However, I began to understand that conservative Evangelicalism is what used to be Fundamentalism, but they just call it a different name. The goalposts keep moving a little bit. And part of the problem is, I didn’t know because I didn’t grow up in the culture. I don’t know what the signal words are, what the “whistles” are, you know? Maybe “pro-life” is one of them. I didn’t know the unspoken rules until I bumped into them. There’s lots of unspoken roles in Evangelical culture. I want to say, for example, White Evangelicalism is so tightly tied to the Republican Party. I mean, I can argue with people with that if they disagree with me, but it’s so tightly tied to the Republican platform that if I cite the biblical mandate to care for and to do justice for the refugee and immigrant and if I cry out against systemic racism and oppression, I am being “the liberal” and dismissed, summarily dismissed even though I can tell you that what I’m saying is scriptural.
I can tell you about the early church practices of St. Basil, St. Gregory, Chrysostom, the church mothers and fathers. I can tell you that I’m not whack; I am not out of line. But I’m not going to be accepted because people in our American culture, whether it’s political or economic, they don’t like the implications and the consequences of following Jesus in this way because it’s going to change the way we live. It’s going to change the way I live. And Jesus will scandalize us with the way we deal with money and the way we deal with people. He scandalized people of his time. He’s going to scandalize us now.
“I’m not going to name names of publications, but I can tell you that I’ve been told in clear terms that I’m considered too controversial. Because I talk about immigration or racism, then I can no longer get published in certain places because it makes me too controversial.”
So that’s why I’m on the borderlands, because of my upbringing, and I think it allows me to see things. When we talk about Evangelicalism in theology, we’re talking mostly about White Evangelicals. There’s the Black church, there are Asian brothers and sisters, and Native Americans, there’s all sorts of people that would say Jesus is central, but they don’t have the same lens that I would say that Evangelicalism in America has.
Has sitting on the borderlands of Evangelicalism created difficulties in terms of credibility and access to certain spaces in the publishing world?
Yeah, I mean, I’ve been stonewalled again, especially because of my view on immigration. I’m not going to name names of publications, but I can tell you that I’ve been told in clear terms that I’m considered too controversial. Because I talk about immigration or racism, then I can no longer get published in certain places because it makes me too controversial. I actually wonder if people don’t trust Jesus in me. What I mean by that is, I have friends that I would say I disagree heatedly with them about gun rights, for example. When I wrote for Christianity Today about Trayvon Martin in 2012, I was making a minimal claim back then that racial profiling takes place.
I remember I was at the Festival of Faith and Writing at Calvin College and my post about Trayvon Martin went up. And [Sarah Pulliam Bailey said], “Hey, you might want to check the comments section.” I was crucified there. There were so many comments. After a while, Christianity Today started taking the comment section off, but people were saying that I’m not a Christian because I was making a minimal claim that racial profiling exists and that we should listen to our Black brothers and sisters that tell us what it means. I talked about how my friend’s mom always told her and her brother what they need to do when they’d go out of the house, if they get pulled over. I was being so minimal. But I was crucified and even called un-Christian because I said that racial profiling exists.
Now, the culture has started to come along, but I have been disinvited from places not necessarily because I’m writing this stuff for them, but I’ve been disinvited because I speak up about these things. It has cost me financially, actually, in many ways. It’s cost my husband and I jobs for being true to our conscience of what Scripture says. I remember we said to ourselves in that job situation – I’m not going to go into great detail about it – but we would rather have a clean conscience than keep a job. It was a job at an Evangelical university. We would rather have a clear conscience and stand before God and do what’s right than keep this job. I would rather work in a low-wage job than sell my soul to keep this job. And the funny thing is, for many of the things we were standing for, now it’s like kind of more accepted, but at the time, it wasn’t. We, and many other people, not just us, were victims of those that don’t like this kind of talk.
The Way Up Is Down has a very personal element to it and shows your journey of the sort of paradox of Christian living that we find in the scriptures, how there’s fullness through emptying. Do you think that this concept is something that’s missing in the Evangelical church today?
Yes, I really love this question because it’s why I wrote my book, because I think it is missing overall – I’m not talking about individual people. But I started thinking about The Way Up Is Down prior to the 2016 election. You could see seeds of it in my first book, A Beautiful Disaster: Finding Hope in the Midst of Brokenness.
I was disgusted by what I mentioned about being shunned and losing work because I dared to say that the way we treat immigrants is wrong, is unscriptural. Sometimes laws are wrong. People will say, “It’s legal!” Well, it was legal to oppress and kill the Jews in Germany. Nazi law was legal too. Slavery was legal. Legal does not mean right or biblical. And there’s also the Chinese Exclusion Act and the Japanese were mistreated. There’s a lot of legal things in our nation’s history that have been demonic and wicked.
So I was like, why is it that the people that I would listen to on the radio when I was younger did an about-face when they said that character matters, in politics and everywhere else? That they have sold their souls for power? Because Jesus demonstrates how he used power. The Bible is full of paradox. If you want to live, you have to die, right? Unless the seed falls to the ground and dies – he went into the tomb. He died so that we might live. And that’s the gospel: we die now, so that we might live now and live later after we die.
