us. And so I think, for us to be political, to advocate on behalf of our vulnerable neighbors is really important, especially as Christian values are so needed in the public square. I think there are many different constituencies with different values and different viewpoints, and for the church to be speaking up not just for ourselves and our religious liberties, but for the vulnerable—for people who are suffering and face many injustices—to link arms with those who are on the margins and learn and listen and lead, is just really important as we are facing so many critical issues in our country right now.
Latasha Morrison 16:56
So how do we deal with this? And what is our approach as Christians? Kathryn answers this beautifully.
Kathryn Freeman 17:05
Yeah, because I think it’s hard. I mean, I think this idea of like, the whole idea of what it means to be a Christian, the sort of self sacrifice, the sort of putting yourself on the line, the idea that you would disengage from power—that like, we’re not seeking to, like, elevate ourselves, among above other human beings. That sort of mindset, I think, is one, I think, at the root of it for the church, I think the church has bought into the larger sort of societal and cultural narrative about African Americans being different or less than. And I think people are not aware. It’s sort of like the air we breathe. Like oxygen, right? Like, we don’t realize it, because I think lots of people are like, “Oh, no, I don’t believe that.” But it comes out in like, very subtle ways, right? Like the idea that like, oh, when people say, see someone like, you know, an educated Black person, Black man or woman, and their first response is like, “Oh, you’re so articulate.” Well, why would you think they’re not articulate? Like, interrogate that question. And so, this idea that the narrative, rather than being true to the counter narrative that is Christianity, I think, as a whole, there has been this buying into the cultural narrative. And then I think this idea that like, you can have like, equality and justice without sacrifice—I mean, that’s just not true to Scripture. Like, you know, like, Jesus gave up power! I think it’s Philippians 2, where it’s like, you know, “he who had no equal humbled himself to become a man, fully God and fully human, died on the cross.” I think you see, in, you know, and Jesus, I mean, like, it’s throughout Scripture—where like Paul, Hebrew of Hebrews, a Pharisee of Pharisees, like, gave all of that status up to go to the Gentiles. And I think that the narrative—I mean, I think, honestly, it’s deeply theological, and I think the narrative in which we have made Christianity, it is this like, “we are supposed to be victors, we’re supposed to be champions, there should be no suffering, I shouldn’t have to give anything up.” You know, and even just our level of like, care for other people. It’s like very surface level, like we’re not comfortable being uncomfortable. And we’re always seeking, I think, sort of just the fallenness—is rather than sort of like, you know, being in harmony with creation, with created beings, we are seeking domination. And I think that is a position that only belongs to God. And we have been unwilling to like, submit our hearts, our selves, our bodies, in the way that we see Christ. And the way we see men and women in Scripture submit power and authority.
Faitth Brooks 19:55
Wow, this is such an incredible conversation. Hey, don’t go anywhere. We’re going to be right back.
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Latasha Morrison 21:09
We have all experienced an incredible amount of change and upheaval this year. The violence, injustice, and loss have been exhausting. For many of us 2020 has left us feeling hopeless. But my friends at World Relief are working to change this narrative, and they want you to join them! They’ve created a brand new community for people who want to make a real difference in our suffering world. It’s called The Path. The Path is a community of bold, compassionate women and men of faith who are committed to going the distance to see our world transform. Each month this group gives to fight back against cycles of suffering and injustice in pursuit of lasting change. Path-makers are committed to walking toward those who feel like the rest of the world has walked away. To learn more about this community visit www.WorldRelief.org/thePath.
Faitth Brooks 22:10
Thanks for staying with us. Let’s pick up Latasha’s conversation with today’s guests.
Latasha Morrison 22:16
I want to get more granular in this contentious political climate. I want to know—and I believe YOU want to know—what should be our approach as Christians, specifically to politics. I love how Michael addresses this. Listen.
