Thursday, December 7, 2017

Dubious eschatology: Missing the point of "prophecy"

This week President Trump officially declared that Jerusalem was the true capital of Israel, indicating that, among other things, the American embassy in Israel would be moved there from Tel Aviv, though no timetable has been set. Of course, that move has pleased pro-Israel Christian dispensationalists, who for decades have argued passionately for that recognition as a fulfillment of prophecy.

And I’m not convinced that it’s biblically correct.

The thinking is, among other things, that a return of the Jewish people to that part of Palestine would result in the long-prophesied bodily return of Jesus Christ. But I see several flaws in that thinking.

Let’s remember that God promised Israel could remain in the Promised Land so long as it continued to worship Him “in spirit and in truth.” Indeed, part of its founding was that, according to Genesis 18:18-19, “Abraham will surely become a great and powerful nation, and all nations on earth will be blessed through him. For I have chosen him, so that he will direct his children and his household after him to keep the way of the Lord by doing what is right and just, so that the Lord will bring about for Abraham what he has promised him.” Read that again — “all nations on earth will be blessed through him.” And that promise would be based on the obedience of his descendants.

But even a cursory look at the Old Testament, most notably the Prophets, would show that ancient Israel didn’t follow through and God as a result sent the nation into captivity a number of times. Indeed, by the time Jesus arrived on the scene only two of the landowning tribes, Judah and Benjamin, were still left.

And even here, God never demanded ethnic purity. One often-overlooked reason Jesus overturned the tables of the merchants in the temple was because they were set up in the Court of the Gentiles, the idea of which violated Isaiah 56:7, which He quoted: “My house will be called a house of prayer for all nations.” (That’s likely why He added, “But you have made it a den of robbers.”)

In the days of the early church, of course, it took some prodding for the Jewish members to accept Gentiles; refer to Peter’s vision of the unclean foods. And even Jesus disciples didn’t get it, asking Him in Acts 1:6, “Lord, are you at this time going to restore the kingdom to Israel?” He responded, in effect, “None of your business.”

I do understand that some Orthodox Jews regard the modern state of Israel as illegitimate because they believe that its establishment won’t occur until the Messiah comes.

But let’s remember one thing about “prophecy”: It’s about declaring the intent of God, not necessarily predicting future events; indeed, the prophetic books, including Revelation, have always been more “Get it right!” than “Here’s what the future holds.” That’s why I’m suspicious of any attempt to say “This-and-this must happen for Jesus to return” — doing so misses the big picture.

Wednesday, November 22, 2017

Partisanship: It’s always been that way

President Donald Trump has all but thrown his support to Roy Moore, the twice-ousted former judge in Alabama who is now running for the Senate seat vacated by now-U.S. Attorney General Jeff Sessions. Given that Moore is now facing charges that, as a much younger man, he had been involved with underage girls; and the ongoing #metoo movement that has highlighted sexual harassment, a lot of angry folks are asking if the strong Christian support for Moore was based solely on, shall we say, his “tribal” identity as a Republican.

But here’s something that folks don’t often understand: It’s always been that way, going back decades — and I’m talking about the early 1980s.

With the exception of a church I attended in suburban Atlanta in 1980, my brushes with the “religious right” took place generally on Christian media, which was pretty hard-right and very supportive of modern conservatism and, in practice, the Republican Party. The "700 Club’s" Pat Robertson had guests on his show that I knew not to be “born again” but were there to support that worldview. The Rev. Charles Stanley, then and now pastor of the First Baptist Church of Atlanta (and whose “In Touch” radio broadcasts I’ve listened to for years), once said, “God isn’t a Republican or a Democrat — and He certainly isn’t a Democrat!” Stanley, by the way, was involved from the beginning with the late Moral Majority.

In 1992 I attended the opening of the campaign office for Bill Clinton’s first presidential campaign, which was covered on television; I ended up doing a little bit of volunteer work (though I wouldn’t do so today). Not long after that, one of the women in the singles ministry at the church I attend today who saw me said she was shocked to see me there, saying, “I thought all Christians were Republicans!” In fact, no — most African-American evangelicals are still Democrats because the conservatism that dominates the GOP is odious to most of us.

