When a trusted individual sins in a way that can ruin dozens of young lives, Christian groups and communities need to respond quickly. Here’s one case study of ongoing recovery
Jeff Myers is president of Summit Ministries, which trains Christian students to think and act Biblically. Here are edited excerpts of our discussion in front of Patrick Henry College students last March.
Two decades ago you told me four disruptive questions to ask if someone is ranting in a debate: “What do you mean by that? Where do you get your information? How do you know you’re right? What happens if you’re wrong?” I’ve added two more: “How did you arrive at that conclusion? Do you think that’s the whole story?”
What do you teach Summit students who will face rants against Christianity? We don’t just say, “Here’s what the Bible says. Here’s how we know it is true.” We ask, “What barriers stop you from living a life that’s fully committed to Jesus?”
I suspect one barrier is pornography. For probably about 70 percent. We’ve got a generation that primarily identifies as consumers rather than as producers. They consume pornography and lots of other stuff.
Can people talk about this in church? We work with a generation of young adults who do not see church as a safe place. They do not believe they can really grapple there with the things that separate them from God’s kingdom work. I listened to a sermon of a famous older preacher trying to communicate about generational differences, but he did it by saying, “When I was a kid, the only thing coming out of a closet was clothes.” Thousands of people laughed and applauded. We encourage that in a big forum, but my thought went to those who were younger than 40, sitting in the room thinking, “If I were to say that at my workplace, I would be run off.”
‘People have trigger warnings and safe zones because they feel powerless against the ideas they’re facing, but when students grasp reality through a Biblical worldview they don’t feel powerless.’
Do Summit students, who mostly come from conservative homes, perceive the Trump presidency in a different way than their parents do? My students find Donald Trump to be abrasive, in the same way they sometimes find the things their grandparents say to be abrasive. I know some of their parents and grandparents, and the students will say, “Oh, Grandma, you’re just being a racist,” or “Grandma, you just don’t understand.” We’re getting used to these kinds of family conversations, so I had a chance to work with the students to say, “You need old people who can mentor you,” and at the same time say to the grandparents, “Let me share with you some ways to reach the hearts of your grandchildren.” It’s just no longer acceptable among the young adults I work with to say the first thing that comes to your mind. Most of them find him abrasive, and I’m afraid it turns them away from things that he’s doing that could really ultimately benefit them.
What do they think of Bernie Sanders? A huge percentage of our students loved Bernie Sanders. We spend a lot of time really grappling with socialism and Marxism as a worldview and helping the students come to an understanding of Biblical stewardship, but if you’ve got $100,000 in student loan debt and you’re working as a barista in a coffee shop, that’s a real problem. Someone who comes along and says this system is rigged has a lot of credibility.
We hear a lot in colleges about “trigger warnings” and “safe zones.” My tendency is to say, “Don’t be so weak that you can’t hear someone say something unpleasant,” but you probably have a better response. The students need to feel loved and safe. People have trigger warnings and safe zones because they feel powerless against the ideas they’re facing, but when students grasp reality through a Biblical worldview, they don’t feel powerless. They have a sense of how issues are playing out across campus.
When you say, “I am not Mr. Perfect. I haven’t always done everything right,” does that give them liberty to talk more freely about things they haven’t done right? I do believe that. I’m open about things I have done in my life that I regret. The instructors who are most credible with students are the ones who are open about their own past but who have a sense of hope for the future. They can express redemption in Christ because they’ve really experienced it.
You’ll talk about your own background? I was in a fraternity, and my fraternity brothers thought I was really cool because I would sleep around and pornography was always available. But then I got my girlfriend pregnant. Both of us had a pro-life instinct, but we became very utilitarian in that moment. I paid half of the abortion fee. Later I clearly realized I had hurt a wonderful person, ended a budding life, and had created for myself consequences that I would deal with for the rest of my life. Could you imagine talking to your children about such a thing, to say there was an older sibling?
So you talk about that with the students? They realize, “If he can share that, then I can deal with the things that are stopping me from living a life that’s fully committed to Jesus.” It’s enormously exhausting. It brings up more issues than you would ever think would come up at a worldview camp. But it is powerful to see the freedom students get.
