Earlier this summer, I met with a couple of my seminary classmates and their wives to tell boring stories of glory days. When we turned to the present situation, the transgender phenomenon came up. Since one of the wives was a psychiatrist, I asked her how it was affecting her profession and her faith. She said the issue had been settled by the various national and state boards––those who experience gender dysphoria should be encouraged to transition using chemical and surgical options. Medical professionals are obligated to help in this process. Period. Twenty years ago, she said, there was one clinic in the country that specialized in treating gender dysphoria in young people. Today there are close to four hundred. Along with many of her colleagues, she had deep concerns similar to those expressed in Abigail Shrier’s book, Irreversible Damage: The Transgender Craze Seducing Our Daughters. Unfortunately, they cannot say anything about it for fear of being disciplined, fired, and disbarred from the profession.
While we were shaking our heads, I said something like, “Well, we now have a glimpse why Christians in Nazi Germany didn’t speak up when they suspected that trains of Jews were heading to a bad end in the east.” I was not comparing the Holocaust with the trans movement––or the brutality of the Nazis with cancel culture. I was drawing a comparison between the moral reasoning used in both cases. Does my friend’s understandable silence differ in a morally significant way from the silence of the German pastors who felt they could not raise questions about what was happening to the Jews? Do the justifications we use not to speak about a moral issue also justify the German pastors and church members who avoided questioning the endless trains traveling through their towns? If we are pastors and teachers, how do we prepare people to live in this kind of culture? How would you minister to this psychiatrist if she were a member of your congregation? In these times, I have found Rod Dreher’s work to be helpful. The Benedict Option: A Strategy for Christians in a Post Christian Nation tells us that orthodox Christians have lost the culture wars and should look to St. Benedict to form communities of resistance to face the days ahead. In Live Not by Lies: A Manual for Christian Dissidents, Dreher calls the church to prepare to live under an increasingly (soft-)totalitarian society by learning from Christians who survived persecution in Eastern Europe during the Soviet regime. I know there are many great Christian people out there who have not given up on the culture. They are thinking great thoughts, writing important books, and working in useful organizations––like the Center for Public Justice, which is a faith-based organization that finds ways to work within our political system to promote the Christian faith and justice for all Americans. I also know that there are many fine Christians serving in the military and the government. I wish them all well, but I am glad Dreher is thinking about the things he is thinking about.
The COVID-19 pandemic continues to wreak havoc in our lives and world. Vaccine mandates and passports are stirring things up. The contentious political situation makes everything worse. Racial strife, demonstrations, riots, insurrection, the removal of statues, climate change, talk about “menstruating persons,” gun violence, cancel culture, socialism, doubts about the security of elections, the big tech companies censoring speech and ideas, the open Southern border, reactions to the heartbeat law in Texas, critical race theory being taught in high places, and the transhumanism movement threaten to overwhelm us. Then there are political developments around the world most recently in Hong Kong, Haiti, Cuba, and Afghanistan. And now my friends in Taiwan are getting nervous.
Pastors have always struggled to discern how to do ministry in the communities and times to which they have been called. Every time can probably be construed as being a difficult and contentious time, but today is the difficult and contentious time given to us. I just heard of a mother who tore into the pastor of her evangelical church last summer because her eleven-year-old identified as a boy and wanted to stay in the boy’s cabin at church camp. How do we minister to this woman who is obviously and deeply concerned about the welfare of her child? Even to try to get up to speed so we can say something intelligent about these cultural issues seems like a luxury when there are so many more immediate things to do––like making sure we are up on the latest COVID regulations. It is a lot easier to ignore political and cultural issues in sermons and deal with them in pastoral prayers if at all.
