Please Stop Misusing Jesus’ Words

Today is Memorial Day, the day in which citizens of the United States of America remember those who died fighting in various U.S. conflicts.  Such a day is usually filled with parades, barbecues, and solemn remembrances of the fallen.  Such a day is celebrated in many nations.  There’s no denying that those who are willing to put themselves in harm’s way and to even die for the sake of their country, their family, their friends are worthy of respect and honor.  There’s no denying on a very basic level that such an action is honorable.  What I don’t particularly like is that, often on this day, Jesus’ words from John 15:13 are used in support of Memorial Day remembrances. Such words are often seen floating around Facebook in the form of a meme.  Just today I saw one from Lutheran Hour Ministries.  Here it is:13346766_10207612622087505_6930153700306006770_n

While I just noted that willingness to die for a greater cause than oneself is quite admirable, it’s another thing to use Jesus’ words to his disciples on the night in which he was betrayed to support those who died in military combat and service to country.  Forgive me if this strikes a chord within you, if you find yourself getting upset at what I just wrote.  Please hear me out.

Jesus shared these words with his disciples as he was sharing his last supper with them.  In just a short while he will be betrayed into the hands of sinners.  Bear in mind that Jesus is in the act of establishing a new covenant, one based on selfless nonviolent love.  In John 18, when Jesus is arrested, he tells his disciples to put down their swords, not to take them up.  In fact, Peter had just cut off the ear of the high priest’s servant named Malchus. We learn from the synoptic gospels that Jesus then healed the man’s ear.  After this, with his disciples having fled out of fear, Jesus is taken to the high priest for questioning and is violently struck on the face and spit upon.  He is then taken to the Roman Governor Pontius Pilate for questioning.  Trying to ascertain if he claims he is a king or not, Jesus responds to Pilate’s inquiry by saying,

“My kingdom is not from this world.  If my kingdom were from this world, my servants would have been fighting, that I might not be delivered over to the Jews. But my kingdom is not from the world.”

Here, before Pilate, Jesus makes a distinction between his kingdom and the kingdoms of the world.  That distinction is made by the use of violence and control, hence, “If my kingdom were from this world, my servants would have been fighting”.  If Jesus’ kingdom was from this world they would’ve fought back in the garden during his arrest. But Jesus’ kingdom is different, it is not like the kingdoms of this world.  In Jesus’ kingdom evil is not repaid with evil.  In Jesus’ kingdom suffering love is the weapon of choice, not a sword or an M16.  This is borne out further in the gospel of John as Jesus is sentenced to crucifixion.  There, the evils and injustices of the kingdoms of this world, the powers and the principalities, are on full display.  There, Jesus is cursed, mocked, spit upon, but he does not repay evil for evil, instead he entrusts his life to his father in heaven, asking for God to forgive his enemies.  There, Jesus lays down his life for his friends, for those who betrayed him.  There, Jesus witnesses to his kingdom and not to the world’s kingdoms which will always punish traitors, which cannot bear to look weak.  Three days later, Jesus’ entire life, all that he said and did, is vindicated when our father raised him from the dead having “disarmed the rulers and authorities and put them to open shame.”  God’s power having been made perfect/complete, not in military might, but in the weakness of the Roman Cross.

While I understand the desire to use Jesus’ words in such a way as the meme above does, it simply amounts to a misuse of Jesus’ words.  It’s actually very similar to what Satan does to Jesus when he tempts him using God’s word in the wilderness (Lk 4:9-12, Ps. 91:11-12). If, after saying these words, Jesus went and fought in the garden alongside his disciples with a sword setting off the expected revolution then such usage would be okay. Unfortunately, such usage is bound up in our own cultural biases and presuppositions, rather than what’s going on in the text.

I’ve written more on this topic here.

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Maybe We’re Not As Great As We Think We Are

In the wee hours of the morning as I was sitting with our newborn Lilly I came across an article written by Dr. Paul Raabe of Concordia Seminary entitled “Do Non-Lutherans Pay Attention to LCMS Theology?” The very title intrigued me because it’s a question that I’ve heard many times before or along similar lines like, “We have this great theology why doesn’t anyone know about us?” or “Why don’t we have a powerhouse writer or theologian on The New York Times Bestseller List?”  I believe these questions, though, reveal the embedded presupposition of many LCMS Lutherans.  I think we begin with the presupposition that our theology is great, that it’s something that the world needs to hear and that if heard they’d love it.  To be fair, Dr. Raabe admitted to his own bias, this was quite apparent when he claimed in thesis 1 that “the theological work in the LCMS is the best kept secret in American Christianity.”  Quite bold.  Nonetheless, he takes some stabs at why he thinks this is the case, however flawed such an assertion may be.  This, he believes, has to do with our insularity, sectarianism and marketing.  All good reasons worthy of consideration.  Again, though, I’ve got to go back to that embedded presupposition and belief that our theology is great to begin with.

