Needed! A New Evangelicalism

Ellul and the Election

In his 1960 essay, “Christian Faith & Social Reality,”
Jacques Ellul writes that Christians should join movements in which more or
less everyone is involved – movements for peace, to address poverty, to improve
the conditions of employment for the working class – but encourages them “to
think of things that no one is doing, to see the problems that no one is
seeing, and to tackle enterprises that are still completely unknown.” Hearing
this language today, we may think of innovation, entrepreneurship, or even
space flight. But when Ellul says, “Christians are called to create within the
society what no one else can do,” he means that they are called to two tasks:
Profaning idols and building bridges.

According to Ellul, Christians “have an enormous service to
render” in smashing idols. Ellul believes that all people tend to invest
“simple facts” and institutions with religious or sacred value.  He notes that “the state will be easily
transformed into a religious value – or the nation, or progress, or work, or,
in certain countries, socialism is transformed into a religious value.” All
these things and more – technique, administration, the machine – are “fine” by
themselves. But as soon as people put their faith in them, place their hope in
them, “are convinced that their spiritual life depends on [these things] and
that actually [these things] will be the vicarious instrument which will allow
them cheaply to exercise love of neighbor, then at that moment we are in full
idolatry.” By profaning these idols – treating them as mere “things” that do not merit our devotion – Christians may liberate
people from their “intellectual alienations and their spiritual alienations.”

The second charge is to “build bridges, relations between people:”


Ellul’s two distinct tasks are related. One way to profane
idols is to share in the projects of non-Christians – a sort of bridge-building
– without investing those projects with sacred significance. Another way is to
embrace unity with other Christians despite their differences, demonstrating
that Jesus Christ is the absolute value that relativizes all other commitments.

This dual charge has been with me throughout a 2016 presidential campaign marked by idolatry and division, and even more so in the wake of an election result that may test the limits of Christian unity at precisely the moment we most need to build bridges.

Unity and Its Limits

Surely it is true that Christian unity despite serious
difference is our foretaste of and evidence for the new creation. The work of
new creation begun in the church is evidenced by the fact that now “There is
neither Jew nor Gentile, neither slave nor free, nor is there male and female,
for you are all one in Christ Jesus” (Galatians 3:28). As Paul writes to the
church at Colossae, “There is no Gentile or Jew, circumcised or uncircumcised,
barbarian, Scythian, slave or free, but Christ is all, and is in all” (Col
3:11). Ellul is right to describe Christian unity as a sign pointing toward the
kingdom of God, a symbol of God’s work to restore “unity to all things in
heaven and on earth under Christ” (Eph 1:10):

It is not a matter of beginning on earth a kingdom of God
that will finally end in heaven. It is a matter of something more modest, and,
I believe, biblically more true. It is a matter of being within social reality
practically the sign, simply the sign (and not the beginning), not more than a
sign, but in any case the sign that points to the truth, the sign that there is
this truth, and that we are not marching toward this truth, that we shall not
attain this truth at the end of our long pilgrimage, because this truth comes
to us, it is the truth that travels; it is not that we travel toward truth;
this truth advances toward us, this eschatological truth illuminates us,
already now in its movement that approaches us and our reality. And it is of
that [truth] that we are to be the sign now for the people of this time.

Among the questions that should haunt us at the end of
Ellul’s essay – there are always haunting and unresolved questions after
reading Ellul, which is fitting for an author who dropped Calvin for boring him
with answers and took up Barth, who set him on a “quest” – are these: “Does
Christian participation in all movements and parties have limits? Does
Christian unity have its own limits?”

Ellul doesn’t explicitly suggest any limits. In fact, he
suggests that Christians should be in every party. While we might read this as
a suggestion that anything goes, it’s probably fairer to read this as Ellul’s
commentary on France’s political scene in 1960 – he didn’t see any particular
party in the country at that time as so thoroughgoingly problematic that no
Christian should join it.