Like many in my generation with my theological orientation, I am partial to Karl Barth’s famous quotation about preaching with the Bible in one hand and the newspaper in another. Intuitively, that seems to be the right way to go. Without the Bible, there is nothing to preach; without the newspaper, there is no context for preaching or hearing the Gospel. In an article about him in Time Magazine in the early 1960s, Barth recalled advising young theologians forty years earlier to “take your Bible and take your newspaper, and read both. But interpret newspapers from your Bible.” That is even better. As for Barth’s printed words, the closest formulation I can find is from a letter to his friend, the pastor Eduard Thurneysen, dated November 11, 1918. That was Armistice Day, the day when the Great War in Europe was declared to be over. At the time Barth was a pastor in the small town of Safenwil, in neutral Switzerland, about forty miles from the southern end of the front line between Germany and France. Kilometer Zero. To Thurneysen, Barth wrote, “[I’m] Just up after an attack of the grippe,”––that is the flu that killed 50 million people world-wide and 650,000 people in the United States near the end of World War I––“we must now get quickly in touch in these extraordinary times. But what goes on round about us? What is there to say? One stands astonished, does he not, and can only state how the face of the world changes visibly; on this side of things. … [w]ho is there now with a comprehensive view who is able to seek to the very roots of world events in order to speak and act from that standpoint?” “I was thankful that I did not yet have to preach yesterday. … It seems to me that we come just too late with our bit of insight into the world of the New Testament. How needful it is now that one should be able with full hands to draw out, to interpret, to clarify, to point the way and lay open paths––and how thinly flows the little stream of knowledge. … If only we had been converted to the Bible earlier so that we would now have solid ground under our feet!” Here is the basis for the famous quotation: “One broods alternately over the newspaper and the New Testament and actually sees fearfully little of the organic connection between the two worlds concerning which one should now be able to give a clear and powerful witness.”
Barth regretted that he did not yet have an adequate foundation for preaching the Bible with the newspaper in mind. It was a year earlier he gave his famous talk: “The Strange New World Within the Bible.” That was a marker in his discovery that the Bible was, “Not the history of man but the history of God”––an approach that he argued was radically different from considering the Bible for its history, morals, and stories––ways that he and his colleagues had been trained to read the Bible. “It is not the right human thoughts about God which form the content of the Bible, but the right divine thoughts about men.” Barth came to believe that the Bible had not been taken seriously but had been reduced to merely human thoughts about God––that is why the nations of Europe were tearing each other apart. I find it amazing that Barth was glad he did not have to preach on such a momentous occasion as Armistice Day.
It is well known that Barth was forced to leave Germany in 1935 because he refused to swear an unconditional oath to Hitler. He spent the rest of his life in the city of Basel, Switzerland, just over the border from Germany and France. There, Barth tirelessly and courageously urged the defeat of the Nazis. When the war was finally over, he defended the German people from those who sought revenge. After the war, Barth was not as critical of the Soviet Union as he was of Nazi Germany, because communism was clearly atheistic––and not posing as Christian––whereas Nazism was the worst possible distortion of Christianity. Many, notably Reinhold Niebuhr, took issue with Barth on this point, arguing that atheistic or heretical, Communism deserved an equal measure of Barth’s condemnation. History may have vindicated Niebuhr here, though there are many who say Barth was plenty critical of the Soviet Union. Like I said, this is all well known, and I am not going to develop this account of Barth any further except to say he was relatively safe in neutral Switzerland––a country that conducted business with Germany during the War and denied admission to many Jewish refugees. If this was a paper on theological history, I would be spending more time on Dietrich Bonhoeffer and Ernst Lohmeyer, two German theologians, who faced radical evil without the protection of a neutral state and ultimately lost their lives for their efforts. I read James R. Edwards’s book on Lohmeyer, Between the Swastika and the Sickle, when it was published in 2019, and I am convinced more now than then of its relevance for us. His portrayal of the faith of a Christian scholar under the Nazis and then the Soviets is heart-rendering and inspiring, and it gives us a valuable narrative to add to the mix when considering the Christian’s response to totalitarianism.
To go back to brooding, fretting, over the Bible and the newspaper, no one ever seems to ask, “Which newspaper?” In Barth’s day, newspapers had openly political slants so it would have been helpful for him to qualify his statement about brooding over a particular newspaper or newspapers and the Bible. One of my favorite preachers, Fleming Rutledge, published a book of sermons with the title, The Bible and the New York Times. There was a day when that might have gone unnoticed. Those of us who read the New York Times twenty or thirty years ago believed it was basically reliable about the news it reported, and its opinions were left to the editorial pages. Today, it seems that all news media are mostly editorial with a little bit of news thrown in. Over the course of the past year or so, it is striking to me how much I had miss if I just relied on one newspaper or news source. The editorial policy makes a difference not only how the news is covered, but which news is covered. Limited to one news source, it is easy to slide uncritically into a deeply grooved political track that will take us far from our destination. More than ever, we need to be alert to the news sources people in our congregations are reading and which sources we are going to brood over alongside our Bibles. Who can afford the time to do this work? Who cannot afford it?
