|Three Sermons on Micah 6:8

The Woodland Hills Church recently had a 3-part series on Micah 6:8. I appreciated it, so I wanted to share it here.

PART 1: Love Mercy (Greg Boyd)

Normally I would be frustrated if a speaker made this biblical mention of mercy into a purely “spiritual” concept (i.e., God’s forgiving mercy toward us), but (a) this sermon’s rendering is beautiful to me, and (b) Boyd and the congregation have a deep and wide embrace of practical mercy that transcends a single sermon. Boyd hints at some of the social relevance of the phrase, but it’s not the focus.

PART 2: Walk Humbly (Seth McCoy)

Putting up with the poor audio quality is worth it. McCoy’s analysis of authority and vulnerability comes through loud and clear. Jesus radical vulnerability has moved me, challenged me, and I‘m encouraged to hear a pastor address it head on. It seems to me that many Christians are fixated on personal and national security rather than the vulnerability Jesus modeled for us.

PART 3: Do Justice (Greg Boyd)

The series ends on the critical theme of proactively working for justice–what is due people who were created in the image of God. As a neo-Anabaptist, you can guess a general approach Boyd will bring. It’s a conviction I share with him (not surprising since I studied at a Mennonite seminary), though I have sympathy for Jim Wallis’s approach too. I respect both men a lot, and I don’t feel the need to critique either of them on this. Regardless, it’s an important debate that I’m glad was included in the conversation.

I really appreciate what Boyd says about calling some government policies “Christian.” I have tried to make that argument as well. We can say some values are consistent with Christianity, but policy implementation is so fraught with unforeseen complications and unintended consequences. Let’s not drag Jesus name into our political quagmire.

Okay, I can’t resist. A “short” comment on the Boyd-Wallis difference. I’m all for systemic change, but I’m pessimistic about how much these fallen systems in our world can be redeemed without changed hearts and minds. And before Christians try to change the world through the government (a Constantinian model), I’d like to see us try to do it through the church by using the tools given us by the Spirit and by following the nonviolent, living model given us by Jesus.

And that means (at least partially) living what we want the world to be. Do we want racial justice in the world? Then we need to exemplify relationships of respect and fondness with all people created in the image of God with one blood. Do we want economic justice in the world? Then we need to demonstrate it in the mutuality of the community of Jesus. Do we want environmental justice in the world? Then we who believe God made the world good–very good–need to learn how to live in a way that supports the flourishing of all life on the planet, not just the short-term life of a certain economy or of a certain people group (a more robust definition of what it means to be pro-life). Like Boyd says, if all 2 billion Christians did this, we just might see some systems start to change.

If we are pursuing that as a faith community, then I support humble attempts to bring those values into our shared public space of a pluralistic society. But if we try to change society through the government without first pursuing and living these themes, then I can’t support that form of activism. Said another way, if I want the government to force people to live a way I don’t even follow (or my community doesn’t follow), then there’s a real problem even beyond the church/state issue.

I hope you’re as encouraged, challenged, and blessed by the three sermons as I was.
[I typed this on my phone while we were driving down the road recently. My partner was driving. 🙂 ]

Unity in Diversity

Introductory note: Diversity can analyzed in at least three spheres—behavior (action and lifestyle), belief (what we hold to be true), and belonging (social cohesiveness). This post focuses on the third category—the social aspects of unity—though the other two are lurking between the lines as well. All three areas relate to spiritual gifts, so I’ve included diversity of gifts in this consideration as well.

Which is true: “birds of a feather flock together” or “opposites attract”? Reality defies a simple answer. Social psychologists tell us it depends on a number of factors, including the level of relation one is considering (e.g., friends, romantic partners, clubs, etc.) and the type of characteristic under consideration (e.g., male-female [different gender = opposite] in heterosexual couples [both heterosexual = same]). While both forces are a social reality, it’s the flocking together of similar people that has been on my mind lately.

Social sorting is normal and natural. We develop bonds with people who share our interests, whether the commonality is professional, religious, political or recreational. Often multiple factors influence who we connect with (e.g., people in my faith community who have children the same age as mine, or people in my office who share my political views and are the same gender as me).

I do this. You do this. We all do this in some way.

Unity in Uniformity

This selection process is not entirely beneficial. We can easily cut out of our lives nearly everyone whose differentness makes us uncomfortable. We may only reach out to people of the same age, race, and socio-economic level. We may only make friends with people in our own denomination or religion. We may un-follow or un-friend everyone on Facebook who posts quotes for that other political party. This is the comfortable route. This is the least unsettling-path. This is also the best way to lose a broad perspective on life and the world.

