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Why Christians can stay hopeful in this time of political darkness

(RNS) — Seventy percent of Americans are dissatisfied “with the way things are going in the United States at this time,” according to a Gallup poll. This presumably includes a large number of Christians — a group of people who claim to have reasons to hope no matter how dismal the moment. Christian hope, of course, is not tethered to the success of America. But the darkness of our present age raises questions about how followers of Jesus can nurture the light of hope.

Writer Zach Hoag wrestles with these very questions in his new book, “The Light Is Winning: Why Religion Just Might Bring Us Back to Life.” The darkness is real, he says, but it is also receding. He explains why America is in a time of “great revealing” and how Christians can stave off nihilism and nurture hope.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

In our current moment, many Christians feel like the darkness is surging. You argue that “the light is winning.” What do you mean?

The light is winning” isn’t a statement of wishful thinking or artificial positivity. There is so much darkness, and in the words of a favorite TV series (HBO’s “True Detective”), it looks like “the dark has a lot more territory.” But I want us to consider — and then, maybe, begin to believe — that even as the darkness surges, there is a light that is gaining ground, and indeed, winning. This is not a call to deny reality, but to face it in hope and begin moving towards genuine renewal and flourishing.

“The Light Is Winning: Why Religion Just Might Bring Us Back to Life” by Zach Hoag. Image courtesy of Zondervan

Many Christians — including 81 percent of white evangelicals — voted for Donald Trump. Does this bother you, and if so, why?

In one sense, yes, it bothers me greatly. I finished writing the book in the thick of the 2016 primaries when the likelihood of Trump winning still seemed like a long shot. Yet, I was struck by how his candidacy was revealing the real, underlying values and goals of American evangelical culture.

These are apocalyptic times for American Christianity, in the literal sense that they are revealing times. The decline of Christian faith in the U.S. is, I believe in part, a result of this revelation. There is a deep compromise with the wealth, power and violence of the empire at work in the church in our time.

In another sense, though, I remain hopeful and resolute. Despite the percentage of evangelicals who voted for and support Trump, I believe we are witnessing the last angry gasps of a perspective that is coming to a necessary end as a dominant force in American society.

But you stay optimistic amid these trends. What staves off the depression?

The depression is real, and I’m not sure it is staved off all the time. When health care for the working poor is threatened, when another racist cop kills an innocent black man, when women are relentlessly attacked by the leader of the free world in the name of his own fragile ego, I cannot help but feel, with the rest of the good people in the world, deep sadness, anger and lament.

To get to that place of resolute and resistant hope, we have to go through the wilderness of pain and lament. So really, “the light is winning” is a political statement: that even though the empire business of oppression is booming, we believe another kingdom is gaining ground, and is, despite appearances, going to win. And then, we join in.

You say you’ve seen forward progress from death into resurrection for the American church. Paint a picture of what this looks like. What are most people missing?

I see the beginnings of it, the rumblings of it. We are still, collectively, in the “great revealing” phase, I think, where the darkness of American Christianity’s empire business is being unveiled. But in the midst of that revealing, followers of Jesus across movements and denominations are seeing this moment as a time to reflect, repent, reform and resist — rather than hunker down, hide and protect the status quo. In some ways, we are all caught up in a tide that will, as with all reformation times, expose the egregious harm and un-health in the church and bring about change. Apocalypses cannot be controlled. A necessary ending is coming.

The growing number of religiously unaffiliated — the “nones” or “dones” — has garnered a lot of press in recent days. Does this surge bother you?

The statistics themselves sadden me, but they don’t alarm me. While the nones and dones are different groups with different reasons for avoiding organized religion, God is present with them and gracious towards them right where they are. The nones and dones are telling us something that we desperately need to hear.

The church’s response ought not be to anxiously devise new strategies for “getting them back” to recoup the losses and meet institutional benchmarks. Nor should the church’s response be to dismiss them as unsaved, unregenerate, nominal knuckleheads and continue on with business as usual (what I call the “status quo illusion”). Instead, we must listen, reflect and lean into reform.

Zach Hoag is the author of “The Light Is Winning”

How do you encourage the nones and dones to move forward into faith?

Don’t rush the process, and resist feeling that God is absent or distant or disapproving. God is present with them, right where they are. And, I would add this plea: Don’t give up, and don’t stop. This deconstruction need not be demolition, need not bring an absolute end to your faith. It just might be ushering you in to a brand new spiritual beginning and genuine religious flourishing.

