Sunday, March 27, 2011

Here we go ...

The great conservative meltdown I was predicting for 2012 got started a little earlier than even I would have expected. Like this year.

With Republican governors in a number of states slashing budgets for basically political reasons and seriously angering much of the public in the process, it's only a matter of time before a real grass-roots movement from the political left sweeps out many of those right-wing politicians that seem hell-bent on sabotaging the governing process. A number of Republican senators in Wisconsin, which just passed that anti-union bill now tied up in court, are in danger of being recalled, and folks in states such as Ohio, Indiana and my own Pennsylvania are making similar noise.

But let's look at the big picture: You can't simply bully people on a consistent basis and expect them not to react; at some point they will say "No more!" And I think we may be there now.

Going back to Wisconsin, the bill that sharply restricted collective bargaining for unionized state employees and which caused the Democratic members of the Senate to flee the state to deny the body a quorum turned out not to be about economics at all. The majority leader admitted on the Fox News Channel a couple of weeks ago that its real intent was to sabotage union funding for an upcoming reelection campaign for President Obama. (As if that will make that much difference given Obama's fund-raising capability -- he's likely to bankrupt any candidate that would run against him.)

That fact is one reason why no clear front-runner has emerged for the GOP nomination. With Sarah Palin sinking, Mike Huckabee treading water and only long-shots Newt Gingrich and Rick Santorum set to announce, it's clear to me that the conservatives who run the party really have nothing to run upon except that none of them are Obama. That's not good enough, especially since recent economic news favors him, if just slightly -- and let's keep in mind that economics rules during these days of a "jobless recovery."

But let's go back to Wisconsin, a state with a very long history of progressive politics, for a moment. The shenanigans of Gov. Scott Walker and the other Republicans have only energized the Democratic Party in that state, which is leading the recall campaign, and GOP operatives in that state are moaning that they can't get the funds to fight it. Also consider that large number of anti-Walker demonstrators that took over the capitol building in Madison left fired-up and ready to act. They apparently hope that they'll inspire people in other states to do the same, and they might be right.

But here's the issue: The Wisconsin Senate passed that bill and Walker, who by numerous reports is an evangelical Christian, signed it with no debate and no willingness to compromise or work with the opposition, and I would suggest that such an attitude is doing more to get its GOP members run out of office than its actual passing. "Well, we need to maintain 'core principles' that we can't change," they may say.

No, they don't need to do that -- not even Jesus did.

It's no surprise then that Jesus did battle most often with the Pharisees, who were sticklers for the "law" but missed that the very concept of law represents a framework of relationships. That is, take away the relational aspect of law and it just becomes a bunch of lifeless pronouncements without any context that have no power to assure the pursuit of justice. That's why religion devoid of true relationship ultimately becomes worthless -- it just doesn't work.

And that's also why, in the words of conservative New York Times columnist David Brooks, "The big [conservative] defeat is coming." The political right will eventually fail to make its case that following its principles will lead to economic prosperity (and in fact have likely already done so), and simply "saying it louder" won't help matters. What it needs to do is to work across the aisle to find solutions that benefit everyone; however, its own mentality assures that it will never happen.

Gandhi in hell? Why that may not be so important

In the 1920s a young man from India studying law in South Africa was becoming disillusioned with Hinduism. Being in a majority-Christian country, he decided to consider Christianity and visit a church; however, because of the custom of that day -- apartheid didn't become law until 1948 -- he wasn't permitted to enter because he wasn't white. Noting that "these people don't practice what they preach," he never again considered becoming a follower of Jesus.

Can you imagine how India might have been changed had Mohandas Gandhi been received in that church?

Of late, one question being asked in cyberspace is: "Is Gandhi in hell?" The boilerplate Christian answer is yes, and that is indeed my view.

