I was interested to see today that Donald Miller gave the benediction at the Democratic National Convention. I had heard before that Cameron Strang, editor of Relevant magazine had pulled out of offering a prayer there because he felt like he couldn’t be seen by his subscribers as taking a political side. I didn’t really consider who they might ask instead and was a bit surprised that Donald Miller was the replacement–I suppose I expected a more run-of-the-mill liberal Christian.
Gavin posted Miller’s prayer and I share his observation that many of the reactions to it are sadly predictable.
Leaving aside the politics for a moment, I believe that Miller’s prayer at the DNC is reflective of some things I touched on in last Sunday’s sermon. One of the primary points I emphasized Sunday was the importance of Peter’s confession of Jesus as Christ/Messiah and Son of God (Matthew 16:16), being revealed to him; this was not something he simply came to believe because of evidence and reason, but had been brought about by a deeper spiritual knowledge.
The implications of this are important for Christians, especially as we consider how we’re to interact with those non-Christians (and not a few people who call themselves Christian) who are not yet able to say with Peter “You are the Christ, the Son of the living God.” The key is that they are not yet able to confess this. There was a time when Peter was not able to confess it either, nor the other disciples. It was revealed to them as they followed Jesus, heard his teaching, observed the the miraculous events that he initiated as signs of the Kingdom, and most of all, had their hearts opened to the work of God which revealed the truth to them. They were not convinced, finally, by reason or evidence, or even by signs, but by this work in their hearts.
This is why it is important that Jesus asks the disciples who the people say that he is first. We learn that the society at large sees Jesus as John the Baptist, or Elijah, or Jeremiah, or one of the other prophets; in other words, as a great teacher or miracle worker, but not as the Messiah. This attitude is not far from the general belief abroad today that Jesus was a good teacher or spiritual leader like Buddha, or Gandhi etc… but that he was not the Son of God. Often Christians are tempted to call people out on such a belief and try to force them to say that Jesus was the Son of God or a fool, taking away any middle ground. Taking a page from C.S. Lewis’ Mere Christianity we are often tempted to hammer people with the liar, lunatic or Lord syllogism. While I have nothing against Lewis’ proof, and one cannot take away from Mere Christianity as a work that has brought many to (or back to) faith, I think Lewis himself would be the first to admit that you have to gauge the receptivity of your audience before using what amounts to blunt instrument in so many cases.
I find it interesting that I can’t think of an example where Jesus chastises anyone for having an insufficiently strong or positive view of who he is. Certainly he gets exasperated at the density of the twelve at times, but they are his closest followers and as such, ought to have a greater understanding. When it is reported that some people believe him to be John the Baptist, Elijah, Jeremiah or one of the other prophets, Jesus does not rail against the stupidity of the masses, or send his disciples out directly to confront and correct them, but instead asks the pointed question, “but who do you say that I am?”
You see, there are some people for whom the statement that Jesus was a “good teacher” is simply a crutch, or a means to avoid the question because their heart is already at the point of confession, but their head won’t allow them to get there. For those people, Lewis’ syllogism is an appropriate response.Â But for others, who’s hearts are not to the point of being receptive, the use of a logical argument may have the opposite effect of pushing them to reject even the limited positive view of Jesus they have. Christians are called to the difficult task of discerning where others are at when we share the gospel with them, and depending on where they are, the means and level of that sharing may vary.
But the task of the Christian is always to hold before the eyes of others the truth that Jesus Christ is Lord. And this is where I believe Miller’s prayer is important. I appreciate his explanation of praying at the DNC, as something as simple as “when someone asks you to pray, you pray.” Before making his appearance Monday night he said was not afraid of talking about God to this particular audience.
Donald Miller: I make one statement that says, ‘God we know you’re good.’ And I know there are people in the convention hall who don’t believe in God. I want them to consider God. And I understand how that doesn’t sound sophisticated to an intellectual group. I understand that. I hate saying, because I feel like I wanna sound sophisticated too, and yet I believe – what am I supposed to do with that? I believe in God.
What I appreciate about Miller’s prayer is that it affirms what is good in the DNC platform and asks for God’s help in overcoming pride and indifference. Some have said that Miller should’ve used the platform as a means to challenge the DNC on other issues (notably abortion). But do people really think such a fiasco would be effective in any way? That it would cause any movement but an entrenchment? Think about the people that Miller is praying with/for. A huge percentage of the Democratic party faithful are secular and their view of religion–especially Christianity–isn’t necessarily a positive one. So is Miller supposed to go in there wearing sackcloth and ashes and expect to change their hearts and minds? That would’ve done nothing but slam shut the doors of their hearts. Which brings me to another criticism: Miller hedged too much when he finished his prayer, by saying “I make these requests in the name of your son, Jesus, who gave his own life against the forces of injustice. Let Him be our example.” Personally, I appreciated the fact that it wasn’t a compromised prayer that left out the name of our Lord. Of course, saying Jesus gave his life against the forces of injustice isn’t a sufficient explanation of what happened, but it is a true one, and fits well with the location. Again, remember where he is folks, he prayed in Jesus name at the DNC. Yes, he made it a point to say that he was making these requests in the name of Christ, assuming that others were not, but would you rather he’d lied about where he was and said they were ALL praying in Jesus name, even those who have not a shred of belief in Christ?
Another, more nuanced critique of Miller’s participation can be found here at Inhabitatio Dei where Halden writes:
It may be that I have finally drifted too far afield from my initial questions about the political and theological logic of Miller’s participation in the DNC. Ultimately the question revolves around political content of the gospel. Insofar as we allow the promissory imagination of the gospel of Christ to be circumscribed by the political logic of the earthly city we are failing to truly embody our theopolitical calling as the ekklesia of of the triune God. And in so failing we become simply another branded commodity to be bought, sold, and fetishized in the ubiquitous market of global capitalism. I fear that Donald Miller, by casting in his lot where he has may have done just that.
The primary issue I have with Halden’s critique is that it would seem to leave Christians with no option for involvement in the generally accepted political apparatus because to participate in them would be to commodify one’s Christianity. I certainly agree that such commodification can and has happened (more often than not on the other side of the political aisle in God’s Own Party, but the Democrats are catching back up, especially over the last two election cycles), and while I accept the fact that the Church is political in its very nature, I cannot accept what seems to be his understanding that not participating in the established political process would somehow free us from the danger of commodification. In some ways I feel about this argument the way I felt about the marxist-feminist professors I had in college who got excited about their book deals. I only met a few who ever understood the irony of that.
In the end, I think Miller did the right thing by holding Christ up to the assembled delegates as an example, in the way that he did because, as we learn from the Gospels, no one can truly and honestly follow Christ’s example without at some point having who he is revealed to them and professing “You are the Christ, the Son of God.” I pray that such things begin to happen in the Democratic party.
Watch the video by clicking below: