Wednesday, July 05, 2017

I Pledge Allegiance

Yesterday in the United States we celebrated our nation's independence.  My Facebook feed was mixed between friends sharing pictures of barbecues, parades, and fireworks and pastors/authors writing about the co-mingling of patriotism and faith (pro and con).  All day I was wrestling with the feeling that I had to write something, but what more is there to be said?  Then I saw this article on the Babylon Bee: 'Dozens Accept America as Lord and Savior at First Baptist Dallas Service' (which is satire, in case you weren't sure).

For a little background, the pastor at First Baptist Dallas is Robert Jeffress, a very outspoken Trump supporter.  Last week he held a church service with his church adorned with the American Flag and worship songs centered on patriotic themes (including, without any hint of irony, Woody Guthrie's "This Land is Your Land").  Then on Saturday, a choir from the same church sang a hymn based on President Trump's campaign slogan, "Make America Great Again" at a "Celebrate Freedom Rally" in Washington, DC.

photo credit: KNEB-TV via The Blaze
I've always been uneasy with the assumption by many that faith and patriotism (both likely to be blind) can coexist in the heart of a sincere disciple of Jesus.  That's not to say that we shouldn't make political decisions based on our religious convictions, or that it is impossible to love both Jesus and America.  But idolatry is probably mankind's greatest temptation, and we frequently elevate our politics, our patriotism, even our religious convictions (for just one example, see all the debate over Biblical inerrancy) to a degree of allegiance higher than our confession of Jesus as Lord.  So I struggle even with placing my hand over my heart to recite the Pledge of Allegiance because it calls into question where my allegiance truly lies.

Like I said, this debate is nothing new for those who follow these sorts of things.  But my intention behind this blog is to call these things out and to call us higher- that our allegiance isn't to red or blue, right or left, rather it is to a Savior-King and his kingdom.  And I want to do that not by cutting down those with whom I disagree with politically, or mock the sincerely faithful that unfortunately are a product of a corrupt religious system, but by encouraging us to focus our attention higher and develop a deep conviction regarding the Kingdom of God.

So I think the recent book by Matthew Bates titled Salvation by Allegiance Alone is so critical and timely.  His thesis is simple- what if the Greek work often translated as "faith", pistis, could better be translated as "allegiance".  This opens up a host of implications, not the least of which is the notion of what we consider to be patriotism.

While this may seem like a politically-motivated reach, there's a lot of quality scholarship behind his assertion.  But I want to point out two specific examples while thinking about what it means to "pledge allegiance".  The first is from 1 Maccabees, where rival King Demetrius asks the Jews to "keep faith" (Greek pistis) with him over Alexander the Great.  He is not asking for a confession that leads to salvation, rather for a pledge of allegiance.  The second is from Jewish general/historian Josephus who writes about how he urged a rebel leader to "repent and believe in me" using the adjective pistos.  Again, this can be interpreted as to "repent and pledge allegiance" because Josephus wasn't offering any type of spiritual salvation.  So if you think about it, isn't that what Jesus is calling each of us to do in Mark 1:15 when he proclaims, "The kingdom of God has come near.  Repent and believe the good news!"

Another clue for interpreting "faith" or "believe" in this way is Jesus' own words above linking belief to the "good news" (AKA the gospel) and the kingdom.  The word we often translate as gospel or good news, historically gives the connotation of declaring a military victory or the coronation of a king.  So the "good news" Jesus is referring to here isn't personal salvation but the inauguration of his kingdom and the defeat of sin, which becomes accessible to us through faith in Jesus.

If you're in a war (spiritual in this case) and a king is offering you salvation (or more accurately deliverance) in exchange for a confession of faith, what then does this "faith" mean if not allegiance?

So that brings us back to debate over faith and patriotism that arises this time every year.  What does it mean to pledge allegiance?  What does it mean to salute the flag?  What does it mean to be patriotic while at the same time being a believer who has made a confession of faith, or rather allegiance?

Jesus challenges us in the Sermon on the Mount when he says, "no one can serve two masters." (Matthew 6:24)  In context he is talking about money, but his words are true whatever the other master may be (Abraham Lincoln applied this idea to politics when he quoted Jesus from Mark 3 that, "a house divided against itself cannot stand").  Jesus furthers this point with the parable of kings at war in Luke 14:31-33 where if you know you can't win with the army you have you go to the opposing king to ask for terms of peace.  What do you think the other king will request if not undivided allegiance.

It wouldn't be out of the ordinary for a church to teach that we need to have undivided faith in our savior Jesus Christ.  But if we change the word's intent to ask for undivided allegiance, a church suddenly becomes a cult, or overly-political, or unaccommodating.

So I'll just leave this here for you to chew on.  You may have lit off all your fireworks and already packed away the red, white, and blue decor, but the next time you hear the National Anthem, or God Bless America, or stand to recite the Pledge consider what it means to declare to have faith in Jesus.  Is it just a intellectual ascent, a cultural acceptance, a routine religious ritual, or does it mean something more?

