America is tense. We are wound up tight like a spring and the political and social discourse of late only seems to tighten the tension. All too frequent mass shootings are the tremors that come from the strain of built up hate, hostility, and paranoia, longing to be released.
One of many recent events in this vein was a speech by the President of Liberty University, a large Christian college. In discussing the shootings in San Bernardino, he stated that “if more good people had concealed carry permits, then we could end those Muslims before they walked in.” If he had referred to the assailants as “those murders” or “those killers,” he would be saying nothing more than what gun rights advocates always say after a shooting. However, adding “those Muslims” ratchets up the tension. It includes all Muslims in the crimes of two individuals when the vast majority of Muslims will never kill anyone. Using broad labels like this is also the fastest way to dehumanize. “Jews”, “Atheists, “Samaritans,” and “Fundamentalists” are all much easier to hate than the person you work with everyday because labels allow us to turn human beings into abstract objects.
The thing that disturbs me is not that someone would make such a statement. The United States is a country where people have the freedom to say what they are thinking, no matter how stupid and hateful. Rather, it bothers me that the leader of a university that claims to be Christian should allow his political ideology to trump his Christian belief. There is no doubt that the commands of Christ in Luke 6:27-29 are difficult. “Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, bless those who curse you, pray for those who abuse you. To one who strikes you on the cheek, offer the other also, and from one who takes away your cloak do not withhold your tunic either.”
No doubt Liberty University claims a high view of the authority of Scripture, but so do I. I may not always know fully how to apply these verses. Do they permit self-defense? Should I allow myself to be taken advantage of by my enemy? Still, I must take them seriously and struggle with them, even if the application makes me uncomfortable. The posture of love that Jesus commands in these verses clearly doesn’t align with the sentiment of “ending” your enemy before they have a chance to do you harm. The president of Liberty University placed his political beliefs, in this case the right to bear arms and religious-patriotism, above the words of Christ. To use old-fashioned language, he has allowed his political beliefs to become an idol.
A similar thing happened with the reaction to allowing refugees of the war in Syria to settle in the United States. Several political candidates who pander their religious beliefs to Christian voters attacked the idea. They seem to forget the Book of Ruth, in which a refuge from a despised foreign country became the great-grandmother of King David and the ancestor of Christ. Or the parable of the Good Samaritan, in which a man from a despised ethnoreligious minority is praised because he was the only one who stopped to help a person in need. There the identity of my neighbor is extended across national and religious divisions. What about the account of the healing of the daughter of the Syrophoenician woman? Jesus parrots the prevailing Jewish attitude toward Gentiles, then allows it to be overturned. There is the story of Elijah, who in the midst of a time of famine chose not to help one of the many widows in Israel, but a widow living in neighboring Sidon. When Jesus tells the story in a synagogue in Capernaum, he adds that during Elisha’s lifetime, the only person the prophet cured of leprosy was Naaman the Syrian. The citizens of Capernaum responded by trying to throw Jesus off a cliff. Apparently, helping Syrians was as popular among the inhabitants of Capernaum as it is among certain political groups today.
What about the passage from Isaiah 58 about religious hypocrisy?
Is not this the fast that I choose:
to loose the bonds of wickedness,
to undo the straps of the yoke,
to let the oppressed go free,
and to break every yoke?
Is it not to share your bread with the hungry
and bring the homeless poor into your house;
when you see the naked, to cover him,
and not to hide yourself from your own flesh?
Then shall your light break forth like the dawn,
and your healing shall spring up speedily;
your righteousness shall go before you;
the glory of the Lord shall be your rear guard.
Then you shall call, and the Lord will answer;
you shall cry, and he will say, ‘Here I am.’
If the United States is a Christian nation, why isn’t it jumping at the chance to feed the hungry and house the homeless? If Christians want to restore American or make it great again, housing refuges seems like a surefire method. I assume that America is only as Christian as it serves our needs and confirms our cherished ideals. At root, the “American Dream” (material comfort and security) is far more important than anything else. Growing up in a conservative Christian tradition, I heard much about denying ourselves, taking up the cross, and separating from the ways of the world. This I have tried to do, but oddly it has put me in opposition with many of those same groups of conservative Christians. Some things are hard to give up.
If concern for the physical needs of someone made in the image of God is not enough, surely there is the evangelical motive. Muslim countries are consistently the most difficult for Christian missionaries to access. Here is an opportunity for those same Muslims to come to us. Something is wrong when Evangelicals elevate their political views over evangelism.
