"For now we see as if through a flawed pane of glass..." (I Corinthians 13:12)

Tuesday, April 3, 2018

Some Thoughts RE: Public Education


Our education system is under attack from a segment of our conservative population. Public education and higher education, iconic foundations of our strength as a nation, are being undermined; indeed, to some degree, it appears they are being dismantled intentionally.

It has been said, and I concur, that democracy needs an informed electorate in order to thrive. I know: there are some who split hairs over whether we are a democracy or a republic. That’s a smoke screen. The reality is that we are both. Democracy identifies the source of our authority (we the people), while republic identifies the way we organize our governing process.

So, let’s not try to sidetrack the conversation or misdirect it. The education system upon which our wellbeing depends is in jeopardy, and in some quarters its demise is welcomed—even orchestrated! As a result, our freedom is threatened.

I am educated. I have a bachelor’s degree from a state school, and two post graduate degrees, although neither is a product of public or state systems. I often have been called “over-educated,” and have been accused of being brainwashed by a leftist/liberal system. My intelligence has been questioned by an implication that my thoughts are not my own, but, rather, simply “regurgitated leftist talking points.”

It’s true: with all my degrees I didn’t learn to weld or to repair a washing machine or to run a lathe or milling machine. But I have rebuilt two automobile motors, a clutch assembly and more carburetors than I can count—in my garage. I also have rebuilt a washing machine and two dryers. And I was able to do those things because the greatest benefit from higher education, to me, has been the ability to do research and to educate myself. And I was doing that prior to Google; indeed, before I ever had touched a computer or a cell phone. Yes, Google has extended that benefit and made it more easily accessible; nevertheless, sometimes the Card Catalogue and the Dewey Decimal System remain the most productive resource.

The greatest benefit of education, in my experience, was not the content of what I learned (although that is of great value), but, rather, the process of learning, itself. Using the process, I have educated myself in management and administration procedures (an area that was inadequately covered in my seminary experience) and have kept up with emerging trends in my profession.

So, why is there such strong opposition to public education and higher education? Can we be honest? I suspect the most basic reasons are because public schools consider evolution as a valid theory, they expose students to a variety of social and political ideologies, and they don’t embrace and enforce a very specific theological doctrine. To some extent the opposition to public education is a renaissance of the age-old legalism/diversity dichotomy that characterized the confrontations between Jesus and the Pharisees of his day.

I have a hunch that if opposition could be quantified and measured, the opposition to public education would be seen to grow directly out of the so-called “Scopes Monkey Trial,” and it would be seen to pick up steam with each succeeding expression of public tolerance toward social, cultural, ideological and theological diversity. The opposition is not to public education, per se, but to diversity, which is a direct result of, and therefore a prerequisite to, personal freedom.

Perhaps the half-century decline in effectiveness of mainline and evangelical churches has played a role in the increasing opposition to public education. Since churches have lost their effectiveness and (maybe more importantly) their influence and power, there may be some who wish to shift their pedagogical responsibility to the education system; that is, to have the public schools do what the church and the family have not been able to do effectively. I have no data to support that idea; but, it’s hypothesis that might be researched.

Or, maybe those who oppose public education are seeking a scapegoat, and thus are blaming the education system for the decline in the influence of church. Again, it’s a question; not a statement.

So, what can be done to resolve the ongoing disruption of our children’s and youth’s development? I don’t know if I have the slightest idea. Historically, in circumstances of ideological gridlock, when either or both sides have been unwilling to consider any variation from their own specific doctrines, our freedom has been compromised; and virtually nothing has been resolved.

Sadly, I think the gridlock resulting from such a refusal to negotiate puts us in a win/lose situation. “My-way-or-the-highway” always does that; but, it doesn’t have to be that way. It is possible to resolve any issue—ANY ISSUE! The first step is to define the issue in terms of need. Most people define most problems in terms of some preferred solution. And the saddest part of all is that too many people don’t really want to resolve the issues between them and others. They just want to win the fight.

Until there is a willingness to enter with integrity into a valid conflict resolution process, I suspect it will remain a win/lose situation that will continue to be resolved—one way or the other—at the polls.

That’s how it looks through the flawed glass that is my world view.

Together in the Walk,

Jim

Monday, February 19, 2018

II Chronicles 7:14


During the early years of my ministry, a popular text for revival preaching was II Chronicles 7:14. It called God’s people to “turn from their wicked ways.” The “wicked ways” most often addressed by those revival preachers related to personal immorality: things like drinking and smoking and illicit sex, none of which were the specific focus of this text; indeed, none of which were major emphases through most of the Hebrew Scriptures.

