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.
I started out my devotional time this morning with a prayer. Funny for me to admit this, but I usually do not – I usually pray to conclude my Bible reading time, but only infrequently will I pray before. That is something I need to change, but I digress.
I guess I felt a special need to pray this morning. This is not a happy time for me right now. For the second time in 12 months my wife and daughter are going through a significant period of loss. A year ago it was the death of a precious friend and mother of my daughter’s friend. This year it is a loss by relocation – but a significant and painful loss nevertheless. I’m also struggling with a number of other things – nothing major, yet nothing trivial either. Just life.
So, I prayed. I asked God for help. I asked Him to speak to me through his word. I wanted some comfort, if not some specific answers.
Then, I turned, as I always do, to my first section of reading, from the Psalms. This is what I read –
Don’t put your confidence in powerful people; there is no help for you there. When they breathe their last, they return to the earth, and all their plans die with them. But joyful are those who have the God of Israel as their helper, whose hope is in the LORD their God. (Psalm 146:3-5, NLT)
I could quote the entire Psalm, and if you are interested you can read it. It is a powerful message of faith, and quiet confidence.
I am sick to death with our “government” in the United States. The Supreme Court just ruled that individuals who pervert the most sacred gift God has given human beings now have the right to “marry” each other in all 50 states. It is sickening. But what is just as sickening is that the Chief Justice, John Roberts, flapped his jaws about how the ruling was all about imposing the will of the Supreme Court instead of upholding the Constitution, when it was HIS pathetic and inexcusable imposing of HIS will that permitted the greatest rape of the Constitution in decades with the Affordable Care Act. The man must have no conscience at all.
Yea, I know – inflammatory rhetoric and all that hogwash. Well, like I said, I am not in a happy place right now, and I tend to be a little blunt at times. But, as angry as I am with the entire miscreant government that we now have, I am only too aware that human governments are human governments, and human governments are steeped in sin and perpetuate sin. So, the ruling by the SCOTUS this morning was sickening, but fully expected. I would have been shocked had the decision gone the other way. When sinful people are given that much power, it is folly to expect a Godly outcome.
What really, really upsets me (and here I WILL bite my tongue – er, keyboard) is that the CHURCH is just as culpable. Yes, you read that – We, the people of God, share absolutely in this decision. For years, decades, and now going on centuries, we have put our faith, our trust, our hope, in the fallible minds and hands of the congress, the president, and the constitution. We have given what is holy to the dogs and we have cast our pearls before swine. We have sown the wind, and we are reaping the whirlwind (tornados, for those of you in West Texas). So, before we go marching off to some rally and demand that we elect more sinful, fallible, broken human beings to a sinful, fallible and broken system of government, maybe we should get down on our knees and profess our faith and submit our heartfelt repentance before a Holy and Transcendent God.
It sickens me to see what our country has lost. It sickens me far more to see the church, God’s people, become so compliant by trusting in the human system that created this cesspool. We can pray all we want, and say “In God We Trust” all we want, but if our initial reaction to today’s ruling is, “We have to elect more Republican (read, “God Fearing”) Senators, Representatives, and a Republican President” then we deserve every single one of the Godless rulings this SCOTUS has handed down over the past decade or more.
No, dear Christian friend. Electing sinful, broken and power-hungry Republicans will not solve any of our problems.
We need to start acting like we actually believe Philippians 3:20 and Hebrews 13:14. We need to start acting like our hope is in the LORD our God, and not some empty suit in Washington D.C.
The early Christians turned the world upside down, and basically converted most of the known world, when the ruling government actively sought to destroy them. Homosexuality and other sexual perversions were rampant. Violence was systemic, not occasional. And, yet, the Christians prevailed, because they believed their LORD was in heaven, not in Rome.
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.
This semester’s schedule calls for me to get back into Christian ethics. So, in addition to the basic text I am using, I have been reading some sources that are “new” to me, John Howard Yoder, in particular. Yoder is perhaps the most persuasive and well-known among pacifist writers. Whether you agree with Yoder, disagree with Yoder, love him or hate him, if you are going to wade very deep into Christian ethics you have to deal with Yoder and the application of his views.
