Stop Shaming Other Christians into Voting Against their Conscience (or “Am I Wasting my Vote?”)

baboon-655313_1920-pixabay-headerGiven this year’s choices for president, more people are seriously considering casting a vote for a third or minor party candidate. I think it’s important to address the question of the logic of what it means to “waste” one’s vote.

I think the worst thing about this contentious presidential election year is the degree to which Christians have been divided against each other. One major line of attack is aimed at Christians who say their consciences cannot permit them to vote for a crass, constitutionally-ignorant, opportunistic victim-blaming admitted sexual assailant by other Christians who say that any other choice means the first group is complicit in electing a manipulative, megalomaniacal, lying, corrupt, liberty- and family-hating baby killer. The internecine conflict is sharp, with a vitriol usually reserved for Old-Earth versus Young-Earth Creationist debates.

By the way, if you’re on either side of this debate, I encourage you to pause right now and go read this list of New Testament passages on how Christians are supposed to treat “one another.” Then come back. Go ahead, I’ll wait.

Now let’s talk about voting.

There are two major ways of thinking of your vote.

Seeing your vote as expressive reflects the most straightforward and historical purpose of the vote in any democracy or republic; that, when you cast your vote you are expressing a clear preference for one candidate over the others. That is, all things taken into account, you positively favor the candidate’s promises and the candidate him- or herself to hold the office of the president (or whatever office they’re running for).

Seeing your vote as strategic (also sometimes called instrumental) means that your vote is merely a means of accomplishing some other outcome. So when people say they are voting for Trump because they want to prevent Hillary Clinton from nominating pro-choice judges, they are being strategic; they don’t necessarily like Trump, but they are preventing Clinton’s nominations.

Let’s look at the logic of these two approaches.

Sincere Expressive Voting

Expressive voting is the most straightforward and historical purpose of the vote in any democracy or republic—expressing support for a candidate or party that, all things being equal, will lead your community or nation in the way that you actually think is good.

In casting a sincere expressive vote for Trump you are actually endorsing what Trump says, how he says it, and the candidate’s personal character. When another person votes expressively for Clinton, she is positively endorsing Clinton. A vote for Johnson endorses his policies and character, and so on.

This kind of vote is pretty simple to assess for Christians. As I have been teaching for decades: Look at the biblical texts and determine God’s purposes for civil government and society, and the character he expects of the civil authorities, and vote for the candidate who, on balance, best reflects those principles.

(Here is a link to one of my recent talks addressing Christian Citizenship; the section on what scripture says about God’s purposes for government begins around 30:00.)

Now, usually in the US there is at least one major party candidate who is relatively acceptable in these terms, even if not perfect. (You may think one of the major party candidates this year is acceptable in both policy and character terms.) This year, however, it is clear that a lot of Christians support neither Trump nor Clinton and all that they stand for. Still, I have come to the position that your expressive vote for a minor party candidate is not wasted, you just have to understand that you are taking a public stand for what you believe to be the right direction for politics, government and society and you are voting for someone who will not win. That’s okay, because theologically conservative Christians ought to have learned long ago that politicians will compromise on their promises (as two founders of the Moral Majority wrote in their 1999 book Blinded by Might) as even that paragon of conservatism Ronald Reagan did.

I have come to the position that your expressive vote for a minor party candidate is not wasted, you just have to understand that you are taking a public stand for what you believe to be the right direction for politics, government and society and you are voting for someone who will not win.

Strategic Voting

Weak candidates and their supporters want you to view your vote as strategic, and they try to convince their minions of that in order to gain the leaders’ favored outcomes or avoid disfavored outcomes. Democratic leaders, for example, proclaim to their liberal base that anything but a vote for Hillary is essentially a vote for Trump. President Obama said,

“If you don’t vote, that’s a vote for Trump, if you vote for a third-party candidate who’s got no chance to win, that’s a vote for Trump.”

Conservatives say the same thing. In one of the more sophisticated efforts Eric Metaxas argued,

“Not voting—or voting for a third candidate who cannot win—is a rationalization designed more than anything to assuage our consciences…[Those who choose to do so] would be responsible for passively electing someone who champions the abomination of partial-birth abortion, someone who is celebrated by an organization that sells baby parts.”

