Last month, a number of people I know were sharing a link to an article written by a member of President Trump’s Evangelical advisory council, about why the author was not resigning from the committee. Like many others, I clicked the link – not only because I wanted to read what he had to say, but because, when I looked, I realized I knew the author.
He was a campus pastor where I went to college. He was younger than the other pastors at the time, and, when he preached, his words resonated with me the most. I always looked forward to hearing him talk. I learned from him. My faith and my walk with God benefitted from his teaching. And because of that, it was even more disappointing for me to read what he had to say.
In the article, he writes about what an honor it is to be in the White House. About how he ministers to staff there. How he was able to write a note to the President in a Bible on Inauguration Day. Then he said he wants to make a difference. And, as he says, “You only make a difference if you have a seat at the table.”
I found that statement jarring – because I realize it sums up the logic at work in much of contemporary evangelical thought. And, I have come to believe, it is absolutely, unequivocally, untrue.
By a seat at the table, he means evangelical, Bible-believing Christians having a seat at the table of power, the head of our government, with the ear of the highest office-holder in the land. This shouldn’t be surprising; he was expressing what has been the goal of the evangelical right since the founding of the Moral Majority in the 1970s – that it should be the work of Christians to have influence in the highest office in the land and use it to advance Christian issues and, ultimately, the Kingdom.
What is jarring is how that seat in itself is the highest ultimate aim– and how much of our identity and calling and integrity we are willing to sacrifice to keep it.
For some context, the article was written in the aftermath of the Charlottesville tragedy, when white supremacists marched openly in Virginia and killed an innocent counter-protester. An aftermath where the President equivocated on whether or not Nazis should be condemned, and publicly said what people who know him say he has privately thought for a long time – that white supremacists included “very fine people”. (link)
And, an aftermath where good people spoke out to denounce white supremacists, with business leaders tripping over each other to call out the rhetoric that empowers evil, in the name of integrity. But while others resigned in protests, the evangelicals stuck around. And the author, my college pastor, articulates why: the seat at the table must be kept at all costs.
If evangelicals can only make a difference by having a seat at the table, and the only ones offered at seat at the table are, for the most part, affluent, white and male, what kind of table is this to begin with? The make-up of the table, in its homogeneity in race and gender and income, does not reflect America as a nation – more importantly, it doesn’t reflect the makeup of the Kingdom of God.
‘The Table’ we so desperately want a seat at has excluded many from the start. That should be a red flag for Christians, whose job it is to follow a man who lived life at society’s margins.
But it also shows a narrow view of how the Kingdom and change and progress comes. If it’s true what the author says, it means the rest of us – those of us who have not been offered at seat at that table and probably never will – who are seeking good in the world shouldn’t even try.
But he’s wrong. MLK was not given a seat at the table, and still successfully led the Civil Rights Movement and brought about huge progress in American society. Gandhi was not given a seat at the table by the British, and yet led a movement liberating his people. Women were not given a seat at the table, and won the vote and equal rights anyway. Black South Africans were denied every available seat at the table – and yet apartheid fell. Christians in the first few centuries were given no seats at any tables, yet the church flourished. It was not without its problems, but people knew Christians by their love, and they grew. In short, you can love people, you can transform lives and communities, without ever seeing a seat at the table, let alone having one.
I think we forget – neither Rome nor the Sanhedrin gave Jesus a seat at The Table. Instead, ‘The Table’ tried to kill him as an infant, and succeeded in doing so as an adult. We follow a man crucified by The Table. In case we weren’t sure, the temptation of Christ offers us a lesson – in the wilderness, Satan offers Jesus the whole table – all earthly kingdoms and rulers and dominion. Jesus rebuked him. That was not the table where he wanted to recline.
Instead, Jesus goes to the house of the tax collector, sits at the table of the poor and the hungry, and breaks bread with the oppressed foreigner and the prostitute. That’s the table Jesus was at. That’s the table we’re supposed to be seeking, too.
Pastor Moore concluded his article with the statement, “…we are not responsible for whether we are able to make a difference, but whether we tried….as a spiritual leader I must answer to God. I cannot leave my opportunity to make a difference. I will not.”
I agree with that statement. But I don’t agree with how he defines ‘make a difference.’ It seems to me that Jesus’ idea of ‘making a difference’ is not power, but service and fidelity. To be faithful. Not necessarily successful, but faithful, wherever we may find ourselves.
‘Faithful’ does not mean we cling to every opportunity, refuse to say no to anything, step down from any committee, or speak out when conscience demands. ‘Faithful’ means some things are more important than the Table, and being willing to put it on the line.
Otherwise – is this really being faithful? What kind of difference, what kind of faithfulness, are you exhibiting in the office of a man who has shown the vulnerable have no place of importance in his agenda for the American Empire?
And if you were to be really, really honest: are you benefitting more from a seat at that table than you may be offering? If you are really, truly, only concerned with being able to answer to God, is that power and those accolades clouding your vision at all? Is the President getting more of your praise than the poor, weak, immigrant, refugee, vulnerable, sick, imprisoned are getting your solidarity? Are you speaking up for the poor and powerless – truly advocating for them as if the kingdom we are to be ushering in, where the greatest are called to be servants, will put the first last and the last first? And if not – why are you at The Table at all?
I don’t think Jesus would find himself at That Table. But if he found his followers there, I’m pretty sure he’d expect them to be speaking for the weak and powerless, the poor and oppressed, instead of patting the President on the back for declaring a National Day of Prayer, while oppressing the marginalized.
“Open your mouth, judge righteously, defend the rights of the poor and needy.” Proverbs 31:9, advice from the King’s mother to King Lemuel, a woman who used her seat at The Table wisely.