On Justice and Jesus - "Redeeming" with Stephen Mattson. ing Podcast Season two Episode two

“Redeeming” with Stephen Mattson

~ing podcast Season 2 Episode 1
Full Episode Transcript

Season 2 Episode 2: Redeeming with Stephen Mattson was released on January 11, 2022. The audio recording is available on all major podcasting platforms. More information is available here.

Episode Description:

In today’s episode, ~ing host, Ben Wideman is joined by writer and activist, Stephen Mattson, to talk about what it means to be devoted to Jesus and justice. Mattson’s work has been published in Relevant, Huffington Post, Sojourners, Red Letter Christians, and a variety of other venues. On the heels of his first book titled, “The Great Reckoning: Surviving a Christianity That Looks Nothing Like Christ” (published by Herald Press in 2018) comes a brand-new devotional titled, “On Love And Mercy: A Social Justice Devotional.” Ben talks with Stephen about why a project like this makes sense for these polarized times, and how we find a balance between a faith in Jesus, and the political ways we engage the world.

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~ing Podcast is a production of MennoMedia, a nonprofit Publisher that creates thoughtful, Anabaptist resources to enrich faith in a complex world. To find out more, visit us online at MennoMedia.org

Stephen Mattson, Ben Wideman, Melissa Florer Bixler, Kris Henderson, Ben Tapper

Ben Wideman  00:00
Welcome to Season Two of ~ing Podcast, a production of MennoMedia’s Leader Magazine.  What does it mean to authentically follow Jesus? Each week ~ing Podcast invites you to join us on a journey. Join us as we talk with people of faith who are creatively thinking, growing, and being… people who are reimagining and exploring what it means to enrich faith in a complex world.

Stephen Mattson  00:27
I just couldn’t believe it. And I wanted to do something to try to counter this narrative that social justice work was somehow contradictory to faith in Christ when in reality, social justice is exemplified through Jesus and his life and words, and it’s a major theme in what he does. And the Bible talks about doing justice within our society and bringing about justice and how we should be vessels of justice. So yeah, that was that was kind of the main motivation behind this project.

Ben Wideman  01:01
Our conversation begins now. Join us as we journey together.  Hello, again, friends. Welcome to Season Two of ~ing Podcast from MennoMedia. We are really excited to have you with us here today. Thank you for continuing to journey with us in this podcasting space. We’re really excited to be bringing a number of different voices to you here this season. And I’m really happy to have Steve Mattson here with us. In our very first episode back, if you don’t know Him, He is an author who’s previously published with MennoMedia, a book called “The Great Reckoning: Surviving a Christianity That Looks Nothing Like Christ” (wonderful title there, and a great book), and a forthcoming book called “On Love and Mercy: A Social Justice Devotional.” We’re going to talk mostly about that latter book during our conversation today. But Steven, first and foremost, thank you so much for joining us here and welcome to the podcast.

Stephen Mattson  02:01
Thanks for having me. I appreciate it.

Ben Wideman  02:04
For those who don’t know you, how do you introduce yourself these days?

Stephen Mattson  02:08
Yeah, I introduce myself is long time blogger, author. So for the last 10 years, I’ve written a lot about the intersection of faith and politics and culture and how they all relate to one another. So mainly on multiple online platforms, such as Sojourners, Huffington Post, back in the day, Red Letter Christians. So those are kind of the main platforms that I write on. So

Ben Wideman  02:42
Well, maybe that’s a good place to start. You named right up front, this intersection of faith and politics, we’ve got a recurring narrative in this country that those two things should not mix. And, and yet, I think that it’s almost inevitable that they do. Can you talk a little bit about what draws you to that intersection, as you called it?

