Wednesday, October 26, 2011

Resting at the Bottom of the Sea

A truth I keep coming back to in life and that is growing larger and larger in my mind concerns the nature of God.  The truth that is looming ever larger in my mind and life is represented well by the literary critic, Terry Eagleton, who says, “For Christian theology there is no necessity to the world at all . . . He [God] created it out of love, not need.”  God is not a reason, answer, or an explanation for life. Rather, God is life.

In other words, God is not the final result of an equation, the conclusion to a philosophical riddle, or a scientific solution. You have heard me say on a number of occasions, “God is not the answer, because God is bigger than the question.” What I find so invaluable about God being larger than the questions of life is the fact that nothing in life therefore can rob God of life. Yet we experience much in this life in terms of tragedy and heartache that seems to strip many of hope in this world. Thus, we often want an explanation for everything under the sun, and so there is a human impulse and tendency to try and answer every difficulty, riddle, and mystery in order to cope.

Our compulsion as human beings to seek answers to all of life’s questions is understandable. We not only want to cope, we also want to control the future.  If I know the reason “why things happen,” and the “reasons for things happening,” then I think I can increase the good and decrease the bad happenings in my life.  Or if I cannot prevent or predict the trouble I experience, then I can at least cope better and deal with life knowing “why” things turned out the way they did. To put it another way, I need to know that what I experience in life has a purpose.

However, the necessity for understanding the purpose of our life events can bring us into emotionally, psychologically, and spiritually troubled waters. Like a boat being tossed back and forth in stormy waters we often flay about seeking answers and resolutions to our troubles. The old expression, “Any port in a storm will do,” is an apt description of our frequent desperation to escape our difficulties with solutions. To put it simply, we are not comfortable not knowing why something difficult is happening to us, and so will latch on to any answer that would appear to solve the problem or question.

The patriarch Job, along with his four would-be comforters, is a prime example of desperately seeking an explanation to life’s struggles. After Job exhausts his friends’ attempts at explanations for his sufferings and Job concludes his experience is unjust, God speaks. What is particularly interesting about God’s response to Job is the fact that God never answers why or to what purpose Job suffered.  Job simply confesses to God, “You said, ‘Listen now, and I will speak; I will question you, and you shall answer me.’ My ears had heard of you but now my eyes have seen you. Therefore I despise myself and repent in dust and ashes” (Job 424-6).

God does not answer the mystery of Job’s life. God is bigger than the question and bigger than life itself. What Job and all of us need to learn is that God in and of Himself is more than what is needed in this life. If there is necessity in this life, then the only necessary necessity is God. Everything and everyone else is ultimately unnecessary.  Sadly, it often seems necessary to go through the shortfall of all our explanations and proposed solutions to arrive at what is only truly necessary: the presence of God. 

In keeping with our sea analogy, we may often be tossed to-and-for by the waves and winds of life’s struggles. Yet, despite the emotional, psychological, and spiritual hurricanes we encounter, the bottom of the sea where God is present is calm, still, and at peace. We can only manage life’s storms for so long with our answers, solutions, and resolutions. If we do not make our way to the necessity of God’s presence at the bottom of the sea, then we will eventually discover our proposed answers have shipwrecked our faith. Let us therefore abandon the ship of answers, resolutions, and solutions, and come to rest at the bottom of the sea where God is present in peace and rest. 


Wednesday, September 21, 2011

It is time to Stop Shooting Our Own Wounded

For an upcoming talk I will be giving in October, I have been studying the issue of Christian unity. I came across three statements while studying unity that are worth sharing. One thought contends “only in common ways of reading the Bible” will we have unity. Another insight says what is primary is “embodied immediately in ecclesial communion.” In other words, what matters most is church structure and authority that ensures unity among the members. The final statement under consideration here advocates that unity “is where we fight and pray together, in the same spiritual combat against the same unseen enemies, that we shall find ourselves to be one army—not become one army, but discover that we are one.”

Obviously a short article can hardly resolve all the contentious issues that surround Christian unity (does that previous sentence not sound a little strange to you?). What I would like to draw attention to is the above appeal which portends that our common spiritual warfare against our “unseen enemies” is the key to Christian unity. The apostle Paul speaks to our unity in spiritual warfare when he writes to the Ephesian Christians (Eph 6:12-18):

For we do not wrestle against flesh and blood, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the cosmic powers over this present darkness, against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly places. Therefore take up the whole armor of God, that you may be able to withstand in the evil day, and having done all, to stand firm. Stand therefore, having fastened on the belt of truth, and having put on the breastplate of righteousness, and, as shoes for your feet, having put on the readiness given by the gospel of peace. In all circumstances take up the shield of faith, with which you can extinguish all the flaming darts of the evil one; and take the helmet of salvation, and the sword of the Spirit, which is the word of God, praying at all times in the Spirit, with all prayer and supplication. To that end keep alert with all perseverance, making supplication for all the saints.

An old cliché gives further insight into Paul’s words: “My friend is the enemy of my enemy.” In other words, nothing brings people together like a common enemy. As Christians we pledge our allegiance to our one Lord and Savior—Jesus Christ. Our common enemy is “the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly places” exemplified particularly in the presence of the evil one—Satan. Has the church forgotten that we are under daily spiritual fire from the evil one? Is not our amnesia of spiritual warfare evident in the disunity among brethren not only in the church at large, but also within the church local? When we survey this disunity the fights do not seem to be over how to battle our common enemy as much as how to win our own preferences or arguments against one another. Now I have never fought in an actual combat situation, but I imagine that two soldiers taking fire while in a fox-hole are not debating over personal preferences, but over how together they can kill the enemy. When taking enemy fire you are not going to care much about the doctrinal, political, racial, or philosophical views of the one fighting by your side. 

Please note that I am not saying that doctrine or propositional truth does not matter. What I am saying is that perhaps we might weigh differently our doctrinal differences, or whatever else is the cause of our divisiveness when we recall that the evil one wants us both dead. Perhaps more forgiveness, patience, and understanding in love would be shown our fellow brothers and sisters in Christ when we see that they too are under attack? We need to turn the popular cliché, “The church is the only army that shoots its own wounded” into a lie. We need to remember we ARE one army in Jesus Christ. Our common enemy is sowing the seeds of discord among us. Let us not be outwitted by our adversary the devil. Let us rather lay down our arms against one another, and take up arms to fight our common enemy. Just maybe then we might find in our common fight that we have more that unites us then divides us? 


Wednesday, August 17, 2011

Thought-full or Thought-less?

I came across a thought-provoking quote this week while reading which says, "All of us, including those who think professionally, are often enough thought-poor; we all are far too easily thought-less. Thoughtlessness is an uncanny visitor who comes and goes everywhere in today's world. For nowadays, we take in everything in the quickest and cheapest way, only to forget it just as quickly, instantly."

What struck me about the above quote is how often I experience my own Bible reading in thoughtless ways. In other words, I often forget what I read quickly and instantly. I struggle against getting a certain amount of reading done for class, sermon, or a counseling appointment. What I have been missing of late, but use to enjoy very much, is reading meditatively and deeply for myself. Fast food can satisfy an immediate hunger, but not a nutritional need. I need to learn to savor the richness of God's Word for the care of my soul, and not settle for less. 

The psalmist says, "My eyes are awake before the watches of the night, that I may meditate on your promise" (Pss 119:148). I need to rediscover the discipline of meditative reading--turning a passage over and over in my mind, contemplating the wonder and beauty of God's promise and Word for my life. Another psalm that comes to mind says, " . . . in all his thoughts there is no room for God" (Pss 10:4). One question I need to answer is, "Even if I have made room for God in my thoughts, what is the weight of those thoughts?" Is God thought-full or thought-less? 


Wednesday, August 3, 2011

Between Delay and Damnation

Woe to those who draw iniquity with cords of falsehood, who draw sin as with cart ropes, who say: "Let him be quick, let him speed his work that we may see it; let the counsel of the Holy One of Israel draw near, and let it come, that we may know it!" Woe to those who call evil good and good evil, who put darkness for light and light for darkness, who put bitter for sweet and sweet for bitter! Woe to those who are wise in their own eyes, and shrewd in their own sight!” (Isaiah 5:18-21).

