Compelled to Control: Is the Success Culture Destroying Christianity?

(This article by Pastor Mark was originally published on “Philosophy Goes to Church” and is reprinted here with permission.)

Introduction: What Did Jesus Really Say and Can We Hear Him Today?

I recently attended a lecture given by John Dominic Crossan[1] on the violence of God in the Christian Bible.[2] His central thesis was clear: “If the biblical Christ is the norm, criterion, and discriminant of the Christian Bible, then the historical Jesus is the norm, criterion, and discriminant of the biblical Christ.” After making some cursory remarks about how to distinguish between the words of the historical Jesus (or the earliest oral tradition attributed to Jesus) and the words of the early church placed on his lips, Crossan developed an argument for the historical Jesus as a non-violent Jewish revolutionary who cast a radical vision of peace through (distributive) justice.

As the lecture drew to a close, what stood out as most interesting to me were the sayings that Crossan, in some sense, attributed to the historical Jesus:

  • Bless those who persecute you.
  • Don’t return evil for evil, but overcome evil with good.
  • Be kind to your enemies.
  • Give away your possessions.

It occurred to me that although there is rigorous debate about the authenticity of other sayings (much of which revolves around whether or not Jesus’ message was apocalyptic), the vast majority of historical Jesus scholars, whether liberal or conservative, agree that Jesus said these kinds of things. What is even more striking is that these sayings that have garnered scholarly consensus in the Twenty-First Century are precisely the ones that are most problematic for the American church today.

When thinking about why this might be the case, I have a nagging suspicion that it has something to do with our preoccupation with success. In what follows, I simply try to voice some of my informal reflections in hopes of generating a discussion. Although I have been trained as an academic theologian, this is not a scholarly article. I mean no offense to academics, but after leaving the academy almost ten years ago to devote my life to pastoral ministry, I am not interested in crafting an airtight argument supported by long footnotes that can withstand the rigorous critique of people who are much smarter than me. This qualifying statement is my way of asking for grace from those who serve the world well in an academic setting. Rather than seeing yourself as a respondent on a panel at the American Academy of Religion (and hence seeking to refute my claims), my hope is that you will read as a friend (and try to help me, as a pastor, to wrestle with a problem that is very real in the church).

Success: Trying to Understand the Problem

As I serve in the local church, I get the feeling that Christianity is being co-opted by a preoccupation with success. Many pastors (including myself at times) want to be more like Steven Furtick than like Jesus, and to lead churches that look more like Fortune 500 companies than the ecclesia described in the book of Acts. In terms of the laity, instead of renouncing their quest for worldly success, many convert to Christianity in hopes that it will provide them with more effective strategies for achieving such worldly acclaim!

I have come to believe that the success culture in America has its own vision and prescription for salvation, and one of the biggest challenges for pastors is figuring out exactly what this looks like. My hunch is that the logic of the success culture is driven by a notion of power construed as willful and controlling, even manipulative and coercive. It takes many forms, including wealth, fame, charisma, intelligence, and sex appeal. To be successful means to possess and effectively leverage power to achieve a series of goals that are themselves designed to increase power, expand freedom, and merit the praise of others who have already joined the club. Inherent in all of this is the ability to control oneself and others, to effectively manipulate resources, and to manage external circumstances.

Successful people exercise the power to control their thoughts. They cultivate the “power of positive thinking,” which not only helps them manage their outlook but can even bring external circumstances into alignment with internal desires. Don’t you know The Secret of how we can leverage the “law of attraction” by the power of positive thinking to create life-changing results of increased happiness, health, and wealth? Successful people also control their emotions and exhibit an internal strength that precludes neediness, vulnerability, and anything else that can be perceived as weakness. Winners are of sound mental health, evidenced by the power to manage and eradicate anxiety, guilt, depression, and other undesirable feelings. In the parlance of much that passes for women’s ministry today, strong people “choose joy.” They don’t really need anyone else to be happy, but create their own happiness and then design relationships in ways that enhance and protect it. Successful people also possess the personal power to transform a “normal body” (which is an entry-level requirement for the school of success) into a beautiful body, which always increases one’s power! Even in the church, people are encouraged to follow biblical diets like The Daniel Plan and commit to exercise as a fifth spiritual discipline. If you can leverage personal power to control your thoughts, emotions, and appearance, then you are well on your way to managing the perceptions of others (in both real and virtual environments), thereby gaining greater influence over people who can advance your quest for success. (Who cares about people who lack the power to promote, or derail, your agenda?)

Although I am no Clifford Geertz, it seems to me that all of this has generated a powerful cultural stream in America that exercises a gravitational pull on the church. To shift metaphors, it creates a pair of glasses through which we see all of life, including the life of faith. Read through these glasses, the Gospel is not seen as a call to abandon the quest for worldly success, but a new and improved strategy for successfully completing the quest! In the most concrete terms, when I preach on Sunday mornings that we should fully surrender our lives to Jesus as Lord and Savior, which includes allowing him radically to redefine our values and goals in light of the in-breaking of the Kingdom of God, I fear that many hear, “Jesus can empower me to return to work tomorrow and be more effective at what I am already doing in pursuit of goals I’ve already set.” Our “personal relationship” with Jesus can easily become another way to access the power needed to become successful, admired, and well-respected.

