Thursday, July 2, 2015

God's Judgment

Mosaic of Christ from Hagia Sophia, Constantinople

I hate to say it, but it is a total rout.  Conservative American Christians of all stripes were at first back-footed by the sudden gains in opinion polls in support of gay marriage, and the relative rush of court decisions effectively legalizing gay marriage in a succession of states.  But then came the 2013 decision by the Supreme Court to strike down the 1996 Defense of Marriage Act, more state legalizations, and finally this past week, the Supreme Court ruling that gay marriage is a constitutional right throughout the United States. 

The Triumph of Bacchus

The celebrations by homosexual people and their friends across the country are raucous and heartfelt.  For them this victory amounts to recognition of their legitimacy as full participants in American society.  And it is a victory, from their perspective, over the hypocritical and censorious moralizers whose sexual scruples informed public morality in the United States from before its beginning.  Some perspective here is helpful.  In a few brief decades, homosexual activists have succeeded in overturning centuries of American legal precedent.  They have succeeded in provoking a shocking reversal of public opinion about gays in society.  And with gay marriage now the law of the land in the most powerful nation on the planet, these activists have caused the unraveling of millennia of moral tradition regarding sexual mores in Western civilization.  This seems unprecedented to me.

Constantine the Great

And it has all happened in a country that has a vast majority of people, 71% according to the most recent Pew survey, who claim to be Christian.  The United States of America, and Great Britain and her antecedents before her, claimed to derive their morality from the Old and New Testaments of the Christian Bible.  The same is true of all the Protestant, Roman Catholic and Orthodox nations and kingdoms in the old country.  The same is true of the vast majority of African Americans whose ancestors were brought to this country against their will as slaves.  They adopted the religion of their captors and made it their own, finding in the gospel promises a solace and hope that has been the foundation stone of the African American community for centuries.  The same is true of the burgeoning Hispanic community, who brought into the American experience not only their passionate culture but their conservative Roman Catholic or Pentecostal faith as well.

American religious realities notwithstanding, over the past thirty years, homosexual activist increasingly took their cue from other civil rights movements.  They succeeded in diverting attention from their sexual behavior to how they were treated in society.  They succeeded in defining and framing the debate, away from that of morality and towards liberty, freedom and equality.  In doing so they claimed the ‘moral’ high ground for themselves, making anybody who dared criticize them look small and mean in comparison.  Sadly, Christians from the beginning took the bait and denounced the homosexuals as perverted, as reprobate, as headed towards hell unless they repented.  However ‘true’ or ‘biblical’ their position (and even that was debated fiercely by more liberal Christians), these appalled conservative Christians were labelled as ‘homophobic’ and ‘bigots’, and not just by homosexual activists.  Increasingly in the past decade, the national media seems to have determined that the gay cause was going to be a winning cause, and they gave escalating airtime to gay grievances, as well as a shocking amount of negative publicity to the Westboro Baptist Church, a tiny congregation of less than 20 that the national media seemed to delight in elevating to the status of implied spokesman for biased conservative Christianity.

390 CE Roman Mosaic from Santa Pudenziana

The WBC ‘crowd’ aside, Christians at least thought they had the Bible on their side in their fight against what they assumed were the demonic forces of perversion and sin.  At least until homosexual sympathizers within the Biblical studies community began to question the texts on which Bible-based arguments against homosexual relationships were grounded.  The Old Testament prohibitions were immediately written off as irrelevant because of their cultural context in the Sinai covenant.  The NT discussions of homosexual behavior, particularly those by the Apostle Paul in his letters to the Romans and Corinthians, were recast as arguments not against homosexuality per se, but against pederasty.  It didn’t matter that careful conservative scholarship answered point by point the arguments of the homosexual sympathizers, enough noise was created and enough doubt was generated by the debate that homosexuals and their supporters took it as demonstrated that the Bible actually supported their position.  In the total free-for-all that is Biblical Studies, the louder one argues one’s perspective, the more persuasive it seems, the more right it becomes.  Support of the homosexual position regarding the Scriptures soon went from the realm of academic debate to a theological given and civil rights necessity.  Men and women who disagreed with the new gay orthodoxy were increasingly not welcome to air their positions or even to be part of the academic community.  And given the previous emphasis by all of these same institutions on the value of academic freedom (this emphasis and insistence occurred during times when their own opinions were in the minority, thus to their advantage), the sudden unwillingness to extend academic freedom to Christians with whom they differed on this point of homosexual support is nothing less than hypocritical.

Among the general population, the support of the mainstream media, social media and entertainment industry people succeeded increasingly in drawing the under thirty crowd with them.  Normally members of this demographic like to pride themselves as being free thinkers and rebelling against the status quo.  But this time they fell in lockstep with the homosexual activists, and this without thinking (many of them) other than through the superficial slogans parroted by social media.  In terms of revolutions, it must rank very high on the list of those accomplished with the least amount of actual thought.  This is because the leaders of the gay revolution did not want you or me to think at all.  They wanted us to feel.  They wanted us to listen to their stories and feel their pain of rejection and then to rise up and throw down the cause of their marginalization.  And the cause of homosexual marginalization was/is understood as not just the law of the land (which American courts have since systematically overturned and rewritten), but the morality behind those laws (which the gay revolution seems to have completely redefined in the space of a decade or two).  But morality doesn’t happen in a vacuum, and in the case of Western nations, the source of our morality has been Christianity.  It is no surprise, then, that there has been an unprecedented war against Christianity, waged particularly in the media, over the past forty or fifty years (essentially since the 1960s).  Christianity is understood as being in the way of the kind of society many if not most Americans think they want.  It’s a society that is increasingly libertarian with respect to sexual mores, as well as other matters of ‘personal liberty’ that Christians have historically described as sinful.

Mausoleum of Galla Placida 425 CE

In all of this, Christians have been portrayed as the enemy, the ones who are always against.  If gays are for liberty and freedom and equality, Christians are by extension for denial and censure  -the party of ‘No’.  It’s the 19th century Puritan trope writ large.  It’s H.L Mencken’s classic (if historically wrong) definition of Puritanism as ‘the haunting fear that someone, somewhere may be happy.’  Who wants to be against happiness?  Who wants to be seen as getting in the way of love?  Who wants to be thought of as a ‘hater’?  Who wants to be perceived as the deniers of another’s civil rights, this generation’s equivalent of Jim Crow racists?

The Emperor Justinian, from mosaic in San Vitale in Ravenna

Well guess what?  That would be us, conservative Christians.  We see ourselves as standing up for traditional morality, as standing up for marriage the way it’s always been understood, as standing up for families.  But every time we open our mouth the rest of the country applies the label ‘Bigot’, ‘Hater’, and ‘Hypocrite!’  And we don’t know when to stop.  Every time we press the point again, we dig ourselves deeper into the hole of cultural pariahdom.  In order for the homosexual lobby to accomplish all that it has done, it needed a foil.  And we conservative Christians have been just what the doctor ordered.  Every time these people needed an example of how someone shouldn’t treat a gay person, all they needed to do was go to the conservative churches and turn on a microphone, and it was just a matter of time before we obliged.  If we conservative Christians had only learned from our mistakes, that would be one thing.  But we keep doing the same thing again and again, we keep telling homosexual people that they are wrong, that they are sinners, that they need to repent, that they are going to hell, and that by the way it’s just your sin we hate – but we actually really love you.  Well, that’s convincing.

