Monday, January 31, 2011

Reconciliation -- a mandate, not an option

I had the honor of delivering my testimony at church two weeks ago; I had asked to do it in recognition of the birthday celebration of the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., which officially was the next day, because he initially sparked my interest in the Scriptures. King, of course, was despised in his day in some circles and ignored by most evangelicals for not being sufficiently pious and focusing on "soul-winning."

When I first "encountered" him in the fifth grade, however, I realized that he was onto something. Really, really big that most people that most "religious" people, especially in that day, were missing. And what was that?

The very heart of the gospel -- reconciliation.

Now, most of us evangelicals have believed and taught that the primary focus of the Christian life should be studying the Scriptures and living one's earthly existence as "godly" as possible and, at its end, being accepted into heaven. The trouble is that, in such an atmosphere, faith becomes privatized and cultural and doesn't really cause that much change in the culture.

On the other hand, if you see the Gospel as being about reconciliation, it clearly has all kinds of ramifications for not only the individual Christian but also the church in general and the surrounding culture.

You see, if you focus on reconciliation, you're assuming a breach to be mended, starting with fellowship between man and God broken by man's sin, his inability to do anything about that and being in danger of perdition without a remedy. And this is where we get the first part correct, because Jesus did give His life on the cross so that we could come to God and establish that fellowship that He intended.

But there's more.

You see, that propensity toward sin also leads to a disconnect with other people, whether in or outside the church. Whether a church or denominational split, an over-reliance or lack of focus on theology, a disdain for others for being "less than" or an emphasis on such things of the world as money or political power, there's no shortage of ways in which even God's people can suffer from broken fellowship with each other. One thing of which the church should always be ashamed is that the civil-rights movement, which came out of Southern African-American churches, pitted one set of Christians against another set of Christians, which sabotaged our collective witness. (It's especially galling in light of Jesus' two great commandments, my paraphrase: Worship God with everything you have and do right by others.)

Thing is, God has called us believers in Jesus to belong to one family, one church, one nation under His rule, and that means that we will need to put our differences, pride and anger aside to focus on that spiritual goal. Fortunately, He will help us do that if we allow ourselves to be transformed.

The early church had no choice in that matter because it was a culturally and ethnically diverse underground movement with few friends that was targeted for extinction by the political and religious authorities of that day. Put another way, following Jesus quite literally cost some folks everything, including their lives; thus, they learned to suffer together and became "one in heart and mind." And while it did have to deal with some factionalism in its ranks, still its membership clung to Jesus -- and to each other.

Things, of course, are different today; Americans live in a nation built in part on freedom of worship. But since the church has become part of the "establishment" it has fallen prey to the same fault lines as the rest of the world -- race, economics, social class, ethnicity. That's why we need to focus upon reconciliation -- if all we understand is the way our little clique does things we miss the lessons that other groups, churches, theologies, denominations can teach us about Who God is and His eternal purpose.

Former South African president Nelson Mandela brought out this point in a 1995 speech he made honoring the late Bram Fischer, an anti-apartheid activist of Afrikaner stock who originally believed that black and white should live separately, albeit as "equals." In rebuttal, a veteran member of the African National Congress, Mandela's party, told Fischer, "If you place the races of one country in two camps and cut off contact between them, those in each camp will begin to forget that those in the other are ordinary human beings, that each lives and laughs the same way, that each expresses joy or sorrow, pride or humiliation for the same reasons. Thereby each becomes suspicious of the other and each eventually fears the other, which is the basis of all racism."

We're at that point now. It's time that we allow God to come in and heal the breach, so in His Name, let's reconcile.

Thursday, January 27, 2011

Catching up

I haven't been here in a while, so let me give you some thoughts on what's been happening of late and their ramifications.

-- Since the mass shooting in Tucson three weeks ago, conservatives have angrily issued denunciations of alleged "tea-party movement" involvement and have suggested that the major media jumped the gun in blaming it, and by proxy former GOP vice-presidential candidate Sarah Palin, for the actions of gunman Jared Lee Loughner. For one, I think they're a tad oversensitive in doing so, since such media for the most part were restrained; I watched CNN, which said nothing about motivation when covering the story.

That said, however, it was admittedly my first thought when the story broke. Considering that, according to someone who posted on Sojourners' "God's Politics" blog who once lived in that area, the state does indeed have a dysfunctional gun culture; that tea-party sympathizers had been known to carry guns at rallies; and that they used intimidation and acted rudely to disrupt town-hall meetings on the health-care insurance bill that passed last year over their opposition, by their actions they have helped to bring suspicion upon themselves. If that sounds like an insult, just consider how much mileage the political right got out of the "Ground Zero mosque" controversy of last year even though Muslim terrorists had nothing to do with it.