Unity in Diversity

In my understanding, social diversity is a central feature of the kingdom of God. Jesus worked to break down the dividing walls of age, race, ethnicity, gender, social status, economic level, and all of the other major divisions.

Jesus welcomed the young children who the disciples tried to push away.

Jesus taught women (not just men) and had them travel with him.

Jesus called the rich tax collector and the poor fishermen to follow him.

Jesus sent his followers to every corner of the globe.

Jesus prayed that this diverse group would be unified (John 17:11-23).

Paul understood this social revolution and highlighted its significance for the church. We should not jump too quickly over the emotional content of these lists:

There is neither Jew nor Gentile, neither slave nor free, nor is there male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus. (Galatians 3:28, NIV)

Here there is no Gentile or Jew, circumcised or uncircumcised, barbarian, Scythian, slave or free, but Christ is all, and is in all. (Colossians 3:11, NIV)

Paul also spoke to the need for people with various gifts to be unified in one body (Romans 12:3-8; 1 Corinthians 12; Ephesians 4).

John wrote of the diverse group of humanity gathered in the age to come.

After this I looked, and there before me was a great multitude that no one could count, from every nation, tribe, people and language, standing before the throne and before the Lamb. They were wearing white robes and were holding palm branches in their hands. (Revelation 7:9; see also 5:9)

Ellen White, an early leader in the Seventh-day Adventist church, spoke much of unity in diversity.

From the endless variety of plants and flowers, we may learn an important lesson. All blossoms are not the same in form or color. Some possess healing virtues. Some are always fragrant. There are professing Christians who think it their duty to make every Christian like themselves. This is man’s plan, not the plan of God. In the church of God there is room for characters as varied as are the flowers in a garden. In His spiritual garden there are many varieties of flowers.—Letter 95, 1902 (Evangelism, p. 99)

It is the Lord’s plan that there shall be unity in diversity. There is no man who can be a criterion for all other men. Our varied trusts are proportioned to our varied capabilities…. Each worker is to give his fellow workers the respect that he wishes to have shown to himself.—Lt 111, 1903. (2 Mind, Character & Personality, p. 423)

Unity in diversity is God’s plan. Among the followers of Christ there is to be the blending of diverse elements, one adapted to the other, and each to do its special work for God. Every individual has his place in the filling up of one great plan bearing the stamp of Christ’s image…—Lt 78, 1894 (2 Mind, Character & Personality, p. 800)

I believe God’s call for the church is to be an inclusive, diverse body. I believe the Holy Spirit is calling us to overcome the forces that push us away from each other. I believe the church is to be a community that shows the world how people of different ages, income brackets, races, genders, political orientations, and other factors can live in harmony with love and respect.

I want to stand in that diverse group (Rev. 7:9), and I want the church to be a foretaste of that day now. May we live up to that high calling, and may I do my part by asking God to open my heart, mind and home.

Reflection Questions

  1. When have I experienced unexpected hospitality and inclusiveness? How did this make me feel, and how did it affect my own approach to others?

  2. What social division is most obvious in my life? That is, what is the characteristic that most of my friends have in common? What are the benefits and problems with this social situation?

  3. What steps might I take to move beyond this barrier (in #2)? What changes in attitudes, words and actions might I need in order to reach out to people who are different in this way?

  4. What social divisions has my congregation overcome? What divisions persist? What factors contribute to this division, and how might God move through me to change this?

  5. In a world polarized by political dissent, how can Christians demonstrate better communication both within the church and in the broader society?

  6. All religions and denominations have boundaries relating to belief, behavior and belonging. This is how one is distinguished from another. What are the positive and negative aspects of these boundaries? What purposes do these serve, and when or how might they become a problem? How do we decide where to draw these boundaries, and how do we decide how absolute or porous these various barriers should be?

  7. How might these themes be applied to relations between Christian denominations or between Christians and those with other religions or worldviews?

Foolishness of Faith

I get why some people stop going to church because it feels stale, lacks relevance for their daily lives, does a poor job of fostering meaningful relationships, and seems disconnected from the real needs of hurting humanity (and ends up actually hurting far too many people).

I understand why some people give up on the church because too often it is more concerned about air conditioning than the condition of the environment, about politics than compassion, about the order of service than community service.

I can see why people lose faith in faith when science so often tells a more compelling story about humanity’s place on the planet with more systematic evidence and more seeds of hope.