I find it fascinating that Metaxas acknowledges that our consciences might need assuaging when faced with the prospect of voting for The Donald. That is, our conscience tells us “You cannot vote for this guy!” or “That other person has the best policies!” and Metaxas patronizingly says that we must comfort our conscience when we actually vote on that basis. He thinks you need to somehow justify voting in concert with your conscience—your Spirit-informed internal compass for discerning right and wrong! (Who is doing the actual rationalizing here?!)

The strategic argument is that removing your vote from the Trump tally (note that folks like Metaxas assume it’s there in the first place!) makes it easier for Clinton to win, because she’ll then need fewer votes to win than she would if you voted strategically. The math of this position is pretty simple.

Let’s say in your state 42 voters say they’ll vote Trump, 40 for Clinton, 5 for Johnson, 3 for Stein, and 2 for Castle. If the election is held today, Trump wins. But suppose some of those are only reluctantly voting for Trump, and only because they loathe or fear Hillary; these are called “clothespin” voters. Let’s say there are three Trump “clothespin” voters who ultimately decide to abstain or vote for Darrell Castle; Trump’s votes go to 39 and Clinton wins with 40, assuming Clinton clothespin voters don’t also abstain or vote for Stein.

Just in case you think this is unrealistic, in a recent (10/18/16) Economist/YouGov poll, 43% of people who said they will vote for Trump say they are actually “mostly voting against Hillary Clinton.” That means nearly half of Trump voters are voting strategically. The same poll shows that about 35% of Clinton voters are “mostly voting against Donald Trump.”

The Metaxas argument, however, is that for Christians anything other than a Trump vote is naïve because your conscience will lead you to vote for someone that actually doesn’t have a chance of winning, like Evan McMullin or Darrell Castle. That is, voters must consider the practical effects of their votes. Thinking strategically, a vote for Castle may indeed have the effect of making it easier for Clinton to win, IF AND ONLY IF you would have otherwise voted for Trump.

An important part of this argument is that the US election system essentially constrains the winner to be either the Democrat or the Republican. I don’t deny that, and I have several fascinating political science lectures on this, if you’re interested! Since Trump is the only candidate with a practical chance of beating Clinton, strategic voting advocates say you ought to vote strategically for Trump if you want to avoid Clinton.

But this mindset only considers a vote a strategic tool, not as a positive expression of political preferences. What if you want your vote to be a positive endorsement of a candidate and his or her positions?

The other effects of voting strategically

Most of the arguments about wasted votes among evangelical Christians emphasize avoiding the effect of Clinton’s Supreme Court nominees. But there are other important effects of voting strategically instead of expressively.

The other effects of strategic voting

  1. You have to vote against your conscience.
  2. How the candidate will interpret the vote.
  3. How society and history will judge Christians for their votes.
  4. Voting strategically might avert a Clinton win, but it might not.

First, as Metaxas subtly acknowledges, you have to vote against your conscience in order to do what he recommends. At this point, it’s worth revisiting what scripture says about the purpose of your conscience and the importance of living with a clear conscience. (To get you started here’s the BibleGateway link for the word conscience.)

Second, consider how the candidate will interpret the vote. Imagine a candidate who is so egotistical and un-self-critical that he or she will NOT view any votes they get as clothespin strategic votes, but as expressive votes, positive endorsements of his or her policy agenda, campaign tactics, and personal character.

Let me put it directly: Do you honestly think that Donald Trump will look at clothespin votes for him and humbly engage in self-reflection about why so many people didn’t like him but didn’t like Clinton more, and that’s how he ended up with their votes? Or will he say, “I won! Look at how many people love me!

Third, Christians cannot ignore how society and history will judge Christians for supporting a candidate like Trump. How Christians act, for good or ill, reflects on our King and on other Christians (Matt 5:16; 1 Peter 2:11-16; 1 Peter 3:16-17; Phil 2:15; Titus 2:6-8). Like it or not, we have a responsibility to the Kingdom of God and to the reputation of our King that goes beyond the consequences of the election.

This is already happening. Pundits and political analysts have been happily discussing the enthusiasm that nice conservative Jesus people have for Donald Trump. Here are just a few examples:

  • March 6: “Why Evangelicals Support Trump” (Politico)
  • June 10: “Evangelicals give Trump stamp of approval” (The Hill)
  • June 27: “Not keeping the faith: Donald Trump and the conning of evangelical voters” (Salon)
  • July 21: “How Donald Trump Divided and Conquered Evangelicals” (Rolling Stone)
  • July 21: “Churchgoing Republicans, once skeptical of Trump, now support him” (Pew Research Center Fact Tank)
  • October 7: “Evangelical Leaders Shrug At Donald Trump’s Lewd Comments” (Daily Beast)

Actual support for Trump among evangelicals is not nearly as strong as pundits would have us believe, as I and others have argued and demonstrated (see, for example, here, here, here, and here).

The upshot is that as churchgoing evangelicals vote for and stridently support Trump, our whole tribe will get associated with him and his style.

Finally, voting strategically might avert a Clinton win, but it might not. Imagine a scenario in which you violate your conscience, vote strategically for Trump and Hillary Clinton still wins your state (recall that the presidential election is decided state-by-state because of the Electoral College), and even the presidency.

So yes, voting strategically for Trump might keep Hillary out of the White House, if that’s what you want. But it might not. To get there, however, you might have to violate your conscience, send Donald the message that he’s just great, and link Christianity with this person’s electoral success.

And all of that still does not even touch the question of whether Donald Trump (a lifelong Democrat and not a conservative) can be trusted to keep his word to Evangelicals and other conservatives. But that’s another topic.

Conclusion

If you are a strategic Trump voter and have made it this far, thank you. But you’ve probably been arguing with me every step of the way, and feeling like I’ve been hitting you pretty hard, guilting you for your vote choice. That was not my intention. My intention was to starkly communicate what the other side is going through in their genuine conscience-informed struggle, in the face of a pretty ugly assault by other brothers and sisters in the Lord. And to encourage everyone to vote biblically, which may not be the same thing as voting strategically.

If you really like Trump and all his baggage, then by all means vote for him. But stop guilt-tripping your brothers and sisters in Christ. Seriously.

If you cannot in good conscience vote for Trump, find a candidate for whom you can cast a sincere vote expressing support for the direction of their policies and their character, and trust God with the rest in all of his sovereignty.

The only truly wasted vote is one that is not cast at all.

 

Oh yes, one more thing: We can and must do better when it comes to Christians and how we act if we’re going to be engaged in politics and  live out the command to “love one another.” This has not been an edifying year in that respect, has it?

 


Baboon image courtesy of Pixabay

Christian Citizenship and the Crazy, No-Good, Terrible 2016 Elections

A talk (October 16, 2016) at Cherry Creek Community Church providing a biblical perspective on citizenship, and how that perspective ought to affect Christians’ thinking about the 2016 elections. I link to some other helpful 2016 election resources below.

http://www.cherrycreekcc.org/guest-speaker-messages/

Here is the handout with the message outline: christian-citizenship-and-the-2016-elections (pdf).


Here is the outline of the whole talk. Below the outline are some election resources for the 2016 elections.

This is the outline of my talk “Christian Citizenship and the Crazy, No-Good, Terrible 2016 Elections,” but these principles are the same principles I’ve been teaching for many years, and can be applied to any election, any candidate, any time. Because these are biblical principles, they apply over time.

1. Philippians 3:20: As Christians, our true citizenship and homeland is in heaven.

2. 1 Peter 2:9-10: Our identity as Christ-followers is that we are a special, distinct, and holy people.

3. 2:11: Therefore, wherever we live, we are aliens and sojourners. That is, we are temporary residents, living among the native population wherever we happen to find ourselves.

  • Recent research shows that only about 18% of Americans believe Christianity is the one true faith; only 36% of White Evangelicals and African American Protestants believe this.[i] That means if you believe our faith the one true faith, 82% of Americans disagree with you. America is not your true homeland, and Americans are not your true people-group!
  • Looking at Christianity worldwide, American Christians (broadly defined, that is Protestants + Catholics + Orthodox) are only 11.3% of all Christians.[ii] 89% of Christians do not live in the US. As American Christians, the USA (as much as I am grateful to live here) is NOT our homeland, these people are NOT our people. OUR people are mostly non-Caucasian and do not speak English.

