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This is part 2 of a series on rethinking the Israeli-Palestinian conflict as a Christian, inspired by the most recent assault on Gaza. Part 1 can be read here.  

When I was a kid, I had a t-shirt with a picture of Snoopy carrying an Israeli flag, trailed by Woodstock marching with an American flag. The caption below read, “America is right behind you.”

So yeah, I guess you could say I was pro-Israel. After all, how could you be an evangelical and not be a supporter of the Israeli state?

The dominant narrative of the American evangelical subculture says the Holy Land belongs to Israel alone. It’s an everlasting inheritance rooted in an irrevocable, unchanging covenant with God himself. (More on that in another post perhaps.)

The establishment of the Israeli state in 1948 is looked on not just as an important event in the life of the Jewish people, but as nothing less than the fulfillment of biblical prophecy, inaugurating the beginning of the end times.

Israel’s defense, then, is America’s sacred responsibility, our first and greatest foreign policy commitment. (That was something both candidates in the recent presidential campaign actually agreed on.) As such, no criticism of Israel will be brooked. Palestinians are, at best, squatters with no rightful claim to the land — and at worst, terrorists who would ignite a second Holocaust, given the chance.

Add to the mix our present-day worries about “radical Islam” and our tendency to paint all Arabs with the same brush, and it becomes far too easy for us to view the Israeli-Palestinian conflict in simple terms of good guys vs. bad guys. Christians and Jews together on one side, presumably, and Palestinian Islamists on the other.

That is, until cracks begin to appear in the façade we’ve created to help ourselves sleep at night.

Like the fact that many of those working hardest for peace among Jews and Palestinians are members of the Jewish community. Organizations like Jewish Voice for Peace belie the supposition, popular in evangelical circles, that Jews and Palestinians are destined to be forever at war.

Or the fact that not all Palestinians fit the radical-jihadist-with-a-bomb-strapped-to-his-chest caricature. Not by a long shot. Not only are most Palestinians nonviolent (whatever their religion); many happen to be Christian. My spiritual brothers and sisters, united by a common faith.

For some reason, in my church we never talked about Palestinian Christians. Oh, we discussed at length the persecution of Christians in other part of the world, but never the suffering of our fellow believers in Palestine. We were oblivious to their existence.

For me, that changed four years ago, during what until this month had been the last major assault on the Gaza Strip. One of my colleagues at the time was a Palestinian Christian who grew up in the West Bank and later moved to America.

One day, she told me about her experience in the West Bank.

A Palestinian child injured in an airstrike on Gaza

She and her family had no freedom of movement, thanks to the 430-mile barrier the Israeli government began building in the mid-1990s. The barrier is rationalized as keeping would-be suicide bombers out of Israel. Yet it doesn’t just separate Israel from the West Bank; it cuts into the West Bank at several points, isolating Palestinian villages from each other.

For my colleague, this meant being cut off from her family in the next village over. Going to church meant risking arrest because there were just too many checkpoints. She wasn’t just deprived of her freedom of movement; she was deprived of her freedom to worship.

Freedom of movement is considered a fundamental human right, as is the freedom to worship. Both are enshrined in our Constitution. If these violations happened anywhere else, we would protest that freedom itself was under attack. We would call it persecution.

My colleague also described the experience of Palestinian children who have to walk past Israeli settlements on their way to and from school, subjected to taunts and physical violence from other children who’ve been taught by their parents to hate the Palestinians. Imagine if this were your daughter’s walk to school:

My colleague told me of Palestinian friends — particularly in East Jerusalem — whose homes were demolished by the Israeli government, usually on the pretext of not having the proper permits. (Never mind the homes and their occupants have been there for years.) In many cases, families have just minutes to gather what belongings they can carry before the bulldozers close in. They have no recourse, no due process.

Finally, my colleague revealed that she had no idea whether she’d ever get to see her family again. You see, if you’re Palestinian and you leave your homeland, the Israeli government (which controls who comes and goes in the West Bank) may not let you back in. Consider this example, reported in the Baltimore Sun a few years ago:

Abdelhakeem Itayem, a Palestinian with American citizenship, was counting on a simple overnight stay when he traveled from the West Bank to Jordan on a business trip. Six months later, he is still there, trapped in bureaucratic limbo.

