Archive for the ‘Theology’ Category

What the Right Gets Wrong: about Idolatry

January 4, 2021

What the Right Gets Wrong:  about Idolatry

I the Lord your God am a jealous God

—-Exodus 20:2

            What is “idolatry”?  The Religious Right would say that such things as Santeria and Voodoo are idolatrous.  They combine Christian and non-Christian religious practices into one religion.  In the case of Santeria, more common in my native Florida, they sometimes quite explicitly rename and rebaptize the orisha of Yoruba sorcery as Catholic saints.  Although in the days of slavery there was an attempt to make the religion seem Christian to outsiders, its emphasis on animal sacrifice, spirit possession and other traditional African practices show that it is far different from the Catholicism of the Cuban plantation owners and masters. 

            Many in the Religious Right consider Catholicism and Orthodoxy to be idolatrous as well.  Both religions use images of Christ and the saints in worship, and Catholicism in particular has a strong emphasis on the saints as intermediaries who can receive prayers, intercede with God on behalf of the faithful, and even perform miracles to aid those who call on them.  All of this is abhorrent to Evangelical Protestants, and as a child I was often warned to be wary of those idolatrous Catholics.  Today however the Religious Right includes both Catholic and Protestant and they often set aside their theological differences in favor of political cooperation.

            Catholics and Orthodox, and maybe some followers of Voodoo and Santeria, would say that these saints or spirits are lesser beings than the Creator, even servants, and therefore it is no disloyalty to the Creator to pray to them.  Fundamentalist Protestants, on the other hand, reject all this imagery and iconography and ritual and prayer to intercessory powers, saying they are violations of the majesty of the One God.  God will surely smite such false worship, for the LORD is a jealous God.

            But many of the largest, richest Protestant churches, and the most powerful and celebrated preachers, are themselves idolaters.  The foremost example in the 20th Century was the Christian Nationalists.  In the 1930s a particularly odious example arose, the “German Christians.”  They sought to combine their primarily Lutheran heritage with the militarism and nationalism of Adolf Hitler. To them, any church that dissented from the rising political regime of the Nazi party was not only threatening the unity of the nation; it was rebelling against God, who established all nations and leaders and had chosen their nation to dominate all others as the foundation for the new Kingdom of God, the Holy Roman Empire reborn.  Not all Christians agreed with this mixing of nationalism and Christianity, however, and in 1934 a gathering of Reformed, Lutheran and United church leaders met in Barmen, Germany, where they approved and issued The Theological Declaration of Barmen.  Relying explicitly on Scripture for each of its main points, it argued that not only was this Christian nationalism theologically wrong, but that it was heresy.  In seeking to give the Church explicit political power, and in seeking greater union between Church and State, the German Christians were actually demoting the Church and turning it into an organ of the State (Barmen Declaration II, 5).  The Church should obey the Gospel alone, and not be swayed by allegiance to political movements (Barmen II, 3).  The declaration culminates with the final anathema, “We reject the false doctrine, as though the church in human arrogance could place the Word and work of the Lord in the service of any arbitrarily chosen desires, purposes, and plans” (Barmen II, 6).  While the German Christians argued that the Nazi state was a Christian nation and thus the protector of the Church, those now known as the Confessing Churches argued that this pretense really meant replacing Jesus with the State as the center of concern.  The Church was being seen and being used as a means to an end, that end being the unity and strength of the State, and in particular the strength of the ruling political authorities of the State. 

            The Religious Right would say that this happened in a foreign land; while those Europeans were easily deceived, the United States is a blessed nation, a Shining City on a Hill, and could never be lured into idolatry.  Or, they might go further and say the Germans were corrupted because they were socialists; after all, Socialism is right there in the name “National Socialist German Workers’ Party.”  Sure, they fought Communists, first on the streets of Germany and then across Europe; but really they were Socialists just like Stalin and Hugo Chavez and Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez:  all Socialists, all exactly the same.  The Religious Right, on the other hand, are all Capitalists and thus love Freedom and are Good and Right—again, it’s there in the name “Right Wing.” 

            And because they are capitalists and capitalism is Good, many of them embrace a theology known as “The Prosperity Gospel.”  According to this theology, which has roots in the “power of positive thinking” of Norman Vincent Peale and more recently in such preachers as Jim Bakker, God wants all the faithful followers of his son Jesus to have “every good and perfect gift” (James 1:17).  Whatever you ask for, if you believe, you will receive (Matthew 7:7; Mark 11:24).  And so on, and never mind where the Bible hints that these are spiritual blessings (Luke 11:13); God knows you want nice clothes and a minivan and a good job and early retirement and three square meals plus a day, and God is good and wants you to have whatever you ask.  So just believe in God and Jesus, as the preacher tells you and describes them, and you will get all the worldly goodies you desire.  Believe in God and Jesus SO THAT you can get all the worldly goodies.  In the Prosperity Gospel, in the version of Christianity taught by chair of the spiritual advisory board serving Donald Trump, God and Jesus are there waiting for you to show up with your spiritual ATM card to withdraw cold, hard cash to buy everything you desire; or, if your credit runs out, it’s because you didn’t believe hard enough or obey your preacher closely enough.  Just as your worldly job is a means to an end, that end being your paycheck, so too does the Prosperity Gospel proclaim that if you work for God, He will give you an even bigger paycheck, and all this faith is the means by which you can attain worldly prosperity. 

            In Catholicism, we pray to the saints and to the Virgin Mother, who prays to the Father for us, who saves us from our sins, and that is called “idolatry” by the Evangelical Protestants.  In Evangelical Protestantism you pray directly to the Father through Jesus, and the Father will give you miracles and magic and fulfill your wishes for comfort and profit and even for power over others, and somehow that isn’t idolatry?  One prays to something that is not God to reach what is God; the other prays to God like a letter to Santa, making God the tool and prosperity the goal.  But of course, that’s Capitalism and therefore Good and therefore holy.  Right?

            No!  Idolatry is not whether you have an empty cross or one with the crucified Christ.  It is not whether you have no pictures in your church, or only pictures of Jesus, or pictures of all the saints.  Idolatry is when you make the ultimate reality, God, a tool of your own tiny ambitions.  As Kierkegaard put it:

If someone who lives in the midst of Christianity enters, with knowledge of the true idea of God, the house of God, the house of the true God, and prays, but prays in untruth, and if someone lives in an idolatrous land but prays with all the passion of infinity, although his eyes rest upon the image of an idol—where, then, is there more truth?  The one prays in truth to God although he is worshipping an idol; the other prays in untruth to the true God and is therefore in truth worshipping an idol.[1]

            Idolatry is, in a way, the natural default for the human-deity relationship.  It is the childish (in Kierkegaard’s terms, “esthetic”) understanding.  God is to be understood and used; God acts and thinks just like us, and can be flattered like us, grows cross like us, kicks ass like we imagine we would do if we were gods, and showers money, political control, fame, military might and everything else we imagine as “good” on those who please Him.  And since most of us live in a patriarchal culture, we imagine God as an older, rather stern male ruler.  We want, as Kierkegaard said, a direct relationship to God, one that is straightforward, where we know the rules and know how to work the rules to get what we want, like a teenager who knows that if he or she just gets good grades and isn’t arrested for drinking then Dad will give them a car next birthday.  What we don’t want is what Kierkegaard says is true worship:  to love God, to know that God is beyond all comprehension, to orient all one’s own personal ambitions and values around that idea of being utterly transparent in the presence of God, who wants to be in that relationship despite the fact that literally nothing one could do could possibly “earn” one a spot in Heaven.     The Prosperity Gospel is not “gospel” at all, in any meaningful sense.  It is not “gospel” in the sense of being a message about Jesus, who said that if you follow his way you’ll end up like him, serving God and loving unconditionally, with no place to lay your head, carrying your cross.  It is not “good news,” but just the old “works righteousness,” the old magical thinking, the old drudgery, where you do everything to try to follow the rules laid down by your taskmaster the preacher in the name of the boss in Heaven and, if you’re good, you’ll get a raise and maybe even a Christmas bonus.  And in the sense that we use “gospel” to mean “truth,” it is most assuredly not gospel.  It is just a way to make the rich comfortable since they can measure their virtue the way we measure our value to the company by our paycheck; and it is a way to humiliate the poor in the same way, while pacifying them that if they just obey their human taskmasters who claim to speak in God’s name, they too can earn a promotion.  It is idolatry, pure and simple. 

            The truth be told, however, idolatry is not confined to the so-called “Prosperity Gospel.”  It is central to the entire so-called “Religious Right.”[2]  Jerry Falwell Sr. described the USA as the last bastion for Christian mission and for worldwide evangelism.[3]  Without the United States, God would have no earthly basis for spreading the Gospel or for any of the other missions to feed the poor, bring medicine and other good works done by the Southern Baptist Convention.  Thus it is the duty of every Christian to support the U.S. military and American efforts to fight Communism everywhere.  While God may be able to raise up children for Abraham out of these stones here (Matthew 3:9) apparently God needs the U.S. Army, Navy and all the rest to guard and spread His kingdom.  And in exchange for doing the good work of God, God will give the U.S. security and prosperity.  What hubris!  No longer are Christians to regard themselves as mere unprofitable servants (Luke 17:10); instead we can expect a payoff in this life.  If the U.S. government fights legalize marijuana, fights pornography, upholds traditional heterosexual marriage and enforces other purity and behavioral laws, it can expect God’s blessing.  However, doing that stuff Jesus talked so much about—-feeding the hungry, sheltering the homeless and so on (Matthew 25:31-46; see also Amos chapters 1-8, Micah 3, Isaiah 3:14, Isaiah 5:8, Ezekiel 18:5-9, Luke 16:19-31, and the Epistle of James)—that would be too expensive, that would be “socialism” and take away from spending on the all-important military, and would reduce the poor person’s dependence upon the churches and thus might reduce their control.  What hubris!  What arrogance!  The Jesus who tells his followers to put away their swords, and assures them that he could call upon twelve legions of angels (Matthew 26:52-53), but who tells Pilate that his kingdom is not of this world (John 18:36) needs the USA to carry out his purposes; and the God who could do all this needs the nation so much that He is willing to bargain with its leaders that if they’ll enforce this strict moral code (much of which is nowhere in the Bible) while leaving the private sector to decide whether or how to care for the poor (though the prophets said rulers would be judged by how the poor were treated) then God will provide worldly success and prosperity to the nation.  This is little more than the Prosperity Gospel for nations instead of for individuals; and it is just as idolatrous. 

            We don’t have to take my word, or Niebuhr’s word for the claim that nationalism is a form of idolatry, a betrayal of true and faithful religion.  The prophet Jeremiah dealt with much the same thing, in the final days of the kingdom of Judah (Jer. 7).  His book, which seems to have been dictated by him directly to his scribe Baruch, describes the sins of the rich and powerful as they plotted and blundered their way to destruction by the Babylonian army.  There was plenty of straight-up idolatry, the sort that literalists denounce, with people praying to the Baals even at shrines set up in the temple of YHWH.  But along with this, Jeremiah condemns as equally bad the social sins, such as oppressing the resident immigrant and the poor, stealing, perjury, and adultery.  But the people who did these things felt safe and had no desire to repent, because the temple of YHWH was there in the city and God needed that temple, the last one left after the ravages of the Assyrian and Babylonian armies.  Speaking to the faithful church-goers, the people entering the Temple to worship the true God, Jeremiah says, “Do not trust in these deceptive words:  ‘This is the temple of the LORD, the temple of the LORD, the temple of the LORD.’” (Jer. 7:4).  Only if you repent of your sins, Jeremiah tells them, can you or the nation be saved.  But they did not repent, either of their crimes against the poor or of their combining of worship of YHWH with foreign deities.  And in the end, God allowed the city called by God’s name, the throne of David, and the Temple built by Solomon to honor the one true God to be destroyed—undoubtedly to the astonishment of those firm believers in Israelite exceptionalism, convinced as they were that God needed them and their nation and that thus they could bargain with God.  They were sure that if they agreed to offer sacrifices in the Temple then the LORD would simply look the other way while they robbed and oppressed the poor.  And as the prophet Amos made clear, it is not just the one who breaks the law to rob the poor who will be punished; even the powerful ones who creates unjust laws and profit from them are damned (Amos 2:8). 

