World cries out for cruciform love: a dialogue with Brad Jersak

I had a dialogue today with Canadian author and theologian Brad Jersak about the death of American evangelicalism, the retributive violence of the Trumpian-Christian worldview, and what theology might look like as it moves back into the public square and offers hope in these dark times. The following is a snippet:

David: “What is the role of theology and theologians going forward? It seems to me the days of being able to carry on the theological conversation in our own private, sacred spaces is over. We need to get out there and have the conversation where it’s relevant.”

Brad: “I do think that’s a common impulse and it’s one that I share. My sense is that that impulse is also what drove the Trump-supporting Evangelicals. So they jumped the gun because they hadn’t done the in-house work about what the gospel is. They charged through and maybe the in-house work they had done was corrupted somehow, by their own nationalism, patriotism, and militarism, and NRA concerns. So they go racing out to engage the world, and that looks like holding their nose so they can get a repugnant president who will at least allow them to get their conservative Supreme Court justice. Now that that’s going to happen, he’ll become expendable. But in the midst of it, evangelicalism in America is over. It may survive, it’s just not Christianity.”

DW: “Have they killed it themselves?”

BJ: “The Christians have, yeah. It’s like the Book of Revelations, where they have the imagery of the whore trying to ride the beast. Evangelicalism got on the beast, and it’s devoured her. It’s devoured her in the sense that the goodness has been corrupted and wasted away. [Theologian] Brian Zahnd would call it American civil religion with a veneer of Jesus talk. But it is in competition now with the Gospel.”

DW: “On that basis, Evangelical Christianity is impotent.”

BJ: “Yes. I raise all of that just to say, I agree we can’t just stay in-house, we have to engage society. But that was one effort to do so. It was tragically mistaken. I went to do my post-doc studies in christology and so on, so that I could write a children’s book. Because my question is, Which good news have we been telling the kids? It’s the one about redemptive violence.”

DW: “Why a children’s book?”

BJ: “Because across America, children are being indoctrinated in a gospel that has been corrupted by American civil religion—and, I would argue, by a protestant retributive theology. So I spent nine weeks in Nottingham working out my christology so that I could write one page on what the cross means. If we get what the cross means wrong, and then spread it across a hundred million children in the coming generation, as we’ve been doing, then you’ve got this retributive God: the idea that God saves the world through an act of his violence against his son. That’s redemptive violence. Then it trickles down to saving the world by doing redemptive violence against the Muslim, for example. We become God’s agents of redemptive violence. We’ve got to get a Supreme Court and a Congress that serves that. That becomes our public engagement.”

DW: “So that’s the corrupted way the Church in America has sought to engage. What’s the other option? what steps can we take towards making theology relevant in a world that seems to be making space for it?”

BJ: “My book [A More Christlike God: A More Beautiful Gospel] is a theological reflection. The first problem has been that we’ve often treated theology as the first stone to be cast. I think that makes for a terrible theology. Theology should be, like with Dostoevsky, a reflection on the real problems of the world. Although I don’t tell a tonne of stories in my book, the whole book came out of that. For me, it emerged from great tragedies involved in pastoring people with disabilities, addicts in recovery, and the poor who were on and off the streets. Those tragedies included overdose deaths, suicides and murders. We had a whole bunch in one year in our church and I crashed. Out of that crash I found myself for the first time in my life not knowing if I trust God. I mean, I never remembered a time when I didn’t know God was good and I could trust him. And I do think that’s part of the end game—to say God is good and you can trust him. But my journey with that started with 20 years of pastoring in that kind of context—scores of people who have been sexually abused and molested as children, and so on. Some of the most wicked stuff. Not quite what Dostoevsky saw, but those sorts of stories, involving children. That’s what my theology emerged from. I had to say, Is God good? My PhD work was really about seeking healing for my broken trust. So, can you take a story like that and reverse engineer it into how engagement might work? I don’t think it’s going to happen at a national, governmental level. What I do is, I’m in a 12-step program where I’m a sponsor. That’s really where it’s happening.”

DW: “I see that in the New Testament, the way Paul presents a big picture of the gospel and then commands men to love their wives, or work well for their employer. But then back in Isaiah you have massive geo-political shifts and a theology emerging because the Persians are about to wipe out Babylon and take Israel back to Jerusalem.”

BJ: “Made possible by Twitter now. Through social media you could have a major movement.”

DW: “Which happened with the Arab Spring.”

BJ: “Sure. Even fraught movements like the #MeToo thing. The danger there is that the solution is retribution. The fact is, it tells you on what scale something can happen. So how to be a voice in that mix?”

DW: “Absolutely. Because the public square seems to be primed for theology once again. How do theologians like you get to speak to the CNN audience, for example?”

BJ: “Sadly, the ones that get on there are still often partisan. What I mean by that is not just Republican and Democrat, but this idea of Left-Right. I think the spectrum itself is the world system. And that’s why the two ends of the spectrum look so alike. The spectrum is about self will. The spectrum is about redemptive violence. Wherever you are on the spectrum, someone has to die for your world to be okay. It’s interesting then that you could get Christian theologians who are reinforcing that by saying, Here are the reasons why we need to support Trump or oppose Trump. But you’ve got other people—and they and I sound alike, even though they are atheists—saying hatefulness and self-righteousness is still fundamentalism. We have to transcend that. It’s remarkable to me that there are angry, self-righteous, hateful, vengeful progressives, but there are also those who see that’s a dead-end and are calling for something higher. If we’re going to engage—whether by social media but more through social programs—and our engagement can energise local action, and that looks like restorative justice on the street level, then the theological voice that I think needs to come forward will look cruciform. It will look like self-giving love. It will look like radical forgiveness. It will look like solidarity with the broken. So, I see the cross as our theology of engagement.”