Sex, Resurrection, & Rereading Genesis

Both Matthew & Mark record Jesus as saying “When the dead rise, they will neither marry nor be given in marriage; they will be like the angels in heaven.”, in response to a kind of trick-question posed by the Sadducees. The Sadduccees were a first-century Jewish sect that denied the belief among some Jews that there would be a “resurrection of the dead” at the end of the cosmos. In their skepticism, they had asked Jesus who an eight-times-widdowed woman would be married to in this “resurrection”. Jesus gives the above reply and clearly states that the Jewish belief in a resurrection was correct.

In his reply, the statement about being “like the angels in heaven” has been taken to mean that humanity will transcend sex, as in transcend having binary biological sexes, and simply be asexual. Of course, this interpretation trades heavily on the notion that angels are asexual. While the Old Testament does not refer to angels as female, using either neuter or male pronouns, it is difficult to assume too much from this, since this could reflect the sociological preference of the writers in the absence of having a clear way to distinguish what it would mean for such creatures to be sexed. So, instead, it seems likely that Jesus is just saying that there will not be marriage, and so the Sadduccees’ hypothetical question is moot.

All well and good. This also (assuming the sexual ethics that Jesus would definitively have assumed) implies that there will be no sexual intercourse in “the age to come”. But, why?

Christian theology should opt for a reason that avoids a demeaning view of sex since it seems to be inherently good part of the creation in the narrative of Genesis. The most readily available reply for why is something like what Dr. Dennis Hollinger proposes: “If sex is a yearning for connection and intimacy, it will no longer be significant when we are fully and ultimately connected and intimate with our Creator”. The dissemination of marriage analogies for the end of this present age throughout the New Testament lends this interpretation some weight, and it preserves that ethical position on the inherent good of sex. This, however, reverberates several implications back into Genesis.

If such a connection would make sex superfluous, we are implying that this connection was not present for the first humans, since, obviously, they had sex. Not only was sex an inherent good, it was the solution that God proposed for the fact that Adam was  “alone”. But, if loneliness was the problem, why not give Himself to Adam in the way that we are proposing will be the case in the resurrection? If the only thing preventing us from such a connection now is sin, as some propose, and the narrative is placed in a “pre-sinful” state, the question is looming.

We should, because of all this, affirm that God did not create humanity with an ideal relationship with Himself. That is, a theological reading of the narrative arc in scripture must include the fact that there was from the beginning an available, but not given, relation to God more intense than the one the first humans enjoyed. This does not easily square with the idea that reconciliation with God through Christ is simply a restoration to a previously satisfactory connection with Him, one that we “lost” because of human rebellion. It seems to strongly suggest that there was work to be done, and, without going into it here, a reason for the Incarnation of Christ apart from the Fall.

Granted, Genesis does give us an “idealistic” picture. Adam walks with God, and the ability to hear and respond to divine communication are portrayed as natural. Without overturning the fact that such an awareness was present in a way that no longer is the case for us, we are still lead to say that humanity was created with a goal to strive for, and this because of how we are seeing the relation between sex and the eschaton that Jesus makes clear (and, more particularly, the rationale we are giving for it). This is less of a problem if we place all of scripture within the context of an “evolutionary” framework (and I use that word loosely), as opposed to an “Eden-Fallen-Restored” schematization. It also fits very well with other thoughts I’ve come across and written about on Genesis and theodicy.

All of this to say: Two decisions, one on the absence of sex after the resurrection and the second on why, will have huge ramifications for our view of the Christian story. To me, this lends the narrative more profundity. Instead of being the center of the story, humanity is swept up into a cosmic narrative, where emergence of our species is part-and-parcel of the unfolding mission of God to be “all in all”. It is, I think, more meaningful, more hopeful, and makes the nature of sex more beautiful.

Stranger: A Brief Note on Fatherhood

“Keep on loving one another as brothers and sisters. Do not forget to show hospitality to strangers, for by so doing some people have shown hospitality to angels without knowing it.” – Hebrews 13:1-2

“Then the King will say to those on his right, ‘Come, you who are blessed by my Father; take your inheritance, the kingdom prepared for you since the creation of the world. For I was hungry and you gave me something to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you invited me in…” — Matthew. 25:34-35

There are few people in the world that I know more about (in proportion with how much there is to know) than my son. At the same time, he is such a stranger! Yes, there is a striking resemblance between him and his mother. Yes, he has unmistakably received the genes for thoes earlobes from me. Despite inherited similarities or tendencies, when you get to know him, you come to know someone utterly different, unique; gathering and putting into action a perspective on the world that I cannot get inside of. When he was around six months old, I read Henri Nouwen’s Reaching Out, and was floored by one small comment that Nouwen sneaks into his book. He writes that “hospitality” should be the dominant feature of relationships between teachers to students, professionals to patients, and parents to children:

