Saturday, August 29, 2015

Jesus the Anti Cultural Imperialist

Look at these four maps. Do you see what I see?

Where the world’s Buddhists live

Where the world’s Hindus live

Where the world’s Muslims live

Where the world’s Christians live

Twenty-five hundred years after the Buddha lived, Buddhism is pretty much a local religion. The locale is very large, and many people live there, but it is remarkable that Buddhism has remained pretty much where it began. It would appear that those Buddhists who have left Buddhism’s homeland have emigrated for economic reasons, not to proselytize.

The same would seem to be the same for Hinduism. Nearly two thousand years after the “golden age” of Hinduism, over ninety percent of Hindus live in India. Again, those who have left seem to have left for economic reasons, not to spread their religion.

The situation with Islam is different. Most Muslims don’t live in the Middle East, where Islam began. However much of the geographical spread was done by the sword, much of it was done by trade. Muslims early on were prolific traders and scholars, giving the world such things as compasses, mattresses, cotton, and the grammatical analysis of biblical Hebrew – not to mention algebra and the number zero.

They took their religion with them wherever they went, and while Islam in Tanzania is different from what it is in the Philippines, and both are different from Islam in Saudi Arabia, one thing is common to all: the idea that submission to Allah and love for the Prophet require forceful reaction to any perceived insult. Such insult can take the form, as we have seen with the Danish cartoons, of mockery, but as thousands of Christians around the world can testify, it can also take the form of refusing to accept Islam, of leaving Islam, and even of simply articulating Christian doctrine. And though the Quran says that there is to be no coercion in matters of religion, what actually happens frequently on the ground would fit most non-Muslims’ definition of coercion.

Now look at the map for Christianity. No other religion is spread as evenly over the world as Christianity. When I first came to Christ, Protestant Christianity was pretty much a European religion, though its most visible proponents were Europeans whose ancestors had moved to the western hemisphere. Not anymore.

As Christians suffer persecution from Muslims, Hindus, and Buddhists, not to mention atheists, we can thank God that he has not called us to defend his name, his reputation, or his servants by violence. We should be grieved when the name of Jesus is dragged through the mud, of course, but he tells us to respond by inviting those who disparage him to “taste and see that the Lord is good.” He will not turn his anger on us if we don’t beat the crap out of those who insult him.

I need no other proof that it is Jesus, not Allah, not the Buddha, not the Hindu pantheon, and not the most powerful of atheists, who is the truly great one.

Tuesday, August 25, 2015

Au Contraire, Matt Walsh: Decent People Do Support Planned Parenthood

Even though Matt Walsh passes on a reasonable definition of decent – “morally upright and respectable” – I have to dissent from his main point that If You Still Support Planned Parenthood, You Are Simply Not a Decent Person.

The problem, of course, is deciding what “decent” means, which leads us to determining what “morally upright” means.

As far as I can tell, the first thing most people think about decent people is that they write their grandparents on their birthdays, teach their kids to say please and thank you, pick up litter, salute the flag, do their jobs, mow their lawns and weed their gardens, vote, are hospitable, help neightbors in need, go to PTA meetings, more or less obey the speed limits, quarantine scatalogical language and sounds, cheer at patriotic events, respect and sometimes join the police and military, pay their bills on time, and the list (which is in no particular order) goes on.

If you say someone is not decent, they will go to that list and give proof that they do too fit the definition. I have had conversations that have followed just that path.

“There’s more to morality than just mowing your lawn,” I hear you say. Like what? “Like, like … respect for life, for Christ’s sake! When a Planned Parenthood worker pulls the brain out of a baby who is moving his limbs, that’s murder! Can’t you see it?”

Actually, yes, I can see it. But decent people don’t see it that way. I know, because I’ve talked to them. I can’t see their logic, so I won’t try to defend it, but I know they see it that way because they tell me they do, and they are indignant that I would impugn their basic human decency.

And not only do they dissect live babies, they blow them to bits and smash them in rubble with rocket-propelled grenades or Hellfire missles or other bombs. They burn their lungs with white phosphorus or their bodies with napalm. They maim them before they’re conceived with depleted uranium and Agent Orange. Or they just shoot them – oops!

For me to question their moral uprightness in these matters is to question their basic human decency. They are, after all, simply decent people trying to make the world a better place.

(I’m reminded of the unofficial motto of the prisoners at the prison in The Shawshank Redemption: “We’re all innocent here.”)

