(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.
One of the greatest blessings given to me through my studies for my DMin. coursework was the realization of how secular philosophies affect our theology. Second to this observation is the further truth that these philosophies are virtually hidden to our conscious thought. These philosophies are just like the air we breath – we are controlled by them yet we are hardly aware of them, if at all.
In my last post I discussed the reality that for many members of the Churches of Christ, our physical history is something of an enigma. We clearly have one (kind of like a belly button) but for many of us we do not want it to be seen or discussed (again, much like a belly button). We can cover it up, and refuse to admit we have one, but sooner or later the truth comes out and our history rises up to bite us when and where we least expect it.
If acknowledging our history is difficult for the majority of the members of the Churches of Christ, the admission that we are affected by secular philosophy (or philosophies) is tantamount to heresy. Even those who accept that the Restoration Movement is rooted in history will more often than not claim that this history is divine history, and therefore unstained by any human embellishment. In that limited world-view, God simply swooped down and deposited the Restoration Movement onto the pages of history much like he swooped down to snatch Elijah from the earth. Don’t laugh. For many years this was my concept of Restoration History. Sort of like the “big bang,” first there was no Restoration, and then “POOF” there was a Restoration. Call it Restoration ex nihilo.
This, much to my initial chagrin and later relief, cannot be any further from the truth. The fact is that Alexander Campbell, Barton W. Stone, Tolbert Fanning, David Lipscomb, and every leader down to the latest graduate from our universities or schools of preaching were and are profoundly affected by the prevailing philosophies of their day. For Campbell and Stone that meant the philosophy of John Locke, Francis Bacon, and the political philosophy that drove the “Founding Fathers” of our nation to create the Constitution. Evidence of this can be amply produced through the language used in the early documents of the Restoration Movement. This is why so much of our contemporary language focuses on “pattern” and “constitution” and “blueprint.” We are simply following in the footsteps of those who were following in the footsteps of those who formed the new Republic.
For us today the situation is the same, although the prevailing philosophies have changed. We are no longer marching in lock-step with those who believe in the ultimate goodness of technology or the limitless capacity of the human mind. We have seen both the incomparable good of splitting the atom, and also the horrific evil of the same. Yet, having split the atom, we cannot seem to figure out a way to put the thing back together. We realize now that man is more likely to be the cause of his own demise, rather than the source of his own salvation. There is no “ultimate good” for which man is destined. The “modern mind” which so fully captivated Campbell has been replaced with the “postmodern mind;” therefore, much of what Campbell believed to be incontrovertible truth now just seems like a quaint little fairy tale. Such is the air that we breathe, the truth that we hold to be “self-evident.”
What does all of this “philosophizing” have to do with theology? Simply this – if we do not at least attempt to recognize our own temporal worldview, we will end up making the same mistakes of our spiritual forebears. I for one am an avowed restorationist. I am constantly awed and humbled by the profundity of Campbell, Stone, Walter Scott, “Raccoon” John Smith and a host of others. They were centuries ahead of their contemporaries, as modern theological thought has proven. But, that having been said, they were woefully unaware that the basic philosophy of their day was coloring the theology that they were producing. Therefore, they read early 19th century America back into the Bible, especially the New Testament, and the result of their research was that Jesus was the quintessential American Patriot. That philosophical blindness has been passed down for numerous generations, and it has affected our spiritual vision at every step along the way.
The solution to this vision problem is not to discard our history! (As so many are wont to do). Neither is it to idolize our history and simply ignore the reality of temporal nearsightedness. The solution is to acknowledge the reality of our own human frailty, to acknowledge the affect of secular philosophy upon our most deeply held convictions, and then to challenge those convictions with the penetrating truth of God’s word.
In my own, very narrow study of confession, what I discovered was that the Lockean/Baconian empiricism of Campbell and his early disciples made it virtually impossible for them and their heirs to develop and bequeath a healthy practice of confession. Stated in its most raw expression, if you have everything all figured out, if you have perfectly restored that which was defective, there is no need for confession. That, of course, is an over-simplification, but it works for a “nuts-and-bolts” summary of the early chapters of my dissertation.
