Monthly Archives: March 2016

Christians voting in the time of Trump

The sense of despair that normally comes in the election cycle for me has only been amplified by the fear, hatred, and violence of the rhetoric and personalities of this particular cycle.  In the past, my electoral gloom has been caused by the fact that my own understanding of the way Biblical Christianity interacts with the political realm is so radically different from that of most Christians that I felt hopeless.  Affiliating myself with the Mennonite tradition has changed that, somewhat.  This cycle, however, it has been shocking not just that so many “evangelicals” have come out in support of Donald Trump (whose antics, claims, and promises are blatantly immoral, violent, and evil), but that many of those are people I know, people to whom I have taught the Gospel of Jesus, who I hoped would be able to see that, based on that Gospel, they cannot support someone reveling in such evil.

All of this said, the depression-inducing problem is no different this year than in prior years—just (as already stated) amplified.  The issue is that politics is about power.  It is about control.  And the power and control of politics is wielded through the sword.  The government wields the sword, wields violence, to enforce the will of the people (supposedly, and whether that will is just or not).  We vote because we are attempting to influence which people will wield that violence, using that violent power for what we deem is best.  For this reason, engaging in the political world is inherently antithetical to a life shaped by the kingdom teaching of Jesus, who rejected the use of that power for a different kind of power.  Engaging in the political world is, in essence, denying that the Apostle Paul’s claim in Colossians 2 that Jesus, in his death, disarmed the powers, making a spectacle of their impotence.  To say, “I want to participate in choosing who wields that power” is to say, “Jesus has not disarmed that power.” This, in my view, is at the heart of the contradiction of Christians being involved in politics.

This view, however, does not (contrary to NT Wright’s near constant criticism) mean that Christianity has no political message or must be seen as a “two-kingdom” or “escapist” worldview.  NT Wright is correct that the message of Jesus is for this world.  However, he is incorrect that this means we can or must participate in the political powers.  The politics of John the Baptist, Jesus, and the apostles is not participatory but prophetic.  That John shouts his criticism of Herod outside of Herod’s palace is not a justification of voting or running for office, nor (as Wright would argue) is Romans 13.  It does, however, imply that the Gospel is political and is definitely note politically irrelevant.

So, why do more Christians not understand the tension between Christianity and politics as I do?  The problem, as my good friend recently said, is that when your understanding of what salvation is boils down to an exchange between Father and Son on our behalf and requires no more of us than repeating a belief statement or getting dipped in some water, then Christianity itself is just about a standing before God and has no real impact on how we live our lives, our attitudes about money or power, and our willingness to do violence.  It, eventually, has nothing to do with whether we love our neighbor, much less our enemy.  And, historically, when Christians have seen no tension between being united by the cross of Christ and the wielding of power, you find they tend to always side with the oppressor over the oppressed.

Ironically (and as we are seeing now) evangelical Christians are denying the very people Jesus identified with (the alien, the poor, the disenfranchised, the oppressed, the prisoner, the punished) to support those who claim to be able to offer security, safety, and prosperity.  These are the promises of too many despots and dictators: from Caligula to Hitler.

The conservative Christians I know sound more like Nietzsche than Bonhoeffer to me.

My aforementioned friend went on to say, “The message of the cross is out of alignment with that of Donald Trump in that where Trump is about obliterating enemies, Jesus makes friends of his enemies.”  This I agree with passionately because it is the heart of the gospel.  Jesus did not die for the purpose of forgiving us for some mystical offense to God’s preferences about certain actions (how most define “sins”), but because our violent and destructive desire to fill his role in our lives (sin) sets us against him such that when God became a human and demonstrated the kind of life he had in mind for us, we killed him.

Where my friend lost me was when he said, “Therefore, perhaps, the goal of Jesus is that Trump might use power for good.”  To which I had to interrupt: “The problem is that kind of power cannot be used for good because that kind of power is antithetical to the kind of power wielded on the cross.”  The statement “The goal of Jesus’ cross is to make friends of Jesus’ enemies” is in inherent contradiction to the notion that “perhaps we can use the power of the sword with which to make friends of our own enemies.”  Swords only make enemies.  Crosses make friends. (My friend did restate his comment and would, I think, agree with this point–I’m taking him out of context on purpose to make a point.)

