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The following article appeared in the January 2012 issue of Christianity Today (Vol. 56, No. 1, Pg 18).  It was written by Amy E. Black, associate professor of political science at Wheaton College. This article is adapted from her forthcoming book, Honoring God in Red or Blue: Approaching Politics with Humility, Grace, and Reason (Moody, June 2012).

Mark DeMoss, concerned about the increasingly harsh tone of public discourse, launched the Civility Project in January 2009. The Republican businessman and political adviser enlisted Democratic lobbyist and former Clinton aide Lanny Davis to help him. Together the two friends wrote to all 100 United States Senators, all 435 members of the House of Representatives, and all 50 state governors, asking each to sign a pledge promising, “I will be civil in my public discourse and behavior. I will be respectful of others whether or not I agree with them. I will stand against incivility when I see it.”

How many of the 585 recipients agreed?

Three.

Two years later, DeMoss wrote to the legislators who had signed the pledge, Independent Senator Joseph Lieberman and Republican Representatives Frank Wolf and Sue Myrick, informing them he was closing the project. “You three were alone in pledging to be civil,” DeMoss wrote. “I must admit to scratching my head as to why only three members of Congress, and no governors, would agree to what I believe is a rather low bar.”

Thousands of private citizens showed their support by signing the pledge, but others attacked the project. In an interview, DeMoss described his surprise and dismay at the hostile response he received from fellow conservatives: Some of the e-mails contained “unbelievable language about communists, and some words I wouldn’t use in this phone call,” he explained. “This political divide has become so sharp that everything is black and white, and too many conservatives can see no redeeming value in any liberal or Democrat.”

Why were so few of the nation’s leaders willing to take such a simple and seemingly uncontroversial public stand? Why did so many web users respond to a call for civility and respect with vulgarity and vicious attacks? What might these events reveal about contemporary American politics?

Today’s hyperpartisan and meanspirited political climate makes it difficult to engage in civil and meaningful dialogues. Indeed, the temperature of the political conversation seems to rise as elections draw near. In recent months, presidential candidates have maligned their opponents for their “finger-in-the-wind politics,” “ignorance of basic economics,” and “frugal socialism.” In the 2008 campaign, one candidate said George W. Bush was “brain-dead.” Conservative radio host Bill Bennett rallied the crowd at the 2010 Values Voters Summit with the call, “If you voted for [Obama] last time to prove you are not a racist, you must vote against him this time to prove you are not an idiot.” Simple differences in perspective can quickly turn into fiery battles and over-the-top attacks.

Heated rhetoric can escalate beyond wars of words. When political opponents spend more time hurling insults and accusations at one another than gathering together to hammer out solutions to complicated problems, stalemates result. Politicians focus on pointing fingers and attributing blame instead of sincerely trying to accomplish the work that voters elected them to do. At its worst, bitter rancor can turn to violence.

If we are to seek peaceful solutions and honor God in politics, we Christians of all people must avoid such hateful talk. James 4:11 commands us to “not slander one another,” an exhortation that should extend beyond how we treat other believers. Whether talking with friends or campaigning for our favorite candidate or cause, we should engage our political opponents and their ideas with respect, welcome the opportunity to learn from other perspectives, and find ways to disagree charitably as a natural part of the political process.

Easy and Hard Issues

Growing numbers of Americans are registering frustration with the political process. Why do politicians constantly battle each other? Why does the government take so long to address problems, or appear unable to fix them? One reason policy debates can be so frustrating is that much of the work of government is trying to solve problems that lack easy solutions. If a problem can be addressed easily, government quickly solves it. Everything else—the complex, seemingly hopeless issues—is left for public debate.

One way political scientists divide political issues is by using two categories: “easy” and “hard” issues.

When asked if government should allow gay marriage, for example, most people will quickly answer either “yes” or “no.” This is what we call an “easy” issue. We political scientists use the term easy—a misnomer for sure!—for those issues on which people instinctively choose a side. Typically, easy issues are presented as if they have only two sides: someone is either for something or against it; there is a right side and a wrong side, with little room for middle ground. The categories appear simple because the focus is sharply on the end goal. Most so-called moral issues fall into this category; political scientists typically view abortion, gay marriage, and the sale of narcotics as easy issues.

