Predestined to Hate Rob Bell

Weeks before Rob Bell’s newest book was released the claims of heresy started swirling.  People like Mark Driscoll, John Piper, and Justin Taylor had condemned him while only reading select excerpts or in some cases nothing at all.

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John Piper famously tweeted:  “Farewell, Rob Bell,” apparently insinuating that he was no longer considering him to be a fellow Christian.

And truly, I don’t blame him.  I don’t hold them responsible for this reckless criticism.  How could I?  They were predestined to do it.  It’s not as though they had a choice.  From the beginning of the world, they were fated to do this very thing.  It’s almost as if the words were typed into Twitter on their own.

Love Wins

I just finished reading “Love Wins” for myself yesterday.  And as I read it, I was struck by how orthodox it was.  Having watched the blog and twitter world for the last two weeks I expected to find the reincarnation of Buddha or the Wiccan “Rule of Three” being proclaimed by Rob Bell.

Turns out though, he still believes and follows Jesus.  He believes in His divinity.  And His humanity.  He thinks His sacrifice was the crucial point in human history that reconciled us to God, set us free from sin and defeats evil. He believes He died and came back to life.  He believes only through Christ can we experience true life, healing, salvation and wholeness, and that through him all things hold together.   He believes that what we do on this planet has real consequences, either for good or bad.  He states his belief in the “already-not yet” paradoxical components of heaven and hell.

And he believes in free-will.

Which is actually where I think the real problem lies.

Over and over in the book, Bell asserts that “real love” requires the capacity to deny or reject that love.  Love that is compelled is not truly love.

Much of his theology is based on the rules of this love.  Rules that God himself chooses to play by in order to allow our decisions the reality of significance.  And though he acknowledges our ability to deny it, Bell believes that God will never stop His divine attempts to woo, pursue, and offer us His incredible love.

Rob Bell, author of "Love Wins"

It is the topic of choice then that is on trial for many.  Does Rob Bell believe in hell?  Yes, both in the sense that it exists now and in the age to come.  But he believes God doesn’t SEND people there.  He believes people choose to live in hell now and presumably in the future as well.

What is on trial is not the existence of hell, but the parameters of human freedom and choice.

And by the way, this is not new.  Nor is it universalism.  And I’m sorry to ruin the hype, but it isn’t heresy by a long shot.

This book is controversial because there are many people who do not share the ‘free-will” or “open” view of the human condition.

We live in a time that is currently marked by a significant “resurgence” of the Reformed theology/Calvinists that believe that all things are determined in advance by God.  Or if you prefer to think of it in building terms, that God has a divine blueprint that shows every decision every person will make.  And not only does he know that decision, but that we are in fact created to make that decision.  It isn’t really a “decision” at all, just the appearance of one.

And if you read the reviews closely, I think you’ll find people coming down on this book mostly along those lines:  free-will or determinist.

Heretic! Heretic!

Though the “heretic” rhetoric is flying around more carelessly than radioactivity spewing out of a nuclear meltdown, this isn’t a new battle for these tribes.  This is an age-old disagreement clothed in different garments.

So don’t buy the hype.  Rob Bell isn’t tearing down Christianity or saying that any path you take will lead to eternal life.  He’s not a universalist or a heretic or a “wolf in sheep’s clothing”.  He’s just another guy contributing his voice to a long conversation of well intentioned followers of Jesus trying to make sense of the Divine.

And also, don’t be too hard on the Piper/Driscoll/Taylor clan.  It’s not their fault.  They were predestined to dislike Rob Bell.

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Would Jesus Make You Buy Health Insurance?

“What is the Christian response to healthcare reform?”

Facebook & Twitter are great for those kind of trap questions, aren’t they?

An incredibly complex topic (does anyone really know all the ramifications of reforming or not reforming?) about a controversial American bill (does anyone really know everything that is in this thing?) and you’ve got 140-characters to concisely explain the Bible’s definitive view (does anyone really know what 1st century Jesus & his disciples would actually think about 21st century American healthcare?) on something you’re really not sure about.  Hahaha… classic.

And yet, I’ve found myself answering this and a bunch of similar questions online a lot this week.  Really, they are the questions I’ve been asking in my head too, struggling to formulate an opinion.  Questions like:

“What is the Christian view of healthcare reform?”

I’ve read literally dozens of articles and blogs in recent days seeking to answer this very question.  Some people say that when Jesus said, “Love your neighbor as yourself” that he had this type of idea in mind: a society that progresses and values those who have more giving to those who have less.  Jesus, they say, would be all for this type of bill.

Other people use the same quote from Jesus to explain that he meant uncoerced, self-sacrificial love, not compelled assistance of those around us.  Jesus, they say, was not discussing government intervention, but individual generosity.  Clearly, Jesus would be against this type of bill.

“What would Jesus say about healthcare reform?”

He’d love it!  He’d hate it!  He compels us to support it!  He demands we reject it!  The views out there are strong, compelling and fairly exhaustive.

I can literally scroll through the newsfeed on Facebook and place people into their camp.  I read status updates like:

“healthcare reform is a sign of the end times.”

“win for Jesus, as healthcare reform passes.”

“I’m moving to Canada…wait… ughhhh”

“should we rename Reagan International Airport after Obama or Pelosi?”

I mean, who needs a USAToday poll about what people think when I can just read it on Twitter?

Now, of course, everyone’s got an opinion.  I myself have an opinion.  But, it turns out that Jesus has the same opinion we do too.  Whether we are pro-reform bill or anti-reform bill, it appears that Jesus is too.  We quote Jesus and explain our correct theology and justify why Jesus is on our side and not on the other.  But the reality is, either Jesus has gone schizophrenic or we have.  And one way or the other, God has some serious mental illness in his family.

