Do You Even Lift, Embryo?

Some cuckoos are born assassins. Within a day or two of hatching, the infant birds—still blind, pink, and featherless—will start to evict the other residents of their nest, hurling them over the edge and to their death.

Technically, the evictions they carry out are from living quarters that aren’t even their own. The cuckoos are parasites, strategically placed by their mother into the abode of another species so they can mooch their way through adolescence. The more of their foster siblings they kill in cold blood, the more food and attention they can con out of their adoptive parents.

The acts are ruthless, but also remarkable physical feats. Fresh out of their shells, the birds are jacked, capable of hoisting hefty eggs or chicks—including some that weigh about as much as they do—onto their back before throwing them out like trash. “It’s like a newborn baby lifting a bowling ball,” Stephanie McClelland, a biologist at the Royal Holloway University of London, told me. “It’s just crazy.”

By peeping on cuckoo chicks during development, McClelland and her colleagues have homed in on one of the major strategies these birds, and several others like them, use to achieve their super-swole status at such a young age. In a new study, they describe how the animals exercise as embryos while they’re still incubating in the egg, a sort of prenatal CrossFit that preps them for the slaughterous rampage that follows. “It’s a home gym in the egg,” Mark Hauber, a biologist at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign who collaborated with McClelland on the study, told me. By the time these birds hatch, their foster siblings already don’t stand a chance.

[Read: Why do mammals kill each other?]

The notion that embryos can wriggle around in the womb or egg isn’t new. Human pregnancy is a prime example: Fetuses spend months executing a mix of twitches, stretches, and kicks that are thought to be an in utero trial run for the motions “they need to survive after birth,” Niamh Nowlan, a developmental-biomechanics expert at University College Dublin, told me. The situation isn’t all that different for birds, which start flexing their muscles just a few days after their egg is laid. These little full-body bootcamps are vital: Animals that skip their pre-birth workouts tend to emerge with bones and muscles that are weak and underdeveloped.

McClelland and her graduate adviser, Steven Portugal, decided to check if embryos could push that trend in the other direction—adding on exercise to the standard regimen of squirming, perhaps as a way to ensure that they’re born extra buff. If any animals were good candidates for pumping prenatal iron, they figured, cuckoos and other nest-invading birds, formally known as brood parasites, might be among them, given what they get up to in infancy.

Proving that, though, wouldn’t be easy. That’s because dozens of bird species are thought to engage in some form of brood parasitism, each with their own violent flair. Some, like the common cuckoo, are egg-tossing executioners; others, like the cowbirds that Hauber studies, let their host siblings survive, but still jostle them out of the way to beg, loudly and insistently, for food. Most macabre of all might be the lesser honeyguide, a fanged felon that will stab its nest-mates with the piercing-sharp hook that adorns the front of its beak or “shake them like a terrier” until they drop dead, Claire Spottiswoode, a biologist at the University of Cambridge and the University of Cape Town who studies honeyguides, told me. If McClelland wanted to find a connection between pre-hatch calisthenics and the shredded status of brood-parasite chicks, she’d need to spy on a whole lot of embryos while they were still in their shells.

a honeyguide biting a researcher's hand
A greater honeyguide nibbling on Stephanie McClelland’s finger. (Credit: Stephanie McClelland)

So McClelland enlisted Hauber, Spottiswoode, and several others to help her out. The researchers spent several years collecting the eggs of 14 bird species—some parasitic, some not—scattered across three continents. Using a device called an Egg Buddy, they beamed harmless lasers into their specimens, and tallied up how much the embryos were shifting around. The work was sometimes grueling, and not just because they were dealing with bloodthirsty birds: While gathering data in a rural region of Illinois, McClelland’s mobile laboratory, full of equipment and chemicals, was mistakenly flagged by locals as a meth lab.

But the project yielded exactly the results McClelland and her colleagues were hoping to see. While inside their egg, most brood parasites tended to fidget about more often than the host birds they tormented, especially during later stages of incubation. They were also jigglier than closely related birds that were raised by their own parents. Brood parasitism is thought to have arisen independently at least seven times in the avian family tree; “to see a similar pattern” across species and continents makes the team’s results especially compelling, Iliana Medina Guzman, a brood-parasite expert at the University of Melbourne who wasn’t involved in the study, told me.

[Read: The survival advantage of being a fancy baby coot]

The results aren’t totally ironclad. Nowlan, who wasn’t involved in the study, pointed out that the researchers weren’t able to check how the chicks in each species actually turned out, making it hard to confirm whether in-egg gains actually did produce brawnier birds. And the movement gaps among species also weren’t huge—more the difference between two casual weight lifters than a bodybuilder and a couch potato. Still, “when you look at a small difference in embryo movement or muscle development, it compounds on itself,” says Facundo Fernandez-Duque, an avian biologist who is advised by Hauber but wasn’t involved in the study. For a weary cuckoo chick, a few extra strength-training sessions might make all the difference between booting its fourth and final nest-mate and having to share its chow.

For Spottiswoode, the link feels intuitive, like confirmation of the years of work she’s done in the field, examining and handling murderous birds. Freshly hatched honeyguides even feel kind of toned. “They have an almost rubbery quality to them,” Spottiswoode said. That sinewy stuff is exactly what makes the baby birds’ bods so lethal. Even clutched in human hands, they’ll lunge and snap and fling their fangs about, “trying to find something, anything, to bite,” she said. Sometimes, survival of the fittest really does mean the fittest.

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Poem in Autumn

Illustrations by Miki Lowe

May Sarton was a novelist and an avid keeper of journals, but she considered herself a poet above all else. Novels and journals, she said in 1983, are concerned with growth over time, but “the poem is an essence … it captures perhaps a moment of violent change but it captures a moment.” In “Poem in Autumn,” she seizes just that: fall’s fleeting turning point between a memory of warmth and the cold’s inevitable creep. In that suspended instance, she sees the leaves, “touched by death,” take on a shining gold.  

In the first stanza, we know death to mean the coming winter. The leaves won’t survive it—they’ll shrivel and fall—but they burst with vivid color on their way out, almost as if they’re aware that time is slipping away. In the second stanza, though, Sarton is no longer talking about foliage: Now it is we, human beings, who are touched by death. We know the end is coming, and that knowledge changes something in us—our senses are heightened, our heartbeats amplified, our grief transmuted into radiance. She is capturing a moment of change, yes—but a moment can last a minute, a season, or a lifetime.

Faith Hill


A pdf of the original magazine page, with golden watercolor leaves painted on

You can zoom in on the page here.

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Palestine Isn’t Ferguson

In the imagination of the Christian West, Jews have been forced to fill every role. For 2,000 years, they have been seen as the ultimate shape-shifters: craven, feeble, abject, weak, and humiliated, but also powerful, conspiratorial, and demonic. They are the prime, indeed fatal, danger to the societies in which they live: arch-capitalists and arch-revolutionaries. Jews are a symbol, a metaphor, an essence. So it should come as no surprise that the state of the Jewish people, where almost half of the world’s Jews live, is also viewed in this way. Israel is both an obsession and an abstraction—as the Jewish people have been for much of Western history.

