Category Archives

51 Articles

Will the Real C.S. Lewis Please Stand Up? (re: that fake quote)

screwtape-fake

A very popular quote – but it’s not from Lewis!

The quote to the right has been making the rounds on social media lately, purportedly from C.S. Lewis’ classic Screwtape Letters.  This is Lewis’ imaginative account of a senior demon (Screwtape) training up a younger tempter (Wormwood).  While the quotation in question sounds very much like the real thing, it is in fact not from C.S. Lewis.  It is what Mickey Efird, a retired professor from Duke Divinity School, would call “pious fiction.” I am not sure of the origin, but I would imagine it was made as an homage to Lewis, though with perhaps not enough clarification that it was essentially fan fiction.  I’m not sure if the author intended this connection, but it reminds me of a line from Eliot’s “Choruses from The Rock,”

They constantly try to escape
From the darkness outside and within
By dreaming of systems so perfect that no one will need to be good.

Lewis did, however, conclude chapter 23 of The Screwtape Letters with this reflection on politics that says much to our contemporary situation:

About the general connection between Christianity and politics, our position is more delicate. Certainly we do not want men to allow their Christianity to flow over into their political life, for the establishment of anything like a really just society would be a major disaster. On the other hand we do want, and want very much, to make men treat Christianity as a means; preferably, of course, as a means to their own advancement, but, failing that, as a means to anything—even to social justice. The thing to do is to get a man at first to value social justice as a thing which the Enemy demands, and then work him on to the stage at which he values Christianity because it may produce social justice. For the Enemy will not be used as a convenience. Men or nations who think they can revive the Faith in order to make a good society might just as well think they can use the stairs of Heaven as a short cut to the nearest chemist’s shop. Fortunately it is quite easy to coax humans round this little corner. Only today I have found a passage in a Christian writer where he recommends his own version of Christianity on the ground that “only such a faith can outlast the death of old cultures and the birth of new civilisations”. You see the little rift ? “Believe this, not because it is true, but for some other reason.” That’s the game,
Your affectionate uncle
SCREWTAPE 

To my mind, the real Screwtape quote is even more relevant today than the fictive pericope.  Certainly there is a word we need to hear from the latter about focusing on the drama and immorality of others instead of trying to increase in virtue ourselves.  The real Lewis, however, offers a subtler and more important point on the dangers of manipulating faith for our own personal and ideological ends.  Many, if not most, forms of popular Christianity (read: Protestantism) are proffered either a) as a means of personal advancement or b) as a means of societal advancement.  Both fit demonic desires. Screwtape tells Wormwood they want their victims to “treat Christianity as a means,” preferably to selfish ends but also to more noble ends if necessary.

This is a subtle but crucial point – a “little rift” as Screwtape calls it.  Christianity turned into a means is thus embraced not because it is true, not because, say, Jesus really is the Messiah of Israel and the world’s true Lord (N.T. Wright’s lovely formulation), but because Christian faith gets you from point A to point B.  Even if point B is something desirable like “social justice,” we (Screwtape’s victims) have successfully reduced Christianity from an end to a means, from the truth on which the world turns to just another way of achieving some desired outcome.

screwtape-quote

St. Augustine noted long ago, there are things that can be used and things that can be enjoyed.  Only God can be truly enjoyed, for all other things are to be used or enjoyed only in reference to God.  The temptation to make faith a means to anything else is to attempt to use God rather than enjoy God.  This makes the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob into little more than a glorified genie.

Much like fictive quotes associated with John Wesley, the real Clive Staples is better than the invented.  There is a reason he is still influential decade after his death.  Few have put so eloquently or so readably what is at stake in Christian believing and Christian living (which, in his brilliance, he did not divide).  So perhaps we’d be better off if we made this last quote famous, since it cuts to the heart of all our idolatries.  What better way to honor a teacher and writer whose legacy is the simple but radical project he named “mere” Christianity?

What are you other favorite quotes from Lewis?  How else do you see the temptation today to turn Christianity into a means rather than an end? Leave a comment below – and don’t forget to subscribe!

Source: Lewis, The Complete C.S. Lewis Signature Classics, p. 253.

P.S. The first Methodist to say that social justice is a core aspect of the gospel because they’ve conflated it with social holiness loses points.

12,512 views

The Anti-Establishment Establishment

by Drew 3 Comments
Courtesy wwwhousandgarden.co.uk

Courtesy www.housandgarden.co.uk

The leading candidates for both parties in the 2016 Presidential contest are all trying to paint their opponents as “establishment.”

Post-Obama America, when the platitudes of “hope” and “change” failed to hold up under the weight of reality, voters are in many ways more cynical than ever.  The only broad agreement is that politicians in general are the problem; the more insider they are, the more a particular politician represents the ways of that mysterious phantasm known as “the establishment,” the less interested we are in electing them to the most powerful office in the land.

The problem, of course, is that the idea of “the establishment” is ephemeral.  It’s a construct with little purchase on reality.  It’s an idea with rhetorical power but very little content.  Defending National Review‘s whole issue devoted to slamming The Donald, editor Jonah Goldberg argues,

“Anti-establishment” is almost entirely devoid of any ideological content whatsoever. An ideological category that can include Donald Trump, Bernie Sanders, Occupy Wall Street, the tea parties, Ted Cruz, Mark Levin, Rush Limbaugh, and Ben Carson is not a particularly meaningful one.

Some reply, oh no, it shows that the people are angry! I hear this all the time. And I agree. And I’m angry too. But you know what? Being angry is not a frick’n argument. I’m angry that Washington has drowned the country in debt. I’m angry that Obama has been a failure. I’m also angry that broccoli doesn’t taste like chicken and that Fox canceled Firefly. Being angry is probably a necessary condition for fixing a lot of problems, but it isn’t sufficient to the task. And it isn’t a particularly powerful defense of Donald Trump.

So why do we collectively demand outsider candidates to be the Chief Executive?

The flight from “establishment” candidates is just another example of our modern disdain for institutions.  Whereas my grandparents’ generation loved and supported institutions – denominations, political parties, Masonic lodges, women’s circles – Western culture today eschews them.  We now have a bias against “established” anything – that is, anything with a significant past – in part, perhaps, because new media and consumerism have effectively made all of us neophiliacs.  We are conditioned to look out for what is new and what is next.  Anything written in stone – hell, anything not Snapchatted or Instagrammed from the latest Apple product – is already antique.

Bias against the establishment has become our baseline, a shared cultural assumption.  Like a fish that doesn’t know it’s in water, anti-establishment zeal is simply the air we breathe.  In 21st century America, it is the norm.

Did you catch the irony?

Welcome to the anti-establishment establishment.

146 views

Jesus Was a Refugee From Terrorism

by Drew 5 Comments

Jesus was a refugee from state-sponsored terrorism in Egypt.

Courtesy James-Michael Smith, via jmsmith.org.

Courtesy James-Michael Smith, via jmsmith.org.

That rings more sharply than I intend. The “Jesus was ____” move is sometimes overplayed and unhelpful (and often not really about Jesus). But in this case, it is simply a fact, not a rhetorical ploy. This insight comes to us straight from Scripture, from the savior’s own story: Jesus and his family found refuge in Egypt:

When the magi had departed, an angel from the Lord appeared to Joseph in a dream and said, “Get up. Take the child and his mother and escape to Egypt. Stay there until I tell you, for Herod will soon search for the child in order to kill him.” Joseph got up and, during the night, took the child and his mother to Egypt. He stayed there until Herod died. This fulfilled what the Lord had spoken through the prophet: I have called my son out of Egypt.
-Matthew 2:13-15 (CEB)

There is a plague of fear in our culture. It is not of God, because “perfect love casts out fear” (1 John 4:18) and because we are commanded everywhere and always to care for the well-being of others as much or more than our own. This anti-gospel is everywhere. Most of us, though, can’t see it. Like fish swimming in the ocean, we don’t know we are in water.

Everywhere in the Bible, when God appears, the first word is, “Do not be afraid.” Everywhere in our world we are told, “Be afraid, be very afraid, and especially be afraid of ____.” In this case, it is refugees (which is really just an extension of the fear of immigrants as a whole, which itself is just the good ol’ fear of difference that easily morphs into hatred and prejudice).

We have been down this God-forsaking road before. In 1939, the US refused entry to nearly 1000 Jews fleeing Hitler’s Germany. Some found refuge in Europe, many later died in the demonic machinery of the Holocaust:

In a highly publicized event in May–June 1939, the United States refused to admit over 900 Jewish refugees who had sailed from Hamburg, Germany, on the St. Louis. The St. Louis appeared off the coast of Florida shortly after Cuban authorities cancelled the refugees’ transit visas and denied entry to most of the passengers, who were still waiting to receive visas to enter the United States. Denied permission to land in the United States, the ship was forced to return to Europe. The governments of Great Britain, France, the Netherlands, and Belgium each agreed to accept some of the passengers as refugees. Of the 908 St. Louis passengers who returned to Europe, 254 (nearly 28 percent) are known to have died in the Holocaust. 288 passengers found refuge in Britain. Of the 620 who returned to the continent, 366 (just over 59 percent) are known to have survived the war.

