Saturday, February 20, 2010

Am I My Brother's Keeper?

Christian busybodies often defend their meddling, everything from welfare to warfare, by asserting that they are being the opposite of Cain, who asked, “Am I my brother’s keeper?” (Ge 4:9). They conclude that because Cain was a murderer and he asked the question to avoid being punished for his murder, the answer to the question must therefore be affirmative: we are our brothers’ keepers.

I would suggest that they have mishandled this passage, drawn a faulty conclusion, and used that conclusion as the premise for actions that turn out to be harmful to their neighbors.

Let’s begin with the context: Cain has murdered his brother, and the Lord has just asked him, “Where is your brother?” Did the Lord not know where Abel was? Of course he knew. This was a rhetorical question.

When someone asks a rhetorical question, he assumes that the listener not only knows the answer to the question but that they agree on the answer. For example, someone who asks, “Do I need to send you an engraved invitation before you’ll come over for coffee?” assumes that the listener agrees that engraved invitations are inappropriate for invitations to casual cups of coffee. The question is really a statement: “I’ve given you an appropriate invitation.” It is also a call to action: “Come over for coffee.”

In the same way, the Lord’s question to Cain is a statement, “We both know that you have killed your brother,” and a call to action, “Confess your sin and be forgiven and healed” (Ez 33:11; 1 Jn 1:9).

Cain’s response is another rhetorical question: “Am I my brother’s keeper?” This also packs a statement, “We both know that I am not my brother’s keeper,” and a call to action, “Leave me alone.”

The Lord responds with yet another rhetorical question, “What have you done?” meaning “We both know what you have done” and “Prepare to suffer the consequences.”

Note that the understood answer to Cain’s rhetorical question is no. The Septuagint, the Bible the apostles used, translates it using the word mē, which indicates that the speaker expects no for an answer, as in Matthew 11:23: “And you, Capernaum, [mē] will you be lifted up to the skies? No, you will go down to the depths.”

The Lord nowhere treats Cain’s response as a misconsception to be corrected.

After kicking aside the red herring that Cain has thrown down, the Lord gets to the true issue: even if—even though—Cain is not his brother’s keeper, he was wrong to kill Abel.

But perhaps the rest of Scripture shows that we are our brother’s keeper? Nope.

The word “keeper,” šomer, is used for those who guard such things as inanimate objects (Neh 3:29). A different inflection of the same root, mišmar, is used for “prison” or “custody” (Ge 42:17). Most important, of course, is “the one who watches over [šomer] Israel” (Ps 121:4). In every case, we see that the šomer is by nature superior to the one being watched over. Those kept by a šomer have no choice in the matter.

By contrast, I have found no passages where we are commanded to be other adults’ šomer. This is because passages familiar to readers of this blog command us to treat each other as equals. One cannot be one’s brother’s šomer without by definition being above one’s brother in violation of Deuteronomy 17:20 and lording it over him in violation of Luke 22:25-26. We are to be our neighbor’s neighbor (Lk 10:30-37), loving him as we love ourselves (Ro 13:9).

So “I am my brother’s keeper” is a faulty premise, and action based on it is sure to be misguided. It is, for example, the rallying cry of a well-known Christian organization that calls for government prohibition of alcohol. Does the Bible warn of the dangers of alcohol and the sin of intoxication? Absolutely. Does it call for caging those who produce, market, consume, or even abuse it? Nowhere. Yet in the name of Christ this group calls for reinstating a policy that did indeed lower the per-capita consumption of alcohol for almost 50 years, but at the price of making an increasingly anti-God Uncle Sam šomer over Christians and many of our neighbors unwilling even to listen to the gospel. This is victory in Jesus?

It is also the rallying cry of those who consider Uncle Sam the ultimate giver of compassion, either through giving money to the poor or fighting to protect our freedoms. Uncle Sam’s last act of compassion has been to shackle the middle and lower classes with incomprehensible debt to enrich already-unimaginably rich bank executives, meanwhile bombing two, three, four, and counting poor nations to radioactive rubble.

