Posts Tagged ‘Theology’

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

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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…

Of Gospel and Heresies: This Holy Nation

April 25, 2018

Of Gospel and Heresies: This Holy Nation

 

 

            The word that came to Jeremiah from the Lord Stand in the gate of the Lord’s house, and proclaim there this word, and say, Hear the word of the Lord, all you people of Judah, you that enter these gates to worship the LordThus says the Lord of hosts, the God of Israel: Amend your ways and your doings, and let me dwell with you in this place. Do not trust in these deceptive words: “This is the temple of the Lord, the temple of the Lord, the temple of the Lord.”

            For if you truly amend your ways and your doings, if you truly act justly one with another, if you do not oppress the alien, the orphan, and the widow, or shed innocent blood in this place, and if you do not go after other gods to your own hurt, then I will dwell with you in this place, in the land that I gave of old to your ancestors forever and ever.           

 

—–Jeremiah 7:1-15

 

Does God need us? From the perspective of traditional Christian theology, the question seems almost silly. God is omnipotent and omniscient and perfectly good: how could God need anything from humanity? God offers Israel a covenant, but there’s no indication in the Torah that God would be the worse if Israel refused; rather, it was Israel, not God, who was told “I have set before you life and death; choose life, and live.”

Israel is God’s chosen people, and they have always understood that this is a privilege and a gift. Sometimes, however, they seem to have thought it was an advantage, a perk rather than a responsibility. That was certainly the case in Jeremiah’s day. He preached to the nation of Judah in its final days, when it was really reduced to just its capital, with the superpowers of Egypt on one side and Babylon to the other. Despite their precarious situation, many were confident, and their priests and prophets told them not to worry. After all, the Temple was in Jerusalem, and God would not allow the last and greatest center of worship to be destroyed. After all, if the Temple were destroyed, who would recite the psalms glorifying the LORD? Who would teach Torah to the people, and where would they go to learn it? How would God receive sacrifices and vows? God needed the Temple, so God needed to protect the nation; without it, worship of the LORD would vanish from the Earth.

Jeremiah was called to go preach condemnation and warning to God’s people. This was dangerous work; people got killed for preaching what the king didn’t want to hear. But Jeremiah obeyed and said to the people: God doesn’t need this temple. God doesn’t need you. God loves you, God cares, God wants to teach you. But if you will not treat your fellow human beings with respect and justice, if you will not love your neighbor as yourself, if you will not care for the alien, the widow and the orphan, the immigrant and the aged and the poor, then God will cast you and this temple away. God doesn’t need the smug, the self-righteous, the entitled. God wants the humble, the caring, the grateful.

This attitude towards God, and this message, existed long before Jeremiah and long after. In the days of Amos, during the reigns of King Uzziah of Judah and Jeroboam II of Israel, two of the most successful rulers of their nations, he warned God’s people that they were being judged based on how they treated the poor among them; “they who trample on the head of the poor and thrust the afflicted out of the way” would be punished just as surely as any of those “wicked, pagan” nations around them.

Amos 9:7—Are you not like the Ethiopians to me,
O people of Israel? says the Lord.
Did I not bring Israel up from the land of Egypt,
and the Philistines from Caphtor and the Arameans from Kir?

Yes, God says, I take care of your nation; it is the apple of my eye. And I also care about all nations, and establish them; and I judge them, and will judge you. If you are arrogant, taking God’s love as a possession and a magic charm, as if the covenant binds God and not you, then you will be the one who loses. You need God; God doesn’t need you.

In the days of the Messiah, the prophet John the Baptizer spoke against the religiously complacent, the arrogant who thought being God’s chosen meant a free pass. “Repent! And do not presume to say to yourselves, ‘I have Abraham for my father.’ I tell you that God is able to make children for Abraham out of these rocks here! Do what God tells you to do; love your neighbor as yourself, be honest with each other, and love God with all your heart and mind and strength.” God doesn’t need the people. God doesn’t send John, or Jesus, because God is desperate for love or for help. God sends prophets and priests and finally the Son because God loves us, and God knows that while God doesn’t need us, we need God.