4. 2:11-12: Because we are aliens and sojourners, our behavior is to be “excellent among the Gentiles”…

  • 2:12: So that our actions will not reflect badly on our King and on our people group (see also Matt 5:16; 1 Peter 3:16-17; Phil 2:15; Titus 2:6-8).
  • Do you think this command includes our political choices? I think so.

5. 1 Timothy 2: 1-4: Our people are supposed to pray for those in authority.

  • What is the ultimate purpose for these prayers (2:4)? So that all people can come to a saving knowledge of Jesus Christ. This is our people’s true mission: spreading the Gospel, making disciples. We shouldn’t ignore political goals, but political legislation is NOT the primary reason our King has us on this sojourn, living as aliens here.

6. God establishes institutions of authority for humanity to govern human behavior, including the civil authorities (1 Peter 2:13-14; Romans 13:1-7; John 19:10-11; Daniel 2:20-21; Daniel 4:17).

  • Do you think God already knows who will win the 2016 elections? I do.
  • Do you think God has already taken the result into account in his plan for human history? I do.

7. Scripture tells us quite clearly that God has a number of assigned tasks for the civil authorities …

Romans 13:3-5; 1 Peter 2:13-14: Encourage people to live righteously. Punish people for doing evil. Paul and Peter certainly have specific ideas in mind when they refer to good and evil here, not some vague, morally relative, culturally-shifting concept of right and wrong.

Psalm 72, Psalm 82, Exodus 23:1-8 (see also Deut 16:18-20; Deut 27:19; Isaiah 1:16-17; Jeremiah 7:5-7, Ezekiel 34, and many, many more)

  • 72:1-2: The ruler’s character is to be righteous and just. Again, scripture is quite clear about what that means.
  • 72:3-4, 12-14; 82:3-4: The righteous and just ruler protects and rescues people from affliction, oppression, and violence. Which people? The weakest in society. In the biblical concept this includes the truly needy, and those who cannot provide for themselves and have no provider (usually grouped under the categories of widows and the fatherless).
  • These are recurring themes throughout the Old Testament. The prophets repeatedly have the role of proclaiming God’s judgment on the civil authorities (ie, the kings and princes and elders of Judah and Israel) for failing to act righteously and justly, and for failing to protect and provide for these groups, and even for profiting off of their desperate state.

A Checklist for Evaluating Candidates Biblically in any election year, for any political office

This list is based on the points above.

  • Prayerfully ask God to prioritize the importance of these items for you. (This list is simply the order in which I presented the material above, and is not in order of the priorities God has laid on my heart.)
  • Prayerfully consider whether each candidate’s proposed policies correspond to the biblical principles.
  • In the checklist I use the phrase “seem likely” intentionally. We should carefully assess whether the candidate’s promises are credible, given what we know. For example, in the 1980 elections, Ronald Reagan promised Evangelicals that he would appoint pro-life Supreme Court justices. They thought he was credible. Then, when given the opportunity to appoint those judges he ended up nominating Sandra Day O’Connor (pro-choice), Robert Bork (pro-life, but withdrawn), and Anthony Kennedy (pro-choice).
  1. Do the candidate’s policies seem likely to encourage people to live righteously?
  2. Do the candidate’s policies seem likely to discourage people from doing evil deeds?
  3. Can the candidate’s character truthfully be described as righteous and just?
  4. Do the candidate’s policies seem likely to aid the oppressed and the weakest in society?
  5. Do the candidate’s policies seem likely to protect the innocent?
  6. Do the candidate’s policies seem likely to promote treating all people justly and fairly?

 

[i] Source: 2007 Pew Religious Landscape Survey, my own calculations.

[ii] Source: http://www.pewforum.org/2011/12/19/global-christianity-exec/


Here are some links to 2016 Election Resources for You

See your Michigan ballot: webapps.sos.state.mi.us/MVIC/VoterSearch.aspx

Here’s a Good Quiz for matching your opinions to presidential candidates: https://www.isidewith.com/

Here is a link to what prominent evangelicals have written about their evaluations of the candidates.


