Monthly Archives: May 2012

Why Many Christians Are Such Lousy Evangelists (And Why True Disciples Are Not)

Thomas Merton

Thomas Merton (Photo credit: jimforest)

I love reading Thomas Merton. Don’t ask me why a minister in the Church of Christ would like to read the meditations of a Trappist Monk. It is counter-intuitive. But that is much the reason why I like Merton. He opens my eyes to thoughts and ideas that I would never experience on my own. He rattles my cage. And, quite frankly, my cage needs to be rattled more often than I am comfortable with.

Today I finished reading his New Seeds of Contemplation for at least a second time. In the book Merton is writing to other Trappists, or at the very least, other monks who believe they are called to the life of contemplation. In one of the last chapters Merton discusses the drive that a contemplative has is sharing his (or her) gift of contemplation. I was struck by the similarity between Merton’s discussion of an “evangelizing” of contemplation and the “evangelizing” that many Christians feel compelled to do. Allow me to share some relevant thoughts: (All references from Thomas Merton, New Seeds of Contemplation, New York: New Directions Publishing Corporation, 2007)

The contemplative who tries to preach contemplation before he himself really knows what it is, will prevent both himself and others from finding the true path to God’s peace. (p. 270)

The highest vocation in the Kingdom of God is that of sharing one’s contemplation with others and bringing other men to the experimental knowledge of God that is given to those who love Him perfectly. But the possibility of mistake and error is just as great as the vocation itself. In the first place the mere fact that you have discovered something of contemplation does not yet mean that you are supposed to pass it on to someone else. (p. 271)

No one teaches contemplation except God, Who gives it. (p. 271)

One of the worst things about an ill-timed effort to share the knowledge of contemplation with other people is that you assume that everybody else will want to see things from your own point of view when, as a matter of fact, they will not. (p.271)

Therefore the best way to prepare ourselves for the possible vocation of sharing contemplation with other men is not to study how to talk and reason about contemplation, but withdraw ourselves as much as we can from talk and argument and retire into the silence and humility of heart in which God will purify our love of all its human imperfections. (p. 273)

But in actual practice one of the last barricades of egoism, and one which many saints have refused to give up entirely, is this insistence on doing the work and getting the results and enjoying them ourselves. (p. 273, italics Merton’s)

Now, exchange the word “evangelism” or “Christian faith” for the word “contemplation” and you get my drift. What Merton is talking about is the desire of one monk to make a monk out of someone else, who may or may not want to be a monk, but who needs to come to the path of contemplation on his or her own accord.

The old saying has a lot of merit – “A man convinced against his will is of the same opinion still.”

For far too long a period of time we have envisioned evangelism as the art of mastering a set of questions, or using a set of tracts (or filmstrips/DVD’s) or incorporating a cleverly devised set of chain references in our Bibles to “reason” someone into a relationship with Jesus. If we just used the right words, if we just used the right questions, if we just put the right verses in the right order, then people would just have to become Christians. If you did not get someone into the baptistery after the first three hours of study then you were to shake the dust off of your feet and move on to the next “target” on your “10 Most Wanted Sinners” list.

Am I the only one who sees the hypocrisy in this method? That we reason someone into a life of discipleship with Jesus? That we argue someone into a relationship of love? That we convince someone that they need to dedicate their life to the Prince of Peace? I know I am not the brightest bulb in the box, but puhleeese, even I can see why this process does not create disciples of Jesus.

Jesus said, “But I, when I am lifted up from the earth, will draw all men to myself.” (John 12:32) If there is one single verse in the New Testament that should drive our concept of evangelism, it is that one (however, see  1 Cor. 1:20-25 for further corroboration).

I would argue with Merton that the highest vocation in the Kingdom of God is to share the gift of contemplation. I would say that the highest vocation is to share the death, burial and resurrection of Jesus with others. (But he is speaking in his monastic context to those who have already dedicated their lives to Jesus, so a certain amount of poetic license must be allowed). But his observations otherwise are so appropriate. I think those of us who are interested in the field of evangelism would do well to hear him out.

Just because someone accepts Jesus and is baptized does not make him or her an evangelist (Eph. 4, 1 Cor. 12, Rom. 12). Great harm can be done to both new converts and to the unconverted if we send untrained and unqualified “evangelists” out to do the work for which they are not prepared. And, where did we get the idea that WE do the “soul winning” anyway? Is that not the height of arrogance and pride?

The fact is that if someone does not want to become a guitar player they will not devote the effort to learn how to play the guitar. Same with learning how to fly an airplane. Same with learning algebra or physics. And the same is true with becoming a disciple of Christ. If there is no desire to change one’s life all the well thought out arguments and syllogisms and Scriptural chain references will do no good whatsoever. We might convince someone of the truth of our statement, but if there is no love of Jesus the Christ there will be no conversion.

True evangelism is not memorizing a set of questions or in becoming “certified” to use a mass-produced curriculum designed to convince someone of the correctness of the word baptizo. Evangelism is getting people to fall in love with Jesus. Evangelism is holding up Jesus so that HE will draw people to himself. Yes, God has invited us mere mortals to join in that wonderful event. But evangelism is not a human project to be accomplished by human skills and tactics.

Disciples of Jesus show others how following Jesus is the best way to live. They make following Jesus infectious. By seeing how disciples live people are drawn to Jesus like iron shavings are drawn to a magnet. That is why disciples are so good at evangelism, and why many Christians are so incapable of it. Many “Christians” have simply never been drawn to Jesus.

You cannot teach what you do not know. That applies to evangelism as well as contemplation.

How Do We Win Gracefully?

John Calvin

John Calvin (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Some time ago I was blessed to be given the opportunity to teach a course on Introduction to Ethics at a local community college. The text was obviously written for an American setting, but there was the briefest of sections on the ethical norms of other cultures. One in particular that the students seemed to enjoy discussing was the Asian (primarily) practice of allowing an individual to “save face” when confronted with a fault.

For those who might not be familiar with the process, no matter how grave the situation might be, the person under indictment is always allowed to “save face” by acting in a culturally appropriate manner. The practice is never used to absolve guilt, but it is used to redeem the individual and allow that person to rejoin society in a disciplined, yet respectful manner. “Honor” for both the offender and the offended becomes the primary focus, not necessarily guilt and restitution. The practice in the United States, by contrast, is for the person to be beaten down and utterly humiliated before there can be any “redemption.” The offender is made to “pay back” in some form or fashion something to the victim or the state. That causes an accused person to fight to the last dollar and last court of appeal, and so the legal system is utterly clogged with fairly trivial cases and it also means that building and staffing prisons is a growth industry in many parts of the country.

The system of “saving face” is by no means perfect. For one thing, it can be used to pressure someone to accept guilt for which he or she is not responsible. But, when compared to our adversarial judicial system it was the source of an enlightening and entertaining afternoon.

I have been thinking lately of how we engage in religious discussions. Because for a century or more one of the most popular forms of religious discussion was the forensic debate we (in the U.S.) have come to view any kind of religious discussion as a win/lose, black or white proposition. Either a person is all right, or all wrong. There can be no gray areas allowed. A proposition is either true or false. And the winner is triumphant, the loser is vanquished.

I just wonder, however, how one person or one group could be right 100% of the time, and everyone else could be so wrong 100% of the time. Especially if one of the concessions that both sides freely admit is that human beings are imperfect, fallen creatures. Is it possible, for example, to debate someone and not have them say anything with which you agree? And what would happen if you made mention of that agreement? What, for instance, would be so wrong in upholding the importance of baptism in Acts 2:38 if we just let it slip that, also according to Scripture, we believe we are saved by grace through faith? I mean, if it did not bother Paul to stress baptism in Romans 6 and grace and faith in Ephesians 2, why should it bother us too terribly to make the same argument? We might not have had quite the fireworks in the debate, but I think we could have saved a lot of face.

