Tag: citizenship

Thinking and acting as Christians first

A word from Jim Wallis to all of us idolaters:

What is the greatest failure of Christians in this country?

“When they don’t think and act as Christians first.

“Instead, they act first as Americans, consumers, partisans, or sports fans. This kind of idolatry can result in very un-Christian behavior. These kinds of Christians sometimes forget that we are supposed to love the immigrant, provide for the poor, and promote peace among all nations.”

“Idolatry” is a tough word, reserved in Scripture for people not on God’s side. But most of us must admit that we have been idolatrous at times, often too much of the time.

I once idolized the Dallas Cowboys. If they lost, it literally ruined my day, making me not a nice person to be around. The Cowboys’ mediocrity of recent years has made it a requirement that I give up this idolatry if I was to remain a decent person, but the temptation is still there.

I’m also tempted to idolize my family. My wife, children, children-in-law, and grandchildren are the subjects of much of my thought and attention. I would do just about anything for them. I would not say that I worship them, but people who know me might think I come close.

I’ve also come close to worshiping this nation of mine. I love the United States of America. Captain America is my favorite superhero. The American founding fathers are among my biggest regular heroes. Of course, that last sentence is really the key for me. I love what America stands for. I love our founding principles. I love our freedom. I love our opportunity. I do not always love what America does.

I’m reminded of a phrase I heard somewhere along the way — “America, right or wrong.” If by that, one means that he or she is committed to be a good citizen of the United States whether it is in the right or the wrong, then I can affirm it. If by that, one means that they will support a decision of the United States whether is is right or wrong, then I cannot affirm it. This is because, as Wallis entreated, I desire to think as a Christian first.

I referenced the American and sports fan parts of what Wallis said. While the consumerism and partisanship may not be my temptations toward idolatry, they surely are such for some. In fact, partisanship is probably the single biggest reason behind many of this nation’s problems. Since President Obama took office, the Republican Party’s overriding goal seems to have been regaining full control of the government. Of course, that’s the most obvious recent example. Highly partisan Democrats would do the same thing in defense of their interest groups.

Wallis, in his e-letter, offers a solution. “The antidote is simple. Christians need to read their Bibles more,” he says. When we read our Bibles, we realize what is important to the God of the Bible. The strange thing is that so many so-called Bible-believing Christians do not seem to share the overriding concerns of God as expressed in Scripture. It is, therefore, not just a matter of reading our Bibles; it’s a matter of reading our Bibles with new eyes. That’s not a easy task for those of us who are older, but it is not an impossible task because the Spirit of God is stirring in our midst desiring to help us see God’s truth more clearly.

A prayer: May we see God’s truth better in the coming year.

Keller: Doing justice in the public square

“When Christians do evangelism, they can only count on the support and understanding of other believers. But when believers seek to do justice in the world, they often find it both necessary and desirable to work with others who do not share their faith.” (p.148)

Timothy Keller

Thus Timothy Keller begins an insightful and much-needed chapter on public discourse in his book, Generous Justice: How God’s Grace Makes Us Just. He maintains that while most people see themselves as just, there is disagreement on what justice is.

“… [I]n our society naming something a ‘justice issue’ is a kind of trump card. … [T]here is no defense. …

“There’s a big problem with this move, however. …

“The reason it is not convincing to simply cry ‘injustice!’ is that our society is deeply divided over the very definition of justice. Nearly everyone thinks they are on justice’s side. … Democrats think of it more in collective terms. … Republicans think of justice more individualistically. …

“The fact is that the word ‘justice’ does not have a definition in our culture that we can all agree on.  So we just use it as a bludgeon.” (pp.149-150)

The author then talks about competing visions of justice and invokes a number of writers in making various points. Part of this comes from the perspective that in secular academia there is no place for religious discussion and thus basic underlying principles are ignored. Keller, of course, has a different perspective. “… [O]ur ideas of justice are rooted in views of life that are nonprovable faith assumptions.” (p.155)

Keller then quotes Steven D. Smith: “The secular vocabulary within which public discourse is constrained to operate today is insufficient to convey our full set of normative convictions and commitments.” (p.155 in Keller, from Smith’s The Disenchantment of Secular Discourse, p.39)

Keller summarizes thus:

“The rules of secular discourse lead us to smuggle moral value judgments into our reasoning about justice without admitting it to others or even to ourselves. And so the deeper discussions over the true points of difference never happen.” (p.156)

He invokes Michael Sandel’s argument about abortion rights here to illustrate the point then follows with this:

“So if our society gives women the freedom to have abortions, it is because we also have made a moral determination. Sandel concludes: ‘It is not enough to say that the law should be neutral on moral and religious questions. The case for permitting abortion is no more neutral than the case for banning it. Both positions presuppose some answer to the underlying moral and religious controversy.’

