Trump’s Wall and the Cross

[SPOILER ALERT: THIS POST TAKES AN UNABASHED, “NO-HOLDS-BARRED” POSITION REPUDIATING THE BUILDING OF PRESIDENT TRUMP’S BORDER WALL WITH MEXICO. IF YOU CANNOT HAVE YOUR SUPPORT OF TRUMP OR HIS WALL CHALLENGED, PLEASE DO NOT READ ANY FURTHER.]

First, this is a theological blog, not a political one. However, there are times in which issues which have their origin in politics impinges so directly and so profoundly upon theology and ethics that to ignore them means a retreat from Christian convictions. This is one of those times.

Second, I admit there is an immigration problem to be addressed by the lawmakers of both the United States and Mexico (and possible other nations). This is a serious, and I dare say, entrenched, problem that calls for thoughtful, deliberate, and above all, a unified approach if it is to be solved.

Third, I support policies that provide for safe, legal immigration to the United States, and also defend the sovereignty of this nation. Those who are drawn to our country are drawn to us for a myriad of reasons – and they should be given every opportunity to do so LEGALLY. The line between legal immigration and illegal immigration is not really all that fine. It should be defended and protected.

With all of that being said, a few days back I made a comment on my Facebook page and also on Twitter that apparently upset some folks. Without repeating everything, I just pointed out how not all that long ago President Ronald Reagan stood at the Berlin wall and said, “Mr. Gorbachev, tear down this wall.” I opined that the same people who thought that was a wonderful idea are now supporting the building a wall between the U.S. and Mexico – kind of a strange, and in my eyes, a wicked form of hypocrisy.

I was challenged, and I must say in a very polite and generous manner, by a young man who had the dubious honor of being one of my students. I regard him as being thoughtful and sincere almost to a fault. But, in his defense of Trump and the wall, I must say he (and those who think like him) are just wrong.

To my young friend there is no difference between the wall and other forms of “security” such as the walls Israel has constructed – or any nation for that matter (I pointed out that Communist nations have had walls for decades if not centuries, but that did not impress). For him, as for many Trumpsters, the wall represents security and national sovereignty.

To that I say, “Exactly how?”

Let’s just cut to the chase – building the wall will make the U.S. no safer, and will not solve the immigration problem, to any greater extent than the confiscation of every firearm will solve the problem of violence in America. If you think that a little bit of steel and concrete will stop human trafficking and the influx of drugs and illegal immigrants into the U.S., then I would politely, yet pointedly, suggest you are under the influence of a special kind of logic inhibiting drug. Let’s unpack that a little, shall we?

Proponents of banning all guns (or at the very least, all handguns) in America argue that without guns, America will be safer. Those who defend gun ownership respond (and I agree) that is a specious argument. There will never be a way to confiscate all handguns, what will happen is that criminals will always have access to handguns, and only the law-abiding citizen will be damaged by such a ridiculous proposal.

Proponents of building a wall to stop illegal immigration argue that the wall will prevent all (or at least the majority) of illegal immigration. Again, a specious argument – do you really think someone who is determined to enter the U.S. illegally will be deterred by that silly wall? It might keep out the migrant workers (upon whom so much of our agricultural output depends), but for the hardened trafficker or drug runner that wall will simply be a speed bump.

And, let us be perfectly clear about another issue – the wall will do nothing towards solving the greater problem of WHY people are fleeing oppressive governments and are “yearning to be free” in the land of opportunity. Illegal border crossings are not the disease – they are the symptom that indicates the disease. Building a wall will NOT address the underlying issues that will simply re-appear in different forms somewhere else.

Trump’s wall is nothing more than an ideological symbol of American (read white) supremacy masked as a “law and order” effort to stop “those” people from coming into the U.S.

Christians should repudiate that ideology – and the symbolism – as clearly as we can.

I return to President Reagan’s famous declaration. It was, in one incredibly short and powerful sentence, a statement of the core of America’s greatest gift to the world – that all people should be free, and that walls that create hatred and animosity must be torn down. Torn down, not by military aggression, but by the simple power of human dignity and respect. Trump’s wall creates hostility and distrust – read aggression – between many people who are more closely related economically and culturally than they are to other people in their own countries of legal residence. Trump’s wall is nothing more than a facade – a symbol (and a false one at that) – of security and “legal” obedience.

That’s my political take on the subject. Now – let us consider what Scripture has to teach us.

