By Cathy Norman Peterson
After 9/11 I remember tearing up listening to the words of “America the Beautiful.” In those days of shared national tragedy and mourning, asking God to shed his grace on all of us together was a prayer that rose up from the depths of darkness and ashes. It felt appropriate and holy.
That was a rare season of unity and patriotism—at least for me. I’d never called myself a “patriot” before that. What a vaulted word that is—so ambitious, so “give me liberty or give me death.” Surely it belongs in another era of Minutemen and Alexander Hamilton when it might have been easy to believe in our future and our rightness.
These days, who can claim such pride in country?
I was a kid when Watergate happened, so I grew up knowing that it’s obviously foolish to trust politicians. It was easy to ignore their claims, their promises, even their mistakes. What good were they doing anyway?
The older I got, the more I saw the way our political leaders could inflict damage. We went to war, interfered with other countries (when they had something we wanted). Even our own citizens were ignored or dismissed. My cynicism deepened.
And then Barack Obama came along. How was this man a politician? He was thoughtful, not blustery. He spoke in articulate sentences, even paragraphs, not sound bites. He was both reasonable and passionate. He wasn’t political royalty or a middle-aged white man. He believed in this place against all odds. How did he possibly get elected?
Then he was re-elected. And I started to think we were becoming better as a nation, as people.
It’s weird to look back now and realize I where was placing my hope: in our country, in our leaders, in institutions, in fallible people. I had begun to believe we were evolving, growing, that the world was changing.
And then we elected Trump.
We elected him. White evangelicals. My people.
Of course I was quick to dissociate myself from those who voted for him. Surely they were not my people. I was not them.
But was that as true as I claimed? I said I hated the racism Trump spewed and sanctioned, but what was I doing to stand with my brothers and sisters of color in the wake of his election? I looked around at my world and saw that it was all too monochrome. My friends were mostly white, as was my book group, the boards I sit on, even my church. My life and routines were mostly comfortable. While I was clinging to some kind of hope that our world was improving, I had ignored dark realities in this country that had never disappeared. I thought I’d been paying attention, but there was so much I couldn’t even see.
I despaired. In that darkness I began to realize that I needed the church in a way I never had before. Growing up evangelical, my default mode tends to be “me and Jesus,” rather than a corporate, body of Christ approach to faith. But me and Jesus felt far too lonely in those days of bewildered shock. I needed something bigger.
I needed the church to matter. I needed it to truly reflect God’s kingdom—to embody the whole, messy, smelly, all-too-human-yet-holy body of Christ. I needed the church to uproot me, to shake me out of my complacency, to offer me and even our country hope like we’d never seen before. And I needed to see the church fling open its doors, welcome everyone with abandon, and show us what it looks like to believe—not in powers or principalities but in the life-changing, world-transforming love of Jesus. I needed the church to go into the highways and byways, calling out to everyone, “Come and see!”
These days I’m searching for glimpses of that. Glimpses of the church embodying the hope of the gospel, the kingdom of God in every imaginable way. Of the church being prophetic, standing in the gap, shedding any trappings of comfort or power that might have crept in over time. I’m searching for the body alive in Christ, offering the kind of hope—the assurance of things unseen—we’d never be able to manufacture on our own.
If that’s not who we are, what in the name of Jesus are we doing here?