So I will relegate decency to the morgue for victims of what C. S. Lewis called “verbicide” and try to find another word for what I used to call “basic human decency”: leaving people and their property alone and telling the truth.

The kind of people who would surrender their “products of conception” to Planned Parenthood are not my people. When they do raise children, those children will stand for everything I stand against (and would want my descendants to stand against) – and worse, they will stand against everything I stand for – so the fewer of them there are, the better.

I can’t stop the Shiites and Sunnis from killing each other, nor can I stop the communists and their enemy du jour from killing each other, but every time they do, it’s one less enemy for me. Same for the baby-killer crowd, liberal and conservative.

I consider this small compensation for being forced to pay for the killing, but of course, both those who kill babies in the eastern hemisphere and those who kill them here in the United States consider my desire simply not to have to pay for those killings an assault on their decency.

Let me add, of course, that if they’d like to hear my ideas for how they can get what they really want out of life, I’m happy to tell them how to do it. One of the the first steps involves not killing babies. But once again, decent people kill babies. If you don’t believe me, just ask them.

Matt, maybe decency isn’t such a good thing.

Sunday, August 23, 2015

The Truck, the Motorboat, and the Helicopter

The idea for this message has been simmering in my brain for weeks. We know a young woman who has become a single mother. She seems to be trying to negotiate the way between her desire for her daughter to grow up in a home with both parents and her desire to be a Christian coming back from serious sin and obey the commandment not to marry a nonbeliever.

We were discussing this situation weeks ago, and at some point in the conversation she said that one problem she has bringing her boyfriend (for lack of a better term) to church or to hang with Christian people is that he does not want to hang around with people who think he's going to hell.

So I've been wondering since then how I would speak as a Christian to him if I ever had the chance. Fast forward to last week when my wife and I were returning from a missions trip with our church. We stopped on the way home to visit a friend and went to church with her. I thought his sermon applied to my situation so well I stole his main takeaway for today.

This is what he said: our goal is reconciliation not alienation; our purpose in interacting with nonbelievers is invitation not condemnation; we get people to accept the invitation by demonstration not accusation.

I need to set this up by making a parable out of a joke that was making the rounds a few years ago. It’s not theologically correct. It’s only meant to put a picture in your mind that I can refer to as I go along.

A guy is minding his own business fixing his car in his garage on a rainy day. After a while, another guy drives up in one of those monster pickup trucks, rolls down his window, and yells, “Hey! There’s going to be a huge flood. The bridges are out, but I can make it out with this truck. There’s room for you, but you can’t bring anything else. Come on!”

The guy in the garage smiles and says, “Thank you anyway, but God will get me through this.” After trying unsuccessfully a few more times to get the guy into the truck, the other guy drives off.

After a while the water level rises and water starts coming into the house, so the guy gets all his valuables up as high as he can. After a while he hears a motor boat outside. The guy in the boat says, “You ain’t seen nothin’ yet! It’s still raining upstream from here. There’s only room for you, but come on, get in!”

The guy in the house smiles and says, “Thank you anyway, but God will get me through this.” After trying unsuccessfully a few more times to get the guy into the boat, the other guy motors off.

After a while there’s no more room in the house, so the guy climbs up on his roof. As the water just gets to the top of the roof, a helicopter appears. The guy in the helicopter says, “You ain’t seen nothin’ yet! It’s still raining upstream from here. There’s only room for you, but come on, get in!”

The guy on the house smiles and says, “Thank you anyway, but God will get me through this.” After trying unsuccessfully a few more times to get the guy into the helicopter, the other guy flies off.

After a while, the water level is so high the guy can’t hang on to the house, and he floats off and drowns. When he comes face to face with God, he says, “How come you didn’t get me out of that flood?”

God replies, “I sent you a truck, a boat, and a helicopter. What were you expecting?”

The gospel is good news, but only to those who understand the bad news. The flood that is coming is God’s final judgment. We will all fail that judgment, just as there was no way that man could stay in his house, but God also sends us a way out of the flood. We’ll have to leave everything behind, but we will escape the judgment we deserve.

If you don’t believe it’s raining upstream, let me remind you of the commands we fail to obey, the charges we’re guilty of.

Deuteronomy 6:5: “You must love the LORD your God with all your heart, all your soul, and all your strength.” This is what Jesus called the most important commandment, yet none of us loves God this way.

Exodus 20:3-17:

“Do not worship any other gods besides me. Do not make idols of any kind.” This means we are always to put God first – even before ourselves – in everything we do.

