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No, God did not give Trump authority to bomb Korea.

August 10th, 2017 No comments

‘God has given Trump authority to take out Kim Jong Un,’ evangelical adviser says

Texas megachurch pastor Robert Jeffress, one of President Trump’s evangelical advisers who preached the morning of his inauguration, has released a statement saying the president has the moral authority to “take out” North Korean leader Kim Jong Un.

The only Christian characteristic we may assign to Donald Trump is the example of the unrepentant sinner. That evangelical Christians have embraced him is mystifying. Christians are afforded every constitutional liberty in a democracy that everyone else enjoys. But the Christian who claims membership in the Body of Christ is constrained by a higher authority to stricter standards. In a classic example of the thinking “the end justifies the means,” evangelicals embraced Donald Trump out of their concern for cultural issues and the courts such as LGBT rights and abortion. The assertion publicly made by self-appointed Christian leaders during the campaign was, “we are not electing a Pastor in Chief.” It would seem that some evangelicals hope to force their version of morality on non-Christians by means of an instrument that violates their stated core moral principles. It’s like hoping to use a broken hammer to fix a broken hammer.

Pastor Robert Jeffress of the First Baptist Church in Dallas, a Donald Trump sycophant and apparent denier of the central Christian message (“For God so loved the world…” John 3:16), has issued a statement in response to the President’s ill-considered off-the-cuff threats to North Korea affirming that “God has given Trump authority to take out Kim Jong Un” presumably using nuclear weapons. Perhaps anticipating pushback from other Christians (such as myself), he went on to note that Christians who disagree with his startling claim “are not well taught in the scriptures.”

In the same way that I learned the futility of engaging Trump supporters using logic and reason (or at all really), I have learned not to argue theology with believers who have so distorted the Christian message, particularly those who conflate the Kingdom of God with the United States and the People of God with the Republican Party in the United States. But, as one well taught in the scriptures (at one of America’s finest Evangelical seminaries), I feel compelled to respond to this tortured treatment of the thirteenth Chapter of Paul’s letter to the Romans., Specifically, Jeffress bases his argument on verse 4 which states, “For he [the ruler] is the servant of God, an avenger who carries out God’s wrath on the wrongdoer. ” The underlying assumption here, obviously, is that Trump is God’s chosen instrument with the power of Caesar to punish the evildoer Kim Jong Un. 

Now it is theologically sound to point out that Donald Trump’s authority derives from God, because all authority (even Satan’s) does. And it is also reasonable, based on Christian principles, to judge Kim Jong Un, with his desire to wreak nuclear havoc on his neighbors, as an evildoer. But it takes a wild leap of the imagination to assume, therefore, that God by means of this verse has assigned to Donald Trump the authority to endanger lives both in the United States and Asia by unleashing war on the Korean peninsula.

One of the very first classes new seminarians take is called “hermeneutics,” dealing with the accurate interpretation of scripture.  Having earned a Ph.D from the University of California and also studied hermeneutics at seminary, I can say with confidence that the critical eye with which Christian academics approach the interpretation of Biblical texts is at least as rigorous as that used in secular academia. In hermeneutics the student is taught methods by which a text written in the far past can be mined for meaning in today’s world. The process is straightforward: first determine what the text said to the people is was written to, and then frame that message for contemporary life. Context is everything. To take literal passages out of context and apply to them random meanings in support of the issues of contemporary society has led to tragedies throughout the ages. One may state with certainty that the Bible does recount that Judas “went out and hanged himself” (Mt. 27:5), but it is a violation of the clear meaning of the text to then affirm that Jesus said, “You go, and do likewise.” (Luke 10:37) Yet this is what Jeffress has done.

The context of Paul’s letter to the Romans is the Roman Empire in the first century. The Roman Empire was a pagan one with little sympathy for or understanding of Jewish monotheism and their intricate laws, but they tolerated and even protected it. Paul’s experience before the Roman proconsul Gallio (Acts 18) demonstrated that the Roman official had no interest in interfering in religious affairs. With this tacit approval of the pagan authorities to practice their religion in freedom, it was prudent for Christians, who the Romans associated with Judaism, to demonstrate upright behavior through conscientious observation of Roman secular law. This is stated not only by Paul here but by other apostles in other letters to the early Churches (1 Thes. 4; 1 Pet. 2). Christians were admonished to be upright in their adherence to the law to silence critics and demonstrate that they posed no threat to the Empire.

It is in the sense of maintaining peace and order that Paul assigns authority to the ruler as an instrument of wrath: an instrument in opposition to wrongdoing and social disorder. C.S. Lewis summarizes the reach of the secular ruler in his book Mere Christianity:

…it is easy to think the State has a lot of different objects—military, political, economic, and what not. But in a way things are much simpler than that. The State exists simply to promote and to protect the ordinary happiness of human beings in this life. A husband and wife chatting over a fire, a couple of friends having a game of darts in a pub, a man reading a book in his own room or digging in his own garden— that is what the State is there for. And unless they are helping to increase and prolong and protect such moments, all the laws, parliaments, armies, courts, police, economics, etc., are simply a waste of time. C.S. Lewis, Mere Christianity (1952; Harper Collins: 2001) 199.

Paul’s description of the relationship of the Christian and the state is in effect an admonition to do as Jesus commanded, “Render to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s, and to God the things that are God’s.” (Mark 12:17) Jesus acknowledges that the state has a valid place in God’s order, even if it is not a “Christian” state. But Jesus’ command sets limits on the allegiance Christians owe to the state. Paul himself noted in his letter to the Philippian Christians that “our citizenship is in Heaven.” (Phil. 3:20) We are to consider ourselves resident aliens and obey the laws of the Empire inasmuch as they do not violate our conscience. But we must also be willing to suffer the consequences of disobedience to laws we cannot in good conscience obey. That is why Peter and the apostles replied to the demand of the Sanhedrin to quit preaching Jesus, “We must obey God rather than men.” (Acts 5:29) That is also why the martyrs were willing to suffer execution for publicly maintaining their allegiance to Christ.