By their fruits you will know them, and that looks to me like bad fruit.

If you’re still convinced that you are your brother’s keeper, please don’t consider me your brother. I don’t want to be kept, thank you. Either love me as your neighbor or ignore my existence.

Friday, February 19, 2010

My Missionary Journey to Valley Forge Beef and Ale

They say that when you become a missionary what the Lord does in you is more important than what he does through you. I found that was true of our time overseas doing Bible translation, and I was reminded of it again some time ago when I took a friend from church to Valley Forge Beef and Ale for a meetup with some friends from the Libertarian Party.

Mr. X and I have gone back and forth for quite some time over our church’s stand in support of what I consider imperialism abroad and tyranny at home, so I invited him to go along to see if my LP friends could talk some sense into him. I half expected him to demur, but the shock when he accepted was overshadowed by the one that followed, when I realized that if there were two of us Christians in the same room with a couple of dozen nonbelievers, the most important line was between us Christians and them: my first duty was to work with Mr. X to make the gospel attractive to the lost, not to gang up with them against Mr. X. Ma-a-an, what’s the fun in that?

So that was my first lesson: God’s kingdom is eternal; Uncle Sam is but a temporary annoyance and indeed even at his worst a tool in the hands of the God who is calling his people to himself. The Great Commission doesn’t get put on the shelf just because the pagan Recabites are right in major issues and the children of the covenant have gone astray.

As I have mentioned earlier, Libertarians are generally a scruffy lot. You wouldn’t confuse even the most genteel with the country club crowd. And this group was no exception. Though there were a couple of guys I knew there, they were busy, so apart from a couple of candidate wannabes who were hoping to recruit us to help them run for office, Mr. X and I were pretty much left to ourselves.

The first agendum was a very interesting talk by Ernest Hancock, who invented the Ron Paul Revolution sign with “LOVE” stamped over it backwards, someone who really knows how to put his words into action. His description of how he gets people involved convicted me because I spend so much time chasing the buck (pretty unsuccessfully, I might add) that I don’t have time to do much of real substance. (Maybe if I spent less time blogging?) Another lesson.

Mr. X has spent time in the past hanging with folks from the John Birch Society, a group named after a Christian missionary martyred in China. The proportion of members who are Christians of various stripes is pretty high, so he’s used to a well-mannered crowd. He seemed to like Ernie, and I think he noticed that a couple of Ernie’s sentences could have come out of books written by theologians we both like, but overall I think his primary impression was that Ernie was a potty mouth.

Since nobody took enough interest in Mr. X to ask him where he was coming from, they didn’t realize that he wasn’t one of us, and so they didn’t know that they would be hurting their case by, shall we say, in-crowd talk. I mention this here because I think the church is making the same mistake. My scruffy friends would wonder what we stand for if they visited our church and heard our prayers for the well-being of US military people with no mention of those they have maimed and made homeless and with cursory mention of our missionaries, many of whom work in countries whose governments would love to deport them. And I infer from occasionally thumbing through World magazine that our church is far from unique.

The main event was a video documentary about the Ron Paul Revolution. I had planned to leave before it started, but Mr. X wanted to see it, so we stayed. God struck again.

In contrast to the scruffiness we were sitting among—and by the way, I’m as scruffy as the next guy, which is why I hang with that crowd as much as I can—Dr. Paul exudes character and class. He always appears in public looking neat, and I’ve never heard him use offensive language, not even in reference to those who mistreat him. He is an unabashed Christian, older than most Baby Boomers, who has inspired an amazing number of young nonbelievers to get out his message. While that message is not the gospel, it is one that is certainly more compatible with Christian ethics than that of his opponents and one that, if practiced, would allow the gospel to (continue to) go out unhindered. We scruffs have been at it for years and gotten nowhere. Dr. Paul has been classy-not conspicuously rich, but simple and humble-for years and has inspired a revolution. What a difference!

