Tag Archives: American Christianity

American Christianity’s Dark Colonial Past (L’histoire sombre de la chrétienté aux É.-U.)

At its annual meeting this week, the Southern Baptist Convention faltered in its condemnation of racism. This Guardian article explains why the failure is more the rule than the exception.  (Lors de sa réunion cette semaine, la Convention baptiste du Sud a été presque incapable de condamner le racisme. Cet article explique pourquoi cet échec est plus souvent la règle que l’exception.)

“It would be a mistake to interpret this fiasco simply as a misstep. The Southern Baptist Convention’s reluctance to condemn racism is not only true to its history but it reflects how white supremacy is built into the very DNA of American Christianity.”

“…Christianity came into America enslaving black people, dispossessing indigenous people of their lands, and committing sexual violence. In doctrine and practice, it justified all of this. Christian faith consolidated itself around the bodies of white, propertied men while dehumanizing others. Trump’s platform might not be a grotesque distortion of American Christianity as much as it is its sins come home to roost”

“At some point, it becomes naïve to see the white supremacy in American Christianity as an exception when it has been the rule. What is needed is more than reform and more than the correction of bad actions attached to otherwise innocent beliefs. Instead, the only alternative is a revolutionary Christianity that becomes something it has never been in the Americas; what is needed is the blossoming of a new kind of faith.”

Read full article here.

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Long Past Time for Christians to Stand Up

Something very sick, creepy, and evil has taken over the Republican party. It makes one’s flesh crawl. A GOP congressional candidate body slams a reporter, then gets elected. GOP lawmakers at the Texas state house call ICE on peaceful protesters, who just happen to have brown skin. One lawmaker threatens to “put a bullet” through his Democratic opponent’s head. A grisly hate crime is perpetrated in Portland and the present administration has to be vehemently coaxed to make a statement denouncing such acts. The violence, intolerance, racism, misogyny, and lack of respect for the poor and suffering are reaching fever pitch, empowering the sickest elements of our society, and one gets the impression from their silence that many of our elected officials actually find it refreshing. Many Christians helped vote these people into office; they are thus partly responsible. If what calls itself “the church” in this country does not stand up and denounce this brand of behavior, one can only assume it is because they approve.

In the U.S., white supremacy and fascist movements have a long history of Christian support. In the 1930s fascism grew apace here, largely with the help of Christians who believed in an America for whites only. It was only WWII (when Hitler and Mussolini became the enemy) that put a stop to their advancement. But they have never entirely disappeared, just gone underground, waiting for the right moment and the right person to empower their voices. Sadly, such support merely demonstrates the complete lack of Christianity in those who call themselves Christians.

Let’s face it, for a significant percentage of Christians (is it a majority? I don’t know. I hope not), things like democracy, free speech, human rights, and the free practice of  religion are sacrosanct when it comes to themselves. When it comes to others’ exercising those same rights, however, many Christians are not so enthusiastic. Nor, really when it comes down to it, are they that committed to democratic ideals. It seems they would much rather have an iron-willed, jack-booted dictator to kick them in the ass and promote “law and order,” (i.e., silence dissent, show minorities their place, and make other undesirables disappear), than to live in a free society where tolerance is required.

Let’s put it simply. Those who call themselves Christians, yet despise everything Jesus stands for (such as mercy, tolerance, kindness, peace, generosity, love for the poorest and weakest, including immigrants), are deeply mistaken. They actually have nothing in common with Jesus, except that they try to use his name to justify their putrid hate and ignorance. To be a follower of Jesus Christ, one must follow his teachings and walk in his ways. The apostle John makes that clear in his first epistle (1 Jn 1:5,6; 2;3,4; 3:16,17).

It is long past time for Christians to stand up and denounce what is being done in their name. If they will not separate themselves from this movement, then they must be prepared to share in its judgment. For “it is time for judgment to begin with the household of God” ( 1 Ptr 4:17).