“What do YOU think about healthcare reform?”

Maybe that’s a better question.  I’m not trying to ride the fence here and take the easy way out.  I’m not gonna say I think both sides are right and try and appease everyone.  I definitely have an opinion on this topic (however ill-informed it may be).  But, let me just OWN it.  It’s my opinion.  I don’t know what Jesus thinks.  My politics aren’t necessarily Jesus’ politics.

I formulate opinions based off what I believe to be true about Jesus, but as with many things in life, I operate out of faith and in environments where I don’t see clearly.  I stumble through decisions and opinions, praying they reflect Jesus heart, but sometimes unsure; many times evolving and changing as I learn and grow.

“What does Nick think, right now, about healthcare reform?”

I’m in favor of this healthcare reform.  I think its good for a whole lot of reasons that many other people have at great length explained.  But, I’m not writing this to convince you to agree with me or to argue that Jesus does.  In fact, I’m hesitant to say what I really think for fear it will come across that way.  I’m only saying what I think to show I’m not neutral.  I have an opinion.

But, it’s MY opinion.  I don’t speak for Jesus when it comes to politics.  No one does.

Does Jesus have a strong opinion about healthcare reform? Maybe.  But, he hasn’t ever told it to me.  I have absolutely zero words from Jesus (in the Bible or audible discussion) addressing the specific topic of the American healthcare system in 2010.  Everything I think and endorse in this arena is at best my limited view of what I “think” Jesus would approve of, and I’m completely open to thinking that possibly Jesus doesn’t really care one way or the other.

“So, Jesus isn’t on either side?”

Actually, I think it is a bit more profound than that.  Jesus is on BOTH sides.

As I scroll through my Facebook newsfeed I see many good people that I call “friends” outside a computer screen who deeply love and try to follow Jesus.  And as I divide them into their pro and anti reform bill categories, it occurs to me that I don’t have the market on Jesus any more than they do.

My anti-reform bill friends are trying their best in their experiential framework of life to reflect Jesus in the same way that I am with my framework.  We both agree that Jesus says, “Love your neighbors as yourself,” we just have different conclusions about what that looks like in Seattle, Washington in 2010.

When I claim Jesus is on my side, I’m right.  But so are they.

Will we ever agree on American politics?  Probably not.  But maybe we don’t need too.  Maybe we just don’t need to make Jesus agree with us either.

What About Romans 13?

Welcome back!  I know it has been a while since my last entry.  The summer months get kinda hectic for a youth pastor.  However, we are going to jump right back into our discussion on “Jesus & Non-violence” today with another guest blog.

(If you are just joining us, please consider getting caught up on our conversation through the links to the right.)

Shane Claiborne

Shane Claiborne

Today, I am excited to introduce someone to you that many of you know or have heard of already.  His name is Shane Claiborne.  He has written several well known books:

“The Irresistible Revolution”

“Jesus for President”.

I would highly recommend both of these books.  Shane has quickly become one of my favorite authors on this topic and I think you will appreciate his insights as well.

I asked Shane to help address a question that many of you have asked from the beginning of this conversation, which is “what about Romans 13?”  He agreed to participate in our blogalogue and submitted this article that I believe he wrote in tandem with his co-writer for “Jesus for President”, Chris Haw.

Thank you, Shane and Chris, for sharing your thoughts with us here!

Oh, and make sure to read the “footnotes” on this one… especially #3!

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The popularly misquoted Romans 13 is surrounded by exhortations to not conform to the patterns of the world, love one’s enemies, and overcome evil with good. The passage in 1 Peter 2: 13ff on submitting to authority is woven into a larger tapestry about Christians living as aliens and strangers to the ways of the world. So before we hastily jump to the conclusion that these passages support Christian war or violence, we must understand what they actually say and their placement in overarching New Testament themes.

Because of space limitations, we’ll address only Romans 13.  So, let’s start by reading Paul.

“Let everyone be subject to the governing authorities, for there is no authority except that which God has established. The authorities that exist have been established by God. Consequently, whoever rebels against the authority is rebelling against what God has instituted, and those who do so will bring judgment on themselves. For rulers hold no terror for those who do right, but for those who do wrong. Do you want to be free from fear of the one in authority? Then do what is right and you will be commended. 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. Therefore, it is necessary to submit to the authorities, not only because of possible punishment but also as a matter of conscience. This is also why you pay taxes, for the authorities are God’s servants, who give their full time to governing. Give to everyone what you owe: If you owe taxes, pay taxes; if revenue, then revenue; if respect, then respect; if honor, then honor.
(Romans 13:1–7)

Some talking points about this text. (1)

1.  To study any text with an appropriate sympathy, one must give it the benefit of the doubt before judging it.

"The Irresistible Revolution"

"The Irresistible Revolution"

One must allow the text to be “innocent until proven guilty.” This means we must assume that the author (in this case, Paul) is intelligent enough not to contradict himself or herself.  If there is coherence in Paul’s thought, then we can use his clear passages to illuminate passages that are harder to understand.  Granting this, we can assume that Paul’s point in Romans 13 harmonizes with the rest of his politics.  Without this initial sympathy, we might fail to understand a text.  The critical eye, squinting with distrust, cannot see clearly.

And it’s a disservice to an author to reconcile apparent contradictions in different texts by “balancing” them, concluding, for example, that “Christians need both a violent side and a peaceful side.”  Others simply write off Romans 13 as either a later compromise in Paul’s originally radical politics, or another author’s later addition to a largely nonconformist epistle.  But what if, instead of having two contradicting points, Paul had a single point?

