Does The Gospel Stop At The Water’s Edge?

Last year, I visited an evangelical church deep in the heart of Texas. The sermon was interesting, engaging and literate. The pastor dug deep into a passage in James, drawing out an application that dared his congregation to think about how their church treats the impoverished in their town and how each of them can rethink their relationship to the poor. As a Christian, I liked that his talk plainly took the Bible seriously and would be challenging to everyone in the audience, reminding Christians that they are there because they are broken, not because they are great. As a communicator, I loved that it also would have been perfectly understandable to people with no grounding in the faith.

But when I sat with the pastor briefly after the service, the sermon was far from what I wanted to ask him about. Instead, I wanted to talk about the lengthy prayer that preceded it. In his prayer, the pastor prayed for the congregation. He prayed for their town. He asked for protection for America’s soldiers overseas. He asked for God’s blessing on the work those soldiers were doing. And that was it.

I couldn’t help but wonder why he stopped there, why he didn’t go on to also pray for the communities to which those soldiers are traveling, why he didn’t pray that God’s spirit be poured out even on those we might consider our enemies. When Saul converted and became Paul, God demonstrated his ability to transform and redeem people we don’t WANT to see transformed or redeemed. If we are honestly praying, “Thy kingdom come,” we need to remember that we aren’t the only people God wants to turn into citizens of it.

When Christians discuss international issues, we need to be eager to look beyond tribal concerns. The Bible tells us that one day, the righteous of every nation will be part of the same kingdom. The kings of every state will lay their crowns at Christ’s feet. Jesus’ life, death and resurrection are a testament to the fact that God isn’t interested in his blessings stopping at the water’s edge.

I asked the Texan pastor about why he structured his prayer that way, and why he didn’t pray for the citizens of the countries in which the soldiers were being deployed. In return, he spoke winsomely and graciously about expressing gratitude for a country that has facilitated so many blessings in our lives.

And I don’t disagree. But I think Christians need to also model a wider perspective.

Taking A Lesson From Palm Sunday

Why did the crowd bring palm leaves to Jesus' triumphal entry?

Waving palm leaves today should remind us not just of Jesus' victory, but also of our own penchant for short-sightedness and mis-understanding.

Today is Palm Sunday, so millions of American Christians are going to leave church carrying dried palm leaves folded into small crosses. At my church, we will start the worship service with a crowd of children waving palms in the air while reciting a psalm about how good God is.

Palm Sunday commemorates an event known as The Triumphal Entry: Jesus was heading to Jerusalem for the Passover feast (and to his execution). He had been teaching and performing miracles for just a few short years, yet there were people in every village and city around Jerusalem that recognized him as the messiah, and a crowd of them had gathered at the city gate to welcome him. They didn’t have a red carpet to roll out for him, so as he approached on a donkey, they carpeted the street leading into the city gate with leaves from nearby palm trees and even their own shirts, coats and robes—quite a sacrifice, since many of them likely had only one set of clothes.

Their enthusiasm is understandable, because they knew enough to expect that when Jesus got to Jerusalem, something big was going to happen. They knew that the messiah was supposed to usher in a new kingdom, and they expected that Jesus was going to raise a rebellion against Rome that week and start a new Israelite monarchy.

Of course, something bigger happened that week than most of them expected. Jesus was executed and resurrected, and extended the invitation into his coming kingdom not just to Jews but to the occupying Romans and to gentiles as well. The crowd who welcomed Jesus into Jerusalem was expecting a military coup, because that was their only frame of reference for how the world around them could be changed. Rather than becoming a competing power, though, Jesus showed the world that there is a transcendent power. His life testifies to the fact that that power is dedicated to renewal, not domination.

Until the heavens and earth are divinely renewed, Jesus’ followers are supposed to live their lives in ways that give the world around us a taste of what that future kingdom will be like. We should be as eager and enthusiastic about that privilege as the Israelites who laid their only shirts in the dirt to be walked on by a donkey. But we also need to remember that we aren’t yet made perfect. Despite the beautiful, compelling vision the Bible has for healing and flourishing in our world, we’re still just as prone to short-sightedness and mis-understanding as the crowd who welcomed Jesus to his final Passover.

Keep Not Fear Alive

Good Stuff Eatery

Much like New York

After work today, I’ll get on a bus and head to Washington, D.C., where I’ll meet up with an old friend and spend the weekend hunting down good burgers and checking out the Rally to Restore Sanity, Jon Stewart’s attempt at putting together a “million moderate march.” While I don’t know exactly what’s on the docket for the rally this weekend, I’m expecting a good show with some entertaining speeches, and I’m expecting a staged conflict with Stephen Colbert, whose rival event–the March to Keep Fear Alive–is scheduled for the same time and place.

