Calling a Thing What It Is
Heidi Neumark, the wonderful Lutheran pastor and author, is out with a new book, Sanctuary: Being Christian in the Wake of Trump. Neumark was twice our guest for the Festival of Preaching Northwest. Her’s were some of the most memorable sermons at those Festivals.
Recently she was interviewed about the new book on the podcast I’ve mentioned in a previous post, Crackers and Grape Juice. Heidi was asked about the use or misuse of Luther’s teachings about grace during the Trump era (His religious lackeys have offered a case study in “cheap grace.”)
Neumark said that rather than “the grace/ law binary” that people associate with Luther, she found help in Luther’s teaching that we are to “call a thing what it is.” This comes in the context of his famous distinction between “a theology of glory” and “a theology of the cross.”
Here’s a bit from Luther’s Works:
“A theologian of the cross calls the thing what it actually is. This is clear: He who does not know Christ does not know God hidden in suffering. Therefore he prefers works to suffering, glow to the cross, strength to weakness, wisdom to folly . . .”
Quite a line, preferring “glow to the cross.” What we’re talking about is an aversion to suffering and the (false) theology that if our faith is good enough and strong enough life will be great, full of glow, without suffering or the experience of brokenness or failure. It’s the theological version of “The Power of Positive Thinking” and dismissing anything that doesn’t fit into a rosy and self-congratulatory world view.
No, said Luther, the theologian of the cross looks reality, including suffering, in the face. God is hidden in suffering, in loss, in weakness, in folly . . . in the cross.
Neumark is right that Luther’s injunction to “call a thing what it is” is the name of the game for the Trump era. Moreover, Trump personifies what Luther denounces as a “theology of glory,” which is using God for our personal (or national) glorification. Remember how he wanted to make Easter his “opening day” for businesses and shopping? “It’s a great day, the churches will be full.”
We’re down now to one week before the election. What’s at stake?
Well, you’re read a thousand articles and had a hundred conversations arguing about that. Those Trump supporters who are not simply fawning members of a personality cult try to argue, “It’s less about the person than the policies.” Last week the prominent evangelical, John Piper, argued that this is a tragically flawed argument. Piper renewed an evangelical position from the Clinton era — one that many evangelicals now seem to have conveniently forgotten — namely “character counts.”
For me, what it comes down to is Trump’s character (or lack of same) and his fundamental dishonesty. I’m not simply talking about tallying the specific number of lies that Trump tells in a day or a week, or tracking the lies he has told in the years of Presidency, bad though that is.
It is deeper than that. It is as Neumark/ Luther name it, the failure to call a thing what it is. It is a demonic capacity for calling evil good. Whether it is claiming that children separated from their parents are “in wonderful care,” or that “we turned the corner” on the Corona Virus as numbers of cases soar, or “I’m the best President black people have ever had, with the possible exception of Abraham Lincoln,” to “I don’t know much about QAnon, I don’t really know anything about it, but I guess they like me,” or “my call to the Ukrainian President was perfect,” Trump is a master at calling a thing what it isn’t.
The whole Trump enterprise is about calling things what they are not. Dictator and thugs are our friends. “Some very good people” are on the side of racism and hate. Any woman who dares question him is “nasty.” Our elections are “rigged,” filled with “fraud.” The Post Office “is a joke.”
Call a thing what it is. Trump is evil. That’s what’s at stake.