In the many discussions of the “right to bear arms” and the “right of self defense” one passage of Scripture receives an amount of attention far beyond the weight it can support. This is increasingly true in the discussions generated by the recent terrorist attacks and the “right” of individual states to deny safe refuge to Syrians fleeing the unspeakable horror of ISIS (the Islamic State). That passage is Luke 22:35-38:
And he said to them, ‘When I sent you out with no purse or bag or sandals, did you lack anything?’ They said, ‘Nothing.’ He said to them, ‘But now, let him who has a purse take it, and likewise a bag. And let him who has no sword sell his mantle and buy one. For I tell you that this scripture must be fulfilled in me, ‘And he was reckoned with transgressors’; for what is written about me has its fulfillment.’ And they said, ‘Look, Lord, here are two swords.’ And he said to them, ‘It is enough.’ (Luke 22:35-38, RSV)
I want to suggest to you that, first of all, this passage is enigmatic in that there are a number of interpretive issues involved, and second, that regardless of the clarity (or obscurity) of the passage, building one’s theology of the right to bear arms on one text is highly dubious. Using this text to defend a matter of constitutional law smacks of the worst kind of proof-texting. What is worse, if this interpretation of the text is, in fact, erroneous, it turns Jesus into something that he manifestly was and is not, therefore is dangerously close to blasphemy.
To begin, the interpretation that Jesus is in this text promoting the purchase and use of weapons for self-defense is to declare that Jesus is also completely rejecting his own words of comfort to his disciples. To illustrate, compare the last words of Jesus in John 14-16. At no point in this long message did Jesus ever hint or suggest that his departure would in any way limit the future work of the disciples. In fact, it was his departure, and the subsequent gift of the Holy Spirit, that would strengthen and embolden the disciples. If the interpretation of Luke 22:35-38 is that Jesus is encouraging the purchase of weapons for self-defense, the logic has to be that Jesus is telling his disciples, “Look, boys, I’m about to leave here, so you are all on your own. Better load up on the swords, ’cause your gonna need all you can get.” However, the words of Jesus as recorded in John flatly reject this logic. Jesus told his disciples the coming Holy Spirit would increase their work, and that his absence would be in their favor.
Second, the use of this text as a proof-text for the use of weapons for self-defense is in direct contradiction to the actions and words of Jesus that would take place in the garden in just a couple of hours time. We are familiar with the fact that Peter was only too willing to use one of those two swords (I wonder who the owner of the other was??), and Jesus rebuked him soundly, telling him, “Put your sword back in its place; for all who take the sword will perish by the sword.” (Matthew 26:52, RSV) Not exactly a thunderous affirmation of the right of Peter to defend Jesus and himself with a sword. In fact, Jesus went on to tell Peter if he so wanted, he could call legions of angels down to defend him. Self-defense was not on Jesus’s agenda.
Third, some time later Jesus would yet again reject the idea that his disciples would, or even should, take up arms. In response to a political accusation by the Procurator Pilate, Jesus said, “My kingship is not of this world; if my kingship were of this world, my servants would fight, that I might not be handed over to the Jews; but my kingship is not from the world.” (John 18:36, RSV) This is somewhat ironic, as Peter DID take up arms to defend Jesus, but Jesus unequivocally rejected that Lilliputian effort. Once again, self-defense is not on Jesus’s agenda.
Please note that each of these examples comes after Jesus’s statement to “buy a sword.” So – if Jesus is clearly NOT interested in self-defense or the use of swords, what in the world was he talking about? I return to the concept of enigma – this is something that is clearly not an easy passage to decipher, but there are some clues in the text itself.
First, Jesus reminds the disciples of their previous mission and the ability for God to fully meet their needs. Now, unless we are willing to accept that God will somehow be unable to meet their needs in a future mission, we must ask ourselves why Jesus would suggest the carrying of a purse, a bag, and lastly, a sword. Was it because due to his repeated warnings of his impending arrest and death that the apostles were beginning to make defensive provisions? In other words, is it not fully reasonable to see Jesus using the rhetoric of irony here – “Remember how God has provisioned for you earlier, and now you are acting like a bunch of scared schoolboys??” I do not suggest that this is the only way in which these verses can be interpreted, but other clues lead me to believe it is at least a worthy option.
Second, Jesus quotes Isaiah 53:12 – but not the entire verse. Let us then examine Isaiah 53:12 –
Therefore I will divide him a portion with the great, and he shall divide the spoil with the strong; because he poured out his soul to death, and was numbered with the transgressors; yet he bore the sin of many, and made intercession for the transgressors.” (RSV, emphasis mine)
Now, in the immediate context of those who heard Jesus’s words, who were the transgressors? Maybe those who were planning on an armed defense of their messiah? Namely, could it have been Peter and the unnamed apostle? Maybe it was the fog of exhaustion, or their basic inability to grasp what Jesus was saying, but the immediate retort was, “Look, Jesus, here we have two swords!” (a pitiful response to the armed legions of the Romans, and even the poorly armed police of the Jewish leaders). It is telling that as he was being arrested, Jesus made a special intercession on behalf of his apostles, at least one of which had just attempted an insurrection. Jesus plainly “made intercession” for the transgressors.