Considered within the context of Paul’s purpose for writing, and not to cherry pick a biblical phrase that supports a predetermined worldview, we see that the subject of the first seven verses in Romans Chapter 13 is the relationship of the Christian to the state, not the authority of the ruler, whoever he may be. How then does a biblical scholar make the astonishing leap from a call for exemplary behavior on the part of Christians to God giving Trump authority to nuke Korea? I suggest that Mr. Jeffress is preying upon scriptural illiteracy (already abundantly demonstrated by Trump) buttressed by a fusion of bad theology and US jingoism, none of it supported in scripture.

The New Testament is deafeningly silent on the issue of rulers crushing their enemies. But it has a lot to say about love. When the New Testament puts forward love as a Christian ideal, it is not the flawed human emotion, rather it is the self-sacrificing action Jesus accomplished on the Cross, to create a way for lost humanity to once again enjoy Shalom, the peace of God. Jesus had no reservations about his sacrifice, he did it for no personal gain, and in fact he did it for people who were his sworn enemies. The Apostle John shows Jesus teaching his disciples how the world will know they are his followers: “A new commandment I give to you, that you love one another: just as I have loved you, you also are to love one another. By this all people will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another.” (John 13:34-35) Just as I have loved you. That is the high bar that is set for Christians.

Paul also has much to say about love. In fact, it is the subject of the next three verses in Romans 13 following his discussion of citizenship. He admonishes “Love does no wrong to a neighbor; therefore love is the fulfilling of the law.” (Romans 13:10) Who is my neighbor? In answer to that question Jesus told the parable of the Good Samaritan (Luke 10:29-35). After telling the story of the Jew who had been rescued by the Samaritan (read: Jews and Muslims), Jesus asks his questioner who was neighbor to the victim. The man replied, “The one who treated him with mercy.” In response to this Jesus said, “Go and do likewise.”

I submit that for a Christian leader, or any Christian for that matter, when asked to consider the prospect of setting out on a course bound to negatively affect thousands if not millions of innocent lives, the considered response ought to keep this call to mercy foremost. Trump may or may not have valid worldly reasons for initiating a war with North Korea, but we can be reasonably certain his authority to do so does not derive from Paul’s advice to Christians about how to behave in a pagan Empire.

Things or People?

May 14th, 2017 No comments

Yesterday I had a short conversation with an apparently conservative guy who claimed he wanted “smaller government” because big government is taking away his stuff. It has occurred to me that one of the enduring divides in American politics is this issue of the size of government. Many of the founders and many who followed them felt that the smaller the government the better. Madison famously wrote that if men were angels no government would be necessary. But since there must be government, one strain of American political thought has been that that government should be small, limited, and close to the governed.

By contrast, Hamilton hoped to have a government that would be big enough to control the national economy. This feeds into the basic definitional conflict between he and Jefferson: is the United States to be a landscape of personal liberty, or is it to be a great commercial and industrial empire? Thus it would seem that the small government people would be those in favor of maximum liberty, and the big government people would be in favor of economic growth.

But since the time of the founding the small government crowd has come to focus its ideas on the purpose of government on individual ownership. The basic argument of a small government Republican is that the government shouldn’t take his hard-earned money and give it to some deadbeat who refuses to work. It’s an understandable sentiment, but rooted in the false narrative that those who are unable to achieve health and prosperity are prevented only by their own lack of initiative. On the other side, those favoring big government hope to harness the power of the national government to provide opportunities for health and prosperity for those who are hampered by circumstances beyond their control.

The basic divide is between those who see the country as a nation of sometimes like-minded autonomous individuals, and those who see the nation as a community. Individuals can choose whether to care for their neighbors, communities by nature cannot.

Compounding the dilemma is the co-opting of the moral narrative by the small government crowd. People calling themselves Christians have invented a narrative connecting the Constitution of the United States to the gospel of Jesus Christ. This even though the Constitution’s only mention of religion has to do with the definition of a strict secular state: no religious test for office, no established religion, and no prevention of the free exercise (or not) of religion. And leaving aside Paul’s admonition to the Christians of his age that “our citizenship is in heaven.” (Phil. 3:20)

But I will argue it is the big government crowd that controls the narrative in the United States most closely adhering to the moral teachings of Christ. I draw your attention to what is known as the parable of the Widow’s Mite. Here is the story:

He sat down opposite the treasury and observed how the crowd put money into the treasury.q Many rich people put in large sums. A poor widow also came and put in two small coins worth a few cents. Calling his disciples to himself, he said to them, “Amen, I say to you, this poor widow put in more than all the other contributors to the treasury. For they have all contributed from their surplus wealth, but she, from her poverty, has contributed all she had, her whole livelihood.” (Mark 12:41-44)

The connection with our national plight is here: what Jesus values most is not reluctant or even generous giving, but sacrifice. The widow, in the material sense, gave almost nothing, while the rest gave much. But the widow gave everything she had, casting her hopes for the future on Providence. The rest gave what they had left over, placing their faith only in themselves. Little reflection is necessary to connect the sacrifice of the widow with that of Jesus on the cross. And what was this money to be used for? The Jewish tradition is filled with God’s admonition to care for the stranger, the orphan, the widow and the poor. Christianity inherits this call to mercy. Christians have a responsibility to care for those who are unable to care for themselves. It follows that if the United States is a Christian nation, its society would be a community devoted to the welfare of all rather than a group of individuals interested primarily in the preservation of private property. See Acts 2:44-47.

In his famous anti-Vietnam War speech Martin Luther King, Jr. observed that to avoid moral death the United States must undergo a “revolution of values” from a “thing oriented society” to a “person oriented society.” This is the heart of it, is it not? Do we care more about our neighbor, or our stuff?

Amen.