Presidential Candidates on the Michigan ballot (in the order they appear)

Democratic – Hillary Clinton & Tim Kaine        www.hillaryclinton.comRepublican – Donald Trump & Mike Pence    donaldjtrump.com
Libertarian – Gary Johnson & William Weld www.johnsonweld.com
Pro-choice, legalize marijuana, local education control and school choice, reduce federal spending and deficit, simplified tax reform, scale back US military commitments and spending.
U.S. Taxpayers/ Constitution – Darrell Castle & Scott Bradley www.castle2016.com
Very Conservative with focus on US Constitution’s specific division of powers (limit federal government involvement in the economy and areas such as health insurance, education, replacing with state government power). Pro-life, withdraw from UN, lower taxes.
Green – Jill Stein & Ajamu Baraka www.jill2016.com
Democratic Socialist. Very Liberal (extensive government planning in the economy, little regulation on moral issues, strong social welfare safety net), abortion on demand, Complete government-funded health care system, , legalize marijuana, focus on environmental issues, create publicly owned utilities and banks, full gay rights.
Natural Law – Emidio Soltysik & Angela Walker www.rev16.us/
Socialist Workers Party. All corporations, banks, insurance companies, and natural resources to be publicly and worker owned. Abortion on demand, full gay rights, full social welfare safety net, legalize marijuana. Complete government-funded health care system, steeply graded tax brackets. Full citizenship after 6 months residence, abolition of borders.
Michigan 6th Congressional District Candidates Republican Fred Upton: www.fredupton.com/
Democrat Paul Clements: www.clementsforcongress.com/Libertarian Lorence Wenke: http://votewenke.com

 

Michigan Family Forum Voter Guides: michiganfamily.org/index.php/michigan-online-voter-guide/

  • Currently only President (Dem, Rep, Green, Libertarian), MI Supreme Court, MI State Board of Education; Website says Congressional guide is coming soon (as of 10/15)

 

Sermon: Race, Ethnicity, and Racial Healing: A Biblical Worldview

Race, Ethnicity, and Racial Healing

Dr. Peter W. Wielhouwer

Message delivered on October 4, 2015, Cherry Creek Community Church, Portage, Michigan.

The text for this message was Acts 11:1-18; the first portion (about 17 minutes or so) is given by Cherry Creek Senior Pastor Ryan Doyle.

PDF of the PowerPoint presentation accompanying my remarks: Race, Ethnicity, and Racial Healing

MP3 File:

 



 

Understanding Ferguson’s Fires (updated)

Source: nbc.com

Source: nbc.com

[Updated: I updated this post to incorporate other responses published since I wrote the original.]

In Ferguson, Missouri a grand jury declined to indict a white police officer who shot a young African-American man last summer. When the decision not to indict was announced protests and violence ensued, with several fires set as some residents expressed anger and frustration, and other protests occurred around the country.

In a blog comment reprinted on Christianity Today, African-American pastor Bryan Lorrits wrote,

Over the years I’ve been challenged by my white brothers and sisters to just “get over” [events perceived as involving racism]. Their refusal to attempt to see things from my ethnically different perspective is a subtle, stinging form of racism. What’s more is that it hinders true Christian unity and fellowship within the beloved body of Christ.

My purpose with this post is an attempt  to explain this difference in perspective to my white brothers and sisters (of which I am one), and to help people understand why there is often an angry reaction to situations such as that of Michael Brown and Ferguson. In pulling together this post, I draw on what I have learned by studying race and American politics for more than twenty years. I also suggest some solutions from a Christian perspective. As you might imagine, it’s often complicated, but here goes a blog-length attempt.

Why are they angry?

There are obvious immediate causes: the unarmed African-American man[1] shot by a white police officer; the decision not to indict; the militaristic environment after the shooting, and so on. But the reality is that there are longer-term factors at work here. First, there is the perception (or reality) of racism on the part of the authorities in the situation. Second, there are race-based social and economic frustrations in many of America’s communities. Let’s take these apart carefully.

Racism

White people view racism quite differently than do black people. When whites are asked to define racism, the answer is usually something like, “when a person treats another person badly or negatively because of their race or ethnicity.” But when African-Americans are asked to define racism, the answer is usually something like, “a system in which racial groups are treated differently.”

The reasons for these two different views are socially and historically complicated. White people in general do not define themselves in terms of their ethnicity, nor do they view themselves as a social, economic or political group that has any specific common interests. (There are obvious exceptions to this, such as those whites who do view their race as their main relevant social characteristic. These people often end up in white supremacist groups, but are a very small portion of the white American population.)

