Archive for the ‘Gospel of Jesus Christ’ Category

The following article appeared in the February 2012 edition of Christianity Today.  It was the first part of the issue’s cover story and may be read in its entirety, free of charge, on the magazine’s website.  Mark Galli is senior managing editor of Christianity Today, author most recently of Chaos and Grace: Discovering the Liberating Power of the Holy Spirit (Baker), and writes Soulwork, an online column for CT.

When it comes to alleviating poverty, it is the best of times. Never in history have so many people so quickly been taken off the poverty rolls.

Poverty in Numbers: The Changing State of Global Poverty from 2005 to 2015, a 2011 Brookings Institution publication, summarizes this stunning development. Researchers Laurence Chandy and Geoffrey Gertz note that as late as the early 1980s, “more than half of all people in developing countries lived in extreme poverty.” By 2005, they report, that number was cut in half. By 2010, “less than 16 percent remain in poverty, and fewer than 10 percent will likely be poor by 2015.”

In other words, the seemingly audacious UN Millennium Development Goal of reducing poverty by half between 1990 and 2015 was met three years ago.

What’s more, apparently no continent is being left behind. In the 1980s, poverty increased in Africa, and, in the 1990s, in Latin America. But, according to Chandy and Gertz, “poverty reduction is currently taking place in all regions of the world.” For the first time, the poverty rate of sub-Saharan Africa is below 50 percent. The authors’ model predicts that by 2015, poverty will be reduced in 85 of the 119 countries included in their analysis. The sharpest reduction is seen in Asia; given current trends, they predict 430 million people will be taken off the poverty rolls by 2015—a drop of 30 percentage points.

The developments in Asia, in fact, are the reason they say “the bulk of the fall in global poverty can be attributed to the two developing giants, India and China. They alone are responsible for threequarters of the [expected] reduction of the world’s poor.”

Not large donations, microenterprise programs, or child sponsorship, but rather sheer economic growth, has effected this change. With massive populations, the two nations made a number of interrelated decisions that opened their countries to globalization, which in turn has led to remarkable economic performances, where we’ve seen GDP growth rates (except for 2009) stay above 6 percent since 2003. The wealth has indeed trickled down to the lowest economic strata of their societies.

Thus the plethora of new and hopeful books: Charles Kenny’s Getting Better: Why Global Development Is Succeeding—And How We Can Improve the World Even More, Jeffery Sachs’s The End of Poverty: Economic Possibilities for Our Time, and, for Christian activists, Scott Todd’s Fast Living: How the Church Will End Extreme Poverty—among many others.

Though economists debate specifics, it’s a moment bursting with hope. But these dramatic developments, ironically, present the church with a few serious challenges.

Relative Ineffectiveness

What these latest findings demonstrate is the church’s relative ineffectiveness and impotency at helping the poor. Some Christian activists have been trying to motivate us to care for the poor by pointing out how they are neglected by society. The state is a clumsy and arrogant institution, they argue, and not doing its job. So the church must step in to make a difference. That means that (1) churches should create their own anti-poverty initiatives (like microfinance), and (2) churches should lobby governments to do better.

These recent economic developments suggest that both of these strategies are either insignificant or relatively ineffective. It is not Christian activism that has created history’s greatest poverty reduction initiatives in India and China. And it is not micro but rather macroeconomics that really makes a difference.

Other activists focus on motivation. Both personal experience and national studies have shown that when it comes to poverty reduction, Christians are discouraged. We tend to believe the world is getting worse, and that our little efforts won’t make much difference anyway. So some activists tout these poverty reduction numbers, saying, “See, we can make a difference!” Then they encourage us to get involved in our own small way, because if we do, “We can defeat poverty in this generation” or, “The church can end extreme poverty.”

But of course, it is a stretch to suggest we can end any sort of poverty. I asked a number of Christian economists about this, and all agreed: No, we can’t. When I asked why, every one of them said, “Original sin.” Until the coming of the kingdom of God, greed, sloth, oppression, corruption, and the like—all of which breed poverty—will persist.

Some rightly point to the huge strides made in abolition, prison reform, child labor laws, and so forth due to Christian activism in the 19th century. Take slavery: Indeed, it is much better to live in a time when every nation on the planet has outlawed slavery. But as experts today acknowledge, slavery (defined as people enduring forced labor, including sex) is still endemic worldwide. There are more slaves today (estimates range from 12 million to 27 million) than ever. By contrast, even at the apex of American slavery, the United States counted only 4 million slaves.

So yes, we can indeed improve social conditions in some regards. But the human capacity for sin is relentless and will find ways to subvert even our most stellar progress. As we’ll see, however, this is no cause for discouragement—only a realistic picture of what we’re up against.

Sometimes our idealism is grounded in what might be called social-improvement math. For Christians, it works like this: “There are nearly 200 million Christians in the United States. If they were able to see that (a) poverty can be defeated, and (b) Jesus calls them to have a heart for the poor, then they could change the political climate. Representatives would have to take this constituency seriously when they started asking for policy changes that would help the poor.”

