"Chuck Armstrong’s Journey out of Talk Radio and Toxic Politics" Transcript

Season 1, Episode 4

[00:00:00] Chuck Armstrong: I don't think any form of repentance- whether it's about your own history of racism, like I have, or just, you know, about a small thing- I don't think there's any form of repentance that truly comes without transparency; transparency before ourselves, before our community, before God.

And so, you know, if my form of transparency is maybe overly public, my hope and my prayer is that it might anger and confuse some people, but man, I hope it encourages and pushes other people to be bold in their own repentance and in their own transparency.

[The song “Citizens” by Jon Guerra fades in. Lyrics: “I need to know there is justice/That it will roll in abundance/ And that you’re building a city/ Where we arrive as immigrants/ And you call us citizens/ And you welcome us as children home.” The song fades out.]   

Sy Hoekstra: Welcome to Shake the Dust, leaving colonized faith for the Kingdom of God, a podcast of KTF Press. I'm Sy Hoekstra here with [00:01:00] Jonathan Walton and Suzie Lahoud.

Jonathan Walton: Today, we're interviewing Chuck Armstrong, a church planner and writer in New York City. Originally from a town of about 150 people in Northeast Kansas, he now lives in Hell's Kitchen with his family, where he pastors Hope Church Hell's Kitchen. Chuck also had a prior career in talk radio and he wrote a long article after the death of Rush Limbaugh chronicling his journey into and out of conservative media. That article is linked in the show notes, and we suggest you give it a read.

We talked to him about that article, why he was attracted to the toxic politics of talk radio, how he found his way out through his faith and some very patient friends, and a whole lot more.

Suzie Lahoud: Remember to subscribe to our blog at www.ktfpress.com to get access to our weekly newsletter, which is a regular roundup of media around culture, faith, and politics worthy of your time and attention.

You will also get writing from the three of us and bonus episodes of this show. Your subscription supports the show and [00:02:00] upcoming book projects. And if you're not in a financial place to subscribe to the blog, we totally understand. You can support us by going to www.ktfpress.com and signing up for the free mailing list, subscribing to this podcast, and rating and reviewing this show wherever you're listening.

All those things are really helpful to us too, and we appreciate it.

Sy Hoekstra: Without further ado, here's the interview with Chuck…

[“Citizens” by Jon Guerra fades in briefly, then fades out.] 

Sy Hoekstra: Chuck Armstrong, thank you so much for being with us on Shake The Dust. How are you doing today?

Chuck Armstrong: Hey man, I'm good. Thank you so much for having me. This is really a privilege.

Sy Hoekstra: We feel the same about you being here, and this article that you've written, which we've mentioned already, is fantastic. And we just want to hear more and hear more of your wisdom on this subject. And so I just want to jump right in and say, you know, at the beginning of the article, you start by mentioning how, you know, Rush Limbaugh, who the article is kind of primarily about, was just involved in your life all the time. You were hearing him, not just like with your parents in the car, but you were listening to him on your own, [00:03:00] even as a kid. And so I think we should just start out by asking, you know, what is it that you found about his show and others like it so attractive? What exactly did you feel that you were getting out of it when you were listening to him?

Chuck Armstrong: Yeah, that is a, uh, it's a good question. And I think as I've thought about it, you know, as I've reflected on my kind of upbringing, as I've reflected on just my life in conservative talk radio, I think why I really was first attracted to it was it felt like he was speaking to me. Now, I'm young when I'm first listening, so I think more realistically, it felt like he was speaking to my dad or to my brother, my older brother, or to my family, you know, whoever it is. And I think I connected with that because I wanted to kind of like be in. I wanted to be smart enough to carry a conversation about politics. I wanted to be, you know, [00:04:00] witty enough to laugh at the jokes that Rush would crack or the parody songs that he would play. You know, I just, I wanted to, I felt like I needed to be part of that. And so I think listening to it made me feel closer to that and definitely made me feel smarter. I, you know, I think I was able to say that, yeah, I'm a political junkie or I'm a news junkie because I listened to radio. Not because I was consuming much, but because I was simply listening to radio.

Sy Hoekstra: So it was in a lot of ways connected to like your specific community and your family, even though you were listening to a guy who was talking to millions of people all around the country; like it felt localized and personal to you.

Chuck Armstrong: Yeah. I mean, listen, that's the best radio is when the host sounds like he is speaking to you. And not that he's speaking to yeah, the millions of people across the country that are listening, but he's speaking directly to you and to your, you know, situation, your context, whatever it is. [00:05:00] And, you know, Rush too, regardless if he was broadcasting from New York City or Florida or wherever, he was born in Missouri, he was born in the Midwest. And so, you know, so was I, and so there was that kind of connection too, I think.

Jonathan Walton: So, Chuck- I'm from the South, so I call you Pastor Chuck. I'm gonna go back and forth because I hear my mom in the background being like, “You better call that man pastor!” [laughs]

Chuck Armstrong: Hey, I’ll take it. I’ll take it.

