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Making Moral Witness

Last week we had a “Faiths in Conversation” on the question of how communities of faith are to make public moral witness.  This was a follow-up to the Faiths in Conversation gathering that we had the week before on the question of “Religion and Government.

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Bracketing these two conversation were the Inauguration of President Trump on Friday, January 20th and the Women’s March on Washington D.C. on Saturday, January 21st, and the March for Life on Friday, January 27th.

polAnd then over the weekend, spontaneous protests broke out at airports all over the country in response to the President’s Executive Order (“Protection of the Nation from Foreign Terrorist Entry into the United States“) signed on Friday that indefinitely suspends admissions for Syrian refugees and limits the flow of other refugees into the United States by instituting a policy that calls for the development of procedures for the “extreme vetting” of immigrants.  People of faith and conscience were involved in all of these events making their convictions known, and providing our “Faiths in Conversation” conversations with an immediate context in which to reflect on how people of faith are to respond to the positions and actions of government.

At all of these rallies I saw placards invoking the name and teachings of Christ as the basis for the action for which the protestor was calling. Their presence and passion for the cause that they were publically promoting were clearly expressions of their personal faith commitments.  These were Christians telling their government what to do on the basis of their beliefs as Christians.   This raises some questions for me.

Thirty years ago I was listening to a radio talk show in Houston. The host was a conservative Christian who liked to quote Scripture to his callers while making his arguments.  He was in the middle of doing this with a caller that day, when the caller suddenly interrupted him, saying: “But I don’t believe anything that the Bible says.” Well, this stopped that host dead in his tracks, mid-sentence.  There was a long silence, and then the host abruptly hung up on the caller, saying: “Well then, we’ve got nothing more to talk about!” That memory has been rattling around inside me as I prepared my remarks for the two “Faiths in Conversation” gatherings at which I spoke these past two weeks, and as I have been watching the protest marches and rallies of recent days.

martinAt the “Faiths in Conversation” about “Religion and Government” the blessed memory of Dr. Martin Luther King was invoked, and that iconic picture of him marching side by side, arm in arm with Jewish Rabbis, Catholic priests and nuns, Protestant ministers and secular humanist atheists was recalled, and rightly so.  This is one of the quintessential images of public moral witness in United States history.  And last week, after my presentation on the “Two Kingdoms” theory as one way that some of us who are Christians have tried to make sense of the complex relationship between religion and Government, Rabbi Schlesinger asked me if Dr. King and Rabbi Heschel weren’t in that picture as religious leaders making a religious statement to the government?  He was trying to make sense of what I had said in my presentation on the “Two Kingdoms” Theory (My presentation was posted at “Soundings” last week under “Religion and Government”). And my answer to the good rabbi was, “Of course they were.”

Looking mystified, I further explained that while the “Two Kingdoms” theory views religion and government as two different spheres with two different divinely given assignments, that’s not to suggest, not even for a moment, that they’re watertight compartments that never touch.  God is over them both, and human beings live in them both, and so my faith convictions and values as a Christian are necessarily going to inform my understandings of what I as a citizen think it is that the government should be doing to promote the common welfare in the interests of human thriving.

My faith as a Christian shapes my understanding of and my commitment to things like the value and dignity of each human life, justice, peace, equality, freedom, and righteousness, both personal and social. And as a Christian who is also a citizen who lives in this society, I appreciate having a voice and a vote when the government is making decisions and establishing policies that touch these concerns.  I want to be part of that conversation; in fact, I believe my faith requires me to do so.  But as that famous photograph shows, it’s not just Christians who have a moral vision for the world and its people.  It’s not just Christians who care about the value and dignity of human life, justice, peace, equality, freedom, and righteousness.  And it’s not just Christians who have voices and votes, and who want to be heard as citizens.

Let’s be very clear, I believe that Dr. King was there that day in the picture marching because of his commitment to Jesus Christ as his personal Lord and Savior. As anybody who has ever read his story knows, Dr. King’s public witness arose out of his sense of Christian discipleship and his work as the pastor of a church.  But Rabbi Heschel who was marching right beside him that day was clearly not there because of his love for and obedience to Jesus Christ.  He had a moral vision for the world and its people too, but one that was informed by Torah rather than Jesus.  As Biblically informed ethical monotheists, Dr. King and Rabbi Heschel shared some common moral perspectives that despite their rather significant differences of theological conviction enabled them to make common moral cause that day.  But what about that secular humanist atheist who marched with them that day as well?

One of my theology professors in seminary liked to show us this same picture of Dr. King and his fellow marchers from that day 50 years ago, and ask us to explain why that secular humanist atheist was there with them? This was my professor’s way of getting us to deal with the classic question of whether it’s necessary to believe in God in order to be moral.  To be sure, both Dr. King and Rabbi Heschel were there that day because it was part of their faith in and obedience to God to do so.  But not the atheist!  He had a moral vision for the world and its people too, but it was one that didn’t involve God at all.  And this is where the public moral witness of people of faith gets tricky.

As people of faith we promote a moral vision for the world and its people that arises out of our particular faith convictions, but if we insist that people share those faith convictions in order to embrace that moral vision, then, just like that radio talk show host, at some point we’ll have nothing more to say to each other. And this is where Christian moral witness tends to get muddled, if you ask me.  The work that God assigns to the church gets confused with the work that God assigns to the government.

Public moral witness is not evangelism. My moral witness as a Christian is not about trying to make society more Christian, but rather, more moral.  Had Dr. King insisted that people believe in Jesus Christ as part of his public moral witness that day, then Rabbi Heschel would not, could not have stood with him.  And if Dr. King and Rabbi Heschel had insisted that people believe in God as part of their public moral witness that day, then that secular humanist atheist who marched with them would not, could not have joined them either.  And this is where that “Two Kingdoms” theory helps me to make sense of this as a Christian.

The “Two Kingdoms” theory does not allow me to think or talk about “Christian” nations.  To my way of thinking, a Christian nation is a non sequitur.  It’s people as individuals and not nations as collectives that become Christian by their personal decisions of faith, through repentance and baptism.  By this standard, there are Christians in every nation, but no Christian nations.  So, if I’m not looking for a Christian nation, what is it that I am looking for?  What is it that I want?  And as a Christian who lives in this nation I’ll tell you that what I want is for my nation to be more thoroughly and consistently moral.  In fact, that’s government’s assignment as I see it through my “Two Kingdoms” eyes.  It’s the government’s job to make our society free and fair for all.  And while my Christian faith certainly informs my moral sense of what that liberty and justice for all looks like, there’s nothing in my moral sense about this that’s distinctively Christian.

Another seminary professor I had back in the day startled a class I was in one day when he got up and announced that, “morally, Jesus Christ didn’t actually teach anything new…. Every moral thing He ever said had been said by the Hebrew prophets before Him.” And what this means is that Christ’s value to me as a Christian is not as a teacher of morality.  I don’t need Jesus to tell me what’s right and wrong.  I’ve got the Law for that, the Law and the way that it’s been written on my heart. What I need Jesus for is to be the Savior who deals with my shame and guilt for not consistently keeping faith with that moral vision that got explicitly cast for me in the Hebrew Law and Prophets, and that implicitly has been hardwired into me as a human being.

Every time my own particular community of faith gathers in worship on the Lord’s Day we break bread and bless a cup to share in remembrance of the sacrifice of God’s love in Jesus Christ on Calvary’s cross. This is the saving act that we as Christians believe reconciles us to God.  This is the Gospel message with which we are entrusted as a community of faith.   It’s predicated on a moral vision, in fact, I would argue as a Christian that it’s that moral vision that makes my theological convictions about Jesus Christ so spiritually compelling.  But you don’t have to share my Christian spiritual convictions in order to make common moral cause with me, because my moral vision is not uniquely Christian.