Our culture teaches us far more than which side of the road to drive on and whether we kiss on the cheek or shake hands. The American process is bare-knuckles and fight to the finish. In following that template we have made some grievous errors, not only in theology, but also in respect and honor. I have heard many statements that are technically true, but said in such a way that I am ashamed to be associated with the speaker. And it does not matter whether the subject is baptism or the gift of the Holy Spirit, or the emotionally laden topic of homosexuality.

Brothers and sisters, we can do better.

English: Jacobus Arminius

English: Jacobus Arminius (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Whether you are Calvinistic or Arminian, whether you are Catholic or Protestant, whether you are pre or post millennial, whether you are a pedo-baptist or a credo-baptist, the one thing that all of us have in common is a sense of our own dignity. When that dignity is besmirched it does not matter how truthful the argument is, we shut the offending party down. And when we are the ones who use the offensive language we should have every expectation that our conversation partner will shut us out. What is sauce for the goose is sauce for the gander.

I am no postmodern relativist. Anyone who has followed these posts for any length of time knows by now that I have some fairly rigidly held positions. (I would also like to think of myself as flexible enough to change when presented with the appropriate evidence!) I hold the opinion that there is far more to be gained by honest and forthright disagreement than there is to be gained by false or shallow agreement. I would simply like to call for a change in the rules of debate. I would like to see us appreciate our adversary more, and focus our mental armaments on the issues with which we disagree. To use the image of the medical field, let us come to realize that we are attacking the same root problem (as in a disease) but we are coming at the issue from different points of view. So, I am not in competition with the one who holds a differing viewpoint, but I might be distinctly opposed to his or her conclusion. In that way we can focus on the area of disagreement with the hopes that we can come to a mutually acceptable solution. If not, (and there really is no middle ground between a true Calvinist and a true Arminian) then at least we can recognize each other as worthy of honor, and allow each one to “save face.”

We might, as a beneficial side effect, discover that there are some really nice people out there when before all we saw was our enemy.

Reconsidering Pacifism – Final (and disjointed) Thoughts

Jesus Alone on the Cross

Jesus Alone on the Cross (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

As I have been working through the subject of pacifism and what it means to be a disciple of the Prince of Peace I have been struck by how easily the conversation can become one sided. That is, it seems a disciple claims to be either an absolute pacifist or a fire-breathing militarist. In my own journey I have come to see how Churches of Christ have moved from a general view of pacifism to a flag-waving, patriotic militarism. There were many reasons for this move, but the end result is that we have lost much of our early message. Now, we are just one small voice in a vast crowd. We have gained political respectability at the cost of biblical authenticity.

To speak of pacifism in the Church of Christ today is to be a lonely voice indeed.

But, on the other hand, to speak of the need for a strong defensive military is to be excluded from those who view any form of power to be a sin. Patriarchy, capitalism, the military – every “ism” that is seen as setting one person against another is a sin. To defend any use of power is to be a heretic in the church of the postmodernist.

So, you are sent to Hades if you do, and condemned to Gehenna if you don’t. That leaves a very thin margin if you want to be in the middle.

Disjointed thought #1 – is power always a sin? Let’s look at this another way. Is sex always a sin? Is eating or drinking always a sin? Is industry and hard work always a sin? The answer is no! Sexual relations, bounded by God’s intent and infused with his blessing, are never a sin. Outside of those bounds sexual relations are a sin. Eating and drinking, for the purpose of enjoyment and to replenish the needs of the body, cannot be described as a sin. Gluttony and drunkenness are sins. Working to provide for yourself and for your family is not a sin. Working to feed your greed and avarice is a sin. Why should power be viewed any differently? Power, when bounded by God’s intent and when infused with his blessing is a righteous gift. Power, used outside of that intent and devoid of his blessing is satanic. But the concept of power itself is neutral.

Jesus, while on this earth, exercised power. He taught his disciples. He cast out demons. He rebuked the Pharisees. He cleansed the temple of the money changers. He demanded allegiance from his followers. He rebuked Satan and Peter. He used the power God gave him, within the bounds God set for him, and for the purpose of achieving the goals set before him. Power in and of itself cannot be viewed as a sin.

A police force that uses its power to abuse, threaten and persecute the citizens it is supposed to protect has violated its invested power. A military that uses its weapons in an offensive, “strike first, kill them all and let God sort them out” mentality has violated its invested power. But a military unit, just like a police force, that uses its power to liberate an oppressed people, or to prevent war from breaking out or from escalating is using its power in a necessary manner. It would be far better to need neither a police force nor a military. But show me a city or town without a police force or county sheriff. It cannot be done. Sin exists. Violence exists. Rape, murder, theft, assault, even traffic violations exist. Remove the police and you would have anarchy and vigilantism. Remove a properly assembled and properly defined military and the same would result on a world-wide scale. Or, at least, that is how I see it.

Disjointed thought #2 – Can violence ever be redemptive? In other words, is violence always a sin, can nothing ever good come from violence? On the one hand this question seems so easy to answer. Never! Violence always begets violence. Spank a child and create a mass murderer (or so goes the common thinking). Violence and redemption are two diametrically opposite concepts, and never the twain shall meet.

Except, is that true? Or, more to the point, is it biblical? Does that thought come from the word of God?

Abram rescued Lot with violence. God “redeemed” the land by destroying Sodom and Gomorrah. God redeemed his people from Egypt in a series of violent interdictions. God punished the people of Canaan by the conquest of the Israelites. God “redeemed” his people by punishing them with the Assyrian and Babylonian armies.

And, the coup de grace, God redeemed the world through the violent death of his Son.

Yes, I know, that last example is one of selfless surrender on the part of Jesus. Jesus willingly went to the cross, and the crucifixion is hardly the example of a necessary police force or a military unit. But, you cannot speak of the atonement without coming face to face with the fact of redemptive violence. It just does not work. Without the cross there would be no redemption, and to argue that God could have worked it without the death of his son is specious. Yes he could have, but he did not. Jesus absorbed all the violence of the violent world to teach us that we should not have to resort to violence any more.

But the rapist and the burglar and the murderer and the drunk driver still exist. Therefore we need a functioning police force that has been given the right to use appropriate power to apprehend the rapist and the murderer and the drunk driver. And the Saddam Husseins and the Adolf Hitlers of the world still exist, and as much as we hate to admit it, they want to murder entire nations of people. Are we to let them exterminate the Jewish nation simply because Jesus said, “Love your enemy?” How exactly does loving Iran or Iraq mean that I have to hate the Jews?

Until someone can prove to me by reference to Scripture and by clear human experience that violence can never be redemptive, I will argue that while it should always be the avenue of last resort, sometimes violence must be employed to redeem an oppressed and victimized people.

Disjointed thought #3 – I see blatant hypocrisy on both sides of the issue. On the one hand are the militarists that claim to only want peace, but their actions prove that all they want is a new nuclear submarine or the carpet bombing of some third world country to solve a civil war in which we should not even be involved. On the other hand are the absolute pacifists who decry the use of any kind of military force, yet will call the local police to break up a domestic dispute down the street. Although hypocrisy is the blight of virtually all human endeavor, we must be constantly on the lookout for it, lest its hidden power rob us of our greatest arguments.

