Monday, December 19, 2011

a Christmas miracle

True story: During a cold Christmas Eve night in 1914, on one side of a bleak barbed-wire-laced stretch of hell called No Man’s Land, a German soldier began singing a hymn. When the opposing Scottish and French soldiers slowly started singing along, peace broke out for a few brief hours during the first world war as soldiers crossed enemy lines to share photos and exchange stories and liquor.

Now let your imagination get crazy: Jim Wallis and James Dobson have dinner with each other on Christmas Eve night in a restaurant a few blocks from the Washington D.C. mall…

“What can I get you gentlemen to drink?” Their server sported a closely cropped beard framing a gentle smile. He’d been serving for years; too much ‘teeth’ comes off like a salesman and that’s the last thing anyone wants in a restaurant.

James ordered an unsweetened iced tea with limes. Jim asked for a Riesling.

“You know, Jim, if you’re having alcohol, a red would’ve been better for your heart,” James offered. “There’s not much more than sugars and calories with yours.”

“Thanks, doc. But at my age, I have bigger things to worry about than that. Appreciate your concern, though.”

“Hey, the least I can do for a fellow believer! At least, you still are, right?” grinned James slyly.

“Whoa, big guy. Slow down. I have fond remembrances of you. I used to listen to you on the radio when I was young…”

“Ouch, ” winced James.

“…and I have a lot of respect for your parenting advice to young couples,” Jim continued. “I think stats show that dads are more involved in parenting than ever before. You may have had something to do with that. I’m an old guy myself…but with two boys in little league, that’s still pretty good stuff you wrote!”

James smiled. “It was my genuine concern for families—which I still think is the bedrock of society—that led me into questioning government policy.”

Jim practiced a little reflective listening. “So what you’re saying is that a particular ‘concern’ led to your involvement in politics. That’s exactly what happened to me! I felt God was very interested in that, but God’s politics were overwhelmingly concerned for the poor and marginalized, at least in my Bible. When the wealthiest country in the world, who consumes the most resources, has one of the lowest percentages of global giving toward the poor, I knew we Christians had a responsibility to challenge the policies that affect our national budget…let alone our personal consumerism.”

“That may be true, Jim. But the stats also show that the healthiest, most economically stable and generous relational unit is the family…so what better income-generator for a country? Wallerstein’s research showed that where a family has both a mom and dad in the household, children are more emotionally secure, have more potential, are less dependent on government money, and generally more productive. It’s the building block of society. So when the historic concept of marriage is turned on its head, some fracture is inevitable. And if we’re aborting every third baby, we’ve not only devalued God’s word—remember? He said that children were a blessing, even a heritage from Him—but what’s more, we’re devaluing human life itself. No society can flourish like that.”

“Ditto, as your buddy Limbaugh says,” grinned Jim.

“Low blow. But he’s not all wrong. Just, uh, shrill,” laughed James.

The server returned with drinks, recommended the special, and took both orders. “One check or two?” he asked, tossing a glance at both equally, being careful not to assume any power positioning at the table.

Almost on cue, both men pointed at the other and said, “His!” and chuckled. The server smiled again, and set a warm, sliced baguette wrapped in cloth between them. With butter knives in hand, Jim continued where they stopped.

“But James, when you aligned yourself and your ministry so clearly with one political party, it’s assumed you also signed on to all they stand for.”

“I can’t help it if they were the only ones standing up for family values,” said James. “And how is that any different from what you’ve done with your friends on the other side of the aisle?”

Jim gently retorted, “Do you really believe they’re the only ones standing up for family values? Let’s talk about Sanford, Ensign, Pickering, Giuliani…”

(*cough*) Edwards, Clinton, Spitzer (*cough*),” mugged James.

“Okay, I get it. But my guys were the only ones speaking out against economic disparity,” continued Jim. “Your hyper-individualistic approach to the gospel ignores passages about God’s heart for systemic justice. I mean, what could level the playing field more than Israel’s jubilee mandate?”

“Well, it’s one thing to talk about systems, but get real: data shows that conservatives are personally more generous when it comes to charitable giving,” James said.

“Yeah, but that still doesn’t alleviate a ‘systems’ issue. For heaven’s sake, James, you have to admit that in general conservatives were the drivers of Jim Crow laws. There’s been no greater instigator of economic injustices than racism,” Jim countered.

“Go back a little further in your history, Jim: Lincoln was a Republican,” James responded with a smile.

“But a very different party in the mid-1800’s, don’t you think?” said Jim.


“The point is,” commented Jim, “that when the church is only known for two issues, we lose our ability to reach into certain cultures in our society. We’ve got to be bigger than that. And what’s bigger than caring for the poor, speaking out against oppression and corporate colonialism and questioning how much wealth is too much? It’s hard to read the book of James and not feel prophetic in our day.”

“You’re narrowing it down as well, Jim,” said James, sipping his tea. “How do you avoid the sexual ethos of scripture? How do we turn a blind eye to eighty babies aborted every minute in the world? How did we come to label human life so disposable? If ever ‘slippery slopes’ exist, this is one. Or two.”