What are some of the issues that emerge? Pornography use, rape, abuse, drug use, alcohol abuse, you name it. Christian students are not immune.
Parents are usually startled when we find our perfect kids have engaged in such activities? When I grew up, it was, “OK. You made a mistake. Just move past it. Don’t talk about it.” It took me a long time to talk about my girlfriend’s and my abortion because I lived in a culture that said, “It’s over with. Just move on”—but consequences are not so easily dismissed.
Do you see gender confusion growing among students? In 12 days at Summit we have 56 hours of instruction. I’ve been president for seven years. During that time we’ve gone from about four hours dealing with sexuality and marriage and gender to about 15 hours of that 56 hours dealing with those issues.
You’ve personally had a hard time. About four years ago or so, my marriage ended. Dealing with being a ministry leader, a dad—how do I do all of that? I went for a long run and felt overcome by a sense of despair. I tried to pray, but my prayer came out as, “God, why? Why can’t You see that I am down as far as I can go? Why are You still kicking me?” I ran for two hours grappling with this and accusing God of being a bully, then apologizing for accusing Him of being a bully. I wasn’t doubting that God existed. I was questioning, as many people do, whether He is good.
Where did you end up? I wasn’t thinking I can’t do today: I was thinking I can’t do this for another year, for the rest of my life. Scripture spoke powerfully in those moments. Lamentations 3:22-23: “Because of the Lord’s great love we are not consumed”—for His mercy is renewed every morning and His faithfulness is great. I would say, “God, I can’t do six months of this. I can’t do a year. I can’t do this.” And it was as if He said through Scripture, “Let’s not do a year. Let’s do today.”
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What’s a nice theologian doing in the middle of a political debate? Matthew Kaemingk, assistant professor of Christian ethics at Fuller Theological Seminary, is the author of Christian Hospitality and Muslim Immigration in an Age of Fear (Eerdmans, 2018). He says Biblical understanding on immigration “should spring from the actual work of Jesus, who made space for me when I was His enemy.” We met at a Center for Public Justice panel discussion in Washington, D.C., and then continued the conversation via Skype. Here are edited excerpts:
Since your book came out in January, you’ve been on the road talking about this hot topic. Any lightning strikes along the way?
I’ve received critiques from both sides, left and right. But overall I sense a yearning, particularly among Christian audiences, beyond right and left: If you boil the debate down to simply “Do you open doors or do you close them?”—that’s not a helpful debate. The real discussions and hard questions are about how do we live together once differences are already inside the home.
You write about multiculturalism on the left and nationalism on the right, but you also present a third way. What’s that?
The third way acknowledges that the political right is very correct, that Muslim immigration presents real challenges to the West. The left is correct that Muslim immigrants are human beings with rights, dignity, and freedom. Christian pluralism says if Christ is King, that means Christians are not. I do not have the right to exclude, demonize, or forcibly assimilate Muslim communities. Christ is King over the mosque, and it’s Christ who will make those judgments.
‘Let’s think less about face-to-face theological debates or interfaith dialogues, and more about having one another over for food, working together, caring for one another’s sick.’
How does Abraham Kuyper help us think about Christian pluralism and a third way?
Kuyper was a Christian theologian and politician 120 years ago in the Netherlands. The nation was bitterly divided between Protestants and Catholics, socialists and liberals, yet he developed a theological case for treating others with justice. Not because other ideologies were true or deserving, but because God demands that we treat our opponents with love.
You spent time researching Muslim immigration in the Netherlands. What did you learn from the Dutch secularist responses to Islam?
Secular liberals tend to misunderstand faith in three ways. They believe faith is a private preference not relevant to the public debate. Second, they believe that faith is a special thing only for some people, and they themselves have risen above faith. So they create a hierarchy of all the religions down here and the liberals up here. This makes it impossible for them to treat religious minorities with justice because they believe they have transcended religion and faith. They cannot see their own faith-based foundations. Third, they believe we can be united through government-run education and awareness programs.