The Love You Had At First
Given where my head has been, it has not surprised me that the book of Revelation has been on my mind for a while now. From generation to generation, Christians have read the book of Revelation to try to understand their own perilous situations. It is a book written for the church in a conflicted culture and dangerous political situation with false prophets inside the church and an oppressive superpower––the Romans––bearing down on believers and anyone else who got in the way. I want to focus on the first letter to the church in Ephesus, the largest and most important city in the area, because I think it has a pointed message for pastors and other serious Christians struggling to be faithful in a contentious time like ours. The letter contains a commendation from Jesus: “I know your works, your toil and your patient endurance. I know you cannot tolerate evildoers; you have tested those who claim to be apostles but are not, and have found them to be false. I also know you are enduring patiently and bearing up for the sake of my name, and that you have not grown weary.” There is a lot of good news there: patient endurance, no tolerance of evil doers and false apostles, bearing up because of the name of Jesus, and so forth. Then there was a condemnation. Jesus began it with a “but.” Is he allowed to do that? It has been drilled into our heads for decades now that we are not supposed to do that. Does not “but” negate everything that came before? “But I have this against you,” Jesus said, “that you have abandoned the love you had at first.”
Can there be a more devastating critique? The Message paraphrases it this way: “But you walked away from your first love––why? What’s going on with you anyway? Do you have any idea how far you have fallen? A Lucifer fall!” Most biblical scholars I read suggest that the first love here has to do with the motive or the spirit behind the good works of the Ephesian Christians. The argument goes that their works had become routine and were exercised without love. They were going through the motions. Love was replaced by habit and duty. And without love, quoting the apostle Paul in 1 Corinthians 13, their works were like a noisy gong or a clanging cymbal. I think the problem is deeper. Routine actions formed by habit and duty are not all intrinsically bad! Maybe they lose a little passion, but can they not be an expression of love after all? Love matures and changes over time. I do not think that Jesus was criticizing a love that had matured like fine wine. Despite praising them for doing the work of the church under difficult circumstances, Jesus claimed that the Ephesian Christians had abandoned something so basic that it could be called their first love. Can you imagine anything worse––the shock and, given the source, the inevitable truth of Jesus’s accusation? They were busted. Suddenly, the commendation took a back seat. When we talk about abandoning something, bad things usually come to mind. Why do you abandon your first love? You lose interest. Maybe you have a new interest. You do not use the language of abandonment to ditch something bad; you generally abandon something of value or that was once valuable like a gold mine. You abandon a family, a post, a cause, or a Lord. The message to the church in Ephesus was ultimately about them leaving their first love––the One who went to his death for the sake of others.
Many men I know, who are or were married, can tell, or relate to a story that may help to illustrate the depth of the fall of the church in Ephesus. Like any illustration it has its limits. It goes something like this: It is a Saturday. A husband gets up with his young children, gets them dressed, and takes them out to breakfast so his wife can sleep in. He returns with her favorite donut and coffee. Later that morning, after he cut the grass, he met a friend, and they took their kids to the zoo so their wives could go out to lunch and go clothes shopping. He ordered pizza for dinner, they watched a family movie together, then he put the kids to bed and read stories until he fell asleep. After stumbling downstairs, he looked forward to a few minutes of conversation with his wife and maybe even a little praise. When he saw the look on her face, he cringed, fearful for what she was about to say. “Look, I appreciate everything you did today, but you don’t love me the way you used to love me.” Something valuable or essential is missing. (“But I have this against you,” Jesus said, “that you have abandoned the love you had at first.”) It is easy to imagine a variety of reactions to this woman’s response to her husband’s good deeds. The first husband was defensive. “Love you? I married you, didn’t I? I work like a dog at home and the office for you, don’t I? You’re never satisfied.” This guy is angered by the accusation. The second husband was in denial. “She’s just having a bad day. How do I change the subject? Note to self––Buy her two donuts next time! Maybe if I offered to give her a backrub. This guy puts his head down, and plows forward, trying harder. The third husband was terrified by her emotion. “I’m sorry. I really am. I’ll try harder.” This guy offers an immediate apology to make the anxiety go away. The fourth husband is guilt-ridden. “Well, I have been busy lately.” This guy knows he has been compensating for working twelve-hour days, playing golf every weekend, serving on too many boards, and so forth. Of course, all four husbands miss the point. This woman is asking her husband to pay attention, to be alert, to set aside agendas, to hear what she is really saying, to be responsive, and to make changes for the benefit of their marriage and family––things he did knowingly, willingly, and maybe even enthusiastically when they were first married.
