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Where Would Jesus Be?

Once again the world has been stunned by a single image of a little Syrian boy who has fallen victim to Syria’s horrific civil war.  It isn’t the first time.  Remember the heart-rending picture of the toddler’s lifeless body being brought to shore following a failed attempt to flee?  I doubt this will be the last such picture.  The war has claimed nearly 500,000 lives and an estimated half of the nation has been driven from their homes.  Recriminations as to whose is at fault are flying, as are suggestions as to what should be done; none of which are free from the risk of making things worse.

I don’t have any answers that make sense but the whole matter has me pondering a different question.  If Jesus was to have come to 21st century Syria instead of 1st century Israel where would he be?  I suspect he would be in Aleppo.  He would be hanging out with that little boy and all those around him, the lowest of the low.  He’d be eating with them, healing them, accepting them as they are, treating them with dignity, loving them, probably only rarely preaching at them.

Perhaps, if had come to today’s America, he’d be walking with a Black Lives Matter protest making it clear they matter to Him.  Or he might be weeping at the funeral of a slain police officer.  Or maybe he’d be sitting with a working class white family in the rust belt when the bread-winner had just been laid off.   Perhaps even with the desperate poor coming across our southern border in the hope of a better life.

I doubt he’d be sitting in one our mega-churches; or hanging out in our seminaries.  If he was, I can’t help but think that he might tell us the same things he said in Matthew 22:37-40: “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind. This is the great and first commandment.  And a second is like it: You shall love your neighbor as yourself.  On these two commandments depend all the Law and the Prophets.”  (ESV)

He’d be telling us that these two commandments are to guide the shape of our lives; both individually and in our church communities.  We are called to love God and to love others … especially those most in need of love: the poor, the sick, the oppressed, the powerless, and the displaced.

There has always been one thing about our faith that troubles me.  If the Bible is true we who are filled with the spirit, though we are imperfect, should be visibly different from non-Christians in the “world.”  We’d be light and salt in way that ought to be visible, maybe even obvious.   And this should be more pronounced the more devout we are.   Putting it another way; on average, we’d be visibly more loving, more gracious, and more humble.  Are we?

Rising in the polls

This morning I saw a news report saying that the new leaders of Trump’s campaign have promised a more relentless attack on Hillary Clinton from now until Election Day.  I am told they need to make this election about Clinton’s personal flaws.  Since the Clinton campaign is already in full gear about Trump’s flaws it seems we are settling into the campaign theme of “No matter how bad I am he/she is worse.”  Oh joy.

Meanwhile, many strongly anti-Clinton Christians are also in full attack mode but their effort is a bit more focused.  As a result it appears that there is one (sort of) poll in which Clinton is rising.  She is now in 4th place in online speculations that she may well be the Antichrist.

To be sure, Obama remains solidly in 1st place.  A search today turned up 822,000 online sites making his case clear.  Doggedly clinging to 2nd place is George Bush with 454,000 sites.  Blocking Clinton’s advance is our 3rd place candidate, Pope Francis with 425,000 sites.  Indeed, with the twin advantages of a long-standing conviction in some quarters that any Pope will do as the Antichrist, and his “help the poor, question the rich, tolerate others unlike us” message he is a powerful candidate.  But Clinton is rising and now is at 374,000.

She does have two obstacles to overcome however.  One is theological, the use of male pronouns in describing the Antichrist.  But I feel quite confident that dispensationalist theologians are working on this obstacle now.

The second, and perhaps more serious, impediment is some confusion among the “Hillary is evil” Christian camp.  A recent online Charisma article entitled “Is Hillary Clinton the Antichrist or an Illuminati Witch?” makes this confusion clear.  The article, which doesn’t seem to give us a “none of the above”option, and comes complete with a charming picture of Clinton with lightning bolts coming from her eyes, examines this dilemma.  Such hard evidence they supply, like her apparently well-known séance communications with the late Eleanor Roosevelt, are examined, although it is unclear which option these communications support.  It was kind of them to point out that Eleanor Roosevelt is dead however in case we didn’t know.

So there you have it.  Until we Christians can solve the “Antichrist vs. witch” controversy it appears Clinton will remain mired in 4th place.  Which is too bad.  You would think that Bush at least was an easy target.

A thought crossed my mind that we might want to confront Clinton on her relentless dissembling when asked about her e-mails and a host of other things; as well as her many political positions we can’t support, but apparently wiser heads then mine have discounted this option as not worth consideration.

Is it time to let go?

Like it or not, words frequently change meaning as time goes by.  My wife and I are fans of old movies and always get an unintended chuckle when the word “gay” comes up.  It is a very well-done example of a group deliberately seizing a word and owning it.  Other words simply change with time.  “Awful” at one time mean “full of awe” but now it is a synonym of “terrible.”

