Archive for the ‘Jesus Christ’ Category

Evangelical Christian support for President Donald Trump, while a political phenomenon, is also a fascinating study in Christian ethics, or, more specifically, the complexity of mixed ethical systems.  In an interview aired on NPR’s Morning Edition on August 29, the Reverend Robert Jeffress, pastor of First Baptist Dallas, a Southern Baptist megachurch, did a fine job of articulating the complex ethical calculus Evangelicals apply to President Trump.  And before getting into that calculus, we need a brief refresher on Christian ethics.

There are two major ethical systems that we use to guide our decision making.  One is Utilitarian Ethics, in which the primary question to be answered is, In a given situation requiring a decision, which will lead to an outcome expected to yield the greatest good for the most people.  On the up-side utilitarian ethics is practical.  On the down-side it easily leads to the ends justifying the means.  The other ethical system is Virtue Ethics, which asks, In a given situation requiring a decision, which is most consistent with the virtues and values that express one’s understanding of who one wants to be.  Its up-side is a consistent correspondence with one’s understanding of the ethical example of Jesus Christ and the New Testament writers.  Its down-side is a possible lack of practicality and a danger of placing principle over the needs and common good of people.

In the Morning Edition interview, Jeffress articulated his ambivalence with both ethical systems early on, when he said, “I think evangelicals understand there’s a difference between supporting a president’s policies and supporting individual behavior” — a jump from utilitarian to virtue ethics.  Pressed on which policies Trump has supported that he supports, Jeffress side-stepped a little and said of Trump, “He has been the most pro-life, pro-religious liberty, pro-conservative judiciary president of any president in history . . . that’s why these evangelicals enthusiastically support him.”  When pressed on Trump’s moral failings, vis-a-vis “sleeping with a porn star . . . paying hush money . . . mistruths the president has stated time and again,” all of which Christians generally find reprehensible, Jeffress said, “The Gospel message is all of us have sinned.  We’ve all fallen short of God’s glory.  We are all sinners.  We all need a savior.”  True, but where Jeffress exposes his ambivalence is in failing to offer the same grace in judgment to Bill and Hillary Clinton.  As the interviewer pointed out, evangelicals were critical of Bill Clinton because of his personal faults arguing that “you cannot compartmentalize someone’s morality.”  Moreover, he flatly stated that “I don’t know in what moral universe anybody could argue that Hillary Clinton is more moral than Donald Trump,” and mentions, without identifying “a litany of Hillary Clinton’s offenses.”  If I understand Jeffress correctly, then one who commits adultery, consistently deceives, and often denigrates persons is as moral as someone who does not commit adultery, has deceived, but in frequently, and does not generally denigrate others.  I have to admit that I do not know in what moral universe such an equivocation makes any sense.  Jeffress needed to simply admit that he is willing to overlook some serious and unrepentant sin in order to support someone who puts forth a policy agenda he believes is needed.  He also needs to own up to his political bias that prevents him overlooking the sin of those with whom he disagrees and does not trust (specifically the Clintons).

Another interesting bit came during a shift in the conversation when the interviewer asked Jeffress about the ways he felt that evangelical Christians are “treated as a persecuted minority in this country.”  He responded that Christians have become marginalized, rolling out the trope, in so many words, that America was once but no longer a Christian nation.  Although I want to save a discussion about this idea for another essay, I do want to answer Jeffress basic complaint that Christians are restricted in serious ways from practicing our religion.  I for one have never experienced this restriction, but then I have never insisted that everyone around me, regardless of their religious tradition (or none at all), practice the religion that I do by virtue of imposing Christian practice and symbolism on people in schools and the public square.  For me, evangelism is not a matter of public policy but relationship as the Gospel is passed from one to the next in places where we have earned the respect to be heard (especially by our moral behavior).

I think I now better understand evangelical equivocation and ambivalence.  It is hard for me to accept, coming as I do from a holiness tradition (Wesleyan Methodism) whose ethics are summed up in this question by its founder, John Wesley, “Are you going on to perfection?”

