Monthly Archives: February 2013

The Last Straw

John the Baptist was aElizabeth_jennings_01 peaceful man, living a hermit’s life of prayer in the desert and eating a simple diet of locusts (they are kosher and quite tasty) and wild honey—until God called him to warn people to repent. The end of the age was at hand. Messiah was coming. John’s ministry involved him in baptizing, or mikvah: immersing a person’s body in water as a form of ritual cleansing—in this case, the cleansing of repentance and preparation for the coming rule and reign of God. People flocked to John by the thousands, but it seemed he wasn’t interested in building his own following. He was adamant that he was no messiah himself, just sent to pave the way and ready the children of Israel for the Promised One. Yet still everyone held their breath, wondering what this could mean? Could this really be the end? Was Messiah, Son of David, really coming? And when he came, would he restore the kingdom to Israel?

Then one day, Herod Antipas—a sort of petty king whom Rome suffered to rule over part of Palestine—brought home a new wife.  The Herodian dynasty had never been short of scandal. His father Herod the Great had had several wives and had not been shy about eliminating one, or even his own children, if they stood in his way or threatened the security of his throne. Antipas had a half-brother Philip, who ruled a neighboring kingdom, and it was there that Herod fell in love with Philip’s wife Herodias, who was also his niece (another family habit). The two agreed to marry once Herod could divorce his wife. Since they could not force Philip to divorce his, Herod just took her. Now he was living openly with the wife of another man, his brother’s woman. That was too much to bear. John found the word of God burning inside him day after day, until one day he spoke out and told Herod, “It is against God’s law for you to have her.”

For all Herod’s failings—and they were many—he was not a completely hardened man. True, he was the spoiled son of a ruthless tyrant, and a bit of a tyrant in his own right. Yet somehow, there was still some spark of the fear of God left in him. He knew John was right, and perhaps in some way he regretted marrying this woman. Nevertheless, while Herod feared the judgment of God, he also feared what other people thought, especially his wife Herodias, who nursed a grudge against John. This “man of God” made her feel like a prostitute, and she didn’t like it. She was queen, after all. This dusty little prophet needed to learn his place. He would pay for his insult.

Comedian Charlie Chaplin once told in an interview about a role he had always wanted to play. It was the story of a man, a meek, milquetoast type character, who arrives at a posh dinner party, where everything starts to go wrong for him. The butler mispronounces his name. At dinner a guest drops butter on his coat, and a servant spills soup down his neck. Somehow he manages to bear each and every indignity with a patient smile, assuring his hosts that “it’s quite all right,” until the final humiliation is served. It is the straw that breaks the camel’s back. Suddenly, this normally mild-mannered man goes berserk. He runs amok, smashing china and frightening the guests, and at last sets fire to the house.

Have you ever experienced a “last straw” moment? No, not in the sense of resorting to violence and mayhem, but in the spiritual sense of looking at the world around you—the sin, the suffering, the injustices? There comes a moment when patient endurance is not enough. You find you must take action, you must speak out, you must say something, do something. It is the last straw, and what you experience is a kind of holy rage.

Throughout Scripture we see various men and women of God, some leaders, others just ordinary people, experiencing just such a moment that forever changes the direction of their lives: Elijah, outraged by the power and influence of the prophets of Baal and Asherah in Israel, summons them to a showdown at Mount Carmel. Ezra, a priest and teacher of the law, learning of the unfaithfulness of his fellow priests and Levites in marrying foreign women, is appalled, publicly tears his clothes, and repents on behalf of the nation, an act which leads others to do the same. Esther, learns of a diabolical plot against her people and risks her life to plead with the king.

For John the Baptist this moment came when he saw the monarchy sink to a new low, making the little kingdom a laughing stock—and just at the time when the nation was supposed to be preparing their hearts for the coming of the Messiah. What a mess! Day after day, God’s word simmered inside him, until finally he spoke out. He spoke truth to power—which is always a risky business but no less a necessary one if we really claim to love God and our neighbor. Notice he did not insult or abuse Herod. He did not grab an assault weapon, or strap a bomb to himself. He did not even call the king a “sinner.” He just humbly and respectfully but firmly told the truth: “It is not lawful for you to have her”—that is, it is not lawful under Jewish law for you to have your brother’s wife, while your brother is still living. For goodness’ sake, there were basic laws of decency practiced even among Gentiles!

