Don’t Waste Good Wine: Remaining Flexible in Times of Change

We are living in a time of rapid change and cultural upheaval. Most people don’t like change because it requires us to grieve losses, solve novel problems, and acquire new skills. Some even retreat into religious fundamentalism and a literalistic reading of the Bible to insulate themselves from the challenges that come in the wake of change. In retrospect, we can clearly see that this approach has always done more harm than good to the Christian community and the world it claims to serve. For example, fearful “change avoidance” has compelled Christians to use the Bible to attack modern science, defend slavery and segregation, and deny women equal rights. This impulse is grounded in the idea that unity is a divinely ordained homogeneity that must be defend against any intrusion of difference. Difference is seen as the source of division, as a dangerous enemy to be eradicated. But the New Testament casts a vision of unity that is grounded in and strengthen by diversity. This is a counterintuitive idea for many, and Jesus knew that we would never be able to grasp it unless we had flexible hearts and minds. I believe that this is why Jesus told the parable of the wine skins (Luke 5:36-39). In this message, I exegete this parable to suggest two things: (1) we need fresh interpretations scripture that will help Christians solve complex problems in their contemporary context, and (2) Christians need pliable hearts and minds to receiving and assimilate these new interpretations. If this message blesses you then please share it with others.

For those who would like to learn more about interpreting the Bible in light of some of the most important insights in contemporary biblical scholarship and Christian theology, I highly recommend a book written by Rev. Adam Hamilton, Making Sense of the Bible: Rediscovering the Power of Scripture Today. 

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!

It’s Dangerous to Read the Bible Too Literally: The Seeds of Religious Extremism

Civilization is being challenged by religious extremists around the world by groups like ISIS: violent invasions, the seizing of land and property, public executions, taking women captive as slaves, tearing down sacred places of worship, and destroying irreplaceable cultural artifacts. We read reports of public floggings, the imprisonment of women who are the victims of rape, the abuse of the heterodox, and the cutting off of people’s hands for petty crimes like stealing.

Most of us in the West become indignant, protest the uncivilized nature of these practices, and even sign online petitions to make our voice heard. As Christian communities in the West get news about other Christians being intentionally targeted and slaughtered in the most barbaric ways, we feel a special connection that generates empathy for the victims and rage against the perpetrators. We are tempted to think that Christianity is a religion of love and peace that serves as a civilizing force in society, while Islam is a religion of terrorism, hatred, and violence. Armed with the conviction that we are good and they are bad, our hatred is emboldened and we become blind to the seeds of the same kind of extremism and violence in our own sacred texts.

However, almost all the abhorrent practices that we condemn in Islamic extremism can be found in the Old Testament. There are too many examples to cite in a short blog post, but I implore you to read your Bible. As one example, I would invite you to read Deuteronomy 20-21 (and if you have time, go ahead and read through chapter 26). Here we read about brutal behavior that is not only considered permissible but commanded by God. By combining (1) a sense of manifest destiny as God’s chosen people with (2) a strict application of lex talionis and (3) a worldview shaped by a system of purity that requires the purging of all that is “unclean,” the author paints a picture of merciless conquest. We see the total annihilation of holy war: “[regarding the people in the land] that the LORD your God is giving you as an inheritance, you must not let anything that breathes remain alive. You shall annihilate them . . .” (Deut. 20:16-17). This supposed divine command includes the murder of women and children! As we read these chapters, we see violent invasion and conquest, along with practices such as seizing property, forced slave labor, taking women as captives and raping them to make them unwilling wives, tearing down places of worship, and destroying religious artifacts. As we continue reading in Deuteronomy we find other barbaric practices commanded by God such as the public execution of rebellious children (21:18-21), women who have sex before marriage (22:20-21), and anyone caught in adultery (22:22). We see racism in the exclusion of some people from worship (23:1ff), divine sanction for public floggings, and dismemberment as a punishment for petty crimes. Again, almost everything that we condemn as barbaric and hateful in our protests against Islamic extremism is found in our own sacred texts if we read them too literally.

In fact, one of the primary justifications of religious extremism is the literal reading of sacred texts. This has been pointed-out repeatedly by scholarly assessments of ISIS. For example, in the article written by Bernard Haykel in the Princeton Alumni Weekly (see link below) we are reminded that “The Islamic State is a Jihadi-Salafi movement, which means that its members adhere to a strict literalist interpretation of the texts of the Quran and the sayings of the Prophet Muhammad.” Wherever you find religious extremism that uses exclusion, violence, and fear to accomplish its purposes you will almost always find a literalist reading of sacred texts. While this is not the only cause of violent extremism, it is an important one.

While condemning Islamic extremism abroad, some fundamentalist Christians in America use a similar hermetical strategy to justify their own brand of extremism. While championing a literal reading of the Bible, most ignore almost all Old Testament laws until an ideological bear is poked. They will slog through a sea of divine commands and prohibitions in the Old Testament and quickly dismissing them as outdated or barbaric, until they find one or two verses that support their preconceived ideas about a politically charged moral issue. Once cherry-picked from their larger context, these verses are elevated to the infallible Word of God and used to condemn, exclude, and oppress perceived enemies.