What we must do to understand this is understand how, exactly, it is that Jesus “makes friends of his enemies through the cross.”  This is accomplished by a reading of Ephesians 2, in which the Apostle Paul is describing how Jesus has made Jew and Gentile one people.  In that passage he states:

14 For he himself is our peace, who has made the two groups one and has destroyed the barrier, the dividing wall of hostility, 15 by setting aside in his flesh the law with its commands and regulations. His purpose was to create in himself one new humanity out of the two, thus making peace, 16 and in one body to reconcile both of them to God through the cross, by which he put to death their hostility. 17 He came and preached peace to you who were far away and peace to those who were near. 18 For through him we both have access to the Father by one Spirit. (Eph 2: 14-18 NIV)

This passage is complemented by Paul’s words in Colossians 1:

19 For God was pleased to have all his fullness dwell in him, 20 and through him to reconcile to himself all things, whether things on earth or things in heaven, by making peace through his blood, shed on the cross.  21 Once you were alienated from God and were enemies in your minds because of your evil behavior. 22 But now he has reconciled you by Christ’s physical body through death to present you holy in his sight, without blemish and free from accusation— 23 if you continue in your faith, established and firm, and do not move from the hope held out in the gospel. This is the gospel that you heard and that has been proclaimed to every creature under heaven, and of which I, Paul, have become a servant. (Col 1:19-23 TNIV)

In Ephesians we find Paul proclaiming that God, in Christ, has destroyed what enmity we have for one another by reconciling all of us to Christ (his reconciliation of Jew / Gentile should apply to male / female, black / white, Christian / Muslim, straight / gay, Republican / Democrat, etc.).  And that reconciliation begins with being reconciled to God.  Notice that Paul does not say that he has put to death God’s hostility toward us (as is the assumption of most Christians).  It says he has put to death their (Jew and Gentile—our) hostility, and in Colossians the enmity which is put to death is in our minds, not God’s.

How does Jesus “put to death” the hostility of those whose desire to be in God’s position (sin) makes God and all others a threat and, therefore, their enemy?  He does it by receiving within his body, through the cross, their hostility and letting it die with him—offering no retaliation (as retaliation always escalates violence–and all sin is violence we do to one another, a wielding of power to control another).

This is how Christ brings peace: not by wielding the sword and not by political force or by participation in a political system.  He brings peace by wearing a cross and dying for those who hate him, by defeating their death in his resurrection, and offering to them a reconciliation to God through forgiveness, confession, and repentance and a reconciliation to one another in a mutual “dying to self” that happens as a result of choosing to follow Jesus on the way of the cross.

This, Paul tells us in 1 Cor 1, is the real power of God which the Jews (because they were already faced with their own crosses under Roman rule) stumble over and the Gentiles think is ridiculous.  But, for those of us who are being saved, it is the power of God to truly change things.  It looks foolish to the perishing because we can’t seem to un-think that power can work for good…we can’t seem to rethink that God’s power is a different kind of power.  Those who are perishing are seduced by the myth of power and redemptive violence.  But, Paul insists in that passage that the foolishness of God is wiser than our wisdom.

For this reason (both because we struggle to understand it and because the powers look so tempting), people who claim to be Christians don’t just vote, many are voting for someone whose life and stated ideals are the complete opposite of those which Christ came proclaiming.  I, for one, have struggled to believe that a Christian could participate in politics (by holding office or voting) and still be Christian—but I have tried very hard to be humble and allow for Christians to think differently than I.  But, I cannot imagine how someone can be a Christian and vote for a person like Donald Trump.

That said, this year I have decided that if Donald Trump (and likely Ted Cruz) wins the nomination for President, I will be voting.  Not because I support the other guy (or gal)—because I can’t.  It is because the kind of evil, hate, and fear that these men represent is so far beyond the normal political evil of our nation as to constitute (what I take to be) the same type of evil which led to the holocaust.  If this happens, I will vote.  But you’ll see no sticker on my Facebook profile proudly proclaiming it.  After I do, I’ll most likely have to spend some time in prayer—repenting for denying the cross of Christ so profoundly.  Oughtn’t I, instead, simply “Know whom I have believed” and be “persuaded that he is able to keep that which I’ve committed unto him against that day”?

Simply stated, to participate in the powers is to deny that Jesus’ way of doing life was the correct one.  As members of Jesus’ kingdom, we reject that the powers have any power, they are a laughingstock.  And our lives are a prophetic (and political) witness to the fact that they already have been made powerless, and that war has already been ended, and the enmity between us has already been put to death.  For now, we live as that witness and wait for the moment when, as Paul again states in Philippians 2, “every knee will bow and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord to the glory of God the Father.”