In real estate, it is said that the three most important factors are “location, location, location.” In that spirit, I would say that three of the most important factors in biblical studies are “context, context, context.” In this case, the text cited above is a part of the story of the dedication of Solomon’s newly built temple.

The verse does not address any specific evil or wickedness, but, rather, is a general promise from God regarding future times when the predictable consequences of Israel’s predictable behavior predictably would result in hard times and suffering. When that happens, God says, “…if my people who are called by my name humble themselves, pray, seek my face, and turn from their wicked ways, then I will hear from heaven, and will forgive their sin and heal their land.” (NRSV)

In the context of the entire biblical account of God’s relationship with God’s people, the sins and wickedness most often addressed were not instances of personal immorality, but, rather, corporate sins of injustice, idolatry, cruelty, and the ill treatment of the poor and the dispossessed.

Jesus’ focus also was on the plight of the poor; indeed, he welcomed and included those whose personal morality was most questionable. Personal morality can be changed for the better when the person is addressed with compassion and dignity; in other words, when addressed with grace.

On the other hand, corporate sins, including organized greed, injustice, racism, class distinction, indifference toward the poor, are more difficult to overcome. Over and over in the Hebrew Scriptures, it was these corporate sins that most often were confronted and said to be the cause of Israel’s downfall.

In that context, I want to take a fresh look at II Chronicles 7:14.

“If my people, who are called by my name…”  In ancient cultures, a name was not simply a label for identification. One’s name was a part of one’s identity. To name a person was to call that person into presence. To call God’s name was to call God into presence. To do so frivolously (“in vain”) was considered blasphemy and invited divine wrath. The implication is that a people who identify themselves with God’s name are called to reflect the nature and will of God.

“…humble themselves…” Another of God’s pet peeves regarding God’s people was their penchant for pride. God often called them “stiff-necked.” Pride. Arrogance. Almost always it is expressed as a certitude that one’s own ways and ideologies are the only correct ones. Sound familiar? Opposing groups in our culture generally look at each other with disdain—even with hatred. Differences are not tolerated. Diversity is seen as a negative, rather than an enriching quality.

“…pray…” Not “thoughts and prayers” for victims and their families in response to tragedy. The call is to intense, regular, systematic prayer that, indeed, will “…seek (God’s) face…”; prayer that seeks to align one’s own life and will with the life and will of God; prayer that establishes a godly character; prayer that changes the one who prays. If more people prayed like that, and then lived out the identity established through that kind of prayer—lived it in the presence of all with whom they came in contact, including the depressed, the lonely, the bullied and the rejected—perhaps there would be fewer reasons to offer “thoughts and prayers.”

“…and turn from their wicked ways…” This is one of the simplest biblical descriptions of repentance. As stated above, the wickedness that most offended God, according to the Hebrew Scriptures, was arrogance, injustice, idolatry (the worship of other gods, including wealth and power), cruelty and indifference toward the poor. There’s plenty of that still going around today. Do you suppose that wickedness still offends God?

Then comes the promise: “…then I will hear from heaven, and will forgive their sin and heal their land.”

Is it possible that the outrage against personal immorality (you fill in the blank), is at least partially a way of deflecting a sense of guilt over the corporate sins that offend God and divide us?

Is it possible that the obsession with personal responsibility, while refusing demand accountability and responsibility at the corporate level, is at least partially a causal factor in the decline of our culture?

From the other perspective, is it possible that an unbalanced emphasis on corporate, to the neglect of personal responsibility is a root cause of cultural deterioration?

Jesus said to the Pharisees, Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you tithe mint, dill, and cummin, and have neglected the weightier matters of the law: justice and mercy and faith. It is these you ought to have practiced without neglecting the others.” (Matthew 23:23 NRSV, emphasis mine)

I passionately believe it is this imbalanced approach to morality and ethical relatioships that leads to narrow, partisan division.

What if we read this text while looking in the mirror? And what if we got together in groups and did the same?

That’s the way it looks through the Flawed Glass that is my world view.