Itayem, 41, said the long delay has kept him away from his wife, Lisa, and their seven children, who remain in the family’s home near Ramallah. It has also cost him his job as a manager for a Palestinian distributor of foreign consumer goods. “It’s breaking my heart,” he said.

Activists say scores of Palestinians who carry foreign passports, mostly American, have been denied entry this year after Israel moved to close a loophole that once allowed residents to enter repeatedly on renewable Israeli tourist visas.

The policy has created a quandary for the Palestinian Americans who remain: If they leave to get a new three-month stamp, they might not be allowed back. If they stay, their current Israeli visas will expire. Many say their past applications for formal residency in the Palestinian territories were rejected by Israel or never acted upon.

These and other tactics are part of a concerted effort to make life as unbearable as possible for the Palestinians. Then, when they leave, the Israeli government locks the door behind them.

Similar measures have been taken against people in Gaza, arguably the world’s largest refugee camp. Israel controls everything that goes in and out of that tiny, arid strip of land; Gaza’s fishermen can’t even fish their own waters on the Mediterranean coast without fear of being shelled by Israeli warships. In 2006, one advisor to the Israeli prime minister revealed that his country was deliberately trying to impoverish the people of Gaza. “The idea is to put the Palestinians on a diet,” he said, “but not to make them die of hunger.”

Imagine if a vastly superior military power had brought you and your community to the brink of starvation in order to teach you a lesson. How would you feel? How would you react? Would you be tempted to fight back?

And even if you believe modern-day Israel is one and the same with the Israel of the Bible …

Even if you believe the biblical covenant that promised the land to ancient Israel is somehow still in force today…

Even if you think Palestinians are outsiders with no rightful claim to the land (despite the fact they’ve been living there for hundreds of years)…

If that’s how you rationalize what’s going on in Palestine today, then surely you accept that Israel is duty-bound to follow the whole covenant, not just the part that supposedly gives them the land?

So what about Leviticus 19?

When a foreigner resides among you in your land, do not mistreat them. The foreigner residing among you must be treated as your native-born. Love them as yourself, for you were foreigners in Egypt. I am the Lord your God.

What about Deuteronomy 10?

You are to love those who are foreigners, for you yourselves were foreigners in Egypt.

Ancient Israel knew what it felt like to be a refugee population at the mercy of a far more powerful nation. They were told by their God never to forget — and never to repeat — the hostility which they experienced at the hands of the Egyptians.

So can it be said the Israeli government truly loves the Palestinians in their midst? Can they claim to have treated the Palestinians as they treat their own? Or have they already forgotten what it feels like to be a refugee?

Because if they have forgotten, then they have broken the very covenant that promised the land to their ancestors.

Eight years ago, John Kerry ran for president against then-incumbent George W. Bush. The campaign was seen by many as a referendum on President Bush’s foreign policy, particularly the misguided war in Iraq.

There was just one problem, and it wound up costing Kerry the election.

Kerry, like most Senate Democrats, voted in 2002 to authorize the invasion of Iraq. At the time, President Bush still enjoyed post-9/11 meteoric approval ratings. Democrats were keen not to be labeled “weak” on foreign policy or “soft” on terror. So when the call to arms was sounded, the opposition marched obligingly in step.

By 2004, the public was souring on the ongoing occupation of Iraq, which put candidate Kerry in the awkward position of opposing a war he had once voted to authorize. To many, Kerry’s shifting position on Iraq looked more like political posturing than a principled stand. And for good reason.

Kerry’s ill-fated presidential campaign offers a cautionary tale on to those who would wait to do the right thing until it becomes the socially acceptable thing to do.

It seems the Church of England will have to learn this lesson the hard way. Having narrowly failed to approve women serving as bishops, the CofE found itself the subject of scorn, derision, and intense pressure from all corners. Last week even saw Britain’s conservative prime minister telling the Church to “get with the programme.”

So now, having failed to do the right thing for the right reason, the CofE faces the unenviable prospect of being pressured to do the right thing for all the wrong reasons.

