Saturday, September 20, 2008

99 Balloons

Wow. The faith of these parents is truly inspiring.

Wednesday, September 10, 2008

Is there a "Christian" way to vote?

I've wondered about this for a while now and have a lot of questions with no clear answers.

Most American Christians are right of center because of the myopic (in my view) focus on two hot-button morality issues (abortion and homosexuality). But how should a Christian respond:

*to war? Is the Iraq war just? Is the war in Afghanistan just? Is war ever "just"? What should a Christian's response to war be? Is pacifism Biblically supported?

*to economic hardships? We all know it's a believer's job to help the poor and downtrodden; the widows and orphans. Do we? If we do, how often is it only a gift of our money but not our time and effort.

How should this translate in a political context? Should the government also assist in the care of its society? If it should, to what extent should the government help? how big should the "social safety net" be? On the other hand, if we do think government should have a social agenda, does this (subconsciously or otherwise) cause us to abandon our own personal responsibility because we (subconsciously or otherwise) think that the government is "taking care of it"?

*to wealth? What should our response be to wealth? We see the mantra "the rich are getting richer and the poor are getting poorer". Part of one party's answer is to eliminate tax cuts to the rich. The other party believes in "trickle down economics". Is there an aspect of class envy here? Or is an injustice? If so, how should it be corrected?

*to abortion? OK, fine, it's wrong. But is an outright ban the answer? It may very well be; but even if it is, is it worth the time and effort we Christians have historically put into this issue? If that time was spent spreading the gospel, or caring for the poor and downtrodden, wouldn't the Kingdom of God be furthered more?
Also, we Christians are good about crisis pregnancies, but what about help for new mothers?

Politically, why do we give so much attention to the pro-life/pro-choice views of our leaders? Why has it become a litmus test for Christians? Other than Bush's partial birth initiative, has there been any action other than simple lip-service by a pro-life politician? We hear so often that we need to get a conservative leader in the white house because of upcoming vacancies in the supreme court. When push comes to shove, will Roe v. Wade ever be overturned?

*to homosexuality? Does it really matter that homosexuals are getting married? Most Christians can agree that homosexuality is anti-Biblical, however, I have not heard one cogent non-theological argument against gay marriage. Doesn't there need to be an argument that will appeal to non-Christians also? Do non-Christians care that the Bible says homosexuality is wrong? Should they? Do we need a broader political reason? If not, why?

Again, I have some opinions on these issues (some of which may have leaked out because of my writing). But I honestly do have questions on these. Questions, that I don't think have a clear answer; and answers that cannot be answered by one political party or another.

Tuesday, September 9, 2008

Article: Ten Commandments of Talking (or blogging) Politics

Posted for your enjoyment this election season. And just in case I have any Canadian readers, you can modify this for yourself as needed. ( Although we all know that the NDP is of the devil. (-: )

Ten Commandments of Talking (or blogging) Politics

It’s that time. Now that both parties have had their convention, things could get heated. Here’s a reminder to folks to behave appropriately. In fact, let’s hold each other accountable in this network to a higher level of discourse for the next few months with these Ten Commandments of Talking (or blogging) Politics.

1. Do not worship political theories or parties. (You shall have no other gods before me.)
Do not worship ideas or theories instead of God. Not your stance on global warming or Capitalism or deregulation or education or abortion or gay marriage or health care or international trade or war. Do not put your hopes in a political stance or party line or economic theory. Those things are important, but they should not distract us from our unity in Christ Jesus.

2. Do not worship political figures or images. (You shall not make for yourself an idol.)
Obama is not the savior. Neither is McCain. Neither is the Republican Party or the Democratic Party. Do not bow to Elephants or Donkeys. Good leadership is important. Political pep rallys and mascots are fun, but they should not distract us from our unity in Christ Jesus.

3. God is not divinely endorsing your political opinion. (You shall not make wrongful use of the name of your God.)
This is slippery. But it is important. We can’t answer the question Who Would Jesus Vote For? except in the privacy of our own hearts. I’m serious. This doesn’t mean Christians can’t express political opinions if they are so inclined. But it does mean we must humbly represent our opinions as our own personal opinions, not God’s opinion. Neither party is God’s party. And in a sense, both candidates already belong to God because they both acknowledge him publicly. (And of course, we don’t judge hearts.)

