Faith & Social Justice: In the spirit of Richard Overton and the 17th C. Levellers

A Biblical Case for Christian Pacifism III: Ways People Evade Jesus

There are numerous ways that Christians claim that Jesus is Lord, but still manage to evade his teachings and examples as claims on their lives as disciples.  I was first alerted to this by John Howard Yoder, who describes many of these evasions early in his The Politics of Jesus.  Later, my teacher, Glen Stassen presented a similar lengthy list of ways people evade taking the Sermon on the Mount seriously. (Since the Sermon on the Mount is the largest block of Jesus’ teaching we have recorded in the Gospels, how we treat it is a strong indication of how we’ll treat Jesus altogether.)  If we name and describe (briefly) the various ways we dodge Jesus (while swearing loyalty to him), it will help us avoid falling into the same traps.

  1. The Dispensationalist Dodge:  Jesus’ teachings, especially the Sermon on the Mount, were not meant for the “Church Age,” but for the future Kingdom of God.  My disagreements with Dispensationalism, even “progressive Dispensationalism,” are legion, but now is not the time to rehearse them.  Suffice it to say that I find it extremely unlikely that when the Kingdom or Rule of God comes in all fullness that we we will still have enemies to love, that anyone will backhand us on the right cheek, sue us for our cloaks, or any occupying troops will force us to carry any packs even one mile.  In the fullness of God’s Rule (whether in heaven or on earth), will we still have relationship problems that require us to stop our worship, go to our sister or brother and talk to them, seeking peace?  All these teachings seem very much for this world.  And at the end of the Sermon, Jesus tells the parable of the houseowner who built his house on rock (comparing him to the one who hears Jesus’ teachings and puts them into practice) versus the one who built his house on sand (comparing him to the one who hears Jesus’ teachings and doesn’t practice them.) The idea that Jesus never intended his teachings to be for the “Church age” is falsified by the very words of Jesus in the text.
  2. The “Preterist” Dodge: Jesus expected the Rule or Kingdom of God to Come either in his lifetime or shortly after–and his teachings were only meant to be an “interim ethic.”  He did expect his disciples to practice his teachings, but they are so heroic that they could never be practiced for long–and the ongoing centuries required a different ethic for the Church.  This view was made popular by the New Testament scholar, Albert Schweitzer, in his classic The Quest for the Historical Jesus.  Schweitzer had much right, but this seems off.  Why would the ongoing centuries make Jesus’ ethic less normative?  It is true that many Christian pacifist movements throughout the history of the Church had, at least initially, a heightened eschatological feeling, but the resurrection and the Holy Spirit give an empowering grace for Jesus’ ethic.  When Schweitzer later adopted his own spirituality of “reverence for life,” I wonder that it did not lead him to reconsider his “interim ethic” view.
  3. The public/private split dodge.  Jesus’ teachings are only for individual Christians in their private lives, but if they hold a public office requiring violence (e.g., soldier, judge, executioner, head of government) they must be governed by some other ethic.  This dodge was a favorite of the Reformer, Martin Luther and many Lutherans (and others) since then.  The problem with this is that there is no evidence for this in the New Testament texts.  Nowhere do we find Jesus saying, “In your private lives, if struck on the right cheek, turn the other also, but as a member of the Sanhedrin it’s okay to condemn people to death.”  The problem with such “two kingdom” thinking was shown most graphically in the German Third Reich–with many Christians reserving their Christian behavior for private lives, but as guards or doctors at death camps they used a different morality.  We cannot limit Christ’s lordship to the church; Christ is cosmic lord and if that is still hidden in the world (to finally be revealed at the End–Phil. 2), it is to be manifest throughout all aspects of the lives of Christians.
  4. The “inner attitudes” dodge.  This one was popular with John Calvin.  Jesus’ teachings are about our inner attitudes more than about our outer actions.  We can love our enemies even if, in war, or execution of criminals, we must kill them.  There are attitudinal dimensions to Jesus’ teaching.  Jesus wants us to renounce the nursing of anger and holding grudges rather than just avoiding killing people. But Jesus has plenty of instruction for actions, too. He tells us that we love our enemies by praying for them, seeking to do them good, stopping our worship to make peace.  We confront those who backhand us (an act of humiliation) by turning the other cheek, so that they are forced to acknowledge our human dignity; we confront those who who would sue us poor for the very coat on our backs by stripping naked in the court of (in)justice; we react to the occupation troops who force us to carry their packs one mile, by carrying them two miles.  None of those commands are simply about our inner attitudes.
  5. There is the dodge that simply ignores Jesus’ teachings and example because, supposedly, the only that counts is Jesus’ atoning death.  Historically, one strand of Lutheranism took this view–even concentrating on justification to the exclusion of sanctification. (I’ll never forget how stunned I was when one Lutheran theologian defined sanctification as “getting used to your justification!”) But this view is becoming more popular with a broad range of American evangelicals–especially the resurgent 5-point Calvinists in the Southern Baptist Convention.   But this makes Jesus into a cipher–so that he was just marking time until the crucifixion.  It also reduces the cross and resurrection into a divine transaction–not asking what the human motives of the Romans and their Jewish puppet leaders were for killing Jesus (something this series will discuss).  While it is true that the Apostle Paul could say that he determined to know nothing “but Christ Jesus and him crucified,” (1 Cor. 2:2  ), but even Paul could paraphrase Jesus’ teachings (e.g., Romans 12) and was quick to say that Christ was also an example for his disciples.  The Baptist prophet Clarence Jordan mocked this view by saying that American Christians “will worship the hind legs off Jesus, but not do the first thing He says!”  The debate in the ’90s among some American evangelicals over whether or not Jesus could be someone’s savior without also being Lord gets into this, too.  The answer is clear:  Jesus called out disciples, that is followers and in the Great Commission commanded them to make disciples from among all the nations and part of that disciple making would be “teaching them to practice all things that I have taught you.” (Matt. 28:18-20).  Following Jesus’ example and teachings is not an optional add on to Christian salvation–but part of the very definition of the term “Christian.”