Consider such passages as Amos 5:14-15, 21-24; Micah 6:6-8; Hosea 5:6; Isaiah 1:16-17, 8:12-13, 55:8-9, 58:6-7; Jeremiah 9:23-24, 22:3, 34:17; Leviticus 19. Consider how God repeatedly told the Israelites to be kind to the alien – as they had been aliens and slaves in Egypt. This is a common, and well noted, theme throughout the Old Testament.

But also consider Matthew 5-7! Read Matthew 23. Read Matthew 25:31-46. Consider James 2:1-13!

Consider Ephesians 2:11-22 where the apostle Paul goes to extreme measures to point out that Jesus “has broken down in his flesh the dividing wall of hostility” so that he might “reconcile us both [i.e., both Jew and Gentile] to God in one body through the cross, thereby killing the hostility.” You see, in the Kingdom of God there can be no walls. Walls separate, Christ unites. Walls create division and hostility. Christ brings peace.

Just a note, but if you try to argue that the above passages pertain to Israel or to the church, and that he has another set of ethics for the world, then I politely but emphatically argue that I am not an Augustinian nor a Lutheran, and I do not ascribe to the “two Kingdoms” ideology. God may hold those who are aware of and who accept his laws to a higher degree of obedience, but he never, ever, said that he had two sets of ethics or moral absolutes – one for the “secular” world and one for his kingdom. (Read Romans 1-3)

If it was right to celebrate the destruction of the Berlin wall, then it is now wrong to celebrate the building of a wall between the U.S. and Mexico. If it is now right and proper to build Trump’s wall, then it was wrong to applaud and support President Reagan. You cannot have it both ways.

You can attempt to defend Trump’s wall on purely pragmatic grounds – that it will stop illegal immigration. I am fully convinced that is a foolish, even ridiculous argument, but you may have it if you wish. I must add here that the cost of this foolish endeavor is five billion dollars! The building of the wall is immoral simply due to its cost. Just think how that money could be spent on policies that would have an impact on illegal immigration. It just boggles the mind.

You can also attempt to defend the wall on purely political grounds – that it was Trump’s promise before he was elected, therefore he should try to get it built. That, in sum, is why I think most people who support the wall want it built. That wall will be a collective “thumb-in-the-nose” to all those mean, nasty, ugly liberals. However – let’s be real here. Trump will not be president for long, and what kind of reaction will transpire when the next Democratic nominee is elected? Revenge is a dish politicians love to serve hot or cold, and I shudder to think what is in store two, or at the most, six years from now.

However, let us be clear. You cannot defend the building of the wall using any semblance of Christian doctrine or ethics.

For Christians, standing on this side of the cross, building Trump’s wall is just flat out wrong – and the whole of Scripture supports me on that statement.

Let us ascend by climbing lower.

Jesus Contradicted Jesus

I love that title. And, no, it is not necessarily created  as “click-bait,” although, if it got you here, so much the better. But, my title is absolutely correct. Jesus did contradict Jesus, and in the most emphatic way. Confused? Irritated? Wondering if I’ve lost the only two working synapses in my noggin? Let me explain.

Many Christians wonder what Jesus (son of Mary) was talking about in Matthew 5:43 when he said, “You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy.'” Up to v. 43 it appears that Jesus has been quoting mostly from the Torah, the book of the Jewish law. I have often heard this verse explained away (and have probably explained it away) by saying that Jesus is quoting oral teaching here – that nowhere is it specifically written that a Jew was to love a fellow Jew, but hate an enemy.

Except, it was written that Jews were to love their neighbor and hate their enemy. It was not written thus in the Torah, but it was written down. In case you were wondering, here is the passage:

Give to the devout, but do not help the sinner. Do good to the humble, but do not give to the ungodly; hold back their bread, and do not give it to them, for by means of it they might subdue you; then you will receive twice as much evil for all the good you have done to them. For the Most High also hates sinners and will inflict punishment on the ungodly. Give to the one who is good, but do not help the sinner. Sirach 12:4-7

Those words were written approximately 200 years before Jesus, son of Mary, was born in Bethlehem. They were written by a Jew by the name of Jesus ben Sirah. His book is entitled variously as Ecclesiasticus, or the Wisdom of Jesus ben Sirah, or simply as Sirach.

