No King but Caesar

In my daily Bible reading today I came across this phrase (John 19:15). In their zeal to protect their position and have Jesus executed, the chief priests uttered one of the most, if not the most, blasphemous statements recorded in Scripture. I believe John wanted his readers to hear the irony. They were trying to force Pilate’s hand by making him choose between Jesus and Caesar. They wanted Pilate to know they stood firmly with Caesar, and if he chose Jesus, then he would be committing treason. And in so doing, they denied the God they claimed to worship.

As I read and and listen and ponder the discussions involving our national politics I fear the church is sinking to the level of the chief priests. Just consider – the Chief Priests were the visible connection between the faith of Abraham, Isaac, Jacob and later Moses and David and all the prophets toward God. They maintained the daily, weekly, monthly, and yearly worship in the Temple. They were the mediators between the nation of Israel and God. And yet, when their position was challenged, when they feared losing their power, they did not defer to God for their protection, but to a Roman emperor. The death of the Son of God did not matter so long as they maintained their grip on power – and undoubtedly the physical benefits that were attached to their position.

And so today, when challenged by economic problems, or political problems, or ethical problems, the church is not responding with the message of the gospel – it is responding by clinging to the Constitution or the Bill of Rights or some undefinable right or freedom. When we do that we are simply and plainly repeating the cry of the Chief Priests. Jesus is on trial each and every time we are faced with a choice between the way of the cross or the way of the world, and by appealing to some form of human government or secular philosophy we betray our Lord and savior.

When Jesus confronted the disciples with a particularly hard teaching, whether it was stated or not, a question was attached – do you want to follow the world, or do you want to follow me? On one such occasion Peter answered, “Lord, to whom shall we go -you have the words of eternal life.” (John 6:67) Even though his faith was imperfect, Peter got the point. Once you commit to following Jesus, everything else pales in significance.

When we confess that Jesus is the Lord of our life, when we confess that Jesus is the Son of God and that he died to set us free, we are making a profound political statement. That statement is somewhat hidden in our language, but in the first century the word Lord was attached to only one person – the Roman emperor. To call Jesus Lord was to make a politically subversive – read treasonous – statement. It could, and sometimes did, result in the death of the one making the statement. A person did not make that confession lightly. It had radical implications for the way one lived his or her subsequent life.

Today, when a person says they can be a Christian if their constitutional rights are protected, if certain laws are passed or are not passed, if a certain political party is in the seat of power, if the tax code is changed to their benefit, if they are allowed to write or say or protest, if they can benefit from the system of supply-side economics, or any one of a dozen other ifs, then what they are saying is that there is something that stands between them and Christ. They are saying they have no king but Caesar.

On the other hand, the apostles had no right to bear arms, they had no right to free speech, they had no right of a fair trial, they had no right of free assembly, they faced confiscatory tax laws, they faced summary execution on the accusation of treason, they enjoyed neither the protection nor the blessing of their national government. And they not only survived – they flourished. They had no Lord but Jesus Christ.

“We have no king but Caesar.” Those are chilling words. The cold harshness cuts like a knife. John intended it. He wanted his readers to hear that blasphemy.

Are we willing to hear it today?

Of God and Guns

Public disclaimer #1 – I do not generally like to write on specifically political issues. Sometimes I will, but to the best of my ability I try to restrict myself to the point where politics intersects with theology. This is a theological blog, not a political one. However, political discussions often do intersect with theology, and when and where that occurs I feel justified to offer my opinion.

Public disclaimer #2 – I own a number of firearms myself. I rarely shoot them anymore, first because of the price of ammunition, and second because I do not have a place where I feel comfortable shooting. I hate professional “shooting ranges,” and would much rather shoot at a knot on a log or a coffee can sitting on a rock. The one gun I loved the most was a muzzle-loading rifle, and it was just a kick in the pants to shoot. However, it was equally a pain in the pants to clean up afterward.