I don’t know what Mr. X really took home from the meeting, but I certainly felt like God talked to me. To the scruffy I can be scruffy, I guess, but to the classy, like Mr. X, I need to learn how to put on class. I don’t know if this leopard can change his spots, but as much fun as it is hanging with like-minded folk, it’s those who appreciate and aspire to class who really seem to get things done.

Monday, February 15, 2010

The Two Deadly Isms

In my previous post I said that good people engage in bad actions because they are sinners who need Jesus, no more and no less. While that is true, there is more to be said about it.

I’m currently in an exchange with Staks Rosch over global warming. Neither of us is a scientist, so as far as the issue itself goes, we’re pretty much parroting the lines of those we believe. And that’s the point I want to make if the exchange continues: the root issue isn’t global warming, it’s whom we trust and why. He apparently can find no one more trustworthy than the government, and so he wants to invest the government with even more power to deal with the problem of climate change.

Unfortunately, most Christians I know, even those who call themselves conservatives, are in the same boat. This post is prompted by a conversation I happened into at church yesterday, where a group of men were bandying the term conservative about, so I asked them, “What is a conservative?” I didn’t get an answer. That’s because conservatives are, like liberals, infected with the same two isms that are destroying our society.

The first is authoritarianism, the idea that some people have the right to make laws that they don’t have to obey but others do. An example is machismo: a macho man will claim that he has needs that women don’t have, so it’s OK for him to have a mistress, but it’s not OK for his wife to have a paramour. The second is institutionalism, the idea that an institution must continue to exist whether or not it is carrying out the function for which it was instituted. We all know of congregations that meet every Sunday but have no outreach to the community and so are dwindling as members die or move away. Ideas have consequences, and the consequences of the broad adherence to these ideas are doom for our society.

Government, of course, is authoritarianism and institutionalism personified. Regular people don’t tell their neighbors “Your money or your life,” but that’s the first thing any government does, though it’s euphemized as taxation. And that’s just the beginning. Regular people don’t kill others arbitrarily, but that’s what government wars always entail, whether offensive, preemptive, or defensive. Government agents always engage in activities forbidden the rest of us; government is by nature authoritarian. Yet people tend to like it that way. No matter how many of its stated goals a government fails to reach, it will never simply dissolve itself and go away, and the surest way I’ve found to turn a critic of any government into its ardent defender is to suggest that he would be better off without it.

The US government is no exception. Our last three presidents, unabashed authoritarians all, have put thousands of people in jail for drug-related activities they themselves participated in but never did jail time for. They, as well as most of their predecessors during my lifetime, have inflicted murderous wars on foreigners under conditions under which they would never justify foreign powers waging war here. Uncle Sam lies to suit his own purposes, as witness sting operations to catch drug dealers and the initial front-page false stories about Jessica Lynch and Pat Tillman, but he jails the likes of Martha Stewart for untruths only peripherally related to matters under investigation.

And yet those who protest this double standard are in the minority; our neighbors are infected with institutionalism. The US government was formed with the stated goal of protecting “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness”; the Bill of Rights was written into the Constitution to convince the anti-Federalists that we would not be subject to censorship, summary confiscation, arbitrary searches, or torture; yet today we are, and most people, no matter how much they disagree with this or that policy, display their flags and consider efforts to get rid of these things treasonous. They simply cannot imagine life without the authoritarian institution that governs them. And, methinks, they think that they will eventually get their hands on the trigger and want to be sure it’s there for them.

So, to my friends at church I say, what is a conservative? What is a liberal? They are both institutionalist authoritarians. And as long as Christians are seen as just another band of institutionalist authoritarians, outsiders will justly hold us in contempt.

What is a Christian, after one who trusts Christ to wipe away his sins? He is one who regards all his neighbors as his equals (De 17:20), fellow children of Noah, who treats others as he would be treated, who regards justice and service, not domination, as the foundation of his relationships (Ps 89:14; Lk 22:25-26), and for whom institutions are disposable (Mt 9:17).