Now, the words of Jesus our Lord do not perfectly match the words of Jesus ben Sirah, but that is not the point. The point is that for approximately two centuries there had been a strain of Judaism that was promoting the very teaching that Jesus our Lord was seeking to destroy. There was a written document that promoted the active hatred of one’s enemies. Jesus our Lord was not making this up on the fly. His teaching had a specific audience – those Jews who were so distorting the Torah that they were actually teaching the opposite of what Moses taught. [For confirmation, see Leviticus 19:18, 33-34]

What is simultaneously fascinating, and deeply troubling, about this passage is not so much that it exists (although, that is troubling in itself), but, if the comments in the New Revised Standard Version of the Apocrypha are correct, the Jews came to reject the book from their canon, and it was certain Christians who accepted it into their canon of Scripture! This explains the title Ecclesiasticus, or “church book.” [See the introduction to Ecclesiasticus, in the Oxford edition of the NRSV, page AP 86.] That really bothers me – here we have a book that, on the whole, teaches some marvelous things about God and human nature – but that in this one instance alone is so clearly and unambiguously refuted by Jesus of Nazareth.

So, there you have it folks, I was not making this up, and I did not create a title in order to deceitfully bring you into this blog. Jesus did refute Jesus – Jesus of Nazareth our Lord clearly and with great power refuted the writings of Jesus ben Sirah. I would suggest that today we are all followers of Jesus – the question to answer is, which Jesus are we following?

Let’s ascend by climbing lower.

Rush Limbaugh and the Stunning Collapse of Trumptopia

A little background here. I have been an occasional listener of Rush Limbaugh for years. At first I thought he was some kind of guru or swami. Over time I came to realize he is just a really good entertainer with a keen eye for politics. The title of my page, “Undeniable Truths for Theological Reflection” is a tongue-in-cheek acknowledgment of one of his books, something along the lines of undeniable truths for life. I am not a regular listener, much less a devoted ditto-head. He is a brilliant satirist, and for years he was the only voice that challenged what is now referred to as the “main stream media” – and he has been reviled for it.

But the other day I heard him say things I would never, ever, have expected him to say. When President Trump signed the “Omnibus Spending Act of 2018” I thought Limbaugh was going to bust a gasket. He was absolutely apoplectic – angry, upset, disturbed, irked. I don’t think he agreed with Trump at all.

Which is, to put it mildly, hysterical. I have never heard Limbaugh campaign for anyone more devoutly than he campaigned for Trump – even during the primaries. He claims not to take sides during primaries, but even my occasional listening proved to me that his shows were “all Trump, all the time.” I heard him say on more than one occasion that Trump was not a conservative, but he was willing to overlook that reality for the simple reason that Trump stuck his finger in the eye of the Washington “establishment,” and for Limbaugh that was good enough. And, of course, after the primaries it did not matter who the Republican candidate was, the mission of the day was to make sure Clinton #2 was not elected.

So, returning to Trump signing this 1.3 trillion dollar budget – one that Limbaugh swears was created by the “establishment” in order to destroy Trump. I just have one question – why is Limbaugh, and all of his loyal ditto-heads, upset, or even shocked? They knew that Trump was not a fiscal, nor an ethical, conservative. They knew he made decisions based on what he thought was best for himself. They knew he loved to be provocative and to stick his finger in other peoples’ eyes. What they did not expect is that he would do it to them! They expected a non-conservative, free-wheeling and dealing, ethical opportunist would remain faithful to them and their agenda, and when he did not, they did not know how to handle it.

All of which just drives me deeper into the wisdom of David Lipscomb, and more recently, Glen Stassen. Lipscomb lived during the presidency of one of the greatest, if not the greatest, of American presidents. And he also lived during one of the greatest, if not the greatest, catastrophes to ever befall this nation. Through it all he remained steadfast in his conviction that it was only to God and to God’s kingdom that one should pledge allegiance. For Lipscomb a smaller government, or a more constitutionally conservative government, or a more Christian government, was not the solution to mankind’s problem – government itself was mankind’s problem! A physical government might be necessary, but it was an evil necessity, one that should be steadfastly ignored beyond what it was biblically permitted to demand (and for Lipscomb, that was basically only taxes).

Glen Stassen guided me in an individual study of the theology and ethics of Dietrich Bonhoeffer. As a result of that study I was introduced to a new, and for me, profound understanding of the Sermon on the Mount. Stassen took an exegetical observation made by W.D. Davies and D.C. Allison and gave it hermeneutical “legs” on which to stand. The observation is that Matthew 7:6, “Do not give dogs what is holy, and do not throw your pearls before pigs, lest they trample them underfoot and turn to attack you,” far from being just a disjointed and unconnected saying, is actually a central teaching regarding a disciple’s commitment to God and God’s kingdom. If we sell ourselves, and our allegiance, for a mess of political slop, we should not be surprised when the political dogs and pigs turn around and bite us.

