The Episcopal Church, the Anglican Communion, and the real reason we’re having this debate

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So, we’re suspended.

Or not.

Plenty of commentary has already been written about what the primates did, what impact it could have, and what’s in store for the Episcopal Church and the Anglican Communion. (This is probably one of the more helpful summaries I’ve read, BTW.)

Some have questioned the primates’ selective application of punitive measures—penalizing Episcopalians for their decision to bless same-sex marriages, while neglecting to penalize Anglican church leaders who have promoted state-sanctioned persecution of gays in countries like Uganda—contravening Jesus’ command to love your neighbor. (I’m pretty sure he DIDN’T say, “Unless they’re gay, ’cause gross.”)

But let’s not retread those paths. That ground has been well covered already. Let’s talk about the real reason we’re having this debate. Sometimes it gets obscured in all the bluster, finger-pointing, and Twitter wars.

In his address to fellow primates—moments before the vote was cast—Episcopal Presiding Bishop Michael Curry cut to the heart of things:

Our commitment to be an inclusive church is not based on a social theory or capitulation to the ways of the culture, but on our belief that the outstretched arms of Jesus on the cross are a sign of the very love of God reaching out to us all.

That’s why we’re having this debate. Whatever side you may be on, that’s why this conversation is so important. That’s why some of us feel called to open our arms—and our church doors—to those of other orientations and gender identities.

The question we’re all wrestling with is this: What does it mean to be Jesus to the LGBTQ community? 

It’s not about trying to appease culture.

It’s not about craving public approval.

It’s not about being afraid to take a stand that might be divisive or unpopular. (Have you seen what’s happened to attendance figures since the Episcopal Church began moving in this direction?)

Whenever a church or denomination takes an affirming stance, the response is always the same.

Their motives are questioned.

Someone accuses them of “cultural capitulation.”

They’re labeled “cowards.”

No, really.

The possibility they might have other motives for rethinking long-held convictions isn’t even considered.

And to be fair, at times proponents of the affirming view have opened themselves to this line of criticism—for example, when they frame the debate as a matter of being “on the right side of history.”

History be damned. This is about being on the right side of people.

For Christians, this is about being on the side of Jesus—or rather, being on the same side of people that he is on.

Presiding Bishop Curry’s statement calls us back to the real reason for having this debate. He understands what some on both sides have missed.

Curry went on to say: 

While I understand that many disagree with us, our decision regarding marriage is based on the belief that the words of the Apostle Paul to the Galatians are true for the church today: All who have been baptized into Christ have put on Christ. There is no longer Jew or Gentile, slave or free, male or female, for all are one in Christ.

We may disagree with one another on sexuality. Some will celebrate same-sex marriage, while others see it as an unacceptable compromise. But let’s never forget why we’re having this debate.

It’s not about accommodating cultural whims. It’s not about being afraid to take a stand. It’s not about pleasing the crowd or making the church seem more relevant or palatable. (Again, see the Episcopal Church’s attendance figures.)

This is not about cultural capitulation. It’s about asking, “What does it really mean to love my neighbor?”

The real question for us to wrestle with is whether this might be the 21st-century church’s “Gentile moment,” a moment when God does something new and extraordinary and unexpected in our midst—like he did two thousand years ago when, to everyone’s surprise, he declared “unclean” Gentiles to be “clean,” without requiring them to renounce their Gentile identity first. (It was this last bit that came as a particular shock to first-century Jewish believers.)

The question to ask is not, “Where is the culture moving?”

The question to ask is, “Where is God moving”?

We may not all agree on the answer. Indeed, it can be dangerous to even ask this question. People I know have been lost friends for asking it. They’ve lost jobs. They’ve been estranged from their families. None more so than members of the LGBTQ community.

But whether or not you draw the same conclusions that many in the Episcopal Church (and other Christian traditions) have, please don’t misunderstand what has prompted this line of inquiry.

To say that it’s capitulation or cowardice is to presume authority to judge someone else’s motives—to judge others in precisely the way Jesus forbade.

Worst of all, to write it off as cultural capitulation is to miss the bigger question:

Where is God moving in this?

Image: Lift Every Voice: Freedom Ride 2015

Giving and receiving light on Epiphany: what can we learn from a band of pagan foreigners in a Jewish story?

We three(ish) kings

We three(ish) kings

At first glance, it seems odd that Matthew is the only gospel to record the events we commemorate on Epiphany: an unknown number of foreign visitors (no, there aren’t necessarily just three of them, they aren’t just “wise men,” and they’re almost certainly not “kings”) arrive to herald a toddler in Bethlehem.