Michael Wear 22:33
Yeah, I mean, so again, you know, politics is not just a forum for your self expression and self affirmation. Politics is about community, inherently. And so, you know, it’s why we wrote the book. And so the book lays out, you know, the And Campaign’s framework for political engagement, as we’ve seen and practiced in our own lives, but then through the organization. And, you know, a big piece of what’s happening right now is our political parties are claiming to represent sort of total truths, when at best, they represent half the truth. There is one political party that is generally identified with, or at least traditionally identified, with conviction. These are people who know what they think and they just move forward with it. And, you know, they’re principled and the principles work, even if we can’t see it working in our own communities. But they got conviction. Then there’s another party, oh, they’re “bleeding hearts,” they got compassion. They may not know what they actually stand for, but at least they care. Those are not choices that Christians can make. We believe Scripture calls us to both, as Paul says in Ephesians, both love and truth, righteousness and justice, compassion and conviction. And so when we come to politics, we don’t take our marching orders from political parties. We don’t take our marching orders from manmade ideology, we actually seek to pursue the full guidance and counsel of Scripture as we could see it playing out in the political realm. Now, what that means is not that you have to act as an independent actor, we actually don’t recommend that! Politics, again, is not an individual kind of sport. What it does mean is that there will be times where you might be a Democrat, you might be a Republican, but your party’s not going to capture the full truth and you gotta be willing to call that out. You gotta be willing to say, “I don’t think this is the whole story” or even “I think you’re telling a bad story here.” And pursuing means of advancing what’s good for people that may run counter to what your political party is. You know, you got to be able to not just buy wholesale the narratives that our political parties are selling, but actually, bring a Gospel story with you into politics and be willing to tell that over and above some of the half truths and false dichotomies that often end up, you know, taking up a whole whole lot of the political conversation.
Latasha Morrison 25:33
Well, if our approach to politics is through the lens of community, then we are right back at dealing with advocacy. What Jenny says here is great.
Jenny Yang 25:44
Well, I think when we are seeking justice, it’s really important to recognize that sometimes for Christians, our views of loving our neighbor are very limited to the individual level. So you know, we want to meet people’s immediate needs, and so we can feed the hungry or work alongside those experiencing homelessness and try to find them shelter and enter into relationships. And they are fundamentally important for us engaged in justice issues. But the harder step is really looking at not just the individual, but the systemic. It’s to understand that this person that we care about is living within a structure, and that structure oftentimes breeds injustice. I’ve come up with the four A’s of advocacy, and it is Apathy to Awareness, Awareness to Action, and Action to Advocacy. So for many of us, we may be apathetic. We may not know what to do or where to get started. And we may be overwhelmed by so many of the injustices that we hear about every day. But it’s really important to move from being apathetic to being aware of something. So obviously, with Be the Bridge and your organization, Tasha, you’ve done incredible work of creating awareness, right? And a lot of different groups and individuals are sharing stories and we’re trying to raise awareness of what’s actually happening. And so I think right now, we are in a unique place in the United States and around the world for greater attention to become aware of systemic injustices that are happening all around us. So just becoming aware and following people and learning is so important right now. But we can’t just stay at awareness, we have to move to action. And action can look like a variety of things. It can be meeting people’s individual needs, it can be, you know, going out and showing up and volunteering, and giving even. But we also have to engage in advocacy. And I think that’s the last step and oftentimes the hardest because it can seem abstract, it can seem overwhelming. We can often think well, “how am I as one person going to change a situation?” But advocacy really means addressing the root causes of systemic injustice, and using our influence to bring issues that we care about to the attention of our elected officials, of people in positions of power.
