More than a spiritual teacher

“Throughout his short public career Jesus spoke and acted as if he was in charge

Jesus did things people didn’t think you were allowed to do, and he explained them by saying he had the right to do them.  He wasn’t, after all, merely a teacher, though of course he was that too- in fact, one of the greatest teachers the world has ever known.  He spoke and acted as more than a teacher. 

He behaved as if he had the right, and even the duty, to take over, to sort things out, to make his country and perhaps even the wider world a different place.  He behaved suspiciously  like someone trying to start a political party or a revolutionary movement.  He called together a tight and symbolically charged group of associates (in his world, the number twelve meant only one thing: the new Israel, the new people of God).  And it wasn’t very long before his closest followers told him that they thought he really was in charge, or ought to be.  He was the king they’d all been waiting for.

If we look for a parallel in today’s world, we won’t find it so much in the rise of a new “religious” teacher or leader as in the emergence of a charismatic, dynamic politician whose friends are encouraging him to run for president– and who gives every appearance of having what it takes to sort everything out when he gets there.”

From N.T. Wright in Simply Jesus: A New Vision of Who He Was, What He Did, and Why He Matters

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Obama’s wise truth-telling on peace in Israel/Palestine

I continue to be further swayed by President Obama that he is more wise, more of a leader, and more of a moral voice than I believed he was in his campaign. On the morning of the election November 4th, as I wavered on how to vote, I finally decided to vote for Obama based on his great capacity to bring disparate parties together to listen, to speak honestly to one another, and move forward after hearing one another. It is this capacity for building trust and respect that I found most necessary following the disastrous foreign policy of George W. Bush and the continuing political acrimony in America.

This week, Obama gave an address that should be much-quoted, listened to, and discussed. It sets the table for greater cooperation and understanding between the Middle East and the West, better interfaith dialogue (especially between Muslims and Christians), and a more deep respect for our fellow human beings outside the borders of individual nations. I quote the segment of the speech on Israel/Palestine because of its profound wisdom.

 

Around the world, the Jewish people were persecuted for centuries, and anti-Semitism in Europe culminated in an unprecedented Holocaust. Tomorrow, I will visit Buchenwald, which was part of a network of camps where Jews were enslaved, tortured, shot and gassed to death by the Third Reich. Six million Jews were killed — more than the entire Jewish population of Israel today. Denying that fact is baseless, it is ignorant, and it is hateful. Threatening Israel with destruction — or repeating vile stereotypes about Jews — is deeply wrong, and only serves to evoke in the minds of Israelis this most painful of memories while preventing the peace that the people of this region deserve.

On the other hand, it is also undeniable that the Palestinian people — Muslims and Christians — have suffered in pursuit of a homeland. For more than 60 years they’ve endured the pain of dislocation. Many wait in refugee camps in the West Bank, Gaza, and neighboring lands for a life of peace and security that they have never been able to lead. They endure the daily humiliations — large and small — that come with occupation. So let there be no doubt: The situation for the Palestinian people is intolerable. And America will not turn our backs on the legitimate Palestinian aspiration for dignity, opportunity, and a state of their own.

For decades then, there has been a stalemate: two peoples with legitimate aspirations, each with a painful history that makes compromise elusive. It’s easy to point fingers — for Palestinians to point to the displacement brought about by Israel’s founding, and for Israelis to point to the constant hostility and attacks throughout its history from within its borders as well as beyond. But if we see this conflict only from one side or the other, then we will be blind to the truth: The only resolution is for the aspirations of both sides to be met through two states, where Israelis and Palestinians each live in peace and security.

That is in Israel’s interest, Palestine’s interest, America’s interest, and the world’s interest. And that is why I intend to personally pursue this outcome with all the patience and dedication that the task requires. The obligations — the obligations that the parties have agreed to under the road map are clear. For peace to come, it is time for them — and all of us — to live up to our responsibilities.