I deeply grasp why the suffering, abuse, torture and violence in the world makes it virtually impossible for many to believe that a God of love could be behind all of this.

What is actually baffling to me is the reality that so many of us still participate in a church community at all, still believe any of this stuff at all. It seems like a miracle that any of us find some measure of freshness after a few thousand years of reading the same book and singing songs about the same themes, that some of us find something at church that speaks to our modern lives, that some of us find a measure of community and connection, that some turn their churches outward to care for others, that some care about God’s created world, that some still even believe that God created life and cares about all life, that some people find ways to embrace both God and science, that some people see the God of love trying to use us to overcome violence with love. It’s miraculous–it appears to me–that for many of us, after our orbits have swung wide into the world during the week, we still come crashing back together to explore something we can’t see, touch, smell, taste or hear, at least not directly. Why don’t our trajectories move inexorably apart? Why do we come back together, even when so often fighting our own desires not to? Why do we sing and pray? What is this gravitational force that keeps calling us back to community, back to a place where we share questions, experiences and unusual casseroles at potluck?

I get why so many of my friends have left the church community and/or given up on trying to find truth in the pages of the Bible. I don’t have any less respect or appreciation for them. I’m just surprised that not everyone has done the same.

I raise my glass to all who are seeking community, seeking truth, seeking meaning, seeking creativity, seeking peace, seeking justice, seeking love, seeking joy, seeking goodness, and seeking beauty even in the dark corners of the human experience. May you find or create what you need, and may you encourage others in the quest as well. And if there is a God, as some of us still believe, may this God be very close to each of us, helping us know and experience the way, the truth and the life…

Sherman: Preview Passages

KingdomCallingIn the first chapter of Kingdom Calling: Vocational Stewardship for the Common Good, Amy Sherman looks at a number of “preview passages,” or verses in the Bible that paint a picture of God’s good future. For example, she lists these two on page 27:

Wolves will live with lambs. Leopards will lie down with goats. Calves and lions will eat together. And little children will lead them around. Cows will eat with bears. Their little ones will lie down together. And lions will eat straw like oxen. A baby will play near a hole where cobras live. A young child will put his hand into a nest where poisonous snakes live. None of those animals will harm or destroy anything or anyone on my holy mountain of Zion. The oceans are full of water. In the same way, the earth will be filled with the knowledge of the Lord. (Isaiah 11:6, NIRV)

People from many nations will go there. They will say, “Come, let us go up to the Lord’s mountain. Let’s go to the house of Jacob’s God. He will teach us how we should live. Then we will live the way he wants us to.” The law of the Lord will be taught at Zion. His message will go out from Jerusalem. He will judge between people from many nations. He’ll settle problems among strong nations everywhere. They will hammer their swords into plows. They’ll hammer their spears into pruning tools. Nations will not go to war against one another. They won’t even train to fight anymore. Every man will have his own vine and fig tree. And no one will make them afraid. That’s what the Lord who rules over all has promised. Other nations worship and trust in their gods. But we will worship and obey the Lord. (Micah 2:4-5)

Throughout the chapter she lists more preview passages in her descriptions of both justice (3 elements) and peace (4 dimensions). Then in the chapter’s conclusion, Amy addresses two potential problems that she can imagine resulting from pastors preaching these “preview passages” in their congregations.

On the one hand, some parishioners might wrongly assume that they (or the church) can “just do it.” That is, they may vastly underestimate what it takes to usher in these foretastes of justice and shalom. They may fail to rely sufficiently on Jesus and the Spirit. While the preview passages permit us a big God-sized vision for our labors and our hopes, there is a danger of them encouraging Utopianism. The kingdom of justice and shalom will arrive in its fullness only at the return of the King. And only in the King’s power–and by his wisdom and guidance–will we make progress in transforming our communities. (pp. 43-44)

The issues we face are huge. And complicated. We need God’s wisdom, hope and power. Next, Amy turns to a different potential error.

On the other hand, we must not allow parishioners to believe that, because the full vision of the preview passages won’t [be] realized until the “age to come,” we don’t need to do anything now. It’s certainly true that we are waiting for the kingdom’s full consummation at Jesus’ return. But while we wait, it is the task of the church–Christ’s body–to enact and embody foretastes of the coming realities of that kingdom. We as Jesus’ disciples have the amazing privilege of participating in his work of restoration. Indeed, joining him in this work constitutes the very center of our redeemed lives. (p. 44)

So while we can’t usher in perfection with our sweat alone, we’re not off the hook. We still have very important work to do as the body of Jesus.

