Never Again?

In the 1920s German physicist Albert Einstein was invited by the League of Nations to participate in an international organization of intellectuals whose aim was the advancement of peace. By 1930, however, frustrated with what he saw as the League’s virtual impotence and its domination by the great powers, he had resigned from this committee. Nevertheless, with Nazism on the rise in Germany and Fascism firmly entrenched in Italy, Einstein was still committed to the concept of the League and in 1931 began a famous correspondence on the subject with Viennese psychiatrist Sigmund Freud. The letters make fascinating reading. One passage in particular stands out, especially in light of failed American policies in Iraq.

“…The quest of international security involves the unconditional surrender by every nation, in a certain measure, of its liberty of action–its sovereignty that is to say–and it is clear beyond all doubt that no other road can lead to such security.

“The ill success, despite their obvious sincerity, of all the efforts made during the last decade to reach this goal leaves us no room to doubt that strong psychological factors are at work which paralyze these efforts. Some of these factors are not far to seek. The craving for power which characterizes the governing class in every nation is hostile to any limitation of the national sovereignty. This political power hunger is often supported by the activities of another group, whose aspirations are on purely mercenary, economic lines. I have especially in mind that small but determined group, active in every nation, composed of individuals who, indifferent to social considerations and restraints, regard warfare, the manufacture and sale of arms, simply as an occasion to advance their personal interests and enlarge their personal authority.

“But recognition of this obvious fact is merely the first step toward an appreciation of the actual state of affairs. Another question follows hard upon it: How is it possible for this small clique to bend the will of the majority, who stand to lose and suffer by a state of war, to the service of their ambitions…. An obvious answer to this question would seem to be that the minority, the ruling class at present, has the schools and press, usually the Church as well [emphasis mine], under its thumb. This enables it to organize and sway the emotions of the masses, and makes its tool of them.”

As Americans we have much to repent of, and likewise as Evangelicals. Instead of beating the drums of war, we should stand for peace, whenever possible. Instead of encouraging warmongering and unilateral action and slapping brainless bumper stickers on our cars that say, “U.S. Out of U.N!” we should stand for multilateralism and support the U.N. with our prayers (one of the reasons it is so ineffectual is precisely because it is essentially controlled by superpowers like us). Instead of being lapdogs for the mighty, we should cry out against the forces of greed with the same vehemence with which we cry out against other moral issues. As we’ve seen only too clearly over the past several months, old-fashioned Greed is our #1 enemy. It permeates our society and government at every level and threatens to destroy us as a nation. The media loves to highlight the more sensational scandals: how much certain corrupt officials spent on travel and prostitutes. But it does not focus on the more systemic problem of greed in our society. Why? Because the media is controlled by those very forces. Woe to us if we get all our news from Fox and CNN!

I’ve written at length about President Eisenhower’s farewell speech warning Americans about the “unwarranted influence… of the military-industrial complex (MIC),” the dangerous confluence of military power and corporate greed. It is interesting, however, that in his first draft of the speech, he originally termed it the “military-industrial-congressional complex” (MICC). Apparently, at the last minute Ike was unwilling to give Congress the parting slap it deserved by exposing its role in the vast corporate military machine. Dommage. For Congress should have a lot of explaining to do.

Here’s how it works. The military, as we know, is composed of various branches, hardly monolithic, but more like a loose confederation of warring tribes, each competing for new weapons and technologies. The corporate sector is only too happy to cater to their appetite, and so it sends lobbyists, who swarm over the Hill like gnats, exaggerating the excellence of their particular products, underestimating the price tags, and all the while dropping plump envelopes filled with cash in lawmakers’ pockets. And to insure that Congress stays wedded like Catholics to these products, despite the outrageous cost overruns, the industry shrewdly spreads the manufacturing of each item over the widest possible area. In other words, a fighting jet like the F-22 Raptor uses parts produced in not one but forty-four States! So should you ever want to scrap it, you will have to step over the bodies of Senator Bloat, Congressman Oink, and dozens like them whose States or districts depend upon military contracts. A perfect scheme. No wonder military budgets are out of control and bulging with price-gouging. The Founding Fathers knew what they were doing in taking war-making power out of the hands of the Chief Executive, but they did not foresee the development of such a Hydra as this, each head roaring to be fed.

What can be done? We need to educate ourselves and our children, get the word out there and agitate for reform. Greed and corruption work best in the dark. And pray, pray, pray that the Lord would expose the truth and raise up wise and honest men and women to lead us in the fight.

(thanks to Eugene Jarecki for the facts, from his cogent and fascinating book The American Way of War—still recommended reading.)

