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Christians, Racial Justice, and Political Engagement

On Nov 4, the day after the recent US Presidential election, in which we were all eagerly awaiting the outcome, my wife, Kerry, and I were invited to give a presentation through Seattle’s Urban Impact, to a very engaged and diverse group of Christian leaders who are wrestling together over issues of reconciliation.

We were asked to provide biblical guidance on Christian’s engagement in racial justice and politics.

Here are the remarks I offered. Even though the results of the Presidential election affirm today a decisive change, I believe these remarks are pertinent for the journey ahead of us:

In these days after the US Presidential election, I, like millions of others, am reeling. Regardless of who is chosen to be President, I am deeply disheartened that half the American people have voted in ways that either support or tolerate politicians whose actions and policies are deceptive, racist, misogynist, belittling of those who disagree with them, destructive of the environment, and hurtful to people who are poor and marginalized. Even more disheartening is the fact that the majority of those who call themselves Christians embrace or tolerate these values and behaviors that seem to me to be contradictory to the biblical faith. As a pastor, teacher, writer, I ask how have I, and the thousands of others who serve the most “churched” and nourished by Christian media and programs nation in the world’s history, failed so deeply? How can millions of Christians stand by while African Americans and other Persons of Color have to witness that little has changed in America’s racism and greed?

I wonder if one of the roots of our divisions over political engagement is found in our discipleship.

Is Mt 28 the “evangelistic mandate” or is it also the “discipleship mandate”?  After all, Jesus said, “make disciples and teach them to observe all that I’ve commanded” (Mt 28.18-20) I wonder if the church has focused more on making believers, or maybe just contributing attenders, or are we helping one another to live as obedient disciples? It seems clear to me that to understand God’s will for our engagement in racial justice and politics, we need to know and obey Jesus’ commands. 

In a Bible study this week, I heard several people repeat a very common perspective regarding Christian faith and politics.  It can be summarized in 7 statements. These aren’t found as often among marginalized communities, but are frequently heard in the dominant culture and among those Christians who’ve been assimilated into it.

1. I don’t want to get political. After all, Jesus said, ‘My Kingdom is not of this world’” Mt 18.36

Yet, Jesus told us to pray, “Thy kingdom come and thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven” (Mt 6.10) How do we reconcile these statements? Our answer will shape our engagement in racial justice and politics. Politics is about how power and relationships are organized to achieve specific objectives. Jesus said, “all authority (power) in heaven and on earth has been given to me.” The Gospel is unavoidably and very fortunately, about power. But it begins (and ends) at a different place than the politics of political parties. 

I didn’t grow up as a Christian, and in my youth I was very engaged in political campaigns. Now to my embarrassment, I confess that I told Kerry when we first met as 18 year olds, that I hoped to become President one day. That shifted toward engagement in the church, but rather than simply loving the church as the bride of Christ, I approached it as an instrument for social change. I pastored with the passion of a community organizer and a prophet for justice, but my power was my own activism more than the Spirit of God. It wasn’t until my mid-30s, as a burned-out pastoral social activist, that I more deeply encountered the powerful love of the Triune God through studying with James Torrance in Scotland. God lives and reigns in a diverse communion of overflowing love, Father, Son, and Spirit. This love overflows into creation—making all people in the image of God. In this triune love, there are no outsiders, no strangers, no in-group. We are of diverse ethnicities but of one race—the race of humans bearing God’s image. In contrast, our ideas of races that undergird racism are sinister social construct created by people in power to exert domination over others through social hierarchies based on skin color. 

God’s triune love overflows in justice and social change. God loves justice (Is 61.8; Ps 37.28), and does justice (Ps 103.6; 140.12) And as God’s children, created in God’s image, we are called to do justice and to live in love (Amos 5.24; Deut 16.20). Our first questions aren’t what’s wrong and what do we need to do to fix it (the typical questions especially of white males); but who is God, what is God doing, and how is the Spirit leading us to participate in this?

Before going further, it’s helpful to clarify the meaning of justice. Biblically, it’s not revenge, retaliation, or retribution. It has very little do with punishment. Rather, justice is to make life right. When we justify the margin on a page, we make it straight. When we adjust a crooked picture, we straighten it out. Justice puts things to right. God’s justice is the expression of God’s love. 

To go further, the Hebrew words for justice and righteousness share a common root. Justice can be thought of as life being made right around me. Righteousness is life being made right within me. Without righteousness, I risk inflicting my brokenness, neediness and pain on those around me. I need God’s right-making love to reorder me so that I grow in the life and love of the Triune God. Without justice, the misuse of power through violence, oppression, and policies and practices that hold others in poverty risk damaging our characters and souls.

No wonder we are called in the Great Requirement of Micah 6:8 to “do justice, love mercy, and walk humbly with God”, for this is the nature of the God in whom “Mercy and faithfulness meet, justice and peace embrace” (Ps 85.10.) The powerful love of God works to make life right where it is most wrong, where power has been abused in ways that harm others. Thus Israel was continually called to do justice for those who are marginalized, aliens, excluded, and abused for “Remember, you were once slaves in Egypt. Therefore, you must care for widows, orphans, and strangers.’”(Dt 24.18-22) Our love for God will be most clearly evident in how we enact personal and public policies (politics) to care for those who are marginalized

2. Our focus is on heaven. “This world is passing away.” (1 Cor 7.13) “We await a new heaven and new earth” (Rev 21.)

So why then does Jesus call us as we pray for God’s kingdom to come to earth, to “Seek first the kingdom of God and the justice of that kingdom”? (Mt 6.33) If our focus is to be only on heaven, how do we seek the Kingdom of God now, here, on earth? I propose that much of the Law in the Hebrew Bible, and much of Jesus’ teaching, especially as seen in the Sermon on the Mount, can be best understood as mandates for our public engagement, even as forms of public policies. They describe how the people of God are to live in public.

3. Jesus wasn’t involved in politics. He didn’t run for public office. He didn’t campaign or launch a movement to overthrow the empire (though he did have some zealots among his disciples). 

Jesus was born into an oppressive, tyrannical regime and his life shows us how to live in the power of God’s love in ways that challenge the ruling systems. Jesus set forth his political platform, his policies for public engagement in his first sermon given in Nazareth in Lk 4. 18-19. He read from Is 61, “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to bring good news to the poor, He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free, and to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor (the Jubilee).” 