The Good Samaritan was so-named because he helped the man on the side of the road, beaten and bloody, while the good religious people walked on by.

love syriansGod help me – and I mean that literally, because I am not yet perfect – I’d rather be a Good Samaritan than a pious man passing by who is indifferent to suffering out of fear or caution.

Christians are not allowed the luxury of living based on worst-case scenarios and calculations of how many of a given group might wish us harm.

We are called to a holy foolishness that welcomes the stranger in trust and in hope that we may be welcoming an angel unawares. (Heb. 13:2) It was not that long ago that we turned away Jewish refugees from Germany. It is always easier to fear the stranger than it is to welcome them, just as the mire of sin is always more easy and natural than the graced road of sanctification.

American Christians, left and right, are almost to a person slaves to culture; sometimes that culture is all permissiveness and “tolerance,” so-called, and other times it is obsessed with building walls and circling the wagons. By and large Christians reflect these trends rather than offering a gospel-conditioned critique from what is supposed to be an alternative community. As Martin Luther King Jr. said so eloquently, we tend to be thermometers and not thermostats.survey 1938

But Jesus was a refugee, fleeing slaughter in the town of his birth with his family. To reject refugees in our communities and churches now, is nothing less than rejecting Jesus.

As strangers to the world and her ways, Christians should always have a bias towards loving and welcoming the strangers in our midst. This is especially so when those strangers are fleeing violence and chaos. If that bias is not in evidence – and other, less virtuous biases are – the natural question follows: have we even met Jesus?

1,597 views

Are We Witnessing the “Suicide of Thought”?

chesterton

G.K. Chesterton

“There is a thought that stops thought. That is the only thought that ought to be stopped.”

-G.K Chesterton, “The Suicide of Thought,” in Orthodoxy

Satire is effective because it wraps a kernel of truth in packing that, if well-constructed, is hilarious.  An example of effective satire is this “story” from The Onion:

Saying that such a dialogue was essential to the college’s academic mission, Trescott University president Kevin Abrams confirmed Monday that the school encourages a lively exchange of one idea. “As an institution of higher learning, we recognize that it’s inevitable that certain contentious topics will come up from time to time, and when they do, we want to create an atmosphere where both students and faculty feel comfortable voicing a single homogeneous opinion,” said Abrams, adding that no matter the subject, anyone on campus is always welcome to add their support to the accepted consensus. “Whether it’s a discussion of a national political issue or a concern here on campus, an open forum in which one argument is uniformly reinforced is crucial for maintaining the exceptional learning environment we have cultivated here.”

dissent-is-hateOf course, college campuses are not alone in tending towards a sort of intellectual univocality.  Various corners (or are they cul de sacs?) of the church vie to have their views not only recognized, but made sacrosanct.  We see it also in our wider culture.  I am not among those who thinks that the sky is falling due to the Oberfell ruling; nevertheless, Justice Alito was probably correct in saying this decision will be used against those who will not “assent to the new orthodoxy.” (For all the bleating about “thinking for oneself,” every community has its own orthodoxy, after all.)  He was similarly prophetic in his concern about “those who are determined to stamp out every vestige of dissent.”

But it isn’t merely the reduction of valid viewpoints that is at issue, it is the manner in which those viewpoints are decided.  Another aspect of what Chesterton called “the suicide of thought” is the power play that the injection of a kind of fundamentalist identity politics as brought to contemporary discourse.  In many corners of American intellectual life, what matters is not what one argues but one’s identity which determines (before a word is spoken) the validity of what is proffered.  A self-described liberal college student aptly described the illiberality of such power games in a thought-provoking piece titled, “Social Justice Bullies”:

“But here’s the thing — who I am does not (or should not) have any bearing on facts. The problem with this brand of modern social justice advocacy is that who one is as a person (race, class, gender, etc.) is the be all and end all of their capacity to have a certain viewpoint. A millennial social justice advocate can discount an opinion simply because it is said or written by a group they feel oppresses them. It is a logical fallacy known as ad hominem whereby one attacks the person saying an argument rather than the argument itself. But this logical fallacy has become the primary weapon of the millennial social justice advocate. It is miasma to academia, to critical thinking, and to intellectual honesty. Yet it is the primary mode of operating on college campuses nationwide.”