It’s odd because Matthew’s gospel is the most distinctively Jewish of the four. It presents Jesus’ story through a more nationalistic lens than the others. Matthew’s Messiah is sent, it would seem, “only to the lost sheep of Israel.”

Matthew is steeped in Jewish tradition. Even its arrangement—consisting of five main sections or “books,” each building up to a major sermon or discourse from Jesus—mimics the Torah, the first five books of the Hebrew Bible.

Matthew takes pains to connect Jesus to the Jewish story, quoting regularly from the Hebrew prophets. The author bristles at the idea that Jesus did away with Jewish law, portraying him instead as the fulfillment or culmination of everything it taught. Even his movements read like a reenactment of Israel’s ancient story: there’s an escape to Egypt, a sojourn in the wilderness, the giving of the law from a mountainside, a Passover sacrifice.

What are pagan foreigners doing in such a story?

I can see why it would be tempting to recast them as something more palatable or generic—as “wise men” or “kings,” for example. But in Matthew they are magoi. This is the Greek word from which we get our word magician. In ancient times, it often referred to priests (or adherents) of Zoroastrianism, a religion predating Christianity by centuries.

It is possible that Matthew included the magi to emphasize their “submission and capitulation to a greater power,” as theologian Ian Paul put it. This would not be out of character for a story with nationalist overtones such as Matthew, having a group of pagan foreigners pay homage to a Jewish king.

But the magi serve as more than subjugated vassals in Matthew’s story. They actually do something quite significant. They delegitimize the very power structure of Roman-occupied Judea. They’re like the child pointing out that the emperor—in this case, Herod, client king of Judea—has no clothes.

Think about it. The magi arrive at Herod’s palace and ask for his help locating “the king of the Jews.”

No wonder he was mad.

Later, they defy Herod’s orders—and in doing so, they help save Jesus’ life—by returning home without revealing to Herod the identity of his toddling rival.

The magi traveled a great distance to pay homage to Jesus. Whether they saw him simply as a human king or as something greater (either is possible, given the context), in some meaningful way they placed their hope for the future in his hands. Stranger still, God returned the favor. By including the magi in his story, God-in-the-flesh put his very life in their hands.

In addition, the magi help to bookend Matthew’s gospel in a most appropriate way.

At the beginning of Matthew, the nations come to Jesus, in the form of the magi. They find welcome there. They offer something of value, more than just the gifts they carry. At the end of Matthew, Jesus commissions his Jewish disciples to go to all nations and serve them by sharing—and enacting—the good news about him, far beyond their narrow borders.

This, perhaps, is the most Jewish thing of all about Matthew’s gospel.

Jesus’ ancestors were always meant to be a “kingdom of priests,” sharing God’s light with the other nations. Their restoration alone was always “too small a thing” in God’s eyes. Salvation and renewal were gifts meant for the whole world.

They are gifts we share.

By starting with the magi and ending with a commission to serve all nations, Matthew shows how God’s people can fulfill God’s vision for the world: by refusing to be a group that exists solely for its own benefit. By sharing the light that has illumined our own hearts with the rest of the world. But also, as the magi teach us, by learning to see something good in those who are not like us—by learning to receive the gifts they have to offer, just as Jesus received gifts from a band of foreign priests.

This Epiphany, may we share and receive light with and from those around us—including and especially those we may be tempted to write off as “outsiders.”

Image: “The Magi” by Henry Siddons Mowbray

How Ed Dobson changed the course of my life

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I had just graduated college, and I didn’t know what to do next. I’d spent four years earning a degree in political science, thinking I would go off to Washington, D.C. and join the front lines of the culture wars.

But one year during college, I got a taste of the action, working for a conservative religious lobby a few blocks from the White House. After that, I wasn’t sure I wanted another taste—for many reasons, one of which I wrote about here.

It was a pastor in Grand Rapids, Michigan, who showed me another way—or at least, helped me to imagine another way.

After graduation, I had a job offer from the lobbying group I had worked at two summers before. That’s when I read a book called Blinded by Might by Ed Dobson (co-written with Cal Thomas). Ed was the pastor of Calvary Church in Grand Rapids and a former assistant to Jerry Falwell, chief architect of the Religious Right.

Ed argued that he and his fellow Christians were wrong to get sucked into the culture wars. We were wrong, he suggested, to automatically assume God was on our side.

Ed was bold enough to say what most of us didn’t want to admit: our activism was less about building the common good and more about accumulating power for ourselves. He urged the church to relinquish its addiction to power so it could become the church again.