Palestinians must abandon violence. Resistance through violence and killing is wrong and it does not succeed. For centuries, black people in America suffered the lash of the whip as slaves and the humiliation of segregation. But it was not violence that won full and equal rights. It was a peaceful and determined insistence upon the ideals at the center of America’s founding. This same story can be told by people from South Africa to South Asia; from Eastern Europe to Indonesia. It’s a story with a simple truth: that violence is a dead end. It is a sign neither of courage nor power to shoot rockets at sleeping children, or to blow up old women on a bus. That’s not how moral authority is claimed; that’s how it is surrendered.

Now is the time for Palestinians to focus on what they can build. The Palestinian Authority must develop its capacity to govern, with institutions that serve the needs of its people. Hamas does have support among some Palestinians, but they also have to recognize they have responsibilities. To play a role in fulfilling Palestinian aspirations, to unify the Palestinian people, Hamas must put an end to violence, recognize past agreements, recognize Israel’s right to exist.

At the same time Israelis must acknowledge that just as Israel’s right to exist cannot be denied, neither can Palestine’s. The United States does not accept the legitimacy of continued Israeli settlements. This construction violates previous agreements and undermines continued efforts to achieve peace. It is time for these settlements to stop.

And Israel must also live up to its obligation to ensure that Palestinians can live and work and develop their society. Just as it devastates Palestinian families, the continuing humanitarian crisis in Gaza does not serve Israel’s security; neither does the continuing lack of opportunity in the West Bank. Progress in the daily lives of the Palestinian people must be a critical part of a road to peace, and Israel must take concrete steps to enable such progress.

And finally, the Arab states must recognize that the Arab Peace Initiative was an important beginning, but not the end of their responsibilities. The Arab-Israeli conflict should no longer be used to distract the people of Arab nations from other problems. Instead, it must be a cause for action to help the Palestinian people develop the institutions that will sustain their state, to recognize Israel’s legitimacy, and to choose progress over a self-defeating focus on the past.

America will align our policies with those who pursue peace, and we will say in public what we say in private to Israelis and Palestinians and Arabs. We cannot impose peace. But privately, many Muslims recognize that Israel will not go away. Likewise, many Israelis recognize the need for a Palestinian state. It is time for us to act on what everyone knows to be true.

Too many tears have been shed. Too much blood has been shed. All of us have a responsibility to work for the day when the mothers of Israelis and Palestinians can see their children grow up without fear; when the Holy Land of the three great faiths is the place of peace that God intended it to be; when Jerusalem is a secure and lasting home for Jews and Christians and Muslims, and a place for all of the children of Abraham to mingle peacefully together as in the story of Isra, when Moses, Jesus, and Mohammed, peace be upon them, joined in prayer.

President Barack Obama
Cairo, Egypt
June 4, 2009

Toxic Theology: End Times Obsession

One element of toxic theology that frustrates and angers me more than most other elements is obsession with end-times issues.  I could say much more about this right now, but I’ll just offer a couple comments and post a video for your viewing.  

My initial comment is this.  We can talk about the “end times” if we want, as long as we agree that we’ve been in the “end times” for 2,000 years, and we agree that if we live like the world’s gonna end tomorrow all the time, we will forget the deeper call of the Scripture to obey God and provide a way of life that’s wise and sustainable for hundreds of generations following ours.  One of the major offenses of the evangelical Christian community in America is that our obsession with end-times approaches (which are secondary to other issues in the Bible) lead us to think, speak, and act unwisely and often selfishly in the present.

Example 1.  Why should I care what car I drive when Jesus could come tomorrow?  So let’s buy a Toyota Sequoia or Nissan Armada and neglect that together they average 14 miles-per-gallon and pollute the air around us, lowering quality of air, forcing us into deeper dependency on oil, and therefore leading to us justifying military actions to secure cheap oil, etc etc as we ignore the effects of our way of living on the global community surrounding us.

