Monday, October 9, 2017

Bible Verses I Don’t Like

This is the script of a sermon I preached at Meadowood senior center, October 8, 2017.

Are there verses in the Bible that you just don’t like?

One struggle I’ve had almost ever since I became a Christian has been dealing with the Apostle Paul.

Here’s the backstory. In August of 1972 I was on my way my bicycle from southern Oregon to Seattle, returning to college from my summer job. God was already chasing me. Already that summer I had been witnessed to on a Greyhound bus by a little old lady from Orofino, Idaho, and in a park by a barely literate hippie kinda guy from the Gospel Lighthouse in Eureka, California. In Coos Bay I’d gone into a head shop, a place that sold drug paraphernalia, looking for a place to stay and the owner had referred me to a Christian street mission. I’d enjoyed the people there so much I’d stayed there an extra night. The folks there had referred me to the home of a Christian lady in Newport, and she had referred me to her niece and nephew-in-law, who ran a communal crash pad called the Shiloh house in Seaside.

After a couple of days at the Seaside Shiloh house I realized that there was something there that I wanted, and I decided not to return to college. After a few more days of Bible study and singing psalms, I started to understand that my problems were the result of my rebellion against God. I say started to understand because I had no idea how deep my rebellion against him was, and 45 years later I still surprise myself with how quickly I find myself thinking seriously about chucking the whole Christian scene.

As I said, the Shiloh house was a commune and crash pad, one of many in the Pacific Northwest at the time. In those days young people were hitchhiking all over the country, and they needed cheap places to stay overnight. The Shiloh houses would let people stay overnight and feed them for free and tell them the gospel. People who lived there would go out on the street in the evening to pass out tracts and witness to the people they saw, and if they saw a “tripper,” they’d invite them to stay overnight.

So even from day one I was out on the street passing out tracts and accosting people. After Labor Day, Seaside pretty much shuts down, so Shiloh closed that house and moved me to Boise, Idaho, where I stayed until almost Christmas, when I felt it was time to move on. But I have never forgotten the daily regimen of two Bible studies per day, singing songs straight from Scripture, and going out on the streets at night to pass out tracts and try to start conversations.

One place people liked to hang out after dark in Boise was the parking lot of the Boise Cascade Corporation offices. They’d park their cars, sit in them or stand around, talk, smoke, and drink beer. We’d go and chat them up. One evening I was talking to a twenty-something girl who passed herself off to me as an off-duty nurse. I’m not sure how the conversation got there, but she was objecting to what she understood as Christianity’s view that women are inferior to men. So I pulled out my King James Bible—Shiloh people used only the King James Bible—and started reading a passage I’d never read before that I thought would assure her that God loves women as much as he loves men, 1 Timothy 2:8–9: “I will therefore that men pray every where, lifting up holy hands, without wrath and doubting. In like manner also, that women adorn themselves in modest apparel [Who could object to that?], with shamefacedness ….” Shamefacedness?

Well, that was the end of that conversation. And, of course, there are other passages that to this day I can’t get my mind around. Like 1 Corinthians 11:14: “Doth not even nature itself teach you, that, if a man have long hair, it is a shame unto him?” Um, no, that’s a lesson I haven’t learned. Besides, how long is long? Or 1 Timothy 2:11, “Let the woman learn in silence with all subjection.” Or 1 Corinthians 14:35, “it is a shame for women to speak in the church”: “church” in Paul’s day would have looked more like what we would call a home Bible study, so does that mean women can’t speak in Bible studies? Or 1 Corinthians 11:10, speaking of how women should appear in public worship: “For this cause ought the woman to have power on her head because of the angels.” We take “power” to mean some sort of covering, but it’s a strange use of the term, and how angels fit into the picture I’ve never heard a good explanation. So I’m happy to go to a church where most women don’t wear veils or shawls or bonnets or caps; am I thumbing my nose at the Apostle Paul by so doing? How many of you ladies here would come to these meetings if you had to wear a head covering before you were admitted?

And then there are numerous places where his sentences are grammatically incoherent and he seems to go from one topic to another without any logical connection. He’s not an easy author to read, and I get the feeling that he wasn’t exactly mister warm and fuzzy in person. All in all, he’s a pretty difficult guy to relate to.

Now we Christians tend to look askance at the Muslim doctrine that because Muhammad is God’s prophet, to speak against Muhammad is to speak against God. But am I not doing the same thing by questioning Paul, God’s prophet? To speak against what Paul has written is to speak against the word of God, isn’t it? And God identifies very closely with his word: “The Word was with God and the Word was God.” To speak against what Paul has written is to speak against Jesus. Either that or we have to deny that what Paul has written is the word of God, in which case we have to decide what the word of God is, or even if God has spoken at all, and good luck with that.

So, what evidence do we have that Paul’s words are the words of God?

For me, oddly enough, it comes down to his life, who he was as a person. He doesn’t seem to have been mister warm and fuzzy, but there’s a depth of character there that even I with my blind spots can see.

God called him, as you remember, by striking him blind on the road to Damascus. He then sent a Christian man named Ananias to lay hands on him so his sight would be restored. Interesting, isn’t it, that the name Ananias is the English version of the Hebrew name Ḥanan-Yah, which means the grace of Yahweh, the Lord? What was the primary focus of Paul’s teaching? Grace! The grace of God shown in Jesus. He uses the word 100 times in his letters.

When God told Ananias to go find Paul, Ananias was afraid that Paul would kill him. After all, Paul had come to Damascus to cleanse the place of Christians. But God says something interesting to Ananias: “I will show him how much he must suffer for my name” (Acts 9:16). And Paul did suffer. In the Book of Acts, we read of him being thrown out of towns, beaten with rods, and stoned and left for dead. He tells the Corinthians, “Five times I received from the Jews forty lashes less one. Three times I was beaten with a rod. [Just one of either of those would be enough to get me to stop, but even after seven he kept going.] Once I received a stoning. Three times I suffered shipwreck. [Again, wouldn’t once be enough for most of us?] A night and a day I spent adrift in the open sea. I have been on journeys many times [They didn’t have Holiday Inn or even Motel 6 in those days.], in dangers from rivers [bridges were rare], in dangers from robbers [who would lurk in the bushes waiting for small groups of travelers to come by], in dangers from my own countrymen [who wanted to kill him for blasphemy], in dangers from Gentiles [who hated him for breaking up the unity of their communities that were based on idolatry], in dangers in the city, in dangers in the wilderness, in dangers at sea, in dangers from false brothers, in hard work and toil, through many sleepless nights, in hunger and thirst, many times without food, in cold and without enough clothing” (2 Cor 11:24–27). We’re not talking about a one-time deal here; we’re talking about a lifestyle of suffering. Does that sound like someone who sat in a comfortable chair surrounded by ivy-covered walls and sniffed contemptuously at women?