This assumes a number of things that have never materialized in history. We can confidently predict that we will never be able to get 200 million Christians to agree on any priority except, perhaps, that Jesus is Lord. But let’s take the best-case scenario: If one could get all 200 million believers to make poverty reduction a top priority (trumping abortion, human rights, and a hundred other causes), there are no uniquely Christian solutions to ending poverty that we all would agree on. What separates Christian Democrats and Christian Republicans is not their concern for the poor but rather their strategies for helping the poor. Political wrangling will be with us always.

But more to the point we began with: When huge poverty reduction strides have been made, it has been due not to every person doing their little part, but to government economists and bureaucrats making top-down macroeconomic decisions. Doing our little part makes very little difference when it comes to large-scale poverty.

So if the church in fact cannot defeat poverty, and if the church’s efforts make an insignificant dent in macropoverty, how should we then live toward the poor?

The Church’s Unique Calling

It would be foolish to stop caring for the poor. We are not called to obey Jesus only if our efforts are guaranteed to make a difference. As the article “Cost-Effective Compassion” shows, when it comes to poverty, impact is indeed one important criterion for how we invest ourselves. But who and how we love can never finally be decided on effectiveness, for otherwise we would neglect all those for whom we can make little practical difference—those in hospice care and nursing homes, those with mental disabilities, and so forth.

In fact, if this becomes our primary motivation—to change the world—we risk sabotaging the uniquely Christian approach to poverty.

What I mean is this: In pragmatic America, we are often enamored of and motivated by pragmatism rather than simple obedience to Jesus. We are too often tempted to justify our existence on this planet by doing something “significant,” by “making a difference in the world,” so that we can go to bed at night feeling good about ourselves. But the Christian message is about a God who judges and loves us in our insignificance—that is, when our selfcenteredness has sabotaged our ability to make any fundamentally sound contribution to our lives or to others’. This God speaks to us the frank word that not only do we not make a difference in the world, day to day we threaten to make the world worse by our sin. But in Jesus Christ, he has judged and forgiven us through the Cross, and now he uses even our insignificant efforts to witness to his coming work in Jesus Christ.

What is that coming work? Among other things, it is the end of poverty. No,we cannot end poverty, but God can and will. From this perspective we see that our efforts to stem poverty have significance not because they make us feel better, but because they point to Jesus’ final antipoverty program.

With this end in view, when we inevitably enter a period in history when poverty gets worse, either globally or locally, we won’t get discouraged. We are involved with the poor not because we’re going to make a difference, but primarily because we are gladly responding to the call of a gracious God to show forth the Good News—in deeds of justice and mercy, and more importantly, in gospel words—that he will defeat all forms of poverty, spiritual and material.

And then there is this very practical dimension: The church can never match the sweep of national and global initiatives. But if the poor will be with us always, until the Second Coming, it is also true that bureaucratic and impersonal government will be as well. When it comes to caring for people as individuals in their uniqueness, the government is the clumsiest tool imaginable.

Ah, but people—those precious individuals embedded in a unique family and community—they are right in the church’s sweet spot. No government can touch what the church can do here.

So while the government makes needed sweeping changes, the church is there to pick up the inevitable pieces of people trampled by government regulations, of people who get left behind, of people whom the government treats as mindless sheep, but whom the church knows have a Shepherd.

Thus the church’s most characteristic antipoverty efforts are those that are utterly personal. I believe we instinctively understand this. This is why among the many antipoverty interventions offered, we evangelicals are so fond of child sponsorship, for example. It is not only a proven strategy for making a difference—it works—but more importantly, it is very relational and very personal.

If you’re concerned about poverty, these are indeed the best of times. But we mustn’t be discouraged if it appears that the church has been left on the sidelines in this historical moment. We still have our irreplaceable calling. It begins with responding to the divine and gracious call of Jesus to follow, and ends with loving the unique people, especially the poor, whom he providentially puts in our midst.

[The second part of the issue’s cover story entitled, “Cost-Effective Compassion: The 10 Most Popular Strategies for Helping the Poor“, may also be read on the magazine’s website.  It is also highly recommended.]


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The other day I noticed something that my small, Bay Area church and America have in common.  I wish I could say that it was something really encouraging, but as of right now that is not entirely the case.  I believe the common thread between the two is dashed hope and leadership under attack.  I doubt this is what the leaders of these two institutions were hoping to find before rising to power.

