Monday, December 22, 2014


     It doesn't matter what anyone else says, it is Jesus who has the last word.  It doesn't matter how much power anyone or any institution has, it is the word of Jesus that counts and must be obeyed.  It doesn't matter how much anger anyone expresses, or even how much pain or hurt anyone says they have.  No matter our empathy or sympathy, no matter the intimidation of their emotions, our response to them must be according to the word of Jesus, and his word is what must be spoken and obeyed.

    I bring this up in the context of the present American drama of the anger and hurt of African Americans about the injustice of over-policing, over-sentencing, profiling, the failure of government agencies to grasp the inequity of police application and the feelings of oppression that it generates.

    Bitterness over governmental oppression is what created the American Revolution.  The sensitivity to that reality, or perceived reality, all Americans must come to grips with it if we are going to move beyond our current crisis.  White Americans tend to fear and be bitter about the power of the Federal government to oppress, while African Americans tend to fear and be bitter about a more personal application of onerous municipal policing.

   It is a crisis, because camps are taking sides, and people are saying and doing some fairly stupid things.  Police unions who chastise those who publicly protest police practice, or call for reform, are revealing a disturbing “bunker” mentality.  Their comments are confirming what many of the public already believe about police attitudes; that the police are not there to serve us but that they are against us. People are calling for revenge killings, people are inciting violence on the internet, and now someone has done an evil thing in killing two police officers.

    There are those who would like to divorce the killer’s actions from the current protests and anger and simply say he was crazy.  He may well have been, but his own comments reflect a motive and a self-justification.  Of course it was wrong, but it certainly was in his mind.  And he is not the only one who has thought it, considered it, and called for it as social media can attest.

    I sincerely believe Jesus is against oppression, of any kind.  I believe he is against thugs who mug people.  My mother and sister were mugged one Christmas morning in the projects by two young African American men.  We called the cops and their expressions of sympathy for my mom took the form of racist comments about black people.  I believe Jesus is against racism just as much as he is against street violence. 

    One of the great problems of continued racism, class ism, and prejudice in general is to take individual actions and make them stereotypical of a race, class, or institution.  Though that thinking is illogical continued patterns and examples of egregious behaviors reinforce our opinions.  Are all police officers like the one who took a club and smashed the teeth of one of my sister’s friends?   Are all police officers like the ones who told me one night in St. Louis, when they came to investigate a call, that they hoped it was a “buck.”  They would love to shoot a “buck,” they said.  Their comments were sickening, bad enough in those particular instances, but I will not believe it universal about policemen.

   Are there thugs in the city, black young men who are gangsters and show no mercy to their neighbors?  Oh yes, far too many of them, and it is reflection and consequence of many things; broken families and the absence of caring fathers, failing schools, inadequate employment opportunities, the avoidance of Evangelical churches from poor communities, a broken criminal justice system, and their own wickedness for which at the end of the day each individual must be held responsible.

   Demanding just and righteous policing doesn't mean we are denying the facts on the ground about evil.  The word of Jesus means we must speak against evil, but it also means we must preach the Gospel to evil people.  We must preach good news to bad people so that their hearts and lives can be changed, because their lives do matter.  Just as there are young men and women doing evil things, especially in inner city neighborhoods, there are corrupt police officers and mismanaged and poorly led police departments.  There are unjust laws and unfair courts, even while conducted by some fine outstanding church folks.

    In all of this it is important for the Christian to remember, if you are tempted to take sides, there is only one ultimate safe side to be on, and that is the side of Christ the Lord.  God alone is the final judge, the absolute ruler over all mankind and their destinies, the only righteous arbiter, the one who knows all things, and the revealer of the true motives of the hearts of men; the one who can and will deliver perfect and eternal justice.

   We must speak truth to power, and truth to the powerless.  Both sides don’t seem to like to hear the truth, especially when it doesn't reinforce their preconceived stereotypes.  Yet truth is what they need, as well as someone having the determined love to speak it.  Murder is murder and there is no justification for it.  Revenge is no license, anger is no license, and such violence must be repudiated. 
    If it is any comfort these kinds of dynamics in America are not new.  During the sixties and seventies there were quite a few people who went to prison because they decided they would like to kill policemen, and did.  There have always been brutal and unjust authorities, the prisons have held some of them as well.  Have some gotten away with murder?  If you don’t believe in God then you would have to say, “yes.” 

    But we do believe in God, and so we continue to warn men and women there will be a reckoning.  “Knowing the fear of God we persuade men…” the Apostle teaches us.   We seek to persuade them that love and justice is better than hate and the power of the gun.  Christian, don’t despair, there are never only two sides to conflicts among men.  There is always only one truly safe side, and that is the side of Jesus; where justice shines, and love forgives, and the cross delivers from the bondage of hate.