As people took pride in and praised this hometown hero, Jesus turned the table and reminds them of God’s blessing on non-Jewish outsiders, the excluded, and the discriminated against (the widow of Sidon, and the Syrian leper Naaman). Immediately, this kind of application of a sermon to social justice and against racism enraged his congregation, and they literally tried to push him off a cliff.

Throughout his ministry he demonstrated and taught the reordering of power to make life right:

Religious change: Cleansing the Temple, “my house shall be a house of prayer for all people” (Mt 21.13; Mk 11.17); Sabbath made for us (Mk 2.27); the religious law said one thing, but “I say to you…” (Mt 5.22).

Economic change: give to whomever asks” (Mt 5.42), “leave everything and follow me” (Mt 16.24; 19.21; Mark 8.34; 10.21; Luke 9.23; 14.33; 18.22)

Social change: “the last will be first, the first last, the greatest least and the least the greatest” (Mt 19.30; 20.16; Lk 13.30). The gospels are filled with accounts of Jesus violating social norms as he touched, affirmed, and socialized with those whom society excluded—women, tax gatherers, people with leprosy.

Cultural change: affirm outsiders and even oppressors, Syro-phoenican woman (Mk 7.24-30), Canaanite woman (Mt 15.21-28), and Centurion as having commendable faith (Mt 8.5-13)

Political change: to allow people to call him Lord was a direct challenge to Caesar. We see it in his use of irony re taxes—give to Caesar what belongs to Caesar, yet get money for taxes from a fish’s mouth (Mt 17.27); love enemies

4. All political systems are corrupt and compromised. It doesn’t matter what political system we’re under. They are all dominated by greed and self-interest—so there’s no point in getting engaged.

To this the gospel says, we live now under the Lordship of Christ, who in his death and resurrection has reconciled all things, including the principalities and powers (Col 1).  Oscar Romero, the famous archbishop of El Salvador, and now Saint, tried to stay out of politics in his parish ministry during El Salvador’s brutal civil war and dictatorship. However, once he drew close to those who suffered from oppression and injustice, he couldn’t stay silent and disengaged. He became a champion for those who are poor and exploited, speaking out against the brutalities of the government. It took assassination to quiet him—but even death didn’t silence him.

5. The gospel is about salvation from sin and going to heaven. We live to keep ourselves unstained by the world and prepare to go to heaven. 

Yes we live with abounding hope in heaven, and our call now is to so live that we prepare signs on earth of the coming kingdom of heaven.

6. We seek to love everyone. We practice love and forgiveness with all people, and seek to live above the political disputes of our age.

Yes we practice love and forgiveness, and we also live a prophetic lifestyle: we challenge and provide a living contrast to the systems of greed, self-interest, exploitation of power for personal gain that dominate our society. We demonstrate kinship and belonging with all people. 

7. Our faith is personal and private. We don’t want to mix our faith and politics.

The reality is that if we remain disengaged in political life, we are tacitly supporting the status quo. Disengagement is a form of political engagement. And if our faith doesn’t shape our politics, our social location rather than the Gospel of Jesus Christ will do the shaping.

Our faith is both personal and corporate, and our piety has deep public engagement and policy implications. As we participate in the overflowing love of the Triune God, doing justice and loving mercy, seeking the kingdom of God here, on earth, as it is in heaven, we will pursue public engagement to promote the flourishing of all people and creation.  We rely on the Spirit of Truth—to lead us into all truth, the concerns on the heart of God. 

Unavoidably, our social location shapes our approach to politics: whether we are comfortable or oppressed, powerful or powerless, benefiting from the system or suffering under it. Because of this, we tend to focus on those issues that are particularly relevant to our social location, personal interests, and the ways we’ve been taught to prioritize biblical convictions. 

The good news is that we are given in Christ a new social location—the heart of God and citizenship in the Kingdom of God. We don’t presume to understand fully all the will and way of God, so we walk humbly—but we walk with bold, courageous humility for our hearts and our interests are being increasingly captivated by the heart of the triune God 

Zacchaeus got this. The tax gatherer who was a collaborator with the oppressive empire didn’t simply thank Jesus for the forgiveness he received. Recognizing that his wealth and lifestyle were built by oppressing and exploiting others, he gave away half of his possessions and paid back anyone he’d defrauded 4 fold. (Lk 19.1-10) In the tradition of Zacchaeus, churches around the US are setting up Zacchaeus funds to pay reparations over the prosperity dominant culture Americans have gained over the centuries through the exploitation of enslaved people, and poor workers here and around the world.

The early church also understood that our faith is public and even political, though they had to do this through clandestine, and subversive strategies. They were a tiny minority in a brutal tyranny. I’ve written about this elsewhere so here simply want to note that I find it stunning the church chose highly political words for our life together. The words for community (Koinonia), Lord (Kyrios—the title of the Emperor), Sacrament, (the oath of loyalty taken by soldiers when enlisting in the military) and even the word for worship were appropriated by the church, uprooting them from their common political and social use. 

We see it also in the church’s response to poverty. The new norm was for each to give so that no one was in need (Acts 4.32-44) so that there was no longer a “needy person among them”; and each give so that there might be equity, a fair balance (2 Cor 8).

Another illustration is found in the church’s response to slavery. At first read, the New Testament seems to endorse slavery (“slaves, serve your masters as you would the Lord”—Eph 6.5). Slave-owners have certainly appropriated this verse throughout American history.  Yet enslaved people were eagerly welcomed into the church, and worshipped alongside others with equality and honor. Somewhere between 15 and 20% of the Roman Empire were enslaved. To call for their release would have provoked a violent crackdown. Instead, Paul was much more clandestine. We see this in the tiny, one chapter book of Philemon. It’s easy to wonder why it made it into the Canon of Scripture. There doesn’t seem to be any great doctrinal teaching here. However, it’s a precious gem, portraying the radical biblical approach to social engagement. To remind you of the story, Onesimus was a runaway slave who Paul led him to the Lord. He then sends Onesimus back to his former owner, Philemon. At first glance, that seems like a horrible endorsement of slavery. However, Onesimus carries this one page letter from Paul, in which Paul says, in v. 17, receive Onesimus as your brother in Christ. He has become so dear to me, treat him like you were treating me. 

Philemon got the message. It turns out the Onesimus went on to become a bishop in the church, something he couldn’t have done if he was still enslaved. The overflowing love of the Triune God led to public engagement that made life right.

In the book, Divided by Faith, which I imagine many of you have read, the authors expose the tendency of Christians in the dominant culture to view reconciliation primarily about establishing good interpersonal relationships.  The authors documented how most African American Christians and persons of color value good relationships, but also stress the need for changing unjust social systems through public engagement. Kerry and I recognize we live and talk from our context in the dominant culture. We have so much to learn from our brothers and sisters of color.

Do preaching and politics ever mix?

The Role of Pulpits in Forming Personal Convictions and Public Policies

Tim A. Dearborn

From Discerning Ethics: Diverse Christian Responses to Divisive Moral Issues, Hak Joon Lee and Tim Dearborn, editors (InterVarsity Press, 2020) pp. 317-321.

As we enter into the final days of the 2020 political campaign, I am reposting an excerpt from a chapter I wrote in Discerning Ethics. What is the role of the church–and of preachers–in helping people think through the pressing issues of our day?

 Is the church becoming “political” when it engages in issues of public ethics?

Some believe that the church should be a “big tent” that welcomes everyone and from which no one feels excluded because of political positions or ethical convictions. Pastors should not get “political” from the pulpit. To preach about issues of racism, immigration, poverty, climate change, income inequality, mass incarceration, etc. is, according to some people, to stray away from the Bible and the “spiritual” calling of the church. Others seek for churches to be highly engaged in a few select issues they choose, and to be silent or indifferent about others. Consequentially, social ethics are emerging as more decisive factors than worship style or doctrine in people’s choice of church attendance…

We believe there is an urgent necessity for our churches to offer graciously reasoned, theologically shaped, courageous conversations about all the tough issues we face in our society today. Otherwise, Christians will be more likely to derive their convictions from their social location and their favorite media sources, and allow these to shape their reading of Scripture and positions about the ethical issues of our day. When this occurs, churches are likely to be driven by the winds of culture rather than the Spirit. As a result, churches are often viewed by society as irrelevant, divisive, or compliant in regard to critical issues of injustice.

The Christian faith is unavoidably political

However, there’s another, specifically theological reason. I believe that the Christian faith is unavoidably political. Because as followers of Christ we believe in a God who is sovereign over human life and reigns in justice, mercy, and love—our faith has political implications.

Consider the relationship of politics, power, and justice. Politics is about power—the use of power to attain particular objectives. Justice is about making life right by using power to restore relationships so that all people flourish. Justice uses politics to rectify imbalanced and ruptured relationships when some people misuse power in ways that hurt other people and creation. Politics in a representative democracy depends on people making principled compromises with other people with whom they disagree. Even when this may feel like compromises to their principles, the use their power to work together to attain mutually acceptable (even though partial) steps toward the common good.

The early church was well aware of the use and misuse of power as it grew and suffered under the tyranny of the Roman Empire. Christians didn’t have the privilege of citizenship in a representative democracy. Rather, they lived under the oppression of an occupying dictator. Nonetheless, we can discern a dynamic way they engaged with the political realities of their day. Clues are found in the clandestinely confrontational adoption by the church of Greco-Roman political terms to describe their own movement. They took common, ordinary political terms and filled them with a radical, new meaning. Their use of these terms expressed their theological convictions about the relationship of Christ’s Kingdom to the political rulers of the world. By claiming these political terms for the Christian movement, and especially for the Lord Jesus, the early church quietly rejected the authority of Caesar to determine the will of God for the issues of their lives.[1] Consider for example:

Basilea (kingdom): the term used to describe the Empire by Rome—or rather—the reign of God on earth by the church.

Evangelion (gospel): a pronouncement by the Roman Empire that a battle had been won or an heir to Caesar had been born—or rather—the news announced by the church that Christ has triumphed over sin and evil.

Ekklesia (church): the public assembly of all the citizens of the Empire in a region to discuss local political concerns—or rather— the gathering of Christians to conduct the affairs of God’s Kingdom.

Koinonia (fellowship): a homogenous gathering of like-minded citizens segmented by gender and socio-economic status—or rather—the heterogeneous gathering of Christian men and women of all ethnicities, social classes, and economic backgrounds.

Sacramentum (sacrament): the oath of loyalty taken by a soldier upon enlisting in the Roman military, declaring there was no higher authority in his life than Caesar, and no greater loyalty than to the Empire—or rather—the visible signs of God’s commitment to us and our commitment to God expressed in the church’s central ceremonies such as baptism and Holy Communion.

Proskynesis (worship): bowing in submission before the ruler or emperor—or rather—worshiping the triune God, Father, Son, and Spirit.

Parousia (presence, or coming): the coming of Caesar to a town, and especially his return to Rome—or rather—the return of Lord Jesus to usher in the Kingdom in all its fullness.

Soter (savior): the title of Caesar Augustus whose rule ended chaos in Rome—or rather—the role of Jesus as the liberator, redeemer, and healer of the world.

Kyrios (lord): ruler or supreme leader—or rather—Jesus as the one who reigns over heaven and earth.

The biblical faith deals constantly with the concerns of “politicians.” Because the biblical faith compels concern for people who are without power, excluded from community, victims of injustice, abused by those in authority, and identified as unworthy or undesirable—tensions between the life of the people of God and their life as citizens of the state are inescapable. Loyalty to Jesus as Lord and Savior requires that they insist that in their personal lives and Christian community they care for the marginalized, the oppressed, the aliens, and strangers.

The subversive strategy of appropriating highly political language to describe the Gospel sent an unavoidably clear message to politicians.

A professor at a Christian university recently asked students who they thought had said the following words: “He has scattered the proud…He has brought down the powerful from their thrones and lifted up the lowly; he has filled the hungry with good things, and sent the rich away empty.” The students debated back and forth for a few minutes, trying to identify the words with some revolutionary in history. They were dumbfounded when the professor put on the screen the rest of the passage from Luke 1:46-55—Mary’s Magnificat, as she praised God for the birth of her Son—and the clear social implications of his birth.

 

Common approaches to preaching and politics

In spite of the unavoidable, political implications of Christian faith, many churches are confused about how to address public policy and political issues from the pulpit. There are four prevailing approaches that are clearly evident and that significantly divide congregations. These are seldom discussed openly so that a community can discern which approach it thinks is best. Rather, people tend to vote “with their feet” and leave a church that has deviated from their preferred form of political engagement.

