Monthly Archives: May 2010

>Memorial Day

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Christians should struggle with Memorial Day. I fear that we do not.

To remember those who have died is important. To appropriate those deaths as a means of perpetuating mythologies is wrong. Brass bands and fighter jets, televised concerts and presidential pomp draw a veil across the reality of war. Christians are called to be peaceful, to seek peace with and among others, to love their enemies. Christians, who have the example of Jesus as their guide, should not fall into the trap of “common sense” that equates war with peace. This is why Memorial day should be a struggle for Christians. As we remember those who have died in war, we must also deny war its glory.

Dead Civilians by George Biddle

My thinking on Memorial Day has been evolving for several years as has my position on war and killing in the name of the state. I believe most Americans don’t think too much about it. Barbecues, a three-day weekend, and maybe the occasional thought about deceased soldiers are the mainstays of Memorial Day for most Americans. Newspaper articles and commentaries will prod us to have deeper, more patriotic feelings for the day. Politicians will make the connection between the sacrifices of those who died in war and our “freedoms,” but the connection is often a lie. I believe we should value our freedoms and this day does warrant emotion but, as a Christian, I cannot wrap my faith in any government flag, nor can I celebrate war by elevating state-supported martyrdom to a religious fervor. But I will remember those who have died (rightly or wrongly, soldier and civilian, for good causes and bad) because they, like me, need more than anything else, the mercy of God.

And I will enjoy a good barbecue with friends and family.

I have been sorting out my own perspectives on war in other posts:
I have a lot of work to do on this topic. One thing, though, is I can no longer accept the “common sense” that guided my thinking in the past.

Also, here is an interesting post on Memorial Day by Michael Lafrate titled, Memorial Day and the religious syncretism of the state.

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Filed under Pacifism, Politics, War

be revolutionaries

One of the greatest injustices we do to our young people is ask them to be conservative. Christianity is not conservative, but revolutionary. To be conservative today is to miss the whole point, for conservatism means standing in the flow of the status quo, and the status quo no longer belongs to us. If we want to be fair, we must teach the young to be revolutionaries, revolutionaries against the status quo.

~ Francis Schaeffer
We inherit the terms of debate and discussion. The U.S. is a two party system, debates are drawn long liberal and conservative lines, and allowable ideas are carefully controlled – though how is another matter. In short, we are called to choose sides. But for those who take the time to ponder and think about these conditions the liberal/conservative divide starts to look more and more hollow. For the Christian, who has chosen to follow Christ (this does not necessarily include all who claim the designation “Christian), the cultural terms of debate pale in comparison to Christ’s new commandment: To love others as he has loved us. This love, and all of its implications, completely transcends conservatism and liberalism. But this is old news.

The quote above, which is a great quote, may be surprising to many conservative Christians who think of Francis Schaeffer (when they think of him at all anymore) as a famous conservative voice within Christian circles (largely based on his stance against abortion). Schaeffer directly challenged a powerful hegemony within much of Christianity today. That hegemony, driven mostly by the so called Religious Right, defines the terms of acceptable language and faith for many Christians. But Schaeffer saw it as a trap. The Religious Right’s project is, in fact, a turning away from Christ. It is a way of defining the Christian life in terms of social and cultural agendas rather than by the tranforming and radical message of a biblical Christianity. (The antidote is not in some kind of “religious left” either.) As Schaeffer points out more specifically elsewhere, Christ was not a “conservative,” and neither should be his followers.

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>War cannot defend Chistian values

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This may seem like a non-starter. What could be more obvious? Governments, nations, societies, and cultures are all extensions of individuals who, in both their relationship to others through individual agency and through the agency of corporate actions, are always faced with the existential question of who they are and where lies their allegiances. If it is ludicrous for me (an individual) to think I can convey the love of Christ (which includes his humility, suffering, and serving) through any kind of violence, warfare, or dominance, then it is also ludicrous for any government (merely an extension of many individuals) to do likewise. If I am to take up my cross every day then I cannot seek to nail others to it.


