'Strong enough to be self-critical': In America and the church

Rachel Held Evans says love for church and country should not preclude us from criticizing either one.

Story highlights

  • You can love church and country and be critical of them at the same time, writes Rachel Held Evans
  • Critics within church are often scolded for not sticking up for the team, says Held Evans

Rachel Held Evans is a popular blogger and bestselling author whose latest book, "Searching for Sunday: Loving, Leaving, and Finding the Church," releases April 14. The views expressed in this column belong to Held Evans.

(CNN)You would have to be made of stone to not be moved by President Obama's address on the 50th anniversary of the march on Selma last Saturday. His tribute to the "plain and humble people...coming together to shape their country's course" was poetic and principled, timely and true -- a fitting way to honor those who marched in support of voting rights in 1965.

But perhaps the most striking lines from this historic speech concerned the inherent patriotism of righteous protest:
"What greater expression of faith in the American experiment than this, what greater form of patriotism is there than the belief that America is not yet finished, that we are strong enough to be self-critical, that each successive generation can look upon our imperfections and decide that it is in our power to remake this nation to more closely align with our highest ideals?"
The President has faced criticism in recent months for acknowledging that American history, and indeed Christian history, includes racism, violence, injustice, and oppression -- particularly against minority and indigenous people -- a reality some would rather sweep under the rug. Former New York City Mayor Rudy Giuliani went so far as to say the President doesn't love America because he "apologizes" for it so often.
It is common for those invested in preserving the status quo to try and silence those working for reform by suggesting that allegiance to a country or family or faith demands total acquiescence, that you can't love something and be critical of it at the same time.
This happens not only in politics, but also in religion.
When I write about gender inequality in Christian leadership, I'm often called "divisive."
When my black brothers and sisters speak up about privilege and racism in the American Church, they are chastised for being "too sensitive" or "bitter."
When artists and advocates address those injustices perpetuated in the name of Christ, both past and present, they are often scolded for not sticking up for the team, for not painting a rosier picture.
But to love something is to see it for what it is, flaws and all. To love one's country, or one's church, is to invest in making it better.
Just as Americans don't have to choose between loving our country and being critical of its shortcomings, Christians don't have to choose between loving the church and working for reform. Indeed, a Christian's most important allegiance is to the Kingdom of God as exemplified in the life and teachings of Jesus Christ. So until the church looks just like Jesus, there is holy work to do!
Humans are drawn to categories. Categories help us make sense of the world. But the truth is, our institutions and identities, our shared histories and our cherished communities rarely fit into the neat and tidy categories of "good" or "evil." They are rather complicated amalgams of both. The leaders I most respect are those who lead with both gratitude and principled protest, who can simultaneously celebrate and reform the communities from which they emerge.
In writing about the church, the apostle Paul told the Corinthians that only in "speaking the truth in love" will followers of Jesus "grow to become in every respect the mature body of him who is the head, that is, Christ."
Mature people and mature communities are strong enough to be self-critical and wise enough to speak the truth in love.
I for one am grateful for a president who knows this to be true.