As for the incomprehensible sentences, he didn’t write his epistles with Microsoft Word and distribute them as PDFs. I’m with those who infer from comments he makes here and there that he could not see well enough to write, so he dictated his epistles. He could think faster than he could speak, and he could speak faster than his secretaries could write, and people read at speaking speed—they didn’t speed read silently, as we do today—so editing would have been a difficult chore. I don’t find it unreasonable to cut him some slack on that score.

But let’s get back to the hard passages, the ones I don’t like. As we’ve seen, Paul paid a high price for the privilege of writing every word of those hard passages. Now being willing to suffer for something does not make that something true or morally good. Kamakazes, jihadists who blow themselves up in crowds, and soldiers who fight in imperialist wars are brave. Why do I make an exception for Paul, and say that his life backs up words I have a hard time obeying?

Because he more than anyone else in history speaks of the grace of Jesus, and he follows in a long line of people who had the same message. Moses spoke God’s words of grace—like “It is not because you were more numerous than all the other peoples that the Lord favored and chose you – for in fact you were the least numerous of all peoples. Rather it is because of his love for you and his faithfulness to the promise he solemnly vowed to your ancestors” (Deut 7:7)—and worked miracles, and yet the Israelites didn’t believe him, and he died without setting foot in the promised land. Micaiah spoke God’s words to the kings of Israel and Judah, prophesying doom if they continued on with their evil plans; no one believed him, and the last we hear of him he was headed for prison. Jeremiah wept as he pleaded with his people to repent, but they refused, and he was abducted and taken to Egypt, which is as far as we know where he died. They all spoke hard words in the name of a God who loves his people and is willing to forgive their rebellion if they will only turn to him and repent.

So, however reluctantly, I find myself saying, at least in principle, that Paul’s words are God’s words. And when I have to face my own unwillingness to obey the ones I don’t like, I find myself mentally sitting in the living room of the Shiloh house in Seaside, looking at the ocean, remembering Jesus’ words that those who follow him have to be willing to leave everything behind, and hoping that he would let me keep the stereo set I had just spent $300 on that was now sitting at my father’s house. Well, that stereo was waiting for me after I left Shiloh, but most of my memories of it are associated with things I wish had never happened. We ignore the hard passages in the Bible at our peril.

Let’s close with Paul’s words to his protegé Timothy: “This saying is trustworthy and deserves full acceptance: ‘Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners’ – and I am the worst of them! But here is why I was treated with mercy: so that in me as the worst, Christ Jesus could demonstrate his utmost patience, as an example for those who are going to believe in him for eternal life” (1 Tim 1:15–16). Some say that Paul’s comments about women show that he is indeed the worst of sinners, and they’re welcome to their opinion.

But Paul’s message was not primarily about keeping women in subjection or reinforcing the male-female binary. Everything he said he said to point to Jesus. “We preach about a crucified Christ, a stumbling block to Jews and foolishness to Gentiles” (1 Cor 1:23). (Notice how he was willing to put up with the resentment of Jews and the scorn of Gentiles.) “I decided to be concerned about nothing among you except Jesus Christ, and him crucified” (1 Cor 2:2).

It was because Jesus had done so much for Paul that Paul was willing to suffer so much for Jesus. This same Jesus died so that his people could truly live for God, and his life is testimony that no matter how much we suffer, it’s worth it even in this life and will be even more so in the world to come.

“The Spirit and the bride [Jesus’ people] say [to Jesus], ‘Come [and rule over us]!’ And let the one who hears [God’s word] say: ‘Come [Jesus, and rule over me]!’ And let the one who is thirsty come; let the one who wants it take the water of life free of charge.” Amen.

Sunday, September 10, 2017

Thursday, May 18, 2017

The State Through the Bible (or, The Bible on the State)

[[This is the first draft of the introduction to what I hope will become a handbook for Christians who want to see the kingdom of God expand and fill the earth, who believe that Jesus wants us to live lives of loving service to our neighbors as a way of calling them to submit to Jesus, the ultimate servant and the true ruler of the universe, and who are convinced that Christians have made a tragic mistake by thinking of themselves as citizens of two kingdoms and of the “powers that be ... ordained of God” as rightful lords over the lives and property of those powerless to oppose them. Subsequent chapters will appear as I am able to make them coherent; this will have to suffice for now to give my vast readership an idea of where I am trying to take my argument.
  The inspiration for this endeavor was my trip to Vietnam in 2016, documented here. Upon my return, I was invited to report to my church, which had supported me financially. While in Vietnam I read a Vietnamese Christian account of the bombing of Hanoi by the US—which I know included US Evangelicals—and I felt it my Christian duty to muse on at least the possibility that had US Evangelicals had a proper view of the state they would not have supported the war in Vietnam and thus saved Vietnamese Christians years of the misery of war and of the subsequent reprisals, which includes decades of being viewed with suspicion by the government of the Socialist Republic of Vietnam. I did so by trying to go from Genesis to Revelation in ten minutes, a journey that ended up taking considerably longer. My importunity (and, I must admit, discourtesy) was gently but firmly rebuked, but I think I am on the right track, and so I will press on.]]

While one can answer the question “What is wrong with the world?” no better than G. K. Chesterton’s “I am,” somewhere high on the list is the tendency of human beings to idolize power. What Augustine called the libido dominandi, the lust for power, pollutes all relationships, from the toddlers and schoolyard bullies who insist on forcing others to do their bidding, to sexual exploitation in dating and marriage, to national and worldwide politics.

