Piper on Terrorism: The Selective Silence is Deafening

Credit: Nicholas Gratzl

John Piper loves to inveigh against Muslim extremism.  See: “France: a Fabric Torn” and many other writings from Piper and his tribe.

I would love to see Mr. Piper with any remote consistency address the elephant in the room that so many other disciples of Jesus acknowledge. What is this elephant? The destructive militarism of Western nations that dishonors and demeans the lives of those who are NOT in the “in” crowd of the West.
It’s called contextual reasoning, or to put it more Biblically, authentic prophecy, to be honest about the negative effects of the oppressive violence of empires (of which the U.S. is the most powerful) that contribute to the violence of others in response.
If Mr. Piper and others of his ilk are silent when Isaiah and Amos would have been shouting, it should raise some important questions about whether their writings and speeches should be privileged the way they are by evangelical Christendom.
I am not seeking to justify ISIS in any way.  We should not be silent about their rampant evil.  Neither should we be silent about the recent unjustifiable actions of the West (by recent, I mean from the Shah of Iran to present day) particularly directed towards our Arab and Muslim brothers and sisters. The silence is deafening. The silence reveals idolatry.
Here is one simple, easily obtained bit of evidence that shows the hypocrisy of the West: “Hundreds of Civilians Killed in US-led airstrikes on ISIS Targets.”

It is painful to acknowledge a more full picture of the truth.  Christians need not shy away from this pain, though.  It is the pain of deep repentance from deep complicity with a system that has caused torrents of blood.  We are to weep with those who weep: whether they are our next-door neighbors or our Global South and East neighbors.  May God give us the strength and the courage to do so: especially as a consistent commitment to this path will lead to marginalization in Western culture.  Rev. Jeremiah Wright encountered this marginalization and rejection in a selectively-quoted sermon in the runup to the 2008 Presidential Election where he proclaimed that Malcolm X was right decades before that “America’s chickens were coming home to roost.” Malcolm X said this about the scourge of racism, while  Rev. Wright said this about the awful series of events on September 11, 2001.  Listening to the broader context of the sermon, however, provides a deeply uncomfortable truth for Christians.  We must confess that Rev. Wright is correctly following the symptom of 9/11 to a proper diagnosis of the cancer of Western militarism that subjugates and tears apart the bodies of those who do not comply.

We are not called to be chaplains of the Western system, but prophets of God’s global community, tearing down sinful barriers of nationalism, militarism, racism, cultural blindness, and other maladies.  May we strive toward this embodiment of the people of God.


Hope for the future of the church in the United States…

I just began re-reading David Fitch‘s excellent book “The Great Giveway:  Reclaiming the mission of the church…” yesterday.  It’s been awhile since I’ve picked this book up, but the timing seemed right again, and I wanted to be reminded of Fitch’s strong critiques and hopes expressed for the church again.  I remembered being captivated by his chapter titles (listed following) when I first picked the book up:

Ch 1   Our Definition of Success
When going from ten to a thousand members in five years is the sign of a sick church
Ch 2  Evangelism
Saving souls beyond modernity; how evangelism can save the church and make it relevant again
Ch 3  Leadership
When evangelical pastors end up in moral failure: the missing link between the pastorate and the virtues
Ch 4 The Production of Experience
Why worship takes practice: toward a worship that forms truthful minds and faithful experience (not merely reinforces the ones we walked in with)
Ch 5 The Preaching of the Word
The myth of expository preaching:  why we must do more than wear scrolls on our foreheads
Ch 6 Justice (our understanding of)
Practicing redeemed economics:  Christian community in but not of Capitalism

As you could imagine from the chapter titles, David brings a strong critique of the church in our society.  Because I’m more of a contrarian by nature, I picked this book up about five years back for $1.25 in a seminary book sale.  Because I’ve evolved to be less of a contrarian, desiring more to hear constructing (building) comments, and more suspicious of works that claim a “revolutionary” or “dangerous” message for the status quo, I often flip to the back of those books to see if the authors offer a hopeful way forward in addition to their critique.   I inserted a church bulletin into the back of the book about four years ago in the exact place that David offers his hopeful way forward, and I was greatly encouraged to read it again today.