Truly He taught us to love one another,

His law is love and His Gospel is peace.   O Holy Night.

Sunday, December 14, 2014


  As we come close to the celebration of Christmas some of us will once again get to read, in the Gospel of Luke chapter 1, Mary's praise to God for being told she will bear the Christ child.  This "Magnificat"carries with it an amazing revelation into the irony of how God has dealt with human beings; and Mary personalizes it for herself.  Her poem of praise is reminiscent of Hannah's praise to God in 1 Samuel chapter 2 after the birth of her son Samuel, a child she earnestly sought from God after being humiliated in her barrenness.

    I am not sure if any of us can fully appreciate these passages if we have never been on the bottom looking up.  One could attempt to spiritualize them and take application that in our sin we have all been on the bottom, all "losers" when it comes to righteousness.  That is true of all us certainly, but there is more in these passages. Hannah and Mary  are not speaking of deliverance from their sins.   They are speaking of the emotional power of deficit, about being "not enough" in terms of social acceptability or even financial means, and therefore possessing a brokenness from feeling they are not good enough compared to others.

    God does something amazing for them, and certainly through Mary God has done something amazing for the whole world.  Usually during the celebration of Christmas we move quickly from Mary's feelings to the historical miracle of the incarnation and the birth of Jesus, but maybe we should linger for a moment on how Mary thinks.

    One reason I think we should meditate on her expression of praise, or her thinking, has to do with the children she will raise.  Obviously some in Christendom don't think Mary had any more children after Jesus and that she is forever a virgin.  We in the Protestant tradition don't hold to that idea.  The reason I bring that up is that I find the comparison between the teachings of Jesus concerning the poor, and that of his brother James, along with their mother Mary very consistent.  It seems to me to be a fairly radical perspective on economic justice and the sovereignty of God.

    Mary obviously believes God can change the facts on the ground for both hungry people and for rich people.  He changes the realities of and for political rulers, and is mindful of the humble.  Hannah believed that those who are proud because they are strong, the well fed, and the mother with many children who despises the barren woman all will get their comeuppance.  The God she praises is able to lift up beggars to sit with princes, but He is also able to take wealth, and life, and military power away from others.

    Did this kind of thinking affect Jesus?  I would imagine some might think that because Jesus is the Son of God he doesn't need any nurturing or instructing from Mary.  Jesus is the one who teaches, not the one who is taught.  Certainly Jesus was teaching the elders at an early age, but the Bible does tell us he "grew in stature and in favor with God and man."  He learned obedience from the things he suffered.  It doesn't really matter to me how much we think Jesus needed to learn or not, the source of such revelation was the same, and that was from His Heavenly Father.  The same Father who taught Mary when she sang His praise.

    I see a pattern in the Jesus family of a certain way of thinking about money, about the rich, about the poor, and about the people on the bottom.  The self-understanding of Jesus is revealed when he reads from the scroll of Isaiah and said that on that day the prophecy was fulfilled in Him.  Specifically that the Anointed One was going to preach the Gospel to the poor.  This is his mission, it is his task, it is His priority.  We realize that this good news was comprehensive not just as a happy message of love from God through Jesus, but as the work of Jesus in His redemption.

    God has favor on the poor because the world doesn't.  God's favor on the poor doesn't mean he hates the wealthy, in fact the Scripture tells us that when Jesus looked on the rich young ruler He loved him.  What makes Jesus so radical, and even uncomfortable to all of us who let money be our idol, is that Jesus has no mercy on the grip of materialism.  Compassion pours out of him for the suffering, but so does condemnation on those who seek to hold onto their wealth.  The Gospel of Luke especially drips with the irony of the wealthy not having the edge when it comes to God and salvation.  

    Then we come to the brother of Jesus, the writer of the book of James, and as we say where I come from, "James don't play!"  He tells us what good religion is, its about taking care of widows and orphans as well as watching our mouths and the morality of our lives. 

     He very definitely tells us that God has "chosen those who are poor in the eyes of the world" and he castigates those who insult the poor by preferring the rich who he describes as those who exploit "us."  His point here is to do away with favoritism, which is natural according to the book of Proverbs where it lets us know friends desert you when you are poor (nobody loves you when you're down and out) but they like you when you have money.  I see an application of this today in places where PCA churches are planted, where our favoritism passes by the neighborhoods of the poor so we can continue to plant churches among the middle class.