Together in the Walk,

Jim


Saturday, January 20, 2018

A Tale of Two Kingdoms


The link below is to an op-ed piece by David Rourke, published yesterday (January 19, 2018) in the Dallas Morning News. 
In the piece, Rourke points out what he sees as a split among American conservative Christians—a split defined by “how inconsistent the Christian right has been on policies that line up with the principles the Bible would deem to be true, good and beautiful.” 
On one side of the split is the new guard: those who “appear unwilling to make the moral compromises necessary to support the GOP as we know it.”
On the other side is the old guard, whose… 
“…problems are enormous despite positive intentions. Many of these traditionally religious right evangelicals pick and choose what parts of the Bible they apply to American society, especially when it comes to the sanctity of human life. For example, many are passionately pro-life when it comes to unborn babies but not when it comes to women, refugees, minorities and the poor. Further they entangle the agendas and ideologies of the church and the Republican party. Instead of seeing America as a type of wayward Babylon, they see America as a type of Jerusalem.”
It's not a new distinction. Rourke uses the language of St. Augustine (4th century): “the city of God and the city of man have competing aims. Until conservative Christians get this, we will fail to faithfully be in the world but not of the world” “In the world but not of the world” is a distinction implied (but not directly stated) by Jesus in his Gethsemane prayer for his disciples (John 17). Standing before Pilate, Jesus said, “My kingdom is not of this world” (John 18:36).
That distinction is consistent throughout the New Testament between the kingdom of God (or the kingdom of heaven) and the kingdom of the world, the former ruled by God and the latter ruled by Satan. Christians live by a different standard (spirit) than that of the world (flesh).
Augustine used the terms, city of God/city of man. John Calvin (16th century) would try to reorder Augustine’s city of man to make it become the city of God. His vision for a Christian community still inspires many, although his vision of a brutally judgmental God became counterproductive to his vision.
In Christ and Culture (1951), H. Richard Niebuhr outlined five prevalent viewpoints with which Christianity has confronted the distinction and relationship between the kingdom, or city, of God and the kingdom of the world/city of man:
o   Christ against Culture. 
o   Christ of Culture.
o   Christ above Culture. 
o   Christ and Culture in Paradox. 
o   Christ Transforming Culture. 
Today’s evangelical Christians fall, it seems to me, in either the Christ against culture, or the Christ Transforming Culture mode. Christ against culture is generally the position taken by dispensationalist premillennialists, who believe the world is beyond saving, and that they are called to win as many individual souls as possible for Christ before he returns to destroy the Prince of this World (Satan) and establish the kingdom of God once and for all, either here on earth or in some totally different realm.
The Christ-transforming-culture camp believes it possible for humans to make the world Christian, and attempt to do so by taking over the political structures of government and enacting Christian legislation to win America back for God. It is to these conversionists that Rourke refers in his comments.
In perhaps the most comprehensive commentary on these distinctions to date, Gregory Boyd’s The Myth of a Christian Nation: How the Quest for Political Power Is Destroying the Church,[1] suggests that the two realities (the kingdom of God and the kingdom of the world) are mutually exclusive, and cannot be merged, because they emerge out of mutually exclusive paradigms.
The kingdom of the world is established and maintained by what Boyd calls a “power over” model, which he calls the power of the sword: the ability to enforce specific values and cultures on another, with or without the other’s approval. By contrast, the kingdom of God is established and maintained by a “power under” paradigm, which Boyd calls the power of the cross: a Christ-like sacrificial, loving service extended to all, including one’s enemies.
Boyd says Christians should be involved in the political process, but should not confuse their involvement with a manifestation of the kingdom of God. Christian legislators can enact policies that reflect God’s will; nevertheless, those policies do not transform a nation into the kingdom of God, because they are established and maintained by a power over model. Only a Calvary-like love will transform the world.
Meanwhile, the unworkable effort to merge the two kingdoms increasingly distracts Christians from their calling, which is to mirror the loving, inclusive, sacrificial servanthood of Jesus of Nazareth.
Yet, we are not simply to do nothing. We are called to “do justice, love mercy and walk humbly with (our) God” (Micah 6:8). We are called to live as witnesses to Christ’s Calvary-like love, even for his enemies, trusting in God’s promise (manifested by Jesus) that love is more powerful than the sword; trusting that God can and will work through our love to transform the world.
But we are not called to inflict or enforce that paradigm on anyone else. To do so would make it a kingdom of the world reality.
Rourke concludes: “The mission of the church and the mission of the Republican Party cannot cohabitate in a strategic partnership, regardless of how well the GOP seems to line up with Christian thought in a given era. The closer these institutions come together, the more the church will lose credibility and power, the more the church will look less like itself and more like the world. To use the language of St. Augustine, the city of God and the city of man have competing aims.”
I concur.
That’s the way it looks through the Flawed Glass that is my world view.
Together in the Walk,
Jim



[1] Zondervan, 2005.