I still have Ed’s book, along with a letter James Dobson (no relation to Ed) wrote, attacking him for challenging the infallibility of the Religious Right. (It should be noted that Ed’s personal views at the time were not much different from the other Dobson’s. Instead, the two differed on something bigger: the mission and identity of the church.)

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Ed Dobson’s book and James Dobson’s response

Ed’s book convinced me to give up what would have been a self-serving career in politics. I opted for seminary instead, partly so I could buy more time to figure out what to do with my life. I spent the next three years studying theology at a school across the street from Ed’s church.

I only met Ed once, when I thanked him for writing his book. But his influence helped reset the trajectory of my life.

Ed died last week after a 15-year battle with ALS.

Having spent the better part of those 15 years in Grand Rapids, I’ve followed Ed’s journey from a relatively short distance. His journey did not end when he walked away from the Religious Right. It did not end when he was diagnosed with ALS. It did not end when illness forced him to retire as pastor of Calvary Church.

Ed kept going. He kept exploring. He kept pursuing Jesus. He once spent a year trying to live exactly as Jesus did.

Ed did things most evangelical pastors would not. He joined hands with the LGBTQ community to fight AIDS—at a time when most pastors offered them nothing but hate and condemnation. He worked to bridge the racial divide in the church and beyond.

When evangelicals leapt on Rob Bell for his controversial book Love Wins, Ed refused to take pot shots at the pastor he had once mentored. Instead, he responded simply by quoting Jesus’ words in Luke 9: “Do not stop him, for whoever is not against you is for you.”

When Ed’s son came out, telling his parents, “I’m gay, I still love Jesus, and nothing else changes,” Ed responded, “We still love you, and nothing else changes.”

As his ALS progressed, Ed’s “parish” shrank in some ways—in ways that might seem important to some. But it grew in other, more significant ways. Ed ministered to people on a more intimate scale. His shared his story to encourage those who were walking through their own darkest valleys.

All things considered, the book Ed wrote in 1999 is probably one of the smaller parts of his legacy. But I would not be where I am today if not for that book. I would not have been given such a powerful example of how to live like Jesus, if not for Ed’s story.

As one of Ed’s sons shared on Facebook recently, “There’s seven billion people on this planet, and [Ed] loved every last one of them.”

Rest in peace, Ed. Great is your reward.

Photo credit: Ed’s Story

The racism that killed Tamir Rice is more than just a “police problem”

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“You can get away with murder. You can shoot a child in an open park. You can lie about the incident. You can refuse to cooperate with investigators. You can, if a Cuyahoga County prosecutor and grand jury are to be believed, escape indictment even when the entire episode is captured on videotape.”

— Goldie Taylor, The Daily Beast

  —//—

Police shot Tamir Rice within two seconds of arriving on the scene. 

Two seconds.

It wasn’t enough time to meaningfully apprehend the situation. It wasn’t enough time for officers to apprehend the true nature of the (nonexistent) threat. It wasn’t enough time for a 12 year-old child to apprehend whatever commands police allegedly shouted just before a bullet tore his flesh.

As Charles Blow writes in the New York Times:

Take a moment and time yourself giving three commands, imagining a response from Tamir and making the decision to shoot. Maybe it can be done in less than two seconds. But to my mind, it strains credulity.

The police shot a child in an open park and lied about the circumstances.

This alone should have sent the case to trial.

Police showed utter disregard for Tamir as his life ebbed away. 

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Tamir lay on the ground bleeding for four minutes.

The officer who shot him did nothing to render aid.

When Tamir’s 14-year-old sister came running to him, she was pushed to the ground, handcuffed, and thrown in the back of a police car.

Again, Charles Blow:

She could not reach him. Her arms could not cradle his body and plead for him to hang on. Her hands could not stroke his cheek, and she could not whisper hopefully, “It’s going to be O.K.” Her eyes could not gaze into his and say what sisters are able to say without saying anything: “I love you.”

Police murdered Tamir Rice, watched his life ebb away, and treated his justifiably disconsolate sister like a criminal.

And they got away with all of it.

That’s because the racism that killed Tamir is more than just a “police problem.”  

Officer Loehmann said he believed Tamir was a real threat. He said he thought Tamir was a 20 year-old male, not a 12 year-old boy.

Loehmann may have genuinely believed all of this—but that doesn’t excuse his actions. It only proves they were tainted by racial bias.