Despite the many Scriptural criticisms of nationalism, it has become the cornerstone of the Religious Right. In the 20th Century, probably the most important Christian Nationalist was Jerry Falwell Sr. In books such as Listen Up, America! as well as in sermons and other public statements, Falwell argued that without the United States to serve as a base for world evangelism, Christianity itself might be endangered and could even vanish from the earth.[1] The world is caught up in a death struggle against the godless Communist Russia and the Christian United States; if the United States did not survive as a launching point for missionary activities, godlessness would win. It is thus essential to the Kingdom of God, Falwell says, not only that the United States remain morally pure (this defined primarily in terms of sexual discipline and general asceticism) but also militarily and economically dominant. Thus, Falwell ignores the Torah, Prophets and even Gospel passages that seem to contradict laissez-faire capitalism or militarism, since he believes God needs a strong army and a strong business community to preserve his earthly outpost. Without strong men, whether generals, tycoons or potentates, to support God’s Kingdom and to keep all the bad people in line, God’s kingdom will fail.

This is not the theology of the Bible, however, but only the edited version preached by Christian Dominionists like Rousas Rushdoony and Jerry Falwell. How can I dare say this? How can I, a mere insignificant dust mote in the winds of history, dare challenge the leaders of one of the most powerful political movements in the most powerful nation known to humanity? Only because it has happened before. The theology that said that God needed an earthly Temple and earthly political protection motivated the false prophets who challenged Jeremiah, who spoke lying words of comfort, and who supported the rich and the powerful in Jerusalem by saying that no matter how terribly they treated their poor neighbors and rejected God’s calls for justice, God would never allow the nation to fall because God needed the Temple and the priests and the kingly line. That theology failed. It was proven false when God did, in fact, allow Jerusalem to fall, the Temple to be destroyed, and the rich and powerful, the political and religious leaders, to be killed, enslaved or exiled. But that was not the end for God’s reign; it was only the beginning. The end of the Temple meant the beginning of the synagogue, which brought teaching of the Torah to all the nations where the Jews had settled. And in time, God raised up a new ruler, as is written in Isaiah:

Thus says the Lord to his anointed, to Cyrus,
whose right hand I have grasped
to subdue nations before him
and strip kings of their robes,
to open doors before him—
and the gates shall not be closed:
2 I will go before you
and level the mountains,*
I will break in pieces the doors of bronze
and cut through the bars of iron,
3 I will give you the treasures of darkness

and riches hidden in secret places,
so that you may know that it is I, the Lord,
the God of Israel, who call you by your name.
4 For the sake of my servant Jacob,
and Israel my chosen,
I call you by your name,
I surname you, though you do not know me.
and riches hidden in secret places,
so that you may know that it is I, the Lord,
the God of Israel, who call you by your name.
4 For the sake of my servant Jacob,
and Israel my chosen,
I call you by your name,
I surname you, though you do not know me.  (Isaiah 44:45-45:4)

 

God calls Cyrus, King of Kings of the Persians, an anointed one, or in Hebrew, “Messiah,” even “though you do not know me.”   God uses whomever and whatever God needs, whether or not that person consents or even knows it. God used Cyrus and Cyrus’s ambitions for God’s own purposes. God allowed Judah, the self-righteous nation, to fall, and used Persia, who did not know God, to rebuild Jerusalem and to fulfill a far greater mission than Israel and Judah had ever conceived.

The Biblical foundation underneath today’s so-called Christian Dominionism, or Christian Reconstructionism, or Christian Nationalism, is that which was announced in the book of Deuteronomy: obey the covenant with God and be blessed, rebel and be punished. It structures much of the Bible’s understanding of Israelite history. Scholars have noted too that Jesus quotes Deuteronomy more often than any other book in the Hebrew Scriptures. But even in those same Scriptures, the Prophets criticized that same theology, and in particular how humans, with our inclinations towards selfishness, self-aggrandizement and short-term thinking, have often twisted that theology to suit our own pride. The prophet Jeremiah even announced that the old Deuteronomic covenant was being replaced because humans had broken it so thoroughly. In its place would be a new covenant, not written on stone but on the hearts of believers. That is the covenant that was proclaimed by Jesus: the covenant that everyone would love the Lord their God, and their neighbor as themselves, and would be loved in turn by God directly. It does indeed call for the redemption of the nation, but it does so not by establishing an empire of rulership over other peoples but by loving and redeeming each individual.

