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Monday, January 31, 2011

On Being Fed by Wolves

Recently I attended a gathering of pastors to talk about the challenges and opportunities in our churches and communities and what we’re going to do about them.  We spent a major part of our time meditating on Jesus’ instructions to the 72 (or 70 in some ancient copies) disciples that he sent to all the cities he wanted to visit in Luke 10:1-12.  Jesus meant for the 72 to go into the various towns of Galilee and do the kind of thing he did: heal and proclaim that God’s reign on earth was almost here.  Jesus gives some very challenging instructions to these disciples, instructions that only get more vexing the longer one looks at the passage.

One of the more perplexing instructions is when Jesus commands, “Do not carry a money bag, a traveler’s bag, or sandals. . . . Whenever you enter a town and the people welcome you, eat what is set before you” (vv. 4, 8).  Imagine traveling to another city with no luggage and no wallet, expecting that people you have never met will take you in and take care of you.  That’s what Jesus was telling his disciples to do.

What is this passage doing in the Bible?  We say that the Bible applies to our lives today, but it’s hard to figure out what you and I are supposed to do with this.  For one thing, in the ancient world (and in many places in the world today), hospitality was an enormously important virtue.  If a stranger came into town, the town’s honor was on the line for how they treated that stranger.  By contrast, we are largely inhospitable.  There are people in our culture—maybe you too—who haven’t had anyone into their home in the past ten years, much less a stranger.  So the disciples could expect a certain degree of assistance in many cases that we cannot.  Nevertheless, there was risk even for Jesus' disciples in his instructions.  Jesus outlines what they are supposed to do if they are not welcomed in—shake the dust off their feet in protest (v. 11)—apparently a very real possibility.

What is hardest for us to swallow, and it surely was for the disciples too, is that Jesus sends people in front of him in his name who are relying for support entirely on the strangers they’re going to.  This is dangerous; Jesus calls these people “wolves” that the disciples are sent among like “lambs” (v. 3).  These “wolves” are the people the disciples are counting on for food and shelter!  The 72 come with nothing but the word of Jesus and the power of Jesus.  Otherwise they are empty-handed and needy, dependent on the people they meet.

But of course, Jesus isn't telling his disciples to do anything that he didn't do to a far greater degree.  The Son of God "emptied himself" when he took on human nature; he didn't bring anything with him to sustain him or help him out.  As the Lamb of God, he was entirely dependent on the hospitality of the wolfish human race from his mother's womb on.  And though he came in the power and authority of the One who sent him, though he preached and healed and offered peace (v. 5), that didn't prevent him from being rejected by those to whom he was sent with gruesome consequences.  But it also gave people the opportunity to receive him, and those who did so became children of God.

Over the course of the last year my church became convinced of what God made us to do, which we call care along the way.  We’ve been assuming—at least I have—that the heart of care along the way is that we have something to give that our world needs.  I still strongly believe that this is true, and so did Jesus or else he wouldn’t have sent out the 72 to heal and preach.  But what if a starting point for showing care to others is admitting our own vulnerability, weakness, and need to the people we’re called to care for?  Imagine, for example, starting a relationship with an unbeliever by humbly asking for help for something, receiving it, thanking them, and standing in their debt.  That is a very different place from which to offer help than from a starting point of claiming to have what they need.  They might be much more willing to receive the care we have to give.

But this can be hard even in small ways.  One thing that successful pastors and other caregivers learn how to do early on is to foster one-way intimacy.  The pattern is, you have a problem, I show compassion, you expose your vulnerability, I help while guarding your dignity, you are grateful.  You think we're now close, because you bared your soul and I showed love to you.  But we're actually not close, because you have seen nothing of me.  The compassion I showed you was genuine, but it shielded the rest of me from your eyes.  In fact, some caregivers—myself included at times—actually use what feels to its recipients as wonderfully affectionate compassion and interest as a way to keep them at a fixed distance.  (For example, how much do you really know about your favorite doctor?)

I don't think this is necessarily bad.  I actually think it's necessarily wise, and Jesus modeled the same thing.  But Jesus also was seen naked by his parents and who knows how many other friends and relations in Nazareth, and in the upper room he disclosed his most intimate thoughts to those he knew were about to abandon him and deny they knew him (John 13-17).  This rebukes me when I inexplicably decline a ride home or some other small favor by someone whom I "serve," motivated by an egotistical desire to remain the person of power, the creditor, in the relationship or by a fear of becoming vulnerable enough to be betrayed and wounded.