The age of Trump has sparked great divisions among Christians. Those who are for or against often malign the other group. How can we pursue peace and unity in such a moment?

This is really hard. Especially because we desperately need a prophetic witness against the egregious abuses of American empire in these times. And prophets tend to not make friends with empire. They often become the empire’s worst enemies.

Where I see the need for peacemaking is at the small-scale interpersonal level. Recently, I was on a radio show with a conservative, Trump-supporting host, and we were still able to find areas of common ground in our conversation. This made discussing differences possible in the tension of newfound relationship. But there is a point where following Jesus brings “a sword” and not peace. Ironically, it’s at the point where we must emphatically object to the oppressions of empire. That’s when we may find ourselves at odds even with members of our own households, just as Jesus warned.

If Jesus were physically present in America right now, what do you think he would say about our political climate? Would he be optimistic, in your opinion?

He would not be blindly optimistic. No, he would resist the powers that be. He would protest the empire business in the American church. He would drag everything into the light, because Jesus is the light. He would invite all of us to place our hope in another kingdom entirely, and to participate in realizing that kingdom on earth as it is in heaven. He would dare us to believe, despite the darkness, that the light is winning — and then tell us to get to work.

About the author

Jonathan Merritt

Jonathan Merritt is senior columnist for Religion News Service and a contributing writer for The Atlantic. He has published more than 2500 articles in outlets like USA Today, The Week, Buzzfeed and National Journal. Jonathan is author of "Jesus is Better Than You Imagined" and "A Faith of Our Own: Following Jesus Beyond the Culture Wars." He resides in Brooklyn, NY.

32 Comments

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  • “RNS: If Jesus were physically present in America right now, what do you think he would say about our political climate? Would he be optimistic, in your opinion?”
    * “He would protest the empire business in the American church.”

    What did Jesus say?
    At the outset of His ministry:
    Matt. 4:17 From that time Jesus began to preach, saying, “Repent! For the kingdom of heaven is at hand.”
    Mark 1:15 Jesus came to Galilee preaching the gospel of the kingdom of God, 15 saying, “The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God is at hand. Repent and believe the gospel.”
    Luke 13:3 I tell you, no! But unless you repent, you will all likewise perish.

    Post resurrection:
    Matt. 28:18-20 Then Jesus came and spoke to them, saying, “All authority has been given to Me in heaven and on earth. 19 Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, 20 teaching them to observe all things I have commanded you. And remember, I am with you always, even to the end of the age.”

    Mark 16:15 He said to them, “Go into all the world, and preach the gospel to every creature. 16 He who believes and is baptized will be saved. But he who does not believe will be condemned.

    Luke 24:46-47 46 He said to them, “Thus it is written, and accordingly it was necessary for the Christ to suffer and to rise from the dead the third day, 47 and that repentance and remission of sins should be preached in His name to all nations, beginning at Jerusalem.

    John 20:21 So Jesus said to them again, “Peace be with you. As My Father has sent Me, even so I send you.”

    He didn’t call out Rome or Greece or the Assyrians during His earthly ministry. I don’t think He would call out America or Russia or China or any other country for their sins – he would call out the church

    (Revelations 1 1 The Revelation of Jesus Christ, which God gave to Him to show to His servants things which must soon take place. He sent and signified it by His angel to His servant John, 2 who bears record of the word of God, and of the testimony of Jesus Christ, and of all things that he saw. 3 Blessed is he who reads and those who hear the words of this prophecy and keep those things which are written in it, for the time is near.

    4 John,

    To the seven churches which are in Asia:

    But He has already done that.

  • But the Bible tells the church to warn the nations of their sins in Ezekiel 33, anf Jesus did that in His first appearing. So, yes, the church should warn the nations of their sins.

  • But many leaders of the Mega-Churches (with their Mega-Bucks) seem to have cast Jesus & his teachings aside and have aligned themselves with Donald Trump. Also, they seem to look upon him as their new Lord and Savior. How does the “light” work in circumstances like this?

  • I rarely skip reading the entire text of an article or commentary on the basis of its headline, but in this instance it was quite easy. “Why Christians can stay hopeful in this time of political darkness;” I do not need Mr. Merritt’s expository essay in order to know “why.” The why is that our hope lies in the Incomparable Saving Grace of Jesus Christ, Lord and Saviour of the Elect. Live or die, rich or poor, embraced or outcast, the Christian is called to trust Him who died for us, whatever betide. Mr. Merritt would be more effective as a Christian essayist if he would emphasize that simple fact more often. But then his function is not that of an exhortatory preacher, yet his commentaries read that way.