Lest I be counted as an ancestor-bashing, history-hating, long-haired, dope-smoking hippy, let me repeat – I am an avowed restorationist. I am far more Stonian/Lipscombian than I am Campbellian, but if I am cut I bleed Restorationist blood. I wrote my dissertation to honor my heritage, not to trash it. So, in the greatest heritage of seeking to improve upon that which has been given to me, I recognize some areas where my spiritual heritage can be strengthened. One of those areas is confession, and that is what led me to my final research.
As I mentioned in my last blog, I will create a seminar dedicated to sharing this information with any who are interested. Please contact me at abqfr8dawg (at) msn (dot) com and I will gladly get back with you.
Election day 2014 is a week away, so this coming Sunday in pulpits all across the country there will be impassioned pleas for civic obedience known as voting. Some statements will be simple announcements of locations where a person may cast a ballot. In others there will be impassioned pleas for a specific cause or political party. Some preachers will no doubt name names. All of this will be done under the guise of obeying a biblical mandate to vote.
Except, there is no biblical mandate, command, example or necessary inference to vote. None. Nada. Zip.
The closest thing the New Testament authors get to endorsing Christian activity in the affairs of the state are encouragements for Christians to pray for all leaders. The end is not so that “our side” can win an election, the goal is that there be a peaceable existence for all so that the gospel can be preached without hindrance. That’s it.
But you will not hear that from the pulpits of most Christian churches this Sunday.
As a preacher I can think of at least three reasons why Christians should be leery of voting. But, just for good measure I will throw in a fourth for free:
1. There is not a single book, a single chapter of a book, or a single verse of a chapter that dictates a Christian must cast a ballot in an election. You simply cannot find one. The only way you can build a case for voting is to take the passages to pray for secular rulers and twist them out of context to include the concept of voting (a concept that was completely foreign to the New Testament authors).
2. Elections specifically and politics in general are all about power and coercion. The way of Jesus is about humility and service. Elections are about getting my guy (or gal) elected so that they (we) can beat up the other guys and make them toe our line. When was the last time you saw a publicly elected official willingly submit to the views of the opposing party? Jesus and the apostles willingly submitted to their accusers and antagonists, with nothing but the power of the God’s grace and gospel to protect them.
3. If you buy the cow, you get all four hooves and the tail. You cannot say that you voted for the good things your guy or gal proposed, but you disagree with the bad things. Nope – you vote for the whole package. I learned this the hard way after voting for George W. Bush. For all the good he may have accomplished, he is still the president that ordered our troops to attack Iraq with absolutely no provocation by Iraq – only some vague “potential” to attack the US. The results in the mid-east and to thousands of families of killed American troops has been devastating. If you vote for a war-monger, you have blood on your hands. Good intentions are a lousy excuse.
4. The art of politics is compromise. Compromise is, however, the death of Christian influence. Compromise meant the destruction of the nations of Israel and Judah. God never said, “Do the best you can and settle for what you can get.” Jesus did not say, “Anyone who wants to follow me can do so as long as you don’t follow other gods too much.” I’ve never understood how a Christian can support the passage of certain laws because “we get more than we give up.”
I cannot say with absolute biblical certainty that casting a ballot is a sin. However, for these and other reasons I know that I cannot cast a vote in good conscience. David Lipscomb was right about one thing – if you participate in the kingdom of the world you share in the guilt of that kingdom. You cannot use the tools and methods of Satan to defeat Satan. I was thrilled beyond description when Ronald Reagan won the presidency. But Ronald Reagan gave us Bill Clinton, and Bill Clinton gave us George Bush and George Bush gave us Barack Obama. You see the progression here? Who is next? I see no individual who will lead this country in Christian principles.
So, dear Christian, if you vote, vote with the clear understanding that you are participating in a system that is driven by every malevolent intention and power of Satan. Cast your vote with the clear understanding that if your candidate wins, you share in every outcome of his or her decisions. Cast your vote with the clear understanding that you cannot wrestle in a pig sty and come out smelling like a rose. Cast your vote knowing that it is your privilege in America to do so, but also understand that there is no mandate in Scripture for you do do so.
This is the second in my series examining the current situation of the Churches of Christ from my own unique perspective. As the old commercial repeated endlessly – your mileage may vary. These thoughts are submitted to promote conversation, not to dictate policy.
The connection between this post and my last post is undeniable and in many ways immeasurable. The working of economics is intimately connected to politics. Where there is a significant change in one you will always find a change in the other. Sometimes that change is for the better, often it is a very negative change. In my last post I suggested that the United States has seen its last conservative (even remotely conservative) president for the next generation, maybe for the next century. There are huge economic implications for this shift, and the Churches of Christ had better be thinking in terms of the following major ramifications in our economy:
- Changes in our political system will result in unprecedented changes in immigration. These changes may be positive, some may not be so positive. However, the church needs to be prepared to reach out to and to assist a significant number of new immigrants, many of whom will not be prepared to participate in this new society.
- Our aging population, combined with the new “Affordable Health Care Act” will significantly change the economic landscape for our senior citizens. When health care becomes a rationed commodity the aged and the sick will be the most affected. How will the church respond?
- The ACA itself will have huge repercussions on our economy. The law has not even been in effect long enough to be enforced and yet the ripples from its more draconian aspects are beginning to hit average citizens. Millions are losing their health care packages even as I am typing this blog. Millions of others will have to pay significantly higher premiums to maintain what they have. How will the church respond when these individuals have no ability to pay for what is legally mandated that they purchase? HInt: don’t look to the government – they are the ones who created this boondoggle.
- The United States is witnessing the creation of a permanent unemployed/underemployed class of people. How will the church respond when millions of young people cannot attend college and/or cannot find jobs after college because the economy simply does not have enough work for them to do?
These are serious, generation shaping questions that must be addressed if the church will have any kind of message to reach the young people now coming of age and the most vulnerable generation – our aging seniors. Someone who disagrees with my earlier post might argue that the way to solve these problems is to elect a fiscally and morally conservative president. As I pointed out in my last post – that simply is not going to happen (at least unless there is a MASSIVE shift in public opinion in the next 12-18 months. America has become a dependent society – absolutely dependent upon the government, and it is the Democrats (and I might add, Liberal Democrats) who are viewed by the majority of Americans as being the best protectors of that benevolent government. President Obama’s reelection over Mitt Romney was beyond comfortable. And that margin of victory illustrates the seismic shift in the outlook of the American voting public. Speaking generically, we do not want to take care of ourselves anymore, we want the government to take care of us.
The lie that will be revealed, of course, is that the government is not capable of taking care of all of us – at least not to the degree that everyone expects it to – so at some point this fragile house of cards is going to come crashing down.
Once again, I return to the theology of men such as Barton Stone, Tolbert Fanning, and David Libscomb. Lipscomb’s aversion to the Christian’s participation in politics is well documented. What may not be as well know, however, is his very “this worldly” outlook when it came to taking care of those most devastated by the powers of oppression. The most well known of his benevolence works involves his ministry to the sick and his assistance of medical personnel during an outbreak of cholera in the city of Nashville in 1873. Lipscomb stayed in the city, ministering to the predominantly black community who were unable to flee the epidemic. Lipscomb, ever the theological conservative, gave buggy rides to the Roman Catholic sisters who also stayed behind to help the poor.
In other words, the members of the Churches of Christ are going to have to relearn that theological and biblical conservatism do not a priori eliminate social activism. In a perverse sort of way, many ultra-conservative members of the Churches of Christ are the most theologically liberal when it comes to “loving your neighbor as yourself.” These Christians scream loud and long when the issue of assisting the oppressed is raised, and to what do they point as the savior of these economically oppressed? The liberal government of the United States that they love to hate!!
Lipscomb’s apocalyptic worldview allowed him to realize that human governments were not the solution to mankind’s problems. He fiercely resisted the siren call of politics to “make this world a better place.” He firmly believed only the gospel of Christ could do that. Yet, he was theologically sound enough to know that if the gospel of Christ called for him to make the world a better place, it was the church that was to be the community from whence that change would occur. And, to Lipscomb, this was not simply an idea to discuss in a journal – he put his life at risk to make it happen.
