Speaking of violence and Christianity

Yesterday I gave a forty-five minute presentation to a few dozen people about violence and Christianity. My talk was part three of a four-part series, held on Thursday mornings, which the organizer called “Strange Bedfellows: Religion and Violence.” The first speaker was a retired rabbi, representing Judaism, and the second speaker was a Muslim. The organizer plans to speak at the fourth session next week, wrapping up the series.

It only struck me after the presentation what an honor it was to be the sole voice speaking for Christianity to this particular group. I would have been a lot more nervous if I had thought about that before I spoke. Many people in the audience had heard me speak before, but more as a teacher about history or about religion, not as an apologist for Christianity. I attended the two previous sessions so I would know what had been said about violence and Judaism and about violence and Islam.

I began by displaying the words, “NO JESUS = NO PEACE; KNOW JESUS = KNOW PEACE.” I said that Christianity presents itself to the world as a religion of peace, from the benediction of Numbers 6 (“The Lord bless you and keep you… and give you peace.”) to the messianic title “Prince of Peace,” to the song sung by angels when Jesus was born (“Glory be to God on high, and on earth, peace…”) and Paul’s favorite greeting in his epistles (“Grace and peace to you…”). My next slide showed the words of Matthew 10:34: Jesus said, “Do not think that I have come to bring peace to the earth. I have not come to bring peace, but a sword.” From there I went on to talk about the Christian life as living on a battlefield—not a Manichaean battlefield in which God rules heaven, Satan rules hell, and they fight as equals on earth, but a war of rebellion in which Satan and his allies resist God even though they are doomed to lose. I spoke of the three enemies—not flesh and blood, but spiritual forces—faced by Christians; namely, the devil, the world, and our flesh. I included death as a fourth enemy, and I explained the Christian belief that Jesus came into the world to fight and defeat these enemies.

Next, I quoted Jesus’ parable of the strong man (Matthew 12:29). Satan is strong, but Jesus is stronger: he breaks into Satan’s house, binds Satan, and robs Satan of his possessions; namely, sinners. I pointed out that we are all sinners; I gave the example of shouting an insult at another driver on the highway, which Jesus considers equal to murder. Having shouted such an insult, I made myself property of the devil rather than a child of God. But Jesus came, not to destroy me but to rescue me. He came, not to destroy the sin-polluted world, but to rescue and remake the world.

My next point was that forgiven sinners become saints. They are called to imitate Jesus, helping those who need help and forgiving those who sin against them. But, being like Jesus, saints will be persecuted like Jesus. I cited several examples, from Roman persecution of the Church to recent events in Nigeria and Sri Lanka. Christians are victims of violence and will be until the Last Day. The devil and the world target Christians for persecution.

But the big question that I was expected to answer was this: what happens when Christians are violent towards others? I approached that question with this saying: “CHRISTIANS AREN’T PERFECT; JUST FORGIVEN.” I acknowledged that Christians can be guilty of violence. I described Luther’s vitriolic words about Jews, saying that Luther was wrong to write such things, that he had fallen victim to the flesh (as all Christians do), and that the good things he wrote should not be discounted because of the bad things he wrote.

From there I went on to talk about witchhunts, the Crusades, pogroms, and forced conversions. Each of them, I insisted, was sinful behavior by Christians for which they needed Christ’s forgiveness. I followed that with a more detailed description of the Spanish Inquisition, which was the effort of King Ferdinand and Queen Isabella to ensure that every citizen of the nation they ruled was a genuine Christian. Jews and Muslims were given a choice: convert to Christianity or leave Spain. The Inquisition attempted to ensure that those who did not leave had sincerely converted. Of course the Inquisition hunted down other groups of people, including Protestants, sexual deviants, and even common criminals. But it was a branch of the government that dealt with crime and that treated certain religious groups as criminal.

