Fourteen Favorite Ways to Twist the Gospel

“Fourteen Favorite Ways to Twist the Gospel” by Howard Snyder provides a balanced approach to understand the Gospel from both an Anabaptist and Wesleyan perspective. One of the reasons I appreciate Snyder is that he is a Wesleyan scholar who was deeply influenced by the Anabaptist tradition. You will see how these traditions comes together in this article (Curtis Book).

1. Interpret the gospel primarily through Romans.

Biblical writers, including Paul, tell us to study the whole of Scripture and interpret it through that wholeness. But the persistent tendency to see Romans as the key to all Scripture persists. So the church and the world suffer. (See my Seedbed blog, “Misplacing Romans.”)

2. Focus solely on “personal salvation.”

The Bible does not teach “personal salvation” in the private, individualistic way that phrase has come to mean. Rather it teaches in multiple ways and through many metaphors the reconciliation of all things (e.g., Eph. 1, Col. 1)—though not without judgment.

3. Make heaven the goal.

The Bible and the early Christian creeds say nothing about “going to heaven” Yet that phrase has become virtually synonymous with salvation in many minds. The Bible focuses on God’s will being done on earth as in heaven, and the ultimate redemption of all creation, not some cosmic eternal split between earth and heaven.

4. The clergy/laity split.

This is one of the earliest signs of the “mystery of iniquity” in the church. Once Satan has convinced us that only a few (and mainly men of a certain sort) are called into “the ministry,” he has reduced the church’s effectiveness by ninety percent. The clergy/laity split is thus more debilitating than any other prejudice in the church. It undermines the biblical doctrine of the priesthood of believers, the gifts of the Spirit, and the universal call to diakonia (ministry, service).

5. Thinking economics and politics are not directly gospel concerns.

Walling off economics and politics from the gospel, placing them outside our discipleship, is unbiblical dualism. The gospel is an economic and political reality, so by definition the church is both economic and political. But economics and politics are to be understood in light of the gospel, not the other way round. The kingdom of God is the comprehensive framework.

6. De-prioritize community.

New Testament writers focus much more on community—the body of Christ, our membership in Jesus Christ and thus in one another—than any other topic. The less genuine the community in the mutually-sharing biblical sense of koinonia, the more doctrinal disputes become central and the church focuses on everything else but community. This is why I deal so much with this in Community of the King and other books.

7. Neglect the Old Testament.

The two most common mistakes here: Neglecting the wholism of God’s salvific purposes as revealed in the Old Testament, and buying the myth that all important truths in the Old Testament get “spiritualized” in the New. So “promised land,” for example, comes to mean “heaven” or some inner spiritual experience. When that happens, preachers mine the Old Testament looking for “spiritual” nuggets that often have little to do with the biblical historical context and meaning.

8. Limit justice to personal righteousness.

The Old Testament—Psalms, Prophets, Law, Wisdom—constantly pair justice and righteousness as two sides of the same comprehensive reality. Notice for instance how frequently justice and righteousness are coupled and used almost interchangeably in Hebrew poetry.

Yet the church often separates them in various ways—for instance making righteousness mean personal morality and justice something God takes care of by himself through the atonement and/or final judgment. This is flatly unbiblical.

9. Neglect intercession.

The more I read of prayer in the Bible—Moses, David, the Prophets, Job, Jesus’ life and example, the Epistles—the more I am convinced that I and the church generally have neglected the essential ministry of intercession. Through the mystery of prayer and God’s Spirit, persistent intercession by God’s people can (and often does) change the course of history and relations among nations and peoples and religions—as well as meeting our more immediate and personal needs.

Intercessory prayer is a primary means of seeking first the kingdom of God.

10. “Believers” instead of disciples.

Jesus calls and forms disciples so that the body of Christ becomes a community of kingdom-of-God disciples. The New Testament rarely uses the word “believers.” Today this fact is distorted by the tendency in modern translations to use “believers” in place of “brothers” (in order to be more inclusive) or in place of pronouns such as “them.”

What counts is not the number of believers but the number of disciples, and thus the ministry of disciple-making.

11. Substitute heaven for the kingdom of God.

In the Bible, the kingdom of God is as comprehensive as the reality, sovereignty, and love of God. No spirit/matter dualism. Most people in Jesus’ days understood this; they knew that “kingdom of heaven” in Matthew, for example, was just another way of saying “kingdom of God.”

In the Bible we see the kingdom of God as both now/future, heavenly/earthly, personal/social, sudden/gradual, inward/outward, in a mysterious dialectic with the church which itself is neither the kingdom of God nor divorceable from God’s kingdom.

12. Faith just a part of life.

We compartmentalize. Our Christian walk gets reduced to just one part of our lives, and that one part is often reduced to simply what we believe.

But now abide faith, hope, and love—and the Bible makes clear which is the “greatest” and most comprehensive. According to the gospel, faith is not the ultimate reality; it is the means to the end of loving God and others and all God’s creation with our whole being. And that 24/7, as the saying goes.

The biblical picture is faith working by love; love enabled by faith and powered by hope—full confidence in God’s amazing full-salvation-for-all-creation promises.

13. Disregard Genesis 9.

There is a huge literature on “covenant” or “federal” theology (from the Latin for “covenant”). Yet oddly, such theology almost always begins with God’s covenant with Abraham (perhaps with a passing reference to Genesis 3:15). Yet the first explicit biblical covenant is found in Genesis 9, where God establishes his “covenant between me and the earth” (Gen. 9:13).

The emphasis is explicit and repeated: A covenant with humans and all living creatures of every kind. If our understanding of salvation skips from Genesis 3 to Genesis 12, we miss essential biblical teachings about the created order and distort everything else in the Bible.

14. Divorce discipleship from creation care.

When we neglect or distort biblical revelation about the created order, we shrink the gospel to something much less than the Bible promises. We do this to our own loss; we impoverish the church; we over-spiritualize Christian experience and reduce the dynamic of Christian mission.

When we see how discipleship and creation care are inseparably connected in God’s plan, the church becomes patiently and humbly powerful “to the pulling down of strongholds” (2 Cor. 10:4).

There are many other ways to twist the gospel, of course. Anytime we get our focus off Jesus Christ and interpret the gospel through other lenses, we are in trouble.

Use whatever verb you wish—twist, distort, warp, undermine, neutralize, neuter, emasculate, cancel out, undercut—the problem persists and calls for careful Bible-based, Jesus-centered discipleship.

The Holy Spirit was poured out at Pentecost, yet already in the New Testament we see the Apostles battling emerging distortions.

And yet sovereignly, strangely, God’s Spirit is at work and will still fulfill the promises and guide the body of Christ into “all truth” (John 16:13) until “the earth [is] full of the knowledge of the Lord as the waters cover the sea” (Isa. 11:9).

Howard Snyder is international representative at Manchester Wesley Research Centre in Manchester, England. He was formerly professor of the history and theology of mission at Asbury Theological Seminary (1996-2006); professor of Wesley Studies, Tyndale Seminary, Toronto, 2007-2012; and has taught and pastored in Brazil, Michigan, Illinois. Dr. Snyder’s main interest is in the power and relevance of Jesus Christ and his Kingdom for the world today and tomorrow. This article is reprinted by permission.

The Logic of Holiness

by Andrew Thompson

“The Logic of Holiness” by Andrew Thompson provides a brief synopsis of Wesleyan holiness, salvation that I find compelling. For Wesley salvation was  heart and life, inward and outward, personal and social and always in that order, never the other way around. Today, most theological traditions emphasize one or the other. For example, in the peace and justice tradition, emphasis is on the latter, not the former. But for Wesley and in the Brethren in Christ, historically we have always understood that transformation of heart leads to transformation of life.  The way to God is grace but the way of God is obedience. Reading this article helps one to understand how Wesley goes to the core of a Brethren in Christ understand of salvation (Curtis Book).

