God and Country in Order

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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

An Honest Hypocrite Is Still a Hypocrite

Last January, four researchers from Yale University published a paper titled, “Why Do We Hate Hypocrites? Evidence for a Theory of False Signaling.”  In it, the researchers note that hypocrisy occupies a special spot of scorn in our society:

Consider the hypocrite – someone who condemns the moral failings of other people but behaves badly him- or herself.  Many commentators have remarked on the “peculiarly repulsive” nature of hypocrisy … What makes hypocrites especially bad is that they both commit a transgression and condemn it. But why is this combination so objectionable?

This final line is the question the researchers attempt to answer in their paper.  They theorize that hypocrites are uniquely despised because:

They dishonestly signal their moral goodness – that is, their condemnation of immoral behavior signals that they are morally upright, but they fail to act in accordance with these signals.

At issue here is what is popularly referred to as “virtue signaling.”  Though this phrase can be defined in different ways, some of which see virtue signaling as inherently and irreducibly hypocritical, the phrase, at least at its most basic level, denotes the public condemnation of a particular practice or position, which is something that most, if not all, people do – at least from time to time.  So, for instance, on this blog, I have publicly written about the dangers of racism.  People would assume, since I have written against racism, that I would expend at least some effort to root out racism in my own life.  If it turned out, however, that I harbored a disdain for a particular race, or if I wantonly turned a deaf ear or a blind eye to the plight of a particular race, people would rightly call me a hypocrite because even though I am publicly promoting one standard of behavior, I am privately living out another.

The Yale researchers continue by explaining that hypocrisy is more dangerous and misleading than what they refer to as “direct lying,” because direct liars do not engage in the moral condemnation of a practice of position.  They simply lie about what they have done, usually to avoid getting into some sort of trouble.  Hypocrites, on the other hand, go out of their way, often without prompting, to condemn the things they secretly do to make themselves look better than they really are.

The researchers found that, broadly speaking, much of our revulsion toward hypocrisy is excised when people are honestly hypocritical – that is, when they “voluntarily [disclose] their transgressions, which offsets the negative evaluation of their hypocrisy.”  Just saying you’re a hypocrite, apparently, is enough to make many people comfortable with your hypocrisy.

Certainly, hypocrisy is roundly condemned in the Scriptures generally and by Jesus specifically.  In Matthew 23, for instance, Jesus offers a series of seven woes.  To whom are His woes directed?  They are directed to hypocrites!  Christians and non-Christians alike agree that hypocrisy is bad.  What is most interesting about this study is not its assertion that hypocrisy is bad, but its revelation about how hypocrisy is addressed and rectified in our society.  Culturally, these researchers note that much of the sting of hypocrisy is salved if one is merely an honest hypocrite.  If a person simply says he doesn’t practice what he preaches, our society turns a sympathetic ear.  The difficulty with this approach, however, is that an honest hypocrite is still a hypocrite.  Hypocrisy needs more than an admission.  It needs a solution.

Christianity says that the admission of a sin like hypocrisy is only the first step in dealing with that sin.  In his Small Catechism, Martin Luther explains that to address sin, one must not only admit, or confess, his sins, he must receive forgiveness from them.  In other words, a hypocrite must see his hypocrisy as an actual sin that needs to be forgiven rather than as a mere embarrassment that only needs to be acknowledged.  In short, a hypocrite must see his hypocrisy as something that is actually bad.  This is why the bridge between confession and forgiveness is repentance, for repentance sees sins not just as embarrassments to be enumerated, but as spiritual dangers to be grieved.

Admitting sin does not solve sin.  Only Jesus’ forgiveness does that.  Our hypocrisy, then, needs more than a confession.  Confession only reveals who we are.  Jesus, however, changes who we are, which means that Jesus can change us hypocrites.

And really, who wants to be a hypocrite?

 

March 6, 2017 at 5:15 am Leave a comment

Flowers, Same-Sex Marriage, and Responding with Grace

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Barronelle Stutzman enjoyed catching up with her friend, Rob Ingersoll.  He would stop by regularly to order custom bouquets from the mom-and-pop flower shop she operated, Arlene’s Flowers, and the two would talk about what was going on in their respective lives.  Everything was coming up, excuse the pun, roses, until one day when Rob stopped by Arlene’s Flowers to ask Barronelle to provide custom flower arrangements for his upcoming wedding to his partner, Curt.  According to a deposition by Ms. Stutzman, she responded by putting her hands on Mr. Ingersoll and saying, “Because of my relationship with Jesus Christ, I can’t do that.”  Understandably, he walked away feeling deeply hurt and rejected.  After that, it didn’t take long for a legal firestorm to explode.