10-commandmentsMy Ten Commandments as a Christian are no different from Rabbi Schlesinger’s Ten Commandments as a Jew. This is our shared moral ground zero.  These are the basics of the Biblical moral vision that is common to both Jews and Christians, and to which we must bear public witness, especially when see them being violated, abused or ignored.  But as Paul argued in his letter to the Romans, long before these laws were ever written on tablets of stone and given to Moses on Mt. Sinai, they were written on Adam’s heart in the Garden of Eden.  Paul said that when those who do not have the law do “by nature” what the law requires, it just proves that the law was originally written on our hearts, something to which our consciences bear witness (2:14-15).  There’s this sense of moral “ought” that’s been hardwired into us as human beings, and I think that you can see it in that picture of Dr. King, Rabbi Heschel and that secular humanist atheist marching arm in arm and side by side 50 years ago for civil rights.

dr-kingDr. King’s heroic example in that picture reminds me as a person of Christian faith that I have an obligation to bear public witness to the moral vision that’s mine as a follower of Jesus Christ. And the heroic examples of Rabbi Heschel and that unnamed secular humanist in that picture who were marching right beside him bearing public witness as well reminds me that I share this moral vision for a more just and peaceful world as a Christian with all of humanity regardless of whether or not we share my beliefs about Jesus Christ.

I am reminded of Tom Joad’s Shakespearean monologue at the end of John Steinbeck’s’ The Grapes of Wrath  –

grapesI’ll be everywhere. Wherever you can look – wherever there’s a fight, so hungry people can eat, I’ll be there. Wherever there’s a cop beatin’ up a guy, I’ll be there. I’ll be in the way guys yell when they’re mad. I’ll be in the way kids laugh when they’re hungry and they know supper’s ready, and when the people are eatin’ the stuff they raise and livin’ in the houses they build – I’ll be there, too.

 Understand, Tom Joad didn’t say this because he was a Christian, or a Muslim, or a Jew. No, Tom Joad said this because he was a human being. It’s just part of the moral structure of the universe and the moral constitution of human beings to stand up for what we instinctively know is right, and good, and fair. My Christian faith certainly has this moral vision, but my Christian faith clearly didn’t create this moral vision, it merely underscored what has always been in my heart.

1And so, my moral appeal as a Christian can’t be – “What would Jesus do?” – because if you don’t care about Jesus, then you won’t care about what He would do, and we who are Christians would have nothing more to say.  My commitment to Christ can explain my moral concern and action as a Christian, and can even be the lynchpin in my appeal to other Christians to become more morally concerned and active about something.  But that’s an intramural conversation.  Intercollegiately, when I make my moral witness to a world that doesn’t share my faith commitments, just as Dr. King was doing in that famous picture, my moral appeal can’t be a “Christian” argument rooted and grounded in a Scripture like the Sermon on the Mount, instead it must be a human argument rooted and grounded in truths that are self-evident, and in rights that are unalienable.  And so, in church I’ll tell you that caring about the poor, the marginalized, the oppressed, and the neglected matters because it matters to Jesus Christ.  But when I stand in the corridors of governing power where laws are being written and policies are being developed that I perceive threaten the life, liberty and/or just treatment of another human being, I’ll tell you that I am opposed not because it’s unchristian, but because it’s inhuman, and I will make common moral cause with all who see it as inhuman as well. DBS +

 

 

 

 

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“In” But Not “Of”; The Perpetual “Christ and Culture” Challenge

Our most recent “Faiths in Conversation” event was on the question of how to maintain one’s communal religious identity in an increasingly secular society. In this highly charged political season, it seems to me that some serious thought needs to be given to this subject by serious Christians.  Here’s mine –

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There are dates that signal for many of us some of the most defining moments in our history.

December 7, 1941 – The Attack on Pearl Harbor
November 22, 1963 – The Assassination of President Kennedy
September 11, 2001 – The Attacks on the World Trade Towers

Now, I don’t know if June 26, 2015, is going to become one of those dates, but in terms of its impact, it probably should. June 26, 2016, is when the Supreme Court of the United States officially announced its ruling on Obergefell v. Hodges, thereby extending equal protection under the law to same sex couples wanting to get married in the United States of America.  Peter Wehner of the New York Times and Michael Gerson of the Washington Post call Obergefell “a landmark moment in US history” that “like a boulder thrown into a pond will have public consequences for decades,” and this is true regardless of which side of the issue you’re on.

My gay and lesbian friends regard this ruling as the moment when their outcry for human dignity and their struggle for civil rights finally became part of the moral vision and legal tradition of the United States. In contrast, lots of my religious friends view Obergefell as the tipping point in the moral and spiritual decline of America.  Franklin Graham has gone so far as to call it the “nose dive off of the moral diving board into the cesspool of humanity.”

I suspect that at least some of the anger in the tone of the race for President so far in this election year can be traced back to this deep sense of betrayal that some in the conservative religious community are feeling in the aftermath of this court decision. Here they thought that they were the “moral majority” playing their game on their turf in their stadium, and suddenly a referee blew his whistle, and the next thing they knew the ball had been stripped from their hands and they’d gone from being the home team to the away team!  Of course, long before the Supreme Court ruled, culture had shifted.

I’m a baby boomer. I was born in 1953, and in my 62 trips around the sun so far I have been an eyewitness to the changes that Obergefell now codifies.  Obergefell is just the caboose on a train that left the station long ago, and if you’re my age then you can see the names on the box cars as they roll past – Situation Ethics, the Sexual Revolution, Drop Out and Get High, Abortion on Demand, No Fault Divorce, Living Together before Marriage, out of wedlock births, shifting gender roles and now same sex marriage.

Will Willimon dates the disestablishment of the church from American culture to a Sunday evening in 1963 in Greenville, South Carolina, when “in defiance of the state’s time-honored blue laws, the Fox Theater opened on Sunday” and seven regular attendees of the Methodist Youth Fellowship, including Will himself, went in through the front door of the Buncombe Street Church in order to be seen by the pastor and their parents and then right on out the back door to join John Wayne at the Fox.  Will refers to that evening as the “watershed in the history of Christendom” (15).

No longer was culture going to be a prop for the church in America, or at least in South Carolina, he says, and culture wasn’t even going to pretend to share and promote Christian values. If the truth be told, it never did.  Russell Moore, President of the Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission of the Southern Baptist Convention, writes –

The problem with American Christianity is that we often assumed that there were more of “us” than there were of “them.” …[But] Christian values were always more popular in American culture than the Christian Gospel…  God was always welcome in American culture.  He was, after all, the Deity whose job it was to bless America.  The God who must be approached through the mediation of the blood of Christ, however, was much more difficult to set to patriotic music or to say “Amen” in a prayer at the Rotary Club.  …Mainstream American culture did aspire to at least the ideal of many of the things the Christian church talked about: healthy marriages, stable families, strong communities, bound together in prayer.  …[But] now it is increasingly clear that American culture doesn’t just reject the particularities of orthodox Christianity but also rejects key aspects of “traditional values” …from questions of sexuality to drug laws to public expressions of religion to the definition of the family.  [And] this leaves American Christianity to ponder the path forward from here. (4-6)

Our natural reflex as human beings to a threat is the “fight or flight instinct of a frightened animal” (Jethani), and both of these responses have been on full display by Christians since June 26th.  Competing visions of how the church should respond to cultural change are being widely discussed by Christians these days.  Russell Moore describes the options before us as either “clenching our fists” or “wringing our hands” (7).

