reflecting a bit on America: shades of gray (no, don’t even think about bringing down the Washington Monument, etc.)

This is the fourth of July, and if you’re going to read only one blog post today, settle in on this one from Brian Zahnd, I Love You, America, But Not Like That.

There is no doubt to me that another part of the reckoning due to the enslavement and mistreatment of Africans has come for America. We are in a day when  some would see the dismantling of all of America’s cultural landmarks. Almost the entire tent coming down to be replaced with something else.

There’s no doubt that great evil was done, and that the founding father’s blindness or acceptance of slavery is plain downright wrong. There is no gray in that. And as George Will pointed out in his most recent (outstanding) book, The Conservative Sensibility, there would be no United States apart from the slavery which under girded it, and gave founding fathers the time to hammer out the foundation of this nation.

What we need to keep in mind is the whole. Not excusing any part that is wrong and actually downright evil. But remembering what was good. I shouldn’t neglect to mention the other part of what’s called America’s original sin: the stealing and killing of native Americans, “Indians.” Both African-Americans and native Americans suffer to this day.

Without trying to cover everything that should be, I just want to point out here that we need to see life as it truly is. I love biographies that are not hagiographies, but try to tell it, warts and all. That’s one thing among many others that I love about the Bible. It doesn’t try to hide the blemishes, blotches, and indeed complete failures of characters. A great case in point is David, said to be a man after God’s own heart no less. But his actions when you read the account we’re not altogether good. And what he did in the case of Bathsheba and Uriah were downright evil. But do we dismiss and diss David? No we don’t. It’s not like the bad part is forgotten, because it’s not, and shouldn’t be.

Looking at American history, I can still respect men like George Washington and Thomas Jefferson. Instead of just seeing their flaws, I can acknowledge their good points, and greatness in some respects. Ironically holding to ideals on paper, not lived out entirely in their lives.

Again, this is not to excuse what’s wrong, or say what’s past is past while failing to see the many ramifications and realities which live on to this day.

So let’s not bring down the Washington Monument, or the Jefferson Memorial, etc. If anything is idolatrous then yes, that ought to come down. But let’s leave memorials like what I just mentioned intact. We should not even be considering removing them. I’m not referring to monuments that honor those who rebelled against the United States, the Confederacy, etc. They ought to be moved into museums, no longer to be honored in public squares. We can set up with our iconic memorials, new works that remember what Africans had to endure, and the great contributions African-Americans have made to this nation. As well as memorialize the good native Americans have done.

God have mercy if any of our lives are looked at strictly in terms of good and evil. For some there is great evil, other’s great good, but for all, there’s some mixture, so that there’s a certain shade of gray. As we Christians look to the one light of the world, Jesus, to expose our own spiritual darkness, and all the spiritual darkness around us, for the good of all. In and through Jesus.

what makes the difference in the Christian life? (not politics)

“And now, compelled by the Spirit, I am going to Jerusalem, not knowing what will happen to me there. I only know that in every city the Holy Spirit warns me that prison and hardships are facing me. However, I consider my life worth nothing to me; my only aim is to finish the race and complete the task the Lord Jesus has given me—the task of testifying to the good news of God’s grace.

Acts 20:22-24

A cursory reading of Paul and his ministry makes it evident that the gospel is the heart and soul of what he was about. And it is clearly evident that Christians share in that, Philippians 1 along with the rest of that letter being a clear example.

When we read the Old Testament prophets (Isaiah, Amos, etc.) along with the rest of the Bible, it becomes clear that justice in terms of the love and righteousness of God’s will in totally loving God, and loving one’s neighbor as one’s self is front and center. It is not something on the side that we can get to if we are so inclined, or find the time, while simply evangelizing, getting people “saved” takes up the bulk of our time. No. Evangelizing and discipling involve inculcating people in the reality of God’s love and truth, the witness of the gospel, the good news in Jesus being made clear in the church itself in the forgiveness of sins and the new life found in Jesus.