While most people condemn the lust for power in most circumstances, they give it a comparative pass when it comes to politics. Christians especially tend to begin their theology of society by quoting Romans 13:1–7:

Obey the government, for God is the one who put it there. All governments have been placed in power by God. So those who refuse to obey the laws of the land are refusing to obey God, and punishment will follow. For the authorities do not frighten people who are doing right, but they frighten those who do wrong. So do what they say, and you will get along well. The authorities are sent by God to help you. But if you are doing something wrong, of course you should be afraid, for you will be punished. The authorities are established by God for that very purpose, to punish those who do wrong. So you must obey the government for two reasons: to keep from being punished and to keep a clear conscience. Pay your taxes, too, for these same reasons. For government workers need to be paid so they can keep on doing the work God intended them to do. Give to everyone what you owe them: Pay your taxes and import duties, and give respect and honor to all to whom it is due.

When reminded that God’s people from the beginning have faced severe persecution at the hands of government—the decapitation of the writer of Romans 13:1–7 being one notable example—and that the famine and other forms of poverty—to say nothing of war—that plague the world today are the product of government policies, the response is something along the lines of “Well, government is imperfect, but it is God who has established it and so we have to submit and trust that God is working his perfect will out through it.”

Worse, they allow Romans 13:1–7 to trump everything else the Bible has to say about how people are to treat their neighbors. They reduce “we must obey God rather than men” (Acts 5:29) to a prohibition against literally bowing down to an idol (à la Daniel 3) or ceasing to evangelize (Acts 5), meanwhile saying nothing against theft by taxation and murder in imperialist war; perhaps worse, they disdain to bring bring disputes over such matters as sexual abuse by church staff before church courts, preferring instead to take them to secular courts in violation of 1 Corinthians 6.

Perhaps the paramount principle in biblical interpretation is to put the passage under discussion in context. This book is an attempt to put Romans 13:1–7 in its proper context by taking the Bible in chronological order, reading it “along the grain.” That is, I am assuming that the Torah is almost entirely the work of Moses, written during his lifetime, prior to 1400 BCE, and that the events the Old Testament describes happened pretty much as the books describe them. The writings of the early church, specifically the books of the New Testament, seem to know little if anything of modern source criticism. More to the point, my intended audience is people who, as I do, believe that the Bible is God’s holy Word and intended by its ultimate author to be so read.

Under this hermeneutic, Romans 13:1–7 was written a millennium and a half after Moses brought down from Sinai the commandments against murder and theft. For fifteen hundred years, then, the Word of God to his people was unalloyed: love your neighbor as yourself (Lev 19:18); do not kill, steal, commit adultery, or bear false witness (Exod 20:13–16). The Torah knows of no exception to this rule for a special class of people set apart as the state. While the Lord commands capital punishment in some instances, we shall see that it is to be executed by common people, not a special class of people. Similarly, he commanded the people to pay what amounts to taxes, but these were to support the cult system—the temple and the priesthood—and to help the poor, not to support career politicians and their armed agents. Most importantly for our purposes, how much people gave, how they obeyed the commands, was between them and God; there was no class of people funded by the very taxes they extracted to enforce the tax laws.

It is this kind of society—a society of people voluntarily serving each other—that we are to hold up to a world ravaged by the political class. Whatever form the state takes, it destroys whatever it touches. Monarchs have always tended to exploit their subjects. Republics and democracies arose as a response to the depredations of monarchs, but democracies inevitably degenerate into mob rule as people vote themselves privileges out of their neighbors’ pockets, and republics similarly degenerate as the elected representatives are no less greedy than the people who elect them. And, as the book of Judges documents so clearly, an anarchy will degenerate into the chaos of the state if the people will not put the Lord and his law first in their hearts.

The take-away from this book should be a passionate desire to see the knowledge of the glory of the Lord fill the earth as the waters cover the sea (Hab 2:14). While those who live to see that day will live well, our goal should not be that we, or even they, live well. This passionate desire should instead spring from our love for God, which in turn is the result of his love for us: our gratitude for the grace he shows us in Jesus’ life, death, resurrection, and ascension and his gift of the Holy Spirit.

The way forward, then, is to eschew the weapons of the world, specifically political power, to “come out from among them and be separate” (2 Cor 6:17), and to build a society that models the nature of our God, the servant king. We will pay taxes and obey just laws meantime, but always with an eye to winning a hearing for the good news of salvation in Christ. Part of that good news is the nature of the kingdom, the promise that the king of that kingdom will make sure that his people are fed and clothed (Matt 6:31–33) and that innocent people will never have to hear a functionary of a self-serving state say, “Do as I say or I’ll kill you.”

We model this kingdom not by attempting to “Christianize” the coercive world system but rather by meeting people’s needs God’s way: through voluntary means. Schools, hospitals, and homes for orphans and the aged, institutions that post-Christian and never-Christian societies now consider indispensable, were begun in earnest by Christians as voluntary operations. As they have been taken over by the taxman, they have indeed become more “effective,” if by such is meant able to “serve” more people and provide more in the way of tangible benefits. But as selfish human nature has taken its toll, many of them have also become primarily places where employees make a living and secondarily channels of common grace.

To the degree that they fulfill the function their builders intended, such institutions proclaim that God is irrelevant. That is, not only does the observer see no reason to glorify God for the benefits he receives from an institution that does not acknowledge God, but those who build the institutions do so in part to show that they have no need of God, that God is somewhere between irrelevant and the subject of an excrable, death-dealing lie.

He who is faithful in little will be given charge over much (e.g., Luke 19:17). The stone “cut out without hands” that destroyed the image in Nebuchadnezzar’s dream was small, but grew to fill the whole world (Dan 2:15). The kingdom of God—the antitype of which Nebuchadnezzar’s stone is the type—similarly starts small and grows to fill the earth (Matt 13:31–33). We can choose to be part of this growth or not. We can, to borrow C. S. Lewis’ metaphor, make mud pies in the slums of politics, or we can work to have a holiday at the shore of voluntary service. Crowning Romans 13:1–7 king of our social theory inevitably binds us to the slums.

This book is intended to give you the courage to put that unwitting usurper in its place, a place in subjection to Jesus’ plain words: “The kings of the Gentiles lord it over them; and those who exercise authority over them call themselves Benefactors. But you are not to be like that. Rather, let the greatest among you become as the youngest, and the leader as one who serves” (Luke 22:25–26), and most importantly, “‘Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind.’ This is the first and greatest commandment. And the second is like it: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’ All the Law and the Prophets hang on these two commandments” (Matt 22:37–40, quoting Deut 6:5 and Lev 19:18).

