Adding to the confusion

One of my non-Christian friends emailed me a couple weeks ago, asking me what the Bible said about killing and murder. He was alluding to the Ten Commandments, and so I told him that the Bible said, no murder (short version), and more generally spoke of a consistent ethic of life and of the value of human life. A few days later, he emailed me back.

“So you should not murder, and therefore the death penalty is abhorrent to all Christians? Sorry if this sounds simplistic.” (My paraphrase.)

I haven’t replied yet, because this could be a paper topic. I could talk about the voice of Scripture that runs throughout the Bible, the witness that says that the value for human life is tantamount, and that any judgment that comes is necessary judgment, and that God does not pleasure in meting out punishment. I could talk about contextualization and how God dealt with the people where they were, culturally and historically. I could talk about the trajectory of history and of the Bible, which reaches its climax in Jesus Christ, the full embodiment of God, and how we look to him to know what God is like and it is through him that we interpret the law.

But I’d also have to be honest with him: the death penalty is not abhorrent to all Christians, just as not all Christians seek to follow Christ with their lives, thoughts, actions, attitudes, and relationships.

My point is …

First, being a “Christian” can mean a wide range of things (and we touched on this in class). Does “Christian” connote someone who is pro-life, pro-death penalty, anti-gay marriage? (Because it does for some people.) Or does “Christian” connote the opposite? (Because I know a good few Christians whose values as gleaned from the pages of Scripture motivate them to fight for the woman’s right to choose, against the death penalty, and for gay marriage.)

Second, how do we navigate this broad swathe of Christianity? Being a Christian, at its narrowest, is to believe that Jesus Christ is the Son of God, that he died for our sins, and that he is the Lord and Savior of our lives (or something similar; I’m sure we could make it even more narrower). But it’s in the working out of what it means for him to be the Lord and Savior of our lives that we can sometimes differ.

Third, should we just be okay with this? I think that Christians who differ do so because they are sincerely and genuinely trying to figure stuff out, not because they’re being disingenuous, ignorant or moronic. (Okay, some do … sometimes.) And we all think our understanding or interpretation of the gospel and the Bible is the best, at least as far as we know (and if we didn’t, we’d have great trouble living out our convictions).

So … what to do?

The greatest generation

In Jesus for President, Shane Claiborne and Chris Haw write:

Jesus would rather invoke the great kingless history of Israel. … Just like the kingless confederacy of Israel in the Torah, the kingdom [of God] Jesus spoke of is a real political kingdom that is unique, confusing, and unheard of. His kingdom is not of this world because it refuses power, pledges a different allegiance, and lives love. (110)

When we consider history, I think it’s very tempting to look back and wonder how things used to be so much better. A decade ago, America was experiencing a period of economic prosperity. Two decades ago, the Berlin Wall fell. Four decades ago, a man walked on the moon. Those were the good times. Now? We’re in an economic recession, America has a reputation to repair, and we’re facing global threats of climate change, terrorism, and other major concerns.

Now, I don’t think Claiborne and Haw are trying to idealize history, nor are they implying that Jesus was doing so. And perhaps this perspective can be blamed on my realism/cynicism coming through, but when I think of the ‘great’ kingless history of Israel, I’m reminded of a people who complained constantly, starting right after the Lord delivered them from Egypt, even when he was with them in pillars of fire and cloud; I’m reminded of a people who disobeyed Joshua even as he led them into the Promised Land; I’m reminded of a people who, only a generation after Joshua’s death, “did not know the Lord or the work that he had done for Israel” (Judges 2:10). When I think of the ‘great’ kingless history of Israel, I see what I see today: a bunch of people trying their best to follow God, making mistakes and messing up, but always, always being recipients of both God’s justice and his outrageous grace.

I think it would’ve been pretty amazing to live in the days when God dwelled with his people Israel, or when Jesus walked the earth, or when the early church “were of one heart and soul, and no one claimed private ownership of any possessions, but everything they owned was held in common. … There was not a needy person among them, for as many as owned lands or houses sold them and brought the proceeds of what was sold” (Acts 4:32, 34). But I’m not sure that we were meant to just seek to emulate those times. We live in different days, with different tools at our disposal and different challenges to face.

“Love the Lord your God with all your heart and all your soul and all your strength.”

“Love your neighbor as yourself.”

“Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you.”

“The fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control.”

I always wondered what these would look like in practice, what these would look like when lived out; and I realized that that’s part of the challenge, part of the commission of the gospel. Every generation is called to figure out in its own context what it means to follow Jesus Christ and to bring the good news to the poor and the oppressed, to welcome the marginalized, to overturn the world’s understandings of power and strength and glory.

