A Forgiveness That Kills Death

Robert Godwin

When Mark Zuckerberg first unveiled Facebook Live, he touted it as a service that allowed people to express themselves in “raw” and “visceral” ways:

Because it’s live, there is no way it can be curated. And because of that it frees people up to be themselves. It’s live; it can’t possibly be perfectly planned out ahead of time. Somewhat counterintuitively, it’s a great medium for sharing raw and visceral content.

This is true.  But I’m not sure broadcasting a murder on social media is what Mr. Zuckerberg had in mind.  But on Easter Sunday, last weekend, this is exactly what happened.

74-year-old Robert Godwin Sr. was walking home from an Easter meal with his family when he was stopped by Steve Stephens.  Before Mr. Godwin knew what was happening, he was dead and Stephens was on the run.  The following day, Stephens was spotted in Pennsylvania at a McDonald’s drive-thru.  When police took pursuit, Stephens took his own life.

This is a shocking story.  But it took an even more shocking turn when Mr. Godwin’s family was interviewed by CNN’s Anderson Cooper.  The anchor asked the family what they learned from their father.  They answered:

The thing that I would take away the most from my father is he taught us about God, how to fear God, how to love God, and how to forgive.  And each one of us forgives the killer, murderer.

Clearly shocked, Mr. Cooper asked, “You do?”  To which the family responded:

We want to wrap our arms around him…And I promise you I could not do that if I didn’t know God, if I didn’t know Him as my God and my Savior…It’s just what our parents taught us. It wasn’t that they just taught it, they didn’t just talk it, they lived it. People would do things to us and we would say, “Dad, are you really going to forgive them, really?” and he would say, “Yes, we have to.” My dad would be really proud of us, and he would want this from us.

Mr. Cooper, amazed at this family’s willingness to forgive a man who murdered their father in cold blood, wrapped up the segment by saying:

You talked about how your friends would say they wish they were Godwins.  I know a lot of people watching tonight – and certainly I speak for myself – I wish I was a Godwin right now because you all represent your dad very well.

Jesus famously said, “Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you” (Matthew 5:44).  Anyone who has ever had to face down an enemy has probably found this to be a nice sentiment in theory, but painfully difficult to practice.  And yet, Jesus commanded us to live this way because He knew it was the only way to confront sin and destroy it.  When someone sins against us and we retaliate, we have only traded injury for injury.  But when someone sins against us and we love and forgive them, as the Godwins did, we have taken their sin and, instead of meeting it with something similar, we destroy it with something better.

Easter is a day when we celebrate life.  Steve Stephens tried to turn it into a day of death.  But death lost when the Godwin family forgave.  For where there is forgiveness, there is life.  After all, how do you think we receive eternal life?  Only through the forgiveness of sins that comes in Christ.

“God has rescued us from the dominion of darkness and brought us into the kingdom of the Son He loves, in whom we have redemption, the forgiveness of sins.” (Colossians 1:13-14)

April 24, 2017 at 5:15 am 1 comment

Death Is Dying

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Even as we celebrated Easter yesterday, it was difficult not to be burdened by the death we see around us every day.  This past Sunday, 44 worshipers lost their lives at St. George Church in Tanta and St. Mark’s Cathedral in Alexandria, both in Egypt, when ISIS suicide bombers detonated themselves in the middle of these churches’ Palm Sunday worship services.  Closer to home, in San Bernardino, a man signed himself into an elementary school at the front desk and then proceeded to walk into the classroom where his estranged wife was teaching and fatally shoot her while also wounding two students, one of whom later died from the injuries he sustained.  After his shooting spree, he took his own life.  Then, of course, earlier this month, there were the sarin gas attacks by the Assad regime against his own people in northwestern Syria.  Death is all around us.

And this is why I am so glad we get to celebrate Easter.

The story of Easter is a story of many things.  It is a story of joy, as the people close to Jesus realize the man who they thought was dead has risen.  It is a story of fear, as the women who come to the tomb that first Easter morning encounter angelic beings who startle and scare them with their fantastic message.  But it is also a story of subversion.  It is a story of subverting all those who prefer death to life.

