America’s Optimistic Spirit is Killing Us Because We Don’t Know What Faith Is

by Chris Dela Cruz

There are a number of expressions and philosophies I have heard that cut across various ideological and political lines that have a distinct American ring to them. Things work out in the end. Chase your dreams. The sky’s the limit. Your inner state is all about how you decide to see things.

In short, American optimism and positive thinking.

I don’t deny the truth and power in many of these sentiments. In the wake of the stresses of modern life, positivity and reframing situations internally seemed to have gotten many individual Americans through these struggles. These narratives can be powerful motivators for both individual and collective action, narratives that tie in with grand American mythology. We braved the frontier! We flew to the moon! We foster innovation and entrepreneurship!

However, it is now clear that America’s Optimistic Spirit is killing us.

These American coping mechanisms of super positive thinking, of “frontier” sky’s-the-limit mentality, and optimistic framing have ill-equipped us to take a horrific pandemic seriously, to confront the realities of long-embedded systemic racism, and to actually use our dream-thinking where it could matter – to pool our resources to deal with an unprecedented economic disaster with actual far-reaching solutions that help people.

Photo by Aaron Burden on Unsplash

When it comes to our country’s unique COVID-19 crisis, America’s Optimistic Spirit has failed us on every level – our need for freedom has enraptured many to congregate bars, to open up businesses and churches too early, and to either wear masks haphazardly basically for show or not at all. While hindsight is 20/20, when the virus was first hitting the U.S. many officials failed to respond quickly, and many people dismissed its seriousness and wore their lack of concern as a badge of honor. So many people said this was just the media and government overblowing things as usual, that folks stocking up on goods were crazy. When the shutdowns started in March, I heard from many people “well, guess we’ll stay inside for two weeks, and then we’ll get back to normal,” even though basically every health expert was saying this could take over a year (at least) and require multiple lockdowns.

And this just scratches the surface of the systemic failure, of a President who asserted this was just going to be a blip that would go away, and all the ways we re-opened too early because America decided the virus was over. America’s Optimistic Spirit literally cannot cope with an emergency. It does not know how to acknowledge the negative in life, and it cannot handle things outside of its control. It is our demon, possessing us with a smile while we slowly die.

We know this because, in many ways, America has been in an emergency long before COVID-19. As the recent protests have brought into the open, there are entire communities that live in constant crisis situations that have been ignored for our entire history. Black people have been saying for decades that police officers were getting away with murder, that drugs and weapons were planted at crime scenes, that police reports weren’t telling the whole truth. If it weren’t for iPhones and pent-up lockdown energy, Americans wouldn’t ever have listened, because it gets in the way of our positive outlook on who we are and what we have done.

American optimism and positivity may have helped individuals cope with some of the stresses of our over-worked, capitalistic system. But did these mechanisms just help us soothe ourselves enough so that people don’t adequately process how inhuman and unjust the modern systems are, and therefore not stir the drive and desire to change the system itself? Rich people are optimistic that “things will work out” because they in fact always do – because they have rigged the system to make it so. Those who aren’t rich, unfortunately, also inherit that go-getter, dream big, things will work out attitude, because that’s what permeates our culture, because those with power put out a false mythology of meritocracy for the purposes of giving people false hope, not disclosing just how much privilege played a part in success. How many of those self-starting success stories started out with a loan from daddy?

What I am getting at is this: America’s Optimistic Spirit is basically a coping mechanism used individually and collectively to deny reality. Our entire mythology and national ethos is based on a lie lying to itself so it never has to confront the truth. The sooner we look ourselves in the mirror and purge ourselves of our grave certainty, the better.

There are many reasons we developed this Spirit, and many will rightly focus on the political, systemic roots – namely, a logical extension of our Manifest Destiny to wipe out, enslave, and exploit black and brown people in service of America’s never-ending colonial, capitalist “frontier” expansion.

I want to lift up a theological thread, though, that I think at the very least offers a foundation for the political. We simply don’t know what faith is. I’ve heard faith described colloquially from many faithful American Christians as believing really hard in a better future, because God will make things happen. “All things are possible with God” is a common refrain. Ask and ye shall receive.