            The one who denies food to the poor, or beats up a gay person, or imprisons an immigrant, or despises a different race, or burns down a mosque so that God will see and be pleased and reward them is exactly the same spirit as the one who cuts out a child’s heart as a gift to some god or demon so the sun will come up and the crops be plentiful.  It is human sacrifice, nothing more:  I will sacrifice this other person’s liberty, dignity, even their life so that some powerful spirit being will grant me power and success.  Falwell’s claim that feeding the hungry is a sin if done by a governmental agency but a virtue when done by individuals or churches is, at best, nonsense:  what else is the government for, except to carry out large-scale projects that many people need but that no one individual can achieve alone?  More likely it is not so much confusion and nonsense as it is that old-fashioned sinful evasion of God’s will, pronouncing human precepts as the divine will (Isaiah 29:13, Mark 7:6-8, among others).  It is wrong, Falwell says, to allow a government to do God’s work of justice and care; it is holy to stop the government and leave it to your own will—if you decide to get around to it.  This is idolatry in its purest meaning:  self-worship.  The true worship of the true God is much harder and more troubling:  to care for those God cares for, the poor, the immigrant, the one without family to help (Psalm 146:9, James 1:27 etc.); and to do it knowing that no matter how much you give, it does not earn you anything extra (Matthew 20:1-16) since everything you have was a gift from the start. 


[1] Søren Kierkegaard, Concluding Unscientific Postscript to Philosophical Fragments, v. 1; edited and translated, with introduction and notes by Howard V. Hong and Edna H. Hong (Princeton, NJ:  Princeton University Press, 1992) p. 201

[2] For a more detailed yet accessible discussion of this, see James Comey, “Reinhold Niebuhr and Jerry Falwell:  the Christian in Politics;” https://scholarworks.wm.edu/honorstheses/1116/ (The College of William and Mary, 1982), pp. 78-115

[3] Comey, p. 60

What the Right Gets Wrong: about the Antichrist

September 17, 2020

What the Right Gets Wrong: about the Antichrist

 

Historians say that America is an apocalyptic land. The Puritan settlers saw their struggle to tame the wilderness as an apocalyptic struggle, and later saw the hand of Satan at work against them not only among the natives and the wild beasts of the forests but also among their own neighbors. During the American Revolution pamphlets proclaimed King George III as the Antichrist. The Shakers believed that the Messiah had in fact returned, as a woman, their founder Ann Lee Stanley. Jumping ahead a few decades, in the early 1840s William Miller claimed to have deduced the exact date of the Rapture, through numerical calculations based particularly on the prophecies of Daniel. Around a half million people were sitting on hills in 1843 waiting to see Christ return—-this at a time when the entire population of the United States was only a few million, so it was close to 1% of the population by my count. Their conviction was so strong that, when Christ did not return, some went mad. Most returned home, to their unplowed fields and derisive neighbors. The event is known to history as The Great Disappointment.

But while thinking about the Rapture and the Antichrist has been an important part of American religion and even politics at times for even longer than we’ve been a nation, it was only in the 20th Century that this thinking became really systematized and mass marketed. In the 1920s a series of religious tracts, called The Fundamentals, was published and distributed freely to promote a socially conservative, biblically literal, and morally strict interpretation of Protestant Christianity in opposition to the godless and hedonistic culture of the Roaring Twenties, with its speakeasies, its flappers, and the devilishly seductive sounds of the saxophone. This was the beginning of what we today call “Fundamentalism.” And perhaps because the apocalyptic portions of the Bible are so clearly not “literally true” in any literal meaning of the word “literally,” Fundamentalists have been drawn to, even fixated on precisely those passages. A truly literal reading of the Revelation of John would look like a Godzilla movie: “I saw a giant beast with seven heads and ten horns standing by the sea,” and so on. The problem is that Daniel, Revelation and other apocalyptic writings, Jewish and Christian, Scriptural and extracanonical, were written using symbols, even code, which the faith community could recognize and understand but to outsiders would seem to be gibberish. An obvious example is where Jesus is described as a white-haired man with a sword coming out of his mouth; the unhistorical depiction of him as old symbolized his timeless authority while the sword symbolized the power of his words. Furthermore, apocalyptic writing is not linear; it is often depicted as a vision or dream, and like a dream it tends to skip around. There are two different descriptions of the end of the universe in John’s revelation alone. But the Fundamentalist Protestants were determined to find a single, literal interpretation for all these different prophecies, written by different authors centuries apart, as a response to the materialist scientific narrative they feared was taking over the culture. Ironically, in their desire to refute the scientific world view which they saw epitomized in Darwinism, they wound up accepting much of the scientific standard of “truth.” Prior to this time, most religious thinkers even in the Epistles had seen Scripture as both historically and symbolically true; and the symbolic was often viewed as more important. St. Augustine didn’t doubt the reality of either the history presented in the Bible nor its future predictions; but he believed the bare historical facts were far less important than the allegorical and symbolic elements, the spiritual realities revealed in these historical claims. For modern Fundamentalism, the strategy of confronting science with Scriptural “superscience” meant that the emphasis fell on the literal, historical claims, while the spiritual import was overshadowed. Augustine didn’t doubt that there would be a Rapture, but thought it far more important that you consider that you would meet God, whether in a thousand years or next Tuesday or both; so he didn’t seek to decipher the timeline. Fundamentalists have drawn out elaborate charts and maps of the coming end times, trying to identify some historical event or person as prefigured, making predicting the Rapture like an apocalyptic meteorological forecast: a prediction of coming facts whose value lies entirely in giving an accurate account of coming conditions so one can plan one’s activities for tomorrow. The result is that the more they focus on the “literal” truth and the coming factual events (which constantly change as one Rapture after another blows by) the less they focus on the things Jesus and the prophets said actually matter to God: to act justice, love mercy, walk humbly before God (Micah 6:8) and to give food to the hungry, to visit those in prison, and to welcome the alien (Matthew 25:31-46).

“Children, it is the last hour! As you have heard that antichrist is coming, so now many antichrists have come. From this we know that it is the last hour.” (1 John 2:18)

 

The first error of the Fundamentalists was to think of “the” Antichrist. John writes that there are many antichrists; when we see someone acting and speaking in a way the opposite of the Gospel, we know that person acts from the spirit of Antichrist. As another Scripture says, “by their fruits you shall know them.” When someone praises violence and revenge, that is the spirit of Antichrist.(1) When someone says that anyone foolish enough to go overseas to help fight Ebola deserves to suffer and should receive no help, that person speaks from the spirit of Antichrist.(2) The typical Fundamentalist approach to finding “the Antichrist” is to look for “signs:” events or facts supposed to be associated with the Antichrist as described in apocalyptic Scriptures. He’s supposed to be a great leader, so they look for a politician, particularly one whose political pronouncements differ from theirs (since obviously the Antichrist will be a self-proclaimed “liberal” and not a professed “conservative” trying to deceive anyone). He’s supposed to be a world leader, so they look at the United Nations as the “world empire” and its Secretary General as its “emperor,” regardless of the fact that the United Nations lacks both the power and the cohesion for such a task. Rather than entertain the “liberal” suggestion that Daniel was writing about Antiochus, and John of Patmos writing about Nero, and that their words speak to us today by describing general traits of evil and the promises of God to overcome it, they insist that the “literal” Antichrist must be a single present or future “ruler”—-no matter how strenuously they must interpret and allegorize the Scriptures to find this “literal” truth!

Fundamentalists with their “Thief in the Night,” “Left Behind” and The Late, Great Planet Earth have turned the Antichrist into a mythological monster or boogeyman fully as much as Hollywood did with “The Omen.” In doing so, they turned themselves from participants in God’s work into the audience. They expect to be watching safe from Heaven while the “bad people” who mocked them suffer torments galore. And what is the dividing line? What is the distinguishing characteristic of the good versus the bad, the saved versus the damned? It is not, primarily, whether they loved their neighbor as themselves. In “Thief in the Night” the main character is a churchgoing Christian who never does anything harmful to others, but she isn’t a Fundamentalist. She doesn’t expect a literal return of Jesus. In “Left Behind” one of those “left behind” is a young pastor whose entire congregation and senior pastor have vanished, leaving him because he didn’t believe hard enough. The problem is that the apocalyptic scriptures clearly describe the suffering of the faithful, but the Fundamentalist theology states that the faithful will be raptured away, safely and painlessly escaping the torments so gleefully and intricately described. To reconcile these claims, the Fundamentalists posit a third group, the good-but-not-good-enough, who will suffer because they refused to fully embrace Fundamentalist theology but who were basically good Christians and thus will get another chance, after they’ve been tortured and persecuted for their faulty theology.

The Antichrist is an expression for the power of evil and rebellion against God. It is literally “anti-Christ,” the opposite of Christ. The Fundamentalist theology too often turns the Antichrist into a thing, an external threat only. To oppose the Antichrist it is said to be necessary to believe in the literal reality of the Antichrist, but not necessary to act like Jesus or to follow His teachings. Jesus said, “You cannot serve God and Money,” (Matthew 6:24) but in the Left Behind Theology you can be rich beyond the dreams of avarice, so long as you have an intellectual conviction that the Antichrist will come and then Jesus will return. Jesus said, “Blessed are you who are poor,” (Luke 6:20), but in the “Left Behind” Theology your poverty counts for less than nothing. A liberal or liberation theologian who believes that Jesus loves the poor and calls us to love the poor, that sort of Christian the Left Behind Fundamentalist will declare is either damned to Hell with the Antichrist or, at best, doomed to endure the Tribulation before finally being allowed to join the “right” Christians who escaped all the trials by simply having a belief. A Prosperity Gospel preacher who says the poor are cursed, that they lack faith in God and therefore God is denying them material wealth while the rich are the most blessed and Godly people, that one the Left Behind Fundamentalist believe will accept as a fellow Christian and, if he or she merely says “I believe the Rapture is coming” that one will be raptured away and escape all the trials and tribulations that John and Daniel said the faithful would face. By turning the Antichrist from a spiritual danger and into a monster, the Fundamentalists have bled all the life out of the Gospel. They have made the Gospel safe for middle-class and rich people who want to be saved like Christians without either living like Christians or even admitting, humbly and repentantly, that they have failed to live as Christians and must rely on God’s gracious promise to count them as Christians anyway.(3)

To further protect themselves from having to actually live like Christians, the Fundamentalists who embrace this theology fundamentally altered the Biblical teachings of the Rapture. Eschatological scriptures, whether Daniel, The Revelation of John, the War Scroll of the Essenes or some other canonical or extracanonical writing, are written to people who are suffering persecution. The faithful are suffering. Thus, when the writer describes the future, the faithful will suffer. The one blessing is that the suffering will end, with the victory of good over evil. “And if those days had not been cut short, no one would be saved; but for the sake of the elect those days will be cut short.” (Matthew 24:22) The only mercy for anyone, faithful or faithless, is that the misery will end; but until that time we will all suffer together.

But in the Left Behind myth, only those who are “left behind” will suffer. The “good” people, the ones who affirm the literal truth of their teacher’s interpretation of the most obscure and controversial scriptures, will be raptured away, like passengers bailing out of a crashing plane and now floating gently to safety, watching with glee while those mean, wicked people perish in the fireball. Jesus may have said that the faithful are saved by showing love, particularly for the poor (Matthew 25:31-46), but for the Fundamentalists salvation is largely an intellectual matter: you accept certain facts and you are “saved,” while if you don’t then you are doomed no matter how much love, generosity and humility you have shown in your life. And conversely, one who accepts these salvation facts as presented can be a pretty prosperous and morally mediocre person, at best living up to the standards of middle-class respectability and perhaps not even that, perhaps even a very rich and powerful ruler just like the ones who persecute the faithful but avowing the right facts or at least giving lip service to them. You might even be a billionaire who has been accused, convicted or even confessed to a wide range of frauds, crimes, threats, sexual assaults, a braggart and a cheat, and be hailed by the “Left Behind” believers as “Chosen One” and “King of Israel” and other messianic titles. After all, the actual Christ, the humble, forgiving, weak, loving Jesus is hard to imitate, and it takes real faith to trust that figure to protect and save you; but the new messiah of the new gospel, the Prosperity and militaristic and lip-service gospel, who has all the worldly strength and worldly success, is easy to trust and easy to imitate, and many are those who find him (Matthew 7:13-14). So we find that richest, largest churches line up to proclaim Donald Trump as their messiah, literally, and see no contradiction between their Christian commitments and the lord they choose to shepherd those dreams——a lord who seems incapable of remembering even the simplest Biblical scripture, but instinctively quotes the Book of Satan.(4)

By changing “antichrist” from an adjective to a proper noun, from a spiritual to a political enemy, Evangelicals have inoculated themselves from the danger of ever having to take the threat of evil seriously. Jesus said, “Do not fear those who kill the body but cannot kill the soul; rather fear him who can destroy both soul and body in hell” (Matthew 10:28), but so-called “Evangelicals,” literally “Good-News People,” created a theology where a worldly, objective, particular political leader would be the greatest danger they had to face; and a worldly political leader can only kill the body. So a supposed future murderer and tormentor of the body became the greatest possible danger, and thus the greatest possible good became a strong man, a leader who would have the worldly power to beat that bad guy at his own game; and it was all fine if the protector and savior demanded that Christians sacrifice their ideals, their commitment to love their neighbors, the poor and the oppressed, and instead embrace lust, gluttony, greed, sloth, wrath, envy and pride by embracing a savior who for years openly boasted of his indulgences in all of them.(5) But the person who would actually seek God, whether you call yourself “Christian” or “Muslim” or nothing at all, will be the one who gives up looking for and fearing future boogymen, and worries more about those who already threaten to destroy the soul.

1 Donald Trump: “When someone attacks me, I always attack back…except 100x more. This has nothing to do with a tirade but rather, a way of life!” Twitter 7:56 AM · Nov 11, 2012; compare “Hate your enemies with a whole heart, and if a man smite you on one cheek, SMASH him on the other!” Book of Satan, III

2 Donald Trump: “The U.S. cannot allow EBOLA infected people back. People that go to far away places to help out are great-but must suffer the consequences! Twitter 8:22 PM · Aug 1, 2014; compare Matthew 25:36.
3 See Søren Kierkegaard, Practice in Christianity
4 “Man is the most vicious of all animals, and life is a series of battles ending in victory or defeat;” Donald Trump, People, Nov. 16, 1981 (https://people.com/archive/in-the-manhattan-real-estate-game-billionaire-donald-trump-holds-the-winning-cards-vol-16-no-20/ compare “Satan represents man as just another animal, sometimes better, more often worse than those that walk on all-fours, who, because of his ‘divine spiritual and intellectual development,’ has become the most vicious animal of all!” The Nine Satanic Statements, https://www.churchofsatan.com/nine-satanic-statements/ . Also compare Donald J. Trump Twitter @realDonaldTrump
When someone attacks me, I always attack back…except 100x more. This has nothing to do with a tirade but rather, a way of life!
7:56 AM · Nov 11, 2012

Hate your enemies with a whole heart, and if a man smite you on one cheek, SMASH him on the other!
—-Book of Satan, III, 7.
5 “The seven deadly sins of the Christian Church are: greed, pride, envy, anger, gluttony, lust, and sloth. Satanism advocates indulging in each of these “sins” as they all lead to physical, mental, or emotional gratification.” – Anton LaVey, The Satanic Bible

Things the Right Gets Wrong, pt. 2: Abortion

April 1, 2020

THINGS THE RIGHT GETS WRONG….about abortion!

 

I have always felt that it was only after a child was born and had a life separate from its mother that it became an individual person and it has always, therefore, seemed to me that what is best for the mother and for the future should be allowed.”

——-Rev. W. A. Criswell, Pastor First Baptist Church of Dallas, Texas, 1973

 

 

White American Evangelicals say that Donald J. Trump is the most, even the only Christian candidate for President of the United States. When asked why, they don’t generally point to his strict adherence to the Ten Commandments; after all, they themselves attribute Christly titles to him such as “Chosen One” or “King of Israel,” and he gladly accepts this idolatrous praise. He never attends church, preferring to spend the Lord’s Day on one of his privately-owned golf courses where the U.S. government pays him many times his official salary as President every time he swings. He’s boasted of his adulteries and how he gets a special thrill out of sleeping with the wives of his friends. His life has been defined by his covetousness. He lies and slanders with the impunity of a crumb-covered toddler denying he’s eaten a cookie. Nor do his followers cite Trump’s strict adherence to that central statement of Christian ethics, the Sermon on the Mount. While Jesus said to love the poor, Trump has repeatedly committed charity fraud, taking money meant for children with cancer, for veterans, for anyone. When Jesus says, “Love your enemies,” Trump says, “When someone attacks me, I always attack back…except 100x more. This has nothing to do with a tirade but rather, a way of life!”—- a “way of life” much more like the Satanic Bible than the Gospels: “if a man smite you on one cheek, SMASH him on the other!” (Book of Satan III, 7). When Jesus councils humility and urges his followers to “take the lowest seat,” Trump literally shoves world leaders out of his way so that he can be in the front of the picture. Trump has even said that he’s never sinned, he’s never had to ask for forgiveness—-denying a central teaching of Christianity and arguably the central tenet of Evangelicalism. All of this and more, Evangelicals say, is simply irrelevant. What they care about, what proves that Donald John Trump is the greatest defender of Christianity ever and that “going against him” is a sin against God. is that he’s appointed judges who opposed abortion. Nothing else—-not slander, not incitement to violence, not calling for violence against his opponents or peaceful protestors or even people found innocent of any crime, not corruption, not any possible charge one could make——can possibly match the great good he’s done by appointing “pro-life” judges.

But what if this is not true? What if this vilest of sins, abortion, is in fact not a sin at all? What if the entire controversy was simply created by Republican politicians, and right-wing clergy wishing political power, as a club with which to beat up Democrats, to whip up conservative voters, and to relieve the would-be righteous of the burden of actually fulfilling all that stuff about forgiving enemies and giving to the poor? If that is true, then not only is the Evangelical adulation of Donald Trump unfounded, but it is actually blasphemous, idolatrous; in vain do they worship, teaching as divine commandments what are only human teachings (Mark 7:7).

I want to start by saying that this is aimed at Protestant Fundamentalists and other so-called “biblical literalists.” Roman Catholic teaching is not “literalism” and has never claimed to be. Catholics say there was a Church well before there was a Bible, and that the teaching authority of the Roman Catholic Church is a second source of divine revelation alongside the Bible. In fact, prior to the Second Vatican Council (1962) Catholics were generally discouraged from reading the Bible itself, since laypeople required the Church (through its priests or at least the missal) to interpret it correctly. Catholic teaching on abortion has changed over time, as the judges in Roe v. Wade themselves noted; it was never solely based on the Bible, which hasn’t changed, but also on Catholic philosophical and theological teachings, on changing scientific understanding of reproduction, and on papal authority. Of course, if you are Catholic and it is part of your faith that even early-term abortion is a sin, you should follow that teaching; for whatever is not of faith, is sin. But good Catholics like Charles and Daniel Carroll, leaders of the American Revolution and early Constitutional debates, might not have believed this, since many prominent Doctors of the Church (including St. Augustine of Hippo and St. Thomas Aquinas) held that the fetus did not gain a human soul until at least forty days after conception. Early-term abortion might have required penance in the medieval Church, but it wasn’t murder. Only as the biology of reproduction was more fully understood did the Church settle on conception as the moment of ensoulment, in the 1800s. Given that history, the Supreme Court asks in its Roe v. Wade decision, how can we impose one religion’s view on the nation? And not only one religion’s view, but one part of one religion, and only one part of the historical view of that one part of that one religion? Catholics should follow their faith, and they have every right to try to persuade others to follow their faith and their moral teachings. But as I said, they are not pretending this is the “literal, uninterpreted, direct Word of God.”

The Protestant “Religious Right,” as established by Rousas Rushdoony, Jerry Falwell Sr., Pat Robertson, W.A. Criswell, Phyllis Schafley and many others, do claim to be Biblical literalists, defending the original faith which every true Christian must embrace. Furthermore, they claim that since this is a Christian, and even a Protestant Christian nation, any true American must oppose abortion because our Founding Fathers established this nation to follow God’s law.   But what if that is not true? What if literally none of that is true? What if the Founding Fathers did not oppose abortion, what if this “Christian nation” allowed abortion for the first century of its existence, what if the Bible itself allows abortion, and what if the Religious Right was not even founded to fight abortion and did not oppose abortion when the Roe v. Wade ruling was originally pronounced?

Let’s work backwards through history. The Religious Right (as we understand generally understand it) was originally founded to defend segregation: specifically, the right of private Protestant Christian schools to exclude black students based on their claim that the “clear, literal truth of the Bible” mandated that the races should remain separate. Their argument was that God created the various races and nationalities and assigned each to live in different parts of the world; if God had wanted them to all live together He wouldn’t have confused their language at the Tower of Babel and scattered them across the earth. When the Brown v. Board of Education ruling came down, requiring desegregation of public schools, white Protestant Christian racists began establishing private religious schools where they could keep minority children out based not on the now-debunked “separate but equal” argument, but because it was their religion. One of the more prominent of these was Bob Jones University. The U.S. government threatened Bob Jones with loss of tax-exempt status and all federal support if they did not allow non-white students to enroll and take classes with the same rights as every white student.

Protestant conservatives fought the Federal government for years to protect the tax-exempt status for Bob Jones University and other overtly racist institutions claiming religious backing for their discrimination. In the end, they lost, and Bob Jones was forced to at least officially cease discrimination on the basis of race. However, by that time a number of Protestant pastors and activists had organized and campaigned, legally and politically, for years, and had built a strong grass-roots organization which we today would call the “Religious Right.” At the same time Paul Weyrich, a Republican activist, had been working for years to lure Evangelicals away from the Democratic party and into the Republican camp. Now there was this network of politically involved and ambitious Evangelical clergy, if only they could stay together. After the final court ruling against Bob Jones, there was a conference call between a number of these Evangelical activists, to plan their next move. They had an organization, and at least the beginning of a movement. Fighting on behalf of segregationist religious institutions had brought Evangelicals into politics more forcefully than they had been since the disaster of the Scopes Monkey Trial. They didn’t want to lose that momentum, and that chance to reclaim political and cultural leadership of the nation. They needed a cause, something that they could rally around and could rally their congregations around. Some anonymous voice suggested, “What about abortion?”

Up until then, abortion had been a Catholic issue. Protestants opposed sex out of wedlock, but had no theological stance against abortion per se. The legal opposition to abortion in the USA was primarily driven by the anti-sex campaign of Anthony Comstock, a moralistic zealot who fought birth control, pornography, sex toys and anything else he considered “obscene.” Thus the opposition to abortion was moral, not theological; the feeling among anti-abortionists was that anything that made sex easier was immoral, unless the sex was necessary for married procreation. Prominent Evangelical leaders, such as W. A. Criswell, were at least moderately pro-choice, as was the Southern Baptist Convention overall. Politically, even vigorous conservatives like Barry Goldwater could be found in leadership positions in Planned Parenthood. But some six years after the Roe v. Wade ruling, Protestant Fundamentalists began working to convince other Evangelical clergy and congregations that abortion was not only an invitation to free love, but a sin against God, and that the clear and unvarnished Scripture said so.

And that is where we are now. Abortion was once almost entirely a Catholic issue; but for purely political reasons, white Protestant Evangelical leaders decided to create a new sin, to make it the centerpiece of their moral teaching and political organizing, and to use that issue to bring White Evangelicalism into the Republican fold. Once abortion would have been a personal matter for Protestants, a decision each individual made after consulting God in prayer and their doctor in the clinic. Now, it has become a shibboleth for all would-be religious conservatives, and even for irreligious conservatives. A businessman can be convicted of thousands of acts of fraud, can boast of his adulteries, can do business with known criminals, can brag about bribing politicians, can brag about his history of sexual assault and improprieties even with underage beauty-pageant contestants, can reject the words of Jesus about forgiving others and the words of Paul about the need for repentance, and can still win 80% or more of white Evangelical votes. So long as that politician opposes abortion and gay rights, there is literally no other sin he can commit that would strike Evangelicals as disqualifying. And while there are certainly Scriptures in the Torah and in Paul that oppose homosexuality, there is, I repeat, nothing in the Bible that condemns abortion.

It could be argued that in the 1970s the culture was becoming excessively libertine. Drug use, promiscuity, and general frivolity were praised everywhere, or so it seemed. Even “conservative” mainstream entertainment suggested that the society was falling apart, from the “Dirty Harry” and other movies where the “good guys” upholding law-and-order must turn vigilante against their incompetent and feckless bosses, to cop shows as diverse as “Kojak” and “Barney Miller” showing how all the police offices were shabby, with antiquated equipment, the cops themselves overworked, and generally showing a legal and law enforcement system underfunded and on the verge of collapse. It isn’t surprising that the message of the Religious Right found a sympathetic audience. The nation was struggling economically, the social fabric was frayed, we had seen riots and assassinations and domestic terrorism left and right, and millions of Americans expected a nuclear apocalypse in their lifetimes. Leaders such as Jerry Falwell Sr. and Pat Robinson spoke to this situation and urged America to reform itself morally. As a college student in the 1970s I shared some of those concerns, if not the near-panic that others felt.

But over time, worries about all these other excesses, and concerns about proclaiming the Gospel, seem to have slipped into the shadow of the one great monstrosity, Abortion. A billionaire playboy who indulged in virtually every excess of the 1970s, and who said he’d never had a sin to repent despite his life of drug-fueled sex parties, was not only accepted but is now praised in literally messianic terms. When nonbelievers look at the words of Jesus written in the Bible, about forgiving and loving and caring for the poor and humble, and then look at the modern Nero to whom Evangelicals make obeisance, the Gospel itself is discredited (Romans 2:24). Preaching and calling the nation to repentance has been replaced by power-politics, and as a result the desire for a gentle Shepherd had been replaced by a longing for a “strong man” who will protect his followers and humiliate their opponents. And what is most striking to me is that the Right seems largely unaware of how their message and values have changed, and how recent all those changes are.

The actual Biblical backing for this literalist anti-abortionist stance is surprisingly weak. As W. A. Criswell noted, the Genesis account of Creation states that Adam became a living soul when God breathed into his nostrils (Gen. 2:7). The Hebrew understanding of the nature of human life was that it was a living body; it did not preexist the body, and when it died and went to Sheol it was largely devoid of personality. The Psalms regularly depict the afterlife as a gloomy place regardless of whether one was “good” or “evil” (see Ps 6:5, 115:17 as examples). That is why Christians preached “the resurrection of the dead,” which was “to Greeks foolishness.” To the Greeks, and specifically to Platonism which was the dominant philosophy of the time, souls were immortal: they existed before birth, existed after death and were reborn into bodies according to their deeds and personalities (see Phaedo). Much Christian thinking about souls owes more to this pagan philosophy than to Hebrew understanding, because it was the common way of thought among so many early Christians. In this regard the Sadducees, who denied all notion of an afterlife, were more “fundamentalist” than were their Pharisee rivals, because the Sadducees rejected all Scripture except the Torah, and rejected the notion of an afterlife (Luke 20:27-33, Acts 23:8).   Much of the later debate about “ensoulment” depends on this Platonic metaphysic that Christians inherited from their culture, their previous lives as pagans, and from Neoplatonic philosophy which influenced important Christian theologians such as Origen and Augustine.  The original Christian teaching was much more in line with the Hebrew understanding:  that the dead are dead, and our hope in in a resurrection of the body, when both body and its animating soul will be restored to life by God, rather than in a soul that either was floating around in Heaven waiting to be born or which floats around after death waiting to be reborn.

The Torah did not have an idea of life prior to birth, and its concern was primarily for God’s blessing in this life. The famous Biblical quote, “Choose life,” had nothing to do with abortion; it is an admonition to obey the Torah so that God will grant you, the adult hearing these words, a long life (Deut 30:15-20). Exodus 21:22-25 states that if two men are fighting and accidentally injure a pregnant woman so that she miscarries, this is treated as a civil crime against the woman’s husband, not as a murder; only if there is injury to the woman is there punishment of “life for life.” Later Christian attempts to interpret this as not referring to the woman’s injury but only to the child’s does not fit the original Hebrew or the history of Jewish interpretation. It also does not fit with Numbers 5:11-31, which actually requires abortion in the case of suspected but unproven adultery. And while there are passages in the Prophets and the Psalms about how God knew me before I was born, while I was being made and so on, these are mostly poetry and intended as imagery and praise rather than scientific statements of the biology of personhood. Anyone who thinks the Bible does not use imagery or metaphor needs to explain how God walked through the Garden, sat on His throne in Heaven, or wrestled with Leviathan. The straightforward passages must guide our understanding of the less straightforward; and in this case, the Torah indicates that the fetus is not the same as an adult life. It is special, it is precious from the moment of conception; it is even said to be a blessing from God. But the Torah puts it in the hands of the parents, and does not tell the government to impose its will on the family.

I am not saying that abortion is morally permissible. I am not saying abortion is impermissible, either. I am saying that it is a moral decision, and requires the consideration of philosophers as well as religious and legal experts. It is not as straightforward as it is depicted by The Right, who did not even care much about it until it became a convenient club with which to beat The Left and a convenient flag to rally around. If it is recognized as a serious issue, nothing more or less, then people of good will can debate it and seek moral consensus. But today, people of insincere political ambition treat it as the highest commandment, outweighing everything the Bible and human moral reason has to say about racism, sexism, social justice, feeding the hungry, providing clean air and water for our children and their children’s children, or providing a sound economy, or peace, or anything else. Every sin, every incompetence, every corruption, every blasphemy has been forgiven by The Right so long as the corrupt, blasphemous, stupid, mentally unstable and unrepentant sinner is a president willing to appoint judges who will overturn Roe v. Wade. Literally all morality, all political reason, and all religion has been overturned and buried beneath the one commandment: Thou Shalt Not Allow a Woman to Choose to Abort a Pregnancy, for Woman is Too Immature, Unstable and Wicked to Make Choices On Her Own. Millions of the so-called Party of Lincoln are ready to require rape and child molestation victims to have their attackers’ babies, which is the very definition of sexual slavery. These people say it is morally necessary to require a woman to risk her health and her life, to give up nine months of her life to make whatever sacrifice she must to try to ensure a healthy pregnancy, and will gladly shame her if her pregnancy is outside of wedlock regardless of the circumstances——but if we require a rich man to pay even one percent more in taxes so that we can feed, cloth and shelter that baby once it is born, as Jesus commanded us to do, then that is said to be immoral, to be exploitation of the poor persecuted rich person, as a punishment for being rich, and even slavery. Making a woman give up at least most of a year and then endure greater pain than most men will ever know—-that is good and righteous; but making a man obey the express word of God to clothe, feed and shelter the poor, even when he can do it with the money he was going to pay for a tenth yacht—-that is horrible, unthinkable, slavery! How truly Isaiah prophesied of this generation: they set aside the word of God and replace it with the commandments of men.

Recognizing that abortion is a moral issue, as is taxation, adultery, political corruption, hunger, the environment and the rest would mean that we could consider all the moral duties and moral values in this issue. It would mean that we would not allow ourselves to treat the rights of women who are born and persons according to the Constitution matter less than future persons who are not considered persons under the Constitution. It is possible to argue that abortion is morally wrong without resorting the idolatry of the so-called “pro-life movement.” Granted, that would mean having to actually argue, which means listening to both sides, offering reasons the other side can understand, and striving for compromise that preserves values both sides respect instead of relying on legal force, murdering doctors and other attempts to replace civility with power and oppression.

 

 

BIBLIOGRAPHY

 

 

Roe v. Wade, 410 U.S. 113 (1973)

 

Abelfatah, Rund. “‘Throughline” Traces Evangelicals’ History on the Abortion Issue.” NPR June 20, 2019: https://www.npr.org/2019/06/20/734303135/throughline-traces-evangelicals-history-on-the-abortion-issue

 

Balmer, Randall. “The Real Origins of the Religious Right.” Politico. May 27, 2014: https://www.politico.com/magazine/story/2014/05/religious-right-real-origins-107133.

 

Ravitz, Jessica. “The Surprising History of Abortion in the United States.” CNN. June 27, 2016: https://www.cnn.com/2016/06/23/health/abortion-history-in-united-states/index.html

 

What Jesus Didn’t Say

March 12, 2019

It’s been too long since I posted anything here, and I regret that.  Once I got my most recent book out on Kindle I was focussed on writing this sermon, the first I’ve preached in over thirty years.  You can listen to it here:  https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=tZlvrASSTSo ; it starts at about 31 minutes in.  Or if you prefer, you can read my draft below.  

 

 

What Jesus Didn’t Say

 

 

 

 

I confess that I have some nervousness about preaching again after a twenty-five year hiatus. I’ve given lots of lectures, but to share God’s word with God’s people is more intimidating than sharing my own words. What could I have to say that is fitting to the significance, the sanctity of this setting? Nothing, really. Our human words are, as Paul said, like cheap pottery holding precious jewels. Besides, a lecture with a lot of pretentious vocabulary is a good lecture; but no one wants a sermon with a word study. Lectures and sermons are just different.

Then I read the lectionary selections for today, and hope dawned. Both the reading from the Prophets and from the Gospel are about teaching! And I’m a teacher! It seemed to me providential, or at least lucky, that of all the days that I could have been invited to preach, I’d have scriptures for the day that seem so suited for my background.

First, Nehemiah. Nehemiah is not usually known as a teacher. I don’t think his book is the first choice for Rally Day sermons. Nehemiah came to Jerusalem at the end of the Babylonian Exile. He was a cupbearer to the Persian king, and got permission to return to Jerusalem and direct the rebuilding efforts. My memories of Nehemiah are that I usually heard from him when the preacher was launching a capital fund drive. Nehemiah rebuilt the walls of Jerusalem. He was about separation between people, about conflict, and about building a wall to keep them away from us. But this scripture we read today is not like that. It is in fact just the opposite. First, consider the setting. Scaffolds were set up by the Water Gate, a public square where everyone could gather. They aren’t in a sacred space separated from the life of the people, where only the men could gather, and of those only the ones who were not ritually unclean for some reason like having just attended a funeral. No: they are in a public space, and everyone is invited. Men, women, even older children, everyone who was capable of listening and understanding was invited to come and listen to the Word of God. And there was to be no separation between the clever and the uneducated, or between those who were proficient in Hebrew and those who, over the long exile, had come to speak Aramaic as their primary language. There was to be no separation between those who were in the front row and those who were further back and couldn’t hear as well. Levites moved among the crowd, explaining and interpreting, “They gave the sense, so that the people understood the reading.” And there was to be no separation between those who attended worship and those who could not; those who heard were to celebrate, and were to provide food and drink and celebrate with those who had not been there to hear the word of God taught, so that everyone could share in the joy of the LORD on this holy day.

It seems as if there are two Nehemiahs. One has his people building walls, each with a sword on his hip, with half standing guard while the other half worked, ready to fight, to keep outsiders away. The other is a uniter, not a divider, bringing people together. And historically, both are the same person and both tasks were important to preserving the faithful, and the faith. What would have become of the word of the LORD if Nehemiah had only built the walls, but not taught the people? What would have become of them if he had only taught, but they had no walls, no protection from bandits and enemies, no secure home? So we can’t really say either is unimportant. As Christians, though, we can ask, which is most important and most relevant to us, as disciples of Christ in the world today?

When Jesus came to Nazareth, where he had been brought up, he went to the synagogue. Any Jewish male could be invited to read from the Scripture and offer interpretation. The leader of the synagogue would generally invite someone beforehand; they didn’t just pull people out of the crowd unprepared. Jesus had been teaching in the neighboring villages, full of the power of the Spirit of God, and had gained quite a reputation. Now he was the hometown boy made good. No wonder the leader of the synagogue invited him to speak! So he was given the scroll of the prophet Isaiah, and he selected a well-known messianic prophecy. He read the words of the prophet, that the Spirit of the LORD is upon him because God has anointed him to bring good news to the poor, release to captives, recovery of sight to the blind, and freedom to the oppressed. God has sent him to proclaim the year of the LORD’s favor. To an observant Jew that was not just a metaphor or platitude; the year of God, the Jubilee, was to be a monumental shaking of the social structure. According to the Law, every fiftieth year was the Jubilee, the year of the LORD’s favor. All slaves were to be freed. All debts were to be forgiven, so the poor could start over with a clean slate. Those families that had fallen on hard times and sold their land at some point during the last forty-nine years were allowed to return and reclaim their property, for free. Was Jesus referring to a literal Year of the Lord’s Jubilee that had just occurred? It doesn’t seem very likely that the Romans would have gone along with this festival of freedom. But when Jesus spoke of the Year of the LORD’s favor, it meant something concrete and special to the congregation. It was to be a time when everyone lived off the blessings of the LORD, enjoying the bounties of their past labors. It was a time when those who were impoverished or oppressed or troubled with physical impairments were to be renewed, whether by having their family inheritance returned or having their sight miraculously restored. And Leviticus makes clear that the Jubilee is to be a time when rich and poor come together as family, as children of God and joint tenants in God’s land; no one is to cheat another or begrudge another, but all are to celebrate together the blessings they have received as children of the covenant, receivers of God’s promises.

And Jesus does two remarkable things here. The first is that he cuts off Isaiah. The original prophecy ends with “to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor, the day of vengeance of our God.” Jesus leaves out the talk of vengeance. He leaves out all talk of punishing “them” to glorify “us,” even if the punishment is perhaps deserved. With Jesus, the day of the Lord’s favor is a blessed day for everyone, and all are invited to share in the good news. The congregation would have heard that prophecy before, perhaps many times, and would realize he had made an important change. What he was not saying was as noteworthy as what he had said.

And then, Jesus said, “Today this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing.” Not “someday.” God has proclaimed that this, despite all appearances, despite the tax collectors and Roman soldiers and Herod’s despotism, is the year of the Lord’s favor! Jesus began his ministry by traveling the countryside telling people to repent, for the kingdom of God is among you, now. It is still among us, even though we can’t see it any better than they could who lived under Roman occupation.

What does this mean for us today? I’m not going to discuss what it meant then, since the lectionary saves the end of this story for next week. I’m going to leave it where the lectionary leaves it: Today, in your hearing, this Scripture is fulfilled. Not “the day of vengeance,” of warfare against the wicked, but the day of the Lord’s favor, the day of good news, of release and renewal and rejoicing for all God’s people. Nehemiah—I haven’t forgotten him—-Nehemiah had to build the walls of Jerusalem, but that is not the last word. What gives all the building of walls and the Temple and everything else meaning is that day when everyone worshipped together, everyone was taught equally, everyone celebrated together: for the joy of the Lord is your strength. Thanks be to God!

Of Gospel and Heresies: What Did I Leave Behind?

September 20, 2018

Of Gospel and Heresies: What Did I Leave Behind?

 

 

“But about that day and hour no one knows, neither the angels in Heaven, nor the Son, but only the Father.”

——Mark 13:32

 

 

I don’t know about you, but personally, I hate going on a trip. It’s not that I hate being away from my home more than average, or that I worry incessantly about my home or that I hate being in unfamiliar settings. In fact, while I do think about my home, I’m generally curious about being in a new place. I enjoy noticing the differences, like what animals and plants I see or don’t see, how the architecture changes from place to place, what different foods are local favorites. What I hate, really hate, is actually leaving. I am always afraid of leaving something behind. And if I pack in a hurry, or even if I don’t, I almost always do leave something behind. Once it was the charger for my electric toothbrush. Once it was my child’s favorite toy. At one gamers’ convention I left a bag with over $100 worth of games and accessories in a hotel room, and only by sheer luck did I find it again. Several times it’s been the phone charger. So I hate leaving my home for a trip, I hate checking out of a hotel, every time I have to change locations I wonder what I’m going to leave behind this time. And I get more anxious when I have to leave in a hurry. If someone is threatening to leave ME behind, yet I don’t know what I might myself be leaving behind, I simply hate it.

I sometimes wonder if this says something about my spirituality. After all, a Christian is supposed to be a sojourner and a wanderer on the earth, traveling towards a heavenly city (Hebrews 11:13-16).   What does it say about me if my heart is with my treasure that I might be leaving in a Days Inn outside Eire? (Matthew 6:21).

Other people, it seems, are always eager to hit the road, or the airways or whatever. They count the days to their next vacation, when they take off on another trip to anywhere, as long as it’s out of town. And they must be having a great time, if 5000 selfies on Facebook are any proof. And sometimes I wonder what it says about their spirituality, too. Like Yoda said of Luke Skywalker, I might say of one of these eager travelers: “All his life has he looked away to the future, to the horizon. Never his mind on where he was, what he was doing.” They always seem to be dreaming of vacation, or of when the kids leave home, or of retirement, some future away from where they are, from the ties that bind.

While my spirit seems troubled by what I might leave behind, theirs is preoccupied that they might be “Left Behind.” Or more precisely, they’re preoccupied with the pop theology franchise “Left Behind.” It’s an interesting phenomenon, this theology. It goes back much further than the series of novels published beginning in 1995. In the 1970s we had the would-be prophecies of Hal Lindsey and movies like “A Thief in the Night.” In the 1800s we had the Great Disappointment, where more than 1 out of every 200 people sold all their property and waited for Jesus to return on October 22, 1844. Other estimates suggest as many as a half-million people were buying books, attending mass meetings and joining churches preaching this coming Rapture, at a time when the entire nation’s population was less than 20 million. That would be one out of every twenty people looking forward to the end of the world, attending sermons and lectures about the Rapture, and not putting anything on their calendar after October 21 because there wouldn’t be any point. Then and now, people search for meaning, meaning for their lives, meaning for the world, and specifically the meaning of the most obscure, colorful passages of the Jewish and Christian Bibles.

Jesus found that his followers, too, were eager to know the future. They knew the apocalyptic prophecies of Daniel and Zechariah and of the Essenes living in the desert. So when Jesus began to speak to them of the future, and to warn them not to get too tied down to this magnificent temple Herod was building, they asked him for prophecies of what was to come. And the three Synoptic Gospels do not disappoint. Although most the teachings of Jesus deal either with ethical teachings for the here-and-now, or with teachings about sin and his own redemptive work, Mark reports that he took time in the last days of his life to give his disciples a glimpse into the future, cloaked with apocalyptic imagery of the Sun and moon and stars being blotted out, the whole cosmos undone, and the Son of Man returning in glory.

Later, as persecutions of Christians got worse, the great apocalyptic book The Revelation of John was written by a prisoner on the island of Patmos. Like past apocalyptic writing, John wrote at a time when God’s people were being persecuted and it seemed as if evil ruled the world. John wrote to reassure the faithful that God is always in charge, no matter how it appears now. Like Daniel and Zechariah and other books that didn’t make it into our bible but which were known in his day, he wrote using imagery and even symbolic code, a style that the faithful would understand but outsiders would think was gibberish.

In the 20th Century, as science and journalism developed a new standard of objective truth, passages such as these became troublesome and fascinating for many Protestants. It was not always so. For most of Christian history, the literal truth of the Bible was largely assumed but wasn’t seen as terribly important. What mattered was the spiritual lesson God was conveying through the written word. But as some Protestant evangelists started making Darwin their scapegoat for all the world’s ills, they more or less adopted the scientist’s definition of what “truth” is, making the factual claims the bedrock on which the reliability of the spiritual teachings rested. How could we trust the word that Jesus died for our sins, they asked, if we find that God did not in fact cause the shadow on Hezekiah’s step to go backwards (Isaiah 38:8)? So instead of the mutual dialogue between science and faith that had dominated much of our history, war was declared on Science. Rather than argue that religion was a different sort of truth, expressed differently than scientific textbooks because it was too big to fit in those narrow confines, the Fundamentalists put their truth on the same level as scientific and factual truth-claims, and simply declared that their science was better than the scientist’s science.

