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Archive for the ‘Social Justice’ Category

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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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 following will be hard for me to write.  Not because of some grave mistake I have to confess but because the topic is as disappointing as it is complicated to me.  I was considering titling this “Confession of an Over-analyzer, Part 3”, keeping with the theme of the other two posts I had written, but realized this is different.  It’s different because what I am about to write is not something I arrived at by spiritual conviction or any other kind of profound “ah-ha!” moment.  Instead, my thoughts I will share are the result of simple curiosity and question asking.  The result is no less profound—and maybe even more so because this knowledge didn’t lead me to an immediate plan of action in response.  Thus I’m hoping that by focusing my thoughts on it now I can accomplish three things: 1) Come closer to some sort of solution to this predicament; 2) Make others aware of something that should not be a secret; and 3) Seek insight from you who have already responded to this information.

The privilege of being privileged

As American Christians, we live a unique and complicated life when compared to much of the world.  We live with so much material privilege and economic power that to be “poor” still means to be “rich” in light of global realities.  And yet, God’s demands on us to be generous agents of compassion and justice, free from materialism and the love of money—c.f. Micah 6:8, Luke 12:13-34, James 1:27, etc., etc.—are the same as they are on our brothers and sisters in places as harsh as sub-Saharan African.  So when we think about things like stewardship, giving, and similar good works, it is imperative to first remember that God judges the heart, preferring quality over quantity as it were.  We see this evidenced by scriptures like Mark 12:41-44, Luke 11:42, and 2 Corinthians 9:6-15, and, I think, by how the Holy Spirit convicts our hearts when we ponder such things.  Thus we need to employ some measure of relativity when we think about specifics.  But we must next soberly remind ourselves that there is no exemption for a believer from these principles—no matter how poor and isolated, or rich and insulated.  Until we die we are either bearing good fruit or bad fruit when it comes to our money and possessions.

With these things in mind, us American Christians look at what we have and what we can do and then often find ourselves in the strange position of being able to choose what type of good work we would like to engage in.  Should I tithe to my church, or a missions agency?  Should I spend my Friday night helping at the soup kitchen or the woman’s shelter?  Should I give to this charity or that one?  Should I sponsor a child in Asia or Central America?  The options can be overwhelming and often we, unconsciously I think, end up making our decisions based upon what our church or friends are doing or by how effectively an organization has managed to push their cause onto our radar.  Many of us, myself included, also have the even more bizarre privilege of being able to spread ourselves and our resources around—some more than others—so the choosing process can become even more daunting if we’re to be faithful to the principle of generosity and justice.

One of the specific options many of us have found to be an effective, even exciting, way to be faithful to the principle is giving to Christian charities.  There are so many different organizations doing so many different types of work in so many different places that there really is something for everyone in terms of finding a cause you connect with.  A few are listed in the Recommended Links section of this blog and many more are featured on the Journey Toward Justice Facebook page.  I have personally chosen to give to some of these and dozens of additional ones over the years.  Like many other Christians, I chose to give to these charities because of their explicitly stated Christian beliefs and values.  The type of work they do and their effectiveness at doing it was important but being able to agree with their fundamental motivations was chief among my requirements because if I could trust their character then I could also trust things like how they manage themselves administratively, the kind of results their efforts produce, and how they are using my money.  While this might sound reasonable and fair what I have recently discovered makes me wonder if I have been naively exercising blind faith or subconsciously suspending any doubts I might have had about these charities.

Rich Christians in an Age of Charity?

When it comes to their financial dealings, the most reputable Christian organizations make at least some effort to appear transparent through disclaimers on their websites, notes in their mailings, or via membership in bodies like the Evangelical Council for Financial Accountability.  This is good and should be done; I would not feel comfortable with an organization that didn’t do their due diligence to convince me they are trustworthy.  However, if you want to know more than a handful of figures and percentages you can either locate their Annual Report somewhere on their website or contact the charity directly and ask them for it.  What you find may or may not give you the information you want though, in which case third-party assessments are also available.  Three excellent options for this are Charity Navigator, MinistryWatch, and the Better Business Bureau’s site.  On top of that there are a plethora of blogs and review sites which can give you a more anecdotal, opinion-based sense of how a charity operates—one of the better ones I’ve come across is GreatNonprofits.  By using these kinds of tools you can obtain information about a charity’s policies and structure that they might not be trumpeting on their websites or in their literature.  One of these pieces of information is the salaries they pay to their executives.  Here’s what I found out about several charities I have long held in high esteem:

  • World Vision: Richard E. Stearns, President, earned $339,778 in 2010
  • Compassion International: Wesley K. Stafford, President & CEO, earned $267,058 in 2010
  • International Justice Mission: Gary Haugen, President & CEO, earned $201,931, in 2009
  • InterVarsity Christian Fellowship/USA: Alexander D. Hill, President, earned $159,707 in 2010
  • The Voice of the Martyrs: Walter T White, President, earned $146,510 in 2009

Are you shocked?  I was.  Am I shocked that a CEO of a large American corporation in, say, the financial or electronics industry makes six figures?  Of course not.  Am I shocked that CEO’s of organizations which strive to fundamentally set themselves apart from the world by making their mission wholly preaching the Gospel and helping the poor and oppressed can also rake in well over $100,000 year?  Yes, absolutely.  The problem, for me, has nothing to do with the fact these salaries might represent a large percentage of the charity’s expenses which could otherwise be used for programmatic purposes.  They don’t.  It’s less than 1% in the case of these five.  My problem is that the compensation level makes these lucrative jobs.  Since when did a radically generous, justice-seeking, compassion-filled life for-the-glory-of-God become lucrative?  Are we reading the same Bible here?