And so when you actually look at the history of advocacy within the church, there have been movements, right? The civil rights movement in the US was led by the Black church. The movement against apartheid in South Africa was led by the church. If you look at the global movement against slavery in the late 1800s, you know, that was led a lot by the British abolitionists. And so you see specific instances of a church leading in these justice conversations, and really looking at systemic issues of…how do we change laws and policies that will allow our vulnerable neighbors to thrive? And I think for us as we think about engaging in justice and advocacy, that we have to go through this spectrum of this Four A’s, that we have to move from being apathetic to becoming aware. But then moving from awareness to some kind of action, and from action to actually doing advocacy and looking at systemic issues. And I really want to encourage us, because oftentimes when we engage in issues of promoting justice, that it can take decades for us to see any moving the needle, right? That it can take a long time. It’s like running a marathon. And oftentimes, we’ll see little, you know, wins here and there. But we need to constantly push the envelope to actually allow flourishing to happen—to change laws and systems so that flourishing can happen. Martin Luther King Jr. has this quote where he says that “the church is not supposed to be the master of the state or the servant of the state, but the conscience of the state.” And it’s this idea that as we engage in these political conversations, that we are there as a church to prick the conscience of our elected officials. To constantly remind them that there are things that are happening in our society that are not right. And that can, you know, be a wide variety of issues. But if we can constantly speak up with our values, to speak up with the things that we care about with our voices and our experiences. And I think those are the things that are necessary to really start changing the conversation around the issues we care about.
Latasha Morrison 30:08
Okay, y’all, I still can’t let go of the nationalism piece. I guess I really want to know how it became intertwined with theology. Kathryn really broke this down.
Kathryn Freeman 30:20
So I had been very disturbed about, just conversations about the soul of America. Like, what is America at its core? kind of thing…And I didn’t understand like, why I was feeling this tension about it. So I went to talk to one of my theology professors, and she basically told me, she’s like, “Well, you know, if the nation—if America is a body, what kind of body would it be?” And she basically told me that the history of that frame or like referring to nations as “bodies” arose out of this desire to be a counter to the body of Christ. So basically, the whole idea of referring to nations as “bodies” basically—Christians were such a threat to the nation and empire, that they had to come up with a rival body. So essentially, this idea of referring to nations as a “body” is really the idea of like, we’re creating a rival body to the body of Christ, because Christians don’t—their first allegiance isn’t to the nation. Like, you know, they’re living in ways that are countercultural, and ways in which we feel like are harmful to the national identity. So whether you know, how they’re loving their neighbors, how they’re living in community with one another, and they share, taking care of needs of the poor, how they’re welcoming of immigrants, or just think about whatever you think is like countercultural in this time period. And so the idea was like, “Well, if we start talking about the nation as a body, they would be members of our body and choose the body of the nation over being a member of the body of Christ.” And I mean, I think we see throughout history that that has been very seductive, and very, you know, tempting to many, many Christians. The professor I was talking to is an expert in Dietrich Bonhoeffer, that’s what she did her PhD work in. And so we were just talking about the church in Germany and how Hitler specifically told the SS Nazi soldiers to go to the state church in their uniforms. So the idea that like, slowly, his thing was like, “if I can capture Christians and they are more loyal to Germany, and patriotic about Germany, they’ll be less likely to speak out when we basically commit genocide.” And it was very successful! I mean, there were very few—I mean, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, and then I never remember his name, but the movie A Hidden Life…which if you haven’t seen, please see that movie because that man lived in a way that was so radically countercultural. I was in tears. Because I think we have this idea that like, we’re going to be popular and the way in which Christians live should be widely accepted, even among other Christians. And this man was ostracized by the people he’d gone to church with every Sunday. And, you know, at one point, I think one of the most significant points of the movie is, and this goes back to like what we’re talking about and what we’re called to, how we are called to live our lives as Christian. One of the soldiers tells him, no one’s gonna remember you, this is totally insignificant, nobody has joined you in this protest against serving in the Nazi army. Is it even worth it if no one cares, like, literally no one cares and everybody thinks you’re crazy? And he has to decide, and he decides, you know, “I don’t care what other people think. I’m going to be loyal to God, and to Jesus Christ.” And I just think that what happens and what we’re talking about is there has to be a choice. There has to be a separation of like who I am as an American and a citizen of this democracy, and who I am as a citizen of the kingdom of heaven. And I think oftentimes we blend those two things together as if America is like a Christian nation. And it doesn’t matter that we’ve made an idol or that we live in a way where those identities are blended. Because the reality is, there should be a rubbing up against whether you’re liberal or Democrat, you should feel like, “I can’t go with that, because my first identity is a citizen of the kingdom of heaven.” You know, like, I can’t go with that. And if you never feel that tension, if the country is always going, what you feel like aligns with God, then I would say that the God that you’re worshipping is not the God of the Bible. It’s not the Jesus of the red letters. Because I don’t know how you get there. I mean, the man was executed by the state because, you know…and so that’s what I would say with that. I mean, this idea that like, yeah, we’re not—Jesus has no rival here on earth. And if you live in such a way, that like, that whatever country you’re in is some sort of rival for your loyalty, I would just ask, you know, like prayer and worship and going back to Scripture and allowing that to form you in a new way.