Say what? Redeeming our vocabulary

I’ve been thinking lately about the words that we use, and about the associations and connotations that are already firmly attached to them. There are many terms and phrases that have been so warped over the years that their meaning has become unclear.

What does it mean when we say, “Muslim”? Colin Powell’s endorsement of Barack Obama was notable for me in that it took by the scruff of the neck the subtle and insidious belief that if someone is a Muslim, he or she is connected to terrorism. Contrary to some people’s mistaken assumptions, the majority of Muslims are not extremists, bent on bringing destruction to the West and overturning capitalism and globalization. Can we see Muslims as believers in the one true God, equally committed in their spirituality, and trust that they seek to live out their faith as diligently as we do?

What does it mean when we say, “Christian”? If it’s quoted in the media, it’s usually referring to someone in the Religious Right—an ‘evangelical Christian.’ But most of us at Fuller Seminary would probably identify ourselves as evangelical Christians; and many of us would abjure aspects of the Religious Right’s agenda, or at least their methods. Must we attach a codicil to the words “We are Christians” spelling out exactly what kind of Christian we are? Or can we be people who all follow Christ but have different ideas of what that may look like, and can we value unity in the body over our particular interpretation of Scripture? Can we trust that God works through all manner of people who claim to follow him, and even through those who do not?

What does it mean when we say, “liberty”? Is it personal and individual freedom to do whatever I please? Is it license to pursue my own prosperity, regardless of those whose wellbeing is undercut? Is it about freedom from government interference, whether it be taxes or healthcare or education? Or is it connected with responsibility at all, with a duty to be our brother’s keeper and our sister’s keeper?

What does it mean when we say, “evil”? Do we locate it in a person—Saddam Hussein or Osama bin Laden or Mahmoud Ahmadinejad? Do we locate it in people—al Qaeda or Hamas? Do we locate it in an ideology—big government, being pro-choice, or homosexuality (referring to the sin, not the sinner, of course)? Or do we call injustice evil? Do we call poverty evil? Do we call thousands of African children dying every day from preventable diseases and for lack of drinking water evil?

David Dark writes, “We need media that will help our words (freedom, love, terror, mercy, evil, forgiveness, democracy) regain their heft. When they lose their heft, we’re tools for whatever contagion best suits the stratagems of the prospering wicked. We lose the ability to question someone else’s abstractions, and we’re left with little means to learn or understand better stories than whatever seems to suit our anxious projections of ourselves” (The Gospel According to America, 49).

May we learn to be careful with the words we choose and the words we use.

Daring to be true

One of the points from this morning’s sermon, taken from Galatians 4:8-20, was that one of the pastor’s responsibilities is to tell the truth, even if it is hard to accept. That is integrity. To speak the truth in love (Eph. 4:15). The challenge was this: what do we do when we are faced with a hard truth, an inconvenient truth? Do we face it and take it on, or do we flee from it, covering our ears and shouting to drown out the noise of truth?

I think it applies not just to the pastor/congregation relationship, but also more generally to people and the truth. As people of God, as followers of Jesus Christ, who is the Truth, it is our responsibility, our obligation almost, to seek the truth, wherever it may be found. I believe that all truth is God’s truth. If it is truth, it will line up with the person of Jesus Christ; and if it does this, then it is true.

Take the example of the Apostle Paul: at the beginning of Acts, he was doing what he thought was the truth, persecuting the followers of Jesus, who claimed he was the Messiah. Based on his understanding of Scripture—“cursed is everyone who hangs on the tree”—it was impossible that the crucified man from Nazareth could be God’s anointed. And then he was confronted with the truth: that this same man who had been crucified was not only God’s anointed, but himself God. So Paul had to reorient his theology around the truths of Jesus as God, Jesus as the Messiah, and Jesus as cursed. Not an easy reorientation, by any stretch of the imagination.

Even, and especially, when it isn’t an easy truth to digest, when it’s a truth that requires a paradigm shift, or learning a new way of being in relationship, or figuring out a new way of understanding God, it’s tempting to just give up. Any time there is opposition or difficulty or a mindset-shift, it always seems easier just to back down, to let it go, to move on, to continue just as we always have been. But it’s in coming through, with the help of God and with a community of support, that we really grow and learn and become more of who we were meant to be.

This weekend has been one of reorientation—and it’s still going on. I’m still far from where I want to be, but I know that—though it is and will be hard to live differently, though it will be a challenge and I will be tempted (again) to just throw in the towel—ultimately it is leading me to a truer way of living, a truer way of relating, a truer way of being who God meant me to be.

And whatever reward lies at the end of it will be all the sweeter for the striving.