Stephen Mattson  03:02
Yeah, I think there, there definitely is a narrative. And that’s what motivated me to start this devotional project was, you know, over the last decade or so, we started hearing more and more pushback from a lot of Mainline and non-Mainline Christian churches, a lot of them were predominantly white as well. But it was this idea that you had to choose between social justice work, social justice, action, and Christianity, this faith and it was sort of this false dichotomy. And it was constantly in the media and in whether it’s immigration, refugees, police brutality, racism, white supremacy. And, and I had a hard time I was just struggling with seen so many Christians denounce social justice as something evil or something that was contradictory to our faith. And I mean, one of one of the defining moments was, I don’t know if you remember this a few years back when these churches put out this statement on social justice, and it was basically sort of a condemnation of social justice and how it didn’t align with Orthodox Christianity or Christian beliefs. And I found that quite unbelievable, especially in a time in our world where there was a worldwide refugee crisis, one of the biggest, you know, the world has seen in our time, immigration crisis, tons of economic crises happening, wars going on police brutality, racism, civil unrest, and of all the things that these millions of Christians decided to you know, dedicate their time and effort and energy on it was condemning social justice. I just couldn’t believe it. And I wanted to do something to try to counter this narrative that social justice work was somehow contradictory to faith in Christ when in reality, social justice is exemplified through Jesus and his life and words, and it’s a major theme in what he does. And the Bible talks about doing justice within our society bringing about justice and how we should be vessels of justice. So yeah, that was that was kind of the main motivation behind this project.

Ben Wideman  05:34
Do you have any theories for how we arrived at this point? How did we get such a fear of combining those two things, especially got lots of Scripture to back it up, and yet we bristle we want to when we think about these two worlds being a part of the same conversation,

Stephen Mattson  05:49
I think a lot of it has to do with our partisan loyalties, with Christian culture in various Christian groups wanting to align themselves with political identities more so than Christ like identities. So especially in the last few elections, where political rhetoric has been more and more extreme, and there’s even been violence and like overt racism, and that type of thing, all of a sudden, it became less of is this a Christ like thing, and more of this is where we stand politically, and our political beliefs 100% reflect our religious beliefs as well for a lot of people. And so they kind of idolized their partisan loyalties, which superseded, really the reality of Christ, because we’re looking at Christ, it’s like loving your neighbors, loving your enemies, helping the poor, helping heal the sick, and all of a sudden, we have this counter partisan narrative that, hey, you know, refugees, they’re these terrorists coming in or immigrants, they’re gonna steal our jobs and come and commit all this violence. And you know, we should bomb our enemies and that type of thing. So when the partisan rhetoric was contradicting the rhetoric that we see, well, the truth that we see Jesus preaching in his life and the actions that he’s committed, and I think, unfortunately, a large substantial population of people chose their partisan rhetoric and the partisan option or following Jesus, and unfortunately, I think I think that’s what the main motivations of how we got to this, the place where we are right now.

Ben Wideman  07:42
It strikes me, I guess, that there’s something sort of easier about trying to separate the two, you know, if our faith doesn’t have much relevancy in these justice causes, then then we don’t have to get into the weeds of how to resolve them or how to solve them, right? It’s easier that way to just distance ourselves and disconnected that way. It’s harder work in some sense to try and get our faith to connect with the injustice in our world, the brokenness in our world. And so I love this idea that of drawing these spaces getting to this intersection and having a resource like a devotional at our fingertips, that something you’ve created. We’re into January here now and a new year means new resolutions for some of us. And for those who’ve got a devotional on their things I want to try to do this year. What’s your pitch? How are you… How are you telling people about this project that you’ve been working on?

