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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.

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)

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.]

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

 

The Bigger Picture

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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.

Legalize It

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?