This, however, is not really a post about Yoder. Perhaps I will do that at another time.
What Yoder got me thinking about was how diluted Christianity has become. With very, very, few exceptions, most congregations of virtually every stripe or color of Christians have become conformational. This fact is astounding, given the reality that Jesus called upon his disciples to be transformed, and transformational, and the apostle Paul wrote emphatically that disciples of Christ are to be transformed and transformational. (see Romans 12:1-3)
To explain my terminology here, conformational Christianity is a Christianity that has conformed itself in one or more aspects to the culture in which it resides (for us Americans, that would be a free-market, capitalistic, militaristic, representative republic). We look like good Americans, we act like good Americans, we talk and buy and sell and defend and basically exist as if America was the “promised land” of which Moses spoke to the Israelites.
Transformational Christianity, both individual and communal, would examine that culture (or cultures) and work with the remnant of ideas that might be God affirming, and would reject or transform everything else in order to live fully and whole-heartedly within the “reign of God” on earth. A transformed Christianity would look nothing like its surrounding culture, except as that culture has itself been transformed by the Christian leaven working within it. A transformed people would be known by their inexplicable love for one another. They would be known for their total devotion to the ethics of the Kingdom of God. They would not be concerned about money or power or prestige or whether or not they were being treated fairly under the Constitution. A transformed church would live as if this world was a transition to a better world, a re-created Garden of Eden in which Christians will all share in a re-established image of God.
Conformational Christianity asks, “What is culture saying that we must do in order to appeal to consumers looking for the best religious deal?” Transformational Christianity asks, “How has Christ changed my life, and how can I go out and change my world.” Conformational Christianity asks, “What can we do to keep our young people from choosing another church or to leave the church altogether?” Transformational Christianity says, “I have no idea what you are talking about, our kids are begging for opportunities to serve and lead.” Conformational Christianity worries that maintaining any tradition will hamper its effort to “be relevant.” Transformational Christianity rejoices in traditions that keep its message pure and alive, while willingly looking for new ways to express its faith – with no regard whatsoever for the issue of “relevancy.” Transformational Christianity knows intuitively that a person cannot make the church “relevant” (what ever that means), it knows that the church is relevant for the purpose of transforming people’s lives as a basic, fundamental part of its existence.
I know of too many churches that are sell-outs to cultural pressure. They define the term, “conformational Christianity.” They conform to both the style and content that the western culture demands of them. In the words of Jesus’ parable, they are worthless, their fate is to be thrown on the dung heap.
Transformational churches are salt and light in the midst of a bent and broken world. Jesus called on his disciples to be transformational people (Matthew 5-7). Paul echoed that call in Romans 12. Peter called on the churches to whom he was writing to be a Holy people, just as the God they worship was Holy (1 Peter 1:13-16).
Be Holy. Be Transformed. Be Transforming. That is the challenge given to the Church of Christ. I pray we have the courage of our convictions, and that we can accept this challenge without fear or favor to any earthly power.
I want to conclude this little mini-series on mysticism with some thoughts on how mere mortals can join the ranks of the mystics. As with virtually everything else that I write, I cannot claim any true originality here, only in the sense of putting these ideas together in the manner that I have.
To begin with, it should go without saying, but you must first of all desire to submit to the reign of God. This is so obvious, but then again, I am the master at discovering what everyone else already knows. If you do not want God to reign in your life, or in anyone else’s life, He simply will not force himself upon you. To want God to reign in your life you must be willing to surrender every other king in your life – money, prestige, power, status, country, possessions, even people. To say, “Thy kingdom come” means just that – not a democracy or a meritocracy, but a monarchy. Those who say they want God to reign in their life while continuing to submit to the principalities and powers of this world are deceiving themselves – and God cannot be deceived.