Let’s assume that nowhere in Romans 13:1–7 is Paul saying anything that contradicts what he says at the end of the previous chapter:

“Bless those who persecute you; bless and do not curse. … Live in harmony with one another. … Do not repay anyone evil for evil. Be careful to do what is right in the eyes of everyone. If it is possible, as far as it depends on you, live at peace with everyone. Do not take revenge, my dear friends, but leave room for God’s wrath, for it is written: ‘It is mine to avenge; I will repay,’  says the Lord. On the contrary: ‘If your enemy is hungry, feed him; if he is thirsty, give him something to drink. In doing this, you will heap burning coals on his head.’

Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good.”
(Romans 12:14–21)

2.  Note that the text says God orders “all authority.”

As we asked before, what would this text sound like to a German Christian under Hitler’s rule or an Iraqi Christian under Saddam’s rule?  It is easy to blindly use this text to support some militaristic adventure of Constantine or the United States and assume its divine sanction, but this overlooks the fact that “all” must include all authorities: Nero, Domitian, Pilate, Mao Tse-tung, Saddam Hussein, Hitler’s Third Reich, and so on.

World_Greatest_Dictators_by_vherandAlso, there is no place in the text where these authorities, under the right conditions, are considered divinely inspired (therefore worthy of obedience) or, not meeting some criteria, are considered divinely condemned (therefore worthy of disobedience).  The text does not give ordination only to democratically elected governments, but includes dictators!

When certain governmental standards (which have been imported into this text from elsewhere) are not met, some Christians like to introduce an exception: “We must obey God rather than men.”  But this phrase was intended not to provide an exception to the rule but serve as a clue to the overarching politics of the people of God: they always obey God rather than men, and they always subordinate to all authorities.

That God establishes all authority does not mean that God approves of all authorities.  The point is rather that God is to be considered greater than, not equal to, all the powers of this world.  Even the best democracy in the world isn’t worthy of allegiance, for God is sovereign even over it.

trinity-college-library-dub

"God ordered authorities, like a librarian orders books..."

“Established” here means that God orders the powers, as a librarian orders books but doesn’t necessarily approve of their content.  After all, Paul speaks of a government that “rewards the just,” but he also has extensive experience with persecution under its rule, and John of Patmos later refers to the powers (in Revelation 13) as the great whore.

That God “ordered” pagan Assyria to chastise Israel (Isaiah 10) is similar to Paul’s point.  Isaiah made no hint that God approved Assyria or the violence it used, but Israel was to trust that, in their suffering, they were not outside of God’s sovereignty.

Jesus echoed this belief when he declared to Pilate, “You would have no power if it were not given to you from above,” while obviously acknowledging Pilate’s abuse of this power.

Or remember back to when Israel demanded a king despite God’s warnings of what kings would do to them, and “in God’s anger God gave them a king.”

And now we ask God to save us from ourselves and our kings and presidents.

3.  Because Paul gives no conditions for a disciple to be subordinate to the authorities, we see he is talking about something deeper than disobedience or obedience.

Paul, in fact, did not use the word obey (which would imply the sense of bending one’s will). He used the word subordinate, which means that you simply consider yourself under their order.  This word is not about patriotism, pledging allegiance, or any affection for the powers.  Paul isn’t trying to convince unpatriotic Christians to pledge better allegiance.   Rather, Paul’s problem is the opposite: he must convince Christians, who are not conforming to the patterns of this world, not to overthrow the government! (2)

"Jesus for President"

"Jesus for President"

Paul is helping disciples understand the futility of such endeavors, encouraging them to keep on the path described in Romans 12 (and all of Jesus’ life and teaching), and not fly off into a new and hopeless project of vying for power. As Paul makes clear in chapters 9 through 11, Gentiles need to see themselves not as participants in the political dramas of upheavals and revolutions but as part of the set-apart people of God which were begun through Abraham and Sarah.

Subordination is not simply a helpful spiritual caveat to remind the Christian to stay humble.  It’s a necessary safeguard against violence and power.  It’s difficult to find a time in history when the revolutionary, through violence and coercion, doesn’t become a new oppressor.  Jesus knew this was the case in his people’s recent history with the Maccabeans.  Thus Jesus rejected the Zealots’ goal to “take the power back” from Herod or Pilate.  Paul too is rejecting the Zealots’ impulse and opting for revolutionary subordination.  As with Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings trilogy, the only thing that should be done with the ring of power is dissolve it in the fire, not put it in the hands of “a pious man.”

If this ever becomes confusing, one need simply look at the example of Jesus’ death at the hands of the powers to understand subordination.  The way Jesus interacted with the temple courts and with Pilate displays a subordinate yet revolutionary heart.  Jesus never obeyed their whims and wishes—indeed, his wild action in the temple precipitated his arrest—and yet he also nonviolently subordinated to arrest. (3) He understood the powers as fallen but lovingly navigated through their hands, speaking truth that their power had blinded them to.

To overcome evil, he would not resist it but suffered and absorbed it.

4.   The text does not sanction the Christian to take up arms or even try to become the one who “governs by the sword.”

Many warrior Christians like to refer to the “just war tradition.”  And apparently Romans 13 is at the heart of this theory’s constitution.  As you read through the text, you’ll notice there is no place where sanction is given to the Christian to take up arms or even try to become the one who “governs by the sword.”  Indeed, the Christian identity is upheld in this text, as it was a chapter before, as radically distinct from the powers.

For Paul, the powers and the state are clearly a “they,” because he pledges allegiance to another Lord.  Much just-war reflection fails not only in its logic and application but also in its preconception: their “we” is not the church but the state.  In response to the question, “What should we have done in World War II?” we must ask, “Who is we?”

faith-and-politicsIf you are a Christian and your citizenship is in Jesus’ kingdom, reflection begins not with the powers but with the church.  The church should not have religiously supported, fought for, and obeyed Hitler.  The church should have been enacting the teachings of Jesus.  The church should have been taking in Jews and others who were hunted.  In many instances the church was doing these things, but this is not the history we learn.  Each of these instances, as in the case of Schindler or in our Celestin story or with the midwives in Egypt, are acts of holy subversion and disobedience. We are blessed to learn the lessons of history through the small, faithful ones in the Church (instead of through gigantic military history).