Kuyper was perhaps ahead of his time in reflecting with some concern on Islam’s “summons to holy war.” How do you address the real fears Americans have about Islam after 9/11 and other attacks?
Bringing up the threats and real challenges with Islam does not make you a racist or a bigot. It’s important to challenge Muslims on those issues. But in Christian theology we believe all of us are created with certain value and rights that we didn’t earn and we cannot lose. We don’t offer freedom to Muslims because we think they earned it. We offer it because our God demands it.
I often get questions like this: In Muslim countries Christians are not given religious freedom, so why should we give religious freedom to them? That is a fundamental misunderstanding of a Christian approach to democracy and freedom. Christ offers us freedom, dignity, and love as free gifts, not on trade or contract.
And therein is the risk.
Democracy is fundamentally a risk. Kuyper specifically speaks to the possibility that a nation could be taken over by an ideology wanting to crush you. He says, “Leave it to Christian believers, if need be to Christian martyrs, to have the honor of demonstrating the intrinsic emptiness of non-Christian spiritual life.”
It’s one thing if you and I say we are willing to take the risk, but should we take that risk for our children and grandchildren?
As Christians we don’t want to be transformed by our enemies or by fear, we want to be transformed by Christ. It’s tempting to try to “solve Islam” through government power, but that government machinery can be turned around on Christianity as well.
You seem to leave us no alternative but to practice hospitality to Muslim neighbors. How do we begin?
Hospitality should be practiced much the same way we practice the piano. We will do it badly at first, but we do it over and over again, practicing life alongside our Muslim neighbors. So let’s think less about face-to-face theological debates or interfaith dialogues, and more about having one another over for food, working together, caring for one another’s sick. Here’s where Christ comes in. Christ is our model of hospitality in that He opens His arms on the cross at great personal pain and great personal sacrifice. He is not romantic about hospitality, but He is with us. He shows up in those small moments of having coffee with a neighbor, fellow student, or friend.
Do you think this radical view of hospitality can affect our political discourse and engagement?
As a theologian I think of myself as a servant of the church, so I work really hard not to give specific political advice.
That’s why I’m asking you.
It’s important for pastors and theologians not to dictate political policy but to empower Christian citizens to think Christianly about politics. I want to provide the Biblical framework for wrestling with these tough political issues, but the decisions are going to be different in different places. Issues like the Syrian refugee crisis require good theology, but also political awareness and wisdom.
What do you hope American Christians take from this book?
My hope is that American Christians would think of Muslim immigration not as a problem to be overcome but as a profound opportunity to be grasped. Their Muslim neighbors are not an issue to be resolved, but people to be loved. This is a unique historical moment in which the church has the opportunity to be the church, the hands and feet of Jesus, to share the hospitality we’ve received.
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Some people are talkers and some are writers: Eric Metaxas is unusual in being both. He has a daily talk show and receives both praise and criticism for his support of President Donald Trump, but has also written biographies of William Wilberforce, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, and Martin Luther. I interviewed him in front of students at The King’s College, New York City. Here are edited excerpts.
What is compassion? It’s simply an expression of God’s love for people, if you’re a person of faith. The reason agnostics or atheists talk about compassion is because it is one of those things that at this point in Western civilization we take for granted. The West assumes that everyone ought to have compassion for his neighbor, for someone who is less well-off. That is an assumption.
Where does the assumption come from? It comes from the Christian faith. We live in the West today and everyone in the West says, “Of course you’ve got to help the poor.” We don’t argue whether—we argue about how to do it. Conservatives say, “It should be the private sector,” and liberals say, “It should be the public sector.”
You wrote about William Wilberforce, who made a big difference in England. It was a staggering thing for me to discover that, before Wilberforce, England had a view of the poor and suffering that we would today consider an Eastern religion kind of view. Karma, right? If you’re in the gutter suffering, it’s because you deserve to suffer. So if I help you, I’m messing with the way things need to be. If I am blessed and have a lot of money and health, it’s because the gods or god, or the universe, has blessed me because I deserve it.