It is not difficult to see that a strict literal reading of the Bible is actually reserved for a narrowly selected group of passages that can be used to justify moral (and political) positions that are developed quite independently of the Bible. Verses that are not helpful in supporting one’s ideology can be rejected as irrelevant, and those that are helpful are elevated as the inerrant word of God. So while the outward manifestations of extremism look very different when comparing middle-eastern Islamic fundamentalism and American Christian fundamentalism today, both seem to share the hermeneutical strategy of insisting on a literal reading of select passages of scripture to justify one’s extreme views.

 

(https://paw.princeton.edu/issues/2015/06/03/pages/0027/index.xml#.VW7Rby9Yo1g.facebook.)

Fear of Scarcity Should Not Determine Generosity

We live in a world of immense need, and often we are presented with opportunities to give: the offering plates are passed on Sunday morning, late night television commercials remind us of starving children, and organizations like the Red Cross launch text campaigns on social media to help those harmed by natural disaster. In moments when we are inspired to respond generously, we are tempted to think, “Finances are really tight right now and I don’t have anything to give.” This focus on lack of resources functions to silence the generous impulse. But this way of thinking in which the fear of scarcity forecloses on generous action is called into question by the apostle Paul in 2 Corinthians 8.

In this chapter, Paul brags on the churches of Macedonia because while they were enduring a time of severe affliction and living in extreme poverty they were still filled with “abundant joy” and showed extravagant generosity to “the poor.” Indeed, Paul explains, “they voluntarily gave according to their means, and even beyond their means, begging us earnestly for the privilege of sharing in this ministry to the saints . . .” (vv.3-4). How is this possible? How can people enduring severe affliction and extreme poverty exhibit abundant joy and radical generosity? Because they gave not according to what they did not have, but in accordance with what they did have (v.12). They didn’t start by asking, “Do I have enough to give?” which is a question driven by scarcity and fear. Rather, they started by asking, “Given what God has already placed in my hand, what can I freely share with others,” which is a question driven by abundance and gratitude. This change in perspective is exactly what is necessary to become a cheerful giver that activity reflects the extravagant generosity of God. This is the kind of giving that God desires from us, the kind of giving that makes sense of Jesus’ saying, “It is more blessed to give than receive” (Acts 20:35).

Is your worldview driven by scarcity or abundance? How would things change in your life if you focused on what you have to give not on what you don’t have to give?

Becoming a Holy Fool!

Western Christians seem hell-bent on saving themselves by intellectual work, by having the right beliefs or the correct interpretation of the Bible. Our culture indoctrinates us with the lordship of the rational mind that constantly organizes, categorizes, and analyzes in order to figure things out. Knowledge is power, so if we can figure something out then we can control it. Think about the way educators talk about students “mastering” a subject. There is much to be gained by this kind of thinking, but it can be deadly when we try to ultimately secure ourselves by means of rational control. But this is exactly what many are trying to do in the Western (especially Protestant) church. While it is difficult for us to admit, we speak out of two sides of our mouth! On the one hand we proclaim that salvation is a pure gift of love received in faith. On the other hand, we insist that salvation requires “the right” interpretation of scripture (i.e. my interpretation of scripture), or “the right” beliefs (i.e. my beliefs). So are we saved by God’s love or are we saved by intellectual work (which would be another way of trying to save ourselves)? I am not saying that systematic and constructive theology are unimportant. Nor am I saying that the content of our beliefs are unimportant; our beliefs profoundly shape who we are and how we act, for better or worse.  But I am saying that when we start tying salvation, as well as who should be included or excluded in the church, to having “the true” interpretation of scripture or “the right” beliefs, then we are slipping back into a form of works righteousness. (By the way, when someone says, “That’s not Biblical,” it is sometimes a passive-aggressive way of saying, “Don’t question my interpretation of the Bible!”)

I am becoming increasingly convinced that a big part of the solution to this problem is to balance our emphasis on the rational with a healthy dose of the contemplative. Richard Rohr says, “The final stage of the wisdom of faith is what we might call becoming a Holy Fool. Ironically the Holy Fool is one who knows that he doesn’t know but doesn’t need to know either . . . the Holy Fool doesn’t need to know. He obviously would like to know, but he is able to leave the full knowing to God” (Everything Belongs 123). Rohr calls the Western way of thinking “small mind” and the Eastern way of thinking “big mind,” and then says that true faith is a convergence of the two. This reminds me of Anselm’s dictum, “Faith seeking understanding,” with the qualification that at the end of the day we must stand silent before the mystery of God.

Many people have come to view the church with suspicion because of an apparent “bait and switch.” We say, “God loves you just the way you are and offers salvation as a pure gift of love,” and when they say, “I want this gift!” we reply, “You can have it if you interpret the Bible like we do and embrace the same beliefs (including social and political beliefs) that we do!” Indeed, social and political litmus tests come to determine who is an insider and who is an outsider, and the church builds ideological walls to keep the pollutants out! We condemn the most obvious expressions of this division, exclusion, and condemnation as distasteful (which is not really to do so in the cause of radical love), but are there remnants of Westboro-Baptist Church hiding in the corners of our hearts and churches? When you find them, they will not look anything like grace, nor will they align with Jesus’ constant command to be unified in love.

Oh how things would change if we could become more like the Holy Fool who doesn’t need to figure everything out and then use this “truth” to control, ridicule, exclude, and condemn to hell people who disagree. Oh how things would change if we could learn to be more patient with ambiguity, uncertainty, and even unknowing. I pray that we can all experience the inner freedom of not having to know (and therefore control) everything, so that we can find ways to be more unified in love.