Saturday, March 29, 2008

Could Old Testament Warriors Have Been Mistaken?

Hi bloggers and bloggerettes,

Sorry it's been a few days since I've posted. Been crazy busy.

I've been discussing the problem of divinely sanctioned violence in the Old Testament. So far I've argued that whether or not we're able to reconcile the holy war tradition with the non-violent example and teachings of Jesus shouldn't affect our faith in Christ, our picture of God or how we live (see postings on 3/17, 3/21 and 3/24). Still, this issue has significant theological repercussions, so we need to take it very seriously.

It's now time to start examining proposals. I’ll put all my cards on the table. I have a tentative "solution" (really, a set of "solutions") that I plan on building toward as I review various proposals over the next couple weeks. But I'll also be honest with you and confess that I'm not entirely satisfied with my present "solution," so I'm very open to modifying, or even completely abandoning, my present views. In a very real sense I'm just processing out loud on this blog. My hope is that this exercise will help refine, modify and improve my own view and perhaps help others along the way.

Let's start by considering the most radical proposal to resolve the apparent contradiction between the Old Testament's Holy War tradition and the non-violent character of God that is portrayed in the New Testament. There are a number of scholars and pastors who consider themselves Bible-believing evangelicals who argue that when Joshua and other Old Testament warriors thought Yahweh was telling them to slaughter men, women and children, they were simply mistaken. The Bible accurately (even infallibly?) reports what these people "heard," but their "hearing" was culturally conditioned by the violence of the culture they were entrenched in.

Some who are reading probably just gasped and are shocked I would even bother to consider such a proposal. But please hear the proposal out!

One author who espouses this view is Vernard Eller. I’ve read all of Eller’s books and find him to be a profoundly insightful thinker with a beautiful vision and deep understanding of the Kingdom. (His book Christian Anarchy is a classic!). In his book War and Peace: From Genesis to Revelation (Wipf and Stock, 2003) Eller makes as good a case as I’ve ever seen defending the view that Yahweh did not command the violence of the Holy War tradition. I can’t begin to do justice to the complexity of Eller’s argument and the insights offered in this (often neglected) book. But I can briefly outline his basic argument in five steps.

1. Born Fighters
First, Eller argues that humans are made with a warrior instinct, for we are made in the image of a warrior God. He finds this in the paradigmatic Genesis narrative itself, for humans are commanded to “subdue” and “rule” the earth (19 [all numbers are page references to War and Peace]). We’re to partner with God in building his Kingdom on earth as it is in heaven, and this involves fighting for the Kingdom (21). In the Genesis narrative it's not yet clear who or what we’re supposed to fight, but there are suggestions we're not to fight other humans. In the narrative of Eve’s creation from Adam, for example, Eller notes that all fighting language is gone. “[T]here is nothing here about ruling or exerting control over others…Everything points to a mutual giving of oneself to the other – the very contrary of domination over the other. (23)

2. Turning on Each Other
Second, Eller observes that when humans "fall" (rebel against God), our fighter instinct gets turned on each other (Adam on Eve, Cain on Abel, etc.). Eller brilliantly traces the escalation of violence throughout Genesis and the Old Testament. Human on human violence, then, is the result of our estrangement from God. More specifically, violence is rooted in our unwillingness to trust God for security and thus in our need to make ourselves secure (33). At the same time, the Genesis narrative reveals that even after the fall, God continued to be a warrior, but he was a warrior for humans, not against them. This is reflected in the fact that Yahweh made clothes for Adam and Eve to cover their shame and in the fact that he took measures to protect Cain from other humans who wanted to kill him (as well as in a number of other ways) (29-30). Eller argues that God is always trying to protect humans from themselves and trying to get humans to partner with him in building the Kingdom (which Eller metaphorically depicts as dancing with God).

3. What Joshua and Other Old Testament Warriors Got Right
Eller argues – convincingly, I believe – that the wars that Joshua and others fought were not at all like the wars nations usually fight, for these wars are always motivated by the need to make oneself secure (he calls these sorts of wars “Nimrodian wars,” for they’re patterned after the “great” warrior in Genesis, Nimrod). The Israelite wars were “holy wars,” for the Israelite warriors were motivated only by a desire to partner with God in fighting God’s foes. Indeed, the Holy War tradition is premised on the conviction that “it is Yahweh who is fighting the war; about as much as is expected of the human participants is that they come along and watch him do it” (47).

This is why we repeatedly read in the Old Testament's Holy War material the refrain that “Yahweh has already given the enemy into your hand.” (52-53). This is also one of the reasons the Israelites often enforced “the ban” (herem) in which everything had to be “utterly destroyed.” They were trying to protect themselves against the fallen urge to fight for selfish purposes (57-58). Unlike Nimrodian wars, therefore, the Israelites couldn't be motivated by their own insecurities. They had to place all their trust in Yahweh and couldn't benefit from their battles (unless Yahweh explicitly allowed them to).

Not only this, but before engaging in these battles, the Israelites always had to spend time consecrate themselves to God – which means, according to Eller, they had to “[l]et Yahweh work you over, remodeling your Nimrodian image into that of himself until your total life and being become consistent with the war in which you have been enlightened to fight” (51). In this light, Eller says, these warriors “were doing the very best they knew how in getting their lives hallowed in accordance with Yahweh’s will" (52) They were trying to play out their warrior instinct the right way, by fighting God's battles rather than their own. "Their effort,” Eller adds, “puts ours to shame” (52).

One of the most interesting things about Eller’s book is that he is sharply critical of "enlightened" contemporaries who cavalierly judge Joshua and other similar Old Testament warriors for their barbarism. Joshua and other warriors at least had the understanding that they were to fight God’s wars, not their own, and that this involved totally surrendering to God’s will. In a moment, we’ll see that Eller believes these Old Testament warriors misapplied this true perception, but “we [today] don’t even have the true perception. Joshua’s is not the last word,” he says, “but his is the only first word that has any chance of ever getting us to the last word” (40).

Eller is particularly critical of anti-war activists who are, in his view, as “Nimrodian” in character as pro-war activists. Both the militarist and the pacifist are trying to acquire security for themselves apart from God (41). The way to stop wars, Eller argues, is not to get people to stop fighting each other. So long as people and nations are insecure, violence is inevitable. Rather, the only way to stop wars “is to get people to switch from fighting their wars to join Yahweh in fighting his war” (41). “Sad to say,” Eller argues, “the understanding of these people [Joshua and company] was flawed on some points, and their grand attempt failed." "But," he adds, “let it be said in deepest seriousness that, until we are ready once again to try the experiment of Joshua, there is no hope that the peace that God intends ever can become a reality” (43).

4. What Joshua and Other Old Testament Warriors Got Wrong
This brings me to the fourth, and, for our purposes, most important aspect of Eller's argument. While Eller stresses admiration toward the sincerely of Old Testament Holy Warriors, he also argues that “it simply is impossible to reconcile the savage, city-leveling Yahweh of Joshua with the God and Father of Jesus” (58) “[W]hen one…contemplates the hideous carnage that the ban required and encouraged, when he considers the completely indiscriminate and merciless slaughter of innocent men, women, and children, he cannot help but feel that the event reflects more of human presumption than it does of divine obedience” (72). Eller notes that “[e]ven the best of people with the best of intentions are not sufficiently godlike that they can fight God’s war without corrupting and perverting it with their own Nimrodian tendencies” (72).

In various passages that report Yahweh commanding slaughter, we are finding an accurate report “of what human beings heard him [Yahweh] say.” But we are not here finding “ the unmediated voice of God himself.” (78). When “the words run entirely contrary to all that knowledge would lead us to expect, we should perhaps question the hearing of the reporters rather than the consistency of God’s speaking” (78).

The Israelites were right in thinking they were called to advance God’s plan in the world (59) and right to believe this involved fighting. But they failed to grasp that “MAN IS NOT THE ENEMY” (59). In keeping with the “Nimrodian” mindset of their age, they wrongly assumed that any people who threatened the fulfillment of God’s plan were enemies who had to be removed. “[W]hen the squeeze came,” Eller claims, “Israelite faith wasn’t quite adequate, and the people fell back on the conclusion that man must be the enemy." In their limited perspectives, "there is no way for God’s plan to go forward without fighting against men, so this," they believed, "must be what God wants" (60).

This lapse constitutes “a failure of faith in the capabilities of God. As far as man can see, the only alternatives are either to let the plan of God be frustrated or to take out the obstructionists” (59). But this is, in fact, a “Nimrodian decision based on the premise that God’s alternatives are limited to what man can understand” (60). It’s the same thinking that Christians use today to justify violence (viz. "if we don't fight, evil will win!"). To really have faith in God, and to truly fight the battles God wants us to fight, we need to have faith that God can achieve his loving ends without using violent means (60).

Only in the New Testament do God’s people fully understand that our struggle is never against flesh and blood, but against principalities and powers (Eph. 6:12). Only with the coming of Christ does it become unambiguously clear that Yahweh’s battle is never against people, but always for people and against spiritual powers that oppress and destroy us. (Eller has a marvelous chapter on the spiritual warfare understanding of the atonement [ch.5, 113-144]).

5. God’s Use of the Holy War Tradition
One final point needs to be made. Eller argues that, while God didn’t approve of the slaughtering his warriors engaged in, he nevertheless used it to advance his purposes in the world. Throughout the Bible God uses what he does not approve of, as when he allows other nations to defeat Israel to teach them lessons. So too, “once Israel had determined that she was going to fight, God determined that, whether he approved of such fighting or not, he was going to use it to preserve Israel, give her a homeland, and lead her in the way toward the peaceable kingdom” (78). It's a matter of God bringing good out of evil.

This is how God handles all violence, according to Eller. All war is the result of human estrangement from God, and so in this sense all war is a punishment for rebellion against God. “God doesn’t approve of war,” he says, “but this isn’t to say war is completely outside his plan.” Rather, “war is the punishment brought upon themselves by those who foster and create the kind of situations that lead to war. " Moreover, Eller argues, "it is not that the losing nation is the punished one and the winner merely the punisher. War is always punishment both ways”(79). So, as a regrettable concession, God worked with Israel’s Nimrodian mindset, as he worked with the Nimrodian mindset of others, to accomplish his purposes, as much as possible, in the world. And part of this purpose was to punish the sinful violent-mindedness of both the Israelites and their pagan enemies.

And all the while Yahweh was laying the groundwork for a future revelation of who he really is, what his character is really like and what kind of warfare he has really called us to.

In my next post I'll offer a critique of this view. Until then, chew on this perspective. What pros and cons can you think of in response to Eller's view?

Keeping thinking, growing and loving!


Monday, March 24, 2008

OT Violence and Christian Behavior

Hi folks,

Well, now that my toe drama is over we can get back to the topic we’ve been wrestling with the last several posts: How can the motif of divine violence in the Old Testament be reconciled with the Calvary-centered depiction of God in the New Testament? Before considering various possible ways of resolving this difficult issue, I’ve been addressing a very important preliminary question: What is, and is not, at stake in resolving this issue?

In previous posts I argued that even if one concluded that passages depicting Yahweh as condoning genocide are not divinely inspired, this wouldn’t in any way undermine our grounds for believing Jesus is the Son of God. And even if one concluded that these passages are divinely inspired, this wouldn’t in any way undermine our grounds for believing Jesus is the definitive picture of God. So, whatever other things might be at stake in this issue, our faith in Jesus and our picture of God are not among them.

In this post I want to address a third and final thing that is not at stake in this debate. Even if we conclude that the passages depicting Yahweh as commanding violence are divinely inspired, this shouldn’t in any way affect how followers of Jesus live. More specifically, it shouldn’t affect how we view war and other forms of violence. This is a very important consideration, for since the time of Augustine Christians have consistently appealed to the violent strand of the Old Testament to justify waging wars when they believed their cause was “just.” (This is Augustine’s famous “just war” theory).

Two things may be said about this.

First, the appeal to the Old Testament to justify Christians fighting in “just” wars (if there are such things) is illegitimate for the simple reason that the Old Testament knows nothing of a “just war” policy. The wars that Yahweh had the Israelites engage in were not fought on the basis of justice. They were fought simply because Yahweh told the Israelites to fight them. They were holy wars, not just wars.

Moreover, a major motif of the Old Testament’s holy war tradition is that the Israelites were to completely trust Yahweh to fight their battles. They were forbidden to take any practical and pragmatic issues into consideration when they went into battle. They were commanded to place no trust in their own military might or wisdom. (This is why David got into so much trouble for counting his soldiers before going into battle). Indeed, the Israelites often didn’t have to raise a sword to win their battles. The walls of Jericho came tumbling down, for example, simply because the Israelites obeyed Yahweh and marched around the city seven times.

On top of this, because the Israelites' battles were holy wars – not wars fought out of a national interest or for a “just” cause -- the Israelites were forbidden to benefit from them (except in cases where Yahweh specifically gave them permission to do so). From all the towns of Canaan, for example, the Israelites were forbidden to keep any spoils. To the contrary, everything and everyone had to be “utterly destroyed” (herem).

If any Christian leader is going to appeal to the Old Testament to legitimize their nation’s warfare, they must commit to fighting the way the Israelites were commanded to fight. They must be certain that Yahweh himself has told them to enter into this war and must do so without any consideration of whether or not it meets someone’s criteria of a “just war.” They must refuse to take any practical or pragmatic issues into consideration and must place no trust in their military might or wisdom. And they must refuse to benefit in any way from their victory.

I submit that, since the time of Joshua, no nation has ever entered into war on this basis. (One could perhaps argue that contemporary Islamic extremists fight on this basis, but they aren't a "nation"). This fact clearly reveals the disingenuousness of appealing to the Old Testament to justify national or personal violence.

Second, appealing to the Old Testament’s motif of divine violence to justify Christians engaging in violence for any reason is illegitimate because disciples of Jesus are commanded to base their lifestyle on the example and teachings of Jesus, not the Old Testament. If we confess Jesus as Lord, we must follow his example and obey his teachings above all others (e.g. Phil. 2:5-8; Eph 5:1-2; Jn 15:10, 14). “Anyone who loves me will obey my teaching,” Jesus taught (Jn 14:24). And in the first epistle of John we read: “Whoever claims to live in him must live as Jesus did” (I Jn 2:6).

Jesus chose to love, serve and die for his enemies rather than engage in “justified” violence against them. He chose to be killed rather than to kill. Followers of Jesus are called to mimic this attitude and behavior towards their enemies (1 Pet 2:18-23; 3:15-16; Heb. 12:2-3). Moreover, Jesus (and the rest of the New Testament) consistently taught that we are to love, bless, pray for and do good to our enemies (Mt.5:44-45; Lk 6:27-36). We’re to never retaliate or use violence in self-defense (e.g. Matt 5:38-39; Rom. 12:17-21; I Thess.5:15; I Pet 3:9 ). No where in the New Testament is this example or these teachings about non-violence ever qualified. No where do we find any exceptions to the commands to love and do good to our enemies.

Jesus himself seems quite aware that the attitude towards enemies he commands his followers to embrace is very different from some aspects of the Old Testament. For example, in the Old Testament God twice reigned down fire from heaven in judgment on various individuals and groups. Yet, when John and James wanted to do this same thing in the New Testament, Jesus rebuked them (Lk 9:52-55). It violated the spirit of the Kingdom Jesus came to establish to want God to act the way he did in the Old Testament! In some ancient manuscripts of Luke, Jesus rebuked John and James by saying, “you don’t know what sort of spirit you are of” (vs. 55). If this reflects the original text, it means Jesus was implying that an act that was considered to be “of God” in the Old Testament may be considered to be of a different spirit – demonic – in the New Testament!

Along similar lines, Jesus sometimes contrasted his teachings with various teachings of the Old Testament and various traditions that arose out of those teachings. For example, the Old Testament permitted one to retaliate against an offender, taking “an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth” (Mt. 5:38). But Jesus expressly forbids his disciples to act on this principle. His disciples were rather to express self-sacrificial love towards their enemies (Mt. 5:39-44). Clearly, the way of the Kingdom Jesus was establishing was very different from the way of Yahweh in the violent strands of the Old Testament.

My point is that, regardless of whether or not we can adequately explain the apparent contradiction between the violent strand of the Old Testament with Jesus’ radical example and teachings about loving our enemies, this shouldn’t qualify our commitment to follow Jesus' example and obey his teachings in the least. Our call is to mimic the crucified savior, not the “warrior” portrait of Yahweh we sometimes find in the Old Testament (Ex. 15:3).

To sum up, we've seen that our faith in Jesus, our commitment to trust that God looks like Jesus, and our commitment to follow the non-violent example of Jesus are not at stake in resolving the apparent contradiction between the God who commands genocide in the Old Testament and the crucified God found in the New Testament. Still, since Jesus himself trusted the Old Testament as God’s Word, and since we are part of a community and tradition that have received the Old Testament as God’s Word, it is incumbent on us to do our best to explain away this apparent contradiction.

This is what I shall be attempting to do in forthcoming posts.

Till then, “Be imitators of God” and “[l]ive in love, as Christ loved you [while you were yet enemies] and gave himself for you” (Eph 5:1-2).


Saturday, March 22, 2008


Just like the famous rock group I play in, I'm NOT DEAD YET! I'm out of the hospital, alive and well.

But, there WAS a little drama.

I had to preach at the WHC 5:00 service tonight. Should have been no problem, since I'd already gotten clearance to get a "pass" out of the hospital, assuming they wanted to keep me over another night. But, because I wiggled my toe during the MRI (a couple of times it turns out), and because the doctor had reason to be concerned that I'd gotten a "bone infection" (which is really not good), he wanted me to do the MRI over again. (Do you have any idea how hard it is NOT to wiggle your toe when someone tells you NOT to, especially when so much is riding on it? It's tormenting!). So this time he wanted me to be sedated with Valium. Trouble is, because of scheduling problems, the MRI couldn't happen until about 2:00 on Saturday.

Well, I barely made it out of the hospital in time for the service. And when I got there, I was a wee bit buzzed from the Valium, combined with some Vicodin they'd given me earlier for pain. I drank a quadruple espresso on the way to church to "sober up." At the same time, I was putting the finishing touches on my sermon (which I had hardly gotten to since I'd been hospitalized for a couple of days).

Bottom line: The service went great! I certainly enjoyed it -- though I don't know how much of this was due to the Valium and Vicodin and how much it was the result of the Holy Spirit. Who cares? And somehow I managed to give a semi-coherent message that seemed to impact people.

When we are weak, HE is strong. Praise God!

Thanks for your prayers.
We'll get back to the Old Testament violence issue soon.

Happy Easter!!!

p.s. It turns out I have a nasty staph skin infection, not a bone infection, which is very good news. A couple weeks on antibiotics and I'm home free!
p.p.s. Aren't my friends terribly mean to me?
p.p.p.s. Don't I have great friends -- and an adorable grandson?

Friday, March 21, 2008

Greg Boyd and the Horrible Toe

You might remember a post last month detailing Greg's unfortunate injury to his little toe. Insignificant injury, right? Well, Greg is currently in the hospital recovering from a runaway infection.

Greg's toe started feeling pretty messed up a few days ago, so he went to see his doctor on Wednesday evening. The doctor was shocked at how bad the infection was and started him on an antibiotic. Greg went home that night and spent a very horrible night sweating and shaking.

Thursday Greg developed a rash, continued to shake uncontrollably, and the skin on his face and one of his arms was somewhat discolored. Not good. Shelley took him back to the doctor who sent him to the E.R. where they promptly admitted him to the hospital.

Today he feels and looks better and seems to be responding to the I.V. antibiotics he's been receiving. There are some really funny parts of this story though. For instance, Greg wiggled his toes during the 5 minute MRI, which meant a do-over. On the next attempt Greg asked if the music could be turned off so he could concentrate...his heart was racing at the thought of failure by wiggling again, which he didn't do again but he was so nervous that he couldn't lay there. Also, while visiting him we messed around a little with his chart. Under "activity level" we wrote "hyper," under "diet" we wrote "vegetarian cows." Under "fall risk" they had "no" circled, so we corrected that too...after all, a fall is what got him into this mess in the first place. We noticed under "Today's plan" his nurse had written "Zeroed"...we left that because zero is what Greg amounts to on any given day. (We're kind of mean friends).

Greg is spending his time trying to catch up on some reading. He's been plowing through Shane Claiborne's Jesus for President. He's giving it a big thumbs up, and he'll tell you more about it himself at some point. And what kind of visit would it be without his adorable grandson, Soel. They played drums together. Greg is hoping to be out in the morning just in time for Easter services Saturday evening and Sunday morning.

Anyway, if you could keep Greg in your prayers it would be great. We do love him!

your faithful Admins along with the whole small group

The Violent Strand of the Old Testament and Our Picture of God

Hello fellow brave inquirers who aren't afraid of dealing with difficult issues head-on:

We’re trying to make sense of the violent strand of the Old Testament in which God is depicted as a warrior -- commanding the genocide of the Canaanites for example -- and in which barbaric violence is sometimes celebrated, as when David rejoices over Babylonian babies having their heads smashed against rocks (see the previous two postings). I’ll soon start discussing a number of proposals to address this issue, but first I want to get clear on what is and is not at stake in resolving this issue.

In my last post I argued that our faith in Christ should not be at stake in resolving this issue. Even if we feel forced to conclude that the violent strand in the Old Testament isn't divinely inspired, this shouldn’t affect our faith in Christ. It would certainly create a host of theological problems, but it shouldn't lessen in the least our confidence that Jesus is the Son of God. In this post I want to go further and argue that nothing about our fundamental picture of God should be at stake in resolving this issue. Even if we conclude that the violent strand of the Old Testament is as much a part of God’s inspired Word as every other part, this should not affect in the least how we view God.