“Do not misuse the name of the LORD your God.” This means we are always to say about God only what is true about him and to attach his name only to those things of which he approves.

“Remember to observe the Sabbath day by keeping it holy.” (Self-explanatory, and we all go against the plain meaning of it.)

Honor your father and mother. This means we are always to show proper gratitude to those who have done good things for us.

Do not murder. Do not steal. This means we are always to do all we can for the well-being of others, to protect their health and their possessions.

Do not commit adultery. This means we are always to tell the truth to other people and always do what we say we will do.

Do not testify falsely against your neighbor. This means we are always to protect our neighbors' reputations.

Do not covet … anything … your neighbor owns. This means we are always to put down even the thought of harming our neigbors.

We fail in every one of these points. As a result, we are all alienated from God. For us to say we will stand before God on our own merits on judgment day is to be just as presumptuous as the guy in the story who said that God would get him out of the flood.

Don't forget that you Gentiles used to be outsiders by birth. You were called "the uncircumcised ones" by the Jews, who were proud of their circumcision, even though it affected only their bodies and not their hearts.

(This is not to say Jews are bad people. The writer of this passage, don’t forget, was a Jew. It is simply to say that circumcision only affects the body.)

In those days you were living apart from Christ. You were excluded from God's people, Israel, and you did not know the promises God had made to them. You lived in this world without God and without hope. (Eph 2:10-22)

Notice those words: “without God.”

We are also alienated from each other. We see in the Bible that Cain killed Abel, Pharaoh and Abimelek abducted Abraham's wife, Esau threatened to kill his brother Jacob, Laban treated his daughters as pawns and almost killed Jacob, and that's in just the first half or so of Genesis! Outside the Bible we all know of families that don't get along; we’ve recently seen riots in our own cities, and of course there are always wars between nations.

God hates alienation. He does not want to be alienated from us, nor does he want us to be alienated from our neighbors. The question is, do we prefer to be alienated, or do we want to be reconciled to God and our neighbors?

To prefer alienation is to tell the guy with the truck “I don't need you.” And to tell the guy with the truck “I don't need you” – to refuse the offer of salvation in the gospel – is to prefer to be alienated from God and our neighbors to being reconciled to them. The choice is yours – make a good one.

Maybe you're not the guy with the house. Maybe you realized long ago that the flood is coming and you left everything behind and got in the truck. Or you fought it as long as you could and realized you had already lost enough that you decided staying around wasn't worth it and got in the boat. Or you were like the thief on the cross next to Jesus: you had nothing left to give up and so you got into the helicopter. You understand that it was Jesus' blood shed on the cross that paid for that truck or boat or helicopter.

No matter when you left your house and were rescued, you're now safe from the flood, but the flood is still coming, and there are still other people in its path. And the Lord who rescued you has given you a job: to get them into your truck, or your boat, or your helicopter.

Go and make disciples of all the nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit. Teach these new disciples to obey all the commands I have given you. (Mt 28:19-20)

What's the best way to get them to come aboard?

Our tendency – well, OK, my tendency – is to go after people and tell them what bad people they are. That's easy to do because everyone is a rebel against God, and our rebellion against God hurts other people and we even hurt ourselves with it. And there is a time to do it. The guy with the truck does have to tell the guy at the house that the level of the water will be higher than the roof of the house. The problem with that is that he won't be telling the homeowner anything he doesn't already know.

The truth about God is known to them instinctively. God has put this knowledge in their hearts. From the time the world was created, people have seen the earth and sky and all that God made. They can clearly see his invisible qualities -- his eternal power and divine nature. So they have no excuse whatsoever for not knowing God. (Rom 1:19-24)

Now we all know how the guys with the truck and the boat and helicopter would talk to the homeowner. They can’t just harangue the guy and make him feel like an idiot. They need to invite him. They need to let him know he’s welcome to join them. Here how Jesus tells people to get out of the flood:

Come to me, all of you who are weary and carry heavy burdens, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you. Let me teach you, because I am humble and gentle, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke fits perfectly, and the burden I give you is light. (Matt 11:28-30)

Not only does Jesus welcome us to take shelter, he invites us to become part of what he’s doing in the world. When he invites us to take his yoke upon us. he's telling us he's going to give us work to do, but it will be work that God has designed especially for us. We don't have to do work that he has designed for others to do, but we expects us to do all the work he has assigned us, and he will be with us as we do it until the job is finished.