Which is, precisely true to Jesus’s words, exactly what has happened to the followers of Trumptopia.

I have been utterly dumbfounded by the way certain Christians have turned a blind eye to Trump and his ethical and moral collapses. I remember the “moral majority” screaming for then President Clinton’s impeachment over his sexual misconduct and his lies. Now we are told sexual misconduct is not a major factor in whether a man should remain president – only that he promote our conservative agenda.

Except that President Trump is not now, has never been, and most likely will never be, either fiscally nor morally conservative.

When we cast what is holy and precious (our physical and spiritual allegiance) into a political pig sty, can we be surprised that the residents of that sty turn and attack us?

With each passing day I am becoming more and more convinced that the Sermon on the Mount speaks directly to the disciple’s relationship to every aspect of his or her culture – and that includes the government. Lipscomb was absolutely correct. Government may be necessary, but it is an evil necessity.

The disciple’s allegiance is to God, and to God’s kingdom. If we forget that, or if we reject that, we have no one to blame but ourselves when the dogs and pigs come growling.

What Would Happen If You Disappeared?

What would happen if you disappeared? Well, not you personally, but what would happen if your Bible class, your small group study, even your congregation disappeared? Disappeared as in, poof, and you are gone – no farewell speeches, no lingering goodbyes, no last words of comfort. I am not talking about would you miss that class, small group, or congregation. Obviously I think the answer to that question is “yes.” I am asking if others in your congregation, or your community, would notice?

Would your congregation truly miss your Bible class, or would things just go on as normal, albeit with a smaller number in the record book? Would your congregation miss your small group Bible study, or would they even notice your absence? And, more critically, would your community miss your congregation if it just suddenly ceased to exist?

These are tough questions that very likely cause some discomfort. We all want to think that we are important, that we are contributing to the welfare of our congregations and our communities, that we would be missed a la George Bailey in It’s a Wonderful Life if we just were no longer around.

Another way to ask the question is this, “What is the reason your Bible class, your small group study, or your congregation, exists?” The answer to that question will be revealing. If the only answer you can come up with is to be the one, true, pure and undefiled Bible class, small group, or church congregation, then I will bet dollars against dimes that no one would even notice if you ceased to exist. (Either that, or they might rejoice.)

You see, no one who meets to study the Bible or to form a small group Bible study, or even to form a Christian church congregation does so with the express purpose of being a wrong-headed, corrupt, run-of-the-mill, pure vanilla Bible study, small group or church. Every Bible class proclaims fidelity to the text. Every small group believes itself to be special. Every congregation makes a claim to be the church, or at the very least a vital part of the entire church. Nobody intentionally promotes obscurity and inferiority. So, if your only claim to fame, or for existence, is that you are somehow special, join the list of every other special group or church. To paraphrase one of my favorite lines in Fiddler on the Roof, “a rabbi who praises himself has a congregation of one.” You will not have much of an influence.

I suggest that if you want your Bible class, small group study, and especially your congregation, to have any kind of meaning in this world, you had better have more purpose for its existence than just being different, or more special, or more unique, or some other qualifying adjective. Virtually every survey and study over the past 10 years has documented how members are leaving Christian churches by the hundreds. People are simply fed up with endless arguments over subjects that have about as much meaning as the number of angels that can dance on the head of a pin. Unchurched people, and dis-enthused former members, are seeking for a Christianity that has a pulse – that is vital and real and meaningful. Doctrine does matter – it matters a lot* – but only if it can be embodied, if it becomes an incarnational truth.

Have you noticed that at the end of the first, and arguably the definitive, sermon in the gospel of Matthew, Jesus stated that only the person who does the will of my Father will enter the Kingdom of Heaven? (Matthew 7:21-23) The sermon that has been “spiritualized” to death is one of the most definitive statements that stresses concrete obedience as opposed to mere consent.

Ask your preacher. Ask your elders. Ask your deacons. Ask your Bible school teacher. Demand an answer from yourself. If your group disappeared today, would anyone notice tomorrow?

*Studies have shown that those congregations and groups that are managing to grow in this climate of shrinking churches are those congregations and groups that have clearly demarcated doctrines and beliefs. Those doctrines might be Calvinistic or Arminian, charismatic or fundamentalist, but those doctrines must translate into changed lives and meaningful ministry. People are NOT doctrine-phobic as some might believe, but they are discerning when it comes to identifying doctrines that matter, and those that are just used to separate those who say shibboleth from those who say sibboleth.