Jonathan Walton: But, yeah, so I've listened to Rush Limbaugh. I've listened to talk radio. I've listened to, like, I'm from Southern Virginia. These things were playing in the background when I was a kid too. And something that I'm wondering is the ease with which racism, misogyny, and Republican conservative politics, even, you know, some Republicans say, “Oh, that's not Republican politics,” but like the way that, you know, Rush Limbaugh would just go back and forth between these things. Could you talk a little bit about like, [00:06:00] if you were or how you were processing the racism he would share or the misogyny he would share, particularly, like I think you were, you would probably be around listening, like prime age when he would talk about Hillary Clinton.

Chuck Armstrong: Yeah. I mean, you know, that's the, that was kind of the hard part about writing all of this and telling the story because it made me confront my past. And it made me confront, you know, listening to someone like Rush and laughing when I heard jokes, you know, or even if I didn't understand them. You know, I think I mentioned in the article hearing, you know, parody songs about bombing Iraq and I can still sing those parody songs in my head. I have no idea what they meant when I first heard them. And so I think similarly, you know, if I had, if I heard Rush crack a joke about Hillary, about, [00:07:00] you know, about feminists, about the homeless, about whoever, the scary part is that I would have laughed at it. I definitely laughed at it.

And if anything, I mean, you used the word superiority- I think that's what it did. It more emboldened me to think that this isn't racism, this isn’t misogyny. This guy is a, you know, he's an entertainer. That's always kind of the thing that I think he fell back on- that he's not a journalist, he's an entertainer, and he's doing his job.

And so, you know, he wasn't my pastor. He wasn’t my journalist. He was just a guy entertaining. And he did so by pushing the envelope and telling jokes. I, you know, that's kind of what you tell yourself. That's what I told myself. And the scary thing is, and the sad thing is, and really what drove me to write much of that, is it changes you, man. It emboldens you to [00:08:00] do the same, you know, to people around you; to look at people with that sense of superiority. You know, I would definitely call it a privilege, too. You look at people with a sense of privilege and it really, really shapes your perspective.

I think for me, growing up in the Midwest, listening to Rush, listening to talk radio, you know, I, it really strengthened my own sense of work ethic and the importance of work ethic and really, you know, we're all equal and it's just whoever's going to work the hardest and that's who's going to succeed. And so all of that's just like wound up together. You know, I never sort of relegated Rush’s racism over here and his misogyny over there and the privilege here. Like it was just all bound up together.

Jonathan Walton: Hmm, thanks for explaining that.

Chuck Armstrong: Yeah. It's, you know, it's not much fun to look back on it and to [00:09:00] think through it, but I think it's necessary.

Sy Hoekstra: It's yeah, it's definitely necessary. And we're glad that you did it.

Also, you just said in the middle of that, “he's not my pastor,” which is precisely the excuse that people used all throughout Trump's presidency, right?

Chuck Armstrong: Yeah, it sounds familiar.

Sy Hoekstra: “I didn't vote for pastor, I'm voting for president,” right? Like it's, yeah…

Chuck Armstrong: That's right. Yeah. And I think we, yeah, I mean, you know, you want to talk about a real privilege, and that’s thinking that you can separate your politics from your theology; your politics from your faith; your politics from your, from your vocation or whatever you want to say, you know? And the reality is, no, you know. You don't have a faith without a politic, and you don't have your politics without your faith. And it just, it seeps into every area of your life. And so, okay, you didn't vote for your pastor, but you voted for this president, and in some way that implicates, you know, your faith, that implicates what you [00:10:00] believe and how you live your life.

And so I think that the very same thing goes with, it goes with who you listen to and who, you know, what voices are in your head. I remember this- and you guys have maybe seen it since his death- but, a 60 Minutes interview with Rush and just point blankly, you know, he was asked, “Are you a racist?” and Rush says, “Nah. Pff.” You know, he leaned back and just laughed, “I'm not a racist.” And then just kind of moved on and, you know, it was kind of the typical, “I don't have a racist bone in my body” type of thing where if you say you're not, alright, then you move on, you know?

Suzie Lahoud: I just resonate so deeply, Chuck, with what you shared about how our theology and our politics are so intertwined. And we need to understand the importance of that interrelationship and really grapple with that. And so one other piece of your story that we wanted to dig into is, you [00:11:00] talk in your article about how you also grew up a Christian and have remained in the church your whole life. And so I'm just curious, as you were growing up and sort of imbibing this conservative talk radio politics, did you feel that the church that you grew up in affirmed or pushed back on some of those narratives and messages that you were being fed and how did that sort of play out?

Chuck Armstrong: Yeah, that's a great question. And, um, whew… We could really do some surgery here. So, you know, I grew up in my dad's church and so he's a pastor and remains a pastor to this day and is a phenomenal pastor. He's bi-vocational, and so he's really embedded in the community that I grew up in. Everybody knows him, everybody loves him, everybody respects him. You know, he preaches 50 weeks a year, and when he doesn't [00:12:00] preach, the church takes a vacation Sunday and it's really just, it's a small, small, small, small church outside an unincorporated town in Northeast Kansas.

