what does true Christian compassion in the United States and elsewhere look like?

These are the words of the letter that the prophet Jeremiah sent from Jerusalem to the remaining elders among the exiles and to the priests, the prophets, and all the people whom Nebuchadnezzar had taken into exile from Jerusalem to Babylon. This was after King Jeconiah and the queen mother, the court officials, the leaders of Judah and Jerusalem, the artisans, and the smiths had departed from Jerusalem. The letter was sent by the hand of Elasah son of Shaphan and Gemariah son of Hilkiah, whom King Zedekiah of Judah sent to Babylon to King Nebuchadnezzar of Babylon. It said: Thus says the LORD of hosts, the God of Israel, to all the exiles whom I have sent into exile from Jerusalem to Babylon: Build houses and live in them; plant gardens and eat what they produce. Take wives and have sons and daughters; take wives for your sons, and give your daughters in marriage, that they may bear sons and daughters; multiply there, and do not decrease. But seek the welfare of the city where I have sent you into exile, and pray to the LORD on its behalf, for in its welfare you will find your welfare. For thus says the LORD of hosts, the God of Israel: Do not let the prophets and the diviners who are among you deceive you, and do not listen to your dreams that you dream, for it is a lie that they are prophesying to you in my name; I did not send them, says the LORD.

Jeremiah 29:1-9

We in Christ are exiles in this present world. We’re scattered all over the earth, and like what follows after this passage, we await God’s visitation, the return of Jesus Christ to bring God’s promises into complete, final fulfillment. In the meantime, again we live as strangers and exiles in whatever nation we live.

God told God’s people through Jeremiah in days of old to settle down and live faithfully in Babylon. We see Daniel doing the same thing. It’s interesting that they were not called to make the worship of God the law of the land in Babylon. They were simply to be faithful to God regardless of what was happening in the world. Yes, it was judgment, but mercy too. But they were to live out their faith in a foreign land. Remember Daniel’s example? Daniel didn’t try to convert Babylonians, but his example spoke volumes.

Fast-forward to today where I live in the United States. Christians are known here for wanting to take over the levers of power everywhere and not just push hard their agenda, but force and enforce it on others. Not at all anything like what we read about in Jeremiah 29. It leaves me wondering many things, and simply strongly disagreeing on many things more. But one question I might ask is simply this: Where is compassion in all of this, and specifically, Christ’s compassion which we’re called to bring and to be to others?

It seems like we want the same thing the Jews of old wanted. No exile, God’s visitation now, and everything just as we think it ought to be. But if you take Scripture seriously, we all know that only at Christ’s return will that begin to take place. In the meantime, what should we do now?

God’s people are the church together and in different places. We’re to show compassion in thoughtful, discerning ways, not only by handouts, but trying to understand the big picture, and what can be done to get rid of injustice in society, both individual, and especially systemic. Both. We have to keep working on that, because really the problem can be us, or at least we’re not apart from the problem. That is all a part of this, whether we like it or not. And we honestly ought to, because if the Christian life is anything at all, isn’t it a life of ongoing repentance?

The gospel is the power of God for salvation, not state power. That salvation is for individuals, yes, but also it should enable us to encourage the best for the nation-state in which we live. And to be relaxed within our pluralistic world, even as Israel was to live in the Babylonian world. Finding the good in it, and being an influence for good through Christ, being good and human.

Power politics and forcing and enforcing our way is not God’s way. At least not as evident in Jeremiah 29 and the gospels and what follows.

Advent: hope for a broken, breaking world

And suddenly there was with the angel a multitude of the heavenly host, praising God and saying,

“Glory to God in the highest heaven,
and on earth peace among those whom he favors!”

Luke 2:13-14

And suddenly there was with the angel a multitude of the heavenly host praising God, and saying,

Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace, good will toward men.

Luke 2:13-14; KJV

Advent on the Christian church calendar is a season of hope, remembering the anticipation of Christ’s first coming as we long for his second coming when at long last this weary world rejoices.

Most all of us are tired, weary and worn, even as we enjoy the gifts and blessings of this life. But we long for more, much more, and for good reason, considering all the world’s ills. We desire that promised “peace on earth, good will toward men.” According to what’s considered a better textual reading, “peace among those whom he favors!”

Given the evil found all over the world, it seems sadly that the only way shalom, or peace is possible is through final judgment. Judgment comes from grace and precedes salvation. We have to be saved from something threatening or hanging over us, victimizing us and others, to be saved to something better, the full restoration of humanity and creation as God intends.

This is at the heart of the hope of Advent. We know the best that can be accomplished in this world can’t measure up to that. Though part of this Advent hope includes a willingness to try to find God’s light in this darkness to address issues such as war, famine and starvation, climate change, the disparity between the rich and the poor, etc. That is if we follow the concern and passion found in the Bible. Otherwise we might settle for a Platonic salvation in which heaven is what ultimately matters since this world is to be burned anyhow.

Instead we need to see that God’s care is for all creation, indeed that God loves all that God has made. And that followers of Christ along with the rest of humanity should work towards a better world. And that what we do now somehow in God’s will makes a difference that ends up being eternal since matter is just as much a part of the world to come as is spirit.

We who are followers of Christ bear witness to the hope promised, that the God who made all things in the first place, has promised to remake all things in Christ, which actually is beginning even now. Advent a wonderful season to reflect on that.

does “Christian” really matter if not Christ-like?

…and it was in Antioch that the disciples were first called “Christians.”

Acts 11:26b

Supposedly, or it has been said that the name Christian was coined on this new group in a derogatory way. What has happened since is just a whole lot of baggage with the name, so that to be Christian is a mix, and at best might mean a decent citizen and probably religious. But sadly it can mean a whole lot of other things not so good. This is centuries long, but akin to the problem of the good word, “evangelical” which here in the United States due to the past few centuries, and especially the past few decades has baggage that is hardly the witness to Christ which the name “evangelical” implies.

If I had to fill out a form, or if someone asked me if I am an evangelical, as one who resides at this time in the United States, I would have to say, no. And if someone asked me if I’m a Christian, I might say something like, “Well, I suppose, or at least I fit somewhere in that category, but I would rather be considered a Christ-follower.

Yes, there might be many Christians, but just how many are Christ-like? If Christ-likeness is about loving one’s neighbor as one’s self, loving one’s enemies, doing to others as we would have them do to us, etc., than we might find non-Christians who are much closer to that than many Christians. Too often in history and in the present, “Christian” seems to be about having been baptized, or having a ticket to heaven, and when one considers the life and compares it with others, really little and likely nothing else.  At least this is true enough that it’s evident to the point that it’s like the elephant in the room.

To become like Christ which is an ongoing, never ending process in this life is different than simply being a Christian and that’s it. And thinking one is set with that, when really it matters not at all if we’re not growing in our lives through ongoing repentance and faith to become more like Christ. It matters not at all if we’re not followers of Christ.

what are Christ-followers arguably more than anything else in this world?

Do all things without murmuring and arguing, so that you may be blameless and innocent, children of God without blemish in the midst of a crooked and perverse generation, in which you shine like stars in the world, holding forth the word of life

Philippians 2:14-16a

Witnesses. Yes, witnesses. The Greek word is μάρτυς (verb: μαρτυρέω), transliterated, martys, from which we get our word martyr: one who bears witness to the faith through their death. It seems to me that there are few things more basic and fundamental to our existence as Christ followers in this world than the reality that our lives through deed, word, and above all, simply life, bear witness to a reality beyond this world, but meant for this world. That’s the reality of God in Christ through the resurrection.

One might argue that Christ followers are to be people of love more than anything else in this world. And that stands to reason since the two great commandments are love for God and for our neighbor. Or that we’re to be people under God’s good rule, helping others into that same blessed space. Or that we’re to demonstrate something substantial of the wisdom that is sorely needed in the world. All of that and more certainly are aspects of our life in this world. And much to be said about and around that.

But in our pilgrimage as strangers who are passing through in anticipation of the renewal of all things, I think at least for me the idea of witness might be most helpful to us. I’m not at all referring to my generation’s Protestant evangelical Christian idea of speaking to everyone about our faith and trying to get them to believe too, and be saved. Actually if we get the idea of witness right, saying a helpful word at a good time might be a natural overflow and outcome from some of us. Though the substance of such witness for many might be helping others in need.

