After the Desecration of the Holy Places

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It’s deeply painful to rehearse again: multiple murders inside a house of worship. The most recent slaughter was at a Jewish synagogue, but only days before there was an unsuccessful attempt on an African American church. These sacred places join an ever-increasing number of Christian, Islamic, Sikh, and Mormon sanctuaries that have been violated by deadly gunfire in the last six years. At one time in America, such holy places were considered off-limits for killing, but not anymore.

This lamentable reality has been known by religious communities in other countries for millennia. One of the reasons so many refugees come to the United States is because it has long had a reputation for being consummately safe for adherents of any faith. That is no longer true. The bright line that once kept even the most wicked people outside the sanctuary doors has been breached too often to think that such a boundary will be respected again anytime soon.

Bloodstained sanctuaries present religious leaders with a seeming dilemma—leave their flocks vulnerable to deadly violence, or, employ lethal force to stave off such attacks. I’m convinced there are better options than these two. One of the elements that sets off holy places from common places is their association with the virtues of peace, reconciliation, forgiveness, redemption, hope, and the human and divine bonds of love. Introducing deadly weapons into these spaces would mean nullifying these qualities and replacing them with the anxiety, intimidation, tension, and suspicion that normally attend the potential use of lethal force.

Religious communities dedicated to the preservation of life have a myriad of creative ways to contain and repel would-be attackers. Comprehensive camera surveillance paired with a non-violent rapid response team controlling one-way entry points, door locks, evacuation orders and management, barriers, reverse sanctuary configurations, patrol cars in the parking lots and uniformed police officers walking building perimeters are just the start. The idea of gunfights over the heads of congregants at prayer just can’t be the only creative solution to this problem.

Most religious bodies, by their very nature, point members to the transcendent—a dimension over and above the normal. The unique power of religion is found in its source, beyond the limits of the natural world and human ingenuity. We are a very creative species to begin with, but a connection to the divine makes us limitless. As Christians read it in our sacred book, “Nothing is impossible with God.” If we believe that concept as a principle of faith, then we are certainly not limited to a twelfth-century brutal machine that blows holes in human bodies and leaves both the perpetrators of violence and, often, their intended victims dead. Surely, those who believe in the supernatural, can do better—and we must—now.

The Dinner Table Topic No One Wants to Discuss at the White House: Gun Violence in America

First Lady Melania Trump recently hosted a dinner for influential evangelical figures at the White House. During his remarks, the President briefly referenced the recent shooting at a gaming tournament in Jacksonville, Florida, where a crazed gunman with a history of mental illness killed two people and wounded eleven others. After expressing condolences to those affected, Mr. Trump said dismissively, “How it happens, nobody really knows.” 

Of the 100 or so evangelical guests in attendance, a number of them were pastors. I wonder if they cringed when the President made that statement – a statement that no spiritual shepherd would ever make. 

We must wonder why the Commander-in-Chief of the United States, who is charged with running the most complex operations of government, including the most sophisticated military in the world—not to mention its nuclear arsenal—finds an event like the one in Jacksonville so mystifying. After all, it is his responsibility to oversee federal departments that conduct mandatory background checks on purchasers of firearms—and one disqualifying criterion for would-be buyers is a history of mental illness. 

At the White House soiree, the president was careful to remind evangelicals, “I have given you a lot. Just about everything I promised.” It is widely accepted that he is transactional in nature. If there’s one axiom that describes Mr. Trump’s political modus operandi, it would be, “You scratch my back, I scratch yours.” While he’s been very good delivering on his campaign promises to conservative evangelical constituents, he has yet to deliver on his much bigger, much more consequential promise to the nation made in his 2016 GOP nomination acceptance speech. I was there in Cleveland and heard him say emphatically, “I have a message for all of you: the crime and violence that today afflicts our nation will soon come to an end. Beginning on January 20th 2017, safety will be restored. The most basic duty of government is to defend the lives of its own citizens. Any government that fails to do so is a government unworthy to lead.”

Unfortunately, the terrifying gun violence that plagues our nation has not come to an end, and the horror that recently took place in Jacksonville has become all too familiar for Americans. For many, these last two years have been marked by gun violence and mass shootings—shootings that shattered families and whole communities. As pastors and spiritual advisors, we must not forget the devastating loss of life at the Route 91 Harvest Music Festival in Las Vegas last October, or when a gunman entered a house of worship Sunday, November 5, 2017, in Sutherland Springs, Texas and opened fire on the congregation, killing 25 innocent people. This year, we have witnessed even more tragedy as precious children and teenagers in Parkland, Florida and Sante Fe, Texas were senselessly shot and killed. In fact, there have already been 12 mass shootings this year alone in our country. 

There are, once again, family members, friends, and too many others in unspeakable anguish after this most recent gun slaughter. President Trump needs to be reminded by faith leaders of every tradition, including evangelical Christians, that every single human life matters—not just the ones on a cynical political promise list. It is time for the President and every government executive under him responsible for the public’s safety to take this moral mandate seriously, rise to the task, and do everything possible to ensure the mentally unstable do not have access to firearms, like the shooter in Jacksonville did. Furthermore, the Trump Administration needs to push congress to tighten up federal law and allocate necessary resources to states to enforce such restrictions and to punish states that fail to do so.

Finally, because our government is “of the people, by the people, for the people,” it is also every voting American’s responsibility to elect those who take the charge to “defend the lives of its own citizens” as more than simply campaign hype—but as a sacred duty that must be performed and for which they must be held accountable.

President Trump informed his evangelical leaders at the White House dinner that his administration has “stopped the Johnson Amendment from interfering with [their] First Amendment rights.” Presumably, this means pastors and other religious leaders are free to speak their minds from the pulpit and in other media when it comes to who will be best to lead the country into the future and to do something about the horrific plague of gun violence that snuffs out and shatters tens of thousands of lives each year. On this one point, it’s time for faith leaders and all members of their communities to take President Trump seriously and speak out loudly in defense of the preservation of peace and safety for all. It’s time to elect members of Congress and other representatives at all levels of government who will hold this president accountable and who will craft legislation that keeps firearms out of the hands of those who present a grave danger to the public. 

The Christian leaders at the White House dinner that heaped praise on Mr. Trump for giving them everything they’ve demanded of him surely know that there is an explanation for the murder and mayhem in Jacksonville—and Parkland—and Las Vegas—and Sutherland Springs and in the many dreadfully similar episodes of murder, injury and trauma that preceded his presidency. Simply put, mental illness and access to deadly firearms should not go together. Let’s put that on our list of demands for the president—and make sure that there are those in Washington who will make sure he delivers on them—not just for we evangelicals, but for all of the American people. 

About Rev. Dr. Rob Schenck

The Rev. Dr. Rob Schenck is an ordained evangelical minister and president of the Dietrich Bonhoeffer Institute, located in Washington, DC. He holds a Doctor of Ministry from Faith Evangelical Seminary in Tacoma, Washington and is a senior fellow of The Centre for the Study of Law and Public Policy at Oxford. Rev. Schenck is the subject of the Emmy Award-winning documentary, The Armor of Light and a member of the leadership team for Survivor Sunday, a nationwide day of remembrance for the 30,000 lives lost annually to gun violence sponsored by Prayers & Action. He is also the author of God and Guns, a part of Zondervan’s upcoming book, Christianity Engaged in Culture and the book, Costly Grace: An Evangelical Minister’s Rediscovery of Faith, Hope, and Love, which was released by Harper Collins on June 5, 2018.

One Year After the Terrible Vegas Mass Shooting, It is Time to Act

It is gut-wrenching to look at their faces. 58 of them. They were young, old, men, women, single, married, parents and grandparents. From all over the country and from Canada, they had one thing in common – they were fans of country music. One year ago on October 1st, they made their way to an open field in Las Vegas where, in the midst of their revelry, they were plunged into terror and cut down by bullets—more than 1100—fired from 32 stories above their heads. Jack Beaton, there to celebrate a 23rd anniversary, shielded his wife Laurie with his own body atop hers and bled to death after telling her he loved her. Charleston Hartfield, a police officer and Army National Guard reservist was off-duty and escorting people to safety when he was killed. Andrea Castilla was enjoying her 28th birthday with her sister when a round cut short her life. And on it goes 55 more times. 489 others could have met the same fate but survived with varying degrees of injuries and wounds. It was the worst mass shooting in American history. 


The haunting questions that most matter are how survivors are coping with the loss, the trauma, and the fear that such a horrendous experience leaves in its aftermath. My wife is a psychotherapist who works with trauma victims and she knows these questions are likely to plague survivors for their entire lives. But, as this reprehensible one-year mark passes, there are other unanswered questions that should trouble all of us. For one, what have we done as a people, as a country, as a civilized society, to ensure such a tragedy does not happen again—or, that at least we have made it very difficult for it to happen again? To continue in the same vein, what have we done to reduce the risk of mentally and emotionally disturbed people, like the Las Vegas shooter, from obtaining firearms and massive amounts of ammunition? What about enhancing detection of these kinds of deadly plans before they result in mass casualties? 

For Christians like me—especially pastors—these questions are moral, ethical, and even spiritual in nature. Almost anyone who attends church has heard a sermon positing the question asked by Cain after God confronted him with the murder of his brother, Abel, “Am I my brother’s keeper?” The rhetorical answer, of course, is yes, you are. We are all our brother’s—and sister’s keeper. The Bible commands us to “watch out for one another” (Hebrews 10:24), to “consider others as more important than yourselves” (Philippians 2:3), and to “serve one another through love” (Galatians 5:13). When it comes to Las Vegas, or, for that matter, Parkland, Orlando, Sandy Hook, Sutherland Springs, Santa Fe, Roseburg, to name just a few, the question that must point us toward a satisfactory answer is, what have we done to fulfill these biblical mandates when it comes to the threat of another mass shooting? Sadly, the answer as it stands now is nothing.

Doing nothing is not the Christian response to any form of human suffering. 1 John 3:17 and James 2:14-17, as well as the words of Jesus in Matthew 25: 43-45, make it abundantly clear that we have a moral, ethical and spiritual obligation to help our fellow human beings in the most practical ways. Enacting laws, implementing policies, and directing enforcement of regulations that prevent the mentally disturbed, emotionally unstable, and historically violent from getting semi-automatic weapons and large quantities of ammunition would be a start toward reducing the risk of multiple casualty events, as well as increasing the chances of escape for victims, peace of mind for the traumatized and fearful, and the likelihood that law enforcement can more safely diffuse a situation. One year is long enough for us to know that in failing to act to stem mass shootings, we become unwittingly culpable in the perpetration of the next one. One year after Las Vegas is one year too many without serious action to stop the wrong people from getting guns that can kill so many in so little time. Let us act now in memory of the 58 souls who fell as the music played in Vegas one year ago.

