Thursday, December 27, 2007

The Stillborn God

Hello virtual friends of the wonderful internet reality,

Hope you all had a great Christmas. Mine was exhaustingly delightful.

It's a bit ironic, but on Christmas Eve I starting reading a book entitled The Stillborn God by Mark Lilla. So far, I'm loving it. It's masterfully written, brilliantly argued, insightful -- and in my opinion, mostly correct.

Mostly -- but not entirely. For example, Lilla tries to assign some of the blame for the violence Christianity has chronically engaged in on conceptual conflicts rooted in the theology of the New Testament. I think he's mistaken. I'd argue that all the violence is rooted in the fusion of political thinking and Christian theology that arose once Christianity acquired political power in the late 4th century. But though Lilla spends quite a bit of time on this point, it's actually not central to his thesis.

Lilla argues that the modern western concept of freedom is the result of Enlightenment thinkers like Thomas Hobbes (in his work Leviathan) reacting against the perpetual religious-political violence of the 17th century by completely separating politics from theology. The modern concept of political freedom, in other words, is an inherently secular concept. While some conservative Christians try to argue that the Constitution of America is somehow rooted in Christianity, Lilla persuasively argues it came about only because influential thinkers abandoned Christianity and all religion as a foundation for political thought.

He is so right about this!

I'm not finished with the book yet, but the concern that seems to be driving Lilla's work is that this secular concept of freedom continues to be threatened by religion. We are not "out of the woods" yet, he argues. The secular concept of political freedom has only been around for several hundred years and the verdict is still out as to whether it will survive. The political theology of Nazism demonstrates how easy it is even for modern western people to slip back into theologically-based politics, and how harmful this can be when it happens.

I think Lilla is profoundly right about this as well. It's part of what concerns me when right or left wing Christians declare their political opinions to be the "Christian" position or to represent the politics of God.

I suspect many Christians would read Lilla's book as a slam on the Christian religion and a defense of full blown secularism. In a sense, it is. But I don't see this as a bad thing, for the movement Jesus came to establish -- the Kingdom of God -- can't be identified with the Christian religion. In fact, insofar as the Christian religion hasn't looked like Jesus Christ loving, serving and dying for his enemies (and let's be honest, if often hasn't), it contrasts with the Kingdom of God. It's in the interest of all Kingdom people to passionately point this sharp contrast out to people.

Not only this, but one can agree with Lilla's thesis that the modern concept of political freedom is inherently secular without accepting full blown secularism. I passionately reject the secular, humanistic, materialistic worldview. But because I think political freedom is a good thing, I just as passionately want to follow Lilla's advise and keep religion out of politics.

The bottom line is that religion and politics don't mix. Not only are free societies threatened by the mixing of religion with politics, as Lilla argues, but history shows that mixing politics and religion is disastrous for Christianity. This is what concerns me most.

We who have pledged our life to following Jesus are called to do one thing: follow him! We're called to mimic his loving service to all others, even if this entails suffering for enemies (Eph 5:1-2; 1 Pet. 2:20-25). We're not called to pretend that we have any superior wisdom or morality when it comes to resolving political conflicts.

So far, I'm finding Lilla's book to be a compelling demonstration of this truth. I heartily recommend reading it.

Stay centered in his love,


Tuesday, December 25, 2007

Merry Christmas!

I and my Christus Victor Team
want to wish all of you
who occasion this blog
and support this ministry
a very
Merry Christmas.

Be blessed

Saturday, December 22, 2007

Why did Jesus say "buy a sword"?

Hope you're all enjoying the Christmas season.

Here's a question I've gotten a dozen times in the last several weeks:

If Jesus is opposed to violence, why did he tell his disciples to buy swords (Lk 22:36-37)?

First, if we read ahead 12 verses we find Jesus being arrested in the garden. His disciples ask, "Lord, should we strike with the sword?" (vs. 49). Before Jesus can even answer, Peter swings away, cutting off the ear of a guard. Jesus rebuked Peter, telling him that all who live by the sword will die by the sword (Mt. 26:52; Jn 18:10-11). Jesus then healed the guard's ear, showing that the Kingdom he represents advances not by committing violence against enemies but by loving and serving enemies.

Whatever Jesus was up to in telling his followers to buy swords, it's clear he didn't intend them to use them! In fact, had he intended his disciples to use violence to defend themselves it would have contradicted every single teaching Jesus had previously given them about loving enemies, doing good to them, never retaliating, turning the other cheek, etc...