I didn't read all of the job description I read earlier. Here’s the rest:

Be sure of this: I am with you always, even to the end of the age. (Matt 28:20)

And, of course, here’s the rationale for the church’s whole enterprise:

God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him will not perish but have eternal life. God did not send his Son into the world to condemn it, but to save it. (John 3:16-17)

Our job is not to condemn the world, but to invite the world to come to Jesus. Jesus paid the price of our reconciliation to God on the cross, and our job is to invite people to be reconciled to God.

Today the church has an image problem. As we've seen in the recent news cycles about gay marriage and Planned Parenthood, people outside the church tend to think of Christians as haters. We supposedly hate gays and lesbians and transsexuals and abortionists and women who get abortions. I might add that Middle East Muslims think we hate them too, seeing that in the last decade or so hundreds of thousands of them have died in the war we started and at least 16 million of them have been run out of their homes. If the invitation sounds like an invitation, one can understandably wonder what the invitation is an invitation to.

I mentioned that my wife and I went on a mission trip with our church. It was to the Cherokee Indian land in North Carolina. The expropriation of their land by Americans is still a sore point. Their language and culture were destroyed to a great degree by the American practice of taking Indian children to boarding schools and beating them if they spoke Cherokee or engaged in activities that looked too “Indian.” The motto of those schools was “Kill the Indian and save the man.”

Many Christian missionaries made sure nothing Cherokee – language, music, or otherwise – came into the Christian church. As I explain in detail here, many Cherokee consider the Christian church simply an extension of the American invasion of their land.

In all these cases I've mentioned, Christians have attempted to use power – either raw military power or the velvet glove over the iron fist of the vote – to get their way. How different this is from at least one branch of the early church:

Don't ever forget those early days when you first learned about Christ. Remember how you remained faithful even though it meant terrible suffering. Sometimes you were exposed to public ridicule and were beaten, and sometimes you helped others who were suffering the same things. You suffered along with those who were thrown into jail. When all you owned was taken from you, you accepted it with joy. You knew you had better things waiting for you in eternity. (Heb 10:32-34)

The Bible does say there is a time for war as well as a time for peace, a time to kill as well as a time to heal, but all actions have consequences, and the consequences of actions Christians have taken recently and not so recently give me reason to question the wisdom of those actions.

I urge you in your online time to visit and read the stories of people who are demonstrating what it means to call people to Jesus. Here's one of many stories on the main page today.

Hindu radicals in India beat Pastor Augustine Jayraj and two other Christian men and had them arrested by local police on July 23 because of their Christian outreach to a village. A group of 20 RSS members stopped the Jesus film partway through the video, locked the three men in a room and called police. The men were beaten, arrested and charged with forced conversions.

Our brothers and sisters were falsely accused as Jesus was falsely accused. They were beaten as Jesus was beaten. They were arrested as Jesus was arrested. This is the normal Christian life, at least in many places where the church is growing.

So we have come full circle back to the problem of alienation. Those who beat Pastor Augustine are alienated from God and from their neighbors. God calls us to be reconciled to them – to forgive them their trespasses as we expect God forgive our trespasses against him. We are not to condemn them or accuse them – though they do deserve condemnation and accusation, just as we do – but we are to invite them to come to Christ and to demonstrate Christ's character by being like him.

To repeat the takeaway I stole from the sermon last week, we pursue reconciliation not alienation; our purpose in interacting with nonbelievers is invitation not condemnation; we get people to accept the invitation by demonstration not accusation.

I'll close with some hard words from the Apostle Paul. Think of these as the words of the homeowner who chooses to get in the truck or the boat or the helicopter:

Everything else is worthless when compared with the priceless gain of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord. I have discarded everything else, counting it all as garbage, so that I may have Christ and become one with him. I no longer count on my own goodness or my ability to obey God's law, but I trust Christ to save me. For God's way of making us right with himself depends on faith. As a result, I can really know Christ and experience the mighty power that raised him from the dead. I can learn what it means to suffer with him, sharing in his death, so that, somehow, I can experience the resurrection from the dead! (Phil 3:8-11)

Friday, August 14, 2015

“Are You Passionate about Jesus?”

“Henry, are you passionate about Jesus?”

The voice on the other end of the telephone line belonged to a young black man I had befriended years before. A former confessing evangelical, he had since come out as gay and had told me that he was planning to become a woman. After hearing that I had done everything I could to assure him that though I hoped he would change his mind, I would be his friend no matter what he did because I wanted him to know Jesus. I’m not sure how the conversation got to his question, but there it was.

