Posts Tagged ‘Racism’

One of the most critical questions for the church for the last century or so has been, How do we relate to the world around us?

It is essential that we do a better job of wrestling with the question because our entire ministry to the world depends on the attitude with which we approach those who dwell outside the protective walls of the church.

I begin my meditation on the matter with a simple observation: When we follow Jesus Christ, he leads us into the world, not into the church. Yes, he visited synagogues but did not set up shop there. Instead, he kept moving into encounters on the streets. He did not become a ruler of a synagogue. He met people where they were and asks almost no questions about their backgrounds or situations.

One of my favorite stories is that of the Greek, the Syrophoenician with the demon possessed daughter. Jesus is in Gentile territory and is approached by an unclean Gentile female. After a brief exchange, Jesus tells her she may go her way and return to her now-healed daughter. That she was not a Jew, was not like Jesus, is simply not an issue in this story. Rather, the essential point is that she heard the word of the Lord, though it was in the form of a parable, and spoke the appropriate word in response.

Why didn’t Jesus call her to convert to Judaism? Let’s think about this for a bit.

Jesus found, so far as we are told, no religious signs in her. What he did find was faith and an attentive ear. And that was enough.

If we will listen carefully to those around us, we will hear many signs of faith. The question is, Will we affirm and value those signs or tell people it’s not enough? Will we not like them until they become more like us?

Paul said, “I have become all things to all people, that I might be all means save some.” Most Christians, it appears to me, reject such thinking all together. We want to make sure everybody knows not how much we are like them but how different we are. And that usually seems to mean we want them to think we are better than they.

Jesus and Paul had an inclusive attitude, widening their own circle to include and bless as may people as possible. Today, I fear, it is more fashionable among Christians to want to exclude any who seem different. Think, for example, of the so-called “evangelicals” of our day applauding Trump for wanting to exclude hundreds of thousands of people from our nation. Jesus would be furious, would he not?


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By the start of 1933 Germany was desperately weak. Devastated by World War I, plunged into economic collapse by the bursting of the bubble in the American stock market, bewildered by a rapid succession of failed Chancellors, the German people were almost frantically looking for a dictator, a strong man who would take responsibility for all the people.

By the end of January of that year, they had their wish. And it turned out to be just the solution they needed. The early achievements of Hitler as listed by Erwin Lutzer, Hitler’s Cross, Moody Press, 1995) are impressive:

1. Revived a collapsed economy in 5 years
2. Erased Germany’s WW I shame by reclaiming Rhineland and ignoring Treaty of Versailles
3. Gave millions of Germans vacations through his Kraft durch feuede (“Strength through joy”) program.
4. Established training schools and achieved full employment.
5. Brought crime under control.
6. Built good roads and promised a car that everyone could afford (Volkswagen)
7. Gave Germans a reason to believe in themselves, to believe they could be great again

I would add that, contrary to the Treaty, Hitler began rebuilding the army. This gave the Germans a sense of strength and pride.

The oddity of it all was that it was quickly evident that Hitler was achieving his ends through draconian measures. He reduced crime by the severity of his punishments of criminals. He took the Germans’ bad feelings about themselves and refocused those feelings on the Jews.

Eventually Hitler’s cruelties and incredibly brutal ways were evident to everyone. And the people supported him all the more.

What is frightening about Germany is not that there were so many evil people but that there were so many ordinary people perpetrating evil.

When democracy ceases to function, when an elected government gets so entangled in petty struggles for power that no decisions can be made, the people — as Bonhoeffer warned just two days after Hitler became Chancellor — start looking for a strong-willed leader who will just made things happen. they tend not to be reflective about just what it is that will be happening, they just want someone to take responsibility for the situation and fix it.

Those with tyrannical personalities see such situations as opportunities and seize the moment, stoking fears, dividing people on the basis of racism and hate, making outlandish promises.

America in 2016 is in disarray. The ultra-conservatives have disrupted government by effectively shutting down our congress and blocking our President. It is no surprise that their is a tyrant rising in our midst and being cheered for his vacuous promise to make America great again by getting rid of any people who are “different” and by intimidating any opposition at home or abroad.

Donald Trump is a seriously dangerous man, an enemy of democracy. He cannot distinguish between being feared and being respected. He believes the old Machiavellian lie that a ruler can use words and showmanship to convince people he is making them happy, while in fact using and abusing them to fulfill his lust for power and glory.

Bonhoeffer would see right through him and so should we.

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At an ecumenical conference on the island of Fanø, Denmark in the summer of 1934, Bonhoeffer challenged the participants with these strong words:

“How does peace come about? Through a system of political treaties? Through the investment of international capital in different countries? Through the big banks, through money? Or through universal peaceful rearmament in order to guarantee peace? Through none of these, for the single reason that in all of them peace is confused with safety. There is no way to peace along the way of safety. For peace must be dared. It is the great venture. It can never be made safe. Peace is the opposite of security. To demand guarantees is to mistrust, and this mistrust in turn brings forth war” (DBWE 13:308f; emphasis added).

Peace must be dared. Cowardice is never the path toward peace. Building walls of self-protection, excluding thousands of desperate people because maybe one or two of them might be bad. . .these are the plans of a coward. And the offensive stench of such ideas is already damaging the trust between the US and other nations.

