Archive for the ‘Gospel and Government’ Category

Before you go off on me as being somehow un-American, I was born into a typical Pittsburgh blue-collar family. My Dad’s first job was in a coal mine before he worked his way to owning a Chrysler-Plymouth dealership and fulfilling his version of the American dream. My favorite actor always has been and always will be John Wayne. As a kid I cried when he died at the end of The Alamo. As an adult I tear up when an American flag gets handed to a family member at a funeral with the words, “on behalf of a grateful nation”. If I have a slight regret it is that I didn’t sign the enlistment papers that Marine Captain Tacksus had ready for me back in college. So yes I love America. But America and Christianity are not the one and the same, and the fate of Christianity is not dependent on the fate of America or any other country.

If, as history shows to be the way of all great nations, America one day becomes eclipsed by some other nation, that does not mean Christianity is somehow eclipsed or automatically in decline. I get the distinct impression that many people think otherwise, both Christian and non-Christian. Some non-Christians seem to relish the possibility of both the decline of America and Christianity. If it would be possible to deal a blow to both with one stone, then they say, so be it. For some their primary hatred is for America, which they view as monolithically Christian and so they hate Christians/Americans. The recent violence and demonstrations in Egypt, Libya, and now strangely enough Australia would fall into this category. Many Muslims see America as a Christian Nation and their picture is the decadence of Hollywood, sex, drugs, alcohol, and more sex, hetero and homosexual and a nation that militarily is trying to impose “Christian values” on other countries. For others their hatred is for Christianity and they view America as the bastion of Christianity and if America must decline for Christianity to lose its influence that’s all well and good.

This illustrates the problem that Christians create when we too closely align ourselves with any kingdom other than God’s Kingdom. The missteps of a government or society that we cannot control can easily drag Christianity, or the external perception of it, in a direction that is neither helpful nor accurately Christian. Most people outside Christianity, not to mention within, do not appreciate the nuance of a Christian being a model citizen of their country, yet with a higher citizenship that trumps anything the earthly country might do or call for. Additionally, most people paint with a very broad brush and we let one example fill in the blanks for us in understanding a whole group. That was part of the point of Daniel Khaneman’s book ‘Thinking Fast and Slow” that I reviewed some time ago. So when a government, an anonymous movie director, or a screw loose preacher, says or does something provocative in a destructive way, people paint with a broad brush, decide that is what all America and thus Christians are like and they get violent against all things American/Christian.

The connection of a country with Christianity is not new. At least since the Reformation and the 16th century it has been largely the case. Prior to America it was the British Empire that Christianity hitched a ride with and circled the globe doing missions wherever the Union Jack got planted. In some cases with worked well. In others, Christianity became synonymous with English invaders and colonial oppressors. Prior to that it was Spain and the expansion into Central and South America that tied a Roman Catholic brand of Christianity to the Conquistadors. So you see the problem. Christians and Christian mission can benefit as a result of the work of countries and empires. Certainly the existence of the Roman road system made it possible for Christianity to spread in the first few centuries. But when we become so closely connected to the culture and/or government that Christianity becomes nearly indistinguishable from them, then Christianity looses its power and message.

I said even many Christians do not understand the nuance of being a model citizen of an earthly country while being first and foremost a citizen of God’s Kingdom. There are at least two reasons for this that I can see. One is our inability to disagree with someone or something and still love them. The other is that our view of success is based on one of worldly power and dominance.

As to the first, one only needs to look at a few church splits to see that Christians have a hard time disagreeing on even the most mundane and unimportant things, without taking sides that cause conflict. It goes all the way back to the first disciples of Jesus who wanted to prevent some people from casting out demons in Jesus name because they were not part of the group. In another case, James and John wanted to call fire down from heaven onto a village that did not want to listen to Jesus preaching. In both cases Jesus harshly rebuked them. In America we Christians need to learn how to disagree with people in a Christ-like manner. In Ephesians 4:15 Paul says we are to speak the truth in love. There is a dynamic tension with which few seem willing to live. We either love someone and don’t speak any truth for fear of hurting their feelings, which is actually incredibly unloving and untruthful, or we speak the truth without any love, under a false guise of love, while in the process ripping a person’s guts out, which is also not loving and incredibly dishonest. Christians must absolutely learn to disagree in as loving a way as possible. That must be the case in politics, religion, and any other area of life. You can love your country, serve it, sacrifice for it, but at the same time disagree, lovingly, when it goes wrong.

The second issue, our view of success and power, is more difficult to deal with. No one would argue against being more loving as we speak truth. It is obviously what Jesus wants. But our view of success is far more deeply rooted in our culture than we Christians want to admit. The thinking goes something like this. America is a great nation because God has blessed us, because we have been a Christian nation that was obedient to the Bible. As long as we follow the Bible and are a Christian nation, we will be a world power and a blessed people, in every way, including our material, physical, and emotional well-being. If we start to decline morally, as we seem to be doing, then God will judge America and we will lose our place of blessing, and Christianity will decline around the world as American influence declines.