A close look at the passage reveals Jesus' purpose. Immediately after telling his disciples to buy swords (Lk 22:36) Jesus says, "It is written: ‘And he was numbered with the transgressors’; and I tell you that this must be fulfilled in me. Yes, what is written about me is reaching its fulfillment.”(vs. 37, emphasis added). So the reason Jesus wanted his disciples to possess swords was not to use them, but to fulfill prophecy (Isa 53:12) by appearing to be a law breaker to the Jewish authorities.

This is why, in the next verse, when the disciples say they have two swords, Jesus says "That is enough." (vs. 38). Obviously, if Jesus ever intended the disciples to actually use swords in self defense, two wouldn't be nearly enough. But it was enough to fulfill the prophecy and justify the Jewish authorities accusing him of being a rebel leader. (My thanks to my friend Tony Bartlett, author of Cross Purposes, for giving me this insight at a recent Atonement conference).

It's also significant that when Jesus appeared before Pilate and was asked if he was the King of the Jews, Jesus told him his kingdom was not of this world. He then pointed to the fact that his followers were not fighting to defend him as proof of this claim (Jn. 18:36). Kings of earthly kingdoms always have their subjects fight to defend or advances their causes. Not so with this King, and not so in this Kingdom.

Let your refusal to engage in violence be proof to the world that you belong to a Kingdom that is not of this world.

Be a peacemaker, not a sword swinger.

Merry Christmas


Tuesday, December 18, 2007

Was the Christian Security Guard a Hero?

On December 9, Matthew Murray walked onto the campus of New Life Church in Colorado Springs and began shooting at people. He killed one person and wounded several others before a volunteer church security guard, who was also a member of the church, shot him (she wounded him, after which he shot and killed himself). The pastor of the church called the security guard a "hero." I've received dozens of e-mails from people asking me if I agree with the pastor, so I thought I'd briefly share my thoughts.

Let me say at the start that I have the utmost respect for people serving in the police force. These folks put themselves in harms way to protect innocent people from dangerous people like Matthew Murray. It's an honorable profession. On top of this, there's no question that the action take by this security guard was justified (by normal "just-war" criteria) and brave. In this sense I have no problems agreeing that this security guard was a "hero."

At the same time, just because a profession is honorable and an act of violence is justified and even heroic doesn't mean it's appropriate for Kingdom people. Paul teaches that God allows governments to use the sword for the purpose of maintaining law and order (Rom. 13:1-4). But in the seven verses leading up to this passage Paul forbids Christians from engaging in this sort of behavior (Rom. 12: 14, 17-21).

Every Kingdom person who considers entering into an occupation where they might have to kill someone -- indeed, any Kingdom person who considers using potentially lethal violence against enemies in any circumstance and for any reason -- has to wrestle with the question of how they reconcile this violence with the teachings of the New Testament.

Here's a list of everything the New Testament says about how Kingdom people (as opposed to governments and nations) are to view and treat their enemies. We're to....

* love our enemies (Lk 6:27, 35; Mt 5:44) (and remember, love is defined in the New Testament by pointing us to the example of Jesus dying for his enemies, [I Jn 3:16])
* follow Jesus' example by being willing to suffer unjustly at the hands of enemies, even when we have the power to crush them (1 Pet 2:18-23, 3:15-16; Eph 5:1-2, cf. Rom. 5:10)
* do good to our enemies (LK 6:27, 34-35)
* bless our enemies instead of curse them (LK 6:28; Rom. 12:14)
* pray for our enemies (Mt 5:44; Lk 6:28)
* forgive our enemies and ask God to forgive them (Lk 6:37; 11:4; 23:34)
* give to our enemies without expecting anything in return (Mt 5:44; Lk 6: 30, 34)
* feed our enemies when they need food (Rom. 12:20)
* give drink to our enemies when they need water (Rom. 12:20
* never resist evil with force (Mt 5:38-39)
* treat enemies as we wish they'd treat us (Lk 6:31)
* never return evil with evil but always return evil with good (Rom. 12:17, 19; I Thess 5:15; 1 Pet 3:9)
* never exact vengeance against our enemies, trusting God to do this instead (Rom. 12:17-19)
* turn the other cheek when struck (Mt 5:39; Lk 6:29)
* pray for the healing of our enemies rather than seek to injure them (Mt 26:51-53)
* humbly serve our enemies (Jn 13:1-5)
* respond gently when interrogated under persecution by enemies (1 Pet 3:15)
* consider our sin to be worse than those of our enemies (Mt 7:1-3; I Tim. 1:15-16).

To the best of my knowledge, this represents everything the New Testament teaches on the matter. Note that nowhere do we find any exception clause in these teachings. Jesus doesn't say "Love and do good to your enemies except when common sense tells you you need to kill them."

