handling differences

If some thought evangelicalism was in a theological flux a couple of decades or so ago, we could say that is all the more so now. Over periphery matters to be sure, but issues which can well undermine the gospel and our reading of scripture, if we don’t take care.

How do we handle our differences? From my perspective I face those who affirm ordination of those practicing same sex intercourse, of course as long as they’re faithful to one partner, and with that gay marriage. On the other hand I face those who see “Creation Science” as being true to the Genesis account, and my acceptance of evolution as contradictory to that. Just two examples that are hot right now.

Everyone needs to be heard out, that is everyone should have their say. Let everyone make their very best argument, and then hold on to that. In other words try to put the very best construction on both intentions and what is actually said. We help neither ourselves or anyone else by not letting people have their full say as we attempt to understand them as fully and accurately as possible.

Perhaps two words come to the fore now, as I think about our spirit in handling differences, especially among us who are in the family of faith, but beyond that, as well. Forebearance and gentleness. Firmness too, in that, but those two should always be characteristic of us in our disagreements. The NIV 2011 in the Galatians 5 fruit of the Spirit passage interestingly substitutes forebearance for patience. I think that is apt since the patience that is called for is relational in that context. Along with that, gentleness is on the list as well. In Paul’s charge to Timothy (1 Timothy 6) this is evident as well; in conflict or spiritual battle he is to be gentle.

We likely won’t win an argument. But we may well be able to plant the seeds which will reap a harvest of righteousness later. And we need that input from each other. In our disagreements and in all of life.

the justice of the state

Today is Veterans Day in the United States, a day in which we remember and give thanks to those who have sacrificed for their country by serving in the military, all too often at the cost of their lives. My father was in harm’s way in WWII in Germany in a tank. And we all know people and of people who are serving in this way today.

I wonder about the calls I read on the Internet for the state (specifically the United States) to follow the teaching of our Lord in the Sermon on the Mount, teaching which is directed to his disciples and not to the nation states or kingdoms of this world. And I wonder about the call to end all war, how that all war is a waste. It is too bad that violent evildoers in the world who hardly if at all think twice about ending other people’s lives and all too often brutally, pay no attention to such a thought. And it is a viable question: How is their evil going to be dealt with or ended? We may want to follow a couple examples found in the Old Testament when God’s people did not have to fight, but simply waited for the Lord’s intervention which did occur. But by and large the people of God during that time were called by God to participate in physical warfare when threatened. Not so according to the New Testament, arguably, but clearly enough, I believe. At the same time we read these words from Paul:

Let everyone be subject to the governing authorities, for there is no authority except that which God has established. The authorities that exist have been established by God. Consequently, whoever rebels against the authority is rebelling against what God has instituted, and those who do so will bring judgment on themselves. For rulers hold no terror for those who do right, but for those who do wrong. Do you want to be free from fear of the one in authority? Then do what is right and you will be commended. For the one in authority is God’s servant for your good. But if you do wrong, be afraid, for rulers do not bear the sword for no reason. They are God’s servants, agents of wrath to bring punishment on the wrongdoer. Therefore, it is necessary to submit to the authorities, not only because of possible punishment but also as a matter of conscience.

This is also why you pay taxes, for the authorities are God’s servants, who give their full time to governing. Give to everyone what you owe them: If you owe taxes, pay taxes; if revenue, then revenue; if respect, then respect; if honor, then honor.

It is clear then that the state today (albeit with a small sword in the passage just quoted which was used in what we would call today a policing role) has its place in God’s will, provisional for the present time. And that we are to submit to such who remain in that role as well as honor them. Even while I remain a pacifist Christian, not believing that the way of Jesus includes the possibility of such service for his followers. While at the same time certainly acknowledging that many of Christ’s followers have so served.

I don’t agree with all the decisions that the United States has made in terms of war, not that my opinion means all that much. The taking of lives should be truly a last resort; nations ought to be known for their restraint and forbearance, even though there may indeed be the time for war (Ecclesiastes). But we need to give honor to those who have and do serve in that way today.

I am thankful to God for his provision for us through the state. For all who serve in that capacity either in the military or on the police force. Especially to our veterans and to all who with good conscience have so served: Happy Veterans Day.