Sy Hoekstra: And he's working a full-time job.

Chuck Armstrong: And he's working a full-time job, yeah. And so I have a, I have a really deep respect for my dad's ministry and the way that he has fulfilled his call, I think, that God's placed on him. Um, and then, but then, you know, to be totally honest, uh, no, you know. I don't really ever remember hearing, you know, social justice type of talk or anything like that. And certainly, you know, love your neighbor and that kind of thing. But never getting into sort of the systemic things that our country faced. Never really pushing into politics or anything like that. Definitely, you know, sticking [00:13:00] to “preach the gospel” type of methodology.

And so, yeah, you know, so I never, so I say all that, with, you know, with love for my dad but with an acknowledgement that what I was listening to, what I was choosing to say Monday through Friday to my friends, the jokes I was telling, the jokes I was laughing at, this, you know, superiority that I was building inside of myself based around my work ethic and my grades and all of this stuff- I never felt pushed back on any of that. And certainly I kept some of that, you know, maybe some of the more, you know, heinous things that I would laugh at or say, you know, I kept that secret from my parents of course.

But yeah, I never, you know, I never felt like I shouldn't listen to Rush or I shouldn't say this and yeah. And so it's tough because all of that [00:14:00] was wrapped up together, just like I've been saying, it's all wrapped up together in my own, you know, unique experience of growing up in a church that is pastored by my dad, listening to Rush, all of that's, you can't separate it.

Jonathan Walton: Oh man, that unlocks so many questions in my head. I'm wondering as you're having these conversations now, like you're on a podcast, you wrote this article, you've written other articles and done other podcasts before. Someone commented on the article offering you a book deal softly, right?

Chuck Armstrong: [chuckles] Yeah, yeah.

Jonathan Walton: Saw that, right. But like, so yeah, it's a public thing that you're doing. So what, if any, pushback now? Or what do the, what does the dialogue and the conversations look like? Because I admit that [00:15:00] and I acknowledge what you're saying. Like, you know, I grew up in a really small town in Southern Virginia and in the way that you're saying the politics and faith are bifurcated, right, as a black person in the South, they are forever together, right. In the way that you grew up, not putting them together, I can't separate them. That's just the ovens we were baked in, right. And so at the same time, we're growing and then having conversations with the generation that raised us, right.

And so, as you're engaging with this stuff publicly, what do the conversations look like with your dad? What does it look like to lead a congregation that has anti-racism as a value, right? And like, what are some of those personal, relational, I mean, everybody knows the systemic, obstacles. Like, oh, you get Twitter beef, you get Facebook messages, you get random…we know about that. But [00:16:00] the reconciliation for most of us is across the kitchen table, right. So what did those conversations look like? Planting a church, donors, seminary, alumni- how does the work you're doing actually impact your life each day?

Chuck Armstrong: Whew, man, you guys are taking the big shots!

Jonathan Walton: Welcome to Shake the Dust!

Chuck Armstrong: All right. All right. All right. I get it. [All laugh] So yeah, you know, just to be totally frank, uh, it's tough. You know, I moved to New York City eleven years ago. I interned in New York City a few years prior to that. And, you know, New York City is a lot different than where I grew up, than the farm I grew up on, than even the school I went to, the college I went to. But for the first couple of years of living in New York, I was working in conservative [00:17:00] talk radio. I moved to New York City to work for the biggest news talk radio station at that time in the country. And so I was like, you know, kind of living this, the secret agent life of infiltrating the East coast, but remaining true to my values and really, you know, championing my values.

Sy Hoekstra: You're a missionary. [All chuckle]

Chuck Armstrong: And so then, as I left that job and went to work for another radio company, much healthier for me and a much, much better experience, and then when I left that company and went into vocational ministry, then it started, it began, well, you know, I'm still championing my values, but these are my Christian values. These are the values of my faith. And so it was just sort of a different celebration because still, [00:18:00] a Christian in New York City, the stereotype would be, yeah, you're a missionary. And as that sort of, as I began to process that and discern exactly what I felt God was calling me to, and that really led me, with all that had proceeded me, really led me into really committing my life to social justice, to justice work, to anti-racism. So then I began to really embody, I think what some of my friends, some of my family maybe had been, I don't want to say worried about, but you know, what they had kind of stereotyped New York City as.

And so all that to be said, I still text with my dad regularly. We talk about music. We talk about movies. I will be honest, in the last four years though, we really don't talk about politics or issues like that. And that's not [00:19:00] all on him. I have a hard time, I think, talking to him about that. And I blow up, I get angry. I, you know, I get kind of short-tempered with some of those conversations. And so just, you know, kind of organically, we have stopped talking about those things. Which, as you can imagine me working in conservative talk radio previously, it's all we talked about. And so it's, you know, definitely, I haven't lost my dad. Like I said, we're still, we still talk. We're still close, but, you know, Jonathan, to your point, we separate these things in our lives and in our relationship now, which is a true privilege that I'm able to do that as a white man. And that I don't have to talk about these things if I don't want to with family or with whomever.

