Monday, September 28, 2009

Simpleton, Fool, and Wise Man

(Script of a devotional given to the Food for the Heart dinner, Lansdale Presbyterian Church, September 27, 2009)

You’ve probably heard it said that a simpleton learns from his own mistakes, a wise man learns from the mistakes of others, and a fool doesn’t learn at all. I’d like to show how this plays out in a not-too-familiar Bible story and see if I can suggest useful ways we can apply it to our own lives.

Before we get to the story, we need some background. It actually begins in the days of King Ahab. He was two things. He was henpecked, dominated by his wife Jezebel; she even determined his religion, the worship of Baal, a god whose name, the Hebrew word ba`al, means “master.” He was also a coward: When one of his subjects refused to sell land to him, he let his wife arrange to have the guy murdered. He was content to take the guy’s land, but he didn’t have the courage to murder the guy himself. Later, when he went into battle for the last time, he knew his enemies were out to get him, so he disguised himself as a grunt and had one of his friends, the king of Judah, dress up as him.

But before these two things this happened, Ahab had a confrontation with a prophet named Elijah. You’ve probably heard the story.

Ahab employed professional prophets, probably at the behest of his wife, because they’re called prophets of Baal. Now the job of a professional court prophet was to prophesy good things about the king. If one of them were to prophesy evil things against him, he was likely to be executed. In fact, when a real prophet did tell him that he was going to die in the battle he actually did die in, he had that prophet jailed. So essentially Ahab was paying these guys to tell him what he wanted to hear.

Elijah told Ahab to take these prophets up Mt. Carmel for a showdown: whoever could get their god to send down fire on a sacrifice would win. These four hundred prophets called out for hours, “Answer us, O Baal.” When that didn’t work, they took knives and cut themselves so there was blood all over the place: “Answer us, O Baal!” No response. Then Elijah spoke one sentence: “O Lord, show these people that you are God and that I am your servant.” And fire came down and consumed the sacrifice.

But Ahab didn’t learn his lesson. It was after this confrontation that he killed the guy to steal his land and almost killed the prophet and his friend. He died a fool.

Now we get to our story. Ahab’s son, Ahaziah, became king. Though Ahaziah’s name means “possession of the Lord,” he also worshiped Baal. One law like the law of gravity is that you become like the god you worship, and just as Ahab had wanted to be a ba`al, a master, so did Ahaziah. But he soon became sick, and Elijah sent him the message that he was going to die. How did Ahaziah react? The typical way any king would have reacted in those days: he sent a captain with fifty troops out to bring Elijah in to be executed.

Now, here’s we see what it means to be a simpleton. If you join the military, you do the work of your commander. As my son the army captain says, “I don’t make the policies. I just do as I’m told.” That’s just the way it is. Now this captain knew about Elijah’s confrontation with Ahab’s prophets on Mt. Carmel. He knew that Ahaziah was a rebel against God, a worshiper of Baal. He knew that his job was to bring Elijah in for execution. But he was a patriotic guy, an obedient subject of God-ordained authority (duty, honor, country, and all that), and so he figured everything would work out fine. He was just following orders. So he went up to Elijah and said, “Man of God”—notice that he knew to whom he was speaking—“the king says”—and the king was the incarnation of Baal—“‘Come down.’” In other words, You may be a man of God, but you have to obey the king—the real power belongs to Baal.

What was Elijah’s response? Exactly what he had said on Mt. Carmel: “If I am a man of God, may fire come down from heaven and consume you and your fifty men!” And that’s what happened. Fifty-one men died. Fifty-one women became widows, and God knows how many kids became fatherless. That’s the fate of the simpleton: “A simpleton sees danger, keeps going, and suffers for it.”

But Ahaziah didn’t learn his lesson: he sent another captain with another fifty men. Now think about these men for a second. They not only knew about the confrontation on Mt. Carmel and about Ahaziah’s character, they knew what had happened to the first group. They have just been asked to do exactly the same thing the first group did. Why did they think their fate will be different? Because they were fools. “A rebuke impresses a man of discernment more than a hundred lashes a fool.” They wanted to please the king rather than to please God.

I can hear the captain now: “We’re not gonna let this raghead get the better of us. C’mon men, let’s roll!” They went and confronted Elijah, and poof! Fifty-one more widows and God knows how many fatherless children.

At this point Ahaziah still had the audacity of hope, so he sent another captain with fifty more men. But this time, he chose a wise man. This captain knew what had happened to the first two groups, and he knew that if he obeyed the king, the same thing would happen to him and his men. But he also knew that if he disobeyed, the king did not bear the sword for nothing and they would die. So he was in a real pickle.

But I think he remembered that years before, when God had told King David that David’s sin would result in punishment, David had responded that that it was better to fall into the hands of the Lord, who is merciful, than into the hands of man. So he went to Elijah, God’s representative, and begged for mercy. He didn’t pretend he had any motives higher than saving his own skin and that of his men. But his fear of the Lord showed that he was a wise man, because the fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom.

It was now Elijah who had a problem. He couldn’t cast fire on the men, but if he went to the king, he could be executed. At that point the Lord spoke to him and assured him that he would not die. So they all went to the king, Elijah told the king again that he was going to die, the king died, and that was that.

So what can we take away from this?

First, we need to realize that whether we’re at the top of the pile, like the king, or we’re practically slaves, like those soldiers, or we’re just people somewhere in the middle, like the captains, we have the choice of being simpletons, fools, or wise people.

Second, we need to realize we have three evil forces that push us away from wisdom and toward being simple or foolish.

One is our own fallen natures. We want what we want when we want it. We want to have fun. We want to be comfortable. We want to enjoy life. But our hearts are deceitful above all things and desperately wicked, so we can fool ourselves into doing things that we know are wrong just so we can have what we want. And I can tell you the worst mistake I ever made came when I was in a position of influence and convinced myself that evil was good so I could get what I wanted.

Another evil commander is the world system. The simple and foolish captains were decent people like us. We just want to fit in with those around us. We don’t want to be oddballs. And so we go along with other people’s evil. We just follow orders. Everybody’s doing it.

And finally, there is the devil, God’s personal adversary. He dangles things we desire in front of us, knowing that we’ll convince ourselves that it’s OK to do evil things to get them. After all, everybody’s doing it.

So what can we do? The same thing the wise captain did: ask the man of God for mercy. Elijah isn’t here for us, but Jesus is. Jesus is the ultimate man of God because he is the Son of God. He says that he will not reject anyone who comes to him. And he promises to give us the Holy Spirit, God himself, to live in our hearts and guide us into wisdom. But how do we know when we’re listening to the Spirit and when we’re just listening to our own desires? He has given us the Bible, an objective standard that we can read to measure our desires against so we can know when we’re acting foolishly and when we’re obeying.

The choice is yours. Do you want to be a fool, a simpleton, or a wise person?

Wednesday, September 23, 2009

Following On

The irreverent humorist W. C. Fields, when asked why he was thumbing through a Bible, replied, “Looking for loopholes.” One of my readers has accused me of doing essentially the same thing: reading what I want to into the Scriptures to support my views. He could be right; I’m certainly not immune to benighted self-interest. Then again, people on the other side are made of dust, too, and I might not be alone.

The consensus of respondents public and private to my last post was basically that God has established all authority, even the most rapacious, though they acknowledged that there are times when “we must obey God rather than men.” I’m not sure whether my readers would allow me to decide from Scripture whether to resist or not in a given case or if I can only get God’s permission via “the interposition of the lesser magistrate,” but the option seems to be open somewhere. (Since my question was about hermeneutics, not about resistance, I gather I need to learn to ask questions more clearly!)

I’m reminded of a chapel message given by Kenneth Pike, a linguist who devoted his life to seeing the Bible translated into every language in the world. His subject was obedience to authority, and his point was that if we can’t obey earthly authorities with thankful hearts, we can’t obey God from the heart. This would parallel John’s words that we can’t love God whom we have not seen if we don’t love our brothers whom we have seen, Human authority is by nature arbitrary. It takes away from us things we would expect from Scripture to be allowed to have.