Americans, because we have denied the existence of harsh realities and because certain privileges have shielded certain people from experiencing them, develop an immature faith that simply contends that things will just work out if you believe in your head hard enough. Our broken, corrupt systems provide goods for the privileged, the privileged call those goods “blessings” on TV, and everyone else recites the creed.

In practice, faith becomes a mastery of control, internally and externally. Internally, because the individual person is asked to control their emotions enough to deny the alarm bells those emotions are signalling about the harshness of reality and the injustice of the systems – yes, you should be angry that your back is against the wall, and yes you should be sad that people are dying for no reason! Externally, because America goes out into the frontier “by faith” while continuing the tradition of exploitation and oppression for anyone who gets in America’s way.

We don’t know a faith whose posture is more of surrender and mystery and loss of control. We don’t know a faith that allows for lament and doubt instead of explanation and certainty.

And so we are left with thousands of people dead of COVID-19 without acknowledging that it doesn’t have to be this way, with a country that cannot even deal symbolically with our racist statues without federal stormtroopers kidnapping people in rental cars.

And we are left to live by Faith alone. After all, demanding our government to provide a more sustainable, substantive COVID-19 response or to fundamentally change its racist systems would require us confronting America’s harsh realities in a way that our Spirit alone cannot cope with.

But I guess I should think positively. Sola Fide!

Reverend Chris Dela Cruz is the Associate Pastor of First Presbyterian Church in Jamaica, a diverse, immigrant Queens, NYC congregation with over 30+ nations represented. His role includes building a co-working space for young adult entrepreneurs, coordinating kids and family ministries, and helping in community organizing efforts. He has written for Next Church, Presbyterian Outlook, and other outlets. Prior to being an ordained pastor, he was a journalist for the Star-Ledger in New Jersey.

Chris writes about the intersection of faith, cultural trends, and American life.

Symbolic Reckoning

by Rob Hammock

“Finally, beloved, whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, … think about these things.” – Philippians 4:8

As the 4th of July passes, I have been thinking about the challenges we face in the United States – COVID-19, racial justice, divisive politics, and historical memory. I am thinking about my great-great grandfather.

Sergeant Major Marion Hill Fitzpatrick died 155 years ago, but through the dedication of my great uncle, our family has a collection of letters that he wrote to his wife during the Civil War –  over 170 pages written from 1862 through 1865. Reading them, I hear the voice of a man who loved his wife, loved his son, and desired to be of service to God. Consistently, I am struck by his humility before God. He also loved his country. In one of his last letters, written in March 1865, shortly before his death from battle: “Now is the time for all to rally around the standard of our Country and let us route Sherman and I firmly believe that peace will soon follow.” (Fitzpatrick 1976) The “Country” is the Confederate States of America. As with the large majority of my ancestors, Sgt. Major Fitzpatrick was a proud Georgian. Growing up, I learned to cherish this personal, intimate look into life along the battlefield while pining for home.

Photo by Rick Lobs on Unsplash

I have lived with what I have thought of as the “honorable” memory of my great-great grandfather. And yet I was also honored to be baptized at a sister Black Baptist church as ours had no baptistry. Despite growing up in Chicago as one of the few “Yanks” in the family, living into this tension never posed that great of a challenge. My immediate family was the only part of the family in Chicago and not in Georgia. And few of my Chicago friends and classmates cared much for Civil War history. The tension changed when I went south for school. What I learned then was that the notion of the Civil War as “The Lost Cause” or “War of Northern Aggression” was not dead. 

It has been over 30 years since I first moved south, and I still find myself fighting to reconcile my family heritage. I am slow to judge my great-great grandfather in his time, because I don’t know that I would have chosen any differently to support the Confederacy. It is quite easy to imagine myself an anti-slavery abolitionist a century and a half removed. However, knowing my own conflict averse nature, I’m afraid I would not have been so brave. I am not able to insert myself in those ancestral shoes to know how I would have acted.

