09 November 2016
In the overnight hours the news came that our nation had elected our next President, thus bringing to a close another election cycle that had long grown weary and tired. To some degree or another, every election season wears on the American people and brings families, friends, and communities to feverish debate over which candidate will be the best in moving forward. This year the election is being called historic, for the presidency has gone to someone with no prior political or governing or military experience, and who has defied the odds put up by those who thought he had no legitimate chance of winning.
There have been fifty-eight presidential elections in our nation's history, and this is not the first time scandal, corruption, and immoral behavior have tainted the candidates. I am not a historian enough to know if these items have ever before been such a considerable factor for both candidates throughout the process, but at least in my lifetime this is unique. As a Christian pastor I have spent a considerable amount of time considering, speaking about, and listening to the moral issues that have surrounded this election and the persons involved. And I have had many conversations with Christian men and women who have labored and thought and prayed over how best to handle the choice between these two. From my finger-in-the-water sense of it, this has not been an easy road for many.
And now that it is over we are entering into the post-election onslaught of second-guessing, lamenting, and even moralizing. Let me say that I understand the general sense of frustration and uncertainty that presently exists, and even that there are some who are taking the results of this election rather personally. What is more, I have seen enough to know that such reactions are part and parcel for the days and weeks after an election (then it usually gets 'back to normal' after that). As we stand at this particular point of our history, however, the nature of the questionable moral character of the President-Elect has made for some very sharp criticism of him, and for those who voted for him.
There are many levels of this aspect of the election that need to be examined, but this post will only be able to deal with one in particular: the moral superiority of many Christians who are choosing to be overly critical of other Christians who voted for Donald Trump. Of course, there are many self-identified Christians in our country who aren't particularly serious about their faith, or who aren't necessarily 'biblical' in their worldview. Perhaps we can set this sub-group to the side for a moment. But, based on the statistics, there are many men and women of biblical faith who have cast their votes for the President-Elect.
And now the questioning has been set loose on all the country: Why? How could you? What are you thinking? Do you not even care about what the Bible says? These are some of the sentiments that have been running across my social media feeds throughout the day. The vast majority of these comments are not intended to hear and understand, but to express disappointment and frustration. I have rolled right on by most of these because they are emotive reactions. There have been, however, a couple of times today where I have the statement that evangelicals who cast their vote for Trump "have some explaining to do."
I am beside myself that some self-appointed moral authority has decided to call out other believers to justify their choice, as though we answer to some national spiritual parental presence. Even still, this is not the language of understanding, but of accusation for doing something that is so clearly in the wrong – this coupled with the conclusion that just over half of our nation has gone off the rails in that they would even think of voting this way in the first place. This is not the language of reason, and it is a fundamental truth that one cannot reason with emotion. However, you can respond, and that is what I feel I need to do here.
Rather than passing judgment from one believer to another, let us reason together what happens when there is a choice between two people (no, third party candidates are not viable to this election and very few were under the impression that they were). The Republican primary cycle was quite interesting, for a few reasons. One of the more fascinating pieces is that Trump won states that had 'open' primaries (in which people from any party could vote on the Republican ticket), and did not win states that held 'closed' primaries (where only registered Republicans could participate in the vote). American Evangelicals, for the most part, tend to be socially and politically conservative, and so their role in the primary process is worth considering. Without getting into a sea of nuance and overly-justifying every statement, suffice it so say that conservative evangelicals in large part were not in overwhelming support of Trump. This warming-up to the Republican nominee started to happen when other viable candidates had fallen by the wayside.
Where I live, the primary race was decided before we had a chance to cast our ballots. And so, between those who voted for another person in the primary or who had no choice to cast a meaningful vote in the primary, there were a good number of American Evangelicals who were left between two people with whom they had serious issues of moral and political leadership and character. But – and this is important – November 8 came anyway, and these were the names before our country. This is where the prayer and consideration really hits hard: some will say 'Never Hillary' and I can understand that as a reason; some will say 'Never Trump' and I can understand that as a reason; some will find some virtue in her and in him and, though I strongly question this, I can understand this as a reason; some will refrain from voting for either, and I can understand this as a reason.