The two men sued Arlene’s Flowers for $7.91, the price it cost to drive to another florist.  Then, on February 16, the Washington State Supreme Court ruled that Ms. Stutzman was in violation of state law, claiming that Ms. Stutzman’s actions constituted “socially harmful conduct” and that the “government views acts of discrimination,” which is how they regarded Ms. Stutzman’s refusal of service, “as independent social evils.”

In a situation like this, it can be difficult for a Christian to figure out how to respond.  Indeed, there has been a fair amount of debate among Christians over whether or not it is biblically-appropriate to provide certain services, as Barronelle Stutzman refused to do, for a same-sex wedding.

Regardless of what an individual Christian may or may not be willing to accommodate in a situation like this, Ms. Stutzman’s overall response to this controversy has been charitable and exemplary.  Shortly after the controversy erupted, she penned an opinion piece for The Seattle Times.  She opened:

Rob Ingersoll will always be my friend. Recent events have complicated – but not changed – that fact for me.

Ms. Stutzman began with a statement of love for Mr. Ingersoll.  Even if he sues her, she will not disown him.  She will always be a friend to him, even after she felt she had to have a conversation with him that was, in her words, “one of the hardest things I’ve ever done in my life.”

She continued by explaining her desire to balance her moral convictions with her Christian love:

I knew he was in a relationship with a man and he knew I was a Christian. But that never clouded the friendship for either of us or threatened our shared creativity – until he asked me to design something special to celebrate his upcoming wedding.

If all he’d asked for were prearranged flowers, I’d gladly have provided them. If the celebration were for his partner’s birthday, I’d have been delighted to pour my best into the challenge. But as a Christian, weddings have a particular significance…

I’ve never questioned Rob’s and Curt Freed’s right to live out their beliefs. And I wouldn’t have done anything to keep them from getting married, or even getting flowers. Even setting aside my warm feelings for them, I wouldn’t have deliberately taken actions that would mean the end of being able to do the work I love or risk my family’s home and savings.

I just couldn’t see a way clear in my heart to honor God with the talents He has given me by going against the word He has given us.

Whatever decision another Christian would have made if faced with a situation like this, it is difficult to disparage Ms. Stutzman’s desire to be both faithful to her moral convictions and loving toward her friend.

In the news, much has been made about what this story and the Washington Supreme Court’s ruling mean for religious freedom.  The questions this controversy raises about religious freedom are indeed monumental.  And the court’s ruling a couple of weeks ago is certainly open to vigorous questioning.  But in the midst of all the thorny Constitutional and legal quandaries, let’s not miss the simple story of a woman trying to live out her faith in Jesus in front of others and for the sake of others.  For this is how each of us are called to live – loving even those with whom we deeply disagree us and seeking to winsomely hold forth to the world the use of God’s gifts – like the gift of marriage – according to God’s intentions.

Whatever ultimately comes of this case, this call will not change.

February 27, 2017 at 5:59 am Leave a comment

Michael Flynn, Intelligence Leaks, and Ethical Questions

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Credit: Carolyn Kaster/AP

When Michael Flynn tendered his resignation as National Security Advisor last week after only 24 days on the job, it marked the predictable outcome of what had become deepening concerns over some dishonest statements he made to the vice-president about the nature of a December conversation he had with the Russian ambassador to the United States and the potential his conversation created for his blackmail by Russian authorities.  In a political climate where dishonesty is often dismissed out-of-hand as part of the job, Mr. Flynn’s forced resignation is a sobering reminder that character still counts.

Of course, in this story, there are not only ethical questions raised by Mr. Flynn’s clandestine conversation, there are also critical ethical questions that must be asked about the leaking of his conversation by shadowy intelligence officials to the news media.  After all, unethically leaking the fact the National Security Advisor unethically lied to vice-president seems, well, just all-around unethical.

Sadly, in our hyper-politicized climate, it is difficult not to filter this story through anything other than a political lens.  President Trump certainly filtered it this way, at least in part, when he complained on Twitter:

The real scandal here is that classified information is illegally given out by intelligence like candy. Very un-American!

— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) February 15, 2017

Yes, intelligence leaks are indeed scandalous – and dangerously so.  But dishonesty by the National Security Advisor with the vice-president is also scandalous.  Both sides of this scandal need to be addressed.  Sadly, most politicians only see fit to address whichever side furthers their own political purposes.

