reason4thehope

Thinking about life, faith and the world.

Archive for the tag “civil rights”

American Salad

saladI recently had my first exposure to Dr. Ben Carson, who is generating Republican presidential buzz with a growing fan base on the evangelical right. On video, he was a glib and entertaining speaker with an inspiring story, flashing the brilliance you expect of a pediatric brain surgeon. You feel smart just for listening to him. Then you hear more of what he has to say, and with all due respect to a fellow Christ follower, maybe the excitement starts to fade.

Did he really say America has become like Nazi Germany? And reaffirm the claim when given the chance to backpedal? And then draw some strained comparison between ISIS and America’s founding fathers? I’m sure he knows what he’s doing, but I’m not sure what it is. I just know I’m getting the sense of someone who is on a mission to shock people. He’ll justify it as his war on political correctness, and some of us will eat it up.

And what are we eating up? For one thing, I detect that staple of the American political menu, fear. Dr. Carson is just serving it up in an edgy plate of greens instead of the usual steakhouse wedge of iceberg. He’s not alone. Louisiana’s Gov. Bobby Jindal, a former Rhodes Scholar who courts the same vote as Dr. Carson, is out pushing the idea of Muslim “no-go” zones, a scare so baseless that Fox News had to back down from it four times in one day.

But my point is not to bash Ben Carson or Bobby Jindal; it’s to ask why American Christians keep responding to the politics of fear. To answer that, consider when we get afraid: when we think something important to us is at risk. Our level of fear reflects how invested we are in that thing.

We invest in certain things with gusto here in the Land of More is Better. “Too much of a good thing” is an alien concept. Americans are so busy going big, they rarely consider whether it might in fact be time to go home. Christians are not immune. Some of us even get over-invested, to the point of entitlement, in the idea of America that we see as our sacred heritage.

At the risk of my own tarring and feathering, perhaps the sense of entitlement springs from our own Declaration of Independence: “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men…are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.”

Life, I’ll give you that. Only God has the right to give it or take it, by His sovereign power or through the instruments of His choosing. Any others exercising that power are merely playing God, at their own ultimate peril.

Liberty? In Christ we are free from the penalty and power of sin, free from Old Testament law, free in debatable matters of conscience, as the apostle Paul declared in Romans 14. But the Bible never promised American-style freedom. God blessed me to be born and to live under it. These very words are protected by the First Amendment, which carries the benefit of a wide-open door for the Gospel. But whenever He pleases, God can let this door be closed and another opened. To Paul, even captivity was an opportunity; in Ephesians 6:20, he declared himself an “ambassador in chains” in his Roman imprisonment. He didn’t protest politically or incite rebellion against his oppressors. He was too busy evangelizing the guards.

Pursuit of Happiness? If we belong to God, our joy is, or should be, in Him above all: “Rejoice in the Lord always; again I will say, rejoice!” (Philippians 4:4) Happiness for its own sake is just a warm, fuzzy and unreliable feeling, and the Bible doesn’t promise such happiness.

Still, some American Christians seem to expect politicians, usually Republicans, to guarantee a particular vision of life and liberty, without which they won’t be happy or feel secure.

Holly Fisher found fame or infamy, depending on your viewpoint, when she tweeted a picture of herself holding a Bible in one hand and an AR-15 rifle in the other, while standing in front of an American flag. She had every right to do that, and those who cheered or mocked her had every right to react. America is great that way.

As for me, I had the all-too-familiar sensation of looking at a fellow believer, and squirming a little. That picture neatly captures an unsettling feature of our culture: a peculiar American salad of Christian faith, patriotism, conservative politics and guns, dressed with a dollop of fear that everything we cherish is one generation from oblivion. We’re giving it all away, Dr. Carson warns – an appeal to fear couched as a call to courage.