Charities like these are placed on a pedestal by churches and the Christian community and are frequently revered as the best, most radical, gung-ho warriors for the Kingdom.  They are looked up to for best practices for churches and individual Christians wanting to get more involved in “charity work” or “missions”.  In many cases these and other charities like them are seen as the solution to the slow, bureaucratic, inefficient, and complacent churches we attend.  Basically, we see them as everything our church is not, but wish it were. (I admit, I have personally thought these same things)  Rather than putting up defenses against this idealization, these organizations seem to embrace it and stoke the flames by touting their partnerships with this church and that church, putting on this conference here, sponsoring that church event there, or by marketing books and other materials directly to local congregations.  Taking it even further, their websites and literature are usually pastoral by nature, exhorting us to live the life God wants us to and educating us so that we know how to do it.  Looking at the surface it would seem that many Christian charities consider themselves co-equal with the churches we attend; partners and fellow servants for the Gospel, responsible for teaching and leading the Body of Christ.  Therein lies the problem and—if we are going to call a duck, a “duck”—the subtle deception.

In their own words

When I learned that leaders of some of my favorite Christian charities were earning what I felt to be excessive salaries many thoughts and questions swirled around in my mind.  After thinking about it for several weeks, I searched the web and read some blogs by others who had thought about this same thing.  This helped me sort things out a little, but, wanting to give as much benefit of the doubt as I could, I sought a firsthand response directly from two of the five: World Vision and Compassion International.  As a long-time donor to these charities I was not singling them out so much as I was seeking an explanation for why they were using my money in this way.  Their responses shed much light on why equating these non-profit organizations with the place you spend your Sunday morning is a major error.

World Vision Inc.’s response to my email inquiry:

 Mr. Stearns’ salary is commensurate with his skills, experience, and responsibilities as chief executive officer of an organization of World Vision’s size and complexity. In Fiscal year 2010, Mr. Stearns’ salary was $339,778…When World Vision’s Board of Directors searched for a new World Vision president in 1998, they sought a Christian leader with extensive business experience. Mr. Stearns’ 29 years of corporate experience, combined with his skills set and proven accomplishments in leading major corporations, warrants an executive of his caliber receiving the salary he does. All of our other senior executives work at salaries significantly less than those of comparable positions in the secular market. In Mr. Stearns’ case, he took a 75 percent cut in pay to work for World Vision.  The decision to hire Mr. Stearns, with his extensive business experience, has allowed World Vision to extend its ministry to millions more people around the world. Under his leadership, World Vision’s revenues have tripled from $358 million in 1998 to over $1 billion in 2010. …When commenting on his salary, Mr. Stearns has shared that he has no say over his salary, as it is set by our board of directors who regularly benchmark his salary to those paid by other nonprofits; that he and his family sponsor 13 children through World Vision, as well as donating on a regular basis to other programs World Vision supports; that he is proud to be a World Vision donor, as he could not ask others to donate to World Vision unless he was also giving at a significant level; and that he will gladly answer to the Lord on that day for what he has done with that which was entrusted to him.

Compassion International, Inc.’s response:

In order to develop quality staff at Compassion, while at the same time, managing our financial resources with great care and wisdom, we seek to offer competitive salaries for the various positions necessary to successfully execute Compassion’s mission statement…To make sense of the salary we pay our president and CEO, please understand that his income is well under the average salary range of other presidents and CEOs of other organizations who are within the same categorization as Compassion. Also, please note that our leaders, including Dr. Stafford, are faithful sponsors and donors as well, and personally and financially support the ministry.

Compassion also referred me to their blog where their CEO responds to a question about his high salary.  You can read it for yourself on their site, but this is what stood out to me:

There are some decisions that I don’t make around here, and all the decisions about what I’m paid fall to Compassion’s Board of Directors. Our Board believes that Compassion must exercise prudent business judgment in balancing the stewardship of the ministry’s financial resources, the needs of the employees, and the payment of salaries sufficient to attract and retain the well-qualified employees who are required to effectively carry out our ministry. It is important to Compassion’s Board of Directors that we represent both excellence and stewardship…Part of our salary structure also dictates that all Compassion staff are paid relative to that of the top position in the organization, which happens to be mine. So, if I were to be paid less, it means that every person below me in the organization would also be paid less. I have staff reporting to me who are responsible for managing a budget of nearly $400 million. It requires a high level of management competency to effectively supervise all that has been entrusted to this ministry.

