Coexist: Day of Prayer Ruled “Unconstitutional”

Coexist,” the bumper sticker reads. At face value, such a message is a very positive one – despite the fundamental differences between religious faiths, they can nonetheless exist together without threat of violence.

Problems come in when the message of “coexist” becomes predicated on a lack of difference among religious groups, and the implied command toward the privatization of religious beliefs.

We are speaking, of course, of “pluralism,” the state wherein a diverse group of religious belief are given freedom to express these differences, so long as these expressions do not threaten the safety of others. But, as author Leslie Newbigin points out, pluralism can be descriptive (i.e., merely describing the diversity of culture) as well as prescriptive (insisting that we celebrate all religions as being equal). In the latter case, “tolerance” means more than “putting up with” the differences of others – it means to celebrate all differences as having equal validity.

And so it comes as no surprise that a recent ruling declared the National Day of Prayer “unconstitutional.” Among the many reasons cited is the “Establishment Clause,” which – thankfully – prevents the nationalization of any particular religion.

Yes, while Franklin Graham’s earlier comments regarding Muslims received much attention, the faith he represents is considered quite equally objectionable. The Huffington Post makes clear that “Even if Graham had never uttered a single disparaging word against the religion of Islam, his invitation would still have been in violation of several Department of Defense regulations.” The article goes on to cite precedent for disallowing “preferential treatment” of any religious entity.

But where the rubber and road fully meet is on two key issues that are highly representative of our culture: (1) Pluralism and (2) Privatization (and from here on, I will be using the term “pluralism” in its prescriptive sense for the sake of simplicity).

1. Pluralism: All religions are the same.

A column in USA Today drives home this point, referring to the “The National Day of Prayer (to-Jesus-or-get-your-own-show) Task Force.” The views of the Christian leaders organizing this event are criticized for not making “room under this salvation umbrella for Muslims, Jews, and other non-Christians — including those wearing the uniform for the USA.”

Please note the language used here: it is not that other faiths have an equal right to representation (which would fall under descriptive pluralism) but that they have an equal claim to salvation (prescriptive pluralism).

2. Privatization: Religion is entirely private.

When the court made the ruling regarding the National Day of Prayer, it cited the (assumed) personal nature of faith. Judge Crabb was reported as saying that the “sole purpose [of the National Day of Prayer] is to encourage all citizens to engage in prayer, an inherently religious exercise that services no secular function in this context. In this instance, the government has taken sides on a matter that must be left to the individual conscience.”

Dan Barker and Annie Laurie Gayor are co-presidents of a watchdog group, who make their views quite clear: “Whether to pray, whether to believe in a god who answers prayer, is an intensely precious and personal decision protected under our First Amendment as a paramount matter of conscience.”

PLURALISM: ARE THEY ALL THE SAME?

The problem with this claim is simple: superficial similarities between religions often mask fundamental differences. While many religions share similar moral values, they differ quite radically on issues such as the nature of God, the basis for morality, man’s purpose, destiny, the problem of suffering and the means of salvation.

Therefore, you cannot simultaneously affirm the value of “diversity” and claim that all religions are equally valid, for in doing so you minimize the very differences that create diversity in the first place. Pluralism – in its prescriptive form – provides the illusory comfort of the moral high ground, all the while concealing the Stalinizing tendency to homogenize conviction and minimize conversation.

In a recent article, Steven Prothero of Boston University writes of the danger of this mindset (and I’d encourage you to read the full article):

This naive theological groupthink — call it Godthink — is motivated in part by a laudable rejection of the exclusivist missionary view that only you and your kind will make it to heaven or nirvana or paradise. For most of world history, human beings have seen religious rivals as inferior to themselves — practitioners of empty rituals, perpetrators of bogus miracles, and purveyors of fanciful myths. This way of seeing has given us religious violence from the Crusades and the Holocaust to Rwanda and Nigeria. In response to such violence, the 18th- century Age of Enlightenment popularized the ideal of religious tolerance, and we are doubtless better for it.

I understand what these people are doing. They are not describing the world but reimagining it. They are hoping that their hope will call up in us feelings of brotherhood and sisterhood. In the face of religious bigotry and bloodshed, past and present, we cannot help but be drawn to such hope, and such vision. Yet we must not mistake either for clear-eyed analysis.

When it comes to safeguarding the world from the evils of religion, including violence by proxy from the hand of God, the claim that all religions are one is no more effective than the claim that all religions are poison. As the New Atheists (another species of religious lumpers) observe, we live in a world where religion seems as likely to detonate a bomb as to defuse one. So while we need idealism, we need realism even more. We need to understand religious people as they are — not just at their best but also their worst. We need to look at not only their awe-inspiring architecture and gentle mystics but also their bigots and suicide bombers.

PRIVATIZATION

Faith is expected to be excluded from public life.

The popular American Express slogan warns us: “Don’t leave home without it.” But with regards to faith, privatization exclaims just the opposite: leave your faith at home, for it has no place in the public workplace. For further evidence, you have only to look at a current law in Virgina banning police officers from mentioning “Jesus” in public prayers (from an article sent to me by a good friend). Note that prayer is allowed, but it must be a prayer that does not exclude anyone. Not only does this fall into the danger of pluralism, but it forces officers to privatize the distinctives of their beliefs.

