Political narratives and Jesus’ life run in opposite directions. Political narratives peddle language of revival — revival in economic, military, social and national power. Jesus’ practice was about relinquishing power, position and wealth. He spoke in terms of humility, patience, charity, grace and more. The first is about earthly greatness and glory. The other is about finding glory in weakness, humiliation and enduring suffering.
These two world could not be more different. Earthly political aspirations and God’s kingdom run in opposite directions. And no where is this more true or more evident in Jesus’ crucifixion. Unless I’m misreading many things, the United States is very ready to sacrifice other nations. Few of our cultural icons are committed to the idea of self-sacrifice.
Remaking God in our Image
That said, one might wonder how the ‘Christian nation’ premise stuck. It must be one of the great cons of modern history. And that point is not lost on Tony Campolo. Writing for Red Letter Christians, he says:
‘The god for many Christians may not be the god revealed in Jesus Christ.
Campolo’s piece doesn’t mention idolatry, but the premise is there. He writes:
Emile Durkheim, one of the key figures among sociologists, in his book, The Elementary Forms of the Religious Life, pointed out that every society had a tendency to create images of God that incarnate their own collective traits and values. America is no exception –
He continues saying:
‘…many Americans worship a socially created deity who embodies wealth, power and prestige.’
The Sanhedrin of Jesus’ day had little clout. Judea was under Roman occupation. Council members tended routine affairs. Generally they could use their position to fatten themselves. But if weighty issues arose as was the case with a political criminal named Jesus, they had to negotiate with Rome’s representative. And they hated it.
On one hand they relied on their cooperation with Rome to retain their position in their society. But on the other, they loathed the reminder that they were Caesar’s little toadies. Caught between desire for the position they had, but craving so much more — Sanhedrin Envy.
Except it isn’t limited to the Sanhedrin or that place. And it certainly isn’t limited to the faith they had. James Dobson alone establishes that. And he is far from alone. Envy is a powerful, corrupting motivation.
Lead figures of many religious persuasions wealth, power and prestige. And strange alliances [forbidden to God’s ancient people] are formed to get it. Along the way, God tends to get caricatured to facilitate the process. It’s still old-fashioned religion. And it is still idolatrous. And just so as they don’t complain, IFBs are hardly the only ones to do it.
We come by idols naturally. But by God’s grace, we may perhaps admit this and turn from them.
I think your reading of Phil 2:12 arises from God’s image, which you are. We are God’s image; but we don’t all image God the same way. Each of us images God uniquely. As I unpack this, I hope it will be for you a window to gain perspective on HOW we can read Scripture with ‘new eyes.’
God’s Attributes, God’s Image
A list of God’s attributes will include such things as God’s perfection, love, holiness, faithfulness, goodness, justice, mercy, grace, truth, wisdom and power, etc. But some attributes we recognize also as traits in others — traits by which they reflect God’s attributes. We’ve all heard things like:
Mary finds faith so easy — nothing seems to shake her! John is so persevering – for all he’s faced, he just keeps plowing! Amy is so gracious — she can put herself at anyone’s disposal in an instant and never resents it! Bill is so giving — he would hand the shirt off his back to the stranger who just cussed him!
Some call this ‘spiritual giftedness.’ Perhaps it is; but this is also how we uniquely image God’s character. One has the wisdom/insight to navigate a minefield of logical traps and linguistic chicaneries. Another can declare truth prophetically to the nation. Dietrich Bonhoeffer comes to mind.
No one reveals all God’s attributes; no one reveals any attribute in all its glory. Jesus Christ alone is ‘the exact representation’ of God’s being. We are smaller, much dimmer reflections of God’s being. But we do reflect God’s glory by virtue of our being God’s image.
Attributes as an Interpretative Aid
If with our spiritual makeup/gifts/calling we uniquely image God, how could this NOT also inform and shape our reading of Scripture?
When you said, ‘I think that [reverent and sensitive before God] sounds much more gentle,’ you read Scripture through the lens of God’s gentleness. In other words, God’s Spirit IS leading you already…just as promised.
Can God’s gentleness guide us to spiritual understanding? Can it lead us into practices that honor God, that imitate Christ, that bring grace to our communities? Can God’s gentleness teach us to discern how God is with us, leads us, deals with and saves us? Can God’s gentleness function as a lens by which to read Scripture with new eyes? Those questions require another post! But several more points before closing this installment.
Why all this Matters
Why turn to ‘gentleness’ as a possible, preferred reading of Phil 2:12? Perhaps I’m wrong, First time caller, but I think the likelihood is good that you did so becauseTHAT is how God made you. If you met your Christian friends and all discussed what they see in each other, I suspect that you’d be nominated for the ‘gentleness’ award.
If I’m off the mark and some other aspect of God’s nature more naturally quickens your faith, THAT attribute can also aid spiritual understanding and function as a key to reading Scripture with ‘new eyes.’
Evangelical and Fundamentalist sects are overpowered by a tendency to elevate a few aspects of God’s nature above all others. God’s goodness, mercy, kindness, loving-kindness are mentioned as a point of orthodoxy. These are quickly set aside. Then God’s rage, authority, judgment and a few more fill the whole picture. These define how God is perceived. These become the starting point for their initiates’ relationship with God.
Beyond teaching us to think about God in distorted and unhealthy ways, such ‘theology’ fosters extreme spiritual debilitation. It also means IFB members have little opportunity to relate to God or to reflect the aspect[s] of God’s character for which God primarily made them.