When Jesus told the Christians in Ephesus, “that you have abandoned the love you had at first,” I wonder if any reacted like the hapless husbands in my illustration ––defensive, in denial, scared, or guilt ridden. “There’s more to do?” “He’s asking too much.” “Hey, we’re persecuted after all. And we hate evil.” “Where are you going with this, Jesus?” Jesus did commend the church for bearing up because of his name. For some, persecution causes love to grow more alive, awake, and fervent. But for others, not so much. Part of persecution is the threat of it. Persecution can cause love to grow cold––out of a sense of being overwhelmed or afraid, especially when duty becomes hard and survival mode kicks in. Had the Christians in Ephesus become cool or cold to the call of Jesus––to Jesus himself––even as they suffered for him? Had they abandoned their post? Had their works become routine or habitual, like in a marriage growing cold? When love grows cold, many people try to keep their heads down. The longer you keep your head down, the harder it is to raise it up. They may go through the motions, but when love grows cold it protects itself, and looks inward. Let us go back to the illustration of the couple on Saturday evening. Image a fifth husband, a wise husband. After hearing “you don’t love me like you used to love me,” he resists everything inside urging him to deny, minimize, fight, avoid, or apologize to get it over with. What does he do? A wise man is brave enough to step closer to his wife and endure the discomfort that is about to come from having to listen, really listen, to her, knowing that serious change is on the way.
Despite Jesus’s punch-to-the-gut remark about the Ephesian Christians giving up their first love, he did not give up on them. Instead, he said, “remember then from what you have fallen; repent, and do the works you did at first.” Love me with the attentive love you loved me at first––the love that pulled you away from your sinful ways––and do works befitting that love. “If not, I will come to you and remove your lampstand from its place, unless you repent.” I think it is fair to say that Jesus called the church in Ephesus, fortified by repentant hearts, to take a step closer to him. To be alert, outward looking, and courageous, walking toward chaos––not away from it. There was no promise of a better earthly future in Jesus’s words. Only testing, suffering, and death, but in death there is final victory.
Next Jesus put out a challenge that is repeated in the other letters to the churches: “Let everyone who has an ear listen to what the Spirit is saying in the churches.” (It’s not that far from what the wife in my illustration might say to her reeling husband. “Can you hear what I’m saying?”) If the church has ears––if God’s people hear—then what do they hear the Spirit saying? The last sentence in the passage gives us a clue. “To everyone who conquers I will give permission to eat from the tree of life that is in the paradise of God.” Conquer what? You can conquer a fear––of spiders, snakes, heights, or flying. You can conquer a mountain. You can conquer an addiction. All good and true. But in this verse, conquering is likened to conquering in a battle. Everyone who conquers in the face of false teaching, persecution, and evil––to everyone who perseveres, who struggles in the battle, who endures––will gain the tree of life. The call to conquer is found in the other letters too. The letter to Smyrna: “Whoever conquers will not be harmed by the second death.” “Be faithful unto death and I will grant you the crown of life.” This crown is more like a victor’s wreath as a military or athletic reward than a king’s crown. The letter to Pergamum: “To everyone who conquers I will give some of the hidden manna …” To Thyatira: “To everyone who conquers I will give authority over the nations to rule them with an iron rod as when clay pots are shattered. To Sardis: If you conquer, you will be clothed like them in white robes. To Philadelphia: If you conquer, I will make you a pillar in the temple of my God. And to Laodicea: “To the one who conquers I will give a place with me on my throne, just as I myself conquered and sat down with my Father on his throne.”