 

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How to FINALLY make America Great: Author and pastor has 11 ways to stop the rhetoric and live a Christian life

[The following interview appeared in the Feb 6th edition of Spark Magazine, a quarterly publication of the Winston Salem Journal.]

By Jodi Stephenson Sarver

Feb 6, 2017

The Rev. S.J. Munson’s name might be familiar to readers of the Winston-Salem Journal’s Opinion pages as an occasional letter writer. Writing is one of his passions, and he is the author of two books, Christ Held Hostage and The Treasure of Israel, as well as plays, theological articles and fiction.         

          His other passion is ministry, and for three decades he has been an outspoken activist with a deep concern for the issues of poverty and justice. After years of identifying as a conservative, Munson had what he calls a “political epiphany” during the 2000 presidential election. He discerned that issues such as abortion, same-sex marriage and prayer in school became the hot-button topics that politicians kept using every two to four years to hijack Christianity, exploit voters and win elections, he says. He checked into liberal candidates, and he found similar problems in how their platforms meshed with biblical principles. He looked to independent candidates, and felt that they fared no better. Like Goldilocks in search of the right bed, Munson felt as if none of the political parties fit “just right” with Christ’s teachings.
          “Jesus is neither Republican or Democrat, conservative or liberal. You can’t classify him,” Munson explains. “I can safely say that Jesus never conceived that the church would be joined at the hip with one political party or another.”

          In his book Christ Held Hostage, Munson explains that political campaigns and the corporations that fund them politicize issues that “point a finger at others for being the source of our nation’s problems” and never make most Americans face their own complicity in a corrupt and unjust system.

          He decided it was time to focus on the issues that are most prevalent in the gospels: poverty, injustice and caring for the weakest members of society and then support the behaviors, policies and candidates in line with those teachings, regardless of party affiliation. What follows are Munson’s ideas about how Americans can challenge their biases and start the process of making this country great.

          Don’t Tolerate Intolerance. More than 85 percent of American churches are still mostly segregated, according to a 2014 study by LifeWay Research and corroborated by the Brookings Institute. It’s a passive form of racism when we segregate to worship, and it’s not reflective of how heaven will be, Munson explains.

          “The church looks all the more out of touch when it doesn’t reflect its community,” he says. In Acts 7, the ancient church was also confronted with the problem of cultural intolerance. A committee was formed, and church leaders decided that the best way to defeat intolerance was to transfer power from the current ruling church group to the outsiders.

          “A great way to diffuse racism is by transferring power to the powerless. The church has to be proactive and promote people of different races to power positions,” Munson says. “The church should not be a haven for racism, misogyny or xenophobia. It should be a place where our bigotries are exposed, not massaged.”

           Work for Peace Not War. How to treat other people … our enemies, immigrants, refugees, the poor … is all covered in Old Testament law and New Testament gospels, where compassion and mercy are foundational elements.

          “We have to disenthrall ourselves of violence, hate, greed and empire,” Munson says. As a country, he believes that Americans have become desensitized to what’s done in our name around the world by our leaders.

          “We must realize that those dots on a map are real people crying out for food, jobs and life. Isn’t being concerned about the victims of war a family value? If we don’t hear them, how do we expect that God will hear our cries?” Munson asks. “How can we want food, jobs and life for our family but not for others? Sabre-rattling is not Christianity. It’s not conservative versus liberal. It’s right versus wrong.”

          Build Bridges Not Walls. Many people know the parable of the Samaritan helping the Jew, but the cultural significance of this act can be lost today. He got him to a safe place and paid for his medical care, despite harboring deep-seated dislike and distrust.

“It’s a radical teaching,” Munson says. “Not only is our enemy our neighbor, but he is also the example of how to behave.” When Jesus talks about loving your enemies, he’s talking about people who may want to hurt you, he says. “That may seem unpatriotic, but we’re Christians first. Our citizenship is not of this world. We have to choose our heavenly citizenship.”