But where is our true security? Some who call themselves believers seem to put the Constitution, as they understand it, in God’s place. By this vision, we’re secure as long as the framework of our government guarantees we can speak and worship freely, and as long as guns can stand between us and the bad guys and/or a government that turns on us. Which brings us back to America as Nazi Germany. The comparison is, for now, thoroughly over the top. But let’s play what-if.

Some day it may become dangerous to be an American Christian. I don’t say this to sow fear. The threat to religious freedom simply is, and it’s more than a threat to countless people of all faiths around the world. Jesus warns that the persecuted church is the norm: “If you were of the world, the world would love its own; but because you are not of the world, but I chose you out of the world, because of this the world hates you.” The view from where He stood in John 15:19 is far from our blessed existence here in America.

So, what if oppression arises in our midst?

In the Garden of Gethsemane, government thugs came to take away Jesus’ right to speak and worship freely. Peter drew his sword and cut off the ear of Malchus, the high priest’s servant. And Jesus told Peter to stop, and healed Malchus. In that moment, I think our Lord set the tone for any believer throughout history facing the loss of civil rights, including religious ones.

In the Bible, when God’s people are oppressed where they live, they continue to worship and they wait for deliverance, however God provides it. Think of the Israelite captivities, from Egypt to Babylon. That God has used America so remarkably, though it was born from a rebellion, may merely testify to His grace and His ability to bring good out of anything (Genesis 50:20). Find a passage in the Bible where God calls His people to insurrection against the government He allows to rule over them. If you can find one, please share, but I’m not aware of any in the Old Testament or the New. Yes, Jesus told his disciples – just before that confrontation in Gethsemane – to get swords (Luke 22:36). But the meaning and implications of that passage are debatable, and it’s not a proof text for the notion that Christians must arm themselves, especially in light of what followed at the moment of Jesus’ arrest.

Still, there are American Christians ready for metaphorical or even literal combat. We’ve seen the Holly Fishers, and we’ve seen the anonymous ones blustering in online comment threads about the day’s news. It isn’t always clear who is serious, but they can’t all be trolling. The ones who are serious have some hard questions to answer:

  • To defend your civil rights, given and taken by humans who rule with God’s permission (Romans 13), will you attack a fellow citizen? Or will you extend mercy?
  • For your religious rights, will you strike blows in the name of God, and raise the barrier of aggression between your adversary and the good news that you carry? Or like Paul will you simply take whatever opportunity presents itself under the powers that be?
  • For your right to bear arms, will you choose confrontation? Or will you trust God with your safety and lower your defenses, not to let the enemy in but to let grace out? Does your security so depend on a firearm, even more than on God, that you will shed blood over your right to keep it?

These very ideas may sound extreme to some, but in today’s supercharged, polarized politics, otherwise sane people seem to be wandering out to the fringes. And even if you’re not ready to take up arms against your government, consuming fear can twist your attitudes and actions. Never harbor the delusion that you’re fighting for God. You’re fighting in Him – His power, strength and wisdom, with spiritual weapons – against forces whose defeat is already sure, because God can fight perfectly well for Himself.

If we rethink how we might answer hostility from our own government in the future, we should separate that from issues of the here and now: personal security at home, or military service to repel external threats to the nation. In both of these matters, I believe a Christian may legitimately be prepared to defend family, neighbors or country against criminals or foreign invaders. I don’t believe millions of military men and women have served in vain. It is right to defend the defenseless against the lawless, as the psalmist says: “Rescue the weak and needy; Deliver them out of the hand of the wicked.” (Psalm 82:4) But none of this equates to a divine right or mandate for a Christian to own a gun or any weapon, or to demand that right on our terms.

Remember President Obama’s famously ill-chosen remarks about rural Americans clinging to their guns and religion. It was elitist and condescending. But if Obama saw Holly Fisher’s picture, I could understand him feeling a little bit vindicated. As for my reaction: If she treats her Bible as a symbol for an idea, not as a vehicle to encounter God, she’s missing its purpose. If she trusts the gun and the flag for her security, she’s forgotten where true security lies.

