Learning to Love by Loving Our Enemies

“You have heard that it was said, ‘Love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ But I tell you, love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, that you may be children of your Father in heaven. He causes his sun to rise on the evil and the good, and sends rain on the righteous and the unrighteous. If you love those who love you, what reward will you get? Are not even the tax collectors doing that? And if you greet only your own people, what are you doing more than others? Do not even pagans do that? Be perfect, there-fore, as your heavenly Father is perfect. —Matthew 5:43-48

In 2001, incited by the 9-11 attacks, a Texas man went on a shooting rampage and killed two people, severely wounding another. The wounded man, who lost an eye when the assailant sprayed him with shotgun pellets, survived because he shrewdly played dead. Ten years later, the State of Texas was set to execute the shooter, when the survivor unexpectedly stepped forward to plead for him. “If I can forgive my offender who tried to take my life,” he told BBC News, “we can all work together to forgive each other and move forward and take a new narrative on the tenth anniversary of 11 September.”[i] In short, he was asking the State of Texas to turn the other cheek, as he had done, the very cheek that was still full of pellets.

Texas, long known for the conservative evangelicalism of its governors, refused, and the shooter, Mark Stroman, a white supremacist, was executed. His victim, Rais Bhuiyan, is a Muslim immigrant born in Bangladesh. As Rais explained, it was while on pilgrimage in Mecca after the attack that he received a “ray of light” regarding forgiveness and compassion. Drawing on his own faith, he decided not only to forgive Stroman but also to take the further step to try to save him from execution. The Qur’an teaches that those who forsake retribution and forgive those who have wronged them become closer to God, he said. “My faith teaches me that saving a life is like saving the entire human race.”

In this quest Rais was joined by the widows and family members of the two other victims killed during Stroman’s anti-Muslim rampage, a Pakistani and a Hindu from India. “We decided to forgive him and want to give him a chance to be a better person,” said the brother-in-law of one of the slain. Bhuiyan also received a great deal of encouragement from all over the world, even from fellow Muslims back in Pakistan.[ii]

However, both the Texas Governor and the Pardon Board refused to hear the request. Mr. Bhuiyan was also prevented from meeting personally with Stroman, as was his right under law, but the two were allowed to speak briefly on the telephone just hours before the execution. While the condemned man seemed resigned to his fate, he told reporters,

It is due to Rais’ message of forgiveness that I am more content now than I have ever been. I received a message that Rais loved me and that is powerful…I want to thank him in person for his inspiring act of compassion. He has forgiven the unforgiveable.[iii]

In chapter 5 of the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus challenges the popular understanding of some key commandments and, instead, teaches God’s true purpose behind the law. For example, regarding murder, Jesus says, “You know that the law says, ‘Thou shalt not kill,’ but I tell you that even if you are angry with your brother, that is murder too, for murder begins in the heart.” In the same way, with adultery, he says, “The law states, ‘Do not commit adultery,’ but I tell you that even looking at a woman lustfully in your heart is adultery, because that is where it begins.”

God’s intention in giving the Old Testament law was more than to provide a list of dos and don’ts that could be checked off. That is what the Pharisees were doing: keeping the externals of the law, without allowing it to touch their hearts. They were superficially righteous, and in being so, they thought they could tame the law and make it manageable.

God’s intention in the law, however, was quite different. His desire was that the law might break us, that when we looked into its polished stone, we might see ourselves as we truly are and, like the tax collector in Jesus’ story (Lk 18:9-14), beat our breast, saying, “God, have mercy on me, a sinner.” That man, if you remember, not the self-righteous Pharisee, went home justified before God.

If all this were not hard enough, Jesus saves the toughest commandment for last. “You have heard that it was said, ‘Love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ But I tell you, love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you.” The Old Testament law frequently taught love of neighbor and even of the foreigner in the land. It warned against hating a fellow Israelite in one’s heart (Lev 19:17-18). The rabbis of Jesus’ day were generous enough to apply the status of neighbor generally to any fellow Jew, but not to Israel’s national enemies, Gentiles, or the wicked. Jesus, however, categorically rejects the interpolation that commanded hatred of one’s enemies. In his teaching and ministry he expands the definition of neighbor to embrace such traditional enemies as Samaritans and outrages his more pious listeners by including God-fearing Gentiles and even repentant “lost causes” (prostitutes and tax collectors) in his eschatological banquet (cf. Mt 8:11; Lk 19:9).

What does it mean to love your enemies? The parallel passage in Luke 6 reads, “But to you who are listening I say: Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, bless those who curse you, pray for those who mistreat you.” In other words, love is not just a feeling we have—“Oh, I just love those enemies of mine!” That is not where it starts. We love our enemies not just by the things we don’t do—that is, by not doing evil to them—but by doing good to them: serving them, blessing them, praying for them, and in Rais Bhuiyan’s case, not only by forgiving them, but actively, tirelessly working for their good. Love is active: it does things. And as we bless our enemies with both our mouths and our actions, our hearts begin to change as well. It is hard to keep hating someone whom you are praying for, blessing, serving. Serving our enemies? Why would we want to do that? That just sounds naive and dangerous!

Why does Jesus command this of us? He says, “so that you may be children of your Father in heaven.” In Near Eastern language and culture, to be the son of someone is to be like someone. We say, “he’s a true son of his father,” or “he’s a chip off the old block.” In Romans 8 the apostle Paul writes that “Those whom God foreknew he also predestined to be conformed to the image of his Son, that he [Jesus] might be the first born among many brothers and sisters.” We were chosen to grow up into Christlikeness: here is a reference not only to our physical transformation (our future resurrection, in which we will receive new, immortal bodies, like Jesus’) but also to our sanctification (that we would be like him in character, in the way we act, speak, and love).

How God Loves

The Almighty does not have one kind of love for some people and another kind for others. He loves everyone actively. The passage says, “He causes the sun to rise on the evil and the good and sends rain on the righteous and the unrighteous.” We all enjoy the same sunshine, whether we are “good” or evil. God’s heart is wide open, and undivided. He has standards, and yes, he hates and must judge sin. But he loves sinners. If he did not, you and I would not be here.

Jesus goes on, “If you love those who love you, what reward will you get?” In other words, even the world is nice to people who are nice to them; they bless those who bless them, love those who love them. That is not hard. What separates us from the world, what makes us different, is that we love even those who hate us; we do good to those who do evil to us, bless those who curse us, and pray for those who plot evil against us.

This command to love our enemies is probably the most radical of Jesus’ teachings. It certainly can seem like a bitter pill to swallow. The world may call it foolishness, weakness, or stupidity. The Bible calls it Christlikeness. For as Paul says, “God demonstrates his own love for us in this: while we were still sinners Christ died for us” (Ro 5:8). That is his way, and that is why we were called: to make us like Jesus. To bring a little bit of heaven to earth.

I stated before that the Father’s intention is that we would love our enemies as our neighbor. Why? Because our enemy is our neighbor! Jesus’ parable of the Good Samaritan illustrates this point in a powerful, though disturbing way. You probably know the story. A man is traveling on the road from Jerusalem to Jericho and is set upon by robbers, who strip him of his clothing and beat him almost to death, dumping his body beside the road. Two men passing by, one a Jewish priest, the other a Levite who worked in the temple, choose not to stop. But one man does, and that man is a Samaritan, the enemy of the Jews, of a people considered so unclean, they could not be touched or their land even walked upon. Yet this man, Jesus says, takes the injured man in his arms, bandages his wounds, carries him to an inn, and pays the landlord generously to look after him.

Christ then asks the question, “Now which man was a neighbor to the wounded man?” The teacher of the law, to whom this parable is addressed, is so scandalized, he cannot even bring himself to use the word Samaritan. Instead, he says grudgingly, “The man who had mercy on him.” Jesus replies, “Go and do likewise.”

The point of the parable is—and this is what got Jesus into such hot water with the religious establishment of his day—not just that we are to love and set an example of mercy and compassion to our enemies. In this case, our enemy is the example, to our shame! So our hearts are exposed, and we have to ask, “So why do we hate them again?”

Over the past fourteen years, I have been listening to, reading, and watching the news and internet, and so have you. Our country is up in arms against those people. You know whom I mean. I am referring to Muslims. We hear all the rhetoric, invective, slander, and inflammatory language, and it does something to us inside, does it not? It makes us angry. But angry in one of two ways. Either we get angry and want to grab our torches and pitch forks and join the mob. Or we feel repulsed by all the hate speech and demagoguery, people using intolerance (against minorities, the weak, and outcasts) as a means to gain power. Bullies do it to gain social standing. Politicians, too. From the beginning of time, there have been those who will play upon the very worst in human nature just to get a vote. And to a certain extent, I suppose, we expect that from the world. At least, it should not surprise us. But when we see Christians, or those who use the name, doing the same thing, it should grieve us; it should alarm us, make us angry. I hope it does you.