 

[1] As discussed by James Comey, “Reinhold Niebuhr and Jerry Falwell: the Christian in politics,” honors thesis, College of William and Mary, 1982 (https://publish.wm.edu/honorstheses/1116/) p. 57

Comey, James. “Reinhold Niebuhr and Jerry Falwell: the Christian in politics.” Review (pt. 7)

March 13, 2018

So Falwell’s faulty exegesis points towards a deeper problem that, in Niebuhr’s eyes, undermines Falwell’s entire project and makes him a “false prophet:” pride. His inability to imagine that America might have faults, might have mixed motives in its foreign aid policies for example, or that racism, segregation and apartheid might be as abhorrent to God as is Stalinism are all examples of this. Really, though, his pride runs deeper than this, to the very foundation of his entire theological enterprise. Falwell’s crusade is based on the claim that America is essential to Christ; without the United States to use as a launching pad for missions, the Gospel could not spread or survive in the world. Falwell’s entire argument rests on this belief. It justifies and motivates his argument that America must stay militarily strong, so that it can cow other, godless nations. It justifies denying help to the poor and vulnerable, since the sole purpose of the State is to be an army guarding the Church, and any penny spent on Social Security or education takes away from the military budget. Those poor people demanding help from their government are dangerous parasites, weakening the State when it has to be strong. Quite simply, the State doesn’t exist to serve the poor; it exists only to serve the Church by physically protecting it from foreign armies and local criminals, and then by getting out of its way. But that “Church” it serves is not, again, just any old religious establishment, and not even any and every Christian institution; it is only the Evangelical churches that spread the properly conservative, economically laissez-faire capitalist message that will empower the business world and the military to do their jobs of making the USA the most kick-ass power on the planet whether on the battlefield or in the boardroom. Other religions, even other Christian denominations, risk God’s wrath and thus weaken the nation, undermining its sole purpose of spreading Christian fundamentalism.

Why does God, who is able to raise up children for Abraham from these stones here (Matthew 3:9), need the United States? Why does the Church, which spread under the persecution of pagan Rome as well as the God-fearing religious leaders of its day, need an army so desperately that God must accept a state whose economic policies impoverish other peoples as well as many of its own citizens? It seems incredibly arrogant to claim that the United States is the essential nation, or even an essential nation in God’s plan. This pride prevents any meaningful, prophetic voice from being raised; if the United States is the essential nation in God’s plan, it must be a “godly” nation by definition, and anyone who says it is falling short is challenging God’s judgment in having chosen it and made it the cornerstone of the Kingdom.

And in particular, the purpose of the State seems to be nothing more than to perpetuate and strengthen the State, and otherwise to leave the Church free to send missionaries wherever it wants. Insofar as it does anything else besides strengthen and enrich itself, it imposes controls on individual lives, restricting religious expression that doesn’t conform to Fundamentalist Protestantism, restricting sexual expression, restricting freedom of speech if that should entail criticizing Fundamentalism or capitalism, or in short, the State is to use force to impose Falwell’s theology. Anything else risks God’s wrath, which is the only thing that could weaken the nation. This reasoning was in full evidence on September 13, 2001, when Jerry Falwell Sr. and Pat Robertson agreed on national television that the reason terrorists had been able to attack the United States was because of feminists and other people who disagree with their beliefs.[1] Their pride cannot accept that perhaps bad things happen for no morally good reason, and even less can they allow that maybe they themselves are the ones who are morally judged, despite repeated warnings in the Prophets, Gospels, and Epistles that God will judge nations based at least partly on how they treat the poor. The one sin they recognize is Not Being Like Us; that is what God punishes, because God needs the United States and needs it to be conformed to the theological vision of Jerry Falwell.

