Ferguson: A Summer Rerun

It was the summer of 1977.  I had just arrived in St. Louis, fresh from a week of orientation for summer missions, inspired, and anticipating my first real summer of full time Christian mission service.  The four hour drive from the retreat center where we spent the week getting ready offered some time for visiting, reflecting and preparing for the summer, but wasn’t much of a buffer between the protected, sheltered environment of the retreat, and the inner city where we were about to be dropped off.  The team of about 20 college students were split between three housing units, one in the center part of the city at a ministry center called “Friendship House,” in an older, Victorian style home used for neighborhood ministry by a local church, the second group upstairs in a couple of rooms with a bath in a church’s former parsonage that was currently vacant, and myself and six others in two first floor flats of a four family building on St. Louis’ north side.

It was going to be a hot summer.

It was the first time I had ever encountered racism.  And I mean, genuine racism.  There was a line across the city of St. Louis that separated African American neighborhoods from white neighborhoods, and the church where I served for two summers was right on that line, trying to minister to both communities.  There was a sense of Christian responsibility to share the gospel and minister in the community, but there was very little trust, especially among the African American community, and not much interest in the church to go further than a Vacation Bible School that brought in about 500 kids from the housing projects down the street.  A couple of former pastors had staked their ministry on integrating the congregation, instituting a bus ministry and a summer project that required assistance from the mission board, hence my involvement.  But they had left in disillusion, and the remnants of their attempted ministry hadn’t actually integrated the church.

But in the surrounding community, the racism was worse.  It’s not something that I can explain, even now, but the hatred and oppression was visible.  And while there was a level of that kind of feeling toward the whites on the part of some in the African American community, it was nothing like the attitudes and actions expressed the other way.  There really was limited opportunity for African Americans based on the color of their skin, and they were treated differently.  And I never really did see the justification for that.

I guess, because I didn’t know any better, I made my way around the city like most people did, on foot or on public transportation.  It was about a forty minute bus ride from our flat in North St. Louis to the church, on Lafayette Square.  It took one transfer, downtown at Washington and Grand.  Most of the time, in the late afternoon, I was the only white person boarding the bus headed north that stopped a block from our flat.  And of course, we stayed in the Hyde Park neighborhood, which was about two thirds African American.  Over the two years I spent making that trek almost every day, I never felt threatened, and people were friendly and talkative.  Most of them warmed up quickly when they discovered I was a Baptist “missionary” and I had a lot of conversations about Christian faith.  The only time I felt uneasy was the first time I came home late one night after a Cardinals game, and the bus was almost empty.  I worried a bit about who might get on, or what might be going on in the neighborhood, but after the first time, I never worried again.

Sometimes, a local church would prepare a meal for us, and we would walk the mile to Fourth Baptist Church, where they used the kitchen and fellowship hall.  And one of my mission partners and I would sometimes go to the playground at the school around the corner on a Saturday night and play basketball with the neighborhood kids.  They invited us, after seeing that I was 6’4″.  Sometimes, I suspected that some of the guys we were playing with could be rough, and they were certainly street wise, but with us, they were always friendly.

And it was from these relationships that I slowly came to understand that as a white person, I would never be able to relate to the circumstances in which these people lived, what they and their families had endured because of racism and discrimination.  In fact, I learned a lot.  I learned that these are people, just like me, and they have the same desires and dreams that I do.  I learned that skin color and racial background is most definitely an impediment to freedom and progress, that discrimination is real, and that our culture has figured out a lot of different ways to perpetuate it.  And I learned that while discrimination and racism have caused some African Americans to become defeated, and to react in ways that aren’t productive, and only serve to make things worse, most of them are working much harder than I am to make things better for their children.

In 1977, Ferguson, Missouri was one of the suburbs where whites had fled to avoid sending their children to integrated schools, and to escape the inner city, where they felt that blacks had “taken over.”  But as things in this culture slowly changed, more African Americans became affluent enough to escape the inner city as well, and Ferguson was one of the places they headed to find opportunity.  They still weren’t welcome, and they’ve encountered the racism and discrimination that moved out of the city a couple of decades ago.

I don’t know how to evaluate the death of Michael Brown, because I don’t know all of the facts.  What I do know is that this is an incident that is a symptom of a much greater problem that has existed for a long time.  It’s a problem that the Christian church has had ample opportunities to resolve, or at least to put itself in a position to be the resolution.  It can’t do that until it stops worshipping at the throne of wealth and power.

 

While I’m Talking About Race…

…I picked up this statement from Dr. Dwight McKissic, pastor of Cornerstone Baptist Church in Arlington, Texas.  Cornerstone is a large, predominantly African American congregation that is affiliated with the Southern Baptist Convention and the Southern Baptists of Texas Convention, and Dr. McKissic has served as a trustee at my alma mater, Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary in Ft. Worth, not far from his church.  This was in a blog discussion about Ann Coulter’s recent insensitive and uninformed remarks about Dr. Brantly, the missionary who was recently returned home after contracting the Ebola virus in Liberia.  They will lead me to a different discussion here.

“As a National Baptists lady said to me recently, ‘Southern Baptists are doing a lot better, but they still are not there yet'; that pretty much tells the story of how those of us who are Black SBC’ers are viewed by those outside of the SBC, who are Black. We are viewed as belonging to a group who is “not there yet” . So there is some level of rejection, ridicule, and disdain for those of us who are Black SBC’ers, in the same way Black political conservatives are rejected and ridiculed.” –Dr. Dwight McKissic

You know, I surprised myself by getting his analogy.  Without getting into personalities, African American political conservatives are used by political conservatives to make a point, because they deviate from the expected norm.  But among those who are known in this category, when they express an independent perspective that doesn’t tow the party line, their view is discounted and devalued.