Wednesday, March 22, 2017

Annie the Anarchist

Annie Black is a lady at my church. She would not call herself an anarchist, but if it flies like a duck and swims like a duck …

She is the embodiment of what Christian anarchists, all two dozen of us, are trying to see as normal for the body of Christ.

Annie has two lovely and musically talented daughters. One day, for reasons probably related to those daughters, Annie decided what our church needed this spring was a handbell choir. So she went and recruited players and a director. She sent reminders for people to come to rehearsals. She made sure there were snacks at rehearsals, which involved getting the people who are responsible for music at the church to pony up money for said snacks. She may even have been the one to negotiate which Sunday the bells are to play in the Sunday service.

When it comes to rehearsal time, Annie is usually elsewhere, but the director she has chosen is able to keep the rehearsal moving and the players on task. It is not a professional ensemble by any means, but it is sure to draw a few positive comments from the audience for its performance.

All this without threats or any other form of coercion or even tangible reward for anyone (unless sandwiches count). I don’t remember her even saying so much as, “This is my project.”

This is anarchy in action. It is proof, or at least strong evidence, that anything worth doing can be done without coercion. If the Annie Blacks of the world put their minds to it, they could come up with ways of educating children, keeping poor people fed and healthy, and probably even defending the innocent from violence, all without resorting to the coercion inherent in the state.

Compare this to what our detractors call anarchy: warlords in Mogadishu running around with machine guns mounted on trucks, fighting over territory and trying to become the head archōn. At its worst, that’s chaos, but since there is no pretense there of people and their property being sacred, it is not anarchy. However, it should be noted that the more chaotic the situation is the less wealth there is for those archōns to extract from those over whom they are the powers that be, ordained of God, so it is in their best interest to make the situation as peaceful as possible and allow those under their boots to engage in productive labor. Whether they actually do so or not, I don’t know, and the statist Western media has no ideological incentive to treat the situation there sympathetically, so I’m not sure where one would go to find out—except, of course, to Mogadishu, in which case one would have the CIA, no friend of anarchy or innocent life, to contend with.

Annie Black is no warlord. She is what we should all aim to be: influential and willing to serve. As the church relies on the Annie Black model for modeling society, we will see the church grow and everyone live better. May her tribe increase.

Saturday, January 14, 2017

Open Letter to an Impassioned Democrat

Dear S__,

Whenever I go on Facebook, I’m reminded that you are unhappy about the results of the recent election. Maybe I should be more specific: I see a dozen posts from you that state in great detail how unhappy you are with the election.

I don’t feel all of your pain, but I do feel some of it. I didn’t vote for Mr. Trump either, but I found his opponents’ platforms even worse, so if I had to be stuck with one of the choices I was given, I got the one I disliked least. I happen to know that you didn’t get your first choice either, but your second choice was, shall we say, good enough for government work. And most voters agreed.

But posting anti-Trump memes on Facebook isn’t going to help your cause. (Writing posts on a blog that no one reads won’t help mine either, but my asthma is acting up, the only inhaler I have is steroids, and so I can’t sleep, and I have to do something, so here I am.) Unless you can do something more constructive than post on Facebook, you’re stuck with four years of Mr. Trump’s boot on your neck, or the death of everything you’ve worked for in the last eight years, or however you care to characterize the disaster that awaits you beginning on January 20.

I would like to propose to you a mission that, should you decide to accept it, will result in a better world for you and those you love.

I want you to write your state-level elected officials and tell them to pass legislation that states unequivocally that residents of your state will not submit to either a Trump presidency or laws passed by the current Republican Congress. That is, your state will secede and become its own nation. If you’re not sure how to word the letter, I’m happy to help you.

Until you tell me you have done so, I am going to unfollow you on Facebook. I won’t unfriend you, because I am honored that you friended me to begin with, but I can’t be party to you wasting your time and mine griping about the Trump presidency when there is something you can do to change things so they are more to your liking.

(If there were enough people who think like me, I’d organize my own secession movement. We can about fill a football stadium. You can draw on the majority of people who voted last November.)

If you look at Politico’s map of the state-by-state election results, you will see that with the exception of Texas, all the richest states in the USA went for Clinton. That tells me that if those states were to secede and form their own nation, that nation would be richer and better educated than the remaining USA. And, of course, you would no longer have the poorer, less educated folks telling you what to do.

In fact, if you really wanted to shed the dead weight, you could simply secede at the municipal level. Look here:

I defy you to find a blue county on that map that isn’t wealthier and better educated—that is, both more urban and more urbane—than the contiguous red counties. Why would you want to be “united” with people who are inferior to you? Would it not be far better to leave them behind, forge your own path, and then, once they come begging to be admitted to your socialist paradise, decide for yourselves under what terms to admit them, if at all?

Would a highly urban state be at a disadvantage? Not at all—look at Monaco, the richest nation per capita in the world, and Singapore, an economic powerhouse by any definition. Both are entirely urban.

Could secession be done peaceably? Of course—look at Czechoslovakia’s division into the Czech Republic, which is more free market, and Slovakia, which is more socialist. Not a shot was fired.

Would the remaining USA resist secession violently, as in 1861? I can’t guarantee that they wouldn’t, but I promise that I would come to you and do my best to stand between their tanks and you if they did. Much of the support for Mr. Trump came from people who simply want you and your friends out of their faces. They’re happy to let you do as you wish. And they certainly don’t want you in a position to outvote them in the future. So I would expect them to do all they could to speed up the secession process.

The resulting urban nation—which would probably become a federation of city-states—would need to import food from the USA, and the new, highly rural USA would need to import technology from the federation, so it would be in everyone’s best interests for trade barriers to be low. I would hope that the advantages that would accrue to the resulting USA from the secession would influence the protectionist Mr. Trump to make sure that the federation had access to food.

So please, S__, write your elected officials. Take the zeal with which you publish Facebook memes and turn it to constructive activity. Be a force for good.

I hope I can resume following you soon.

Sunday, December 18, 2016

After the Election Is Stolen

Surprise, surprise.