Some Christians are becoming combative these days and can be heard calling for a Crusade. This is the “clench your fist” and fight reflex, and it would seem to be the dominant face and voice of public Christianity in these parts.  Right before last week’s caucuses, Dr. Robert Jeffress of Dallas’ First Baptist Church was in Iowa with Donald Trump at a campaign rally.  “Although as a pastor I cannot officially endorse a candidate,” Jeffress explained, “I want you to know I would not be here this morning if I were not absolutely convinced that Donald Trump would make a great President of the United States.” And then he added, “Most Americans know we are in a mess, and as they look at Donald Trump they believe he is the one leader who can reverse the downward death spiral of this nation we love so dearly.”

This is the way that some Christians enter the struggle to maintain their religious identity in an increasingly secular society. They’re mad and they aren’t going to take it anymore.  And so they plan on politically overpowering anyone who is opposed to their Christian vision and values.  There are conservative Christian versions of this response and progressive Christian versions of this response, and while their visions of what it will look finally like vary widely, what they do have in common is the shared belief in the goal of a “Christian-ized” America.  The best way to maintain their spiritual identity, they’ll tell you, is to make the surrounding culture into their image and after their likeness.

At the other end of the spectrum are those Christians who like Noah of old are looking for a lifeboat into which they can safely withdraw from the flood of wickedness that surrounds them and find shelter. This is the “wring your hands” and flee reflex, and it’s getting a lot of play right now in some circles under the banner of the “Benedict Option.”

St. Benedict was the Spiritual Father in the 6th century who at the very beginning of the Dark Ages in Europe began to form these little self-contained and self-sufficient communities of faithful men and women who preserved Christian teachings and values in isolation from the collapsing secular culture around them.

Alan Kreider, a Mennonite Theologian, in his important work on the church in “Pre-Christendom,” that is Christianity before it became the cultural norm in the West, says that the church in the days before the Emperor Constantine existed and operated as an “enclosed garden.”

St. Cyprian, the mid-third century Bishop of Carthage said that he heard the voice of Christ speaking about the church in the Song of Solomon 4:12 – “A garden enclosed is my sister, my spouse; a spring shut up, a fountain sealed. …It’s ‘enclosed’ St. Cyprian observed – and that means that ‘profane’ outsiders cannot easily get in. And it’s a ‘garden’ – here is life flowering and flourishing in the presence of Christ.” (10)

If some Christians today are saying that the best way for them to maintain their spiritual identity in the increasingly secular culture that surrounds them is to take on that culture with the intention of changing it, then there are just as many Christians these days who are coming to the conclusion that the only way to preserve their spiritual identity is to separate themselves from the surrounding culture just as completely as they can. And in-between these two poles of separation and transformation there emerges a third option, what Dr. Timothy George, the President of Beeson Divinity School over in Birmingham, Alabama, calls the “Franciscan” Option after St. Francis of Assisi who in the 13th century took from the crusading mentality of confrontation the spiritually legitimate impulse of wanting to meaningfully engage the surrounding culture with the Gospel of Jesus Christ, and who took from the monastic mentality of withdrawal the spiritually legitimate impulse of Christians needing to be informed, formed and transformed by the Gospel of Jesus Christ themselves.

Russell Moore calls this approach the way of “engaged alienation,” and describes it as “a Christianity that preserves the distinctiveness of our Gospel while not retreating from our callings as neighbors, and friends, and citizens” (8).  This way for Christians to maintain their spiritual identity in the increasingly secular culture that surrounds them begins by first firmly establishing a Christian identity in Christians. Craig Carter, a Canadian theologian, has written about the irrelevancy of so much of the modern church’s engagement with culture.

What could be more irrelevant than Christian leaders who beg the government to pass laws to coerce their own church members into caring for the poor or refusing the abortion temptation, when those Christian leaders cannot convince their own flocks to do these things on the basis of the Bible? (21)

Christian values don’t have a bigger impact on the surrounding culture, political scientist Alan Wolfe says, because Christian values aren’t having a bigger impact in the living rooms of Christians, or in the pews of their churches (Moore 18). And so the way that I believe Christians will maintain their spiritual identity in this increasingly secular world of ours will be the way that Jesus Himself described at the beginning of His Sermon on the Mount –

“You are the salt of the earth; but if salt has lost its taste, how can its saltiness be restored? It is no longer good for anything, but is thrown out and trampled underfoot.” (Matthew 5:13)

It begins by being salt, by honoring honor the impulse to cultivate our own distinctive moral and spiritual identity as Christians. To have a “significant Christian influence” in the world, Christians must first be “significantly influenced” by Christianity themselves.  And then from that carefully nurtured center, the church must then honor that other spiritually legitimate impulse to meaningfully engage the world.  Christians must become “light.

“You are the light of the world. A city built on a hill cannot be hid… In the same way, let your light shine before others, so that they may see your good works and give glory to your Father in heaven.” (Matthew 5:14-16)

Shirley Hoogstra of the Council for Christian Colleges and Universities puts it as well as anybody when she says that Christians “anchored by the cross, the Resurrection, and God’s sovereignty” can “deeply disagree with our fellow citizens on cultural issues,” while at the very same time seeking the best for them and serving them “with an attitude of kindness and humility.” Salt and light – the way the church will survive and thrive in an increasingly secular culture is by being salt – carefully nurturing her own distinctive “Jesus-shaped” values and identity, and then by becoming light – strategically positioning herself to be able to radiate the light of God’s holiness and mercy in the growing darkness of culture.

Sources

Carter, Craig A. Rethinking Christ and Culture. Brazos Press. 2006.
Gerson, Michael and Peter Wehner. “The Power of Weakness.” Christianity Today. November 2015. (40-49).
Hoogstra, Shirley. “It’s Already Being Practiced by the Next Generation.” Christianity Today.  November 2015. (49).
Jethani, Skye. “The Naaman Option.” October 8, 2015. https://skejethani.com
Kreider, Alan. Worship and Evangelism in Pre-Christendom. The Alcuin Club 1995.
Moore, Russell. Onward: Engaging the Gospel without Losing the Culture. B&H. 2015.
Willimon, William & Stanley Hauerwas. Resident Aliens. Abingdon. 1989.

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“When Kindred Live Together in Unity…”

unityWhat happens when an eclectic and articulate group of Hasidic Jews, Sufi Muslims, Tibetan and Zen Buddhists, Trappist monks, Vedanta Hindus, Roman Catholic clergy and laity, Native American Shamans, spiritual “free agents,” and a Free Church Evangelical Protestant all get together in the mountains of Western Colorado?  Well, Psalm 133 perfectly describes what happened last week when this particular assortment of people came together for an Inter-Spiritual Dialog at St. Benedict’s Monastery in Snowmass, Colorado, under the guidance of Fr. Thomas Keating –

How very good and pleasant it is when kindred live together in unity!
It is like the precious oil on the head, running down upon the beard,
on the beard of Aaron, running down over the collar of his robes.
it is like the dew of Hermon, which falls on the mountains of Zion
For there the Lord ordained his blessing, life forevermore.

My participation in this gathering last week was set in motion by something that one of my high school teachers wrote in a yearbook long ago – “Stand firm in your faith, and keep searching for truth,” he counseled me, “I think you’ll find that the two do not finally conflict.”   And I have quite literally spent the last 45 years of my life consciously living into this advice.