For me, witness means that God’s reality is present in spite and along with all that I am, all my weaknesses, whatever. That this reality is the most important aspect of my life, indeed when it comes right down to it, my entire life. And that this is not just a “me” thing, but one might say exponentially true in the community in Jesus of which I’m a part. That our lives in various ways and together bear witness to the life, reality and presence of Christ. Christ in the world. Christ’s body in the world. Through each and everyone of us, and through us together, in all of our humanity, all of it, nothing excluded. What makes all the difference in the world is what we witness to. Because we’re followers of Christ, we can’t help but do anything else.

a Christ-centered faith

He is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn of all creation, for in him all things in heaven and on earth were created, things visible and invisible, whether thrones or dominions or rulers or powers—all things have been created through him and for him. He himself is before all things, and in him all things hold together. He is the head of the body, the church; he is the beginning, the firstborn from the dead, so that he might come to have first place in everything. For in him all the fullness of God was pleased to dwell, and through him God was pleased to reconcile to himself all things, whether on earth or in heaven, by making peace through the blood of his cross.

Colossians 1:15-20

…in Christ God was reconciling the world to himself, not counting their trespasses against them…

2 Corinthians 5:19a

Yes, the Trinity and the Incarnation all enshrouded in mystery as God is. But what God has revealed is the point. And the center of that revelation is Christ himself. Apart from Christ there is ultimately no revelation from God, at least not in any saving way. And it is a salvation inclusive of all humankind, yet standing in judgment of all humankind as well. Judgment is needed before salvation, indeed shows the need for salvation. Collectively as well as individually we have failed to love God with all our heart, soul, strength and mind, and we have failed to love our neighbor as ourselves. Thus the judgment rendered, and God’s salvation from that judgment in Christ.

Christ might not always be invoked or explicit in our thinking. But if faith is according to the gospel, then Christ is always the light, life and power in creation to bring about the new creation, in this brokenness to bring about the needed reconciliation of all things.

This is the truth and reality on which we as Christ followers and Christ’s church stand. From which we live as witnesses.

what is a Christian to do in the face of evil?

Bless those who persecute you; bless and do not curse them…. Do not repay anyone evil for evil, but take thought for what is noble in the sight of all. If it is possible, so far as it depends on you, live peaceably with all. Beloved, never avenge yourselves, but leave room for the wrath of God, for it is written, “Vengeance is mine; I will repay, says the Lord.” Instead, “if your enemies are hungry, feed them; if they are thirsty, give them something to drink, for by doing this you will heap burning coals on their heads.” Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good.

Romans 12:14, 17-21

Sometimes Paul gets a hard rap, understandably so given some of the interpretations of Paul, and perhaps the writings themselves. But when it comes to living a cross-formed life as followers of Christ, Paul along with the rest of the New Testament is on track with the gospel accounts: Matthew, Mark, Luke and John. Those accounts were written after Paul’s letters and most of the rest of the New Testament, but the tradition following Jesus was in agreement about certain basic things.

One of them is just how followers of Christ face evil. As a follower of Christ, it’s not hard to understand what one is to do and not do. You love your enemies, pray for them, do good to them, you don’t resist them physically. And if you take the account of Jesus literally, and what follows, you don’t even defend yourself physically. In other words, you don’t own a gun for the sake of stopping someone breaking into your house, or even attacking you or your family. If you take the account of Jesus, his words and what follows as is.

One of the greatest scandals of the faith have been Christians abandoning the way of Christ in service of the state. If you read what follows the scripture quoted above (click the link), you’ll find Paul’s words on the state, at least on the best one can understand of the state, meaning of course, government. But in this passage there’s not a hint that the follower of Christ should or even can participate in “the sword” which the state wields. The follower of Christ can and if we accept Paul’s example should accept the benefits of citizenship in a nation-state. Proper submission to the state is also required, which includes submission to punishment for necessary civil disobedience when government mandates are contrary to God’s will. The proper relationship of the follower of Christ to the state is complicated if you consider the whole, but in relation to “the sword,” or violence wielded by the state, it is straightforward. The follower of Christ is to have no part in that.

Following Christ, we appeal to the authorities and do the best we can to live at peace with them as we carry on as “living sacrifices” (Romans 12:1-2). We don’t aspire to martyrdom, but if need be, will face that as well, honoring those who are martyrs as a witness of their faith.