In a 2014 study, police officers were shown photographs of children, told that each was suspected of a felony or a misdemeanor, and asked to guess their age. According to the Washington Post:

The officers overestimated the age of black felony-suspected children by close to five years, but they actually underestimated the age of white felony-suspected children.

Another study, also reported by the Washington Post, found that officers were quicker to shoot black subjects, armed or unarmed.

Officer Loehmann saw a threat where there was none. He saw an adult male where there was a child. He took all of two seconds to decide to end that child’s life.

The reason? Skin color.

We live in a country where mostly white open-carry demonstrators can flaunt their military-grade assault weapons in public—without fearing the police. Yet a black child gets shot for carrying a toy gun (in a state where it’s legal to carry real weapons in public).

There is only one rational explanation: racism.

Police are more likely to view someone as a threat—even a child—if they are black. They value that person’s life considerably less if they are black. (It says something about our country that Dylann Roof is alive today and Tamir Rice is not.)

It would be tempting to think of racial bias purely as a “police problem.” But it’s not. The same study that uncovered bias in police officers found just as much bias in ordinary white people. People like me.

We’re just as likely to overestimate the age of black male youths.

We’re just as likely to prejudge blacks.

We might like to think we would have responded differently if we were in Officer Loehmann’s shoes. But the terrifying truth is… many of us would not have.

“Implicit racial bias” is far too soft a term for what we’re describing here. Racism is a form of violence. Violence is blasphemy against the image of God in another human being.

It’s time for us to confess our racism, to confess how it has tainted our perspectives and behaviors, to renounce the violence and blasphemy we have wrought. It’s time to say #BlackLivesMatter and mean it. It’s time for us to begin the long, slow process of learning to see the world differently.

And then it’s time for us to get out of the way.

Because we cannot dictate the solution to a problem of our own making. 

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It’s not easy for me to hear words like these. But I need to hear them anyway. Far too often, people like me have tried to dictate how others should respond to the injustices they have borne.

I’m not Timothy Loehmann, but I am tainted by the same racial bias as he is. I benefit from the same system of white privilege that allowed him to walk away without answering for his crime. I am part of the problem.

I’d like to be part of the solution, too. But it’s not up to me to decide what that solution looks like. To paraphrase James Cone, a system that enslaves does not get to decide when and how slavery is abolished. A system that shoots 12-year-old black children doesn’t get to decide how to reform itself. The oppressor does not get to decide how to right injustice.

The true test of our willingness to combat racism is our willingness to relinquish power, to give up control—to submit ourselves to those we have oppressed, to let them lead the way and decide the answer. I suspect we may not all like the results. Oppressors—and those who benefit from unearned privilege—do not part easily with their monopoly on power.

Until we do, however, more Tamir Rice’s will die. And more police officers will get away with cold-blooded murder.

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

Is it wrong to say Christians and Muslims worship the same God? What we can learn from Jesus and the Samaritans

Dr. Larycia Alaine Hawkins wearing a hijab for Advent, in solidarity with Muslims

Dr. Larycia Alaine Hawkins wearing a hijab for Advent, in solidarity with Muslims (source: Facebook)

Wheaton College has suspended a professor for expressing her solidarity with Muslims.

According to school officials (and contrary to some initial headlines) it was not because she donned a hijab for Advent. It was her choice of words and not her attire that got her into trouble. Specifically, these words:

I stand in religious solidarity with Muslims because they, like me, a Christian, are people of the book. And as Pope Francis stated last week, we worship the same God.

Her statement, by the way, is not altogether different from something the Second Vatican Council declared half a century ago:

The Church regards with esteem also the Muslims. They adore the one God, living and subsisting in himself; merciful and all-powerful, the Creator of heaven and earth.

Or what Miroslav Volf, a favorite theologian among many evangelicals (and rightly so), has written:

The two [Yahweh and Allah] are one God, albeit differently understood.

But these days, when serious candidates boost their poll numbers with promises to shut our doors to all Muslims and carpet bomb our enemies into oblivion, publicly declaring a belief that Christians and Muslims pray to the same God can get you into trouble.

A couple years ago, Jesse Wheeler shared five reasons he believes Muslims and Christians worship the same God. In his post, Jesse drew a parallel to the situation in Jesus’ day between Jews and Samaritans—a parallel worth exploring in more detail.

—//—

Tensions ran high between Samaritans and Jews, to say the least. Samaritans reportedly attacked Jewish pilgrims and tried to desecrate their temple. The Jewish Scriptures portrayed Samaritans in an almost entirely negative light—declaring all their kings corrupt and questioning the legitimacy of their kingdom (even though it was the heavy-handed policies of Solomon and his successor that drove a wedge between the Samaritans’ ancestors and the rest of Israel).