Thursday, June 29, 2017

Scandal! What Scandal?

When I started this blog, my intention was to offer an alternative perspective to the usual religion/politics media-driven dichotomy that I think we get too wrapped up in.  I'm a political junkie in my heart- following political news closer than any other category -but as my faith has evolved over time I've come to look at my personal politics differently.

A great example of this is my support to the American Center for Law and Justice.  When I first started blogging I included a link to the ACLJ in my sidebar.  I'd listen to their program on my commute from work.  And I was so intrigued by religious liberty debates that I actually picked up and read David Limbaugh's book, Persecution.

But like I said, as my faith matured my politics evolved.  I have to confess that I didn't vote for Barak Obama but I didn't think he was the antichrist either.  He was the President and it was what it was.  But I noticed the tone on the ACLJ radio program began to turn hostile.  They covered religious liberty issues less, and political policy more.  The straw that broke my back was during the early debates over the Affordable Care Act, aka Obamacare.  The ACLJ was vehemently opposed to it, but on what Christian grounds I could not fathom.  They made the case opposed to abortion funding, but federal law already prohibits it.  They made the case that it was socialist, but we read in Acts that "all the believers were together and had everything in common.  They sold their property and possessions and gave to everyone as they had need." (Acts 2:44-45)  And they used fear-mongering to manipulate people into giving.  The scales fell from my eyes; the ACLJ wasn't a Christian organization, it was unapologetically right-wing.

I'd check in on the radio every now and then, especially to get updates when Paster Saeed Abedini was imprisoned in Iran.  But it was clear religious liberty issues took a back-seat to political activism.

Shortly after President Trump's travel ban was blocked by the courts, Jordan Sekulow, son of ACLJ founder Jay, was on KNX news radio in Los Angeles to discuss the legal arguments for the ban.  He bluntly stated that we need better vetting ("extreme vetting" in the President's words) using refugees as an example of those who weren't vetted.  The radio host pointed out the painstakingly long process, including vetting through the United Nations, Interpol, was well as the FBI and Homeland Security, before refugees are settled in the United States.  Jordan didn't flinch and stood by his argument.  When called out explicitly that he lied, he still didn't yield.  The host concluded the interview by pointing out that the ACLJ is a Christian organization.  Thank you for the black eye, Jordan.

Then a week ago, it was announced Jay Sekulow was hired on to the President's legal team.  My eyebrow raised.  It didn't surprise me that he went around the news just regurgitating the administration's talking points.  And it didn't surprise me that many Christians bought his story hook, line, and sinker.

But my blood boiled when I read the news that Jay had funneled millions of charitable donations towards he and his family's salaries and perks.  And of course, investigations follow, but I'm sure 'faithful Christians' will declare this a witch hunt.

I'm not trying to look down on those who still support the ACLJ or rub it in.  I share all this because I believe people can change, politics can change.  Mine did.  But I wonder what level of scandal will cause others to look at their religion and politics more critically?  The scandals of Jim Bakker and Jimmy Swaggart didn't lead to the end of the Religious Right in the 80's.  Pat Robertson is still on the air despite the ridiculous things he says.  Jerry Falwell Jr has taken up his father's mantle and then some.  James Dobson resigned from Focus on the Family but is still influential.  So I wonder if the latest controversy surrounding Jay Sekulow will make any difference, or if Christians will see this as just another example of the devil opposing God's chosen president.

Thursday, June 22, 2017

To Sell Your Soul

What does it look like to sell your soul?  Maybe you can picture it from movies or cartoons.  Maybe you imagine the musical Damn Yankees, or recall the story of bluesman Robert Johnson at the Crossroads, or when the devil annulled Spider-Man's marriage to MJ.  But what would it look like today, in real life?  What would it take for a stranger, or a friend, or a cause to convince you to give up everything you believe?

Last month, on the eve of the National Day of Prayer, President Donald Trump hosted his evangelical advisors for a dinner to celebrate his election victory and to discuss the religious freedom Executive Order he would issue the following day.  A blogger I follow posted a picture from that dinner and speculated that was what selling your soul looked like.  I replied that I found it ironic their dinner was lobster (eating shellfish being an "abomination" according to Leviticus 11, just a few pages before the popularly quoted Leviticus 18).  But in the picture I didn't see money changing hands, or souls being wisped away.

During my Sunday school class this week, I reminded everyone that the "antichrist" according to John wasn't a specific person, rather anyone who denied that Jesus was the Christ.  More specifically it was directed towards the Gnostics, who believed that since the flesh was inherently sinful Jesus could not be both human and divine.  Yet we like to throw that word around to describe anyone we think opposes our particular worldview (Christian, or not).  George W Bush, Barak Obama, Hillary Clinton, Donald Trump... you get the idea.