Example 2.  Why should I bother with the extra work of recycling when Jesus could come tomorrow?  So I keep throwing everything into the trash, hauling it to the dump, and neglecting the larger reality that most of our trash is transported and stashed in poorer-communities-lacking-the-power-to-stand-up/communities-we-really-don’t-care-about-anyways-and-would-rather-ignore.  This includes our own inner cities as well as developing countries.

Example 3.  Why should I bother with obeying Jesus and caring about the oppressed when my end-times obsession tells me to prepare for the Apocalypse and/or “support Israel” no matter what?  So I listen to writers like Tim LaHaye and Jerry Jenkins and leaders like John Hagee obscuring the command to give our lives for every human being (like Palestinians who’ve lived for generations in refugee camps) with fear-mongering demands to support the people of Israel because it’s the end-times and we’ll be judged if we don’t.

Example 4. Why should I bother with the Biblical command to radical sharing of my possessions and way of life when my end-times theology tells me to beware of “socialism” and “class warfare”?  So I buy into my own pagan culture’s demand that my possessions should BELONG TO ME and NOBODY ELSE and should go where I SAY and NOWHERE ELSE and should be given completely non-coercively because no one can tell ME WHAT TO DO WITH MY STUFF other than me.  And in the process I ignore one of the primary messages of the Bible; the call to relationship and community.

Here’s the video that was the genesis to this mild ranting.

We have a new president…

bidenobama

I just have a couple thoughts in reflection on this change in American politics. Since Bethany says I have a habit of taking the wind out of people’s sails sometimes, I’ll say the positive things first.

1) This is no doubt a major historical moment in America. I haven’t seen the video of Barack’s acceptance speech in Chicago, but from Bethany’s description of Jesse Jackson and Oprah and others weeping, it gave me chills. To think that just over 40 years ago, black students were beaten and jailed for daring to eat at a Memphis lunch counter with whites, and this happened just two days ago? Amazing.

2) Barack is an inspiring figure, and the global celebrations that sprung up from hearing of his election is telling for the integrity of America worldwide. The world is tired of eight years of George Bush’s absurd foreign policy drama of crusading, unilateralism, and machismo. His us v. them and good v. evil policies have caused Islam to become more radicalized and made our world a more dangerous place. Barack will have a different foreign policy presence, to be sure, and the effect of that foreign policy all the way down to daily life in villages in the Middle East would surprise us, I think.

3)The neo-conservative agenda for governance and economics is falling apart at the seams. Alan Greenspan admits it, and not many others. The country heard the McCain fearmongering “Obama’s a socialist” claims and let it slide off our backs like water on a duck. Most reasonable people I’ve talked to believe that the best approach for a just economy is a mix of capitalist and socialist ideas. The days of McCarthy’s “red scare” don’t fly today like they did fifty years ago.

4)Obama has a VP who won’t be afraid to light a fire under him. Whoever else becomes a part of Obama’s cabinet (and I do believe he will surround himself with wise advisors rather than power-seekers or suck-ups), Biden won’t passively knuckle under to Barack. And that’s good.

The negative:
1) Obama talks out of both sides of his mouth on abortion. He claims to want to reduce abortions, spoke clearly of abortion as a moral issue, yet defends Roe v. Wade at every opportunity. I would like to see him navigate a centrist path for Americans on this where we can provide room for abortions in desperate medical situations but remove abortion from being a free, unencumbered choice like whether I get the chocolate or vanilla shake at BK. He claimed in the debates that no female makes that decision lightly. That’s laughable. A number of females treat it very lightly; as a way to remove the unseemly consequence from self-centered sexuality.