To be clear, at issue is not the ends to which contemporary “social justice bullies” aim but the means employed (side note: if you are worried you may be a SJB, check here).  Any means that rules out certain thoughts or ideas based solely on the identity of the person who holds them (outside of, say, a KKK or Nation of Islam member, someone who self-describes in a prejudiced way) is the opposite of the liberal ideal, which values exchange of ideas and wrestling for the truth.  Orginos elaborates:

“What I am talking about so far is not meant to discredit feminism or any social justice position that seeks to empower oppressed people or remedy social ills. As I made abundantly clear to begin with, these are fundamentally good and necessary goals. What is the issue here are the tactics used by some from a purported place of moral high ground to immunize themselves from criticism while promoting a close-minded authoritarian vice-grip on society through chillingly sinister tactics.”

It is both disingenuous and counter-productive to demand conversation about serious issues facing our society AND police attempted conversation so tightly that only the pre-determined righteous elite can come to the table.  This is at least part of the reason for the gridlock we currently face; those who set the terms of the debate have done so in a manner that predetermines the outcome, and then shame those who refuse to play their power game as unwilling and backwards.  The faux empathy which demands to settle ahead of time not just what can be said but how it is said  – resulting in the exchange of “one idea,” as The Onion so aptly put it – is regressive in the extreme. Rabbi and systems theorist Edwin Friedman called such gridlock “a failure of nerve”:failure of nerve

“…societal regression has too often perverted the use of empathy into a disguise for anxiety, a rationalization for failure to define a position, and a power tool in the hands of the ‘sensitive’…I have consistently found the introduction of the subject of ’empathy’ into family, institutional, and community meetings to be reflective of, as well as an effort to induce, a failure of nerve among its leadership.”

It’s tempting to be an alarmist about all this.  But the good news is that the flesh-and-blood people I talk to in my community, or pray with at the church I serve, are more fully-orbed than this.  I worry that, with Chesterton, “We are on the road to producing a race of [people] too mentally modest to believe in the multiplication table.”

But most people I know – those not trying to get a book deal or grow their Instagram following – are not like this.  If you pay too much attention to the thought police – the basement bloggers, armchair theorists, and self-obsessed justice tourists – it’s easy to become convinced that truthful speech and honest, vulnerable conversation are at an end in the 21st century West.  But we can do better.  Thought need not be destroyed on the altar of ideology masquerading as empathy.

But fighting this trend will require all of us – left/right/center, libertarian and communitarian, Christians and atheists and agnostics, progressives and traditionalists – to embrace a hermeneutic of charity that will allow us to be more interested in genuine engagement than in scoring points with the home team, more desirous of actually achieving progress than being seen as an expert in demanding it.  Otherwise, we are fated to continue trying to move forward as a church and society while fighting over the few, narrow, pre-determined views.

What do you think? Are we witnessing the suicide of thought? What institutions, places, arenas are there for genuine engagement across the usual battle lines? Leave a comment below.

28 views

A Graceless Apocalypse: Thoughts on “Slabtown” (The Walking Dead)

Beth in "Slabtown," courtesy IGN's excellent review.

Beth in “Slabtown,” courtesy IGN’s excellent review.

[Warning: serious spoilers below. You’ve been warned.]

“Everything costs something, right?”

Season 5, episode 4 of The Walking Dead takes a departure to catch us up on a character we haven’t seen in quite a while.  Last we saw Beth, she was carted off by mysterious forces in a vehicle sporting a white cross.  In last night’s episode, “Slabtown,” Beth wakes up in an unexpected place: a hospital, which we later learn is Grady Memorial in Atlanta.  In a throwback to the pilot episode, she awakens in a strange location unsure what has happened.   The woman in charge of the hospital, Dawn, sets the tone immediately.  Because we used our resources to save you, she says to Beth, “You owe us.”

Beth soon learns that the abandoned hospital is run by survivors who have been rescued (kidnapped? kidrescued?) and then repay their debt by working various tasks inside the hospital.  Outside is nothing but zombies walkers/biters/rotters, so even those at the top of the hierarchy are basically trapped.  But in this inhumane place, the male guards abuse the female workers, and those who want to leave are threatened.  Anyone who questions the system is reminded what it took to rescue them.  “Everything costs something, right?” as one character says.  Beth even refuses food at first because she realizes it will only run up her tab faster.

“Slabtown,” aside from being the kind of interesting, creepy, and suspenseful episode viewers have come to expect from The Walking Dead, also offers the perfect picture  of life without grace.  Everything costs.  Nothing is simply given.

Thanks be to God that the Divine Economy works differently.  With God, nothing is earned, all is given.  As Ephesians 2:8-9 (NRSV) says,

For by grace you have been saved through faith, and this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God— not the result of works, so that no one may boast.”