In order to make the best use of the insights that have been gained by working through the diverse positions outlined in this book, it may be helpful for congregations to debate and determine what they believe is the best relationship between the pulpit, personal convictions, and public policies.

Silent Pulpit: Some insist that preachers must avoid mentioning anything that might seem political because it is outside the purpose of preaching and/or the church.

Pros:

Little risk of criticism

Little dispute and controversy among members

Little risk of imposing ideology or the preacher’s own view on members

Cons:

Preachers fail to offer biblical/theological insights on pressing issues

Preachers risk reinforcing sacred/secular, spiritual/world dichotomies

Preachers miss the opportunity to help members work for justice in society

Silence can actually reinforce social injustice and political evil

 

Civic Pulpit: Some leaders encourage members to engage in politics and voting as individuals, but do not offer any corporate reflection or discussion about the issues of the day.

Pros:

This promotes Christian engagement in public policy issues and elections.

It affirm that the biblical faith includes public engagement in the common good

Cons:

Again, preachers can fail to offer biblical/theological insights on pressing issues

There is the risk of the preacher implicitly endorsing a candidate or public policy position through nuance and the preacher’s personal position.

There is the missed opportunity to reflect biblically and theologically about current issues.

 

Partisan Pulpit: Some churches want their preachers to advocate for specific public policy issues and even candidates they believe uphold biblical values and commitments.

Pros:

This provides clear guidance to congregants about how to vote.

This can enable a corporate impact on public policies and elections.

Cons:

Historically, it has been illegal in the United States.

This risks the imposition by the preacher or influential members on the congregation of their own convictions

It risks furthering division within a congregation and between churches.

Congregations can become more strongly identified with political positions than with the gospel of Jesus Christ

 

Principled Pulpit: In this approach, the preacher proclaims his or her own understanding of biblical principles that should undergird voting on candidates and public policy issues without necessarily explicitly endorsing a particular person or position.

Pros:

This concentrates on biblical teaching regarding justice, racism, corruption, poverty, marriage, medical ethics, economics, etc.

It encourages members to think “biblically” about issues.

Preachers don’t endorse particular legislation or candidates.

This avoids deepening partisan divides in their congregations.

Cons:

Preachers risk speaking from their own personal biases and convictions.

Preachers risk promoting uninformed positions that don’t grasp the complexity of issues.

Preachers risk presumptuously using the pulpit and the name of God to advocate for particular perspectives.

There is still the risk of provoking disputes and controversies within the congregation.

Thus there is the risk of people leaving because they disagree with the preacher becoming “political”.

 

Our conviction is that these “cons” of the principled pulpit can be surmounted if the congregation hears the voices of people from diverse socio-economic and ethnic backgrounds so that one social location doesn’t dominate. They can also be ameliorated by the preacher being humble in the voicing of her or his own convictions—“I wonder if…”, and by opportunities being provided for congregational discussion and courageous conversations that honor diverse points of view.

The urgent issues of our day demand a clear and compelling response from the church. May congregations become places of deep dialogue and prayerful reflection about the call of God as we participate in the Messiah’s work of lifting up the lowly and filling the hungry with good things. May congregations embody koinonia shaped by God’s grace so that all people, whether rich or poor, high social class or not, well educated or with little formal education, regardless of skin color or ethnicity are drawn by the Spirit into the life of Christ.

Just as with the early church, God is calling us to be empowered, wise followers of Christ who live and lead at the convergence of proskynesis (worship) of the One Kyrios (Lord), preaching the evangelion (gospel) of the one Christos (messiah), affirming through the sacramentum  (sacraments) that there is no higher loyalty or authority in our life than Jesus, and participating in the justice, mercy, and love of God’s basilea (kingdom).

 

[1] For more on this see: John Howard Yoder, The Politics of Jesus (Eerdmans, 1994); N.T. Wright, The Resurrection of the Son of God(Augsburg Fortress, 2003); Richard Horsley, Jesus and Empire (Augsburg Fortress, 2002); Ekkehard Stegman and Wolfgang Stegman, The Jesus Movement: A Social History of its First Century (Augsburg Fortress, 1999); and more recently, Shane Claiborne and Chris Haaw, Jesus for President (Zondervan, 2008).

The great disrupter: what Jesus do we follow? A Bible Study on Matthew 8

Notes from an amazing Bible Study 

DADS Bible StudyEvery week, I have the gift of participating in a very remarkable Bible study with 25 to 30 other men, from very diverse backgrounds, through an organization called  DADS.  Currently we are constrained to meet on Zoom, but that hasn’t reduced the depth of our interaction. A few weeks ago, our study brought us to Matthew 8. Typing as quickly as possible, and without identifying names of contributors in order to honor our commitment to confidentiality, here’s a summary of what people shared. I’ve tried to note exact statements with quotation marks and italics.

Clearly, we are living in an age of deep disruption. The economic, social, and political upheaval being experienced here in Seattle, throughout our nation, and around the world are hopefully deeper and more far-reaching than anything we’ve seen before. As always, the question we are asking is what is God doing in the midst of this?

In order to answer that, we need to clarify in what God do we believe? Matt 8.27 provides a good question for us. The disciples asked, regarding Jesus, ‘What sort of man is this?’”

Here are people’s reflections: “I get that question. Who is this man? He doesn’t seem to have common sense. He seems insensitive to the acceptable way of doing things, and even to people’s financial, family, and emotional needs. We want him to be our servant, to take care of us, and to provide for our financial, emotional, physical, and spiritual needs. Yet, that doesn’t seem to be his priority.”

“I wonder, does Jesus really knows us and cares about us. In response, I wonder if the issue is not how much Jesus knows me and provides for what I want, but how much do I know Jesus and live according to his will.”

“In V 29 we see that even the demons know Jesus better than the disciples: ‘What do you have to do with us, Son of God?’”

We then looked at the text and listed ways that Jesus demonstrates his authority. Throughout chapter 8 we see ways Jesus demonstrates that he is Lord. He has authority unlike anything ever seen.

  • He commands diseases (leprosy, and the illness of Peter’s mother-in-law) to go and they go.
  • He commands storms to stop and they stop.
  • He commands the crowds to leave and they depart.
  • He commands demons to get out and they flee. “Jesus has authority over the demonic principalities and powers, systems and structures that prevail in our society and world.” “It seems to me that the US criminal justice system exercises demonic power over people.” “And yet, it was through seven years in prison that I had my own ‘great disruption’ and finally gave my life to Jesus.”

