Tag Archives: Peace

Half-Full or Half-Empty?

A Meditation on Thanksgiving in
a Time of National Conflict
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glassThey say that there are two kinds of people in this world – those who see glasses half-full, and those who see glasses half-empty. My sense is that it would be more accurate to say that sometimes all of us see the glass half-full, while at other times we see it half-empty.  I don’t think of half-full/half-empty glasses as rigid, permanent, impermeable “either/or” categories.  No, whether I see a glass as being half-full or half-empty depends on lots of things, things that can change.  And so I’m reluctant to see either half-full glasses or half-empty glasses as “steady states.” And just as this is true of us as individuals, so it seems to me that it is equally true of us as societies at large and in seasons of life.  There are times when things generally feel half-full for us as a people or a nation, and there are other times when things feel half-empty for us as a people or a nation.

Right now things feel half-empty to me. It has been a long and jarring election season, and a conflicted and volatile couple of weeks since the votes were counted and a winner declared.   Regardless of how you voted, whether your candidate won or lost, the fact is that we are a painfully divided nation right now with very little confidence in the wisdom or goodness of those with whom we disagree.  We suspect the worse about each other, we resist listening to each other, and without some “patriotic grace” the task of governing is going to prove to be nearly impossible for the foreseeable future.

Patriotic Grace” is a phrase that political speechwriter and columnist Peggy Noonan coined.  This is how she explained its meaning in her 2008 book by the same name –

What we need most right now, at this particular moment in our history, is a kind of patriotic grace – a grace that takes the long view – a grace that eschews the politically cheap and manipulative – a grace that takes the deep view – a grace that admits affection and respect for others – that in fact encourages affection and respect for others – that agrees that the things that divide us are not worthy of this moment – while the things that encourage our cohesion as a nation must be encouraged.

As a step in this direction, I am consciously and conscientiously approaching Thanksgiving Day this year as a glass “half-full” oasis in an otherwise glass “half-empty” season in our national life.  I am building a list of things for which I am grateful right now at this particular moment in our history, and I am claiming them as the basis for my very real hope that no matter how half-empty the glass might appear to be right now, that it won’t be very long before its “half-fullness” becomes apparent to us all again as a people.

So, here’s my list so far –

I am grateful for the Promise of America, a promise most concisely stated for me in the words of the Pledge of Allegiance when it says that “liberty and justice” are for all.  Now I know that for some Americans – people of color, immigrants, Native Americans, the LBGTQ community to name just a few – this promise rings pretty hollow.  But I’ve always thought that aspirational values, those things that we say we want to be and do as a people, have a real power for concentrating our attention and directing our efforts.  Promises become projects.  And so, even as I affirm the aspiration that we be one nation under God with liberty and justice for all, I find that I must recommit myself in the present historical circumstance to doing the hard work of making the promise a fact for every single American.  I believe that it is incumbent upon all of us who pledge allegiance not to rest until every American has been extended the freedom and personally experiences the justice that it extols.

I am grateful that three days after the election this year we observed Veterans’ Day and had the opportunity to think about the men and women in our history, and who right now, are serving so selflessly and sacrificially to help keep us safe and secure as a nation. I recently saw the movie “Hacksaw Ridge” and I was viscerally reminded once again of what conscience and courage in uniform looks like, and I was grateful.  I am grateful for my father of blessed memory who served in the South Pacific during World War 2, for my Brother-in-Law who served in both Korea and Vietnam, and for my nephew who right now serves in the Global War on Terror.  I do not take the dangers and risks they faced, and are facing for us for granted.  I honor their service.

I am grateful for the Rule of Law and not the Rule of Men. A few years ago I devoured a series of books about the Founders – David McCullough’s John Adams, Ron Chernow’s Washington: A Life and Alexander Hamilton, and Joseph Ellis’ American Sphinx: The Character of Thomas Jefferson.  These books sent me back to the original sources of our Constitutional Republic in The Federalist Papers.  And the more I read them the deeper my appreciation became for the peculiar genius and sober wisdom of the generation of Founders who had a vision for this Constitutional Republic of ours, and who then had the astonishing ability to actually draft the enabling documents that moved it from the realm of a noble ideal to a functioning governing structure and system.  It’s certainly not perfect.  It must not be viewed an object of worship.  But it’s far better than any of the alternatives that are out there.  As Winston Churchill famously said, “Democracy is the worst form of government, except for all the others.” And the greatest feature of our particular version of it, if you ask me, are its deliberate separation of powers and its careful system of checks and balances that prevent unilateral action by a tyrant be s/he in the Executive, Legislative or Judicial branch of government.  Our Constitution compels consultation, cooperation and compromise to get anything substantive done.  To be sure, this frustrates the winners of elections, even as it reassures the losers, and it’s something for which I am truly grateful today.  Although I am impatient with the deadlock that has afflicted Washington D.C. for the past decade, I am a nevertheless a real fan of divided government, in fact, I vote for it all the time.  I want the exchange of different ideas and the clash of passions.  I frankly think it makes us better as a nation.