“…hospitality wants to offer friendship without binding the guest and freedom without leaving him alone…we can offer a space where people are encouraged to disarm themselves, to lay aside their occupations and preoccupations and to listen with attention and care to the voices speaking in their own center”.[1]

Hospitality is the contrast of what Nouwen called “hostility”, and hostility is caused by loneliness. :

As long as we are lonely, we cannot be hospitable because as lonely people we cannot create free space. Our own need to still our inner cravings of loneliness makes us cling to others instead of creating space for them”.[2]

Loneliness however, is not dealt with just by getting around other people as much as possible, or, what is so easy to do today, by creating an inescapable clamor of notifications about everyone else’s existence. Loneliness is overcome by solitude, specifically, solitude that is intentionally created to seek God. Through this kind of solitude we are more able to be truly hospitable. This is because in deliberately seeking out time to be separate from the hustle and bustle, we “become aware of the presence of him who embraces friends and lovers and offers us the freedom to love each other, because he loved us first.”[3] This was obvious in the life of Jesus Himself. It’s often rightly pointed out that Jesus is God’s affirmation of intense and immediate involvement in our broken world, yet Jesus was not frantically involved. He frequently retreated to solitude.

I have been so grateful that the very decision to be open to Conrad’s life came as a detour to “the plan”. God moved clearly in my wife Bryna’s heart, and as I witnessed the not-so-coincidental signs given to her I thought: “The timing is a little crazy, but this will be amazing!” I’m grateful that Conrad was brought into this world that way because it’s been so much more natural to love him out of solitude and not loneliness. 

To be sure, God works differently in different lives, but the fact that our decision to have a child came during a season of transition and relative “instability”, rather than the more culturally encouraged season of “stability”, has actually helped us see Conrad as a guest, one who we can create space in my life for without trying to satisfy any inner cravings of loneliness.

Conrad is human, and no angel (though it’s debatable), but he is a stranger in many ways. I also know that my wife and me were given a duty to provide for him out of what God has provided to us. The clothing, feeding, and inviting of Jesus’ words in Matthew 25 may not naturally bring to mind parenting. Yet I can’t help but think that parents the world over, in giving hospitality to their children out of a content heart of solitude, are putting these words into practice.

[1] Nouwen, Reaching Out, 52-54

[2] 72

[3] 30.

Christ Over Politicization

“To think of everything as political..to place everything in the hands of the state…to subordinate problems of the individual to problems of the group….these factors characterize the politicization of modern man and, as such, comprise a myth” -Ellul, The Political Illusion

What Ellul is getting at in this work is that everything in our society (and by “our” I mean all first-world modern nation-states, “technocratic” states as he would argue) has become a part of “politics”, and I say that the Church in many places is taking the bait on this. I want to quote Ellul on how these ideas have been stolen by “politicization” and how much they oppose what Jesus Christ has revealed to us about human life. Listen to how “politicization” forms our ideas of “justice”, “community”, “freedom”, and “progress”:

Justice: “justice no longer exists as a personal virtue…must be endowed with some adjective, particularly “social”, i.e., it is ultimately regarded as political. It is up to the State to make justice prevail..the Christian affirmation that justice is the individual’s miraculous transformation by the grace of god [no longer makes sense]

Community: “We cannot conceive of society except as directed by a central omnipresent and omnipotent state…we can no longer conceive of a society with autonomous “in between” groups or diverging activities…Any attempt on the part of any enterprise, university, or charitable enterprise to remain independent of the state seems anachronistic to us. The state directly incarnates the public good” (is this not our hope in elections!)

Freedom: “[Freedom] in our eyes is negligible unless..incorporated in a regime, or the fruit of a constitution, or represented  by the participation of a citizen in state power…

Progress: “Man’s progress in today’s society consists in his participation in political affairs…women finally become human being because they receive ‘political rights’..A person without the right (in reality magical) to place a paper ballot in a box is nothing, not even a person. To progress is to receive this power, this mythical share in a theoretical sovereignty that consists in surrendering one’s decisions for the benefit of someone else who will make them in one’s place. Progress is to read newspapers.”

Think about these ideas now from the perspective of scripture. Justice, according to Scripture, is ultimately revealed in Jesus Christ. There, we see an innocent man being crucified for others’ transgression! This point is buried in current discussions of justice. Let’s advocate for justice: Who will be the first to take-on the execution of another? Or, is it not obvious that the state cannot execute “justice”, but only “law”, retribution, punishment, coercion, when we are told to leave these things to God? (Rom. 12:19, Deut. 32:35). Justice in God’s kingdom is infuriating until one follows Jesus, and accepts the truths at the heart of Christianity: that God has chosen to love the world through Christ, and love never fails (1 Corinthians 13).

Similarly, the vehicle for true community, a community that embraces all humanity, is no constitutional republic, no matter how much it borrows “Judaeo-Christian” values. The vehicle is the body of Christ, the “holy nation”. The “nation” that rejects the boundaries set-up by the nations of the world (1 Peter 2:9). Despite any appearance to the contrary, this nation will prevail, not by any sword, but by the “blood of the lamb” and the  “word of its’ testimony” (Rev. 7).