David’s words sharing his hopes bear repeating here in my personal space because I value many of the same things David values when it comes to church.  In addition, I believe David and I share those values NOT because they come natural or seem common sense to us, but because we’ve submitted to a process of discipleship in the way of Jesus that sometimes confirms, sometimes alters, and sometimes destroys what previously seemed natural or common sense to us.  It is a commitment to the Lordship of Jesus rather than the Lordship of Me. 

Unlike other “manifesto”-type writings which seem to ramble all over the place, David Fitch’s thoughts have an internal consistency that help to focus thought and action. David’s desires for the church follow:

“I imagine our congregations becoming smaller, not bigger, yet teeming with the life of (Jesus’) body.  And I hope there are more of them, so many of them, in fact, that they become the alternative to the Starbucks of our day.

I hope our churches become known for servanthood in the neighborhoods and warm hospitality that invites strangers into our homes.

I pray that the home of every evangelical person becomes an incubator of evangelism, inviting strangers to the gospel out of their lostness and into the love and grace of life in our Lord Jesus Christ.

I imagine real fellowship in our congregations, the kind that shares joys and sufferings and potluck meals.

I pray our leaders take on the form of humble servants who sit, listen, and suffer with real people through many years of leading them through this life in Jesus Christ.

I hope we leave behind the CEO models of leadership.

I look for our worship services to become liturgical places that form our people into faithful participants in the life of God.  May we renew the sense of God’s mystery, beauty, and transcendence in our worship services through the rehearsal of his great work in Jesus Christ.  In the process, may many postmodern wanderers be drawn into his life by his majestic wonder and the compelling story of the forgiveness and new life made possible by the life, death, and resurrection of our Lord Jesus Christ.

I hope our congregations look more diverse both economically and racially.

Dare I imagine that each member’s bank account becomes submitted to the King and to each other through some symbolic act as we gather around the Table of our Lord?

I long for the day we become model communities for a new politics that spreads God’s redeeming justice to the poor and the racially divided.

I hope we see small groups that renew the monastic practices of confession, repentance, reading Scripture, and prayer for our day.

And most of all, may our churches become communities that nurture and care for children in the way we conduct catechesis communally, adopt the “unplanned” children, and invite all children into everyday life with God.

To me this all sounds like a truly amazing way of life.”

What and Who we are For

I was given the opportunity to preach at the Cincinnati Church of the Brethren this morning.  I chose to use this opportunity to spend some time reflecting on Christian allegiance and how a commitment to Jesus makes us into “misfits” in our society.  Along the way, I touched on labels of liberal and conservative that are so powerful in our society, and our responsibility to transcend those labels as disciples of Jesus.  This does not lead to fence-sitting, or a mushy moderate approach, but rather to courageous faithful action that means we will sometimes be called liberal and sometimes conservative, but always won’t really care what we’re called.

Click on the link below to listen to the sermon:
What and Who we are For by Nathan Myers

An excerpt of the sermon is below:

We are on the eve of a High American holiday that takes place tomorrow, Independence Day. And wherever we may end up in our perspectives on the relationship between Christianity and the nation, High American holidays give an opportunity to slow down and to reflect on these themes of allegiance, commitment, and awareness of who we are.

You see, we don’t have the luxury like other American citizens of the specific kind of patriotism that tomorrow often brings. There’s a certain simplicity to always going with the crowd and obediently following what others do, but becoming Christian means entering into a more complex relationship with our society. Around days like tomorrow, words like patriotism, allegiance, commitment, and freedom often come up. And these are words that happen to be deeply essential for Christians too. In a number of ways, however, an assumption is made by many that there is no conflict between allegiance to Jesus and allegiance to America. My hope this morning is to spend some time stepping back and reflecting on our relationship to our society as Christians.