With those two disclaimers acknowledged, I offer the following:

In the immediate aftermath of the school shooting in Parkland, Florida, the national conversation turned to the debate over the right of citizens to own weapons such as was used in the shooting, and to a lesser degree, the kind of ammunition that was used in the shooting. The responses were so typical as to be caricatures – the far left pushing for the banning of all firearms, the far right suggesting that every person (or at least, school teachers) be required to carry weapons. There is an increasing middle ground – with variations of the two extreme positions being suggested.

While having my own opinion about gun ownership, I want to state unequivocally that neither extreme presents a realistic solution to the problem of gun violence in the United States. The call to ban all weapons is simply ludicrous – far too many people use guns for sport shooting or hunting. Our system of justice does not allow for the confiscation of anything that is both legal and harmless, without clear and convincing proof that such an object is inherently dangerous. The undeniable evidence is that a gun, in and of itself, is not a dangerous object. It clearly can be used, and is used, in dangerous ways, but a gun properly used is no more dangerous than a vehicle – or most medicines for that matter.

However, and here is where my theological brain kicks in, the extreme promoted by the National Rifle Association is just as erroneous as the extreme calling for the banning of all weapons. I offer three succinct reasons for this conclusion:

  1. The NRA and many adherents argue that gun ownership is necessary in order for citizens to protect themselves from the government. However, the 2nd Amendment was ratified when virtually every firearm (private or military) was of flint-lock construction. Each round had to be carefully loaded from the end of the muzzle, and the firing mechanism depended upon a hammer hitting a small piece of flint, which would then create a spark that was directed to a small pan of gunpowder, which would then ignite the powder that had been carefully loaded into the muzzle of the gun. Each “reload” took quite a bit of time, and if done too quickly, could result in some fairly significant damage if the powder was poured down a barrel that still had a smoldering spark. And – this is the kicker – for many years there was no “military grade” weapons. There was no “army.” The military was comprised of state militias, and each man brought his own rifle to fight with. Even as late as the Civil War, many soldiers used their own gun, not a government issued weapon (that did quickly change, however, during the course of the war). If the NRA wants to go up against today’s highly trained and expertly equipped army with a bunch of shotguns and deer rifles, be my guest. To equate today’s weapons to a 17th or 18th century muzzle-loader is simply to argue from false pretenses -and in my way of thinking that is to lie. If the NRA wants to defend firearm ownership based on 17th century technology and military practices – then fine, let them restrict gun ownership to flintlocks – and not even percussion cap muzzle-loaders.
  2. Conspicuously absent from most, if not all, arguments defending the unrestricted use of firearms, is Paul’s message to the Roman Christians in Romans 13. Let’s just be blunt here: there is no support for armed rebellion against the government in Romans 13. The American Revolution was, in terms of Paul’s teaching, completely unjustified. That really is a hard pill to swallow if you enjoy the fruit of the revolution as much as I do. But – the truth is sometimes hard medicine. The founding fathers had no scriptural right to take up arms against England – and in fact the Declaration of Independence makes no such claim. The call to become independence from the King of England is based entirely upon reasons founded in the Enlightenment, not the Bible.
  3. The most egregious claim made by the leader of the NRA is that the right to “bear arms” is a right granted, not by any human government, but by God himself. This is just so scandalously wrong – and profoundly heretical. Nowhere in God’s word is there any defense of gun ownership. It is plainly and unequivocally an act of government that grants its citizens the “right to bear arms.” Any who agree with the NRA in this regard have no knowledge of either the Bible nor the Constitution. It is a shameful thought to even consider.

As I said above – I consider myself a responsible gun owner. I have hunted in the past (although comically unsuccessful), I have some guns that are deeply special to me, and given the right circumstances, I do love to shoot them. My plea is that those who share my convictions about the Bible and about responsible gun ownership will think long and hard and deep and careful about the defenses we present to justify our ownership and use of such guns. In my opinion, there simply is no justifiable reason to own a weapon whose designed purpose is to kill people, and to kill a large number of people quickly. Even if such a weapon is justifiably only used for sport (target) shooting, there is absolutely no reason for the availability of ammunition so powerful that it can penetrate a kevlar (bullet-proof) vest worn by law enforcement officers. To categorically defend the use of such guns and ammunition is to reject the sanctity of human life.