In Christian circles Bible translators struggle with the morphing of word meanings.  I read an article recently saying that scholars of classical Greek normally translate the words “dikaiosune” and “dikaios” as “justice” and “just” while English-language New Testament translators since the 1950s have translated them as “righteousness” and “right.”  The author speculated that it was the antipathy to “social justice” proponents that influenced this and that perhaps we are losing some key Bible teaching on justice.

While that is food for thought there is another word that seems to be morphing in meaning and it is one I have been quite fond of – evangelical.  A few months ago Russell Moore said that he no longer describes himself as an evangelical because “the word itself is subverting the Gospel of Jesus Christ.”  It appears that he agrees with Thomas Kidd who said recently that “In American pop culture parlance, “evangelical” now basically means whites who consider themselves religious and who vote Republican.”

When I read that a higher percentage of evangelicals support Donald Trump than supported Mitt Romney I have to agree with Kidd.  Like it or not, the term evangelical is now a political interest group largely associated with the Republican Party.  I wonder if it is time to simply drop it.

To be sure, there never was a single definition to the word evangelical.  We’ve always had Calvinists and Arminians, charismatics and non-charismatics, dispensationalists and amillennians in the house.  But now politics has fractured the word.  Well-respected “evangelical” leaders have jumped in on both sides of the “endorse Trump” question and the debate is all but 100% political.  I suspect that the politically active pro-Trump side will win this debate and that Kidd’s definition is the future.

The sad thing about this is that early evangelical leaders such as George Whitefield and Jonathan Edwards would be utterly perplexed by the way we use the word “evangelical.”  The core of their message was that the cultural “in name only” identity of our faith is exactly wrong.  What really mattered was spiritual transformation through the “born again” experience.  In contemporary culture that is no longer the case.

By the 1980s the evangelical political movement was in full swing and numbers counted more than actual faith.  Pollsters aggravated this trend by deciding that “evangelical” was a group to be polled and simply letting people self-identify.  I fear the name is beyond reclaiming.  The question “Why are so many evangelicals Republican?” is now no more meaningful than “Why are so many Republicans evangelical?”

So I am thinking of dropping the word except when I am talking about people that fit Kidd’s definition. But I am not sure what to call us.  Any suggestions?

Bedrock

One of the bedrock principles of most evangelicals is some variation on total depravity.  If you were raised in the church your mind is full of such phrases as “there is none righteous” and “all have sinned.”  We might discuss the best expressions of the concept among ourselves but almost nobody denies it.

A second bedrock principle is salvation through the shed blood of Christ and our conviction that no sin is too great to be “cleansed from all unrighteousness.”  While the concept of atonement is an interesting discussion, most of us see this as transactional.   We bow before King Jesus and ask him to forgive our sins – he (metaphorically) washes us in the blood of the cross.

These two principles come together to give us a third; the sheep and the goats.  At the end of the day there are only two kinds of people.  Race, gender and other divisions are meaningless, there are only the saved and the unsaved.

I can’t help but think that in the current hostile political environment that these concepts are coming together to cause an unanticipated problem.  The sheep and the goats, at least in our expressions, have morphed into and dangerous version of us and them.  Them, the unsaved, are totally depraved.  They are evil through and through.  Nothing they say and nothing they do is good.  There can be no compromise, no consideration that they might have something to say.

We (or “us”) are different.  We’ve been washed in the blood, we’ve been cleansed of all unrighteousness.  Even the “baby Christians” among us; those with long histories of sinful behavior that they, to this day, seem to be proud of, are clean.  Or, at the very least, “a good candidate with flaws.” 

Theologians know that this “totally depraved vs. completely cleansed” dichotomy is wrong.  The worst of us are, to some extent, image-bearers.  The best of us are aware that “in me dwells no good thing.”  But this concept is out there none the less.

This presidential election is, without a doubt, one of the hardest we evangelicals have ever seen.  We struggle to vote for any candidate or wonder if we should vote at all.  It has split fine Christians like Wayne Grudem and Russell Moore.  I admired Al Mohler’s integrity when he made clear that he could not in good conscience endorse Donald Trump because of the same moral failings in him that he condemned Bill Clinton for having.  But if you read his confession you will see it ended with sort of an “I don’t know.”

Only grace, and an unshaken confidence in the providence of God, can preserve our peace of mind.  In the meantime I’d like to end with this hard-to-take (for me at least) challenge from Dorothy Sayers:

“Your love of God is only as great as your love for your worst enemy.”

A Proposal of Rules

Last night at our church Bible study we narrowly avoided a rip-roaring argument over the answer to this question:

Does God cause trials and temptations or does he permit them?