Third, Jesus words, “It is enough” are interesting. This is an idiom, and as an idiom is difficult to trace throughout the Bible, but a few references are illuminating. In Deuteronomy 3:26 the NIV (among other translations) render God’s rebuke to Moses as, “That is enough.” In other words, “Be quiet – the discussion is over.” In 1 Samuel 15:16, Samuel cuts King Saul’s excuse off with a brisk, “Stop!” In 2 Samuel 24:16, God stays the hand of the destroying angel with an emphatic, “Enough!” Interjections such as these have both a disjunctive and a corrective sense. They are used to stop the present flow of words or actions, and they indicate a different path of action or discourse will follow. Viewed in this manner, Jesus is simply telling his disciples to shut up; they have utterly misunderstood him yet again, but his last hours are drawing to a close and he does not have the time to enter into yet another time-consuming theological lecture.
Finally, we have to note the reaction of the apostles in the post-Pentecost age of the Spirit. Not once did they take up weapons to defend themselves. Not once did they advocate the use of weapons in the realm of self-defense. Not once did a disciple of Jesus take up a weapon to defend one of his peers. In fact, for the first three centuries one of the sharpest distinctions regarding the church of Jesus Christ was their unflinching and resolute avoidance of violence. To me, this fact is conclusive. The disciples may have misunderstood Jesus’s words in the upper room that night, but by the day of Pentecost they got it. They were transformed. And, with great courage and faith they proudly proclaimed the “right to bare arms.”
The argument is often presented that if a man’s family was being attacked, he has a right, and perhaps even a responsibility, to protect them at any cost. I cannot answer how I would face that situation, and I pray I will never have to make that decision. But one thing I do know: I cannot base my desire to purchase and use lethal weapons on Luke 22:35-38. To do so is an illegitimate use of Scripture. A man may have the right and duty to defend his family – but the scriptural defense of that right and duty must be found elsewhere (Exodus 22:2-3 comes to mind, although there are some problems there, too).
I began by saying this text in Luke is enigmatic. I do not suggest that the interpretation that I have proposed is the only way to interpret this passage, but I do suggest that it offers the fewest problems. It provides the greatest cohesion with the plain teachings of Jesus. It is in clear agreement with the words of Jesus spoken within hours, or perhaps even minutes, of the words recorded in Luke. So, while I may be incorrect, I choose to stand here, admitting my fallibility, but resting in the security that for centuries the early church stood on the same ground.
(some idle ramblings after meditating on a message that was presented last evening . . . and no, I am not picking on the speaker, but rather extending his thoughts and owning up to my own convictions)
I am a part of a small group of Americans. Talk about minority, I bet we do not even show up on the list of endangered species – because there has to be a certain number to be counted in order to even be considered endangered. We could probably hold a national convention in a broom closet. My closest ally and my greatest enemy might both be looking at me from my mirror. Call me a heretic, a traitor, a renegade, a scandalous lout – each probably fits some form of my rebellion.
But, I just simply refuse to accept that America is a Christian nation, that God has specifically chosen America for any purpose (other than to display his grace and his judgment), that any one single political party has a corner on righteousness, or that it is a duty, or even a good idea, that disciples of Christ get mixed up (polluted would be another word) in politics.
Barton W. Stone and David Lipscomb are my heroes – and that is probably enough to get my membership cancelled in most Churches of Christ – especially if they know anything about Barton W. Stone and/or David Lipscomb.
My aversion to politics can be summed up thusly:
1. God gave Adam and Eve a specific law in the garden – and that law did not keep them from acting immorally. God gave Cain a specific law – and that did not keep Cain from acting immorally. God gave the Israelites very specific laws (over 600 if the number is to be believed) and that did not keep the Israelites from acting immorally, even at the site where they received those laws. God sent prophet after prophet to remind the people of Israel of the laws to which they had bound themselves. That did not keep the children of Israel from acting immorally. You cannot make a person, a group of people (even the church), or a nation moral by passing laws. Not even God could do that. Why can’t we learn this? Why do we put so much emphasis on trying to accomplish that which cannot be accomplished?
2. The sum total of politics can be described as: money, power, and compromise. If politics was a noble effort once upon a time (as in a fairy tale) it certainly is not now. It takes a staggering amount of money to simply be elected to a state office, let alone a national office. The role of county dog catcher might be different, but money drives politics. Second, politics is all about power. Power as in I have it, you don’t, do you have to do what I tell you. What was it that Jesus said about power and service? Oh, yeah, “You know that the rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them, and their great men exercise authority over them. It shall not be so among you; but whoever would be great among you must be your servant, and whoever would be first among you must be your slave; even as the Son of man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many.” (Matthew 20:25-28). Third, to be successful in American politics means you have to compromise, because while power is intoxicating and polluting, it is never absolute. There is always someone on the other side of the political aisle who has equal power among his or her constituents, and the only way to move anything in American politics is to compromise. The art of compromise might be acceptable if you are debating the color of carpet in the living room or the price of eggs. But, could someone please tell me how it would be possible to compromise on a question of morals? How can you ‘compromise’ on the question of abortion, or the ethics of the Affordable Care Act (which is neither affordable nor caring)? To say that abortion is wrong after “x” time period, but acceptable before that time period is simply disgusting. To say that homosexuality violates your personal code of religious beliefs, but that you have to vote another way because of some court ruling is to declare that you really have no controlling personal code of religious beliefs. Compromise is the opposite of the gospel call to absolute surrender to the will of God.