This introduced the idea that every Christian has a dual citizenship: loyalty to the kingdom of God and also loyalty to a nation on earth. I am a citizen of the United States and also a citizen of God’s kingdom. Quoting Jesus’ words, “Render unto Caesar… and render unto God…” I also mentioned Augustine’s two cities, Luther’s two swords, and the American concept of “separation of church and state.” In each case, a dual loyalty is seen. But both are loyalty to God. The state enforces the law, protecting citizens and punishing criminals. The church shares the gospel, offering forgiveness to sinners. The church does not punish sinners; the state does not forgive criminals.

The Crusades are an example of the Church trying to do the job of the state; the Spanish Inquisition is an example of the state trying to do the job of the Church. Much of the violence for which Christians are blamed (and of which some Christians were guilty) results from crossing the line between Church and state. I reminded the group that the Muslim speaker had said that violence is a political problem, not a religious problem (even when committed in the name of religion) and I said that I agree. I indicated that Christians need to honor, respect, and obey their leaders, whoever those leaders are. I named President Bill Clinton, President George W. Bush, President Barack Obama, and President Donald Trump as men who represent God’s authority by their office and deserve the respect of all American Christians.

I then spoke briefly about the Theory of Just War, one of the special interests of the series’ organizer. A government has an obligation to protect its citizens from attacks coming from other nations or groups of people. But some reasons for starting a war are just and others are unjust; some methods of waging war are just and others are unjust.

My final topic was Christian apocalyptic hope. I mentioned Armageddon, which the book of Revelation describes as the devil gathering all the sinners of the world to oppose Jesus Christ. When Christ appears, though, there is no violence. No bombs are dropped. No guns are fired. Jesus simply wins. In fact, he has already won, suffering violence on the cross and reversing death Easter morning. His picture of the new creation is not a military picture: it is the picture of a wedding reception. This new creation, I said, is marked by peace: peace with God, peace with one another, and peace with all creation.

The audience was very quiet during my presentation. I wasn’t sure whether the silence was rapt attention or smoldering hostility. But their questions were friendly, their applause was warm, and those who spoke with me afterward said I had done a good job. I cannot say that my words converted anyone to Christianity or even whether they enriched anyone’s faith. But, for forty-five minutes, I represented Christ and his Church in an official setting. I am grateful to have had that opportunity. J.

 

Apollo 11

How are you celebrating the fiftieth anniversary of Apollo 11?

I have my CD player/alarm set to wake me up tomorrow at 6:30 with Frank Sinatra singing “Fly Me to the Moon.” I wasn’t sure until this afternoon that I owned that recording—I bought a Frank Sinatra CD years ago for “My Kind of Town” and I haven’t played any other tracks from it. But tomorrow will start with the right song for the day.

When I get dressed for work (Yes, I have to work tomorrow.), I will put on a crisp white shirt, black slacks, and a black tie. Instead of my usual one ballpoint pen I will put several pens in my pocket. If I cannot dress like an astronaut to celebrate, at least I can dress like an engineer from Mission Control, and that’s good enough for me.

I will fly the American flag outside my house tomorrow. We fly the flag on sad days like Memorial Day and September 11, so it feels good to fly the flag on the anniversary of a great and joyful American accomplishment.

When I am at work, if slow times come when no one needs my attention—and Saturdays frequently have such slow times—I will be reading First on the Moon, which is a book that Little, Brown rushed to publish a few months after the Apollo 11 mission. The writers probably spent time with the astronauts, flight crew, and the families of the astronauts before and after the mission, interviewing them. They may have even been with the families during the mission—they give detailed descriptions of what the wives were wearing and how they reacted to events during the mission. I’m pretty sure my parents got this book from the Book of the Month Club back in 1970.

CNN has made a documentary movie about Apollo 11 that they are showing again tomorrow night. They showed it a few days ago, and my family and I watched it and were recording it. But thunderstorms came through the neighborhood, and we lost the satellite signal near the end of the broadcast. So we will definitely try to record the movie again, and we might even watch it tomorrow night.

Are you planning on celebrating the fiftieth anniversary of Apollo 11? J.

