Halfway out of the dark… yet?

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It’s appropriate that winter solstice falls near the end of Advent, even if it’s a reminder of how our celebration of Christ’s birth got wound up in the pagan festivities of ancient Rome.

It’s appropriate because Advent is a symbol of what we observe in the sky: today, we’re halfway out of the dark (to quote a certain Doctor Who Christmas special). The night has not yet lost its grip on the world, but its power is waning every day. Our redemption is not yet complete, but it has begun.

Not that it feels like the night is losing its grip. It will be a long time still before the sun feels warmer on our skin and the days longer. Some nights, it’s hard to believe we are headed out of the darkness at all.

I wrote pretty much the same thing this time last year. In 2014, there was no shortage of heartbreak to make us wonder if the night would ever recede. A brutal war in Gaza. The persecution of religious minorities in Iraq. Systemic racism claiming victims such as Eric Garner, Michael Brown, and Tamir Rice.

This year, the examples have changed. But not that much, really.

A brutal war in Syria, along with attacks in Paris, Lebanon, and San Bernardino.

The persecution of refugees fleeing violence.

The unbridled hostility toward Muslims in our own country.

Systemic racism claiming still more victims while the rest of us shrug: Sandra Bland, Laquan McDonald, the nine martyrs of Charleston.

It’s hard to believe the night is receding when serious contenders for high office stoke the fires of xenophobia, when professing Christians talk glibly about packing heat so they can take down “those Muslims,” when the only answer the world can muster to the scourge of violence is… more violence. (You’d think after 10,000+ years of human civilization…)

It’s hard to believe the night is receding when our racism is laid bare—racism we foolishly thought we’d dealt with. It’s hard to believe our redemption is near when we continue to exclude those who are different—those who don’t “conform” or tick the right boxes. When we zealously rebuild the “dividing walls” our savior tore down. When we blatantly ignore the teachings of Christ in favor of self-preservation and self-protection.

But that’s the mystery of redemption, isn’t it?

If our redemption feels as though it’s a long time coming, the question we should ask is not, “What’s taking so long?” or “Will it ever come?”

The question we should ask is, “What am I doing to bring it about?”

Redemption is God’s business. Only he could initiate it. Only he can bring it to fulfillment. But after securing our redemption with his death and resurrection, Jesus did a strange thing.

He left.

He entrusted the still-incomplete work of redemption to a fledgling band of followers.

He said to those left behind, “You will receive power.”

Those followers began thinking of themselves as the “body of Christ”—the physical, tangible manifestation of their redeemer.

Redemption has not stalled. God has not stopped dwelling among us. His presence has simply taken on new form: us.

At Christmastime, we celebrate our redemption in the form of a helpless baby. But we should also learn to see redemption in the form of our own hands and feet. God has entrusted his project to us… and we’re not doing very well with it, are we?

That’s the thing about redemption: ours is tied up in the world’s.

If it feels like God’s redemptive plan for the world has stalled, perhaps we should ask whether it has stalled in us.

Are we still committed to being the hands and feet of Christ—the physical, tangible manifestation of our redeemer—which, by the way, means hands that are outstretched and open, not clenched in a fist?

Are we still committed to putting the good of the other over the preservation of ourselves?

If not, then what we are seeking is not redemption.

There is a way out of the dark. The night will recede. But only when we choose to become the agents of redemption that God has called us to be.

Photo: Icy Morning Glow by Sonja und Jens on Flickr / CC BY 2.0

A prayer for our enemies

From the Book of Common Prayer:

O God, the Father of all, whose Son commanded us to love our enemies:

Lead them and us from prejudice to truth;

deliver them and us from hatred, cruelty, and revenge;

and in your good time enable us all to stand reconciled before you;

through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.

(HT Jim Vining, image via Kurt Willems)

When I think about my sponsored child in Gaza…

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His name is Bahaaldin. He’s 13, and he lives in Gaza.

My wife and I have been sponsoring Bahaaldin for almost 6 years now. Or, as time seems to be measured in Gaza, through three wars and counting.

Recently, the bombs began to fall on Rafah, Gaza’s southernmost city. Where Bahaaldin lives. A ceasefire that was supposed to last three days didn’t even last 30 minutes. Both sides, of course, blame the other for breaking the truce. The bombardment added dozens more to the list of casualties. Some 1,500 dead and counting. An overwhelming number of them civilians.

I have no idea if Bahaaldin is OK.

Scratch that. I know he’s not OK. Even if he and his family made it through the bombing physically unscathed, he won’t be OK. Not by a long shot.

How could he be?

Would you?

World Vision has spent the last several years in Gaza trying to help kids cope with the inevitable trauma, mental and emotional, that comes from living in a perpetual war zone. They’ve been trying to halt the cycle of violence. Trying to show kids another way. Trying to show them they don’t have to fight. They don’t have to throw their lives away in a futile quest for retribution.

Saher, 5, a World Vision sponsored child killed in Gaza (photo credit: World Vision International)

Saher, 5, a World Vision child killed in Gaza (credit: World Vision).

Earlier this summer, several World Vision kids gathered on a beach in Gaza and sent kites into the air, carrying messages of peace. One of those kids was 5-year-old Saher. He was killed a month later when an Israeli warplane bombed his home.

For now, World Vision has been forced to suspend all but the most basic humanitarian operations in Gaza. It’s not easy rendering aid when even the shelters are being targeted. Another World Vision sponsored child was killed recently when the Israeli military bombed a UN school where families were taking shelter.

Altogether, five World Vision kids have been killed so far.

I have no idea how groups like World Vision go about picking up the pieces after this. What I do know is that every bomb dropped on Gaza—every mortar, every missile—undermines their peace-building efforts. Every bombed-out school or shelter is yet another setback as they try to show kids a way out of this never-ending cycle of violence. 

After all, you can only help kids learn to sleep again at night so many times. You can only ask them to endure so much trauma. You can only tell them it’ll be all right so many times before it starts to ring hollow.

This is the third war these kids have lived—and died—through in six years. You try telling them there’s another way out. Every Hamas rocket, every Israeli missile sends the same message: the only way out is to shoot your way out.

I’d like to tell you that there’s something you can do, that you can help by sponsoring a child in Gaza. But if you go to the World Vision US website and look for a Palestinian child to help, you won’t find one. I was only able to sponsor Bahaaldin was because I worked at World Vision at the time.

Because let’s talk reality. We both know what would happen if they were to offer child sponsorship opportunities in Gaza. They would get an earful (and then some) from those who put politics—or, in this case, a toxic combination of politics and eschatology—ahead of compassion for kids.

In the end, that’s what makes peace so difficult to achieve. We see kids being killed, and somehow our first impulse is to start a political or theological argument. If that’s not screwed up, I don’t know what is.

If we can watch kids in Gaza die and our first impulse is anything other than to say, “This has to stop NOW,” then we do not have the mind of Christ. We do not have the answer.

And unless we repent, we’re part of the reason kids like Bahaaldin will be so very far from being OK, even if he and his family survive.

Why evangelicals should think twice about equating modern Israel with Israel of the Bible

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The other day, I raised a question for evangelicals who think standing with Israel means supporting them no matter what. How do you reconcile a “never criticize Israel” mentality with the overwhelming witness of the biblical prophets?

If you’ve been told that unconditional support for Israel is the only “biblical” position, that the modern-day state enjoys the same kind of “most favored nation” status with God as ancient Israel did, then here’s another question. If Israel today is entitled to the covenant blessings spoken by the Old Testament, what about their covenant obligations?

The Bible never spoke of Israel’s covenant blessings apart from their obligations. It’s no use trying to have one without the other. And at least one of these obligations poses a bit of a problem for the modern state of Israel, if it is indeed the same nation as the one in the Bible.