The followup post: God holds the state accountable (the other side of the coin)

spiritual warfare (defensive and offensive)

Finally, be strong in the Lord and in his mighty power. Put on the full armor of God, so that you can take your stand against the devil’s schemes. For our struggle is not against flesh and blood, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the powers of this dark world and against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly realms.Therefore put on the full armor of God, so that when the day of evil comes, you may be able to stand your ground, and after you have done everything, to stand.

For though we live in the world, we do not wage war as the world does. The weapons we fight with are not the weapons of the world. On the contrary, they have divine power to demolish strongholds. We demolish arguments and every pretension that sets itself up against the knowledge of God, and we take captive every thought to make it obedient to Christ.

Those in Jesus are in a spiritual struggle. What scripture calls us in Jesus primarily to do is to resist the devil and stand our ground in the power of the Lord and by the armor he gives us, which mostly is defensive in nature with the exception of the sword of the Spirit, the word of God which may mean a word from God given for a specific moment or time in the warfare. At least for God’s workers in apostolic ministry there is an offensive warfare: by the gospel taking every thought captive to Christ. Leaving no one any room for any other consideration: either the hearers obey or disobey Christ, King Jesus.

We in Jesus do not engage in physical warfare, but in spiritual. I do not believe the follower of Jesus is ever under any circumstances to kill, to take the life of another. We are not called to physical warfare or violence even though God may well use the state to bring about a kind of justice through such means against evil and evildoers. We in Jesus are called to a deeper warfare against the spiritual powers arrayed and at work in the world. It is personal with us. We are under attack as those in Jesus. And through the gospel we penetrate into the darkness to bring the light of the gospel of the glory of God which is in Jesus.

the state, the sword, and the follower of Christ

I respect those who serve in the military, in fact I take my hats off to them, and to their families. It is a tremendous sacrifice which deserves not only recognition, but honor. These people are in harm’s way with the intent of doing good in securing justice in the world, and often in the most difficult places.

I can hear those who would critique a Christian pacifist stance say something like this: “I respect the pacifist Christian stand, and in life I want to live out that ethic in my relationships with others including enemies, but it is naive to suppose that there is no need to keep order with force in place, or even to have to use that force at times. Well meaning, even commendable, yet naive.”

My answer to that is simple: It is more complex than that. Yes, we’re in an area in which Christians disagree, and although there are probably more Christians than ever who hold to a pacifist Christian position (except per capita, in the earliest centuries of the church before the Constantinian shift), their numbers are still in the minority. There is no doubt that there is a justice that is secured oftentimes through both military and police force. It is inevitably imperfect in this life. But it does secure peace. In large part why I would think that Paul calls for prayer for rulers and all who are in authority. I think of the Roman empire in Paul’s time. Brutal and certainly not in the right always and surely never so perfectly. But keeping the peace and administering justice according to their rule of law and enforcement of that.

But the follower of Jesus is called to something higher, even to a higher form of justice, that no less than of the kingdom of God come in him. That calling is spelled out in detail in Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount. And Jesus lived out what he taught of course to the very end. He loved his enemies and prayed for them. And we are called to follow in his steps. It is the way of the cross in this life, looking to God for a salvation not only for ourselves, but for all in this world even now.

The ethics of God’s kingdom come in Jesus are meant for this life, but in terms of the life to come. It’s as simple as that. What ends up complex and mind boggling is how order is kept in the restraint of evil doers and is called good, while at the same time Christians are called to a higher calling. The way of the cross to the very end, not just for one’s own personal salvation, but in one’s way of life, in all of life. God seems to keep the lid on evil to some extent, through the state. But he calls us who are followers of Jesus to lay down our lives for Jesus and the gospel. As we pray for the day when wars will cease. When sin (including our own) will be gone. And the peace secured by the cross will be the rule. A peace which, however inevitably imperfect our practice of it is now, we are to pursue and live out as lights in this world in and through Jesus.

following the example of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., as he followed the example of Christ