Israel is unusual in that it existed as an idea before it existed as a nation-state. Today, it is also unusual, even remarkable, for lacking internationally recognized borders—an indispensable marker of sovereignty—and for decades it has been depriving Palestinians in the occupied territories of political rights and freedom. “After 1967, Israel stopped becoming a normal nation-state,” Arnon Degani, a Hebrew University history professor who is a member of the anti-occupation veterans’ group Breaking the Silence, told me recently. “Time passed on, and Israel becomes more and more abnormal.” Leftist Israelis—many of whom define themselves as Zionists—call the occupation criminal, atrocious, unbearable; their critique is broader, and deeper, than most of what you read or hear in the United States. As a result of the occupation, the literary critic Nissim Calderon told me, “Wider and wider circles of life, both for Israelis and Palestinians, become infected with cruelty.”

But the peculiar ways in which Israel has been historically viewed—and the ways in which, in the most recent Israel-Hamas war, it was depicted as an almost metaphysical evil—have deeper, and other, roots. “The reality of Israel is, in large measure, a projection of fantasies, both by those who want to love the place and those who are consumed by hatred for it,” wrote the Israeli American writer Joel Schalit. Or, as Etan Nechin, an Israeli journalist who edits The Bare Life Review, a journal of immigrant and refugee literature, argues, “The left thinks that Israel exists only on a highly ideological-political level. There are no people in it. It’s only a tabula rasa.”

[Matti Friedman: Israel’s problems are not like America’s]

Any useful analysis of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict requires engaging with an unresolved, frustratingly complex, grievously resilient struggle between two national movements, each with a justified claim to the land. Once that effort is abandoned, a vacuum ensues. It is filled by the transformation of a country into a metaphor; by the rewriting (or ignoring) of history; by Manichean thinking; and by the conversion of language into a means of performance rather than a description of reality.

Leftist theorists have a long tradition of turning the Jewish people into an abstraction. In his 1843 essay “On the Jewish Question,” a very young Karl Marx wrote that, because Judaism’s essence was “practical need, selfishness … haggling and money,” a truly free world would entail “the emancipation of humanity from Judaism.” Some—including the Marxist philosopher with whom I live—argue that this essay isn’t anti-Semitic, because Marx wasn’t addressing actual Jews but rather Jews as the symbolic essence of capitalism. But this is precisely the point, and the problem: As many racial-justice theorists have pointed out, transforming a people into a concept is an act of dehumanization.

Since Zionism’s inception, the left—following Marx—has often projected its fixations onto Israel and the state’s political conflicts, and thereby sorely misunderstood them.

Hannah Arendt and Arthur Koestler were each, in their different ways, exemplars of this propensity. Both traveled to the pre-state Yishuv (and then to Israel), both had extremely conflicted attitudes toward Zionism and Israel, both can be categorized as having been, at various times, Zionists and anti-Zionists. Arendt was a rhapsodic supporter of the Yishuv, though she opposed partition, hated David Ben-Gurion, and was a fierce critic of the Zionist movement. Her fears that Israel would devolve into ethnic nationalism, and would find itself in constant conflict with its Arab neighbors, proved astute—painfully so. But she rejected the prism of either colonialism or imperialism. Instead, she perceived that the early Zionists had created something new: History is not merely a series of repetitions. “The building of a Jewish national home was not a colonial enterprise in which Europeans came to exploit foreign riches … at the expense of native labor,” she wrote. The Yishuv “could not possibly fit into the political scheme of imperialism because it was neither a master nor a subject nation.”

Yet Arendt also tended to view the new state through the catastrophic lens of German history. Visiting Israel for Adolf Eichmann’s trial in 1961, she wrote, “The parallels are fatal, particularly in the details.” Actually, it’s hard to think of two nations that were—and are—less parallel than Germany and Israel. This mistaken identification led her to prophesize a series of disasters for Israel that were wide of the mark. Statehood, she insisted in 1948, would lead to the Yishuv’s collapse, though the opposite proved true; later she warned of a possible military dictatorship, isolation, cultural sterility, and domination by the Soviet Union. And her understanding of Palestinian politics—an essential part of the equation—was virtually nil.

Arthur Koestler—fervent Communist, fervent anti-Communist—became enamored of militaristic Revisionist Zionism as a university student, and in 1926 he had a brief, unhappy stint at a Zionist commune in Palestine. (In fact, his comrades expelled him.) Like Arendt, Koestler transferred the traumatic European politics of the interwar period—especially its leftist politics—onto Israel. This meant that he misunderstood quite a lot. He viewed the strife between Labor Zionists and Revisionists as a replay of the deadly Stalinist-Trotskyist antagonism of the Spanish Civil War. He believed that Hebrew (which he failed to master) would separate Israelis from European culture and prove intellectually sterile. He charged Ben-Gurion with establishing a “totalitarian” regime, and compared what he called “Haganahism” to Nazism and Stalinism. In his view, interest in Israel would wane: He predicted that 50 years after its founding, “few will take an interest” in Israel’s birth or would dispute partition, and that Israel would ultimately “become an entirely ‘un-Jewish’ country”—a prospect of which he highly approved. He turned out to be far less prescient than Arendt.

In the late 1960s and early 1970s, a new theory emerged among leftist anti-Zionists: Jews who had fled their homes in the Arab world—Iraq, Yemen, Morocco, and elsewhere—would unite with Palestinians to overthrow the presumably oppressive Zionist state and establish … well, something else. These leftist activists assumed a natural—that is, ethnic—affinity between Palestinians and Jews from the Arab world. After all, both were apparently non-European (or, in today’s parlance, “people of color”). The theory proved catastrophically wrong, because it ignored the discrimination—and, sometimes, violence—that Jews had experienced in Arab countries, and the enmities that led many of their Muslim Arab neighbors to drive them out. Today, Arab countries have virtually no Jewish citizens, and Mizrahi Israelis constitute a key part of the Israeli right’s base.

[Micah Goodman: How to shrink the Israeli-Palestinian conflict]

When a country—or a people—is treated as a blank canvas, almost anything can be painted onto it. Israel’s victory in the 1967 War—which birthed the occupation—transformed the country, in the eyes of the global left, into the colonialist, imperialist, racist, even fascist monster of the Middle East: “the new Shylock of the non-aligned world,” as the socialist-Zionist Simha Flapan wrote at the time. This was true in both Europe and America. Just two months after the war—when there was still free movement between the conquered territories and Israel, when there were virtually no settlements, and when the occupation was far from certain—the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee accused Israelis of “imitating their Nazi oppressors.”

This tendency to veer from vehement but rational political criticism to grotesquely engorged vilification was most extreme in the theory and practice of the West German New Left. The tormented descendants of the Auschwitz generation aligned with Palestinian terror groups, and—irony of ironies—designated Israel as the fascist, genocidal successor to the Third Reich. The Israeli German historian Dan Diner has termed this bizarre equation of Germans and Jews an “exonerating projection”: an attempt to normalize Nazism by transposing it onto its victims.

Something similar is happening with the delegitimizing charges of “imperialism” and “settler colonialism” that some members of today’s left in Europe and the U.S. hurl against Israel, the historian Benny Morris told me. “The liberal left feels guilty about its past crimes,” said Morris, whose book The Birth of the Palestinian Refugee Problem, 1947–1949 is a canonical work in revisionist Israeli history. “And this is projected onto current conflicts, especially the Israeli-Arab conflict.” He added, “There’s a basic anti-Semitism in the West and a basic obsession with the Holy Land in the Christian West. And these two things make it impossible for anybody to look at Israel in a neutral way.” Seventy years after its founding, Israel is regarded (by Jews and non-Jews, right and left, West and East) as a cause, a tragedy, a miracle, a nightmare, a project—one that is highly provisional and should perhaps be canceled. Is there any other sovereign nation, from the most miserable failed states to those that are flourishing, of which the same can be said?