What makes you angry? Have you ever experienced a holy rage? I don’t mean the petty peeves we encounter daily, like people who drive 25 mph in the left lane or someone who squeezes the toothpaste from the middle of the tube. I mean, what really grieves your spirit? What makes your heart burn?  Maybe it’s when you hear of a child who has been abused or neglected or abandoned, or you see a homeless person shivering on the sidewalk with passersby stepping over him as though he were a puddle, or something worse. Maybe you’re grieved by the drugs and violence of our inner cities where hope and opportunity are strange and foreign sounding words, or by the unbridled greed of corporate power working hand in hand with government to steal from the poor and give to the rich. Maybe it’s when you hear of a woman who aborted her child because she did not see any other way out.

Sometimes we ask ourselves, why isn’t anyone doing anything? And all we hear is an echo. When the only voice you hear is your own, guess what? Tag, you’re it! Sometimes it takes a painful event to bring an issue home to us, to put a face on injustice or wrong, one that could even bring us face to face with a major crisis in our world, a crisis so daunting that we wonder, what can one person do?

Many years ago, a friend of mine named Zack was just out of school and, like most young people, experiencing financial problems. His employer could not afford to pay him a fulltime salary, so he had to work another part-time job waxing floors. In December of that year, his part of the Midwest was hit by a massive storm. The city where he lived was flooded when a levee gave way and the river began pouring into the streets. Then the temperature suddenly plummeted and all that water froze. His car was trapped in a block of ice, and it took him days, using a pickaxe, to get it free. But it was too late. The water had damaged the engine, and he had to sell the car for scrap. Unable to buy another, he resolved to take the bus.

Zack had grown up in a privileged, upper middleclass neighborhood. It was probably the first time he had ever had to take a bus to work, or anywhere for that matter. As he looked at the faces of his fellow passengers that morning, his heart began to break. He saw a variety of expressions: some careworn with poverty, others broken by it; some looked angry or determined, others lonely and forgotten due to age or mental illness.

That Sunday, he took a bus to church and, arriving just in time for the service, sat in the front pew. During the worship, he felt his chest heaving. He began to sob hot, angry, projectile tears. The pastor, seeing this and knowing my friend’s economic situation, assumed he was only weeping over his lost car. Annoyed, the pastor said, “Some of you people need to grow up!”

“He thought I was crying about my car,” Zack chuckled when he told me. “I wasn’t. I was weeping over the poverty I had seen that morning. But the pastor was right about ‘growing up.’” It was the first time my friend had ever felt such anger and grief over the poverty around him. He found he hated poverty. He detested what it did to people: the human toll, on health, ignorance, the terrible choices people were forced to make, the way they were pushed around by those above them on the economic ladder. He was angry enough that day to try to do something. ”Lord,” he prayed, “I’m not sure what one person can do, but I’m willing to try, even if I fail or the impact is very small.”

Over the next few months he started a food pantry in his own basement. He also boldly asked the session of his church for a certain amount of their budget to be set aside each month to help the poor with rent, utilities, and medicine. They must have seen his passion because they gladly agreed. As the pantry quickly grew, he added both a clothing and job banks, trying to match the unemployed with local opportunities. “Probably most of the people’s problems were way bigger than my resources could handle,” he told me. “Yet I found I could still love them. Often we avoid or push people away because we don’t know how to help them. Well, I found I didn’t have to fix all their problems. All I had to do was listen. Listen and love. That was a start. Very simple, but it’s transformed me in ways I never would have imagined.” Funny how one little bus ride changed the course of his life.

Today that pantry has grown to be the largest in the city where he lives and it is staffed with scores of volunteers. Each month they give away literally tons of food. My friend is an advocate for the poor in his community. He is just an average guy, no special degree, but people come from miles around because they have heard he cares. It’s still just a drop in the bucket of the poverty problem in this country, but it is a start.