And, you know, along the way, I've definitely, I've been, you know, called out [00:20:00] for talking too much about justice from the pulpit or talking too much about politics when I don't need to be talking about that in church. And so, you know, I strained relationships, strained friendships. Absolutely. I'm, you know, I have to imagine that I've lost, or I've never even had the opportunity to fundraise with some people or some groups because of that public commitment to anti-racism and that kind of thing. But I'm also not going to, you know, to be totally frank, I'm not gonna say that, you know, “Woe is me and man, I'm really suffering, guys” because all of this, I keep saying it, but all of this is such a privilege for me as a white man to be able to do this. And yeah, and so I am very aware of, you know, the price that I pay [00:21:00] for leaning into this, for dedicating my life to this. And I am also, I strive every day to be more and more aware of still just how little that costs me compared to so many others around me.

Jonathan Walton: Thanks. Thanks for sharing about your family and being honest about that. I appreciate that.

Chuck Armstrong: Yeah, it's, and I love my family and I'm, if they hear this, I'm sure they'll, you know, not appreciate me talking about it, but, you know, I just, I truly believe as a pastor, but even more than that as a human being, as a neighbor, as a brother and as a son and as a father and as a husband, I think the most we can do is be transparent and be honest. And I don't think any form of repentance, whether it's about, you know, your own history of [00:22:00] racism like I have, or just, you know, about a small thing- I don't think there's any form of repentance that truly comes without transparency; transparency before ourselves, before our community, before God.

And so, you know, if my form of transparency is maybe overly public, my hope and my prayer is that it might anger and confuse some people, but man, I hope it encourages and pushes other people to be bold in their own repentance and in their own transparency.

Sy Hoekstra: Can I ask briefly, it sounds like, so you have had lots of conversations with your dad about this stuff, and at some point it became no longer productive. And the reason I ask this question is because I think a lot of, you know, a lot of people might hear- I've run up against this with friends or family of mine too- like, you know, one of the kind of critiques of sort of, uh, [00:23:00] white people who are trying to be progressive, but like, aren't talking to their own families about stuff, right.

Like People are like, “Oh, so you're the one who has the in, and you're not doing anything. And you know, you're not stewarding your privilege and your insider status and all that stuff.” And I'm just wondering how much you've, I assume that you have thought about that. And I'm wondering if you could talk about that balance a little bit, because it is hard, but I also find myself wanting to, you know, press into that critique a little bit.

Chuck Armstrong: Yeah, no, yeah. And I appreciate that. And I'll take that. I'll take that critique. You know, I’ll say that…

Sy Hoekstra: I don't know your circumstances, right. So I'm not saying you did bad. [Chuck and Sy chuckle]

Chuck Armstrong: No, but it's, it's still worth, you know, acknowledging and discussing. And, you know, to be honest, yeah, I mean my own circumstances, it's not like it was an overnight thing. And so, what I have learned in my own [00:24:00] journey, is that things take time. And I think about kind of the beginning point of my, you know, what I say is deconstruction- and I know that can be a loaded term sometimes, but I also don't know why cause it's a very simple term to me- but just, deconstructing, you know, taking apart my past, putting it back together. And, you know, I started that about eight or nine years ago. And ten years ago, if I heard a pastor say “Black Lives Matter” from the pulpit, I would've rolled my eyes. Man, I would've sent probably a snarky email. I would've, you know, maybe confronted him and called him out. And now ten years later, I am that guy, yeah. Like I, and I'm getting snarky emails and I'm getting called out.

But, and so I say all that meaning, yeah, like, you certainly don't know [00:25:00] everybody's circumstances. I have not flipped a switch saying like I'm done with my family. I truly believe that God is working. And, uh, and he's going to work on his own schedule. And if it took me eight, nine years to get to the point where I feel comfortable enough to write my story down, it can, you know, it might take longer for some other people. And it's pushed me into more of a posture of grace.

All that being said, I also, I am reminded of something Jemar Tisby wrote in his new book, How to Fight Racism. And he just, he really emphasizes patience and prayer. He gives a lot of tips on how to, you know, to talk to people who you disagree with politically, especially as it relates to racial justice. But at the end of the day, it has to be [00:26:00] rooted in patience and prayer. And so that's something I have to remind myself too. So maybe I'm not confronting my dad today on this. Am I praying? Am I praying for my dad about this? Am I praying for my relationship with my dad about this? I think that's, those are the kinds of things too, that I'm trying to push myself into. Uh, yeah. So, but I, you know, so I really do appreciate that and yeah, everybody's circumstances are different. But again, like not to throw that word out, but, you know, what a sincere privilege of mine to be able to do all of this and to say like, “I'm going to talk about XYZ today, I'm not going to talk about it tomorrow,” and my life doesn't change a whole lot. And so I recognize that.

Sy Hoekstra: And I just want to thank you for being, like we just pushed you pretty hard on some very personal stuff. So I really appreciate the transparency. It's not every day where we, that you can hear, [00:27:00] you know, an honest reflection on something like that. And so we really appreciate it.

