Wednesday, November 30, 2011

The Biggest Idol of All

I mentioned last blog how depressed I was by the failure of the Congressional Super Committee to make any progress.  I had friends who just laughed cynically over the whole thing:  "What did you expect, Charlie?  It's congress!"  

I get it--but I don't want to cave in to cynicism.  I don't think the Christian should.  I think it is too easy to say that the Super Committee log-jam happened simply because each member was trying to save his or her political skin.  I am sure that that was part of the picture, but there were also sincerely held and conflicting ideals in the mix.   

Being an involved citizen (or congressperson) is a little like being married. It is living 24/7 with somebody besides yourself (in the case of politics, lots of somebodies). This would be fine if nobody but you wanted to be at the center of things. Unfortunately, everyone else is just like you in thinking that his opinion, his candidate, and his strategy for making things better are all the best. This is where the heat in politics comes from most deeply: everybody wants things to go his way. 

Given this analysis we can see where the solution to political heat must begin—and continue. Each of us must surrender the throne he has wrongly assumed. He must surrender it first to God, by sincerely trusting God for the outcomes he seeks, and second to his neighbor in service. 

Doing these things will not mean that we will no longer have any heartfelt disagreements—even in the church. Nor does it guarantee that, if you serve me, I will in turn serve you (people spurned Jesus’ love and they may well spurn yours). Nevertheless if you do your part, you will find the heat in you dropping down a notch or two. For your sense that all is well will no longer depend on getting things your way. “Winning” will no longer mean getting your candidate or policy in place; it will mean doing the right thing and leaving the results in God’s hands. You will find yourself more able to back down when someone insults you. Winning a school board debate won’t be quite as important as it once was, since your ego will no longer be invested in the outcome, and for that reason compromise will be easier. When love begins to replace winning for growing numbers of citizens, life together becomes more tolerable.

Tuesday, November 22, 2011

Political Log James, Idolatry, and the Golden Rule

In the last few blogs I have been saying that idolatry is the reason we get so angry over political differences.  We commit idolatry whenever we shift our deepest hopes and allegiances from God and to something (or someone) else—say a candidate or a political strategy or an ideal—like privacy at all costs.  Idolatry is an addiction, a habit of the heart, pulling at us like gravity.     We have a very difficult time shaking it.

Why did the congressional super committee just fail?  There are lots of complex reasons I am sure.  But if we could see down to the foundations of the heart we would see idolatry at work.  And I am not just picking on those twelve.  Had I been given the misfortune of sitting on that committee I would have been as susceptible as any of them to the forces of my heart’s misplaced affection—political ambition, fear of people, or something else.   

The beginning of the way out of idolatry, and of the log-jams it creates, is a trust in God that is sufficiently strong to warrant living aggressively by the Golden Rule.   We are not very good at this.  Many activist believers, for example, have sought to redress the anti-Christian bias in textbooks, or to make public school facilities available after hours for Christian meetings (often with good results), or to pursue litigation in defense of Christian conscience, or to expose the anti-Christian bias in the academy. These are, of course, all worthy undertakings, as far as they go. If Christians do not blow the whistle on anti-Christian bias, who will?
The difficulty, as I see it, is that we often do not go far enough. Our active interest in the freedom of conscience often extends only as far as we have felt our rights and freedoms as Christians being threatened. Assuming that you desire prayer in public schools (I realize that Christians differ on the wisdom of doing so at all), would you do so with as much fervor if you lived in Honolulu, where praying would as likely be to a Hindu deity as to Christ, as you would if you lived in Memphis, which is in a heavily Christian part of our country)? Perhaps not. Sadly, in our valid concern over the decay of faith in our society, we may find ourselves advocating action that marginalizes the faith of the lonely Jewish kid in the otherwise Christian fourth grade classroom in rural Mississippi.
Do you see the problem? Christians are, or appear to be, religiously self-serving when it comes to their engagement with public life. We can make such an idol of the freedom of our own conscience that we become blind to the fact that freedom of every conscience is a Christian principle worth fighting for.

One need not be a religious relativist to acknowledge this. The Jesus who claimed he was the only way to the Father never forced anyone to believe him. He has no place in his kingdom for coerced disciples, but says instead, “Come to me, all you who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest” (Matthew 11:28). In a day when so many angrily assert their rights, Christians have a remarkable opportunity to demonstrate a totally different mindset, the mindset of a statesman—one that firmly defends the non-Christian’s right to believe as he or she does.
I am not suggesting that we cease bringing what we believe into the public discussion. Nor am I suggesting that we cease believing that Jesus Christ is the Lord of all. But I am suggesting that we trust his Lordship enough to obey him when he commands us to love our neighbors as we love ourselves. If we want our voices to be heard in the public debates, we will also want the voices of our Muslim, secular, and atheist neighbors to be heard. We will look for ways to say, in effect, “I think you are dead wrong in what you believe, but I will go to the wall for your freedom to argue for it.” We will see as equally worthy of legal consideration the rights of a Caribbean cult to sacrifice chickens in Miami and the rights of a fundamentalist church in rural Ohio to start a school. With a love undergirded by confidence in Christ’s ability to promote his kingdom in any setting, we will resist the temptation to be selfish in our religious advocacy, concerned only to defend our turf from our enemies. We will always have an eye on the common good.
If the Golden Rule should apply in the broad world of public life, should it not also apply in the narrower world of church life? Should not Republicans, Democrats, and Independents be able to worship together under the same roof? And should they not be able genuinely to listen to each other, and to disagree without blowing the church apart?  Should they not want to?
Living by the Golden Rule is not easy. It provides no clear-cut answers for how to hold to and advance our deep convictions while also honoring the neighbor who disagrees with us, whether that neighbor is an atheist or a fellow believer. The Golden Rule offers no blueprint for building a safe and godly America (which should be OK, since we have decided not to worship America—right?).   The Golden rule, rather, charts a path for us, a path whose end we cannot see, full of difficult turns (complex thinking), steep climbs (the hard work of listening), and sudden descents (humble apologies). But it is the path that Jesus commands and for that reason we should follow it. Most important, the Golden Rule gives to us the antidote to the self-protective and community-compromising worship of ourselves and our views, for by taking this path we demonstrate that we are worshiping the true God, the God who is big enough to vindicate what is true and real in his own way and in his own time.

Wednesday, November 9, 2011

More idols that stir up political heat

I said last post that the heart of the matter in political heat is the heart.  That is to say, we often disagree so furiously with each other because we have allowed something other than God to be our heart’s first love.

I was deeply moved by the election of Barack Obama in 2008. I did not endorse everything he advocated, but I was nevertheless happily amazed that our country chose to elect an African American—and that such an unprecedented change in power had occurred without violence (a rare thing in world history: John McCain admirably championed that peace when he silenced the bitter voices of his own constituency during his concession speech). When I saw the President-elect’s daughters on the victory platform on election night and imagined that they would soon be in the White House, not as guests, but as hosts, I could not help but weep. But in the midst of all the euphoria, I was also troubled by the nearly messianic status that Mr. Obama had come to enjoy. “He is only a man,” I kept saying.

What drove the adulation, I think, was idolatry—undue reliance on a political leader. 

We do the same sort of thing when we rely too heavily on a particular movement.  When the Christian Right rose to power in the 1980s, many Christians who had heretofore been inactive politically began to discover that they could affect the national agenda. And with that discovery came a tendency to expect too much of political solutions to the nation’s deepest ills.

There is nothing idolatrous about political activism or about advancing skilled politicians whom you feel will push things in a good direction. The idolatry arises when we begin to think that things will be so much better if “we can just get this law enacted,” or “we can just get this person into office and that person out of office,” or “we can just mandate this book for the history curriculum and that book for biology.” Certainly leaders and policies make some difference--  but not as much as we sometimes think, given our sprawling polity and selfish hearts. How easily (and unfairly) we tend to blame elected officials for the social ills of our time, as if greed, family problems, uneven pay scales, failures in education, and inner-city violence were simply the government’s fault. Those in office bear responsibility and their decisions affect our lives to some degree, but such scapegoating, which appears with a vengeance during election years, reflects an unrealistic and idolatrous reliance upon the machinery of government. We often grow to hate certain administrations and figures because we once loved them too much. Just think of the astonishing political reversals in the 2010 midterm elections.

If some of us tend to make a god out of public empowerment, others among us tend to make a god out of privacy. Or, perhaps, at different times we tend to make gods out of both.

Think about privacy. In certain areas of life we passionately want to be left alone to make our own way. My observation is that we do this whatever end of the political spectrum we occupy. From the left we cry foul whenever religion finds its way into our relationships (“Religion has no right to impose a particular view of marriage on me!”). From the right we cry foul when Uncle Sam finds his way into our wallets (“Congress has no right to impose such limits on my income!”). Those on the left assert the “right” to terminate a pregnancy with as much fervor as those on the right assert the “right” to bear arms.