There is a balance here to be struck.  The Lord didn't command his disciples to be best friends with everyone they met.  But he did command that they rely on them for their most basic needs.  It takes profound humility and faith to place the paw of the wounded wolf on one's throat.  But this models the humility and faith that wolf must display to become a lamb.

Friday, January 21, 2011

What about Polygamy?

My friend and reader Ruth commented on my recent post on the Manhattan Declaration, and it was such a thoughtful statement that I felt a reply to it deserved its own post.  (Another way I might say this is, thanks, Ruth, for giving me content.) It's best to see her full comment yourself (the third on the post), but the heart of it is:
The Bible does not teach that marriage is a one man/one woman deal.  There is far more polygamy than monogamy in the Bible, and it is not condemned. . . . If we want people to take us seriously, we need to handle Scripture seriously, and claiming that the Bible teaches "one man/one woman" is simply not accurate.  The Bible does clearly teach that homosexuality is a sin, but how can we expect anyone to believe us if we lump it in with something where we are being (at best) sloppy or, (at worst) insidiously misleading about what the Bible actually says?
(By the way, Ruth stressed that she wasn't in favor of having more wives in her house.)

Now this is—or ought to be—a common thing to consider.  (In fact, I once had this conversation with an Orthodox Jewish politician when we were discussing same-sex marriage.)  Why do we categorically call polygamy wrong when great heroes of the Bible were polygamists?

The answer begins with the basis Jesus and the apostles commonly used for their discussions of marriage: Genesis 2:18-25.  In particular, note how Jesus handles the issue of divorce:
Then some Pharisees came to him in order to test him.  They asked, "Is it lawful to divorce a wife for any cause?"

He answered, "Have you not read from the beginning the Creator made them male and female, and said, 'For this reason a man will leave his father and mother and will be united with his wife, and the two will become one flesh'?  So they are no longer two, but one flesh.  Therefore what God has joined together, let no one separate."

They said to him, "Why then did Moses command us to give a certificate of dismissal and to divorce her?"

Jesus said to them, "Moses permitted you to divorce your wives because of your hard hearts, but from the beginning it was not this way.  Now I say to you that whoever divorces his wife, except for immorality, and marries another commits adultery" [Matt. 19:3-9].
What's so interesting about this is that when confronted by the Pharisees with Moses' God-breathed legislation on divorce, Jesus brushes it off by pointing to the way it was "in the beginning."  In the beginning, a man and a woman were united by God as one flesh for life.  The pattern of divorce that came later was a concession because of people's sin.  But now Jesus says that that concession is invalid.  Now God demands that we go back to the way it was in the beginning.

It seems to me that Jesus' approach to divorce applies neatly to polygamy also.  Polygamy is every bit as much a violation of the "one flesh" principle of Genesis 2 as divorce is.  "In the beginning" Adam was lonely and needed a companion.  God took his rib and fashioned the woman from it.  Adam recognized her as his own flesh and bone and became reunited as one flesh with her again.  She was God's sole and sufficient answer to the problem of his loneliness.  Adam needed someone other than himself to become one with; once he became one again, he did not need to become more than one, which a second wife would imply.  In fact, though Jesus does not state this outright, it seems that it is because of the logical impossibility of becoming exactly one with multiple women that Jesus cites "immorality" as the sole ground for divorce.  Sexual infidelity is literally the only thing that can compromise the oneness that God made when the couple was married.  Becoming one with a second, if perpetuated, replaces the oneness with the first.

However, it seems that, as with divorce, God ignored polygamy for a long time as a concession to humans' sin.  The first time polygamy appears is with the abominable Lamech, the seventh generation of the line of Cain and the representation of the "perfect" outcome of that evil lineage.

Now contrary to Ruth's assertion, there is actually very little polygamy in the Bible.  The only way there could be is if there were throngs of unattached men in ancient Israel or if men succumbed to disease far more easily than women did, and we have no evidence of either.  Rather, polygamy was reserved for the exceedingly wealthy who could actually support all the wives and children, and later on only kings.  In the Greco-Roman world in which Jews lived, polygamy was unheard of, though divorce, mistresses, prostitution, homosexual affairs, and (for the Greeks) pedophilia outside of marriage were common.