We do this because we are convinced the antichrist is a specific character in the end-times.  He or she is the ruler of the "one world government" that comes before the rapture, Jesus' return, or whatever other eschatological interpretation you may have.  But Revelation never mentions the antichrist.  Rather there are two beasts in Revelation 13- one, a political leader and the second, a religious leader -who work together in service of the dragon.

Nearly everyone agrees the dragon is Satan.  But there is more debate about identifying the beasts.  The first is often described by terms like "new world order" and can be interpreted as the United Nations, NATO, the global economy, the G8, et cetera.  The second is popularly the Catholic Church or the Pope.  It is sometimes interpreted to be Constantine giving rise to Christendom.

Regardless, the narrative of Revelation describes the beasts as religious authority ceding to political favor.  In other words, selling your soul for the sake of politics.

Later on Sunday, President Trump's new lawyer, Jay Sekulow, made the rounds on cable news to defend that the president was not under any investigation.  Jay Sekulow, in case you didn't know, used to be lead counsel at the American Center for Law and Justice (ACLJ), a counter-organization to the ACLU specializing in religious freedom cases.  But over the years the ACLJ has become more and more political.  And now Sekulow finds himself on the president's retainer.

In one of the many articles describing his news-tour, someone commented that it was clear President Trump had God's favor because Sekulow was representing him and therefore no powers of evil can defeat him.

That, right there, is what selling your soul looks like.

It's not the dinner evangelical leaders have with presidents.  It's not paychecks received to appear on the news and advance a political narrative.  It's not even the political maneuvering that is done by religious leaders every time there is an election.

No, it is the common person, the sincere believer, who is deceived because someone they considered a spiritual authority takes a political stance signifying such politics as godly.

After the beasts are introduced in Revelation 13, their followers are then described.  These deceived can be recognized by a physical sign- the mark of the beast.  It's not the politician or the religious leader we have to worry about selling their soul, rather it is you and me being deceived, being marked.

Wednesday, June 07, 2017

And He Loved Them Too

"I'm so angry I wish I were dead."  What a ridiculous statement from Jonah (Jonah 4:9) after not getting his way while God got his.  The temper tantrum of a toddler because God did what Jonah knew he was going to do.

As ridiculous as it sounds, this is my favorite part of Jonah's story.  Maybe because I relate so well.  You see, I have a self-righteousness problem.  I think I know it all.  I think my interpretation of the Bible, my doctrine, my church is better than yours.  So I always have to check myself when I'm tempted to be critical.

Jonah thought his interpretation of God's will was better than the the God who gave it, that his faith was better than the Ninevites.  So he ignored God's instructions.  Actually, he did more than ignore it, he ran as far away from it as he could.

But God's will couldn't be ignored for long; a great fish had other ideas.

The stories seemed to come on top of each other- the trial of a church trying to beat the homosexuality out of a man and a congressman declaring holy war on Muslims.  My instinct was to ask, "do these people actually read their Bibles?"  Even today I saw an article at Christianity Today on how we can pray for Muslims during Ramadan.  Yes, the headline was click-bait, but the comments are appalling.  So when I heard the news about a man arrested on his way to shoot doctors, my first thought was "abortion".

Turns out that wasn't the case.  But what does it say when that's what we expect?

You've probably heard the saying, Christians are known more for what they are against than what they are for.  While that usually invokes images of protesters in front of abortion clinics or at a funeral holding signs saying, "God hates fags", we usually don't think of such exercises of 'free speech' as violent.

Until an abortion clinic is bombed.

Or until the son of a famous evangelist and president of a prominent Christian college encourages Christians to carry guns so that they can "end" Muslims.

Or until a gay youth is driven to suicide by family, friends, and a church who reject her.

These types of Christians are so angry they wish others were dead.

And darn right I'm critical.

You see, what made Jonah so angry (besides the heat, because c'mon who isn't short-tempered in scorching heat) was that God had the nerve to forgive.  It wasn't up to Jonah to decide who was worthy.  Jonah admitted, "I knew that you are a gracious and compassionate God, slow to anger and abounding in love, a God who relents from sending calamity." (4:2)  And that graciousness, that compassion, that love extended even to Jonah's enemies.

I wonder if the folks at Word of Life Church, or Congressman Higgins, or Jerry Falwell Jr have ever read this story and asked,who the Ninevites are in their lives, because God loves them too.  The homosexual.  The Muslim.  The liberal.  The woman.  The sinner.  God loves them too.

So these headlines make me angry.  Angry because the hatred and the violence is what some people think Christianity is all about.  It makes me so angry at times I was I was dead and didn't have to deal with it.

Because God loves them too.

The Christians who don't look like Jesus.  The pastor who confuses nationalism with faith.  The angry crusader.  The homophobe.  The self-righteous.  The face in the mirror.

God loves them too.