Likewise, it seems to be becoming increasingly important for Southern Baptists, and other conservative evangelical denominations, to demonstrate a level of inclusiveness that allows them to reach into the African American community with evangelism and missions, and open the door to African American churches to join the denomination.  That is happening.  But in spite of the election of Dr. Fred Luter, an African American pastor from New Orleans, to the SBC presidency, and an increasing presence of African Americans on committees and boards, the prevailing attitude toward African American involvement still seems to be that they must change and adapt to the status quo if there’s an expectation of being included in the leadership core.  Dr. McKissic has experienced that himself, in expressing his view on speaking in tongues and private prayer language.

I think the question that Southern Baptists, or any other denomination wanting to increase the involvement of African Americans, need to ask is “What do we need to do in order to ‘get there’?  And then, after asking, they need to listen, and to take what they hear to heart, and do it. I think the realization that it would require equal sacrifice and equal effort is what is “not there yet.”

National Baptists, a historically African American denomination, and the SBC, have a lot in common.  They have a fraternal relationship, have had some shared ministries, including support for a college and seminary in Nashville, and share more dually-affiliated churches than any other denominations.  What would happen if the two denominations, and their institutions, merged?  And beyond that, worked toward merging churches?  Who would be expected to give up a level of leadership in order to make it happen?  Could a predominantly Caucasian church in, say, Selma, Alabama accept the leadership of an African American pastor, or accept merging their congregation with a larger African American church?  Because those are the places where the change will have to take place.

I’ve worshipped in SBC affiliated churches that were racially diverse, and led by a pastor who was a racial minority.  Just a few weeks ago, we visited a church in Maryland, in the DC suburbs, pastored by an African American, and as racially diverse as any congregation I’ve ever been in.  There were equal numbers of African Americans, Caucasians, and a Korean-speaking worship service, along with a half dozen other racial backgrounds represented in the congregation.  Of course, just visiting a worship service doesn’t tell you much, and this is the DC suburbs, in a community where racial diversity has been a way of life for a long time.  But the worship worked well, the congregation was quite friendly, and they seem to have a well established ministry.  The associate pastor was also African American, and the worship leader was Chinese.  Someone is doing it, so it can be done.

“Separate but equal” isn’t a Christian principle that I can find.  This is the kind of thing that attracts more excuses why it can’t be done than reasons why it can.

 

A Change of Perspective: Eschatology

The first time that I ever did any serious Bible study was in college.  At the small, Baptist, liberal arts school that I attended, the courses were available, the professors were interesting and knowledgeable, and having a Bible class each semester helped me get through my other coursework.  After four years, in addition to my history major, and English minor, I also had a minor in Biblical studies.  It came in handy when I attended a theological seminary for a master’s degree, and across a thirty plus year career in Christian education and discipleship.

If you’re a serious student of the scriptures, then you know the feeling of discovering something that God placed in his written word for you to know, and to find.  The other thing that I discovered is that the scripture doesn’t always support my presuppositions, nor those of the people in the churches where I grew up.  It can be quite disconcerting to discover that something your childhood Sunday School teacher, or home church pastor, taught or preached doesn’t quite find support in the Bible.

More than anything else, my view of eschatology and “the end times” has changed considerably from my own study of the scripture.  Though my course of study in seminary was Christian education, hermeneutics and systematic theology were still required courses, and I had excellent professors who taught more about how to study the scripture than insisting on having their students adopt their perspectives and interpretations.  The only thing I knew about eschatology prior to seminary was what I’d read from authors like Hal Lindsey, Salem Kirban, John Hagee and Pat Robertson.  I’d never really looked closely at the scriptures, which those authors and other premillennial dispensationalists take out of context, and even separate from their context.  I didn’t even know that there was more than one theological vein of eschatology, other than pre-wrath or post-wrath related to where to place the “rapture.”  After a seminary course which exposed me to the other views, over time, I’ve done a lot of reading, applying the hermeneutical principles I know to the study.  The end result has been a gradual, but steady change of view.

In looking at this subject, the main change I’ve encountered is something that I never really thought much about before, and that is the nature of the concept of “Israel” as a spiritual house of God, and the concept of “chosen people” not being racial, but spiritual.  After all, Abraham and Sarah, Isaac and Rebecca, Jacob and the four women who bore his children, were all Mesopotamians, descendants of the Sumerians, Chaldeans and Babylonians.  “Semitic” is the commonly used term.  The fact of the matter is that in the Old Testament, it wasn’t necessarily race that made one eligible for participation in the Tabernacle, nor the Temple once it was build.  Israelites who failed to demonstrate faith by following the religious law, or who were disobedient or rebellious against the family community were cut off and excluded, while gentiles who accepted the faith, believed in God and submitted to the law, known as proselytes, were included.  If it were a matter of race, the intrusion of Ruth, a Moabitess, into the genealogy of Jesus, would nullify the “chosen people” claim.  But Ruth accepted the old covenant, and became a believer and follower of the one true God, and was included.

God’s plan for Israel was to make a spiritual nation, not necessarily a political one.  That was their idea, when they fretted about not having a king.  God’s prophets pointed out where this was inconsistent with his plan, as he relented in allowing the creation of a political state.  That, from the record of Kings and Chronicles, didn’t turn out well, but they’d been warned.

