“Every time the Christian church divided or separated, each group lost one half of the Gospel message…” Richard Rohr
I understand that the literalists will have a problem with Rohr’s statement, but the point is essentially accurate: Our divisions are mostly losses, not gains. Since Jesus made unity a climactic request in his final prayer, taking steps toward reconciliation, unity, and love for all people, is perhaps one of the most important things we can be doing. Here are some recent thoughts toward that end:
Here’s a manifesto on unity. I spoke it the week after Charlottesville in the church I lead. We’d set up the sermon series far ahead of time, having no idea that the racial divide of America, already a gaping wound that’s been festering for centuries, would become even deeper. In case you don’t want to listen to the whole thing, here are the talking points:
Some are so good at speaking the truth that they’ve become the doctrinal and moral police for the world, presumptuously claiming the moral high ground and judging all those “down there” who don’t see things precisely like them.
Others are so good at tolerance that they’ve stopped caring about the pursuit of truth, and are passively endorsing unfettered greed, individualism, and various forms of sexual debauchery, all in the name of unity. Such unity, though, is worthless in the end because salt will lose its saltiness, and when the time comes to shelter Jews during the holocaust, or take a stand against abortion, or sex with pixels, they’ll remain silent in their attempt to preserve unity.
Nope – too much tolerance or too much moral policing will steal our unity, one way or the other. It’s time for something different. Time for truth and love, interwoven so tightly that you can’t tell one from the other.
We live in perilous times, because our social isolation and disintegration of family have created a longing to belong. This is fertile soil for crazy tribes, including those wearing religious clothes of all faiths and denominations. Seeking to embody real community, real truth and real love for all people is a lot of work. But it’s our calling if we claim to follow Jesus.
But what does “the land of the free” really mean? And in what sense are we free? The questions weren’t political for me this year but theological, because there’s a Declaration of Independence in the kingdom of God that was spoken by Christ himself, and it’s available for all people, all nations, for all eternity, without contingencies. So in the wake of the fireworks and hot dogs yesterday, and the expressions of gratitude for the unique gifts and strength of my nation, it’s important that we who follow Christ make a distinction between the political/philosophical freedom that defines are culture, and the freedom found in Christ. They’re vastly different, and to be blunt, one is more life giving, and thus more important, than the other.
He’s at a festival in the 8th chapter of John when he says, “you are truly my disciples if you remain faithful to my teaching. Then you will know the truth, and the truth will set you free.”
A freedom tied to obedience
These simple words of Jesus reveal just how skewed modernity’s notion of freedom really is, for we live in time and place where our understanding of freedom is that it is absolute. As Tim Keller writes, “(the modern notion of freedom) goes beyond the Bible’s once-revolutionary conception of freedom. Freedom of choice without limits has become almost sacred.” Philosophers call this “negative freedom” because they’re saying that the highest good is that “nobody can tell you what to do or how to live your life”. The “nobody” in that sentence is what makes this “negative” freedom. There is no authority other than you – what’s right for you, what works for you – you should be free to choose it, and anyone who stands in your way of your pursuit of either an abortion or an assault rifle, an open marriage or a life where sex is nothing more than recreation – anyone who stands in your way is an enemy of freedom.
What a contrast to the freedom offered in Christ, who says that our experience of freedom is contingent upon remaining faithful to his teaching. We’re so saturated with our post modern notions of freedom that any sentence tying freedom to obedience seems contradictory, maybe even wrong. If I must do some things and avoid others, in what sense am I free?
Jesus would say that this kind of obedience frees me to live the life for which I’m created – a life which, though never perfect, is enjoying a trajectory of transformation that increasingly saturates our entire beings with joy, hope, peace, mercy, strength, wisdom, hope, and love. We’re granted the freedom to become the people God had in mind when God created us, free to pursue our truest destiny. This not only sounds appealing to me, this freedom, even on fireworks day, is my most important pursuit.
I hope we who follow Christ don’t confuse nationalistic and philosophical freedoms with the freedom Christ offers. They’re two very different things and the “O” word that Jesus ties to freedom is obedience, so if you want to celebrate positive freedom, start there.
