Silence and the Passion: On CNN, Louie Giglio, and Me

Over the weekend, I wrote this at CNN about the Louie Giglio debacle:

The news that Louie Giglio is no longer going to give the benediction at President Obama’s inauguration sent shock waves around the conservative Christian world.

Conservative Christians are right to be concerned about what these events mean for their welcome in the public square. But as Christians we shouldn’t be surprised nor even overly upset. Given the history of our founder, such marginalization is what we can expect.

I’d encourage you to read the whole thing before commenting. There’s only so much you can do in 800 words, and I probably tried to do too much.  (I’ve never had that problem before, right?)  So let me add a little here, by way of clarification.

Can silence be a political act?  Can it be a form of communication, and if so what might it communicate?  Or perhaps more specifically, can offering something like “Father, forgive them” be included in the canonical moments that we consider when discerning how to respond to those who reject us?  It need not be the only moment that we consider, of course.  There are others.  But there may be a time to speak politically and defend ourselves and a time to stay silent, or to speak a different language and pursue a different set of concerns than those which a controversy thrusts before us.

My suggestion in the attached is that Jesus’ silence at his trial and his decision to pray for forgiveness from the cross constitue a form of “standing boldly against the efforts” of those seeking to silence his message.  It is not quietism to say that sometimes we may be called to be quiet and allow those opposed to us to “show their true colors,” as it were.  As Isaiah puts it (KJV), “in quietness and confidence shall be our strength.” If there are never moments of silence in the face of persecution than our prophetic denunciations will lose their power.  Which is what we have seen from evangelicals speaking about politics. We must face head on the slow erosion of our credibility and consider that perhaps our tactics need to change in light of it.

In this, I had in the background this from Oliver O’Donovan, which I think a remarkable and accurate bit of wisdom:

The worship that the principalities and powers seek to exact from mankind is a kind of feverish excitement. The first business of the church is to refuse them that worship. There are many times – and surely a major Election is one of them – when the most pointed political criticism imaginable is to talk about something else.

Which is to say, my concern in the CNN piece and about the way evangelicals respond to such controversial moments is the way our rhetoric deepens and expresses our political affections.

Let me propose a constructive alternative that I would have liked to see us do as evangelicals (that I thought of *after* I wrote the article, being a somewhat slow-witted thinker): what if evangelicals had demonstrated our political dispassion by saying, “Hmmm, okay. That’s rather silly of you all, but okay. We like Louie Giglio a lot and are going to raise a million bucks to end human trafficking in his honor. Oh, and we like marriage too. So we’re going to raise a million dollars for the Christian Counseling Education Foundation specifically to help low income couples whose marriages are struggling.”  (John Piper got close to this when he sent out the link to Giglio’s Enditmovement.com with the appropriate addition, “Forward.”)

The fact is that evangelicals are already perceived as having too strong a sense of entitlement to have our views being represented in public and as being angry and unhappy when we don’t get our way.  It’s a caricature that’s mostly false, but moments like this reinforce it.  Giving money or time or what have you isn’t just the right thing to do:  it would reframe the narrative in a way that rigorous arguments about religious liberty and the Obama administration’s lameness would not.  We needed, in other words, the equivalent of millions of cheerful Americans lining up to eat chicken sandwiches–except without turning food into a political statement.

Joe Rigney pointed out on Twitter last night that he’d add a “hearty horse-laugh” to the list of how we ought face these situations, and I’d absolutely agree.  Doug Wilson obviously does to, as he’s clearly having a good time with it.  And that’s a key point:  if we are caught up in disordered political affections, laughter is a good deal harder to muster up.  But laughter is a more attractive response.  If we are going to disagree with our opponents, we might as well have some fun with it.

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One other thing I’d say, also in light of Joe Rigney’s (excellent) comments:  I’m not sanguine about the possibility of a reasonable conversation in the middle of these controversies.  But I am hopeful, which is a virtue that is easily mistaken for a facile optimism.  My commitment to holding out “the promise of reasonable discourse and communication” is there precisely because I think regardless of how those who disagree with us act, we should not conform to their approach.

In fact, one way of reading my piece would be as a stark judgment on the gay and lesbian community for their decision.  Think through this carefully:  I suggested that Christians remain silent or change the subject.  Why?  Is it because I’m wildly optimistic that we can have a reasonable discussion?  The silence and speech I pointed to were those of the unjustly accused.  If anything, the underlying premise of my piece is that we are fast moving beyond the point where reasonable discussions is possible.  Only what we see in Jesus’ life is that when he arrives there he prays and agonizes in private and then shouts his forgiveness in public.  Can we say that we have done likewise as evangelicals and that our response to the marginalization of our perspective that this Giglio business represents reflects that?

But leave it to someone else to say all I wanted to with a good deal more brevity (Twitter proves its value).  Over the weekend, Ray Ortlund wrote that “The persecuted early Christians, driven from their homes, “went about preaching the word” (Acts 8:4). Not ‘complaining.'”  He may not want to claim me and my argument, but to my mind that about sums it up.  (And see Jared Wilson’s post, too, which I think is quite good.)

In fact, I specifically mentioned continuing to give sermons because the pulpit should be the locus of evangelical political engagement.  The lack of deep, substantive political theological reflection from our pastors (sometimes justified with theological reasons!) has left evangelicals without their main tool for shaping our political affections.  A depoliticized pulpit leads to a sacralized politics, you might say.  The formula needs a great deal more nuancing, as I’m not expecting policy pronouncements on obscure sections of the law (necessarily).  But if Jesus standing before Pilate not saying anything is a form of political engagement, then certainly pastors preaching the word of God to the church and the world is as well.  I am only a quietist if the church’s pronouncement happens somewhere else than “in the world,” but last I checked our churches were still made from concrete and our pastors still have flesh and blood.

I’ll leave it rest there, but I hope that goes a step toward more clarity.  These are hard issues and I may in fact not be right at all that this is the appropriate time for evangelicals to adopt the sort of approach I suggested.  But I hope that we can at least open up the question and rethink how we respond to controversy.

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  • http://twitter.com/matthew_loftus Matthew Loftus

    Right on! I would add that I’m generally not a zero-sum kinda person, but the time, energy, and political goodwill spent sputtering about this sort of thing really does distract from important things like preaching the Gospel, fighting trafficking, etc.

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  • Christopher Benson

    Matt: Your qualifications assure me that you’re not advocating quietism.
    Your “constructive alternative” reminds me a bit of what James Davison
    Hunter has proposed: to decouple the public and the political. Indeed,
    what we needed in response to the Giglio reject is not more political
    posturing but public (e.g., donations to end human trafficking). Like
    you, “I’m not sanguine about the possibility of a reasonable
    conversation in the middle of these controversies.” But I am sanguine
    about the powerful witness of Christian actions in a society that is
    exhausted from all our arguments. –Christopher

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