Monthly Archives: November 2015

Already Alive

Joshua Cooper Ramo recalls in his book, The Age of the Unthinkable, a conversation he had with an Islamic Hezbollah fighter. He spoke to the fighter about the fighter’s interpretation of Koran, the importance of martyrdom, and that the fighter considered himself to be already dead. As we have come to learn as a world, there are many extremist terrorist groups who want to usher in a new age through the obliteration of this one. I couldn’t help but think about how different this is from my own Christian worldview.

This fighter considered that his mortal life was already over. He was already dead. What was left for him was only obedience and martyrdom for the sake of his people and his god so that he could be ushered into paradise.

Christians, too, seek entry into paradise. But between our conversion and entrance we are not “already dead” but “already alive.” There is no need to usher in the eschaton, the new age, for it has already begun in our lives. The Kingdom of God, that Day which we long for, is already dawning in our present state of existence.

In the language of the New Testament we have been made “alive to God in Christ Jesus” (Romans 6:11) and have been made “alive with Christ” (Ephesians 2:5) and we are a “new creation” (2 Corinthians 5:17). In a sense we are indeed “dead” but our death is a death to sin.

We had a baptismal service this morning at church and in the Baptist tradition from which I hail, we “dunk ‘em.” We do this as a way of picturing this death-life reality which has already occurred at conversion. Going down into the water we share with Christ in his death (by which we are forgiven of our sins) and in rising up out of the water we share with Christ in his resurrection (by which we receive the power for the new life.)

Throughout the centuries Christians have boldly faced the threat of martyrdom, though it was never called such in “holy wars.” But it was faced bravely not because those believers considered themselves “already dead” but because they knew of Christ’s resurrection. And, knowing that they already shared with Christ in his resurrection by faith, they looked forward to that better resurrection on the Last Day.

After the Paris bombings various talking heads cautioned against painting all Muslims with a broad brush, and I completely agree with them. We should not assume that the actions of a few (and those of an extreme position) are representative of the many. The Muslims with whom I have interacted have given me no reason to believe they are not peace loving individuals.

However, our beliefs do matter. What we believe about the world shapes who we are and what we do. There is a world of difference between believing you are “already dead” and believing you are “already alive.” The one who is “already dead” seeks only otherworldly paradise, which is all the more damaging when that comes through the annihilation of your enemy and yourself. The one who is “already alive” seeks to share that life, to experience that life, and to do it in this present, physical, age. One seeks release through obliteration. The other seeks redemption and renewal and, in imitation of Christ, through sacrifice and love of neighbor.

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How Religion can produce devil-children

My first thought when I saw the results of a study saying the kids in religious households are less altruistic and more punitive than kids from non-religious households was “this doesn’t match previous social science research in this field, something looks fishy.” My second thought was “this actually kind of makes sense.”

My first thought was more or less confirmed by several challenges to the research which appeared the following day. One such article is this one, shared earlier, by sociologist George Yancey.

My second thought is confirmed by the gospels.

I wrote a post earlier this week defending the church and the people of God. I stand by that post and I’m glad I wrote it but I confess that within it there was at least a bit hyperbole. As much as I love the church, I see its flaws too. I’ve seen people changed by the good news of Jesus and the Word of God to become more loving and faithful individuals. But I’ve also known of “Christians” who are jerks and who are even bigger jerks because they are “Christians.”

Last Sunday my fellow Pastor at church preached on Matthew 5:10-12 wherein Jesus tells the crowds that they are blessed whenever they face persecution because of Him. In the sermon he pointed out that religious people are the most likely to engage in persecution because they believe they are doing the will of God in pursuing the one who dissents. Where did Jesus’ opposition come from? The religious elites. Who opposed the church most vigorously in Acts? The religious leaders. Paul, the most zealous opponent of Christianity, was driven by misplaced piety.

Religion is no guarantee of morality and can even be a detriment to morality. Let’s consider again the results of the study.

The first result was that children from religious households were shown to be less altruistic because they were less likely to share. (The “dictator game”, though, might not be a good indicator of altruism. It may just be an indicator of compliance with the instructor instead). A certain religious mindset, let’s call it “moralism,” could lead to less altruistic behavior. Essentially the reasoning would go like this: “Good comes to those who have earned it through their good work. I received this good, therefore I must have deserved it or earned it. Therefore, it is mine by right. Therefore, I will not share.” I don’t know about you, but I’ve met some religious people who think like this.

The second result was that children from religious households were shown to be more punitive. When shown pictures of kids pushing/shoving in a line they were more likely to view that behavior as “mean” and to want harsher penalties. Again, I think the study is flawed here because the authors make a value judgment that “punitive” is “less moral” and “mercy” is “more moral.” Certainly, disproportionate punishment is “less moral” but simply seeking justice (proportionate punishment) is not a problem, from my perspective, anyway. Regardless, though, my interest is with the way that religion can lead to disproportionately punitive behavior. A moralistic religious mindset elevates judgment over grace and does so as sanctioned by a divine law. Diversion from moral behavior is therefore a transgression again God and therefore warrants greater punishment. If that moral instinct is not combined with an understanding of divine mercy, the result could be a call for disproportionate judgment.