But we know from Ellul’s life that he had his limits. Ellul
participated in the resistance to Nazi occupation of France, and Yad Vashem,
the Holocaust Martyrs’ and Heroes’ Remembrance Authority, later honored him as
“Righteous Among the Nations” for risking his life to save Jews during the
Holocaust. It is safe to say that Christian support for the evil, oppressive,
depersonalizing, dehumanizing, and violent Nazi regime was, for Ellul, beyond
the pale.

Moreover, the implicit limit in “Christian Faith and Social
Reality” is the willingness to profane the idols, myths, and false values of
the world. Christians should be unified with other Christians who share the
project of desacralizing these things, undermining the religious value of mere
facts and human institutions, and liberating others from alienation. Christians unwilling to acknowledge the limits of coziness with false values and hatred strain the credibility of the gospel to the point where unity may be inappropriate. 

These limits are one reason that evangelical Christians in
the United States will have a difficult path to unity after the election of
Donald Trump. Evangelicals were deeply divided by the campaign but voted for
Trump in numbers large enough to make people wonder whether Trump was talking
about evangelicals when he said, “I could stand in the middle of 5th
Avenue and shoot somebody and I wouldn’t lose voters.”

Trump fueled his campaign by deepening alienation; by
dehumanizing and depersonalizing women, minorities, and the disabled; and by
activating, cultivating, and empowering the darkest parts of the national
psyche. Two days ago, in a clear reference to the holocaust, a white
nationalist Trump supporter on Twitter sent me a photo of former Isreali
President and Prime Minister, the late Shimon Peres, in front of an open oven,
along with a spray can called, “Frog Fumes,” and a caption that read, “Another
Skype Bites the Dust.” Skype is a new derogatory term for “Jew,” created to get
around social media filters and used by the “alt-right,” a loose right wing
coalition consisting in large part of white supremacists and those who “harass
Jews, Muslims and other vulnerable groups” online and in real life.

For those who think that these impulses are somehow at a
great distance from Trump’s campaign and his White House, we need only note the
appointment of Stephen Bannon as Trumps strategist and senior counselor, a position
with direct access to and great influence over the president. Bannon himself
described his own work as a platform for the “alt-right.”

Many evangelical supporters of Trump have been quick to note
that they are not racists, anti-Semites, or misogynists themselves, but they
have been slower to denounce the racism, anti-Semitism, and misogyny that have
ridden Trump’s coattails like an invisible down-ballot candidate. (Others have
simply said that “there will always be crazies” attached to candidates from any
party. “There will always be crazies” is not
an appropriate response to David Duke and the KKK or to anti-Semitism or to
the subjugation of women.)

Any evangelical Christian unwilling to acknowledge and
repudiate the hatred that has been stoked by Trump’s campaign, and tempted to
claim clean hands because they themselves don’t embody that hatred, should
remember both the call to smash false values and the Apostle Paul’s words in Romans 1:32, which condemn not only
sinful deeds but also condemn giving approval of those who practice them.

Needed! A New

Another of Ellul’s early essays, “Needed! A New Karl Marx,”
said that we needed a theorist who could be as penetrating about technology as
Marx was about capitalism. While Ellul had largely repudiated Marx after his
conversion to Christianity, he retained a great respect for Marx’s ability to
provide a systematic account of political economic shortcomings. We needed
someone to apply those same sorts of analytical skills to realities of
what Ellul described as the “technological society.” Someone needed to reach back,
recover, and embody the best of penetrating social theory. Someone needed to
do what only a social theorist of Marx’s skill could do and provide a systematic account of
what was going on in society.

In the wake of, but not only because of, Donald Trump’s
election, we need a new evangelicalism. While many see only two options –
abandon evangelicalism or continue to commend it in some unqualified way –
there is a third: We need to redefine it so that it embodies the best of
Christianity, so that it does what Ellul suggests only Christians can do. We need an evangelicalism that is committed to building bridges. We
need an evangelicalism that participates in many movements, but knows their
limits. We
need an evangelicalism that is willing, in word and in deed, to descralize
those very same movements and to profane idols for the sake of liberating
others. We need an evangelicalism that embodies Christian unity, but doesn’t
strain Christian credibility.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s