The above words from the prophet Isaiah strike a powerful chord of thoughts in my mind. What is particularly striking is the attitude of disbelief, doubt, and disdain on the lips of God’s covenant people who arrogantly say to God, “let him speed his work that we may see it.” The fact that human beings doubt the existence and power of God is nothing new, but to hear such boastful words from God’s own people is as sobering as it is sad.

The apparent absence of God in immediately judging the behavior of what Scripture deems evil in the lives of individuals, nations, societies, and cultures is perhaps one reason for this doubting disdain of God’s presence and promises. After all, the image of above of driving a cart of sin implies a sinner is in control and determining where, how, and when to live their life of evil. If you take your cart of sin wherever you so desire, and there does not seem to be any interference from the Lord, then why be concerned about what God calls evil, good, bitter, or sweet?

A “successful” life of sin is a terrible blindness. Successful sinning leads one to be “shrewd in their own sight” thinking that deceives one into believing they can figure things out for themselves apart from God.  The words of Peter are a beneficial reminder that “ The Lord is not slow to fulfill his promise as some count slowness, but is patient toward you, not wishing that any should perish, but that all should reach repentance” (2 Peter 3:9).

Here is a strange thing. On the one hand, God’s delay in carrying out judgment can lead many to doubt His presence and power. On the other hand, God’s immediate judgment can result in the perishing of the unrepentant. It seems that in the eyes of God delay is mercy, but in the eyes of sinners delay is absence. What a peculiar tension God navigates between delaying and damning. The Apostle Paul warns against misreading God’s delay when he writes, “Or do you presume on the riches of his kindness and forbearance and patience, not knowing that God's kindness is meant to lead you to repentance?  But because of your hard and impenitent heart you are storing up wrath for yourself on the day of wrath when God's righteous judgment will be revealed” (Romans 2:4-5). At the end of God’s delay is damnation. 

Therefore, between delay and damnation lies the mercy of God. Only the foolish would dare to presume to know the distance between the two. Now is the day of mercy, now is the day of salvation (2 Corinthians 6:1-2). Let us not be wise in our own eyes, but let us be wise in the eyes of God, and experience God’s mercy in this time of delay.


Peace in Space and Time

The Apostle Paul says, “If possible, so far as it depends on you, live peaceably with all” (Rom 12:18). What happens though when you have gone as “far as it depends on you” to make peace, but the one you are in conflict with refuses? The simple answer I suppose is that you “shake the dust off your feet” and move on. After all, you have done all that depends on you. However, Paul further encourages us, “If your enemy is hungry, feed him; if he is thirsty, give him something to drink; for by so doing you will heap burning coals on his head. Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good” (Rom 12:20-21).

In order to have the kind of peace that our Lord desires for us to experience, we must have proximity to the one(s) we are in conflict. You have to see that your “enemy” is hungry or thirsty to be able to provide them an act of kindness. Such acts of kindness imply that God does not want us to abandon our relationships to one another, but rather desires the good of unity to overcome the evil of division. Obviously, there are times when peace is not possible and you cannot be in the presence of one who does not tolerate your presence. Yet, we are to be looking for those opportune moments when the enemy is in need, and are able and prepared to provide such need. Therefore, we must not hope for our enemy to fall, but look to uplift the enemy when they fall. 

The hope we ought to be longing for is an opportunity to create a different experience with the one(s) we are at odds. Instead of a remembered experience of hate and division, we seek to create an experience of love and unity. We want our enemy to see us offering them a hand in care, not a hand in spite. However, herein rests a major problem in our contemporary western culture. Today, we are a mobile society. We are capable of packing up and moving not just across town, but across the state, country, and even continents! How then can we see our enemy is thirsty or hungry when those we are fighting with are literally out of sight? Take for example congregational conflicts. Often when members experience conflict within a congregation, they can simply move away and attend another congregation in town.  We do not have to worship with or see the one we are in conflict with and so our trouble seems out of sight and out of mind.