The Christian’s basic posture in the world has always been to resist the earthly and spiritual forces opposed to God. Every age has had its challenges, and, in some ages, the challenges are more difficult than others. The church is assured of ultimate victory if it perseveres by conquering in the face of evil. That does not mean the church’s task is to conquer the enemy––that role was left to Jesus. Rather, the church conquers by showing up for the battle and not giving ground. Jesus’s message to the church in Ephesus is that they were not fit for the battle that was raging outside. It was time to get focused and rejoin the struggle.
The point of the text for us––two thousand years later in the face of rather extraordinary circumstances in our day––is to face the starkness of Jesus’s words and to ask whether or how we have abandoned the love we had at first. Have we lost a love that can only be regained by listening, returning, resisting, and conquering in his name? Most pastors I know are devoted shepherds of the sheep. But the COVID crisis has left many exhausted and wondering what ministry will look like in the future. Partisan politics has turned uglier than usual. The punishments for being thoughtful and outspoken, are real. There is no telling what our present world situation will lead us to. I have become increasingly pessimistic. That may just come with aging, being nostalgic about the past, and crotchety about the present. It does not matter. What matters is that the historians––and ultimately the Lord of history––will have their say about what we did and how we responded to the challenges put before us.
I feel sorry for people who readily point out the failures of previous generations. It is not because there are not failures in the past. It is because the people who point out past failures are oblivious to the fact that future generations will judge them, and they too will be found wanting. Pride, ignorance, and arrogance keep them from that realization. Where are we failing and where will we be called to account for our failures? Have our theologies equipped us with insight and courage to do the right things? These are serious questions that we all do well to ask ourselves. Perhaps there is no more shameful yet ultimately understandable example of failure in the face of spiritual and physical struggle in recent history than the attitude of a great number of pastors and Christians in Germany during the rise of Nazism and the Holocaust. We all admire the Confessing Church and the Barmen Declaration––but the focus of that movement was on the independence of the church, not on the Holocaust. The question remains, why did not the ordinary pastors speak out against the Holocaust? Many claimed they did not know. They were busy pastors and people with extra burdens due to the hardships of war. In that sense, they are not unlike pastors today who are burdened with pastoral care related to COVID. It is easy to attribute the failure to speak up to deep-rooted antisemitism, whipped up by a demagogic political leader. But fear of knowing too much or of speaking out, at the risk of risking one’s job, one’s family, and ultimately one’s life, must have been too much for many to bear even if they were inclined to speak out.
There are people today who think that if they had been in Nazi Germany, they would have resisted the Nazis and spoken up for the Jews. Jordan Peterson is famous for wryly responding to that claim with, “It’s not likely.” Will the struggles facing the people in our congregations be pleasing to the Lord of history––or even to our children and grandchildren? What will future generations say to us about how we lived the days given to us to live? Are things happening in our world now that will earn us condemnation in the future, not because we did not solve the problem but because we did not try? Here are some obvious ones: “Why didn’t you speak out against cancel culture? Now everyone is terrified to say a word.” “Why did you carry a smart phone and let big brother track your movements, purchases, contacts, and medical information? Now they track everything including our thoughts!” We live in a contentious time and there is no telling what we will get pulled into. Earlier I referred to the trans phenomenon. I do not want to minimize genuine gender dysphoria, but can we imagine our grandchildren asking us why we did not put up a fight about the breakdown of concepts of maleness, femaleness, and the family that have wreaked havoc in the lives of people who were once young and full of hope and are now living lives of regret and desperation?
What are we to do? There is an expression in the military that describes a good soldier as one who runs to the sound of gunfire. This soldier, whether a private or a general, has been prepared for this. As difficult as their task might be, when well-trained soldiers hear gunfire, they steel themselves to run to it. Their instinct for self-preservation is mitigated by dedication, training, and mental preparation. Last September, we marked the twentieth anniversary of the terrorist attacks on 9/11. Those who watched these events unfold in horror in person, live on our TVs, or in clips decades later, saw members of the NYFD run to and up the towers while everyone else was running in the opposite direction. They ignored an order to abort the mission––at least until after they rescued everyone they could. They ran to the spot of greatest need. Once again, an instinct for self-preservation was mitigated by dedication, training, and mental preparation.
