We are so afraid of silence that we chase ourselves from one event to the next in order not to have to spend a moment alone with ourselves, in order not to have to look at ourselves in the mirror.
– Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Meditating on the Word
American Christianity–especially American Evangelicalism–has a love affair with war, guns, ‘freedom,’ and the military. Christians in America are historically very supportive of our military, our various interventions around the globe, and all things pro-gun-related. This support is manifested in Evangelicals’ love for patriotic church services, their admiration and gratitude for those in the Armed Forces, their consistent support of hawkish political leaders, and their outspoken support of the NRA and other Second Amendment groups.
All this may sound great, but there’s a problem. The more I have traveled around the globe and interacted with Christians in other nations; however, the more I have consistently and sincerely been asked, “Why?”
Christians in other places around the world are not nearly so infatuated with war, guns, and violence (political or personal). In fact, many of them loathe such things and cannot fathom why American Christians believe and act like we do. They believe that war is antithetical to Christianity, that violence begets violence, and that “all who take the sword will perish by the sword” (Mt 26.52, ESV). In short, their views are much the opposite of our own.
How can this be?
I think the answer lies more in the theology of American Exceptionalism than it does in the pages of Scripture. In his famous sermon, A Model of Christian Charity, Puritan John Winthrop first proclaimed the notion that America was somehow different, unique, and under the special watch care of God. While still on the seas from England, he taught his fellow passengers:
God Almighty, in his most holy and wise providence, has so disposed of the condition of’ mankind, as in all times some must be rich, some poor; some high and eminent in power and dignity; others mean and in submission…
From this beginning, Winthrop went on to encourage his shipmates in ways they might practically take care of one another, provide for one another, and forgive one another that their great journey of faith might be a successful one. Their success was important, because the world was watching, just as Egypt was watching Moses and the Hebrews when they were taken out to the wilderness:
We must consider that we shall be as a city upon a hill. The eyes of all people are upon us. So that if we shall deal falsely with our God in this work we have undertaken, and so cause him to withdraw his present help from us, we shall be made a story and a by-word through the world. We shall open the mouths of enemies to speak evil of the ways of God, and all professors for God’s sake. We shall shame the faces of many of God’s worthy servants, and cause their prayers to be turned into curses upon us till we be consumed out of the good land whither we are a going.
Winthrop’s idea of America as occupier of a special place in the heart and plan of God runs deep in the American DNA. Jesus’ phrase about the ‘city on a hill’ has been invoked by Presidents Wilson, Kennedy, Clinton, Reagan, Bush (43), and Obama as evidence of America’s uniqueness in the world. And what is popular in the secular realm of politics is even more strongly emphasized and believed in American Evangelical churches, where American biblical heritage and our direct blessing by God are routine talking points–especially in election years.
With this in mind, doesn’t it only make sense that American Christians would believe and act the way they do? If America is indeed specially blessed and endowed by God as rich and powerful, doesn’t that translate into enforcing our version of liberty and justice for all around the world? If America’s heritage has been enabled (dare I say guaranteed) by its indelible roots in faith, family, and guns (a la Duck Dynasty), doesn’t a faithful Christian family need that same American trinity? If America’s foreign policy is deeply influenced by Christian ethicist Richard Land and those of his ilk, who single-handedly redefined the Just War tradition to include pre-emptive wars, isn’t America’s warmongering heritage morally defensible?
No. No. No. And NO!
America is a great nation. There is nowhere I’d rather live. But we are far from perfect. American Christians, my brothers and sisters in Christ, it’s time to seriously rethink some things many of us take for granted as right, reasonable, and true. Our views on these things conflict with those of our brothers and sisters around the world. More than this, our views conflict with those taught by our Lord Jesus whom we claim to follow above all else.
Kyrie eleison. Christe eleison. Kyrie eleison.
justifiedandsinner has some remarkable thoughts on luxury, simplicity, and our idols to ring in the new year. They are hard words to read but ones we must nonetheless take to heart:
The Gospel that talks of our being freed from idolatry, as we are united with Christ, as we walk with Him. As we put things into an eternal perspective and we don’t cling to that which can be destroyed, When we realize that freed from such economic idols, we can show love to those who are our neighbors, without evaluating the economic impact on us and our family. The gospel that exchanges false gods for a God who comes to us, setting aside His riches, because of the love He has for us, who were not part of His family, but now are.
Such a detachment isn’t easy, we like being comfortable, we enjoy our flat screens and cars, we like seeing the work of hands rewarded with accomplishments and being assured that everything will be there. But now we are going back to valuing an idol more than a real God. It’s hard for me, even as I write this, to not hear it speaking to me. To find oneself detached from things, and freer to love and to care and to serve. Able to use the resources God gives us, for that which would being Him glory, as we live like Christ. It doesn’t change our work ethic, in fact, knowing we can help others may drive us to work harder, sacrificing more as we see the eternal rewards of people coming to know God’s love. It is a higher calling a higher purpose, a reason to invest ourselves in, this detachment that frees us from idols, and helps us imitate Christ as we find ourselves putting others before ourselves.