The political class, those who today cloak their rapacity in the authority supposedly granted them by Romans 13, are deathly afraid that someone they don’t like will take up that authority, so they are threatening to kill members of the Electoral College who vote for Donald Trump. If enough electors change their votes, Congress could give the presidency to Hillary Clinton on January 6.

It doesn’t look like the establishment will co-opt Trump to their satisfaction. They may still be able to assassinate him, but the “Russia swung the election to Trump” meme has gained so much traction that

electors interested in living out their natural lives will probably “do what’s best for the nation” and vote for an “experienced statesman” rather than a “racist, buffoonish demagogue.” Between Trump, Pence, and Clinton, the safe money says it will be Hillary Clinton putting her hand on the Bible and swearing to uphold the Constitution come January 20.

So evangelicals—who last March would never vote for a serial polygamist with no principles but change their tune in November and carry the flag of said unprincipled polygamist to victory—suddenly find themselves as two-time losers: they lose credibility because they abandon their principles, then they lose the election anyway. The Libertarian Party, the “party of principle” that abandoned its principles and still can’t get 10% of the vote, would be a suitable home for today’s Trumpista evangelicals.

What to do now? Step one: revamp your theology.

Stop beginning your theology of government with Romans 13:1-7 and 1 Peter 2:13–14. Remember what happened to the men who wrote those words: they were both executed by the very people they told us to honor. Clearly they did not mean that we were to regard those murderers, or any other politicians, as our leaders, or our citizenship as in any place but heaven.

Instead, start where the Bible starts, with Genesis 12, where Pharaoh, the biblical paragon of pretension to God’s heavenly throne, simply abducts Abraham’s wife. (Or Genesis 10, where Nimrod is “a mighty hunter before the Lord,” whatever that means; I don’t get the impression God’s people would want to be under his dominion.)

Note how Abraham works outside the political system to rescue Lot in Genesis 14, accepting bread from the priest Melkizedek but refusing to take even a sandal strap from the king of Sodom. 

Remember that yes, Joseph did save his people through the political system, but his descendants spent four centuries in slavery to that same system, and God had to (well, OK …) work miracles to bring about deliverance.

Notice that among all the commands given from Exodus 20 to the end of Deuteronomy, there were no taxes: the tithe and the poor laws and all the rest of the assessments were all voluntary; God specifies no agents to check on who was giving how much. “Vengeance is mine,” says the Lord, “I will repay.”

Notice that when Moses acknowledges that the people will want a king later on, he specifies that the king is to operate under the same rules as those he rules (Deut 17)—he was to be a brother, not a Big Brother, not a father, and certainly not a despot.

Notice that during the period of the judges, when “there was no king in Israel,” the land had peace for forty years twice and eighty years once.

Notice that God gave Israel the monarchy as a curse, not as a blessing (1 Sam 8). Notice that most of the kings of Israel and Judah “did what was evil in the sight of the Lord.” Could this be why the psalmist says, “Do not put your trust in princes, in mortal man who cannot save”? Ask yourself: Does the history of the monarchies of Israel and Judah, to say nothing of the history of other governments, look more like Romans 13 or like “The kings of the earth rise up, and their rulers take counsel together against the Lord and against his Messiah”?

What does the destruction of Nebuchadnezzar’s statue by the rock not made by human hands (Dan 2) mean, if not that God’s ways are not man’s ways and that our weapons are not the weapons of the world and that the church will take dominion over the world not by might, nor by power, but by God’s Spirit, through God’s people serving each other and their neighbors with love?

What do Jesus’ words “it is not to be that way with you” (Luke 22:25–26) mean, if not that his people are not to lord it over their neighbors the way politicians do, thus disqualifying the political process as a tool of dominion?

The Clinton presidency will present us with unfamiliar challenges. More than ever American evangelicals will be like the Romans to whom Paul wrote and the diaspora to whom Peter wrote. Those in power will be our increasingly intractable enemies. But Jesus tells us to love our enemies, to do good to those who hate us, to bless those who curse us, and to pray for those who mistreat us. That’s a tall order that will take all our resources to fulfill. Let’s not waste our time considering those people our leaders.

The same holds true if the election is not stolen.

Saturday, December 3, 2016

The Why of Donald Trump’s Atrocious Presidency and How to Fight It

You probably didn’t hear it here first, but here’s my version:
Donald Trump’s presidency will make Evangelicaldom regret every handclap it raised in support of it.
The why is simple: Mr. Trump does not believe in private property. He will go after it with a vengeance.
People who believe in private property do not—cannot, by definition—support eminent domain, restricted trade, restricted migration, import tariffs, tax-funded education, standing armies, and the war on drugs. Mr. Trump not only supports these things, it was his support for these things that got him elected.
This is not to say that his opponent in the election would have done better. But just as rape is not as bad as murder yet is still an atrocity, Mr. Trump being not as bad as Mrs. Clinton does not make his stated policies less atrocious.
Mr. Trump has, commendably, lamented the expropriation of Christians who refused to play ball with the LGBTQ community, but he has done so by calling said expropriation a violation of religious freedom. My take is that anyone who thinks that fighting Roe v. Wade or Obergefell by playing the “religious freedom” card is hopelessly naïve. No one I have ever heard bleat about their religious freedom would grant religious freedom to anyone who said their religion allowed them to abort full-term fetuses or marry an animal or burn their widowed mother on their father’s funeral pyre. Hillary Clinton was right: the phrase “religious freedom” is simply code for Christian supremacism. Mr. Trump will support Christians’ “religious freedom” only as long as it serves his concept of the “greater good.”
We can depend on Mr. Trump to use eminent domain to dispossess the politically less powerful of their property. He will do so by claiming, probably correctly, that those he oppresses—and that’s the right word—are refusing reasonable offers for their property in hopes of getting a better offer later. Usually foregoing a lesser pleasure in the present in the hope of a greater pleasure in the future is considered a virtue. Deferred gratification is, after all, the mechanism that builds capital.
But while collectivists like Mr. Trump acknowledge your right to pass up the latest car or epic vacation today to build the capital to start a business (or buy a better car or vacation) tomorrow—and, of course, to run the risk that the business or the vacation or the car won’t work out as planned—they deny you the right to wait to see if you can get a better price for your property than what they are offering. And they deny you that right at gunpoint.
We can look forward to systematic violations of the right of the politically unconnected to associate with whom they please, as well as to the deportation of politically unconnected law-abiding people. Mr. Trump’s wall will be as effective at keeping unwilling business owners in as it will be in keeping willing workers out. This will result in the flight of all but politically connected capital and to higher prices on goods and services we currently import or pay illegal immigrants for. I would not rule out a military draft, including females, and a senseless war or two just for good measure.
Mr. Trump did us a yuuge favor during his campaign by showing us how to talk about the Establishment and how to talk to it, and most importantly, how to view it. We’ve seen that we don’t have to kowtow to a naked emperor anymore.
Well, come January Mr. Trump will be the Establishment. One would hope that he would expect and tolerate dissent couched in the terms he used when he was on the outside, but I think we can expect him to be just like the Clintonistas, who went from being pro free speech when they were out of power to thought police once in power. Mr. Trump will likely not tolerate dissent couched in the terms he used in his dissent.
Fortunately, Jesus calls us to a higher standard of discourse than Mr. Trump used in his campaign. And though Mr. Trump made great use of his lack of principles in his campaign, Jesus calls us to have principles.
Specifically, he calls us to obey the words “Do not steal.” Every abomination Mr. Trump will unleash on his subjects can be seen as theft, whether of property (eminent domain and restrictions on migration and investment), labor (taxes), or time and safety (the draft).
The church needs to stand firm for property rights, especially those rights of the politically less connected.
How this can happen when the vast majority of Christians send their children to tax-funded schools and have no qualms about paying into and benefiting from a Social Security system that subsidizes homosexual marriage I don’t know. Having given away the argument by not opposing theft themselves, evangelicals by and large have no moral legs to stand on in opposition to government atrocities.
Which is why I think the next four years will be atrocious.

