reason4thehope

Thinking about life, faith and the world.

Archive for the tag “United States”

A Campaign Gone Full Bore

ZZZA few weeks back, Donald Trump had a man thrown out of a rally for complaining that it was boring. I laughed at the time; life imitates The Onion, I thought. As it turns out, the man was part of a duo of comedians. Still, I think we may look back on that moment as the beginning of the end for The Donald. His campaign has proved immune to outrage, but boredom? That’s deadly.

Trump’s shtick is getting old, even for his supporters. He knows it too, but by toning it down, he may have initiated a death spiral. A tamer Trump leaves just the emptiness of his ideas, which only gain traction when coarsely shouted at a susceptible audience. When spoken in measured tones, they’re…boring.

So where does he go when his numbers start to slip? He can go back to outrageous, but that’s already worn out. Or he can stay the gentler course and fade into irrelevance.

Trump took the playbook of a rising dictator: exploit fear, invent scapegoats, and sell it all with bombast. But this isn’t 1939. Modern media will take anything to a saturation point much faster than the newspapers, placards and radio broadcasts of three generations ago.

It’s comforting to see signs that the old tactics are failing, but still scary that so many people – including some Christians – embraced a toxic message. Let’s hope a savvier successor to The Donald doesn’t emerge, able to feed that message into the communication channels of our time.

Shedding Grace

majesty21For it is by grace you have been saved, through faith – and this is not from yourselves, it is the gift of God – not by works, so that no one can boast. – Ephesians 2:8-9 (NIV)

In America the beautiful, many Christians are shedding grace, but not in a good way. They are setting aside the grace of the Gospel and replacing it with a covenant of works for their nation to follow.

As Christians we don’t impose this covenant even on ourselves, nor should we. And yet some spend untold emotional, financial and political resources trying to hammer the United States into the image of Christ, all by trying to dictate the behavior of the government and the culture. It’s a Christian nation, they say, and then they try to manufacture the proof out of materials that refuse to bend.

In doing so, they like to point to our heritage, a time of greater righteousness and morality. I wonder what time they have in mind. Was it the time when Africans were abducted from their homes, bought and enslaved here, and their descendants oppressed and treated as less than human? Was it the time when Native Americans were subjected to a creeping near-genocide that still echoes across desperate, drug-infested reservations? Or was it when wealth became enthroned and the rawest form of capitalism became the de facto religion?

My point is not to hold every American responsible for all past or present sins; it’s simply to say that if we’re looking to recapture some righteous national legacy, there’s less to it than we like to believe. Past generations may have been more polite, more civil and more churchgoing. But like the superficial goodness of the Pharisees (Matthew 23:27), these external virtues at times were whitewash on the tombs of hypocrisy.

I once wrote here that I believe righteousness does exalt a nation, as Proverbs 14:34 declares. Still, in all history only Israel could ever say, “Blessed is the nation whose God is the Lord, the people he chose for his inheritance.” (Psalm 33:12) That nation, the only chosen one ever, lived under a covenant based on the law – that is, on works – and it was exalted when it did right.

We are now in the age when God’s grace is revealed to a kingdom not of this world (John 18:36). The grace God sheds on America is not saving grace. It’s simply His favor granted in the service of His plan, which has made this country into history’s greatest exporter of the Gospel. I’m thankful to live here, but like every other nation that ever was, the USA will fade away. No one in heaven will be wearing stars-and-stripes lapel pins.

The Bible instructs us to be good citizens and to pray for our leaders (1 Timothy 2:1-3); let’s do as it says, but let’s not try to make our country more than it is. There’s only been one earthly nation that could be saved. And the grace that matters for eternity isn’t shed on nations but on individual people. Christians are here to point them to it.

The Right Questions

question“Has no one condemned you?” – John 8:10

If the Supreme Court’s ruling on same-sex marriage didn’t turn out the way you hoped, you may have some questions for God right now. How could He allow this? Has He changed His mind about marriage? Is He still there?

Maybe we as Christians need to ask ourselves some questions instead. Principally, if God allowed the battle to be lost, was He ever in it? You may think, of course He was!  God always fights against those who break His commandments, doesn’t He?