The United States is becoming more socially liberal by the election. This includes morals as well as economics. As stated earlier, each layer of governmental assistance that is accepted by and therefore eventually required by, the citizens of the country makes it that much more unlikely for a fiscally or morally conservative leader to be elected much beyond the local level. That is, or will soon be, the new normal.
And nothing could possibly be further away from the Kingdom of God as is described in the New Testament.
So, members of the Churches of Christ have a decision coming – will we continue to buy into the false, and falsely comforting, message that all we need to do is elect one of “our” people in the next election?
Or will we return to the faith of at least some of “our” founding fathers and hitch up the old buggy and start taking care of our economically oppressed neighbors the way God intended us to – by the means of local congregations of the Church of his Son?
Next up – the Church and the Religious World
Dum de dum dee dumm…..we finally arrive at # 15 in my trek through ruminations and explanations of the 15 Undeniable Truths For Theological Reflection. This has been an entertaining little jaunt down memory lane for me (some of these truths date back many years) and I hope these posts have at the least stimulated some thoughts for you.
Here is #15 and its corollary:
15. The practice of doing theology requires the honest appropriation of lessons learned from history. We cannot handle the text of Scripture honestly today if we ignore, or even worse, disparage the work of theologians in our near or ancient past. This is true both of those theologians with whom we agree, and with whom we disagree. To borrow a phrase, “Those who do not learn from history (or past theology) are doomed to repeat it.” History is a beautiful thing.
15a. However, the above truth does not mean that we slavishly follow every conclusion reached by earlier theologians. We must read theology with a discerning eye, knowing that all humans are capable of great spiritual insight, and all humans are capable of great sin. We are to respect our forefathers and foremothers, not worship them.
Those who read this blog regularly know that I am a member of, and minister to, congregations of individuals associated with the churches of Christ. At our best moments we live out the ideal of non-denominational Christianity, simply taking the Bible as the Word of God and, without adding to it or taking from it, we seek to follow all that God has revealed in the Bible. However, when we fail to live up to that ideal our failure is, well, spectacular. In many respects we have turned a movement of non-denominationalism into one of the most hardened denominations you can possibly imagine. Some of our more vociferous leaders have mouthed the words, “we speak where the Bible speaks and we are silent where the Bible is silent” only to speak volumes where the Bible is silent and to remain utterly silent where the Bible shouts. But, I dare you to find ANY religious body ANYWHERE that lives up to its stated goals and aspirations. I would far rather associate with a group that fails to meet heavenly goals than one that meets every earthly goal with absolute perfection. It does not take any courage to curse the darkness. It takes some real vision to light a lamp. I want to be one that lights a lamp.
Oops, kind of got off on a tangent there…
What I wanted to point out was that like many different groups, the Churches of Christ in America have all too often been guilty of a sense of “historylessness” that has crippled it as a movement. If you have a bent sense of humor such as mine this can and does make itself manifest in the strangest of ways. For example, a generation or two ago one of the most prickly invectives you could use against a member of the Church of Christ was to call him or her a “Campbellite.” This is because of the powerful influence Alexander Campbell had in the creation of what has been labeled the “American Restoration Movement.” This movement spawned three related religious groups – the Disciples of Christ, the Conservative Christian Church and the Church of Christ. So, to label a member of the Church of Christ as a “Campbellite” was a real slur, seeing as how Campbell never wanted his name to be associated with his efforts to restore New Testament Christianity, and indeed his goal was to go back to the New Testament and simply live those teachings. Now, what is funny today is that if you called a member of the Church of Christ (especially someone under the age of 40 or so) a “Campbellite” they would stare at you like you had a third eyeball right in the middle of your forehead. The irony is palpable. Older members do not want to be called “Campbellites” because they do not want to be tied to an early 18th century historical figure, younger members are absolutely clueless as to the existence of this early 18th century figure. And so many members of a group with one of the most richest, interesting, and provocative stories in the history of religion in the United States simply do not know of or they refuse to acknowledge their diverse and compelling history.