3. No matter how you try to wiggle out of this, you cannot vote for someone to do something GOOD, without out equally being responsible for the EVIL that person creates/perpetrates. You cannot applaud and share in the advances of the causes you advocate, and reject the negative consequences. I learned this the hard way with Ronald Reagan and George W. Bush. Regardless of the good each was able to accomplish, each man certainly violated core biblical principles in decisions they made or did not make. I cannot take pride in one part of their legacy and disavow the other. If I voted for them, I am “guilty” for both. I do not think most Christians stop to consider that fact.
4. I could list many Scriptures which call the American system of politics into question. However, one will suffice: “No one can serve two masters; for either he will hate the one and love the other, or he will be devoted to the one and despise the other. You cannot serve God and mammon.” (Matthew 6:24, RSV). You cannot be a ‘little bit’ political and a ‘little bit’ Christian. You cannot split your allegiance 50/50. You are either going to believe that politics is the answer to the problems of humanity, or you are going to look to the Word (Christ) and the will of God. If you think America is a Christian nation, and that the constitution of the United States comprises some kind of 28th book of the New Testament, then you are going to put your faith ultimately in the power and process of the American political system. You will also never be content, and you will always be in a position of aggression and enmity with your opponents, because they believe you are the enemy and they will not begrudge an inch of political landscape to you. And, by the way, you will never find an acceptable candidate to support unquestionably. No human is perfect, and so you will have to compromise some of YOUR beliefs in order to elect someone who is the “lesser of two evils” in some aspect of your religious beliefs. Sell your soul to the devil and you find some nasty repercussions.
Or, you can stand with Joshua as he gave his final challenge to the people of Israel, “Choose this day whom you will serve, whether the gods your fathers served in the region beyond the River, or the gods of the Amorites in whose land you dwell; but as for me and my house, we will serve the LORD.” (Joshua 24:15)
Many suggestions are made as to why the Church is so ineffective today, why so many people are leaving the church, why, despite the huge numbers of attendees, there appears to be so little conviction among those who profess to be disciples of Christ. While I believe many answers are a part of the answer, I think one major reason is that so many church leaders, and therefore church members, have equated Christianity with the American political system. And, because Jesus actually expects total commitment, (that nasty verse about taking up your cross and following him daily) it is far easier to sign a registration card as a Republican or a Democrat and worship the god of politics and power that way. Simply put, politics IS the religion of the vast majority of Americans.
That’s why I am a heretic, a traitor, and a pacifistic scoundrel. That’s okay by me. As I look at the first three hundred years of church history (up until the great Constantinian debacle), I find myself in some mighty fine company. I may be alone today – but, boy, do I have some awesome ancestors.
There has been an incredible uproar (pardon the pun) over the killing of a beloved black-maned lion, Cecil. Actually, Cecil was not just killed – he was lured to his death from a safe game preserve, then shot with a bow and arrow. He suffered for 40 hours before the poachers managed to find him and finish the kill with a rifle. The supposed “hunter” was a rich American who paid $50,000 for the privilege to “hunt” a lion. This was not a hunt. This was an act of barbarism.
What has upset many others is that there appears to be more people upset over the killing of Cecil than the revelation that Planned Parenthood sells the harvested parts of aborted babies to medical labs and transplant clinics. The logic is that an unborn child is of far greater value than an African lion, so why are people not more upset over abortion? I am not sure that question is valid. I do strongly believe a human life is more valuable than that of a wild animal. But I also have a somewhat different take on the difference between the reaction to the killing of Cecil and the Planned Parenthood fiasco.
I think the two are actually related, and the furor over the killing of Cecil points to a fundamental crisis of the human spirit that is also demonstrated through abortion.
The killing of Cecil is so raw – so blatant, and the greed of the killers is so easy to spot. The greed of the abortionists is more obscure (indeed, to listen to their defenders, it does not even exist!). But there is another commonality between the lion poachers and the abortionists: arrogance.
What is it about a man who would pay $50,000 to kill an animal? Conservationism? Give me a break. If you want to preserve wild animals, you could donate the $50,000 to an animal preserve and take a picture. No – these people (and there are more than you might think, of both sexes) believe that because they have the money, and because the have the right equipment, and because they have the “right” to kill an animal, that those things justify these supposed “hunts.” What is it about those who believe it is perfectly acceptable to kill an unborn child? These people (once again, of both sexes) believe that because they have the money, the technology, and because the Supreme Court has discovered the “right” for them to take the lives of these unborn children, that they are justified in their murderous actions.