The problem, summarized by N.T. Wright, is that progress isn’t always progress. The Church of England shouldn’t assent to women bishops because David Cameron tells it to or because it’s the sort of thing that social progress demands. It shouldn’t do so in order to salvage its last vestiges of cultural relevance.

The Church should embrace women bishops because Jesus accepted women as fully participating members of his kingdom — long before it was popular or politically correct to do so. Initially, the Church led on matters of equality; it’s only in recent history that it’s been leapfrogged by much of the rest of the world.

In the New Testament, women were the first to announce the resurrection of Jesus — the first to proclaim central message of the kingdom of God. Women were numbered among the apostles and deacons of the early church. To quote N.T. Wright:

All Christian ministry begins with the announcement that Jesus has been raised from the dead. And Jesus entrusted that task, first of all, not to Peter, James, or John, but to Mary Magdalene. Part of the point of the new creation launched at Easter was the transformation of roles and vocations: from Jews-only to worldwide, from monoglot to multilingual, and from male-only leadership to male and female together.

Within a few decades, Paul was sending greetings to friends including an “apostle” called Junia (Romans 16:7). He entrusted that letter to a “deacon” called Phoebe whose work was taking her to Rome. The letter-bearer would normally be the one to read it out to the recipients and explain its contents. The first expositor of Paul’s greatest letter was an ordained travelling businesswoman.

The kingdom of God carries a promise that all the old barriers which divide us will be swept away by the new creation — a new kingdom where all are welcome.

Sometimes it’s taken a while for the Church to give full expression to this ideal. (It took 1,800 years for the abolition of slavery to come about, for example.) Sometimes we’ve lost our way. When that happens, it’s the resurrection we should turn to, so we can be pointed in the right direction again.

Today, the main reason the Church of England should reconsider women bishops isn’t to appease an offended culture but so it may return to the values which Jesus instilled in his Church from the beginning — values which likely helped pave the way for the broader cultural embrace of gender equality.

My election night

7 November 2012 — 7 Comments

By the time I arrived at the church building, I could already feel it. That slow, inexorable, churning agitation. The anticipation and the uncertainty of it all.

Who’s going to win? Will we even find out before we all stagger into our beds at 2 a.m.? What if the other guy takes it?

Just how easy is it to emigrate to Canada, anyway?

I love and hate election night. Love it… because, well, I’ve always been a political junkie. Hate it… because I don’t handle uncertainty very well. (More than one person has helpfully pointed out this combination is a recipe for a disorder.)

Election Day Communion photos from across the US

Inside the church, two liturgies were playing out side by side. On the left, a line of voters waited quietly to cast their ballots — the last of the evening in my state. To the right, inside the sanctuary, a small gathering prepared itself to receive the bread and wine of holy communion.

The tension drained from my body the moment I sat down. Bread and wine were the antidote for my ballot box anxiety. This ancient ritual, repeated over hundreds of years, has endured while politicians and parties come and go.

And yet…

We allow politics to govern our lives in a way the Eucharist does not. We allow politics to dictate our anxieties to us, to decide for us who we’ll associate with and who we’ll disown. All of which is another way of saying we’ve fashioned our political loyalties into an idol.

When we who are knit together in Christ’s sacrifice break fellowship over political differences, we have swallowed the lie that ballots matter more than the people who cast them.

When we who kneel at the altar of a crucified servant despair at our candidate’s defeat or gloat in his triumph, we’ve been duped by the propaganda that says it’s more important to win than to love.

Back in the sanctuary, as we lined up to receive the body and blood of Christ, the last of the voters outside were lining up to receive their sacraments, ballot and pen, by which they would pledge their political allegiance.

It may well be a valid thing to do. Many would call it our civic duty. I did mine earlier in the day. But it’s worth remembering: for all that our favorite politicians and parties promise, they deliver shockingly little, apart from another four years of anxiety and division.

Whereas…

When we line up to reaffirm our allegiance to Christ through holy communion, we are given something far greater in return. In the bread and wine, we receive the grace of God all over again. It is a grace that will not discriminate according to political affiliation, race, gender, orientation… and it will not allow us to do so, either.

God’s table is for everyone. That was far and away the best news I received on election night.