Not only does Romans 13 make no mention of Christians and the sword, it also doesn’t talk about the state and war.  When the text refers to the sword (v. 4, machiara: “short dagger”), the Greek word used refers not to war but to the symbol of local policing—it is the sword Roman officers would carry while accompanying tax-collectors.  There are many Greek words that refer to war, but machiara is not one of them.

But if we must talk about the state and war, “just war” is the most identifiable tradition in the church.  If Christians actually held to this theory, they would never go off to war.  Just-war theory isn’t a “justify any war” theory.  It defines a just war by stringent criteria and was intended to criticize governments, minimize violence, and define several reasons wars were wrong.  It should not be used to encourage Christians to abandon Jesus’ teachings.

5.  Only when the state resists evil and rewards good can the state be considered God’s servant.

The conditional word “attending” (also “give their full” v. 6, proskarterountes) helps us read the verse to say “they are servants of God insofar as they busy themselves with governing (resisting evil and rewarding good).”  When this condition is met, it’s not as if the Christian would join in resisting evil—no, they are still called to overcome evil as agents of the gospel, not agents of wrath.  And as we said before, if this condition is not met, it’s not as if Christians are justified in overthrowing the government either! (4)

In a similar way, the fact that the prophets speak of what a good king should do doesn’t change the fact that kings were not part of God’s original plan but a breaking of God’s heart (1 Samuel 8).  The condition is simply to define for the Christian a broad conception of what the state is doing, which is not what the Christian is doing. (5) The act of resisting evil is what Paul and Jesus explicitly prohibited for Christians (Romans 12; Matthew 5).

carew6It may be argued that this reading of Romans 13 leaves the dirty work of violence to the state while Christians keep their hands clean. Paul, indeed, understands that the powers play a role.  (Paul had been protected from riot violence by this pagan government.  Doubtlessly he was grateful for this, but he also seemed to be indifferent to this protection when he declared, “To live is Christ and to die is gain.”)  The powers’ role is simply part of the old order that is passing away and crumbling.

It’s as if an old castle, deteriorating and full of holes in the walls from war, is being rebuilt.  The powers, partly responsible for creating the cycles of war, protect the castle from further bombing and set up scaffolds and girders to keep the building from crumbling on everyone’s heads.  They mitigate the mess they haven’t yet become convinced to stop making.  Meanwhile, those committed (the church) to the renewed castle make peace between the warriors who destroyed the castle, redesign its architecture, rework the plumbing, and so on.  But if the reworkers resort to constructing gun turrets on the walls, they simply assure the tightening of the cycle that destroyed everything.

This analogy, like any, falls short.  But the picture is that the old order plays a role, but it’s a limited and largely negative role.  Rather than trying to save a sinking ship, Christians are to be helping people get into lifeboats.  To the extent that people play a part in the old order of violence and power, they prolong and maintain it.

Put simply, “the most effective way to contribute to the preservation of society in the old aeon is to live in the new.” (6)

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footnotes:

(1)   It would be hard to cite all of the places where John Yoder has influenced these short observations. His remarks in The Politics of Jesus (especially the chapter “Let Every Soul Be Subject”) have thoroughly influenced our understanding. Readers would do well to go beyond our sketch and read his work and the works from which he draws.

(2)  A few years before this epistle Priscilla and Aquila had been expelled from Rome in connection with a tax revolt, and a new revolt was brewing under Nero. Paul’s point is that the insurrectionist motives behind this are missing the gospel’s methods of revolution. (See Klaus Wengst, The Pax Romana and the Peace of Jesus Christ (Philadelphia: Fortress, 1987), 82.

(3)  “The conscientious objector who refuses to do what a government demands, but still remains under the sovereignty of that government and accepts the penalties which it imposes, or the Christian who refuses to worship Caesar but still permits Caesar to put him or her to death, is being subordinate even though not obeying” (John Howard Yoder, The Politics of Jesus [Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1994], 209).

(4)  “The conception of a ‘state properly so called,’ in the name of which one would reject and seek to overthrow the state which exists empirically, is totally absent in the passage. In the social context of the Jewish Christians in Rome, the whole point of the passage was to take out of their minds any concept of rebellion against or even emotional rejection of this corrupt pagan government” (Yoder, Politics of Jesus, 200).

(5)  “Christians are told (12:19) to never exercise vengeance but to leave it to God and to wrath. Then the authorities are recognized (13:14) as executing the particular function which the Christian was to leave to God … the function exercised by the government is not the function exercised by the Christians” (Yoder, Politics of Jesus, 198).

(6)  John Howard Yoder, The Original Revolution (Scottdale, PA: Herald Press, 2003), 83.

When My People Prey – (Part 1)

I’m really excited to introduce to you today an exceptional guest who will be helping us in our discussion on “Jesus and Non-violence”!!

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Dr. Brad Cole & family

This is Dr. Brad Cole and he is going to be assisting us in understanding how to make sense of all the violence we find in the Old Testament; a tough topic whether you are a pacifist or a “just-war” proponent.

Brad and his wife Dorothee are both neurologists and he is the course director for the 1st and 2nd year neuroscience medical students at Loma Linda University.  Brad has a weekly bible study with the medical students. The video and recordings of this can be found at www.godscharacter.com. You can read his full bio HERE.

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Check out Brad's website HERE!