February 22nd, 2017 No comments

 

San Diego’s Catholic bishop urges citizens to be ‘disruptors’ and ‘rebuilders’ in Trump era

Even before the White House announced stricter immigration policies Tuesday, there were signs of opposition. Addressing people “of all faiths and no faith,” San Diego’s Roman Catholic bishop on Saturday urged Americans to be “disruptors” and “rebuilders.” Donald Trump, Bishop Robert McElroy noted, had campaigned for the presidency as “the disruptor.”

διαβάλλειν – The one who creates division

February 20th, 2017 No comments

In Christian theology, the Devil is an angel who defied God, and thus became morally corrupt. His name is Satan, which translates to “the accuser,” but he is also called the Devil, which derives from the Greek word διαβάλλειν (diaballein), which is generally rendered “slanderer.” Both names are appropriate because in the Christian narrative world Satan stands before God accusing humanity of rebellion, which is a slander because the division between humanity and God was instigated by Satan himself.

Bishop Robert Barron notes that the construction of the word dia-ballein combines two Greek words: dia – through, and ballein – to throw. Adding those words together creates a sense of casting asunder, or division. One must be cautious in assigning meaning based on pure etymology because words often take on meanings removed from the component parts (under-stand doesn’t mean to stand under something), but in this case I think the interpretation is useful because one can see how accusing and slandering will cast relationships asunder and cause division.

When God created humanity ‘in his image,’ he created us in a love relationship that mirrored the love relationship of the Trinity. In the Trinity there are three distinct persons (Father, Son, and Holy Spirit) whose relationship with each other is a total outpouring of love, called perichoresis. The image of God in humans is the total outpouring of love by humanity for God, just as God pours himself out to humanity. In the Genesis story Adam and Eve stand for all humanity, and God has provided everything for their needs, given them autonomy and dominion over the earth. We read his instruction not to eat of the fruit of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil as a threat: if you do it you will die. But in fact it was a warning: creating a division in our relationship will bring about the death of our love relationship. It is not, “if you put your hand on the stove I will burn you,” it is, “if you put your hand on the stove you will get burned.”

The narrative continues with the arrival on the scene of the serpent, widely understood to be Satan. Satan tempts Eve with the promise of hidden knowledge and lies to her about the consequences of giving in to that temptation. But, alas, she is helpless to resist, and she sins, and Adam includes himself in her sin. And the sin immediately resulted in death, as God had warned.

The reader may wonder how the act resulted in immediate death when the Genesis narrative shows Adam and Eve living for hundreds of years outside of Eden. But the death God warned against was the death of the love relationship. As Paul writes, they moved from love of the Creator to love of created things, and after they were never able to devote their full attention to the love of God. Their affections were divided, which removed them from the total self-giving love of God. Thus, they were divided from God. That is death. The Serpent, Satan, the Accuser, the Slanderer, had successfully brought about the fall of humanity, casting asunder the wholeness of humans, and casting asunder their relationship with God.

The curse of humanity throughout recorded history has been the operation of this division manifest in uncountable ways. Humans are not only divided from God by their disordered affections, they are separated from each other by the breaking of God’s Spirit. The result is all of the calamities known to man.

Dia-ballein. To cast asunder. Division is the fate of humanity, and as we look about us today we lament the division we see in American politics, as if it were something new. Of course it is not new but at times it is more pronounced and noticeable. Although this spirit of division is undeniable, in the national discourse its cause is debated. To the conservatives, it’s the liberals To the liberals, it’s Trump. To the immigrants and minorities it’s the whites. To the whites it’s the “other,” whoever that happens to be at the moment (Naive Americans, Blacks, Irish, Catholics, Asians, Eastern Europeans, Italians, Okies, Hispanics, Japanese, and now Muslims). There are accusing fingers pointing in every direction. Each side, at least in its own mind, has truth and righteousness on its side, but the result is ever deepening division, to the point that one wonders if it is possible to heal.

Donald Trump was elected after running a campaign that sowed division. It began with the accusation that Mexicans were sending “rapists and drug dealers” and continued with attacks on Muslims, the press, the courts, “political correctness.” To some this aggressive speech was refreshing, stating openly what they had long believed but were afraid to vocalize. Others, like the KKK and other white supremacist organizations, openly celebrated that at last their hateful ideology was becoming mainstream.

Now, I am not saying that Donald Trump is the Devil, but I am saying that Donald Trump is doing the Devil’s work. Because the Devil’s work is to accuse and slander, skills Donald Trump has mastered.

But Donald Trump is not alone. Since the election, and particularly since the inauguration, liberals have responded to the provocations of the Trump administration by pointing accusing fingers not only at Trump, but against those who support him. It may be argued that their anger is righteous, but we must also concede that the result of this anger is not righteousness but more anger and more provocation. An eye for an eye leaves the whole world blind. If Donald Trump’s opponents are able to succeed in ending his presidency, it will not heal the division.

In a secular society like the United States, few are willing to consider national political and social problems in spiritual or religious terms. But it is clear that the strategies employed to solve these problems do exactly the opposite. Can we concede that peace cannot be restored or created by vanquishing our opponents? If so, then we may consider an alternative strategy.

Here, Christian theology comes to the rescue. The narrative that begins with the rebellion of humanity against the love of God, that sows division, ends with unity. The climax of the Christian story of salvation is the death and resurrection of Christ. The consequence of that event is that Christ has overcome death and division and restored the unity of man and God by restoring the love relationship. Theologically, this is accomplished by the death of the human spirit of division and rebirth in God’s Spirit of love and unity. That’s what Jesus means when he tells Nicodemus, “You must be born again.”

The biblical Christian outlook is that it is only by the death of our separateness can we be restored to union with God. When we become Christians, we receive the Spirit of Christ. There is only one Spirit of Christ. The result is that those who are living in Christ are all one, and the sign of that unity is the self-giving self-sacrificing love that Jesus modeled on the cross. When John writes “God is love,” he says implicitly that wherever self-denying self-sacrificing love is evident in the world, God is visible. And Jesus himself says that this is how his followers can be identified.

