Monday, August 13, 2018

The War in Cameroon Hits Home

Last night we received news that a good Cameroonian friend, a pillar of the church, a supporter of local music in the church, was hauled out of his church’s Sunday morning service yesterday and shot to death. Chief Esoh Itoh hosted my wife and me in his house both of our first two visits to Cameroon. The first time he called his volunteer choir to sing so we could record them, and the second time he organized a day of performance by all of the performance choirs in his village (half a dozen or so in a village of about 5000 people), again so we could record the music. He was a good friend who served God and his fellow man as best he knew how.

I turned this morning to Psalm 83, my go-to psalm to pray against evildoers, but I realized almost instantly that this psalm did not fit the occasion: his murderers were not persecutors of the church, at least not per se. They were “separatists,” people who want the English-speaking regions of Cameroon to be their own nation, out from under the boot of the French-speaking majority. “When the elephants fight, the grass gets trampled,” as the saying goes, and from what I can see, this is a war of secession in which there are no good elephants, and Chief Esoh was simply grass that got trampled.

Or was he?

He had been doing his best to not take sides, having stayed in his house for months to show his neutrality. But in a sense he could never truly be neutral. He was a chief, a government official, and as I point out here, chiefs are an integral part of a system that is indiscriminately exploitative at best. In this case, though—at least from what I’ve been told—the French-speaking majority, which lives in a comparatively resource-poor area, depends on revenues from the comparatively resource-rich English-speaking area to pay for their government “services.” For decades the English speakers have been what might be called first-class taxpayers but have received second-class services. After decades of the government turning a deaf ear to their protests, some English speakers organized a peaceful—again, according to my sources—protest in November of 2016, to which the government responded by shooting a couple hundred of them to death.

Since then, the separatists have been entering villages, killing government workers, burning the houses of their families, killing random Francophones they find on buses, and God knows what else. My guess is that if they succeed in forming their own nation, it will be a worse hellhole than it was in October 2016. And, of course, after the separatists leave, the government comes in and burns the houses of anyone they think offered help to the separatists. Thousands of people have fled their homes and are living in the forest.

John F. Kennedy once said, “Those who make peaceful revolution impossible will make violent revolution inevitable,” and despite my disagreements with him in most places, I have a hard time disagreeing with him there. And, of course, violent revolutions always turn out badly, as our own is clear evidence.

Chief Esoh was aware of at least part of the exploitative nature of the system. The last time we were with him, the discussion turned to how difficult it is for private people to make a good living, and he said rather wistfully, “It’s too bad that we can’t give everyone a government job.” Until yesterday I was thinking that it was good manners that kept me from saying, “Everyone in North Korea has a government job. Is that what you want?” Now I think it was cowardice. My words probably would not have changed his mind, but at least I would be at peace knowing I had done what I could to influence his thinking.

“Blessed are the peacemakers.” An integral part of peacemaking is not only pointing out the evils of exploitative systems but providing alternatives. The Cameroon Baptist Convention provides an alternative to the government schools and health care system. (It may be that they take government funding, in which case I’ll leave it to you to prove to me that this makes them more, rather than less, effective at weaning the man on the street from dependence on government largess.) If the churches had also been loudly protesting the exploitation of the Anglophones by the Francophones all along—that is, peacemaking—perhaps the current situation of all-out war would not have happened.

If we accept the idea that those in government are serving God by doing good, we can only conclude that there is abundant evidence that he doesn’t protect his servants very well. We have the book of Habakkuk, which teaches not only that those whom God calls to execute judgment on his behalf are evil but that he will eventually punish them for their evil. But another example that came home to me in my devotional reading the other day I find chillingly relevant to Chief Esoh’s death.

In Acts 12, we see sixteen soldiers who were just doing their jobs. They didn’t set the policy that put Peter in prison; it was only their job to see that it was carried out. Though they did nothing wrong, carrying out their duties as they had been assigned, God worked a miracle and brought Peter out of the prison. God’s miracle ended up costing those sixteen men their lives (Acts 12:19).

The less influence people like King Herod, His Excellency Paul Biya (President of Cameroon), and Donald Trump have on our lives the better. We need to show that relationships based on voluntary service, not political processes, are the foundation of a just, peaceful, and prosperous society. And submission to Jesus, while most importantly the ultimate good in and of itself, is the way to true voluntary service. I am indeed an obnoxious—I’d say son of a bitch, but I don’t want people to think ill of my mother—but this blog is the best I know to do to do just that.

Meantime, we need to be careful whom we work for. Daniel and his three friends worked for an evil government and survived the experience only because God worked miracles on their behalf. Chief Esoh—may he rest in peace—was not so fortunate.

Tuesday, December 12, 2017

The Delicious Irony of the NFL’s Flag Problem

This is an absolutely delicious irony. Government at state and local levels has spent billions of dollars building football stadiums. The federal government has spent millions of dollars promoting admiration for the military at football games. Government at all levels has spent millions on scholarships for football players who end up going into the NFL, not to mention the millions (billions?) spent on football at the middle school and high school level.

And now what it do they get in return? They get people who refuse to honor the national symbol. And the fallout from that is that people have stopped going to the games. Billions of dollars worth of stadiums now sitting empty during the very events they were built to host. What to do?

If the owners decide to stay the course (i.e., do nothing), they will soon have so few fans that they cannot meet their payrolls, and they will go bankrupt. Then what will the stadiums be used for?

If they do decide to force players to stand before the national anthem, many players will simply stop playing the game. This means that the talent pool will become very thin, and the teams will lose fans. Or perhaps the players will knuckle under. In that case, the backlash will take a form that I cannot predict, I certainly cannot expect a player who gives in to maintain his self-respect or the respect of those who currently support him as he takes the knee.

I have no reason to believe that this will result in a groundswell of sentiment to get government out of the sports biz. The boycott is, after all, loud and clear testimony that Americans love their government no matter what it does.

But it is fun to watch the fat cat football execs and the political class squirm for a while.

