Friday, August 29, 2014

Rhinestone Jesus and Samaritan’s Purse

I’m reading a fascinating book by a regular mom—kids who melt down at Target, the whole “I’m no superhero” nine yards—who has done something really special. Rhinestone Jesus is the story of how Kristen Welch has enabled a Kenyan woman to head Rehema House, a home for unwed mothers in one of the poorest slums in the world. Of course, she didn’t do it all on her own. She’s an engaging writer, and through her blog she has recruited dozens, maybe hundreds, of pray-ers, donors, and even some short-term “boots on the ground” in Kenya to turn talk into substance.
She started from scratch: she had none of the training most missionaries get before they go to the field, and—I say as one who received a lot of praise in my day for going to the middle of nowhere as a Bible translator—she went to about as tough a place as exists anywhere apart from literal war zones. I get the feeling that before she undertook this project, going to the next state was fraught with culture shock for her, so her story is clear testimony of God’s ability to bless people more than they can possibly imagine by stressing them to the limit and allowing them to grow.
I also took a suggestion to watch Healing for Hewa, a video put out by Samaritan’s Purse, about a medical team headed by Dr. Allan Sawyer, a doctor in Papua New Guinea, that spent two weeks in a remote part of that nation—much like my part of the middle of nowhere—to teach mothers how to have healthy pregnancies and keep their newborns healthy. Again, for every pair of “boots on the ground” there are dozens of folks back home praying and giving to make it happen.
What the book and the video have in common is the theme of dozens of people back home praying and giving sacrificially to help a few dozen poor people live better. The number of mothers and babies helped directly by Kristen Welch’s friend Maureen is in the dozens, though of course the ripple effect is certainly much greater. Same with the number of Hewa women helped by the medical team. Kristen Welch, Maureen, Dr. Sawyer, and their teammates at home and on site all love Jesus and are concerned about the health of mothers and babies, and they put their concern into practice through prayer, giving, and sheer dogged endurance.
What bothers me is that these same people—or most of them, anyway, judging by what I see of evangelicalism—who will sacrifice so much to save a few dozen mothers and babies in Kenya and Papua New Guinea think nothing of supporting wars that kill mothers and children by the hundreds in Afghanistan and Iraq as “collateral damage”—and don’t forget the ripple effect. These wars have cost every man, woman, and child in the US almost seven thousand dollars apiece over the last thirteen years: for a family of four, that’s almost twenty-seven thousand dollars. How many families of four have given over two thousand dollars a year, every year, to missions? Yet they give that to Uncle Sam who, whatever else he does, kills more babies than Maureen and Dr. Sawyer can save.
Did God put the Great Commission on hold so that we could “defend our freedoms”? (This leaves aside, of course, the question of whether “the enemy” overseas is a greater threat to our freedom than Uncle Sam is.) Or should we be evangelizing the Afghans and Iraqis—perhaps I should say “should have been,” since so many of them are dead or likely hardened against anything an American would say—instead of bombing them?
I remember a story from the 1970s of a US Army commander coming to a town in Japan and expecting a fight but finding he was welcomed by the local populace. Apparently there were so many Christians in the town that, as the story goes, the commander said to an assistant, “Maybe we should have been dropping Bibles instead of bombs.”
Kristen Welch recounts more than one situation she entered in Kenya feeling sorry for someone who was living in abject poverty only to find that because that other person had Jesus in a way Kristen didn’t, it was she who was the poorer. Is it not worth asking if having the most powerful military the world has ever seen has made our church the poorest in history?
How much more good could those people who give sacrificially to Rehema House and Samaritan’s Purse do if they took the money they give to Uncle Sam’s military and gave it to those charged with fulfilling the Great Commission?

