Tuesday, May 28, 2013

Us and Other

In the United States we just celebrated Memorial Day, when the government recognizes and honors those who lost their lives for the sake of the state.  I’ve sometimes wondered why most churches don’t have their own version of Memorial Day, when we honor those who lost their lives for the sake of Christ.  I am sure part of it is because, while we may know someone or some family who was killed in one of America’s many wars, not too many of us know anyone who lost their life because they were a Christian.  Luckily, we live in a country where that is not illegal.  But not all Christians do.  It’s dangerous being a Christian in China, for instance, although not as dangerous as being a Christian in Syria or Iran.  It’s interesting, however, that even in these countries, the crime is not so much in being a Christian as in not being like everyone else.  Most of the religious persecution that occurs in the world today is not that of missionaries from the outside in places where another religion is predominant, although that does occur.  Most of the persecution is of citizens who have converted to another religion other than the religion of the vast majority.  In any culture, there are those who make up “us” and those who make up “them”, and most persecution is of those people who refuse to conform to the things that define “us”.
Candida Moss, a professor of early Christianity at the University of Notre Dame, says that the persecution of the early church  in the Roman Empire wasn’t so much a persecution of Christians just because they were Christians.  This did happen, but only for about 10 years and then only intermittently.  For the most part, she says,  it was because they violated laws that weren’t targeted at Christians but were for all Roman citizens, but nonetheless were laws that Christians because of their faith couldn’t obey.  So, for instance, the Emperor Diocletian issued an edict that all Romans make a public sacrifice to the Roman gods.  This wasn’t given targeting Christians, but in that polytheistic pagan nation was seen as being like a mandatory “pledge of allegiance”.  Obviously, though, followers of Jesus couldn’t do that and they were executed—but for treason, not, in the eyes of the state, for religion.  They could be Christians as long as they were loyal to the state i.e. demonstrated that they were committed to the “us” of the Roman Empire.  But the early Christians saw that their allegiance to Christ prevented them from worshiping the Roman gods, and they wouldn’t conform.  Neither would they swear oaths to the state, join the military or participate in other parts of Roman society.  By not conforming to the things that made up the “us” of Roman society, they were persecuted and martyred.  In other words, it was OK to be a Christian; it was not OK to desert “us”.
Author Brian McLaren says that we all live between these two dangers: “The Other” and “Us”.  If we defend ourselves against or attack the Other, we gain credibility with Us—we show that we are loyal, supportive members of Us.  But the greater, though more subtle, danger, is from the Us.  If we do not conform to the behaviors, beliefs, and mores of the Us, we may lose their approval.  We will be labeled a traitor or heretic or unorthodox or liberal or apostate.  We’ll be shunned, literally.  Even worse is if we dare to defend and humanize the Other, particularly when the Other is identified as the Enemy of Us.  When that happens, we lose more than the approval of Us—we lose  their protection.   And they become our persecutors.
This is exactly what happened to Jesus.  Jesus really wasn’t that offensive to the Romans—they didn’t realize how subversive his teaching about the Kingdom of God was—but he was deeply offensive to the official Us of Israel.  He didn’t conform to all the things like the purity laws and Sabbath-keeping that defined a good Israelite.  Even worse, he associated with the Other by eating with tax collectors and Sinners and refusing to go along with plans of armed rebellion against the Romans.
And for that, the Us—the Jewish Temple leaders—arranged to have him crucified by the Other—the Romans.  Ironically, the charge was treason.  The Temple leaders claimed that Jesus was a traitor to Rome, but in reality the reason they wanted him killed was because he was a traitor to Us.  So the Us joined with the Other and crucified him.
 Jesus’ command to his followers to love the Enemy is treasonous, make no mistake about it.  It’s treasonous to the things that define Us.  That is, unless we let one thing and one thing only define us, and that is love.  Not just our love for God, but our love for others, all others, even those everyone else considers to be the Other.
It’s right and proper for the state to honor those who died defending Us, and I hope you took time to do that.  But maybe Christians around the world can take time to honor those Christians who died defending the Other.