In the summer of 2010, the town of Temecula, California, was up in arms over the proposed building of an Islamic Center in their town, right across from two established churches. So some “concerned citizens” banded together and told each other, “Bring your guns, your Bibles, and your dogs, and meet us for a rally in front of the site.” (Dogs, of course, are considered unclean to most Muslims.)

Meanwhile, 3000 miles away, in Manhattan, a similar controversy was brewing—one that involved the whole country—regarding whether a certain Islamic religious center should be built near Ground Zero. That same summer a crowd of “patriotic” citizens gathered at the site to protest, which is their constitutional right. But when they saw two tan-skinned men walk by, chatting in what sounded suspiciously like Arabic, they surrounded and started menacing them, hurling racial and religious slurs, spewing hatred. The police had to come to rescue these men. As they were led away, one of the men shouted, “But we’re Christians!” They were Copts, Orthodox Christians from Egypt. Did you know that some of the oldest churches in the world are Arabic-speaking? That did not matter. It certainly did not make up for speaking with an Arab accent. Once a crowd becomes a mob, it has no brain; it thinks with its fists. There is something about a mob that seems to give courage and legitimacy to stupidity and ignorance.

You do not have to agree with someone’s religion or their politics to love them. Is that what Jesus said? “Love your enemies, but only those whose religion you agree with or whose politics you like?”

Jesus and the Qur’an

The Qur’an (Islam’s holy book) says some amazing things about Jesus. It refers to him as “the Messiah” (Q 3:45), the “Word of God” (Q 4:171), “conceived by God’s Spirit” (Q 19:27), “born of a Virgin” (Q 19:20), “he died according to God’s plan” (Q 8:17), “God raised him to himself” (Q 4:158). Some of this almost sounds like the Apostles’ Creed. But wait, there is more. The Qur’an also says that Jesus intercedes with God according to God’s will (Q2:255), that he was without sin (Q 19:19), that God gave him miracles (Q 2:87,253) and the New Testament, in which is guidance and light (Q 5:46).[iv]

There is, of course, an important difference: Islam clearly teaches that Jesus is not God’s Son and therefore not God. Muslims consider any claim to his divinity to be blasphemy. That is a big problem for Christians, but recall there were Jews who thought the same thing. Most still do. Yet Christians still love and pray for them. In particular, I remember a man named Saul from Tarsus, who just did not get it. God was willing to work with him.

The Qur’an makes other statements we might not agree with, some that could be interpreted as hostile to Christians and Jews. Whether these verses were intended for all times, or limited by circumstance and context, is debated. Yet, why begin there? Why not start with what unites us? Why not use love to build bridges, instead of fear to erect walls?

Yes, there are huge obstacles. But what a great start! With what other religion, besides Judaism, do we have such an advantage and so much in common? They even call him by name! Yesa-al-Mesih. Jesus the Messiah. The prophet Muhammed, despite his errors, had a profound respect and reverence for Jesus Christ, and he commanded his followers to have the same. Our Gospels make up part of Islam’s holy books. The vast majority of Muslims have more reverence for our Lord and follow more of his teaching than many people who are superficially Christian. They have no problem with Jesus; they revere him. Like the rest of the world, it is Christians and Christianity they cannot stand. They fear us, and for good reasons (over a thousand years’ worth of Crusades, colonialism, and Western meddling in the region).

Think of Rais Bhuiyan, the man who was shot in Texas, a very devout Muslim. Does he seem so far from the kingdom of God that we should reject him? Perhaps some would agree that he is at least more “outwardly Christian” than many of us who use the name. Can we deny that the Holy Spirit is doing a remarkable work in and through this man’s life? Does it not seem ironic, but very much like God, that he would use such a person to teach us something deeply significant about forgiveness? Did not Jesus frequently use foreigners, Gentiles, even Samaritans, as examples of righteousness and faith to rouse his fellow Jews to repentance? (cf. Mt 8:5-13; 15:21-28; Mk 15:39; Lk 4:25-27; 10:25-37; 17:11-19; Ac 10:1-8.)

Do you think God wants to reach these people? After all, our enemy is not the real enemy, right? The Enemy (Satan) is our enemy. I have been discussing loving our enemies, when in reality, these people are not our enemies at all! Our real enemies are our own fear and ignorance, which are tools of Satan’s kingdom.

What is really at stake here? Why has Satan worked so hard over fourteen centuries to keep Muslims and Christians at each others’ throats, to keep us living in fear of one another? There are a billion and a half souls, one quarter of humanity, who follow Islam. We cannot dismiss them with a wave of the hand—certainly not when so many are so close to the kingdom of God!

Did you know there are some Muslims who follow Christ but still call themselves “Muslim”? They love Jesus, follow his teaching, and call him Lord and Savior. There are thousands of Iranians who have had open visions of Jesus Christ. There are churches being planted in the Middle East every day, in very hostile soil. Why do we want to make it harder for them? Why do we want to push them away? God is doing something there, and we can either join in by praying and loving them or—as the church has done so often throughout its history—we can resist what God is doing and work against him instead of for him, and the angels will weep for us.

We were created, God chose us to become like Christ. So let us become like Christ, not conformed to the hatred and bigotry of this world. There are people in positions of power in this country and in the media who want to control and manipulate us with fear, to make us become part of a mob that hates and persecutes. Hysterical voices tell us, “They want to kill us! They want to impose their Sharia law on us!” That may be true of some, but definitely not the vast majority of Muslims, who are peaceful. They want the same things, the same opportunities for themselves and their children: peace, health, a good job, education, even democracy.

Islamophobia is a huge industry. Hate sells. So does fear. Together, they sell guns, bombs, and wars. Do not be led by these. Be led by God’s Spirit, his holy Word, and the teachings of our Lord and Savior. As God told the prophet Isaiah: “Do not call conspiracy everything this people calls a conspiracy; do not fear what they fear, and do not dread it” (Isa. 8:12). Fear God alone. Jesus said, “Give to Caesar what is Caesar’s, but give to God what is God’s.” In other words, we are to be good citizens, but when push comes to shove, there is a higher loyalty, a higher citizenship. If loving our enemies seems foolish or unpatriotic, then so be it.

God came to reconcile himself to a world that was his enemy—that is at the heart of our gospel.


[i] “Muslim Victim Forgives, Texas Executes,” Press TV, (22 July 2011). Web. PressTV.ir.

[ii] Kari Huus, “A Victim of 9/11 Hate Crime Now Fights for His Attacker’s Life,” NBC News, (30 June 2011). Web. NBCNews.com.

[iii] John Rudolf, “Rais Bhuiyan, Victim of Post-9/11 Shooting Spree, Pleads To Spare Attacker Mark Stroman’s Life,” Huffington Post, (18 July 2011). Web. HuffingtonPost.com.

[iv] Carl Medearis, Muslims, Christians, and Jesus: Gaining Understanding and Building Relationships (Bloomington, MN: Bethany House, 2008), 70-72.

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The Tyranny of the Righteous (Part 2)

That America is and always has been a “Christian nation” is one of our most enduring national myths. Yet in 1796 the newly formed United States of America negotiated a treaty with the Muslim-ruled Barbary state of Tripoli in North Africa, assuring them that “the government of the United States is not, in any sense, founded on the Christian religion.”[i] The treaty was later approved by the U.S. Senate and signed by President John Adams.

From its creation, the United States of America has always been a secular state. The Declaration of Independence mentions only the “Creator” or “Divine Providence,” the usage of which is rooted in Deism, not orthodox Christianity. The Constitution does not mention God at all. Its various references to religion merely limit what the government can do.

Some governments outlaw certain religions; others blend religion and state. Our Founders shrewdly resisted both extremes and sought a via media that remains officially neutral toward religion, a principle designed to protect every one by favoring no one. Again, Ingersoll says it best:

Our fathers founded the first secular government that was ever founded in this world. Recollect that. The first secular government; the first government that said every church has exactly the same rights, and no more; every religion has the same rights, and no more. In other words, our fathers were the first men who had the sense, who had the genius, to know that no church should be allowed to have a sword; that it should be allowed only to exert its moral influence.[ii]

To claim that we have always been a Christian nation is to create confusion and misunderstanding among non-Christian individuals and nations. From a Christian viewpoint, one might even find such a claim to be blasphemous. Would a truly Christian nation enslave people? Would it practice ethnic or cultural cleansing? Would it steal land that belongs to others, or oppress and exploit other nations? Would it go to war to extend its territory or influence, or show little to no concern for the poor among its own people? Surely, it would not drop atomic weapons, torture, kill innocents with drones, or prop up dictators! One might try to justify some of these actions based on the necessities of realpolitik, but there is nothing “Christian” about them.