          Be an Involved Citizen. Have you seen Finding Nemo? At the end of the film, Nemo and Marlin are reunited, but Dory and other fish are caught in a trawler’s fishing net. Nemo and Marlin mobilize the fish to swim down, and the combined pressure of all their fins swimming in the same direction snaps the net.

          “Swimming together is how change happens. Voting every two to four years is not enough to make positive change happen,” Munson says, adding that as citizens we have to get involved. “Positive change happens when like-minded people band together and demand change,” he adds. Throughout this country’s history, Christians have banded together to take on issues including workers’ rights during the industrial revolution, women’s suffrage and child labor. “It’s not up to our president to change the country. It’s up to us to step up and work together to change something,” he says.

          Another civic duty citizens have is to ensure that the information they’re reading is coming from reputable sources. Using reliable and vetted sources from ethical journalists helps ensure people aren’t hearing propaganda, Munson says. “Don’t just believe what you see, hear or read. Check it out. Truth isn’t relative.”

          Ditch the Partisan Politics. When President George Washington left office, he gave a farewell address that is amazingly prophetic. In it he says that partisan politics has the ability to destroy a republic, serving as a distraction for leaders and agitator of the public, and it “opens the door to foreign influence and corruption” and causes men to “seek security and repose in the absolute power of an individual” who in turn brings about the end of the republic.

          “Bailing out of the political party system is one of the best things I’ve ever done. I’m not invested in the party. I’m invested in the truth and what’s best for our country,” he says.

          Rediscover Humility. Humility should be an important aspect of Christian life, but there seems to be an idea among Christians in America that they need to be in control to effect change, but this is not a biblical concept, Munson explains.

“Jesus said the greatest among you will be the servant. He led by example, and that example is to be servant.” History shows that change isn’t effective when it comes from top down by edict, he says.

          “Christianity is much more effective when we live scripture and become a moral influence than a political power. Political power just makes us hated.” Munson believes that atheism and disillusionment are on the rise in U.S., and it’s mostly due to political partisanship.

          Become an Ethical Consumer. Many Americans love discounts, inexpensive products and finding the best deal. But what’s behind the “sale” sign is likely the product of child labor, sweatshops or even slavery.

          “We have a discount culture, and we want to get the most for our money, but we need to keep justice in mind. Is what we’re buying the fruit of injustice?” Munson asks. Although fair trade clothing is expensive compared to going to discount stores, thrift stores and garage sales are good shopping options, he says.

           “Every purchase we make is a blow for or against justice, so be informed where products come from,” he advises. A good website to refer to is greenamerica.org. Another area of financial responsibility for Christians is in retirement choices. “It’s important to do business with companies that are trying to take a stand against bad practices,” he says, and he lists ussif.org as a resource for people to use to find socially responsible investments or SRIs. “They’re not perfect, but they’re companies that are trying to be ethical and take a stand.”

          Care for God’s Creation. “From page one of the Bible we’re told to take care of the environment. It should be a no-brainer for Christians,” Munson says. “And how do you take care of something that’s not yours? You take special care of it because you have to give it back.”

          Educating ourselves about the cost of what we consume and, for example, purchasing grass-fed local beef, would have a huge effect on reducing greenhouse gases. “In Revelations 11:18, God says he will destroy those who destroy the earth. If our interpretation of the scripture causes us to disrespect people or the Earth, then we need a new interpretation because it’s not following the spirit of Christ,” he explains.

Stand up to Corporate Greed. Have you seen the bumper sticker that quotes part of 2 Chronicles 7:14? “If my people will humble themselves and pray …”

          The ellipses replace an essential part of the verse, Munson says. It’s “turn from their wicked ways,” so what are our wicked ways, he asks? They are the corporate sins that we participate in because we’re part of a system, Munson explains.

          “Greed is the most serious threat to our survival as a species, and it permeates society at every level,” he says. The Bible has a lot to say about greed, and Munson refers to James 5 where Jesus’ brother chastises the rich for cheating workers and fattening themselves at the expense of the poor.

