Monday, August 26, 2013

Jesus - Disturber of the Peace

Reza Aslan’s basic thesis in Zealot: The Life and Times of Jesus of Nazareth is that Jesus was a failed revolutionary who was willing to use violence to overthrow the political and religious order to bring in God’s kingdom.

He rejects outright the many teachings of Jesus about nonviolence, peacemaking, and love of enemies and dismisses as irrelevant Jesus’ refusal to resist his own capture and execution. Instead, he focuses on a few passages where Jesus says he didn’t come to bring peace:

“I came to bring fire to the earth, and how I wish it were already kindled! . . . Do you think that I have come to bring peace to the earth? No, I tell you, but rather division! From now on five in one household will be divided, three against two and two against three . . .” (Luke 12:49-53).

Aslan’s argument can be easily refuted by historical scholarship, but we are still left to wrestle with Jesus’ teaching in the above passage. What is Jesus talking about?

Reconstruction involves deconstruction. For God’s kingdom to come, our kingdoms have to go. God’s kind of peace is at first disruptive and divisive. Before Jesus can mediate God’s peace, he must overturn and disturb our false and shallow notions and expressions of peace.

Jesus disrupts our systems of meritocracy when he makes true religion a matter of the heart expressed through love of God and neighbor.

Jesus disturbs our sense of self-righteousness, of what is pleasing and displeasing to God.

In the first church I pastored out of seminary, a deacon charged me with not preaching enough on sin. I told him I would. So I started talking about greed and our love of possessions, the arrogance of thinking that we alone have the truth and alone are right. I talked about the sin of judging others and trying to control others. I found out rather quickly that these were not the kind of sins he wanted me to preach against.

Jesus overturns our nationalistic and exclusive views of God. He upsets and challenges all tribal and national gods. Instead of carrying the banner “God bless Israel” Jesus says, “God bless the whole, crazy messed up world” (see Luke 4:16-30). Jesus redefines who’s “in” and who’s “out.”

Jesus shakes up our materialistic views of worth and our sense of what constitutes success. Jesus speaks of the dangers of affluence, not the benefits. In God’s kingdom the last will be first and the first last. He redefines a person’s worth independent of position, power, or possessions and talks about how difficult it is for a rich person to enter the kingdom of God.

Jesus disturbs the nice little ways we package our faith. Many of us look to our faith to add another layer of security to our already secure lives. But Jesus calls us to a kind of commitment that thrusts us into dangerous and risky situations.

Jesus knows that our allegiance to his cause, to his vision of nonviolence, forgiveness, and social justice, to his faith in a large, compassionate God who champions the plight of the poor and marginalized will be divisive, even within our own families.

Jesus calls for honesty, integrity, and humility in all our relationships and that can be inwardly disturbing. We like to steer away from our failures, but the Spirit targets them. Not because God wants us to wallow in feelings of guilt or condemnation, but because any true relationship with God and others must be grounded in truth and rooted in honest, humble reality and confession.

Are we willing to allow Jesus to disrupt, disturb, and divide in order that we might embrace and embody a holistic vision of life? It doesn’t sound to bad until we remember that the way of Jesus led to the cross. But it is here where ultimate reconciliation is found (Eph. 2:11-22).

Monday, August 19, 2013

God-in-a-Box

A phrase in the contemporary Christian song, In Christ Alone, has sparked a great deal of discussion lately. The phrase in question reads, “as Jesus died/the wrath of God was satisfied.” 

The phrase reflects a particular interpretation of the saving efficacy of Jesus’ death that is popularly called substitutionary atonement. It is one of several ways Christians have tried to make sense of the rather loose and varied New Testament metaphors employed in reference to the atoning significance of Jesus’ death.

This became the dominant view in the Western Church when theologian Anselm explained Jesus’ death as a satisfaction of divine honor using the framework of the feudal system in the 11th century.

Progressive Christians level numerous criticisms against any theory that would demand Jesus’ death by God as a payment/punishment for sin or satisfaction of divine justice, which would seem to legitimize violence and make God guilty of cosmic child abuse. The primitive deities demanded blood; the “Abba” of Jesus forgives freely.

The source of controversy was a Presbyterian Committee on Congregational Song charged with putting together a new hymnal. They wanted to include the song but change the above line to read: “Till on that cross as Jesus died/the love of God was magnified.” But there was one serious hitch. The authors refused to authorize the change. So the Committee decided not to select the song for the new hymnal.  

The controversy in Baptist life was ignited when the editor of the Alabama Baptist, Bob Terry, published a piece explaining why he disagreed with the original wording.

Terry does not believe that Jesus “appeased God’s wrath” on the cross, but he does believe that “the atoning sacrifice of Christ satisfies the demands of God’s holy law.” This is clearly an interpretation within the broader category of substitutionary atonement. Terry is no progressive.

He quotes the Holman Bible Dictionary, published by LifeWay Christian Resources (which is about as conservative as one gets in the Christian publishing business) where the author says, “God was not waiting to be appeased (as in the pagan, Greek conception). Rather God condescended to meet us on our level to remedy the situation.”

This is clearly a conservative view of the atonement, but apparently not conservative enough for many Southern Baptist leaders. R. Albert Mohler Jr, president of Southern Baptist Theological Seminary (SBTS), in response blogged that substitutionary atonement was a major issue in the Conservative Resurgence (moderate Baptists call it a “takeover). He concluded by saying that whenever this teaching is questioned what is “at stake is the Gospel of Jesus Christ, the central message of the Scriptures.”

Chad Brand, professor of theology at SBTS, rebukes Terry for quoting the old edition of the Holman Bible Dictionary, no longer published by the ultra-conservative LifeWay Christian Resources. He says the new Holman Illustrated Bible Dictionary has a new article on expiation that “specifically argues for a biblical understanding of propitiation.” 

There were other Baptist leaders who joined in the attack/rebuke, but you get the picture. It was not enough for Terry to embrace substitutionary atonement; he had to subscribe to a particular view of God’s wrath being appeased/satisfied through Jesus’ death.

Apparently, Terry was under such pressure he felt compelled to offer a clarification to his original editorial. While he doesn’t retract it all, he comes very close. He says, “Sin had to be punished to satisfy the righteous justice of a Holy God and only the Son of God could satisfy that demand.”

The God of the Southern Baptist Theological Brokerage Firm is a God-in-a-box. This God has been made to conform to their rigid interpretations of substitutionary atonement and whatever other teaching they deem absolutely essential to the gospel as they conceive it.  

It seems to me that the God of the Southern Baptist leaders is awfully small and petty. Their God is more like the primitive deities who demanded the blood of the firstborn or a virgin to appease the deity’s wrath, than the God/Abba of Jesus who freely forgives and loves his/her enemies.

The God of Jesus cannot be reduced to the 2000 Baptist Faith and Message or for that matter, any other creed or doctrinal statement. The real God is so much deeper, wider, larger, and greater. 

Tuesday, August 13, 2013

Why a Progressive Christian Vision Is So Important


The old adage, “One can be so heavenly minded that one is no earthly good,” bears some truth. 

Traditional forms of Christianity tend to focus on the afterlife and being right with God so that one will end up in the right place. They also tend to be quite exclusive in terms of who’s in and out of God’s favor.

More progressive expressions of Christianity emphasize more inclusive versions of the kingdom of God. In Colossians 3, after admonishing his readers to clothe themselves with compassion, kindness, humility, meekness, patience, forbearance, and forgiveness, the writer says: “Above all, clothe yourselves with love, which binds everything together in perfect harmony” (3:14).

“Everything together in perfect (or complete) harmony” can serve as a poignant depiction of a progressive view of God’s kingdom.

From the progressive point of view, the kingdom of God is as much about this life in this world as it is about the life and world to come. It’s about being in right relationship with God and everyone and everything else. Loving our neighbor as ourselves is just as important as loving God.

It’s about a world where everyone has enough – not just to survive, but to thrive and flourish.

It’s about a world where the playing field is leveled, where the excluded are included, where all are treated with dignity, equality, and respect.

It’s about a world where poverty is eliminated and the oppressed are liberated and all that is broken is healed.

A progressive vision emphasizes inclusion, equality, compassion, social justice, and the dignity of all people.

Visions of the kingdom which are more exclusive—that enforce narrow boundaries and  limit participation on the basis of dogmatic doctrines and practices—do not seem to do as well in calling their adherents to compassion and the work of social justice.  

It was recently reported by Heather Clark of the Christian News Network that during a recent trip to Africa to help renovate a cancer screening clinic in Zambia, former president George W. Bush was asked by a Zambian reporter how he feels about the issue of same-sex marriage and whether or not it is compatible with Christianity. His response was, “I shouldn’t be taking a speck out of someone else’s eye when I have a log in my own.”

As you would expect, some Christians who embraced George W’s presidency did not like his response. Pastor Scott Brown, the director of the National Center for Family-Integrated churches and an elder at Hope Baptist Church in Wake Forrest, NC responded: “Mr. Bush has actually misinterpreted the verse and applied it wrongly, most likely because he is unaware of the whole counsel of God on the matter of judgment.”

Clark reported that Pastor Brown went on to outline 12 ways in which Christians are “to make judgments, including the judgment of false doctrines and false teachers, and judging the state of civil affairs.”

Now, I know that we progressives can be judgmental too. I am fully aware of the many ways we can fail to show compassion, kindness, humility and forgiveness. The difference, however, between exclusive and inclusive visions and the extent to which they call forth the lifestyle depicted above is significant.