A Tale of Two Cars

For fifteen years I owned and drove a used Ford Escort. It was nothing fancy, just a common Ford to carry me home. But last fall I sold the Escort and bought a used Honda Accord. It seemed like a fitting car—after all, the book of Acts reports that the apostles were in one Accord. (There are Sundays that the entire gathering at the church I attend could fit in that one Accord.) Oddly, two of my daughters have also bought used Accords, so now the driveway contains three Accords rather than one Accord. I’m not even sure what that means.

When I had owned the Escort for about five years, the air conditioner began to fail intermittently. When it finally stopped working for good, I had a mechanic at the shop examine it. The mechanic reported that the failure was in a relay switch that was supposed to divert power from the air conditioner when I needed to accelerate. The switch had frozen in the “divert” position, so the air conditioner was receiving no power from the engine. A relay switch is extremely inexpensive, but this switch was embedded in a part which would cost $350 to replace. At the time I was willing to pay $350 for necessary maintenance, but finances were too tight to spend $350 on mere comfort. For the next ten summers, I drove with the window open even on the hottest of days.

Then I test-drove the Accord and decided to buy it. The day I paid for the car and drove it home, the car lot workers had left it running with the air conditioner blowing to the point that the gas tank was almost empty. The interior of the car was cooled. It seemed that the air conditioner worked fine.

But as the temperatures rose this spring, it seemed that the air conditioner in my Accord no longer worked. It blew hot air instead of cold, and it made odd noises when I tried to run it. I ignored the problem for a while—I was used to driving with the window open—but when I had the oil changed last weekend, I paid a little extra and asked the mechanic to check the air conditioner as well.

The mechanic reported that the air compressor was not working at all. He could replace the compressor for a few hundred dollars, but the company recommended replacing two other parts at the same time. In fact, they would not warranty the compressor if they did not replace the other parts. I told the mechanic I’d come back about midweek for the repair. That gave me time to think about whether I wanted to risk replacing only the compressor or wanted the full repair done.

Wednesday morning I brought the car to the mechanic and left it in his shop. He had it all day, with instructions to do the complete repair. It turned out that the compressor had failed because one of those other parts had disintegrated, so I wouldn’t have gotten by with replacing only the compressor.

The irony is that I went ten summers without air conditioning in my Escort because I wouldn’t spend $350, but I ended up spending several times that amount of money to have a working air conditioner in my Accord. That pair of decisions strikes me as a little strange, but so it goes. J.

Down dooby-do down down (semicolon)

Breaking up is hard to do. That’s not just a song from the Bubble Gum Era of rock music (the early 1960s); it’s also a fact, one that is hard to deny.

This summer would be a bad time to end a relationship. I say that because of the ubiquitous song “Be Alright,” written and sung by Dean Lewis. (“I know you love her, but it’s over, mate….”) If I were dealing with the aftermath of an ended relationship, I would probably want to destroy my radio the next time that song began.

That’s unfortunate, because most of that song contains good advice. Alright: the “bottoms up to forget” is bad advice, because drinking only increases the pain; it doesn’t make it go away. But the rest of the song is fitting: breaking up does hurt a bit for a while, and after a while things do get better.

I have experienced ended relationships, and I have not forgotten the pain. But I survived—life goes on, and new joys replace the old. I have encouraged others when they were grieving ended relationships. Being the supportive friend can be difficult—you see the light, but they only see the darkness. You know there is hope, but they don’t want to hear about hope. For a while, it seems that they want to cling to the pain, to coddle it, to make it the center of their lives, the meaning of their existence. For most people, that stage also ends, and life goes on.

What would I add to Dean Lewis’ words of wisdom? It doesn’t rhyme, but it’s still worth saying: love makes us vulnerable. When we love someone, our love makes it possible for us to be hurt. That is true of more than romantic love: family relationships can be painful, and even friendships can be painful. But the possibility of pain—even the reality of pain—is worth bearing because of the immense, immeasurable value of love itself.