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President Donald Trump is a unique individual, with striking behavioral characteristics for one in the world’s most important leadership position.  One of those characteristics is his eggshell-thin self-image.  When criticized or insulted he reacts with vitriolic insults reminiscent of a children’s playground spat.  I was getting used to the idea that this was a behavior unique to Mr. Trump.  But, today, The Guardian has reported that Tesla founder and CEO, the visionary Elon Musk has fired off his own petulant insult aimed at one of the divers who, last week, rescued a group of youth stranded in a flooded cave in Thailand, calling the diver “pedo guy.”

Musk had been brushed back by the diver when he showed up at the rescue site with a small submarine.  The rescue team needed neither the untested and unfamiliar piece of equipment nor Musk and his retinue making an already tense and busy situation worse.  The diver had brusquely waved Musk off and later speculated that the offer of the miniature submarine was a PR stunt.  Musk reacted with an insult, calling the diver a pedophile.

Two powerful, famous, successful, well-positioned, and influential men who can afford and should be standing head-and-shoulders above the rest of us in the honorableness of their behavior lashing out like bruised bullies on a kid’s playground.  Really?!?

Maybe these men believe that their wealth, power, and position gives them the privilege to be childishly petulant.  Maybe they, like the Lemech of Genesis, feel they need to respond to attack with overwhelming verbal violence in order to assert their power and preserve their position.  Maybe their self-image is so fragile that the self-doubt evoked by an insult becomes painful and consuming.

The only way to avoid insult is to either isolate oneself from the rest of the world or not be born in the first place.  Since all of us alive today have failed the latter tactic and are not engaging in the former, we need to have the capacity to constructively deal with criticisms and insults.  We could, of course, devolve into tit-for-tat verbal violence, but that only makes things worse and shows us up to be immature jerks.  Most of us would rather not be seen that way.  Especially for Christians, there is a more excellent way.

“God created humanity in God’s own image, in the divine image God created them, male and female God created them.”    – Genesis 1.27 (CEB)

To remember that they are created in God’s image should be enough for anyone to bolster their own self-image.  How can anyone else’s insult overshadow the knowledge that God values us so much as to reflect himself in each of us?  We are, as the psalmist reminds us, “awe-inspiringly and wonderfully made.”  Call me what you will–I’m just fine as I am!

If that’s not enough, we might also consider how Jesus Christ lifted up those in his world whom others disdained, disrespected, or ignored: tax collectors, a multiply-divorced woman shacked up with her boyfriend, the blind, lame, and physically deformed.  By offering the blessing of his attention, friendship, teaching, and/or healing, Jesus respected, honored, and dignified each, and by doing so with those society had written off, he communicates to all of us we are all of sacred and inestimable worth.  No criticism or insult can change that reality.

Of course criticisms and insults sting and anger us.  But we have a choice as to how we respond, both within ourselves and toward those who have provoked us.  As children of God, made in his image and who are lifted up by Christ the King, we can rise above reactive insult and choose to do something more constructive.  If the Donald Trumps and Elon Musks of our world could do this, how might their leadership be better for us all?

Text:  Mark 7.1-23

“Nothing outside of a person can enter and contaminate a person in God’s sight; rather, the things that come out of a person contaminate the person.”

Leave it to Jesus to take a conventional assumption about something and turn it inside out so that it becomes a paradox that reveals a counter-intuitive truth.  This is what happens in today’s reading, in which Jesus takes the obvious understandings of ritual purity and contamination and both reinterprets and reframes them.  Focusing on the concept of contamination, he argues the paradox that what contaminates us comes from inside of us, not from what we take in.  In other words, our uncleanliness or impurity comes from within not from without.

This paradoxical view raises several issues.

  1. We are culpable for our impurity, sin, and evil.  We do not ‘catch it’ but generate it.  And this means we cannot blame something external for our ‘contamination’.  We own it.
  2. The ritual washing insisted on by Jesus’ critics means nothing if it is not an outward sign of an inward desire for purification of the heart.  Jesus rightly criticizes those who perform the ritual on the outside while doing nothing to change their hearts and lives on the inside.
  3. To declare Jesus’ disciples as ‘unclean’ or ‘contaminated’ because they did not attend to a specified ritual washing was a way Jesus’ critics and opponents sought to assert power over them by claiming religious authority through their own right religiosity.  Jesus was having none of this.

