Turn the Other Cheek – The Verse Curiously Absent When We Offer Prooftext Arguments

A couple weeks back the news came down that Tsarnev had been condemned to death for the Boston Marathon bombing.  As is common when I hear big news nowadays, I went to Twitter to check out what people were saying, specifically Christian leaders.  What surprised me, though perhaps it shouldn’t have, is that many who are so quick to cite a verse or two in order to settle other issues did not do the same here.  This is surprising because there is a verse in Jesus’ most famous sermon that would fit, Matthew 5:38-39:

38 “You have heard that it was said, ‘Eye for eye, and tooth for tooth.’[h] 39 But I tell you, do not resist an evil person. If anyone slaps you on the right cheek, turn to them the other cheek also

It seems rather clear – if someone harms you, do not harm them in return. As Christians we ought then to advocate for forgiveness rather then seeking death.  Yet much discussion about the death penalty around this verse ends up arguing about why this simple statement of Jesus is not applicable.  Perhaps other passages are brought forward to tip the scales in favor of death.  Or we are told that Jesus is here concerned with personal morality and not with what governments do.

Yet, when it comes to other issues Christians are often more then willing to settle it by prooftext which begs the question: why in some cases we love referencing a verse or two in order to settle the issue while in others we do not.  

For comparison, just think of gay marriage.  When discussions or arguments about gay marriage happen, the side opposing gay marriage will quote the 5-6 passages in scripture to settle the issue.  Often they will go on to argue that this piece of Christian morality ought to be the law of the land.  As it tends to be more conservative Christians who support the death penalty and oppose gay marriage the irony is clear – why seek to make Christian morality the law of the land in one case but not the other?

I do not think it is only conservative Christians who are guilty here.  Both sides kind of do the same thing:

Some Christians cite the verses that condemn gay relationships while explaining that Jesus’ clear commands in Matthew 5 against violence are more complex.  

Other Christians take Jesus’ words as the final word while explaining that the verses condemning gay relationships are more complex.  

If I am harder on one group then the other it is because I tend to be harder on the Christian subculture I came from and we were all against gay relationships but also big into making sure murderers got the death penalty.

At any rate, as I recognize this tendency it makes me realize that more often then not we do not let scripture shape us, instead we bring our views to scripture and work scripture to support us.  If a cut-and-dried prooftext supports what we think, great!  If not, then we engage in deeper interpretation to get to where we want to be.

I hope this does not sound too cynical.  I do think scripture helps us as we seek answers, but there are better ways to read scripture then others.  Ultimately we need a Jesus-centered view of scripture that recognizes Jesus as the culmination of the story.   Along with this, scripture is not there to mine for isolated verses to trot forth as evidence for our views, scripture is there to tell us the story of God’s interaction with humanity (which again, culminates in the person and work of Jesus).

In other words, arguing about these issues are surface level arguments.  The real differences lie beneath, in how we understand the function and use of scripture in the first place.

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Is God the Author of Sin? Part Two (Weekly Word)

This summer I am going to dedicate each Friday to questions that students have asked me about God, faith and such.  Some of these questions come were forwarded to me from Christian students or their skeptical friends.  Others are questions that I have been asked in some way, shape or form many times.  I do not claim to offer the final answer on any of these questions, though I do hope to offer something helpful.

So if God is all-powerful and creates everything, is God the author of sin?

My answer is no (and I think I have much of traditional Christian theology on my side).  God created humanity and gave humanity freedom and it was humans who chose sin.  Now some will not buy the difference there, they will simply say that since God is all powerful then God was the author of sin.  To such people I say, we will agree to disagree :)  I think, to use an illustration, that there is a huge difference between allowing a child who is learning to ride bike to fall and pushing her over.  In the same way, I think there is a huge difference between God allowing humans to choose sin and being the one who motivates them to choose sin.

Of course, if God knows the future and thus knows what humans will freely choose, is not God still guilty for allowing it to happen?  In other words, even if God did not put the idea in Adam’s head but merely knew what Adam would choose, God still could have stopped it.  And if we look at all the evil and suffering in the world, then we may say God should have stopped it.  If I know a terrorist will detonate a bomb and do nothing to stop it, even though I easily could stop it, most would say I am guilty of a crime.

Honestly, this question causes me to pause.  It causes me to pause because the world is an awful place much of the time.  How can a good and loving God look at holocausts and genocide and rape and violence and not step in?

If God causes it as some sort of ultimate determiner of everything, then God is a monster, no different then Satan.  If God allows it…that is where I struggle.  Why?  Why doesn’t God do more to stop it?  Its a tough question and it does not one any good to pretend it does not cut right to the heart of faith.  One answer that helps me a bit is remembering that I am finite and God is infinite.  Without all the information, I do not know.  In  my anger that God does not do more, I need to realize that perhaps God has already done quite a lot.  My daughter screamed and cried when she got shots as a baby, not understanding how much the vaccines would help her.  I imagine a lot of our suffering, if we saw things from God’s view, may be similar.