One symptom of this problem is the way some clergy preach the Bible and, consequently, how many lay people interpret it. Instead of the biblical Christ (perhaps normed in important ways by the Jesus of history) serving as our guide for the faithful interpretation of scripture, those breathing the air of the success culture tend to give hermeneutical priority to passages that support the logic and value system of hard won success. The clearest example is found in the “prosperity gospel” with its focus on Deuteronomic theology, but there are subtler forms that infect the American church in innumerable ways.

When confronted with the sayings of Jesus that contradict the logic and value system of the success culture, many find ways to reinterpret those passages to marginalize the intended message. For example, when confronted with Jesus’ command to turn the other cheek, some say, “Well, what he really meant was that violence should be a last resort and only in self-defense. If someone hits me rather softly and doesn’t draw back for a second blow, then maybe I should exercise the power of self-control and suggest a non-violent solution. But if someone hits me hard and keeps coming at me, then surely Jesus would not object to me defending myself. To turn the cheek in a real fight would simply be crazy!” If pressed harder on this issue with a clear presentation of Jesus’ direct command, some are honest enough to say something like, “Well Jesus was the Son of God, and I’m only a sinful human being. So if someone hits me, I don’t care what Jesus said, I’m fighting back and asking for forgiveness later.” Only a loser would allow himself to be assaulted without some kind of retaliation.

The problem, of course, is that the passages being ignored or reinterpreted in service to the success culture are not merely ornamental, but rather absolutely essential to Christian faith and practice. More precisely, the logic and value system of the success culture is antithetical to the logic of the gospel. Indeed, even a cursory reading of the Sermon on the Mountain shows Jesus completely reversing the logic and value system of the success culture, effectively saying, “This is not only wrong—its wrongheaded! This will not only fail to deliver happiness but it will prevent you from seeing the true way of salvation and accelerate your journey down the highway to hell.” The success culture is all about acquiring, consolidating, and leveraging personal power to achieve self-determined goals (not least, security), and to do it in a way that will merit the praise, admiration, and respect of others perceived to be more powerful and successful than we—thereby increasing our power and positioning us for even more success. In stark contrast, the logic of the gospel can be found in Matthew 16:24-26: “If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me. For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake will find it. For what will it profit them if they gain the whole world but forfeit their life?” In our efforts to acquire and consolidate power to secure our interests and accomplish our self-determined goals, we lose our lives (even more so, not by failing but by accomplishing those goals) and become powerless to do anything about it. The only way to truly be saved is to completely abandon the quest for worldly success and totally surrender our lives to Jesus as Lord and Savior, a surrender that is so complete that it leads Paul to confess, “I have been crucified with Christ; and it is no longer I who live, but it is Christ who lives in me” (Galatians 2: 19a-20b).

The power of success is characterized by willful grasping, while the power of the gospel is characterized as willing surrender.[3] The former is the way of conquest; the latter is the way of the cross. The former focuses on predetermined outcomes; the latter focuses on faithfulness. The former is self-defeating, self-destructive, and self-condemning; the latter—according to Jesus—is the way of salvation and abundant life.

I want to make this point as strongly as possible. Jesus does not say, “If you do all that I have commanded then you will be successful” (and in several passages he suggested the opposite). To assume this is absolutely to misunderstand his message. Everything Jesus teaches—the logic of his gospel—runs contrary to the vision of salvation promised by the success culture and the concomitant strategies that supposedly make it possible. But this logic and this culture are exactly what we are up against in the American church, and this raises a critical question: Is a Christianity that is co-opted and reinterpreted by the value system and logic of the success culture still rightly described as Christian at all? If not, then what is the way forward?

Conclusion: Questions for Conversation

I want to end my reflections by posing a few questions to academics and pastors alike.

In your research and experience, how is success defined in American culture? How does our pursuit of success shape and reinforce American culture? Does success have its own logic and value system?

To what extent has the American church been influenced or coopted by the culture of success? Does this lead to a reinterpretation of the vision and way of salvation as proclaimed by Jesus, and does it go so far as to undermine the logic of the gospel? What is the difference between success and abundant life?

What resources would help us clarify the problem, gain a more faithful understanding of the gospel, and deepen our relationship with Christ?

As we seek answers to these questions, let us remember the words of Paul: “Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your minds, so that you may discern what is the will of God—what is good and acceptable and perfect.” (Romans 12:2)

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Notes:  

[1] Bible Symposium, “Reading Between the Lines: Recent Research on the Gospels and the Quest for the Historical Jesus,” Florida Southern College, 14 April 2016.

[2] The arguments in his lecture are more fully developed in John Dominic Crossan, How to Read the Bible the Bible & Still Be a Christian: Struggling with Divine Violence from Genesis to Revelation (HarperOne 2015).

[3] I first discovered this distinction between willful and willing ways-of-being-in-the-world in Gerald G. May, Will and Spirit: A Contemplative Psychology (HarperSanFrancisco 1982). However, it is assumed and taught by all contemplative Christian traditions.