It's also important to remember that many of those who were originally given these teachings subsequently endured the agony of watching their families fed to lions or burned alive before being tortured and executed themselves. The "enemies" the New Testament talks about are not just grumpy neighbors or personal enemies. They include national enemies, enemies who are terrorists, life-threatening enemies, and enemies who threaten not only us but also our loved ones.

Now, let's be honest. This teaching strikes most of us as impractical, if not insane, unpatriotic and even immoral. To not use whatever force is necessary to protect loved ones, innocent people and our nation from dangerous people strikes most of us as just plain wrong! So, many think, whatever Jesus and others in the New Testament meant with their teaching about loving enemies, they couldn't possibly have intended to rule out killing them when it's justified to do so.

I empathize with the sentiment completely. But, if I'm honest with myself, this seems to be exactly what Jesus and others in the New Testament are ruling out. I've looked at this teaching from every possible angle and I see no way around this conclusion.

I grant that this teaching violates our common sense. But how common-sensical was it for the omnipotent God to let himself get tortured and killed unjustly rather than use his power to defeat his foes? And we're supposed to follow this example (Phil. 2:5-7; Eph 5:1-2;1 Pet 2:18-23, 3:15-16). Jesus himself is aware that the teaching goes against common sense, but he stresses that it brings about a distinctly Kingdom reward for just this reason (Mt 5:44-47; Lk 6:32-35). The Kingdom is radical, holy (set apart) and beautiful precisely because it is not "common."

Every person who has pledged to live in the way of Jesus, rather than the way of the world, but who nevertheless carries (and is willing to use) a gun, for any reason, has to wrestle with this New Testament teaching. For my two cents, I confess I cannot see how the two are compatible. The use of lethal force may at times be justified and heroic by ordinary kingdom of the world standards. But I cannot see how it's compatible with being a citizen of the Kingdom of God.

Yet, I want to end by saying that this doesn't mean I or anyone else can pass judgment on the security guard or question the authenticity of her faith. Jesus proclaimed that the faith of a sword-wielding Roman Centurion -- a high ranking officer in the Roman army! -- had greater faith than anyone he'd found in Israel (Mt 8:5-10). And, while I'm certain Jesus didn't condone the Centurion's military profession (especially being an unjust oppressor of Israel), neither did he confront it. Jesus meets us where we're at, and we're all at different places as we "work out our salvation" (Phil 2:13).

I thus cannot judge the security guard or any other Christian serving in the police force or military in a capacity in which they might have to kill public or national enemies. But neither can I with integrity claim to understand how they reconcile this with the teachings of the New Testament. So when asked, I feel obliged to help Kingdom folks wrestle with their decision to use potentially lethal force for any reason.

Be a peacemaker.


Wednesday, December 12, 2007

Sex and the Trinity

Okay, this is (I hope) the last of my sex blogs for a while. But hey, this is important stuff, especially given how cavalierly our culture treats sex.

So far we've seen that sex is to be reserved for marriage because it's the sign of the marriage covenant and the symbol of Christ's relationship to the Church. I now want to argue that it's also a sacred symbol of the Trinity.

At the center of Israel’s faith was the confession, “Hear, O Israel: The LORD our God, the LORD is one” (Deut 6:4). The word for “one” in this passage (echad) doesn’t denote numerical singularity – as in “one” as opposed to “two.” It rather denotes a unity – as in “we are one nation.” This is the same word used when the author of Genesis says the husband and wife become “one flesh.” It’s not that they become a singular body. They have become a united body (I Cor. 6:16).

A central part of God’s original design for sex is that the joyful love that makes a husband and wife "one" reflects and participates in the joyful love that characterizes God’s own oneness. That is, the loving unity-amidst-diversity of a man and woman reflects and participates in the loving unity-amidst-diversity that is the Trinity.

I believe this is first hinted at in the Genesis narrative. In every act of creation prior to the creation of humans, the Creator was referred to in the singular, and God simply said, “Let there be…” When he came to humans, however, Scripture records God saying, “Let us make human beings in our image, in our likeness” (Gen. 1:26, emphasis added). In creating humans, God emphasizes his own unity-amidst-diversity. Then the text immediately adds that God made them "male and female" (vs 27) and gave them the command to multiply and to have dominion over the earth (vs. 28).

All of this suggests, I believe, that when a male and female become "one flesh" and beget children, thus extending the human dominion over the world, we are, in a particularly profound way, reflecting the image of God. This "one flesh" unity-amidst-diversity mirrors God's own unity-amidst-diversity. The loving ecstasy of a man and wife is the clearest echo of the loving ecstasy of the triune God that we have. As a husband and wife become "one flesh," they may beget children, and this echoes God's own creativity. And as these children extend human dominion over the world, humans echo God's own Lordship.

