Good News? (A Quasi-Political Post)

I need you to trust me.

If you have followed my writings over the last decade you know that I do not like politics. In fact, I hate politics. I believe the confluence of politics and religion has been one of the greatest dividers and antagonizers within the Church as a whole. And, as a result, I spend my energy working to unite people from all political persuasions into the only thing that can cover a multitude of sins, a multitude of ideologies, a multitude of political persuasions- the love of God.

For it is the love of God, singularly, that can save us from ourselves, as impossible as that may seem sometimes.

But at the same time, you should know that since I do not care for either political party, I try to speak as much unbiased truth as I can, regardless of political affiliation. I don’t have skin in the game.

So with all of that being said, please know that my intention with this post is not to make some political statement, or to take some supposed political side, because I am not. Neither right nor left, blue nor red, liberal nor conservative, Republican nor Democrat will save us. I am simply trying to work through some of the great divides I observe within the American Church in light of political influence and power.

This post began writing itself last week when I saw an article about Vice President Mike Pence, who by the way is from my hometown and my alma mater (Columbus, Indiana and Hanover College), addressing a pastors conference (and now the Southern Baptist Convention) in which he was a surprise speaker. It was this specific line that hit me, and then subsequently made me reflect upon it. It was when he told the audience of pastors to, “share the good news of Jesus Christ.”

Maybe that line doesn’t really stand out to you. In fact, I would be surprised if it did stand out to you in any appreciable way because it is the very backbone of Christianity and a very common thing for a Christian leader to say. So it’s no real surprise that someone would say something like that at a preachers conference.

But the reason it hit me in such a weird way the other day was because there is a growing number of Christians, like me, who see how un-Christlike our government is, whether it be the current administration or past administrations, and the Vice President’s call to “share the good news of Jesus Christ,” seemed to ring a bit hollow in light of the current un-Christlike administration.

I need to be clear here. I am not at all doubting the Vice President’s sincerity or his allegiance to his faith. That’s not it at all. As you will soon see, the main point of this post really doesn’t have anything to do with the Vice President or the administration. I truly believe that from Pence’s perspective, he believes that the work he is doing, and the work that the Trump administration is doing by proxy, is largely in alignment with the “good news of Jesus Christ.” And his rally cry at the preacher’s conference was his clarion call for them to join him in this good news mission. Again, I do not doubt his sincerity or allegiance to his faith at all.

I just believe it is mistaken and misaligned.

The problem is that there are those of us who see the “good news of Jesus Christ” differently, who see that the character and policies of the Trump administration (and the Obama, Bush, and Clinton administrations of the past) as un-Christlike, and who believe that any pronouncement of the “good news of Jesus Christ” ought to be accompanied by a people resolved to be like the Christ they profess to follow.

I want to be consistent, though. I am not saying that I believe a country should, or even could, be Christlike because I don’t think that is even possible, nor is it what Jesus ever intended. But, when Christianity is so actively and vociferously bandied about by the current administration, and then used as their basis for policy decisions, it begs for serious accountability and critique by those who take following the way of Jesus seriously.

So here are a few questions I would have.

What is so good about the “good news of Jesus Christ” if it has no real bearing on us becoming more like Christ in our lives?

Ought not the preaching of the “good news of Jesus Christ” be accompanied by lives and initiatives that look Christlike?

What is so good about the “good news of Jesus Christ” if the policies of the United States are rarely Christlike, or not Christlike at all?

What is so good about the “good news of Jesus Christ” if it really isn’t good news for people living today?

Does the Good News have any real world influence, or is it just something that guarantees a future in heaven?

Of course these questions are rhetorical, but they really bring to light the deeper problem we have within American Christianity in how we view the “good news of Jesus Christ,” and what it ought to mean for the here and now. And believe me, this problem is at the very center of the issues we have with each other in the larger American Church.

If you haven’t figured it out by now, we have two very different and distinct understandings of what the “good news of Jesus Christ” even is. And it is this difference in understanding that has led to very different ideas about what that means in the world and then how that ought to be expressed.

Some Christians believe the “good news of Jesus Christ” is the saving work of God through Christ accomplished through the death of Jesus on the cross in order to defeat sin and death, thereby satisfying the wrath of God and granting forgiveness to all who repent and are baptized so that they may go to heaven for eternity in a spiritual afterlife.

The limitation of this understanding of the “good news” is that it does not offer a cohesive moral lens through which to see the world. Because this understanding is largely end-oriented, it is significantly limited in how to view (and relate) to the world presently.

That is why many within this version of the “good news” have adopted the most accessible lens in front of them to understand the world- the Judeo-Christian American lens.

Within the vacuum created by only using Jesus as a means of salvation, but not the lens through which they view all things, they needed some sort of lens to make moral sense of our country and world. And the Judeo-Christian American lens was the most accessible, because it was the one handed down from generation to generation in America.

The problem is that the Judeo-Christian American ethic is a mishmash of selective and inconsistent ethics from the Old and New Testaments. And those who see the world through that Judeo-Christian lens seek to impose those values on the governmental system as their ultimate goal, because they believe it is what God has always wanted. The Judeo-Christian American ethic is believed to be fundamentally and unequivocally Christian by those Christians who use it as their lens, even though its ethics are thoroughly un-Christlike.

A Judeo-Christian American ethic is not a Christlike ethic. There is no such hybrid entity within Christ. To be a Christian means to follow the ethic of Christ. It does not mean ascribing to a mishmash of selective values that can be molded to your liking, or to your political leaning.

I am not pointing a finger of judgment here, because this is the quasi-Christian mumbo-jumbo that we have all been sold for generations. The problem is that a Judeo-Christian American ethic is not a Christlike ethic and we are mistaken if we believe they are synonymous.

However, there are those, including me, who believe that the “good news of Jesus Christ,” which Jesus and Paul referred to as the “good news of the Kingdom of God,” is an entirely different nation and citizenship without boundaries or divisions or hierarchies, and whose values look exactly, and consistently, like the king in this kingdom… Jesus.

Yes, we still believe that the forgiveness of God was given to all as a peace-offering through Christ crucified, that sin and death were triumphed over in the resurrection of the Christ, and that God longs for all to repent (for all to change their minds about God and be transformed in the process of reconciling their relationship) and to be immersed heart, mind, body, and soul into this new reality of living, this Kingdom of God.

But it goes much further than that. Jesus isn’t simply a means to an end. Jesus is the means and the end. Jesus isn’t just good for getting to heaven. Jesus is the template and the lens by which we pattern our lives and through whom we see all things.

The good news of the Kingdom of God stands in sharp contrast to the selective and inconsistent morality of the Judeo-Christian American lens.

For example, when we say “pro-life,” we believe that God loves all life from womb to tomb, not just in the womb, because that is what Jesus taught and what Jesus embodied. The good news of the Kingdom of God is that all people are loved and worthy. And in this Kingdom, like Jesus, one does not see enemy-combatants or people worthy of death row or illegal aliens or garbage human beings or humans referred to as animals. We simply see people who are made in the image of God and loved by God. We see, like Jesus, people that we are to love with our heart, mind, body, and soul. And that may make us stupid and worthy of ridicule for loving so recklessly, but it is consistently with who Jesus called his followers to be.

And that is just one difference, among so many, between the selective and inconsistent Judeo-Christian American ethic and the universal and consistent good news of the Kingdom of God. It is easy to know how to see the world and other people when Jesus alone is the lens through which we see all things.

Let me give another example to illustrate the profound difference between the two lenses.

A Pew Research article posted on May 24, 2018 looked at whether or not the United States has a responsibility to accept refugees.

Of every single demographic analyzed in the study, from age to gender to class to ethnicity to education level, the groups MOST AGAINST the United States accepting refugees were the white, Protestant Evangelicals at nearly 70% and white, Protestants at 50%.

The people of Jesus. The people of compassion. The people who have become the very “body of Christ” in the world. The people of the “Good News.” The people who are to see others as Jesus sees them, is the single demographic MOST AGAINST accepting and helping a refugee.

When a Christian religion adopts a lens through which to view the world that is in stark contrast to the lens of Jesus, this is exactly what we end up with. Whether or not one breaks an American law, whether or not a person deserves the help, whether or not the person comes from another country or not, the good news of the Kingdom of God welcomes in and cares for the foreigner, the outcast, and those pushed to the edges of society. The good news of the Kingdom of God has deep, deep compassion for the poor seeking a better life, for those being hunted and killed by their own domestic oppressors, and for those seeking religious asylum from violent regimes. A people who understands the good news of the Kingdom of God is not singularly concerned preaching about the self-sacrificing Christ. We are resolved to pattern our lives after, and see the world through, the self-sacrificing Christ.

That’s the difference.

And I believe that is why there are so many Christians who think that the current administration is “doing the Lord’s work,” while there are just as many of us Christians who believe the current administration is an affront to Christ. Because without making Jesus the lens through which all things are seen, one can pick and choose which ethical concerns are “more important” or more “politically satisfying” or “more in line with American interests,” than with the Jesus they profess to follow.

It may be time for us to have deeper discussions with each other about what the good news is and what it really means for the world today.

Peace…

Brandon

Out of Context

I got an email the other day asking about certain Old Testament passages that seem to contradict a few of my most recent posts I have written about how Christians ought to view politics and the government.  Below is my response, which has been slightly edited from the original.

When discussing how Christians ought to understand and view their role and responsibility toward politics and government, it is absolutely essential to understand the larger narrative and movement of the Bible. For without backing up and taking a more broad look at the progression of the larger story, there is a real risk of reading the text myopically and out of context. It would be akin to focusing so narrowly on the individual notes of a song that one might actually miss the appreciation and beauty of the song as a whole. 

There is a direction in which the biblical narrative is heading that culminates in the full revelation of God in Jesus, that then helps us understand everything else leading up to that point. That is why picking and choosing verses or chapters of the Bible piecemeal is so unhelpful, because when they are not seen or understood as a progression toward the full revelation in Jesus, they can be narrowly understood and applied significantly out of context to support virtually any argument.

And in my best estimation, that is why Christians are so all-over-the-board when it comes to virtually every issue, but specifically politics and government, because we simply do not approach the heart of the biblical text uniformly. Many pick and choose verses to validate their positions, even if those positions stray significantly from the full revelation of God in Jesus.

There is a more complete and uniform way to read the biblical narrative, that culminates in Jesus, which then becomes the template through which we see all things and by which we live our lives.

The starting point is reading the Bible as a narrative in which God partners with mankind to successively and progressively reveal what it looks like to be a human in perfect relationship with God and other human beings. That is the larger song, if you will.

But how would you, as God, begin the process of writing this song? Where would you even begin? If your starting point is amongst a pagan and barbaric people thousands of years BC, it’s not like you can skip over the introductory notes or the notes that comprise the verses and chorus. For there would not be any appreciation or understanding of how amazing the grand finale in Jesus really is. It would not make any sense to insert Jesus into that context and be like, “Hey, follow and be like this guy.” The primitive heart, mind, and soul would have no appreciation, understanding, or context to understand why loving enemies, forgiving others, going the extra mile, or turning the other cheek is the essential heart of God and God’s deepest longing for humanity.

So how do you meet them where they are at and walk with them, while also preparing them in such a way that when God’s heart and character are fully revealed in Jesus… they will understand it and see the need for God’s heart and character in their lives?  

The answer is slowly, progressively, successively. And that is exactly how we see God working through history up to and culminating in Jesus.

The Old Testament is a step-by-step forward progression toward Jesus. What we see from the beginning is human rebellion, which is a turning from God, and then as a result, people turning against one another. We see steps throughout the OT in which God met the people where they were at in their primitive, barbaric thinking and lifestyle and began to take steps with them to a higher ethic, or higher, more godly consciousness.  

One step in this progression was with Abraham. At a time when a primitive, barbaric people were sacrificing humans for the blessing or approval of their deities, we find that Yahweh instructs Abraham to do the same thing… but then provides a ram for sacrifice instead of his son. In a culture where human sacrifice was the norm, God helped a people take a step away from that kind of barbarism, and a successive step toward valuing human life. Was all human conduct and relationships perfect after that step? No, far from it. But it was a step toward the true heart and character of God. 

Another progressive step was with Moses. In the midst of terrible oppression and slavery, God moved on behalf of the Hebrew people to deliver them out of slavery and bondage… and then, for 40 years in the desert, stripped away the pagan beliefs and practices they had acquired from the Egyptians. And then, meeting them where they were at morally and ethically, God helped them take another successive step by giving them a higher ethic and morality in the 10 Commandments (and the rest of the Law of Moses). This was certainly not the end, but just another step to help a people develop morally and ethically and then to begin to see the “how they fall short” of the Law. 

So while there was another step taken toward helping people begin to see God’s true heart, God’s full revelation had not yet been revealed. But despite God meeting humanity where they were at, at specific moments in history, people still operated in ways that were broken. And we see this all throughout the OT. God wanted to be their only King, but the people wanted a human King and this grieved God. People still offered animal and food sacrifices to God, but all God ever wanted was their hearts. And it goes on like that throughout the entire OT.  

But also scattered throughout the OT, we hear the voices of prophets saying that there will be one who comes who will end all division, who will establish a different kind government, who will be called the King of Kings, whose reign will go out throughout the land and bring together all people, who will lead his people into peace, righteousness, and freedom, who will write the law on our hearts rather than on stone, and who will establish the kingdom of God on earth as it is in heaven.

And in Jesus, God took yet another progressive, successive moral and ethical step… from written laws to God’s own Spirit demonstrated in flesh. 

Demonstrating that his character is not one that demands people offer sacrifices to him, but that his character is self-sacrificial in nature. Showing his people the profound limitations and evil that can come from human kings, politics, and governments, and then inviting everyone into a kingdom in which he again is the King of his people. And revealing that, in all the ways humanity has misunderstood his character, the full revelation of God looks exactly like the self-sacrificial, enemy-loving, peaceable, and forgiving Jesus. And it is this step in Jesus, in which God was moving people from hierarchies, dividing lines, social stratification, oppositional thinking… and making a new people, of a new kingdom, with a higher law and ethic of the Spirit, who would become the body of Christ in the world.

That is why Jesus’ primary message of the Kingdom of God is so important, because it is the full revelation of God’s character in human flesh and the perfect union with God and others. It is an invitation away from divisive politics, inferior governmental systems, and tribal thinking and into a new Kingdom in which Jesus is the Lord and King and the values and ethics of this “new country” is the values and ethics of God demonstrated and taught by Jesus (i.e. The Sermon on the Mount). And we, as those who give our pledge and allegiance to this King only, continue the present work of inviting people out of inferior systems and inferior vales into something more fulfilling, more beautiful, and fully of God. In a very real way, we get to experience “a foretaste of what’s to come” or “the first fruits of new creation.”

So the issue with how most Christians read the Bible is this- they do not read or understand it as a gradual, successive, progressive revelation of God culminating in the highest moral, ethical, and transcendent values of God demonstrated in Jesus… but rather as a patchwork in which pieces can be picked at and used when it fits a particular agenda or issue. That’s why it is not justifiable to use the OT as a proof source for how Christians ought to deal with governments or politics or war … because God met those people where they were at with what they could understand at a specific moment in time to help them take another step … but the full revelation of God through Jesus had not yet come to humanity. 

At just the right time in history, humanity had moved enough from an ethical perspective (but still far from perfect) for God to demonstrate what the final step looks like. It’s Jesus. That is God’s full revelation to us! We do not regress into old ways of thinking or old ways of living. The pattern and template for a new humanity has been given to us who are ready to receive it. But unfortunately, many in the Church still want to reside in the old conception of life… the tribal and barbarian way, rather than the way of new creation, the way of the new humanity. And it is difficult to help people understand that in the Church.  

Please understand. If your positions, stances, or beliefs are not rooted in, and do not look like, the full revelation of God in Jesus, then your positions, stances, or beliefs are resting in the old, inferior, animal or social conception of life.  It is time for the you, as a follower of Christ, and your church to take a step forward into the divine conception of life, the life of the Spirit, the life of new creation, the life of the new humanity, which always looks like the full revelation of God in Jesus.

“The whole historic existence of mankind is nothing else than the gradual transition from the personal, animal conception of life to the social conception of life, and from the social conception of life to the divine conception of life. The whole history of ancient peoples, lasting through thousands of years and ending with the history of Rome, is the history of the transition from the animal, personal view of life to the social view of life. The whole of history from the time of the Roman empire and the appearance of Christianity is the history of the transition, through which we are still passing now, from the social view of life to the divine view of life. This view of life is the last, and founded upon it is the Christian teaching, which is a guide for the whole of our life and lies at the root of all of our activity, practical and theoretical.” Leo Tolstoy, The Kingdom of God is Within You

Taking Back America

I want to share a story that I have told a few times, but each time it was told I left out a key part. Not because I was trying to hide anything, but because there were other points I was trying to make in the account at the time and this particular part wasn’t important for the other points.

But I believe it is time for this part of the story to be told… because the lesson in it is incredibly powerful.

Over a decade ago a friend and I believed that we should start an organization called Taking Back America. We believed that the very best thing for America was for Christians to mobilize politically and make a stronger united effort to influence our governments, schools, and other institutions “for the cause of Christ.” We were very excited about this endeavor and were planning to have a huge kick-off event with some national political speakers who were Christians and some nationally recognized Christian musical acts.

With the planning underway and a few speakers already committed, I contacted a particular artist management company to line up a particular musician. I spoke to several different people at this company, telling them all about what we were doing and why we were doing it. I sent them our information and they told me that they would get back with me within a couple of weeks, but they never did.

Frustrated, as this was the last piece of the puzzle we needed to begin promoting the event, I called the agency back in order to find out what was taking so long. The lady with whom I had been speaking over the previous weeks finally passed the call over to the agency director. The subsequent conversation left me completely frustrated and confused.

The director started by saying that he did not believe that the musician we were trying to book necessarily agreed with what we were doing or how we were doing it. Perplexed, I asked him to be more specific. He said that neither he nor the musician believed that it was a good thing for Christianity to advance politically, adding that they did not think America necessarily had to be “taken back for Christ” by the means we were suggesting.

I continued to press him because I could not understand what he was saying. It was not computing. It would not register. I could not imagine that there could be such a person who did not believe that Christians ought not take America back and “restore it to the Christian values and ideals that we once had.” Even more frustrated, I asked him how, exactly, we ought to move forward as Christians in America if we do not do it politically. He told me something I will never forget. He said, “The Kingdom of God is not dependant upon any political or governmental institution to move forward.”

This leads me to the part of the story that I have never written about before but that I now believe is important to share. But I before tell you how he responded to me and what he said… let me simply say this: when a person or a group of people believe that they have special knowledge or information, or that they have superior insight into a subject or a particular view, or that they have experienced a moment of clarity or enlightenment… there is a temptation to look down on others who do not have this special knowledge, superior insight, or shared enlightenment.

What I was about to receive was the most despicable form of judgment and lack of grace I have ever experienced.

In response to my serious lack of understanding to his perspective and my continued questioning for clarity, he said, “People like you will never get it.”

And that was like a dagger in my heart. Ugh.

While on one hand, that was the first time anyone who had a very different perspective of the way, life, and message of Jesus had confronted me on my limited perspective of how a Christian should think, act, and behave in our country. Even further, that was the first time anyone had ever mentioned the Kingdom of God to me. It was the first time anyone had ever suggested that God could work and move in the world in ways that were different than anything I had ever known or expected…and it certainly got my attention.

But on the other hand, I was ANGRY. On that day, I would have socked that guy in the mouth if we had both been in the same state! Not only had he challenged my perspective that the United States ought to be a Christian nation and that it should be done politically, but he did it in a way that absolutely killed me on the inside. I felt so small… so belittled… and so angry.

Even in my anger, I had to at least admit that my view may have been limited because I had never known or heard anything about the Kingdom of God. I had never heard that the Kingdom of God was a present in-breaking reality in the lives of those who follow the sacrificial way of Christ. I had never been confronted with Jesus and his upside-down Kingdom message. And I certainly didn’t realize that day how this Kingdom and Christ’s Lordship in my life would change my allegiances, my values, and they way I live and extend it each moment and with every breath I take.

The guy on the other end of the line had information that I needed. He had knowledge of something for which I was seeking and asking. He must have had a moment of enlightenment at one point of his life in order to know about something so beautiful and so radical and so revolutionary… but in his arrogance and judgment and lack of grace… he slammed the door to the Kingdom of God in my face… and told me I would never get it.

Well, I did eventually get it. And it was with very little help from the man who wrote me off as a lost cause.

I understand the tendency to feel as if we have superior knowledge and information and that everyone else needs to get a clue. I am guilty as charged too many times in my life. The issue isn’t having knowledge, information, or a moment of clarity or enlightenment… it is what we do with it… and how we treat people in the process. I know there are tons and tons of people in our lives who frustrate us because we think that they will always have their fingers in their ears and their eyes closed tightly. I get it. But if we are to be honest, God never gives up on anyone as a lost cause. And if the reign of God is to permeate through our hearts, minds, and souls… then we can’t give up on even the most hard headed, hard hearted, stubborn mule of a person. Right?

Even further, I know that I write a ton about the misgivings and misalignment of the Church. I know at times it may feel like I am writing off the Church and the beautiful people that make it up. But I write and share what I have discovered, not because I don’t think you will ever get, but because I know that you can get it… and I will never give up trying to help you find this beautiful treasure of the Kingdom of God.

The way of the Kingdom is not about discovering riches and then looking down on people as destitute paupers who have no share in the riches. Rather, the Kingdom is about discovering the riches and then humbly and lovingly realizing that all are entitled to share in the treasure together.

Don’t give up on anyone…

Brandon