The Jewish religious leaders missed the Messiah, because instead of reading the signs in their scriptures that formed an arrow pointing straight to Jesus, they were looking for a political leader to restore the political state, and free them from Roman rule. I can see where circumstances of the times would lead to misinterpretation of the prophecy in hand.  But I see nothing in scripture where God’s promises of restoration ever meant a political kingdom.  The King that the major and minor prophets refer to, and the restoration of Jerusalem and Israel that they predict all point to the spiritual kingdom that Jesus established, not to a resurgent empire of David and Solomon.  Jesus was the only heir to the throne of David, and that’s a huge context clue to direct the restoration references in the prophets to his kingdom, the Christian Church.

That puts Peter’s words in a clear context:

” For it stands in Scripture:

“Behold, I am laying in Zion a stone,
    a cornerstone chosen and precious,
and whoever believes in him will not be put to shame.” I Peter 2:6, ESV

But you are a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, a people for his own possession, that you may proclaim the excellencies of him who called you out of darkness into his marvelous light. 10 Once you were not a people, but now you are God’s people; once you had not received mercy, but now you have received mercy.”  I Peter 2:9-10, ESV

The chosen people were now as they always had been, those who believed, and accepted God’s covenant in he way he offered it.  Jerusalem, Zion, had been restored, and the Kingdom of God was established, as the prophets had said.

“Now when they drew near to Jerusalem and came to Bethphage, to the Mount of Olives, then Jesus sent two disciples, saying to them, “Go into the village in front of you, and immediately you will find a donkey tied, and a colt with her. Untie them and bring them to me. If anyone says anything to you, you shall say, ‘The Lord needs them,’ and he will send them at once.” This took place to fulfill what was spoken by the prophet, saying,

“Say to the daughter of Zion,
‘Behold, your king is coming to you,
    humble, and mounted on a donkey,
    on a colt, the foal of a beast of burden.’”

The disciples went and did as Jesus had directed them. They brought the donkey and the colt and put on them their cloaks, and he sat on them. Most of the crowd spread their cloaks on the road, and others cut branches from the trees and spread them on the road. And the crowds that went before him and that followed him were shouting, “Hosanna to the Son of David! Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord! Hosanna in the highest!” 10 And when he entered Jerusalem, the whole city was stirred up, saying, “Who is this?” 11 And the crowds said, “This is the prophet Jesus, from Nazareth of Galilee.”  Matthew 21:1-11, ESV( boldface emphasis mine)

Now, how did that crowd know when to be out there on that particular road, on that particular day and at that particular time?  The words of the prophet.  A lot of premillennial theology connects the book of Daniel to Revelation, but the context of Daniel points to the time of the coming of the Messiah.  This particular prophetic reference is in Zechariah, but Daniel speaks of the “seventy sevens” which puts this time in its perspective.  People of God’s covenant, Jews in Jerusalem, lined the road from Bethphage to Jerusalem in anticipation of seeing the fulfillment of Zechariah’s words, and they weren’t disappointed. And I believe that some of them believed that they were seeing the Messiah.  They were the ones who knew the scripture, and understood that what God meant was the restoration of his spiritual house, not a political kingdom.

So when Jesus told his disciples, not many days later, that the temple would be destroyed, not one stone would be left standing on another, and that some of them would not taste death until those things had come to pass, he set the context for interpreting what is known as his “Eschatological Discourse” in Matthew 24.

 Truly, I say to you, this generation will not pass away until all these things take place.”  Matthew 24:34 ESV (emphasis mine)

A futurist interpretation of Biblical eschatology hinges on interpretation and translation of the term in bold as “this race,” meaning the Israelites, or Jews.  But remember, the context of God’s chosen people isn’t about race, it’s about the spiritual kingdom.  It always has been, and as far as I can see in the scriptures, it always will be.  So these words, with which I will close, from Revelation 1, have a meaning and a context for the first century church, and confirm the accuracy and infallibility of God’s written word, interpreted in consistent context with all of the rest of it.

“The revelation of Jesus Christ, which God gave him to show to his servants the things that must soon take place. He made it known by sending his angel to his servant John, who bore witness to the word of God and to the testimony of Jesus Christ, even to all that he saw. Blessed is the one who reads aloud the words of this prophecy, and blessed are those who hear, and who keep what is written in it, for the time is near.”  Revelation 1:1-3, ESV (emphasis mine)

Blessed are the Peacemakers…

 “Blessed are the peacemakers, for they shall be called sons of God”  Matther 5:9, ESV

 But don’t just listen to God’s word. You must do what it says. Otherwise, you are only fooling yourselves.”  James 1:22, NLT

There is a great tragedy unfolding in the Middle East.  Regardless of who is justified, who is wrong, who is right, what you believe about eschatology, or your political convictions, what is happening in Israel and Gaza is a tragedy.  All war is.

Keep in mind, this isn’t the first time Israel and Gaza have been involved in a war.  The area is a tinder box.  Gaza is a small strip of land that lies between Israel and Egypt, and circumstances have made it what it is.  Most of its native Arabic population has lived in peace with Israel since the Balfour Declaration in 1917, and the establishment of the independent State of Israel in 1948.  But because of its location, and the political circumstances of attempting to create separate Arabic and Jewish states in Palestine, Gaza has become a place where militants, extremist Islamics, and refugees have blended into the population.