“Agreed. But on the other hand, how come ‘conservative Christians’ seem to be the first ones to shout for war…or support the death penalty? Doesn’t that strike you as, er, odd?” probed Jim. “Seems to me that doesn’t jibe with ‘Sermon on the Mount’-stuff to me.”

“Is it ‘jibe’ or ‘jive’? I’m never quite sure. And isn’t that really outdated slang?” questioned James, injecting a bit of humor to lower the room temperature. “Look, Jim, it’s an old argument, but I’m pretty sure you’d pick up a baseball bat and defend your wife if a serial rapist broke into your house. There are rational arguments for extrapolating that out nationalistically; Augustine wrestled with ‘just war’ theories just a few centuries after Jesus. My involvement in politics had less to do with which party and more to do with the policies promoted in each party. And eventually, I became convinced it was less the executive or legislative branches that was the problem, and more the judicial powers appointed—not voted, mind you—into lifetime appointments by the party in power. Hey, I practically coined the phrase ‘activist judges’.”

Jim squinted and smiled. “That sword cuts both ways, friend. ‘Activist judges’ in a conservative court essentially reinforced the idea recently that ‘corporations are persons’ and have the same rights as a person. How about that for setting the stage for new levels of corporate political abuse and greed under the guise of personal rights? If a corporation is considered a person, would you have wanted your daughter to marry Lehman Brothers? Ha! Talk about a philosophical ‘slippery slope’! And what’s the bugaboo?—government has always had to regulate Wall Street and corporate overreach and indulgence. You know the scripture: the love of money is the root of all evil.”

“Okay, Jim, maybe we have a different prioritization of values,” James offered. “And certainly different philosophies when it comes to how to play out our scriptural views. I wondered what we could gain if we could find common ground?”

Jim stared at his plate for a moment before speaking. “I don’t know,” he said thoughtfully. “James Davison Hunter has something to say about how cultures are changed. I have to admit that I like his ‘faithful presence’ concept and tend to agree with him that nowadays the ‘public witness’ of the church has become only a ‘political witness’…and not always for the better. Though even that’s part of my rationale for voicing a different view than yours: so we weren’t branded a one-trick pony. But we’ve been at odds with each other for so long it’s created factions in the Church. And scripture is clear that disunity is disastrous, the whole ‘I’m of Apollos, I’m of Paul’-type thing. How is one more spiritual than the other? I wish we could somehow…”

“I don’t think I can buy Hunter’s slant,” interrupted James. “But I found his caution about power intriguing. His view of ressentiment—the anger, rage or revenge that motivates so much political activism today—as being grounded in a ‘narrative of injury’ or the perception that ‘our side has been wronged’ is truer than I want to admit. It certainly shapes a group’s identity. You hear it when one is attacking the opposition and the response is, ‘Yes, but don’t forget when you were in power, you did…’. All of a sudden, it’s a case of the Hatfields (and I don’t mean Mark!) and McCoys. You hit my guy…I hit yours. It’s kind of like a political Crips and Bloods.”

“Or an East coast - West coast rappers, thing,” suggested Jim.

“Huh?” queried James.

“And I utterly hate how we must appear to ‘outsiders’ of the faith,” Jim added. “For a while, the ‘unsaved’ person with a similar political slant loves us, but the one with differing politics thinks we’re absolutely the devil.”

A folding tray appeared along with their waiter and a younger helper deftly setting steaming food on the table.

“Is there anything else I can get you?” asked the bearded waiter as the other server scurried off. Assured all was well, he began to turn away and suddenly stopped. He leaned into the table slightly and with a whisper asked, “I couldn’t help overhearing part of your conversation. Uh, I’m not really into the whole church-thing, but I wondered: would Jesus fit in this town—D.C.—in any way?”

James and Jim glanced across the table at each other and smiled. Jim answered, “Oh, undoubtedly. He’s well known as a ‘friend of sinners’. What better place than Washington for that?”

“He found me,” laughed James.

The waiter paused, pulled out their check in his apron pocket, and said quietly, “This one’s on the house. Merry Christmas.”

After dinner, James and Jim found themselves on the sidewalk outside the restaurant. A light snow was starting to fall, forming halos around the streetlights. They hugged, exchanging the proverbial three manly pats on the back. After a quick update on their respective families and final goodbyes, they walked off in opposite directions into the night.

And oddly enough, they both began whistling the same hymn.

Monday, December 12, 2011

do people hate me?