Once specificity vanishes, metaphors bloom. One of the left’s favorites is Israel–as–South Africa. The Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions movement, for instance, is built on the insistence that Israel is a replica (or, in Arendtian terms, a “parallel”) of South Africa pre-1994. In this view, because an international boycott isolated South Africa and helped end apartheid, an international boycott will isolate Israel and help end the occupation (or, perhaps, end Israel itself, as many BDS supporters seem to hope). But the two countries aren’t really the same, and a strange thing has happened: In the years since the BDS movement was founded, Israel has become less isolated from other nations, its economy has flourished, and Arab Israelis have made impressive gains in education and employment—even as the occupation has become more entrenched. Something is wrong with the metaphor. Still, BDS soldiers on, routinely proclaiming its victories. It is doubtful, though, that a boycott of Israel—even by Sally Rooney!—will persuade most Israelis that the occupation should end, any more than a boycott of the United States would have convinced many Americans to dump President Donald Trump.

Accompanying obfuscating metaphors are profound distortions of history—or, rather, anachronistic readings of it. The socialist magazine Jacobin, for instance, confidently states that Israel was “born out of nineteenth-century European imperialism.” The inhabitants of the Yishuv were a varied lot, but many, indeed most, were immiserated refugees fleeing oppression and then extermination: “Israel is the State of the displaced person,” the decidedly non-Zionist Isaac Deutscher, a Marxist historian, noted. The contemporary left has somehow transformed these refugees into wily, powerful, “non-indigenous” imperialists who sat in Kyiv and Vilnius, scheming to steal land from Arab peasants. (It is baffling to hear leftists, the great defenders of refugees and immigrants, divide the inhabitants of Israel and Palestine into those who deserve to build a life there—the “indigenous”—and those who don’t.)

[Read: A new word is defining the Israeli-Palestinian conflict in Washington ]

Rather than imperialism, modern Zionism was rooted in the national-liberation and socialist movements of the late 19th and early 20th centuries. In particular, the kibbutzim were hailed by leftists as the purest form of anti-authoritarian communism—built, as a delighted Deutscher wrote, “by the self-sacrifice and courage of idealistic intellectuals and workers.” But apparently Deutscher was wrong; another Jacobin writer now informs us that the kibbutz movement embodied the “negation of socialism” and the sin of “ethnic separatism.”

The ethnic-racial lens is a particularly inapt frame through which to view the unique circumstances in which Zionism developed. The Hebrew Labor movement—the spine of the state—was based on the principle that Jews must earn the right to the land through their own self-sufficient labor and that they could not exploit Arab workers; they refused to become bosses of Arab workers or peasants. Yet for Jacobin, this epitomized contempt for Arab labor as “a primitive mode of production unfit for the proletarian revolution” and “the total racialization of the class struggle,” an almost comic misreading. As the journalist and historian Bernard Avishai pointed out to me, Hebrew Labor was “in many ways the opposite of classical colonialism … The left never understood that the ‘colonial project’ [of Israel] was basically a desperate effort to create a Jewish cultural life that would be resilient enough to survive the modern world.” He adds that the Zionists “were afraid to become Arabic-speaking overseers of Arab labor. So by the time of the second Aliyah, there were collective institutions that excluded Arabs … That looked like a racist thing, but so does affirmative action look like a racist thing, if you don’t understand its purpose.”

Along with the misreading of history is its essentialization: Zionism is a project “of systemic, massive violence,” one recent BDS petition contends. The extraordinarily tangled history of the Zionist movement—which includes Marxists and capitalists, peacemakers and militarists, secularists and believers, humanists and racists—is actually a consistent record of being “inherently violent,” according to a student group called Michigan in Color. (Whether the Palestinian movement has an “inherent” character remains unexplored.) Zionism is depicted as a kind of iron cage—stamped from the beginning, so to speak—instead of a fluid political movement that developed in dialectical relation to world events. Such essentialist views have traditionally been expressed by historians who believed in the German concept (later embraced by the Nazis) of the Volksgeist; it is startling to hear them propounded by progressives.

And Zionism developed, especially, in relation to the national movement of its neighbors, the Palestinians. Their agency, too, has been erased; instead, they are depicted in cartoonlike form as either mighty, unbowed anti-imperialist warriors or innocent, reactive victims. In fact, leftists seem as uninterested in the rich texture of Palestinian politics as they are in Israeli politics. A wide range of views exists among Arab Israelis and Palestinians in the occupied territories; the American left might at least notice that Arab Israeli leaders such as Ayman Odeh, the head of the Arab Joint List, and Palestinian leaders such as Marwan Barghouti, now imprisoned on multiple terrorism charges, both support a two-state solution.

In the Israel-Hamas war last May, the “racialization” of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict—the latest use of unilluminating metaphors and false symmetries—became widespread. “From Ferguson to Palestine!” appeared on posters and petitions and rang out at demonstrations. The Black Lives Matter movement—and African American oppression in general—was repeatedly likened to, or even conflated with, the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. According to the U.S. Campaign for Palestinian Rights, residents of Ferguson, Missouri, and those in Palestine both face “an occupying force.” An activist with the progressive American Jewish group IfNotNow confidently explained to The New York Times that racism in America and the conflict between Israelis and Palestinians amount to “the exact same system.” Zellie Thomas, a Black Lives Matter organizer in New Jersey, asserted at a pro-Palestinian demonstration, “We know occupation; we know colonization.” The contemporary American obsession with race and skin color, in which politics reduces to stark racial categories and racial categories reduce to even starker moral ones, was transposed to a country and a conflict in the midst of the Arab world.  

But is the situation of a stateless Palestinian living under the corruption and ineptitude of the disempowered Palestinian Authority, or ruled by the jihadist authoritarians of Hamas in isolated, besieged Gaza, meaningfully analogous to that of a Black citizen in 21st-century America? If not, what do the words occupation and colonization signify, other than linguistic bravado? This is a form not of solidarity but of self-regard. And surely the Palestinians deserve far more than this—deserve, that is, to be seen within the political and moral context of their own society, movement, and history rather than as a projection or pawn of American preoccupations.

This transposition of a national conflict between two peoples into a racial one strikes many Israelis as, in the words of the historian and journalist Gershom Gorenberg, “insanely absurd” and “embarrassing.” In reality, Israel is one of the most multicultural societies on Earth, composed of immigrants from around the world; anyone standing on a Jerusalem street for half an hour will see Jewish Israelis, born in countries from Scandinavia to the Horn of Africa, who, naturally, range widely in appearance. It is estimated that a majority of Jewish Israelis are descendants of those who fled, or were kicked out of, the Arab or Muslim countries in which they had lived for centuries; they are more likely to hail from Morocco than from Germany. Arab Israelis and Palestinians also vary widely in appearance, which is why so many Jewish Israelis are indistinguishable from so many Palestinians.