Why are Christians grasping for power? It’s like a Christianized version of the American dream, except we have our little different kinds of statuses. It can be how much money you have, how big your house is, what denominational circles and who you work with, what Christian conference you go to. I thought about Jesus in the market when he made the whips. He was so upset. He said, “My Father’s house was to be a house of prayer.” So I just felt like American Christianity was becoming a circus and a sideshow and selling our soul overall. At least the people that have the mic for Evangelicals. And when I say “have the mic,” there are a lot of faithful people that might not have the mic.
Why wasn’t Jesus born in Athens or Alexandria, Egypt, or in a palatial setting? I’ve been obsessed with this probably because of how I grew up. He became poor, born to poor parents in the backwater of Galilee, in an occupied territory, and he chose disciples that didn’t make it with the other rabbis. Why? Why? Why does Jesus make a beeline for the people that we choose to unsee? I’ve been fascinated with that, and I see that all throughout Scripture. He says that it’s so the power of God might be manifest, not because of our titles or how smart we are. He chose the weak things of the world to confound the wise.
When the Sons of Zebedee say, “Hey, call down fire on this village because they didn’t accept you or do what you want,” Jesus says, “No, don’t do that.” When Peter tried to slice off the soldier’s ear, Jesus healed the ear. He’s like, “That’s not how it is in the kingdom of God. We don’t take up arms like this. We don’t use misuse our power.”
Jesus was tempted by the devil to misuse his power. He lived the way of self-emptying as it talks about in Philippians chapter two, a life of self-sacrifice. He didn’t grasp power, though it was his. And I still don’t know all the implications of that, but I do know that the way that we are living collectively as American Christians has not been the way of Jesus. My book takes a look at what that might look like in our life in our moment right now.
In your book, you draw upon lots of different Christian traditions from the western and the eastern traditions. When did you first start to draw upon sources that were outside of your own circle? What benefits have you seen to be able draw from many sources that maybe even the American church might be able to learn from?
I didn’t know about the church fathers and mothers or the Eastern Orthodox Church. Well, I did hear about it in college because I was a history major. But I did not get to read primary sources until I was in seminary – Roman Catholic, Eastern Orthodox, and Protestant. After seminary, I’d read these sources, and I’m like, oh, my word, there is a treasure trove! Also the Black church’s treasure trove of wisdom and beauty that I did not get.
Let me say this to be very clear that I don’t hate or loathe Evangelicals. I don’t want to say that at all because I do think I’m Evangelical – I’m Christocentric. But I feel that I didn’t know the treasure of the faith. There are people that have been thinking about things for thousands of years. And they have so much insight. I kind of feel like a child in a candy store or, you know, pick your favorite thing. I’d think, “Oh, I didn’t have words, but I thought about this this way.” For example, the Eastern Orthodox talk about union with God and theosis, and just the way they talk about God is the way I came to think about God when I read my Bible as a child.
“I think a lot of times people are leaving maybe conservative Evangelicalism because they think that’s just what the church is. The church is quite bigger, and I have a lot to learn from them.”
I’ve been given more language and conversation partners, and one of the main things that I think about are a lot of people that, for example, leave – they’re like, “Okay, I’m done with being a Christian. It’s such a pile of bunk. And there’s so many hypocrites.” And I’m like, you know, I completely agree with you. I mean, a lot of people ask me after what happened to us with our jobs that why Shawn and I are still Christians. I’m like, if this is all I knew of Christianity, maybe I wouldn’t be. But I’ve met people outside of these circles. And I know Jesus is not like that. They’re not like acting like Jesus. I know there’s Christians from all the traditions that are so in love with Christ. And it might manifest a little bit differently, but I would not question their faith whatsoever. I’ve been really formed by them.
I think a lot of times people are leaving maybe conservative Evangelicalism because they think that’s just what the church is. The church is quite bigger, and I have a lot to learn from them. The Eastern Orthodox and Roman Catholics are the big ones, but also, the Black church here in America. I have to be humble and listen to other people and what they have to teach me and not think that I know everything. And boy, have I been schooled and learned a lot. I think when I tell people, listen, this might be what you’re rejecting. Would you be open to other streams of Christianity? Even the mainline stream has a lot of good stuff in it. People might disagree with some things; that’s fine to disagree. But to say that there’s no goodness in any of these traditions is arrogant and ignorant and foolish.
Another main point in The Way Up Is Down is the necessary linkage between justice and spiritual formation. In our current moment, there are many people who leave the church or have no reason to want to go to church because of the silence they’ve seen at the face of injustice. How might this linkage between justice and spiritual formation be an apologetic of the truth of God that’s at work in the world today?