Ancient Israel was not supposed to have a standing army. They weren’t supposed to stockpile weapons. There were no taxes to fund a permanent military. Israel’s rulers were forbidden from amassing large numbers of horses (Deuteronomy 17:16-17)—which was about as close as you could get to an arms race in the ancient Near East. Israel’s king was not supposed to make foreign military alliances. God stipulated that Israel should remain militarily weak so they would learn to trust him for protection.

Israel wasn’t allowed to conscript anyone into military service. If you didn’t want to fight, you didn’t have to fight. Note this remarkable command from Deuteronomy 20:

When you go to war against your enemies… the officers shall say to the army: “Has anyone built a new house and not yet begun to live in it? Let him go home, or he may die in battle and someone else may begin to live in it. Has anyone planted a vineyard and not begun to enjoy it? Let him go home, or he may die in battle and someone else enjoy it. Has anyone become pledged to a woman and not married her? Let him go home, or he may die in battle and someone else marry her.” Then the officers shall add, “Is anyone afraid or fainthearted? Let him go home so that his fellow soldiers will not become disheartened too.”

There were times when God whittled down Israel’s fighting force to an impossibly small number—as a reminder that they were not supposed to rely on their own military strength.

Micah 5—the same passage which said the Messiah would be born in Bethlehem—also said that in that day God would destroy Israel’s horses and demolish its chariots. Israel’s military implements are mentioned in the same breath as other signs of their apostasy: witchcraft, idols, sacred stones, Asherah poles. The prophets considered militarization a form of idolatry—a blatant violation of Israel’s covenant with God.

If modern Israel is the same covenant nation written about in the Old Testament, then they are under the same covenant obligations. And that covenant forbids militarization. It declares militarization a form of idolatry.

If the modern Israeli state is not bound to these covenant obligations, then they aren’t entitled to the covenant blessings, either. You cannot have one without the other. If the laws that governed Israel in the Old Testament do not apply to Israel today, then they are just another nation, and they should be held to the same standard as every other nation.

Would we stand for any other democratic nation on earth driving people off of land that’s been in their families for generations? Would we stand for any other nation building settlements on land that almost everyone agrees belongs to someone else? Would we stand for them restricting people’s freedom of movement, bulldozing their homes, and killing thousands of innocent civilians?

Of course we wouldn’t. And we shouldn’t stand for violence committed by Palestinian groups either. But evangelicals keep giving Israel a free pass. They do so because they believe it is God’s covenant nation. Yet when it comes to holding Israel to the stipulations of that covenant… silence.

So which is it? Is modern Israel bound to the covenant or not? Either way, you’ll have a hard time justifying its treatment of their Palestinian neighbors.

RELATED POSTS: 
If you think “standing with Israel” means never criticizing them, you’re going to have to get a new Bible
When I think about my sponsored child in Gaza
The problem with using the Bible to settle the Israeli-Palestinian conflict

Note: For a helpful summary of covenant stipulations forbidding militarization in ancient Israel, see chapter 3 of Preston Sprinkle’s book Fight: A Christian Case for Nonviolence

Photo credit: Israeli Defense Force on Flickr (image cropped) / CC BY-SA 2.0

 

If you think “standing with Israel” means never criticizing them, you’re going to have to get a new Bible

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Let’s say, for the sake of argument, that from a biblical perspective the modern state of Israel and the Old Testament nation are one and the same. Let’s say the old covenant is still in force, that the founding of modern-day Israel in 1948 fulfilled biblical prophecy.

Let’s say, for the sake of argument, that Paul’s assertion that “all Israel will be saved” was a political statement rather than an expression of his belief that Jesus would rescue his own people from sin and death, along with Gentiles.

Many evangelicals take some or all of these assumptions to be indisputable fact (though evangelical support for Israel may not be as unanimous or unilateral as commonly thought). A plurality of evangelical leaders believe the founding of modern Israel fulfilled biblical prophecy. White evangelicals overwhelmingly sympathize with Israel in their conflict with the Palestinians. Half of evangelicals reject any possibility of peace between Israel and Palestine. Only 12% of white evangelicals believe the US should scale back its support for Israel.