When Mohandas Gandhi was leading Satyagraha (truth war) against British rule in India, it was not difficult for him to find many willing to risk their well-being in violent revolution. It is perhaps symptomatic of the fall from grace that the human heart tends more toward vengeance than justice. But Gandhi insisted that no one could be his follower who did not surrender their inner urge to violence, even in thought. It is not enough to be nonviolent when one is incapable of mounting violent resistance. True nonviolence requires a nonviolence of the heart: a tendency to love and compassion rather than anger and punishment. The strength of Gandhi’s nonviolence was that even if he had the power to vanquish the British by force, he would rather have reached out in brotherhood. This is the Christian way.

And this must be our way. The truth is, the image of God is in all of us. We must learn to recognize that image in everyone we encounter. It is not likely that we will ever achieve substantial agreement on politics, but it is possible for us to love each other even if we disagree. South Africa in the time of apartheid could not have been any more divided. One way that President Nelson Mandela helped to heal that division was by reaching out to his opponents to work on projects they could agree on. “If you want to make peace with your enemy, you have to work with your enemy. Then he becomes your partner.”

I don’t think we should expect instant reciprocation. We may in fact receive violence in return for our love. But we must never give in to violence. We must have the courage to receive the blows of the enemy, knowing that our suffering will be the instrument that will save us both.

The alternative is to continue to divide. And this is the work of the one who creates division.

Thanksgiving Peace in a Troubled World

November 25th, 2016 No comments

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Rejoice in the Lord always. I shall say it again: rejoice! Your kindness should be known to all. The Lord is near. Have no anxiety at all, but in everything, by prayer and petition, with thanksgiving, make your requests known to God. Then the peace of God that surpasses all understanding will guard your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus.

Finally, brothers, whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is gracious, if there is any excellence and if there is anything worthy of praise, think about these things. Keep on doing what you have learned and received and heard and seen in me. Then the God of peace will be with you. (New American Bible, Revised Edition. (Washington, DC: The United States Conference of Catholic Bishops, 2011), Php 4:4–9.)

As I considered passages that might be appropriate for Thanksgiving I ran across Paul’s exhortations to the Christians at Philippi near the end of his letter to the church there.

Those Christians would have been familiar with negativity and anxiety. Scholars have estimated that the Christian church at Philippi was probably about 2% of the population. Very few of the local elites would have been included, and the greater part of the church membership would have been at the lower echelons of a status driven society, consisting mostly of poor Greeks and slaves. Philippi was a Roman colony, awash in the paganism of the Roman Empire, a promiscuous and idol worshipping culture similar to our own. In this letter Paul calls upon the Christians to live in a way that challenges the culture, which he acknowledges they are doing. But obviously, a minority challenge from the lowest level of society to the prevailing darkness would have produced anxiety in the community.

As someone who seeks to live “in Christ,” I identify with the plight of the Philippians. I have long felt that, far from being a Christian nation, the culture of the United States more resembles the paganism of the Hellenistic world. For me, this was made abundantly clear in the political process we had to endure this past several months. I allowed myself to become emotionally involved in the event, forgetting, as Paul reminds us, that “our citizenship is in heaven.” (Php. 3:20)

I think I am not the only one who has been adversely affected by the negativity of the season. I sense there is an air of bitterness and anxiety that was not resolved by the outcome of the election. Angry words are being exchanged, along with accusations and even acts of violence. The election didn’t solve anything. It seems to have deepened the divide.

So Paul’s advice to the Christians at Philippi is relevant to our own situation. He begins by essentially commanding the Philippians to rejoice. He emphasizes the command by repeating it. “I say again, rejoice!” This is not a passive admonition to “don’t worry, be happy.” The verbs in this passage are imperative.

How can Paul seriously expect worried people to respond positively to a command to rejoice? He can because he is not suggesting simply that one will oneself into joy (“lighten up!”). He is issuing a call to action. “Make your kindness known to all,” he tells them. And not to leave them scratching their heads, he follows this call to action with specific instructions.

The first thing they must do is to pray with thanksgiving. He actually prefaces the call to prayer by reminding them that “the Lord is near.” Some interpret this as a reminder of the Parousia, the second coming, but in the context of this call to prayer it more likely points out that Jesus has promised to be with us always (Mt. 28:20). So they (and we) have every reason to be grateful. We can pray with thanksgiving because we know the Lord is near, that he hears us. Our trust in the nearness of Christ in our afflictions and anxieties, if it is real, allows us to live with a peace that surpasses all understanding.

I think that last phrase deserves a little attention, because we are apt to think that Paul is writing in hyperbole. We are used to this, surrounded as we are with overblown descriptions of everything from laundry soap to toothpaste, and so we might dismiss it, as we do most advertising. But Paul didn’t live in a culture soaked in advertising, and when he writes that something surpasses all understanding, he means it. How can one understand a people who live in spiritual peace in the midst of troubled times? Are they daft? Paul assures us later in the letter that he has “learned to be content whatever the circumstances.” (Php. 4:11 NIV)

How? Paul instructs the Philippians to two counter-cultural actions. The first is to focus their attention on the things that are true, honorable, just, pure, lovely, or gracious, in short anything that speaks of the sovereignty of God in a fallen world. It is true that the world is fallen and because of that we are beset by corruption in everything, but at the same time God’s signature is still to be found: in nature, in our loving relations with those close to us, in acts of love and heroism and charity great and small. Paul here suggests that we can train our minds to notice these things first and above all. In other words, to notice God first and above all. That alone is enough to overcome the darkness of the world.

But he goes on. Paul instructs the Philippians to “keep on doing what you have learned and received and seen in me.” To know exactly what Paul means by that we have to look further back in the letter where he writes,

If there is any encouragement in Christ, any solace in love, any participation in the Spirit, any compassion and mercy, complete my joy by being of the same mind, with the same love, united in heart, thinking one thing. Do nothing out of selfishness or out of vainglory; rather, humbly regard others as more important than yourselves, each looking out not for his own interests, but [also] everyone for those of others.