Stephen Mattson  08:39
Well, I love what you said about how a lot of times, it’s easier just to avoid at all and not do anything. And I think that’s a huge part of how we got here too, because as Christians, and especially, you know, church leaders passers to try to lead in this time, Anything you say or do is going to be scrutinized and no one’s going to be happy. And especially when when people are so motivated by you know, partisan allegiance, allegiances, and that type of thing. And so even though I believe, as an Anabaptist, like, you know, I don’t believe my salvation comes from like a political party, I believe in the kingdom of God. At the same time, everything that Jesus does by nature is political, like lobbying, the port is going to be political. So everything that we do in our faith is political and has political ramifications. The balance is how do we do that? Without idolizing politics and, and having our political platform replace our hope in Jesus and, and so I think a lot of pastors and churches here and I mean, I’m in the Twin Cities Minneapolis, St. Paul area. So George Floyd Right, where I’m at that, you know, the epicenter of where these things occurred knows amazing and very sad when you say it’s, it’s easier not to address these things, countless churches in the Twin Cities.  I mean, literally, that’s all anyone is talking about here like, okay, there’s a lot of civil unrest going on, like, I can’t believe this is happening in our city. And then you go into church on a Sunday morning, and there’s just silence this like, like, their head is in the sand, we’re not going to address this, we’re not going to talk about this. And so there was a huge disconnect for a lot of people, because a lot of a lot of pastors and churches, I think, just prefer not to address these things that are a reality in our world, in our culture. So the pitch that I make is not an enticing pitch. But I think it’s, it’s hard because Christianity is hard when we’re called to follow Jesus and bring him out justice work. And you know, we’ve heard this for generations, especially from churches and church populations that have traditionally been oppressed in line, like a lot of churches of color and stuff. This is nothing new. Yeah, it’s just that, you know, a lot of other churches who come from privileged positions and political power and that type of thing have just chosen not to engage, and they have the privilege of remaining apathetic so. So my pitch is to embrace the reality of the world around us. And Christianity is all about truth and pursuing Jesus in our culture. And you cannot do that today, without doing social justice work. I mean, if you don’t believe in the reality of injustice, you’re just you’re just living in a world that assumes everything is right and okay… which it’s not if you look around us, I mean, there’s tons of society, societal injustice is going on. Both Christians and non Christians alike, are telling us that they’re facing, you know, sexual abuse, incarceration and justice, you know, food, so shortages, unjust wars, racism, misogyny, all these different things that are happening. And, and so the devotional is really a hard but hopeful reflection on that. So yeah, yeah, part of the reason I wrote it, too, is that so many devotionals, I kind of read through and we’re like, this is kind of spiritual fluff. Like, it doesn’t really reflect the world that I’m living in right now with everything that’s going on. So I wanted a devotional that was that really tackled social justice action that reflected the world we’re living in right now. And I found, I found really few devotionals that could provide that kind of realistic substance for here’s we’re at what does this mean, as a Christian, following Jesus? What kind of actions can we do? So I know that’s a long convoluted answer. But…

Ben Wideman  13:03
No, I like that. And it helps get our minds thinking about what a devotional like this might look like. One of the other things that immediately comes to my mind as someone who worked on college campuses, trying to do social justice work is that especially younger people who are connected in social media feel a lot of cause fatigue. And I wonder if a devotional like this, that’s calling us to action in a very practical way can help along those lines of just not feeling like you know, it’s easier to just shut down. You know, otherwise, I just feel the crippling need all around me, it does your devotional help us navigate the weight of this moment, too.

Stephen Mattson  13:47
Yeah, definitely. And I think that’s, that’s a huge thing, “Cause Fatigue,” and that’s kind of the temptation that spiritual escapism provides is that we can kind of just hide ourselves in this mentality and use church in our Christian culture is sort of a religious crutch to avoid all the hard work and the reality of what’s going on. And we can we can ignore our neighbors by doing that. And so I think one of the biggest things this book tries to provide is number one solidarity with with other Christians, and just reinstating the belief that the things that you’re experiencing, whether it’s forms of oppression and justice, whatever are real, and it’s not just some, you know, political profit propaganda that’s being spewed or some sort of like agenda or whatever, these are real things that need to be addressed that that we see, we see you. And as Christians, you know, historically there are many times in the past that we’ve failed to address various forms of oppression that we’ve even, you know, been guilty of a lot of times, furthering those forms of oppression and implementing those and instigating those. But for Christians, I think the biggest thing is just being in solidarity and saying, like, Here are these issues, social justice, action, and work is a Christian tradition, exemplified by Jesus through the love and work of Jesus. And I think that simple message in and of itself is such a relief to people, when I hear readers reflect, like, oh, hearing, this is such a breath of fresh air, because my pastors always told me that, you know, it’s, it’s, I’m engaging in some sort of like political agenda or Marxist cause or something like that, where, in reality, we’re just doing our best to follow the words and actions of Jesus. So I think that’s the biggest inspiration that people get in hearing that we’re breeding in on paper and in realizing that there’s a community of, of Christians who are really trying to do social justice work, and really trying to be in solidarity with what victims and survivors and people are facing oppression and, and those type of things is it’s healthy for people.