 

The Power of Weakness: How Attempts to Be Strong Lead to Impotence

No one likes to be weak. It’s one of our greatest fears. For most, weakness is something to be avoided at all costs because it’s associated with powerlessness, deficiency, and victimhood. We fear that even the appearance of weakness in this dog-eat-dog world will lead to exploitation and all kinds of injustice. While those rendered weak by age, infirmity, or disability mighty be pitied, more often the weak are scorned and derided.

There is evidence for this in every sphere of human existence. Politics at every level includes scathing critiques of “weak leaders” and endless promises to restore the disenfranchised to power. Currently, a significant group of people in America would rather endorse a xenophobic, egomaniacal strongman who promises to restore nationalistic power than candidates who demonstrate even a smidgen of honesty, respect, temperance, and intelligence. Western culture itself is based on a value system of success, and success requires the acquisition of personal power to overcome obstacles on the way to realizing our dreams. Indeed, all of our relationships (not excluding those with close friends and family members), are perpetually wounded by various kinds of power struggles.

Regardless of the situation, human beings tend to act on the assumption that the world is a dangerous place, and that individuals must act with great personal strength to deter potential threats and secure their own safety, reputation, upward mobility, and possessions. Conversely, we assume that if we are weak then we’ll be exploited, victimized, and left-behind to suffer misfortune. In many ways, we have reduced the essence of human life to gaining, cultivating, and leveraging personal power so we can secure ourselves and avoid losing anything of value.

This is why it’s so difficult for us to truly understand the gospel of Jesus, which is about God overcoming the world through the weakness of Christ. Even more difficult to understand is the idea that God continues to overcome the world, not through strongmen who exert top-down power with money, guns, and contemptuous rhetoric, but through the weakness of those who surrender to a crucified savior. Consider the Apostle Paul, who after having glorious visions and revelations from God was given a “thorn . . . in the flesh” to keep him aware of the true source of power. “Three times I appealed to the Lord about this, that it would leave me, but he said to me, ‘My grace is sufficient for you, for [my] power is made perfect in weakness’” (2 Corinthians 12:8-9).

One of the hardest lessons that God continues to teach me is that the more I flex my muscles the weaker I become. My fear, insecurity, and vulnerability are proportionate to my insistence on securing and protecting my own interests. Why? Because real power does not come from me, it comes from God. When I exercise personal power in attempts to gain control and accomplish my own agenda, it forces the power of God to the margins of my life. The more I posture, position, and protect, the less space there is for the power of God to move in any given situation. But as soon as I acknowledge my weakness, surrender to God, and move my ego out of the way, divine power begins to work in mysterious and unexpected ways to accomplish greater purposes. This is why Paul says, “So, I will boast all the more gladly of my weaknesses, so that the power of Christ may dwell in me” (v. 9b). These are strange words to people who are fearful of even the appearance of weakness and are hell-bent on cultivating a personal power strong enough to secure themselves. But even more difficult to hear (maybe even impossible without the Holy Spirit) is what Paul says next: “Therefore, I am content with weakness, insults, hardships, persecutions, and calamities for the sake of Christ; for whenever I am weak, then I am strong” (v. 10).

If we don’t grasp this essential truth in the gospel, then the power we work so hard to attain will eventually destroy us. Jesus says that if we try to save our life we will lose it, but if we are willing to lose our life then we will gain it (Luke 17:33). Is it possible that in our very efforts to avoid weakness and exert strength that we are sowing the seeds of our own destruction? Can those who abhor weakness ever experience the true power of God? In all of this, we do well to ponder the power of weakness, because weakness has the power to get us out of the way so that God’s power can move through us to accomplish greater things.

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The Obligations of Courageous Love: A Pastor’s Response to the Syrian Refugee Crisis

Introduction: Understanding the Crisis

What would compel you abandon your home and all your possessions? What would make you leave your career, friends, and family to walk 800 miles through dangerous terrain with little money and food? This would be like walking from Orlando, Florida to Washington, D.C, and if you covered twenty-five miles a day it would take you more than a month. Imagine having to sleep under a tree with your children on the side of the road.

Child Sleep on Ground

What would compel you to pay a smuggler $1000 a person to cram your family on a small raft to float across 200 miles of shark infested, choppy water, knowing that approximately 500 people have already drowned making the journey, including several children.

Why would any sane person leave everything behind for this kind of deadly journey, knowing that if they are caught leaving they could be executed as traitors? Well, what if your own government started dropping barrel bombs on your neighborhood, blowing-up houses and burning your neighbors alive. What if your own government poisoned your city with chemical weapons in an act of mass murder? What if members of your family were abducted and tortured for having divergent political or religious views? What if you saw a heavily armed group of men wearing black masks saw off the head of a child with a dull machete, or women being kidnapped to serve as sex slaves for these same men? What if members of your Bible study were burned alive in cages simply because they were Christians? What if brutalizing torture, mass executions, and perpetual civil war became the norm in your neighborhood? My guess is that you would flee for safety too.

These are the kinds of things that are happening to the innocent people we call refugees, many of whom are women, children, disabled, and elderly. These people are not terrorists, they are victims of terrorism.