The Ferguson metaphor is no more useful than the South African one, and it illustrates the great weakness—and the great temptation—of metaphorical thinking in general: It offers ready-made analyses and ready-made solutions. “The problem with analogies,” Gorenberg told me, “is that they take something you don’t understand, equate it with something you do understand, and make you think you understand it.”

Once language is unmoored from reality, it can become unhinged, which may be why the old, ugliest eliminationist rhetoric that the Palestinian Liberation Organization used before the Oslo Accords circulated widely among purported progressives during the last war. An organizer for Students for Justice in Palestine pithily explained at a rally, “Zionism is genocide. Zionism is racism. Zionism is violence.” In 2016, the Movement for Black Lives accused Israel not only of exploiting and oppressing the Palestinians, which it is, but also of committing “genocide.” The union of New Yorker workers tweeted its solidarity with Palestinians “from the river to the sea” without, apparently, understanding that the phrase has traditionally implied the elimination of Israel. (The union later deleted the tweet and apologized.)

In statements and petitions, the words racism, imperialism, colonialism, settler-colonialism, apartheid, capitalism, and genocide were clotted together into a smorgasbord of evil, as if the writers couldn’t decide which to choose. I received many of these petitions. They reminded me of George Orwell’s warning, in “Politics and the English Language,” about the intimate connection between debased political language and debased political thought: “As soon as certain topics are raised, the concrete melts into the abstract and no one seems able to think of turns of speech that are not hackneyed: prose consists less and less of words chosen for the sake of their meaning, and more and more of phrases tacked together like the sections of a prefabricated hen-house.” The intent is not to make a political argument—to explain, to convince—but to elicit Pavlovian reactions of disgust, thereby bypassing actual thought.

The recent equation of African American oppression and the Israeli-Palestinian conflict has been hailed as a triumph of intersectionality, whose proponents aim to build international solidarity across barriers of class, race, gender, and nation. And sometimes, they do. But in the current case, the theory has been used (or, I would argue, misused) to occlude complex realities, negate history, prevent critical thinking, and foster juvenile simplifications.

Intersectionality’s original theorists were Black women who developed nuanced arguments about the tangled political, legal, social, historic, and structural factors that undergird inequalities. Thus, a truly intersectional approach to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict would, of necessity, incorporate the Jewish people’s torturous history of expulsion, pariahdom, statelessness, and genocide. A truly intersectional approach would incorporate the realization that, while Israel is far more powerful than the Palestinians, it is an often besieged minority within the larger Arab and Muslim worlds—something of which even the most left-wing Israelis are acutely aware. (As Nissim Calderon, who has been an anti-occupation activist for 50 years, explained to me, “In the reality of the Middle East, without a state, we will be murdered. By Iran, Hezbollah, Hamas—everyone.”)

A truly intersectional approach would recognize Israelis’ need for, and right to, security. An intersectional left—or a simply honest one—would not delicately turn away from the religious sectarianism, violent repression, and anti-feminism of Hamas and Islamic Jihad. It certainly could not dismiss discussion of Hamas’s rockets as, in the words of Scholars for Palestinian Freedom, “stale talking points.” A truly intersectional left might notice that the recent Arab Lives Matter movement, organized by Israel’s Arab citizens, is angrily demanding more police protection in response to the alarming surge in crime, including murder, in Israel’s Arab-majority towns. Apparently, Taibeh and Minneapolis aren’t quite the same.

Instead, what we now have is a kind of deformed intersectionality—intersectionality lite—in which the theory has been robbed of its challenging nuances and flattened into a starkly reductionist insistence that the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is Manichean. Or even, by a sleight of hand, that it doesn’t exist at all; as a Canadian Green Party lawmaker recently tweeted, “There are no two sides to this conflict, only human rights abuses! #EndApartheid.” Of course, the right is no different from the left in finding something comforting, or at least comfortable, about this sort of dichotomous vision. Right-wing American supporters of Israel—including many members of AIPAC, for which the Jewish state is a perpetually innocent dream palace—are equally facile, and willfully blinkered, in their views.

There is another problem with intersectionality, at least in the way it is now being used. It, too, is a kind of conceit—an updated version of “We Are the World.” As the political theorist Michael Walzer told me, “Intersectionality is a genuinely useful idea. But there is no intersection between American Blacks and Palestinians. The moral significance of solidarity is that it extends solidarity to people with whom you have no intersection. Intersectionality is an entirely different idea from internationalism.” The Israeli journalist Etan Nechin observed to me that the American left’s discourse on Israel is “an offshoot of identity politics, with emphasis on ‘me.’ But internationalism was never about that.” To support other peoples or movements because they are somehow “like” you—or because they “look like you”—betrays the traditional ethos of internationalism.

And in the Manichean imagination—and this, I think, is its greatest sin, if I can use that word—the democratic forces within Israel, both Jewish and Arab, are rendered literally invisible, as if by a perverse magic trick. In Haaretz, Nechin recently charged that those on the American left—and particularly the Jewish American left—“dismiss realities on the ground in Israel and Palestine entirely, and instead offer high-minded ideological critiques.” As for ending the occupation, American leftists “expect … if that day comes, [that] it won’t be because of the work of decades by the Israeli left, but because Americans boycotted SodaStream.” Gone missing are “the hundreds of thousands of union workers, writers, doctors, teachers, activists, and everyday people within the Green Line who protested the Jewish Nation State Bill, or go out on a Friday afternoon to stand in solidarity next to their Palestinian neighbors.”

***

Today’s left, and today’s liberals, are in a bit of a pickle—or at least in a state of moral and theoretical disarray. I don’t exempt myself from that. It is extremely hard to figure out how to extend solidarity—in real, not rhetorically grandiose terms—to Syrians and Afghans; to democracy activists in China, Nicaragua, and Hong Kong; to horrifically endangered peoples such as the Uyghurs and Yazidis and Rohingya. Ending the occupation, and strengthening endangered democratic institutions in Israel, are goals that rank high on the list of political urgencies for some of us.

In the current, often bewildering international context, the venomous attacks on Israel qua Israel offer a seductively easy, morally antiseptic—and, I would add, appallingly self-absorbed—way to intervene in foreign affairs. The hysterical hyperbole, the self-referential projections, the lazy conflations, the warped histories that abound today: All substitute for solidarity. What is needed, I believe, is an entry into the world of political thought, whose foundation is the ability to make distinctions within the context of history rather than to crush them.

So no, Palestine isn’t Ferguson, Israel isn’t South Africa, and Zionism isn’t white supremacy. As Arendt wrote, the activity of thinking—the very basis of politics—begins with the knowledge that “A and B are not the same.”

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What the Trump Books Teach Us

William Blake once proposed that John Milton was “of the Devil’s party without knowing it” because he evoked Satan in Paradise Lost with such gusto. By contrast, Blake observed, Milton seemed inhibited when he wrote of plodding, sanctimonious old God. Have Donald Trump’s recent chroniclers, most of whom quote the former president liberally and with relish, turned to the devil’s party?

Loathsome characters bring out zestful writing, and authors who represent Trump as perilous to democracy—that is, all writers with eyes and ears—could find that the danger the former president poses to America’s future is more cinematic than democracy itself.