Beyond that, I look at the alternative.  If there is no God, then all those holocausts and rapes and genocides are pointless.  If there is no God, then suffering and violence just might have the last word.  But if there is a God, and further if this God is the God revealed in Jesus, then we have hope that a better day is coming.  Suffering is not the last word, resurrection and new life is.

To me then, it is a choice:

1. In the face of suffering and evil, I have a lot of questions for God but have confidence that Jesus showed the way to live and hope that when Jesus’ work is complete there will be no more evil.

2. In the face of suffering and evil, I reject God and despair because life is dark, hopeless and painful.

For a variety of reasons, I choose the first option.  Like so many questions, I do not think there is an air-tight answer nor do I expect all people with a rational mind to agree with me.  But, speaking from my perspective, which is all I can do, option one is much more satisfying.

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Are You Mocked Because of Jesus or Because You’re a Jerk?

When I was in college I bought a shirt that said, “Jesus is Not For Everyone, He’s Just for Those who Want to Go to Heaven.”

Yes, I actually paid money for a shirt that said that.  I purchased it at Creation Festival, a weekend dedicated to getting thousands of youth fired up about God.  It worked on me, I was fired up and wanted to express my passion via shirt and this was the best one, I guess, that I could find.

I think I only wore it a couple of times because even as I bought it, I knew it was kind of an awful message to walk around with on my shirt.  The very day I got home I wore it to the movies where I was meeting some of my buddies and they rolled their eyes at me.  Another one of the few times I wore it I remember walking past a couple of people and hearing them snicker, no doubt finding humor or offense at the message.

If I wanted to, I could have taken such snickering as persecution of my faith and I could have cited a passage from the Bible such as Matthew 5:11-12 – Blessed are you when people insult you, persecute you and falsely say all kinds of evil against you because of me. 12 Rejoice and be glad, because great is your reward in heaven, for in the same way they persecuted the prophets who were before you.”  I could have taken solace that people mocking my shirt were persecuting my faith, the sort of persecution true Christians always face.

The thing is, Jesus is speaking of persecution “because of me.”  And I was not being mocked because of Jesus, I was laughed at because I wore such an idiotic shirt.  No one looked at the shirt and asked about Jesus.  Really, the shirt was not about Jesus, it was about me sticking it to other people, callously reminding them they were destined for eternal torment while I smugly looked on from eternal bliss.

Anyway, I bring up that embarrassing story because I was reminded of it after reading this article.  Specifically, this section:

Have you ever heard someone say, “I like Christ. I just don’t like Christians.” Jesus says that if you don’t like his disciples—if you reject them—you are rejecting Him. There is no version of Christianity that allows you to follow Christ while mistreating His body. And it won’t matter how much you profess your love for Christ if you reject andmistreat his body. What you do with Christ’s people will tell everything that needs to be told about you at the judgment.

This text is not about poor people generally. It’s about Christians getting the door slammed in their face while sharing the gospel with a neighbor. It’s about the baker/florist/photographer who is being mistreated for bearing faithful witness to Christ. It’s about disciples of Jesus having their heads cut off by Islamic radicals. In other words, it’s about any disciple of Jesus who was ever mistreated in the name of Jesus. This text shows us that Jesus will judge those who show contempt for the gospel by mistreating gospel-bearers.

This seemed a bit too self-aggrandizing to me.  It seemed to encourage the kind of mindset I had while wearing my shirt – I can do what I want as a Christian and if anyone gets offended its their problem and if they say anything then they are persecuting me!

But the reality is that if someone slams the door on your face when you are trying to share the gospel with them it is not because they hate Jesus. It could be for any variety of reasons – maybe you’ve been a bad neighbor in the past and never asked forgiveness and they don’t want to hear from you, maybe the kids are crazy and this is not a good time to discuss the depths of spiritual truth.  Simply assuming that any opposition = persecution feeds our American evangelical persecution complex.  And implying that getting the door slammed in your face or facing opposition for not taking part in a gay wedding is anything close to getting your head cut off by ISIS is wrong.

The issues seems to be whether we are being persecuted/harrassed/mocked on account of Jesus or on account of our own jerkiness.

*For the record, I engaged with the author of this piece on Twitter and it seems clear he’d agree that the key is why people are mocking us.

*A good book that relates is Candida Moss’ The Myth of Persecution which studies the martyrdom narratives in the early church.  This book made me realize that when Christians living in comfort in America claim to be persecuted this actually does damage to our brothers and sisters who truly are facing persecution.  Our claims basically tire people out to any claims of Christian persecution.