A freedom tied to external revelation
One of the challenges with our nationalistic, post modern notion of freedom is that we try to say that it can be entirely self-constructed. “If you want to own a gun, own a gun. If you want an abortion in the 8th month, have an abortion. If you want to define marriage on your own, define marriage on your own.” What we are trying to say is that “every person can do what’s right in their own eyes” and all will be well for everyone. Of course, this doesn’t really work because there’s a chance your freedom might infringe on my freedom or well-being. What if you want my wife? Or my children? Or my stuff?
So we’re quick to add that we’re only free “as long as others aren’t harmed”
Ah, but there’s the problem. One man says that his use of pornography isn’t harming anyone. Others don’t agree, stating that his own psychic well being, not to mention the lives of those involved in the industry he supports, not to mention his capacity for genuine rather than pixalated intimacy, not to mention his erectile dysfunction problems – all these are things are cited by some as reasons why his little hobby isn’t just between him, his hand, and his server. But he disagrees, citing freedom as his basis as he closes the door.
The same thing happens when you try talk to people about the difficulties that accrue to the whole society when sex is divorced from the covenant of marriage. Try tying the numerous male crises addressed in “the demise of guys” with the sexual ethic prevailing today and people cry foul. “Two consenting adults” is the preface intended to silence all arguments, which is a way of saying, “we’ll be arbiters of what’s good and acceptable for us – you choose what works for you” Or, if you’re conservative and are cheering just now on the sexual front, when someone suggests that it might not be in the best interests of the larger global and environmental community for you to buy the cheapest possible goods, or generate two tons of garbage a year, you’ll cry foul, shouting that nobody has the right to infringe on my freedom. Or maybe someone suggests that we should start monitoring sugary sodas the way we monitor cigarettes, because you know, the adult diabetes thing is an epidemic now and we’re all paying for it.
Simple right? We’re all free. Yes, free. And lonely; addicted; anxious; destroying the planet; destroying the middle class; terrified of terror; eroding any sense of community as we clamor to worship at the idol of individual freedom. How’s this working for us? Not so well, I’d argue.
What’s more, the notion that each of us are out there autonomously determining “what’s right for me” is, to put it mildly, a joke. Our culture creates what I call “value freeways” that are loud, fast, easy, and appealing. My culture in Seattle is different than yours in Uganda, but wherever you live, there are freeways with easy on ramps. Freedom? Maybe between two or three on ramps, especially if you then make a tribe out of the people with you on your freeway. That’s not real freedom, it’s cultural conformity.
Jesus, in contrast, suggests that the real and truest freedom only comes as a byproduct of “knowing the truth” and the definite article in that sentence is gigantic because it implies that there’s a single North Star, a single reference point, a single truth, and that it is, at least in some measure, knowable. Truth is out there and real freedom comes to those who seek not what’s “right for me” or what’s “culturally popular”, but what Jesus calls me to do in any given moment or situation.
In the midst of that pursuit, Jesus promises that the truth will set me free – free from fear, addiction, isolation, greed, lust, pride, hate, and o so much more. But it all starts, paradoxically, by my admitting that I’m not free to choose my own way.
The Illusion of Freedom
When Jesus offers freedom to the crowd in John 8, they say, “We are Abraham’s children. We have never been anyone’s slaves…” In other words, “Why would we want your offer of freedom, since we’re already free and have always been free?” I laugh at this point when reading, because they are presently occupied by Rome. Before that it was Greece. Before that it was the Medo-Persian empire. Before that it was Babylon. Before that it was Assyria. Slavery had become so normal that they’d confused it for freedom.
We’re free too, as our fireworks, weapons, and autonomous moralities remind us every day.
But we’re angry; overeating; overspending; anxious; undersleeping; addicted; lonely; and afraid that the whole house of cards that is our economy will come crashing down if people stop buying stuff they don’t need. This is the fruit of the freedom to do anything we want, “as long as nobody gets hurt”. And while it’s better than totalitarianism and thought police by light years – it’s not enough. Real freedom requires obedience to an external authority. That there is One, that he’s knowable, and gracious, and has our best interests in mind – these are things worth celebrating every single day.
“If the son shall make you free, you shall be free indeed”
Behind the holiday lights, both here in Europe and back home in the USA, the waves of unhappy news just keep coming. Colorado Springs. Beirut. Paris. Mumbai. San Bernadino – death dealing violence has become so common its hardly news anymore.