Because this topic is such a vast one, Brad has put in a great deal of effort to be thorough and I think you will appreciate the result.  However, because of the length, we will be breaking his essay into TWO posts.  And though it is a bit of reading, I promise you will not be disappointed.  Brad has a lot of answers to the questions that many of you have asked.    Welcome to the conversation, Brad!

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“Come and see what the LORD has done. See what amazing things he has done on earth. He stops wars all over the world; he breaks bows, destroys spears, and sets shields on fire. ‘Stop fighting,’ he says, ‘and know that I am God, supreme among the nations, supreme over the world.’”
(Psalm 46:8-10)

gq

click here to see the full slideshow

Many read the Bible and conclude that there are legitimate situations that call for a violent response. In fact, many have quoted scripture to support violent actions and we don’t need to go back to the Crusades for examples of this. Just last month it was revealed that Donald Rumsfeld extensively used Bible quotes in his daily briefings to George Bush with regards to the Iraq war.

These included “rah-rah” photographs of American soldiers with captions such as “Therefore put on the full armor of God…” (Eph. 6:13)

Another photo depicted soldiers kneeling in prayer next to the words, “Whom shall I send, and who will go for us? Here I am Lord, Send me. ”  (Isaiah 6:8)

And finally there was a picture of Saddam Hussein next to the verse, “It is God’s will that by doing good you should silence the ignorant talk of foolish men.”  (1 Peter 2:15)

At the same time, however, it seems to me that there is a recent ground swell of individuals who believe that the Kingdom of Christ should never use violent means, even against enemies. I am not referring to a group of politically motivated individuals, or an anti-Bush, anti-Iraq war crowd. Rather, it seems to me that there is a growing movement that is seeing with greater clarity that the Kingdom of Christ is nothing like any kingdom of the world.

gq_rumsfeld_briefing_s10_090517a

click here to see the full slideshow

The verses used by Rumsfeld were so radically taken out of context. Their use to support violence of any kind was nothing short of dishonest. It seems to me that he could have made a much better case for going to war in the name of God if he had wanted to, because of course the Bible does records times when God told his people to fight. Imagine if Rumsfeld had quoted these words of God:

“Go and attack the Amalekites and completely destroy everything they have. Don’t leave a thing; kill all the men, women, children, and babies; the cattle, sheep, camels, and donkeys.”
(1 Samuel 15:3)

Perhaps words like this were too strong – even for someone like Rumsfeld – and here is the real challenge for those who make the claim that Christians should advocate absolute nonviolence. If the Bible records God as commanding his people to fight and even to kill babies on occasion, how is it possible for anyone who holds the Bible to be the inspired word of God to take this position?

Most who advocate nonviolence have focused their arguments on the teaching of Christ who never killed or hit anyone. As Alden Thompson said, “When he cleansed the temple, he attacked the furniture, not the people.” (1)   The teachings of Christ really cannot be used to support violence of any kind, although some have tried. For example, Jesus’ words about the disciples needing 2 swords have been used as a point in favor of violence, but I love the quote that Nick Loyd found on this:

“Two swords for twelve Apostles? Truly they are dull scholars who thence infer he meant that they should literally buy two swords to fight with!” (2)

The real challenge to nonviolence lies in the Old Testament and so we must first spend a little time reviewing some violent history.

1.    Jesus: God of the Old Testament

The first option we need to dismiss immediately in trying to reconcile “Gentle Jesus and his violent Bible” (3)  is to split the Trinity in any way.  Many times Jesus referred to himself as the “I AM” – the same title God used when he spoke to Moses at the burning bush.

hagia_sophia_vestibule_christ_mosaicPaul said that the God who went with the children of Israel was Christ:

“All ate the same spiritual bread and drank the same spiritual drink. They drank from the spiritual rock that went with them; and that rock was Christ himself.”
(1 Corinthians 10:3-4)

And Jesus would explain that the entire Bible is the story of him – the Son of God:

“You have your heads in your Bibles constantly because you think you’ll find eternal life there. But you miss the forest for the trees. These Scriptures are all about me!”
(John 5:39)

But even if someone were to take the position that it was the Father who spoke and did all those things in the Old Testament, that shouldn’t change a thing. In Jesus we can say that the Father and Son are precisely the same in heart, mind, and character.

“For a long time I have been with you all; yet you do not know me, Philip? Whoever has seen me has seen the Father. Why, then, do you say, ‘Show us the Father’?’”
(John 14:8-9)

Somehow we need to wrap our minds around the fact that Jesus was the God of the Old Testament. If that paradox doesn’t immediately fry our neurons, let’s try to think this through.

2.    God stoops to meet us where we are

We often view God as inflexible, changeless (“I change not!” — Mal. 3:6) and that his every word and action must reflect the absolute ideal. That is not the story of the Bible, however, which reveals countless examples of God “giving in” to something that was light years from the ideal. This was how Jesus explained the Old Testament. For example, after he seemed to contradict the Old Testament divorce laws,

Divorce“Some Pharisees came and tried to trap Him with this question: ‘Should a man be allowed to divorce his wife for just any reason?’ ‘Haven’t you read the Scriptures?’ Jesus replied. ‘They record that from the beginning ‘God made them male and female.’ And He said, ‘This explains why a man leaves his father and mother and is joined to his wife, and the two are united into one.’ Since they are no longer two but one, let no one split apart what God has joined together.’ ‘Then why did Moses say in the law that a man could give his wife a written notice of divorce and send her away?’ they asked.
(Matthew 19:3-7)

Please don’t miss Jesus’ spectacular reply – this is critically important to our question:

‘Moses permitted divorce only as a concession to your hard hearts, but it was not what God had originally intended.’”
(Matthew 19:8)

In the Old Testament, divorce was remarkably cruel. You don’t like your wife, get rid of her and bring a new one in the following week. You don’t like her, send her out on the streets and get another. It was the essentially the end of that woman’s life. Something had to be done and so we have Old Testament divorce rules. But notice, Jesus’ explanation of why the Old Testament divorce rules were given explains at least half of the hard to understand rules and stories in the Old Testament. Jesus admits in this explanation that his actions and rules in the Old Testament do not reflect the ideal – far from the ideal, in fact. What Jesus is saying is that “in your hard-hearted rebellion I had to say things and do things as a concession because it was the only way that I could reach you. It was not what I had intended.”