Massive numbers of traumatized people have poured into Jordan, Lebanon, Egypt and Turkey. The United Nations and World Food program were not prepared for a refugee crisis on this scale, and in certain areas this has led to over-crowded refugee camps where people are suffering from hunger, exposure, and disease. These conditions have led many to seek refuge in Europe, but Europe was not prepared for this kind of crisis either.

Estimates as high as 7.6 million people are refuges in Syria (they are displaced in their own country) and 3,800,000 are children! To put this in perspective, we could take all these kids and fill Tropicana Field to its maximum occupancy almost 100 times! In addition to those displaced within Syria, over three million have fled to neighboring countries and Europe. This is roughly the equivalent of the entire population of Chicago, Illinois. The picture below might give us an inkling of the kind of numbers we are talking about.

3 million people

Western Europe is being overwhelmed by this crisis. Turkey has received more than two million refugees, and Greece was flooded with 5,500 people on a single day. (At this rate, Greece receives more refugees in two days than America has pledged to receive over the course of a year). Many of these people are being resettled in Germany, and even France—a country that just endured a massive terrorist attack—has pledge to receive an additional 30,000 Syrian refugees in the next two to three years. However, even as the European countries pull together, they simply do not have the resources to deal with a humanitarian crisis on this scale.

This is why the United Nations is asking America to help, and our initial pledge is to receive 10,000 Syrian refugees. This less than 1/3 of 1% of the people who need help!

Fear and the Screening Process

In light of the recent terrorist attack in Paris, many Americans have recoiled in fear. They are worried that if we allow these refugees into our country, terrorists might slip through the cracks undetected and plan attacks the homeland from within. But there is strong evidence to suggest that the potential threats driving our darkest fears are being drastically exaggerated by misinformation. The worst offenders are those seeking political gain in an approaching election year.

Many who are trying to slow or halt the entrance of displaced Syrian (and Iraqi) people are claiming that the majority of those applying for refugee status are young men without families, those considered “combat age.” This is patently false. According to the United Nations, most of the applicants are women and children. While approximately 20% are men between the ages of 18 and 59 (many of whom are fathers protecting their families), 51% are under 16 years old or younger, and 38.5 percent are 11 years old or younger. (FactCheck.org). Indeed, of the 2,165 Syrian refugees already admitted to the U.S., only 2% have been military-aged males unattached to families.

Other people are claiming that the U.S. has an inadequate screening process for receiving refugees and are trying to pass a new bill in Congress to make it more stringent. But this is also not true. It might surprise many people to know that the U.S. government handpicks the refugees invited to resettle in America. To date, the U.N. has referred 23,092 Syrian refugees to the U.S. After extensive screening outside of our country, 7,014 were granted into our screening process, and only 2,165 were received (Refugee Processing Center/U.S. Department of State).

This careful selection of refugees is done by applying the most rigorous, multilayered screening process in the world that includes the Department of Homeland Security, FBI, Department of Defense and numerous intelligence agencies. The screening not only includes extensive background checks, but also biometric and forensic testing, medical screenings, and multiple in-person interviews. This process takes 18-24 months to complete and is the most painstaking difficult way to enter the U.S. For more information see the infographic on whitehouse.gov and outline of the process on nytimes.com.

It is much easier to enter our country through the visa program or on a European passport. Most experts say that this is the real threat. The screening process to get a visa is less rigorous than that required to be granted refugee status. In fact, the U.S. has a visa waiver program with 38 countries. People from these countries can enter the U.S. on a passport as long as they leave the country within 90 days. This means that if ISIS wanted to dispatch a terrorist to America, they would not instruct a mole to apply for refugee status, but rather to apply for a student visa to study at the University of Florida or to enter the country on a European passport under the guise of a tourist. Keep in mind that all of the terrorists in the attack on Paris were French and Belgium nationals.

It is also important to note that our current vetting process has an excellent track record. Since 9/11 approximately 785,000 refugees have settle in the U.S. and many were from the Middle East:

  • 127,657 Iraq
  • 10,983 Afghanistan
  • 2,165    Syria

Only twelve (.001%) have been arrested or sent back because of terrorism related charges (and none were Syrian). Our existing screening process is extremely effective, and it enables us to focus our efforts on the most vulnerable refugees: women, children, survivors of torture, and those with severe medical conditions.

Given these facts, I am deeply disappointed some of our politicians—both Democrat and Republican—who are exploiting our worst fears by spreading misinformation or telling outright lies for political gain. 56% of the U.S. population thinks we should refuse the refugees because of fear generated by lack of information. I am also deeply sadden by how many Christians believe the first thing they hear on the television and quickly sacrifice their faith on the altar of politics.

But even if you are not convinced by the facts outlined above, even if you are genuinely fearful that receiving additional refugees would increase our risk of admitting a handful of terrorists, this is still not a good enough reason to turn these desperate people away . . . at least if you are Christian.

Courageous Love and Risky Faith

God commands us not to make moral decisions based on fear, but on the law of love. Recall the greatest commandment according to Jesus:

“Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind.’ This is the first and greatest commandment. And the second is like it: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’ All the Law and the Prophets hang on these two commandments.” (Matthew 22:37-40)

Those who follow Jesus make moral decisions based on love of God and neighbor, and according to 1 John 4:18-20 this kind of love casts out fear:

“There is no fear in love. But perfect love drives out fear . . . We love because He first loved us. Whoever claims to love God yet hates a brother or sister is a liar. For whoever does not love their brother and sister, whom they have seen, cannot love God, whom they have not seen.”

