Thursday, June 28, 2018

When to Speak or When to Act?

You've heard the poem by Martin Niemöller:
First they came for the Socialists, and I did not speak out-
Because I was not a Socialist.
Then they came for the Trade Unionists, and I did not speak out-
Because I was not a Trade Unionist.
Then they came for the Jews, and I did not speak out-
Because I was not a Jew.
Then they came for me-
and there was no one left to speak for me. 
Let me offer an alternative contemporary reading: First they came for the Muslims, but I wasn't a Muslim; they came for the Dreamers, but I wasn't a Dreamer; they came for the refugee, but I wasn't a refugee; they came for the Temporarily Protected, but I wasn't Temporarily Protected; then they came for the children and no one was left to speak for the children.

Photo: Red Letter Christians;
taken from Shane Claiborne's Facebook page
It's not a perfect analogy, but I do think you can draw a straight line through these policy decisions over the past year.  The reasoning behind each of these can be rationally debated, despite how clumsily they've been carried out.  But that doesn't necessarily make them right.  As the saying goes, just because you can do something doesn't mean you should.  So I wonder, at which of those steps above should Christians have stood up in opposition- the Muslim ban, DACA, TPS?  Some did early.  Some did late.  Some have for all, and some not at all.  Meanwhile, does outrage at one step require outrage at the others?  And this discussion so far has only been limited to people trying to enter the United States, to say nothing about other flashpoints in the current culture wars.

If we are outraged at the separation of children from their parents entering the country illegally, should we be equally outraged about the permanent separation of aborted children from their mothers?  On a recent trip I came across a group protesting abortion with the most graphic of placards accompanied with scripture.  Is it hypocritical to speak out against one practice, but not the other?  What makes a particular practice inhumane, personal political leanings?

We in the United States are fortunate for our right to protest, to assemble, and to effect policy through financial contribution, volunteerism, and our individual vote.  We can speak out, we can march, and we can protest without fear of political or legal retribution.  So when is it appropriate to?  I admit I feel torn speaking up for immigrant children when I've been relatively silent with regards to abortion.  But while abortion is symptomatic of what Pope John Paul II called a "culture of death", these latest actions are more a sign of a culture of hostility and hatred.  Is one worse than the other?  I honestly don't know.

I need to study Bonhoeffer.  I admit it's been years since I've read The Cost of Discipleship and I have two biographies on my shelf waiting to be read. Every time lately that I've started Bonhoeffer's Black Jesus, I am distracted by other studies.  And the length of Metaxas' biography has been too intimidating to tackle.  But I want to get into Bonhoeffer's mindset.  What was the line the Nazi party crossed that was too far for him?  At what specific point did he become disillusioned from the German Church and found a home in the Confessing Church?  Like most of us I would suspect his changing convictions were progressive, but at some point I'm sure he had to throw up his hands and say "enough is enough!"

I look at what is happening in this country and it grieves my heart.  Christians can't even agree that separating infant and toddler children from their parents as a punitive and deterrent measure is inhumane.  We can't agree that saying Black Lives Matter is not the same thing as saying Blue Lives don't.  We suffer chronic 'whataboutism', pointing fingers in every other direction other than where they should.  And we have a win-at-all-costs mentality towards politics that divides more than it advances God's kingdom.

I'm also struggling to determine what form "speaking out" should take.  On this blog I have spent most of my time trying to impart right-conviction, but how do I translate that conviction to appropriate action?  Do I donate?  Do I march?  If I march, do I do so as just another voice or do I wave my Jesus banner because that self-identification is more important than political party, citizenship, or the color of my skin?

On Tuesday, nearly a couple dozen clergy, ministers, and religious leaders were arrested protesting this Administration on both coasts.  Red Letter Christians and the Poor People's Campaign led a protest in front of the White House in Washington, DC while several different groups and congregations gathered to protest Attorney General Jeff Sessions in Los Angeles.  Do I follow their example and the example of Martin Luther King or the Apostle Paul who both did their best writing from prison?  Or do I continue to express scriptural convictions in the hopes of creating waves to spur others to action?

"If you do away with the yoke of oppression,
with the pointing finger and malicious talk,
and if you spend yourselves on behalf of the hungry
and satisfy the needs of the oppressed,
then your light will rise in the darkness,
and your night will become like the noonday."

-Isaiah 59:9-10

It's time to do away with the pointing finger and to spend myself on the behalf of the oppressed.