          Greed is also the main reason that Sodom was destroyed; its citizens were arrogant, overfed and unconcerned about the needy, he says. “We need to reread scriptures with new eyes and discover what’s important to God and why. We have cultural, political and religious filters that we need to remove and discover God’s priorities.”

          We’re in This Together. Another area where political leaders have hijacked Christianity, Munson notes, is by painting America as “the city on the hill,” a metaphor from Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount.

          The phrase comes from a sermon delivered by Gov. Jonathan Winthrop to Puritans sailing to the New World, except he said that in order to become a shining city on a hill, its people had to be governed by justice and mercy, by love and generosity in their relationships and commerce, Munson says. Instead, to Americans it’s come to mean that the U.S. has a God-given destiny to enforce its will around the world and that its policies are supported by God, he explains.

          Relying on Isaiah 58, Winthrop did not envision a society where each member could pull himself up by his own bootstraps, Munson says. “His vision could be achieved only if all worked together, sacrificed, shared with and cared for one another. But I have faith that when the word is preached that the Holy Spirit is present, and people can be transformed,” Munson says.

 

S.J. Munson’s book Christ Held Hostage is designed for group or individual study and is available in paperback and Kindle versions on amazon.com.

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The Christian Right and the Rise of American Fascism

by Chris Hedges

(This article, originally published by theocracywatch.org in November 2004, seems all the more prescient today.)

Dr. James Luther Adams, my ethics professor at Harvard Divinity School , told us that when we were his age, he was then close to 80, we would all be fighting the “Christian fascists.”

The warning, given to me 25 years ago, came at the moment Pat Robertson and other radio and televangelists began speaking about a new political religion that would direct its efforts at taking control of all institutions, including mainstream denominations and the government. Its stated goal was to use the United States to create a global, Christian empire. It was hard, at the time, to take such fantastic rhetoric seriously, especially given the buffoonish quality of those who expounded it. But Adams warned us against the blindness caused by intellectual snobbery. The Nazis, he said, were not going to return with swastikas and brown shirts. Their ideological inheritors had found a mask for fascism in the pages of the Bible.

He was not a man to use the word fascist lightly. He was in Germany in 1935 and 1936 and worked with the underground anti-Nazi church, known as The Confessing Church, led by Dietrich Bonhoeffer. Adams was eventually detained and interrogated by the Gestapo, who suggested he might want to consider returning to the United States . It was a suggestion he followed. He left on a night train with framed portraits of Adolph Hitler placed over the contents inside his suitcase to hide the rolls of home movie film he took of the so-called German Christian Church, which was pro-Nazi, and the few individuals who defied them, including the theologians Karl Barth and Albert Schweitzer. The ruse worked when the border police lifted the top of the suitcases, saw the portraits of the Fuhrer and closed them up again. I watched hours of the grainy black and white films as he narrated in his apartment in Cambridge .

He saw in the Christian Right, long before we did, disturbing similarities with the German Christian Church and the Nazi Party, similarities that he said would, in the event of prolonged social instability or a national crisis, see American fascists, under the guise of religion, rise to dismantle the open society. He despaired of liberals, who he said, as in Nazi Germany, mouthed silly platitudes about dialogue and inclusiveness that made them ineffectual and impotent. Liberals, he said, did not understand the power and allure of evil nor the cold reality of how the world worked. The current hand wringing by Democrats in the wake of the election, with many asking how they can reach out to a movement whose leaders brand them “demonic” and “satanic,” would not have surprised Adams . Like Bonhoeffer, he did not believe that those who would fight effectively in coming times of turmoil, a fight that for him was an integral part of the Biblical message, would come from the church or the liberal, secular elite.