The extremism of the militant Islamic groups in the Middle East is dangerous, no doubt, not just for Israel, but for the native Arabic populations whose ancestry and ownership of the land in the area goes back to the fourth century.  It’s like attempting to figure out a Byzantine maze.  Three of the world’s major religions have their origins in the small piece of desert that is now primarily occupied by Israel.  There’s a long history of war and conflict between all three, and a long history of intolerance, and the inability of the adherents of any of those religions, Jews, Christians and Muslims, to share control of the region.  Christians were eventually relegated to second class status, and became a small minority of the population.  Likewise, the Roman conquest and destruction of Jerusalem ended the political presence of Jews, scattering most of those who survived into Asia Minor and Europe.  Muslims conquered an empire, and then divided over religious and political control, fragmenting into warring factions that are almost as hostile to each other as they are to those of other religions.

The interference of European imperialism further complicated the situation.  Modern “colonialism”, which has taken the form of political alliances with various sheiks and political dictators in order to gain access to the area’s mineral wealth, primarily the oil, has contributed to the rise of militant Islam.  International politics, with the great powers choosing sides and helping one or the other, in the hopes of getting their hands on the mineral wealth of the region and having a dominant political influence, only makes things worse.

Think about it in terms of how you would feel, if your family lived in a particular region, with ancestry that goes back for centuries, under the political control of people whose religious beliefs, language and culture is similar to yours, and suddenly, by a decree forced by a foreign power, you are deprived of your property, and forced to move into an unfamiliar city or area, with no compensation for the life you and your family have built.  And in the new place were you are forced to move, you are treated as a refugee, and an unwelcome guest because the presence of your family, and thousands of others who have also been forced to move, has created overcrowding and shortages of food and goods.  Would you be resentful of your circumstances?  Would you be susceptible to a militant movement that tells you their aim is to get what is rightfully theirs?

It’s presumptive to take the view that what transpires in the Middle East is all part of the plan of Biblical eschatology from a premillennial, dispensational perspective.  First of all, that would be claiming to know a future that Jesus plainly told us he doesn’t even know.  Second, it would be stepping out of our position as redeemed, forgiven sinners and into the role of self-appointed prophet.  Prophecy doesn’t just involve predicting the future, it involves proclamation of God’s word, and the prophetic voices that are needed in this situation are the peacemakers, not the self-proclaimed eschatologists.  Prophets are called by God, not by those who assume that their interpretation of scripture is superior to other interpretations of it.

We only get the perspective of what is going on from brief sound bytes and video clips provided by news media, so it is impossible to make a judgment about who is right and who is wrong.  The militants in Gaza claim that they’ve been wronged by Israel, who dictates where they can live, who have taken homes and businesses away, limited access to their communities, in their process of building a nation.  The Israelis claim they are defending themselves from unprovoked attack.  Knowing the history of the Middle East, including the steps leading up to the establishment of the independent Jewish state, I don’t think anything in the Middle East can be called “unprovoked.”  And I doubt whether any news media report we get is objective.

The people of Gaza, most of them natives who aren’t Hamas, or militant Islamics of any kind, are caught in the middle.  It seems like this is a great place for the peace of Jesus and his gospel to speak.  These are two groups of people caught in a religious conflict that is outside of the will of God, and both religions, all three if you want to consider that most Israelis are not practicing Jews, but are generally agnostics and atheists, have rejected Jesus.  The way I read and interpret scripture, the most effective ministry Christians can have is the one that we’ve been charged with from the beginning, to love others the way Jesus did, and to look past the labels.  Do our actions and words related to this conflict reflect Christ?  Think about it.

What does God’s word say about how to treat people?  Then do it!

 

“Give me your tired, your poor…” is a Fundamental American Principle

There is an inscription on the Statue of Liberty that reads

 “Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to breathe free, The wretched refuse of your teeming shore. Send these, the homeless, tempest-tost to me, I lift my lamp beside the golden door!”

It’s the last few lines of a poem called The New Colossus by Emma Lazarus.  It represents one of the most fundamental, founding principles of American culture and society, and ultimately of the American nation itself.  With the exception of the small group of remaining native Americans, it describes the ancestry of the population of this country, at least, for the most part.  It was the observation of outsiders, essentially the French, which led them to present the statue as a gift to the United States commemorating American independence and the liberty that it represents.  Ironically, at the time, there was a different perspective, from an African-American newspaper, The Cleveland Gazette after the dedication of the Statue of Liberty in 1886:

“Liberty enlightening the world,” indeed! The expression makes us sick. This government is a howling farce. It can not or rather does not protect its citizens within its own borders. Shove the Bartholdi statue, torch and all, into the ocean until the “liberty” of this country is such as to make it possible for an inoffensive and industrious colored man to earn a respectable living for himself and family, without being ku-kluxed, perhaps murdered, his daughter and wife outraged, and his property destroyed. The idea of the “liberty” of this country “enlightening the world,” or even Patagonia, is ridiculous in the extreme.” 

The statue represents liberty and freedom as an ideal, not necessarily the absolute reality of the time for everyone in America.  The ideal is still not here, nor will it ever be.  But the development of this particular ideal, from an American perspective is more about the forward movement and progress that is made toward achieving the ideal.  The symbol of liberty, and the ideal it represents, were strong, powerful motivating forces that pushed the culture and society toward achievement.

There is a philosophical divide between those who see the development of American foundational values and principles as the direct result of the European Enlightenment of the 17th and 18th centuries, and those who see it as the result of the Judeo-Christian influence brought here by Christians escaping religious persecution in Europe.  Things that are happening now, in light of Lazarus’ inscription, and the foundational American value that it represents, along with the Statue of Liberty, make me think that Christians are conceding the point to the secular humanists who believe that America’s values came from Enlightenment philosophy.