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On defending kings and priests from prophets

I could be wrong…
…but I don’t think so.
What’s the point of thinking at all
If you are not to speak?

Jeremiah’s curse is a familiar friend.
Though I am no prophet. But
I know what it is to feel
The burden of seeing
Something that seems so clear
But is hated by everyone I know.

The word of God has brought
Shame and derision all
Day long. But if I say I will not
Speak anymore…
The words are in my
Heart like a fire.

Like an uncontainable explosion inside.

I am weary of holding them in.
Indeed I cannot.

Power is on the side of the oppressors.
The only Christian leaders who
Never see accountability are
The “successful.”
The powerful.
The popular.
The ones in charge.
The ones who write
The checks tell the story. And it must be true.
“Or else wouldn’t someone else write the checks?”
“They wouldn’t be ‘successful’
Unless they were doing something right.”
“Don’t ignore the good they do
Just because they mix it with a little evil.”
“Don’t ignore their worship of God,
Just because they also worship idols.”

“How dare you challenge the high priests?”

They can say what they want.
They can do what they want.
They can hurt whom they want.
They can throw them away.
This, too, is meaningless.

The faith of our fathers Is held captive by the
Idols of success,
Of money,
Of industry,
Of conglomeration.
The people trust in
Structures and leaders,
Defending wrongs done
By people of ambition,
While ignoring the myriad
Who serve with integrity
And sincerity, because
The image of success
Makes them feel safe.

He has no beauty of majesty
Nothing in his appearance
That we should be attracted to him.
He is despised and rejected,
Familiar with pain.
Like one from whom people hide
Their faces.
They hold him in low esteem.

The faith of our fathers is held captive
By the idols of culture.
And while the Pashurs of our time
Are defended and privileged,
It is the Jeremiahs who see the stocks.

This is how it has always been.
But it will not always be.

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Doing evil to accomplish good?

When I was a child, I was one of those “picky eaters.” I had (and still have to a great extent) texture issues with food that made many foods just almost unbearable. I remember being told I was insulting my mother or a host by not eating some food and forcing myself to try to eat it only to begin gagging, unable to swallow it. I’ve since grown out of a lot of it, but there are still many foods that give me trouble and that I avoid at nearly all costs. Since then I’ve learned that most people don’t like something and just don’t eat it and that’s…ok.

My father was always worried about it, though. But more than that he was annoyed by it. Some of my earliest memories of him were when I was desperately hungry, sitting in front of food I couldn’t seem to make myself eat, wishing that I felt differently, hours after everyone else had left the table because he hadn’t yet given up on the “you’re not getting up until it’s gone” technique. Starvation couldn’t make me eat it, even when (in my second-grade year) he tried to institute a meal rule that stated, “If you’re not hungry at dinner, you must be not hungry at breakfast or lunch the next day.”

Worse than that were the nights when in utter frustration, he held me down with his giant hands and forced my little jaws open (painfully), shoving cooked vegetables which had turned cold and congealed into my mouth, forcing my mouth to chew and holding his hand over my mouth until I swallowed it. I can still hear his voice shouting, “Just eat it! It’s for the best! This is for your own good!” I can still hear my mother in the background crying, “Ray, stop! Please stop.” I can still remember feeling helpless and powerless, panicked and suffocated; and I remember this would happen until I vomited into the hand that was holding my mouth closed. I remember choking…nearly asphyxiating.

My issues with food, with being coerced and forced, continued well after those years. As a teenager, I found myself still unable to make myself eat some foods. But my father’s technique changed from force to shaming. For years, every night at the dinner table was a lecture on how I was hurting myself, how my “late-blooming” was being caused by my eating, how I was likely to die of malnutrition before I turned 30 (as a teenager I was convinced that I would not survive to 31), how my teeth and my hair were going to fall out, how I could never play basketball or do the things other kids could do until I learned to “eat right”…. One night, in my sophomore year of high school, after a particularly awful mealtime, everyone else had left the dining room and he was pacing and screaming at me. With my head hung low, he picked up my still pre-pubescent arm and said, “Look at your skinny arms. Pathetic!” Then he stormed out of the house. I remember walking up the stairs to my room just “knowing” he was right. He may have stopped forcing me, but he wasn’t afraid to say the worst things to keep trying to control me.