All but lost today, it seems to me, is a serious appropriation and adherence to Jesus’ cornerstone teaching of the ethics of the kingdom found in the Sermon on the Mount. Of course I’m referring to us who profess to be followers of Jesus, those of us who are called Christian. I’m afraid Christian has taken on a different and to some extent contrary meaning to what it originally had when the disciples in Antioch were first called Christian. The words of Jesus are either watered down or not taken seriously at all, it seems. They are hard, challenging words, to be sure. Love your enemies, pray for them. When struck, turn the other cheek. Don’t look lustfully on a woman, which in the heart is committing adultery. Don’t be angry with a brother or sister, or speak a word of contempt to or concerning them, which is on the edge of murdering them in one’s heart, and the first steps toward hell. Etc.

Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. was a great man, I think the greatest American civil leader of the twentieth century. He was certainly flawed as well. He was a Christian along the lines of the more liberal wing, theologically. He was steeped in Jesus’ teaching and example, especially with reference to the Sermon on the Mount (the Sermon on the Plain, paralleling that) and with reference to the Hebrew/Old Testament prophets. The call was for justice for the oppressed, specifically for the African Americans, then called Negroes, who though emancipated from slavery were not seen as equals, were pushed to the margins in segregation, and too often brutalized by those who hated them. Indeed, their lives were sometimes in danger.

Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. stepped into what amounted to be a civil challenge to the United States, to live up to the letter of the law by breaking down the laws of segregation. And to clamp down on those who threatened their very existence. He did so as a full participant, subjecting both himself and his family to the difficulties and dangers inherent in such a stand. And some innocents tragically did lose their lives. His family was protected, even if his home was not, though in the end he paid the ultimate price himself, for whatever reason gunned down, which may have come with the territory of being a high profile leader, and surely did have something to do with his stand. There is no doubt that there were people who could have been a threat to his life.

He faced pressures on all sides. Many of his fellow African Americans were not interested in nonviolent protest. They were willing to do whatever necessary to secure justice and freedom. But Martin Luther King, Jr. stayed the course, not only preaching and teaching nonviolent protest in the way of self-purification and love even for one’s enemies, but in living that out to the end. By doing so he won over many of his own people, of the African Americans, and many others as well, in fact in the end, virtually everyone. He led the way to what became a national sea change, even if racism and hate along those lines remains in some latent and more overt forms to this very day.

I have found him especially inspiring in his sermons or addresses to fellow Christians. More difficult for me, but what I have come in some significant measure to respect and admire is his work on the civil end with reference to America and what it stood for in law as a democracy, or a democratic republic. Calling the nation to radical change in policies  which would not merely keep order, but change the order kept. Front and center for Dr. King, I’m sure, was his understanding and appropriation of Jesus and his teachings and example.

It is one thing to teach truth, but quite another thing to live that truth out. That is where the inspiration comes. I can say such and such, but unless I begin to live it out, I will help no one. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., and others with him, did live that out, practicing what they preached. They uncompromisingly and unrelentingly spoke and acted against injustice with uncompromising, unrelenting love. They did not succumb to evil, so as to respond with evil in return. Hopefully more than just a few of them did so from a personal, communal faith. And we do well today to follow in their steps, even as they followed the example of Christ.

A good, even if rather long read, Martin Luther King. Jr. Letter From Birmingham Jail.

some thoughts on Veterans Day (United States)

I agree with the point N. T. Wright makes, that God wants order in this world, and uses nation-states, or governments to maintain it. We live in a world in which anarchy would likely prevail if there were no authorities in place as we read of in Romans 13. Of course those authorities are answerable to God. With reference to force, they seem to be put in place to stop evildoers. Something akin to police work.

I also believe that a follower of Jesus is never to kill under any circumstances. I know that since Augustine and through Constantine, this has become a minority view. The “just war” tradition holds sway, even though that edifice is tottering. Many Christian scholars argue that “just war” as defined by Augustine and others is not possible today. And nations, including the United States, seem clearly to operate at least in significant measure on a different basis than that.

I have to admit that while I hold firmly to pacifist Christianity (or, Christian pacifism) as part and parcel of following Jesus, I also can’t put that together very well with the first principle mentioned in this post, namely the need for authorities to exist in a police-oriented kind of way, to restrain evildoers. And some of my favorite people, themselves followers of Jesus, serve either as police officers or in the military.