But in all of the few times that polygamy does appear in the Bible, even among those most honored by God, we see the deleterious results that one expects from sinful behavior.  Abraham's employment of Sarah's slave Hagar as his concubine led to the rivalry between Ishmael and Isaac that ominously foreshadowed the conflict between their descendants (Arabs and Jews respectively) today.  Jacob's two wives and two concubines fostered intense and almost deadly sibling rivalry.  Elkanah's second, fertile wife, Peninnah, caused immense distress for Hannah, though the unloved Peninnah was surely miserable as well.  David's multiple wives led not only to the power struggle surrounding the succession to his throne, but also to the open rebellion and civil war against him stemming from his son Absalom's revenge for David's complacency over the rape of Absalom's sister Tamar by their half-brother Amnon.  Worst of all, Solomon's acquisition of a harem directly led to his apostasy to worshiping other gods, because of which Israel was split in half, and neither part ever fully recovered (in an Old Covenant sense).

These are consequences of the sin of polygamy that God ignored for a long time.  This isn't the only example of God not making a big deal out of part of his will as he progressively works with his people.  For example, God told Israel through Moses not to sacrifice to him anywhere in the promised land except for the place where he dwelled in his tabernacle.  But sacrifice to Yahweh at the "high places" continued for centuries, and God blessed it (e.g., 1 Sam. 7:2-13; 1 Kings 3:1-15; 18:16-46).  But eventually God enforced his previous dictum.  Likewise, with respect to polygamy, by the time Christ came God's word was, "Enough."  It was time to go back and do things as he had established in the beginning.

So despite examples of polygamy in Scripture, the Bible as a whole really does teach that one-man/one-woman marriage is what a marriage really is.

Saturday, January 15, 2011

Steve Martin: Atheists Don't Have No Songs

I don't know if this really fits the subject matter of this blog, but if it doesn't make you laugh—well, I don't know what to tell you.  Great vocals too.

Thursday, January 13, 2011

Civil Religion Today

The last 18 hours has made me want to comment on the horrible shooting spree in Tuscon, Arizona in which 19 people, including Rep. Gabrielle Giffords, were shot and six were killed, including a federal judge and a 9-year-old girl.  I don't have much to say from a biblical perspective that you probably don't already know I would say: murder is sin, we live in a fallen world, etc.  However, stepping aside from biblical comment for a moment, I continue to believe having watched the memorial service at the University of Arizona last night that President Obama is one of the most talented speakers I've ever heard whether or not I agree with what he says.  Aside from his rhetorical skill, I was gratified when he delivered this line:
And if, as has been discussed in recent days, their deaths help usher in more civility in our public discourse, let's remember that it is not because a simple lack of civility caused this tragedy—it didn't—but rather because only a more civil and honest public discourse can help us face up to our challenges as a nation, in a way that would make them proud.
How refreshing.  As most of the media and members of Congress have simplistically rushed to the judgment that this massacre is the result of out-of-control, extreme political rhetoric instead of one man's severe, violent, untreated mental illness, and as Sarah Palin inimitably managed to denounce the blame game in a way that added fuel to its fire and her face to news programs, the President stuck to the facts of the case and yet used that as a springboard to encourage the kind of public dialogue that we should be talking about now even if the shooting had never happened.

But enough about that.  The main thing I want to write about is how last night's memorial service exhibited the present state of American civil religion.

"Civil religion" is the sort of generic, lowest-common-denominator piety that we hear and participate in in the governmental realm—for example, prayers at official events like inaugurations and openings of Congressional sessions, "In God We Trust" on the money, the annual Thanksgiving Day proclamation, and the "God bless America" at the end of every presidential address.  Civil religion seems to be the way that we as a nation formally express commonly held religious beliefs in a way that doesn't quite result in "an establishment of religion" that violates the First Amendment (though many would argue that it does).  Perhaps more to the point, civil religion is the way that we Americans derive our national identity, destiny, and self-confidence from a transcendent, supernatural source without the official endorsement of a church or recourse to the divine right of kings.  In other words, we employ civil religion because we know—or hope—that there's more to this America thing than just a group of human beings looking out for themselves who share the same physical space.  We also employ it because Americans are genuinely religious people, and we just can't help ourselves but express it when we gather publicly.