What of freedom? What do we say about the freedom that Christ gives us? “If the Son sets you free, you will be free indeed.” (Jn. 8:36). “Free indeed”, Jesus says. He does not say “free in spirit”, or, what’s worse and often implied, “free eventually.” No. We are truly free, now. Here were see some practical, real-life, ramifications that these teachings had on the early disciples, as they had no stake in the “political illusion” of freedom.

The illusion of the particular worldly kingdoms set-up as “democracies” is that if we do not participate in the positive decisions (as opposed to work that is done to undo oppresive systems or laws, as I argued in favor of here) made about who will “represent” us, we are not really exercising our freedom. Christ and the disciples lived under the Roman empire: they had no political say in who their rulers were. I will say without any hesitation they were more free than most Christians in democratic nation-states. Why? Because as we see in Acts, they were “autonomous in-between groups” conducting “diverging activities”, such as sharing their possessions, sacrificially serving the poor and foreigners, and causing fairly serious chaos in cities because of how their faith led to the undoing of lucrative, idolatrous commerce (Acts 16:16-24). They did this without approval, representation, or advocates in the empire, and at the service of their king. They were free. Their freedom was not ‘aloof’ but tangible, with real consequences, and ultimately fatal to the state’s attempt to craft its’ own vision.

Finally, what progress is it that the world seeks? Is it the end seen in Isaiah 2:4?

He will judge between the nations
    and will settle disputes for many peoples.
They will beat their swords into plowshares
    and their spears into pruning hooks.
Nation will not take up sword against nation,
    nor will they train for war anymore.

Or is it really to consolidate those swords into the hands of those who are “just”and “good”? Can any worldly nation even theoretically say that Isaiah 4 is their vision for humanity’s future without self-imploding?

These criticisms are all well-and-good, but what do we say “yes” to if we’re giving a firm “no” to politicization? First, as Ellul so forcefully emphasizes, we look to the people who we actually know, actually can love, and the family that God has adopted us into: the Church of Christ! We have a call to “hasten the day” together, as Peter says,that day prophesied in Isaiah 4, and frankly the nations of the world (as political structures, not as ethnicities, peoples, and communities of creativity) play no part in this progress. In fact, they are part and parcel of the problem.

The simplicity of this alternative is deceptive. It took over 40 days of prayer and instruction for the disciples (who had already spent three years with Christ) to even begin their ministry in earnest (Acts 1-2). Yet when they did, their ministry had more “social” impact than any political movement before or after in history. When we look back at the witness in scripture, we do not see a replicable formula in their story, but the spirit of God guiding real decisions in concrete situations, and expanding his kingdom through concrete transformations of everyday life in the culture of that day (as in Acts 16:16-24). When we turn our efforts to the kingdom of God, allow the Holy Spirit to lead our decisions, and refuse to allow the world to limit the scope of Christ’s redeeming work, we are free.

“Seek first the kingdom of God and his righteousness, and all these things will be added to you.” “These things” include how the economy will affect the work we are able to find, how we will produce food, be clothed, and live our lives (realizing that life is “more than” this). These very things will be found in the pursuit of this kingdom, not in any amount of politicized notions of justice, freedom, community, or progress . Leave the illusions aside, and take this freedom offered!

The Need for an Anabaptist Political Theology

After reading this piece in Christianity today, a few things stuck out to me.

One is that I have a serious and deep suspicion that many fellow disciples are lacking a coherent set of principles guiding their decisions about how to engage with society. That is, if I were a betting man, I would place an inordinate sum of money on the wager that I could predict a Christian’s political views without knowing anything about their particular beliefs about Scripture. Why? Because we do a sloppy job of thinking through this issue in general, and because, as the article above shows, only 1% of theologically conservative Protestant Pastors have preached at least one sermon on a public policy issue in 2016. I don’t know if I would fall into that class if I were a pastor, but I certainly know plenty of pastors who would. How is that statistic possible when, at this particular juncture, almost all American Christians are going to be getting hammered with political opinion on issues that are not simply about “elections”, but about the intimate details of their daily lives from their workplace, schools, family, and culture at large? The answer, I think, is the lack of a political theology.

Kenneth Collins in his book “Power, Politics, and the Fragmentation of Evangelicalism” expresses this lack of a deeply integrated worldview for Christians in the present when compared with Christians in prior eras:

…traditional societies, medieval Christendom in Europe for example, were held together by the common ties of a carefully articulated political theology, with its robust belief in God, as well as by a philosophy of history that went back at least to the time of Augustine in his City of God….

