The Case Against Christian Activism …

I used to feel bad, as a Christian, that I never put a lot of emphasis on the whole “WWJD” question. I don’t think I ever had one of the bracelets. The whole thing seemed like a fad, and I wasn’t interested.

Until now, I never thought about it in the negative: “WWJND” — “what would Jesus not do?” What things do we do that go so far beyond what Jesus said and did as to be at best tangential to the Gospel? In some respects, that question seems just as important.

Consider this tidbit from Empires of Dirt — a book I’m interested in reading:*

The textbook case against Christian activism can be made in one word—Prohibition—the word that would have made the Lord Jesus at Cana into a moonshiner felon.

We err both when we fail to do the things Jesus urged us to do — and still urges us to do — and when we do things he clearly would not. That seems true on the individual level, and just as much on the level of collective action in the church writ large.

Lord, help us. Or, more to the point: Lord, help me.

___
*Along with a few dozen other books, of course.

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Peace on Earth Starts with Good Will Toward Men

On this Christmas Eve, some thoughts leading up to Christmas — for whatever they might be worth.

According to Saint Luke’s research, presented in the Gospel that bears his name, angels announced Jesus’s birth to shepherds as they stood night watch over their flocks. We don’t know whether Luke was able to question one of the shepherds who was there that night or (more likely) the story came to him through untold number of tellings and retellings. What did those angels really say? And what did they mean?

The translation I grew up with, the King James Version, closes that episode with the angelic proclamation, “Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace, good will toward men.” I particularly like the poetic nature of that version.

Another translation I generally like, the New American Standard Bible, renders Luke 2:14 as, “Glory to God in the highest, And on earth peace among men with whom He is pleased.” “Peace among men” gives a different feel than “good will toward men,” though, and leaves me a little cold. Other translations, notably the New International Version and the Berean Study Bible, give the last phrase as “peace to men on whom His favor rests,” which I do not like at all.

I am not a Bible scholar; I know no ancient Greek; so I will not presume to debate the merits of any translation. It intrigues me that in the Greek the difference comes down to a single letter: specifically, the last letter of the verse in the Codex Sinaiticus was erased (apparently the erasure is visible), and that single change made “on earth peace to men of good will” into “on earth peace, to men good will.” How much does that change the sentiment?

I’ve heard it taught that the proclamation is a promise of God’s peace and good will coming to earth in the person of Christ. I’ve also heard that it is more a prayer — it is, after all, a multitude of angels praising God, since the specific message about Jesus has already been related. That idea is particularly worthy: the angels first give reverence and worship to God, and then ask that peace be manifest on the earth.

But of late I’ve come to think of it in a different way. I doubt that mine is an original thought, but I’m not prepared to conduct an exhaustive search to see who else has presented it. To my way of thinking, “Glory to God in the highest” is clear enough. The creator of everything is worthy of praise. After that, I find that I prefer “on Earth, peace; to men, good will” — giving a definite separation between peace and good will — because it turns the entire verse into a triad that moves from the heavenly to the earthly to the individual.

To God, glory: not peace, because the creature is not in a position to offer peace to the creator; and not good will, because the creature’s good will cannot match the creator’s. On earth, peace: not glory, because earthly glory is more a product of victory in conflict than of peace; and not good will, because good will is something best expressed person to person. To men, good will: not glory, because compared to God men deserve no glory; and not peace, because to achieve peace — especially any secure, lasting peace — requires first good will among and between people.


(Image: “Peace on Earth,” by Sam Howzit, on Wikimedia Commons.)

“There is no peace on earth, I said,” according to the poem “I Heard the Bells on Christmas Day” — but it seems to me that, if there is no peace, it’s because there is precious little good will.

And so, I will try with the time remaining to me to be a man of good will. No doubt I will fail, and have to try again. I trust that God will forgive me those failures, and I hope my fellows will forgive me as well.

