Friday, September 10, 2010

How Jones Got It So Wrong

Pastor Jones reads the Bible wrong.

There's no news in that statement, I know. But it's important for us who follow Jesus to understand what's wrong with his behavior, above and beyond the pragmatics of danger to troops overseas and Christians in majority-Muslim lands.

After all, he is right that he is not strictly responsible for murderous deeds that might be done by others because they are offended.

What's wrong about Jones' behavior is that it doesn't pass the "What Would Jesus Do?" test.

Faced with situations in life that seem to demand a response from us, that has to be our question, even over and above "what does the Bible say?" As we have seen in the media, parts of the Bible can be cherry-picked to support or undermine almost anything; not everything written in the Bible is there for us to emulate! Instead, we who call ourselves "Christ-ians" must read the Bible through a Jesus-lens. What would Jesus do?

Some will point out that Jesus overthrew the money-changers' tables, called the Pharisees white-washed sepulchres and intentionally provoked religious authorities by healing on the Sabbath - over and over again. Jesus was not too meek and mild to be confrontational with untruth and to stage events that got attention so he could make his point! So maybe Quran-burning is possibly something he would do?

But those who say that miss the context: Jesus was provoking his co-religionists, his brothers in heritage and faith, to point out how they had missed the call of God in their own scripture and tradition. What Jesus was doing came not from hatred but love, as his grief-stricken cry on the way into Jerusalem attests. "O Jerusalem, Jerusalem, you who kill the prophets and stone those sent to you, how often I have longed to gather your children together, as a hen gathers her chicks under her wings, but you were not willing." (Matt 23:37)

We don't see Jesus attacking Romans or Samaritans; we don't see him pulling stunts to get attention for his contempt of their ways. Emphatically not; instead we see him encountering, dialoging with, inviting and even healing those outside his religious tradition, that they might discover the love of God...and his call to follow. What Jesus demonstrates for us is a profound respect for people who had no previous access to the way of God. He is to them the epitome of Grace.

In contrast, the Florida preacher demonstrates contempt and gracelessness to a people who can only react with fear. His stunts are calculated not only to inflame radical Muslims, but to whip up reactions that will bring out the worst of American-civic-religion-called-"Christianity" which does not stop to consider what Jesus would do at all. What his actions, statements and contempt display, is that the one he seems to be most concerned with promoting is himself, no matter what his behavior does to the name and glory of God, the message of Jesus, or the safety of others.

What should followers of Jesus do? It seems most appropriate that we call out our co-religionist, our brother, in Jesus' terms: "Woe to you... You shut the kingdom of heaven in men's faces. You yourselves do not enter, nor will you let those enter who are trying to." (Matt 23:13) We ought not be silent (and indeed, many wise Christian voices are being heard today - see this one: What this man represents is not the gospel and there should be no mistake about it. In fact, he is doing what Jesus would NOT do.

But, neither should we indulge contempt toward the man himself:
"Brothers, if someone is caught in a sin, you who are spiritual should restore him gently. But watch yourself, or you also may be tempted." (Gal. 6:1)

This is hard, since our personal embarrassment may be deep! But, what did Jesus do? Jesus accepted dinner invitations from many whose public piety he publicly challenged - for their sake. May our hearts be like his.

Thursday, September 2, 2010

You can't make Jesus an "individualist"

The alarming sight of evangelical celebrities making common cause with Glenn Beck at his rally on Saturday should have been enough to prompt this post.

But today's news of Jerry Falwell, Jr. and Peter Lillback, the president of Westminster Reformed Seminary, appearing on Beck's show make this post necessary.

The gospel is only about individual salvation?
Beck had his guests on to shore up his statement that what Jesus preached was an individual salvation...only. "It's individual salvation. The Lord doesn't call us up, review our salvation and go, 'Ok now hang on just a second. Now serving group number 10!' It's individual. Your church is either for socialist government or the living of the gospel. It's either about God or government," says Beck, according to Christianity Today magazine.

His guests appear, in news accounts, to agree with him - although a careful look at the quotes suggests that they may not have been talking about the same thing.

That's good, because while the Bible certainly teaches us that we each are responsible before God for receiving salvation by faith in Christ, our responsibility as Christians is not "individual" at all - not if that means we just have to keep our own noses clean and each of us is on our own - and that's the whole point of the gospel!