Sunday, December 10, 2017

Let Earth Receive Her King

When you come to the land the Lord your God is giving you and take it over and live in it and then say, “I will select a king like all the nations surrounding me,” you must select without fail a king whom the Lord your God chooses. From among your fellow citizens you must appoint a king – you may not designate a foreigner who is not one of your fellow Israelites. Moreover, he must not accumulate horses for himself or allow the people to return to Egypt to do so, for the Lord has said you must never again return that way. Furthermore, he must not marry many wives lest his affections turn aside, and he must not accumulate much silver and gold. When he sits on his royal throne he must make a copy of this law on a scroll given to him by the Levitical priests. It must be with him constantly and he must read it as long as he lives, so that he may learn to revere the Lord his God and observe all the words of this law and these statutes and carry them out. Then he will not exalt himself above his fellow citizens or turn from the commandments to the right or left, and he and his descendants will enjoy many years ruling over his kingdom in Israel. (Deuteronomy 17:14–20)

If you have spent much time in the Bible, you know that from the time God brings the people of Israel out of Egypt in Exodus 20 until he brings them into the promised land in Joshua 3 it seems like he issues command after command after command for forty years. The last half of the book of Exodus and the books of Leviticus and Numbers are hard reading. You’ve got all these meticulous laws about the sacrificial system and how the people were to live their daily lives. There are laws about murder and theft and adultery and perjury and fornication and how to treat the poor. And you have all the bizarre rules about only wearing clothes made from one type of material at a time or never shaving the beard or not eating pork or lobster. And to top it all off is the bit about circumcision. But with all that, it isn’t until years after God tells the people how to deal with these sins and crimes that the idea that Israel should have a king even floated. The passage I just read is part of the speech that Moses delivered to the Israelites just before he died and they entered the promised land. They went forty years after they left Egypt before any mention was made of a king.

Alone among the nations, Israel did not have a king, one person with hangers-on who was expected to tax everyone else as much as he wanted to and do with the proceeds as he pleased. There was no one who could make laws for other people that he did not have to obey. All people were equal under the law of Moses. Yes, there were the tithes to support the priesthood and the gleaning laws to support the poor, but there was no salaried armed force to enforce those laws or any others. Those laws were to be enforced by the men of the community acting as equals, and that was the way God told Moses it was to be.

It is only in the book of Judges that the Bible finally says openly, “There was no king in Israel,” and by then the words are a lament, not a joyful proclamation. The words “In those days Israel had no king. Each man did what he considered to be right” form bookends around the last five chapters of the book of Judges. In these chapters, we hear of a man who steals silver from his own mother and then starts his own idolatrous cult. We hear about some Israelites who kill off a peace-loving people so they can take over their city, and about an innocent woman who is raped to death, and about a civil war that almost totally kills off one of the tribes of Israel.

Now between our passage in Deuteronomy 17 and this sordid mess, the word king is not associated with anything particularly good. Most obviously, the kings of Canaan were not able to save their people from the Israelites. The Israelites had no king, but they defeated many peoples who did have kings. Also, the kings who were there were cruel people. When King Adonai-Bezeq was about to die, he said, “Seventy kings, with thumbs and big toes cut off, used to lick up food scraps under my table. God has repaid me for what I did to them.” Was he especially evil? I don’t think so. My guess he only succeeded in doing what many others died attempting to do.

Then we have the first king in Israel, Gideon’s son Abimelek (Jdg 9:6). The people of Shechem and Beth Millo crowned him king after he had murdered all of Gideon’s other sons but one. And he too was soon murdered.

So by the end of the book of Judges the Israelites were clearly looking for someone to put Humpty Dumpty together again. Their logical choice was a king. This is simple human nature. When times get tough, people want a superman to bail them out of their troubles, and things finally got so bad that the Israelites asked Samuel, the last judge, to give them a king. Whether they were consciously trying to follow the directive that God gave them in our passage in Deuteronomy 17 I don’t know, but let’s review what kind of king God told them to look for and what they ended up with.

The first characteristic was that he was to be the king that God himself chose. If you look in 1 Samuel 9, you’ll see that God worked all sorts of minor miracles to make it clear that Saul was the man he had chosen to be king: Saul went through days of incredible “coincidences” one after another and won a nationwide lottery, to name just two of them.

The Lord’s king was to be an Israelite, and Saul was an Israelite. He was not to accumulate horses or marry many wives. Saul did neither of those things, so he’s four for four so far.

He runs into trouble when we get to verse 18: “He must make a copy of this law on a scroll given to him by the Levitical priests. It must be with him constantly and he must read it as long as he lives, so that he may learn to revere the Lord his God and observe all the words of this law and these statutes and carry them out. Then he will not exalt himself above his fellow citizens or turn from the commandments to the right or left.”

We have no record that Saul ever did that, and he and God were at loggerheads from almost the beginning of his reign. He disobeyed God at every turn, he amassed an army that he used to kill innocent people, and he eventually died a fool’s death.

Remember, now, this was the king that God had personally chosen for the Israelites. Why would God have given Israel a king like that?

The quick and dirty answer is in 1 Samuel 8, where the people ask Samuel for a king. They say, “Appoint over us a king to lead us, just like all the other nations have.” Well, what kind of kings did the other nations have? They had cruel kings like Adonai-Bezeq. They had kings like those whom David later wrote about in Psalm 2: “The kings of the earth form a united front; the rulers collaborate against the Lord and his anointed king. They say, ‘Let’s tear off the shackles they’ve put on us! Let’s free ourselves from their ropes!’” In fact, it was because they had rebelled against the Lord that the kings of the nation were cruel. As the Lord told Samuel, the Lord was the one the Israelites had rejected as their king (1 Sam 8:5). The Israelites did not want a king like the Lord. They wanted the kind of king they got in Saul and in so many of the kings of Israel and Judah that followed later on.

This month, of course, we celebrate the advent of a king. We celebrate the advent of the king who was king over the Israelites before they asked Samuel for a king. Our king is none other than the Lord, the God of Israel.

The idea of a king and a kingdom is crucial to the New Testament message. The word “gospel” occurs 95 times in the New Testament. The words “kingdom of God” and “kingdom of heaven” occur 99 times. We are celebrating the coming of a king—one who brings good news and is himself the good news, but a king nonetheless.

As the angel said to Mary before Jesus was conceived, “He will be great, and will be called the Son of the Most High, and the Lord God will give him the throne of his father David. He will reign over the house of Jacob forever, and his kingdom will never end” (Luke 1:32–33).