Being the recovering political junkie (and nerd) that I am, I started watching presidential debates when I was a kid. I’ve witnessed the cheap shots (Michael Dukakis being asked to imagine his wife’s brutal murder), the zingers (“you’re no Jack Kennedy”), and the downright bizarre (Al Gore’s lockbox, anyone?). But I’ve never seen a debate as tense, as openly hostile, as the one between Barack Obama and Mitt Romney last night.

It left me (and probably a lot of other people) cold.

Credit: Saul Loeb/AFP/Getty ImagesThere are some debates where you can almost imagine the two candidates grabbing a beer together afterward. This was not one of them. It was more like a bar fight — Obama and Romney circling each other like a couple of high school jocks with something to prove, not even trying to conceal their dislike for each other.

Maybe it’s just as well politicians have stopped pretending to like one another. Maybe they’ve realized there’s little point acting all chummy when you’re face-to-face, all the while spending billions to shred your opponent on the airwaves.

But for those of us who are Christians, perhaps the real question is this: since when did Jesus’ command to “turn the other cheek” come with a list of exceptions?

Both President Obama and Governor Romney claim to be men of faith who revere the teachings of Jesus, as do millions of Christians who’ve staked out a position in this election, whether on the left or the right.

So why do we act as if these teachings no longer apply the minute we enter the political arena? What makes us think we can temporarily set aside these commands about loving your enemy and not repaying insults?

I don’t just mean the candidates themselves. I mean all of us who were calling for blood during last night’s debate. I mean all of us who’ve staked our hopes on the outcome of this election and were quietly (or not so quietly) urging our candidate to strike a fatal blow, to be merciless and unrelenting on the other guy.

Our complicity in the polarization of our society betrays our lack of faith. It shows just how little we believe in the teachings of Jesus.

“Turn the other cheek” is all well and good for Sunday School, but it doesn’t really work in the real world — on the campaign trail, in the boardroom, or on the battlefield.

But Jesus offers no comfort to those who would compartmentalize his teachings. In fact, the original context of “turn the other cheek” was nothing if not political. It was meant precisely for the campaign trail and the battlefield. Jesus was telling his Jewish compatriots how to respond to the everyday injustice of Roman occupation. If his words don’t apply in the political arena, then they don’t apply anywhere.

Maybe it’s because we’ve got so much hope — too much, perhaps — riding on the outcome of this election that it’s just too difficult for us to turn the other cheek, to love those on the other side of the debate. But isn’t true commitment measured by doing what’s asked of us precisely when it’s most difficult to do?

After all, “love your enemies” is not something we can do on the inside only. It has to be demonstrated by our words and actions toward the other person. Otherwise it isn’t real.

We cannot be salt and light if we continue to compartmentalize the teachings of Jesus. Because Jesus didn’t compartmentalize. He called on his followers to embody a new, all-encompassing reality — social, political, AND spiritual — right here and now. To do so, we have to stop clinging to the values and tactics of the old system.

If we really want to change the world, we must learn to turn the other cheek. Even on the campaign trail.

 

Here’s an article I wrote about Election Day Communion for Duke University’s online magazine Faith and Leadership…

Every election year, we’re reminded that political idolatry — the temptation to put our hope in a particular party, platform or candidate — is all too alive and well.

First-century followers of Christ encountered political idolatry in their day — namely, the assertion “Caesar is Lord.” It was an assertion that Christians rejected wholeheartedly. Salvation was found not in Caesar but in Christ. Jesus, not the emperor, was the true Son of God, the light of the world.

Given Rome’s imperial dogma, you can imagine how subversive (and dangerous) it was to say, “Jesus is Lord.”

read more

Today a friend shared this video on Facebook, in which a reporter from ReasonTV, a libertarian video channel, interviews delegates at the Democratic National Convention to find out just how pro-choice they really are.
 

For many, the video highlights a glaring inconsistency in the Democratic platform. Apparently, “it’s my body, my choice” applies when you’re terminating a pregnancy, but not when it comes to drinking excessive quantities of soda.