On the other hand, if you ask someone whether the government should try to stop terrorism, almost everyone (except perhaps terrorists and their sponsors) would immediately say yes. But when you ask the necessary follow-up question—What should we do?—the consensus quickly disintegrates. These are what we call “hard” issues. Terrorism is a perfect example of a hard issue. The center of controversy on these subjects is not the desired policy goal; almost everyone agrees about what needs to be done. Disagreements emerge and multiply as people debate the best way to accomplish a goal and attempt to prioritize the problem among all the other matters government might address. Classic examples of hard issues include ending poverty, protecting national security, and maintaining a healthy economy. Voters almost always agree with such goals; the problem is figuring out the best way to achieve them and when to try.

When We Disagree on Ends

Discussion on the easy issues typically focuses on ends, not means, so activists often frame the debate in absolutist terms. They directly or indirectly tell voters that compromise is not only impossible but may even be immoral. Political debates over moral issues often use the language of black and white, us versus them, right and wrong. Slogans such as the National Rifle Association’s famous “I’ll give you my gun when you pry it from my cold, dead hands!” or the popular bumper sticker announcing Hate Is Not A Family value create stark contrasts that offer little space for shades of gray.

And here is the problem: Bargaining and compromise are essential to the political process. To an outsider, an easy issue appears to have two distinct sides, but in reality government likely has multiple options for addressing the issue. Consider the debate over abortion. The alternatives are clear: One side wants abortion kept legal, the other does not. But the hundreds of state abortion laws that have passed in recent decades have addressed only pieces of the larger issue, considering questions such as the public funding of abortion, options for physicians to refuse to perform abortions, and parental consent or notification requirements. The two opposing sides may even find common ground on some regulations such as laws that require doctors to perform late-term abortions in hospitals when the mother’s life is at risk.

When people stake claims as either for or against a particular end goal, the door begins to close on possibilities for cooperating to find solutions. Some issues raise only two distinct options and require choosing one, but the subject matter of many so-called easy issues is actually multifaceted and complex. On such issues, it often makes sense to look to government to address one part of the larger problem at a time.

Why don’t we look more often for areas of potential political agreement? One reason is that activists often have strong incentives not to seek solutions. Ironically, divisive rhetoric keeps the debate raging and fills their bank accounts. Potential donors are much more likely to contribute to a cause if the stakes are high and the situation appears dire.

Most of the debate over easy issues is highly charged and intentionally polarizing, but it need not be this way. Consider some examples of political leaders who took the risk to reach across issue divides and demonstrate respect for those holding opposing views.

Demonstrating a different approach to the discussion of abortion, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton made national headlines after delivering a speech to a pro-choice audience, the New York State Family Planning Providers. Beginning with the principle that “every child born in this country [should] be wanted, cherished, and loved,” the then senator charged the audience to find common ground on the abortion issue. “We can all recognize that abortion in many ways represents a sad, even tragic choice to many, many women.” Some observers applauded these remarks, while others scoffed. Clinton captured so much attention because she spoke of room for political cooperation on an issue usually discussed in all-or-nothing terms. Clearly, those on both ends of the abortion debate have significant areas of disagreement. But, as Clinton noted, they share some similar goals. They will likely hold opposing views on more comprehensive policy proposals, but they can find some common ground by seeking incremental, yet notable, change on areas of shared concern.

Another example: When asked about a gay rights group, GOProud, cosponsoring the Conservative Political Action Committee’s (CPAC) 2011 conference, Sarah Palin responded, “Should conservatives not reach out to others, not participate in events or forums [where issues arise] that maybe we don’t personally agree with? … I look at participation in an event like CPAC … as [the] more information that people have the better.” Several conservative groups and bloggers criticized Palin for what they viewed as tacit support for gay activism and demanded an explanation. Palin responded, “I don’t have a problem with different, diverse groups that are involved in political discourse, and having a convention to talk about what the answers are to the problems that face America.”

