The Christian Church in Revolutionary Times (4)

dv1492005How can the Church be in the world but not of it?

The Christian Church is comprised of individual humans who all to one extent or another adopt specific ideologies, act on personal preferences and make partisan decisions.  Thus it is not possible for the Church to operate in a domain that is isolated from human opinion.  In fact, by attempting to do so it abrogates its responsibility to provide spiritual guidance in this current life.

The problem is that the Church can become so caught up in the exercise of politics that it becomes virtually indistinguishable from any other partisan interest group.  This is the case for Mainline denominations with respect to Progressivism and also for some Evangelical churches with respect to Populism / Conservatism.  How then can the Christian Church provide spiritual guidance to its members on things political without becoming captive to secular political movements?

One of my greatest frustrations with Mainline Protestant leadership is the way that they have politicized every aspect of the Bible’s teaching.  In their view almost everything that the Prophets, Apostles and Christ Himself did or said had a secular political motivation.  Thus, Christ is reduced to not much more than a particularly influential Progressive, pacifist, socialist community organizer.

However, it would be equally false to contend that nothing done by the Prophets, Apostles and Christ Himself intersected with secular politics.  In fact, there are cases where it is virtually certain that human worldly politics provided the framework for the Biblical text.  How then can the Christian Church fulfilled its duty to deliver spiritual and moral teaching that informs its member’s political deliberations without becoming captive to secular political ideologies and movements?  Answering this question will be the focus of following posts.

Advertisements

TheChristian Church in Revolutionary Times (3)

basis-for-giving

The Biblical Foundation

Although revolutionary times share common attributes, each instance is driven by its own set of issues.  As was discussed in the previous post this potential revolution is driven by the segregation of our population into waring identity groups.

Given this situation, what are the most relevant Bible verses upon which to base the Christian Church’s response?  My initial thought is a verse that may seem to cut in the opposite direction, given that it calls Christians to identify completely with Christ.

Jesus answered, “I am the way and the truth and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me.  (John 14:6 NIV)

We cannot credibly respond to the world as Christians if we in practice reject Christ.  Much of this blog’s content has been dealing with just that issue within context of the PCUSA’s leadership.  One of my key points has been that our leadership has so completely conformed to Progressive ideology that all credibility as a Christian voice has been lost.

I am not saying that Christians should segregate themselves from the world or presume some sort of automatic moral authority.  Rather, my point is that unless we demonstrate that we are addressing events from a sincere, consistent and distinctive Christian perspective we will be written off as just another interest group.

With this said, there are two Scriptural passages that I believe most directly and effectively address the foundations of identity politics.  The first is Romans 3:9-20 (NIV).

What shall we conclude then? Do we have any advantage? Not at all! For we have already made the charge that Jews and Gentiles alike are all under the power of sin. As it is written:

“There is no one righteous, not even one;
     there is no one who understands;
    there is no one who seeks God.
 All have turned away,
    they have together become worthless;
there is no one who does good,
    not even one.”
 “Their throats are open graves;
    their tongues practice deceit.”
“The poison of vipers is on their lips.”
     “Their mouths are full of cursing and bitterness.”
 “Their feet are swift to shed blood;
     ruin and misery mark their ways,
 and the way of peace they do not know.”
     “There is no fear of God before their eyes.”

 Now we know that whatever the law says, it says to those who are under the law, so that every mouth may be silenced and the whole world held accountable to God.  Therefore no one will be declared righteous in God’s sight by the works of the law; rather, through the law we become conscious of our sin.

This passages reminds us that we all share in the fallenness of sin, be we Conservative, Progressive, Independent, Libertarian, Liberal, Moderate or anything else.  We all are tainted morally, and we all are capable of corruption, hypocrisy, deceit, greed and lust.  This is not to say that therefore all political positions are equally moral from a Christian perspective.  It does say that to presume one group of humans to be inherently morally superior to another violates a central truth of Christianity.  That being our universal fallenness and universal need for a Savior.  Were our society to hear this message consistently and compellingly from the Christian Church some of the divisiveness at free play might just be attenuated.

While the Romans passage stresses our human unity under sin, the following verse from Galatians proclaims our common identity in Christ.

There is neither Jew nor Gentile, neither slave nor free, nor is there male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus. (Galatians 3:28 NIV)

When the Apostle Paul wrote these words (under the Holy Spirit’s inspiration) in the first century A.D. within the Roman Empire they covered the three most divisive identity issues of that time and place.  Thus, this was a radical and controversial position.  Were the Christian Church to put this teaching into today’s context it would go far toward closing the rift that currently exists between identity groups.