A major source of aggravation for each institution is a growing revenue problem combined with debt.  America’s financial situation is a very complicated one, to put it lightly, but what I saw on the opening pages of an August edition of Bloomberg Businessweek was downright frightening (Click image to enlarge):

Represented in this way, the $10 trillion dollar debt that “everyone is talking about” is only a tiny sliver of our current expenditures compared to the massive $211 trillion fiscal gap that our country has.  Uhh…excuse me?  Can anyone even fathom what that means?  The exact number is theoretical, but we are still talking about trilllllllliiiioooonnnss of dollars here! Our church’s shortfall, on the other hand, is a bit more manageable for me to wrap my mind around.  Published in our church-wide bulletin are a series of figures that list our giving as compared to the projected budget.  Using those numbers, it appears that in all categories we are significantly missing the mark.  As of this past week, we have a $52,304.00 shortfall.  Additionally, our church has been dragged down by a loan that has been outstanding since 2004.  The financial woes of our church have been exacerbated by the departure of long term members who decided the recent changes in direction and leadership were not for them.  Seeing committed members leave when a church is already struggling can be one of the hardest things for its congregation to witness, and can also prove to be—as has been the case with my church—a powerfully contagious phenomenon.  However, these two factors do not account for all of our church’s revenue loss: the effect of the economy on churches and non-profit organizations everywhere mirrors the problems faced by state and federal government.  For example, over the last couple of years I have heard many stories about individuals in our congregation who are without work, or who have had to switch from well-established professions to a new one due to the downturn in the economy.

But our church’s woes are not just economic.  Worse yet, is the grumbling that I’ve heard throughout the halls of my church about our struggling leaders.  I too have participated in this and for that I am sorry.  Christians will always have their share of gripes with leadership, as they should, and I am all in favor of standing up for what is right and being vocal about it.  However it is truly a sad day when those complaints begin to outweigh the amazing testimonies of how God used our leaders to enliven, encourage, and enrich our lives.  I have never felt closer to God than I have since the new leadership arrived in April of last year and yet at times I too have felt like giving into the contagion that has turned many against our church.

Criticism has never seemed more severe for the leaders of our nation or of our church.  According to NationalPolls.com, approval ratings for President Obama have steadily trickled downward since 2009.  Meanwhile, I would say that the vocalized frustrations with the leaders at my church also indicate a downward trickle in approval.  In the case of Obama, it is odd to think that though it was a hope for change that captured the hearts of so many back in the run up to the 2008 Presidential election, it is now the inability to hope for change that has led many to turn against him.  For each institution it would seem there is a prevailing belief that our leaders do not have what is needed to pull us from our present circumstances, and while I’ve seen people leave the church for this and I’ve seen people bash our President for this, I think this points out something very important: Where we fix our eyes determines our level of contentment in these difficult and tumultuous times.

I know many are upset at the way things are being governed nationally and congregationally and I am too, but I don’t regret helping our President come to power, or for standing in full support of the ‘marriage’ that recently brought together our church with another. What I regret is that I stopped praying once these two amazing achievements were reached.  You see, I have a disease, and maybe you have it too.  My disease is a compulsive disorder: I cannot stop the destructive process of believing and acting like our leaders are the answer.  Jesus—the Lord of Lords, the King of Kings—He is the answer, not the next great politician or pastor.  This we know.  And yet, when we look out at our nation and the next round of politicians begin to collect their Presidential money, we will find our hearts stirring and this disease will find a way to endure another day.  We will set our eyes not on God, but on our favorite man/woman for the job and hope and pray them into the White House.  Then, if we get the one we voted for, we will pat ourselves on the back and take a backseat while we watch our ‘fearless’ leader take on one of the most impossible jobs known to man.  Has our attitude been any different as changes have come to my church?

It’s tragic, really, how much pressure we put on those who lead us.  We expect them to save us when we don’t prepare for disasters.  We expect them to keep us employed when we find out our skill set is out of commission.  We expect them to save our home when we buy out of our price range.  We expect them to provide for us when everything hits the fan.  And we expect them to singlehandedly hold a church together.  Sadly, when we do this we are not counting on the Lord and earnestly asking Him for the wisdom and guidance to get us through these and all the other hellacious things we all inevitably face while on this earth.  That’s why I think it’s time I turned my eyes back to our Lord, and I don’t think I am the only one who needs to.  It’s time for those of us who are grumbling to meet face to face with our cure for this disease of idolizing our leaders: Jesus the author and perfecter of our faith (Hebrews 12:2).  It’s time to acknowledge him as our everything and begin praying for our leaders again.  I’ll start, since I haven’t done it for a while…

Dear Lord, President Barack Obama and our government officials need you. Please guide them and love on them so that as they lead they compel total and unrelenting love and devotion for you and your ways. Keep their eyes fixed on You.  I pray for You to encourage President Barack Obama and our government officials to be bold and to stand up for the things that You are about, Jesus.  Holy Ghost, counsel them.  May they walk in step with You.

If you think that the ruling political party or your pastor is doing a bad job, get on your knees and pray that they rise in strength, divine strength.  Be careful though, because sometimes strength comes in numbers; you just might have to get up and stand with them even if you don’t know how yet…

Dear Lord, my pastors, elders, our deacons, and all those in leadership at my church need you.  They have been a target for people’s frustration for far too long without the support they need.  Keep their eyes fixed on You.  Please guide and love on them so they are perfect channels of your love, adoration, and patience for mankind.  I pray for you to encourage our leadership to be bold now and to stand up for the things that You are about, Jesus.  Holy Ghost, counsel our leadership.  May they continue to walk in step with You.  