There is a phrase in Wesleyan theology that holds the key to understanding most everything about present salvation. The phrase is “holiness of heart and life.” This is one of those terms that seems simple at first glance and yet is packed with meaning on multiple levels. It’s also a term worth exploring, and I want to explore it here. But first a little detour about theological language in general.

The language we use

Conventional wisdom from “experts” dictates that we should find ordinary or commonplace words to describe Christian concepts so we can avoid putting up barriers between the Church and would-be believers. Our evangelism can be hindered, so this thinking goes, by the vocabulary we use to talk about the Christian faith.

I’ve heard some version of this perspective many times over the course of my ministry. And I’ve always had questions about it. To what length should we take this advice? Are we talking about avoiding the technical vocabulary of theology, or should we avoid core biblical terms as well? I’ve heard people suggest that we shouldn’t use the language of sin and salvation, either because it is off-putting or because it conjures up lowbrow images that good, sophisticated Christians should want to avoid. Is that a good idea?

At times, I wonder whether this point-of-view is just a concession to mainstream consumer culture. Many churches have emptied their membership requirements of anything that actually looks like, well, a requirement. The idea is to attract more people to the churches in question by becoming “seeker sensitive”—but does the evidence show that such a strategy really results in congregations filled with mature disciples of Jesus Christ?

Maybe emptying our language of its robustly Christian inflections is just another version of the almost irresistible urge to mimic the larger culture in the hopes of getting that culture’s blessing for what we Christians are doing. I think that’s likely the case. I also think it is a reason to consider an alternative strategy: Namely, embracing with gusto the vocabulary of both the Bible and the historic Wesleyan tradition. Such a strategy would seem particularly important if certain words or phrases themselves have great explanatory power for how we understand the nature of God, human beings, salvation, and discipleship.

The meaning of holiness

In the New Testament, the Apostle Paul explains the nature of sanctification as a life of holiness. He describes it to the church at Thessalonica in this way: “It is God’s will that you should be sanctified … For God did not call us to be impure, but to live a holy life. Therefore, he who rejects this instruction does not reject man but God, who gives you his Holy Spirit” (1 Thessalonians 4:3, 7-8; NIV).

John Wesley was captivated by the biblical notion of holiness. He equated the life of holiness with present salvation. In one sense, holiness is that state of being purified from wickedness—in thought, word, and deed. But for Wesley, to understand the root meaning of holiness for us, we have to understand what God’s holiness really means first.

We can see the character of divine holiness, according to Wesley, in the First Letter of John. (This is the book of the Bible that Wesley once called “the deepest part of the Holy Scripture.”) It is 1 John that connects how we are to love one another with how God loves us. 1 John 4:7-8 reads, “Beloved, let us love one another, because love is from God; everyone who loves is born of God and knows God. Whoever does not love does not know God, for God is love” (NRSV).

In his Explanatory Notes Upon the New Testament, Wesley keys on this passage in 1 John as capturing the real substance of biblical holiness. His comment on verse 8 reads in part, “God is often characterized as holy, righteous, wise; but not holiness, righteousness, or wisdom in the abstract, as he is said to be love; intimating that this is his darling, his reigning attribute, the attribute that shed an amiable glory on all his other perfections.”

Thus, to become holy is to have your heart so transformed by God’s love that love itself becomes the defining mark of your very person. Wesley paints an image of what he means by this transformation in the 1741 sermon, “The Almost Christian.” He writes, “Such a love of God is this as engrosses the whole heart, as takes up all the affections, as fills the entire capacity of the soul, and employs the utmost extent of all its faculties.”

So holiness is not a static concept. It isn’t a condition where a Christian desperately tries to avoid thinking the wrong thing or doing the wrong thing, lest his spotless purity be marred by sin. Instead, it is the dynamic reality of love—transforming the believer’s life and giving the believer a new set of values and commitments that are in harmony with God’s desires for his children. On Wesley’s account, this is the heart of the Christian life. Those who are growing in holiness are experiencing what we mean by salvation in this present life.

Holiness … from heart to life

The Wesleyan conception of holiness requires one more element in order to adequately explain how it takes root in the lives of Christian believers. This element is wrapped up in the phrase, “of heart and life” that we attach to the core term “holiness.”

When reading John Wesley’s writing on salvation, you’ll encounter some version of the phrase “holiness of heart and life” over and over again. A related phrase is “inward and outward holiness” by which Wesley means essentially the same thing.

The “heart and life” and the “inward and outward” act as qualifiers on the core term “holiness.” One way to grasp why they are important is to recognize that we never see them in the reverse order: it is never holiness of life and heart, for instance, but always holiness of heart and life.

In the church today, we often shy away from anything that emphasizes the need to experience something inwardly that we do not have any control over. We like the language of discipleship, because discipleship strikes us as something you go out “there” and “do.” What does it mean to be a Christian, we ask? And the answer is always something about getting outside the four walls of the church, making a difference, transforming the world, etc.

There is a Wesleyan critique to make to this approach to discipleship that is found in the view that holiness always moves from heart to life. Wesley himself was always highly skeptical of Christians who thought that their good works were the substance of their faith. He thought that such a view relied on what he called the “outward form of religion” while denying religion’s true power.

To put the matter another way: Wesley does not believe that you can work your way into faith, hope, and love. He rather believes that these core Christian virtues are “wrought in us (be it swiftly or slowly) by the Spirit of God,” as he puts it in a 1745 letter. And thus it is crucial that we have our hearts transformed inwardly in order for anything we do outwardly to be pleasing in God’s sight.

Commenting on Jesus’ teaching that “blessed are the pure in heart,” Wesley says that God is always well pleased with “a pure and holy heart” but “he is also well pleased with all that outward service which arises from the heart” (“Upon our Lord’s Sermon on the Mount, IV”). The logic of this movement from heart to life Wesley states in this way: the “latter naturally [results] from the former; for a good tree will bring forth good fruit” (“Heaviness through Manifold Temptations”). This is all simply a way of saying that salvation is something God does—not us.

If we want to live in this present life as God desires us to live, then we need an outpouring of his grace into our lives. We will never be able to fake true holiness through the mechanical actions of daily life—even when those actions have a religious character to them. And who we truly are inwardly will finally be shown by our outward attitudes, words, and deeds in the world. So if you want your life to be marked by holiness in an honest and authentic way, it must be lived out of a holy heart that has been made holy by the action of the Holy Spirit.

All of this means that we can’t discard a phrase like holiness of heart and life only to replace it with something more pedestrian: “learning to be more loving,” or “becoming a better person,” or some such collection of words that seems less intimidating. The phrase itself communicates a powerful message. It is about holiness—biblical holiness—that we should be concerned. That holiness only comes about in us in a particular kind of way, and it is a way that calls for us to throw ourselves on the mercy of God.

Those recent trends to give up the traditional language of both the Bible and the Christian tradition in order to make the faith more palatable to outsiders are deeply misguided. When we go that route, we inevitably present Christianity as something less than it really is. So perhaps what we need to do is not change our language but rather repent and recognize that becoming a Christian involves a conversion—in every aspect of heart and life.

 

Dr. Andrew C. Thompson serves as the senior pastor of First United Methodist Church in Springdale, Arkansas. Previously he taught for four years on the faculty of Memphis Theological Seminary in Memphis, Tennessee. This article was originally published on Seedbed.com and is used with permission.

