Monday, February 08, 2016

Forcing Women Into Combat: Are We Seriously Talking About This?

Today is the New Hampshire primary, and for the last 36 hours, Christians who take their civic duty and their faith seriously have had another prominent issue to weigh.

In a nutshell, the issue is this:  whether any follower of Jesus, in good conscience, can vote for a candidate who believes it is OK to force women into combat roles.

Last Saturday night, a Senator and two Governors appeared to clearly support requiring women to register for selective service.  This means that in the event of a national emergency requiring the reinstitution of the draft, our daughters would be included in those conscripted--many of them against their will--to enter into military service, and possibly face the dangers of combat.

A number of Christian leaders have rightfully responded.  In particular, I recommend the following from Grant Castleberry, and this excellent piece by Andrew Walker.  Additionally, this post by my friend Marty Duren looks at the wider issue of the draft in general applied to the present debate.

Hearing the affirming, yet seemingly mindless words of the Republican candidates on Saturday, my heart sank.  I didn't just hear those words as a pastor.   I am also a father of three--two sons and a daughter.  While I would not want to see any of my children die on a battlefield, there is a marked distinction between my sons and my daughter, rooted biologically, culturally, and from the standpoint of my faith, Scripturally in their respective genders that forces us to see their death on a battlefield in starkly different ways.

The Christian faith proscribes a complementarity between men and women that is rooted in the created order.  Yes, we believe in the equality of men and women, but that equality of value, dignity and worth is emphasized, not diminished, by acknowledging the biological, functional, and spiritual distinction between them.  Ignoring or seeking to eliminate these distinctions is to present a picture of androgynous humanity that violates the very Scriptural equality presented clearly in male and female identity.

But these principles of gender distinction  are not unique to Christianity. They have historically been true of our culture as well, regardless of religious faith.

The unique contributions to society that only women can make have always been given a place of honor.  That honor has historically been expressed, at least in part, by exempting them from circumstances where that honor might be violated.  Certainly we can agree that the prospect of a woman's body being riddled and torn apart by enemy fire, or the horrific situation any woman would face as a Prisoner of War is enough to make us reconsider whether requiring any woman to be available for this possibility removes the honor our society has historically sought to give to women.

Exempting women from the draft is not in any way a denial of the essential equality of men and women.   At the same time, we must acknowledge obvious distinctions between the sexes.  The absurdity of seeking to eliminate those distinctions leads ultimately to the kind of cowardly policies that would forcibly send our daughters to bleed while able-bodied men stay home.  

This is not honoring to women.  Such is precisely why the death of one of my sons in service to his country, while tragic and unspeakably sad, can carry honor.  But the death of my daughter in this way--indeed the forcible conscription and subsequent death of anyone's daughter--would reveal our national character to be marked by cowardice.

There are times when followers of Jesus should be conciliatory.  There are other times--especially when our national character is on the line--when we must speak with an edge.  This is one of those times.  One writer has already expressed it well:


"I cannot fully articulate just how damnably evil and cowardly it is to send women into war against their will. Whether or not such a war ever comes — and I believe it may, sooner or later — the very fact that we are prepared to do such a thing, that the law has mandated such a thing, is enough for me to pray that God finally smites our hideous, craven society, so that we can construct a new one from scratch. And if that ever happens, I’d like to hereby suggest that we banish from our new society any gutless, reprehensible, cowed little man who is now nodding with approval at the idea of forcibly shipping our daughters off to be blown apart. Men as unspeakably selfish and weak as that can be of no use in the rebuilding process."

Yes, this issue is that serious.



Monday Morning Rewind: We're Not in Kansas Anymore!

Yesterday, I preached my first message as Lead Pastor at Covenant Church.  Beginning today and continuing each Monday morning, I want to use this space to remind our own folks of what we studied together, and encourage its continued application.

If you aren't part of the Covenant family, you are welcome to listen in anyway!

Along with my first Sunday, we began a series entitled "We Are Covenant!"  In too many churches in the west, the lion's share of emphasis is on individual Christians living a "victorious life" (however each tradition defines "victorious"), but very little emphasis is put on the church as a unified body.  Yet when the New Testament writers speak to churches, in most cases they are addressing not several hundred or several thousand people so much as ONE body of believers.

Likewise, though our church is made up of people from a variety of backgrounds--each uniquely created by God to fulfill the purpose for which they were created--that individual purpose can only be truly fulfilled within the community of faith that is the church.  And for that to happen, each local church must solidify its own corporate identity as a body.

For the next several weeks, that's what we will be working on as a church body.  Who are we?  Where are we going?  And to answer those questions, we first have to answer this one:  "Where are we?"

The truth is, we live in strange times--unprecedented times.  A few years ago, our family experienced our first earthquake.  My friends in California were all laughing at my panic at what turned out to be a comparably small shaking of the earth in Maryland.  Still, when you have never experienced the ground shaking underneath your feet, its hard not to panic a bit.

