American Gods (Imposters of God, Chapter 1: The Mystery of Idolatry, Part One)

Photo by Stefan Frerichs, Creative Commons

Photo by Stefan Frerichs, Creative Commons

[This is my second post on William Stringfellow’s 1965 book, Imposters of God. For my first post, click here.]

When most people think of idolatry, they think of ancient Rome or today’s hunter-gatherers. But this is a mistake, according to William Stringfellow. “After all, is there any essential difference between middle-class people idolizing their children, as they do in America, an heathen venerating their ancestors?”

Today, as in 1965, idolatry is alive and well in America. We have made our new gods, but even the old gods find adherents. “Recalling Hiroshima, or beholding the war in Vietnam, can any of us really believe that Mars has abdicated his throne, or that the cult in which war is the deity, is any less militant here and now than in former times?”

In 48 years, what has changed? Recalling Baghdad  or beholding the war in Afghanistan and the constant drone strikes in Yemen and Pakistan, is Ares not still worshiped? Do we not pour out blood offerings to him every day?

America has always been polytheistic. We’ve always worshiped liberty, war, money, independence, family, rugged individualism, tradition, and religion.

In the Evangelical Churches especially, we’ve made an idol of marriage and family. What are singles Sunday School classes? Meat markets. What message do students get at Christian colleges? Get a ring by spring.

What do we teach about the call to celibacy, which the apostle Paul holds up as being more useful for the kingdom than marriage? Nothing, or perhaps, that it’s a Catholic thing that turns their priests into perverts.

What are the names of our great political organizations? American Family, Family Research Council, Focus on the Family … think about it, and think about what Jesus said about family (Luke 14:26).

Back to Stringfellow. What is an idol? It is anything, no matter how inherently noble, that a person uses to justify his or her own existence. An idol is “…that which renders the existence of the idolater morally significant, ultimately worthwhile.”

The Christian is justified by God’s faithfulness, especially as show by his incarnation, death, and resurrection. If we lose sight of that and base our worth on anything else:

  • Family
  • Accomplishments
  • Children
  • Physical fitness
  • Political party
  • Reputation
  • Our own moral strength
  • Wealth
  • Patriotism,
  • Our Church and place in it

…. then we have fallen into idolatry.

When we use these idols to justify our existence, we become invested in them, even evangelize them. Stringfellow summed up the generational conflict of the 1960’s in one sentence:

“Americans who have devoutly served the idols of respectability and status all their lives feel threatened in their very being when their children refuse to offer these idols the same worship.”

Next time, I’ll talk about how letting something become an idol damages not only the inadvertent idolater, but also the idol.

But for now, let me offer up this prayer. Father in Heaven, give me eyes to see the idols that I have hidden in my life. Show me all those things I worship that are not you. Give me the wisdom to understand them. Give me the strength to cast them down, like Gideon.

Amen.

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Not a Tame Lion (Idolatry of Conformity)

Lion

photo by Robek, Creative Commons

I have always believed in chaos

Jesus did not come to bring order out of chaos are wrong.

He did not come to bring peace on earth, but a sword

to set son against father and father against son,

mother against daughter and daughter against mother

Order can be just as much a tool of the Hell as chaos

Is Calvin’s Geneva holy? Ask Miguel Servetus.

Was the Puritan city on the hill more holy than the “savages’ wilderness” it replaced?

Is Stalin’s Russia holier than Somalia’s warlords?

Our idolatry of order builds walls around God,

We tie up heavy burdens for our neighbors

and lift not one finger to help bear them.

Our walls cannot contain God,

But they can keep his beloved children out.

They are different. They do not measure up.

They are poor. They dress funny.

They speak with bad grammar.

They have tattoos.

They are sinners.

They are not like us.

But Aslan is not a tame Lion, and Jesus is not a tame God.

Let his wildness in

Let it kick over the moneychanger’s tables

Let it tear the veil of our hearts

Let it shatter every wall.

Dear God, please, shatter every wall.

Amen.