Chuck Armstrong: Yeah. Someone said to me, you know, “What is Christianity, if not transparency?” and I've been thinking a lot about that.

And so, you know, I want to, I obviously want to respect and love those around me. But also I believe God's put a call on me to really dedicate my life to justice work, to striving toward justice. And so if that means I'm uncomfortable, others might be uncomfortable, that is a pretty small, small cost.

Jonathan Walton: That question is real and valid. Like, why don't you do that, right?

Sy Hoekstra: Wait, why don't you do what?

Jonathan Walton: I’m sorry- so why don't you confront your family member, who you're in relationship with all the time, right?

Sy Hoekstra: Yeah.

Jonathan Walton: And leverage that privilege and authority or relationship for me. Cause that's an emotional ask, right? Like I feel dismissed. I feel [00:28:00] hurt. Why didn't you fight for me, right? That's an emotional, that's a visceral desire for us to be protected, right? In that space that I will never sit across from and be taken seriously, but you're there, right?

But I think the pastoral word there, you know, is that confrontation without formation is destructive.

Chuck Armstrong: Yeah.

Jonathan Walton: Right? And so, but confrontation with formation is lovingly disruptive, right? And so being able to have that conversation with your dad or have that conversation with your mom in a way that is loving, requires the prayer and the patience that Jemar is talking about.

Chuck Armstrong: Yeah, yeah.

Jonathan Walton: Otherwise, we could destroy the shalom that God was working in. Because like, you know, you have kids and if you weren't talking to your child for years, [00:29:00] there is not a day you would not think about that child, right? They engage with that child. So even if, for people who are listening, who are like, you know, like why can't we talk with our parents? Like, God is working on the people who love us when we live differently from the ways they brought us up. Like, you know, I think you have to trust Him with it. And like my mom, I did not know that my mom started reading devotionals because she heard me and my brother started going to InterVarsity. I didn't know that. I found the devotional when she was dying from cancer that my brother gave her like a decade earlier, right. Like that we, these, we don't know all the things that are happening.

And so for the angry, upset people who desire to be seen and felt and heard, and by someone with the ultimate privilege, born into all that is good, I would say look to Jesus because he had that right, and then gave that up for us. And so, but in the [00:30:00] confrontation I really think we need to be formed before we have those confronting conversations in that, and that takes time. And it's good to take that time, but then to take the opportunity when Jesus says to go.

Chuck Armstrong: Amen. Yeah, I heard a good, no, I heard a good word from, a dear sister recently and she said, “The Spirit calls us to convict those around us and not condemn those around us.” And I've been thinking a lot about that. Just this idea of conviction versus condemnation and Jonathan, I think what everything you just said really speaks to that.

Suzie Lahoud: Yeah, that was really good, yeah, wisdom and also accountability, I think. Yeah, and I just want to say again, Chuck, just reiterate, thank you for sharing so openly. I think it's so refreshing and so important because I feel like there are so many folks who can probably relate to your story and are on a similar journey right now, but maybe haven't even progressed as far as you have and [00:31:00] what strikes me is part of what's so remarkable about this process of, you know, as you referred to it, deconstruction, which again, I acknowledge that that's sort of a loaded term right now, but I think I understand what you're referring to- and I think it's remarkable that you've managed to go through that and still maintain your faith in Christ and so sort of not throw out the baby with the bath water. And disentangle some of this idolatry and unhealthiness and some of these lies from the real message of Christ and the real teaching of Christ and to come out in a more authentic, you know, what I think we would say is a more authentic place of really living for the Kingdom.

And so, as someone who's been through that process, first of all, I'm just curious to hear, you've kind of alluded to that throughout the interview, but what sort of prompted that initially? You talk about a change in geographic location, but that it's, it would be reductive and simplistic to [00:32:00] just point to that. Obviously there were things that happened that set you on this journey. And so yeah, what prompted you to rethink your politics and its relationship to your faith and what steps have you taken personally, to really go through that process of essentially, sort of the renewing of your mind, I think, in reshaping your thinking, since you left the world of conservative talk radio and the politics that you so strongly professed at the time?

Chuck Armstrong: [chuckles] Yeah. You know, I wish I had like a step-by-step guide that captured everything I did.

Suzie Lahoud: [laughs] We do too!

Chuck Armstrong: Cause it wasn't like that. It wasn't, you know, it wasn't like I woke up one day and I thought, “All right, you know what? I'm going to read this book,” or “I'm going to listen to this,” or “I'm going to quit this job because I'm so, you know, I'm so against this.” Though I did change my [00:33:00] job, you know, they had, it wasn't quite as, um, I wasn't quite as, uh, I wasn't being quite the activist that, you know, I probably wished I looked like taking a stand or anything like that, but I think God used a lot of those things, a lot of the things you mentioned kind of behind the scenes without me knowing it.

So yeah, definitely a geographical change, a location change, was, you know, part of the journey, moving from Kansas to New York City. And not just the geographical change, but, you know, when my wife and I moved here, we had zero friends, we had zero family. And so there was a sincere sort of just assessment of what community means. What is community? What does that, what does that look like? And, you know, community in New York City is, it looks a lot different than Kansas.

