I am alarmed–even frightened–by the arrogant, Pecksniffian, self-righteous confidence that pervades the politics of America’s current presidential campaigns. Yet, I think what we are really seeing is nothing new; it is, rather, the surfacing of a disposition that has always undergirded the status quo, a disposition that almost always goes unchallenged. And for too long, the Church has subjected itself to the increasing polarization of our society, infected by the same tendencies that contaminate all sides of the current political spectrum. The unchallenged disposition that ensnares both the Church and our society is triumphalism.
Triumphalism is the disposition that assumes that one’s own set of ideas, religion, culture, or social system triumphs over all others. It claims righteousness for itself while being quick to find others to blame. It closes down productive conversation. It refuses to be self-critical. Triumphalism, in other words, is antithetical to repentance.
Instead of triumphalism, we need a non-triumphal witness, and for two reasons: the flourishing of the common good in our pluralistic society demands a humble witness; and even more, faithfulness to the character of the crucified Christ demands a humble witness. Triumphalism brings not peace, reconciliation and healing but divisiveness, judgmentalism and self-righteousness. It brings polarizing politics in which every side claims to be the standard bearer of morality and the rightful judge of all. And yet, given that there are certainly times when Christians must take a clear stand on issues that are divisive, we need a public witness that is bold.
“How then,” McBride asks, “do Christians offer a witness that is simultaneously bold and humble?” In other words, how can the church proclaim that Jesus is Lord while simultaneously offering a humble, non-triumphal witness?
The answer, she explains, is a public witness that is characterized by a disposition of confession and repentance. Only through confession and repentance can the Church be simultaneously bold and humble.
By way of example, McBride calls on the witness of the Eleuthero Community, a small, ecumenical evangelical, worshiping congregation. Eleuthero’s founding mission was, she explains, that “Christian faith becomes a robust, recognizing resource and inspiration for the care and dignifying of the natural world and of vulnerable populations.” Central to their affirmation and understanding of their place in the world, however, is self-critique and confession of sin. Their aim is to live in ways that are life-giving to the world’s poor and vulnerable.
They are a church, in other words, with an identity and mission rooted in the confession of specific structural sin and organized around a common work of repentance. They are a community whose political witness is defined by confession and repentance.
In 2013 at the Wheaton Theological Conference, McBride gave a presentation entitled “Repentance as a Political Witness.” You can watch it online here.
[The featured image in this post is the painting by Evelyn Page, “St Peter’s Church and Wellington,” 1954, accessed from http://www.teara.govt.nz/files/25354-aag.jpg. ]