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Commentary

The United States Is Mortal

I was struck this morning reading Psalm 9 at the way the psalmist wrote about the nations of the world.

In verses 19-20, he writes:

Arise, Lord, do not let mortals triumph;
    let the nations be judged in your presence.
Strike them with terror, Lord;
    let the nations know they are only mortal.

The psalmist is crying out to God for help and deliverance from his enemies. The surrounding nations are harassing God’s people. Yet the psalmist knows God is a refuge for the afflicted.

The plea for the nations to know their mortality is a plea for the nations to understand that Yahweh is God, not the nations. No king, sultan, pharaoh, emperor, prime minister, or president is mightier than the Mighty One.

The nations here, and throughout the Psalms, is used in contrast to Israel–God’s people. Israel was a geo-political nation defined by borders and a particular piece of real estate in the world. But it was also more than that. It was a nation ruled directly by Yahweh, their true king.

Israel’s central statement of faith (known as the Shema) was a simple declaration of allegiance to God: “Yahweh our God, Yahweh is the only one!” The nations are anyone and everyone whose allegiance is to something other than Yahweh.

As we come to the New Testament, we see that this extends to God’s people in the Church. The Church is God’s new thing–a new people, a new nation.

The Church’s central statement of faith was three simple words: “Jesus is Lord.” In the first century context, that emphatically meant “Caesar is not.” (A profoundly politically statement!)

The Church is not defined by political policies or geographic borders, but by the gospel of Jesus Christ.

No geo-political nation on earth today is ruled by the God of the Bible like Israel was. Not one. Not even the United States.

Yet it’s easy for Christians in the United States to read a prayer like Psalm 9 and pray as if the United States is God’s chosen nation. Many Christians believe the U.S. is exempt from being judged by the Lord. That we are, somehow, not a part of “the nations.”

When a Christian believes this and then comes to Psalm 9, they are likely to pray something like this: “Lord, bless the United States and strike all the other nations with terror. Make all the other nations know that they are mortal.”

But the United States is part of the nations. Like all other nations, it will be judged in God’s presence. The United States is mortal and, one day, it will know it. This is not something our country can escape.

“Wait!” you may say. “What about Psalm 33 and ‘blessed is the nation whose God is the Lord’? Our nation can make the Lord our God!”

Well, the context of Psalm 33 reveals “the nation” is God’s people Israel–not just any nation. The rest of the verse goes like this: “Blessed is the nation whose God is the LORD, the people whom he has chosen as his heritage!”

Let me say it again. In the Old Testament, that heritage is Israel, and through the Gospel, we see that the Church is God’s new people, his heirs through the work of Jesus (see Romans 2-4, Ephesians 2, and the entire book of Galatians).

What’s the point here? Failing to understand all of this is one of the first steps toward Christian Nationalism. It leads to an unbiblical view of how the gospel and the kingdom of God intersect with and “converse with” the kingdoms of this world.

God’s Kingdom is distinct from this world. It’s altogether it’s own thing and it will never end. The United States, however? It will fade and in the end, its mortality will be plain for all to see.

“Therefore, since we are receiving a kingdom that cannot be shaken, let us be thankful, and so worship God acceptably with reverence and awe, for our God is a consuming fire.” (Hebrews 12:28)

Categories
Commentary

Christians and Critical Race

Let’s start at the right place.

Critical Race Theory is not the problem.

Racism is.

That seems obvious enough. But we are making it difficult.

The day before George Floyd was murdered, most Americans had no idea what Critical Race Theory (CRT) was.

But then it burst onto the scene like a firework. It was everywhere as people searched for education, encouragement, and empowerment. Then something strange happened.

Everyone became an expert on CRT.

Especially Christians.

I’m not an expert on CRT. Hardly even a novice. What I do know is that CRT, like every other philosophy/theory, departs from Scripture at many points. I also know that CRT, like every other philosophy/theory, has many important aspects Christians can benefit from.

But I’m not here to talk about CRT. If you’re hoping for a deep dive to defend or debunk it, this isn’t the place. Other people on both sides are doing that far better than I could (because they are experts).

Angry at the Wrong Thing

Here’s where I feel qualified to contribute to the conversation. It’s obvious to me that the evil one has been able to get Christians fired up about CRT to keep them from fighting racism in any form, big or small.

In other words, many Christians are angry at the wrong thing.

Is it obvious to you?

The evil one has been able to get Christians fired up about CRT to keep them from fighting racism in any form, big or small.

Brother or sister, if this is you, won’t you please lay down your arms for a moment? I want you to feel the freedom to not pick a side. Not show someone how “wrong” you think they are.

Changing the Conversation

There’s still time to change the conversation. And we must.

Getting angry at CRT is a convenient excuse to ignore the real problems that face our communities and country. So we’re at a crossroads. We can double-down and stay angry at things we know little about, continuing to convince our Facebook friends how non-Christian a non-Christian theory is.

Or we can pursue God and our fellow human beings with humility.

Augustine wrote, “If you ask me what the essential thing in the religion and discipline of Jesus Christ is, I shall reply: first, humility; second, humility, and third, humility. Not that there are no other precepts to give, but if humility does not precede all that we do, our efforts are fruitless” (Letters 118).

What Augustine is getting at is not easy. But it is simple.

Humility allows us to recognize that God is at work everywhere, not just within religious structures and institutions.

Humility allows us to say, “Maybe I don’t know everything about that” or “Maybe everything isn’t so cut and dry” or “Maybe I should definitely not post that very one-sided, angry-sounding article.”

Humility allows us to easily find common ground with others in the fight for justice and human flourishing. No matter what the “other” side’s foundation or assumptions are.

Where to Start

If you’re at a loss for how this can happen, it’s as simple–and hard–as starting with, “I hate racism, too. Let’s get to work. Together.”

No qualifiers. No buts. No rants. No political jabs.

Just God-given, love-infused, world-changing humility.

Categories
Commentary

Why I’m Politically Homeless

I’m looking for America
I’m looking for a place to breathe in
A place I could call my home
I’m looking for America
I’m looking for the land of freedom
A place I can call my own

America who are you?
Am I asking for too much
America who are you?
Has your dream become out of touch
America who are you?
Do you get what you deserve
Between the violence and entitlements
Which nation do you serve?

These lyrics from the song “Looking for America” by Switchfoot and Lecrae encapsulate the feelings of many young Christians in America. We’ve felt this for a while. But murder of George Floyd and ensuing protests, riots, tensions, politicizing in DC, and media mess have brought it to the forefront.

We are looking for America. The idea of America, where all people truly are equal and free. Not just white ones. Where all people–particularly black people–have the right to Life, Liberty, and the pursuit of Happiness.

And while many of us were raised to find it in one of the two political parties, we haven’t found it yet. We’re politically homeless. And sometimes, it feels like we are “asking for too much.”

It’s not just young Christians who feel this way, of course. A couple years ago, Tim Keller (an old, white pastor for those who don’t know) wrote in the New York Times that all Christians do not (or should not) fit into a two-party political system.

He exposes the problem of “package deal ethics,” as British ethicist James Mumford calls it. This means that a party says you can’t work with them if you don’t adopt all of their positions. So, it puts pressure on Christians to join one party or the other. And it prevents Christians from doing what is right in the name of politics. Like work to bring racial justice to our nation.

I’ve used another term for this problem in my conversations with friends: guilty by association. We think if we associate with anyone on one issue, we are guilty of siding with them on every other issue.

But that’s a lie from the pit of hell.

Keller gives a helpful example, “Following both the Bible and the early church, Christians should be committed to racial justice and the poor, but also to the understanding that sex is only for marriage and for nurturing family. One of those views seems liberal and the other looks oppressively conservative. The historical Christian positions on social issues do not fit into contemporary political alignments.”

Do you feel that tension?

I do. If I agree with a perspective or policy advocated by a Democrat, many Christians would (wrongly) assume I am “adopting the whole package.” And essentially forsaking the gospel itself!

That’s quite an oversimplification. And Justin Giboney recently tweeted something that shatters this fallacy to pieces: “Being conservative or progressive on every single issue is intellectually lazy & unfaithful…Make conservatism sympathize & pursue racial justice. Make progressivism acknowledge absolute truth & the sanctity of life.”

As ones who believe that Jesus is all and over all, and that our allegiance to him is infinitely more important than political affiliation, we should be leading the way. This should make the most sense to us. Our political convictions and ideas should be the most robust and nuanced. And it should cause both sides of the aisle find us attractive or repulsive at different moments.

This will leave us politically homeless. But this is the way of Jesus.

Categories
Reviews

Review: The End of White Christian America

The End of White Christian America by Robert P. Jones is a difficult book to summarize briefly. It’s essentially a history book and it has a ton of research data.

I’m not much for formal reviews anymore. I did that during seminary, and I’m glad those days are over. But here are a few thoughts.

This book is from 2016, and it was released before President Trump was elected. It’s a book about, well, white Christians in America. What is “White Christian America”? The author uses the term to describe the domain (think realm or even kingdom) of white Protestants in America, anchored by mainline Protestants in the Northeast, and evangelical Protestants (particularly Southern Baptists as the book unfolds) in the Midwest and South. The author argues that WCA is dying—it doesn’t quite have the cultural or political clout it used to.

It seems that the the author equates white Christians with extreme right-wing Republican politics. (I realize that for statistical and historical analysis, a book about moderate Christians who aren’t quotable and stay out of partisan politics is pretty boring.) I could sum up the book by saying it’s about the death of that group of people who believe their “Christian” faith and (ultra-conservative) politics are so closely bound together that you nearly can’t tell a difference between them.

The book points out that WCA is out of touch with the changing cultural landscape (hence why it is dying). It shows the disheartening reality that Christians, particularly evangelicals, have hurt race relations in our country more than helped. It shows that Christians have often been tone deaf, and even more worried about being right and having power, than being servants. For these and other reasons, WCA is dying. (Keep in mind, of course, that Trump was elected shortly after this book was released, which seems to contradict the entire premise of the book.)

Now, to be honest, there were times when reading, that I said to myself, “I really don’t want to be associated with ‘evangelicals’” (as far as that word is understood in this country). There were moments I cringed reading about what’s been said or done by “evangelical Christians.” And it made me want to be anything but evangelical. (Full disclosure: I don’t use that label for myself because of the political connotations).

On the other hand, the author seems to assume that to move forward positively in this country, Christians (particularly white ones and particularly Southern Baptists) must embrace political views that Christians across time and culture have never embraced. I’m being intentionally vague on the details, but I’m sure you could take a good guess at some of the things the author refers to.

At the end of the day, reading this kind of book makes me long for a new generation of disciples of Jesus—the whole Jesus. It makes me long for Jesus-people who are neither Red nor Blue; do not cave into cultural values, norms, or fads; have a robust understanding of the gospel; are passionate about true justice for the non/underprivileged; have a vision and simple, reproducible methods for disciple-making; and walk by the Spirit of Jesus so that their light so shines before others that people ask them, “You aren’t from around here, are you?”

Master Jesus, you can do it. Please, do it.

“But as it is, they desire a better country, that is, a heavenly one” (Hebrews 11:16).

Categories
Ministry

Civic Holidays and the Church

This weekend is Memorial Day weekend. Churches all over the country are asking what they should do to honor veterans who have served in the U.S. military. Should we build the whole service around it? Should we give them a standing ovation? Should we say nothing? Let me share my perspective on how the gathered church should handle Memorial Day weekend and other civic holidays.

I’m an old Millennial (born in 1984), so I probably have different thoughts on this than pastors and Christians in the Boomer and perhaps even Gen X generations. Much of my perspective is born out of this generational influence—my generation sees the need for the church to be the church, not a political machine. (We are still recovering from the Religious Right movement in the 80s and 90s.) Also, much of my perspective is a balancing correction to my upbringing. This is not simply about my family life. The bigger picture is that I grew up in a politically conservative, Midwestern, dispensational evangelical environment which was just as staunchly “American” as it was “Christian.” I’m learning to unlearn this.

So take this post for what it’s worth (it’s free, by the way).

First things first: I think it would be wonderful and necessary for our churches to verbally thank those who have served in the military and affirm that it is a God-honoring calling (as is being an engineer, a teacher, a mom, a cop, etc.). Romans 13 gives us this perspective. Work is a good thing, and the government bearing the sword is good and right (Rom. 13:3-4). We could argue all day about what is just or unjust for a government to do, but we can all agree that simply serving as a solider (or other government official) is not an immoral or unethical thing in itself.

But churches often go further than this and that is where I get conflicted. For example, many churches will show a video or have special music as a tribute to soldiers or have them stand then give them a standing ovation. Let me briefly share two thoughts on why I think extended attention to America’s government or military during corporate worship gatherings is not a healthy thing for a church:

  • Our allegiance to Jesus, not country, is primary. As God’s new community, our first allegiance is to Jesus (Phil. 3:20; 1 Pet. 2:9-10). I always want that to be the focus of a corporate worship gathering. The temptation that comes with showing a tribute video, like the one above, for example, is that the focus and allegiance of the gathering can easily shift from God to country (even if just for a few moments). Don’t get me wrong, I am very thankful I’m an American (and in a sense I will always be one, cf. Rev. 5:9). But belonging to Jesus is infinitely more important because other nationalities belong to Jesus’ community as well (again, Rev. 5:9). Saying “God Bless America” sounds spiritual, but it isn’t the most biblically faithful thing to say, nor is it a loving expression for non-Americans to hear from a Christian’s lips.
  • Jesus paid the ultimate sacrifice, not soldiers. The video I linked above, quotes a very popular phrase: “We remember that they [soldiers] paid the ultimate price for our freedom.” While the death of U.S. soldiers did give me political freedom and continues to keep me physically safe, it did not ultimately set me free from God’s wrath, my flesh, the devil, and eternity in hell. Only Jesus’ death did that. North Korea is not my enemy. I was my own worst enemy and Jesus died for me (Rom. 5:8). Satan is my enemy and Jesus crushed him (Gen. 3:15; Heb. 2:14; 1 John 3:8). He made the ultimate sacrifice: he was a righteous man dying for his enemies (Rom. 5:6-7), which is a a very non-American and non-human thing to do. Later on, that same video quotes Jesus’ words in John 15:13 about him laying his life down for his friends and then calling his disciples to do the same for others (“love others as I have loved you”). The context is Jesus’ death for the church and the church’s response to Jesus. But the video applies it to U.S. soldiers. Obviously, that is a significant misapplication of Scripture. Very often, on civic holiday weekends, churches can perpetuate soldier idolatry, which is a real struggle for many Americans. We should give honor to whom honor is due, but in the context of the corporate worship of the church, using religious language in relation to soldiers will distract people from the point of a worship gathering: honoring Jesus because of his substitionary sacrifice.

I realize you might think I’m being nit-picky, maybe even anti-American—and I’m okay with that. You might think this is a little thing and I just wasted 900 words on it. But it’s typically the little things, the slippery slope, that distract people from God and his gospel in favor of other gospels, in this case an “American gospel.”

This question of what we do in a worship service on a civic holiday is part of a bigger conversation which needs to answer the question, “What does it mean to be a peculiar and holy people who reside in this earthly country, yet are citizens of a heavenly one (Heb. 11:16)?” Other saints have had to answer it in their time, and it’s not going to be an easy question for my generation to answer. I don’t know the answer yet. Whatever our answer, I think it’s going to be much different than how American Christians answered in the past.