The belief that the modern state of Israel is entitled to the blessings and benefits of what Christians regard as the “old covenant” gives way to yet another evangelical sentiment: namely, that it’s never OK to criticize the Israeli government. That “standing with Israel” means supporting them no matter what they do.

No matter how many Palestinian children are killed in the crossfire.

No matter how many homes and farms they bulldoze.

No matter how many walls they build.

No matter how many settlements they establish on Palestinian land, knowing full well that each one makes a viable Palestinian state more unlikely.

This sentiment was on full display in the aftermath of the reprehensible kidnapping and murder of three Israeli teenagers and the subsequent retaliation by Israeli extremists. As Benjamin Corey wrote:

What bothers me most is that when news broke of the death of the Israeli teenagers, the internet lit up with your standard “stand with Israel” cheers, yet whenever Israel is the agent of aggression or retaliation, things go silent. The only voices who speak up are a few brave souls who are willing to be castigated by other Christians for having the courage to stand up against the violence and oppression of the nation state of Israel.

Why do we do this? Why does Israel get a free pass in doing whatever they want? They bulldoze communities so they can build illegal settlements, and we say and do nothing. They systematically use violence and oppression over their neighbors, and yet we say and do nothing. When things over heat, they retaliate—burning children alive, and we say and do nothing.

Why? Why would we be so foolish as to completely ignore behavior on the part of Israel that would in any other circumstance result in international sanctions or worse?

Let’s say modern Israel IS a continuation of the Old Testament kingdom (with the noticeable absence of a king or a temple). Let’s say the new covenant promised by Jeremiah and inaugurated by Jesus didn’t bring the old covenant to completion. Let’s say God didn’t expand the definition of Israel (in a spiritual sense—that is, his chosen people) to include Gentiles alongside Jews. Let’s say the dispensationalists are right.

Or, to put it as Benjamin Corey did, let’s say the “stand with Israel” folks are right.

How do we conclude from any of this that it’s not OK to criticize the Israeli state—especially when so much of the Hebrew Scriptures are themselves a prophetic critique of Israel? 

If “standing with Israel” means never saying anything negative about the Israeli government and berating anyone who does, then we should have nothing but contempt for the biblical prophets. We should cut them out of our Bibles. They should be condemned for treason against Israel.

In fact, they were. Amos was accused of conspiring against the government and was driven out of town. Jeremiah was thrown in prison by the king of Judah for predicting Jerusalem’s downfall.

The prophets routinely condemned Israel and its leaders for wishing destruction rather than mercy on their enemies (Jonah); for wrongly assuming that their military advances and territorial expansion were signs of God’s favor (Amos); for murder, theft, and adultery (Hosea); for coveting and seizing other people’s fields and houses (Micah); and for relying on military power instead of trusting God to protect them (Isaiah).

The prophets did not hold back. For them, “standing with Israel” meant speaking out whenever the nation fell into idolatry and injustice. Being God’s chosen people didn’t mean they got a free pass. If anything, they answered to an even higher expectation of integrity.

The prophets understood what Benjamin Corey states so well:

The best way to bless someone who is caught up in destructive behavior is not to condone or to support the behavior, but to lovingly confront the behavior and show them a better way.

Believing that the Israeli state is synonymous with the Old Testament kingdom shouldn’t change how we respond when it acts unjustly toward its Palestinian neighbors. Nor should our response be different when Palestinians perpetuate the cycle of violence in their own ways—though, as Benjamin Corey argues, those with greater power should be held to a higher standard.

It would be disingenuous to read the prophets as divinely inspired Scripture yet condemn others for doing and saying what they did. The best way to truly stand with Israel is to follow the prophets’ example, to lovingly but firmly confront evil and injustice, whoever the perpetrators might be.