Thursday, June 21, 2018

How Did We Get Here? One Word, Idolatry

Following the Attorney General's reference to Romans 13 as a defense for the Trump Administration's current immigration policy, I was planning on writing a post regarding the poor interpretation of that passage and its historical misuse.  This was planned to have been an update to my previous post on the subject.  Others have covered that ground for me and you don't have to look far, but I recommend these posts from Michael Gorman and Kurt Willems if you want to get deep.  Another good summary is provided by Get Religion that gives a survey of mainstream media coverage.

I felt like I had to quickly jump into the fray to defend scripture against those who would twist it for their own ends.  I felt like David facing down Goliath.  David didn't care about the extensive crimes against humanity of the Philistines, rather he was motivated by the need to defend God's honor against a foe who was mocking him.  Such an attitude, I realized after reading a post from a classmate of mine, gives the impression that I care more about the integrity of biblical interpretation than I do the injustice being perpetrated.  She wrote, "no one needs to know what Paul actually meant in order to see evil steadily at work." I was convicted because she was exactly right.
"No one needs to know what Paul actually meant in order to see evil steadily at work."
But I'm not here to debate policy, nor am I going to complain for the sake of complaining.  It has always been my goal with this space to apply scripture to current events to steer us towards a kingdom-attitude when it comes to politics, media, and life in the public square.  Another social media post noted (paraphrasing), "If you see what's happening and your first reaction is, 'but they broke the law!' Then we don't have a difference of opinion, we have a difference in morality."  That nails it, and that's what I want to address here.

A Difference in Morality

I am dismayed not only by the injustice being carried out by this Administration, but also the unashamedly-partisan support from many claiming to be Christian.  I'm not here to question their faith or their salvation, but I see support of this ongoing atrocity as merely a symptom of something more insidious: idolatry.  Idolatry is anything that we place in a position over and above God.  And that means anything: usually career, money, or fame is often invoked as examples, but anything that 'gets our blood boiling' to the degree that we think, speak, or act in an ungodly way is an idol.  We're often not aware of when we do this, especially when we respond emotionally, but over time these things become more important to us than our relationship with God and the symptom is how it affects our relationships with other people.  That is why the Old Testament is full of warnings against idolatry in the backdrop of prosperity, religiosity, and nationalism.

Paul wrote that, "The weapons of our warfare are not the weapons of the world.  Instead, they have divine power to demolish strongholds.  We tear down arguments, and every presumption set up against the knowledge of God; and we take captive every thought to make it obedient to Christ." (2 Corinthians 10:4-5)  Basically, these divine weapons tear down idols that prevent others from knowing God.  So what idols are driving the current debate?

The Idolatry of Ideology

This is the idolatry that brought President Trump to power in the first place. It is an idolatry that manifests itself as unwavering allegiance to partisanship.  As Christianity Today pointed out at the time, American Christians weren't voting for Donald Trump as much as they were voting against Hillary Clinton.  Why?  Because of two decades worth of vilifying the other side- initially embodied by President Clinton and his wife Hillary.  This partisanship is an idol because by its very nature divides disciples of Jesus that should otherwise be united.

It's not hard to see this all over on social media- when posts or comments refuse to consider things objectively, even when presented with contrary evidence.  I think it's telling that with respect to the separation of children at the border, even Franklin Graham spoke out against it, as did many politicians and media representing the Right.  Yet I saw friends that refused to budge from their position with unequivocal support.  It's not just on the Right either, when someone would remind us that President Obama was called "the Deporter-in-Chief" his defenders wouldn't acknowledge his administration's culpability in what is going on now.

Such strong allegiance leads us into ungodly debate (cf. 2 Timothy 2:23) and divides relationships.  This is where ideology steps over the line into idolatry.  It prevents civil discussion, refuses to agree to disagree, and gives the impression that one's ideology is more important than anything else.

Is this idol a temptation for you? Ask yourself, based on your social media profile or in-person conversations, are people more likely to know about your political party or your Christian faith?

The Idolatry of Moral Absolutes

This idol seems counter-intuitive.  Christians hold to the Bible as their standard of morality, even though we may disagree on details or application.  So it would appear that moral absolutes are a good thing, right?  But the Bible offers very few absolutes relative to the real-life we experience every day.  That is why the author of Ecclesiastes expresses frustration that everything is "meaningless, meaningless!" (Ecclesiastes 1:1-11) and the Psalmist cries out, "how long, oh Lord, will the wicked prosper?" (Psalm 94:3)

For every reference to Leviticus in order to argue against homosexuality, there is the counter argument that we should therefore abstain from eating shellfish or wearing cotton-poly blended fabric.  For every sermon about biblical marriage, there's a story about David and Bathsheba or about Abraham lying about his relationship with Sarah.

