Thursday, December 20, 2007

The Incarnation of God Redefines Human Existence

Historians of Christianity are well aware of the fact that as Christianity spread throughout the Roman Empire, the nature of Christ was always at the heart of any theological debates that developed. Yet, you may be surprised to know that in the early days after Jesus departed this earth, and after his first followers died, that the acceptance of Jesus as divine was not a significant problem. Yes, there were some groups, like the Ebionites, who did not accept the divinity of Jesus. But for the most part, Christians believed Jesus to be divine.

The problem for many of these early Christians was accepting that he was human. Such ideas that God could take on human form were deemed by many to be impossible, for how could a god become corporal, incased in a physical body? Moreover, how could a god, believed to be all powerful and all good, take on the flesh of a limited and defiled body?

It is certainly without debate that the writers of the New Testament saw Jesus as human. And yet, despite all of the evidence of his being flesh and blood, we also struggle to see Jesus as a human. Perhaps it is not that we struggle to accept that Jesus was human. The problem is whether we accept his humanity. In other words, while we embrace the fact that Jesus did all the activities that humans do, we may find it very hard to accept Jesus in his humanity, as someone who, at some level, was exactly like us.

There are two obstacles to our accepting Jesus in his humanity. One obstacle is that we somehow think we must see Jesus first as God and second as a human. When we think of Jesus, we automatically think first of his divinity. We may more readily gravitate toward the divine side of Jesus because not to do so may make us seem irreverent and unbelieving.

The second obstacle to our accepting Jesus in his humanity is because we cannot see humanity as good, but only as sinful, weak, and evil. After all, the evidence we see around us proves to us that humanity can be weak, sinful, and evil. This view clouds our understanding of Jesus as a human and can prevent us from seeing Jesus’ humanity.

The key to solving this, I think, is not to look at humanity and then say that Jesus could not have been human like us. The solution is to look at Jesus in his humanity and allow his humanity to show us what it really means to be human. If Jesus was truly human, then we ought to try and understand what it means to be human as he was human.

If Jesus was human, then he had a body. This is an obvious point to make, but making it demonstrates an important truth for us. If Jesus took on human flesh in the incarnation, then we must affirm that human flesh, our bodies are good. This was the problem with many Christians in the early church beginning in the second and third centuries. They could not accept that Jesus was both divine and human, for perfect transcendent divinity cannot take on imperfect and defiled flesh. Yet, this seems to be exactly what the New Testament teaches us about the incarnation. The human body became the home of God.

This has major consequences for how we see ourselves. First, rather than seeing ourselves as souls trapped in worthless bodies waiting to escape, we must affirm that our bodies are good. We have somehow been convinced that our bodies are not good, that they are defiled, and that our goodness as humans is only found in our souls that will eventually escape our evil bodies. But the incarnation of God in Jesus loudly proclaims that human bodily existence is good. This has many implications for how we treat our bodies and how we see life.

But to affirm the humanity of Jesus is also to affirm that Jesus faced the reality of being human. At every twist and turn in his earthly life, Jesus faced the temptation for power, security, and giving up on God’s will for him. And in each temptation there was always the possibility of his failure, and thus the failure of God’s plan for humanity.

But in loving us, God chose to face life as we face life. In the incarnation, God became not only human flesh; God also chose to face human vulnerability. While the mighty acts of God show us a God who is powerful, the greatest power of God is seen in God’s vulnerability, in God’s weakness, in God facing our human struggle. Indeed, without this vulnerability, God cannot truly love us, for to love another is always to become vulnerable.

If God has truly loved the world, then God has become vulnerable to the struggles of this world. God, in the incarnation of Jesus, has become vulnerable to the pain, suffering, weakness, and rejection that humanity faces. And in doing so, God has redefined what it means to be human.

Thursday, December 13, 2007

Jerusalem Should be a City of Peace for People of All Faiths

On May 14, 1948, the modern State of Israel declared its sovereignty as an independent state and a home for the Jewish people. That action opened a flood gate of violence that continues to this day, and it created a human catastrophe as nearly a million Palestinians were forced from their homes and became refugees; a number that, according to the United Nations, has increased exponentially. While attempts at establishing lasting peace have been made on several occasions, none have been successful. What is an authentic Christian response to the Middle East question?

Psalm 122:6 commands us to pray for the peace of Jerusalem, and clearly peace is at the heart of Jesus’ message that the rule of God has come into the world. Yet, it seems that obstacles to peace for all inhabitants of the land called holy by Jews, Christians, and Muslims, have prevented such long term steps toward peace and harmony in the region. Nothing continues to threaten such hopes of peace like religious extremism.

There has been a longtime extremist movement in an American version of Christianity that has played a key role in shaping U.S. policy in the Middle East, and particularly over the thorny issue of the historic Land of Palestine. While many conservative and fundamentalist Christians hold stringently to the belief that God has ordained the existence of the modern State of Israel, and that Israel should hold onto land at any cost without regard for the humanity of the Palestinians, none is more vocal than the Reverend John Hagee and his movement, Christians United for Israel.

Hagee sees history from only one perspective. His view, which is thoroughly apocalyptic and eschatological, sees human history as moving toward a predestined end, and he argues that the modern State of Israel will play a key role in the apocalyptic end of the world. While he seeks to support his view from the Book of Revelation, and from various texts from the Hebrew Bible, he is very selective in his readings, and he reads only from his own apocalyptic position, placing his narrow theological ideas on the text as a systematic grid through which all of Scripture should be read.

Hagee’s interpretations of Scripture, however, are misguided, and his sermons, accompanied by the colorful, dramatic, and neatly organized charts that disguise his irrational position, are only fictitious expectations about the end times. More tragically, however, he sees apocalyptic war as the inevitable end, and seeks to push the region to that end as quickly as possible.

In spewing his religious extremist rhetoric, Hagee differs little from other religious extremists, who base their understanding of the Middle East conflict solely on religious terms, and who believe the only solution to be a great apocalyptic war in which the followers of God will be victorious over those who are evil. The problem with these positions is that each claims to speak for God and each despises others as evildoers.

While many Christians, and others, have rightly voiced disgust at the hateful rhetoric of extremists from other faiths, rarely have we heard criticism about Hagee’s rhetoric. Even some conservative politicians have attended and have spoken at his rallies. Yet, Hagee fits the description of a false prophet whose intentions are not for peace in Israel, but for annihilation of an oppressed race, the Palestinians. He is about as far away from the teachings of Jesus as one could possibility get on this issue.

The fact of the matter is that since the founding of the modern State of Israel in 1948, the Palestinians, who had peacefully resided there for generations, have been oppressed, ghettoized, and killed by state sponsored acts of terror. Certainly, extremist Palestinian terrorist groups who have acted in horrible violence against innocent Israeli civilians must be held accountable for their horrendous acts. But Israel must also be held responsible for the illegal confiscation of land, the oppression of millions of Palestinians who have been forced from their homes, and the killing of many innocent Palestinians by Israeli armed forces.

I am afraid that our religious, political, and media driven culture has so clouded our understanding of the complex issues surrounding the Middle East conflict that we have gravitated to fanciful beliefs and explanations about the region that have no real grounding in Scripture, and that completely ignore the teachings of Jesus that call us to be peacemakers. Christians who are concerned about the peace of Jerusalem would do much better by being more broadly informed about the complex issues from experts who have studied the history of the conflict, rather than getting their information from someone like John Hagee.

May the God of peace bring shalom, salaam, and peace to Jerusalem for people from all faiths.

(This article also appeared on at

Thursday, December 6, 2007

A Position Opposing Abortion Does Not Make One Pro-Life

In 1973, the U.S. Supreme Court handed down one of its most memorable decisions in the Roe v. Wade case. That decision viewed laws that banned abortion as violations of constitutional rights to privacy and gave women the right to terminate unwanted pregnancies. Since that decision, the issue of abortion has been center stage in each election campaign for President, and the debates that have raged have divided the United States along entrenched partisan lines to the point where both sides feel so passionate about their views that they have misrepresented the other side’s position.

On the one hand, those who hold to a pro-choice stance are often viewed as pro-abortion. While I have never met anyone who feels that abortion is a good thing, I do know many civil minded and deeply faithful people who believe that in a free society where rights are protected, women should be given reproductive choices. I am not saying that I completely agree with them, but I find it improbable that this will ever change. Indeed, while it may be possible that the Roe v. Wade decision will be overturned someday, it is not very probable as this is a well-established law.

But is it necessary to focus on overturning this decision in order to be considered pro-life? In other words, does a position against abortion really make a person pro-life? To be sure, one cannot logically be pro-life and also be for abortion on demand. However, in my mind, a person’s claim to be against abortion does not by definition make that person pro-life. To be pro-life means that a person must be consistently pro-life and not just on the issue of abortion.

Certainly such a position would mean that a person would be against the death penalty, war, and other forms of taking human life. However, in terms of the abortion issue itself, one is not pro-life simply because they are against abortion. Indeed, anyone who wants to decrease the number of abortions in the U.S. each year may be surprised to find out that this may not happen when one votes for a candidate who declares that he or she is against abortion.

While many factors can and do contribute to a woman choosing to have an abortion, economic factors surely play a key role in that decision. In fact, the Alan Guttmacher Institute reports that three-fourths of the women who have abortions say they cannot support a child. In a 2002 study, AGI also reports that the abortion rate among women who lived below the poverty line was considerably higher than those above the poverty level, and abortion rates decreased as income rates went up. The study states that the abortion rate among poor women was 44 out of every 1,000; while among women in the highest income bracket the abortion rate was 10 out of every 1,000. The report does state that the higher rate was due in part to a higher rate of pregnancies among poorer women, but the data does suggest something about the correlation between economic conditions and abortion rates.

What these figures imply is that women who feel they cannot financially support a child, who are unemployed, or who have no health insurance, would be less likely to abort a child if they had steady livable income and health care. These women may look at the future of their unborn child and see a bleak picture of a child caught in a web of poverty, with little chance of being successful. However, in a stable economic environment, the future for the unborn child might look brighter.

If economic factors play a major role in a woman’s decision to have an abortion, would it not be wise for those who oppose abortion to fight for a culture that promotes the value of the life not only of the unborn child, but also for the one that is born? In other words, should we not force our government officials to be consistent on their pro-life stances by supporting economic policies that are more just toward those caught in poverty? Yet, many of those same politicians who are adamantly against abortion also stand for cuts in taxes for those of higher income and cuts in government programs that might indeed assist a pregnant woman who, without the aid of such programs, would otherwise terminate her pregnancy.

Jesus embraced the children around him declaring that “such is the kingdom of God.” It seems to me that people of faith ought to take a careful look at how a candidate views all issues related to life, especially those issues that affect children, unborn and born. In doing this, we should be careful to look beyond the rhetoric of a candidate who claims to be against abortion to determine if he or she is truly pro-life.