the dignity and destiny of all peoples

Then I saw a Lamb, looking as if it had been slain, standing at the center of the throne, encircled by the four living creatures and the elders. The Lamb had seven horns and seven eyes, which are the seven spirits[a] of God sent out into all the earth. He went and took the scroll from the right hand of him who sat on the throne. And when he had taken it, the four living creatures and the twenty-four elders fell down before the Lamb. Each one had a harp and they were holding golden bowls full of incense, which are the prayers of God’s people. And they sang a new song, saying:

“You are worthy to take the scroll
    and to open its seals,
because you were slain,
    and with your blood you purchased for God
    persons from every tribe and language and people and nation.
10 You have made them to be a kingdom and priests to serve our God,
    and they will reign[b] on the earth.”

Revelation 5

As we draw near to the day on which we honor Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., and in light of the present time, we do well again and again to reflect on the dignity and destiny of all of God’s created children.

That means we need to accept and learn to appreciate every culture. We might not celebrate or live out life like others do, but we need to see their strengths and our weaknesses. We need to look for and find the good in their way of life, and the not so good in our way. And we need to learn from them, and be open to appreciate ways in which God’s image is uniquely reflected in them.

We enslaved peoples from the African nations, on what pretext, I don’t know. Just because we could. And supposedly good people stood by, and ended up even participating, maybe trying to put a human face on this inhumane evil. And even the church stood by, either saying nothing, or at times, even justifying it.

And to this day there are people who see dark skinned people as somehow inferior. Today we have the scourge and lie of white nationalism. As if somehow we who are white are better, as if God created us a notch above the others. And in fact some have even argued that certain “races” (there is actually only one: the human race) are subhuman.

God’s word gives the lie to all of that in the truth that all whom God has created, God intends to redeem into the new creation. That all humans are made in God’s image. And that such are going to reign on earth.

What does all of this mean for us now? And especially where I live in the United States of America? I’m sure it means quite a lot, but from my perspective, I’ll name two. It means we need to live differently right where the rubber meets the road, in our relationships with others. That we need to go out of our way not to judge what ought not to be judged. One example from my own life: I am a worker, and while I can relate to people, I am a down to business person, who doesn’t like to “waste time.” But I notice that people from other ethnicities like to spend more time and visit, which for me cuts into the time during which I should be working. I leave room, and actually want to make room for such times when I can, but work itself is the priority.

I can learn from others to stop here and there, and appreciate the other. While also noting that these people work just as hard, and do just as well on that end, in fact they might make some contributions to the work itself which helps us do better. In other words, I need to see everything in its entirety and put the best case on everything, even if I may not be able to see it at the time.

For us, this means we have a learning, and more precisely a growing curve. The point I’m making here is that we need to stop putting others down, just because we don’t live the way they do. We need to ask what God’s values are. They have to put up with us, with our blind spots, and how often we put work over people and relationships. I’m sure work was important to Jesus. But never at the expense of relationships for sure.

My other point would be the church itself. How are we doing in showing the world the dignity and destiny, indeed, the beauty of all humanity? I wonder. Overall, with some exceptions I don’t think we’re doing all that well. There are white churches, black churches, and then other churches of other ethnicities right in the same city. And to some extent that’s understandable, and we’re not to force the issue, but be in prayer over it. But especially us white folks need to take it on ourselves, considering history, to purposefully open the door for a multiracial witness. That would mean taking people of other ethnicities onto the pastoral staff, and into the leadership of the church.

This is a part of our witness to the truth and reality and power of the good news in Jesus. In which we’re to live, and be committed to. Accepting others fully, just as God in and through Christ fully accepted us.

the primary problem with the flag draped over the cross

Yesterday, Christianity Today published an excellent critique by Andy Crouch of Donald Trump and his run for the presidency, aimed at challenging evangelicals who still support Trump, not leaving out some criticism of Hillary Clinton’s run. It is well worth the read. And Scot McKnight wrote an equally compelling piece from an Anabaptist, and certainly more importantly, a biblical perspective, questioning the allegiance of both the Christian right and the Christian left to an American political Christian position, as if America itself could, and therefore ought to be a Christian nation. Recently Jeff Manion at Ada Bible Church in his series on the book of Colossians challenged the idol that we can make of America, not questioning a proper patriotism Christians might adopt, but the kind which would see the flag draped over a cross.