Holding to moral absolutes leads to self-righteousness.  We become convinced we are right and there is nothing that can change our view.  And if I am absolutely certain I am right, then any other perspective must be wrong.  Yet Jesus said that the entirety of the Law can be summarized by these two commands: love God and love others (Matthew 23:36-40).  If what I am convinced that is right cannot be expressed in love, then it is an idol.  If I cannot hold my convictions while at the same time loving my neighbor as myself, then that conviction is an idol.  This isn't about policy, it is about the attitude when being right is more important than right-relationships (i.e. the definition of righteousness).

The Idolatry of White Privilege

Yes, I went there.  I could also call this the idol of circumstance.  It stems from a lack of empathy because we cannot conceive experiences different from our own.  The example I always think of when it comes to this is Phil Robertson from 'Duck Dynasty' recalling that before the Civil Rights movement when he picked cotton with African-Americans they were all happy as if they didn't have a care in the world.

When it comes to the immigration debate, we forget that unless you are First Nation or descended from slaves, you are an immigrant that voluntarily left a place to come here in search of a better life.  It may be generations removed, but you're non-native nonetheless.  So the theme throughout scripture to "be kind to the foreigner, because you too were foreigners in the land" (Leviticus 19:34) is apt because we are all foreigners in this land.  An inability to accept that puts your own point of view and your own experiences over all others and is, therefore, an idol.

We are also short-sighted when we prop our privilege up as an idol.  We weren't there, so we don't know just how much our ancestors were mistreated when they came to this country.  Look no further than how this country historically treated the Irish, Italian, and German.  You can even go back to the colonies with Ben Franklin who said of German immigrants, "are generally of the most Stupid Sort of their own Nation."  Remember to treat the foreigner kindly, because you were mistreated as a foreigner in this land.

The Idolatry of American Exceptionalism

I've written about this before, but I'll repeat it here- God owes the United States no particular favor.  We, as a nation, are not in a covenant relationship with God.  We are subconsciously biased towards territorialism- our news regularly reports the atrocities of others: Chinese currency manipulation and industrial espionage, Russian hacking and social media bots, and so on, as if we are completely innocent from participating in the same.

Sure, be 'proud to be an American', sing 'God Bless America', and stand for the National Anthem.  But when we react with venom and hatred if someone kneels at a football game or disrespects the President, are we responding in a Christ-like manner?  America is not perfect.  It is not Zion.  It is not the Promised Land.  And our government consists of fallen human beings representing the interests of fallen human beings.  There will be corruption, there will be deceit, double-standards, and backroom dealing.  There will be laws we don't agree with and there will be miscarriages of justice.  For no other reason than because it's human nature.

Going back to those most important commandments above, if your love of country prevents you from loving your neighbor, your patriotism is an idol.

The Idolatry of Government

This one is easy to slip into and I'm guilty of it myself.  Because of the nature of our representative democracy and a relative prosperity for most of our lives (that is, if you're not a minority), we can idealize the government as being able to fix all our problems.  This is an issue for the Right and the Left.  On the Right, the government should legislate morality.  On the Left, the government should spend money to fix social issues.  Neither approach is inherently wrong in and of themselves.  But when we expect our government to be our savior (saving from whatever social ill of the moment), government replaces God.

In God We Trust is our national motto for a reason- it should be a constant reminder that God is bigger than government.  That was the heart behind the American Revolution and the fight for our inalienable rights bestowed upon us by an authority higher than a monarchy.

The Idolatry of Safety

This is the idol I see more and more in our political dialogue.  We instinctively look out for our own self-interest, even if it's at the expense of others.  So politicians use this to their advantage to stoke fear to motivate us politically.  Communists, terrorists, immigrants... there's always a boogieman.  This politician wants to take away your fill-in-the-blank (gun, social security, retirement, bible).  That politician is the anti-Christ.  So we vote in such a way to protect what is ours.

I can say I love my neighbor... so long as my neighbor is not a threat.  What is remarkable about the Good Samaritan wasn't that the Samaritan stopped to help a stranger, but that the Samaritan was the social enemy of the stranger and still helped.  We become numb to that distinction when the news highlights a "good Samaritan" any time someone stops to help a stranger.  The Samaritan risked his personal safety, his social reputation, and denied his own feelings to do the right thing.  Even for an enemy.

If we are against doing the right thing because doing so risks comfort, peace, or security, then our personal security has become an idol.


I need to call this out- with respect to the immigration debate, it doesn't matter who's to blame, who passed what law, or who did what first.  I would hope that as Christians we can all agree that separating immigrant children from their parents, in the way it was being done (the literal devil is in the details because there are humane ways of handling this), was wrong.  Period.  Full stop.

