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Segregated Sundays

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“For he himself is our peace, who has made the two groups one and has destroyed the barrier, the dividing wall of hostility.”
—Ephesians 2:14

There is neither Jew nor Gentile, neither slave nor free, nor is there male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus.
—Galatians 3:28

Why are our churches so segregated? Not just by race, although that is bad enough, but by political affinity? The early church was made up of people from all walks of life. There were rich widows and poor layabouts. There were Greeks, Jews, and barbarians. There were slaves and slave owners. There were young and old, rich and poor, male and female, smart and stupid, tall and short, native and alien, slave and free, extroverts and introverts, dark-skinned and light-skinned all in the same church. They had arguments and offenses and jealousies and lawsuits, but they still met together and worshiped together. Could it be that we have missed some central, unifying truth in the gospel?

I met Marv Sauers in 2006 a couple of years before he died. He was 80. He had been a pipeline technician (or engineer, I’m not sure what his job would be today) in northern Minnesota. He fought in World War II. He grew his own tomatoes and shared them with friends. (He grew and shared zucchini too, but—let’s face it—everyone who grows zucchini shares it.) We attended the same church, a nondenominational evangelical church near Hastings, Minnesota. He used to say that he was their token Democrat. When he died the church lost a little of its diversity. It became even more Republican.

I understand the need for a Credo. Without a statement of belief spelling out exactly what we stand for, the church could become a social club, standing for goodness in some unspecified way. Yet somewhere along the way being Republican has become a tacit tenet of evangelical faith. Why? It comes down to just one issue: abortion. Republicans are against it, and Democrats are for it. For many evangelical Christians, abortion is non-negotiable. If you are for it, it is like being for serial murder: you don’t deserve a voice in civil discourse about anything else. How can you vote for someone who favors killing babies just because they haven’t been born yet?

Yet there are plenty of liberal Christians who are also Democrats. They are brothers and sisters too. Some favor abortion—not, of course, because they favor killing babies—because they favor women’s autonomy. They see a world that wants to make childbearing the defining characteristic of women and use that characteristic to exclude them from full participation in other areas of life. Abortion may be an imperfect solution, but it is a solution within the control of the woman, and they favor letting a woman control her own destiny rather than letting others control it who do not have to bear the consequences of their decision. For liberal Christians, abortion is not a litmus test in the same way that it is for conservative Christians. It is one issue among many, not the one issue that defines a candidate’s—or a party’s—character. (It is plain, however, that a Democrat who opposed abortion would have as tough a time getting elected as a Republican who favored it. As with so many issues that divide America at present, there seems to be no middle ground, no room for imagining that those who disagree with you might have the best of motives instead of the worst.)

Our churches are as politically segregated as they are racially segregated. The same is true of economic class and, basically, any indicator by which we commonly self-segregate. The church is just like the world. The only difference seems to be that the Christians think they are better.

The reasons for this self-segregation are partly technological. In the first century, if you wanted to go somewhere, you walked. Everyone walked to synagogue. Everyone walked to church. Everyone walked to hear the latest theories discussed in the marketplace. If you went to church at all, you went to one that was nearby. For the same reason, people were more connected to their neighbors and communities. The people you lived near were the people with whom you worked, talked, celebrated, and worshiped. You were forced to get along with people who did not share your views. Our technology has made it possible to go to a church miles from where we live where the people are as like us as possible. Unless we deliberately seek out people who differ from us, we quite naturally drift into insular relationships that never challenge our prejudices about anything. Our churches even become adept at excluding difference merely by being unwelcoming to those who are not like us. This makes it possible to go to a church where you never encounter a dissenting political view to say nothing of different theological or philosophical views. We can go to a church where there are no feminists and talk about feminism as if it were hell’s agenda. Meanwhile across town a church of feminists is meeting and discussing how patriarchy is pure evil.

Somehow—and it can only be by conscious, deliberate effort—we have got to get out of our cocoons. We have got to accept that everyone who loves Jesus, no matter their theology or political party, is part of the family of God. I’m not suggesting we should not fight. Let’s fight among ourselves. Let’s bring to bear our best arguments and our strongest defenses. But let’s fight like brothers and sisters who love one another, not like warring camps who hate one another. Let’s open our minds and hearts to one another and learn that we might just possibly be wrong about some things.

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The Weakness of God

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“…the weakness of God is stronger than human strength.”
—1 Corinthians 1:25

It is tempting to regard what Paul said in 1 Corinthians as meaning that God, at his weakest, is still stronger than all the strength humans can muster. After all, God is reputedly all-powerful. Surely human strength can be no match for God’s infinite power. Yet I don’t think that is what Paul had in mind at all. This whole passage argues that God’s wisdom and power displayed in Jesus Christ is of a different order altogether from the wisdom and power of human beings.

Our heroes are men and women whose accomplishments stand out from those of their peers. Generals who lead troops into battle, statesmen who avert war, women who overcome misogyny and make significant contributions to science, famous poets or novelists, even accomplished athletes—these are our heroes. They makes us want to emulate them. Jesus was like none of these. He did not lead a nation or an army. His followers were mostly poor and of little account. He made no significant discoveries, never wrote a poem or a book. He didn’t even do what his enemies accused him of: he didn’t lead a rebellion against Rome. If you ignore his teaching, the only noteworthy things he did are almost too improbable to be believed: healing the sick without medicine and feeding the hungry with scant resources, walking on water, raising the dead. Most improbable of all, his followers claim he rose from the dead after being tortured to death and buried for three days. Everything about his life and work reveals a man who was evidently a lunatic with nothing to show for his years on earth except an unusually devoted following. As a representative of God, he comes across as weak, even feeble.