Now, I strongly side with the Anabaptists of the 16th century, so I would unquestionably reject the medieval synthesis (as well as Collins’ own positions on this matter, though his book and analysis are excellent in many respects!), but what is to replace this? Catholicism has maintained its’ theological heritage on a synthesis of church, sword, and state (and has, to my knowledge, never taken an outrightly pacifist ethic) that, in my opinion, makes it untenable for the needs of the 21st century. Its’ ecclesiology is also still a far cry from the reforms called for from the dawn of Protestantism. Still, at least they have an idea of what they’re going for! What options do Protestant Christians, let’s say particularly in America today, have before them?

One option I see frequently expressed and say strongly “Not enough!”, is that Christians in a democratic state are free to engage with the political process, but they should not think that any particular way of ordering the society is better than any other. I might think we should help the poor by a just redistribution of taxes and government programs to alleviate fallen conditions of our society, and you think that our current structures of governance make it impossible to address the root causes of poverty and think that a laissez-faire market (one that is truly free, not the modern capitalist accommodation) would more quickly alleviate such issues. But, neither option is more “Christian”, because Christ never gave us a way of making these decisions. Yet, are we really supposed to think that Scripture-at-large has nothing to say about this question?

If there is no answer to this question, what makes it “unanswerable”? Take for example the more general question: “How can we best serve the poor?” Does scripture give us no ability to answer that? The two opinions I expressed above are possible answers to that question for any Christian. So, if scripture gives us any light on this, then it offers answers to questions which all the world would give”political” answers to, and so it is that scripture inevitably inserts itself into the social dimensions of earthly life, the “political” dimensions.

All of this is to say that the glib pronouncement of an “agreement to disagree” between Christians of all political persuasions will not move the Church further into its’ God-given kingdom mission. It will not stop laymen and laywomen from engaging, or not engaging, and it will not help them live more faithfully. What is needed is a deeper, consistent, radical call to a political theology informed by the New Testament. I have found this nowhere better expressed than by the Radical Reformers, and it is why I consider the writings of many 16th century Anabaptists to be a treasure trove for our modern predicament. In the next few months I hope to write more specifically on issues that are pressing in my particular, American, context, but thought that this general beginning is necessary to understand what kind of questions I’m thinking about.

…as Christ our Head is minded, so also must be minded the members of the body of Christ through Him, so that there be no division in the body, through which it would be destroyed. Since then Christ is as is written of Him, so must His members also be the same, so that His body may remain whole and unified for its own advancement and upbuilding. For any kingdom which is divided within itself will be destroyed.
Schleitheim Confession, 1527

Cheap Resurrection vs. Gratitude

In his Reaching Out, Henri Nouwen writes:

To the degree that we have been able to dispel our illusion of immortality and have come to the full realization of our fragile mortal condition, we can reach out in freedom to the creator and re-creator of life and respond to his gifts with gratitude.

The inverse of this is that we are unable to reach out and experience this re-creation if we are still living as though it is “a given” that our life is going to last forever. In-between Good Friday and Easter, there was no resurrection, and without facing that reality in our own lives, we will soon be celebrating a “Cheap Resurrection”, very much like a “Cheap Grace” that loses its’ reverence for the scandalous love of God. Later in that same work, Nouwen says: “The mystery of God’s presence, therefore, can be touched only by a deep awareness of his absence”.

Tomorrow, Christians celebrate, and rightly with deep joy. But do we really have deep joy? Does the Resurrection hit you with the visceral immediacy that such a ridiculous belief should? I suspect it’s the lack of owning up to our transient flesh and bones that prevents the same over-the-top response that the first apostles had. Let’s spend a few minutes remembering what the world was before Easter, laying down our defenses against seeing how small we are, so that the living Christ can fill us now with that same power that conquered the grave.

Reflection: Politics in the Kingdom

As a young adult inspired by the Radical Reformation, I’m still in-process of establishing certain compasses in my life. One that seems pressing however, is my engagement with this country’s political process. From the school board to the White House, the question seems like an important one where not taking a position is the same as a position. Unfortunately, it would be foolish, misunderstood, and a big waste of time, to simply say “what I’m for”, without clearing the deck. So, before I state the few fixed points that reflecting on that question as a follower of Jesus has lead me to, here are a few alternative postures towards politics that I have ruled-out:

1. Headlong: This is to believe that (whether you have a dispensational-apocolyptic eschatology or a mainline progressive one) until that end arrives, the Christian way  is to strenuously spend yourself in creating law structures in order for them to be conducive to human flourishing, or, if you’d like, justice.

2. Hands-off: To believe that we should quite simply obey the law of any land we find ourselves in, never engage political systems, and focus exclusively on witnessing to Christ’s love and salvation.

3. Halfway Here, Halfway There: This, to be honest, is the posture I’m trying to abandon. At its’ heart, it is to not have any comprehensive principles or guiding rules that dictate under what circumstance and in what ways a follower of Jesus should engage in social construction. It is a “nominal” approach, and will more than likely just result in the particular Christian reflecting the views that you would expect them to given their age, upbringing, and particular theological tradition.