The issues may be different, and may carry different weight, but what awakens the passion in each case is the threat, either perceived or real, to personal freedom. And the passion increases in direct proportion to how fervently we believe that that freedom is essential to our lives—the degree, in other words, to which we have permitted it to occupy a godlike place in our hearts.

The worship of privacy may be more of a problem inside the church than we think.  We may feel safe and even comfortable “going public” about our politics at church, but that may be only because there is no risk that doing so will invite any challenges. After all, we may have chosen a church where our private convictions risk no violation because everyone agrees with us.  This happens, incidentally, on both the left and the right, and we must examine ourselves before being critical of others about it.

More discussion of idolatry next blog

Thursday, October 27, 2011

Why do we get so angry at each other?

I was recently talking about this blog with a young couple in my congregation.  The husband reported that politics tends  to get him pretty worked up and he agrees with my suggestion that he has at times allowed it to become more important to him than the church.   The wife reported that she runs away from politics in the church because the heat—or the possibility of heat –upsets her.  With a wry smile she said that one of the reasons she chose to be a missionary in Africa for a number of years is that she wanted to get away from fights in the American church.

Often the only reason churches don’t explode is that Christians of differing politics have already split from each other. Evangelical blacks (who tend to be Democrats) don’t as a rule worship with evangelical whites (who have tended to be Republicans—though that is changing). Evangelicals who are closely linked to academia and are more likely to be Democrats tend to drift from evangelicals who are closely linked to business and are more likely to be Republican.  

Why are we so divided? Why do we disagree so much?  Why is the heat in our disagreements so often indistinguishable from the heat in the broader culture?  Aren’t we supposed to be different?

One reason, well documented by sociologist James Hunter, is that many Christians have joined the broader culture in the mistaken assumption that public life is the same thing as political life.  For this reason we tend to think that the only, or best, way to change the culture is through politics. But politics is intrinsically coercive, using power (rather than persuasion) to bring about change. And forced change tends to turn up the heat in public life; it tends to polarize people, transforming ideas into slogans, discussions into shouting matches, and the opposition into demons. This is the case even when Christians are involved; perhaps more so since Christians tend to feel that they have a mandate from God in their efforts. Christians need to rediscover that “public” is much larger than “political.”

But why do we seize on solutions, political or otherwise, with such polarizing energy? There is more to the problem than too narrow a definition of public life.

The heart of the matter is the heart. Our hearts tend to drift away from their proper center in God. We are, in other words, idolaters, prone to setting our deepest hopes and identities in things other than God. And these false hopes are so fragile that we become angry and afraid when they are threatened, as they so often are by politics. For one reason or another people of differing politics threaten the leaders, strategies, or ways of life that we have come to rely upon too heavily. If, for example, we have built our lifestyles and future plans around a largely deregulated economy, we will tend to become angry (even infuriated) over a political administration that pushes hard for regulation. If on the other hand we have built our lifestyles and future plans around certain governmental social benefits, we may find ourselves growing nervous and angry—even furious—over a political administration that aims to remove or diminish entitlements.

The most immediate and perhaps the best thing any of us could do for America is to take Psalm 97:7 to heart (All who worship images are put to shame, those who boast in idols”), searching our lives and attitudes carefully and repenting of our complicity in the idolatries of our time.

Think for example of the economic woes of 2008–2009. Many Americans rejoiced to see Bernard Madoff, architect of a $50 billion Ponzi scheme that ruined the lives of many, brought to justice. But how many of us were prepared to admit to our own headlong pursuit of money? Mr. Madoff was a hero as long as he was producing money for us; he became the villain only when he didn’t. At the heart of the financial meltdown was what one of my church leaders (himself an executive in one of the firms that came near to collapse) called a “tsunami of debt.” Certainly greedy bankers and lazy regulators were key players in this, but vast numbers of us contributed to the problem. How many of us were not drawn into the worship of the “good life” that the world of easy credit offered? How many of us spent far beyond our means simply because we thought we could get away with it?