Jesus is our solution folks.  Acknowledging that is the easy part; the harder part is recognizing that we must be a part of the solution too.  So let’s begin by making it easier on ourselves and stop with all the destructive talk that only breaks us down.  Then, let’s be people that act as God’s hands and feet to see God’s Kingdom established on this earth, instead of dragging our hands and feet until we feel like the ‘right’ leadership has arrived.  At the end of the day none of us know what is going to happen at my church or in America but I will say this: there is a different kind of murmuring going through the halls of my church these days.  It’s only a whisper right now, but if I listen closely I will hear it.  Yes, indeed, people are beginning to believe again.  Not in themselves, but in the Lord’s ability to be our everything.  Faith is rising.  Woohoo!  And, guess what…we finally paid off that loan that was weighing us down!  So I say to my church: “Get ready; I believe God has big plans for us!” And for America I say: “I’ve seen glimpses of better days that are yet to come; days when we extend mercy and a helping hand, not anger and a fist.  In the meantime, lets learn to fix our eyes on Jesus.”

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Russell D. Moore is the Dean of the School of Theology and Senior Vice-President for Academic Administration at The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary. He also serves as a preaching pastor at Highview Baptist Church in Louisville, KY.  The following essay appeared on his blog on Sunday, August 29th, 2010.

A Mormon television star stands in front of the Lincoln Memorial and calls American Christians to revival. He assembles some evangelical celebrities to give testimonies, and then preaches a God and country revivalism that leaves the evangelicals cheering that they’ve heard the gospel, right there in the nation’s capital.

The news media pronounces him the new leader of America’s Christian conservative movement, and a flock of America’s Christian conservatives have no problem with that.

If you’d told me that ten years ago, I would have assumed it was from the pages of an evangelical apocalyptic novel about the end-times. But it’s not. It’s from this week’s headlines. And it is a scandal.

Fox News commentator Glenn Beck, of course, is that Mormon at the center of all this. Beck isn’t the problem. He’s an entrepreneur, he’s brilliant, and, hats off to him, he knows his market. Latter-day Saints have every right to speak, with full religious liberty, in the public square. I’m quite willing to work with Mormons on various issues, as citizens working for the common good. What concerns me here is not what this says about Beck or the “Tea Party” or any other entertainment or political figure. What concerns me is about what this says about the Christian churches in the United States.

It’s taken us a long time to get here, in this plummet from Francis Schaeffer to Glenn Beck. In order to be this gullible, American Christians have had to endure years of vacuous talk about undefined “revival” and “turning America back to God” that was less about anything uniquely Christian than about, at best, a generically theistic civil religion and, at worst, some partisan political movement.

Rather than cultivating a Christian vision of justice and the common good (which would have, by necessity, been nuanced enough to put us sometimes at odds with our political allies), we’ve relied on populist God-and-country sloganeering and outrage-generating talking heads. We’ve tolerated heresy and buffoonery in our leadership as long as with it there is sufficient political “conservatism” and a sufficient commercial venue to sell our books and products.

Too often, and for too long, American “Christianity” has been a political agenda in search of a gospel useful enough to accommodate it. There is a liberation theology of the Left, and there is also a liberation theology of the Right, and both are at heart mammon worship. The liberation theology of the Left often wants a Barabbas, to fight off the oppressors as though our ultimate problem were the reign of Rome and not the reign of death. The liberation theology of the Right wants a golden calf, to represent religion and to remind us of all the economic security we had in Egypt. Both want a Caesar or a Pharaoh, not a Messiah.

Leaders will always be tempted to bypass the problem behind the problems: captivity to sin, bondage to the accusations of the demonic powers, the sentence of death. That’s why so many of our Christian superstars smile at crowds of thousands, reassuring them that they don’t like to talk about sin. That’s why other Christian celebrities are seen to be courageous for fighting their culture wars, while they carefully leave out the sins most likely to be endemic to the people paying the bills in their movements.

Where there is no gospel, something else will fill the void: therapy, consumerism, racial or class resentment, utopian politics, crazy conspiracy theories of the left, crazy conspiracy theories of the right; anything will do. The prophet Isaiah warned us of such conspiracies replacing the Word of God centuries ago (Is. 8:12–20). As long as the Serpent’s voice is heard, “You shall not surely die,” the powers are comfortable.

This is, of course, not new. Our Lord Jesus faced this test when Satan took him to a high mountain and showed him all the kingdoms of the earth, and their glory. Satan did not mind surrendering his authority to Jesus. He didn’t mind a universe without pornography or Islam or abortion or nuclear weaponry. Satan did not mind Judeo-Christian values. He wasn’t worried about “revival” or “getting back to God.” What he opposes was the gospel of Christ crucified and resurrected for the sins of the world.