For example, I’d expect a second generation Latin-American like myself, given my upbringing in a Spanish-speaking charismatic church, loose familiarity with Guatemala’s political history, and large parts of my education occurring in private evangelical schools, to track with what we call “political conservatives” on issues of personal morality, and to track with “progressives” on issues of economic and foreign policy. But it is almost a sure-fire sign of unfaithfulness when Christians largely fit the mold that any political statistician would predict for them. If the salt has lost its’ saltiness, how can it be made useful again? I invite you to be reflective on this point. A good indicator of whether this is true for you is simply to look around and see how many of your acquaintances largely say and believe the same things you do.

Now, why are these un-Christian postures towards politics anyway?

What I mean by un-Christian is simply that Christ would not live like that. If you’re a Christian (and I do believe this means more than just “act like Christ”, but that’s another post), then, according to the sense in which that word was first used, you should live like Jesus.

The first posture is un-Christian because, if we understand the nature of laws, Jesus gave it a de-construction: “my kingdom is not of this world [note that He did not say ‘is not in this world’], if it were, my servants would fight to prevent me from being handed over to the Jewish leaders”. If there was ever an injustice, it was Christ’s crucifixion, and if Christ bases the lack of his servants fighting against that injustice on the very source and nature of His kingdom, then no injustice can retrieve that kind of fight and justify it as kingdom-work. That fight, which in first-century Palestine was a fight that necessarily would have involved physical combat, is at the very basis of law. Put simply, the only way to enforce a government’s law, is with a gun at the hip. The most beautiful, just, rational law exists with the implicit clause “and if you disobey, you will be forced to comply or to endure the prescribed punishment”. Thus, to fight for a law as a Christian (which, if you’re a follower of Jesus, everything you do is as a Christian) is to fight in a way that Christ tied to the kingdoms “of this world”.

The second posture allows me to nuance the sense of “political”. While it is impossible for humans to live in community without any agreed-upon norms, systems of production, and mutual love (part of this is what politics is engaged in), it is not impossible for humans to live together without any designated individual or group of individuals having the authority of force to keep everyone in-line with the agreed-upon norm. This second posture assumes that the first rejection of “politics”, in the sense of attempting to rule-over, entails rejection of the pursuit of community. How we could do the latter without the former is what I hope to hint at. As a side note, this is also why an explicit commitment to pacifism in the church is important to me. The church is a community with an authority structure, one that could grow to the point that we use the same reasoning that sanctions state-force, in the church, or that only keeps the distinction in theory (as has happened many times in history).

The third posture would be exemplified by me in 2012. I was passionate about speaking against American military aggression and economic manipulation, and found these two passions reflected in the campaign of presidential candidate Ron Paul. Were there other aspects of his policies that may have conflicted with my understanding of Jesus’ teaching? Yes! Didn’t I think that Christian stances toward foreigners should be hospitality and not closed borders? Yes! But if those two issues were as important as I believed (and still believe) they were, then details aside, the point is I acted on the basis of pragmatics. “In an ideal world, maybe followers of Jesus would do such-and-such, but it’s not an ideal world, so there goes that”, so I thought. This third posture is perhaps the most frequent one I encounter.

What is the alternative here? I do not have a pat-answer, but here are a few things I have thought about for a long time now, and will live by them until convinced otherwise.

1) The Kingdom of God is not “of this world” but it is tangibly “in this world”, and this means that Christians should be wholly invested in their faith-family’s missions. Those missions should be wholly invested, in all-encompassing way, in creating a flourishing community via conversion, education, health, economics, et.al., without lobbying for the institution of any particular law. That is, just do the Great Commission remembering that Jesus said “teaching them to obey all I have commanded you”.

2) A tangible and effective way of engaging issues of justice is to undo, resist, and scale-back unjust and oppressive laws. There is a clear and definite distinction between creating and imposing a law, and abolishing a law. The abolishment of a law requires no “enforcement”, for obvious reasons. This would, perhaps, also justify reducing the severity of a laws demands.

While what I’ve said above runs very strongly against the grain of a large portion of “social justice” activism, and may even seem absurd when applied to certain problems. But it stands on actual ethical norms set by Christ, and the considerations I mentioned above seem clear as day to me. Still, they leave a huge arena of social-action open to the church, while preventing the church from taking the power of the state into its’ own hands. All this being said, I find great hope in the low-rumblings of Christians taking Anabaptist conceptions of the church, discipleship, and peace more seriously. This is a moment of opportunity that I pray the Spirit turns into a great movement in Christ’s church.

Christian Engagement in Elections: Interview with Ethicist Dr. David Gill

There are innumerable voices chiming-in on what/how/who to vote for, and on this “big” day in the election cycle it’s appropriate to take a few minutes to think deeply and critially bout what we’re doing if/when we engage in politics, especially if you claim to be a follower of Jesus. To this end, I interviewed Dr. David Gill, the Director of the Mockler Center and Mockler-Phillips Professor of Workplace Theology and Business Ethics at Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary. He is an expert in organizational ethics, helping businesses as an ethics consultant and trainer through EthixBiz, and is President of the International Jacques Ellul Society. Dr. Gill is the author of seven books, and you can find out more about all of his work at his website, davidwgill.org. I started with asking about Gill’s scholarly work on Sociologist Jacques Ellul, especially since Ellul held some radical views which, I think, should have more of an ear for Christians who take their faith seriously.