Tuesday, August 26, 2014

The Kings of the Earth Will Bring Their Glory

My Christian friends have more reasons for rejecting anarchism than, as my parents used to say, Carter has pills. We’re talking here about reasonable people, people trying to serve Jesus and their neighbors, conforming to their lives to biblical standards. One objection I heard from a friend awhile back was based on Revelation 21:23-25:
And the city has no need of sun or moon to shine on it, for the glory of God gives it light, and its lamp is the Lamb. By its light will the nations walk, and the kings of the earth will bring their glory into it, and its gates will never be shut by day – and there will be no night there.
For those of you interested in churchspeak, this particular friend and I both consider ourselves theonomic postmillennialists: theonomic, meaning that we believe that the Old Testament is still binding in some sense and Christian discipleship involves conformity to it at some level, and postmillennial in that we believe that the church will successfully evangelize the world – make disciples of the nations – in some sense before Jesus returns. Where we differ, of course, is in our view of the role of the state in the process, and as a result we find ourselves using the same words with radically different definitions.
So how do I define the state? According to Romans 13:1-7, the state is the powers that be, ordained of God. It might be Stalin or Hitler, it might be [name a good one], but whoever it is, they are those whom God has given the power to do as they please with the lives and property of their subjects.
While my friend would probably word the definition more charitably, and he would definitely add that the powers that be will answer to God for how they use their power, he has said in as many words that even if he were to risk his life fighting foreign invaders, if he survived the war and the invaders won, he would accept the new regime as the powers that be, ordained of God. (Come to think of it, I guess I would too: I would consider the new boss as illegitimate as the old boss.) Ergo, I can’t get rid of the mental picture of my friend telling Hitler, “I disagree with what you do, but I’ll defend to the death your right to do it.”
Anyway, a while back he defended the legitimacy of the state by quoting the prophecy in Revelation 21. As postmillennial theonomists, we agree that at least one fulfillment of that prophecy is the church, the kingdom of God on earth. His quite reasonable question was how, if the state is illegitimate, will the kings of the earth bring their glory into the kingdom? No state means no kings, so the prophecy can only be fulfilled if there are kings, and thus states, and so the state is legitimate.
Dodge that one, Mr. Smartypants Quill Pig.
I’ll give my second rejoinder first. Note the context in which the kings bring their tribute: a city with no sun or moon. Why does the city have no need of sun or moon? The answer in the passage is that Jesus is the lamp that lights the city. Fine, but is this passage an answer to the question of how the inhabitants will be able keep from tripping on the sidewalk, or does it deal most importantly with some matter of the heart? If the latter, what does it mean?
When God made the world, he made “the greater light to rule the day and the lesser light to rule the night” (Gen 1:16). The word rule there is what kings and God do (1 Kgs 5:1, 9:19; 2 Kgs 20:13; 1 Chron 29:12). When Joseph tells his brothers that in his dream the sun and the moon bowed before him, his family understood that to mean that those humans in authority over him, his parents, would bow before him. (As it turns out, the “moon” never did, or did in the person of her sons.)
For there to be no sun or moon in the kingdom is quite plainly a claim that (for all intents and purposes anyway) there will be no human authority there: Jesus will be the authority in a way that at least eclipses human authority as we know it. This brings us back to Romans 12:2: “Let God transform you into a new person by changing the way you think.” How do you know it’s God and not the world, the flesh, or the devil that is changing the way you think?
The theonomist’s answer is Matthew 5:17-18: “I did not come to abolish the law of Moses or the writings of the prophets. No, I came to fulfill them. I assure you, until heaven and earth disappear, even the smallest detail of God's law will remain until its purpose is achieved.” If it’s in conformity to God’s law, it’s from God. If it’s not, it’s not.
So what about those kings? There is nothing in the passage that disparages them.
I don’t know, but I have a couple of guesses.