Saturday, December 06, 2008

Dear Santa

Here’s a book that ought to be on every American’s Christmas list: Eugene Jarecki’s The American Way of War. In 2006 Jarecki wowed us with his astute and shocking documentary Why We Fight. Now in this follow up book he takes a more in-depth and historical look at the “mission creep” of America’s attitude toward war making. No, this is not just another partisan expose of the Bush Administration. Jarecki goes further back into the history of this nation to discover just how a republic founded by men who so deplored militarism and unchecked executive power could become such an imperialistic aggressor. Fascinating, frightening and highly educational, this should be required reading for every class in American history, government or citizenship.

October 26, 2008

America, a City Upon a Hill?

Listening to the radio the other day I was reminded of how much our collective American vocabulary is still firmly rooted in the Puritan experience. The phrase “a city upon a hill” has often been applied to this nation, by politicians as diverse as JFK and Ronald Reagan. Sarah Palin again used the term just recently. The concept, of course, goes back to Jesus and the Sermon on the Mount, in which he tells his disciples, “You are the light of the world. A city upon a hill cannot be hidden….” But Puritan governor Jonathan Winthrop was perhaps the first to apply it in a socio-political sense in referring to the fledgling colony of Massachusetts.

The phrase is almost always quoted out of its original context, thus giving it a somewhat ominous and arrogant air, as though America alone were superior among the nations and had been chosen by God to be a pattern for all others. The idea of America as a chosen nation has even been used to justify our most egregious injustices against people groups and 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 entitled “A Model of Christian Charitie.” In it he lays down the scriptural rules of conduct by which relationships and commerce within the new colony are to be guided: in short, all is to be governed by justice and mercy, by love and Christian charity. The Almighty, in his wisdom, has ordained that some be rich, others poor, some mighty, others lowly, Winthrop reasons, and God does this 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.”

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 self-reliance! And how far we have departed from this compact!

“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, do love mercy, to walk humbly with our God. For this end, we must be knit together, in this work, as one man. We must be willing to abridge ourselves of our superfluities, for the supply of others’ necessities. We must uphold a familiar commerce together in all meekness, gentleness, patience and liberality. We must delight in each other; make others’ conditions our own; rejoice together, mourn together, labor and suffer together, always having before our eyes our commission and community in the work, as members of the same body.”

“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 out 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.”

The Governor’s words are hardly a license to rob and plunder, or to pursue unbridled wealth, as some have made them. Nor do they merely speak of privilege or noblesse oblige. Rather, they are the biblical foundation for any truly blessed society.

In this election season, let us recall what it means to be truly blessed, to be that shining city upon a hill, a calling that is not just a privilege, but also a great burden and self-sacrifice.

For the full text of Winthrop’s sermon, go to http://religiousfreedom.lib.virginia.edu/sacred/charity.html

Sunday, September 21, 2008

Public Enemy #1

Well, we’ve seen with our own eyes over the past few weeks that the most serious danger threatening the stability of this country, our national security and our constitutional freedoms is not Al-Qaeda, Iran or North Korea. Nor is it abortion, same-sex marriage, or lack of prayer in schools. Don’t get me wrong. These are some heavy hitters. No, the biggest threat we face is unbridled, old-fashioned Greed.

Whether it be the loan officer who makes an unscrupulous contract for a mortgage or the realtor who sells some family a home he knows they cannot afford; the speculator who buys up one property too many, the CEO who thinks he can drive his company into the ground and make the little guy pay for it while he bails out with his 20-million-dollar golden parachute, or the senator who is on the payroll of Fannie Mae and receives tens of thousands of dollars to look the other way– they are all part of a system of unconscionable selfishness and egregious avarice.

It was almost funny listening to the speeches this week by candidates and Congressional poobahs. Such righteous indignation! The only clear message was that no one was getting the message; no one would admit to being part of the problem. Lots of finger-pointing but no soul-searching– and definitely no repentance.

This is what happens when the government that is supposed to protect us small fry goes to bed with the investment industry. They breed economic disaster, and we get stuck with the bill. I wonder how often this has to happen before we wake up, before we stand up, put our foot down and tell our Congressmen to start doing what they were elected to do. Free-market capitalism may be the best system economically speaking, but it needs a watchdog. Where were they? You know the answer to that one.

It has long been time for the church to speak out with prophetic voice about these issues, to put aside for a moment our obsession with abortion, same-sex marriage and school prayer, and give this nation a good hair-raising sermon about greed and selfishness. But therein lies the problem, for by the very fact that we have not done so, aren’t we showing we’re part of the problem, too?