But as Christians, we know that faith can never be private. We have the resurrection to thank for that. The claim that Jesus literally, historically rose from the dead cannot be dismissed as a merely “personal” or “religious” question. It is a claim that must be carefully examined by all responsible students of history.

In his recent book, Knowing Christ Today, Dallas Willard writes:

Can we know that Christ arose from the dead? Yes, if we will but “do the math.” That he arose is the only plausible explanation for what happened after his death and what still exists today as a consequence. The established mental habit of many people today is to say with no thought, no hesitation, that he did not arise. For one thing, to many people this is a “religious” question, and therefore it automatically falls outside the domain of facts and knowledge. …Many such people are simply bored with a question they take to be irrelevant to real life anyway and don’t want to be bothered with it. Also, allowing that it might be known that Christ arose is to concede that it actually happened, and that puts an entirely different light on individual life and human destiny….Suddenly reality is no longer safely secular. The apostle Paul’s statement to the Athenians – that God “has fixed a day on which he will have the world judged in righteousness by a man whom he has appointed, and of this he has given assurance to all by raising him from the dead” (Acts 17:31) – would then be frighteningly plausible….It looks as of we are all going to be held responsible to God for what we do and who we have become.

The resurrection prevents us from dismissing faith as being based on “private” or “sentimental” reasons.

SO SHOULD WE PRAY?

In answering this question, let’s first affirm the fact that we live in a diverse world of many differing spiritualities. Let’s not make the pluralistic error of homogenizing them, but let’s also not make the error of demonizing differing faiths. The Christian proclamation, I would argue, is of such attractive character that it need not be spread through coercive means, nor would such means harmonize with the very character of the message itself. To that end, we may rightly tolerate those of other faiths, and though we certainly cannot celebrate their beliefs we may find common ground on which to build a bridge to the risen Savior.

And let’s also recognize the culture we live in, where both pluralism and privatization have – quite apparently – become socially accepted. Let’s not be indifferent to these trends, but let’s not be alarmed or embittered by them either.

Jim Daly of Focus on the Family offers such wisdom on this in a recent article in Newsweek:

“Judge Crabb’s ruling is now rightly under appeal. I am optimistic. But for perspective regarding the way forward, believers might look to a wonderful lesson in the New Testament’s Book of Acts. There, in Chapter 4, we read of two men, Peter and John, who were arrested and imprisoned for talking openly about Jesus. They were later released. When they returned to their people and explained their plight, their group did a curious and counter-cultural thing. They didn’t gripe or grumble; they prayed for their captives and asked for courage to keep the faith and stay on message…Now is the time for believers to be bold but humble, courageous but compassionate.”

Wisely said. I don’t know that the trends I’ve mentioned will be reversed in my lifetime, but I can certainly affirm the Christian duty to wisely and courageously navigate this culture. Dallas Willard writes:

[T]he world can no longer be left to mere diplomats, politicians and religious leaders. They have done the best they could, no doubt. But this is an age for spiritual heroes – a time for men and women to be heroic in their faith and in spiritual character and power. The greatest danger to the Christian church today is that of pitching its message too low. (Dallas Willard, Spirit of the Disciplines)

The loss of a “National Day of Prayer” should certainly not dissuade us from lovingly and courageously proclaiming God’s truth in love (many are choosing to observe the day anyway), nor can they prevent Christians from taking the time for prayer. The Christian faith needs no representation from the State to be effective – in Church history the times of greatest persecution also became the times of greatest growth.

Our greatest prayer, then, should be for open doors for the gospel (Colossians 4:3) so that the love of Christ can be shared in our communities.  Despite the two trends we’ve addressed, our culture is more open to spiritual conversations than ever before.  Let’s make sure we pray for the chance to have them.

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“Love is Free:” College Student Goes Homeless

I first saw this posted on Scott McKnight’s blog and felt it appropriate to pass it along to my own readers. 

Drew Daniels is a college student who voluntarily went homeless for 40 days in Chicago.

The following video is a documentary about his experience. If you have an hour to spare, I’d encourage you to take the time to watch it – if for no other reason than for its ability to capture a renewed interest in poverty and social justice among young evangelicals (I plan on writing more on this later).

You can visit the Love is Free website at http://www.loveisfreemovie.com/

Mr. Smith Goes to Nineveh: Why Obama Critics Need to Chill the Heck Out

 “DEAR LORD, THIS YEAR YOU TOOK MY FAVORITE ACTOR, PATRICK SWAYZIE. YOU TOOK MY FAVORITE ACTRESS, FARAH FAWCETT. YOU TOOK MY FAVORITE SINGER, MICHAEL JACKSON. I JUST WANTED TO LET YOU KNOW, MY FAVORITE PRESIDENT IS BARACK OBAMA. AMEN.”

Even if you’re one of the five people in America who don’t have a Facebook account, you recognize the above statement as the name of a Facebook group jokingly(?) offering prayers for Obama’s death. 

To my knowledge, there’s nothing distinctively Christian about the group, though the form of a prayer brings an obvious association with evangelical Christianity and, indeed, I’m aware of many who are jumping on the online bandwagon.

It’s a passing thing, to be sure; at least I should hope. But it does reveal the growing anti-government attitudes that seem to be swirling in certain political circles, and the fact that technology can so easily be used as a political platform.