The Real Jesus is the great disrupter of the ways our societies organize position, privilege and power in order to establish new kingdom of justice and equity. Will we follow this Jesus into something better, more equitable and just? Or will we create an idol to protect our position and privilege? Or will we ask God simply to rearrange the old order to create different ways to structure power and privilege to advantage some at others’ expense?

If we are following the real Jesus, we will be engaged in redemptive disruption, and choose and follow leaders who disrupt the current ordering of power and privilege that only benefit some, so that our society is committed to the common good

We reviewed the 1st half of Mt 8 and reminded ourselves of how the chapter confronts us with a Jesus who affirms the faith of non-Jews and challenges Jewish ordering of who is to be considered an insider and who’s an outsider, who is privileged and who can be ignored, who is clean and who is unclean.

  • V1 leper—touches and heals unclean
  • V 5 centurion—affirm his faith as greater than anyone he’s seen in Israel
  • V 14 Peter’s mother in law—touch woman

Then we listed ways the 2nd half causes us to question if this is really the one we want to follow. We were struck by the truth that this Jesus doesn’t do what we want a nice God to do, provide for us and protect us. He disrupts our established order of power and privilege

  • V 20 security: no where to lay head
  • V 22 position: led dead bury dead
  • V 25 protection: “master, don’t you care that we’re perishing?” To which Jesus says, in V 26 why are you afraid about your circumstances
  • V 34 when people’s prosperity and entire way of life were threatened, they begged him to leave. “It seems to me that here we have one of the most honest statements in the Bible, v. 34 “They begged Jesus to leave their neighborhood.” “Will I come close to Jesus, or will I push him away?”

So how do we deal with principalities and powers, and with demonic social structures?

 “When Jesus healed the demoniac, he told him to go home—rather than to leave everything and come with Jesus.” “Go back to bring healing and well-being there”

 “Sometimes it’s there, in my ordinary daily interactions, that it is hardest to follow Jesus. “If I’m committed to doing what’s right, how will I have the capacity to persist in doing what’s right while people keep telling me to keep quiet, or that it’s wrong”

 “We need to remember that our weapons are the armor of God, not weapons of flesh”  “The Son of Man came to destroy the works of the devil. This is the root of the great disruption.”

 In response, one man gave an extended personal reflection: “OK then, how do I follow this Jesus as a black man in an open carry state? Loyalty is a big value to me. I’m not afraid of the police, but of white privilege. I’m afraid living in an open carry state. Twice in the past week I’ve been confronted by white men, who threatened me. One time, I pulled up at gas station first, but a white man behind me wanted me to back out and let him be there first. As a black Christian, I didn’t feel like I had any other option but to back up, and not defend myself. As a Christian, because that’s the way of Jesus. As a black man, because otherwise I could get shot or arrested.

 “When I go to protest, it’s not just for George Floyd. I’m protesting everything that ever happened to me over my lifetime, living in a white supremacy world.”

 “I’m not afraid of being killed. When I began to follow Christ, I’ve asked him to take me home for I’m tired of being here. Rather, I’m afraid because as a Christian, I live with other people who call themselves Christian but who seem to be following their white privilege rather than Jesus.  The Jesus I read about taught people to obey everything he taught.  It seems to me that white privilege Christians want Jesus to help others obey whatever will protect their white position and privilege. So I’m afraid because I fear I might react as an injured black man rather than as someone who has already died to myself as a follower of Christ. I’m afraid I will retaliate, seek revenge, and defend myself.

 “What Jesus do I follow? It seems every white supremacist claims to be a Christian. The guy in the gas station who ordered me to move, and was packing a gun, had a Christian bumper sticker on his car. To I follow and obey their Jesus, or the one I about read in the Bible?

 “I want to see them following Jesus on the streets saying that all this racist crap is wrong. I don’t see that Jesus on the streets and it bugs me. It gives me problem with my faith. I don’t see white Christians loudly disputing that—showing me on the streets the Jesus of the Bible. And so this brings me to issues of loyalty. First, I’ve sworn loyalty to Jesus. Second, he orders me to be loyal to Christians, and trying to be loyal to white supremacist Christians hurts a lot. So, it’s very hard for me to be a Christian. I feel like all I can do is say “Yes master”, close my mouth, back up my car, and shut up. Third, if I retaliate, I break my loyalty to my daughters, because I promised them that they would never get another phone call from me saying I’m in jail because I lost my temper.”

 “How do we live as black Christians in an open carry state, and continue to be of good cheer because Jesus has overcome the world?”

We concluded by affirming that Jesus said, “Follow me”—regardless of where I lead you.

 

 

Making life right (when so much seems wrong)

The global Covid-19 pandemic, the resulting economic depression, our global reckoning with systemic racism and structural injustice, and the divergent responses by political and religious leaders have shaken our lives and world. People in every walk of life around the world are seeking to understand what a “reset” of our way of life should look like. Individuals, families, churches, businesses, non-profit organizations, and governments are asking how we should live differently in the aftermath of these crises and exposure of our systemic evils and injustices. Are we, as “Hamilton” declares, “seeing the world turned upside down” in a revolution, or will those with power and privilege try as quickly as possible to reestablish our old “normal”?

What is the will of God for how we are to live?

I believe God has already made clear how we can participate in God making life right in and through us.

I explore this in a short book, Making Life Right (when so much seems wrong): Reflections on Micah 6:8. This book examines dimensions of God’s will that root our lives more deeply into the soil of God’s love and faithfulness. The connections with how we are to address the painful issues of these turbulent times are clear. As the Spirit guides us into obedience to these grand aspects of God’s will, our lives can become strong and solid enough to endure, to bear more abundantly the fruit of God’s Spirit, and to participate more fully in God making life right through us.

As my small response to the catastrophe of the Covid-19 pandemic and our facing and repairing the ravages of racism, I am gladly making the attached reflections available without charge. Access them for free as a pdf. Print or ebook versions are available on Amazon.

Click the title below to download a free pdf.

Making Life Right (when so much seems wrong)

Feel free to pass this link on to others (though it helps me if you have others access it through the website, rather than forward the pdf directly.

If you would like, I welcome hearing from you.

