Reverend Samuel Rodriguez is the president of the National Hispanic Christian Leadership Conference with over half a million churches as members. He is also a sophisticated political analyst and a self-described ‘math nerd’. His new book,Be Light, came as the result of a personal crisis in which he realized that he had been spending too much time thinking, preaching about darkness. According to Pastor Sam, God led him to shift the emphasis of his life from a darkness focus to a light focus for the remainder of his days.
Exposing darkness is honorable, and yet at the same time toxic, work. Peter Thiel says that if you must have enemies it’s important to choose your enemies well because you’re going to spend a lot of time with them. What you spend time with, even in opposition, you become like. I think Pastor Sam is right that my tribe and his, religious conservatives, are spending far too much time peering into the social, cultural, political, and economic darkness. Never in the history of the world has darkness ever been stared out of existence. No one has ever uncast a shadow by talking about how bad shadows are. The only thing which ever has, or ever could, dispel darkness is light. Before light comes, darkness is literally nothing. There is no void or vacuum which cannot be defeated by being filled with something. Darkness is absence and as St. Augustine said, evil is not a new or different kind of being, it is a privation of being. Evil is not a thing, it is a non-thing where a thing should be.
The evil which Pastor Sam sees now is the evil of fragmentation. Rich vs. Poor. Black and brown vs. white. Young vs. old. This is, as Pastor Sam says, ‘darkness’ M.O.’. And it seems to be getting worse, like it was, say, in the late ’60s and ’70s. Economic stagnation frays the social fabric. Violent clashes between police and protesters send out a signal of a culture, or at least parts of it, which are in a state of dissolution. Surprisingly, to Pastor Sam all of these things are reasons for hope. According to him, the problems of the ’70s became the catalyst which launched two great movements for renewal: the modern evangelical movement which came out of the Jesus People brought spiritual renewal to tens of millions, and the Reagan Revolution (which rode alongside that revival) brought political and then consequently economic renewal.
When darkness grows, people naturally get frightened. Terrorism, authoritarian progressive and nationalist ideologies, decline in the rule of law in high places of government and down at street level as well, a lack of respect for religious as well as economic freedom – all of these things tend to grow well together. Like noxious bacteria, they thrive in the dark.
Pastor Sam thinks it’s time to turn on the lights. I think so too.
I spent an hour with Pastor Sam recently via Skype. You can listen to the complete interview here, or read a partial transcript below. Both are edited for clarity.
BOWYER: I’m talking today with Pastor Samuel Rodriguez.
Pastor Samuel (Pastor Sam as he’s known to his parishioners) is an extremely important leader in the religious community in America, in the Evangelical Christian community, and in the Latino community at the same time.
He’s president of the National Hispanic Christian Leadership Conference, which is an organization of more than 500,000 evangelical churches. He is a frequent commentator on CNN, Fox News, Telemundo, NBC, and many other media outlets. He is the husband of Eva, father of three children, author of many books. His current book is entitled simply Be Light.
Pastor Sam, thanks for being with us today.
PASTOR SAM: Thank you for having me.
BOWYER: You know, it’s interesting, your new book is titled Be Light. That’s probably the first phrase that God ever spoke in the Bible. But I’ve never seen anyone write a book about something that is so fundamental, so chronologically prior, so spiritually prior to anything else in the world. It’s almost surprising that this book hasn’t been written hundreds of years before now.
So what got you here, what got you to the point where you wanted to write a book about just simply the idea of being light?
PASTOR SAM: Two dynamics. One on the personal level, I found myself writing, contributing, speaking, addressing, preaching on issues of darkness a bit too much.
In the past few years what I call the dark canopy that fully encompasses, if not the entire world, the vast majority of at least western civilization. The reality is things are becoming darker, culturally, politically, socially, economically, morally. We’re living in a darker world, arguably, than ever before. And I found myself writing, and somehow inundated by this dynamic of darkness that I had my moment of Zen in the words of Jon Stewart, or I had my Road to Damascus encounter in the words of Dr. Malcolm X.
I’ve had an encounter. And my encounter took place in my living room, where I really felt something in my heart and in my communion with God. I felt something telling me, Samuel, you’re focusing on the darkness instead of focusing on the light. You could either spend the rest of your life condemning the darkness, writing about darkness, whining about darkness, getting depressed and anxious about darkness, but what if we flip it and we turn on the light, because every single time light stands next to darkness light always wins.
And then I was led to Matthew Chapter 5 verses 14 through 16, “You are the light of the world”, you, Samuel SAM, you church, you Christ followers, you are the light of the world. And a city and hill cannot be hidden. And that right there was my moment of it’s time to be light.
One of the most compelling parts of the books, or better yet coming out of scripture, is this idea is found in Revelation, but also found in the spirit of the prayer that Jesus made in John, Chapter 17 ‑‑ “Let them be one as you and I are one.” This aspect of unity.
So Jerry, we find ourselves in a very ‑‑ let’s just say fragmented society, particularly here in America. I mean, we are polarized, we’re divided on issues of politics. And now this reemergence of conversations on race, and socio-economic reality. We are divided, we’re back to 1967 and ’68, ’69, ’70.
BOWYER: Yeah, we are.
PASTOR SAM: We are divided once again. And we ask ourselves so why should we be united? What’s the power behind this concept of unity besides some sort of utopia or Pollyannaish world view?
Well, here it is, the most powerful light is actually the convergence of all of the colors of the visible spectrum.