Samaritans claimed to be true Israelites, descendants of those left behind when the northern kingdom of Israel was conquered by the Assyrians. Jewish tradition, however, regarded them as outsiders—as foreigners sent by the kings of Assyria to resettle a depopulated land.

Samaritans worshiped at Mount Gerizim (near the Palestinian city of Nablus), while Jews insisted the temple in Jerusalem was the only legitimate place of worship. By the time Jesus was born, the dispute had been going on for centuries.

Samaritans and Jews had different holy books. The Jewish canon included all 39 books known to Christians as the Old Testament. Samaritans recognized only the first five books—and, even then, they had their own version. Imagine a Christian sect throwing out 85% of the Bible. Samaritans and Jews even had competing versions of the Ten Commandments.

Different houses of worship. Different holy books. Different understandings of God. If you had asked a Samaritan or a Jewish person whether they worshipped the same God, they probably would have said no.

It was this refusal to see any common identity or heritage that led to each side to view the other as, well, precisely that.

Other.

According to one Mishnah passage, “He that eats the bread of Samaritans is like to the one who eats the flesh of swine.” Both sides treated the other with contempt, fear, and suspicion, because they could not see—or refused to see—anything they held in common. Anything that might bind them together.

But when Jesus encountered Samaritans, he turned this “othering” tendency on its head.

Jesus traveled through Samaritan territory, when most Galileans took the long way around.

He struck up a conversation with a Samaritan woman, violating multiple norms at once. He put himself in her care, requesting (and likely receiving) water from a Samaritan well.

Now, at no point in the ensuing conversation did Jesus water down his identity; he even suggested that he thought Jews were closer to the truth—or at least closer to the source of it. Yet when it came to the question of whether Jews and Samaritans pray to the same God, his answer was an unequivocal yes. Samaritans “worship the Father,” he said—the same God his people worshiped.

Jesus could see a common heritage with those his own people had dismissed as “other.” His willingness to see commonality and not just difference created possibilities that didn’t exist before—possibilities for new relationships, possibilities for coming together, possibilities for the common good.

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The Good Samaritan, by Rembrandt

On another occasion, Jesus went even further, making a Samaritan the hero of his most famous parable. To many of Jesus’ listeners, the Samaritan who saved the injured traveler was a heretic at best and an idolater at worst. Yet he was the one in Jesus’ story who best embodied Judaism’s second greatest commandment—not the Jewish priest, not the Levite.

Jesus could see that Samaritans and Jews worshiped the same God. He could envision a Samaritan with a superior understanding of God and how God wants us to live.

So why can’t we see the same in our Muslim neighbors today?

Acknowledging that we worship the same God doesn’t mean we ignore, discard, or diminish everything that’s distinct about our respective faiths. It should not mean we become religious relativists. Rather, it means we’re able to see something that transcends our (very real) differences—something that matters more than what makes us distinct. A common heritage. Our shared humanity.

Miroslav Volf says that it is “fearful people bent on domination” who cannot (or perhaps will not) see the possibility for common ground between Christians and Muslims.

Painting a picture of total and irreconcilable difference is an effective way of justifying endless conflict. But it’s not a good way to wage peace. It’s not a good way to make the world safe.

As Volf put it:

As to the 1.6 billion Muslims, with them we must build a common future, one based on equal dignity of each person, economic opportunity and justice for all and freedom to govern common affairs through democratic institutions. Muslims and Christians have a set of shared fundamental values that can guide such a vision partly because they have a common God.

Acknowledging our common heritage and our shared humanity is the first step toward working together for the common good.

Image credit

Packing heat in Jesus’ name? Three things he might say about that…

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My first reaction to the comments Jerry Falwell Jr. made about guns and shooting “those Muslims” was to wonder if we’re reading the same Bible. Or following the same Jesus.

Falwell probably didn’t intend for his remarks to be taken as a serious theological reflection on Christianity and the use of violence. And that’s the problem.

There is a distressing lack of reflection behind these comments. What do we find when we hold them up to the words of Jesus and see how they compare?

There are three things Jesus said that I think are worth considering, as we evaluate the prevailing attitude toward guns and our willingness to use them on enemies perceived and real.

1. “That’s enough!”

In defending Falwell’s remarks, some have appealed to Luke 22:36, where Jesus tells his disciples to buy a sword. The argument put forward is that these swords were intended for self-defense; therefore Jesus must have been OK with his followers using lethal force in at least some cases.