Craig Nessan speaks to this same reality in Shalom Church: The Body of Christ as Ministering Community (2010). Nessan states, “The call to social ministry is not about what the church should be doing in this world in response to the call of Jesus. Rather, social ministry is an expression of the very character of the church as the body of Christ” (p. 8).

Questions

  1. What image of Jesus does my local community get when it looks at my congregation?
  2. If the image is distorted in some areas, how can I work to remedy this error? What are my first three steps?
  3. In what ways is the image positive? Who can be thanked and encouraged for this reality?
  4. Which of Amy Sherman’s two problems am I personally more prone to–(a) thinking I can do it all or (b) thinking I don’t need to or can’t do anything?
  5. How big is my vision for what God can do and wants to do in the world through the body of the church? How does my vision affect my attitudes and actions?

NOTE: I previously wrote about Kingdom Calling here.

ADRA & Sarajevo

peaceIn The Promise of Peace, Charles Scriven tells the story of Adventists supporting human life during the destruction in Sarajevo. Read the book to learn more about SDA history.

Serbs, Croats, and Muslims were in violent discord, and Bosnia was a rubble of broken hearts and dreams. Artillery and sniper fire, along with undependable roads and telephone lines, had isolated the three hundred thousand people in the Muslim-controlled section of Sarajevo, the capital.

It was 1992. That year the Adventist Development and Relief Agency, working with a tiny congregation, began hauling parcels of food into the most desperate section of the city. The food came mostly from refugee families trying to help their loved ones back home.

Word of the activity spread, and it wasn’t long until Serb, Croat, and Muslim volunteers, hundreds of them, were using imported trucks to maintain an informal postal service between Sarajevo and safer cities elsewhere….

The trucks could pass through the Serb-controlled outskirts of Sarajevo only if the Serbs permitted it. The whole operation depended, in fact, on the cooperation and goodwill of the warring factions. A newspaper reporter… asked how members of the Sarajevo Adventist congregation were able to sustain the necessary cooperation and goodwill.

The pastor [Milan Suslic] said they were “not part of any nationality or any side in the war”; they belonged “to the region, but not to the conflict.” He said, too, that the makeshift postal service was fending off every hint of violence. “If somebody found even one bullet in the convey,” he explained, “our work would be ruined.” And project leaders were putting constant effort into assuring the rival factions that the operation’s aim was to help all groups in Sarajevo. In his most telling remark, Pastor Suslic declared, “We are nobody’s and everybody’s.”

With these words, the pastor pictured a congregation that, in a world sundered by arrogance, would play no favorites and do no violence. For the purposes of their project, the congregation’s members saw themselves as a people for all peoples, a source of blessing but not of discord. They simply wished the divine will done on earth as it is in heaven. They were few, but they would defy the stranglehold of violence. They would live out–today–the ideals that the Second Coming would establish forever. (pp. 20-21)

Note: For more thoughts on violence and development work, I recommend these two books:

Reflection Questions:

  1. What do you think about congregations and denominations getting involved with situations of violence and injustice? What are potential risks and benefits? How is a cost/benefit analysis inadequate for this discussion?
  2. In a situation of injustice, where one side is oppressing the other, can neutrality or equal support of both parties prolong the injustice? In the words of Howard Zinn, can we be neutral on a moving train?
  3. In this particular situation in Sarajevo, which do you think would have been preferable–(a) supporting all parties as described, (b) searching for other ways to support only at-risk noncombatants though this would break neutrality and incite hostility from one or more communities, (c) remain on the sideline and preach about forgiveness, compassion, and love for all including one’s enemies, or (d) ____? Describe how you reached this conclusion. What values or issues are you prioritizing?
  4. What role did faith have in determining the self-identity of the various communities–SDA church members, Bosnians, Serbs and Croats. What are the most salient determiners of my identity today? What are the consequences of this particular focus and identity?
  5. Do these themes have any connection to “normal life” outside of a war zone? What relevance might this discussion have for our daily lives?