At other times, a holy rage has caused an individual to confront one of the major injustices in our society. In July 1854 in New York City, a young 24-year-old schoolteacher boarded a horse-drawn streetcar to get to work. It was Sunday, and she was late for her part-time job as a church organist. She boarded a car of the Third Avenue Railroad Company and was promptly asked to step off.  Most public transportation in those days was run by private companies, and they could refuse any passenger they wished. She was told by the conductor that the car was full, and she would have to get off. When she pointed out that that was not the case—there were still plenty of seats—she was then informed that the other passengers were “bothered” by her presence. Still she refused to move. At that point, she was physically manhandled, her bonnet pulled down, her clothing torn and soiled, but still she stood her ground, calmly but resolutely, until at the next stop police were called, and she was forcibly removed from the car.

You see, Lizzie Jennings was an African-American woman, and while this was probably not the first time she had encountered such prejudice, on this particular day, she had had enough. It was her last straw. She could not let it go. A movement was formed among leaders in the black community, a lawsuit was filed, and the following year a verdict was given. She was awarded damages, the judge saying that black people “had the same rights as others and could neither be excluded by any rules of the Company, nor by force or violence.”

It is amazing the trouble God will get us into—oh if we will only let him! This woman was not a terrorist. She was not the member of some subversive organization. She was a schoolteacher and a church organist. She was a Christian, like you and I, and one day she had simply had enough. She realized that to continue to bow to injustice and bullying was neither righteous nor loving, and that if no one else was going to do anything, she would. She was the Rosa Parks of her day.

Yet doesn’t Scripture tell us to “obey the authorities and every form of government?” Yes and no. When government fulfills its God-ordained role to maintain order, administer justice, reward the good and punish the wicked, then yes, we are to be model citizens. But when government arrogates to itself powers that belong to God alone, telling us what we are allowed to think or say, or worship; when instead of being guardians of justice, government itself becomes unjust, when the good are punished and the wicked rewarded; then we are called upon to obey God, not man. We are called on, not only to pray something, but to say something, to speak up, even to resist— peacefully, lovingly, but firmly and courageously. So the context determines which track we are to take. That is what Jesus meant when he said, “Give to Caesar what is Caesar’s and to God what is God’s.”

There is a cost to speaking out, of course; there is a price tag to taking action. Our holy rage brings us up against Satan’s kingdom. Whenever you push against the enemy’s kingdom, he pushes back. So we need to be both shrewd and prayerful. But then, there is a cost to everything we do, isn’t there? Whether we do something or nothing, there is a cost. Sometimes the cost of doing nothing is far greater than doing something, even if that something leads us to make the ultimate sacrifice. Over the centuries, yes, every single day, some believers are called upon to lay down their lives for the gospel, for truth, for justice, for what is right and decent.

When it came to speaking the truth, Kaj Munk was no ordinary man. He lived in Denmark in the first half of the twentieth century, and he believed that faith must find its expression in action. As a pastor, Munk also took his ordination vows seriously and, like his Master, tried to keep the wolves from entering the sheep pen. The wolves he fought so tenaciously from his pulpit and with his pen, were much the same as in John’s day or ours: fear, compromise, lies, expediency, racism, religiosity, materialism, greed. He spoke out against the exploitation of workers, against poverty and hunger, prejudice, the persecution of Jews, totalitarianism, the corruption of the state church, as well as the cruelty and injustice of the Nazis and their Danish henchmen.

In 1940 when the Nazis occupied his beloved country, Kaj Munk spoke truth to power and did it so eloquently and fearlessly that he seemed like another John the Baptist. “The goodness of God,” he said, “as we see it in Jesus is meek and long-suffering, but never compromises with evil.” So when the Nazis threatened to deport Danish Jews, he said to his fellow Danes, “To be silent in the face of sin is to speak the language of the devil.”

Compromise was certainly not in this man’s vocabulary. Even as they hung on his every word and gulped down his courage like interned prisoners ravenous for bread, his parishoners, friends, neighbors, and fellow Danes, living under a cruel occupation, knew Kaj Munk was not long for this world. Years ago I happened to speak to a Danish woman who had grown up there during the war. She said that Munk was so bold, so outspoken, everyone held their breath knowing he would be killed by the Gestapo, probably sooner than later.

