“My Father was a Perishing Aramean . . .”

President Obama’s recent declaration that he will be taking executive action on immigration comes on the heels of a summer that featured images of desperate children attempting to escape violence in Central America by streaming to the United States, and a fall that featured worries (mostly on the far-right) that ISIS might send Ebola-infected terrorists across the southern border to spread plague among an unsuspecting population. It is not yet fully clear what the President’s plan will look like (although here is a helpful chart of the likely scenario), and his proposed action on this issue does raise certain issues about the proper scope of executive authority (although those strike me as somewhat overblown, for reasons nicely laid out by Jacob Weisberg here). But the longstanding, ongoing scandal of the eleven million people in the United States who must perpetually live in the shadow of our society, while our governing system makes no effort whatsoever to develop creative policy solutions for their plight, demands some consideration of a Christian response to immigration in light of the imperatives of the gospel.

Christians must come to immigration with two sets of eyes. First, there’s the public policy problem: our immigration court system is severely underfunded and completely overwhelmed with cases, and existing legislation has inadvertently created a legal loophole that has led tens of thousands of desperate parents to send their unaccompanied children to strange lands far from their homes. Fueling this crisis are the failing domestic police systems of several Central American countries and a violent criminal class that forcibly recruits children who lack private or state protection into their rings. Second, there’s our response to these things as Christians, who as a community are pledged to offer succor to the poor and the persecuted. Since immigration is inherently a corporate issue – we have to decide as a whole society whether to admit outsiders into our nation – the public policy determination and Christian imperatives are more closely related for this issue than they might be with others.Read More…

ISIS and Christian Response

As readers know from my opening post, I’m skeptical about the use of force by Christians, even when they are operating in their capacity as government officials. The continuing escalation of America’s new war against ISIS (actually not new at all, but more of a resumption of the previous military excursion in Iraq), means that I’ve been thinking again about the Christian relationship to state violence, and how to respond to our latest foray into international power projection.

I could (and do) take issue with America’s ISIS war on pure policy grounds. As noxious as ISIS surely is, it seems rather obvious to me (and others) that America is being baited into another massive investment of resources and prestige in a region that is chaotic, mostly dislikes us, and that we flat-out do no not understand. We’re inserting ourselves into this war despite the fact that our “allies” in the region clearly want no part of it, or are using us in this situation to advance their own agendas, and are really hoping that America will just take care of the dirty, impossible work of dealing with the threat to them from ISIS without simultaneously upsetting their own stakes in the conflict.

But that doesn’t seem to matter much, because it seems that Washington’s power brokers just can’t hold themselves back when it comes to fighting new wars. As Andrew Sullivan recently noted on his blog, it appears nearly impossible for our governing establishment to restrain themselves “when they have a big shiny military and see something they don’t like happening in the world.” The human temptation to wield power is enormous, and never more so than when one has an extraordinary amount of it. Even Barack Obama, a man who is by all accounts deeply conscious of the ways that his Christian faith might interact with his policies (especially when it comes to using military power), has been inexorably traveling down the path of greater military engagement with ISIS.

Read More…

Some Common Objections

Maria and I have received several comments on our first few posts (and a few have begun to trickle in on my “A New Catechism“).

We’ve received a few particularly articulate reflections on our theological “drift”. A few common themes have begun to emerge. These include concern about the potential exclusivity of “grace alone”, worries about love’s rather secondary place, concern about the absolute prioritizing of “grace alone” vs. approaches that emphasize the polyvalence and complexity of the tradition (and, more profoundly, an understanding of reality that places a premium on rational balance and moderation), and, perhaps above all, concern about whether “good news” can really be all that good when it seems so down on human capabilities and human participation in salvation.

All of these are critical – and complex – issues that we’re going to address bit by bit, directly and indirectly, in the coming months.

We thought, however, that it might be useful to at least briefly delineate a our position a little further on several of these topics.

Read More…

The Church and Its Benefits. (Really, This Post Is About Benefits. Like Health, Vision, and Dental.)