The problem is, this view doesn’t hold up in view of the larger context:

  • Jesus made it clear why he told the disciples to buy a sword: to fulfill a prophecy in Isaiah 53, a passage predicting the Messiah would be falsely associated with evildoers, despite committing “no violence.” How can a call to arms fulfill a prophecy about a Messiah who doesn’t fight? Answer: it doesn’t because this is not a call to arms. Jesus is drawing a contrast between the kind of Messiah the world expects—not to mention the kind many of us seem to expect—and the kind of Messiah that God gave us.
  • The disciples respond by telling Jesus they already have two swords—which, according to Jesus, is enough. If the intent was insurrection or self-defense, how are two swords among twelve people supposed to be enough? Answer: they’re not, because they were never meant to be used for violence.
  • Zack Hunt raises another important point: if Jesus really intended for his disciples to carry (and possibly use) swords, “Why there is no mention anywhere in the New Testament of anyone in the early Church carrying a weapon with them into any of the dangerous situations they found themselves in?” And why is there no criticism in the New Testament for their apparent failure to take Jesus’ words at face value? Answer: because that’s not how Jesus meant for them to take his words.

Jesus’ response to the disciples that night—“That’s enough!”—is emphatic. It’s a rebuke. Even after three years with Jesus, his disciples still don’t get it.

Apparently, neither do we.

If the context of Luke 22:36 doesn’t make it clear that Jesus is not endorsing violence, then the next thing he says about swords ought to.

2. “Put your sword back in its place.”

Later in the garden of Gethsemane, Jesus rebukes Peter for defending him with a sword… likely one of the same swords that was presented to him earlier that evening.

Jesus does not simply condemn violence on this occasion—as if there were a temporary cessation of the normal rules permitting violence while he allowed himself to be crucified. Jesus denounces the futility of all violence everywhere:

All who draw the sword will die by the sword.”

This is nothing new. This is what he’s been saying his entire ministry. In Luke 13, when he’s told some insurgent Galileans have been slaughtered by the Roman governor, he warns: “Unless you repent, you too will all perish.”

He’s not talking in generalities. He’s not talking about “perish” as in eternal destiny. Jesus is saying, “If you don’t repent of your bloodlust—if you don’t renounce the urge to fight violence with violence—you will meet the same end as your Galilean compatriots.”

All who draw the sword.

Back in Gethsemane, as Jesus is led away, he asks what ought to be a simple question: “Am I leading a violent uprising, that you have come out with swords and clubs?”

The obvious answer is no. The questions we should ask are:

What does it look like to walk in the footsteps of a Messiah who refused to fight?

What does it mean to be imitators of Christ when people come at us with swords and clubs? Or when we’re afraid they might do so?

3. “My kingdom is not of this world.”

 I had a t-shirt with this phrase on it when I was a kid. I thought it meant we weren’t supposed to behave like the rest of world: we don’t listen to the same music, watch the same movies, or have sex the way the world does.

The truth is, being a Christian does mean being different from the rest of the world. But the stakes are much, much higher than that.

Jesus spoke these words to Pilate, the Roman governor—the same governor who slaughtered those independence-minded Galileans. Pilate was trying to get at whether Jesus imagined himself a king—and therefore, whether he was a threat to Rome.

“My kingdom is not of this world,” Jesus replied. Hardly the most reassuring answer he could have given, under the circumstances. But what makes his kingdom “not of this world”? The fact that his followers don’t take up arms.

“If it were, my servants would fight to prevent my arrest.”

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What Falwell’s words—and the support for them—reveal is that we really don’t want to do things God’s way. We don’t really like his plan for the world. We don’t care for his blueprint for the kingdom.

What it shows is that we don’t trust Jesus enough to take him at his word. We don’t think all those things he said about enemy love actually work.

Most of all, it shows we don’t want to walk the path Jesus walked—a path that leads to a cross. But as my friend Tim Gombis writes, there is no other path for us to walk:

The cross is not a personal and private matter between me and God. The cross determines everything for God’s people. It claims our bodies, our communities, our loves and longings, and secures an eternal future for those who cling to it.

The kingdom God envisions comes by way of the cross, not through the barrel of a gun.

Images: YouTube, Claudio Ungari on Flickr

When my daughter prayed for Syria

A few months ago, I shared how my daughter is teaching me to pray again. What I didn’t realize then is that she’s also teaching me how to pray.

Every night, we say bedtime prayers together. Usually—and at her choice—I’m the one who prays. But lately, more and more, she’s been deciding that she wants to pray. This makes me happier than almost anything else she does.