Tuesday, January 16, 2018

All the Kingdoms of the World


Again, the devil took him to a very high mountain and showed him all the kingdoms of the world and their splendor; and he said to him, “All these I will give you, if you will fall down and worship me.” 10 Jesus said to him, “Away with you, Satan! for it is written,

‘Worship the Lord your God,
    and serve only him.’”  Matthew 4:8-10 (NRSV)

I am challenged and convicted, and yet inspired, by Gregory Boyd’s book, The Myth of a Christian Nation: How the Quest for Political Power is Destroying the Church.[1]

Boyd distinguishes between the kingdom of God and the kingdom of the world, the latter being advanced and sustained by a “power over” model (the power of the sword) and the former being advanced and sustained by a “power under” model of sacrificial love and service (the power of the cross). 
The kingdom of God, Boyd insists, is not some improved or Christianized version of any worldly kingdom, for any worldly kingdom is based upon the power of the sword—the ability to establish and sustain its own values and culture by whatever means necessary, and to inflict its culture, not only upon its own citizenry, but also, imperialistically, upon other kingdoms.
Later, he uses this distinction to make his primary point:
“The evangelical church in America has, to a large extent, been co-opted by an American, religious version of the kingdom of the world. We have come to trust the power of the sword more than the power of the cross…
“The evidence of this is nowhere clearer than in the simple, oft-repeated, slogan that we Christians are going to “take America back for God.” The thinking is that America was founded as a Christian nation but has simply veered off track. If we can just get the power of Caesar again[2], however, we can take it back. If we can just get more Christians into office, pass more Christian laws, support more Christian policies, we can restore this nation to its “one nation under God” status. If we can just protect the sanctity of marriage, make it difficult, if not impossible, to live a gay lifestyle, and overturn Roe vs. Wade, we will be getting closer. If we can just get prayer (evangelical Christian prayer, of course) back into our schools along with the Ten Commandments and creationist teaching we will be restoring our country’s Christian heritage. If we can just keep “one nation under God” in our Pledge of Allegiance, protect the rights of Christians to speak their minds, get more control of the liberal media, clean up the trash that’s coming out of the movie and record industry, while marginalizing, if not eradicating, liberal groups such as the ACLU we will have won this nation back for Jesus Christ.”[3]
Boyd then counters with some “sobering questions”:
“First, since we are called to mimic Jesus in all we do as citizens of the kingdom of God we have to ask: when did Jesus ever act or talk like this? …most of Jesus’ Jewish contemporaries wanted to “take Israel back for God.” This is precisely why they continually tried to fit Jesus into the mold of a political messiah.”[4]
“Did Jesus ever suggest by word or by example that we should aspire to acquire, let alone take over, the power of Caesar? Did Jesus spend any time and energy trying to improve, let alone dominate, the reigning government of his day? Did he ever work to pass laws against the sinners he hung out with and ministered to (emphasis mine)? Did he worry at all about ensuring that his rights and the religious rights of his followers were protected? Does any author in the New Testament remotely hint that engaging in this sort of activity has anything to do with the kingdom of God?”[5]
Let’s say, for the sake of discussion, that the desired ends are good, and that they are faithful expressions of the will of God. It is not those desired ends that trouble Boyd, nor me; rather, it is the strategy by which the evangelical church in America seeks to accomplish those ends, namely, through the accumulation of political power and the subsequent legislation of evangelical Christian morality; in other words, through the establishment of a functional state church.[6]
Boyd never suggests that Christians shouldn’t participate in the political process; indeed, he encourages their participation. However, such participation should never be equated with kingdom of God interests.
Ironically, the fact that the evangelical church is attempting to accomplish these goals by political power is testimony to their failure—indeed, the failure of the entire Christian movement to date ( a few isolated exceptions notwithstanding)—to accomplish the same goals using the Christ-like strategy of sacrificial love for all, including the love of enemies.
Even more ironic is what I consider Jesus’ clear implication that we don’t need political power to be faithful to him and to the kingdom of God. He said that when he is lifted up, he will draw all people to himself.[7]
That’s the way it looks through the Flawed Glass that is my world view.
Together in the Walk,
Jim



[1] Zondervan, 2005.
[2] A reference to Constantine, who was converted to Christianity and then used his imperial power to declare Christianity as the official religion of the realm.
[3] Boyd, op. cit., page 91.
[4] Ibid.
[5] Ibid., page 92.
[6]Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof…” (1st Amendment to the Constitution of the United States of America).
[7] Some interpret this statement of Jesus (John 12:32) to refer to his crucifixion (being lifted up on the cross), while others see it as referring to his ascension and glorification. Either way, in whatever way Jesus is lifted up, the promise is that he will draw all people to himself.

Wednesday, January 3, 2018

A Dirty Word?