Ben Wideman  16:34
So one of the words that jumped out to me in the little description of your book, is that… That this work is redemptive. And I hear that in your voice. I wonder if you can speak more to that to sort of clarify why we should want to redeem this space? Is it about? Is it about a better future in this in these difficult conversations? Is it about a vision of something better that is to come?

Stephen Mattson  17:06
Yeah, I think I have a lot of hope for the future. And especially as it relates to the church, just with the younger generation… to just, just seeing their actions and how they seem to really love other people. And there’s been a strong, inaccurate one, you know, one of my theories, one of the main… deconstruction right now is the topic of a lot of churches and in culture, but I think a lot of people are really opposed, especially within Christian circles of deconstruction and that type of thing, because they’re faced with the historical truth of all these atrocities. Now, Christianity has done like in America, I mean, the the introduction to Christianity in what we now know, as America to our in the indigenous population that was here was genocide and enslavement, and then right after that, or enslaving, you know, people from the continent of Africa and South America. And so the very roots of Christianity within North America is horrible. And that continues that legacy continues throughout today, even during the Civil Rights era. You know, Dr. Martin Luther King, he was he was the outlier. The reality was most mainline Christians, and especially within white, Protestant and Catholic traditions, were pretty opposed to civil rights. So even when it came to the end of enslavement to the civil rights era, to even like interracial marriage, and now all these other issues, like Christianity, and mainstream Christianity and Christendom within, you know, North America has failed, historically, in a lot of ways, so the hope is that we can redeem this history and, you know, make reparations and admit those, the first part is just admitting that truth. And I think that’s where deconstruction comes in. I think people don’t want to admit that, like, they look at history, they’re just like, they think it’s some sort of attack against like, the reputation of God, or whatever. And they, they prefer just that the church doesn’t admit that. And, you know, that’s not part of Sunday school training or anything like that. Whereas, we need to admit that this this happened and that these things are still going on. And you know, even when it’s like the sexual abuse scandals in our churches… and child molestation… and sexual assault… and abuse and harassment and all these things. It doesn’t do any good to avoid these things, or to try to protect leaders or protect your reputation like we are a faith based on truth. If we can’t even admit these basic things, about the damage that we’ve caused, and Christians are currently causing and doing, then we can’t… we can’t move forward. And that’s the goal of this devotional is to try to reset like we need to, to redeem the work that is going on. Because although Christians have failed, and you know, little fail in the, in the future, the person of Jesus Christ is still providing love and hope for people. And that is where our ultimate hope lies. And the good news for Christians is that in this time, Jesus was a person of social justice, social justice action, where, you know, he helped the oppressed, you know, the people of this time who were maligned and outcast, those were the people that he, you know, he helped him He empowered and he accepted, and he defended those people. And so that is an example of us going forward. And hopefully, the devotional inspires people to do that.

Ben Wideman  21:04
It’s out now, for those who are interested, it’s a 60 day devotional, so it won’t take you the whole year to get through it. Was there an intentionality in that length of time? And is there something from sort of page one to the end that you really hope people are inspired? Upon completion of that 60 day stretch?