I am grateful for the peaceful transfer of power that we are witnessing once again, and for the very real grace with which it is happening right now when the forces to hinder it are running so hot. I have long ached for the emergence of a new class of national Statesmen in our Republic “who more than self their country loved,” and I think that I have actually caught a glimpse of some from both sides of the aisle in these last few weeks, and that gives me some real hope for the days ahead.

I am grateful for the Bill of Rights, and especially for the First Amendment that guarantees freedom of religion/conscience and freedom of speech, and that provides for a free press, the right of free assembly, and the freedom to redress our grievances. The Amendments to our Constitution are how we “mend thine every flaw,” and the fact that we even have such a mechanism in our governing documents tells me everything I need to know about our capacity to change and grow as a society, to expand liberty and establish justice for all. Our Founders knew that we would need to be able to do this.  We still do.

I am also grateful for the individual human capacity to grow and change, and for the gracious chances that we give to one another to do so. I am certainly not naïve about human nature.  My working doctrine of Original Sin and Total Depravity tempers the optimism in the ability of human beings that I detect in so many of my colleagues and peers.  I am a strict Calvinist in these matters.  We cannot lower our guard with each other, or ourselves.  But, and this is not a contradiction of what I just said, I am also a firm believer in the Imago Dei, not just as the transcendent fact that establishes the worth of every single human being, but also as an affirmation of our innate capacity as human beings to make selfless choices and to reach for transcendent goals.  We stand in the mud, but we see the stars, and so long as we do, there’s always hope for nobility from the most improbable of sources.

Finally, I am grateful for the sovereignty of God that assures me that God’s will is going to finally be done on earth as it is in heaven, and for the providence of God that assures me that God can carve the rotten wood and ride the lame horse – which is to say that God always finds a way to take our confused choices and jumbled circumstances and turns them into His good.  The famous moral to the Joseph and his Brothers story in Genesis – “You intended this for evil, but God turned it to good” (50:20) – is a safeguard against despair for people of Biblical faith.  The story is not over until it’s over.  It’s way too early to give up, or to give over to the inertia of discouragement when things happen that we didn’t expect, and that don’t make any sense to us from our own particular point of view.  Kennon Callahan, the Church Consultant, said that the most important question a church must answer is: “Do you believe that your best years are before you, or behind you?” And I believe that the same question must be asked of Republics.  I personally believe that the best years for this Republic of ours are still before us, not because of who’s President, or not, but because of the God under whom I believe this nation, and all nations exist.  My confidence is in Him, and in His way of conforming, first His people, and then His world, to His purposes.  And so while I am certainly concerned these days, and cautious about what will happen next, I am not announcing the end of the world or making Hitler comparisons. No, despite all of the legitimately anxious and angry voices declaring the glass to be not just half-empty, but bone dry, I have cause to see it half-full.  And this Thanksgiving, I invite you, no, I urge you, to undertake the same spiritual exercise for your own sake, and for the sake of our national future together.  DBS +

 

 

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Is Religion the Problem?

A Little Believing-Thinking about Religiously Motivated Terrorism
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For my generation, its wisdom is axiomatic –

Imagine there’s no heaven
It’s easy if you try
No hell below us
Above us only Sky
Imagine all the people
Living for today…

Imagine there’s no countries
It isn’t hard to do
Nothing to kill or die for
And no religion too
Imagine all the people
Living life in peace…
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John Lennon

Metrojet Flight 9268 from Sharm el-Sheikh International Airport, Egypt, en route to Pulkovo Airport, Saint Petersburg, Russia on October 31 (224 dead), Beirut on November 12 (43 dead and 239 wounded), Paris on November 13 (129 dead and 352 injured), and Mali on November 20 (22 dead) are just the most widely reported episodes of religiously motivated terrorism from the past few weeks. There were others, lots and lots of others, and if we would take the time and make the effort to go back through human history the shameful connection between religion and violence would quickly become appallingly obvious. And so simplistically, with John Lennon we might reasonably conclude that if we could just rid ourselves of religion that peace and harmony would then immediately ensue.  More substantial versions of this argument than the lyrics of a popular 1971 Beatles song have been made. For instance, it’s a lynchpin in the argument for atheism made by Richard Dawkins in his bestselling 2006 book The God Delusion.  But there is another way of looking at the problem of religiously motivated violence.