The Christian Church in Revolutionary Times (2)

identityWhat is the Core Issue?

At the top level this potential revolution is about the clash between a Progressive “elite” ruling class and the “commoners” who do not wish to be ruled by them.  However, the deeper issue is how the concept of identity is understood and put into practice.

The Progressives see culture and politics through the lens of victimhood.  Therefore, individuals are organized into victim groups who have suffered oppression.  Because of this oppression a powerful government operated by morally superior people is necessary to protect and advance the interests of the victims.  This ideological system is often described as “identity politics.”  That is, by asserting identity as a member of or a champion for a victim group one obtains moral standing to exert power over those others who are the designated victimizers.  Power over the victims is also obtained, since it is only by submitting to the designated ideology that victims can earn protection.

Commoners have tended to define themselves by associations and interests outside the realm of politics.  To them, though politics may be an important part of life, other domains like faith, family, neighbors, sports, etc. have clear priority.  Commoners see themselves as part of a common heritage and culture.  Thus, they have appreciation for the nation and those through whom it was formed and maintained.  This appreciation often finds its voice through concepts such as adherence to our Constitution and other founding documents of the nation.

As a consequence of the Progressives so aggressively organizing around “identity politics,” the commoners who find themselves under siege as the designated evil victimizers have also began to organize under a group identity.  The most common form is to claim the Hillary Clinton insult of “deplorables” for themselves as a badge of honor.

Thus, the forces unleashed with our nation are driving people into opposing identity camps where good and evil exist not within each human heart but rather are the uniform attribute of each tribe.  If you are a Progressive then virtually all good exists within your camp and all bad in the other.  And, to an increasing extent, commoners/deplorables are engaging in this same theory of moral distribution (obviously with the roles reversed).

This dynamic is a key reason why the possibility for civil, reasoned discussion is shrinking at an alarming rate.

 

The Christian Church in Revolutionary Times (1)

realrevolutionIntroduction

I recently read a persuasive article that posited we are living in revolutionary times.  Since persuasive falls short of conclusive, we can still hope that  Angelo Codevilla’s thesis is proved false.  However, the events of 2015 to the present provide credible evidence that something fundamental has changed within our Republic.  If these changes are indeed revolutionary in nature then the question of how the Christian Church should respond becomes of paramount importance.

To begin, here is how Mr. Codevilla defines the revolution which he claims our nation is experiencing.

The 2008 financial crisis sparked an incipient revolution. Previously, Americans dissatisfied with their Progressive rulers had imagined that voting for Republicans might counter them. But then, as three-fourths of Americans opposed bailing out big banks with nearly a trillion dollars, the Republican and Democratic presidential candidates joined; most Republican legislators joined all Democrats; The Wall Street Journal joined The New York Times, and National Review joined The Nation; in telling Americans that doing this was essential, and that their disapproval counted for nothing. And then, just as high-handedly, all these bipartisan rulers dropped that bailout scheme, and adopted another—just as unaccountably. They showed “government by the people, for the people” to be a fable.

This forced the recognition that there exists a remarkably uniform, bipartisan, Progressive ruling class; that it includes, most of the bureaucracies of federal and state governments, the judiciary, the educational establishment, the media, as well as major corporate officials; that it had separated itself socially, morally, and politically from the rest of society, whose commanding heights it monopolized; above all that it has contempt for the rest of America, and that ordinary Americans have no means of persuading this class of anything, because they don’t count.

As the majority of Americans have become conscious of the differences between this class and themselves they have sought ever more passionately to shake it off. That is the ground of our revolution.

Although we need not accept this theory of revolutionary times, we should consider that it is a credible possibility.  In that case, the Christian Church should be thinking hard and long about how it should engage with the chaos and challenges of such a time.

The Language of Suffering: Paul’s Suffering (6)

St Paul by El Greco

St. Paul by El Greco

Closing Thoughts

We have seen that suffering was an integral part of Paul’s experience as an Apostle of Christ.  To our surprise, the Apostle actually embraced suffering, seeing it as a means to attain deeper fellowship with his Master as well as to ensure that he remained humble.  Even more stunning, this Great Apostle welcomed the weakness that accompanied suffering so that he might become stronger by having to depend all the more on Christ.

It becomes clear that suffering, far from being an impediment, was actually seen as a powerful, creative tool of spiritual power to be wielded with confidence in Christ’s service.  We can only stand in stunned silence before such faith.  Yes, Paul was of frail flesh and blood.  All who have studied his writings know of his stubbornness, rash decisions and confrontational style.  He failed, faltered, fell; but he never stopped loving his Lord and Savior, nor seeking to serve Him with every fiber of his being.