A Theology Lesson for the Attorney General

 Inside the U.S. Capitol Building, 1997: Presenting then Alabama Senator Jeff Sessions with the Ten Commandments Leadership Award.

Inside the U.S. Capitol Building, 1997: Presenting then Alabama Senator Jeff Sessions with the Ten Commandments Leadership Award.

I know Jeff Sessions. I once conferred on the former senator something called The Ten Commandments Leadership Award for using his office to foster adherence to the virtues espoused in the Great Words of Sinai. Now, many years later, I’m tempted to rescind that award. In his present office, General Sessions has promulgated policies that violate not only the letter of God’s moral law, but the spirit of it as well. To add insult to injury, the Attorney General recently made a very poor attempt to use—or misuse—a well- and widely-exegetic passage from St. Paul’s Letter to the Romans, Chapter 13. This text is a cornerstone in Pauline New Testament literature. It is also one of the most historically misinterpreted, deliberately distorted, and abused excerpts ever drawn from the Bible.

An Historical Record of the Misuse of Romans 13

In addition to guiding believers on how they are to comport themselves socially and in terms of the body politic, Romans 13 has been used previously to defend government actions in the mass slaughter of peasant farmers in Europe, slavery and Jim Crow laws in the United States, apartheid in South Africa, brutal torture and murder in Zimbabwe, and, of course, the extermination camps of Nazi Germany. Now added to this list of Romans 13 heresies is an attempted justification for the deliberate traumatizing of children by separating them from their parents at the U.S. – Mexican border.

As a help to General Sessions (and the President’s spokesperson, Sarah Huckabee Sanders, who echoed him), let’s try to understand not just the plain meaning of the relevant portion of Romans 13, but, what theologians, Bible scholars, commentators, and a premier Christian ethicist have to say about it. I’ll begin with an aphorism given to me by one of my instructors at Elim Bible Institute (Lima, New York), where I first took on a serious examination of Holy Writ some 40 years ago,

“Every biblical text without a context becomes a pretext.”

The first step in properly discerning the meaning of a biblical text is, in fact, its context. So, let’s put this one where it belongs. The salient verses in the Attorney General’s reference to Romans 13 is verses 1-5:

Let everyone be subject to the governing authorities, for there is no authority except that which God has established. The authorities that exist have been established by God. Consequently, whoever rebels against the authority is rebelling against what God has instituted, and those who do so will bring judgment on themselves. For rulers hold no terror for those who do right, but for those who do wrong. Do you want to be free from fear of the one in authority? Then do what is right and you will be commended. For the one in authority is God’s servant for your good. But if you do wrong, be afraid, for rulers do not bear the sword for no reason. They are God’s servants, agents of wrath to bring punishment on the wrongdoer. Therefore, it is necessary to submit to the authorities, not only because of possible punishment but also as a matter of conscience.”

This is clearly a discussion of the Christian’s duty toward temporal, earthly government. As is usual for an evangelical, I tend to take a passage at its face value. This is the Great Apostle instructing his charges to basically behave themselves and go along with the prevailing social and legal order; to recognize legitimate authority and behave themselves in a civil manner. There were many revolutionary movements present in First Century Roman occupied Judaea. Due to Roman hostility toward the early Christian movement, its adherents were understandably tempted to join insurgent groups, but St. Paul admonished them not to do so. Instead, he says they are to “submit to the authorities, not only because of possible punishment but also as a matter of conscience” (Rom 13:5b NIV). In many ways, this is simple common sense. Still, there is more here than first meets the eye.

Again, context: This passage is bookended by two interesting discussions, both on the nature of the Christian’s relationship to fellow believers and, generally, to everyone else. In a word, this nature is love. The first of these two bookend passages begins this way, “Love must be sincere. Hate what is evil; cling to what is good. Be devoted to one another in love. Honor one another above yourselves. Never be lacking in zeal, but keep your spiritual fervor, serving the Lord. Be joyful in hope, patient in affliction, faithful in prayer. Share with the Lord’s people who are in need. Practice hospitality.” (Rom 12: 9-13)

Because this proceeds the section on government, it is reasonable to assume that it is to inform that next discussion, the one in Chapter 13, verses 1-5. In other words, Paul, having said all this, (including the potent last imperative, “Practice hospitality”) essentially sets the frame for the Christian’s attitudinal approach to government: Hating evil . . . embracing the good . . . being spiritually fervent . . . serving the Lord . . . being full of hope . . . patient when afflicted . . . continuously praying . . . giving some of what you have to those that have none . . . being hospitable. It’s within this moral, ethical, social, and spiritual milieu that we are to approach the salient question in Romans 13, What about government?

Now, the edict to both obey and to see rulers as instruments of God are not without qualification. Barnes Notes says about the general rule of obedience and acknowledgment of authority, “there ‘were’ cases where it was right to ‘resist’ the laws. This the Christian religion clearly taught; and in cases like these, it was indispensable for Christians to take a stand. When the laws interfered with the rights of conscience; when they commanded the worship of idols, or any moral wrong, then it was their duty to refuse submission.” And “This does not mean that he (God) ‘originates’ or causes the evil dispositions of rulers, but that he ‘directs’ and ‘controls’ their appointment.”

Ellicott’s Commentary says it this way, “There will always be a certain debatable ground within which opposite duties will seem to clash, and where general principles are no longer of any avail. Here the individual conscience must assume the responsibility of deciding which to obey.”

It would do well to note at this juncture that there is never simply textual context to be concerned about in exegeting Scripture; there is also time, place, cultural, linguistic, historic, personal and other factors that must be weighed in interpreting meaning and application. Having said that, let’s bring this whole subject into the present day and the present situation: In contrast to the first century Roman Christians’ political environment, that is, a Republic ruled largely by oligarchs, acolytes and a despotic, often divinized, emperor, American Christians in the 21st century are ruled, to quote American founder John Adams, “by a government of laws, not of men.” The “ruler,” for the citizen of the United States, is the law itself and no particular individual officer of the law. So, when we apply all those caveats in Romans 12 to the “ruler” or “authorities” in Romans 13, we have direction for the Christian’s attitudes and actions, vis-à-vis, “the law,” first as it is in the Constitution, then in the product of the legislative bodies, and in some executive orders and policies, etc.

But to get the whole sense of this, we must go to the other bookend, St. Paul’s discussion on love. It’s found just after the so-called “law and order text,” in the same chapter, 13, verses 8 – 10, “Let no debt remain outstanding, except the continuing debt to love one another, for whoever loves others has fulfilled the law.  The commandments, ‘You shall not commit adultery,’ ‘You shall not murder,’ ‘You shall not steal,’ ‘You shall not covet,’ and whatever other command there may be, are summed up in this one command: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’ Love does no harm to a neighbor. Therefore, love is the fulfillment of the law.”

To review, the passage here indicates we are to approach our duties to government with a moral, ethical, even spiritual mindset, because it is only a morally enlightened conscience that enables us to decide (to go back to Ellicott) “which to obey;” that is, God’s law or man’s law. Now, in this second contextual piece, Paul adds a test that will help us to place love—specifically of neighbor—above all else in making our decision about the legitimacy of a law or government policy. Paul’s exhortation here on love reflects, of course, Jesus’ Second Great Commandment, “Love your neighbor as yourself,” which, our Lord said, is “like,” or the equivalent to, the First Great Commandment, “Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind” (See Matthew 22:36-40). In Romans 13, Paul states unambiguously, “Love does no harm to a neighbor.” This would lead us to ask about our rulers, (that is, any law or lawful policy), “Does it do no harm to a neighbor?” If it does not do harm, the context here would indicate we are, indeed, duty-bound to obey it. However, if it does cause harm to a neighbor, then it is by definition immoral, unethical, unspiritual, and, consequently, unjust (see Malachi 6:8). To quote the great early church father, theologian, and bishop, St. Augustine, “Lex iniusta non est lex,” – “An unjust law is no law at all.” (Famously quoted by Martin Luther King, Jr. in reference to segregation laws in the south.) Ipso facto, in our American context, “no law at all” means no ruler exists to be obeyed.

Which brings us to the question at hand, Is Romans Chapter 13 relevant to the policy of the Trump Administration which separates children from their parents at the Mexican border? Of course, it is, but, does this mean that a Christian—or anyone for that matter—is obliged to obey the order to separate migrant children from their parents at the border? Adding to the moral weight of this question is the President’s recent comments indicating that one of the purposes of the separation and confinement of the children is to use the anguish this brings to them and their parents as an emotional deterrent against attempts by the parents to illegally enter the United States. In other words, the President and his operatives are inflicting pain for the purpose of scaring parents. It is clear on its face that this practice does considerable harm to the children, to their parents, to the officers and other government personnel that are demoralized by its execution, not to mention harm to the reputation and spiritual wellbeing of the American people.  Therefore, the policy and practice of forcibly separating children from their parents at the border and any legislation ostensibly used to support this practice is patently unjust. As an unjust “law” it is “no law at all,” therefore rendering null, void, and erroneous the invocation of Romans 13 by the Attorney General to justify inflicting pain and anguish on parents and children.

The Attorney General, Ms. Huckabee Sanders, and the President would do well to consider what the great pastor, moral theologian, Christian ethicist and martyr to the Nazis, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, had to say about Romans 13, “No State is entitled to read St. Paul’s words as a justification for its own existence. Should any State take to heart these words, they would be just as much a challenge to repentance for the State as they are for the Church . . .

A personal note: This, General Sessions, is your theology lesson on Romans 13. My prayer and hope is that you will give it due consideration and reverse your statement, order border personnel to stop inflicting this kind of pain and anguish on children, and return to God’s moral order by supporting the sanctity of the family. Should you decide not to do so, I respectfully ask you to return the plaque I gave you twenty years ago naming you a recipient of the Ten Commandments Leadership Award. I’m afraid your defense of harming children and parents disqualifies you from such recognition.

Statement by Evangelical Leader on Dick’s Sporting Goods and Walmart Gun Sale Policies After Fox & Friends Interview Today

Leading evangelical spokesman, the Reverend Dr. Rob Schenck (pronounced “Shank”), a long-time Christian minister to top government officials in Washington, DC, and president of The Dietrich Bonhoeffer Institute, appeared on Fox News Fox & Friends today to commend decisions by retailers Dick’s Sporting Goods and Walmart for their change on gun sales.

Dick’s Sporting Goods will no longer sell high capacity, rapid-fire, semi-automatic rifles and Walmart has raised the purchase age for all guns to 21. Rev. Schenck, who holds an NRA life membership and votes on nominees to its board of directors, said today these actions are “morally courageous, highly ethical, and socially responsible decisions.”

He went on to say, “There is no need for these battle-field inspired weapons . . . they are the guns of choice for mass murderers and terrorists.”