This new theological insistence on factual literalism had another effect: it elevated the apocalyptic writings to the center of Evangelical thought. The early Reformers, like Luther and Calvin, had relatively little interest in apocalypticism; they were too concerned with figuring out how the Church should live and what it should teach here and now. Luther in particular sought to focus on Christ Crucified and Risen and on the grace he offers; there’s little talk of grace in John’s apocalypse. One day the saints will wear crowns and rule with their lord; but now we live very different lives, and that is where we should pay attention. But if you believe that every word of the Bible has to be literally true in order to believe the Gospel message, then you have a mountain to climb when you read John. Monsters with seven heads and ten horns, dragons, women sprouting wings—-the whole thing sounds like a Godzilla movie! But Fundamentalism doesn’t mean literalism; as Jerry Falwell explained, it means inerrancy. So the Protestant Evangelicalism of which he was product and producer focused on harmonizing all the apocalyptic writings of the Old and New Testaments and interpreting them so that all trace of factual error was eliminated. These strange images had to be interpreted, harmonized, and brought together into one unified prophecy of the future that hadn’t come, but which was just around the corner.

There’s a problem with this. The writings of Daniel and John are not aimed at the same audience. In fact, scholars claim that the great enemy that they refer to is not even the same; for Daniel it is the Greek tyrant Antiochus, while for John it is one of the Roman emperors who persecuted Christians, likely Nero or Domitian. The language about the world ending, this argument would claim, was never intended as a literal vision of the future but rather as a theological claim that the God who made the world is still in charge, and still in command of the order and the chaos we see, and can make, unmake and remake the world in order to give justice to the faithful. For the 20th century millennialist, this is unacceptable; the world was predicted to end and rather than accept this as poetic or symbolic imagery, it has to be literally true or the Bible contains error and can’t be trusted on any point at all. So we have to keep staring and staring and staring at the Bible, and squinting and sweating over the apocalyptic writings, until we come up with a coherent timeline that ties all the events described together into a future where the world really does end and we faithful really do get to wear crowns and sit on thrones.

But the original apocalyptic writings were written to audiences that were suffering at that moment, not in the future. The message was gospel, “good news,” for the Jews under Antiochus or the Christians under Nero. There is no “Rapture” where the faithful are caught up and spared the tribulations described, because the faithful were undergoing those tribulations as they were writing and reading the books! Elsewhere in the Gospels and in Paul’s letters we do read about the faithful being caught up to Heaven in an instant, in the twinkling of the eye, to join our Lord when he returns; but those writings have no mention of a tribulation to follow. They are simply inconsistent. Any attempt to harmonize them is a human interpretation, often masquerading as divine prophecy, which is rarely good. In the hands of Evangelicals, the symbolism and poetry and artistry and reassurance of the many Biblical apocalyptic writings became a theological Rorschach ink blot, where each one sees what he or she wants to see and what one sees says more about oneself than the object one is looking at. In the millennialist theology of today, the “Left Behind” theology as it is known (sorry, Omega Code!), the theology intended to comfort the poor and persecuted becomes a message to mostly white, middle-class American Christians. Whether you’re a hotshot reporter played by Kirk Cameron, or an airline pilot, or even a black pastor of a fairly large, nice-looking church, you’re one who up until that moment in the movie was doing pretty darned well. And if you’re the sort of person who buys these books and videos and movie tickets and who believes this message, you’ll stay well-off. All the good people, the ones who call themselves “the faithful,” get raptured out of the book or movie before the Antichrist gets cooking, before the Tribulation occurs; they’re off in Heaven in comfort, watching and munching divine popcorn I assume with front-row seats to the divine drama playing out on Earth without them, until the story ends and they get to take their place on the stage with their golden crowns and white robes. The people who get persecuted, who have to endure the Tribulation, are the ones who didn’t quite believe strongly enough or correctly enough or soon enough, who are perhaps good people but who weren’t sufficiently Evangelical so now they’re stuck until the seven years of terror are ended.

That is not what the Bible says. We may disagree exactly what it does mean, but it doesn’t mean that. Every mention of the Rapture agrees that after it occurs, the world is over. Jesus returns and the Kingdom comes; there is no Tribulation during which the faithful get to finally watch the others suffer and thus avenge themselves on all the people who mocked them or ignored them or had more fun than them. The Tribulation is not a show; it is not a spectator sport. It is now. Now is the time of trial. And all of us are in it together.

One of my teachers, Diogenes Allen, wrote a very fine and very readable book, Finding Our Father, discussing the importance of humility. Humility is both the cardinal spiritual virtue and the cardinal epistemological virtue. That is, we need humility to see God and to see ourselves accurately, and really we need it to see ANYTHING accurately. Without humility, we naturally see the world as a child always sees it: revolving around ourselves, judged “good” or “evil” based on how it makes oneself feel. Allen lists five implications of the sort of humility we are to have, and one in particular seems relevant to my purpose here: “We are not to seek to live in glory before our time.”[1] When any of us realizes some spiritual truth, we naturally want to think “Well, now, I know the truth, I am freed from my old errors and sins, I’m now one of the faithful. Maybe I should seek to help others, or maybe I should just rest secure in my salvation and let God save the others; but at least I know I’ve run the good race.” But we’re not there. We never will be “there” in this life. Every momentary realization of our true place, utterly insignificant in the world and simultaneously God’s beloved, humble yet secure, is the next moment threatening to slide either towards self-importance or anxiety. The Christian life is a paradox (and if you’re a religious person who isn’t Christian, I suspect you’ve also encountered the same truth). The objective reality of the universe says each of us is just a dust-mote floating on the breeze, and accidental collection of chemicals with delusions of grandeur. The life-giving spirit assures us that we are, despite all objective evidence, of infinite worth, what the philosopher Immanuel Kant called “dignity.” But that feeling of being valued by the source of the universe tempts us to push back against the threatening message of insignificance which the universe sends us with every reminder of our weakness and mortality, by instead thinking of ourselves as more and better and more powerful than we are. And one way we do that is by seeing ourselves as already freed, as children not of this world of pain but of the Rapture. It is hard to wake up every day and remember that Christ calls us to get out of bed and go out as servants to an ungrateful and unknowing world, servants even to neighbors who fundamentally reject the truths we hold dear and which hold us. It is much more pleasant to see ourselves as the world’s rulers already, any moment to take our rightful place in Heaven to look down on those sinners around us while they finally get their comeuppance.

Perhaps that is why Jesus gave us these saving words: Of that hour no one knows, not even the Son, but only the Father. Your job is not to try to find out what God has not seen fit to reveal even to the Christ; your job is to watch, and wait. For too many Christians, the message of Christ’s sudden return becomes an excuse to not care about the world, or about our neighbors. If they’re worthy, they’ll be fine just as we are; if they’re not, that’s their choice, their problem. Why clean up the world when God is just going to end it any day now? So what if today children are drinking lead-poisoned water, if tomorrow they’ll be sipping ambrosia and eating manna in Heaven? That is pretty much the opposite of what Christ says. He says, I may return tomorrow, or the next day, or a thousand years from now; but whenever I return, you’d better look busy doing the things I told you to do: feeding the hungry, sheltering the homeless, clothing the naked, comforting the suffering, sharing good news, showing love and respect for the poor, the one with no family, and to the foreigner. Whatever you do to the least of these, you do to your Lord.

This world is the one that God has given us as our task, our stewardship, our job. The pay isn’t always great, but the retirement package is out of this world! But for some people, waiting for that final day on the job seems to drag. They go through life as if it were Friday at 4:30. They don’t want to start working on anything new. They don’t want to help one more customer. They’re terrified of being “left behind,” but don’t worry about what they might be leaving behind: tasks undone, suffering people uncomforted, faint-hearted unencouraged, hungry unfed, or strangers unwelcomed. Millennialism wants to be done, wants the work to be over, and reduces the Christian life to simply believing that the Christian life is already concluded. There is no need to serve others as Christ did, to follow in Christ’s footsteps. All you need to do is believe in the Rapture and you will be raptured. Again and again in millennialist movies and novels there is some character who is good, loving, goes to church, believes that Jesus is Lord, but doesn’t expect a literal rapture and thus is left to suffer. The works-righteousness of the Middle Ages was replaced by thought-righteousness, so that even believing in Jesus and loving God and the Church isn’t enough if you don’t love in the right way, with the right theology. That isn’t what Jesus said. That isn’t taking up your cross and following Jesus. What that is, is not doing your job because you’re staring at the clock waiting for time to go home. We need to do the work that God told us to do, and seek to imitate the life of the actual Jesus we see in the Gospels. That is what the Bible tells the faithful people to do. Because whether there’s a literal Rapture ten minutes from now or ten thousand years, I can promise you this: each one of us will end. Your world will end, and you will find yourself alone with God. As Kierkegaard said, this is “the earnest thought of death,” which makes life so serious. It definitely will happen, and it almost certainly be a surprise, the most certain and unexpected of all things. So as Christ says: Keep watch.

[1] Diogenes Allen, Finding Our Father (John Knox Press, Atlanta GA: 1974) p. 74

Philosophers Discuss Civility: Kierkegaard (pt. 2)

August 20, 2018

In life, Kierkegaard’s relationship with civility is complicated. He suffered badly from the incivility of the tabloid press and the tabloid public of his day. He was mocked for his physical handicaps, such as a curved spine. Whereas once he delighted in walking the streets of his beloved Copenhagen and conversing with people he met, after the tabloids had done their work he could not show his face in public without children throwing rocks at him. And it was largely a fight Kierkegaard himself started, by criticizing the tabloids for mocking people of genuine intellectual and artistic achievement; it was when he outed the anonymous owner of the local scandal-sheet that he ordered his paper to go after Kierkegaard. In Two Ages and elsewhere, Kierkegaard denounces and mourns the general boorishness and crudeness that leads people to attack one another so carelessly, and in particular the envy he saw as the moving force behind the crowd’s attack on any genuinely prominent person.

On the other hand, Kierkegaard himself could give a good burn if he wanted, and in the final weeks of his life got into a very public, very nasty fight with the State Church of Denmark. Lacking an internet, he printed his own magazine, The Instant, written entirely by him and full of his attacks on the church, its leaders, the priests, and Christendom in general. At one point, for example, he referred to the priests as “cannibals” who keep the prophets salted away in the back room, not letting them speak for themselves but slicing off bits of them to peddle on the streets for their supper. The targets of his satire were the leading intellectuals and religious leaders of his day, and they rarely found his comments to be polite or proper.

Generally, looking at his life as well as his comments, we see that Kierkegaard was actually quite conservative, despite the radical implications of his philosophy. Unlike many 20th century existentialists, who seem to follow the Cynics’ contempt for politeness, Kierkegaard considered social and personal relationships to be essential aspects of who you are. These relationships are part of the “concreteness” of the individual, without which a person would just be an undefined cipher. I am a free individual, naked before the eye of God; but I am also the very particular person I have been made to be, a father, husband, teacher, writer, churchgoer, gamer, friend, brother, citizen, taxpayer and so on. The “civility” that Kierkegaard seems to oppose to “crudeness” and “boorishness” in Two Ages is the excessive familiarity that breeds contempt in a society that does not respect such relationships. The person of dignity should behave in a dignified way, and others should treat that person with the dignity he or she deserves—–no more, and no less. I owe respect to my students, who are children of God and existing individuals just as I am; but at the same time, the student owes a sort of respect to the teacher that the teacher does not owe the student, for without a proper relationship the teacher simply can’t teach. The preacher and the congregation member owe each other respect and should treat each other civilly, but only one of them should be speaking during the sermon. The king should be treated like a king, the bishop with the honor due a bishop, even though in the eyes of God the king and the shoemaker are the same. Human rank and distinction may be a jest from the standpoint of eternity, but to appreciate the jest you have to both pay attention to the joke and know it’s a joke. This tension between our social hierarchies and our equality before God shapes Kierkegaard’s understanding of manners and civility.