A progressive vision of a world made whole and of the radical grace and hospitality of Jesus demands that we be compassionate, kind, forgiving, accepting, and understanding of others and that we work for the common good of all people.

Do we always live out that vision? No. Do we fail? Yes, numerous times. But the call for compassion and restorative, distributive justice constitute the core of our vision.

Whereas an exclusive vision may outline 12 ways in which Christians are to make judgments, an inclusive vision will outline 12 (the number is irrelevant) ways to make peace with enemies or forgive those who have hurt us or alleviate poverty.

I am not suggesting that more conservative Christians do not engage in these things; I know many who do. But these things are not at the heart of their gospel. For progressives they are front and center.

Certainly those of us who identify as progressive Christians need to do better embodying this vision in our local communities. Yet, while both conservatives and progressives will continue to fail to fully live out their faith (for such is the human condition), it helps to have the kind of faith that is worth living out.

American Christianity has to change, not just in style, but in substance—in its core vision of God’s kingdom—if we are to help bring healing, hope, and redemption to our world. 

Monday, August 12, 2013

Social Justice Is Essential to Faith

Isaiah leaves no doubt that social justice is at the heart of prophetic faith. He calls the covenant people to repentance and it is very clear what he expects:

Wash yourselves; make yourselves clean;
   remove the evil of your doings
   from before my eyes;
cease to do evil,
   learn to do good;
seek justice,
   rescue the oppressed,
defend the orphan,
   plead for the widow (1:16–17).

Three groups of people were the most vulnerable in ancient Israel and these three groups are repeatedly mentioned in the prophetic literature: strangers/aliens (non-Israelites), widows, and orphans.

Authentic faith in the prophetic tradition involves pleading their cause, defending their dignity, and rescuing them from their oppressed condition.   

There are some positive signs that a growing number of evangelicals are coming to realize that redemptive justice is not peripheral to the gospel, but at the very heart of it.

Recently, over 300 evangelical pastors and leaders converged in Washington for the “Evangelical Immigration Table Day of Prayer and Action for Immigration Reform.” They were united in charging that the current immigration system is not only broken, but cruel.

Over 90 meetings took place with members of Congress and their top staff. Delegations met with top Republican leaders in the House of Representatives who will play key roles in the decisions made about immigration reform. Evangelical pastors and leaders also met with their congressional representatives.

These evangelicals pleaded with Congress to not turn their backs on these who are without legal protection and health care. According to Jim Wallis, President of Sojourners and one of the key leaders instrumental in bringing this group together, congressional leaders heard stories about immigrants regularly robbed, about women raped who can’t seek the protection of the police, and about injured people unable to seek medical care or even go to the emergency room so they curl up alone with their wounds and hope they don’t die.

They emphasized to Congress how important it is to keep families together and not separate children from their parents. They stressed with moral urgency that the time to act is now.

Evangelical pastor, Michael Wilker, writing in the Washington Post says: “Evangelical leaders deeply understand . . . the suffering of immigrant families, and the harm that a broken and cruel immigration system perpetrates on our nation.” He goes on to say that together with allies of all faiths, we “must advocate and hold U.S. representatives accountable if they do not take this opportunity to make the immigration system just and humane.” 

Wilker ends his piece by saying: “We are announcing the Gospel that welcomes the stranger and we will denounce those that block immigration reform.”

These evangelicals confronted the powers, pleading with Congress to enact the kind of immigration reform that will move immigrants out of the darkness of rejection and suffering into the light of acceptance, welcome, and opportunity.

In Isaiah 1 just prior to this demand for justice, the prophet denounces both the leaders and the people for going through the motions of religion. They never miss a holy day or sacrifice or special offering. They are at church whenever the doors are open.

But God, says the prophet, is weary of it all. It is an abomination and a trampling of God’s courts. (Prophetic language is intense and hyperbolic). For in spite of all their religiosity, violence and greed pervade the land.  

What is at stake here is nothing less than the Beloved Community—the kingdom of God on earth. To neglect the plight of the disadvantaged is to do evil; it is to be complicit in injustice.

It doesn’t matter how often we attend church, say our prayers, or engage in religious practices, if we turn our backs on the oppressed, the judgment of God rests upon us and we will be devoured by our own greed and inaction.

Our vocation is clear. The body of Christ on earth must exercise a prophetic voice and engage in the prophetic task. We are called to seek justice by pleading for, defending, and rescuing all who are denied, excluded, beaten down, impoverished, disadvantaged, exploited, oppressed, and caused to live in the shadows of fear and insecurity.  

Social justice has been at the core of the progressive Christian movement. Perhaps now the evangelical church, too, is realizing that restorative justice is not a take-it-or-leave it matter. It is fundamental and central to the good news of the kingdom of God.