Munk had experienced his last straw on a trip to neighboring Norway. The Germans had just invaded that country, too, and on the following Sunday he attended church there, expecting to hear an inspiring message of hope and courage. But the Norwegian preacher, perhaps out of fear, made no reference to these events. Nothing. Upon returning to Denmark, Munk wrote an article to a pastoral magazine, saying,

“What is therefore, our task today? Shall I answer: ‘Faith, hope, and love’? That sounds beautiful. But I would say—courage. No, even that is not challenging enough to be the whole truth. Our task today is recklessness. For what we Christians lack is not psychology or literature…we lack a holy rage—the recklessness which comes from the knowledge of God and humanity… (“The Task of the Pastor Today,” 1941)

What is this holy rage? It is, as another preacher put it so eloquently,

“The ability to feel anger when justice lies prostrate on the streets…a holy anger about the things that are wrong in the world… against the ravaging of God’s earth…when little children must die of hunger and the tables of the rich are sagging with food…at the senseless killing of so many, and against the madness of militaries… against complacency. To restlessly seek that recklessness that will challenge and seek to change human history until it conforms to the norms of the Kingdom of God.” (Allan Boesak)

I know what you are thinking. Recklessness? Rage?  Anger? Since when have these been considered cardinal Christian virtues? Yet I think we know what they are really talking about, do we not? Rage here is used as a figure of speech. They are talking not about physyical violence but righteous indignation, not foolhardiness but holy boldness. No not wrath, hatred and bloodshed, not anger out of control, but a call to action; that we would get angry enough to get up off the pew and do something, to be reckless—not reckless folly in the eyes of God, though certainly in the eyes of the world.

Did not our Lord’s heart burn when he saw the sick and suffering?  Did he not pour forth righteous indignation when he witnessed the hypocrisy of the scribes and Pharisees? Did he not take a courageous stand when he saw the greedy corruption of the temple system? Did not his love and obedience lead him to the “recklessness” of the Cross? The world calls that “foolishness” and a “waste.” For the wisdom of God is foolishness in the eyes of the world. As Paul states “the foolishness of God is wiser than human wisdom and the weakness of God stronger than human strength.”

It is a funny thing about this kind of reckless courage. Just like fear, it can be contagious. Munk was murdered, shot through the head by the Gestapo, his body dumped in a frozen ditch by the side of the road—a warning for those who would dare to stand up and speak truth to the forces of the Third Reich, which issued a further warning about staging any big funeral or mass demonstrations for Munk. The Danish Church, too, issued a formal warning to its members not to further antagonize the Nazis. Nevertheless, a few days later, four thousand Danes showed up to bury Kaj Munk. No violence, no screaming or shaking of fists, just four thousand Danes—men, women and children—standing in the bitter cold, with hats off, to pay tribute to their fallen brother, as if to warn the Nazis in return: “For every one of us you cut down, four thousand will spring up.” Instead of chilling the passions of national resistance, Munk’s death had the opposite effect, sparking outrage within the church and without. His laying down his life for the truth gave his fellow countrymen even more courage to carry on his work.

His courage in writing and speaking so boldly while he was alive helped to mobilize this little country. In 1943 within a matter of weeks, over 8,000 Danish Jews—often just a few at a time, in everything from cargo ships to kayaks—were spirited across the sea to safety in Sweden. Through this action 95 percent of Danish Jewry was saved from deportation to the concentration camps, and of that 5% who were sent to the camps, because of the persistent action and relentless pressure placed upon German officials by Danish leaders, 99% survived to return home after the war. It is one of the most amazing and courageous, corporate humanitarian acts in human history—ordinary Danes who felt, when push came to shove, that they must obey God rather than man.

Have you ever experienced a last straw? Have you ever felt this holy rage? If not, I hope that you will, and when you do, may the Lord give you wisdom. May he guide your hands and feet to make waves, and anoint your mind and lips to raise a gale on the self-satisfied seas of injustice.

And remember, as Pastor Munk once preached, “the signs of the Christian Church have been the Lion, the Lamb, the Dove, and the Fish…but never the chameleon.”

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Awakening the Sleeping Giant: Finney on Christian Responsibility in the Political Arena

Charles Grandison Finney (1792-1875) was a Presbyterian evangelist and perhaps the most influential finneyfigure in a wave of revival known as America’s Second Great Awakening. For his systematic approach to facilitating conversions, he is commonly called the “father of modern revivalism.”

Reacting to Protestant (chiefly Calvinist) orthodoxy, which he felt put stumbling blocks in the way of conversion, Finney still receives criticism for his distortion of the doctrines of the atonement and justification. While his orthodoxy remains in many ways questionable, there is no doubting Finney’s profound influence in shaping the history and character of American Protestantism.

