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Sunday, August 16, 2015

Why I'm (Probably) Not Voting

I’m probably not going to vote in the upcoming presidential election here in the United States. 

Without a doubt, this opening sentence alone has struck an angry, confused, or uncomfortable chord with a few readers. Some folks will say I shouldn’t have a voice in the political realm (especially for complaints) if I don’t vote or that I’m wasting a gift of God by not voting. I’ve addressed those responses elsewhere so I’ll just focus on why I’m not voting here.

For the record, I’m writing this because I’m often asked about my position and it’s easy to have it written out and accessible. Also, I think it’s a position worth taking into consideration (for Christians). My reasons are several and they aren’t all tied together directly. I’ll spend the most time on the reasons that are more theologically based since those are most important to me (but I’ll try to not take up too much of your time).

Before I jump into my list of reasons I want to provide a quick disclaimer that I am not against other people voting and I don’t believe my position is one that everyone should adopt. I am convicted of it for myself and I respect the choice of others to vote and encourage them to do all that they do for the glory of God, accompanied by prayer and humility as they put their hope in Jesus. There have been times when voting has been obedience to God for many and I’m confident that continues to be true. Okay, so here’s why I’m probably not voting:

1. I already have a President in Jesus - The gospels are far more political than the church tends to emphasize. We neglect to understand terms like Gospel and Lord as predominantly political due to our vast distance from the culture out of which they were born but the truth is that Jesus’ ministry is incredibly political and it clearly (to first listeners) and directly stands in competition with the Roman government of his day. Jesus is talked about the way Caesar is talked about and he speaks of his kingdom often, revealing what his heavenly nation is like in contrast to Caesar’s [earthly nation]. Granted, the term President doesn’t carry with it an aspect of divinity like ‘Lord’ did but the contrast of power and rulership still exists). Jesus’ ministry is so political that he even holds processions like a king and the New Testament authors continue to use political language to teach about his way. Jesus leads an alternative nation/kingdom as a Lord/President and we are to be citizens of that nation (Ephesians 2:9, Philippians 3:20). As shown by the early church, this turns us into foreigners/sojourners in all other nations (1 Peter 2:11). I believe this dichotomy is still at play in our world today and that we must somehow embrace it through practical application.

In the U.S., which is often hailed as a “Christian nation” - a label I believe we’d all do well to reject -, it is important for Christians to be distinctive in their politics, just like the early church was in their context. It is imperative that we show there is a heavenly nation, that we belong to it, and that this heavenly nation is unlike any of the nations on earth just as our President is unlike earthly Presidents (John 18:36). One way we can be uniquely set apart from this world is by not engaging in the political work of nations in the same manner as others living around us. We can point to our heavenly nation and our President as what concerns us and how we live (for we fear God and not men). It’s true that we hold a dual citizenship in some sense (Paul uses his to escape flogging) but while there are expectations for Christians to submit to authorities and render to them what is theirs, there is no obligation to vote and refraining to do so can provide soil for discussion about God’s nation and the President we serve. By adopting distinctive political behaviors we cultivate a curiosity in others that allows us to speak the truth of God. In short, we recognize that there is already a President in office (for the world and not merely the United States). Plus, as a foreigner it feels strange to vote for the President to me. What business is it of mine who leads an earthly nation that doesn’t get my allegiance above my heavenly nation? But I’ll get back to that later.

2. I have no desire for my way of life to be the law of the land or to be domineering over others even if from a distance or in an obscure manner. Jesus is highly political but the way of his kingdom doesn’t seem to be taking power in the ways that the world seeks power but rather living as an example in weakness/meekness. He doesn't seek legislative reform or command his disciples to see that the laws of the land favor his teachings or their comfort. His kingdom is upside down (first shall be last, weak are strong and strong are weak, the poor are blessed, etc.) so it makes sense that he didn’t attempt to overthrow the Roman government like a zealot but rather lived out the way of God’s Kingdom in a self-sacrificing manner. Jesus avoids earthly political power so much that when he is tempted by Satan in the desert (Matthew 4) he rejects the political power offered to him over all the kingdoms of the world. The fact that Jesus is tempted with this offer makes me believe that we all face this temptation to take power over others in some sense. We all want to be on top. As someone who seeks to imitate Jesus, I do not desire political power, even if it is going to bed with an earthly president via the voting booth.

John Chrysostom (an early Church father) once said, "The desire to rule is the mother of all heresies.” Tertullian (also a Church father) said, "In us [Christians], all ardor in the pursuit of glory and honor is dead. So we have no pressing inducement to take part in your public meetings. Nor is there anything more entirely foreign to us than affairs of state.” Tertullian even believed that Christians can not, in truth, become government officials but that’s another discussion entirely.  In short, I don’t see the way of the Christian being one of domineering or enforcing a law upon others since that is not the ministry Christ has given to his Church. 

3. I want to stay clear of putting my hope and trust in princes/man as I seek to place my hope and trust in Christ Jesus alone. People have always wanted kings and I think we all tend to believe that if we simply voted into office the right people or passed the right legislation that our problems would be fixed. That’s idolatrous. 2 Samuel 8 makes me believe that when we trust earthly governing authorities we’re doomed to drown in injustice and so it's best to not invest too much in such things. We won’t find any kind of savior on Capitol Hill so I won’t spend my time trying. There’s no help in these authorities (Psalm 146:3). We know that "It is better to trust in the Lord Than to put confidence in man. It is better to trust in the Lord Than to put confidence in princes" (Psalm 118:8-9). Too often, we fall into the trap of voting for someone not only with a ballot but also with our heart. It’s easy to get caught up in politics of this world and lose sight of Jesus’ politics. One way for me to stay focused on Jesus, his kingdom, and my mission as a part of his Church, is to avoid being a part of the governing authorities or putting my hope in them. 

4. Regardless of whether or not I vote, God is responsible for setting up the authorities. In Romans 13, Paul of Tarsus teaches that God has placed rulers in their place and he’s done so for a purpose. He wrote this about Nero who murdered innocent Christians for unjust reasons. If he meant it for Nero he must mean it for Obama, Bush (any of the three), Clinton (either of the two), Adolf Hitler, and all the others. Most authorities in history were not elected, except by God. I believe God is still the primary elector of governing authorities. Yes, he may use the votes of a people but he’s never beckoned me or the Church to vote so I trust his judgment and his silence regarding my decision to abstain from voting. Ultimately, the call God has for the Church doesn’t change based on who’s in office. It’s not an issue we need to be anxious about because our King is always the same and we’re always focused first on his kingdom (Matthew 6:33). God will use whoever is in office for his purposes but he doesn't need my vote to do that.

5. I’m unwilling to endorse the platform of politicians that I don’t trust or believe. Truth be told, I’ve yet to find a politician I trust or fully believe is being honest and just. I have serious doubts concerning how honest and just any politician is able to be (as a result of the nature of politics and power in a sinful world). If I vote for someone I feel that I’m endorsing their entire platform and I’m unwilling to do that for the present candidates. All people fall short and sin, nobody is perfect, and I endorse plenty of sinners. This is undeniable. However, most of the sinners I'm somehow endorsing (while not endorsing their sin), aren't responsible for governing millions of people and don't have control over weapons that can destroy the planet. 

6. I don’t have to vote for someone in order to affect their views or the realm they govern. Voting is one manner of attempting to affect our world but there are many others and I can seek to influence politicians without endorsing them. Like many Christians before me, I believe that I serve the authorities best through my prayers and this has become my primary form of support for earthly politicians.

7. I’m persuaded that the system is unjust in the process of how officials become elected and raise money since it silences the poor and marginalized. I’ve known some folks who ran for office and what I’ve learned about the process of seeking office is that it’s nigh impossible (in the U.S.) for the poor and marginalized to play a major role in deciding who can represent them since they do not possess the funds that win elections. Candidates give their time and energy to target populations that a) vote in high numbers and b) contribute to their cause with donated funds. Investing in the poor and marginalized doesn’t provide funds for a winning campaign and thus the ones who need justice and representation the most are left on the outskirts by candidates even if the candidate wants to care about those populations.  Candidates are trapped into silencing the people who deserve their voice the most and that's a system I feel I should oppose.

8. I’m not persuaded that the system works well. Simply put, I don’t believe my vote does much to get “my guy/gal” elected into office. Part of this is because I believe the system we are shown is not the system that is truly working. In other words, I see U.S. politics functioning more like an oligarchy than a democracy (don't hold me to that terminology though). I see presidents bought more than won (by vote). This is the least important of issues to me since I’m mostly apathetic regarding the type of government that is in place where I live. My mission as a Christian stays the same regardless of the political system that is in place. After the first seven reasons this is a bit of a moot point. 

