A Discipleship of Resistance

What an 82-year-old letter from Dietrich Bonhoeffer can teach us about Christian faithfulness under a President Trump.

First, a caveat: It is pointless to compare our next president to any specific political strongman or tyrant of the past, including the most infamous one who will make an appearance below. Such blunt comparisons ignore important distinctions and claim a vantage point available only to our grandchildren. Even so, and despite our tendency to make false equivalencies, history remains our best teacher and so it’s worth revisiting the past with care and nuance.

And another: Those for whom our president-elect is a literal answer to prayer will probably find what follows to be misguided or, more likely, incomprehensible. I’m resigned to this but will still aim for as much coherence as possible.

Finally: I genuinely want to be wrong about the president-elect. I pray and hope that everything I’ve assumed about his presidency and its devastating impact on people I love will be totally wrong. Nothing would make me happier. But until then…

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In 1934 Dietrich Bonhoeffer was serving as a pastor to two German-speaking congregations in London. Hitler’s rise to power was almost complete: the first concentration camp in Dachau had opened the previous year and in 1935 he would announce himself the Führer of the Third Reich. Bonhoeffer watched the rapid changes in his country first from New York where he studied at Union Seminary and worshipped at Abyssinian Baptist Church under the leadership of Adam Clayton Powell and later from a poor section of Berlin as he taught confirmation classes to rowdy and easily distracted boys. Now, from London, the 28-year-old reflected on how quickly everything was changing and how blind most of the German church was to the encroaching evil.

In April he replied to a letter from Erwin Sutz, a Swiss friend from his days at Union. With the previously-stated caveats in mind, I think Bonhoeffer can provoke our imaginations as we face our own uncertain days.

London, April 28, 1934

My dear Sutz,

I have just destroyed the remains of a letter to you that I started more than four weeks ago and never finished. I hope this one will not meet the same fate!

What is going on in the church in Germany you probably know as well as I do. Nat. Socialism has brought about the end of the church in Germany and has pursued it single-mindedly. We can be grateful to them, in the way the Jews had to be grateful to Sennacherib. For me there can be no doubt that this is clearly the reality that we face. Naive, starry-eyed idealists like Niemöller still think they are the real Nat. Socialists —and perhaps it’s a benevolent Providence that keeps them under the spell of this delusion. Maybe it is even in the interest of the Church Struggle, for anyone who is still at all interested in this struggle.

The German church had, mostly, succumbed to the promises of National Socialism which included abandoning their Jewish neighbors to the new regime. A month after Bonhoeffer wrote to Sutz the Reich Church would add the swastika to its official crest. Some Christian leaders, like Martin Niemöller, thought the church could still be rescued if enough resisters joined the Nazi Party and changed it from within. Bonhoeffer knew such efforts were futile, that the struggle for the German church had been lost and could only be seriously engaged by “starry-eyed idealists” who hadn’t come to grips with the extent of its apostasy.

In the days since our presidential election there has been much handwringing about the overwhelming percentage of white Christians (Evangelicals especially, but not only) who voted for the now president-elect. They voted for him despite the sustained witness by African American and Latino Christians about his bigotry and fear-mongering. They voted for him despite his disdain for women. They voted for him despite the threat to religious freedom that begins with barely-veiled Islamophobia. And they voted for him despite his claiming Christian faith while disdaining the Biblical requirements of confession and forgiveness, a reworking of the faith that, at a very basic level, cannot seriously be considered orthodox Christianity.

bonhoeffer-and-sutz
Erwin Sutz and Dietrich Bonhoeffer in Cuba for Christmas, 1930.

Bonhoeffer was sympathetic to those who fought for the soul of the German Church but could muster none of their energy. The day for that struggle had passed and he would direct his efforts elsewhere. Has that day arrived for us? The structures of white American Christianity have consistently made known their ignorance of and antipathy toward those Christians who exist outside the confines of whiteness. The recent election is only the latest evidence in a long and devastating case against white Christianity, a version of the faith that consistently chooses racial exclusivity over Christian solidarity. (The question of what exactly constitutes white Christianity deserves a full answer, but it would have to include the thorough disregard for the plainly stated concerns of black and brown believers, a disregard that has been undeniable these past months.)