David Lipscomb was absolutely correct, in my opinion, in passionately arguing against the Civil War. Christians simply should not have gone to war and killed other Christians over what was, at least initially, a purely political question. However, beneath that political question was a deeply moral one, and that was the question of slavery. Had Christians followed the teaching of Jesus of Nazareth, there would have been no slavery question. Here is where I see the pacifist view as being the correct one. Those individuals most deeply imbued with the spirit of shalom had come to the conclusion that owning slaves was sinful. They freed their slaves and refused to do business with those who owned slaves. Slavery could have been ended without a single shot being fired. However, nationalism and economics trumped theology, and hundreds of thousands of Americans died trying to prove God was on their side.

I am not so sure about Adolf Hitler, Emperor Hirohito, Benito Mussolini and World War II. Perhaps it could have been averted. Certainly the allies did not have to levy such oppressive reparations against Germany at the end of the first World War. If the Christians in Germany had rejected Hitler the war would never have started. If Neville Chamberlain had stood up against Hitler maybe he would have backed down. If Winston Churchill had listened to Bishop George Bell and others maybe an agreement with the conspirators in Germany could have been reached and Hitler could have been arrested and tried on grounds of treason or insanity. If, if, if, if, if. Obviously the best time to end a war is before it ever begins. But, what happens when a war does start? What happens when the concentration camps start filling up? What happens when the rape camps open? What then?

I don’t have all the answers. I never claimed to have all the answers. I am reading some good books written by some devout Christians who are leading and shaping my thoughts even as I write this series of posts. My position will evolve over time as I am presented with arguments, both good and bad. I simply want to call for an end to the acrimony in this debate. The absolute pacifists need to declare a truce in their war on the flag waving militarists. And the war hawks need to put their swords back in their sheaths and quit beating the drums. Unless we start talking to each other our arguments are not going to have any effect.

As the preacher once said, (to paraphrase a bit), of the study of pacifism and militarism there is no end. However, at least for the  time being, this series does have and end.

May God lead our conversations to the foot of the cross. Amen.

Reconsidering Pacifism – A Personal Journey

Official Portrait of President Ronald Reagan

After taking an admittedly all too brief survey of both the Old and New Testaments and what I believe to be one of the over-arching themes of the Bible, I came to the conclusion that what was missing in my re-evaluation of pacifism was the context of my own story. So, although I had originally intended this series to only have four parts, I am going to have to alter that somewhat, and address a couple of issues I had not originally planned to discuss. So, in this post I will share my own journey as it relates to the subject, and then hopefully my next post will focus on what I consider to be a real crux in the matter of pacifism vs. militarism.

I came of age politically during the dark days of the Nixon presidency and the even darker days of the Carter debacle. Nixon was morally challenged; Carter appeared to be morally sound yet was vacuous when it came to leadership skills. Nixon taught us that power without morals was disastrous; Carter taught us that morals without power was no better. Enter, then, Ronald Reagan. I was truly a Reagan believer. When I heard Reagan I felt America had the leader it needed – one with firm moral convictions and yet had the power and the will to lead. It was heady times. America was to be blessed with a new dawn. With the right guy at the controls everything would be straightened out. How could it not be?

Except, it wasn’t. Reagan (and his understudy, Bush) left and we had eight years of Bill Clinton – a lying, promiscuous opportunist who had all the charisma of Reagan with all the moral failings of Nixon. The country veered sharply back to the right and Bush’s son George W. By this time politics had utterly demoralized me. I came to realize that power, regardless of whether it had a moral foundation or not, was not to be trusted. Barack Obama was the final nail in my political coffin. Whether the nation swings back to the right and elects Mitt Romney is, on a fundamental level, inconsequential. Power corrupts, and absolute power corrupts absolutely. I see no political solution to our problem. Our problem is moral. Our problem is not liberalism nor conservatism. Our problem is SIN.

David Lipscomb (1831-1917) co-founded the Nash...

David Lipscomb (1831-1917) co-founded the Nashville Bible School in 1891. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

It was exactly during this period of time in which the political pendulum was experiencing such radical swings that I was introduced to the writings of Barton Stone, and more importantly, David Lipscomb. I read Lipscomb’s Civil Government and was transfixed. I had never read, or heard, an explanation of human government such as Lipscomb’s. But it fit. Lipscomb explained the late 20th century perfectly, even though he was writing at the end of the 19th century. I experienced a second transformation that was every bit as liberating as my first. But, come to find out, I had not arrived at my final destination.

Dietrich Bonhoeffer

Sometime during all of this “metamorphosis” I was introduced to yet another theologian, this time a young German Lutheran pastor named Dietrich Bonhoeffer. As I read Bonhoeffer another light bulb came on. Something just clicked. Here was the “yang” to Lipscomb’s “yin.” Where David Lipscomb provided a correction to my one-sided and dangerous views of American politics, Bonhoeffer gave correction to Lipscomb’s one-sided (and just as dangerous) spiritual isolationism. It was not that I decided Lipscomb was wrong. Far from it. I believe Lipscomb was closer to the heart of Jesus than any theologian since the apostle John. I just believe that Lipscomb, as are all of us, was a child of his times and he did not stop to consider the extremes to which his position could be taken. In brief, Lipscomb never could have imagined an Adolf Hitler.

Dietrich Bonhoeffer understood Hitler. And, as I read Bonhoeffer I see a man struggling to want to believe what Lipscomb taught (although Bonhoeffer never read Lipscomb), but was also struggling to deal with the personification of evil itself. Bonhoeffer realized that to do nothing was, in effect, to give free reign to evil. But, the only solution that eventually was open to Bonhoeffer and his co-conspirators was assassination. Bonhoeffer’s most anguished writings concern this very question – not right vs. wrong, but is it ever acceptable in order to achieve some measure of good to do an evil act.

You see, the biggest problem I have with the whole “pacifism vs. militarism” question is that we have created a false dichotomy. The greatest danger is not that we are pacifists or militarists, the greatest danger is that we believe that these are the only two choices. A position of absolute pacifism denies the ability to engage the world exactly in the place it needs to be engaged – where evil seeks to destroy that which is good. On the other hand an absolute militarist does not seek to engage the world either! The militarist only seeks to exercise brutal power to achieve his (or her) goals. The absolute militarist annihilates, the absolute pacifist capitulates. Neither one truly engages the world.

This dichotomy has human legs. Neville Chamberlain met with Adolf Hitler and had the murdering little corporal sign a document that Chamberlain heralded as “peace in our time.” Chamberlain was, in one way, responsible for more deaths than Winston Churchill. And yet, and this is a part of World War 2 history that not many people know, Winston Churchill could have saved the deaths of thousands, if not hundreds of thousands of human beings if he had simply listened to the voices in Germany that were calling for his help. If he had simply responded, in a quiet and back-door method, to the conspirators in Germany that he would be willing to deal with the conspirators if they could eliminate Hitler then the war would have ended years sooner. It might not have even meant the assassination of Hitler, simply his arrest and eventual trial. But NO, Churchill was bent on the utter destruction of Germany. He got his wish. Germany was crushed. But the world lost one of the clearest voices for peace and pacifism that it has ever been blessed to hear. The world does not care much for prophets. Lipscomb’s writings have been all but expunged from the approved teachings of the American Restoration Movement. Bonhoeffer is viewed as a quaint, but somehow misguided and therefore dangerous, Lutheran misfit.

In my ongoing journey as a disciple of Christ I am becoming more and more convinced that Lipscomb and Bonhoeffer were on the right path. Neither was perfectly correct (as no mortal can be). But  these theologians, separated by an ocean and just a few decades in time, shared one deep conviction that brought them very close together. They both believed that as disciples of Christ we are to be pulled forward by our vision of the reign of the Prince of Peace. If the crucified one is the vision before our eyes, we cannot be ignorant of, nor uncaring toward, his mission to deliver this world of evil. Sometimes that means we love our brothers and sisters (who might temporally be called our enemies) to the point that we refuse to take up the sword (Lipscomb), and sometimes that means that we love our brothers and sisters so deeply that we have to take up the sword to defend and deliver them, even though the use of that sword brings us under the judgment of God (Bonhoeffer).