I understand why many evangelicals believe that: my discipleship as a believer began in the kind of churches that unfortunately (and perhaps inadvertently) teach that. It's "Jesus and me...perfect together" to borrow from an old NJ tourism commercial. I used to think that my relationship with Jesus was the beginning and the end of the whole enterprise called Christianity. I got together with other Christians to celebrate it, and to do evangelism and missionary-work (which is mostly evangelistic or there is no point to it), but that was just a) convenient and b) more fun. I learned to disparage churches that seemed to spend their time and assets doing "social work" - I thought they didn't understand that this ship was going down, and the only important work was getting people into the lifeboats: when Jesus came again and destroyed the earth, what point would there be in having made the world a better place, if its inhabitants went to hell?

The problem with seeing the gospel through that lens is that I just didn't know what to do with things Jesus said and did. Why did Jesus begin his ministry quoting Isaiah, "the Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to proclaim good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim freedom for the prisoners, and recovery of sight for the blind, to set the oppressed free, to proclaim the year of the Lord's favor," saying "today this scripture is fulfilled in your hearing"? (Luke 4). Why didn't he just SAY what he came for was to rescue individuals from sin and death (and that's all)?

Why is the Sermon on the Mount the way it is? Many evangelicals understand what Jesus is saying in Matthew 5-7 to be a charge to be a very special community, one in which married people stay married, never commit adultery, give to the needy, pray in secret and don't worry, so that other individuals will want to come to faith in Jesus, too, and have this special individual relationship. And they're not wrong: that is partly what it's about.

But why does Jesus start out talking about the poor being blessed, about the meek and mourning being rewarded? And why, in the whole thing, does Jesus continue to talk to "you" in the plural?

What are all those healings, exorcisms and nature miracles about - why so many? After all, couldn't Jesus have done a couple of healings and miracles as calling cards for his divinity, and then gone straight to the cross to accomplish our salvation? And why did Mary, in her exultant "song" about her call to be the mother of the Lord, declare that what God was doing in it was bringing down rulers, lifting up the humble, filling the hungry with good things and sending the rich away empty?

I confess that I always found some discomfort in reading the gospels, because these things didn't make sense to me - and as I recall, we didn't read the synoptic gospels much at all, and tended to stay in the gospel of John and even more in the epistles, where specific instructions for individuals were more prominent.

It was only later that I learned to see that what Jesus continually talked about was the kingdom of God, and that what he said, and even more, what he did, was about the advance of God's kingdom through him.

When he spoke about being "anointed" at the beginning of his ministry, it was about being anointed King: God's kingdom, his church, was not just a convenient way for all those individual saved people to enjoy one another's company, but it is the whole idea: the kingdom of God is God's people together, and together they are to continue his work - to continue the advance of God's kingdom, in which the poor are blessed, being "set free" is the order of the day for all kinds of bondage: physical, spiritual, financial, social.

Thus we read such stories as the healing of the woman with the issue of blood: her bondage was not just physical, it was also social, and so Jesus set her free from her ailment, but also in a public healing set her free from the ostracism it had brought.

The king is coming back - not just to destroy the earth and rescue the saved, but instead to establish his kingdom in "the new heavens and the new earth," in which the brokenness of the world will be set right.

But is that "social justice"?
OK, fine, but what does that have to do with the "social justice" gospel that Glenn Beck derides and is now getting evangelicals to stand up with him about?

The king is coming, true - but Jesus established the kingdom of God for now, in the church. We are here to do his work - and the kingdom of God, as it advances, sets free. The Bible's view is that the problems of the world are directly linked to the fallenness of the world.

The key word, something we've lost, is "shalom" - in both Hebrew and Greek, the word we translate "peace" means much more: it means wholeness, harmony, well-being. Within the kingdom of God, because of Jesus' coming, death and resurrection, there is supposed to be shalom, the quality of life in the "garden," in paradise - as it was before everything fell. That's what 1 Corinthians 13 is about; that's what all those exhortations in Colossians are about; that's what the Sermon on the Mount is about.

But how can such a "body of Christ" exist within our communities, without reaching out to touch the broken world in which it exists?

Thus Jesus reached out beyond the boundaries of the Jewish community in which he walked, outraging some, by healing and touching Samaritans, gentiles and Roman soldiers. In the same way, Jesus violated the boundaries everyone "knew" about "sinners" - the broken people in their midst who were assumed to have deserved whatever they struggled with; the out-and-out rebellious like the woman caught in adultery and the tax collectors who collaborated with Israel's occupiers. The kingdom of God sets things right - the world will know us by our love. The invasion of the kingdom of God heals and sets free.