In both situations the commonality is arrogance – the same arrogance that was on display in the Garden of Eden and is on display every time we as humans decide that we are smarter than God. It is rebellion against God’s will. In the words of the Word of God – it is sin. And sin, whether the poaching of a majestic lion or the murder of an unborn child, has its root in the heart of the human being. We wantonly destroy because we believe we are gods, or perhaps that we are better than gods.
There was, and is, no excuse for the poaching of Cecil. I was sickened as I read the story. I hope the individual responsible for this travesty is held accountable in some form or fashion, and that the process of these “trophy hunts” is ended. I am equally sickened by the actions of Planned Parenthood. I would like to see all abortionists punished for the murders they commit. I do not have to choose between outrage over one or the other. Both reveal the depths of the emptiness of the human soul. When we decide that our ability to destroy God’s creation (for no other reason than to magnify our own importance) is more important than our responsibility to protect and maintain that creation, it does not matter whether the life is human or not. Once again, I am not saying the life of a lion is equal to the life of a human being. That would certainly not be biblical or moral. What I am saying is the disregard for God’s creation is equal in both situations.
As I know many hunters, and have hunted big game myself, I feel I must draw a distinction between fairly hunting for food and what these “trophy” hunts project. Many thousands of honest hunters harvest what God has given to man in order to eat what they harvest, and also to manage game herds and bird populations. This is what I refer to as “husbanding” or nurturing God’s creation. Paying $50,000 to kill an animal that is lured to you is not a hunt, it is not husbanding God’s creation – it is killing for the sake of seeing an animal die. There is no justification for such action. That people even attempt to defend this shooter disappoints me.
Just a thought for those who think that we can give the poacher a pass while focusing entirely on the abortionists – until we come to the realization that ALL of God’s creation is our responsibility to protect, we will NEVER be able to effectively end the scourge of abortion. In other words, we are going to have to come to grips with what God told Adam in Genesis 1:26-31 – God’s very first command to humankind. If we are to have dominion over God’s creation, we must humble ourselves and recognize that it is God’s creation, he created it to be good, and we are not permitted to destroy it for our own selfish, arrogant, desires.
During World War 1 a young naval officer received his country’s honor by serving as a captain on a U-Boat, the German submarine. Such service required the greatest bravery and patriotism.
During World War 2 that same young officer spent his days as a prisoner in the Nazi concentration camp at Dachau. He was arrested at the command of Adolf Hitler because of that same bravery and patriotism. He loved Germany – he did not love Hitler.
Martin Niemoeller is not widely known as a Iron Cross recipient as a U-Boat commander. Such behavior is usually condemned today – especially because in WWI the use of submarines was considered cowardly and unethical. However, the nerve that shaped a naval commander was also the nerve that shaped a resistor, and it is Niemoeller the Protestant Pastor that is most widely known today.
You may not know the name, but it is virtually certain that you have read, or heard, his words –
First they came for the Socialists, and I did not speak out – because I was not a Socialist.
Then they came for the Trade Unionists, and I did not speak out – because I was not a Trade Unionist.
Then they came for the Jews, and I did not speak out – because I was not a Jew.
And then they came for me – and there was no one left to speak for me.
Today Christians have a choice. We can either stand up for those who are being pressured and bullied into cowering to the government, or we can wait until everyone else has been defeated and then there will be no one left to speak up for us. It does not matter whether it is a baker, a photographer, or a caterer, if we do not speak up for those who are being crushed by the “legal authority” of the government, we cannot complain when no one speaks up for the Christian church.
This generation’s battle line has been drawn. The confrontation over gender-bending, sexual ethics, and related issues has just begun – it has not been decided. The church must decide, and must voice its decision clearly, whether we stand for those who cannot and will not bow to the pressure of a tiny minority that is hell-bent on forcing its perverted views of sexuality on everyone or if we are simply concerned about our own little cloister.
After WWII, Martin Niemoeller became one of the most vocal proponents of pacifism. He learned his lesson. He knew he could never be another cog in a war machine. He was a soldier in another army – the army of the Prince of Peace.
Here is a question church – are we going to stand up for those with whom we might have minor disagreements because they do not take communion like we do, or they use a different prayer book than we do, or because they use no prayer book and do not take communion at all? Or are we going to stand with them and for them, because it is the right thing – the only thing – to do?