You’re the foremost scholar on Jacques Ellul’s work, and his writings on anarchy have been really interesting to me. For the sake of any reader’s not familiar with how that word could mean anything positive, how does Ellul define anarchy?

Ellul believes that the nation-state has become an idol, a false god to which people look for just about everything.  He believes that in the east and west, no matter what the ideology (Communist, Capitalist, Muslim, etc.) this is the case.  Thus “anarchism” — meaning resistance to the growth of the state (any state) — is the only serious position.   Most political activity is an “illusion” because it is all heat and no light, all propaganda but no real change in direction or daily life.   He is not an anarchist of the type wo believes in unshackling naturally “good” human beings.  No, people are sinful so there can be no naïve anarchist “Eden.”  He is a “realist”, not a utopian.  It is a strategic position, not an ideological one.   I think he has some good points but is too pessimistic.  The growth of the state is required by the growth of corporate economic and political power; a big state is needed to stand up to predatory capitalism.  But the big state is corrupted as well.

What connection does this idea have to Christian scripture?

Ellul thinks that the Bible counsels resistance to the authority of the earthly state in calling for absolute loyalty to the kingdom of God.

Does this idea inform your own perspective on politics? If so, how?

Yes.  I especially like to see local communities empowered to manage their own affairs.  Community policing, rejection of national educational standards etc. Most of what I consider my political life is in my neighborhood and local organization.  Still, unlike Ellul, I do vote.  I don’t expect much to change as a result but I am a voter sent by God into the world as it is, not as I would like it to be.  I try to vote for candidates and laws that care for my fellow citizens.  I do not have a politics of illusion, or fear, or violence.

As this presidential election cycle heats up, the typical perspectives among Christians on politics inevitably surface. Some think that we should launch ourselves headlong into the foray, others simply disengage, how do you think Christians should engage with elections in particular?

Jacques Ellul thought that it was inevitable and even in some ways desirable that Christians would be in all political movements and parties — but that we should always be there not as their “Amen corner” but as representatives of the Kingdom of God.  I agree.

I came across an essay you wrote in 2008 on “Political Illusions and Realities“, where you said “the actual directions of our society and world are set by…deeper forces of technique, bureaucratization, the globalizing-technological-corporate economic order, the desperate search for survival, social order, and meaning by Islamic societies, and so on.” Which of these forces do you see most at the forefront in America today? 

I think American politics are almost entirely captured by big money expressed in campaign contributions and propaganda playing on people’s fear and ignorance.

How does that play into the way Christians engage with elections (if at all)?

Resist candidates who want to keep the status quo on campaign finance and gerrymandered districts. Read widely and deeply, not just the propaganda machines of particular candidates.

Besides elections, how can, or should, Christians engage with the political process?

(By) Local initiatives and organization for economic development, education, etc.  Also we should constantly teach the value system of the Bible.

That idea that we should “teach the value system of the Bible”, could be taken to endorse wildly different candidates and values. What do you see as essential values that should inform Christian engagement?

I mean to teach the Decalogue and the Sermon on the Mount and Romans 12-13 — three very comprehensive frameworks.  I discuss the ethics of the Decalogue in my book Doing Right. Of course we also learn from the didactic teaching, the wisdom literature the prophets, etc the parables.  My concern is that it is not just a different CONTENT that comes in Scripture but a different process and framework than that coming from the European Enlightenment.

As we engage in this way, what is your perspective on the ultimate end of human society, what theologians might call “Eschatology”? Are Christians trying to preserve society from self-destruction until Christ’s return? Are we hoping to “usher-in” an actual society under God’s rule before that, or something else?

I believe in the literal, imminent return of Christ.  I am agnostic about most of the other details.   I believe our ethics should be eschatological in the sense that we live “as in the day” as much as possible (Rom 13:11-14).

Many of the Christian circles I’m acquainted with, what I would broadly call “Neo-Evangelicals”, have abandoned the idea of “endorsing” candidates from the pulpit. What role does the church have to play in elections?  

I am appalled at the way so many white evangelicals have come out for the neo-Fascist Trump, the political ignorant Carson, and the obstructionist Cruz.  Carson and Cruz are Christians though I do not admire or share much of there political position.  Trump is a sleezy, self-centered, pagan oaf whose business career is not a success story.  But no, I do not like it when Black churches welcome candidates into their pulpits and endorse them.  The church should stick to biblically expressed values and prayer — and challenge the congregation to study, discuss, and pray to decide on their votes and actions.