Schenck adds to his televised comments, “I agree with the call by Dick’s CEO Edward Stack to outright ban assault style weapons. There are plenty of options for sports shooting and hunting. The AR15, AK47, Bushmaster, and other high-capacity, rapid-fire, semi-auto long guns are designed to hunt humans, not animals. They are fast becoming the weapons of choice for mass murderers and terrorists.

“In states like Arkansas, hunters understand this. For Duck hunting, you are limited to three rounds in your chamber. Add a fourth bullet when hunting a duck, and your gun will be confiscated, your hunting license will be revoked, you may even have to surrender your truck. Hunters understand that these restrictions are in their best interest.

“Why do we accept limitations on duck hunting, but not on human hunting? You can use three bullets to hunt ducks, but you can use an unlimited number of bullets to hunt humans. That’s supremely immoral.

“20 tiny tykes blown to pieces in Newtown, 49 people in Orlando with 50 grievously injured, 58 slaughtered and 850 wounded in Las Vegas, 26 dead in their church pews in Texas, 20 more injured, and 17 young people mowed down, 14 gravely wounded in Parkland—and that’s not all. What do these tragedies have in common?  Rapid-fire, high-capacity, M16-like battlefield-grade weapons.

“Stopping, slowing sales, increasing the age limit for purchase, can help reduce the chance of dangerous people getting these weapons. There’s a lot more to do, but the decisions of these private companies will go a long way toward a solution. This is the best of corporate behavior and Dick’s and Walmart deserve to be commended and rewarded with our business. There need to be more moral business leaders. Who will be the next to help us solve this monstrous problem?”

Rev. Rob Schenck, an ordained evangelical minister, is president of the Washington, DC-based Dietrich Bonhoeffer Institute and is the subject of the Emmy Award winning documentary, The Armor of Light, which examines American evangelicals and popular gun culture. He explains why he changed his mind on gun ownership and use in his upcoming memoir, “Costly Grace: An Evangelical Minister’s Rediscovery of Faith, Hope and Love, to be released by HarperCollins June 5 and available now on pre-sale.

My One-And-Only Billy Graham Regret

All my life I’ve known of Billy Graham. Even my Jewish father liked to watch the televised crusades of the great evangelist, though Dad never embraced Mr. Graham’s message. However, for me, Billy Graham only played in the background, that is, until I met my wife, Cheryl, in the church where I would give my life to Jesus.  You see, it was Billy Graham who planted the seed of faith in my wife’s heart.

When I enrolled in Bible college to become a minister, Graham became my role model, the exemplar of everything it meant to be a preacher, evangelist, and ambassador for Christ. I would later emulate him in the pulpit and model my own organization after his. When I attended his 1983 International Conference for Itinerant Evangelists in Amsterdam, Holland, I was thrilled when I was given an outdoor preaching assignment near where Mr. Graham himself was witnessing to young people in a park–incognito. Shortly after, I would meet him personally for the first time. It was like meeting a superhero.

Over the next few decades, Billy Graham would remain the gold standard for me, and countless other young Christian leaders in my world. We watched how Graham conducted himself in all kinds of settings, how he eschewed the pomp and circumstance; the glitzy lifestyle of the rich and famous, and temptation to become insular. He treated all comers equally—rich, poor, black, white, young, old, liberal, conservative. Many of us actually kept to “the Billy Graham Rule,” which meant doing everything honestly, transparently, modestly, and, with a view toward answering the questions, “Is this being done for my glory or the glory of God? Am I treating people the way Jesus would treat them?”

Then something began to change for me. Over time, I would begin to blur the lines between faith and politics, replacing the old-time religion with the Grand Ole’ Party. I would trade Billy Graham for Ronald Reagan, and the simple gospel Mr. Graham preached for the party platform promoted by politicians. By 2005, I had lost my spiritual bearings and could no longer tell where the true north of the gospel was located. In the process, I turned on my one-time mentor. In my highly politicized mind, Mr. Graham went from being the great gospel crusader to the weak political compromiser. When I was invited to his last public crusade in Flushing Meadows Park, Queens, New York, I sat in the front row. That’s when I saw Bill and Hillary Clinton step out on the stage with the walker-assisted evangelist. When he took them with him to the podium, I was livid. How could this great man parade two people that were anathema in my conservative universe in front of a sacred assembly of those seeking salvation? It was scandalous. As Mr. Graham gave the mic to President Clinton, joking that the Democrat should be an evangelist and “leave his wife to run the country,” I stood up and very publicly stormed out of the gathering.

Today I am ashamed of my behavior on that day, but my greater regret goes beyond my walking out on my role model’s last large-scale crusade. My greatest regret is that I am so sorry I never expressed my remorse to Mr. Graham. I would have liked to have begged his pardon, to repent for my obnoxious sanctimoniousness, and my impudent rejection of his tutelage in human diplomacy. In his son Franklin’s memorial tribute to his father, the now heir of this great legacy, he referred to the incomparable evangelist as a “public ambassador.” Indeed, he was, in the best sense, as St. Paul uses the term, “Therefore, we are ambassadors for Christ, God making his appeal through us. We implore you on behalf of Christ, be reconciled to God” (2 Corinthians 5:20 ESV). An ambassador does not display his own bias, but dutifully represents his sovereign to all. God has never declared himself to be a Republican, a Democrat, a liberal or a conservative. He most certainly doesn’t favor one politician over another when it comes to his gracious offer of salvation. That’s why Billy Graham could be so gracious to the Clintons. After all, at that time, Hillary was the Senator from New York and Bill was the former president. (Not to mention Mr. Graham was a life-long member of the Democratic Party.)

All this to say that my mentor-from-afar was much wiser than I, but I didn’t think so in 2005. He knew that to impose a political filter atop his gospel message would only be to restrict its reach to those in a particular political class. Mr. Graham didn’t see the Clintons as political actors or propagandists, but public servants, respected and admired by a lot of New Yorkers—likely the vast majority of those seated in front of him in that park. For him, the last word was not a political one, but a spiritual one: “God so loved the world . . .”, and every person in it, including the Clintons. He believed and obeyed God’s Word, “Pay to all what is owed to them: taxes to whom taxes are owed, revenue to whom revenue is owed, respect to whom respect is owed, honor to whom honor is owed” (Romans 13:7 ESV). Billy Graham knew that the right thing to do on that day in 2005 was to give respect and honor to a former president and a sitting U.S. senator. He was right to do that; I was wrong to walk out on him.

I really wish I could have told Mr. Graham that. Maybe I’ll still get the chance, when, in the not-too-distant future, I stand before the gracious throne of heaven with him and the millions of souls he won to the Savior. In my upcoming memoir, Costly Grace: An Evangelical Minister’s Rediscovery of Faith, Hope and Love, I write about Mr. Graham’s influence on me. Those memories mean more to me now than ever. Thank you, Billy Graham, for being God’s gift to me and so very many others. Thank you for serving our Lord so faithfully, for proclaiming the gospel so clearly, for modeling ministry with such integrity, for treating everyone so fairly. I learned invaluable lessons from you—even when I rejected them.

Please pardon my juvenile disrespect.

Evangelical Leader Who Has Boldly Been at the Forefront of the Issue of Gun Violence Gives a Statement in Wake of Florida High School Shooting

Rev. Rob Schenck, President of The Dietrich Bonhoeffer Institute; Subject of the Emmy-Winning Documentary, The Armor of Light; and Contributing Author of God and Guns – a Part of the Upcoming Zondervan Book, Christianity Engaged in Culture Makes the Following Statement in Light of the High School Shooting in Florida:

“The murder of school children in a mass shooting is never just ‘another.’ That’s not acceptable in a civilized culture. When children wake up in the morning, they should only worry about homework or a test, not whether they will be killed in a hail of gunfire. Parents should only be concerned if their kids will make the bus, play it safe in gym, or avoid getting in trouble. No parent should worry that a gun battle will break out or that they’ll be met at the end of the school day at the emergency room by a grim-faced chaplain.

“Over my nearly 40 years as a Christian minister, I’ve consoled many people who have been the victims of tragedy, but none as tortured, as anguished, as crushed as parents of a child who has died. Add the horror of knowing your baby’s body was pierced by a bullet and he or she bled to death and the pain is unfathomable. The shooting that left at least seventeen dead and more wounded or injured at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Broward County Florida is only the latest of 290 such incidents since December 21, 2012 when 20 tiny elementary school students were slain by a gunman in Newtown, Connecticut.

“If the solution to this deadly disease in American society is more guns—as the NRA and other firearm lobbying groups assert—than the United States, with over 300 million weapons in general circulation—would be the safest place on earth. It is not. And if, as I can hear many of my gun rights conversation partners saying, the answer to this kind of catastrophe is to arm teachers, janitors, and parking lot attendants, then we will be setting up a world where kids will be ducking for cover in their hallways and classrooms as bullets wiz past their heads and, likely, hit them instead of any assailant.

“Is this the world we want our children to inhabit? Is this the risk we are asking of teachers, administrators, and volunteers in our schools? Is this the foreboding parents want to experience each time they watch their kids climb aboard a school bus? This travesty must stop—and stop immediately.

“American homes are awash in weaponry—and way too much of it is unsecured or easily accessible to children, or troubled family members, or thieves. Kids are not bringing hand grenades to school—or sticks of dynamite—or even fertilizer bombs because we have decided as a society to carefully restrict and control those dangerous items. Yet, we not only make lethal firearms readily available to anyone who wants them for any reason, but the NRA and others—especially the manufacturers that get wealthier every time a bunch of people are slaughtered—keep pushing for more and more weapons to be easier and easier to obtain.

“In August of 2013, when a mentally unstable student entered his Atlanta area high school administrative office and fired a semi-automatic rifle into the floor, then threatened to start shooting everybody in the school, front office secretary Antoinette Tuff prayerfully mustered all the courage she had and talked the young man down, convincing him to surrender. The only weapon she had was her faith, her bravery, and her love—and she did what few others have ever done. If given the option, which kind of ending would any parent hope and pray for—a gun battle over their child’s head, or a brave soul talking a would-be killer into an uneventful surrender?

“Can we agree that more weapons, more ammunition, easier and greater access to firearms, and good guys with guns have not solved this deadly problem? And we won’t solve it until good people accept reality, resolve to do all we can to change what’s really wrong, keep guns away from anyone who isn’t properly trained and monitored in their use, and begin ridding our homes, neighborhoods, schools, and communities of instruments of mass death.

“We have a moral emergency in our country. It’s time we wake up, face it, and fix it. Now.”