Kinship

by Ryan Showalter

A few weeks ago my wife and I took our eight-month-old foster son to Homegirl Cafe in downtown Los Angeles. As soon as we sat down our waitress recognized us from the last time and quickly swept up our son in her arms and proudly showed him off to all the other staff. All the tattoos and hard years of life instantly disappeared behind broad smiles and laughter. Babies have a unique ability to break down walls and reminds us of what it means to be human and to belong to each other.

Homeboy Industries was started by Father Greg Boyle in the midst of the gang wars of East LA and has grown to be the largest gang rehabilitation center in the nation. Father Greg tells the story of Homeboy, and the insights he learned in the book, Tattoos on the Heart. He tells story after story of the hardship of getting former gang enemies to work together. “If there is a fundamental challenge within these stories, it is simply to change our lurking suspicion that some lives matter less than other lives.”

America has become increasingly polarized by the political divide. The mud-slinging once reserved for TV ads in election season, have found their way into daily conversation and even the church–so much so that now when we have conversations about race, gender, poverty, and the environment, we quickly revert to our own echo chambers and our favorite political memes. This inability to have civil discourse is not only wounding our culture; it is also impacting our churches. Father Greg’s prophetic call reminds us that we need to step outside our political agendas of right and wrong. We need to care less on where we stand, and more about who we are standing with.

The church is in danger of losing the profound truth of Genesis: “So God created mankind in his own image, in the image of God he created them; male and female he created them” (Gen. 1:27). The first thing stated about humanity is its reflection of God. All of us have inherent worth and purpose in reflecting the glory of the God who created us. Any attack on human dignity is an attack on the artist who created it.

The purpose of the church is to be the bride of Christ, reflecting the beauty and diversity for which God has created it. Galatians 3 states, “for all of you who were baptized into Christ have clothed yourselves with Christ. There is neither Jew nor Gentile, neither slave nor free, nor is there male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus. If you belong to Christ, then you are Abraham’s seed, and heirs according to the promise (Gal. 3:27-29). This powerful statement was provocative and subversive in its first century context. It had, and still has, significant racial, cultural, gender, and economic implication. The reality is that this simple verse is still a tall order that the church significantly struggles to reflect. We must confess our history of division, and even willful disregard of the outsider and the stranger. Yet if the gospel has anything to tell us, like the thief on the cross, a confession of our past mistakes can be the very grace of God. In an instant our eternal destiny is changed and we begin to displaying God’s redemption from sin, both personal and systemic.

I confess that one lie I have believed is the lie of colorblindness. Although the intent to treat everyone as equal is good, the blanket application often results in whitewashing, maintaining the status quo, and minimizing the beauty of God’s created diversity. It is the equivalent of a colorblind person looking at the Sistine Chapel and only seeing shades of grey. We miss the beauty the artist intended to display. God did not create our world by accident; he created us unique for a purpose. No color, race, or creed is better than another, but each somehow uniquely reflects the glory of God. It is our role to discover it and celebrate it. What is important is that we are all needed in the body of Christ. Colorblindness is the equivalent of saying we should all be a foot in the body of Christ. The idea of kinship is that we all belong to the body and that we each are still unique and inherently tied together.

Kinship is when we truly see each person as integral to the body to the point that no daylight can separate us. Father Greg summarizes the goal of kinship well when he says:

“Inching ourselves closer to creating a community of kinship such that God might recognize it. Soon we imagine, with God, this circle of compassion. Then we imagine no one standing outside of that circle, moving ourselves closer to the margins so that the margins themselves will be erased. We stand there with those whose dignity has been denied. We locate ourselves with the poor and the powerless and the voiceless. At the edges, we join the easily despised and the readily left out. We stand with the demonized so that the demonizing will stop. We situate ourselves right next to the disposable so that the day will come when we stop throwing people away” (Greg Boyle). 

 

Ryan Showalter is associate pastor at Solid Ground Brethren in Christ Church, Alta Loma, California.

Racial Justice and the Sower

by Keith Miller

We who hold faith in Jesus are at a turning point in our generation. There is such ambivalence I see expressed among white Christians in particular during a time of deep racial pain in our country. White supremacists marched publicly and proudly weeks ago, leading to fatal violence, which was minimized. A few football players are kneeling to express the need to reform our criminal justice system, and the world is exploding at the insensitivity of their actions. What’s going on? What role might Christians have to play in all of this? We are drawn to Jesus, but do we understand the totality of the message? Does our personalized faith speak to what’s going on around us?

Jesus sits in a boat. The shore is filled with people hungering for hope. Many of them are oppressed subsistence farmers, they strain to hear every word this man says, which paints God’s reality in a way they’ve never imagined. Do we have ears to hear this story they way they did?

Jesus launches into a farming story. He speaks of hard, rocky, and thorny soil. My goodness, it seems like there are a lot of things that can stop a seed from growing. The odds are against it three to one! Is there any reason to be hopeful?

Every time I have heard this story shared, the focus is our soil. We must make sure we are fertile enough to receive the good news so that we can bear fruit. The odds are not in our favor, but if we work at it, we won’t wither. Is it possible we have missed the emphasis? Have we forgotten that this is the famous Parable of the Sower? Throughout the text there is one main subject: The farmer. The story begins with the farmer, and his action. Jesus may take time to explain the soils, but he doesn’t start his story by saying that there were four soils. He starts by telling about the sower.

Seeds don’t come easily. In ancient Israel, a portion of your previous crop was required, as well as time and energy to collect the seeds. No good farmer would waste seed. None except this one. He is reckless! We get this image of the farmer walking around just throwing seed everywhere! It seems, dare we say, wasteful and foolish. The seed is said to be “the word of God” in verse 19. That’s the same phrase that John uses to define who Jesus is. He is the Word of God.

God is the sower. Jesus is the seed. And God is in the business of sowing recklessly.

Jesus is sewn into all places throughout creation. Places that are fertile, and places that are hostile. No one is left out. Jesus comes into our humanity. He experiences life in its fullness. He goes into dark places. He is treated with glory and honor, and hatred and torture. He turns the world upside down.

God sows Jesus into the places we think God shouldn’t go. Into the people we think don’t deserve grace. God sows Jesus into every person on every side of every war. No hard path, no rocky ground, no dark crevice, no hopeless racist or overlooked refugee is exempt. God sows Jesus with reckless wasteful love that doesn’t stop to consider who deserves it. But the good news goes beyond this.

This parable isn’t just about our individual hearts. It is full of hope for a better future, even one of liberation. This story has a surprise ending. When the seeds hit fertile ground, the yield is 30, 60, and 100 times what was sown. This sower and this seed don’t simply have a good season. They change the whole system. Ched Myers, a theologian and specialist in biblical economics, says “With such a surplus, the farmer could not only eat and pay his rent, tithes and debts, but even purchase the land, and thus end his servitude.” The subsistence farmer hears Jesus say that the empire of God is liberation from oppressive and exploitative relationships. The reckless sower ends the cycle of despair.

When we gather together, let us not only think about our soils. Let us think of the sower, knowing that Jesus has come to bring liberation to people, to systems, and to anything that holds another in bondage. We are people of this liberator. How does this inspire you to imitate God’s liberating actions in our own world today? What will we do to participate in that liberation and stand with those who are being mistreated?