“Standing firm in your faith” sent me to Christian College and then on to Graduate Seminary that eventually led to my ordination and lifelong ministerial vocation in the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ).  “Keep searching for truth” sent me to read theology with the President of a Quaker Seminary in Houston, to receive training in Spiritual Direction at a Charismatically renewed Roman Catholic Benedictine Monastery in New Mexico and to become an oblate member of that community, to take catechetical instruction in Eastern Orthodox Christianity from a priest of that spiritual tradition and to learn how to pray with and eventually to write icons myself, and to be part of an interreligious conversation for more than 10 years now in which each participant is a fully committed member of his own faith community – Jewish, Christian and Muslim.

In the Preface to The Asian Journal (New Directions 1968) Amiya Chakravarty described Thomas Merton’s own interfaith journey as a matter of his “openness to other peoples’ spiritual horizons” that came from his own deep “rootedness of faith, an inner security that led him to explore, experience, and interpret the affinities and differences between religions in the light of his own religion” (vii).  Greeting card wisdom would describe this as “roots and wings,” the depth of being firmly anchored in one’s own spiritual tradition coupled with the breadth of remaining deliberately open to the insights and experiences of those from other spiritual traditions.  And whether I am talking to a Baptist or a Buddhist, a Methodist or a Muslim, this is the stance that I have consciously tried to adopt and maintain.  As one of my trusted guides, the 16th century Anabaptist churchman Balthasar Hübmaier (1480-1528) put it – “I can err, for I am a man, but I cannot be a heretic, for I am willing to be taught better by anybody. And if anyone will teach me better, I acknowledge that I shall owe him great thanks.”  Last week in Snowmass at the Inter-Spiritual Dialog I was “taught better” by some new friends, and I am truly grateful for the experience.

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Over four days of deep conversation, honest sharing and deliberate “crossing over,” again and again I was brought “home” to a couple of foundational spiritual truths – first, that we are all hardwired for God, that we are constitutionally spiritual (“Thou hast made us for Thyself, O Lord, and our hearts are restless until they rest in Thee” – St. Augustine) and second, that God is not a dispassionate spectator of our human search for meaning and purpose, but it’s very “source and goal” as the author of Hebrews put it (12:2).

Living into these two presuppositions this past week with my new friends, when asked to prepare a statement of agreement that arose out of our shared experience, together we arrived at a set of commitments that we called an “Invitation for Contemplatives.”

ABCD

Now, as a product of group think and group write, while this statement is not exactly how I would say these things if it was left to me alone, this “Invitation for Contemplatives” is nevertheless a pretty good statement of some things that I truly believe and deeply value.  And its real power for me are the Inter-Spiritual experiences that we shared together in the mountains last week and the interfaith relationships that we formed as a community out of which this statement arose as an authentic expression.

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Each invitation on this list is bathed in a memory of faces, voices, insights and experiences. I can’t read these words or consider these ideas apart from the people who helped to bring them forth in me, with me, people of diverse spiritual perception and religious conviction, who showed themselves to be just as serious as I am about knowing who God is and who are just as eager as I am to live the truth about God that they know. And so, in closing, I am just going to briefly annotate each of these invitations from my own perspective and experience as a free church Evangelical Protestant Christian.  This is how they play out in my head and heart and find expression in the work of hands and the direction of my feet

  • To recognize we are united in the human condition.

When I hear a reference to the “human condition,” my initial spiritual instinct points me in the direction of our shared weaknesses and wounds as human beings, the limitations that we experience in ourselves and the suspicions that we harbor about each other.  We are all ignorant, guilty of breaking faith with God and God’s ways, and in terrible bondage to self and sin. This is the “human condition.”  But then again, so is the incredible potential of our humanity, our very real capacity for discovery, insight and transformation, our innate susceptibility to moral and spiritual renovation that is the very real consequence of having been created in the image of God.  To “recognize that we are united in the human condition” is to take a stance of openness to both the grandeur and misery of being human, to aspire to spiritual greatness while at the very same time exercising the incredible patience and understanding of grace.  One of the participants at the Retreat last week observed that some religions conceive of humankind as being essentially bad and then follows that suspicion out to its logical conclusion, whereas other religions conceive of humankind as being essentially good and then follows that affirmation out to its logical conclusion.  But my religion conceives of humankind as being a jumble of both good and bad, and that therefore invites growth while exercising grace.  This is the context for the second invitation –

  • To be living examples of love and forgiveness.

The example of love fuels the call to spiritual growth and moral transformation; the conscious exercise of forgiveness deals with the debris that weak and wounded people so easily generate.  Let go of either pole of this equation – the invitation to be an example of love or the invitation to consciously exercise forgiveness – and what you will be left with is a religion of half-truth.

  • To be open to experiencing others’ traditions.

Apart from the way that I believe God makes His way to us in revelation and redemption in Jesus Christ, I believe that because God made us for Himself that we all seek God to a greater or lesser degree, and that in our “groping” for Him that we all actually make some contact with God because God is not that far away from any one of us (Acts 17:27).  And because this is the case, by being present with you and by being open to your spiritual convictions and practices, I can have my own experience of God deepened and challenged.  The truth of my experience of God is not lessened in the least by my acknowledgment of the truth of your experience with God.  With E. Stanley Jones at the round table conversations between the religions of India, I believe that when you tell me about the God you know and how it is that you came to know Him, my own knowledge of God will be expanded and not diminished.

  • Within our own communities, and for the future generations, to have the courage to promote respect of others’ traditions.

“Courage” is the right word to use here.  In this present climate where the extremists in all of the great spiritual traditions of the world are pressuring their own adherents to further isolate, distort and condemn the “other,” it takes real courage to actively promote respect for another’s spiritual tradition. As a Christian, for me to speak with appreciation for the spiritual power, beauty and truth that I see in Islam is to put me at real risk, not from some imagined Muslim extremists somewhere, but rather from the impatient and intolerant extremists in my own Christian tradition instead.  I am not jettisoning Christ as my Lord and Savior when I say that I find in Hinduism and Buddhism some important ideas that help me better understand the saving message of my own faith as a Christian.  And I don’t believe that I am being unfaithful as a Christian to who I am or what I believe when in conversation with a person from another faith family, I discover some points of real correspondence between us and begin to experience a real sense of spiritual kinship as a result.

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  • Within our own communities, and for the future generations, to highlight the elements of our own traditions which open up to the validity of others’ traditions. 

The biggest task of the day, it seems to me, is not making big public statements about mutual respect and understanding between the world’s great religions, although  there is certainly a need for this in the world today.  No, it is my contention that the most important conversation to be had is the one within our very own communities of faith about how the mandate and the resources for respecting and understanding the religious faith and practice of another person are already there.  As I told the leadership team in my application to the Inter-Spiritual Retreat in Snowmass –

It is the Gospel – the “Evangel” – that makes me an “Evangelical” Christian.   And it is the God who is behind that Gospel – a God who made us for Himself; a God who sacrificed Himself in love in order that we might be reconciled with Him; and a God who strives with us to bring us back to Himself – who compels me to participate in interfaith dialogue.  I can’t know Him, and not be doing this.

A few years ago when Rob Bell upset lots and lots of Christians by writing about his optimism about God’s grace in his book Love Wins, Richard Mouw, then the President of Fuller Seminary, immediately sprung to his defense

In a book I wrote several years ago defending the basics of a Calvinist perspective, I told about an elderly rabbi friend who struck me as a very godly person. He would often write to tell me that he was praying for me and my family. When he died, I said, I held out the hope that when he saw Jesus he would acknowledge that it was Him all along, and that Jesus would welcome him into the heavenly realm.