Saturday, May 18, 2013

Trusting and Believing

      In the last post I asserted that as Christians we are not defined so much by the rightness of our beliefs but by our relationship with Christ, a relationship characterized by love and demonstrated by the way that we love others.    In other words, we find our life in Christ, not in the rightness of our beliefs.  It is Jesus whom we trust, not the rightness of our beliefs.
The problem comes, of course, when we define trusting Jesus as holding the right beliefs about Jesus, which is how it was put to me when I was young.   In fact, the way it was put was “trusting in Jesus,” which doesn’t seem like much of a difference but really is.  “Trusting in Jesus” was synonymous with “believing in Jesus” which was synonymous with “accepting Jesus.”  All different ways of saying the same thing, and the way to do the thing they all said you needed to do was to believe the right things about Jesus and then pray and tell him that you believed all the right things about him—that he was the son of God, that he died on the cross for your sins, and then he rose from the dead to prove that he was God, and that if asked he would forgive you of your sins, and so now you were asking and believing that indeed all this was true and you were now forgiven.
All of these things, all these beliefs, everyone of them is absolutely true.  But then you come to find out that there were some other things you had to believe in order to believe in Jesus, because if you doubted them, well, how could you be sure of, say, the resurrection?  The list of right beliefs that you had to hold depended on which version of Christianity you were hanging out with, so on that list you would might the virgin birth, the absolute truth of Scripture, the premillennial return of Christ, the Rapture of the church before the premillennial return of Jesus, a Baptism of the Holy Spirit separate from and subsequent to the filling of the Holy Spirit, a literal six-24-hour-day creation, the laying on of hands for healing, advocacy for the poor, and ax heads that actually floated.  You couldn’t afford to be wrong on any of these things because wrong beliefs on these things could lead to wrong beliefs about Jesus, and wrong beliefs about Jesus indicate a faulty acceptance of Jesus, which means you just might not really be saved.
Boy.  I sure am glad salvation is by grace and not by works.
Even if it were possible for any one person to be absolutely right on every belief, that’s not what Jesus calls for.
Jesus calls for faith, and the kind of faith he calls for is the kind in which you will commit to a certain course of action even though you are uncertain about the outcome.  Even though it seems that the course of action will probably fail.  Even though it seems that the course of action is the exact opposite of what you should be doing.
That’s what Jesus asks of us.  He tells us that the way to abundant life is not to seek it, that the way to finish first is to be last, that the lowly servant is the greatest  person in the room and the one who is obviously the greatest person in the room really isn’t.  He asks us to stake our lives on these things, which seems nuts.  But it’s what he did.
Of course, it got him crucified.  Who wants that?  But he was resurrected, and we all want that.  What we really want is resurrection without crucifixion, but Jesus said the two go hand-in-hand.  “But, trust me, it all works out.”
         Do we?  Do we trust him?
Now, admittedly, in trusting him it helps if you believe that Jesus really is the Son of God, and that he really did rise from the dead, that he really does love us and wants to show us the way to life in the eternal kingdom.  All these right beliefs matter, because they help establish his bona fides, they give us reason to commit to following his course of action, but it’s the following that gives meaning to the right beliefs, not the other way around.  Trusting Jesus means trusting enough to actually follow, and trusting him in this way is the only thing that matters.

Thursday, May 9, 2013

"Rightness" and Righteousness

       I come from a faith tradition that emphasized the “rightness” of our beliefs.  In fact, you could say that the path to “righteousness”—the forgiveness of sins and restoration of our relationship with God—was through the “rightness” of our beliefs.  This is what was meant by being saved by faith.  You weren’t saved by doing anything, because that would be a work, and we are not saved by works, we are saved by faith, which had to be an internal thing, a matter of the mind and the heart.  If you believed the right things about Jesus, you were saved.  If you didn’t believe the right things about Jesus, you weren’t saved.  Even worse than not believing the right things about Jesus was believing the wrong things about Jesus.  So while we were taught to have sympathy toward those who didn’t believe in Jesus, we were taught to have contempt toward those “Christian” groups or individuals who believed the wrong things about Jesus.  Of course, it wasn’t like my teachers said, “OK, you need to be contemptuous toward Catholic priests because they teach salvation by works”, but when teaching us what was wrong with Catholicism they did so with a contemptuous attitude and with contemptuous remarks, we learned to be contemptuous.  (That contempt was even clearer later when I learned that they had caricatured Catholic teaching about salvation.)  And it wasn’t just Catholics who believed wrong things about Jesus.  Methodists, Presbyterians, Episcopalians, Pentecostals—oh, my! The Pentecostals!—Lutherans, and even some in the Baptist family all had some questionable things in their theology of which I was warned.
When I got older and began to think for myself and learn how to interpret the Bible for myself, and as I talked with Christians and pastors of other denominations and read books by those outside of my narrow brand of Christianity, I learned that the Baptists of my particular clan weren’t always right.  Which meant that I wasn’t always right.  And I learned that that was all right.
And I also saw that holding a contemptuous attitude toward other Christians was never right.  If I hold and understand all of the right beliefs without love, then I am violating the very nature of what God came to achieve in humanity through Jesus.  Right beliefs without love does not lead to righteousness, and in our contempt we deceive ourselves.
I'm not dismissing the importance of right beliefs, not at all.  In fact, I think that right thinking about God is very important , which is why I keep studying, reading the Bible, listening to other Christians, searching, revising, and questioning.  If I think all my beliefs are right I won’t do any of those things.  To stop thinking, studying, questioning and revising is to solidify those areas in which I'm wrong but don’t  yet know it.  But even in those areas in which I'm right I have to recognize that I still see through a glass darkly, that my “rightness” is just a faint shadow compared to what I will see when I stand face-to-face.
Some may accuse me of becoming wishy-washy about my beliefs, preferring me to assert my certainty: Here I stand!  I can do no other!  But, no, those of you who have engaged me in theological conversation or sat under my teaching know that what I believe I tend to believe strongly.  It’s not wishy-washy.  But I have realized that if I’ve been wrong in the past about certain matters of belief I'm probably wrong about certain things right now, and will undoubtedly be wrong about certain things in the future.   I have learned that certainty is actually dangerous.  It’s antithetical to faith.  Doubt and uncertainty aren’t the opposites of faith, they are the essence of faith.  Faith is committing to a course of action even though one is uncertain.  I follow Jesus even though I don’t know everything I feel like I need to know, and even though the way is rough and steep and looks like it leads to deprivation and maybe even death.
I follow Jesus because I know that I don’t know, but I trust that he does.  I can’t trust the rightness of my beliefs, but I can trust Jesus.  Of him I can be certain.