Last month I spent an afternoon worshipping with clergy from across faith traditions at Bethel African Methodist Episcopal Church. We came together to weep and to pray. We came together to sit with each other. We reminded each other that love is what will change things. Hatred, violence, or apathy will never bring an end to racism. But people forming real relationships, listening to one another, and standing with each other in pain may be the start we need. I held hands with an African American brother on my right and sister on my left, singing “we shall overcome,” and I was suddenly overwhelmed with sorrow. My sorrow came because the people around me were not shocked by a show of white supremacy. They weren’t outraged. They were simply continuing the journey they’ve been on for decades, joyfully worshipping and trusting that the kingdom of God is one that doesn’t just liberate our hearts, but one that liberates our societies. I have been missing out on the joy of God’s liberating character and the richness of God’s diverse community. And I have been missing out on a chance to stand with my hurting black brothers and sisters. I am repenting. I am turning. It’s good news. I doubt I’m the only one missing the point when I think only of the state of my soil.

I have often been apathetic about these issues. In many ways, the good news of God’s liberation for all fell on my rocky, hard soil. And here’s where the soil matters. Our sower can transform the soil. Our farmer never stops tilling it. In the kingdom, soil that is hard, rocky, and full of weeds can become rich and welcoming.

And therein lies the hope. We are given an opportunity today, and each and every minute, to remember that God transforms both hearts and societies. Just as God sends his rain on the just and the unjust, God offers living water to parched soils. Receive the rain! Your own liberation is linked to the world’s.

When we welcome God’s skilled hands turning over the soil of our hearts, there will indeed be a fruitful yield. God will give us compassion and greater love for our fellow neighbors. This is the fruit of the good news. How we do this in today’s culture is not easy. There are no how-to books on working for racial justice. In fact, you may have different ideas of how that looks than someone else does. But we are the Church, and so we fix our eyes on Jesus. And we trust that as we work for dignity, equality, and reconciliation, stumbling and bumbling and messing up as we go, that Jesus will hold us together and bring fruit.

I am afraid that I often see hard heartedness and apathy surrounding issues of white privilege and systemic racism. Our black brothers and sisters are asking us to listen to them. I implore you: listen to them! God has made us a people when we were once not a people. We belong to each other, and we enter into God’s liberation when we acknowledge the pain of the oppressed around us. It’s a painful, joyful process.

America is divided among lines of color and ideology. Everyone is speaking and no one is listening. Jesus’s disciples, especially those of us who are white, have an opportunity. Where will we follow the example of the reckless sower, scattering love everywhere? What conversations can you start? What friendships can you initiate? What new voices can you listen to that could help you understand the pain of our brothers and sisters of color? There is world of justice, joy, and hope to be received and to be given. Don’t miss the opportunity to participate in it!

May God give us humility, compassion. and peace. Amen.

Keith Miller is pastor of LifePath Church in Newark, Delaware. Adapted from a sermon. 

We Value It All

by Kurt Willems

Reprinted from the Summer 2017 edition of Shalom!

DO WE REALLY mean that? As Brethren in Christ folks, we have this value—pursuing peace—that our world most desperately needs to see in real life. When applied consistently, it confounds the ideologies of any political party. This value pushes us to take the “all” with utter seriousness. Or, as my friend Harriet Bicksler says in Focusing our Faith, the “all” is an adjective of “challenge.” The challenge in front of us is to determine just how far we are willing to take our adjectival “all.” Without it in the statement, we have an out. We don’t need to value certain forms of human life that fail to meet our conventions.

Our greatest temptation in the history of the Church has been to line up as many qualifiers as we could to justify vengeance and political ends. As Anabaptists, although each generation is tempted to negotiate this “all,” we call upon each other to stretch this “all” as far as Christ himself does—as wide open as a Roman cross, willingly dying at the hands of enemies to liberate them from the darkness that compelled these men to put Jesus on the cross in the first place! In our day, we struggle with the wideness of Calvary, and much of this is understandable.

News broke that Osama Bin Laden had been killed when I was leaving a seminary class meeting. I had been part of an engaging final discussion on modern spiritual memoirs (a spiritual formation class) and was about to begin a 40-minute commute when my wife called me to give me the news. My first reaction was to smile. Yes, I admit it: I smiled. There I was at Chevron, pumping the gas so generously provided by Middle Eastern oil fields grinning about the death of America’s number one enemy. Catching myself, I named that it was an understandable reaction.

I was a senior in high school when the planes hit the towers. 9/11 defines my generation. The world changed on that day. Our so-called invincibility was suspect. Our resolve for peace through vengeance multiplied. Our myths of progress were exposed and naked.

It is likely that most Americans had an initial reaction of this sort—a feeling of cultural catharsis is a natural response. As I drove home, listening to the news coverage of Bin Laden’s death, interviews with people could be summed up with joy: “We got ‘em!” And of course, if we believe that vengeance is sometimes needed in a world of chaos, this makes sense. But as followers of Jesus, we have no room for such a judgement. Vengeance is not for Christians. It belongs to God’s own wisdom and is delegated to the rulers and authorities with limits (Rom. 12-13). Simply put, we should do a double-take any time we find ourselves rejoicing in the loss of human life—any human life. We value all of it.

Even the Hebrew Scriptures, which condone certain forms of human violence (which the New Testament does not do), display God’s own lament about the death of any person: “Say to them, This is what the Lord God says: As surely as I live, do I take pleasure in the death of the wicked? If the wicked turn from their ways, they will live” (Ezek. 33:11 CEB). Then, of course by the time Jesus arrives on the scene, he upholds the value of the Torah and prophets by interpreting the Hebrew Scriptures in fresh and compelling ways: “You have heard that it was said, An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth. But I say to you that you must not oppose those who want to hurt you. If people slap you on your right cheek, you must turn the left cheek to them as well” (Matt. 5.38-39 CEB). Jesus takes what was always the heart of God for all of human life and invites his followers to take it to its logical conclusion: nonviolence. And in the same section, Jesus clarifies what this looks like: love for enemies (Matt. 5.44). For Jesus, “all” means “all.”

In our culture, we struggle to navigate the expansive love of “all” humans. For the 9/11 generation, many of us grew up around a politicized evangelical culture that replaced “all” with “unborn.” And there should be no doubt that we are called to value unborn life. Our methods have often been co-opted by the anti-abortion focus so much so that we often can’t extend our “all” to the needs of the poor. Studies continue to show a strong correlation between poverty and abortion rates. Thus, a middle ground between pro-life Christians and pro-choice politics exists: reduce poverty and thus, reduce abortion rates. Yet, the pro-life agenda is usually tied with a specific stream of economics that neglects the struggles of those at the margins while giving an overabundance of tax money to militarism. This is a contradiction at best. At worst, it is an ethical inconsistency. “All” means unborn babies, but not the single moms who can’t afford them or the Iraqi mom who might get in the way of our bombs? The way of Jesus includes “all” of these.

In a post-9/11 world, many of us started wondering: Why is abortion our only issue? Why do we take on the militarism of the so-called “war on terror” while not noticing the terror that fills our impoverished streets? Where else have our political imaginations been co-opted? These sorts of questions eventually led me to embrace the Anabaptist theology I had resisted in my Mennonite Brethren upbringing. As Jim Wallis and Shane Claiborne have often said, I became convinced that Jesus invites us to be pro-life from the womb to the tomb. Jesus followers extend the “all” to enemy nations, convicted murderers on death row, babies that incubate in wombs, children without adequate health coverage, Palestinians without access to resources, persons of color plagued by inequity, and so many other life issues of our day. A broader vision of “all” life has consistently pushed many of my peers to expand their definition of pro-life in similar ways.