 

Christians & Muslims Worshipping the Same God

The suspension of a professor from Wheaton College for wearing a hijab, and stating online that Christians and Muslims “worship the same God”, generated a lot of news a few days ago, and, being my typical slow-to-read-the-news self, I’m just getting around to seeing exactly what is being said. So, I want to just offer one or two things that I haven’t seen anywhere else, and will provide a few links for others to read the full arguments I address here. But first, a quick caveat, since this whole conversation has been fused together with discussion of the politics of the “Christian Right”.

As a Christian, I believe that we are called to love our enemies. Further, my understanding of the revelation of God in Jesus Christ makes it impossible to justify violence against any human being, for any reason, even (or especially, considering the cross) self-defense (sorry, not the place for me to nuance this). Politically, I’m neither liberal, nor conservative, and, being totally transparent, I probably fit in better with the politics of the Amish than any other social group (ok, slight exaggeration, but explaining this would be a whole other post!). So, this being said, my interest here has more to do with the theology being tossed around.

The big question being asked is whether or not Christians and Muslims worship the same God. Professor Larycia Hawkins, in the post which resulted in her suspension, linked people to this article on Christianity Today where Theologian Miroslav Volf discusses his work on just this question. In that article, many years old now, Dr. Volf actually explicitly says that “all Christians don’t worship the same God, and all Muslims don’t worship the same God”, but rather “Muslims and Christians who embrace the normative traditions of their faith refer to the same object, to the same Being, when they pray, when they worship, when they talk about God. The referent is the same.” What exactly this means is well elaborated on by Benjamin Corey on his blog:

describing an object differently doesn’t mean that two people are describing two totally different objects. For example, let’s say Jane and Henry both work for a guy named Jeff. Jane says that Jeff is a decent boss who treats people fairly. Henry on the other hand, describes Jeff as being lazy and unavailable. The two people may be describing Jeff differently, and one or both of them might be wrong in their understanding of Jeff, but they’re still attempting to describe the same object.

So far, so good. The issue, which I think Scot McKnight defines more clearly, is that Volf in his book does contend that Christians and Muslims actually do worship the same God, by way of the premise that “our worship reveals our God”, and that “to the extent that God’s commands express God’s character, Muslims and Christians worship the same God”. Volf lists six points of agreement and concludes that “When Christians and Muslims agree on the above six claims about God, then in their worship of God they refer to the same object” Those six points are:

1. There is only one God.
2. God is creator.
3. God is radically different.
4. God is good.
5. God commands we love God.
6. God commands we love others.

My additions to this discussion is relatively short, but I think poignant.

First, Volf’s entire purpose, much of his life’s work as a theologian, is done with a drive to promote peace and inter-religious dialogue, and to do that as a Christ-follower. By finding mutual ground, he hopes to discourage the kind of revengeful spirit in which Christians all too often reflect the values of our culture, and help Christians live faithfully in an age where religious pluralism is a fact of life. In this endeavor, he is to be commended. Yet, in the claim that “Christians and Muslims worship the same God”, what may be sensed as lacking is that Christianity is not just worship, it is union with God. “Worship”, as it is being used in this discussion, is a human activity, and implies nothing about God’s responsiveness or attitude towards it.

To be a Christian is not simply to believe certain propositions about God, and then to conduct certain rituals to honor that God, and to live in a certain way.  As a “Neo-Anabaptist”, I certainly believe that it necessarily involves this. But, we do not rest on the degree to which we are theologically accurate; Christianity is thoroughly existential and relational, it presupposes that this God acts in the world, and towards individuals in such a way as to transform the inner life any who has put their trust in Him. This only happens by the power of the Holy Spirit, and we receive the Holy Spirit only by faith in Jesus Christ. To be a Christian is to be in a dynamic relationship with the Trinity.

So, while I essentially agree with Volf’s purpose, and even the contours of his argument, what I would add is that this does not remove the need for evangelistic zeal, or the need for apologetic debate with Muslims. Nor does it imply that Jews and Muslims are in a saving relationship with the God of the universe. Some may be, but this blog post is already longer than anticipated so soteriology is not the direction I want to go right now. Perhaps that is what many in this discussion are also trying to correct, the misconception that Christians must necessarily believe that every individual since 33 AD who has followed Jesus Christ as Lord is destined for damnation. If so, I think there more theologically honest ways of clearing that up than the broad statement that all monotheists worship the “same” God.

Does God Suffer, pt. 2: Insight From Early Christian Martyrs

The next few posts on this topic will take a look at the Christian “Apologists” of the 2nd century, and their heirs. Did the early Church (specifically in the first three centuries after Christi) speak of God’s ability or inability, to suffer, and if so, what did they have to say about it?