“Pick your poison” a friend of mine says regarding the idols available to us. Some of us may feel free from the worship of money. But what about other obsessions: celebrity mongering (a recent survey indicated that a distressingly high percentage of teenage girls would rather be “the personal assistant to a famous singer or movie star” than a U. S. Senator or the president of a great university), or sexual addiction (pornography seems to be as much a problem for the church as it is for the rest of the culture). We pour money and energy into sports, into body image, into professional success, and into the acquisition of power. We grow angry at anyone or anything that threatens our freedom to spend as we please or to express ourselves as we please because we have become worshipers of unbridled freedom.

More talk next post on idolatry

Thursday, October 20, 2011

Why do we disagree politically?

I recently witnessed a debate between the co-authors of a new book entitled Left, Right, and Jesus.  They are both Bible loving evangelicals.  One is a young black woman, the other an older white man.  One (I will let you guess which) comes out on the political right—the other on the other side. 

As I listened I was reminded of Abraham Lincoln’s famous words in his Second Inaugural Speech:  “Both [sides] read the same Bible, and pray to the same God…”  But recollecting Lincoln didn’t make me cynical. Lincoln was no interpretive nihilist.  He plainly believed that some readings of the bible on the slavery issue were better than others. 

Interpretational nihilism is a trendy cop out—a lazy person’s excuse for not thinking hard.  On any issue some interpretations are better than others—say Bonhoeffer’s versus Hitler’s interpretations of the value of Jews.  Nevertheless it is very important to notice that two Bible loving people can come to very different places in politics.  They can do it with a high degree of integrity.  It is happening all the time these days, and we need to respect it in each other. 

Why the differences?  Because the way we see things, including the way we read the Bible, while it may not be completely controlled by our backgrounds and experience, will nevertheless be influenced by them.    One of the reasons we get so angry with each other is that we don’t realize this, or we do realize it but refuse to admit it.  We confuse the infallibility of the Bible with the infallibility of our interpretation of the Bible.

And why do we cling so stubbornly to our interpretation of the Bible when it comes to politics?  I am sure there are many reasons.  But one of them is that politics is more important to us than the church is.  If the church had its proper place in our hearts, if it occupied the place in our hearts that it occupies in the heart of Jesus (who died to save and make us one), we would be bending over backwards to give each other the benefit of the doubt, working double time to submit our own interpretations of Scripture to the scrutiny and critique of the brothers and sisters who disagree with us, looking for common ground.

I am happy to report that the co-authors in the debate I saw were gracious towards each other.  They sparred a bit, scoring points here and there, to applause from their different constituencies in the audience, but there was good will between them. 

We need such good will.  We need more meetings of this sort.  Christians on both sides need to be sitting together in the same room listening to each other.   The church needs to be different from the world, animated by a unity that is higher and deeper than that of party.