I’m talking about the overall political view of immigration that circulates through secular, conservative politics and runs counter to that which is represented by Lazarus’ poem.  I’m talking about what’s happening surrounding the 60,000 or so children and teenagers, and some women, who have crossed the border illegally to take refuge here from situations in their countries mainly involving bloody turf wars over control of the drug trade.  Perhaps, if put in the position of having to choose, and observing both American politics, and the behavior of people in reaction to their presence in the United States, many of those children and teenagers could relate to the paragraph that I cited from the Cleveland Gazette in 1886.  Many Christians, siding with those who advocate immediate deportation, are out there protesting their placement in temporary housing and any provision of humanitarian aid.  How is that possible, if we are a nation that is genuinely based on those Judeo-Christian values that we Christians tout as our foundation?  The ones that we point to and accuse of leading our country down the wrong path are the ones that are out there looking for temporary food, shelter and clothing for these refugee kids.  Ask one of those teenagers that crossed the border to explain his feelings about it.

I’m glad to see some Christians are setting aside the politics of the issue and mobilizing resources and people to provide assistance.  But some are standing in protest lines, attempting to prevent the movement of this particular group of refugees from Central America.  I can picture a worship service in a church where there’s time for individuals to testify to the blessings that they’ve received from God during the week, where someone stands up and says, “I’m so blessed to have kept a teenager from Honduras from entering the US, and I helped send him back to the middle of a drug war in his country.  Praise the Lord, I’ve helped to “get America back”.

Indeed.

Perhaps it is time to take the Lazarus inscription off of the Statue of Liberty, since it seems that it no longer applies.

Resolving Confusion: Which Denomination is Closest to Biblical Christianity?

Now I am really crawling out on a limb.

My wife and I spent a couple of days in Lancaster, Pennsylvania.  We chose that as a vacation spot because we now live in Pennsylvania, and it was close.  We were there briefly a couple of years ago, after a visit to nearby Gettysburg.  It’s a beautiful place, and the attraction is the presence of a Christian group whose lifestyle contributes to the uniqueness of the region’s culture., the “Pennsylvania Dutch”, otherwise known as the Old Order Mennonites, or Amish.

After a couple of days of seeing horses and buggies everywhere, the black and white, and sometimes dark blue clad Amish going about their business on neat, plain, simple farms, we were surprised to see some similarly dressed people on the National Mall in Washington, DC.  A group of Mennonites was there distributing literature and tracts, singing hymns, giving testimonies and preaching.  When I approached the table where they were distributing Bibles, and literature, one of the men stepped forward, and we talked about our faith.  He was quite gracious, and we wanted to give them a blessing, so I handed him an offering, which he accepted.  He then offered us a couple of CD’s of hymns, and a couple of tracts to read.

One of the tracts explained who the Mennonites were, how they came about, and what they stood for, along with why they dress the way they do, and why the women all wear caps and the men all have beards.  The tract very graciously, but subtly explained that while the Mennonites share common origins with others of the Anabaptist tradition, other churches have fallen away from the Biblical gospel, and have allowed worldly influences to creep in.  That would include, according to their tract, hair cuts and hair styles, clothing, and the accompanying lack of preaching a Biblical gospel that doesn’t include church discipline and the “practice” of righteous living.

Of course, their definition of “worldly influences” differs considerably from that of most Christians, as does their definition of “righteous living.”  And while I think it is a really good thing that they were boldly out there on the national mall proclaiming their faith, I would respectfully disagree that most churches of other faiths in their own Anabaptist tradition have fallen into apostasy because they don’t define “worldly” and “righteous obedience” the same way. If strict adherence to the specific set of “rules” to which they refer is a mark of obedience to God, then none of them were being obedient, since their dress and hair was consistent with what was worn in Switzerland at the time their church started than with what people wore when Paul wrote his epistles, and what people of that day and age considered “worldly.”

But any attempt to distance yourself, and your group of Christians from other groups of Christians on the finer points of doctrine, especially those which involve a measure of subjective interpretation, isn’t consistent with the teaching of scripture.  Grace and redemption are the focus of the Bible’s message.  Righteousness comes from Jesus, not from the strength of your interpretation of the scripture. Obedience and the avoidance of “worldliness” are the products of grace, not works done to achieve it, and after salvation, they are expressions of gratitude and, not marks of correct doctrine and faith.  The finer points of interpretation related to clothing styles, hair styles and beards tend to bog Christians down in legalism, and distract them from the main message, fragmenting the body of Christ into different parts that follow leaders who actually leave the impression that if you don’t see it the way they see it, you’re not seeing it, and you’re not going to enter the Kingdom, no matter what you may think.  And that has the effect of making the very subtle transition from a Holy Spirit illuminated interpretation of scripture to one that depends on human intellect.

If you can point to all the rules you follow, and assure yourself that you are closer to Biblical Christian faith than others, as a result of your self-evaluation, you can sure feel good about yourself.  I’ve done that on many occasions in my life, especially during times of spiritual uncertainty, and those life circumstances when my faith was being tested, or when I was having doubts that were hard to resolve.  Making sure I was in church on Sundays and Wednesdays, picking up an extra responsibility or job here and there, and observing other Christians to see if they were following rules like I was following them helped me feel good about myself.  But it wasn’t very useful in bringing about the spiritual revival that I needed.