When We Disagree on Means

What about the other category of issues, those hard issues? How do politicians, activists, and voters approach these kinds of policy problems? Ironically, it is usually easier to debate hard issues and find room for political compromise. When people recognize instinctively that an issue is complex, they are more open to considering various policy alternatives. At the same time, they are also more willing to accept partial solutions as productive and valuable steps toward solving larger problems. Debate over hard issues can grow intense and polarizing, but most elected officials and activists enter the discussion fully aware that bargaining will be necessary.

Successful public policy is almost always the result of compromise, yet much public rhetoric on hard issues ignores this reality. In the same way that divisive language can rally the troops on easy issues, politicians and party leaders often find they can capture voter attention with polarizing remarks that demean opponents’ positions and question their motives.

For example, a recent Internet ad from the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee shows an elderly man working as a stripper and a man with a walker mowing a teenager’s lawn. In between these scenes, text displayed on black screens warns, “Seniors will have to find $12,000 for health care because Republicans voted to end Medicare. How will you pay?” Despite the ad’s claims, senior citizens were not in danger of losing Medicare. House Republicans had voted to support a plan to restructure Medicare for adults under age 55 that would likely increase the costs for future beneficiaries, but the measure had no hope of passing the Senate. The ad used humor, distortion, and mistruths to score political points instead of highlighting legitimate concerns about the proposal.

Exaggerations, accusations, and distortions are common in both parties. A recent Republican National Committee fundraising appeal accused President Obama of trying to “buy another four years in the White House so he can continue shoving his radical left-wing policies on the American people that have added $4 trillion to the national debt, caused the loss of 2 million jobs, and led to America’s first credit downgrade in history.” Are President Obama’s policies the sole contributor to our current economic woes? Of course not. But appeals like this often entice donors to grab their checkbooks.

To complicate matters, people are most likely to believe lies about their political opponents. Consider the persistent, though false, rumors that President Obama is a Muslim. Despite Obama’s discussion of his conversion to Christianity and current Christian practice in his writings and speeches, plus independent confirmation of his religious practice in several biographical accounts, many Americans continue to believe the rumor. In an August 2010 poll, 18 percent of respondents identified Obama’s religion as Muslim. One in three conservative Republicans said Obama was a Muslim, as did 30 percent of respondents who disapproved of the President’s job performance.

Although it is indeed possible to find and claim common ground on hard issues, such civility is uncommon in today’s politically charged climate. But it does happen.

Consider a Politico.com editorial published in the midst of the looming debt crisis last summer. When Democrats and Republicans appeared at an impasse over how to deal with the nation’s growing debt, former U.S. comptroller general David Walker and Robert Bixby of the Concord Coalition called for meaningful, bipartisan dialogue to address the nation’s fiscal problems: “Such sweeping reforms are likely to be politically difficult, so the American people’s active involvement is essential. We need a real national dialogue about the massive fiscal challenge, related risks, possible options, and the inescapable tradeoffs among those options.”

Exhorting leaders in both parties to speak with civility and seek compromise, they concluded, “Despite the heated rhetoric, neither side is blameless for our current predicament—and neither has a monopoly on American values.”

Keys to Civil Civic Conversation

In the midst of a raging political debate, it is difficult to step back from the battle lines and carefully assess a proposed policy’s likely success. But if we want our faith to inform our political actions and offer a positive Christian witness, such a measured approach is not only wise—it is essential. Consider three practical ways Christians can demonstrate our faith in the political arena.

1. Admit the Complexity of Political Issues. Many policymakers and citizens talk and act as if they can solve most policy problems in one easy step. A strong declarative sound bite—”We will win this battle overnight!”—captures more attention and praise than an outline of a multistep, and more accurate, long-term path. Who wants to hear an elected official admit that a problem is so challenging that perhaps the best government can do is address a few aspects of it over time? American voters are much more likely to respond to optimism than pragmatism, so politicians love to promise quick fixes. In reality, few can deliver them. As long as voters respond enthusiastically to pledges of easy solutions, few candidates will have the courage to speak frankly about the dilemmas government needs to confront.

One way we can serve those in public office is to uphold the value of truth telling and accept when they have to make hard choices. When we expect and demand instant results from a slow and complex political system, we make it much harder for government officials to do their very demanding jobs. We should hold our leaders accountable when they take positions we disapprove of, but we should also allow them to explain the choices they made and give them a fair hearing.