This disjunction between justice and spiritual formation is unnatural and it’s un-Christian. If you look at the life of Jesus – Jesus spoke gospel truth, but he also healed people. He fed people. He didn’t let them go hungry. We don’t just see it in the New Testament. We see it in Jeremiah, where God says, “Seek the welfare of the city because in seeking the city’s welfare you will find your own.” Seek the welfare of your communities. Yes, they need to know about Jesus and the kingdom, but they’ll get a chance to see what the kingdom of God is like if we are out there loving our neighbor as ourselves and communicating by our life the gospel with integrity.
In the early church, they’re like, if you have a coat in your closet or shoes in your closet and someone else doesn’t, you are robbing the poor! It has implications for me. If I have a bunch of clothes in my closet and there’s someone without it, then I’m a thief! They do not mince words about our responsibility to other people. So, it was never separated.
Jesus says, “Woe to you, Pharisees, you cross land and see to share the gospel, but you make people twice the sons and daughters of hell as you are because you weigh them down with all these rules.” And people were always coming at Jesus for healing on Sunday. And he’d say, “Is it good to do what’s right? You would do this for your donkey, but you won’t do this for a human being?”
It’s all throughout church history. The Catholic tradition has this right. The Eastern Orthodox – you cannot separate formation and contemplation. The word for “justice” and “righteousness” are the same in Scripture. “Righteous” is not just internal, like “I want to be right with God.” “Vertical and horizontal” is the way people use it in sermons: if I want to be right with God, I have to be right with my brother and sister. First John [says], “How can you say you love God, whom you’ve not seen, if you don’t love your brother and sister? Or someone’s hungry and you say, “God bless you, be well fed, I’ll pray for you.” No, you have to be the answers to those prayers! You don’t send people off without food if you have food to give them.
Obviously, we cannot do everything. I cannot give myself to every cause. Nor could Jesus. He spent himself in a little locale. He said, “My food is to do the will of the Father who sent me.” Obviously, you and I and listeners and those that are reading this, we’re all going to be doing different parts of Kingdom work where God has called us. Acts 17:26-28 says that he drew the boundary lines where we should live and the time we should be alive. And God is close to us if we would just reach out to him.
I wasn’t born in the 13th century. I was not born in South Africa. I was born in Puerto Rico, in the United States of America, in the last half of the 20th century. And I live in Northwest Ohio. So there are boundaries. So I need to love the people where I’m at in my local community. And then, however God calls me to reach those in “Judea, Samaria, the uttermost parts of the earth,” but I can’t do everything. I can do something, though. And I need to do what God has called me to do.
So when people say caring about racism and immigration or the lead paint poisoning of the city of Toledo – I mean, are you going to start calling those [people] “liberals?” Do you call caring about sex trafficking “liberal?” No, sex trafficking is a very horrible evil. And Christians have done a good job of bringing attention to that, and they’re not called “liberal” and wrong for caring about sex trafficking.
“Justice” and “righteousness” are the same word. So we have to love God in our heart, soul and mind, and then love our neighbors as ourselves. Jesus said that. So, anyone that tries to separate [justice from righteousness] is not sharing the gospel or the kingdom.
If a church small group decided to go through your book, what would be the concrete action steps that you would have for them after they finished your book?
That’s a big question. It’s going to strike everyone differently. But I would just say, first of all, hopefully, after reading my book, people would examine themselves. I examine myself; my book is like a sermon to myself. I do not get off the hook on anything that I’ve just said in this conversation. And God keeps coming at me with stuff, in a gentle way of course. I always have to be born again, again and crucify my flesh and be emptied so that I can follow Christ. It can happen on a daily basis.
But I would want readers and listeners to wonder, what is God calling to you to do? For example, I have in chapter five where I talked about transfiguration and seeing who are the people that are invisible in your community in your life, the people that Jesus sees? How could you start to see them? When you start to see them, that will probably transform you. I was listening to Romans 12 today, and I was thinking again about being transformed through the renewing of your mind. That’s what I want my book to do, through the Holy Spirit, because, obviously, I believe that’s the message of God. It’s not my message. I’m just a conduit for the message. I want people to be transformed. Republicans or Democrats — I don’t care what your political party is — do not equate that with the gospel. Know that your Jesus is going to call us to do things that are countercultural and even counter Christian cultural. I’ve had to live counter cultural and Jesus also was countercultural to the church of his day. People don’t like it. I don’t do things to make people upset, but I’m trying to be faithful.
So I guess what I would say is how you see people, number one, and what we just talked about a moment ago is, are there areas of our lives where we’re separating spiritual formation and justice? It might not be a huge thing. It might be the little things that you do. We can’t separate them. Where is that? Is it how you use money? Like I mentioned earlier, like the church fathers and mothers said, if you have way too many clothes and there’s someone without clothes or food, you’re a thief! Those are strong words and I think they’re jarring. They’re jarring to me at least. So I guess I would ask readers and listeners to see where’s Jesus scandalizing you in two places: how you deal with money and how you see other people. What would he like you to do about it? In my book, I talk about seeing a lot and our money, and also offering, what would it look like for you to empty yourself in order to follow Jesus, in order that you might be full of God?