There may have indeed been honorable and pleasing parts of my forbear’s conduct on a personal level. But I also know that to think on things that are true and just, I cannot but question the Confederate legacy in my lived present. During my younger years, I endured educational attempts to justify The Lost Cause by its focus on states’ rights. This is not an untrue notion, but it is a wholly inadequate portrayal when the overwhelming evidence points to a primary focus of those states’ rights being the ability to continue or expand slavery. The Articles of Secession were not part of my high school history classes, but had they been, I would have been quickly disabused of the notion that slavery was not a central issue. Yet, more insidious than the question of slavery was the blatantly clear white supremacy. 

In Confederate Vice President Alexander Stephens’ now infamously named “Cornerstone Speech” delivered in March 1861, one month before the beginning of the war, he comments on the error of the U.S. Constitution and its call for equality of all men:

“Our new government is founded upon exactly the opposite idea; its foundations are laid, its corner-stone rests, upon the great truth that the negro is not equal to the white man; that slavery subordination to the superior race is his natural and normal condition. This, our new government, is the first, in the history of the world, based upon this great physical, philosophical, and moral truth.” (Stephens 1861)

The legacy of a post-Civil War south through Reconstruction and the Jim Crow era reinforces that Stephens’ words did not die when Lee surrendered. As the next 100 years attested, slavery may have been abolished, but the notion of white supremacy remained intractable. And it has not died yet.

The flag of the Country under which my great-great grandfather marched and fought is one inexorably linked to white supremacy. To clamor for the memory of this time as one of “heritage, not hate” is to be blinded by willful misremembrance. And this faulty memory is not limited to Confederate standards. When we hearken back to the Declaration of Independence and its “self-evident” truth that “all men were created equal” (Jefferson 1776), we now proclaim that this was but a partial truth as it only applied to white men. We must acknowledge that the Declaration, profound for its time, was a limited, aspirational document. 

It is high past time to be reformed to the vision that all are God’s beloved children and equal in God’s eyes. If our old standards and guides are built on lies and half-truths, then the time has come to reexamine and reimagine them. If we don’t, then they have become nothing more than idols deserving to be thrown down as much as any golden calf. (Exodus 32) As for my great-great grandfather, if he was alive today, I pray that his spirit of humility would allow his eyes to be opened to see the damage done in the name of Christ by the standard of the Confederacy, and that he would live into a true love of his neighbors, especially the Black ones.

Postscript. For those who may be wrestling with their own challenges of how to reconcile Southern history and process its impact after having been steeped in its mythology, I recommend the work of my friend, Pete Candler, and his website, A Deeper South. 

From his blog, “Closing Time in America” in April:

“If nothing else, my experiences attempting to reckon with Southern history and culture and my own place in it have taught me how those contradictions can co-exist with one another truthfully, and not without hope. It is not a question of reconciling contradictions between the American ideal and the American reality; it is more basic than that: getting contradictions in the same room together, around the same table, if only to sit in silence together for a while. For a nation that has arguably never really been morally sober, this may be too much to ask.” (Candler 2020)


Candler, Pete. 2020. “Closing Time in America”, A Deeper South. April 15. Accessed May July 4, 2020, 2020.

Fitzpatrick, Sergeant Major Marion Hill. 1976. Letters to Amanda: 1862-1865. Edited by Henry Mansel Hammock. Culloden, GA: Henry Mansel Hammock.

Jefferson, Thomas, et al. 1776. Declaration of Independence: A Transcription – National Archives. July 4. Accessed July 4, 2020.

Stephens, Alexander H. 1861. Cornerstone Speech. March 21. Accessed July 6, 2020.

Robert Hammock recently rolled off of the Session after a 3-year term at Caldwell Presbyterian Church in Charlotte, NC. Although trained at Princeton Theological Seminary (MDIV), the last 20 years of his career have been focused on affordable housing and community development efforts, primarily in urban contexts. He remains active in a leadership role through his church’s development of affordable housing through the re-purposing of part of its campus.

Rob is also a part of the NEXT Church blogging cohort, and his writing focuses on faith, ministry, and community development.