Further, we should be slow to react to attempts to scare us. When someone sends an alarming e-mail or letter, we might investigate the claims and do a little research instead of jumping to conclusions. Their claims may be valid, but more often than not, they rely on distortion or outright lies. If a story seems too outlandish to be true, it probably is. If advocates claim a policy proposal will fix a major problem overnight, their pronouncements are likely overblown.

2. Play Fair in the War of Words. Christians—whether as candidates or citizens debating among friends—must stand firm against meanspirited, false, and misleading political talk. So much contemporary political debate shows few signs of nuance and creates a harmful Christian witness. We should not engage in vicious attacks, nor should we support others who do so. Instead, we should encourage honest and open dialogue, raise concerns and criticisms when needed, and keep politicians accountable for their actions.

Overstatement is sometimes necessary to highlight important differences and simplify complex points. But candidates can capture media attention with zippy one-liners and provocative statements without demonizing their rivals or distorting their positions.

Before characterizing someone else’s political views, apply the simple test of the Golden Rule. Would you want someone speaking of you and your policy positions in the way that you speak of them? It may seem impractical to use such criteria, but practicality is not our ultimate goal. In political dialogue, as in all other interactions, we must first and foremost honor God.

3. Engage Hard Issues. Many Christians focus almost all their attention on the so-called easy issues that raise cultural concerns. Issues of personal morality are important and need to be a part of public debate; God calls many people to raise awareness of these issues and challenge the church to respond. But such issues represent a tiny fraction of the policies and proposals facing elected officials each year. If Christians focus all of their political attention on these issues, they will lose the opportunity to contribute to the public debate on the wide range of policies on the agenda.

Honoring God in Political Talk

Distortion, lies, and political rancor are nothing new in American politics. Electioneering has been a dirty business almost from the beginning. In the election of 1884, Grover Cleveland’s supporters mocked his opponent with the chant, “James G. Blaine, the continental liar from the state of Maine.” Pro-Blaine crowds mocked Cleveland and called attention to allegations that he had fathered a child outside of marriage with the famous line, “Ma, ma, where’s my pa?” Christians aren’t going to change the tone of political debate overnight, but we should lead the way by our example. Instead of fueling partisan fires and contributing to extremism, we can bring salt and light to politics, demonstrating ways to firmly but respectfully disagree, modeling more civil and truthful political engagement.

When we enter political dialogues unwilling to listen, simply viewing those with whom we disagree as enemies, meaningful dialogue and mutual respect become almost impossible. I believe God calls us to enter political debates assuming that our opponents are sincere and acting in good conscience, even if we fundamentally disagree with their policy views. History reminds us that many in politics have been deceitful. But if we lack hard proof of another’s motives, we are wise to begin political conversations by extending charity and respect, opening pathways to truthful and constructive engagement.

In 2 Peter 1:5-8, the apostle encourages his fellow believers to
… make every effort to add to your faith goodness; and to goodness, knowledge; and to knowledge, self-control; and to self-control, perseverance; and to perseverance, godliness; and to godliness, mutual affection; and to mutual affection, love. For if you possess these qualities in increasing measure, they will keep you from being ineffective and unproductive in your knowledge of our Lord Jesus Christ.

Imagine the possibilities if Christians actually modeled such Christlike behavior in the political arena! We can and should lead by example, approaching politics with humility, grace, and reason, and giving the ultimate glory to Christ.

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Pastor and prominent Christian leader John Piper has said, “I love not being an innovator” and that he fears new ideas.  This may sound odd to some people but for those of us who recognize and uphold the fact that truth is timeless rather than ever-evolving it’s a statement that is brilliant in its simplicity and prophetic when contrasted with much of modern society.  While Piper has made the comments in reference to finding supporting evidence for his theological and doctrinal positions in works of antiquity, I recently expressed a similar sentiment after stumbling upon an article written by distinguished sociology professor and National Humanities Medal winner Robert N. Bellah.  It is always refreshing as well as humbling for me when I find that a conviction, theory, or even an inkling, that I’ve held has been shared and articulated by smart, influential people!  Honestly, it has the effect on me of affirming that I’m not crazy, or that I think too much, or that I’ve been connecting dots that aren’t there.  In this particular instance the subject matter is something I’ve observed, thought and prayed about for a long time, and written several posts on: the vaguely-Christian, nationalistic syncretism that many individuals and churches hold up as biblical Christianity.