We can avoid loving our enemy all too easily today. However, not everyone in our world can avoid their enemies so easily. Recently, I watched a documentary about the 1994 Rwanda massacre titled,  As We Forgive. The film follows the experience of two Rwandan women, Rosaria and Chantale, who come face-to-face with the men who killed their families. What struck me in particular was how the issue of reconciliation was a necessity for these women and their enemies. The Rwandan situation due to cultural, economic, and tribal factors meant that the killers of the families of Rosaria and Chantale would be coming back after their prison terms to live in the same small village. The documentary follows how the process of reconciliation is worked out as victimizers and victims come face-to-face.

As I watched this film, I kept thinking how such a situation would be virtually unheard of in our society and culture. As American’s we would simply move away, whether we were the victimizer or the victim. Yet, as Christians united to one another at the foot of the cross of Christ, can we really do less than what these two Rwanda women were compelled to do by cultural and societal necessity? Should we not as Christians be compelled to reconcile with our enemies, not by physical necessity, but by our choice to pick up our cross and follow Jesus—the Prince of Peace? Chantale and Rosaria were granted about ten years apart from the murders of their families, but in time, the space and time between them collapsed, and they needed to negotiate how they were going to be in each other’s presence now and for the foreseeable future.

My heart aches when I see brothers and sisters in Christ divide and leave each other over doctrinal, personal, and/or petty reasons. We are so quick to move away from each other in space and time. Let us heed the words of Paul, and be inspired by Rosaria and Chantale to not use space and time to remain enemies, but to find peace in the space and time God has granted us to share with one another.


Wednesday, May 11, 2011

Food for Thought

I was doing some reading this last week on the Lord’s Supper, and I came across a phrase I had not previously heard used to describe the bread and the fruit of the vine. The writer of this article spoke of how when it comes to the signs of bread and the fruit of the vine at the Lord’s Supper, “Christ saturates the sign.” What a beautifully put phrase! In other words in an intimate and unique way, Christ identifies himself so much with the bread and juice of the grape that he saturates these signs with his presence. After all, did not Jesus say of the bread, “Take it. This is my body given for you; do this in remembrance of me."” and of the juice, “This cup is the new covenant in my blood, which is poured out for you” (Lk 22:17, 20)?

Oceans of ink over the centuries have been poured into theological literature over the exact meaning of Jesus’ words at the Lord’s Supper. Obviously, the little ink being spent in this blog cannot contend with every viewpoint on the Lord’s Supper. Suffice to say here I believe the elements of the Lord’s Supper are a symbolic representation (or signs) of Jesus body and blood. In this brief note I desire only to speak about the impact the phrase, “Christ saturates the sign” has on me personally, and I hope impacts you for the better as well.

“Christ saturates the sign” brought to my attention that I have placed most of my focus upon Jesus Last Supper as virtually just a memorial of remembrance. What I mean is I have thought more about the signs of the bread and the cup as just symbolic representation, than I have perhaps considered the actual body and blood of Christ. When I read Luke’s account, my time is often spent on the act of remembrance, and not as much on the One I should be actually remembering—Jesus. In other words, symbols are by function separate and distant from what or whom they represent. Symbols imply distance in the sense that they point to something or someone distinct from the symbols themselves. For instance, a picture of a dove symbolizes the Holy Spirit, but the symbol of a dove is not the Holy Spirit Himself; there is a kind of mental gap between symbol and reality. Therefore, since symbols are detached from what they represent, we can potentially spend too much time on the symbol to the neglect of the reality the symbol is actually meant to convey.

“Christ saturates the sign” closed the mental gap in my own mind between Jesus and the symbols of his body and blood. The symbolic nature that the bread and the cup carry is unique. Consider for a moment, what other symbols in your daily life do you ever eat? Each Sunday we literally digest these signs of Jesus’ body and blood. In the Gospel of John, Jesus says, “I tell you the truth, unless you eat the flesh of the Son of Man and drink his blood, you have no life in you” (Jn 6:53). How wonderfully bizarre and glorious at the same time!