Thursday, November 24, 2016

Hanoi Quill Pig

Greetings from Hanoi! I’m here on a tour that dropped into my lap on short notice, and as soon as it landed, I knew I had to come. So here I am, unable to sleep in the middle of the night because of jet lag, in the hotel café listening to Paul McCartney performing “Got to Get You into My Life” on Spotify and communicating with my vast readership of a handful or two.
The last temptation is the greatest treason:
To do the right deed for the wrong reason.
— T. S. Eliot, Murder in the Cathedral
I don’t know what Jane Fonda’s motivations were for coming here during the unpleasantness.


But I think I know what motivated some people I admired at the time to not come:

Well, come on all of you, big strong men,
Uncle Sam needs your help again.
He’s got himself in a terrible jam
Way down yonder in Vietnam
So put down your books and pick up a gun,
We’re gonna have a whole lotta fun.
And it’s one, two, three,
What are we fighting for?
Don’t ask me, I don’t give a damn,
Next stop is Vietnam;
And it’s five, six, seven,
Open up the pearly gates,
Well there ain’t no time to wonder why,
Whoopee! we’re all gonna die.
In a word, it was self-preservation.
Compare this to someone who actually suffered for acting on what he at least said he believed.

Click image for video.
“My conscience won’t let me go shoot my brother, or some darker people, or some poor hungry people in the mud for big powerful America. And shoot them for what? They never called me nigger, they never lynched me, they didn’t put no dogs on me.”
My tour has involved bringing with me things that I thought might raise eyebrows at the customs table, so I spent much of the flight here trying to come up with a truthful answer for Mr. Customs Man if he didn’t “Don’t touch my bags, if you please.”
Well, surprise! On the plane they gave us no long form that takes fifteen minutes to fill out, as they do on descent into the Land of the Free. There was no inquisition at the immigration stand, and it was a straight shot from there to the taxi stand. There was a notice on the wall of what qualified as “nothing to declare,” but beyond that it was the honor system.
My taxi was what I imagine Uber to be: $25 for a straight-shot 45-minute ride in a spacious, clean Toyota Camry, bottled water for the taking, soft music on a top-class audio system. My driver didn’t speak English, but good service with a smile speaks volumes.
The road between the airport and the city were wide and straight and middle-of-the-night empty. The city is clean. The hotel staff bends over backwards to make us feel at home. I’d been told that Vietnamese are standoffish, but I’ve got two pieces of evidence that that’s not quite true, taken during a recent trip to Old Hanoi in the lobby of the hotel.
One of these people is the manager of the hotel.
One of these people hadn't moved since the previous picture was taken.
While I don’t see a sign advertising a private school on every block, as I did in Kathmandu, private schools operate openly (even if they need to be licensed). Home schooling is illegal, but that’s no worse than Germany and Singapore.
I jumped at the chance to come here because part of me wants to be a champion of those who have suffered injustice, but I’ve been disabused of any idea that such is even needed anymore. Hanoi is full of Americans who are here simply to have a good time, and they spend much more money than I will by any standard. Very few people I’ve seen are old enough to remember the war. I may be the only person in the city who hasn’t moved on from it yet.
But the vestiges remain. The first I saw was at Hanoi Bible College, which has been run by the Christian and Missionary Alliance. They have recently celebrated their centenary.

“During the years 1965-1972, the US bombed the north of Vietnam, and God’s people in the church had to evacuate. The number of believers was very small. At that time there were only 5-7 believers. After that the number of believers who came to worship was 20-30 old people, including about 15 children, and 5-6 Chinese-Vietnamese people. The situation of 20-30 believers gathering lasted a long time, until the 1980s.”