We used to sing that old gospel song, “I will cling to an old rugged cross, and exchange it some day for a crown.”  The scandalous scene at the Lincoln Memorial indicates that many of us want to exchange it in too soon. To Jesus, Satan offered power and glory. To us, all he needs offer is celebrity and attention.

Mormonism and Mammonism are contrary to the gospel of Jesus Christ. They offer another Lord Jesus than the One offered in the Scriptures and Christian tradition, and another way to approach him. An embrace of these tragic new vehicles for the old Gnostic heresy is unloving to our Mormon friends and secularist neighbors, and to the rest of the watching world. Any “revival” that is possible without the Lord Jesus Christ is a “revival” of a different kind of spirit than the Spirit of Christ (1 Jn. 4:1-3).

The answer to this scandal isn’t a retreat, as some would have it, to an allegedly apolitical isolation. Such attempts lead us right back here, in spades, to a hyper-political wasteland. If the churches are not forming consciences, consciences will be formed by the status quo, including whatever demagogues can yell the loudest or cry the hardest. The answer isn’t a narrowing sectarianism, retreating further and further into our enclaves. The answer includes local churches that preach the gospel of Jesus Christ, and disciple their congregations to know the difference between the kingdom of God and the latest political whim.

It’s sad to see so many Christians confusing Mormon politics or American nationalism with the gospel of Jesus Christ. But, don’t get me wrong, I’m not pessimistic. Jesus will build his church, and he will build it on the gospel. He doesn’t need American Christianity to do it. Vibrant, loving, orthodox Christianity will flourish, perhaps among the poor of Haiti or the persecuted of Sudan or the outlawed of China, but it will flourish.

And there will be a new generation, in America and elsewhere, who will be ready for a gospel that is more than just Fox News at prayer.

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Wow.  It’s hard to believe that it’s been almost one year since I last posted something.  What kind of blogger waits 11 months between posts, right?  Well, for the handful of you out there who actually read this here blog I hope you don’t think that I, or the others, have lost interest in these issues or forgotten the biblical call for justice in our world.  That is certainly not the case.  I can’t speak for the other contributors here but I will say that since my last post my life has become increasingly challenging and spending time recording my thoughts here has taken a back seat to other more tangible priorities–such as trying to be more active in living out the convictions I espouse here.  Have no doubt, however, that while my keyboard has been silent my heart and mind have not paused when it comes to processing how to be faithful to the Kingdom of God.   And it is with that that I continue in the same vein that I left off…

A couple of days ago I sat down on my bed to spend some time to pray and reflect on my life.  After some time I began thinking about a Sunday service I attended on July 4th at church I had never been to before.  If ever you want to get a glimpse of how in love with America a particular church community is just attend a Sunday morning service that is near a holiday like the 4th of July, Memorial Day, or Veteran’s Day!  While I was expecting to see at least a small display of excessive nationalism, I was hoping that this church was as Christ-centered as their website said they were and I wouldn’t have to be confronted with the same patriotic frenzy that I would while grocery shopping later that day.  While the people were friendly and the gist of the teaching was sound and thoughtful, much of what was discussed by those speaking was the all-too-familiar conservative, white, middle-class, quasi-facist, cultural-Christianity that is the faith of so many in this country and that manages to get at least a little air-time at almost every church I’ve ever been to.  I wasn’t entirely surprised to see people with American flag ties and dress-shirts, or to hear about how our country was supposedly “founded on the Bible” by devout Christians, but I didn’t just shrug it off and forget about it either as if it were one of those “non-essentials” of Christianity that I have a differing opinion on.  No, for some reason it has stuck with me and I continue to think and pray about this blending of the Cross with the Flag, which I’ve written about previously.  I continue to pray for that church to be marked more by a love for the Kingdom of God than for America.  I continue to pray for the American Church as a whole to love the Kingdom more than its earthly home.  And I continue to pray that I would also.

As I prayed and journaled about these things God gave me a moment of clarity that started like a pinhole in the ceiling and opened up into a gaping fissure flooding me with sunlight.  It was the realization that I am tempted to offer critiques of this American culture and say nothing of the greatness of the Kingdom of God as an alternative to it, thinking that my critique is sufficient to turn someone’s heart away from loving this sinful world and toward Jesus Christ.  I also recognized that on the other end of the spectrum there must be Christians who, wanting to avoid controversy, will just speak of the greatness of God and say nothing to provoke discontent with this imperfect world in the hearts and minds of unbelievers.  What I realized in that moment is that both are equally inadequate because the first approach, which I am tempted towards, provides no viable alternative to loving the world (i.e. “a reason for the hope within”, 1 Peter 3:15), and the second approach can end up sounding like another relativistic, this-is-what-works-for-me statement because it fails to address the evilness of the world’s culture and value system which has seduced unbelievers.  Therefore, I must try to do both.  On their own neither is adequate.