Part of the reason I will fail goes back to the translation that is probably more accurate: “peace to men of good will.” First, that sounds more like a promise of God’s peace than a prescription for achieving peace. Even if it is a promise, it doesn’t absolve us of all responsibility in the matter. After all, Saint Paul instructed the Christians in Rome to, “If it is possible, so far as it depends on you, be at peace with all men” — which remains a good principle for all of us to follow.

The second reason I’m uncomfortable with “peace to men of good will” is that it seems no great challenge to wish peace to people of good will or to act peacefully only toward people of good will. It is far more difficult to live peaceably when we are confronted by people of ill will. That’s why “turn the other cheek” is so revolutionary — and so difficult. And, as noted above, I explicitly reject the idea that God’s peace is offered only to those “on whom His favor rests”: I believe God’s peace is offered to all, though unfortunately many reject Him, and it.

All of that being said, tomorrow is Christmas, and tonight and tomorrow we celebrate Jesus’s birth. But even though we are fairly certain he was born in an entirely different time of the year, whenever it happened originally the annunciation still rings out, and the annunciation is fulfilled: Jesus glorified God; Jesus’s teaching, death and resurrection offer a “peace that passes understanding” to any on earth who would accept it; and Jesus empowers us to act as men of good will, i.e., gives us wisdom and strength and discernment to show good will toward others — if we choose to do so.

“Joy to the world! The Lord is come! Let earth receive her King!”

Merry Christmas, one and all.

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I Tried to Write a Poem to Express My Gratitude

I tried to write a poem to express my gratitude
But I got lost in lines and beats and rhymes and a dismal attitude
So I threw it out and started over, plunged headlong into the verses,
And turned my gaze on all the ways my blessings far outweigh my curses

That’s the secret, that’s the mystery, that’s the never-ending story
Not to pretend that in the end we find misfortune less than glory
But to count the good more thoroughly and embrace the coming days
With confidence and a constant sense of thankfulness and praise

A thankful heart is not only the greatest virtue, but the parent of all other virtues
(Image: “A thankful heart…,” by BK, on Flickr under Creative Commons.)

Happy Thanksgiving to you and yours, to one and all.

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Let the Light in You Shine (New Video)

(Another in the series of quotes to start the week.)

Today is Dabo Swinney’s birthday, so I took a look at one of his many inspirational quotes. Coach Swinney is the second-winningest head football coach in Clemson history, trailing only the legendary Frank Howard, but along with success on the field Coach Swinney has emphasized preparing his players for life beyond football.

Today’s video is a little different from others in the Between the Black and the White series, in that I broadcast it live on Facebook in the morning and only later transferred it over to YouTube. As such, it’s a little poorer quality than my previous videos and doesn’t have the title card and credits and whatnot. Anyway, here it is:

Here’s the quote from Coach Swinney, in case you don’t want to watch the video:

Let the light that shines in you be brighter than the light that shines on you.

I think that’s good advice, even for the vast majority of us who don’t have many opportunities to stand in the spotlight — actual or metaphorical. I’m sorry to say that when I’ve had such opportunities I haven’t thought too much about the light I could bring with me, the light I could let shine though me (or out from me). I hope to do better at that, this week and into the future.

And I trust that you will let your light shine bright as well! Have a great week!

___
(Possibly) Related Videos:
Brave Knights and Heroic Courage
We Are All Leaders
Stand Tall in Troubled Times

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Christian Carelessness

That phrase in the title connotes a lot, doesn’t it? “Christian carelessness” — we experience it every day … and some of us, despite our best intentions, practice it every day.

I ran across the phrase in E. Stephen Burnett’s post, “Christians, Please Stop Warning Against Human Popular Culture Until You Know What It’s For”, in which he addresses “the most well-intended Christian carelessness about” popular culture in whatever form it takes. He writes, for instance,

Why not discuss popular culture—human stories and songs—in terms of human creativity being a gift from God? The way some pastors talk, popular culture is some alien (even if “harmless”) thing unrelated to God. But if God gives this gift (of popular culture-creation), then He, not us [sic], defines the terms of how the gift is best used—to glorify Him, to guard against idolatry, and to make sure we get the most joy out of using the gift in the ways He has prescribed.