Uncle Sam served his purpose well (for white folks, anyway) long ago. Today he is a rabid donkey and elephant destroying everything and endangering everyone in his path. It is time for the church to remember whose bride she is, get off his bandwagon, and lead her neighbors by example into a time-and-space world of righteousness and justice.

Sunday, February 14, 2010

Evangelizing Our Chinese Occupiers

The wicked borrow and do not repay, but the righteous give generously.

—Psalm 37:21

It’s not news that Uncle Sam is well over his head in debt and becoming ever more so. What I hear little of from Christians is what effect this debt will have on our nation’s sovereignty. If “we” owe the Chinese trillions of dollars, is there no reason to expect them to want to collect it? If they do, we may be playing host to the Red Army before long, and we need to think about what kind of hosts we want to be.

This post was prompted by a fascinating paper I edited last year, from a Korean brother who has spent time in Iraq since the US invasion. His topic was how God’s people are to deal with occupying soldiers. Though he has not been under an occupying army in South Korea, he has in Iraq. Much of his paper details Biblical examples of God using soldiers who were not Israelites to advance his purposes, in particular Ittai and Uriah, who served David, as well as Naaman, Cornelius, the Roman officer in Capernaum, and the Philippian jailor. He concludes, “God loves even foreign soldiers who are our enemies. God wants to save them and to change their lives so they can be the people of God.”

As I read, I remembered the words of a man who had taken a break from the military to fly missionaries. His point was that God considers the military an honorable profession, as proven by Jesus’ commendation of the faith of one Roman centurion, another being the first to recognize after Jesus’ death that he was God’s son, and a third, Cornelius, being the first notable gentile convert.

I have a different take on these fellows. I would argue that it was precisely because they were held in contempt by the visible covenant community that God chose to speak through them.

Mark says in his very first sentence that he wrote his gospel to show that Jesus was “the Son of God.” Yet the phrase occurs only two other times in the gospel, once spoken by demons and the other spoken by the centurion. Is it more likely that this was Mark’s way of saying that from the greatest (the centurion) to the least (the demons) Jesus was acknowledged as the Son of God? Or can we assume that Mark, as a Jew, and his audience considered the Romans as close to demons as humans could be, and that he was asking rhetorically, “If demons both supernatural and human could see that Jesus was the Son of God, what excuse does anyone have to deny it?” We see the same phenomenon in Naaman (2 Ki 5; cf. Jesus’ take on this in Lk 4:27), in the Recabites (Jr 35), in the Samaritan playgirl (Jn 4), in the tax collectors and prostitutes, and in the women at the empty tomb: those the visible covenant community despise see God while the “righteous” miss him.

Were those soldiers bad people? As I’ve said before, I think soldiers are just like the rest of us, people who love their friends and family and strive for excellence in their personal lives. And we see it in the men mentioned: Cornelius “and all his family were devout and God-fearing; he gave generously to those in need and prayed to God regularly” (Acts 10:2). The centurion in Capernaum loved the Jews and even built their synagogue (Luke 7:5).

Yet I don’t think for a moment that any of them would have hesitated to imprison anyone who spray-painted “Roman, go home!” on the side of his oxcart. It was soldiers like them who in the line of duty dashed infants against stones under Nebuchadnezzar and killed all the babies in Bethlehem in Jesus’ day, ran Auschwitz, and in our own time ran people out of their homes in New Orleans, confiscated their weapons, refused them passage over bridges out of the city, and imprisoned them in the Superdome.

Good people. Bad actions. Why? They are sinners who need Jesus. No more, no less.

One last point my pilot friend missed. God didn’t send Cornelius and the centurion to Judah so that they would spread their Roman religion to the Jews. He sent them there so they would meet the God of Israel. If “when I am weak, then I am strong” (2 Co 12:10), it would follow that the gospel flows from the weak to the strong, from the Israelite slaves to the Egyptians, from David the refugee to Ittai the Philistine, from the women at the tomb to the apostles, from Paul and Silas to the Philippian jailor.