In a recent interview, former president Bill Clinton observes this same phenomenon, noting how technology has changed since even the recent past:

“There’s the same kind of economic and social upheaval now…Then you had the rise of extremist voices on talk radio. Here you have a billion Internet sites…they can communicate with each other much faster and much better than they did before.….Now everybody has got a computer, Web sites are easily accessible. And you can be highly selective and spend all of your time with people that are, you know, kind of out there with you…”

Idolatry thrives in an environment rich in unexamined emotionalism, precisely the environment offered by the instantaneous, connective medium of the internet.

Now mind you, I am hardly downplaying the need for political involvement. But no one could possibly confuse this kind of anti-government paranoia with responsible social action.

Al Mohler is such a clear mind on this issue. He writes:

Love of neighbor for the sake of loving God is a profound political philosophy that strikes a balance between the disobedience of political disengagement and the idolatry of politics as our main priority. As evangelical Christians, we must engage in political action, not because we believe the conceit that politics is ultimate, but because we must obey our Redeemer when He commanded that we must love our neighbor….we are concerned for the culture not because we believe that the culture is ultimate, but because we know that our neighbors must hear the gospel, even as we hope and strive for their good, peace, security, and well-being. (R. Albert Mohler, Jr. Culture Shift, p. 4)

That’s precisely it, isn’t it? The problem is that for many, culture has become the central issue, and those who threaten our preferred order are enemies to be eliminated.

CONCERN FOR NINEVEH?

The city of Nineveh was the last place Jonah wanted to go, as there existed deep hostility toward the Ninevites. Not without good reason – the Ninevites were notorious for being a barbaric, oppressive people. To compare this hostility to the political division we’re seeing today is quite laughable – which is all the more reason it’s so illustrative of the absurdity of the present conflict.

God called Jonah to go to Nineveh so that they might be saved from destruction. Jonah headed in the complete opposite direction. When he finally does get to Nineveh, he becomes angry that they repent and turn to God. What’s more, he’s openly angry at God’s merciful character – saying that he knew all along that God would spare them. For a brief time, he is happy under the shade of a plant, but again turns bitter when a worm comes to destroy it.

What can we learn? At minimum we can make four very general observations:

  1. Jonah would rather maintain division than promote conversion.
  2. Elimination of Jonah’s enemies was preferable to God’s mercy.
  3. God’s mercy angered Jonah’s desired social order.
  4. Jonah’s personal comforts were more valuable than his fellow man.

The story of Jonah concludes on a note of irony – God asks Jonah whether his pity towards the plant is more justified than God’s pity towards His wayward people.

PRIORITIES

Control – this is what it often boils down to. Political preferences and involvement is one thing, but this collective hostility is just absurd.

Observations?

  1. Is elimination > conversion?
  2. Do we spend more time promoting politics than promoting the gospel?
  3. Similarly, are we more upset over those who ignore the constitution than those who ignore the gospel?
  4. Which would excite us more: for our President (or our neighbors, for that matter) to publicly commit to following Jesus, or to become a Republican?

How we address those questions speaks volumes about our priorities. Most, I fear, would come back with a long list of “But…” statements. Again: political involvement I’m ok with. Facebook groups about praying for the President’s death? A symptom, I suggest, of a much deeper cultural and spiritual psychosis, one that must be exorcised in order to have a meaningful impact with the world.

Frankly, the defensiveness I routinely observe among Christians may be a very good sign of just how unexamined we’ve allowed ourselves to become.

LESS THAN MISSIONAL

When she learned of this group’s existence, a friend of mine replied, “that Ghandi quote just keeps replaying itself over and over in my mind….”

The quote she is referring to is the famous one: “I like your Christ, I do not like your Christians.”

Ouch.

Our impact on the world has to go deeper than a political agenda. As Christians, we must work hard to strike more than just a nerve. Charles Colson writes:

“Politics is not the church’s first calling. Evangelism,…providing discipleship, fellowship, teaching the Word…are the heartbeat of the church. When it addresses political issues, the church must not do so at the risk of weakening its primary mission.” (Charles Colson, Kingdoms in Conflict, p. 290)

This anti-government rhetoric does not just “weaken” the church’s mission; it sabotages it. Those who feel a draw towards such rhetoric might do well to lay off the keyboard for a while, quit the lame Facebook groups, and just learn to chill the heck out.

Francis Chan Leaves Cornerstone, Pursues New Direction

If you haven’t already heard the news, Francis Chan is stepping down from Cornerstone Church.  You can view his video at Justin Taylor’s blog.  Apparently Chan is pursuing a new direction.  While details regarding this “direction” are still unknown, this decision was certainly a clear-headed step of faith, and we can only look forward to his future endeavors.

In the meantime, I felt it appropriate to share just a few brief quotes from Francis Chan, thoughts that have been influential in my own life, and worth passing along to you.

I quickly found that the American church is a difficult place to fit in if you want to live out New Testament Christianity. The goals of American Christianity are often a nice marriage, children who don’t swear, and good church attendance. Taking the words of Christ literally and seriously is rarely considered. That’s for the “radicals” who are “unbalanced” and who go “overboard.” Most of us want a balanced life that we can control, that is safe, and that does not involve suffering (Francis Chan, Crazy Love, p. 66).