The basic problem is that the gospel is not seen as a good news which is about a kingdom come in Jesus which involves all of life, but rather simply about one’s personal salvation. It is certainly that, but much more. It is about all of life, including the political sphere, a politic in and of itself in the grace and kingdom in Jesus. One enters into this through the good news of Christ by faith, and into a common life which is a precursor of the life on earth to come, when Jesus returns. It is political in that everything matters in the life of the church. The rich help the poor, while everyone is held accountable to live well, and grow in their lives together, as followers of Jesus, and no less than Christ’s body on earth. (Jesus Christ, of course; I try to use the terms in the way scripture places them.)

Of course the church can be a blessing to the state, but not by the politics of the state, except where the state wants to include the work of the church. That is where sooner or later it can be not only tricky, but downright deceptive, as the church looks to the state to provide what only the church through Jesus can provide.

Like most everything in life, this is more complicated than that, but that basic premise must never be left behind. It isn’t that what the state does, or fails to do matters. For example, I believe it shouldn’t even be an issue that there is some kind of universal health care provided through the state. Many people are not part of the church, not Christian, and God will judge nations on how they treat each other, especially the poor, oppressed and helpless. The church ought to be a model of what the state should do. Of course if the state provides services for citizens, than the church proceeds accordingly. But the point here is that the politics of the state is important. Yet the church is never to get entangled in such a way that they have an unhealthy and even idolatrous relationship with the state, seeing it as the source of blessing, rather than looking to God through Christ. The church must be careful never to get into a union with the state, and see its existence depending on the state. We know that this is simply not the case. The reality of the church is in the resurrection of Jesus and through the Spirit. The church will go on come what may. And the shalom/justice and peace, though present in some respects within the church through Jesus will not take root and flourish on earth until Jesus returns and reigns.

And so, in a kind of rambling here, I have shared a bit of what I understand to be the problem with the American flag draped over the cross, the union of church and state. Yes, American claims the separation of church and state, and in some ways we experience that through the religious freedom here. But all too often we are taken right back up into an allegiance and union in our thinking and practice which belongs to Jesus alone, and to God’s grace and kingdom present even now, in and through Jesus.

See also in this connection an important, helpful book by Allan R. Bevere: The Politics of Witness: The Character of the Church in the World.  

nationalism

I used to see nationalism as inherently a sin. Now I would say it easily becomes a sin while not necessarily so in and of itself. It is hard to find a good balance sometimes on subjects, and of course we want to think in terms of what scripture teaches with due consderation of the church’s teaching and practice through the centuries.

The church state relationship which began with the Roman emperor Constantine whose conversion to Christianity resulted in “the Holy Roman Empire.” Rome actually becoming a Christian state, ends up being questionable at best. While the state afforded the church protection, it really offered much more with strings attached. You had to be baptized as a citizen; it was after all a Christian nation by law. Yes, the gospel figured in but when such is coerced on families by the state, we begin to wonder where the scriptural precedent is for that unless one turns to the Old Testament. It doesn’t seem warranted from a reading of the New Testament and what we see in regard to the state in those books.

Paul used his Roman citizenship to help him preach the gospel especially to the Gentiles, which was his calling. And he could preach it to the Jews as well, since living under the authority of a state other than Israel was nothing new; we’re easily reminded of Daniel in the Old Testament along with others.

We can love our country and hope and pray the best for it. But we must beware that the church not be coopted into the goal of the state. Some Christians today want to “bring America back to God” and consider the United States at its founding, a Christian nation. That might be considered the case only in a cultural sense. I don’t agree with it, believing that the nation was built on a Modernist Enlightenment foundation, the scriptures read from that. And certainly the sin of slavery along with subjugation of native peoples is no small problems in contending for such.