The inequity we see between white folks and persons of color also challenges our “all.” The “all” challenges us to see how the powers and principalities blind us (who are white) to our privilege. But here’s where “all” gets interesting: Some of us like the word “all” when it serves to tell our black neighbors that they are being neglectful in saying #BlackLivesMatter. So, some of my friends decided that we needed the “corrective” of #AllLivesMatter. However, the modifier switch from black to all actually rendered the “all” to “some” (and yes, this sort of correction is actually an attitude of privilege, even if usually unintended). In reality, the prophetic cry that black lives matter always had an implicit “too” at the end of it. They are saying: We are being disproportionately incarcerated, terrorized, and killed by the so-called justice system. Will you notice our plight, white sisters and brothers? As soon as “all” is applied there, we’ve actually changed our slogan to “We value white human life.” My point here is that we need to be nuanced in how we, in a post-#BlackLivesMatter world, discern what the word “all” serves to communicate. Being pro-life, being committed to pursuing peace in the way of Jesus, means that consistency is central and marginalized voices at the conversation table are a gift. We need our blind spots exposed so we can become more effective at valuing all human life, just as Jesus does.

I believe that we are in a moment of prophetic opportunity. Will we place pursuing peace—the very thing that attracts several of our millennial-aged leaders to the Brethren in Christ—back into the center of our ethos as a church body? Paired with the resources we have in our other core values, we have the opportunity to be transformed into further Christlikeness as Jesus softens our hearts to those “alls” we’d rather modify as “some.” May we celebrate this “all” and may we encourage ourselves to expand our understanding of it to include those we are tempted to ignore. Thanks be to God that our Creator values all human life, so much so that Christ died to reconcile even his enemies—which once included each of us (Rom. 5.6-11). Since God values it all, may we go and do likewise.

Kurt Willems is the founding pastor of Pangea Church, a Brethren in Christ church plant in Seattle, WA. Connect with his online community at TheologyCurator.com to receive regular written reflections on theology, faith, and spiritual formation. Kurt is currently completing a second master’s degree at the University of Washington focusing on Paul, Judaism, and the Roman Empire.

From Man of War to Man of Peace

by Ron Kramer

Reprinted from the Summer 2017 edition of Shalom!

I WAS BORN to be a soldier. Unknowingly trained from birth by my dysfunctional family, I adapted to conflict, chaos, and pain. To protect myself, I ignored and stuffed painful emotions. The benefits were that I appreciated order, functioned well in crisis, and became very resourceful at accomplishing whatever was needed. The downside was starting life with a hard heart and buried anger looking for a socially acceptable way to be released.

I grew up loving the nobility, bravery, and fighting in the stories of King Arthur, Robin Hood, and the Alamo. Post-World War II movies like “Sands of Iwo Jima,” “Battle of the Bulge,” and “The Guns of Navarone” were my Saturday movie fare at the Fox Theatre. Playing “army” with toy guns and setting up plastic army men battle fields in the back yard to be shot with BB guns was a favorite activity for my friends and me. As I matured, I enjoyed hunting, martial arts, and varsity football and wrestling. Even as an Eagle Boy Scout, my honorary Indian name was “Battling Warrior.”

In 1972, at 17, I enlisted in the Marine Corps and left for boot camp three days after high school graduation, hoping to fight in Vietnam and kill “bad guys” who were opposed to freedom. I was a patriot, endeavoring in the noble task of defending our nation, and the Marines rewarded me with two meritorious promotions and numerous awards. Fortunately, the Vietnam War was winding down and I never had to fight, but I wanted to!

After considering a Marine career, I opted for college and obtained a B.S. in psychology and M.S. in counseling and human development. I think I was drawn to this field to understand myself, others, and the world around me. Religion was not part of our family so I was fascinated when, after college, I became friends with an Episcopal priest. He introduced me to the “church,” eventually “led me to Jesus,” and baptized me in the ocean. Through fledgling faith, which was actually very meaningful at the time, I became saved. Looking back, however, I certainly never developed any spiritual maturity. I don’t remember the concepts of obedience or discipleship ever being stressed as important. Generally, I just knew to attend church, confess sin, take communion, be forgiven, go back to living life. The way I lived life wasn’t good, and church didn’t change it much. When I moved for a different career, I also moved away from God and the church, becoming a prodigal son before ever really knowing my Heavenly Father. I stayed away a long time.

Ten years later, I went back into the military, this time in the Army where I became a nuclear missile officer. I was still a great soldier, and received more awards and accolades along the way as I advanced from second lieutenant to captain in three years. My new career was on the fast-track. Early on, I wrestled with the thought of killing everyone in an entire city with a nuclear blast, justifying it as “just doing my job.” I loved being a soldier and served the higher cause of protecting our country. After five years I left the Army to save my marriage, but that didn’t work.

My military leadership experience resulted in great success in the corporate world, but I had an emp; I was miserable. Finally, on August 9, 1997, I turned back to God. At 43, I lay in bed, desperate, and prayed, “God, if you’ll fix my life, I’ll be your man for the rest of my life.” Yes, it was a bargaining prayer, but I was 100 percent committed with a military resolution to follow Christ, if he would prove himself real. He did! The next morning, I awoke with a new clarity. I didn’t know exactly what had happened, but I was different. I knew God had done something in me. Acting on my commitment to faithfully serve him, I started attending church, reading the Bible, and joined Alcoholics Anonymous. The Holy Spirit was transforming me!

As a good soldier, I had to take and execute orders from a higher authority, whether I liked them or not. Now, as a servant of God, I had to do the same thing. God the Father, Jesus the Son, and the Holy Spirit were now giving me my orders through the Word. Jesus became my Commander, who I must obey. He is loving, strong, wise, just, compassionate; the Perfect Leader, the Perfect Parent, the Perfect Friend that I had been looking for my entire life. Now, as one who loves and obeys the Lord, I made every attempt to emulate Jesus. A paradigm shift occurred within me. As I learned more and more about Jesus, I came to understand that I, too, was to become a man of love and peace, like Him, who is “gentle and humble in heart” as it says in Matthew 11:29.

I was learning that while Jesus had the power to kill and destroy by bringing legions of angels against the Romans, in his meekness (which is power under control), he chose mercy and sacrifice. He deferred to his greater nature of love to heal and redeem. This was clearly the path that I was also to take. The Lord impressed on me from Romans 12:17-21 to not repay evil with evil, but to try and live at peace with everyone and have compassion for my enemy, not letting them overcome me with evil, but overcoming evil with good. 2 Corinthians 10:3 says, “For though we live in the world, we do not wage war as the world does.” Jesus himself says in Matthew 5:9, “Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called children of God.” I made a free-will decision to change my mind on how I viewed participating in war and what kind of a soldier I’d be.

It seems clear to me that as a Christ-follower I am called to take the gospel to everyone in love, service, and sacrifice; especially to the unsaved, and even to my enemies. It is not consistent that I then consider killing the very people I’m now commanded to try and bring to the Lord. I am no longer a soldier of the world and of its wars. I am a soldier of Jesus and of his peace.

Ron Kramer is associate pastor at CrossRoads, a Brethren in Christ congregation in Salina, KS.

Horton Hears a Person: What Do You Hear?

by Lois Saylor

Reprinted from the Summer 2017 edition of Shalom!

MOST OF US know Dr. Seuss and Horton the floppy soft elephant from the Jungle of Nool who listens with great concentration to hear the wee voices of Who-ville. He saves their lives three different times at great personal cost and public ridicule from a sour kangaroo, her young one, and a slew of Wickersham relatives. But through his ordeal Horton affirms with great philosophical wisdom and theological grace that “a person’s a person, no matter how small.”

