In the modern world, we are truly experiencing a crisis of integrity. I have no idea when it became normal for leaders to stop standing by their words, drastically changing the stories several times in a row in a course of days. Reading recent news stories about the United Airlines CEO squirm around like an eel on a frying pan trying to explain why it’s OK to knock out the teeth and break the nose of a paying airline customer gives a new meaning to a phrase “top communicator”. The only thing that’s uplifting about that particular story is the universal outrage that followed. On a practical level, that outpouring of wrath at a big corporation gone fat and proud gave me more faith in humankind than perhaps anything else in recent news.
After 2016, many Christians stopped looking to national Evangelical figures for examples of value-driven integrity-based leadership. That distrust has been in the making for some time. In the fall of 2016, I remember a time when a leading Evangelical ethicist changed his lofty ethical prescription 3 times in the course of 10 days. Not just modified it a little bit, but dramatically flip-flopped on his stance – went one way, then in a few days completely reversed himself, then in a few more days reversed the reversal. It was truly a painfully pathetic sight to behold. It seemed to have served as a capstone to a trend that has been two to three decades in the making.
It was clear that “being faithful to the end” somehow turned into “being faithful to one’s tribal self-interest to the end”. And for the publicly vocal and politically engaged group of Christians that the above-mentioned ethicist claimed to have represented, any claim to moral or ethical higher ground, along with any right to criticize ethical and moral relativism, went straight out the window. Yep, just like that. You can’t just flip-flop 2 times on “timeless moral and ethical values” in the course of 10 days and still expect to be recognized as a beacon of pure light in the corrupt world.
Looking forward into 2017 and beyond, two parallel things are bound to happen. One is that disenchanted millenials and post-millenials will increasingly flock toward secularism. There are plenty of causes in the secular arena that satisfy one’s sense of self-worth, and many things can be done with a real sense of integrity. As people pick up more and more that integrity of character is not something that many professing Christians take seriously, they will look outside of Christian worldview to satisfy their God-given integrity – apart from any association with God. That’s a very tragic trend. The way thing stand, it’s bound to gain steam in the years to come.
The myopia of the institutional Evangelical church is not so much that they decide to pick a side with the political establishment, this losing their freedom to fly above the ever-changing political winds. Rather, in tying its faith expression with the right side of the political spectrum and getting involved in the electoral matches as its political surrogate, it pitted itself against the political left. In doing that, it immediately lost any real authority to impartially minister Jesus to the people on the ledt side of the political spectrum. The Evangelical establishment, when it got politicized enough, went even further than that – it robbed the political left of any sense of faith legitimacy, taking away from them just about any chance to stay politically liberal and theologically conservative. And so the notion was born “if you are politically on the left, you are in cahoots with the devil”. This might play well to the political base, but it doesn’t advance the kingdom agenda one iota.
And while we are at it – how about this: you tell that “being in cahoots with the devil” story to my African American and Hispanic Democratic-voting Evangelical brothers and sisters, and see how far you get in that discussion. Based on several very public recent stories about violence perpetrated against people of their faith communities (Cleveland Facebook murder being the latest one), the way many of these communities extended forgiveness to their offenders is as Christlike as it gets. You simply can not improve of that. That’s real integrity in action. And it’s definitely not playing politics, as there are absolutely no ulterior motives or favors to be curried by taking that stance. That is the question of character. And we would do well to learn those lessons from our brothers and sisters from what sadly became “the other side” for many of us.
With all these trends long in the making, today when young people flock to liberal causes – the people of faith almost glibly expect them to drop their Christian affiliation. Many of us no longer see the boundaries between Christianity and politics. And for many of them who think that being a Christian means being politically conservative, that shedding of Christian conviction in their move to the political left almost becomes a rite of passage. If this myopic vision doesn’t change and we don’t begin to recognize that Christ died for the entire world and that he can work with and through anyone, left right or center, in just one to two generations some of us risk finding themselves being an old, disgruntled, irrelevant, unimpactful minority, telling themselves sad stories about the “good old days”.
Fortunately, there’s another trend also underway. It is about reclaiming our right to practice our faith the way we perceive as deeply resonating with our own integrity and character, without needing to get an institutional rubber stamp of approval. Staying independent of institutional priroties has always been a sacred right and responsibility of every follower of Jesus – starting from Jesus himself, and on to Peter, John, Paul, and the rest of the early church. They bucked the corrupt and inefficient religious establishment of their day, they steered clear of politics, and they went on to establish their own faith practice in line with how they saw God reveal himself to them.
This way can be thorny and can be at times lonely, but it’s also utterly liberating – and I believe it is firmly in line with God’s definition of freedom. I will be very blunt here: this way of practicing our faith is about reclaiming our freedom from having to prostitute our deepest faith convictions by getting in bed with the political establishment, hoping for a few handouts from the hand of the Caesar du jour. This way is about being free to throw into trash without reading a church-distributed voting guide that presumes its readers to have the intelligence level more commonly associated with pond-dwelling inverterbates. This way is about the freedom to say outloud that many religious organizations are run like a for-profit business – on a gamut from a pop-and-mom shop to a large corporation, often times with matching method. This way is about the freedom to have those eureka moments when you suddenly realize that “giving money to God” is not necessarily the same as “giving free money to a religious corporation (which often times may not even concern itself with the most rudimentary financial accountability)”.
This way is also about the freedom to say that many God-loving people-honoring genuine faith leaders, who prosper with God and with people, aren’t “soft on sin”. Rather, they are very big on love, hope, peace, joy, abundance, and beauty. And if they are invited on secular talk shows – perhaps it’s because the world finally sees something that looks like love from someone representing the faith tradition that makes a claim of being based on agape-love of God himself.
At some point on this path, you will inevitably realize that you don’t need anyone to tell you what God is like. Or more accurately – you already have what it takes to get to know God. That’s God the Father, Jesus the Lord, and Holy Spirit the Teacher and the Guide, and they are with you 24×7. You just need to learn to listen to them, rather then to their imperfect substitutes. And as you engage on that path of personal discovery of who God is, you will run across others on the same path. And you will form a little brook. And then you will meet and merge with other brooks, and it will be a river. And eventually an ocean. That’s actually what I see as the Scriptural definition of “church”: one global movement made of people connected with God and one another through voluntary bonds of love, mutual respect, and common mission of bringing heaven of earth purely God’s way, purely on God’s terms.
Reclaiming your right to deep heart-level integrity, and your right to have your own voice, is an amazingly beautiful opportunity. This process of being liberated from the bondage of institutional sin, combined with being liberated from bondages to personal sins, is akin to waking up and looking at the world around you with a new set of eyes. That process is sacred in its unique transformative power and beauty. Scripturally, it’s referred to as “becoming like a child”. Or “being born from above”. Or “being born again”.