Rather than viewing it as the product of a religion being taken seriously by it perpetrators, might religiously motivated violence be the result of a religion not being taken seriously enough by its perpetrators instead?  And so instead of wishing that religion would be moderated by its adherents – taken less seriously – maybe what we should hope for is that religious people everywhere would embrace the teachings of their respective faiths more fully?  Could religiously motivated violence be the product of a faith poorly understood and under-appreciated by it adherents rather than being viewed as what inevitably happens whenever religious people start getting serious about what they believe?

Tim Keller made the argument as persuasively as anybody has –

god

Excerpt from The Reason for God: Belief in an Age of Skepticism by Tim Keller
https://www.facebook.com/notes/monergism-books/fanaticism-by-tim-keller-excerpt-from-the-reason-for-god/224327212550

Perhaps the biggest faith-deterrent for the average person today is not so much violence and warfare but the shadow of fanaticism. Many non-believers in Christianity have friends or relatives that have become ‘born again’ and seem to have gone off the deep end. They soon begin to loudly express disapproval of various groups and sectors of our society—especially movies and television, the Democratic party, homosexuals, evolutionists, activist judges, members of other religions (all of which are branded ‘false’) and public schools. When arguing for the truth of their faith they often appear intolerant and self-righteous. This is what many people would call fanaticism.

What is the solution? Many people try to understand Christians along a spectrum from ‘nominalism’ at one end to ‘fanaticism’ on the other. A nominal Christian is someone who is Christian in name only, who does not practice it and maybe hardly believes it. At the other end of the spectrum a fanatic is someone who is thought to over-believe and over-practice Christianity. In this schematic, the best kind of Christian would be someone in the middle, someone who doesn’t go all the way with it, who believes it but is not too devoted to it.

The problem with this is the same mistake about Christianity that we saw above. It assumes that the Christian faith is basically a form of moral improvement. Full-blown Christianity, then would be Phariseeism. Pharisaical religious people know nothing of ‘salvation by grace’. They assume they are right with God because of their moral behavior and right doctrine. This leads naturally to feelings of superiority toward those who do not share their religiosity, and from there to various forms of abuse, exclusion, and oppression.

But what if (as we will explain more fully below) the essence of Christianity was salvation by grace, salvation not because of what we do but because of what Christ has done for us? This would mean that both the nominal end of the spectrum and the fanatical end of the spectrum were missing out on the core of the Christian faith. The extremists we think of as ‘fanatics’ are so not because they are too committed to the gospel but not committed enough. Belief that you are accepted by God via sheer grace makes you both confident (because you are loved) and humble (because you didn’t earn it.)

Think of Jesus himself. He was enormously bold and daring, casting the money-changers out of the temple with a whip (John 2:11ff,) calling the ruling power, Herod, a “fox” and refusing to leave his territory, though he knew he wanted to kill him (Luke 13:31-32) denouncing the religious and civic leaders for their corruption and injustice, though he knew it would cost him his life (Matt 23:27.) Yet he was gentle and embracing of people who were moral, racial, and political outlaws (John 8:1ff; Luke 7:36ff; 15:1ff; 19:1ff.) It was said of him he ‘came not be served, but to served’ (Mark 10:45) and he was so tender that ‘He will not quarrel or cry out…a bruised reed he will not break, a smoldering wick he will not snuff out… (Matt. 12:19-20).

So think of people you consider of as fanatical. They are over-bearing, self-righteous, opinionated, insensitive, harsh. Why are they so? It is not because they are too fanatically committed to Christ and his gospel, but rather because they are not fanatical enough. They are fanatically zealous and courageous, but they are not fanatically humble, sensitive, loving, empathetic, forgiving, or understanding as Christ was. Because they think of Christianity as a self-improvement moral framework they emulate the Jesus of the whips in the temple, but not the Jesus who said, “let him who is without sin cast the first stone.” (John 8:7) What strikes us as overly-fanatical is actually a failure be fully-orbed in our commitment to Christ.