The reason is that the New Testament presents Jesus as the final, definitive, perfect revelation of God. This is what is meant when John calls Jesus the “Word” (logos) of God. When God speaks or thinks, John is saying, it looks like Jesus (Jn 1:1). So too, Paul calls Jesus the “form” of God and the “image” of God, which means that the infinite God has made himself finite and visible in Jesus (Phil. 2:6; Col.1:15). While no one has seen God as he is in himself, the Gospel of John says, the “one and only Son, who is himself God…has made him known” (Jn 1:18). This is why Jesus responded to Philip's request to see the Father by saying, “Anyone who has seen me has seen the Father” (Jn 14:9, emphasis added). We behold the glory of God himself in the face of Jesus Christ (2 Cor 3:18-4:6; I Jn 1:1-3) which is why we are always to fix our spiritual eyes on him, and on him alone (Heb 12:2; Col.3:5).

The author of Hebrews sums up the matter nicely when he writes:

In the past God spoke to our ancestors through the prophets at many times and in various ways, but in these last days he has spoken to us by his Son, whom he appointed heir of all things, and through whom also he made the universe. The Son is the radiance of God’s glory and the exact representation of his being, sustaining all things by his powerful word. After he had provided purification for sins, he sat down at the right hand of the Majesty in heaven (Heb 1:1-3).

The author is saying that while God revealed himself in a variety of ways in the past, in these “last days” (meaning simply, in this last epoch of history), God has superseded all these by revealing himself through his own Son. Unlike all previous written and spoken revelations, the Son radiates God’s glory and is “the exact representation of his being.” He is, in fact, the one through whom and for whom everything exists (Col 1:15-17).

In other words, Jesus is the point of everything – including the point of all the previous revelations (see Jn 5:39-40, 46). While others spoke and wrote about God, Jesus is God (I Jn 1:1; Rom. 9:5; Tit. 2:13). Indeed, "in Christ all the fullness of the Deity lives in bodily form" (Col. 2:9). Think about this! All (not some) the fullness (not an aspect) of the Deity (God himself-- not a lesser being) lives in bodily form (in the incarnate Son of God).

The unmistakable message these various authors are hammering home is that, if you want to know what God is like, look at Jesus Christ. Jesus isn't merely part of God’s revelation, as though it’s ever appropriate to line him up alongside of the Old Testament and/or our life experiences as a supplemental or competing source of revelation. No, Jesus is himself the definitive, unsurpassable revelation of God. All we need to know and can know about God is found in him. Jesus is not a way to God or a truth about God: he is the way and the truth – which is why he’s the only way to go to the Father (Jn 14:6). Jesus is not a Word, an image or a form of God. He is the Word, the image and the form of God. Now that God is revealed in Christ, there are no competing or supplemental revelations.

Now, if Jesus is in fact "the radiance of God’s glory and the exact representation of his being," and if in fact we see the Father when we see Jesus, we have to wonder why God doesn’t look like Jesus in the violent strand of the Old Testament. We’ll deal with this soon. But my point right now is that, even if we fail miserably at resolving this issue, it would constitute a denial of the New Testament's understanding of faith in Christ to allow this violent strand to in any way qualify the picture of God given to us in Christ. We would be placing the violent strand of the Old Testament alongside Jesus -- as though it stood on equal footing with Jesus -- which is the very thing Jesus and the New Testament explicitly forbid. There's only one "exact representation of [God's] being" -- and it's Jesus.

Of course, one might legitimately argue that this stance forces those of us who affirm that the violent strand of the Old Testament is divinely inspired into a contradiction. We say that the violent strand of the Old Testament is divinely inspired but we deny that it reveals what God is truly like. Perhaps this is a contradiction, perhaps not. But even if we completely fail at explaining away this apparent contradiction, it's far better to live with an apparent contradiction than it is to compromise our faith that God looks like Jesus -- period.

So, whatever else is at stake in the issue of explaining the violent strand of the Old Testament, our picture of God should not be. Fix your spiritual eyes on Jesus (2 Cor. 3:17-4:6; Col 3:5; Heb 12:2), not on the warrior God of the Old Testament.



Thursday, March 20, 2008

Ms. Paparazzi the Night Stalker

Thanks for posting that Marcia. Paul and I are very pleased to receive the CT Book Award. We make a good team -- despite the fact that we sometimes drive each other nuts. Our prayer is that this book will help build confidence in the reliability of the Synoptic Gospels, both at an academic and lay level.

And now about Ms. Paparazzi the night stalker. It's just a little creepy knowing that, as I read and write away in my little room at 5:00AM, Marcia might be out there taking pictures! Random. I wonder what my neighbors might have thought if any saw her in action. Casing out the joint or what?

Anyway, time to get back to our violence in the Old Testament debate. I'll have a new post up soon.



Wednesday, March 19, 2008


Sorry to interrupt all this Old Testament/violence talk Greg has been writing on, but I (Marcia) have some exciting news to share.

Christus Victor Ministries received word today that The Jesus Legend: A Case for the Historical Reliability of the Synoptic Jesus Tradition, co-written by Paul Eddy and Greg Boyd, received Christianity Today's 2008 Best Book Award in the category of Biblical studies. You can read more about it here.

CONGRATULATIONS Paul and Greg! the spirit of keeping up on my pictorial is the Boyd house in the middle of the night as it snows...the light is on in that horrible messy room of his. GB is notorious for getting 3-4 hours of sleep per night, and using the rest of the night to write. He should use the rest of the night to rest...but he doesn't. Greg, turn the light off and GO TO BED!!! BUG!

Monday, March 17, 2008

What’s at Stake in Trying to Explain the Violent God of the Old Testament?

When the LORD your God brings you into the land you are entering to possess and drive out before you many nations... and when the LORD your God has delivered them over to you and you have defeated them, then you must destroy them totally. Make no treaty with them, and show them no mercy…You must destroy all the peoples the LORD your God gives over to you.
Deut. 7:1-2, 16

I’m wrestling with the issue of the depictions of God as violent -- to the point of commanding genocide -- in the Old Testament (see my blog on Friday, March 14th). The main issue here is not just that passages in which Yahweh commands the Israelites to slaughter women and children (and even animals!) offend our modern sensibilities. The main issue, rather, is that these Old Testament depictions of God seem to run directly counter to what we learn about God in Jesus, who alone is the perfect revelation of God (Heb. 1:1-3).

In Christ we learn that God is the kind of God who chooses to suffer at the hands of enemies and on their behalf rather than use his supernatural power, or earthly powers, to defeat them. In Christ we learn that God loves his enemies, and commands us to do the same. In Christ we learn that it's God’s will that his people refuse to engage in violence against enemies, and instead imitate Jesus by sacrificially serving them.

The problem we're addressing, then, is far more serious than the fact that our modern sensibilities are offended by the Old Testament's violent passages. The problem is that God reveals himself in Christ to be antithetical to the genocidal God of various passages in the Old Testament.

Before we attempt to explain this, I think it’s important to ask: What is at stake in resolving this issue? In fact, in my opinion, answering this question is even more important than resolving the issue itself.

One might suppose everything is at stake in resolving this issue, for one might wonder how we can affirm the Bible to be God’s infallible Word if it contains contradictory images of God. And if we can’t trust the Bible to be God’s infallible Word, how can we trust that Jesus is the Son of God and died for our sins, since we learn about this in the Bible too? One might also argue that, in light of the revelation of God in Christ, it's not only logically impossible but also morally impossible to affirm any depiction of a God who commands the slaughtering of women and infants and who inspires the psalmist to celebrating the smashing of infants' heads against rocks (Psl. 137: 8-9).