But so does God. For example, my wife’s brother-in-law was born with cerebral palsy. He will never walk. Yet Jesus commanded those he healed to get up and walk.

I once overheard a conversation on the train home where one guy was telling another that he’d seen that people with severe disabilities tended to have a more positive and grateful outlook on life than “healthy” people. Anyone who knows Jerry and me would say that’s true in our cases.

The topic of this blog is good neighborliness. I’m not sure US Christians are known as good neighbors in the Acts 5:13 sense. And I see no reason why the reverence for Uncle Sam cannot lead us to the same end suffered by our German brethren during the Third Reich: war on our soil, death, destruction, defeat—and repudiation by those who hear about us in the future. It’s ironic that my last post got on the subject of resistance to government, because I see less danger in being subject to tyranny than in being party to tyranny, and I see too many tyrant wannabes among my brethren.

Christian neighborliness says, “How can I serve you?” Government says, “Do it my way or I’ll kill you.” They look like polar opposites to me. If I’m wrong, I’m wrong, but I’d rather face God having been a neighbor to my enemies than to have been a governor wannabe to my friends.

Saturday, September 19, 2009

Jesus and John Galt

I’d like your input on a problem I’ve got. I suspect some high-profile theologian has written extensively on the subject, but I’m curious about how the folks in the trenches deal with it.

A little background: A co-worker referred to me yesterday as “a reincarnation of John Galt” because I suggested that the threatened closing of Philadelphia’s public libraries might be a good thing. (It would provide an opportunity for someone to provide a private system that would either meet the true need out there or go broke.) He didn’t mean it as a compliment, but I took it as such. I mentioned that I’m a Christian, and he put “militant Christianity” in a pile with other aspects of a decadent society. So in the course of two e-mails I’ve put my two little toes in the waters of persecution, one for sounding like an atheist and the other for identifying with Jesus.

Yes, John Galt, the hero of Ayn Rand’s Atlas Shrugged, her epic defense of atheism as a system that makes people good neighbors, would fulfill the first part of my description of a good neighbor: one who keeps his hands to himself and tells the truth. His version, “I will never live for the sake of another man, nor ask another man to live for mine,” gets to the same place by a different road: to violate my neighbor’s body or property, either directly or through deceit, is precisely to “ask another man to live for mine.” What his version misses, of course, is part two of my description, which is that a good neighbor lives sacrificially so that others may know God. But, while the book treats sacrifice as a dirty word, Galt’s Gulchers voluntarily endured hardships, perhaps considering them investments, and the result was benefit for their neighbors.

While Rand would certainly have issues with the laudatory view of government in Romans 13 and 1 Peter 2, since the word for almost all government and its hangers-on in Atlas Shrugged is “looters,” she would probably have no trouble with the Bible’s descriptions of what government actually does: wasteful public works (the Tower of Babel, the pyramids, Absalom’s tower), enslavement (Gn 47:21), selling expropriated goods to their former owners (Gn 41:34; 47:14), nepotism (Gn 47:12), murderous pillaging (Gn 14:1-11), and absolute control over the property, minds, and hearts of its subjects (Re 13:15–17). I can even imagine her saying that if there were a god and that god came to earth as a man, government would kill him.

Here’s my problem. I find myself agreeing with her and disagreeing with other Christians, almost all of whom take their view of government from Romans 13 and 1 Peter 2 rather than from what looks to me like the rest of Scripture.

As I understand it, Christian hermeneutics reads the Old Testament through the lens of the New and focuses it on the cross of Christ. How can one read the story of Naboth (1 Ki 21) that way? Ahab violated the Torah (Dt 17:16–20) and the prophets (Is 5:8), and Elijah called him a murderer (1 Ki 21:19). In what way did Ahab “hold no terror for those who do right, but for those who do wrong” (Rom 13:1–7)? Most specifically, how does Romans 13 take the Naboth story and focus it on the Son of God who said, “The kings of the gentiles lord it over their subjects, … but it is not to be that way among you” (Lk 22:24–26)?

