Wednesday, January 7, 2015

Does God Play Electric Football?

One of my first memories is of walking into a room where my cousin Charles and some of his friends were playing electric football. As I remember it from over 50 years ago, the game looked something like this:

Photo Credit

Play was simple: both players lined up their men, the power was turned on, the “field” started to vibrate, and the men would do battle with each other. Each football man had two plastic membranes that stuck down from the base that would propel him forward when the field vibrated. If the player on offense called “Pass” or “Kick,” the power would be turned off so the player could load the “ball” into a spring-loaded catapult and either “pass” or “kick” it.
Photo Credit
I’ve forgotten what the rules were, but you could have complete, incomplete, and intercepted passes, blocked kicks, touchbacks, safeties—pretty much everything you’d have in a real game except bench-clearing brawls.
The game could even be played solitaire. One person could line both offensive and defensive players up, turn on the power, stop it for passes and kicks, and even tip the field to influence the speed and direction of the players. He could plan strategy for both teams, line things up, and watch how things played out. In short, he could be one step more involved with life than the god of Deism.
Which leads me to the God of statist evangelicalism.
I first read about the Christmas truce of 1914 in the mid-1970s in a book on apologetics (probably but not certainly Josh McDowell’s Evidence that Demands a Verdict). While I remember the author’s point being that Christianity brings peace, I thought at the time, “What kind of religion would have people shooting at each other after they’ve just ‘made friends’? What bee ess!”
My question about the truce has haunted me ever since, and, as we were going through the centenary of the event, I read a few articles about it and even watched the movie Joyeux Noël (which takes severe liberties with history). And I’ve come up with the question that prompted this post.
I’ve also been troubled by a Christian video series I’ve been attending. The first episode begins with a skit about Red Erwin, who gets his vision of courageous manhood from his father, who, as he was leaving to fight in the Great War to End All Wars and Make the World Safe for Democracy, told his impressionable son that a man has to do his duty whether he wants to do it or not and no matter how much it costs. Red Erwin did indeed become a model of courage by willingly undergoing unspeakable suffering to save the lives of his bomber crewmates (to say nothing of the courage needed to get in a bomber to begin with) during the war against Japan. Another segment in the series included an interview with an infantry officer who spoke of the courage needed to order men off on missions from which most or all would not return and another with a man who talked about the courage needed to obey such orders.
I don’t doubt that these are all men of character and of courage. But I wonder about the character of the god they serve. After all, there’s every reason to believe that on their officers’ orders German and Italian grunts went on missions they were not sure they would return from. And self-sacrificing courage is not the unique province of Christendom: the kamikaze pilots (and the 9/11 suicide bombers) went on missions from which they knew they would not return.
According to the evangelical narrative, Red Erwin’s father was duty bound to join the army, cross the ocean, and kill Germans and whomever else his commanders (“acting lawfully”) told him to kill. No mention is made of the moral rectitude of the war. Yet the US had no dog in that fight. If Uncle Sam had simply said, “Travel to and trade with the belligerent nations at your own risk,” the US would have suffered no ill effects beyond loss of trading partners as the Europeans killed each other off. There would likely have been no Zimmermann Note, no Hitler, no Auschwitz, and possibly no Soviet Union. As it was, like most government programs, the war failed to reach its stated goals: it did not end all wars, nor did it make the world safe for democracy. It ended up being a glorified (if that’s the right word) family feud that accomplished nothing more remarkable than setting the stage for an even worse war.
Not everyone in the US at the time agreed that the boys needed to go to war. Uncle Sam began a massive propaganda campaign to get soldiers to enlist, but he had to institute conscription and shut down antiwar publications because it was the only way to get the requisite number of soldiers. Even so, the young unitarian organization now known as Jehovah’s Witnesses opposed the war as a matter of principle, as did such traditionally peacemongering groups as the Amish and Mennonites; all were persecuted to one degree or another.