The bottom line is that I think the denomination and church where I belong and serve is closest to Biblical Christianity because I wouldn’t be going to one that I thought wasn’t close.  But before I make that a topic of my conversation with other believers, I need to realize that we are not in a place now where anyone practices a perfect faith.  I think it is more important to be moving in that direction, and experiencing His grace, than to be marking off points that make me think I’m better than the Christians over there in that church.  There have been many times in my life when I’ve learned a lesson in humility, discovering that God moves in places and among people that I judged differently.

 

Is it really an “Immigration Crisis”?

It depends on your definition of “crisis,” but neither the numbers nor the people who they represent turn what is now happening on our southern border into a “crisis.”  Most of those who are coming are teenagers, and most of those who aren’t are women.  They are simply walking across the border and giving themselves up to whomever is there.  The presence of national guard troops in Texas, called out by the governor, hasn’t changed a thing.

America is a country of immigrants, and the fact that it has become the greatest nation on the face of the earth is due to the fact that people could come here and start a new life.  The kind of people that were attracted here were hard working, innovative, creative folks whose energy was put into making a living in a new place, and that experience strengthened and motivated them to build a country that was based on those values.

For most of its history, immigration to America was virtually unrestricted.  Why would it be any other way?  Other than native Americans, everyone’s ancestors are immigrants.  Ellis Island stands as a monument to the open armed approach of America toward those who were in poverty, oppressed by dictatorship, forced into religious conformity, or otherwise disadvantaged.  Of the current population of this country, over 40% have ancestors who came here through Ellis Island.  Of the million or more who were processed there each year, fewer than 2% were turned away.

But in the 1920’s, politicians realized that there was a growing fear of the cultural, social, religious and economic changes that were taking place as a result of the large numbers of immigrants coming into the country, especially as the numbers of Southern and Eastern Europeans and Chinese began to increase.  Following World War I, which restricted immigrant travel and slowed the flow of immigration down considerably, laws began to be enacted which put quotas on certain nationalities, and which were designed to filter out most everyone except those who were wealthy enough to support themselves, or who didn’t have an Eastern European, Central Powers nationality background.  America had gone through an immigration paradigm shift.

The depression put more pressure on Congress to increase immigration legislation, the end result being pernicious, restrictive laws which made entering America a matter of pick and choose.  It wound up causing great difficulty to Jewish refugees from Hitler, as the “haven of the oppressed” turned many away at the very coastline of the country, and prevented hundreds of thousands of others from leaving Europe at all, allowing them to pile up in countries like Portugal, Spain, Sweden and Switzerland, which in turn closed their borders after declaring “the lifeboat is full.”  After that black chapter of history, you’d think policy would change.  But few people want to take a look at the parts of our nation’s history that don’t generate good feelings, and that isn’t one that does.

So what would happen to the 60,000 or so mostly teenagers and women who are, as the news media puts it, “creating” out latest border “crisis”? Frankly, do we care?  Clearly, many Americans are more interested in what’s on TV or social media than they are in the fate of children whose families send them to our borders believing that they will be better off, and safer, than in their own communities.  So much for our foundational principles.  The political rhetoric that falls on our ears constantly about our  “Judao-Christian values” and the principles of our founding fathers is self serving and inaccurate.  Standing in the way of a Honduran, or Guatemalan, Salvadorian teenager’s last hope for a reasonably decent life doesn’t seem to bother us any more than turning away hundreds of Jews in a ship on the Atlantic that was close enough to see the lights of cities on Florida’s east coast did back in 1939.

The border with Mexico does need some security beef-ups, and increases in the Border Patrol and other law enforcement are necessary to keep out the stream of criminals, drug lords and dealers, and other undesirables who make their way here after the money that chases their drug sales and corruption.  But the problem needs to be resolved where it is happening, not where refugees seeking the safety and prosperity of a better life in America are surrendering themselves when they cross the border.

 

 

 

After a Tragic Day: Reflections on Peace

“Blessed are the peacemakers, for they shall be called sons of God.”  Matthew 5:9, ESV

There is sure a lot of news happening around the world this week, and not much of it is good.

For the second time in a period of just a few months, passengers boarding an airplane operated by Malaysian Airlines lost their lives in a tragedy.  This time, the plane was shot down over Ukraine, near the Russian border, in an area where a war of sorts is happening between Russian separatists and the Ukrainian government.  It’s not likely that anyone on that plane had anything to do with the conflict.  They were innocent bystanders, and had no control over the circumstances.  Maybe you’re not really interested in what is happening in Ukraine right now, but this tragedy is a real life example of how something can affect you, whether you are involved in it or not, and interested in it or not.  There are several hundred families, scattered around the world, who were suddenly affected by it.  And if you watched the images, and listened to the descriptions of it, it was impossible not to be affected by it.  Put yourself in the picture, or in one of the seats on that airplane, and think about it for a few minutes.

At the same time, Israel has launched an invasion of Gaza.  We’ve seen those images for weeks, too, of rockets being launched from Gaza into Israel, some of them hitting and damaging buildings and houses, and rockets and air raids in retaliation from Israel, dropping bombs on targets in Gaza identified as Hamas strongholds.  Some news outlets aren’t showing pictures of the terrified residents of Gaza, mostly women and children, fleeing from the bombs, or the mangled bodies of citizens in the wreckage of what was once their homes, while others are not showing much of what is happening on the Israeli side.  I really don’t see how you can watch any of that, regardless of which side is being shown, and not be affected.  Most residents of Gaza, while they are Islamic, and Arabic, aren’t terrorists and aren’t involved with Hamas, but like the passengers on the Malaysian airliner, are caught in the tragedy.  Likewise, there are Israelis who support their government’s actions, but there are those who openly express a desire for a peaceful solution and resolution to the issues which prompted the violence in the first place, but they are still targets of rocket attacks, regardless.