    I kind of like the idea that maybe in Mary's kitchen there were times when Jesus and James talked about money, and poverty, and faith.  Maybe during that discussion their cousin John (the Baptist) walked in and things really got going.  These people were not simply idealistic and revolutionary prophets for a change in the economic or political system.  Jesus is the Son of God, He is the one of whom Hannah spoke when she wrote of a God who makes poor and makes rich, who brings death and makes alive.

    Because Jesus is the sovereign God He has the right to call us on our divided hearts: We will either love money or we will love Him. He has the right to expose whether we give out of our surplus or whether we give all we have.  He has the right to call us to faith, and sacrifice, and to make purses for ourselves that will never wear out.  I think being in the Jesus family could make some of us feel pretty uncomfortable, but that is in fact the family we are now in, if we follow Christ.  What a blessing to be in it.

Wednesday, December 10, 2014


The U.S. Senate releases a report on the use of torture by the Central Intelligence Agency and we see division in the public response.  Some react by wishing the Senate had not released it, as it will give our enemies reason to intensify their hatred and use it to paint the U.S. as evil.   Some react by calling for prosecution of those involved.  Some react with dismay that such a thing happened in and through our own government and country.

    I was proud of the statements by Senator McCain, a man who himself was tortured while a prisoner in North Vietnam.  He seemed to get it right when he spoke of what should make us different as Americans.

    Myths are powerful things, whether for good or ill.  I don't use the word in the sense of "make believe" or fairy tale.  I use it in the sense of identity, what we think about ourselves and others.  When it comes to patriotism it is far more powerful when we have the idea that we are the "good guys," than if our conflict with enemies was simply a contest between two moral equals.  I cannot equivocate between radical Islamic terrorists and the U.S. government.

    Every time we as a nation or government do something stupid or evil, sometimes bordering on genocide, those taking the brunt of our nefarious actions build up reasons to create an all too plausible myth that we are the "Great Satan."  One of the problems of myth is that they are hardly ever completely true and that is because none of us are completely good, or completely evil.  We are all bad enough and that is a shame, but as Americans it is not enough that it be "us" against "them" but that we be essentially "better" than those who are against us.

    I am an American and I grew up with certain myths that were very powerful for me.  I happen to like those myths.  I have always wanted to be on the side of the "good guys" and wear the white hat.  I always thought it righteous to be a cowboy versus an Indian, or on the side of the cavalry when the bugle blows.  Then I read history and realized "we" weren't always the good guys; not in history nor in the eyes of Native Americans, African Americans, Africans, Latinos, Iranians, Arabs, etc., etc.

    But the negative myths about us that are held by the "other" side are just as erroneous, and also destructively inaccurate for our own self understanding and identity.  The good thing about the Senate report is that we ourselves are doing the reporting, even if according to the CIA they didn't get it completely correct.  This is also part of the American record, we tell on ourselves, we criticize ourselves, we have often sought some kind of repentance, and reconciliation.  Our record is that even when we have done evil there were those among us who stood for what was right, even at the cost of their lives, property, freedom, or reputation.

    Isn't it so that when some Americans wanted all the Indians dead and all their land taken that some Christians campaigned for Native American rights and sought to protect them as people?   Isn't it so that when some called black people less than human and that they could be taken as property some Christians campaigned against the entire notion of slavery, and certainly against racial slavery, as "man stealing?"  Isn't it so that an awful lot of white boys died fighting to end slavery? Isn't it so that when governments refused to give African Americans their civil rights there were white people who marched in the movement and even died in the struggle?  Aren't their white people marching in Ferguson?  Aren't there plenty of just and fair police officers?

   Yes, history is not all one thing, just ambiguous enough to make those who suffered (and their progeny) ambivalent about the holders of  power and the majority culture's claim of righteousness.  The facts of evil dominate the myth for those who suffered and that is why it is so important as Americans that we fight hard not to repeat injustice, anytime, anywhere, in any of our actions.
    The danger of blind patriotism is to think that whatever we do is right if someone is opposing us.  Even if one believes in overwhelming fire power to defeat our enemies it makes all the difference in the world if we know when and when not to apply it; when to shoot, when to use a choke hold, and when to restrain ourselves. Injustice and oppression always seem to have those who justify it, sometimes it is fear, sometimes naked avarice, sometimes false and pathetic theories about race, biology, gender, and religion.

  If we are a great nation, and I still believe that we are, we must always go back to our first principles and hold to them.  This is almost impossible of course if cultural shifts in such things as truth and philosophy create only one absolute and that being self-interest.  We are better because of what our founders believed, and we are only better if we keep believing it, and putting those principles into practice.