Latasha Morrison 35:17
This led me to this question with Michael…
I think we have some really good examples of that when we look at the Old Testament, and we look at Daniel’s role, and we look at, you know, Joseph’s role. You know, just so many times, you know, where there’s this healthy third space. And how do you maintain that? With having been in Washington, having worked under a political party, how did you maintain that healthy third space? And what were you able to accomplish during that time?
Michael Wear 35:58
Well, so it’s really important that your political community is not your primary community. And so when, you know, I have young folks reaching out to me all the time when they’re coming to DC for college or they just got their first job in the city. And, you know, I tell them, “it’s easy to come here, think, you know, I’ll get settled, and then I’ll find a church.” And I’ve just seen over and over again, if that’s your approach, you’re not going to find a local church until you’ve been here two years. I mean, DC is a vocation-centric city. And so if you’re not…you can get swallowed up in the work. And so I advise people one of the first things you should be doing is trying to find a local church. And that’s your primary community. I mean, it’s really important to not be—because if you’re constantly surrounding yourself, and especially in a city like DC, if you got a political job, at least a third of your day is taken up by having political standards reinforced in your life and political divides being reinforced in your life. And unfortunately, I think this is something that’s happening outside of people who work in politics now. I mean, people all over the country who, you know, are spending hours and hours and hours reading political news, listening to talk radio, getting home watching cable news, talk shows, political talk shows at night. Political community is folks’ primary community! So that would be the first thing I’d say. You gotta make sure that your political community is not your primary community.
And then second, you know, there are all kinds of disciplines that you can instill in your life. So I try to make sure that I am reading news and opinion that contradicts my point of view, that challenges my point of view, that reminds me again that politics is not ultimate. That politics is prudential, it’s penultimate. And part of what that means for Christians is that, you know, Scripture doesn’t provide a 10-point plan for the best way to do healthcare in this country. Scripture doesn’t provide a 10-point plan on criminal justice reform. As Christians, we’re seeking to apply scriptural principles to the problem ahead of us—to the problem in front of us. But that doesn’t mean that the way that one Christian thinks is the right way to do that, is the right way. There’s this idea that Christians should have (which I think is right) a level of—their political engagement should be tinged with ambivalence. And it’s that tinge of ambivalence that creates the third space. It allows you to interact with people who you may disagree with vehemently on a political issue, or on a set of political solutions. But that tinge of ambivalence, you know, helps you remember, you know what? I can look in history, I can look in the past to the Old Testament certainly, but I could look in the past 20 years ago and see that people I respect—people who were champions for justice—thought that they knew the way to go on a certain policy problem, and it turned out not to be the way. It turned out to have some unintended consequences. It turned out to even backfire. And so I’m no better than they are! And so I gotta, I want to make sure that I’m being sharpened. I want to make sure that I’m taking the full counsel that’s available to me.
It’s just critically important, and I guess the last thing I’d say on this is, this is not to downplay the importance or the seriousness of some of the issues that confront us. That’s not what this is at all. I have the deepest respect for, and have partnered with, activists who are focused on specific issues. I’ll tell you what! I’ve found, and whether we’re talking about people like Jenny or I mean, so many others, it’s actually the activists who have actually been on the ground, who have actually been doing the work, who actually have the the right level (in my view) often have the right level of confidence, and just how perfect their solutions are. It’s often the people on the fringes who think this is a hobby, who think that talking about issues of injustice is just like another sort of brand that you can stamp on your tee shirt. It’s those folks who sometimes are quick to judge their political opponents, who are sometimes quick to take on a view that if they can’t get their way politically, then you know, the ship’s sinking. So it’s really important to, again, just make sure that you’re bringing a perspective to this that is not emanating from politics itself.