By the 1840s revivalism had begun to wane, but its impact continued in the various social and political movements aimed at reforming American society, such as temperance, women’s rights, and especially abolitionism. Like many leaders of this Second Awakening (1790-1840), Finney was an ardent and outspoken opponent of slavery. So passionately did he believe in the cause that, immediately upon their conversion, he would sign new believers up for the abolitionist movement.

In 1851 Finney became President of Oberlin College, the first to admit both women and blacks along with white men. In the following year he gave a series of lectures or sermons. In one of them (“Guilt Modified by Ignorance”), he takes as his text Acts 17:30 (Paul’s speech at the Areopagus):  that God frequently overlooks sin where there is ignorance, but with increasing light comes greater guilt and responsibility. To illustrate his point, he applies the principle to some of the great moral movements of his day, most particularly the institution of slavery in the United States.

In 1850 Congress had passed a series of legislation regarding the future status of new territories (whether they were to be free or slaveholding). Called the Compromise of 1850, the legislation was designed to diffuse growing tensions between North and South and to avoid Southern secession. Part of this compromise was the notorious Fugitive Slave Act of 1850, which put teeth in an earlier law by requiring law enforcement in all the States to arrest suspected runaway slaves. Even private citizens in free States could be forced to participate in a slave’s apprehension or detention.  Northerners were outraged at such an unjust and flagrantly pro-slavery law, and several free States passed their own legislation enabling judges to ignore the claims of slaveholders. The Act and its abuses did more to inflame abolitionist passions in the North, and the free States’ laws more to enrage the South, than any other single cause of the Civil War.

In his sermon Finney states,

For a long time this subject was scarcely discussed at all. Slavery was abolished so quietly and gradually in the Northern States, that but little general discussion was excited…they did not notice the gradual encroachments of the slave power upon the general government…Now men generally understand the relations of slavery to the national government. The startling fact is but too apparent that our Union is virtually a slaveholding state, and that Congress have seriously undertaken to make the entire domain of our country a slaveholding land. They enact their Fugitive Slave Bill into so-called law, and then send their commissioned agents into the free states, upon free soil, to compel free men, whose souls abhor slavery, to become slave-catchers, and to deliver up unto their masters or claimants, the servant that has escaped — in the very face of God’s own command to the contrary, not to say also in the very face of every dictate of humanity.

For Finney the dire situation raised new and important issues regarding “political action, the pulpit, and the duty of Christian men.”

…[T]he question what we, as Christian men shall do under this monstrous oppression is really momentous. The question now has taken this form; shall we individually and personally aid in making men slaves? …We did not expect when we entered into this Union, that we were to be dragooned into the business of slave-hunting. We did not calculate then to become the tools of the slave power, to help make men found on free soil slaves….Before and during the American revolution, there was much more political discussion in the pulpit than there is now…Indeed the great questions of the revolution were all discussed in the pulpit…”The pulpit thundered and lightened on the subject of liberty.” The consequence was the true ideas of liberty were understood, and came to have a living development in the public mind…Who needs be told that ministers then met their responsibilities to the state and to the public weal, fearlessly and boldly? Who does not know that all these questions were then blended with prayer…

But ministers in our day have become afraid to stand forth and speak as honest, fearless men on this subject, and political men have become fearful and sensitive lest the pulpit should utter its voice for freedom. But why this sensitiveness of politicians? And why this timidity in the heralds of the gospel? Have not all Christian men political duties to perform? Ought they not to search out these duties, and settle in the fear of God all the great questions they involve, and then meet their political responsibilities in the fear of God and for the welfare of the nation?

Finney believed America’s two-party system, which had hitherto been a blessing for its inherent balance, had ultimately failed to offer any solution to slavery and instead had effectively delivered the nation over to the slave powers. It was now up to the church:

It is not generally considered that neither of the two great political parties can manage this question of slavery at their option…the thing I would say is, that neither of them can control the subject of slavery. Both parties therefore concede to the South all they ask. For example, they both accede to the Compromise acts, Fugitive law included, and affirm this law to be “a finality.” This done, they cry…Drop the question of slavery, and no longer make it in any degree a political issue…Shall the Christian church accede to this? Shall we let this entire subject alone, and go in for contention of the other issues as if they had any importance worth naming in the comparison?

