Praying for the President

By this time, you are probably familiar with Laurel and Yanny.

Didn’t expect me to start there, did you?

If you aren’t familiar with this maddening sound byte, just know that some people hear Laurel and some people heard Yanny when the audio clip was played. For me, I heard Yanny consistently for two weeks and now can only hear Laurel.

What gives.

Anyway, just google it, listen to it with your friends, and then let the arguments begin.

But how we perceive the same stimuli differently doesn’t just happen with audio memes.

Have you seen the picture of the gray and teal (or is it pink and white) sneaker? This meme is continuing to divide everyone on the internet. Half of the people swear the shoe is gray and teal, while the other half are absolutely convinced it is pink and white.

Perception, or what constitutes perception, is absolutely fascinating. Two people can literally listen to the exact same sound clip, or see the exact same picture, and interpret it two entirely different ways. And these differences in perception may be influenced by our upbringing, our unique culture, our life experiences, or our individual biology.

All of these factors taken together may help us see things from a certain perspective, but may also keep us from hearing or seeing something from a completely different perspective, as well.

None of this makes us bad people. It simply means that we see and interpret the world a certain way, because of our own unique inputs that influence our own unique biology. That then molds and shapes us into the person that we are and then influences how we perceive the world.

Of course this can be seen in any area of life, but one place where our diverse perceptions are significantly evident, for better or worse, are in faith communities. But instead of the differences being as trivial as hearing Laurel or Yanny, or seeing the color of sneakers, the differences in how we perceive and interpret faith actually impacts how we see ourselves, other people, and the purpose for which we exist in the world.

For example, there is a biblical passage that has become increasingly prominent over the last couple of decades, but has kind of gone viral over the last few weeks since Franklin Graham asked the country to pray for the president and since the president unexpectedly showed up at David Platt’s church to be prayed over during their Sunday worship service.

The passage is from 1 Timothy 2 and reads like this:

First of all, therefore, I encourage petitions, prayers, intercessions, thanksgivings to be made on behalf of all human beings, on behalf of kings and of all who hold preeminence, so that we might lead a tranquil and quiet life in all piety and solemnity.

How have you always understood that passage? Is it possible for two people to perceive that passage in two completely different ways?

Before answering those questions, let me offer my standard disclaimer. I despise politics. I am not a Democrat, nor a Republican, nor a representative of any other political party or persuasion. When I make commentary on the adulterous relationship of religion and politics, I am not trying to prop up one political side or the other. To me, the way of Jesus ought to speak to power rather than be in bed with power, or interested in becoming the power. Focusing on the way of Jesus, as it subverts power, is my only concern.

So with that being said, you may be thinking that 1 Timothy is pretty straight forward in what it is saying- That we ought to pray for those in authority, including our President, so that we may live peaceful and quiet lives.

But our unique history and background as Americans have significantly influenced how we perceive and interpret that passage.

For many Evangelical Christians, the United States was once a Christian nation that has now turned from God. They believe that God wants to restore America as a godly nation through the guidance and leadership of godly leaders in the Church and governmental system. But they also believe that there are “enemies” who are trying to keep that from happening.

With this background shaping the Evangelical perception, it is easy to see why they interpret 1 Timothy as the reason why they need to pray for the president. Because from their perspective, he is the godly man who God is using to restore a Christian nation and push back the enemies, both foreign and domestic, that are trying to keep this restoration from happening.

And for the vast majority of Evangelicals, this is the straight and honest reading and understanding of 1 Timothy within an American context.

But before we dig deeper into this Evangelical perspective, there is another way that this same passage can be read by those, like me, who perceive it differently.

Being that the author of 1 Timothy was likely the Apostle Paul and that this letter was likely written after he had been imprisoned in Rome, most scholars date its authorship at 65 AD or later. This is interesting and sheds a bit of light on how the passage could be read differently based on the historical context in which it was written. At that time, Christians were being persecuted and martyred by the Roman Emperor, Nero, who blamed the Christian community for the Great Fire of Rome, which destroyed two-thirds of the city.

And as you can imagine, in this context, “praying for those in authority that we me live peaceful and quiet lives,” takes on an entirely different meaning. Paul was encouraging Timothy to pray that those in authority might change their hearts and posture toward Christians so that the Christian community would no longer be tormented and killed by the governing authority.

But while the historical context in which Paul was writing was different than 21st century America, I am certain that Paul would still want the Church praying for the governing authorities, so that their hearts and posture may be more like Christ-like.

But, he would absolutely not be encouraging the Church to get in bed with the governmental powers or to use the government for religious purposes.

To be really honest here, Paul’s invocation to pray for the governing authorities is a far cry from the carte blanche prayers many Evangelicals offer for the president. Paul’s was a plea to the Christian minority group to pray for the powerful and hostile aggressor to change heart. He was literally instructing them to pray for their enemies.

The Evangelical prayer, however, is a prayer of protection for a man who represents a fallen system that they are trying to Christianize. And “praying for those in authority” has come to mean praying for a political party (and a president) to carry out their moral agenda without interruption from the enemy.

So should we pray for the president?

While I believe it is essential that we pray for all of humanity, including our president and governmental leaders, it is for the transformational peace and love of Christ. And to that end, I will unapologetically pray for anyone at anytime (yes, even when it happens unexpectedly onstage during a church service), because each of us, even the vilest offender, need prayer for that kind of peace and love. For it was Jesus who, again, said that we should pray for our friends and enemies alike. So to the extent that Progressive Christians will not pray for the president, so that his heart might change and, at a minimum, be more peaceful toward all people, they are mistaken.

But let me be clear.

What Jesus initiated was a kingdom, not made of buildings and laws and governments and politicians, but of people who have abandoned the inferior and limiting values of those systems and entities.

What Jesus initiated was a kingdom that, does not try to control or legislate a person’s behavior through laws, but transforms hearts, minds, and souls through the Spirit.

What Jesus initiated was a kingdom that, is not a divided and fearful hierarchical system that opposes people, but a loving movement that unites nationalities, ethnicities, races, genders, and orientations into a united Body.

What Jesus initiated was a kingdom that, does not minimize, dehumanize, belittle, or bully people, but that loves and serves all people, even those who oppose and fight as enemies.  

What Jesus initiated was a kingdom, not dependent upon a single man or a certain political party, but comprised of a people, a new humanity, that is rising up to show the world the way of love, mercy, grace, and forgiveness.

And it is only this kingdom that will help us see and perceive clearly, despite our past experiences, our histories, and our unique wirings.

So yes, I pray for the president. But I pray that his heart would be transformed into the likeness of Christ. And until that happens, and so long as his, or any other president’s, actions and behavior oppose Christ and his kingdom, my prayer will be one of speaking the truth of Christ to power.

Peace…

Brandon

This Is How We Move Forward…

The irony of this post is that the following words could just as easily been written to Conservative Evangelicals who, over the last eight years, had become wildly fearful of President Obama and his policies. For they became a people professing to follow Jesus, while becoming obsessed and entrenched with the politics of our country, abandoning the peaceful, loving, non-fearful way of Jesus.

And while this has been wildly apparent, in an ironic twist, after witnessing Conservative Evangelicals continuing to abandon the way of Jesus and live in a state of fear, many Progressive Christians have done the exact same thing. They have been consumed by a fear of President-elect Trump and have resorted to attitudes and characteristics that look nothing like the Jesus they profess to follow.

Listen.

It doesn’t matter which side of the political spectrum you are on- This country is not your hope. This political system is not your hope. This government is not your hope. This president is not your hope.

Each one of them will continue to fail you because they are comprised of broken and sinful people. And despite the political leanings of our leaders and the vision they have for this country, our country exists to increase wealth and power in the world. And the means by which our country achieves those ends at the very foundation, at the very core, can be nothing but antithetical to the way of Jesus.

This is the way it has always been and the way it will always continue to be- A country cannot follow Jesus.

This is not a lament. It is a reality. And we are wildly mistaken if we ever hold our politicians, government, and country to that standard.

Now with that being said, we can use our voices, we can cast our votes, we can try to influence it to be more equitable and just, but it will always be a monster that exists for it’s own wealth and power. It will always be a monster that exists for it’s own self-interest. And it will always be a monster that devours anyone who stands in it’s way.

That is the inherent nature of governments. That is what they have always been and that’s what they will continue to be until the very end.

Yet somehow, so many Christians still try to redeem it or have expectations that it ought to be inherently moral or just. But the truth is that, not only can a government not be redeemed, it cannot be wholly moral or just. A government may, on occasion make a moral or just decision or implement a moral or just law, but we are sadly mistaken when we believe it can be cleansed and made whole. No matter your governmental idealism, a government will always work to perpetuate it’s own wealth and power, and in the process will create victims, casualties, and collateral damage.

This is the predictably destructive path of every single man-made government in the history of mankind. Our leaders, our government, and our country are no different.

That is why Jesus did not waste time trying to reform governments, because they are interminably broken. They will always operate out of self-interest. And they will always leave a trail of devastation in their wake.

Jesus stepped outside of the fractured, divided, oppressive systems of the world and invited people into an entirely different present reality that, despite the wreckage around us, exists as a refuge to those who no longer put their hope, faith, and trust in these broken systems and to those who have been victims and casualties of the system.

The invitation is to come out of a hope, faith, and trust in broken governmental leaders and systems and into a hope, faith, and trust in Jesus and his kingdom of wholeness and healing.

The invitation is to come out of political division and animosity and into a Kingdom of diverse unity and graceful brotherhood and sisterhood.

The invitation is to come out of a life slavishly glued to politics and political news hour-by-hour and into a Kingdom of ever-present liberation and shalom.

The invitation is to come out of lives consumed by verbally demeaning and destroying people or candidates who disagree with your politics and into a Kingdom working and praying for the healing and restoration of people and the reconciliation of relationships with all people.

The invitation is to come out of hatred toward political leaders, political foes, their followers, and every group of people you are told are your enemies and into a Kingdom of self-sacrificial love for every political leader, political foe, and every single group of people you are told to hate and stand against.

The invitation is to come out of lives utterly ravaged by the fear of political leaders, their politics, and their followers and into a Kingdom that will fearlessly move forward as peace emissaries, hope ambassadors, and a light in the darkness.

For it is only light that will drive out darkness. And we can not be the darkness.

We are to be a light constantly demonstrating this radical love of God, and inviting everyone into this abundant life. That is our only hope. And that is the only hope for humanity.

But we let politics, political leaders, and governments make us angry… and fearful.

And it is an absolute understatement to say that FEAR has a massive death grip on so many Christians, regardless of political persuasion. So many Christians are more obsessed with politics and governments than embodying and extending the Kingdom of Christ.

They are afraid of instability, afraid of tyranny, afraid of “losing freedoms,” afraid of opposing ideologies, afraid of the government, afraid of presidents, afraid of “losing their rights” or “losing their civil liberties,” afraid of the government “taking their guns,” afraid of the government taking their religious liberties, afraid of their money becoming worthless, afraid of losing their jobs, afraid of “new world orders,” and afraid of Anti-Christ figures.

It’s exhausting.  And it’s not who we are to be.

Don’t miss what I am saying here.

I am not saying that we ought not work peacefully, prayerfully, lovingly, and creatively to oppose those things (and people) who work against the extension of the kingdom of God in the world. We will always stand beside and work peacefully, prayerfully, lovingly, and creatively for the marginalized, the victimized, and the oppressed.

But as a people who live in the perfect love of God, we fear nothing.

And as we extend that perfect love to others, we will fear nothing.

It’s not too crazy of an idea to believe that if we aren’t living like Christ presently, when times are relatively good, then we will never live like Christ when times get really difficult in the future.

We can’t simply be a people content to only receive the love of God. We have to be people who fearlessly and sacrificially extend the love of God to everyone… even when times are difficult, even when the politics of our day are amoral and unjust, even when the world is crazy and chaotic.

That may be hard to swallow because it confronts the fear in which we have been residing and exposes how insufficient and negligent we have been at extending the love of God.

Think about it.

Do you hate the President of the United States and his policies – or – are you praying for his heart to change, for him to know the way of Jesus, and then loving him despite what actions he takes?

Do you hate the leaders whom we have been told are our enemies or whom we have been told are working against us- or- are you ignoring these voices and choosing to love our enemies the way Jesus Christ loved his enemies.

Do you find yourself getting angry with other people or people groups when you listen to right-wing or left-wing talk radio, when you watch news programs, and when you read the newspaper – or – are you tuning out and learning how to mercifully and gracefully love all people and all people groups despite their situation or circumstance?

Do your actions, when standing for a position on an issue, make you hurt, minimize, and wound individuals and people groups – or – do they heal, lift up, mend, and restore individuals and people groups in the loving, graceful, and merciful love of Christ?

Are your words and attitude toward others divisive, angry, hostile, demeaning, and devaluing when you disagree with their position or the way in which they live their lives – or – are your words and attitude always full of life, love, kindness, encouragement, and the building up of others?

We are just scratching the surface with these questions.

Let the world only know us for our all-consuming, enveloping, and overwhelming love.

Nothing less.

Jesus is calling us out of the divisive, political spectator crowd and along the narrow pathway with him.

To surrender every ounce of our lives to follow him and his way.
To walk away from a life that is easy.
To walk away from a life that is predictable.
To walk away from a life that is comfortable.
To enter into a life of risk.
To be willing to suffer pain and alienation.
To be willing to die.
All for love.

And he is asking us to not just receive God’s love, but to also be willing to surrender our lives in order to fearlessly give it away.

Let us be a people who are not stressed, anxious, or worried in our present lives or at the first sign of turmoil, but rather let us be a people who put our entire hope, faith, and trust in God.

Let us be a people who do not let the light of righteousness burn out in our present lives or as the world continues to grow darker around us, but rather let us be a people with a renewed sense that we are to have a unified purpose together extending the righteousness of God in the present, even as things become increasingly complex and chaotic.

Let us be a people who are not just announcing a watered-down Good News message with our lips presently or becoming even more silent in the face of opposition, but rather let us be a people who understand fully and unequivocally the life-changing, world-altering reality of the Good News of the kingdom and let us be a people who invite everyone in the world with our words, our lives, and our all.

Let us be a people who are not easily swayed by propaganda, talking heads, political leaders, or any other thing that could lead us astray presently or as times become increasingly uncertain, but rather let us be a people resolved to know Jesus so intimately, his kingdom so thoroughly, his voice so specifically, that we could never be misguided.
And let us be a people who are not sucked into the national news headlines, the talk-show venom, the political mudslinging, the divisive rhetoric, and the cultural instigation presently or in times when it will be easier to blame and hate others, but rather let us be a people so overwhelmed and full of the love of God that we would rather give our lives than not give that love away.

Peace and love…

Brandon

The Bible Says It. I Believe It. That Settles It (Except for Loving My Enemies)

I have found over the years that it is easy for Christians to disregard the teachings of Jesus that make them especially uneasy or that contradict what they believe to be right. There is no greater example of this than the Christian’s complete disregard for, and opposition to, Christ’s teachings on enemy-love and non-retaliation to evil.

For every time I have had a conversation with a Christian about how we are implored by Christ to be peacemakers, to love our enemies, to bless those who curse us, and to not repay evil with evil, I am met with sharp disagreement and quick rebuttals. This is so much the case that I have found it easier to gain agreement from those who are NOT CHRISTIANS than those who have professed to be disciples of Jesus.

In many ways it seems as if those who have been invited to the banquet have refused to sit at the table and fully feast, while those on the street corners and in the alleyways are more eager for an invitation to taste and see.

It is a very, very bizarre phenomenon.

Despite clear and overwhelming evidence that Jesus wants his followers to be peacemakers, to be those who love our enemies, and to be those who do not repay evil with evil, the vast majority of Christians in the United States are pro-capital punishment and pro-war. Even more, the vast majority of Christians in the United States applaud and celebrate when young men and women in our churches go in to military service.

I realize that last paragraph may be confusing for you and maybe even hard to swallow. I remember my confusion when I was first confronted with the fact that much of what I believed and stood for actually contradicted and opposed the way of Jesus. For over three decades, I had somehow been able to compartmentalize my faith and justify my thinking so that my misaligned core beliefs never had to face the cross of Christ.

In my mind, I could follow Jesus on the things he and I already agreed upon, while keeping hidden those things that opposed him.

With that kind of division in my faith, I did not ever have to face the uncomfortable fact that my support of killing enemies contradicted and opposed the same Christ to whom I had given my life and to whom I had professed to follow. I was able to follow Jesus on my own terms without ever needing to change my heart toward those I opposed, or even hated. Even worse, there was not one single Christian I knew who would question or challenge my thinking on this, because they all believed the same exact thing.

And being that our country is so patriotic and so militarily-minded, very few outside of the Quaker, Mennonite, or Anabaptist traditions are brave enough to stand up and say that American churches have erroneously strayed and abandoned Christ’s teaching and example of loving our enemies. In fact, the position of many American churches more closely mirrors the position of the American government than that of Jesus.  These churches would rather have enemies killed than to love and pray for them.

While I don’t have any expectation of the American government to follow Jesus, it should not be too much to expect the Church to follow Jesus in how we love our enemies.  One has to wonder if Jesus would agree with Christian support for capital punishment and war, when it is so far from what he intended for his followers.

There is no question that there are assumptions we make about this life from the time we are born into it. Our hearts and minds are shaped and formed by the families in which we were born, the cultures in which we are shaped, and the countries in which we live. The ideas and beliefs we accumulate over the years can become so ingrained into our core being that they become our only reality, the only way we see the world. And we are all in the same boat. That is why there should never be an ounce of judgment among us.

But if we, as followers of Jesus, have fundamental beliefs and foundational positions that stand completely opposed, even antagonistic, to Jesus, ought we not wrestle with these apparent contradictions? 

Even if it challenges us to the very core of our being, is it not incumbent upon each of us, as his followers, to ask very simple questions as to why we can so easily ignore the great breadth of clear and unambiguous teachings of Jesus on loving our enemies and not retaliating to evil?

Maybe this outrageous point will demonstrate the degree to which Christians have ignored the enemy-loving, non-retaliatory message of Jesus.

The majority of Christians who are pro-capital punishment, pro-war, and pro-military also believe that homosexuality is a sin.

Please, please, please hang with me here.

While Jesus never directly mentions homosexuality as sinful, many Christians believe it is an absolute abomination, and as a result, actively and vocally oppose homosexuality.

Yet, when there is a GIANT MOUNTAIN of evidence from the mouth of Jesus instructing his followers to love our enemies, to bless those who curse us, to not resist an evil-doer, to turn the other cheek, to go the extra mile, to give the shirt off our backs, to feed our enemies, to give drink to our enemies, to be peacemakers, to forgive and forgive and forgive, to pray for those who persecute us, to do good to those who hate us, those same Christians do not just ignore his words, they actively oppose them.*

Do you understand what I am saying?

This isn’t a post trying to change anyone’s position or view on homosexuality. I understand how each side has arrived at their position and that is not the intention of this particular post. Hopefully, we can talk about that issue another day.

But for the sake of today, and don’t miss this absolutely essential point- On an issue Jesus never directly mentions (homosexuality) many Christians stand so strongly and so resolutely. Yet, on the issue that is the very foundation of Jesus’ life, teaching, and ministry (loving our enemies), the same Christians completely ignore and oppose it in their support of capital punishment and war.

I hope you can see the problem here.

To me, it is mind-boggling.

I hear so many of my Christian brothers and sisters who are pro-capital punishment, pro-war, and pro-military say, “The Bible says it. I believe it. That settles it.” But I am going to have to challenge you on that assertion.  The Bible says those who follow Christ should love their enemies, not repay evil with evil, and not resist the evil-doer, yet you actively support their killing. And if you truly believed those words, you would surely not oppose the enemy-loving words and non-violent way of Jesus.

I would like to make a reasonable proposition so that we, as followers of Christ, may begin to move forward differently than we have in the past. I would like to honor and thank each and every service man and woman for their past and present service.  For surely our churches and church leaders in both the past and present did nothing but present military service as your Christian duty and obligation. And to that end, we hold absolutely no ill-will toward anyone who served in the past, or who is serving presently.

But, beginning today, may we draw a line in the sand and move forward into a future where the followers of Christ are those who pursue peace, those who love our enemies, and those who never repay evil-for-evil?

Can we begin instructing our children that the killing of our enemies, or any life, is contradictory and oppositional to the teaching, life, and ministry of Jesus?

Can we not move forward differently in our churches as a movement of peacemakers who offer a continual invitation into the peaceable, loving, forgiving, and merciful kingdom of Christ to both friends and enemies?

We are the physical body of Christ in the world and we have been given the task of looking beyond lines of division, relinquishing all ideologies of hatred, and inviting all image-bearers of God (friends and enemies alike) into the saving, life-transforming kingdom of God.

Peace is the only way…

Brandon

You may want to challenge my position based on some of the arguments below. I have provided links for further consideration. If you are interested in further discussion, let’s have coffee.

*You may want to bring up the violent God imagery of the Old Testament, I already wrote about that in another post, Out of Context.

*You may want to bring up the justification for killing your enemies by Jesus clearing out the temple with whips and by Jesus telling his disciples to bring two knives with them when he was getting ready to be arrested. Those misunderstood arguments hardly overturn the mountains of teachings from the peaceful, enemy-loving, cross bearing Christ. Here is an article about clearing the temple and one about the two swords for further reflection on the issue.

*You may want to support the killing of enemies by using the Just War Theory. The problem is that the Just War Theory is a theory for countries and governments, but not a theory offered by Jesus to his followers. Governments will always act as governments will act, but we are citizens of a different kingdom with a leader whose law is love for friend and enemy alike. And it is this leader and this kingdom to whom we have pledged our allegiance. We will not support or partake in any action that forces us to do anything less than love every human being, even the vilest offender. For even the vilest offender is a son or daughter of God, made in God’s very own image, and worth redeeming to the very end. Here is a great article refuting the Christian justification for killing enemies by using the Just War Theory.

*If we needed to go beyond the words of Jesus to make the case for loving our enemies, we can look at the letters of Paul and the lives of the Early Church. Paul echoes all the words of Jesus throughout his letters to the Early Church. He even says that our battle is not against flesh and blood, but against the powers and principalities of evil. That means our battle isn’t against other humans. And the war we wage is one waged differently- not against flesh, but against the powers of evil. Killing people does not extinguish this evil power. Additionally, Paul says that evil is God’s “to avenge,” not ours.

*The Early Christians were so committed to the peaceable, enemy-loving way of Jesus that they were regularly martyred without any attempt at repaying evil for evil. It should also be noted that the biggest explosion of the Jesus movement occurred at a time when Christians were actively laying their lives down in love and in their commitment to non-retaliation to evil.