As Tim Keller points out in The Prodigal God (and the parable of the sower further suggests), our God is not stingy in doling out grace.  When we meet God, His first word is not “you owe me” but, like the loving father in the story of the prodigal son, “all that I have is already yours.”

Icon of Christ the Sower

Icon of Christ the Sower

My church recently started a weekly meal for the community; anyone who wants to come in for a meal gets fed, at no cost. When people ask us if they can pay, we tell them no, that there are other ways they can show gratitude if they wish but the meal is free.

We call this ministry Table of Grace, because the food, like God’s grace, is free of charge.  “Slabtown” gives us an excellent view of a world (or at least a half-operative apocalyptic hospital) that has forgotten grace.  Too often Christians, though, act exactly this way.  We only recruit new church members with “resources.”  We plant churches in wealthy neighborhoods and only befriend those who can enhance our status and help us reach our goals.  We ask our community to pay our bills (with incessant fundraisers) but never give anything back to our neighbors.  The temptation of mammon remains, and always will.

But followers of Jesus are at our best when we remember that God is not miserly with His grace.  Though we capitalist North Americans so often hate to receive for nothing, though it is antithetical to the world we live in, that is the Kingdom economy that we meet in the Bible.  Unlike the apocalypse-stricken Grady Memorial in Atlanta, the truth of the cosmos is an economy of grace.

That which matters most is free; God writes no bills, and we could not buy His love with any amount of money.  Thanks be to God.

0 views

Better Together: Why the UMC Should Also #VoteNo

by Drew 6 Comments

“…making every effort to maintain the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace.” (Eph. 4:13, NRSV)

As I write this, the BBC and other outlets are projecting that Scotland will remain, as it has for three centuries, part of the United Kingdom.  The St. Andrew’s Cross will stay within the Union Jack.  Though long and sometimes bitter, the fight is over and the Scots chose union over division.  Can the UMC do the same?

There are parallels.  A union of different regions, dialects, and ideologies attempting to hold together despite serious differences; a disconnect between the resources provided by certain regions and their influence in the rest of the body politic;  a variety of promises made by those pushing for independence, the veracity of whose claims is spurious at best.  On the whole, the question is essentially the same: can a bunch of different kinds of people learn to live well together, or will they choose the easy option: autonomy?

Like the United Kingdom, the United Methodist Church is “better together.”  Yes, there are grave challenges that must be faced.  Much akin to the situation of the Scots, there exists a variety of groups within the big tent of the UMC whose particular values and languages make independence a tempting case.  But the easy thing and the right thing are rarely the same.

The Scots have voted to keep the ‘united’ in United Kingdom.  Hopefully the time and effort put in to pursuing independence will lead to conversation and reforms that will aid the Scottish residents in feeling more valued by their countrymen and more respected as a cultural and political body.  The hard choice may well pay off.

Back to the church: schism is not hard, it’s easy – whether it is of the “amicable” variety or not.  There is nothing particularly interesting or remarkable in entropy, destruction, and tearing down.  It’s as easy as gravity.

But unity, despite the odds and genuine differences, despite the barriers in language, history, culture?  That’s an adventure.  That’s “advanced citizenship,” as Michael Douglas’ President Shepherd once put it.  That’s unity-as-gift, gratefully received and hard fought to keep.  But the juice is worth the squeeze.

That’s the path the Scottish people have chosen.  Will we be so wise as 2016 approaches?

25 views

When Progressive Christianity Nukes the Fridge

by Drew 16 Comments
The death of a great franchise, courtesy Blastr.

The death of a great franchise, courtesy Blastr.

I try to be an equal-opportunity critic of both ends of the Christian spectrum.  That’s not to say I don’t have friends on both ends that I love and respect (I certainly do), and it’s not to say I haven’t found myself on both ends of the spectrum (I have).  But there comes a time when the ideological leanings become more important than the faith; the tail wags the dog, and little identifiably Christian substrate remains.   Conservative Christianity can, if unchecked, devolve into fundamentalism or state religion.  Progressive Christianity, on the other side of the coin, can devolve into paganism or mere activism.  It is the latter I wish to address here, using two examples that recently came to my attention.

Exhibit A: The “8 Points of Progressive Christianity”

Found at ProgressiveChristianity.org, these 8 points offer a rallying cry for at least one brand of Christian progressivism (more on that distinction later).  On my reading, these 8 points say:

  • Jesus is about having an experience of the divine that is no more valid than anyone else’s.
  • There are many paths to experiencing this “Oneness” of the universe.
  • Questions are (absolutely?) more important than absolutes.
  • We should all be really, really nice to each other.