Rather, what people really mean by “our Christian nation” is that, in the past at least, more Americans have claimed adherence to that faith than to any other. Christianity, also, more than any other religion, has had and continues to have a profound influence here. Many good things that today we take for granted have had their roots in Christian faith and experience: the abolition of slavery, civil rights, child labor laws, women’s suffrage, Social Security. Even our War of Independence, as well as some aspects of our form of government and Constitution, were heavily influenced by eighteenth-century Reformed Christian theology and polity.

American Protestants may mourn the loss of a simpler and more homogeneous time, even not so long ago, when they still formed an overwhelming majority. Since 2006, however, Protestants have actually slipped to minority status. This gradual decline is partly the result of the great tide of immigration of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, as well as more recent immigration from Asia and the Middle East. There is also an ever-increasing demographic that identifies itself as agnostic, atheistic, non-theist, or unaffiliated with any religion.

The U.S.A. now comprises the world’s most religiously diverse population, and with increasing diversity comes an increasing need for tolerance and sensitivity at all levels. If Christians wish to see their rights and religious freedoms protected, they must respect and protect those of others. It is one of the responsibilities that come with living in a free society.

There is much talk in Christian circles about “taking this country back.” If we wish to do so, we will have to do it the hard way, Jesus’ way: on our knees, with humility, sacrificial service, loving hearts, and in the power of the Holy Spirit. Not by winning elections or by legislative fiat, but by actually caring for the poor and oppressed, healing the sick, working for peace, and winning and mentoring souls, one by one. Instead of complaining about the exploding secularism of our society, we might consider changing our own attitudes and making our lives (and churches) more attractive by reflecting more of the kindness and character of the Savior we claim to follow.

Atheism and disillusionment continue to grow, much of it due to the power-grabbing of the Religious Right: its marriage with a single political party, its abandonment of the poor and reduction of the faith to a couple of hot-button issues, its xenophobia, as well as its influence over some of our nation’s more disastrous policies and militarism. To reverse this trend, Christians might want to take a page from a book often quoted but seldom followed:

Your attitude should be the same as that of Christ Jesus, who being in very nature God, did not consider equality with God something to be grasped, but made himself nothing, taking the form of a servant… (Phil. 2:5-7).

A City Upon a Hill

Listening to the radio one day, I was reminded of how much our collective American vocabulary is still firmly rooted in what has been called the “Puritan experiment.” The image of America as “a city upon a hill” has been used in political rhetoric by leaders as diverse as John Adams and Ronald Reagan, John F. Kennedy and Sarah Palin. The metaphor, of course, goes back to Jesus and the Sermon on the Mount, but Puritan governor Jonathan Winthrop was perhaps the first to apply it in a socio-political sense in referring to the fledgling Massachusetts Bay Colony.

The phrase is almost always quoted out of its original, narrow context. Applied to the United States as a whole, a creation of a later century, it acquires a somewhat self-righteous and supercilious air. American exceptionalism has been used to justify our most egregious injustices against other people groups, our wars, as well as our most well-meaning but blundering foreign policies.

It seems ironic, therefore, to consider that Winthrop’s 1630 sermon, given aboard the good ship Arbella en route to the shores of the New World, is actually entitled “Christian Charitie, a Model Thereof.” In it he lays down the scriptural rules of conduct by which relationships and commerce within the new colony were to be guided: In short, all is to be governed by justice and mercy, by love, compassion, and generosity. The Almighty, in his wisdom, has ordained that some be rich, others poor, some mighty, others lowly, and God does this, Winthrop reasons, that “every man might have need of others, and from hence they might be all knit more nearly together in the bonds of brotherly affection.”[iii]

Both the “natural law” and the gospel command us to love our neighbor as ourselves, he states, and so we must give generously, lend freely, forgive the debts of the penniless, love our enemies, deny ourselves, and in every way care for one another. As each of us is part of one body, there is no soundness in the whole if there is sickness or misery in the part. For Winthrop, quoting Isaiah 58, such social solidarity and unselfishness are the surest road to God’s blessing and prosperity. How foreign this sounds to our American sense of individualism and self-reliance, and how far we have departed from this ideal!

Now the only way to avoid this shipwreck [God’s judgment], and to provide for our posterity, is to follow the counsel of Micah, to do justly, to love mercy, to walk humbly with our God….We must be willing to abridge ourselves of our superfluities, for the supply of others’ necessities….We must…make others’ conditions our own…always having before our eyes our commission and community in the work, as members of the same body.[iv]

“For we must consider that we shall be as a city upon a hill. The eyes of all people are upon us,” he says. “So that if we shall deal falsely with our God in this work we have undertaken, and so cause Him to withdraw His present help from us, we shall be made a story and a by-word through the world.”[v]

The Governor’s words speak of opportunity and responsibility, not a God-given right or noblesse oblige. Winthrop did not envision a society where each member could pull himself up by his own bootstraps. Rather, his vision could be achieved only if all worked together, sacrificed, shared with, and cared for one another.

Despite the fact that the Massachusetts Puritans were attempting to build a theocratic, rather than a pluralistic society, this sermon still has something to teach us about what it means to be truly blessed as a nation—if we really wish to be that shining city upon a hill—a calling that is not just a privilege, but also a great responsibility and sacrifice.

A Pyrrhic Victory

During the 2012 election a letter to the editor appeared in a small U.S. newspaper. Its author stated that the election had been an eye-opening experience, from which he had learned a great deal about American evangelicalism. In their quest for power, he said, (the power to impose their beliefs on others, whose beliefs they would not want imposed on themselves), evangelicals have embraced candidates who share little of the true values Jesus preached, such as concern for the poor. Instead, they have targeted same-sex marriage and abortion as the great enemies, while at the same time treating women as little more than “breeding cattle.” They care more for an “unfeeling clump of cells” than for real suffering humanity, he wrote. In short, they have abrogated their master’s teaching to become “idolaters at the altar of politics.”[vi]

The letter encapsulates the disillusionment of a growing segment of our culture that increasingly identifies itself as religiously unaffiliated, secular, or even atheist. If you read it with compassion, you might have caught a tone of bitterness and disappointment, as if the author once had higher expectations for evangelicals and perhaps still does. He may even be an admirer of Jesus, but certainly not of the church.

While the letter did not surprise me, it still filled me with sadness and not a little anger. As an evangelical, I do not share all of the author’s opinions, but I do understand his feelings—not because I supported either party’s agenda, but because I, too, hope for much better from my fellow Christians.

If evangelicals could claim any victory in forty years of culture wars, it would certainly be a Pyrrhic one, a case of winning the battle but losing the war. Such victories are costly if we win electoral or legislative battles only by alienating the very souls for whom we ought to be burdened.

Continuing the Culture War

In October 2009 a group of Eastern Orthodox, Catholic, and evangelical leaders and scholars gathered in our nation’s capital to sign a new declaration. Drafted by the late Chuck Colson and others, and signed by a broad range of evangelicals, including James Dobson, Tony Perkins, Tim Keller, and Ron Sider, the Manhattan Declaration begins with soaring and inspiring prose extolling the courage and heroism of the church from the Roman period to the 1960s. “Christians are heirs of a 2,000-year tradition of proclaiming God’s word,” it states, “seeking justice in our societies, resisting tyranny, and reaching out with compassion to the poor, oppressed and suffering.”[vii] So far so good.

Sadly, however, the document then descends into the same old shibboleths about abortion, gay marriage, and religious liberty that have characterized the narrow agenda of the Religious Right for over a generation. So much for heroism.

The declaration is fine as far as it goes; it just does not go very far, like a huge cannon that hisses and booms and turns out to be nothing but an oversized beanbag shooter. Continuing the evangelical culture war begun in the 1970s (now in the guise of an ecumenical confession), Mr. Colson et al. give full vent to the old rants over how Christians have been forced to violate their consciences due to a government overly officious in its devotion to the separation of church and state. To be fair, there have been numerous cases of government overreach, both on the federal and local levels.