There are many things that Christians are doing in this postmodern era that are exemplary. The renewed call to global, faith-fueled activism spurred by the overwhelming number of texts in scripture regarding God’s heart for the poor and marginalized is hopefully changing the stereotypical negative views of the Church. It was the Roman Emperor Julian who violently hated Christians and irritatingly wrote in a letter that, “These impious Galileans not only feed their own poor, but ours also; welcoming them into their (love-feasts), they attract them, as children are attracted, with cakes. Whilst the pagan priests neglect the poor, the hated Galileans devote themselves to works of charity…”

But I’ve noticed something that slightly troubles me, though. In a culture that places a premium value on tolerance and acceptance (a just reaction to hate-crime violence and shrill web voices), it’s natural to assume that we, as Christians, want to be loved, experienced and viewed as tolerant and accepting people, especially as The Church, the fountainhead of grace. After all, if that’s how the culture defines love, we need to speak in a language they understand. That’s what good missionaries do. And who wants to be experienced as intolerant and unaccepting? Certainly not followers of the Friend of sinners.

Besides, weren’t the people that argued the most with Jesus the religious types? Those were the ones who put God in a box, right? Those were the ones Jesus said travelled over land and sea to find one convert and make him more of a child of hell than themselves. Can you imagine Pharisee hashtags if Twitter existed then?—#killthecultleader.

But before we look down our noses at “religious people” and “church folks” (an easy target since it’s always the people other than us and our little circle of enlightened bloggers and friends), it might be circumspect to consider passages where the “culture” or the “world” is clearly viewed as no friend of the Church...

When an adulterous woman is misogynistically dragged before Jesus (where was the loverboy?), Jesus expressed compassion and zero-condemnation. But He added a postscript: “From now on don’t sin.”

It was Jesus who reminded His followers, “When the world hates you, remember it hated me before it hated you. The world would love you if you belonged to it, but you don’t. I chose you to come out of the world, and so it hates you.” (John 15:18–19)

To the self-professed sinner—Peter—who was part of Jesus’ inner circle, Jesus snapped, “Get away from me, Satan! You are a dangerous trap to me.”

It was Gentile Roman military men who mocked Jesus’ kingship and drove the nails and divided up His clothes at the cross.

It was the businessmen and profiteers who wanted to kill Paul in Ephesus. They did it under the guise of pagan religion, but the bottom line was their bottom line (Acts 19:23, 27).

After a new age-type psychic lost her ability to tell fortunes because of an on-the-spot exorcism by Paul, her infuriated Gentile business managers have Paul and Silas arrested, beaten mercilessly and thrown in jail. Follow the money.

Before the brother of Jesus is martyred, he penned this reminder: Anyone who chooses to be a friend of the world becomes an enemy of God. (James 4:4)

It was an exiled John who reminded Jesus freaks: Don’t be surprised, dear brothers and sisters, if the world hates you. (1 John 3:13)

Paul was beheaded at the hands of Gentiles. Previously he wrote: Don’t become so well-adjusted to your culture that you fit into it without even thinking. (Romans 12:2a Message Version)

In Athens, Greece—ground zero of Western philosophy—it was the Gentile intellectuals and poets who sneered at Paul’s discourse on the resurrection.

It’s the nations of the world who despise God in the apocalypse: “The nations were angry with you, but now the time of your wrath has come.” (Revelation 11:18a)

...In other words, it’s not just the “religious/legalists/fundamentalists” that we may be at odds with.

Here’s the problem: I’m finding myself becoming uncomfortable with how little I’m disliked by people outside of the faith. Okay, I realize I may have some deep interpersonal issues to work out here. And I’m not into creating self-righteous confrontational situations by which I can claim persecution…like your average run-of-the-mill American cult. It’s way too easy to slip into a messianic/persecution complex. Been there, got the t-shirt. Seriously.

But I’m wondering: is my life a fragrance that demands a reaction from different people à la 2 Corinthians 2?—or am I just a nice guy who people generally don’t mind being with? There was a reason that Paul said he was not ashamed of the gospel; it implied that it was something to be scoffed at, to be derided as intellectually silly, as a weakness rather than a position of philosophical strength.

There is a reason why Paul wrote the following words at the risk of appearing super-spiritual or attempting to justify himself: I have faced danger from my own people, the Jews, as well as from the Gentiles. I have faced danger in the cities, in the deserts, and on the stormy seas. And I have faced danger from men who claim to be Christians but are not. I have lived with weariness and pain and sleepless nights. Often I have been hungry and thirsty and have gone without food. Often I have shivered with cold, without enough clothing to keep me warm. (2 Corinthians 11:26b–27 NLT)

Am I so cozy with my life or the culture and so careful to not come off as one of “those kind-of-Christians” that I’m safe as milk? Why am I not disliked by some? I expect to not be liked by some believers for being, well, whatever. Grace feels threatening to some. But where is my interaction with people outside of the Church that causes them to scoff, derisively laugh, or actively oppose the message of the Cross and resurrection? I made fun of people who believed in God before I became a Christian. Where are those who are making fun of me? I’m afraid I’m too insulated and safe in the current zeitgeist of tolerance and acceptance.

The power of the gospel is the Cross…where mercy and judgment meet in space and time. But there is no sense of mercy without a realization of judgment. And somehow, mysteriously, the Cross shouts a more-than-subliminal message of both.

Why don’t people hate me? At least some? It's got me thinking.