I am, and I must be, a pacifist, as I understand it in the biblical and New Testament sense of the word. I am not an isolationist, as I believe that to be “salt and light” in the world I must actively seek to replace evil with good wherever I find it. But neither am I an absolute militarist, as there is really very little that separates the actions of Barack Obama from a Saddam Hussein or an Adolf Hitler. Yes, that is harsh. But if we do not challenge Obama in his indiscriminate use of targeted assassinations and armed Predator drones, when will we challenge him? And at what cost? Those who refuse to learn the lessons of history are doomed to repeat them. I want Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s death at the hands of the Gestapo in 1945 to mean more than that. But, even his death is meaningless if we fail to learn the lesson of the death of Jesus the Messiah at the hands of the Jewish leadership and the Roman legions 1900 years before that.

So, you have my story, and I have but one more chapter to add to this discussion. Next up, the myth of the myth of redemptive violence.

Reconsidering Pacifism – Gleanings from the New Testament

William-Adolphe Bouguereau (1825-1905) - The F...

William-Adolphe Bouguereau (1825-1905) – The Flagellation of Our Lord Jesus Christ (1880) (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

As we transition from the Old Testament to the New Testament we do far more than just turn a page from Malachi to Matthew. We change political, economic and cultural worldviews. The world that Jesus saw was controlled by the Pax Romana, the Roman peace, and it was bound together, however loosely, by the Greek language. “City nations” no longer existed as such, although the Romans did give a considerable degree of latitude toward local police forces, so long as the over-arching dominion of the Roman legion was maintained. All of this, at a minimum, must be clearly understood or when we start attempting to examine Jesus’ (and the apostles’) teaching on the Christian’s responsibility toward the government and toward militarism in particular we lose the overall message of the whole story of Scripture.

Let me digress just a moment because I feel this point is so important. While I believe completely that Jesus is the Christ, that he is the pinnacle of all human history, and that all Scripture must be interpreted through the lens of his life, I DO NOT believe that Jesus radically altered the message of God’s story. That is to say I DO NOT believe in a divine dualism, a bifurcation between the Old Testament God of war, hate and vengeance and the New Testament God of love, peace, and “can’t we all just get along.” I would suggest that at the core of an absolute pacifist’s understanding is a radical rupture of the fabric of Scripture. The Old Testament God of war and bloodthirstiness died on the last page of the book of Malachi, and the new God of gentleness, love, peace and kindness was born on the first page of Matthew. What occurred was a change in human culture, but not of the nature of God. If we confuse the two we lose the meaning of the Bible and all that remains is a neutered and fundamentally meaningless New Testament.

So, what DOES Jesus have to say about pacifism, (the seeking of God’s shalom) either in word or deed? Actually, surprisingly little in a direct sense, and an amazing amount in an indirect sense. I will assume, for the sake of argument, that we are all familiar with the teaching of Jesus in the Sermon on the Mount concerning our need to love our enemies, his command to turn the other cheek, and to go the extra mile. I will cover these topics in my next post, but for the present I want to stress the theme of engaging evil in the New Testament, whether in a spiritual or physical manifestation.

Note first – in his “first sermon” in the gospel of Luke, Jesus read from Isaiah 61:1-2 where the evidence of the coming of the kingdom of God was “freedom for the prisoners, recovery of sight for the blind, release of the oppressed, and to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.” Now, in good Evangelical American fashion we have spiritualized each of these components to mean “prisoners of sin, those blind in sin, the oppressed in sin, and the year of the Lord’s favor in saving people from their sin.” However, this was not the way the first audience of Jesus heard these words, and it was not the way Luke intended them to be read. The entire gospel focuses on exactly those individuals who needed “redeeming” in a physical sense – the poor, the outcast, the physically infirm and, interestingly enough, women. Luke’s gospel is a gospel of liberation – from sin to be sure. But a “spiritualized” reading of the gospel is a heretical one, and I am sorry to say that we have prefered the heresy to the truth to a dangerous extent.

Second, in the Sermon on the Mount, the piece de resistance of the absolute pacifist, Jesus links peacemaking with persecution. This point should not be lost in translation. Peacemaking is hard and sometimes dangerous work. It involves putting oneself in-between two (or more) parties who are in conflict and that is never a safe or comfortable position. All too often we end up getting pasted from all sides. The ministry of Jesus bears this out – he was hated by the demons he cast out of their victims and he was hated by the religious leaders for doing so on the Sabbath. If you involve yourself in the movement for peace you will get hurt – and very likely from every side in the conflict that you are trying to heal.

Third, notice that Jesus was no opponent of conflict. The cleansing of the temple (Matt. 21:12-13 and parallels) reveals to us that physical intervention is not, in and of itself, a sin. Once again, we commit the heresy of a dualistic Christ if we hyperbolize this event into a “casting of sin from the life of the Christian” or if we excuse the event by saying, “well, yes, Jesus did this but he was the Son of God and we are not.” Each gospel  records this event – one of the few that receive attention by all four gospel writers. We must include this event, and its meaning, into the discussion.

Fourth, the healings of the demoniacs often involved physical descriptions that indicate a violent releasing of the victim. There are shrieks, moans, throwing to the ground, etc. When Jesus confronted the forces of evil it was a battle. Jesus did not compromise with the demon and propose a “can’t we just all get along” method of dealing with the demon possession. Paul says that Jesus has or will destroy the forces of evil (Rom. 8:37-381 Cor. 15:24-25, 1 Tim. 1:10).

Fifth, in Jesus’ confrontations with the Pharisees, Sadducees and Scribes, the gospel writers never portray him as searching for a middle ground, a place of compromise where his message could stand alongside theirs. It was either His truth, or no teaching at all. He came to interpret God’s will, not the Pharisees’ tradition. Some truths simply cannot be negotiated away. We cannot back away and surrender truth in the name of “peace.” Peace, when it means the surrender of truth, is no peace at all.

Sixth, in James 2:14-26, the “servant of the Lord Jesus Christ” makes the explicit claim that, if a person has the power and the ability to effect the “redemption” of a person (either by food, clothing, or other form of intervention) and he or she does not do it, then he or she cannot claim to have faith! Two examples from the story of faith are given as examples – Abraham and Rahab. And, note: both examples include a form of violence – Abraham in the willingness to sacrifice Isaac, and Rahab in the protection of the spies in a time of war. Marcion and Luther were (and are) not the only people who want to erase the book of James from the canon, whether literally or just by never mentioning it. However, as a “servant of the Lord Jesus Christ” I believe James had something of value to add to the texture of the biblical story. And what he added was an admonition to use the power that we have when it is appropriate and needful that we use it.

Seventh, and finally, in Philippi Paul did NOT invoke his Roman privilege against unjust imprisonment and punishment, but in Caesarea he did. Why? Is there not a meaning to his method? Does it not mean that in some circumstances it is appropriate to “turn the other cheek” and in some circumstances it is appropriate to exert legal defences? How else can you read the text? That Paul was right in one circumstance and wrong in the other? In other words, I believe that in some circumstances I can, by the leading of Scripture, act in one way and be confident in the grace of God and in another similar circumstance I can act in a completely different manner and still rest in that same grace of God. The difference is not in the situation (I AM NOT A SITUATION ETHICIST!), but rather in my interpretation of the situation and in how I can best present the gospel at that moment.