Extremism and fanaticism, which leads to abuse and oppression, is a constant danger within the body of believers. But the answer is not to toned down and ‘moderate’ faith, but a deeper and truer faith in Christ and his word. The Biblical prophets understood this well. In fact, the scholar Merold Westphal documented that Marx’s analysis of religion as an instrument of oppression was anticipated by the Hebrew prophets Isaiah, Jeremiah, Amos, and others. Marx was not original in his critique of religion—the Bible beat him to it! So while the church itself has tragically and inexcusably often been party to the oppression of people over the centuries, it is important to point out how Christian theology and the Bible gives us tools for unflinching analysis and withering critique of religiously supported injustice from within the faith. We have been taught to expect it and told what to do about it. Because of this, Christian history gives us many remarkable examples of self-correction.

My own life and faith are replete with multiple “remarkable examples” of this kind of “self-correction.”  I know that my own complicity with the racism of my culture was exposed only when I started taking my commitment to Jesus Christ as the Lord and Savior of all people without distinction (Galatians 3:28) with utmost seriousness.  And I know that my own resistance to the notion of women in ministry was shattered only when I started reading the New Testament for myself and taking what it says about women as the “joint heirs of grace” (3:7) and full partners in the empowering and indwelling presence of the Holy Spirit (Acts 2:16-18) seriously.  And I know that my own unsettledness with the way that the church has historically responded to gay, lesbian and transgendered people has been fomented more by my commitment to the inclusive Gospel of John 3:16 than it has been triggered by any Supreme Court ruling or conclusion drawn from the latest psychological research. It has been by me becoming more Christian and not less Christian that I have found myself becoming less dogmatic and judgmental and more consciously and deliberately gracious.  And if this is true for me as a person who is trying to take his Christianity with full seriousness, then I am inclined to think that it is equally true for people of other faith traditions as well.

malcolmIn fact, according to Alex Haley in his seminal biography of Malcolm X, it was his fuller embrace of the teachings of Islam following his pilgrimage to Mecca where the brotherhood of all Muslim believers regardless of their race was on full display that Malcolm X began to distance him from some of the positions and people that he had previously embraced.  And while his assassination by extremists from his own faith tradition prevents us from knowing where this journey of faith would have eventually led him, there are good and sufficient grounds for thinking that it was the deepening of his faith as a Muslim that was leading him to a more generous engagement in the struggle for civil rights and racial justice and a more inclusive vision of what America could become.  And I hold out this same hope for all of us today, Muslims and Christians alike.

americaTaking our respective faiths more seriously and not less seriously is what I believe will best serve the cause of peace in our time.  And just as we who are serious Christians uniformly regard the recent provocative armed protests at the Irving Mosque as spiritually antithetical to genuine New Testament Christianity, so we must accord this same distinction to our Muslim neighbors and friends when it comes to the actions of ISIS extremists and Al Qaeda terrorists.

It is not Islam that makes someone a terrorist any more than it is Christianity that convinces somebody to strap an automatic weapon to his or her back and drive over to Irving to hurl insults at Muslims gathering for prayer.  And just as I would challenge the actions of those who spew their hatred on the sidewalks in front of the Irving Mosque by an appeal to Scripture and the logic of the gospel, so I believe that the way for violent Muslim extremism to be confronted is by a deeper engagement with their own Scriptures and by a fuller obedience to their teachings.  The solution is not by all of us abandoning our respective faith traditions as John Lennon proposed in his song, but by all of us taking our respective faith traditions even more seriously than we ever have before.  As the popular radio commentator Dennis Prager likes to say, when Christians are truly Christians things are going to be so much better, and safer, for him as an Orthodox Jew.  And I believe that the same thing is true for all of us when it comes to Islam.

When Christians are truly Christians, and Jews are truly Jews, and Muslims are truly Muslims, things are going to be better, and safer, for all of us – Christians, Jews, Muslims and unbelievers alike. I don’t think that we need less religion.  I think we need religious people to get even more serious about what their religions teach.  That’s the only way that I can “imagine all the people living life in peace.”   DBS+                                         

 

 

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Our Pentecost Novena; Day 3

dallas

Northway Christian Church – Dallas, Texas
Day 3 – Sunday, May 17, 2015
The Proof of the Holy Spirit’s Presence is Peace

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Scripture – John 14:27

Peace I leave with you; my peace I give to you. I do not give to you as the world gives. Do not let your hearts be troubled, and do not let them be afraid.