Which brings us back to the Chinese.

(I say Chinese because I think they’ve got the best moral case for an invasion: Uncle Sam has gone into debt to them, and they have every right to collect on it. [Whether Uncle Sam has the right to indemnify us who have disagreed with him all along is another matter.] Maybe it won’t be the Chinese. Maybe it will be the Mexicans or the Muslims or the Mafia or just a garden-variety mob. But Uncle Sam isn’t long for this world, and his successor is unlikely to be an improvement.)

When the Chinese come, we can expect to see platoons of the kind of soldiers who slaughtered the babies in Bethlehem. If we are given what we gave the Iraqis (Lk 6;30), the occupation will be preceded by “shock and awe” and house-to-house battles in the streets that take millions of innocent lives and leave millions more maimed and homeless. There will probably also be more than a few Chinese evangelical Christians doing everything in their power to put down the “terrorists” and “insurgents.” If the worst they demand of us after the mission is accomplished is that we carry their packs for a mile, we’ll be getting off easy. They will be under orders to make us unhappy, and they will be good soldiers who follow orders.

But there will be the occasional Cornelius, the occasional Capernaum centurion, those whom God will send here so that they can meet him. The evangelization of China that Hudson Taylor and Eric Liddell did not complete may come through us on our own streets and in our own houses. When we are really weak, when we have lost everything we depend on—our church buildings, our youth programs, our publishing houses—we may really be strong in the Lord and finally able to persuade the Chinese of the truth and worth of the gospel.

Do we love Jesus enough to welcome that opportunity, or will we fight to the death to protect our deadbeat uncle?

UPDATE: After seeing this, I think I was much too hard on the Chinese. The occupation army is more likely to be made up of the US military—at least at first.

Monday, February 8, 2010

A Delicious Moment

When I found out that the Who were going to be yesterday’s Super Bowl halftime entertainment, my first thought was, “When will those baby boomers go away?” I can’t believe the top demographic watching the game is people my age who remember that group in their prime. Not only that, two of the original four are dead from drug abuse, and their music was always long on histrionics and energy and short of musicianship. So I didn’t mind that the Indian family Ginny and I were “watching the game” with turned the volume down when the music started.

But I should have been paying attention. While the stage was being set up, they played a video clip set to the Who’s first hit, “My Generation,” and consisted of half-second flashes of everything a boomer would remember, things like Vietnam, Martin Luther King, and Desert Storm. Just what we need: politics as entertainment.

Then the boys took the overblown stage. Pete Townshend and Roger Daltrey can’t jump around like they used to, and neither are to be confused with the handsome sex symbols they once were. And of course, they started trotting out the old war horses, “Pinball Wizard,” “Baba O’Riley,” and maybe some I didn’t know, all with a bazillion-dollar fireworks display. Ho hum.

But wait. Are they . . . ? Yes, they are! Listen:

We’ll be fighting in the streets
With our children at our feet
And the morals that they worship will be gone
And the men who spurred us on
Sit in judgment of all wrong
They decide and the shotgun sings the song

I’ll tip my hat to the new constitution
Take a bow for the new revolution
Smile and grin at the change all around me

Change it had to come
We knew it all along
We were liberated from the fall that’s all
But the world looks just the same
And history ain’t changed
. . .

And then, the grand finale, to more fireworks than anyone should ever shoot off,

Meet the new boss,
Same as the old boss.

For those of us who consider O-bomb-a just another Bush, having the non-football moment of our nation’s biggest holiday capped off with a poke in his eye was a delicious moment that makes up in part for the pro-war flyovers and American flags on uniforms that mar sports otherwise. Thanks, Bridgestone. Thanks, CBS. Thank you, God.

Too bad no one was paying attention.