Monday, July 4, 2011

Taking Things a Step Further

I dread going to church on the Sundays near the patriotic holidays of Memorial Day and Independence Day.

I admit to being a "glass is half empty" kind of guy, so I tend to focus on the shortcomings of my society. But I don't consider that a virtue. I can't even make the excuse that when you have a headache, nothing is enjoyable. The level of opporession, corruption, and economic distress is much lower here than in most of the world, and my taking the ease of our situation for granted is sin, pure and simple.

But it is also true that our society is not as free, just, or wealthy—to say nothing of optimistic—as it was in the Carter years. We now wave our flags much more vigorously than we did in those days—"Carter for President" bumper stickers, even the first time, were green and yellow, not red, white, and blue—but we have much less to celebrate.

So when the patriotic holidays come around, I wonder what the hoopla is about. Why aren't these people mourning? I go to church with my guard up, which means I work so hard at not noticing the Old Glory lapel pins and neckties that they're all I notice.

But God has seen to it that despite myself I hear the sermons my pastor has preached on the two patriotic Sundays this year, and they have been good, biblical, and centered on the gospel.

In the Memorial Day sermon we learned of three characteristics of godly government: godly laws, godly leaders, and Jesus Christ at its center. (I don't know that the list was meant to be exhaustive.) Yesterday the topic was the first three of the Ten Commandments, and we were reminded that there is but one God, that we are not to worship anything before him, and that we are not to make our own images, tangible or otherwise, of him.

I feel like he could have filled the glass fuller, pounded the nail in farther, or whatever, but maybe the plan was to stick to preaching and not meddle. Well, I'm a-gonna meddle.

I liked his definition of godly government as godly men passing godly laws to the glory of Jesus Christ. But I would like to suggest that the men who run our government are not godly men, the laws they pass are not godly, and the glory of God as revealed in Jesus Christ is the farthest thing from their minds. This is true at the local and state levels, but nowhere more so than at the federal level. I think the burden of proof is on those who would claim that Uncle Sam has any claim to godliness. And if we know that our "leaders" are ungodly, should we not assume that any law they pass will be ungodly unless they can prove to us that it's not?

Why instead has there been no major public debate between Christians about such major legislation as Social Security, the War on Drugs, the existence of public schools, or the invasion of Libya? Are these things so obviously biblical that only someone as obtuse as I can't see it?

If Uncle Sam is ungodly, why do those who claim to put God first-and-only wear Uncle Sam's paraphernalia to church? Is their message to foreigners there "We may be equal in Christ, but I'm still better than you because I'm an American"? Or are they putting Democrats and libertarians in their places by claiming to be more authentically "American"?

If I were to stand as an usher wearing a lapel pin advertising a nudist resort, or even one with an anarchist circle-A, I would expect to be asked to take it off, the idea being that "even a hint of sexual immorality" (generous cleavages apparently don't count) and partisan politics (i.e., anything outside the range between Sarah Palin and Mitt Romney), respectively, are not fitting anywhere in the church building: they would offend people, and worse, communicate wrong ideas about what we stand for.

I would suggest that juxtaposing, let alone intertwining, Uncle Sam's flag with the cross of Christ is similarly offensive and causes miscommunication.

Do not be yoked together with unbelievers. For what do righteousness and wickedness have in common? Or what fellowship can light have with darkness? What harmony is there between Christ and Belial? Or what does a believer have in common with an unbeliever? What agreement is there between the temple of God and idols? For we are the temple of the living God. (2 Cor 6:14-16)

We've all seen Uncle Sam's flag on adult book stores and other places known for ungodliness. If nothing else, most Christians I know are being ruled by people they didn't vote for and often voted against. What does the flag they fly signify, then? If not "I don't care whether I am ruled by godly men making godly laws or not, I'm a partisan of this government," then what? As a fan of Seattle sports teams, I can understand a "win or lose, I'm a fan" mentality for some things, but when millions of mortal lives, to say nothing of billions of souls, are at stake, it seems out of place when the subject is government.

I think that's because Uncle Sam is the true "American Idol," which leads me to the second glass.

An idol is anything apart from God that we worship. One example given in the sermon of an idol was power. (I'm having to paraphrase here:) "We all know of politicians and economic leaders who have ruined their lives by abusing power." No argument with that. However, I find it more relevant that these same leaders have ruined the lives of millions of innocent people by exercising their power in ways too many Christians find legitimate.

The 9/11 attack is one reason Christian workers are finding it harder to get to and stay on the field, even as "tentmakers," but another is the fallout from the Community Reinvestment Act, perhaps the biggest cause of the housing bubble that drew so many people's money into investments that became worthless when the bubble burst. This is simply one of hundreds of laws passed by "politicians and economic leaders" who did so not because the Bible and the Holy Spirit told them to, but because they had the power to do so and considered doing so expedient. And they received no resistance from evangelicals because the latter could see no biblical reason to oppose them.

We see this still going on in the programs I mention earlier. Not only does one rarely hear evangelicals oppose these pillars of the welfare state on theological grounds, the question of what biblical basis there is for them is usually considered irrelevant or offensive. But shouldn't there be some kind of public debate about these things?

The thinking seems to be, "I'm a Christian. I'm a decent person. The state feeds me, educates me, heals me, protects me, and provides for my retirement. The state is therefore good, and any suffering caused by the state is collateral damage." This isn't far from saying that the state is God's way of providing for my pleasure.

We heard in the sermon that pleasure is an idol. My inability to tear myself away from a TV when there's a baseball game on tells me that's true, and we do need to show this idol for the vain hope it is, beginning with our own worship of it. But have we nothing to say to those who look to Uncle Sam or other agencies to provide the pleasures that ensnare us? How many Christians have spoken publicly against tax funding for baseball stadiums? Isn't the Seattle Mariners T-shirt I'm wearing as I type a statement that the tax funding by the Washington state legislature of bonds voted down by the citizens of Seattle is somehow OK in my ethical system? What message does it communicate to those who voted against the bond issues?

Finally, we get to the question of the image of God. It is true, as was said in the sermon, God cannot be likened to animals or even people; he is who he is, and there is no thing or being like him. And we need to keep God's reputation at the forefront of everything we do as his ambassadors.

But man was created in the image of God. When ungodly men pass ungodly laws that direct people to mistreat the image of God in man, doesn't going along with such laws violate the image of God as much as immolating a baby in the statue of a fish? When those ungodly men call such mistreatment "collateral damage," a term that calls to mind rubble, not corpses, shouldn't those who believe that man is the image of God recoil in horror and do all we should to end the killing?

If we want to see the knowledge of the glory of the Lord fill the earth in our day, we need to have no idols. No Seattle Mariners. No nudist resorts. No anarchism. No Uncle Sam. Our citizenship is in heaven, whatever advantage we might be able to take of our local legal system. Our only fellow-citizens are those who belong to Christ. Everyone else, like our fellow-citizens, is our neighbor, whom we are to love as ourselves.

Only then can the glass become filled.

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