Monday, September 8, 2008

Voting Biblically

This Presidential Election may be the most significant in recent memory. Now that the conventions are over and the bell has sounded, the candidates have come out of their corners swinging. The GOP is fighting for its life. Fasten your seat belts. It’s about to get personal.

There’s something about politics that can bring out the worst in us. How as Christians are we to respond? If you’re like most Americans, you don’t have to think very hard. You just pull the party lever on Election Day. Or maybe you just vote according to your wallet– if it happens to be empty that day, you vote for the other guy. But is that biblical? I want to challenge you: No matter which party you may belong to, in this election if the other candidate does not cause you to stop and reflect, then I doubt you are thinking biblically. That statement may raise the ire of some of you. But let me explain.

If you are a Republican, you may think that yours is the party of biblical priorities: After all, aren’t they for the family and against abortion and same-sex marriage? If you are a Democrat you may think the same thing: Wasn’t Jesus concerned about the poor and downtrodden, the victims of war, greed and prejudice, and the faithful stewardship of the environment? If we really want to think and vote biblically, then we have to admit, neither party has the corner on biblical values.

In the end we inevitably have to choose between concern for the unborn or for the poor, concern for the sanctity of marriage or for the destruction of war. What kind of choices are these for Christians? Again, I repeat, if you can make these decisions without much rending of garments and tearing of hair, then you are not thinking biblically. To coin a phrase, what would Jesus do? If we’re really thinking biblically, then being pro-life must mean more than defending the right of the unborn. It must also include fighting for racial reconciliation, defending the rights of the born, the poor, the victims of disease and war, as well as the rest of creation. (Interestingly, global warming is one of the few issues on which the two major candidates agree.)

In the end I suppose it may come down to who wears the better looking neckties or who looks better on TV. Or maybe just a battle of charisma v. experience. But if you would like to get a fair, non-partisan breakdown on where each candidate stands regarding the issues God cares about, read Ron Sider’s article McCain or Obama. http://www.esa-online.org/Display.asp?Page=RonSiderColumn (click the link, then scroll down to the article link.) Sider, an Evangelical seminary professor, does a good job of sizing up the candidates while letting you draw your own conclusions.

October 23. 2007

Kingdom Economy

Why does God give some people great wealth and others virtually nothing? It seems the more people have, the more selfish they are. What does the Bible say about the unequal distribution of wealth?

The Bible has a lot to say about what we do with our wealth and resources and about helping the poor and oppressed.

When people ask me why God allows poverty, I respond, “He doesn’t. We do.” Imagine you are driving to work and you suddenly come upon a woman lying in the middle of the road. You carefully maneuver your vehicle to avoid hitting the woman and go on your way, wondering “How awful. Why would God allow someone to die in the street like that?” Silly isn’t it?

In the Old Testament the Lord gave Israel many laws to ensure that there would be equality among God’s people. Even in the gathering of manna in the wilderness, “The one who gathered much did not have too much, and the one who gathered little did not have too little” (Ex 16:18). He also gave them the law of Jubilee: every 50 years ancestral property that had been sold was to be restored to its original owner, debts canceled and Hebrews who had sold themselves into slavery because of debt were to be freed. This was God’s way of resetting the scale to zero and not allowing human greed to grow out of control. Sadly, there is no record of Israel’s ever keeping this law. The forces of human greed and selfishness seem to have taken over from the beginning. But in the kingdom of God there is always a strong concern for equality and for the poor and weak. So we cannot blame poverty on God. It is as much the result of human sin and disobedience as it is the result of natural forces.

In the New Testament Jesus and the apostles frequently teach about the evils of greed and command us to use our resources to help the weak (e.g., Lk 12:13-21; 16:1-15; Mt 19:16-30; 25:31-6; Jas 5:1-6). This is God’s will and his heart. In taking up a collection for the poor Christians in Judea, Paul tells the Corinthian church, “Our desire is not that others might be relieved while you are hard pressed, but that there might be equality. At the present time your plenty will supply what they need, so that in turn their plenty will supply what you need” (2Cor 8:13,14). In a nice way the apostle is saying, “Look, you better be generous while you can, because what goes around comes around.” In truth there should be no one wanting among God’s people. The church should be an example of Christ-like generosity and unselfishness to the rest of the world. No wonder we are so detested!