Unbeknownst to me, Bellah is a pioneering thinker in this area with his 1967 article, Civil Religion in America, being highly influential.  Needless to say I was thrilled when I found it reprinted in its entirety online.  Having read it, I believe it’s an important contribution to the discourse I’ve started on this blog so I am pleased to provide a few snippets below to whet your appetite in addition to providing the link where you can read the original article in full.  I, too, love not being an innovator…

The words and acts of the founding fathers, especially the first few presidents, shaped the form and tone of the civil religion as it has been maintained ever since. Though much is selectively derived from Christianity, this religion is clearly not itself Christianity…

What we have, then, from the earliest years of the republic is a collection of beliefs, symbols, and rituals with respect to sacred things and institutionalized in a collectivity. This religion—there seems no other word for it—while not antithetical to and indeed sharing much in common with Christianity, was neither sectarian nor in any specific sense Christian…

The American civil religion was never anticlerical or militantly secular. On the contrary, it borrowed selectively from the religious tradition in such a way that the average American saw no conflict between the two. In this way, the civil religion was able to build up without any bitter struggle with the church powerful symbols of national solidarity and to mobilize deep levels of personal motivation for the attainment of national goals…

The civil religion has not always been invoked in favor of worthy causes. On the domestic scene, an American-Legion type of ideology that fuses God, country, and flag has been used to attack nonconformist and liberal ideas and groups of all kinds…

The theme of the American Israel was used, almost from the beginning, as a justification for the shameful treatment of the Indians so characteristic of our history. It can be overtly or implicitly linked to the ideal of manifest destiny that has been used to legitimate several adventures in imperialism since the early nineteenth century…

Behind the civil religion at every point lie biblical archetypes: Exodus, Chosen People, Promised Land, New Jerusalem, and Sacrificial Death and Rebirth. But it is also genuinely American and genuinely new. It has its own prophets and its own martyrs, its own sacred events and sacred places, its own solemn rituals and symbols. It is concerned that America be a society as perfectly in accord with the will of God as men can make it, and a light to all nations…

(Bellah, Robert N.: 1967)

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Having just about finished the third book in my ongoing quest to better understand why God allowed such gruesome violence in the Old Testament era and why many modern Christians believe some level of participation in war is justified, I felt it appropriate to pause and assess my understanding–for the benefit of both myself and you who found relevance in my previous posts about such things.  Originally, I set out to understand what, if any, scriptural basis there was for a Christian killing another person in the name of their earthly nation, and while I have gained a much firmer conviction about this I’ve also uncovered a web of theology and philosophy underneath all of it that is much more complex than I expected.  But that’s fine.  The more I read about the two issues (1. OT violence and, 2. Christian applications), the harder it is to just focus on one without running into a discussion about the other.  I guess this is to be expected to some extent since the authors I’m reading hold orthodox positions and thus view all of the Bible as canonical and authoritative, and both issues are dealt with in the Bible.  So, I have had to approach the two issues simultaneously even though the interpretations and conclusions between the two have been very different.

‘Just’ War Theory

Without going into tremendous detail and writing a grand book report I would like to first summarize the point I’ve reached on Protestant Christianity’s acceptance–albeit a vague one–of the Just War Theory.  In doing so I’m not really addressing the specifics of the Theory.  This is intentional.  My reason is that every church that I’ve been to that openly takes an affirming position on Christians in the military draws on the Just War Theory–either explicitly or implicitly–only in the most loose and general way.  Since the Theory is essentially Catholic doctrine and I attend Protestant churches, this is not surprising.  So, because Protestants refer to it generally, I am critiquing it generally.  While I know more could be said in defense of the Theory, I do not hold the Catholic belief that the Church’s teachings are authoritative therefore I am more concerned with what Scripture says than with dogma, and from what I understand of this issue thus far I can say that the Theory doesn’t work.