Image credit: Zach Evener on Flickr / CC BY 2.0

Blueprint for a reconfigured humanity

Some of the discussion around Monday’s Memorial Day post reflects a tension Christians have long wrestled with in this country: just how far are we expected to go in living out Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount?

It’s tempting to think of Jesus’ definitive sermon as a personal ethic, a moral ideal meant for individuals, not whole societies or communities. And while the teachings in the Sermon on the Mount were directed to Jesus’ followers (and would-be followers), they were more than suggestions on how to be a better person. Jesus envisioned a far more radical transformation; his Sermon on the Mount was his blueprint for a reconfigured humanity. And this blueprint was built on a foundation of nonretaliation and enemy-love, which preclude violence as a way of achieving our desired ends.

Preston Sprinkle does a great job unpacking the nonviolent teachings of Jesus and their broader implications in chapters 6 and 7 of his book Fight: A Christian Case for Nonviolence. What’s fascinating is that he does so from within a conservative Reformed perspective. I was part of this tradition for several years, and I never heard someone of his perspective advocate for nonviolence until now. As someone who wholeheartedly agrees that nonretaliation is more than some “insignificant whisper” on the margins of Jesus’ teachings, I hope Preston’s case gets a wide hearing in conservative Reformed circles—and beyond.

Here are some quotes were reflecting on:

Jesus’ Sermon [on the Mount] is more than a personal ethic—a way in which individuals can be better people. Rather, the Sermon is intended to reconfigure God’s new community, to mold His people into a visibly different kingdom in the face of all other imposter kingdoms. Or in Jesus’ own words, we are to be the “salt of the earth” and the “light of the world”—a public display of a different way.

Jesus invades every sphere of our lives. He claims lordship over it all… He doesn’t let us hold on to little compartments of life where we can respond to evil however we darn well please. Trying to find exceptions to the rule works against what Jesus is doing here. Jesus demands Calvary-shaped behavior that confounds and loves the enemy.

The New Testament is ubiquitously clear: don’t retaliate with evil for evil; do good to those who hate you; embrace your enemy with a cross-shaped, unyielding divine love. Such a rich and pervasive trajectory—from Jesus’ Sermon [on the Mount], modeled through His life, commended to His disciples, taken up by the apostles, and demanded of the early church—shows that nonretaliation and enemy-love are not some insignificant whisper lingering on the edge of Jesus’ ethical landscape. They are fundamental identity markers for citizens of God’s kingdom.

You can order Preston’s book here.

Retributive violence is still violence, even when it’s a slushie

Nonretaliation and enemy-love are not some insignificant whisper lingering on the edge of Jesus’ ethical landscape. They are fundamental identity markers for citizens of God’s kingdom.

— Preston Sprinkle, Fight

It can be argued that Christine Weick committed an act of violence when she spent Mother’s Day camped at a busy intersection in suburban Grand Rapids with her sign condemning gays…

Violence against a day meant to honor all the moms (straight or otherwise) who’ve chosen nurture over hatred…

Violence against those who already feel marginalized by the church…

Violence against her own faith which, however you feel about same-sex marriage, should never be reduced to this one issue.

But it can also be argued that Jessica Prince committed an act of violence when she threw her slushie at Weick. Granted, neither act caused physical harm. But we all know there’s more than one way to hurt someone.

To be honest, part of me wanted to cheer when I saw Prince empty the contents of her plastic cup over Weick on local TV. Like many on both sides of the gay marriage debate, I’m wearied by the antics of Westboro Baptist Church and their imitators. It’s not hard to think Christine Weick got a small taste of what she deserves.

Except that retributive violence — whether bullets, bombs, or projectile slushie — can never resolve conflict. Retributive violence can only escalate it.

When a news crew showed up to cover Weick’s solo protest, it was going to be a one-off story about the kind person that has nothing better to do on Mother’s Day than show the world how angry she is about the existence of gay people. Or maybe a story on some of the peaceful counter-protestors who showed up with handmade signs of their own.