Latasha Morrison 41:34
So in a healthy third space, my heart then has to turn toward the marginalized, right? Let’s see what Jenny says here.
Jenny Yang 41:42
So we did a project, as Tasha was mentioning, where we recorded several woman church leaders reading Matthew 25. And it’s such a core part of the teachings of Christ because he, in this passage, speaks about, “If you are a true follower of me, if you see someone who’s hungry, you will give them food. If you see someone who’s thirsty, you will give them a drink. If you see a stranger you will welcome them in.” It’s this idea that Jesus fundamentally identifies with those who are oftentimes marginalized by society. And his whole ministry is around communing with those who are castigated by society and declaring that not only are these people made in the image of God, but they are worthy of our respect and dignity. And so I think if we are really followers of Jesus, that we have to reflect Jesus’s teachings, his declarations, and the way that he did ministry into the way we do ministry and we live out our lives as well. Matthew 25 is really just a teaching from Jesus that we—not just through our individual actions, but even as a society that is made up largely of Christians—have to have a welcoming posture, even when we have fears around those that are different than us. And I think for me, with Matthew 25, it really is a stark reminder that, you know, Jesus really is calling us to do the hard things. That he is calling us to get over the challenges of not having enough time, of feeling like we’re overwhelmed, of even our own fears around what that could look like and saying it’s actually when you enter into these relationships that you can experience the presence of Christ. And Hebrews 13 actually reminds us that when we entertain strangers that we are entertaining angels without being even aware of it. And that idea of entertaining strangers is actually philoxenia. It’s love, “philo” of “xenia” the stranger, the opposite of philoxenia is xenophobia. It’s a fear of the stranger. And biblical teaching actually specifically talks about philoxenia, or loving the stranger. And so for us as far as Jesus, it’s just a good reminder for us to go back into the scriptures to read actually what the Bible has to say about a topic like immigration. We actually have a challenge called the “I was a stranger” challenge. And if folks just Google, “I was a stranger challenge” and you’ll find a bookmark where we list 40 verses of scripture related to immigration. And it’s eye opening for people because oftentimes when people think about an issue like immigration, they think, oh, that’s just political. But it’s actually a spiritual issue. It’s a, it’s a scriptural issue. And when we see from Genesis to Revelation, God’s heart beat for the immigrant, for the widow, the orphan, and the poor, who are oftentimes grouped together, I think we can not only be in line in our own hearts of God’s heart for these individuals, but also really engage our whole selves and learning what we can do to serve immigrants and refugees and also use our voice and speaking up for those who are vulnerable as well.
Latasha Morrison 44:56
As my heart turns toward helping the marginalized amid advocacy, I may get upset with policies and systems and even politics itself! What should I do with these emotions? Michael is great here.
Michael Wear 45:09
Yeah, it’s difficult because it’s so easy to get, you know, taken in by some of the primary forms of political engagement that we’re seeing. And then I’ll just say like, we’re human beings. And so sometimes, you know, we see people who are being manipulated, people who are being taken advantage of, and there’s a natural rise to anger, there’s a natural rise to desire for, you know, retaliation and for retribution. And, you know, those are human things. What we should be striving for, what we should be aiming for, is to find ourselves on the side of what Howard Thurman called the “disinherited.” To find ourselves on the side of those who are downtrodden in our politics, and to make sure that we’re in touch with folks who are not like us. Folks who are, and I mean that socio-economically, I mean that politically, I mean that racially, I mean that in all kinds of ways—so that we can be sure that when we’re stepping into politics, we’re doing so not just for our own interest and advantages, but taking in and benefiting from a broader set of experiences and ideas than we could just have sort of on our own.