And the thing about an earthquake is this:  Its inescapable.  You can take cover from a tornado.  You can see a hurricane coming and run away.  But earthquakes are sudden, and they affect the very foundation on which we stand.

Culturally, we are experiencing an earthquake.  The ground is shaking underneath our feet.  We feel it in the cultural influence that the church seems to have lost.  We sense it in the increased violence of our world.  We identify it in the moral confusion that permeates society.  And we just aren't sure of what to do.  Because when it comes to our current situation, there is no "wise old man."  We are the first to be here.

But we are not the first to ever face a time of monumental transition.

Moses writes Deuteronomy for the purpose of re-stating the Covenant relationship between the people of Israel and their God.  The Covenant hasn't changed, but as Israel moves from a nomadic life into a period of conquest and settlement, and eventually into a permanent land of their own, the Covenant needs to be re-applied.  They are about to face new challenges and the occupation of a new land.  They aren't living in the wilderness anymore!

In the same way, followers of Jesus now find ourselves living in a very different environment--a rapidly changing one.  But Deuteronomy 29 calls us back to four things that never change--four things on which we can always stand as we seek to live faithfully into the future:

1. The Faithfulness of God.  We are a people who tend to measure our confidence in terms of past reliability.  Its why we go to Angie's list before hiring a contractor, or Urban spoon before trying a new restaurant.  In verses 2 and 3, Moses is reminding Israel of God's track record.  Though they have lived in the wilderness for an entire generation, they have never gone hungry.  Because in 40 years, God has never broken a promise, failed to follow through, or failed to protect His own people! When the future is uncertain, we look to a God who is certain.

2. The Sinfulness of Humanity.  We are a broken people, and we have always been a broken people.  Contrary to progressive views of history, that isn't getting better!  But conservative views of history also have it wrong with their calls to "go back" to some vision of the good ole days.  When we understand the problem of sin, we will also understand that this problem isn't solved by going forward into continued moral chaos, or going backward to segregated lunch counters.  The world has always been broken, and the world will perpetually look for the answer.  God's people have it!

3. The Call of God's People.  Moses' challenge to Israel is to be as faithful in applying and following the Covenant in the promised land as they should have been in the wilderness.  That requires understanding the Covenant (the nature of our relationship with God).  It also requires a keen understanding of the times in which that covenant is to be applied.  Nothing is more useless to God than a culturally "tone deaf" church.

4. An Assured Victory.  Israel had defeated enemies that were supposed to be unbeatable, because from beginning to end, their history had been one consistent record of Divine miracles.  Likewise, we live in a "brave new world," but Jesus will continue to seek worshippers, and will continue to redeem and transform the lives of people through churches who are faithful to Him by loving their communities and the world.

With unprecedented challenges come unprecedented opportunities!  And the choice is clear:  We can pine for the old world that once existed, or we can throw our arms around the world where God has placed us--a world we believe Jesus died to save.  If we choose the latter course, we can see people delivered from addiction, marriages healed, school systems, hospitals and college campuses transformed by the power of the Gospel.  We can, and will, see God's people working together to love, serve, and share the greatest message in all of human history.

I can't wait to get started!

Monday, February 01, 2016

Principles for Peacemaking: The Marrakesh Declaration

Last week, many of the top Islamic leaders in the middle east met in Morocco for the purpose of drafting a declaration on human rights and religious freedom throughout the Muslim-majority world. While you may not see much coverage of this in American news media, this accord marks a significant step of progress in that part of the world.  Christian leaders in the west--indeed all Christians--should pray for the safety and continued success of the brave leaders who signed this document, many of whom have now returned to contexts hostile to their aspirations.

You can find the full text of the Marrakesh Declaration here.

Such monumental progress doesn't happen overnight.  It was the product of years of friendship, frank discussion, and slowly progressing trust.  But such is the task of peacemaking in our global, 21st century context.

To "make peace" implies that peace doesn't yet exist, meaning that peacemaking by default involves intentionally wading into conflict.  Over the years, I've become proud to know many brave people, both Christian and Muslim, who have been willing to face such conflict head on.  From these people I have learned some valuable principles for building peace.

1. Transparency is paramount.  My first trip to a Muslim-majority country was many years ago and, I am ashamed to say, was anything but transparent.  Though my heart was sincere in my desire for the world to know Jesus as I know Him, I was convinced that the only way this could happen was to play "secret agent."  During my time in that country, I did not have a single, substantive conversation with a Muslim.  And the whole reason for my subterfuge was I had equated obedience to the Great Commission with adherence to a modern missions delivery system that the host country found offensive and colonial.  I just didn't know any better.

Since that trip, I have come to learn that with very few exceptions, the world is far more open to the Gospel than we believe it is.  But the spread of that message, like our Savior who wrapped Himself in human flesh, requires incarnation as well as communication.  And you simply can't do that without honest, transparent relationships.  That approach takes longer, but over time, its a far more effective way to talk about your faith with others.

