Is a God who survives enough of a God?

Is a God who survives enough of a God?

So, there’s an image of a bumper sticker making the rounds of the Internet over the past few days. Russel Moore used it as a sounding board to level a sharp and important critique of playing fast and loose with the faith in order to secure a political gain. His starting point is assuming that the bumper sticker is in favor of firearms. But, I think he misread the slogan. He sees the bumper sticker as using Jesus as cover for some mere and short-sighted political agenda. But, what if the sticker is using our love of guns and self-defense to smuggle in the absurdity of such a savior.

I’m saying the sentence, “If Jesus had a gun he’d still be alive today,” works better if you see it as a Trojan horse. jesus gun 2If you chuckle and say, “Hell yeah,” because you think the right to bear arms in self defense would solve a lot of societal ills, then you’ve already taken in an invasive idea that’s meant to undercut you at the heart. Because Jesus wasn’t trying to stay alive. He was trying to save us.

The image of Jesus drawing down on the centurions and shooting his way out of Gethsemane like the OK Corral is patently ridiculous and that’s the whole point. There was something more important to Jesus than his own survival. If Jesus had the same attitude towards guns and self defense as many professing Christians on the political right, we simply wouldn’t have a Savior. It seems, then, pretty urgent to dig into this disconnect. Are there actions on our part that might reveal our survival instinct to actually be an idol?

The question this bumper sticker really asks is not about political liberty vs constraint. That’s how politicians frame the gun debate, and there the argument rages. But, Christian faith always goes further than asking “Can I?” It also asks, “Why do I want to?” That might just be the question Christians ask the least and to tragic results. The question this bumper sticker urges us to confront is where exactly our call to be Christ-like ends and where our call to preserve our own temporal life begins and at what expense.

It’s a hard question to ask, but we need to ask it. Should a Christian kill another person? Is self defense an adequate reason to extinguish the image of God? Is the defense of children or family? Or, is desire to bear arms a sign that love for this world outweighs our faith in its Creator? A symptom of our fear of death preceding our fear of God?

I don’t have an easy answer. I certainly wouldn’t condemn someone who actually did use lethal self defense when they or their family faced actual harm. But, the rest of us only have the theoretical fear of such a catastrophe. And theoretical fear is something that can run rampant and roughshod over our faith if we don’t watch out. It’s here that I absolutely agree with the point this bumper sticker is trying to make*. I cannot universally condemn the use of guns. But I can look on the desire for guns with almost universal suspicion because the fear of death has always threatened to undermine the fear of God. And that’s the real heart issue that the church has to address (and address again and again for each generation because the fear of death takes endless forms).

Is our faith sufficient cause to embrace weakness?

* Incidentally, I also agree with the point Dr. Moore makes in his essay, I just see firearms as the personalized version of the grasp for political power that he calls out. I don’t think you can speak to one without having to speak to the other.



Reading Maps and Splitting Stones

Reading Maps and Splitting Stones

This continues a short series on re-thinking how the church might consider its relationship to politics. More here. What do I mean when I say ‘the church‘? Rather have it all summed up in a song?

In America, we like to boast that our government represents the will of the people. At least, that’s what the winners love to say. More cynical observers suspect that our governing powers—and, more broadly, our cultural powers—actually have an agenda of their own which they dupe, swindle, and strongarm people into abetting. It’s an interesting idea and makes for great storytelling, but I don’t believe even such a power could really lure people somewhere they didn’t already want to go. In the end, I would argue that the law of our land does indeed reflect the will of the people. And, for the church, this is highly useful.

Mightier than the sword
Yesterday, we considered the image of the government bearing a sword. Of course, this is a true image, but I remain convinced that it is tricky territory to imagine the church as playing a part in wielding that sword through its vote. So, I’m going to propose a new imagery to help us understand our American political moment. Instead of bearing the sword, let’s imagine our government bearing a pen.

If our representative government does indeed reflect the will of the people, then that would make the work of our government—making and enforcing laws—something like that of a cartographer, drawing a map of the cultural landscape. If the law of the land shows a vast plain of sexual ethics, looming mountains of identity politics, or a remote badlands reserved for Biblical morality, that tells us that those things already exist.[1] They originated in the desires of the people and the government merely drew the map to get people where they wanted to go.[2]

If you can believe that this is true, then it would be lunacy to try and ‘use’ the powers of government to change the culture. It would be as sane as re-drawing a map of the United States with the Rockies over on the east and expecting that the mountains themselves would pick up and shuffle across the continent. The government may set boundaries that effectively guide some people, but by and large, people tend to go where they want to go and the government eventually catches up. Look at the trend of marijuana legality for a good example. People want to get high, lower incarceration rates, and raise some tax revenue, so they did the work of making a marijuana-friendly culture. The government is now following along, making it law. It’s not always perfectly clear, but the basic pattern of demand leading to supply is fairly reliable in our country, even in politics.

So, instead of fighting tooth and nail in an ugly war to draw a lunatic map of wishful thinking, what if the church admitted that the government is only sketching out what already exists in the wishes of our neighbors? That campaigns and polls are things to be read and studied, but not fought for as if our lives depended on them? When all of the dust of every nasty campaign settles[3], we may not have the elected officials we would choose, but we do have one thing: a crystal-clear map of our mission field. What can we make of our votes in light of this?

An orientating experiment
Well, we can make our votes something of an experiment. No longer seeking control, which all-too-often involves awful compromises on integrity masked as tactical decisions, we could submit our vote into the maelstrom as a little beacon of what we value. toy-boatThen, we see where our values end up on the map and we watch where other values land, too. Alongside this, we listen. Politics, after all, involves a good deal of talking. Listen to how people talk about their values, how people talk about what threatens their values, and how people talk about what means are acceptable for enshrining their values in Law. This should give us a pretty clear picture of where we stand, where we might like to carry our good news, and some paths we might take to get there. Then it’s just a matter setting out on our journey. And this is one place where over-investment in politics can actually hinder. If we are too wrapped up in winning, too fearful of losing, we might just lose our courage[4] to bear any sort of good news in the world at all. That would be a grave error.

My desire here is to offer the church a way to think about campaigns and elections that leaves space for us not to succumb to the hysteria around us. We have better hope than politics, so we can definitely cool our jets. Sabers will be rattled, doom will be prophesied, mocking degradations of complex human character will be passed off as righteous condemnation. It’s all brief and momentary noise.

The subversive art of resistance
What makes this kind of political engagement so challenging is that, one, it asks of us a quietness in the face of a lot of spittle-lipped and purplish rancor[5] and, two, it asks of us a good deal of patience. It’s perfectly understandable to feel threatened in our political climate. People seem awfully volatile, and it’s easy to read in rumbling signs and wonders of a renewed faith in totalitarianism. When we feel threatened, we want to shout back in the face of each accuser, to reach for something strong to defend ourselves. In fear and unease, we face our most critical time for discernment. We must not panic. We may have to bite our tongue and endure scoffing or even abuse, but wasn’t this the very way of the Jesus we claim to follow? If no ‘winning’ power is worthy of the church’s support, it remains a worthy choice to align with no power and work in exile. After all, even seemingly helpful powers should be kept at a wise distance because power is fleeting and fickle. Christianity is not a faith of direct power, anyway. There are two ways to crack a heavy stone. There is the noisy expedience of the hammer and there is the quiet patience of the tree root, and our faith is a likened to a seed.

In the end, I’m not advocating for political withdrawal. I am absolutely advocating for a renewed political restraint. We must take serious note of how Jesus related to the powers of his day. To say they were odd bedfellows would radically overstate the relationship; they were nowhere near the same bed. If Jesus resisted Satan’s temptations to earthly power in the desert and later stayed on the cross, and if Paul and Silas stayed in jail after the earthquake, if Stephen saw fit to be stoned to death, and if all the other etceteras are true and yet Christianity survived, surely we can see that there is something of the power of this world that Christianity does not need and in fact refutes.

Living in a country with a fairly representative democracy does afford the church with opportunity, but it’s an opportunity to understand, not to control. The church must seriously engage the work of unclenching the fist of political control and embracing its real mission of loving neighbors and proclaiming relief from the troubles of this world. What might this look like?

+     +     +

[1] To say nothing of the high and steep cliffs off which our technological wonders can blindly, blithely drive us.

[2] This, of course, puts us as a citizenry in the rarely enviable position of getting what we wish for.

[3] As much as it can settle now in our crazy days of infinite campaigning.

[4] Or our compassion

[5] Or in the face of smug dismissal.

Democracy With All the Trappings

Democracy With All the Trappings

This is the first post of a short series that sums up what I’ve been thinking about regarding politics for some time, but for which this present election cycle provided a flame plenty hot enough to boil it down. These posts to come are primarily directed at the church, but I hope they can at least be seen as reasonable, maybe even helpful, to someone who wouldn’t associate with a church. What do I mean by ‘the church’? Basically, this.