This is part of the heart of our witness as followers of Christ.

the church and war

The word that Isaiah son of Amoz saw concerning Judah and Jerusalem.

In days to come
the mountain of the LORD’s house
shall be established as the highest of the mountains
and shall be raised above the hills;
all the nations shall stream to it.
Many peoples shall come and say,
“Come, let us go up to the mountain of the LORD,
to the house of the God of Jacob,
that he may teach us his ways
and that we may walk in his paths.”
For out of Zion shall go forth instruction
and the word of the LORD from Jerusalem.
He shall judge between the nations
and shall arbitrate for many peoples;
they shall beat their swords into plowshares
and their spears into pruning hooks;
nation shall not lift up sword against nation;
neither shall they learn war any more.
O house of Jacob,
come, let us walk
in the light of the LORD!

Isaiah 2:1-5

It used to be that after Christians returned from war the church made them do penance. There was an understanding that there is something intrinsically wrong, sinful about the enterprise, and that no one could participate in it without somehow being sullied. Or at least the idea that in fulfilling such responsibilities, sin is inescapable. In the early centuries Christians rarely participated in the military not only because the Roman Empire was at least averse to Christians participating, but because the early church fathers were univocal in their opposition to Christian participation in killing and war.

All of that has been long lost. Nowadays participation in war and preparation for such is more or less celebrated in all churches except for “peace churches.” It is one thing to respect and honor those who have served, but it’s quite another to see war as a necessary evil. To some extent given the world in which we live there has to be a forceful stopping of violence at times. But I think Christ followers should advocate for the end of war even now, for a worldwide commitment to settling disputes in any number of ways, as well as for understanding and addressing the problems which underlie violence in our communities. In our world in which cycles of violence are very present and seem to be held back only by force, this may not make sense and may even be resisted by some in power, though I think most governments would welcome such efforts. A regular answer to this problem is that such an ideal will occur only when Christ returns. Granted there’s some important truth in that. But followers of Christ ought to be committed to and be known as advocates for a peace which takes justice seriously in the path toward reconciliation.

The world hasn’t gone mad, it has lived that way for century after century, although violence has abated in some places. It doesn’t help when a renowned Christian writer and theologian sees war as not only inevitable, but pictures Christians on opposite sides shooting each other and then meeting in an embrace in heaven. Christians killing other Christians and non-Christians makes no sense. But neither does letting violence go make any sense. Following Christ which means taking the way of the cross, and loving enemies is never going to make sense in the world. But if we’re to take the witness of the gospel in scripture seriously, especially the gospel accounts: Matthew, Mark, Luke and John with the rest of the New Testament including a correct reading and interpretation of Revelation, then it seems to me that we’re left with no choice but to so follow and show the world the better way. At least that will be a true witness of Christ.

I honor veterans myself, remembering that my own father was in harm’s way in a tank in WWII. Many good Christians and good people have served honorably in the military. But what if we Christ-followers would honor conscientious objectors who served their country honorably? And we need to be advocates for peaceful means of ending conflicts. Mennonites have been among those at the forefront of helping groups work through conflict resolution in a way that addresses wrongdoing and works to end the cycle of violence.

Peacemaking in this world will always involve struggle. It is macro and micro. Our witness to peace through Christ means little if we don’t live at peace in our families and church communities. And that will involve working through disagreement and conflicts, learning to live together in peace. And learning to extend that peace to others whose hearts may be full of war. Always in the way of Christ, not physically resisting evildoers, but resisting the evil itself through love with acts to bring healing, and good works. In and through Jesus.

an open, visible witness to all

Jesus answered, “I have spoken openly to the world; I have always taught in synagogues and in the temple, where all the Jews come together. I have said nothing in secret.

John 18:20

Indeed, the king knows about these things, and to him I speak freely, for I am certain that none of these things has escaped his notice, for this was not done in a corner.

Acts 26:26

Do all things without murmuring and arguing, so that you may be blameless and innocent, children of God without blemish in the midst of a crooked and perverse generation, in which you shine like stars in the world, holding forth the word of life so that I can boast on the day of Christ that I did not run in vain or labor in vain.