Dear Christians, we can do, we must do, so much better. There is room in this debate for the passionate defense of our cherished freedoms, but there is also room for the realization that far too many people are being murdered by people using weapons that have no other purpose than to destroy the life of God’s most special creation – another human being.

An Apocalyptic Vision for the Church

In my essay yesterday I pointed out that Barton Stone, and just a generation later David Lipscomb, grasped something about New Testament Christianity that Alexander Campbell either could not see, or rejected. Campbell was an ardent post-millennialist: he believed the movement of which he was a part would usher in the “millennium” and at the end of a long period of human perfection, Christ would come and establish his reign in heaven. He even named his second journal the Millennial Harbinger to emphasize that point. In a semi-related footnote, the Civil War destroyed that belief for Campbell, and he died as so many prophets of human exceptionalism die, disappointed.

Stone, and later Lipscomb, saw things differently. They were just as committed to the restoration principle (just return to the pages of the New Testament in order to restore the church to New Testament simplicity), but they recognized something else. The New Testament has an undeniable forward looking dimension, but it is not created by the wisdom or strength of mankind. For Stone and Lipscomb, if the world is to become a better place, it will only happen by the power of God, and that will only occur through the working of the body of Christ on earth, the church! Lipscomb was especially adamant on this point, writing clearly and passionately that Christians are to avoid every form of contamination with politics, even to the point of refusing to vote. Christians could not participate in the army (Lipscomb was horrified at the thought of Christians killing Christians in the Civil War), nor were they to serve in any civil positions. Christians are to live as kingdom citizens, and it is the reign of God in heaven that draws disciples of Christ into living in and promoting the reign of God on earth.

This is the polar opposite of “pie in the sky by and by” theology whereby Christians simply try to be “good people” until they die so that they can float around on little clouds playing their golden harps. This apocalyptic worldview almost got Lipscomb killed, and it was his adamant refusal to participate in politics that has resulted in his influence basically being expunged from the history of the Churches of Christ. On the first point, during a severe outbreak of a deadly epidemic (cholera, if I remember correctly) in Nashville, while Christians fled the city in droves, Lipscomb stayed and used his horse and buggy to drive Roman Catholic nuns around the city so they could minister to the sick and dying. Regarding the second point, it was during World War I, and ultimately World War II that the pacifistic view of Lipscomb was violently rejected (pun intended) so that the members of the Churches of Christ could be viewed as “good patriotic Americans.” Today, among the overwhelming majority of members of the Churches of Christ, patriotism is virtually identical to Christianity. Lipscomb, and I believe Stone, would be aghast.

As any reader can probably guess, I am deeply indebted to Stone (what I can read of him, although he did have some weird ideas). I am even more indebted to Lipscomb. I have read Lipscomb’s Civil Government and I am impressed with two things: Lipscomb’s profound biblical knowledge, and his theological insights. Those who disagree with Lipscomb very rarely ever actually engage Lipscomb, they simply defend their love of country and their political commitments more loudly. Which, in an ironic manner, simply proves Lipscomb’s point: you cannot promote God’s kingdom and the kingdom of Satan at the same time. Jesus said it this way, you cannot serve God and man.

A truly apocalyptic worldview has profound implications for the church. I’m not even sure I understand all of them – no, I am certain that I do not understand all of them. I have lived my entire life in an ethos where Christianity and Americanism were considered identical. America was God’s chosen land, and he blessed it with prosperity and peace. I do not think I have ever seen, and I have certainly not worshipped in, a church that is so fully immersed in the kingdom of God that it seeks to literally overturn the rule of Satan in its community. A congregation that exists so that its members can float around on little clouds when they die is inherently crippled – it has no eyes to see, no ears to hear, and certainly no arms or hands to help. Conversely, a church that lives each and every day empowered by God’s indwelling kingdom not only sees, not only hears, but intentionally and actively works to alleviate human misery and to promote that indwelling kingdom.

As America sinks deeper and deeper into moral depravity and violence, I am growing more and more convinced that only this apocalyptic worldview will save the church. We must, we absolutely must, accept the reality that those who deny the lordship of Christ will never be able to think or legislate themselves out of the quagmire that those who deny the lordship of Christ have thought and legislated themselves into. Only when we learn to live, to utterly and totally exist fully immersed in God’s kingdom of love and justice, will the church be able to be the light set on a hill, to be the salt that purifies and preserves this generation.