Christians have grown comfortable with the idea that governments can take care of the dirty work (armies to kill our enemies, embargoes to starve governments into doing what we want, etc.) so that we can get on with our personal peace and prosperity. Strangely, Christianity (in its Christendom formation) has tended to require the force and brutality of governments to secure the right kind of environment so that its faith can flourish. But what kind of a Christianity is that? What kind of faith? When I was a kid I heard that Christians in Soviet Russia (a state apparatus set against Christianity) were praying for the the western church because they knew our lack of suffering, our materialism, and our self righteousness would lead to a kind of faith that had shallow roots – if it was even genuine faith at all. One evidence of shallow roots, I would argue, is enthusiasm for the use of military force by one’s government, and maybe even the support our the military’s existence.


I have been watching Ken Burns documentary on WWII, called The War. Like all of Burns’ films it is slow moving and invites one to ponder the subject matter (which is a good thing). The archival images are amazing and, at times, staggering. It is hard to take one’s eyes off them. The stories are touching, deep, profound, and often unbelievable. War is truly an attention grabber in so many ways (even WWII after all these decades). As a Christian I understand the connection between human sinfulness and the fact of war. I also know that Christians are called to love their enemies, to love their neighbors, to carry their crosses, and to trust in God for their destiny, their daily needs and their very well being regardless of the apparent threats arrayed against them. Jesus is to be our example and he showed us that sacrifice and service are the touchstones of the true believer. So why do so many Christians support war? I am not sure.

For me WWII presents somewhat of a struggle. It is hard to be a pacifist in light of the supposed glory of WWII. Who would not want to stop the spread of Fascism and end the Shoah? And then one has to contend with the very real valor of the soldiers who did the fighting. Their stories are so amazing and so often deserving of praise. In fact, one could argue that the lot of the ordinary soldier fighting against objective evil is a kind of cross bearing. However, I look at my government today and I don’t trust it. I see our foreign policy and it looks evil to me. I see our leaders and I sense they are glory hounds and corrupt (but what else is new). I study our economic system and I do not see any intention of bowing the knee to God. And I see what our military is being used for today and I do not see the love of Christ or a trusting in God. I do not find a love for one’s enemies, the forgiving of offenses seventy times seven, or a faith to move mountains. And I do not expect the situation to change any time soon.


What I do see is a kind of modern American version of Christianity mixed with American militarism. It is the ultimate prosperity gospel, a gospel that hopes God will keep one alive and healthy so that the job at hand can continue, and promises glory in the afterlife for those whom God has called to Him (via an IED or bullet). It is a gospel that seems to support the couching of warfare in the language of freedom, but does not question what freedom is nor contrasts it with what the Bible actually says about freedom. We are told they (whoever they are, “our” enemies I suppose) hate our values, therefore we must bring war upon them. This is a gospel that supports walking the streets of someone else’s home town with an assault rifle in one’s hand and the authority to kill. As with all of us, the individual soldier must come to terms with God. I cannot judge an individual soldier’s heart.

With what I know of the gospel I could not follow orders to carry a gun or use lethal force against others. I am also not certain I could go to war at all, even as a medic or a soldier on the back lines doing paperwork. It all seems to be supporting war in one way or another. And I am still sorting out the whole “support our troops” thing. I understand it means that no matter what you think of the current administration, at least recognize the individual sacrifices of the troops. I am no longer convinced that is a good position to take, especially since we no longer have the draft. But I’m still sorting it out. What I am convinced of is that war cannot defend Christian values or, if “Christian values” is too squishy of a phrase: War is the opposite of Christ.

I have previously written some related thoughts here.

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>The value of being able to be wrong

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The church I attend is structured around Bible teaching. This is typical of many churches within the Protestant tradition and its multitude of denominations and nondenominations. I grew up in a Baptist church that also placed an emphasis on Bible teaching, but in a much different way than my current church. Those who visit my current church are typically struck by something we do that is very different than in most any other churches – though not all. That is, when the teaching is done a microphone is passed around for a few minutes and we all can ask questions of the teacher, and even challenge the teacher. Those who teach expect this and approach both their study and their teaching with this in mind.