God’s judgment has come and is coming. He judged sin at the cross. For those who don’t accept that judgment poured out on Jesus in our place, judgment will come at the end of time, and there will be no intermediary to absorb it. Until then, however, Jesus won’t raid the speakeasy and send the revelers scurrying into the night. He’ll enter, in our skin and on our feet, and invite them to come out into the light.

God invites us into a covenant relationship, and marriage is a sacred, earthly symbol of that covenant, as the Bible repeatedly makes clear. That may be one reason it’s hard to believe God wouldn’t stand and fight with the defenders of marriage as He established it. But when God gives a symbol to represent a deeper concept of faith, the symbol never trumps the spiritual reality.

When venomous snakes attacked God’s people as they wandered the wilderness, God commanded Moses to make a bronze snake and lift it high; all who looked to it would be saved (Numbers 21:4-9). Through this symbol God demonstrated His power and foreshadowed Christ being lifted up to save all who would look to Him. What could be more sacred than that? Fast forward several hundred years. When people persisted in worshiping the bronze serpent, the righteous King Hezekiah destroyed it.

Am I suggesting that God wants traditional marriage destroyed? No, though in the next world, earthly marriage won’t exist; its time will be past (Mark 12:25). But sacred as marriage is in this life, there are more sacred things – such as God’s invitation into the higher relationship marriage symbolizes. We can’t extend that invitation impaled on a sword of judgment.

Speaking of symbols, it’s interesting that the rainbow, which God declared a symbol of His covenant never to flood the Earth again, has been adopted as a symbol for marriage equality. We can sit and fume about that. Or, just as God made the rainbow a symbol of judgment suspended, we can see it as a reminder to suspend our own judgment.

God’s Housecleaning

“It is wDSCN1165ritten…‘My house will be called a house of prayer,’ but you are making it ‘a den of robbers.'” – Matthew 21:13

I recently read an article that made me wonder if I had time traveled back to the 1980s or ’90s. The surprisingly young author was calling Christians back to the social battles of the last Bush-Clinton era (are we really headed for another?). She unflinchingly used the term “culture wars,” and the article was illustrated with a young, tattooed and pierced couple respresenting the “Christian Left.”

I think many American Christians, myself include, now recognize the long detour we took to the wrong battlefield while that writer was still a child. Not that sin has become virtue; many of the things Christian leaders campaigned against 25 years ago were and are contrary to God’s laws. But to revisit one of my recurring themes, it’s not our job to save secular culture or purge it of what offends us. Our job is to call people out of that culture. No one should take my word for it, however.

What did Jesus do? He didn’t campaign against Rome’s corrupt tax-collection practices. He called tax collectors to abandon their morally hazadous profession for lives of integrity. He didn’t call for stepped-up prosecution of adulterers. He saved an adulteress from a stone-wielding mob, then privately, gently called her to repentance. And even as he spoke against divorce, He proclaimed good news to a serial, cohabitating divorcee.

Jesus was not silent toward institutional or cultural corruption. But when it came to that, notice where His wrath was directed. It wasn’t toward the Roman government and culture, which did what secular governments and cultures always do. It was toward the rot within God’s house: the hypocrisy of the Pharisees and the thievery of the money changers and merchants in the temple. And lest we think He called out only the Jewish establishment, remember His words to the church at Laodicea in Revelation 3:15-18:

“I know your deeds, that you are neither cold nor hot. I wish you were either one or the other! So, because you are lukewarm – neither hot nor cold – I am about to spit you out of my mouth. You say, ‘I am rich; I have acquired wealth and do not need a thing.’ But you do not realize that you are wretched, pitiful, poor, blind and naked. I counsel you to buy from me gold refined in the fire, so you can become rich; and white clothes to wear, so you can cover your shameful nakedness; and salve to put on your eyes, so you can see.” (NIV)

The apostle Paul, too, spent little time on secular culture and institutions, except to seize opportunities to preach the Gospel to them, or to remind Christians of what they had left behind and warn them against backsliding or compromise. His first letter to the Corinthians, for example, was primarily a lengthy warning and exhortation to a morally crumbling congregation, and the second letter responded to the growing influence of troublemakers in the Corinthian assembly.

