Reviled, Reinvented and Rediscovered

MLK

Five decades ago, Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Junior made a crucial decision to combine the struggle for democratic rights in the United States, with principled opposition to imperial war abroad. King very courageously did so in context of opposing the war on Vietnam.

Many try to cloak themselves in King’s mantle. Some are some outright charlatans who actively oppose what King died defending. But in either case, these opportunists share not one shred of principle among them.

Over the weekend, tanks, artillery, armored vehicles and 4,000 US troops descended on Poland. They are to be deployed over seven East European countries. Around October, another unit will replace them. This is the first, permanent deployment of US troops on Russia’s border since the Cold War. In coming months, NATO plans to deploy four battalions on Russia’s border. And US annual military budget for Eastern Europe is quadrupled to $3.4 billion over last year’s $800 million.

Poor People's Campaign Brochure, Spring 1968
From the last campaign on which MLK worked.

King understood that poverty is very much a civil rights issue. He saw poverty and powerlessness as mutually reinforcing realities. And he saw the need to break the power that they hold over us.

Dr. King’s last planned protest was the Poor People’s Campaign. He was planning this when he was martyred. This excerpt from a prepared leaflet is as relevant now as it was the day King died. It merits careful study by us all.

King saw the obscene levels of military spending in his own day. The base shamelessness of budget plans is made clear in his work.

Today, total military spending is in excess of $905 billion. Soon, it will top 1 trillion. Every year.

There’s more.

Dr. King also addressed extremes of income discrepancy. But in his wildest dreams, Dr. King could not have imagined the extent to which the level of income dependency would rise even in the lifetime of his peers.

On the eve of the Davos Conference, Oxfam reports that 8 people now control as much wealth as the bottom half of the world’s population. And of those 8 people, 6 are in the US.

There is no gracious way to put it: such levels of militaristic commitment and social inequality are fundamentally incompatible with a free society.

As social misery rises and political conditions degrade, it begs to be asked where today’s church leaders are. Often, they most stridently support such arrangements. They certainly do not stand beside Martin Luther King Jr., even if they claim to respect and honor that legacy to their own advantage.

Some who know King’s legacy revile him. Others would co-opt his legacy for opportunistic ends. The one alternative of integrity is to recover that legacy for our own time. And if we desire to avert war and revolution, we would be most wise to do so — and soon.

If any churches are prepared to go there, few are fundamentalist.

Friday Challenge — Find the Freedom in the Gospel

Key to Freedom

Church and Kingdom

“I also say to you that you are Peter, and upon this rock I will build My church; and the gates of Hades will not overpower it. “I will give you the keys of the kingdom of heaven; and whatever you bind on earth shall have been bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth shall have been loosed in heaven.” [Mt 16:18-19].

Good dispensationalists [which Independent Fundamental Baptists are] reliably push kingdom into the future. They are well aware that that any interest in social justice likely means theological and spiritual rot. People who are interested in kingdom eventually question a system which values profit over people and wealth over work. This means they question the Good News of Capitalism and its false promise of infinite growth. So it is for good reason that God’s kingdom has no place in your local IFB sect.

But kingdom was the theological core of Jesus’ preaching. If you push that into the future, wouldn’t that make a markedly different church? That ‘difference’ may be behind yesterday’s cartoon at the Naked Pastor.

My observation suggests that IFB preachers are very clear that kingdom concerns Israel and the future. God brings the kingdom in his own good time. Our concern is with building the church. As you know, that means building the IFB pastor’s fundamentalist empire.

What’s curious is that Jesus appears to have gotten it backwards. Jesus said, ‘I will build my church’ and ‘YOU get the keys of the kingdom.’

See the difference?

We can now dispense with those pesky questions about hungry masses, closed schools and failing communities while our allegedly cash-hungry nation blithely poured nearly 5 trillion into wars over the past 15 years.

Where’s the Freedom?

In his temptation, Jesus refused to align himself with the powers of this age — War, Famine, Pestilence and Death. He formed a kingdom in which we would be freed from the domination of demonic powers. That truly was/is Good News. But it isn’t ‘Good News’ you’ll hear in IFB sects, or in many broadly evangelical congregations for that matter.