 Some folks zeroed in on that one story to condemn me as a heretic. I find their attitude puzzling. Maybe they think that folks like Rob Bell and me go too far in the direction of leniency, but what about folks who go in the other direction? I just received an angry email from someone who pulled a comment out of something I wrote a few years ago in Christianity Today. A prominent evangelical had criticized those of us who have been in a sustained dialogue with Catholics for giving the impression that a person can be saved without having the right theology about justification by faith. My response to that: of course a person can be saved without having the right theology of justification by faith!  A straightforward question: “Did Mother Theresa go to hell?” My guess is that she was a little confused about justification by faith alone. If you think that means she went to hell, I have only one response: shame on you.

 Why don’t folks who criticize Rob Bell for wanting to let too many people in also go after people like that who want to keep too many people out?  Why are we rougher on salvific generosity than on salvific stinginess?

In August 2006, Newsweek did an extensive report on an interview with Billy Graham. Graham made it clear that he is still firmly confident that Jesus is the only way to salvation. When asked, though, about the destiny of “good Jews, Muslims, Buddhists, Hindus or secular people,” Billy had this to say: “Those are decisions only the Lord will make. It would be foolish for me to speculate on who will be there and who won’t … I don’t want to speculate about all that. I believe the love of God is absolute. He said he gave his son for the whole world, and I think he loves everybody regardless of what label they have.”

Billy Graham is no universalist. But he has come to a theology of salvific generosity, a perspective that he combines with a passionate proclamation of the message that Jesus alone is the Way, the Truth and the Life. For me—and I am convinced for Rob Bell—it doesn’t get any better than that!

hariThe resources for “salvific generosity” already exist within the Biblical witness, the church’s tradition and many Christians’ very own experiences, and it is the spiritual responsibility of those of us who have found them, and are already using them to foster a greater openness to the spiritual validity of others’ traditions to explain them to the members of our own “tribes.”  The urgency and passion that I feel at this point in my life to be in deliberate relationship and sustained conversation with people of varied faith experiences and convictions is not the result of a loss of confidence in what the Bible tells me about who God is and what God is doing in Jesus Christ, but rather, it is a direct result of my confidence in what the Bible tells me about who God is and what God is doing in Jesus Christ! I can’t know Him, and not be doing this. DBS+

 

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Making Sense of “End Time” Scenarios

A Little “Believing Thinking

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The release of the “Left Behind” major motion picture in theaters this past weekend so closely on the heels on HBO’s popular “The Leftovers” series on cable television brings “eschatology” [from the Greek ἔσχατοςeschatos” meaning “last” and λόγος, “-logy” meaning “Word” as in “the study of“] back into the forefront of our cultural consciousness. And at the edges of this conversation there are already some completely predictable and well-defined responses.

Secularists, skeptics and cynics dismiss the very suggestion of a divine intervention in the course of human history to judge and rescue humanity in preparation for the final establishment of the Kingdom of God on earth as being a ludicrous proposition from the very start. Their worldview cannot accommodate the idea.  President John F. Kennedy once said, “Our problems are man-made, therefore they may be solved by man. And man can be as big as he wants. No problem of human destiny is beyond human beings.” And that saying stakes out the secular response pretty concisely.

Confidence in human goodness, potential and ingenuity is the engine that drives every expression of secular hope. Education and legislation will save us. “Every day, in every way, we are getting better and better,” or at least we could and would if we just had more and better information, and the right people running things in Austin and Washington D.C.   And this isn’t just a “secular” response; it’s widespread in the church these days as well.

J.C. Wynn’s (a professor of pastoral theology at Colgate Rochester Divinity School/ Bexley Hall/ Crozer Theological Seminary) 1977 book Christian Education for Liberation and Other Upsetting Ideas (Abingdon) included the essay “Why the Conspiracy of Silence about Eschatology in Church Education?” In answering this question, J.C. suggested that –

Church educators are too imbued with a secular belief in progress to find much place for a doctrine that speaks of calamity and utter finality. The marked influence of progressive education upon the Sunday church school… imported a pervading optimism about humanity and expectation of inevitable progress…. (91-92)

The “eschaton” [The “End”] is completely beyond the ability of men, even the educators, to affect or to control… Eschatology faces the reluctant church educator with a reminder that none of us moves toward God so much as God comes toward us. God does not wait for us to inch our way to Him, but invites us, leads us, falls into step with us.  This encounter is not something that clever men have thought up, but a leading of the Spirit.  His is the divine initiative. (94-95)

Church education tends to assume that its goals are so earthbound that we seem limited to teaching persons for here and now. The conviction that Christians are strangers and pilgrims on earth, en route to a city whose maker and builder is God, is too seldom emphasized… If our citizenship is elsewhere, as the New Testament holds, that hope is underplayed… Christian hope is equally for the first hour of life and for the last. …Christian education dare not avoid the nearly impossible task of teaching persons both for the next things and for the last things as well.  (96)

At a Regional men’s retreat on the topic of hope a number of years ago I was asked to lead a workshop on what the Bible had to say about it. And so I used the occasion to orient the participants to the New Testament’s vocabulary of eschatology (The “Rapture,” the “Antichrist,” the “Tribulation,”  the “Millennium,” the “Signs of the Times,” the “Second Coming,” the “Final Judgment”), to introduce some of the major schools of the interpretation of these words and concepts (Realized Eschatology, Existential Eschatology, Symbolic Eschatology, Historicist Eschatology and Futurist Eschatology), and finally, to lead them in a discussion about why it all matters, about what these “events” and theories tell us about who God is and what God is doing in our lives and in our world.

When I was finished I got pulled aside by an Area Minister who was really quite upset with me for having “wasted” his time and that of all the participants on such an “irrelevant workshop.” He accused me of filling their heads with nonsense and of failing to offer them anything of practical value for when their lives got hard and they needed something specific, concrete and helpful to hang onto. “You sounded like a wacko in there,” he told me, “like someone you would hear on the radio late at night!” And as he stomped away (it was the very last time that this man ever talked to me), I remembered J.C. Wynn’s observations about the “conspiracy of silence about eschatology” in the church and better understood just how pervasive and even militant it could be.

Eschatology is not even on the table for consideration in many of our churches; we don’t have the tools to think about it intelligently and we don’t take the time to talk about it helpfully.   All we do is try to distance ourselves from it, abandoning the field to the extremists; derisively dismissing them as “ignorant fundamentalists” as we smartly walk off feeling superior.  And there’s no doubt, as theologian Gabriel Fackre put it, that eschatology has become the peculiar domain of overzealous interpreters who “with their lush apocalyptic imagery and confident descriptions of the temperature of hell and the furniture of heaven sometimes claim to know more than the Son of God about the how and when of His coming” (Matthew 24:36).

This is the equal but opposite “predictable and well-defined response” to movies like “Left Behind” and TV shows like “The Leftovers.”  They stir the religious imagination of some believers, and believe me, they will throng to their screenings.  When the dust settles, “Left Behind” will make money and have fans, and that’s because there is an audience for such productions.  In a frightening world people are looking for hope, and while the theology of “Left Behind” is not mine, I think that only a fool would stand outside throwing rotten tomatoes at it, mocking the sincerity of the faith of those who made it or the depth of the hunger of those who are going to see it.

I once knew a preacher who told me that he had preached on the book of Revelation every Sunday night for the full length of his more than ten year ministry in a particular church, and that he still wasn’t done when he left. And when I asked him if his people ever got tired of his singular focus, he told me that on the contrary, that they couldn’t get enough of it! Personally I’ve attended the protracted meetings of traveling Bible teachers with their charts and time tables who style themselves as “Prophecy Experts.”  I’ve read their books and listened to their tapes.  I know the passion and precision of their arguments, and while they never personally persuaded me of their particular positions, I spent enough time with them to know that they were serious and sincere, and that they deserved my respect rather than my ridicule.  It’s not enough just to call them stupid, and I’m not prepared to concede to them the domain of Biblical eschatology.