This tension perhaps best comes out in his discourse on the text, “Every Good Gift and Every Perfect Gift is From Above.” [1] Kierkegaard reminds the well-off person, who is able and willing to give a charitable gift, that in fact all gifts come from God. The money you give to the poor came to you from God, and the money you give to the poor comes to him or her from God through you; so you are “even more insignificant than the gift.”[2] Kierkegaard repeats this five times, six if you count the variation “you yourself were more insignificant than your admonition.”[3] When giving charity, the giver is to remain humble, not to think himself or herself superior (or the recipient as socially, morally or spiritually inferior), and to as far as possible to remain invisible to the one who receives, lest he or she be humiliated and compelled to make a show of gratitude. Clearly, Kierkegaard’s primary concern is to address the well-off, and to limit self-serving public displays of charitableness. But Kierkegaard follows this message with a shorter but still important one to the poor person who receives the gift. He or she is not to treat the giver as a mere servant, as if the rich exist only as servants to the poor even if they take that role in service to God. Rather, the one who receives the gift is called upon to receive it gratefully, from God’s hand but also from the person whom God used to give the gift. Just as the giver is told to seek to be invisible, the receiver is called to seek out the giver and to thank him or her. Both are, we might say, called to be civil, even exceedingly polite, to the point where one is trying to hide his or her charity out of politeness while the other seeks to uncover the charity for the same reason. In thus showing mutual concern for the other’s feelings and dignity, they each express their own equality before God and the other’s essential equality. At the same time, the one who is in a position to give and thus could lord it over the other seeks to avoid making a show of this supposed social superiority, while the one who receives and could be bitter at his or her status instead accepts the social relationships as they are. In each case, Kierkegaard expresses concern that each person be treated with dignity, and how we threat the other is an expression of respect for the other’s personhood; but the multiple admonitions to the powerful one shows that the concern for the dignity of the vulnerable takes first place.

[1] Søren Kierkegaard, “Every Good Gift and Every Perfect Gift is From Above,” in Eighteen Upbuilding Discourses, translated with introduction and notes by Howard V. Hong and Edna H. Hong (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1990) pp. 141-58

[2] “Every Good Gift” pp. 147ff

[3] “Every Good Gift,” pp. 149-50. All italics are Kierkegaard’s.

Of Gospel and Heresies: Hmm…. Needs More Salt

July 14, 2018

Of Gospel and Heresies: Hmm…. Needs More Salt

 

 

22 So the men turned from there, and went toward Sodom, while Abraham remained standing before the Lord.[f] 23 Then Abraham came near and said, “Will you indeed sweep away the righteous with the wicked? 24 Suppose there are fifty righteous within the city; will you then sweep away the place and not forgive it for the fifty righteous who are in it? 25 Far be it from you to do such a thing, to slay the righteous with the wicked, so that the righteous fare as the wicked! Far be that from you! Shall not the Judge of all the earth do what is just?” 26 And the Lord said, “If I find at Sodom fifty righteous in the city, I will forgive the whole place for their sake.” 27 Abraham answered, “Let me take it upon myself to speak to the Lord, I who am but dust and ashes. 28 Suppose five of the fifty righteous are lacking? Will you destroy the whole city for lack of five?” And he said, “I will not destroy it if I find forty-five there.” 29 Again he spoke to him, “Suppose forty are found there.” He answered, “For the sake of forty I will not do it.” 30 Then he said, “Oh do not let the Lord be angry if I speak. Suppose thirty are found there.” He answered, “I will not do it, if I find thirty there.” 31 He said, “Let me take it upon myself to speak to the Lord. Suppose twenty are found there.” He answered, “For the sake of twenty I will not destroy it.” 32 Then he said, “Oh do not let the Lord be angry if I speak just once more. Suppose ten are found there.” He answered, “For the sake of ten I will not destroy it.” 33 And the Lord went his way, when he had finished speaking to Abraham; and Abraham returned to his place.

—Genesis 18:22-33

 

Before anyone asks, no, this is not going to lead into a silly comment about Lot’s wife.

There is a popular theology these days. I say “popular” because it dominates many of the largest churches in the United States, the most prominent Christian colleges, politicians travel to seek its blessing and, when they are elected, they bring its preachers to their offices to pray with them, so that the preachers in turn receive the blessing politicians have to give—-prestige, visibility, pride, and worldly influence. In this popular theology, the United States does not have to be a particularly just nation. It does not have to be a particularly good nation. In this popular theology, it does not have to be a particularly wise or smart nation. It does not have to be a particularly hard-working nation. No, in this popular theology, the only thing that the United States has to do is put “Christians” in charge—but not just any Christians, no: only a special kind of Christians. Christians who pay attention to the 92 times the Bible tells us to show kindness to immigrants—we don’t need those. Christians who pay attention to the Sermon on the Mount, where Jesus says “blessed are the peacemakers”—- away with them! Only Christians who know that even though Jesus never mentioned abortion or homosexuality, these are the sum and substance of the Gospel—-those are the sort of Christians who need to run the nation and make its laws. If we make laws that require the rich to pay taxes to provide food for the hungry, we rob charity of its moral worth; but if we make laws requiring people to be straight or to never have sex without risking disease or pregnancy, then we not only support the moral worth of those things but we deserve an extra reward—for forcing others to be good. And the extra reward for those who force those others to obey and be good, while not forcing the rich and powerful to do anything at all, is that God will reward them by making them rich and powerful themselves, giving the crowns of the world to the saints. This popular theology is called “Christian Reconstructionism,” or more broadly, “Christian Dominionism.” It’s no wonder it’s so popular. In the Middle Ages you had to pay money to buy indulgences to get out of living according to the Gospel; now, you don’t even have to do that. Simply by seeking to rule over other people, you get the blessing of God, who gives you the power you seek, so long as you agree to never use it against those who already have wealth and power or use it to make others do anything Jesus actually asked them to do. And not only will the individual Dominionist be rewarded, but the nation itself will be magically blessed. God will give the nation military power, without scientists to design weapons; God will give them wealth, without economists to understand how tax policies affect the nation; God will give the nation influence in the world, without the hard work of diplomats trying to listen to and understand other nations to find common ground. Close some abortion clinics, round up some immigrants, throw the gays on an island and watch them die out, and Jesus will fly up on a magic sleigh drawn by Peter, Paul, and the other reindeer, to give everyone toys—I’m sorry, I got a little confused there for a moment.

The Reconstructionist theology names itself for its claim that Christians must reconstruct society. Democracy, they say, is flawed because it doesn’t put Christians in charge; we need to get rid of democracy, get rid of the social safety net, get rid of public schools and public hospitals and rely solely on Jesus and the churches—but of course, we also need to close all those “progressive” churches, so only the right sort of churches, the ones that don’t think society should help the poor, are available help the poor? I think I got confused again. Let me back up and start over.

Reconstructionist theology reconstructs the Gospel in its own image. According to Reconstructionist theology, Sodom was destroyed because godly men like Lot weren’t in charge. Only if Lot and Abraham had conquered the city and imposed laws banning homosexuality could Sodom and Gomorrah been saved. And unless conservatives can overthrow the pluralistic, democratic society that weakens us now and impose their views on the majority, God will destroy the U.S. the same way; but if conservatives do take over, and impose strict laws controlling everyone’s sex lives, every other problem will be solved without effort.

That’s one vision of how Christians can save the world: by taking over and making everyone else live like them. That is NOT the vision presented by Abraham. Abraham prays for Sodom. He does not say, “Spare them, and I’ll take over and run things right.” He says, “LORD, will you destroy the righteous with the wicked? What if there are fifty righteous people in the city? What if there are only ten? Will you spare the whole wicked, wretched city for ten people?” And God says, “For the sake of ten I will not destroy it.” We don’t have to run the world to save it. We don’t have to outnumber the wicked or to dominate them. We can’t. There will always be more wicked; being wicked is just too damned easy. And they will always have political power. Satan said to Jesus that he had the ability to give thrones and kingdoms to whomever he wanted, and Jesus did not dispute that; he simply rejected that sort of power. But as long as there are a righteous few, judgment will be delayed, and more will have time to hear the good news and repent.

How can so few people do any good, if they aren’t rich or powerful leaders but just ten righteous people out of thousands? Abraham’s prayer appeals to God’s justice. God, it seems, doesn’t accept “collateral damage;” God practices collateral healing. Rather than destroy a few good people in order to punish the wicked, God would spare the wicked to save the few good ones.

Jesus echoes this idea. He tells the Parable of the Wheat and the Weeds to say that God will not root out the wicked from the world immediately, lest this injure some of the righteous as well; rather, the wheat and the weeds grow together until the end of things. That is one way to say that Christians should participate in society; just by being in society, they help it since God will preserve the society for the sake of the faithful. But that doesn’t suggest much in the way of a positive contribution. It doesn’t suggest that the society is improved or helped. Sodom would still have been Sodom even if ten righteous persons had been found in it.

Jesus uses other models to suggest how we should live in the world and participate in society. You are the light of the world, he says. It isn’t enough to just be in the world, hiding your goodness away like a precious gem, afraid to risk losing or tarnishing it. You have to let it shine like a lamp in the darkness that everyone can see and use to guide their own steps as well            You are like salt. Salt was so precious in the days of Jesus that people were paid in salt; our word “salary” comes from the Latin word for “salt.” Salt is necessary for human life. It also preserves food, which is one of its most valuable characteristics in the warm Mediterranean climate without a nice cold fridge around. And even a little can flavor a whole lot of food. It lends its nature to what is around it. It doesn’t, as they say, dominate the taste of the food; it enhances and preserves it, bringing out what is best and perhaps covering up what is not.

Jesus even says we should be holy like God is holy. In the Books of Moses, God’s holiness is a separation. God is so holy and powerful that when God gave the Law to Moses, it was forbidden for anyone else to approach the mountain; even animals that wandered onto the holy mountain were to be killed. But Jesus says we should be perfect as God is perfect, who allows the sun to shine on good and bad alike, and sends rain to the just and the unjust. God’s holiness is his omnipresence, not withdrawing from those in need but providing even for those who do not acknowledge their need for God.

God doesn’t demand that Christians should strive to dominate human politics. God also doesn’t ask us to withdraw from the world. We are told to teach the world, to help the world, to do good and show kindness and love mercy and walk humbly with God. It is a narrow road for sure, neither going too far into politics or not enough. Jesus says we are to be salt; and if the salt has lost its distinctive nature, lost its saltiness, then what good is it? It is fit only to be cast out. As Christians in the world but not of the world, we are forced daily to be involved with things and people that do not follow our ways. We are told we cannot serve God and Money, but we must have money to survive. We are told to serve the world, but often that means working with politicians who have the power to help or stop us, and who have little regard for God or people. No doubt we would be safer to live as monastic communities, apart from the world. Many days I think the Amish are on to something. But that is not, I think, what Jesus intends for us, his disciples. We need the church as a place of rest where we can renew our faith and energy from time to time, but we then need to go out and continue being salt. One day Christ will return. We pray every week, Lord, thy kingdom come. But God has told us that in the meantime, we are not kings yet. We are salt. We are servants. We are preachers and teachers. We are the ten righteous people in the city who can save the whole from destruction for another day. That is our call, and that is the Gospel.