Have among yourselves the same attitude that is also yours in Christ Jesus,

Who, though he was in the form of God,
did not regard equality with God something to be grasped.
Rather, he emptied himself,
taking the form of a slave,
coming in human likeness;
and found human in appearance,
he humbled himself,
becoming obedient to death,
even death on a cross.
Because of this, God greatly exalted him
and bestowed on him the name
that is above every name,
that at the name of Jesus
every knee should bend,
of those in heaven and on earth and under the earth,
and every tongue confess that
Jesus Christ is Lord,
to the glory of God the Father. (Php. 2:1-11 NABRE)

A central theme of all of Paul’s writing is the idea of being “in Christ.” Being in Christ means the abandonment of what he calls the flesh, meaning things of secular life, and adopting the Spirit, which is that our motivation becomes entirely identified with God’s will. And what is God’s will? Is it that we satisfy our worldly desires? Is it that we triumph in politics, accumulate worldly treasures and honors, vanquish those who persecute us? No. It is that we pour ourselves out completely in our service to those around us. Even those who don’t like us, who we may not like very much. Jesus blessed and forgave those who were nailing him to the cross, and then he gave up everything for a world that despised him. That is God’s nature. And if we are in Christ, it is that nature we are being conformed to.

It may seem overwhelming. But we are not alone. The Lord is near. That is the source of our thanksgiving. That allows us to act with charity even in the midst of persecution. That is what gives a sure hope in the future. And that is where we experience the God of Peace.

If this man is a Christian, how can I be a Christian?

October 10th, 2016 No comments

It’s people like this who give Christianity a bad name.

“A politician can go around saying he stands for God, when what he really stands for is racism, and so racism becomes equated with Christianity. This is idolatry, it is turning things inside out. And it is the same with nationalism – people say we will equate our national outlook with Christianity, and suddenly all these things which have nothing at all to do with Christianity become identified with Christianity. This is a serious problem because it is a great scandal to people who have trouble with faith today. They say, ‘If this man is really a Christian, how can I be a Christian?'” – Thomas Merton

 

Pat Robertson: What Donald Trump said in lewd video was ‘macho’

Christian Broadcasting Network founder Pat Robertson said on his show that Donald Trump’s talk of sexual assault in a lewd video released on Friday was “macho” talk. On his “700 Club” show on Monday, he said the pundits are writing Trump off, but Robertson declared the Republican presidential nominee the winner of Sunday night’s debate.

Christ and the Gay Bar

June 17th, 2016 No comments

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When I read about Christian preachers celebrating the deaths of gays murdered in Orlando, I just shook my head. Here we go again. I know there are a lot of people who call themselves Christians who draw attention to themselves with these Trump-like antics at every opportunity, particularly at precisely the wrong moment. But I also know these two things: they are fringe groups promoted by sensationalizing media to smear an entire religion, and they do not represent Christianity. Sound familiar? What didn’t get reported in the mainstream media is that far more Christians reacted with love than hate. The difference is that those Christians acted in ways that didn’t seek to draw attention to themselves. But their efforts were much more concrete and helpful than the vapid “thoughts and prayers” offered by the Congress.

Because there are so many different expressions of faith in a religion claimed by 2.2 billion people, there is in fact no way to pin down what Christianity is. Even Christians in small denominations cannot agree on what they believe. When I was a seminarian I used to engage in very heated arguments about minute points of theology that were of interest to only a tiny few and of importance to none. We can’t even agree on the most fundamental doctrines. So to make any kind of definitive statement about what Christians believe is to be deceptive both to ourselves and to whomever we are speaking. But any group calling itself Christian who claims the Christian Bible – Old and New Testaments – cannot avoid these two scripture passages.

“All have sinned.” (Ro. 3:23) How disheartening to watch our public conversation descend into angry finger-pointing. We delight in pointing out the sins of others. But there is very little introspection. The biblical doctrine is that we all stand condemned before God. None of us can live a sinless life. No matter how sinful my neighbor is, my sin is no less. If sins were arranged according to severity (I’m not sure they ultimately are), surely self-righteousness would be close to the top, because self-righteousness, while it stands in condemnation of your sins, ignores my own, and keeps me in darkness. Acknowledging my own frailty leads to appreciation for our common humanity. “I am not different from you brother. I too am weak and in need of forgiveness.” Acknowledging our own fault leads away from judgment, intolerance, and hate.

Which leads to the second passage, “I give you a new commandment: love one another. As I have loved you, so you should love one another. This is how all will know you are my disciples, if you have love for one another.” (John 13:34-35 NABRE). Now, if you think Jesus is telling us here to have warm fuzzies for each other, you have missed the point entirely. When Jesus says love as I have loved he means with a total outpouring of self-sacrifice for the benefit of the other, even the enemy, with no thought of reciprocation or reward. This is what John means when he writes “God is love.” Jesus poured out his life on the cross to free from the bondage of sin even people who despised him. And Jesus says, in this passage, that this is the kind of love which will identify his followers. If self-sacrificing love is evident, we are witnessing Christ, if not, not.

We are not called to judge; the world has already been judged. We are called to love.

The other day the Republican Lieutenant Governor of Utah Nelson Cox remarked as follows when speaking about the tragedy in Orlando, “calling people idiots, communists, fascists or bigots on Facebook is not going to change any hearts or minds.” Those things are not love. They are judgments.

If we desire peace, in our hearts and in our world, we must lay aside judgment and embrace love.

The War on Christmas

December 24th, 2015 No comments

war on christmas

If you get to the heart of it, the Christmas event is about rescue. Most of the time we don’t feel we need to be rescued. Many of us have never experienced the need for rescue. And certainly the spiritual aspects of the Christmas event are overshadowed by cultural expectations. I’m pretty sure I’m not the only one who has ever felt a need to be rescued from “Xmas”.