‘Before, when a candidate was defeated, he went away and kept quiet for the good of the republic. That began to change when we had the hanging chads in 2000. We’ve seen a fraying of the republic.’
What effect has family breakdown had on compassion? Until very recently you took care of your family. I have to worry about my old father and my kids have to worry about me and they have to help out. There is something very healthy and exceedingly local about the family unit. Government and the social safety net have encouraged families to abdicate that role. That’s the downside of FDR’s programs. He wanted to help people—and I think the heart of big-government people is in the right place—but the legislation ends up being less compassionate.
Does delayed marriage make us less compassionate? I can say that living in New York City, where everyone tends to get married late if they get married at all, you start seeing the sadness. Many people say, “If I had to do it over, I wish I had got married. I bought the lie that the culture was selling in every magazine and every TV program: ‘No, I shouldn’t get married early and have kids. That’s just some kind of enslavement. I want to be free.’” It really rarely works out that way. As a culture we’re just beginning to see the downside of what’s been called freedom.
So how do we practice compassion? What about the common practice of giving a dollar to a person sitting on the sidewalk with a sign? I’m an advocate for fiscal conservatism. Whenever I pass some people on the street and they ask me for money, I know there are all kinds of ways for that person to get help. I don’t have to feel bad about not giving because by giving to them I am encouraging them to stand here on the corner.
In what sense is President Trump showing compassion? There are people in America who really did feel, “Nobody cares about me. I am miserable and suffering and the people running for president except for this loudmouth Donald Trump don’t even acknowledge me.” I honestly think this was an issue of compassion because you have to choose the object of your compassion. Just like it’s my responsibility first to worry about my family, it’s the responsibility of a president first to worry about the people within the borders. Once we are flourishing we can help others.
What about compassion for immigrants? If you don’t have strict control of who’s coming into your country, people come in who are responsible to no one. They are lone wolves. It’s a stretch to say Trump was saying all are rapists. I absolutely don’t believe that. We have a president right now who communicates in some ways sloppily, in some ways intentionally sloppily. He’s like an impressionistic painter.
Does evangelical support for Trump put evangelicals in a hard position? When have evangelicals not been in a hard position?
Does it put evangelicals in a harder position? Tim Tebow to me is the perfect evangelical. He is an amazing human being. He’s very bright and he cares about people who are suffering, but the culture spat on him every opportunity it had. Now we pretend, “If evangelicals didn’t have the millstone of Donald Trump around their necks, everyone would love them.” That’s a joke.
How has Tim Tebow responded to that disparagement? That’s a false comparison. We know that Donald Trump is not an evangelical Christian. He doesn’t have John 3:16 written on his eyelids. If you’re looking for me to say that one ought to behave differently than Donald Trump in public, I’ll be the first one to agree with you, but we’re painting with too broad of a brush.
David was blessed to have a Nathan who confronted him with his sin. Could you be a Nathan to him? If I were given the opportunity, and I wish I were given the opportunity, I would love to be able to do that. I haven’t been given anything close to that opportunity.
Is there a Nathan in Trump’s circle? I don’t know. The viciousness of the people who don’t like Trump has had a strange effect so that people who don’t love him almost feel sorry because the coverage is so unhinged that you think, “I’ll just shut up. I was going to criticize.” It’s like you’re in a war zone, a person is getting shot at, and you say, “You should comb your hair differently. You’d be more attractive that way.”
We’ve had vicious attacks on presidents before: Jefferson, Jackson, Lincoln, Cleveland. We are living in a new era. Before, when a candidate was defeated, he went away and kept quiet for the good of the republic. That began to change when we had the hanging chads in 2000. We’ve seen a fraying of the republic. Now when people act like, “Well, he’s not my president,” I want to say, “Listen, he’s your president whether you like it or not.” Barack Obama was my president.
With polarization growing, how do we avoid drifting toward civil war? The body politic has never been so fragile. To give an example and get back to marriage and family, I’m not worried that if I say the wrong thing, my wife will divorce me—because I know we both believe in marriage. The problem: Some of the things have frayed to the point where I’m very concerned about the republic on this very issue.