The truth is, we’re far better at locking people up than setting them free. And we enlist many ‘present age’ narratives to rationalize it. You can’t help those people. The only thing they understand is force. If we cut them off, they’d learn to fend for themselves and become stronger.

Today’s Challenge

But sometimes, people are better than their theology and better than their stated convictions. Today’s challenge is to tell/find a story of genuine redemption experienced in an IFB setting.

This does not mean substituting one form of death [addiction/slavery/etc.] for another [legalism/hypocrisy/etc.]. It means that despite its theology, some IFB sect somewhere used the keys of God’s kingdom to redeem a situation and set someone free to the praise of God’s glory and grace.

Christagelical Evanjihadists

Syrian-refugees. Whose Judgment
Judgment is a hand. But exactly who is it here that stands to be judged?

Judgment and Persecution

Sometimes, fundamentalist Christian are accused of being judgmental of others. That may be. But IFB sects also experience judgment. Except…IFB sects don’t really experience judgment. That’ because when they do, it’s really ‘persecution.’ And IFB’s can be ‘persecuted’ more sharply when they advocate things injurious to others. Instructive in such injurious advocacy this is Paul Chappell’s Sept 21, ’15 article on Syria and Iran.

Mr. Chappell references the iconic Aylan photo, some Aylanrefugee statistics and related vocabulary. The obligatory crocodile tears shed, these matters are set aside. He expresses dismay at the ‘Iran Deal,’ and notes growing unrest in the Middle East. As Chappell sees it, stewardship of the gospel requires Christian involvement. Seemingly, our response must be put in prophetic perspective. Then this:

Decisive Action

I don’t know how or even whether Mr. Chappell addressed the role of our government and its allies in destabilizing the Middle East. But among fundamentalist Christians, the response to the war cry against Iraq/Libya/Afghanistan etc. was pretty much automatic. Writing for the New York Times, Charles Marsh had this to say.

Wayward Christian Soldiers, Chas March

In addition to offering several quotes, Marsh states the following:

‘The war sermons rallied the evangelical congregations behind the invasion of Iraq. An astonishing 87 percent of all white evangelical Christians in the United States supported the president’s decision in April 2003.’

Marsh also quotes an unnamed missionary as saying that the invasion would open closed lands to the gospel. And if not necessarily supporting that, Paul Chappell’s logic feeds into it. He writes:

‘…the millions of people fleeing Syria are Muslim. Most have never heard the gospel. Many are more tender to the gospel at this moment than they have been at any other point in their lives.’

War and Refugees

The intent here is NOT to resurrect discussion over the rightness or wrongness of Western involvement in Iraq and the Middle East.

The issue is the vast discrepancy between our pre-war empowerment and our post-war impotency.

Before the shooting, sermons, prayers, speeches, activism promoted war fervor with religious devotion. Theology be damned — we want war!

After war, all we can do it call officials for ‘decisive action’ against ISIS; ‘that’s about the extent of it.’ Oh yeah — we can give them the gospel!

Sins of Omission

Paul Chappell doesn’t tell us that it is the conditions of warfare which create these human seas called ‘refugees.’ And it isn’t as if no one spoke of the consequences of Western Middle-East involvement, as this was published a fortnight before his article. Much of the mayhem was created by US made munitions delivered by us and our allies. Result?

Water, power and sewage lines are cut. Systems of transportation and communication are destroyed. Hospitals, schools, factories and homes are shelled into oblivion. The economy collapses. Hunger weakens the body and epidemics spread. When infrastructure is destroyed, what then?

Adding Insult to Injury

Mr Chappell’s answer is, his church collected an offering to split between two pastor friends who have Muslims come to them for food.

‘Invest now in gospel ministry to these very needy people.’

Oh, and contact your missionaries in Europe and ask how you can help!

‘We can’t miss our moment to share God’s love and give the gospel.’