  • Major Hillary Clinton supporter I learned upon googling him. He’s highly political. Ho hum. Typical RNS.

  • Hope you are well. Your have recently taken on a tone of negativity and lack of positive engagement that you have shown before – even when you disagree. Or perhaps a RNS holiday to lift your spirits?

  • It has nothing to do with mass baby murder. It’s just mean old conservatives who won’t raise the minimum wage rate!

    You Secularists, even the “liberal Christian” ones, are so far gone. I now understand how people like you built the Soviet Union!

  • Great article. There is so much truth here. Thanks. In the darkest times the light shines. Jesus’ crucifixion wasn’t about dying it was about eternal life. We need these dark periods because, “Man’s extremity is God’s opportunity.” We are more prone to turn to God in times of trouble. The present episode in American culture, including religion, has come at last. And it will continue to come through the evolution of spiritual development and advancement.
    Hab 2:14 “For the earth shall be filled with the knowledge of the glory of the Lord, as the waters cover the sea.”

  • I take note that the tenor of my exchanges with you lately have been tinged on my part with a measurable trace of asperity. This is something I strive to avoid, being mindful of Christ’s instruction regarding meekness. Meekness is not retreat or the adoption of a milksop stance, but rather the calm unruffled response of one situated in a difficult situation. I am not too prideful to beg your pardon for any spirit of hostility you may have sensed from me. I try not to pry into the details of other’s lives, but depending on the relationship, I have learned to enquire cautiously, primarily as means to get a fuller picture of the people I interact with here. For example, Ben in Oakland, with whom I have many substantial disagreements, I have developed a relationship here where we can usually disagree with comity. He knows a number of personal details of my life, and I his. There are others. Some people prefer the greatest degree of anonymity, and I respect that as well. However, among Christians, and everything you have written seems to demonstrate that your commitment is to that calling, I feel that even a modest exposition of one’s theological or sectarian preferences is fair game. On that basis, if you are willing would you share succinctly and to meet your own level of comfort, reveal somewhat of your faith background. No harm/no foul if you decline. To your last point. A RNS Holiday is something I’ve been pondering seriously, and yet like any addict, I am loathe to miss any compelling issue, story, or exchange. However, fasting, of whatever nature, is often a profitable spiritual exercise. Lastly, some of my negativity arises from what I believe is a growing hostility in our society, by progressive Christians as well as others, to the orthodox and historical understanding of evangelical Christianity as I understand it. If true, negativity is precisely the wrong response…but I’m still learning.

  • A very nice article, and I appreciate Mr. Hoag´s focus on steadfastness and love. I also think it would be helpful to maintain a certain sense of perspective. People have despaired over perceived darkness and signs-of-the-times for countless generations, whether it be over the moral condition of economic, political or social conditions. The only thing that makes our current place in history unique is that we have a global communication system to make us hyper-aware of even the smallest of details of offenses occurring anywhere in the world. But I really don’t believe the modern age is qualitatively any different than previous stages of civilization because fundamentally, we have the same problems of human nature ubiquitous to all ages as the source of what the article is calling “darkness”.

    Personally, and this is just my own opinion, I think secularism, as a social model, is sustainable only so far as any coincidental economic bounty is sufficient to keep the populace superficially satisfied. When the good times end, however, and an underlying spiritual barrenness is exposed, there is little to provide the social cohesion required to maintain a civil order. This may be what we are seeing in today’s America. The best response of the religious today is to be steadfast, remain at peace and not to “hide the light under a bushel” but to set your light on the stand to push back the darkness and be a beacon, an example, for the wandering souls feeling their way towards Grace. Always with love, never with scorn.

  • I also wanted to say I find Mr. Hoag’s thesis of “American Christianity’s empire business” titillating. I have not thought about the issue quite in those terms before but am interested to explore the idea further. I am
    prone to the opinion that for many of the self-described “nones”, it is not that they have failed the church but that the church has failed them by proving incapable of speaking to their hearts in relevant terms that present the eternal truths in the context of our current age. But I also see significant headway being made to offer a more mature theology from many corners, challenging the increasingly ineffectual stance of a theology that has not grown since before the information, industrial or even scientific revolution. If we are serious about thinking about the Divine, about God, as “the living Word”, I do believe it is imperative to focus more on what it means for the Word to be living. So like Mr. Hoag, I am also very optimistic about our future and the promise for many of the “nones” to become a new vanguard of an even deeper spirituality that can be a true blessing to the world. I think Mr. Hoag is quite prescient to note that “God is present with them.” Again, just my opinion.