2) While I do believe Obama carries some strong doses of wisdom and discernment, he can run the risk of becoming a chameleon and pandering to whatever group he’s speaking to. An example of this is the Israel/Palestine issue. He studied up on the Palestinian people’s plight as an Illinois senator, dining with and listening to an important Palestinian advocate (Rashid Khalidi, whom McCain childishly attacked in his last desperate days), yet when he spoke before AIPAC (the powerful pro-Israel political action committee), he spoke like Israel was the only virtuous and suffering group. Which one is experiencing much deeper human rights abuses on a daily basis, Barack?! It’s clearly the Palestinians! Speak up for them on the world scale, and in supporting them, reject their extremist elements (Hamas) and help Israel and Palestine work towards peace as a gutsy leader. If you’re looking for mentors, call Jimmy Carter and Desmond Tutu. They’ve got enough guts to call the situation what it is. I’d like to see Barack make some gutsy, polarizing stands from time to time that make people pick sides. I don’t want this all of the time, just some of the time.

I have a video from Ralph Nader that I embedded below here where he gives some stern warnings about Barack. He offers some really important perspectives on Obama that will take some of the luster off the “golden boy” image.

3) Barack is a corporate president-elect now. A whole lot of his money came from corporations, and if you don’t think that came with strings attached, you’re about as naive as George Bush on that carrier in 2003. And if Barack wants to be re-elected, he’s got to get some things done for those corporations over the next four years if he wants to have a shot to win again. This will lead to him compromising significantly, hedging stronger statements by emphasizing both sides, and generally caring for corporations over the common person…that is, unless the people of America unite to force him and the Congress to vote a certain way like blacks did in 1964 with the Civil Rights Act.

So, as you can see, I’m conflicted about this guy. I think he’s the best leader for America amongst the two candidates, I think his VP is the best leader for America amongst the two candidates. If I had my druthers, either one of my two favorite leaders Ralph Nader or Dennis Kucinich would be in this place. They couldn’t get there because their integrity matters too much, so. *sigh* All is not hopeless, yet all is not peaches and cream either.

I’ll state this and hopefully a million times more in my life; the biggest hope for America is a citizenry that unites around issues of justice and equity and works consistently and passionately toward that end. Our present political system corrupts the very people who have the best ideas; they need you and me lighting a fire under them to make solid change happen. I’m still learning how to do that, but at least I’m trying, right?

Toxic theology: “Support” Israel or be cursed by God

I was reading my mom’s Charisma magazine last week as we watched the Republican National Convention, and I flat out lost my temper. You wouldn’t have known it on the outside, because I seemed to be OK. If you knew me well (like my wife, who shot me a look of concern), you would’ve known I was upset, but it wasn’t hugely obvious.

I’m just gonna say this. I am so very tired of hearing Pentecostal/evangelical/conservative/fundamentalist/apocalyptic Christians talk about “supporting Israel.” If you’d like a definition of what they mean when they call us to “support Israel,” maybe the following will suffice. From the Christians United for Israel (CUFI) main page: “The Bible commands us to pray for the peace of Jerusalem (Psalm 122:6), to speak out for Zion’s sake (Isaiah 62:1), to be watchmen on the walls of Jerusalem (Isaiah 62:6) and to bless the Jewish people (Genesis 12:3). These and so many other verses of the Bible that have one overriding message– as Christians we have a Biblical obligation to defend Israel and the Jewish people.”

For months now, I have inwardly seethed and said nothing as I saw blatant misrepresentations and misinterpretations of Scriptures to support such a position, and I can no longer stand idly by.

For right now, I’m going to offer a simple outline for the reading of the Scriptures that will guide us to a more wise, discerning position on this issue of “supporting Israel.” First, there is the foundational Scripture passage for Christian Zionists that comes from Genesis 12:1-3, and it reads;

The LORD had said to Abram,
“Leave your country,
your people and your father’s household
and go to the land I will show you.

2 “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.

3 I will bless those who bless you,
and whoever curses you I will curse;
and all peoples on earth
will be blessed through you.”

Essentially, the LORD tells Abe two things. First, he will be made into a great nation, and second, those who interact with Abe’s descendents will face consequences for how they treat them; positive ones for blessing them, and negative ones for cursing them.