But -- what about the people who rejected him? What about those folks who turned out not be themselves true Christians? After all, they were disobedient, not just as an occasional slip but by their open rebellion against Him in supporting racist policies. I don't mean to imply that people are incapable of avoiding sin given its pervasiveness; however, when you not only openly espouse attitudes and policies that oppose God's justice but suggest that God Himself supports injustice, I think that your salvation might be in question.

I say that because the way we often "do evangelism" in the West, especially this country, is that we tell some people to pray some prayer to "accept Christ" for the express purpose of achieving "eternal life," which in this context simply means avoiding punishment. However, much of the Scripture is directly connected to how a Godly person should act down here, which anyone knows can be lacking -- after all, we Christians watch pornography, divorce our spouses and abuse our children at the same rate as the rest of the world. And since, as the Westminster Catechism says, "the chief end of man is to glorify God and enjoy Him forever," part of the weakness of the modern American church is due to its unwillingness to obey Him -- not for "salvation" but to receive the blessing that He wants to give His people.

Gandhi, who had studied the Bible, made the comment that "I like your Christ -- I don't like your Christians"; that's a damning statement, especially because he had known people who didn't represent Him properly. So maybe we ought not to focus on whether Gandhi, who was assassinated in 1948, is suffering eternal punishment -- we need to look at ourselves and wonder if we truly belong to Him and will escape such.

Tuesday, March 22, 2011

Single men in ministry

Monday's New York Times ran a story about the Rev. Mark Almlie, an ordained minister in the Evangelical Covenant Church who has expressed frustration because he can't find a flock to shepherd. Reason? He's single and childless while many, if not most, evangelical churches specifically seek a husband and father as a pastor.

But where he sees discrimination, which I understand and appreciate, I see safeguards from inappropriate entanglement.

For several years I participated in one of my church's home groups; after asking me to take a turn in leading the group's semimonthly Bible study, hosted by a couple, and apparently impressed on more than one occasion with the job I did, the man, now an elder, suggested that I consider leading one of my own.

Yes, I have the heart, knowledge and skills to be a lay leader in this or any church. But I will not do so as a single man in part due to my own emotional vulnerabilities; in the mid-1980s I experienced being fawned over by a woman I knew to be unhappily married (though I never responded to it). And since we Christians are instructed to avoid even the hint of evil, becoming an elder would simply not be a good move on my part because that means I would likely have to do some counseling with such women. I'd just rather not deal with that temptation.

The article also quoted a Jackson W. Carroll, an emeritus professor of religion at Duke University, as saying that, in insisting that pastors be married with children, "evangelicals are responding to the sexual revolution of the 1960s, which they saw as a real threat to the family." And while he was specifically speaking of pastors, the same could probably be said about lay leadership in the church.

Many singles refer to Paul's passages on singleness, saying that not having a spouse would mean more freedom to do ministry. They must be taken in context, however -- Paul and much of the church of that day believed that Jesus would return at any moment or at least in their lifetimes, in which case marital status wouldn't matter. It's also true that Jesus Himself was never married but because, in His culture obsessed with ethnic purity, no good Jewish father would give his daughter in marriage to Jesus not knowing who His earthly father was.

I won't say that marriage will simply and completely remove such temptations; my present and two past churches have experienced adultery among staff. I just don't want to be another statistic just for the sake of having power and authority in the congregation.

And if you're wondering -- yes, I am looking.

Tuesday, March 15, 2011

Love wins?

I have yet to read "Love Wins," the controversial book by Rob Bell, founding pastor of Mars Hill Bible Church in Grand Rapids, Mich. and who stars in Nooma videos. Bell, of course, has been accused of "universalism," with other, more "orthodox" teachers suggesting that Bell doesn't believe in an eternal hell and that he believes that all persons will be saved regardless of their position in Christ. As such, I'm not prepared to analyze his theology.

One thing I will say, however -- having read some interviews with him, one thing Bell gets right is that Jesus can, and does, save from what some may call a "living hell." And it could be that focusing on an eternal hell may completely miss that point.

