Monday, September 26, 2011

Self-Appointed God Protectors Hinder What God is Doing

The Gospels are replete with stories of Jesus’ many encounters with the religious leaders in Jerusalem, and not all of them were pleasant. To put it plainly, Jesus and these religious leaders debated and argued on just about every religious issue of the day. Whether it was about healing on the Sabbath, eating with tax collectors and sinners, or paying taxes to Caesar, Jesus was pursued by their questions and accusations, and he was very quick to respond, mostly through questions of his own that he put back to them that left them dazed and confused.

The central point of contention in all these debates and conflicts, however, centers on one important question: Who speaks for God? And, the basic problem for these religious leaders was that this rebel rouser was usurping their positions as God’s authority over the people, and if he was able to continue, then they would eventually lose these places of power.

In order for them to remain in power, they not only needed to make Jesus look bad, they also needed to maintain the status quo of religious beliefs and practices as if they were protecting God. Of particular importance for them for maintaining a sanitized religion were the purity laws that kept many people out of the religious life and community of Israel all for the purpose of keeping their concepts of impurities out.

But, in their zeal to protect their traditions, to protect their temple, and essentially to protect their God, these guardians of religion were failing to see what God was really like and what God was really up to.

The main thing for Jesus in many of the debates with the religious leaders is that those who think they are on God’s side, and those who are quick to say that others are not, are really outside of God’s kingdom. But more seriously, not only are they outside the rule of God, their actions of trying to protect their traditions, their temple, and their God, are really in opposition to what God was doing through the ministry of Jesus and in the lives of people.

Over and over again, Jesus confronts these religious leaders with their abusive power over people and their wrong-headed belief that they are protectors of God by criticizing them for shutting out people who these religious leaders believed to be unclean.

Jesus, on the other hand, does not see them as unclean. Rather, he sees them as people in need of compassion, embrace and community. Indeed, we might just say that Jesus, the pure one, was quite willing to place himself in the community of those considered impure by the religious leaders. But his place among them was not to bring judgment. Rather, his community with them was really an affirmation of their humanity.

While the religious leaders continued to put up barriers to separate the pure (Themselves!!) from the impure, Jesus’ ministry was about crossing the boundaries, even tearing them down, to create one community out of those who seek God’s kingdom.

Jesus is clear that the kingdom of God is not about keeping those we consider impure on the outside. The kingdom of God is the mysterious power of God’s movement in the world to bring about a community of welcoming and embrace of people from all walks of life. In fact, in contrast to the religious leaders, Jesus views the kingdom of God as populated by those these same religious leaders would not allow into the temple.

Peter understood this perspective, but only after his dream of unclean animals coming down from heaven on a sheet. When God commanded him to eat the animals, Peter’s initial response was one of disgust, based solely on what he thought to be unclean. But the dream was not really about unclean animals; it was about the people Peter considered to be unclean, the Gentiles.

Peter’s dream, and his witness of the coming of the spirit of God onto the Gentiles, changed Peter’s mind to the point that he proclaimed to his fellow Jews, “If then God gave them the same gift that he gave us when we believed in the Lord Jesus Christ, who was I that I could hinder God?" (Acts 11:17).

There are many Christians that still believe that God needs protecting, and they do their best to hinder what God is doing. Like the religious leaders Jesus faced, they believe, sometimes very zealously, that they ought to keep out those they consider impure. In doing so, they believe it is their duty to protect the boundaries of the church to keep out the unclean.

I am afraid, however, that taking such positions only reincarnates the opposition that Jesus faced from the religious leaders of his day. Doing this places us in opposition to God. But this is very easy to do. It is easy because it gives us a religiously sanctioned way for reinforcing our prejudices against groups of people by simply claiming that they are not children of God, that they are unclean, and that they cannot participate fully in the community of faith.

One of the major attempts to protect God today is the continual efforts of many to exclude gays and lesbians from full participation in the church. While some denominations have moved forward on this to embrace those of different sexual orientations, they have not done so without opposition.

While well meaning and thoughtful people have felt very zealous about protecting the traditions, the church, and God, by continually excluding gays and lesbians from full participation in the church, they have declared them as unclean. In doing so, they look and act very much like the self-appointed God protectors of Jesus’ day.

It has become apparent through my own Christian journey that I am not the protector of God on this issue, or on any issue, and I cannot and will not hinder what God is doing. Peter’s evidence for the inclusion of the Gentiles was that he witnessed the spirit of God in them, and thus he could not reject the people he once rejected.

I have experienced people of different sexual orientations than my own living out the power of the spirit in their own lives, through caring for justice and goodness in the world. How can I hinder what God is doing by pretending I am a self-appointed God protector?

Thursday, September 22, 2011

What Would Jesus Say to the “Job Creators”?

It seems that as the gap between the very rich and everyone else grows, many of those who are wealthy have taken defensive positions that expose how out of touch they really are. Indeed, Senator Rand Paul has suggested that not only are the rich getting richer,“but the poor are getting richer even faster.” And, Rep. John Fleming recently stated that out of the $600,000 he might have left over of his $6.3 million, he may have $400,000 left after feeding his family, suggesting that it takes $200,000 to feed his family.

Moreover, many of the rich, and those Republican and Tea Party supporters of the wealthy, have developed a new code word to refer to those who have amassed a significant amount of wealth. Instead of calling them rich, we are now to refer to them as “job creators”. The problem with this is that they are not creating jobs, and the rhetoric coming forth from them reveals that they are indeed out of touch with the rest of Americans who are struggling to provide for their families on a lot less than $200,000.

But changing the way we refer to the rich by coining terms such as “job creators” and “investors” moves away from a critical understanding of the position of the rich as those who were very often under the scrutiny of many of Jesus’ harsh teachings about wealth. Of course, Jesus’ most familiar, and perhaps most critical statement about the rich illustrates this very point: "It is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle, than for a rich man to enter into the kingdom of God" (Matthew 19:24).

Why does it seem that Jesus condemns the rich and favors the poor? There may be several reasons, but three seem certain.
First, Jesus was born into poverty and he chose to continue to live in poverty as an adult. He felt a deep sense of belonging among the poor and he clearly embraced and identified with those who were economically oppressed in his society.

Second, because he so closely associated with the poor, Jesus witnessed firsthand the tremendous gap that existed between the rich and the poor. This gap was the consequence of the rich gaining their wealth through oppressing and neglecting the poor.

Third, Jesus believed that he was ushering in the kingdom of God, and he called all who truly sought the kingdom to give up the possessions that hindered them from entering God’s rule. His statement about the difficulty of the rich entering the kingdom of God implies that Jesus believed that the poor were more receptive to the message of God present rule.

In Jesus’ mind, the rich were too self-sufficient and self-satisfied to heed his message. Thus it is clear from his life and his message that Jesus had a significant problem with how the rich viewed and handled their wealth in light of the revelation of God’s kingdom of economic equality and justice. He clearly believed that God was not on the side of the wealthy, but that God favored the poor.

One of the more fascinating stories that demonstrates this point is the Parable of the Rich Landowner in Luke 12:13-21. The story is about a rich man who gets richer, and yet whose greed for riches causes his downfall and judgment. But, as with most of Jesus’ parables, there are some subtleties in this story that provide a deeper sense of meaning to Jesus’ message about wealth.

What seems to me to be most interesting about this story is that the man is the only character in the parable. In fact, he thinks he exits on his own. He speaks to no one but himself and his conversations are about no one but himself. The pronouns “I” and “My” are frequent in this story and they express not the loneliness of the man, but his satisfaction to live life with no thought of anyone but himself.

This wealthy landowner has given no consideration to the God who has blessed him or to his economically depressed neighbors who suffer around him. In fact, he goes so far in his narcissism that he makes plans to live out his days in egocentric comfort. He is out of touch.

But there is something more that deserves our attention. We know that he is the only one in the parable, but we can infer from knowing that he is a wealthy man that he did not earn this wealth on his own. Who plows his fields? Who harvests his grain? Who will build his bigger barns? The workers for whom he has little concern, that’s who. They are the ones who really make this man wealthy.

Without those who plowed his fields, harvested his grain, and built his barns this rich man, this “job creator”, would have nothing. And yet, he has forgotten them. Though he plans to take life easy, to eat, drink, and be merry, he fails to remember that all this wealth was not earned by his hard work, but by those who worked for him.

The sad ending of Jesus’ parable about this rich landowner serves as a warning to those who accumulate wealth at the expense or in neglect of the poor: God will be your judge. The man’s life was demanded of him the very night he celebrates his good fortune. Was he condemned for his wealth? Yes, partly so. But more than any other reason, this man was condemned for his lack of concern for those hurting around him; the very people who helped him become rich.

In the current economic state that we are in, perhaps it is time for the rich to rethink their positions through which they defend their right to hold onto as much wealth as they desire. Perhaps they should rethink their status as those who have earned wealth by their hard work alone, for they have not, as Elizabeth Warren, candidate for the United States Senate has suggested.

But perhaps the greatest reason the rich should heed the words of Jesus about wealth, is that in doing so they will place themselves on the side of God, who wills economic justice for all. If they do not, then what we will find in the future is that the consequences of their drive for more and more wealth will be born on the backs of those who already struggle to meet their needs and the needs of their families. And, the rich will become richer and the poor will become poorer.

Wednesday, September 21, 2011

International Day of Peace

In 1981, the Generally Assembly of the United Nations declared that the opening day of its annual session would be recognized as International Peace Day. Twenty-years later, in 2001, the Assembly determined that September 21 of each year would be known as International Peace Day. I write these words on International Peace Day 2011.

The heart of Jesus’ message is the desire for peace. At one level, Jesus called people to follow him as a path to finding peace with God. Yet, at a more experiential level, Jesus called people to be at peace with one another. Indeed, in the Sermon on the Mount we find one of Jesus’ most forthright statements on the subject, “Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called children of God.”

Given the fact that this statement appears in the list of what has been named the Beatitudes, those pithy sayings that stand as the most important ethical values Jesus lays out, peacemaking must assuredly be a core value and action for Jesus followers. Peacemaking not only reflects Jesus’ teachings, it also mirrors the life of Jesus who came as the Prince of Peace. But what is required to be peacemakers and why must we be peacemakers?

Simply put, and without qualification, the kind of peacemaking Jesus commands requires non-violent responses to evil. One of Jesus’ most controversial statements also comes to us through Matthew’s Sermon on the Mount. Jesus states, “When someone strikes you on one cheek, turn and offer to him the other one.” While many have tried to live true to this instruction of Jesus, more often than not Christians have found his command to turn from violence unsettling, and perhaps even ridiculous.

But we cannot negotiate with Jesus at this point, for his statement is very straightforward. If this is true, then why do we tend to avoid Jesus’ clear command to turn the other cheek as an essential part of being non-violent peacemakers?

The answer to that question lies in our failure to see that Jesus’ definition of peacemaking also requires forgiveness. The central message of scripture is that God so loved the world that God has forgiven the world. But God’s forgiveness is not based on our paying restitution or in our suffering a penalty. God’s forgiveness flows from God’s unconditional love for humanity and a desire to make peace with us.

Our biggest problem in practicing this kind of forgiveness, and therefore our greatest hindrance to making peace, is that we are vengeful. Our culture tells us that revenge is a necessary part of justice, and when we as individuals, or as a group, or as a nation are wronged, it is only right, even expected, that we seek revenge against the wrongdoers. But is this the message of Jesus?

Gandhi, one of the greatest followers of Jesus’ teachings, said it best when he reflected on Jesus’ command not to seek revenge; he declared, “An eye for an eye will only make the whole world blind.” While the message of the world is that vengeance is right, and making people pay for the harm they cause us is good, the message of Jesus, and Gandhi, calls us to something greater that reflects God’s own character and action—forgiveness. Forgiveness is the necessary action that leads to peacemaking.

We should not assume, however, that offering forgiveness to others means that those who commit wrongs should not be brought to justice. We cannot simply overlook the wrongs committed by others, and we must name evil as evil. But the passion for seeking justice cannot be fueled by the need for vengeance; it must be empowered by the desire to forgive, to bring reconciliation, and to make peace.

While Jesus’ teachings on peacemaking apply to those of us who seek to reconcile with those who have hurt us personally, peacemaking also extends to conflicts among groups of people, whether local conflicts or wars on the global front. The waging of any war brings destruction to the lives of ordinary people, and wars will never establish lasting peace. The Christian community should condemn such hostilities, because Jesus never called his followers to take up the weapons of warfare and kill their enemies. He has called us to take up the cross of self-sacrifice through which we can find love for our enemies.

Two statements by Dr. Martin Luther King seem relevant to this topic. Dr. King stated, “Wars are poor chisels for carving out peaceful tomorrows.” Jesus also understood that war could never assure the world of peace; only peacemaking brings lasting peace. Dr. King also said, “Peace is not the absence of war, but the presence of justice.” Peacemaking and peace building require us to work for justice.

Many have understood these principles and have applied them to terrible situations to discover that peace is indeed possible. One example that stands out is what took place in South Africa in the last century. South Africa was a place of violence and hatred due to the laws of apartheid that prevented people of color from having equal rights. Atrocities abounded from both sides, until changes were made that cleared the way for Nelson Mandela to be elected in 1994 as the first black president of South Africa.

However, before his election, Mandela had been imprisoned by the white South African government from 1962-1990. Yet, after Mandela was elected president of his country, he did not seek revenge against his captors. Instead, his government established the Truth and Reconciliation Commission which offered forgiveness to those who would come forward and admit of their wrongdoings. Mandela knew that peace could not be made by seeking vengeance. Without this commission, South Africa may have continued to be a place of strife and conflict.

On this International Peace Day may we remember those who have worked tirelessly for peace across this world, and may all of us, Christian or not, find ways to work together for a more just and peaceful world.