Until matters assumed their present form, a multitude of Christians acted conscientiously with one or the other of these great parties…Many conscientious men thought that they could do most good in that course… But now it is not so much as pretended that any good results will ensue from acting with either of the great parties…Nobody contends that under the control of either of these great parties, there is, at present, the faintest hope of repealing or even modifying the Fugitive Slave Bill, or getting one good thing for truth or righteousness. Therefore, I ask, can any good man hold on to either of those parties– for no good object whatever — not even the promise of any good to the cause of the slave being held out as an inducement?

… Do you ask, What ought Christian men to do? Doubtless they ought to use all their legitimate influence against the Fugitive Slave Bill, and against all the political aggressions of slavery upon our free land and government. Doubtless they ought to vote for freedom as against slavery, and speak out in no mistakable words and tones, till the nation shall hear and shall purge itself from all national patronage of this horrible system.

…As soon as light prevails on this subject, men can no longer go on in the same course of sustaining the system, without the greatest guilt. It will not answer to substitute evasions, and dodging and side issues in place of real repentance and true reform. To evade the claims of truth thus serves not to acquit the soul before God or man, but only to strengthen depravity and harden the heart.

The solution, Finney believes, lies in awakening the sleeping giant, the church:

…Refusal to repent when light reveals sin and duty, must hasten the destruction of any nation or people under heaven…The governments of the earth, if they resist the light that breaks in upon them, are sure to be destroyed…No Christian nation since the world began has been able to stand against the united prayers and testimony of God’s church. No one has had strength to resist any reform which God’s people have unitedly demanded…

This principle applies to all organizations, benevolent or ecclesiastical. If they resist reform when growing light demands it, God will be against them, and His chariot will grind them to powder! What does He want of a church or a benevolent society that resists reform when light and truth demand it, and sets itself in array against the progress of His cause? He knows how to use them for beacons of warning if they refuse to be used as instruments of progress in doing good. Therefore if any people or associate body will not receive and obey the light, their ruin is sure…

…What then shall we do with offending nations, and with our own government when they impose upon us fugitive laws? Of course we are to set about their reformation. Do you ask, how? The way is open. The Christian church has it in her power to reform this nation. She has long held the balance of political power, and she holds it still. Let all Christian men say, “We will not sustain slavery; the men who are in league with it cannot have our votes.” — and the thing would be done. Let all Christian voters be united in this, and they could just as certainly elect the man of their choice as there should be another election. Let them try it. They have the consciences of men on their side, and they would find strength and help rising up where they did not expect it. If they did not succeed in the next election, they surely would succeed soon. Ere another election came round, politicians would say, “We must honor and please the church,” just as they now say, “We must honor the South.”

In exercising this power,  Christians must act firmly, yet with gentleness and respect:

But the way to do this is not to turn slaveholders ourselves, and force our opinions down men’s throats, and cast them from the church if they do not vote our ticket. The right way is to enlightenment on the subject — to treat them kindly and yet with great fidelity, and to try to bring them over to the truth and the right by reasoning and persuasion. Substantially we should pursue the same methods of labor and influence that we adopt when we would change men’s position on any moral question, the same as when we would convert sinners from sin to God.

…But again the question returns, what shall be done by the church to abolish slavery? I answer, Let all her organizations speak out with decision and firmness …Who does not believe that it is in the power of the great Christian organizations of our country to reform that society?

…Uncharitable measures never succeed. If even the Apostles, with all their miracles and tongues, had gone out with a bad spirit, they must have labored in vain. God suffers His own cause to experience a temporary defeat, rather than give success to men of a bad spirit. I have no doubt that in many cases the anti-slavery cause has been thrown aback by the bad spirit of its advocates. If we have erred in this matter, we must repent. We can never hope for the blessing of God until we do.

…If, now, our General Government needs reform, (of which I have no doubt,) then let us forthwith employ all constitutional means and measures for its reform. Of the wisdom of doing all this no one can for a moment doubt.

…As for voting for either of the two great party candidates, on a strongly pro-slavery platform, that question is in my mind easily settled. I can do no such thing. Sooner shall I cut off my own right hand than suffer it to drop a vote for such men, standing on such platforms.