The difficulty is knowing just what to express.  When George Washington pioneered civil religion as our first president, he knew what he was working with.  At the one extreme were Evangelical Protestants steeped in the Reformed doctrine of the Puritans.  At the other were forerunners of Unitarians who believed in a God who providentially ordered human affairs but who denied miracles, the deity of Christ, and a personal relationship with God.  The religious statements and actions of Washington's public life were genuine but were also calculated to resonate with both extremes and those in the middle while stepping into controversial territory as little as possible.  This limited (though by no means small) religious range allowed for a theological basis for the Republic as a divinely instituted land of liberty and justice.  Though it could easily be employed for crassly self-justifying aims, the national theology also furnished the categories by which Lincoln could frame the profound meditations in his Second Inaugural Address.

But in the decades before Lincoln's address, America's religious range was stretched not only by increased fracturing of Protestantism (groups as variant as Mormons and Transcendentalists emerged during this era) but by the arrival of throngs of Roman Catholics.  The early 20th century saw Jews becoming a more prominent part of the national fabric, and the late 20th century featured the rise of Islam and non-Western religions through immigration, conversion, and experimentation, not to mention the increase of those who are "spiritual" yet irreligious and of atheists and agnostics.  The problem is that our religious range is now stretched so broadly that it is hard to imagine what a lowest-common-denominator civil religion could possibly look like.  What fundamental tenets could it maintain?  And yet Americans in general seem to have more of an appetite for it than ever.  Since Jimmy Carter, every president has had to pass a piety test in the eyes of the public in order to get elected (which, for example, John Kerry epically failed).  We expect our presidents to preside as high priests over the civil religion more than ever before.

The memorial service last night may have illustrated the state of civil religion today.  It opened with an invocation by a half-Native American professor, a long-winded request for blessing from the Creator by means of the four points of the compass, Father Sky, and Mother Earth.  Later, Secretary of Homeland Security and former Governor of Arizona Janet Napolitano read portions of Isaiah 40, remarkably concluding, "The word of the Lord."  Then President Obama quoted Psalm 46:4-5 toward the beginning of his speech, rhetorically and logically isolated from the rest of it.  More to the point of his message, he later said, "Scripture tells us that there is evil in the world, and that terrible things happen for reasons that defy understanding.  In the words of Job, 'When I looked for light, then came darkness' [Job 30:26]."  Toward the end of his message, the President said, "If there are rain puddles in heaven, [9-year-old victim] Christina is jumping in them today," before concluding, "May God bless and keep those we've lost in restful and eternal peace.  May He love and watch over the survivors.  And may He bless the United States of America."

This event may not be entirely typical, but there are a few themes that I think I have seen develop in the civil religion in recent years.  For one, whereas God as Judge was a major theme of the civil religion from Washington through Lincoln, God as Comforter is far more common today, which you can see in the ubiquitous "thoughts and prayers" extended to the victims of any nationally known calamity.  Second, there is more openness to particular religious expression at these ceremonies, so long as it isn't too particular.  The Native American invocation and the Christian-liturgy styled reading of Isaiah 40 are good examples of particularity.  But the Native American professor didn't chant, and the reading was not from the New Testament in which Christ would probably be mentioned.  The pluralism at an event like this is probably an attempt to deal with the loss of nearly all religious consensus.  Third, Scriptural references appear prominently today, but because of the loss of biblical literacy they have to be identified as such.  They also have a sort of magical quality—they are included as a sort of powerful symbol, but there is usually little if any exposition of their meaning or connection to the topic at hand.  For example, how are we to understand "Jerusalem" in Isaiah 40:2 and "the city of God" in Psalm 46:4?  Is this the literal Jerusalem or the Church (as Christians have viewed it through New Covenant eyes) or America itself?