The struggle now, for many of us, lies elsewhere.

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For some time it hasn’t even been about what it appears to be about; the lines have been drawn somewhere else entirely. And while I’m working with the church opposition with all my might, it’s perfectly clear to me that this opposition is only a very temporary transitional phase on the way to an opposition of a very different kind, and that very few of those involved in this preliminary skirmish are going to be there for that second struggle.

Bonhoeffer was looking ahead to life as a confessional Christian under the German regime. He predicted, rightly, that the initial struggle against nationalistic and racial ideologies would fade into a second, less popular, struggle. This one would be different from the first in at least two ways. First, the fight wouldn’t be for the German Church – that one had already been lost – but for faithful discipleship to Jesus despite the church’s failure. This would be a kind of discipleship in exile and it would later be enfleshed for Bonhoeffer in an alternative seminary at Finkenwalde focused on study, spiritual formation, and the common life. And second, Bonhoeffer assumed that in the second struggle many of his former co-belligerents would disappear into the new normal. Once the Nazi Party had completed its takeover and once the German Church fell in line, those who had initially resisted would find it harder to continue their struggle. The threat of marginalization, not to mention the persecution that was still a few years away, would be enough to silence many of Hitler’s Christian opponents. From London, peering into the murky days ahead, Bonhoeffer anticipated these lonely days of the second struggle.

In these post-election days, as much of white Christianity has made plain (again) its allegiance to racial ideology, the struggle is also shifting. The scenario is different by many degrees than the one faced by Bonhoeffer and other confessional Christians. For example, America has always known expressions of Christianity that have existed in faithful distinction and, at times, opposition to white Christianity. Many of my elders have long heritages in black churches and, while they are disappointed by the man the country elected for its next president, they are not especially surprised . They’ve long taken this country at its word – a word that cannot be understood apart from the white supremacist assumptions surrounding it. They face this moment as they have many other moments, as self-consciously Christian people who will continue a path of discipleship to Jesus which puts them at odds with this nation’s motives and ends.

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Ludwig Müller, Bishop of the Third Reich, 1934.

Despite differences such as this, we can learn from Bonhoeffer’s prescience and prepare ourselves for a second struggle. This will be discipleship struggle. As much of white Christianity moves on – mostly in celebration, some in resignation – we will need to prepare for a robust discipleship that forms us as members of Christ’s diverse and suffering Body. None of us are immune to this country’s idols and so this discipleship will prioritize repentance and forgiveness. We see how fear is stoked and monetized and so this discipleship will prioritize awe-inspiring worship, Fear-of-the-Lord worship. Those of us who grew up within the confines of white Christianity will submit ourselves to churches and leaders whose existence threatens the very assumptions of our old congregations. And the list goes on…

This will also be a discipleship that is aware of its resistance to much (most? all? time will tell.) of the new president’s agenda and underlying assumptions. There is, of course, nothing unique about Christian discipleship that intentionally resists corrupt and destructive authorities, but it’s a tradition that some of us have forgotten. We’ll need to remember. More complicated is how a discipleship of resistance will place Christians at odds with those white forms of Christianity that are even now moving ahead with business as usual, some with a conviction of God’s divine intervention and others with the temporary and small sadness that comes when one’s political party loses. Over time it will become clear that these forms of Christianity have very little to say to those engaged in a discipleship of resistance. This is cause for much grief, ongoing lament, and fervent prayer but maybe not much more.

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I believe that all of Christendom should be praying with us for the coming of resistance “to the point of shedding blood” and for the finding of people who can suffer it through. Simply suffering is what it will be about, not parries, blows, or thrusts such as may still be allowed and possible in the preliminary battles; the real struggle that perhaps lies ahead must be one of simply suffering through in faith. Then, perhaps then God will acknowledge his church again with his word, but until then a great deal must be believed, and prayed, and suffered.