I mean all that ‑‑ in laymen’s terms, all the colors of the rainbow, when they come together they actually produce the brightest light. Imagine that. And in the book I write about the power of unity, what would happen if black, white, yellow and brown would come together in America and around the world. And we come together and coalesce around truth, and love, and hope, and faith, we would release power and energy and light that would do nothing other than push back darkness like we’ve never seen before.
So it’s the power of unity all from a simple physics or scientific principle stemming out the reality of light.
BOWYER: You said you were a nerd, so I’m going to test your kind of nerd credentials.
Are you a Lord of the Rings nerd at all?
PASTOR SAM: I am. I am. I am a Lord of the Rings nerd, indeed.
BOWYER: Okay. We have Saruman, who is the white wizard, right?
PASTOR SAM: Yes.
BOWYER: And we have Gandalf the Grey. And the moment that Gandalf knows that Saruman has fallen into evil is when Saruman says, I’m no longer Saruman the white, now I’m Saruman of many colors. And he shows his magic cloak, and it’s all these different colors.
And I don’t remember exactly what Gandalf says, but he says, he who breaks a thing into its parts in order to know it better, has left the path of wisdom.
And that’s kind of what you’re talking about. That God is almost like a reverse prism. He takes all our different wavelengths and puts them together as a brighter light. But the reverse of that is you break the light apart. You play young against old. You play black against white. You play brown against black. You play man against woman.
PASTOR SAM: It’s the modus operandi of darkness. It really is. It’s fragmentation. If we can somehow deconstruct what God has constructed, if we can deconstruct that prism that you alluded to the spectrum, and if we can play one group against the other group, that’s how darkness ‑‑ that’s the strategy of darkness, that’s the strategy of evil. And we find ourselves once again within our American reality confronting that truth: there are those that gain great, be it monetary, be it advantages politically, whatever it may be, they live off fragmentation and discord and strife. But that truth, it requires us, the children of the light ‑‑ in the words of Paul in Ephesians — it requires us, who were once in darkens that are now children of the light, for us to stand up. It requires us, according to Matthew Chapter 5 verses 14 through 16, not hide our light in complacency or acquiescence to fear. We can’t hide it. If we have it, we have to put on the stand and we let it shine.
BOWYER: During most of my life what I’ve seen is American politics had a certain unity to it, and sometimes it fell into fragmentation, or use of wedge for political purposes, or what the anthropologist, Rene Girard, calls mimetic rivalry. It falls into this division. But it feels to me like we’ve hit a tipping point now where the wedging, the fragmentation, is now not something that our politicians sometimes use when they reach into the bottom part of their toolbox, but that fragmentation is now the dominant political dynamic in America. Am I overstating that, or do you see the same thing?
PASTOR SAM: Not at all. As a matter of fact, and you can quantify this however you want to look at it, the legislative initiatives and bills that were passed, the differences between Republicans and Democrats twenty, thirty, forty, fifty years ago, would arguably best be described as de minimis. It was de minimis. The rest of the world would look at Republicans versus Democrats. And they would say it’s just not that far of a difference. I mean you had little nuances as it pertains to foreign policy. I think the bigger difference was our social economic reality after the New Deal in 1932, and FDR. But things were more ‑‑ even FDR on foreign policy and the core values, the differences were de minimis.
PASTOR SAM: All of a sudden today, instead of de minimis, the wedge is ginormous. It’s just extremism and it’s the polar ‑‑ it’s completely contrary. It’s a dichotomy politically, ideologically as it pertains to presentation of parties, and constructs, and systems. I mean, Dorothy, we’re not in Kansas anymore. We’ve never been down this road before.
What’s the answer? The answer is for people to be light. If we are light, and we come together, and we reflect that light, and we shine that light, darkness will have no other choice but to fell. We must turn the light on.
BOWYER: Yes. And there’s the wedge between the parties, and also even the wedges between the factions within the parties. I’m a Republican. Sometimes lately I don’t necessarily always feel so comfortable with that label. But what I see is division between say base and establishment, and even divisions within the base. You know people go from zero to a hundred in hostility now in seconds. It’s automatic ‑‑ you look at social media, the hatred kicks in really early now. Reagan was in some degree in conflict with the moderate wing of the party, but there wasn’t this level of hatred and darkness, at least I don’t remember it.
PASTOR SAM: No, no, no. I was a child that grew up in the ’80s, so I was inspired by Ronald Reagan indeed. I remember one time being interviewed by Bill Moyers, and he asked me who inspired you above all politically. I told him spiritually it was Billy Graham and Dr. King. He asked me politically, you’re very involved so who inspired you. And I went to two people, Ronald Reagan and John F. Kennedy.
And he asked how in the world can you reconcile them both. I said believe it or not ideologically they were not that too far apart. But, you know, it is true.
BOWYER: No, ideologically they were very close together. Both cold war people, both tax cutters.
PASTOR SAM: But we’re not there anymore. It’s a new reality politically and culturally and socially. And we find ourselves asking what in the world do we do? And with my family I’m thinking what am I going to leave behind.
PASTOR SAM: You know where are they going to grow up, in what kind of reality? And so I’m compelled more than ever before to be light in my personal life and my community, and what I do in ministry in preaching the gospel of Christ of course. And what I do ‑‑ and even in all aspects of culture and society, how can I be light, how can I best turn on the light in any given situation? And that’s my commitment for the rest of my days: being light in the midst of darkness.