Compromise. It’s a dirty word to many of those whose belief systems place them toward the polar ends of the ideological spectrum, whether the ideology is religious, political or philosophical. And, generally speaking, the closer one’s position is to either extreme of the spectrum, the stronger is one’s aversion to compromise.
One characteristic of extremism is the belief than one’s own convictions are absolute, and there are no other valid perspectives; therefore, the disdain for compromise is justified. To compromise is to dilute truth. I have long maintained that the only absolute quality of such a position is the absolute arrogance required to maintain it.
In his 2002 Nobel speech in Oslo, Jimmy Carter said, “The present era is a challenging and disturbing time for those whose lives are shaped by religious faith based on kindness toward each other.” In an interview with Christianity Today, he explained:
“There is a remarkable trend toward fundamentalism in all religions—including the different denominations of Christianity as well as Hinduism, Judaism, and Islam. Increasingly, true believers are inclined to begin a process of deciding: ‘Since I am aligned with God, I am superior, and my beliefs should prevail, and anyone who disagrees with me is inherently wrong,’ and the next step is ‘inherently inferior.’ The ultimate step is ‘subhuman,’ and then their lives are not significant.”[1]
Carter points out the disturbing trend toward linking religious fundamentalism and political ideologies. The result is an uncompromising rigidity and a refusal to negotiate.
Limited as we are by the clay of which we are made, we humans are incapable of comprehending truth absolutely (even though I believe there is absolute truth, and that it is most nearly manifested in the life of Jesus of Nazareth.) This is old hat to those who know me. It’s a central theme of my own identity and ideology. St. Paul wrote, “Now we see as if through a flawed pane of glass” (I Corinthians 13:12 ~ my paraphrase). I have not yet attained the certitude necessary to contradict St. Paul.
In his Nobel Prize offering, Profiles in Courage, John F. Kennedy wrote, 
“It is compromise that prevents each set of reformers—the wets and the drys, the one-worlders and the isolationists, the vivisectionists and the anti-vivisecionists—from crushing the group on the extreme opposite end of the political spectrum. The fanatics and extremists, and even those conscientiously devoted to hard and fast principles are always disappointed at the failure of their governments to rush to implement all of their principles and to denounce those of their opponents. But the legislator has some responsibility to conciliate those opposing forces within his state and party and to represent them in the larger clash of interests on the national level; and he alone knows that there are few if any issues where all the truth and all the right and all the angels are on one side.”[2]
The reality of serving the public is that the public will present contradicting, even conflicting demands. For example, Kennedy recalls consecutive constituent conferences, the first of which was with some businessmen who were asking him to affect the removal of a federal agency that was competing with their businesses, and the second of which was with employees of that federal agency, who were seeking his influence to protect their jobs. Kennedy used this example to illustrate his case for the necessity of compromise.
Given my background in evangelical Christianity, I, too, tend to steer away from compromise whenever possible; however, such is not a rigid principle or rule for me. As in the issue of spanking children, it’s not so much that I oppose it (although I do, for the reason immediately following), as that I find much more effective ways of disciplining children. Likewise, in many cases, perhaps in most cases of conflict, I think there is a better solution than compromise. In compromise, one side, or all sides, give up something in order to obtain something of higher value. Quid pro quo.
But what if both sides could meet their needs without giving up anything? As a consultant in conflict resolution, I frequently have seen that happen.
I don’t believe in unsolvable problems. In most conflicts that appear unsolvable, the problem usually is that the problem is being defined in terms of solutions. A more effective approach is to define the problem in terms of needs. 
In the example from Kennedy’s book, the local merchants defined the problem as a need to remove competition, while the employees of the federal agency saw the problem as one of job security. The merchants put forth a proposed solution (get rid of the competing agency), while the employees defined their need.
In a hypothetical extension of the conversation, the merchants might have been more persuasive had they identified their need for a sustainable profit margin. Eliminating the competition is one reasonable solution; however, to attain that solution is to take away the source of income from those who are employed by the competition.
As a consultant, I would have both side generate possible solutions to the need for a sustainable profit margin. Some examples might include investing in a more effective marketing system, engaging more visibly in the life of the community, partnering with the competition, etc. 
[Yes, I said “Partnering with the competition.” There’s an old story (unconfirmed) about the Wright brothers approaching the railroad industry with a proposal for partnering. The railroad companies laughed, saying, “We’re not in the airplane business; we’re in the railroad business!”
Within a couple of generations, the railroads were in trouble, losing much of their business to the faster competition. The story’s point is that the railroad industry wrongly defined its purpose as “railroad business,” instead of “transportation business.” 
A part of the recovery of the railroad industry included partnering with the trucking industry to “piggy-back” loads across the country.]
Sometimes compromise is necessary. Sometimes principles need to concede to human need. But, I am convinced that in many cases, concessions are not necessary if the problem or conflict is redefined and raised to a new level.
I have seen it work time after time: in marital relationships, in parent-child relationships, in city government, and in the corporate world. One of my funniest conflict resolution consultations was between a local PTA (I think it’s usually called something else these days) and the teachers of an elementary school. That’s a story for another time.
That’s the way it looks through the flawed glass that is my world view.
Together in the Walk,
Jim


[1] Jimmy Carter, Our Endangered Values: America’s Moral Crisis (New York: Simon & Schuster, 2005), page 30-31.
[2] John F. Kennedy, Profiles in Courage (New York: Harper and Brothers, 1956), page 5.