Of Gospel and Heresies: American Idol (conclusion)

June 21, 2018

Moses had military and political power. He led people, he led armies, he conquered foes, he founded a nation in the name of the God of Abraham. Muhammad had military and political power. He led people, he led armies, he conquered foes, he founded a nation in the name of the God of Abraham. Of the three great Abrahamic religions, Christianity is unique in that its founding prophet, God’s Anointed One, was powerless as the world measures power. Throughout the centuries, this has created unique challenges for Christians. Some Christians have sought to reject all force and all politics, as Jesus himself did in life, leaving the world to run its own affairs. Others have sought to blend religious and political power, calling on the Church to bless everything the State did, including the slave trade and the Holocaust. Those who wanted a “strong man” to protect them, “a king like the other nations,” have often been too willing to overlook when that king failed to protect others with the same justice they sought for themselves. And when, just as Samuel warned, that strong leader went too far and the people cried out, there was no one to deliver them (1 Samuel 8:18). During the Protestant Reformation John Calvin saw what a strong king with unchecked power can do, as the French king massacred thousands of peaceful, loyal Protestants. For this reason he came to advocate for checks and balances in government.[1] Likewise, after our American Revolution, or as it was known in England, “The Presbyterian Revolt,” those heirs of Calvin did not seek to establish Biblical law. They agreed with Calvin that the Law of Moses was given directly only to Israel; instead, they sought to be guided by the law of love, and by the principles of justice as these were revealed in the Bible, but to express these through creating a political order with limited power, since no sinful human could be trusted with unchecked power over the rest.[2] Those Revolutionaries did not want a “strong” leader, but rather a strong nation with strong interacting and cross-checking political institutions, which could preserve peace, order and justice while also humbling the pride of arrogant politicians grasping for power.

If history has taught us anything, it is that when one person or one small group has unchecked power, all are in danger and the Church itself liable to be attacked. That is why our Presbyterian Church adopted the Declaration of Barmen as one of its fundamental statements of faith.[3] This document was written primarily by Karl Barth and adopted by the Barmen Synod in opposition to Hitler and the nationalist Christians who were taking over the State and Church. It reads in part:

 

“Fear God. Honor the emperor.” (I Peter 2:17.)

Scripture tells us that, in the as yet unredeemed world in which the church also exists, the State has by divine appointment the task of providing for justice and peace. [It fulfills this task] by means of the threat and exercise of force, according to the measure of human judgment and human ability. The church acknowledges the benefit of this divine appointment in gratitude and reverence before him. It calls to mind the Kingdom of God, God’s commandment and righteousness, and thereby the responsibility both of rulers and of the ruled. It trusts and obeys the power of the Word by which God upholds all things.

 

We reject the false doctrine, as though the State, over and beyond its special commission, should and could become the single and totalitarian order of human life, thus fulfilling the church’s vocation as well.

 

We reject the false doctrine, as though the church, over and beyond its special commission, should and could appropriate the characteristics, the tasks, and the dignity of the State, thus itself becoming an organ of the State.[4]

 

 

Our Reformed heritage is that no one person, and no one State can be allowed to become the sole goal and ordering principle of human life; that role belongs to God alone. When a “strong man” (or strong woman) demands unlimited fealty, that is a sin and a disaster in the making. And when a church claims the political mantle, that is simply the other side of the same bad penny, a human institution going beyond its God-given limits and mission. Those who claim they are exalting the Church by claiming Christian dominion over the State are instead demeaning it, turning it into an organ of the State rather than a holy priesthood set apart for service to God.

When we look around the world, we see forces of totalitarianism resurgent in countries that once seemed on the road to democracy, where Church and State blend to give their blessings to oligarchs. When we look at home, we see millions of Christians, including many in the highest ranks of government, who espouse Christian Dominionism, the belief that democracy should be replaced by government by and for Christian people only. The delegates to the Barmen Synod, with the Confessing Churches of Germany, can teach us much about the dangers of this heresy. Whether the Church seeks to become the State, or the State seeks to control the Church, it ends up the same way: political power gains control over religion, and the Church shrinks to being just another department in the government bureaucracy, another prop for humans seeking power over other humans. And ultimately, this idolatry of the State collapses into idolatry of an individual who claims, as that French king who massacred Protestants once said, “I am the State.”  “L’etat, c’est moi.”

The “strong man” sought by many Americans is just another idol. God does not want us to seek from political leaders what we should seek only from God. This is, no doubt, an unsettling, anxiety-filled world; but the cure for this anxiety is not devotion to a leader, it’s faith in God. May the peace of God, which passes all understanding, keep your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus (Philippians 4:7).

[1] John Calvin, Institutes of the Christian Religion, “On Civil Government” sections VIII, XXX

[2] John T. McNeill, editor, Calvin: On God and Political Duty (New York: Macmillan Publishing Company, 1956) pp. xviii-xix, 63-6

[3] The Theological Declaration of Barmen, (http://www.westpresa2.org/docs/adulted/Barmen.pdf) downloaded June 19, 2018

[4] Declaration of Barmen, section 5

Of Gospel and Heresies: American Idol (pt. 2)

June 7, 2018

In case we were thinking, “Well, that’s an interesting historical tale, but it doesn’t really relate to us,” God repeats the point. For example, Psalm 146:3-7 says this:

Do not put your trust in princes,
in mortals, in whom there is no help.
 When their breath departs, they return to the earth;
on that very day their plans perish.

 

 Happy are those whose help is the God of Jacob,
whose hope is in the Lord their God,
 who made heaven and earth,
the sea, and all that is in them;
who keeps faith forever;
     who executes justice for the oppressed;
who gives food to the hungry.

 

 

Not only are God’s people told not to put their trust in mortal rulers; trusting princes and kings is presented as the opposite of trusting God, who gives justice to the poor and the oppressed. The implication of the historical story is restated as an ethical command. God’s people are not to put their trust in earthly rulers; God may use politicians to do God’s work, whether it is a king after his own heart, like David, or one who doesn’t even know his name, like Cyrus. The so-called “Religious Right” is fond of saying that Christians go astray by not paying enough attention to the Old Testament; perhaps on that point they’re right.

But I want to address Christians; and as Christians, when we look at what a ruler should be, we look first to Jesus. He is our teacher and our model, and his words and life were consistent. He taught, “Whoever wants to be great among you must be your servant, and whoever wants to be first among you must be your slave” (Matthew 20:26-27; see also Matt 23:11, Mark 9:35). That is the sort of leader he was; one who took off his clothes and washed his disciples’ feet, a job normally left to slaves. He was not a leader who would demand bowing and scraping; he was the good shepherd who lays down his life for the sheep (which actually is a pretty foolish shepherd by normal standards). As to the other sort of leader, the one who demands respect and service and perhaps gives little back; well, if Jesus had wanted to be that sort of leader, he could have accepted Satan’s offer when he was tempted in the wilderness: bow down and worship me, and I will give you the thrones of the world (Matt 4:8-10, Luke 4:6-7). Jesus had great power, even as the world measures power; he changed the world more than any king or emperor of his day. Over half the world’s population follows Christianity. The vast majority of Roman emperors died thinking they were great, but have been forgotten by most people. But the power of Jesus was not like the power of those we usually consider “strong men.” In his day, he seemed completely powerless, dying wretched and abandoned; but those who kept their faith in him were not left desolate, because he had the power of God and still does.

To be continued….

Of Gospel and Heresies: American Idol (pt. 1)

May 29, 2018

Of Gospel and Heresies: American Idol

 

Then all the elders of Israel gathered together and came to Samuel at Ramah, and said to him, “You are old and your sons do not follow in your ways; appoint for us, then, a king to govern us, like other nations.”  But the thing displeased Samuel when they said, “Give us a king to govern us.” Samuel prayed to the Lord,  and the Lord said to Samuel, “Listen to the voice of the people in all that they say to you; for they have not rejected you, but they have rejected me from being king over them.  Just as they have done to me, from the day I brought them up out of Egypt to this day, forsaking me and serving other gods, so also they are doing to you. 

1 Samuel 8:4-9

 

The 17th Century philosopher Thomas Hobbes was largely responsible for much of our political language today. He said that all men (he was pretty sexist, so I’ll suspect the language wasn’t an oversight) were created equal, and that they have certain inalienable rights. These ideas got picked up later by John Locke, then passed through him to Jefferson and other Founding Fathers (and mothers) of our Revolution, and thence into common use today. HOWEVER, Hobbes differs from some of these others in that he does not think this “equality” is all that good a thing. In fact, this equality of people primarily means that we are all equally selfish, fearful, irrational, and absolutely dangerous to one another. When everyone is equal, everyone has equal rights to have his desires satisfied, no matter how harmful to anyone else. He says this equality breeds conflict, and that without a strong force to keep us all in line, our lives would be war of each against all, and life would be “solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short.” All this equality is so terrible, Hobbes said, that the only sensible thing to do is to join together in societies. In a society, or “commonwealth” to use his word, we all tacitly choose one person, or a small group, to be better than the rest of us, to be above the law, and to be the law for the rest. He preferred a single king, but a small group like the Roman senate would be okay too, so long as there was some person or persons in charge. In his view, the State is thus an “artificial person,” created when a group of us actual people agree to give up most of our rights in exchange for protection of our lives, freedom from torture and imprisonment, and some other minimal rights. Hobbes calls this ruling power the “sovereign,” and states that the sovereign is not bound by the law; it creates the law, designates what will count as “good” or “evil,” hands out rewards and punishments, and does whatever is required to establish order. Without a strong hand with a big stick, Hobbes said, none of us could sleep peacefully; but since we all know our neighbors fear the government, we can at least trust our neighbors not to murder us in our beds. Because this sovereign must be above the law, be the lawgiver for the nation, providing for the security and prosperity of the rest of us, Hobbes refers to it as “that earthly god, or Leviathan,” which the Creator put in place to manage human affairs. He thought God was not going to rule over us directly, so we need to select someone or some group among us to take over the role of deity pro tempore.

Hobbes and Samuel don’t seem to agree on much, but they do seem to agree that the strong worldly leader is an alternative to trusting in God alone. Hobbes would probably point us toward the book of Judges, and its mournful refrain: There was no king in Israel in those days, and every man did what was right in his own eyes. The lack of a king, Hobbes would say, had led Israel to anarchy and brutality; only a strong government would impose order. But this thing displeased Samuel. He seems to have taken it personally; he was, after all, one of those judges, those leaders appointed directly by God as prophet and leader. Samuel would probably have said that when Israel lived faithfully with God, they had peace and prosperity; but when the judge died and the people ceased following the LORD, that was when they ran into trouble. The period of the judges was chaotic, but it also is depicted as somewhat democratic for its day. The judge was called by God, but then had to go out and convince the people. Gideon, Deborah, and less famous judges ruled only with the consent of the people; they had to rally the people to follow and obey them. When they died, their successors were appointed by God and accepted by the people for their leadership, not because they were of royal blood. When Samuel became old, the people wanted a strong, stable, authoritarian government like the nations around them; since Samuel’s sons were not up to the job of succeeding their father, the people wanted an official monarchy with a clear, perpetual line of succession, like all the other nations had. God said, don’t take it personally, Samuel. They aren’t rejecting you. They are rejecting me, their God. They want visible power, a royal family that will hold authority over them, rather than the uncertainty of relying on the invisible power of the LORD to choose their leaders from among them. They are idolaters at heart, whether they are seeking a golden calf or a king. So explain to them carefully and honestly what it is they are choosing; and then, if that is what they want, let them have their king.

To be continued…