A link to the full text of the sermon is below:
Full text of “Who and What we are For”

A courageous stand for sustainability

I sat down to read Eastern Mennonite University’s Crossroads alumni magazine tonight at my parents’ home.  The focus of this specific edition is on sustainability and EMU’s commitment to sustainability as an essential lifestyle.  I was struck by the message just inside the cover from President Loren Swartzendruber that sums up in a beautiful and straightforward way what sustainability means to EMU and should mean for Christians.

“This issue of Crossroads highlights more than 100 EMU alumni who are making major contributions to the sustainability movement around the world.  We believe that caring for God’s creation is a theological and faith imperative, as well as a matter of good science, and that sustainability practices should not be dependent on one’s political persuasion.  We do not believe it is God’s intention that humans should take a cavalier attitude toward the environment, a point on which we may differ from some segments of the faith community.  We believe that sustainability practices should begin with how we care for ourselves physically, organize our family and community life, and promote a healthy approach to living that encompasses every aspect of human existence.”

– Loren Swartzendruber, President –

That’s a good, courageous, truthful word, brother!

I deeply appreciate the leadership President Swartzendruber has provided EMU, and this statement is a further confirmation for me of his wisdom and integrity.  I’m proud to be an alumni of an institution that models this courageous stance.  I hope this quote is widely disseminated, reflected on, and acted on.  My post in my small corner of the universe is a part of that desire for others to see and hear.

The power of “naming”

I love it (in a very painful kind of way) when wise leaders remind me of the danger of considering and valuing only my perspective and that of those most like me. I honestly can’t help it that I spend all day with me, so that’s that. As my father in law would say, “It is what it is,” and that is true. Being with me all day long is not ever a negative thing because it’s as involuntary as my heart beating. But the other half of the above reminder is much more wounding, because it’s SO much more comfortable and easy to be with those most like me; and it unfortunately is not involuntary but chosen every day. It does feel natural, but Jesus has already informed me in a million different ways the scathing truth that so much of what feels natural to me is that way because I’m rebellious and depraved and don’t know better until I humble myself and listen.

The danger, you see, of only being around and listening to those most like us is how we marginalize the perspectives, challenges, and needs of those not like us. When these other voices consistently remain outside our self-built walls to maintain group identity, we can be tempted to believe they do not exist. At the very least, the longer we ignore others in this way, the more their voice fades in importance for us.

In the below quote from his book The Dangerous Act of Loving your Neighbor, Mark Labberton lays bare the temptation of tribalism and calls us to see others as Jesus did; being willing to honor those must unlike us (like the Samaritan woman at the well), believing that in thoughtful listening, we will be affected and changed. There is much power in naming, and much positive, redemptive, painful value in being careful of how and who we name that which we see.

We name what we see in terms that reflect value, meaning, position, relationship…the problem is that you and I name without caution, justification or reason – let alone justice – as we move through life every day. Most naming occurs in ordinary moments, It happens as we respond to fellow drivers, as we stand in line, as we meet people, as we watch tv, as we read the newspaper, as we look at our peers…it is the most ordinary stuff of daily human interaction. In our name for one another for better and for worse, lies the evidence of what is in our hearts. Our distorted sight of God, ourselves and our neighbors leads us to name wrongly…when a human being is mis-seen and then mis-named, the soil of injustice reveals its destructive fertility.” (111-112)
– Mark Labberton –

This quote stands in a long line of others testifying to me like a living crowd of witnesses, leading me to change what I have always considered to be true. One of the things I am now coming to believe is that a church’s legacy is best defined by asking the questions,

“If our presence ceased to exist in this neighborhood tomorrow, how would we be remembered? Would we be remembered as a subculture that required others taking the risky step of approaching us to become like us, or as an open culture of embrace defined by simple acts of care and companionship?”