2. What Happens On One Side of the World Doesn't Stay on One Side of the World.  When uninformed western leaders make condemning, generalized pronouncements about Islam, such pronouncements find their way to the Muslim world, and they don't help build peace.  They help tear peace down.  Conversely, when our siblings in humanity in the middle east see us respecting religious freedom, befriending others regardless of religious faith, and living out the principled pluralism that is at the heart of our Republic, those things affect relationships in the Muslim-majority world in very positive ways.

 I have relationships with many faithful Christians who work on the ground in that part of the world.  Ask them if they are helped more by our declaration at the Spreading Peace Convocation, or by the xenophobic pronouncements of Franklin Graham.  If we want to move the global conversation between Christians and Muslims forward in a way that is respectful, productive, and from the Christian perspective, in a way that is faithful to Jesus method and message, we will understand that the nature of our global discourse is important.  What happened in Marrakesh last week didn't happen in a vacuum.  To a large extent, it happened in reaction to, and in cooperation with, western leaders who understand this principle, and who took the lead in other contexts to say the same things. 

3. Conservatives Must Take the Lead.  One of my dear friends is a former senior adviser to President Bush, and he once told me; "I am so tired of being called a 'moderate Muslim!'  Nothing about me is moderate!  My politics are conservative, and my religious beliefs are no different!"

He is right.  Moderation isn't the answer.  In fact, moderates who believe there is more than one way to God are generally, not the problem.  The problem often lies with conservatives on both sides of this conversation who believe their conservatism is threatened by recognizing the religious rights of others.

Some months ago I shared a table in a meeting with Muslim and Jewish religious leaders from Israel, Pakistan, India, Iraq, and the United States.  All of us were "orthodox" when it came to our respective beliefs.  There wasn't a single Jew or Muslim at that table who didn't believe I was going to hell because I worship Jesus as God.  Conversely, I don't believe any of those men will escape hell unless they recognize and worship Jesus as God.  Yet each of us recognized God's common grace informing our respective faiths in a way that brought about human flourishing in this world, even if we believed those faiths deficient to get our friends to the next world.  So there we were--committed together to never bind the conscience of the other.

If what I believe is really true, then I don't need to force it on anyone.  Free minds are the path that leads to genuine conversion, and "forced conversion" is no conversion at all!  If those like me, convinced of the exclusivity of their faith, can champion global religious freedom, then that freedom's existence around the world becomes a foregone conclusion.

4. In Every Context, the Majority Must Stand for the Rights of the Minority.  In December, I was honored to be part of a diverse coalition calling on political leaders in an election year to tone down their rhetoric when it came to Muslim Americans.  I didn't allow my signature on this document because I think Islam is a good thing.  I did it because you either believe in religious freedom or you don't.  And I did it because I firmly believe that in any context, those in the religious majority have a responsibility to protect the rights of the minority.

And yes, what holds true for Christians in the west should hold true for Muslims in the middle-east, which is why I was so proud to see what transpired last week in Marrakesh.

Making peace is a tough enterprise, and the faint of heart need not aspire to the task.  In the end, only the brave and bold succeed, and even then often at great personal cost.  But more than ever, our world needs those brave men and women.  I'm thankful that many showed up in Marrakesh, and pray more from both Christian and Muslim backgrounds will follow in their footsteps.

Tuesday, January 26, 2016

My Favorite Half of Romans 14: On Judging and Being Judged

One of the most annoying experiences of ministry often comes, interestingly enough, after I've preached a message. It's that moment when I'm standing in the back of the church shaking hands, and someone comes up and says "great message Dr. Rainey. I wish _________ could have been here to hear it. They need it!"

Honestly, it's hard in moments like that to keep my temper at bay. I want to ask, in righteous indignation, "don't you need it too? What's wrong with you that you see faults in others before you see them in yourself? Haven't you read Matthew 7:1-5?? Are you an idiot?? . . . .

. . .but just before exploding, the Spirit reminds me that often, I too, am an idiot.

For example, many folks on my wife's side of the family come out of a Holiness background. Because of this, they hold strong convictions that I don't hold. I remember early in our dating life when Amy would say "don't talk about movies we have seen around the relatives. They believe going to the theater is sinful."

Of course, my instant reaction was to appeal to Romans 14. After all, Paul has given us clear instruction regarding how to relate to each other on "debatable" matters. There is nothing . . .absolutely NOTHING in Scripture that forbids me from seeing a good movie, especially one in which there is lots of gunplay, fast cars, and buildings blowing up in a hopelessly gratuitous fashion. There is liberty in Christ, and where "movies for guys who like movies" are concerned, I aim to exercise my liberty!!