The Rev. Dr. Rob Schenck is an ordained evangelical minister and president of the Dietrich Bonhoeffer Institute, located in Washington, DC. He holds a d Doctor of Ministry from Faith Evangelical Seminary in Tacoma, Washington and is a senior fellow of The Centre for the Study of Law and Public Policy at Oxford. Rev. Schenck is the subject of the Emmy-winning documentary, The Armor of Light. He is also the author of God and Guns, a part of Zondervan’s upcoming book, Christianity Engaged in Culture and the book, Costly Grace, due to be released by Harper Collins June 2018. www.tdbi.org

Tuesday’s Alabama Senate Election: In the End, It’s About Doing Right, Not Getting It Right

Tomorrow, Tuesday, December 12, voters in Alabama will decide who they want to fill the U.S. Senate seat vacated by Jeff Sessions when he became U.S. Attorney General. I’m a believer that this election belongs to the good people of Alabama. They alone know their state and what it needs in terms of representation in Washington. What I, or any other non-Alabamian thinks about the election is, largely, irrelevant.

Having said that, I do have some thoughts about how the race is affecting people—inside and outside Alabama. My thoughts here are not about who should win, but who is being hurt by this spectacle, and how God’s people are to act in the midst of it. In the interest of full disclosure, I happen to know both candidates and appreciate many things about each of them, but each man also causes me great concern, for very different reasons. Again, it’s not worth going into detail because, in the end, it doesn’t matter what I think about them—it matters what the people of Alabama think about them. But we should all care about the non-combatants in this battle, because they are our fellow human beings, and our fellow Americans. For me, many of them are also fellow Christians.

My real concern about what has played out in Alabama centers on the collateral damage this race has done, first, to the women at the center of the controversy over Roy Moore’s past, and to the evangelicals that will either be credited or blamed for the election’s outcome. They are the real people in this mess. Maybe it’s the pastoral side of me that keeps my focus off the two candidates and on those other souls, caught in the throes of this tumultuous political season in our nation. If this were solely a matter for Alabamians, with no Steve Bannon or Gloria Allred to sensationalize it, no Fox News or MSNBC to exploit it, no Washington-based RNC or DNC to finance it—maybe, just maybe, there wouldn’t be so many collateral victims.

Politics is a rough-and-tumble sport. Roy Moore knows that, and he can take it—he was a kick-boxing champion in his hometown of Gadsden and a horse wrangler in the Australian outback. Doug Jones knows it—he was a federal prosecutor who took on the Ku Klux Klan’s murder of children in a church bombing. The ones who do not know how bad political fights get, and what damage they do to our souls, are the women who accused Moore of sexual assault and impropriety—and the Bible-believing Christians left to judge their accounts as true or false—and then decide what to do with that information on Tuesday. Both Republicans and Democrats are using the women and the evangelicals reacting to them for their advantage. Here’s my advice to both these collateral victims, offered in my role as a minister, not as a politician:

Most importantly, you and everyone in this mess matters to God. He loves you with an everlasting love (Jeremiah 31:3). Nothing you do—or don’t do—on Election Day, can change that fact. Nothing anyone says about you can change that fact. This is God’s promise to you and to all of humanity (John 3:16).

For the women that have accused Roy Moore: No matter your motives for coming forward, the accuracy of your allegations, or whether your fellow citizens believe you or not, your voice is to be honored and your words are to be weighed seriously. No one should ever be categorically dismissed because of the timing of their complaint. Politics is never more important than people—especially people that say they’ve been harmed. The people of God are obligated to pray for you, love you, and support you, no matter the circumstances surrounding your cry for help.

To my fellow Bible-believing evangelical Christians in Alabama: Your citizenship goes way above and beyond the state of Alabama and the United States of America. Scripture tells us: “For our citizenship is in heaven; from which also we look for the Savior, the Lord Jesus Christ” (Philippians 3:20). Your concern as a believer must, in the end, above all things, be the will of God—not political expediency. The voice that disciples of Jesus must always listen for is not the voice of candidates who want to win a race, or, of media pundits trying to please their audiences, or, of political operatives or parties that stand to gain from an election’s outcome, or, of social groups that need you to help them achieve their objectives. The only voice that matters is the Lord’s, that still small voice in your heart, speaking to you in your conscience, where the law of God itself is written (Hebrews 8:10).

To all as you contemplate what you’ll do tomorrow: Prayer, of course, is the beginning of discernment (Philippians 1:9), and love is the mark of the true Christian (John 13:35). So, as you prepare to vote start by praying and exercising the love of God toward all involved in this election process—the candidates themselves, their supporters and detractors, the women accusers, the candidates’ defenders, your family members, friends, and co-workers who issue their opinions and applaud or harangue you for your position.

Finally, as you bathe this whole exercise in prayer and love — for God and for your neighbor (Matthew 22:36-40) — also seek wisdom, which God promises He will give you (James 1:5). You will know it is wisdom from God by its characteristics: “The wisdom that is from above is first pure, then peaceable, gentle, willing to yield, full of mercy and good fruits, without partiality and without hypocrisy” (James 3:17).

If the only reason for the vote you cast or decide not to cast tomorrow is to get back at someone or something, prove a point—maybe that you’re right and somebody else is wrong—or because you’re afraid of someone or something—you stand a pretty good chance of getting it wrong. If you approach your duty as a citizen of Alabama conscious that your ultimate allegiance is not to a state, not to a nation, certainly not to a candidate or political party, but to God, and you act accordingly, you stand a very good chance of getting it right, not necessarily in a political sense, but, much more importantly, in a moral sense.  It is far more important to do what is right in God’s eyes than get your vote right!

What the Gorsuch Family Church Says About Trump’s Nominee

 Prayer at the White House with Supreme Court Nominee Neil Gorsuch. Photo Credit: Donald Trump @POTUS (Twitter)

Prayer at the White House with Supreme Court Nominee Neil Gorsuch. Photo Credit: Donald Trump @POTUS (Twitter)

The photo of the prayer circle is comfortably familiar to me. First, because I can’t even count the number of circles like it that I’ve either convened or participated in during the more than two decades I’ve ministered here in Washington, D.C. The custom of collecting a small group of people to pray together over a very important matter is a quiet habit here in the nation’s capital that goes largely unnoticed. In many an office, conference room, or even courtroom, I’ve motioned for folks to gather around, hold hands, and bow their heads in prayer. It’s always the most important thing I have and ever will do in such a setting.

So, here in my inbox was another moment like that, portrayed in an official White House photo later tweeted out by the President himself. It had been a spontaneous assemblage after Mr. Trump’s televised announcement of his choice to fill the vacant seat on the Supreme Court. There were faces very familiar to me, among them, Vice President Mike Pence and his wife Karen, with whom I have bowed my head more than once over the years. There was also Maureen Scalia, widow to Justice Antonin Scalia. The last time I was with her was at her late husband’s private viewing at a funeral home in Virginia, during which we prayed together in just such a circle. And next to Maureen in this photo was her son, the Reverend Paul Scalia, who had presided at the prayer circle, and along side of whom my own twin brother, Fr. Paul Schenck, had concelebrated the Scalia funeral mass. This was a picture of a very familiar bunch.

The strangers in that circle, though, were people I either didn’t know, or, would likely not have had the occasion to pray with in the past: President Donald Trump’s two sons, Donald, Jr., and Eric; and, of course, the honorees in the circle, the President’s new Supreme Court nominee, Judge Neil Gorsuch, and his wife, Louise. The President was in that circle, too, but I had indeed prayed with him—once—and only at a distance—during an 80th birthday bash for Christian media giant Pat Robertson.

For me, the prayer circle suggested something at once very simple and yet terribly complex. To begin with, prayer meetings have been a fairly consistent practice at the White House for many generations, including recent ones. It may surprise some to know that Barack Obama hosted the largest number of private prayer breakfasts of any president. George W. Bush frequently called for prayer, and Bill Clinton often prayed in the Oval Office with Billy Graham and others. In this case, it appeared the Vice President was leading the prayer, or, at least speaking it in the moment that frame was captured. I would expect that because “Mike,” as I’ve always known him, finds prayer very natural. That Mrs. Scalia and her priest son were there on this occasion was touching, as it was a fitting tribute to the man the President promised to match by his appointment. I appreciated the President solemnly bowing his head in that moment, with his two sons beside him doing the same. It was dignified and respectful to the sublime nature of the exercise.

 Prayer circles like this one in the Oval Office were common events during the Obama, Bush, and Clinton presidencies. Photo Credit: The White House (Pete Souza)

Prayer circles like this one in the Oval Office were common events during the Obama, Bush, and Clinton presidencies. Photo Credit: The White House (Pete Souza)

Notwithstanding all of these more-or-less expected elements in the image of the prayer circle, what captured my attention most was the unusual presence of a Supreme Court nominee. Federal judges are generally very discreet about being seen publicly engaging in religious activity because they don’t want to be accused of being biased when it comes to the sensitive topic of religious identity. Even more so, I was struck by the body language of Judge and Mrs. Gorsuch. I’ve learned, as a minister for more than 35 years, to study people’s literal posturing, as much as their words. Physical behavior, especially during prayer, often tells me a lot about a person’s spiritual condition. For example, open eyes can signal discomfort, shame, or protest; closed eyes can signal security, humility, and sincerity. Neil and Louise Gorsuch were telegraphing the latter in the White House photo. It was obvious this was not simply a case of them being polite. This prayer was important to them.

This would be in keeping with what I’ve come to learn about the Gorsuch family—that they are sincere, mature, and fully engaged Christians. These qualities beg another question, however, and it concerns their choice of church affiliation; the answer to which will be, for some, very unexpected. Judge Gorsuch, his wife, and two daughters are faithful members of St. John’s Episcopal Church in Boulder, Colorado. The Judge has recently served as an usher there, and Mrs. Gorsuch is a “reader,” a prominent, licensed lay ministerial role in the Episcopal denomination. Their daughters have been robed acolytes for the parish, assisting the priests during services. In other words, this is one seriously dedicated Episcopal family.

Based on Judge Gorsuch’s reputation for carefully studying the exact details of every legal question that comes before him, and, even more so, for his precise writing skills, I’m left to conclude that his choice of church affiliation is quite an intentional one. Maybe it’s just “pastoral-me,” but I find this fascinating. When it comes to his actions on the bench, Judge Gorsuch is considered a reliable Scalia-like “orginalist.” The very conservative Federalist Society and Heritage Foundation, both of which referred Gorsuch to Trump as a top possible Supreme Court pick, have routinely compared the jurist to the “textualist” Scalia. In contrast, church affiliation is one major point on which the Late Great Scalia would have never found commonality with Gorsuch.

The Episcopal Church is, by every measure, a liberal—read that, “quite liberal”—religious body. It was one of the first denominations to promote birth control, something clearly anathema to Scalia, a devout Roman Catholic and father-of-nine. It was also one of the first ecclesiastical judicatories to ordain female clergy, solemnize same-sex unions before they were legal, and consecrate an openly gay bishop. Any one of these factors would be enough to make Antonin Scalia roll over in his grave.


 The Reverend Susan W. Springer is rector (or senior pastor) of the Gorsuch home church, St. John’s Episcopal in Boulder, Colorado.