In a window overlooking a street that is turned into an extension of a lake park on weekends is a commemoration of seventy years since Ho Chi Minh issued the call for his countrymen to fight for independence. In the fine print, he says, “No! / We would rather sacrifice all / but definitely not / suffer the loss of our country / and definitely / not suffer being slaves.” Patrick Henry, anyone?
The closest I ever came to coming to Viet Nam (the name means “Viet people,” not to be confused with the other ethnic groups found within the borders of the current nation-state) during the war was a dream I had in maybe 1971 that I was in combat here. I was terrified and oh, so grateful to wake up. A couple of real-life events I have run away from full speed have convinced me that I do not have the courage to be a soldier.
So I need to take my hat off to anyone who came here believing he was serving his country and the cause of good. But I believe those they fought needed even more courage, fighting as they were with fewer and less-powerful weapons.
But courage, as important as it is, isn’t everything. You have to be courageous in a just cause. I can understand Ho’s bravery and that of his troops as he attempted to throw off the yoke of French imperialism. But he wanted to replace French imperialism with the very communism that had claimed tens of millions of innocent victims in the USSR.
Fortunately for everyone, though the American military failed to achieve the “peace with honor” that Nixon was aiming for, its retreat did achieve peace in the long term. After an understandable, if not justifiable, bloody purge of those who had collaborated (or were suspected of collaborating—more innocent victims of communism) with those who had bombed, shot, burned, maimed, killed, and orphaned hundreds of thousands, if not millions, of innocent people, destroyed property, and polluted the land and water with chemicals that are causing birth defects to this day, Viet Nam is at a tolerable level of peace.
The French, the communists, the American invaders, and today’s government share the fundamental assumption that keeps Viet Nam from being truly great: the idea that people and their property are up for grabs by the political class. They have forgotten, if they ever cared, that God said, “Do not steal.” He didn’t make an exception for people in uniforms or representatives at the United Nations. The evangelicals who shared in the bombing of the Hanoi Bible College seem to have considered themselves exceptions to that rule.
Only when Christians en masse claim the birthright that they have to their bodies and property and, even before that, their responsibility to honor others’ rights to their lives and their property, will we see the peoples of the world come to Christ: let me suggest that when we see that justice rolls down like waters, righteousness in Christ will be as abundant as an ever-flowing stream.

Sunday, November 13, 2016

Ugly Ducklings

Sermon preached at Meadowood Senior Living, November 13, 2016

Many people have said that there is really only one story in the world. Christians would say that that is because all good stories somehow reflect the story of Jesus. Surely the story of Jesus fits in with all good stories.

The story of the ugly duckling has endured for centuries because we can identify with the ugly duckling. We all feel at some point like the world doesn’t appreciate us. We long for someone to see that we really are good people and that the world is wrong to look down on us. We long to be vindicated, to have people know that we are right and they are wrong, to be able to say to the world, “You don’t appreciate me because you’re asking the wrong questions. I’m not an ugly duckling; I’m a beautiful swan.”

And Jesus, of course, is the ultimate ugly duckling: “He had no stately form or majesty that might catch our attention, no special appearance that we should want to follow him.” “The stone which the builders discarded has become the cornerstone.” “God exalted him and gave him the name that is above every name, so that at the name of Jesus every knee will bow – in heaven and on earth and under the earth – and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord to the glory of God the Father.”

This is the template from which our ugly duckling story comes, and the Bible promises that those who pledge allegiance to God’s ugly duckling will someday be vindicated as Jesus was.

Today I’d like to take a look at the ugly duckling of the Book of Psalms, Psalm 83. I call it the ugly duckling because hardly anyone pays any attention to it. I once suggested to some Christian leaders that maybe Psalm 83 would be a good Scripture passage to do as a choral reading in church, and the response was a guffaw; one man said, “No hope there,” and that was that.

To be sure, Psalm 83 doesn’t offer the comfort that we get from Psalm 23 or the down-to-earth wisdom of Psalm 1, and Handel didn’t include it in his Messiah, as he did Psalm 2, but it’s in the Bible for a reason. It’s what’s called an imprecatory psalm, a psalm that calls on God to harm people. It’s asking God to curse people. As Christians, we are called to bless, not to curse, yet Jesus also says that he has come to fulfill all Scripture, not to do away with it. So imprecatory psalms do have a place in the New Covenant, and I’ll try to explain what that is.

So let’s see how Jesus, God’s ugly duckling, fulfills this ugly duckling of the Book of Psalms.

83 A song, a psalm of Asaph. O God, do not be silent! Do not ignore us! Do not be inactive, O God! For look, your enemies are making a commotion; those who hate you are hostile. They carefully plot against your people, and make plans to harm the ones you cherish. They say, “Come on, let’s annihilate them so they are no longer a nation! Then the name of Israel will be remembered no more.” Yes, they devise a unified strategy; they form an alliance against you.

Here we are back in the world of Psalm 2 (“Why do the nations so furiously rage together?”):

The kings of the earth form a united front; the rulers collaborate against the Lord and his anointed king. They say, “Let’s tear off the shackles they’ve put on us! Let’s free ourselves from their ropes!”

We are in the world of Psalm 2, and we see that the emphasis is on the kings of the earth wanting to get out from under the Lord’s rule. In Ps 83, though, the surrounding nations are out to do active harm to God’s people. In Ps 2 we’re reminded that we live in a world full of rebels. Every human being wants to do his own thing, to determine by himself and for himself what is wrong and what is right. No one wants God looking over his shoulder and keeping track of everything we do.

Here in Ps 83, though, the rebels are not content to turn their backs on God. Now they want to go after God’s people. We see that in places where people who leave Islam to follow Jesus are disowned by their families, fired from their jobs, imprisoned, tortured, and sometimes killed. We see it in animist villages, where the other villagers are convinced that the local spirits dispense good crops or whatever on an all-or-nothing basis; the spirits say, “Unless everyone in this village does as we say, we won’t do good things for anybody,” and they get angry at the whole village because some of the villagers are Christian and don’t obey the spirit’s rules. And we see it here in the USA when Christians are fined and lose their livelihoods because they refuse to profit from—not tolerate, not participate in, but profit from—activities they consider immoral.

People these days complain that the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ is intolerant, that he unashamedly proclaims himself a jealous God who punishes those who rebel against him—as if a totally good God is somehow supposed to tolerate rebellion against what is good—but the other gods out there are just as intolerant, just as jealous, and just as vengeful against those who will not serve them.

So here in Ps 83, we have God’s people being attacked precisely because they belong to God. “Your enemies are making a commotion; those who hate you are hostile. They carefully plot against your people, and make plans to harm the ones you cherish.” Rule number one for imprecations, for calling down curses on enemies: they have to be God’s enemies, and they have to be causing harm to God’s people and God’s causes. He doesn’t want us calling down curses on whoever the Eagles are playing.