His critique of the prominent research universities, along with the media, was no less withering. These institutions, self-absorbed, compromised by their close relationship with government and corporations, given enough of the pie to be complacent, were unwilling to deal with the fundamental moral questions and inequities of the age. They had no stomach for a battle that might cost them their prestige and comfort. He told me that if the Nazis took over America “60 percent of the Harvard faculty would begin their lectures with the Nazi salute.” This too was not an abstraction. He had watched academics at the University of Heidelberg , including the philosopher Martin Heidegger, raise their arms stiffly to students before class.

Two decades later, even in the face of the growing reach of the Christian Right, his prediction seems apocalyptic. And yet the powerbrokers in the Christian Right have moved from the fringes of society to the floor of the House of Representatives and the Senate. Christian fundamentalists now hold a majority of seats in 36 percent of all Republican Party state committees, or 18 of 50 states, along with large minorities in 81 percent of the rest of the states. Forty-five Senators and 186 members of the House of Representatives earned between an 80 to100 percent approval ratings from the three most influential Christian Right advocacy groups – The Christian Coalition, Eagle Forum, and Family Resource Council. Tom Coburn, the new senator from Oklahoma , has included in his campaign to end abortion a call to impose the death penalty on doctors that carry out abortions once the ban goes into place. Another new senator, John Thune, believes in Creationism. Jim DeMint, the new senator elected from South Carolina , wants to ban single mothers from teaching in schools. The Election Day exit polls found that 22 percent of voters identified themselves as evangelical Christians and Bush won 77 percent of their vote. The polls found that a plurality of voters said that the most important issue in the campaign had been “moral values.”

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Political Opinion and the Whole Person

GSand“I believe that a man’s political opinion is the whole man. Tell me your heart and your head, and I will tell you your political opinions. In whatever rank or party chance has caused us to be born, our character wins out sooner or later over the prejudices and beliefs of our education. Perhaps you will think this a sweeping statement ; but how could I choose to augur well of a mind that clings to certain systems that humaneness rejects ? Show me someone who supports the usefulness of the death penalty, and, however conscientious and enlightened he may be, I defy you to establish any sympathetic connection between him and me. If this person wants to teach me facts that I don’t know, he will not succeed ; for he cannot count on me to trust him.” —George Sand, Indiana (1832)

In her novel Indiana, French author George Sand (1804-1876), whose real name was Amantine-Lucile-Aurore Dupin, ventures to explain why people can fall out so completely over politics. I believe she got it in one. People’s politics do demonstrate who they are, not in the sense of telling everything about them, but by revealing something very deep about the state of their hearts.

I do not believe that Sand means that civil dialogue itself is impossible, or that we should judge or utterly reject those with whom we disagree. She herself was un auteur engagé, a passionate writer with a cause, who spilled a great deal of ink to set forth her political positions and to educate the public mind. Rather, what she is driving at is something more fundamental: that personal politics has deep roots in our soul, bypassing, eventually, even the prejudices of our upbringing, to reveal in its flowering something basic about our personality or even, one might say, our maturity as human beings.

Modern psychology has hypothesized a spectrum of spiritual development which might also be applied in this case. From the work of Fowler and Peck, we see a series of natural stages of spiritual growth from the toddler to the mystic, or from egoism to altruism. Peck observed, however, that some of his patients, for various reasons, got stuck in one stage or another, perhaps because of trauma or fear, or because their context somehow rewarded or reinforced their behavior. Take someone like Donald Trump, for example, whose blustering and boardroom bullying (toddler stage) has made him successful in the corporate world. Sand herself might be characterized as having spent most of her adult life in the adolescent (or rebel) stage, as witnessed by her frequently wearing men’s clothes, smoking tobacco, and having a long series of romantic liaisons with men of genius (poet Alfred de Musset and composer Frederic Chopin being among the most notable).

Sand, however, does not refer to natural stages of spiritual development, but to political opinions, which seem to be a kind of snapshot of a person’s quiddity. I do see a great deal that is true in what she says, although my fear is that taking the conclusion too far might lead us to dismiss individual human beings as monoliths and therefore justify our further polarization as a society.