4. Do not use God to prop up your politics. (Remember the Sabbath and keep it holy.)
OK, people. Both sides fail at this too. Corporate worship is not the place for political messages. Period. This is a fine line to walk. It doesn’t mean politics can’t come to church at all. Rick Warren did a fair job at Saddleback recently. But it wasn’t under the guise of worship. In your blogs, do not use the Word of God to prop up your political hopes. Don’t.

5. Honor your father and mother. (Honor your father and mother.)
Election season is probably not the time to try to convert your parents to your political viewpoint. Here’s my suggestion. If they start ranting and raving against your candidate, respect them by keeping your mouth shut. Don’t take the bait. And certainly don’t bait your parents! This doesn’t mean all political discourse is off limits—but remember that elections aren’t sporting events. Do not let abstractions become a wedge between you and your family. It’s not worth it.

6. Don’t be cruel. (You shall not murder.)
Elvis may have said it best, but Jesus had some good words on this too. He said, “Anyone who is angry with his brother will be subject to judgment… anyone who says, ‘You fool!’ will be in danger of the fire of hell.” (Matt 5:21-22). If another blogger slanders you, talk to him or her privately first (Matt 18:15-16). Don’t air ugly conversations in your comment sections. Don’t attack people or ideas in public posts. This doesn’t mean you have to be silent. Respond to comments with an email. Engage them as Jesus says. And remember that it isn’t a sin for two Christians to disagree about politics.

7. Be pure. (You shall not commit adultery.)
I’m not sure how this applies to politics except as a reminder that we need to be examples of purity. Before you post a comment for or against someone, ask yourself if you are going to sully yourself or discredit yourself as a Christian. And don’t forget the comparison between idolatry and adultery. Don’t get so excited about politics that every conversation and post and comment reveals which side you are “in bed with.”

8. Be honest. (You shall not steal.)
Be honest when you vote. Stolen elections won’t help anyone. For some people, this may be a call to volunteer to work the polls on Election Day! A friend of mine volunteers for every election. Of course, every state is different, but she recommends contacting your local democratic or republican headquarters. Tell the party chairman for your party that you want to volunteer on Election Day. (You will need to be trained before you can work the polls.) The phone book should list contact information for both parties under “Associations” or “Political Organizations.”

9. Defend the truth and the facts. (You shall not bear false witness against your neighbor.)
And who is your neighbor? Barack Obama. John McCain. Joe Biden. Sarah Palin. But also the Democrat next door and the Republican across the street. Here’s my practical suggestion. Refrain from sending asinine email forwards. But let’s take it one step further. If you receive a slanderous email, check the Snopes page on McCain or the Snopes page on Obama. Then send a kind response to the person who forwarded the email (NOT the whole list) explaining the error as gently as possible.

[edit: See also Snopes page on Sarah Palin]

10. Be prepared to accept the results. (You shall not covet your neighbor’s house. You shall not covet your neighbor’s wife.)
In November one party will win control of the executive branch. The other will lose. When the time comes, do not covet your neighbor’s political victory if your side loses. If your side wins, do not gloat.

With God’s grace, we can all get along for the next few months regardless of who we will support at the polls on November 4, 2008.

Thursday, September 4, 2008

Article: Why Do Evangelicals Embrace the Republican Party's Demonization of Others?

Background: Jon Trott is an infrequent blogger and the former editor of Cornerstone Magazine, which was the best Christian cultural magazine in modern memory. Relevant Magazine aspires to be what Cornerstone was. Cornerstone, you may recall, was the outlet that exposed Mike Warnke as a tragic deception.

I always enjoyed Jon's writing; not always agreeing with it 100%. But as it should, it forces one to think, and to examine views and viewpoints in a different light. I reproduce this for you here for your reading pleasure. No explicit or implicit endorsement is intended. I hope it causes you to think as it has me.

Just Wondering: Why Do Evangelicals Embrace the Republican Party's Demonization of Others?

My life, unremarkable as it is, has since 1973 been dedicated to trying to be a disciple of Jesus Christ. I believe the gospels are historically accurate as well as revelatory gifts from God. I'm an old-school Jesus Freak -- even live in a "commune" started by Jesus People and called Jesus People USA. We're in many ways vanilla-flavored Evangelical Christians -- looking to the Old and New Testament Scriptures as our primary guide in all matters of faith and practice. (In 1989, we joined an egalitarian, woman-positive denomination, the Evangelical Covenant Church.) We also share the American experience and many American distinctives culturally, and realize how intertwined (for good and for evil) America's history and Evangelical history have become.