OK, but even if that's true, Glenn Beck and I should have no argument with each other, really, right? After all, what he's really concerned about is "government reach" - he denounces social justice because he wants to deride churches who think government programs are good. He really doesn't care if I preach that the church is the point, that individual faith by itself is not enough, or that Christians acting in concert through the church ought to be impacting the brokenness of the world.

The argument is about policy, so let's keep it there
Instead, the real discussion ought to be about democracy. The real question is not about churches but about Americans. And the specific decisions have to do with government's role.

How do Americans want to live together? Do we want to help one another when trouble strikes? Do we want to work together so that when recession comes, there aren't stark winners and losers? When illness strikes, will we help one another? Or do we prefer to live in a community where our ability to survive or thrive when we are on the receiving end of trouble is relative to our connections: if we have family, or church, or enough money, we'll be okay, but if not, well....

What we have inherited from the generations before us are national policies that provide the much heralded and derided "safety net" - there are some fundamental protections in place for all of us, paid for by those of us who can, through the channel of a government of our own making.

Social security, Medicare, Medicaid, disability insurance, unemployment insurance, etc., were policy decisions made by the people Americans voted for to do our business, and because of those things many people who would live in abject poverty do not; many people who would have died prematurely, didn't.

These are not specifically Christian decisions; they were American ones.

And there are two kinds of American arguments going on now about them.

One discussion has to do with pragmatics - costs, structure, taxes, waste and fraud. These arguments have to do with implementing such things well.

But the other argument is about doing these things together at all. Into this argument come voices who proclaim "personal responsibility": those who are in need of these programs have failed to provide properly for themselves, and it is not the responsibility of other Americans to provide for them.

This argument is the radical individualist one, the libertarian one - each of us has radical freedom to make our own choices, and our own mistakes...but if they make us poor or sick, we get what we get. It's no one else's job to save us.

My rejoinder (as an American) is that the pure application of that position would leave us in a world most of us really don't want to live in. In fact, I'd argue that most of those who make that argument are banking on what they perceive to be their own assets - family, community, money, property (even, truth be told, race) - so that if the wolves were at the door, once they ran out of their own assets, they wouldn't be on their own at all.

I suspect that what they really mean is that they are tired to paying the bills for "them" - the people not of their own community or family, the "others" who seem to be sucking up all the resources. It (mostly) goes unsaid, and that way people can picture whatever "them" seems most threatening, whether illegal immigrants, city dwellers, those of other races or ethnicities, or old people.

In the argument in the public square, I'd like to say that the policies enacted in the past - the safety net - makes life much more liveable for all of us, and even provides us with enough security as a culture so that individuals can take the entrepreneurial risks that enrich all of us. I don't want to live in a society without protections that make for softer landings when trouble comes, nor do I want to live in a society where we refuse to care for one another outside of our own little community.

That's the way it looks to me; others, including other Christians, may validly argue another point of view that has to do with policy: better ways to do things as a society.

Those are policy decisions on which we argue, campaign and vote, and our democratic process provides ways for us resolve and implement these issues fairly. Of course, not everyone will get their way, and those who don't, get to campaign another day to capture pubic opinion and see their views implemented.

But you can't draft Jesus into the individualist argument.
But the introduction of an individualist brand of Christianity, which is unbiblical, into the debate which is then fused to individualist politics, must be countered.

There is no Jesus argument against taxes - Jesus paid them, even though there were others in his culture arguing against paying them. Paul specifically enjoins us in Romans to pay them, and honor the emperor, too! One's argument for or against tax increases must be made on policy (because in our form of government, 'we' are the emperor - "of, by and for the people"), not on Bible verses.

There is no Jesus argument against a nation's social decision together to care for all its elderly citizens through a tax - there just isn't, and to counter that if we didn't have social security, the church could do it through charity and thereby bring everyone to Christ, is just silly. That's not a biblical idea, either: it seems to me that what is really being proposed in that argument is that the church will take care of its own elderly (not likely, either) and triumphally declare that it is better than the world around it by doing so.

Do those who argue this way really believe that God is more pleased by their willing abandonment of elderly neighbors than he would be with their joining in a simple tax to care for all our elderly?

And there certainly is no Jesus argument for withdrawing from social programs to care for Americans, so as to keep our money and only care for "our own," however we define that. Jesus throughout the gospels deliberately crossed social lines to demonstrate that God's love didn't obey such boundaries. There is no way that God is pleased with "Christian" arguments that are based on a fear of others.