Later, Bonhoeffer would join those who believed Hitler had to be opposed with violence. But here, when he writes about a blood-shedding resistance, he has in mind the suffering that lies ahead for those who resist the Nazi Party. For the young theologian, Christian resistance to oppressive and violent forces was a question of faith. Who, he seems to ask, would he choose to believe in this moment when all appeared lost? When demonic ideologies had won the day, would the church have eyes of faith to see an alternative ending? Would they have the courage to pray and act with faith?

Here the historical gap lessens. We don’t need to predict any particular suffering to take seriously the challenge of faith. The temptation to despair is strong. Equally strong is the temptation to take matters into our own hands, to find places and people where our control can be exerted. And then there will be the lasting temptation to acquiesce, to content ourselves with the glittering things this nation offers in exchange for our willingness to agree with the deception, to turn away from the destruction.

Our suffering, if it comes, will begin with our choice to place our bodies in front of the deception and destruction. It will come with our choice to tell the truth, occasionally with our mouths but mostly with lives that testify to our crucified Savior. It will come with our embodied solidarity with those whose bodies and histories mark them for harassment and trouble in the days ahead.

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You know, it is my belief—perhaps it will amaze you—that it is the Sermon on the Mount that has the deciding word on this whole affair… Please write and tell me sometime how you preach about the Sermon on the Mount. I’m currently trying to do so, to keep it infinitely plain and simple, but it always comes back to keeping the commandments and not trying to evade them. Following Christ—what that really is, I’d like to know—it is not exhausted by our concept of faith.

Bonhoeffer’s posture toward National Socialism and the church’s tepid response to Hitler was deeply rooted in the Bible. He regularly returned to the  Sermon on the Mount and his question to Sutz about how to preach this passage was probably very sincere. For all of Jesus’ impossible teaching in these famous verses, Bonhoeffer finds the primary question to be whether or not a Christian will obey Jesus. Such costly obedience cannot be evaded by claims of faith, by sincere-sounding appeals to the priority of right belief over Christ-like action. In 1937 Bonhoeffer would publish Discipleship, a book in which he would explore the Sermon on the Mount in depth and differentiate between costly discipleship and cheap grace. In this letter, as he thinks about returning to Germany with its many threats, Bonhoeffer reminds his friend that appealing to Christian faith cannot replace righteous action. The former, detached from the latter, cannot in any real way be considered discipleship to Jesus.

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Bonhoeffer at Finkenwalde.

We need to hear this unequivocal call to discipleship today. We have in this country a dominant form of Christianity that claims right belief and sincere faith and which has repeatedly and systematically ignored the appeals from other Christians for righteous action. It is appropriate to make this plain, with sadness. It is appropriate, in spite of the inevitable sharp and sarcastic responses, to reveal the pledge to cultural whiteness over ecclesiastical reconciliation. And it is crucial that we examine ourselves with the expectation that we too have made similar compromises. That is, this moment calls for direct appeals to costly discipleship in the way of Jesus and, precisely because it is Jesus’ way, the appeal will always begin with my own sinful heart.

From his London parish in 1934 Bonhoeffer could not fully imagine the years ahead, including his eventual imprisonment and execution by his government. But he saw enough to move forward with joyful courage. May God grant us similar companions, joyful in disposition and courageous in action, for the days ahead, whatever they may hold.

Daylight in Darkness

A sermon for the first Sunday in Advent.

11 And do this, understanding the present time: The hour has already come for you to wake up from your slumber, because our salvation is nearer now than when we first believed. 12 The night is nearly over; the day is almost here. So let us put aside the deeds of darkness and put on the armor of light. 13 Let us behave decently, as in the daytime, not in carousing and drunkenness, not in sexual immorality and debauchery, not in dissension and jealousy. 14 Rather, clothe yourselves with the Lord Jesus Christ, and do not think about how to gratify the desires of the flesh. [Romans 13:11-14]


Our Advent readings remind us that for ancient Israel, God was the world’s judge:

“He will teach us his ways, so that we may walk in his paths.” The law will go out from Zion, the word of the Lord from Jerusalem. He will judge between the nations and will settle disputes for many peoples. [Isaiah 2:3-4]

There stand the thrones for judgment, the thrones of the house of David. [Psalm 122:5]

When they sinned against God, they knew God was their judge. And when they were sinned against, they knew God was their judge. For the Israelites, God was the one who righteously judged their sins of idolatry and injustice, and he was also the one to whom they appealed for judgment against their enemies.

