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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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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 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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“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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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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I have been thinking about works of justice and mercy incorrectly.

It was in college that I was first confronted with God’s call upon His people to care for the poor and oppressed.  Through various ministry experiences working with the poor and a steady diet of Social Gospel teaching from my InterVarsity Christian Fellowship chapter, I emerged from my campus as one thoroughly convinced of God’s demand for social justice and compassion.  With such a foundation in place it was up to me to live this out by applying it in the real world.  Since my understanding of Christianity was, unfortunately, tainted with bits of the Social Gospel, I often felt that it was of utmost importance that any aid, resources, etc., given to the poor have the largest impact possible—i.e. where the need was greatest and the biggest difference could be made ‘for the Kingdom.’  The logical way to prioritize need, therefore, was from greatest to least.  So, if I was ready to give money to the poor I would just try to find where in the world conditions seemed most severe and the people most desperate.  This usually wasn’t very hard thanks to newsletters from the numerous humanitarian organizations I supported.  While I had no illusions that I was always giving to the most desperate situation on Earth, I felt good knowing that I was strategically giving to the those who truly needed my help rather than wasting my money on a situation that wasn’t all that bad relative to the rest of the world.

In my zeal to be logical and as practical as possible in helping the poor I reasoned that the most important factor in determining where aid should be given is the severity of the need.  In other words, I thought that those that are most deserving of my money are those who are simply the most desperate.  I always made the effort to balance my aid to the poor with support for Christians whose primary work is evangelism, but what this seemingly logical and efficient form of stewardship was usually doing was excluding the poor within the Church from my ministry of financial aid because, interestingly, the most desperate people in the world during the last decade have tended to be non-Christians.

Evangelism is good.  Working for justice and mercy on behalf of the poor is good.  Justice and mercy as an act of evangelism can be good too.  But, what about caring for the needs of the Church?  Well, praise God for giving an over-analyzer like me the simple, “no duh” truths preserved in the Scriptures!  The following passages from the Bible are the ones that God recently used in rapid succession to erode my idea of stewardship as I was reading Mark’s Gospel one morning…

“I tell you the truth, anyone who gives you a cup of water in my name because you belong to Christ will certainly not lose his reward.”
(Mark 9:41)

“The King will reply, ‘I tell you the truth, whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers of mine, you did for me.’” (Matthew 25:40)

“Suppose a brother or sister is without clothes and daily food. If one of you says to him, ‘Go, I wish you well; keep warm and well fed,’ but does nothing about his physical needs, what good is it? In the same way, faith by itself, if it is not accompanied by action, is dead.’”
(James 2:15-17)

“If anyone has material possessions and sees his brother in need but has no pity on him, how can the love of God be in him?” (1 John 3:17)

“Therefore, as we have opportunity, let us do good to all people, especially to those who belong to the family of believers.”  (Galatians 6:10)

“And now, brothers, we want you to know about the grace that God has given the Macedonian churches. Out of the most severe trial, their overflowing joy and their extreme poverty welled up in rich generosity. For I testify that they gave as much as they were able, and even beyond their ability. Entirely on their own, they urgently pleaded with us for the privilege of sharing in this service to the saints…But just as you excel in everything—in faith, in speech, in knowledge, in complete earnestness and in your love for us—see that you also excel in this grace of giving…Our desire is not that others might be relieved while you are hard pressed, but that there might be equality. At the present time your plenty will supply what they need, so that in turn their plenty will supply what you need. Then there will be equality, as it is written: ‘He who gathered much did not have too much, and he who gathered little did not have too little.’…There is no need for me to write to you about this service to the saints…You will be made rich in every way so that you can be generous on every occasion, and through us your generosity will result in thanksgiving to God. This service that you perform is not only supplying the needs of God’s people but is also overflowing in many expressions of thanks to God. Because of the service by which you have proved yourselves, men will praise God for the obedience that accompanies your confession of the gospel of Christ, and for your generosity in sharing with them and with everyone else.”
(2 Corinthians 8-9)

To the world it would probably seem prejudiced, narrow-minded, self-interested, or whatever, to see me feeling more affinity towards a rich Christian living in America than for an orphaned non-Christian in Africa.  Yet, as Christians, we are a part of God’s eternal family, of whom Jesus is the firstborn.  And as a mother loves and is committed to her child more than to someone else’s child, so God loves and is committed, first and foremost, to those who love His ways and trust Jesus.  In this same way it should be my natural priority to love and provide for this eternal family of mine just as I would my own kin.  If I don’t love my own family then “how can the love of God be in [me]?”  It can’t.

If I come to the aid of poor and desperate non-Christians it must be out of the compassion that God has given me and be in hope that they will see, through my gift, a God who cares about them and indiscriminately offers spiritual liberation.  But, if I really love my Christian brothers and sisters as much as Jesus Christ then I can’t overlook their needs just because they don’t seem as ‘severe’ as those outside my eternal family.  After all, giving aid is not about changing the world; giving is about showing love.  And what kind of love am I displaying if I give my bread to my hungry neighbor while my brother starves?  Not a love that is from God.  This is why I feel convicted to prioritize my ministry to the poor this way, according to the Scriptures:

1st = poor and needy Christians

2nd = poor and needy non-Christians

Where in the world are my brothers and sisters in need?  Who in my local church needs help?  How can I provide for my brothers and sisters who are struggling because they aren’t as fortunate as I am?  These are the questions I need to be asking.  These are the questions our local churches need to be asking.  When we do our good works of justice and mercy our first target should be those within the Church whom are suffering .  This is what caring for “the least of these brothers of [ours]” looks like.

We who are privileged enough to be able to offer life-changing assistance to the poor must do so if we are to follow God’s will for our lives.  Yet I believe many of us—especially me—need to pause and do some soul-searching before frantically throwing our money at the next famine or natural disaster that an aid agency brings to our attention.  If I ever feel more compassion and kinship towards the world than towards the Church then I have really veered off course and forgotten that “Both the one who makes men holy and those who are made holy are of the same family.  So Jesus is not ashamed to call them brothers.” (Hebrews 2:11)  May God help us unashamedly love our eternal brothers and sisters more than the world, just like Jesus does.

Peace,
The Lord is God

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