Even the Almighty God has made himself vulnerable to the pain of rejection. He loves his fallen creatures. He grieves when any of us turn away from him and reject his gifts. The lover whose loved one chooses someone else has a taste of the holy, divine grief of God. The lover whose loved one wants to end the relationship knows how Christ felt when Judas betrayed him for money, when all the disciples ran away, and when Peter said three times that he did not know who Jesus is.

Love is central to God’s nature. Love flows among the Persons of the Holy Trinity outside of time and space. Creation happened as a gift of love from the Father to the Son. We are created in God’s image, meaning that we are created so we can love God and so we can love one another. When God speaks of our relationship with him in terms of family—even in terms of marriage and romantic love—he is not taking an experience we know and using it as a metaphor. He is speaking a truth that is not metaphor: he is saying that he loves us with all the passion of human romantic love.

The cross proves that God would do anything for us. Perhaps God allows us the pain of broken relationships in this lifetime so we can look at the cross in a new light. Our minds might not grasp the connection, but our hearts can feel the love of God that would bear a cross and accept its pain and suffering, all for the sake of love.

Breaking up is hard to do. God does not want to break up with his people. Through the message of the Bible and in the life of the Church, God nourishes our loving relationship with him—our faith—so we remain in a proper relationship with him and are not in danger of breaking up with him. For all the messy complicated problems of the Church on earth, it is valuable as a link to God, who pours his blessings into our lives through his Church. J.

Happy Independence Day!

One of the great things about Independence Day is that our primary national holiday celebrates a document and the ideas it contains. The holiday does not commemorate a military victory or the storming of a castle—it commemorates equality and the God-given rights of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.

When I was a boy, my parents and I would drive three miles to the county seat to see the Fourth of July parade. The parade included bands, floats, politicians, old cars, fire trucks, horses, and various other elements, following one another in an order that seemed almost random. (They didn’t want two bands competing for attention, so of course they dispersed the other elements between the bands. Beyond that, I don’t think there was too much order to the selections.) The fire trucks blared their sirens and honked their horns, creating a cacophony that was painful to my sensitive ears—they were my least favorite part of the parade. But in general I enjoyed the experience, the sense of celebration that marchers and onlookers shared on that day.

After the parade we would return home, eat lunch, and often pull some weeds from the vegetable garden. Then, after supper, as evening approached, we would return to the county seat for the fireworks. These were at the fairgrounds, only about half as far from home as the downtown parade, so sometimes we would walk to the show instead of driving. (And, given the traffic tie-ups following the show, we probably got home sooner by foot than we would have achieved in the car.) I liked the big candles that splashed color across half the sky; I hated the ones that gave just a white flash of light and a loud bang. Those hurt my ears as badly as the fire truck sirens in the parade. But I never thought of asking to stay home from the fireworks show—it was simply something we did every year, a family tradition for the Fourth of July.

Later this afternoon, I will get out the charcoal grill and get it started. Then I will cook hamburgers and bratwursts for the family. We also have fruit salad, cucumber salad, three-bean salad, corn on the cob, and red-white-and-blue Jello on the menu. As evening approaches, the rest of the family will head downtown to the riverside, where they will hear the orchestra play and watch the fireworks. Me, I’m exercising my freedom to stay home and watch a movie. Crowds and loud noises do not set well with me. A quiet evening at home is more my style.

Tomorrow it’ll be back to work (although a lot of people have managed to create a four-day weekend). We will be just as independent and just as free, but the celebration will have ended. A faint whiff of gunpowder may still linger in the air. I’ll likely have left-over bratwurst and salads packed for lunch. And so it goes, on into the heat of summer. J.

The finish-line–Revelation 22

“The Spirit and the Bride say, ‘Come.’ And let the one who hears say, ‘Come.’ And let the one who is thirsty come; let the one who desires take the water of life without price” (Revelation 22:17—read Revelation 22:1-21).

In the beginning, when God created the heavens and the earth, he made a garden as the home of the first man and the first woman. In that garden grew the tree of life. But when the man and the woman ate the fruit of another tree, fruit that had been forbidden to them, God removed them from the garden. He did not want them to eat the fruit of the tree of life and live forever in their sin and rebellion and separation from him. Instead, he wanted them to pass through death to everlasting life, to be restored to fellowship with him.