In the final days of Judah, Jeremiah and Ezekiel argued against false prophets who preached that God would never allow Jerusalem to fall, no matter how corrupt its government nor how decadent and oppressive its wealthy class, because God needed the Temple. 2500 years later, the pride of the 20th Century gave rise to similar false prophecy. And that pride bore fruit in the Prosperity Gospel: the belief that God rewards good people and good nations with wealth, health and power, so anyone you see who is strong and rich must also be godly and good; and contrariwise, anyone who is suffering, or poor, or a nation that is weak, must be wicked and deserves whatever it gets and even whatever the “godly” people do them. This thinking starts from a sound Biblical starting point: the book of Deuteronomy, the one Christ is said to have quoted from the most. In that book, Moses warns the people that if the nation strays from its covenant with God, the nation will be cursed. From this idea, it was deduced that whenever we see sickness, that person must have done something wrong; and when we see national disaster like famine, the nation must have done something wrong. And likewise, if we see a rich, healthy person or a strong nation, it must be because God has blessed that person or nation for being so good. However, this goes beyond the actual message of the Bible. The entire book of Job aims to refute this simple equation of suffering with wickedness; Job is a righteous man, yet he suffers. His friends insist that he must in fact be wicked, and urge him to repent. He refuses, insisting on his innocence. Finally God rebukes the friends, and says that Job is the one who spoke truly (Job 42:7-9). Jesus, too, criticizes the easy equation of virtue and wealth, or sin and suffering (Luke 13:1-5; Luke 16:19-31; John 9:1-3). Anyone following the logic of the Prosperity Gospel, or even the simplistic, prideful interpretation of Deuteronomy, would confidently claim that the blind beggar or the poor Lazarus were certainly sinners, or at least that their parents sinned and their sins were being visited upon the children. Or, today we might say that Lazarus must be lazy and the blind beggar’s parents were foolish not to have bought health insurance or to have worked hard enough to be able to provide for their son. The idea that perhaps the only “purpose” of suffering people is as a call to the rest of us to do God’s work by caring for them and caring about them—that idea simply does not fit human pride. It would mean admitting that evil and destruction are beyond our control, even when we are doing everything we can to conform to our understanding of righteousness and to force others to do so as well. It would mean admitting that we need to repent, just as much as “they” do. And it would mean that we can be judged even if we have good things that we got lawfully and honestly, simply because we were callous and self-indulgent.[2]

[1] Marc Ambinder, “Falwell Suggests Gays to Blame for Attacks,” ABC News, Sept. 14, 2001 (http://abcnews.go.com/Politics/story?id=121322&page=1) The 700 Club, Sept. 12. 2001 (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=kMkBgA9_oQ4)

[2] Remember, in Jesus’ parable of the Rich Man and Lazarus, there is no word that the rich man did anything “wrong;” he wasn’t a thief, and he didn’t fail to go to Temple. He was a good, laissez-faire capitalist, as far as the story depicts; and since it is a story, we can’t just say “well, he must have been a bad man, Jesus just didn’t mention that he was an embezzler.” That’s our pride talking, rewriting the Bible to fit our own standards. The only facts that exist about the Rich Man are that he had a good life, and anyone looking at him would have thought him blessed by God; but he ignored the poor man, and for that lack of love for his fellow human being, he wound up in Hades.

Comey, James. “Reinhold Niebuhr and Jerry Falwell: the Christian in politics.” Review (pt. 6)

March 13, 2018

“Falwell… stands labeled by Niebuhr as ‘false prophet.’”[1] And despite praising Falwell’s contention that the Christian must be involved in politics, and despite having misgivings about some aspects of Niebuhr’s theology, the analysis in this thesis largely agrees. Understanding why and in what ways Falwell is a false prophet not only shows us the heart of this thesis, but offers hints into Comey’s own motivations.   These hints are more for the reader’s exercise, since mindreading is an inexact science; so I will try to summarize Comey’s critique of Falwell and let you entertain yourself by speculating what part all this might have played in Comey’s controversial decisions of 2016 and 2017.