“For he makes his sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the just and the unjust”  Matthew 5:45b, ESV

It’s pretty easy for us to take sides.  We don’t like the Russians, much.  So it is easy to lump them all together, slap the “evil” tag on them, blame them for the tragedy and be done with it in our mind.  Likewise, faulty eschatology and theology leads us to place all Muslims in the category of extremist terrorists, and take the side of Israel, based on “Juda0-Christian” tradition.  Read the book of Acts to see what happened to Christians in the early church at the hands of Jewish religious leaders.  The tradition is only a modern one, not historical.  Israel is certainly one of the closest allies of the US in the Middle East, but the whole recent history of the region is a botch that goes back to the Versailles Treaty which ended World War I, the bottom line being selfishness and greed.  Modern Israel is a Jewish state from a racial perspective, but it is a secular government with an atheistic influence in political philosophy and the conflict that involves the Arabic population in Gaza, as well as the surrounding area, stems from all of that, and not just the recent events which triggered the most recent round of rockets and bombs.

Do we really believe that the Bible is truth, without any mixture of error, and is infallible in its teaching?  If that’s the case, shouldn’t the words of Jesus, recorded in the gospels, and particularly those that are found in Matthew 5,6 and 7, prescribe the position, and the response, of Christians to these tragic events?

When I was in college, one of my friends was a Palestinian Arab whose family lived in Nazareth.  He was also a Christian, and though his family had originally been part of the Orthodox tradition, they had come to know Jesus through the ministry of an evangelical church in their community.  Though his family had experienced religious and political persecution because of their Christian faith, and their Arabic heritage, his father set an example of being obedient to the law, and submissive to the government as directed by scripture.  As a church leader, he was involved in the resolution of many conflicts involving members and their neighbors, and from his son’s description, I imagined him as a genuine peacemaker, a son of God.

My friend and I would discuss the situation in his homeland from time to time, and he believed that the only way for peace to be achieved was for people to come to know the “Prince of Peace,” and to take Jesus’ words about loving your enemies seriously.  I never heard any resentment from him about his circumstances, though I know they had some hard times.  The family had been displaced from property that they had owned for generations, so fellow church members financed his education in the US.  His dream was to go back to Israel and plant a church that would reach people of all the races and religions in his community.  Last I heard, he was doing that.

Peace seems like a huge job in the face of what is going on in the world today.  Why is it so easy for us to find someone else to blame, and find ways to bypass these clear words of Jesus recorded by Matthew in the Bible?

What Have we Learned?

“Blessed are the peacemakers, for they shall be called sons of God.”  Matthew 5:9, ESV

“You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ But I say to you, Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, so that you may be sons of your Father who is in heaven. For he makes his sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the just and on the unjust. For if you love those who love you, what reward do you have? Do not even the tax collectors do the same? And if you greet only your brothers, what more are you doing than others? Do not even the Gentiles do the same? You therefore must be perfect, as your heavenly Father is perfect.”  Matthew 5:43-48, ESV

What catches my eye in these two passages is the phrase “that you may be sons of your Father who is in heaven,” and “they shall be called the sons of God.”  That’s quite an honor.  And from what these verses say, having that honor is the result of very similar characteristics.  Being a peacemaker requires the kind of love for people that is expressed in the second passage when Jesus says to love your enemies.  If God bestows that kind of honor, the characteristic that leads him to it must rank high on his list of things that please him.

So, among Christians, how common are peacemakers?  And how common is it to exhibit love for our enemies?  I won’t comment on that, but I’ll let you think about it.  If those things are characteristic of the sons of God, how well do those who claim his name measure up?

Most people can tell you what Christians are against.  We’ve done a really good job of communicating that, in no uncertain terms.  And if we think the world might not be listening, we can always find ways to demand our rights and stake out our territory in secular politics.  I wonder, though, in our approach to things like secular politics, and even the way we handle doctrinal disagreements and differences of opinion over the interpretation of scripture, whether the qualities of peacemaking, and love for our enemies, can be seen so that those who are watching get a clear picture of the essence of the Christian church, and the faith of those who belong to it?

Peacemaking, which isn’t conciliation or compromise, but which is actually a skill, and perhaps a spiritual gift, that brings the very presence of God’s peace into people’s lives, is something that has the potential to change the world.  Peace isn’t the natural by-product of human community.  In order for genuine peace to occur, the presence of God must be directly involved.  It shouldn’t be a rare gift, but somehow, it seems to be so.  Can you imagine the impact that the Christian church would have on this world if peacemaking was as familiar and common as our political involvement and rhetoric, or our evaluation of the spiritual condition of other people whose sin problems have become obvious?

Loving your enemy is the toughest commandment in the Bible.  It’s far more difficult than loving your neighbor as yourself, even when it is hard to love yourself.  This isn’t just the nasty neighbor.  This is your enemy.  This is the person who hates you because of who you are, and who wishes to do you harm.  This is the political liberal or the tea party extremist, the Islamic jihadist, the cult preacher.  You can fill in the blank, then you can figure out just how to love them, and keep in mind the context and definition of the word “love” here.  It’s the phileo love that God expects his followers to have for their fellow human beings, all created equal, all created in God’s own image.  It’s more than just talk, and it’s not something that you can do from a distance.  I think Jesus meant that you must love your enemy in a way that your enemy knows about it.  You have to get pretty close for that to happen.