My guess is the libertarian producers of this video were more concerned with the regulation of sugary drinks and light bulbs than abortion. Though in fairness, many libertarians are pro-life, because in their view, one individual’s liberty ends where someone else’s personhood begins. Either way, the inconsistency highlighted by this video is real. And troubling.

But imagine if someone had turned the cameras on the other party during their convention and asked, “Just how pro-life are Republicans?” On the one hand, the Republican platform calls for a constitutional amendment to protect unborn children.

But how pro-life is it to oppose the EPA’s efforts to limit mercury emissions from coal-fired power plants — a rule designed to protect children born and unborn from the well-documented health effects of such pollutants?

How pro-life is it to lead the country into not one but two wars of questionable necessity (assuming you believe there’s ever such a thing as “justifiable necessity” when it comes to war)?

How pro-life is it to play politics with climate change when the risks of inaction far outweigh the risks of overreaction in the unlikely event the scientists are wrong? Many experts in the humanitarian sector (in which I used to work) will tell you that climate change is the single greatest threat to all the progress that’s been made combating poverty, hunger, and disease over the last few decades.

Now it’s not as if one party is more virtuous than the other. The truth is, hypocrisy runs deep on both sides of the political divide. Those of us who are Christians would do well to remember this as we engage in (or disengage from) the political process this year.

Politics is not just the art of governing; it’s also the pursuit of power. And in our increasingly polarized society, it seems to be more about the latter than the former. Hence our never-ending election cycle.

That’s why Christians should be wary of getting too cozy with either party. Because we are called to serve, not to become someone else’s pawn in their accumulation of power. We are called to speak truth to power but never to seek it for ourselves. Ever notice how the Old Testament prophets routinely confronted the kings of Israel without seeking their favor or patronage?

It’s not that there’s no place for Christian political engagement. I believe there is. But I also believe our role is to be a prophetic voice, and you can’t do that when you’re a mouthpiece for one party or the other.

So when Democrats talk about protecting the vulnerable in our midst, we can applaud while also pointing out the blind spot in their thinking when it comes to abortion. And when Republicans talk about the sanctity of life, we can say amen while also reminding them that life is just as sacred outside the womb as in it.

This may not be a strategy for electoral success, but as Christians, aren’t we called to believe in something bigger?

So last week I wrote about this thing called Election Day Communion, the brainchild of two Mennonite pastors — one in Indiana, the other in Virginia. Next thing I know, I’m helping out in my spare time.

Two Mennonites and an Episcopalian. We should start a moving company.

It’s too soon to tell whether this will end up being just a handful of churches or something bigger. There are hopeful signs, though, like this post from Kurt Willems. And this shout-out from Greg Boyd:

There are rumors of at least one denomination coming on board.

But the lure of partisan politics is strong. It will not be tamed easily. Idols don’t go down without a fight, especially in an election year.

The truth is, too many of us have been swept away by the 24-hour news cycle, the relentless pursuit of power, the increasing polarization of our society.

These are not just the sins of the Religious Right. They’re the sins of all of us who’ve ever put our faith in a political messiah to bring about the kind of kingdom we think our country needs.

Remember when “hope” was more than a political slogan?

It’s not that our world doesn’t desperately need hope. It’s that hope never comes in the form of a ballot, a Super PAC, or a gun. It doesn’t come when we amass enough votes to impose our will on those living on the other side of the “us” vs. “them” divide.

It comes when we start doing what Jesus told us to do. When we take up a cross. Serve. Love. Sacrifice. Turn the other cheek instead of fighting back.

It comes when we subvert injustice and proclaim freedom to the broken and the beaten down.

It comes when we refuse to play by the world’s rules anymore, when we opt out of the world’s zero-sum power game. It comes when we stop trying to build an empire for ourselves.

So what if, when Barack Obama offers us “change we can believe in,” we remember the real source of lasting change? Body and blood, bread and wine. The gifts of God for the people of God.

What if, when Mitt Romney tells us to “believe in America,” we remember that we are called to believe in something bigger?

What if we start living like the resurrection really does change everything?

 

One more reason to love the Anabaptist tradition (and there are many): a group of Mennonite pastors are organizing a campaign for Christians from all political and denominational backgrounds to come together on Election Day, November 6, to celebrate communion.