Wednesday, October 12, 2011

Anger, panic, and politics

One of the reasons we get so politically angry with each other inside and outside the church is fear.  This makes no sense.  Panic does not rightly belong in any believer’s heart.
                Consider Psalm 97. Verse 1 says, “The Lord reigns, let the earth be glad; let the distant shores rejoice” (Psalm 97:1).  Notice that “reigns” is a political word. It describes a king exercising dominion over his subjects, the ancient equivalent (roughly) of saying, “President so-and-so sits in the Oval Office.” Of course verse 1 says much more. We elect American presidents for a brief time. Their “reign” is neither permanent, nor absolute, nor flawless, nor worldwide, whereas God’s is all four. His rule causes the “earth” to be “glad” and the “distant shores” to rejoice.”  Psalm 97:9 declares his absolute sovereignty over all authorities, whether seen or unseen: “For you, Lord, are the Most High over all the earth; you are exalted far above all gods.” What an encouragement!
                When we bemoan the moral and social disintegration of American culture (whether we moan from the left or the right) we are often right. But when we speak to one another or to our own hearts in such a way as to stir up fear and panic, we are wrong. Our God reigns, and therefore we need not—we must not—be afraid as we exercise our civic responsibilities, no matter what seems to be going on around us.
                Consider the damage panic can bring. First of all, panic impairs judgment. If we give in to the voice that cries “Act now, or our great country will be forever lost!” we will find ourselves demanding easy and quick solutions to our nation’s problems, when in fact there are no such solutions. Christians, more than any others, should know that no candidate, no platform, no party has all the answers. But fear makes it easy to forget this.
                Panic breeds impatience not only with political process but also with people. It easily leads to browbeating and to polarization even in the church, the very place where God expects us to model the one community that will outlast all others. How quickly and tragically we accuse and demonize one another when we are afraid.   It is easy to demonize the rich and powerful (“take back Wall Street”), neglecting to note that some of the very rich are very generous.   Our hearts break over the killing of millions of unborn children, but are we really right to label every pro-choicer an advocate for murder and every woman who submits to abortion an accomplice in murder? What of the young woman who has been persuaded that the child within is not yet a child? What of the person who votes pro-choice because she cannot see how the legal battle against abortion will succeed rather than because she is pro-abortion?
                Because panic cries “Do something right now, before it is too late!” it dehumanizes us in our dealings with each other. For me to understand my neighbor’s motives and reasoning takes time, the very thing panic cannot stand.
                Panic can be used to justify falsehood. Some people, fearful of a religious takeover, have lifted Jefferson’s “wall of separation” idea out of its historical context and used it, dishonestly, to justify the silencing of the religious voice in every public place and discussion. Promoters of creationist literature, fearful of the impact of the teaching of evolution upon their children, have sought to sneak their material into a Pennsylvania public school by doctoring the terminology of their manual without substantially altering its content. Still others, fearful of the secularization of schools, have promoted “stealth candidates” with a hidden agenda (say, school prayer). Such subterfuge usually backfires, causing the opposition to retrench even further. Worse, when employed by believers, it dishonors the God they claim to serve by using ungodly means (lying) to advance an allegedly godly end.
                The worst thing about panic is that it displeases God. Fear is a matter of the heart, and our reigning King cares deeply and especially about our hearts, since it is from them that everything else issues (see Matthew 12:33–37; Mark 7:20–23). God cares about why we do something at least as much as he cares about what we do. Psalm 97 reminds us that, deep down, the fundamental tone of our lives must be joyful confidence in God’s sovereign reign, not fear: “The Lord reigns, let the earth be glad; let the distant shores rejoice....Rejoice in the Lord, you who are righteous, and praise his holy name.” (Psalm 97:1, 12). When I choose political and social action because I am afraid, even if I can justify that action from Scripture, I am denying God at a deep level. I am acting from unbelief. I am taking his majestic name in vain.
                The next time we find ourselves driven by fear, or we hear a message that urges us to act out of fear, consider Jesus. Our Lord saw the desperate evils of life far more clearly than we ever will, and yet he never panicked. In The Waiting Father Helmut Thielicke wrote:
                What tremendous pressures there must have been within him to drive him to hectic, nervous, explosive activity! He no one else ever sees, with an infinite and awful nearness, the agony of the dying man, the prisoner’s torment, the anguish of the wounded conscience, injustice, terror, dread, and beastliness. He sees and hears and feels all this with the heart of a Savior...Must this not fill every waking hour and rob him of sleep at night? Must he not begin immediately to set the fire burning, to win people, to work out strategic work...furiously...before the night comes when no man can work? That’s what we would imagine the earthly life of the Son of God to be like, if we were to think of him in human terms....But how utterly different was the actual life of Jesus! Though the burden of the whole world lay heavy on his shoulders...he has time to stop and talk to the individual...By being obedient in his little corner of the highly provincial precincts of Nazareth and Bethlehem he allows himself to be fitted into a great mosaic whose master is God...And why peace and not unrest goes out from him. For God’s faithfulness already spans the world like a rainbow: he does not need to build it; he needs only to walk beneath it.

There is more to say about anger.  Stay tuned.

Tuesday, October 4, 2011

Some of the things we fight over in the church.

We are bound to disagree over politics, not just in the culture but in the church as well. I bump into this reality all the time. One such occasion occurred in early 2009 when I had two very different appointments back to back. The first was with a leader in my church who wondered why we did not talk more forcefully about abortion and homosexuality. He wondered why we were more likely to speak out on trendy New York City issues like justice and mercy than to speak out and even act on the issues he was concerned about. He wondered why, for example, if we were prepared to sponsor a march against hunger, we were not also prepared to sponsor a protest in front of an abortion clinic.