In our present state of rebellion and demonic oppression, of course, many people don’t or can’t get married, and many couples don’t or can’t have children. In fact, in our present war zone environment, Jesus and Paul both suggest it’s a distinct advantage to remain single. Yet, the basic point remains. The unique “one flesh” relationship of a husband and wife is intended to reflect the loving union of God’s triune essence and be a central means by which humans cooperate with God in the creation process and in carrying out “his will on earth as it is in heaven.”

When people become “one flesh” with others outside of the life-long marriage covenant, they desecrate sexual intercourse as a sign of the Trinity and violate the covenant that lies at the foundation of human community as God intends it. God’s strong “no” to sex outside of marriage is simply the necessary corollary to God's strong “yes” to sex as a revelation of himself and as the foundation for healthy human community.

Think about it.


Thursday, December 6, 2007

Sex and Our Heavenly Marriage

One or two more blogs and I'll be done with sex -- at least as a topic of discussion for the time being.

We've been talking about why sex is such a big deal for God. Several blogs ago I showed that sex is the "sign of the covenant" (marriage) that serves as the foundation for all of God's plans for humanity. Biblically speaking, when a person desecrates (make non-sacred) the "sign" of a covenant, they break the covenant. And, as I've argued, our culture's recreational view of sex is desecrating the sign all over the place. Many of our current social ills are the result of this.

But sex is not only a sign of the marriage covenant. The “one flesh” reality God creates through sexual intercourse is also a sign of the relationship Christ has with the Church. This adds to the sacredness of sex considerably.

Paul reveals this profound aspect of sex in Ephesians 5.

In the course of giving instruction to husbands and wives, the apostle Paul reminds them that all followers of Jesus are to submit to one another, regardless of social standing, gender or ethnicity. So, a husband and wife must submit to one another (Eph. 5:21).

Whereas marriages under the curse tend to be characterized by power games in which each party tries to rule and control the other (Gen. 3:15), Kingdom marriages are to be characterized by doing the opposite. Husbands and wives are to submit to one another. A marriage reflects the Kingdom insofar as husbands and wives are Christian – Christ-like – to one another.

Paul then appeals to the analogy of Christ and the Church as he fleshes out what mutual submission in marriage looks like in a first century context. In first century Jewish culture, husbands typically held all the power. They were the “head” of the family. So Paul tells Christian husbands how to use this culturally-given power. They’re not to enforce their will on their wives after the pattern of fallen marriages. They’re to rather use their headship to sacrificially serve their wives, after the pattern of Jesus Christ. “Husbands,” he says, “love your wives, just as Christ loved the church hand gave himself up for her” (Eph. 5:25, emphasis added).

The wife is then to respond to the husband the way the church does to Christ. As the husband sacrificially serves her, she is to reciprocate by sacrificially serving him (Eph 5:22, 24).

Paul then goes on to tell husbands they must love and care for their wives just as they love and care for their own bodies (Eph 5:28-29). And they are to do this “just as Christ does for the church, for we are members of his body” (vs.29-30).

Now, it might seem that Paul has suddenly shifted the analogy from a marriage relationship to a body relationship. But, as a matter of fact, he has not. For, as we have seen, the marriage relationship is a “one flesh” relationship. Through sexual intercourse, the couple has become “one” with each other “in body” (1 Cor 6:16).

This is why Paul concludes his teaching by once again quoting Genesis 2:24: “For this reason a man will leave his father and mother and be united to his wife, and the two will become one flesh” (vs. 31). And then, most remarkably, he adds, “This is a profound mystery – but I am talking about Christ and the church.

This profound teaching reveals that the “one flesh” relationship God intends for a husband and wife is a sign of Christ’s relationship to the church. Christ has something like a “one flesh” relationship with his church, which is his bride and therefore his body. Just as we become “one in body” with anyone we have intercourse with, so too we become “members of Christ” and are “one with him in spirit” when we submit to his reign (I Cor. 6:16-17). The profound intimacy and shared ecstasy of sexual intercourse is thus a sign of the profound intimacy and shared ecstasy of the relationship God intends for Christ and his church.

It’s vital we understand that the “one flesh” type relationship Christ has with his bride isn’t cheap. To the contrary, it's magnificently beautiful precisely because it cost Christ everything to initiate, and costs us, his bride, everything to reciprocate. Christ lays down everything for his beloved, and we the beloved respond by laying down everything for Christ.

In the same way, the “one flesh” relationship God creates between two people only properly functions as a sign of Christ’s relationship to the Church when it is costly. It’s intended only for couples who have made the ultimate sacrifice of pledging their lives to one another. When people enter into “one flesh” relationships without making this sacrifice, they cheapen the “one flesh” reality and thereby violate its meaning as a sign of Christ’s relationship with the Church.

This should help us further appreciate why sex is such a big deal to God, and why he strongly prohibits sex outside of marriage in the Bible. He’s preserving the preciousness of the symbol of Christ's relationship with the Church.

I encourage you to honor the sign! It really is a big deal!

Blessings on ya'll.


Monday, December 3, 2007

Promiscuity and Terrorism

Hello bloggerites,

If you just recently joined my blog, you probably think I’m a man obsessed with sex. I’m actually not. I just happen to be working on a chapter on this topic for a book (Revolting Beauty) so it's on my mind.

As I mentioned a few blogs ago, our culture is steeped in a recreational view of sex. While God intended sex to be enjoyed between married couples alone, our culture has over the last three decades come to view it as a morally neutral activity that can and should be enjoyed however and whenever one wants. This cheapened view of sex is having destructive social and spiritual consequences.

For example, in 1960 just over five percent of children were born to unmarried mothers. In 2005 thirty seven percent were born to unwed mothers. This is a major contributor to the poverty in America as well as the alarming crime and violence rates in our culture, especially among young people. One in five Americans now has a STI (Sexually Transmitted Infection). Forty three percent of all marriages now end in divorce. And, ironically, the percentage of people struggling with sexual dysfunction is on the rise, especially for married people. One main reason for this is that porn deadens one’s appetite for real-life sex and introduces an inhibiting pressure to perform like a porn star in the bedroom.

The sexual revolution, it seems, is backfiring.

There are many other destructive consequences of our promiscuity as well, though they're less obvious. I would argue, for example, that our recreational view of sex contributes to the high frequency of depression of our nation. Nine percent of Americans are clinically depressed -- the most (by far) of any nation studied.

There's another non-obvious harmful consequence of our promiscuity I'd like to talk about in a bit more detail, for it shows how interconnected things are (and how we often overlook these connections). To put it bluntly, I'm convinced there's a direct connection between our promiscuity and terrorism. I know this probably sounds insane, but hear me out.

Radical Islamic groups notice that America has a drastic morally corroding effect on every country it influences. This is undeniable. Our brand of capitalism is inextricably bound up with sexually explicit advertising, which they abhor. And we are by far the main exporter of sexually explicit entertainment around the globe.

Consequently, these groups associate the “freedom”America stands for and now claims it wants to export to the rest of the world with its debauchery. And they understandably want to stop this at all costs. So, in the name of Allah, they have declared war on “the great Satan.” (Of course, they also have many other reasons for identifying America as "Satan" as well -- but our promiscuity is one of the major ones).

The majority of Americans can’t fathom why the terrorist groups hate us so much. Since we know we’re "so good," as George Bush stated several years back, most Americans conclude that radical Muslims who hate us must simply be evil. (How we love self-serving black and white categories!)

May I suggest that Kingdom people should not be so puzzled, so black and white, or so self-righteous.

America is not the “holy city set up on a hill,” as our traditional American mythology would have us believe. (See R. Hughes, Myths Americans Live By for a good exposition of this and other popular American myths). As a nation, we have become completely decadent and have, to a certain degree, brought this diabolic aggression on ourselves.

This doesn’t in any way condone the violence or tactics of these Islamic groups. Their hatred and violence is demonic. But so is the perversion of our culture. And in this light we need to expose the self-serving, simplistic fabrication that we are simply “good” and they are simply “evil.” The truth is, we’re both evil!

And all this simply demonstrates one more way in which the promiscuity of our culture is harming us.

As people who have pledged our life to imitating Jesus, we are called to revolt against this promiscuity. But unlike the revolt of the Islamist, we must always remember that “our struggle is not against flesh and blood, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the powers of this dark world and against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly realms” (Eph 6:12). Our warfare is not against people, but on behalf of people – including those who are morally decadent as well as the Muslim extremist.

Both Hugh Hefner and Osama Bin Laden are unwitting pawns of the Powers who need rescuing.

We thus “do not wage war as the world does,” nor do we fight with “the weapons of the world” (2 Cor. 10:3-4). We do not fight with hatred and violence. We rather are called to fight this battle by humbly manifesting the beauty of God’s design for sexuality as we purge ourselves of the promiscuity that pervades our culture -- and as we love our enemies.

Be free,