Politics has gotten downright scary. This is puzzling and sad because the American Republic has so often been a model for debate, compromise, and bloodless transition of governance in an otherwise bloodthirsty world. Anyone measuring the state of the Republic lately, though, would have to admit their confidence in continued social stability is waning.[1] This over-heated culture in which people are clamoring, suing, and spewing venom in order to win out their ideals is a pretty crisp illustration of why yearning for power is a bad look for anyone who claims to care about people as beings, not people as instruments. This goes double for the church who have exhaustive reasons—theological and historical—to look sidelong at power. Yet there go so-called Faith Leaders riding the coattails of whomever concocts the best pander and commercials. After watching so many people go cheaply and headlong after power, and this is on the so-called left and right, I have come to believe that representative democracy was a clever little snare for the heart of the American church.

Give us a king!
Certainly, the allure of power has always been a danger for God’s people stretching all the way back to the garden and continuing unimpeded up to this very moment. Power lures with an offer of autonomy. More power equals more doing what pleases you, so the promise reads. This appetite to live unimpeded is deeply human and therefore subject to the same depredations and corruption as anything else human. Autonomy is the Fruit of fruits so pleasing to the eye, and when we do not personally have the power and autonomy we want, we say ‘Give us a king!’ and live out our power dreams by vicarious means. This has been the case basically forever, but American democracy has presented us with something new, or at least took something old and magnified it in new ways. That new thing is the vote.

Christians, taking Jesus as their template, have always been called to long and steady faithfulness to God’s Kingdom that endures deepening difference with power, even to the point of exile or death. That is the exact pattern of Jesus’ life, and so it is the exact pattern of what the Kingdom of God looks like in this world: final rejection. In the days of emperors and kings, the culture within which Christianity arose[2], this was easy to accept. Power acted as it would and it was unchangeable, unreachable even, by ordinary people. That the Gospel came into the world under these of all circumstances gives a strong indication that it’s fundamentally about loving your neighbor, not influencing your government.

Then along comes representative democracy (albeit a bit later) and the levers to influence the government are apparently lowered within reach of ordinary people. Suddenly there’s this new idea of the church being faithful to its mission, not to the point of ultimate difference with this world, but to the point of ultimate success in controlling this world. A spirit of ‘effectiveness’ spread across the church, it looks to me, like a black fog.

Gagging prophets
Seeking brief and momentary comfort by cozying up to power has long been the enemy of the church’s credibility as a prophetic voice in human history. The love of Jesus tends to result in a rapture of the heart and mind out of the fulfillment narratives of its native culture—be those narratives of sexual fulfillment, identity politics, or even ascetic ethical codes—and brings our affections to rest on things above. I’m saying, following Jesus will lead to standing out more and more as our citizenship in a new Kingdom takes root because we buy into the logic and promises of this world less and less. Standing apart is awkward at best, and at worst very painful if not lethal. It’s a predicament to be caught between two kingdoms. The conflict between solutions, between assimilation and differentiation, will always stalk the church, so the church should always be alert to it.

With the power of a vote, American Christians find ourselves with the cudgel of law in our lap with its whispers of a third way out our predicament: power and influence. We don’t have to assimilate. We don’t have to stand out. We can win. Would that our love for the restraint Jesus showed might give this development its rightfully squirmy feeling. He did stay on the cross despite invitations to wriggle free, after all. But, we are too human. Legislative clout is an enticing tool by which Christians could hammer out a society into which we could blend seamlessly and painlessly, but also without apparent compromise. That this tool can only be used to hammer the people that comprise a society is conveniently overlooked. The opportunity of a vote raises serious questions, the chief of which is this: is the Law the best means to seek the good around us? Embedded in this question is another question: is the church meant to stand apart by seeking good or to resisting evil? Both questions are important.

I think that the answer to the second question about the mission of the church is obvious. It’s an inextricable situation. You can’t seek good without resisting evil and you can’t resist evil without seeking good. It is good and important work to do both, and like all good work, it is worth spending enough thought to do it well even at the expense of doing it quickly. Is the law of the land the best tool for seeking good and resisting evil?