The declaration justifies passive resistance to governmental authority. It even attempts to co-opt the legacy of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., even though the latter’s goals were quite different. Nowhere does it actually address, as King would, the other gaping wounds of our society, such as poverty, the growing disparity between rich and poor, racial prejudice, corporate greed, drugs and violence, AIDS, government corruption, imperialism, torture, and the victims of war.

Why the silence? The agenda of the “culture war” is perforce limited, since to do otherwise would involve our having to take a hard look at ourselves. It also shields from exposure the corporate backers of this agenda who want the Christian vote without the “meddlesome” concern for social justice that characterizes so much of God’s Word.

For decades conservative evangelicals in this country have campaigned to make America a righteous nation. But will the Lord God bless a people who have successfully banned abortions yet allow greed to run rampant? Will he bless a nation that has outlawed same-sex marriage yet permits the poor to be trampled by the rich? Will he bless a country that prays at football games but whose security and prosperity rest on the brutal oppression of its neighbors? The church in America has largely been silent on these latter issues, our prophets and leaders like Isaiah’s “dogs that cannot bark” (Isa 56:10).

Fresh Air Instead of Fresh Ire

Working together? Not something ideologues and fanatics on both sides of an issue are best at doing. But wherever you stand on abortion, you have to admit that reducing the number of or need for abortions is a worthwhile goal.

Over the past four decades, the abortion argument has raged on, pitting members of families and communities as well as religious denominations against one another. There is no question that the harsh rhetoric and bitterness have helped to foster a division in this country that has not been seen since the Civil War.

During his 2008 Presidential campaign Barack Obama took what many regarded as a risky stand in proposing that pro-life and pro-choice advocates should try to find some “common ground.” It was an idea he continued to outline in his “controversial” commencement speech at Notre Dame a year later:

Maybe we won’t agree on abortion, but we can still agree that this is a heart-wrenching decision for any woman to make, with both moral and spiritual dimensions.

So let’s work together to reduce the number of women seeking abortions by reducing unintended pregnancies, and making adoption more available, and providing care and support for women who do carry their child to term. Let’s honor the conscience of those who disagree with abortion, and draft a sensible conscience clause, and make sure that all of our health care policies are grounded in clear ethics and sound science, as well as respect for the equality of women...

Understand…I do not suggest that the debate surrounding abortion can or should go away. No matter how much we may want to fudge it—indeed, while we know that the views of most Americans on the subject are complex and even contradictory—the fact is that at some level, the views of the two camps are irreconcilable. Each side will continue to make its case to the public with passion and conviction. But surely we can do so without reducing those with differing views to caricature.[viii]

Mr. Obama and most evangelical Christians may be on opposite sides of the table when it comes to abortion, but his proposal seemed, well, helpful. Of course, there are passionate ideologues on either end of the abortion issue, but calling both parties to talk and try to work together seems very reasonable. After all, we need one another. Hurling curses at each other over a dividing wall has certainly accomplished nothing.

As Christians we must resist the tendency to demonize the opposition. We must fight the temptation to remain obdurate, to dominate, to exclude. These are the characteristics and mindset of extremism, which destroys even the very thing it would build. We do not have to change our belief system in order to negotiate; we do not have to agree with someone to work hand in hand for the common good.

America is a nation growing in diversity. Therefore, we need all the more to listen to, to respect and work with one another if we are going to achieve anything. Instead of waiting zealously for some magic moment in the future when Roe v. Wade is overturned (an outcome that is by no means certain) and, somehow, all our ills wiped away, can we not go to the table now and hammer out how, through targeted programs and compassion, we can make abortion in this country as rare as possible?

This, at least, would seem to be the most rational approach to saving the lives of the unborn—that is, of course, assuming we have an interest in rational approaches. The fact that such rapprochement or cooperation seldom ever happens ought to show us that we are not only being poorly led but also downright manipulated—and by forces that are thoroughly invested, not in ending abortion, but in keeping the culture war going and the flames of hostility burning, for their own political purposes.

In a 1981 interview Billy Graham told Parade magazine,

I don’t want to see religious bigotry in any form. It would disturb me if there was a wedding between the religious fundamentalists and the political right. The hard right has no interest in religion except to manipulate it.[ix]



[i]“Treaty with Tripoli (1796)”, in The Public Statutes at Large of the United States of America, from the Organization of the Governmenet in 1789, to March 3, 1845, (Little, Brown & Co., 1867), vol. 8, 155.

[ii] Ingersoll, “Centennial Oration” (1876), in Works, vol. 9, 74.

[iii] Jonathan Winthrop, “A Model of Christian Charity” (1630), in Classics of American Political and Constitutional Thought, (Indianapolis: Hackett Publishing, 2007), 13.

[iv] Winthrop, 17.

[v] Winthrop, 18.

[vi] Letter to the Editor, Winston Salem Journal, 4 November 2012. Web. JournalNow.com.

[vii] “Manhattan Declaration: A Call of Christian Conscience,” 2009.

[viii] “Obama’s Commencement Address at Notre Dame,” New York Times, (17 May 2009). Web. NYTimes.com.

[ix] Marguerite Michaels, “Billy Graham: America Is Not God’s Only Kingdom,” Parade, (1 February 1981), 6-7.


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How to Reduce Gun Violence

The Guardian just published a thought-provoking article about reducing gun violence. Definitely worth a read.

…In response, jurisdictions all over the country passed get-tough gun laws, gang ordinances, three-strikes laws and school zone violations – laws that caused our prison population to explode. In 2002, when the shooting epidemic began to subside, the National Institute of Justice published a study showing that all of those get-tough laws had virtually no preventative impact on gun violence.

On the other hand, experts found, there was a way to shut gun deaths off like a switch. In Boston, where the strategy was first tested, homicides went from 113 in 1991 to 31 in 1999. They called it Operation Ceasefire.

Walk through this door, the men doing the shooting were told, and we will help you get jobs and build a life. But go back out there and keep at it, and you will not like what comes next. After the first meeting in 1996, not a single teen in Beantown was shot to death for 29 straight months. In Chicago gun violence was reduced by as much as 73%. According to a report co-published by Pro Publica and The New Republic last month, the same thing happened in cities all across the United States.

Despite these outcomes, Boston police discontinued the Ceasefire meetings in January 2000. Homicides skyrocketed to 69 in 2001, and up to 75 in 2005. When it became clear that our police stings and aggressive crackdowns – max bail, max jail was our motto in court – weren’t working, I quit my job as a prosecutor in the Roxbury neighborhood of Boston and started a program that was modeled after Ceasefire across the street from the courthouse.

The guys in my program – mostly former gang members – told us that, when they carried guns, it was because they were hustling for money and in constant danger of getting robbed or shot. We could’ve passed laws with 100-year minimums, outlawed every type of gun (and Boston tried), but it wouldn’t have made the slightest difference to our participants because no penalty outweighed the need to eat, pay rent and live.

So we tried a different approach. We helped young men with arrest records pay their court debts, which researchers had determined were a major impediment to rehabilitation, and we helped them apply for jobs. In no time most of them were working in the mainstream economy…

The article begs the question, why would city officials de-fund a program that achieved such dramatic results? Hmm. Could it be that many local governments and law enforcement are highly invested in keeping inner city violence high? Gun violence creates fear, which justifies their violent crackdown on people of color. The war on drugs, after all, has as its political goal the decimation of entire communities and the disenfranchisement, especially, of young black men. Draconian drug laws also feed our for-profit prison system.

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The Tyranny of the Righteous: Part One

Do nothing out of selfish ambition or vain conceit. Rather, in humility value others above yourselves, not looking to your own interests but each of you to the interests of the others. In your relationships with one another, have the same mindset as Christ Jesus:

Who, being in very nature God,
    did not consider equality with God something to be used to his own advantage;
rather, he made himself nothing
    by taking the very nature of a servant,
    being made in human likeness.
And being found in appearance as a man,
    he humbled himself
    by becoming obedient to death—
        even death on a cross! (Phil 2:3-8)

“There’s nothing more dangerous in all the world than a Presbyterian fresh off his knees!” The remark is most often attributed to King Charles I (1600-1649) of England. Although there is no scholarly evidence that he ever said it, the quote well encapsulates His Majesty’s well-known frustration with the Moral Majority of his day. Another seventeenth-century wag did write that he would rather meet coming against him “a whole regiment with drawn swords than one Calvinist convinced he is doing the will of God.”