It is always best to give this Great Apostle the last word.  May we take it to heart, for he always writes with his beloved fellow Christians warmly treasured there.

312Not that I have already obtained all this, or have already been made perfect, but I press on to take hold of that for which Christ Jesus took hold of me. 13Brothers, I do not consider myself yet to have taken hold of it. But one thing I do: Forgetting what is behind and straining toward what is ahead, 14I press on toward the goal to win the prize for which God has called me heavenward in Christ Jesus. (Philippians)

The Language of Suffering: Paul’s Suffering (5)

Philippians 3:7-11

3 7But whatever was to my profit I now consider loss for the sake of Christ. 8What is more, I consider everything a loss compared to the surpassing greatness of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord, for whose sake I have lost all things. I consider them rubbish, that I may gain Christ 9and be found in him, not having a righteousness of my own that comes from the law, but that which is through faith in Christ—the righteousness that comes from God and is by faith. 10Iwant to know Christ and the power of his resurrection and the fellowship of sharing in his sufferings, becoming like him in his death, 11and so, somehow, to attain to the resurrection from the dead.

Here we have a window into the Apostle’s spirit.  Through it we see a life so completely identified with his Master that everything else, that which came before, that which comes beside, anything else, is mere rubbish in comparison.

To us, caught up in our many competing cares this single-minded focus appears almost pathological.  Paul would indeed have made a poor husband, father, middle manager or soccer coach.  But these were not his calling.  His calling was to spread Christ’s Gospel throughout the Roman Empire, overcoming every obstacle set in his path, great personal suffering included.  Only a total commitment to Christ that included sharing fellowship in every dimension of His Life could prevail.

We would do Paul a great injustice were we to pity him.  For though he almost surely suffered more than most humans ever will, he even more surely knew more joy, love, hope and peace than almost any human who has ever lived. He had these riches because of the victory of Christ in him.  Would that I could surrender so completely to such a worthy King.

The Language of Suffering: Paul’s Suffering (4)

Paul-Writing

Saint Paul Writing His Epistles; Valentin de Boulogne or Nicolas Tournier; ca. 16th century

2 Corinthians 12:7-10

12 7To keep me from becoming conceited because of these surpassingly great revelations, there was given me a thorn in my flesh, a messenger of Satan, to torment me.

The Apostle Paul was here engaged in a controversy relating to his authority in the Corinthian church. In verses one through six of this chapter he is responding to those who have claimed superior authority from having received their teachings directly from God through ecstatic visions.  Paul describes his own experience of being “caught up to the third heaven” where he “heard inexpressible things, things that man is not permitted to tell.

However, unlike his adversaries, Paul follows this disclosure not with boasting but with a sustained passage in which his own unworthiness and weakness is highlighted so that Christ can be exalted.  It is this attribute that ultimately separated (and continues to separate) the true from the false leaders in the Christian fellowship.  Lord, lead us not into temptation, but deliver us from evil!

8Three times I pleaded with the Lord to take it away from me. 9But he said to me, “My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.”Therefore I will boast all the more gladly about my weaknesses, so that Christ’s power may rest on me.10That is why, for Christ’s sake, I delight in weaknesses, in insults, in hardships, in persecutions, in difficulties. For when I am weak, then I am strong.

The Judeo-Christian tradition is replete with unexpected reversals from weakness to strength – the good as dead bodies of the aged being chosen as the wellspring of a great people of the Covenant (Abraham and Sarah, age 100 and 90, respectively), the youngest son raising above all his elder brothers, and against all social conventions of the day, to the pinnacle of power (e.g., Joseph to Egyptian Vizier and David to the Kingship of Israel), a Savior who dies in disgrace on a cross, and, yes, an Apostle of Christ who begins as the leading destroyer of His Church.  It sometimes appears that our God prefers to do His work through human weakness.  We shouldn’t be surprised by this fact.  How better to demonstrate that an end has been obtained by God’s power rather than human effort?  And yet, this is a lesson that we continually struggle to hold on to.

