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Some years ago I wrote a piece for First Things entitled “The Calvary Option.” It took its cue from the 2014 movie Calvary, which followed the last seven days in the life of a priest who knew that someone was planning to kill him. The killer wanted to do so as revenge for sexual abuse he had suffered as a child at the hands of the clergy. The twist was that he chose his victim because he was a good priest. He had not abused anybody. Once the priest knew he was the target, he faced a choice: flee, or stay and be a good pastor to his parishioners, many of whom despised him. He chose to stay and fulfill his obligations, and in the end he was killed for it. I commented at the time that one might also call this “the traditional pastoral work in an ordinary congregation option.” 

I wrote the piece when Rod Dreher’s The Benedict Option was the talk of the town. At that time, the big threat to the faith was the emerging pressure on religious freedom, focused then on the issue of gay marriage. The threat to religious liberty remains and has indeed expanded, but a new one has also emerged: the temptation to combat this by fusing Christianity with worldly forms of power and worldly ways of achieving the same. For want of a better term, it’s a kind of pop Nietzscheanism that uses the idioms of Christianity. It’s understandable why such a thing has emerged. Many Christians think America has been stolen from them. And the path to political power today is littered with crudity, verbal thuggery, and, whatever the policies at stake, the destruction of any given opponent’s character. While the left may pose an obvious threat, there is also a more subtle danger in succumbing to the rules of the political game as currently played by both sides. And the internet doesn’t help. All ideas—however silly, insane, or plain evil—can seem rational and workable in the frictionless kindergartens of social media bubbles. In the real world, things can be just a bit more complicated. 

And yet the sun also rises, to quote Ecclesiastes. Regardless of the political stakes, at ground level the births, marriages, illnesses, and deaths continue. Pastoral ministry goes on, day to day, year to year, whatever the political officer class, right and left, are debating. And so in this context, the Church must continue to do that to which she has been called: proclaim Christ in Word and sacrament. The big problems of life—sin and death—remain, whoever wins the election in November 2024. And so the Church needs to remain faithful to her appointed task and not become simply an arm of those vying for political power. 

In his excellent new book on Luther, Robert Kolb summarizes the reformer’s insights into the gospel thus:

The fact that salvation takes place on the basis of trust in Christ instead of on the basis of human performance eludes the minds of people in every culture since cultures preserve themselves through human accomplishment and obedience. Therefore, the stewards of these mysteries must tirelessly proclaim them as mysteries and apply them as such to their hearers.

This is where the language of life in what Aaron Renn calls the “negative world” needs modification. For those of us who grew up in Europe in the latter half of the twentieth century, confessional orthodox Protestantism has always been culturally marginal and despised. Ours was always the negative world, albeit perhaps less intensely so than now. For American evangelicals, this is a new experience, one that is disorienting and infuriating. That is why it is important to remember that the message of the Christian gospel has always stood in antithesis to the thinking of the surrounding world, even when the churches and that world had a broadly shared moral imagination. The antithesis is merely more obvious and more socially significant now. But it has always been there. 

That means that the task of the Church and her ministers has always stood in antithesis to the world as well. She has a prophetic voice and answers to a higher authority. She must pursue her task regardless of the crises of the political moment. Nathan hardly did Israel a favor when he confronted David over his relationship with Bathsheba and his murder of her husband. But he did his job and he saved David’s soul. That’s prophetic ministry. “Prophetic” does not mean “triggering the libs.” It means calling anyone and everyone to faith and repentance, no matter the social and political exigencies of the day. 

The faithful Christian ministry is not very glamorous. It consists of baptizing, preaching, and celebrating the Lord’s Supper. It is about pointing people to a God on a cross whose strength, like that of his followers, is made perfect in weakness. Of course, none of this quite compares to engaging in an apocalyptic culture war or crushing one’s opponents or seizing worldly power by worldly means. So weak is it that it’s not even as glamorous as fantasizing about such things online. But that’s the problem with Christianity. It is routine. It is by turns foolish and offensive to those who look on from outside. Its weapons look ridiculously weak to the watching world. To repeat: The sun also rises and life continues for ordinary people at the local level, with all of its joys and its sorrows. People are born, marry, grow old, and die. And the gospel remains the answer. 

This is, of course, despicable. It is the work of slave morality, as Nietzsche would say. Indeed, one can hear the criticisms now: If the Calvary Option means that all the Church does is faithfully point people to Christ in word and sacrament, the world is going to crucify us. Quite so. That’s why it’s called “the Calvary Option.”  

Carl Trueman is a professor of biblical and religious studies at Grove City College and a fellow at the Ethics and Public Policy Center.

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Image by Max Klinger via Creative Commons. Image cropped.

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