While there is much thought and care behind the Just War rules of engagement, I believe it is too idealistic and antiquated to base one’s life upon.  This is because the way in which war actually happens today makes it impossible to apply Just War principles, and I see two primary reasons why.  1) Modern warfare is not the low-tech, hand-to-hand combat it was when this theory was dreamed up by St. Augustine.  The tactics and technologies that have been used since WWI could not have been foreseen by Augustine even in his worst nightmares–especially nuclear weapons.  As a result, modern warfare involves–as a byproduct–the taking of innocent, non-combatant lives.  Thanks to worldwide industrialization, soldiers are no longer the only ones who die during conflicts.  In this sense, engaging in a “just” war is virtually impossible.  2) World governments, often intentionally, do not reveal to its citizens truthful, unbiased information about the nation’s conflicts or its enemies rendering individual Christians ill-informed as to whether or not they would be ‘justly’ participating in a military campaign should they choose–or be forced–to fight.  With respect to the Just War Theory, individual Christian citizens simply do not and cannot know enough to make a correct assessment of a situation.  In the United States, this leaves the “moral compass” in the hands of elected officials and military personnel.  While that might not sound too bad to many American Christians who trust in the benevolence of our government, imagine if you were a conscripted soldier in Nazi Germany, Stalin’s U.S.S.R., Omar al-Beshir’s Sudan, or even modern North Korea!  Would you blindly obey your government’s orders to commit genocide because you thought God wanted you to “be subject to rulers and authorities” (Titus 3:1)?  Of course not.  If the Just War Theory cannot be applied timelessly and universally then it is nothing more than a theory and is only useful in the theoretical realm not the practical reality in which we live.  This is very unfortunate because a vague ideal of a just war, along with a narrow application of the biblical principle of submitting to authorities, seems to be the best and most widely accepted justification Christians, especially Western Evangelicals, have come up with for killing others in the name of their country.

Old Testament Violence

The next issue I sought to learn more about is why God either commanded or allowed such brutality at the hands of the Israelites.  Prior to trudging through these three books I felt I had a pretty good understanding of this but I knew there is always more to learn when it comes to the ways of God.  At this point I have heard from 11 different authors, not to mention the many that they cite, and all of them make the same conclusion that the “holy war” of the Old Testament does not provide a model for engaging with the world that the Christian Church ought to follow.  All the authors agree that Christians, or any modern nation for that matter, have no right to engage in warfare the way in which ancient Israel did.  There is no biblical justification for “fighting for God” or taking up arms to “defend Christianity”.  Where there is disagreement, however, is with the explanation for the murder of so many thousands of people, as recorded in Old Testament books like Joshua.

In no particular order, here are the three most interesting explanations that I came across for why this violence took place.  1) God did not in fact command these wars; they were the result of Moses’ imperfect understanding of God’s will.  God works with fallen humanity where we are at and therefore allowed the Israelites to carry out such violence, even though it was not done at his command.  This is evidenced by the fact that the book of Deuteronomy, where the rules for war first appear, is essentially Moses’ interpretation and retelling of the Law he was given by God at Sinai—it is a not a verbatim quotation of God.  The book is filled with a great deal of creative liberty and embellishment when compared to the account of the event in the book of Exodus.  Furthermore, Moses’ commands to Israel concerning the rules of war tend to change from situation to situation and at times seem to be totally arbitrary.  Additionally, Israel’s understanding of the events of their wars and God’s commands have a progressive quality whereby from Moses to Joshua to the Book of Chronicles things get clearer over time.  This suggests that the Israelites, like us today, didn’t always hear God correctly at the time they moved forward with a decision, but understood God’s will more fully in hindsight.  In other words, God allowed the violence but he didn’t command it.  2) Holy War in the Old Testament should be best thought of as “Yahweh War” for the reason that the chief objective of war was the annihilation of foreign gods.  That this was the case is most clearly articulated by God himself when he states that by killing all of Egypt’s firstborn he “will bring judgment on all the gods of Egypt” (Exodus 12:12).  Because foreign gods could trip up the Israelites, the only way to protect God’s people was for him to exterminate the idols and by extension those who worshipped them.  In this way the violence should be termed “deicide”, not “genocide” or even “homicide,” because the gods were the primary object of the Lord’s wrath, not the humans.  3) While the wars of Israel and Judah were historical, some of the details, such as the number of casualties or the method of victory, are most likely not.  This is because the judgment on other nations that was carried out by the hands of God, or God via the Israelites, most importantly serves the purpose of pointing to the eschatological reality of God one day destroying evil and all who do it and preserving a remnant for himself: the Church.  Thus, the warfare during the Old Testament era is an allegory, created by God, for things to come.  The concern then should not be with the violence itself, since many details themselves are probably part of the allegory, but rather with understanding the themes and eternal reality it points to.