We’re in a terribly frustrating environment. And the temptations to like, withdraw or just sort of say, “Look, I don’t want any piece of this. I mean, these people in politics, they’re just in it for themselves!” At the end of the day, we have to understand that in this country, politics is a reflection of who we are. At the end of the day, politicians, our political systems, are responding to the incentives and disincentives that we put into it. So if you don’t like what you’re seeing in our politics, and I’m not trying to be trite, there are big money and big institutions, I get it. I can also tell you, I’ve seen up close from the White House, from campaigns, with the work that we’re doing at the And Campaign—I’ve seen individuals or small groups of individuals who have joined in common cause actually have and make a difference. And they do that out of a sense of civic and fraternal commitment that we need in our politics right now. Christians can provide, and really all citizens, I mean, you know, you don’t need to have a religious background to care for your fellow man or woman. But there are resources in the faith that propel us in that way. And I think our politics needs a lot more of that and that example, which I think will have an effect in how the rest of the country operates.
Latasha Morrison 48:30
Dietrich Bonhoeffer was a Lutheran pastor, theologian, and anti-Nazi dissident. His writings on Christianity’s role in the secular world have become widely influential. We can’t deal with finding the third space approach without at least touching his approach. Kathryn gives us a little history lesson here. Check it out.
Kathryn Freeman 48:52
I’m going to talk about my favorite thing about Dietrich Bonhoeffer. So basically, he was inspired to protest Nazism, because in the early 1930s he traveled to Harlem and visited a Black church in Harlem. And that, in his mind, was where he learned to make the connection between Christianity and social activism, and I think this idea, like this theology of like, what is happening to actual bodies matters. If it’s just like, all like “pie in the sky” (I hate that term) but you know, if it’s, but if it’s all like, “Okay, well, you know, we’re gonna go to heaven one day, and what happens down here doesn’t matter.” Like, really, that’s a form of heresy called Gnosticism. Anyways, he learns to reject that, and that’s kind of what inspired his protest. And so I will take this question as an opportunity to talk about the historic Black church, which has always been a place of recognizing that justice is a part of the Bible. It’s a part of what it means to be a disciple. God cares deeply about the suffering and pain of his people. The Black church was always a place of dignity, and I think it’s not a mistake that most of—except for this current civil rights movement with Black Lives Matter—most of the movements, I was reading about women’s suffrage, that most of the Black women that were actively involved in women’s suffrage were Christians. And some of them were pastors in AME congregations. The Civil Rights movement, we all know about Martin Luther King, Jr. and John Lewis. And so there is a faithful witness of the church that is very countercultural, and is very, I think, clear eyed about, like, what it means to be citizens of two kingdoms that has not ever idolized or confused American ideals with biblical ideals. And I think, you know, one thing I would say, is just trying to soak up more of that wisdom, and like reading those books, or, you know, listening to sermons. I mean, personally I’m a huge fan of Charlie Dates. But I think that there is a faithful witness.