“Sandel, who is not a religious believer and who is a supporter of abortion rights, concludes that justice is always ‘judgmental.’ Beneath all accounts of justice are sets of essentially religious assumptions that we are not allowed to admit or discuss, and so our society stays in a deadlock over these issues. We can’t agree on what justice is because we can’t talk about our underlying beliefs.” (pp.157-158)

Keller then begins to pull this chapter together by talking about cooperation and provocation. I love it.

“I propose that Christians’ work for justice should be characterized by both humble cooperation and respectful provocation.

“Christian believers have many temptations to be neither humble nor cooperative with others. Believers have many of the criteria for a righteous and just life laid out in the Bible. How easy it would be to disdain all non-Christian accounts of justice as being useless, just as many secular people dismiss religious belief.” (p.158)

“… [A]ccording to the Bible, virtue, rights, and the common good are all crucial aspects of justice.” (p.159)

“As a result of this general revelation, Christians believe that there is much ‘common grace’ in every culture. The implication of James 1:17 is that God scatters gifts of wisdom, goodness, justice, and beauty across all the human race, regardless of people’s beliefs. … This grace is called common because it is given to all, not just those who have found salvation in Jesus Christ. …” (p.160)

“When we speak publicly, we should do so with thoughtfulness and grace, in recognition that Christians are not the only ones who see what needs to be done in the world.” (p.161)

And he finishes with a point that it so needed. He doesn’t say it, but one of the myths of our contemporary American culture is that “you can’t legislate morality.” That’s ridiculous. All laws are expression of moral judgments.

Keller includes a quote here from President. “Our law is by definition a codification of morality, much of it grounded in the Judeo-Christi an tradition.” (p.169) Then Keller finishes the chapter.

“The pursuit of justice in society is never morally neutral, but is always based on understandings of reality that are essentially religious in nature. Christians should not be strident and condemning in their language or attitude, but neither should they be silent about the Biblical roots of their passion for justice.” (p.169)

(This is my eighth post on Keller’s book. I offer these posts in hopes to whet your appetite and to encourage you to read the entire book.)

The power of what we have

“People are discovering that satisfying possibilities for their lives are in the neighborhood, not in the marketplace.”

That’s how John McKnight and Peter Block start their book, The Abundant Community: Awakening the Power of Families and Neighborhoods. I wanted to know more after hearing John, Peter and Walter Brueggemann speak at the Abundant Communities conference in San Antonio, so I’ve just started the book and will share some highlights here. (All of the quotes on this post are from pages 1-2.)

In many nations, local people are having the “courage to discover their own way–to create a culture made by their own vision. … [I]t is a culture that starts the same way, with an awakening:

“First, we see the abundance that we have–individually, as neighbors, and in this place of ours.

“Second, we know that the power of what we have grows from creating new connections and relationships among and between what we have.

“Third, we know that these connections are no accident. They happen when we individually and collectively act to make the connections–they don’t just happen by themselves.”

Two words jumped out at me as I read this–“we have.” This book is not about something we do not have but need to acquire; it’s about what we have. That may not seem like a biggie, but so much of what we encounter today through advertising, self-help advice, and even church is about what we need but do not have. The simplicity of the notion that we have what we need seems powerfully freeing.

And while we may have what we need, I like the notion that this is something we’re going to have to work for. That squares with our experience of life.

The three steps mentioned above “awaken us to our abundance, not our scarcities. … [And they] can often be undermined by great corporate, governmental, professional, and academic institutions.”

For those of us who attended the San Antonio conference, these words sound so familiar. Walter Brueggemann made a superb biblical connection between the ideas of abundance and scarcity. (I blogged my notes from Walter’s remarks.)

And then John and Peter pick up the notion of citizenship about which I didn’t get good notes during the conference.

“It is our calling as citizens to ignore the voices that create dependency, for we are called to find our own way. …”

In a democracy, “we strive to be citizens–people with the vision and the power to create our own way, a culture of community capacity, connection, and care.”

I look forward to hearing more about these notions of citizenship.

“… [S]trong communities are vital, productive, and important. And above all they are necessary because of the inherent limits of all institutions.

“No matter how hard they try, our very best institutions cannot do many things that only we can do. And the things that only we can do as a family and a neighborhood are vital to a decent, good, satisfied life.”

I want to be part of something that is vital, productive, and important. I want to have a decent, good, satisfied life. I do experience all of this in many ways now but look forward to seeing how John and Peter open new possibilities for us.