I depend so heavily on my ability–and the abilities of others–to skewer and dissect culture that I neglect giving praise to the Kingdom.  The alternative to the world which by God’s grace I have found must be clear and obvious to others both for God’s glory and for the sake of the person I want saved.  I have failed too often in this regard.  I can do better.  A good step for people like me to take is: try to end every critique whether written or verbal with an expression of the greatness of God, just as many of the Psalms do.  Let us do it with boldness, confidence, and no fear of man!  God is great, or as Muslims are known to frequently say, “Allahu Akbar.”  Wouldn’t it be wonderful if us Christians were as quick as Muslims are in saying how great our God is…and really believe it?

What kind of impression are we making on unbelievers if our love for God and devotion to the Kingdom is only on our lips and not in our actions?  Let’s “defend the cause of the weak and fatherless; maintain the rights of the poor and oppressed.  Rescue the weak and needy; deliver them from the hand of the wicked,” as God has asked us (Psalm 82:3-4).  Let’s not be ashamed to say exactly why we’re doing it either.  I know I, for one, can do better at this.  Hold me to it, guys!

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A couple months ago I got an email from a dear friend raising some really good points about what I had written in my post entitled, “Overturning ‘Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell’: The Hidden Injustice of Gay Rights.”  The most important of his points, to me, was the apparent contradiction between the New Testament’s pacifism and the Old Testament’s holy wars.  I believe reconciling this is crucial to justifying a case for Christian pacifism so the following is an adaptation of that email conversation, which I am grateful for having had.

An Apparent Contradiction

If you were involved in a church Sunday School class as a child–against your will or not–then you’ve long been aware that violence and war were a regular part of life for God’s people, the Israelites, in the Old Testament.  Indeed, any quick survey of the Old Testament might lead you to believe that God’s favorite rod of discipline against His people and His enemies is violence.  If He’s not wiping people out by His own supernatural acts, it seems He’s commanding the Israelites to do so and then blessing their efforts by granting them success.  Flip a few hundred pages to the right, to the New Testament, and the tables seem to have turned.  Now it is God’s people, the Christians, who seem to be the scum of the earth and are in danger of getting wiped out through religious persecution.  Yet in this context there is a different type of religion being advocated by God and His people as a response to their enemies: pacifism.  This is summed up nicely in the three passages I cited in my post: Matthew 5:43-46, Romans 12:17-21, Ephesians 6:12.

Hmm.  Isn’t this a contradiction in the message of the New and Old Testament scriptures?  Where is the continuity in the faith?  How can God’s commands allow for violence and war in the Old Testament, then condemn it in the New?  And, how can Jesus and the Christian message be considered the authentic fulfilment of Judaism if it deviates from its principles so radically?

Great questions, right?  Well, if you’re a Christian like me you may have never played devil’s advocate with yourself on this issue until right now.  The reason for that might be because your instinct is to gloss over this issue by quickly recalling something Jesus or Paul said about love and then moving on.  Doctrine reinforced.  Theology unshaken.  Unfortunately, when we do this we miss an opportunity to better understand this and many other objections people have with the Bible and the Christian god, and as a result we miss an opportunity to better understand the God who can help us address them.

As for me, I treasure opportunities such as these and thus seek them out.  This is why I’m willing to explore the difficult social issues that you’ll find addressed on our blog;  I want to be able to understand the true nature of an issue from all angles and then ask God what He thinks and if there’s anything He wants me to do about it.  My motivation is that I’ve come to realize that there are too many people with too many issues for us to be satisfied living out our Christianity in cultural fortresses every Sunday morning (and maybe Wednesday night), oblivious to the suffering of the world.  I also know that people with legitimate struggles will conclude that God/Christianity is cold, irrelevant, condescending–and worse–when we don’t understand their issue yet spout out shallow theological answers.  This is why I hope and pray that this blog inspires and equips you Christians out there to engage with the world as Jesus did.  We might not change the world but that doesn’t make our efforts any less faithful to God.  With that being said, the issue at hand is such an issue requiring our attention if we are to wisely engage with the world.

The Wrath of God

To understand why violence is not permissible for Christians I had to first come to terms with why, exactly, it was for Jews.  The issue, I believe, comes down to the judgement and wrath of God.

Before Jesus was sacrificed for all our sins, God’s judgement and wrath upon sin was happening in real-time both for the Israelites and other peoples of the world to an extent that it is not today.  For the Israelites, their sins were punished in all sorts of ways both by God and by each other as prescribed by the Law.  Against groups that didn’t know God and were opposed to Him, their punishment sometimes took the form of being killed by the Israelites or sometimes God himself wiped them out, or sometimes they just lived and died natural deaths without ever having known the God of Israel (God hiding Himself is certainly a form of punishment).  This might sound extreme or even gruesome but as the Bible clearly shows us the Israelites were chosen by God to be the vehicle to bring God’s fellowship to all people groups, which was finally accomplished with Jesus’ death and resurrection.  So, because the ultimate purpose for the Israelites was to pave the way for Jesus, anything that stood in their way stood in the way of God’s plan to bring forgiveness and fellowship to the world.  Therefore, God did not hesitate to remove and even destroy anything opposed to this purpose.  God and His people were not being homicidal imperialists, they were ensuring that satan would not thwart God’s plan of bringing a way for the whole world–not just the Israelites–to be “God’s people.”