Colbert’s theme raises a big issue that is of central importance to Christians who are trying to figure out their place and posture in public life: fear.

As things get rolling, I imagine we’ll be talking about fear regularly and in greater depth, because it is a major part of many campaigns for public office. Fear of what will happen to us/our children/our schools/our jobs/our environment/our health/our country/our planet/our values if “the other guys” get elected is an easy and powerful motivator, so maybe we shouldn’t be surprised that politicians trade on it so often. It encourages us to react quickly and single-mindedly, which is always good for getting out the vote.

Fear is also a recurring theme in scripture, but scripture tends to find it less useful. Under a variety of circumstances, Jesus exhorted his disciples to “Fear not” and “Be not afraid” as often as he commanded them about anything else. Both before and after his resurrection, his message was fairly consistent: “I know it seems like you have plenty of reasons to freak out right now, but don’t.” Even after his ascension at the end of the gospel narratives, “don’t freak out” remains a recurring theme in scripture. Under some of the most dispiriting and threatening possible circumstances, Paul wrote from prison to his young colleague Timothy, “God gave us a spirit not of fear, but of power, love and self-control” (or, as the KJV puts it, power, love and “a sound mind”).

According to the sermon on the mount, one of the roles believers in Christ are collectively supposed to play in their communities is that of a “city on a hill.” Jesus dares Christians to live as a visible example of the gospel’s story and promises rather than being driven solely by the same concerns that drive their immediate cultural contexts. Christians are asked to operate under the assurance of ultimate freedom, ultimate peace and ultimate flourishing, not under the specter of fear, and we should consider that carefully when we think about how (or if) to use our votes.

A Christian who is truly invested in the peace and prosperity of their community may need to consider not just whether their own vote is based on personal fear, but also whether it would contribute to fear being sown amongst the people around them. Might a candidate whose campaign trades in fear have policy positions that a Christian thinks offer a legitimate chance to make the earthly state around us function better? It’s perfectly possible, and there’s no cut-and-dried answer for how we should order our priorities in such a situation.

If you’re thinking about voting (I know a lot of Christians aren’t. We’ll talk about that later.), there are many factors that could shape your vote: Take the time to look at the candidates’ websites, read their position papers or use the League of Women Voters’ voting guide to get the lay of the land. Vote on which vision of government seems best to you, which policies seem soundest, which candidate seems most capable or who has a message you would most like to see take root among your friends and neighbors.

But when you’re weighing these factors, just remember: Stephen Colbert is probably joking when he says you should keep fear alive, but when Jesus says not to freak out, he’s definitely serious.

Thesis: What We Have Before Us

Imagine a political conversation that was informed by the values of the gospel.  Would it be a shrill, accusatory and divisive affair?  Would it be an exercise in abdicating responsibility, constantly letting other people make decisions?  Would participants approach pressing issues with impassive, calculating economy?  Or would they be impracticable, activist humanists?

For the past 2,000 years, Christians have had to wrestle with the question of how to best engage the public life of the city or nation around them.  There’s no universally applicable answer—every era, society and form of government ends up presenting believers with circumstances and questions that are new and uniquely challenging.  Believing in Christ in ancient Rome, Medieval France, Renaissance Spain, Ottoman Turkey and Soviet Russia would each entail a starkly different—and sometimes fluid—approach to public life.

The contemporary west presents people of all stripes with its own issues and challenges, and Christians have responded in a multitude of ways, ranging from the violently imperialistic to the cavalierly laissez-faire.  Either extreme, along with any number of approaches in between, could probably be justified by focusing on one aspect of scripture or another (“Jesus cleared the temple courtyards with a whip!”  “Just give to Caesar what is Caesar’s.” etc.), but I think the most complete approach was described by Leslie Newbigin in Foolishness to the Greeks:

…we have before us … the vision of the holy city, into which all the glory of the nations will be brought…This faith heals the split between the public and the private.  There is no room for a political fanaticism that supposes that my political achievements will establish God’s kingdom, or declares a holy war against opponents…Equally, there is no room for a piety that seeks personal holiness by opting out of the struggle for a measure of justice and freedom in public life.

How can Christians live out the driving themes of the gospel as we engage in our national political discourse?  What kind of attitude should the principles of the faith prompt as we look at the major (and minor) issues of our day?  Would this require coming up with an entirely new approach to public life, or are there people, groups and organizations that we can use as models?  And, as a result, what kind of impression do we make on the people around us who don’t share our beliefs?

I’m looking forward to figuring all of this out with you.