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

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.