Philippians 2:14-16

We live in a day and age when it seems more and more prudent to keep one’s convictions to one’s self. It’s like all our differences are offensive. This is nothing new, but seems especially acute today. It’s easy to retreat, to try to keep one’s children insulated, into a cocoon, even a fortress, not only oblivious to the world, but on guard against it.

But what are we called to in Christ? Something entirely different, quite the opposite in one sense. We’re to let our light shine before others, not that they might see we believe correctly or differently, but so that they might see our good works, and glorify our Father in heaven (Matthew 5:16).

Will there be some danger in this? Of course. We’re to be as wise as serpents, yet as harmless as doves (Matthew 10:16). After all the good news we proclaim is simply bad news to those in the power of the world system in which the principalities and powers are entrenched.

But if we’re to follow Jesus, that means we’ll be led into the dark places in which our light in Jesus will shine. A light of life, love and hope, ultimately for all, and especially for the poor, marginalized and oppressed. All of this out in the open, in and through Jesus.

the faith that will see us through

Therefore, since we are surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses, let us also lay aside every weight and the sin that clings so closely, and let us run with perseverance the race that is set before us, looking to Jesus, the pioneer and perfecter of faith, who for the sake of the joy that was set before him endured the cross, disregarding its shame, and has taken his seat at the right hand of the throne of God.

Hebrews 12:1-2

We’re told after the long line of witnesses to God’s faithfulness in Hebrews 11 that we too are in this train, and that we are to see it in terms of a race, more like a marathon, ongoing in this life to the end. So we would do well to settle in and see all that comes, the highs and lows, mostly humdrum, and whatever it might be, as in some way all a part of that.

Jesus is our example, indeed exemplar, the one who shows us the way. Through all the nooks and crannies of life and experience, we need to settle in, essentially as witnesses of a faith with which we will go through everything in life, a faith that will see us through to the very end. Yes, through everything.

So let’s settle in come what may, and learn to run it well. Individually yes, but also with others. In and through Jesus.

a revision to my earlier thought about problems in the Hebrew Bible (“Old Testament”) narrative

For whatever was written in former days was written for our instruction, so that by steadfastness and by the encouragement of the scriptures we might have hope.

Romans 15:4

For whatever reason, I can’t find a previous post I did which questioned whether or not God really commanded the extermination of peoples in Canaan, etc. If you read nothing else here, you will do well to read this essay by Melissa Florer-Bixler entitled “Christocentric hermeneutics without violence.”

In the essay, the difference between Greg Boyd’s fairly recent work (as in Cross Vision) and Karl Barth’s work is explained, though I’ll have to keep thinking about it, and will do well to reread it. Boyd’s thought certainly has received a significantly positive reception, and not surprisingly as Florer-Bixler points out, among Anabaptist Mennonites.

But what Barth is doing seems to me to be more in keeping with what scripture itself seems to be doing. What seems contradictory and indeed actually at least on some level is, is not set aside, but remains in place. It is there as part of an indirect witness of God’s revelation, the indirectness according to Barth continuing right through to all that is written about Christ.

It rings true as Barth puts it, that we can’t stand in judgment of scripture. We have to let it stand as is, learn from every part of it, but at the same time, especially as community in Jesus not at all minus our scholars (like Barth, Boyd, etc.) seek to discern what all of this means for us today, what God is telling us now.

Jesus is the fulfillment of all, not the replacement. As Florer-Bixler points out, we need the whole because the witness of scripture is one witness. This is not about some inerrant as in completely harmonious word. Rather each part is to be taken seriously in ways that avoid not only an easy explanation, but at times any explanation at all from us.

Supersessionism, the teaching that Jesus and what Jesus brings replaces Israel is refuted. Again, instead Jesus fulfills, and we can only understand what Jesus did in light of the Hebrew Bible/ Old Testament.

And so God makes God’s self known through all of scripture, finding its culmination and completion in Jesus Christ. With all of its divergence and at times confounding twists and turns, yes contradictions. God’s word in grace coming to us in the necessary judgment and salvation that follows, meeting us in the present where we live, redeeming the past, a glorious future in which all is well, to come. In and through Jesus.

This is not to be taken as a valid interpretation of Florer-Bixler, of her essay. This is my current understanding of it as I’m trying to think through all of this since for me scripture is essential along with experience and tradition in seeking with others to hear and understand the voice of God.