Furthermore, those who would object to my affinity for fast cars and bullets on the silver screen should consider carefully the following verses from Romans 14:" . . .and let not the one who abstains pass judgement on the one who eats, for God has welcomed him." v.3b"Who are you to pass judgement on the servant of another?" v.4"Why do you pass judgement on your brother?" v.10"Therefore, let us not pass judgement on one another any longer." v.13a

Wow, if only my "weaker brother" were here to read these verses. He sure needs it!

Problem is, in quoting my preferred half of this text, I've totally ignored (i.e. violated) the parts that are addressed to me in an effort to point out those parts that are addressed to my weaker brother. Talk about irony!

As a "stronger brother" in this regard, I should instead be looking at the following passages:"Let not the one who eats despise the one who abstains. . ." v.3a". . .but rather decide never to put a stumbling block or hindrance in the way of a brother." v.13b"For if your brother is grieved by what you eat, you are no longer walking in love By what you eat, do not destroy the one for whom Christ died." v.15"It is not good to eat meat or drink wine or do anything that causes your brother to stumble." v.21

Do such texts mean that I should totally abstain from seeing the "13 Hours" this week? Not necessarily. At the same time, it probably means I should keep quiet about it around certain folks out of deference for their convictions. OF course, they have their responsibilities as well. But I'm not responsible to fulfill my weaker brother's responsibilities. I'm responsible to fulfill mine.

The same is true for any other debatable issue. And within our churches, I’ve noticed a strange phenomenon: almost anytime a debatable issue divides the strong and weak, the weak come out on top in the form of additional rules. The strong are often warned against causing others to stumble. The weak are rarely called out for judging their stronger brothers.

Perhaps this explains, at least in part, why there are so many evangelical churches that are culturally unengaged—bordering on the isolationist. To be sure, some of my more aggressively evangelistic brothers sometimes do things, and go to lengths, that give me pause. But when comparing those I believe sometimes go too far with the multitude majority who don’t go far enough, I think we need more of the former!

The thing that interests me about any debatable issue is that most folks are just like me . . .they have a propensity to appeal to those sections of Romans 14 that are addressed to their opponents. The problem with this approach is that it not only ignores those texts most applicable to you, but it also violates the spirit of the very texts to which we appeal; a spirit that is best summarized by Paul's contention that "the Kingdom of God is not a matter of eating and drinking but of righteousness and peace and joy in the Holy Spirit."

"Whoever thus serves Christ is acceptable to God and approved by men. So then, let us pursue what makes for peace and for mutual upbuilding." (vv.17-18)

Appealing to my "preferred half" of Romans 14 is never conducive to the kind of peace and Kingdom thinking that Paul describes. To pursue peace, I have to appropriate the other half . . .the half that describes my responsibilities when it comes to debatable issues.

With this in mind, maybe I don't need to judge my brother who participates in activities I find I can't participate in without sinning. Conversely, perhaps I need to resist colorful descriptions of "13 Hours" in front of certain family members.

Maybe, just maybe, if we all practiced such things, righteousness and peace and joy would be seen more clearly in us by those who need to know Jesus. Just maybe, this is what Paul had in mind when he wrote Romans 14.


Friday, January 22, 2016

The Legacy of Bloodshed: Roe v. Wade After 43 Years

"Like the advocates of birth control, the eugenists, for instance, are seeking to assist the race toward the elimination of the unfit."  -Margaret Sanger, founder of Planned Parenthood, 1919

"There are times when abortion is necessary.  I know that.  Like when you have a black and a white...."  -President Richard Nixon, 1973

"Frankly, I had thought at the time 'Roe' was decided, there was concern about population growth, and particularly growth in populations that we don't want to have too many of."  -Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, 2009

43 years ago today, nine black-robed justices handed down a decision that would forever change the moral landscape of the United States.  Since that time, more than 57 million human beings created in God's image and likeness have been murdered within the confines of their mother's wombs.

Is that too strong a statement?  Is it too negative a tone?  Is it too culturally divisive to employ such incendiary language?  Well, let me ask it this way.  If something is bad, do you use good words to describe it?

I understand the moral complexities that come into play where abortion is concerned.  As a pastor of 23 years, I have more experience counseling women through the gut-wrenching decisions our society forces them to make than any politician who has ever voted on this issue.  I've sat with the single mom whose budget is stretched thin.  I've sat with the woman who has just been told her baby has downs syndrome, or some other dreaded, chronic disease.  I've also sat with those who chose to have an abortion.  Women who have submitted to this procedure are 34% more likely to suffer from anxiety, 110% more prone to alcohol abuse, and 155% more likely to take their own lives, and I have seen the flesh and blood evidence of those statistics in my office.  Anyone who automatically equates being "pro-choice" with "pro-women" is either an idiot or a liar.

The emotional havoc that comes as a result of this now four-decade long culture of death should come as a surprise to no one.  Regardless of the circumstances that gave rise to each decision to  terminate a pregnancy, each abortion is the elimination of a human life.   This is not a matter of philosophical or even theological debate.  It is plain science.  Life begins at conception.  And for the past 43 years our nation has been busy eliminating more than 57 million of those lives.