I met next with a Christian graduate student at Columbia University. She told me that she had begun to drift away from Christian community because, as she put it, “I am beginning to find that the people I agree with theologically are the people I disagree with socially.” The issues for her were, interestingly, the same as those mentioned in my first appointment—abortion and homosexuality, but especially the latter. She was in a different place on those issues. She was not gay herself, but she had a number of close friends who were, and her love for them made her feel at odds, given her prior church experience, with the Christian community. She was confused about what the Bible had to say about committed homosexual partnerships, and she was struggling over what she would do if she became convinced that the Lord forbade them. We talked about many things—about the false choice the culture often presents (one either must completely accept the gay lifestyle or one must admit to homophobia), about the tendency in the evangelical world to elevate certain sins over others (homosexual sin over heterosexual sin; or sexual sins over other types of sin, like greed or gossip), about the fact that there are different legitimate strategies for nudging our culture in the direction of sexual health (California ballot initiatives being only one of them), about the difference between struggling with sin and embracing sin, and about the difference between homosexual inclination and homosexual behavior.

I came away from the second appointment thankful and perplexed (more later on my perplexity). I was thankful that this young person had felt comfortable talking to me, for I am “the church” by virtue of my role as a pastor. I could not help but think that she approached me because our church did not, in its public face, fit the stereotype that she had begun to react to. We were committed, as she discovered, to a traditional view of marriage (heterosexual, monogamous, lifelong unions), but we were also keen to keep our “front door” open, so that people like her and her friends would feel comfortable coming in for serious and honest discussion.

We are bound to disagree, not only over issues, but over which issues to “go public” on. Committed Christians, sometimes in the same church, sometimes in the leadership of the same church, can easily find themselves at odds with one another on these sorts of issues.

Such tensions arise not only between us but within us. I mentioned that I came away from the second appointment perplexed. The graduate student’s struggles reminded me of how confused people are, especially young people, even church-raised young people like her, about God’s way of wisdom when it comes to sexual matters. I found myself asking if our church’s relative public silence on the issue was in fact the best policy. Certainly it helped keep our front door more widely open than it might otherwise be. It certainly gave rise to an important and nuanced discussion with one particular person that might otherwise not have happened. But what about all the others out there? What about those in my own church who might need a lot more guidance than they realize?

How do we sort these (and other) matters out so that the church stays together?

Stay tuned?

Wednesday, September 21, 2011

Should Christians even care about politics?

Perhaps the best way to avoid splitting churches over politics is to keep Christians out of politics.  Isn’t this what Jesus wants?  Didn’t he say to Pilate, “My kingdom is not of this world.”  Isn’t the world lost and destined for burning?  So why should we get all worked up about political stuff? 

So goes the thinking of some people.  But such thinking is deeply flawed. Consider the discussion with Jesus over paying taxes to Caesar.

They sent some of the Pharisees and Herodians to Jesus to catch him in his words. They came to him and said, “Teacher, we know that you are a man of integrity. You aren’t swayed by others, because you pay no attention to who they are; but you teach the way of God in accordance with the truth. Is it right to pay the imperial tax to Caesar or not? Should we pay or shouldn’t we?”
            But Jesus knew their hypocrisy. “Why are you trying to trap me?” he asked. “Bring me a denarius and let me look at it.” They brought the coin, and he asked them, “Whose image is this? And whose inscription?”
            “Caesar’s,” they replied.
            Then Jesus said to them, “Give back to Caesar what is Caesar’s and to God what is God’s.” And they were amazed at him. (Mark 12:13–17)

A brilliant parry of his enemies’ efforts to trap him, Jesus words in Mark 12 offer profound and revolutionary insight into the believer’s relationship to government. Note first that Jesus openly talked about tough political issues.

Paying taxes to Caesar infuriated some people. The Jews of that time lived in Palestine under a foreign government, parallel in some ways to the French during the German occupation in World War II (or to Afghans living with foreign soldiers in their streets—a less comfortable parallel for Americans to contemplate). Though cryptic and influenced by the ulterior motives of his opponents, Jesus’ comments nevertheless took seriously the practical social problem presented by the question.

Jesus’ readiness to talk politics reminds us of his claim to rule the whole of life. He means to reign not merely over our private worlds—the world of family, close friends, personal devotions, and so on—but our entire world, including our political life.

Notice that Jesus answers the political question with a command, not just a suggestion: “Give back to Caesar what is Caesar’s and to God what is God’s.” Our Lord requires appropriate allegiances of us. He does not permit us to treat political questions as non-questions, matters that we can take or leave because they are irrelevant to our obligation to him.

Jesus is the Second Adam, the Messiah who has come to reverse all the damage brought upon human experience by the first  Adam.  Revelation describes him not only as the Lamb of God, but also as he Lion of Judah—the ruler.  To follow him is to be part of his reign—and that has to mean that everything, including social and political life, matters. 