In 1939, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, returned briefly to the United States. He had an invitation to join the faculty at Union Theological Seminary in New York and would have been able to resist Nazism from the safety of the United States. But two weeks after he arrived, despite Reinhold Niebuhr and others urging him not to go, he returned to the sound of gunfire in Germany to share the coming trials with the German people. It was a decision that ultimately cost him his life. Ernst Lohmeyer did not have to run to the sound of gunfire. It was literally in his ears much of his adult life––first with the Nazis and then the Soviets, who eventually took his life. There is no more profound example of running to the sound of gunfire than Jesus who ran to where he needed to be and returned to Jerusalem again and again until he was finally arrested and killed.
Conquering does not mean winning. It means resisting, fighting, and not giving up against the enemies of God and God’s people. It is a first love––a love of Jesus––that compels a person to run to the sound of gunfire and, to mix a metaphor, to take up a cross. Are we pastors and doctors of the church the generals leading from the rear? Are we chaplains behind the front lines preparing the troops for battle? Are we on the battlefields with the troops, praying and giving last rites? Or are we chaplains on the battlefield, like Zwingli, with sword in hand? Zwingli went to battle knowing he might die physically; and knowing that if he did not go to battle, he might die spiritually. After the battle of Kappel in Switzerland, where troops from Catholic cantons overwhelmed troops from Protestant Zurich, Zwingli’s body was found quartered, burned, and smeared with feces. That was the sixteenth century’s version of cancel culture.
Who wants to be sacrificed? Russian dissident Aleksander Solzhenitsyn asked that question from his own experience. As a captain in the Red Army during World War II, Solzhenitsyn was sentenced to eight years in an isolated prison and then internal exile for criticizing Soviet leader Joseph Stalin in a private letter. His account of the Soviet prison system was published in 1973 as The Gulag Archipelago. There he wrote, “Every man always has handy a dozen glib little reasons why he is right not to sacrifice himself.” There you have it. A blunt fact that turns into a hard question––to what extent are we, as Christians, relying on our own glib little reasons why we are right not to sacrifice ourselves? Let me add that if anyone in the room has glib little reasons why it is right not to sacrifice him or herself, it is me! Even Solzhenitsyn realized the near impossibility of self-sacrifice.
Instead of being arrested for The Gulag Archipelago, Solzhenitsyn was exiled to the west. Before he left, he released his now famous essay, “Live Not by Lies.” In this essay, Solzhenitsyn writes: “In the West they have strikes, protest marches, but we [Russians] are too cowed, too scared.” They were too scared to speak, he argued, even though everyone knew that the failed state was propped up only by violence and lies. “For violence has nothing to cover itself with but lies, and lies can only persist through violence. And it is not every day and not on every day that violence brings down its heavy hand: It demands of us only a submission to lies, a daily participation in deceit––and this suffices as our fealty. And therein we find, neglected by us, the simplest, the most accessible key to our liberation: a personal nonparticipation in lies!” “Even if all is covered by lies, even if all is under their rule, let us resist in the smallest way; Let their rule hold not through me!” He continued, “We are not called upon to step out onto the square and shout out the truth, to say out loud what we think––this is scary, we are not ready. But let us at least refuse to say what we do not think!” He then listed nine things he would refuse to do from then on. Two of the nine things Solzhenitsyn said he would not do caught my attention because they applied so readily to me during the past six years I spent as the Library Director at Yale Divinity School and probably to many of you too. 1. “[I] Will not be impelled to [attend] a meeting where a forced and distorted discussion is expected to take place.” 2. “[I] Will at once walk out from a session, meeting, lecture, play, or film as soon as … [I hear] the speaker utter a lie, ideological drivel, or shameless propaganda.”