Peril, the latest big book about the former president, is not the best book by Bob Woodward, or even his best about Trump. That would be Fear, which came out in 2018. But in Peril, Woodward and his co-author, Robert Costa, manage to pull off a singular trick. They don’t let Trump’s devilish ravings, tweets, and tantrums run roughshod over their own, more disciplined voices. Woodward and Costa flex their rhetorical muscles not by writing the hell out of the Trump character, but by smacking down their arch-villain, keeping a choke chain on his every utterance.

When writing about the appalling presidential debate of September 30, 2020, they skip Trump’s cruel and confounding yawps about Joe Biden and Biden’s son, Hunter. They also ignore the Proud Boys, whom Trump that night refused to condemn. Given that group’s participation in the attacks of January 6, Trump’s words—“stand back and stand by”—now seem stomach-churning and fateful. But in Peril, the sole line Woodward and Costa quote from that debate is Biden’s demand of Trump: “Will you shut up, man?” With this choice to not quote Trump at all, the book elegantly obliges Biden.

For years, Woodward has been accused of styling himself as “impartial” during a crisis that demands partiality. But this underestimates the old master’s ego. Woodward takes a side: his own. His voice in Peril is imperious, swaggering, and territorial. He and Costa lock their subject in a narrative cage, where he remains mostly gagged.

[David Frum: Woodward missed everything that matters about the Trump presidency]

Other recent Trump books allow their subject more space to strut and fret. This has costs, but it also means they bring more brio to evoking the former president. These books are potboilers: Stephanie Grisham’s I’ll Take Your Questions Now, Michael C. Bender’s “Frankly, We Did Win This Election,” Carol Leonnig and Philip Rucker’s I Alone Can Fix It, and Michael Wolff’s Landslide. These Trump books align in that they keep the former president’s flamboyant psychopathy center stage, where readers can hate-watch it. They all read like airport thrillers.

But the books also play back Trump’s falsehoods, sometimes at top volume. Three draw their title from lies told by Trump, and two directly quote the so-called Big Lie. Trump didn’t win the 2020 election—neither “frankly” nor by a “landslide”—and he alone could not fix jack. But it’s not just the titles that replay Trump’s lies. At regular intervals, Grisham, Bender, Leonnig and Rucker, and Wolff quote or cite Trump’s horseshit, often letting it steam there, uncorrected.

This can have unnerving effects. About midway through Landslide, Wolff writes of “the president’s determination to sully Joe Biden,” a motivation for defamation and lies if ever there was one. (See: Trump’s first impeachment.) But hot on the heels of this statement, Wolff asserts that Trump has “absolute belief that the Bidens were among the most corrupt political families of all time.”

Does he? An absolute belief? Wolff doesn’t mention that this is a ludicrous claim, and with Trump hardly anything is “absolute” or a “belief.” But to note any of this would break Wolff’s narrative flow; his talent is for free indirect discourse, which lets him enter the minds of his principals, and he’s never going to clutter his slick prose with allegedlys or weasel words chosen by lawyers. So rather than punish the character of Trump, as Woodward does, Wolff lets Trump run wild. In all of his books, including a new one out this month about, no joke, “the damned,” Wolff is inexorably drawn to the devil. (Unlike Milton, he always knows it.)

Another example of the difficulty of rendering Trump’s freaky deceptions comes in a chapter about his 2020 electoral defeat in I Alone Can Fix It. In describing Trump’s rejection of data, Leonnig and Rucker write, “Georgia was MAGA territory—or so Trump thought.” Georgia in 2020 was very much not MAGA territory. Biden beat Trump statewide to win the state’s 15 electoral votes, and both of its Senate seats flipped to Democrats. But the fact that Trump’s stubborn delusion—“Georgia was MAGA territory”—is allowed to air out like that means we’re in Trump’s head as he churns over the Big Lie. Once again: Does he really think he won Georgia, i.e., that it was MAGA land? Or did he simply want Georgia officials to pretend that he’d won so he could stay in the White House?

The title of “Frankly, We Did Win This Election”: The Inside Story of How Trump Lost does keep Trump’s Big Lie securely in quotation marks, and corrects the record with its subtitle. But elsewhere in the book, Bender prolifically recaps the inane banter among Trump and his cronies while also reproducing some of Trump’s most persistent lies about, for example, the size of his rallies. “Nobody has seen anything like it ever,” Bender quotes Trump saying. “There has never never been anything like it.” (Bender, to be fair, points out that Trump hurts himself when he imagines that his distorted apprehension of crowd size is more accurate than the polls that predicted he’d lose the election.)

During the 2016 campaign, cable news channels aired Trump’s rambunctious campaign rallies live, and did nothing to correct his lies. In those days, his whoppers seemed so self-refuting that they could pass as reality-TV bacchanalia. Like Alex Jones, whose lawyer has called him a “performance artist,” Trump’s Barnumism was left unchecked for years simply because nothing as appalling had ever been seen in presidential politics. After five years, we’ve become inured to Trump’s lies, and many of us can recite them as if they are an anthem-rock chorus. Fact-checking, by contrast, requires complexity and pedantry; no one chants Daniel Dale’s brilliant fact-checking live-tweets at Jones Beach.

[Read: Fact-checking the president in real time]

Trump is simply a narrative migraine. To write a monograph about a figure whose speech and actions don’t comport with identifiable beliefs—much less with reality—is to get in deep with a flailing, splintered, and antisocial mind. Grisham, Trump’s former press secretary, quotes several of Trump’s non sequiturs, including some trash talk about the mother of a prime minister. These choice quotes stop her story like a record scratch. And there’s always a reaction shot: Grisham agape at the audience, reflecting on her own WTF. She quotes Trump’s bunk less to correct or satirize him than to render her own chronic bafflement at the former president’s “batshit things.” It hits the spot.

Usually, depth psychology—the theory that there are distinct emotions, sensations, and needs somehow “under” one’s personality—is steady ground on which to build a portrait. But with Trump, it falters. Does he even have an interior life? In 1997, in an astute profile of Trump in The New Yorker, Mark Singer concluded that his subject leads “an existence unmolested by the rumbling of a soul.” The British writer Nate White also defines Trump by absences: “He has no class, no charm, no coolness, no credibility, no compassion, no wit, no warmth, no wisdom, no subtlety, no sensitivity, no self-awareness, no humility, no honor, and no grace.

If the afterwords and acknowledgments of all these books are any guide, the authors seem entirely spent by effort. No wonder. The skull of Donald Trump, where delusions and desperation clamor for nourishment like hungry ghosts, is a grim place to spend time. Other readers may have chosen to leave these disturbing books on the shelf; me, I’m grateful that so many observers concluded, as Grisham did, “I have to get this all out so I can process, in my own mind, what the hell happened.”

In their various idioms, Bender, Grisham, Leonnig and Rucker, Wolff, and Woodward and Costa have shed collective light on what the hell happened. And they’ve done a supreme public service simply by etching the events of America’s bleak recent history into the record, where they will be more difficult for Trump and his heirs to lie about in the years ahead. When Condoleezza Rice recently urged Americans to “move on” from the January 6 insurrection, all I could think was, No, no, no, don’t move on; read these books. And when Trump runs again in 2024, remember that those who forget history are condemned—ah, but you know the rest.

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The Evangelical Church Is Breaking Apart

The election of the elders of an evangelical church is usually an uncontroversial, even unifying event. But this summer, at an influential megachurch in Northern Virginia, something went badly wrong. A trio of elders didn’t receive 75 percent of the vote, the threshold necessary to be installed.  