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A Day Late…Christians Ought to Support #IDAHOT

Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called children of God – Jesus

Yesterday was the International Day Against Homophobia, Transphobia and Biphobia.  I did not know such a day existed until I saw a well-written article by Adrian Warnock on Twitter arguing for why Christians should support such a day:

I know of no Christian in the West who would advocate homosexual sex becoming illegal once more in our countries, still less that the punishment should be death. But we do not often hear Christians advocating for a change in the law in other countries so that homosexual behaviors should be legalized. Christians would do well to add their voices to campaigns for the repeal of such anti-homosexual legislation. We must speak out for true tolerance everywhere.

God loves everybody and teaches us to do the same. Even till today in more liberal and theoretically accepting societies like America and the UK, gay people are stigmatised, verbally abused, and even sometimes physically attacked because of their sexual orientation. Christians should stand up for them, and argue strongly for fair treatment for all. We must speak out for the persecuted, the oppressed, and for the minority. Imagine a day when the Church is known for its love for gay people.

Christian, when you think of gay people what is your immediate thought? Is it revulsion? Do you avoid them? Do you angrily denounce them? Then you are contributing to the notion our society now has that Christians hate gay people. It is no longer considered to be acceptable to be feel such animosity towards people who are of a different race, so why should it be acceptable to react in such a way towards those of a different orientation?

The way the Church has treated gay people historically has not been her finest hour. There is no doubt in my mind that Christians will one day look back on this previous approach with the same degree of shame and embarrassment currently felt over the Church’s history with slavery, racism, and apartheid.

I do not know whether Dr. Warnock supports gay marriage, though I am pretty sure he falls on the more conservative end of the theological spectrum and thus thinks marriage ought to be between a man and a woman only.  That is why such an article is so impressive and important.  Whether you think gay marriage ought to be blessed by churches or not, whether you think God approves of gay relationships or not, hopefully we can all agree that violence against anyone is simply wrong.

When it comes to morality and ethics, Christians disagree with non-Christians and with each other on a whole host of issues.  Traditionally Christians have been against everything from divorce to greed to drunkeness.  But we do not wish violence or pain on those who get divorce or who are greedy or getting drunk.

The rates of suicide by GLBT teens, the rates of violence against GLBT people throughout the world ought to sadden all of us.  And we ought to speak out against it.  So I may be a day late, but I agree with Dr. Warnock that Christians should join our voices to those speaking out against violence directed towards gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender persons.

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Is God Responsible For Human Sin? (Weekly Word)

This summer I am going to dedicate each Friday to questions that students have asked me about God, faith and such.  Some of these questions come were forwarded to me from Christian students or their skeptical friends.  Others are questions that I have been asked in some way, shape or form many times.  I do not claim to offer the final answer on any of these questions, though I do hope to offer something helpful.

From Luke – In a discussion with an atheist, one of the things he said was that God created sin (and the question of free will comes ect.)(The irony was the person contested that God did not create, and yet he just said he created sin). How would you as a pastor instructed in God’s Word respond to that? Thanks

Thanks Lukas  I am glad to hear you are having meaningful discussions that lead to good questions such as this one.  As I look at what you wrote, I imagine your friend was saying that his understanding of Christianity ends up with a God who creates sin. He is not saying that he believes in God, only that the God of Christians, as he understands what Christians are saying, would be culpable for sin.  Perhaps this is a reason why this person rejects God?

What may be surprising to you and your friend, if not a bit disconcerting, is that this is a question that the Bible never directly answers.  To go to the creation story in Genesis it appears that Adam and Eve were given the freedom to choose to obey or disobey God.  The author of Genesis is not concerned with how such freedom relates to an all-powerful and all-knowing God.

This leads to what I think is an important, and not often cited, point – the Bible writers are not always answering the questions we are asking.  They lived and wrote and worshipped in a different culture with different ideas then we do.  On that note, it wasn’t really until the early Christians, specifically Paul in Romans, began writing that the story of Genesis 3 became one of the entry of “sin” as some sort of corrupting object , into the world.  If Adam’s sin was so ground-breaking and earth-shattering, it is interesting to note that Adam is not really mentioned much in the rest of the OT.  Of course, this does not mean that the sin of Adam, the fall of humanity, as understood by Christian theologians is wrong (we do include Romans in the Bible!), it is just to say that our first stop ought to be understanding what the story in Genesis means on its own terms.