Fastforward to the United States today, and politics. You find good people divided on virtually anything and everything, including Christians. But guess what? Jesus’s heart beat is not Democrat, Republican, Libertarian, Progressive, Conservative, whatever. No. It’s God’s grace and God’s kingdom come in him. It’s essentially his own heart beat given as a gift to us by the Holy Spirit. So that in love we can live past whatever differences we have with each other, as hard as that might be at times.

When we buy into something less than that, then we’re into idolatry, pure and simple. Our passion, our heart beat, and frankly how we evaluate everything comes from God in Christ and the good news in him. We’re to do it in all humility and love. Not simply dissing the significant importance of earthly politics in its place. But knowing that what we have goes beyond that, so that ironically it can impact it in a heavenly way. Being heavenly-minded so that we can be of earthly good. But living through and for Jesus and the gospel. In and through him.

divisive issues and the Christian witness

The cultural divide in the United States seems to be expanding with little or no hope for any meaningful bridging of the gap. Not that Christians should regard that as a chief concern since our calling is to be a witness of Jesus by the way we live, what we do and say. We live in the present time in a kind of exilic state, citizens of heaven, but “resident aliens” on earth, yet praying and hoping for the good of the nations in which we reside (Jeremiah 29), certainly more than a tall task in some places, yet part of our calling.

Those who say experience should override the intellect, or something of the like are themselves making an intellectual proposition. There ought to be a commitment to a reasoning process which includes civil conversation in debate over the issues. And that means all the issues.

The Christian appeal, as Dallas Willard pointed out somewhere in a much more substantial way is to the intellect. I don’t know how Scripture can have such a central, foundational place in the Christian tradition, and anyone think otherwise. After all it is the written words certainly appealing to us as humans through the intellect. That is, if we take it seriously.

I think today’s climate is toxic, not to mention divisive. Christians need to be present in complete humility, willing to learn, but also stating a case made through a disciplined commitment to the study of Scripture, and of life, which of course would include history and philosophy, and whatever else. We should gently and humbly make our case.

Our primary calling to the point that I would simply call it our calling is to the gospel. We are witnesses of it, either good or bad. Our lives either show or fail to show the light of God in Christ. That is what we ought to be known for. Even as we listen and speak out in testimony to the truth as we understand it, and as it stands in Jesus.

politics and love for neighbor

On one occasion an expert in the law stood up to test Jesus. “Teacher,” he asked, “what must I do to inherit eternal life?”

“What is written in the Law?” he replied. “How do you read it?”

He answered, “‘Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your strength and with all your mind’; and, ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’”

“You have answered correctly,” Jesus replied. “Do this and you will live.”

But he wanted to justify himself, so he asked Jesus, “And who is my neighbor?”

Luke 10:25-29

Without getting into the politics and technicalities (philosophy, etc.) of everything, since it’s really more complicated than what many people on different sides make it out to be, I want to press home what should be our chief consideration as Christians when it comes to politics. I’m assuming that you like most Christians have some interest in it, from at least considering voting, to actual participation in the process.

Love for God and for neighbor should trump every other concern. It’s not like we shouldn’t take care of our own, but that we should use the freedom we have to help others. Of course that includes the unborn, the war torn refugee, the down and out- the homeless, etc., etc.

Jesus tells the parable of the good Samaritan to press home the teaching that we’re to be a neighbor to whoever is in trouble. That we’re to show them love by being present for them to bind up their wounds and take care of their needs so that they can recover.

At the heart of Christianity is a devoted love for God and for our neighbor as ourselves. It’s not just about how well we are. It’s about others flourishing, also. Only Jesus can help any of us be well. We as Christians seek to be present in Jesus for each other, and for others. We should want to be a neighbor to everyone.

For the Christian, the church is where the life of Christ is present and where we’re commissioned to be a witness to the good news in Jesus, and to do good works. What moves us  is not in a political party or candidate of this world. It’s only Jesus. Not to say good as well as evil isn’t done by political parties and candidates. But that our work is in Jesus with the distinctive of love for God and neighbor.

getting a grip on the world’s disorder

If you would like to get upset and out of sorts, then turn on a news channel, or go to news sites online. Even from those trying to get facts straight from whatever perspective or bias they have, there’s plenty to get worked up with nowadays. And this is true no matter what our understanding might be, however we might understand various issues.