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“Left Behind” is the popularization of an indefinable interpretive tradition of eschatology. Because it generates popular novels and movies, and because we operate in the shadow of Dallas Theological Seminary and within the sphere of C.I. Scofield’s lingering influence (the Scofield Bible Church is not more than 2 miles east of Northway’s front doorsteps and many of my church members could produce a Scofield Reference Bible if asked), Dispensational Premillennialism (the name of the “identifiable interpretive tradition of eschatology”) holds a certain primacy in the public perception of what it is that Christians believe. And some Christians do believe it, fervently.  But Dispensational Premillennialism is not the only eschatological option available to a Christian who is trying to be Biblical in his or her beliefs.  Despite its popularity today, especially in the American Bible Belt, Dispensational Premillennialism has never been the majority opinion of the church on eschatological matters.  Augustine wasn’t a Dispensational Premillennialist, and neither were Thomas Aquinas, Martin Luther, John Calvin, Jonathan Edwards, John Wesley, Alexander Campbell, Barton Warren Stone, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Emil Brunner, Karl Barth, Mother Teresa or Pope John Paul II.  Democracy – who wins the popular vote – is a lousy way of arriving at theological truth; but when most of the church’s big hitters from across the centuries of church history took a different interpretive path than that of Dispensational Premillennialism when it came to matters of eschatology, that should be duly noted in one’s own deliberation.

Because it’s never enough just to criticize what somebody else believes, when the release of a movie brings into cultural awareness a question of Biblical interpretation and theological conclusion, we should welcome the opportunity to enter into the conversation fully. But that requires us to have given the matter of faith that has made its way into our field of vision some careful thought.  I am not a Premillennial Dispensationalist in my eschatological beliefs; but I am something.  I have some settled convictions, and they are the fruit of a sustained engagement with Scripture and the Christian tradition over many years.

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Millard J. Erikson in his magisterial 1998 systematic theology Christian Theology (Second Edition) [Baker Books] helpfully laid out some of the big theological questions that one has to come to terms with on your way to your own personal eschatological conclusions and convictions (1160-1161)  –

Is eschatology (the study of last things) thought of as pertaining primarily to the future (dealing with matters still remote from us) or the present (dealing with events in the here and now)?

Is your view of the future of life here on earth primarily optimistic (an improvement in conditions) or pessimistic (a general worsening of the circumstances of human existence)?

Is divine activity (supernaturally realized) or human effort (familiar and natural processes) thought to be the agent of eschatological events?

Does your particular eschatological view speak of hope for the church alone or for the human race in general? Do the benefits anticipated accrue only to those who are believers, or are the promises to all?  If the latter, is the church the agent or vehicle of the good things coming to all?

Does your eschatology hold that we will come into the benefits of the new age individually, or that their bestowal will be cosmic in character?

Is there a special place for the Jewish people in the future occurrences? As God’s chosen and covenant people in the Old Testament, do they still have a unique status, or Are they simply like the rest of the human race?

The way that I personally answer these questions make me a Historical Premillennialist. This is the interpretive tradition of eschatology that makes the best sense of the Biblical witness to me, and that I believe roots me in the faith of the early church.  But I refuse to make my eschatological conclusions tests of Christian fellowship or fidelity.  My Historical Premillennialist conclusions belong in the arena of “inferences,” conclusions that I have drawn from Scripture, but a construction that is separate from Scripture, that goes beyond Scripture.   Other equally serious and sincere Christians can and do arrange the same biblical materials in different ways, and I welcome faithful conversations with Christians who have drawn different conclusions than I have.  I want to be thoroughly Biblical in my faith and practice as a Christian, and if somebody can help me do this by challenging the way that I think about what the Bible says, then I’m all in.  But, in this, I understand that we are just arguing the details.

I don’t think that the theological point of view that is at work in the movie “Left Behind” is the best way to make sense of what the Scriptures say or the best way to keep faith with the historic teachings of the church.  But having said that, let me quickly add that I still have so much more in common with them, mistaken as I think they are, than I do with those parts of the contemporary church who are part of the conspiracy of silence about eschatology.

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As George Eldon Ladd, the teacher from whom I got my Historical Premillennial leanings, used to say, a Christianity stripped of its eschatology is a Christianity that will be “forever incomplete.” At the center of the Gospel “past” is Christ on the cross and at the center of the Gospel “future” is Christ returning in glory; remove either of these poles from Christianity’s equation, and you wind up with something very different from what the New Testament proclaims and the church has historically embraced. DBS+

 

 

 

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“Wars and Rumors of Wars”

A Little “Believing Thinking”

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When Jesus Christ was born the angels sang, “Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace among men with whom He is well pleased” (Luke 2:14).  But it wasn’t long after His birth, and it was directly because of His birth, that King Herod in his raging had all the baby boys of Bethlehem executed by his soldiers (Matthew 2:13-18).  This captures in a nutshell the dilemma that we who are Christians face when the drumbeats of war sound anywhere in the world.  It’s complicated.

We hail Christ as the Prince of Peace (Isaiah 9:6), and we hear His call to be peacemakers (Matthew 5:9).  But we also know that in the week when He was crucified that Jesus Christ pulled His disciples in close and told them that “wars and rumors of war” (Matthew 24:6) would characterize life in this world until He came again in glory to establish His kingdom that has no end.  It’s complicated.

Jesus told us to “love our enemies” (Matthew 5:44) seemingly making pacifism the preferential moral option for His disciples in times of war, but He also told us to “render to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s, and to God the things that are God’s” (Matthew 22:21) making obedience to the governing authorities within the dictates of conscience (Acts 4:19-20) a matter of discipleship, and the State “does not bear the sword in vain” (Romans 13:4).  It is the divine mandate of the state to establish justice through the execution of wrath on those who practice evil.  In fact, the church is commanded to pray “for kings and all who are in authority, in order that we may lead a tranquil and quiet life in all godliness and dignity” (I Timothy 2:2).  The community of faith benefits directly from the stability that the State secures through its strength.

It’s complicated, and what makes it so is the commitment that many of us who are Christians have to what’s known as the principle of the “whole counsel of God’s Word” (Acts 20:27).  What this means is that everything that the Bible says on any particular question of faith and practice must be taken seriously by us.  Before settling our position on any issue, a Christian has to take the whole witness of Scripture on that issue into careful consideration.  The Christian conscience cannot be settled by an appeal to a single isolated verse, no matter how compelling that single verse may be.  Richard Hayes, the New Testament scholar at Duke Divinity School calls this the “synthetic task” in Biblical interpretation – “finding coherence” in the “chorus of diverse voices” with which the Scriptures speak.

For example, in addition to loving our enemies, Jesus Christ told His followers to love our neighbors.  This was the whole point of Jesus’ famous Parable of the Good Samaritan (Luke 10:25-37).  But what if the Good Samaritan had arrived while the man on the side of the road was still being beaten and robbed instead of right after it had happened?   Would the command to love his enemy have required him to stand idly by until the brigands were done with their violence before stepping forward to love his neighbor by binding up his wounds and attending to his needs?

Steve Brown, a pastor from Wisconsin observes: “If the command to love your neighbor collides with the command to love your enemy, when an enemy would kill your neighbor, then you must love your neighbor by protecting him against his enemy.”  And that’s just one of the many collisions of commands that a Christian who is conscientiously attending to the whole counsel of God’s Word is going to have to learn how to navigate.