I encourage you to read the rest here.
At that time the Roman emperor, Augustus, decreed that a census should be taken throughout the Roman Empire. (This was the first census taken when Quirinius was governor of Syria.) All returned to their own ancestral towns to register for this census. And because Joseph was a descendant of King David, he had to go to Bethlehem in Judea, David’s ancient home. He traveled there from the village of Nazareth in Galilee. He took with him Mary, his fiancée, who was now obviously pregnant. And while they were there, the time came for her baby to be born. She gave birth to her first child, a son. She wrapped him snugly in strips of cloth and laid him in a manger, because there was no lodging available for them.
That night there were shepherds staying in the fields nearby, guarding their flocks of sheep. Suddenly, an angel of the Lord appeared among them, and the radiance of the Lord’s glory surrounded them. They were terrified, but the angel reassured them. “Don’t be afraid!” he said. “I bring you good news that will bring great joy to all people. The Savior – yes, the Messiah, the Lord – has been born today in Bethlehem, the city of David! And you will recognize him by this sign: You will find a baby wrapped snugly in strips of cloth, lying in a manger.” Suddenly, the angel was joined by a vast host of others – the armies of heaven – praising God and saying,
“Glory to God in highest heaven,
and peace on earth to those with whom God is pleased.”
O God, You make this most holy night to shine with the brightness of the true Light. Grant that as we have known the mysteries of that Light on earth we may also come to the fullness of His joys in heaven; through the same Jesus Christ, Your Son, our Lord, who lives and reigns with You and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and forever. Amen.
(Lutheran Service Book)
Two high-profile events events occurring within a week of one another demonstrate an utter lack of contemporary American Christianity’s ability to grasp the whole of scripture and get beyond the culture-war-focused, civic religion that passes for authentic faith is so many conservative American congregations.
Unless you live under a rock, you are well aware of the controversial comments Duck Dynasty’s Phil Robertson made about homosexuality during a recent article for GQ magazine. He was subsequently suspended indefinitely (and potentially ‘un-suspended’ depending on what news you read). The ensuing cacophony from the left–about Robertson’s intolerance–and the right–about free speech and the left’s intolerance–has filled my news reader and my wife’s Facebook feed ever since. High-profile conservative Christians are supporting his stance for traditional values in the press. Lower-profile bloggers are echoing the same all over the blogosphere. No surprises.
My thoughts? I agree that homosexuality is sinful–you really have to do some scripture twisting to get around that. Robertson has an American right to say what he thinks about that subject or any other. Should he expect to be warmly welcomed by the masses or retained by a secular employer for saying such things? Of course not–the bible is pretty plain about that too. Why are Christians all up in arms over this? Isn’t this exactly the reaction you’d expect from a secular employer and secular media in a secular nation? If not, please explain.
A few days earlier, a US drone attack in Yemen mistook a wedding party for an al-Qaida convoy and killed 14-17 civilians while injuring almost two dozen more. These folks were all non-combatants whose lives were wrongly taken or forever affected by a US foreign policy that operates with questionable tactics and carries out military attacks in nations against whom we are not at war (see my dissertation on the subject here in case you’re not paying attention). What has been the reaction from the same very-vocal Christian masses about this event? Crickets. Nothing. Nada. Silence.
Tell me, fellow Christians, why is that? Isn’t the bible clear on its teaching about murder? Doesn’t this same sacred text that speaks against homosexuality as sinful devote a whole lot more space to issues of justice? Shouldn’t Christians be much more outraged by the death of nearly a dozen and a half people than the job prospects of one person in Louisiana? Are we so blinded by unquestioning patriotism that we fail to stand up for injustices committed by our own hands? Where is our reaction? Why the deafening stillness?
Perhaps it is our outrage over the former and shocking silence over the latter that has contributed to Christianity’s perceived irrelevance in contemporary society. Perhaps if we quit squawking ceaselessly about our token pet issues and took a strong stand against issues of greater importance, Christians might be taken a bit more seriously. Perhaps we should stop singing “Proud to be an American” in worship services and develop a faith that was rooted more firmly on Christ and not as myopic, self-centered, and blindly-nationalistic as much of our contemporary American faith.
Perhaps…no, not perhaps, with absolute certainty, Christ would be better served if we truly understood and cared about the whole of scripture and not routinely neglect matters of justice, mercy, and faithfulness.
Just my thoughts. Rant concluded.
