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).

Amen


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).

Monday, May 28, 2018

#NotAllEvangelicals

The jokes write themselves at this point, but I don't like the punchline.  By now you've probably heard (for some media over, and over, and over) that 81% of white Evangelicals voted for Donald Trump in the last election.  You might have also heard that President Trump's approval rating among the same demographic actually increased following news of the payoff to porn star Stormy Daniels.

We (royal we) rationalize such stats by saying that we didn't vote for a "pastor in chief" and that moral failings are less important than political stances.  (Interestingly, a quick Google search to try and find the origin of that quote led me to Andy Stanley saying that to describe... wait for it... President Obama.)  Jerry Falwell Jr. describes Mr. Trump as Evangelical's "dream president".  The administration's accomplishments so far have been the appointment of a Supreme Court Justice, numerous other federal judges, and moving the American embassy in Israel to Jerusalem.  In addition there has been a constant verbal assault against Planned Parenthood, vows to overturn the Johnson Amendment, and rallying cries for religious liberty.

You can't have it both ways

Despite these victories in "bringing God back into the White House" there have been an alarming uptick in school shootings that the cultural right blame on the Godlessness of our culture.  Meanwhile the government has taken a hostile stance towards minorities, those relying on government subsistence, immigrants, and refugees.  When called out on this seeming hypocrisy, the same Christian leaders who most vocally support the president respond by saying that the law is the law and that it isn't the government's responsibility to be compassionate.  This attitude elevates the "rule of law" to the level of idolatry, using Romans 13 as justification.

The inconsistency of course is due to the emphasis the Religious Right has made since the 1980's that the government should be the vehicle through which morality is reinforced in culture.  Abortion is a legal, Christian issue while immigration is not.  There is a systemic "agenda" against traditional family values but systemic racism is ignored.  It was argued one President should have been disqualified because of his immorality, the faith (and citizenship) of another was questioned because of his foreign policy, yet the current President is widely embraced despite his questionable ethics and morality.  Just because he tells right-leaning Evangelicals what they want to hear.

The punchline

So none of this comes as any surprise, but it grieves my heart nonetheless.  The latest headline read: "White Evangelicals are the Group Least Likely to Think the U.S. Should Help Refugees" citing the results of a recent study by Pew Research.  Policy arguments can be made about how to manage refugees in the face of global conflict.  But there is only one religious argument that can be made as the word of God makes clear in several passages.  "You must not mistreat or oppress foreigners in any way.  Remember, you yourselves were once foreigners in the land of Egypt." (Exodus 22:21)  So when the news brings on a Christian leader to discuss policy, it needs to be recognized that they leave doctrine at the door.  When Franklin Graham said a year ago that our country's policy towards immigrants and refugees is "not a Bible issue", we must recognize he isn't speaking from a position of religious leader, but from that of a politician. 

The sad stat cited above has been overshadowed by the abhorrent news of children as young as one year old being ripped from their families as they cross the border.  This was threatened months ago and reinforced by the Attorney General in a recent speech.  But be reassured, the President's Chief of Staff tells us they'll be placed in "foster care or whatever" and hope that they aren't among the 1500 that have been "lost" in the system.  Thankfully, this news hasn't yet been overcome by the 'palace intrigue' that typically consumes this White House.  These things need to be talked about; the disgusting policies need to be brought into the light.

PHOTO: THE CHRISTIAN POST / SAMUEL SMITH
#NotAllEvangelicals

Thankfully there is light shining in the darkness.  Last weekend while many were captivated by the royal wedding between Prince Harry and Meghan Markle, Episcopalian Bishop Michael Curry delivered a sermon that went viral, expressing an attitude of hope centering on Jesus and emphasizing a message of love.  Less that a week later he was leading a revival called "Reclaiming Jesus" that was kicked off by messages from the likes of Richard Rohr, Tony Campolo, and Walter Brueggemann (who received a long standing ovation) before marching in a silent vigil to the White House.

I have personally kept the 'Religious Left' at arm's distance because I've felt pushing back against the commingling of religion and politics with just different politics only replaces one idol with another.  Maybe because of this, the Religious Left has struggled to gain the same foothold in our culture that we see in the Religious Right.  But I sense something different this time around.

For me it began with the launch of Public Faith right before the last presidential election.  Led by several Evangelicals I respect, the goal was to raise the dialogue of politics above the partisan divisions for a unified faith-based politic.  But more recently the movement Reclaiming Jesus has taken the same ideals and put them into motion.  In addition to the vigil (the organizers emphasize it wasn't a march), they have a manifesto that speaks truth to power and shines light in the darkness.  Bullet-points include a rejection of white nationalism and racism because all are created in God's image, a repudiation of American exceptionalism because of God's promise to redeem every nation, and a call to servant leadership in the model of Jesus.

Will this make any difference, will it fizzle out over time as others have before, or will it become embroiled in the same partisan fights it is speaking out against?  Time will tell.  My hope is in Jesus, not any political party, nation, law, or movement.  At the very least such a movement makes clear that the loudest voices speaking on behalf of a diverse faith aren't representative of all believers.  The political mouthpieces are just that, regardless of what their title may be in the religious world.  It's time for more Christians to speak up and demonstrate that these leaders don't represent all of Christianity.