…In some respects I am sorry, and in some respects I am not sorry to be called on to say so much on this subject of slavery — its issues, and the duties of Christians in regard to it. There is the greatest need that these things should be investigated and well considered. The public mind will and must act on these questions, and the action taken is continually affecting the honor of Christianity and the welfare of the church and of souls, most fundamentally. It cannot, therefore, be amiss to bring this subject into the pulpit. Let it engage your serious attention, and more your hearts to seek divine wisdom in prayer.  

It makes one grieve to consider that if the American church had taken to heart Finney’s call to repentance and been able to unite around this issue, a million lives might have been spared and the holocaust of civil war averted. Yet if he is guilty of anything, it is perhaps in naively underestimating  the spiritual stranglehold slavery, greed, and racism had on the nation, and on much of the church; that a tipping point had already been reached, and further Northern agitation would only inflame an already alienated and recalcitrant South.

Nevertheless, in hindsight we ought not to blame Finney for being hopeful, even as he prophetically paints a bloody picture of God’s impending judgment. His words and vision, too, ought still to find resonance in our hearts today, as our nation struggles under the tyranny of old injustices and new masters. Can the church disenthrall herself? Can the sleeping giant awaken?

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Robbing the Poor: Chrysostom on Wealth and Poverty

St. John Chrysostom (c. 347-407) was an archbishop, preacher, theChrysostomologian, and reformer who lived in the early days of the Byzantine empire.  His eloquence and rhetorical gifts posthumously earned him the sobriquet “Goldenmouth” (Gk. Χρυσόστομος).

One of Chrysostom’s most enduring legacies lies in the homilies that fortunately have come down to us—in the hundreds. A constant theme in these sermons is Christ’s concern for the poor. John was often more bold than tactful, especially when it came to the excesses of wealth. He is often called an ascetic. Yet it must be pointed out that he was not opposed to wealth per se, but against the misuse of it, especially conspicuous consumption and the cruel chasm between rich and poor that characterized the great cities of the empire. While his candor on the subject delighted the masses, it caused him no end of trouble with the ruling classes and clergy. He once railed against the foolish fad among wealthy women of using silver chamber pots.

…When Christ is famishing, do you revel in such luxury, act so foolishly? …Another, made after the image of God, is perishing of cold; and you’re furnishing yourself with such things as these? O the senseless pride! …Do you pay such honor to your excrements as to receive them in silver? I know you’re shocked at hearing this; but it’s the women who make such things who ought to be shocked and the husbands that minister to such distempers. For this is wantonness, and savageness, and inhumanity, and brutishness, and lasciviousness. (Homily 7 on Colossians)

He also referred to an emperor’s wife, known for her extravagance, as “Herodias.” That one earned him banishment for life.

Chrysostom lived at a time not unlike our own, when greed and corruption were rampant; the rich grew richer and the poor poorer; the wealthy feasted and spent money recklessly while the lower classes starved or groaned under crushing debt; and no one called the powerful to account. He treated with primary importance the Lord’s warning that our salvation depends on how we treat the poor, who are the embodiment of Christ.

Let’s listen in on a few of these sermons to hear what he has to teach us:

…[H]e is not rich who is surrounded by many possessions, but he who does not need many possessions; and he is not poor who possesses nothing, but he who requires many things. We ought to consider this to be the distinction between poverty and wealth. When, therefore, you see any one longing for many things, esteem him of all men the poorest, even though he possess all manner of wealth; again, when you see one who does not wish for many things, judge him to be of all men most affluent, even if he possess nothing. For by the condition of our mind, not by the quantity of our material wealth, should it be our custom to distinguish between poverty and affluence…

…[I]t is as if we were sitting in a theatre, and looking at the players on the stage. Do not, when you see many abounding in wealth, think that they are in reality wealthy, but dressed up in the semblance of wealth. And as one man, representing on the stage a king or a general, often may prove to be a household servant, or one of those who sell figs or grapes in the market; thus the rich, man may often chance to be the poorest of all. For if you remove his mask and examine his conscience, and enter into his inner mind, you will find there great poverty as to virtue, and ascertain that he is the meanest of men. As also, in the theatre, as evening closes in, and the spectators depart, those who come forth divested of their theatrical ornaments, who seemed to all to be kings and generals, now are seen to be whatever they are in reality; even so with respect to this life, when death comes, and the theatre is deserted, when all, having put off their masks of wealth or of poverty, depart hence, being judged only by their works, they appear, some really rich, some poor; some in honor, some in dishonor. Thus it often happens, that one of those who are here the most wealthy, is there most poor…