Notice what is absent? No mention of truth, or revelation, or Scripture as inspired or even useful.  Jesus is a window to the cosmic soup of love and warm feelings, but there is no indication he is any more special than Gandhi or Steve Jobs.  And of course, no mention of the Trinity.  Which brings me to…

Exhibit B: “Christianity” Beyond the Trinity

Mark Sandlin, a former Presbyterian pastor (who I think is, somehow, still ordained) says “no thank you” to the Trinity:

“I’m not saying the theory of Trinity is wrong. I’m just not saying it’s definitively right, which is exactly what many of its adherents do when they say that if you don’t believe in the Trinity, you can’t be Christian.”

Actually, confession (no one confesses a theory, after all) of the Trinity has been the distinctive mark of Christians from very early on.  Did it take a while to work out? Yes.  The Church had to wrestle for a while, but once the dust settled, this has been established doctrine for those who would claim to be Christians for over a millennia.  No amount of Dan Brown conspiracies about “power” and “politics” changes that.  Would Christianity be an easier “sell” without this particular mystery? Of course.  But that’s just not how God has revealed Godself to us.  Heresy always simplifies God’s amazing and profound revelation.

There’s a term among nerds called Jumping the Shark, based on an especially ridiculous episode of Happy Days.  Now, thanks to Stephen Spielberg’s public defecation named Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull, we have a new term: Nuking the Fridge.  I posit that when Progressive Christianity can no longer affirm basic Christian doctrine, when open season is declared on essentials like the Trinity, the fridge has been thoroughly “nuked.”

Conclusion: Don’t Nuke the Fridge

I have many friends who are progressive Christians.  By that, I mean they lean politically left, but their heart is sold-out to Jesus.  Their allegiance is to him before it is to any ideology, and their political action is informed by a deep love of Scripture and the calling of the church.  They are orthodox Christians who happen to be progressives.

But then there are those who claim to be Christians but clearly have no use for Christianity.  Their ideology is paramount, and only a thin  veneer of anything identifiably Christian can be found.  They are progressives who occasionally talk about Jesus.

That, to me, is the distinction between Christian Progressivism and Progressive Christianity.  Christian Progressivism is a form of syncretism, in which two faiths are merged into one unholy, idolatrous union.  Progressive Christianity is a popular movement among those who have found refuge from evangelism and fundamentalism, and has much to offer the Church universal.  Folks like Jim Wallis, Ron Sider, and Tony Campolo were quite helpful to me in my journey out of fundamentalism.

So if you want to be a progressive and you are a Christian, good on you.  The church needs your voice. But don’t put the cart before the horse. And don’t nuke that fridge.

85 views

The Oppressed Do Not Care if You Are Progressive or Conservative: Making Our First Family First

iraq Christians symbol

The symbol ISIS is using to mark Christian homes in Northern Iraq.

 

“When he opened the fifth seal, I saw under the altar the souls of those who had been slaughtered for the word of God and for the testimony they had given; they cried out with a loud voice, ‘Sovereign Lord, holy and true, how long will it be before you judge and avenge our blood on the inhabitants of the earth?’”

-Revelation 6:9-10

A False Choice

Do the oppressed care about my ideology?  My conservative friends talk a lot about Christians in Northern Iraq who are being persecuted – even crucified – by a self-declared Islamic state known as ISIS.  My progressive friends have been writing and reflecting a great deal about the Israeli-Palestinian crisis.  By and large, the right doesn’t seem to care about the Palestinians and the left doesn’t seem to pay much attention to Christians persecuted in Iraq and elsewhere.

I’m not sure why this is.  My best guess: this is just another instance of how all-encompassing the conservative and progressive worldviews tend to be.  There is a set of issues that the right is supposed to care about and a set of issues the left is supposed to care about.  Ergo, if I post about Iraqi Christians being persecuted, I am dismissed as a conservative.  If I express concern about suffering Palestinians, I am dismissed as a liberal.  I am willing to bet, though, that the oppressed don’t care what our ideology is.

Since  both Western culture and Protestantism largely assume the liberal/conservative paradigm, most of our conversation and debate is not aimed towards truth, but intended either to show which “side” we are on or why the other “side” is wrong.  It’s more ping-pong than discourse.  So we become traitors to our team to express concern for the wrong subset of the oppressed.

But if, as James Cone and other liberationist theologians have argued, God has a particular concern for the oppressed, we should refuse this choice.  We should reject an artificial bifurcation of God’s hurting children, because they are all beloved.

