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Perhaps the church ought to be more concerned …

Reinhold Niebuhr:

Perhaps the church ought to be more concerned to bring the goodness of Christ as a judgment upon every fragmentary form of human goodness than to find the particular cause which might be identified with Christ. There are many good causes and just claims which turn to into evil at the precise point where absolute validity is ascribed to them. Is not religion, including the Christian religion, a fruitful source of fanaticism and bigotry precisely because men pretend that their good is the ultimate good in the name of religion; and because Christians so easily claim Christ as an ally without ever having experienced his love as a judgment upon the shoddy character of their so-called ‘values’ and upon the fragmentary of even their best causes?

We must, as Christians, constantly make significant moral and political decisions amidst and upon perplexing issues and hazardous ventures. We must even make them ‘with might’ and not halfheartedly. But the Christian faith gives us no warrant to lift ourselves above the world’s perplexities and to seek or to claim absolute validity for the stand we take. It does, however, encourage us to the charity, which is born of humility and contrition.

— Essays in Applied Christianity, 91-92

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?

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.

I'm a Muslim; so what?

Colin Powell’s endorsement of Barack Obama last weekend was notable for a number of reasons. Most notable for me was the addressing of the issue that no one had yet addressed up to this point. Here’s the relevant section from the endorsement:

I’m also troubled by, not what Senator McCain says, but what members of the party say. And it is permitted to be said such things as, “Well, you know that Mr. Obama is a Muslim.” Well, the correct answer is, he is not a Muslim; he’s a Christian. He’s always been a Christian.

But the really right answer is, “What if he is?” Is there something wrong with being a Muslim in this country? The answer’s no, that’s not America. Is there something wrong with some seven-year-old Muslim-American kid believing that he or she could be president? Yet, I have heard senior members of my own party drop the suggestion, “He’s a Muslim and he might be associated [with] terrorists.” This is not the way we should be doing it in America.

I feel strongly about this particular point because of a picture I saw in a magazine. It was a photo essay about troops who are serving in Iraq and Afghanistan. And one picture at the tail end of this photo essay was of a mother in Arlington Cemetery, and she had her head on the headstone of her son’s grave. And as the picture focused in, you could see the writing on the headstone. And it gave his awards—Purple Heart, Bronze Star—showed that he died in Iraq, gave his date of birth, date of death. He was 20 years old. And then, at the very top of the headstone, it didn’t have a Christian cross, it didn’t have the Star of David, it had crescent and a star of the Islamic faith. And his name was Kareem Rashad Sultan Khan, and he was an American.

He was born in New Jersey. He was 14 years old at the time of 9/11, and he waited until he can go serve his country, and he gave his life. Now, we have got to stop polarizing ourselves in this way. And John McCain is as nondiscriminatory as anyone I know. But I’m troubled about the fact that, within the party, we have these kinds of expressions.

As General Powell pointed out, the underlying association that the McCain campaign was banking on was that people would associate Muslims with terrorists, a ploy which undermines any attempts at living in peace together because it grossly misrepresents the majority of Muslims and what they stand for. There are actually great similarities between Islam and Christianity: both the church and the Umma (the Muslim community) stand for ideals of justice, righteousness and peace. Both the Bible and the Qur’an agree that God is one, and generally-speaking, Christians and Muslims believe they are talking about the same God, though their witness concerning God may be different. Both Christians and Muslims believe that this God that they both worship is the Creator, and that he is separate from his creation. Both Christians and Muslims believe that God reveals himself to humanity, whether through the person of Jesus Christ or the words of the Qur’an. Both faiths stress peace and humility in relating to people of other faiths. Though Islam is a missionary faith like Christianity, it says in the Qur’an, “There is no compulsion in religion. The right direction is henceforth distinct from error” (2:256). Likewise, though Christians are called to make disciples of all nations (Matt. 28:20), they are also called to reflect the character and attitude of Jesus (Phil. 2:5ff), and to exhibit the fruit of the Spirit—“love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control” (Gal. 5:22ff). This is especially noteworthy when one considers the complex relationships between Christians and Muslims in the world today.

For many, especially for those of one faith who have not considered the other, it is all too easy to assume, perhaps because of the polarization between the two faiths that we see in American culture and the media, e.g. Islamic extremists and Christian fundamentalists, that our differences are too great. Of course, there are differences between the two faiths—substantive differences about humanity’s nature being fallen or not, or about the final revelation of God coming through the Bible and Jesus or Muhammad and the Qur’an—and these differences should be acknowledged, but I think that more people need to understand that we are not as far apart as those hardline factions in both our faiths would portray us.

Barack Obama is not a Muslim. But even if he were, so what?