There are other evasions, other dodges, but these are the most common, especially among lay Christians.  Readers can bring up others in comments.  Naming and rebutting these dodges, these ways we evade Jesus’ claims even while calling him “Lord, Lord!” puts us on guard against the evasive tendencies of our own unfaithful hearts.  For, as John Calvin rightly noted, the human heart is an idol factory.  We seek to root out these evasions and to be able to take Jesus’ teachings seriously as describing a distinct way of life for Christians who embody a foretaste of inbreaking Rule of God.

October 14, 2009 Posted by | Biblical exegesis, discipleship, Jesus, Kingdom of God, New Testament, nonviolence, pacifism, peacemaking, violence | 10 Comments

Are Christian Colleges and Universities Failing the Church and Kingdom?

Years ago, I heard Tony Campolo, Emeritus Professor of Sociology at Eastern University (St. Davids, PA), and gadfly evangelist who provokes his fellow evangelicals, ask whether Christian colleges and universities were failing both the American churches and the Kingdom of God.  Since he taught at a Christian college (now university–and now it has an entire program named after him), I didn’t take his question too seriously.  Or, I thought he was talking about those Christian colleges, usually very conservative, which were not very academically challenging (such as Palm Peace Atlantic, where I did part of my undergraduate work). Or maybe he meant those institutions which were once Christian, but now were purely secular institutions with little or no relation to the churches (Harvard, Yale, Columbia, Princeton, University of Chicago, Brown, Southern Methodist, etc.).

But recently, I have begun to think that’s not what Campolo had in mind.  Or, if it was, it is not what I have in mind in asking this question.  I  have begun to wonder if even those Christian colleges with strong academics and also strong connections to the churches, with a pervading Christian atmosphere and a desire to unite faith and learning, are failing the churches and the kingdom–are failing God.  This is a question, not a conclusion, and there may be exceptions that still prove the general rule even if the question is answered “Yes, they are.”

Here’s why the question comes to mind: the behavior of most of the graduates of Christian colleges and universities is not noticeably different from the behavior of the rest of the (pagan, secular) culture.  Why aren’t the graduates of Christian colleges who go on to, say, Medical school, irritants to the system, questioning the practices of medicine in our society in light of the gospel? And after medical school, why aren’t Christian doctors uniting to build practices and institutions that offer free medical care to the poor–regardless of what our culture does? Do we find a higher than average number of the members of Doctors Without Borders (Medicins sans Frontieres) to be products of Christian colleges and universities? What about the members of Physicians for Social Responsibility?  Do we find doctors who come from Christian colleges treating nurses better than most doctors? Do we find them taking less money and living simpler so that they can provide more care to more people?  I don’t think so.

Because the healthcare debate is front-burner, I thought of Christian doctors first, but I don’t mean to single them out. What about graduates of Christian colleges and universities who go on to law school and become attorneys? Do we see them take the normal big money jobs, or do we see them living simpler than other lawyers so that they can use the law to bring justice to the poor and marginalized? All lawyers are expected by their profession to do a certain amount of pro bono (free) work, but do we see graduates of Christian colleges doing more of this?  Are they volunteering for the cases no one else wants, like death penalty appeals or defending accused terrorists?  Are they taking the lead in defending human rights and civil liberties?  Do other lawyers consider them a pain in the neck for the way they constantly work to make the system more just for everyone?  I have no doubt that some do, but is the percentage any greater from Christian colleges than from secular ones?

If our church-related  colleges and universities were truly, uniquely, Christian, we’d expect the education majors to teach in areas with less glamor and resources–or push for changes in curriculum that better educated the young. We’d expect the graduates that went into politics to put Kingdom goals (justice for the poor and marginalized, peacemaking, care for the earth, work  for the common good) at the top of their list–and we’d find few if any involved in scandals and corruption. We’d find them refuse to slander colleagues or opponents–not even to win elections–and to defend the character of those whose policies they opposed–to practice humility. If our  colleges and universities were truly producing “Christian” education, would not the business majors be in the forefront of efforts to reform banking practices or create opportunities for the poor. The founder of  no-interest “micro-lending” to the poor was no product of Christian college, but Muhammed Yunus, a Muslim in Bangladesh.  A recent survey of 3 prominent societies for Christian business leaders, many of whom were graduates of church-related colleges, found that less than 1% had even heard of micro-lending and most were skeptical  that it could “work” to alleviate poverty–though the success rate is phenomenal and widely praised by international development experts.

I could go on through field after field of inquiry asking similar questions.  And they all lead me to wonder WHY our Christian colleges and universities–no matter denomination or theological tradition–are making so little impact on our culture through their graduates?  If we find these educational efforts valuable, and I still do, what about them needs to change so that they do not continue to fail the churches and the Kingdom of God?

I do not have the answers to this–not even a few of them.  But I think I finally understand  why Campolo was asking the question–and I think the time is long overdue for more of us to ask the same question.

August 15, 2009 Posted by | education, Kingdom of God | 9 Comments