When we celebrate the Lord’s Supper each Sunday we are certainly conducting an act of remembrance, but an act so closely connected to the One we are remembering that He “saturates the sign.” Speaking for myself, I have so often emphasized how the signs of the bread and the juice are NOT literally the body and blood of Jesus that I have overlooked how much these symbols literally ARE connected to Jesus body and blood. This Sunday morning as you eat these symbols I pray that what is written here will literally be food for thought.


Thursday, May 5, 2011

Whose Side is God On?

When the Joshua, the commander of Israel’s army, crossed the Jordan River into Canaan Land, he encounters “a man standing in front of him with a drawn sword in his hand.  Joshua went up to him and asked, ‘Are you for us or for our enemies?’” Now apparently this “man” must have presented an awesome and fearful presence for the fearless Joshua to inquire as to which side this man was on. The response Joshua received is enlightening: “’Neither,’ he replied, ‘but as the commander of the army of the LORD I have come” (Joshua 5:13-14a). Joshua “fell facedown to the ground in reverence, and asked him, ‘What message does my LORD have for his servant?’” (5:14b).

Joshua quickly learns in his encounter with the commander of the army of the LORD that in this world we tend to think of our conflicts as “us versus them,” but the LORD thinks in terms of “Himself versus us and them.” God is on His own side, and we will all be better off in this world with God seeking His own interests above all others, for God is love, and His love is what is most healing, most just, most beneficial for the universe. The universe, everything seen and unseen, is designed to bring glory to God (Psalm 19; Col 1:15-20). We are as the human race designed to declare the praises of God as the Apostle John “heard every creature in heaven and on earth and under the earth and on the sea, and all that is in them, singing: ‘To him who sits on the throne and to the Lamb be praise and honor and glory and power, for ever and ever’” (Rev 5:13).

When Joshua inquires as to what is the message from the One most worthy of praise, he is first told, “Take off your sandals, for the place you are standing is holy” (Joshua 5:15). Joshua further learns in this awesome encounter that we do not just speak to the LORD like we are on the phone, sending a text message, or posting a comment on Facebook. God is holy, and we are unholy, so we must never presume we can stand before the LORD as equals.

Along with Joshua, we too could learn a few other things from this encounter with the commander of the army of the LORD. One, as already noted, God is on His own side and seeks first and foremost His own interests. Christians occupying every nation on this planet must never assume that because they are living within the geographical and political borders of one nation or another, God must be on their side. Remember, God does not pick sides, He sides with Himself against all others. We must never assume that an enemy of the State we occupy at the moment is the enemy of God.

Second, in light of God being the only side to a conflict or issue, we must be diligent to remain humble and contrite as we echo the words of Joshua, “What message does my LORD have for his servant?” Servants are not commanders. In other words, we must be ever watchful that we do not take on the air of superiority or self-righteousness. We must not assume any one nation on this planet speaks for God’s army and judgment. We also do well to remember the words of Ecclesiastes that when it comes to God, we “cannot fathom what God has done from beginning to end” (Eccles 3:11).

Third, because God is wholly different from us, we must acknowledge His holiness and confess His thoughts are not our thoughts, and His ways are not our ways (Isa 55:8).  Like Joshua removing his sandals before God, we must remove all human pretentions and presumptions that we know the will of the LORD. Again, we are servants, not commanders.

So in conclusion, whose side is God on? God is on His own side. Whose side are you on?

Eschatological Celebration or When Can We Celebrate Victory Over Evil?

After the news of the killing of Osama Bin Laden there were a number of mixed reactions by Christians to the celebratory responses of various Americans. By mixed responses, I mean some Christians seemed to applaud Osama Bin Laden’s death as a celebration of justice and American exceptionalism with flag waving and shouts of, “USA! USA!” On the other hand, some Christians seemed to be weary of such celebratory gestures as bordering on nationalistic hubris and self-righteousness. Both these respondents to Bin Laden’s death generally concurred that he received a just consequence for his multiple evil acts and heinous crimes. However, disagreements seemed to be sparked around whether it was appropriate or inappropriate for Christians to celebrate the death of an individual, even if that individual committed grievous evil.