Of course, thinking of God as a judge is not limited to the Israelites. To claim that there is a creator god is to acknowledge that there is a cosmic judge. All that has been created by the creator derives its function and purpose from that creator. The creation looks to the creator for the way of life that leads to flourishing, but we humans consistently look away from the creator and to ourselves. We develop our own ways of living, patterns that ignore our creator, exploit the creation, and take advantage of our neighbors. Sin has corrupted our hearts, turned us away from God and twisted us into ourselves.  We image-bearers of God deserve his correction, instruction, and, ultimately, his judgment.

Like the Israelites, the early church understood that God’s judgment was real. They also believed that it had been expressed perfectly on the cross. It was there that God himself stood in for the judgment our sins deserved while allowing the injustice of this world to come crashing down onto his own body.

There can be a perception among some Christians that the God we see in the Old Testament is the God of judgment while the God revealed by Jesus in the New Testament is the God of grace and mercy. But this is to miss the severity of the cross. Here we see the extent to which God is a judge- that personal sin and societal oppression must be dealt with justly, even if it costs God’s own life.

This advent seasons reminds us that we await the world’s righteous judge. But what about now, while we wait? Those early Roman Christians who looked to the cross for the summation of God’s judgment might have wondered how were they to live in a world that thought the cross was foolish at best, offensive at worst. What did it mean that their neighbors looked at the cross of Jesus and saw one criminal among three receiving his deserved judgment while the church looked at the same cross and saw God’s justice accomplished? What did it mean that God’s justice had been accomplished on the cross – that justification was available to all through Christ’s atoning death – but that evil and sin still exerted their destructive influence?

What does the despair in Syria mean on this side of the cross? What do the three police-involved shootings in our city this week mean on this side of the cross? What does our besetting sin, our silent addition, our culturally-acceptable idolatry mean on this side of the cross?

These were their questions and, if we’re awake, they’re similar to ours.  What does the despair in Syria mean on this side of the cross? What do the three police-involved shootings in our city this week mean on this side of the cross? What does our besetting sin, our silent addition, our culturally-acceptable idolatry mean on this side of the cross?  How are we to live on this side of God’s cruciform judgment when there remains so much evil – out there, and in here – that demands God’s justice?

These are questions asked by in-between people, by people who live after the justification of Christ’s cross but before the final judgment of Christ’s return, by people who live between the angels announcing the empty grave and the creation announcing its creator’s return, by people who live in darkness by the promise of daylight. And it’s to these kinds of in-between people who Paul instructs in these verses in Romans 13. There are three things for us in-between, waiting for the righteous judge, kind of people to notice.

Understand the present time

This seems obvious- of course we understand the present time. But, as Paul points out, we’re prone to slumber. So what might it mean to understand the present time? On one level it simply means that we are aware and awake to our circumstances. We push against the societal default of “this is just how things are.”

And Paul has another level of understanding the present moment in mind. The night is nearly over; the day is almost here. [13:12] He uses the metaphor of night throughout these verses- that the time before Christ’s return is like the last hours of the night before day breaks. It’s dark and seems as though the darkness will last indefinitely.

Understanding the present time requires faith that the night will end, that the impenetrable shadows will fade, and that the daylight will come. This means that we look at our present circumstances through eyes of faith, through eyes that understand that the darkness – in light of God’s eternity – is fleeting and mortal. It’s as though Paul is saying that in the midst of the deepest night, Christians have been given night-vision. It’s our super-power.