We are to seek God with all of our heart, soul, mind and strength. It is an all-or-nothing adventure. To join with Peter walking on the waves of the storm-washed sea we have to be willing to let go of the boat. This is the problem I see with most “Christianity” in America today. We are half-hearted at best. We want God plus America (or America plus God). We want God plus the Constitution. We want God plus the greatest armed forces the world has ever known. We want God plus every technological discovery that we have or ever will create. We do not want God, we want God plus something else. We want God.1. That is NOT seeking the kingdom of God. That is NOT seeking God with all our heart, soul, mind, and strength. That is not seeking God’s kingdom first, and allowing him to add “all these things.”
Next, a person seeking the reign of God in their lives will conform their life to the pattern of Jesus. They will study the life and teachings of Christ as their only sure guide to learning the will of the Father. The beatitudes become no longer a list of virtues to emulate, but the reality of everyday life. The parables no longer serve as topics for academic study, but an entrance into the kingdom. Along with the life of Jesus they will absorb as much of the rest of Scripture as they possibly can. They will learn from the great inspired mystics – from Moses and Isaiah and Jeremiah and Daniel and Paul and Peter and John. Every page of the Bible will be to them a treasure of untold value – revealing the heart and will of God in heaven, whose reign they purely and entirely seek. Jesus, however, will be the center around which every other detail of Scripture revolves. Christ is the center, the norm, of a mystic life. It was Christ who inaugurated the ultimate reign of God, and it will be Christ who returns to fully embody that reign.
Third, a person seeking the reign of God will decide, based on what the Scriptures and Jesus teach them about the reign of God, whether they want to accept that reign or refuse it. Just because the reign was fervently desired in the first place does not mean that every person will decide to accept that reign. The rich young ruler went away sorrowful, even while he was on the very threshold of accepting the kingdom of God. The apostle Paul wrote of a certain Hymenaeus and Alexander who had made a shipwreck out of their faith, and who had apparently decided to rescind their allegiance to the reign of God. Experience tells me that many fit Jesus’ parable of the seed that falls on the weedy soil – the heart accepts the message with gladness but there is just too much “stuff” that chokes out God’s kingdom. So, following desire and discovery there comes the point of decision. Is God going to reign, or not? There is no other question, there is no other answer.
Finally, the one who places God as the king in their life will actually live as if God is the king of their life. How do you think Abraham had the courage to leave his father’s faith and country? How do you think Joseph was able to risk his life to remain pure? How do you think Moses had the nerve to stand up to Pharaoh? How do you think Daniel and his three friends had the courage to defy the king? How do you think Paul could stand up to Herod? How could John write from Patmos to tell the seven churches to stand up against Caesar? The answer to each and every situation was that these faithful, these disciples, these mystics, all had the kingdom of God securely implanted in their heart. They knew who was the king, and the earthly power that threatened them was simply not worthy of their fear, and certainly not of their devotion.
We are a nation of sanctimonious cowards. We fear the government. We fear losing our Constitution. We fear what will happen to us if, by some horrible circumstance, we are caught without our fully loaded handgun on our person. We fear what will happen if we stop building multi-million dollar airplanes to drop multi-million dollar bombs. We fear losing our freedom, yet we are too ignorant to realize that is striving for every human comfort and safety we have sacrificed our greatest freedom – the freedom to live in and expand the kingdom of God. The kingdom of God knows nothing of Constitutions and guns and airplanes and bombs. The symbols of the kingdom of God are a towel and a cross. The towel is to serve this world, and the cross is to die to it and for it.
As I started this series, I said that the world does not like mystics. The world punishes, persecutes, and even kills mystics. Jesus predicted his followers would be hated. Paul predicted his churches would face tribulation. John saw only martyrdom for those who remained faithful to the word of the cross. To share in the resurrection of Jesus we must first share in his death. When we invite the kingdom into our life, the hatred of the world will soon follow. But if we are to follow Jesus, how can it be any other way?
The cross is not the terrible end of a pious, happy life. Instead, it stands at the beginning of community with Jesus Christ. Whenever Christ calls us, his call leads us to death. – Dietrich Bonhoeffer
One day the Pharisees asked Jesus, “When will the kingdom of God come?” Jesus replied, “The kingdom of God can’t be detected by visible signs. You won’t be able to say, ‘Here it is!’ or ‘It’s over there!’ For the kingdom of God is already among you. (Luke 17:20-21, NLT)
The kingdom is among us. I pray we want it. I pray we are searching for it. I pray we care enough to learn what it means. I pray we decide to accept it, and live like we accept it.