I think we do well to turn to the entire Bible, and specifically the Old Testament Hebrew prophets. I think of Isaiah, which we might say in its own shape is kind of a miniature Bible in itself. And the relatively short book of the prophet Habakkuk might especially fit well into the current time, though it surely speaks to every time.

Habakkuk was complaining about the disorder of his day, the order for him surely being God’s shalom, meaning the flourishing under God’s rule meant for God’s people to display to the world. Instead Israel’s leaders were disrupting God’s order for their own gain, of course against God’s kingdom priorities, like caring for the poor and oppressed.

So God was going to use a new order which wasn’t at all like the kingdom order of God. The Babylonians were actually a law unto themselves, hammering one kingdom after another, and scoffing at every ruler and god, even at God himself. And yet God was using them. This was indeed troubling to Habakkuk, who didn’t know what to make of it as we see from the book, surely not liking it, either.

I think we need to settle down in our seats with open Bible in hand, and simply let the prophets speak to us in this day and age. If we hold to the Scriptural teaching that God’s sovereign reign is in some way over all, that God is at work in the mess of the world, surely that ought to help us to settle down and get a grip on our own emotions, as we learn to rest in trust in God. That seems to have been what happened to Habakkuk over the course of the book, as we see in his song of resolute trust in and praise of God at the end.

We do need a change of mind for sure, the right thoughts to enter in, before a change of heart, which we mean emotional can settle in. We begin to understand that whatever disorder and order in the world we see contrary to God’s kingdom does not mean that God is not at work. In ways we couldn’t have imagined and wouldn’t have planned, God can be at work. That doesn’t mean what the Babylonians were doing was good, even as Scripture tells us. And God was going to hold them accountable. But God was indeed using them in his transcendent wisdom.

Read the book of Habakkuk and let it soak in. We don’t need to get all worked up and bent out of shape over the news. God is in charge; we’re not. We should pray for government officials and be good citizens. And above all be witnesses of God’s good and perfect kingdom now present and to fully come in and through Jesus.

why I am leaving all partisan politics behind

It’s not my calling. It’s not where I find joy. I dislike the rancor that attends it. And good friends and those close to me disagree.

Issues I will touch on, but in a way which hopefully like our church deftly does, won’t cross the line of partisan politics.

Our Christian calling indeed touches all of life. But many matters are not determined from Scripture. Instead we have principles to work through.

I tend to step into controversial areas. But it’s almost like there’s two sides of me. One is willing to take stands which are unpopular or might be misunderstood, with the hope of persuading. The other part of me wants to find common ground and get along with others, and not stir the waters. I find that seeking to follow Christ and be true to the gospel is difficult enough without adding another burden, which in and of itself I would never want to give my life to.

I made this statement earlier, but for understandable if not good reasons, broke it. But now I’m determined to stay on the straight and narrow. That will be challenging and difficult enough in itself. To add on partisan politics is too much for me. The goal: to remain in the one politic that is now present and will last forever, but not in terms of the politics of this world, yet for this world. In and through Jesus.

when our witness is more or less linked to an American (or any other) political identity (of this world)

At that time some Pharisees came to Jesus and said to him, “Leave this place and go somewhere else. Herod wants to kill you.”

He replied, “Go tell that fox, ‘I will keep on driving out demons and healing people today and tomorrow, and on the third day I will reach my goal.’ In any case, I must press on today and tomorrow and the next day—for surely no prophet can die outside Jerusalem!

“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, and you were not willing. Look, your house is left to you desolate. I tell you, you will not see me again until you say, ‘Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord.’”

Luke 13:31-35

There’s a crisis in my nation among evangelicals concerning our witness. And we have no clue, because we’re doing what we’ve always done, at least what I’ve witnessed my entire life. The same mistake Billy Graham made, and acknowledged as a mistake later. We’re taking sides politically, and I mean in terms of this world. We’re already in the one politic that will last forever, that of God’s kingdom and grace come in King Jesus. But that’s evidently not good enough for us, or not enough.