Here's why. Jesus came to give not an improvement on your current life but a replacement for it -- which should be obvious, considering that the earthly life without Christ is by necessity full of bad stuff. Whether you're using drugs, addicted to work, having marriage problems or feeling that you've just plain "messed up," there's is nothing about your life that He can improve; He has to destroy it and then give you a whole new one. No "orthodox" teacher will tell you anything different. Thing is, the Bible doesn't focus all that much on eternal punishment.

I know that from personal experience. I first heard the Gospel when I was around 10 or 11 (although it didn't began to sink in until my freshman year in high school). What made the difference for me, however, was the difference in the lives of the Christians I knew back then compared with my family, which was focused on ... well, it wasn't focused on anything except maintaining a middle-class existence. Whatever it was, it just wasn't working.

And then I noticed that my parents' marriage was failing.

The day before the school district picnic toward the end of my senior year, my father called my brother and me over and informed us that my mother had threatened to leave him. I knew why -- he was insanely jealous and so obsessed with her that he was in one sense strangling her, which was connected to his refusal to allow God to run his life. So at that picnic the next day and seeing no alternative, I bowed to the inevitable and threw in my lot with Jesus. (Note: It had nothing to do with my trying to avoid hell; I consider doing so a "fringe benefit.")

Anyway, merely trying to escape eternal punishment doesn't suffice for two reasons: Legalism and licentiousness, both of which ignore the primary gift of God through Christ: His grace.

The first is dangerous because you may feel you need to "perform" -- keep certain rules -- to maintain God's favor. My church belongs to a denomination with a fairly legalistic past; for instance, contemporaries who grew up in it weren't permitted to attend high-school proms. Going the other way, some people believe that once you get saved there's no more that needs to be done -- you can live anyway you want and God will welcome you. Either way, the focus is on the "afterlife," not loving and following Jesus in the here and now. (That's what He meant when He told Nicodemus that "you must be born again" -- that was the only way he would recognize God's work in this world.)

Based on what I know about Bell, he gets that part right.

A close friend of mine is suffering right now, watching her 20-something nephew engaged in full-blown rebellion against his Christian upbringing. I can't help but recall, however, her telling me that her brother and sister-in-law sent their children to a Christian school so that they could "avoid hell." While I don't intend to criticize their choice, the reality is that Jesus mentioned hell mostly to the Pharisees -- the religious elite of that day -- because they were focused upon religion without relationship. But Jesus mentioned the two great commandments, which would even supersede the Ten: "You will love the LORD your God with all your heart, with all your soul, with all your strength and with all your mind; and your neighbor as yourself."

Perhaps that explains the title of Bell's book.

Sunday, March 6, 2011

Hating Jesus

The Huffington Post recently published a piece "Why Evangelicals Hate Jesus" by California professors Phil Zuckerman and Dan Cady; they write that "White Evangelical Christians are the group least likely to support politicians or policies that reflect the actual teachings of Jesus. It is perhaps one of the strangest, most dumb-founding ironies in contemporary American culture."

I don't have any reason to believe that they write from an avowed Christian perspective, but they have it right. And here's why: Much of the American evangelical world is focused more on "pie in the sky" and that a "personal relationship with Jesus" doesn't really change their lives all that much. And as much as we talk about "magnifying" and "glorifying" Him, the truth is that we don't spend all that much energy, let alone thought, on obeying Him. In fact, I would say that a lot of us appreciate His "saving grace" but refuse to accept Him as absolute, unconditional LORD.

An insult? Maybe. But if Jesus truly were LORD of our lives there are some things we wouldn't do. First, our mission would be focused not on changing the culture around us so that we can live in it (and hope to avoid spiritual warfare in the process). Fewer of us would live in the country or the suburbs, realizing that we truly need to be "salt" and "light" in the very places that need a true Gospel witness. We wouldn't be concerned with such inconsequential things as property values and being in the "right" neighborhood. We wouldn't have all these independent mega-churches with no accountability to any larger body. We wouldn't have so many racists in our ranks, and we wouldn't complain about "persecution" from the world. (Indeed, most of what we call "persecution" we actually provoke through our own arrogance.) Above all, Jesus calls us to sacrifice for His Kingdom, which runs counter to our culture.