Sy Hoekstra: Than anything.

Chuck Armstrong: You know, truly, than [00:34:00] anything. And you can either avoid it, you can either try to manufacture your own community, or you can say this is the world in which God has placed me now and I'm going to celebrate it. And so that was, so God used people around me and I don't just mean like, “Oh, now all of a sudden I had a Black friend and this friend and that friend.” Like yeah, all of a sudden diversity was around me in ways that I had never experienced in my life, but it was how these people pushed me and convicted me.

I distinctly remember- and I kind of alluded to this in the article, and this was probably one of the turning points in my life- I was walking with a friend. We were in a small group together and he and I, we had done like a Bible study together. We were just really tight. And we were walking down Amsterdam on the Upper West Side and it was the day after Osama bin Laden was killed and [00:35:00] I remember him talking just so clearly about how disgusted he was at seeing clips on the television of Times Square erupting in applause and cheers and celebration.

And, you know, it's this idea of being able to critically think that you can hold in one hand, you know, the heinous acts of Osama bin Ladin and you can lament that, right? You don't, you're not justifying anything. But you can also hold in the other hand that celebrating and cheering for the death of an image bearer is also not a good thing and not something we should celebrate. And I had never thought about that. I never ever thought about holding things like that in tension. And for whatever reason, it was like an Acts 2 sermon, when he said that it pierced my heart and, and it just, it made me begin to [00:36:00] rethink how I view justice, injustice, what I would, you know, what I would claim to be victory, how I view victory, how I view all of these things.

And in that instance, it was, it's obviously connected to patriotism, right? And the country, and that kind of thing. And so I think that also began to sort of push against the politics of my life and the things that I was listening to every day, and you know, my job that I, that I was going into every day. And so I think that was truly a turning point. And from there, I also, and I think I maybe mentioned this in the article too, I'm not sure, but I also, around the same time began to read a little more and learn a little more about, you know, this whole faith and work movement and what it means to be a Christian in the workplace and all of that. I never really gave that much thought prior to moving to New York.

And, you know, not that that [00:37:00] movement or those ministries are perfect by any means, but it began to push me to think, how am I listening to this radio, to these shows and not just listening, but like truly kind of being part of the ecosystem, and then going to church on Sundays and listening about this Christ? And then going to small group and, you know, being in community with such a beautiful group of men and women- how do I reconcile these things? And so, it just, it kinda broke me. It just kind of like really chipped away at me and at everything I held, everything I had, I found my value in. I moved to New York City for this job. I moved to New York City for this, you know? And here I am thinking like, “Wait a second, maybe I, at least the way I'm wired, maybe I can't hold these things in tension. And maybe I need to, uh, to move [00:38:00] on.”

And so, you know, I would say that, that the friend of mine, you know, really beginning to understand this idea of faith and work theology, which I admit, you know, my own understanding of it was far from perfect or anything like that, but, and then from there it was just, it was just leaning into it and it was not avoiding it. And it was thinking like, you know what? It's okay if I grew up a Republican and had super conservative views. It's okay if I've changed a little. It's okay if I want to abolish the death penalty now, as opposed to, you know, thinking eye for an eye and all of that, and thinking, you know, if, you know, if you're a criminal, you're going to get caught and you pay the penalty and that's as simple and clear cut as our justice system is, you know? I started thinking, “Well, wait a second, maybe it's not. And maybe it's okay that I change my views and I read about things that challenge those views.”

And so it was just this whole journey of that and [00:39:00] that all of that coincided with me going to seminary. And then, you know, sitting in seminary classes with men and women in New York City from incredibly different backgrounds, all of us processing, you know, theology and history differently and together, really pushed me deeper and deeper into it as well. And so probably a turning point in that moment was in an ecclesiology class, I wrote a paper about the ecclesiological implications of racial reconciliation. And so that was trying to unpack this idea of, well, okay, you're a church or you're a denomination and you repent and you acknowledge and you pursue reconciliation. What are the actual implications for your church because of that?

And I won't let you read the paper cause it's, [00:40:00] you know, it was like, I, you know, it was like my first year in seminary, so it's not great, but it pushed me to read books like Divided by Faith and other things where I began to like really see all of these things that I think I was wrestling with in my head and in my heart and with my community. Now I'm seeing like, “Oh, here's a sociological work on this, on the systemic injustice that has proceeded me. Oh, here's the history of this,” that kind of thing. And so, yeah. It's, you know, it's a weird twisty-turny journey for sure. But that kind of answers your question, Suzie, in a pretty convoluted way, I fear. So…

Suzie Lahoud: No, it does, cause really I was just asking what that journey has looked like. So I appreciate you not trying to reduce it to a simple, you know, four-step program. Um, yeah. Thank you. That rings really true.

So as a pastor, do [00:41:00] you have thoughts on when folks should take the step of leaving a church over its handling of questions about race?