When God told the pagans that something was up in Israel, he didn’t talk in terms of a religious figure. What did he tell them that piqued their interest? “After Jesus was born in Bethlehem in Judea, in the time of King Herod, wise men from the East came to Jerusalem saying, ‘Where is the one who is born king of the Jews? For we saw his star when it rose and have come to worship him’” (Matt 2:1–2).

Here’s where it gets interesting. Worship a king? Who worships a king? Donald Trump is the top dog of the most expensive and powerful government the world has ever seen, but no one would think of worshiping him. Hitler and Stalin and Mao demanded unalloyed loyalty, but they didn’t demand worship. Even Nebuchadnezzar, who commanded people to worship an image that was probably of him, didn’t demand people worship him directly. But here these men came to worship the king of Israel.

He would have to be a pretty special king, wouldn’t he? What was special about him?

You remember I said that Saul went wrong by not keeping God’s law near him and reading it regularly. Well, the king we celebrate this month, Jesus, not only keeps that law near him, he is the embodiment of that law. “In the beginning was the Word,” the Gospel of John tells us, “and the Word was with God, and the Word was fully God. … The Word became flesh and took up residence among us.” (John 1:1, 14). It is because he has kept God’s law—and better than that, that he is that law incarnate—that he is able to be that superman that the Israelites were looking for when they asked for a king.

Because he embodies that law, he does not lord it over his people the way the “kings of the earth” do. Instead, he says, “The Son of Man did not come to be served but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many” (Matt 20:28). He serves us day after day by providing us with what we need, and he especially looks like a servant when he answers our prayers. He serves us even though at heart we are rebels against him. But he also understands how deep our rebellion against him is, so he works patiently with us, changing our hearts so we come to love his ways and willingly surrender everything to him. And as we go through the process of learning to love what God loves, he goes on serving us.

There are ways in which he is like an earthly king. Like an earthly king he punishes those who will not allow him to rule over them. Membership in the kingdom is voluntary, and those who do not want to be members he will banish from his presence forever. He will also correct those who want to be part of his kingdom but step out of line, and that is an unpleasant process: “All discipline seems painful at the time, not joyful. But later it produces the fruit of peace and righteousness for those trained by it” (Heb 12:11).

Those words peace and righteousness are very important. Our king disciplines us so that we can have righteousness, so that we can stand before God forgiven and knowing he approves of us, and so that we can have the peace that is more than the absence of conflict; biblical peace is an abundance of everything good that will last forever. When he corrects us, it is always so that he can give us something much better than what we try to get by disobeying him.

It’s also true that like any earthly king Jesus considers himself entitled to take from us everything we hold dear—all our most treasured possessions, our families, our freedom, our health, and even our lives. If you go to, you can read story after story of Christians who have lost their homes and all their possessions, who have been rejected by their families, who have been put in jail, and who have been beaten and maimed and even killed. And every one of them will say that they have given these things up willingly because King Jesus has asked them to.

When Jesus died, Pilate had the notice of accusation posted on the cross above him: Pilate also had a notice written and fastened to the cross, which read: “Jesus the Nazarene, the king of the Jews.” Thus many of the Jewish residents of Jerusalem read this notice, because the place where Jesus was crucified was near the city, and the notice was written in Aramaic, Latin, and Greek. Then the chief priests of the Jews said to Pilate, “Do not write, ‘The king of the Jews,’ but rather, ‘This man said, I am king of the Jews.’” Pilate answered, “What I have written, I have written.” (John 19:19–22)

Pilate knew who he was dealing with.

So we have a choice. We can either follow the kings of the earth—who care nothing for us—in their rebellion against God, or we can follow the king of heaven who loved us so much that he willingly died for our sins, to offer us peace and right standing with God. We can’t do both: Jesus said that no man can serve two masters. Jesus invites us to follow him, but the invitation to his kingdom contains some pretty scary words, so those of us who think we want to accept it need to listen carefully and soberly.

If anyone wants to become my follower, he must deny himself, take up his cross daily, and follow me. For whoever wants to save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life because of me will save it. For what does it benefit a person if he gains the whole world but loses or forfeits himself? For whoever is ashamed of me and my words, the Son of Man will be ashamed of that person when he comes in his glory and in the glory of the Father and of the holy angels.” (Luke 9:23–26)

May God have mercy on us and grant us grace to become true subjects of King Jesus.

Monday, October 9, 2017

Bible Verses I Don’t Like

This is the script of a sermon I preached at Meadowood senior center, October 8, 2017.

Are there verses in the Bible that you just don’t like?

One struggle I’ve had almost ever since I became a Christian has been dealing with the Apostle Paul.

Here’s the backstory. In August of 1972 I was on my way my bicycle from southern Oregon to Seattle, returning to college from my summer job. God was already chasing me. Already that summer I had been witnessed to on a Greyhound bus by a little old lady from Orofino, Idaho, and in a park by a barely literate hippie kinda guy from the Gospel Lighthouse in Eureka, California. In Coos Bay I’d gone into a head shop, a place that sold drug paraphernalia, looking for a place to stay and the owner had referred me to a Christian street mission. I’d enjoyed the people there so much I’d stayed there an extra night. The folks there had referred me to the home of a Christian lady in Newport, and she had referred me to her niece and nephew-in-law, who ran a communal crash pad called the Shiloh house in Seaside.

After a couple of days at the Seaside Shiloh house I realized that there was something there that I wanted, and I decided not to return to college. After a few more days of Bible study and singing psalms, I started to understand that my problems were the result of my rebellion against God. I say started to understand because I had no idea how deep my rebellion against him was, and 45 years later I still surprise myself with how quickly I find myself thinking seriously about chucking the whole Christian scene.

As I said, the Shiloh house was a commune and crash pad, one of many in the Pacific Northwest at the time. In those days young people were hitchhiking all over the country, and they needed cheap places to stay overnight. The Shiloh houses would let people stay overnight and feed them for free and tell them the gospel. People who lived there would go out on the street in the evening to pass out tracts and witness to the people they saw, and if they saw a “tripper,” they’d invite them to stay overnight.