Two Scriptures in particular seemed to be referred to by one side or the other in an attempt for biblical support and justification. For those who thought celebrating Bin Laden’s death was justified, Proverbs chapter eleven and verse ten was often cited: “When the righteous prosper, the city rejoices, when the wicked perish, there are shouts of joy.” For those who thought celebrating Bin Laden’s death was inappropriate, Proverbs chapter twenty-four and verses seventeen through eighteen was noted frequently: “Do not gloat when your enemy falls; when he stumbles, do not let your heart rejoice.”

I can empathize with both Christian responses. On one hand, seeing a mass murder like Osama bin Laden reap death for the death he sowed appears like a cause of celebration that is justifiable. On the other hand, celebrating the death of an enemy of the State, can easily cross over into excessive pride, arrogance, and gloating that justifiably ought to be absent from Christian humility.  Jesus’ words about regarding others as more evil or more deserving of death than oneself also come to mind: “Do you think that these Galileans were worse sinners than all the other Galileans because they suffered this way? I tell you, no! But unless you repent, you too will all perish” (Lk 13:2-3). In other words, be careful of celebrating the death of other sinners, when we are all sinners being held accountable for our sins (Cf., Matt 7:3-5; Rom 2:17-24; 1 Cor 10:12; Oba 1:12; Amos 6:13).  

Is there a time when as children of God we can appropriately celebrate victory over evil? Is there a time when it would be inappropriate to celebrate victory over evil? Ecclesiastes tells us there is a time and a season for every activity under the sun, and that God is the One who makes these seasons and activities beautiful (Eccles 3:1-15). Was it the right time or the wrong time this week to celebrate the death of Osama bin Laden as a victory over evil? I am speaking now to the Church, not those of the world.

One helpful insight that may assist us comes from the Old Testament scholar, Meredith G. Kline, called intrusion ethics. In brief, intrusion ethics refers to how throughout Scripture God will take something from the end of times (eschatology: the study of last days) and intrudes it into human history. For instance, the tabernacle and temple is a symbolic representation of the actual temple of God in heaven intruded from the future into human history (Heb 8:5). The Word of God is full of such intrusions from the future. The call for the sacrifice of Isaac by his father Abraham is a symbolic intrusion of the Father’s sacrifice of his Son, Jesus Christ (Heb 11). The Lord’s Supper is an intrusion of the eschatological meal we will celebrate with Jesus when we seem him face-to- face (Lk 22:13-19). Each of these intrusions from God’s future is a way for us to taste in part now what God intends to do completely in the fullness of time.

One of the most sobering intrusions from the future concerns the judgment of God. Among the most difficult judgments in scripture to contend with is the annihilation of the inhabitants of Canaan upon Israel’s entrance into the Promised Land. God said to the Israelites, “When the LORD your God has delivered them over to you and you have defeated them, then you must destroy them totally. Make no treaty with them, and show them no mercy” (Deut 7:2). Men, women, and children were to be systematically killed.

Intrusion ethics can help shed some light on such an apparently horrific command from the Lord. Was Israel somehow more deserving of this Promised Land than the inhabitants of Canaan? Not at all! Scripture reveals, “After the LORD your God has driven them out before you, do not say to yourself, ‘The LORD has brought me here to take possession of this land because of my righteousness.’ No, it is on account of the wickedness of these nations that the LORD is going to drive them out before you” (Deut 9:4). The Canaanites were given several centuries from the time of Abraham to repent of their wickedness, but did not (Gen 15:1ff). Thus the judgment of the Canaanites in the time of Joshua can be seen as an intrusion into human history of God’s final (or eschatological) judgment to come.

In other words, the judgment upon Canaan was a microcosm of what the whole world that absolutely refuses and completely rejects the love of God in Jesus Christ will experience in the fullness of time (Cf. Rev 19:1ff; 1 Cor 10:6ff).  What the Canaanites experienced as a local judgment will be experienced as a global judgment in the fullness of time. Additionally, the scenes of final judgment depicted in the book of Revelation are “intrusion visions” warning us now in space and time to repent and return to the Lord. Some of what is experienced in the book of Revelation as a vision will in the fullness of time be experienced as a full and complete physical reality.