Thursday, December 28, 2017

My Most Important Recent Read


Gregory Boyd has run the spiritual gamut: from Roman Catholic to atheist to Pentecostal to orthodox Christianity. His theological education includes Yale and Princeton.
Currently, Boyd is Senior Pastor of Woodland Hills Church in St. Paul, Minnesota and is one of the leading spokesmen in the growing Neo-Anabaptism[1] movement, which is based in the tradition of Anabaptism and advocates Christian pacifism and a non-violent understanding of God.
Boyd has also long been known as a leading advocate of open theism.[2] In addition, he is a noted Christian anarchist and is known for his writings on the relationship between Christianity and politics, including his best-selling book The Myth of a Christian Nation: How the Quest for Political Power Is Destroying the Church. The book was written after the New York Times published a front-page cover article on Boyd's criticism of the Christian right.[3] In 2010, Boyd was listed as one of the twenty most influential living Christian scholars.
The excerpt that follows is perhaps the most important few paragraphs I’ve read in a long, long time! It comprises the last few pages of the third chapter of Boyd’s book, The Myth of a Christian Nation. Aside from some deletions (indicated) it is presented verbatim.[4]

CONSERVATIVES AND LIBERALS WITHIN THE SAME KINGDOM 
Jesus would simply not allow the world to set the terms of his engagement with the world. This explains how (and perhaps why) he could call Matthew, a tax collector, as well as Simon, a zealot, to be his disciples (Matt. 10:3 – 4). Tax collectors were on the farthest right wing of Jewish politics, zealots on the farthest left wing. To compare them to, say, Ralph Nader and Rush Limbaugh wouldn’t come close. In fact, historical records indicate that the zealots despised tax collectors even more than they despised the Romans, for tax collectors not only paid taxes to support the Roman government (something zealots deplored), but they actually made their living collecting taxes from other Jews on Rome’s behalf . Even worse, tax collectors often enhanced their income by charging more than was due and keeping the difference. For this reason, zealots sometimes assassinated tax collectors! 
Yet Matthew and Simon spent three years together ministering alongside Jesus. No doubt they had some interesting fireside chats about politics. But what is positively amazing is that they ministered together with Jesus to advance the kingdom of God. Just as interesting, we never find a word in the Gospels about their different political opinions. Indeed, we never read a word about what Jesus thought about their radically different kingdom-of-the-world views. 
What this silence suggests is that, in following Jesus, Matthew and Simon had something in common that dwarfed their individual political differences in significance, as extreme as these differences were. This silence points to the all-important distinctness of the kingdom of God from every version of the kingdom of the world. To be sure, Jesus’ life and teachings would undoubtedly transform the trust both had in their political views if they would allow it. At the very least, as the reign of God took hold in their lives, the tax collector would no longer cheat his clients and the zealot no longer kill his opponents. Yet Jesus invited them both to follow him as they were, prior to their transformation, and their widely divergent political views were never a point of contention with Jesus [emphasis mine]. 
What are we to make, then, of the fact that the evangelical church is largely divided along political lines? The Christian position is declared to be Matthew’s among conservatives, Simon’s among liberals. While Jesus never sided with any of the limited and divisive kingdom-of-the-world options routinely set before him, the church today, by and large, swallows them hook, line, and sinker. Indeed, in some circles, whether conservative or liberal, taking particular public stands on social, ethical, and political issues, and siding with particular political or social ideologies, is the litmus test of one’s orthodoxy. In many quarters, individuals and groups with different opinions about which version of the kingdom of the world is best don’t have friendly fireside chats. If they communicate at all, it’s shouting across picket lines![5] 
What this suggests is that the church has been co-opted by the world. To a large degree, we’ve lost our distinct kingdom-of-God vision and abandoned our mission. We’ve allowed the world to define us, set our agenda, and define the terms of our engagement with it. We’ve accepted the limited and divisive kingdom-of-the-world options and therefore mirror the kingdom-of-the-world conflicts. Because of this, we have not sought wisdom from above (James 3:17), the wisdom Jesus consistently displayed that would help us discern a unique kingdom-of-God approach to issues to empower our moving beyond the stalemates and tit-for-tat conflicts that characterize the kingdom of the world. Instead, we’ve made these conflicts our own as we fight with each other over “the Christian” option.
We have lost the simplicity of the kingdom of God and have largely forsaken the difficult challenge of living out the kingdom. We have forgotten, if ever we were taught, the simple principle that the kingdom of God looks like Jesus and that our sole task as kingdom people is to mimic the love he revealed on Calvary. We have to a large degree gone AWOL on the kingdom of God, allowing it to be reduced to a religious version of the world. The world supplies the options, and in direct contradiction to Jesus’ example, we think it’s our job to pronounce which one God thinks is right.