Family History and its effect…

Last Sunday evening, our  house church launched into our first gathering of a new direction for us.  We’ve oriented our practices around sharing a meal together, a time of prayer following the Common Prayer book, and a journey chapter by chapter through the gospel of Matthew. As it happens, this first week, we focused on the first chapter of Matthew, which immediately leads to sighs from those familiar with the chapter. Those people are aware that the bulk of the chapter is taken up by the author’s genealogy of Jesus, which often leads to one of two options for people,

1) Read until the first name you stumble over (likely Amminadab), then quickly (quickly) move on, or
2) Pretend like it doesn’t exist (becauseit’sobviouslyboringandChristianityshouldn’tbeboring) and jump right into verse 18 and the birth narrative.

If we engage either of these two options, we’re the better for it, right? I mean, what can really be in a genealogical list? Glad you asked! Our study leader for the week, Steve Ring, gave us some important context issues to be aware of that transform the Matthew genealogy from a ho-hum borefest into a really meaningful section of the gospel that foreshadows the focus of the ministry of Jesus.

First, the author of Matthew emphasizes, right from the beginning, Jesus as Christ (Greek for the Hebrew term Messiah—meaning anointed, in the sense of an anointed king). Jesus is presented as the long-awaited Messiah, expected to be a descendant and heir of King David, so the genealogy seeks to demonstrate this line of descent. Thus, Matthew begins by calling Jesus son of David, indicating his royal origin, and also son of Abraham, indicating that he was a Jew.  Son more broadly means descendant, so the author is trying to establish that Jesus is the “Jew’s Jew” by invoking those two significant names.  If this is all we could learn about the genealogy, it would still be pretty vanilla (and still worth skipping?).  But, on two points, it isn’t.  Not by a long-shot.

First, the genealogy is grouped in three parallel groups of fourteen, fourteen, and thirteen.  And for those interested in the names embedded in the genealogy, strictly speaking, it is inaccurate, it would not pass muster in a historical textbook. And this is important because it gives us a moment to be aware of the difference between ancient histories and modern histories.  And the fundamental difference is that ancient documents weren’t written like today’s textbooks, and it would be a mistake to interpret them as such (are you listening, Ken Ham and Answers in Genesis?)  Instead they were written more often to make a statement or have a purposeful meaning.  In Matthew’s genealogy, he leaves out four kings of Judah in the middle, and in the last group, somehow pulls off only thirteen generations in 620ish years, which, given that ancient near eastern folks *ahem* got busy often, isn’t likely.

Second, and I would say  most important, in a genealogy that is supposed to establish from the beginning Jesus’ cred as the one who will rescue Israel from their enemies (the main task of the Messiah), the author commits two atrocious, unpardonable “sins.”  One, he mentions women in the genealogy.  And two, all of those women are from *ahem* unsavory backgrounds.  In Jesus’ lineage are Tamar, Rahab, Ruth, Bathsheba, and Mary.  Tamar was a prostitute with unknown ethnicity, Rahab was a Canaanite, Ruth was a Moabite, Bathsheba was a Hittite, and Mary was an unwed virgin? woman with a fantastical story about where the baby came from.

Genealogies, if seeking to be effective in establishing someone’s claim to a title to a specific group (especially a nationalistic title), went out of their way to present their line as pure and unadulterated by any foreign or lesser influence.  And yet, in what seems like a commitment to shooting himself in the foot, the author weaves in unnecessary (women) and impure (nationality and moral choices) elements.

So it seems the author is intentionally ineffective in making his case for the sake of establishing a larger point; that women deeply matter and that Israel’s job isn’t to celebrate or seek some pure national identity, but rather to pay attention to an old command of God to Isaiah from their history,

It is too small a thing for you to be my servant
to restore the tribes of Jacob
and bring back those of Israel I have kept.
I will also make you a light for the Gentiles,
that my salvation may reach to the ends of the earth. (Isaiah 49:6)

That passage from Isaiah was a reminder of an even more ancient word from God to Abraham, “I will make you into a great nation, and I will bless you; I will make your name great, and you will be a blessing.” (Genesis 12:2)

What is invoked in general in those two passages is given specific form in the commands of God to the people of Israel in how they are to treat foreigners in their society over and over and over and over and over and over and over again.