Hence my 15th Undeniable Truth For Theological Reflection. This one is for me – a reminder of who I am and what my brightest stars call me to be. I need to acknowledge the fact that I could not see as far as I can see if I were not standing on the shoulders of giants. I cannot read my Bible today without hearing the voice of my mentors – some of whom have joined that “cloud of witnesses” that awaits their final reward. But those men (and women!) all heard the voice of their mentors when they read Scripture, and on and on it goes back throughout all of history. You can only read the Bible once as if you had never read it before. Every other time your reading is influenced by your first reading, other teachers, other books, other influences. If we attempt to excise those influences we rip the fabric of our story – our history – and we lose far more than we gain in the process.
The more that I read of Alexander Campbell and Barton W. Stone and Moses Lard and “Racoon” John Smith and David Lipscomb and many others the more I am enthralled by their courage and their spiritual insights. These men were truly prophets crying in the wilderness. They saw something that was truly unique, and they attempted to get others to see, to understand, and to accept their vision. Their goal was a united church, one that could stand only on the pages of the New Testament, without all of the competing creeds and confessions of faith and human structures. They differed on a great many issues, some of which were substantial. For example, Barton W. Stone never felt comfortable with the concept of the Trinity, because he felt like that was a human word and not a divine word. They differed on the exact meaning of baptism (Campbell was more precise than Stone) and on the invitation to the Lord’s supper (Stone was a little more generous) but they all agreed that if we could return to the New Testament teachings then we could return to a pure church.
In addition to my closest spiritual relatives, however, I am also captivated by the insights of some more distant cousins. I love reading the Roman Catholic Henry Nouwen, and the Anglican C.S. Lewis wrote the second largest section of books in my library. The largest section in my library was written by the Lutheran Dietrich Bonhoeffer. I also have selections from Ignatius of Loyola, St. John of the Cross, Thomas a Kempis, Julian of Norwich, Thomas Merton, Eugene Peterson, Richard Foster, and Richard Peace. In other words, I try to read as broadly and as deeply as I can, realizing that no one single group has a corner on truth, and that for all of their mistakes and misunderstandings, these men and women all communicated some profound spiritual truths. If the teaching initially comes from Scripture, I am not particularly concerned about who God uses to put it in words I can understand.
But now for the corollary – I must and do recognize that all of these men and women, Campbell and Stone included, are all merely mortal human beings. Yes, they all communicated some great spiritual truths. But they all had failings as well. Campbell and Stone were both blind to the fact that they were creatures of history, and that it was impossible to erase 17 hundred years of history to “restore” a culture that was long dead and buried. As much as I am transfixed by the spiritual insights of Dietrich Bonhoeffer, I recognize that he had his blind spots as well. The moment we place anyone, in any time period, as THE model for our teachings or behavior we have created an idol, and God will have nothing of our idolatrous worship.
AND THAT INCLUDES MY INTERPRETATIONS AS WELL!
When everything is said and done I have one redeemer, one savior, one messiah – Jesus. I have one God, the Father and creator of all. The Bible is not to be an idol I worship, but a sign and a pointer to Jesus and His Father. It is they whom I am to worship, not my leather-bound Bible, nor my immediate mentors, nor my long distant and dead mentors. I can learn from all men – some more than others but none exclusively. I can give thanks to God for their insights, but I can never put any of them on a pedestal.
I have a rich history, and you can take it from me when you pry it from my cold, dead fingers. I will not surrender an inch, nor a decade, of what has been given to me. My parents gave me something that cannot be bought, measured or sold. They gave me a faith that is over 20 centuries old and is as new as the dew on the grass this morning. It is as real as my daughter’s gentle kiss and as profound as the love of my wife. I will never understand it, but I will always live in its shadow. And that might be my greatest undeniable truth of all.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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) –
- Definitions and positions
- Old Testament foundations
- New Testament clarifications
- 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.
I apologize if this post seems a little stormy. Right now I feel my life is coming apart at the seams and very often this place allows me to sort some thoughts out. I hope that this exercise will be valuable to you as much as it is cathartic to me.