The dramatic rise in same-sex marriage in the United States (where it is now a legal option for over half of this country’s population) has unleashed a cascade of caterwauling and teeth-gnashing over its perceived implications for religious freedom and its undermining of the moral foundations of Christianity. But medical, educational and other institutions that are run by the church face the prospect of providing benefits to employees who are in same-sex marriages. Since these marriages are now legally sanctioned under civil law, some socially conservative clergy have begun to fulminate about the potential violations of religious conscience they say are implied by granting employer-subsidized health insurance and other benefits

This is the world’s biggest tempest in a teapot. First, on a practical level, the benefit extensions are small, because even with the advent of widespread same-sex marriage, there just aren’t that many potential employees who fall in this category (the percentage of the population that is gay or lesbian really is not terribly large). More importantly, an employer who offers benefits to spouses is required to offer them to any spouse who is legally married to an employee under civil law (the only law that really matters when determining who is eligible for employer-provided benefits). Until recently, this has not seemed to present much of a problem for church-affiliated organizations. The numerous institutions operated by the Catholic Church, for instance, have hired and given benefits to legions of employees and their families who are not only non-Catholic, but make no effort to live according to Catholic social teaching regarding marriage (divorced and remarried spouses, for example, haven’t seem to have stirred up much of a fuss).Read More…

Imitating Christ? Maybe not so much…

Hate it or love it, Luther has a fun habit of up-ending some of the most sacred and treasured notions of the ancient world.

One of these notions, which has become integral to classical Christian theology, is the notion of “imitation” or mimesis.

Mimesis is a conventional Greco-Roman way of understanding how knowledge, education, salvation, philosophical attainment – even the very fabric of being itself – “works”. The basic idea is that you think of reality as a huge set of images, cascading downwards from heavenly archetypes. Things find their being as reflections of higher images, and the way you learn/ascend/develop/advance is by more exactly imitating “higher”, better images. So, for example, in late Greco-Roman political theory, earthly societies are supposed to imitate divine models: people are to imitate the emperor, who is to imitate Christ, who imitates God; or, the empire is to struggle to become an ever better mirror-image of the kingdom of heaven. Likewise, in Christian theology, the Christian is to imitate Christ, and so become ever better conformed to the divine (the “image of God”).

The early church – innocently enough – adopted this whole conceptual framework pretty much wholesale.

But Luther smelled a rat.

Read More…

Karen Armstrong and Early Christian Politics

Karen Armstrong writes a useful and provocative essay on the development of the secular state and religious violence. (The essay is linked to her recently published book, Fields of Blood: Religion and the History of Violence.) She meticulously argues that religion has traditionally been closely tied to politics, and that it is only somewhat recently that there has even been a conceptual difference between them. Along the way, she makes some excellent observations about the mistaken assumption of many Westerners that our separation of religion from politics is a politically or religiously neutral policy.

At the same time, she makes some claims about ancient Christianity in the tradition of religious politics that bear correction. She writes:

Traditional spirituality did not urge people to retreat from political activity. The prophets of Israel had harsh words for those who assiduously observed the temple rituals but neglected the plight of the poor and oppressed. Jesus’s famous maxim to “Render unto Caesar the things that are Caesar’s” was not a plea for the separation of religion and politics. Nearly all the uprisings against Rome in first-century Palestine were inspired by the conviction that the Land of Israel and its produce belonged to God, so that there was, therefore, precious little to “give back” to Caesar. When Jesus overturned the money-changers’ tables in the temple, he was not demanding a more spiritualised religion. For 500 years, the temple had been an instrument of imperial control and the tribute for Rome was stored there. Hence for Jesus it was a “den of thieves”.

Armstrong here makes the mistake of assuming that the various ethno-national ideologies of the Jewish revolts against Rome are shared by Jesus as he is represented in the Gospels. They are not, and claiming that they are requires overlooking the actual textual context of Jesus’ words in the New Testament in favor of an historicized reconstruction of his person. Such reconstructions may be interesting as a way of thinking about political movements in Roman-era Palestine. But they have nothing to do with the textual person that lies behind the orthodox Christian tradition, a figure whose words are relied upon as a guide to Christian theology and practice.Read More…

He Will Not Go Away

He came to be with us. That’s the long and the short of it.

He’s like an annoying lover. He can’t live without you. He knows you don’t want him. He knows you will reject him – again, and again, and again. He knows you would really prefer it if he just cleared out of your life. But he won’t.

He’s like an annoying brother. He sees that you’ve gotten yourself into a mess. He knows that you don’t see it that way. And you’re stubborn. And you have your dignity. And you will hate him for meddling. But the mess is too big. So he just picks up the pieces anyway.