I have a novel idea for Evangelicals. Let's look at evil as conceptualized by the Republicans of 2000-2008. Evil is postulated as a "them" problem. Remember George W. Bush's comment that we were going to eradicate Evil in the world? This view puts evil out there, as a "them" problem. But biblically speaking Evil is an "us" problem. WE -- individually and corporately in our various communities of faith, social networking, and national identity -- are the place where Evil exists. Further, more often than not, Scripture specifically speaks to "us" and "I" rather than "them" and "he" or "she." The Bible is a relentlessly personal book addressed to us / me.

Here' s another novel idea, building on the above. Let's look at history as evidence. That is, history will reveal to us our own complicity in the Evil of our world. Consider, for instance, racism. Evangelicals show a remarkable and commendable eagerness to dismantle any remnants of racism. Yet, I gently suggest we often do so while far under-estimating the breadth and depth of racism's legacy in these United States. I am old enough to have personally watched a bigot dancing -- literally -- on his lawn, celebrating one warm April morning the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King. "They shot him -- they shot that commie nigger Martin Luther King!"

And who created the historic context and social rationalization for slavery in the United States? Christians. No, there's no dodging it. Just as South Africa built a sophisticated God-frame around apartheid, their torturous system of color and class, America did so. And Christians rationalized with proof-texted Scripture (as they do now in regards to oppressing women in churches and in marriage). Christians bought slaves, whipped slaves, destroyed black families by selling parents from children and wives/husbands away from one another. Christians raped slaves, using the Old Testament stories in an a-historical manner to justify these "relationships." Our Constitution, for a convoluted set of reasons, defines a black slave as "three-fifths of a person." The largest Evangelical denomination of today, the Southern Baptists, came into existence as the result of a church split with northern Baptists over slavery.

Regarding history and Evil, human beings have a funny way of not seeing its most obvious lessons. For instance, as another Christian leftie co-worked said to me recently, "When we look at Nazis as inhuman monsters instead of human beings inspired by their own sense of right, we are on the verge of becoming Nazis." That is, he continued to explain, when we recognize Evil in others yet fail to understand the commonality of that Evil with all humans throughout history, we risk endlessly repeating history in a demonically naive manner. We "other" the other. This is true of all of us, this writer included. As much as I loathe George W. Bush's thinking, policies, and acts as President, believing he's the worst President this nation has ever suffered, I suspect he's quite a nice guy in person. That is, a lot like me.

That raises the possibility that I could, given the amount of power a President has, create and activate deeds of Evil as a Christian every bit as horrendous as those he's committed in Iraq. And maybe worse... who knows? Fortunately for all of us, I'll never hold such power.

But in light of the above, there's yet another issue we as Evangelicals have to confront. That issue is nationalism. The previously spoken, more often now unspoken, assumption regarding America is that it is God's chosen nation. There is no biblical basis for that idea. Only Israel -- not modern-day, but Old Testament Israel -- is called by Scripture "God's people." And, as any Jewish scholar will tell you, it appears that being God's people usually involves a lot of pain.

We Evangelicals assume a lot of things about our centrality in God's plan, our expectation of material blessings, our belief that militarism is not only a necessity but a positive good. And much more. But beneath all of that runs a river of arrogant pride. We often fall into the root error of believing in our own goodness, our "deserving" blessings both material and relational.

And here is where history and the present collide. The Republicans sell us two things successfully. Fear and Anger. What are we to be fearful of? The Evil in the Other, that evil that our President promised us we would defeat and destroy. What are we to be angry with? The resistance of the Other to our goodness and rightness.

Jesus was murdered by people who thought that way.

People like us.

And Jesus continues to be murdered. "As you have done to the least of one of these, you have done it to me." Those Iraqi mothers and children and fathers and sons who died via American bombs, missiles, and bullets died at the hands of America. And America is us.

Yes, I believe the gospels to be about Jesus in history and (as Kierkegaard warns) even more about the contemporaneity of Christ. Jesus is here now, calling us now, consistently reminding us of our absolute need of Him. He is Love, and His Way does not include pride but rather the crucifixion of pride. We are not a Christian nation and should not expect to be a Christian nation. We as Americans are a nation of individuals and groups of people with thousands of differing beliefs. As Christians we are citizens not primarily of this world but of a coming kingdom.