The Reverend Susan W. Springer is rector (or senior pastor) of the Gorsuch home church, St. John’s Episcopal in Boulder, Colorado.

As I studied the prayer circle photo, I did think that, had this appointment been made under different circumstances and while Scalia was still alive, the Great Textual Orginalist may very well have approved of Judge Gorsuch’s legal sensibilities, but never his religious practices. Just as Scalia did with his colleague Clarence Thomas, the Faithful Latin-Rite Catholic likely would have zeroed in on his new colleague’s church membership with a view toward changing it. For Thomas, that resulted with his leaving the Episcopal Church and, under Scalia’s guidance, returning to his Roman Catholic roots—and, to the most conservative kind.

In my estimation, the Gorsuch church story suggests at the very least that the prospective Supreme Court appointee can get along with a wide swath of people, including social and religious progressives. (That should serve him well in the confirmation process.) More consequentially, it may indicate he has an “open mind” on a number of things; that should relax the anxieties of many of my liberal friends, while doing the opposite for my conservative cohorts. In the end, the fact that the Judge worships at St. John’s says to me he cannot be narrowly stereotyped as a universally predictable, knee-jerk conservative. After all, it’s hard to imagine that an ultra-conservative could serve in a church where “social justice,” “inclusion,” and “Gun Violence Protection” are staples without grinding his molars to pulp.

If I’ve learned anything here in Washington, it’s that anyone aspiring to high office in our Land is—and must be by nature—a complicated personality. It’s no doubt for me that, when it comes to his personal convictions, Judge Gorsuch is a mix of ideas, opinions, and dispositions. From my perspective as a minister of the gospel, I care more about the man’s interior, spiritual life, than his jurisprudential philosophy. I neither support nor oppose Judge Gorsuch or any other appointee to the Supreme Court or lesser federal courts. Once they are confirmed, I try to build a meaningful, pastoral-like relationship to them, and I look forward to doing that with the presumptive “Justice Gorsuch.” In my work at the courts, I’ve found that liberals, conservatives, originalists and “living constitutionalists” share the same, deep, spiritual needs.

We will understand these people much better—and will be able to pray for them much more effectively—if we stop idealizing them and appreciate them for what they are, three-dimensional human beings, just like you and me. Judge Gorsuch is not a two-dimensional cardboard cutout perfectly made to order for our use as a piñata to bash or an icon to venerate. He is what he is, a complicated, God-loved, imperfect creature—and what better place to discover that about him than in church.

Rev. Rob Schenck

My Bromance with a Young German Theologian

You probably know me well enough by now to say, Wow, he really talks a lot about Bonhoeffer. I do.

That’s Dietrich Bonhoeffer, of course; the extraordinary, unrepeatable, young, brilliant, deeply spiritual, enigmatic, courageous, dedicated, diplomatic, could-sometimes-be-caustic, but always-in-the-end gracious Christian witness murdered by the Nazis at the end of World War II, only days before the allies liberated the camp where he was hanged naked on April 9, 1945. He was 39.

I’ve got such a bromance going with “DB” (as I affectionately call him) that I have a wall-mounted twice-than-life-sized charcoal portrait of the young German staring down at me as I write this. Books by him and about him also line my bookshelves.

Most people who know of Bonhoeffer admire him because he suffered a martyr’s death. But that last, gruesome, inhuman moment at the non-descript yard in the Flossenbürg concentration camp was just a few minutes in an otherwise very productive, mostly happy life. DB had been breathlessly active for almost 20 years before his sudden execution. He completed a doctorate, did pastoral work, preached countless sermons, lectured in the universities and at major international conferences, published a few books, founded a seminary (an illegal one at that), and, of course, organized the clergy in opposition to Adolph Hitler, the Nazi Party, and the political cooptation of the church.

Although he died 13 years before I was born, in a strange way, I feel as if I personally knew Bonhoeffer. I am, after all, reading my seventh biography of the man—Strange Glory by Charles Marsh—a very good examination of the familiar story, but with twists from hitherto unexamined aspects of D.B.’s work and life (most importantly, his intimate relationships). I started my investigation on Bonhoeffer years ago with the best life history yet, a great telling by his real-time pal and unmatched confidant, Eberhard Bethge, in the latter’s 941-page Dietrich Bonhoeffer: A Biography. (BTW: In building your Bonhoeffer library, please consider buying through Amazon Smile—the charitable program—and picking as your charity, P&R Schenck, Associates in Evangelism, Inc.)

My next read was the much shorter, The Life and Death of Dietrich Bonhoeffer by Mary Bosanquet, then Memo for a Movie: A Short Life of Dietrich Bonhoeffer by GillIn Pursuit of Dietrich Bonhoeffer by KuhnsThe Story of Dietrich Bonhoeffer by Van Dyke, and the blockbuster by my friend Eric Metaxas, Bonhoeffer: Pastor, Prophet, Martyr, Spy. My closest experience with the Lutheran wunderkind came when I literally walked in DB’s footsteps.

It was during a combination academic research project and spiritual pilgrimage that I traveled in his large shadow. In 2010, at the behest of my wife, Cheryl, I signed up for a study tour entitled, “Bonhoeffer: Life and Legacy Travel/Study Program.” Despite it’s bland title, the experience proved revolutionary for me. It resulted in what I call my “other conversion.” Surrounding myself with Bonhoeffer, his life and times, his places and even mementoes, and, meeting someone that actually knew him—Franz von Hammerstein—then 89, but 17 when he shared a prisoner transport truck with Dietrich (see my video here)—deconstructed and reconstructed my interior life.

The 10-day odyssey took our small group of 15 through sites in Berlin, Zingst on the Baltic, Stettin and Koszalin, Wroclaw and Krakow, Poland (“Breslau” in DB’s time), Prague, Ettal in the Alps, and, a sober terminus at Flossenbürg. On that trip I discovered the Bonhoeffer scholar that would advise me in my doctoral work, the inimitable Professor Peter Frick of St. Paul’s College at the University of Waterloo (Ontario, Canada). Peter became my ongoing living link to the long-dead DB. He is German by birth and upbringing, studied at Tübingen University (where DB attended for a year) and has read all 10,000 pages of Bonhoeffer works in his native German—not to mention having translated some of it for the authoritative Bonhoeffer Works in English. Peter has published several books on DB, some heady and some simply inspirational (like his Dietrich Bonhoeffer: Meditation and Prayer). Do yourself a favor and search Amazon Smile for “Bonhoeffer, Frick.” This soft-spoken Lutheran-turned-Mennonite unlocked the depth of DB for me and he likely will for you, too.

What turns me on the most about the amazing Bonhoeffer is his deeply spiritual nature that combines with his astounding intellect to produce unique insights into the application of the heavenly gospel for the real nitty-gritty of life on earth—including when conditions are “in extremis.” Bohoeffer didn’t just theorize about what it is to follow Christ in trying times and amidst deep temptations, he lived his devotion to His Lord consistently—in the very best of circumstances—and during utterly unimaginable hardship, deprivation, and terror. His most public and most private experiences, insights, victories, failures, joys, faith, doubt, and disappointments are incomparably instructive for Christians in our day. If nothing else, the situation in which Dietrich lived out his Christian witness makes most of our circumstances look luxurious in comparison.

If you’re interested in what DB might have to say to you—and to Christians in general in our day—I suggest you get to know both the simplicity of his life and the complexity of his thought. For that, you need to read both biography and commentary. (If you don’t want to get obsessed with him, like I am, then just read Marsh or Bosanquet, followed by The Cost of Moral Leadership: The Spirituality of Dietrich Bonhoeffer by Geffrey B. Kelly and F. Burton Nelson. )

The Great Apostle Paul directed the struggling Christians at Corinth to, “Follow my example, as I follow the example of Christ” (1 Corinthians 11:1). When I first read that passage as a new believer I thought it was strange and wondered why I wouldn’t simply follow Christ and not a surrogate. Over time I came to appreciate how incredulous I could be on whether anyone—least of all myself—could actually mimic the perfection of Jesus. So, like so many, I tend to naturally look to something closer to myself—someone very human, like me—who has actually done it, at least the degree it can be done. For the Corinthians, that model was Paul—the “worst” of sinners (1 Timothy 1:15). Today, even St. Paul may seem too distant, or too “perfected” to offer proof that we, faulty, weak, even miserable sinners, can actually reflect Jesus in our ordinary lives. Into that contemporary vacuum walks a very real, very creaturely, utterly human figure that, despite his many fears and his many struggles, lives out the gospel he preached, taught, prayed, and came to know saved him and prepared him for the unthinkable.

Just reading a little of DB will, I’m convinced, prove to you just how indispensable he is for Christians today. Before long, you may be putting Dietrich on your wall, too.

 Dietrich Bonhoeffer looks over to my writing desk in my home study.

Dietrich Bonhoeffer looks over to my writing desk in my home study.

A Weekend of Remembrance

This past weekend America paused to once again remember that other day that will live in infamy, September 11, 2001. This year I had the honor of being the keynote speaker for a memorial and tribute to First Responders held in the quintessential middle-America town of Harrison, Ohio, a little west of Cincinnati.

The invitation came from a long-time pastor friend, Mark Garrett, of the Legacy Christian Church, who is also a fire company chaplain. After preaching two morning services for his congregation, I joined Mark for the evening ceremony at a nearby high school community auditorium. The mayor, fire and police chiefs, and many local pastors led a capacity crowd in recalling the sacrifices of so many on that tragic day. We also said thanks to the many men and women present in the audience that wear the uniform and bear the badge, ready and able to assist in every emergency, even when we face our greatest tests.

In my keynote address, I talked about how my father’s Jewish faith taught me that remembering is far more than a mental exercise. It is a sacred form of communion and communication. The Bible tells us that God remembers us and that we are to remember Him and one another. Then I told the story of how I experienced those two things on 9/11.

On that day, prayer, and love, and help were all blended into one, as I sought for and asked God to protect my family—my daughter was in D.C., on a college internship, and staying in our facility which, we all believed at the time, was in the flight path of the third hijacked plane that eventually went down in Pennsylvania.

When the first victim’s name was announced, memory turned into grief for me. Barbara Olson, whom I had just gotten to know, was a brilliant and incisive conservative commentator, lawyer, and author. She was married to Ted Olson, the then U.S. Solicitor General, the highest-ranking civil attorney in the federal government. Barbara was aboard American Flight 77 that one of the hijackers barreled into the Pentagon. She had called Ted twice from the plane, and although he was at his desk inside the Department of Justice, the highest law-enforcement agency in the country, he was powerless to help her.

I wanted to remember Barbara and all the others that perished that day, as well as those so terribly injured and traumatized. So, that Friday, I led a small group of clergy on a prayer procession to the site of the attack. As we processed—Catholic, Evangelical, Orthodox, and Protestant, each in our respective clerical garb, we remembered and prayed. As we began a descent down a grassy knoll, people seemed to come out from everywhere. They were tourists, government workers, military personnel, and even a gaggle of nuns in white habits. We had done no advertising, so, it was amazing how this human parade formed to become a great train of prayerful remembrance.