And from “More than a Follower,” originally appearing in Relevant Magazine:

Christians in America often complain about how antagonistic people are toward Jesus. Personally, I’m not sure that Americans are really rejecting Christ. Maybe they just haven’t seen Him.

Try to be completely honest with yourself right now. Is the following true of you?

You passionately love Jesus, but you don’t really want to be like Him. You admire His humility, but you don’t want to be that humble. You think it is beautiful that He washed the feet of the disciples, but that is not exactly the direction your life is headed. You are thankful He was spit upon and abused, but you would never let that happen to you. You praise Him for loving you enough to suffer during His whole time on earth, but you are going to do everything within your power to make sure you enjoy your time down here.

In short: You think He is a great Savior, but not a great role model.

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Hungry For Change

I want you all to meet a good friend of mine. Her name is Grace, and she is one of several intelligent young college students I had the privilege to hang with in the Real Life College ministry at Trinity Bible Church in Richardson. 

Grace has something of a project going on this month. Her project, “Hungry for Change,” is the coolest thing to hit Youtube since Chocolate Rain, and she doesn’t even have to move away from the mic to breathe in.

In an effort to raise awareness for world hunger, Grace is opting to adopt the average diet of Zimbabwe residents, who currently struggle with poverty and food shortages. For the next month she will be consuming only 800 calories a day, and will be posting a video on youtube explaining how hunger has affected her. Her overall goal is to raise awareness concerning world hunger (you can watch her first, explanatory video here).

The video below provides a glimpse of what this project is going to look like over the next month. She’s got quite a challenge ahead of her. But it’s such an encouragement to see young people rising above the status quo and demonstrating a genuine, heartfelt concern for others. So Grace, you’ll be in my prayers, and may God use this project to produce change in your life as well as ours.

For all of Grace’s videos, please visit her Youtube channel.  

Click here to subscribe to her video feed.

Happy Saint Patrick’s Day: Missional Christianity

Well, happy St. Patrick’s Day, all.

Not much is known about St. Patrick, though his life has been rather heavily romanticized by stories that are as much speculation as they are history. But what is known is that St. Patrick, after having been enslaved in Ireland, he escaped and returned to his family in Britain. But when he entered the church, he felt compelled to return to the very country that enslaved him to serve out his years as a missionary. For this reason he is commonly known as the patron saint of Ireland, and for his missional focus, Mark Driscoll calls him one of the greatest missionaries to ever live.

And so we celebrate St. Patrick’s day to commemorate a man who gave his life for the gospel. Commenting on Philip Freeman’s St. Patrick of Ireland: A Biography:, Russel Moore writes:

“This biography gives contemporary evangelicals more than a pious evangelist to emulate. It also reconstructs a Christian engagement with a pagan culture, in ways that are strikingly contemporary to evangelicals seeking to engage a post-Christian America.”

And to that end I’m writing a post on missional Christianity, a bit of a re-processing of some thoughts I’ve spoken and taught on in recent years.

MISSIONAL CHRISTIANITY

The role of Christian in society, according to Jesus, is to be “the salt of the earth” and “the city on the hill” (Matthew 5:13-16). Author Mike Metzger writes:

“Being salt and light demands two things: we practice purity in the midst of a fallen world and yet we live in proximity to this fallen world. If you don’t hold both truths in tension, you invariably become useless and separated from the world God loves. For example, if you only practice purity apart from proximity to culture, you inevitably become pietistic, separatistic and conceited. If you live in close proximity to the culture without also living in a holy manner, you become indistinguishable from fallen culture and useless in God’s kingdom.”

Christianity demands that we hold the principles of purity and proximity in tension.

So let’s throw up some categories, shall we?

  Combined Result:
Virtue: Purity Proximity Missional Christianity

When we live lives marked by purity (living out the Great Commandment) and proximity (living out the Great Commission), this is what may be called missional Christianity. Missional Christianity is nothing new, it simply means that we take seriously Christ’s call to “follow [Him]” and allow ourselves to become “fishers of men” (Matthew 4:19).

The problem is that these virtues are too easily lost. There are two ways that they are lost:

  1. We pursue their opposite, or:
  2. We pursue their counterfeits.

 

  Combined Result:
Virtue: Purity Proximity Missional Christianity
Opposite: Accommodation Isolation Hedonism

The opposite of purity is accommodation. Conformity with God’s ethical character is replaced with conformity to the values of surrounding culture. And this doesn’t even mean “sin” in any exacting sense, but simply placing value of one’s purse collection or mp3 player over the revealed values of God.

The opposite of proximity is isolation. Ironically, though this person is in the world, the person has compartmentalized his faith to the point that faith has little to no impact on his day-to-day life, and the lifestyles he lives at work, home and church are radically different.

The combined lifestyle is, for lack of better word, hedonism.

This is the same thing that Paul encountered in the Philippian church, where he mentions those who “walk as enemies of the Cross of Christ…[whose] God is their belly, and their glory their shame” (Philippians 3:17-21).

These people need to be called to turn away from these lifestyles, and allowed to taste and see the goodness found in Christ.