Thought

Love and peace are not tested by rhetorical phrases from pulpit or platform.  They are tested by the way we behave toward others who continually go astray and are at odds.  The test of our love and peace for another is in our behavior toward particular persons with whom we talk, walk, and work. To be concerned for these is the test of our love.  At the heart of that which makes for peace is a tender, forgiving love as Christ forgave and loved. (John M. Drescher)

Prayer

Holy Spirit, sent by the Father, ignite in us your holy fire;
strengthen your children with the gift of faith,
revive your Church with the breath of love,
and renew the face of the earth,
through Jesus Christ our Lord.

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Not Perfect, Just Forgiven…

peace “You have not been helpful”: Monk loses temper
dealing with United Airlines customer service
Michael Walsh ~ http://news.yahoo.com

Another airline passenger lost his cool while talking to customer service — only this time it was a monk. Brother Noah of the Monastery of Christ in the Desert in New Mexico says he failed to stay peaceful while dealing with United Airlines on the phone, the New York Times reported. “I said to her something like: ‘Thank you for speaking. God bless you. I will pray for you. But you have not been helpful,’” he told the broadsheet. When David Segal, author of “The Haggler” column, suggested this did not sound like much of an outburst, Brother Noah said he knows the tone of his voice “manifested anger.” So what riled up the monk?  In late November, Brother Noah’s friend at the monastery, Brother John Baptist, flew to Malawi in southeastern Africa to see his sick mother on a $2500 round-trip ticket, paid for by the monastery.  After arriving, Brother John Baptist realized he needed to extend his trip several weeks, so Brother Noah called on December 10 to reschedule the return flight. But United said the original purchase was fraudulent even though his friend already used half of the ticket.  A United representative reportedly suggested that the monastery’s leader could drive three hours away to a United desk in Albuquerque to work everything out. Then he spoke to a supervisor, identified as Mark, but the issue was not sorted out.  “Everything became our fault. There was no evidence that Brother John Baptist had been placed on a new return flight,” Brother Noah told the Times. “No record of the conversation with Mark. I really struggled to remain calm and charitable. My monastic life is about staying peaceful in all circumstances. I failed during this call.”  To set everything straight, the monastery posted an open letter on its website outlining the experience and asking for help. “Blessings to you! Christ in the Desert is having some difficulties with United Airlines. Perhaps someone reading this will know a way to help,” the letter begins.  This eventually led to a return flight, apology, and $350 credit toward future travels.

This is not the monastery in New Mexico that I go to, but it is its sister house on the other side of Santa Fe.  Benedictines, Thecirque Monastery of Christ in the Desert is a community that organizes its life around the 6th century Rule of St. Benedict.  As an Oblate of the Pecos Benedictine Monastery and Our Lady of Guadalupe Abbey, I have made a commitment to this Rule myself.  I try to organize my active life in the world around the spiritual principles that St. Benedict discovered in his life of following hard after Jesus Christ and then made available to others.  Ordinarily, monks and monasteries connote Christians on spiritual steroids, spiritual athletes climbing the ladder of perfection.  But in my experience, monks are just ordinary believers like ourselves who have gotten serious about their discipleship, and monasteries are places of grace, refuges where weary souls can find refreshment, reorientation and renewal.

I’ve read that there is a command on British warships known as “Still.”  When it is issued, everyone is supposed to stop where they are and what they are doing, and think about where they are supposed to be and what they are supposed to be doing!  My trips to the monastery have always been a “Still” experience for me.  They have not been victory laps with me pumping my fist in celebration of some kind of imagined spiritual maturity, but rather they have been more like time in the repair shop for my soul to find out why it’s running so rough.  And in my experience, the monastery is the perfect place to do this because they are not inhabited by angels, but by ordinary men and women who struggle with all of the same sorts of things that I do.