As I have mentioned several times earlier, I am working on a Doctor of Ministry degree, and my last seminar will be focused on Dietrich Bonhoeffer. I know there is a great temptation for any scholar to view his work as being the most critical and profound for his day, and at the risk of being overly dramatic, I am seeing more and more parallels between Bonhoeffer’s culture in the 1930’s and 1940’s with our culture today. Not in terms of political powers (I do not want to elevate Obama to the level of Hitler; Obama is just a little pipsqueak) but I do see some parallels between the church Bonhoeffer was trying to save and the church in America. Let me illustrate:
- The Lutheran church in Germany was being pressured profoundly by the National Socialists (Nazis), overtly in some cases and covertly in others. The most overt pressure was in terms of anti-Semitism. This hatred of the Jews was tied to the later writings of Luther, who wrote some viciously anti-Semitic rants toward the end of his life. Once the Nazis had their toe-hold through a mutual hatred of the Jews, they could make sure other, more objectionable, laws were passed without raising too much opposition. Our increasingly secular government is pressuring the church in the same way. First the government attacks those godless terrorists (read “Muslims”) and before long we lose our freedom to speak in dissention to the government or to challenge its authority. First government guarantees the “freedom” for a woman to control her own body, and then the government is forcing religious institutions to pay for elective abortions and abortive drugs. Give a godless government an inch and before you can say “separation of church and state” the state has made every effort to eliminate the church from the people. In this regard I do hold President Obama personally responsible. I believe he is intentionally attempting to tear down the bulwark of religion in America for the purpose of advancing his Marxist/Socialist agenda. If the church remains silent we only have ourselves to blame when we have lost the legal right to speak out.
- The Lutheran church in Germany had long been conditioned through the teachings of Martin Luther to view the world in terms of “two kingdoms.” Therefore, many in the Lutheran church, and especially among the leadership, did not want to challenge Hitler when he first came to power because they felt it was not biblically appropriate to do so. They wanted to take care of the church, and allow Hitler to take care of the government. Bonhoeffer saw the tremendous weakness of this viewpoint. While he never would have proposed a theocracy, he did very much want his church to speak out against the abuses of the government. In America today the situation is almost completely reversed, but the end result is virtually identical. What one group (loosely organized) provides the loudest voice for American nationalism? If you said, “Conservative Evangelicals” you get the prize. We have “national prayer days” in which we pray for God to “bless America” as if America was the only place on earth for God to bless. We pray before our meals and recite the Pledge of Allegiance to the Flag before we start school. The party for whom one votes becomes a litmus test as to the orthodoxy of one’s religious beliefs. Lest you think I am making all of this up, I was once asked in the middle of an interview for a preaching position whether I was a registered Republican or a Democrat. For the record, I am neither. I am a Christian. My citizenship is in heaven. Instead of surrendering the reign of Christ to the government, in many ways we have attempted to make the reign of Christ coterminous with the American government. We have fallen off of the other side of the cliff that Bonhoeffer saw his church fall off. The Lutherans would not speak out against the Nazis because of the separation of the two kingdoms. We won’t speak out against the abuses of the American government because we want the church=America=the church. What we must recover is the freedom of the church to speak critically of the government and to stand in opposition to the godless direction it is leading our nation. In this regard I see a very strong connection between Bonhoeffer and David Lipscomb. I would heartily recommend you to read Lipscomb’s “Civil Government” if you have not already done so. Lipscomb and Bonhoeffer approached the relationship of the sacred and the secular government from different perspectives, but their destination is remarkably similar: if the church is to be the church we must maintain our separation from the government, and at the same time exercise our responsibility to critique and challenge that government.
So there you have a brief part of my tortured thoughts for today. Dietrich Bonhoeffer saw his church slipping off into the abyss and despite his best efforts (and the efforts of a many others, I might add) his church did not wake up until they had the deaths of 6 million human beings on their hands. Today the comfortable church in America is in real danger of slipping off into the same abyss, and what are we concerned about? Forming praise teams to keep us entertained during our insipid worship services? Failing that, forming a praise band to wake us up from our consumerist induced stupor? Turning the lights out and lighting a few candles and some incense to make our prayers a little more “spiritual”?