The problem with politicizing scandals like these is that we often overlook the sins of one side conveniently while decrying the sins of the other side forcefully.  Our argument becomes not that one side is truly good, but that the other side is really bad.  In this way, we justify one side’s sins by the sins the other side.  But when we address ethical scandals like this, we only wind up creating a circular firing squad, with everyone squarely aiming their barrels at everyone else.  We settle for hurting whoever happens to be our political enemy rather than holding onto what is actually right.

Jonathan Bethune, in an article for The Federalist, captures and summarizes our political zeitgeist well when he explains:

There can be no meaningful dialogue premised upon shared values if both sides only apply those values when it lets them score points. The class of moderately intelligent politically aware people are those most affected by this trend. They have become partisan ideologues.

An ideologue is at least consistent in his belief in specific policies. A partisan openly supports his gang above all else. But a partisan ideologue is worse than both. He is a Machiavellian creature: a supporter of “ends justify the means” approaches to pushing an agenda. The gang must be defended that the agenda might be defended, even when the gang violates core tenets of the agenda. Partisan ideologues are dishonest by nature. Worse still, they often cannot even tell when they are being dishonest.

Mr. Bethune is onto something here.  He understands that a politics that is more partisan than it is principled can only become pathological.  And when this happens, politics becomes a sinister force for moral decay rather than what Aristotle envisioned politics at its best to be – a guardian of societal good.  Such pathology in our politics not only points to a problem with Mr. Flynn and with dangerous intelligence leaks, it points to a problem with us.

Perhaps it is time, then, to look not only at the news, but in the mirror.

February 20, 2017 at 5:15 am 1 comment

Abortion as Big Business

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Whenever the curtains are pulled back on Planned Parenthood clinics, the results never seem to turn out well.  Through an interview with two former Planned Parenthood employees, it was discovered a clinic in Storm Lake, Iowa had abortion quotas.  Sue Thayer, a former manager at Planned Parenthood, revealed:

Every center had a goal for how many abortions were done.  And centers that didn’t do abortions like mine that were family planning clinics had a goal for the number of abortion referrals.  And it was on this big grid, and if we hit our goal, our line was green.  If we were 5 percent under, it was yellow.  If we were 10 percent under, it was red.  That’s when we needed to have a corrective action plan – why we didn’t hit the goal, what we’re going to do differently next time.

Planned Parenthood, for all the assertions it makes about helping people with family planning, seems to be primarily interested in selling one service – abortions.  Mrs. Thayer went on to disclose some of the techniques her clinic would use to sell abortions:

I trained my staff the way that I was trained, which was to really encourage women to choose abortion, to have it at Planned Parenthood, because that counts as, you know, towards our goal.  We would try to get the appointment scheduled for the abortion before they left our clinic.  We would say things like, “Your pregnancy test, your visit today is X number of dollars.  How much are you going to be able to pay towards that?”  If they’d say, “I’m not able to pay today,” then we would say something like, “Well, if you can’t pay ten dollars today, how are you going to take care of a baby?  Have you priced diapers?  Do you know how much it costs to buy a car seat? … So really, don’t you think your smartest choice is termination?”

Honestly, this kind of sales pitch and posturing is difficult for me to process.  Planned Parenthood workers freely admitted in their conversations that a life in a womb is – or, at the very least, will be – a baby who will need to be cared for and fed and protected, and yet, because of the expenses involved in raising a child, there is a cold calculation at work that says it is better to abort a child than to financially invest in one.  I’m honestly not sure how else I’m supposed to interpret a calculation like this than this: for Planned Parenthood, financial burden trumps human life.

But it goes beyond that.  For Planned Parenthood, financial gain also trumps human life.  For those clinics that reached their abortion quotas, Mrs. Thayer explained:

We would have things like pizza parties.  Occasionally, they would say, “You can two hours of paid time off.”  If your center consistently hit goal and you were green all the time, you know, like, three months in a row, you might be center manager of the month and go to Des Moines and have lunch, you know, with the upper management, or something … It sounds kind of crazy, but pizza is a motivator.

Planned Parenthood is so devoted to selling abortions that they offer pizza parties as an incentive to their clinics to sell a lot of them.  It turns out that they also hand out awards to clinics that increase the number of abortions they perform year over year.

The moral questions such practices raise are inescapable.  Are the lives of babies who are born into lower financial means more disposable than the lives of babies who are born into more affluent families?  Should the future of a life be subject to a financial litmus test – if a life can be afforded, it should be nurtured, and if it cannot, it should be ended?  Should expectant mothers, who often have nagging doubts and deep moral misgivings about whether or not they should have an abortion, be pressured into a procedure to add to a company’s bottom line?