He doesn’t want anything in return. He doesn’t want your faith, or your obedience, or your love, or your good deeds, or your gratitude. He knows he won’t get them from you. Still, he won’t go away.

There is really nothing we can do about this. In fact, we’ve already tried everything. We’ve ignored him, laughed at him, shrugged our shoulders, rejected him, killed him. We’ve believed him, understood him, praised him, built churches in his honor, performed feats of asceticism and loads of good works, got pretty proud of him, killed in his name. We’ve lost our delusions, grew up, and finally almost forgot him. Still, he won’t go away.

Read More…

Why We All Hate God

About the Author
David Wagschal

“When there is no sense of the mercy of God, there is either contempt of God or hate.” 1

Now there’s a penetrating thought.  It is from the Loci Communes (1521) of Philipp Melanchthon.

The Loci Communes – now rather neglected, but in its day an important work – was essentially the first Lutheran systematic theology. Melanchthon was trying to sum up the core Lutheran message that Christianity is about nothing other than the mercy of God: the completely free gift of salvation, given to us all, through Jesus, with no strings attached, no demands, no “works” on our part.

In this specific passage Melanchthon is working out what happens when we don’t approach God in this way – when we approach God as most of us actually do, as a strict and demanding task-master, a merciless judge setting forth rules and laws for us to obey “or else”.

What happens when we think this way? We hate God.

Of course we hate him.


Read More…

  1. Philipp Melanchthon, The Loci Communes, trans. Charles L. Hill (Meador 1944), p. 177. []

Nothing We Do Today Is In The Bible

Steve Green, the multi-millionaire businessman and Bible artifacts collector of Hobby Lobby fame, is beginning construction on a new $800 million Museum of the Bible close to the Capitol and Mall in Washington, D.C. I’m happy to see a complex that will display and contextualize Green’s extraordinary treasury of biblical items and provide education about the background, history, and cultural impact of the Bible. As someone who has a passion for biblical literature and has spent a big chunk of his life working thinking, teaching, and writing about the Bible’s history and its effects on human societies, I think that a museum dedicated to exploring these things is a great thing (or at least has potential to be so). Nevertheless, Green’s motives for constructing his museum in the chosen location reveal some assumptions about the connections between the Bible and contemporary American culture and political governance that are not only deeply mistaken, but also quite dangerous in their implications. As he is cited by Michelle Boorstein in the Washington Post,

“I think seeing the biblical foundations of our nation — for our legislators to see that, that a lot of that was biblically based, that we have religious freedoms today, which are a biblical concept, it can’t hurt being there [close to the Capitol].”

I’m happy to grant that the Bible has had an enormous cultural influence throughout the history of this country; that’s an obvious truth for anyone with even a passing familiarity with American and Western history. Green seems to assume that our idea of religious freedom is essentially identical to that found in the Bible, and furthermore that our current governing philosophy regarding religious freedom is valid because it has biblical origins. Now, that’s a problematic thing to assert for two big reasons. First, it’s essentially saying that we have religious freedoms in this country because of . . . religion. The idea that the separation of church and state in our civic institutions is somehow mandated on the basis of a particular faith’s scriptural documents is an obvious fallacy; you can’t say that you have religious freedom because the Bible says you should. It might be a convenient way of doing an end-run around the theo-curious implications of basing America’s governing structure on biblical precepts, but it’s also a pretty clear assertion of the Bible’s (and, implicitly, of Christianity’s) epistemological superiority to other modes of political theory. Read More…

And How Exactly is the Gospel “Good News”…?

One of Luther’s key insights is that the Good News of Christianity should actually be good news.

That seems obvious, but it’s a sobering exercise to pause and look around at our communities and ask “how is any of this actually good news for people?”

Luther wasn’t naïve. He didn’t think that Christianity was simply an exercise in endless positivity. Quite the opposite. He thought that understanding the “bad news” of our sin and evil was an essential pre-condition for receiving the “good news.” He was quite aware that we’re all messed up and the world is messed up: we’re surrounded by futility, pain, suffering, and evil, and we both experience these things and propagate them. Further, on our own, we have no way out of any of this horror. We’re quite trapped.

No, the Christian message addresses reality, and reality is not pretty.

But the Gospel is still supposed to be “good news” in light of this reality. The message of Christ is still supposed to be an experience of real comfort, joy, and hope.

Is it in many of our communities?

Read More…