The judgment upon the inhabitants of Canaan is an intrusion of God’s final climatic justice, but not all intrusions of God’s judgments are of the same magnitude nor rightly carried out. For instance, justice in the courts of biblical Israel was to be an intrusion of God’s justice from heaven. God calls his leaders to “judge fairly . . . . I am the LORD” (Lev 19:15). In other words, the judgments against wrong-doing were to be experienced as a type of intrusion of the LORD’s justice. Yet, these types of intrusion judgments were not intrusions of God’s final climatic pronouncement against the unrepentant. Not all intrusions of judgments are the same. The majority of the intrusions of God’s justice leads others to repentance, and thus away from the final intrusion of condemnation at the end of time.  However, we know that perversions and brides often occur in courts conducted by fallen and sinful human beings, thus obscuring, hindering, and perverting the intrusion of God’s justice on earth (Eccles 5:8-9; 7:7).  Furthermore, the Israelites when entering Canaan did not rightly carry out God’s intrusion justice when they made a treaty of peace with the Gibeonites (Joshua 9:1ff).

Thus we can see in Scripture that God’s people as agents through whom He seeks to intrude His justice do not always cooperate, nor express the intrusion of justice rightly. If the intrusion of God’s justice can be perverted even among His people, how much more susceptible will the justice of God be to perversion among the nations of the world? Justice in this world will always be approximate and susceptible to sin and error. Paul the apostle in his letter to the Romans speaks of how governing authorities “do not bear the sword for nothing. He is God’s servant, an agent of wrath to bring punishment on the wrongdoer” (Rom 13:4). Yet we know from history that the governing authorities often abuse and pervert the use of the sword, and so the intrusion of God’s partial justice in our world is often tainted by sin.

So it seems we can only see the intrusion of God’s justice as in a mirror dimly, how then can we celebrate the justice of victory over evil in this world? How do we know if our judgments presently are true and complete intrusions of God’s heavenly justice? Whatever our judgments pronounced in this world, we need to remember that they are partial intrusions, not the final say of the Lord. The final court of appeal is not the Supreme Court or the World Court, but the Court of God’s throne in heaven. An intrusion of justice is not the final justice.

Intrusion ethics helps us to see there will be a time to celebrate victory over evil. For instance, in Revelation chapter eighteen, the Christians who suffered under Roman oppression are depicted shouting, “Hallelujah!” at the fall of the Roman Empire (Rev 19:1ff). But when do the Christians who suffered under Roman persecution celebrate this victory over evil? The fall of Rome occurred after Constantine made Christianity the favored religion of the Roman Empire, so when exactly are Christians who died centuries before the fall of Rome celebrating? What of the Christians who were presently living under the favor of the Roman authorities? Would they celebrate Rome’s fall?

The only way to have absolute clarity of when judgment over evil can be a cause of celebration is when God’s eschatological judgment in the fullness of time is rendered by God Himself, and no others. Jesus gives an account of this final judgment in the form of an eschatological parable where a man’s enemy sows weeds in his wheat field. The wheat represents the children of God and the weeds represent the children of the evil one. At the end of time, “The Son of Man will send his angels, and they will gather out of his kingdom all causes of sin and all law-breakers, and throw them into the fiery furnace. In that place there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth” (Matt 13:38-42). Until this final and complete intrusion of God’s justice, always distinguishing the wheat from the weeds will be precarious (Matt 13:27-30; Cf., 13:47-50).

So is or is not celebrating the death of Osama bin Laden appropriate? In light of this discussion, I would say the celebration of Bin Laden’s death is premature. Just as the Israelites and Romans sometimes obscured and perverted the intrusion of God’s justice, so the world's governing authorities do so today. In the case of Bin Laden, one would only have to research how Bin Laden came to power and influence to recognize that there are multiple nations involved in his rise. How many crimes should Bin Laden be held accountable for and what of the multiple nations who are an accessory to those crimes? Additionally, we need to be careful of seeking to biblically proof-text the celebrations of the nations of the world over their enemies. The intrusions of God’s judgments of celebration in Scripture are not automatic justifications for our national celebrations. God is speaking of His own victory over evil, not ours.