Once again, Jesus reminds us that religion for any other reason than growth in our relationship with God and betterment of ourselves from the inside out in God’s image is worthless.

Text:  Mark 5:1-20   – Jesus exorcises a demon-possessed man.

Whether we call the man demon possessed or mentally ill, the man Jesus meets in today’s reading is chronically angry and self-destructive.  He lives in a state of rage that distorts his perception of the world and twists his thinking.  His anger generates paranoia that we see when he first meets Jesus whom he recognizes as having authority over his condition.

It is most striking that Jesus’ authority over the man’s demons–his illness–is recognized by the man.  My experience with people in a constant state of anger is that they deny any responsibility for it, blaming others, and thus no one can have any authority over their condition.  In other words, they are in denial that there is anything wrong with themselves and resist counseling or therapy believing they are not the persons who need it.  So it is amazing that a man living in a state of rage recognized and yielded to Jesus’ authority to heal him, which required him to first own his illness.

The Lord of our lives–Jesus the Christ–is also Lord over our brokenness, illnesses, hurts, hangups, and bad habits.  When we look into his face, meet him eye to eye, and let him touch us, all of our pretense and self-deception vaporizes and the simple truth of our human condition is left undeniable.  And so exposed and vulnerable we then stand in his grace as he offers healing and wholeness (please note, I did not say “cure”, for healing is much more than physical restoration).  Thus, it is a blessing to yield to the truth and let that truth set us free as Christ delivers us from the bondage of our demons to a place of recovery and renewed life.

Text:  Mark 4:35-41    “Even the wind and the sea obey him!”

Today’s reading–an account of Jesus calming a storm that was swamping the boat he and his disciples were in–resonates at a variety of frequencies.  Maybe the one with the most amplitude is that of the chaotic noise of the world in 2017-2018.  I’ve not lived through a time that has felt more turbulent and chaotic.  Current events have gone from a continuum with “that’s interesting” on one end to “who cares” on the other to constant exhausting tension.  It’s like moving from recognizable melody and harmony to a screeching mix of white noise, thrash-metal, and screaming punk.

Today’s reading reminds us that no matter how chaotic the world around us gets, our God is still the one who brings order.  When the Pauline writer of Colossians 1.17 tells us that “[Jesus Christ] existed before all things, and all things are held together in him,” he reminds us that Christ is Lord over the Universe.

These reminders alone do not offer comfort if our expectation of God’s sovereignty is that God will magically or instantly calm the storms of our time and one day we’ll wake up to a world in which all the big problems have disappeared.  God doesn’t work that way.  Jesus calmed the storm from the back of the boat because he was in the boat at the time.  Today, it’s not Jesus in the boat but the Body of Christ, commissioned by Jesus to continue his ministry in the world.  It is we who are parts of the Body who need to stand up and do what we can to calm the storm . . . and there is a lot more we can do than we are doing.  We may not be able to order the wind and waves to obey us, but what might the world around us be like if we –

  • kept strong in our faith in God, especially by doing those things that keep us close to God: prayer, Bible, worship, fellowship with other Christians (important: this step makes the following ones possible)
  • decreased the volume of our own response to the world’s chaos, thus being a low-anxiety presence for everyone else
  • intentionally find constructive ways to address the things we are passionate about (constant shouting, trolling, inflammatory tweeting, and so forth do little but to raise stress levels)
  • interact with others with flexibility and grace, whether face to face or on social media

 

Text:  Mark 3:7-19    “He appointed twelve and called them apostles.” (v. 14)