Trump is not even the official Republican candidate for president, yet he is already heading us down a path from which it will take years to recover. He is shouting for short-term security at the expense of long-term peace. That is too great a price to pay.

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A friend of mine runs a program on the West Coast which is helping Christians, Jews, and Muslims to know, respect, and enjoy one another.His work can be seen as an extension of Bonhoeffer’s call to understand Jesus Christ as the Lord not just of Christians but of all people. When we stop judging people by their labels, we become more inclusive in our attitudes and values.

My friend has just sent out a post in response to the vicious attacks in San Bernadino. He seeks to articulate a biblical foundation for our way treating those who seem drastically different from us. Let me condense his observations.

  1. Jesus had told his disciples that there would come a time when people would kill them and think that by doing so they were “offering a service to God.” His words were soon fulfilled: Paul was a violent radical, trying to stand for what was right and protecting his own religion. He persecuted Christians and turned them over to authorities to be killed. The first word we have of him is that he happily watched the Christian Stephen being stoned to death.  We wonder what Paul thought of Stephen, who did not cry out for judgment against his killers but for forgiveness for them. There came a time when Paul was confronted by the crucified and resurrected Jesus, who did not condemn him but instead called him to become a follower.
  2. Jesus stopped his disciples from protecting him with their swords and refused to ask his Father to send legions of angels to guard him. Instead, he was loving and patient with his enemies and, even as they were killing him, prayed that they would be forgiven. And he expected the same of his followers: “Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, bless those who curse you, pray for those who abuse you” (Luke 6:27–28).
  3. Not only is revenge ruled out for followers of Jesus, so is fear. “Do not be afraid of those who kill the body but cannot kill the soul. Rather, be afraid of the One who can destroy both soul and body in hell” (Mt. 10:28)  “There is no fear in love, but perfect love casts out fear. … he who fears is not perfected in love” (1 John 4:18).

My friend has spoken well. Christians are followers of Jesus Christ and are called to emulate his example and fulfill his command, which is centered in love, grace, forgiveness, faith.

So when we hear of those today who call for retaliation against Islam, we say No. And when they call for fearful withdrawal from all Muslims, we say No. We are followers of Jesus Christ, not of petty politicians, not of ranting racists, not frightened fellows who say security matters more than love.

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I’ve long since despaired of defining the word “Evangelical.” It has changed so often even in my lifetime and is now so broad that it covered an incredibly wide range of ideas, that I don’t know how to pin it down. Whatever it may mean, it does seem that I am one of those Evangelical creatures.

For me, that means two things. First, I take Scripture seriously and accept it as the Word of God. That does NOT mean I take it literally. I have no use for the term and am convinced its modern introduction to the debate about the nature of the Bible has done far, far more harm than good. The Bible is written in ordinary language, used the way ordinary people use language, and not in some sort of special “God-talk.” In ordinary usage, I may say something like, “Okay, son, time to hop into bed.” When our firstborn son was still very young, he loved to take such talk seriously and hop into the bedroom. But even as a three year old, he knew he was just being cute and knew that I wasn’t speaking literally. In ordinary usage, we slip into and out of literal or figurative language all the time. If I read that Jesus says I must poke out my eye if I look inappropriately as a woman, I don’t sit down and try to work out some sort of interpretation that will relieve me of the responsibility of blinding myself. We know without having to think about it that we are not to take his words literally. I listen to Scripture as I listen to anyone else: I listen for the self-revelation that lies behind the words.

Second, but most importantly, I have entrusted my life to Jesus Christ as Lord and Savior. I might differ a bit from those to my Right who place the emphasis differently than I do. They think of Jesus as SAVIOR and Lord. I think of him as LORD and Savior. I value him as Savior because I trust that I am receiving salvation from him, both countless deliverances in this life and ultimately deliverance from death to life. But what I receive from him is minor compared to what he deserves and wants to receive from me: my complete love, faith and devotion to him as Lord and Master. It is not that my gift to him is greater in any sense than his gift to me but he is more important, more central than I am.

I cringe often when I hear the word Evangelical used to identify, for example, any conservative Christian who supports the Far Right politically. I’m bothered that there is a word which could encompass both me and Jerry Falwell. I was astounded to hear one conservative Christian say she trusted Limbaugh more than anyone else on the air because he is the only one who tells us the truth. I can think of very, very few people who remind me less of Jesus than does Rush Limbaugh. the commentators on Fox News, of course, are serious competitors with Limbaugh in being so unlike Jesus.

This blog entry is getting long but let me add before I close two areas where I think I and my fellow Evangelicals (of whatever stripe) have huge holes in our theological understanding. One, we seem to have an extremely shriveled understanding of the biblical word “:righteousness” and all its cognates. We think of it in strictly individualistic senses, thereby leaving ourselves badly crippled when we try to figure out how to be witnesses in our society. Because we conceive of righteousness in terms virtually identical to those of the Pharisees with whom Jesus so often tangled, we think only of trying to be righteous ourselves (whether we emphasize grace or works — but that’s for another day). We cannot seem to grasp that in the Greek New Testament, there are not two separate words for righteousness and justice. One word, just one word, gets translated both ways. One implication is that when we think only of individual righteousness rather than social justice, thereby simply  omitting from our view an essential half of the biblical idea of justice.

Such severely truncated thinking allows a great many “Christians” to favor slavery and racism, xenophobia and a thousand other prejudices. Shame on us. . .

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