What do I mean when I refer to “the Christmas event?” Yes, it is the familiar story of the birth of the Christ child in Bethlehem. But that story is the climax of a larger one: the story of humanity’s waywardness and rebellion and God’s barely fathomable mercy. I say “barely” because if you have kids you know that you are willing to forgive much. The Christmas event is the turning point in the movie. Do you remember the Disney version of Beauty and the Beast, at the very end, when the last petal fell off the rose and there was no longer any hope, and all of the kids in the theater were crying, and suddenly – a miracle! Everything came back to life. Better than ever. It’s that.

Since I have come to have a sense of the historical and theological significance of Christmas I have been somewhat of a Scrooge. Because I can see very clearly that whatever it is we are doing between Thanksgiving and Christmas has little if anything to do with the Christ event. At its finest point, where it is most accurate, it is a generic sense that we ought to be good to each other. But we don’t need the sacrifice of the creator of the universe to tell us that. We already know that.

In the end, Christmas is not about saying Merry Christmas or Happy Holidays or Happy Festivus or about red coffee cups with or without snowflakes or holiday parades or a Charlie Brown Christmas performed with or without the scripture passage from Luke. Anyone who is disturbed by anyone else’s celebration or non-celebration has completely missed the point. Christmas is about rescue.

Most of the time we don’t feel we need to be rescued. Yet we are beset by the worst of human depravity. It is not only exterior threats but the evil we carry within, that we make manifest in our responses to our fears. We are afraid.

One of the most prominent criticisms of Christianity that I have encountered is exclusivity. Christians are quite certain that Christ is the only way. This offends modern sensibilities because in a pluralistic democracy we ought to be able to choose our own way. The celebration of rugged individualism has brought us to the point that we have our own radio stations, our own TV stations, our own Social Media presence, our own everything. Personalized just for me. And so we sit isolated in our virtual worlds hoping desperately someone will notice us by clicking the “Like” button. This is hell. Or we respond to the constant onslaught of terror and temptation by giving in to our basest instincts. And we discover that this, too, is hell. Our abyss may look different from others’ and from our forebears’ but the experience of separation and fear is the same.

The significance of the Christmas event is that God himself provided a way out of hell. The moral of the Christmas story is not “believe in Jesus or go to hell”, it is “you are already in hell, let me show you the way out.” If you don’t think you need to be rescued from hell, Christmas in the Christian sense is meaningless.

The heart of the Christmas story is that God suffered spiritual self-immolation to rescue people who would beat him and mock him and nail him to two pieces of wood and spit on him until he died. And having suffered that, because he is God, he rose from death and offered his life to those same people (us). Like Jesus, if we are to rise we must die. And like Jesus, when we rise, we rise to the life of Christ. When we are rescued, we become the rescuer. That is why the sign of those who are rescued by the Christ event is self-sacrificing love.

One way that love can be manifest is in letting people celebrate (or not) as they see fit. There isn’t any war on Christmas. If there is a war, it is in your own heart. No one can separate you from the love of Christ. I have a friend who once remarked, “Other people really enjoy Christmas. Why don’t we let them?” Amen.

Do Muslims and Christians Worship the Same God?

December 19th, 2015 No comments

the-truth-is-out-there

Whether one is Hindu or a Muslim or a Christian, how you live your life is proof that you are or not fully His. We cannot condemn or judge or pass words that will hurt people. We don’t know in what way God is appearing to that soul and what God is drawing that soul to; therefore, who are we to condemn anybody? – Mother Teresa

In response to the question about whether Muslims worship the same God as Christians, we want to find an answer that is supported within the realm of our dogma and tradition, that can be seen as authoritative, that is based on more than just wishful thinking or emotion. For many, the question is neatly answered by referring to one or all of the following New Testament scriptures:

“I am the way and the truth and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me. (John 14:6 NABRE)

“There is no salvation through anyone else, nor is there any other name under heaven given to the human race by which we are to be saved.” (Acts 4:12 NABRE)

For there is one God. There is also one mediator between God and the human race, Christ Jesus, himself human. (1 Tim 2:5 NABRE)

 

In these citations we focus on what it means to come “through” Christ, what it means to be saved by the “name” of Christ, and what it means that the man Christ is the “mediator.” All of these things are related. In mainstream Christian theology, the human dilemma is that through willful disobedience humans have created a chasm that separates them from God that cannot be bridged by any human action. There is a lot of discussion to be had about the nature of the dilemma but for our purposes we will cut to the heart of it and acknowledge that it exists, and that the mission of Christ is to provide a way whereby humans can once again be in full communion with God.

The primary attribute of God is love (1 John 4:8). This love is not the pink hearts and valentines love of our modern culture, but a complete self-sacrificing love that seeks only the well-being of the beloved. The sin that separates humanity from God is that they choose to love themselves and created things ahead of God (Ro. 1:20-22). Since this is not a self-sacrificing love, but rather a love that seeks self-satisfaction, it alienates humanity from God. Humanity’s dilemma is that they cannot not choose to love themselves and created things. Or, to state it positively, they cannot choose to love God wholeheartedly.

The Christian solution is for God to do what humanity cannot. If by a created man the love relationship between God and humanity was broken through disobedience, then it will be required that a created man by obedience pay the penalty in full. But since no created man after Adam is able to be completely obedient to the point of utter self-annihilation, the remedy must be accomplished by God. Christ is unique in cosmic history because he is the only one who is both created man and God. So Jesus is the one who can bear humanity’s penalty. Christ’s death on the cross, which is significant in his abandonment by the Father (Mt. 27:46), paid the penalty in full. But it left Christ dead. When Christ rose from the dead, communion with the Father was restored. It is in this living Christ that the hope of Christians rests, because Christ did what no one else could, and that is to rise from death.

That resolves the dilemma for Christ, but not for the rest of us. Because Christ is God, however, humans can be united with him through the Spirit he sent at Pentecost. Receiving the Holy Spirit unites humanity with Christ. The ritual of baptism symbolizes being united with the life, death, and resurrection of Christ. All of those who have been baptized then in  theory compose the real body of Christ on earth. That means the Church, but not in a sectarian or denominational way. It means all of those who are in union with Christ. This is what it means that Christ is the mediator.