That was it. Weick would get her two minutes of fame on the local news, and the story would be history.

Now it’s taken on a life of its own, as a mildly trending story about an anti-gay/pro-family protestor (depending on your political point of view) becoming the victim of a slushie assault. It’s fresh ammunition for those who didn’t exactly need our help nursing a persecution complex.

Jessica Prince’s action turned a minor story into something bigger. Because retributive violence can never resolve conflict. It can only escalate it.

Which, perhaps, is one reason why, if you’re a Christian, the option of dishing out violence in return for violence has been taken away from you. “Put your sword back in its place,” Jesus told Peter. Elsewhere, Jesus overturned the Old Testament formula of blessing those who bless you and cursing those who curse you:

Love your enemies,
do good to those who hate you,
bless those who curse you,
pray for those who mistreat you.

Love and retributive violence cannot occupy the same space. Or, as Jesus’ brother James wrote, “Out of the same mouth come praise and cursing… this should not be.”

Which makes the incongruity of Jessica Prince’s confrontation with Christine Weick even more distressing, at least from a Christian point of view. (The unedited version was posted to YouTube by WOOD-TV.)

After dumping the contents of her slushie cup on Weick, Prince told her:

God teaches you to love one another, no matter what you look like, no matter what you do, and no matter who you love.

Yet in practically the same breath, she went on:

You know what? You’re going to hell. God will make you burn for that… I hope someone who drives by who has bigger balls than me will beat your f****** a**.

OK, granted… no one appointed Jessica Prince a spokesperson for anything. She’s not a good representative for those of us who want churches — and society in general — to adopt a more loving posture toward our gay and lesbian neighbors.

But I think there’s a little bit of Jessica Prince in all of us — a part of us that wants God to make our enemies burn, a part of us that wants to watch someone beat the crap out of them. But as Preston Sprinkle writes in his excellent book Fight, Jesus “doesn’t let us hold on to little compartments of life where we can respond to evil however we darn well please.”

Subverting evil with love is the only option if you are a Christian. There is no other way, not even dousing someone with slushie.

Children of the drone strikes: do they matter any less than the children of Sandy Hook?

Predator drone (photo: U.S. Air Force photo/Lt Col Leslie Pratt)

Like most people, I remember watching the news unfold on December 14, 2012, when Adam Lanza gunned down 20 first-graders and 6 adults at Sandy Hook Elementary School.

I’m old enough to remember the mass shootings that preceded Sandy Hook. Killeen. Columbine. Virginia Tech. Sandy Hook was different, of course. Most of the victims were six, maybe seven years old.

The horror I felt was different, too, because this time I was a parent. My daughter was only two at the time — young enough that, thankfully, we didn’t have to tell her what had taken place. Her innocence remained intact… for now, at least.

But for the first time, I felt what every parent feels when a tragedy involving children takes place. That sense of utter powerlessness. The realization that it could happen here, in my daughter’s school. I’ve heard others describe parenthood as watching your heart walk outside your body. I finally know what they’re talking about, and it’s a disquieting experience, to say the least.

In the aftermath of Sandy Hook, I remember watching President Obama assume the role of mourner-in-chief, a duty he performed with exceptional skill: comforting victims’ families, eulogizing the dead, giving voice to the grief we all felt, and standing up to a recalcitrant gun lobby whose only answer to unspeakable gun violence is… more guns. (When all you have is a hammer…)

In his book Fight: A Christian Case for Nonviolence, Preston Sprinkle raises a troubling question: how can the president mourn the children of Sandy Hook while authorizing drone strikes which have killed hundreds of children in Pakistan and Yemen?

How can any of us mourn one while rationalizing the other?

Reports vary, but almost all of them (with the possible exception of the CIA) reveal that military drone strikes aren’t nearly as precise as our leaders have led us to believe.