-- Some people are complaining that President Obama was talking out of both sides of his mouth during the State of the Union address on Tuesday, and they may be technically right. But I give him credit for trying to reach out to those people not of his own party, especially during the lame-duck session of the last Congressional session, to get things done, and politically he may be trying to put his implacable critics in a bind. That's how Bill Clinton, against all odds, was able to win a second term; I have already stated that Obama will be reelected and suspect that this is how it will happen.

-- You may have heard about the illegal abortion clinic that was operating in the Philadephia area; I note with irony that the news broke right around the anniversary of Roe v. Wade, which removed most abortion restrictions. I don't suspect, however, that it will result in any more anti-abortion activism because abortion isn't something that gets people in a tizzy.

-- A recent entry on the aforementioned "God's Politics" blog refers to a "Great Gay Awakening" in the evangelical church. Part of the problem is the two irreconcilable extreme views that keep people fighting: 1) Gays and their sympathizers are trying to take over the culture to make their "perversion" normal and acceptable; and 2) They cannot help "whom they love" and the church thus ought to accept them for who they are. Both sides completely miss the point because much of the church has forgotten that it is at heart a subversive, underground movement never geared toward popular acceptance. Let me paraphrase a maxim: God loves us as we are but loves us too much to allow us to remain as we are.

-- A Super Bowl prediction: I'm looking for a tight game, with the Steelers' experience against the peaking Packers making for an exciting context. Steelers by a field goal, perhaps in OT.

Thursday, January 6, 2011

Being civil about the Civil War

This year our nation will recognize the sesquicentennial of one of the ugliest chapters in its history -- the beginning of (take your pick, depending on your perspective) the Civil War, the War Between the States or the "War Against Northern Aggression." And with that, the old debate continues: Was it over slavery, as we're taught here, or "states' rights," which many Southerners still believe?

The answer is: Probably a little of both.

One book that gave me food for thought was "Born Fighting: How the Scots-Irish Shaped America," written seven years ago by now-Sen. Jim Webb (D-Va.) and which began to explain the complicated relationship between not just the races but even regions within that part of the country. Webb tried to make the case that, while many Southerners, specifically in Appalachia, actually opposed slavery on moral grounds, the Scots-Irish who settled in the mountain regions in the 1600s were so individualistic and anti-authoritarian that they resented any "outsiders" telling them how things should be run -- which is why the South had no problem mustering armies against the hated "Yankees."

But what about the Southern politicians who said that they intended to maintain slavery as the backbone of their society? Well, remember that they were just that -- politicians doing the bidding of their patrons, the slavers who paid for their campaigns. Anyway, the mountaineers weren't so crazy about those élites, who ran the state governments, either; the same rebellion that caused Southerners to rebel against Washington, D.C. also led to the breakup of the state of Virginia (which is why we now have a West Virginia) and a near-secession of the western part of North Carolina.

On the other hand, you could argue that Abraham Lincoln, who ascended to the presidency that year, was the reason 11 slave states left to form the Confederacy. The Republican Party, which formed specifically for abolition, wasn't even on the ballot in those states, which is likely why they considered Lincoln's presidency illegitimate. (And to this day you will have a hard time finding memorials to Lincoln south of the Mason-Dixon Line.)

And even Lincoln, who certainly did oppose slavery, didn't come to an all-out assault on that immoral institution right away. He had tried to broker a compromise, allowing one free state to be admitted to the Union for every slave state (when I was last in the border state of Kansas in 2002, I visited a museum that displayed a flag that bore the clause "Admit me free"). Two things happened that caused Lincoln to use his position to abolish slavery: 1) The British and French were set to recognize the Confederacy due to their citizens' demand for cotton goods, which threatened his stated purpose of saving the Union; and 2) his 1862 conversion to Christianity (he was reared without formal religious training and had attended a Unitarian church while in office).

Anyway, let's keep in mind that racial equality and reconciliation wasn't an issue back then. Lincoln, as well as many abolitionists, believed that black and white couldn't live together in peace and blacks should be shipped back to Africa -- that wasn't as far-fetched as things may sound, as the state of Liberia in western Africa was founded in 1820 for that purpose (its capital, Monrovia, was named for then-President James Monroe) and Jamaican national Marcus Garvey began his "back-to-Africa" movement in the early 20th Century.

Clearly, there are no cut-and-dried answers to the question "Why?" Let's just thank God that chattel slavery -- I'm in this country because of it -- is dead and gone.