Often people resort to quoting Jesus’ remark, “the poor you will always have with you,” as an excuse for doing nothing about poverty. This attitude takes the Lord’s words out of their proper context and uses them as a pretext for selfishness. They forget the rest of the sentence, “And you can help them anytime you want.” Jesus was simply rebuking those who thought Mary was being wasteful in using such valuable perfume to anoint the Son of God for burial. At that particular moment Mary was right in focusing on Jesus with an extravagant act of love and devotion. Actually, the Lord was quoting Deut. 15:11, “There will always be poor people in the land. Therefore, I command you to be openhanded toward your brother and toward the poor and needy in your land.”

Some people have a gift for making money. This is certainly from God. But selfishly hoarding it is not. I love the example Bono, Bill & Melinda Gates, and Warren Buffett are setting for the super rich. Now Forbes Magazine has not only a list of the world’s richest men and women, but also the top givers. So there’s now a competition among billionaires for the prestige of being the most generous. (Yes, ideally it would be better for them to give in secret, as Jesus commands, but at least they’re moving in the right direction.) We could all learn something from them.

July 30, 2007

Evangelical Leaders Speak Out on Two-State Solution

Letter to President Bush From Evangelical Leaders

Published in the NY Times: July 29, 2007

President George W. Bush
The White House
1600 Pennsylvania Ave NW
Washington DC 20500

Dear Mr. President:

We write as evangelical Christian leaders in the United States to thank you for your efforts (including the major address on July 16) to reinvigorate the Israeli-Palestinian negotiations to achieve a lasting peace in the region. We affirm your clear call for a two-state solution. We urge that your administration not grow weary in the time it has left in office to utilize the vast influence of America to demonstrate creative, consistent and determined U.S. leadership to create a new future for Israelis and Palestinians. We pray to that end, Mr. President.

We also write to correct a serious misperception among some people including some U.S. policymakers that all American evangelicals are opposed to a two-state solution and creation of a new Palestinian state that includes the vast majority of the West Bank. Nothing could be further from the truth. We, who sign this letter, represent large numbers of evangelicals throughout the U.S. who support justice for both Israelis and Palestinians. We hope this support will embolden you and your administration to proceed confidently and forthrightly in negotiations with both sides in the region.

As evangelical Christians, we embrace the biblical promise to Abraham: “I will bless those who bless you.” (Genesis 12:3). And precisely as evangelical Christians committed to the full teaching of the Scriptures, we know that blessing and loving people (including Jews and the present State of Israel) does not mean withholding criticism when it is warranted. Genuine love and genuine blessing means acting in ways that promote the genuine and long-term well being of our neighbors. Perhaps the best way we can bless Israel is to encourage her to remember, as she deals with her neighbor Palestinians, the profound teaching on justice that the Hebrew prophets proclaimed so forcefully as an inestimably precious gift to the whole world.

Historical honesty compels us to recognize that both Israelis and Palestinians have legitimate rights stretching back for millennia to the lands of Israel/Palestine. Both Israelis and Palestinians have committed violence and injustice against each other. The only way to bring the tragic cycle of violence to an end is for Israelis and Palestinians to negotiate a just, lasting agreement that guarantees both sides viable, independent, secure states. To achieve that goal, both sides must give up some of their competing, incompatible claims. Israelis and Palestinians must both accept each other’s right to exist. And to achieve that goal, the U.S. must provide robust leadership within the Quartet to reconstitute the Middle East roadmap, whose full implementation would guarantee the security of the State of Israel and the viability of a Palestinian State. We affirm the new role of former Prime Minister Tony Blair and pray that the conference you plan for this fall will be a success.

Mr. President, we renew our prayers and support for your leadership to help bring peace to Jerusalem, and justice and peace for all the people in the Holy Land.

Finally, we would request to meet with you to personally convey our support and discuss other ways in which we may help your administration on this crucial issue.

Sincerely,

Ronald J. Sider, President
Evangelicals for Social Action

Don Argue, President
Northwest University

Raymond J. Bakke, Chancellor
Bakke Graduate University

Gary M. Benedict, President
The Christian & Missionary Alliance

George K. Brushaber, President
Bethel University

Gary M. Burge, Professor
Wheaton College & Graduate School

Tony Campolo, President/Founder
Evangelical Association for the Promotion of Education

Christopher J. Doyle, CEO
American Leprosy Mission

Leighton Ford, President
Leighton Ford Ministries

Daniel Grothe, Pastoral Staff
New Life Church (Colorado Springs)

Vernon Grounds, Chancellor
Denver Seminary

Stephen Hayner, former President
InterVarsity Christian Fellowship

Joel Hunter, Senior Pastor
Northland Church
Member, Executive Committee of the NAE