That kingdom is to be rooted in Jesus' command: "Love one another." This idea is not historical -- that is, it rarely appears as an actuality in history. It is a dark thought with which I end this rambling. But I think that true love can only be actualized by people who see their own Evil, and capacity for Evil, most or all of the time. This is not the way Republicans think these days. Evil is Other, Good is Us.

Fear sells in this setting because we are truly afraid, we have not yet laid our lives down in surrender to Christ the way we think we have. Anger excuses our fear, legitimates it. Anger is the illusion of being righteous, the emotional ace that overrides the suffering heart. To love is to suffer.

History's lesson is that especially in recent years since 9/11, the Republicans have taken this fear/anger paradigm to incredible lengths. Democrats in the past have done the same thing. But Democrats have not tried to sell Evangelicals a bastardized version of the Bible. Obama is a committed, regenerate Christian, yet more importantly than that his attempts to integrate faith and politics are impressive in their cautious humility.

I, as one Evangelical, cannot agree to uphold the Republican Party. The crimes of Iraq -- one million more times worthy of impeachment than a former president having his penis sucked by an intern and lying about it -- will never be punished on this earth. But I am damned if I will support a party, or a candidate, who uses the same language, the same cynical reliance upon god-fearing people, to garner power. Damned because how can I love my neighbor while caving in to the Christless hate and arrogance such language and actions reflect? For the past two elections, we Evangelicals have helped elect an administration rooted in the godless, ultra-elitist ideas of Leo Strauss.

Will we do it again? Will we?

History says we will. The gospels say history is important, but the present potentially even more so.

Wednesday, September 3, 2008

The Great Metaphor

Another slice. If you don't already subscribe to these, I'm telling you, do so immediately.

The Great Metaphor
from A Slice of Infinity
by Jill Carattini

The places in Scripture that most often slow my mind to a reflective halt are usually intensely visual. The ancient cry of Isaiah 64:1, “Oh, that you would rend the heavens and come down,” is one such image that has long been for me like a museum filled with the most hopeful, most disturbing, and most inviting art. Fitting with Isaiah’s vision for a world that revolves around the throne and the kingship of God at the center, his cry was a fervent prayer for the severe presence of a God he knew could come nearer.

Like the God for which he longed, the prophet’s words are intense, stirring, and intentional. Isaiah’s use of words--indeed, the genre of prophetic literature as a whole--cries out with poetic vision. As Abraham Heschel comments, “Prophecy is the product of a poetic imagination. Prophecy is poetry, and in poetry everything is possible, e.g. for the trees to celebrate a birthday and for God to speak to man.”(1) And that is to say, God gives us something of his own character in the prophet’s powerful interplay of word, metaphor, and image. As messenger, the prophet yields the words of God, and the poetic nature of prophetic speech reveals a God who speaks in couplets, a God who uses simile and metaphor, rhythm and sound, alliteration, repetition, and rhetorical questions. Any reading of prophetic speech requires that one engage these poetic structures. A quick scan of Isaiah 64:1 reveals a depth of interacting words and key patterns, and a metaphor that moves us like the mountains Isaiah describes:

If only you would cleave the heavens!
(If only) you would come down,
From facing you, mountains would quake!

These few stanzas make use of repeated words and paired images to convey an intensity about human longing for the transcendence of God. The cry is not merely for God’s presence, but a presence that will tear open the heavens and cause mountains--even Mount Zion and the children of God--to tremble. Set in the opening line, the Hebrew word qarata is as illustrative in tone as it is meaning. The guttural sound and sharp stop in its pronunciation contribute to the severity of the word itself, which means to tear, to rend, to sever, or split an object into two or more parts. “Oh that you would rend the heavens...” “If only you would cleave the heavens and come down...”

Significantly, this Hebrew word is most often found in the Old Testament referring to the rending of garments out of grief or desperation. Ezra describes falling in prayer “with my garments and my mantle torn, and on my knees, I spread out my hands to the Lord my God” (Ezra 9:5). The same word is used of David after hearing that Absalom had killed all of his sons: “The king rose, tore his garments, and lay on the ground; and all his servants who were standing by tore their garments also” (2 Samuel 13:31). The images of grief and torn garments would likely have come to the minds of those who first heard the cry of Isaiah to God: If only you would tear the heavens in two and see what is happening in your holy cities… If only you would sever this distance that sits between us like a heavy garment…

But this act of rending is also used in the Old Testament figuratively, usually in terms of removing someone from power or formally tearing away their authority, as when Samuel told Saul that the kingdom had been rendered from him and given to his neighbors (See 1 Samuel 15:28). Yet here in the context of Isaiah’s prayer, the word seems to take on both figurative and literal qualities. Oh that you would rend the heavens like a garment and come down here, tear away our perception of authority and show us your own! The cry is clearly making use of metaphor and yet it is a desperate plea for God’s presence in power, tangibly and substantially--“so that the nations might tremble at your presence!” (Isaiah 64:2b).

Even so, whether uttered metaphorically or literally, the cry for God to tear open the heavens and come down is a cry no mind conceived, nor ear perceived how thoroughly God would answer. For those who read this passage in light of Christ, fully taking in its poignant image the heavens tearing like a garment, the tearing of the temple curtain comes unavoidably to mind. “Then Jesus cried again with a loud voice and breathed his last. And at that moment the curtain of the temple was torn in two, from top to bottom. The earth shook, and the rocks were split” (Matthew 27:50-51). The incarnation, death, and resurrection of Christ was God’s radical answer to an ancient longing. The Word himself is God’s response to the great metaphor of a God who rends the heavens like a garment, a God who is so present that He comes down, causing the earth to quake at his own face.

Jill Carattini is senior associate writer at Ravi Zacharias International Ministries in Atlanta, Georgia.

(1) Abraham Heschel, The Prophets (New York: Harper, 2001), 469.

As Is

I'm getting caught up on 2 weeks of Slice of Infinity. So faithful reader, you may see more posts today.

"As Is"
A Slice of Infinity
by Jill Carattini
In my mother's antique shop were a variety of treasures for a curious child. My personal favorite was the Victrola that sat stately in the corner, a large internal phonograph that begged to be heard. The sounds it made were bold and cavernous, like an opera in a wooden box. This one was an early model, I heard adults say, and it was in great condition. So it seemed peculiar to me that our frequent requests to put it into action were, from time to time, resisted. To me it was a perfect treasure, a magnificent and flawless toy. To the owner of the store, it was a treasure that was capable of breaking before it sold. "As is" was not a phrase she wanted to add to the price tag.

A label that was seen occasionally within the shop, "as is" conveyed an item with damage or brokenness of some sort. "As is" marked the clock that had stopped ticking, or the rocking horse that had a crack in one of its legs. Because I knew my mother as one who could fix almost anything, the label also conveyed to me a certain sense of defeat. Whatever the item, it was a lost cause--a treasure bearing some distinguishable, irreparable flaw.

I suspect from time to time many of us feel something like the object marked "as is" or the treasure with only a matter of time before something goes awry. With a sense of defeat, we view our lives through the lens of what is broken or has been broken, what is irreparable or what might break. Looking ahead, we see the baggage behind us, which seems to declare emphatically our status "as is."

Yet writing centuries before our own, King David wrote of God:

You do not delight in sacrifice, or I would bring it;
you do not take pleasure in burnt offerings.
The sacrifices of God are a broken spirit;
a broken and contrite heart,
O God, you will not despise (Psalm 51:16-17).

Such words run counter to cultures anywhere and everywhere. Brokenness is usually not something we are comfortable admitting, let alone presenting it as something that is pleasing to anyone. Whether in ourselves or in others, we are at times almost averse to fragility. Even as Christians who hold knowingly to the cruciform image of Christ, we seem distinctly uncomfortable with broken and grieving people, defeated and weakened lives. Yet it is by the Cross we live. "Surely he took up our infirmities and carried our sorrows... But he was pierced for our transgressions, crushed for our iniquities" (Isaiah 53:4-5). Isn't it strange that we who are saved by one who was broken should struggle in the presence of brokenness at all?

Like the psalmist, the apostle points to the great potential within fragility. "But we have this treasure in jars of clay to show that this all-surpassing power is from God and not from us. We are hard pressed on every side, but not crushed; perplexed, but not in despair; persecuted, but not abandoned; struck down, but not destroyed. We always carry around in our body the death of Jesus, so that the life of Jesus may also be revealed in our body (2 Corinthians 4:7-10).

Whether we come to God shattered by our own sin, like David, or broken from living in an imperfect world, we are never so near Him as when we come with nothing in our hands to offer. God's desire is that we would come as we are--weary or heavy laden, defeated or broken by life. Before the Cross, there is no lost cause or irreparable flaw. For in life, as in an antique shop, there would be no recognition of brokenness if there were not such a thing as wholeness.

Jill Carattini is senior associate writer at Ravi Zacharias International Ministries in Atlanta, Georgia.