Bridging the chasm of diverse responses to divisive issues

Different convictions about ethical issues are fracturing the Church and fueling firestorms in our society and our politics. The gospel compels us to deal with these pressing moral issues. Millions of people’s lives, the future of the planet, and the credibility of both the Church and the Christian faith are impacted by our responses.

We can’t afford to be silent, but we needn’t be shrill.

I’m glad to announce the release of a new book I’ve co-edited with my colleague, Hak Joon Lee, Professor of Ethics at Fuller Theological Seminary, in response to this crisis: Discerning Ethics: Diverse Christian Responses to Divisive Moral Issues. This expansive book is designed to foster dialogue and deepen understanding regarding the divisive issues of our day. Sixteen scholars examine sixteen critical ethical issues: Climate change; Poverty and income inequality; Urban degradation; Immigration; Access to Health Care; Abortion; Transgender; Homosexuality; Violence against women; War, nonviolence, and just peacemaking; Gun Violence; Mass Incarceration; Racism; Disability; Social and entertainment media; Public Education

Each chapter begins with one person’s experience with this issue, then gives an overview of its domestic and global scope. The heart of each chapter follows by presenting three biblically reasoned positions on each issue, using the convictions of contemporary leaders who embrace that point of view. It concludes with how the issue was resolved in the opening story, and then provides reflection and discussion questions, and lists of further resources, to guide readers’ interaction and response.

The book is written for individuals, small groups, academic classes, and church education programs with the goal of nurturing greater empathy for people whose positions differ from our own, and helping people clarify their own point of view.

We believe God is calling churches to become communities of prophetic love, and demonstrative creative moral solutions that further the good of all people, and all creation. Our hope is for the Spirit of God to nourish the winsome witness of the Church through deep dialogue and prayerful reflection about the call of God. Rather than scandalizing people by either our silence or our shrillness, we pray for society to be scandalized by the embracing, inclusive love of Christ embodied by the Church.

Here’s a link to the book, which will be released on February 25, 2020: Discerning Ethics: Diverse Christian Responses to Divisive Moral Issues

“Where do we go from here?”

There is painful irony that 50 years earlier on the same date as the atrocious expression of racist nationalism in Charlottesville this August 12, Martin Luther King, Jr. profoundly expressed the call to reject hate and persist in the resolute pursuit of a just society. The world has once again witnessed evidence of America’s unhealed wounds and unpaid debts accumulated through 400 years of abusing power and privilege. The wounds of this tragic evil are driven deeper by our all-too often silent complicity in systemic racism in America as white Christians.

May the Spirit of God intensify our holy dissatisfaction and unwavering, determined action.

I posted this speech in January 2017 on the eve of the inauguration of our 45th President. It’s worth listening to Dr. King again:

“I’ve decided to stick with love, for love is the only answer to humankind’s problems…I’m talking about a strong, demanding love. I’ve seen too much hate…hate is too great a burden to bear. I’ve decided to love. So, I conclude by saying again today that we have a task and let us go out with a “divine dissatisfaction.”

Let us be dissatisfied until America will no longer have a high blood pressure of creeds and an anemia of deeds.

Let us be dissatisfied until the tragic walls that separate the outer city of wealth and comfort and the inner city of poverty and despair shall be crushed by the battering rams of the forces of justice.

Let us be dissatisfied until those that live on the outskirts of hope are brought into the metropolis of daily security.

Let us be dissatisfied until slums are cast into the junk heaps of history, and every family is living in a decent sanitary home.

Let us be dissatisfied until the dark yesterdays of segregated schools will be transformed into bright tomorrows of quality, integrated education.

Let us be dissatisfied until integration is not seen as a problem but as an opportunity to participate in the beauty of diversity.

Let us be dissatisfied until men and women, however black they may be, will be judged on the basis of the content of their character and not on the basis of the color of their skin. Let us be dissatisfied.

Let us be dissatisfied until every state capitol houses a governor who will do justly, who will love mercy and who will walk humbly with his God. (Micah 6:8)

Let us be dissatisfied until from every city hall, justice will roll down like waters and righteousness like a mighty stream. (Amos 5:24)

Let us be dissatisfied until that day when the lion and the lamb shall lie down together and every man will sit under his own vine and fig tree and none shall be afraid. (Isaiah 11:6)

Let us be dissatisfied. And men will recognize that out of one blood God made all men to dwell upon the face of the earth. (Acts 17:26)

Let us be dissatisfied until that day when nobody will shout “White Power!” – when nobody will shout “Black Power!” – but everybody will talk about God’s power and human power.”

With truthful realism, Dr. King goes on to say, “I must confess, my friends that the road ahead will not always be smooth…There will be those moments when the buoyancy of hope will be transformed into the fatigue of despair. Our dreams will sometimes be shattered and our ethereal hopes blasted…But difficult and painful as it is, we must walk on in the days ahead with an audacious faith in the future…

“Let us remember that there is a creative force in this universe working to pull down the gigantic mountains of evil, a power that is able to make a way out of no way and transform dark yesterdays into bright tomorrows…This is our hope for the future, and with this faith we will be able to sing in some not too distant tomorrow, with a cosmic past tense, ‘We have overcome! We have overcome! Deep in my heart, I did believe we would overcome.’”

Martin Luther King, Jr., “Where do we go from Here?” Delivered at the 11th Annual SCLC Convention, Atlanta, GA, Aug 12, 1967. http://kingencyclopedia.stanford.edu

 

Holy Dissatisfaction

On this day of the Inauguration of America’s new President, I’m reminded that despair and dissatisfaction are opposites. Despair is the enemy of justice for despair is rooted in hopelessness. In contrast, dissatisfaction fuels work for justice for it is rooted in hope–the confidence that life can and will be made right. And our hope is rooted in God, the One who will indeed bring justice–setting all things right. Therefore, dissatisfaction is a vibrant expression of faith, hope, and love. May the Spirit of God nourish our resolute dissatisfaction and our participation in God’s right-making work.

Martin Luther King, Jr. profoundly expressed this in his 1967 speech “Where do we go from here?” given to the Southern Christian Leadership Assembly Convention in Atlanta:

“I’ve decided to stick with love, for love is the only answer to humankind’s problems…I’m talking about a strong, demanding love. I’ve seen too much hate…hate is too great a burden to bear. I’ve decided to love. So, I conclude by saying again today that we have a task and let us go out with a “divine dissatisfaction.”