Repenting in Sackcloth and Ashes, Part 1

confession booth

A large part of my world came crashing down last night. On the drive home from work, I realized that my church was a fraud. I realized that all my non-Christian friends were right when they talk about Evangelicals as immoral.

They don’t say that we’re stuffy. They don’t say we’re superstitious. They say we’re immoral.

Let that sink in, just in case you hadn’t heard it before. My non-Christian friends, for the most part, believe the Christianity is immoral, or at least that American Evangelical Christians are. And they’re not alone. Barna found that most young Americans feel the same.

They don’t think we’re stuck in the mud, old fashioned, or goodie-two shoes. They think we’re immoral. They think we hate. They think we don’t care about the poor. They think we don’t care about the violence done in our name.

And they’re right. God help me, they’re right.

It all became terribly, brutally clear last night.

And I got angry, so angry I could barely even go to church last night. But we were putting together fruit baskets for our church’s homebound (mostly elderly) and nursing-homebound, so I felt like I really needed to go.

That was definitely the right thing to do. It forced me to be civil and communicative for an hour or so, and it helped me rise above my anger.

But there is no rising above the sorrow. We – and that we includes me – I – owe a terrible apology to the world and to Jesus Himself.

This repentance will take a while. Today I begin, simply by offering an apology. In following days, I will confess what I see as the sins I am and have been a part of, the corporate sins of my denomination (Southern Baptist) and general affiliation (American Evangelical).

My goal isn’t to convince you that I’m right. And I certainly don’t feel any need to defend myself.

Ultimately, I owe this apology to God first. But for those of you who are reading this who have been hurt by various branches of American Evangelicalism, this apology is to you, too. Even if I’ve never met you, I owe you this.

Even as I now

Turn from these wrongs, I realize

My hands helped build them

My tithes funded them

My silence affirmed them

My words proclaimed them

And I am sorry. Terribly, terribly sorry.

Four Types of Violence, Part Two: Revenge

Simeon and Levi Slay the Sichemites to avenge Dinah, painted by Gerard Hoet 1728 AD

Sons of Jacob slay the Shechemites to Avenge Dinah, by Gerard Hoet, 1728 AD

I’ve been thinking a lot about violence, Jesus, and the strange fact that American Christians are among the most pro-war, pro-gun and pro-death-penalty of Americans (I even count myself in that second category, though not in the others).

In thinking about violence, I noticed four types of violence in the Bible, and I thought I’d talk briefly about each.

Retributive – violence committed in response to a wrong or perceived wrong.  In ancient days, an incident could start a war between tribes. Such vendettas could continue until one or both tribes were extinct.

The rule of proportional retribution (“an eye for an eye,”) did not promote revenge, but limited it. “An eye for an eye” ended these feuds and put the responsibility for retribution and punishment in the hands of the society’s legal system, whether that is an official court system or a council of elders.

The apostle Paul reaffirmed this in the Christian era in his letter to the church at Rome [Romans 12:17-21, Romans 13:1-7] Rome was no paragon of justice and righteousness, but even so, retributive violence was to be left to its courts.

Sometimes, God used nations to bring retribution on other nations, including using violent, polytheistic nations to deliver judgment to Israel when its people fell away from His ways, when they worshiped other gods and exploited the poor, rather than caring for the widowed, fatherless, and those stranded far from home.

If you read the major and minor prophets, this happens so much that there’s really no point in referencing specific verses.  The list would be too long.

However, the nations that were used to scourge Israel were often, themselves, broken in retribution for the harm they caused. Babylon was a prime example, especially King Nebuchadnezzar, who ended up eating grass and braying like a mule [Daniel 4].

Again, there is no reason to believe, short of an angelic visit, that any of us as individuals, or the nations of which we are a part, have been chosen as instruments of God’s judgment. 

Even those nations that were described as being such in the books of the prophets were generally not aware of their role. From their perspective, they were waging wars of conquest.