Holly Fisher may be celebrating the latest election results. Fine; God’s plan is moving forward, and we can always celebrate that, as well as the precious right that we have. On this I can agree with Ben Carson: Vote, and if your faith is truly a part of all you do, bring it into the voting booth. But I don’t assume that God’s plan is to advance the American Christian social or political agenda, whatever that is, or to restore America’s greatness.

Perhaps I’ve come to realize that patriotism, while not bad in itself, is best held loosely in light of my relationship with God. Like anything apart from God, my patriotism can crumble into disappointment or fear if the object of my devotion proves unworthy or impermanent. Better to be devoted to the One who will never disappoint us, leave us or forsake us. And I am less likely to regret what I do in my country’s name, if my nationalism doesn’t blur the vision of my heavenly citizenship.

Photo: pbs.org

Reality Chick

When Dan Cathy was asked his views on the family recently, he had the nerve to answer honestly. He believes that the Biblical model for a family is built around the marriage of a man and a woman. He could have evaded, could have lied, but he said what he really thinks. For this he and his company, Chick-fil-A, are being dragged through the mud, as if they were Westboro Baptist groupies picketing military funerals.

I have taken Christians to the woodshed for their sometimes fearful and hateful attitudes toward homosexuals. Now it’s the other side’s turn. As much as Christians are guilty of un-Christ-like attitudes in this debate, the side that currently holds the upper hand is not being very gracious in the march toward victory.

Gay marriage is advancing at a breathtaking pace. I think there are some gay activists who smell blood in the water, and they can’t resist a good feeding frenzy. The trouble with feeding frenzies is they don’t leave much room for nuance. So Dan Cathy is effectively lumped in with Westboro’s ringmaster, Fred Phelps, or the pastor who wants gays behind an electric fence, or the other pastor who says gays should be killed.

If we all vetted everyone we do business with and boycotted those who don’t share our views on social issues, commerce would be paralyzed. If Chick-fil-A and its president offend you that much, don’t go there. But must every disagreement degenerate into a smackdown?

Straight Talk

“You say…love is a temple, love the higher law. You ask me to enter, but then you make me crawl.” – “One” by U2

Like it or not, we are in the midst of a cultural and political shift on a par with the Civil Rights era. I’m not old enough to remembers those years, but any Christian who stood with God for justice should have seen the rightness of the cause.

This time around, homosexuals are at the center of the change. And many Christians, however firm their convictions may sound, are adrift. I am one of them, trying to drop an anchor somewhere.

If you’re a Christian and this subject hasn’t made you squirm, you may not have thought hard enough about it. No, I’m not talking about knee-jerk revulsion at relationships that make us uncomfortable. I’m talking about the knife edge we need to walk between upholding Biblical truth, and giving every person outside the faith room to come as they are.

Even as I try to strike a blow against hate, I know that based on the following paragraphs, some readers will mark me as a slave to ignorance and possibly a hatemonger, though I am no such thing. Christians need to bring a delicate balance of honesty, perspective and love to this discussion, and I believe most are missing it as the progression of gay rights accelerates.

Some Christians thunder judgment, fear and hate from pulpits, street corners or any handy soapbox. It’s un-Christian, un-Biblical and immeasurably damaging to the testimony of the church.

Others timidly surrender principles and honesty as they go with the flow – bowled over by the tide of history, fearful of being labeled a bigot, or perhaps giving voice to the tender spot in the heart that wants to believe mutual love between two people is always right.

I’d like to propose another way, taking the three key principles – honesty, perspective and love – one at a time.

Honesty first of all demands that we acknowledge what the Bible teaches. Accept or reject the Bible’s authority, but it’s a mighty stretch to find the Bible neutral on homosexuality, much less in favor of it. I’ve seen many attempts to do so, and they all seem to involve selective reading, wishful thinking or both. They appeal to a desire to be excused from wrestling with this issue.