Tim Keller has written extensively about this in his various books. For a great treatment see The Reason for God. Here he argues that moralism (he uses the term religion and moralism interchangeably) sees moral Christianity primarily in terms of moral development. Divorced from a sense of grace this inevitably leads to pride and despair. It leads to pride amongst those believe that they measure up to what God desires. It leads to despair amongst those who know they never will and who fail to recognize the grace available in Jesus, or to appropriate that grace for themselves. In some cases it leads to a sad mix of despair and pride wherein a despairing individual overcompensates by specifically seeking others to tear down. Either way, a moralistic view of religion can easily lead to less moral behavior.

The most well-known moralists are the Pharisees of Jesus’ day. Jesus called these moralists children of the devil (see John 8:44). They had an outward veneer of religious life, but inwardly they were murderers and liars. They were filled with pride because they did not understand the mercy Jesus was extending to the prostitutes, tax collectors, and sinners.

But, Keller argues, the answer isn’t to become less religious, but to better understand the gospel. The gospel gives us a moral impulse. It does indeed see sin as serious. But it also offers us grace and mercy. People who understand (not just intellectually, but in their heart) are gracious because they’ve been offered grace. They are merciful, because they have been shown mercy. They “speak and act as those who will be judged by the law that gives freedom” because they know that “mercy triumphs over judgment.” Mercy triumphed over judgment on the cross.

On the cross God gave us the perfect picture of altruism – perfect and costly sacrifice for the good of those who had made him their enemy. On the cross God showed us generosity. Christ became poor so that we could become rich in every spiritual gift.

An almost-gospel isn’t enough to transform our hearts. In fact, it’s the almost-gospels which can produce zealous children of the devil. But the whole gospel is sufficient to reconcile us to God and to produce a people who love mercy, love justice, and love their fellow man with a convictional kindness.

Starbucks, Religious Households, and all those crazy Christians… that apparently I don’t know

Today was a rough day for Christians in social media. It started with the “trending” story that a study apparently showed that children raised in Christian households are less altruistic than their non-religious counterparts. As a Christian parent raising two, soon to be three kids, this was somewhat distressing.

Then there was the Startbucks red cup controversy. This one had me confused for a while. Suddenly all of my Christian friends (and a few of my non-religious friends) were showing outrage over the outrage of Christians who were upset that Startbucks was apparently waging war on Christmas. But when I looked to see if there were actually any Christians showing outrage over Starbucks and I couldn’t find anyone. Not one person (and rightly so).

But based on all the anti-outrage outrage I got the impression that somewhere there must be a bunch of curmudgeonly Christians waging a culture war over red cups. I guess I just don’t know any of them.

Then I saw a meme that basically had the following message: Christians should stop caring about red cups at Startbucks and start caring about kids in foster care. (Update: The meme was shared several more times).

starbucks

I agree. Of course I agree. But, here’s the problem: I don’t know any Christian who doesn’t agree with this. I can immediately think of four or five Christian friends who have adopted kids and who have taken in kids from the foster care system. (Update: My experience matches the broader statistics. A 2013 Barna study showed that Christians are twice as likely to adopt and more likely to participate as foster parents as the general population). I didn’t see a single Christian friend on facebook or in conversation saying that Starbucks was waging war on Christmas. 

I have concluded that the picture of Christians on facebook I saw today wasn’t a picture of any Christians I know. The picture was a caricature. It was a picture of the Christian as a grumpy jerk more interested in outrage and winning than in people. I’m sure there are such people in the church, but I don’t know them.

None of the Christians I know fit this ridiculous caricature. I know the church isn’t perfect. I’m not perfect. I’m broken in some fundamental ways and so is the church. The church is a hospital, and that’s exactly the way it’s supposed to be. There are plenty of times for the church to self-correct and to humbly accept criticism from the outside.

But there are also times to defend the church and I want to do that right now.

The Christians I know are good people. They’re the kind of people who run marathons to raise money to get people clean water. They take trips oversees to care for kids in Romanian orphanages. They adopt kids from China who have special needs. They adopt kids out of foster care. They adopt a pair of brothers at a moment’s notice. They are always on the lookout for people who have no friends so that they can befriend them. They give generously of their time and money in order to help other people find jobs. They, having had an abortion, now work hold support groups for other women who have had abortions. They practice hospitality to those who need a place to stay. The volunteer at homeless shelters. And the list could go on.

These are ordinary people. For each item on the list I had a specific person in mind. None of them is famous and their good deeds aren’t known beyond a small circle of friends. Their political affiliations vary. All of them love Jesus. All of them love their neighbors. All of them are flawed at some level, sure. But none of them are what the social media portrayed them to be today.

Is this only my experience? Am I just living in a bubble of “good Christians” somehow safe from all the “bad Christians” out there? I don’t think so. I’m no sociologist but I have heard of studies that show that religious people really are generous and kind.

So, of course, are many non-religious people. I have many non-religious friends who I could also fit into the list above. In many ways, that’s beside the point. Christianity was never primarily about behavior modification anyway.

I commend to you a recent article by sociologist George Yancey. He has a very nicely written critique of the article mentioned above. I’m sure the relative merits of that study will be debated for some time.

The problem, though, was with the caricature it fueled, that of the angry Christian getting riled up because Starbucks isn’t writing “Merry Christmas” on their cups, the Christian who won’t lift a finger to help someone in need. I’m sure that guy exists out there somewhere, but I don’t know him.