I believe we’re harming our witness. Consider this article in National Review, a conservative publication. It’s one thing to hold your nose and vote one way or another. It’s another thing to embrace any politician or party as our own. Yes, we are concerned about issues, with our different perspectives. And we want to pray for our leaders, for their governing, and for their own temporal and eternal good.

When people think of us they shouldn’t think about any political party or politician. They should think something like: “Oh, those are the people, or that’s a person who follows Jesus, whom they consider a king, bringing into this world a different life, which ultimately some day is to bring in nothing short of a new world order when he is supposed to return.” Instead, what do they think?

It’s not that we should be worrying about what the world thinks. It’s all about a concern for our witness, and what our Lord thinks. That must be our passion, and nothing else in comparison. In and through Jesus.

Let me add this belated statement. This is not a blanket condemnation or rejection of high profile evangelical leaders who have erred in my view. Not at all. Surely they have all done much good. But we’re to support accountability among ourselves in our churches and in the church at large, which I’m attempting to do here.

 

the Christian relation to the state within the politics of Jesus (now in the era of Obama/Trump)

[Jesus] replied, “Go tell that fox, ‘I will keep on driving out demons and healing people today and tomorrow, and on the third day I will reach my goal.’

Luke 13:32

I am amazed at how Christians where I live, in the United States line up with political parties and candidates. I’m not referring at all here to how one votes one way or another. Only how easily enamored or at enmity Christians can be toward political figures. We live in the era of Obama/Trump, and the polarization in the United States is probably greater than any time since the Civil War.

Sadly, I think we Christians are contributing to this mess. We ought to be those who speak truth to power. I personally liked Obama, but didn’t like all his policies, such as the use of drones. And I think what’s to be expected in a nation state is not at all the same as what is required in the church. Too often people conflate that, thinking somehow that America should be Christian through and through. But that’s never really been the case. While there’s been a strong Christian influence present, many other factors figure into the United States right from its outset, not the least of which is the Modernist Enlightenment.

I think white nationalism awakened when Obama was elected, and continues to grow in influence during the time of Trump. Just judged on Trump’s words alone, he is narcissist to a strong degree. It always seems all about him and loyalty to him. If you’re concerned for the good of the United States and what it’s supposed to stand for, you ought to go back and study George Washington, then compare that to Donald Trump. I can understand why Christians vote for Trump based on policy while disliking much that is evident in his character. After all, it’s not like other politicians haven’t had serious faults. But it’s another matter when Christians defend Trump and his character, seeing him as a great champion who they defend, glossing over his faults with excuses, or simply seemingly ignoring them altogether. I like Roger Olson’s point (see link later) that since he’s a “fallibilist,” he may be altogether mistaken, that his similar view of Trump (along with many others) may be mistaken, though he doesn’t think so. I will add that we need to pray for Trump and all in positions of government authority, and hope for the better.

As Christians we should not be in lock step with any politician or political party. We are of one Lord: Jesus, and thus to be committed to one political party only: that of God’s kingdom come and now present in Jesus. That politics should impact how we see the politics of the world. And when it does, Christians should be wary of any party, and never defend everything any one politician says or thinks.

Where are our core commitments? I am for the United States, really for all nations, but particularly for the US of which I’m a citizen. But my complete loyalty is only to our Lord Jesus, and God’s kingdom in him. But that doesn’t mean I can’t be a good citizen of the United States. It only means that my earthly citizenship is transcended by my heavenly citizenship which therefore impacts how I think about all of life, including the politics down here.

God’s kingdom in Jesus is now present in the church, and awaits it’s full unveiling and rule when heaven and earth become one at Christ’s return. Until then as those in Christ we’re called to be humbly faithful as witnesses to the one good news in Jesus. And seeing everything else in light of that. In and through Jesus.