  Combined Result:
Virtue: Purity Proximity Missional Christianity
Opposite: Accommodation Isolation Hedonism
Counterfeit: Isolation Accommodation Moralism

The counterfeit of purity is isolation. Isolation teaches us that purity is measured by the distance one keeps from the “toxic” affects of culture, with particular focus on the arts. The end result is an insular community that values homeschooling (for its religious benefits), Christian radio, seminary degrees (ouch) and the endless pursuit of “busyness” with one’s church. While none of these activities are bad, the moralist turns them into an idol, and replaced Christ’s righteousness for its ostensible counterfeit obtained through association with Christian trends all the while avoiding the culture at large.

But the counterfeit of proximity is accommodation. The counterfeit Christian has reversed the dictum “in the world but not of the world” into “removed from the world yet emulating the world’s cultural forms.” This is the essence of the current Christian marketing machine: listen to “Christian” music, read “Christian” books, wear “Christian” t-shirts, all of which emulate the forms and trends of the culture it seeks to avoid, all the while calling that same culture to adapt to the Christian message.

The counterfeit to missional Christianity is moralism. Again, not something Paul or the Philippian church were strangers to. When men tried to insist on Jewish customs, Paul calls them “dogs…evildoers.” Paul had emerged from a Jewish upbringing that would put others to shame. But he counted all of that as skubala in contrast to God’s grace. Skubala? Yes. It was, for all intents and purposes, the “s-word” of the ancient world. Yes, it was used for shock value, and yes he meant it to be taken more strongly than just the word “crap” (Philippians 3:2-8).

THE EFFECTS

Hopefully you noticed that the opposite and counterfeit values mirrored one another.  Their differences only highlight their similarities. 

The moralist reduces his faith to irrelevance by making an idol out of his moralistic subculture; the hedonist reduces his faith to irrelevance by making an idol out of popular culture.

Both ignore the supremacy of Christ, both make idols out of one culture or another, and both reduce the relevance of the Christian faith by failing to deal realistically (i.e., redemptively) with the needs of others.

CALL TO REPENTANCE: HELPING PEOPLE BLEED A LITTLE

We must first recognize our own propensity for each of these errors, otherwise we put ourselves in a position of superiority if not outright condescension towards those we are called to reach. I see both errors in my life on a regular basis (sometimes simultaneously), so it is always good to maintain accountability and personal reflection.

Nonetheless we must be bold in our stance against these errors, and all the more bold in our strong adherence to Christ’s gospel and message. People need to be challenged in their thinking, and awoken from their idolatrous tendencies. Will it hurt? Hopefully, yes. But in this context, that’s not such a bad thing. People need to bleed a little. They need to feel the pain they’ve brought on themselves from their own selfish choices. It was only when the prodigal son felt the pain he’d caused himself that he returned to the father, and only when his elder brother isolated himself from the celebration was he confronted by his own legalism.

And we must expect opposition. Everyone loves to hear “sinners” called to repent of sin, but no one ever likes to hear the religious moralists to repent of their religion. But we must continue to do both – not by coercion or manipulation, but by the inherent beauty and fidelity of the cross and the gospel.

FURTHER READING

If I could recommend any book to you right now, it would be Tim Keller’s The Prodigal God. No matter where you are on your spiritual journey, you must, must must read this book. In it he uses the story of the prodigal son (or rather, “the two brothers”) to illustrate how these tendencies play out in our lives. Those who live nearby?  My copy is yours to borrow. 

Additionally, on Tullian Tchividjian’s blog you’ll find a wider spectrum of counterfeits, derived from the ministry of Paul Tripp.

Glenn Beck and Social Justice: Evangelicals Respond

I’d really like to see this matter be laid to rest.

Unless you’ve been living under a rock, you know that there’s been some recent controversy over some remarks made by Glenn Beck. The remarks in question originated on his March 2 radio program, where he made this statement:

I beg you, look for the words “social justice” or “economic justice” on your church Web site. If you find it, run as fast as you can. Social justice and economic justice, they are code words. Now, am I advising people to leave their church? Yes! If I’m going to Jeremiah’s Wright’s church? Yes! Leave your church. Social justice and economic justice. They are code words. If you have a priest that is pushing social justice, go find another parish. Go alert your bishop and tell them, “Excuse me are you down with this whole social justice thing?” I don’t care what the church is. If it’s my church, I’m alerting the church authorities: “Excuse me, what’s this social justice thing?” And if they say, “Yeah, we’re all in that social justice thing,” I’m in the wrong place. (Glenn Beck, radio show, March 2)

“Code words?” The point was driven home on his television program, where he held up Nazi and Communist flags to punctuate the connection between “social justice” and totalitarianism.

The response from evangelical Christianity has been both diverse and fierce, and I wanted to give you a taste of the many, many voices that have been raised on this issue. Mind you, I am not critiquing Beck for his politics; that’s a job for a different writer. I simply wish to address the issues raised with clarity and honesty.

ACROSS THE SPECTRUM

On one end of the spectrum is a reaction recorded in a recent CNN article:

Jerry Falwell Jr., president of Liberty University, a Christian college in Virginia, says Jesus wasn’t interested in politics. He says that those pastors who preach economic and social justice “are trying to twist the gospel to say the gospel supported socialism.”

“Jesus taught that we should give to the poor and support widows, but he never said that we should elect a government that would take money from our neighbor’s hand and give it to the poor,” Falwell says.

Falwell says that Jesus believed that individuals, not governments, should help the poor.