N.T. Wright explains the subversive nature of Easter well:

Who…was it who didn’t want the dead to be raised?  Not simply the intellectually timid or the rationalists.  It was, and is, those in power, the social and intellectual tyrants and bullies; the Caesars who would be threatened by a Lord of the world who had defeated the tyrant’s last weapon, death itself; the Herods who would be horrified at the postmortem validation of the true King of the Jews.[1]

In a world where terrorist attacks, school shootings, and chemical bombings instill fear into all who see and hear about them, the resurrection of Jesus reminds us that, in the words of the prophet, “no weapon forged against [us] will prevail” (Isaiah 54:17), even if these weapons kill us, for “the one who raised the Lord Jesus from the dead will also raise us” (2 Corinthians 4:14).  A tyrant may kill us.  But God will raise us.  This is Easter’s promise.  And this is why it is so good to celebrate Easter at a time like this.  For Easter reminds us that even if this world full of death, we need not fear.  Christ has risen.  And because He has risen, we will rise.

Take that, death.

___________________________________

[1] N.T. Wright, Surprised by Hope (New York:  HarperOne, 2008), 75.

April 17, 2017 at 5:15 am 2 comments

Mike Pence and Dining with Your Spouse

58th Presidential Inauguration

It can be fascinating to watch which stories bubble to the top of our cultural conversation.  In a news cycle where the repeal and replacement of the Affordable Care Act, a battle royal over a Supreme Court nominee, questions about the surveillance of political actors, terrible chemical attacks against Syrian civilians by a feral Assad regime, and ominous sabre rattling from the North Koreans have dominated the headlines, a heated debate has arisen over a profile piece in The Washington Post on Karen Pence, wife of Vice President Mike Pence, which cited an interview with The Hill from 2002, where the vice president, following the lead of the vaunted evangelist and pastor Billy Graham, explained that he would never eat alone with a woman who was not his wife or one of his close relatives.  Writing in a separate article for The Washington Post, Laura Turner warned:

It will be difficult for women to flourish in the White House if the vice president will not meet with them.  Women cannot flourish in the church if their pastors consistently treat them as sexual objects to be avoided. The Billy Graham Rule locates the fault of male infidelity in the bodies of women, but “flee from temptation” does not mean “flee from women.”

I agree with Ms. Turner that it is important not to confuse fleeing from temptation with fleeing from women.  Sin is what is to be feared.  Not women.  Nevertheless, because of my vocation as a husband and because of my position as a pastor, I have chosen a practice that echoes that of the vice president.  I will not dine alone with a woman who is not my wife or close family member.  I will also not meet alone with women after hours at the congregation where I serve.

Why do I maintain such a practice?

It is not primarily because I am terrified that if I were ever to be alone with a woman, I would not be able to restrain myself from sexual immorality, though I am not nearly so naïve as to believe that I could never fall prey to a compromising situation.  I know far too well from Scripture that my heart is woefully depraved and deceitful and I have seen far too many marriages and ministries wrecked by sexual immorality to believe that I am somehow so spiritually privileged to be above certain kinds of sin.  I also know that merely jettisoning private dining appointments will not expunge me of my sinful nature.  No pious-looking constraint, no matter how carefully contrived, can regenerate a sinful heart.  Only Jesus can do that.  Sin avoidance is not the primary reason I have the practice I do.

I have the practice I do primarily because I respect women, most especially my wife.  I know that if another woman were to invite me to dinner, one on one, that would make my wife – as well as me – uncomfortable.  I also know the people with whom I work well enough to know that if I were to invite a female staff member at our church to dinner one on one, that would more than likely make her feel extraordinarily uncomfortable.  I do occasionally meet privately with women in my office when personal pastoral care needs call for such meetings.  But even then, there are other staff members right outside my office door working through the daily flurry of church activities.  And I have never had any trouble meeting with everyone I need to meet with on campus with others around rather than off campus in one on one settings.

I also I maintain the practice I do because I do want to do my best to remain “above reproach,” as Scripture asks men in my vocation to be.  An unfounded accusation of immoral behavior with another person would not only compromise the credibility of my ministry, it would compromise that other person’s credibility as well.  As much as I desire to protect the integrity of my ministry, I also have a deep desire to protect the reputations of those I know and care about.  Protecting others’ reputations is simply part and parcel of being not only a colleague and a pastor, but a friend.