57 million.

Let that number sink in, because its greater than the current populations of Kentucky, Oregon, Oklahoma, Connecticut, Iowa, Mississippi, Arkansas, Kansas, Utah, Nevada, New Mexico, Nebraska, West Virginia, Idaho, Hawaii, Maine, New Hampshire, Rhode Island, Montana, Delaware, North and South Dakota, Alaska, Vermont and Wyoming combined.    To kill that many people over a 42 year period, you must terminate a pregnancy every 20 seconds--and not stop killing for an entire generation.

Meanwhile, God continues to speak clearly.  "You shall not murder."

Anyone who objectively observes this bloodshed must come to the inescapable conclusion that abortion is not at heart a political issue.  It isn't even a philosophical issue.  It is, quite simply, Satanic.  In John 8:44, Jesus states that Satan's natural language is to lie, and his natural actions are to murder.  Anywhere there is deception and bloodshed on a massive scale, you can be sure our enemy is involved.  Whether it is Herod's murderous rage through a blood-soaked Bethlehem, Hitler's merciless and genocidal paranoia, or the lies of a U.S. President seeking to cast this issue as one of granting women "safe, affordable health care," death and deception can always be found holding hands.

Politicians who hide their moral cowardice with trite phrases like "reproductive freedom" and "women's rights" betray with their own incoherence the unvarnished reality that "I believe in a woman's right to choose" is half a sentence.  If you finish that sentence honestly, then what I've seen in the counseling room over the past 23 years begins to make perfect sense. And this bloodshed has happened on the watch of political leaders of both parties who value obfuscation over truth.  A generation ago, C.S. Lewis graphically yet accurately described the character of such leaders:

In a sort of ghastly simplicity we remove the organ and demand the function.  We make men without chests and expect of them virtue and enterprise.  We laugh at honor and are shocked to find traitors in our midst.  We castrate and bid the geldings be fruitful.

Satan has lied to us by telling us that there is a quick way out of a tough situation.  He has convinced us that the presence of moral complexity means that there is no moral clarity.

Meanwhile, God continues to speak with abundant moral clarity. "You shall not murder."

Since 1973, we've been told that this was an issue of women's rights and freedom of choice.  We believed that lie, and the result is roughly 29 million females aborted--and having no "choice" in the matter.  We were told that abortion would be, in part, a solution to supposed population control that would result in great financial costs to society.  We believed that lie, and the result is a workforce that lacks roughly 30 million workers who would be contributing to a social safety net that wouldn't be under such financial constraints with their contributions.

And as these ripple effects of our bloodshed continue to puzzle us, God continues to call out and say "You shall not murder."

We wonder why there is such seeming disregard for human life in society.  Why are women increasingly victims of violence?  Why does it seem that men are increasingly unable to control their lusts?  Why do they eagerly seek sex but avoid marriage and commitment?  Why do they think its OK to abandon their children to poverty and all its effects?  Why all the senseless killing in our schools?  From whence comes this beastly ambivalence toward the sanctity of human life?

Once again, God connects the dots with this command. "You shall not murder."

Our nation is swimming in the blood of its own innocent, and we do so because we have believed the lies of our enemy, who wants to see the bloodshed continue.  There is one way to stop it.  Turn from the enemy.  Stop being complicit in his schemes, and return to Jesus.

This is the great news of the Gospel--that even hands covered with blood can be forgiven.  The single mom who killed her child because she thought there was no other way can have peace.  The punk who drove his girlfriend to the Planned Parenthood clinic because he wanted pleasure without responsibility can be forgiven. The doctor who made millions off of baby's bones can be forgiven.  And the nation guilty of purging 57 million of its most vulnerable citizens--largely for the mere sake of convenience--can be forgiven, healed, and restored.  But the bloodshed has to stop.  We cannot find healing in the one true God while still sacrificing our children to Molech.

43 years.  57 million children.  One simple command.

"You shall not murder."

Monday, January 18, 2016

What Martin Luther King Teaches us About People Who Change the World.

A civilization that continues to produce soft-minded men purchases its own spiritual death on an installment plan.  -Martin Luther King.

Today, our nation honors a Baptist preacher who changed the world.

But like so many other heroes we celebrate, we often sanitize their legacy, leaving out those parts of their story that traumatize us.  Everyone American loves a war hero, but no one wants to see a soldier laying on a beach with his major organs exposed.

Every Christian loves to hear the story about a powerful conversion of a meth-addict, but few are attracted to the "sanctification story" of the next year after his conversion.

Likewise, everyone loves Martin Luther King's "I Have a Dream" speech.  But on this day, I wonder how many will truly think about the five years after that speech, and the cost involved in bringing about the change necessary for that dream to be realized?