And I will say this, I think one of the things that helped me, you know, years ago, when I was really wrestling with this and had a lot of anxiety about it. We did a Bible study with some girls about the Exodus, and it was Priscilla Shirer. And the title of it is “One in a Million: Journey to Your Promised Land.” So basically, the idea is like, something like 2 million Israelites started in Egypt, but only two made it to the promised land: Joseph and Caleb. And why was that? And what were the barriers to that thing? And then it just made me realize, like, you know, I think why doesn’t everybody get this? This is so obvious, you know, whatever. And I think reading that story—and not that I don’t work for or have conversations to help people gain understanding, but reading that Bible study really helped me understand that there’s a reason why Jesus said narrow is the gate. And I think, and I want to just encourage you, for anybody that’s in frustrated conversations or whatever. Sometimes we just have to let the Holy Spirit do what only the Holy Spirit can do. I mean, Dietrich Bonhoeffer went with the people in his underground, his own underground seminary, and, you know…and even if it’s by yourself, I mean, that’s the thing I love so much about A Hidden Life is like, this is a man who was willing to stand on his own. And I think oftentimes Christians, whether it’s politics or whatever, we don’t want to do that and so we’ll just go along to get along, even among the body, because we don’t want to be ostracized. We don’t want to create strife, we don’t want to, you know, and I think there’s a difference between being contentious and being convicted. And I think, you know, what does it mean to stand in your convictions? I would say, you know, in America, the witness of the Black church, and I mean, they’re even among like, you know, the white church, there are people that in their time were willing to stand on their own and say, “This is not right, I’m not going to participate in this.” Now the thing is, again, those people were ostracized, they were talking about like they were crazy. I mean, Black churches were targeted for bombings. There’s a reason behind all that, because it was a threat to white supremacy. It was a threat to this sort of cultural mindset that Black people are inferior. And yet we have a faithful witness and testimony from which to learn. But I think a lot of people again, don’t want to submit to that because again, it’s like this idea that, “Are Black people inferior? Maybe their theology isn’t as good…” as like, I don’t know who, pick your favorite white theologian. And I just think like, looking at the testimony of people’s lives, and beyond Martin Luther King, Jr. Like he’s not the only one.
Latasha Morrison 54:02
Before we go—I love how Michael re-centers our focus and our goals here. Listen.
Michael Wear 54:08
Yeah, well, first I want to, you know, I want to identify with so many of those, so many of those feelings and so much of that, wondering about whether, you know, justice is possible. Then I want to say, we live now. We live in this moment. And justice is not our ultimate responsibility. We’re not the ones who are going to bring it through our own efforts. What we need to do, the only thing we can do with the limited influence we have right now—with the limited influence we have just as human beings, try and steward that influence for the love of our neighbors. We got to love our politics less than we love people. And then we need to take that love of people into politics knowing we’re imperfect, knowing that we may not have the 10-point plan, we may not know exactly. But knowing that we are using our voice for more than just what’s beneficial for us. That we’re using our voice for what the Catholics call a preferential option for the poor, that actually, we’re especially attentive to those who are hurting, those who are facing the very brunt of injustice. And things might not turn out the way that you want them to! You’re not responsible for that. We can only be responsible for pursuing the good as we see it with the tools that we have. And hoping that our efforts, joined with millions of others, will move things in a better direction for people who need it. That’s what politics is. Politics is not an individual sport. It’s not an individual endeavor. It’s not something that we can control the outcome of. What’s helpful is Christians know that we can’t control the outcome all that much. That politics isn’t just like this unique area where we’re in control of everything else, and politics, you know, we got to deal with negotiating all these various things. No, life is complicated. Politics is complicated. Faithfulness is not about sort of getting your way. Faithfulness is about what you do in the moment. To follow Jesus where you are, and trust that he’s ordering your step.
Latasha Morrison 56:50
Advocacy, politics, engagement, and so much more are in the third space. We got a good start to what can be very broad and essential to the fabric of what it means to be a Christ follower or Christian. We will deal with this more in depth in the future. I want to thank Jenny Yang, Kathryn Freeman, and Michael Wear for their wisdom and insight on our role as Christians in the third space. That’s all for now! But till next time, let’s remember: even in the third space, to build bridges, and not walls.
Faitth Brooks 57:28
If you are a member of the Donor’s Table, you get access to today’s unedited episode. Go check it out.
Thanks for listening to the Be the Bridge podcast! To find out more about the Be the Bridge organization, and/or to become a bridge builder in your community, go to BeTheBridge.com. Again, that’s BeTheBridge.com. If you’ve enjoyed this podcast, remember to rate and review it on this platform and share it with as many people as you possibly can. You can also connect with us on Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram. Today’s show was edited, recorded, and produced by Travon Potts at Integrated Entertainment Studios in Metro Atlanta, GA. The host and executive producer is Latasha Morrison. Lauren C. Brown is the senior producer. Brittany Prescott was our transcriber. Please join us next time! This has been a Be the Bridge production.
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