Ms. Turner appeals to Jesus in support of the stance she takes in her Washington Post piece:

Jesus consistently elevated the dignity of women and met with them regularly, including His meeting with a Samaritan woman in the middle of the day. Scholars suggest that the woman would have gone to the well in the noon heat to avoid interacting with her fellow townspeople, who would have gone at a cooler time of day. Samaritans and Jews were not particularly fond of each other. Yet this Jewish man met this Samaritan woman in broad daylight, asked her for water from the well, and in turn offered her eternal life. The woman, widely thought to be an adulteress, had been married five times and had no husband when she met Jesus. Yet He didn’t flinch from meeting with her. He didn’t suggest that His reputation was more important than her eternal soul. As a result, she lives on as one of the heroes of the faith, a woman who evangelized to her entire city.

All of this is completely true.  But evangelizing someone in broad daylight when Your disciples do not seem to be far away is a far cry from having dinner alone, away and apart from any accountability.  The latter can be a coup de grâce to one’s integrity.  The former is just a coup of grace for a weary soul.

There may indeed be times, as the case of Jesus and the Samaritan woman illustrates, when it is necessary to spend time with someone of the opposite gender privately, especially for the sake of the gospel.  But there are also many more times when it is good not to, especially if a task at work can be accomplished just as well with others around.

May we have the wisdom to discern which times are which.

April 10, 2017 at 5:15 am Leave a comment

A Tenuous Time

Church Steeple

It wasn’t supposed to be this way.  As Christianity faded from prominence in the West, a secularized culture was supposed to emerge to take its place that was more tolerant, more enlightened, more harmonious, and less politically polarized than any other society in the history of the world.  But as Peter Beinart explains in an excellent article for The Atlantic, what has emerged as Christianity’s western influence has waned is nothing of the sort:

As Americans have left organized religion, they haven’t stopped viewing politics as a struggle between “us” and “them.” Many have come to define us and them in even more primal and irreconcilable ways.[1]

Beinart goes on to explain how the traditional battle lines between conservatives and liberals have shifted in the wake of this irreligious surge.  Specifically, with regard to the spiritually skeptical alt-right, Beinart notes:

They tend to redraw the boundaries of identity, de-emphasizing morality and religion and emphasizing race and nation…

The alt-right is ultra-conservatism for a more secular age. Its leaders like Christendom, an old-fashioned word for the West. But they’re suspicious of Christianity itself, because it crosses boundaries of blood and soil. As a college student, the alt-right leader Richard Spencer was deeply influenced by Friedrich Nietzsche, who famously hated Christianity. Radix, the journal Spencer founded, publishes articles with titles like “Why I Am a Pagan.” One essay notes that “critics of Christianity on the Alternative Right usually blame it for its universalism.”

It turns out that as faith allegiances have crumbled, a universal concern for others in the spirit of the Good Samaritan has too.  Christianity’s cross-ethnic, cross-cultural, and international appeal has proven too much for the self-interested – or, perhaps more accurately, self-obsessed – spirit of our age.

As Christians, we must think through this irreligious political surge and provide a faithful witness in the midst of it.  We also must be prepared to live in a very tricky tension because of this surge.  As Rod Dreher explains in his newly released book, The Benedict Option:

Faithful Christians may have to choose between being a good American and being a good Christian.  In a nation where “God and country” are so entwined, the idea that one’s citizenship might be at radical odds with one’s faith is a new one.[2]

Dreher’s analysis of the tension between being a citizen of a nation and being a child of God is true, but it is also somewhat amnesic.  He is right that there is indeed an increasing tension.  But he is wrong that this tension is anything new.  Tensions between God and government have been longstanding, even in our society.  And these tensions should not surprise us.  It was a Roman governmental official, after all, who approved the request for Jesus’ crucifixion.  Government has, for a great portion of history, had a problem with God, especially when people put Him before it.