In theory, revenge should be a no-brainer. In Romans 12:19, God specifically forbids it. “Never take your own revenge, beloved, but leave room for the wrath of God, for it is written, ‘Vengeance is Mine, I will repay,’ says the Lord.” (NASB).

And most of us don’t actually ‘grab a gat or a baseball bat’ and go take revenge on our enemies.  But… we get social revenge, always seeking to bring someone else down for the ways they’ve offended us.

And we love revenge movies, from The Outlaw Josey Wales  to The Crow to I Spit on Your Grave to the aptly named TV series Revenge. We read and write and watch and hear revenge. It’s a huge part of our cultural narrative.

And it makes sense. A people who love revenge, even fictional revenge, will be far more willing to support a war that’s framed in those terms. Or an execution. Or the torture of suspected terrorists.

Rome has a big reason for us to love revenge. But I don’t think our hearts can love revenge and Jesus at the same time. I think every heartbeat we spend uncritically entertaining thoughts of revenge – even fictional revenge –  is a heartbeat we don’t spend on our creator, redeemer, and sustainer.

–A Note on Context–

I’ve been thinking about violence, justification, and the “kingdom of heaven” a lot lately. I’ve written a lot, too, but nothing I’d be comfortable publishing. But I’ve also been reading some things I wrote previously. I wrote this four-part look at violence back in 2011, and I’ve done only a little editing since.

Think of this as a time capsule as I struggle with the larger implications of the issue.

The four categories are completely of, for, and by me. They are not the product of theologians or biblical historians. They don’t have roots in Hebrew, Aramaic, or Greek. They’re just something I noticed, and felt the need to work out.

Four Types of Violence, Part One: Conquest

David slaying Goliath, painting by Peter Paul Rubens circa 1616 AD

David Slaying Goliath by Peter Paul Rubens, c. 1616 AD

I’ve been thinking a lot about violence, Jesus, and the strange fact that American Christians are among the most pro-war, pro-gun and pro-death-penalty of Americans (I even count myself in that second category, though not in the others).

In thinking about violence, I noticed four types of violence in the Bible, and I thought I’d talk briefly about each.

Conquest, or Selfish Violence – violence committed for personal gain, self-aggrandizement, or to satisfy an appetite, urge, or emotion (such as hatred).  This is the typical robbery and murder that is prohibited by all civilizations and most pre-civilization human societies.

We’ve known this was wrong since before God chose Abraham, but Christ did add something new to even this obvious, black-and-white case: we are not righteous if we only avoid committing the act of violence.  We must also resist the contemplation, the fantasizing, the hate itself that underlies the act [Matthew 5:21-22].

That said, there was one exception in the Old Testament: the Hebrews’ conquest of the Promised Land, which was specifically ordered by God.

Soren Kierkegaard had a term for such things: “the teleological suspension of the ethical.”  That is, the “Knight of Faith” may be asked by God to do things that would not, under other circumstances, be right, like wage a war of conquest or take his only son to the top of Mount Moriah to be sacrificed.

There is no reason to believe that, short of a divine revelation of the sort Moses received, that any later wars of conquest can be justified from a Christian perspective.

This seems so obvious to say, but the thing is, whatever war we’re currently contemplating always sounds like the “exception,” whether it involves a full-scale invasion or just bombing a technologically inferior enemy back to the stone age.

I’ve spent too much time talking politics lately, so I’ll just say this. As Christians, we must have some kind of belief that limits violence. We can make an argument for total pacifism. We can make an argument for just war theory. But we cannot, as Christians, argue for Clauswitz’s idea that war is, essentially, just another form of diplomacy. We cannot promote war for “national interests” alone.

We can’t say that whatever country we’re living in deserves our support for all its wars, uncritically. We cannot say, “my country, right or wrong.” We have to be willing to be considered “bad Americans,” “bad British subjects,” or “bad Russians” if that is required of us by Christ.

And if our theory of war never seems to find an “unjust war,” if it justifies every war that our nation desires, then we have a problem.

–A Note on Context–

I’ve been thinking about violence, justification, and the “kingdom of heaven” a lot lately. I’ve written a lot, too, but nothing I’d be comfortable publishing. But I’ve also been reading some things I wrote previously. I wrote this four-part look at violence back in 2011, and I’ve done only a little editing since.

Think of this as a time capsule as I struggle with the larger implications of the issue.

The four categories are completely of, for, and by me. They are not the product of theologians or biblical historians. They don’t have roots in Hebrew, Aramaic, or Greek. They’re just something I noticed, and felt the need to work out.

Does Welcoming Homosexuals Mean Accepting Homosexuality?

Shaking hands

As Christians, we like to think that we’re unpopular because we take a principled, Biblical stand against homosexual sexual relations.  But the things that stain our reputation most are not at all theological.  They’re not about the belief that same-sex sexual contact is sinful.  They’re about the way we so often treat homosexual people.

There are plenty of churches that actively seek to welcome lesbians and homosexuals into to their midst, while still holding to the theology that homosexual sexual relations are sinful in god’s eyes.

They believe that those who are completely homosexual (and not at all bisexual or attracted to the opposite sex at all) should be celibate, and those who are bisexual should focus their romantic and sexual attention on members of the opposite sex, effectively living as if heterosexual.

These churches are occasionally called intolerant or anti-homosexual, but they actually have homosexual people in their congregations.  They love and worship with and share communion with people who are sexually attracted to the same sex.  They do not hold themselves sinless or blameless or better than their homosexual neighbors.  And so they are able to witness and minister to people who are so often excluded from the Church.

People act like the alternatives are the Family Research Council (which spreads horrible, often false, ‘information’ about homosexuals and works against all their civil rights) or the Episcopal Church (which ordained its first homosexual priest in the seventies, and has created an official blessing for same-sex marriages).

That is a false dichotomy.  You do not need to change your theology to change the way you treat your least popular neighbors (Don’t get me wrong: I believe you can be a faithful, prayerful Christian and not believe homosexual sexual relations are sinful.  But those Christians aren’t the ones I’m writing this post to).

In other words, the evangelical churches of the United States do not have to start blessing same-sex marriages and ordaining homosexual ministers.  But we do need to stop actively working to use the government to attack homosexuals.

In many states, homosexuals can be fired because of their sexual orientation for no reason.  In many states, they cannot adopt.  In many states, they are excluded from hospital visitation for their partners.  Until 2003, having homosexual relations was felony on par with forcible rape in many states.  That’s oppression: “if you’re gay, we treat you like a rapist.”

In other words, homosexual people are treated like second-class citizens, and it’s mostly because of political pressure from conservative Christians.

As Christians, we are called to love all sinners, not just sinners who sin like we do.  As Christians, we are not called to use the empire’s hammer to beat down people we don’t like.  That is antithetical to Christ’s behavior when He was on earth, and I believe antithetical to Christ’s message.

Jesus ate with the outcasts of Jewish society – Samaritans, tax collectors, and more – and He loved them.  He loves them still, just like he loves the outcasts of our American society.  If we love Him, we need to suck it up, step up, and start feeding His sheep.

Election Day Communion

Election Day Communion 2012

Over 500 churches across the nation are gathering on election day, November 6, 2012, to hold communion.

We gather to remember that whoever wins, God is still in control.

We gather to remember that whoever we vote for, we are all still one in Christ.

We gather to remember our brothers and sisters in Christ who suffer persecution, who don’t get to vote, who don’t get to gather publicly.

We gather to pray for our leaders, whether we voted for them or not, that God will give them wisdom and compassion.

We are gathering at South 28th Avenue Baptist Church.  We may be few in number, but we will gather.

It’s not too late for your church to join the communion, to remember our unity.

Remember, we are all one in Christ – liberals,  conservatives, independents, Evangelical, Reformed, Mainline, Catholic.  We are all one in God’s love, all saved by the same Son, the same Redeemer.

Learn more here, at http://electiondaycommunion.org