Most of our prayers are nothing out of the ordinary. We pray for all the usual things.

We pray for our friends and our family—the one we were born into and the family we’ve picked up along the way, like Elizabeth and Oliver’s godparents.

We pray for Elizabeth’s day at school.

We pray for our friends serving in India.

We pray for the kids we sponsor in Rwanda, India, and Gaza.

When Elizabeth decides to pray, she’ll ask God to help her classmates be kind to others at school… and at home… and wherever else they might go. Sometimes she’ll pray for the whole world to get along. I kinda like that.

Then she’ll thank God for all her favorite things… her family (especially her “cute little baby brother”), chapstick, ladybugs, and Christmas trees…

After Alan Kurdi and his brother washed up on a Turkish beach, we started praying for Syria, too. We prayed that children and families from Syria would find safe places to live. I knew at some point, this would lead to difficult questions. But I guess I sort of figured that I would be in the role of the teacher…

—//—

The other night, Elizabeth decided she wanted to pray for Syria. It went something like this.

“Dear God…” Then she stops. “Dad, what’s that place the people are running away from?”

Me: “You mean Syria?”

“Yeah,” she says. “Why are they running away?”

“Because there’s a war there,” I say, a little worried about what’s coming next.

“What’s a war?”

Now I’m fumbling for an age-appropriate response. “War is when people are fighting very meanly with each other. It’s when they’re destroying people’s homes and doing all sorts of bad stuff.”

Elizabeth starts to pray again: “Dear God, please be with Syria. And please help the kids there learn not to fight…”

I interrupt, hoping God won’t be too mad at me for cutting off a 5-year-old in mid-prayer.

“Actually, Elizabeth, it’s not the kids who are fighting. It’s the grownups.”

Elizabeth looks at me, disbelieving. “What?”

Then she starts praying again: “Dear God, please make the grownups stop fighting because they should know better.”

Yes, Elizabeth, they should.

Sometimes it takes a 5-year-old stating the obvious to make you realize just how badly we’ve lost our way.

To my daughter, it’s simple. You should be kind to people. Not that she’s perfect at it. Far from it. But for her, there’s no complexity. There are no mitigating factors. You should just be kind. Period.

For her, you should take care of the earth because the earth is our home. You should respect people who are different because different isn’t bad; it’s just different.

Christians often talk about sin—or sinful nature—as something we’re born with. We call it “original sin.” I believe there is something to this idea. We are all both victims and culprits of sin in various ways. Inevitably so.

But perhaps the greatest sin of all is losing our childlike ability to see the world in simpler terms as we grow older. You should just be kind to each other because being kind is good. You should take care of the earth because the earth is our home. You should be OK with the fact that people are different because that’s how God made us. You should love each other, because what’s better than love?

My daughter isn’t just teaching me to pray again. She’s teaching me how to pray—and how to look at the world when I’ve opened my eyes again.

Image: Freedom House on Flickr

Why we need a little Advent

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Easy listening stations have been pumping out wall-to-wall Christmas music for almost a month now. Still, that’s nothing compared to 2001. In the wake of September 11, one station near me started airing holiday music in early October because, as their jingle relentlessly proclaimed, “We need a little Christmas now.”

Yet for all our rush to get to Christmas, in about four weeks we’ll be scrambling to put it behind us with similar haste. Today, that same radio station is already assuring listeners that its usual mix of adult contemporary pop will return the minute Christmas is behind us.

We’re not very good at waiting for Christmas—or lingering over it, when it finally comes.

I think one reason it’s hard to wait is because we’re hoping for some kind of respite from the world—the kind of respite Christmas seems to offer. We want to come in from the cold, even if it’s just for a little while.

But somehow the payoff of Christmas feels hollow when we finally get there. It never quite delivers the respite or the escape or the “peace on earth” we’re looking for. Maybe that’s why “after-Christmas letdown” is a thing—one with over a million search results. Christmas ends… and we’re left facing the world as it is again.

I believe the answer lies, in part, in allowing ourselves to fully experience Advent first.

Advent forces us to linger in the dark—even as we wait, sometimes impatiently, for our redemption. It’s only by lingering here that we can see the light of Christmas properly, that we can appreciate the full implications of this sacred festival.

This year, Advent began with a quote from Jesus mentioning “distress among nations,” a reference that surely rings true today. “People will faint from fear and foreboding of what is coming upon the world,” Jesus warned.

His prediction is coming true all around us, as it has been for two thousand years.