At the opposite end of the spectrum is the voice of Jim Wallis who, according the same CNN article, is calling for Christians to boycott Beck’s program. His response to Beck’s statements were as follows (emphasis added):

“What he has said attacks the very heart of our Christian faith, and Christians should no longer watch his show,”

An article in Christianity Today reported on Wallis’ desire to appear on Beck’s program to discuss the issue. Beck’s only response thus far was to call Wallis “a leftist,” “an operative for the Democratic Party,” “an apologist communist for atrocities in Cambodia and Vietnam,” and “a dedicated foe of capitalism.”

Meanwhile countless other voices have spoken out declaring the importance of social justice throughout scripture and church history. The National Association of Evangelicals has even gone as far as to suggest that the Bible does seem to suggest the rights of governments – not churches, contrary to Falwell’s statement – to care for the poor, citing such Biblical texts as Romans 13:1-7 and 1 Peter 2:13-17.

On his blog, Scot McKnight offers some excellent insight into this very issue, with numerous texts supporting the importance of social justice. He raises an important question:

“Are you seeing an increasing connection of libertarianism with the Bible? Do you think the Bible is anti-government mandated care for the poor? Do you see a radical voluntarism as the biblical model for caring for the poor?”

McKnight argues that some texts speak quite strongly of the role of the government in social action.

Darrell Bock of Dallas Seminary posts on the distinction between “social justice” and the “social gospel,” his point being that even if social work is not synonymous with the gospel, scripture still emphasizes the need to pursue justice. Bock concludes (and let’s forgive him his typos – he’s graded my papers so graciously I might as well give something back):

“…let’s not let Christian virtue get captured in ideological political rhetoric of cultural wars that take peopel away from the call of the gospel to be socially sensitive. Let’s be sure we read and listen to the prophets John the Baptist and Jesus. May political commentators giving advice to members of the church be sure and read their Bible first and not oversimplify what God asks of people who serve him. Yes, the gospel is about salvation of the soul, but service to the world and caring for justice and the poor grows out of responding properly to God. Once again what some want to make either-or is actually a both-and when bibically defined. Let’s not villify with political associations of communism or socialism a concern and compassion Jesus asks of people who love their neighbor, part of what Jesus called the greatest commandment.”

NAVIGATING THE VOICES

It’s a sticky issue. On the one hand, the responses I’ve mentioned have all been in agreement that social justice is a Biblical mandate, the disagreement seems to be what form or priority this mandate should take. Falwell seems to relegate it to individuals and churches, while Wallis calls social justice “the very heart of our Christian faith.”

The statements of Beck and Wallis are quite equally wrong though for opposite reasons. A full understanding of the issue requires both Biblical fidelity and historical responsibility.

BIBLICAL FIDELITY

First, we must be clear that the Bible teaches social justice. The prophets hit this subject especially hard, repeatedly emphasizing the justice of God.

“…learn to do good; seek justice, correct oppression; bring justice to the fatherless, plead the widow’s cause” (Isaiah 1:17)

“He has told you, O man, what is good, and what the LORD really wants from you: He wants you to promote justice, to be faithful, and to live obediently before your God.” (Micah 6:8)

Jesus Himself read from the prophets at the beginning of his ministry:

“The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to proclaim good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim liberty to the captives and recovering of sight to the blind, to set at liberty those who are oppressed, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.” (Luke 4:18-19)

I don’t know how to “spiritualize” that. Nor can I read Jesus’ prescription for us to imitate the behavior of the Good Samaritan without an understanding of the Christian duty to reach out to the broken.

Later in the Greek testament, Jesus’ half-brother James acknowledged that “true religion” is helping the “widows and orphans” (James 1:27).

The “greatest commandment” in Luke 10 is to love God and our neighbor. John asks, “But if anyone has the world’s goods and sees his brother in need, yet closes his heart against him, how does God’s love abide in him?” (1 John 3:17)

These are words that should make hypocrites of us all.

To be fair, how social justice is brought about is a matter of debate – historically as well as presently. But these are questions of application, not the interpretation of passages that make the point so clearly.

HISTORICAL RESPONSIBILITY

But we must be good students of history. As Bock points out, social justice is not the same thing as the gospel, a point we must be very clear on.

The reason such clarity is necessary is that in the past century there have been those who have taken verses such as I’ve mentioned above and reduced the gospel into something that is only social. This was the error that affected much of mainline protestantism (Lutherans, Methodists, etc.) and some strands of liturgical traditions (so much so that today mainline protestant denominations are often called “social justice Christians”).

While the effects of this error have been felt in some locales more than others, the results are the same: a movement away from the cross as personal redemption, and a movement toward the cross as a victory over the systemic sins that cause injustice as well as a symbol of Christ’s solidarity with the poor.

Both of the above statements are true (though deserve more clarification that I presently have time…) but both miss the most important elements of the gospel, forgiveness and relationship.  This is why Wallis is wrong to call it the “heart of the Christian faith.”  It is a vital component of it, but certainly does not supercede the need for personal redemption. 

SHOULD YOU LEAVE YOUR CHURCH?

If your church is preaching a message of forgiveness of sins but makes no effort to reach beyond its walls, then this is a church that needs to change.

If your church is reaching out but fails to communicate the forgiveness offered through Jesus, then this is also a church that needs to change.

The former is wrong for minimizing the call to social action, and the latter is wrong for ignoring the call for personal salvation.

Should you leave? Maybe. But certainly not without a good, long talk with your church leadership. If your church is gospel centered, it may be that your pastor would love to see someone take the initiative behind an outreach project. If your church has lost this focus, it may be time to look elsewhere; I actually have known several families who have abandoned mainline protestantism for the very reasons I’ve listed, and as much as I want to be respectful of various traditions, I couldn’t be happier to see them in environments that embrace a holistic gospel that offers forgiveness for the individual while maintaining sensitivity to the needs of the world.

AND CONFRONTATION

Let’s remember something else: Glenn Beck is not a Christian, meaning he needs our prayers far more than he needs our criticisms.

Which means that while it is very tempting to respond by finger-pointing and name-calling, such reactionary tendencies are hardly emblematic of the Biblical call to “overcome evil with good” (Romans 12:22).  A friend posted on her Facebook page a relevant quote: “Be kinder than necessary, for everyone you meet is fighting some kind of battle”.

Responding to this mentality requires both love and integrity.

Love is necessary because we are called to “walk in wisdom toward outsiders” (Colossians 4:5). Conduct reveals character, and as Christians our character is a reflection of Christ. Don’t ruin His reputation through hostile, reactionary behavior.

Integrity is necessary because the issue is so volatile. Proverbs tells us not to “speak in the hearing of a fool, for he will despise the good sense of your words.” (23:9) and not to “reprove a scoffer, or he will hate you; reprove a wise man, and he will love you.” (9:8)

When disagreements turn disagreeable, it might be time to just let them have the last word and be done with it, because being “right” isn’t as important as being redemptive.

FURTHERING THE CONVERSATION

I hope I’ve said something helpful. And hopefully this helps you understand the issues in play.

It’s well worth mentioning that there is an excellent video series on this very issue, one that churches may find helpful.

It is a six part series called “Seek Social Justice” and is available through their website: Seek Social Justice.

The video series features such leaders as Chuck Colson, Al Mohler, Sean Litton of the International Justice Mission, and others, making it an excellent, timely resource.

A Wretch Like Me

 

I’m naturally skeptical of trends. When I started seeing billboards by the interstate for something called www.iamsecond.com, I was skeptical. The website features video clips of various celebrities (both major and minor) as well as others offering a brief testimony concerning their commitment to Christ.

The site is extremely well done, worthy of attention, and will surely challenge the popular images of what a Christian “should” be.

But over time, as I saw the aggregation of Facebook status updates, I began to wonder if the site and its mission were becoming yet another victim of mass-market spirituality (think: WWJD? all over again), a concern that the group’s organizers seemed to share.

Then yesterday I logged on to see this update, accompanied by a photo album of men in orange jumpsuits:

“Chaplain Albert started an ‘I am Second’ group in one of the pods (dorm rooms) at a local state jail. Recently 25 inmates received certificates for completing 10 sessions. As they are moved to different pods or different state prisons, many are now ready to start their own I am Second groups. Anyone can be a missionary!”

Here’s a guy who turned a group of convicts into a group of missionaries. I cannot say nearly enough of what a great thing this is, and what a piercing reminder it is to all of us of the power of the gospel.  And if I may be uncharacteristically gushy, I love love LOVE what I see happening here.

As I see the photo of orange jumpsuits, I cannot help but be reminded of the words of Paul to the church at Corinth – a city known in the ancient world for its lofty, metropolitan culture.

“For consider your calling, brothers: not many of you were wise according to worldly standards, not many were powerful, not many were of noble birth. But God chose what is foolish in the world to shame the wise; God chose what is weak in the world to shame the strong; God chose what is low and despised in the world, even things that are not, to bring to nothing things that are, so that no human being might boast in the presence of God. (1 Corinthians 1:26-29)”

When God was looking to build His organization (i.e., the Church), He didn’t hand-pick an “A-team” of winners. He chose the “low and despised.”

He chose the losers. The fishermen. The tax collectors. The uneducated. The overweight. The trekkies. The Nascar fans. The people who drive with their blinker on. The chronically unemployable. The people of Wal-Mart (and yes, there’s a site).

The ones who mess up. The ones who find themselves in orange jumpsuits and in prison.

And yes, sometimes he even chooses to use the seminary graduates.

Lately I’ve been wondering if I’ve been casting a lot of stones, whether at the political crowd or the Jonas Brothers. I really want to engage culture redemptively, but also maintain the kind of examined life that does not confuse sarcasm for genuine wisdom nor cynicism for spiritual maturity. I have degrees in subjects some people have never even heard of. I’ve studied languages that no one even speaks anymore. I read 10 books a month, and that’s not even when I’m under contract. But I can be just as easily be put to shame by the God’s chosen foolish.

John Piper writes the following to pastors, though it is quite equally applicable to every serious student of Jesus:

“We pastors are being killed by the professionalizing of the pastoral ministry. The mentality of the professional is not the mentality of the prophet. It is not the mentality of the slave of Christ. Professionalism has nothing to do with the essence and heart of the Christian ministry. The more professional we long to be, the more spiritual death we will leave in our wake. For there is no professional childlikeness (Matt. 18:3); there is no professional tenderheartedness (Eph. 4:32); there is no professional panting after God (Ps. 42:1).” (John Piper, Brothers, We Are Not Professionals)

Jesus came to make us missionaries, but He first came to transform us. He came to make us His followers, but He first came to make us His people. The prisoners in this photo can testify to an amazing grace of a sound so sweet that it can save each of us.

Even a wretch like me.

The Jonas Brothers: Coming Soon to a Church Near You…?

Are the Jonas Brothers coming to a church near you? 

If you attend Rick Warren’s Saddleback Church, the answer, dear readers, is “yes.”

According to a recent article, the Jonas Brothers will be performing at special Easter services at the California church this month.

And of course, this has sparked an avalanche of criticism over whether this popular group has any place in the church. On the one hand, Warren cites their professed Christianity. On the other hand, such showmanship is just another play in the church growth game.

For me, I’d be opposed on aesthetic reasons. Forget their music for a second. I’m talking about their trendy skinny jeans. The few times I’ve seen them on TV I’ve felt myself quoting a line from the movie Superbad: “Way too tight. You need to upgrade. There’s not enough pants where there should be, more pant in there.”

But in all seriousness, I’m not trying to badmouth these tactics. I’m willing to suspend judgment until they actually perform. I’m willing to give the benefit of the doubt that their performance will be God-honoring, and I see no reason to castigate Warren’s church solely because the group is “popular.”

Just the same, I think it brings up an important discussion of how to “do” church.

CONTEXTUALIZATION

The desire to reach outsiders is a good one. In the evangelical world, we refer to this as “contextualization,” the means by which we translate God’s truth into the language of our culture. Tullian Tchividjian has an excellent post on his blog on this very issue (whose content is taken from his book Unfashionable: Making a Difference in the World by Being Different).

Tullian cites Charles Colson:

We must enter into the stories of the surrounding culture, which takes real listening. We connect with the literature, music, theater, arts, and issues that express the existing culture’s hopes, dreams, and fears. This builds a bridge by which we can show how the Gospel can enter and transform those stories.

…as well as Tim Keller:

“to over-contextualize to a new generation means you can make an idol out of their culture, but to under-contextualize to a new generation means you can make an idol out of the culture you come from. So there’s no avoiding it.”

In other words, churches must avoid the extremes of isolation and accommodation. At the same time, we must recognize the inherent strangeness of the gospel message. Tullian concludes by saying:

“When Christians try to eliminate the counter-cultural, unfashionable features of the biblical message because those features are unpopular in the wider culture—for example, when we reduce sin to a lack of self-esteem, deny the exclusivity of Christ, or downplay the reality of knowable absolute truth—we’ve moved from contextualization to compromise. When we accommodate our culture by jettisoning key themes of the gospel, such as suffering, humility, persecution, service, and self-sacrifice, we actually do our world more harm than good. For love’s sake, compromise is to be avoided at all costs.”

PERFORMANCE OR SHOWMANSHIP…?

But everyone agrees on this point, to some degree or another. The controversy erupts when people drop the word “performance,” arguing that churches who value performance over “substance” are committing some grievous sin.

Perhaps the word “performance” needs to be redeemed: you can hardly ignore the fact that any public ministry (whether music, preaching or otherwise) will contain some performative element. And that’s a good thing. The exercise of the creative gifts should be encouraged by the church, and doing so will invariably lead to some form of performance.

The problem, it seems, is the focus or the intent of the performance. In The Deliberate Church, Mark Dever highlights this point:

“The job of the church…is not to show people a reflection of themselves. We are instead biblically obliged to raise their gaze, redirecting their attention from themselves to their Creator.”

Performance can be redemptive. Showmanship, however…

Showmanship tends to be a bit over the top. Performance can become showmanship when it relies not on the creative gifts themselves, but the gimmicks and fads of the surrounding culure.

In this case, is it the Jonas Brothers’ “giftedness” that makes them a good choice? Or does it have more to do with their popularity in surrounding culture? (hint: have you seen them perform?

In the same book, Dever makes the point (repeatedly), that “What you win them with is what you win them to.” Relying on gimmicks and cultural trends will draw people to…gimmicks and cultural trends, but often little else.

Or, stated another way, showmanship elevates the popularity of the medium over the content of the message.

And often such methods only reflect the penchant for numbers, or what Mark Driscoll calls “ministry idolatry,” where our worth becomes couched in terms of ministry success (often measured by attendance).

In such climates, the church starts to look more like a corporation with a bottom line rather than an embodied community (Kevin DeYoung has a fascinating article on why churches should not look to companies like Starbucks for their inspiration).

ALL IN THE FAMILY 

There is another point to be considered. The Jonas Brothers do not – to my knowledge – attend Saddleback.

Which means: should churches bring in “ringers” to improve their ministry performance? Once again, if “performance” equals “numbers” then this is a logical conclusion.

But I don’t like it, if for not other reason that this: it minimizes the local church’s ability to encourage and foster the spiritual and creative gifts of its own members.

True, the global church is a family of believers, but the local church has a responsibility to care for the development of the people within her walls, and bringing in “professionals” can potentially inhibit this growth, especially insofar as the arts are concerned.

SO……..

So should we? Shouldn’t we? I dunno. Honest.

At minimum it requires that those in ministry re-evaluate their own commitments, both to the gospel message and the culture around them, and to (re-)affirm their priority to God’s kingdom and the people that help comprise it (present and future).

For an interesting, related read, check out Donald Miller’s posts on Commercialism and the Human Brain.