Let’s move to Clarence Thomas and Bill Clinton.

When the former was up for Supreme Court justice law professor Anita Hill testified during his hearing about his sexual harassment. There was more, however: ABC News “Nightline” mentioned three other women set to testify and the Wall Street Journal published a front-page story, “Strange Justice,” that corroborated such claims; in his book “Blinded by the Right: The Conscience of an Ex-Conservative,” then right-wing journalist David Brock said that Ricky Silberman, one of Thomas’ patrons, responded angrily, “He did it, didn’t he?”

Brock, by contrast, was part of the right-wing media conspiracy, the subject of the book, to take down Clinton, who never has been credibly charged with rape or sexual harassment; indeed, we’d have never even heard of Monica Lewinsky had it not been for Linda Tripp, who worked in the White House, hated him with a passion and got together with “independent counsel” Ken Starr and lawyers for Paula Jones and cooked up the illegal perjury trap that led to Clinton’s impeachment. Should he have resigned? I don’t think so, because it was a setup. In fact, I’d say that his enemies should have done time. And there are many more examples besides.

The book of Ecclesiastes mentions, “There’s nothing new under the sun.” If you think that today’s hyper-partisanship is new, I can assure you that you haven’t been paying attention.

Wednesday, November 15, 2017

Empathy, not 'race'

The internet and some social media have been buzzing over a New York Times op-ed, “Can My Children Be Friends With White People?”, that was published on Sunday. The author, Ekow N. Yankah, a professor at the Benjamin N. Cardozo School of Law at Yeshiva University, I assume is of African heritage. A number of supporters of President Donald Trump were outraged by the statement, that we as a nation are being dragged backwards. 

But the point that Yankah is making is not about race per se; it’s about empathy. And on that score I think he’s right.

Indeed, he wrote, “Real friendship is impossible without the ability to trust others, without knowing that your well-being is important to them. The desire to create, maintain or wield power over others destroys the possibility of friendship. The Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s famous dream of black and white children holding hands was a dream precisely because he realized that in Alabama, conditions of dominance made real friendship between white and black people impossible.” 

In other words, he’s not talking about casual friendships where people drink beer, watch sports or in some cases even worship in the same church together. It’s about being able to let one’s hair down and share his or her stories and experiences without being judged or attacked for holding a different point of view.
And as a person of color I would agree that Trump, with his longstanding and documented decades-long racist practices, anti-Muslim and anti-Mexican rhetoric during last year’s presidential campaign and tacit support of white supremacists marching in Charlottesville, Va. over the summer, has indeed made race relations more difficult by sabotaging the hard conversations needed to repair the breach. 
At the turn of the millennium I was dating a white woman who wanted to marry me but for us as a couple and family — she had three sons from previous marriages — to attend the church that was across the street from her (that was precisely why she chose that church). The trouble was that on a visit I noticed some literature that one of her sons was bringing home that I suspected that was racist, which turned out to be the case; over time I had other experiences that demonstrated to me at least the insensitivity of church members, including another son, when it came to such matters and because I refused to attend that church and she wouldn’t leave the relationship ended up being destroyed.
But when I shared these situations with some people I knew to be Trump supporters I was told, “You were looking for it.” Oh, no, I wasn’t, and that’s the kind of disrespect I’m talking about — the kind of disrespect that causes folks to label "Black Lives Matter" falsely as a hate group and former San Francisco 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick as being divisive for protesting police brutality for "taking a knee" last year during the national anthem, which isn't remotely true either.
One thing I have been privileged to hear over the last three decades is the incessant pain some women friends (and, in some cases, girlfriends) have shared with me over being sexually abused, including raped. Since I’m not a woman I cannot myself enter into that pain, but I can show empathy toward them and like to think I’ve done so. Nearly eight years ago, a singer in one of my bands shared with me some of the details of her abuse, which was why she was in the area in the first place, and I felt the need to tell her in response, “I will never lay my hand against you.”
She responded, “I didn’t think you would.” I can’t tell you how that felt — knowing that I had truly heard someone not like me. 
You see, it’s not enough simply to say that you don’t support racist behavior or have friends of color. They need to hear that you’ll go to the mat with them when push comes to shove, that when an incident happens to them or they feel threatened you’ll stand with them.
As the Rev. R. Loren Sandford, pastor of New Song Church and Ministries in Denver, wrote to white Christians in about the George Zimmerman verdict in 2013, “[L]isten compassionately to the hurt delivered by the lingering taint of racism with which our nation still struggles. Nothing can be done now about the verdict, but we can certainly work to bring reconciliation in the wake of it. In fact, this is our commission from Jesus who is Lord of all — Jew, Greek, white, black, Hispanic, Asian and Native American. We must be ministers of reconciliation together, especially now.”