Woe to those who call evil good and good evil, who put darkness for light and light for darkness, who put bitter for sweet and sweet for bitter. Woe to those who are wise in their own eyes, and shrewd in their own sight! (Isaiah 5:20-21, RSV)
They have healed the wound of my people lightly, saying, ‘Peace, peace,’ when there is no peace. Were they ashamed when they committed abomination? No, they were not at all ashamed; they did not know how to blush. Therefore they shall fall among those who fall; at the time that I punish them, they shall be overthrown, says the LORD. (Jeremiah 6:14-15, see also 8:11-12, RSV)
The word of the LORD came to me; “Son of man, speak to your people and say to them, If I bring the sword upon a land, and the people of the land take a man from among them and make him their watchman; and if he sees the sword coming upon the land and blows the trumpet and warns the people; then if any one who hears the sound of the trumpet does not take warning, and the sword comes and takes him away, his blood shall be upon his own head. He heard the sound of the trumpet, and did not take warning; his blood shall be upon himself. But if the watchman sees the sword coming and does not blow the trumpet, so that the people are not warned, and the sword comes, and takes any one of them; that man is taken away in his iniquity, but his blood I will require at the watchman’s hand. So you, son of man, I have made a watchman for the house of Israel; whenever you hear a word from my mouth, you shall give them warning from me. If I say to the wicked, O wicked man, you shall surely die, and you do not speak to warn the wicked to turn from his way, that wicked man shall die in his iniquity, but his blood I will require at your hand. But if you warn the wicked to turn from his way, and he does not turn from his way; he shall die in his iniquity, but you will have saved your life . . . Say to them, As I live, says the LORD God, I have no pleasure in the death of the wicked, but that the wicked turn from his way and life; turn back, turn back from your evil ways; for why will you die, O house of Israel? (Ezekiel 33:1-9, 11 RSV)
The apostle Paul told his young student Timothy to “Preach the word of God. Be prepared, whether the time is favorable or not.” (2 Timothy 4:2, NLT). The time is not very favorable for the watchman to sound his trumpet, at least not in the western, individualistic American culture. Our culture is becoming less Christian by the moment, regardless of what any survey says, and the substitution of evil for good and darkness for light is becoming almost ubiquitous. We’ve lost the ability to blush. I’m not even sure some people know what it means to blush.
Perhaps the clearest example of how the words Isaiah and Jeremiah are being fulfilled once again in our world is the manner in which everyone, Christians in particular, and especially those Christians who have a more conservative or orthodox view of sexuality, are being told we have to “love” those who are willfully perverting God’s design for marriage and gender relationships.
Just in the past couple of days I have seen articles, published or highlighted in well-known Christian publications, that emphasize how holding conservative views on marriage or sexual orientation is somehow bigoted, hateful and unchristian. We are told repeatedly that to suggest that a homosexual lifestyle is sinful is itself sinful. We are to honor and support those who reject God’s division of humanity into “male and female.” Gender, our God-given maleness or femaleness, is something we can change, just like our clothing.
[This is just an aside here, but has anyone else noticed the hypocrisy of the LGBTQ language here? Society is being told that homosexuality is an inborn trait, something that cannot be changed; and yet our SEX is something that can be changed if and when someone decides they have been “born” into the wrong body? Would it not be equally true that someone who has homosexual urges has simply been “born” with the “wrong” set of urges and needs to undergo a proper sexual orientation procedure?]
Dear readers, at some point someone needs to stand up and say, ENOUGH. Love does not mean simply going along with whatever someone says or thinks. We love our children enough to spank their hand when they reach for a hot stove. We love our children enough not to let them play around loaded firearms. We love our children enough to limit their access to poisonous chemicals whether it is rat poison or Jack Daniels whiskey.
Would it be “love” if we saw our brother slowly killing himself by injecting heroin into his bloodstream to simply say, “well, that is my brother’s life, I cannot judge him because of Matthew 7:1, so I am compelled to love and accept his life.” Would it be love if we saw our sister destroy her life and others by snorting cocaine to simply say, “Well, according to Matthew 7:1, I cannot judge my sister, and she was born with this incapacity to handle cocaine, but I can offer her love and acceptance and make her feel welcome in my home.” Would we say to a young woman who is selling her body for enough money to buy one more fix of methamphetamine, “Well, having sex is normal, you know, and who am I to judge another’s actions; besides it is her life and it is my responsibility to offer her love and acceptance and to let her know that her life is no worse than any other life.”
Speaking from a biblical perspective, what the moral revisionists want us to believe is “love” is not biblical love. Biblical love confronts sinners (all of us) with the truth – it is confrontational when it needs to be confrontational; is is disciplinary when it needs to be disciplinary; it names sin when sin needs to be named.
When love exchanges light for darkness, when love exchanges good for evil, when love shouts “peace” when there is no peace, and when love silences the trumpet when the watchman sees the sword approaching, then love is no longer love. At that point “love” has become sin.
Some little voice in the back of my head tells me to follow up just a tad bit on my post yesterday. There I made the somewhat (?) confusing statement that I agreed more with someone that I ultimately would disagree than with someone who, on the surface, I should agree. It is a frustrating feeling. However, while still firmly believing that what I said is true, I also think that I may have inadvertently said something that I do not believe is true.
Theology matters. It matters greatly. We cannot avoid that truth, no matter how fervently we might wish to. There are hundreds, perhaps even thousands of separate groups that all claim in some fashion to be “Christian.” Many of these groups proclaim doctrines that are diametrically opposite to doctrines taught by other “Christian” groups. Yet, with no apparent sense of confusion or shame, everyone seems to go along with the idea that all of these groups are somehow on the same page and headed in the same direction. Logic, if not theology itself, makes this a foolish conclusion.