Chuck Armstrong: Yeah. I mean, I love the question. And I'll just say two things before I give the answer, cause apparently I really like to talk, and so I really like talking with you. But, you know, the first is, I don't think there's a formula for anybody. And so I think, you know, as has been discussed, we are all on different journeys. We don't know the circumstances. We don't know how God is working behind the scenes. And so there's just, I don't think there's a formula.

But the second thing I want to say is, I say that as a white man. And so I don't ever want to put anybody in a place where they feel like they should stay in an unhealthy environment, or in an environment where they're not, not only are they not being fed, [00:42:00] but perhaps they're being dehumanized in some way. You know, I don't ever want them to think like, “Well, I heard this pastor once say, you know, there's no formula. And so maybe I should stick around to see how God's working behind the scenes.” I just think, you know, I have to admit that if I'm talking about, when do you leave as a white man, the cost for me is much different.

And so, all that being said, I, man, that's, what a question! I would try to walk with someone else, whether it's inside the church or outside of the church, someone you trust that you can share exactly what's happening. That you can share, “This is the way my pastor is speaking,” “This is the way, you know, an elder has answered questions,” “This is, you know, the dehumanizing language that is used in small groups,” so [00:43:00] that you're not processing it by yourself, you're processing it in community so that you have support from someone you trust and someone you love and someone who loves you.

But truly, I think if the church is the gathering of the saints and, or if that's partly what church is, and it is also, you know, the gathering of God's people to welcome others in, right. You think of Acts 2, you think of the end of Acts 2 where the world takes notice, right? The world takes notice at what the church is doing, what this brand new community of God is doing as they're breaking bread, as they're sharing resources, as they're living together, as they're worshiping together. We're told that all, they found favor in everyone's eyes and the Lord added to their number daily.

And so, you know, if your church is doing the opposite [00:44:00] of that, where they're not holding you in favor, because they refuse to acknowledge very real objective things that are destroying your life or that are, that are seeking to destroy your life, your livelihood, I can't imagine what that would feel like, and to feel pressure to stay in that. I think there is a moment that you have to consider your own health, your own spiritual health, your own emotional health, and say farewell. I don't think God is calling me to remain in a toxic, dangerous environment. But maybe it's different if you're a white person and maybe you have more voice inside the church and maybe you are called to stay to try to steer the ship, as it were. I'm not sure. [00:45:00]

I have a hard time thinking about that too, because what I've heard from Jemar Tisby, he told me once that if by now this is- we talked, this was two days after the insurrection on the Capitol- so if by now your pastor, your church, your community group, whatever, if by now they're not talking about this, there's not much hope. If by now, if after last year, if after George Floyd, if after Ahmaud Arbery, if after Breonna Taylor, if after all of this they're still saying, “Well, I can't speak into this because I don't know enough about this,” or “I'm just going to preach the gospel” or whatever, I don't know what it would take for them to, for that church to change its [00:46:00] direction.

And so I think that is, if I could, that is maybe one of the benefits of all of the terrible, terrible destructive things we have seen in the last 12 months is that we can clearly see how God is using people and how people are being faithful to what God is doing or how they're not being faithful to the work that God has called them to. And so we should take notice of that, I think. And I think that should definitely be a significant part, a primary part in our discernment to whether we should leave or not.

Sy Hoekstra: All that was great. I really liked the point about having someone from the outside to talk to that you said at the beginning, just because I think that's kind of a dynamic, you know, it's just going to be easier for someone who's outside of your situation to see clearly what's [00:47:00] happening, right? Like it would be the same in any like personal relationship that has become like toxic or abusive, and it's going to be the same thing in a church setting, right? People who are looking at it from the outside are just going to give you insight that you otherwise don't have. So people that you trust and who are wise. I think that's, I just want to emphasize how important that is in addition to everything else you said, which is also important.

Jonathan, do you want to do… I want to know the answer to the just preach the gospel question.

Suzie Lahoud: Yeah, I was thinking about that too…

Jonathan Walton: So I, oh man, how do I even frame this question? If someone, you know, you're back in that church in Kansas and they say to you like, “Hey Chuck, I've known you since you were a kid, like, why don't you just preach the gospel?”

Chuck Armstrong: Whew. Um, yeah, I mean, I think, you know, the kind of, the smart [00:48:00] aleck in me wants to say, “Well, I am just preaching the gospel, come on brother/ come on sister!”

But truly, you know, I would, I think, I would ask them, and I'm curious about this actually, I would ask them, what does that mean? Because I have been, you know, I've preached, not at our church plant- our church plant, you know, is obviously very publicly anti-racist- but I've preached elsewhere and I've brought up slavery or I brought up internment camps in America, I brought up, uh, early on in COVID I preached and I included some illustrations of the anti-Asian racism that was occurring at the beginning of the pandemic. And I would receive emails or things like that saying just that, you know, that has no place in the, from the pulpit. You can talk about it on [00:49:00] Facebook. You can, you know, talk about it over coffee, but not from the pulpit. You just need to be preaching the gospel. And when I push and I asked, “Well, what does that mean to you? What does it mean to just preach the gospel?” I have to be honest, and I'm not saying, you know, this is, I'm not implicating anybody, I've never really gotten an answer to that.