But if you want to change the world for good, its going to cost you!  What follows are but five lessons we learn about people who change the world from the life of Dr. Martin Luther King:

1. You will find your ideas among the unpopular minority.  So many of the ideas Dr. King forwarded are merely assumed today.  Nearly every citizen in our nation is aghast at the thought of segregated lunch counters, burning crosses, and "separate but equal" schools and other institutions.  Yet just a moment ago in time, these things were all a reality, and accepted as the norm.  To that world, King's "dream" sounded more like a sick, Pink Floyd-inspired nightmare.  And the threats on his life, along with police brutality throughout the American south and the confrontation between federal and state governments are the chief evidence that his ideas were not readily accepted.

Standing on this side of that history, we tend to look at the romanticized version of King embodied in his famous 1963 speech in front of Lincoln's memorial.  Its nearly impossible to stand firmly within the 21st century and believe that his lofty picture of "the sons of slaves and the sone of slave owners" sitting down together was so opposed.  But great ideas are often not initially received as great ideas.

2. You must care about something much bigger than yourself.  His life was threatened.  His family was threatened.  He received multiple bomb-threats, and most of his letters were written from jail cells.  To endure such hardship, you have to look beyond your own comforts toward something bigger.  And you have to believe that bigger picture is possible.

3. You will be misunderstood--often.  I was experiencing my childhood less than a decade after King's death, and I remember many in the American south where I was raised speaking of King as a "troublemaker."  I remember asking--quite honestly--how wrong it is to seek equality between white and black.  The multiple answers I received from well-meaning but uninformed adults sounded something like this:

He stirred up things he didn't need to stir up

He caused so much unrest.  Surely there was a better way to do it.

He could have left well-enough alone.  Things weren't so bad. (Of course, it was my WHITE friends who said this.)

Change-agents are often seen as troublemakers.  Honestly, in the midst of any major societal shift people will confuse Martin Luther King with Bobby Seale, and that's what happened during King's life.

4. You may never live to see the change you created.  I was born in South Carolina less than 4 years after King's death, and marriage between white and black was and remained illegal until I was in high school.  Even today, King's dream continues to unfold, and he never lived to see most of it.  Such is often the case with initiators of change.

5. It may cost you your life.  King's life was horrifically, unjustly, and suddenly cut short on a motel balcony in 1968 because--to put it bluntly--people hated him.  Throughout his professional life, Dr. King seemed acutely aware of this possibility, and embraced it as part of the potential cost.  People who change the world are willing to die for the change they believe is necessary.

So who will be the next world-changer?  The next change-agent whose ideas make us a better society?  I'm not sure.  But on this day, I recognize that without the traits mentioned above, there is no hope of another MLK rising from among us.  God, give us more visionaries willing to count the cost--and pay it for the sake of something bigger than themselves.

Thursday, January 07, 2016

Burns, Baltimore, and the Christian Response to the Oregon Protest

Yesterday morning, I sat in front of my television screen as a CNN reporter interviewed a member of an armed group of Protesters in Burns Oregon.  As these protesters continue their occupation of a federally-owned building, they claim that their armed resistance is their only present recourse at "fighting back" against government intrusion into their lives, and government oppression of their freedoms.

On the surface, this situation seems quite simple.  These men have broken the law and government should hold them accountable.  And rest assured, American mainstream media does love the "surface level" coverage of issues like this.  "Anti-government protesters" frequents the crawl on most media outlets already, and the tone and expression of reporters betrays the underlying assumption of most: they should leave.  They should be prosecuted.  And if they don't surrender, then these hicks deserve what's coming to them.

As I watched this story unfold yesterday morning, I couldn't help but remember another very different place--the city of Baltimore.  I've lived within the shadow of that great city for more than 11 years now.  And last year, that area too was subject to great unrest and the threat of an all-out street war between local police and the African American community.  The media rightfully struck a very different tone when reporting on the riots, but I couldn't help but notice others employing language similar to that being used to describe the men in Oregon.  "These protesters are out of line.  They should be quiet.  They should just obey the law.  And if they don't comply, then those thugs deserve what's coming to them."

Between Burns Oregon and Baltimore Maryland, there is little in common on the surface.  These are very different people living in very different environments.  Yet I can't help but think there is a link between the oppression of the former and the systemic injustice that affects the latter.  And that link is  the government itself.  In one environment, judicial fiat appears to have taken away land and grazing rights that many American western cultures depend on for their continued survival and growth.  In the other environment, decades old judicial tyranny enabled by executive enforcement of "Jim Crow" era systems has taken away opportunity and replaced it with poverty, violence, and a drug culture that continues to corrupt the city, the surrounding suburbs which purchase it, and the authorities who use it as a billy stick. (I've written more extensively about the issues in Baltimore here.)

But the "urban-rural" divide in our country--largely exacerbated by "red" and "blue" political gamesmanship that encourages the one to see the other as the enemy--may be the very thing that keeps us from seeing the real source of what ails us.  Winston Churchill is famously quoted as saying "Democracy is the worst form of government, except for all the others."  What Churchill was conveying in that quote was two-fold:  There is no better system of government in the modern world than the democratic form.  But even democracies can be compromised, and even corrupted.