The question that I keep asking myself is what the civil religion ought to be given the religious state of America today.  On the one hand, I would love for the civil religion to be as much like true and godly religion as possible—in other words, if we're going to be pious, let's worship the Father of Jesus Christ in spirit and in truth.  On the other hand, to invoke a religion on the nation that the people don't personally share risks convincing people that they're Christians just because they're Americans and watering down the true faith (see also: Europe), not to mention provoking hostility in people and the awkward issue of the First Amendment.  If it were my job to plan the memorial service, what would I have included?  If I were praying or giving remarks, what would I have said?  I really don't know.

Friday, January 7, 2011

A Chilling Affront to Free Speech

As I blogged last year, I am a signer of the Manhattan Declaration, which champions the sanctity of life from conception, the sanctity of one-man/one-woman marriage, and freedom of religious expression in the public square.  The third of these values is under great threat right now from, startlingly, Apple, Inc.

The Manhattan Declaration organization had an app on Apple's iPhone and iPad that provided an opportunity to sign the declaration, read and watch more from the declaration's authors, and link up with other signers.  During the Thanksgiving holiday period, Apple quietly removed the app after online commentary and a petition at denounced it as "anti-LGBT, anti-women."  The Declaration organization addressed some of critics concerns by resubmitting the app with nothing on it but the Declaration itself and the option to sign it.  On December 22 Apple rejected the app again (notice their penchant for using holidays?), this time directly addressing its creators with a letter that states:
[Apps that contain] references or commentary about a religious, cultural or ethnic group that are defamatory, offensive, mean-spirited or likely to expose the targeted group to harm or violence will be rejected.  We have evaluated the content of this application and consider its contents to be objectionable and potentially harmful to others.
After puzzling about which "religious, cultural or ethnic group" Apple is concerned about in this instance, I realized that Apple had labeled this expression of Christian belief . . . well, you can see for yourself what they called it.  This is the Declaration that pronounces its respect for gays "as human beings possessing profound, inherent, and equal dignity" with straights despite maintaining that homosexual practice is immoral and the codification of it in marriage incorrect.  Simply by taking a contrary moral position, regardless of the tenor in which it takes it, the Manhattan Declaration is considered to be mean-spirited and harmful.

At one level, this is not terribly surprising.  Apple is right that the Manhattan Declaration is offensive, because Christian teaching is inherently offensive to everyone (including, sometimes, Christians); Jesus and the apostles said so themselves.  This episode is also yet another example of an achingly common phenomenon that each of us perpetrates and experiences in all kinds of relationships, especially in our families: the more emotionally reactive we are because our self seems to be threatened by someone else, the more difficult it is for us to listen accurately and judge rationally.  This is how the Manhattan Declaration, written in the most civil and respectful tone, could be written off by many immediately as hate speech.  It also suggests how many who are in favor of the Manhattan Declaration are liable to react to Apple.

So I'm not surprised that Apple doesn't agree with the principles of the Manhattan Declaration.  I am surprised, however, that Apple doesn't agree with the principle of free speech.  Apple does not have a legal obligation to protect free speech like the government does, but one might expect such a progressive organization as Apple to recognize a moral obligation to do so.  And I believe that this principle is something that all Americans ought to rally around regardless of our positions on same-sex marriage and abortion.  This is the topic that I wrote about to Apple CEO Steve Jobs in the e-mail whose text is posted below.  (Incidentally, I'm also surprised that by their response to the Manhattan Declaration Apple is that unafraid of offending so many actual and potential customers.)

I should clarify that though I am in complete agreement with the Manhattan Declaration, the document, I have not always been in complete agreement with the Manhattan Declaration, the organization.  At times its founders have treated certain issues or situations as morally clear-cut and demanding of immediate action, and I have not been so sure, including the first time Apple removed this app.  And despite the founders' nonpartisan talk, their Facebook page has taken on a pronounced partisan tone at times.  But because this staunch censorship by Apple is indefensible to me, I urge readers to sign the Manhattan Declaration and contribute to the organization.  Even if these are things that you cannot do because you disagree with the Declaration, please join me nevertheless in sending an e-mail to Steve Jobs asking Apple to reinstate the Manhattan Declaration app in the name of freedom of speech.

(Text of my e-mail to Steve Jobs.)

Dear Mr. Jobs:

I am writing to ask you to reinstate the iPhone/iPad app submitted by the Manhattan Declaration.