So what about all the people God killed?  Are they just out of luck because they happened to be born outside of the Nation of Israel and were therefore merely rubbish waiting to be discarded?  Well, there are two answers from what I understand.  First, the tradition and doctrine derived from verses like 1 peter 3:18-20 say that Jesus preached the Gospel to some of them before ascending to heaven after he was crucified.  Second, just like today there are those whom God saves and those whom He doesn’t–so as it is confusing as to why God chose to make contact with Noah and Abram instead of others, so it is confusing as to why God allows some to trust Jesus and some not to (i.e. John 6:44).  Theology, we can forget, can’t explain all the mysteries of God:

‘For my thoughts are not your thoughts, neither are your ways my ways’ declares the Lord. ‘As the heavens are higher than the earth, so my ways higher than your ways, and my thoughts than your thoughts.’  (Isaiah 55:8-9)

Implications and Applications

Does this make God/Jesus a hypocrite for telling us to love our enemies in the Gospels?  Or, are the Gospels inconsistent man-made novels?  No.  These questions, and other similar questions have more to do with us than with God.  More specifically they have to do with the way we view the Bible.  If we treat the Old and New Testament as a complete work of religious philosophy from which we can extract principles and rules then we have missed the point.  For too long I myself had the idea that I could study the Bible on my own and deduce the truths from it and lay them out in a sort of divine system which I needed to follow if I wanted to live correctly.  Uhg!  What I had to realize was that scripture tells a story.  The story progresses and unfolds and more and more things make sense along the way.  The theological term is “progressive revelation.”

In light of this, I read the “Sermon on the Mount” with Jesus appearing to contradict the Old Testament Law with his talk of love, charity, and peace, and see that the battles to preserve the Israelites until salvation could be offered to everyone are no longer necessary now that Jesus has come.  I see that the wars, exiles, and violence of the Old Testament are now officially over because Israel’s true king is here, and that all the fighting was to ensure that he would arrive safely, right on schedule.  And by the end of the Gospels I see that there really is no need to fight against your enemy anymore because the only battle worth fighting for–eternal safety–was won by Jesus.  Amen.

In conclusion, God’s desire for humanity to live peaceful, loving lives has never ever changed.  The story of salvation has certainly been a messy one, but since Genesis it’s been clear that God’s intended goal was always for us to be people of love–love for Him and for each other.  Therefore, I see no contradictions in the Bible with regard to this issue.  And while I’m sure there are hundreds of different ways to articulate the centrality of pacifism and/or non-resistance to New Testament faith, this is just the one I felt inspired to use.  Finally, I should also note that while I am aware of some of the differing conclusions about issues of war and peace by those within Christianity during its long history (for example, Augustine of Hippo’s “Just War Theory”), what I have just laid forth in this essay and in my previous one compels me to disagree in deference to the simple wisdom of Jesus:

‘Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind.’ This is the first and greatest commandment. And the second is like it: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’All the Law and the Prophets hang on these two commandments. (Matthew 22:37-40)

The Lord is God

For further reading on this issue, here are two sources which I found helpful:

> “Spirituality While Facing Tragedy: How Then Shall We Live?”, by Henry A. Gustafson
> “Can a Christian be a pacifist?”, by Don Murphy

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When it comes to American Christianity and its culture I have spent almost my entire life as either an active participant or a curious observer.  Having been in and out of a wide variety of groups, ministries, and churches–while reading, listening, and asking about those I haven’t experienced firsthand–someone like myself can’t help but carefully look at all the different expressions of Christianity and hope to find some consistent theme that would illustrate our unity in Christ.  This analysis has been kicked into overdrive in the past year while I’ve followed the presidential campaigns.  Since it’s an election year many Americans are verbalizing their values and desires for what kind of “America” they want more than they usually do.  Because of this, the entire spectrum of ‘Christian values’ has been on display via the media: right, left, middle, red, blue, green, rainbow, etc.  Taking it all in, it seems that aside from the fundamental belief in Jesus’ saving resurrection, American Christian values and expressions of faith are just as varied as I’ve seen in my own experiences.

Yet, increasingly, I’ve observed a common thread that seems to tie much of American Christianity together: unwavering devotion to the United States.  While this isn’t true for all Christians living here, my conclusion is that this is true for the majority.

Love your country as yourself?