Interestingly, and this is something far too many professing Christians miss, the proof of whether or not one is “in Christ” (or in the Church) is not participation in a ritual or a solemn declaration but a life devoted to Christ’s mission. Too many focus their religion on the possibility of personal salvation as the end, while Christ’s mission was not personal salvation but the salvation of the world. Christ still exists in the world and continues his mission of salvation through his body: the Church. The personality of Christ doesn’t change when Christ exists in the world as the Church. So the way to recognize the Church as the authentic body of Christ is to see Christ’s ministry continuing through those who are united with him. When the world sees Christ’s true Church in action it recognizes Jesus himself.

This is why on the night before he was crucified Jesus commanded his disciples: “34 I give you a new commandment: love one another. As I have loved you, so you also should love one another. 35 This is how all will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another.” (John 13:34-35 NABRE) Notice that Jesus doesn’t tell the disciples to have affection for one another, he tells them to love “as I have loved you.” How is Jesus’ love manifest? It is primarily through the cross, the complete self-sacrifice for the sake of humanity with no expectation of reward. Jesus is calling his disciples, and through them his Church, to complete self-negating self-sacrifice for the benefit of humanity.

I think we should notice here that Jesus didn’t die for Christians. Jesus died for all who are separated from God (1 Tim. 2:4), which pretty much encompasses everybody then and now. Notice also that Jesus indicated the world would identify his followers through love, not by what was done or said (rituals and declarations).

Thoughtful Christians have always acknowledged it is impossible to know who is saved and who is damned because it is impossible to know the mind of God. It is entirely possible that someone who professes to be a Christian may not in fact be a follower of Christ by his definition, and it is just as likely that some who do not profess to be Christians are in fact followers of Christ by the commandment noted above: Christ-like love.

So then we come to the task of reconciling the assertion that one might be a follower of Christ without professing Christ with scripture which declares that it is only through the “name” of Christ that one can be saved. This requires some explanation. Most of us don’t know what Jesus’ “name,” in the sense of the language syllables that identified him, was. In Hebrew, it was ישוע which is pronounced “Yeshua.” The fact is that only a tiny fraction of Christians, when presented with the Hebrew script, would be able to either recognize or pronounce the name of Jesus. The name that comes to us in English is a translation of the Greek Ἰησοῦς, pronounced “Iesus.” So if we call upon the name of Jesus using the word “Jesus,” are we calling upon the actual name of Jesus? Do the syllables even matter when we name Jesus, or are we speaking about something deeper?

The Bible often uses the word “name” differently than we do. In the Bible a name is more than a label. It signifies character. This is why we see God beginning even in Genesis changing the “name” of those he interacted with when their character changed. In the Gospels Jesus changes the name of Simon to Cephas (Peter), because Peter (which comes from the Greek word for “stone”) is the stone upon which Jesus plans to build his Church. So we see that the fundamental character of the man changes from Simon the fisherman to Peter the fisher of men.

When we call upon the “name” of Jesus, we must be calling on more than a label. We must be calling on the character, the essence, the fundamental nature of Christ. And what is that? “God is love.” (1 John 4:8) Love as Christ’s love. So one who loves with Christ’s love is in the “name” of Christ. I think we can see that what Jesus has done here is to take salvation out of the realm of religion and placed it in the realm of action. Remember the Jews with whom Jesus contended and who ultimately had him executed were the most religious men in Israel. Christ’s salvation is not contingent on adherence to any theological dogma but rather on acting in the name of Christ: with self-sacrificial love.

When we consider what the Bible truly says in context, we see that certainty about who is saved and who is not must be tempered by our lack of knowledge of scripture in context (in other words, on failing hermeneutics) and by our inability to know the mind of God. The truth is that if we are to use the Bible as our only guide, the only people we know with certainty are in heaven are Jewish: Enoch, Abraham, Moses, Elijah, Jesus, and two thieves. All of them worshipped God in fundamentally different ways, and none of them (other than Jesus himself) professed the name “Jesus” in any language. We can learn to better understand the context of scripture but the mind of God remains alien to us. Rather than placing ourselves in judgment of our neighbors, we are far better off adopting the humility God calls for through his prophet Isaiah:

Seek the Lord while he may be found,

call upon him while he is near.

Let the wicked forsake their way,

and sinners their thoughts;

Let them turn to the Lord to find mercy;

to our God, who is generous in forgiving.

For my thoughts are not your thoughts,

nor are your ways my ways—oracle of the Lord.

For as the heavens are higher than the earth,

so are my ways higher than your ways,

my thoughts higher than your thoughts.  (Is. 55:6-9 NABRE)

 

Lifting the worship of God out of sectarianism renders moot the question of whether Christians and Muslims worship the same God. As Christians, following our own scriptures, we must acknowledge that this is a question we are not equipped to answer. What we know is that we are called to love as Christ loves. That is what determines whether our actions are in tune with the will of God.

What does the Bible really say about taking in Syrian refugees?

November 22nd, 2015 No comments

bonhoeffer again

There is an article making the rounds on social media that seems to have traction among conservatives who are seeking a way to justify turning their backs on Syrian refugees and still feel good about it.

What does the Bible really say about taking in Syrian refugees?

Unfortunately, this article doesn’t deliver on its promise of telling the reader what the Bible really says, in fact it almost skips the Bible entirely and the one Biblical reference it does make doesn’t say what the author says it does. It is in fact correctly categorized on the referenced page: Politics.