“A small group of people, inside and outside this church, coordinated a divisive effort to use disinformation in order to persuade others to vote these men down as part of a broader effort to take control of this church,” David Platt, a 43-year-old minister at McLean Bible Church and a best-selling author, charged in a July 4 sermon.

Platt said church members had been misled, having been told, among other things, that the three individuals nominated to be elders would advocate selling the church building to Muslims, who would convert it into a mosque. In a second vote on July 18, all three nominees cleared the threshold. But that hardly resolved the conflict. Members of the church filed a lawsuit, claiming that the conduct of the election violated the church’s constitution.

Platt, who is theologically conservative, had been accused in the months before the vote by a small but zealous group within his church of “wokeness” and being “left of center,” of pushing a “social justice” agenda and promoting critical race theory, and of attempting to “purge conservative members.” A Facebook page and a right-wing website have targeted Platt and his leadership. For his part, Platt, speaking to his congregation, described an email that was circulated claiming, “MBC is no longer McLean Bible Church, that it’s now Melanin Bible Church.”

What happened at McLean Bible Church is happening all over the evangelical world. Influential figures such as the theologian Russell Moore and the Bible teacher Beth Moore felt compelled to leave the Southern Baptist Convention; both were targeted by right-wing elements within the SBC. The Christian Post, an online evangelical newspaper, published an op-ed by one of its contributors criticizing religious conservatives like Platt, Russell Moore, Beth Moore, and Ed Stetzer, the executive director of the Wheaton College Billy Graham Center, as “progressive Christian figures” who “commonly champion leftist ideology.” In a matter of months, four pastors resigned from Bethlehem Baptist Church, a flagship church in Minneapolis. One of those pastors, Bryan Pickering, cited mistreatment by elders, domineering leadership, bullying, and “spiritual abuse and a toxic culture.” Political conflicts are hardly the whole reason for the turmoil, but according to news accounts, they played a significant role, particularly on matters having to do with race.  

“Nearly everyone tells me there is at the very least a small group in nearly every evangelical church complaining and agitating against teaching or policies that aren’t sufficiently conservative or anti-woke,” a pastor and prominent figure within the evangelical world told me. (Like others with whom I spoke about this topic, he requested anonymity in order to speak candidly.) “It’s everywhere.”

Michael O. Emerson, a sociology professor at the University of Illinois at Chicago, told me that he and his research team have spent the past three years studying race and Christianity. “The divisions and conflicts we found are intense, easily more intense than I have seen in my 25 years of studying the topic,” he told me. What this adds up to, he said, is “an emerging day of reckoning within churches.”

The aggressive, disruptive, and unforgiving mindset that characterizes so much of our politics has found a home in many American churches. As a person of the Christian faith who has spent most of my adult life attending evangelical churches, I wanted to understand the splintering of churches, communities, and relationships. I reached out to dozens of pastors, theologians, academics, and historians, as well as a seminary president and people involved in campus ministry. All voiced concern.

The coronavirus pandemic, of course, has placed religious communities under extraordinary strain. Everyone in America has felt its effects; for many Christians, it’s been a bar to gathering and worshipping together, sharing Communion and performing baptisms, and saying common prayers and participating in rituals and liturgy. Not being in community destabilized what has long been a core sense of Christian identity.

But there’s more to the fractures than just COVID-19. After all, many of the forces that are splitting churches were in motion well before the pandemic hit. The pandemic exposed and exacerbated weaknesses and vulnerabilities, habits of mind and heart, that already existed.

The root of the discord lies in the fact that many Christians have embraced the worst aspects of our culture and our politics. When the Christian faith is politicized, churches become repositories not of grace but of grievances, places where tribal identities are reinforced, where fears are nurtured, and where aggression and nastiness are sacralized. The result is not only wounding the nation; it’s having a devastating impact on the Christian faith.

How is it that evangelical Christianity has become, for too many of its adherents, a political religion? The historian George Marsden told me that political loyalties can sometimes be so strong that they create a religiouslike faith that overrides or even transforms a more traditional religious faith. The United States has largely avoided the most virulent expressions of such political religions. None has succeeded for very long—at least, until now.

The first step was the cultivation of the idea within the religious right that certain political positions were deeply Christian, according to Marsden. Still, such claims were not at all unprecedented in American history. Through the 2000s, even though the religious right drew its energy from the culture wars—as it had for decades—it abided by some civil restraints. Then came Donald Trump.

“When Trump was able to add open hatred and resentments to the political-religious stance of ‘true believers,’ it crossed a line,” Marsden said. “Tribal instincts seem to have become overwhelming.” The dominance of political religion over professed religion is seen in how, for many, the loyalty to Trump became a blind allegiance. The result is that many Christian followers of Trump “have come to see a gospel of hatreds, resentments, vilifications, put-downs, and insults as expressions of their Christianity, for which they too should be willing to fight.”

Tim Schultz, the president of the 1st Amendment Partnership and an advocate for religious freedom, told me that evangelicalism was due a reckoning. “It has been held together by political orientation and sociology more than by common theology,” he said. The twin crises of the summer of 2020—COVID and a heightened awareness of enduring racial injustices—exposed this long-unnoticed truth.

Some of the most distinctive features of the evangelical movement may have left it particularly vulnerable to this form of politicization. Among religious believers, evangelicals are some of the most anti-institutional, Timothy J. Keller, the founding pastor of Redeemer Presbyterian Church, in Manhattan, told me. The evangelical movement flourished in this relatively anti-institutional country at a particularly anti-institutional time. Evangelical ministries and churches fit the “spirit of the age,” growing rapidly in the 1970s, and retaining more of their members even as many mainline denominations declined.

At the same time, Keller argues, that anti-institutional tendency makes evangelical communities more prone than others to “insider abuse”—corruption committed by leaders who have almost no guardrails—and “outsider-ism,” in which evangelicals simply refuse to let their church form them or their beliefs. As a result, they are unrooted—and therefore susceptible to political idolization, fanatical ideas, and conspiracy theories.

“What we’re seeing is massive discipleship failure caused by massive catechesis failure,” James Ernest, the vice president and editor in chief at Eerdmans, a publisher of religious books, told me. Ernest was one of several figures I spoke with who pointed to catechism, the process of instructing and informing people through teaching, as the source of the problem. “The evangelical Church in the U.S. over the last five decades has failed to form its adherents into disciples. So there is a great hollowness. All that was needed to cause the implosion that we have seen was a sufficiently provocative stimulus. And that stimulus came.”

“Culture catechizes,” Alan Jacobs, a distinguished professor of humanities in the honors program at Baylor University, told me. Culture teaches us what matters and what views we should take about what matters. Our current political culture, Jacobs argued, has multiple technologies and platforms for catechizing—television, radio, Facebook, Twitter, and podcasts among them. People who want to be connected to their political tribe—the people they think are like them, the people they think are on their side—subject themselves to its catechesis all day long, every single day, hour after hour after hour.

On the flip side, many churches aren’t interested in catechesis at all. They focus instead on entertainment, because entertainment is what keeps people in their seats and coins in the offering plate. But as Jacobs points out, even those pastors who really are committed to catechesis get to spend, on average, less than an hour a week teaching their people. Sermons are short. Only some churchgoers attend adult-education classes, and even fewer attend Bible study and small groups. Cable news, however, is always on. “So if people are getting one kind of catechesis for half an hour per week,” Jacobs asked, “and another for dozens of hours per week, which one do you think will win out?”