Modern (Evangelical) Church History

Reading two books I received for Christmas, I came across the following accounts of modern evangelical history. Though these are not exactly “scholarly” sources, they present the history as I have previously heard it described. Ron Sider speaks a bit about this history in the collection of interviews, Heaven and Earth. Also, look for the reflection questions at the end of this post.

moneyThe Man Who Quit Money (Mark Sundeen, 2012)

For those not raised fundamentalist, the Rapture seems a cartoonish fairy tale. But in the past half century the notion has become mainstream. As the percentage of Americans belonging to mainline Protestant denominations has steadily dropped since the mid-1960s from a quarter to a tenth, those belonging to evangelical or fundamentalist churches have held fast at about 25 percent. Factoring in population growth, that firm percentage reflects an increase in numbers. In the popular imagination, the child’s nightmare has been replaced by the Apocalypse of the Book of Revelation, with its four horsemen and pits of boiling sulfur. Those raised in the faith accept as fact that this world’s days are numbered. Clocks will stop, and time as we know it will cease. (pp. 29-30)

The year was 1946, decades before fundamentalism reached the mainstream. “Born again” and “personal savior” were phrases cried out under revival tents, not under the dome of the United States Capitol. Billy Graham’s evangelical crusades would not begin until 1948, and Jerry Falwell would not found his church until 1956. (Though some might quibble, I use the terms “fundamentalist” and “evangelical” interchangeably. Both describe a faith based more on literal Bible reading than on membership in an organized church.) As the size and scope of secular government increased during the New Deal and World War II, and mainline churches focused on social justice instead of personal salvation, more Christians responded to what looked like the apocalypse–D-day, Auschwitz, Hiroshima–by seeking the moral certainty of scripture. (p. 33)

Among evangelical Christians, all of whom await the Second Coming of Jesus, there are historically two camps: postmillennialists and premillennialists. For most of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, most were of the “post” variety, meaning that they expected the Messiah’s return after the thousand-year reign of peace. In order to hasten His arrival, they set out to create that harmonious world here and now, fighting for the abolition of slavery, prohibition of alcohol, public education, and women’s literacy.

The chaos of the Civil War and industrialization cause many evangelicals to rethink their optimism. They determined that Jesus would actually arrive before the final judgment. Therefore any efforts toward a just society here on earth were futile; what mattered was perfecting one’s faith. As historian Randall Balmer writes, these believers “retreated into a theology of despair, one that essentially ceded the temporal world to Satan and his minions.”

This schism widened in the twentieth century. After the 1925 Scopes Monkey Trial in which fundamentalists were humiliated by the national press, premillennialists retreated into their own subculture, shunning the politics and causes of the times. “They turned inward,” writes Balmer, “tending to their own piety and seeking to lure others into a spiritualized kingdom in preparation for the imminent return of Jesus.” (pp. 36-37)

redRed Letter Revolution (Shane Claiborne & Tony Campolo, 2012). This excerpt adds more details to the history of the terms fundamentalism and evangelical.

During the late 1800s, scholars in Germany created a critique of the Bible that really tore traditional beliefs about the Bible to shreds. They raised questions about who the authors of Scripture were and suggest that much of the Bible was only the rehashing of ancient Babylonian myths and moral codes. In addition, theologies came out of Germany from the likes of Friedrich Schleiermacher, Albrecht Ritschl, Ernst Troeltsch, and others who raised serious doubts about such crucial doctrines as the divinity of Christ and his resurrection from the dead.

There was a reaction to all of this “modernism”–the name given to this recasting of these new Christian teachings that were attempts to be relevant to a rational and scientific age–and a collection of scholars from the Unites States and England got together and published a series of twelve books called the Fundamentals of the Christian faith. These books were an intelligent defense of the traditional doctrines that we find outlined in the Apostles’ Creed.

It was in reaction to those books that Harry Emerson Fosdick, a prominent liberal preacher in New York City, preached a sermon called “Shall the Fundamentalists Win?” which was printed and circulated throughout the country. Thus the term fundamentalist was born.

The label fundamentalist served us well until about 1928 or 1929. From that time on, and especially following the famous Scopes trial in which William Jennings Bryan argued against Darwin’s theory of evolution, fundamentalism began to be viewed by many as being anti-intellectual and naive. Added to this image of anti-intellectualism was a creeping tendency among fundamentalists toward a judgmentalism, by which they not only condemned those who deviated from orthodox Christian doctrine but any who did not adhere to their legalistic lifestyles, which were marked by condemnation of such things as dancing, smoking, and the consumption of alcohol.

By the time the 1950s rolled around, the word fundamentalist carried all kings of negative baggage…. About that time Billy Graham and Carl Henry, who was then the editor of Christianity Today magazine, began using a new name: evangelical. Again, orthodox Christians had a world that served us well, and did so right up until about the middle of the 1990s. By then, the word evangelical had lost its positive image with the general public. Evangelicals, to a large extent, had come to be viewed as married to the religious Right, and even to the right wing of the Republican Party.