This is why one of the most repeated phrases in scripture is “Do not fear,” and to make moral decisions based on fear is to be disobedient to God. Fear should never take precedence over faithful obedience.

Consider the difference between cowardice and courage. Cowards experience fear and then compromise their values secure their own interests. To the contrary, courageous people experience fear and do the right thing anyway, even if that requires self-sacrifice and risk! The call of discipleship is to follow Jesus wherever he leads, even when he leads us into dangerous territory to help desperate people.

Even a cursory reading of the Bible shows that God often gives people dangerous and scary missions. The mission God gave Paul led to multiple incarcerations, immense suffering, and repeated exposures to death (2 Corinthians 11:24-27). Others paid the ultimate price. The mission God gave Jesus got him crucified, and the continuation of this mission got ten of the twelve apostles executed, along with many in the early church. As historians remind us, the soil of Christianity was watered by the blood of the martyrs. Indeed, Christians of every generation have suffered horribly for their faith, including many people in the Middle East today. So why do we deserve an exemption from the dangers and risks of discipleship? Remember the words of Jesus in in John 15:20: “A servant is not greater than his master. If they persecuted me, they will persecute you also.” Following Jesus has always been the way of the cross. Crosses are scary. They are neither comfortable nor secure.

The main point is that Christians should not make moral decisions based on fear. Rather, we make decisions based on what God says to us through a faithful interpretation of scripture that is grounded in the law of love, and we are obedient to what we hear even when it puts us at risk—even when we are scared.

In there anything in your faith that is worth sacrificing your security? Jesus seems to think there is: What good is it for someone to gain the whole world, yet forfeit their soul?” (Matthew 16:26). Passages like this make us uncomfortable because they remind us of a final judgement in which we will be held accountable by Jesus Christ—not our governors, not our congressmen, not fear-mongering political pundits, but Jesus Christ.

Care for Widows, Orphans, and Strangers

So what does the Lord require of us in response to the refugee crisis? I believe that God is calling us to help. From Genesis to Revelation, there are numerous commands given by God to love and care for strangers, foreigners, immigrants, and refugees. Consider the following examples:

  • Deuteronomy 10:17-19: “For the Lord your God is God of gods and Lord of lords, the great God, mighty and awesome, who is not partial and takes no bribe, who executes justice for the orphan and the widow, and who loves the strangers, providing them food and clothing. You shall also love the stranger, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt.” (The Hebrew word translated “stranger” is nokri and refers to the alien or foreigner.)
  • Deuteronomy 27:19: “Cursed is he who distorts the justice due an alien, orphan, and widow. And all the people shall say Amen.
  • Leviticus 19:34: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.
  • Malachi 3:5: “Then I will draw near to you for judgment; and I will be a swift witness against the sorcerers and against the adulterers and against those who swear falsely, and against those who oppress the hired workers in their wages, the widow and the orphan, against those who thrust aside the alien, and do not fear me, says the Lord of hosts.”

These Old Testament passages (and many more not mentioned) are grounded in Israel’s experience as a displaced and refugee people. The primary example, of course, is the Exodus. God hears the desperate cries of the Hebrew people, sends Moses to rescue them from slavery and oppression, and leads them through the wilderness for forty years as a refugee people. Israel was displaced again when they were taken into exile by the Babylonians, and again after Rome conquered the Holy Land. For most of its history, Israel has been a pilgrim, exiled, oppressed, or refugee people, and this is why they repeatedly insist in their scriptures that God commands us to offer compassionate care and hospitality to widows, orphans, foreigners, and refugees.

In addition to the overwhelming evidence in the Old Testament, we see the same spirit of compassionate hospitality commanded in the New Testament. In Romans 12:13, Paul instructs the church to contribute to the needs of the saints, and to “extend hospitality to strangers.” James 1:27 states that true religion is “to look after orphans and widows in their distress . . .” Hebrews 13:1-2 says, “Keep on loving one another as brothers and sisters. Do not forget to show hospitality to strangers, for by so doing some people have shown hospitality to angels without knowing it.”

Jesus of Nazareth began his life as a Middle Eastern refugee. In Matthew 2:13-15 we read about Mary and Joseph fleeing with the new born child as refugees trying to escape the infanticide of King Herod. They continued to live as refugees in Egypt until Herod died. Once Jesus started his earthy ministry, he wandered around as an itinerant preacher dependent on the hospitality of strangers. Jesus says in Luke 9:58, “The foxes have holes and the birds of the air have nests, but the Son of Man has nowhere to lay His head.” His entire ministry was about loving, including, elevating, and showing compassion to the most vulnerable and outcast in society: women, children, lepers, cripples, the blind and deaf, prostitutes, tax collectors, and even Samaritans.