As an all-too-brief summation, I want to stress again that I want to incorporate the entire “warp and woof” of Scripture in my understanding of pacifism and the disciple’s response to evil. It is bad theology and inappropriate hermeneutics to take one passage of Scripture (even a saying of Jesus) and build one’s entire lifestyle on that verse. I want to accept at face value what Jesus said when he said, “Love your enemies, and pray for those who persecute you.” But I also have to accept that when Jesus was faced with evil (either spiritual or physical) he confronted it, and if necessary he defeated it. The apostles were just as forceful. Where light shines in a dark world, the darkness is defeated, not negotiated.

There can be no equivocation between the message of Christ and the power of Satan. To suggest such is to surrender that which is ultimately good to that which is evil. Now, how I have come to understand that reality in my own personal life will be the topic of my next post.

Reconsidering Pacifism – A Brief Old Testament Survey

Peace

Peace (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

One of my great fears in even attempting to discuss a topic like this is that it is simply too complicated to cover in a readable blog-sized post. The material is too vast – and too richly contoured. But, having promised that I will attempt to do this, I will try my best to present my thoughts in as concise a manner while yet getting at the basics of what I want to communicate. Just be forwarned – I am not claiming comprehensiveness here. I know someone will find a verse, or ask a question that exceeds the scope of this post. It will be what it will be.

So, first, take a concordance keyed to your favorite translation and trace the usage of several key terms. Look for terms like “deliverance,” “deliver,” “save,” “salvation,” “redeem.” “oppress,” “oppression,” and related terms including past tenses and so forth. Now, armed with these texts, notice how many times in these verses God is the subject. It becomes a primary theme in the story of the Old Testament. (As an aside, make special note of how many times these terms are used in the Psalms, the record of the worshipful response of the people of God to the mighty acts of God. This is truly food for thought).

Now, notice in the contexts in which these terms are used, even with God as the subject, how many times God employs human beings as the method in which he saves, delivers, redeems, etc. It is absolutely true that God has delivered his people without the use of human intervention – Isaiah 37: 33-37 happens to come to mind as I read the story in my daily Bible reading recently. But the fact that God can deliver without the intervention of human beings only highlights the many places in which God uses humans to deliver, redeem, or save other people. Even in a story in which the miraculous power of God is clearly the focus of the story (i.e. the Gideon saga, Judges 6-8), God used Gideon and his soldiers as his agents to deliver his people.

I might mention here the exodus story which becomes THE story of redemption for the people of Israel. God could have simply wiped out the Egyptians in one cataclysmic burst of energy, but it was through the leading of Moses, Aaron and Joshua that God delivered his people. The miracles were evidences of God’s matchless power, but it was through the human intervention of these men that the people were led to freedom, and eventually conquered the promised land.

Notice also the story of Abram rescuing Lot in Genesis 14. On one level this is a minor story to relate, and yet it is in this story that we see one of the great themes of Scripture spelled out in minute detail. Pay attention to the pivotal paragraph:

One who had escaped came and reported this to Abram the Hebrew. Now Abram was living near the great trees of Mamre the Amorite, a brother of Eschol and Aner, all of whom were allied with Abram. When Abram heard that his relative had been taken captive, he called out the 318 trained men born in his household and went in pursuit as far as Dan. During the night Abram divided his men to attack them and he routed them, pursuing them as far as Hobah, north of Damascus. He recovered all the goods and brought back his relative Lot and his possessions, together with the women and the other people.” (Genesis 14:13-16, NIV)

Notice Abram had no “standing army,” but when he heard that his relative Lot had been taken captive he formed a military unit of trained men and went out and “redeemed” his relative by the use of military tactics. However, and this is a key point of this story, it is obvious that God is working through Abram at this point as the rest of the story relates the meeting of Abram with Melchizedek, an event that will be replayed in the Psalms and in the book of Hebrews as a major aspect of the ministry of Christ!

Here is the sum of my argument so far: I am convinced that one of the great themes of the Old Testament is that God desires peace, Hebrew shalom, for his people. As such he is concerned with anything that threatens that shalom, in particular the oppression of innocent people, and he is actively involved in freeing those oppressed people from whatever it is that is destroying them (sin or human captivity). One way that he does this is through miraculous powers which do not involve human agents. However, it is also clear he uses human agents to work with him in the process of releasing the bonds of the oppressed (see the repetitive cycle of events in the book of Judges). He also uses human agents to punish nations he wants punished, whether they be the nations conquered by Israel (Deut. 9:1-6) or the nation of Israel itself (Amos 2:4-16, Jer. 4:11-17 among many others).

What does this have to do with my understanding of pacifism in the 21st century? Just this: We must hold one of three opinions regarding the nature of God. One is that the stories in the Old Testament have no bearing on relating the true nature of God whatsoever; they were written by a bloodthirsty warrior people who wanted to justify their blood-lust and therefore turned the picture of their god into a mere reflection of their violent nature. Two is that God was somehow a violent warrior God in the Old Testament, but at the moment of the birth of that little baby in the stable in Bethlehem God had a major change of heart and suddenly became an absolute pacifist. Therefore we have not one God, but actually two Gods; the bloodthirsty, hateful and avenging God of the Old Testament, and the kind, meek, lowly and tender God of the New Testament. The third option is that God is unchanging, that what he reveals about his nature in the story of the Old Testament is the same nature that he has in the New Testament and therefore the same nature that he has today. If we do not understand that nature it is not because God is unfathomable (although, I would say that he certainly is beyond our comprehension), but that we have simply misread the nature of God due to our own prejudices.

We can still make a god out of our own wishes and desires, just as surely as Aaron formed that golden calf at the base of Mt. Sinai. We can make God to be a god of war (as all good Klingons and many Republicans would suggest) or we can make God to be an absolute pacifist who has never, ever, ever, even thought about the use of force (as all good Vulcans and many Democrats would agree).

The issue is not what we want, but what has God revealed about his nature. From the great themes of the Old Testament I am absolutely convinced that God is vitally and profoundly concerned with the well-being of humans on this earth; that he takes man’s inhuman activity against other men very seriously, and that either by his own powerful right arm, or by the sword of Abram or Gideon he acts to deliver people who are being oppressed.

Next, we turn to the New Testament to see if this image continues or is radically altered.

Reconsidering Pacifism – Definitions and Positions

The Deserter by Boardman Robinson. Anti-war ca...

The Deserter by Boardman Robinson. Anti-war cartoon depicting Jesus facing a firing squad made up of soldiers from five different European countries (at that time the US had not yet entered the war). First published in The Masses in 1916. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

In the past several weeks I have been engaged with the related concepts of pacifism and discipleship in a number of ways. One, in reading Dietrich Bonhoeffer for a guided study in my doctoral work I have obviously been dealing with a theologian who had to struggle with the concepts of pacifism and militarism in a way in which few of us can even fathom. Second, in the same course of study I have been reading David Lipscomb, a third generation leader in the American Restoration Movement and a voice who helped shape the southern Churches of Christ as perhaps no one else did. Finally, over the past several months I have read various other authors who have advocated the view the disciples cannot follow Christ and take up the sword. As I have read, studied and mentally debated with these giants of my faith I have been forced to think, and to rethink, my understanding and my conclusions on this subject. Over the next few posts I will share with you my convictions, and the Scriptural and theological foundations which underlie those convictions. While I do not expect anyone to adopt my position simply because I hold it, I do hope that I will raise the right questions, and perhaps lead the right discussion that will allow a person to come to a more informed decision regarding this critical and far too often neglected aspect of our Christian walk. I do not offer these opinions as binding on anyone – except, of course, as that person may find them based solidly in Scripture. The Word is binding, my understanding and interpretation of that Word is not. I pray my journey will be valuable, whether you ultimately agree with me or not. As I usually say as I begin my classes (with my tongue firmly in my cheek) – if you do not want to agree with me you do not have to; if you want to be wrong I am more than happy to let you.