Christian fundamentalists were not the only war cheerleaders. But they uniquely failed to make any serious theological inquiry/criticism into the events of the day. To for Christiagelical Evanjihadists to cry ‘persecution’ in the face of their double failure is inexcusable.

Paul Chappell on Peace

Paul Chappell could learn from Paul Chappell. Even if not articulating an expressly Christian conviction, Paul K. Chappell offers an alternative narrative and perspective. Lack of an alternative leaves fundamentalist Christians like Rev. Chappell and others unable to mount any resistance when the next war is proposed.

God help us all.

Revelation as a Circular Letter

An Epistle

RB’s discussion of Revelation as a circular epistle has some important and potentially mind-blowing implications. The writing is dense; much of what RB says here can’t be condensed. So I quote him extensively in this post. It is a lengthy post, but I am passionate about this and don’t know how to do otherwise. Interested parties are encouraged to get this book!


Revelation as an Epistle

Many misreadings of Revelation occur because it is overlooked that this whole work is an epistle, a letter written to then existing churches, and not to some far-off end-time/last-day generation.

While most directly concerning the seven churches, Revelation has interest to a broader audience. 1 Corinthians is very targeted to one church; but we all benefit from that epistle [cf. Col 4:16].

Meet the Seven Churches

John uses a unique strategy in Revelation. The body of his message is for all the churches. But he has very different, very specific introductions for each church. These are the famed ‘seven letters’ to the churches.

Seven Churches OrderThe churches are named in the order a messenger delivering this letter to them from Patmos would most naturally follow.

The churches faced very different problems, and they faced some common problems very differently. Each ‘letter’ is an ‘introduction’ to the whole book, in which Jesus addresses that specific church.

God Sanctions Other ‘Interpretations?’

The Revelation as a whole is a circular letter written to seven churches. But John intended for it to be read from seven different perspectives. [This seems to be to be HUGELY liberating to fundamentalists who are bound so very slavishly to the ‘one’ reading allowed every passage!].

Churches in turn are promised future salvation ‘to him who overcomes!’ This is the call to eschatological [future] battle. But what is victory? What does it mean conquer? The letters don’t explain that; but that is explained in the central chapters of this epistle. Likewise, our eschatological destiny is described at the end of the epistle.

John’s World, Ours, or Both…

John lived under Rome’s worldwide tyranny. He wanted the churches to see how that tyranny related to the issues they faced. He wanted them to see how their struggle on the issues fit in God’s great battle against tyranny, and how it served God’s purpose to establish his kingdom.

RB observes that not all Christians were poor and oppressed by Rome’s tyrannical system. Many were affluent and compromised with it. For them, the judgments described in Revelation came not for consolation but as stern warnings of the danger they incurred. It was not only pagans, but many of John’s hearers/readers were tempted to or actually did worship the beast [as those who listened to Jezebel at Thyatira].

Comfort or warning, the application of Revelation turned on the group to which hearers belonged, and their relationship with Rome’s tyranny. Asia Minor had more churches than seven. But the wealth of perspectives John provided allows all the churches to find analogies in his representative sampling of churches.

POLITICAL CYCLONITE

Thus read, Revelation becomes a devastating critique of much Christian profession. They are not alone, but even some very ‘fundamentalist’ sects uncritically endorse US militarism, war, foreign interventionism, plus domestic repression [law-and-order] and poverty [austerity, wage cuts, medical/benefits cuts, interest rates favoring the wealthy, etc.].

The Revelation identifies that as spiritual alignment with and worship of the powers of Death. We have the means to address the enormous social, economic and political crises besetting nation and world. But we surrender this by pushing the theology of the Revelation into the future. And it is done PRECISELY to allow us to profess Christ AND sell out to the world.

“Come out of her, my people, so that you will not participate in her sins and receive of her plagues’ [Re 18:3-4].

Memorial Day PowerPoints

2014 Memorial Day PPT

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].

World Liberator or World Dominator
Saved years ago from a Cuban publication.

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.

memorial-day-2

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:

rev_barber_2

‘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.