Indeed, one of the clearest teachings on this subject comes from Jesus’ parable of the Good Samaritan in Luke 10:25-37. You remember the story: “A man was going down from Jerusalem to Jericho, when he was attacked by robbers. They stripped him of his clothes, beat him and went away, leaving him half dead.” Both a priest and a Levite (religious people) saw the man in desperate need but “passed by on the other side.” They didn’t do anything to actively harm this man, they just refused to help. But a despised Samaritan stopped and helped the person that the others left to die. Jesus asks, “Which of these three do you think was a neighbor to the man who fell into the hands of robbers?” Answer: “The one who had mercy on him.” Jesus said, “Go and do likewise.” The moral of the story is simple: love God with all your heart and love your neighbor as yourself, understanding that your neighbor is any human being in serious need. (For more on this parable see my message, “The Splendid Samaritan: Overcoming Tribalism”)

An equally powerful teaching comes from Matthew 25:31-46. Speaking of the final judgement, Jesus tells a parable about God separating people into two groups, the sheep on his right and the goats on his left. To the goats he says, “Depart from me, you who are cursed, into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels. For I was hungry and you gave me nothing to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me nothing to drink, I was a stranger and you did not invite me in . . .” The teaching is clear: if we fail to care for those in desperate need we fail Jesus.

Conclusion

We have to find a way to help these people, and not only because we will be held accountable to Jesus for the way we treat “the least of these,” but also because we have a wonderful opportunity to be who we say we are—to show the love of Christ to the friends of Jesus who are in desperate need. While we do not want to glorify senseless suffering, the Christian martyrs teach us that sometimes Christ calls his disciples to suffer, and that suffering in name of Jesus is not something to be shunned as obscene but embraced as honorable. We should never forget that the world is watching, and today we have an opportunity to bear witness to the truth of the gospel by compassionate words and actions.

I can guarantee that the evil powers and principalities in this world want you to bow down to fear, worship security, and do nothing. ISIS wants America to cower before them in fear, to compromise the values we so loudly preach to others, and do nothing. But Jesus is calling you to act with courageous love and risky faith.

This is what it means to be a Christian: to live a courageous faith in radical obedience to God in accordance with the self-sacrificial love of Jesus, which includes the enemy and exhibits a special concern for the most vulnerable around the world. Being a Christian means seeing God in the face of the needy and responding with compassion.   

GET INVOLVED! 

There are several things you can do to help:

  • Get Educated: Don’t believe the first thing you hear on the television. Take a break from the partisan news cycle and try to get the facts from reputable, non-partisan sources.
  • Pray every day for these people and ask God, “What do you want me to do?”
  • Donate money to reputable relief agencies:
            The United Nations Refugee Agency
            Church World Service
           UNICEF
  • Volunteer: In central Florida, call The Ethiopian Orthodox Tewahedo (813-679-4982) or Coptic Orthodox Charities (727-785-3551) and ask how you can help.
  • Speak Out on social media by educating others about the facts and calling for compassion.
  • Sign Petitions
  • Call your governor and your representatives in congress (1-866-961-4293) and tell them: “I’m a constituent from (City/State) and I support the resettlement of Syrian refugees. I urge the Governor / Senator / Representative to represent me and other constituents who seek to welcome Syrian refugees.”

I leave you with these last words from the one we call Lord and Savior: “Let your light shine before others, that they may see your good deeds and glorify your Father in heaven” (Matthew 5:16). Whatever you do, for Christ’s sake, do something!

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Are Conservative Christians Being Persecuted And Does This Signal the End of the World?

In light of all the cultural upheaval in the United States over the last few weeks, I hear many people say things like, “The church is being persecuted,” “The end is near!” and “The rapture and great tribulation is on the horizon.” As a pastor, I would like to offer both a word of caution and an interpretive alternative to popular “end times” predictions.

First, out of respect for Christians who have been and are being tortured, terrorized, and murdered for their faith, we should be very careful how we use the word persecution. As I understand it, persecution involves taking away people’s rights to practice their religion and then trying to force them to recant their faith or face imprisonment, torture, and/or death. Giving someone else legal rights to do something that you find morally objectionable is not persecution. Living in a country where the courts do not legislate your interpretation of the Bible and personal moral code is not persecution. You might find recent legal decisions to be morally objectionable and interpret them as an indication that our country is moving in the wrong direction. But to call it persecution seems disingenuous to me in light of Christians who over the past 2,000 years have been arrested, tortured, and executed (sometimes as public sport) because of their conviction that Jesus is Lord. This includes the Christians being beheaded in the Middle East and the black churches that have recently been burned to the ground by hateful racists. Most of the claims of persecution coming out of the conservative camp of the church in America are based on the false assumption that we live in a Christian country. We do not live in a Christian nation. We live in a diverse, liberal democracy that happens to be inhabited by many Christians, but whose constitution legally protects the freedom of religion for all people, including those who are not Christians and who choose no religion at all. For more on this topic, see Gregory A. Boyd, The Myth of  Christian Nation: How the Quest for Political Power is Destroying the Church.