Charles was an intensely high-principled but ham-fisted monarch who found himself constantly at odds with his Scottish homeland, controlled by Presbyterians, and an equally inflexible English Parliament, packed with Puritans. Talk about being a lion in a den of Daniels! What the King found so galling and frustrating about these religious zealots was not only that they were always refusing to let him have his way, but also that they were convinced they were always right and that God was on their side. “It is fine to be zealous, provided the purpose is good,” writes the apostle Paul (Gal 4:18). Yet unalloyed with humility, religious zeal can be as deadly a force as anarchy.

Unfortunately, being “right” in one’s religious doctrine does not necessarily make one a pleasant person, nor does it automatically make one right about everything else. There is something about religious pride that stinks to everyone but the stinker. There was a time when Christianity demanded humility and sacrificial service. It was our Lord himself who announced, “Whoever wants to be my disciple must deny themselves and take up their cross daily and follow me,” and “Whoever wants to be great among you, must be your servant, and whoever wants to be first must be slave of all“ (Lk 9:23; Mk 10:43-44).

One wonders if abortion, same-sex marriage, lack of prayer in schools, or any of the other deadly sins on the evangelical hit list these days will prove to be quite so poisonous to our society in the long run as our own pride and arrogance as Christians. Humility was once held to be a hallmark Christian virtue. Yet in the case of those who strive to unite spiritual and temporal power, it is often in short supply. “Pride goes before destruction, a haughty spirit before a fall” (Prv 16:18).

Examining the surge of fundamentalism as a phenomenon in other world religions, as well as our own, we quickly see certain commonalities. (I speak of fundamentalism as a dynamic force, rather than a body of doctrine.) Fundamentalism convinces itself that it is always right and that therefore God must be on its side. It seeks to dominate or squelch all dissent or diversity and to exclude rather than to include others. We would do well to spurn these unholy tendencies if we wish to avoid the mistakes of the past. (Of course, as the philosopher Hegel wrote, the one thing we learn from history is that we do not learn anything from history.)

Fundamentalism, however, does not limit itself to places of worship, but eventually seeks to exercise control in the political sphere as well. Note the difference between Christians who wish to influence politics and those who try to dominate or control it.

In his book Our Endangered Values, former President Jimmy Carter warns that

During the last quarter century there has been a parallel right-wing movement within American politics, often directly tied to the attributes of like-minded Christian groups. The revolutionary new political principles involve special favors for the powerful at the expense of others, abandonment of social justice, denigration of those who differ, failure to protect the environment, attempts to exclude those who refuse to conform, a tendency toward unilateral diplomatic action and away from international agreements, an excessive inclination toward conflict, and reliance on fear as a means of persuasion.[i]

A wise man once opined, “I would rather be humble than right.” When you are humble, you at least know that you don’t know everything and you seek God for what is right. But being right without humility can lead to pride, inflexibility, intolerance, bigotry, and a host of other demons. (Yes, of course, it is best to be both humble and right.)

The English Puritans dreamed of building a perfect commonwealth where godliness reigned. The trouble was, once they had power, they could not cooperate among themselves long enough to do much nation building. The greatest source of their conflict was the interpretation of the very thing that should have united them: the Bible. They could not move forward, for they could not agree on what it said. They did manage to issue a ban on Christmas celebrations (too popish, they said), and of course the king’s head was removed from his body (an operation which severely impeded his ability to govern wisely). Politicians rarely agree with one another, but add to this a layer of religious zeal and you have an intoxicating brew sure to produce either anarchy or gridlock in its most violent form.

There was one “mad” seventeenth-century English faction (called Levellers) who envisioned a nation built upon a constitution, which would guarantee certain natural rights, such as freedom of worship, due process, and no taxation without consent of the governed. They resisted religious language in their manifestos since they claimed the Bible gave no clear model for civil government. The Puritan Parliament, whose sympathies were staunchly with the moneyed interests, had no patience with such radicalism. Those Levellers who were not shot were quickly neutralized.

With few exceptions, history shows that Christians have been little better, if not worse, in governing than their secular counterparts. Obtaining power (if that is what you seek) does nothing to check pride, ambition, arrogance, greed, ignorance, bigotry, and stupidity. On the contrary, it seems to give these forces an open outlet.

“I would rather have a smart Turk as my king than a dumb Christian” is a quote long misattributed to Martin Luther. Dr. Luther probably would never have made such a statement, especially with the Ottomans breathing on the gates of Vienna, but the reformer did strongly believe in a separation of powers, or two kingdoms. For him it was not the business of civil government to enforce conformity to Christianity or to enter into matters of the soul. As an Augustinian, Luther embraced St. Augustine’s theology of the two cities (the City of God and the City of Man).

In Geneva John Calvin, too, passionately opposed the fusion of church and empire. Both reformers were reacting to two extremes. The first was the Pope’s claim to be the inheritor of the imperium of the old Roman empire in the West, an assertion based on a spurious medieval document purporting to be Constantine’s conferring of such power on Pope Sylvester I in the fourth century. The second was the teaching of certain radical Anabaptist groups who regarded all temporal authority as evil and thus irrelevant for Christians. Both Luther and Calvin attempted to find some rational middle ground, whereby Christians could be in the world but not of it.

As theologian N.T Wright notes, in stating that his “kingdom is not of this world” (Jn 18:36), Christ refers to the nature of his tactics, not to some “pie in the sky.”[ii] His kingship and power are of God and therefore work in a way opposite to the prevailing world system: it is through his emptying himself, his humbly taking up the role of servant, and ultimately, the foolishnesss of his death on a cross, that he will triumph. As such his words are a sharp rebuke of the Sadducees’ and Pilate’s worldly exercise of force.

Little wonder that the great heroes and heroines of the faith were men and women of little account, poor, oppressed, and meek. The reward they sought was not in this life, and the kingdom they looked for was in another place. Does that mean Christians should not seek to influence their culture or politics? On the contrary.

St. Francis of Assisi sought no political power; he had no worldly agenda. He never served in office or claimed any titles, other than Il Poverello (the Poor Little Fellow). Yet, by simply selling all his possessions and devoting his life to the poorest of the poor, he sparked a spiritual revolution that revived the church throughout Europe, as well as reforming society and government. Kings and cardinals bowed before him and later coveted his bones. He just had the unmitigated temerity to take Jesus at his word and to follow the example of the Master. Some nerve.

Pope Innocent III was Francis’ contemporary and his reluctant patron. One cannot imagine a more striking contrast. Born into one of Italy’s brutal, power-brokering families, Innocent envisioned a papacy that united both spiritual and temporal power. He dreamed of being both Caesar and Pope. There was not a throne or royal marriage bed in Christendom over which he did not try to establish his jurisdiction; there was not a state that he did not wish to reduce to a papal fief. When he died unexpectedly in Perugia at age fifty-five, his body lay in state temporarily in that city’s Duomo, until thieves broke in during the night, stripped His Holiness’ corpse of vestments, regalia, jewels, everything, and left it on the floor naked and stinking. As one bishop, an eyewitness, later sermonized understatedly, “…I entered the church and understood, through the eyes of faith, how brief and empty is the deceptive glory of this world!”[iii]

Ironically, today, St. Francis, who sought neither titles nor power, is venerated by millions, his mortal remains surrounded by a majestic Gothic basilica built in his honor, while Innocent’s lie over the entrance to the Lateran Basilica souvenir shop, whose patrons rarely look up as they pass beneath with their postcards and snowglobes of the Vatican. Sic transit gloria mundi.

Try as they might, the Puritans in Parliament and in Cromwell’s New Model Army had one liability that proved a veritable hoodoo: they never secured the love of the common people, who did not like them and never would. Cancelling Christmas certainly did not help. In lieu of their current political agenda, conservative Christians would do well to follow our Lord’s example and seek to influence government and society more through unceasing prayer, sacrificial acts of charity, moral example, and fighting against poverty and injustice than through political power-grabbing. The latter only makes us hated.

The great American orator and agnostic Robert Ingersoll (1833-1899) once noted prophetically,

Churches are becoming political organizations… It probably will not be long until the churches will divide as sharply upon political, as upon theological questions; and when that day comes, if there are not liberals enough to hold the balance of power, this Government will be destroyed. The liberty of man is not safe in the hands of any church. Wherever the Bible and sword are in partnership, man is a slave. All laws for the purpose of making man worship God, are born of the same spirit that kindled the fires of the auto da fe, and lovingly built the dungeons of the Inquisition. All laws defining and punishing blasphemy…were passed by impudent bigots, and should be at once repealed by honest men. An infinite God ought to be able to protect himself, without going in partnership with State Legislatures.[iv]

During the English Revolution, the Puritan poet John Milton (1608-74), used his vast literary and linguistic gifts in the republican cause. In numerous polemical pamphlets he supported not only the revolution but also the execution of the King. For the poet, the ultimate failure of the Commonwealth was a frustrating and heart-breaking conclusion to decades of hard work.