That’s not a problem limited to the faithful on one side of the aisle. “This is true of both the Christian left and the Christian right,” Jacobs said. “People come to believe what they are most thoroughly and intensively catechized to believe, and that catechesis comes not from the churches but from the media they consume, or rather the media that consume them. The churches have barely better than a snowball’s chance in hell of shaping most people’s lives.”

But when people’s values are shaped by the media they consume, rather than by their religious leaders and communities, that has consequences. “What all those media want is engagement, and engagement is most reliably driven by anger and hatred,” Jacobs argued. “They make bank when we hate each other. And so that hatred migrates into the Church, which doesn’t have the resources to resist it. The real miracle here is that even so, in the mercy of God, many people do find their way to places of real love of God and neighbor.”

The way our sensibilities are shaped determines who we are, including the order of our loves. For many Christians, their politics has become more of an identity marker than their faith. They might insist that they are interpreting their politics through the prism of scripture, with the former subordinate to the latter, but in fact scripture and biblical ethics are often distorted to fit their politics.

Scott Dudley, the senior pastor at Bellevue Presbyterian Church in Bellevue, Washington, refers to this as “our idolatry of politics.” He’s heard of many congregants leaving their church because it didn’t match their politics, he told me, but has never once heard of someone changing their politics because it didn’t match their church’s teaching. He often tells his congregation that if the Bible doesn’t challenge your politics at least occasionally, you’re not really paying attention to the Hebrew scriptures or the New Testament. The reality, however, is that a lot of people, especially in this era, will leave a church if their political views are ever challenged, even around the edges.  

“Many people are much more committed to their politics than to what the Bible actually says,” Dudley said. “We have failed not only to teach people the whole of scripture, but we have also failed to help them think biblically. We have failed to teach them that sometimes scripture is most useful when it doesn’t say what we want it to say, because then it is correcting us.”   

Teaching people how to think biblically would help, Dudley added, as well as teaching people how to disagree with one another biblically. “There is a lot of disagreement in the New Testament, and it gives us a template for how to listen to each other to understand rather than to argue,” he said.

Many Christians, though, are disinclined to heed calls for civility. They feel that everything they value is under assault, and that they need to fight to protect it. “I understand that,” Dudley said. “I feel under assault sometimes too. However, I also know that the early Christians transformed the Roman empire not by demanding but by loving, not by angrily shouting about their rights in the public square but by serving even the people who persecuted them, which is why Christianity grew so quickly and took over the empire. I also know that once Christians gained political power under Constantine, that beautiful loving, sacrificing, giving, transforming Church became the angry, persecuting, killing Church. We have forgotten the cross.”

Dudley, my high-school and college classmate, left me with this haunting question: How many people look at churches in America these days and see the face of Jesus?   

Too often, I fear, when Americans look at the Church, they see not the face of Jesus, but the style of Donald Trump.

The former president normalized a form of discourse that made the once-shocking seem routine. Russell Moore laments the “pugilism of the Trump era, in which anything short of cruelty is seen as weakness.” The problem facing the evangelical Church, then, is not just that it has failed to inculcate adherents with its values—it’s that when it has succeeded in doing so, those values have not always been biblical.

But of course Trump did not appear ex nihilo. Kristin Kobes Du Mez, a history professor at Calvin University and the author of Jesus and John Wayne: How White Evangelicals Corrupted a Faith and Fractured a Nation, argues that Trump represents the fulfillment, rather than the betrayal, of many of white evangelicals’ most deeply held values. Her thesis is that American evangelicals have worked for decades to replace the Jesus of the Gospels with an idol of rugged masculinity and Christian nationalism. (She defines Christian nationalism as “the belief that America is God’s chosen nation and must be defended as such,” which she says is a powerful predictor of attitudes toward non-Christians and on issues such as immigration, race, and guns.

Du Mez told me it’s important to recognize that this “rugged warrior Jesus” is not the only Jesus many evangelicals encounter in their faith community. There is also the “Jesus is my friend” popular in many devotionals, for example. These representations might appear to be contradictory, she told me, but in practice they can be mutually reinforcing. Jesus is a friend, protector, savior—but according to one’s own understanding of what needs to be protected and saved, and not necessarily according to core biblical teachings.

“Evangelicals are quick to label their values ‘biblical,’” Du Mez told me. “But how they interpret the scriptures, which parts they decide to emphasize and which parts they decide to ignore, all this is informed by their historical and cultural circumstances.” That’s not simply true of this one community, she added, but of all people of faith. “More than most other Christians, however, conservative evangelicals insist that they are rejecting cultural influences,” she said, “when in fact their faith is profoundly shaped by cultural and political values, by their racial identity and their Christian nationalism.”

Gender plays a role here as well, according to Du Mez. Over the past half century, evangelicals have tended to depict men and women as opposites. “They believe God ordained men to be protectors and filled them with testosterone for this purpose,” she said. Women, on the other hand, are seen as nurturers. The fruits of the spirit—love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, gentleness, and self-control—are deemed appropriate feminine virtues. “Men, however, are to exhibit boldness, courage, even ruthlessness in order to fulfill their God-appointed role,” Du Mez explained. “In this way, the warrior spirit and a kinder, gentler Christianity go hand in hand.”

Du Mez pointed out that even men who embrace a kinder, gentler version of masculinity— servant leadership, for example—may tip into a more rugged, ruthless version when they deem the situation sufficiently dire. And for more than half a century, she said, evangelical leaders have found reason to deem the situation sufficiently dire. They rallied their congregations against the threats of communism, secular humanism, feminism, gay rights, radical Islam, Democrats in the White House, demographic decline, and critical race theory, and in defense of religious liberty.

“Evangelical militancy is often depicted as a response to fear,” she told me. “But it’s important to recognize that in many cases evangelical leaders actively stoked fear in the hearts of their followers in order to consolidate their own power and advance their own interests.”  

Du Mez is somewhat more sympathetic toward ordinary evangelicals than she is toward powerful evangelical leaders. She acknowledges that many evangelicals have genuinely sought to follow God’s will; they were directed to believe what they do by pastors, Bible-study leaders, Christian publishers, and Christian radio and television programming. “Many have sought certainty in turbulent times,” she said, and they know that challenging these narratives may well involve the loss of meaningful communities.

Fear has played a central role in the explosion of conflict within American evangelical churches. “Dwelling on fear and outrage is spiritually deforming,” Cherie Harder, president of the Trinity Forum, told me. “Both biblical wisdom and a large body of research holds that fear and grace, or fear and gratitude, are incompatible.” She quoted from one of the New Testament epistles: “Perfect love drives out fear.”

There are moments, of course, when fear is an appropriate and necessary response, but there are risks when it becomes a constant presence. “Fear and anger should presumably function as alarm systems—and an alarm is not supposed to stay perpetually on,” Harder said. It is not the onset of fear or anger that is most dangerous, she said, “but stoking it, cultivating it, and dwelling within it that distorts and deforms.”