Maybe the most comprehensive command comes from Deuteronomy 10:17-19

For the LORD your God is God of gods and Lord of lords, the great God, mighty and awesome, who shows no partiality and accepts no bribes. He defends the cause of the fatherless and the widow, and loves the foreigner residing among you, giving them food and clothing. And you are to love those who are foreigners, for you yourselves were foreigners in Egypt.

The focus is always on how Israel’s habits and lifestyle as a society witness to God’s love for the whole world; of how the created can re-connect with the Creator in meaningful ways.

So the vision for Israel was an ancient one of a people saved from slavery to create a society that would be a living example for others to view and imitate; one that would lead the world out of rebellion and into faithful care. The major trouble with this vision is how easily we humans forget this call and settle for a lesser, what seems “more natural” vision of a society where we only embrace people like us and honor those with the most wealth, those who “have it all together,” and celebrate some mythically “pure” ethnic identity. Israel, historically, fell deeply into that temptation and even invented their own folk religion that marginalized other ethnicities, elevated the wealthy religious and social elite, and sought to purify their society through purging it of the sick, the prostitutes, the addicted.

Jesus in his ministry cast down the idol of Israel’s false religion, invoked some ancient commands of God for a different vision, and gave new teachings about how we pursue God’s great society of blessing. And so even here, even in this boring genealogy of Jesus, we see the author (who likely had his own idols of religious and social purity painfully exposed by Jesus) embedding in this story the “new” way of Christian being (that’s really an ancient way intensified and reinterpreted).

So I ask, is our Christian faith one determined by Jesus, one defined by an openness to the margins of our society, one with habits of giving our lives for those not like us, or is it one of seeking an ever intensified expression of ethnic and religious purity? Do we spend more time defining ourselves over against “those people over there” or serving and living life alongside “those people we are among”?

These are troubling, deeply challenging questions for me that call me to place the whole of my life under the gaze of God and cast off all that hinders what God desires to bring about.

These are also deeply important social questions in an American society deeply enmeshed in debates and beliefs about the “outsider” and how we engage them. Christian faith is not to be lived in a vacuum, not to focus entirely on the afterlife at the expense of this life, is not to settle for lesser visions. Our world is deeply divided on these very issues of ethnic and religious purity, and lives hang in the balance that will be lost if the Christian gospel has nothing to say about these very “earthy” matters.

May we pursue the answers to these questions together.

A Christian perspective on freedom on Memorial Day…

I made lots of mistakes in my four years as the pastor of a church.  I have lots of regrets, lots of things I wish I did and didn’t say, people I wish I loved better, teenagers I wish I had been a better mentor for.  I have lots of things I think I did right, people I loved well, sermons I considered well, though too.

One of the things I do not regret at all, not in the least, the most courageous and responsible thing I did, took place two years ago on a Sunday morning on the eve of Memorial Day.  On that Sunday, many churches in the Shenandoah Valley of Virginia were engaging in singing patriotic songs like “My Country Tis’ of Thee” and “The Star-Spangled Banner” and reciting the “Pledge of Allegiance” with their hands over the heart, while some had some song speaking of freedom with American flags rippling on the screen behind the projected words, finishing with a virtual flyover by some F-14s.  Because of those ridiculous displays of idolatry, and the twisted idea of a freedom to fight and die for rather than a freedom that leads you to lay down your life and die for your enemies and your friends, I felt a responsibility to distinguish what it meant to be Christian on that Sunday, and why we were different than our other American brothers and sisters.

I handed out a paper that had my words verbatim on the sheet, I prefaced my comments by telling persons if they disagreed with me or were frustrated or angry, that they had the words I was about to say in front of them, and I would love to speak with them in their homes.  Midway through my short talk, one couple got up and left (and afterwards, vowed they would not ever be at a worship gathering led by me again), others became angry, and several people’s relationship with me became fundamentally different that day.

