Monthly Archives: December 2015

Learning to Love by Loving Our Enemies

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

How God Loves

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Jesus and the Qur’an

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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The Tyranny of the Righteous (Part 2)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

A City Upon a Hill

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

A Pyrrhic Victory

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

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

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

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

Continuing the Culture War

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

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

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

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

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

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

Fresh Air Instead of Fresh Ire

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

In a 1981 interview Billy Graham told Parade magazine,

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

 

Notes:

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

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

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

[iv] Winthrop, 17.

[v] Winthrop, 18.

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

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

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

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

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How to Reduce Gun Violence

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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