The aim is to remind ourselves “that real power in this world — the power to save, to transform, to change – ultimately rests not in political parties or presidents or protests but in the life, the death, and the resurrection of Jesus.”

It’s a reminder that there is only one “Christian nation,” that it’s the church, and that it demolishes all the old ethnic, national, and political boundaries that divide us from one another.

It’s a reminder that freedom isn’t something any government or political ideology can secure for us, that true freedom “comes with a cost and it looks like a cross.”

So a little over two months from now, whether you vote for Barack Obama, Mitt Romney, an alternative candidate, or no one at all, consider taking up this invitation to communion.

http://electiondaycommunion.org

I hate it when the wrecking ball arrives just as I’m settling into a new home.

A little over a year ago, my wife and I joined the Episcopal Church. We were confirmed on a Saturday. Our daughter was baptized the following day, Pentecost Sunday.

Last week, Episcopalians wrapped up their triennial convention, and the big story was our denomination’s impending demise.

Over the last three years, nearly 200,000 people have fled the Episcopal Church. The long-term picture is even more depressing. One in four regular worshippers have disappeared from our pews during the past decade.

You can feel it in our more-than-half-empty churches. If this pace continues (and it probably will), in 20 years the Episcopal Church will be half its already-diminished size.

Episcopalianism has been a part of this country for over 400 years. At this rate, we won’t make it another 400. We won’t even come close.

Enter conservative columnist Ross Douthat, who blames the decline on the extreme liberalism he sees in mainline denominations like mine. In a recent New York Times editorial, he asked whether “liberal Christianity can be saved.”

Despite some of the reaction to his piece, I think Douthat asks some important questions. His article  was thought-provoking and nuanced. We should listen, for example, when he urges liberal Christians to come out of their denial:

Both religious and secular liberals have been loath to recognize this crisis. Leaders of liberal churches have alternated between a Monty Python-esque “it’s just a flesh wound!” bravado and a weird self-righteousness about their looming extinction.

Yet Douthat sees no cause for celebration in the demise of liberal Christianity. He warns conservatives — many of whom left denominations like mine years ago — against triumphalism:

The defining idea of liberal Christianity — that faith should spur social reform as well as personal conversion — has been an immensely positive force in our national life. No one should wish for its extinction, or for a world where Christianity becomes the exclusive property of the political right.

Douthat encourages liberal Christians to remember why they exist in the first place — and what sets them apart from their secular counterparts. He laments that most “leaders of the Episcopal Church and similar bodies don’t seem to be offering anything you can’t already get from a purely secular liberalism.”

There are days when I worry about that too. In my tradition, we’ve devoted plenty of time and energy to the ways in which Christianity needs to evolve. But at the end of the day, is there anything left of “historic Christianity” which, to quote Douthat again, we would “defend and offer uncompromisingly to the world”?

I think it’s a valid question.

I believe that historic, orthodox Christianity offers a compelling foundation for many of the “progressive” causes taken up by my denomination (and many other Christians as well). But is our engagement consciously rooted in the reality of the resurrected Christ and his kingdom? Would anyone even know if it was?

For example, are we advocating for the Millennium Development Goals (a subject on which our Presiding Bishop has spoken eloquently a number of times) simply because it’s the cause du jour of the industrialized world? Or is it because the resurrected Christ compels us to labor so that everyone can experience life “to the full” now and in the future?

Are we demanding diversity and equality outside the church only? Or do we also practice it in our churches, acting from the conviction that God is making a new, worldwide family — one where the old barriers are rendered meaningless?

Are we just welcoming gays and lesbians into our congregations, or are we also inviting them (and everyone else, for that matter) to make Christ the center of their lives?

These are questions we ought to be asking as we take stock of our diminishment. If what we have to offer the world is indistinguishable from secular liberalism — if it is not at its core a vibrant, Christ-centered faith that compels us to embrace causes like caring for the poor and the planet — then, well, who needs us?

Or as the apostle Paul put it once, if the tomb is not empty, then what’s the point?

That being said, I think there were a few other factors which Douthat didn’t address. (To be fair, Douthat only had about 800 words to work with). Here are some other lessons I think we should take from the Episcopal Church’s decline.

