Tag Archives: church

Violence makes me sick

I heard yesterday that the most commonly reported form of violence in my neighborhood is battery. I don’t think about it much, but I must confess that I am prone to rage fantasies when pushed into a situation that I find untenable. When I can’t see a way forward part of me reverts to wanting to hurt someone. That is quite scary to me, especially when I consider all the times I’ve witnessed the aftermath of serious violence. Homelessness, hospitalization, surgery, recovery. When it touches someone you know it makes you sick. To be near an assault, or to be threatened with assault is to feel your very world as you know it threatened with extinction. Some of the blogs I’ve recently read regarding pacifism remind us that Christians are called to suffer. I wonder whether or not this suffering of violence in the abstract is not in itself a retreat. I agree with them, and I certainly don’t wish suffering on anyone, but just today I got word that someone I know was near fatally beaten and hospitalized by a mentally ill person who they were trying to help. This news saps me of all energy and makes me feel downright sick. I can’t help but think that anyone I know could be next. When you reach out to wounded, desperate people, there is really no protection from violence in this world. I spoke similar words to my friend whose wife works with a family with a history of violence. He has to block the possibilities out of his mind. For my part, I am chastened that I must deal more quickly with my own inner violence. Resentment and inner rage is the seedbed for violent action. I often think of those words from Alcoholics Anonymous “taking the actions of love to improve our relations with others.” 

Violence is always what is possible, but how much more is love? Fear and hatred are very real things, but so are gratitude and generosity. I think back on life in the believing fellowships where I grew up and now serve. Thousands have been sheltered, comforted, and enriched by this family of God. There were terribly fearful situations at times, but all in all, the life of sharing all things in common was often simply boring. You get used to living a certain way, you know? You get used to strange and wonderful people sharing your food and home. When someone acted out in a profoundly disturbing way it hurt us, like the time I saw my mother’s face slapped hard in our front yard by a woman mom had to ask to leave. I stood there powerless to do anything. But by being close to the poor for a short time you realize that you only have a taste of their daily fears. And there’s no doubt in my mind that Jesus knows this pain and fear and calls me to know it too. To be the Church is to drink the cup of pain Jesus drinks. We are not immune.

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Does military nation building work?

Yesterday the US Army held a press conference  regarding its new field manual, The Stability Operations Field Manual, which essentially amplifies the new philosophy of military occupation as successful nation building. It’s not simply the Army’s job to forcefully enter a country and beat the bad guys, it is its job to create a new country in the shell of the old and see that it becomes a democracy. Well, James L. Payne, a political scientist and research fellow at the Independent Institute, says it’s not that simple. 

“Pundits and presidents talk about nation building as if it were a settle technology, like building bridges or removing gall bladders. Huge amounts of government and foundation money have been poured into the topic of democracy building, and academics and bureaucrats have produced reams of verbose commentary. But still there is no concrete, usable body of knowledge.”
In his article for the American Conservative, “Deconstructing Nation Building,” he identifies 51 attempts at nation building by Britain and the USA and assesses whether they succeeded or failed. His research shines a light on what’s really involved every time nations send in a military to make peace follow corruption. Does coercion make stability? Not so fast. Payne points out that a military has to actually leave the country for democracy to be deemed successful. So how does the military build the nation and leave at the same time? Not very easily. The US is eager to prove its work in Iraq a success, but at the same time can’t quite say it’s so successful that troops can leave. Is this nation building or military occupation?
As I was looking around on this topic, I learned that South African theologian Charles Villa-Vincencio (author of Between Christ and Caesar: Classic and Contemporary Texts on Church and State) did a landmark study on theology and nation building in his 1992 book, A Theology of Reconstruction: Nation Building and Human Rights. Citizenship has deeply theological implications, and to think that any country can alter the lives of millions of other individuals with a military and then somehow not effect that country catastrophically on a spiritual level is myopic. Christians in America have got to look seriously at how our nation’s global military actions are effecting the work of the Church universally. 

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Religion vs. Relationships

I am really tired of the whole “not religion, relationships” rhetoric that’s getting more and more popular. This is a really silly conversation. “I love Jesus” is just about the most religious thing you can say. No amount of bagging on traditional religion, going to church, or not identifying yourself as a Christian is going to make people think that anyone who says “I love Jesus” is not religious. In essence what the anti-religion track is saying is “We think of Jesus as someone you really want to know but someone you only think you know.” The assumption is that this program has never been tried. Herein lies the whole failure of such an enterprise. Religion is a human thing. Where ever humans are involved, like it or not, there religion is. Yes, we will all be judged. But it is terribly prideful to assume that by using new language you’ve suddenly made Christianity about Jesus again. The Church is ever reforming, ever needing renewal, because the saints are ever going astray. But this whole “oppose religion” rap is misguided marketing.

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Consensus is work!

In Jacques Ellul’s spirit of making a statement and then quickly arguing three sides of it that seem contradictory, my last post on Consensus built largely on a popular notion of what consensus is, namely, a majority rule. Brian Grover reminded me that that’s actually what consensus is not. Since yesterday I have been reading On Conflict and Consensus: a handbook on Formal Consensus decisionmaking by C.T. Butler and Amy Rothstein. You could consider it an alternative to parliamentary procedure, namely Robert’s Rules of Order. Does this sound boring? I mean—who likes meetings?

Consensus is a decision making process. Every community and every church have decision making processes, but what Butler and Rothstein’s book address is the fact that many needed people get left out of that process. What quickly becomes apparent however is that in order for people to be included they have to want to be included.  Consensus relies on the assumption that we all have an important voice with matters to be considered. Herein lies the problem with politics in America.

Instead of believing that as citizens we each have a voice capable of thoughtful political discussion, we are a society of people content with uninvolvement. We get angry about the war or angry at people who are angry at the war and we clam up and turn on Fox News or MSNBC (sorry Jon) and fill our brains with rhetoric rather than formulating actual positions. Do you all know what polling places want to see on election day? What they would say is a good day? 50% of registered voters.  And then we have theorists who say, “This demonstrates a healthy democracy. People are satisfied with the economy and our system of checks and balances. That’s why they don’t vote.” Now that is something to be angry about!

Real consensus is hard to achieve because as Americans and as Christians we are not adequately equipped with resources necessary to formulate real dialogue. I know for instance that in church calling a large meeting to discuss the war would have a lower turnout than if we handed out fifty dollar bills and assigned seats in a van to go and collectively get root canals at the dentist! (In fact I think a lot of us want those!) Why? Because as a society we’ve been trained to feel helpless on international issues. Now isn’t it the church’s job to empower people? To let them know that Christ’s Kingdom reality can change the world? Yes, but I would argue that this must happen one person at a time, and you know what? People forget. People revert to old bad patterns of thinking. People are sinners. Yes, consensus is work.

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The Scandal of Evangelical Politics by Ronald J. Sider

The Scandal of Evangelical Politics by Ronald J. Sider
Baker Books, 275 pages, 2008. Reviewed by Chris L. Rice.

This is an exciting time to be an Evangelical with an active interest in politics. In the early part of the twentieth century Evangelicals were known to be withdrawn, and then, in the early 1990s we rushed headlong into a single partisan agenda. One leader within the movement at this time (Ed Dobson) typified the approach as “ready, fire, aim.” The movement lacked careful reflection and a wholistic Biblical ethic that focused on the whole person. In his latest book, The Scandal of Evangelical Politics: Why Are Christians Missing the Chance to Really Change the World?, Ron Sider lays out a new framework for political engagement that draws on his many years of learning, teaching, and practicing mainstream political diplomacy. The work is stunningly ecumenical, drawing on what Sider sees as the need for consensus among several streams of Church history and tradition. Sider draws on Jurgen Moltmonn, Reinhold Neibuhr, Abraham Kuyper, Karl Barth, John Howard Yoder, and alludes to the important work of Lutherans such as Dietrich Bonhoeffer.

Dr. Sider successfully shows us that we need a methodology that carefully and prayerfully engages politically, but that does not neglect the important role of the Church as an equally important and uniquely separate realm from the State. This simple point is a minefield for theorists. How much, if at all, can the State be trusted? How much can fellow Christians be trusted when we disagree on so much? In his own irenic manner, Sider concentrates on the Scriptures and the issues on which Evangelicals have had success, and looks forward to a better future despite the many setbacks. Sider knows that politics, like life itself, is full of tragic failure.

Over the last twenty five years Evangelicals have pursued a path that neglected the Church’s true riches and instead sought power for its own sake. Sider seems sure that that era is waning. He continually draws our attention to the document “For the Health of the Nation,” which he helped draft for the board of the National Association of Evangelicals.

“The Bible makes it clear that God cares a great deal about the well-being of marriage, the family, the sanctity of human life, justice for the poor, care for creation, peace, freedom, and racial justice.” (pg. 233)

On the personal side, I’m excited by Ron Sider’s treatise (for that’s really what this is) and especially his desire that Evangelical politics be communal in nature, that instead of separate camps we have open think tanks. I’d just love to see that in action. Are Richard Land and James Dobson going to faithfully attend open dialogues on Peacemaking and Creation Care? Will they be endorsers of Dr. Sider’s idea (pg. 205) that churches invest millions on CPT styled peacemaking delegations to the front lines in Iraq, Afghanistan and Zimbabwe? Will Land and Dobson change their minds on the Global Warming and the earth’s oil supply?

See what I’m getting at? Evangelicals have sharp differences on peacemaking and the environment, and let’s not forget economics! It was only one year ago now that these same leaders who signed the NAE document sought Richard Czik’s ouster for supporting it! With this in mind is consensus really possible? If we’re looking at real numbers, most Evangelicals are Southern Baptists! Hello! I hope to God Dallas Theological Seminary adopts Ron Sider’s book into its classes. But I’m not holding my breath.

I believe in what Ron Sider is doing in this book. I’m not always satisfied with his approach in particular chapters. Having cut my own teeth on Bonhoeffer and Barth, Sider is certainly no dialectician. He can’t seem to speak backwards and forwards at the same time. At times he seems to fear postmodernism, and sounds downright pollyanish about democracy in another place, but then the further I read, I realize he’s not speaking of any particular democracy on earth but the idea of democracy within his own model. He believes in democracy in so far as it has checks and balances, fair courts, and ability to fairly distribute wealth. But then again, what is American democracy really like?

At any rate, this book really inspired me, educated me, taught me that there’s so much more to be learned about political diplomacy. James Skillen of the Center for Public Justice is prominent in this book along with many other policy analysts such as Stephen Monsma, and Stephen Carter. (Buy the book for the bibliography alone.) If you’ve ever felt alone or unique in your political vantage point as an Evangelical, pick up this book. Its one of those that you have to bookmark in front and back, reading the text and the notes together very carefully. I’ve spent a month of in depth reading with it, and quite honestly I could go through it again. Most importantly, this book fosters intelligent conversations. Its real heart is to create honest dialogue in our churches. Lord knows we need more of that.

BTW, Palmer Seminary’s conference is coming up March 28-30. Find a schedule here.

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Dorothy Day more than Augustine

I was asking earlier for autobiographies that tell the story with the Church in mind. Augustine’s Confessions was mentioned, but lately I’ve been reading this beautiful little online autobiography of Dorothy Day’s, From Union Square to Rome. Actually it’s addressed to her brother, who was a communist. Here’s an excerpt from the Catholic Worker’s website:

Do you remember that little story that Grushenka told in The Brothers Karamazov? “Once upon a time there was a peasant woman and a very wicked woman she was. And she died and did not leave a single good deed behind. The devils caught her and plunged her into a lake of fire. So her guardian angel stood and wondered what good deed of hers he could remember to tell God. ‘She once pulled up an onion in her garden,’ said he, ‘and gave it to a beggar woman.’ And God answered: ‘You take that onion then, hold it out to her in the lake, and let her take hold and be pulled out. And if you pull her out of the lake, let her come to Paradise, but if the onion breaks, then the woman must stay where she is.’ The angel ran to the woman and held out the onion to her. ‘Come,’ said he, ‘catch hold, and I’ll pull you out. And he began cautiously pulling her out. He had just pulled her out, when the other sinners in the lake, seeing how she was being drawn out, began catching hold of her so as to be pulled out with her. But she was a very wicked woman and she began kicking them. ‘I’m to be pulled out, not you. It’s my onion, not yours.’ As soon as she said that, the onion broke. And the woman fell into the lake and she is burning there to this day. So the angel wept and went away.”

Sometimes in thinking and wondering at God’s goodness to me, I have thought that it was because I gave away an onion. Because I sincerely loved His poor, He taught me to know Him. And when I think of the little I ever did, I am filled with hope and love for all those others devoted to the cause of social justice.

“What glorious hope!” Mauriac writes. “There are all those who will discover that their neighbor is Jesus himself, although they belong to the mass of those who do not know Christ or who have forgotten Him. And nevertheless they will find themselves well loved. It is impossible for any one of those who has real charity in his heart not to serve Christ. Even some of those who think they hate Him, have consecrated their lives to Him; for Jesus is disguised and masked in the midst of men, hidden among the poor, among the sick, among prisoners, among strangers. Many who serve Him officially have never known who He was, and many who do not even know His name, will hear on the last day the words that open to them the gates of joy. O Those children were I, and I those working men. I wept on the hospital bed. I was that murderer in his cell whom you consoled.’ ”

But always the glimpses of God came most when I was alone. Objectors cannot say that it was fear of loneliness and solitude and pain that made me turn to Him. It was in those few years when I was alone and most happy that I found Him. I found Him at last through joy and thanksgiving, not through sorrow.

Yet how can I say that either? Better let it be said that I found Him through His poor, and in a moment of joy I turned to Him. I have said, sometimes flippantly, that the mass of bourgeois smug Christians who denied Christ in His poor made me turn to Communism, and that it was the Communists and working with them that made me turn to God.

She writes in a way reminiscent of Augustine’s Confessions, but with an emphasis on her relationship to the poor. I think this book would be wonderful when read aloud to a group. It’s a treasure indeed!

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sacramental language

I’m going through this little struggle over whether it is right to use sacramental language, ( ie. references to the Eucharist, the sacramental life, the inbreak of the Kingdom) when I have no direct personal connection with a church that employs the sacraments as such. Many of my favorite authors, Henri Nouwen, Jean Vanier, Flannery O’Connor, NT Wright, Stanley Hauerwas, William Cavanaugh, and even Dietrich Bonhoeffer (though in a different way) all employ sacramental language to some degree. But when I take a serious look at the origin of the language I find theologians (like Teilhard De Chardin, Karl Rahner, Hans Urs Von Balthazaar, Alexander Schmemann) whose theology of the Church and sacraments rankles my own Christocentric protestant heritage. (Halden has a great discussion going now on Christocentrism and Catholicism.) I’m making a little promise to myself that, despite my love for these authors, I’ll refrain from using sacramental language until I can safely use it deliberately in an ecumenical context that’s faithful to my own church. I think it’s important to mean what I say, and not just banty language about because I like it in someone else’s experience. I have begun reading Alexander Schmemann’s book, For the Life of the World: Sacraments and Orthodoxy, and I’ll comment on it when I get it read.

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The Fellowship of Rolls-Royce Jesus Scoffers

The Fellowship of Rolls-Royce Jesus Scoffers

I was walking back to the Belmont El station, having procured a bag of timothy hay for our family rabbit, a mini-rex named Peanut Butter, and I got hungry for a sandwich. I settled on The New Modern Diner on Belmont and Halsted. I walked in, bought a Patti Melt with onion rings and coke and sat at the bar where I could watch them prepare my food. A television hung on the wall to my left and CNN was on. I loved this environment. Working class people, or like myself, working class wannabes. Aaah the smell of margarine toasting my rye bread. Yes, I was hiding out on the way home. The wife knew not where I was (until she called). I was having the highest cholesterol lunch I’d had all week. And it was wonderful.

The day before I’d read in a blog that Senator Chuck Grassley of Iowa had launched an investigation into the alleged financial mismanagement of six Christian ministries. CNN’s report ran the tagline “False Profits?” on the bottom of the screen. After giving us the story, the interviewers introduced one of the ministers being investigated, Creflo Dollar, there in the newsroom. The opportunity to watch prosperity preachers get roasted before the eyes of the world delighted me. I must have been grinning from ear to ear. I felt a bit naughty about it really. I wondered whether I was being a bad witness. The middle aged man to my immediate left was finishing up his meal, and threw his wadded napkin to emphasize his disgust. I can’t repeat his exact words here, too much profanity, but he was red under the collar. “Stupid televangelists. Stealin’ people’s money. Fraud it is!” After watching awhile he yelled out, “It’s Jim Bakker all over again!”

Someone behind the counter had never heard of Jim Bakker so he schooled him.

“You don’t remember Jim and Tammy Faye? They defrauded little old ladies and Jim spent years in prison. They made an example of him.”

Creflo Dollar assured his interrogators that he would never misuse the Lord’s money for his personal gain. They flashed on the screen a list of Dollar’s ministry expenses. A personal jet. A Rolls-Royce. Creflo said that the Rolls was a gift from his congregation. They asked him why a Rolls and not a BMW. Dollar replied that they wanted to give in keeping with their faith. They have big faith. On the screen flashed the scripture, “It is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter the kingdom.” They read it aloud and asked Creflo, “What do you make of this verse?”

Oh, this was getting good. The man to my immediate left took off by this time. Creflo began to tell the story of the rich young ruler, and how all Jesus was asking him to do was to “honor God with his stuff or give it up.” The words “Oh Shut UP!” just flew out of my mouth at the TV. I was a little embarrassed and unsure that this was proper. The woman interviewing Creflo asked in response, “If Jesus were around today would he drive a Rolls Royce?” Creflo smiled, beamed, and piped up, “Why yes, I’m sure he would!”

At this remark the diner burst into jeering. Somehow everyone got the absurdity of the thought. One guy in an apron with his eyebrows partially singed off repeated Dollar’s words for effect, “The man said Jesus would be driving a Rolls Royce.” We all laughed again. I loved this crowd. I sort of wish Creflo could have said, “Thank you I’ll be here all night.” But he was dead serious. “How do you justify such wealth as a minister when people are dying of malnutrition, AIDS, and such poverty all over the world?” the interviewer pleaded.

“I believe in empowerment. I have an international ministry and we’re all about empowering people. In my neighborhood we work to prosper our young men out of very bad situations.”

That was it, I’d finally had enough. I could tell the others had too. We didn’t have to turn down the set to tune this joker out. We, the Fellowship of Rolls Royce Jesus Scoffers, whether claiming to know Jesus personally or no, had the good discernment to spot a huckster when we saw him. A Rolls Royce driving Jesus was certainly no biblical Jesus we’d ever heard of.

There is something wrong in our society when anyone on the street can pick out a huckster using Jesus, (claiming that he rode a new donkey—the Rolls Royce of our day) while hundreds of thousands of Christians across America believe Dollar and his ilk are men and women of God and faithful ministers of the gospel! The sad fact is that, were I watching this minister in some churches, I would no doubt have to keep my mouth shut or leave. Someone there would say, “Oh, let’s not judge now. Let’s not “sit in the seat of mockers.”

Only in America do we have a society where CNN newsroom anchors know the Bible better than one of our assumed “men of God.” Only in America can CNN serve as a prophetic voice to shame a false prophet. What does it say about church authority in America when it takes a Senate investigation and a syndicated newsroom quoting the Scriptures to spot a wolf in sheep’s clothing?

Why can’t we model a way of living in the Spirit of Christ that doesn’t have money or a government enabled tax status as its principle power? When the Spirit fell on the early Church in Acts money and property lost its power, and liars like Ananias and Sapphira fell under divine judgment. What would happen if Christians began investing themselves in losing enterprises in behalf of the poor and homeless? They would surely be chased out of liberal upwardly mobile neighborhoods. They might be a sign of scorn for invested churches. They might be called sloppy, ugly, dirty, undiscerning, and lousy managers.

Why can’t we Christians be the kind of Church willing to suffer humiliation and defeat for Jesus Christ? Maybe because we like the power and money just a little too much.

The actual transcript of the CNN interview with Creflo Dollar on Nov. 7th is here.

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marketing, CT, and nice Jesus

I applaud Mark Galli’s warnings about marketing in the church, that Jesus didn’t say “you shall be my marketers to the ends of the earth”, but I wonder whether as with so many important messages, evangelicals are good at moralizing without real intention to change. Galli speaks honestly in the first few sentences:

“Marketing is a wonderful thing. I like to hear pitches about products I might use. I like the fact that my publishers pitch my books to a larger public. Thank God for marketing!”

But lets look at where the rubber meets the road. Will Christianity Today be toning down its own marketing tactics anytime soon? It represents one of the largest Christian marketing businesses in America. Is the message here keep business and church separate? CT walks the fine line between growing subscribers by saying things people want to hear, and speaking the truth and offending readers. Of course because the staff mean to stay in business and keep the paychecks coming they’re going to vote to do what they deem necessary to stay in business. I don’t want to get anymore specific than this.

I just want to point out that, while Galli’s remarks are poignant and mirror a lot of the buzz in Mainline churches now, evangelicals still love their educated upper middle class lifestyles. So don’t worry, the market schlock will continue to keep coming. You’ll still get your “felt need” gospel fix.

And while I’m on this rant I can’t help but share a few words from David Jeremiah’s latest book, Signs of Life: Back to the Basics of Authentic Christianity.

“Lots of people in the world don’t like religion in general or Christianity (or Christians) in particular, but it’s hard to find anyone who has any­thing bad to say about Jesus. What could they say? Jesus was kind humble, wise, strong, sacrificial, gentle, and willing to associate with everyone. There is no record anywhere of Him doing anything un­toward or unkind. Even when He spoke or acted forcefully, people agreed that His actions were needed and justified (Matthew 23: 1-39: John 2:13-16).

The only people in the Bible who didn’t like Jesus were those who were jealous of His popularity with the common people. These people sensed something good in Jesus. He was the kind of person anyone would have loved to hang out with, to use our modern language; He was the kind of person anyone would want as a friend. Women were touched by His kindness, men were amazed at His strength, and children found comfort and love in His arms. While there were lots of day-to-day reasons to be attracted to Jesus, something He did for His disciples on the night before His crucifixion has come to define who He was: a humble servant.” (pg. 162-163)

Awww, that’s so sweet. Men were amazed at His strength, I guess because he did feats of strength to amaze them. I quote this passage because I want to point out a felt-need message that is heard day in and day out in Christian America. One that I’ve too often heard as part of the larger message which I thought acceptable. Jesus was and is a nice savior. The only reason anyone would have to reject him is that they just don’t know how nice he can be.

Trouble is, this is not the Jesus of the Bible! It’s Jesus in a self-actualized image, not unlike the Jesus for Schliermacher’s cultured religion despisers. Evangelicals are one up on European liberals in that they claim not to be religious at all! Some even claim to hate religion. Whatever. The jesus nobody could reject doesn’t get himself crucified. He gets himself elected to the White House.

I would invite you to take Mark Galli’s article seriously by turning off Christian radio when it sends messages like this, treating Christian merchandise as you would secular, and all around desacralizing this kind of nice crap by exposing it wherever you find it. Go back to the Jesus of the Bible who cursed the fig tree for no apparent reason, who almost got tossed off a cliff by residents of his home town, and was begged to leave by the town of the demoniac man when he single handedly destroyed their pig farming livelihood.

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