Everybody in the group ignored my suggested answer of “yes” as not worth considering and they were taking sides and pulling out Bible proof-texts from Job, James and the mouth of Jesus to support their obviously right, if contradictory,  choices when the pastor deftly called for a return to the subject we were actually discussing.

It wasn’t the first time, and I doubt it will be the last, that everyone in the group went to their theological corners and prepared to come out swinging.  I am rather certain that churches across the country have had similar discussions.  And of course the evangelical corner of internet is flooded with shouting matches and accusations of heresy over every obscure theological tidbit there is.

It has me wondering if we ought to agree on some rules of engagement on such discussions.  Here are a few suggestions.  Perhaps you can add to or modify them:

  1. Never use slippery slope arguments. For example, don’t say things like “If you don’t believe (my interpretation of) Genesis 1 you can’t believe John 3:16.”
  2. Keep the discussion Scriptural but avoid “Proof-texting.” Consider all verses in their context; understand the genre, the historical setting and the writer’s intent.  Don’t view the Bible as a basket of verses you get to choose from to make your case.
  3. No ridicule or personal attack. Perhaps the stupidest example of this was the movie “God’s Not Dead,” where the atheists were shown as evil, angry and despicable.
  4. Spend as much time listening as talking. Try to truly understand the other point of view.  Perhaps you should even paraphrase it back to them to be sure you have it right.
  5. Don’t set up “straw men.” For example, don’t say “Arminians don’t believe God is sovereign.” just because they see His sovereignty at work differently.
  6. Above all else, accept that sincere and intelligent Christians can differ on a host of issues.

Any other suggestions?

Born Too Early

If you are from my generation you might recognize that title as a take-off from the 1958 pop song Born Too Late by the Poni-Tails.  The original song was a “one hit wonder” as it climbed to #7 on the top 100 charts while nothing else the group ever did made it to better than #85.  They soon broke up and went into such mundane fields as real estate, school administration and advertising.  But their song of lament about a girl who was “born too late” to attract the attention of the older (like 18) guy she wanted is still in my head, and I suspect that a good number of my peers could also sing it today, 58 years later.

But I’m beginning to think that, in terms of my evangelical faith, I was born too early.  I read and study things from my generation and often find myself dismayed.  I’ve never felt this way more than when I read the article by evangelical scholar and professor of Christian ethics Wayne Grudem entitled Why Voting for Donald Trump Is a Morally Good Choice.  I wrote about this dismaying article earlier this week and, since then, have been following other reflections on it.  A large number of younger evangelicals have been as dismayed as I feel and written quite a bit about their uneasiness.

But none of her fellow millenials have expressed their dismay it quiet as neatly as Amy Gannett on the website “Word & Craft/ Lifestyle Theology for the Woman of God.” in her article How Evangelicals are Losing an Entire Generation.  I am tempted to stop right here and say go read the article, particularly if you, like Grudem, are a culture warrior “taking a stand for” the same things he champions and if you have the slightest interest in hearing from millenials.  (I almost said “speaking to” millenials but the need to listen is far greater.)  But, if you are a “never click on a link” advocate let me share a few quotes.

After talking about her Republican and evangelical roots and calling herself “politically-aware but not politically-obsessed” she says this:  “Over the last several months, I have lost respect for the Republican party, and I honestly thought that would be the biggest tragedy of this election. But the disappointing truth is this: I’m losing faith in Evangelicals.  And this is frightening. I am an Evangelical. I hold to Evangelical theology. I have attended not one, but two Evangelical schools. But I fear that we’re going to lose an entire generation because of the actions, words, and teachings of some Evangelicals. Including Wayne Grudem.”  If that doesn’t trouble you just a bit than I am worried about you.

She then goes to the heart of her concern:  “I have watched many Evangelicals endorse Donald Trump. But Grudem did not give an endorsement. No, he gave a moral imperative. Grudem’s article argues that it is morally constraining on the Christian person to vote for Donald Trump, particularly citing things like Trump’s upholding of religious rights for Christian schools and businesses, support of traditional marriage, and pro-life support of the rights of the unborn. Grudem dismisses accusations of Trump being a racist, anti-(legal) immigrant, and misogynistic. He feels Trump has been misunderstood, quoted out of context, and the victim of an unfair media.

What Grudem effectively does, then, is set up a hierarchy of morality. He is willing to hold some moral values (religious rights for Christian schools and businesses, support of traditional marriage, and pro-life notions) above others (the equality of races, genders, and ethnicities). All are moral concepts, all require a moral stance, and Grudem has chosen which he prefers over others.”