Does this mean we’re immune to suffering and tragedies? Does this mean that we answer every grief and lament with a spiritual cliché? No! Remember, understanding our present time includes being unflinchingly awake to the harsh realities of our circumstances and the pain of this world. But along with this, Christians also see the daylight infiltrating the darkness. How? We view each of our moments and this word’s events through the cross – through the moment of greatest despair and suffering, the moment of greatest injustice and inhumanity, the moment of greatest doubt and cynicisms – and we see through this crucifixion moment to the crucified Savior ruling in glory from heaven, we see through this moment to our salvation and reconciliation, we see through this moment to “a living hope… into an inheritance that can never perish, spoil or fade.” [1 Peter 1:3-4]

But Paul doesn’t stop with understanding, his focus moves to action. Living before our just God in the midst of unjust times requires more than our understanding- we’re expected to live differently.

Put aside deeds of darkness

There is a way of living that makes sense in the darkness. Verse 13 fills this in: carousing, drunkenness, sexual immorality, and debauchery. Paul isn’t providing an extensive list; it’s an imaginative scene of those who use the cover of night to indulge their self-centered desires. We don’t need to linger on each of these deeds of darkness, but it’s worth asking how we succumb to these or similar sinful acts. The self-centered nature of our self-gratifying sins can be justified if night is all there is, all there will ever be. But those of us who look for daylight will understand that our lives point to a God whose generosity is the opposite of these deeds of darkness. He is sacrificial, gracious, merciful, and just and our lives – even in the darkest night – are meant to illuminate his extravagant generosity.

We who have experienced the blazing light of God’s grace can never succumb to the old, self-centered logic of the darkness.

This personal holiness is serious business for Paul. In 13:14 he writes, “Do not think about how to gratify the desires of the flesh.” Darkness tempts us to believe that private actions are without consequences. But again, for those shaped by God’s judgment on the cross at Calvary, there can be no equivocation about this. The cross is God’s forever evidence that our humanity matters – that all of who we are, what we think, what we love, what we do – that all of this matters enough for God to offer himself in our place of judgment. This is how highly our Creator esteems us- that a judgment that should have overcome us was instead taken onto himself.  We who have experienced the blazing light of God’s grace can never succumb to the old, self-centered logic of the darkness.

And then the nighttime metaphor sputters out and Paul includes two additional deeds of darkness: dissension and jealousy. While the others have more to do with self-centered actions, here Paul reminds the community that our life together is evidence of the coming daylight. We cannot accept the petty divisions that are normal elsewhere. In place of dissension, we are to pursue reconciliation that honors our distinctions. In place of jealously we exhibit kindness and sympathy- we think the best of one another. We mourn with one another when things are bad and we rejoice together when things are good.

We understand the present moment through eyes of faith. We set aside the old sinful logic of the night. And finally…

Put on armor of light

In a nighttime world that groans under the weight of evil and injustice, within bodies that still desire sin and minds that bend toward idolatry…we need armor as we wait for our righteous Savior’s return. In Ephesians 6 Paul writes that we need this spiritual armor to defend ourselves from the devil’s schemes and from the spiritual forces of evil. We need armor that protects against despair; against hatred; against envy. We need an armor strong enough to defend us from attacks against our humanity, our race, our accent, our gender, our names. We need an armor that insulates us from these times of sarcasm, cynicisms, and deception. We need an armor that is spacious enough for our hope, for our courage, for our divinely-inspired dreams and vision. We need an armor that is not overcome by the darkness, that stands firm in the darkness, that moves forward with each of our halting steps of faith through the darkness. We need, as Paul puts it, an armor made of light.

What does this look like? Clothe yourselves with the Lord Jesus Christ. [13:14] This is our armor of light! It is Christ Jesus himself. We clothe ourselves, we cover ourselves, we armor ourselves with the one of whom John wrote, The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it. [John 1:5]. The one whom the psalmist describes as wrapping “himself in light as like a garment” is our armor. [Psalm 104:2] You see, it’s not simply that we see through the present darkness through night vision goggles of faith… it’s that we are covered with light itself, a light that could not be overcome even by the darkness of the grave!

And this Light, is also this world’s judge, our judge.

On that day evil itself will be put on trial, sin will sentenced to its mortal end, and death will stand condemned.

