At the Poor People’s Campaign rally in Topeka, KS, this past Monday night, Rev. William Barber told us about a map of the United States. A map that shows what states have the highest rates of poverty, poorest health care access, highest number of racist incidents, highest rates of violence against LGBTQ people, and highest rates of voter suppression. I wasn’t surprised to learn that these are all the same states. And I wasn’t surprised to learn that these states also have the highest percentage of “evangelical Christians.” I was surprised to hear Rev. Barber say that when he looks at this map, he sees a great opportunity.
He sees an opportunity to unite and mobilize people in these blighted states. He sees an opportunity to join together in a new Poor People’s Campaign: A National Call for Moral Revival. Which is a wonderful opportunity and a movement in which I hope to participate.
But as soon as he said the word “opportunity,” something else came to my mind. I thought of the opportunity that is present by virtue of these blighted states being full of people who claim to follow Jesus and adhere to biblical principles. Because . . . what if all of those evangelical Christians actually started to follow Jesus and adhere to biblical principles?
I’m not (completely) naive. I know that plenty of evangelical Christians really couldn’t care less about Jesus or the Bible, except to the extent that these concepts empower them and justify their classist/racist/misogynistic/homophobic agendas.
But I also know that many evangelical Christians actually try to follow Jesus. And they read the Bible—the whole Bible—with an eye toward figuring out what it means for their lives every day. These evangelicals exist. I’m friends with some of them. And these evangelicals just might change their minds and their actions if they believe that Jesus wants them to. (Which, of course, he does.)
So in addition to seizing this opportunity for political action, I also want to seize this opportunity for some true come-to-Jesus conversations. I want to take 2 Timothy 3:16 at its word–“All scripture is inspired by God and is useful for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness.”–and dive right into those biblical conversations with evangelical Christians.
I’ve been thinking of a recent This American Life episode about a radio psychologist who often told those who called in to just be “stupid and cheerful.” For example, if someone says, “Are you really wearing those shoes with that dress?,” you act like you don’t realize they are telling you the shoes don’t look good. You treat it like a simple question about whether you plan to wear the shoes and say, “Yes. Aren’t these shoes great? They are soooo comfortable.” Stupid and cheerful.
What might happen if I went into conversations with evangelical Christians with this “stupid and cheerful” attitude? For example, if someone tells me they are a biblical literalist, I know that is code for “women shouldn’t be pastors and gay people shouldn’t be.” But what if I played stupid and cheerful and acted like they just meant that they take the Bible literally? I could say something like, “Wow. A biblical literalist. Then you must be really upset about our country’s treatment of immigrants. And the proposed healthcare reforms and budget cuts to social services . . . This country needs to get on board with biblical principles of hospitality and care for the poor! Am I right?”
Honestly, I don’t know if I can pull off “stupid and cheerful.” But (most days) I can manage compassionate conversations about what it means to follow Jesus and adhere to biblical values. And I can view someone’s identification as “evangelical Christian” as an opportunity to talk openly about who Jesus is and what the Bible says.