In our earliest accounts of Christian martyrs, Christ is said to suffer with the martyr, and “gives the power to withstand torture”[1] Paul Gavrilyuk contrasts this with Philosopher Alfred North Whitehead’s description of God as a “fellow-sufferer who understands”, saying that Whitehead’s description is of a God who merely suffers with-us, but is powerless to do anything about this suffering. While this is a somewhat accurate implication of Whitehead’s philosophy, there is a synthesis of these two points that I think is worth spelling out. There is a Trinitarian involvement with the suffering of believers. As several passages in scripture point out, we are recipients of Christ’s resurrection as a corollary of our participation in his sufferings and death.[2] We experience unity with Christ in this process. The Holy Spirit fills us with power to endure, and one can imagine the strength experienced by martyrs, such as Felicitas, as the Father’s response to the suffering of one of his children.

Felicitas was a second century Christian martyred for her faith in what is now France during a local persecution of Christians by the Roman Empire. Before her gruesome death she is recorded as making the bold assertion: “another will be in me who will suffer for me”. Gavrilyuk, representing a more classical understanding that God does not suffer, interprets Felictas assertion this way:

“the early Christian theology of martyrdom offers the insight that Christ’s suffering (in the qualified sense of providing power to endure persecution to those who suffer for his sake) extends beyond…the incarnation…”[3](emphasis mine)

Howeer, that caveat in parentheses does not seem to do full justice to that bold assertion of Felicitas, or the testimony of the Sanctus, another early Christian martyr at Lyons, who claimed that “Christ, suffering in him, manifested his glory, delivering him from his adversary” (emphasis mine).[4] To suffer almost in no way naturally implies to provide power, unless we are flatly re-defining suffering. It seems more likely that these early Christians simply believed that Christ would take-on their suffering, and that He was able to do this without being overcome by it.

While I do not live under threat of death for my faith, there are large numbers of Christians in the world who do. The volatile embodiment of Islam in ISIS has reminded many Christians that religious toleration is not a permanent situation across the globe, and that organization’s attacks on modern democracies in Europe are clearly stoking fear (not altogether irrational) that we will soon be on the receiving end of this networks violence if our government does not act. I think a proper theology of God’s ability to suffer without being overcome can provide strength and courage for this country’s Christians. In the crucifixion, we are provided with the framework for understanding that the Son’s suffering will result in victory; and our own suffering for his name will do the same. The early martyrs seem to have an underlying assumption that while Christ called his disciples to take up their cross, it is only if He Himself carried the suffering that they would endure without recanting their faith.

[1] Gavrilyuk, The Suffering of the Impassible God, 73

[2] ibid., 71, footnote 27. Specifically Phil. 3:10, 2 Cor. 4:10

[3] ibid., 73

[4] Martyrs of Lyons. Coakley and Sterk, 26

My Veteran’s Day Prayer

Father,

You know my heart, you discern if there is any wicked way in me, and I ask that you would use this prayer in the growth of your kingdom, in the war which you have won against death, against the devil, war, and against every stronghold that lifts itself up against the knowledge of your Son.

Forgive me for not seeking out veteran’s to serve, lead me to more of them. Forgive me for judgmental attitudes towards them, I ask you would give me a heart of flesh to minister to them, and for those that have suffered, to share in their suffering.  Give me eyes to see and ears to hear how I can do this. Holy Spirit, I pray you would be working in me to be Christ’s hands and feet.

Forgive me for my greed, for my love of comfort, for my gluttony, for my laziness, for my lust, for my foolishness, for my pride, even for my fear of death, which now has no power over me. Forgive me for the sins which support the systems of this world, which support this worldly “way of life” and enable rulers to leverage it for purposes of war. Forgive me for my hypocrisy, for speaking out against war in my words but participating in the glorification of it with my actions.

Forgive me for my cowardice, and for not speaking out more frequently against the lie that the violence of war can be good and honorable. I ask you would grant me humility and willingness as I stand on this conviction, and wisdom to speak as your disciple. I pray you would use my life more than my words. I pray my actions would be weapons for peace, for the expansion of your Kingdom.

I ask you would especially minister to those veteran’s whose pain is unseen, who suffer mentally from committing deeds which our culture says are honorable and praiseworthy, but their consciences refuse to rest with. I pray you would wash over them with your forgiveness and hope, with the knowledge that all have sinned, we have all committed treason against you, but that you see the darkest parts of all our hearts, and say to us in that place “I love you.” Compell your church to meet the needs of the millions of veteran’s who are not fed, who are hungry, and dejected. I pray you would move us to action and not to wait for a government to provide for the least of these.

I also pray for those veteran’s who do not suffer from physical or mental illness, that have moved on and are living among us in healthy, whole lives. I pray they would serve your kingdom first, and see their allegiance as being to you, your global kingdom, not to their country or to their earthly co-citizens. Grant them the willingness to follow you faithfully. I pray for those veteran’s who are currently in the service, that you would redeem their actions, use them for good despite the ends to which our governments employ them. I ask you would bring peace to those places where our government is asking some to shed blood, give veteran’s in those positions a willingness to refrain from such actions, even if it’s costly.

I pray your kingdom would come on earth as it is in heaven. Come quickly, Lord Jesus.