Thursday, July 22, 2010

Glenn Beck and Social Justice

For months now, I have been pondering a response to Glenn Beck's statements regarding social justice. Part of me wanted to avoid his horrible pronouncements that are meant for the media machine more than they are for thoughtful Christians. Part of me wanted to knock him down a peg or two, but with a back-handed compliment. Part of me wanted to actually claim that he was right. After all, the central mission of the Church is to proclaim the gospel. Caring for the people living in poverty and struggling with hunger is not central to our mission. In the critique Beck is right.

And I know that many will stand up and shout about all the passages in the Bible (over 2000+ verses, I know) that deal with words about justice and equity and hunger and poverty and so on. And almost everyone will point to Matthew 25 and the words Jesus utters about having done it to him when you do it to the "least of these." And yet whenever I read it those words in the Bible, I don't hear them addressed to the hoi polloi, the great masses for the most part. I hear the prophets calling Israel's leaders to task. I hear Jesus calling out the civil authorities, reminding them that one day he will return as the one and only king, finally bringing about the culmination of the Reign of God, to which they will have to answer. Which has brought me to the realization that if the Church is not supposed to care for people living on the social margins, then it must be the civil authorities. But then, as now, the civil authorities are terrible at it. And now they turn to the Church to do their job, so long as they don't do it too well.

Whenever the Church stands up and begins doing the civil authorities' jobs, sooner or later they begin, whether intentionally or not, to point to that Reign, when all tears will be wiped away, when all hunger is stopped, when there will be no more class distinction. This witness to the activity of God then is a reminder that these authorities are temporal. They will pass away. But what authority truly wants to hear that they are not going to last. None of them. When the activity of the Church starts to look like this ultimate Reign, the authorities try to put the Church back into a constrained little box. "Mixing of church and state!" "Socialism!" "Christianity is about the salvation of souls!!!"

Paul talks about sin as a power that enslaves, and we are enslaved until Christ sets us free. But sin gets us all. Our individual lives, our communal lives, our strutctures and powers, even our not-so-free market. Even the market is bound by sin. Christ stands against all of that, and the Church now has to free people for service in this future Reign breaking in around us even now. And we step in to do the work that isn't really ours, serving our neighbor, precisely because it is hard to hear the gospel over the grumbling of an empty stomach. We continue to point to and raise up people who can point to this work of God in Jesus.

Over at Sojourners, Rachel Johnson invokes Dietrich Bonhoeffer and the theology of the cross in this same vein.
Bonhoeffer took very literally the idea that Christians are called to be the body of Christ in the world and to imitate the life of Christ. And when he looked to the gospels, the example he saw Jesus give was of a servant who challenged the oppressive social forces around him. It was this understanding that lead Bonhoeffer to state, “The church is the church only when it exists for others.” Jesus frees us from sin in order that we may have a transformative impact on our social structures here and now, so that we may aid in ushering in the kingdom of God on earth as it is in heaven. For freedom we are set free. And so, to Bonhoeffer, Christians of good conscience could not remain silent under Hitler’s rule, because the calling of God on their lives was one that compelled them to speak on behalf of the oppressed, to share in the life of Jesus, even to the point of sharing in his suffering and dying. This last point is one with which Glenn Beck seems particularly uncomfortable.

Wednesday, July 21, 2010

Lord's Prayer and forgiveness... sins AND debts

The question arose yesterday in bible study if Jesus was being sarcastic with the petition "forgive us our sins for we ourselves forgive everyone indebted to us." (Luke 11:4 NRSV) After all, we don't forgive everyone who sins against us. And there were good answers in the gathering that Jesus does in fact mean for us to forgive those who sin against us, but that it is an ideal, an ideal that we are to strive for, mind you, not throw our hands in the air because it is unattainable. The Kingdom is breaking in around us after all.

But I was jotting down a few notes this morning for my sermon, and happened to look at my new copy of the New Interpreter's Bible One-Volume Commentary. There in the section for Luke 11, the commentary mentioned that the gracious provision of "Father" forms the basis of the ensuing petitions. The first of those petitions for Luke is the realization of God's Reign, and the third is the petition on forgiveness as I have quoted it above.

And just the simple way this was listed got me thinking. Yesterday we noticed, while comparing both Matthew's and Luke's versions of the prayer that there did seem to be a transactional basis for forgiveness. Our language of forgiveness is couched in financial terms. We are owed an apology. In Matthew our sins are portrayed as debts to God. But I wonder if that is what is going on in Luke. Have we for so long connected debts and sins that Jesus here is saying something else? When Jesus gives us the words "forgive us our sins, for we ourselves forgive everyone who is indebted to us," does he really point to an early practice, rooted in the realization of God's Reign, where Christians literally forgave real financial debts. It would seem to fit within the fabric of Luke's gospel with the great reversal and the care for the poor. It would seem to fit in with the vision of God's Reign as the great Jubilee where debts, real financial debts, are forgiven.