Add to this the social and political climate that has been over the past six months, not only among the candidates themselves, with their brash talk and manipulative speech. I find it fascinating that the moralizing voices that are calling fellow believers to explain themselves and their choices, that any attempt to have a serious discussion about these candidates up to this point has been met with dismissive attitudes and demeaning response. It is hard to have a reasonable conversation about issues and candidates when the very mention of either candidate brings eye-rolling, scoffs, and an overall dismissive response. Speaking politics in the realm of the church community has become tense and fearful and divisive. Believers have allowed modern politics to divide the church quite easily, and our fellow brothers and sisters who struggled with how to live out their faith in this election might very well have appreciated a place where we could edify one another instead of looking down upon those with whom we disagree.
Now is the time for these to offer explanation? No. Within the church community the time to hear one another every day. And those who are stunned by this election and who cannot comprehend why so-called evangelicals could cast their votes en masse for Donald Trump are simply not hearing the frustration with the issues that is plaguing the church today. You see, this is not a simple issue of checking-a-box – a great many of our fellow believers struggled with this through and through. I know that I have wrestled with this election each time it has crossed my television, radio, mailbox, and conversation.
The Christian knows that we live before Almighty God, who sees into the human heart. When we are right and when we are wrong he knows our thoughts and our motives. He understands our struggles and our entanglements, and he loves us just as we are. And our Creator is the only one who can rightly judge the individual for what has been done, thus making him the only one who ever requires explanation. All other attempts to push this issue are simply the feeble acts of moral superiority that strip us of our humility in all of this and attempt to give us the role of examiner.
No, you need not explain yourself for any of the votes you cast on any level of your ballot. This is not only the virtue of the American system, but also the moral reality that is before Almighty God. But you do need to live your life tomorrow, the next day, and every day that he gives you breath, and you do need to walk in a way that honors the rightful king of the universe. Elections are neither the problem nor the solution – they are events that can reflect and affect the climate of our culture. As for what we do with them as believers, this begins with the simple truth that we will never find political answers to spiritual problems. Electing the "right person" will never achieve that which is given to the church as a daily exercise in making disciples of all nations with the continuing presence of Christ Jesus.
Perhaps once we have begun to truly rely on his kingship, beyond the snarky internet memes, we will stop the over-dramatizing of fear and loathing and dread that make us all look like a hopeless lot. Fear drove both of these campaigns, and believers were wrong to get swept up in it. Fear is now driving a lot of the response to who won (it would have been the same from the other side), and believers are wrong to get swept up in it. There is no fear in love. But perfect love drives out fear, because fear has to do with punishment. The one who fears is not made perfect in love. (1 John 4:18)
Let us as a church not betray the love that we have experienced because we have disagreed with many of our brothers and sisters in how they voted – either direction. If we cannot work in genuine love, devoid of self-aggrandizement and backhanded moralizing, then we have surrendered the unity of the Holy Spirit to the empty shell of political power. "By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you love one another." (John 13:35)
It will be an incredible experience for the American Christian to realize that he really isn't surrounded by bad or stupid people – it's just that evangelicalism seems to be hurting from what we've allowed our church experience to become. And there is so much more when we all surrender everything we hold dear – even our candidates and elections – to the surpassing worth of knowing Christ Jesus our Lord, to which all else is abandoned to the dustbin of eternity.
labels: god and country
01 November 2016
In his recent book, Destroyer of the Gods, Larry Hurtado explores the uniquess of early Christianity, specifically the oddities of this new movement in the context of the Roman Empire. In this post I wish to focus on one distinction in particular: a new way of life.
Among the 'cafeteria' of belief systems that made up the Roman world, one of the pieces that made the early church stand out is the emphasis on a collective commitment and a standard approach to living. There was an intentional focus on shaping social behavior that often went straight against accepted practices of the day – often in radical departures of typical society. This community was committed to a lifestyle that demonstrated the truth of the gospel in every dimension of life. This wasn't always a simple or easy discussion – often matters could quickly become complex, as can easily be seen in the New Testament and early Christian documents.
The Christian life was a demanding endeavor, at many times becoming dangerous for those who chose such a radical departure from their traditional culture (not simply martyrdom, but the harassment and social pressures that surrounded this emerging alternative culture of the church – see Hurtado, 184–186).