Let us be dissatisfied until America will no longer have a high blood pressure of creeds and an anemia of deeds.

Let us be dissatisfied until the tragic walls that separate the outer city of wealth and comfort and the inner city of poverty and despair shall be crushed by the battering rams of the forces of justice.

Let us be dissatisfied until those that live on the outskirts of hope are brought into the metropolis of daily security.

Let us be dissatisfied until slums are cast into the junk heaps of history, and every family is living in a decent sanitary home.

Let us be dissatisfied until the dark yesterdays of segregated schools will be transformed into bright tomorrows of quality, integrated education.

Let us be dissatisfied until integration is not seen as a problem but as an opportunity to participate in the beauty of diversity.

Let us be dissatisfied until men and women, however black they may be, will be judged on the basis of the content of their character and not on the basis of the color of their skin. Let us be dissatisfied.

Let us be dissatisfied until every state capitol houses a governor who will do justly, who will love mercy and who will walk humbly with his God. (Micah 6:8)

Let us be dissatisfied until from every city hall, justice will roll down like waters and righteousness like a mighty stream. (Amos 5:24)

Let us be dissatisfied until that day when the lion and the lamb shall lie down together and every man will sit under his own vine and fig tree and none shall be afraid. (Isaiah 11:6)

Let us be dissatisfied. And men will recognize that out of one blood God made all men to dwell upon the face of the earth. (Acts 17:26)

Let us be dissatisfied until that day when nobody will shout “White Power!” – when nobody will shout “Black Power!” – but everybody will talk about God’s power and human power.”

With truthful realism, Dr. King goes on to say,

“I must confess, my friends that the road ahead will not always be smooth…There will be those moments when the buoyancy of hope will be transformed into the fatigue of despair. Our dreams will sometimes be shattered and our ethereal hopes blasted…But difficult and painful as it is, we must walk on in the days ahead with an audacious faith in the future…Let us remember that there is a creative force in this universe working to pull down the gigantic mountains of evil, a power that is able to make a way out of no way and transform dark yesterdays into bright tomorrows…This is our hope for the future, and with this faith we will be able to sing in some not too distant tomorrow, with a cosmic past tense, ‘We have overcome! We have overcome! Deep in my heart, I did believe we would overcome.’”

Martin Luther King, Jr., “Where do we go from Here?” Delivered at the 11th Annual SCLC Convention, Atlanta, GA, Aug 12, 1967. http://kingencyclopedia.stanford.edu

 

Praying for Healing of Fear on Good Friday

When we read the news, the life and world transforming power of Jesus’ death and resurrection seems subordinated to the power of enmity. The voices of fear-mongers seem louder than the voices of God’s faithfulness and love.

Yet we know that by Jesus’ wounds we are healed. He took upon himself who we are, so that we can share in who he is. He took our fear to give us his trustworthy love;

our loneliness for his communion;

our anxiety for his peace;

our humiliation for his humility;

our brokenness for his wholeness.

Holy Week focuses our attention on the wonder of Christ’s healing life, the healing of our wounded souls, hearts, homes, neighborhoods and world. “By his wounds we are healed”  (Isaiah 53:5; 1 Peter 2:24). Yet so much feels so unhealed. We know some wounds in our hearts, bodies and world only heaven will heal. So for how much healing today dare we hope? 

Jesus calls us to pray for heaven to invade earth now: “Thy kingdom come, thy will be done–on earth as it is in heaven”. We live in eager anticipation of the day when all nations will walk by the light of the Lamb (Revelation 21:23-24). Planted beside the river of life that flows from the throne of the Lamb are the trees of life. “The leaves of the tree are for the healing of the nations.” (22:2). 

In the midst of our wounds, we live and pray for healing with confidence and eager anticipation.

Anglican Bishop Stephen Neill summarizes the confidence in which the Christian movement has engaged the world, saying,

“In Jesus, the one thing that needed to happen has happened in such a way that it need never happen again in the same way. The universe has been reconciled to its God…For the human sickness there is one specific remedy, and this is it. There is no other.”[i]

The gospel audaciously proclaims that the Holy God became embodied on our planet and lived a perfect human life on our behalf. In his human flesh Jesus defeated all personal, social and demonic darkness. He bore all sin and evil. He carried the full consequences of this into death and life eternal.

Jesus bore our brokenness so we could receive the gift of his wholeness. He became what we are, sinful and broken, so that we could become what he is, holy and glorious.


[i] Stephen Neill, The Christian Faith and Other Faiths (Oxford University Press, 1970) p. 17.

The Spirit invites us on Good Friday to taste–and to offer to others–some appetizers made from those healing leaves. Our hope is based in the conviction that the Spirit isn’t merely offering appetizers–but banquets. Thy kingdom come, thy will be done–on earth–now–as it is in heaven!”

 

Do Preaching and Politics Ever Mix?

As we are immersed in the tensions and trials of another Presidential campaign season, with evangelicals identified in the media as supporting particular candidates, I wonder about the relationship of preaching and politics.

The Unavoidable Reality that Christian Faith is Political

We are participants in a faith with strong, unavoidable political implications. The early church was well aware of this as they grew and suffered under the tyranny of the Roman Empire. What are the implications for us today of the ways in which the (pre-Constantine) early church addressed political realities? We can get some clues in the clandestinely confrontational ways the church co-opted Greco-Roman political terms to describe their own movement. They took common, ordinary political terms and filled them with a radical, new meaning. Their use of these terms to describe life in Christ’s Kingdom was a direct challenge to identifying biblical faith with a particular candidate and particular government.[1] Consider for example:

Basilea (kingdom): the term used to describe the Roman Empire—andthe reign of God on earth

Evangelion (gospel): a pronouncement by the Roman Empire that a battle had been won or an heir to Caesar had been born—and—the news that Christ has triumphed over sin and evil

Ekklesia (church): the public assembly of all the citizens of the Empire in a region to discuss local political concerns—and the gathering of Christians to conduct the affairs of God’s Kingdom.