It’s not that these things aren’t being taught in our churches, and preached from the pulpit.  It’s that the honor is high, because the characteristic is so commendable, and not easy to practice.  It’s a Holy Spirit thing, which means that being a peacemaker, and loving your enemy, requires God’s help.  It can’t be done in your own strength.  It’s a matter of trusting, not trying.

A church that is known by the world because of what it stands for, rather than only what it opposes, is a spirit-filled church.

 

 

The Supreme Court and the Hobby Lobby Decision

This has become the hot topic of the week, maybe beyond.  So why not wade in and see what happens?

There’s no doubt in my mind that the convictions of the Green family, who own Hobby Lobby, are sincere, and that their beliefs about abortion are consistent with Biblical teaching on the subject.  The constitution guarantees their right to hold that belief because of their Christian faith.  In fact, the constitution would guarantee their religious freedom even if they didn’t hold beliefs consistent with Biblical Christianity.  The broad definition of religious freedom applies to any conviction that can be categorized as “religious” in nature.  Personally, I hold the same conviction about abortion as they have expressed.  I believe that there isn’t an issue of “choice” for a woman after conception occurs.  The choice that a woman has regarding her own reproductive rights begins with the decision to engage in a sexual relationship.  After conception, it’s not just her body anymore.

And there’s something to be said about a business that operates on Christian principles.  I have never actually been in a Hobby Lobby store, mainly because I’m not really in the market for much of what they sell, and there aren’t any really close to where I have lived in recent years.  But I’ve heard that their prices are fair, their policies reflect good customer service, and they treat their employees well in terms of fair wages and benefits.  It’s a retail business, so there aren’t a lot of employees who have complicated jobs, but the few people I’ve met who work in their stores seem to be satisfied with their wages and benefits, and with opportunities for advancement.

But this decision isn’t really about the Green family, or the way they choose to run their business.  It’s about whether or not a corporate business can be “Christian” by nature, and whether or not the constitutional guarantee of individual religious freedom makes a corporation “religious” in nature simply by virtue of its majority ownership.

Religious freedom is an individual protection, in the strictest constructionist interpretation of the constitution.  It is a right that is guaranteed to individuals, recognizing that religious beliefs and convictions are a matter of individual choice.  Individuals can experience conversion to Christian faith, believe they have been justified, and sanctified by the blood of Jesus, and believe that they have a relationship with God as a result of that experience.  They cannot be penalized, or considered second class citizens, or be forced to accept a different religious perspective under the constitution’s guarantee of religious freedom.  Likewise, an individual who accepts and embraces the teachings of Buddhism, or Islam, or Wicca, is guaranteed the same right.

But how can a corporation be, by nature, religious?  It does not have a soul, and therefore, it cannot exercise the freedom to convert to Christian faith.  Does the fact that its majority shareholders hold Christian beliefs allow them to extend the constitutional protection of religious freedom to a business which they run, and from which they earn a living, but from which its expenses are paid by profit, not personal income of the owners?  I think this decision is going to have some far reaching implications that are going to cause some problems when it comes to the application of individual constitutional rights.

For most of its history, the US Supreme Court has upheld individual rights over corporations, trusts, and other business conglomoraes, and protected the rights of employees and customers, recognizing that individual rights are constitutionally guaranteed.  Businesses and corporations have been prevented from encroaching on individually guaranteed freedoms by numerous court rulings.  Now, however, the court seems to have changed its opinion.  The Citizens United ruling, allowing corporations to make virtually unlimited campaign contributions will ultimately have the effect of allowing big business to buy Congressional favor and influence.  If you have doubts about that, just be observant.  It is already happening.

A corporation can’t “convert” to a religious belief.  It’s individual owners can, but the corporation itself does not have a soul, and is, in fact, an entity that exists on paper, not in the flesh.  It’s owners do not use their personal assets to pay its bills, the corporation itself owns its assets.  I don’t believe that by providing the required insurance policy and prescription drug coverage, the Green family would have been violating their religious convictions regarding drugs which they believe cause abortions.  It would have been the corporation’s funds, not theirs, that would be paying the premiums.  Their individual religious freedom, and that of their employees, is protected.  I think this ruling is going to open some doors for corporations to hide behind religion to take advantage of employees, or customers, or to use against their competition.  I think the court will have to revisit this decision in the near future, when some of the negative aspects of their ruling begin to manifest themselves in legal actions.

Religious freedom is a cherished, and extremely important constitutional guarantee.  Think about all of the possible long term implications of this ruling before deciding it was the right thing for the Supreme Court to do.  There are a lot of laws and regulations that businesses are subjected to which are simply the cost, and price, of doing business.  Compliance is not surrender, it is an acknowledgement that the Bible’s principles to be obedient to the civil government is important, and it is an opportunity to share personal convictions publicly.  I would not want to see any of that undermined by a court decision that could be used to do more harm than good.  And I can be almost certain that somewhere, this ruling will be applied and turned upside down to be used in a way to restrict religious freedom for Christians.

It seems to me that if abortion really is at the bottom of this issue, as supporters of the decision insist that it is, that the simplest way for the Supreme Court to rule would be to overturn the Roe decision.  That’s been the bottom line ever since it was made back in the 70’s.  It would solve this problem, without having to walk the fine line of disturbing individual religious liberty.  It would take courage and conviction, something which politicians have promised, but have not been held accountable to do for more than thirty years.  That’s the issue.  The Hobby Lobby decision is just subterfuge, a bone thrown to pacify a constituency that doesn’t demand accountability from the politicians it supports.