Jury Duty?

I suppose of all modern problems, serving on a jury rates pretty low on the list. Never-the-less, the envelope that carries my jury duty summons has to rate at the very top of my least favorite to receive. The entire process of jury duty selection and service is among the most distasteful, and in my humble opinion, spiritually vexed problems that I face.

Many Christians view serving on a jury as a sacred honor – a privilege second only to active service in the military or law enforcement. I am thoroughly ambivalent. I understand all the flowery defense of the need for juries and the responsibility we have to serve. I just cannot get away from a nagging question – can a Christian participate in a flawed system and not thereby share in its guilt? To what extent is the cog just as guilty as the entire machine?

The jury summons that recently crossed my desk contains the following paragraph:

The right to trial by jury is guaranteed to all persons by both the United States and ********* Constitutions. The success of the jury system depends upon citizens performing their solemn duty to serve as jurors, while acting with integrity in discharging this responsibility.

Pretty high commendation. Just two questions – Is it true? and Is it Christian?

Let’s start phrase by phrase. A trial by jury is guaranteed to all persons. Check. No doubt, and no problem with that at all. Second, the success of the jury system depends on citizens (note the distinct lack of any qualifying adjectives) performing their solemn duty. Okay, well that one is a little more slippery. The trial of a racial minority by a racist jury is no success at all – it is a travesty and a crime itself. A trial involving a complicated legal question by an uninformed and basically ignorant jury is an equal travesty. So – the success of the jury trial system depends upon an educated and completely dispassionate jury. Such are rare, if not completely extinct. Third, the jurors must act with integrity. Here is where you lose me completely. Judges are not compelled to act with integrity – only to correctly apply the law. The suppression of critical evidence, the permission to allow certain witnesses – all may be legally correct, but integrity goes far and above legality. Defense attorneys are especially exempt from acting with integrity – it matters not at all to a defense attorney if his or her client is actually guilty, only that he or she be defended to the fullest extent of the law. And what about the state – can anyone say with a straight face that the state is required to act with integrity? It seems like every month, if not every week, a prisoner has been released after serving years, if not decades, in prison for crimes they did not commit. How many innocent individuals have been executed? All of these variables are somehow mitigated by a jury that acts with integrity? In many trials the only way a jury could act with integrity is to throw the entire court into jail for 30 days.

You see, the entire purpose of a legal system is to adjudicate truth and responsibility. If judges only have to dot “i”s and cross “t”s from a legal standpoint, if defense attorneys have to aggressively defend a client regardless of their guilt or innocence, and if the state’s attorneys can massage and/or withhold exculpatory evidence – how in the world can a jury be said to “act in integrity”?

Of course the rejoinder is that the jury is not responsible for the judge and his or her decisions, the jury is to weigh the merits of the case and not pay attention to the defense or prosecution attorneys. But, if the jury is misled, if the jury does not get to hear all of the pertinent evidence, if the jury is manipulated by high-sounding but vacuous rhetoric – how can the end result be said to have integrity? If the jury acquits the guilty, or if they convict the innocent – is it not thereby guilty of a gross crime, regardless of whether they acted “in integrity” according to some vague regulation?

The justice system must be based on a search for the truth, and as a protection for the immediate victim and for society at large. Our system is upside down. The entire system is designed to protect the rights of the accused; and the victim and society be . . . well, you get the picture.

As I said – I am utterly ambivalent. I know the importance of our legal system. As someone once said, it may not be perfect, but it is the best we have. But because of my experience both as a participant in the system and as a more than casual observer I see how bent and broken the system is. I also know that I am utterly powerless to effect any kind of change.

So – by law I am required to show up for jury duty, and to obey the law of the land I will comply. And if forced to serve, I will serve as dispassionately and with as much integrity as I can muster.

And, as Dietrich Bonhoeffer so eloquently argued, I will pray with all my heart and soul that God’s mercies can forgive the sins of those forced to do what their conscience objects to.