Why not explore how Jesus has built the work-rest rhythm into the universe, starting right in Genesis 1? Why not consider how stories and songs are part of being human, whether they’re shared around a campfire or enacted on your tablet screen? Why not allow the possibility that Scripture seems to allow—that we will create cultural works in eternity?

I love that, but I keep coming back in my mind to the idea — and the challenge — of “Christian carelessness” in general.

For people who claim to be Christ’s representatives on Earth (“Christian” means “little Christ,” does it not?), we are often quite careless in how we represent our Lord and Savior, in how we interact with each other and the world around us, in how we think and speak and act. And by “we” I primarily mean “I” am often quite careless.


(Image: “A Careless Word, A Needless Loss.” US World War II propaganda poster, on Wikimedia Commons.)

And beyond that, I come back to another way to think of carelessness: specifically, that of caring less than I should. I am guilty, and I daresay most of us are guilty, of caring less when Christ would have us care more. That’s not to say that we have it in ourselves to solve all the problems we face or to correct all the evils we see in the world, but when we turn away from them or pretend that they don’t exist our “Christian carelessness” condemns us.

Lord, help me — help us — to care more, and to be more careful.

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Admitting My Doubts

I feel a great kinship with two Bible characters in particular: Thomas, who asked for tangible proof of Jesus’s resurrection, and the man who wanted Jesus to heal his child but who confessed his doubts with the poignant, “Lord, I believe, help my unbelief.”

So I wrote a song called “Help My Unbelief,” and put it on my Truths and Lies and Make-Believe album. Now, here’s a music video for it:

Hope you like it.

___

And, because I neglected to mention it on the blog before now, a couple of weeks ago I put together a music video for one of the science-fiction-inspired songs from that album:

Hope you like it, too!

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A Daily Baptism?

(Another in the continuing “Monday Morning Insight” series of quotes to start the week.)

On this Easter Monday, it seems appropriate to recall one of the seminal events in the development of Protestant Christianity: on this date in 1521 Martin Luther appeared at the Diet of Worms — an assembly (“diet”) convened in Worms, Germany, from 28 January to 26 May 1521 by the Holy Roman Emperor Charles V — to answer the charge of heresy.

On the 17th, Luther was presented with a list of his own writings and asked if he would recant of the heresies they contained. He asked for time to consider how to respond to the charges, and was granted a day to think it over. On the 18th, he spoke. He differentiated between the various works, left open the question of recanting if he could be shown his error, and apologized for the harsh tone of some of the works, but in the end Luther said,

Unless I am convinced by the testimony of the Scriptures or by clear reason (for I do not trust either in the pope or in councils alone, since it is well known that they have often erred and contradicted themselves), I am bound by the Scriptures I have quoted and my conscience is captive to the Word of God. I cannot and will not recant anything, since it is neither safe nor right to go against conscience. May God help me. Amen.

What does that have to do with baptism? Nothing in itself, but it does illustrate the confidence Luther had in his Scriptural interpretations. And that leads us to something he wrote about baptism ….

St Patrick’s Cathedral
Interesting fish-eye view of Saint Patrick’s Cathedral, founded near a well where Saint Patrick is supposed to have baptized converts. (Image: “St Patrick’s Cathedral,” by Jennifer Boyer, on Flickr under Creative Commons.)

In a treatise on infant baptism, Luther presented an idea I find very interesting. He wrote that baptism

… is nothing else than putting to death the old Adam, and after that the resurrection of the new man, both of which must take place in us all our lives, so that a truly Christian life is nothing else than a daily baptism, once begun and ever to be continued.

I don’t think Luther’s point is that we need to be baptized anew every day (though most of us benefit from bathing regularly). Baptism is a living metaphor, and not one we actually need to go through again and again. It seems to me that what Luther calls a “daily baptism” is the daily personal exercise in living out the faith. In other words, following Christ involves living every day in light of the two central facets of our faith: that Christ died, and that our “old man” died with him; and that he rose again, and thereby we also have new life. Baptism is the experience that represents those facets of the faith.