While I am glad a partial intrusion of justice has been mediated in the death of Bin Laden, I also recognize that this is only a dim reflection in the mirror of God’s justice. There will be a time to celebrate victory over evil when Jesus Christ is fully revealed. When that day of celebration comes, we will not wave our national flags chanting the name of our countries, but rather we will point to the Cross and the Empty Tomb to shouts of “Jesus Christ, Jesus Christ.” Until then, perhaps more reserve and humility is in order for the Church?


Thursday, April 28, 2011

Between Scripture and Politics: An Impossible Bridge?

I recently broke a self-imposed rule on avoiding political conversations on Facebook. I do not know what exactly came over me, but I just felt compelled to respond to a number of political posts that were made by various friends not only on Facebook, but via email as well. Additionally, I came across an excellent academic article this week written on immigration by a law professor and a professor of religion. So my week so far seems to be dotted with various political opinions and conversations which, unlike previous experiences, were carried on in a civil and constructive manner.

Aside from any disagreements or agreements I had with friends on political issues, what struck me about the Facebook comments and the academic article on immigration was the difficulty of connecting Scripture to contemporary issues. In some cases on Facebook, there was not even a semblance of an attempt to consider how the Word of God might speak to an issue. In other cases there was reference to Scripture, but with the assumption that no other scriptures then the ones posted were relevant, nor any indication that they might be differing interpretations on the texts being cited. Another difficulty overlooked was evident in the academic article on immigration which seemed to ignore the perils in applying texts from the Old Testament to contemporary immigration policies in the United States. For instance, the article on immigration did an outstanding job of referencing relevant texts on how Israel was to treat strangers and foreigners who came to live among them in the land of Canaan. The authors then proceeded to draw an immediate application of these Old Testament texts to immigration policy for the United States. The question that comes to mind is, “Can we directly apply texts from the Old Testament to the United States?”

While there is no question we ought to be informed by the Word of God on all matters political, spiritual, social, and cultural, just how we are to be informed exactly in specific details and policies is not always clear-cut and obvious. For the sake of brevity, let me note just a few obvious differences between Israel of the OT and the United States today. First (according to both Scripture and the US Constitution), America is not God’s nation as Israel witnessed in the Bible is God’s one and holy nation. Second, Israel (especially in the Pentateuch) is an agricultural society, while America is an industrial-informational-financial based society. Third, Israel was a theocracy and then a monarchy, while America is democratic republic built on capitalism. Just taking the aforementioned differences into consideration, an immigrant in the ancient Near East in the time of Moses seeking to live in the land of Canaan is not the same as an immigrant seeking to live in the United States today. Obviously, therefore, translating the Israel of Scripture to fit the contemporary scene in the United States is not a simple one-to-one transaction. Israel is not America and the Bible is not the US Constitution.     

Building a bridge between Scripture and contemporary politics is not something done easily. How Christians seek to build these bridges can and does differ widely. Some Christians I suppose would argue that others are building bridges from wrong starting points (referencing irrelevant scriptures). Others would say that bridges are being built to wrong conclusions (Bible passages do not lead or imply the conclusions being drawn). Yet others would argue that the bridges are being built with faulty material (bible passages being taken out of context). So is building a bridge between Scripture and politics an impossible task or a bridge impossible?

Perhaps, carrying this bridge analogy further, we might consider that more than one bridge is possible and that not all Christians will build, nor cross from Scripture to politics in the same way? Perhaps we are not all standing on the same side of the divide in this world, and therefore how and what types of bridges are built will differ? Perhaps we can respect, and show grace for the hard work and difficulties inherent in connecting Scripture to politics. Perhaps we   could encourage brothers and sisters in Christ to at least attempt building bridges, rather than building up dams and condemning the bridges of those we disagree with? Are we all not trying to get to the same side of eternity? Last time I checked, bridges were designed to connect and unite, not separate and divide. What kind of bridge are you building? Just a thought.