What we don’t want is a civil religion which some Christians seem to want to promote, a Christianity which promotes guns and glory and even brings in the cross to sanction that. We need to think twice and more before we buy into that. We are to pray for those in civil authority (1 Timothy 2). The church is to receive protection from the state with no strings attached except submission in terms of laws which do not contradict God’s will, but hopefully promote a just peace (Romans 13). But in this life that won’t always be the case as we know all too well by considering the twentieth century alone right up to the present day.

The nature of the church sets it apart in its allegiance to the gospel and King Jesus, the good news of Jesus. We are not to be bearers of the sword, but of the cross. We are to live and die for Jesus and the gospel no less. Even while we honor those who put their lives on the line in the work of the state. But the church must beware lest its witness be compromised, sullied and possibly even lost in allegiance to the state. To a bad state, or even to one that is seeking to function well. Nationalism as in love of one’s nation is one thing, but to do so as those committed to the state’s agenda in full can easily be another. Nationalism can indeed become a sin.

America and the fourth of July

I was raised Mennonite, which for the most part in the past was a tradition rather aloof and basically uninvolved when it comes to government and national or international politics. After coming to Christ I soon left the Mennonite tradition. I remember my parents giving me permission to hang an American flag up on our house. I was to a point patriotic.

Those years have come and gone and I’ve come back almost full circle (without actually being a Mennonite). Now I can say that I find America and its story rather fascinating, and we could easily spend a lifetime studying that. I loved the recent film, Lincoln. So as a follower of Jesus, I don’t stand in opposition to America, but neither am I a patriot nor do I buy at all into the myth that America is better than the rest of the world. I consider America an empire, certainly (even if waning) the preeminent world power at this time, on terms of this world (military, economic, etc.). I pay my taxes to government here, and I am thankful for the freedom we have, as well as the voice with which we can speak in this democracy, or democratic republic.

I submit to government, and look for the good in everything as a follower of the one who spoke the Sermon on the Mount* as something of a kingdom manifesto for the here and now. I respect the laws of the land and the United States Constitution, and am to comply to such as long as they don’t contravene or contradict the rule of King Jesus and God’s kingdom manifest in and through him.

And so, on this fourth of July, I will pray for America, and look for all the good here (the 1 Timothy 2 passage includes thanksgiving in our prayers for those in authority). What I find lacking most of the time I simply chalk up to what America and other governments are. They are not and never can be what the church is called to be in Jesus. That being said, we in Jesus are the salt of the earth and the light of the world for a reason. To other individuals, and to nation-states as well.

Yes, we pray for America and for the world. Even as we continue to 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.

*The link did not include the entire passage, so the rest of it is here.

America’s greatness

It has been awhile since I read a most provocative and paradigm impacting book for me by Os Guinness, entitled The Case for Civility. While the book touches on what we would think of when we see the title, it looks at the subject in a much larger way. Civility in terms of society and people’s role and engagement in it. And especially in terms of the uniqueness of America and the first amendment which guarantees freedom of worship and speech. And here in America we are even granted freedom not to serve in the military, as a “conscientious objector.”

I am thankful to God for America. America has plenty of faults, true from the start, some of them grave. It is limited; I don’t believe it ever was a Christian nation as toward any theocracy, though along with Enlightenment principles, it was built on an understanding of the Judeo-Christian faith. It is not the kingdom of God, nor ever could be. Only the church, the community in Jesus are the people of God who live in and through the kingdom of God come in Jesus.

But just the same, America is blessed. I think of great people like Abraham Lincoln, George Washington, and Thomas Jefferson. There are so many more, and we can find them through history right up to the present day. And each of them with their flaws. And the sacrifices of so many men and women who gave their lives in accordance with fulfilling their perceived duty and convictions.

There were surely no Anabaptist believers along with others, in the early years escaping persecution for not lining up with the state churches in Europe, who did not from the heart give thanks for this nation and their new found freedom to worship and serve God according to their conscience.

So I really thank God for America. God has seen fit to use it significantly and in spite of itself in his ongoing work in the world. And to judge it along the way.

Of course America is not indispensable. But may all from it that is good for the time and present age continue on until Jesus returns and brings in the true shalom through God’s kingdom in him for which we long and wait. And may we in Jesus be found faithful to God’s calling for us in him as citizens of heaven with the good news of Jesus for the world.