I had been going through a very rough few years, the result of my own stupidity. But I was also feeling like I was getting spanked harder than was needed, so the right answer would have been no. But I felt like I needed to put up a good front – “his soul was at stake,” after all – so after a moment or so, I said, “I guess so. I mean, yes. I am.”

I’m not sure where the conversation went after that, but he never again answered an email or called me back after I left messages, and that was more or less a decade ago. The question has haunted me ever since. Am I passionate about Jesus? Do I love Jesus?

For twelve years I’ve been making a pest of myself at church whenever some church official stands up in the pulpit during congregational prayer and thanks God for “the men and women who are fighting to protect our freedom.” “Is there no reason to doubt that they are fighting for our freedoms,” I would ask, and the response was basically “we were attacked” with Romans 13 sauce.

Well, I think the truth has come out. It won’t make any difference to anyone, but I’ll lift it high in the sky, let the whole world know.

Let me quote a paragraph from an article that is designed to make the Republicans look like liars. (When I landed on the page, a popup asked me to join the Democrats in defending “a woman’s right to choose.” I declined.)

Last week, Jeb Bush stepped in it. It took the all-but-announced Republican presidential candidate several attempts to answer the most obvious question: Knowing what we know now, would you have launched the Iraq War? Yes, I would have, he initially declared, noting he would not dump on his brother for initiating the unpopular war. "So would almost everyone that was confronted with the intelligence they got," Bush said. In a subsequent and quickly offered back-pedaling remark—on his way to saying he would have made "different decisions"—Bush emphasized that a main problem with the Bush-Cheney invasion was "mistakes as it related to faulty intelligence in the lead-up to the war." And as his Republican rivals jumped on Bush, they, too, blamed bad intelligence for causing the war. Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.), insisting that he would not have favored the war (if he knew there were no weapons of mass destruction), commented, "President Bush has said that he regrets that the intelligence was faulty." And former CEO Carly Fiorina noted, "The intelligence was clearly wrong. And so had we known that the intelligence was wrong, no, I would not have gone in."

Read the last two sentences again. Do you remember what “the intelligence” at the time said? It said that our freedoms and even our physical lives were in danger unless “our heroes” went to Iraq, took out Saddam, and installed a democracy.

Now the article goes on to say that Bush and the others lied about the intelligence, and that the real intelligence said nothing like what we were told at the time. I’ll let someone else make hay with that one. I want to get back to the truth – or at least the notion – that lies behind Rubio’s and Fiorina’s words: the war was unnecessary because our freedoms were never in danger from Iraq. They can be based on no other premise.

If our freedoms had truly been in danger, Rubio and Fiorina would be defending the war like mother bears. That they are backpedaling (being sure not to step on veterans’ toes) tells me they know that our freedoms were not in danger. The war was unnecessary.

Hundreds of thousands of people died in that war, and countless more were maimed. Four million people were driven from their homes, including communities of confessing Christians who had lived in an uneasy truce with Islam for over a millennium. And now, without intending to, bigwigs in the Republican party let it slip that the war was unnecessary.

There’s no apology forthcoming, of course. Love is never having to say you’re sorry, and the Republicans love the Iraqis, the troops, and the taxpayers who have paid for part of the war and will continue to pay for the rest for years. They would rather die than apologize. But they know they have to admit that the war was wrong if they expect to be in the White House to start the next unnecessary war.

Now we go back to the prayers in church for the war effort, and this is where I really struggle. I’m not the sharpest knife in the drawer, and I’m certainly not the most sanctified member of my own church, let alone the evangelical church at large.

So what am I to think when people who spend more time in the Bible than I do, whose lives reflect a humility and dedication and true concern for the people they see every day that I lack, and who I know have not done some of the stupid things I’ve done get something this important so horribly wrong? A stopped clock is right twice a day, and maybe I got the war right just by dumb luck.

Or was I on Jesus’ side all along? If so, how could people who read the Bible, pray, and hold each other accountable more than I do get it wrong? If I wasn’t on Jesus’ side, how can I love a God who can be snookered by the neoconservative cabal? And if I don’t really love God, am I not faking it to say I’m a Christian?

On the off chance that I got it right by virtue of principles that I believe but live up to imperfectly, let me state how I applied them in this case. You can decide if you want to adopt them and apply them yourself the next time “your freedoms are in danger.”