Jo Anne Lyon, Founder/CEO
World Hope International

Gordon MacDonald, Chair of the Board
World Relief

Albert G. Miller, Professor
Oberlin College

Richard Mouw, President
Fuller Theological Seminary

David Neff, Editor
Christianity Today

Glenn R. Palmberg, President
Evangelical Covenant Church

Earl Palmer, Senior Pastor
University Presbyterian Church Seattle

Victor D. Pentz, Pastor
Peachtree Presbyterian Church, Atlanta

John Perkins, President
John M. Perkins Foundation for Reconciliation & Development

Bob Roberts, Jr., Senior Pastor
Northwood Church, Dallas

Leonard Rogers, Executive Director
Evangelicals for Middle East Understanding

Andrew Ryskamp, Executive Director
Christian Reformed World Relief Committee

Chris Seiple, President
Institute for Global Engagement

Robert A. Seiple, Former Ambassador-at-Large,
International Religious Freedom
U.S. State Department

Luci N. Shaw, Author, Lecturer
Regent College, Vancouver

Jim Skillen, Executive Director
Center for Public Justice

Glen Harold Stassen, Professor
Fuller Theological Seminary

Richard Stearns, President
World Vision

Clyde D. Taylor, Former Chair of the Board
World Relief

Harold Vogelaar, Director
Center of Christian-Muslim Engagement for Peace and Justice

Berten Waggoner, National Director
Vineyard USA

April 12, 2007

Looking at the Middle East Through Red, White and Blue Glasses

The American ambassador was hopeful and irenic as he met his counterpart from the Muslim state, a rogue nation which had taken so many scores of Americans hostage. The American people felt nothing but good will toward the people of the Middle East, said the ambassador in his genteel Virginian accent; they desired only to conduct their trade in a peaceful manner.

He was not prepared for the answer he received. Indeed, it offended his reason and shocked him to the very core. Muslims live by a book, explained the other emissary, and this book taught them that they must make war against the infidels, defeat and enslave them. Furthermore, if any Muslim dies in such a conflict, he will go straight to paradise.

The American ambassador left the meeting with a wiser but heavier heart. He knew that war was inevitable. America must fight this threat. He then set about appealing to the nations of Western Europe to form a mighty coalition force. They turned him down. Their policy of bribing these rogue states was cheaper than going to war. But the ambassador felt that such dealings went against the American temperament. The United States of America would have to go it alone.

The year was 1785. The Muslim emissary was from Tripoli, a piratical Barbary state. The American ambassador was Thomas Jefferson.

As historian Michael Oren points out in his new book, Power, Faith & Fantasy: America in the Middle East– 1776 to the Present, there are many parallels between the conflict Jefferson experienced and the current war in Iraq. Most readers would be surprised to learn that the United States has always had a policy on the Middle East, going back to 1776. In fact, notes Oren, it was the Barbary hostage crisis of the 1780s that helped to fuel the cries for a Constitutional convention. Without a strong central government and a navy, many felt America could never hope to deal effectively with the problem. Even at the Convention in 1787, speakers conjured visions of Muslim pirates heading for our own shores to capture more Americans.

As his title outlines, Oren deals with 1) power: the ways in which the U.S. has tried to exert its power in the Middle East over the past 230 years; 2) faith: the ways in which we have attempted to export not only Christianity but also our “civic faith” of democracy and American idealism in the region; and 3) fantasy: the ways in which we tend to see our own reflection in these cultures, believing that with just a little push they will enthusiastically rise up and embrace American-style democracy and culture.

Oren quotes Gen.George McClellan, that rather unsuccessful Civil War general who was surprisingly more perspicacious as a tourist in the Middle East following the war. “Americans,” wrote McClellan in a series of articles in the 1870s, “as long as they persist in viewing this area as an extension of the United States and do not recognize that it is a separate, distinct culture and civilization, will be doomed to misunderstand this region.”

It seems that our current President’s vision for planting democracy in the region is part of a long pattern of cultural myopia and wishful thinking. A noble pursuit, yes, Oren would agree, but one doomed to failure. The truth is the Middle East is a violent place, and Americans, he notes, do not have the stomach for the ruthlessness needed to succeed there.

Oren’s book is a fascinating look at the present via the past and a must read for anyone seeking to make sense of a seemingly senseless conflict.

December 1, 2006

By Jimmy, I Think He’s Got It!

Talk about courage. Jimmy Carter may have been one of the least popular Presidents, but you have to admire the man for his integrity and commitment to peace. Here’s a man who has dedicated his life to the eradication of unnecessary human suffering. For the past 30 years, since he left the White House, instead of playing golf, like a lot of ex-Presidents, he continues to be a key player in the effort to promote peace in the Middle East.

