One of the key moments in Alexander Campbell’s break with Presbyterianism and denominationalism came when he returned his communion token, unused, to the coffers of the Presbyterians. The token, issued by the Church of Scotland and other Presbyterian Churches, was a ticket of entry showing that the bearer had been duly tested and approved by the clergy to gain access to the Lord’s Table. The tokens were a form of “salvation currency” as the bearer was declared a bone fide Christian (to be denied a token was to lose access to body of Christ). The tokens became sacred objects, some even requested they be put in their coffins at death, and they were a means for clergy (who came to view them as their personal possession) to accumulate power and insure their own station. The system originated with John Calvin and spread to Protestant churches all over the world, including the U. S. The particular thing which may have plagued Campbell, as he purposely put himself at the end of a line of 800 some communicants, was that he realized that his new friends among the Scottish reformers would not qualify for the Lord’s table as they were not of the right party. Continue reading “The Church is an Ethic a Liturgy and a Real Presence”
As the President promotes the term “nationalist” in the midst of two terrorist attacks by men who seem to have also embraced Trump’s nationalism, the question arises as to the meaning and associations of the term. UNESCO claims that with “the birth of modern nations, anti-Semitism became essentially ‘nationalist.’” The UNESCO report connects the rise of modern nationalism to a new and more virulent form of anti-Semitism. While the United States, in the words of George Washington in his letter of assurance to the Touro Synagogue in Newport, R. I., “gives to bigotry no sanction, to persecution no assistance,” there is a clear rise in anti-Semitism (the Anti-Defamation League logged a 57 percent rise in anti-Semitic incidents in the United States in 2017) as the rhetoric of nationalism heats up. With the murder of the 11 worshipers in Pittsburgh (the deadliest anti-Semitic attack in U.S. history), it is clear that Jews can no longer depend upon this country being a sanctuary from anti-Semitism. Inasmuch as Christian evangelicals are key supporters of the source of this amped up rhetoric, the question is whether one can be a follower of Jesus and a nationalist? Contained within this larger question is the question whether Christianity is inherently nationalistic and anti-Semitic and, of course, there are historical moments where this appears to have been the case. Continue reading “Christian Nationalists?”
The following is a guest blog by Allan S. Contreras Rios.
When talking about Jesus’ temptation it is but inevitable to identify ourselves with Jesus. After all, everybody is tempted, constantly. But, what about an interpretation in which a Christian can see himself as being Satan? This is a possibility ignored by many because, well, who likes to be called Satan?
In a hermeneutics class with Jason Rodenbeck, a book called “Grasping God’s Word” by J. Scott Duvall and J. Daniel Hays was used. A comment by Rodenbeck about the name of the book stood out (without demeaning the richness of the book) “the word ‘grasping’ has a violence to it. I’ve got it, I own that. I wish it was ‘being grasped by God’s Word’.” The idea is that the Bible is not something a Christian should hold, but that which holds the Christian.
It is a fact that everybody is an interpreter; and in this case, even Satan is. Satan uses misapplied Scripture to tempt Jesus. Several things must be pointed out: 1) Satan is called by three different words: tempter (v.3), devil (vs. 1, 5, 8, 11), and Satan (v. 10). 2) Satan is using the Word of God to tempt the Word of God (Logos, Jesus). 3) By doing so, he thinks his interpretation of the Word of God is superior to the Word Himself (Jesus). 4) The temptation is luring Jesus to succumb to the culture, religion and politics of this world.
Every teacher of the Bible should be careful about what he learns and teaches (James 3:1). It is not uncommon for teachers and preachers to use Scripture according to their agendas. It is not uncommon for them to believe theological doctrines based on verses out of context. It is not uncommon that their congregations end up believing these theological doctrines, whether they’re correct or not. And this is the reason why I think it is important to stop “grasping the Word of God” like Satan tried to do, and start “being grasped” by it.
The three words that describe Satan in this pericope can describe preachers as well. In Revelation 2:12-17 the Church in Pergamum is rebuked for holding false teachings and for committing acts of immorality. They are warned to repent or Jesus will make war against them with the sword of His mouth (the Word). Immorality and false teaching have crept into the church, many preachers even mishandle Scripture to teach that certain immoralities are no longer immoral, but normal. And so they fall into the first description of Satan, they are tempters. This control over what the Bible “teaches” is what makes them fall into the second description since “devil” comes from the words “calumniate, accuse, repudiate, misrepresent;” they are opposed to what the Bible teaches because they think that their interpretation of the Word is more important than the Word itself, even if or when it is a lie. Because of this misuse of the Scripture and their opposition to it, they become “adversaries” (the meaning of Satan) of the Word itself (Jesus).
Many preachers today use Satan’s strategy to have more “Christians” in their churches. They lure them to “following Christ” by remaining in the kingdom of this world, and by appealing to this world’s idols. There is no change of culture, or religion, or politics. Who would not like to have eternal life without sacrificing a thing? But, in this account Jesus does not fall into Satan’s temptation. Would He –having eaten bread or having thrown Himself from the pinnacle of the temple or worshiped Satan– gone to die on the cross? Not likely. And is it not what Jesus calls Christians to do as well–take up our cross to die (Matthew 16:24)?
Many preachers may not know that what they are teaching is opposed to the Word. And how could they not if they fail to do their homework when it comes to interpreting? “Ignorance is not the same as innocence.” Christians must acknowledge this: bad theology leads to bad practices, many times violent ones. It is every Christian’s task to let himself be grasped by God’s Word in order to have good theology and as result, good practices. Mankind, since Genesis 3, is so used to the violence of seeing, holding, eating and sharing the wrong thing with others because it empowers them. And this is what makes the kingdom of Christ so radical, the citizenship requires the complete opposite of empowerment since it calls to an emptiness and denying of the self.
…the Bible is not something a Christian should hold, but that which holds the Christian.
Satan’s temptations follow his own pattern in Genesis: food, sight, pride. Israel fell on all of these during the wilderness. But Jesus shows a better way by denying His own needs in order to focus on ours. Christians are called to do the same to other Christians. But many, like Israel, fail to do so, or like Satan, they become the enemy to other Christians. What does Jesus call those who do Satan’s will? Those who refuse to be endorsed by a peaceable kingdom and therefore endorsing a violent one? Those who are not willing to give up their culture, religion or politics for a relationship with God? A Christian devil? No, He calls them “son of the devil” (John 8:44). Strong words that may apply to some who think are Christians, but not everyone who says “Lord, Lord…” (Matthew 7:22-23).
 This is a quote from the film Batman v Superman which is thought to be a variation of the line from the English poet Robert Browning who said “Ignorance is not innocence but sin.”
The Christian journey, as argued below, is not simply individual but corporate so that salvation is being joined to a new society (the body of Christ) called the Church. This is not a parallel kingdom, an alternative reality, or (as in Luther’s notion of the two kingdoms) what God is doing with his left hand on earth while his right hand is busy with the spiritual realm in the heavenly kingdom. The tragedy (always subject to reversal) unfolding in the American church, attached as it may be to this two-kingdom notion, might best be recognized (and averted) when viewed in conjunction with the wartime experience of the German church, and in particular, in the lives of the two most famous German Christians. Martin Niemöller and Dietrich Bonhoeffer exemplify the outworking of a two kingdom theology and the alternative, respectively, portending two possible theological outcomes in the American context Continue reading “Two Possible Futures for American Christianity Exemplified by Martin Niemöller and Dietrich Bonhoeffer”
One way of characterizing this age with its “fake news,” with Russian meddling through social media, with the Press demonized as the enemy, and now the murder of journalist Jamal Khashoggi, is as an age of rhetoric. Rhetoric is not harmless but uses language with the aim of manipulating the appearance of reality (connected even to torture in its classic sense). It is not that some deploy rhetoric and others tell the truth but all, at least in Paul’s depiction, are caught up in the house of human language (rhetoric, law, and philosophy). While the human speech problem may be accentuated at this moment, Paul characterizes the present age (which extends from then to now) in terms of a failure of language. Certainly, in his preaching (as described in I Cor), Paul has not used manipulative language; he has not brow beat people, he has not wheedled, bullied, used special lighting and stirring music. However, it was not just that his preaching was not rhetorical or an entertainment but, in form and content, his “logos of the Cross” exposes this form of speech as a nullity tied to a dying age. Continue reading “Fake News Versus the Word of the Cross”
In René Girard’s reading of history, the time after Christ unleashes an apocalyptic violence, which accords with the apocalyptic portion of the New Testament. The insight which Girard brings is his explanation of how the Cross inaugurates apocalypse. Christ’s sacrifice exposes the fact that human civilization is a result of sacrificial religion (the sacrifice of the scapegoat). Only sacrificial religion has been able to direct and contain the violence which has allowed for the rise of civilization but the life and death of Christ expose this evil and thus the scapegoating mechanism is no longer effective. As a result, as Christ explained, he did not come to bring peace but a sword, as the evil means of suppressing violence (the very violence which put him on a cross) is rendered inoperative. As Girard puts it, “We are aware that the Gospels reject persecution. What we do not realize is that, by doing so, they release its mechanism and demolish the entire human religion and the resulting cultures…” Continue reading “Are We in the Midst of Violence Unleashed by Christ?”
For the first time in almost two decades, I plan to vote in an upcoming election. I am not proud, nor do I plan to wear an “I voted” sticker. Mine is a confessional statement. A repentance.
I am not a “loyal citizen” of the nation, as much as it may offend my close friends. I am, instead, a person torn between my first and only allegiance to a Kingdom not of this world and the sense I have that the powers of this nation have become more ruthlessly cruel than ever in my lifetime.[i]
You must understand that I am not a Democrat. I was raised to be a “conservative,” but I found that my reading of the Gospel changed the way I understood the Christian’s relationship to this world’s politics. As I continued to read Jesus, the apostles, and especially John the Baptist in Matthew’s gospel, I realized that none of them (especially Jesus and John the Baptist) ever encouraged Christians to seek power in this world’s power structures. This was, inherently, anti-Christian (in the sense that it is the opposite of what Christ taught), because the politics of this world are exercised through violence and exploitation of the weak.
Instead, their politic was one which was antithetical to the politics of power and, importantly, their engagement to those politics was purely prophetic. Apparently, we followers of Christ would not change the world by working our way into the structures of powerful kings and rulers (something Jesus was tempted with when he was tempted in the desert), but we would strive to create an alternative Kingdom—God’s Kingdom—in and among the kingdoms of this world. And this Kingdom would grow like yeast in a lump of dough or like weeds in a garden to gradually overturn it.
The politics of the King of our Kingdom are about servanthood, humility, and peacefulness–not power, self-aggrandizement, control, and violence.
Few people who call themselves Christian understand the Gospel this way (the way I think we do at Forging Ploughshares). For this reason, for almost two decades, I have found myself a critic, not just of this world’s power structures, but of people who claim to follow Jesus and who dismiss the message of the gospels as they pursue political power for their chosen party. The apostle Paul (as Paul Axton has articulated so well, so often) would, I think, call this “doing evil that grace may abound.”
In other words, many of my friends and neighbors, people that I preached to for years, I believe have rejected everything Jesus taught in the pursuit of control of the Supreme Court, for the purpose of overturning Roe vs. Wade.
Being willing to oppress and cage children whose families seek asylum from corrupt governments or gang violence and blindly supporting a man who is accused of sexual assault without even caring whether the claim is adequately investigated because you want to “save unborn babies” is engaging in evil in order to do what you take to be good.
Take, for example, evangelical support for the endlessly corrupt Trump administration. Or the insanity of the Republicans in the Senate who have hypocritically broken every one of their own rules and run over any opposition no matter who it hurts or who it decimates for the purposes of taking over the Supreme Court (Lindsay Graham’s shouting “God, you all want power! I hope you never get it!” is, perhaps, the most revealing moment of gas-lit, Freudian slippage I have ever seen on television—Shakespeare could not have written greater irony).
The confirmation of Brett Kavanaugh to the Supreme Court is, perhaps, the ugliest example of this evil in the Trump era so far. Acknowledging that the claims of sexual assault made against Kavanaugh were, as yet, not proven, it was clear to nearly any onlooker that the Republicans were dead set against actually looking to see if they were true (and, admittedly, the Democrats were using these women [and any women who have been sexually assaulted] as well). That said, it was easily apparent that no amount of hash-tagging “MeToo” would affect the steely hearts of a bunch of old rich white men inches away from controlling what they’ve lusted to control for forty years by putting a younger version of themselves in the court—a white man of obvious means with a self-documented history of bullying, carousing, drunkenness, and womanizing privilege.
Meanwhile, the “Christians” I have known in recent years have blindly gone along with it and even defend it—because, they, too, believe in the politics of power over and against the person they call “Lord” on Sundays without realizing that calling Jesus “Lord” means putting oneself at odds with “voting Republican” for the purpose of establishing “good” through power and control. They do not realize that they have aligned themselves with the very wealthy hypocrites James chastises throughout his letter.
Listen, my dear brothers and sisters: Has not God chosen those who are poor in the eyes of the world to be rich in faith and to inherit the kingdom he promised those who love him? But you have dishonored the poor. Is it not the rich who are exploiting you? Are they not the ones who are dragging you into court? Are they not the ones who are blaspheming the noble name of him to whom you belong? James 2:5-7
How could people whose sacred text contains these words have ever thought that putting the world’s greediest, most lecherous and gluttonous sexual predator in the office of president was a means of doing good? How could they still claim to follow the one who said, “Foxes have dens and birds have nests, but the Son of Man has no place to lay his head?” Simply put—they can’t. And the world recognizes it, even if they don’t. And my neck (along with those of my friends) bears the scars of the people who have tried to behead me for saying so.
That said, as much as some of my more progressive friends who are just as angry about the current state of affairs believe that voting “Democrat” this year is our only hope, I don’t. I do plan to vote Democrat, but only because of my guilt that my “brothers and sisters” whose daily church is Fox News have sold their souls to put evil in power. And, at this point, I am convinced (however self-deluded I may be) that my voting is not about taking power as much as it is about checking the power of the most evil group of people I can think of.
I feel like Dietrich Bonhoeffer wrestling with how to confront the political evil of his time.
Today, in response to the Kavanaugh decision, a friend of ours posted a picture of a woman in tears on her Facebook. Like all things Facebook, one has to trust that the story behind the image is true, but this story seemed plausible. It was an image of a woman weeping after the Kavanaugh confirmation because she wondered if women who had been sexually assaulted would ever be believed or even heard.
And, at that moment, as much as my friends are urging one another “Let’s hold them accountable at the polls,” the only words I could muster were “Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for Justice,[ii] for they will be filled.” These words, one of the Beatitudes of Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount, promise that in God’s Kingdom, those who are hungry for what is right will be satisfied because they find what is right and just in Jesus’ Kingdom. This, of course, is not possible in the economy of power of this world’s political structures, no matter which Caesars, kings, or presidents and senators are in power. This is because the politics of power are antithetical to self-emptying politics of the Kingdom, which is the only true way to peace and real justice.
Yet, this is an idea which is so far removed from our imaginations as to be nearly incoherent. And it is precisely because we cannot imagine a life without power that it is so. Or, as Jesus said it, “It’s a small gate and a narrow way to this Kingdom, and few find it,” a statement rarely quoted in today’s Americanized Christianity which sees no tension between Jesus’ call to “let the little children come to me” or “go and sell everything you have, give it to the poor, and come and follow me” and turning asylum-seeking children away or the selfishness of prosperity theology. In a recent conversation in which I argued that VP Mike Pence is not a Christian because of his willingness to participate in and defend kidnapping innocent children whose parents are seeking asylum, I was told, “You’re claiming someone is not a Christian because of their politics? Come on!” Apparently, in this new faith, one can do all manner of anti-Christian evil and as long as one calls it “politics” the call of the Gospel is irrelevant.
My response? “You will know them by their fruit.”
Recently, I had a conversation with a friend which I am hesitant even to share, but which I have concluded indicates that I, also, clearly struggle to find Jesus’ gate. I told him that even as there is so much public pressure to overcome the tradition of the dismissal of women and children who claim to have been sexually abused or assaulted, I, too, in my darkest imagination (even knowing all of the statistics) have worried about being falsely accused of abuse. In my heart of hearts, I know that Donald Trump’s vile fear-mongering speaks to a fear deep in my own heart.
My friend, wisely, admitted that this is a legitimate concern and that there are evil women out there as much as there are evil men who could, in fact, take advantage. But he challenged me back that saying so could only hurt the “movement” which is drawing attention to centuries (millennia) of injustices to women. There is, I suppose, no shortage of modern naiveté in assuming that such injustices can be cured with the proper application of democracy and social revolution. But, as he and I talked, it occurred to me that the thing I’m really afraid of is my own vulnerability. I’m afraid of my own cross.
The truth is, as a man, the socio-political structures in place favor me on this issue, and as a white man, even more so. And I draw some comfort in that, knowing that a person who makes an accusation may not be immediately believed. But that position of privilege puts those who are not in it at a disadvantage—one which is easily exploited by the Trumps and (perhaps) Kavanaughs of this world. And, so, I find myself resistant and worrying that a change in this privilege makes me more vulnerable. As it must.
Acknowledging, for the moment, that this supports my theory that what is behind all politics of power is fear (fear of insecurity, or of death—which John has told us that perfect love has “cast out”) the real idea that I must accept is that, as a follower of Christ, my own vulnerability is simply an accepted reality, or, more precisely, the entire point. To follow the one whom the apostle Paul has said, “emptied himself” of power by becoming a human, a servant, and obedient to death on a cross, means that I, too, must empty myself of power (privilege) and become like him, obedient to death, even death on a cross. Jesus, himself, said, “Pick up your cross and follow” and in another place, “A student is not greater than his teacher,” (meaning, if they did it to me, don’t think they won’t do it to you—be ready).
And this concept is entirely foreign to the pursuit of political power.
This year, I am voting for the first time in nearly two decades. I do not do it lightly, and I do not do it proudly. I do it begrudgingly, having agonized about it for nearly two years. I do it primarily because I recognize the failure of the American churches to articulate the Gospel as Jesus preached it and, in doing so, have adulterated the Gospel of kenosis (self-emptying) for the false gospel of power and nationalism. I do it because, if all Christians believed as I do, Donald Trump and these power-hungry monsters would not be in power, for all Christians would have seen what was obvious—that what we are seeing is the opposite of our faith, an idolatry of epic proportions, and would have been too busy being salt and light to have been taken in by Trump’s angry, hateful rhetoric.
But, as I vote, I will do it with eyes wide open, knowing that what I am participating in is not the Kingdom of Heaven that Matthew so carefully taught us, but the kingdom of this world that is fallen and cruel. I do it knowing that my real hope for this world is that, after we have been crucified with Christ, we, too, will be raised with him on a new earth, one without earthly kings and presidents, one without powers and principalities, one that is just and peaceful.
I do it, repentantly, praying as John the Revelator did, “Amen. Even so. Come, Lord Jesus.”
[i] It is difficult not to hear NT Wright arguing that Jesus’ Kingdom may not be of this world, but it is certainly for it. In this way, Wright argues for participation in the politics of power and violence, something he can hardly avoid as his church structure is tied to the British House of Lords. This I take to be an equivocation and a contradiction to of Wright’s own teaching on Paul’s statement that Jesus has disarmed these powers (a question I once had the privilege of posing to Dr. Wright).
[ii] Most often translated “righteousness,” the word from the root dikaios, is likely better translated “justice” (think hunger and thirst for what is right or just). In the first century, the term “righteousness” carried that sense. In ours, it is more likely to be understood as “personal righteousness” which is often translated to “being cleared of guilt.” Using the word “justice” helps us to see that this was intended to appeal to those who are oppressed and marginalized, I think.
The violence of “Christian” pedophiles, sexual abusers, and whore-mongers – or to state it differently the characteristic forms of perversion found in Roman Catholicism, evangelicalism, and fundamentalism, respectively – on Walter Benjamin’s scale of violence (per his “Critique of Violence”) amounts to “law-maintaining” violence. That is, these systems consistently churn out characteristic forms of sexual transgression as part of the necessity of maintaining the status quo of these forms of belief and their institutional structures. This may seem counter-intuitive, but it is obvious that these systems structure desire, through law or doctrine, in such a way that the transgression supports the desire and the belief attached to it. Fundamentalism gives us a steady flow of Jim Bakkers and Jimmy Swaggarts, and evangelicalism churns out its endless Bill Hybels, in the same way that Roman Catholicism seems to manufacture pedophiles. By not coming to grips with the characteristic nature of sin these systems reconstitute it. To state succinctly (what I expand upon below), the object of desire is that which is relinquished or lost and this loss is definitive of the identity produced. This identity produces a split within the body (the self or soma) such that the law of the mind (be it that of Roman Catholicism or of fundamentalism) is established through the transgression of the flesh. The law always has its transgressive support – doing a particular form of evil so as to produce a particular form of the good. This is Paul’s definition of sin – which indicates that these forms of faith may perpetuate, rather than identify and dispel, sin. Continue reading “Baptism (Fully Realized) as the Resolution to Pedophilia and Sexual Abuse”
In the 1960’s and into the 70’s with the Vietnam War, the sexual revolution, women’s liberation, the rise of the drug culture, the Jesus People arose as a Christian reaction to the cultural revolution. Time Magazine, in 1971, called it the Jesus Revolution – considered the latest of the great western revivals. For many, like myself, there was something ephemeral about it all – yes, it included those of us who had come through the drug culture but was it an extension of the established church? Was it simply “youth culture meets the church” or were we breaking down denominational barriers and actually changing traditional forms of church? I did not understand all of the forces while they were happening but 40 years provides perspective. Continue reading “Why Should the Devil Have All of the Good Music?: The Meaning of the 1970’s Jesus Revolution”
Paul seems to be identifying the deep grammar of a system antithetical to his Gospel in the question “Shall we sin that grace may abound?” This is not a simple aside (he repeats it and reformulates it 4 times) but may represent what some are teaching in the name of Christ. It goes to the heart of Paul’s argument and counter-argument in Romans in which he is laying out the sinful logic of both Jews and Gentiles. Whether judged by the Mosaic law or the law of the heart, all are unrighteous and this unrighteousness is not simply a failure of will but a failure of thought. That is, the conscious or unconscious logic of sin is to transgress the law so as to attain the good. The very point of the Gospel, in Paul’s explanation in Romans and elsewhere, is deliverance from the misorientation to the law due to sin. If I am correct, this means that where this misorientation is incorporated into the religion, though this religion may call itself Christian, it is in fact antithetical to the Gospel. This is not simply a technical argument in that this un-gospel will show its true nature in the presumptions it makes and the fruit it produces. Just War Theory, Calvinist notions of predestination and the necessity of evil, penal substitution, or whatever doctrine or theology allows for evil, is operating according to the logic of Paul’s sin formula. There are forms of the faith that justify systemic evil (violence is a necessity, the Fall was part of God’s plan, Jesus is punished by God, or I am justified in hurting some for the greater good, etc.) and this self-justifying engagement with evil (whether personal or corporate), embraces Paul’s depiction of what is absolutely forbidden (“God forbid, it shall never be,” he says in Ro. 7.7). Unfortunately, this failure of thought definitive of sin gets at the controlling logic of multiple forms of perverse Christianity. Recognizing this bleak reality though, comes combined with the possible realization of a faith that involves total (psychological and corporate) recreation. Continue reading “Shall We Sin That Grace May Abound: A Formula for Discerning Authentic Christianity”