It is a remarkable thing to consider. But it’s not as easy to do as it is to consider, or even to write about.

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Holding On

If I Had Been an Apostle on that terrible Holy Saturday,

… would I have gone into hiding? Yes, I would.
… would I have sunk into despair? Yes, I would.
… would I have wondered if it all had been for naught? Yes, I would.

Because I am fickle and uninspired and weak. Because all I had dreamed of and hoped for had been crushed. Because I would have known, with the surety that I knew the sun would rise, that I was bound for the same fate.

Despair
Sometimes all we can do is hold on. (Image: “Despair,” by Lloyd Morgan, on Flickr under Creative Commons.)

And yet, when the next day dawned for the Apostles, all was not as they feared it would be. The world was the same, but their lives were radically changed. They held on long enough to see the new dawn, and sometimes — when we are hiding, in despair, and wondering if what we’ve done is for naught — all we can do is hold on, as well.

Wherever you are, whatever you may be going through … hold on.

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What’s in the Details?

(Another in the continuing “Monday Morning Insight” series of quotes to start the week.)

Happy Birthday to my publisher, Kevin J. Anderson, and to Firefly leading man Nathan Fillion. And to you, if it’s your birthday!

Today is also the birthday of German architect Ludwig Mies van der Rohe (27 March 1886 – 17 August 1969), who in 1959 was quoted in The New York Herald Tribune as saying,

God is in the details.

You might also be familiar with the saying, “The Devil is in the details,” so there seems to be some contention there. I poked around a bit and found that the van der Rohe quote could perhaps better be expressed as “God dwells in the details,” and I quite like the way that sounds.

Details
As we look deeper, we see more and different details. (Image: “Details,” by Tom Magliery, on Flickr under Creative Commons.)

I like to think of it in terms of systems: as we pull a system apart into its subsystems and components and parts and materials, we uncover additional details about it and hopefully come to understand it better — but in some ways the system becomes even more mysterious the deeper we go, the way the subatomic quantum world is stranger and harder to fathom than our everyday world. But there is still order and beauty there, and where we struggle with the details as we try to create (or re-create) something orderly and beautiful we begin to find God, the creator of order and beauty.

But we can get trapped in the details, too, which is where the Devil whispers to us that the details are all there is and we’ll never get the details right. So it’s important to back away sometimes, to once again try to apprehend how all the details work together in the whole.

I guess I would say that God dwells in the details and permeates the whole. But when we focus too much on the details and lose sight of the whole, we can also lose sight of God. It’s a matter of perspective.

I hope you have the chance to see God in your world this week!

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Doing Good, ‘Slowly, Gently, Little by Little’

(Another in the continuing “Monday Morning Insight” series of quotes to start the week.)

Four years ago today, Pope Francis was elected to serve as the 266th Pope. So far he has proven to be one of the most popular and inspirational people to hold that sacred post.

Just a few weeks after ascending to the Papacy, Pope Francis said at Mass:

The Lord has redeemed all of us, all of us, with the Blood of Christ: all of us, not just Catholics. Everyone! “Father, the atheists?” Even the atheists. Everyone! And this Blood makes us children of God of the first class! We are created children in the likeness of God and the Blood of Christ has redeemed us all! And we all have a duty to do good. And this commandment for everyone to do good, I think, is a beautiful path towards peace. If we, each doing our own part, if we do good to others, if we meet there, doing good, and we go slowly, gently, little by little, we will make that culture of encounter: we need that so much. We must meet one another doing good. “But I don’t believe, Father, I am an atheist!” But do good: we will meet one another there.

do good
Sound advice, here. (Image: “do good,” by potential past, on Flickr under Creative Commons.)

I love all of that, from the principle that the redeeming work of Christ was sufficient to redeem everyone — even those who don’t accept it — to the point that we can make the world better and more peaceful the more we (as Scripture says) persist in doing good.

I hope this week that we all make the most of any opportunities we have to do good! And as always I wish you and yours the very best.

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