Making sense of it all

What is a fair and reasonable salary?  How much is enough?  If we hold that these organizations are actually doing “Christian ministry” (as Compassion maintains), then we might look to the Bible and recall that “the Lord has commanded that those who preach the gospel should receive their living from the gospel,” (1 Corinthians 9:14) and “the scripture says, ‘Do not muzzle the ox while it is treading out the grain,’ and ‘The worker deserves his wages.’” (1 Timothy 5:18)  If they are doing work, especially Christian work, then they deserve to be paid, right?  Yes and no.  Yes, in general, it would be unfair to hire someone to do a job and not pay them for it (c.f. James 5:1-6).  So, of course they deserve a salary.  However, to assume that these verses have applicability outside of the church setting is to completely misunderstand the writers’ point.  These are not general affirmations of free market capitalism, guidelines for executive salaries, or instructions for a board of directors.  The context is the church; they are exhortations given to the church for use within the church by the church.  Compassion and World Vision might be made up of church members and say a lot of churchy things, but they are not churches: they are corporations.  If we can accept this fact then it becomes much easier to reconcile the fact that their CEO’s make way more than your pastor ever will, and that they unashamedly justify paying them top dollar by using the same worldly logic that corporations use.  But, if we maintain that they are the church and are doing Christian ministry then there will be some major dissonance when we acknowledge that their basic structure and best practices in fact seek to emulate a prosperous American corporation more so than the Church of Jesus Christ.

While it is very frustrating to learn that unbeknownst to me some of my favorite charities operate this way, it is more difficult to figure out who or what to blame.  I can blame the board of directors for feeling the need to dangle such a tasty looking carrot in the air in order to “attract and retain well-qualified employees”, and for believing that qualifications for doing this kind or work should be rewarded with six-figures.  I can blame the Presidents and CEO’s for consciously accepting a position that will make them rich while serving the poor—both for the hypocritical message it sends to the poor, and for not challenging the board’s policies.  I can blame these charities for their brilliantly seductive marketing which leads many Christians to believe a donation to a charity is as good a donation to their church.  I can blame our churches for welcoming these organizations into our gatherings with open arms without making a distinction between their work and the ministry of the Gospel done by the local church throughout the world.  And lastly I can, and must, blame myself for naively throwing all my support behind this industry—for an “industry” is what it is—without doing more research first.

Don’t stop giving; give more!

Is the world a better place because of these organizations?  Probably.  And, if you’re looking for well-managed charity to donate to these are still some of the best.  But, if you’re a Christian, don’t be fooled: just because a charity, musician, artist, clothing line, movie, restaurant, or anything else, articulates religious beliefs that are compatible with yours and can come into your church and “talk the talk” does not mean they are “the church” doing the work of “the church”.  If we rightly see supporting a good cause as a “good work” and an act of faith, then our concern shouldn’t be with who is doing the work on our behalf but with what work is being done on our behalf and the results it yields.  For example, if you give a dollar to a homeless man do you first pause and ask yourself, “What if this dollar was printed by a non-Christian, or used to buy porn or drugs in the past?  Or what if the wallet I just took it out of was manufactured by a non-Christian company?  Should I really give this to him?  Maybe I should reconsider…”  Using analogies like this, we can see that it’s pretty ridiculous for us to demand that the method or medium by which our money is used to help others be purely Christian through and through.  Therefore, when it comes to charities, as much praise and respect should be given to secular organizations like the American Red Cross, Doctors Without Borders, and Kiva who do great work on behalf of the poor all over the world.  And, when it comes to Christian CEO’s who are worthy of honor and admiration from the Christian community, it’s time we look past these non-profits and elevate the guy who runs his company in an ethical fashion, ensures its products/services don’t do harm to others, treats his employees with kindness and justice, gives generously out of his earnings, and is a bold and unashamed witness of Jesus to his co-workers.  Personally, I would find a book or keynote address by this guy more compelling than the one by the wealthy charity executive.

What I have learned from all this is that ultimately the best charity work is the one done by our own hands.  Too often we American Christians believe that writing a check is the most that is required of us.  When we operate this way what we are really doing is just paying our servants to go and bear fruit for us.  We barely lift a finger then go on about our way, perhaps only remembering to say a few prayers for those we are financing or telling a friend about the cool cause we support.  We really need to get our hands dirty more often and resist the lie that the greatest role we can play in the world is that of a consumer, or a financier at best.  God does not need our money and is not impressed with how many purchases we make.  Furthermore, if our hands are not the hands doing the work of charity, then we really only have so much control over the results—for better or worse.  This is why believing the results will somehow be more spiritually desirable simply because a charity is Christian in name is just not true.  Charities should be judged by their results.  If you find a charity doing work that is consistent with God’s love, mercy, compassion, and justice then support them.  Don’t support an organization just because they say they are Christian and they quote the Bible.  But if you’re like me and enjoy supporting Christian charities yet still feel a little uncomfortable with the idea of Christian orgs that pay their executives stratospheric salaries, then let me recommend to you Gospel For Asia whose President, K.P.Yohannan, raises his own support as does every staff person serving within the organization.  In an email correspondence with Gospel For Asia I was told that Yohannan’s salary “is a modest amount…in the average range for someone living in the Dallas area [charity headquarters].  He does not receive any royalties from his books; instead, all of the money that is generated through his books is put into the ministry to reach the unreached.”  While other Christian charities are seeking to copy the best practices of the corporate world it is certainly nice to know there is at least one trying to be a little more biblical than that.  I’m sure there are many others that function in such a refreshingly humble way, but this is the only one I am currently aware of.  If you know of others, please share.