Now, clearly, the historical result of God’s promise to Abe was the creation of the people of Israel. One could assume (as the above-mentioned “leaders” do) that this includes all of the Jewish people up until the present day. That assumption would be unwise and ultimately false. “Why?” you may ask. I’ll give good clear Scriptural reasons why. In the gospel of Matthew, chapter 3, verse 7 and following, John the Baptist (a Jew), said this to some fellow Jews who came out to the desert to hear the message he was proclaiming;

“But when he saw many of the Pharisees and Sadducees coming to where he was baptizing, he said to them: “You brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the coming wrath? Produce fruit in keeping with repentance. And do not think you can say to yourselves, ‘We have Abraham as our father.’ I tell you that out of these stones God can raise up children for Abraham. The ax is already at the root of the trees, and every tree that does not produce good fruit will be cut down and thrown into the fire.”

What John tells his Jewish hearers is essentially this; the claim to be a descendent of Abraham is not based on biological heritage, but instead on whether one obeys God. This is very different from the way we typically think about heritages today, so it might be a bit weird for us to grasp what John is saying, but he uses the metaphor of trees to illustrate his point. The trees are “Abraham’s children,” and those who do not “produce good fruit” (faithful living, obedience) will be “thrown into the fire” (cut off from God’s “great nation”).

During Jesus’ ministry that directly followed John the Baptist’s, Jesus said something that expounded on John’s statement. Again, it’s a bit mystical, but not terribly hard to figure out. It comes from the gospel of John, chapter 8, verse 31 and following. This passage comes right in the middle of Jesus speaking both with those his disciples (those obeying him) and the Pharisees (those not all sold on his message, and therefore disobeying him);

“To the Jews who had believed him, Jesus said, “If you hold to my teaching, you are really my disciples. Then you will know the truth, and the truth will set you free.”

They answered him, “We are Abraham’s descendants and have never been slaves of anyone. How can you say that we shall be set free?”

Jesus replied, “I tell you the truth, everyone who sins is a slave to sin. Now a slave has no permanent place in the family, but a son belongs to it forever. So if the Son sets you free, you will be free indeed. I know you are Abraham’s descendants. Yet you are ready to kill me, because you have no room for my word. I am telling you what I have seen in the Father’s presence, and you do what you have heard from your father.”

“Abraham is our father,” they answered.

“If you were Abraham’s children,” said Jesus, “then you would do the things Abraham did. As it is, you are determined to kill me, a man who has told you the truth that I heard from God. Abraham did not do such things. You are doing the things your own father does.”

“We are not illegitimate children,” they protested. “The only Father we have is God himself.”

Jesus said to them, “If God were your Father, you would love me, for I came from God and now am here.

In this passage, Jesus is also questioning the people’s belief that they are Abraham’s descendents based on biological parentage. He makes an important distinction between being Abraham’s “descendents” and being Abraham’s children. Jesus says, “If you were Abraham’s children, you would do the things Abraham did.” His implication is obvious; those who disobey him are no longer Abraham’s children. Their disobedience places them outside of the covenant people of God.

To reinforce in a powerful way what John the Baptist and Jesus have already made clear, we turn to the apostle Paul’s letter to the Romans. In chapters 9-11, Paul gives an extended argument on how a vast majority of the people of Israel now are no longer considered children of Abraham. Beginning his argument, Paul writes in chapter 9 (you can almost hear him wailing this through tears);

“I speak the truth in Christ—I am not lying, my conscience confirms it in the Holy Spirit— I have great sorrow and unceasing anguish in my heart. For I could wish that I myself were cursed and cut off from Christ for the sake of my brothers, those of my own race, the people of Israel. Theirs is the adoption as sons; theirs the divine glory, the covenants, the receiving of the law, the temple worship and the promises. Theirs are the patriarchs, and from them is traced the human ancestry of Christ, who is God over all, forever praised! Amen.

It is not as though God’s word had failed. For not all who are descended from Israel are Israel. Nor because they are his descendants are they all Abraham’s children. On the contrary, “It is through Isaac that your offspring will be reckoned.” In other words, it is not the natural children who are God’s children, but it is the children of the promise who are regarded as Abraham’s offspring.