(A number of theologians have influenced me over the years. Roger Olson’s recent post is probably echoed here more than I might realize. I never write meaning to state something as if it originated from me when it didn’t. And to the extent I’ve ever unwittingly done that in past years I’m genuinely repentant and want to be more careful while at the same time recognizing I only write what I truly believe, my own convictions even if under the direct influence of someone else. David C. Cramer’s recent post as well which is echoed at least in the Scripture passage, another scholar whose work I consider valuable. Add to that the recent talk I heard from Khary Bridgewater which influenced this post.

I’m reluctant to get into politics at all, and I don’t care to get into partisan politics. I believe partisan politics should never become a priority with believers. We can talk about issues and often agree to disagree. What has to remain central to us is our calling to live in and be witnesses to God’s good news in Jesus.)

developing an awareness of and sensitivity to systemic evil

There are those who hate the one who upholds justice in court
and detest the one who tells the truth.

You levy a straw tax on the poor
and impose a tax on their grain.
Therefore, though you have built stone mansions,
you will not live in them;
though you have planted lush vineyards,
you will not drink their wine.
For I know how many are your offenses
and how great your sins.

There are those who oppress the innocent and take bribes
and deprive the poor of justice in the courts.
Therefore the prudent keep quiet in such times,
for the times are evil.

Seek good, not evil,
that you may live.
Then the Lord God Almighty will be with you,
just as you say he is.
Hate evil, love good;
maintain justice in the courts.
Perhaps the Lord God Almighty will have mercy
on the remnant of Joseph.

Therefore this is what the Lord, the Lord God Almighty, says:

“There will be wailing in all the streets
and cries of anguish in every public square.
The farmers will be summoned to weep
and the mourners to wail.
There will be wailing in all the vineyards,
for I will pass through your midst,”
says the Lord.

Amos 5:10-17

We are very much aware of the evil of abortion. The supposed woman’s right to choose. What about the evil of “white privilege?” The only ones unaware of that are many of us whites who don’t face what African-Americans face here on a daily basis. And then there’s the poor. Yes, there are programs to help them, and of course we should do what we can as well. But all too often the system is stacked against them. Like being hired in places not full time, and not much over minimum wage. So that they are on their own as far as healthcare. And if you make a bit too much, you’re not covered. And often the poor don’t do what’s considered basic healthcare such as a biannual or even annual trip to the dentist, not to mention an annual checkup with a doctor. Supposedly healthcare is something people should figure out themselves, not provided as in every other first world nation. Not to mention that they don’t have a living wage. Of course everyone has to be held accountable, and there are no easy answers for everything. And climate change caused by human consumption, greed, misplaced values impacts especially poor nations and the poor.

I consider all of this, and there’s surely more, as nothing less than systemic evil. I’m tired of government being considered evil. And corporations are not? Please. They sold us down the river during the last recession, and we had to bail them out. Main Street bailing out Wall Street with taxes. And our nation continues to spiral into further and further debt funding the military with more money than the next several nations combined. So that the national debt it has to pay will soon exceed what is spent on the military. And yet we don’t have enough funds to provide needed healthcare to the poor and middle class, the latter losing their homes sometimes because they became ill or have some disease, lost their job, and didn’t have adequate healthcare insurance, which by the way, they couldn’t well afford in the first place.

All of this is chalked down to politics and then summarily dismissed. But it’s not at all about politics. And as far as I’m concerned the Democrats overall are just as guilty as the Republicans. I don’t even care to get into the political aspect of it, with all the finger pointing, and white washing that goes on. Washington is broken no doubt. And government with the political impasse is in crisis.

But that’s in a way neither here nor there with me. What we as Christians need to address in word and deed insofar as we can along with much prayer are matters that have to do with loving our neighbors as ourselves. And loving our enemies as well, by the way. But Jesus was talking to his disciples, to be sure.

It is all messy, what to make of what’s going on, and trying to figure out just what our role should be as Christians, and as the church in relation to the state. It’s a tall order. But we shouldn’t be shy at expressing our thoughts and concerns. We shouldn’t be known as either Democrats, Republicans, conservatives, progressives, liberals, or whatnot. When people look at us they should have trouble pinning us down in ways like that. But they should know that whatever our mistakes, we are committed followers of Christ, and the church, not at all subservient to the state. Except to pray for government leaders, pay taxes, participate in the democratic process as we’re led to, as we choose, and wish the best for everyone.

