The sign said, "All Are Welcome." But apparently, "all" doesn't include Donald Trump. Any other leader visiting a church in the middle of a nationwide street war would have been praised for his solemnity, his search for healing. Not this president. His visit to St. John's, which had been engulfed in flames the night before, and St. John Paul II's National Shrine on Tuesday were just new opportunities for second-guessing.
"No one," Mollie Hemingway insisted, "needs permission to pay respects to a church." She's right. In fact, if more Americans had been visiting churches -- for reasons other than lighting them on fire -- our country might not be in this mess. Very honestly, the fact that we live in a nation where our leaders embrace faith, not just in times of crisis but as a matter of daily life, ought to be something we celebrate. And yet, we've grown so used to our freedoms and jaded by years of enjoying them that we can't set aside our political suspicions long enough to see the remarkable contrast our America's leaders make to their counterparts all around the world.
When the riots broke out in Hong Kong, where was China President Xi Jinping? Not kneeling at the altar of a local shrine, I can guarantee that. Or when starving Venezuelans clashed with police in the latest of more than 500 protests under Nicolas Maduro? Was he standing outside with reporters talking about God, justice, and liberty? No. So while skeptical media types and the president's opponents try to assign motive to Trump's every move, maybe it's time to recognize that however imperfect they may consider this administration's response, his instinct to look to faith in times of turmoil is instructive and reassuring. Because the government doesn't have the answers to brokenness. It can't tear down walls and fix what's wrong with the human heart. Only God can.
President Trump isn't perfect, but he understands what the majority of talking heads do not: our nation's problems are a whole lot bigger than race. They're rooted, as Bishop Vincent Mathews and I talked yesterday, in a rejection of basic truth. And over time, that creates the kind of division and disrespect we're seeing across the country today. "For many people," Bishop Mathews said, "[it's] incomprehensible, the depths of man's inhumanity to man that we're witnessing." But as hurtful as it is, he shook his head, "it's no surprise." This is what comes when we turn away from centuries of teaching that we were created by the hand of God who loves us and sent His Son to redeem us. Without that certainty, people's lives lose all meaning. It puts us on the path to what we're seeing on American streets, where humanity isn't treated with reverence but contempt.
"We need to, as a church," Bishop Mathews insisted, "[a] black church, white church, as God's church... not only preach the kingdom, but preaching truth to power... That's important for all Christians -- to speak out for those who are disenfranchised and have challenges in our society." There is real wisdom in that, because only the church can bring together people in a genuine, abiding fashion. I'm not talking about promoting tolerance -- we've got to go beyond tolerance to love. And the only true way that can happen is when we're in the bond of Christ.
We can't just rely on our skin or zip code or status to unite us. "That's superficial," Bishop Mathews warned. "It is the love of Christ that binds us together." And it's that love that will impact society. "We need to really seek and share with the world the true gospel... When we see that there are disenfranchised, marginalized individuals in our society, [the answer is] not just to say, ‘Hey, people need to pull themselves up by the bootstraps' -- but to say that Jesus is the answer. He is the one who empowers you. And we share that gospel that you can be free... whether you're black, white, Latino, or Asian."
Of course, the irony is, black and white evangelicals have a lot more in common than the media will ever admit. It's in their best interest to keep the two sides separate and fuel the growing divides. But, as lot of surveys bear out, there's far greater agreement on issues that matter than there are differences. "That's why," Bishop Mathews agreed, we can't allow "the narrative to be defined by the world." "There are 7.5 billion people in the world, 7,500 languages. But there are only two cultures... There's a culture of Christ and a culture of Satan. And we may not share the same DNA -- but we share the same Father. And we share the same values -- and those are biblical values."
It's in that sameness, that strength of conviction, that the church finds its mission in these tumultuous times.
"We must be intentional about breaking those barriers," Bishop Mathews urged. "Not just swapping pulpits, but really seeking to see what we can do on the ground in our cities and in the areas where we are to serve humanity and demonstrate... our love for each other. When the world sees that you and I can not only get along but work together and break down the walls of denomination and ethnicity, then we define what is being portrayed in the media and outside."