The Jealous God

by Whitney Fauntleroy

Did you know that the God we worship is jealous? We tend to describe God in the easier to digest terms: merciful, gracious, loving, forgiving, patient -or-in the chorus of omni’s- omnipresent, omniscient.  In general, we do not like the idea of worshipping a God who is jealous. While I am pretty familiar with the definition of jealous, I want us to wade into the definition anew today. From Miriam Webster:

1: hostile toward a rival or one believed to enjoy an advantage : ENVIOUS

2a: intolerant of rivalry or unfaithfulness

b: disposed to suspect rivalry or unfaithfulness

3: vigilant in guarding a possession

In Exodus 20 one of the places in the Bible where we find the Ten Commandments, I keep going back to God’s reminder of this particular attribute. God is a jealous god. God has at this point in the scriptural witness a history of punishing current generations for the sins and disobedience of their great grandparents. Why? Simply because God is jealous. Maya Angelou said, “When people show you who they are, believe them”. We seem to be skeptical that God is who God says She is, particularly when God defines herself in hard to swallow terms.

Photo by Robert Vergeson on Unsplash

As the debate over removing statues and monuments erected for problematic American figures rages on…again, I cannot help but think about our love of idols. Most of the time when I heard about idols in the worship or teaching spaces of church it was things like money or success but what about actual graven images? Perhaps we all got so used to these statues and monuments, that we never paused to think about who the person was or what it meant for all of God’s children to have them look over capitol buildings and public spaces. Idol worship is intrinsic to what seems like the real state religion of America which is America. The very idea of our country is an idol, the way many of our histories, documents, and thus those who made them possible in broad strokes of American ideals: courage, bravery, freedom means that many of us are taught to love this country before we are taught to love Christ. 

Civil religion is not the same thing as faith in the Triune God. That can be easy to forget when there are sanctuaries with American flags and some congregations sing to the idols of American exceptionalism on State holiday Sundays. My senior year of high school I attended Duke Youth Academy for Christian Formation and heard Dr. Stanley Hauerwas said, “If your church has an American flag in your sanctuary then your salvation is in jeopardy”. 

When the people who fill our pews (and our clergy too) love the ideals (even as corrupt as they can be) of these yet to be United States more than the ideals of the kingdom of God, how do we reclaim our allegiance not to flags and founding fathers but reclaim our fidelity to a God who already told us that they were jealous, and that idol worship, graven images no matter how noble the human may be is sin against God?

My prayer is that we sit with what American gods we serve, question whose freedom we seek ,and remember that God is indeed a jealous God and that might just be good news right now, always, and forever.

Whitney Fauntleroy is a North Carolina native. Now in her sixth year of ordained ministry, Whitney is grateful to have experienced ministry in many contexts. Whitney has served as Director of Youth Ministry at University United Methodist Church in Chapel Hill, a Designated Solo Pastor at Chestnut Street Presbyterian Church in Wilmington, NC. In the Spring of 2017, she began serving as Associate Pastor of Youth and Young Adults at Westminster Presbyterian Church in Alexandria, Virginia.

Whitney is also part of the NEXT Church blogging cohort and writes at the intersection of popular culture, identity, and theology.

Who Deserves To Be The Sower?

by Holly Haile Thompson

“Massa keat mund summana wequannank soops nipi. Tabutne.” Our land has truly been blessed by the Great God of Nature. – A Shinnecock Prayer

In loving memory: Edythe Thunder Bird Gregoire returned to the Spirit World May 31, 2020. Sister; “Mother to many, grandmother to more;” A respected Shinnecock Elder, who passed during the pandemic but not of the virus – so her children could say ‘good-bye’, and she did not have to die alone; that meant the world to us. We are so grateful for her life, a loving woman of faith.

“My Daddy changed the world”

I quote Gianna Floyd, 6 year old daughter of George Floyd, killed by police in Minnesota last week. Yet, when I consider the unreasonable cost of Mr. Floyd’s accomplishment, surely there were less violent ways to get the attention of White sisters and brothers in this country, in this world.

Substitutionary Atonement is a dangerous concept… “to glorify suffering is to render [George Floyd’s] suffering sacred. To do so is to glorify the sin of defilement.”*

In the 1990s I had the honor of supping with Rev. Dr. William Sloane Coffin, we were guests of Rev. Dr. Donna Schaper. Naturally our conversation included my being a Shinnecock Indian, how my perspective was necessarily different to his. There came a point I felt that I was not making my meaning clear, so when in doubt, quote Dr. Delores S. Williams (that’s the best advice I can give anyone)! I’d recently visited Dr. Williams at Union Seminary, and we’d discussed White siblings who live in fear that someone might “push the proverbial button” ending life as they know it. She said, “…it could be said that ‘the button’ has already been pushed on my people.” A sentiment that, as an Indigenous woman, I could recognize.