May God help us use the money, resources, and life he has given us in the most faithful and fruitful way we can.

 

Update: Gospel for Asia has lost a significant endorsement from a key financial accreditation organization. What this means for the past or future  integrity of the organization I cannot say. Regardless, do your homework and understand what you are supporting before you give away your money. More info at http://www.christianitytoday.com/ct/2015/october-web-only/why-gospel-for-asia-kicked-out-of-ecfa-yohannan.html#bmb=1

 

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The following article was an editorial featured in the “Where We Stand” section of the July 2011 edition of Christianity Today magazine.  The article can be freely read in its entirety here.

Harold Camping said something true. The media mocked him. But even Christians who disagree with the radio preacher’s Rapture theology can appreciate his basic conviction.

After his May 21 prediction of the Rapture failed (but before his June 9 stroke), he said that it had been only a “spiritual coming.” He then added, “It won’t be spiritual on October 21st. The world is going to be destroyed altogether, but it will be very quick.”

Whether the destruction will be very quick, we don’t know. We are unconvinced about Camping’s timetable. But in fact, the earth will pass away. Jesus said so (Matt. 24:35).

This is disturbing news for some, including many North American evangelicals. We’ve become successful and comfortable in advanced capitalistic societies, and most days we rather like the earth we inhabit. That’s one reason we are fond of imagining heaven mostly as a problem-free earth, and that our work on earth will continue in heaven.

In the book Heaven in the American Imagination, historian Gary Scott Smith notes how socioeconomic status shapes a person’s view of heaven. For example, he says, between 1890 and 1920 technological innovation “dramatically increased industrial production and agricultural output and cures were discovered for many endemic diseases.” During this time, per-capita GNP increased almost fourfold, he says, and “progress abounded” in many fields.

“Paralleling these developments,” he notes, “greater numbers of Christians conceived of heaven as an active realm where the saints performed varied forms of service and grew substantially in knowledge, character, and spirituality.”

A century later, we find ourselves awash in technological and social advances that have multiplied our economic, material, and social goods. Evangelicals, imbued as they are with the Protestant work ethic, have been among the chief beneficiaries of all this. It should not surprise us that we are now drawn to descriptions of heaven that sound like the cushy lives we already enjoy. As Rob Bell puts it in Love Wins, “Honest business, redemptive art, honorable law, sustainable living, medicine, education, making a home, tending a garden …  will all go on in the age to come.” All well and good for those who have a large measure of economic freedom and financial security. For the poor and oppressed who endure slave-like conditions doing backbreaking or mind-numbing toil for 16 hours a  day, health, the rule of law, good education, and rewarding labor are not mere extensions of the present. Such things can come only with the sharp in-breaking of God’s kingdom.

The important point is that heaven is not about us. The glory of heaven is not about what we do or feel but whom we are with: “God’s dwelling place is now among the people, and he will dwell with them” (Rev. 21:3).

There is continuity between this age and the age to come, but there is also great discontinuity. Now we see dimly, then face to face (1 Cor. 13:12). Marriage will be a thing of the past (Luke 20:35). Death and crying will be no more (Rev. 21:4). The kingdom will be so different that the writers of Scripture can picture it only as the replacement of the present physical earth and sky by something radically new (Matt. 24:35; 2 Pet. 3:10–11; Rev. 21:1).

This is crucial to remember in our optimistic, entrepreneurial age, when so many Christians talk about “building the kingdom of heaven,” as if our good works are bricks in the foundations of the New Jerusalem. More than once we have heard pastors say that the purpose of the church is “to make the world a better place.”

Yes and no. Loving our neighbors requires works of mercy and justice, which can be a powerful witness to and taste of life in the coming kingdom. Jesus commanded us to seek the kingdom and its justice as our first priority, and not to worry about the risks involved (Matt. 6:33). But carefree engagement in kingdom activity is possible only because it is God who brings the kingdom and therefore guarantees its success. We do not build or create the kingdom. We inherit it as something prepared for us from the foundation of the world (Matt. 25:34). This is tremendous news; it puts the responsibility not on the shoulders of the fickle and sinful, but on the strong and merciful back of Jesus.