Who are the children of the promise?” we might ask in response to this section of the Scriptures. As Jesus stated very clearly, it is those who “hold to my teaching.” And since a huge majority of Jews in Paul’s day denied Jesus was the Messiah (all the way up to today), Paul uses harsh imagery in the following passage to illustrate that they are no longer Abraham’s children. If you remember John using a tree as a metaphor, Paul uses a metaphor of tree branches. And this section in Romans 11 is addressed to Gentiles (non-Jews);

If some of the branches have been broken off, and you, though a wild olive shoot, have been grafted in among the others and now share in the nourishing sap from the olive root, do not boast over those branches. If you do, consider this: You do not support the root, but the root supports you.

You will say then, “Branches were broken off so that I could be grafted in.”

Granted. But they were broken off because of unbelief, and you stand by faith. Do not be arrogant, but be afraid. For if God did not spare the natural branches, he will not spare you either. Consider therefore the kindness and sternness of God: sternness to those who fell, but kindness to you, provided that you continue in his kindness. Otherwise, you also will be cut off. And if they do not persist in unbelief, they will be grafted in, for God is able to graft them in again. After all, if you were cut out of an olive tree that is wild by nature, and contrary to nature were grafted into a cultivated olive tree, how much more readily will these, the natural branches, be grafted into their own olive tree!”

In Paul’s metaphor of the branches of an olive tree, the root of the tree is God, and the branches are those who make up God’s “nation.” The Gentiles are “wild olive shoots” that have been grafted in among the other, we could say, more natural branches. The other branches aren’t more natural in that they’re more human, or somehow more gifted. They’re simply more natural in that they should know what the truth is since God called them to seek and represent the truth to the world before the others. And Paul makes clear here that being part of the tree is rooted in “faith,” which is essentially trusting God and obeying him.

You can really see Paul’s struggle as he, a biological descendent of Abraham, laments that most of the other biological descendents of Abraham are no longer part of the faithful people of Israel, but he makes no bones about it. Those who were formerly outside Abraham’s blessing (Gentiles) are now inheritors of the blessing, while those with biological connections to Abraham are now cut off from the blessing. Gentiles are now part of the people of Israel, along with the Jews who trusted and obeyed Jesus as Messiah. The message can’t be much clearer than that, and flat-out obvious for readers to see.

I’m tired of seeing evangelical leaders like John Hagee and Stephen Strang and the late Jerry Falwell use threats and fear to urge Christians to “support Israel,” suggesting that Christians who don’t blindly support what Israel does will be cursed. This is a disgusting, unholy, unfaithful practice, and it grieves the heart of God. Not to mention when you haul out threats to substantiate your message, that generally shows your motives are childish and petty

So Christians, when you hear supposed Christian “leaders” justify the modern Israeli state’s illegal settlements, apartheid, ethnic cleansing, and genocide against Palestinians or other Middle Eastern Arabs by saying things like,

“God said to Abraham, “I will bless those who bless you and whoever curses you I will curse” (Gen. 12:3). This is God’s foreign policy statement concerning the Jewish people.” (Stephen Strang October 27, 2006)”

and

“I firmly believe God has blessed America because America has blessed the Jew. If this nation wants her fields to remain white with grain, her scientific achievements to remain notable, and her freedom to remain intact, America must continue to stand with Israel.” (Jerry Falwell in book Listen America! 1980),

ignore their fearmongering and simply say, “No, Jerry and Stephen. I am a part of Israel today, and I will not stand for your baseless positions that support hatred, murder, and fear. I’m sorry, but you’ll have to find someone more naive and Biblically illiterate than me to sit under your authority.

I am SO sick and tired of Christian leaders spouting this drivel that leads Christians to justify some of the disgusting things the modern Israeli state is carrying out. May we reject fear and seek the truth in God’s word. May we tremble and maintain a healthy fear of God’s word, not those of misguided leaders.

Humbly, yet forcefully seeking the truth,
Nathan Myers