And so I, and so I take that as sort of affirmation to, this isn't, on some level, they are just repeating something they have heard elsewhere. So you mentioned, you know, you used the word disciple- they have been discipled elsewhere by a Ben Shapiro, by a Jordan Peterson, by a fill in the blank. And they have heard this phrase, “Just preach the gospel,” or they have heard this boogie man of critical race theory, or whatever you want to say, and when you're, [00:50:00] when pushed into that, it's sort of, there’s sort of an admission that, well, yeah, I guess you are preaching the gospel. I just don't like the politics in it. And that's what it gets down to.

And so when I have- and I'm not saying I do this perfectly when I preach or anything like that- but one word of advice that has been given to me is that Christians should be more and more political. We should not be partisan. And so we should not be scared of being political. In fact, we should welcome the opportunities to be political. We should not welcome the opportunities to be partisan. And so those conversations, you know, they’re had, and I think what I realize is the criticism that I receive for being partisan is actually a very, very partisan critique.

And where they've been discipled is very, very [00:51:00] partisan and it's not rooted in the gospel. It's not rooted in the Bible. It's rooted in something that they've heard, something that they've been told. And so I think, you know, for me, and I'm saying this as much to myself as I am to anybody listening- I think, you know, I think that's, if someone says that to you, what an incredible opportunity to ask them what that means and to have a conversation and to maybe push back on something that has been discipled into them. And maybe asking that question, maybe just asking them, what do you mean by that? Is going to push them to more critically think about that, about that phrase, about why they were angry from what they heard from the pulpit in the first place.

Jonathan Walton: That, uh, so just as a follow-up comment, it sounds like what you're talking about is a radical differentiation, right? So you, like hearing, “What is the gospel?” or “Just preach the gospel,” could be heard as an [00:52:00] attack as a speaker, as a teacher, a leader. Someone coming to me as a preacher of the gospel, as an evangelist, like your question, I would feel my integrity is questioned. Like, what do you mean I'm not doing, you know? But it sounds like what you're saying, there's a patient response that is a product of being differentiated from the message in a healthy way. That is, I mean, I would like to be mature in that way, in these moments.

Chuck Armstrong: Me too, brother. [Chuck & Jonathan laugh]

Jonathan Walton: Willie Jennings talks about the- Dr. Willie Jennings at Yale Divinity School and now formerly at Duke- he said, you know, there's a jousting that happens intellectually downstream of the Enlightenment, right? Like Western thought where it's like, well, I've got to beat you in this argument.

Chuck Armstrong: That's [00:53:00] right. That's right.

Jonathan Walton: But in that moment, it's not about winning the argument. It's about Jesus being Lord and being understood. I appreciate that answer a lot.

Chuck Armstrong: Well, yeah. You know, you mentioned Dr. Jennings and he, you know, he says critique should always aim at communion and that is hard to embody. It's hard to embrace, but you know, if you, if you think about, yeah, if you think about that question or why someone's asking this, you know. Okay, maybe they're critiquing you to tear you down, but, you know, we're in a position then that we could critique back or we could push back with the hope, with the intent of communion with one another. And that might be an idealistic, lofty goal. But man, what a beautiful picture of everything you just said, Jonathan.

Jonathan Walton: Amen. Amen.

Sy Hoekstra: Yeah, this has been [00:54:00] great Chuck. We really appreciate you coming on the show and sharing your wisdom with us, and just, thank you so much from all of us.

Chuck Armstrong: Yeah, I mean, seriously, what a privilege. Thank you so much for having me.

[“Citizens” by Jon Guerra fades in briefly, then fades out.] 

Sy Hoekstra: Thanks so much for listening, and please remember to subscribe to this podcast and rate and review it wherever you are listening. Follow us on Twitter, Instagram, and Facebook @KTFPress. Our theme song is citizens by Jon Guerra. Our podcast art is by Jacqueline Tam and we will see you next week!

[“Citizens” by Jon Guerra fades back in. Lyrics: “Where we arrive as immigrants/ And you call us citizens/ And you welcome us as children home/ Where we arrive as immigrants/ And you call us citizens/ And you welcome us as children home.” Song fades out.]  

Jonathan Walton: Today we're interviewing Chuck Col… not Chuck Colson [Sy laughs]…sorry! [Jonathan laughs]

[00:55:00] Sy Hoekstra: Today, back from the dead, is Chuck Colson! [Jonathan & Sy laughing hysterically]  

Suzie Lahoud: Wow… Y'all did not tell me necromancy was part of this. [Sy laughs]

Jonathan Walton: Wow… all right. That was a deep cut there… alright.

Sy Hoekstra: We have done a séance, and Chuck Colson is here with us today.

Jonathan Walton: We recorded it over Zoom, cuz Zoom can do that. It's actually a portal. Please light your incense before we begin [Suzie laughing in the background]. Charge your crystals in a warm place for 14 days, beginning at the solstice and ending at…

Sy Hoekstra: No, no…