Here is the outline of my thoughts (at least as I have them formulated at this time. As I put pixels onto my computer screen this outline might change) -

  1. Definitions and positions
  2. Old Testament foundations
  3. New Testament clarifications
  4. Summation: The Disciple and the civil government

To begin with I must provide you with the definitions with which I will be working. If you do not understand how I am using a word or phrase you will not be able to follow me, and you will think you agree with me when you do not, or you think I am a heretic when we are actually in total agreement. So, to begin in the most pedantic way possible, here is how I understand and use these terms.

Pacifism – the conviction that God’s divine presence is preferable to his unbearable absence, and the process by which Disciples of Christ are supposed to reveal the reality of God’s presence in this world. Peace has two dimensions. One is the reality that at its most fundamental level, mankind cannot create peace. We can only accept the peace that God creates and then offers to us. However, the other dimension that needs to be stressed is that peace does not simply float down from heaven as some ethereal cloud. The work of pacifism is the labor that first must prepare someone’s heart for God’s peace, and then must offer that peace to those who are willing to accept it. I consider my self a pacifist in the sense that I want God’s peace to be with all people – beginning with myself, but extending to my family, my nation, and the world I call home.

Absolute pacifism - There is a branch of pacifism that is, to pardon the paradox, militaristic. Individuals who are absolute pacifists are so pacifistic that they get angry and react strongly when their viewpoint is challenged. They also tend to be anti-nationalistic. They cannot stand to see anyone in a military uniform and will leave if anything even remotely patriotic is said. I must say that I do not understand these people. If they are Americans, they live in a land where virtually every single freedom they enjoy, especially the freedom to criticize the government they claim is too militaristic, has been bought and paid for by the blood of soliers. When I write about the strand of pacifism that I disagree with the most fervently, it is this group to whom I am referring.

Isolationism – Another aspect of pacifism that is seldom discussed but is a major component of many people’s understanding of pacifism is isolationism. This is the view that no country should ever be involved in the affairs of another country. Pacifism and isolationism are not synonymous – you can be (and I will argue you must be to a certain degree) a pacifist and not an isolationist. However, I believe it is philosophically impossible to be an isolationist and not be a pacifist. Pacifism is a required first step toward isolationism.

Peace – I hold the Old Testament conviction that shalom (peace) means far more than an absence of conflict. The word shalom is rich with many different shades of meaning, but I feel that I would not be far wrong to suggest that shalom carries the meaning of an all-consuming surrender of one’s heart and mind to the will of God. If God’s presence is real and active in a person’s life, then shalom is present, whether conflict exists or not. Of course, in a perfect situation this shalom should lead to a cessation of conflict, but this world is not perfect by any stretch of the imagination. Therefore, shalom does not depend upon one’s outward situation, but only upon one’s inward relationship with God. One can be horribly conflicted and at war even in solitude, and in the worst of battles and/or conflicts a person can be utterly and completely at peace. While the image is harder to communicate in a communal sense, I believe this is also true of nations. I hope to be able to illustrate this later.

Passivism – This is a concept that all too many people confuse with pacifism. Pacifism as a lifestyle demands hard work. I will get into both Old and New Testament passages in some detail later, but let me say here that Jesus said, “Blessed are the peace makers”, and the process by which peace is created in this world is both laborious and dangerous. It is no accident that Jesus goes on to state in the next beatitude, “Blessed are you when you are persecuted.” I believe it is absolutely critical that we separate the concept of passively sitting on the sidelines, watching and hoping that something good happens, from actively being down on the field working to promote and create peace. Pacifism requires enormous amounts of courage. Passivism is sometimes the result of laziness, but it is also very frequently the result of a consuming cowardice.

Militarism – I suppose I should also include here a description of what I am talking about when I mention militarism. Just as with pacifism, there are several different degrees of militarism. Some, like myself, believe a strong military is necessary for the defense of a nation, just as a police force is necessary for the safety and well being of any community. However, there are also those who are rabid militarists, and they believe there is no problem so small that a good dose of gunpowder and lead will not solve it. As the old saying goes, if you carry around a hammer all the time, eventually everything begins to look like a nail. I fear that America in particular has carried the hammer of being  super power for so long that every foreign issue has become a nail. This is one of the reasons I have begun to think, and to re-think, my views of pacifism and the military.

Evil/Good - These are not so much critical in terms of definition, but I must state that in order to adequately deal with the subject of pacifism we must deal with the underlying issues of evil and good. We cannot have the indwelling presence of God as long as we harbor evil in our life. We also cannot share God’s presence where evil is allowed to flourish. One basic premise that I will be working with is that evil must be dealt with in order for there to be any real, genuine peace. Sometimes this evil is relatively easy to confront, sometimes it is not. This is true of individuals as well as communities. Therefore, as we will note as we take our journey through the canonical story of Scripture, sometimes drastic action is required to achieve peace. In terms of nations this means military action at times. This is a fervently debated issue, and I respect those who hold a differing opinion, but (obviously) I believe that one of the themes of Scripture is that God expects his disciples to work with him in the eradication of evil in this world. This is a multi-faceted issue, however, and I hope that I will adequately explain my position in posts to come.

In response to a recent post on Pacifism and the Sermon on the Mount my good friend Tim Archer provided some good feedback and raised some excellent questions. I responded to him that this issue has kind of consumed me over the past few weeks, and that hopefully I would have something more constructive to say in the next few weeks. Well, for better or for worse I offer these next few posts as the fruit of my thinking. I obviously do not have all the answers. I am a pilgrim on the journey of faith – I am an apprentice in the art of theology and preaching. However, it is my belief that I have arrived at a point at which I do have something to add to the conversation. How much, and how valuable, is up to you, my good reader, to decide. I welcome your feedback, push-backs, and questions.

Pacifism and the Sermon on the Mount

Jesus is considered by scholars such as Weber ...

Jesus is considered by scholars such as Weber to be an example of a charismatic religious leader. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

I want to begin this post by directing you to a fine article posted by Matt Dowling here -http://www.jesusradicals.com/nonviolence-and-the-pews-thoughts-from-a-former-marine/?utm_source=feedburner&utm_medium=feed&utm_campaign=Feed:+JesusRadicals+(Jesus+Radicals).  The post is written by a former Marine and it is an eloquent defense of the view of pacifism. I attempted to post some questions to the blog, but for some reason I could never get my response to go through. I would like to address the author’s points in this space.

First, although I agree with much of what Matt says, I believe he is guilty of a common error in interpreting the words of Jesus and the Sermon on the Mount in particular. That error is to take one phrase, or one point, and to elevate that saying to the level of inviolate law. At that moment the words of Jesus become more legalistic than the Law of Moses. I believe this error can be demonstrated in at least two different ways. One, the author who attempts to do so is always highly selective, in this case in regard to “love your neighbor.” The other is that the sayings of Jesus in the sermon receive further elaboration within the canon of Scripture. Let’s look at these two points in greater detail.

First, not only in regard to pacifism a saying or a paragraph taken from the Sermon on the Mount is used as the ultimate and final words on the matter. The teachings in the sermon are also interpreted hyper-literally. So, in the present discussion of pacifism, Matthew 5:13-16 and 43-48 are taken to be the only teachings in the Bible worthy of discussion, and they are taken to be literal to the dotting of the “i” and the crossing of the “t”. But, when it comes to gouging out one’s eye or cutting off one’s hand (5:29-30) Jesus’ words are interpreted metaphorically, as no one I have read promotes self-mutilation. Likewise, if 6:5-6 was to be taken with the same level of literalness as 5:43-48 there could never by any public prayer! Jesus simply forbids it! Jesus himself qualifies his teaching on loving one’s enemies when he says, “Be perfect as your heavenly Father is perfect.” Now it is without argument that God used war to punish the Canaanites. A few centuries later God used war to punish his own people. God used war to punish the Assyrians, and the Babylonians as well. Consider the first three chapters of Amos!