Yet what would Sand say, for instance, of the “Christian” who pulls into the church parking lot, his SUV plastered with stickers lauding John Galt (a hero in Ayn Rand’s Atlas Shrugged) or The Donald ? Would it be fair or even accurate to infer that the stickers represent the person himself ? I know that none of us is perfect, yet if this person so opposes everything Jesus stands for, why is he at church at all? What is to be done with such people, who seem now to make up such a significant proportion of the church? How are we to have anything in common with them when they are, effectively, our enemies?

Yes, enemies. Not because they vote differently or stand on the other side of some political spectrum, but because they want to empower a man who stands for greed and militarism, the eradication of civility and kindness, the further destruction of our planet, inhumanity toward the poor and immigrants, and racism and bigotry. Is not such an individual an enemy of mankind? I look at them, then I look at my child and ask myself what kind of world she will live in. Will she be denied opportunities because of the color of her skin? Will there even be a habitable world for her to live in? What kind of world are these bigots and climate-deniers preparing for her?

I must say that the current political polarization in this country is frightening. Yet even more disturbing is the support Donald Trump has among so-called “evangelicals.” The word evangelical is code in the media for older white voters who identify themselves as evangelicals. So thankfully, they do not represent the entire evangelical community in this country. The same demographic questions are not used by pollsters when interviewing black or young voters among the left. If they did, they might discover the evangelical world is a lot more diverse than traditionally depicted in the media. Yet it is enough that so many who do consider themselves evangelicals are praising Trump to the skies and are largely responsible for his unyielding success.

It is astounding that these white voters seem not to be put off by the GOP candidate’s blatant racism, misogyny, and contempt for the poor and immigrants. It is impossible to deny that each of these positions is diametrically opposed to the teachings of Jesus Christ and the New Testament. Has the mask finally slipped ? Has the religious right finally found a candidate who (like Archie Bunker on steroids) is willing to say what they are all thinking but have been afraid to say ? Has their concern for abortion and family values all along been but a smoke screen for their real concern, which is the inexorable decline in white dominance ?

Sadly, the latter is probably the real issue (just as the religious right itself sprang into being in the 1970s, not as a religious reaction to Roe v. Wade, but in response to the federal government’s threatening the tax exempt status of Christian universities that resisted racial integration). Yes, in supporting Trump, these voters seem willing to threaten world peace and pull our whole democratic system and the Constitution down around us merely in order to turn back the clock on civil discourse, the rights of women, immigration reform, and economic and racial equality. The slogan “Make America Great Again” is just a dog whistle for a return to white dominance at home and abroad. Talk about a pipe dream. No, Donald, like you, America may be a bully, but she will never be truly great until she is good, just, and fair—both here and over there.

Perhaps worse than the Trump supporters among the church is the church leadership itself who, in general, seem to be taking refuge in silence, afraid to take on the angry crowd. I’m sorry, but church leaders do not get a pass on this. We are pastors, shepherds, commissioned to protect the sheep. Silence does not signify, “I don’t want to get involved.” Silence means consent. For those afraid to wade into politics, let me just say that this is no longer about liberal versus conservative, Democrat versus Republican. This is about right versus wrong, and good versus evil. We have crossed a line in this country, and we now stand at a crossroads, just as the German church did in the early 1930s.

Quoting Micah 7:6, Jesus tells of a time before the end when “a man’s enemies will be the members of his own household” (Mt 10:36). At the same time, he also commands us to love and pray for our enemies. The apostle Paul likewise instructs us with the following strategy:

“And the Lord’s servant must not be quarrelsome but must be kind to everyone, able to teach, not resentful. Opponents must be gently instructed, in the hope that God will grant them repentance leading them to a knowledge of the truth,  and that they will come to their senses and escape from the trap of the devil, who has taken them captive to do his will” (2Tim2:24-26)

Lord, give us the words to speak to our erring, angry, and frightened brothers and sisters.

 

 

 

 

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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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