A person cannot be a Calvinistic-Arminian, nor an Arminian-Calvinist. A person cannot be a Cessationist-Pentecostal, nor a Pentecostal-Cessationist. A person cannot be a Catholic-Protestant, nor a Protestant-Catholic. The same bifurcation holds true with Pedo-baptists and Credo-baptists, egalitarians and complementarians, transubstantiationalists, consubstantiationalists and symbolists. Many other theological issues that have divided Christianity simply will not allow for cheap and meaningless compromise for the sake of a supposed unity.
Theology matters. When I say that I agree with someone with whom I must ultimately disagree, I am not saying that I can set aside the substantive disagreement for the sake of the more temporary agreement. Now, mark these words carefully – I am not saying that such a person is not in a saved relationship with his or her God. I simply am not in a position to make eternal judgments. However, I can, based on my understanding of the Scripture, decide whether what I understand of his or her position is true. I can also be taught, and I reserve the right to teach what I believe to be the truth.
I hold many doctrines to be of such weight that I simply cannot “agree” with those who hold clearly opposing conclusions. I may be correct, the other person may be correct, or a third option is possible – that neither one of us is entirely correct and the absolute truth of the matter lies in some third possibility. But, I cannot simply lay aside my conclusions and convictions simply in order to avoid hurting someone else’s feelings, or to massage some flimsy and ultimately false “unity.”
I chose the image above this post for a reason. The realm of theology describes the void where the woman is frozen. There is an absolute truth to which she is headed – in my image that would be the eternal and unalterable truth of God. There is an equally solid truth from which she is jumping – the truth of our convictions. Theology is that space in the middle – theology is a searching, a probing, a “working out” of that which we can see but yet that which is still not under our feet. But theology is not just some whimsical, “pie in the sky by and by when we die” exercise that a few pointy-heads secluded in their ivory towers can participate in. Theology is built on solid study of the Bible – the solid rock upon which all theology must be built. Theology might be described as a leap (and other images are certainly legitimate), but theology is not a blind leap, nor is it a careless leap. Theology is a well-measured, calculated and purposeful leap into the mind and heart of God.
So, theology really matters. I agree with some theologians, and disagree with some – often the same theologian and often in the same book, chapter, or even page. We all see as through a glass, darkly. Or, a fog, depending on our point of view.
The death penalty has been on my mind quite a bit lately. One reason is that I am teaching a course on Christian Ethics, and the topic came up as a part of the curriculum. Another reason is that there is a case currently in the headlines about a woman on death row who has, by virtually all accounts, made a complete change in her life and has become a Christian, and has been doing remarkable work with other inmates as she has contact with them. Many, both in the secular and the religious worlds, are working for the commutation of her sentence so that she be spared her execution.
I try to keep abreast of arguments on both sides of this issue. One of my mentors (by distance, and now only through his writings as he has passed away) was an avowed anti-death penalty advocate. I read his arguments closely, and while I agree with some of his logic, there are some other aspects of his (and the entire anti-death penalty movement) that I have great difficulty in accepting. So, I write this post as both a statement of my current position, and as a refutation, or a challenge if you will, of some aspects of the anti-death penalty moment that I would like to see clarified or explained.
As I understand the main theological objection to the death penalty, Jesus established in the Sermon on the Mount, and through later teachings as well, that his disciples are to forgive, are not to employ any means of violence, are not to retaliate in any way, and are to bear with any injustice, all for the sake of the Kingdom of God. This is a strong argument, and cannot be dismissed with the flippant attitude that many pro-death penalty advocates demonstrate. In this line of thinking Jesus has abrogated the Old Testament permission to take “life for life, eye for eye, tooth for tooth.” While this is a strong argument, I believe there is an inherent flaw – a contradiction that weakens the argument significantly, if not totally.
The primary Old Testament passages relating to capital punishment (especially in relation to murder) are Genesis 9:6, Exodus 21:12-17, and Numbers 35:9-34. There is another key passage that must be included in the discussion, and that is the law relating to false witnesses, Deuteronomy 19:15-21. These passages reveal several critical components of capital punishment that I believe are NOT addressed by many anti-capital punishment advocates.
First, the basis of capital punishment is not revenge, retaliation, or retribution. The basis – the foundation – for the use of the death penalty in the case of murder is that murder violates the nature of God himself. Murder certainly is a violent crime – as is rape and kidnapping, other crimes for which the death penalty could be used. Murder violates the bond of humans in community, as does rape, kidnapping, and the sexual sins for which a person could be executed – adultery, bestiality, even homosexuality. But, while all of these crimes and violations of the Law violated God’s holiness, only the crime of murder violated his nature. Thus, the only crime for which there was no chance for a substitution was the crime of murder (Num. 35:31).
Second, to reverse the rationale or the exercise of capital punishment is to tacitly admit that the God of the Old Testament was a vengeful, angry, violent God, but the God of the New Testament is a kind, loving, forgiving God. It is to tear apart the Trinity – Jehovah is the God of the Old Testament, a warring, violent God; but Jesus is the God of the New Testament, a kind, gentle, forgiving God. This is a separation of the nature of God that I simply cannot accept. God is clearly described in the Old Testament as a forgiving God who seeks the restoration of a broken relationship with man. God is just as clearly described in the New Testament as a God who will ultimately judge the disobedient and unrepentant sinner.