There are so many false assumptions in that line of thinking that I fear it would take a whole book to address. But let me briefly deal with a few. First, Christianity did just fine expanding from place to place and reaching more and more people, long before America ever existed. Remember, the first viable English colony in North America that succeeded, didn’t get going until almost sixteen hundred years after Jesus walked the Earth. It was another one hundred and fifty years before the colonies split from England and became a separate nation. It has really only been since World War 2 some seventy-five years ago that America has been a world power and with the collapse of The Soviet Union, THE world power. God was doing just fine in expanding His kingdom for the 1900 years of history from Jesus to American dominance, and I suspect He will do just fine until Jesus returns, no matter how long that takes. A second presumption in the previous paragraph is that America has, until recently, been a model Christian nation. For almost the first hundred years of that City Set On A Hill we call America we allowed white people to own black people as property. Not exactly a shining Christian nation moment. Let’s not even talk about what we did to people who were Red not Black and lived here before European’s arrived. On the other end of the spectrum, motivated by Christian Temperance Movements we passed a constitutional amendment banning alcohol. It was the worst kind of Christian Pharisaism and resulted in all sorts of violence and corruption not to mention leaving a lasting picture of Christians as extremely legalistic fanatics who want to dominate others. No, America has not been the ideal Christian nation that would automatically be showered with God’s blessing. Perhaps the most dangerous assumption in the previous paragraph is that America somehow is fulfilling a role of being The New Jerusalem. As a result people attach to America all sorts of Old Testament prophecies about Israel, Jerusalem, or various Hebrew tribes. Now it is generally true that if nations follow the things of God that things will go better than not. But that is a result of God’s truth having that effect whether we are believers or not. However, that is a far cry from saying that America is God’s new chosen nation and applying prophecy to it; especially prophecy that was already fulfilled in Israel 1500 years ago.

The bottom line is this. America is a great nation that has at times demonstrated amazing “Christian” principles and culture and at others times not. In the last few decades it seems to be more not. God’s Kingdom is far greater than America. God does not need America to fulfill His plan of redemption that was set before the foundations of the world. God can and does use America as He has and does use any nation. Christians need to actually live what we so often point to on America money, “In God We Trust”. We do not trust in American dominance or success in order to feel secure that God’s plan of redemption will succeed. Conversely we do not fear failure in God’s plan of redemption is things in America are not going as we would hope. In recent history, America has been the key player in the World Christian Movement, but South America, Asia, and Africa are seeing massive growth in Christianity. China will soon become the nation with the largest number of Christians in the world. South Korea, as small as it is, is beginning to lead the way in missionaries sent. Some see that as the decline of America. I think God sees it as the ascendency of a global Christianity. No matter what happens in America or any other nation, God is still sovereign and will prevail, as will The Church. Jesus promised that even the Gates of Hell could not withstand the ultimate success of His plan.

This morning I was confronted with one of those Bible passages with which we like to do one of two things. It is a passage that we either try to ignore altogether or explain it away so that we become convinced that it could never apply to our situation. The passage deals with giving honor to leaders, even bad leaders, even if you vehemently disagree with what they are doing. The words come from the Apostle Peter in 1st Peter 2:13, 14 and 17. “13 Be subject for the Lord’s sake to every human institution, whether it be to the emperor as supreme, 14 or to governors as sent by him to punish those who do evil and praise those who do good…17 Honor everyone. Love the Brotherhood. Fear God. Honor the Emperor” Peter goes on to talk about also honoring your boss as well as being willing to suffer for doing good. Those are not easy things to put into practice.

Now before I go any further let me make it clear, in the last election I voted for the other guy so this is not coming from an apologist for the current administration. Rather, I am trying to look at this from the standpoint of making Christian witness a priority over political ideology. What I have seen in recent months, in terms of political rancor and vitriol is not new, at least not in my eyes. One advantage of being a child of the sixties is I have seen demonstrations against the government that make the G-20 demonstrators look like a Sunday school class out for an ice cream social. So I am not concerned about the general population getting all angry and nasty in politics. That is nothing new no matter what the media says. What does concern me is the level ridicule, bitterness, and anger bordering on hatred that is being poured out by many claiming to follow Christ. Instead of attacking the issues that we disagree over, many are falling into the time honored tradition of attacking the person expressing the ideas.

I always find it humbling to the extreme that the first century Christians continued to honor the Emperor with the exception of worshiping him as a god, even as he was having some of them put to death for their faith. Peter makes it clear why this was to be the practice of Christ-followers. 1st Peter 2:21-23 says, “For to this you have been called, because Christ also suffered for you, leaving you an example, so that you might follow in His footsteps. He committed no sin, neither was deceit found in His mouth. When He was reviled, He did not revile in return; when He suffered, He did not threaten, but continued entrusting Himself to Him who judges justly.” That is the kind of life that we as Christ-followers are to demonstrate to the world around us.

But what is the purpose in it? Peter also makes that clear. We are to live this way, honoring those in authority even when they make us suffer so that they will glorify God. “Keep your conduct honorable among the gentiles so that when they speak against you as evildoers, they may see your good deeds and glorify God on the day of visitation.” 1st peter 2:12 This is why I say I am more concerned with our Christian witness than I am with political ideology. Peter says that the ultimate goal is NOT for us to shape the government. Certainly we are to be involved in the process but if we get the public policy we want and do not live in such a way that leads people to people glorify God, then we have failed. It would be better to have lost the policy debate and have won people to Jesus than to have won the debate and lost our witness and our souls.

This is why Peter says that we are to honor others. We are to treat them with respect and dignity, even serving them while we disagree with their policy or their methods. We debate the issues. We don’t attack the person. We should be involved in the public debate in order to demonstrate what a Christ-follower is really like, not just what we think, but how we love and honor others. So disagree all you want with President Obama, with your governor, mayor, town dog catcher. If you are in another country the same applies to you. Disagree with policy but honor the office and the person in it. It may mean that you will suffer for disagreeing, because we should never be surprised when unbelievers don’t play by our rules. But that is never an excuse for us to do anything differently from how Jesus did it.