Second, before you start talking about current events in light of a “Tim LaHaye interpretation” of the book of Revelation, please read what credible biblical scholars say about this perplexing text. Popular, futuristic readings of Revelation might dazzle our imagination and make for very bad movies (sorry Nick Cage), but this does not mean that this way of understanding should be naively accepted as “God’s Word” without critical thought. The scholarly consensus is that that the Book of Revelation is a piece of apocalyptic literature that was written to encourage Christians in the early church who experienced sporadic persecution under the rule of Emperor Domitian. The author never intended it to be read as a futuristic prophecy predicting events to be fulfilled 2,000 years later. Christians who are genuinely being persecuted can find much encouragement in the book of Revelation interpreted in its own historical-cultural context, but to claim that it is a series of oracles finally being fulfilled by recent shifts in our American context is a misreading. If you are interested in a short introduction to Revelation that will help you understand this strange conclusion to the Christian canon, I suggest James Efird’s little book, Revelation for Today.

Tensions are high and if we capitulate to our fears then we will do things to escalate and intensify the “sky is falling” mentality, which makes true faith difficult. Instead of allowing ourselves to be swept away in the stream of pessimism, anxiety, and doomsday end-of-the-world predictions, let’s take a deep breath and meditate on God’s constant presence so that we can be a healing, peaceful, and loving presence in the world.

Take Up Your Glock and Follow Me: Whatever Happened to Martyrdom?

As a pastor, I am called to minister to a variety of people who have differing political views, social ethics, and interpretations of the Bible. This being the case, I try to be careful about what I say regarding polarizing issues and resist getting sucked into social media threads where people are not having intelligent conversations but taking potshots in defense of their tribe. However, after reading comments on numerous Facebook threads written by some of my Christian brothers and sisters on the issue of gun control, I cannot remain silent. Sometimes we have to risk speaking out when something important is at stake. There are some things for which we should be willing to suffer. Indeed, there are somethings for which we must be willing to die, and that it is what this article is about.

In the wake of the mass shooting at Emanuel AME church in South Carolina, N.R.A. Official, Charles Cotton, argued in an online discussion that Rev. Clementa Pinckney, a state senator who was shot and killed in the attack, bore some responsibility for the deaths because he had opposed a change to South Carolina’s gun laws that would have made it legal to carry a concealed weapon into a church. He said, “Eight of his church members who might be alive if he had expressly allowed members to carry handguns in church are dead” (“N.R.A. Board Member Deletes Criticism of Victim in Church Massacre,” http://www.nytimes.com, 6/19/15). While these comments were abhorrent to me, it was not totally surprising to hear this coming from an N.R.A. representative. However, what has been most shocking is the number of Christians who have adopted and expressed this view in social media venues with no critical reflection on their own faith and what it means to be a Christian.

What would it mean for us to start bringing guns into church? I am not primarily interested in whether this would result in more safety or danger for our congregations. In my opinion, to focus on the practical effects serves to obscure the real issue for Christians. Indeed, to make a decision about guns in church simply based on the practical effects without any critical reflection on the relationship between power and salvation in the New Testament is already to capitulate to the anti-Christian idea that we should secure our own existence through violence, and the more subtle assumption that salvation somehow comes through force. The idea that one might be willing to die at the hands of someone filled with hatred to be a living and breathing testimony to the love of Christ and the power of cruciform love has become unthinkable for many in our churches today. While the soil of the early church was watered by the blood of Christian martyrs who knew the saving power of love and would rather die than engage in violent retaliation, martyrdom has become completely unthinkable in most Western churches today. I am increasingly convinced that this is a root problem when it comes to questions of gun control.

To say that we should not create more sensible gun control in our country because it would make it more difficult for law abiding citizens to purchase guns to protect themselves from criminals who easily get guns illegally in the streets is to completely miss the point. Indeed, to start with the question, “How can I secure myself?” is to obscure a deeper question, “Is securing my physical safety the most important thing in life?” If the life and theology of the early Christian community has anything to say about it, then the answer is clearly, no. Our ultimate concern should not be to secure our earthly life and well-being, but to live in obedience to God, even if that means dying.

So what does it mean to live in obedience to God? Christians answer this question by looking to the life, teachings, death, and resurrection of Jesus. So what message is proclaimed by Jesus Christ? In Matthew 5:38-39, Jesus say:

“You have heard that it was said, ‘Eye for eye, and tooth for tooth.’ But I tell you, do not resist an evil person. If anyone slaps you on the right cheek, turn to them the other cheek also.”

In Matthew 5:43-45, Jesus says:

“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.”

Without settling the issue on how these kinds of sayings in the Gospels can be deployed in politics, what do we do with these sayings on a personal level? How do we respond to Jesus? Was he not in some sense revealing the heart and character of God, and God’s strategy for defeating sin, evil, and death in this world? We are quick to dismiss these kinds of statements as rabbinic hyperbole, but this position is called into question when we realize that Jesus didn’t just say these things as a teacher, but lived them in a way that cost him his life!