For church leadership consultants, this passage is boilerplate teaching about delegation.  Jesus was rapidly becoming overwhelmed with people seeking his healing.  He then mitigated this problem by appointing twelve of his followers to work with him and to go out to preach and exorcise demons.  Each would be an apostle (“one who is sent”).  I suspect that my clergy colleagues apply this passage much as I do, as an instruction to delegate our work in order to avoid burnout, being overwhelmed, and to multiply the effectiveness of our ministry.  While this is a valid application, it is blandly technical.
( __Delegation. — okay, need to check that one off the list . . . )

More compelling is the calling, commissioning, and sending.  Imagine being one of the twelve before they were The Twelve.  Jesus looks into your eyes and says that he sees the potential you have for doing the very things he is doing.  Maybe Jesus wants you to preach the Good News (Gospel) of what God is doing in the world; something you didn’t know you could do, but Jesus does.  Or maybe Jesus wants you to touch each other with care and compassion to heal the hurting and broken; something else you didn’t know you could do, but Jesus does.  And Jesus then confers upon you the authority to cast out demons in his name.  Becoming a “sent one”–an apostle–you’ve just been given the power (and responsibility) to change and save the world . . . at least the world around you.  And as you begin to protest, telling Jesus you can’t do what he does or you don’t have the time or you doubt yourself so that you might be willing to help but not to be given too much responsibility, Jesus reminds you that he knows what you are capable of even if you do not.  And then he reminds you that the Holy Spirit will always be with you and you will never go it alone.

When we claim Jesus as our Lord and Savior, we add our name to his list of his resources.  When Jesus calls and invites you to work with him, how will you respond?

Text:  Mark 2:23-3:6

“The Sabbath was created for humans; humans weren’t created for the Sabbath.  This is why the Son of Man is Lord even over the Sabbath.”  (2.27-28)

Jesus confronts us with a question.  Which is most important: ideology or people?  My first impulse is to say, “people!”  If I say, “ideology matters most” and even rephrase it as “I stick to my principles,” I run the risk of trading compassion for slavish adherence to rules.  But if I say, “people matter most,” then I’m likely to stumble over the cliff and fall into moral relativism.  Even when rushing one’s pregnant wife to the hospital to give birth, ignoring stop signs and lights is a bad idea.  There is often a strong tension between keeping faith with our convictions and beliefs versus compassion for others.

Jesus lived among a people who defined their identity through Torah–the law given the Israelites by God through Moses and beginning with the 10 Commandments.  To be an Israelite and, by Jesus’ time, a good Jew, was to be a person who lived by Torah.  At the identity-defining center of Torah was the Sabbath law.  Observing a day of rest given to God marked one as a Jew as much as circumcision.  So when Jesus’ disciples were seen casually plucking heads of grain while crossing a wheat field on the Sabbath day, he was asked, in effect, “Why are your disciples violating the Sabbath law? Don’t y’all know better?”  And when Jesus was approached, on the Sabbath, by a man with a deformed hand, his critics watched to see if he would himself break the Sabbath law by healing the man.

Jesus’ critics cared more about the rules.  Jesus cared more about the people.  (Without spending time in dissertation here, I believe that Jesus was faithful to Torah, although not in the slavish manner espoused by his critics.)

As I write this, I am listening to a brief interview with the governor of Kentucky, who has applied to the federal government to place a work requirement as a qualifier for receiving Medicaid.  The ideology behind this is that able-bodied people who can work should not receive assistance if they don’t work lest they fall into a state of dependence that is both unnecessary and an unwanted burden on taxpayers.  Although there are exemptions that allow Medicaid for non-working disabled people, I haven’t heard how people who are unable to find work will fare.  If I heard Kentucky’s governor correctly, it sounds like being unable to find a job is no excuse–no work, no health care.  To me, this is draconian and a good example of elevating ideology over people.

At the end of the day, it all comes down to a question that Jesus implied when he sparred with his critics about the Sabbath:  Who or what is our God?  If we ideology is everything to us then we commit idolatry.  If humanity is everything to us then we commit idolatry.  But . . . if we love God above all things, value as sacred and cherished all who bear God’s image in their creation (i.e. all people), and value God’s will most clearly expressed through Jesus Christ, then we will indeed find a way to be faithful to God’s will yet practice compassion in a way that transforms people’s lives.