Advent calls us to look upon the distress of our world. The devastation of Paris, Beirut, Syria. The murder of Laquan McDonald—and hundreds like him—at the hands of a system that criminalizes blackness. The blasphemous contradiction of a pro-life killer or a Christian who turns away refugees.

Advent insists that we see the world as it is—that we see its brokenness and our part in it.

This can be challenging for those of us who’ve known nothing but privilege and power and comfort our whole lives. Those, however, who’ve experienced alienation or oppression firsthand don’t need to be told the world is not as it should be. They don’t need to be lectured on the importance of Advent. Their lives are an Advent in the making. Advent gives a name and a voice to their lived reality—a reality the rest of us would rather ignore.

Advent won’t allow us to ignore the brokenness of our world—which is why it’s important we refuse to ignore Advent.

Confronting the brokenness of our world means confronting the brokenness in our own hearts as well. It means confronting our complicity in systems that oppress, discriminate, or take away life.

It’s the only way we will ever properly understand Christmas, the only way we’ll ever get to the much-longed-for payoff.

The Virgin Mary anticipated that her son would bring down rulers, lift up the humble, feed the hungry—and send the rich packing. His birth challenged (and continues to challenge) the legitimacy of an empire built upon slavery and coercion. His birth challenged the tyranny of a local despot, Herod the Great—who saw this peasant child as a threat to his reign, forcing Jesus and his family to join the long stream of refugees who have fled violence and destruction, both then and now.

That’s the Christmas story—a story that only makes sense in light of Advent, as God’s answer to the brokenness and cruelty of our world. To experience the respite Christmas offers, we first have to understand: respite from what and for whom?

We also need to understand that Christmas is a story still in the making. Mary’s vision is as yet unrealized. The angelic proclamation of “peace on earth” is not something we’re supposed to just sit around and wait for. (No peace this year. Oh well… maybe next Christmas.) The Christmas proclamation is a vision we are called to embody.

This Advent, linger a little over the brokenness in our world. Allow this season of preparation to help you experience Christmas for what it really is: God’s answer to the cruelty, injustice, and oppression around us and in us. May you experience “peace on earth” as something more than just vague idealism, but as something we are called to enact.

Image by Jonas Nordlund on Flickr

How to survive Starbucks’ war on Christmas: a biblical guide

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It seems like the war on Christmas starts earlier every year.

I haven’t even got my lights up yet, and already the evil overlords of ISIS executives at Starbucks have declared their hatred for the baby Jesus by REMOVING SNOWFLAKES AND TREES from their seasonal cup design.

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Last year’s design: Jesus-approved.
Credit: Libby Anne

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This year’s abomination. WHY ARE YOU OPPRESSING US, STARBUCKS??
Credit: Twitter

This morning, my wife went on a reconnaissance trip to Starbucks, and things are EVEN WORSE THAN WE THOUGHT.

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They’re selling ADVENT CALENDARS, people. Everyone knows Advent is a just a ploy to distract us from a two-month-long orgy of Christmafied consumerism—I MEAN tasteful celebration of Jesus’ birthday.

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They have only ONE “Christmas” blend. And the label’s got PINK on it.

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The “J” on their new reusable cup doesn’t even stand for “Jesus.” It stands for “joy” or some other decidedly non-Christmasy claptrap.

Worst of all, their baristas don’t even ask if you’ve accepted Jesus as your Lord and Savior when they hand you your peppermint frappuccino. WHAT COUNTRY IS THIS??

If we’re going to cope with this kind of persecution—nay, genocide, the “CHRISTIAN CULTURE CLEANSING OF THE WEST”—we have to be prepared. We must arm ourselves with the Sword. No, not ACTUAL swords. (Who needs those when all the good Christians are already packing heat like Jesus told us to?) THE Sword. Your Bible. Scripture has everything we need to prepare for the oncoming storm.

Here, for example, is everything the Bible says about how we’re supposed to fight for our rights—which, naturally, includes the right to force others to pay homage to our religious traditions:

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Here’s what the Bible says about the doom awaiting those who don’t use Jesus’ birthday to sell more crap, thus failing to exploit the Savior’s full money-making potential:

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Here’s everything the Bible says about throwing a fit when we don’t get our way—and how our first priority as followers of Jesus is to ensure we maintain cultural dominance AT ALL COSTS:

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The fight is upon us, people. Don’t let that underpaid store clerk fail to wish you a “Merry CHRISTmas” as you buy an $80 sweater made by some kid in a sweatshop. BECAUSE JESUS.