African-Americans, on the other hand often see their primary relevant group characteristic as being their race or ethnicity. They have a high level of what social scientists call “group identification,” a strong psychological attachment to their group. This leads to a strong feeling of “linked fate,” the idea that what happens to one person in their group is likely to be relevant to one’s own life. So when a black person is shot by a white person, there is a psychological link made between that event and an awareness that this could happen to anyone in the group, including oneself.

White Americans simply don’t think this way based on our racial category, but we sometimes do in other areas. For example, as a home schooler, when I hear about a bad event (child abuse, or social worker’s abuse of powers), I often will say to myself, “I really hope that wasn’t a home schooler.” Why? Because I perceive that what happens to other home schoolers could also happen to me because I am a home schooler. Or if a child abuser is a home schooler, that reflects badly on home schoolers generally and makes us more likely to be viewed badly by society. This perception is due to my strong social identification as a home schooler and my sense of linked fate with other home schoolers.

The System and its Outcomes

Because African-Americans have higher racial group identification and attitude of linked fate, they view their relationship to the American political and criminal justice systems differently than white Americans do. A very important historical fact to remember is that for at least two centuries in the US, the legal and political systems did in fact define people and their status in society in race-based terms. In the South especially, the “Jim Crow” social environment used the law specifically to treat blacks and whites differently, and unequally (See an excellent article on this here). Thus one major reason the African-American community defines itself in that way is at least partially because the political system did so for so long.

While whites might optimistically hope that several decades after Brown v. Board of Education and the Civil Rights Acts the group-oriented mindset of African-Americans might have lessened, the reality is that group identity and linked fate still are quite important. To say that they shouldn’t be important is to miss the point that they still do matter to our neighbors.

In fact, the system itself seems to reinforce the sense that the group is systematically disadvantaged, not due to problems of individual motivation or a sense of entitlement, but because of intractable, long term social and economic outcomes in society. Here are just three examples:

The public education system, which is broken and dysfunctional in so many ways, is a particularly harsh environment for black (and Latino) boys. See a report here).

Family income in the black community is persistently lower than other racial or ethnic groups. This is illustrated in this graph:

Racial differences in household income, 1967-2012 Source: businessinsider.com

In terms of interacting with the criminal justice system, the legacy of race-defined unequal treatment still rears its ugly head. See this op-ed on crime statistics.

Differences like these produce the perception that the system is largely rigged against people of color, and persistent differences reinforce those perceptions.

That is not to say that this perception about bias in “the system” is universal among African-Americans. For example, following Ferguson, Pastor Voddie Bauchum reflected on his own experiences, writing,

“for many of those years, I blamed “the system” or “the man.” However, I have come to realize that it was no more “the system” when white cops pulled me over than it was “the system” when a black thug robbed me at gunpoint. It was sin! The men who robbed me were sinners. The cops who stopped me were sinners. They were not taking their cues from some script designed to “keep me down.” They were simply men who didn’t understand what it meant to treat others with the dignity and respect they deserve as image bearers of God.

It does me absolutely no good to assume that my mistreatment was systemic in nature. No more than it is good for me to assume that what happened in Ferguson was systemic. I have a life to live, and I refuse to live it fighting ghosts. I will not waste my energy trying to prove the Gramscian, neo-Marxist concept of “white privilege” or prejudice in policing practices.”

There is, however, in the black community a broad tendency to blame the system because of low trust in the system, for which there are plausible historical reasons. It is true that social, economic, educational, and political advances of black Americans occurred through governmental involvement. Nonetheless, there is a broad perception of stagnation in that progress over the last forty years. Whether white people think this it is unreasonable for black people to think this way is entirely beside the point.

Why Political Solutions Fail

In the big picture, political efforts to solve these problems will fail, because politicians are notoriously bad at changing peoples’ attitudes and hearts. More to the point, I have become convinced that there are individuals and groups in politics and society who have no interest in pursuing genuine healing and solutions to America’s longstanding race problems. They make their money, sell their books, and win elections by taking advantage of black anger and frustration and white complacency, resentment or ignorance. They are liberals and conservatives, Democrats and Republicans, black and white. If the “race problem” goes away, so does their income stream and their political advantage. So we can’t look to politicians and talking heads to get us out of this mess.