So let me set the scene: while heretics and fringies on both sides were suffering persecution because they refused to fight, Trinitarian—Catholic, Lutheran, and Reformed—Germans, Austrians, Frenchmen, Brits, and Americans lined up against each other, all their governments having propagated the idea that they were defending their legitimate interests, yea, their very existence and life itself. The more noble on both sides assumed that God commands people to “render to Caesar what is Caesar’s,” specifically people of fighting age to obey their governments, submit to conscription if such be the law, and go to war. They assumed that we are to trust that the powers that be, ordained of God, are acting according to God’s will even if it seems to us that they are not. So there they were, noble people with the best of intentions shooting at each other.
Does the God of that ethical system care who wins the war, or is he only concerned that the soldiers obey their governments and fight? If his word to his people is, “Trust your government and leave the results to me,” how does he differ from the kid playing solitaire electric football? Since I disagree with the protasis, I don’t need to answer the apodosis, but I’d like to hear the answer of someone who pretty much agrees with the protasis.
If he does care who wins the war, why does he care? Why did he let the Allies win in 1918 knowing that it was the Treaty of Versailles that would bring on war within twenty years? Why did he let Hitler annex Austria and the Benelux nations by 1940 and then have him lose the war in 1945? Why did he let the Prohibitionists win in 1919 and then lose in 1933?
More recently, why would he let the Vietnamese prove that the godless hippies were right (i.e., that the US wouldn’t go commie if Vietnam did) and the evangelicals who killed, maimed, and got what they gave were wrong?
I suppose the answer is that God’s ways are inscrutable: we also don’t know why God chose to have Joseph’s brothers sell him into slavery; surely he could have gotten Jacob’s family to Egypt some other way, but he didn’t, so that’s that. We don’t know why he lets one side win one day and the other side win the next: we only know that the Bible says that’s what he does.
But I would respond that despite God’s foreknowledge and whatever part his foreordination played, Joseph’s brothers were guilty of violating God’s ethical standards. To the degree that they were godly they would have known that despite their early success, things would not end well. In the same way, to the degree that people today are godly, they should know that Uncle Sam is up to no good because he can do nothing “good” or evil without first violating people’s property. We should be suspicious of his every motive and every move. The human heart does not cease to be deceitful above all things, desperately wicked, and therefore unknowable just because its owner receives a tax-funded paycheck.
We’ve had a century to see Uncle Sam shamelessly bear bitter fruit. It’s time to get out of his orchard and cultivate our own trees.
The last video in the series I mentioned gives an example of a family that did just that in a fascinating interview with Paul Holderfield, pastor of Friendly Chapel Church of the Nazarene in Little Rock, Arkansas. The son of an alcoholic sharecropper, Brother Paul’s father realized his need to repent and serve his black neighbors in Jesus’ name the day in 1955 when the troops came to integrate Central High School and he found himself refusing to shake the hand of a longtime black friend in the presence of his white coworkers. First as a volunteer who recruited speakers and later as the pastor, he built a church that turned the highest-crime neighborhood in Arkansas into a refuge for the hurting, training his son, Brother Paul, to wear the mantle after he died.
I have no doubt that ISIS and al-Shabab and Boko Haram and the Bansimoros hate us because we are Christians, as do Raúl Castro and Kim Jong-un. I can think of a lot of Republicans and Democrats who do too: the latter go after us overtly, while the former will use us as long as we serve their purposes before disposing of us. Red Erwin’s father was a brave man, but I think he was just as expendable to the government he served so nobly. I’m sure he could have spent his time more constructively had he considered the possibility that his perceived duty to obey his government actually ran contrary to his duty to God. We can do better than following Jehoshaphat and Ahab to their battles of Ramoth-Gilead.
I’ll end with the story of one who stayed home. While the elder Erwin was going to war, a man named William Cameron Townsend overheard a woman shouting to Christian soldiers boarding a troop ship, “Cowards! You should be going to the mission field!” Townsend accepted her challenge and went to Guatemala as a colporteur. While there he became aware of the language barrier between speakers of minority languages and the gospel, so he founded Wycliffe Bible Translators, at one time the largest Protestant missionary organization in the world.
The Bible in every language, or the Treaty of Versailles? Is the Great Commission still in force, or has God given it up for electric football?

UPDATE: I may have remembered Townsend's story wrong. It could be that he overheard the woman's challenge because he was one of the troops on the ship leaving for Europe. In that case, the Great Commission did indeed wait until after the football game.

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