In such times, the events themselves are never the only stressors. There are reactions to the events, or the proposed reactions by politicians and wanna-be presidents that cause reaction too, and then, because we’re all connected, there are our responses to each other’s responses. Gun control or conceal and carry? Religious profiling or open borders? Boots on the ground? Drones in the air? Leave them alone?
These are our debates, and as we’re having them, they usually aren’t pretty. The uncivil dialogue creates yet another stress, as we become ‘houses divided’ even in communities of Christ followers. How good people land on such profoundly different sides on these conversations is a topic for another day. For this day though, I’d suggest that the most important thing Christ followers can do as they seek to form their own convictions on these matters is to make certain that our convictions are formed by things we know with a great deal of clarity from our Bibles. Jesus hasn’t ruled directly whether a ban on assault weapons is a good or bad idea. He didn’t go into detail on what Rome’s immigration policy should be in the 1st century But he wasn’t silent either. Jesus taught us stuff, and it’s the stuff we know that should be our starting point in framing our ethics:
What DO we know?
1. We shouldn’t be motivated by fear
The west is bathed in fear right now, and the fear is giving birth to all kinds of unhealthy responses, ranging from pre-emptive violence against immigrants to amassing weapons and ammo to protect ourselves and our stuff, to blanket condemnations of entire people groups.
It’s important to see that throughout the Bible, if the motive behind our actions is fear, our actions are likely wrong. When the Lord speaks to Joseph about the unexpected pregnancy of his fiance, God tells him to ‘fear not’, and this means he must overcome the natural fear of social consequences and fear of what other people think. The same message to “fear not” comes to Mary, and then later to the shepherds. Everyone is called to simply “do the right thing” and then trust that the consequences of such actions will be in God’s hands.
The problem with fear is that it leads to reactionary responses and often escalates cycles of violence needlessly, and this is the reason we should make certain we’ve slain the fear in our hearts before choosing our course of action, or even making our vote. Fear’s a seductive mistress, often bathed in the rhetoric of patriotism and/or faith, but when stripped to core, it’s still just fear.
2. We’re called to be people of justice
While it’s true that embodying the character of Jesus means turning the other cheek, loving our enemies, and laying down our lives for one another, it’s also true that Jesus has a heart for the unjustly oppressed, the downtrodden, and victims of violence whether in Paris or in Syria.
When my pacifist friends tell me that Jesus calls us to lay down our lives, I wholeheartedly agree. What makes our world tricky is the question of how I’m to respond when the lives of others are at stake; my children, my wife, my Muslim or Christian neighbor, innocents celebrating a birthday in a Paris cafe, or gathering for a work party in Santa Monica, the teenage girl sexually enslaved in Asia or Los Angeles due to greed – what should Jesus do here? Maybe more than tweets and prayers.
What does the Lord require of us? Do justice! And then he leaves it to us to figure out what that means. The thing he makes clear is that the justice for which we’re to work is that of others first, more than justice for ourselves.
3. We’re called to be people of mercy
There’s a story in Genesis about Abraham bargaining with God over the fate of Sodom and God tells Abraham that he will spare an entire city that’s filled with unjust people for the sake of 10 who are righteous.
It seems our conversations these days have become the exact opposite of that. We’re willing to vilify, label, and exclude an entire religious group because of the risk that some few among them might be zealots intent on doing harm. We’ll judge the whole because of the risk of a part being hurtful. Is this mercy?
4. Words matter
Jesus said that by our words we’ll be justified and by our words we’ll be condemned, and then the Apostle Paul followed up on this by twice calling us to watch our language. When we lose civility in our conversations, we also lose credibility. This isn’t to say we should be anything less than honest, forthright, and courageous in what we say. It simply means that the way we say things matters as much as what we say.
Here at the end of this post, I’ve not addressed ethical and political specifics. It’s not because these don’t matter. However before there are ethics, there are motives and priorities which shape those ethics. And now, more than ever, is a time when we need the wisdom of Christ at the core, at the level of motives and priorities.
The Prince of Peace has come. God with us! But more, he’s calling us come to each other in exactly the same way he came to us. May we search our hearts and motives this Advent, to the end that the words of our mouths and the actions of our hands will have their origin in Christ himself.