Third, and directly related to the last point, when we turn the God of the New Testament into an exclusively kind, gentle, loving, forgiving God we create a god in our own image. We are just so kind, so loving, so forgiving, so much more mature than those bloodthirsty Israelites that we need a god who looks and acts like us. We need a compassionate god – and a god that condones capital punishment simply will not do. So, we create a new god – an anti-capital punishment god, and we do everything that we can to separate him from the God of the Old Testament. But this is pure idolatry. When we say we worship the God of the Bible, we must let the Bible describe who God is, and then we either accept that God or we reject that God. We cannot create him in our own image.
That leads me to my last point. I have a suspicion that one reason so many are so afraid of allowing that God can still condone the use of capital punishment is that we fear our own punishment. If murder (and other sins, to be perfectly honest) demand the death penalty, then hell is a very real possibility. But, if God utterly and totally reversed himself on that blessed night in Bethlehem when a little baby was born to the virgin Mary, then maybe there really is not a hell after all – how can a God who has abolished the death penalty actually use the ultimate death penalty?
As I said above – I continue to consider this question deeply. I know that in the United States we have employed the death penalty very unevenly and very unjustly. We certainly do not apply the penalty as it is described in the Bible. To pause for a season to make sure our system does not perpetrate the sins of our past is a wise move. However, our very human and very broken use of the penalty does not in and of itself eliminate the just and proper use of the penalty.
I am certainly open to the possibility that Jesus did, in fact, abolish the use of capital punishment. However, in order for me to be fully convinced, the objections that I have raised above must be answered. If murder in particular so violated the nature of a life creating and sustaining God, and if God in his divine justice system created such an explicit and carefully nuanced method of determining guilt and the protection of the innocent, how can we, as mere mortals, claim that justice system is unfair? Is it not OUR system that is unfair?
Just another flight through the thick fog of our broken humanity, and trying to see the light of God’s word clearly and faithfully.
Mystics are not popular people. Mystics get arrested, shot, hanged, burned at the stake, crucified. Oh, there are mystics who say popular things from time to time, and occasionally you will find a group of people who popularize the teachings of a mystic, but with very few exceptions mystics are just not very popular. Mystics see things that the overwhelming majority of people cannot see, and for that reason they are considered dangerous. Dangerous people must be removed, so that the rest of us can be comfortable.
Jesus was a mystic. The apostles Paul and John were mystics. Peter was a clumsy mystic, but he was a mystic. Isaiah and Jeremiah and Daniel and Ezekiel preceded them in a long line of Divinely appointed mysticism. These were not mystics because they retreated to the desert and slept in caves and ate exotic bugs. No, Jesus and Paul and Isaiah were mystics because they were able to see with the eyes of God.
Mystics do not see what is not there. Mystics do not call people to a life that cannot be lived. Jesus was a mystic not because he was obscure and bizarre and said incomprehensible things. Paul was not a mystic because he was blind for three days and then went into the Arabian desert. Isaiah and Jesus and Peter and Paul all saw the kingdom of God with a clarity that eludes those who think that mystics are weird people that sane people should stay away from.
Jesus said, “Blessed are you when you are persecuted” and “The last shall be first” and “The kingdom of God is among you.” Paul said, “I am crucified with Christ, nevertheless I live” and “When I am weak, then I am strong.” John saw the heavens open and the new city of God descend upon the new earth. These are mystical sayings and events, but they are not delusional. Mystics say that the lion shall lie down with the lamb and the child shall play over the den of the viper not because these things are false, but because they are of a truth that only mystics can see. True reality is much more real that what most humans accept for reality. That which confronts us daily is not reality, it is a mirage of the devil’s making. We surrendered reality in the garden. The mystics see reality. Realists see only a distant shadow of that reality.
Mystics call for mankind to lay down the weapons of war. Realists say that is impossible, because realists cannot see peace, nor do they really want to see peace. They want to see war, because war is raw and passionate and “real.” Mystics do not see any division between races and nations. Realists want to keep nations and the human races separate, because separating the races creates animosity, and animosity will ultimately create war. Mystics call for equality, and that is something that realists simply cannot accept. Equality would lead to peace, and that is simply too high a price for realists to pay.
Mystics are some of my favorite people. Even when people cannot be fully described as mystic, there are times when the heavens open for them and they catch a glimpse of the real, and for that crystalline moment they are transformed into mystics. I think Dietrich Bonhoeffer was a mystic, although as with most mystics, I think he has been greatly misunderstood. I think Barton W. Stone had moments that bordered on mystical. I think David Lipscomb was the same way. They looked beyond the concrete and they saw the real – the kingdom as it will be, not what mankind has turned it into.
Fact is, I would rather be called a mystic than a realist. I don’t want to see the world the way it is. I want to see the world become what it should be. I want the Kingdom be among us. I want to see the lion and lamb gambol together. I want to swim with Great White sharks and not fear the teeth.