It is the complexity of all this that has led most Christians through the centuries – Catholic and Protestant alike – to adopt some version of the Just War theory as their stance on the question of war.  It poses each military action of the country in which a Christian lives as a moral and spiritual dilemma that must be conscientiously sorted out before one’s support of or participation in it can be offered. When Caesar goes to war, each Christian is left to struggle with how best to keep faith with Christ’s multiple commands: with the social obligation of citizenship that Christ enjoined in His command to His disciples to render to Caesar what is Caesar’s, with the love of neighbor that can be the legitimate motivation of a nation’s military action, and with the love of the enemy against whom that military action is taken.

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Francis Schaeffer, the Christian thinker on whom I cut my theological teeth, coined the phrase “fighting grievingly” to describe what he believed was the only proper attitude of a Christian in times of armed conflict.  He wrote –

I am not a pacifist, because pacifism in this abnormal world, this world that is not the way that God meant it to be because of the fall, means that we desert the very people who need our help the most. Let me illustrate what I mean: l am walking down the street one day when I see a great big burly man who is beating a little girl, and so I approach him and plead with him to stop. But what if he won’t stop, what does love then requite of me?  I believe that Christian love means that I stop him in any way that I can including, quite frankly, hitting him; to me this is what Christian love demands of me in a fallen world. If I desert the little girl to the bully, I have deserted the true meaning of Christian love, and my responsibility to my neighbor. … There are lots of things in this world which grieve us, and yet we must face them…

If a war is “just” then the participation of a Christian is deemed – by the majority opinion of the church through the centuries, at least – to be morally warranted.  But the way that a Christian then participates in that conflict, no matter how just, must still be governed by the love of God in Jesus Christ as it is known in his or her heart, and this means that he or she can only “fight grievingly,” with real regret and anguish, and with a very clear moral and spiritual obligation to the one who has been determined to be the enemy.

Echoing the command of Christ for His disciples to love their enemies, the Apostle Paul told the Christians in Rome –

18 If possible, so far as it depends on you, live peaceably with all. 19 Beloved, never avenge yourselves, but leave it to the wrath of God, for it is written, “Vengeance is mine, I will repay, says the Lord.” 20 To the contrary, “if your enemy is hungry, feed him; if he is thirsty, give him something to drink; for by so doing you will heap burning coals on his head.” 21 Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good.

This teaching has profound implications for individual Christians in times of war, whether it be a war of the nation that is their own earthly home, or a war between nations who are their neighbors. These obligations can be summarized nicely by some of the core principles of the Just War theory itself – (1) A predisposition to peace experienced as a real reluctance to fight, seeing it always as the very last and the very worst resort; (2) The absolute refusal to dehumanize the enemy and an insistence that enemy combatants be accorded the dignity that their humanity requires; (3) An overarching concern for the safety and welfare of noncombatants; and (4) A commitment to the genuine reconciliation of the antagonists after the cessation of the conflict and the restoration of order.

A Christian’s support of war is not supposed to be easy, and it’s certainly not supposed to be automatic.  Minimally, taking Jesus Christ and His teachings seriously must erect some speed bumps for Christians when the drumbeats of war are rushing their nation’s decision-making process and the rhetoric is heating up, and then when a war is actually being prosecuted, the teachings of Jesus Christ have to set some boundaries for Christians in its conduct.  Even when it is deemed “just,” war is still tragic, and a Christian’s support of it and participation in it must be reluctant at best.  “Wars and the rumors of war” are symptoms of the sinfulness of this world and its people, and every bullet that flies, every bomb that is dropped, every soldier who dies, and every family that mourns their losses is evidence of humanity’s desperate need for a Savior.

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Somewhere I’ve read that when the author Robert Louis Stevenson, a Christian himself, received word of a war among the people of his adopted country of Samoa, that he fell to the floor writhing in pain and weeping uncontrollably.   And while this is not all that there is to a Christian’s response to war, in closing I want to suggest that this is at least where it must begin.  Sadness and not anger is what must lie beneath the surface of a Christian’s response to war.  When in the course of human events a war becomes necessary, Christians can only support it with tears in our eyes and anguish in our hearts.   This is what people need to see first and most from us who are Christians in times of war.  DBS+

 

 

 

 

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Race, Faith and Ferguson

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A Little “Believing Thinking”

On the morning that we left for our long planned and greatly anticipated trip to see family in Minnesota in August of 1965, the Watts Riots were well underway in South Central Los Angeles.  As we drove east out of Southern California I remember sitting in the back seat of the family sedan with my two sisters beside me and seeing the orange glow of the city burning in the predawn sky, and being truly afraid. We are all products of our experiences and perceptions, and this is part of mine.  The confusion I felt as a 12 year old boy watching the streets of his city become a battlefield drawn along racial lines and the very real fear that I had that when we got back that there would be nothing left, that our home and neighborhood would be gone, burned to the ground by angry lawless mobs, no doubt contributed to my “law and order” mentality.

A product of the 1950’s, I was already living an “Ozzie and Harriet” life in an Eisenhower Republican household where authority was respected and those who wielded it were believed to be invariably just and fair, only looking to serve and protect, with our best interests always in mind.  These assumptions framed my perceptions then, and continue to shape them now.  And so, after a week like this one that we have just been through as a nation with the racial violence and civil unrest in a St. Louis suburb flaring up daily, I find that all of those old fears and convictions get stirred up in me once again.

Today I know that authority routinely gets abused, that those who wield it can often be cruel and corrupt, and that power in the service of prejudice and systematic oppression is utterly demonic, and yet my basic orientation is still on the side of law and order.  Romans 13:1-5 looms large in my thinking, both spiritually and politically.

Let everyone be subject to the governing authorities, for there is no authority except that which God has established. The authorities that exist have been established by God.  Consequently, whoever rebels against the authority is rebelling against what God has instituted, and those who do so will bring judgment on themselves.  For rulers hold no terror for those who do right, but for those who do wrong. Do you want to be free from fear of the one in authority? Then do what is right and you will be commended.  For the one in authority is God’s servant for your good. But if you do wrong, be afraid, for rulers do not bear the sword for no reason. They are God’s servants, agents of wrath to bring punishment on the wrongdoer.  Therefore, it is necessary to submit to the authorities, not only because of possible punishment but also as a matter of conscience.

I still want to believe in freedom and justice for all, in the structures of authority for the establishment and maintenance of the social order, and that the system, while frail and flawed, will not fail if left to run its full course.  With this as my interpretive grid, I view the events in Ferguson, Missouri, in a certain way.

I truly grieve the death of Mike Brown, and I want to give the benefit of the doubt to law enforcement.  I am respectful of the constitutional right of peaceful assembly and public protest, but I am disgusted by the rioting and looting.  I want the investigation of what happened to be allowed to objectively unfold without a rush to judgment from either side, and if it should turn out in the end that the tragic death of this young man was unjustified, then I want the structures of law and order that we have established as a people to serve the interests of justice to be brought to bear and the police officer who was involved in this incident to be prosecuted to the fullest extent of the law.

In my world, from the vantage point of my experiences and perceptions, this all seems to me to be completely reasonable.  But I know that my African American brothers and sisters have a very different set of experiences and perceptions that lead them to some very different conclusions.  Where I can trust, they are suspicious.  The structures that have served me and my interests so well throughout my life have oppressed them, and the system from which I have directly and repeatedly benefited has dramatically failed them at any number of points throughout our long national history, and so while their most natural reflex to an event like this one is pain and powerlessness giving way to outrage, mine is patience and perspective grounded in the belief that justice will finally prevail.  This leaves us sitting and staring across a wide divide of differing experiences and perceptions at each other, mystified at the conclusions that the other is drawing, and perhaps even a bit skeptical of the sincerity and depth of the faith that the other asserts is at the very center of their being, thinking and acting.  So, how do we break this deadlock?  How do we move forward together as a people, especially as people of faith?