The basic argument appears to be that scripture differentiates between the role of the state and the responsibilities of individuals. There is no passage in scripture that differentiates between what God requires of the state (really not a Biblical concept) and the individual (also, curiously, a concept predominant in modernity but mostly foreign to the Biblical writers). Biblical references to nations point to what we would consider ethnicities (usually “us” vs. “them”: Jews vs. gentiles, Jews vs. Greeks, Greeks vs. barbarians, etc.) and not socio-political entities confined to a geographical area. The nation-state we are familiar didn’t come into existence until the eighteenth century. Of course people are individuals and each is either blessed or cursed by God, but the understanding of the Biblical writers would have been community-centric. If one sinned all suffered, and if one was blessed, all were blessed. In our time, the welfare of the individual is of the utmost importance. In ancient times it was the community (extended family) that was preeminent. As Spock pointed out: “The needs of the many outweigh the needs of the few, or the one.” It is misleading to say that “Scripture draws a clear line between the responsibility of the individual and the role of the state.” One may infer from certain passages within a hermeneutical framework the responsibility of the individual and the state, but it is far from clear or explicit.

The author references Romans 13 as the basis for his argument. I wonder if Mr. Calabrese has ever actually read the chapter. He writes, “French is quoting Romans 13, which lays out clear lines of responsibility for governments – particularly the imperative to protect the innocent from wrongdoers.” Well, not really. Here is what it says,

Let every person be subject to the governing authorities. For there is no authority except from God, and those that exist have been instituted by God. Therefore whoever resists the authorities resists what God has appointed, and those who resist will incur judgment. For rulers are not a terror to good conduct, but to bad. Would you have no fear of the one who is in authority? Then do what is good, and you will receive his approval, for he is God’s servant for your good. But if you do wrong, be afraid, for he does not bear the sword in vain. For he is the servant of God, an avenger who carries out God’s wrath on the wrongdoer. Therefore one must be in subjection, not only to avoid God’s wrath but also for the sake of conscience. For because of this you also pay taxes, for the authorities are ministers of God, attending to this very thing. Pay to all what is owed to them: taxes to whom taxes are owed, revenue to whom revenue is owed, respect to whom respect is owed, honor to whom honor is owed. (Romans 13:1-7 ESV)

These verses enjoin Christians to submit to the lawful authority of the ruler (unspecified), because according to the Apostle Paul, “he is the servant of God, an avenger who carries out God’s wrath on the wrongdoer.” (Romans 13:4 ESV) So, yes one might presume that would include protecting the innocent, but it is hardly explicit, and it doesn’t infer that the safety of God’s people overrules God’s demand for justice and mercy. The very clear message of the Bible throughout is that the people’s safety is in God alone.  The three Jewish servants Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego, faced with the fiery furnace for choosing to obey God before the King, answered the King’s query about who could save them from from death with confidence that God was able to save them. “But if not,” they continued, “be it known to you, O king, that we will not serve your gods or worship the golden image that you have set up.” (Daniel 3:18 ESV) They were more concerned with obedience to God than to the king (of a city that, by the way, God had told the Jewish exiles through the Prophet Jeremiah 29:4-7 they were to serve faithfully) to the point that they were willing to die a horrific death.

Further, God’s commands, in both the Old and the New Testament are almost always addressed in the plural, signifying universality. Kings and rulers do have responsibilities to the people (and to God) but those responsibilities are intended to facilitate God’s redemption of creation, to create a people who will exemplify God’s character and be “a light for the nations.” (Is. 49:6) God doesn’t have a different standard of justice for the government and the people. That would have been a distinction the Biblical writers could not have imagined. God’s commands are addressed to everyone and everyone is responsible for obedience. This is true whether or not they have specific knowledge of the written law. Indeed, Paul writes of those who haven’t received the law, “what can be known about God is plain to them, because God has shown it to them. For his invisible attributes, namely, his eternal power and divine nature, have been clearly perceived, ever since the creation of the world, in the things that have been made. So they are without excuse.” (Romans 1:19-20 ESV) The verses in Chapter 13 don’t in any way lay out clear lines of responsibility for governments as opposed to what is required of individuals. They admonish the believer to obey the law in order to avoid just punishment. And, these verses relieve neither the Christian nor the Church (nor the government) from God’s demand that his people practice justice and mercy, especially toward the stranger, the widow, and the orphan.

There are a number of passages in scripture that call upon believers to submit to lawful authority but there are also a number of  passages that support defying the state when it contradicts God’s commandments (as above). And underneath all of this is the theological reality that Christians are sojourners, owing no allegiance to the earthly state, but whose “citizenship is in heaven.” (Php. 3:20) The people of God obey the laws of men as foreigners obey the laws of the land they are travelling in. But they have no other ruler than God himself.

In fact, the overall conclusion must be that God demands justice and mercy from his people regardless of what the state does or does not do.

Here’s what the Bible really says:

“When the Son of Man comes in his glory, and all the angels with him, then he will sit on his glorious throne. Before him will be gathered all the nations, and he will separate people one from another as a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats. And he will place the sheep on his right, but the goats on the left. Then the King will say to those on his right, ‘Come, you who are blessed by my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world. For I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me, I was naked and you clothed me, I was sick and you visited me, I was in prison and you came to me.’ Then the righteous will answer him, saying, ‘Lord, when did we see you hungry and feed you, or thirsty and give you drink? And when did we see you a stranger and welcome you, or naked and clothe you? And when did we see you sick or in prison and visit you?’ And the King will answer them, ‘Truly, I say to you, as you did it to one of the least of these my brothers, you did it to me.’

“Then he will say to those on his left, ‘Depart from me, you cursed, into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels. For I was hungry and you gave me no food, I was thirsty and you gave me no drink, I was a stranger and you did not welcome me, naked and you did not clothe me, sick and in prison and you did not visit me.’ Then they also will answer, saying, ‘Lord, when did we see you hungry or thirsty or a stranger or naked or sick or in prison, and did not minister to you?’ Then he will answer them, saying, ‘Truly, I say to you, as you did not do it to one of the least of these, you did not do it to me.’ And these will go away into eternal punishment, but the righteous into eternal life.” (Matthew 25:31-46 ESV)

Don’t be fooled. Bonhoeffer warns, “Silence [inaction] in the face of evil is itself evil: God will not hold us guiltless. Not to speak is to speak. Not to act is to act.”

 

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