“The greatest insanity of all is to see the world as it is, and not as it should be.” – from Man of La Mancha, based on the book Don Quixote by Miguel de Cervantes
I’ll give you two quotes, you decide which one is acceptable and which one is unacceptable.
“Infidels in the region have three choices: convert to Muhammed, pay a tax, or die.” – The Islamic State to non-Muslims in their territory.
“The time has come that we need to either convert them, which I think is next to impossible, or kill them.” Phil Robertson, patriarch of the “Duck Dynasty” family and elder in the Church of Christ, speaking about the Muslim extremists on the Sean Hannity radio show.
Okay, have you figured out which one is wrong? I’ll give you all the time you need……
Here is a hint. Both statements are reprehensible, and for the same reason. Both are born of a far right-wing ideology that replaces faith with fanaticism. “If you do not agree with me, you deserve to die, no questions asked, no quarter given.”
The first statement is reprehensible enough coming from practitioners of the “Religion of Peace.” The second is even far more reprehensible, coming from a follower of the Prince of Peace, who sacrificed his own life so that all men could have the hope of a reconciliation with a Holy God.
How is it that men can replace religion with such hatred? Especially coming from one who claims to follow the Christ who said, “Love your enemies, and pray for those who persecute you.” Somehow I do not see how, “Convert or we will bomb you into eternity” is much of a loving or prayerful statement.
Tonight in our college Bible study we read and discussed the book of Jonah. The college kids got it. God loves all people. Even the people of Nineveh, the capital of the nation of Assyria.
As in, the capital of the proto-nation of Iraq, the modern day nation of all the Muslims Phil Robertson wants to convert or kill.
God actually loved the Assyrians enough to send a prophet to them to warn them of their sinful ways. Yes, the message was, “repent or perish,” but that message came from a God that is “gracious and compassionate, slow to anger and abounding in love, a God who relents from sending calamity.”
I think Phil Robertson needs to read his Bible a little more carefully. I think he needs to read the Sermon on the Mount, and I think he needs to read the book of Jonah.
And I think that anyone who agrees with the kind of faith that would rather bomb someone into damnation rather than pray for them a path into glory should really, really re-examine whether they are following the Prince of Peace or a hate-filled creed that is as damnable as the ideology they seek to destroy.
Taking a break from writing to do a little writing...and it's been a long summer of writing!
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Another example of the inability of America to move beyond its racist past has embroiled the country in a racial stare down. The major media outlets are full of articles and stories and editorials about how we can fix this problem or that problem. The biggest problem is, the solutions offered will only serve to make the problem (racism) worse. Every solution involves the distinction of races, making racism the measuring tool for the elimination of racism. It just won’t work.
For example, the overwhelming majority of articles, and editorials I have read over the past several weeks pontificate that “white people are going to have to…” or “white Christians are going to have to…” or more generically, “the white Church is going to have to…” When you identify a group of people by their skin color or some other ethnic identification you have become part of the problem. You are a racist.
I have noticed a glaring absence in all of these articles and editorials and blogs. Nowhere have I read, “the problem with black America is…” or “black Christians must…” or “the black Church must…” According to the overwhelming majority of mainstream media, “Christian” bloggers and preachers, the only people who have a race problem are white people.
That is simply racist, and you probably think I am racist for thinking so.
In this latest example of racial unrest, a young man was killed by a police officer. Oops, I forgot to mention those two adjectives: a young black man was killed by a white police officer. What would have happened if the officer was. . .black, or Latino? What if the officer was female instead of male? Would there have been riots? Where would Al Sharpton be?
You see, there is a huge racial problem in America. There can be no denying that fact. Deniers in this case are not only ignorant, they are stupid.
There may have been a racial component in the shooting of the young man in Missouri. Only an unbiased search for truth will bring that out. If the officer is guilty of a racial bias he needs to be punished appropriately. If there was no racial bias, and if, as has been suggested, the officer was fighting to save his life, then he needs to be exonerated.
But, this also needs to be said… Every day dozens of young black men are killed as the result of gangs, drugs, and other criminal acts. There are no riots, there are no marches, no caravan of satellite TV trucks show up, there is a glaring absence of the politicians crying out for justice and equality. The difference is that in Missouri the black man was killed by a white police officer, and in Chicago and New York and Los Angeles and Atlanta and in virtually every other major metropolitan city, when a black man dies at the hands of another black man no one seems to notice or care.
In God’s kingdom there is no such thing as race. Every human is equal. Every death matters – God does not wish that any should die (Ezekiel 33:11; 2 Peter 3:9). God certainly did not desire the death of the young man in Missouri. And God does not wish the death of any police officer who is killed in the line of his or her duty to protect the lives and property of the citizens he or she is sworn to protect.
The reality is, until we can learn to see past race and view each death as the death of a human being, without any attachments, we will never move beyond the issue of racism. As long as we use race as the measuring stick, we are doomed to be a nation of racists.
As Martin Luther King Jr. once so famously and correctly said, let us move toward the day when all young men and young women will be judged, not by the color of their skin, but by the content of their character.