Now, you may have noticed at the beginning I said I probably won’t be voting. That means I would consider voting. I may be willing to vote on behalf of other people who believe in the process and desire to have more voices that contribute to fighting an injustice they face. For instance, if I know an immigrant who isn’t a legal citizen but lives as a citizen (works, has kids in schools, pays taxes, etc.) and they want a candidate in office for immigration reform, I’ll vote for that person on their behalf. This applies to any other marginalized person who doesn't have a political voice. However, I’ve yet to come across such an opportunity. There may be other reasons for me to vote but nobody has convinced me of any. I’m always open to new perspectives and changing my mind so if you’d like to have a discussion, I’m gladly open for it.

Hopefully this is the beginning of a larger conversation for many of us. If you want to explore the relationship between Christianity and politics a bit more I’d suggest some of the following resources that I’ve enjoyed and that have challenged me.

Influential/Additional Resources:
Myth of a Christian Nation by Greg Boyd
Jesus for President by Shane Claiborne and Chris Haw
The Early Christians by Eberhard Arnold (free PDF online)
Politics of Jesus by John Howard Yoder
Rethinking Christ and Culture by Craig Carter
Mockingbird by Derek Webb

Saturday, March 21, 2015

Christians Should Buy Swords

The Bible is filled with instances of violence and this leaves many Christians questioning what is appropriate for those who follow Christ today in relation to using violence. I recently asked folks about how they make sense of Jesus' use of a whip in his cleansing of the temple. Another passage that I've heard many brothers and sisters reference as a justification for the use of violence by Christians is Jesus' command for the disciples to buy swords. 

And he said to them, “When I sent you out with no moneybag or knapsack or sandals, did you lack anything?” They said, “Nothing.” He said to them, “But now let the one who has a moneybag take it, and likewise a knapsack. And let the one who has no sword sell his cloak and buy one. For I tell you that this Scripture must be fulfilled in me: 'And he was numbered with the transgressors.’ For what is written about me has its fulfillment.” And they said, “Look, Lord, here are two swords.” And he said to them, “It is enough” (Luke 22:35-38).

I'm curious as to how, in the eyes of some, Jesus' command for the disciples promotes or gives permission for Christians today to use violence against other humans in self defense, defense of others, and/or war. Anyone who examines this passage and it's implications for Christian ethics regarding the use of violence would do well to ask the following questions:

1) What is reasonable to conclude about the reason for the command given by Jesus according to surrounding scriptures (specifically Luke 22:49-53, Matthew 26:51-56, Mark 14:46-50, John 18:10-11, Isaiah 53:12), church tradition, cultural context, etc.?

2) If any type of violent activity is promoted/approved by this passage, how is that action defined (what are it's limitations) and what type of violence does it allow for present day Christians to use? What does it not allow?

3) If Jesus is promoting the use of certain violent action for particular purposes then how does that promotion compliment the teachings by Jesus regarding peace, nonresistance, mercy, forgiveness, etc. and does that promotion compliment his work on the cross? 

If you believe Jesus' command for the disciples to buy swords contributes to the allowance of Christians to employ violence against other humans I'd be interested in hearing your answers to these questions. If you comment with your answer I will not meet it with hostility or argument. At most, I will ask follow-up questions for the sake of clarity or elaboration (if it is welcomed). 

Please share this with your friends so we can collect some great answers and perhaps start some edifying dialogues. For reading, commenting, sharing, thinking, thank you.

Friday, March 20, 2015

Whom Would Jesus Whip?

Throughout the years I've heard fellow Christians reference Jesus' "cleansing" of the temple as an approval for the use of violence. The basic argument I've heard is that "Jesus used a whip and that's violent therefore violence is permissible for righteous reasons." Usually these reasons are self defense, defense of others, or war.

I've read a lot about the gospels accounts of Jesus' action in the temple and I've yet to come across a notable scholar or theologian who sees the incident as an approval for violent behavior by Christians (but that doesn't mean they don't exist). My studies have left me wondering how we look at Jesus in the temple and come to the conclusion that violence against humans is acceptable for Christians. I used to believe it but I don't know that I ever had good reasoning for that belief. Maybe others do. I'd like to hear those reasons.

The main questions that I believe must be answered when examining Jesus' action in the temple are:

1) What is reasonable to assume about the use of the whip according to church tradition, cultural context, and scriptural evidence?
2) If any type of violent activity is promoted/approved by Jesus in his cleansing of the temple, how is that action defined (what are it's limitations) and what type of violence does it allow for present day Christians to use?
3) If Jesus is promoting the use of certain violent action for particular purposes then how does that promotion compliment the teachings by Jesus regarding peace, nonresistance, mercy, forgiveness, etc. and does that promotion compliment his work on the cross? 

I'm highly interested in hearing thoughts from folks who come to a different conclusion than me on the matter. For those willing to engage, I have a promise and a challenge.

If you comment, you will not be met with hostility or an attempt to be proven wrong. All comments that seek to contribute kindly to the discussion will be appreciated and respected. Some comments may be given follow up questions as an opportunity to offer a more in depth explanation but if those questions are not desired they will be removed.


If you believe Jesus' activity in the temple (as recorded in Mark 11, Matthew 21, Luke 19, and John 2) approves of or promotes the use of violence by Christians then please do your best to answer the 3 questions in this blog and, if possible, cite sources that have influenced you. 

Please share this with your friends so we can collect some great answers and perhaps start some edifying dialogues. For reading, commenting, sharing, thinking, thank you.

Friday, January 16, 2015

Leave Heaven Alone

A book was published detailing the experience of a young boy who went to heaven a few years back. More recently, reports have come out that show the young man who originally told this story made the whole thing up (though he shouldn't be held fully responsible due to the co-authoring of the father). For some, this is more proof of the falsehood of scripture's testimony and the charlatan nature of many Christians. For others it is a heartbreaking betrayal that disrupts their view of God's eternal will for humanity. It screws things up and makes a real mess.
Books like The Boy Who Came Back From Heaven or Heaven Is For Real (which now has it's own movie) are problematic for me as a Christian. I have trouble endorsing them, to be honest. I struggle with these types of books and movies because it is turning a profit on the (supposed) work of God and that is frowned upon in scripture. Beyond that, it goes against the example we have in scripture of those who follow Christ and lead the Church. The Apostle Paul wrote a letter to the Church in Corinth and at one point in the letter he talks about his inability to boast in himself but that he'd champion the stories of others and he'd boast in the work of God alone. He says, "I know a man in Christ who fourteen years ago was caught up to the third heaven—whether in the body or out of the body I do not know, God knows. And I know that this man was caught up into paradise—whether in the body or out of the body I do not know, God knows— and he heard things that cannot be told, which man may not utter" (1 Corinthians 12:2-4).
What I like about Paul's words is that he believes the story but doesn't elaborate on it. He says "God knows." In other words, the details belong to God, not me. Paul can't speak to it. After all, man could not utter such things.
If we continue to read Paul's words he goes on to say he will boast on behalf of this man (without details) but he will not boast in himself except in his weakness. For Paul, it is not foolish to boast about truthful things but it is not good to boast if these boastings of truthful things bring about people thinking too highly of himself. He wants to guard against being conceited. It is here that Paul speaks of a messenger of Satan that was sent to harass him and keep him from becoming conceited. He pleads with God three times for this "thorn" to leave him but God says "My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness."
For this reason, Paul is "content in weakness, insults, hardships, persecutions, and calamities." This is where Paul concludes his meditation. He leaves behind the talk of experiencing heaven and focuses on the hardship. That seems like poor marketing for the kingdom of heaven but it's what Paul does. The Apostle spends far more time in his letters speaking of weakness and sufferings that have come his way as a result of being faithful to Jesus than writing of the awesome, miraculous, heavenly type experiences. Does he affirm these good things? Absolutely! Does he preach the Good News and fill his letters with the greatest beauty in creation? Of course! However, in this passage and in his letters we see that Paul is wary of the stories that bring fame, conceit, and power. He would rather share about suffering. Prophets over profits.
So when people publish books and make movies detailing their story of experiencing heaven, I dismiss it to some degree. Perhaps the story is true. I believe God can do that with people. I don't immediately doubt the story but I don't concern myself with the publications because I want to leave those words to God. I don't know or need the details. Paul doesn't think it's worth focusing on so why should we? How much good comes from it? Paul worries about the inflation it brings to our egos. It doesn't help us to be content in weakness. It's a danger to our being content in God's grace which allows suffering. This feels backwards. Heaven seems like a great motivator to believe in God. Shouldn't we be pushing these stories? Paul doesn't think so. Jesus didn't operate that way. He chose a cross over a throne. He left heaven to be laid in the earth, to become dirty. That's where his glory is found. I'll let God know the details and I'll boast in him but at the end of the day, man can not utter these things so how can we publish them? Let us instead concern ourselves more with sufferings and boast of how God's power is made perfect in weakness. Charlatans will always exist. This story proves that. Let us not allow this to distract us from the true stories of God, the stories of him showing up in weakness, of showing grace where it looks invisible. Let us be unafraid of being humbled and in the dirt for it is in the dirt where glory lives.

Saturday, November 29, 2014

The Advent of A Son

Advent is a time of anticipation. We spend several weeks waiting and longing for that Christmas day when we celebrate the incarnation. During Advent, we do our best to live as fully as possible into the hopeful and yearning spirit that we imagine the people of God had before the arrival of Jesus Christ, the Messiah. 

Pastors preach about the coming of a child and all the anticipation that comes with birth. We sing festive songs about how all creation has need and groans for a messiah. Volunteers spend hundreds of hours building programs of all sorts to help us be intentional about looking forward to the Christ child. 

I’m about to become a father with my first child. We’re currently expecting a delivery to occur around Christmas. If ever there were a time to understand the depths and richness of Advent you would think it’s right now as I await the coming birth of my own son. After all, I’m actually living in Advent. 

You had told me this is the opportunity I’d receive then I’d also think I’d become a pro at anticipating Jesus and celebrating Advent. I mean, why wouldn’t God use the experience to make me a super-Christian? Right?

Unfortunately, that’s just not the case.

In fact, the biggest thing I’m grasping is the knowledge that I’m actually pretty terrible at anticipation. I’m down right wretched at Advent.  Sadly, when it comes to standing in awe at a coming miracle, I constantly get distracted.

I’ve spent a lot of time buying baby things like car seats, clothes, diapers, books, toys, monitors, and more. I’ve been reading on what to expect while I’m expecting. I go to doctor appointments and put ultrasound pictures in frames on my desk at work. I’m doing a lot to prepare for this little guy. 

Yet, for all my preparations I continually find myself thinking about myself. In my attempt to anticipate my son I actually lose sight of him and become focused on myself. I wonder what kind of father I will be, what kind of husband I’m currently being, how I’ll pay the bills, how my Father raised me, what I need to improve on, what I lack, what I don’t have, what I can’t do, and so on. I try to get my life in order so I can better order myself around my son but that’s not really working out. 

Funny enough, I’m realizing that when we orient ourselves around the Son we begin to find our life being put in order as he transforms us. We spend time and money on church programs, preach anticipation, sing songs of longing for a messiah, and yet in all of our preparations and busyness we often lose sight of Jesus and the miracle of his incarnation to the point where we are glad the trouble of Advent is behind us and we never rightly sat in the presence of the Christ child. We do so much to ensure we seek Jesus but end up blinding ourselves to him in those efforts. 

The closer I am to meeting my son the more I realize I simply want to be in his presence. I don’t want to miss a moment. I don’t want to look in the mirror more than his face and I don’t want to worry about my life more than I give thanks for his. Then I realize that I’m learning a lot about anticipation. Yeah, I’m bad at it, but we all are. It’s not our efforts at improving our ability to anticipate that will bring us closer to Jesus. It is Jesus’ very coming that will draw us near to him. 

I’m drawn closer to my son by his arrival not by my preparations or self-evaluations. In his arrival I’m brought to my knees and to the awe-filled gratefulness that I couldn’t muster with all my time and money. In the same way, Jesus, the Son of God,  draws us all close to him by simply arriving. We’ve never been able to muster the ability through programs, songs, or sermons to truly be with Jesus. It has only ever been by his work that we’ve been brought near and transformed. Only through Jesus’ work do I finally see my self-obsession, my preoccupations, and my shortcomings. Only in Jesus is all that also made right.

Preparations and self evaluations are wonderful but I’m finding that there comes a time to simply be still, unafraid, and in a posture of receiving so that I might truly experience the incarnation by being present with Jesus. I’ve always failed at Advent despite my intentions and efforts and Jesus has never failed at Advent despite our intentions and efforts. It is there that I rest for it is in this truth that I can trust Jesus to show up in my life just as I can trust him with preparing me for meeting my son Wesley.