"Furthermore, I repeat that believers were to take on the demands of Christian behavior immediately upon their initiation as Christians, with the promise given that they could be enabled for this behavioral effort by divine gift" (171).
The message of the church is that discipleship is a challenging path, but also that each believer is given power by the Holy Spirit to take on the journey. There is no apology for the standards that are upheld by this church community, no timidity in the face of believers who fail to achieve them, and no accommodation considered when the pagan culture scoffed, threw stones, or walked away. Why not? Because the church based their moral standard on the Lordship of Christ Jesus over and against any philosphy, public opinion, or power that claimed an alternate truth.
This is what is entailed for the community of faith to live according to the Spirit and not according to the flesh. This is one of the major distinctives of the early church, that they would hold out behavior requirements to their members, but to then also provide the basis of power to observe such requirements. It is the one decision that seems to underscore every choice that is given to humanity: to choose this day whom to serve. It is a choice of blessing and curse, obedience and disobedience, holiness and sinfulness, life and death, Christ or the world.
Perhaps the most powerful aspect of human moral behavior is our own sexuality. This is an oft-discussed topic in scripture, and the world always seems to be filled with all sorts of conflict around this issue. Our nation continues to debate human sexuality and moral behavior, though often in twisted and politically-charged dialogue. And this has moved into the church, were increasingly believers are accepting worldly attitudes over biblical argument. In fact, much of the biblical message and its proper context is ignored for the simple mantra of "just love everyone no matter what" as the best the church can offer.
Of course, this can hardly be identified as radical behavior, and nobody in our world is going to think such a position is that odd – namely, becuase this is all that that progressive cultural voices tell us we should do in the first place. Oddly enough, those who shout JUST LOVE! to anyone who advocates moral standards frequently do not exhibit the love and acceptance and supposed-tolerance that they themselves demand. Those who have been paying attention for the last thirty–sixty years have noticed that the progressive agenda has marched right along, and the demands for JUST LOVE! are simply a means of disengaging the moral voices from legitimate reason and argument in order to give way to push forward their way of life without interference.
The present state of the church is showing that such an approach has indeed had its intended effects. Increasingly, believers are taking their cues for standards of moral belief from the standpoint of worldly acceptance rather than from the Holy Spirit and the written Word of God. It is no longer about discerning the Spirit's voice through prayer and study. Rather, it is about feeling as though we love everyone and have our society's approval for the message we proclaim. We do not need the Holy Spirit to empower us as believers, because we do not accept a standard of moral behavior that is demanding and radically subversive to our culture. To say it another way: we do not experience the Spirit because we do not walk in ways that require the Spirit's empowerment. It is a rather small faith that we exhibit in the midst of our culture – and we do not have because we do not ask.
Historically, the church has not always been a radical counter-cultural force determined to live gospel-centered lives in a radical manner. Of course, these are the times when the church also does not exhibit a dynamic presence of the Spirit working in and through the community of faith. We might tend to overlook this, though in our modern world there are many believers across the globe who are presently caught up in the Spirit's empowerment, giving them an effective witness through their counter-cultural lives, their distinct moral behaviors, and even at the great costs of harassment, imprisonment, disownment, and martyrdom. Yet, these are the believers who demonstrate what it means to participate in a kingdom not of this world, and to the rightful king who sits on the throne of the universe, presently enacting his reign.
Does the American church any longer have a new way to live, or are we simply looking to rubber-stamp the way we want to live anyway? Recent events have clearly demonstrated culture's influence on the American church culture, leading certain voices to declare 'holy' what scripture affirms as 'unholy,' for no other reason than we need to JUST LOVE! as though we've nothing else to offer the world. And yet we have in our midst the words of eternal life, and there still remains no where else to find them than in this gospel. Such is a transformative message that challenges the voices of the world and exposes their narrative as idolic mythology, shining the light of truth into the darkness.
Do we as the American church need the Holy Spirit to do what we are doing?
Is there more beyond the horizons of this world?
24 August 2016
Blessed are the peacemakers,
for they will be called children of God.
Jesus once spoke a blessing upon those who would work to bring about peace in this world. This was no starry-eyed platitude, expressing the niceties of a beauty pageant or second-rate political campaign. It was rather a declaration set within the context of God's kingdom making its way into our present experience. The notion of peace was central to the Jewish concept(s) of the messianic kingdom that was to be established on the earth (Isaiah 9:5–6; Zechariah 9:9–10). And so, Jesus is commending those whose lives will demonstrate the reality of God's rule by working to bring about peace.