An Alternative to IFB Sects
Such an environment does not support spiritual growth. It does not aid believers to read Scripture through ‘new eyes.’ It is no surprise that IFB sects come to regard ‘maturity’ as church busyness — drive the bus, teach church school, sing in choir, go witnessing, lead the youth group, etc. Nor is it any surprise that ‘knowing the Bible’ means little more than being able to cite the stock passages on any given IFB line.
But once God’s attributes and God’s image are recognized as a key for spiritual growth and reading Scripture, a world of possibilities opens to us. We can now study passages from the perspective of any number of attributes of God. We can study passages to discern which aspects of God’s nature seem most at work in a passage. And we can ask what it means for us to reflect that aspect of God’s character from the text in our lives.
Like any cult, a state religion of selective, political piety needs liturgies. They need Holy Days. Memorial Day is a biggie, as is July 4. Patriotic songs are sung, and national doctrines and narratives [Manifest Destiny, American Exceptionalism] are recited. Heroes are celebrated [adoration of the saints]. Political litanies tell what we got wrong [confession]. There are predictions of glories [beatific vision] if we get it right, and prophecies of doom [civic hell] if we don’t. There are exhortations to vote [ballot as political sacrament], calls for more [working class] sacrifice [offerings], and appeals to re-consecrate to national purpose [more chauvinism].
To help set the spirit for the event, Sharefaith makes available a variety of suitably martial Memorial Day images. Pastors and worship committees use such things to remind us of stuff we won’t forget if we know what’s good for us. For a price, of course.
‘Suitably’ matters. A lot.
Lest we doubt that images seek very specific responses, imagine the uproar if a Memorial Day church service used this as a power point image.
Actually, ‘uproar’ is an understatement. We can reasonably expect that many would up and leave.
Others would offer diatribes. Conceivably, there would be some fist-fights. Certainly some would resign from church councils and boards. Other churches would sever pastoral relations. In some localities, a few bricks [or a Molotov Cocktail] might pass through a parsonage window, driving home the message that pastor needs to leave sooner, not later.
Yet for many in Afghanistan, Iraq, Pakistan and other lands where the US military routinely conducts clandestine operations, the ‘Statue of Liberty’ image may be more indicative of their experience. This raises an issue that Christians in the US ought to consider.
Say an Iraqi man wanders into this service. Twelve years ago as a young teen, he lost his parents, siblings, four uncles and nineteen cousins. His admittedly lively birthday party was mistaken for a resistance cell. A US tank shelled his home. It collapsed. He alone survived and came to the US as a refugee.
What is our guest to make of this pageantry? What of the nationalistic hymns, prayers, narratives and other symbols? Attached to the Christian story, might not the riot of all things patriotic obscure the cross and glory of Christ for this guest? Might not this hinder gospel proclamation?
If as Mt 28:18-20 and Re 14:6 imply, the redeemed are from every nation, is not God’s purpose undermined by our unbridled nationalistic fervor? At some point, we must not say that this simply isn’t appropriate?
Ordinarily, the ‘Statue of liberty’ imagery would be equally inappropriate. This is not to say that the church might never have occasion to use it; but in her worship, the church has numerous, ever–appropriate Biblical images — the bread and cup, the basin and towel. A rich history of Christian art — ancient, classical and modern — illustrate every Biblical theme imaginable. Use those in worship.
While Christians should join to sing these songs at parades and picnics, should they be doing so in a church worship service? Do displays of patriotism have a place in Christian worship or should they be reserved for the local minor league baseball stadium?
That’s the rub.
It is just too easy for the church to be co-opted by secular, civic premises and systems of thought. All too easily, we become the ecclesial reflection of the politics of earthly power and glory. That it is an ecclesial reflection of the powers of this age might explain why the church is where it is.
William Barber said:
‘If your Gospel isn’t good news for those who are poor…then it isn’t the Gospel of Jesus.’
This can be extended to include all people. If your Gospel doesn’t visit orphans and widows in distress … if your Gospel isn’t peace to those who are weary of strife … if your Gospel isn’t healing for the sick … if your Gospel isn’t restoration for the broken … if your Gospel isn’t protection for women, strangers and aliens, etc., … then it isn’t the Gospel of Jesus.
Whenever these or any voices are smothered or otherwise silenced, we know that we’re getting it wrong. Whenever our issues come to the fore, we must remember who we are and what we’re doing. Our central confession of faith in Jesus Christ is this:
Christ has died.
Christ has risen.
Christ is coming again.
That confession can never mesh with the ideologies of this world, and we would be wise to question attempts to do so.
It is never an easy task for church to rid herself of the cultural signature that is everywhere about it. It is easy for us to be blind to what this says and does. To us, it is all so normal. But we can address the more blatant displays of our culture — especially where it can cause others to stumble.
We all know this. If James Dobson didn’t tell you, John Hagee told you. If John Hagee didn’t tell you, some other Fundamentalist Baptist told you. If some other preacher didn’t tell you, you learned from the ‘Got Questions‘ guy, or from another book or resource.
The nonsense of Christian socialism is an heretical notion [of course] that we all hoped was long dead and gone. If it’s bad enough being a fool for Christ, why would you want to make things worse by being a Christian Socialist? So imagine the disappointment among the good folk at American Pastors Network when somebody made a post on their website defending Christian Socialism. WHO would DO such a thing!
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PS: Here is the ‘Got Questions’ guy’s take on Capitalism.