Many people agree with Horton. The pro-life community also believes that size doesn’t matter. A small person is still a person—embryo, fetus, a premature baby, or a newborn. Recently, however, Horton’s adage was used in a new way. A radio show discussed an insect that uses vibration to communicate. Apparently wind turbines were disrupting the messages vibrating back and forth. What to do? How should conflicting interests (clean energy vs. insect life) be resolved? No answer was proffered but the radio commentator said the idea of communication made the insect seem more “like a person.” Endearing sympathy for the little insects he said, “after all ‘a person’s a person, no matter how small’.”

The Brethren in Christ core value, “Pursuing Peace,” begins with the affirmation that “We value all human life.” To value human life is not to devalue other life forms, but it does draw a line of distinction between human life and all other life on our planet. We are right to be mindful stewards of the earth and life. This was the command in Eden passed down to us. We do not, however, legitimately equate insects with communication abilities to “personhood” as the radio commentator suggested. After all, animal communication is not unusual, but rather a creation norm from singing whales to chirping crickets to all kinds of distinctive mating rituals.

The question that is before us is how we use and define personhood or person. The radio commentator wanted to elevate the interesting insect by equating communication skills with personhood. Others want to use personhood to devalue humans. Humans with disabilities or the wrong age (too young—preborn; too old—near death) or in a state of non-communication are said not to have personhood even though they are human. In this way humanity is not denied, but the value of that particular human’s life is denied. When lacking personhood, individuals may be deemed expendable and then “rightfully” their lives can be terminated whether for their own good, the good of someone with personhood, or society’s good. Non-persons have no rights, not even the right to life.

Noted philosopher and professor at Princeton University, Peter Singer, divides personhood from being human. He once wrote, “…we should not accept that a potential person should have the rights of a person, unless we can be given some specific reason why this should hold in this particular case” (Practical Ethics). In other words you may be human, but you do not necessarily hold personhood; and personhood is the golden ticket to rights. The unborn, defective newborns, and people groups we want to dismiss can all be relegated to non-persons. Even without Singer’s sophistication of thought, humans naturally de-humanize those we dislike or want to take advantage of. A mafia boss in “The Godfather” said it was okay to sell drugs in the ghettos because those “dark people” were “animals.” They were non-persons to him. In another movie example, it has been pointed out that George Lucas’ violence in “Star Wars” was made palatable by the storm troopers’ armor, which rendered them as non-persons. In real life, we know the U.S. legal system did not recognize slaves as full “persons.” Based on German social Darwinism from the late nineteenth century, Nazi racist ideology “regarded Jews as ‘parasitic vermin’ worthy only of eradication” (Holocaust Museum Encyclopedia), which led to the mass murder of millions. We devalue humans whether we take away their humanity or take away their personhood. Our more modern delineations can lead to very old evils.

Looking from a religious perspective, Surjah Homglemdarom writes, “The Buddha tradition, especially the Theravada tradition, clearly states that personhood starts when the process of fertilization takes place.” Does Christianity recognize and respect the unity of personhood and humanity from conception to natural death? What should a Christian perspective be on the various issues we face especially in a world of rapidly changing medicine, greater understanding of complex animal life, and the burgeoning of artificial intelligence (AI)?

We already have literature and movies dealing with robots that evolve into persons (“Bicentennial Man,” 1999), or robots programed to love (“A.I.—Artificial Intelligence,” 2001) or romantic relationships occurring between a man and his AI computer operating system (“Her,” 2013). “Star Trek’s” Commander Data wrestled with the question of humanness and personhood in every episode. A dark forerunner into the question of what is human was the 1982 dystopia nightmare of “Bladerunner” where flesh and blood replicants blur the line between AI and human beings.

We should consider carefully and biblically who or what we elevate and whom we devalue when we work through these meanings of “human” and “personhood.” If Horton is right and “a person’s a person no matter how small,” we need to know and not assume we all agree on what a “person” is.

Lois Saylor is a member of the Harrisburg (PA) Brethren in Christ Church and serves on the editorial committee for Shalom!

A Congregational Conversation About Race

by Julie Weatherford

I was recently asked to explain why Madison Street Church folks are interested in the topic of racism and to describe the kinds of things we’ve been doing to encourage conversation, discernment, and action around Jesus’ call to love across boundaries. I had to share some of our history in order to explain why we care about this kind of thing…

In the early 1980s, in the latter years of the bloom of the twentieth-century evangelical movement in the U.S., I found myself in my twenties and a part of a suburban Baptist church in Southern California, where I’d been a member since I was a young teenager.

The church had attracted a dozen or more college-age individuals in the 1970s from a variety of faith backgrounds—Presbyterian, Episcopal, Catholic, Methodist, Baptist, Congregational, agnostic—and it had recently hired one of them, Rod White, who had by then acquired a master of divinity degree, as youth pastor. Over a period of four to five years, several of us volunteered in the Baptist youth group in efforts to help high school kids come to know God. Kids came to know Jesus and to grow in faith via discipleship, and the youth group grew well beyond the ranks of church members’ own kids. (This caused some consternation among the parents and other older church members who, despite their allegiance to the evangelical movement’s intense focus on increasing numbers—numbers of attendees, numbers of converts, numbers of church members—had become accustomed to the youth group serving the needs of church members’ kids only. But that’s another story.)

Our enthusiasm for knowing and serving Christ ran high, as did our desire to build relationships with kids and to share the gospel with them. Led by the youth pastor, this team of ten or so young youth group volunteers met regularly, outside of youth events, for Bible study, discussion, ministry planning, retreat and prayer, and team members were also involved in the broader, ongoing life of the church. In the process of trying to serve God as a team, we were drawn deeper into relationship with Jesus. We practiced classic Christian spiritual disciplines, experienced the Spirit at work in and through us, found ourselves in the process of transformation toward being more like Jesus, and enjoyed serving him. We sensed the Spirit’s call to simplify our lifestyles in order to free one another up for ministry, so the few of us who had any savings pooled our money to buy a couple houses on the same street, and we all came together to form an intentional Christian community. We shared life—meals, money, work, ministry, joys, laughter, sorrows, tears, etc. We were young and idealistic, and we made our share of mistakes, but we wanted to follow Jesus’ ways and, in our study of and discernment around scripture, we sensed God’s call to community, to simplicity, to peace, and to a radical, whole-life devotion to Christ.

Not surprisingly, we began to feel less and less comfortable in the conservative, evangelical context of our Baptist church. We were troubled by the church’s acquiescence to the surrounding culture, particularly with its allegiance to the American dream, to greed, to nationalism, to militarism, and to oppression of the less powerful. Our sense was that the church’s unceasing verbal prodding of “the unsaved” to “accept” Christ rang hollow in an increasingly dubious and broken world. We sensed that the church’s verbal witness lacked a strong, Christ-like and authenticating compassion for people in need, a compassion that would have spurred the church on to active involvement in God’s kingdom work of peace, justice, spoken-and-lived evangelism, discipleship, and spiritual transformation.

It wasn’t easy, but we eventually received the Baptist church’s blessing to start something new. (Many of the Baptist folks loved us and hated to see us go, but several people, I’m sure, would have happily warmed our car engines for us!)

We were not at all sure what the new thing would be.

We knew that we wanted to be a church that took seriously the teachings of scripture (even, and perhaps especially, passages like the Sermon on the Mount, passages that challenged us to radical change). We wanted to help one another and others to live into Jesus’ call to wholehearted obedience and discipleship, to spiritual empowering and transformation, to ongoing communication with God, to worship, to community, and to evangelism in its fullest form.

We had never heard of the Brethren in Christ.