We should remember that Jesus also commends those who hunger and thirst for righteousness (Mt. 5:5), and so would envision the peace of God's reign to come in the context of justice in our world. So, again, this peace cannot be taken on the level of throwing pennies in a wishing-well, but rather the demonstrable outworking of the ethics of God's kingdom in a way that establishes peace and righteousness as a reality for the poor and oppressed among us.
It is interesting that Jesus would give to his followers the task of establishing a righteous peace in the world, for he lived in a world that was saturated with systems and images of worldwide peace. The empire that ruled the day would idealize a Pax Romana (Roman peace), an achievement that was believed to validate the Roman's right to rule, so given by the gods who had blessed their expansion and influence. In many ways Pax Romana was indeed a great accomplishment, especially in a world that had never been without constant tribal wars and conflict among regional leaders. And to bring about such peace not only gave demonstration to the superiority of Roman culture, it also demonstrated the legitimacy of Roman power.
The Romans believed that peace was established when their empire was able to conquer a region and put down any rebellion that opposed their rule. Perhaps this was the first example of the peace-through-strength model of governance (though that phrase has taken some variation throughout history). The idea of Pax Romana was not pursued as some utopian desire for worldwide friendship, but rather for the unashamed benefit of Rome itself, especially those in positions of power and leadership within the empire.
When Jesus calls his disciples to be peacemakers, he is making a summons to do so in contrast with the powers that be in the world – those who would so narrowly-define peace as 'we win, you lose' and use their might to get their own way. And Jesus does not teach us this in the context of running empires or influencing the masses. Instead, his words are spoken to the few that will follow the demands of discipleship and will work in their interpersonal relationships to transform individuals with the presence of his kingdom of righteous peace. He knows that this will not bring an immediate change to the culture – empires are not toppled overnight – but he also knows that politically-enacted change will not endure.
In the current political climate of American evangelicalism, the notion of being a peacemaker has taken a back seat to a gospel driven by influence and cultural significance. We have been convinced that we are in the throws of a crisis, and that the only way forward is to get as much control as we can as quickly as possible. Obtaining this sort of power is how we can save ourselves, keep the world from disaster, and establish our peace.
When we examine the current state of our presidential political campaign, there are many within the church who are choosing to find the one person who will secure this sort of strength within our government to establish the nation we think is best for ourselves. Never mind the moral failures, disregard the dishonesty, and look past the plans that isolate us from one another, our behavior appears to say that there are more pressing matters today than whether or not we will live for the gospel. Perhaps once we have secured our own liberty and peace, then we can consider Jesus' teachings of love for one another. It is much easier to join movements that fight for power and control of a nation than to be a people who carry the transformative change of the gospel to individuals who are hurting, poor and oppressed.
It seems that everyone wants to speak about where we go from here, and how we are going to make this work (or which of these is the lesser-of-two-evils). But nobody is interested in examining how we arrived at this point in the first place – our willing dismissal of the gospel is not a recent development, but rather a pattern of disregard that has been building to this moment of national moral crisis. This is why a church can be looking for conquering leaders and militant solutions, despite the fact that our Lord told us to speak and act in a radically different way.
The church needs to lay down the world's weapons of war, and become people who work for God's rule to take its place, one life at a time. Peace and life are found in this kingdom, not in the poor copies we have tried to make for ourselves. The Romans did not have a monopoly on running empires of military might, and we still must make the choice of which kingdom we will choose to be a part of, even if we self-identify as Christians. Our nation will not return from this brink until the people of God can return to the message of the gospel.
17 August 2016
who will not fear?
It has become a foil in the game of modern politics to suddenly ask a self-proclaimed Christian candidate about their 'favorite' verse of scripture. These answers are then replayed, combed over, and analyzed to find every pause or discrepancy imaginable. Incredibly, this approach works a good percentage of the time, even though everyone in the room knew that such a question was coming. And, after all, how hard is it to keep something like John 3:16 at the ready — actually, probably something slightly more nuanced to demonstrate intimacy with the text, but basic enough to have wide-appeal and to not become confused over the actual ignorance of the text. Nevertheless, this practice goes on, mostly because Americans have allowed the Christian faith to become a rather benign political tool, aimed more at scoring points at the ballot box than transforming lives for the kingdom of God.