And so I said to Dr. Coffin, “Professor Delores Williams says that “…it could be said that ‘the button’ has already been pushed on [her] people”; I added that Native people aren’t interested in helping the Whites continue a centuries long ‘reign of terror’ against the Brown peoples of the earth. He asked me if I really thought people would choose ‘to end it all’ rather than help this America continue? ‘Twas a decade before 9-11; I merely asked why would we willingly continue to labor in a deadly, unjust system for more of the same?

Dinner conversation has its limits; lessons are intended to plant a seed deep within those with ears who listen.

July’s lectionary considers the Matthean version of ‘sowers and seeds’, prefaced by particular actions and unexpected, yea unintended, results. In Mt 11, John the Baptist and Jesus, both divine messengers, one with fire, one with cool water, but neither seemed able to capture the hearts of those who, together, could have helped make their world more loving, more just, a better place; – the hearers would neither dance together, nor mourn together.

Photo by Neslihan Gunaydin on Unsplash

Even the untutored understands; a 6 year old can imagine love over hate.

And if ‘Sowers of Seeds’ don’t know the difference between Good Ground** and thorny, rocky terrain and soil with ulterior motives then why should they remain in charge of the planting?

John’s fiery doctrinal ‘law and order’ mandating “Repent!”, come to the Jordan, be baptized, prepare for judgement – make ready for new life. In contrast, Jesus’ commitment to the ‘least of these’, water for all who thirst, and his passion for the God of Justice didn’t appeal to those who revel in their ability to mete out provision, punishment, blessing or curse as they saw fit: religious and civil authorities covertly cooperating with occupying Romans are not interested in an egalitarian society.

Part of my perspective includes my own experience: Last summer I reported a troubling e-mail sent to my More Light church which I believed threatening in nature. This e-mail targeted – by name – the mother of an inter-racial family of church members; we also housed a HeadStart on the premises. I’d been home on Shinnecock, so showed the e-mail to my Tribal Chairman and several Council Members – all of whom had a criminal justice background. They recommended that I go to the State Police to have this disturbing e-mail documented and alert the authorities; after which, upon returning to my church with the NY State Police Incident Number in hand, I could alert the upstate police and ask that they take closer notice of our building and grounds for the safety of all concerned.

The State Trooper laughed at me. After my husband and I waited 25 minutes in the waiting area without seeing anyone, the tall, burly, White Trooper glanced at the text of the e-mail and laughed. “When you’re finished laughing, would you please document this report and kindly issue me an Incident Number to take to the Police Dept local to my church…” who, thankfully, took very seriously the fact that individuals, inter-racial families, HeadStart children and elderly church-folk must be kept safe in their town.

Black, Brown and Indigenous people have thousands of stories… so when will our White siblings listen?


*Womanist Theology on Atonement, by Delores S. Williams – as printed in The Nonviolent Atonement, second edition, by J. Denny Weaver, Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., Grand Rapids, MI 2011; page 199.
**Good Ground is the traditional name given by the Shinnecock People to the portion of our Territory now known as Hampton Bays, Long Island, NY

The Rev Holly Haile Thompson, DD is a blood member of the Shinnecock Nation, Long Island, NY, studied at the University of Dubuque Theological Seminary, IA, was graduated in 1985, ordained by the Presbytery of Western Colorado in 1986 becoming the first Native American Woman to become Minister of Word and Sacrament/Teaching Elder in the Presbyterian Church (USA). Holly served congregations in Colorado and in New York state, is a member of several churchwide committees including the Racial Equity Advocacy Committee (REAC), the Native American Consulting Committee (NACC), and serves on the Doctrine of Discovery Speakers Bureau, all of the PCUSA denomination. Currently, Holly volunteers with the United Methodist Church’s northeast Native American Ministries Committee – supporting the UMC ongoing ‘Act of Repentance’. Holly most recently concluded her service with 1st Presbyterian Church Potsdam, NY as Transitional/Supply Pastor to explore what an “Anti-Racist Church” might look like. She works with the Poor Peoples’ Campaigns of Northern New York and of Long Island. Holly is married to Kahetakeron Harry Thompson of Akwesasne, and together they share 7 children, 16 grandchildren and 6 great grandchildren. “May our paths lead us to a time when we shall live together in Peace on Good Mother Earth.”