Koinonia (fellowship): a homogenous gathering of like-minded people of the same gender and socio-economic status around common interests—and—the heterogeneous gathering of Christian men and women of all ethnicities, social classes, and economic backgrounds

Sacramentum (sacrament): the oath of loyalty taken by a soldier upon enlisting in the Roman military, declaring there was no higher authority in his life than Caesar, and no greater loyalty than to the empire—and—the visible signs of God’s commitment to us and our commitment to God

Proskynesis (worship): bowing in submission before the ruler or emperor—and—worshiping the triune God of truth, grace, and love

Parousia (presence, or coming): the coming of Caesar to a town, and especially his return to Rome—and—the return of Lord Jesus to usher in the Kingdom in all its fullness.

Soter (savior): the title of Caesar Augustus whose rule ended chaos in Rome—and—the role of Jesus as the liberator, redeemer, and healer of the world

Kyrios (lord): ruler or supreme leader—and—Jesus as the one who reigns over heaven and earth.

Since in the biblical faith we are dealing directly with issues of power, community, justice, authority, allegiance, identity, and citizenship—we are unavoidably interacting with concerns of politicians. Add to this that the biblical faith compels concern for people who are without power, excluded from community, victims of injustice, abused by those in authority, and identified as unworthy or undesirable—and the tensions between the life of the people of God and their life as citizens of the state are inescapable. Loyalty to Jesus as Lord and Savior required insisting that society care for the marginalized, the oppressed, the aliens and strangers–welcoming them into the fellowship of the kingdom of God.

A professor at a Christian University recently asked students in a  class who they thought had said the following words: “He has scattered the proud…He has brought down the powerful from their thrones and lifted up the lowly; he has filled the hungry with good things, and sent the rich away empty.” The students debated back and forth for a few minutes, trying to place the words with some revolutionary in history. They were dumbfounded when the professor put up on the screen the rest of the passage from Luke 1:46-55—Mary’s Magnificat, as she praised God for the birth of her Son.

Common Approaches to Preaching and Politics

In spite of the unavoidable, political implications of Christian faith, most of us are confused about how to address public policy and political issues from the pulpit. There seem to be four prevailing approaches:

One: Silent Pulpit: Avoid mentioning anything that might seem political

Pros:

Little risk of criticism

Avoid dispute and controversy among members

Avoid imposing ideology or preacher’s own view on members

Cons:

Fail to offer biblical/theological insights on pressing issues

Risk reinforces sacred/secular, spiritual/world dichotomy

Miss opportunity to help members work for justice in society

Two: Civic Pulpit: Encourage members to engage in politics, voting

Pros:

Promote Christian engagement in public policy issues, elections

Affirm that biblical faith includes public engagement in the common good

Cons:

Risk of preacher implicitly expressing endorsement of a candidate or public policy position through nuance and the preacher’s personal position

Miss opportunity to reflect biblically and theologically about current issues

Three: Principled Pulpit: Proclaim preacher’s understanding of biblical principles that should undergird voting on candidates and public policy issues

Pros:

Concentrate on clear biblical teaching regarding justice, racism, corruption, poverty, marriage, medical ethics, economics

Encourage members to think “biblically” about issues

Not endorse particular legislation, candidates

Cons:

Risk of preacher speaking from own social location and personal convictions

Risk of preacher being uninformed, or perceived as a speaking for God

Risk of provoking disputes, controversies within the congregation

Risk people leave because disagree with the preacher becoming “political”

Four: Partisan Pulpit: Advocate for specific public policy issues and even candidates the preacher believes are consistent with biblical values and commitments

Pros:

Clear guidance to congregants about how to vote

Cons:

Illegal in the United States

Imposition by preacher on congregation of his/her own convictions

Risk of furthering division within a congregation

May God guide us in our longing to be empowered, wise preachers who live and lead at the convergence of proskynesis (worship) of the One Kyrios (Lord), preaching the evangelion (gospel) of the one Christos (messiah), and participating in the justice of God’s basilea (kingdom).

 

[1] For more on this see: John Howard Yoder, The Politics of Jesus (Eerdmans, 1994); N.T. Wright, The Resurrection of the Son of God (Augsburg Fortress, 2003); Richard Horsley, Jesus and Empire (Augburg Fortress, 2002); Ekkehard Stegman and Wolfgang Stegman, The Jesus Movement: A Social History of its First Century (Augsburg Fortress, 1999); and more recently, Shane Claiborne and Chris Haaw, Jesus for President (Zondervan, 2008).

Praying the Lord’s Prayer with those who are homeless

IMG_0660We confess today our faith in you, and that we know your will and way for us—but don’t necessarily want to live it:

“If anyone among you becomes poor, and falls into poverty, then you shall help them, like a resident alien…Fear your God, that they may live with you (Leviticus 25:35-36).

When we ask you, “What shall we do?”—we are uncomfortable with your answer:

“He answered and said to them, ‘He who has two tunics, let him give to him who has none; and he who has food, let him do likewise’ (Luke 3:10-11).

We know your description of who is blessed, but struggle to understand it:

“Blessed are you poor, for yours is the kingdom of God. Blessed are you who hunger now, for you shall be filled (Luke 6:20-21).

We do not want to be counted among those who only love you with our words. We want to love you “in deed and in truth” (1 John 3:17-18),

Therefore, hear us as we pray with those who are homeless:

“Our Father”

Draw those who feel abandoned, orphaned, and alone into the embrace of your welcoming love.

Embolden us to live as brothers and sisters with all people, especially those among whom we may feel threatened and out of control.

“Give us this day, our daily bread.”

Provide through us the resources and new structures, so that no one seeks their daily bread in garbage bins, and no one goes to sleep hungry.

“Forgive us our trespasses.”

Liberate us from the paralysis of being overwhelmed by needs.

Pour your mercy into all hearts so that we may experience your healing and transforming love.

“Lead us not into temptation.”

May your love bar the way to indifference and self-preoccupation.

May your truth overcome prejudice and racism.

May your mercy bring order to emotional and mental confusion.

May your power bring deliverance from our addictions.

May your Spirit lead us into your light.

“Deliver us from evil.”

Protect us from walling ourselves off from others through fear and greed.

Protect those on the streets from being attacked tonight.

“For yours is the kingdom, the power, and the glory.”

Bless this day all who struggle to survive.

We name before you those we know who struggle today:

Bless this day all who have dedicated their lives to bring hope to those who feel marginalized.

We name before you those people and organizations we know who are bearers of hope:

Bless this day all people, pouring into us your kindness and hope.

Give us the courage this day to live the truth we know.

Give us the commitment so to live that all people flourish in your great love.

Now and forever, Amen.

 

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