After reflection, I’m convinced that was the  most courageous day of my life, that I did the right thing, that the anger of others was the conviction of Jesus confronting their idolatry, and that my relationship with those who left allowed me to practice loving my enemies.  The words I spoke that morning are quoted below:

We will not be focusing on the cultural holiday of Memorial Day in worship today, and I want to tell you why.

The kingdoms of this world and the kingdom of God are not the same.  The kingdom of the United States is a kingdom of the world with different purposes than the kingdom of God, and it is not the center of what God is doing in the world.  Now I’m not isolating the United States as being the only nation that is not the center of what God is doing in the world, because every kingdom of this world, all around the world, is not equal to the kingdom of God.  If we are willing to look beyond our cultural and national boundaries to the world as God sees it, we come to an understanding very quickly that the people group God is most concerned about in the world are His faithful people.

In Paul’s letter to the church in Ephesus, he wrote, (11-13, 19-22)

Therefore, remember that formerly you who are Gentiles by birth and called “uncircumcised” by those who call themselves “the circumcision” (which is done in the body by human hands)— remember that at that time you were separate from Christ, excluded from citizenship in Israel and foreigners to the covenants of the promise, without hope and without God in the world. But now in Christ Jesus you who once were far away have been brought near by the blood of Christ… Consequently, you are no longer foreigners and strangers, but fellow citizens with God’s people and also members of his household, built on the foundation of the apostles and prophets, with Christ Jesus himself as the chief cornerstone. In him the whole building is joined together and rises to become a holy temple in the Lord.  And in him you too are being built together to become a dwelling in which God lives by his Spirit.”

We are fellow citizens with God’s people and also members of his household.  If we are fellow citizens as disciples of Jesus, what are we citizens of?  (Israel, not the modern kind, but the faithful people of God; God’s kingdom).  We are centrally citizens of God’s kingdom.  And when we read today Paul writing to Gentiles who are no longer foreigners and strangers, but united as citizens of one kingdom, who is he writing to?  (those all over the world who have become disciples of Jesus, people who now are fellow citizens of the same nation, the same people).

What that means practically is that Christians in South Africa are not South African Christians, but just Christians living in South Africa, those in Britain are not British Christians, but Christians living in Britain, those in the United States are not American Christians, but Christians living in the United States, and those living in China are not Chinese Christians, but Christians living in China.  In all of these places, their primary citizenship is not the country they live in, but the kingdom of God’s people.

This is not something we can argue over.  It is not an opinion, it is fact.  And everyone here should know how careful I am when I speak to say most of what I say is my perspective on the truth.  But this is not my perspective.  It is the truth.  If we are Christians, we are primarily citizens of God’s global kingdom.

And all of these countries have their own cultural holidays, and all of the Christians living in those countries have to be able to separate between which holidays to focus on and which not to.   In regards to Memorial Day, if we’re asking whether God has ever used the United States in military action to accomplish his purposes, the answer is yesBut the same answer would be given to all the other countries across the world as well. If we’re asking, has the United States in military action ever committed evil acts? The answer is yes.  And the same answer would be given to all the other countries across the world as well.

What should be troubling to us is the blank check that many Christians in America give to military action.  We are all over the board in this room on whether military action is ever justified to accomplish God’s purposes, and when we wrestle with this question, our perspectives must be rooted in the Scriptures.  But one thing we all can agree on is that military action is not justified in all circumstances at all times. If it is true that the unjust loss of life has taken place at the military’s hands, which it is, the military has acted in opposition then to the kingdom of God.

As we discern which cultural holidays to focus on a bit and which not, this is a consideration that should guide our worship. We are members of a global kingdom that does not see boundaries the way other persons do; we do not fragment the world into little pieces like other people do.  We are different.  We are Christians.

This is why Memorial Day is not appropriate for Christian worship because it focuses on America at the exclusion of the rest of world.  Because America is not the center of God’s world, it is not appropriate for it to be the focus of our worship.