Her understanding of Grudem’s “hierarchy of morality” is dead-on.  She is 100% right.  What is even worse is that Grudem just assumes his hierarchy is correct without any attempt to justify or support his views.

Her article concludes with a message that is both hopeful and challenging in a way that makes it impossible to simply dismiss her out of hand:  “This is not an article asking millennials to leave Evangelicalism because I believe it can’t be saved, nor is this article saying that Evangelicalism is dead. It also is not a proposal of a useful way forward in this…election. It is a plea for reform. It is a big ask of Evangelical leaders to reevaluate the stakes they have put in the ground and ask if there could be a better, more truly Evangelical way. It’s a request to leaders in our communities to speak out against the evils that surround and are supported by Trump. Because you’re losing us, and we don’t want to be lost.  Win us back, and let’s complete the work ahead together.”

Do yourself a favor Grudem fans.  Go read the article and seriously ponder it.  Maybe then you might be like me and wonder if you were born too early.

The Burden of Being Right

The other day I watched Dr. Ben Carson, the former Presidential candidate and now Trump supporter, being grilled by a left-leaning TV host about his support for Trump.  She tried, over and over and over to get Carson to say “Trump was wrong to say that” with a variety of Trumpisms.  And, over and over and over, Carson insisted he wanted to talk about the issues.

Frankly, if I were that TV host I’d have called his bluff; I’d have brought up any number of Trump pledges and asked for details on his plans.  I’d probably start with “When I am President they are going to say ‘Merry Christmas’ in stores.”  I’d love to know just how Trump is going to make that happen.  But the interview, and other things I’ve seen in this political nightmare season, have been leading me to one conclusion – this Presidential campaign, more than any before, is satanic.

Satan is called “the accuser of the brethren” and the very name means accuser.  In politics we are falling ever-deeper into a post-modern abyss where the only things flying around are accusations and attacks.  Even as short a time as two elections ago there was some effort to have an actual debate over concrete policy proposals.  But that is all gone now.   Ideas don’t matter.  All we need to do is assert that the other side is unstable, dangerous, crooked or evil.  Calls for Clinton to be locked up or Trump to be declared insane flood the internet. The former was chanted at a political convention.

Sure, you hear some so-called proposals, like walls to be built by Mexico and free college for all, but they are short on specifics or so unrealistic as to be ridiculous.  Mexico is not going to build a wall for us.  There is no such thing as free tuition, just absurd promises that someone else will pay for your college whether they like it or not.  But you never hear these candidates actually flesh out their “proposals.”  They are too busy attacking the other side.

Sure, politics has always been nasty.  Some accusations in the past are horrifying.  But this campaign seems to be all accusations all the time.  The goal seems to be to paint the other side as evil with the one doing the best job of it winning.

Christians are as caught up in the attack mode as much as anyone.  Attack-articles by Christians flood the internet, the vast majority (though not all) attacking Clinton.  In a recent poll cited in Christianity Today a big majority of us are voting against Clinton.  Those voting against Trump finished second and, way behind, are those voting for either of them.  We seem to think that are only option is to decide which one is less evil.

Clinton is going to speak in very guarded terms about her email.  She knows she could never say she was sorry or mistaken about this or anything without it being spun into a vicious attack line.  She knows that nothing she says can avoid digging a deeper hole. The net result is that she tries to speak in as boring and convoluted way as she can to give attackers as little as possible to accuse her of only to find herself accused of not giving any information with which they can accuse her.

Trump, bless his heart, (as my southern friends might say) simply shoots from the hip.  The focus by the media on his often outrageous attacks is not “media bias” as some would say but rather his never-ending string of outrageous statements and his near-gleeful determination to never back down.  They make such good talking points.  He gets so busy attacking everyone that he sometimes loses track of attacking Clinton.

But both sides seem determined to remain in accusation mode.  Poor Clinton and Trump are locked into a misery of self-justification, having the exhausting burden of insisting that their personal infallibility in all circumstances; insisting that they are right and the other is entirely wrong and evil.

Nothing could be further from the kind of world we Christians are supposed to create.  This is the misery that Jesus died on the cross to save us from. The tragedy is that far too many Christians have joined right in with accusations and self-justification.  And not just in politics but in everything we believe.  It seems we have defined Christian salvation as being always right and never wrong.  We fight tooth and nail on minor points of scriptural interpretation.  We accuse one another of heresy if they get even one question wrong on our self-written entrance exam for heaven.

Maybe we should watch Trump and Clinton and vow that we never want to be accusers like that; not in politics or anything else.  Maybe we should admit that sometimes we don’t have all the answers or even (Gasp!) that we might be wrong.  If so then maybe we as a church might really be a city on a hill.

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