But that's not what is argued.  Instead people complain about immigrants being a drain on the system, while the Administration hyperbolically accuses everyone of being an MS-13 gang member, and strict legalism towards the law and order becomes the only thing that matters.  As a Christian seeing people suffer, for whatever reason and in whatever circumstance, what difference does any of that make?

As I said at the top, we could debate policy, but I've found that most people don't sincerely want to.  You can oppose immigration of any kind.  You could favor amnesty and open borders.  I honestly don't care.  When you hold to a position so strongly as to divide or when you vilify others, you are not representing Christ.  To be clear, both sides are guilty of this- I try very hard not to bad-mouth the President or make statements that are personal.  I'm not always successful.  Yet while I am interested in policy (I admit I'm a politics junkie), my larger concern is how we treat others and how we represent Jesus to the world around us.

Can we disagree?  Absolutely!  But we need to be very mindful of why we disagree.  Examine your heart.  Honestly search for those idols.  Because they stand in the way of God's in-breaking kingdom.  A kingdom of justice and compassion.  Where we don't need laws because God's law will be written on our hearts (Jeremiah 31:33).  Thy kingdom come, thy will be done; on earth as it is in heaven. (Matthew 6:10).


Tuesday, June 19, 2018

It's Not About Politics

Here is a rundown of denominations and major Christian organizations who have released statements in opposition to the Trump Administration's policy of separating families while going through deportation/asylum hearings.  Note that some of these are traditionally right-leaning.  Check out this running list from Jack Jenkins on Twitter for a more complete list including statements representing other faiths.  I will try and keep this updated.
  • The Council of Bishops of the African Methodist Episcopal Church released a statement through the Religion News Service
  • The American Baptist Churches USA responded directly to AG Sessions
  • The United States Conference of Catholic Bishops (statement from Cardinal Daniel DiNardo)
  • The Christian Reformed Church of North America issued a bilingual statement (nice touch)
  • The Greek Orthodox Archdiocese of America added a statement
  • The Southern Baptist Convention passed a resolution (resolution #5) at their annual meeting last week
  • The Seventh Day Adventist Church also released a statement
  • The Council of Bishops of the United Methodist Church (Jeff Session’s denomination) also released a statement
#KeepFamiliesTogether is a joint statement from 20 religious leaders including:
  • General Minister and President of the United Church of Christ -UCC
  • Presiding Bishop of the Episcopal Church (United States)
  • Presiding Bishop of the Evangelical Lutheran Church of America -ELCA
  • Executive Director of the Mennonite Church USA
  • General Minister and President of the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ)
  • Stated Clerk of the Presbyterian Church (USA)- PCUSA
  • Executive Director of the International Council of Community Churches
The Evangelical Immigration Table includes signatures from the:
  • President of the National Association of Evangelicals
  • President of World Relief
  • Ambassador, General Superintendent Emerita of the Wesleyan Church,
  • Board of General Superintendents of the Church of the Nazarene
  • President of the Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission of the Southern Baptist Convention,
  • President of the National Hispanic Christian Leadership Conference
  • President of World Vision

Sunday, June 10, 2018

Cakes Sacrificed to Idols

Last week the US Supreme Court ruled in favor of a Colorado baker who refused to bake a cake supporting a same-sex wedding (for the record, he didn't refuse to bake them a cake, he simply declined decorating a cake specific for their wedding).  While on the surface, that announcement looks like a solid win in the over-hyped culture wars, the decision itself was intentionally narrow, focusing not on the action of the baker but on the state civil rights commission.  Reading between the lines, it could be taken as a win for both sides.  I recommend reading this take from Skye Jethani that sheds some light onto this issue that might be missed in the usual media reporting.

I want to approach this from a different angle however.  This past semester I took a course titled Paul and the Gentile Mission.  The class focused on Paul's missionary journeys, his letters, and the specific cultural issues the early church faced in an otherwise pagan culture.  Early in the year the professor gave us the example of Pergamum, one of the Seven Churches in Asia addressed in Revelation.  Its architecture and city layout that was typical of the Greco-Roman cities Paul would have visited.  What was noteworthy was just how pervasive pagan religion would have been.  If you wanted to purchase food in the market, you would have done so in the shadow of an enormous statue to Zeus.  To come and go from the public square would require passing by temples, shrines, and altars dedicated to several different gods.  Education would have been in a lecture hall either devoted to a particular deity or philosophical/rhetorical school.  Receiving medical care would have been done in the name of Asclepius.  And that doesn't even mention the public baths, theaters, or gymnasiums.