Mr. Jobs, I believe that you sincerely desire to do the right thing.  I am inclined to believe that you have denied both past and present versions of the Manhattan Declaration app not because you believed it bad for your business's bottom line but because of your conscience.  There is no other explanation for why your company would call opposition to same-sex marriage, a view held by 48% of the American people, "defamatory, offensive, mean-spirited," "objectionable and potentially harmful to others" in your Dec. 22 letter to the authors of the Manhattan Declaration.  The only reason one might condemn the opinion of half your potential domestic customers so forcefully is out of fidelity to a moral principle that transcends Apple's profit.  I sincerely commend you for being that principled, even though it is not a principle that I share with you.  I wish that more business leaders acted out of convictions about right and wrong.

But there is another moral principle that has been cherished by Americans for generations that is under even greater threat in this case: the right to free speech.  From our founding and before, we as a people have believed strongly that when citizens are empowered to articulate ideas passionately and can be heard and evaluated by their fellow citizens, the entire nation benefits.  We have also maintained that we have nothing to fear from such discourse, because it is through reasoning in the public square that wisdom is elevated and folly defeated, not by censorship or manipulation by the powers-that-be.

As the leader of a powerful information technology company with significant influence in 21st-century telecommunications, you have a greater responsibility than most to foster the free speech that Americans prize.  But this sacred value is placed at great risk by Apple's current stance.  If the position of those of us who have signed the Manhattan Declaration is wrong, the public square is where we ought to be defeated.  We ought not be defeated by a cadre of activists soliciting a business leader in private that fears it cannot refute us in public.

Apple's technological and design brilliance has earned it the passionate loyalty of its customers.  I'm one of them—a loyal and zealous Apple user nearly my entire adult life.  For the first time, Apple has done something to endanger my repeat business seriously.  The next time I buy a computer, I could buy from you and support a company that discriminates against my religion and limits my speech, or I could buy a PC and pad Bill Gates' foundation that corrects global health disasters.  Please don't require me to make that choice.

Rev. Cory Hartman

Tuesday, January 4, 2011

Stirring Up Spirits

Among those who believe in God there are different opinions about how or how much God's will determines what we do.  Some people believe that everything that we do is determined by God's will.  Others believe that none of our choices are determined by God's will.  Some believe that some of our choices are determined beforehand by God's will but others aren't.  And lots of people aren't sure or haven't really thought it through.

I'm one of the people who thinks that all of our actions are predetermined by God, despite some of the crazy, counterintuitive, mind-bending, and off-putting ramifications of that belief (at least at first glance).  (I explore this concept in depth in my forthcoming book from Gut Check Press, On Freedom and Destinie.)  Often when people hear this they picture God as a puppeteer who jerks people around like marionettes against their will.  But the way the Bible portrays this (even if it only happens in certain cases and not in others, as some believe) is that God achieves his will through our wills.  In other words, God gets what he wants by silently shaping what we want and then employing our own desires.

A good example of this is in the first chapter of the Book of Ezra.  The Jews had been in exile around Babylon for approximately 70 years.  Then Cyrus of Persia takes over after the Medes and Persians overthrow the Chaldeans of Babylon.  Early in Cyrus's reign Yahweh "stirred up [his] spirit" (v. 1, NASB) to decree that Jews should return to Jerusalem to build a temple for the God of Israel with their neighbors' support.  Lo and behold, God also stirred up the spirits of the clan chiefs of many of the Jewish exiles to go and do that very thing (v. 5).

In this case, we see that the way that God achieved his purpose of restoring his people to their promised land and restoring worship of himself there was by instilling that desire in the persons who could make it happen.  When Cyrus and the leaders of the exiles collaborated to make this a reality, they weren't being forced by God against their wills but rather were doing what they wanted.  Nevertheless, God was behind what they wanted, creating in them the desire to accomplish his purpose.

For more on the implications of this, read my book when it comes out this year.  (Don't worry; I'll let you know when it is released.)  But for now a fairly simple but very important application is to pray to ask God to "stir up the spirit" of ourselves and of the people we know to do his will.  If people's desires, including ours, are in God's hands, then anything can happen.  If we pray that God would put what he wants into our hearts and the hearts of our families, friends, church members, neighbors, and enemies, we should expect to see wonders beyond what we could ask or think.