But God led our new pastor (Rod White, who had been the youth pastor at the Baptist church) to discover and initiate contact with a BIC pastor whose church, unbeknownst to us, was in the next town over. This pastor connected us with the bishop of the Pacific Conference, who was excited and who welcomed this little intentional Christian community and a few of their like-minded friends. Through these connections, we came to learn about this network of folks called the Brethren in Christ—an eighteenth-century offshoot of the Anabaptist Mennonites, strongly influenced by the Pietist movement of the eighteenth century, the Holiness movement of the nineteenth, and the Evangelical movement of the twentieth—who, in their foundational beliefs, seemed to understand biblical scripture the way we did and who appreciated our intentional community, which reminded them of their Anabaptist roots.

Few of us could have identified the Pietist, Holiness, or Evangelical movements as such, but the BIC’s Pietist, Holiness, and Evangelical values were not new to us. Most of us were acquainted with them, in one way or another, via our Baptist or other faith experiences.

However, it was the BIC Anabaptist distinctive that really drew us to them: peace, justice, compassion, community, service, simplicity, care of the poor and needy, and whole-life discipleship. This was what we had sensed was missing in the conservative, evangelical context of our former church. Our community’s study of scripture, our Spirit-led discernment, and most of all God’s gift of grace had led us to these values, and now, had led us to a new BIC “home” for the 1984 founding of our new church, the Riverside Brethren in Christ—now called the Madison Street Church We soon connected with Mennonite Central Committee (MCC), the arm of Anabaptist churches that engaged and continues to engage us in the work of relief, development and peace building around the globe. With a BIC distinctive and an MCC connection, we were, we have been, and we are in—hook, line and sinker!

I understand that the BIC in the twentieth century kind of by default de-emphasized their Anabaptist roots and values, believing that they were a hindrance to effective evangelism and outreach efforts. I think this was a grave mistake. Then and now, but especially now, as we’ve moved into post-Christendom and postmodernity, our broken world is starved for God’s love and grace to be channeled through communities of faith that live out the call of Jesus to active, barrier-breaking love. Our community joined the BIC because the BIC held those values. And most of Madison Street Church’s current growth is not due to any great evangelistic or outreach program (we have none), but because our stance on and our actions to promote peace, justice and compassion break down barriers so that people are able to even consider the possibility of getting to know Jesus in the context of a church.

Enough of history. Fast forward to 2010.

MCC had been encouraging racial reconciliation for at least a couple decades. Our church had loved and supported MCC for years, our current pastor Jeff Wright was a compelling voice for peace and justice as central to the gospel of Christ, and we knew that Sunday mornings were the most racially segregated times of the week. So it was no surprise that in 2010, a bunch of us from Madison Street Church went together to a local exhibit in the Riverside Metropolitan Museum, called “RACE: Are We So Different?”, a project of the American Anthropological Association.* We learned a lot about the only-recent but powerful notion of race and its history and effects, especially in the U.S. and in our city. After touring the exhibit, we all went to a local restaurant for dinner, and we talked about what we’d seen and learned. Although this experience catalyzed no measurable follow-up or action, I like to think that it prepared us for further exploration and learning.

In 2015, MCC’s Washington Office encouraged constituent churches to involve their members in book studies on Michelle Alexander’s The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness. MCC provided a study guide for this excellent book exploring racism in law enforcement, and in the judicial and prison systems. I invited anyone interested, and a dozen of us participated in two separate book study groups in late 2015 and the first half of 2016. Alexander’s book educated us, gave us a lot of sobering information to talk about, and encouraged us toward further learning and action.

In July 2016, we met as usual on the Sunday following the police shooting of an unarmed black man, Philando Castile, in Minnesota. During announcements, a long-time member of the church, Christine Martin, invited any of us who were interested to come to her home the next Tuesday evening to pray and talk about this tragedy and others in a string of racially motivated shootings. We met, talked, prayed, and knew that we needed to do more as a church. We wanted to become more aware and to participate in the healing and change that was needed to address this national sin of racism. We knew that U.S. churches that claim Jesus as leader were far from immune and, in fact, had contributed greatly to its spread. Agreeing to come together again around the issue, this informal meeting birthed the Conversations on Race that we held monthly from fall 2016 through spring 2017.

Our “Conversations on Race,” facilitated by Madison Street’s Andrew Larratt-Smith (UC Riverside ombuds with deep interest and education on conflict resolution and critical race theory) and Chris Bates (director of our community development initiative, commonGood), have focused on educating ourselves about race. Andrew provided a list of a few dozen terms on the topic of race—e.g., white privilege, colorism, Jim Crow laws, race fatigue, etc.**—and individuals signed up to do some research on a term or two of their choice and to bring it to the next meeting. Each time we met, we shared a potluck meal, and then Andrew and Chris provided a safe and loosely structured environment for folks to share what they had learned about “their” term and for others to join in discussion about the terms and their relevance to our church. We considered the terms related to our understanding of scripture, prayed together, and discussed how to apply what we were learning in our church and community.

We are by no means done. After a summer break, our Conversations on Race will start up again this fall. We’ll see where they take us.

 

Julie Weatherford is a founding member of Madison Street Church, Riverside, California. She also serves on the leadership team for the Peace and Justice Project.

 

* The exhibit toured U.S. cities for ten years, from 2007-2016. Information and resources. I’ve recently discovered that there’s a book by the same name (RACE – Are We so Different?), by Goodman, Moses and Jones, published in 2012.

**Complete list of the terms we discussed 

 

Handling Our Fears

by Jan Engle Lewis

*Reprinted from the Spring 2016 edition of Shalom!

A MISSIONARY COUPLE I came to know while living in Ecuador recently posted a Facebook link to a short clip by pastor/author Francis Chan: “Parents, Don’t Teach Your Kids to Be Safe, Teach Them to Be Dangerous for the Gospel.”  The couple’s comment on the link:  “Yes!  This is why we are going back again even though so many tell us it’s crazy!”

My friends, Australians, are heading toward a door God opened in Thailand—a place that has been recognized in recent years as increasingly inhospitable to outsiders. As when they went to Ecuador, the couple will again leave family and friends, giving up the known for the unknown. And, they will take their three young daughters along.

The unknown is our most elemental fear, and it looms large, at times, in many aspects of our lives:  economics (will I have enough money?); health (will I suffer illness, accident, or attack?); politics (who will win any given election and how might the world then change?). For those of us who are parents, grandparents, aunts or uncles, our deepest fears are often linked to concerns for the young and vulnerable—our children.

The scriptures are full of admonitions not to fear, and many Christians can quote a verse that has been meaningful to them during difficult times. Jesus himself experienced dread as he faced the cross, and we’ll consider this at the end of the article. But now I want to pose a question: How do we handle fear and teach our children to do the same while engaging in the world in which we are called to be salt and light?

Back to Francis Chan for a moment. The title of his message, mentioned in the first paragraph, is a bit misleading. Of course we need to teach our kids safety basics. A more accurate distillation of Chan’s challenge would be:  “Parents, Teach Your Children It’s Okay to Take Risks for God Because He Is Always With Us!” We’ll take a brief look at risk-taking for God. But first let’s consider some ways fear has influenced our actions at family, community, and national levels.

Chan is saddened by the trend among some Christian couples, especially after children arrive, to create a protective cocoon in which family security becomes paramount, and no longer is the Kingdom first in their lives. Some retreat to gated communities, avoiding wider community involvement or travel that might involve risks. At the core of taking such protective measures is the fear that someone might do us harm. And those we tend to fear most are those who who are different than us: individuals or groups of a different class, color, or culture.