Another way of looking at Genesis 3 that I find quite intriguing is to see it more in line with Wisdom literature.  If you read Proverbs you see clearly there are two paths put before the person – the way of wisdom and the way of foolishness.  The way of Wisdom leads to life while the way of foolishness leads to death.  We see the same thing in Genesis – Adam and Eve rejecting wisdom and choosing foolishness, and dying.  It is also helpful to read Adam and Eve as the beginning of Israel, for it was Israelites who first wrote the story.  Israel had experienced many failures in their own pursuit of wisdom and of obeying the Law.  For them, the Adam story illustrates that their people have always struggled with this.  Or, the other way around, Adam’s choices foreshadow Israel’s later choices.

Above I said that the Bible writers are not necessarily answering the questions we are asking.  I think if we look at the creation story, in light of the rest of the Old Testament, we see a focus on the importance of personal choice.  In other words, humans are culpable for their sins.  The path is laid before us – like it was for Adam, Israel and the man in Proverbs.  Will we choose the way of life or the way of death?  We cannot blame God (or the devil).

With that out of the way, I want to take a shot at offering the actual question you were asked.  But that will have to wait till next week.

 

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Another Day, Another Study Shows Shrinking Affiliation to Christianity

I’ve seen a bunch of news stories on a new Pew Research Center study that shows a decline in the percentage of Americans who identify as Christians as well as growth, especially among those born since 1980, of those who identify as non-religious.  This group includes atheists, agnostics and those who may believe in God but do not identify with any institution.

I want to comment, share a witty story from campus or something, but I am coming up blank.  So I’ll just share some links and you can read for yourself:

The Rise of Young Americans Who Don’t Believe in God

A remarkable 25 percent of Americans born after 1980, the group often known as Millennials, are not religious…It’s not clear that Millennials will become more religious as they age, either.

America’s Changing Religions Landscape

But the major new survey of more than 35,000 Americans by the Pew Research Center finds that the percentage of adults (ages 18 and older) who describe themselves as Christians has dropped by nearly eight percentage points in just seven years, from 78.4% in an equally massive Pew Research survey in 2007 to 70.6% in 2014. Over the same period, the percentage of Americans who are religiously unaffiliated – describing themselves as atheist, agnostic or “nothing in particular” – has jumped more than six points, from 16.1% to 22.8%. And the share of Americans who identify with non-Christian faiths also has inched up, rising 1.2 percentage points, from 4.7% in 2007 to 5.9% in 2014. Growth has been especially great among Muslims and Hindus, albeit from a very low base.

The drop in the Christian share of the population has been driven mainly by declines among mainline Protestants and Catholics. Each of those large religious traditions has shrunk by approximately three percentage points since 2007. The evangelical Protestant share of the U.S. population also has dipped, but at a slower rate, falling by about one percentage point since 2007.

Self-Defeating Religion

The number who self-identify with historic denominations and movements has declined, and the number of “unaffiliated” has gone up. That category is not primarily agnostics and atheists, but people who say they are “nothing in particular.”

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Its That Time of Year When I Get Delusions of Being a Philosopher

After passing two relatively aimless years at Penn State I finally got serious about my studies as well as choosing a major.  I had always enjoyed studying religion and history so I decided to major in religion.  This led me to some philosophy of religion classes which gave me an appetite to learn more philosophy.  I ended up taking enough credits to earn a minor in philosophy, though my understanding of the content in those classes was woefully inadequate.

Since then I’ve always liked the idea of reading philosophy.  This idea tends to spike around the month of May.  I work in campus ministry and school has ended.  With the students heading home for the summer, I am much less busy.  I have a bit more time to dive into some heavier reading.  Usually I identify some philosopher whose work I think could be beneficial to read – Kierkegaard, Nietzsche – and give it a shot.

Then I fail.  Not always, but with so many other books I would rather read, my infatuation with being an amateur philosopher usually dissipates by Memorial Day.

That said, I do think it can be helpful for pastors, especially those of us who work on college campuses, to have a basic grasp of the big philosophical ideas.  A few books have really helped me here.  What is best about these books is that they present the story of philosophy as a history.  So you are getting in touch with these big ideas, but the feel of reading a book like this is more like reading history (or even a novel, if that’s your cup of tea) then actually reading philosophy.

Will Durant’s The Story of Philosophy – I picked this up years ago at a used bookstore and I recall it being a good introduction.

Frederick Copleston’s History of Philosophy – This is a nine volume series that is fantastic.  I’ve only read the first five volumes, so my May endeavor into philosophy this year will be volume 6 (KAHN…I meant KANT!!!).

Apart from a grasp of the big philosophical ideas from the history of philosophy, there are lots of authors out there who are writing philosophical books with great depth that I believe every pastor should read.  Rather than summarizing ideas that only other philosophers care about, these sorts of books provide a lens for our world that helps us see cultural trends and ideas clearly.  Two of my favorites are Charles Taylor’s A Secular Age and Alasdair MacIntyre’s After Virtue.

Its May, so why not join me in trying your hand at some philosophy?

 

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