Reclaiming Our First Family

Instead, I think Christians should reclaim a particular concern for our own (a choice based on God’s own revelation and salvation history itself).  In a sermon based on the famous Mennonite slogan, “A Modest Proposal For Peace: Let The Christians Of The World Agree That They Will Not Kill Each Other,” Stanley Hauerwas defends just this concern.  When criticized for such a special emphasis on the welfare and actions of other Christians, Hauerwas’ usual reply is:  “I agree that it would certainly be a good thing for Christians to stop killing anyone, but we have to start somewhere.” (1)

Indeed, if we take Scripture seriously, Christians are to consider the Church as our “first family.”  We are to do good to all, but especially those who belong to the household of faith. (Gal. 6:10)  After all, God’s concern for the oppressed is especially directed towards His people, Israel and the Church.  It is Israel that was redeemed from Pharaoh, and  “to them belong the adoption, the glory, the covenants, the giving of the law, the worship, and the promises.” (Romans 9:4, NRSV)  The Church was established to point to the Kingdom inaugurated by Christ in fulfillment of the promise to Abraham that all nations would be blessed through him, and this beloved Body suffers as she awaits the return of the her Head.

In fact, God’s concern for all is expressed through the bonds he makes and covenant he keeps with the particular people who belong to Him.  Likewise, our empathy as Christians should be first and foremost for our sisters and brothers in the Church and Israel (though I do not believe the biblical covenant people should be identified exclusively with the modern nation-state).  Let charity start at home.  As Hauerwas put it, we have to start somewhere.

In Revelation 6, the souls under the altar who cry out for justice are not just any oppressed persons, but those who have suffered for the Lamb.  They cry out, “How long?”  How dare we pick and choose among them.  All of them, not just the ones beloved by the left or remembered by right, have an equal share of God’s justice and mercy.  Each and every one are given white robes and told to wait just a little while longer.  God has no side when it comes to the martyrs who (literally) bear witness to Him: they are all precious.  If their blood, as Tertullian said, is the seed of the church – it is all held dear by  God.  And it should be by us.

Meanwhile, we Western Christians need to remember that some of our sisters and brothers experience oppression of a kind we cannot possibly comprehend, no matter how much CNN we watch or how much we would like to be in “solidarity” with them.  Sometimes, it appears we desperately want to be part of that group under the altar – not by seeking actual martyrdom, which we aren’t supposed to do – but by re-defining oppression.  Thus we conflate the relatively minor injustices and inconveniences we may face with the experience of suffering Christians around the world, which  is a sad, self-aggrandizing form of moral equivalency.

The Seed of the Church

I recall a story told by Cardinal Dolan in a recent sermon.  He shared with his parishioners at St. Patrick’s Cathedral in New York that he now dreads Mondays, not because of complaints from bishops and priests based on Sunday’s activities, but because of a phone call he usually gets from a colleague.  Most Mondays, said Dolan, his friend, the Archbishop of Jos, Nigeria calls to inform him of yet another attack on the Christians of his archdiocese.  Regularly, in that part of Nigeria, Catholics  on their way to mass have been targeted for vicious attacks by the radical Islamic group Boko Haram (this sermon was before the gang became internationally infamous for kidnapping innocent young women).  Nigerian Christians are the victims of wanton murder for no other reason than their identification with the Crucified.  Diocletian would be proud.  Most astoundingly, though, the Archbishop from Jos also reported that his people are still coming to Sunday mass.  Not only that, but their numbers are swelling. “Our churches have never been more full,” reported the Nigerian church leader.

The blood of the martyrs is indeed the seed of the church.  But let us not make martyrs of each other.  What if Christians agreed not to harm each other? How might that change the way we look at the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, whose Christian victims often go ignored? How might that change relations between Russia and Ukraine, or our approach to the children at the US border?  If the church really is our first family, we should not be willing to see any of our own harmed, marginalized, or killed.  Sounds like a good start.

In the meantime, we can rejoice in God’s power to work despite and even through oppression, such that the witness of those who die for the faith of the apostles are honored in this life by the faithfulness they inspire, even as they wait under the altar for justice to be done.  Let us be thankful for that faithful cloud of witnesses who have suffered and continue to suffer, that their deaths are not in vain, that their patience will be rewarded, and that God has not forgotten.  And may our prayers and concern be for the whole company of martyrs, for all the oppressed, suffering, and slain of the church, and not merely for those  whom we are supposed to remember according to the artificial dictates of 21st century political culture.

And, finally, let us take heart: as the words the words of Samuel Stone, drawing on Revelation 6, remind us:

Yet saints their watch are keeping,
Their cry goes up, “How long?”
And soon the night of weeping
Shall be the morn of song!