So if Christians as a body tackle any kind of collective sin, maybe like Jesus and Paul we should look within our own house. Are we being torn apart by factions, turf wars and petty feuds? Are we all about the bank balance while we turn our backs on the poor and the marginalized? Are we winking at immorality in our midst? Are struggling individuals, loved and sought by God, getting trampled in our marches against this or that cultural evil?

Some Christians may feel called to the fight against particular cancers in society. It’s certainly not my place to tell individuals what God is calling them to do. That’s between them and God. But as a body, we shouldn’t be making collective enemies of those who practice or promote what we oppose. We should be looking for Matthew, Zacchaeus, the ashamed adulteress and the woman at the well. And we should be inviting them into a clean house.

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

Should This Be a Thing?

thing

Test all things; hold fast what is good. – 1 Thessalonians 5:21 (NKJV)

If you have an ear for changes in this thing called English, you may have caught a new thing. You may have heard someone ask, “Is that a thing?” Or declare, “That should not be a thing.” The thing may be any cultural trend, preference or practice. I read it as being self-contained, with some kind of parameters. After all, if you add to or change or subtract from the thing too much, it becomes another thing, doesn’t it? Hold that thought.

There’s one old thing called American Evangelicalism. Having attended its churches for 25 years, I see some very sound parameters in it:

• The lordship of Jesus Christ as the Son of God, fully God and fully man, who came to offer Himself as an atoning sacrifice for the sins of anyone who chooses to receive this gift.

• The authority of the Bible, written under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit to tell the story of God’s relationship with humanity, lay out His commandments and, most important, instruct us in receiving and working out our salvation.

• A zeal for missions that surely places America among history’s great exporters of the faith.

• The often breathtaking generosity of believers with their time and resources toward people in need.

But that all has another name. It’s called, simply, Christianity. So what distinguishes American Evangelicalism? I’ll suggest a few things that are not so flattering:

• A strictly literal reading of the Bible without regard for literary form, historical context or other knowledge that may shed light on the meaning of the text.

• Fear and hatred toward people who violate real or perceived principles of “right” living.

• Lockstep political conservatism, without regard to whether the ideology on a given issue matches up with the Bible, or is even addressed there.

Now, I’m already oversimplifying. Not every American Evangelical ticks all of those boxes. And you can subdivide this thing, depending on denomination, culture or local norms. There are rigidly held dogma on correct versions of the Bible, forms of church music, attitudes toward alcohol, acceptable entertainment or any number of other issues.

Since I started this blog, one of my main activities has been deconstructing the thing I had been buying into, piece by piece, since I received my salvation more than 30 years ago. As I’ve turned them over, some of the building blocks have proved to be sound; others have not. So what does this have to do with you, the reader?

I’m not going to tell you what to keep or discard, except to say that those first four bullet points above seem to be a firm foundation, encompassing the Gospel message, where we find it and what we do about it. Beyond that, I can personally endorse examining every brick you’ve laid on that foundation. Pray over it; test it against God’s Word. Is God telling you to hold to this thing like life itself? Or is it an unnecessary barrier between you and other believers – or perhaps worse, between you and unbelievers?

Wouldn’t it be nice to have no more “things” in Christianity, not American Evangelicalism or any other variant, just people united by the Holy Spirit in worshiping and proclaiming the one true God in and through His one and only Son? Of course you can’t unthink your thoughts. You can have beliefs about all those peripheral things and order your own life accordingly. The trouble comes when they drive wedges between you and those who disagree.

How do we go down these rabbit holes, anyway? Here’s a thought: When a group is safe from external threats, there’s fertile ground for internal squabbles to grow and spread. Christianity in America has been very safe since the first European settlers colonized the continent. I hope it won’t take persecution to cleanse us of pointless differences. That would be a bad thing.

The Answer is Yes

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(Photo credit: Wikipedia)

“Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof…”–The First Amendment

Was America founded as a Christian nation or a secular state?