At the end of his epic poem Paradise Lost (1674), published, not coincidentally, after the Parliament had rejected the Good Old Cause and restored the monarchy, Adam surveys a devastated Creation, brought about by his sin:

Henceforth I learne, that to obey is best,

And love with feare the onely God, to walk

As in his presence, ever to observe

His providence, and on him sole depend,

Merciful over all his works, with good

Still overcoming evil, and by small

Accomplishing great things, by things deemd weake

Subverting worldly strong, and worldly wise

By simply meek; that suffering for Truths sake

Is fortitude to highest victorie,

And to the faithful Death the Gate of Life;

Taught this by his example whom I now

Acknowledge my Redeemer ever blest. (XII.561-573)

Milton wrote part of his poem while on the lam from agents of the restored monarchy. One can see in this final epiphany the disillusioned but unrepentant poet, painfully scanning the wreckage of the republic, while also summoning hope that, for humble people of faith, great things can still be accomplished, even without holding the reins of worldly power.


[i] Jimmy Carter, Our Endangered Values: America’s Moral Crisis, (New York: Simon & Schuster, 2005), 43-44.

[ii] N.T. Wright, “The New Testament and the State,” Themelios, 16:1 (1990), 13.

[iii] Baron Jules de Saint-Genois, Sur des Lettres Inédites de Jacques de Vitry, Évêque de Saint-Jean-d’Acre, Cardinal et Légat du Pape, Écrites en 1216, (Académie Royale de Belgique, 1847), 30.

[iv] Robert G. Ingersoll, “Some Mistakes of Moses” (1879), in The Works of Robert G. Ingersoll, (New York: Dresden Publishing, 1915), vol 2, 33.


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Telescopic Philanthropy

I’ve said this many times, but it bears repeating. Conservative evangelicals as a whole do a lot to help the poor ; they’re good at giving things to the poor. They work with inmates in prison. They run food pantries and other food distribution organizations. They send thousands of missionaries to poorer nations overseas, not only to convert souls, but also to help build infrastructures, give medical care, train and educate, even dig wells. They are generous people.

But one thing they more than often forget is that giving to the poor should go hand in hand with standing up for the poor, being a voice for the voiceless, challenging power structures on behalf of the disempowered. As Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. preached : “True compassion is more than flinging a coin to a beggar. It comes to see that an edifice which produces beggars needs restructuring.” The principle is indeed a biblical one:

I know that the Lord secures justice for the poor and upholds the cause of the needy.–Ps 140:12

The righteous care about justice for the poor, but the wicked have no such concern.–Prov. 29:7

The people of the land practice extortion and commit robbery; they oppress the poor and needy and mistreat the foreigner, denying them justice.–Ezek 22:29

It amazes me how hard some evangelicals can work to feed the poor; then they go out and vote for the same corrupt politicians who despise the poor (or immigrants) and want to make them poorer or deprive them of all rights. Many evangelicals donate time and money to programs that comfort the afflicted ; but they will fight to the death to support the very systems than help create those afflictions in the first place (American exceptionalism and militarism, support for oppressive regimes, or economic domination, for example). It’s as if we’re dealing out poison with one hand and antidote with the other, helping to create and cure misery in the same embrace.

In my church parking lot I recently saw a bumper sticker that for me is emblematic of the problem : it read, “John Galt for President.” Really ? The reference, of course, is to a character in Ayn Rand’s objectivist novel Atlas Shrugged, a man who lives by the motto, “I swear—by my life and my love of it—that I will never live for the sake of another man, nor ask another man to live for mine.” For Rand, things like God-values have no place in this world, which is about survival of the fittest. Instead, she postulates a morality of selfishness, in which the poor are viewed as useless and ugly, and rich capitalists are the bold and the beautiful. Is there anything so completely antithetical to the essential teachings of Christianity ?

How can you reconcile two things that are so completely irreconcilable ? Here’s a clue : you can’t. But it is entirely possible for some people to put their spiritual and ethical lives in separate compartments. It’s not about “living with the tension”; it’s about moral blindness, a kind of ethical dissociation. It allowed people like Thomas Jefferson, a brilliant thinker and a firm believer in human equality, to own and sell slaves (or even sleep with them). It may not be a conscious choice; in Jefferson’s case, he grew up with slavery and racism, lived and profited by them, and so rarely allowed his enlightened self to challenge them.

And perhaps therein lies the problem. We evangelicals often have a moral blind spot when it comes to America, the land of the free and home of the brave. We’ve been suckled on our national myths and propaganda—that America is good and can do no wrong, that our system is the best—and we can’t conceive of any other view. We’ve so profited by a system of inequality, militarism, and the politics of empire– especially those of us among the white middle and upper classes– we durst not rock the boat.

What is clear, however, is that as evangelicals we can be the bearers of both the good news and the bad. Like the old colonial missionaries we are at the same time part of the answer and part of the problem, packing heaven with souls while we help to facilitate the rape and pillage of foreign lands, or else crossing land and sea to make converts while neglecting the poor and destitute among us. Charles Dickens called this kind of mental gymnastics telescopic philanthropy.

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More Window Dressing

When I was nine years old and in the third grade, I ran for student body treasurer (a symbolic office if there ever was one). I did manage to win, owing to an inane campaign speech that must have stuck in the minds of my schoolmates. What the administration had not told me when I placed my name on the ballot, however, was that they were about to implement a major redistricting plan in the fall, which would mean my having to attend a different school and not being able to serve my term. The day following the election, in the usual cowardly and patronizing manner of most power structures, they did not bother to contact my parents but broke the news to me directly, offering me instead a 15-cent ice cream cone.

When I arrived home with the news, my mother hit the ceiling and got on the phone. Ice cream or no ice cream, she wasn’t going to stand for it. My mom was normally a gentle person, except when it came to her kids. Then she could exhibit the strength of a she-bear. She got on the phone and would not let go of the bone until I was promised a special dispensation. Needless to say, I served as treasurer. I relate this incident, not because of its overwhelming significance on the scale of injustice, but because it conveniently and ridiculously illustrates how power structures operate.

It seems to be a favorite pastime of governments to try to address deeply entrenched injustices in the most cheap and superficial ways possible (or in other words, not to address them at all). On the heels of race rioting here in the 1960s, for example, many municipalities offered (grudgingly) to change the names on street signs. So across America, at least in the cities with large black populations, Main Street became MLK Boulevard and Washington Avenue was renamed Malcom X Drive. Much cheaper to spend several thousands on new metal signs than to address the real and cruel economic inequalities stemming from racism.

Now, the U.S. Treasury is proposing putting a woman’s face on the $10 bill, a move that, ironically, would depose Alexander Hamilton, the first Secretary of the Treasury and father of modern banking. Some have balked that the $20 bill would be a more appropriate target, since it has long sported the portrait of perhaps our most racist President, responsible for the genocide of tens of thousands of Native Americans. Replacing Jackson’s portrait with that of Shoshone heroine Sacajawea, who guided Lewis and Clark, would certainly be a mild form of poetic justice, but hardly addresses centuries of systemic injustice. More like too little too late.

The problem is that the $20 bill is widely used in stores and ATMs, and so makes up about 22% of bills in daily circulation (compared to about 11% for the $10). That’s probably why a patronizing Treasury is willing to throw Hamilton, its founder, under the bus (he’s already dead. after all), rather than risk having a woman’s face flying out of cash machines. Still, the latter alternative would be vastly cheaper than seriously addressing, say, issues of economic inequality between the sexes.

Since last week’s horrible massacre at a Charleston church, we have seen the Confederate flag lowered for the last time at the South Carolina state capitol and thrown off Walmart store shelves. I realize the gesture is a good idea (about 150 years over due, but still a good idea), since the flag (like the swastika) has long been a rallying symbol for racism. It is a small but necessary start. But like the other cases, such appeasement alone is a largely symbolic and inexpensive attempt at addressing deep-seated inequality in this country. Certainly, a far cry and billions cheaper than making reparations to African-American families harmed by slavery and Jim Crow.

In Luke 11 Jesus gives a blistering attack on the hypocrisy of the Pharisees : “Woe to you, because you build tombs for the prophets, and it was your ancestors who killed them. So you testify that you approve of what your ancestors did; they killed the prophets, and you build their tombs!” He was right, of course. Laying an annual wreath on MLK’s tomb is always much cheaper and more convenient than searching our hearts, helping to empower the powerless or sharing the wealth, which is what King stood for to begin with.