And we have to remember that even the godless rulers of this world, the ones we hear about in Ps 2 or Rom 13 or 1 Pet 2, are “God’s servants to do [us] good.” They may “do [us] good” by cutting our heads off or crucifying us upside-down, as they did to the men who wrote Rom 13 and 1 Pet 2, but Rom 8:28 says that God works all things for the good of those who love him and are called according to his purpose, so we have to be willing to follow our commander’s orders, even when he sends us on suicide missions. We have to believe that “Precious in the Lord’s sight is the death of his holy ones,” and that he will reward those who are willing to die for his causes. (That includes putting up with inconveniences, which is sometimes harder than dying.)

[This united front] includes the tents of Edom and the Ishmaelites, Moab and the Hagrites, Gebal, Ammon, and Amalek, Philistia and the inhabitants of Tyre. Even Assyria has allied with them, lending its strength to the descendants of Lot.

Here the list of enemies begins with those who should have been Israel’s friends. The Edomites were descendants of Esau, the brother of the Israelites’ patriarch Jacob. The Ishmaelites were descendants of Jacob’s father’s half-brother. The Moabites were descendants of Jacob’s second cousin. Jesus promised us that “a man’s enemies will be the members of his household,” and that’s why he said, “If anyone comes to me and does not hate his own father and mother, and wife and children, and brothers and sisters, and even his own life, he cannot be my disciple.” We have no guarantee that these people who are close to us are not going to turn against God’s causes, and we have to be willing to pray imprecatory prayers against them if they do. At the very least, we have to be willing to accept what happens to them if God decides to punish them.

It’s one thing when the Philistines and Assyrians oppose us. They were people groups before the time of Abraham, so we expect them to be nasty, and we’re glad to call down curses on them because they’re not our people. But our own families can be God’s enemies just as those we have no peaceful dealings with. Are we willing to call curses down on those we love?

Does it hurt yet? It hurts me. There are many people who have been good to me who are rebels against God. Do I love God more than I love them? Am I willing to pray what the psalmist prays? It gets harder:

Do to them as you did to Midian – as you did to Sisera and Jabin at the Kishon River! They were destroyed at Endor; their corpses were like manure on the ground. Make their nobles like Oreb and Zeeb, and all their rulers like Zebah and Zalmunna, who said, “Let’s take over the pastures of God!”

Here the psalmist recounts some of the great victories that God supernaturally gave Israel over the Midianites, enemies that were much stronger than they were. We hear of the victory over Sisera and Jabin, where a woman put the commander of the enemy’s army to sleep in her tent and then ran a tent peg through his head. Oreb and Zeeb were the commanders of the army that Gideon’s small band of men were able to defeat because the Midianite soldiers killed each other, and Zebah and Zalmunna were the kings whom Gideon executed. Again, they weren’t just personal enemies. They were enemies of God, who said, “Let’s take over the pastures of God!” They not only wanted God to leave them alone, they wanted to displace God’s people.

O my God, make them like dead thistles, like dead weeds blown away by the wind! Like the fire that burns down the forest, or the flames that consume the mountainsides, chase them with your gale winds, and terrify them with your windstorm. Cover their faces with shame, so they might seek you, O Lord. May they be humiliated and continually terrified! May they die in shame! Then they will know that you alone are the Lord, the sovereign king over all the earth.

Here we have more of the blood and guts this psalm is famous for: “make them like dead thistles … dead weeds … chase them … terrify them … Cover their faces with shame … May they be humiliated and continually terrified! May they die in shame!” Blood and guts! No hope here!

Not so fast. Maybe you caught the two rays of hope in this passage? “Cover their faces with shame”—Why?—“so they might seek you. … Then they will know that you alone are the Lord, the sovereign king over all the earth.”

This psalm is a prayer that is prompted by the danger that God’s people find themselves in, and it does urge God to use lethal force, but it is ultimately a prayer that God will vindicate himself, that people will know who he really is. He’s not an ugly duckling; he’s a swan. If you’re looking for a good-looking duckling, you won’t find God. (I don’t have time to go into this, but good-looking duckling religions are those that give you a bunch of rules that you can follow to curry favor with whatever is in charge.) But if you take God on his own terms, you’ll find a thing of beauty.

And, of course, we are all rebels against God. We are all guilty of opposing what God is doing. We all deserve to have Jesus pray Ps 83 against us. But he doesn’t. Instead, he allowed us to act out our rebellion by calling him the ultimate ugly duckling and killing him. He did that so that his people would not have to suffer the curses we’ve been talking about. And we deserve to suffer even worse curses, but God raised him from the dead to show that he really is the ultimate swan and to let us know that we can still seek God, that we can know for sure that he is the sovereign king over all the earth, and that he can forgive our rebellion against him and bless us rather than curse us if we repent, and we can be not only his subjects but his children.

May God grant us such repentant hearts. Amen.

Wednesday, November 9, 2016

On the Election

Someone whose sense I trust asked me what I thought about the election, so I'll tell you what I told him.

I woke up at 2:30 and purposely didn't check the results until I went to my men's group meeting at 6; I let them tell me. The last I had (thought I had) heard, the electoral vote was close, so I was thinking that even if Trump won by, say, 5, the establishment could get a handful of electors to "vote their conscience" and vote for Killery even though their state had gone for Trump, but I think the gap is large enough that they'll be "content" to cut their losses and plan for 2020.

I think I feel like folks in Syria and Iraq feel after a wave of bomb attacks when a bomb hits a part of the house they're not in. Things aren't good, and we need to prepare for something worse the next time around, but we need to be grateful for things as they are.

I don't think Trump is any less a foe of the voluntary society (what people used to understand libertarianism to be) than Clinton, but we may have more room to work. A 40% tariff on imports, bad as it is, is light years more tolerable than nuclear war with Russia or even Iran.

I'm reminded of a cartoon I saw after the hurricane that smashed Haiti only grazed Florida. It was of "the hand of God" between the hurricane and Florida. God has been merciful to us: Trump will damage things, but he won't destroy everything. I think I need to learn how to be loyal opposition here. As long as there is taxation, I must be in the opposition, but I need to learn how to package that opposition so that I can state it in terms of common goals: "You say this is what you want, but the route you're taking to get it" -- whether through eminent domain or tariffs or limiting migration (as opposed to ending the welfare state) -- "is less likely to succeed than removing all vestiges, to say nothing of the substance, of privilege and power from the ruling class."

How to do that when he and most Americans consider taxation a sacred duty when I consider it the abomination that makes all others possible I don't know yet. Let's see where we are in four years.