The Rule of St. Benedict is not a spiritual resource for the elite.  It is a spiritual resource for the ordinary containing “nothing harsh, nothing burdensome.”  In fact, St. Benedict described it as “a little rule for beginners.”  In the Preface to the copy of the Rule that I keep close at hand, Fr. Timothy Fry, O.S.B. explained – “Benedict was a keen observer of human nature and realized that people often fail (the abbot himself must ‘distrust his own ability”). He was concerned to help the weak, and consequently he enjoined the abbot to “so regulate and arrange all matters that souls may be saved….”  And so in the Rule you are repeatedly coming across little snippets of patience and grace like –

idol“…never lose hope in God’s mercy…”

“The abbot must exercise the utmost care and concern for wayward brothers, because it is not the healthy who need a physician, but the sick (Matthew 9:12)… support the wavering brother… ‘lest he be overwhelmed by excessive sorrow’ (2 Corinthians 2:7).”

“Imitate the loving example of the Good Shepherd who left the ninety-nine sheep in the mountains and went in search of the one sheep that had strayed.  So great was his compassion for its weakness that he mercifully placed it on his shoulders and so carried it back to the flock (Luke 15:5).”

“…consideration should be given for weakness…”

The Rule of St. Benedict breathes the kind of spiritual realism that is borne of the Gospel, the kind of realism that you find in Philippians 3.  This is one of those chapters where my faith lives, especially the part that says–

I have suffered the loss of all things, and count them as rubbish, that I may gain Christ and be found in Him… Not that I have already attained this, or am already perfected; but I press on, that I may lay hold of that for which Christ Jesus has also laid hold of me.  …Forgetting those things which are behind and reaching forward to those things which are ahead, I press toward the goal for the prize of the upward call of God in Christ Jesus.  (Philippians 3:8; 12-14)

Years ago the young couple who lived across the street from the church that I was serving in the Texas Panhandle put thejust familiar bumper sticker that reads “Christians aren’t perfect, they’re just forgiven” on their car, only they deliberately put it on upside down!   I laughed out loud every time I saw it, and I appreciated the important spiritual truth to which it bore witness. Our standard is not perfection, but growth – growth in grace.  Weakness and failure are expected, but they’re not to be excused.  With the acknowledgment that we are not perfect, there must come the resolve to press on, and it’s in the tension of these two poles that the spiritual life gets lived out, inside and outside the monastery.  It’s good for all of us to know that monks get angry and can lose their cool too.  It means that we’re all in the same boat — the boat of grace. DBS+

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“Wars and Rumors of Wars”

A Little “Believing Thinking”

tank

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.

hmmmm
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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Sing We Now of Christmas “Joy to the World”

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Joy to the world, the Lord is come! Let earth receive her King;
Let every heart prepare Him room, and Heaven and nature sing,
And Heaven and nature sing, and Heaven, and Heaven, and nature sing.

Joy to the earth, the Savior reigns! Let men their songs employ;
While fields and floods, rocks, hills and plains repeat the sounding joy,
Repeat the sounding joy, repeat, repeat, the sounding joy.

No more let sins and sorrows grow, nor thorns infest the ground;
He comes to make His blessings flow far as the curse is found,
Far as the curse is found, far as, far as, the curse is found.

He rules the world with truth and grace, and makes the nations prove
The glories of His righteousness, and wonders of His love,
And wonders of His love, and wonders, wonders, of His love.

bI grew up in a strongly Seventh Day Adventist neighborhood in Southern California.   I went past one of their Hospitals, their Regional Denominational Offices and their National Radio and Television Ministry Studio every day on my way to school.  Their “Academy” – a church-related school – was as big as the elementary school that I attended. And some of the friends I played with everyday in the park across the street from where I lived were Adventists.  We were in and out of each other’s houses all the time.  And one of the things that I often saw when I was in their houses were paintings of what they thought that life after death was going to be like, and the images I saw cast a vision that was remarkably physical and this-worldly – like a nice day in a beautiful park.  They always left me confused.  When I died I expected to shed my body, leave this world, go to heaven and continue to exist there forever as a spirit – like an angel.   This wasn’t something that I was necessarily “taught” but rather it was something I “caught.”  “When you die you go to heaven,” that’s what everyone said, and then there was “The Littlest Angel” – that classic Christmas story that we saw every December in elementary school (it was the 1950’s and 60’s) and that made a very deep impression on me. 