God grant us the strength and true repentance to see justice through to the end and not to accept mere window dressing.

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The Earth Is the Lord’s

[Last week Pope Francis, true to his name, issued his long-awaited encyclical on the environment. For those who are interested, the Washington Post published these helpful cliff notes. In honor of the Pope’s courageous stand, I am reposting a blog I wrote a while back. Hope you enjoy it.}

The earth is the Lord’s and everything in it; the world and all who live in it.—Psalm 24:1

Then God said, “Let us make human beings in our image, in our likeness, so that they may rule over the fish in the sea and the birds in the sky, over the livestock and all the wild animals, and over all the creatures that move along the ground.” So God created human beings in his own image, in the image of God he created them; male and female he created them. God blessed them and said to them, “Be fruitful and increase in number; fill the earth and subdue it. Rule over the fish in the sea and the birds in the sky and over every living creature that moves on the ground.—Genesis 1:26-28

Around midnight on December 4th, 1984 in Bhopal, India, a highly poisonous gas, methyl-isocyanate (MIC), leaked from a factory owned by Union Carbide. People were awakened by the sound of their neighbors’ screams, as the gas spread through the city choking them and burning their eyes and lungs. Many panicked, taking to the streets to flee. Author Annie Leonard describes the horror in her book The Story of Stuff. It must have seemed like the end of the world, or a scene from The Last Days of Pompeii, as families were separated and people began suffocating and dying in the streets from the noxious cloud.

When it was over, as many as 8,000 people, men, women and children, were dead, many of the bodies never identified or counted as the government quickly buried them in mass graves. Another 12,000 have since died from the lingering effects and health issues related to inhaling the MIC. Many believe that had the Union Carbide plant officials been forthcoming about what was happening at the time and shared valuable information about how people could protect themselves (such as covering their faces with a wet towel), many lives would have been saved. Yet the plant’s initial reaction was to deny that there was any leak at all. It was later found that the safety and refrigeration systems, which would have prevented the disaster, had been switched off—to save money.

Twenty-five years later the company still refuses to share anything about the chemical that might help victims who are still suffering. They claim that MIC’s properties are a proprietary secret (just like Coca-Cola). To this day many toxic chemicals abandoned at the plant site continue to leak into ground water, which the local population depends upon for drinking.[i]

Environmental crises, such as climate instability due to global warming, as well as catastrophic losses in ecosystems and the pollution of air, soil, and water, are also issues of justice. Because the poor are particularly vulnerable to changes and devastation in the natural environment, they are usually the first to suffer from the reckless decisions, carelessness, and rapacious greed of industrialized nations and their multinational corporations.[ii] Poorer countries are already paying the price for our addiction to fossil fuels by being forced to use funds traditionally slated for development and infrastructure to combat the effects of climate change: drought, floods, and other natural disasters—costs that ought to be covered by the wealthiest nations, who are the biggest polluters.

If global temperatures continue to rise, exceeding 2 degrees Celsius (3.6 F) over pre-industrial levels, the effects on developing nations, especially in Africa and Southern Asia, will be catastrophic—resulting in millions of displaced people, according to a report by the World Bank. Since God’s heart is always tuned to the cries of the poor, such environmental crises ought to be a focus of prayer and activism for all Christians. As he states in Isaiah 56:1, “‘Maintain justice, and do what is right, for soon my salvation will come, and my deliverance be revealed.’”

The passage in Genesis 1 quoted above can cause (and has caused) a lot of trouble in interpretation. At first glance the language sounds rather violent. The words subdue, rule or have dominion over sound like the language of conquest. Not surprisingly, some Christians have used these very verses to justify a highly exploitative, profiteering, slash-and-burn policy toward the earth. In fact, dominion thinking has become so associated with the worst excesses of capitalism that some environmental groups blame the Judeo-Christian God for our problems: If he had not written those verses, the earth would not be in this mess! It’s nice to have someone big to blame—someone even bigger than Union Carbide—but God is not responsible for human sin or our misuse and abuse of his Word.

One basic rule in interpreting Scripture is that we should never take a verse out of context and run with it. Every word in the Bible has a literary, cultural, and historical context, and every verse must be weighed with its context against the whole counsel of Scripture.

What does it mean to be made in the image of God? Does it mean we look like God, that there is some kind of family resemblance? Or is it something more to do with God’s character, a moral or spiritual quality? These are important questions, because how we answer affects everything we do and value as human beings.

In the culture and language of the ancient Near East, the phrase image of God had a very specific and recognizable meaning. When people heard it, they would not have looked puzzled as we do today. To the pagan cultures of that world, there was only one person, a single human being, who was the image, the earthly visible representation, of their god. That was the king, or pharaoh. He was the image of god, the closest thing to god on earth. He was responsible for ruling in the god’s place and for exercising justice, promoting law and order, protecting and bringing prosperity to his people.

Now imagine that you are a Hebrew slave, born in Egypt. You have had it drummed in your ear since birth by your Egyptian masters, “This is Pharaoh. He is the image of god—you are but a lowly slave.” Now suddenly, you are freed from captivity, and your God, the one and only God, informs you that all human beings—not just one, but all, both male and female—are made in the image of God. What would you think? Quite a radical paradigm shift! And what an awesome responsibility! As creatures created in his likeness, you would be responsible for taking care of creation, ruling over it as God would himself.

Far from giving us license to abuse and misuse God’s creation for our own selfish purposes, this passage, in its proper context says that, yes, we were given the earth to rule and not for ourselves, but for God. We are his vice-regents, responsible and accountable to him, as a viceroy is responsible for keeping order, caring for a country, and representing the interests of the king who sent him. So we are responsible for ruling as God would rule.

And how would God rule?

He makes springs pour water into the ravines;
it flows between the mountains.
They give water to all the beasts of the field;
the wild donkeys quench their thirst.
The birds of the sky nest by the waters;
they sing among the branches.
He waters the mountains from his upper chambers;
the land is satisfied by the fruit of his work.
He makes grass grow for the cattle,
and plants for people to cultivate—
bringing forth food from the earth:
wine that gladdens human hearts,
oil to make their faces shine,
and bread that sustains their hearts.
The trees of the Lord are well watered,
the cedars of Lebanon that he planted.
 There the birds make their nests;
the stork has its home in the junipers.
The high mountains belong to the wild goats;
the crags are a refuge for the hyrax. (Ps 104:10-18)

Psalm 104 shows us that God cares for, provides for, and watches over every living creature he has made. And blessed are we when we understand that our power to rule is given, not as an absolute right, but in trust, and that our job is to govern as God would govern: benevolently, generously, with special care and concern for the poor and weak.

Let me point out another scripture that helps further establish the context of Genesis 1:

Then the LORD God formed a man from the dust of the ground and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life, and the man became a living being…The LORD God took the man and put him in the Garden of Eden to work it and take care of it. (Genesis 2.7,15).

The Hebrew verb translated here to work or tend means to “serve,” and in this context, to “till” or ”cultivate.” The verb to care for means “to exercise great concern for, to guard, to watch over”—the same word used to characterize the Lord’s relationship with his people: that he watches over them with care, love, and concern. Thus, in the second chapter of Genesis, we have a good illustration of exactly what God means in Chapter 1 by saying that we shall “rule and have dominion over the earth and its creatures.” We are God’s servants, to care for what he has created. That is context.

Setting the Record Straight

Regarding our relationship with creation, there are three major untruths, or misconceptions, that have infiltrated the church. First, that the creation account shows that God gave human beings control of the earth to use and treat as we see fit—in short, that the earth is ours. As we have seen already, such an interpretation does not hold water. One might even say it is blasphemous. Psalm 24 clearly states, “The earth is the Lord’s and everything in it, the world and all who dwell in it.” The earth is not ours; the Bible never says it is. And just how do we treat something that is not ours? If you borrow something from a friend, do you return it broken or dirty? No, you treat it with care and respect. How much more when the person who owns the property is God!

Would it have made sense for God to say to Adam and Eve, “Here is the earth, I’ve taken great care in creating it, and I’m delighted with everything in it. Now I’m entrusting it into your hands. Go and ruin it, completely destroy it, make a pig’s breakfast out of the whole thing”? How can we say we love God and then trash what he has made? Yes, subduing the earth does involve our wrestling at times with the wildness of nature, in taming it and cultivating it, or plumbing its secrets, but always with respect, knowing it is not ours. If you had someone house-sit for you and you returned home to find the place strewn with garbage and human waste, how would you feel?