1. All Christians, liberal and conservative, are in the same boat.

Last week, Gallup revealed that public confidence in organized religion has reached an all-time low. Just 4 in 10 Americans have much faith in the church, down from 60 percent as recently as September 2001.

It’s not just liberal Christianity that’s in decline. We may have been hit with it first, but now others are joining the party. The Southern Baptist Convention, a stalwart of evangelical conservatism, has been declining five years in a row. Their rate of decline increased more than 600 percent from 2009 to 2011. (In fairness, they still have a long way to go before they catch up to us.)

Pundits will offer competing theories to explain Christianity’s decline in the West. Whatever you make of it, though, it’s no longer confined to one ideological corner of the church.

2. You can’t have it both ways.

It’s fascinating to hear some Christians interpret the mainline church’s decline as proof of God’s disapproval. Mark Driscoll, for example, is fond of comparing the growth rate at his church with that of other groups with whom he disagrees.

There are, of course, a couple problems with this approach. First, if numbers are the clearest sign of God’s (dis)approval, then we should all drop what we’re doing and start imitating Joel Osteen. (Mark, you’re gonna need a new hairdo.)

Second, let’s be honest. Most of us only apply this logic when it works in our favor. How many Southern Baptists would countenance the notion that their decline is punishment for some doctrinal error or apostasy? When it’s some other group who’s hurting, we tend to assume it’s because they’ve lost their way. Yet when we’re the ones facing decline, either we go into denial (it’s just a fluke!) or we nurse a martyrdom complex (being right has a cost!), as Douthat rightly points out.

Speaking of martyrdom complexes…

3. Sometimes the right course is the unpopular one.

Within two years of ordaining its first openly gay bishop, the Episcopal Church lost 115,000 members. No one questions why they left. And the debate over that decision is a long way from being resolved.

But when was the last time Episcopalians experienced a comparable exodus? 1967 to 1969.

During that two-year period, the church lost an almost identical number of people — in part because it started speaking out against racial discrimination.

Was the fallout from that decision a sign of God’s displeasure? Was the Episcopal Church capitulating to culture, or was it leading prophetically? (Bear in mind it would be another 25 years before Southern Baptists apologized for their support of slavery and segregation.)

Doing the right thing is no guarantee of success. Nor are skyrocketing numbers always proof you’re doing the right thing.

4. Maybe all our fighting is driving people away.

There’s no question many have left the Episcopal Church because of the national body’s more controversial decisions in recent years. Heck, we’ve lost entire dioceses. So in one sense, the commentators are right. This fight is costing us.

But that’s the point. What if it’s the fight (more than the underlying issues) that’s turning people away?

Most people who’ve left the Episcopal Church have done so because their conscience compels them — not because they’re hateful or mean-spiritied. But in the process, both sides have engaged in a knock-down, drag-out fight — including, among other things, taking each other to court. (Didn’t Paul have something to say about that?) I haven’t followed every sordid detail, but it seems likely to me that both sides have escalated this fight in ways it didn’t need to be escalated.

So what if it’s not just the Episcopal Church (or the congregations who’ve left) that people are staying away from, but Christianity as a whole?

Today, most outsiders define the church according to its worst characteristics: anti-gay (91% say this), judgmental (87%), hypocritical (85%), and too political (75%). Meanwhile, most major denominations are experiencing (or are about to experience) some form of decline.

Is it possible these two facts are related?

Perhaps we should consider the possibility that how we — and I mean all of us, liberal and conservative — handle conflict is driving people away.

_______________________

Related: 

This is an updated (and mercifully shortened) version of a post
I wrote five years ago…

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Today is July 4, the day Americans light fireworks at ungodly hours and listen to the music of Lee Greenwood.

Many church sanctuaries will be draped in red, white, and blue this week; and many Christian thought leaders will argue once more that America was founded as a Christian nation.

There is, in fact, lots to admire about our revolutionary history. Many of our founding fathers, like John Adams, were men of great moral character. Others (*cough* Jefferson, *cough* Franklin) were not.