Tuesday, September 6, 2011

Should Christians divide over politics?

Leading up to and following the 2004 election, Woodland Hills Church, an evangelical mega-congregation on the outskirts of St. Paul, Minnesota, caught national attention when it lost twenty percent of its membership because pastor Gregory Boyd refused to endorse a Republican agenda. He refused to do this not because he was pro-choice or because he sought to defend gay marriage (he was conservative on these issues). He did it because of his understanding of the role of the church. “When the church wins the culture wars, it inevitably loses,” Mr. Boyd preached. “When it conquers the world, it becomes the world. When you put your trust in the sword, you lose the cross” (Laurie Goodstein, New York Times, June 30, 2006). Despite the fact that Rev. Boyd took six sermons to explain himself, one thousand members of the congregation left.
Why, we must ask, did this exodus happen? I suspect that if the thousand had been polled regarding their view of Christ, the centrality of the cross, and the doctrine of the Trinity, they would have been on the same page as the four thousand who stayed. This means that it had to be something else—a lesser thing from God’s perspective—that led to the division. No doubt the reasons from person to person varied in the details, but the fact remains that twenty percent of a church “walked” because of politics—despite the fact that Jesus prays that we “may be one” as he and his Father are one, so that “the world will know that you sent me and have loved them even as you have loved me” (John 17:22, 23).

Much is at stake here. If the crucified and risen Messiah cannot hold Democrats and Republicans together under the same roof, if he cannot enable them to work through their differences, then he is not much of a Savior—he certainly is not the Messiah of the world. Stories like Woodland Hills “prove” that in the final analysis, we are a social organization just like any other social organization—united by the same sort of bonds that unite other human groups, and apt to dissolve for the same reasons that other human groups dissolve. This is more than unfortunate. It is disobedient, a betrayal of our Savior, the cause to which he has called us, and the purpose for which he died. It proves that we have allowed our vision for America to capture our hearts more deeply than God’s vision for us as his ambassadors. And the effect is to compromise the power of our testimony to the world.

Tuesday, August 30, 2011

Can Christians be activists without hating each other?

Two weeks before the 2008 national election my church in New York held a church-wide forum featuring a discussion of some of the contents of this book followed by presentations by two congregation members, one who was planning to vote Republican and the other who was planning to vote Democrat. After declaring how they were going to vote, the panelists spent some time explaining their positions and then entertained questions from the congregation. Their gracious tone, their thoughtful engagement with Scripture, and the nuance of their thinking demonstrated that the church (even an evangelical and reformed church like ours) really can be a “big tent” where people can deeply disagree and yet still love each other and worship together. It held out some hope for the role of the church in a country whose public debates have become so rancorous that the attempted murder of Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords in January 2011 at a meet and greet event in Tucson felt almost inevitable.

So much has happened in our country since the turn of the century. We have had eight years of a Republican administration, led by a president of strong evangelical faith. We have entered a war with Iraq whose initial goals were met quickly but which has lingered with much loss of life all around.  We have continued to fight in Afghanistan, with heated debate over the value and goals of the mission. We have entered the worst financial crisis since the Great Depression. We have seen, with astonishment, the election of an African American to highest office.

Along the way we have seen the rise of a new generation of evangelicals whose political engagements and interests have been broader than those of its predecessors, so much so that many in this new generation have contributed to the election of a Democratic administration. This shift has not been easy for the church. It has led to fissures, name-calling and distrust between evangelicals—vividly illustrated by the explosive political split of a mega church in sub-urban St. Paul at the time of the 2004 election.  Discord has deepened in the rightward swing of the 2010 midterm elections and threatens to be as wide as ever in the election of 2012.
But I am convinced that the broadening and subsequent confusion among evangelicals has also been good for the church, because it has forced believers to try to understand each other.

I remain convinced that Christians have the resources to do what the world cannot do—to disagree and be engaged politically without polarizing. But I am also convinced that this will not be easy, unless, of course, Christians abandon all concern for the world, an option that is not open to us. Jesus commands us to be salt and light, to pray for our neighbors, and to contribute to their welfare. The moment we begin seriously to love our neighbors as ourselves we will find ourselves disagreeing with each other on how best to do it.

This blog, a prelude to book I will be publishing in February 2012 (Body Broken: Can Republicans and Democrats Sit Together in the Same Pew?—New Growth Press), aims to keep Christians engaged with the world without derailing or exploding the church.

Stay tuned.