If I needed any further evidence that we conservative Christians missed the boat completely on this one, all I needed to do was scan the blizzard of Fb posters that appeared in the days immediately after the recent SCOTUS decision saying such brave things about Christian marriage, about standing firm against the cultural darkness that is upon us, hinting darkly that Jesus is about to come and put everything (read: all those perverts) to right.  Excuse me.  But if ‘liking’ a Facebook slogan in defense of heterosexual marriage is the best we can do, then we Christians deserve the cataclysm that is engulfing us.  I have read more comments than I wish to recall about how God’s judgment is about to fall on our country because of all the perversity we have plunged into.  Please.  God will indeed call all men and women to account for the lives they’ve lived and the choices they’ve made.  But what is happening right not is not about God’s judgment on America, or on homosexuals or on any other special class of ‘sinners’; it’s about God’s judgment on us, God’s judgment on the American churches.

We American Christians have enjoyed generations of unprecedented religious liberty.  We have seen Great Awakenings, Second Great Awakenings, Camp Meeting Revivals, Azusa Street Revivals, Evangelical Revivals, Charismatic Renewals and a host of more local outpourings.  God has raised up godly men and women as signal examples of what it means to be His people in this place.  We American Christians have been the best resourced, the best provisioned, the best trained and with the most awesome opportunities – there has never been a national Christian movement like ours. Ever.  In the history of the planet.

But somehow, something has gone very wrong.  And I believe it is at the very heart of our understanding of the gospel.  In many respects, our situation in the US parallels the situation in Germany in the 1920s and 1930s.  In what I am about to say, I in no way wish to imply that the current drivers of American culture are in any way like the Nazis of Germany. (Along with the transformation of sexual morality, we Americans have the plague of abortion, and the horrendous failure of our stewardship with respect to the environment, and our ongoing pervasive racism among other things, for which we will have to stand before God and give account – while we are not Nazis, our own moral failures have had their own colossal consequences). Rather, I want to raise a similar question about American Christians that Dietrich Bonhoeffer raised about German Christianity.  Germany in the 1920s and 1930s was full of Christians – Lutherans, Reformed and Roman Catholic.  And yet, despite the presence of so many Christians, and so many powerful theologians, Christianity wilted in the face of neo-pagan Nazism.  In his book, The Cost of Discipleship, Bonhoeffer traces the failure of the churches and of individual Christians to a fundamental failure to grasp the true meaning and call of the Gospel.  Jesus calls us to a life of radical discipleship – ongoing, daily, intentional choices to put the kingdom of God first, regardless of the cost.  Too many German Christians understood the Gospel as a kind of ‘cheap grace’ (Bonhoeffer’s own phrase), so that if I have been baptized then I am saved, or if I have had a ‘salvation experience’ then I am saved, or if I participate in the sacraments then I must be saved.  But according to Bonhoeffer, such a ‘salvation’ has missed the transformational point of the gospel.  Yes we are saved from judgment, but we are also saved to a new life in Christ.  We seek to live as Jesus would live, to love as he would love, to engage with the social ills of the day as Jesus would.  In doing so we bear the fruit of His character and love in our lives.  We don’t just ‘go to church’; if God’s grace doesn’t thrust us out into the world, then it’s not grace we have experienced.  Demonic Nazism triumphed in Germany because too few Christians were willing to follow Jesus regardless of the cost.

We conservative American Christians have our own version of cheap grace.  It comes hand in hand with the preferred style of evangelism in many churches, where we call people to come forward to the ‘altar’ and ‘accept Jesus as your personal savior’.  We give the impression that praying a prayer will remove a person from the elevator to hell and give them instead citizenship in heaven.  We give the impression that responding to the Gospel changes one’s status from condemned to (now I have been) saved.  We give our people the impression that this is what salvation is – a change of our legal status.  Never mind that the Gospels themselves and the rest of the NT uniformly talks about salvation in terms of a process that involves the bearing of fruit, of growing in holiness, of walking with Christ in a growing relationship of love.  It’s easy for these things to get lost if all the emphasis is on making sure that you and I and everyone else we can get to hear the 'gospel' is ‘saved,’ by which we mean ‘is going to heaven’.