This is not to condone the use of military action the way it has been used in the United States in the past decade or more. My point is simply this: to take one phrase from the Sermon on the Mount and make it eternal law without considering other voices within Scripture is to make the same mistake that war hawks use when they argue that war is always the answer. Human life is messy and full of sin, and so is war, and so is peace. There is no aspect of human life that is free of sin, blood and death, human reproduction included. A “one word of Jesus fits all” response simply is not proper theology.

Second, Jesus himself later elaborates (through the writing of Matthew) several key themes that are introduced in the sermon. One obvious example is that of marriage and divorce. If Matthew 5:31-32 had been all that was necessary in the discussion of marriage and divorce, why did Jesus (or Matthew) return to the subject in greater detail in Matthew 19:1-12? And to further press the point, why did the apostle Paul, under the guidance of the Holy Spirit, return to the subject in 1 Corinthians 7? And, why in the passage in 1 Corinthians did Paul specifically point out that Jesus had not dealt with every issue regarding marriage and divorce, to which Paul added instruction that he felt the Corinthian Christians needed?

I might also add here that to pull this one passage from the sermon also does not give adequate hearing to the other voices within Scripture (the prophets primarily, but also within the NT) that call for the defense of the oppressed and for justice for all, but especially those who cannot defend themselves. You cannot liberate the oppressed, or defend the defenseless, without overcoming the evil that is oppressing/attacking them. Jesus himself declared that this would be one sign of the dawning kingdom (Luke 4:14-19). An uncompromising pacifism would invalidate this theme of Scripture which runs from Genesis to Revelation. I have never heard this issue adequately addressed by absolute pacifists.

So, my first point of contention with total pacifists is that they are taking one text from one sermon and they are elevating it to a level that simply cannot be sustained in light of hermeneutic and other contextual issues.

Another point of issue is that the author references the “Hitler” question, but does not address it. This is a common weakness I have noticed in writings by total pacifists. Hitler and his program of genocide is a serious problem for total pacifists. Neville Chamberlain proclaimed “peace in our time” and over 6 million Jews, Poles, and other “undesirables” were murdered by the Nazis. This is a stubborn fact of history and it will not go away simply by dismissing it as unimportant. Were there sins and atrocities committed in the waging of the war? Yes, beyond any doubt, and by both sides. Could the war have been ended much sooner? Absolutely, if Churchill had provided the necessary assurances to the German resistance, Hitler would have been assassinated by members of the German army. This is one of the ironies of a “total war” concept. Sometimes you have to work with your “enemies” in order to achieve the victory you seek.

One final comment, then I will turn to where I agree with the author. I want a total pacifist to explain to me how a person can agree with a police department’s use of force (including lethal force, physical restraint, simple arrests, and even non-confrontational traffic stops) and yet believe that the use of military force is sinful. If you come across a situation in which a weak or defenseless person is being viciously beaten, and you have the strength or the numbers to physically subdue the assailant, do you or do you not believe you have a moral obligation to use that force to subdue the assailant? If you do not have the strength to subdue the assailant (or they out-number you) do you or do you not believe that you have the moral obligation to call the appropriate authorities to intervene and subdue the assailant(s). If you call the police, are you not being a willing participant in the use of force to defend the oppressed? What if that police officer then had to use deadly force to protect his life, the victim’s life or perhaps even your life? Are you not complicit in his use of deadly force? What if you were called upon to sit on the jury that was to decide the fate of the assailant that was arrested for the assault? Could you sit on the jury without becoming complicit in the use of the state’s force against aggression? And, how exactly does this differ from a nation that acts in defense of an oppressed people or nation? How does your answer then fit with Jesus’ injunction to “love your enemies?” If we are complicit in a criminal’s death or in sending them to prison, how exactly does that differ from defeating the Nazis? Who are we to love more, our enemies or the defenseless and the oppressed?

Now, there is much that author wrote with which I agree. I believe the Sermon on the Mount is foundational for Christians. I too believe it has been minimized and neglected for centuries. I am very much in sympathy with Barton Stone and David Lipscomb and their views on civil government and the use of the military. I believe a new dialogue needs to be engaged regarding the relation of the Christian to the government, and especially in regard to the military. I actually read more from the view of pacifism than I do from war hawks. I especially like the fact that the author was up-front and honest with his background and his change of heart. This is an aspect of dialogue and debate that is sorely missing in today’s culture. I am deeply troubled by the use of the military that our current and last president have made. But I am also deeply moved by the writings of Dietrich Bonhoeffer, who struggled with this question in a profoundly personal way. Bonhoeffer himself used the Sermon on the Mount as his foundational text, and yet he came up with an answer that is very much at odds with today’s total pacifists. It is largely because of Bonhoeffer and his journey of faith that I cannot accept the conclusions of the absolute pacifist. Not yet, anyway. I am still waiting for my questions (see above) to be honestly and forthrightly answered.

“Only those who cry out for the Jews can sing the Gregorian chants.” I think we need to truly hear the cry of the oppressed before we condemn their liberators to the eternal fires of hell.

My apologies for a long-winded post, but this is a discussion that requires careful analysis. I will have more to say in coming posts.

The Kingdom of God

Heraldic crown of the Kingdom of Belgium.

After doing a lot of reading over the past couple of weeks I have come to a conclusion that is relatively new to me. Because I am not the sharpest knife in the drawer I have to make that little observation clear, or people will think that I am trying to reinvent the wheel. I am not trying to reinvent it, I am just discovering how profoundly valuable the wheel can be.

The new (or perhaps renewed) concept that has been made very clear to me is that we will not go very far in solving many of the questions facing the Lord’s church today if we do not first come to an understanding about a very basic concept: what is the “kingdom of God?” I believe this is important for a number of reasons. One, I don’t think many people have really thought through this question. I think many, including preachers and Bible school teachers, work under a basic assumption of what the kingdom of God is, but they have not really put any hard effort into either confirming or denying their assumption. Two, I think many are laboring under conflicting ideas of what the kingdom of God is. This is really a problem if a person has not burned a little midnight oil working on this question. The result is too often one view of the kingdom in one situation, and another view of the kingdom in another situation, and too frequently these views conflict with each other, and so therefore cannot both be true. Three, I think some (if not many) are afraid to do much thinking on the subject, afraid that they may be forced to revise some of their viewpoints. This, of course, is the main reason why people do not do any serious thinking about any subject.

Without going into too much detail, there are a number of views that are currently held by church members, each with its own set of problems:

1) The kingdom is equal to the church. I remember being taught we cannot pray for the kingdom of God to come (i.e. the Model, or Lord’s Prayer) because the church was established on the day of Pentecost and therefore the kingdom had arrived. Problem: which church? And if the kingdom of God is the church, why is it so divided? Why are there so many competing visions of the church and therefore kingdom? Why did the kingdom of God fall into such disarray? You can’t say, “because of man’s sinfulness” because the kingdom is God’s kingdom, not man’s kingdom. You can’t have it both ways. And, if Matthew was teaching his congregation how to pray, and he taught them to pray the model prayer, then was Matthew wrong? Why did he include the prayer as a part of his gospel if it was not to be foundational in the church to which he was writing?

2) The kingdom is equal to an earthly kingdom – be it Israel, the United States, or perhaps a reconstituted Israel. Problem: Jesus never spoke of his kingdom as an earthly kingdom. In fact, quite the opposite – he said his kingdom was not of this earth. I know this disappoints the moral majority crowd, but facts is facts. By the way, this is also a problem for view #1 above.