It’s a needlessly polarizing question, rooted in almost willful blindness on both sides of the argument. Those who dismiss any religious role in the nation’s founding build their case on the establishment clause of the First Amendment. Meanwhile, those who imagine God’s kingdom on American soil point to countless customs that have woven faith into both public and private life. Not to beat around the bush, I believe the answer to my opening question is yes. America was both from the beginning. Here is how I break it down.

At its founding, the United States had a sketchy national identity, less religious than we like to think it was. But the seeds had already been sown for a nation that would be bound by a Christian culture, or more broadly, Judeo-Christian values.

Arguments against this make much of the founding fathers’ ties to the Enlightenment or to deism, a more generic belief in God. The establishment clause of the First Amendment makes clear their desire for government to be neutral toward religion. But it’s a mistake to dismiss pervasive references to God — from the Declaration of Independence to inscriptions on our currency to the opening of legislatures with prayer — as quaint artifacts or obligatory flourishes.

Whatever the framers’ intent in the Constitution, the people teaching, governing and judging in the nation’s classrooms, town halls and courthouses were accustomed to seeing faith, mostly Christian, expressed in everyday life. They weren’t constitutional scholars, and the signing of a piece of paper wasn’t going to break old habits. The easy blending of religious expression with official functions illustrates the cultural force of faith in America.

As the country grew still more religious, such expression crossed clear legal boundaries largely unchallenged until well into the 20th century – aided, no doubt, by the political benefit to officials who put on a pious face. For most of that time, the American understanding of the divine was largely from a Christian perspective. In many parts of the country, it remains so.

So when secularists say that our national, i.e., cultural identity wasn’t Christian at the beginning – they need to look past the letter of the law to the practical reality that has prevailed for most of our history. And take care how hard they push to bottle up faith in houses of worship and private homes. Authentic faith is not lived out that way, and this isn’t France. Christians – indeed, people of many faiths – will not be silenced.

And yet: the establishment clause is clear. As a matter of law, American government is not to endorse, enforce or inhibit religious belief or practice. Widespread disregard of this principle over 200 years may have been overlooked, but that doesn’t make it constitutional. In recent decades, religious encroachment in government functions has been challenged, and Christians have taken to the barricades as if the faith itself were under attack.

It’s time for Christians to realize that what they and previous generations enjoyed all those years was a triumph of culture over law. The culture is changing. One in five Americans now identifies with no religion at all, and Protestants now represent less than half of the population. Christian influence has weakened to the point that violations of the establishment clause won’t be ignored any more. Nor, I would argue, should we want them to be.

The church loses vitality when it becomes too institutional, too much a part of the secular power structure and the cultural mainstream. It’s easy to point to the history of the Catholic church in this regard. But American evangelicalism has cobbled together its own power structure and dogma, with the government and educational system at times bending to religious pressure. This cultivated a 3,000-mile-wide, inch-deep “Christian” orthodoxy that was long on ceremony and rhetoric but short on authenticity. In the process, politics and faith became entangled in unhealthy ways.

This is not to write off America’s Christian tradition, or to say that Christian government officials shouldn’t put God at the center of how they individually perform their duties. And I am certainly thankful for freedom to worship and practice my faith. The Bible promises that righteousness exalts a nation, and at times when America has been righteous, I believe God has exalted it.

But those days may be past, and while this isn’t France, neither is it ancient Israel. The God of the New Testament isn’t about building earthly nations. Neither should that be Christians’ focus. At a minimum, chasing a Christian national identity can distract us from the need for individuals, one at a time, to hear and respond to the Gospel. At its most extreme, blended Christianity and nationalism – confronted by a changing culture – can produce the offspring of fear and anger: cult-like and white supremacist movements.

When Christians rise up in fury over the end of organized school prayer, the expulsion of nativity scenes from public property, or the stripping of the Ten Commandments from the courthouse wall, what is the goal? For the government to rescue the faith? We’ve seen culture override constitutional law, but we shouldn’t reach for earthly laws to recapture a culture that’s running from God. It doesn’t work, and we’re putting our faith in the wrong thing. We have a constitutional right to practice our beliefs, and we should defend that, but see that we don’t get bogged down trying to regain privileges that were never constitutionally ours. God, not the government, is our ultimate protector and defender.

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