So even from day one I was out on the street passing out tracts and accosting people. After Labor Day, Seaside pretty much shuts down, so Shiloh closed that house and moved me to Boise, Idaho, where I stayed until almost Christmas, when I felt it was time to move on. But I have never forgotten the daily regimen of two Bible studies per day, singing songs straight from Scripture, and going out on the streets at night to pass out tracts and try to start conversations.

One place people liked to hang out after dark in Boise was the parking lot of the Boise Cascade Corporation offices. They’d park their cars, sit in them or stand around, talk, smoke, and drink beer. We’d go and chat them up. One evening I was talking to a twenty-something girl who passed herself off to me as an off-duty nurse. I’m not sure how the conversation got there, but she was objecting to what she understood as Christianity’s view that women are inferior to men. So I pulled out my King James Bible—Shiloh people used only the King James Bible—and started reading a passage I’d never read before that I thought would assure her that God loves women as much as he loves men, 1 Timothy 2:8–9: “I will therefore that men pray every where, lifting up holy hands, without wrath and doubting. In like manner also, that women adorn themselves in modest apparel [Who could object to that?], with shamefacedness ….” Shamefacedness?

Well, that was the end of that conversation. And, of course, there are other passages that to this day I can’t get my mind around. Like 1 Corinthians 11:14: “Doth not even nature itself teach you, that, if a man have long hair, it is a shame unto him?” Um, no, that’s a lesson I haven’t learned. Besides, how long is long? Or 1 Timothy 2:11, “Let the woman learn in silence with all subjection.” Or 1 Corinthians 14:35, “it is a shame for women to speak in the church”: “church” in Paul’s day would have looked more like what we would call a home Bible study, so does that mean women can’t speak in Bible studies? Or 1 Corinthians 11:10, speaking of how women should appear in public worship: “For this cause ought the woman to have power on her head because of the angels.” We take “power” to mean some sort of covering, but it’s a strange use of the term, and how angels fit into the picture I’ve never heard a good explanation. So I’m happy to go to a church where most women don’t wear veils or shawls or bonnets or caps; am I thumbing my nose at the Apostle Paul by so doing? How many of you ladies here would come to these meetings if you had to wear a head covering before you were admitted?

And then there are numerous places where his sentences are grammatically incoherent and he seems to go from one topic to another without any logical connection. He’s not an easy author to read, and I get the feeling that he wasn’t exactly mister warm and fuzzy in person. All in all, he’s a pretty difficult guy to relate to.

Now we Christians tend to look askance at the Muslim doctrine that because Muhammad is God’s prophet, to speak against Muhammad is to speak against God. But am I not doing the same thing by questioning Paul, God’s prophet? To speak against what Paul has written is to speak against the word of God, isn’t it? And God identifies very closely with his word: “The Word was with God and the Word was God.” To speak against what Paul has written is to speak against Jesus. Either that or we have to deny that what Paul has written is the word of God, in which case we have to decide what the word of God is, or even if God has spoken at all, and good luck with that.

So, what evidence do we have that Paul’s words are the words of God?

For me, oddly enough, it comes down to his life, who he was as a person. He doesn’t seem to have been mister warm and fuzzy, but there’s a depth of character there that even I with my blind spots can see.

God called him, as you remember, by striking him blind on the road to Damascus. He then sent a Christian man named Ananias to lay hands on him so his sight would be restored. Interesting, isn’t it, that the name Ananias is the English version of the Hebrew name Ḥanan-Yah, which means the grace of Yahweh, the Lord? What was the primary focus of Paul’s teaching? Grace! The grace of God shown in Jesus. He uses the word 100 times in his letters.

When God told Ananias to go find Paul, Ananias was afraid that Paul would kill him. After all, Paul had come to Damascus to cleanse the place of Christians. But God says something interesting to Ananias: “I will show him how much he must suffer for my name” (Acts 9:16). And Paul did suffer. In the Book of Acts, we read of him being thrown out of towns, beaten with rods, and stoned and left for dead. He tells the Corinthians, “Five times I received from the Jews forty lashes less one. Three times I was beaten with a rod. [Just one of either of those would be enough to get me to stop, but even after seven he kept going.] Once I received a stoning. Three times I suffered shipwreck. [Again, wouldn’t once be enough for most of us?] A night and a day I spent adrift in the open sea. I have been on journeys many times [They didn’t have Holiday Inn or even Motel 6 in those days.], in dangers from rivers [bridges were rare], in dangers from robbers [who would lurk in the bushes waiting for small groups of travelers to come by], in dangers from my own countrymen [who wanted to kill him for blasphemy], in dangers from Gentiles [who hated him for breaking up the unity of their communities that were based on idolatry], in dangers in the city, in dangers in the wilderness, in dangers at sea, in dangers from false brothers, in hard work and toil, through many sleepless nights, in hunger and thirst, many times without food, in cold and without enough clothing” (2 Cor 11:24–27). We’re not talking about a one-time deal here; we’re talking about a lifestyle of suffering. Does that sound like someone who sat in a comfortable chair surrounded by ivy-covered walls and sniffed contemptuously at women?

As for the incomprehensible sentences, he didn’t write his epistles with Microsoft Word and distribute them as PDFs. I’m with those who infer from comments he makes here and there that he could not see well enough to write, so he dictated his epistles. He could think faster than he could speak, and he could speak faster than his secretaries could write, and people read at speaking speed—they didn’t speed read silently, as we do today—so editing would have been a difficult chore. I don’t find it unreasonable to cut him some slack on that score.

But let’s get back to the hard passages, the ones I don’t like. As we’ve seen, Paul paid a high price for the privilege of writing every word of those hard passages. Now being willing to suffer for something does not make that something true or morally good. Kamakazes, jihadists who blow themselves up in crowds, and soldiers who fight in imperialist wars are brave. Why do I make an exception for Paul, and say that his life backs up words I have a hard time obeying?

Because he more than anyone else in history speaks of the grace of Jesus, and he follows in a long line of people who had the same message. Moses spoke God’s words of grace—like “It is not because you were more numerous than all the other peoples that the Lord favored and chose you – for in fact you were the least numerous of all peoples. Rather it is because of his love for you and his faithfulness to the promise he solemnly vowed to your ancestors” (Deut 7:7)—and worked miracles, and yet the Israelites didn’t believe him, and he died without setting foot in the promised land. Micaiah spoke God’s words to the kings of Israel and Judah, prophesying doom if they continued on with their evil plans; no one believed him, and the last we hear of him he was headed for prison. Jeremiah wept as he pleaded with his people to repent, but they refused, and he was abducted and taken to Egypt, which is as far as we know where he died. They all spoke hard words in the name of a God who loves his people and is willing to forgive their rebellion if they will only turn to him and repent.