Rand can draw a straight line from Naboth’s death to Jesus’ words and his death. I don’t see how Paul can. Further, if she believed in sin, she would class even well-intended government action that goes awry (surprise!)—I’m thinking here of the bailouts that has given my unborn grandchildren’s money to the super-rich in the name of an economic revival that hasn’t happened—as qualifying for damnation not only those directly responsible but those who supported it in any way: they need to repent if they are to avoid the hell they so richly deserve. But I infer from Paul’s open-ended approval of government that the worst he can say in such situations is “stuff happens.”

And the doctrine of predestination would make such actions risk free for Christians who engage in them. No wonder Christians support the unbiblical practice of imprisonment for activities the Bible nowhere calls crimes while not supporting restitution for activities for which the Bible prescribes it! If they’re wrong, they won’t find out until Glory, and “there’ll be no more crying there: we are going to see the King” (but see Am 5:18).

If we defend evil government actions on the basis of Romans 13, how will our neighbors see us as good neighbors, their own sin as odious, and the cross of Christ as the real “final solution”?

So, here’s where I’d like you to weigh in. How do you get from Naboth’s murder (or any similar government atrocity in the Old Testament) to the cross by way of Romans 13 and 1 Peter 2? How do you get those passages to accord with the rest of scripture? The answer to these questions are part of the theological basis on which we can approach the work of being the city on the hill that will cause our neighbors to glorify our Father in heaven.

The comment button is just below. Thanks.

Saturday, September 12, 2009

Patriot Day

No one will celebrate the nationalistic fervor that erupted the day after the 9/11 attacks more than Christians. We were, almost to a man, shocked and angered by the attacks. We’re grateful to God for allowing us to live in a country where we take for granted freedoms that others have never known. But is the “my country, right or wrong” mentality that prevails today really Christian?

Well, who are the patriotic heroes of the Bible? Did Abraham, the father of the faithful, ever consider himself a citizen of Ur, Haran, Egypt, Gerar, or even Canaan? Or did he consider himself a citizen only of “the city with foundations, whose architect and builder is God…a better country—a heavenly one” (He 11:10, 16)? Look at the politicians we know he interacted with: nine of them were tin-pot despots ruling decadent societies and killing and plundering whoever could not resist them (Ge 14), and the other two thought nothing of abducting any woman they lusted after (Ge 12:10–20; 20). Small wonder Abraham never pledged allegiance to the flag of any of those nations, even if they could rightly claim to be “under God” (Ro 13).

The patriotism of Elijah, Elisha, and Obadiah in the days of Ahab nearly got them killed, as did that of Jeremiah, Ebed-Melech, and Baruch in Zedekiah’s. Same with Moses and the midwives in Egypt, Rahab in Jericho, Ezekiel in Babylon, and Mordecai in Persia.

If we want to show patriotism the way Isaiah did, we could do worse than lining up on the thoroughfares leading to every football stadium today and mooning those on the way to the game (Is 20:2–4). The omnipotent government of our day is no less an idol than that of Egypt and Cush in his, and our government will end no differently from theirs.

We know that Paul made use of his Roman citizenship to save his life (Ac 22:26–29), but can you see him with a Roman eagle window sticker or a “Support the troops” ribbon magnet? And, if tradition is correct, the empire to whose government he appealed eventually killed him, as Isaiah’s killed him.

Our ultimate example, of course, is Jesus. No one has ever drawn a greater distinction between “us” and “them” than Jesus did: Jews were people, non-Jews were animals (Mk 7:27). Did he wear a circumcision lapel pin? Or was he in a constant battle “against the rulers, against the authorities, against the [physical, mortal?] powers of this dark world and against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly realms” (Ep 6:12)?