These days whenever I read or hear something like what Dr. Raabe wrote or something that a Lutheran pastor says like “We’ve got this great theology, we just need to figure out how to to get it out there” the book “He’s Just Not That Into You: The No-Excuses Truth to Understanding Guys” comes to mind.  Now, to be honest, I’ve never read the book but I’ve read the description.  Many years ago I had a counselor tell me about it during a counseling session in which I shared a situation in which I just wasn’t into a girl who was really into me.  Here’s a description of the book from amazon.com:

“He’s Just Not That Into You—based on a popular episode of Sex and the City—is tough love advice for otherwise smart women on how to tell when a guy just doesn’t like them enough, so they can stop wasting time making excuses for a dead-end relationship. It’s the best relationship advice you’ll ever receive.”

Past personal love-life aside, I think the LCMS, its theologians and pastors, may have something to take away from this.  Who knew Sex and the City could be relevant to the LCMS?  I feel vindicated for all my late night viewing of this show.  Anyways, I would argue that we are like the girl (or guy) who needs to be told that he (American Christianity) is just not into us.  Maybe it’s not that we’ve failed at waking the sleeping giant, rather it’s that we aren’t really that interesting.  Maybe it’s that we aren’t as amazing as we think we are or as we tell ourselves over and over again.  Maybe it’s not that we are the best kept secret or that we’re like “dwarves with a secret treasure pot of gold.”  Maybe it’s that we’re pretty mediocre and kind of boring.  We’re very good at the basics but it seems to me that we don’t go very far from them.  And don’t get me wrong, the basics are a good thing, they provide a solid foundation just as good parents provide a solid foundation for their children.  But the children will eventually grow up and head out on their own.  At times, I think we in the LCMS are like adults in arrested development, having never left home or our small town and experienced what else is out there.

Now, to my point, Dr. Raabe made a list of some of the things that serve to validate his thesis such as the Concordia Commentary Series and first article theology and creation.  But to be sure, his very mentioning of these things almost prove some of the aspects of his second thesis: Non-Lutherans simply don’t know the theological work currently done in the LCMS.  I would argue that this is the case because we are quite unimpressive to begin with, thus disproving thesis 1.  For example, the Concordia Commentary Series is sorely lacking.  I immediately think of Art Just’s commentary on Luke which is quite problematic on exegetical, theological and sociopolitical grounds.  Just never mentions that one of the gospel of Luke’s overarching concerns is economic justice or the preferential option for the poor.  What’s more, he drops the ball in regards to Zechariah’s contrast with Mary and the temptation of Jesus and the subversive aspects of each temptation in light of the political and religious realities of the day.  Instead, Just continually projects Lutheran dogmatic categories onto Luke.  Similar things can be said about the Concordia Commentary on Matthew which, again, leaves much to be desired in the area of cultural context and sociopolitical realities of the day.  One example of this is the way the Sermon on the Mount is handled.  No mention is given to the creativity of Jesus’ third way borne out in his commands to turn the other cheek, to go the extra mile, to not repay evil for evil.  Jesus was giving an otherwise poor and powerless group of people creative alternatives to retain their dignity and push back on those in power while not resorting to violence.  This is well known by many New Testament scholars today.  Walter Wink has done some excellent work on the Sermon on the Mount (to be sure, many LCMS Lutherans would probably write him off immediately for being too liberal).  When it comes to first article theology and creation we are sorely behind other Christian groups, all one need do is look to the Orthodox like Alexander Schmemann or to others like farmer Wendell Berry or to radicals like Ched Myers and the Bartimaeus Cooperative.  The reality is that we’ve got nothing on these guys.  To a stalwart Lutheran Chuck Arand’s work on this may seem great but to an outsider or a Lutheran who has done some serious digging it’s not something that could be classified as gold.  The rest of the list bears similar problems.

The reality is that we LCMS Lutherans are a blip on the radar screen of all of Christendom.  In the United States we account for only 2 million of a population that is 320 million.   That’s lower than 1 percent.  Now I’m sure that there are those who take this as a badge of honor, that it’s a testament to our faithfulness or to our unwillingness to acquiesce to the demands of the world.  Thus, we are the faithful remnant. Unfortunately, I think that’s misguided, just as misguided as the idea that the reason we don’t have more appeal is because we have the pure Gospel which is offensive to many. In reality, I think it’s because we just aren’t as special as we’d like to think we are.  I think it has more to do with the notion that American Christianity is just not into us.  We do have good things to offer, but so do other churches as well.