Each of these three explanations was new to me and each one of them definitely requires a lot or more study on my part to fully understand.  The other explanations, in my assessment, were basically more technical and scholarly ways of articulating what I wrote about in my previous post on this issue.  So, having pondered all these explanations by all these smart guys over the last nine months I have reached this noble and commendable verdict as to which one I believe is right:  I have no idea.  (This stuff is really complicated!)  I see convincing arguments within them all, so the best I can say is that they are probably all correct to some degree.  While I feel pretty secure (right now, anyways!) in my conclusion regarding a Christian’s obligation to their government, this second issue will probably take me a lifetime to wrap my head around.  Thankfully there’s lots of people who have devoted their lives to understanding these things and writing about them so we can all benefit from their insights.  If you’re interested in learning more, be sure to check out the books I’ve recommended on these topics and please let me know of any additional ones you’ve found helpful.  For now, thanks for reading and…

Peace

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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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The following article was written by Reverend Byron Williams, a pastor and syndicated columnist, and appeared in many newspapers on Sunday, August 22, 2010.

I saw a photo last week of an angry protester opposing the proposed mosque near Ground Zero holding a sign that read: “You can build a mosque at Ground Zero when can I build a synagogue in Mecca.”

It’s simplistic, and it appeals to most Americans’ basic sense of fairness, but ultimately it is a profoundly un-American statement.

If we contrast the verbiage on the sign against the values that are embedded in the Constitution, there is no other logical conclusion one can reach.

Building the proposed mosque near Ground Zero is the latest in a series of examples where individuals, who ought to know better, drape themselves in the American flag to advocate for un-American policies. They probably do know better, but the enticing political benefit will not allow them to pass on an opportunity, regardless of whether it encroaches on deeply held American values.

We recently had U.S. senators proposing to revise the 14th Amendment. We now have a group, among them former Speaker of the House Newt Gingrich, advocating that America ignore religious liberty.

I’m certain those in opposition would disagree with my characterization, but that is exactly what they’re offering.

The most popular argument against building the mosque near Ground Zero is that it should be built at another location.

They offer the memories of 9/11 to suggest an insensitivity by those who propose building a mosque so close to Ground Zero, given that those who planned and carried out this tragedy professed belief in a certain strand of Islam.

This assumes, other than the malefactors, no Muslims died at Ground Zero. It further assumes, unlike its theological first cousins, Judaism and Christianity, Islam is monolithic in thought and deed.

Those opposed to building the mosque at Ground Zero use fear of Muslims and ignorance of the Constitution to justify use of a double standard.

What if Christianity was defined by the Dutch Reformed Church that supported Apartheid, Jim Jones’ People’s Temple that led to the death of more than 900 of its members in Guyana, or the Ku Klux Klan, which began as a “Christian” organization?

Ironically, if we were using similar criteria against Christians, many of those opposed to building the mosque near Ground Zero would be adamant in their support for religious liberty.

I refer to those who oppose building the mosque at Ground Zero as holding an un-American position because the First Amendment stands in their way, yet they still seek the path of the emotional short cut.

But in its elementary way, the protester’s sign speaks to what makes America great.

I agree that one cannot build a synagogue in Mecca the way you can build a mosque near Ground Zero. It is also unlikely any other industrialized nation, no matter how progressive it claims, would elect an individual who represents no more than 12 percent of that country’s population to be its president. But that’s America.