I pray we all, in whatever measure we can, will accept the call to be mystics – and begin to live as if the kingdom has arrived.
In my last post I said that some of my favorite people were mystics. The names I mentioned were all biblical characters, with the exception of Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Barton Stone, and David Lipscomb. I could have mentioned a number of others, including Thomas Merton, Henri Nouwen, and maybe even C.S. Lewis, among others. As I have reflected on my post I felt that I needed to explain a littler further what I mean by mysticism, and how these individuals fit into my understanding of what it means to be a mystic.
First, mystics have a profound vision of the kingdom of God. You can see this very clearly in the inspired mystics – Moses, Isaiah, Jeremiah, Ezekiel, Jesus, Paul, Peter, John. These individuals received either a very clear vision of God, or received inspiration and illumination far beyond the “normal” avenues of study and meditation. I place these visionaries on an entirely different plane than non-inspired mystics. The “non-inspired” mystics have also had a vision of the kingdom of God – one that drives their writing or preaching on a level that exceeds most “common” or non-mystical writing. There is a sense in reading these individuals that they see, or hear, or have been given, insight into the kingdom of God that is reserved for the few who (1) truly desire to have that kind of insight and (2) open themselves to receiving that kind of insight. None of the “non-inspired” mystics just woke up one morning with the clarity of vision that they have shared with the rest of us. God rewards those who seek him – he will be found if he is sought after. Mere seeking will not avail, however, if there is no heart prepared to welcome him. Mystics spend as much time preparing their heart to receive the kingdom as they do in seeking the kingdom. I think that is why so many earnest seekers never find the kingdom. They are simply unwilling to accept it when it is shown to them.
Second, once the kingdom is revealed, these individuals seize it. They believe God, not just believe in God. There is a radical transformation that takes place in the heart of a mystic, even if the mystic came from a position of belief to begin with. Some, such as a C.S. Lewis, came from a position of agnosticism, if not even outright atheism, and so their transformation is all the more astounding. There is a sense, however, in which believers can be converted – once the vision of the kingdom is received and accepted. The apostle Paul was perhaps the quintessential example of this – he was converted from faith to faith. I think the same could also be said of Isaiah, and Peter seemed to be on a never-ending cycle of renewed and expanded faith.
Finally, the mystics of whom I write did not stop with a simple apprehension and acceptance of the kingdom. They went out and lived as if the kingdom was really here, live and in living color, as the old saying used to go. They did not wait for “pie in the sky by and by.” They lived, taught, and wrote to transform their world into the kingdom that God intended. For their vision and their efforts many were killed – most of them in fact were either imprisoned or persecuted in some form or fashion. They remained faithful to their vision, however, and through their lives the world caught a greater glimpse of what the kingdom of God will ultimately look like.
This is why I place Bonhoeffer, Stone, and Lipscomb within the category of “mystic,” although for some the characterization may be laughable. These men, so disparate in many respects, all had a vision of the kingdom informed by the writings and teachings of the inspired mystics that we find in Scripture. They searched longingly for the kingdom, and when they had prepared their hearts to receive it – God let them see what the kingdom could be. Then, they went out and lived as if they kingdom was indeed, “among them” just as Jesus emphatically said it was. They challenged the status quo. They lived as kingdom subjects, and suffered as only kingdom subjects will suffer.
As I said, some of my favorite people – authors and saints – are mystics. I am coming to see the difference in their life and mine. I glory in their vision, and their faithful expression of that vision.
And, before anyone says it – yes, I know that these men were all flawed human beings, with the obvious exception of our Lord. None of them was perfect. This is why we proclaim our allegiance to Jesus, and not to any mortal human. The lives of the others can be illustrative, however, of what it means to be a disciple, a mystic. For their example I am truly grateful, and if some day someone looks back on my life and says, “there lived a mystic” then I will owe that epitaph to the example of these faithful, though flawed, mortal beings.
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.