Today, on Veterans Day, I want to thank all veterans for serving in harm’s way, for their country and for the good of the world. Thank you for the sacrifices you have made in the name of justice and peace. Our prayers are with you during your active service, as well as during your life afterward. And for your families.

As we pray the prayer our Lord taught his disciples to pray:

Our Father in heaven,
hallowed be your name,
your kingdom come,
your will be done,
on earth as it is in heaven.
Give us today our daily bread.
And forgive us our debts,
as we also have forgiven our debtors.
And lead us not into temptation,
but deliver us from the evil one,
for yours is the kingdom and the power and the glory forever. Amen.

what is the point?

“You have heard that it was said, ‘Eye for eye, and tooth for tooth.’ But I tell you, do not resist an evil person. If anyone slaps you on the right cheek, turn to them the other cheek also. And if anyone wants to sue you and take your shirt, hand over your coat as well. If anyone forces you to go one mile, go with them two miles. Give to the one who asks you, and do not turn away from the one who wants to borrow from you.”

Jesus’ words make little to no sense to us today, especially, I say, we who have inherited the Christian just war tradition. Of course we have to contextualize it first (I look forward to getting my copy of this book and reading it, which will help here). In that culture and day, the meaning of Jesus’ words was readily apparent. Although a good number of Jews had come back to the homeland and the temple was rebuilt, they still felt like they were in exile. After all, how was the promise fulfilled that Yahweh would be king over all the earth, reigning from Jerusalem? It seemed like the beginning had come to pass without the whole of such promises fulfilled. The Romans were now the power over Israel, hated by some of the Jews, and for the common people, a burden. Of course any revolt against the Roman establishment meant death to a non-citizen by execution on a cross.

So Jesus’ words here would raise not a few eyebrows and many a head would be shaking in disgust. After all, no good Jew wanted to be aiding and abetting the enemy. Or seem to be in cahoots with their captors. Or at least this goes against the grain of all common sense. Holy war advocates certainly would take offense.

And besides all of this, Jesus was coming with a message of Messiahship to all who had ears to hear. Any would be Messiah would never cooperate with God’s enemies. God’s kingdom come was meant to smash all the world empires and become the huge mountain that would fill the entire earth, as we see in Daniel.

What sense then can we make out of Jesus’ words here?  Specifics aside, Jesus was certainly teaching his followers a different way to live. And in this case, this is the only place in Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount in which he actually overturns and changes, indeed contradicts that which is in the Law. Eye for eye and tooth for tooth was taught in more places than one in the Hebrew scripture for Israel. But now the fulfillment of what Israel was to be would be set in place in Jesus’ reign in God’s kingdom. And it would end up being the way of the dreaded, in fact hated cross. It would turn on its head what people thought power ought to be. Not everyone was a zealot, eager to overthrow Rome in Holy War. But no one supposed that death would be the way to life through the resurrection. That in the middle of history, as opposed to the end (which they did look forward to) one would be resurrected from the dead and thus would begin a resurrection people who live in that same identity.

But back to the scripture itself. The point of adhering to Jesus’ words plain and simple is to be a witness. A witness to the world, at that time to everyone. A witness of Jesus, of God’s kingdom come in and through him and his death and resurrection by which those in authority should come to recognize that their days are indeed numbered, and that they are answerable to the true King, the King of kings and Lord of lords, Jesus.

And so, where we can, we need to resist evil not with evil, but with good. And we need God’s help by the Spirit to know how to do so in a given situation. One wonderful example, right here. And by this we can fulfill Jesus’ words in the same sermon:

“You are the salt of the earth. But if the salt loses its saltiness, how can it be made salty again? It is no longer good for anything, except to be thrown out and trampled underfoot.

“You are the light of the world. A town built on a hill cannot be hidden. Neither do people light a lamp and put it under a bowl. Instead they put it on its stand, and it gives light to everyone in the house. In the same way, let your light shine before others, that they may see your good deeds and glorify your Father in heaven.”