  • According to a Columbia Law School study, up to 155 of an estimated 611 people killed by drone strikes in Pakistan during 2011 were civilians. That’s 1 innocent for every 4 suspected militants…
  • Suspected being the operative word. Only 20% of these suspected militants were “strongly identified” — that is, identified by name and their status corroborated by an independent, on-the-ground investigation.
  • Just last month, an errant drone strike killed more than dozen innocents in Yemen, because of an apparent failure to distinguish between a terrorist convoy and a wedding party.
  • In Yemen, drone strikes have killed an estimated 42 children. They’ve had to establish a counseling center to help surviving children cope with the traumatic effects of drone strikes — children who are terrified of the United States and its flying robots.

Are the children killed in these drone strikes worth any less than the children of Sandy Hook? Did their parents love them any less? Did God love them any less?

Many of us are uncomfortable putting them in the same category as the children of Sandy Hook. When it happens in Connecticut, we call it murder. When it happens in Pakistan, we call it “collateral damage,” if we acknowledge it at all.

Preston Sprinkle won’t let us off the hook, as I found out while reading his book yesterday. Contrasting the president’s response to Sandy Hook with his handling of drone strikes, Preston writes:

Can we extend his sympathy to the Middle East? Are the deaths of 168 incinerated children any less a tragedy than the massacre at Newtown? Or does their color, ethnicity, and religion justify their deaths?

Hard words.

They come at the end of a chapter in which Preston shows how the New Testament book of Revelation (famously the source of Mark Driscoll’s prize-fighting Jesus) is actually a message of nonviolence. Preston demonstrates that Revelation is a polemic against the violence and excess of the Roman Empire — and all empires that follow in its steps. He argues that God does not dish out violence in Revelation; he absorbs it. The blood spattered on Jesus’ robe in Revelation 19 is not the blood of his enemies; it’s his own.

Human violence is condemned, never encouraged in Revelation. The Pax Romana (peace of Rome) — which was really peace for some, violence for the rest — is a myth. It is anything but true peace. Some day, Rome and all other nations will be held to account for the blood “of all who have been slaughtered on the earth,” according to Revelation 18.

And that includes us.

Which is why it’s high time we heed Preston’s call to untangle our faith from American nationalism. It’s time we speak out against violence in all its forms, especially violence against children — no matter where it takes place. As Preston writes:

I mourn both tragedies — the death of innocent beautiful children in Connecticut and of the precious children in the Middle East. Both tragedies are evil. Both will be vindicated. Both will be judged.

 

Fight: A Christian Case for Nonviolence by Preston Sprinkle

How we sanitize the prophets

On his way to Jerusalem, Jesus broke out in lament for the prophets who preceded him. “Jerusalem, Jerusalem, you who kill the prophets and stone those sent to you…”

In Luke’s gospel, this particular rant follows a warning from some of the religious leaders. They wanted Jesus to know Herod was after him. “We’re trying to help,” they might well have protested at Jesus’ angry reaction. But Jesus knew better.

He knew that most of us are happy to welcome prophets who announce the renewal of our fortunes or the demise of our enemies. The welcome is somewhat lessened when the prophetic gaze turns to our own corruption. Which is why prophets have a way of getting killed.

But you don’t have to kill a prophet to stifle their voice. You just have to wait till they’re gone… then memorialize them. Sanitize them. Spin their message into something more palatable. Which usually means overlooking oracles that were aimed at us, so we can claim the prophet’s legacy as our own.

It’s no wonder Jesus railed against those who built tombs for the prophets their ancestors had murdered.

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Within hours of Nelson Mandela’s death, people were lining up to eulogize him, to claim a piece of his prophetic legacy. One US politician compared Mandela’s fight against apartheid to his own fight against the Affordable Care Act. (Never mind that Mandela made healthcare a universal right in South Africa.)

Others praised Mandela for leading a peaceful transition from apartheid—even though they once branded him a “terrorist” and gave their tacit support to the regime he sought to topple.