Thursday, October 26, 2017

The immiment revival, part 10 — speaking out for the powerless

The irony in white evangelicals’ support of Donald Trump for president last year is that he promised to protect them from persecution — especially since they’ve complained about that since, as I recall, the 1980s. I say that because if they ever spoke out against him they’ll find themselves on the wrong end of persecution.

How do we know this? Well, given that former San Francisco 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick is a Christian, a large number of players in the National Football League share that faith and Trump referred to those who “took a knee” during the playing of the national anthem to protest police brutality as “[S.O.B.]s” “that should be fired,” it’s clear to me that cultural supremacy, not even “religious freedom,” was always their intent. But in doing so they’ve sacrificed their witness and, even more ironically, weakened themselves spiritually in the process.

The reason for that might surprise you: They’re ignoring Jesus’ second great commandment “Love your neighbor as yourself” — or, as I paraphrase it, “Do right by all.” That in practice can mean standing up and speaking up for the powerless in society and allow them to tell their stories, which is never popular with power-hungry despots and their allies.

Many in the Jewish community have always done this because they have personal and historical experience with such persecution, as did the early church, much of which was on the run — but membership grew exponentially. Sounds to me that the church grew because of the persecution, and not just in numbers, either.

I can only conject on this, but it seems to me that the spiritually strongest church we’ve ever seen in this country was the historic black church in the South during the 1950s and ‘60s that birthed the civil-rights movement, which was born from prayer and revival meetings. You need to be spiritually strong to put up with what it did with all the direct action and protests that proved fatal to many of its adherents, most notably Martin Luther King Jr. Few, if any, white evangelicals have that kind of encounter with authorities but are willing to complain about the proverbial hangnail.

So what does this have to do with revival? Well, it can be produced when, and only when, a people or a church are completely sold out to Jesus, which down the road might mean calling out people in power that abuse their authority and taking up the banner of the powerless. In other words, being filled with and committed to the Spirit of God may, and probably will, anger compromisers interested only in saving their own necks, but they’re willing to pay that price.

After all, not for nothing did Jesus say, “For whoever wants to save [his] life will lose it, but whoever loses [his] life for me will save it” (Luke 9:24).

Thursday, October 19, 2017

The 'green-eyed monster'

I think I know what’s always driven the “religious right,” more specifically its desire to remake American society in its own image: Envy. Of course, we don’t often hear sermons on that “deadly sin” in most pulpits; I don’t ever recall hearing one.

Defined by as “spite and resentment at seeing the success of another,” envy is always sin if for no other reason than it’s a result of taking one’s focus off God; in other words, as much as anything it’s idolatry, which of course God despises. I’d say that it’s part of the reason that, as much as people and organizations have said they want to improve the spiritual climate in our country, they have actually pushed it backwards.

That envy first flared up on a grand scale in 1992 when Bill Clinton was running for president and continued after his election — it seemed that lying and gossip were no longer classified as sins as long as deposing him was the goal.  Remember that the late Jerry Falwell produced that propaganda piece “The Clinton Chronicles” in order to smear him; I first heard about it at a local Christian radio station, and others began to pile on. (Niccolò Machiavelli, eat your heart out.)

