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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.

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.

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.”

 

Kim Davis and the Politics of the Sewer

September 4th, 2015 No comments

sewer cover

Kim Davis should resign. In case you’re unsure who that is, Davis is the County Clerk in Kentucky who has become an international lightning rod over the issue of same-sex marriage because of her refusal to issue marriage licenses after the Supreme Court ruling legalizing same-sex marriage. She claims she cannot issue those licenses because of her deep Christian conviction that the Bible defines marriage as exclusively between a man and a woman.

She is correct about the Biblical definition of marriage. Although there are some who argue against it, most often based on wishful hermeneutics, the theological case for defining Christian marriage as between a man and a woman is solid. The problem that Kim Davis has is not her understanding of the Bible but her understanding of the Constitution.

The latter document may not consist of an authority higher than Kim Davis’ God, but it does create a secular society in which at the same time Davis’ free exercise of religion is protected and her promotion of a state religion is prohibited. The Constitution creates a pluralistic state in which Davis is free to believe as she is called to, and to act on that belief. But her freedom hinges on the freedom of all to practice religion (or not) as they see fit. I think her stand, though I do not doubt its sincerity, is mistaken. When Davis was elected as an officer under the Constitution (ultimately all office holders in the United States are subject to the Constitution) she agreed to enforce the laws of the state. If she cannot, she should resign. I know there are many who disagree with me and I’m fine with that.

What I find particularly tasteless and troubling, however, is raising her own marital history as an issue. What does it matter that she has been married four times, twice to the same man, in this particular case? It has nothing at all to do with the facts at issue. All it does is cheapen the argument. Following the trite aphorism “if you spot it you got it,” what personal attacks do is detract from the credibility of the attackers. Why are the facts not enough? Why do we have to sink to the level of ad hominem?

Ya. Google it. It might help lift our political discourse out of the sewer.

An Offense to the World

January 31st, 2015 No comments

The bible is clear and consistent in its call for sacrificial discipleship. Jesus calls his followers (as joined together in the Body of Christ), to make disciples of all nations (Mt. 28:19). He calls his followers to do this at the cost of forsaking the comforts of personal property and prestige and even family relations (Mk. 10:29Lk. 14:26Mt. 10:37). He calls on his followers to love as he loves (John 13:34-35), which cannot point to anything less radical than the cross. He calls them to take up their cross and follow him (Mt. 16:24). He calls them to be perfect (Mt. 5:48). He never calls his people to comfortable compromise with the world.

I have here barely scratched the surface of the hundreds of places in scripture where God’s chosen people are called to radical and sacrificial living in favor of justice, righteousness, love, and the gospel. How can anyone who is called to be “born again,” (Jn. 3:3) to forsake all and be “crucified with Christ” (Gal. 2:20) so that they might rise to new life in Christ, believe that he demands any less?

The Spirit filled gospel community living out God’s commands will stand out from the world. In fact it is an offense to the world, which is precisely what Jesus predicted (Mt. 10:16-2334-39Jn. 15:18-19). Jesus does bring peace, but it is not a false, compromising, comfortable peace (Jn. 14:27), rather assurance and contentment in the midst of persecution (Phil. 4:11-13). And God does not call us to be quiet, he calls us to proclaim the gospel, as much with our lives as our words. And that will always be a radical act that requires courage.

Today’s traditional church does not believe this, and does not want to live this. That is where the contemporary church departs from the authenticity of the gospel and surrenders to the surrounding culture. It is lack of authenticity that post-moderns reject, not Christ or the gospel. People who are drawn to the gospel of Christ are not satisfied with Christianized pep talks about how to be successful by the world’s standards. And the last thing today’s churches need is a cadre of well-meaning but apparently theologically ignorant leaders justifying the status quo by trying to make Christians “comfortable.” Christians do not need to be comforted; they are too comfortable already. They need to be shaken awake, and this requires recognizing that the gospel centered life is a radical one, by the world’s standards.

Job is About More than Suffering

September 17th, 2014 No comments

We rightly look for meaning about suffering in the book of Job. But as I was finishing reading it once again this morning it occurred to me that there is another important lesson we can take from the book of Job concerning our representation of God to the world. You may recall in the story that Job’s friends came t o “comfort” him by advising him to repent of his sin and once again receive God’s favor. But you may also recall that Job’s suffering was not imposed on him as a result of his sin and so he would not repent. As I read through the arguments of the friends I realized that much of it could be quoted as scripture to make certain points about God today. But I also realized that that would be to take everything out of context because in the end God rebukes the friends:

After the LORD had spoken these words to Job, the LORD said to Eliphaz the Temanite: “My anger burns against you and against your two friends, for you have not spoken of me what is right, as my servant Job has. (Job 42:7 ESV)

The lesson? Don’t presume to know what God’s purpose is based on human understanding. And beyond that, don’t quote random phrases from t he Bible as revealed wisdom without carefully considering the context.

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