The Apostle Paul had no such difficulty.  So deeply had he drank of the spring of water welling up to eternal life” (John 4:14) that his identity was as completely surrendered to Christ’s service as can be imagined for frail human flesh.  Inherent in this identity was the affirmation of his own weakness and of Christ’s supreme strength.  This is the spirit-print of a man humbled down to the very foundations of his character. In his own words, “For I am the least of the apostles and do not even deserve to be called an apostle, because I persecuted the church of God. But by the grace of God I am what I am, and his grace to me was not without effect.” (1 Corinthians 15:9,10a)

And so, this Great Apostle delights in weakness, in insults, hardships, persecutions and difficulties, for in them he finds a deeper fellowship with his Savior and access to greater power to serve His cause.  Even more, by Christ’s own words, His power is not made stronger, or more effective, but perfect in weakness.”  When we suffer, do we not experience weakness? What of Christ’s power is being offered to us when we suffer?  To answer this question is to delve deeply into the language of suffering.

Finally, a prayer, offered at a service of worship on April 29, 2001 that explores the issue of weakness within the context of Christ’s church.

Dear Heavenly Father, we approach your holy throne this morning in prayer for your body, the Church.

We come in thanksgiving that you have given this precious gift to those that you have graciously called to be your own.

But we also come in sorrow, because the influence of your Church appears to be receding.  We see the powers arrayed against her and oh how strong they appear!  We see hate, envy and corruption organized into terrible weapons of destruction by all the energy of humanity.  In the face of these terrible machines oh how weak does the Church appear.

But she will not be cowered, she will not be defeated.

Yes, we the living members of this body are weak, but we are bound together by invisible sinews of grace and love that contain all the strength of Jesus Christ.  Empires and despots have raged against this body only to be shattered by a power that they could neither see nor understand.

Yes we are weak, but you are the God who chooses to work through weakness. Says the Apostle, “Therefore I will boast all the more gladly about my weakness, so that Christ’s power may rest on me.”

Therefore, let us, the Church, find in our weakness the humility, the thankfulness, the peace to boldly confront a dark and dying world with Christ’s message of forgiveness and new life.

May we stand before your Cross with heads lifted up not because we are strong, but because we are forgiven.   Amen.

The Language of Suffering: Paul’s Suffering (3)

2 Corinthians 6:3-10

6 3We put no stumbling block in anyone’s path, so that our ministry will not be discredited. 4Rather, as servants of God we commend ourselves in every way: in great endurance; in troubles, hardships and distresses; 5in beatings, imprisonments and riots; in hard work, sleepless nights and hunger; 6in purity, understanding, patience and kindness; in the Holy Spirit and in sincere love; 7in truthful speech and in the power of God; with weapons of righteousness in the right hand and in the left; 8through glory and dishonor, bad report and good report; genuine, yet regarded as impostors; 9known, yet regarded as unknown; dying, and yet we live on; beaten, and yet not killed; 10sorrowful, yet always rejoicing; poor, yet making many rich; having nothing, and yet possessing everything.

The Apostle Paul’s writing can be extremely difficult to parse.  The above passage is a case in point.  There we have two sentences, the second of which contains 111 words.  I sometimes imagine grammar teachers wincing as they read sections of Paul’s Epistles.  Yet, the Apostle is dealing with ideas relating to the most complex and important subject possible – our right relationship to God.  Even more challenging, he is explaining these concepts within the context of a new and extraordinary revelation that is only a few decades old, the life, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ.  Lastly, he is explaining these ideas to people (i.e., Gentiles) who often have little to no familiarity with the tradition from which Christ emerged (i.e., Judaism).  Given all this, we can forgive Paul his long sentences.

With regard to the issue at hand, Paul’s suffering, the striking feature is how inseparable it is from all of the other attributes of his ministry.  Suffering for Paul is not an isolated event that pushes aside all other experience.  Rather, it is only one of the many and interrelated aspects of serving Christ. It comes along with the purity, understanding, patience and kindness in the Holy Spirit. It comes along with the sincere love and truthful speech in the power of God.  It comes along with glory, good report, genuineness, rejoicing, making many rich and possessing everything.

Yes, if we were to compile all of the words of suffering they too would make quite an impressive list. But is there any doubt as to where the Apostle has placed the emphasis?  This passage doesn’t contain so much as a comma of self-pity.  It’s closer to the excited letter home from a young person on a journey of discovery.  This comparison is not meant in the least to minimize the import of Paul’s mission or the seriousness of his suffering.  Rather, it seeks to draw out the amazing power of Christ that allowed him to live in blessed joy, peace and hope in spite of these burdens.

Therefore we do not lose heart. Though outwardly we are wasting away, yet inwardly we are being renewed day by day. For our light and momentary troubles are achieving for us an eternal glory that far outweighs them all. So we fix our eyes not on what is seen, but on what is unseen. For what is seen is temporary, but what is unseen is eternal.

(2 Corinthians 4:16-18)