A DIFFICULT SIMPLICITY 
Our central job is not to solve the world’s problems. Our job is to draw our entire life from Christ and manifest that life to others. Nothing could be simpler—and nothing could be more challenging. Perhaps this partly explains why we have allowed ourselves to be so thoroughly co-opted by the world. It’s hard to communicate to a prostitute her unsurpassable worth by taking up a cross for her, serving her for years, gradually changing her on the inside, and slowly winning the trust to speak into her life (and letting her speak into our life, for we too are sinners). Indeed, this sort of Calvary-like love requires one to die to self. 
It is much easier, and more gratifying, to assume a morally superior stance and feel good about doing our Christian duty to vote against “the sin of prostitution” [emphasis mine].
Perhaps this explains why many evangelicals spend more time fighting against certain sinners in the political arena than they do sacrificing for those sinners. But Jesus calls us and empowers us to follow his example by taking the more difficult, less obvious, much slower, and more painful road—the Calvary road. It is the road of self-sacrificial love. 
When we adopt this distinct kingdom-of-God stance, everything changes. While living in the kingdom of the world, of course, we still wrestle with tax and inheritance issues. And we should do so as decently and as effectively as possible. But our unique calling as kingdom people is not to come up with God’s opinion of the right solution to these issues. Our unique calling is simply to replicate Christ’s sacrificial love in service to the world.
When we return to the simplicity and difficulty of the kingdom of God, the question that defines us is no longer, “What are the Christian policies and candidates?” No, when love is placed above all kingdom-of-the-world concerns (Col. 3:14; 1 Peter 4:8), the kingdom-of-the-world options placed before us dwindle in significance—as much as Matthew’s and Simon’s fireside opinions were dwarfed in significance by their common allegiance to Jesus. For we, like Matthew and Simon know that the one question we are commanded to wrestle with is this: “How do we love like Christ loves?” Or to ask the same question in different ways: “How do we communicate to others the unsurpassable worth they have before God? How can we individually and collectively serve in this particular context? How can we ‘come under’ people here and now? How can we demonstrate Calvary love to every person?” The revolution Jesus came to bring was “a genuinely human one,” as Andre Trocme notes. “People, not principles, were his concern.”[6]
We need not be able to figure out how society should tax its citizens, enforce inheritance laws, or deal with prostitutes. Neither Jesus, nor Paul, nor any New Testament author gave inspired pronouncements about such matters. But that does not prevent us from washing the feet of overly taxed citizens, disgruntled younger brothers, and despised prostitutes. Jesus and the New Testament authors gave plenty of inspired pronouncements about that.


[1] Kevin de Young identifies “the low church, counter-cultural, prophetic-stance-against-empire ethos present in the emergent and evangelical-left conversations (as) a contemporary form of the Anabaptist tradition. [https://www.thegospelcoalition.org/blogs/kevin-deyoung/neo-anabaptists/]
[2] Open Theism is the thesis that, because God loves us and desires that we freely choose to reciprocate His love, He has made His knowledge of, and plans for, the future conditional upon our actions. Though omniscient, God does not know what we will freely do in the future. [http://www.iep.utm.edu/o-theism/]
[3] Goodstein, Laurie (July 30, 2006). "Disowning Conservative Politics, Evangelical Pastor Rattles Flock". The New York Times.
[4] Boyd, Gregory A.. The Myth of a Christian Nation: How the Quest for Political Power Is Destroying the Church (pp. 62-65). Zondervan. Kindle Edition.
[5] Eller’s comment is relevant: “A prime characteristic of worldly politics is its invariable framing of itself as an ‘adversarial contest.’ There has to be a battle. One party, ideology, cause, group, lobby, or power bloc which has designated itself as ‘the Good, the True, and the Beautiful’ sets out to overbear, overwhelm, overcome, overpower, or otherwise impose itself on whatever opposing parties think they deserve the title.” And it is “a power contest among the morally pretentious.” [Vernard Eller, Christian Anarchy: Jesus’ Primacy over the Powers (Grand Rapids, Mich.: Eerdmans, 1987).]

[6] Andre Trocme , Jesus and the Non - Violent Revolution (Farmington, Penn.: The Bruderhof Foundation , 2004 ), p. 132.