To patriots today it makes sense for Israeli Christians to fire rocket bombs at Christian churches in Gaza and for a US Catholic priest to bless an atomic bomb to be dropped directly on the Catholic cathedral in Nagasaki: national political leadership is established by God, and whatever they decree is right. Like Cubs fans who buy tickets and souvenirs no matter how poorly the team does, a patriot considers his country (and thus himself?) superior to others no matter how evil the policies of his government are.

The biblical distinction is different. It distinguishes only between those who are in Christ and those without him (Ep 2:12). The love an Israeli Christian is to have for his Palestinian brethren is to totally eclipse his love for the godless State of Israel (Mt 10:37), though he is to be passionate in his love for his unsaved fellow Israelis (Ro 9:3). Iranian Christian is to be closer kin to me than any US unbeliever; in fact, a US Christian whose politics I consider murder is to be closer to me than an unbeliever whom I would consider a better neighbor. I fail miserably there.

Further, we are to love our neighbors, even our enemies, as ourselves (Mt 19:19; Lk 10:30–37). God is the warrior (Ex 15:3); our job is to implore people to be reconciled to him (2 Co 5:20). Our enemies need reconciliation no more than we do, because nothing anyone can do to us is worse than our personal and collective offenses against God (Mt 18:23–35).

So by all means fly the flag today: the banner of the New Jerusalem and of God’s love.

Friday, September 11, 2009

An Incident at Krechetovka Station

With birthday money from my family I recently purchased a copy of Stories and Prose Poems, by Alexander Solzhenitsyn, who spent decades in the Soviet prison system in the years between the end of World War II and the fall of the Soviet Union.

The prose poem that prompted me to buy the book—I hadn’t seen it in years—is of a puppy taken off his leash line to enjoy a bone. He ignores the bone, though, and runs around the yard, checking out everything outside the range of his leash line. Solzhenitsyn’s point: freedom is more valuable than any benefits captors can deliver.

I also had time on Saturday to read one of the stories I’d totally forgotten, and I chose “The Incident at Krechetovka Station.” It is set during the German invasion of Russia and concerns a certain Lieutenant Zotov, an unattractive man who is nonetheless the object of sexual advances by women at work and in his boarding house; while he nearly yields to this temptation, he perseveres and remains faithful to his wife. As a true believer in the Communist revolution, he had longed to fight the Fascists in Spain and the Germans on the western front, but was not allowed to go. Instead, he blooms where he has been planted, taking pains to see that everything under his purview is done as well as possible.

The incident referred to in the title concerns Zotov’s treatment of Tveritinov, a “returnee”—or was he? we’re never sure—a Soviet soldier captured by the Germans and then retaken by Soviet forces. These soldiers, far from being rewarded for risking their lives to defend their homeland, once back with their countrymen were sent to detention camps.

Returnees on the trains were given scant rations, and before the story begins, the occupants of one train who had been particularly long without rations broke out of their cars and began looting a supply train headed for the front, cramming their mouths full of uncooked flour. One was shot, ending the uprising. Zotov’s sympathies lie clearly with the shooters: hunger or no hunger, order needs to be maintained to avoid chaos. Other incidents in the story, however, show that his desire for order as defined by the government is his way of fulfilling his true desire to help others: he makes special effort to provide for travelers in need, especially those headed for the front.

Zotov doesn’t know what to make of Tveritinov when the latter appears, but he genuinely likes the guy and wants to help him. The story turns, however, on a chance remark by Tveritinov that convinces Zotov that he is a spy, so he has him arrested. Days later Zotov has second thoughts, and he takes no assurance when told that Tveritinov has been taken care of according to regulations: “After that, Zotov was never able to forget the man for the rest of his life….” We are to infer that whatever atrocities Tveritinov suffered were nothing to be compared to those suffered by Zotov.

The system of omnipotent government we are headed for, and which US evangelicals have fervently supported for twenty of the last thirty years, devours the innocent, but it also destroys its friends. This is why Moses told us not to join the crowds in doing evil (Ex 23:2) and Jesus told us not to lord it over others (Lk 22:24–26. Power over others short-circuits our restraint over our own corruption and allows us to destroy others—and ourselves in the process. Far better to “be mistreated along with the people of God than to enjoy the pleasures of sin…the treasures of Egypt” (Heb 11:22–23).