His strength, which became the true strength of the Church, was in two things, both of which Paul goes on to foreground in 1 Corinthians 2, his teaching and the power of the Spirit of God. Yet even his teaching was weakness and foolishness. He taught that we should love our enemies instead of trying to get the better of them. He taught that we should forgive those who offend us instead of retaliating. He taught that we should oppose violence with acquiescence to violence. If we made movies with Jesus’ conception of how to live a good life, at the end the good guys would lay down their weapons and submit to being killed. Likewise, the power of the Spirit of God was not to subdue evil in the world but to overcome it in one’s own heart. God’s Spirit enables Jesus’ followers to live, however imperfectly, in accordance with his teaching.

When Paul lists Christian virtues, they are too weak to even be called virtues. Paul calls them fruit of the Spirit: “love, joy, peace, forbearance, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control” (Galatians 5:22, 23). Notably absent are classical Greek virtues such as courage, prudence, and justice. Only self-control gets a mention, and it is last. Paul even boasts about his own weakness. and declares that when he is weak, he is strong. We tend to value defiance, seeing it as a sign of courage. Our movie heroes are almost always defiant when captured and almost always have to be physically subdued. Yet Jesus taught meekness and humility and persistence in the face of powerful injustice. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. learned from Jesus’ example and used nonviolent protest to dismantle segregation and Jim Crow in the American south. His followers, far from being defiant, endured beatings and police brutality to awaken the conscience of the nation and shame the powerful for allowing injustice to continue.

Again and again throughout history the weak prevail against the strong not by force but by persistence and love. It is not the rich and powerful who end injustice; they too often benefit from its continuance. It is the poor and weak who unite against injustice and shame the powerful into doing what is right.

We Christians are taught to expect persecution for our faith. Some have taken that to mean that we suffer for our moral high-mindedness and piety, but those were characteristics of the Pharisees and religious hypocrites whom Jesus excoriated. No, the persecution we Christians—especially American Christians who enjoy so many protections under our Constitution—should expect to endure is for standing with the weak and powerless, for lifting up the cause of the widow and orphan, for advocating for people of color, for taking to the streets to protect the rights of women and immigrants and poor people, for continuing to feed the hungry when city ordinances forbid it.

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How Great is Our God?

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O magnify the LORD with me, and let us exalt his name together.   —Psalm 34:3

The idea of magnifying God always seemed a little odd to me. We don’t typically talk of magnifying except in the sense of making something appear larger or nearer. How can God be made to appear bigger than he is? Is he not infinite? Or how can he be made to appear nearer? Is he not everywhere present? What can it mean to magnify the all-knowing, all-powerful, ever-present God?

Then I recall the language of lovers. Lovers extol what they love. Ask a lover about something he loves—it need not be a person but a hobby or vocation—and prepare to hear his love magnified as if it were the only thing in the universe. For in a sense it is; it fills his own universe. Those who love God cannot help praising him. Everything that happens in their lives will be found to connect in some way to the God they love.

They will speak of the glory of Your kingdom
and will declare Your might,
informing all people of Your mighty acts
and of the glorious splendor of Your kingdom. (Psalm 145:11-12)

But there is more.

We live in a world that belittles God. Our culture for the most part considers God as unimportant and regards people of faith—especially those whose faith impels them to public action—as dangerous lunatics. God is okay as long as he is the private delusion of a few fanatics. He is tolerable as long as he doesn’t matter in any meaningful way to the life and business of the world. Let God have his little corner in religion. Let him make his rules and have his “kingdom,” but let’s not have any nonsense about absolute truth or a universal moral law. Looking at God through the lens of our culture is like peering into the wrong end of a telescope. God seems small and distant, parochial and insignificant. His acts aren’t mighty; they’re puny. He is weak and stupid, perhaps even evil.

Consider what Christians credit God with: he created everything that exists; made a way through the Red Sea so the Israelites passed through on dry ground; he sent fire from heaven to consume Elijah’s offering; he shut the mouths of lions; he raised Jesus from the dead. But these things are all in the past. What has he done lately? What do we credit him with today? He gave me a parking place near the door so I wouldn’t get rained on; he reduced the severity of the flu I had; he provided a grocery gift card anonymously when I really needed it. While these acts reflect a personal care seldom found in the old stories, they don’t seem to magnify God. They make him out to be a kind of doting nanny, more concerned with our comfort than with our character. Perhaps the culture is only reflecting back the smallness in the testimony about God that Christians have given. Sometimes in our zeal for his omnipotence, we Christians even credit him with evil—at least with what the world regards as evil.

God intends that his children be like him, that they exhibit his character. In doing so, they reflect his good character and bring credit to his name. This is why Jesus told his followers, “Let your light shine before men, so that they may see your good works and give glory to your Father in heaven.” The world unacquainted with God knows him by the deeds of his sons and daughters. It is by our good works that we show the world how merciful and loving is our God, how forgiving and patient, how terrifying and awesome. If our deeds are evil, we discredit God. One does not have to look far to see how much discredit Christians have brought to God. In the world we are known for bigotry and intolerance, hatred, ignorance, and ineffectiveness. So let us turn back from condemnation and from evil deeds that discredit God, and let us do good: bring health and healing to those who are sick, bring life and hope to the discouraged and depressed, love and accept the outcasts, set people free from systems that confine them. Let us magnify the Lord and exalt his name together.

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