So, however reluctantly, I find myself saying, at least in principle, that Paul’s words are God’s words. And when I have to face my own unwillingness to obey the ones I don’t like, I find myself mentally sitting in the living room of the Shiloh house in Seaside, looking at the ocean, remembering Jesus’ words that those who follow him have to be willing to leave everything behind, and hoping that he would let me keep the stereo set I had just spent $300 on that was now sitting at my father’s house. Well, that stereo was waiting for me after I left Shiloh, but most of my memories of it are associated with things I wish had never happened. We ignore the hard passages in the Bible at our peril.

Let’s close with Paul’s words to his protegé Timothy: “This saying is trustworthy and deserves full acceptance: ‘Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners’ – and I am the worst of them! But here is why I was treated with mercy: so that in me as the worst, Christ Jesus could demonstrate his utmost patience, as an example for those who are going to believe in him for eternal life” (1 Tim 1:15–16). Some say that Paul’s comments about women show that he is indeed the worst of sinners, and they’re welcome to their opinion.

But Paul’s message was not primarily about keeping women in subjection or reinforcing the male-female binary. Everything he said he said to point to Jesus. “We preach about a crucified Christ, a stumbling block to Jews and foolishness to Gentiles” (1 Cor 1:23). (Notice how he was willing to put up with the resentment of Jews and the scorn of Gentiles.) “I decided to be concerned about nothing among you except Jesus Christ, and him crucified” (1 Cor 2:2).

It was because Jesus had done so much for Paul that Paul was willing to suffer so much for Jesus. This same Jesus died so that his people could truly live for God, and his life is testimony that no matter how much we suffer, it’s worth it even in this life and will be even more so in the world to come.

“The Spirit and the bride [Jesus’ people] say [to Jesus], ‘Come [and rule over us]!’ And let the one who hears [God’s word] say: ‘Come [Jesus, and rule over me]!’ And let the one who is thirsty come; let the one who wants it take the water of life free of charge.” Amen.

Sunday, September 10, 2017

Hope for Bill Buckner Moments

This first podcast is of the sermon I preached today at the  Meadowood senior center.

Thursday, May 18, 2017

The State Through the Bible (or, The Bible on the State)

[[This is the first draft of the introduction to what I hope will become a handbook for Christians who want to see the kingdom of God expand and fill the earth, who believe that Jesus wants us to live lives of loving service to our neighbors as a way of calling them to submit to Jesus, the ultimate servant and the true ruler of the universe, and who are convinced that Christians have made a tragic mistake by thinking of themselves as citizens of two kingdoms and of the “powers that be ... ordained of God” as rightful lords over the lives and property of those powerless to oppose them. Subsequent chapters will appear as I am able to make them coherent; this will have to suffice for now to give my vast readership an idea of where I am trying to take my argument.
  The inspiration for this endeavor was my trip to Vietnam in 2016, documented here. Upon my return, I was invited to report to my church, which had supported me financially. While in Vietnam I read a Vietnamese Christian account of the bombing of Hanoi by the US—which I know included US Evangelicals—and I felt it my Christian duty to muse on at least the possibility that had US Evangelicals had a proper view of the state they would not have supported the war in Vietnam and thus saved Vietnamese Christians years of the misery of war and of the subsequent reprisals, which includes decades of being viewed with suspicion by the government of the Socialist Republic of Vietnam. I did so by trying to go from Genesis to Revelation in ten minutes, a journey that ended up taking considerably longer. My importunity (and, I must admit, discourtesy) was gently but firmly rebuked, but I think I am on the right track, and so I will press on.]]

While one can answer the question “What is wrong with the world?” no better than G. K. Chesterton’s “I am,” somewhere high on the list is the tendency of human beings to idolize power. What Augustine called the libido dominandi, the lust for power, pollutes all relationships, from the toddlers and schoolyard bullies who insist on forcing others to do their bidding, to sexual exploitation in dating and marriage, to national and worldwide politics.

While most people condemn the lust for power in most circumstances, they give it a comparative pass when it comes to politics. Christians especially tend to begin their theology of society by quoting Romans 13:1–7:

Obey the government, for God is the one who put it there. All governments have been placed in power by God. So those who refuse to obey the laws of the land are refusing to obey God, and punishment will follow. For the authorities do not frighten people who are doing right, but they frighten those who do wrong. So do what they say, and you will get along well. The authorities are sent by God to help you. But if you are doing something wrong, of course you should be afraid, for you will be punished. The authorities are established by God for that very purpose, to punish those who do wrong. So you must obey the government for two reasons: to keep from being punished and to keep a clear conscience. Pay your taxes, too, for these same reasons. For government workers need to be paid so they can keep on doing the work God intended them to do. Give to everyone what you owe them: Pay your taxes and import duties, and give respect and honor to all to whom it is due.

When reminded that God’s people from the beginning have faced severe persecution at the hands of government—the decapitation of the writer of Romans 13:1–7 being one notable example—and that the famine and other forms of poverty—to say nothing of war—that plague the world today are the product of government policies, the response is something along the lines of “Well, government is imperfect, but it is God who has established it and so we have to submit and trust that God is working his perfect will out through it.”

Worse, they allow Romans 13:1–7 to trump everything else the Bible has to say about how people are to treat their neighbors. They reduce “we must obey God rather than men” (Acts 5:29) to a prohibition against literally bowing down to an idol (à la Daniel 3) or ceasing to evangelize (Acts 5), meanwhile saying nothing against theft by taxation and murder in imperialist war; perhaps worse, they disdain to bring bring disputes over such matters as sexual abuse by church staff before church courts, preferring instead to take them to secular courts in violation of 1 Corinthians 6.