For me, perhaps the finest moment of the American Revolution came when it was over. General Washington, fresh from his triumph over Lord Cornwallis, had the chance to become America’s first king. Instead, he resigned his commission and went home.

Several years later, Washington was elected America’s first president, but he voluntarily stood down after just two terms, setting a precedent that was later enshrined in the Constitution. He laid the foundation for a peaceful transition from one government to the next — something many countries would kill (and have killed) for.

And yet… for me, the marriage of Christianity and nationalism isn’t exactly a match made in heaven.

While it’s true many of the founding fathers invoked God as they gave the call to arms (providing fodder for the Christian Identity movement), that wasn’t not exactly a new idea. Plenty of people — from revolutionaries to despots — have used God’s name to sanctify their chosen course of action. Sometimes for noble purposes, sometimes not.

The real question is whether it’s legitimate to invoke the name of God to justify our revolutionary past. If we are (or were) a Christian nation, then the Bible should be the standard by which we judge our history, right?

If it is, then how do we reconcile our violent beginnings with these words from the Apostle Peter?

Live such good lives among the pagans that, though they accuse you of doing wrong, they may see your good deeds and glorify Godon the day he visits us.

Submit yourselves for the Lord’s sake to every human authority: whether to the emperor, as the supreme authority, or to governors, who are sent by him to punish those who do wrong and to commend those who do right. For it is God’s will that by doing good you should silence the ignorant talk of foolish people. Live as free people, but do not use your freedom as a cover-up for evil; live as God’s slaves. Show proper respect to everyone, love the family of believers, fear God, honor the emperor.

Bear in mind Peter was addressing Christians living under the thumb of the Roman Emperor Nero (or perhaps Domitian), a ruler far more tyrannical than any 18th-century British monarch. Peter himself would be executed by Rome, not long after writing this letter.

And then there’s Jesus. Much like the founding fathers, he grew up in a land ruled by a distant monarch. Many of his countrymen were caught up with revolutionary zeal, determined to overthrow their oppressors by force.

Jesus spent most of his adult life within a few miles of the birthplace of the Zealots — a movement whose tactics could be compared to those of the “Swamp Fox” of American revolutionary lore.

But in one of his most politically charged sermons, Jesus categorically rejected the way of the Zealot:

But I tell you, do not resist an evil person. If anyone slaps you on the right cheek, turn to them the other cheek also.And if anyone wants to sue you and take your shirt, hand over your coat as well. If anyone forces you to go one mile, go with them two miles.

To his listeners, Jesus articulated an uncompromising stand against military resistance, even against the cruelest of tyrants.

What’s more, Jesus practiced what he preached, even (and especially) when his own back was against the wall. When Jesus was arrested outside Jerusalem, Peter reacted like a Zealot: he began swinging his sword. Instead of urging him on, Jesus stunned Peter with this rebuke:

Put your sword back in its place, for all who draw the sword will die by the sword.

The fate of anyone who raises a sword is sealed, says Jesus. They will be cut down by yet another sword.

Revolution breeds only more revolution. Insurgency breeds counterinsurgency. Peace — lasting peace, that is — does not come by force. If it did, we would all speak Latin today. “Peace through victory” was the mantra of history’s mightiest empire, yet even Rome succumbed to someone else’s bloody path to victory.

Sorting out what all this means for us today isn’t necessarily easy. After all, the Bible doesn’t always fit neatly into our predefined categories (which I would argue forces us to take it more seriously). Along with the stubbornly nonviolent Jesus and Peter (who learned his lesson following the incident in the garden), the New Testament also mentions more than one soldier who wasn’t required to abandon his post as a prerequisite for following Jesus.

Some Christians today have come to the conclusion that military service is incompatible with our faith — perhaps (like Derek Webb) not wanting to surrender their conscience to the government, letting someone else decide for them when it’s OK to kill another human being.The New Testament may not forbid military service, but it doesn’t quite encourage it either. Either way, the scriptures call us to embrace a distinctly nonviolent alternative to the notion of “peace through victory.”

No matter what path we choose, and no matter what emblem is stamped on the front of our passports, may we always strive to be good citizens of God’s kingdom first and foremost. May we remember that we can only serve one master, and that loyalty to God always trumps loyalty to country.

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