Wednesday, May 1, 2013

A Plan, Not a Blueprint

      What is meant when Christians say that God has a plan?  I think there is a great deal of misconception among Christians on this concept, and it leads to some misconceptions about the nature of God, about the nature of evil, and the nature of humans.
It is hard to look at Christian belief and not see the influence of Augustine, that great 5th Century theologian.  Our theology either reflects his thinking or is in reaction to it, but Augustine cannot be ignored.  I read recently that Augustine was a theological genius, which means that when he was right he was spectacularly right, but when he was wrong he was spectacularly wrong, and I think that is accurate.  Heavily influenced by Christianity’s ascendance as the official religion of the Roman Empire, with the backing—and therefore power—of the Emperor whose will must be obeyed, Augustine viewed God as an all-controlling deity.  Nothing occurred that did not have God as its prime mover.  Augustine is largely responsible for the blueprint worldview that the church developed, which holds that everything that occurs happens according to a blueprint that God had developed, even before creation, for the history of the world.  Every event—good and bad—happens according to this blueprint.  The way it is put colloquially is that “everything happens for a reason,” which, in a way, is actually a denial that anything is actually bad.  If it happened, it’s a part of a good God’s good plan, so even if it seems bad, it’s not really.  It’s just that we can’t see how this seemingly bad thing fits in the blueprint; if we could, we would realize that it’s not bad at all.
Which leads to the inescapable yet absurd conclusion that there is really no such thing as evil.  No such thing as sin.  Such things would be opposed to God’s will, and in the blueprint view nothing occurs that is outside of God’s will, much less opposed to it.
The concept of sin and evil really is a problem in this scheme.  If you hold that God planned everything and controls everything, yet admit to the presence of sin and evil in the world then you cannot but admit that God planned for and controls sin and evil.  We sin because God made us this way, and then holds us responsible for it.  It is this very concept that has turned many away from the faith.
Augustine’s error, in my opinion, was in looking at empire and emperor as his model for understanding God and his Kingdom.  In looking at a human model of power and authority, he came away with a distorted view of God.  (In his defense, the power of the emperor at that time wasn’t seen as human but as a conduit of the very power of God.  That doesn’t wholly excuse it, but it does explain it.)  But the Christian understanding of the God’s power and authority doesn’t derive from a throne but from the cross.  The power of the throne is top-down, but the power of the cross is bottom-up.  It’s not power over others, but power under others; not coercive power but persuasive power.  It is the power of self-sacrificing love, which is the greatest power in the world, for while coercive power can change human behavior, only persuasive power can change the human heart.  Coercive power works against human free will (and actually works best when there is no such thing as human free will) while persuasive power both allows for and works with human free will.  Persuasive power allows for the time when good is done and God doesn’t have to do it.  That is the power of agape love.
The Bible does speak of God’s plan, but it’s not a blueprint view.  When the Bible speaks about God’s plan it is saying that God is involved in the world, he has a will and an intention for the world.  Just as we do.  We can work toward God’s will and intention for the world, or we can work against it.  But because God is God, because he is infinitely more intelligent than all of us added together, because he knows all the possibilities, in the end his will and intention for the world prevails.  Can anyone be more persuasive than God?  Of course not. And he has the patience  and perseverance to prevail.  In the end, love wins.  And when love wins, so do we.