Whether you agree or not with the professors' interpretation of what Jesus taught, much of evangelical Christianity has completely missed the intent of Jesus' Gospel: Reconciliation -- not only with God through the cross of Christ but also with each other. It's not just about "personal salvation" or "personal holiness"; we're "saved" as part of a larger Body to do work that bears witness to His reign, now and in the future. The way we relate to each other should be different. The way we look at the world should be "But for the grace of God ... " But we often end up as Pharisees, poring over the Scriptures basically to buttress our own prejudices. No wonder we as a church are weak.

I don't think that it's any coincidence that, spiritually speaking, the strongest church we've ever had in this country was the African-American church in the South in the 1950s, which did all these things because, even though it didn't have (and in fact, couldn't get) the theological training that white churches did, it sought to obey God. The civil-rights movement, which came out of it, actually began as prayer and revival meetings in such churches, and at the appointed time God raised up a prophet out of Atlanta via Montgomery, Ala. named Martin Luther King Jr., who is still hated in some "Christian" circles for causing change. (But that's part of the risk -- and now virtually everyone knows that he was ultimately right.)

There's a reason that Jesus said, "Whoever seeks to save his life will lose it, but he who loses his life for My sake will find it." Jesus is not a value-added commodity to ensure an after-life; He is life itself. And if we evangelicals truly found and committed to that ... well, watch out.

Thursday, March 3, 2011

Surprise, surprise ...

Last week, the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review published an op-ed by publisher Richard Mellon Scaife defending the efforts of Planned Parenthood and denouncing its attempted defunding by Republican members of Congress. As a result a few of its readers were, to put it mildly, disappointed that someone who touted himself as "conservative" could support such an organization (which he does, financially).

Last month, more than a few notable conservatives skipped the Conservative Political Action Conference due to the presence of GOProud, a gay group which many felt had no business being there.

Those evangelicals and "fundamentalists" who are shocked by the identification of such people as "conservative" need to understand one thing: The modern conservative movement began in the mid-1950s as totally secular, with Christians being recruited only in the late 1970s and only because it resulted in votes for its intentional divisiveness. That is to say, fighting legal abortion and gay rights became part of the political right only later and only when it could sell a pro-business, anti-government agenda that attempted to roll back social and political progress for a number of groups that made gains in the 1960s.

In other words, most secular conservatives really didn't care about "moral" issues, only about political power.

We see that today. Did you notice that secular conservative media, especially the Fox News Channel, never address the culture war at any length? And during the last general election campaign, even the "tea-party" movement, despite its lack of central leadership, did its best to keep its distance from an overtly anti-abortion, anti-gay-rights stance, perhaps because it believed that they would dilute its message.

And it appears that's the case. While conservatism is flourishing at least on the surface, the religious right is now irrelevant -- with Jerry Falwell and D. James Kennedy both dead, James Dobson retired, Pat Robertson being gaffe-prone and Randall Terry's pronouncements having no positive effect, people of faith are today being increasingly co-opted by secular interests -- which, frankly, is dangerous because they have no reason to adopt consistent Biblical principles.

It's time for us to concede that conservatives of the secular variety are not, and indeed never really were, our friends; in fact, they have always played us for fools because they knew we had no real alternative. Back in the 1990s Dobson announced that he was considering a run for President because he was convinced that "values voters" would leave the GOP and follow him. They might have done so, but Dobson likely learned that he simply didn't have the clout he thought he did. (The 2006 election, during which he convened a number of ineffective "Stand for the Family" rallies in battleground states, cemented that reality.)

More to the point, we need to understand that our "culture war" doesn't sell anymore, if it ever did. Moral of the story: Prophets do not make good politicians.