Love your neighbor as yourself. Do for others what you would have them do for you. Regard your neighbors’ bodies, property, reputations, and trust as sacred. Admit that you are a rebel against God and find forgiveness in Jesus’ death on the cross. Assume that anyone who says they have the right to violate others’ lives, property, reputations, or trust, even when they say they’re doing it on your behalf, and doubly so if they say they have some kind of divine mandate, is lying. Above all, seek to advance the kingdom of God through “deeds of love and mercy” and to acquire the righteousness that comes only from God through faith in Jesus.

The war was prosecuted by people whose actions before the war started showed me that they disagree with every one of the statements in the previous paragraph. So opposing the war was a no brainer.

But being right about principles is not the same as being passionate about Jesus. I think Jesus taught and lived up to the principles I listed, and I like that. But he also makes it clear that one cannot come to him without also coming to his people. If we are all rebels against God – me no less than others – and all God’s people are saved by grace – them no less than me – then being passionate about Jesus includes passionately loving those who in Jesus’ name supported an unnecessary war and will never apologize for doing so.

This time I know better than to try to fake it. I admit it: I’m not there yet.

Thursday, August 13, 2015

Advice for Bernie Sanders

In what has to be one of recent history’s most memorable assertions of minority rights, less than one percent of a crowd at a park in Seattle was able to shut down a speech by perhaps the leading presidential candidate simply by showing up. They were unarmed and outnumbered by at least a hundred to one, but they shut down the event without firing a shot.

Amazing. How could this be? Furthermore, how could Mr. Sanders have kept this from happening? Where did things go wrong?

Let’s assume that being white was not his first mistake. In fact, let’s assume for the rest of the conversation that he was black

I would suggest that Mr. Sanders’ first mistake was to choose a public park as the venue for the event. This immediately meant that he was not longer in control of those who would keep order. Instead, order would be kept by the powers that be, ordained of God, rather than by those who had voluntarily chosen to serve him by keeping order. Once the powers that be determined that they would allow the disruption, Mr. Sanders had no way to restore order.

If the venue had been private, Mr. Sanders could have told his order keepers – let’s call them bouncers – “If any honkies show up, be sure you keep an eye on them. If they try to take the stage, you grab them and haul them out. If they’re too strong for you, tase them. If they threaten you or anyone else, shoot them dead. Understand?”

Actually, of course, the choice of venue wasn’t Mr. Sanders’ first mistake. His first mistake was not believing in the value of private property. Unfortunately, he hasn’t learned his lesson.

But you have.

Wednesday, August 5, 2015

This Is America: Now Speak Cherokee

I recently took a week off work to go with a group from my church to visit the Eastern Band of the Cherokee people. The plan was for my wife and me to ask questions of key people about the status of uniquely Cherokee language and music among those still living in the traditional Cherokee area. We had been warned that the Cherokee language and music were all but dead, but my wife is an incurable optimist, and I would like her to be right, so off we went.

Say “Cherokee” to me and I think “Trail of Tears,” the forced expropriation of the tribe that included a march of thousands of miles in the dead of winter that killed thousands, so I went expecting to be made uncomfortable by what I heard from those we spoke with and hoping that the other white people at the camp would have their eyes opened.

Lest I think too much of my own innocence in the conquest of the Indians, God reminded me before we left of Jesus’ hard words for people like me:

Woe to you, hypocrites! You say, “If we had lived in the days of our forefathers, we would not have taken part with them in shedding the blood of the prophets Indians.” So you testify against yourselves that you are the descendants of those who murdered the prophets Indians. (Matt 23:29-31)

It got even more uncomfortable. We got to our base camp, and on the first morning I had my quiet time with the next psalm after the one I’d read the day before. If this wasn’t a providential opportunity to wrestle with an issue I thought was cut and dried, I don’t know what would have been:

We have heard with our ears, O God; our fathers have told us what you did in their days, in days long ago.
With your hand you drove out the nations Indians and planted our fathers;
you crushed the peoples and made our fathers flourish.
It was not by their sword that they won the land, nor did their arm bring them victory;
it was your right hand, your arm, and the light of your face, for you loved them.
You are my King and my God, who decrees victories for Jacob white Americans.
Through you we push back our enemies; through your name we trample our foes.
I do not trust in my bow, my sword does not bring me victory;
but you give us victory over our enemies, you put our adversaries to shame.
In God we make our boast all day long trust, and we will praise your name forever. (Ps 40:1-8)