Now the Nobel Peace Prize winner has written a book whose title is so controversial, most of the media as well as his fellow Democrats won’t touch it (or him) with a ten-foot pole. Palestine: Peace Not Apartheid.

“Palestinians are deprived of basic human rights,” says the former President. “Their land has been occupied, then confiscated, then colonized by the Israeli settlers.” In his book Carter accuses the Israeli government of establishing an apartheid type system in the occupied territories. Many of his fellow party members, such as newly elected Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi, have renounced the use of the word apartheid, finding it offensive. Democratic leaders even begged Carter to delay publication of the book until after the midterm elections. News agencies also have scatter at the mention of the “A” word, and few have even given the book any press coverage. It is not the first time Jimmy has had to go it alone.

“Israel’s continued control and colonization of Palestinian land have been the primary obstacles to a comprehensive peace agreement in the Holy Land,” he writes. “…The United States is squandering international prestige and goodwill and intensifying global anti-American terrorism by unofficially condoning or even abetting the Israeli confiscation and colonization of Palestinian territories.”

If these words were coming from some left-wing radical or jihadist, perhaps we would have to analyze them with more than a grain of salt. But Carter has been involved in the Arab-Israeli peace process since 1977, including the signing of the Camp David Peace Accords between Israel and Egypt, which have resulted in peace between the two nations for almost 30 years. For many years his Carter Center has been actively monitoring the democratic process among the Palestinians. He knows the situation intimately.

It is also important to note that Carter is not saying that Israel as a nation has an apartheid system. He is talking specifically about the “occupied territories,” such as the Gaza Strip and West Bank, land which was originally given to the Palestinians to live on and which Israel has occupied as a result of the 1967 War. It is within this disputed territory that Israel continues to deprive Palestinians of basic human rights, making them second-class citizens in their own country.

The fact that both politicians and the media have either pooh-poohed the book or attempted to smother it makes one wonder if this nation really has a free press. Watching the former President being interviewed on PBS, I was amazed at how nervous and fearful the reporter seemed, as though she were looking over her shoulder. At times she appeared almost to mock the views in the boom, but when Carter presented his argument so persuasively, all she could do was distance herself from the evidence.

So much of the current international hatred and violence that America faces is directly related to our inability to see facts squarely in the face. We hear what we want to hear and we believe what we want to believe. If we really considered Israel a friend, we would not support the oppression of Palestinians. We would call Israel to account. That is what the world is waiting for– for America, the bastion of democracy and defender of liberty, to speak up.

I thank God that someone of the caliber of Jimmy Carter has the guts to do so. The man is 82 years old, a Nobel laureate and now a private citizen. Obviously it takes someone who is neither part of the cowering media nor a cringing elected official to speak the truth in love.

November 4, 2006

A Painful Lesson

For it is time for judgment to begin with the family of God; and if it begins with us, what will be the outcome for those who do not obey the gospel of God? — 1Peter 4:17

This week’s heart-rending accusations regarding the Rev. Ted Haggard, pastor of the 14,000-member New Life Church in Colorado Springs and former president of the politically influential National Association of Evangelicals, are a painful lesson for Christians who seek to “take back America” for the Lord. Although Thursday’s revelations were obviously politically motivated (with less than a week to the midterm elections), there is a spiritual warning for the church in these events.

When we seek to promote morality with a loud voice and speak out against sinful practices, our words must be accompanied with both humility and compassion. If we hold up one hand to warn people to stop their self-destructive lifestyles, with the other hand we must extend help and empathy. We are all sinners, after all, and those of us whom Christ has redeemed may be only a footstep away from moral failure if we choose to reject his grace.

What right have we to deny abortion to the young inner-city woman with little money, education or job prospects, if we do not also offer her financial assistance, job training and good prenatal care? What right have we to say homosexuality is wrong, unless we also offer hope and support to those seeking a way out? Do we seek constitutional amendments about marriage because we authentically care about gay people, or because we don’t want them in our neighborhoods (not in my backyard)?

Did Jesus Christ call us to form a militant political movement, or a radical counter-cultural one? Has he called us to be a community of finger-pointers, or one where the love, joy, forgiveness, mercy and power of God are lived out daily in our lives and relationships?

Jesus did not condemn sinners, but he did condemn the religious legalists of his day for their hardness of heart, lack of compassion and their “tying heavy loads onto people’s backs while they themselves refuse to lift a finger to move them” (Matt 23:4). He reached out to the broken, to those whom society, good society, had ostracized. While never condoning their lifestyles, he was the friend of tax collectors, prostitutes and sinners. Instead of rejecting them, he opened wide his arms and showed them a better way. He did not accuse them. Their own sin they saw reflected in his loving and accepting face.