Perhaps the paramount principle in biblical interpretation is to put the passage under discussion in context. This book is an attempt to put Romans 13:1–7 in its proper context by taking the Bible in chronological order, reading it “along the grain.” That is, I am assuming that the Torah is almost entirely the work of Moses, written during his lifetime, prior to 1400 BCE, and that the events the Old Testament describes happened pretty much as the books describe them. The writings of the early church, specifically the books of the New Testament, seem to know little if anything of modern source criticism. More to the point, my intended audience is people who, as I do, believe that the Bible is God’s holy Word and intended by its ultimate author to be so read.

Under this hermeneutic, Romans 13:1–7 was written a millennium and a half after Moses brought down from Sinai the commandments against murder and theft. For fifteen hundred years, then, the Word of God to his people was unalloyed: love your neighbor as yourself (Lev 19:18); do not kill, steal, commit adultery, or bear false witness (Exod 20:13–16). The Torah knows of no exception to this rule for a special class of people set apart as the state. While the Lord commands capital punishment in some instances, we shall see that it is to be executed by common people, not a special class of people. Similarly, he commanded the people to pay what amounts to taxes, but these were to support the cult system—the temple and the priesthood—and to help the poor, not to support career politicians and their armed agents. Most importantly for our purposes, how much people gave, how they obeyed the commands, was between them and God; there was no class of people funded by the very taxes they extracted to enforce the tax laws.

It is this kind of society—a society of people voluntarily serving each other—that we are to hold up to a world ravaged by the political class. Whatever form the state takes, it destroys whatever it touches. Monarchs have always tended to exploit their subjects. Republics and democracies arose as a response to the depredations of monarchs, but democracies inevitably degenerate into mob rule as people vote themselves privileges out of their neighbors’ pockets, and republics similarly degenerate as the elected representatives are no less greedy than the people who elect them. And, as the book of Judges documents so clearly, an anarchy will degenerate into the chaos of the state if the people will not put the Lord and his law first in their hearts.

The take-away from this book should be a passionate desire to see the knowledge of the glory of the Lord fill the earth as the waters cover the sea (Hab 2:14). While those who live to see that day will live well, our goal should not be that we, or even they, live well. This passionate desire should instead spring from our love for God, which in turn is the result of his love for us: our gratitude for the grace he shows us in Jesus’ life, death, resurrection, and ascension and his gift of the Holy Spirit.

The way forward, then, is to eschew the weapons of the world, specifically political power, to “come out from among them and be separate” (2 Cor 6:17), and to build a society that models the nature of our God, the servant king. We will pay taxes and obey just laws meantime, but always with an eye to winning a hearing for the good news of salvation in Christ. Part of that good news is the nature of the kingdom, the promise that the king of that kingdom will make sure that his people are fed and clothed (Matt 6:31–33) and that innocent people will never have to hear a functionary of a self-serving state say, “Do as I say or I’ll kill you.”

We model this kingdom not by attempting to “Christianize” the coercive world system but rather by meeting people’s needs God’s way: through voluntary means. Schools, hospitals, and homes for orphans and the aged, institutions that post-Christian and never-Christian societies now consider indispensable, were begun in earnest by Christians as voluntary operations. As they have been taken over by the taxman, they have indeed become more “effective,” if by such is meant able to “serve” more people and provide more in the way of tangible benefits. But as selfish human nature has taken its toll, many of them have also become primarily places where employees make a living and secondarily channels of common grace.

To the degree that they fulfill the function their builders intended, such institutions proclaim that God is irrelevant. That is, not only does the observer see no reason to glorify God for the benefits he receives from an institution that does not acknowledge God, but those who build the institutions do so in part to show that they have no need of God, that God is somewhere between irrelevant and the subject of an excrable, death-dealing lie.

He who is faithful in little will be given charge over much (e.g., Luke 19:17). The stone “cut out without hands” that destroyed the image in Nebuchadnezzar’s dream was small, but grew to fill the whole world (Dan 2:15). The kingdom of God—the antitype of which Nebuchadnezzar’s stone is the type—similarly starts small and grows to fill the earth (Matt 13:31–33). We can choose to be part of this growth or not. We can, to borrow C. S. Lewis’ metaphor, make mud pies in the slums of politics, or we can work to have a holiday at the shore of voluntary service. Crowning Romans 13:1–7 king of our social theory inevitably binds us to the slums.

This book is intended to give you the courage to put that unwitting usurper in its place, a place in subjection to Jesus’ plain words: “The kings of the Gentiles lord it over them; and those who exercise authority over them call themselves Benefactors. But you are not to be like that. Rather, let the greatest among you become as the youngest, and the leader as one who serves” (Luke 22:25–26), and most importantly, “‘Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind.’ This is the first and greatest commandment. And the second is like it: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’ All the Law and the Prophets hang on these two commandments” (Matt 22:37–40, quoting Deut 6:5 and Lev 19:18).

Wednesday, March 22, 2017

Annie the Anarchist

Annie Black is a lady at my church. She would not call herself an anarchist, but if it flies like a duck and swims like a duck …

She is the embodiment of what Christian anarchists, all two dozen of us, are trying to see as normal for the body of Christ.

Annie has two lovely and musically talented daughters. One day, for reasons probably related to those daughters, Annie decided what our church needed this spring was a handbell choir. So she went and recruited players and a director. She sent reminders for people to come to rehearsals. She made sure there were snacks at rehearsals, which involved getting the people who are responsible for music at the church to pony up money for said snacks. She may even have been the one to negotiate which Sunday the bells are to play in the Sunday service.

When it comes to rehearsal time, Annie is usually elsewhere, but the director she has chosen is able to keep the rehearsal moving and the players on task. It is not a professional ensemble by any means, but it is sure to draw a few positive comments from the audience for its performance.

All this without threats or any other form of coercion or even tangible reward for anyone (unless sandwiches count). I don’t remember her even saying so much as, “This is my project.”

This is anarchy in action. It is proof, or at least strong evidence, that anything worth doing can be done without coercion. If the Annie Blacks of the world put their minds to it, they could come up with ways of educating children, keeping poor people fed and healthy, and probably even defending the innocent from violence, all without resorting to the coercion inherent in the state.