Love also requires us to tell our comfortable neighbors (and ourselves) that Jesus’ kingdom “is not of this world” (John 18:36), that a day of judgment is coming after which this earth will be destroyed and remade. As important as it is to show forth the future by justice and mercy in the present, it is also important to call people to repentance and faith, that they might enjoy the new world Christ will bring.

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Full disclosure: I’ve never smoked marijuana and if it were legalized I still wouldn’t smoke it.  As a Christian I also agree with the traditional interpretation that the biblical prohibition against drunkenness from alcohol (c.f. Proverbs 20:1 and Ephesians 5:18) should logically be taken as a general principle and be extended to marijuana and any other intoxicating drug or substance.  In other words, I am in agreement with those who say that, biblically speaking, getting high is as  much a sin as getting drunk.  Despite all this, I believe the legalization of marijuana in the U.S. represents the best and most just solution to what the The Global Commission on Drug Policy calls a “failed” global war on drugs.  Truthfully, I believe this would be choosing the lesser of two evils, but the evil of maintaining the status quo seems too great not to.

In high school I had a friend who smoked marijuana recreationally and once told me that he felt no remorse for doing so because it was a victimless crime, hurting no one.  I always remembered that because it’s a sentiment that most marijuana users I’ve known feel.  In the back of my mind I always thought, “Yeah, but what about the effects on your mental and physical health?! You can’t say it’s completely harmless if you are the one being hurt!”  However there are people who would refute that.  This became more clear to me than ever during the run-up to the voting on Proposition 19 here in California.  While I’m no scientist, I listened carefully to radio debates and read a couple good newspaper articles about the latest medical findings concerning the effects of marijuana use.  Surprisingly, occasional and recreational use of marijuana did not appear as destructive as I had thought, with experts citing a lack of evidence of it being a carcinogen or doing anywhere near the damage tobacco does.  From what I learned, there is still substantial evidence of chronic use interfering with and harming mental health, causing psychological and physical addiction, and causing respiratory problems.  But, the risks just seem to pale in comparison to those of other popular substances.  So was my friend right?  Is marijuana, overall, just as harmful as regulated substances like tobacco and alcohol?  These facts alone probably don’t make for the best argument for complete legalization but I certainly think they justify less harsh criminalization.

The not-so-exotic cash cow

As I’ve thought about my friend’s rationale, and heard it repeated by other marijuana users since, I think I understand more clearly the logic.  The assumption behind its harmless nature was that the weed they were puffing came from a tranquil little farm in the forests of Northern California maintained by Earth-loving hippies.  I’ve known and been around lots of marijuana smokers in my day and, from personal experience, this seems to be the dominant view here on the West Coast.  Is it true though?  Does all that dank, chronic really come from the mythical lands of British Columbia, Hawaii, Humboldt, Mendocino, and Eugene?

According to a Los Angeles Times article, in which they cite findings by the RAND Corporation, 40 to 67% comes from Mexico.  That’s a lot of Mexican pot.  In another interesting article, the RAND Corporation says this “accounts for 15 to 26 percent of the export revenues generated by Mexican drug trafficking organizations.”  And, as reported in the July 11, 2011 edition of TIME, “According to the White House Office of National Drug Control Policy, Americans consume $65 billion worth of illegal drugs annually, roughly what they spend on higher education, and most of those drugs are either produced in Mexico or transit through it.”  That’s a lot of money.  Marijuana being the most popularly used illegal drug in the U.S., that is indeed a lot of money and a lot of pot.  And this brings up the issue of the Mexican drug cartels.

Murderjuana

According to the same TIME article, “Drug-related murders in Mexico have jumped an alarming 760% since 2005.”  That’s 1,776 in 2005 up to 15,271 in 2010.  In the border town of Juarez alone, 3,200 of its residents were killed in 2010 earning the city the highest murder rate in the world.  Almost 70 Mexican journalists have been murdered by drug gangs since 2007.  Drug-related kidnapping in Mexico has jumped up 317% since 2005.  I have heard bits of similar news over the past couple years but the TIME article was disturbing and saddening to me to a new depth.  I look at this and wonder how an American pothead can feel good about themself while lighting up that joint.  This violence and devastation is not a well-kept secret and unless you’re growing your own marijuana you are most likely aiding it.  Put bluntly, you’re supporting terrorism.  To my friend who thinks his puffing is harmless, I would say, “…it’s only as harmless as the source of your bud!”  Odds are, your bud is dripping with blood.

As a Christian with no intention to smoke marijuana, I agree with experts like the Global Commission on Drug Policy that marijuana should be legalized, controlled, regulated, taxed, and grown in the U.S. Not for the silly reason of just increasing tax revenues (though that would be one small benefit), but in light of the facts that, 1) Marijuana is already widely used in the U.S. and shows no signs losing its appeal; 2) Sporadic use is not risk free, but doesn’t seem to be any worse than the risks associated with alcohol and tobacco; and 3) Marijuana is partly responsible for the money and power given to the homicidal cartels in Mexico and elsewhere in Latin America. I’m obviously not a policy expert but I can bet that legalization would create new, unforeseen problems. From a Christian standpoint, I also must acknowledge that allowing any sin to flourish in a society will ultimately prove to be harmful to the society. This is why I believe legalization would be the lesser of two evils.

