By Bill Mefford
I occasionally think back to the end of the time in my life when I identified theologically and socially as an evangelical. I began to shift at that time towards a more progressive or liberal understanding of my relationships both with Jesus and the rest of the world. But even though I love many of liberal friends, my identification with liberal Christianity was short-lived (perhaps a blog post for another time) and now I identify as a liberationist.
My break with evangelicalism was truly a significant moment in my life, much like the one many evangelicals are now experiencing in their own lives, which is the primary reason I write this. In the evangelical movement’s quest to be socially accepted as well as socially and politically dominant (yes, those are contradictions), they are once again running the risk of losing the people that make up their movement, just as they did with me over fifteen years ago. Most importantly, they are running the risk - and in fact, I would argue they have already done this - of building a movement proclaiming their belief in a Savior they no longer really follow.
I first began to identify as an evangelical Christian when I went to college. Although I first accepted Christ when I was thirteen years old it was not until I became a freshman in college and met some amazingly passionate and authentic Christians did I come to know what an evangelical Christian actually was. It was there that I learned that evangelicals believed in a whole host of doctrines (so many I had a hard time keeping up, which was only one of my problems that arose with the movement). Evangelicals are most focused on their belief in the physical resurrection of Jesus from the dead and they share a passion to verbally share the love of God with others. I still hold to these truths.
But I also saw that other things I cared for then, and even more so now, like opposing racism, loving the poor, and speaking out against injustice, were not nearly as important to many, if not all, of my evangelical friends. I never could understand this dissonance since what I was passionate about seemed to weave throughout the pages and stories in Scripture, but as I grew in my relationship with Jesus and walked further into my calling to serve God with my life, this dissonance only grew stronger.
So, when I arrived back at Asbury Seminary in 2002 to begin my doctoral studies in the Missions School (I graduated from Asbury in 1998 with a Masters of Divinity), the illegal invasion of Iraq was just beginning to gear up. I was very publicly and vehemently opposed to the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, but I still was very much of an evangelical - just a socially-minded, politically progressive evangelical.
However, as I engaged in conversations with other students at Asbury, particularly among white students from the US, the more I realized that what I believed did not only differ from what they believed, my beliefs and my opposition to the invasions especially, were received as a threat to their faith and worldview. I had bumper stickers ripped off my car, signs in my yard stolen or ripped up, and I was not a popular figure on campus.
All of that I could put up with, but even when I made honest attempts to communicate with evangelical leaders at the seminary and in the surrounding community I was rebuffed (though some evangelical students were quite receptive and I still count them as friends). I remember the pastor of one large evangelical church in Wilmore - someone I had long respected - who, on one Sunday following his sermon where he again called on church members to prayerfully support President Bush and the invasion of Iraq, I approached him seeking to find common ground.
This was also the same week when me and my family were going to Washington DC to take part in a massive anti-war march. I told him I was going because I believed in Jesus, the Prince of Peace, and I felt called to go and to bear witness of a coming Kingdom where nations would beat their swords into plowshares and learn war no more. I told him that in spite of our differences on the war I wanted to bless him and his ministry and I asked him to bless my trip to DC and my missional aim to stop the war. He received my blessing and said he could not bless me, but he wanted to pray for me. With several church members looking on approvingly, he began to pray that I would repent from rebellion against “godly leaders” and as part of my repentance, that I would focus again on following Jesus.
Though this was the most dramatic experience I had of being rebuked by evangelical leaders for being against the Iraq invasion, I experienced several other interactions very similar to this. This pastor’s public shaming of me didn’t just piss me off, he invalidated my deeply felt and sincere missional calling, which I felt then and feel even more now, was from God.
As I reflect on that time in my life I see so many times when I reached out to evangelical friends and leaders because I was seeking some kind of connectional assurance that my opposition to these illegal wars, my support of incarnational ministry among the poor, and my belief in the need for all those who follow Jesus to engage in the work of justice as an essential part of our missional calling, was indeed evangelical and Christian. Instead of assurance, what I got was rebuke, shame, and condescension.
Time after time I knocked on the doors of the evangelical movement for someone to open and encourage me to come in and stay - to find my continued life and calling among the movement I had spiritually grown up in. Time after time those doors were shut in my face.
Instead of making space in the evangelical world for those of us opposed to illegal wars; for those of us opposed to the colonial appropriation of other nations and cultures for the economic and military dominance of the United States Empire, I was told I needed to shut up and focus on my individual walk with Jesus.
I have since come to understand that evangelicalism fits in so well with the United States because it mirrors the United States’ triumphalistic international engagement on a smaller, individualistic basis. While the military, economic, political, and social dominance of the United States in the world gives way to resource extraction in poor countries, the dehumanization of people through the economic and security industrial complexes, and false sense of righteousness through equating wealth with divine blessing, the individual evangelical is called by evangelical leaders to do the same, though evangelicals call their version “evangelism” and “mission.” US military and economic dominance and evangelical missional engagement both uphold and feed off one another. Both US dominance and evangelical mission are violent in nature, both are socially and culturally invasive, both are forms of social and religious triumphalism, and both are antithetical to the heart of the gospel preached and lived out by the servant Christ.
But it was a slow realization for me at that time that my walk with Jesus was taking me out of the only community I had known. I was no longer an evangelical.
I remember on sometime around the second anniversary of the invasion of Iraq, in 2005, following the re-election of George W. Bush, which came largely on the support of white evangelicals who were energized by the anti-gay campaign against marriage equality, I held a private ceremony that I have never written about before. In my backyard (which was on Asbury property since we lived in married student housing) I burned an American flag and renounced my identity as an evangelical Christian. From that moment on I was only a Christian, a follower of Jesus.
It is interesting, in looking back, that I made as part of my affirmation to follow Jesus and to no longer identify as an evangelical the burning of the US flag. I knew implicitly that evangelicalism and nationalism are intertwined idolatries and that to embrace one is to embrace the other (most often). For me, to leave one was to leave the other behind as well.
Mostly though, I was deeply saddened and lonely. I felt unmoored and cast out. But, more than anything, I also sensed God’s leading in this way as I have ever since. Into the unknown, like so many faithful followers before me.
Mostly, in reflection, I see how completely unnecessary this experience had to be. There were so many times I could have remained an evangelical. But yet, it happens more and more as evangelicalism seems much more focused on upholding and mirroring an unbiblical and crumbling system of patriarchy and power, oblivious to the immense hurt it is causing so many people around the world.
I think it is time for so many more people to come out of evangelicalism, walking into the unknown. There are others of us who are there. You are not alone.