The New Testament understands that this tension between God and government will never be fully resolved, at least on this side of the Last Day.  While we may give to Caesar what is his, God also demands what is His, and when what Caesar wants contradicts what God wants, conflict ensues.  Just ask Daniel, or Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego, or the apostles.  Our calling, as Christians, is to resist the urge to comfortably resolve this tension, whether that be by condemning this world and cloistering ourselves off from it or by compromising our faith for the lucrative perks of political power.  Our calling is to live in this tension both faithfully and evangelically – holding fast to what we confess while lovingly sharing with others what we believe.

Beinart concludes his article:

For years, political commentators dreamed that the culture war over religious morality that began in the 1960s and ’70s would fade. It has. And the more secular, more ferociously national and racial culture war that has followed is worse.

Yes, indeed, it is worse – which is why we, as the Church, need to offer something better.  We need to offer something loving.  We need to over something hopeful.  We need to offer something reconciling.  We need to offer something that continually and conscientiously questions our nation’s nearsighted political orthodoxies for the sake of a time-tested theological orthodoxy.  We need to offer Jesus, unabashedly and unashamedly.  This is our mission.  I pray we are up to it.

______________________________________

[1] Peter Beinart, “Breaking Faith,” The Atlantic (April 2017).

[2] Rod Dreher, The Benedict Option (New York:  Sentinel, 2017), 89.

April 3, 2017 at 5:15 am 1 comment

Safety in a World Full of Terror

Police tapes off Parliament Square after reports of loud bangs, in London

Credit: Time Magazine

First came a ban on most electronic devices – including laptops and tablets – on flights into the United States and United Kingdom from certain Muslim-majority countries.  Then, last Wednesday, terror struck London as Khalid Masood, a British-born citizen apparently inspired by online terrorist propaganda, drove an SUV into pedestrians on the Westminster Bridge, leaving four dead and forty injured.  After crashing his vehicle outside Parliament, he ran, fatally stabbing a police officer before he himself was fatally shot by law enforcement.

Certainly, weeks like these remind us of the fearful reality of the world in which we live.  With the continuous news of terror attacks and warnings, it is no surprise that when Chapman University surveyed Americans concerning their fears, 41% said they were afraid of terror attacks while another 38.5% admitted they were worried about being the victim of a terror attack.

It can be frustrating that, despite our best efforts, we cannot seem to make this world as safe as we might like it to be.  In a day and age that seems and feels scary, here are a few reminders for Christians about safety.

Safety is important. 

Mosaic law set up what were known as “cities of refuge” for ancient Israelites who stood accused of manslaughter.  The goal of these cities was “safety” for these accidental killers (Deuteronomy 19:4), because, if a man killed another man – even if unintentionally – the victim’s relatives might seek the killer’s life in revenge without due process.  Keeping people safe from those who would seek to unjustly harm them, then, was a priority in Israel.  It should be the same with us.

Whether it be the security of our homeland, or the plight of refugees halfway across the world, tending to the safety of others is part and parcel of having compassion on others.  Thus, we can be thankful for the intelligence agencies who seek to keep our nation safe along with the relief agencies who tend to the safety and even the basic survival needs of endangered peoples throughout our world.

We should pray for safety.

The biblical authors have no qualms with praying for their safety and for the safety of others.  The apostle Paul, for instance, knowing that he might encounter some opposition to his ministry in Judea, writes to the Romans, asking them to “pray that I may be kept safe from the unbelievers in Judea” (Romans 15:31).

Martin Luther, in his morning prayer, thanked God that He had kept him “this night from all harm and danger” and, in his evening prayer, thanked God that He had “graciously kept [him] this day.”  In the same vein, an alternate version of the famous children’s bedtime prayer reads:

Now I lay me down to sleep,
I pray the Lord my soul to keep.
Guide me safely through the night,
Wake me with the morning light.

Prayers for safety abound.  Praying for our safety, the safety of our families, the safety of our nation, and safety across the world is, at its root, a holy and righteous prayer for peace.  It ought to be a regular part of any Christian’s prayer life.

Safety cannot be our only concern.

As blessed a gift as safety may be, it cannot be our only concern.  Sometimes, we are called to surrender our own safety for the sake of the gospel.  This is why Paul and Barnabas, in a letter to the Christian church at Antioch, honor those “who have risked their lives for the name of our Lord Jesus Christ” (Acts 15:26).  This is why each of the Twelve disciples, save one, was martyred for what he believed.  A concern for safety that refuses to take a risk for the sake of the gospel does not treat safety as a gift from God to be celebrated, but as an idol that needs to be repented of.  The concern for our own safety must never become greater than our commitment to Christ.