In my lifetime alone there has been such a ridiculous handling of religious beliefs in the realm of politics: some candidates run as committed believers and are ridiculed for wanting to govern out of their core convictions; other candidates score points for going to church but never appearing strange-enough as to pray or believe scripture. In some cases, we want to expose the oddities of those who stand in nuanced religious tradition; for others, it is all about hiding the radicalism of their beliefs. There is no pattern here that does not reek of double-standards. And it continues forward because there is a public that still falls for it – every time.
By allowing faith to become a weapon of political warfare the American church has diminished the effectiveness of the gospel. When we draped the flag over the Bible we obscured its message; we have allowed our culture to become darkened by covering up the message of light.
And we are still playing games with scripture and belief. The same foils are being played out in an effort to determine who is can win "Most Christian Candidate" in this race. Those who work so hard to defend whether or not their chosen runner is able to speak intelligently about scripture do so while ignoring behavioral-patterns that are so wrong, Christian belief isn't even necessary to identify such as evil. (Now, based upon that description, you cannot presently tell if I am speaking of him or her. And that should speak volumes on its own!)
So, with all of this in the air I notice that political candidates don't take the opportunity to share their scriptural beliefs from certain areas of the Bible. The prophetic literature from Israel, for example, is widely ignored by those seeking office. This is somewhat calculated, no doubt (as is the whole campaign), for there would be questions about whether this person actually accepts prophetic speech as possible. And then there is the language of morality that pervades the message, though I am not entirely certain why it is easier to dismiss Jesus' teachings than the prophets, though it happens. But perhaps the biggest reason is that the prophetic literature is straightforward in reminding all the nations of the world who the real Sovereign is. And I think that most of those seeking political power in our nation today simply do not want to hear that.
But again, it is the people who enable such behavior in a culture such as ours. And we continue to play games with our faith, so long as it requires little cost or commitment from us. We want to do whatever we want to do, and find the quickest and easiest path to our own comfortable lifestyles. So, we choose the candidate that is best at destroying the opposition, believe that they are a Christian because they say so (that other candidate says so, but is lying!), and wait for the blessings of government to fall upon us. Repeat this every two–four years.
It is not working.
Our ongoing dismissal of God's Word, even among most American evangelical churches, has brought our culture to the brink of ruin. There are many who will agree that there are widespread problems that we face as a nation, though the majority of these will still look to the corrupt powers of today to find the solution to those corrupt powers. Until we look to the Creator of heaven and earth we will not find the peace and salvation and life that we need. But this must be a commitment with the whole of our lives – walking away from the powers of this world and embrace the power of God's love.
The prophet Amos is a confrontation brought about by Almighty God, for his people had abandoned his ways and had decided that they knew what was best for themselves. However, what they saw as being good God sees as being evil, and he was on the move. Amos 3:4 asks, "Does a lion roar in the thicket when it has no prey? Does it growl in its den when it has caught nothing?" The answer to this comes in 3:8: The lion has roared — who will not fear? The Sovereign Lord has spoken — who can but prophesy?
In the same way I believe that Almighty God looks down upon our feeble attempts to govern ourselves, and our despicable behavior that turns his eternal Word into an impotent political instrument. And I believe he is done with the game. What we are witnessing in our culture — a society that is quickly losing its ability to tell its right hand from its left — is the coming to fruition of our choices to walk without God. The houses and the high places, the luxury and the liturgy, is all crashing down because we lost sight of him who stands at the center of it all (Amos 3:14–15).
It wasn't about whether the people of God could create impressive worship and sacrifice, just like it isn't about how good we can make ourselves appear to be devoted disciples. It is all about the work we carry out as we demonstrate our commitment. Unfortunately, the church will continue to be overtaken by these games, so long as we focus on winning the political battles (by any means necessary, no doubt) over the message of the gospel. God's word through Amos demonstrates that what he deems as good for his people "is of little significance within the national set of values (3:10)" (Carroll R., 190). The same remains true for us.
So, if the Lion has roared, will we be terrified?
Away with the noise of your songs!