And then there is a regional component to the crisis of evangelical Christianity. Claude Alexander, the senior pastor of the Park Church in Charlotte, North Carolina, told me we must come to terms with the “southernization of the Church.” Some of the distinctive cultural forms present in the American South—masculinity and male dominance, tribal loyalties, obedience and intolerance, and even the ideology of white supremacism—have spread to other parts of the country, he said. These cultural attitudes are hardly shared by every southerner or dominant throughout the South, but they do exist and they need to be named. “Southern culture has had a profound impact upon religion,” Alexander told me, “particularly evangelical religion.”

The conservative writer David French, who lives in Tennessee, has written about the South’s shame/honor culture and its focus on group reputation and identity. “What we’re watching right now in much of our nation’s Christian politics,” he wrote, “is an explosion not of godly Christian passion, but rather of ancient southern shame/honor rage.”

Pastors now find themselves on the front lines of this conflict, their congregations splitting into warring camps. I spoke with 15 of them, and what I heard was jarring. They told me that nothing else they’ve faced approaches what they’ve experienced in recent years, and that nothing had prepared them for it.

Scott Dudley of Bellevue Presbyterian Church said he knows of several pastors who have not just quit their churches but resigned from ministry, and that many others are actively seeking to switch careers. “They have concluded that their church has become a hostile work environment where at any moment they may be blasted, slandered, and demeaned in disrespectful and angry ways,” he said, “or have organized groups of people within the church demand that they be fired.”

Several months ago, I spoke with one such pastor, who had not only resigned from his church, a congregation of the Presbyterian Church in America, but had also decided, at least for now, to leave the ministry altogether. He told me that he felt undermined by people in his congregation, including by some whom he had trusted but who, it turned out, were less animated by spiritual matters than by political agendas. This former pastor used the word betrayal in our conversation; he talked about the pain this episode has caused him and his wife. In his words, “The gentleness of Jesus was utterly discarded” by those who felt he wasn’t championing their cultural and political agendas aggressively enough.

“They don’t care about the relational collateral damage,” he said.

In a similar vein, I recently had a conversation with a senior pastor who is planning to leave his position soon; he’s not yet sure where he’ll land, or even whether he’ll stay in the ministry. He has simply been worn down by the divisions within his church. He has not been the target of outward hostility, but he can feel the ground shifting beneath his feet. He feels that he is growing apart from people in the congregation; there’s no longer the same sense of common purpose. He is watching the collapse of an evangelical movement to which he has devoted much of his life. At one point, as we talked about what is unfolding within American Christianity, his eyes welled with tears.

Bob Fryling, a former publisher of InterVarsity Press and the vice president of InterVarsity Christian Fellowship, an evangelical campus ministry, has been part of a weekly gathering of more than 150 individuals representing about 40 churches. He’s heard of conflicts “in almost every church” and reports that pastors are exhausted. Earlier this year, the Christian polling firm Barna Group found that 29 percent of pastors said they had given “real, serious consideration to quitting being in full-time ministry within the last year.” David Kinnaman, president of Barna, described the past year as a “crucible” for pastors as churches fragmented.

The key issues in these conflicts are not doctrinal, Fryling told me, but political. They include the passions stirred up by the Trump presidency, the legitimacy of the 2020 election, and the January 6 insurrection; the murder of George Floyd, the Black Lives Matter movement, and critical race theory; and matters related to the pandemic, such as masking, vaccinations, and restrictions on in-person worship. I know of at least one large church in eastern Washington State, where I grew up, that has split over the refusal of some of its members to wear masks.

“There have always been mean people who cloak their unkindness in religious devotion,” one minister in a conservative denomination told me. “The New Testament itself is pretty clear about that.” But, he added, the conflicts have grown more widespread and more intense.  “Without doubt you’ll see—you already are—a ton of pastors quitting,” he said. ”Most pastors actually hate conflict. So if you’re going to pay me one-quarter of what I could make on the market, why put up with this?”

In his own church, some of the elders are devoted to culture-war politics. “These guys can be a special kind of relentless, and I don’t think I’ve had it as bad as many,” he said. “But when we’re stressed out, trying to be public-health experts without the training to do that, trying to keep our own families from blowing up with COVID stress, getting criticized from both sides at once, and then having folks doing whatever they can to ruin us and get us run out of town— we’d love to just be trusted as friends and shepherds. I understand why many folks have just said, ‘I’m done.’ I’m not there yet, but I hardly think I’m above it or guaranteed not to. I just pray to Jesus to not let me throw in the towel.”

The historian Mark Noll’s 1994 book, The Scandal of the Evangelical Mind, will be rereleased next year. In the forthcoming preface, which Noll, himself an evangelical, shared with me, he argues that in various spheres—vaccinations, evolutionary science, anthropogenic global warming, and the 2020 elections, to name just a few—“white evangelicals appear as the group most easily captive to conspiratorial nonsense, in greater panic about their political opponents, or as most aggressively anti-intellectual.” He goes on to warn that “the broader evangelical population has increasingly heeded populist leaders who dismiss the results of modern learning from whatever source.” And he laments the “intellectual self-immolation of recent evangelical history.”

“Much of what is distinctive about American evangelicalism is not essential to Christianity,” Noll has written. And he is surely correct. I would add only that it isn’t simply the case that much of what is distinctive about American evangelicalism is not essential to Christianity; it is that now, in important respects, much of what is distinctive about American evangelicalism has become antithetical to authentic Christianity. What we’re dealing with—not in all cases, of course, but in far too many— is political identity and cultural anxieties, anti-intellectualism and ethnic nationalism, resentments and grievances, all dressed up as Christianity.

Jesus now has to be reclaimed from his Church, from those who pretend to speak most authoritatively in his name.

Too many Christians have “domesticated” Jesus by their resistance to his call to radically rethink our attitude toward power, ourselves, and others, Mark Labberton, the president of Fuller Theological Seminary, told me. We live in “an era of acute anxiety and great fear,” he said. As a result, too often Christians end up wrapping Jesus into our angry and fearful distortions. We want Jesus to validate everything we believe, often as if he never walked the face of this Earth. What we’re witnessing can be explained “more by sociology than Christology,” he said.

Unlike in the Sermon on the Mount and the parable of the Good Samaritan—unlike Jesus’s barrier-breaking encounters with prostitutes and Roman collaborators, with the lowly and despised, with the unclean and those on the wrong side of the “holiness code,” with the wounded souls whom he healed on the Sabbath—many Christians today see the world divided between us and them, the children of light and the children of darkness. Blessed are the politically powerful, for theirs is the kingdom of God. Blessed are the culture warriors, for they will be called children of God.

For many of us who have made Christianity central to our lives, the pain of this moment is watching those who claim to follow Jesus do so much to distort who he really was. Those who deform his image may be doing so unwittingly—this isn’t an intentionally malicious enterprise they’re engaging in; they believe they’re being faithful—but it is nonetheless destructive and unsettling.

I believe the portrait I’ve painted in this essay is accurate, but it is also, and necessarily, incomplete. Countless acts of kindness, generosity, and self-giving love are performed every day by people precisely because they are Christians. Their lives have been changed, and in some cases transformed, by their faith. My own life has been immeasurably blessed by people of faith who have walked the journey with me, who have shown me grace and encouraged me in difficult moments. But I can recognize that while also recognizing the wreckage around us.

Something has gone amiss; pastors know it as well as anyone and better than most. The Jesus of the Gospels—the Jesus who won their hearts, and who long ago won mine—needs to be reclaimed.

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