  • There are many whose conduct shows they are really enemies of the cross of Christ. They are headed for destruction. Their god is their appetite, they brag about shameful things, and they think only about this life here on earth. But we are citizens of heaven, where the Lord Jesus Christ lives. And we are eagerly waiting for Him to return as our Savior. He will take our weak mortal bodies and change them into glorious bodies like His own, using the same power with which He will bring everything under His control.

    Philippians 3:18-21

  • I think it’s funny how the alt-left played the race card out and now the “white card” is in. Isn’t it apparent by now who the real racists are……

  • Well, I’m not sure anyone can speak for all Christians, certainly not myself, and indeed the hateful rhetoric of white supremacists is a cancer in our land. But I don’t see all things as dark. My Commander in Chiefs focus on supporting our military forces finally with the goal to not just contain or look like we are doing soemthing but to “win” (and yes, I’m already seeing tangible results) is a breath of fresh air after the previous 8 years of cut and run. I listened carefully to two speeches by CINC this week and found a focus not just on defeating terror but also hate. He condemned in very clear terms white supremacy. I have to say, after reading and watching various news outlets and how they handled these interviews, that the majority of the news sources are not being objective providing empirical data but are indeed selectively editing to argue to a predetermined conclusion. The news services have been political instruments of power through the selective reinforcement of limited information leading to false conclusions. (cf. Orwell 1984) This is for me the darkness that pervades politics today.

  • RNS is certainly not without its not so hidden agendas or goal of arguing to predetermined conclusions.

  • I look forward generally to your comments as while you may disagree,with another commenter you normally do with thoughtfulness and without snide comments and in an open manner. It is helpful to me to read comments that don’t grate because of tone because I do try to understand opposing positions. For example I was surprised that you added a caveat in your appraisal of Jimmy Carter. It was just something I didn’t expect (from you). I would describe myself as using the Great Commandments as my basic lens – which probably comes from years of hearing that read every Sunday. I prefer reading liberal theologians to conservative ones – mainly because I disagree to a lesser extent with liberal theologians but will agree to some extent with some conservative theologians. I have also done on-line basic free courses to look with different lenses at the Bible.(The OT as taught by a Jewish professor). And church offered discussion groups post service that are somewhat ad hoc as well as formal around structured topics. In other words learning is an important part of my faith journey. I try to stay away from ‘cherry picking’ Scripture which is a real temptation at times – mainly because reading the surrounding verses and chapters often imbues a different meaning. I am a blend of traditionalist (at least within my denomination) and progressive. There is much I like about my specific church but the one thing I find personally satisfying is that 30% of the church budget goes to outreach – more or less outside of the church community and is split locally, nationally and internationally. In terms of hostility, my advice is to simply roll with it and recognize that unfortunately it is a Trump effect, I have read pejorative terms used as well to describe the progressives generally and my denomination specifically. It stings but ultimately, someone else’s opinion.

  • I appreciate your response, though my own experience has been that the hostility you refer to largely predates Trump, is something that has always been with us, and effects both sides of the progressive/conservative divide. As a measure of my own faith experience, exchanges on RNS have moved the needle for me on some issues, at least in terms of adopting a more nuanced response to those with whom I disagree. I am gratified that you mentioned that your own church designates 30% of its budget to outreach. That is a practice many churches would do well to emulate. Based on deductive reasoning it suggests to me a fairly large congregation. As one whose church experience during the last three decades has been associated with congregations of 150 persons or less, such generosity has been out of reach.

  • Do you want to start getting honest? Or are you going to keep pretending you’re a master of the universe despite your miserable Secularist lifestyle and the fact that, as a proud, Secularist Leftist American, you most likely collect welfare or live paycheck to paycheck?

  • Look in the mirror and say that, Ace. I’ve seen plenty of stupid comments on these sections but that wins the prize for stupidest reply today. Forget about what your limited imagination thinks I am. I’m not the issue. You’re the one making ridiculous assertions with nothing to back it up. Now put up or shut up, little feller.

  • I’m done. You’ve revealed yourself as one incapable of intelligent discussion. Assertion after assertion only revels the lack of capability for discourse. buh-bye.

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