All that to say, identifying as a Christian in such a multicultural and multi-theistic environment would not have been easy.  Every public act would force an either/or decision that could potentially compromise one's conviction.  That's why Paul spent so much time talking about syncretism (cultural conformity) in his letters, especially to the church in Corinth.  And that includes eating meat sacrificed to idols.

It's not an obvious link, but I think Paul's message regarding what we eat is relevant today to the debate over homosexuality and gay-marriage.  A quick summary of Paul's argument from 1 Corinthians 8: food sacrificed to idols aren't any more 'holy' than food that is not because mature Christians know the idol is meaningless.  But not all Christians are mature in this sense, so we must be careful with the choices we make to not make weaker Christians struggle.

Applying that to this debate, my logic goes like this- if a devout Christian is so opposed to gay-marriage that he or she cannot be a vendor of services to the ceremony, then it follows that this person believes the marriage isn't recognized in the eyes of God.  If that's the case then the "sacrament" of marriage would be invalid, in other words it wouldn't count.  So it's just like meat sacrificed to a god we know isn't real- if it doesn't count, why should I be offended by it?  If, on the other hand, the Christian believes the marriage is still sacramental, just sinful, then they need to apply the same standard by not supporting any second (or third, or fourth...) marriages, weddings between believers of different denominations (for example, imagine an Evangelical wedding planner working with a Catholic and Mormon who are getting married, oy vey!), and all weddings involving non-believers or all non-religious ceremonies.  (Do you still get a cake if you're married in a drive-through by Elvis in Las Vegas? Asking for a friend.) If that vendor cannot apply their objection so broadly, then maybe they shouldn't be in the business in the first place.

The counter argument, going back to Paul, is that supporting something he doesn't believe in, in this case a homosexual marriage, would cause weak Christians to struggle because it implies endorsement.  But in every one of these cases that I've read about (disclaimer: I am not a lawyer), it seems to me that the conscious being violated is their own - the baker, the photographer, the florist - not the "weak Christian" whom they should be concerned about.  I don't mean this lightly or pejoratively, but to me that makes them the weak Christian.  In this sense, the Supreme Court got it right, the government can't compel the weak Christian to violate his or her conscience.  One solution obviously would be for the oppositional Christian to become "mature", but I think that's asking too much and the government cannot assume this will ever happen.  The alternative then, is to expect this Christian to continue to be "weak", so he or she really needs to consider if they're in the right line of work.

Participating in commerce is a choice.  In the 1st Century, it was a choice that put Christians right in the middle of idol worship, emperor cults, mystery religions, and philosophical schools.  Selling cakes would have placed one right in the marketplace under the shadow of Zeus.  Participating publicly in a trade would imply membership in trade guilds or voluntary associations that had their own religious ceremonies and rituals (think Kiwanis, or the Elks Lodge but where membership was expected depending on your trade; e.g. the silversmiths in Ephesus (Acts 19:24-29), or the group of tent-makers where Paul met Pricilla and Aquila(Acts 18:2-3)). 

I am a frequent critic of the modern evangelical persecution complex primarily because it so ignorant of history.  The same is true here.  Christians didn't stop participating in the culture where they lived.  Rather they were given warnings to guard against allowing that culture to influence their own actions and values that are demonstrated within the church.  Much of what Paul wrote was about how believers were to behave when in fellowship with one another, not how to navigate the culture wars of their time.  Paul wasn't concerned about a Christian's participation in commerce out in the world, rather he was concerned about how that participation affected the Christian's relationships within the church and their ability to practice hospitality.  As he wrote in Romans, "For the kingdom of God is not a matter of eating and drinking, but of righteousness, peace, and joy in the Holy Spirit." (Romans 14:17)

I heard a quote on the radio from the baker in this case, Jack Phillips, basically asserting that if the state can force him to bake a cake it is forcing him to forsake his relationship with God.  I say baloney, and so would Paul.  God isn't that petty, and the baker isn't forsaking anything.  The history of the church demonstrates that the culture-warriors today are making an argument that just didn't matter to the earliest Christians.  And it shouldn't matter to us.  I don't wish Jack Phillips ill.  I don't even wish he'd get out of the baking business.  What I do pray is that he, and others like him, can become mature in Christ and recognize that a commercial enterprise is not a religious endorsement (ahem, Hobby Lobby) understanding that the kingdom of God isn't about what you're selling, but about your personal righteousness, your peace in Christ to navigate a culture contrary to your ideals, and taking joy that the Holy Spirit has matured your heart so that these disputes no longer matter (liberally paraphrasing Romans 14).