Legalize It

The evil and violence in Mexico and Latin America is encroaching on America so doing something to help stop it there and prevent it from coming here is valid in my opinion.  And it is even more valid when we’re talking about a substance that we already have such a hypocritical opinion of as a nation–medical marijuana, inconsistent punishments from state to state, etc.  This is not Ron Paul’s libertarian argument to legalize every drug; I’m not so sure the pros of legalizing something as dangerous as cocaine and heroin outweigh the cons.  To me this is a matter of justice.  Justice for the orphans, widows, and other innocent victims of violence from Colombia to Mexico to the U.S., all stemming from a substance we already half-heartedly embrace.  I admit that this is complicated and I have oversimplified some things, but I still feel the best thing we can do is legalize it, and not just in California because that wouldn’t be enough: Legalize it nationwide.  America’s—and Mexico’s—“drug war” is exacerbating the violence. This wouldn’t eliminate all the violence, but at least it would reduce some of it. And that would surely be a positive step forward.

Thoughts?

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“Christians who cannot yet deal with the issues calmly and compassionately should keep their mouths shut, and they should certainly stay away from the front lines of ministry and public policy debate.”  This is the stern advice given by Christian author Thomas E. Schmidt towards the end of his book, Straight & Narrow?: Compassion & Clarity in the Homosexuality Debate.  It’s good advice and I hope to follow it here as I write what is sure to be my most controversial post yet.

For a long time I’ve been feeling like I should gather my thoughts and write something about Proposition 8’s banning of gay marriage here in California.  Yet at the same time I felt like whatever I wrote would probably be titled something like, “Why I Don’t Care About Gay Marriage,” and be about two paragraphs long.  Yes, it’s a complex issue, but since I hold the traditional and orthodox view of the Bible which recognizes homosexual behavior as sin, and given the U.S. already has LOTS of legalized sinful behavior (greed, adultery, divorce, pornography, and on, and on), then what difference would it make if homosexual people were allowed to marry?  Wouldn’t it just be one more sinful value of a culture and society that is already full of sin?  Another drop in the bucket couldn’t possibly make a difference, so who cares?  This was, basically, my thinking.  My basic assumption here was that gay marriage was harmless to society, or if there was harm it was too vague and therefore probably inconsequential.  But after reading Schmidt’s book I wonder if it would do real, tangible harm and is therefore like any other area of injustice that needs to be fought against.  I realize that may sound odd and offensive to some but I will explain along the way.

Read this book

First it should be noted that Straight & Narrow? is not really about gay marriage or any other policy debate.  Schmidt’s book is about homosexuality in general.  Over half of his heavily foot-noted book carefully discusses the data regarding homosexual lifestyle and behavior primarily in the U.S.  Everything from the causes of homosexual desires to the physical, psychological, and spiritual effects of acting on them is covered in this 180-page book.  Schmidt, being a professor at Christian college, has aimed his book primarily at Christians and therefore spends the other half of the book in full-fledged dissection and refutation of the revisionist interpretation of the Bible and Christian tradition which affirms homosexual behavior as either neutral or blessed by God.  This last reason was why I wanted to read his book, but the other half of Straight & Narrow? is what moved me to finally organize my thoughts and write something about this topic.

I think every Christian who is willing to seriously think, discuss, and vote about issues surrounding gay marriage owes it to themselves to read this book or one like it.  This book helped me understand my own heterosexuality better, not just the somewhat-removed-from-me topic of  homosexuality, and I think it will help you too.  Secondly, this book uses the word “compassion” in the title and I found it to be quite accurate for describing Schmidt’s writing.  It’s kind of token to say, “I’m not racist, I have black friends,” so it’s also pretty insufficient to say you’re tolerant or open-minded because you have gay friends.  Real understanding relies on truth, not anecdotal experiences we have with a few of our friends.  And in order to have deep and lasting compassion we need solid understanding, and understanding requires facts not anecdotes.  Schmidt’s book is extremely factual, but it is tempered with compassion from cover to cover.  Pulling together a vast number of secular health studies we see a picture of homosexuality in his book that is brutally honest and pretty grim, but it is always handled gently and compassionately.  I can’t say the same about the ways I’ve heard the topic addressed at church.  Can you?