God rescued the Israelites from slavery in Egypt, promising them a garden-like home in the Promised Land, a land flowing with milk and honey. To reach that land, they had to travel through the wilderness. God made a covenant with his people in the wilderness, saying, “I will be your God, and you will be my people.” But the Israelites doubted God’s promise; they feared the Canaanites living in the Promised Land and failed to trust God. Therefore, they remained in the wilderness forty years, and their children crossed the Jordan River to enter the Promised Land.

Like a shepherd searching for lost sheep, Jesus came into this wilderness of sin to rescue us. He battled the devil’s temptations in the wilderness, and Jesus won. When the time came to fulfill his promise of redemption, Jesus went into a garden to pray. He was seized in that garden and taken to trials and to the cross. But, after his death on the cross, he was buried in a garden, and in that garden his victory was proclaimed as Jesus rose from the dead.

Now the new creation is described as a garden. As rivers flowed from Eden to water the earth, so a river flows from the throne of God through the main street of the New Jerusalem. That river carries the water of life, the redeeming water that gives life to all God’s people. The tree of life grows on either side of that river, with twelve kinds of fruit to nourish all the people of God. Its leaves are for the healing of the nations. Because our sins have been removed, we are no longer barred from eating the fruit of the tree of life. We can live forever, because our rebellion against God has ended and all sin and evil has been removed from our lives.

One of the historic prayers of the Church mentions the devil, saying, “that he who by a tree once overcame might likewise by a tree be overcome.” The cross is that tree where the serpent’s head was crushed. It is a tree of life, even though nothing could be deader than a bare, wooden, fruitless cross, an instrument of death rather than life. We are all trees in the Lord’s orchard, meant to bear fruit for him. Yet apart from him we can do nothing. We might have green leaves, suggesting life, but we offer him no fruit. We are dead trees, fit only for the fire. Only Jesus of Nazareth bears fruit fit for the kingdom of heaven. But by going to the dead tree of the cross, Jesus gives us life. He makes us fruitful trees, worthy of his kingdom. His cross truly is the tree of life that makes us alive, watered by the river of the water of life, yielding fruit in due season (Psalm 1:3).

The last chapter of Revelation seems almost a scatter-shot of promises, echoing the previous chapters of the book as well as those of the other books of the Bible. Jesus speaks, and his messengers speak on his behalf. Even John becomes confused, worshiping an angel who speaks Christ’s promises, and being scolded by the angel for his confusion. The angel calls himself a fellow-servant of the apostle and of his brothers, the prophets; he tells John, “Worship God!” We also, as fruit-bearing trees in God’s orchard, can be fellow-servants with the apostles and prophets and angels; we also have the joyful privilege and obligation to share God’s life-giving Word, to bring forgiveness to sinners and hope to the victims of sin through the tree of life, the cross of Jesus Christ.

Jesus is coming soon. He is the Alpha and the Omega, the first and the last, the beginning and the end. He is also everything in between. He is both the root and the descendant of David—David’s son and David’s Lord. He is the bright morning star, first-risen from the dead to promise all of us a resurrection like his on the Day he appears in the clouds.

Revelation 22 includes a warning not to add anything to the book of Revelation, nor to take away anything from the book. This warning applies to the entire Bible. “Until heaven and earth pass away, not an iota, not a dot, will pass from the Torah until all is accomplished” (Matthew 5:18). But Jesus has fulfilled the promises of Moses and the prophets: he has done everything required to rescue God’s people, to defeat evil in all its forms, and to make everything new. Soon he will be seen in the clouds in glory, giving the command to raise all the dead, to announce his verdict on every life, and to welcome his people home into the new creation. Meanwhile, we live in his grace, redeemed from all our sins, reconciled to God through Christ’s sacrifice, and ready for eternal life in a new and perfect creation. As John writes, “Amen! Come, Lord Jesus!”