Are you kidding me?
One passage of Scripture that was very meaningful to Dietrich Bonhoeffer was 2 Chronicles 20:12, which says in the second phrase, “For we have no power to face this vast army that is attacking us. We do not know what to do, but our eyes are upon you.” (NIV, emphasis mine).
I personally do not think we are smart enough to think or act our way out of this current spiritual catastrophe. I pray we lift our eyes upon God, and pray for his grace to move us back to him. It is the church’s only hope.
Have you ever stopped to consider why airplanes have no rearview mirrors? Actually, I believe there was a model that was produced with a rearview mirror, but it was kind of a novelty. Give up? Airplanes are designed to go in only one direction – forward. If you are worried about what is behind you, just kick the rudder a little and turn your head. Airplanes are designed strictly for optimists and visionaries. Historians need not apply.
I believe therein lies a great message for the church of Christ. As heirs of the American Restoration Movement we look back on our history (at least since the days of B.W. Stone and the Campbells) with pride. Before that, not so much, until we get back to the days of the first century church. So, you might say we have a pair of binoculars attached to our rearview mirror. We are not so much focused on the road behind us, but the distant horizon is a definite attraction.
In one way this is a good thing. “Those who do not learn from history are doomed to repeat it.” We must be constantly reminded of our history, even more so than we claim to pay attention to it today. (As an aside, I would also argue that we need to add the time from from 100 AD to 1800 AD as well.) Just think of how the Israelites were not just encouraged, but COMMANDED to review and even to relive their past. The feasts of Passover and Booths were not just fun holidays – they were actual re-creations of a rich, powerful, and theologically centered past. So, let us be unequivocal here – knowing and valuing ones history is critical for a healthy and sane future.
But I return to my analogy above. You cannot drive a car, much less fly an airplane, by staring in the rearview mirror. Especially difficult would be to do so with a pair of binoculars attached to the mirror. While a healthy knowledge of, and participation in, ones past is critical for the development of one’s future; the goal, the vision, has to be forward. Just stop and consider how the New Testament writers describe the major processes of discipleship: it is a growing, a transformation, a becoming, a renewal. These are all forward looking verbs. It is no mystery to me that the final book of the Bible is an apocalypse – a deeply metaphorical look into the future. But don’t just focus on Revelation. The author of the book of Hebrews says it all in one terse little sentence, “Here we have no lasting city, but we seek the city that is to come.” Look forward, not back. Our rearview mirror is important, but it is to be small and narrowly focused. It is an appendage to the church, not the primary means of navigation. We live our life in the eager expectation of Christ’s return, not in woeful recollection of his temporary death.
Dietrich Bonhoeffer said it this way: here and now we live in the penultimate, but we are created by our faith in the ultimate. It is not the penultimate that gives the ultimate its meaning, it is the ultimate that gives the penultimate its meaning. I believe Barton W. Stone and David Lipscomb lived this focus on the ultimate far more passionately than did Alexander Campbell, and it is instructive that as the Churches of Christ have made their peace with this world they have moved further and further from the Stone/Lipscomb tradition and more and more into the Campbell tradition. You cannot have your eyes focused solely upon God’s kingdom and believe yourself to be anything other than a stranger and a pilgrim on this earth. Stone, and later, Lipscomb were pilgrims. Campbell came to make his peace with the powers of this world, and as he did so he took down his tent and built a house. He ultimately became a very much a citizen of this world.
I love the history of the American Restoration Movement. I also love reformation history, medieval history, and both pre-and post Nicene history. But history can only be instructive, it can never be determinative! We must learn to cast our eyes upon the ultimate, upon the “last days,” so that we can truly live as God’s people and Christ’s disciples in our own age. The ultimate gives meaning to the penultimate. Christ’s return teaches us how to live today.
I will never remove my rearview mirror. But I am never going to try to fly in the fog by watching what is behind me. I want to keep the pointy end going forward, and the shiny side up. I want to take as many people with me as I can, too.