Holly is also a member of the NEXT Church blogging cohort and her writing focuses on indigenous theology and the lectionary.

Coffeyville, Kansas: Population 9,481

by Catherine Neelly Burton

Unless you’re looking for Coffeyville, Kansas, you’re not likely to happen upon it.  It’s located in southeast Kansas, a mile from the Oklahoma border.  I drove to Coffeyville on a hot June day.  What I saw as I drove through downtown was not much different than many small towns in Kansas: signs of new life and possibility mixed in with lots of empty storefronts.

There’s a museum dedicated to the Dalton Gang, many of whom were killed or prosecuted in Coffeyville.  There are a few new loft-like buildings that look like they could be in a much bigger city.  

Then there are the churches.  Shells of American Christendom line the downtown streets.  Enormous buildings bearing signs that read First Methodist, First Baptist, and the First Christian Church are a stone’s throw from each other on South Elm Street.  One quick turn takes you to First Presbyterian, equally as large. 

Photo by Josh Redd on Unsplash

As a community, Coffeyville has had a rough go of it.  In 1999 Amazon built a warehouse there and provided a lot of jobs.  Unfortunately for Coffeyville, people in cities want same day delivery, so in 2014 Amazon left as it moved warehouses to big city suburbs.  In 2007 a nearby river flooded.  The flood waters ravaged a third of the city, and even worse than that, a local refinery flooded, mixing oil with the river water.  Homes were lost forever.  

The town could use some wins.  Still, they have kept their community college and hospital.  Keeping the hospital is no small feat as hospitals all over Kansas have closed due to lack of funds tied to the state’s refusal to expand Medicaid. 

In 1999 the First Presbyterian Church had 193 members.  In 2019 the number was 75.  This 20-year decline is not much different than what I see elsewhere in our presbytery.  However, a church of 500 that drops to 250 can still support a pastor.  The Coffeyville church can’t, at least not a seminary trained, ordained, and installed pastor.  

The church in Coffeyville continues to be active in worship and ministry because in 2008 they called a Commissioned Ruling Elder (or Commissioned Lay Pastor as we said back then).  Pastor Diane Massey served churches for many years as a Director of Christian Education.  In 1999 she approached the presbytery of Southern Kansas about the Commissioned Lay Pastor program.  There was no program, so they gave her a stack of books to read and assigned her a mentor to meet with once a week for three years.  After that time she was commissioned to the church in Cambridge, KS.  

In 2008 she was ready to retire when Coffeyville asked her to come help them out for a one-year contract.  This turned into 12 years.  Every Wednesday and Sunday, Pastor Diane drives more than an hour each way from her home in Dexter, Kansas, to Coffeyville.  She and the session continue to renew her contract because the sense of call for Diane and the church is great.

As I think about what is next for the PCUSA I’m amazed by people like Diane, and I’m floored by how little we’ve invested in the Commissioned Ruling Elder process.  The good news is that there are a lot of people like Diane who love Jesus and love the Presbyterian Church, and who are gifted and capable leaders.  The future of the church, not only in Southern Kansas, can’t continue to rely on a model of MDiv pastors.  It is by God’s grace that Coffeyville has Diane, and I think the PCUSA could be more vibrant in small churches if we not only received God’s grace but also responded to it and empowered more leaders.

Catherine Neelly Burton serves as the pastor of what is most easily categorized as a ‘traditional’ PCUSA congregation, even though that era is gone. She serves at Grace Presbyterian in Wichita, KS. Grace has about 350 members and is an amazing congregation with wonderful people. She is married to John, and they have a four year old daughter and a nine year old dog.

Catherine is also a member of the NEXT Church blogging cohort and her writing focuses on rural ministry in Kansas.