Christian Solutions

The solution, it seems to me, is just as complicated as the problem, but that is not an excuse to ignore it. As a Christian, what am I to do when Ferguson situations come up? And how am I supposed to think about these problems? I think the Bible speaks in two specific ways—to me as an individual, and to the church as a social organism. The solution is not going to be borne out of a crisis, but out of a long-term systematic commitment of people of faith and their churches.

As an individual, I am to be an instrument of peace (as the old Catholic prayer goes) in my community (Matt 5:9; James 3:18). I can do this by praying for peace in communities where there is unrest, but also in the hearts of people whose hearts are broken or hardened. I must humbly check my own attitude and seek understanding of others’ situations (Phil 2:3-4). This is one area where the social justice movement of Christianity is correct—we are to strive for justice in our communities and to work on behalf of those who are oppressed in God’s eyes (e.g., Psalm 10, Psalm 146). Am I trying to be understanding of the frustrations of others, or do I just view Ferguson-like violent outbursts as unruly mobs engaged in unjustified riots? Am I personally working to be an ambassador of reconciliation (2 Cor 5:18-21) across racial and ethnic groups in my community?

Our churches are supposed to be voices of truth and reconciliation in our communities. Is your congregation making opportunities to partner across racial and ethnic lines where you live? Martin Luther King, Jr. often observed that “eleven o’clock Sunday morning is the most segregated hour and Sunday school is still the most segregated school of the week.” If your congregation is virtually entirely of one race, is your church leadership doing anything about that?

As Christians we must continue to acknowledge that Christians sometimes were on the wrong side of race conflicts; that some Christians twisted scripture to support their own personal racist beliefs; and that some of those wounds are still painful to brothers and sisters and neighbors. And yet, Christianity provides an extraordinary—indeed a supernatural—means of reconciling the races, and unifying people in our communities. In the Bible we are repeatedly instructed that the arbitrary social groups of society are supposed to be set aside in the church, where

There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free man, there is neither male nor female; for you are all one in Christ Jesus. (Gal 3:28)

do not hold your faith in our glorious Lord Jesus Christ with an attitude of personal favoritism. (James 2:1)

For by one Spirit we were all baptized into one body, whether Jews or Greeks, whether slaves or free, and we were all made to drink of one Spirit. (1 Cor 12:13)

Therefore I, the prisoner of the Lord, implore you to walk in a manner worthy of the calling with which you have been called, with all humility and gentleness, with patience, showing tolerance for one another in love, being diligent to preserve the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace. There is one body and one Spirit, just as also you were called in one hope of your calling; one Lord, one faith, one baptism, one God and Father of all who is over all and through all and in all. (Eph 4:1-6)

Instead of being angry or looking on in disbelief, pray for peace, walk humbly, and strive for understanding and peace in your own communities.

[1] I use the terms African-American and black interchangeably here. I also use the term race (and variants) to refer to different groups even though I believe there is only one race—the human race—with different ethnicities and skin tones.

Where is your citizenship?

US-Green-CardAs a student of politics I’ve been thinking about my citizenship. I love the United States, and I love our history, our diversity, and our shared values. At the same time, as a Christian I get frustrated by what I see in our nation’s evolving culture. While some changes have been good, many cultural changes have not been good, in the sense of being objectively good the way God sees things. If the US ever was a “Christian Nation,” we certainly aren’t anymore (even back in the 1970s Christian philosopher Francis Schaeffer labeled the US as “Post-Christian.”).

It’s useful, then for me to return periodically to a biblical definition of where my loyalties actually ought to lay. That is, when I look at the culture of death that is growing in our nation, the intractability of human trafficking, the passing away of our society’s moral standards and fabric that for so long supported our culture, and the growing antagonism toward traditional Christianity in the public square, I wonder whether being American is all it’s cracked up to be. If I travel abroad and meet up with other brothers and sisters in the Lord, would I be proud to say I’m an American?

As usual, scripture must guide my thinking, so what does the Bible say about being an American? Nothing directly, of course. The British colonies were just a twinkle in Europe’s eye when the canon of scripture closed. But the apostles Peter and Paul both address citizenship in interesting ways. In Phillipians 3:20, Paul writes that “our citizenship is in Heaven,” which enables us to bear earthly problems with a heavenly mindset. But Peter provides a more thorough teaching.