One of the strengths of conservative Lutheranism is that it provides a very good formation for what Jung called “the first half of life.”  The first half of life is dedicated to forming a foundation, to forming an ego, to forming and establishing the basics and the boundaries (quia subscription?).  Lutherans are great at doing this.  More specifically, Concordia Seminary is excellent at doing this for those learning to be pastors in the LCMS. I sit here writing to you as someone who was given this theological foundation at the said institution.  I have benefited from Concordia Seminary, I can write this because of the foundation that I was given there.  But now what?  Do I just go around in circles and learn from the same professors or do I go outward, beyond LCMS lines?  I have done the latter and my life, my faith, my love for God has been greatly enriched.  I’ve learned that there is some amazing theology out there that does not bear the name Lutheran.  It’s even prompted me to ask, “Where have you been all my life?”

 

 

The Birth Pangs Of Losing Control: Gays, Trump And Transgender Bathrooms

Last summer the legalization of same-sex marriage set off an apocalyptic firestorm amongst conservative Christians.  A cursory viewing of Facebook would have one convinced that the world as we know it was about to end.  Similarly, in the last few weeks, Donald Trump becoming the heir-apparent presidential nominee of the Republican Party and the conflagration over transgender bathrooms have set off the apocalyptic firestorm once again.  Lots of fear is being promulgated as if to suggest that modern civilization, as we know it, is coming to an end.  What’s more, conservative Christians have even gone so far as to suggest that the legalization of same-sex marriage as well as transgender bathrooms will lead to persecution against them.  Donald Trump is even prompting some Christians to give up on the Republican Party and take comfort in the reality that Jesus is Lord and in control.  To that I say: thanks Donald, you dun good!

But, you know, I have to tell you that I find it interesting that this is where we Christians in America are going to stake our claim: gay marriage, Donald Trump and transgender bathrooms.  I would’ve thought that the apocalyptic persecution would have involved such things as actually confessing the name of Jesus and witnessing to his Way, but I digress.  Clearly, I don’t know the mind of God.  After all, “natural law” is the reason we are so upset, even though Muslims (the very group we have been told to fear), conservative Jews, traditionalists of all stripes, and even some atheists can appeal to such a thing.  After all, Donald Trump is unacceptable because he’s a narcissist and not a true Republican, even though he’s simply the product of the re-configuration of the Republican Party that began with the election of Richard Nixon in 1968.  Remember, though, that President Nixon lied to the American public, used the Vietnam War to his advantage and even used the Drug War as a ploy to undermine his political opposition.  I know, that’s different, he was still for traditional American values.  After all, cases of sexual abuse will occur more frequently in bathrooms even though they are usually committed by someone the victim knows like a family member or friend.  Buy hey, I get it, it’s not right.

But here’s the sad reality: if homosexuality hadn’t become normalized and legalized, if Donald Trump hadn’t become the inevitable Republican nominee, if transgender bathrooms had never become an issue we wouldn’t give a damn about such things.  Before the sexual revolution and all this “gay” talk we didn’t talk about homosexuality, quite frankly, I don’t even think we cared.  Out of sight and out of mind.  Our message was to repress it and to tell those “struggling” with it “to pray the gay away”.  Things were better when we weren’t forced to acknowledge it.  Better for us, not those gays.  The same goes with Donald Trump and the Republican Party. Never mind the fact that he is but the ultimate result of the fear-mongering, the obstructionism and hyper-individualized free market loving Friedmanite Republicanism that we’ve seen consistently year after year.  No one seemed to care when President Bush lied his way into war or when President Reagan lied about the Iran Contra Scandal or when, fairly recently, Ayn Rand’s Objectivist philosophy began to see a resurgence.  They were “pro-life” and that’s all that mattered (even though they increased our national defense spending considerably).  Of course, like the gays it would be nice if the transgender people had just stayed in the West Village and the various “gay” neighborhoods across the country.  Life was so much simpler when we could easily relegate them to a particular area and then forget about them.  Now, we actually have to deal with the complexity of transgender issues which doesn’t help our dualistic worldview.  Transgender people are so inconsiderate.  Man, if you had just stayed quiet we would’ve been able to continue on with life as usual.  Now we actually have to put in some effort figuring out how to respond to you and your problems.