Oy. How do you argue with that? If God isn’t ultimately responsible for the conquest of the Indians, who is? The church was almost the most important element in the American society of the day while the Indians were being dealt with, so how do we deny that God loved the conquerors? No exegete I would put my faith in would consider my crossouts and substitutions legitimate, but I have every reason to believe that what I did was precisely what was done in sermons all over the land at the time to justify what “our heroes” were doing to the Cherokee before Lincoln’s war, to the farmers of Georgia and the Shenandoah during it, and to the Plains Indians after it. If the success of the three conquests isn’t proof that their interpretation was the truth, what would be? It was the conquest of Indian country, even more than the enslavement of the blacks, that enabled the United States to become the economic envy of the world and at least at one time to support more missionaries and mission organizations than the rest of the world combined. Some Cherokee are Christians, and Old Glory flies in so many places on the reservation that one can only conclude that the Cherokee are patriotic Americans.

So who am I to speak against what God has so clearly endorsed?

Maybe I need to let a Cherokee answer that. We campers from seven churches throughout the east were gathered to get a Cherokee-eye view of our work from a tribe-appointed cultural resource person. Having already heard from Cherokee and white alike that the Cherokee church is weak, we wanted to know what a non-believer thought we were up against. The speaker explained what it meant for them to have Americans make treaties and break them, to have them “kill the Indian and save the man” by taking children to boarding schools far away and forbidding them under penalty of beatings to speak Cherokee, and for missionaries to condemn almost everything about them that made them Cherokee.

As he spoke, it became apparent that he didn’t really understand the Christian message. A dear older saint attempted to expound unto him the way of God more accurately, as it were, to which the speaker replied, “Here’s how I understand Jesus. The New Testament tells how he came to his own land, and he spoke about God’s love. But when he came here, he came with a gun.” Remember, this is almost two hundred years after the Trail of Tears. And I don’t think he’s alone in his view of American Christians.

There are some Cherokee Christians, as I said, but does that mean the Great Commission has been fulfilled among them? If so, we can dust off our hands and move on, and the missionaries currently being sent there can go do something more useful elsewhere. But if not and we are to fulfill it, do we do it best as white Americans who play on Cherokee red-white-and-blue patriotism, or as unadorned Christians who “know only Christ and him crucified”?

Because our forefathers had irresistible force on their side, they considered themselves justified in making the rules in Indian country. For example, a phrase we heard often during our culture lesson was “restoring the balance.” One application of that if I’m an Indian is that if one of your people kills one of my people, our people kill that person. If he can’t be killed, then someone from his nuclear family is to be killed. If we can’t get one of his nuclear family, then we go for his extended family and so on until we restore the balance by killing someone from his side. This is Moses, ¿nó? “Whoso sheddeth man’s blood, by man shall his blood be shed. Life for life.”

Even I can figure out how if ten Indians and two whites are killed in what the whites would consider a “fair” firefight (i.e., one in which the whites have the superior firepower), the Indians are going to restore the balance by killing eight whites somewhere, and not in a “fair” firefight (that they’re bound to lose) but by guerrilla tactics (the same ones used by the American colonists against the British and celebrated in Mel Gibson’s movie The Patriot). But because the whites had the superior firepower, they were able not only to win the battles but afterwards to “treat the Indians as the despicable scum that they were,” Moses, let alone Jesus, be damned.

Does this sound like anything we hear today? About whom is it said, “They don’t wear uniforms?” What is the American view of those who fight with improvised explosive devices? In short, could it be that we’re making the same mistake in the Muslim world that our forefathers made in Indian country, that we’re winning the military war and alienating people from the kingdom of God, not only those people alive today but their five-times-great grandchildren?

I’m sure those soldiers who escorted the Cherokee on the Trail of Tears were otherwise decent guys who wrote their parents and tithed to their churches. And maybe God was with them and considered them kingdom builders. But they made life difficult for those who would build God’s kingdom even today. And no, I don’t pretend to know what it was like to be them at those times. But I would like to think an omniscient God who cannot bear to look at sin could have come up with a way for them to meet their immediate needs without muddying the water for those who have come after them, and the same goes for us today.