Now, I believe the Bible is God's infallible Word (depending on how you define “infallible” – but that’s a separate issue), but I believe this way of approaching this or any other biblical issue is unhelpful and even dangerous. I'd like to offer a different way of approaching this issue. For I don’t believe my faith in Christ hangs on whether or not I’m able to adequately explain the apparently contradictory images of God in the Bible. Here's why.

My belief that Jesus is the Son of God isn’t rooted in my belief that the Bible is God’s infallible Word. Rather, my belief that the Bible is God’s infallible Word is rooted (mostly) in my belief that Jesus is the Son of God. I don’t believe in Jesus because the Bible says so. I believe in the Bible (mostly) because Jesus says so.

Now, you might be wondering, if I don’t believe in Jesus because the Bible says so, why do I believe in Jesus? There are a number of reasons, but here are the main two.

First, I find the historical evidence supporting the portrait of Jesus in the Gospels and Epistles to be very compelling [on this, see Eddy, Boyd, The Jesus Legend (Baker, 2007) or its less academic equivalent Lord or Legend? (Baker, 2007)].

Second, I find that the over-all message of the New Testament, as well as the broader narrative of the Old Testament that forms its backdrop, harmonizes with my deepest intuitions about life. For example, at the core of my being I (and most healthy people) am convinced that, if there is any purpose to life, it’s centered on love. In the New Testament I find a story that makes sense of this core intuition, for the story of God becoming a human and dying a cursed death on the cross to save a rebel race of sinners is (if it's understood rightly) the greatest love story ever told. If God is like this, I can understand why I have the core intuitions I have. The Gospel story thus “rings true” on an existential as well as a historical level.

Now, since I have historical and existential reasons for concluding that Jesus is the Son of God, it seems reasonable to me to conclude that God had something to do with providing the oral and written meta-narrative – the biblical narrative -- that anticipates (in the Old Testament), looks back to (in the New Testament) and interprets Jesus’ coming. I thus have reasons for accepting that the Bible is inspired. What is more, reading the Gospels as generally reliable historical documents (see the above mentioned works for arguments supporting this assessment), it appears that Jesus himself viewed the Old Testament as God’s Word and that he saw himself and the community of his followers as carrying on this same Spirit-inspired authority. Since I believe Jesus is the Son of God and have made him Lord of my life, I’m inclined to think he was correct in his basic theological views, and thus correct in his assessment of the biblical tradition. (I have other reasons for believing the Bible is God’s infallible Word, but these are my main two).

If one roots their faith in Christ in historical evidence and the existential fit of the Gospel story, what is at stake in resolving the issue of violence in the Old Testament? Well, let's imagine the worst case scenario. Suppose that, despite our best attempts to argue otherwise, we finally feel forced to conclude there is no way to reconcile the depictions of God commanding genocide and inspiring David to celebrate the killing of infants with the revelation of God in Christ. Suppose we thus feel forced to conclude that we have a logical as well as a moral obligation to reject this depiction of God. Does this undermine our faith?

If your faith in Christ is rooted in your faith in every passage of the Bible being infallible, this worst case scenario would obviously completely destroy your faith. But if your faith in the Bible is rather rooted in your faith in Christ, the worst case scenario would hardly be catastrophic. It would present us with theological problems, obviously. We’d have to modify our understanding of God’s involvement in providing the oral and written meta-narrative that interprets the coming of Christ. We’d perhaps need to rethink what we mean by claiming the Bible is "infallible," and this might raise certain hermeneutical issues as well. And we’d certainly have to rethink our Christology. How could Jesus, the Son of God, have trusted that the whole Old Testament was God’s infallible Word if (as we are imagining in this worst case scenario) a major motif that it contains is simply wrong?

These are challenging problems, but it’s so important we notice that none of them need affect our most fundamental reasons for believing Jesus is the Son of God or that the over-all message of the Bible that interprets Jesus’ coming is inspired by God. If our faith in Christ is rooted in historical evidence and the existential fit of the Gospel story, we really lose nothing even if we end up concluding that the passages in the Old Testament that depict God as commanding genocide were not inspired by God.

So, let's do our best to explain the depictions of God as violent in the Old Testament and to thereby reconcile them with the revelation of God in Christ. But for God’s sake (literally), don’t leverage your faith in Christ on the outcome of this investigation!

More to come. Til then,

be outrageously blessed!


Friday, March 14, 2008

Divinely Inspired Infanticide and Genocide?

A number of years ago I read a Christian apologist who argued that one proof of the Bible's inspiration is the fact that it is "the most beautiful book ever written." Now, I believe the Bible is divinely inspired. But this statement made me wonder how many books this guy had actually read. In fact, it made me wonder if he'd read the Bible!

Here's an inspired verse I don't find particularly beautiful.

Daughter Babylon, doomed to destruction...
Happy are those who seize your infants
and dash them against the rocks (Psalms 137:8-9)

When an army conquered a city in the ancient world the victors would sometimes celebrate by smashing the heads of the infants against rocks. (Possibly inspired by this verse, this practice was resurrected by Christian Crusaders conquering Muslim cities). In this dark passage, the Psalmist is eagerly looking forward to this being done to Babylonian infants. He thinks the warriors who get to do this are lucky!

Most beautiful book in the world? Sorry. I'm not feel'n it.

Let's be honest. This passage is barbarically ugly, and we've got to wonder what on earth it's doing in the "inspired Word of God"! How are we to see this passage as "inspired" in light of the fact that Jesus taught us to love and bless our enemies, not hate and curse them? How could the same Lord who taught us to turn the other cheek, never retaliate and never use the sword inspire the Psalmist to gloat over the splattering of infants' heads? If harboring anger and speaking nasty words ("Raca") to another person puts us in danger of hell, as Jesus taught (Matt 5), what kind of danger must the Psalmist be in for harboring this utterly vindictive attitude toward the Babylonians?

What intensifies this problem even more is that it's not like Psalms 137 is an isolated case of celebrated violence in the Old Testament. It's found all over the place! The worst episodes happened when the Israelites enter the promised land. As they approached certain cities, the Israelites were commanded -- by God -- to slaughter men, women, children and even the animals! Yahweh is aiming at complete genocide of the Canaanite people. Could anything be more antithetical to what we learn about God in Jesus Christ? Honestly (we've got to be honest here, even if it hurts) doesn't this depiction of God look more like the God of Osama Bin Laden than the Father of Jesus Christ?

In my opinion, this is the most challenging objection to the Christian faith and most difficult theological question of the Christian faith. It's a problem I want to wrestle with in my next few posts. But I want you to be forewarned: If you think I'm going to have nice and tidy answers to this question, you're going to be disappointed. I don't. I'm still in process, entertaining a number of possibilities.

But I invite you to join me in the process.

In the meantime, I encourage you to walk in the self-sacrificial, loving way of Jesus, not the baby-head-smashing way of the Psalmist.



Thursday, March 13, 2008

Stating It Clearly

Hello fellow bloggerites,

Thanks for all the feedback on my review of Colson’s God & Government. In light of some of this feedback, I feel I need to clarify my view. I am not suggesting Christians can’t or shouldn’t be involved in politics (though I can easily understand how the New Testament leads some Christians to this conclusion). And I am not at all negating the good that Christians like William Wilberforce accomplished by political means (though non-Christians have of course accomplished similar things). Rather, in my review of Colson’s book and my other writings, I am simply arguing four things:

1) Even if it's permissible for Christians to participate in politics, we certainly don’t have a duty to do so, as Colson and most Evangelicals assume. Our only duty and allegiance is to God and his Kingdom. We cannot serve two masters. Out of our duty to God we are to obey laws, pay taxes and pray for political leaders as well as peace. (These are the only four things Scripture mentions in regards to what a Christian's relationship with political power should be.) Also out of our duty to God, however, we are to break all laws and go against all social norms and cultural taboos that are inconsistent with the reign of God. The life of a Kingdom person is to be counter-cultural and subversive of power.

2) There is no distinctly “Christian” way of being involved in politics. The criteria for political discernment is decency and wisdom, not the Christian faith or Christian lifestyle. Given the ambiguity of most political issues, good and decent people can and do fundamentally disagree about proposed political solutions to various problems. Kingdom people need to always respect this ambiguity, even (especially) on issues about which they are passionate, and thus never label their particular views "Christian."

3) While some good things can at times come of political involvement, the trust and confidence of Kingdom people is never to be placed here. Our trust is to be placed exclusively in the Kingdom of God, which always looks like Jesus. Our focus, time and energy must be centered on individually and collectively replicating the self-sacrificial love of Jesus to all people at all times.

4) Finally, politics is dangerous! We must always remember that Satan -- the “god of this age” (2 Cor 4:4) who “controls the entire world” (1 Jn. 5:19) -- is the C.E.O. of all governments (Lk 4:5-7). We must always remember that political power was the thing Satan tempted Jesus with and must never forget that Jesus refused this temptation. We must always remember Church history, which abundantly testifies to how saying “yes” to Satan’s temptation turns the Church into an ugly, destructive puppet of Caesar.

That's it in a nutshell. Hope that clarifies things a bit.

In an upcoming post I'm going to tackle the problem of violence in the Old Testament. Stay tuned!


Thursday, March 6, 2008

Review of Colson's God & Government

As I promised, here's my book review of Chuck Colson's book God & Government. This is a long post, but I hope you'll find it worth the effort.

Chuck Colson is one of the most respected, influential voices in the modern Evangelical movement. His book God & Government is an important one, for in this work we find Colson’s seasoned reflections on the relationship between Church and State.

Having heard Colson speak on many political matters on his daily radio broadcast (“Breakpoint”), I was frankly surprised by how much I agreed with this book. Whatever else one might think of Colson’s perspective, one can’t deny that he is extremely informed, sophisticated and nuanced in his understanding of culture and politics. At the same time, there is much in this book I found troubling. In fact, as will become clear, the part that troubled me also puzzled me, for it seemed to me to be inconsistent with all the material I agreed with.

I’ll first outline two areas of Colson’s book that I agreed with and then discuss the aspect of his thinking I disagreed with and found puzzling.

The Kingdom of God and the Kingdoms of the World
First, Colson is keenly aware that the Kingdom of God, which the Church is called to manifest, cannot be brought about by politics. Among other things, Colson argues that the two kingdoms operate with two very different understandings of how the world can be transformed. For example, “[w]hile politics is based on the premise that society must be changed in order to change people,” Colson notes, “in the politics of the Kingdom it is people who must be changed in order to change society” (105). The Church’s role is to transform society primarily by putting on display God’s love, revealed in Jesus Christ (103). While political power can restrict people’s behavior, only Christ-like love can genuinely transform people. God “commands [his people] to influence the world through their obedience to Him, not by taking over the world” (268, cf. 289, 300). The Church is to influence and lead society primarily by providing it with a counter-cultural model (272-74). Amen to all of this!

Along the same lines, Colson argues that as Christians, we're citizens of heaven before we’re citizens of any country, and we’re to “serve as ambassadors, citizens of the heavenly Kingdom at work in this world” (ibid). As we carry out God’s work in the world, Colson says, Christians should “not rely on government, but on their own penetration of society as ‘salt and light’” (270). In fact, Colson says Christians must therefore resist “the ever-present temptation to usher in the Kingdom of God by political means” (104, cf. 131). This temptation, he sees, is one “to which the church has most commonly succumbed, and certainly this is its greatest temptation today” (ibid). Indeed, the lure of power “has been one of Satan’s most effective tools from the beginning, perhaps because he lusts for it so himself” (308).

Colson argues that the temptation to think we can change the world by acquiring political power is the very temptation Jesus resisted when tempted by the devil. He notes how easy it would have been for Jesus to accept Satan’s offer to reign over all the governments of the world (Lk 4:5-7). If Jesus accepted Satan’s offer, Colson notes, he “could enforce the Sermon on the Mount: love and justice could reign” (131). Jesus could have easily rationalized his accepting this offer by thinking that “if He didn’t accept, someone else would” (ibid). Colson argues that this is, in essence, the temptation many politicians accept when they “compromise to stay in power” because they believe that “there you can do more for the common good” (ibid).

Throughout its history, Colson observes, the Church has succumbed to the very temptation “Christ explicitly denied,” and this has greatly harmed its mission (132). Power always corrupts, and never more so than when it is wielded by religious people (300-12, 344). This became painfully clear when the Church acquired political power after Constantine (4th century). Colson notes that Augustine was one of the first examples of how Christians can be corrupted by political power when he tragically called on the state to use its power to suppress heresy, using whatever force was necessary to accomplish this. This set in motion a long and tragic history of the Church torturing and murdering people in Jesus' name (124-25). Colson expresses his agreement with Jacques Ellul who argued that “[c]ollaboration with power, whether Communist or not, is always ruinous for the church. If the church exists, if it is to have legitimacy in the eyes of the people,” Ellul says, “ it must always stand erect as a counter-power to political power” (225-26).

Rather than collaborating with political power or seeking to acquire power over others in any other way, Christians are to follow Jesus’ example of exercising power in weakness, as demonstrated by his washing the disciples' feet (308-09). Colson insightfully notes that “[n]othing distinguishes the kingdoms of man from the Kingdom of God more than their diametrically opposed views of the exercise of power” (312). This is fantastic!

Colson ends his book by brilliantly exposing the “utopian illusion” that peace and harmony will be brought about in the world through political means. The only hope is in the coming Kingdom of God that is manifested in

…ordinary , individual lives, in the breaking of cycles of violence and evil, in the paradoxical power of forgiveness, in the actions of those little platoons who live by the transcendent values of the Kingdom of God in the midst of the kingdoms of this world, loving their God and loving their neighbor” (420).

Anyone who is familiar with my work Myth of a Christian Nation will know that I was ecstatic to hear Colson proclaiming such truth!

The Massive Failure of the Contemporary Church
Second, Colson seems acutely aware that the Church in America is absolutely pathetic at living out the radical call of Kingdom citizenship. American Christianity, he decries, is “a pale shadow of the radical Kingdom its Founder announced” (55). American Christians are outwardly religious, but, as numerous studies have shown, “our religious beliefs make no difference in how we live” (245). The remarkable wave of secularism that has swept America over the last forty years is mainly the fault of the Church failing to be the Church (243). (I’d argue that the failure of the Church to be the Church is the reason for almost every other social ill western culture has ever faced, but that’s a different story). Colson writes:

Christian values are in retreat in the West today, primarily, I believe, because of the church itself. If Christianity has failed to stem the rising tides of relativism it is because the church in many instances has lost the convicting force of the gospel message…Christianity…has become a religion of private comfort and blessing that fills up whatever small holes in life that pleasure, money, and success have left open, what Bonhoeffer called a “god of the gaps” (252, cf. 243).

I couldn’t agree more! But here’s where I become puzzled.

Our Alleged “Divided Allegiances"
Given that Colson believes the main job of the Church is to transform the world by using the power of weakness rather than political power; given that Colson believes political power always corrupts the Church and is a temptation of the devil we must resist; given that Colson believes that the hope of the world lies not in politics but in the Church being the radical, counter-cultural Church it's called to be; and given that Colson agrees that the Church in America is failing miserably at this all-important task, wouldn’t you think Colson would focus all of his attention on helping the Church become the Church rather than how it should influence politics? Oddly, this is not what Colson does. Yes, he has many admonitions for Christians to live out their Kingdom calling, but he also focuses a great deal of his attention – in this book and in his broader ministry – on how Christians should engage in politics! Among other things, Colson hangs his hat on Christians fighting to outlaw abortion, gay marriage, embryonic stem cell research, and confirming “strict constructionst judges” in our courts (120).

According to Colson, Christians have “divided allegiances between God and the state” (313, cf. 126). ) “[A]s citizens of the nation-state,” Colson says, “Christians have the same civic duties all citizens have…” (314). We thus “have a duty…to work through civil authority for the advancement of justice and human good.” (133-34). Indeed, Christians are called to be patriotic (he has a whole chapter on “Christian patriotism”), though Colson grants that “Christian patriots spend more time washing feet than waving flags” (283). (I’m wondering why we should be waving flags at all!)

Despite the fact that Colson grants that “Jesus was remarkably indifferent to those who held political power” (126), and despite the fact that he agrees the Church should not “seek authority over political matters” (127-28), Colson argues Christians are commanded to try to influence the “kingdom of man” by bringing the values of “the Kingdom of God” to the political arena (262-63). Moreover, “Christians have a duty to “hold the state to account for its obligations to its citizens” (275). In fact, if a state is completely failing to carry out its God given duty, Colson says, “[t]he Christian may be justified…in organizing to overthrow the state.” He adds that, “Where peaceful means are available, force should be avoided” (283), which obviously implies that where peaceful means are not available, force is permitted.

Not only this, but “while the Christian is not to return evil for evil…he may participate in the God-ordained structure that restrains the evil and chaos of the fallen world by the use of force” (100). Christians can, therefore, participate in the armed forces and engage in violence if their cause is just. (How is that not returning evil with evil?). And while Colson grants that being involved in political offices may very well require one to lie and deceive people if it's in the nation’s interest, and despite the fact that Jesus and the New Testament forbid duplicity (Mt 5:37; Eph 4:15; I Tim.1:10), Colson argues that Christians should not hesitate to aspire to these political positions and participate in deception if they feel so called (313-14). Since our loyalties are “divided” between God and the state, sometimes Kingdom people must do things for the state that would otherwise be forbidden for Kingdom people if it’s for the greater good of the country.

Where Does Colson Get This?
Now you may be wondering, where does Colson get all this? It’s interesting to observe that, while Colson’s expositions on how the Kingdom of God is different from the kingdoms of the world are filled with Scriptural citations, such citations are almost non-existent in his expositions on how Christians should engage in politics. He of course frequently cites I Tim 2:1-3 and 1 Pet 2:13-17. But these passages only inform us that we’re to respect and pray for political leaders while obeying them insofar as this is possible (though it sometimes is not, cf. Acts 5:29). These passages hardly justify Colson’s view that Christians have a duty to participate in politics.

The only passage Colson relies on in a substantial way is Romans 13:1-7. Because Paul in this passage says that God “ordains” or “establishes” (tetagmenai) government and that Christians are to therefore obey ruling authorities (again, insofar as this is possible), Colson concludes that Christians have a “divided allegiance” between God and state, and that our duties to the state are the same as every other citizen (99-100).

In reality, this passage doesn’t support Colson’s position: it argues against it. Among other considerations, we have to read Romans 13 as a continuation of Romans 12 (in the original there were no chapter divisions). In Romans 12 Paul commands Kingdom people to love and bless their enemies while never retaliating. We are rather to leave all vengeance to God (Rom. 12:14-21). Then in chapter 13 Paul proceeds to tell us one of the ways God exacts vengeance – the very vengeance he just forbade us to ever carry out: namely, God uses the sword of government (13:4). The purpose of Romans 12 and 13, therefore, is not to inform us that we have a “divided allegiance.” It’s to rather distinguish the behavior that characterizes the Kingdom of God from the behavior that characterizes the sword-wielding kingdoms of the world.
The truth is, Kingdom people do not have – or at least should not have -- two allegiances. We cannot serve two masters (Lk 16:13). We are to obey government not because we have a duty to it but because we have a duty to God, and he tells us to submit to government insofar as it’s possible. Government is simply not worth bucking against if we don’t have to because this will distract us from doing our Christian duty of manifesting the Kingdom and spreading the Gospel.

A lot of Questions!
So, its not clear where Colson gets his passionate call for Christians to be involved in politics. It’s also not clear how this passionate call to politics is consistent with his excellent exposition on the unique, Jesus-looking way Christians are to transform the world and how different this is from politics. Here are eight (of a hundred) questions (or sets of questions) that arose in my mind as I read Colson’s book.

1. As we saw above, Colson grants that Jesus was “remarkably indifferent” to political powers (126). Since our central call is to imitate him (e.g. I Cor 4:6; 11:1; Phil. 3:17; Eph :1-2; I Thess 1:6; 2 Thess 3:7; Col 2:6; I Pet 2:21; I Jn 2:6), shouldn’t we too remain relatively indifferent to the political powers? Colson never addresses why our attitude should be so different from the Lord we’re called to imitate.

2. We saw above that Colson believes Christians have a duty to hold the state accountable (326) and even to violently overthrow it if necessary (283). When did Jesus ever hold Caesar accountable or tell his followers to do so? Even more to the point, if any government deserved to be overthrown it was the Roman government of Jesus’ day. And there was, in fact, a popular Jewish movement that was calling for just this (the zealots). Yet, Jesus explicitly disavowed this movement and forbade any use of the sword. He rather chose to subvert government by manifesting God’s love while allowing the government to put him to death. We are explicitly taught that this is the example we are to follow (I Pet 2:21). Colson never supports his endorsement of potentially violent revolutions with Scripture.

3.Related to this, on what basis can Colson justify Christians resorting to violence simply because one deems it justified? When Jesus, Paul and others in the New Testament command us to love, do good, bless and pray for our enemies and never retaliate, they never once provide us with an exception clause. Why does Colson not even attempt to offer a justification for his position? He seems to not notice the contradiction.

4. If political power is a temptation of the devil that always corrupts, as Colson argues, why should Christians trust it to bring about positive change and be invested in bringing about this change? Since Colson grants that the Christians main job (I’d say only job) is to influence the world by imitating Jesus’ self-sacrificial love, and since Colson concedes that this is where the only hope of the world lies, and since Colson further grants that the American Church is pathetic at doing this, shouldn’t we regard Colson’s own call to political activism as a massive distraction from our primary (if not singular) mission? At the very least, shouldn’t we put politics on the back burner until we get good at doing the one thing God explicitly calls us to do: namely, to look like Jesus?

5. Colson grants that ministers and priests must take great care to distinguish their political opinions from their “spiritual roles.” Otherwise they can’t help “presenting two faces to the world” that “ inevitably damages the work that should be a primary concern: the witness of the church” (326). This is certainly wise. But if this is true of clergy, why isn’t it also true of lay people? We are all called to be ministers and priests (Eph 4:11-13; I Pet 2:5; Rev. 5:10; 20:6). We’re all called to be “the witness of the church.” How many people have been ostracized from the Kingdom in America simply because they can’t stand the public political positions many Christians have taken?

6. Colson repeatedly notes, with great wisdom, that Kingdom people are called to be faithful rather than pragmatic. But then how can he justify encouraging Kingdom people in politics to compromise their Kingdom walk by killing or lying if they have to on the grounds that doing so would serve “the common good?” This strikes me as putting pragmatism over faithfulness.

7. Here’s a big one. Colson grants that whenever pastors become partisan, they “may soon discover they have compromised both their own witness and that of their church” (329). This is wise advice, and, as I’ve said, it applies to lay people as much as clergy. Yet right after saying this Colson reports that he helped draft a statement with Richard Neuhaus in 2006 that said, “Those who take pro-choice positions are denying themselves the company of believers” (331). How is this not being partisan? A particular political position is being made into a litmus test for church membership!

Isn’t it conceivable that a pro-life Christian could in good faith decide that attempting to overturn Roe versus Wade is simply not feasible in our pluralistic culture and that embracing this all-or-nothing stance is actually contributing to the killing of unborn children? Couldn’t a pro-life Christian conceivably conclude that, since almost all Americans agree that the fewer the abortions the better, the main reason abortion rates remain constant is that the two sides have become polarized at the extremes? Couldn’t one suspect that the one side won’t give in on the barbaric practice of partial birth abortion because they fear the other side will gain momentum in criminalizing the morning-after pill? Couldn’t a pro-life Christian conceivably conclude that trying to find a common ground requiring compromise on both sides would actually allow us to work together to achieve what we all want – fewer abortions? Or isn’t it conceivable that a pro-life Christian might in good faith come to the conclusion that the issue of abortion is so difficult that women themselves should be the ones to decide the matter rather than government?

At the very least, aren’t these (and many related) issues at least ambiguous enough that leaders like Chuck Colson should refrain from disfellowshipping someone because they hold a different political position? Colson’s view here is particularly puzzling because he elsewhere warns about how political involvement has often divided the church (252-53)!

Finally, given that the central call of the Kingdom is not about politics but rather about sacrificial service to the world, shouldn’t we be more focused on how we Christians can sacrificially serve women with unborn children, making it feasible for them to go full term, rather than kicking each other out of church over our opinions about what government should or should not do about abortion?

8. Colson worries that if gay marriage becomes permissible by law, Christian ministers and priests will be ordered to marry same-sex couples or see the state yank their licenses to perform marriage (129). This, of course, is very debatable, but partly on this basis Colson encourages Christians to fight for the marriage amendment act. Regardless of whether or not one thinks it’s in the interest of the common good for gays to be able to call their unions “marriages,” isn’t Colson encouraging Christians to acquire political power, which he elsewhere says the Church should never try to do (127-28). This is especially puzzling because Colson grants that whenever the church wasn’t persecuted it was being corrupted (126). In this light, why would Christians fight for the right not to be persecuted? Did Jesus or his disciples ever do such a thing?

Isn’t the temptation to defend ourselves and advance the good by political means the very temptation Jesus rejected, and the very temptation Colson warns us about?

Colson is fantastic in his analysis of the distinctness of the Kingdom of God and the kingdoms of the world, and brilliant at exposing the dangers of fusing the two. But, as we’ve seen, he then goes on to advocate many political positions and encourage many political activities that, at the very least, stand in tension with these insights. What explains this? There are, I believe, two things.

The first and most fundamental problem is Colson's mistaken view that Christians have “divided loyalties.” He of course stresses that our loyalty to God supercedes our loyalty to the state (despite advocating that Christians in politics can lie or that Christians can participate in killing if it's in the interest of the nation). It’s because of this understanding of dual allegiances that Colson is able to – indeed, forced to -- espouse two very different (arguably contradictory) views of politics and how Christians should, or should not, engage in it.

Second, Colson repeatedly falls into a false antithesis. Either a Christian is politically active, or they hold to a “privatized faith.” For example, at one point Colson criticizes the “passing-through mindset” of

those who believe they are simply sojourners with loyalties only in the kingdom beyond. They believe that faith is an entirely private matter, and that they are under no obligation to the community or country in which God has placed them ( 280).

Well folks, there is another alternative. One can believe they’re “passing-through” this world (which the New Testament in fact teaches) and that their only loyalty is to the Kingdom of God (which the New Testament also advocates) while embracing a profound “obligation to the community or country in which God has placed them” (which the New Testament also advocates). The question is not whether or not Kingdom people are called to radically affect society, but how. Everything in the New Testament drives home the point that we are to transform society not by thinking we have any special wisdom on how to fix government and run the world, but by simply imitating our Lord and Master. Everything about Jesus’ radical lifestyle, and certainly his death on Calvary, was a radical act of social activism. This is the social activism Christians are to be engaged in.

I don’t think this means Christians can’t be involved in politics (though some of my Anabaptist friends would disagree). But it certainly means we all (not just clergy!) have to take great care to keep our political involvement distinct from our call to manifest God’s Kingdom. Don’t label your political opinions “Christian”! And it certainly means we should not divide our loyalties and trust between God and our political involvement Our only loyalty, and our total trust, must be in God who sovereignly uses our Jesus-looking acts of sacrificial love to transform the world into a domain over which he reigns: the Kingdom of God.

Saturday, March 1, 2008

Let me tell you about my "Beso"

Hi folks,

I'd like to share with you a little bit about my adorable wife Shelley. It's her birthday today! I affectionately refer to her as "Beso" (pronounced bee-so) because.... actually, I have no idea, but that's been my name for her these last 25 years.

This is Shelley on vacation last summer, basking in the tranquility of the midsummer breeze...she is so BEAUTIFUL!

Shelley and I have been married 28 years. She's the love of my life, my best friend and my partner in ministry. I could not do what I do if it were not for her -- and this isn't just flowery husband talk! Honestly, Shelley is to me what a seeing-eye dog is to a blind person. She's my bridge to the normal world. She's the glue that holds my life together. Among a trillion other things, Shelley schedules all my appointments, reminds me on a moment-by-moment basis where I need to be and constantly provides me with insight on social situations that I, being quasi-autistic, completely lack (I couldn't pick up a social cue if it slapped me in the face!). Even more importantly, Shelley's love for me is a constant source of strength and encouragement. are "the wind beneath my wings."

Shelley doesn't like a lot of fanfare. While she threw me the party of the century for my 50th birthday, Beso simply wanted to go out to a movie for hers. She loves pop-corn and I love Cherry Icees. Isn't she absolutely adorable? How did I get so lucky?

I can't believe how in love I am with my Beso. The way she delights in simple things, the way she perpetually fiddles around the house, the affectionate way she plays with our dogs and the way she so easily gets excited about our lives. She loves and accepts me, just as I am, with all my little idiosyncrasies. I love the history we have together, the family we've raised together, the friends we enjoy together, the ministry we do together and the process of aging we're now experiencing together.

Beso, I simply can't even imagine doing life without you.

Happy Birthday Sweetheart!