 

1. Hauerwas, Unleashing the Scripture: Freeing the Bible from Captivity to America, 63.

18 views

Painting with Warren Buffett

The following is one of my favorite excerpts from Susan Cain’s marvelous Quiet, which I cannot recommend enough (whether you are an introvert or extrovert).  Warren Buffett, the famously introverted and successful investor, was at an investing conference just prior to the burst of the 2000 dot-com bubble.  Present at the party was lots of “new money,” investors and venture capitalists who had recently become very wealthy.

“Buffett was decidedly not a part of this group.  He was an old-school investor who didn’t get caught up in speculative frenzy around companies with unclear earnings prospects.  Some dismissed him as a relic of the past.  But Buffett was still powerful enough to give the keynote address on the final day of the conference.”

Buffett saw that the bubble was about to burst, and told the happy crowd exactly what he thought.  They were not pleased with his remarks, and dismissed him as hopelessly backwards.  Next year, though, when the bubble did burst, Buffett was proven right:

“Buffett takes pride not only in his track record, but also in following his own ‘inner scorecard.’  He divides the world into people who focus on their own instincts and those who follow the herd.  ‘I feel like I’m on my back,’ says Buffett about his life as an investor, ‘and there’s the Sistine Chapel, and I’m painting away.  I like it when people say, Gee, that’s a pretty good-looking painting. But it’s my painting, and when somebody says, Why don’t you use more red instead of blue? Good-bye. It’s my painting.  And I don’t care what they sell it for.  The painting itself will never be finished.  That’s one of the great things about it.'” (177)

9 views

Thoughts On Not Shutting Up

Dr. Steve McSwain over on the Huffington Post Religion Blog asked me to shut up recently.  Actually, he wants all of us who preach to shut up: the title of the piece is, “I Wish Christian Preachers Would Just Shut Up.

To be fair, he says he didn’t mean to be “unkind,” but I’m not sure how asking someone to shut up can ever be done kindly.

Of course, his real beef is not with all preachers, but just those who align themselves with right-leaning politics.  Strangely, he does not seem to have any issue with Christians who align with left-leaning causes.  So while he calls out Billy Graham & Co. for a pseudo-endorsement of Romney, he does not bother to name that the exact same thing happens in the left-leaning churches with their candidates.

He continues by telling us that none of us read the Scriptures as well as he does:

If Christians were to actually study the Scriptures, which of course most of them do not, and so were to develop their own understanding of the sacred text itself, they would discern between truth and the nonsense that is preached from scores of pulpits in Christian communions across this country. Instead, however, many of them get their beliefs more from the spurious notes of the Scofield Reference Bible, Hal Lindsey’s “Late Great Planet Earth” or the equally spurious B-grade movies they watch as in the “Left Behind” series.

A couple of issues.  Being a Christian does not mean developing one’s own understanding of the sacred text.  That way is madness.  That way does not recognize Divine revelation for the whole of God’s people, but a blank canvas to be interpreted to one’s own tune.  As part of John Wesley’s posse, I recognize that Scripture does not stand alone, but rather as the primary source for truth alongside tradition, experience, and reason.

Also, how exactly does one know what is preached in “scores” of churches across the theological spectrum each Sunday? This seems presumptuous.  While there is a strong strand of Darbyism/dispensationalism in American Protestantism, it is (despite all the TV exposure) a minority opinion.  Roman Catholics, Orthodox christians, and most Mainliners do not subscribe to it.  Informed evangelicals do not. I have preached against this kind of eschatology myself, and blogged on it here and here.

I actually think the whole notion of the rapture is just as silly as Dr. McSwain does, so perhaps his “shut up” proviso does not apply to me?

On the whole, this entire screed seems really to be little more than a cheap shot at the Grahams.  They have their flaws, Franklin in particular, but there are much more problematic and influential individuals in American Protestantism at present (here’s looking at you, Mark Driscoll and Joel Osteen).  On the whole I like Billy, but to each their own.

For now, perhaps we can encourage Dr. McSwain to offer something more constructive to his theological opponents than “shut up.”  At the very least, don’t apply your disdain for a few to all of us.

Near the conclusion, he writes:

Maybe it’s just me, but many religious leaders today seem contradictory, confused and, well, just plain wrong about almost everything over which they wail.

True enough, Dr. McSwain.  I too loathe much of what is said from certain pulpits. But I’m trying hard to be the solution, and I’m not going to ask your permission to continue doing what God has called me to do.

By the by, that thing you said about being “just plain wrong about almost everything over which they wail”?

It applies to bloggers as well.

3 views
%d bloggers like this: