October 23, 2014

Our small group has been studying the Heidelberg Catechism, using a book called Body and Soul by Craig Barnes. The first question alone makes the catechism worthwhile.

Q: What is your only comfort in life and in death?

A: That I am not my own, but belong—body and soul, in life and in death—to my faithful Savior, Jesus Christ.

Barnes says that our culture is dedicated to the myth of the right choices. This is the underlying narrative in nearly every graduation speech, and in much child-rearing, and in most how-to books. Make the right choices—of school, spouse, career, friends, clothes, make-up—and you will be happy. This emphasis on choice makes us very anxious people—since, of course, we cannot know what the right choices are in most cases, and even when we make the best choices we often remain quite unhappy.

By contrast, the comfort of the gospel is “the discovery that our lives do not belong to us.” (p. 29) This startling and counter-intuitive assertion is the basis for everything that follows.

I find it interesting that the catechism, written nearly 500 years ago (by a 28-year-old pastor), begins with comfort—and comfort in the first-person singular. While much of faith (and the catechism) deals with communities of people, comfort is always singular. This is what we want to know: what comforts me, in life and in death?

The answer, that I belong to someone else, someone great and faithful, speaks to me very deeply.

This comfort applies to both body and soul. It is not a purely spiritual comfort. It encompasses sickness and mental illness and Alzheimers and much else. Nor is it a purely material comfort—it reaches far beyond the promises of prosperity.

The promise of belonging extends to both life and death—that great unmentionable fact. Among other things, this explains why Christians are so dubious about assisted suicide. Assisted suicide is wrapped up in the ideology of better living (and dying) through choice. It breeds the belief that comfort comes through making the right choice as to when one should die. But the catechism claims that the only comfort comes through belonging—and that your death, as your life, belongs to Jesus Christ. This does not imply in any way that we should preserve life at all costs. It merely means that our ideology of choice is undermined, that a deeper reflection will seek to affirm whom we belong to, rather than what our plans should be. If we have paid attention to life at all, we know that our plans prove to be highly fallible. And that is particularly true for our plans about death. There above all we are out of our area of competence. That we belong to Jesus is our only comfort.

Science and Religion Intersect

October 21, 2014

My interview with Owen Gingerich, a retired Harvard astronomer and historian, is on Christianity Today’s website.

Gingerich is a wonderfully warm, inviting figure. In his book God’s Planet he analyzes the work of Copernicus, Darwin and Hoyle, showing how Stephen Jay Gould’s idea of “non-overlapping magisteria” for science and religion doesn’t really hold. Gingerich is a subtle thinker, and he doesn’t describe anything in a black-white, slam-dunk-you’re-wrong manner. His love for science really shines through. So, too, does his Christian faith, which is expressed gently but with great confidence.

What Makes a War

October 13, 2014

I just finished reading The War that Ended Peace, by Margaret MacMillan, a history of the events leading to WWI. She asks the obvious question, how all of Europe could enter such a war apparently without any reason.

She gives multiple explanations:

–the rise of social darwinism that valued struggle and even war as an improving process;

–the increase of nationalism and a valuing of national honor, so that both leaders and public looked for a chance to demonstrate national valor and could not countenance backing away from conflict;

–the intricate alliances formed on behalf of security that caused one assassination—which concerned Austria-Hungary but hardly anyone else—to ripple into world war;

–the persistent success of the international community in averting crises in the decade before, resulting (ironically) in a blithe confidence that peacemaking was inevitable;

–a mistaken analysis that war would necessarily be brief, because no economy could sustain its costs more than a few months;

–and the misfortune that put some unstable and callow leaders at the head of several countries, at the same moment that more cautious leaders fell out of power for various reasons.

MacMillan paints a clear picture of the forces in each of half a dozen countries, but she insists that these forces did not determine what happened. Ultimately, the decision to go to war came down to the will—or the weakness—of a handful of leaders, who pushed for war or failed to push against it. They all went into it blind—either not recognizing the edge of the cliff as they approached it, or believing it to be an opportunity for glory or greater security rather than the absolute horror that the war proved to be.

I found it chilling to absorb the reasons for war in such detail. The lesson we have absorbed so well from WWII—that you must stop the Hitlers of the world while they are still weak—is very different from the lesson we might learn from WWI—that it is possible to drift into war in a spasm of enthusiasm or obligation and then find it a tar pit that cannot be escaped. The hard part is to decide which lesson applies best to any particular situation–to the rise of the Islamic State, for example.

Distinctively Open

October 10, 2014

Visiting my daughter in Bethlehem, Pennsylvania, gave me a chance to learn more about the Moravians, who founded Bethlehem in 1741 as their American headquarters. They made me think: there is more than one way of being a sect.

The Moravians were founded on the preaching of John Hus, a Czech priest who was burned at the stake in 1415 for his heterodox ideas, such as worship in the local language instead of Latin. His followers were persecuted—sometimes a lot, sometimes a little—for the next 300 years until some of them found protection from a German nobleman, Count Nicholaus von Zinzendorf. He let them build a community on his land, and eventually they began to send out missionaries. Some went to America to reach native Americans and unchurched colonists, and Bethlehem was established. The Bethlehem Moravians carry on today: the town features their denominational college and seminary and their mother church, built to seat 1,500 even when there were only 500 residents of the town.

They weren’t the only sect in the neighborhood. Pennsylvania was founded on a tradition of religious tolerance, and many sects came there from Europe—Quakers, Mennonites, Amish, and other less-known groups such as the Harmonists and the Dunkers. Most had experienced persecution because of fiercely held beliefs, and as a result they didn’t mix. For example, the Quakers, who have become such a sympathetic group, would shun not only those who married outside the Quaker meeting, but anybody who attended the wedding. They were sharply separatistic, as sects often are.

The Moravians were as “different” as any of these groups. They shared all possessions in common and lived in “choirs” based on gender and age, so that even married couples lived apart, and children were raised communally. Yet the Moravians’ distinctives were not ends in themselves, but (what they believed to be) practical approaches to their mission. They had come to America to share the good news of Jesus, and therefore reached out to their neighbors—all their neighbors. As I walked through their cemetery, laid out by Count von Zinzendorf in 1741, I saw many graves for African-Americans and native Americans mixed in with all the rest. I do not think you would find that in any other colonial graveyard in America.

Usually, groups that are open to outsiders gradually merge with the rest of society. It is fear of assimilation that keeps them from opening the doors too wide. Surely that is true today, not only for immigrant sects but for all groups that want to maintain their distinctive beliefs and character. The Moravians, whatever their faults, sought a distinctive life that was open. That is a trick I would like to master.

The Hopes of Modernity

September 22, 2014

One hopeful promise of the modern era is that improved communication between different cultures and nations will lead to greater international understanding. This expectation is closely tied to technological advancement: as the world grows smaller, due to airplanes and radio and television and internet, we can become closer neighbors. Greater understanding will naturally lead to greater peace.

Thus, for example, the enduring faith in foreign-exchange programs. If young people from countries around the world experience each other’s families and communities—and thanks to modern air travel, they can–they will return home with a more sympathetic understanding of the Other. If this happens often enough, there will be no more war.

It hasn’t happened like that. I’m reading The War that Ended Peace, by Margaret MacMillan, a history of how the enlightened nations of Europe (and ultimately America too) stumbled into WWI.

She includes a passing observation that in the years before the war “railways, telegraph lines and then telephones and radios transmitted domestic and international news at unprecedented speed….. Increasingly, newspapers preferred to use their own nationals [as foreign correspondents] rather than rely on locals.” As a result, public opinion became better informed and increasingly involved in foreign policy. Governments began to try to manipulate the press in order to form public opinion. And popular newspapers learned to publish alarmist interpretations of events, to “stir up public emotions and elevate patriotism into jingoistic nationalism.” Lord Salisbury, the British Prime Minister, “complained that it was like having ‘a huge lunatic asylum at one’s back.’” [112-113] Ultimately this public opinion became a force pushing for war—a force that statesmen had to appease.

So better communication did not lead to greater understanding; it actually worked to accentuate differences. Sound familiar?

It’s striking that the lunatics and killers running ISIS are very savvy at internet communications. It’s very high on their list to broadcast quality videos of their savagery. The internet offers almost unlimited possibilities for communicating across differences. Yet as many have noticed, we tend to find an echo chamber for our own ideas and prejudices; and the internet also offers almost unlimited possibilities for hearing from people who agree with you, and recruiting them to your cause.

Technology does nothing to civilize or humanize us. It offers possibilities for both good and evil. What we make of them depends on other humanizing forces—parents, teachers, writers, broadcasters, pastors. But there is not such a good market for them! Apple sold ten million iPhones in three days. There is no similar demand for thoughtful and humane books, schools, churches, families or news shows.

The Future of IS

September 13, 2014

I’m no expert on Islam or the Middle East, but my thoughts on the threat posed by IS were greatly influenced by a book I read a few years ago, God’s Terrorists: The Wahhabi Cult and the Hidden Roots of Modern Jihad, by Charles Allen. Here’s a short post I wrote reviewing the contents.

Allen’s book chronicles the history of IS-like groups going back to the 13th century, with considerable emphasis on their persistence and fanaticism in the 18th and 19th centuries when the British held sway in India and the Middle East. It’s extremely clear that IS is not a new phenomenon. Very similar Islamic theologies have persisted for centuries, and though their institutional life has waxed and waned, you can trace them through specific people and places during all that time. They have created considerable havoc.

While such extremism has persisted, it has never triumphed for long simply because it has never won the minds and hearts of ordinary Muslims. The reason the Taliban and their fanatical offspring have flourished of late is mainly Saudi oil money, which has paid for weapons and schools and relief efforts all over the Middle East.

And so it has done for IS. It’s possible that the Saudi money is drying up, but now IS has money of its own from its captured oil fields, banks, and extortion rackets. But how long can it last? IS cannot build an economy. Money stolen from banks is not a renewable resource, the sale of oil can only get more and more difficult as the US puts the screws on, and extortion tends to be a poor long-term business plan. Even captured weapons, of which IS has many, tend to run out of ammunition and spare parts. Like the Mongol invaders of the 13th century, IS depends on capturing new territories that it can loot. I doubt they will capture any more, now that US drones and aircraft are patrolling their movements. Surely IS extremism will put off any potential grassroots support. Sunnis may want to stick a finger in the eye of the oppressive Shia in Iraq, and in the US eye as well, but they will soon discover—if they have not already—the overwhelming dedication of IS to fanaticism. You can’t co-opt these people any more than you can co-opt a scorpion.

IS is a scourge on the face of the earth. To oppose it forcefully is a worthy cause, I believe. Its greatest enemy, however, will not be in opposing armies but in itself. It cannot sustain itself because it lacks any creative or positive power. Practically speaking, the only way IS can survive long term is to draw in the US  as an invading army. I am sure that is what they are attempting to do by murdering innocent US citizens and broadcasting the event on TV. We should resist their attempts to manipulate us into another Iraq (or Syrian) War.

Two Kinds of Justice

September 11, 2014

In my last post I made the point that we typically use the word “justice” differently from the way the Bible uses it. Our justice is limited to the ideas of fairness and just desserts. Everybody gets treated the same, and everybody gets what’s coming to him. This is justice suited to the courtroom.

God’s justice is much broader, incorporating mercy and charity. Its aim is to set the world right, by all means. Care for the poor is not voluntary, it is a requirement —as justice always is.

What practical difference does this expanded understanding of justice make?

First, though this may not seem very “practical,” a wider view of justice enables us to understand the Bible as a unified book. How many times have you heard the remark that “there are [pick a number] 900 verses about caring for the poor in the Bible?” One Bible highlighted all such verses in orange—a sort of red-letter edition for justice.

Indeed, if you pay close attention you will be overwhelmed by how much of this kind of “justice” can be found in the pages of the Bible. But most of us read Scripture as mainly about God and personal salvation, and it’s hard to say what those verses on justice have to do with that. Justice appears to be just a seasoning to flavor the main meal.

If you accept the broader meaning of justice, however, you see that justice is the main story line of Scripture. God is setting the sin-sick world right. He is in the business of causing all his creation to flourish, and doing away with all evil. And we are to join him in that! There is no real division between personal salvation and creation care or the welfare of the vulnerable. They are all part of God setting the world right, doing justice at every level: personal, social, ecological, spiritual, physical, economic.

As I say, not everybody will see Bible comprehension as very practical. But these different views of justice permeate politics and society. It makes a very large difference which definition you adopt.

The attraction of narrower justice is the ease with which it can be applied. It’s useful in court. You can adjudicate it according to rules. Fairness and equality can be defined with some precision. Crimes and punishments can be codified. Whereas, wider justice is imprecise. To set the world right—who knows exactly how to do that? It’s like carrying water in a leaky bucket. You are always drizzling, and you never can get enough water where you want it.

You see both kinds of justice in our debates about illegal immigration in America. One kind of response takes its cues from the law. Undocumented aliens have done wrong; they should be punished. The illegality of illegal immigrants overwhelms every other response. Christians who make this kind of response—and I suspect the majority of American Christians do—hunt the Bible for texts to reinforce their viewpoint. The main thing they find is Romans 13: “Let everyone be subject to the governing authorities, for there is no authority except that which God has established.”

Indeed, Paul (and Jesus) were not rebels; they obeyed the law unless it was deliberately counter to God’s word, and so should we. But Romans 13 doesn’t say too much about illegal immigrants; it tells me I ought not to be one, but nowhere does it say (nor does Paul or Jesus hint anywhere) that I should be vigilant to make sure that my neighbor isn’t one.

Yes, we are to obey the law. No, legality is not the sum of everything good. Love is.

Does wider justice help me know what to do with illegal immigrants? Yes and no. The problem with wider justice is that it merely tells me I ought, with God, to set my community right. It tells me to be kind and generous to those in need, particularly the immigrant. It doesn’t specify policy. If my job is to figure out how to set right the mess we are in—to help create just communities—that’s a very difficult assignment, with perhaps 12 million undocumented aliens, some of who came here when they were in diapers. I don’t know anybody who has a policy that claims to perfectly set that situation right. It’s all messy. In that respect, wider justice—God’s justice—isn’t morally satisfying. It never leaves me thinking that I know exactly what to do, nor do I feel justified after I’ve applied it.

Consider the parable of the prodigal son. Who ends up with clarity and righteousness? The older brother, I would say. He knows it is not fair that his brother gets a party, while he never did. He knows that his brother should be treated as he deserves. His brother, you might say, is the illegal. The older brother knows he is in the right and his brother in the wrong.

The father’s idea of justice doesn’t really disagree—he’s not defending the prodigal as though he were innocent. But something larger is at stake. The father knows that the prodigal is wrong, but he also knows that he is his son; he knows that the older brother’s justice won’t set their family right. There’s no hint that the father has a clear policy in mind, but he knows that love is the right response. Who stands for justice in this story? The older brother stands for our justice; the father stands for God’s.

I don’t know what policy exactly will solve our immigration dilemma. But I know that an older-brother response will not heal us. It will simply further tear apart our communities.

Narrow justice has a very deep appeal in our human psyche. It is what animates every child who ever wailed and moaned over perceived unfairness. And it is not wrong! Evil must be punished. Fairness should be rigorously applied. The law should be obeyed. But in the Bible it coexists with a larger justice known for forgiveness and mercy and kindness and humility. How do the two fit together? I know of only one point where they do: at the cross. There mercy and judgment meet, absorbed in the sacrifice of the Son of God. If we want justice, that is where we have to begin. We have to follow Jesus, and become like him.

What Is Justice?

September 9, 2014

If I have learned anything from working on biblical justice over the last two years, it is that the word “justice” can be confusing. The problem, I believe, is that the Bible means something different by the word than we typically do in contemporary English.

In our language, justice has two components: fairness, and just desserts. That’s the way we want it in a courtroom: everybody gets treated the same, and everybody reaps what they sow. If you are a criminal, you should pay. Whether you are rich or poor, black or white, you should be held liable for your crimes and be punished accordingly. Victims should be compensated, where possible.

Similarly, outside the courtroom, we want treatment to be equal and rules to be enforced. The teacher should grade every kid by the same standard. Cheaters should be punished. That’s justice.

Of course, that’s a pretty limited view. It focuses on today’s classroom, but it ignores whatever happened before class began. There’s no way that a kid born to a poor single mother has the same chances to do well in school that my kids do. In reality, life isn’t fair, and injustice begins before birth.

We may acknowledge that injustice, but we don’t want to think about it too much. It happens. You can’t prevent it. You just try to be just and fair where you have an opportunity. If that disadvantaged kid shows up in your workplace, you make sure he gets every opportunity to succeed. But you can’t change the conditions he grew up in, nor do you feel responsible for them.

Justice is an ideal that shapes our society to an extent, but we’re also pretty comfortable shrugging our shoulders at injustice.

The biblical idea of justice is a lot broader. It includes our ideas of fairness and just desserts. Again and again, God promises to pay back evildoers for what they have done. They will reap what they sow, he promises. But God’s justice also demands something more than fair play. A just man takes care of his hurting neighbors. Charity and mercy are part of justice too.

Listen to Job:

If I have denied the desires of the poor
Or let the eyes of the widow grow weary,
If I have kept my bread to myself,
Not sharing it with the fatherless—
But from my youth I reared them as a father would,
And from my birth I guided the widow—
If I have seen anyone perishing for lack of clothing
Or the needy without garments,
And their hearts did not bless me
For warming them with the fleece from my sheep,
If I have raised my hand against the fatherless,
Knowing that I had influence in court,
Then let my arm fall from the shoulder,
Let it be broken off at the joint.
For I dreaded destruction from God,
And for fear of his splendor I could not do such things. (31:16-23)

Job is defending his character, but he is not exactly totaling his credits. His rhetoric suggests that what he did for the vulnerable were not acts of charity—deeds done above and beyond the call of duty. He implies that he owed such behavior. Had he not sheltered orphans or provided clothing for the needy, God would have rightfully punished him. No, more than punished—destroyed him.

This approach, which is consistent throughout the Bible, is very puzzling to our modern thinking about justice. By our narrower definitions, to act mercifully has nothing to do with the demands of justice. When we donate food to the poor, we go beyond the demands of justice. We don’t owe it; we give it. When we forgive someone who did us harm, we actually forswear demanding justice. Justice and mercy are not the same thing at all; they are competitors.

That’s the chief complaint about affirmative action: it’s unjust to those who don’t receive it. To treat anybody better than they have earned may be very nice, but it is not justice, as we think of justice.

But that’s because we want to limit justice to the here and now—not delve into the unfairness of our births. Affirmative action tries to take a deeper history into account.

The biblical approach goes a step further, considering not just the injustice of our births, but the liberating justice done for us long before our present situation.

It’s perfectly caught by Jesus in his parable of the unmerciful servant. (Matthew 18:23-35) A king forgives a huge debt to one of his servants, who promptly goes out and throttles someone else for the debt he owes him. When the king learns what has happened, he is furious. He punishes the unforgiving servant in the most severe way. Jesus comments, “This is how my heavenly Father will treat each of you unless you forgive your brother from your heart.”

That last line always made me uncomfortable. I wanted Jesus to say: “God has forgiven you a lot, so out of gratitude you should forgive others. God will be pleased if you do.” But in Jesus’ telling, forgiveness is not optional. You have to forgive or you will be severely punished. That is because forgiveness is justice. It is absolutely required of you. It is not charity.

Why so? Simply because you have been forgiven a lot. The justice situation changes after you have a huge debt forgiven. For you to be forgiven a lot and then fail to offer the same treatment to others would be unjust.

Actually, this is not really an original idea Jesus had. It is entirely congruent with the basic stance taken repeatedly in the Old Testament. The Law is prefaced by the statement of the mercy God has shown. “I am the Lord your God, who brought you out of Egypt, out of the land of slavery. You shall have no other gods before me.” (Deut 5:6,7) The Law demands, among other things, that you treat the poor and vulnerable with great kindness. It is not an option; it is the law. If you fail to do it, you will be punished. What is the logic for this demand? God brought you out of slavery. His act of liberation has altered the justice situation. You must treat others the way you have been treated. Grace is the antecedent for everything required of you.

For the same reason, foreigners must be treated just the way you treat the native-born. “Love him as yourself, for you were aliens in Egypt.” (Leviticus 19:23) God has treated you far better than you deserve; so you owe love to foreigners. Not, “it would be nice.” Rather, “you must.” It is a matter of justice.

In this formal sense, justice is altered by God’s acts of mercy. However, there is a much broader sense in which justice is transformed in the Bible. That is because demands for justice are embedded in a narrative. That narrative begins with the whole world in trouble. Sin has created a situation so bad that it would be right and proper—perfectly just—for God to destroy everything. “The Lord regretted that he had made human beings on the earth, and his heart was deeply troubled. So the Lord said, ‘I will wipe from the face of the earth the human race I have created.’” (Genesis 6:6,7)

Instead, he set out to remake the world, beginning with Noah, going on to Abraham, and of course, finally to Jesus. That is his justice: setting the world right. God’s justice is not fundamentally in punishing wrongdoing. It is in setting the world right, remaking it to match God’s original intentions. And so when we act to set the world right—by fighting evil, or by displaying kindness and mercy—we do God’s justice.

In a future post I’ll point out some of the implications of this.

Body and Spirit

September 6, 2014

I don’t have time right now to add my two cents, but I want to encourage you to read David Brooks’ column on beheadings–specifically why they are so horrific, more so than a shooting. 

Epic Day

August 29, 2014

Today is an epic day: I finished up my editorial work for God’s Justice: the Holy Bible. I’ve been working on this project for the last two years. It’s been intense, especially in the last eight months. On a number of occasions I wasn’t sure it would come together on time. But it did. Hallelujah!

God’s Justice is a Bible with notes on justice. I am working with a team at Biblica, the international Bible translators and publishers. We developed a prototype, and then I recruited 55 writers from all over the world to write introductions and notes on the theme of justice for every book in the Bible. I don’t think anything like it has ever been done before—both focusing on justice, and working as a global team with such diversity.

Most of the difficulties I have faced came with that international cast. The biggest issue is that people are so extraordinarily busy in the developing world—busy in a way that westerners can hardly imagine. An educated, competent person is under obligation to serve in many ways beyond their job. And then there is their extended family, who depend on them. It’s not acceptable in most of their cultures to say you’re busy, of that you have other priorities. If your nephew comes needing help with school fees, you have to stop and help. If your father-in-law is sick you must provide for his care. Many of these are “what’s-happening-now” places, where the event occurring this moment has a much stronger hold than some plan or deadline or commitment that is currently out of sight.

So, I had lots of woes getting things done on time. One woman got sick and was in and out of the hospital for months. One writer just stopped answering emails—he disappeared without explanation. And many people were late—usually for very good reasons.

Not to mention that few of my writers had extensive experience as writers. They all had things to say, but some needed help saying it.

Nevertheless, if the global character of the project was the source of much stress for me, it was also the source of much joy. It gave a sense of heaven in preparation—so many kinds of people. I count it a very great privilege to be involved in one of the very first projects of any kind in the entire history of Christianity to actively involve the whole breadth of the world. Wow. This is a new era, when people of every culture can join in working together.

I have a little breathing room now, and hope I can post to this blog more often. In the next week or so I’ll try to articulate some ways I learned and grew from living and breathing the subject of God’s justice.



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