If this is a correct conclusion then surely we ought to ask whether or not this is a good thing, and answering that question has everything to do with what we believe about the God of the Bible and about the United States.  True, we are to pray for the powers-that-be (1 Tim. 2:1-4), submit to them (Rom. 13:1-7), and pay our taxes to them (Mt. 22:15-22).  But are we to love our nation as our self?  Are we called to forgive our nation as the Lord forgave us?  Are we called to sacrificially love our nation to the degree that God demands we love each other? (See Mk. 12:31, Col. 3:13, 1 Cor. 13:4-7)  Sarcastic questions with emphatic answers: NO, NO, NO.  Contrary to the prevailing Christian worldview in the U.S., our country has never been and will never be a person.  It is an inanimate system, institution, organization, conglomerate, etc.  It is not human for it has no heart, soul, mind, or body.  Despite this, many Christians strangely apply biblically “Christian” principles of love in their relationship to this thing called America.  Ironically this ‘love’ is grossly insufficient in terms of the principles they seek to apply because “love does not delight in evil but rejoices with the truth.” (1 Cor. 13:6)

This leads us to the issue of what we believe about the United States.  Are all of its motivations and actions benevolent?  Is all of its behavior inherently selfless?  Does it always avoid hurting itself and others?  Is it…perfect?  No, no, no, and no.  Even if it’s not a part of President Bush’s rhetoric, we all understand that our country is imperfect.  So then, why are so many Christians bent on treating America like their spoiled daughter whom they are afraid to rebuke for misbehaving?  American Christianity too often tries to be nice to America like it’s a person–offering it a continuous stream of grace and devotion–yet doesn’t reprimand it like one when it hurts itself or the world.  That is not democratic or patriotic, and it couldn’t be further from biblical.  If we were called to love America by the same standards we are called to love our fellow man–which we are not–then the American church would be failing miserably.

If you had a daughter that you truly loved wouldn’t you point out her blind spots to show her a better way to live?  Wouldn’t you tell her when she’s hurt you so she could avoid doing so again?  Wouldn’t you tell her if she’d hurt someone but weren’t aware of it?  And wouldn’t you be thankful if others told her about a way they’d been hurt that you weren’t aware of?  Wouldn’t you be stern with her if she were being mean and abusive?  And wouldn’t you want her to change her behavior to be more kind, loving, patient, fair, and merciful to both you and others?   And after all this wouldn’t you hope and expect her to have the humility and compassion to acknowledge her failings and seek your forgiveness and the forgiveness of others?  Yet with many Christians’ unconditional acceptance of their daughter, Ms. America, they are offering her license to do whatever she wants without fear of discipline…or even a rebuke!

Love is not blind

As Christians, the standard of love that we are called to show is very high.  It is sacrificial and selfless, and it should be so dumbfounding that people looking at us should see something out of this world; something of God.  This is God loving people through us, and it is Him displaying His love to anyone watching with the hope that they would chose to give themselves to it (Mt. 5:16, Jn. 17:23).  God’s love, and therefore Christian love, is also based on truth.  The truth is that God is perfect and nothing else is.  No person, relationship, political party, economy, constitution, country, or planet.  As already mentioned, “love does not delight in evil but rejoices with the truth.”  In other words, love is happy and excited when someone does the things God wants them to do but is displeased and sad when they don’t.  Christian love is to be patient and unceasing, but this love is not blind.  If it were, it would rejoice in evil.

Christian love shown toward Ms. America shouldn’t delight in her complicity in the execution of Saddam Hussein, but rejoice that her negotiations with Kim Jong-il’s North Korea have averted a war.  It shouldn’t delight in her 400 years of committing genocide against Native Americans as romantic history or Manifest Destiny, but rejoice that she’s attempted to make things right by giving them some of their own land and equal status under the law.  It shouldn’t delight that she was the first country to use nuclear weapons, but rejoice that the Japanese have recovered from her destruction of their country to have the longest lifespan and most effective health care system in the world.  It shouldn’t delight in her endless stream of tantalizing pornography and sexual movies, but rejoice that her public schools at least try to counter it with the sexual education that most parents are unwilling to give their kids.  It shouldn’t delight in her ethnic diversity as a symbol of her open mindedness, but rejoice over the non-profits and free social services that exist to help her people achieve more than just their racial stereotype.  It shouldn’t delight in her economy’s ability to help us store up treasures on earth, but rejoice that her economy allows us to store up treasures in heaven.   It shouldn’t delight in the thought of laws that make homosexual people feel sub-human, but rejoice that “while we were still sinners, Christ died for us” (Rom. 5:8) and has given us the Holy Spirit to help us love all our fellow sinners that live here with us.

The love and allegiance many Christians are showing toward America is not biblical love at all, it is idolatry–as defined by the Bible.  Idolatry is worship and Christians are to worship God, not the country that God has mercifully allowed them to live in.

Have we forgotten that God is a jealous God?  Do we believe “that every good and perfect gift is from above,” (Jam. 1:16-17)…or from the White House?

May God help us examine our hearts.

The Lord is God

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