Eventually, however, thanks largely to the Fox News Channel, that resentment toward Clinton became mainstream; you no longer needed to hear Pat Robertson’s pronouncements about the country going to hell because of, shall we say, the “wrong people” being in power. (I need to warn you: If too many people in the “world” agree with you, that might be a sign that you’re not following God.)

More to the point, however, that if you’re obsessed with the idea of power centered in a few “élites,” especially if they’re liberals in comparison and whether in politics or the media, you just might be suffering from envy. Of course the idea of eliminating such people and institutions may sound attractive to the resentful; remember, however, that there is power out there and someone will have it — and it certainly won’t be you. That’s why envy can never be satisfied — it’s actually an addiction.

But what about the civil-rights movement, “Black Lives Matter” and other groups agitating for social and economic justice — wouldn’t they be similarly envious? I’d have to say no. None of them have said that they want to replace people at the top with themselves; they simply wanted their voices to be heard and have always been willing to work with those who disagree with them. They have argued only for equal opportunity and respect. Is that too much to ask? Apparently so.

This might explain evangelicals’ support of the oafish Donald Trump once he won the Republican nomination for president — the only thing that mattered is that he defeated Hillary Clinton. Not only that, but since he’s been president he’s has tried to overturn President Barack Obama’s achievements — the Affordable Care Act, the DACA and climate change edicts among them. He and most of his supporters apparently can’t stand to see anyone not of their party doing well by doing good for the country and, for that reason, have in the process split the country even wider than it had been.

Here’s the thing, however: God cannot work through dirty hearts, so if you believe that Trump will usher in a spiritual revival, as some have insisted, you need to read His Word because things don’t work like that. “But we don’t want to live in an immoral country,” you say.

So why, then, are you cooperating with it?

Tuesday, October 17, 2017

Hearing people's 'stories'

When Martin Luther King Jr. was jailed in Birmingham, Ala. In 1963, he fell into conversation with a number of his white jailers who, while racists, shared with him the difficulty of the system for which they worked and, by extension, their own lives. After listening — remember, he was a pastor by profession — he told them, “You ought to be with us.”

We know of Dr. King as a reconciler, but he was able to do that because of his willingness to listen to those who hated him. I suspect that the root of much of the divisiveness in this country, the degree of which I can’t recall being as bad as it is now, is an unwillingness to listen to those who disagree.

Basically, it comes down to being aware of people’s “stories.” Every person has a face, a name and a history that drives him or her. As such, we don’t always appreciate what our adversaries have to face.

I admit to being more critical of President Donald Trump and his supporters and allies for being hard-hearted toward those they see as implacable opponents. Most notably, when he called protesters playing in National Football League games as [S.O.B.’]s, he was in effect saying, “I don’t give a rip about what you think.” That led directly to an escalation of protests that, in the eyes of many, got out of hand.

The bigger issue, however, is that Colin Kaepernick, the former San Francisco 49ers quarterback who sparked the protest last year, said that he was trying to draw attention to police brutality against African-Americans (his biological father is black). But his detractors called him disruptive and unpatriotic because he did so during the playing of “The Star-Spangled Banner.” Couldn’t he have found another way or time?, people asked.

No, and that was his point.

The last couple of days, in response to the Harvey Weinstein incident, we’ve experienced a “me too” campaign primarily from women who were sexually harassed or assaulted. I’ve been sensitized over the past couple of decades, remembering things I saw at my fraternity house but taking no action because I didn’t recognize what was happening.

Some of these brave women have been willing to tell those stories and I salute them because I can’t ever be in their shoes and thus feel exactly as they do.

It’s not about being eternal “victims”; it’s about acknowledging what happened. One thing about sin is that it needs to be exposed before it can be addressed and its repercussions faced.

More to the point, it’s about “[mourning] with those who mourn” (Romans 12:15), and sometimes hearing the stories of others is a part of that. I’m willing to listen — are you?