I will not listen to the music of your harps.
But let justice roll on like a river,
righteousness like a never-failing stream!
labels: god and country
09 August 2016
His main point in saying this was to encourage the faithful work of the church in the world, even when it appears that such work is not making a difference.
This is quite an important lesson for American evangelicals, who often become desperate for certain victory that they are willing to do all sorts of things in order to win the short battle. This behavior arises out of the frustration of making no apparent headway into the cultural wars that confront the church. When we feel as though our efforts to live our faith are not changing the world, so often we decide to change our course of action and consider alternative means. This ought to raise the question: To whom is the church listening?
If we come to think that our faithfulness to the gospel is in vain, then we are being influenced by voices that do not align with God's Word. Within scripture the single evaluation of the church's effectiveness is faithfulness to Christ Jesus. It is when the church begins to listen to the world that we forget to focus on what really matters. It is no secret that the vast majority of media is engaged in a full-on assault on traditional Christian values. Yet, somewhat surprisingly, many in the church still give credence to the reports of the church's diminishing that are published by this overly-biased media.
But even if we were to take a look at the many negative trends in our modern culture, regardless of the media's biases, it is clear that the church's voice in our nation suffers a lack of influence. There are so many struggles within our culture that it can be discouraging to think about all that must be confronted. And, once again, this is when believers can be most susceptible to winning the world by speaking and acting as a moralized version of the world's ideals. We must resist this desire and remember that our calling is to be faithful to the gospel in all things, regardless of whether we win or lose in the public square.
At any given point leading up to November 1989 the leadership of our nation, who were strongly opposed to the Soviet regime and the Berlin Wall, could have used military might to break down the wall by force. However, this would have caused much more damage and destruction, and such conflict never broke out. Instead, the pinging of the rock-hammer against that wall continued until it cracked and crumbled.
The work of the church so often feels as though trying to break through a seemingly indestructible wall with nothing more than a rock-hammer – too small of an impact to make the difference. And yet, we do not know what lies just beyond the horizon of our present gaze — that which God is going to accomplish in his time, by his power, through the faithfulness of Christ Jesus at work among his people. And this understanding, seen throughout the course of history, ought to quiet the worldly desires among the believers that we might place our confidence in Almighty God alone.
If we are focused on our faithfulness to the gospel, then we will not be overcome by the victories and defeats that we will experience in our work. For God will give us enough for today, whether that be in the provision of daily bread or in the coming of his kingdom to the earth.
When Moses stood before the people of Israel, who were preparing to enter into the promised land, he encouraged them to be faithful to the covenant, and promised them the presence of God that would go before them: Do not be terrified by them, for the LORD your God, who is among you, is a great and awesome God. The LORD your God will drive out those nations before you, little by little. You will not be allowed to eliminate them all at once, or the wild animals will multiply around you. But the LORD your God will deliver them over to you, throwing them into great confusion until they are destroyed (Deuteronomy 7:21–23).
God's kingdom will be established in his time, not according to our political schedules. The work of the kingdom does not operate on four-year cycles, nor does the gospel's effectiveness depend upon legislative action, executive order, or judicial decree. And it is beyond time that the American evangelical movement be reminded of this, lest we surrender the demands of discipleship to the temporary fame and power of immoral men and women who seek to take advantage of the church's frustration and impatience. Whether or not the church wins politically is no longer relevant when we have lost the heart of the gospel in seeking such victory.
And we too will not win this nation in one sweeping movement, but little by little — through the work of transformed lives, in which a more lasting and significant change will occur. This is known as making disciples, which can have a powerful effect when taken seriously. (In the last twenty years the abortion rate has consistently fallen, not because of judicial reform, but through the efforts to strengthen the message of life in our country, though much work still lies before us.) The work of the Holy Spirit does not need government intervention to enact change, but it does call for the faithful partnership of the church to reach into the world.
Rather than giving in to the fastest paths to power — those things that are touted by our culture as significant, but which scripture so often holds in contempt — it is time for the church to return its focus on the transforming work of discipleship, that we may see changed hearts and renewed minds. Though it may appear to some as an insignificant step, in the eyes of faith it will be the pinging hammer that will, one day not far from now, be that which God uses to reduce the mighty walls of this world to a rubble.