One is an extension of what we see when Christians make arrangements with hostile governments to serve the people at the bottom of those societies. When the government fails to provide needed services to its subjects but gives the church the opportunity to do so, it is surrendering its glory to – bringing its glory into – the church.
This may not be as crazy as it sounds. Two chapters earlier, we see that the “kings of the earth” are not on God’s side: “Then I saw the beast gathering the kings of the earth and their armies in order to fight against the one sitting on the horse and his army” (Rev 19:9). A bit further back we see that “the kings of the earth, who have committed fornication and lived deliciously with [the mysterious Babylon], shall bewail her, and lament for her, when they shall see the smoke of her burning” (Rev 18:9). Far from being God’s agents to enforce righteousness at gunpoint, the kings of the earth “prepare for battle; the rulers plot together against the Lord and against his anointed one.” So it would appear that those who bring tribute in Revelation 21:24 are the rulers of societies still in rebellion against God.
(For an example of the opposite, the church surrendering its glory to the state, see here. Note what they call their eternal standard.)
An even better guess comes from the more important rejoinder I would make to my friend’s main question. In what I hope is true Jesus style, the rejoinder is a question: What use does Jesus have for the tribute of kings?
While Jesus was in the Temple, he watched the rich people putting their gifts into the collection box. Then a poor widow came by and dropped in two pennies. "I assure you," he said, "this poor widow has given more than all the rest of them. For they have given a tiny part of their surplus, but she, poor as she is, has given everything she has." (Luke 21:1-4)
Here Jesus is contrasting the honor given God by the rich, the “dollar amount” of whose tribute was much greater than that of the widow, but whose hearts did not honor God as much, precisely because they would have plenty left over when they were finished. These rich presumably worked hard for their money, either physically as farmers or smiths, or in long hours and hidden responsibilities as merchants. If God is more honored by the widow’s pennies than by the generosity of those who work hard for a living, how much less is he honored by the generosity of those whose living comes from extracting taxes? I suppose one can congratulate an archon for finding the top of the Laffer curve – having the tax rate high enough to get the maximum amount from his subjects but not so high that revenues don’t fall off because people stop working – but is Jesus more impressed by money that has been extorted, or by money given voluntarily? And how often will a king be like the widow and give “everything [he] has”?
Surprise, though – there are kings who get their money voluntarily. As close as I can come to an example is Sam Walton.
Let’s assume, since we don’t have the facts – remember, we’re illustrating principles here – that Sam built his first Wal-Mart stores on the same legal basis as his competitors, with no government assistance whatever, either at the retail end (i.e., sweetheart tax breaks) or at the production end (i.e., the government in Dirtpooristan looking the other way while he ran sweatshops that his competitors couldn’t buy from). Let’s further assume that he was able to enter the competitive suburban market because he served the rednecks and other people of modest means in Flyover Country better than his competitors and lived below his means for years so that he had the capital to invest in stores in populated areas, again on a level moral and legal playing field. Today Walmart is ubiquitous. Sam Walton (well, his heir) is the king of Walmart, and I pay him tribute whenever I trade him money for merchandise.
Now, if the king of Walmart were to bring his glory into the church, wouldn’t that be more glorious than, say, our current regime bringing in money it has taxed from us (or borrowed from China or created through inflation)? The king got where he is by serving his fellow humans and living below his means. He would be giving to the kingdom money he got in voluntary transactions, not what he extorted from those who could not say no. It is he, not the spiritual heirs of Hitler or [name a good one] who fulfills Jesus’ words here: "In this world the kings and great men order their people around, and yet they are called 'friends of the people.' But among you, those who are the greatest should take the lowest rank, and the leader should be like a servant” (Luke 22:24-26).
Bottom line: the fulfillment of Revelation 21:23-25, like the fulfillment of the Old Testament law in general, includes the abolition of the state. It’s time to take our loyalty and as much time and money as we can away from the state and give it to the kingdom of God!