Thursday, September 3, 2009

Does Jesus Still Free Captives?

Jesus began his ministry by proclaiming that his mission was “to proclaim freedom for the prisoners” and “to release the oppressed” (Luke 4:18). We know he was ultimately talking about freeing us from our bondage to sin, but was the reference to captivity and oppression simply a rhetorical touch, or was he promising earthly freedom as a type of heavenly freedom the way he physically did give “recovery of sight to the blind,” heal the sick, and rais the dead as proof that he had authority on earth to forgive sins (Matt 9:6)? If we are to heal the sick today, miraculously or not, are we also to release the oppressed and captives?

If so, I would like to suggest that our biggest enemy in that endeavor will be politicians. While the Bible gives us an enigmatic introduction to politicians in the person of Nimrod, our first clear picture of them comes in Genesis 14, where we see a band of suzerains engage in a campaign of murder and pillage against their rebellious vassals and the latter’s subjects. In the course of the battles, Abraham’s nephew Lot becomes the Bible’s first named captive—a prisoner of war, a political prisoner. When Abraham learns of this, he enacts the first type of Christ’s redemption of his people: working outside the political system, he leads those “born in his own house” in battle against that system and rescues Lot.

The next prisoner we meet is Joseph, imprisoned first by his brothers and then by an unjust political system. His cellmates are political prisoners; both are imprisoned and one of them is executed, arbitrarily and unjustly, at the whim of the local despot. Joseph eventually becomes a despot himself and uses his power to give his brothers a sip from a cup he had drunk to the dregs by imprisoning them for a few days. In turn, Joseph’s descendants, and those of his brothers, eventually become political prisoners at hard labor because the mightiest politician in the world at the time was afraid of them without cause.

This last captivity became the type of the sin Jesus came to deliver us from. We are sold as slaves to sin, and the offenses we commit against God to serve it are worse than any injustice anyone can ever commit against us (Matt 18:23–35). And we cannot escape it by ourselves any more than the Israelites could simply up and leave Egypt. When Jesus announced his mission, he referred once to blindness, but he referred twice to political injustice (Luke 4:18).

Captivity, prison, is never prescribed in Scripture as a lawful means of dealing with miscreants. The closest it gets is the Mosaic permission to marry females taken prisoner in battle (Deut 21:10–11; war, “politics by other means,” is the consummate political act). Otherwise, there’s Jesus’ warning that we are to settle with our adversaries before they make us subject to the political system (Luke 12:58); this is a corollary of Paul’s admonition that we not become “slaves [= prisoners] of men” (1 Cor 7:23). The general rule is that miscreants be either forced to make restitution to their victims or executed.

This being the case, how is it that the nation with arguably the world’s most visible presence of Bible-believing Christians also boasts the world’s largest prison system? Worse, how is it that most of those prisoners have been incarcerated for activities never called crimes in the Bible, specifically connected with plants God himself planted in the Garden of Eden? (Neither hemp, poppies, nor coca have thorns, which presumably did not exist in the Garden [Gen 3:18].) Why are Christians not leading the charge to free prisoners jailed for noncriminal activities and those who need to make restitution for their crimes? Why instead do they display that evil system’s flag in their churches and on their lapels and pray for its armed agents as though the latter are doing God’s will? Is the bombing and imprisonment of innocents simply a blemish on an otherwise good system, or is government munificence the candy used to lure children into the big black car?

I know atheists who call for restitution instead of prison for nonviolent criminals and oppose the jailing of those the Bible calls innocent of crimes, and I know Christians who defend the welfare-warfare-prison status quo even though they admit Scripture calls for restitution and that no substance is evil in and of itself. So if I don’t want to “walk in the counsel of the wicked” (Ps 1:1), which group should I hang with? And if we truly want to see people come to faith in Christ, isn’t opening people’s eyes to the evil of the prison system one way to “preach the gospel to the poor”?