But the sum of the Bible’s teaching is clear. It’s stated in the Old Testament, repeated in the New. If the Bible’s authority is from God, then the matter ought to be settled.

And so what?  I don’t mean to make light of what God forbids, but this is where perspective comes in. God has forbidden many things. If we as Christians struggle with what to say about homosexuality, the better question is why we feel compelled to say any more about it than we do about anything else God disapproves.

Sin is sin. We need to talk about sin, because it’s the chasm between God and everyone who hasn’t received His gift of redemption. But if we are reading the Bible correctly as to homosexuality, we can trust God to deal with it in the lives of those come to Him – just as He is dealing with everything the rest of us brought to our relationships with Him. The Christian’s job is to hold the door open.

That’s where the love comes in. The easy, trite thing to say is that we hate the sin but love the sinner. But we need to understand that homosexuals regard their orientation as part of their very identity. To say “we hate your homosexuality, but we love you,” reads to them as “we hate what you are, but we love you.” It sounds like self-contradicting nonsense.

It hardly matters whether homosexuals have a choice about what they are. They see it as their identity; for all practical purposes, it is, unless and until God changes it.

As for what the Christian’s attitude should be, consider the arc of Jesus’ life – from the angelic birth announcement to the shepherds, to the travels of His earthly ministry, to his dying promise to a dying thief. He went places where the religious leaders wouldn’t have defiled their sandals, seeking encounters with people who would never have found a place in the temple courts. He didn’t ask who was clean or unclean; he simply pursued those who needed Him. “All those the Father gives me will come to me,” he said, “and whoever comes to me I will never drive away.” (John 6:37 NIV).

Perhaps we should learn the lesson of Peter, who got an earful about clean and unclean in a vision from God. When God set an un-kosher buffet before Peter and commanded him to eat, He was not abolishing every Old Testament command, but it was about much more than food. What came after the vision was not a shipment of shrimp. It was an invitation to a pagan home that no ceremonially clean Jew would dare enter.

If by clean you mean sinless, then no, gays are not clean. Neither are you, and neither am I, apart from God’s grace. Nor is anyone defined by just one sin. But as God made clear to Peter, under the new order established at the cross, all are approachable, all can be offered the same grace by which we are saved. We can’t approach anyone, however, if we are unbearable company.

When asked directly what we believe, we need to be honest (see above). But we need to realize that gays’ sense of injustice and desire for affirmation is from the heart, and their pain is real when they are attacked. Pain may eventually be unavoidable, but if so, let it be the sting of cleansing, not our words falling like fists on their heads. And never, ever, real fists.

What about law and culture? Please remember that we do not live in the God-ordained theocracy of ancient Israel. We live in a pluralistic, secular society that, for a time, fairly well represented Judeo-Christian values. That is slipping away, and it’s scary, and perhaps that’s why Christians get so agitated when another domino falls, as is happening now.

But at what cost do we try to recapture the fading shadow of our “Christian nation?” What is most important – individual souls or this abstraction we call our culture? In the supercharged atmosphere of the moment, almost every word spoken in the public square against gay marriage comes across as hate speech toward gays, whether it’s intended that way or not.  And in the age of social media, the public square is unimaginably large. After all they’ve seen and heard, how many gays will ever set foot in a church that presents the full Gospel?

The Bible tells us to submit to the civil authorities and pray for them. That doesn’t mean Christians have to celebrate the legalization of gay marriage, vote for the candidates who support it, or bless those unions with church weddings. But we would be wise to run every public word through that filter of honesty, perspective and love. I suspect far fewer words would come out of Christian mouths if all did this. We ought to restrain our speech not out of fear, but out of love for those who just might come to trust us, and so allow us to speak our hearts in private.

Speak our hearts about what? The Gospel. The rest is in God’s hands. If Christians have become the ogres in the gay marriage debate, maybe it’s because we forgot to put first things first.

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