In the Old Testament we see God stooping to meet a rebellious people:

“I did his, because they had rejected my commands, broken my laws, profaned the Sabbath, and worshiped the same idols their ancestors had served. Then I gave them laws that are not good and commands that do not bring life.”
(Ezekiel 20:24-25)

jesuswashingfeet

Good News Tour Conference

Rather than abandoning his people forever, God gave them laws and commands that were “not good” and that did not reflect the ideal of character or his kingdom. But yet, this was apparently the only way he could stay in contact with them.

Let’s briefly list some of the many examples of God “giving in” to something that was not the ideal and I will try to lay this as a foundation for all the fighting and violence as well:

A.    Polygamy:

The practice of polygamy was common in Old Testament times, even among “men of faith” like Abraham, David and Solomon. It seems that it would have been “too much, too fast” for God to go on record as saying “I forbid polygamy!” Instead, God condescended to allow for the practice, but with stipulations to move his people in the right direction,

“If a man takes a second wife, he must continue to give his first wife the same amount of food and clothing and the same rights that she had before.”
(Exodus 21:10)

Rather than bluntly laying down the law from the onset, “I forbid polygamy”, God tried to make this horrible practice more humane until he could finally lead his people away from it altogether.

B.    Private vengeance:

In Old Testament times, if you were chopping wood and the blade flew off your axe and killed someone walking by, under the accepted system of private vengeance it would be expected for the family of that man to hunt you down and kill you – even though everyone would acknowledge that it was an accident. And so God, rather than saying “I forbid private vengeance” (once again “too much, too fast”) created a safe place to flee. When the high priest died (which might be decades later), the obligation was fulfilled and finally the man could leave that city. Is this the ideal? No, this is the God patiently nudging the people in the right direction.

C.    The monarchy:

Did God approve of the monarchy? Instinctively we might say “yes” as we think of King David and that Jesus was a descendant of David, but yet this was not God’s plan. The people said, “We want a king” God said, “No you don’t. That’s a terrible idea. He will take your men to fight for him. He will take your women to join his harem? He’ll raise your taxes. Don’t do it!” The people said, “No, we want a king.” Remarkably, God’s reply, after telling them that it was a terrible idea was to say,

“Do what they want and give them a king.”
(1 Samuel 8:22)

Once again, God gave in to their desire, but it was not his plan.

D.    False conception of justice:

As the people entered the Promised Land, we discover that their conception of “justice” was distorted. This is revealed by their words to Joshua,

“Whoever question your authority or disobeys any of your orders will be put to death.”
(Joshua 1:18)

Had the disciples said this to Jesus we can be sure that his rebuke would have been severe and to the point. But when we understand that this is the standard of justice at this time, we realize that what Achan did just a few days later was to disobey God. If disobeying Joshua should result in death, then what should the penalty be for disobeying God? Do you see the dilemma God is in?

superstock_999-493_b~Achan-and-His-Family-Stoned-to-Death-Posters

Achan & family stoned to death

Tim Jennings has a very good illustration on this point (4).   A few years ago an Iraqi grocer and his family were killed and the grocery store was burned down because he had the audacity to place celery sticks next to tomatoes. What’s the problem with that, you ask? Some felt that this was highly offensive because it could be interpreted as an erect male and so he was killed.

Now, if you were appointed governor of this town and you were creating law, let’s say that you decided that drunk driving was serious and that you wanted a penalty that was sufficient to deter this behavior. Suppose that you chose a $500 fine and 5 days in jail. What would this imply to the people? If celery sticks next to tomatoes results in death, would this not suggest that drunk driving is far less serious? How do you effectively reach people when their sense of justice is entirely warped?

But, of course, the other difficult aspect of Achan’s story is that not only was Achan stoned to death, but also his wife, children…even the pets. Why? Once again, we are dealing with a culture, time, and a conception of justice that is so different from ours. In our time and society, we champion freedom and we are deeply individualistic, but this was not true in Achan’s time. During this time, one’s person and one’s personality extended to the entire family and so Achan’s sin, in the minds of the people, equally involved everyone in his family (5).  And so, once again, God condescended to work within a system of justice that we cannot identify with and that was far, far, from the ideal – and I think it made God sick.

E.    “Eye for an eye”:

Jesus didn’t deny that he gave the rule “An eye for an eye” during a chaotic and violent time, but he did forbid this practice for his followers, once again implying that this rule was given only to reach us in our heard hearted rebellion.

“You have heard that it was said, ‘An eye for an eye, and a tooth for a tooth.’ But now I tell you: do not take revenge on someone who wrongs you…You have heard that it was said, ‘Love your friends, hate your enemies.’ But now I tell you: love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, so that you may become the children of your Father in heaven.”
(Matthew 5:38-44)

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"You have heard it said, "An eye for an eye, and a tooth for a tooth..."

Despite these clear and cutting words of Jesus, Christians still generally practice “eye for an eye” methods in the world but yet we are commanded by Christ to “not take revenge on someone who wrongs you.” And so when one country A bombs country B because they have been wronged, call that violent response whatever you want, but do not call it a “Christian” action or associated it with the name “Christ” in any way! The words bear repeating: “Do not take revenge on someone who wrongs you…love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you.”

In Jesus we can say that Gandhi was right, “An eye for an eye makes the whole world blind.”