At a community level, we typically seek housing among those who are most like ourselves. This tendency toward neighborhood segregation by class and color has been reinforced through redlining, a discriminatory practice by which banks, insurance companies, etc. refuse or limit loans, mortgages, and insurance within specific geographical areas, especially inner city neighborhoods. And what of our churches? The Pew Research Center reported in December 2014 that eight in ten American congregants attend services at a place where a single racial or ethnic group comprises at least 80 percent of the congregation. While fear may not be the only driving force behind such realities, I suggest it plays a significant role.

As a nation, we Americans have been moved by fear and its common bedfellow, prejudice, to incarcerate more of our citizens than any other nation in the world. Michelle Alexander, in The New Jim Crow (2012), describes how as a consequence of the so-called war on drugs, prison populations jumped in less than thirty years from 300,000 to more than two million. (See Melba Scott’s article in the Winter 2016 edition of Shalom! for more on this.) Individuals belonging to racial and ethnic minorities make up a disproportionate number of those incarcerated, in spite of studies showing that people of all colors use and sell illegal drugs at similar rates.

Another national fear that is fueled, according to scholars like Carl Ernst, by a well-funded propaganda effort is fear of Islam. It is not just the media that reinforce this fear. A community activist friend, who is a young Muslim mother, recently shared the experience of another Muslim mother whose daughter faced this situation at school:  “…her teacher announced to her class of fourth graders that ‘Muslims are terrorists; look what they did in San Bernardino and Paris.’ The daughter spoke up, insisting that she and her family were not terrorists, to which the teacher responded that they were fine but all other Muslims were suspect.”

As an antidote to fear—one that can be applied to fears about any individual or group—my activist friend poses this challenge: “I ask parents who feel discomfort about American Muslims to confront that feeling and challenge themselves to learn more about our community. Get to know us because we are part of the same neighborhoods, the same schools, and the same workplaces. I present the same challenge to American Muslim families that take refuge in cultural isolation. Be present in our democracy, be present with your whole community, not just with those from your own cultural background.” You can read my friend’s entire piece at bit.ly/ERsNadiaH.

Be present. That’s what we Christians are called to as we make disciples, welcome strangers, visit prisoners, and respond to the needs of those who lack life’s basics (Matthew 25). Obedience often means leaving the comfort of the known and venturing out to be present in unfamiliar and even scary places—perhaps in a country far from home, or in a prison, school, or shelter nearby. When we feel afraid, we remember that Christ understands fear and can help us handle it. As he faced suffering and death, Jesus cried out to God. An angel came to strengthen him, enabling him to move forward with the great work God had called him to.

The message by Chan that so inspired my Australian friends concludes with a challenge to put ourselves in positions where dependance on God is crucial, “where God has to come through.” And then, says Chan, “He comes through and the whole family says: ‘Wow, that was amazing; I’m never going to leave that God!’”

Jan Engle Lewis is a semi-retired mental health educator/consultant. She has lived and/or worked in the United States, Zambia, Haiti, Ecuador, and now Mexico, where she writes and volunteers at a women’s shelter (newbeginningsbaja.org). Jan posts regularly on Facebook and blogs periodically at janecuador.blogspot.com

Speaking the Truth in Love

by Ben White

*Reprinted from the Summer 2015 edition of Shalom!

I’M A PASTOR in South Jersey so, naturally, I go to Taco Bell a lot. It’s an “all things to all people sort of thing” – and a serious love of cheesy bean and rice burritos. Not long ago I was hanging out atco Bell in Mt. Ephraim, NJ, and I had my missionary thinking cap on. I was observing an incredibly diverse group of people. I sat with my back to the window with a full view of everyone who was there. The staff was mostly young and black. There was a Spanish-speaking family in the corner with a bunch of kids too close in age to all be siblings. There was a young white couple with two young kids who looked like they might be “down and out.” There were some preppy white teenagers at the high top tables, a black woman sitting alone near the soda machine and a clean-cut white guy with slicked back hair and sharp creased khakis across from her.

I wondered how God might help me and my church, Circle of Hope, include all these people in our community. How could I bridge the divide between my fellow Taco Bell customers and me? What would it take to bring us together in one body?

There was the universal divide: we were strangers. And there were many more superficial modes of separation. These ones speak Spanish as their mother tongue, mine is English; these ones are black, I am white; this person is much older than I am; these ones might have trouble making ends meet, I can pay my bills comfortably; that guy probably works at some business park, I work at Taco Bell sometimes dreaming about the Kingdom of God.

Of course this was all speculation – an exercise in missionary imagination. I don’t actually know about these people and their experiences, but the wonderment was helpful for me. I used it to pray, “God, how will you bring us together?”

I finished my meal and my prayers and opened up a book. As I read, a couple of guys sat near me. They were both young white guys. I had kind of turned off my missionary observations to focus on my book, but I did wonder what sort of people they were if they were both wearing straw cowboy hats. They interrupted me as they left.

“Hey man, you want these bean burritos? I’m just gonna throw them out if you don’t want them,” one said,

Well, that was nice. I mean I had already eaten two burritos but I really love Taco Bell.

“Wow, thanks! Yes!”

Then the other guy said. “Cuz we got to stick together with all this Baltimore stuff going down, you know.” He gestured toward a group of black teens who had just walked in.

What!? I was flabbergasted. This was new territory for me. I live in Philadelphia in a predominantly black neighborhood and my assignment in predominately white, working-class suburbia is new. It had been a while since I had encountered such blatant racism.

There I was dreaming about how God could bring us together and suddenly I get lumped into active consolidation of white privilege and power. Wow!

I wish I was able to respond more prophetically but in my shock I squeaked, “I don’t know about that.”

After they left I was thinking, “Should I eat these burritos? Shouldn’t I have unwrapped them to throw them at their hats in a messy retribution against racism?” I wished I had said, “I’m sticking with Freddy Gray’s family and all the victims of police brutality. I’m sticking with Jesus.”

Reflecting on this encounter, more than the witty retort or even the inspired prophetic word, I am longing for the inspiration to love these men. How can I make a relationship with these people? How can I not hate them? How can I love these enemies? How can I speak the truth in love?

It seems that the cultural battles that may have begun as lines in the sand are now canyons with us on one side and them on the other. Us with our shaming shout-downs and them with theirs. Us with this hashtag and them with another. Is it ok with God that we live in such different worlds? That we segregate ourselves with like-minded people? That we consolidate power based on our various ideological affinities? You know that Facebook’s algorithm does this for us, right? The program gages what we like by our own posts and likes and feeds us back similar stories. If you like babies, you’ll get more babies. If you like #blacklivesmatter, you’ll get more of it. If you like Taco Bell, you’ll get more burritos.

We are driven apart by more than our own prejudice. The media, especially social media, galvanizes us against each other for corporate profit. Fox, CNN, MSNBC, and the rest play their roles too. Loving our enemies is harder than ever because every day we are farther and farther apart, on the issues and in the spaces we inhabit. We may be tempted to believe that coexistence isn’t even necessary.

But it is! If only for Jesus’ sake. We are called to make disciples of all nations. Currently our nations may be reorganizing around brands and ideologies. I wouldn’t be shocked if the corporations formed standing armies in my life time. This generation is crooked still, but the Kingdom of God already crosses so many boundaries, why not these? Loving the folks like these guys at Taco Bell is going to take some serious work. How do I even inhabit the same space? I don’t have an answer yet, but I’m praying. In my experience, the answer to prayer will come in a personal relationship. That relationship has so much riding against it, when it happens I know it will be a miracle. And that’s another reason beyond obedience to love our enemies—it readies us for miracle every day—it grows our faith.

Ben White is pastor of the Marlton Pike site of the Circle of Hope.Network of Brethren in Christ churches in Philadelphia, PA.