Compare this to what our detractors call anarchy: warlords in Mogadishu running around with machine guns mounted on trucks, fighting over territory and trying to become the head archōn. At its worst, that’s chaos, but since there is no pretense there of people and their property being sacred, it is not anarchy. However, it should be noted that the more chaotic the situation is the less wealth there is for those archōns to extract from those over whom they are the powers that be, ordained of God, so it is in their best interest to make the situation as peaceful as possible and allow those under their boots to engage in productive labor. Whether they actually do so or not, I don’t know, and the statist Western media has no ideological incentive to treat the situation there sympathetically, so I’m not sure where one would go to find out—except, of course, to Mogadishu, in which case one would have the CIA, no friend of anarchy or innocent life, to contend with.

Annie Black is no warlord. She is what we should all aim to be: influential and willing to serve. As the church relies on the Annie Black model for modeling society, we will see the church grow and everyone live better. May her tribe increase.

Saturday, January 14, 2017

Open Letter to an Impassioned Democrat

Dear S__,

Whenever I go on Facebook, I’m reminded that you are unhappy about the results of the recent election. Maybe I should be more specific: I see a dozen posts from you that state in great detail how unhappy you are with the election.

I don’t feel all of your pain, but I do feel some of it. I didn’t vote for Mr. Trump either, but I found his opponents’ platforms even worse, so if I had to be stuck with one of the choices I was given, I got the one I disliked least. I happen to know that you didn’t get your first choice either, but your second choice was, shall we say, good enough for government work. And most voters agreed.

But posting anti-Trump memes on Facebook isn’t going to help your cause. (Writing posts on a blog that no one reads won’t help mine either, but my asthma is acting up, the only inhaler I have is steroids, and so I can’t sleep, and I have to do something, so here I am.) Unless you can do something more constructive than post on Facebook, you’re stuck with four years of Mr. Trump’s boot on your neck, or the death of everything you’ve worked for in the last eight years, or however you care to characterize the disaster that awaits you beginning on January 20.

I would like to propose to you a mission that, should you decide to accept it, will result in a better world for you and those you love.

I want you to write your state-level elected officials and tell them to pass legislation that states unequivocally that residents of your state will not submit to either a Trump presidency or laws passed by the current Republican Congress. That is, your state will secede and become its own nation. If you’re not sure how to word the letter, I’m happy to help you.

Until you tell me you have done so, I am going to unfollow you on Facebook. I won’t unfriend you, because I am honored that you friended me to begin with, but I can’t be party to you wasting your time and mine griping about the Trump presidency when there is something you can do to change things so they are more to your liking.

(If there were enough people who think like me, I’d organize my own secession movement. We can about fill a football stadium. You can draw on the majority of people who voted last November.)

If you look at Politico’s map of the state-by-state election results, you will see that with the exception of Texas, all the richest states in the USA went for Clinton. That tells me that if those states were to secede and form their own nation, that nation would be richer and better educated than the remaining USA. And, of course, you would no longer have the poorer, less educated folks telling you what to do.

In fact, if you really wanted to shed the dead weight, you could simply secede at the municipal level. Look here:

I defy you to find a blue county on that map that isn’t wealthier and better educated—that is, both more urban and more urbane—than the contiguous red counties. Why would you want to be “united” with people who are inferior to you? Would it not be far better to leave them behind, forge your own path, and then, once they come begging to be admitted to your socialist paradise, decide for yourselves under what terms to admit them, if at all?

Would a highly urban state be at a disadvantage? Not at all—look at Monaco, the richest nation per capita in the world, and Singapore, an economic powerhouse by any definition. Both are entirely urban.

Could secession be done peaceably? Of course—look at Czechoslovakia’s division into the Czech Republic, which is more free market, and Slovakia, which is more socialist. Not a shot was fired.

Would the remaining USA resist secession violently, as in 1861? I can’t guarantee that they wouldn’t, but I promise that I would come to you and do my best to stand between their tanks and you if they did. Much of the support for Mr. Trump came from people who simply want you and your friends out of their faces. They’re happy to let you do as you wish. And they certainly don’t want you in a position to outvote them in the future. So I would expect them to do all they could to speed up the secession process.

The resulting urban nation—which would probably become a federation of city-states—would need to import food from the USA, and the new, highly rural USA would need to import technology from the federation, so it would be in everyone’s best interests for trade barriers to be low. I would hope that the advantages that would accrue to the resulting USA from the secession would influence the protectionist Mr. Trump to make sure that the federation had access to food.

So please, S__, write your elected officials. Take the zeal with which you publish Facebook memes and turn it to constructive activity. Be a force for good.

I hope I can resume following you soon.

Sunday, December 18, 2016

After the Election Is Stolen

Surprise, surprise.

The political class, those who today cloak their rapacity in the authority supposedly granted them by Romans 13, are deathly afraid that someone they don’t like will take up that authority, so they are threatening to kill members of the Electoral College who vote for Donald Trump. If enough electors change their votes, Congress could give the presidency to Hillary Clinton on January 6.

It doesn’t look like the establishment will co-opt Trump to their satisfaction. They may still be able to assassinate him, but the “Russia swung the election to Trump” meme has gained so much traction that

electors interested in living out their natural lives will probably “do what’s best for the nation” and vote for an “experienced statesman” rather than a “racist, buffoonish demagogue.” Between Trump, Pence, and Clinton, the safe money says it will be Hillary Clinton putting her hand on the Bible and swearing to uphold the Constitution come January 20.

So evangelicals—who last March would never vote for a serial polygamist with no principles but change their tune in November and carry the flag of said unprincipled polygamist to victory—suddenly find themselves as two-time losers: they lose credibility because they abandon their principles, then they lose the election anyway. The Libertarian Party, the “party of principle” that abandoned its principles and still can’t get 10% of the vote, would be a suitable home for today’s Trumpista evangelicals.

What to do now? Step one: revamp your theology.

Stop beginning your theology of government with Romans 13:1-7 and 1 Peter 2:13–14. Remember what happened to the men who wrote those words: they were both executed by the very people they told us to honor. Clearly they did not mean that we were to regard those murderers, or any other politicians, as our leaders, or our citizenship as in any place but heaven.

Instead, start where the Bible starts, with Genesis 12, where Pharaoh, the biblical paragon of pretension to God’s heavenly throne, simply abducts Abraham’s wife. (Or Genesis 10, where Nimrod is “a mighty hunter before the Lord,” whatever that means; I don’t get the impression God’s people would want to be under his dominion.)