Perfect safety is found only in Christ.

As each terror attack reminds us, we cannot ultimately ensure our own safety.  Only God can.  The Psalmist wisely prays, “You alone, LORD, make me dwell in safety” (Psalm 4:8).   Paul similarly declares, “The Lord will rescue me from every evil attack and will bring me safely to His heavenly kingdom” (2 Timothy 4:18).  The Greek word for “safely” in this verse is sozo, the word for “salvation.”  As concerned as we might be with safety in this life, Christ is finally concerned with bringing us safely into the eternal life of salvation.  Thus, we should never become so concerned with temporary safety now that we forget about the perfect safety of salvation, won for us in Christ and given to us by the grace of Christ.  In the words of John Newton’s great hymn:

Through many dangers, toils, and snares
I have already come;
‘Tis grace hath brought me safe thus far,
And grace will lead me home.
 

The safety our eternal home is the safety we finally seek, for it is the only safety that can never be shattered.

March 27, 2017 at 6:18 am Leave a comment

God and Country in Order

Screen Shot 2017-03-16 at 9.44.48 PM

In his book, Destroyer of the gods, Larry Hurtado writes about why the Christian claim that there is only one God was especially offensive to those in the ancient Roman world.  His analysis is worth quoting at length:

In the eyes of ancient pagans, the Jews’ refusal to worship any deity but their own, though often deemed bizarre and objectionable, was basically regarded as one, rather distinctive, example of national peculiarities… 

The early Christian circles such as those addressed by Paul…could not claim any traditional ethnic privilege to justify their refusal to worship the gods.  For, prior to their Christian conversion, these individuals, no doubt, had taken part in the worship of the traditional gods, likely as readily as other pagans of the time among their families, friends, and wider circles of their acquaintances…

Of course, a pagan might choose to convert fully to Judaism as a proselyte, which meant becoming a Jew and ceasing to be a member of his or her own ancestral people.  By such a drastic act, proselytes effectively changed their ethnic status and so could thereafter try to justify a refusal to participate in worshipping the pagan gods as expressive of their new ethnic membership and religious identity.  But this was not the move that Paul’s pagan converts made… 

Indeed, Paul was at pains to emphasize that his pagan converts must not become Jewish proselytes.  For Paul saw his mission to “Gentiles” as bringing to fulfillment biblical prophecies that the nations of the world would forsake idols and, as Gentiles, would renounce their idolatry and embrace the one true God.  That is, unlike Jewish proselytes, Paul’s pagan converts did not change their ethnic identity.[1]

Categories of ethnicity and faith were not clearly delineated in the ancient world.  Instead, they were broadly interchangeable.  To be a part of the Jewish nation was to adhere to the Jewish faith.  To be a Roman Gentile was to be a worshiper of the Roman gods.  There was no concept of religious freedom like we know it today – where a person can worship and live out their convictions freely quite apart from their nationality.  Thus, part of what made Christianity so offensive to the ancient pagans was that it began to decouple a presumed synonymy between ethnicity and faith.  A person’s ethnicity, in the Christian conception, no longer informed ipso facto a person’s faith.  A person could be a Roman Gentile and a Christian monotheist.

Not only did Christianity decouple ethnicity from faith, it actually claimed that a person’s ethnicity was subservient to faith!  Again, to quote Hurtado:

Paul writes, “There is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male or female; for all of you are one in Christ Jesus” (Galatians 3:28)…Whether you were Jew or Greek, slave or free, male or female, this was now to be secondary to your status “in Christ”…Irrespective of their particular ethnic, social, or biological categories, therefore, all believers were now to take on a new and supervening identity in Christ.[2]

According to Paul, Christ comes before clan.