Peter Singer, the Ira W. DeCamp Professor of Bioethics chair at Princeton, has been widely decried, and rightly so, for his crassly utilitarian view of human life.  He has claimed, for instance, “that a human’s life is not necessarily more sacred than a dog’s, and that it might be more compassionate to carry out medical experiments on hopelessly disabled, unconscious orphans than on perfectly healthy rats.”  For Singer, the worth of a life can be coolly calculated by a set of criteria.  If a life meets the criteria, it should be nurtured and protected.  If it does not, it can be ended, even if it is a human life.  It is difficult to see how Planned Parenthood’s financial criteria to determine a human life’s value differs all that much from Professor Singer’s method.

It must be said that a Christian cannot endorse or endure such a view of human life.  Human life is not valuable because it meets certain criteria. It is valuable, according to Scripture, because of its origin and its unique reflection of its Creator.  Neil Gorsuch, President Trump’s nominee for Supreme Court Justice, echoes this sentiment using a Constitutional lens when he writes:

The Fourteenth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution guarantees equal protection of the laws to all persons; this guarantee is replicated in Article 14 of the European Convention and in the constitutions and declarations of rights of many other countries. This profound social and political commitment to human equality is grounded on, and an expression of, the belief that all persons innately have dignity and are worthy of respect without regard to their perceived value based on some instrumental scale of usefulness or merit. We treat people as worthy of equal respect because of their status as human beings and without regard to their looks, gender, race, creed, or any other incidental trait – because, in the words of the Declaration of Independence, we hold it as ‘self-evident’ that ‘all men (and women) are created equal’ and enjoy ‘certain unalienable Rights,’ and ‘that among these are Life.’

What is “self-evident” to the framers of the Declaration of Independence is apparently not so self-evident to Planned Parenthood.  May we never allow the inherent value of human life to be anything less than self-evident to us.

February 13, 2017 at 5:15 am Leave a comment

An Executive Order and an Immigration Debate

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When President Trump issued an executive order two Saturdays ago putting a 90-day moratorium on all foreigners entering the United States from Iraq, Syria, Iran, Libya, Somalia, Sudan, and Yemen and a 120-day ban on all refugee admissions, the reaction was swift and splenetic.  Protests erupted at airports across the country.  Democratic politicians decried – and, quite literally, cried at – Mr. Trump’s executive order.  And now, a federal judge in Washington has temporarily blocked enforcement of the president’s immigration stay.

Though much could be saidand has been said – from a policy standpoint about the president’s executive order and the heated debates that have ensued, it is worth it for us, as Christians, to use this moment as an opportunity step back and consider how Scripture frames the broader issues involved.  After all, long after the embers of the fight over this particular executive order have cooled, the contentious disagreements that have bubbled to the top in this debate will remain.  So here are a few things to keep in mind.

Safety and Sojourners

One of the roles of any government is to protect its people by punishing wrong and standing up for what is right.  This is part of the reason Joshua led a conquest through the land of Canaan.  This is also why the apostle Paul writes:

For the one in authority is God’s servant for your good. But if you do wrong, be afraid, for rulers do not bear the sword for no reason. They are God’s servants, agents of wrath to bring punishment on the wrongdoer.  (Romans 3:4)

The preamble to our Constitution echoes this sentiment when it explains the very need for such a document thusly:

We the people of the United States, in order to form a more perfect union, establish justice, insure domestic tranquility, provide for the common defense, promote the general welfare, and secure the blessings of liberty to ourselves and our posterity, do ordain and establish this Constitution for the United States of America.

Likewise, President Trump, when his executive order was met with fiery backlash, defended it by saying that his order was about “terror and keeping our country safe.”

Safety is indeed a noble goal.  But Scripture also has much to say about welcoming and helping sojourners.  God commands the Israelites:

When a foreigner resides among you in your land, do not mistreat them.  The foreigner residing among you must be treated as your native-born. Love them as yourself, for you were foreigners in Egypt. I am the LORD your God. (Leviticus 19:33-34)

One of Jesus’ most famous stories – the Parable of the Good Samaritan – has as its centerpiece a call to be kind to foreigners.  In this day, for a Jew to talk about a “good Samaritan” would have sounded oxymoronic.  The Samaritans, after all, were the ones who broke into the Jewish temple during Passover and desecrated it by scattering human bones through it.  Jews did not consider Samaritans “safe.” But in Jesus’ story, a Samaritan ends up saving the life of a Jew.