To be fair, I know that many Christians reacted strongly against the resistance to welcoming Syrian refuges. Unfortunately, politicians and leaders who claim to represent America’s Christians have different views. Christians need to do a far better job at calling out those leaders who position themselves as “Christian” candidates, yet play the part of the Levite in the story of the good Samaritan. (Ted Cruz, for example, clearly wants to establish himself as the Christian candidate, while keeping Syrian Muslim refugees out of the U.S.). We need to react when Donald Trump proposes registering Muslims, not because he challenges the GOP status quo, but because such a proposal is evil.
I have a few other suggestions. They are basic and far from exhaustive, but they might help unwind the spring a bit.
Avoid paranoia. Paranoia is insidious. It allows a person to reject everything that might correct his or her false fears. Obama could claim that he is not a Muslim, but that is what a person who was trying to pretend he was not a Muslim would say. The logic is circular and confirms itself. A mindset of fear is also the opposite of what should drive a Christian. It implies an unconscious belief that the world has somehow gotten out of God’s control.
“Be wise as serpents and innocent as doves.” Christians need to be savvy about analyzing the information they receive. Too much false information is received via traditional and social media and passed around by Christians without any critical reflection. It doesn’t take too much digging to find out whether a quote or fact is fabricated. We cannot be ignorant either of the source’s motivation. Is it trying to inform, enrage, entertain, or sell more advertising? Simple sells better than the complexity of real life and anger is a more immediate motivator than compassion.
Think beyond a two party system. Christians often seem locked into the mindset of a two party system of government. The result is that they try to conform their faith to the system or the system to their faith. Neither works out well. Since there are only two options, one party must be the Christian party while the other is not. This binary system leaves little room for nuance. Someone who believes abortion is wrong must chose between a party that supports abortion or one that removes healthcare options for the mothers of unborn children and stigmatizes them for receiving help to feed those child. It’s uncomfortable to deal with complexity, but it’s probably time we started.
Stop being obsessed with political power. The idea behind the Moral Majority in the 80’s and similar groups today is that America will only return to traditional or Judeo-Christian morality when we get enough of the right people in office. Then as now, the result is that American Christianity sells its soul to gain political power and still fail to make a difference. It is somewhat similar to the temptation that Satan offers Jesus. He promises Jesus authority over all the kingdom’s of the earth. Think how much good Jesus could have done with that authority. The only catch is that he must worship Satan. Instead of seeking political power, Jesus goes and dies at the hands of the political authority.
Who you are following counts as much as what that person is saying. Take the character of a person as a litmus test for what they are saying. They may be saying things that you agree with, but if they are hateful and narcissistic, e.g. Donald Trump, then beware. As 1 John 4:20 says, “If anyone says, ‘I love God,’ and hates his brother, he is a liar; for he who does not love his brother whom he has seen cannot love God whom he has not seen.” Why do so many Christians who hold to the sanctity of marriage listen to Rush Limbaugh, a man who has been divorced four times? Our desire for political power and influence can cause us to compromise our dearest beliefs.
Lastly, “In essentials unity, in non-essentials liberty, in all things charity.”
A person who is familiar with the Bible might point out that it does command the destruction of people groups. Others have written about this, but I felt that I should say a few things about the subject, with the caveat that this is still an area I struggle with. First, the command came from God about seven specific tribes: the Hittites, the Girgashites, the Amorites, the Canaanites, the Perizzites, the Hivites, and the Jebusites (Ex. 23:23, Deut. 7:2, 20:17). It is not a carte blanche permission to kill those we perceive as our enemy. Anyone who tries to talk in this manner speaks as only God is able.
Second, the command was to ancient Israel and part of the covenant/treaty that Yahweh made with Israel. Anyone who thinks such passages give them the right to attack their enemies must follow the entire covenant, including not eating pork and avoiding shirts of mixed fabric. Thus the tendency of certain Christian groups to appropriate pieces of Scripture that apply to the ethnic people of Israel and extend them to America is, at the least, poor hermeneutics. They become dangerous when they are used to promise things to nations and individuals which should never be promised. This danger is all the more significant in light of the last point.
There was no separation between the religious and ethnic/national life of ancient Israel. Blessings for obedience to the covenant were physical and material as were the punishments for disobedience. Tribes who worshiped gods other than Yahweh were a spiritual/ethnic threat. One also can’t forget that the religious practices of the tribes singled out for destruction included ritual prostitution and child sacrifice. There was a certain physical danger posed by those tribes.
This is not the pattern of the New Testament. One of the great struggles of the infant church was to separate religion from ethnicity. Christianity cuts across ethnic, linguistic, and political divisions. There is no nation that God favors more than another. Indeed, the connections that I have to other Christians is deeper than any temporal national identity.