…This also is robbery—not to impart our good things to others…It is said to be deprivation when we retain things taken from others. And in this way, therefore, we are taught that if we do not bestow alms, we shall be treated in the same way as those who have been extortioners. Our Lord’s things they are, from whencesoever we may obtain them. And if we distribute to the needy we shall obtain for ourselves great abundance. And for this it is that God has permitted you to possess much—not that you should spend it in fornication, in drunkenness, in gluttony, in rich clothing, or any other mode of luxury, but that you should distribute it to the needy. And just as if a receiver of taxes, having in charge the king’s property, should not distribute it to those for whom it is ordered, but should spend it for his own enjoyment, he would pay the penalty and come to ruin; thus also the rich man is, as it were, a receiver of goods which are destined to be dispensed to the poor—-to those of his fellow-servants who are in want. If he then should spend upon himself more than he really needs, he will pay hereafter a heavy penalty. For the things he has are not his own, but are the things of his fellow-servants.

…[N]ot to share our own riches with the poor is a robbery of the poor, and a depriving them of their livelihood; and that which we possess is not only our own, but also theirs. (Discourse 2 on the Rich Man and Lazarus)

Tell me, then, what is the source of your wealth? From whom did you receive it, and from whom the one who transmitted it to you? “From his father and his grandfather.” But can you go back through the many generations and show the acquisition just? It cannot be. The root and origin of it must have been injustice. Why? Because God in the beginning did not make one man rich and another poor. Nor did he later show one treasures of gold and deny the other the right to search for it. He left the earth free to all alike. Why then, if it is common, do you have so many acres of land, while your neighbor has no portion of it? ….(Homily 12 on 1Tim)

I am often reproached for continually attacking the rich. Yes, because the rich are continually attacking the poor. But those I attack are not the rich as such, only those who misuse their wealth. I point out constantly that those I accuse are not the rich but the rapacious. Wealth is one thing, covetousness another. Learn to distinguish.  (Homily on the Fall of Eutropius)

Do you wish to honor the Body of the Savior? Do not despise him when he is naked. Do not honor him in church with silk vestments while outside he is naked and numb with cold. He who said, “This is my body,” and made it so by his word, is the same that said, “You saw me hungry and you gave me no food. As you did it not to the least of these, you did it not to me.” Honor him then by sharing your property with the poor. For what God needs is not golden chalices but golden souls.

…It is such a slight thing I beg…nothing very expensive…bread, a roof, words of comfort. [If the rewards I promised hold no appeal for you] then show at least a natural compassion when you see me naked, and remember the nakedness I endured for you on the cross…I fasted for you then, and I suffer for you now; I was thirsty when I hung on the cross, and I thirst still in the poor, in both ways to draw you to myself to make you humane for your own salvation. (Homily 50 on Matthew)

Do you wish to see his altar? …This altar is composed of the very members of Christ…This altar you can see lying everywhere, in the alleys and in the agoras and you can sacrifice upon it anytime…invoke the spirit not with words but with deeds. (Homily 20 on 2Corinthians)

 You eat in excess; Christ eats not even what he needs. You eat a variety of cakes; he eats not even a piece of dried bread. You drink fine Thracian wine; but on him you have not bestowed so much as a cup of cold water. You lie on a soft and embroidered bed; but he is perishing in the cold…You live in luxury on things that properly belong to him…At the moment, you have taken possession of the resources that belong to Christ and you consume them aimlessly. Don’t you realize that you are going to be held accountable? (Homily 48 on Matthew)

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Old Whine in New Wineskins

IGWTIn 1797 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.” From its creation, the USA 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.

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. A truly Christian nation would not enslave people, nor would it practice ethnic or cultural cleansing. It would not steal land that belongs to others, nor oppress and exploit other nations. It would not go to war to extend its territory or influence, nor show little to no concern for the poor among its own people. 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 the 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 18th-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 19th and early 20th 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 lazily kvetching about the exploding secularism of our society, how about 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 attitutude 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…”

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