American Swordsmanship
One argument that I have heard in favor of Christians leaning on the government to enact laws that reflect Biblical morality draws from Romans 13. Here, Paul writes that government is a sub-authority to which God has given the power of bearing the sword to restrain evil. This argument puts a great deal of weight on American Christians to stack the government with the right politicians who will build the right sword to restrain the right evil. That’s a lot of pressure to place on a conscience, and so I can see why this argument is so compelling. What kind of Christian would you be, after all, if you didn’t grab for every scrap of power and use it to bend the world to your will? The weakness I see in the argument, though, is that it’s too linear. It presumes that a vote leads directly to a policy and, in turn, that policy only enacts its intended consequences. So, I would complicate the Romans 13 with two ideas.

First, if you believe the Bible is true, then you have to believe that Romans 13 is true no matter what. Whether the government consists entirely of sage, orthodox theologians or hedonistic Dionysians, it still bears the sword and restrains evil. Romans 13 won’t stop being true if Americans vote wrongly, for one thing because it was true long before most people on Earth had anything even resembling a vote.

See, when we look at what evil we suffer, we forget that we can never know what evil is simultaneously being restrained. We can’t see it because it was restrained and never came about. I would point to 150 years of disagreement and power transfer without war in the streets as a sign that some evil has been restrained in our country (that’s not to say there hasn’t been blood in the streets and plenty of other places, but we have been spared all-out civil war for some time). My point here is that what evil the government restrains[3] might not actually rely on how we vote. It’s not all waiting on us.

The second complication is that we have to vote for people who want power. We never pick the best person for the job of governing, we pick from the pool of people who want the power to govern. Knowing what the church claims about the human heart and knowing even the broad strokes of human history, this calls the whole idea of Christians influencing governing power for good with any certainty into sharp question. I find it too difficult to believe that I can vote the best person into a position of power because the best people I know are highly wary of big power.

Our government itself, by its system of checks and balances, admits that power dangles a lure to corruption in front of any one person. And, despite these checks and balances, there is plenty of abused power to be found in various pockets of the government precisely because you cannot check and balance a broken human heart. The link between vote and policy is a byzantine maze of influence games, pork, and ambition. Human frailty is far too big a variable for me to put any faith in my vote. I still vote, though.

I believe that a cause/effect reading of Romans 13 is emblematic of the temptation for American Christians to pursue their ultimate hope—a Kingdom come—by means of lesser hopes, namely politicians and power plays. We have been lured to over-invest in politics. We thought that government was lying inert like some great marionette waiting for Christians to take up the strings rather than seeing governing power as something very much alive, and at work pursuing an agenda of its own for which it might just have a use for American Christians. We have been rope-a-doped.

Paradise Lost
I fear that the American church has taken on a role like that of Satan in Milton’s Paradise Lost. With our vote, we think we have the strength and the devices to make a play on the throne of Power. We took our shot because we’re tired of bowing when it says bow. In Milton’s poem, Satan had that same weariness when God declared the angelic host would not only bow to him, but bow to his Son as well. Satan stirred up a revolution, and they had a good go of it for a couple of days. diabolic-cascadeBut, when the Son of God got off his throne and into his war chariot, it was a total rout. On that celestial battlefield, there were two powers at play and they did not mix. Brought head to head, they repelled and a whole cascade of angels fell into a hell made just for them.

I think the church can take a lesson from this. The throne of power in this world is not a hill to be taken in God’s name. In entering such a fight, the church would have to exchange the very nature of what power it does have—the subtle and mysterious power of the Spirit—for some attempt to mimic the kind of brute, blunt power that currently lords over our world in endless cycle. The church’s so-called losses in the culture war point to a great repelling resulting from such an exchange, and our influence is in exile, banished in a rout just when it seemed the Moral Majority was winning.[4]

Doubling down on that same quixotic tilt, prominent mouthpieces of the Religious Right have displayed a stunning adherence to bald-faced power even as it has lately been offered in the form of a rather grotesque figure. Not that the political right is the only place certain church leaders have gone headlong after power. I’ve seen plenty of folks on the political left back some alarming ideas an icons in order to stay vassal at the heel of their chosen powers that be.

Something ought to cry out plainly. Power always makes a tool of the church in the end, using ecclesial endorsement to legitimize its own ends. This distorts the church’s distinctive character, making pawns of prophets. The church can never turn the tables by force. Nor should it, for in any attempt to do so, the church swaps out the means of an eternal Kingdom—faithfulness, perseverance, love—in favor of a the means of our present kingdom—deceit, invective, war. Why give up hope for what we wait for in favor of hope in what inevitably dies around us? It’s a bad trade.

Please, allow me to introduce myself
The notion that democracy is a trap begs the question: who is the trapper? This is where I might just go off the rails for some of you, but I feel like it has to be said. I actually believe that the trapper is the Devil himself. You can’t believe in the supernatural, but only in the nice ones. Now, I don’t think that the Devil had some sovereign hand in the drafting of the Constitution. I believe that our Republic was formed by well-intentioned people trying (and succeeding) to do some good. What I do believe is that the Devil is clever and saw the pitfalls scattered throughout even a good endeavor and set to whispering here and there, sowing corruption.

As the surest sign that this is true, I see people in the American church feverishly worried about this election, just like everyone else. And I see those people acting out of fear, which probably explains why they’re acting so out of Christian character. Dwelling on the bad news of politics, at least in public, almost at the expense of anything resembling good news. A Christian, by my estimation, should act almost bulletproof, a level of confidence that must be at the root of anyone who can repay good for evil. Where is our belief that our struggles are brief and momentary? Where is our offer of drink for thirsty souls? Where did this apocalyptic fear come from? Surely it came from propping up wooden saviors on the stump to speechify and villify our opponents, promising to make America great again if we just believe in our hearts and confess with our mouths, “I’m with her.”

So, I have to walk back the sensationalist claim that democracy itself is a trap and just say that our American democracy is riddled with traps and one of the cleverest is the idea that we can use our vote to wield the sword of government against evil. I won’t read Romans 13 as a call to cast the right ballot for the purpose of disenfranchising errant ideology. Instead, I’ll read it as comfort that no matter how the ballots tally, evil is in check, even in spite of noxious ideologies. Even, perhaps, in spite of our votes.

I find a great deal of freedom in this. I am not shackled to whatever major party panders most to my fears or my arrogances (of which there are many). I don’t feel like I have to make compromises in order to win other battles. I feel safely on the right side of history before anyone even launches a campaign, to say nothing of election day, because my sacred text tells me that evil is restrained and a bigger game than politics is always afoot.

Coming up: If, then, representative government does not put the levers of influence within reach of the church, what does our representative government do? How can we approach this bedeviled democracy without getting snared?

+     +     +

[1] Some of this may be due to past sins coming back to reap a payment. It’s an imperfect republic built on the backs of brutalized slaves and given to a dangerous admiration for ambition on the brink of greed and possessed of insatiable appetites that have lead to all kinds of trouble. It’s an imperfect republic that, though it at least manages to hold back domestic war and genocide, is certainly ready and willing for any war abroad. That’s a lot of darkness to try to restrain.

[2] It’s worth thinking about the time and place of the Incarnation. At the very least, it shows that every technology and every social change that has happened since year 0 is absolutely unessential for the church. This is something that I often see forgotten or ignored as the church seeks to engage the people of the 21st century. Perhaps these are thoughts for another day.

[3] Another truobling line of thought here is that, if this is true, even Nazi Germany might have been credited with restraining some evil. It’s truly fearsome to imagine what evil might have been restrained when you consider the evil they let loose. And this raises an important point. Government, Power, can cause as much evil or even more than it might restrain. Might even unleash one evil in the name of restraining another. We should consider that carefully when we think about using our vote to empower a government to bear the sword.

[4] I mean, there are still parental advisory warnings on CDs, even doled out song by song in digital stores.

What do I mean when I say ‘the church’?

Especially in my recent posts on politics, I drop the phrase ‘the church’ or ‘the American church’ pretty often. What do I mean by the church? I mean people who call themselves Christians and who pray to God, with a straight face, ‘Thy Kingdom come, Thy will be done on Earth as it is in Heaven.’ This does, of course, presuppose that people be humble and diligent about seeking and submitting themselves to a rigorously holistic vision for such a Kingdom, even and especially the parts that make them uncomfortable. After all, if the Kingdom is going to come to Earth, a journey that would require making some changes around here, it would have to come to each of us, change each of us, since we are of the Earth. That means the Kingdom is going to irritate each of us in some or other ways. The church is the people who choose to be so irritated without resorting to an editorial stance, scratching the itch with a blade that trims away sound and historic doctrine at the same time it trims away prodigious grace.

And, I might add that the church is made up of people who pray this prayer with an idea that they are active participants in the coming of the Kingdom, and this again circles back to humility and diligence, seeking and submission.