There is no "them" for the kingdom of God - our enemies are NOT flesh and blood , say the scriptures - when we begin to think they are, we have become useless to the kingdom.

We need to take to heart that old question, "what would Jesus do?" If we call ourselves Jesus-followers, that needs to be the standard. There were many fights going on in the culture of Jesus' day but he refused to be drawn into them, because he, the King of a new kingdom, was already there, and his purpose was being acted out as he healed and set free, and declared the good news of reconciliation with God. That is not to say that we shouldn't be involved politically - again, in our form of government, 'we' are the emperor, and Christians certainly should be represented in that 'we.'

But what we do, even as we participate, needs to look like Jesus. Much of what is being said in the name of Jesus these days in the public square, does not.

Wednesday, July 7, 2010

Science, religion and truth - "climategate"

Stuck in traffic this morning, I wound up listening to a report on BBC World News on the subject of "climategate" - the issue is whether or not the science reporting on climate change is being manipulated to support a particular point of view. Briefly, last year, stolen emails from East Anglia University in England seemed to reveal a skewing of results in order to support the argument that human activity is warming the planet; another report this week concluded that the science is sound that seems to conclude that our actions are having that effect, regardless of the point of view revealed in the emails..
This morning's broadcast featured two spokesmen: a climate change skeptic and a supporter of the theory, who dialogued with the host. Afterwards, the host invited comment from the audience via email, and then read some of them.
What prompts this post was the question asked, and one of the answers: the question was something like, "do you trust scientists to tell you the truth about these matters?" And one comment was something like, "Of course I trust scientists; their work has brought us so much knowledge and technology. Who else would I trust? Religion? I don't think so."
It was just an exchange on the radio, but what a false dichotomy was set up! And as a spokesperson for "religion" (I guess!), I feel like I have to say that what was posed isn't really the question, and thus the answer doesn't make any sense.
The real question is, can you trust people?
Scientists are people, and there are virtuous scientists who work hard to do honest science: to propose a theory, to test it, to publish their results and allow others to try to replicate their tests and results, and together as a body of scientists come to some new knowledge. In the best of situations, that's how science is supposed to work.
But people (scientists and religionists both), the gospel tells me, are both glorious and flawed.
That we are able to come up with a way to learn from nature, to propose theories, to come up with ways to test them, to work together with others and to expand knowledge to benefit ourselves and the planet, is a manifestation of the image of God within us. As is our capacity to love, to create beauty, to organize society and culture, to develop medicine and to make marvelous machines.
But the flaw is that we are all, scientists included, liable to be tempted - to cheat, to manipulate, to do things the easy way or to boost a cause over and above science (or religion!), or just to please ourselves. It isn't even as easy as saying that there are "good" scientists or "bad" scientists - while there may be some "bad scientists" who have no intention of pursuing their business virtuously, most of the time, there are just people, capable of things done in the image of God, and easily just as capable of sin.
And "religious" people have the same problem - we may manifest the glory of God, or we may manipulate the power or control or image of religion to boost a cause or to please ourselves.
Or, in either case, we may be easily manipulated by someone else to boost their cause, who will persuade us that what we are being led into is True Science or True Religion (or True Patriotism, for example).
What the gospel teaches us is not that religion is true and science isn't (or vice versa); rather, we are all capable of falling. The gospel calls us into a true understanding of ourselves, into confession and repentance, into prayer and submission to the word of God, so as to avoid falling into sin (and let us not omit saying that the very first step of the gospel is to enter into relationship with the God who made us, through Jesus!).
But because of what the gospel has taught us, we have sometimes been wise enough to set up safeguards, "checks and balances," within science, within religion, and every other field. We have protected the right of free speech, and the press, for just such a purpose: getting into East Anglia's emails (though there may have been a more righteous way to do it!) is not bad. Uncovering manipulation in science or any other field is helpful for everyone, including the scientists involved. Such pressure keeps our minds on doing our job virtuously, no matter what it is.
At the same time, the gospel teaches us not to be so surprised, nor to completely condemn - after all, we are all fallible. It would be nice to see those who identify themselves as Christians be as open to the follow-up report that the science is sound, as they were gleeful to hear about the original emails. We are, in the end, still stewards of this planet - we should be interested in the truth, no matter where it goes. If we will not receive the truth because we are in bed with energy companies who financially support our causes, then in fact we are doing the same thing the scientists of East Anglia were accused of doing.
"Surely you desire truth in the inner parts; you teach me wisdom in the inmost place," says Psalm 51:6. God is less interested in our horse trading for causes, than in our righteousness. We all must be mindful of our capacity to be co-opted, manipulated and to fall, so that we are no longer operating out of the image of God and the power of the Holy Spirit, but instead have become shadows of those things while we pursue our own or someone else's agenda. What we become then is a twisted version of the image of God.
The result, when that happens, is that the watchful world says, "religion? I don't think so."