Why do we do this?

Traditional Christianity (I’m making a huge generalization here) is based, in part, on not challenging those who teach the Bible and promote dogma. Baptist preachers are famous for their emphatic exhortations and claims on absolute, Bible thumping truth. Others with a little less thumping. In general pastors assume this hegemony to be acceptable, and even biblical, and may seek a life in ministry in part because of it. Even the apparently humblest of ministers can have large egos in their official positions. Regardless, if we (those in the pews or slightly padded interlocked chairs)) feel compelled to challenge the teaching then we need to move on to another denomination or start one of our own. Anyone who has disagreed with the pastor and then gone up to the pastor after the service, Bible in hand, to challenge the teaching, even with a humble spirit, is likely to get evasion or a cold stare. This kind of response may be just another example of human nature, but is also a great flaw in the church. There is an unspoken force within much of Christianity that is designed to suppress the questioning of dogma.

Christianity is a galaxy of related subcultures each with their own entrenchment of dogmas and an inability to welcome challenges in the name of seeking a clearer truth. But an openness to questioning received truth(s), dogmas, spiritual practices, and anything else that is claimed as “Christian” is critical for each of us and the church on the whole. Without such openness there can really be no faith because the inability to question leads to a closed loop that, in the name of establishing, actually precludes genuine belief. Faith requires more than merely saying yes to what one is told to say yes to.

However, and here is the clincher for all those who preach (and the rest of us as well), the pursuit of truth requires the ability, even the desire, to say, “but I might be wrong.” I have heard that in some seminaries would be pastors are exhorted to preach with confidence even if they are unsure of their own understanding. Many pastors preach with unflagging conviction passages that are hotly debated without addressing interpretive issues, and certainly without hinting their teaching is based on their current understanding – which could change with time and study. These pastors do, at the minimum, a great disservice to the church in my opinion.

We are all too finite to assume our understanding of the Bible is total. We have so much theological, cultural, and intellectual baggage we bring to reading the Bible that a lifetime could be spend merely working to set aside that baggage. I do not need a pastor to tell me what to think or what to believe. What I need is someone who is wise, is in pursuit of authentic faith, and has done their homework, to then come beside me and walk with me through the process of coming to my own understanding of who God is and what this life is all about. And to remind me that whatever the conclusions I come to I might be wrong.

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baggage*

You have baggage** and so do I.

We all have it and we bring it with us when we read the Bible. I had a lot of baggage that came with me from my Baptist upbringing. Over the years I have had to sort through a lot of that baggage, unpacking it and jettisoning some of it as I learned better what the Bible has to say. I sometimes feel like one of those people on those shows that make de-cluttering someone’s house a form of television entertainment (but without as much entertainment).

I still carry with me a lot of presuppositions about what the Bible must mean. I know my understanding of Romans has a great deal to do what I assume Paul is trying to say and what questions he is trying to answer. I get concerned about those assumptions. I wonder how much of what I understand scripture to mean is what was intended and how much I am reading into it.

When Martin Luther championed Paul he did so with at least two issues in mind. Luther was a man wracked with guilt, at least early on. He built his life trying to be a good monk, and he was a very good monk, but it didn’t work. He still needed desperately to know if God could accept him. It all began, so the story goes, that when lightning struck nearby him during a storm he became obsessed with his own mortality. He needed assurances. Sola fide became both a Reformation rallying cry and the solution to Luther’s need to know that God would accept him as righteous enough for saving. Salvation came by grace through faith not by being a good monk, no matter how good. For Luther the existential dilemma was critical to salvation. One had to pass through that dark night of the soul, as it were, to reach the light on the other side.
I tend to agree with Luther on this point. I am not convinced Luther got it perfectly right, but I am a Christian existentialist.