Monday, August 3, 2015

Sincere Cheers for Jerry Falwell

It’s a cold night in Boise, Idaho, in the late autumn of 1972. I’m living in a Christian commune, a crash pad for trippers hitchhiking around the country; they come to eat and sleep, we try to communicate the gospel to them. The house pastor accepts an invitation to go a bit out of town to a Baptist church to hear a presentation by some radio evangelist or someone.
We didn’t know who it was, but going seemed like a good idea, so off we half-dozen or so scruffy counter-culture types went.
All I remember from that evening were the crewcut men in ties, the matching navy blazers with emblems, the refrain from one song that went “I am thankful to God for allowing me to be an A-mer-i-cuhn,” and the names Jerry Falwell, Thomas Road Baptist Church, and Lynchburg Baptist College. And the time in the presentation when this Falwell guy was asking what denominations people came from (our crash house was part of a chain, but we were not, thank you kindly, a denomination); when he asked, “And how many of our Mormon friends are here?” we looked at each other and wondered if he knew what a Mormon was.
(For those outside the evangelical fold, we consider the Mormon cliché “What man is, God once was; what God is, man can become” to be irreconcilable with the distinction between Creator and creature that underlies our world view.)
Fast forward a few years to the Moral Majority days. While I did not totally agree with the jibe at the time, “the Moral Majority is neither,” I could see why people said it, and I found false dichotomies like “Should evolution be taught in our schools?” that appeared in MM advertisements less than helpful. More than once I found myself saying, “Can’t this Falwell guy just shut up?”
He partially redeemed himself in my view when I overheard a radio broadcast about that time in which he confessed that he would look out his chancellor’s office window at students at what was then Liberty Baptist College, many of whom he knew by name, and try to predict who would be the leaders and who would be the flounders once they graduated. He said he was one hundred percent wrong. While I took that as evidence that he should indeed shut up, I could also see it as a brave admission by a man who makes his living convincing others that he can change the world through the students he is educating.
All of this is to say that I’m no particular fan of Jerry Falwell. But I found out some things today that are making me reconsider.
When I attended that Falwell fundraiser in 1972, I was part of the subset of Christians who expected the world as we knew it to end any day. How many times did I tell someone I was witnessing to “The Lord could come back before I finish this sentence”? (How I expected a statement that was proven false as soon as I finished making it to convince people of the truth of the gospel I have no idea.) After a while, I decided that the Lord couldn’t come back until the world as we knew it had fallen apart and there had been seven years (that’s 2555 days, probably give or take ten percent) of supernatural “tribulation.” But totally beyond anything anyone was saying for almost the first decade after I came to Christ was that Christians could build institutions that would have an impact on the world.
Meantime, Jerry Falwell was building what had become Liberty Baptist College. He had also been instrumental in helping a washed-up actor named Ronald Reagan become president. (Though I have regretted it ever since, I even voted for Reagan in 1980; I will never again vote for “the lesser of two evils.”)
In 1981, from reading the first edition of David Chilton’s Productive Christians in an Age of Guilt-Manipulators, I caught the vision of building educational, medical, and other institutions apart from the world system – and better than those of the world system – that would be visible evidence of the wisdom of God’s ways and visible communities into which we could invite nonbelievers.
The most obvious of such communities would be Christian schools: as humanist educational theories dumbed the schools down and turned them into moral cesspools, so the idea went, Christians would build schools where excellent academics met superior ethics, all with a mind to inviting anyone who would pay the bills and obey the rules to be part of it, learn from Jesus, and eventually surrender to him.
My children had what I would consider the inestimable privilege of attending just that kind of school: the faculty was all committed Christians, but the student body was “whosoever will.” While Bible courses were required, conversion was not: our last year there, the valedictorian was a Sikh from India.
Yet in three and a half decades of sharing the vision of evangelistic schools with others, I don’t know that I have pulled even one Christian into my camp: those who supported government schools still do, and those who supported Christian schools still want to require all students to have at least one Christian parent.
Guess who I found out today has put that vision into practice? Yup – Jerry Falwell. (Well, he’s off to Glory, so it’s really his successor as head of the family business, his son.) Liberty University, of all places, is open to anyone who is willing to pay the bills and obey the rules. I suspect that like any Division I school it receives more applications than it can possibly accept, but lack of Christian commitment is not a deal breaker. And apparently, no surprise, students are coming to Christ. Who’da thunkit?
Another neat thing I noticed was the flagpole collection at the entrance to the football stadium. Or maybe it was the entrance to the campus. Anyway, there were half a dozen or so flagpoles, but only one flag flying. And it wasn’t Old Glory. It was the “Christian flag.” While I have little use for the “Christian flag,” its presence alone among the flagpoles gives me hope that the best days of Jerry Falwell’s legacy may be in the future, and that his students will sing first and only that they are thankful to God for allowing them to be Christians.