What does this have to do with the Christian Gospel?  Followers of Jesus believe His Lordship doesn't stop at the church house door, but extends to the very ends of the earth, and inserts itself into every dominion (Colossians 1:15-16).  To use the language of urbanology, what Paul calls "dominions" the modern world refers to as "domains."  Domains are, quite simply, the various sectors of society that need to function well within themselves, and in cooperation with others, for the advancement of civilization and the promotion of human flourishing.  Arts, Agriculture, Science and Technology, Education, Health Care, Economics, and Human Government are all necessary for these ends, which means that Christians should have an interest in seeing each of these promoted and designed in such a way that they promote the advance of those created in God's very image.

Where Government is concerned, we have no ambitions toward theocracy, as our own nation's Founders understood.  Contrary to the claims of pseudo-historians like David Barton, America has never been a "Christian nation."  Though many of our nations founders were devout Christians who no doubt wielded the influence of their faith on the body politick, they too understood that government need not be distinctly Christian in order to serve God's purposes.  Freedom of religion--any religion--principled pluralism, the concept of a free church in a free state, and liberty of conscience all emanate from the Christian worldview, and are simultaneously compatible with the original principles of liberty laid down by the Founders of this nation who were equally intent that government give no specific endorsement or favoritism to any particular expression of religion.

And they understood this because Paul understood it.  When Paul writes in Romans 13 that government "is God's servant for your good," he was speaking, not of an Israelite theocracy, but the Roman republic; the same Roman republic that occupied Palestine as Paul pens this letter, and the same government that imprisoned Paul as he writes at least three other letters (Ephesians, Philippians, and Colossians)  In that context, Paul called government a force for good, ordained by God Himself.  As a result, Christians owe earthly government their allegiance, their obedience in all things not contrary to the Gospel, and their taxes.

So just obey the law.  Enough said, right?  But before my liberal readers forward this post to their friends in Oregon, or before my conservative readers link to this post to share with their friends in Baltimore, let's look a little deeper.  Because before the end of the first century, another Apostle writing from political exile would speak of Rome in a quite different way:

"The woman was arrayed in purple and scarlet, and adorned with gold and jewels and pearls, holding in her hand a golden cup full of abominations and the impurities of her sexual immorality.  and on her forehead was written a name of mystery, 'Babylon the great, mother of prostitutes and of the earth's abominations.'"  -Revelation 17:4-5

With very few exceptions on the theological fringe, the overwhelming consensus of evangelical scholarship contends that John was here speaking of Rome.  The same government entity described by Paul as a force for good is now, less than 30 years later, described by John as the whore of Babylon.  Apparently, some very significant changes had taken place.

The point?  Government, when it reflects the image of God, can be a force for good--justice, mercy, righteousness, peace, stability, and prosperity.  But government, when it reflects the fall, is like a prostitute that spreads STDs.  So how do we relate these principles to situations we have witnessed around our own country in the past year?

First, no Christian who genuinely follows Jesus and takes Scripture seriously is "anti-government."  What Christians want is "good government."  And in the context of democracy, the responsibility for the perpetuity of good government falls ultimately on the people themselves.  It also means that when government "of, for and by" the people expresses itself in a way that is "above, against, and opposite" the people, its time to speak out.

That means when we witness injustice in any form, we speak to it and advocate for those suffering from it.  Doing so in no way justifies all the actions of those who are oppressed.  This means addressing systemic racism in Baltimore is not equivalent to "hating cops" or putting your stamp of approval on looters and arsonists.  Additionally, addressing government over-reach in the American west is not equivalent to advocating all-out war between western ranchers and the US government, or condoning the armed takeover of a government facility.  It simply means contending for corrections in a human and thus imperfect system so that the system contributes to the advance of civilization.  And sometimes, advancing civilization means dismantling dysfunctional aspects of civil government.

Second, Christians never recognize human government as an ultimate authority.  That role belongs only to God.  That means the Christian response to Baltimore must be deeper than "those people just need to obey the law," and the Christian response to Burns must be deeper than "they just need to surrender."  This is a time when deeper questions need to be asked, because if they aren't, government will step into both scenarios with "solutions" that may actually make things worse.  Churchill was right, our form of government is the worst, except for all the others.  That means that overall, we have a great system of law and justice.  But it also means that its not perfect.  To employ the apostolic metaphor, sometimes the US government is like a whore.  Statism is a real threat, and through statism, our government is prostituting herself to her own harm and the harm of those in her path.  When she acts in such ways, Christians have a responsibility to point to the root of the problem, challenge the people to stop blaming each other, and encourage Americans from both parties to stop leaving money on the nightstand.