We’re so awkward

And, since I’m on the topic of church: one of the big problems for us Christians when it comes to this issue of “gay rights” is that we don’t talk much about sex–whether inside the church walls or outside–so when we finally do start talking about sexual things it is often awkward and unproductive.  It’s kind of like when your parents tried to have “the talk” with you when you were a teenager (if they tried at all, of course).  Misinformation, generalizations, stereotyping, scare tactics, and a baseless Puritan ethic seem to define a lot of those parent-child discussions, and the same goes for those pastor-church discussions that many of us have heard.  Plus,  it’s often too little, too late.  Let’s get specific when we talk about sex–‘nasty’, graphic specific, if necessary–or else these discussions aren’t going to get us anywhere.  We’ll never truly understand and appreciate our incredible God-crafted sexualities, or know how to protect and use them.  Instead we’ll just continue drifting along in naive silence while letting the world give us our real “Sex Ed” in the form of Internet pornography, sitcoms, Maxim, Cosmopolitan, romantic comedies, and our stumbles into masturbation and premarital sex, ignorant to the harm we are inflicting upon ourselves and others.  It doesn’t have to be like this.  We need to drop this ridiculous hush-hush attitude.  The world dropped it a long time ago and its voice seems to be getting louder every day.  In fact, if we had spent less time being afraid of our sexuality and more time extolling the virtues of God’s creation of sexual intimacy between a husband and wife, and actually being “salt and light” in our culture, then I doubt we would be in this predicament of trying to defend something publicly (men and women having sex with each other) that up until now we’ve been uneasy even discussing privately.

Paul’s point about homosexuality in Romans 1 is that the people’s abandonment of God led to abandonment of their God-given sexualities.  So, if homosexuality is on the rise in our culture rather than hailing it as a sign of the End Times shouldn’t we take it partly as an indictment against the Church for either not reaching our culture with the truth, or for pushing people away from it?  How can we expect people who don’t know God to embrace his sexual order?  Schmidt sums this up well when he states that, “the first evidence of worshiping something other than the true God is that humanity will make of itself something other than true humanity.”  We should not be surprised when non-Christians embrace homosexual behavior–or any other sin–as something good.  It should also not fill us solely with zeal to debate and enforce Christian ethics through legislation.  It should fill us with compassion above all else.  As Schmidt rightly points out, “the Gospel is ultimately not about changing laws but about changing lives.”

Justice

This brings us not to the discussion of gay marriage, but, really, to the broader questions about gay rights and justice–topics that, as I mentioned, the book is not primarily concerned with.  Starting first with the concept of justice, it’s crucial to remember that “justice” is about using power to protect or rescue from abuse those who don’t have the power to protect or rescue themselves.  Justice is central to God’s very nature and this has been revealed as plain as day in the over-arching themes of the Bible.  I hope this website has been clear in proclaiming and upholding that truth.  Because God is about justice, working for justice–through prayer and action–is what Christians need to be about too, as unpopular and inconvenient as that might be for us.  When we think about homosexuality then, is there any injustice being done?  Yes, but not in the way we’re usually told to think about this issue.  As Straight & Narrow? details, homosexuals and their allies have successfully transformed what was first deemed a psychological disorder by health professionals in the mid-20th century into a legitimate personal identity, and thereby turned the debate into an American civil rights issue.  The powerless and abused, in the movement’s terms, are people with homosexual desires who can’t act on their urges the way that heterosexuals can act on theirs.  The image of an oppressed minority in the same vein as an ethnic group was intentionally marketed and has taken root in many equality-minded societies around the world.  This strategy continues to prove effective.  However I see this as misleading and as a distortion of true justice for two main reasons.

First, contrary to the message of advocates, the homosexual population does not make up a large or even “sizeable” minority nor is it the equivalent of an ethnic group.  According to the official health and demographic studies done in Europe and North America referenced by Schmidt, homosexuals make up about 1% of the population of Western nations.  For some perspective, this would be comparable to the American Indian and Alaskan Native population–according to the 2010 U.S. Census data.  3 million Americans seems like a lot of people, but if we look at how highly visible homosexuality is in our culture and how frequently it is discussed in our news and portrayed in entertainment then we would easily conclude that this population is significantly larger–when in fact it is proportionally quite small.  I’m not suggesting a conspiracy on the part of the ‘liberal media’ for painting an inaccurate picture and neither does the book, but this disproportionate representation is no accident and should be understood as an indication of advocates’ success in pushing their cause to the forefront.  Truthfully, the fact of these extremely low numbers hurt a movement that is working to achieve a sense of normalcy akin to ethnic groups.  This is probably why we don’t hear these kinds of statistics cited very often.  Not being up front either by inflating or ignoring statistics is certainly dishonest and unjust on one level, but I feel that the greater injustice occurs when homosexuals equate their struggles with those of historically oppressed people groups, namely blacks.  Our invisible sexual desires are but a miniscule component of what makes us human.  The science, as Schmidt points out, is inconclusive as to “what makes someone gay”, however, we must always remember that desire alone does not define who we are.  What Schmidt stresses repeatedly–and the Bible affirms–is that we are more than the sum of our sexual urges.  They shouldn’t define us or dictate to us who we “are”, gay or not.  Race and ethnicity, however, though also just a component of our humanity, are distinctions that we wear on our sleeves our entire lives, 24 hours a day.  They mark our culture, our language, our lineage, our heritage as people.  Black people living in America have had to endure unspeakable evils all the while being unable to hide their blackness.  Homosexuals on the other hand can, and often do, hide their sexual desires and have also successfully earned a high status for themselves despite social stigmas–in fact, Straight & Narrow cites that the education and income levels are statistically higher among homosexuals than heterosexuals.  Elevating sexual desire to the level of skin color is wrong and I would think that many black people–who, by the way, outnumber homosexuals by a good 35 million–would find that logic offensive to their struggle.