Unfortunately I don't think this takes away any of the questions about whether we need to forgive others before God forgives us. (I don't think we do) But I do wonder if it convicts us in seeking forgiveness from God without our following in those same footsteps forgiving debts to which we will have no ultimate claim when God's Reign comes fully.

Tuesday, July 20, 2010

SF and theology...

Just the other day, a friend of mine posted on Facebook a list of fifteen books that would not be forgotten by him because of their influence in his life. He tagged some friends (not me, but I saw it anyway) and told them to do the same. The rules were simple recall fifteen books that would not be forgotten by you, but you had to do it in fifteen minutes. Then post it in your notes and tag other friends so that they could do the same. It is a good enterprise, I think to do such tasks every now and again. I cannot say that this list is the same list I would have written a year ago, nor is it likely that a year from now the list will remain the same. So here is my list in no particular order.

  1. Dune by Frank Herbert
  2. Lord of the Rings by J.R.R. Tolkien
  3. The Chronicles of Narnia by C.S. Lewis
  4. Resident Aliens by Hauerwas and Wilimon
  5. The Brothers Karamazov by Dostoyevsky
  6. Three Cups of Tea by Greg Mortenson and Oliver Relin
  7. The Freedom of a Christian by Martin Luther
  8. The Foundation Series by Isaac Asimov
  9. I,Robot by Asimov
  10. After Virtue by Alisdair MacIntyre
  11. A Canticle for Liebowitz by Walter Miller, Jr.
  12. The Large Catechism by Martin Luther
  13. Ender's Game by Orson Scott Card
  14. Fahrenheit 451 by Ray Bradbury
  15. Batman Knightfall series (a major story arc across the Batman comics in the mid '90s, most of which have been collected into trade paperbacks)
Full disclosure... I specifically left out the Bible and the Lutheran Confessional books, except the Large Catechism on purpose. I think that they are fundamental books (or collection of books as the case truly is) and they inform my reading of just about everything else. I take them as axiomatic. They are part of the fabric upon which these others have been brought into.

With this list though, I am somewhat surprised in some ways, and not at all in others, to see so many SF books here. And for the record I understand SF not as science fiction but more to the point of Speculative Fiction. Speculative fiction asks the questions of human existence often in a different context so that it helps us make sense of our own lives. And I think these books here are so memorable because of their impact in helping me make sense of my own life.

And the best ones do it because they resonate with the story of God's redemption of the world in one through Jesus Christ in one way or another. And good theology goes along the same task, serving the world by explicating and speculating about God's story told primarily through the Bible, so that the gospel might be proclaimed and make sense for the hearers. Theologians are called to an imaginative task. We get to ponder anew what our great God has done, is doing and will yet do.

Next to my bed I have a big stack of SF novels and collections of short stories for my consumption. They used to be the only thing on my reading list. Then it became only theology. I am moving to somewhere in the center, where both are read with great joy.

Wednesday, July 07, 2010

Bible and Technology...

A few months ago, I picked up my first smart phone, a Blackberry Curve. I had looked and looked at the vast array of phones out there. I wasn't on AT&T so I couldn't get an iPhone. I thought about the Palm Pre, and various Android options. Ultimately I settled on the Blackberry, because it was the cheapest option. I didn't really have to pay out that much, $50 compared to $150 or $200. My inner tightwad felt consoled. And my outer geek was satisfied.

And I can do everything I can imagine with my Blackberry. I am sure with an iPhone or Android phone there would be even more than I could imagine, but right now this suffices. And I really like that I ran across the YouVersion Bible reading app. And it doesn't matter what your mobile device of choice is, they have an app for you as well as several reading plans.

It does not have the NRSV but I have been reading the ESV, a fairly worthy translation I think. While having the bible at my fingertips is handy for my own devotional reading, it has also come in handy for pastoral duties as well. I was asked to officiate at a wedding on Memorial Day weekend at a site about an hour and a half away, and of all things, I forgot my bible. So when it came time for me to read the gospel lesson, I discreetly pulled my phone, which had been set up for the passage needed, out of my pocket and read it from there. Only a few folks noticed what I did, technophiles each of them.

Granted, I could likely listen to my wife about boundaries and techonology, but it can in fact serve the ministry well. Check out YouVersion, if you are looking for a bible reading app for your phone or other mobile device.

Friday, July 02, 2010

Praying for Christopher Hitchens...

So a LCMS pastor friend of mine (yes that CAN happen, although just to be safe, we routinely anathematize each other :) ) posted on his blog today that Christopher Hitchens has announced that he has cancer. Given my posts against his work, I found Charlie's post to be spot on. You can read his whole post here.

To summarize though, Charlie reminds us of our calling to pray for our enemies. I would add also, that this situation is not a time either to use Paul's image of heaping coals upon our enemies by our acts of kindness toward them. I find that Christians tend to use that in a rather back-handed and vindictive way. Something along the lines of "HA! We are so much better than you cause we are being nice to you!" which of course seems to be totally against the spirit of the injunction to pray for our enemies.

Pray for Mr. Hitchens' well-being AND for his conversion.