Living Not By Lies
Following Solzhenitsyn here was supposed to be a relief from telling the truth! At Yale, I would have been able to follow his example for about a week, if that––and I was in a mostly collegial and bracing academic environment. He wrote his list living in a repressive regime. Still, by easing from me the burden of boldly telling the truth––which would have led to me being disciplined and probably fired––Solzhenitsyn gave me the permission to not lie instead. When it proved to be too hard to walk out of every meeting where I heard someone speak ideological drivel, I tried instead to support those who struggled to resist ideologies, prayed for those who succumbed to them, gathered resources to train students theologically and culturally, and, when-ever I could, questioned and corrected the dominant narratives. I am not saying this was sufficient or ade-quate. But it was the best that my fear allowed me to do.
Let me say at the outset of this section that Yale is an impressive place, and I am grateful for the opportunity to have worked there. Yale is the epitome of “the academy.” Smart people writing important books and having vital conversations in a stately setting with abundant resources. The atmosphere was generally cheerful, with gorgeous music and crowded chapel services. The YDS faculty was strong and collegial with a storied history of substantial theological contributions. Several faculty members were widely known and appreciated for their evangelical faith or openness to it. There were many evangelical students, too. The students were generally thoughtful, smart, and delightful, though it seemed to me that many were struggling because they had to navigate ideologies about race, gender, and privilege without much helpful guidance. The Dean is a Christian minister who believes in the Christian character of the school. He supported freedom of speech, though he knew cancel culture and censorship were real. There were some on the faculty who would say that error had no rights and should not be represented on campus––in faculty positions, invited speakers, and even in books in the library. I would be giving the wrong impression to suggest that the ideologies in play were in lock step or that the narrative was uniform. But undeniably, a haze of progressivism, wokeness, or political correctness hung over the place, and many kept their voices low and their heads down. While the Divinity School campus was publicly attuned to issues of racial justice, there was quiet complaining by some faculty members and students that race and, to a lesser extent, gender had stolen the show. The power behind “Black Lives Matter” was that until black lives mattered, nothing else mattered. That meant there was little room or energy to talk about feminism, Lesbian–Gay–Bi issues, climate change, animal rights, or anything else.
Surviving at Yale was easy––no, thriving was easy––if you kept your head down and your mouth closed. What was difficult was finding ways to talk about the bundle of ideologies that comprised “the narrative.” The oppressed/oppressor mentality was strong, and students would often try to out-victim each other along racial, class, and gender lines. Some were true believers; many were not sure; most went along. Many agonized about their privilege. Some kept it to themselves, and others sought to show how they too were oppressed. In this setting, informal networks developed, resources were shared, and people prayed for each other. The role of providing sanity checks became extremely important. Making connections, small groups meeting off campus, and telling stories all helped. It turns out that these are some of the same strategies described by Rod Dreher in Live Not by Lies. That is how you prepare to live in a soft-totalitarian culture.
From reading Shelby Steele’s two books, White Guilt (2006) and Shame (2015) I came to see that white guilt was the unspoken guest in every conversation about race. A lot of people needed to prove that they were not racists and putting a Black Lives Matter sign in their finely manicured front lawns is one way to do it. There was a lot of “privilege guilt” too, but somehow it was easier to talk about “white privilege.” Perhaps the worst material came out of the departments that offered “training” to various campus constituencies. I had no objection to learning about the subtleties of racism, bias, and sexual misconduct. It was that these sessions were invariably taught by true believers who made no arguments and only settled for one correct answer in discussions.
Upon reflection, I could have done so much more at Yale. However, despite the joys of working there, it was a dangerous place for someone like me who could not afford to get fired. (There, I have justified the failure of Christians to speak out against the Holocaust again.) I fear the day is coming when more and more people, who are not at the ends of their working lives like I am, will be put in difficult spots. It will be a time to pray for bravery and to be prepared to face the consequences. In the letter to the church in Ephesus, Jesus asks us to step closer and endure the discomfort that is about to come from having to listen, really listen, to him, knowing that serious change is on the way. It is a time to be faithful to the love we had at first. He is the victor––the brave one––after all. It does not matter where we live or what we do, there are sounds of gunfire in the distance. Just like soldiers who run to that gunfire and firefighters who ran into burning buildings, we are called to get ready for the struggles ahead and then follow Jesus where he leads. We have a lot of training and mental preparation to come. May God be with us.