Like the ancient Romans, we too have a tendency to couple our ethnicity with our faith, or, to put it in another, more recognizable, way, to couple our country with our God.  When this happens, however, it is almost always our God who winds up serving our country.  When it appears particularly expedient or reassuring in the midst of a dangerous and changing world, we can be all too willing to sacrifice fidelity to our faith for the prosperity of our nation.  Hurtado offers us an important reminder:  though we may retain our ethnicities and citizenships and still be Christians, ethnicities and citizenships are subservient to faith.  Faith cannot be sacrificed for the sake of the State.  Furthermore, as we are learning our increasingly secularized society, faith is often at odds with the goals of the State.  Everything from the legal enshrinement of the sexual revolution to the often raucous and raunchy rhetoric of our most recent presidential campaign demonstrates this.  So let’s makes sure we keep the State and our faith straight.  Faith comes first.  After all, the God of our faith will continue to stand, long after the State has fallen.

_______________________

[1] Larry Hurtado, Destroyer of the gods (Waco:  Baylor University Press, 2016), 53, 55.

[2] Ibid., 55-56.

March 20, 2017 at 5:00 am Leave a comment

Power, Knowledge, and the C.I.A.

President George W Bush visits CIA Headquarters, March 20, 2001.

Credit: BBC

When news broke this past Tuesday that WikiLeaks had released thousands of pages of C.I.A. intelligence documents, government officials scurried anxiously to analyze what kind of danger these leaks would present. The New York Times outlined the contents of the leaked documents, which revealed that the CIA had developed extraordinarily advanced methods of spying on even state-of-the-art encrypted electronic communication:

Sophisticated software tools and techniques used by the agency [can] break into smartphones, computers and even Internet-connected televisions…

In one revelation that may especially trouble the tech world if confirmed, WikiLeaks said that the C.I.A. and allied intelligence services have managed to compromise both Apple and Android smartphones, allowing their officers to bypass the encryption on popular services such as Signal, WhatsApp and Telegram. According to WikiLeaks, government hackers can penetrate smartphones and collect “audio and message traffic before encryption is applied.”

The New York Times also noted that the C.I.A. had tools at its disposal to spy on “Skype; Wi-Fi networks; documents in PDF format; and even commercial antivirus programs of the kind used by millions of people to protect their computers.”  In other words, if a person is connected in some way to the Internet, the C.I.A. can see.

Of course, the C.I.A. maintains that it uses such tools not to spy on Americans, but to gather much needed information about communications between suspected terrorists.  C.I.A. spokesman Ryan Tripani explains that the intelligence agency:

…is legally prohibited from conducting electronic surveillance targeting individuals here at home, including our fellow Americans, and C.I.A. does not do so…C.I.A.’s job to be innovative, cutting-edge, and the first line of defense in protecting this country from enemies abroad.

The ethics of intelligence gathering have always been complex.  On the one hand, the benefits of discovering terrorist plots before they are launched cannot be overstated.  Saving lives is always preferable to responding to carnage.  On the other hand, when imperfect people – even when they are in government and are constricted by the regulations of government – get a hold of great power, the possibility always exists for corruption.  These leaks have brought this tension, once again, to the forefront of our public conversation.

For all the power C.I.A. officials have to hack into people’s communications and for all the information they are able to garner from these communications, the C.I.A. is still limited in its power and in its knowledge.  It cannot do everything or know everything.  This is why Christians can be thankful that we serve a God who has not only great power, but all power.  He is omnipotent.  And He has not only much knowledge, but all knowledge.  He is omniscient.  But frankly, all this would be cold comfort if God was as we are.  If He was imperfect, the specter of what He could – and probably would – do with His total power and knowledge would only terrify us.  Thankfully, God has not only all power and all knowledge, but all goodness as well.  He is omnibenevolent.  Thus, His power and knowledge do not come with the same concerns the C.I.A.’s do, for His power and knowledge will never be misused or abused.

The moral ineptitude that would lead WikiLeaks to fecklessly release documents that would compromise our national security should be forcefully denounced.  We did not need these illegally obtained documents to know that there are ethical concerns and quandaries when it comes to intelligence gathering.  But at the same time these ethical concerns and quandaries endure, we can be thankful that we have a God who uses both His power and knowledge perfectly.  His wise knowledge is unmatched by any nation’s intelligence.  And His protective power is better than any nation’s security.  So why we might be thankful for the generally good work of the C.I.A., we can wholly trust in a God who knows exactly what He’s doing – for us and for our world.

March 13, 2017 at 4:29 am 1 comment

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