I think we are in a position to begin to see that this understanding of salvation is reaping the whirlwind.  We have churches with lots of people who ‘came forward’ and ‘got saved’, but whose life is practically no different than that of the pagans next door.  Our churches are filled with practical atheists, ‘Christians’ who live from day to day as if God didn’t actually exist.  We’ve been so busy trying to get people into our churches (‘seeker-sensitive’ R us) and saved that we have forgotten that our primary call is to love them.  We are so busy trying to manufacture ‘worship experiences’ that we have forgotten that St. John the Apostle warns the churches that whoever claims to love God but hates his brother is simply a liar, and the truth is not in him.  We’ve so watered down what Jesus says and what Jesus calls us to that we have given the impression that if we are just going to church giving something when the plate goes around and sending our kids to youth group and Sunday school and participating in the church-sponsored Jazzercise class, then we are good All-American Christians.  We may be good All-American Christians, but we might as well be examples of how not to be a disciple of Christ or a church of His followers, at least as far as the New Testament is concerned.

If fruit is the measure of one’s Christianity, then I’m afraid appearances indicate we either haven’t heard the Gospel, or haven’t understood the Gospel, or both.  There are signal exceptions to this, but they tend to be the exceptions that prove the rule.  Repentance looks much different than what we hear and see church by church across this land.  Love looks much different than what we see church by church across this land.  The homosexuals are doing us a huge favor by calling out our hypocrisy.  They are right, of course.  But they see only so far as our behavior has affected them.  But our self-deception extends much deeper and to a far greater extent than we seem to have the capacity to realize. 

To the lions.

American conservative Christianity is mostly about ME, and as such, has been the American Dream at prayer.  So long as it tends towards my comfort, towards my peace of mind, towards the resolution of my issues, towards the success of my dreams – so long as God is on my side, then all is well with my soul, Hallelujah!  At its extreme, this posture has given birth to the Health and Prosperity ‘Gospel’ that has begun to corrupt even mainstream Pentecostalism not just in our country but across the globe.  Aside from the fact that one must studious refuse to actually read the Gospels and totally disregard the Lord Jesus to come to such theological conclusions, most American Christians are infected with the notion that we are in some way God’s Chosen People and thus eligible to the perks and benefits thereof.  God must be on our side.  Let His enemies be scattered!

Christ as soldier.

Which is why our world seems presently so scrambled.  We have been stunned to find ourselves living as moral foreigners in our own country – How can this be, if God is on our side? The uncomfortable answer is simply that we have long ago ceased to give any meaningful evidence that we were on God’s side.  We have become increasingly irrelevant in the life of our country precisely because we have surrendered our Christian character and call and exchanged it for a right-wing conservative Republican political agenda, for example, or for a left-wing liberal Democratic political agenda, or for a conservative (or liberal) social economic agenda, for example, or for a comfortable middle class life agenda, for example, or for climbing the ladder of my career agenda.  We have failed to see just how much the values of our own culture are in opposition to the values of the kingdom of God.  And if it emerges that God is not on our side, then know that it wasn’t God who left.

We are experiencing in this moment a very serious call to repentance.  Not the showy, TV evangelist ‘come to Jesus’ kind of repentance.  Not the post another stupid slogan about Jesus on Fb kind of repentance.  Not the stand up and give a tearful testimony kind of repentance.  None of these costs us anything.  None of these requires of us anything.  The kind of repentance that Jesus calls us to means first of all that we just shut up.  We are not in any position to condemn homosexuals, or Muslims, or immigrants, or abortionists, or murderers, or thieves, or adulterers, or divorcees, or substance abusers, or I could go on.  The very fact that we are so habitually judgmental is evidence that we simply have not understood the Gospel, or forgiveness, or grace. Period.  It puts us in the same category as the man in the parable that Jesus told, who when in prison with an unpayable debt pleaded with the ruler for mercy and was granted full pardon.  And yet this man went and immediately throttled another man and had him imprisoned for a fraction of the same offense for which he had been forgiven.  That man was marked by Jesus with a great big ‘FAIL’.  And yet we do the same thing again and again. Christian condemnation of anyone has never been a winning strategy for the gospel.  And the fact that we are still doing it must mean that our brains have been transplanted out and nothing put into replace them.