At one point we knelt and said the Lord’s Prayer. In Harrison, I asked the audience to recite it with me, as an act of prayerful remembrance. Just as it was echoed throughout the field that led to the still smoking cavity made by the plane in the Pentagon’s south wall 15 years ago, it did the same in that high school auditorium. Back in 2001, we finished our sacred task by scattering yellow roses for the dead on the same lawn where parking lamps, sheared off by the underbelly of the aircraft, laid on the ground like so many toothpicks.

Later, I would learn of a journalist who had been on duty that day, but felt compelled to join our parade procession. He later wrote that he had lost his faith twenty years before and lived a non-religious adult life. Still, he felt compelled to kneel and recite the Lord’s Prayer, announcing that the faith he lost as a young man was reclaimed that day. I offered that story to the folks in Harrison as a sign of hope, that out of the ashes of despair, faith springs alive.

At the conclusion of the ceremony in Harrison, a brightly smiling woman named Krystan Goodrow, approached me and said, “Tonight was the second time I recited the Lord’s Prayer with you. I was there that day you and the other clergy came and led the procession. I wan on my break as a Navy nurse helping with recovery.”

We hugged, shed tears—and remembered.

 My host Mark Garrett, as a volunteer fire company chaplain, he is pastor to more than his own congregation.

My host Mark Garrett, as a volunteer fire company chaplain, he is pastor to more than his own congregation.

 After 15 years, memories of a day when this former nurse prayed with us on the lawn of the Pentagon.

After 15 years, memories of a day when this former nurse prayed with us on the lawn of the Pentagon.



Praying and Seeking Counsel

Do you see a man hasty in his words? 
There is more hope for a fool than for him.” (Proverbs 29:20)

I sure don’t want to be a fool. That’s why I’ve been taking premium time to pray, seek counsel, and reflect on what happened a week ago.

Last Friday was enough to remind me I’m called to a difficult mission field. A whole lot of people are now angry and disappointed with some prominent occupants of my field of ministry, namely, five justices of the Supreme Court.

There are others in the country are now afraid they may be forced to accept something they don’t believe in—on pain of being sued or even imprisoned.

Still others see in all this the end of not only marriage, the family, and our nation, but, maybe even the end of the world.

Both these groups are of equal concern to me. I’m called to evangelize the ones that made this upsetting decision—and to encourage and inform those affected by it. That’s not easy. Still, I wouldn’t trade my calling for anything.

Since the Supreme Court’s 5-4 ruling on same-sex marriage, I’ve been in Oxford, England, where I’m working in my capacity as a senior fellow with the Oxford Centre for the Study of Law and Public Policy, chaired by my long-time friend, Jay Sekulow. My ongoing work with the Centre has been a study on international religious freedom, but it’s even more relevant in the wake of this decision.

The timing of my visit to Oxford was perfect. I needed to get some distance from the controversy so I can reflect on what our ministry should do in the days ahead—and what our supporters should do. Jay and his team have been invaluable in giving me their highly skilled legal interpretation of this opinion. I’ve also had time alone here to pray and to meditate on Scripture.

And there’s been one other factor here: A vibrant, growing, evangelistic church called St. Aldate’s. This biblically faithful congregation has been proclaiming the Gospel and forming Christian disciples in Oxford for over 1000 years! Imagine what they’ve faced in a millennium—wars, famines, plagues, paganism, apostasy, and martyrdom—just to name a few. If the Lord preserved St. Aldate’s until today, he can certainly preserve all of us.

In the days ahead I’ll share with you what I’ve learned about the nature of the same-sex marriage decision and what I think we should do in the wake of it. I won’t do this too quickly, though, because this thing is just too big and too consequential.

Please be patient with me. I want to be wise and not foolish, so I can be of the most help to you and to the work of God.

Watch and Pray That You May Not Enter into Temptation

A WARNING TO MY FELLOW EVANGELICAL LEADERS MEETING WITH DONALD TRUMP: “WATCH AND PRAY THAT YOU MAY NOT ENTER INTO TEMPTATION.”

“Watch and pray that you may not enter into temptation. The spirit indeed is willing, but the flesh is weak.”(Jesus, Matthew 26:41)

As hundreds of my fellow evangelical ministers and ministry leaders attend a forum with Donald Trump today, they will face serious temptation.

Since the beginning of our Republic, evangelicals have been of great interest to every brand of politician. We are passionate, focused, often disciplined, committed, energetic, and generous with our time and money. Our preachers are some of the best communicators around. We know how to draw in an audience, make a persuasive case, and call the faithful to action.

In other words, when it comes to what a political campaign needs, we have the goods.

Democrats and Republicans, progressives and conservatives, left and right routinely recruit religious leaders to their causes. It happens in just about every country on earth—and, when it comes to evangelical Christians, it most certainly happens here in the U.S., during every campaign cycle.

I’ve been there. I’ve stumped for candidates. I’ve loaned my name to their advisory boards. I’ve raised money for them. I’ve opened their rallies with prayer. I’ve introduced them to networks of church leaders. I’ve formally endorsed them.

After 21 years as a minister to top government officials in Washington, D.C., I am no stranger to how politics works when it comes to religion.

During the last decade, though, I’ve come to see this process for what it is. Too often, politicians—and would be politicians—see religion, religious leaders, and particularly evangelical pastors—as simply tools to help them achieve their goal of winning an election, assuming power, and carrying out their agenda.

In other words, for most of the politicians I have known and worked with over the years, religion, and specifically religious leaders, are to be placed at the service of politics. This is the danger facing my colleagues and friends who are gathered in New York to listen to Donald Trump engage in the art of the deal for recruiting evangelical spokespersons and pastors to aid him in his quest for the presidency.

It is not my intention to instruct my fellow ministers on how they are to deal with Mr. Trump or his candidacy, but, instead, to warn all of us not to be beguiled by the temptation to compromise our most dearly held principles for the empty promise of a place at the table of power, for, “God resists the proud, but gives grace to the humble.” (James 4:6)

Learning from the #Emanuelnine of Charleston

 Learning by the side of those who know

Learning by the side of those who know

When I first read that a “Pastor Pinckney” had died in the killing spree at Emanuel AME Church in Charleston, SC, I ran immediately for the guest book at our ministry house on Capitol Hill. I knew that several months before we had hosted an African-American minister from the south by the same name—even with its peculiar spelling. The thought that it may have been him sickened me that much more.

But, it wasn’t the pastor I had hosted that had been killed. I found Pastor “Glenn Pinckney” alive and well in Hickory, North Carolina. I told him on the phone I was concerned the slain pastor, Rev. Clementa Pinckney, may have been his relation. “Not exactly,” the pastor said. He explained the name Pinckney, “spelled with the c, goes back to a common plantation owner. It was customary in the south for freed slaves to assume the names of their former owners, so, while the two Pinckneys were not related by blood, they did share in a common and ugly historical line.

The Pastor Pinckney I talked to in Hickory does happen to have a son that is a pastor in Charleston. In fact, Charleston is the family’s original home. At the behest of his father, the son, Reverend Philip Pinckney, would end up hosting Rev. Pat Mahoney and me on a whirlwind visit to his stricken community, but what we found there was nothing less than a fountain of Christ-like love and life-giving hope. In the midst of their suffering, the people of Charleston, particularly those related to Emanuel AME Church, where the tragedy took place, were having nothing short of a love fest in the street.

When we got there, clusters of black, white, and brown, young and old, including passers by, were clustered together, singing hymns, raising their hands in praise, and praying loudly and in turn. If the perpetrator of that heinous act had intended to wipe out a center of the black community in Charleston, he ended up to doing the opposite. The next morning, when Rev. Pinckney, Rev. Mahoney, and I, led a special prayer service in front of the church, I thanked the people of Beautiful Mother Emanuel for teaching us all how to live out the Gospel. The church that one man wanted to destroy has now become a life-giving model to the whole world.

The downside to Charleston is, of course, the enormity of pain and loss experienced by the loved ones of those that died. They will carry that agony for the rest of their earthly lives. But there is something else lamentable for all of us in the Charleston calamity; it is the grotesque reminder that racial hatred has not yet disappeared from the American fabric. This deep, devilish, and dangerous flaw that dates to before the very inception of our country—and was even codified into our constitution at the nation’s founding—persists to this day. It lingers in the recesses of America’s psyche and continues to drive so much injury, death, anxiety, and fear for people of all races.

The voice of Martin Luther King, Jr. played in the background of all of my formative years. I can still hear the fuzzy transmission of his eloquent voice thundering his dream for America:

. . . that one day on the red hills of Georgia, the sons of former slaves and the sons of former slave owners will be able to sit down together at the table of brotherhood.

My prayer on Calhoun Street in front of Mother Emanuel, arm-in-arm with black and white church leaders, was that we could all live out this dream, in obedience to a Gospel in which there is “neither Jew nor Greek, slave nor free, male nor female, but we are all one in Jesus Christ.”

Unwittingly, maliciously, murderously, one tortured young man may have helped this Gospel dream to come a little closer to reality. Joseph said to the brothers that sold him into slavery, “You intended to harm me, but God intended it for good to accomplish what is now being done, the saving of many lives.” (Genesis 50:20) So the family members of the #EmanuelNine are teaching us by the example of love, forgiveness, and prayers toward the killer of their loved ones.

Thank you brothers and sisters of #EmanuelAME ; Thank you brothers and sisters throughout #Charleston ; Thank you dear departed Pastor Pinckney and all those who helped shape a Christian community that can help eradicate a persistent disease in the American body politic.

Thank you, Lord, for all we can learn form the #EmanuelNine .

RS

Rev. Rob Schenck, D.Min., is an evangelical minister to top-level government officials in Washington, DC, president of the National Clergy Council, and chairman of the Evangelical Church Alliance. Dr. Schenck is the subject of the newly released documentary, Armor of Light, directed by Abigail Disney, and focusing on Christians and the problem of gun violence in America.

Defense Against Scandal and Victimization, Or, My Odd Experience with Speaker Hastert

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This photo appeared in our Sept 1999 newsletter. Then newly elected Speaker of the House J. Dennis Hastert studying the Ten Commandments that I asked him to “always obey and to display.”

Revelations and allegations against Washington personalities have lately made for scandalous headlines, as they should. Investigations of a former speaker of the House and former member of Congress should be taken seriously. Still, they are only investigations at this stage. I hope we still hold to a fundamental legal concept in this country that the accused is “innocent until proven guilty.” Simply comparing our history to that of most of the rest of the world should be enough to convince us of the importance of this principle.