Falwell claims that his theological pronouncements are the clear word of God, supported by direct warrant from Scripture. He does not mean by this that there is no room for interpretation; he is not a strict literalist in the sense that if the Bible says to let the word of God be inscribed on your right hand, that you must literally write or tie Scriptures there (Deut 11:18). Or as Comey points out, the mere fact that the Bible reports similar events differently does not mean that Jesus at one time fed 5000 people with no commentary, then did it again with extensive commentary, despite the differences between Mark’s and John’s accounts; rather, we must interpret the Scriptures to make them harmonize. But Falwell does claim that, correctly interpreted, the Bible provides the Christian with direct instruction, and that this instruction is largely identical with the political and moral proclamations of Falwell himself. And upon close examination, this notion does not hold up. Many of Falwell’s claims seem to have, at best, indirect warrant from Scripture, requiring some degree of analogical or imaginative thinking. This is true not just of peripheral issues, but of claims that make up the heart of Falwell’s message. Falwell’s claim that God endorses capitalism and that capitalism is in fact the only economic system that God approves is highly dubious. As Comey points out, Falwell relies on Proverbs for his claim, but the proverb he cites is not particularly direct; it only reflects the idea that hard work should be rewarded and laziness leads to poverty. Falwell simply ignores large portions of Scripture, particularly the Sermon on the Mount and the Prophets, where the Bible makes its most sustained ethical teachings, and which seriously question the unlimited right to property and profit. Instead, Falwell, like other fundamentalists influenced by Rousas Rushdooney, relies primarily on selective reading of the Torah and Wisdom literature. But even in the Torah, the right to property is severely limited. For example, in the Year of Jubilee all debts are to be cancelled, all slaves set free, and most radically, all land sold by anyone is to be returned to that person’s family (Lev 25:8-17). Leaving aside questions like the ownership of Manhattan and assuming that this law only applies to “godly” nations like Israel and (according to Falwell) the United States, imagine what this would do to the real estate sector alone! While houses in “walled cities” may be sold permanently, no one in America lives in a walled city; and in any case, even if you stretch the definition of “walled city” to include any metropolis, this would still exclude suburbs, small towns and rural areas. Every fifty years, all this land would be returned to the original seller’s family. That’s a pretty serious restriction on capitalism! What this points to is that while the Bible allows for people to profit from their own work, or to make a reasonable and fair profit from business, the true source of capital in biblical times, the land itself, belonged to YHWH, which God Himself had distributed to particular tribes and families to manage. It was therefore a mixed economy, neither wholly socialist or wholly capitalist; the ultimate means of production, the land itself, belonged to God and by extension to the nation and people as a whole, while all profits from the land belonged to the individual. Even here there were restrictions, such as the prohibition against going back over your own fields to gather up anything the harvesters missed the first time (Lev. 23:22). Instead, even when dealing with what was unarguably “private property,” the landowner was required to provide for the poor. Again, the treatment of landowners in the Torah is not like the unlimited property rights asserted by Ayn Rand or even John Locke, who claim that private property is an essential right based on one’s right to one’s own body and thus to the “fruits of your labors.” It is not even like a franchise, where a largely absentee owner gives out a license in perpetuity for the franchisee to run the local gas station or McDonald’s as if he or she owned it outright provided certain minimum standards are met. Instead, the Torah treats landowners much more like managers, whose books are subject to evaluation on a regular basis by the true boss, which is God. And in a theocracy like Israel is described and like Falwell seems to want America to be, to say property is owned by God is to say that it is owned by the State as God’s agent. The socialists have a strong case if they wish to claim direct warrant from Scripture, at least as strong as the capitalists do.

The point is not to say that the Bible provides direct warrant for socialism, communism, capitalism or any other sort of “–ism;” the point is that the Bible does not provide direct warrant for our human “–isms” and that we commit idolatry when we claim it does. It is another example of our pride, leading us to exalt our particular preference or heritage to divine status.

[1] Comey, p. 89

Finding Our Father and Loving Our Mother: How Humility Can Contribute to an Understanding of Ecological Theology (pt. 8)

February 12, 2018

I have tried to show here that the stereotypical Christian position on ecology is not the only one, or the oldest, or even the majority opinion. It is a rather recent innovation, which has become prominent in recent years because of a well-orchestrated campaign heavily funded by business interests and driven by social-political concerns, that is, “The Culture Wars.” It is a position that owes more to John Locke than to the Biblical heritage, interpreting Scripture through the lens of Locke’s views on property and a libertarian version of Christian Dominionism. Because it is well-funded, it has a loud voice, and is currently very politically influential. However, it is not the only Christian voice. The other voice I have sought to call attention to is much older, and more widely influential. It begins with St. Augustine of Hippo, and thus is foundational for much of Western Christianity both Catholic and Protestant. While it originated in the conversation between Neoplatonism and the Christian Biblical tradition, its moral and epistemological concerns reach beyond that metaphysical framework. It is a theological vision that sees love as the fulfillment of human life, humility as the cardinal virtue to live the life of perfect love, and pride as the deadly sin that turns us away from the live of love which should be our destiny. This tradition is often drowned out today in the press, but it is not silenced; it continues to speak through Christian thinkers directly or indirectly influenced by Augustine’s insights. This theology offers Christians the best resources to contribute helpfully to facing the ecological crisis brought on by human abuse of our environment, abuse at times abetted by Christianity itself and by the same heritage of John Locke which gave us our Revolution.