Our repentance, instead, must be the hard choice to change actual behaviors.  We must go to those with whom we have broken relationships and do everything we can to mend them.  We must go to those we have offended and own what we can and ask forgiveness.  We must seek out tangible ways to help those around us in need, either financially or materially.  We must take time to have a relationship with God, which means time for prayer, time in the Bible, time for devotional reading and study with others.  We must reorder our priorities so that they reflect those things that are most important from Jesus’ perspective.  We must find someone with whom we can be accountable, a father-confessor or the equivalent, with whom we can share anything.  We must do a thorough, fearless and searching moral inventory (in the words of the 12 step programs) and identify those behaviors and aspects of our character that we need to change.  And then we need to change them.

We don’t do any of this to earn God’s grace, or because our salvation is dependent upon this.  We do this because this is salvation.  This is what salvation does.  This is what salvation looks like.  Salvation is not some ultimately irrelevant change of legal status; salvation is the progressive transformation of our hearts born witness by what we do and how we live.  Salvation is becoming like Jesus.  However we got on the road of salvation, or in the process of salvation - be it responding to a preacher, reading a book or pamphlet or Scripture, conversation with a friend – this is where that road leads us, into a life of increasing renovation as we follow Jesus, as we hear His Word and take Him seriously.  This salvation is in fact our new relationship with Jesus.  And Jesus, as we discover as we get to know Him, is not concerned about how religious we are.  He is concerned, however, that we get this love thing right, because love is what He came to restore to this world.  Not the hyper-sexualized love of the homosexual activists or the pleasure seeking hedonists of our American Dream culture.  But the ‘Love one another as I have loved you’ love of transformed relationships.  Where this is present and increasing, we are on the right road.  Where this is absent, we have gone off the rails.

How we American Christians respond to this moment will determine our future as a lampstand in God’s presence.  Per Revelation, God in his goodness chose to set this lampstand in this place as a light to the nations.  And like the seven churches of Revelation 2-3, if we are no longer being and doing what He has called us to be and do, the Lord reserves the right to remove His lampstand from its place.  We have hard choices to make.  Just like Jesus’ original disciples.  We will be called on to give sacrificially of our time and talents and possessions and wealth.  Just like Jesus’ original disciples.  We will be called on to suffer.  Just like Jesus’ original disciples.  But all of this is because we have been given a mission.  Christianity is not intended to be the religious part of our lives, along with our career, our finances, our family, or leisure, our pets.  Jesus’ claim on us is a totalitarian claim.  We give everything to Him precisely because we get it – because we understand who He is (the incarnate Lord), and we understand what He has done (overcome sin and death through His crucifixion for us and His resurrection from the dead), and we understand what He is doing (if I be lifted up, I will draw all men and women to Myself).  The Everything I can offer is actually too little in comparison.  But that’s the starting point.  And we go from here.

It's just a statue.   What harm could a pinch of incense do?

We are at a turning point.  Mercifully, we will not be allowed to be as we have been.  We will either try to hold on to what isn’t the gospel so that we can carry on as we always have and drift into marginalized irrelevance, or we can follow Jesus, divest ourselves from our materialism, and learn anew how to love, and embrace the suffering that will come, and engage with winsome charity the new world that is upon us as Jesus’ disciples engaged the Roman world in which they found themselves.  

I have used the first person plural throughout intentionally.  Self-righteousness is my natural posture. To paraphrase Nathan the prophet, 'I am the man.'  Repentance, reconciliation, renewal always start with me, and not with them.  I preach, for that is my calling; but always to myself.  And if anything here is helpful to anyone else, then God be praised.

Roman Mosaic from Tunis

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