The one who accomplished God’s perfect judgment on the cross for our salvation, will one day return in glory to judge the world for its liberation. On that day, all that has been hidden in darkness will be revealed; each instance of injustice and idolatry that was rationalized in the night, will be exposed in the unrelenting brightness of day; each sin – the private ones we held close and the structural ones we barely notice anymore – will be leached of the power we granted them. On that day evil itself will be put on trial, sin will sentenced to its mortal end, death will stand condemned, and our ancient enemy will be cast down to hell. Our Lord’s righteous judgment will be proclaimed and accomplished.

This judge is also the light who covers us now, between the times, through the night. So we look forward to the return of our righteous Lord who is also our judge because even now his judgment has been applied to our sin for our salvation; even now he fights for us, prays for us, and prepares the future for us. Even now, his Holy Spirit advocates for us.

Daylight in darkness.

This life can seem like a perpetual night. The darkness seems to cover everything. But our hope is with the one who has overcome the night and who will bring about a new, righteous day when all is made new.

He will judge between the nations and will settle disputes for many peoples. They will beat their swords into plowshares and their spears into pruning hooks. Nation will not take up sword against nation, nor will they train for war anymore. [Isaiah 2:4]

But the promise is greater than this. Our well-placed hope is not just for one day, when our judge returns.

Come, descendants of Jacob, let us walk in the light of the Lord. [Isaiah 2:5]

What darkness are you facing? What sin seems too great? What injustice too overwhelming? Your righteous judge will come. And until he does, until the world is set free from the endless night, you have been armored in the light that has overcome the darkness. So step bravely into the darkness. Sing into the darkness. Dance into the darkness. The daylight follows you into the darkness.

“…we sons of the Church cannot wholly keep silence…”

But whatever it may please you to do in a matter which concerns your crown, your soul, and your kingdom, we sons of the Church cannot wholly keep silence about the injuries done to our mother [church], and the way in which she is despised and trodden under foot; for we perceive that these evils, besides those which we lament piteously have already fallen upon her, are again partly inflicted afresh and partly threatened. We will certainly make a stand, and fight even to death, if need be, for our mother with the weapons allowed us, not with shield and sword, but with prayers and lamentations to God…

– Bernard of Clairvaux, “Letter to King Louis of France” (1142).

Was it easier for the church to see its injuries at the hand of the state in the middle ages? Is there a reason it’s so hard for much of the American church to see  the wounds now being inflicted upon its multi-racial Body?

“Also, what do we mean by ‘white’?”

Also, what do we mean by “white”? Historically, the category of “whiteness” has been very flexible, gradually extending over various groups not originally included in that constituency. In the mid-19th century, the Irish were assuredly not white, but then they became so. And then the same fate eventually befell Poles and Italians, and then Jews. A great many U.S. Latinos today certainly think of themselves as white. Ask most Cubans, or Argentines, or Puerto Ricans, and a lot of Mexicans. Any discussion of “whiteness” at different points in U.S. history has to take account of those labels and definitions.

Nor are Latinos alone in this regard. In recent controversies over diversity in Silicon Valley, complaints about workplaces that are overwhelmingly “white” were actually focused on targets where a quarter or more are of Asian origin. Even firms with a great many workers from India, Taiwan, or Korea found themselves condemned for lacking true ethnic diversity. Does that not mean that Asians are in the process of achieving whiteness?

Meanwhile, intermarriage proceeds apace, with a great many matches involving non-Latino whites and either Latinos or people of Asian origin. (Such unions are much more common than black-white relationships.) Anyone who expects the offspring of such matches to mobilize and rise up against White Supremacy is going to be sorely disappointed.

– Philip Jenkins, “White Christian Apocalypse?” I’ve noticed a fair bit of commentary about how changing demographics (related to age, ethnicity, and immigration) mean that the recent presidential election will be the last of its kind, a kind of final gasp for the blatant racism and xenophobia that was on display these past many months. Jenkins adds a couple more compelling reasons to the list of why this idea is far too optimistic.

“Many evangelical supporters of Trump have been quick to note that they are not racists…”

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.

-Noah Toly, “Needed! A New Evangelicalism: Ellul and the Election.” Toly is more optimistic about reforming Evangelicalism that I am but, nonetheless, it’s heartening to hear such clarity from a professor at Wheaton College.