Monday, October 16, 2017

To Consider Unity



Are you sick of the belligerence that increasingly characterizes our culture and our way of living and relating? I am. Sadly, there are some who seem to relish the antagonism, and actually to delight in provoking it (“Let’s you and him fight!”).
Sometimes I lose hope of seeing humanity united and cooperating; of seeing people of different persuasions coming together to glean the best from each of their different outlooks, and creating a new reality better than their previously held dogmas.
In recent efforts to understand the roots of the current animosity, I looked to my own discipline: Christian theology and church history. Beginning with Augustine in the 4th century, mainstream Christianity took a discernable turn toward law over grace.
That happens in virtually every movement, religious or otherwise. As entrepreneurial founders begin to age, they tend to become caretakers and defenders of their accomplishments. Thus, begins the paradigm shift from movement to institution.
Each succeeding generation adds to the growing set of rules and procedural codes (as in the Constitution of the United States with its amendments and expanding volumes of interpretive laws and codices).
In the Judaism described in the Bible, the trend reached its zenith in the pharisaism Jesus confronted. In Christian history the penchant for rules over grace maxed out under John Calvin and, later in England, the Puritans.
Oppressed in Europe, the Puritans came to America, and were the dominant socio/religious force in colonial America. Most Christian sects in America reflected the harshness of Puritanism, well into the middle of the twentieth century. During the infamously rebellious 1960s, a secularized[1][1] form of Christianity emerged. It rejected the harsh, judgmental, punitive images of God, in favor of a more Christ-like image.
That “more secularized” movement culminated in the last couple of decades into what some have called the “Emerging Church.” In response, the Calvinist/Puritan-oriented bodies doubled down own their insistence that their image of God, and only their image, was the truth, declaring open season on any who disagreed.
The trouble was, each denomination and sect claimed its own set of rules that defined truth; so, everybody was fighting with everybody, and the “spiritually yearning, institutionally disillusioned public”[2] was leaving the church. In the panic over the loss of members (and offerings), the institutional church ramped up its condemnatory rhetoric, which, in turn, drove still more members and offerings into the streets.
Essentially, the Calvinist/Puritan inflexibility was less about seeking truth, and more about proving that I/We already have the truth. The church generally was seen as issuing an ultimatum; and people (particularly those in the millennial generations) stereotyped all churches as judgmental and unforgiving, and they fled en masse from the model in which they were unable to sense the presence of Jesus.
I developed an hypothesis: Given that through the middle of the twentieth century, American culture generally was molded by some expression of Christianity, and given the generally judgmental and hostile stereotype into which all churches were lumped, it seemed reasonable that the current cultural and political fractiousness were in that mix, somewhere. I still believe there is a level in which that hypothesis is valid.
But the pre-Augustinian church already was divided. Paul’s epistles often address congregational division. Some creeds (the Apostles’ Creed and the Creed of Nicaea) emerged prior to the time of Augustine.
In colonial America the political divisiveness already was so bitter that duels to the death were fought.
So, the search for the origins of our current socio/political enmity is like peeling an onion. For the present, I lean toward considering it to be the nature of broken humanity. Maybe it’s not only what we have become. Maybe humans always have been like this; and we are living out our brokenness, rather than living out Jesus' prayer that his followers would become one, as he and his heavenly father were one (John 17:20-21).
Hard sins linked to sexual immorality or religious heresy notwithstanding, could it be that our primary need for repentance is from the primordial state of human brokenness out of which all other brokenness arises? Are we tinkering with symptoms and ignoring the cause?
Repentance does not require regret or remorse; nor does it necessarily involve penitence or penance. The word means, simply, to turn; essentially, to turn from one way of doing and being to another.
I try to not obsess over things I cannot control. Occasionally I even succeed! I don’t know how to influence the general turn of ideologies toward “us all becoming one.” But I can control how I respond; and I perhaps can influence one or a few persons to consider unity over division. That outlook forms the basis of my own repentance in regard to the focus of this writing.
How about this: evil always needs to be confronted; but, before we mount our white horse and charge into the fray, could we take a bit of time, first, to set aside the temptation to blame everyone but ourselves for the way things are, and to engage, instead, in some tangible act intended to make the world better, if only for a moment; if only for one other person?
If we could start each day planning to act or participate proactively in some constructive activity, before turning to the headlines or (worse) Facebook tirades or Twitter harangues, would a constructive outlook lead to a more effective way of responding to those who disagree with us? It’s at least an attempt to be a part of the solution, rather than the problem.
What is there to lose? Is our current culture of denunciation and vilification leading toward a better world?
That’s the way it looks through the Flawed Glass that is my world view.
Together in the walk,
Jim


[1] Secular, not in rejection of God, Scripture or Christianity, but rather, in rejection of what was deemed a distortion of God, Scripture and Christianity. In other words, a rejection of the institutionalization of Christianity.

[2] A description coined by Thomas G. Bandy in Christian Chaos and other of his writings.