The second misconception is the idea that care for the environment is a form of pagan idolatry or earth worship. There are many environmentalists who are not Christian. There are even some who do worship the earth. Environmentalism has in some circles become entangled with new age practices, or neo-paganism. Why is that? Because God’s people, who should be the first to lead the fight to protect the earth from devastating overdevelopment and help species that are endangered, have for too long abdicated their role, too long been silent—and not only silent but at times complicit in the raping and pillaging of God’s creation, all in name of the almighty bottom line. There has been a leadership vacuum, and someone had to fill it. Pastor Rick Warren of Saddleback Church in California, author of The Purpose Driven Life, says that caring for creation should be a “no-brainer for Christians.” It’s just basic. It’s not pagan. Yes, there are people who worship the earth, but that is not what we are talking about. Caring for something, exercising responsibility for something entrusted to you is not worship. We care for our children or our pets; we feed and protect them; we are responsible for them. Does that mean we worship them?

Did you know that Earth Day (April 22), now a U.N.-sponsored international celebration which seeks to create deeper awareness of the degradation of the earth, has Christian roots? It was the brainchild of John McConnell, a deeply committed Pentecostal Christian, who believed that human beings have a responsibility to care for God’s creation and to share its resources in an equitable manner. In the 1930s McConnell worked in a plastics factory and became appalled at the effects of the new industry on the environment. His appreciation for the earth and concern for its protection was also a natural outgrowth of his Christian commitment to peace and love.

A third and highly popular misconception is that it doesn’t matter what we do with the earth, since it’s all going to burn up anyhow. This idea is so widespread it’s frightening. It seems a rather perverse assumption drawn from a kind of hyper-premillennialism, a nineteenth-century doctrine that believes Jesus is going to return prior to a literal thousand-year reign on earth. Premillennialism is based on a particular, and very literal reading of a passage in the Book of Revelation.

Now, if we are going to be dogmatic about something, it would be smart if we were dogmatic about something that the Bible is dogmatic about. In other words, it is dangerous to build doctrines on one verse in the Bible that is hard to understand or open to various interpretations. Jesus is going to return; there is no debating that. The Bible is clear. Yet it is not clear about exactly when. Will there be a literal thousand-year reign on earth after he returns before the last judgment? We do not know for sure. Will he return after a thousand-year reign of his kingdom (as the postmillennialists believe), or is that thousand year reign more symbolic of the age of the church (as the amillennialists hold)? Theologians have argued over these questions for centuries. The bottom line is that we do not know for sure. All we know for certain is that Jesus is coming back. And we need to be careful that how we interpret Scripture does not justify our treating other people or the earth with indifference or disrespect. If it does, that is a sure sign that we are off track, not walking in the footsteps of Christ.

How does God feel about those who plunder and destroy creation? Here is a verse in Revelation that is frequently (or conveniently) overlooked.

The nations were angry, and your wrath has come.

The time has come for judging the dead,

and for rewarding your servants the prophets

and your people who revere your name,

both great and small—

and for destroying those who destroy the earth.

(Rev 11:18, italics mine).

I wonder why we do not take that literally. We should.

A Liberal Concept?

In my first chapter, I mentioned that Bartholomew I, the Ecumenical Patriarch of Constantinople, has received a great deal of criticism from the European press for his outspokenness about environmental issues. (Kermit the Frog is right. “It’s not easy being green.”) He has come under criticism from governments and the corporate sector, who complain that he has embraced “the liberal agenda” or that he is against “progress.” Yet, caring for the earth is not just a liberal concept, or a political one; it is a biblical mandate. And we should not be ashamed to carry the banner high and speak out. So what if someone calls us a bunch of “tree-huggers”?

There is a fascinating but frequently overlooked detail in John’s Gospel. On that first day of the week, when Mary Magdalene stood outside the empty tomb weeping, she met Jesus. Only she did not realize at first that it was Jesus. She thought it was the “gardener” (Jn 20:15). Coincidence? Jesus’ resurrection was the first act of God’s new creation, the renewal of all things. And as the New Adam, Jesus might appropriately be called The Gardener par excellence. How does the Gardener feel about people who trash his garden?[iii]

For some reason—God knoweth how—many believe that to be for the environment is to be against progress. If by progress one means the careless and wholesale devastation of the earth in pursuit of profit, then yes, we ought to be against that. But that is not the definition of progress. That is just selfish greed. Progress is something that brings benefit to all humanity, not just a few; it profits posterity as well, not just one generation. Destroying the earth to line the pockets of a handful of CEOs and investors is not progress.

Speaking of creation care, the Orthodox Patriarch noted that the church has always held that our relationship with the natural world must involve a “voluntary restraint,” which the early church called enkrateia, or “self-control”:

By reducing consumption we ensure that resources are left for others in the world….Our sin toward the world – the spiritual root of all our pollution—lies in our refusal to view life and the world as a sacrament of thanksgiving, and as a gift of constant communion with God on a global scale….If human beings treated one another’s personal property the way they sometimes treat the environment, we would view that behavior as antisocial.[iv]

When we are in right relationship with God, we treat all of his creation, including other human beings, with dignity, reverence, and respect. Whether Jesus returns in five minutes or five centuries, we take care of the earth until he returns. “Why?” someone might argue; “it’s just going to be destroyed anyway!” Yes, and if we keep going the way we are headed, it should be destroyed fairly soon.

We take care of the earth and its creatures out of gratitude, thanksgiving, love, and respect because they are God’s, just as we are responsible for treating our fellow human beings with love and respect because we each bear the divine image.

Some Solutions

Practically speaking, what are some things we can do? Here are a few ideas:

We can pray and ask the Lord to show us ways in which we have misused his creation, and then repent, turn around, head back in the right direction. We can begin to practice restraint, self-control in our use or consumption of natural resources (water, oil, gas), products like plastic that pollute the earth and oceans, and paper, which has a high environmental price tag. We can educate ourselves about the real cost of the things we consume. We know, for example, the price of a hamburger, but do we consider the real cost? Producing a pound of factory-farmed hamburger causes more pollution than driving your car for three weeks. Cows raised in industrial lots produce millions of tons of waste, which contaminate our water supplies. You mean you can put a dollar value on all that? Yes, you can. When all is tallied, that burger could well cost hundreds of dollars. Of course, those costs are not passed on to the consumer—until later.[v]

Next, we can buy locally grown produce and support local farmers. This not only saves on transportation costs (i.e. pollution); it also supports the local economy. We can also use green cleaning products, detergents, pesticides and fertilizers. Product manufacturers are often not required to list ingredients, and for good reason, since many are neurotoxic, hormone-disrupting, and carcinogenic. Then they get dumped into our waterways!

Lastly, we need to take a stand against greed and work for climate and environmental justice. We can talk about these from our pulpits, in Bible study classes, our schools, and around our dinner tables. We can speak out against “legislated greed,” laws that shamelessly favor the major polluters of our world: the fossil fuel industries, hydraulic fracturing (“fracking”), and industrial agriculture. Did you know that factory farms, or confined animal feeding operations (CAFOs) are not only cruel to animals, but also responsible for up to 51% of greenhouse gas emissions worldwide—not to mention their polluting our soil and water supplies?[vi] Merely switching to grass-fed beef could significantly slow global warming.

James Speth, the dean of Yale’s School of Environmental Studies and the first scientific adviser to the U.S. President on climate change, said,

I used to think if we threw enough good science at the environmental problems, we could solve them. I was wrong. The main threats to the environment are not biodiversity loss, pollution, and climate change, as I thought once. They are selfishness and greed and pride. And for that we need a spiritual and cultural transformation, something we scientists don’t know much about. Maybe it’s time for us scientists, including those who are not religious, to work together with people of faith to help that along. [vii]

Sounds like we are needed, Church. The world needs us to speak up. After all, we have the answer, don’t we?

Read More

[i] Annie Leonard, The Story of Stuff, (New York: Free Press, 2010), 90-91.

[ii] Ken Wilson, Jesus Brand Spirituality, (Nashville: Thomas Nelson, 2008), 57.

[iii] Wilson, 57.

[iv] His All Holiness, Bartholomew I, “A Changeless Faith for a Changing World.”

[v] Raj Patel, The Value of Nothing: How to Reshape Market Society and Redefine Democracy, (New York: Picador, 2009,) 44.

[vi] Zack Kaldveer and Ronnie Cummins, “Food, Farms, Forests and Fracking: Connecting the Dots,”
Organic Consumers Association, (9 May 2013).

[vii] Wilson, 59-6

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