When preachers like you [Shane Claiborne] and me go to speak at places like Harvard or Duke or Stanford and are announced as evangelicals, red flags go up and people say, “Oh, you are those reactionary Christians! You’re anti-woman; you’re anti-gay; you’re anti-environmentist; you’re pro-war; you’re anti-immigrant; and you’re all in favor of the NRA.” Defending ourselves, we say, “Wait a minute! That’s not who we are!” I think evangelicalism also has been victimized by the secular media, which is largely responsible for creating the image by treating evangelicalism and the religious Right of the Republican party as synonymous.

It was in this context that a group of us, who were sometimes referred to as “progressive evangelicals,” got together and tried to figure out how to come up with a new name for who and what we are. We kicked around various names and eventually came up with the Red Letter Christians. We wanted people to know that we are Christians who make a point out of being committed to living out, as much as possible, what those red letters in the Bible–the word of Jesus–tell us to be and do. We’re not into partisan politics, though we have a bias for political policies that foster justice for the poor and oppressed, regardless of which party espouses them. (pp. 3-5)

Note: Donald Dayton provides a history of evangelical social reformers in Discovering an Evangelical Heritage (1976).

Reflection Questions:

  1. Where does my faith tradition fit in this history? Where does my family fit?
  2. How have world events shaped church history and theology?
  3. How would you change church history (the reaction to world history) if you could?
  4. What is at stake with labels and public perception?
  5. Are the red letters central to my Christianity? Why or why not?
  6. What is the relationship between the red and black letters of the Bible, between what Jesus said and what came before and after him?
  7. If you’re a Protestant Christian (the assumed main intended audience of the book), what elements from mainline Christianity and from evangelical/fundamentalist Christianity do you value or accept? If you’ve read the introduction to the book, you know the question could be expanded to include what elements of Catholicism (and Orthodox) are also meaningful to you?
  8. Is there any value in contemplating this history, or is it all nonsense or simply not relevant for our world today?

Superiority Complex (with minor revisions)

I wrote these thoughts in an email to family members, and then I decided to post this portion of the email here as well:

In the past month, some of you know that while I was at an SDA gathering, I overheard a racist conversation about the moral degeneracy of American Indians. I’m still trying to figure out how to address one of the participants, but I know I’ll be sharing a bit (e.g., this article [look for the 85 stat] + thoughts on the moral degeneracy of the US ethnic cleansing efforts) with a certain teen who also heard the comments (these 2 book also fits the conversation–Disruptive Christian Ethics and A People’s History of the US). American white culture has no moral high ground to talk down to anyone, let alone members of First Nations. My lack of direct intervention in their conversation demonstrates my own moral shortcomings; not what Sophie Scholl would do (WWSSD?). [i had mentioned this film about Scholl earlier in the original email]

Dominant groups like to overlook their flaws while focusing on supposed flaws of those outside the dominant culture. “They” are drunks. “They” are lazy. “They” are greedy. “They” are sex addicts. “That whole group is X, and my group isn’t.” Stereotypical prejudice.

The article linked above mentions rape as a tool of war. A recent example: “Christian” Serb forces used rape camps to demoralize Muslim Bosniaks during the last Bosnian war. 20,000-50,000 (or more) women raped by “Christian” soldiers. White people, Europeans, North Americans… It’s ridiculous to hold ourselves up as virtuous while pointing out the flaws in others. I had to roll my eyes (and follow-up later) about a visiting speaker who in his sermon extolled the virtues of American culture with roots in northern Europe… when the quote he used was from the same period as slavery. Why are we (Christians of Euro descent, CEDs) so blind?!

And speaking of possible blind spots and racism… Some still insist there is no such thing as white privilege here. We (CEDs) have such a hard time seeing it, like a fish trying to see water. And I’m not claiming to have eyes entirely wide open either; I’m on a learning journey too. The rejoinder that all kinds of people of various backgrounds “make it”–even the president is African-American–so privilege doesn’t exist misses the crux of the cultural phenomenon that is white privilege. Quick example, white is the default; what George Bush did in office wasn’t attributed to his whiteness, but Barack Obama has to be careful about being forceful or else the media writes about “the angry black man” (but that example opens up a whole batch of cans of worms). I believe we (everyone, not just CEDs) would all benefit from prayer and reflection on the fundamental attribution error, which is in no way limited to racial issues.