I have not written anything in days. My mind is racing, eager to write but prevented by my own stubbornness. Why? My calendar is packed, as we have two family birthdays and Christmas celebrations in the next seven days. It doesn’t take much time to write, but it does take some…and that precious “some” is what I have been unwilling to yield. And for what? Marginally more available time in the day to cram full of other things? Hardly a good or reasonable answer.
As with any habit, the further away you get from the last time you practiced it, the easier it is to put off yet again. Skip the gym for one day, and it’s easy to get back to it. Skip the gym for a month or so, and it’s nearly impossible to regain your momentum and drive. So it is with writing, reading, family worship, and (fill in the blank).
And so today I write, even if only to write about my lack of writing.
I look forward to taking time away from everything else to write for a few moments each day. I treasure the opportunity as a time to pause, release, and recharge before jumping back into the stream of busyness that surrounds this time of year. The feeling is a distant second to times of prayer and bible reading, but for those who are familiar with this sort of rejuvenation–as I assume many of you are–writing for me is similar. A time to listen. A time to think. A time to create.
Let this exercise today be an encouragement to keep good habits nearby where they may be nurtured and enjoyed, practiced and honed, kept alive and even strengthened. If you want to develop the habit of writing, write. To develop the habit of prayer, pray. To develop any habit, do it…and continue doing it until it becomes part of who you are. Then, when life derails your practice, it is easier to get back to the routine.
The price of anything is the amount of life you exchange for it.
– Henry David Thoreau
Where reason is indignant, where our nature rebels, where our piety anxiously keeps us away: that is precisely where God loves to be. There he confounds the reason of the reasonable; there he aggravates our nature, our piety–that is where he wants to be, and no one can keep him from it. Only the humble believe him and rejoice that God is so free and so marvelous that he does wonders where people despair, that he takes what is little and lowly and makes it marvelous. And that is the wonder of all wonders, that God loves the lowly…God is not ashamed of the lowliness of human beings. God marches right in. He chooses people as his instruments and performs his wonders where one would least expect them. God is near to lowliness; he loves the lost, the neglected, the unseemly, the excluded, the weak and broken.
This single paragraph by Bonhoeffer contains so many deep truths about God, it requires reading slowly, thoughtfully, and more than once. In it, hope is born of the ashes of anguish; self-righteousness is destroyed; arrogance is dashed on the rocks of humility; and everything our culture trumpets about what we ought to be and whom we ought to honor is proven false.
Bonhoeffer’s words drip with the sweet truths of the Gospel. In the midst of our brokenness, God is for us. In the midst of our loneliness, God is with us. In the mist of our weakness, God is our strength. In the midst of our rejection, God loves us.
To the proud and self-exalted, these words are senseless. To those who ‘have it all together,’ such talk is foolishness. To the rest of us, however, these words are a balm to the soul.
Praise the Lord!
For he has heard my cry for mercy.
The Lord is my strength and shield.
I trust him with all my heart.
He helps me, and my heart is filled with joy.
I burst out in songs of thanksgiving. (Ps 28.6-7, NLT)
Part of the wonder of Advent is meditating on the mystery of our God…or perhaps I should say, our mysterious God. As much as the systematic theologians want to smooth out all the wrinkles of Scripture and theology to present us a God who is tidy, neatly-packaged, and predictable, God will have nothing of it. In reality, if we’re honest, Scripture is not so easily handled and God is not always so easily understood.
The whole revelation of the bible presents us with a God who makes a habit of acting quite differently than we might expect. God likes to choose the younger over the older, the unfortunate over the privileged, the poor over the wealthy, the unlearned over the scholar, the despised over the celebrity…again and again he does this. As Bonhoeffer points out:
God travels wonderful ways with human beings, but he does not comply with the views and opinions of people. God does not go the way that people want to prescribe for him; rather, his way is beyond all comprehension, free and self-determined beyond all proof.
Perhaps the ultimate theological curve ball God throws us is the incarnation, Christ’s taking on of humanity, deity becoming humanity. As if this weren’t enough of a theological problem, this whole business is compounded by God’s decision to be born in an out of the way village, not the cultural center of the Mediterranean. He comes as a son born to an unwed mother and lowly carpenter, not as royalty or celebrity. He is born among sleeping livestock, not in a palatial or even well-decorated nursery. God calls attention to this most incredible miracle by announcing it to shepherds, not to theologians or mega-church pastors or best-selling authors.
In other words, in the eyes of the world (and maybe quite a few of his own people) God gets it all wrong…again. Yet in actuality, in his own mysterious way, God of course gets everything exactly right. In Eugene Peterson’s words:
The wonder [of Christmas] keeps us open-eyed, expectant, alive to life that is always more than we can account for, that always exceeds our calculations, that is always beyond anything we can make.
Keep the wonder alive. Look for the unexpected. Revel in the mystery and glory of God.