C“The Littlest Angel” is the story of a little boy who died and went to heaven as the littlest angel and who then struggled to fit in until he was allowed to return to earth to retrieve his box of earthly treasures from under his bed which in turn were transfigured into the Star of Bethlehem to mark the birth of Jesus Christ.  It’s a memorable and moving story, and it only confirmed my general impression that the goal of life was to find release from my physical existence in this material world to live forever with God in a spiritual heaven.  It would take years for me to discover that my Adventist friends were much closer to the truth of the things that have been revealed to us than the impressions that culture had casually made on me over the years.  Now, more fully informed of what the Bible actually teaches, I believe that my final destiny is not the immortality of my soul in the eternity of heaven – a spiritual state, but the resurrection (not the resuscitation) of my body on a renewed earth.

Christopher J.H. Wright, the British Old Testament scholar who is rapidly becoming one of my favorite Biblical theologians, in his 2008 book The God I Don’t Understand (Zondervan), explains that what he believes in is “life after life after death”  (181).

dWhat is our final destination according to the Bible?  Most Christians tend to answer, “Why, heaven of course.” There is a question that is often used in evangelistic encounters which goes something like this: “If you were to die tonight, are you sure you will go to heaven?” I confess I have not been asked this question for a long time, but if I were, my answer now would be, “Yes – But I don’t expect to stay there!”  I suppose this might be rather shocking to any earnest evangelist.   Where else do I think I might be going later, or where would I want to go instead?  Of course I believe, as the apostle Paul did, that when I die I will go to be with Christ in heaven (Philippians 1:21-23).  For Paul, the thought of being with Christ made it a hard choice as to whether he wanted to die or go on living for the sake of the work he had to do.  But here’s the point: The heaven I will go to when I die is not my final destination… it is only the transit lounge for the new creation.  Heaven for those who have died in Christ is a place or state of rest, of waiting…  “Heaven when you die” is not where we will be forever.  It is where we will be safe until God brings about the transformation of the earth as part of the new creation that is promised in both the Old and New Testament. (193-194)

“The transformation of the earth as part of the new creation that is promised in both the Old and New Testament” — This is what the Christmas Carol “Joy to the World” is talking about when it tells “earth (to) receive her King,” “and heaven and nature sing,” “while fields and floods, rocks, hills and plains repeat the sounding joy,” that “sins and sorrows no longer grow, nor thorns infest the ground.” The salvation that Christ affects is directly proportionate to those things that need saving, and in Genesis chapter 3, the Fall affects not just us as individual human beings, but all of creation, and so what will eventually be redeemed by God’s saving work in Jesus Christ is not ejust us as individual human beings, but all of creation. “He comes to make His blessings flow far as the curse is found.”  This is what that Bible is talking about when it describes the wolf and the lamb grazing together (Isaiah 65:25), the leopard lying down with the kid and the child playing over the viper’s den (Isaiah 11:6-9). God’s saving work in Jesus Christ restores the original shalom of creation – the harmony of everything and everyone fitted together once again in a web of mutual interdependence and well-being.  This is the picture that lies behind the Bible’s talk of the new earth (Isaiah 65:17-25; Isaiah 66:21-24; Romans 8:18-25; 2 Peter 3:8-13; Revelation 21:1-22:5).

As the Reformed theologian Anthony Hoekema explained it in his book on The Bible and the Future (Eerdmans 1979) –

…To leave the (doctrine of the) new earth out of consideration when we think of the final state of believers is greatly to impoverish biblical teaching about the life to come… (and it is to fail to) grasp the full dimensions of God’s redemptive program.  In the beginning, so we read in Genesis, God created the heavens and the earth.  Because of man’s fall into sin,
a curse was pronounced over this creation.  God has now sent His Son into this world to redeem creation from the results of sin.  The work of Christ, therefore, is not just to save certain individuals… The total work of Christ is nothing less than to redeem this entire creation from the effects of sin. That purpose will not be accomplished until God has ushered in the new earth, until Paradise lost has become Paradise Regained.  We need to realize that God will not be satisfied until the entire universe has been purged of all the results of man’s fall. (274-275).

When we sing of Christmas using Isaac Watts’ theologically lofty text and George Frederick Handel’s majestic tune, “Joy to the World,” we are singing about the full scope of God’s saving action from Genesis to Revelation, from Creation to the Consummation, from the Fall in Adam to the Restoration of all things in Christ.  There are very few Christmas carols, let alone hymns in general, with a more cosmic vision of the redemption that God in Christ accomplishes for us and our world, and it deserves to be sung not just at Christmastime, but all year round.  DBS+

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