Christians are no better than anyone else. White people are no better than anyone else. North Americans are no better than anyone else. Adventists are no better than anyone else. Middle class people are no better than anyone else. Males are no better than anyone else. Peace activists are no better than anyone else (one study found that peace and justice activists in one denomination have higher rates of domestic abuse than than the general population of that denomination). [these characteristics were chosen by me because they are descriptions of me] We all have the same fundamental human nature, though I agree that the interplay between culture and genetics and history means we are not identical at micro or macro levels. Nevertheless, we share the same fundamental human nature with the same capacities for good and for evil.

Next time we feel better than someone–either an individual or a people group–let’s remember that we share a common humanness with them (unless the individual has an inactive amygdala or limbic system contributing to true sociopathic/psychopathic tendencies; and then that’s something beyond the differences of traits–personality, character, virtues and vices–that make up the geography of human individuality. in that case, yes, your genetics has arguably made you a more moral person than the axe-murdering sex fiend who is biologically incapable of experience empathy, fear or remorse. so congratulations on that; let the moral gloating commence).

“Do not judge so that you will not be judged. For in the way you judge, you will be judged; and by your standard of measure, it will be measured to you” (Matt. 7:1-2).

Bonhoeffer: Token of the Love of Christ

I have been slowly making my way through The Cost of Discipleship (Bonhoeffer, 1937). Here is an excerpt from Ch. 9, “The Brother,” which covers Matthew 5:21-26.

Let the fellowship of Christ examine itself and see whether it has given any token of the love of Christ to the victims of the world’s contumely and contempt, any token of that love of Christ which seeks to preserve, support and protect life. Otherwise however liturgically correct our services are, and however devout our prayer, however brave our testimony, they will profit us nothing, nay rather, they must needs testify against us that we have as a Church ceased to follow our Lord. God will not be separated from our brother: he wants no honour for himself so long as our brother is dishonoured…. He who says he loves God and hates his brother is a liar.

There is therefore only one way of following Jesus and of worshipping God, and that is to be reconciled with our brethren. (p. 145)

This quote emphasizes two important Christian themes–compassion (tokens of the love of Jesus) and reconciliation (forgiveness and renewed relationship).

Questions for thought:

  • Who are today’s victims of the “world’s contumely [rudeness] and contempt”?
  • How can I and my congregation give these people a token of the love of Christ?
  • Who am I (or who is my denomination) estranged from?
  • What would be the first step toward reconciliation in this specific situation?
  • What part have I played in the separation?
  • How can I make amends?

Now what?

“Before Enlightenment, chop wood, carry water; after Enlightenment, chop wood, carry water.” –Buddhist wisdom

I wrote earlier about my understanding of God’s priorities (more for SDA readers). If/when a person comes to believe that God is more interested in peace, justice, righteousness, compassion and love than in esoteric theology or ritualistic religiosity, everything changes. True, we still must carry out the basic tasks of life — chop wood, draw water — but we go about even these things with a new mindfulness.

If justice is a weighty matter to God (Matt. 23:23), then the way I live becomes more important than my hour or two of religious engagement per week. I begin to realize that my daily actions affect others, so I want to live in such a way as to embody peace, justice and mercy. Peter Rollins considers this in his blog post I Believe in Child Labour, Sweatshops and Torture:

Take the example of buying chocolate from a corner shop. If I know, or suspect, that the chocolate is made from coco beans picked by children under the conditions of slavery then, regardless of what I say, I believe in child slavery. For the belief operates at a material level (the level of what I do) rather than at the level of the mind (what I tell myself I believe). And I can’t hide in supposed ignorance either for if I don’t know about how most chocolate is made it is likely that my lack of knowledge is a form of refusal to care. For the very fact that there is Fair Trade chocolate, for example, should be enough for me to ask questions about whether other chocolate is made in an unfair way.

I bought chocolate before “enlightenment,” and I will buy it after, but now I look for the Fair Trade stamp of approval. I look for organic food because I know the workers weren’t subjected to pesticides and herbicides in the fields, and I know it is better for the planet. I go about my daily tasks in ways that look out for other people and for creation itself.

So the way I go about the small things of life changes, but bigger picture things begin to change as well–my expectations of the church in the world, the way I desire my business to operate, my political values, the purpose of education, the use of my free time. Everything begins to change.

Peter Rollins tells a story about a priest who has an unusual gift–the people he prays for lose their faith (“Finding Faith” in The Orthodox Heretic). Eventually the priest realizes that by helping someone lose their faith, they are allowed to open their eyes to themselves and to the world, thus enabling them to live more fully or rightly without religio-blinders.