For example, when the Romans came to take Jesus by force, which secured him for an eventual execution, Peter pulled out his sword to protect him. Jesus said, “Put your sword back into its place. For all who take the sword will perish by the sword” (Matthew 26:52). If we continue reading in this passage, it becomes clear in the story that Jesus could have protect himself and retaliated. He tells Peter that he could call twelve legions of angels to wipe out the enemy. But this was not a practical decision aim at protecting himself; it was a theological decision based on his understanding of God and the way God works in the world. It was a moral decision based on what it means to live as a reflection of God’s character in very concrete ways. The important point here is that Jesus could have resisted or retaliated, but he chose not to! He intentionally absorbed the hatred and violence in his body as an act of self-sacrificial love, precisely to save us from hatred and violence. This is how God saves the world, not by returning evil with evil, but by returning evil with good. It was precisely by not fighting back, by becoming defense-less, that Jesus was the clearest embodiment of the love of God. It was precisely by not fighting back that the saving power of love was released for the transformation of the world. In this way, God redefines power in the cross of Jesus Christ.

It is not only with his words, but also the shining example of his life, that he calls out to us: “Whoever wants to be my disciple must deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me.” This is what it means to be a Christian, to live and die like Jesus. How can we claim to be a Christian if our life is not in some sense cruciform? How can we claim the name of Christ if we do not bear testimony with our life and death to the saving and healing power of a self-sacrificial love, which is the only thing that can ultimately conquer violence?

If you want to understand the logic of the gospel of Jesus Christ, listen carefully to these words:

“Those who try to make their life secure will lose it, but those who lose their life will keep it.” (Luke 17:33)

Paul understood this well. As one who, prior to his conversion, used force and violence to accomplish his political, social, and religious agenda, he says after an encounter with the risen Christ, “Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good” (Romans 12:21). Again, we read in 1 Peter 3:9, “Do not repay evil with evil or insult with insult. On the contrary, repay evil with blessing, because to this you were called so that you may inherit a blessing.”

The problem is that most Christians find the way of the crucified Messiah unthinkable. I can just hear the internal dialogue: “Seriously? Refuse to resist an evil person and become defense-less in the face of violence? Turn the other cheek? Love my enemy? Pray for those who persecute me? Repay evil with good? Be willing to die in order to bear testimony to the love and saving power of God? Absorb violence self-sacrificially instead of retaliate?  Be willing to lose my life so I can find it? Well, that’s just crazy!” I know this is a hard message to hear, and to say that Jesus’ plea, “Come and die,” is “good news” just seems nuts. But there it is, and that is why it is easier to talk about gun control than the logic of the gospel, which is not “Take up your Glock and follow me,” but “Take up your cross and follow me.”

This Gospel runs contrary to our very nature. This Gospel is offensive. This Gospel strikes a deep cord of fear in our hearts. This is one reason why Jesus says repeatedly, “Do not be afraid.” He knew that once we really got what being a Christian is all about that it would terrify us. Many people want Jesus to save them from sin and hell, but they have no interest in following him to Golgatha. They want access to the power of God to secure their own existence, without a life structured by self-sacrificial love.

I remember when it was popular in youth groups to wear WWJD bracelets. While I don’t think that asking, “What would Jesus do?” provides easy answers to all of life’s questions, it can sometimes help focus us on what is most important. When thinking about the massacre at Emanuel AME church, what would Jesus have done if he were sitting in a pew when Dylann Roof opened fire? Would he have pulled a gun to shoot and possible kill this young man? Given everything I know about Jesus, I think it is safe to say “No!” Rather, I think he would have spread his arms wide in love, even if that meant giving his life to show this young man the way, the truth, and the life.  Jesus would rather die (and did) than use violence in an attempt to save us from violence. The day we capitulate to fear (and the consequent lust for power) by bringing guns into churches is the day the enemy has gained the upper hand in the struggle of good versus evil.

So what is the solution to violence in our country? I don’t have all the answers, but the Gospel seems to suggest that that we need fewer gun-slinging cowboys and more people for whom martyrdom is a real possibility if they are called to show with their death the truth of redeeming love. You might think that all of this crazy, and it is according to the standards of the world. Jesus knew this when he said, “Blessed is the one who is not offended by me” (Matthew 11:6). And Paul knew it too when he said, For the message of the cross is foolishness to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God” (1 Corinthians 1:18).

Brothers and sisters, it is one thing to say, “This Gospel is really hard, but I wish I had that kind of faith,” and it is another thing to say, “I refuse to accept the logic of the gospel and follow a crucified savior.” I often find myself deeply struggling with what it means to live a life of non-violent, self-sacrificial love. I am not recommending that we seek out martyrdom. The early Christians would have found this odd, because for them martyrdom is not something that we chose for ourselves, but a special calling with a special grace to witness to God’s love in a special circumstances that are in certain ways beyond our control. I certainly do not want to glorify suffering; human suffering is always heartbreaking, even when it is redeemed by God and yields unexpected goods. Like most human beings, I naturally want to defend myself and repay evil with evil. But I also want the voice of Jesus to penetrate my fear so I can clearly hear the truth, no matter how difficult it might be for me to accept. I want to have the courage, strength, and hope to follow his way, no matter what the cost. I want to grow so that my faith might shine as bright as the Christian martyrs both in the past and in the present, both at home and abroad. What would it be like to have that kind of faith? How would life be different if we were willing to fully trust God not only with our lives but also our deaths? What would it be like to drop our defenses and be so filled with love that we no longer fear death? Now that would be real power! This is the kind of power that was released when the families of those who were killed at Emanuel AME stood up and said, “I love you and forgive you!” May we aspire to have that kind of faith!