The future of capitalism

When the Bilderberg conference met in Switzerland a month ago, many of their topics of discussion were predictable: Russia, China, and Brexit. (Organizers did not foresee the importance of including Iran on their list.) One of the more intriguing topics was “the future of capitalism.” In spite of the hostility that some American politicians (mostly Democrats) express toward capitalism, I see little reason to doubt that capitalism will remain for many generations.

According to Wikipedia, capitalism had its origins in the Italian Renaissance; the guild system of the Middle Ages and the emergence of modern banking during the same time period are also significant to the beginnings of capitalism. The age of exploration and the industrial revolution both strengthened the power of capitalism. While some countries, including Spain and Portugal, saw government investment in exploration and colonialization, Great Britain and the Netherlands experienced private investment in those areas. Joint stock companies funded the explorers and traders, accepting the risk of such ventures for the sake of the expected profits; the government did little more than tax the profits that were produced.

Karl Marx predicted that capitalism would be overthrown by angry workers in the most industrialized countries. Instead, the first Marxist revolution arose in Russia, and it was followed by Marxist movements in less industrialized countries. Government regulations, along with the growing power of labor unions, responded to complaints about capitalism, reducing its laissez-faire (“leave it alone”) tendencies, but preserving its existence. Regulations about workplace safety, pollution control, and labor laws are accepted by modern capitalists, although debate continues regarding the proper level of government regulation. So long as businesses are privately owned, even though they are regulated, capitalism will continue to exist in the world.

The primary opponent of capitalism is socialism. Many socialist countries are dominated by Marxist movements, generally identified with a Communist Party. During the last hundred years, people have fled such countries in great numbers. Since the Communist Party tended to be totalitarian, restricting the freedom of citizens, it is not easy to separate the political and economic factors involved. Strictly speaking, capitalism and socialism are economic systems that could exist under monarchies or republics, in democracies and in dictatorships. As a result, it may be unfair to judge socialism solely by the number of East Germans, Vietnamese, Cubans, and others who have fled totalitarian socialism, even at the risk of their lives.

But when the economies of East and West Germany are compared before their union in 1989, or when North Korea and South Korea are compared, the results are clear. In fact, the capitalist nations of east Asia after the end of World War II were so successful that, by the 1980s, the government of China decided to return to capitalism, even though the government is still run by a group that calls itself Communist. China’s economic failures under Marxist socialism and its success since it turned to capitalism are another case study for comparison of the two systems.

Advocates of socialism claim that it is more fair, that it divides wealth among all the people rather than allowing wealth to accumulate in the hands of a few successful capitalists. Government regulation again tempers capitalism, breaking apart monopolies and trusts and cartels, setting minimum wages for workers, and in extreme cases (such as during a major war) controlling prices as well as wages. Meanwhile, competition among capitalists for customers and for workers grants advantages to customers and workers that they would not gain in a fully socialist system. If the government owned and managed all the businesses in a country, waste and carelessness would increase, because workers and managers would have less incentive to be careful, efficient, and productive.

In same cases, government competition with private businesses benefits consumers. The United States Postal Service is required to deliver letters and packages everywhere in the country; UPS, FedEx, and DHL must follow the same policy to remain competitive. Competition between federal health insurance (Medicare and Medicaid) and private health insurers could also benefit consumers.

In many cases, people demand more government control out of a sense of what rights belong to citizens. At first, human rights were largely considered freedoms: freedom of speech, freedom of religion, freedom to assemble, and so forth. As the right to life was used to support government programs to feed the hungry and shelter the homeless, the concept of human rights expanded. Basic education was seen as a human right, so the government opened schools; now some politicians want to consider college education a right for all citizens. In the same way, treating health care as a human right, some politicians want the government not only to regulate doctors and hospitals but to control them, determining costs and fees and subsidizing health care for low income citizens through taxation of wealthier citizens. Such a move would be detrimental to capitalism.

Even though some loud voices deplore capitalism and want to replace it with socialism, it seems likely that capitalism will remain. Voters will, in the long run, reject politicians that favor socialism and will support politicians who see the greatness of the nation linked to capitalism and private enterprise. J.