Second, homosexuality is not harmless and therefore complicates the notion of justice.  One of the core tenets of homosexual advocacy is that homosexuality is as benign as heterosexuality and poses no threat to a society’s well-being.  The angle of this argument comes from the idea that homosexuals won’t harm heterosexuals so we shouldn’t be afraid of each other.  While it may be true that little tangible harm comes to heterosexuals, the harm afflicted upon homosexuals via the homosexual lifestyle is substantial.  Schmidt dedicates an entire 31-page chapter of his book to citing medical report after medical report in order to pull back the wool on the traumatic realities of homosexual sex and lifestyle.  The chapter is not a scare tactic or a taunt, it is a sober disclosure of what the medical community has known for a long time: homosexual sex acts and lifestyle are extremely damaging to the human mind and body.  I won’t go into tons of detail because Schmidt does a way better job than I ever could, so I will simply quote his conclusion on the matter and encourage you to read his book:

No honest look at current scientific research allows us to view homosexual practice as peaceable and harmless.  For the vast majority of homosexual men, and for a significant number of homosexual women–even apart from the deadly plague of AIDS–sexual behavior is obsessive, psychopathological and destructive to the body.  If there were no specific biblical principles to guide sexual behavior, these considerations alone would constitute a compelling argument against homosexual practice.  Our bodies must not be martyrs to our desires. (Page 130)

It is this reality that complicates any discussion of justice because if true Godly justice is about using power to protect/rescue those who don’t have the power to protect/rescue themselves, wouldn’t we do well to limit the extent to which homosexual behavior is permitted?   For the safety and well-being of those with urges to act on potentially destructive desires shouldn’t we restrict their ability to do so?  No Bible-believing, Jesus-worshiping Christian should want extreme, Sharia-style prohibitions against homosexual behavior, but if in this case “legislating morality” is synonymous with protecting people from harmful behavior then why should we should shy away from it?  (See, I told you this was a complicated discussion.)

When we advocate for legislation that restricts drug and alcohol use, or criminalizes prostitution, or creates safer building codes, or bans unsafe chemicals, we are attempting to legislate morality.  Our morals tell us that people should be protected from other people and, at times, from themselves, so we create laws to ensure that this happens.  Every law, therefore, is a legislation of some form of morality.  The real question that we need to ask ourselves is what type a morality we want to legislate: Christian morality or secular, humanist morality?

Back to the topic of gay marriage

In setting aside the debate about the potential effects of gay marriage on society–which is a valid debate–we are able to ask more fundamental questions about gay behavior itself.  These are questions I haven’t answered for myself, but as you can see they take a very different angle than the one taken by the so-called “religious right” that, to many, appears concerned only with its own personal well-being and the status quo.  I feel strongly that these are the kinds of questions Christians need to be asking if we are really concerned with biblical justice and having real compassion on our homosexual neighbors.  But we must first have understanding–both of homosexuality and of our scriptures.

But what about the issue of gay marriage?  What have I learned from all this?  If the homosexual lifestyle is harmful on an individual level, is there also harm to society if we allow homosexuals to marry?  I wouldn’t call it the “traditional Christian view”, but the one that the seems to be all over the media and seems to be perceived as “what Christians think” is the sensational belief that God will do to America what He did to Sodom and Gomorrah (Genesis 19:1-29) if we allow gay marriage.  To this I would respond that our society already reeks of violence, greed, fornication, gluttony, materialism and just about every other sin and vice, so it is highly unlikely–and very unbiblical in my view–that allowing gay marriage would hasten Christ’s return and the end of the world.  As to the other perceived “Christian viewpoint” that gay marriage effectively represents a threat to God’s institution of marriage and the family, I would agree with Straight & Narrow? that it probably does and I would encourage you to read Schmidt’s book for a few thoughtful reasons why if you aren’t sure about this.  However, it doesn’t take a master theologian to recognize that divorce, spousal and child abuse, infidelity, children born out-of-wedlock, absent fathers, and unloved and undisciplined children have been effectively eroding Christian family values in America for decades and will continue to do so unless something changes, drastically.  Simply preventing gay marriage isn’t going to preserve our Christian society when we don’t have one to begin with.  If we Christians want to initiate a societal change and uphold Christian values then we can start by trying a lot harder to stop participating in these already existent evils ourselves and then humbly help others do so as well.  Then we can start having this gay marriage debate with a little integrity.  Let’s not be hypocrites; let’s first take the plank out of our eye, and then we will see clearly to remove the speck from our society’s eye (cf. Luke 6:42).  May God help us be salt and light in our world.

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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