When we peel back the layers, like so much of the hyperbole that makes its way into our 24-hour news cycle, this latest kerfuffle is merely another cheap political issue sprinkled with a twinge of racism. This tactic is as old as the republic.

We can never support or oppose something based on how we feel, if those feelings also intrude on our shared constitutional values.

As President Andrew Shepherd stated in the movie “The American President”:
“America isn’t easy; America is advance citizenship. You gotta want it bad because it’s going to put up a fight. It’s going to say: ‘you want free speech, let’s see you acknowledge a man whose words make your blood boil, who’s standing center stage and advocating at the top of his lungs that which you would spend a lifetime opposing at the top of yours.’ ”

When more of us can defend the First Amendment like Shepherd articulates, we will well be on our way to that more perfect union. Until then, we will probably be more content claiming to be American, succumbing to the anti-American rhetoric for cheap political gain, than engaging in the tough struggle of living out what that obligation truly means.

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Have you ever been to a church service, perhaps in early July, where they “honor veterans” by asking them to stand while the rest of the congregation erupts into applause and the pastor, or whoever, says something to the effect of “Thank you for your service”?  I have been to at least three.  And in case you’re wondering, these weren’t churches in Texas full of gun-toting Republicans; it was here, in the Bay Area, at good Bible-teaching churches.  This is a tragedy.

I call this an “American tragedy” because I believe it to be a peculiarly American phenomenon–that, being the Cross+Flag faith that I’ve alluded to before.  Perhaps this occurs in churches in other countries with standing armies, a history of military interventionism, and a strong sense of nationalism.  I wouldn’t be surprised if it did–the U.K., France, Canada, Australia seem likely.  Yet, America is unique in its historical relationship to Christianity and I am convinced that this is the source of our syncretism.  That being said why is this a tragedy?  The role of a Christian church is to affirm and encourage obedience in the form of acts of love towards God and others, not to affirm and encourage sin.  As Christians we are called to submit to and obey our respective governments (see Romans 13:1-5, Titus 3:1); we are not called to sin for them.  Unless an individual is a cook, doctor, or some other kind of non-combatant, job duties in the military will unfortunately require the taking of human lives in violent warfare–or at least the preparation and willingness to do so.  Violence, murder, and vengeance are the very essence of warfare and each one is sin.   If our government asks us to sin then we must be prepared to join with the Apostles and shout, “we must obey God rather than men!” (Acts 5:29), and then be willing to endure any persecution that might come as a result.  This is the brutal and dangerous nature of being a Christian and loving our Lord and I say that it is a tragedy when our churches affirm and encourage sin rather than obedience!  It is safer, and certainly more P.C., but what a tragedy it is when Christians gather together and those who have participated in sin are esteemed rather than corrected and pointed towards love.  And let me quickly offer the disclaimer that this is not a critique of the so-called Just War Theory, the necessity of a strong national defense, rules of engagement, or any other secular, political idea.  I am talking exclusively to the Church here because “what business is it of mine to judge those outside the church?  Are you not to judge those inside?  God will judge those outside!” (1 Corinthians 5:12-13).

You know what I would love to see?  I would love to go to church next 4th of July or Veteran’s Day and witness submission and obedience to God in relation to government affirmed.  Do you pay all your taxes?  Do you obey traffic laws?  Have you never stolen or vandalized property?  Do you show respect to government officials?  Do you fill out government forms honestly?  If so, you should be standing and receiving applause from your congregation!  You are the role model for your fellow Christians!  You show faithfulness to God through your fearless submission to the government!  You are the one deserving a “thank you” from the pastor for your faithful witness and obedience to God “rather than men”!  If churches feel so obligated to use patriotic holidays as an opportunity to affirm acts done for our earthly kingdom then let them affirm acts such as these for they show allegiance to the Kingdom of God and are the only ones that should be encouraged at church.

Church is for affirming and encouraging righteousness and “blessed is the man who does not condemn himself by what he approves.” (Romans 14:22)  Since God desires for us to obey our government, so far as it doesn’t conflict with His Kingdom, let’s encourage each other to do so.  But let’s not allow our government or American culture define obedience for us.  That would be a tragedy.

Peace.

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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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