Still, we all know, generally where there’s smoke, there’s fire. It certainly won’t be the first time. Scandal is such a standard here in Washington that it became the name of a very popular TV series about, well, Washington scandals. Until recently, you could take a guided “Scandal Tour” of the nation’s capital.

Every time a story breaks like the ones surrounding Speaker of the House J. Dennis Hastert, Rep. Aaron Schock, or, even the former Family Research Council executive Josh Duggar, I don’t think about the salacious appeal of the story, or of the terrible straights those public figures find themselves in—I think about the possible victims. Maybe that’s because I’m married to psychotherapist who specializes in helping victims of sexual abuse and other forms of trauma. Make no mistake about it—sexual abuse is a life-long trauma, as is being implicated in any form of criminal activity—for example, the Schock office interns now being hauled in front of a grand jury.

When the subject of scandal is a person in high public office, or engaged in political or social action, or, more immediately relevant to my world, a religious figure—the victims are myriad. The pain and suffering just continues to emanate out from the perpetrator’s immediate circle of casualties to an enormous, almost limitless ring of likely never-to-be-named and even unknown sufferers. For a top elected official, it includes all those that put their trust and, sometimes, their time, energy, and money into a campaign. Those supporters feel they have a friend, an advocate that will help them, not someone that will turn and embarrass them. For donors to organizations that promote public virtue, only to discover gross hypocrisy, it feels like an utter betrayal.

I remember the day, years ago, when I led a delegation to Capitol Hill to present a beautiful plaque of the Ten Commandments to then Speaker Hastert. I knew little about him, except that he was an active layman in his evangelical church back in Aurora, Illinois. (Oddly, in mid-December 1999, I had been in then Majority Whip Tom DeLay’s office in the US Capitol on the day of Hastert’s election. I remember a frantic staffer rushed in to announce, “Denny’s going up to the big chair. It’s Denny. He‘s a good guy.” I didn’t know Rep. Hastert at the time, so it made no impression on me.)

Eight months later, at the conclusion of that ceremony when our group conveyed the tablets to the new Speaker, charging him to “always obey them and to display them,” he said something peculiar. He looked the plaque up and down nervously and said something like, You guys know these aren’t in force anymore. We’re under grace now, not the law.

At that moment, one of our delegates, the inimitable (and late) Reverend Dr. Edwin Elliott of the Reformed Presbyterian Church, said to the Speaker in his witty way with a wry smile, “Has anyone informed Mrs. Hastert of this?” Dr. Elliott used his famous bushy eyebrows to indicate he was alluding to the commandment against adultery. Speaker Hastert did not respond.

What we’re reading and hearing about in the news these days is the reason our ministry continues to distribute plaques of the Ten Commandments to elected and appointed officials, as we did just this past week when we gave them to a new US senator. The timeless Words of Sinai are a reminder to us all that no one is perfect and we all need a higher moral authority than ourselves to hold us in check and accountable. The Commandments are a gift to us from a loving God who saves us from ourselves, and, by doing so, spares others from suffering at our hands. I think of the Commandments as a defense against scandal and victimization.

My team and I are planning more Ten Commandments presentations in the days ahead. Perhaps the more plaques there are on walls in Washington, the less scandals there will be in the headlines, and the fewer victims there will be to suffer that trauma.

My Prediction: What the Court Is About to Do on Same-Sex Marriage

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If you read me at all, you know I rarely prognosticate about Supreme Court decisions. First, the justices and their staff members are exceedingly good at keeping confidentiality and leaks virtually never happen. Second, in a technical sense, the justices can change their decisions at any point up to the day the opinions are announced from the bench—and, in an even more technical sense—afterwards, until those opinions are formally published in the federal record. So, predicting the outcome of any case is fraught with problems and is risky. Keep in mind, too, that I’m not a lawyer or legal scholar, but I have been observing cases closely at the High Court for over 20 years, and I’ve even been through my own in Schenck v. Pro-Choice Network. Notwithstanding all the caveats, I’m prepared to make my prediction on the impending same-sex marriage cases.

Before I announce my prediction, though, I’ll bring you up to date. First, you need to know the decision has already been made, for all intent and purposes. That happened on May 1, the Friday following the oral arguments by lawyers in front of the justices. After each of the justices and their clerks had read hundreds of pages of legal briefs, and after they listened to the presentations by lawyers from each side, grilling them with tough questions, the nine “Supremes,” as I affectionately call them, met privately to vote, without staff or security in their justices-only conference room. Then, either the Chief Justice, if he is in the majority, or, if he is not, the most senior justice among the majority, assigned the writing of the opinions, which they have all been doing since. The case is expected to be announced within the next few weeks, but likely not until the last week of June, when the Court will adjourn for the summer.

Now, to the heart of the matter: What I expect the Supreme Court will do with the question of same-sex marriage. To cut to the chase: They will make it the law of the land. That is, a majority of the justices (I am putting the number at 6-3) will order states to issue marriage licenses to couples of the same sex. But wait, NOT for the reason you might think.

What advocates of same-sex marriage want is the finding of a fundamental “right” to marriage for any two persons, same-sex or opposite sex. That would mean a constitutional right, which would result in three things: 1) The highest level of legal protection and the least amount of restrictions surrounding marriage; 2) The seizure of marriage regulation by the federal government, taking it away from the jurisdiction of the states; and, 3) The uncertain legal status of clergy who decline to solemnize same-sex marriages based on religious belief. (Due to the fact that in most states, clergy must be authorized, or even sworn-in, at some level of government—county court, county clerk, etc.—in order to legally solemnize, or legalize, a marriage. Such an authorization includes, implicitly or explicitly, promising to uphold the Constitutions of the respective state and United States. If same-sex marriage were found to be in the constitutions, government-authorized clergy would be forced to facilitate same-sex marriages or relinquish their legal ability to marry anyone.)

Before you panic, let me say these outcomes are highly unlikely. My prediction is that the majority will NOT find such a fundamental constitutional right to marriage. Instead, I see the court taking a different—and safer—route to get to universal same-sex marriage. Based on comments I heard from Justices Kennedy, Scalia, Breyer, and, most importantly, Chief Justice Roberts, as well as the people I have talked to behind the scenes, I see the Court basing its decision on another finding: sex discrimination. In other words, the majority will find that any law that says to a man, because you are male, you may only marry a female, and vice versa, telling a woman that because she is female, she may only marry a male, is patent sex discrimination. Such a finding will result in a federal order for the states to stop discriminating against marriage license applicants based on their sex, but it will not find a universal right to marriage, opposite-sex, same-sex, or anything else. While such a finding results in the national recognition of same-sex marriages, it keeps the adjudication of marriage in the states and away from the federal government, while it protects the First Amendment rights of clergy, based on religious freedom, to decline to marry a same-sex couple based on religious conviction. (It may also preclude claims to such a right by other marriage groups, i.e., plural marriage and human-animal marriage advocates, etc.)

I’m sure that, before this case even arrived at the Court, there was already a 5-4 majority for same-sex marriage (Ginzburg, Breyer, Sotomayor, Kagan—and, yes, Kennedy), so, it was a fait accompli. Here’s how my imaginative scenario goes: Chief Justice Roberts went to Justice Kennedy and said, “Tony, you can have your weak 5-4 majority that puts most religious groups in an enormous crisis and invites endless litigation that must inevitably come here, or, you can have a 6-3 strong mandate with me. Caveat: The 6-3 will be on the basis of sex discrimination, and, if that’s your position, you’ll write the opinion. You got this started ten years ago in Lawrence, and you can finish it now with Obergefell.”

On the last point, there’s another possible twist: Again, if the Chief joins the majority, he gets to say who writes the opinion—either himself, or whatever member of the majority he selects. Maybe the Chief wants to control the language of the decision. If so, he’ll write it. In either case (and here’s where I’ll take a great risk of being pilloried by my conservative cohorts) John Roberts saves the day for religious leaders across this country. If my presumed 5-4 majority gets it, there’s no protection for religious freedom or right of conscience. If my predicted 6-3 gets it, there is—because of John Roberts.

Whether you like it or not, my predicted outcome would be a Solomonic solution to a very natty problem. I’m convinced the Court was going to establish universal same-sex marriage one way or the other. If I’m right in my hunch, the outcome won’t be the worst of the possibilities. And, if I’m right, clerics like me will have John Roberts to thank for preserving our religious freedom.

Now my final caveat: I’m neither a prophet, nor the son of prophet (Amos 7:14). In other words, I could be completely wrong.

As the Political Atmosphere Heats Up, Christians Need to Keep Our Cool

While global warming remains controversial among conservatives, something we can probably all agree on is a phenomenon I call, “Washington Warming.” The hot season has come a little early this time around, but as presidential campaigns get underway, the political atmosphere heats up; as it does, Christians need to keep our cool. Allow me to explain . . .

The best way for Christians to contribute to the political life of our country is to keep to the big picture. Faith informs politics, but not the other way around. Faith is bigger than politics, partisanship, and personalities. God’s ways (“faith”) are infinitely higher than man’s ways (politics). That doesn’t excuse apathy and disengagement. Faith propels us towards politics, but not beneath it.

Christians end up beneath politics when we let politicians and political powers drive our thinking, our actions, and our anxieties. This happens when we see the political as the be all and end all. I cringe when I hear Christians say, “If Congress doesn’t pass this law, we’re through,” and, “If the Supreme Court issues this ruling, we’re done!” or, “If the President orders that, we’re finished.” How could any of this possibly be? No earthly, human, limited potentate possesses absolute or ultimate authority over anything, let alone the future of humankind!

There is only, “one Lord.” (See Ephesians 4:5) and, “he will strengthen you and protect you from the evil one.” (2 Thessalonians 3:3) When we assign ultimate and absolute outcomes to the machinations of human actors, we diminish in our own minds the absolute and ultimate power of God. This is a form of idolatry, and it is a sin and a heresy.

Christians need to be engaged in the political process at all levels, from simply being informed, to voting, to attending town hall gatherings, to running for office. In all of this, we must assiduously maintain a faith perspective. Our anchor must be the Bible, the model of Christ, historic Christian moral teaching, and prayerful reflection. These must must be our only ultimate reference points.

The dirty side to politics in unavoidable. After 21 years in Capitol Hill, I know it too well. Voting blocks will be identified, categorized, marketed to, exploited, and manipulated. It’s the nature of the business. Even if the candidate doesn’t approve of this activity, the thousands of businesses and individuals that stand to make millions of dollars off of campaigns will do what they need to do to outshine their competition, and that means yank you and me around.

We must not play their game or let them play us. Instead, we need to be the voice of conscience and confidence at the table. We know the rules, because they were given to us on Mount Sinai and at Capernaum. The Ten Commandments and the Sermon on the Mount, together with all of Holy Scripture, constitute the only ultimate and absolute platform for every part of the Christian life, including the political.