F.    Women:

Examples of God giving in to something that is far less than the ideal come from the New Testament as well. When Paul was dealing with the church of Corinth which was coming out of idolatrous worship, he had to use these same methods. A man was sleeping with his step-mother, people were getting drunk at the Lord’s Supper, and the worship experience was chaotic. Just down the street in Corinth was the Temple of Apollo. According to legendary accounts, there may have been as many as 1,000 temple prostitutes who “served” at any given time in this temple. In order to lead these immature Christians away from this form of false worship and everything associated with it, Paul had to say this:

“…God does not want us to be in disorder but in harmony and peace. As in all the churches of God’s people, the women should keep quiet in the meetings. They are not allowed to speak…If they want to find out about something, they should ask their husbands at home. It is a disgraceful thing for a woman to speak in a church meeting.”
(1 Corinthians 14:33-35)

Is this the ideal or is Paul meeting these people where they are?

footnotes:

(1)  Good News Tour conference 2006
(2)  Alexander Campbell, “An Address on War”, Millenial Harbinger, 1848, pg. 375
(3)  A great sermon title by Alden Thompson
(4)  Good News Tour, 2007
(5)  This is known as “corporate justice”

———————————————————————————————————————————————

Okay, lots to chew on… Even though I’m totally impatient and excited to show you the rest of the essay, I’ll post PART 2 in a few days to give you some time to read all the way through it.

Keep thinking!

God’s Character in Reverse

Welcome.  We are in a little discussion series on whether or not Christians should be involved in violence for any reason.  I’m assuming that most Christians believe that unprovoked violence is wrong, so we will be spending most our time thinking about national violence (military), self-defensive violence (fighting or killing only when your own life is in jeopardy), and protective violence (done to protect another person).

It is a discussion that, apparently, is controversial for many people, especially Christians.

pacifism1Which, I admit, is kind of strange to me.  I obviously expect that many Christians are pro-national violence (at least as it relates to their own country), however it somewhat surprises me that these people are so vehemently opposed to the suggestion that Christ calls us to a life of non-violence.  I understand the general disagreement.  But, were I just to read the Gospels (the story of Jesus), I would assume the controversial issue would be that any Christian might actually think that violence of any kind was okay.

All that to say, from everything we know about Jesus, it seems weird to me that the non-violent position is in the minority, at least in Western Christianity.  But, I suppose that is why we are having this discussion in the first place.  And as Memorial Day approaches, it is a good time for us to think through these issues more fully.

Now there are many Scriptures that are debated and scrutinized in this dialogue, and we will be looking at these texts over the next several days.  Many of these surround God’s involvement in the nation of Israel’s military violence in the Old Testament.   Also, there are many philosophical challenges to Jesus’ way of non-violence that are often mentioned and we will deal with those as well.

However, I’d like to have us start by laying a foundation for all of this discussion somewhere else, before we dig into the rest of the arguments.  So, put aside all of this anxiously awaited fodder and lets begin somewhere more broadly.

In this post, then, I’d like us to look at where we gather our primary pictures and assumptions of God’s character.  In other words, what is our main source for knowing what God is actually like?

Youth pastors, preachers, and well-meaning leaders have told me since I was very little that I get to know who God is best through the Bible.  And while I have found this to be quite true, I have also found that it was not quite specific enough.  Through the Bible, God gives his very specific direction on how to know who He is and what He is like.

Let’s take a look at this direction:

reading-bible-blueIn Christ all the fullness of the Deity lives in bodily form”  (Colossians 2:9-10)

Jesus answered: “Don’t you know me, Philip, even after I have been among you such a long time? Anyone who has seen me has seen the Father. How can you say, ‘Show us the Father’?  (John 14:9)

He is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn over all creation.” (Colossians 1:15)

“No one has ever seen God, but God the One and Only (Jesus), who is at the Father’s side, has made him known. (John 1:18)

In other words, God says, “you want to know who I am and what I am like?  Okay, here I am.  I am exactly like this.  Like Jesus.”   He even goes so far as to say that Jesus has made God known, as if until Jesus we didn’t fully know who God was.  Apparently, as good as the stories in the Old Testament are, they didn’t reveal God adequately.

Only the Incarnate Son is an appropriate full-picture of God.

The writer of Hebrews (whoever she was) put it most directly like this:

1In the past God spoke to our forefathers through the prophets at many times and in various ways, 2but in these last days he has spoken to us by his Son, whom he appointed heir of all things, and through whom he made the universe. 3The Son is the radiance of God’s glory and the exact representation of his being, sustaining all things by his powerful word. After he had provided purification for sins, he sat down at the right hand of the Majesty in heaven.  (Hebrews 1:1-3)

Did you catch that?  (I hope so; I underlined it and made it bold).  Jesus is the EXACT REPRESENTATION of God’s being.  Nothing defines God like Jesus.  He is not an approximate picture of God, or just one side or facet of God.  He is not the non-violent side of an otherwise “just war” God.  He is the EXACT REPRESENTATION.

hagia_sophia_vestibule_christ_mosaicNow, because Jesus is the fullest picture of God, when it comes to the Bible, I am compelled to read everything through the eyes of Jesus.   As this applies to our discussion at hand, it means that I must fit any violent stories of the Old Testament (which are problematic) into what I know of Jesus as revealed in the New Testament, not the other way around.

For instance, many people read stories in the Old Testament and glean what they perceive are “attributes” or “characteristics” of God from these stories and then apply them to their picture of Jesus.   In this case, since God involves himself in the violent battles of the Israelites, then we assume that this “necessary violence” is something Jesus would condone (even if it apparently includes mass infanticide and genocide).