Sunday, August 24, 2014

What Should American Christians Do?

I recently (well, OK, not so recently) received an excerpt from this link in an e-mail from a friend. ISIS (now the Islamic State) was boasting that they would "raise the flag of Allah in the White House." My friend asked in the body of the e-mail, "What should American Christians do?"

Here's my reply:

I've been predicting for years that God will judge our nation not only for our sexual immorality but for our militarism. It is Uncle Sam who armed ISIS.

By bombing Nagasaki after Japan had made overtures for peace -- dropping the bomb on the Catholic cathedral there during Mass -- Uncle Sam did in a day what the Japanese had been trying to do for centuries: get rid of Christians. (I realize we don't believe the Catholic "gospel" to be authentic Christianity, but it was all the Christianity that was there for centuries, and those people suffered horrible persecutions.)

Christians (again, Catholic tradition, but still bearing the holy name) in Iraq and Syria had been living in an uneasy truce with Muslims for over a millennium. Now that they've been "helped" by Uncle Sam, they're being slaughtered and run out. Are the survivors likely to turn to the Calvinist Christ as a result?

"As you have given to others, so it will be given to you, a full measure, pressed down and shaken together." US Christians pretty much annihilated the original inhabitants of North America, and we're now trying to take over the world. God is not mocked. What we have sown we will reap.

What should American Christians do? Mr. Ellis doesn't answer, so I will: Repent! Repent of your damnable nationalism and militarism. Repent of your reliance on uniforms and lethal weapons and lawyers and legislation to save the world. Repent of your self-righteousness. Repent of your desire to micromanage everyone's life. And, while you're at it, repent of your sexual immorality. Give money to missions, not breweries and vintners (I'm guilty here), cable TV companies, athletic teams, and online music streams. Pray not only for those in power, pray against them when they violate biblical standards. Develop a biblical theology of political life that goes beyond Romans 13 and includes the Sermon on the Mount. Educate your children at home. Get jobs only in the "private sector."

And pray for our persecuted brothers, especially those experiencing blowback from our sins.

Tuesday, August 12, 2014

Left Wing, Right Wing – Who Cares?

I’m no conservative, but I still find it galling that people equate conservatism with the “right wing” and with indecent political behavior. I first noticed this phenomenon when the Iron Curtain was unraveling. I found it strange that after hearing all my life, from conservatives and liberals alike, that communism was a left-wing, progressive, and (from the leftists) wonderful thing, the mainstream media were describing those who sought to take down the communist governments as revolutionaries (or something like that) and the communists as “conservatives.” Wait! I thought. In this country all my life the conservatives were anticommunist! Since when did conservatives turn communist?
I got an elbow in the rib along that line a few years ago, when the TSA brought out their first line of security scanners – which were explicit enough that a TSA agent who volunteered to be scanned for his training class received so much ridicule about the size of his privy member that he assaulted a fellow trainee in the parking lot. I was expressing my disapproval of them at work when a coworker, a proud leftist who was OK with these scanners, said, “Libertarians – aren’t they the ones on the extreme far right?” When I was a boy, it was the left who used the term police state as an insult and the right wing – think J. Edgar Hoover – who defended it as necessary. How times have changed!
But wait! There’s more!
A conservative friend this weekend was talking about the movie Enemy of the State and said that the villain, the head of some national security agency who uses government omniscience for nefarious ends, was “an ultra-right-winger.” Now she may have meant that that was what the film’s producers were trying to get across, but her tone made me think she thought the term fit. It’s true that most of the film’s heroes were young and hip, and the villains were old and establishment, but I never thought in terms of right and left while watching. So I was very surprised to hear a conservative – who has no sympathy for the left and has at times accused me of leftism when I take stands she disagrees with – call the villain ultra-right-wing.
So times have indeed changed. When Barry Soetoro was smoking pot with the Choom Gang in high school, he was a leftist, and it was conservatives who wanted to jail druggies. When what anyone but perhaps a microbiologist would consider the same person ran for President in 2004 as Barack Obama, he wore the leftist label proudly. But now he prosecutes choomers. Is the left now anti-drug? If so, what side are the druggies on?
In the 1970s Augusto Pinochet was the right-wing dictator of Chile. The film Missing (produced by the left) has to do with the extrajudicial abduction (and torture?) and killing of leftist Americans in Chile. Now President Obama meets with a secret group to go over his “kill list,” which is produced by another secret group using criteria that are secret, and decides who will be the object of extrajudicial abduction, torture, and execution. So is extrajudicial killing is right wing or left wing? Does it make a difference?
Or does “right wing” simply mean “I don’t like you”? This reminds me of blue-eyed playground bullies saying, “Let’s take turns. Blue-eyed kids go first.”
Much more helpful than the left wing–right wing dichotomy (or continuum) is the voluntary-coercive test. Are you touching another person’s body or property without that person’s informed consent? Then you’re violating that person through coercion or deceit. It doesn’t matter whether you’re trying to feed the hungry or protect the innocent or just have a good time. You’re violating that person. It’s wrong. The end never justifies the means.
If the church is ever to fulfill the Great Commission, she needs to abandon the “compassionate conservatism” that makes her feel justified in coercing her neighbors. I suppose such a view is ultra something, but it doesn’t seem to me like it’s right wing.