Nothing in my entire life shaped me like those events did. To this day, they are the most significant things that ever happened to me. That said, my father never acknowledged that they ever happened until one day, just prior to marrying my second wife—the love of my life. I wrote to him and said, “I want you to come to my wedding, but I want us to talk about what happened when I was a child. I want you to acknowledge that what you did hurt me. I’m not asking you to fix it, I’ve already been through therapy. I want you to acknowledge it.”

His mind was in the early stages of Alzheimer’s, so I’ll never know how lucid he was when he responded, sarcastically, that he was “sorry that he wanted me to eat good food.” That, along with the pages of subsequent justifications and accusatory defenses, may have been the ramblings of someone out of his mind, but it revealed what I had always known to be true. My father had convinced himself that the horrible evil he had perpetrated in my life was always “for good.” He believed the lie that so many who claim Christ believe, “Sometimes you have to do evil, hurt people, for good.”

It seems to me, in the years since, I have been in situation after situation with Christians who, just like my father, have responded to questions about whether a potential action is right, good, or moral with, “Just shut up and do it. It’s for the best.” It has struck me how often what is good takes a back seat to what we think will work. And the central assumption about doing what will work usually includes another assumption: that sometimes you just have to do a little evil to do what works, to make good happen.

This year’s election cycle is quite possibly the worst one I’ve ever seen. My own “political” opinions aside, the fight for the Republican nominee for president includes two of the worst people I’ve ever imagined we’d see. The amount of hateful rhetoric, posturing, promises of violence and racism is unbelievable. The question that I keep seeing when it comes to this year’s election cycle is “I don’t get it. Why would people vote for someone so horrible? Why are people who claim to follow the Lord so willing to support someone who is such an awful person?”

The answer is because we believe that you have to do a little evil to accomplish some good. This is why we justify all kinds of things for the sake of the greater good. And what happens when people expect that you have to do some evil to accomplish some good is that people become passionate about doing that evil to the point where the evil overtakes the good. There is no good, only evil.

Where, once, evangelical Christians were concerned with the issues of abortion and culture war morality so passionately that they aligned themselves to a political party so blindly as to forget that the people they now support simply don’t care about the values the used to justify that alignment. It’s come to the point where even a leader in the Southern Baptist convention is saying, “Wait a minute, this conservatism has nothing to do with Christianity.”

My good friend Paul Axton, author of The Psychotheology of Sin and Salvation (which too few people will read) said this is the very reason why Paul makes his hypothecital question “Shall we sin all the more so that grace may abound?” And, of course, the answer that is implied within the linguistic structure of Paul’s question is “absolutely not.” And yet, that is exactly the kind of thinking that pervades our all-too culturally relevant churches.

We believe it so strongly, so fervently, that most people are more likely to defend the leader who has been accused of evil than they are to care about the person who has been hurt by that evil. Just this week I read another article claiming that Mark Driscoll’s church, which closed down in 2014, is being accused of gross financial misconduct (which of course was never admitted even though Driscoll once, with tail tucked, apologized for the spiritual missteps before promising to start another mega-church) because you have to do some evil to accomplish some good.

Now, the truth is, if you try to claim that this is wrong, people will come out of the woodwork to defend Driscoll. You claim that a church structure is inherently in conflict with the message of the gospel and people’s’ reaction will be “perhaps, but look at all the good they do.” When people do evil, what is almost always chanted is, “But look at the good that they also did/do.”

You have to do some evil in order to accomplish good…that’s the assumption. Therefore, any evil can really be justified as necessary. In which case, it is almost always impossible to call any action truly evil. “Why did I participate in the holocaust? Well, I had to feed my kids.” But what is at the heart of the assumption is that Christianity means killing one person so that another might live. Just like when Caiaphas, in John 18, suggests that perhaps what Israel should do is turn over one person to die so that Israel might be saved. This, we are supposed to think, is a great injustice, to use a person as a scape-goat, a great evil. But it is how people tend to think.

If your Christianity is the sort that says that Jesus bore the cross so that you don’t’ have to, I suppose what happens then is you end up with a Christianity that thinks the modus operandi is to put others on the cross instead of self. Therefore, you MUST do evil in order to do good. You must sacrifice the other in order to save the “institution” or serve “the greater good.” Ironically, what is most often being saved is the leaders who perpetrate the evil under the guise of “not hurting the structure.” So, Christianity becomes a religion of putting other people on crosses rather than following the Lord to their own. Because it will be necessary to put that person on a cross in order to keep doing good.