Third, Christians must seek unity and make peace.  "Choosing sides" is a politician's game.  Followers of Christ are called to something far greater than merely sitting in front of a TV using words like "thugs" and "hicks."  The roots of each are found in a creeping statism that is eager to be the "solution" to a problem that statism caused in the first place.  Through our spheres of influence, we should be pointing out the commonalities between Burns and Baltimore.  and rooting those commonalities in the Christian narrative, which explains these sorts of injustices by pointing to human sin, and offers the ultimate solution by pointing to Jesus.

One day, the Kingdoms of this world will become the Kingdom of our Lord and His Christ. (Revelation 11:15).  On that day, America will not be the exception, and the stars and stripes will become a heap of ash along with every other Kingdom and nation-state.  But until that day, followers of Jesus must play their role in helping our nation be what Paul envisioned as the ideal for every human government--a force for good administering God's own authority on earth.



Monday, January 04, 2016

Less Isolation, More Incarnation: A Resolution for the New Year

Tomorrow morning, I'll make my first visit of 2016 to my local gym.  I dread that visit.

I don't dread it for the reasons you might think.  Actually, I've been faithful with daily exercise through the holidays (though I can't say the same for diet.  But who can at Christmas?)  I will pretty much hate going to the gym until around the end of March, because from now until then, the "New Year's Resolution crowd" will be blocking my access to the elliptical, the pool, the nautilus, and pretty much anything else I want access to.

I dread going to the gym tomorrow because it's the New Year, and I know there will be a million people there.  Why?  Because too many of them make a New Year's Resolution to "lose weight" or "get in better shape" and truly believe they will be able to do it in a matter of weeks.  Most will be gone by the end of February.

Its that time again for people to start making good on the promises they made to themselves on New Year's Eve.  Some want to lose weight.  Others want their hair back.  Still others want to start a different career path, further educate themselves, or improve a significant relationship.

With all that is going on it our world at present, I have a suggestion for those who follow Christ--a New Year's resolution that could, quite literally, change the world.  Here it is:

For 2016, I resolve to be less isolationist and more incarnational.  

From the time that I was a child, I remember hearing warnings about "hanging out with the wrong people."  To be sure, there is wisdom--especially in one's youth--about choosing one's close friends carefully.  But too often, that wisdom can devolve into a lifestyle of living in a bubble.  When that happens, you end up spending all your time reading "Christian" books, going only to "Christian" movies, going to a "Christian" school, and living your life in a way that makes every conversation happen in an echo chamber.

This doesn't just produce an ineffective disciple.  It results in a disobedient life.  Jesus didn't just stand on the precipice of heaven and preach a sermon while refusing to get his hands dirty.  Christians just celebrated a season that observes how God wrapped Himself in human flesh and lived among us.

The Gospel itself is a testament to the fact that Jesus intentionally and strategically invests His life among those who are in no way like Him.  And then, post-resurrection, He says this to His disciples:

"As the Father has sent me, so also do I send you."

In short, following Jesus means that we employ the same incarnational approach that He did.  Conversely, it means that isolationism from the world He died to save--refusing to befriend and invest your life in others who are not like you, don't share your religious, political, or cultural views, bear a different skin color, live on a different socioeconomic level--isn't just wrong.  Isolationism is antiChrist.

However, true incarnation doesn't involve minimizing differences, or compromising or diluting the faith until there is little of it left that is recognizable.  On the contrary, true incarnation is the counter-cultural presence of God.  That's precisely what the life of Jesus involved, and its precisely what we as His followers are called to do.  Some have mistakenly viewed isolation and syncretism as opposites.  The truth is that both share much more in common when it comes to their common, anti-Gospel roots.  Compromise on the clarity of the Gospel obscures the person and work of Jesus and is also antiChrist.

And antiChrist behavior will yield antiChrist results.  Isolation breeds ignorance, racism, xenophobia, cultural superiority, and number of other conditions that mar the image of God.  Conversely, Gospel incarnation breeds familiarity, fairness, clarity, and respect for every human being.

Isolation breeds war.

Syncretism breeds an uneasy detente.

Incarnation breeds peace.

Take a look around.  I think we could use some peace.  And as I survey the current cultural landscape that includes jihadists among us, armed militia taking control of government buildings, and a fiery election season characterized by two political parties poised for near-civil war, I think followers of Jesus may be the only people capable of bringing that peace.

But the art of peacemaking is, by default, the art of intentionally entering a world of conflict, and loving that divided world with the very affections displayed by Jesus on the cross as He bleeds on their behalf.

So that's my top resolution this year.  How about you?  Are you willing to walk across the street--or across the political isle--or across the tracks, and live intentionally in relationship with those different from you?  Will you love your neighbor of a different political party during what promises to be a divisive election season?  Will you love your neighbor of a different race?  Different religion?  That's what its going to take, if you want to truly live like Jesus.

Peace is a tall order in any context.  But the Gospel is powerful enough to bring it, and Gospel people are the only ones commissioned to take it.  Let's resolve that 2016 be the year followers of Christ committed to less isolation, and more incarnation.