The problem with all of this is that it really isn’t a matter of persecution as some would have us believe.  Rather, a transference of power is happening, the status quo is changing.  Those who have been legitimators of the status quo, like say, conservative Christians or traditionalists, are losing their place as such.  While there have always been groups of Christians calling for social change in America from the Abolitionist movement to the Civil Rights’ movement to the Peace churches, church bodies such as the LCMS or the Southern Baptist Convention have often served as a legitimators of the prevailing social order.  Good ‘ole CFW Walther, the father of the LCMS, had no problem with slavery. The LCMS has always given its blessing to the government and its wars, it was quite uncomfortable with pastors like Andrew Schulze who fought for Civil Rights and with its students protesting the Vietnam War. It resonated greatly with Nixon’s “Silent Majority” message valuing law and order and since then has been mostly conservative Republican.  In the last 48 years, only 20 of them have seen a Democratic president. The epitome of this persecution/martyr complex was best embodied by President Harrison of the Lutheran Church-Missouri Synod who claimed that he was glad to be ridiculed by the world after a Congressional hearing regarding the HHS mandate of the Affordable Healthcare Act.  It was an odd claim coming from a guy who represents a church body of over 2 million members, makes well over six figures a year, and after testifying before Congress, immediately received tons of praise and acclaim in the months that followed (I actually witnessed a room full of some 300 people give him a standing ovation).  I guess we could call this “First World Martyrdom Complex”.

To be sure, this has more to do with the loss of power, control and privilege.  We’re not being persecuted, rather we’re losing our place of influence in the culture at large.  I’m inclined to agree with Stanley Hauerwas that this is a good thing.  We’d do well to remember that Christianity began not in the power centers but on the fringes of society. From Nazareth of Galilee and not Rome of the Roman Empire or, for that matter, Washington DC of the American Empire.  We’d also do well to remember that it was the proponents of traditionalism and law and order who lawlessly put Jesus to death.  Don’t forget that the religious leaders were afraid that they’d lose their entire nation and way of life if Jesus continued on doing what he was doing.

An Exercise in Christian Narcissism

If you asked my wife if she thought I was an obsessive at heart she would immediately respond with a “Yes!”.  For better or for worse, I am what Freud would call an obsessive.  On a good day this prompts a deep desire to learn, to create and to love.  On a bad day I become enmeshed in myself, my flaws, my sins and acquire a sort of tunnel vision that fails to see past myself.  In my earlier years this could easily be remedied by going to the Scriptures and reading St. Paul only to have my existential angst dissipate by his words about justification in Romans 3 or throughout Galatians.  1 Timothy 1:15 was like music to my ears, as if they were specifically written not about Paul but about me, the chief of sinners though I be.  Martin Luther was someone I could relate to which is why God made me a Lutheran, that I am sure of.  Obviously, when God knit me together in the womb he predestined me to bear the name of another obsessive who I could obsessively project myself onto, but I digress.  Nonetheless, I deeply understood his desire to find a gracious God in the midst of the fiery accusations of the devil and of my very own conscience.  Thanks to the wonderful framework of Lutheran theology, I was able to find comfort time and time again in the Cross of Jesus.

Eventually, though, something began to change within me. Rather later than sooner I began to realize that my obsessive brooding did nothing for me or for the people around me.  In fact, I began to realize that the obsessive searching of my black heart produced more anxiety within me, it was self-obsessed and quite wasteful.  My focus was often inward when it should’ve been outward, a lot more outward.  In an odd way I was sort of a narcissistic Christian which is quite the oxymoron.

Nonetheless, the sense that this was not a good thing drew me to the writing of scholars such as NT Wright and Krister Stendahl.  It was Stendahl who argued that from Augustine onwards we in the West have been projecting “the Western question of an introspective conscience” onto the Apostle Paul.   Thus, Stendahl writes, “Especially in Protestant Christianity…the Pauline awareness of sin has been interpreted in the light of Luther’s struggle with conscience.”  Whereas we tend to be concerned with finding solace and comfort from a guilty conscience, Paul was actually quite confident when it came to his own conscience and standing before God.  A simple reading of Phil.3:6 and Acts 24:16 proves this.  For Paul the issue wasn’t how to find a gracious God but rather how the Gentiles were now to be included in the family of God through the Messiah Jesus.  From Augustine to Luther to us we have failed to recognize this because the Jewish/Gentile problem is not one that we are familiar with.  Thus, the words of Paul are interpreted to mean something else than what they were originally intended.  The focus goes from God’s initial graciousness to our own sinfulness. It goes from drawing upon the faithfulness of God to his covenant with Abraham to drawing upon our faithlessness before we receive the grace of God.  It goes from being drawn into God’s story of bringing the world to rights to drawing God into our story.

Ultimately, I write this because I find that focusing on my sin, my brokenness can end up being an exercise in narcissism.  It doesn’t go anywhere.  It’s important to be self-aware, to know one’s flaws and weaknesses, but it’s also important to be drawn out of ourselves.  I sin all the time, there are things I wish I did better, but I am called to follow the one who knew no sin. I am not called to self-improvement or to a virtuous life, rather I am called to lose my life for his name’s sake.  Rather I am not the center of the story, God is.

Here’s a link to the referenced Stendahl article.