However, when God directs us to know Him through Jesus most perfectly, we are called to learn His character backwards.  We learn what God is like by observing and studying Jesus and then read backward through the Old Testament through His lens.

Whatever these violent stories may mean (some are more confusing than others), through the primacy of Christ we regard them as an incomplete and inadequate picture.  Where they contradict what we see in Jesus (war, genocide, even self-defensive violence), we embrace Jesus’ way as the EXACT REPRESENTATION of God, and find some other way to make sense of them.

Interestingly, I believe this is why Jesus’ time on this earth was so long.   Certainly the death of Jesus was important in freeing us from the bondage of our brokenness, but his life was equally as important.  For in his life, and ultimately in his self-sacrificial manner of death (the final exclamation point to how we should respond to violence), God demonstrates his character and what he desires.  He lives and interacts with people and finally dies non-violent in the face of violence to show THE EXACT REPRESENTATION of God.

The problem of violence in the Old Testament is admittedly uncomfortable, but however these scenes are explained, as followers of Christ we are compelled to not use them to create pictures of God that are contradictory to what we plainly see in Jesus.

Ok.  That’s enough for today.  We’ll jump into some more tangible parts of the discussion in the next post.

Happy Thinking…

No Gimmicks, Just Love

I had never built a raging bonfire in someone’s front yard before. But, i gotta say, it was a lot of fun. As we piled boards and tree limbs taller than ourselves, flames leaped above us engulfing it all.

But, we weren’t there because of the fire. We were there because of the water.

Six months ago in a very small community around Chehalis, Washington, one of the most devastating floods to ever hit our state destroyed the little city of Adna. An estimated 20 inches of rain fell in only 24 hours. But, it wasn’t just the rain. It was the snow it melted with it. And together they caused a flood that buried our main freeway in Washington (I-5) 12 feet under water for days and nearly washed away poor Adna.

Where we were standing today, water had invaded at the height of 8 ft, raging straight through downtown, though people’s homes and at the rate of a class three rapid. It ripped houses clear off their foundation, piled mud several feet deep inside their homes, and took cars, trees, and animals all with it. The lady whose house we stood at today, along with most of her neighbors, were rescued only by going to the upper levels of their house and eventually by rescue helicopters that were the only way out of the ocean of water around them. In fact, she had only just moved back into her house two days ago…six months later!

And so today, we gathered up what was left of her garage that had been pulled down, and carried it into a giant rotten pile, and burned it.

I guess we were used to seeing this type of stuff by now. For the last three weekends, our youth staff has taken high school students from our church down to Chehalis to help clean-up people’s property and restore their land and their homes. And during that time, we have burned plenty. We have shoveled tons of mud. We leveled ground. We built fences. We crawled in dark, dirty places and scooped and vacuumed dried mud. We cleared debris and brush.

But, i think most of all, we learned people’s stories. We met Darryl, who was gone with his wife on vacation when the storm hit. They came home to a house buried in at least four feet of mud. We met Jan, who watched her entire neighborhood disappear, only to be rescued in distress by the helicopter. We met Steve, who lost his entire house, and is now rebuilding. And many more.

My favorite, though, was Dennis. Dennis is the preacher of the little evangelical church in Adna. He showed us his completely gutted church building today and told us their story. They weren’t home either when the flood came. But the damage to their home and the church next door was near total. FEMA estimated their total loss at about $180,000, which is a lot for a church of 50 people to overcome. He told us that there were times he didn’t think it could be done.

But, that was before the Christians showed up. Immediately after the disaster, churches mobilized and came to help. They tore out flooring and wall board. They dug out houses from mud. And they helped begin the restoration of this tiny church in Adna you’ll probably never visit or hear about.

His doubt was before people in the community sold property elsewhere and gave gifts of $5,000 at a time for rebuilding. It was before a small church of 100 people in Oregon felt that God was calling them to give their entire savings nest egg of $10,000 to help them.

And it was at this point in the story that Dennis said something that moved me. “Look around. Things were really bad here. And at times we have wanted to give up. We get weary of all this. And in one way we wish this were over. But, we would never choose to take it away and not go through it. God has taught us so much about trusting Him.”

Easy for a preacher to say? Maybe. But tougher for a preacher that has lost nearly all of his own personal belongings.

But it wasn’t just this preacher. It was the whole community. Nearly everyone we helped in the last three weeks said two things: 1) the flood had brought about so much good (even Adna has cellphone service now because relief groups came down and didn’t have cell coverage and went home and complained to their cellphone companies and they built several cell towers!) and 2) it was these crazy followers of Christ that are the only reason they are there today.

My new friend, Darryl, isn’t a Christian. But, even he noticed the large outpouring of love from these Christ-followers. He told me, “When i saw the damage, I told my wife, let’s get out of here. It is time to just move on and start over somewhere else.” You know why he stayed? In his words, “well, the church showed up.”

And not just the local Adna church. The Church showed up. All of them. From all traditions, backgrounds and theologies. Working side by side, they helped dig Darryl’s house out of the mud, demo it all the way down to the studs, and rebuild it so that he and his wife can live in it today.

Mud. Piles of debris. Blisters. Sunburn. Fence-post diggers. Burn piles.

It was the most beautiful thing I have seen in a long time.

I know a lot of people have a really suspicious and even bad mindset toward Christians today. I even understand why. I think i do too, sometimes.

But, I’ll tell you who doesn’t. The beautiful people of Adna. They aren’t suspicious. They are overwhelmed with gratitude and love. No one loves the church more than them.

Wanna know something crazy? The little evangelical church in Adna has grown almost 50% since the flood. So has the little church nearby in Boistfort, WA. And so have many more.

And every one of them knows it’s grown because of the sacrificial love they have shown, impartially, to those around them in need. But that isn’t why they did it.

And really, that’s exactly why it’s worked.