We can’t cut the prophets out of scripture, in so doing cutting a large part of Jesus out, too. We must echo them. But always in love, along with justice and mercy always together. As we pray for God’s kingdom to come, and his will to be done on earth as it is in heaven. In and through Jesus.

politics and the Christian

Then the Pharisees went out and laid plans to trap him in his words. They sent their disciples to him along with the Herodians. “Teacher,” they said, “we know that you are a man of integrity and that you teach the way of God in accordance with the truth. You aren’t swayed by others, because you pay no attention to who they are. Tell us then, what is your opinion? Is it right to pay the imperial tax[a] to Caesar or not?”

But Jesus, knowing their evil intent, said, “You hypocrites, why are you trying to trap me? Show me the coin used for paying the tax.” They brought him a denarius, and he asked them, “Whose image is this? And whose inscription?”

“Caesar’s,” they replied.

Then he said to them, “So give back to Caesar what is Caesar’s, and to God what is God’s.”

When they heard this, they were amazed. So they left him and went away.

Matthew 22:15-22

Recently I heard a recording of a sermon Tim Keller delivered entitled Arguing About Politics. Even if I may not track fully with him, I think it was insightful and thought provoking. Worth a listen. The elephant in the room nowadays is politics, and especially Christian involvement in it. And the inherent divisiveness which ever has been a part of the political process seems to have reached a point in which the United States itself is in danger of being torn apart. Hopefully it’s not that bad, but the talk on the ground, influenced by some outlets of the media is often caustic.

Jesus was up against it because he was indeed the Messiah, but not in the way most every Jew anticipated. In some way he was to rule politically no less, and ultimately over the whole world. Rome would certainly be taken care of.  His answer to the question put to him by the Jewish leaders who were trying to trap in him in what he said, was mind boggling to them. It sidestepped the trap they had set for him, because he didn’t answer it in their book, yet he really did answer it.

Jesus’s kingdom, as he told Pilate is not from this world, we can say not of this world, but definitely for this world. It is obviously never in the terms of this world; it is gospel derived and ends up rooted in the church because the church is rooted in Christ who is both its foundation and cornerstone. In a sense the church is Christ, being Christ’s body. And where Christ is, the kingdom of God is present. And that kingdom is not only internal, though certainly it is, and Jesus did make a big deal out of that. But it is about and for all of life. But it can’t be tied to a political party, since it can never be allied to such, nor could it become a political party and player in this world. It is rather a world itself, yet present for this world. And hopefully can impact even the political parties of this world.

This is all certainly a controversial theological matter: there is the Augustinian and Lutheran two kingdom approach, the Anabaptist approach which sees a stark often antagonistic contrast between God’s kingdom and the kingdoms of the world, etc. I don’t mean to get into any of that, even if it’s probably not altogether possible to avoid it. But the point of this post is simply that we need to be sensitive to obligations ultimately given to us by God. The tax was not much really, but it was symbolic. As a captive people, you owe this to your captors. Jesus said, “Pay it.” But he also said that they’re to give to God what is God’s. Which really means heart and soul and life: everything. And in the way God prescribes: for the poor, etc.

In the United States’s democratic republic, Christians will disagree over how much they should get involved in politics, and even over who to vote for, or how to look at various issues. It’s not like Rome’s iron clad rule where Christians had no choice but to comply. But how we do this, how we treat each other and others, regardless of what politician we support, how we do that should be different than the world in that it’s clear that the one we follow above all else is Christ. That we are never beholden to any other person or party except Christ and God’s kingdom come in him. That doesn’t mean that we won’t hold American political views, because we obviously will. But it’s how we do so that’s vitally important. At the end of the day our witness should point others to Christ, and never to any mere human, regardless of how well we might think of them ourselves.

Jesus was faithful to who he was, his calling, God’s kingdom present in him: the king. And he calls us to no less than the same in our faith and practice. In and through Jesus.