Monday, May 24, 2010

Have you ever noticed that people who habitually tell lies, are likely to assume they're being lied to?
I've been surprised sometimes, when someone responds to me as though I'm not credible - it's not that I have such high esteem for myself, it's just that my default position is to believe people! And because I am in the habit of honesty, it never occurs to me to worry that someone thinks I'm lying to them.
So on the few occasions when I've run up against someone who views me with suspicion, I've been bewildered - until I remember what I've learned: we expect from others pretty much what we extend to them. So if you'd lie in similar circumstances, you think everyone else is.

In John 8, Jesus was pretty harsh with a group of folks - he told them that they were like "their father the devil," who is the father of lies - indeed, lying is his native language, he told them. It's not immediately clear in the passage WHY he speaks to them like this, except that they apparently are not willing to go the whole way as his disciples - he seems to be telling that that believing him while not "holding to his teaching" isn't enough.
It seems to me that lying is a way of holding myself back from others - it's a way of seeking control, and I wonder if these people Jesus is talking to want to control what relationship they have with Jesus - what they want is to determine how far they will go with Jesus, and no further. Only so much weirdness, Jesus. Not sure if I am willing to believe everything you have said about yourself; not sure I'm willing to do all of what you've taught us is your way. But I'd still like to hang around the edges....
Jesus accuses them of wanting to kill him! Of course, Jesus knows what they are really thinking - and I wonder if standing at a distance, giving oneself permission to tell Jesus just how far he can go, is to stand with the killers rather than the believers in the end - and we know that there were indeed those who were out to kill him.
Are they are accusing Jesus because of their own habits, rather than his? Are they are the ones who stand aloof from God and are used by evil, rather than the other way around?

That makes me think about yesterday - Pentecost - and the scriptures in Acts 2 that narrate that strange event of wind, fire and tongues-speaking. I almost preached on these verses, the reactions in the crowd which gathered at the spectacle: "They stood there amazed and perplexed. 'What can this mean?' they asked each other. But others in the crowd ridiculed them, saying, 'They’re just drunk, that’s all!'" (Acts 2:12-13)
Some were amazed: they take in what they are seeing and know that this out-of-the-ordinary thing is significant. Maybe they are the ones who will be ready to believe what Peter is about to tell them about what is going on. Perhaps they know the scriptures from Joel that he quotes, and they will get it, that this is what God had promised them long ago - his presence, "in their midst."
Some were perplexed - they didn't know what to make of it. They wanted more information. They knew they didn't have categories in their heads for what was happening and they were puzzling over it. It's not that they didn't believe or refused to accept - they just didn't know what to do with this experience.
But some jeered. Their default position is to refuse. Whatever this is, since I have never seen it before and don't know what it is, it is important that I put it down, and push it away. "They're just drunk." I don't know how to receive this criticism except to think, "it takes one to know one" - why on earth would this be their first reaction, except that like liars who think everyone lies, drunkards think everyone else is drunk?

Whether or not that is the case, it seems to me one way in which the Lord wants us to grow, is not to so easily dismiss. The polarities in our culture make us feel like we belong to "our group" by quickly dismissing the claims of the "other" group, by vilifying them and making sure to assign nefarious motives. It is a position that has no compassion, and I am afraid it reveals what is going on in our own hearts (or our own group's culture): if we assume they are out to hoodwink us, is that because we've been pretty busy trying to spin things ourselves? If we assume they say what they say because of who is paying for it, is that because our group speaks loudest for the interests of those who pay our bills?

Jesus challenges this group he's talking to in John 8 to hold to his teaching, to go "whole hog" for him - to be, as the politics of our times say, "in the tank" for him. Jesus said if we do that, we'll be set free! We need to be careful to check our thoughts, assumptions and reactions against his every day, because it is so easy to transfer our allegiance and begin holding ourselves back from him, because the father of lies is always at his work. The suspicion that then grows in our hearts is the very thing that keeps us from hearing his voice, and rather than making us free, it enslaves us again to sin.