This new vision eventually leads to regaining a type of faith on the far side of no-faith. That is, if I think going to church and believing “true” theological statements is what God is after, I’ll focus my attention there. I may not have time to help others and I may not be interested in their experiences, but as long as I practice my religion and hold “right” beliefs, all is well. I can keep being religious so I don’t need to be good. But if I lost that faith in religiosity, I would then see that all I have left is a selfish existence. That selfishness needs to change in order to live rightly, and this was hindered by my focus on religious pursuits.

If my “site of resistance” is the church, attendance can be just a valve to let off pressure so I can go about supporting the status quo. Without that release valve, the pressure builds, and I see that the place to release my energy and resistance is where it matters most–in the world where people (and the systems that affect people) dwell. For most of us, we will likely continue with some form of religious expression and continue to hold a concern for theology, but we begin to see these things differently in light of the bigger picture of God and God’s world. They are not ends in themselves; they are not the focus.

For the Christian who begins to believe that love, compassion, peace and justice are paramount, some changes require very little reflection. “Now I will chop wood and draw water for my family and for someone else in my community who needs these things.” This is direct, local and uncomplicated. However, moving to broader questions (e.g., access to the forest or the well, access to education on how to chop and carry, the possession of a home to carry the water to), then answers become more complicated. The quest for “social holiness” is not always simple and obvious. Consequently, I believe that resources and community are important for taking the steps of living out these values. A healthy community provides support, creativity, insight, grace and meaning. I recommend the following resources for personal and small group reflection leading to action:

BOOKS

WEBSITES (organizations + publications)

Priorities — Justice, Righteousness & Mercy

Sacrifice is a pretty big deal in the Hebrew Scriptures (HS). But other things were more important.

To do what is right and just is more acceptable to the LORD than sacrifice. Prov. 21:3

For I desire mercy, not sacrifice, and acknowledgment of God rather than burnt offerings. Hosea 6:6

God doesn’t care for religious expression that ignores justice and righteousness. And God is not impressed with worship going to idols and political leaders.

“I hate, I despise your religious festivals; your assemblies are a stench to me. Even though you bring me burnt offerings and grain offerings, I will not accept them. Though you bring choice fellowship offerings, I will have no regard for them. Away with the noise of your songs! I will not listen to the music of your harps. But let justice roll on like a river, righteousness like a never-failing stream! “Did you bring me sacrifices and offerings forty years in the wilderness, people of Israel? You have lifted up the shrine of your king, the pedestal of your idols, the star of your god—which you made for yourselves. Therefore I will send you into exile beyond Damascus,” says the Lord, whose name is God Almighty. Amos 5:21-27

The prophet Micah addresses God’s priorities over sacrifice.

With what shall I come before the Lord and bow down before the exalted God? Shall I come before him with burnt offerings, with calves a year old? Will the Lord be pleased with thousands of rams, with ten thousand rivers of olive oil? Shall I offer my firstborn for my transgression, the fruit of my body for the sin of my soul? He has shown you, O mortal, what is good. And what does the Lord require of you? To act justly and to love mercy and to walk humbly with your God. Micah 6:6-8

Though not addressing sacrifice here, Jeremiah shares God’s values and actions.

…but let the one who boasts boast about this: that they have the understanding to know me, that I am the Lord, who exercises kindness, justice and righteousness on earth, for in these I delight,” declares the Lord. Jer. 9:24

God exercises justice, and God called the Israelites to do the same.

Follow justice and justice alone, so that you may live and possess the land the Lord your God is giving you. Deut. 16:20

God’s ultimate priorities also show up in other places, as seen through both judgment and admonition. Why did God destroy Sodom and Gomorrah?

Now this was the sin of your sister Sodom: She and her daughters were arrogant, overfed and unconcerned; they did not help the poor and needy. They were haughty and did detestable things before me. Therefore I did away with them as you have seen. Ez. 16:49-50

Then in the New Testament, Jesus addresses these same themes. For example, justice, mercy and faithfulness are the more important matters.

“Woe to you, teachers of the law and Pharisees, you hypocrites! You give a tenth of your spices—mint, dill and cumin. But you have neglected the more important matters of the law—justice, mercy and faithfulness. You should have practiced the latter, without neglecting the former.” Matt. 23:23

And twice Jesus addressed the teaching of Hosea 6:6 listed above–Matt. 9:13 & 12:7.

While there is much more evidence that could be presented from both the HS and NT to bolster the argument, I believe this is sufficient to demonstrate that God is more interested in justice, righteousness, mercy, faithfulness and kindness than in mere religious performance.