And this is true because most people believe that the ultimate good is to keep from experiencing the effects of evil. And, the only way to keep from feeling the effects of evil is to make sure that someone else does instead of ourselves.

However, those of us who believe that Jesus didn’t die on a cross so we don’t have to but, instead, died on a cross and said, “Come die with me” recognize that Jesus gives us God’s answer to the question “should we do evil in order to good?” And the answer is “absolutely not.” It is not necessary to do evil to do good, because we trust in the God who will make good what was evil by raising from the dead those victims of evil.  This is why Jesus refused to do evil, but experienced evil within himself.

Which means that putting someone else on a cross so that you don’t have to be on one is absolutely antithetical to the message of the gospel of Jesus.

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The time of Bonhoeffer is here

The time is finally here.
The national religion is
Coopted by hate and fear.
Lines are being drawn

In the sand. And there’s
A sense that soon the cost
Of following will be clear.
The time is finally come

To recognize that the Lord
Has called us to stand for
Peace when the sword
Is held at our throats.

The moment will come when
The friend you thought you had
Will look you in the eyes, then
Say, “I’m sorry, but I’ve got kids to

Feed.” And then we’ll know loss
To see that not every time
People gathered under a cross
Did they understand.

The time is soon, when all
The false prophets will be
Revealed for the hucksters and
The marketers that they were,
Giving frightened masses a false
Message of security and safety
In numbers, and that their idols
Weren’t idols after all
And that they could somehow
Get out of life alive.

The time is soon, when the cost
Of following will be clear.
When the message of the cross
Will be seen for its foolishness
To the world and it’s power
To those whose lives have been
Shaped by it, whose heads

Will find themselves on the block,
Whose lives will be counted
Like ticks of a clock because
In a world so shaped

By fear and hate and noise
They dared to make
A more impressive choice
To learn the lesson brother

Bonhoeffer tried to teach
That our enemies were
Merely brothers we must reach.

The time is here.
The world is blatantly
Turning to hate and fear.
It’s their time to kill.

Brothers and sisters join,
Your hands and believe
That love and trust will point
The way to truth.

It is time. Time to lay
Our lives before the cross,
To trust that God will give
Them back to us.

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I am a Hoosier

I love being a Hoosier.
My Indiana heritage.

A beautiful name,
Conjuring visions of

Lush green corn stalks in
Endless acres of rich brown soil.

And that inevitable question:
“What is a Hoosier?” Or

When the Mennonite preacher in
His jealous Buckeye jacket says

“It’s a lovely made-up word,”
I smile and laugh because

I know the truth. “Hoosier” is
A secret that we Hoosiers

Keep that no one else can share.
It stands for rusty hoops nailed

To decrepit barns and dead trees.
Lonely corn cribs in desolate

Fields against the backdrop of
Distant groves of trees like islands

In a sea of crops and clouds. Warm
Summer nights in small towns,

Long straight highways, cool air that
Seems to carry the orange hue of

The distant sunset visible from
Everywhere. It’s the biggest little

Hick town in the world. The biggest
Spectacle in racing, and the small

Town sensibility of every
Mellencamp song. It’s

Brown county Autumn, covered
Bridges bracing for winter snows.

It’s the crunch of a two-month
Freeze underfoot on the way

Into the warm gym to watch
The home-team play, the exhaust

Of the bus filling the air. It’s
The passion of Boilermaker fans’

Longsuffering love for their team
Of astronauts, quarterbacks, and

Sports gods. It’s Sycamores and
Fighting Irish, Bulldogs and Cardinals,

And, yes, the cream and crimson
Hoosiers in Bloomington.

I love being a Hoosier, perhaps more
Because most of my life has been

Spent far from the place of my
Birth, remembering the places and

Names of my childhood, the
Crack peals of thunder, the cleansing

Rains with their winds whipping
Wet through the screen door,

Crickets and bullfrogs, fireflies
And katydids, combines working

Into the late evening hours, and
The intensity of fertilized fields.

I have been all over this country:
East and west, north and south,

And no matter where I’ve been
A few things have always come

With me. And one of the best
Has been: “I am a Hoosier.”

“I am a Hoosier.”

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