As Christians, then, we are called to be concerned both with the safety and security of our families and nation as well as with the plights of others, such as Syrian refugees, doing whatever we can to welcome and care for those who need our help.  A concern for safety and a love for sojourners are to go hand in hand.

Local and Global

Donald Trump’s short tenure as president has been marked by the theme of putting America first.  In what was perhaps the most memorable line of his inauguration address, the president declared, “From this day forward, a new vision will govern our land. From this day forward, it’s going to be only America first, America first.”

Addressing concerns and challenges close to home is important.  Charity, the old saw says, begins at home.  Scripture echoes this theme when the apostle Paul encourages believers to take care of those closest to them: “Anyone who does not provide for their relatives, and especially for their own household, has denied the faith and is worse than an unbeliever” (1 Timothy 5:8).  In this same letter, Paul also wonders out loud how a pastor who “does not know how to manage his own family…can…take care of God’s church” (1 Timothy 3:5).  At issue here is a principle of subsidiarity, which encourages a focus on local affairs first.

But once again, as important as local affairs are, they are not the only concerns we should have.  President Trump’s call of “America first” must never become that of “America only.”

Rodney Stark, in his seminal work The Triumph of Christianity, notes that Christianity is unique not only because it is:

…the largest religion in the world, [but because] it also is the least regionalized.  There are only trivial numbers of Muslims in the Western Hemisphere and in Eastern Asia, but there is no region without significant numbers of Christians – even in the Arab region of North Africa.[1]

Christianity is decentralized because the faith’s founder gave His disciples a global mission: “Go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you” (Matthew 28:19-20).  In the book of Acts, Christ encourages the Church to have both a local and a global vision for mission: “You will be My witnesses in Jerusalem, and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth” (Acts 1:8).

As Christians, then, though we are to tend to the affairs of our families, communities, and country, these cannot be our sole concerns.  A world that is hurting is a world that needs our compassion, interest, and engagement.  We are called to have eyes for both that which is local and for things which are global.

Government and Church

As Christians, we must remember that the affairs of the government are not always coterminous with the mission of the Church.  Governments have a specific role to play.  They are God’s servants, on a civic level, to promote and defend that which is right and to dissuade and punish that which is wrong.  Likewise, the Church has a specific mission to carry out – to reach the world, in both word and deed, with the gospel on a personal level.  Thus, while a government may seek to protect a nation, the Church continues to go forth to reach the nations.

As Christians, then, we live in two worlds.  We are both members of Christ’s body, the Church, and citizens of an earthly nation.  In such a politically-heated environment, however, it can be tempting to exalt the partisanship of politics over the community of the congregation.  Indeed, one of the saddest aspects of our current crisis is that the millions of Syrian refugees who have been displaced from their homes and families have become, in the words of Pete Spiliakos:

…footballs in our partisan scrimmages. We insist on certain standards of hospitality to refugees, making those standards a test of “who we are,” opportunistically – when it is useful to our side.

In other words, we do not charitably welcome refugees while carefully stewarding our own national interests because it is right thing to do, we pick either the reasonable concerns of our nation or the sad plight of international refugees and turn one into a cause célèbre at the expense of the other because it is politically expedient.  This is wrong both civically and ecclesiologically because it reduces people to pawns in a game of thrones.  We are less concerned with doing justice and more concerned with wielding power.

In a debate that has become increasingly either/or, we, as Christians, have a message that is both/and.  We can both seek the safety of our nation and be hospitable to sojourners.  We can both address our local contexts and keep an eye on global crises.  We can both live as responsible citizens and work as members of Christ’s body.  One thing does not need to trump the other thing because, ultimately, over everything is Christ.  He is the One who ultimately both keeps us safe and welcomes us into His kingdom as sojourners from this corrupt age.  He is the One who both loves each of us locally and dies for the world globally.  He is the One who both rules all rulers and is the head of His body, the Church.  He is the One in whom “all things hold together” (Colossians 1:17).

As we seek to process today’s troubles, then, let us never forget who we are.  We are not merely useful political plodders.  We are the children of God in Christ, which means that we trust in Him, live with Him, and love like Him – both those who are near and those who are halfway across the world.

___________________________

[1] Rodney Stark, The Triumph of Christianity (New York:  HarperCollins Publishers, 2011), 392.

February 6, 2017 at 5:15 am 3 comments

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