Stephen Mattson  21:24
Hopefully, every single devotional I tried to build through the lens of God’s commands to love God and love our neighbors, ourselves. So in the prologue of the devotional, one of the very first days mentions how, you know, people ask Jesus kind of like, what’s, what’s the point of it all, and he says, you know, all the laws and all the prophets hinged on these commandments, love, love God and love your neighbor as yourself. And so that’s, that’s the inspiration for every single day that goes through. And it’s not a strict 60 Day devotional. So, you know, almost, I try to touch on every major social justice issues. So a lot of it is very relative to what’s going on in the culture. So there’s a lot of stuff like, like, immigration, there’s a day on immigration, refugee incarceration, food crisis, economic injustices, indigenous… you know, cultures, treatments, the poor sexual assaults, gender, all that stuff. So I want people to use it as kind of a hope of inspiration, wherever they are in their lives. So it may not automatically be the day that they’re on. And there’s not really a chronological order to it. But hopefully, they can look at the index and be like, Oh, I really need to read this today. This, hopefully, this can provide me some encouragement during that time. So almost you know that it’s a really great resource for Christians who are passionate about social justice work. And for those who are just exploring, like, what does this mean incorporating my faith and social justice? It provides a really solid foundation with a lot of supporting verses and especially like the biggest foundation is looking at this through the life and words of Jesus to, so…

Ben Wideman  23:36
I love that and that maybe is a good place to wrap this up. I think there’s something really beautiful about taking a 2000 year old… 2000 plus year old text like our sacred scriptures, like the Bible, and saying it’s still got relevancy for the issues that we are facing right now as a culture and as a world and, and I think you’ve done that in this devotional. I really appreciate it, and I’m, I’m really excited for the ways that this book will change the lives of those who pick it up. So thank you, Stephen, for taking the time to do this. It really feels like an offering to to those who will read it.

Stephen Mattson  24:11
Thanks. I hope so. And thanks again for having me on the podcast.

Ben Wideman  24:18
Over the past few years, numerous congregations have reached out to Mennonite Church USA, asking them for tools to engage in learning about the call for police abolition. Last year they launched the project titled “Defund the Police? An Abolition Curriculum. Next week on ~ing Podcast, we sit down with Melissa Florer Bixler, Ben Tapper, and Kris Henderson; three of the contributors for this unique project

Kris Henderson  24:44
In a lot of places around the country and police are huge line item in the budget. And at the same time, that line item has grown. Over the years we’ve seen pretty systematic cuts. From the different programs and services, that community is actually really want in need.

Melissa Florer Bixler  25:06
Instead of just responding to harm in our community, what does it mean to prevent harm ahead of time? How do we come up with solutions for addressing harm that don’t require in or involve the coercion of the state.

Ben Tapper  25:21
And that’s the beauty of this is that it’s, it’s rich with the potential to be wrestled with and to be engaged and to, to be critically evaluated. And so I think regardless of where your congregation might sit, or where you might sit personally, you’ll find it approachable.

Ben Wideman  25:38
As always, we’d like to thank our guests and all who support ~ing Podcast. Thank you for joining us on the journey. If you enjoyed the show, please leave us a review in your favorite podcasting app. And if you have something to share, send us a message at [email protected] or by leaving us a voicemail. ~ing Podcast is hosted by Reverend Allison Maus and Reverend Dr. Dennis Edwards, and produced by me, Ben Wideman. Views and opinions expressed on ~ing Podcast are those of our hosts and guests and may not represent that of leader magazine or mineral media. ~ing Podcast is a production of MennoMedia, a nonprofit publisher that creates thoughtful Anabaptist resources to enrich faith in a complex world. To find out more, visit us online at MennoMedia.org.

On Love and Mercy: A Social Justice Devotional is available now:

On Love and Mercy is a 60-day devotional that invites readers to expand their vision of both personal faith in God and the redemptive and saving work of social action. Breaking down the premise that Christians must choose between being either socially conscious or theologically sound, author Stephen Mattson offers the hopeful message that Jesus—and Christianity—is both. Each day’s entry offers Christians who long to see justice and equity within society with a much-needed source of affirmation, solidarity, and encouragement.