The other issue was the famous social and political context in which he lived and struggled. Luther saw his own attempts at righteousness as being akin to what he saw as the Jew’s struggle to keep the law. He was immersed in a world of law keepers – what he experienced as the Roman Catholic church. Luther railed not merely against indulgences, but the understanding that under girded the existence of such theology. He saw a significant portion of Catholic theology being fundamentally the same as the Jew’s faith in keeping the law as the means to attain salvation. I am not convinced Luther made the right connection here.

Both of these perspectives – the need to remove a personally debilitating guilt and a corrective to Catholic piety – colored Luther’s lenses as he interpreted Paul’s letter to the Romans. Protestantism inherited these perspectives and has promoted them down through the ages. The question is whether Paul had them in mind, or at least at the forefront of his mind, as he penned his letter.

I am not so sure Paul was directly addressing, or even concerned with the same perspectives as Luther. He may have been, and I still tend to see those concerns in Romans, but I wonder if that’s just more baggage. Was Paul’s primary concern for writing his letter to emphasize the solution to individual guilt or instead in addressing the need for harmony between Greek/Roman Christians (formerly pagan) and Jewish Christians in light of an entirely new kind of faith community – one that incorporates both Jew and Greek? And/or was Paul’s primary concern to convey a new reality based on faith without piety, and therefore to trounce the felt need to keep the law or, instead, to merely put the law into its proper perspective? In other words, did Luther misunderstand Paul?

I don’t know the answer, but I am inclined to think that he did. I will say that if Luther had it wrong, or even just overly emphasized certain aspects of Paul’s message, then maybe we have been missing Paul’s message all these years – assuming we have been under the spell of Luther’s axioms as has been so much of Protestant history.


*A version of this post was previously posted at a now defunct blog.

**I don’t mean luggage, though you may have that too.

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the satellite is in orbit

 

[T]he most persuasive case for Christianity lies in the overall coherence and human relevance of its world view.
~ Arthur F. Holmes, Contours of a World View, 1983.
I have spent all of my life within a Christian sub-culture of one kind or another. I was raised a Baptist, “escaped” that rather specific world (but brought a lot of it with me), and now consider myself somewhat of a cynical evangelical. In some ways I prefer the moniker Christ-follower. I also like Christian Existentialist for various reasons. Unlike many Christians (though I could be wrong) whom I have met over the years, I have always been a fan of the “thinking Christian” approach to faith. I grew up, in a sense, with the likes of C.S. Lewis (Mere Christianity, The Problem of Pain, The Weight of Glory, etc.), Francis Schaeffer (How Shall We Then LiveEscape from Reason, The God Who is There, etc.), and Josh McDowell (Evidence That Demands a Verdict, etc.). All those books, and many more, I had read by the end of my senior year in high school. Therefore quotes like the one above from Dr. Holmes have rung true for me for most of my life. But I wonder if it really makes complete sense.
 
The issue I have with Holmes’ quote is not the words “overall coherence” or “human relevance,” but the word “persuasive.” I have spent much of my life interested in (what I believe to be) the fact of Biblical Christianity‘s coherence and human relevance. But even with all my study over the years I have never been truly persuaded by the arguments because they were good arguments rigorously laid out and defended. What I have come to realize is that I was already predisposed to be persuaded, and would have been even if the arguments had been (and sometimes were) poorly made by fumbling pastors and Christian intellectual poseurs. The persuasive case for Christianity is not found in argument, but in the mysterious work being done, for whatever unknown reason, in the heart of the individual who, though even a hater of God finds her/himself drawn (even as if against one’s better judgment) to what the writers of the Christian scriptures called the Gospel.
 
Still, there is great value in digging into the nature and claims of the Christian World View, to lay it out, pick it apart, and see what’s really there. Christians inherit a great many dogmas (major and minor), and sub-cultures to boot. We should always ask if what we “know” to be true is, in fact, something other than the truth, something we got from our culture or elsewhere. We must always be wary of the tendency in all of us to impose our desires on what we call our faith. I want to dig into these things. That’s what I hope to do with this blog.
 
FYI: I get the name satellite from a 1540s definition, “follower or attendant of a superior person,” according to the Online Etymology Dictionary.

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