It seems that recently the Lord has chosen not to bless every political action taken by the religious right, and deep cracks have developed in the formerly unified movement. Perhaps, these failures and fractures are a warning shot across our bow that we are on the wrong track, that power grabbing and legislated morality are not as effective as loving kindness and humble service.

God, forgive us our Pharisaism. Help us to reflect the true heart of Jesus.

October 20, 2006

Day 9,496: Christ Held Hostage

Several weeks ago on the radio news, a reporter interviewed a Muslim man, a moderate, who complained about the control terrorists have over the minds of his fellow Muslims. “I feel as though my faith had been hijacked,” he protested.

I can relate to this man’s sense of outrage and feeling of powerlessness as he watches his sacred religion being used as a weapon of hatred and manipulation to further the agenda of violent men. I say I can relate because I too feel as though my religion had been taken hostage.

For over two decades, the political Right in this country has used God and the language of piety to further its own agenda, an agenda too often set by corporate greed and narrow self-interest. Meanwhile, the other party courts the extreme Left and remains embarrassed by religion, managing to push God and morality further and further from the discussion. What kind of choice is left for Christians, then, for whom the Bible commands that we speak out against immorality and injustice of every kind, whether it be sexual immorality or racial prejudice, abortion or war crimes, avarice or oppression? It seems the choice is between Ahab and Jezebel.

Once, when Abraham Lincoln looked heavily burdened by what seemed like an unending Civil War, his Secretary of War encouraged him, “Don’t worry, Sir. God is on our side.” To which Lincoln replied, “Sir, my concern is not whether God is on our side; my greatest concern is to be on God’s side, for God is always right.” Instead of claiming that God is on their side, the Right needs to humbly seek the Lord and the sacred Scriptures to find out what his will really is. They may be surprised by what they find. In turn, the Left needs to realize that issues like morality are very important to mainstream America, and if their party wishes to avoid extinction, it must find a way to let God have his say. Neither party has a monopoly on morality; neither can justly claim to represent God or the Bible or Christianity in its fullness.

The Bible is not a one-trick pony. Jesus does not limit himself to one or two moral issues, like abortion or same-sex marriage. His concern, as ours should be, is with life or sin in all its forms. If we wish to be consistent, biblically consistent, then rejecting abortion is not enough. We must also care about poverty, AIDS, and the victims of war. Neither is it sufficient to caterwaul over gay marriage, without also shining the light on corporate greed and capitalistic oppression. If we do any less, as Christians we are nothing short of hypocritical.

October 18, 2006

The Politics of Selfishness

Recently, I have written about the cracks developing in the monolith of the Religious Right, as some members of the politically influential National Association of Evangelicals have broken ranks and begun to speak out about other issues, such as the environment and global warming. This week it was reported that the Christian Coalition, whose leaders include Dr. James Dobson and the Reverends Jerry Falwell and Pat Robertson, has been experiencing similar divisions.

It seems what Jim Wallis calls “the monologue of the religious Right” is beginning to be drowned out by a cacophony of voices, and the movement’s national leadership is beginning to lose its influence to pastors and politicians on the local level. Many feel disillusioned with a GOP rocked with scandals and an Administration that they believe has betrayed their trust. Some of this is a symptom of the generally bad mood this country is in because of the occupation of Iraq. But there also seems to be a wind of change within the hearts of younger Christians (could it be the Holy Spirit?), many of whom are latching onto more global issues, like poverty, the environment, sex-trafficking, and AIDS in Africa. “The Republican party could do more for the poor,” said one right-wing Christian interviewed on radio. Although such rumblings may not be enough to cause most Evangelicals to cross party lines in the upcoming election, there is a growing discontent that may keep many away from the polls come November.

As a lifelong conservative and fellow Evangelical, the issue for me is not one of Democrat versus Republican, but of freedom: freedom to think for ourselves, and to think biblically, instead of being manipulated by the power of corporate self-interest. If we’ve been led blindly to the slaughter, we have only ourselves to blame. We’ve heard what we wanted to hear, tuning in to the voices our itching ears delight in. It’s been easy to point the finger at others (shouting, “These people are ruining this country!”) without examining our own hearts. It’s been safe to focus on one or two issues, like abortion and gay marriage, which in the end will do not damage to our wallets or divert us from our selfish lifestyles. We’ve been deceived because we wanted to be deceived, covering it all over with a thin layer of piety, pulling the lever in the voting booth and thinking we’ve done our religious duty. This is the politics of selfishness.