When it comes to the anxieties attendant to the political season, we must remember to, “Never worry about anything. Instead, in every situation let your petitions be made known to God through prayers and requests, with thanksgiving. “ (Philippians 4:6) I love these words of Paul because they’re not only emphatic, they’re optimistic. He tells us to include “thanksgiving,” presumably because God will and does answer, but in His time and in His way.

As this political season continues, we must be informed and engaged, but we must also be cool. In the end, God will have His way, whether we like it or not.

“Your kingdom come, your will be done, on earth as it is in heaven.” (Matthew 6:10)

More About People with Guns–the Right Kind of People!

You know by now I’ve been wary of the growing infatuation with guns in our society. My concern is for those that may face moral and ethical temptations to use them for the wrong reasons. The Christian has a much higher standard to answer to than the Second Amendment ( as important as it is), state gun laws (as good as they may be), and sloganeering by secular political and advocacy groups (as clever as they may be). So, I’ve issued a caution to Christians when it comes to equipping ourselves for deadly conflict.

This past week, though, I got another view of the gun question, when I visited chaplains of the Arizona Army National Guard. Of course, military chaplains are unarmed non-combatants, and for very good reasons. I’ll explore that virtuous philosophy in a future post. Instead, here I want to reflect on the women and men these chaplains serve. They are virtually all remarkably brave and professionally trained bearers of weapons. One soldier, who may have misunderstood my position on the issue, made an emphatic point of telling me, “I’m trained to kill those that want to kill you. I don’t shoot to take life, I only shoot to save life.”

His was a poignant remark, and one I quickly came to fully appreciate as I talked with the men and women in uniform that serve our country at great risk to their own safety and that of their families. Though I’ve been around military people for a long time–and I’ve done plenty of funerals at Arlington Cemetery–for some reason this visit brought the whole thing home to me in a way I hadn’t seen it before.

First, I came to realize just how highly trained, rehearsed, and restrained our military professionals are in the use of lethal weapons. The ones I met were extraordinarily self-disciplined and conscious of the moral gravity of their task. In a conversation with their senior chaplain, I learned how the vetting process goes on whether or not to use lethal force, how it can be done with the least amount of civilian collateral damage. Chaplains advise on these literal life-and-death decisions because along the entire chain of command there is a serious commitment to neutralizing dangerous, life-threatening enemies while protecting innocent non-combatants.

The average Christian will never have to think about these things, let alone execute decisions that will take human lives, sometimes on a grand scale. Only a miniscule number of us will ever need to process in prayer the affect of the killing of a fellow human being on the soul. One chaplain told me a soldier that mistakenly identified a car on the battlefield as filled with terrorists, but instead he killed an innocent couple and their small children. The soldier was so deeply traumatized by the tragedy that he committed suicide.

These highly skilled, but overwhelmingly compassionate and goodhearted souls, must not only risk their lives, but their consciences and reputations as well. They do it by taking on an onerous responsibility most of us would rather pass on. They must risk incurring guilt, shame, and sin, being labeled baby killers, monsters, and invaders. Worse yet, they risk being ignored by those of us that can’t relate to the otherworldly experiences that have permanently altered their lives.

In my humble estimation, there is a HUGE difference between the men and women in uniform that train exhaustively, operate under strict command and regulation, expose themselves to both grave danger and severe reprimand and punishment because of the use or misuse of their weapons and the rank amateurs like me that may want to empower ourselves like soldiers, but shirk all the taxing demands they willingly endure–again and again–to earn the right to bear arms to protect us and our country.

Pardon me while I say it like it is: Taking on the power of life and death over other human beings with no corresponding demand on our souls, psyches, and mental and physical prowess, cheapens the commitment of the exceptional men and women I spent time with this week.

God bless our military for taking our safety so very, very seriously.

“[T]he one who has been entrusted with much, much more will be asked.” — Jesus (Luke 12:48c)

Hanging with the Glitterati While Walking the Red Carpet

This past weekend was surrealistic for me. You may have heard I literally walked a red carpet at one of the best-known film events in the world, the Tribeca Film Festival. I never thought I’d walk a red carpet. “Celebrity” was not in my life-plan.

The reason I did the walk, though, was because it’s more or less required of the principals in the major films that debut at this showcase of new and seasoned talent. In my case, I was the subject of the feature-length documentary, The Armor of Light, (titled for a sermon I preached from Romans 13:12) and directed by award-winning filmmaker Abigail Disney. In the film, I ask hard questions of others, but mostly of myself, about Christians, guns, and deadly force. I do not suggest legislative or policy solutions to the problem, but I invite Christians, especially pastors and ministry leaders, into a prayerful, biblically informed conversation about what it means to completely pro-life.

Abby’s film includes several voices along with mine, but she chose to center the film around my search for answers, my discussions with Christians of every opinion, and on my preaching. I hope you won’t jump to any conclusions until you’ve seen it and talked with me about it. I plan to travel the country as the film is shown in churches, special events, and on Christian university and seminary campuses. My prayer is that people will take away from The Armor of Light an open invitation to join this important national discussion on a literal life-and-death subject. You’ll hear me say a lot about that in the film.

Please watch for The Armor of Light to come to a film festival, movie theater, or church fellowship hall near you. And, after you see it, please post your thoughts at our new discussion space, www.narrowtheroad.org. Every comment helps me see this difficult challenge more clearly.

BTW: You’ll see in our photo gallery my hangout with some folks from the very liberal-left. (What else exists in New York City?) You know I’ve never been one to preach to the choir. I like to mix it up—and this film project has given me a beautiful opportunity to do so. Keeping company with people of the opposite opinion not only keeps me sharp, but it also affords moments of very meaningful ministry and unusual friendship. You’ll see that I share my testimony of salvation clearly in the film, something I’m very surprised the editors chose to leave in!

If I had been blessed to live during the time of Jesus’ earthly ministry, I would have been there right alongside him when he was with the tax collectors and sinners. (Well, that’s overstating it: Abby and her gang have hardly been riff-raff–they’ve been more like godsends to me!)

Abby has helped me and I’ve helped her to get an important message to two places that rarely, if ever, talk to each other. That’s when a message is needed—and often appreciated—the most!

 

Let’s stay in touch!

The Secret Life of . . . Rob Schenck?

Maybe you saw the adventure comedy-drama The Secret Life of Walter Mitty staring Ben Stiller. It’s the fun story of a very ordinary guy that works for Life Magazine and goes on an unlikely, action-packed, thrill-seeking quest to find a lost film negative he thinks will make the perfect cover photo for the last printed issue of the beloved journal. I watched the movie two weeks ago to kill some time on my 10-hour flight to Istanbul, Turkey for my first visit to that country. How apropos, really, because this trip was my own secret adventure.

You probably know me only for my work as a missionary to government officials in Washington, DC (which has been my most important ministry endeavor for the last 20 years), but there’s a whole other side to what I do. I’ve actually been to more than 40 countries since I was ordained 32 years ago. Most of this travel was for preaching ministry or to supervise Christian humanitarian efforts, but some of it was also to investigate and report on religious freedom crises around the world.

My first forays on the religious freedom front came some 10 years ago with my board membership at the Institute for Religion and Public Policy (IRPP), founded by my long-time friend Joseph Grieboski. Joe got me involved in a dialogue between American Evangelical leaders and Moroccan Muslim leaders that would last five years and become one of the most rewarding things I’ve ever done. Joe also talked me into going with him to Sudan to investigate the state of religious freedom in that country, which turned out to be one of the most harrowing things I’ve ever done!

It was another long-time friend and colleague, though, Jay Sekulow, that got me to go to Turkey. I must admit, Turkey was not on my radar screen until Jay brought it to my attention. It happened in conjunction with my acceptance of his invitation to serve as a senior research fellow with the newly established Oxford Centre** for the Study of Law and Public Policy (**British spelling), located at Harris Manchester College, a school of Oxford University in England. My first assignment was to undertake an investigation of religious freedom in Turkey, particularly as it affects Evangelical Christians.

To stick with the “secret life” theme of this blog, my assignment had to do with my other “secret” post as chairman of the Evangelical Church Alliance International, one of the oldest associations of Evangelical ministers, missionaries, and chaplains here in the U.S. and around the world. This leadership position, along with my doctoral work on Evangelicals at Faith Evangelical College and Seminary, qualified me as an “expert,” and, thus, as a candidate for the Oxford fellowship.

Taking on an investigation of this nature is a serious matter. To assist me in gathering data, I recruited three professional researchers. (Two Americans and one Turk doing graduate work here in Washington.) The two Americans traveled to Turkey ahead of me and conducted interviews with 24 subjects spread across the country, including on the Syrian border where they encountered gunfire. I interviewed five church leaders (mostly Turkish of Muslim background) and four government officials, two at the Turkish embassy here in Washington and two in the Turkish capital of Ankara. I submitted a 20-page academic paper to the Oxford Centre before traveling to Turkey, then gave an oral report and defense to the symposium at Harris Manchester College that included the findings of my field research. More than a dozen presentations were made at Oxford on a variety of subjects related to Turkey, so I learned a lot about the country and its culture in the process.

We cannot ignore Turkey or take it for granted. It is hugely consequential both to the stability of the region and to much of the world. Until recently, Turkey was known as perhaps the most moderate of Muslim majority countries. It is officially “secular,” with no singular state religion, but Islam is favored in just about every way and without apology.

What I found surprising was that Christian churches do meet openly throughout Turkey, there are Christian radio and television stations, active Christian social media pages and websites, and Bibles in Turkish are readily available to those that want them. Compared to other Muslim majority countries, the situation in Turkey is remarkably free and open. Still, there are grave problems. Christians do suffer social discrimination and they do not not have confidence that the current government will protect them against acts of prejudice, including violence.

For the next several years, I will be continue my study of Turkey, and will pursue advocacy for Christians there, as well as work for greater U.S. attention to Turkey over all. As the literal bridge between east and west (the country straddles Europe and Asia), and the freest of all Muslim majority nations, not to mention it’s long, albeit stormy, role as an ally to Europe and the U.S., Turkey is a terribly important player on the world stage. It is sophisticated, in many ways exotic, and somewhat socially progressive, but the government’s recent turn towards an Islamist orientation threatens religious minorities and portends its possible global realignment. Please pray  for Turkey and its people, especially its relatively few Christian inhabitants.

Before I close, I want to thank Dr. Jay Sekulow and the board of trustees of the Oxford Centre for the Study of Law and Public Policy for their confidence in me. As a senior fellow, I am honored to be in their company. I also want to thank the Reverend Dr. Ralph Waller, principal of Harris Manchester College, Director of the Farmington Institute for Christian Studies, and Pro-Vice Chancellor of Oxford University, for his warm embrace of the Oxford Centre fellows.

This (now not-so-secret) adventure continues–watch for updates. There will also be another installment in the Secret Life of Rob Schenck next week. It may be an even bigger surprise, so, do watch for it!