3) The kingdom is totally in the future. Basically related to some form of millennialism (either post, or more likely, pre), this view says that the kingdom has yet to be revealed, but will be revealed either at the end of a 1,000 year reign of Christ, or that Christ will inaugurate the kingdom which will precede a 1,000 year earthly reign. Problem: all the many passages (Luke 17:20-21) where Jesus speaks of the kingdom of God as being present even as he speaks – it was a reality on earth even 2,000 years ago.

4) For all the mugwumps out there, there is the “already but not yet” suggestion. That is, the kingdom of God is already here, but yet there is more to come. Problem: which is already, and which is to come? Because when you ask people to get specific, they will combine aspects of all of these as the “already” and the “not yet.” For instance, the kingdom is foreshadowed by the United States (or the new Israel) but will only be completed with the perfect kingdom on this earth (variously identified as the New Israel or the New Jerusalem). Others point to the church as the already, and the ethereal “heaven” as the not yet.

And, just to muddy the waters even more, there is the translational problem of deciding whether to translate the word as it is more commonly translated, “kingdom” (a formal sense) or to translate it in a more dynamic sense of “reign.” Thus, we should not so much speak of a kingdom in the sense of a king and a realm over which he reigns, but as the actual dynamic power of the act of his reigning. There is a difference in talking about a kingdom of God and the reign of God. The one is static, the other is fluid. And, because I am the professor here and not the student, are there passages where the kingdom is static (kingdom), and passages where it is fluid (reign)?

No matter how you define it, the identification of the kingdom of God is critical to one’s politics, and even to one’s ethics. I have learned this in a profound way by looking at how the kingdom view of Alexander Campbell differed from that of Barton W. Stone within the American Restoration Movement. Over time the view of Campbell overcame that of Stone, and it has had a profound impact on the prevailing view of Churches of Christ up to this present time.

Anyway, I thought I would share these thoughts and see if anyone has the answer (tongue firmly in cheek). I would love to hear your thoughts, and perhaps some ideas about how we can come to a more acceptable universal answer. I might even be goaded into giving my own personal opinion.

Or, then again, maybe not.

It’s Called Sin

Illustration of the Devil in the Codex Gigas, ...

Illustration of the Devil in the Codex Gigas, folio 270 recto (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

One thing you can say about Satan, if you believe in Satan, that is. He sure knows how to play his cards. If you think you have him backed into a corner you had better watch out – the corner may be one of your own demise. I don’t think Satan is one step ahead of the game, I think he is one game ahead of the opposition. No matter how thoroughly I think I have out-witted the Adversary, he always seems to meet me around the next corner.

Nowhere was this principle in better view than in the reaction to President Obama’s blessing of homosexual marriage. I wrote earlier that I believed Obama knew exactly what he was doing. He knew the reaction from one faction of society would be swift and angry, and that many who had no opinion would be more turned off by the hate-mongers than they would be approving of his message. Either way, he was going to benefit.

What I did not anticipate was the cowardly response of many people I thought would offer a reasoned, yet pointed, response to the interview. One blogger in particular was simply apoplectic in his response. He nervously paced the floor, wringing his hands in utter terror over the situation. What was the situation that had him so nervous? Homosexuality? Homosexual marriage? President Obama’s tortured reasoning in supporting homosexual marriage? No, no, and no. He was in a state of utter panic because he was convinced that someone might say something mean and nasty and ugly about homosexuals or homosexual behavior.

This particular individual went to extraordinary lengths to indicate, in the most vanilla way possible, that it might jut be possible, somehow, that homosexuality might be inappropriate in certain circumstances. He did not outright say it, but he hinted that homosexuality might point to someone’s “brokenness,” that it wasn’t quite what God had intended. But what really, really had him all worked up is that someone, somewhere, might write a blog or preach a sermon that would offend homosexuals. I guess that homosexuals are so fragile, so “broken,” that if they came across a blog or heard a sermon that discussed their behavior in biblical terms that they would just absolutely fall apart at the seams right on the spot.

The one thing that the blogger refused to do was to use the word “sin.” In the entire message the word never was used. The writer danced and wiggled and obfuscated, but he just could never come out and mention that homosexual behavior is sinful.

The writer had a lot of advice for those conservatives he was the most afraid might hurt someone’s feelings. One of the most egregious, in my opinion, was his suggestion that before someone writes a blog or preaches a sermon critical of homosexuality that they spend a lot of time getting to know a group of homosexuals. I guess he had in mind going down to the local gay bar and downing a few pints with the boys. Anyway, it got me to thinking. Before I preach a sermon and mention the sin of rape, should I spend some quality time getting to know and understand rapists? If I preach a sermon on the sanctity of human life should I spend a month or two in an abortion clinic getting to know and understand the humanity of an abortionist? Maybe I should start a colloquium for murderers? And how about child molesters? Should I start a monthly roundtable of child predators just so I can fully comprehend their nature before I accidentally write something in this blog or preach a sermon which might offend their tender sensibilities?

I don’t get it.

It’s called sin, people. Why must a Christian, whether it be an official leader of a congregation or not, be so terrified to use the word sin when the Bible makes it clear that such behavior is sin? That does not justify the use of hateful, derogatory language (which is in itself sin!). But that was NOT what this blogger was saying. He was more concerned that a person living a life of blatant rejection of God MIGHT be offended than he was that this person was rejecting God. Why is it that we can preach against racism, greed, rape, murder, idolatry, and even abortion yet the topic of homosexuality is completely off the table? Or why is it that we must spend time with homosexuals before we identify their sin when (1) the sin is so clearly identified in Scripture and (2) the same advice is never suggested in any other sinful situation?

There were other disturbing aspects in what this individual wrote. He opined that homosexual relationships might be genuinely loving relationships. And that makes the sin of homosexuality okay? Logically speaking, we must allow for multiple marriage partners, as it would be the height of hypocrisy to suggest that a man or a woman could only love one single person of the opposite gender. Also, he allows that homosexuality might be an inborn, genetic trait. Oh, so now God is responsible for homosexual behavior, which, according to the word that bears his Name, he abhors. That is a clever bit of theologizing. If homosexuality is condemned only because of a homophobic Jewish culture (which later fed Christian homophobia), what does that say about monogamy in general, or rape, or incest, or bestiality, or any other sexual act that is condemned in Scripture? It would seem to me, as a matter of consistency, if we are going to make allowances for homosexuality we need to reconsider all of these sexual practices that we have historically condemned, or at the very least, attempted to control by legislation (i.e., monogamous marriage).

As I said before, I just don’t get it. I have never preached a sermon specifically on the sin of homosexuality. I never will. I have never heard a sermon specifically on the sin of homosexuality. Regrettably, I have heard language used about homosexuals that is sinful. The fact that Christians use such language does not make it right, and those who use derogatory language about anyone, be it racist or homophobic, will face their judge in heaven. But I refuse to allow a very powerful and increasingly anti-Christian political lobby to tell me what I can write about or preach about. And I especially refuse to allow some nervous-nelly blogger to lecture me about what I should or should not do in response to an open and defiant challenge to my Christian beliefs. I have not seen any nail marks in the hands or feet of this particular blogger, and as I recall, I did not confess his name when I committed my life to follow in the footsteps of the crucified one.

I expect certain things from an atheistic, humanistic, and hedonistic media. I can tune them out. But it bothers me when I read such things from someone who is a Christian brother. Like I said at the beginning, Satan knows how to play his cards. And if he can get Christian bloggers and ministers to preach his message, why would he not use them?

Reference Jer. 6:13-15; 8:8-12; Isaiah 5:9-30

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