But I pray that that day is ending, and because the Lord so loves his church, he will no longer permit us to go on in such a way but is calling us to the true life of a disciple, to follow in the footsteps of our Master.

December 9, 2005

The Tyranny of Being Right

King Charles I (1600-1649) was once heard to grumble frustratedly, “There’s nothing more dangerous in all the world than a Presbyterian fresh off his knees.” As a conservative Evangelical and a Calvinist I wince at such a statement, but another part of me quite understands and sympathizes.

Charles was an incompetent, heavy-handed monarch who found himself constantly at odds with his Scottish homeland, controlled by Presbyterians, and an equally inflexible 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 that they were always right and God was always on their side. Puritanism has a rich heritage, but in practice, humility was not always among its more obvious virtues.

Unfortunately, being right in one’s doctrine does not necessarily make one a pleasant person or always right about everything else. There is something about religious pride that stinks to everyone but the stinker. There was a time when Christianity involved humility and sacrificial service. In fact, I even recall a guy named Jesus, who once said, “If anyone would be my disciple, let him deny himself, pick up his cross and follow me….Whoever wants to be great among you, must be your servant, and whoever wants to be first must be slave of all.”

I don’t believe that abortion, same-sex marriage, lack of prayer in schools, or any of the other deadly sins on the conservative hit list these days (as serious as they are) will prove to be as poisonous to this society in the long run as our own pride and arrogance as Christians. Shocking isn’t it? But if you read the Bible, you see that the Almighty seems much more concerned with keeping his own people humble than with spanking sinners who don’t know their right hand from their left.

In his recent book Our Endangered Values, Jimmy Carter accuses contemporary American fundamentalism of three failings: rigidity, domination and exclusion. Fundamentalism, as we’ve seen it expressed in other religions as well as our own, convinces itself that it is always right and that therefore God must be on its side. It seeks to dominate and to squelch all dissent or diversity and to exclude rather than to include others. We would do well to spurn Carter’s unholy trinity if we wish to avoid the mistakes of the past. (Of course, as the philosopher Hegel said, the one thing we learn from history is that we do not learn anything from history.)

I’d rather be humble than right. At least when you’re humble you know that you don’t know 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. (Of course, it’s best to be both humble and right.)

The English Puritans dreamed of building a perfect, godly state where righteousness reigned and sin was outlawed. Convinced that they were right and that God was on their side, one faction eventually seized control of the government, removed Charles’ head from his body (an operation which severely altered his person, let alone his ability to govern wisely), and instituted one of the most repressive and intolerant regimes in British history. Ironic, isn’t it? But hardly surprising. A great opportunity these Christians had to build a lasting commonwealth based on biblical values and they totally botched it.

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, ignorance and stupidity. Jesus said, “My kingdom is not of this world.” 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 to was in another place. Does that mean Christians should not seek to influence their culture? Not at all.

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, reformed society and government as well. Kings and cardinals bowed before him and later squabbled over his bones. He just had the unmitigated temerity to take Jesus at his word and to follow the example of the Master. Some nerve.

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 prayer, active charity and moral example than by political power grabbing. The latter only makes us hated, as the English Revolution, as well as more recent history, shows us.

At the end of Puritan John Milton’s epic poem Paradise Lost (written, not coincidentally, after the Brits had kicked out the Puritans and restored the old monarchy), Adam surveys a devastated Creation, brought about by his sin, and comes to this final epiphany:

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 bless.

–Paradise Lost,Book X

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3 Comments

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  1. Ray

    Thanks for these insights from Einstein! I think it’s important to ask how Senator Bloat gets elected. Why don’t people just vote for the candidate who doesn’t get all the money from the military-industrial complex? I think the answer is that Mr. and Mrs. Citizenbloat vote for him. Everyone’s against wasteful spending, but most people support spending for any project in their district that hires their family and friends. Our country is governed by the philosophy of amoral familism: The definition of good is what’s good for those close to us. Sadly, American Christians are sometimes the most flagrant followers of this philosophy. I think change can only come when preachers start preaching that we Christians stop worry about what’s best for ourselves and worry more about what’s best for our brothers and sisters around the world.

  2. Too true. As citizen-consumers we are definitely another head of the Hydra. And it’s hard to tell someone who’s threatened with a layoff in industry, and may not be able to feed the kids, that he must think of the world. But I agree, clergy must take the lead in this. I admire Jarecki’s courage in that he has taken his documentary on the road to places like West Point, to educate students who will soon be part of the military establishment.

  3. Ray

    Yes, I would expect that feeding one’s own kids would be one’s highest priority, and it should be. Ironically, I think amoral familism is more common among those whose needs are already met.

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