We like Mandela’s words of reconciliation and unity. But we shifted uncomfortably in our seats when he called  poverty a “social evil” or when he railed against atrocities we’ve committed in our “war on terror.”

—//—

We’ve done the same to Martin Luther King, Jr., sanitizing America’s greatest prophetic voice.

These days, we celebrate King as a voice against segregation and discrimination, and rightly so. We happily quote the line about all God’s children joining hands, but how many of us have read his “Letter from a Birmingham Jail”?

How many of us have taken to heart some of his more radical ideas, like his call for civil disobedience in the face of economic injustice? Or his critique of capitalism? Or his denunciation of violence and war?

Those in power have ways of dealing with prophets like King. Memorialize them. Give them a national holiday. Eulogize them. Take the oath of office on one of their Bibles. And for God’s sake, don’t trouble yourself with what they might’ve said about us if they were alive today.

We love to claim the popular bits of King’s prophetic legacy as our own… and sweep the rest under the rug.

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The church has not escaped this tendency to sanitize the prophetic voice. We feel it at Christmastime, surrounded by placid nativity scenes and plush Santas. We recite scriptures about “peace on earth.” But do we pause long enough to consider what that really means—or what it requires? Was it merely a vague expression of goodwill? Or was it something more incendiary—say, a direct challenge to Rome’s status as the guardian of peace on earth?

Christmas is the one time of year even most Protestants pay tribute to the Virgin Mary, but have we listened—really listened—to her song about reversing the fortunes of the rich and the hungry?

We repeat Isaiah’s proclamation that “unto us a child is born” and that the “government will be upon his shoulders.” But do we listen when he the policies of this child’s government, when he reveals what membership in his kingdom requires?

We mustn’t settle for the sanitized version of the prophets, ancient or modern. Their real message is harder for us to hear—but so much more important, too.

The offense of the gospel

“Yes, but the cross is an offense. So if you’re being true to the gospel, you’re going to offend someone.”

This is one of the more common rejoinders I hear when Christians are accused of being unloving.

(The idea that it’s OK — perhaps even necessary — to offend for the sake of the gospel has come up recently, for example, as a result of the Chick-fil-A debate. It’s implicit in J.P. Moreland’s response to Matthew Paul Turner’s Chick-fil-A post.)
And it’s true. The cross is an offense. It was scorned as utter folly by many in Paul’s day, just as it is by many today.

The way of Jesus is a stumbling block for lots of people.

The question is, what made it a stumbling block in the first place?

“The offense of the cross” is sometimes used to justify any offense we cause, however loosely connected to the gospel it may be. Like our participation in the never-ending culture wars and the “us vs. them” mentality we’ve cultivated. Was that really the original offense of the cross?

Let me suggest the cross is an offense for reasons that have nothing to do with politics, gays, or societal decay.

The cross is an offense because it rejects the world’s idea of power.

By going to the cross, Jesus renounced any claim to power. By staying his hand — by refusing to wield a sword in his defense or summon a hoard of angels — Jesus showed us that the way of the cross is the path of a servant, not a conqueror or a culture warrior.

“My kingdom is not of this world,” Jesus said during his trial. That’s why his followers didn’t fight to prevent his arrest. The kingdom of God doesn’t play by world’s rules.

To take up your cross, you have to lay down your sword, your placard, and maybe even your chicken sandwich. You have to give up the pursuit of power. You have to give up your “rights” — including the right to fight for your rights.

The kingdom of God comes through a cross. It will not come by any other means. To go the way of the cross, then, is to live like people who actually believe the best way to transform lives is by loving and serving others — rather than fighting, protesting, or waging an interminable culture war.

That is the offense of the cross. That is the “weakness of God” which, according to Paul, many find so laughable. We do not fight the world’s war; we have more important work to do.

I’m not against offending people with the gospel, but let’s not offend for all the wrong reasons. There is only one legitimate “offense of the cross.” And that is when we set aside our agendas and self-interest in order to love and serve our neighbor in ways that baffle a watching world.