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Theologian Miroslav Volf argues that in order to navigate this kind of social divide that we as Christians have got to come to terms with “the inner logic of the cross” (Exclusion and Embrace 214).  He explains that he had just finished preaching on Romans 5:6-11 during which he had passionately argued that “we ought to embrace the other as God has embraced us in Christ” when he was asked if this meant that he could embrace a Cetnik, one of the notorious Serbian fighters who in the winter of 1993 were desolating Miroslav’s homeland and destroying his people?  Could Miroslav, a Croat, embrace a Serbian soldier?  And his honest answer was, “No, I cannot – but as a follower of Christ I think I should be able to” (9).

It was the tension between his allegiance to the God who on Calvary’s cross set out to embrace those who were estranged from Him, and his own personal and painful experience of estrangement from the Serbians, his people’s despised enemies, that caused Miroslav to reflect deeply on how we can embrace those from whom we are estranged.  And he concluded that the only way we can do this is by learning how to “enlarge our thinking.”  He said that “in a creaturely sort of way” we need “to emulate God’s way of knowing” in Jesus Christ (251).  This is what’s at stake when we talk about the Incarnation, about how God became one of us, about how Christ was “fully God” and “fully human.”  In the mystery of God putting Himself in our place and carrying the full range of our experiences as human beings from birth to death into God’s very own heart, we have a model for how we can and must move from hostility to hospitality ourselves.

While not denying our own individual identities, experiences or perspectives, we have to risk taking a step outside ourselves just like God did in Christ.  We must cross over the dividing wall of suspicion and hostility that separates us from each other.  And we must enter the world of the other deep enough to be able to hear with their ears, to see with their eyes, and to feel with their hearts.  And then when we cross back over the divide that separates us from each other, we must then be prepared to bring bits and pieces of their world back with us into ours so that the perspective of the other always stands beside our own, in dialogue with it.

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This is how the stranger, the other, can become the familiar, the friend.  But to do this the barrier of fear must be deliberately breached.  The wall of suspicion must be consciously stepped over.  The divide of enmity that separates us must be crossed.  New possibilities in our relationships with each other must be envisioned.  And Miroslav Volf says that it’s the cross of Christ that inspires and empowers us to be able to do this.  In the outstretched arms of Christ on Calvary we can see the embrace of God taking in those who were once separate and strangers, and it pushes us to do the same thing.  “God’s reception of hostile humanity into divine communion is a model for how human beings should relate to each other” (Volf 100).  It takes effort, and it takes time, and it takes sacrifice, but as followers of Jesus Christ we really have no other choice. “The love of Christ constrains us” (2 Corinthians 5:14).  DBS+

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Gold, Frankincense and Flu

 

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I got a flu shot for Thanksgiving.
I got the flu for Christmas.

It started with a cough on the Thursday after Christmas Day.  On Friday morning my sinuses were involved, by Friday afternoon chills and body aches had joined the party, and by Saturday I was down for the count.  I barely moved for the next four days.  I was good and sick; the kind of sick when you just don’t care.  I couldn’t sleep.  I couldn’t eat.  I couldn’t get comfortable.  I wouldn’t be comforted.  I was just flat out miserable, and making my loved ones, my caretakers miserable as well.  When my downhill slide finally flattened out and I gradually began to rebound, I began to think about the meaning of being sick.

Christmas is the season of Emmanuel – the celebration of the “God who is with us” (Matthew 1:23/Isaiah 7:14).  The author of Hebrews makes the most of this affirmation in his teaching about Christ’s full identification with us in our shared humanity –

Since then we have a great high priest who has passed through the heavens, Jesus, the Son of God, let us hold fast our confession. For we have not a high priest who is unable to sympathize with our weaknesses, but one who in every respect has been tempted as we are, yet without sin. Let us then with confidence draw near to the throne of grace, that we may receive mercy and find grace to help in time of need.

So, does this mean that Jesus had the flu when He because flesh and dwelt among us?  If His ability to “sympathize with our weaknesses” is the result of the fact that in His full humanity, Jesus Christ “in every respect has been tempted/tested as we are,” then I am certainly inclined to think so.  In fact, in the prophetic description of His person and work in Isaiah 53:4-5, it was said of the Messiah –

Surely he has borne our griefs and carried our sorrows; yet we esteemed him stricken, smitten by God, and afflicted. But he was wounded for our transgressions, he was bruised for our iniquities; upon him was the chastisement that made us whole, and with his stripes we are healed.

This text provides me with some basis for thinking that Jesus in the days of His flesh ran a fever and had the chills. In – “the Lord has laid on him the iniquity of us all” (Isaiah 53:6) – I think I can include the flu.  Of course, this is speculative.  What I have no doubts about whatsoever is the fact that in the redemption that God has already accomplished in Jesus Christ and is right now in the process applying to our hearts as individuals and to the world in general through the Holy Spirit is the elimination of flu.  It’s part of
what’s got to go on that day when God will finally and fully “wipe away every tear from every eye; and there shall be no longer be any death; there shall no longer be any mourning, or crying, or pain” (Revelation 21:4).  Many of my Pentecostal friends want me to believe that if I could just muster up enough faith, that this could be my reality right here and right now.  But I am persuaded by Scripture that such an idea is an “unwarranted anticipation” of the future that God has promised.  I believe that it will come, that the flu will be done away with once and for all in the redemption of my body in the day of resurrection when Christ returns (Romans 8:18-23). But that’s “not yet.”  And this means that we are all going to have weeks like the one that I’ve just come though. Oh, it would be nice if there was a shot that we could take that would solve the problem of the flu, but there’s not, at least not yet.  What we’ve got is eschatology – the doctrine of last things.

At a men’s retreat a few years back I was roundly criticized and mocked by a ministerial colleague for teaching a workshop on the different theories of interpretation about what the Bible tells us will occur in the last days.  He saw it as a big waste of time.  “What good does any of this do when I’m sitting at a hospital bedside or standing at a graveside?” he demanded to know.  “It’s spiritual minutia and theological claptrap in the category of ‘how many angels can dance on the head of a pin,’” my colleague insisted, “junk that distracts us and obstructs us from really dealing with the things that matter.” I disagreed with him then, and now.

In I Thessalonians 4:13-18, the Apostle Paul dealt with a pastoral crisis in that community of faith by reviewing with them the things that he told them about the end times when he had been with them planting the church.  “We do not want you to be uninformed,” Paul told the Thessalonians, “that you may not grieve as do the rest who have no hope” (4:13). And then, after working through what will happen at the close of the age one more time with them, Paul concluded his excursion into eschatology with the exhortation: “Therefore comfort one another with these words” (4:18).  It was an examination of revealed truth and not just an emotional pep talk that spiritually sustained the Thessalonians in their day of trial.   Paul didn’t pin their hope up in a vacuum, but instead rooted and grounded it in an affirmation of what God has already done for us in Jesus Christ, and in what He has promised to finish.

In I Corinthians 15, at the end of one of the longest chapters in the New Testament – a chapter all about the Resurrection of Jesus Christ and what it means for us when we die and/or when the world ends – Paul ended his eschatological reflections with this charge: “Therefore, my beloved brethren, be steadfast, immovable, always abounding in the work of the Lord, knowing that your toil is not in vain in the Lord” (15:58).  In other words, the courage and stamina that we need for this world finds its reserves in the promises that God makes about what will happen in the next world.  And so, last week when I was down with the flu, the only thing that helped was lots of bed rest, Advil, a decongestant, and eschatology.  DBS+

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