Note how Abraham works outside the political system to rescue Lot in Genesis 14, accepting bread from the priest Melkizedek but refusing to take even a sandal strap from the king of Sodom. 

Remember that yes, Joseph did save his people through the political system, but his descendants spent four centuries in slavery to that same system, and God had to (well, OK …) work miracles to bring about deliverance.

Notice that among all the commands given from Exodus 20 to the end of Deuteronomy, there were no taxes: the tithe and the poor laws and all the rest of the assessments were all voluntary; God specifies no agents to check on who was giving how much. “Vengeance is mine,” says the Lord, “I will repay.”

Notice that when Moses acknowledges that the people will want a king later on, he specifies that the king is to operate under the same rules as those he rules (Deut 17)—he was to be a brother, not a Big Brother, not a father, and certainly not a despot.

Notice that during the period of the judges, when “there was no king in Israel,” the land had peace for forty years twice and eighty years once.

Notice that God gave Israel the monarchy as a curse, not as a blessing (1 Sam 8). Notice that most of the kings of Israel and Judah “did what was evil in the sight of the Lord.” Could this be why the psalmist says, “Do not put your trust in princes, in mortal man who cannot save”? Ask yourself: Does the history of the monarchies of Israel and Judah, to say nothing of the history of other governments, look more like Romans 13 or like “The kings of the earth rise up, and their rulers take counsel together against the Lord and against his Messiah”?

What does the destruction of Nebuchadnezzar’s statue by the rock not made by human hands (Dan 2) mean, if not that God’s ways are not man’s ways and that our weapons are not the weapons of the world and that the church will take dominion over the world not by might, nor by power, but by God’s Spirit, through God’s people serving each other and their neighbors with love?

What do Jesus’ words “it is not to be that way with you” (Luke 22:25–26) mean, if not that his people are not to lord it over their neighbors the way politicians do, thus disqualifying the political process as a tool of dominion?

The Clinton presidency will present us with unfamiliar challenges. More than ever American evangelicals will be like the Romans to whom Paul wrote and the diaspora to whom Peter wrote. Those in power will be our increasingly intractable enemies. But Jesus tells us to love our enemies, to do good to those who hate us, to bless those who curse us, and to pray for those who mistreat us. That’s a tall order that will take all our resources to fulfill. Let’s not waste our time considering those people our leaders.

The same holds true if the election is not stolen.

Saturday, December 3, 2016

The Why of Donald Trump’s Atrocious Presidency and How to Fight It

You probably didn’t hear it here first, but here’s my version:
Donald Trump’s presidency will make Evangelicaldom regret every handclap it raised in support of it.
The why is simple: Mr. Trump does not believe in private property. He will go after it with a vengeance.
People who believe in private property do not—cannot, by definition—support eminent domain, restricted trade, restricted migration, import tariffs, tax-funded education, standing armies, and the war on drugs. Mr. Trump not only supports these things, it was his support for these things that got him elected.
This is not to say that his opponent in the election would have done better. But just as rape is not as bad as murder yet is still an atrocity, Mr. Trump being not as bad as Mrs. Clinton does not make his stated policies less atrocious.
Mr. Trump has, commendably, lamented the expropriation of Christians who refused to play ball with the LGBTQ community, but he has done so by calling said expropriation a violation of religious freedom. My take is that anyone who thinks that fighting Roe v. Wade or Obergefell by playing the “religious freedom” card is hopelessly naïve. No one I have ever heard bleat about their religious freedom would grant religious freedom to anyone who said their religion allowed them to abort full-term fetuses or marry an animal or burn their widowed mother on their father’s funeral pyre. Hillary Clinton was right: the phrase “religious freedom” is simply code for Christian supremacism. Mr. Trump will support Christians’ “religious freedom” only as long as it serves his concept of the “greater good.”
We can depend on Mr. Trump to use eminent domain to dispossess the politically less powerful of their property. He will do so by claiming, probably correctly, that those he oppresses—and that’s the right word—are refusing reasonable offers for their property in hopes of getting a better offer later. Usually foregoing a lesser pleasure in the present in the hope of a greater pleasure in the future is considered a virtue. Deferred gratification is, after all, the mechanism that builds capital.
But while collectivists like Mr. Trump acknowledge your right to pass up the latest car or epic vacation today to build the capital to start a business (or buy a better car or vacation) tomorrow—and, of course, to run the risk that the business or the vacation or the car won’t work out as planned—they deny you the right to wait to see if you can get a better price for your property than what they are offering. And they deny you that right at gunpoint.
We can look forward to systematic violations of the right of the politically unconnected to associate with whom they please, as well as to the deportation of politically unconnected law-abiding people. Mr. Trump’s wall will be as effective at keeping unwilling business owners in as it will be in keeping willing workers out. This will result in the flight of all but politically connected capital and to higher prices on goods and services we currently import or pay illegal immigrants for. I would not rule out a military draft, including females, and a senseless war or two just for good measure.
Mr. Trump did us a yuuge favor during his campaign by showing us how to talk about the Establishment and how to talk to it, and most importantly, how to view it. We’ve seen that we don’t have to kowtow to a naked emperor anymore.
Well, come January Mr. Trump will be the Establishment. One would hope that he would expect and tolerate dissent couched in the terms he used when he was on the outside, but I think we can expect him to be just like the Clintonistas, who went from being pro free speech when they were out of power to thought police once in power. Mr. Trump will likely not tolerate dissent couched in the terms he used in his dissent.
Fortunately, Jesus calls us to a higher standard of discourse than Mr. Trump used in his campaign. And though Mr. Trump made great use of his lack of principles in his campaign, Jesus calls us to have principles.
Specifically, he calls us to obey the words “Do not steal.” Every abomination Mr. Trump will unleash on his subjects can be seen as theft, whether of property (eminent domain and restrictions on migration and investment), labor (taxes), or time and safety (the draft).
The church needs to stand firm for property rights, especially those rights of the politically less connected.
How this can happen when the vast majority of Christians send their children to tax-funded schools and have no qualms about paying into and benefiting from a Social Security system that subsidizes homosexual marriage I don’t know. Having given away the argument by not opposing theft themselves, evangelicals by and large have no moral legs to stand on in opposition to government atrocities.
Which is why I think the next four years will be atrocious.