Nestled between the metaphor of The Church being a building of “living stones” with Christ as the cornerstone and instructions on submission to governing authorities, such as the king or one’s employer, Peter writes,

But you are a CHOSEN RACE, a ROYAL PRIESTHOOD, a HOLY NATION, aA PEOPLE FOR God’s OWN POSSESSION, so that you may proclaim the excellencies of Him who has called you out of darkness into His marvelous light; 10 for you once were NOT A PEOPLE, but now you are THE PEOPLE OF GOD; you had NOT RECEIVED MERCY, but now you have RECEIVED MERCY.

11 Beloved, I urge you as aliens and strangers to abstain from fleshly lusts which wage war against the soul. 12 Keep your behavior excellent among the Gentiles, so that in the thing in which they slander you as evildoers, they may because of your good deeds, as they observe them, glorify God in the day of visitation. (1 Peter 2:9-12, NAS)

The capitalized letters tell us that these phrases are quotations, and these are from the Old Testament—phrases that were used to describe the nation of Israel (e.g., Exodus 19:16, Deut 7:6; Deut 14:2; Hosea 1:10, 2:23). This is consistent with other New Testament passages demonstrating that Christianity is an extension of Judaism, Israel’s spiritual heritage and co-heir to the promises God made to Abraham (this is a major theme of Galatians and Romans, for example).

Our National Identity. But in the context of Peter’s first century letter the phrases suggest that Christians have a distinct national identity, just as Israel did…now Christians are the chosen race, the royal priesthood, a holy nation, and a people for God’s own possession. The identifying mark of our national identity is that we once weren’t unified (we “were not a people”) but now we are unified as “the people of God.” Our nationhood is based on the mercy we have received through Christ’s atoning sacrifice. We now have received mercy—the undeserved forgiveness for our sins—and that is what distinguishes us from other people groups, not circumcision, skin color, sex, socioeconomic status, or nation-of-origin.

Our National Mission. Peter provides a mission statement for this nation: “so that you may proclaim the excellencies of Him who has called you out of darkness into His marvelous light.” This means the purpose for our existence is to proclaim the truth of God’s excellence to those around us, and the most excellent thing we could proclaim is the gospel message. Thus, we are to be about acting out Jesus’  Great Commission: “Go therefore and make disciples of all the nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that I commanded you” (Matt 28:19-20). By definition, this means we ought to be known by our unusual message, wherever we are. If we are going out and making disciples our values are going to conflict with the culture where we find ourselves. This is likely to be uncomfortable and it will sometimes get us killed. (Just this week the North Korean government executed 13 Christians for obeying Christ in this way.) If we compromise this message and the teachings of the Lord out of some sense that we don’t want to be offensive to others or “old-fashioned” or intolerant (the values of a certain nation in which I happen to reside), we will be soon be off-track in obediently pursuing our true mission.

Our Immigration Status. Peter then uses two interesting words to describe us: “aliens and strangers.” These actually are two legal terms in the Greek.  The word translated “alien” is paroikos, “a stranger, a foreigner, one who lives in a place without the right of citizenship,” while “stranger” is parepidēmos, “one who comes from a foreign country into a city or land to reside there by the side of the natives” or “sojourning in a strange place, a foreigner.”

Did you catch that? Christians are foreigners wherever we live. We have come from our home country into a place that is not our home to live side-by-side with the natives. Our loyalty must not be displaced: we are Christians who happen to be living in a foreign land called the United States, China, Nigeria, or [insert where you reside]. This helps us make sense of our mission, because we don’t have to proclaim the excellencies of God to our countrymen, because we already know about them. It’s the citizens of the nation where we temporarily reside that need our message, so they will want to acquire naturalized citizenship and we can help our King grow our nation.

Our testimony in a foreign culture. We serve a different king than whoever is in charge of the country where we happen to reside, and we therefore represent Him where we live.  In the same way that we observe foreigners and make judgments about their people group or nation, our behavior reflects on our King and the rest of our nation. Thus, Peter instructs his countrymen to “abstain from fleshly lusts” and “keep your behavior excellent among the Gentiles.”  Why? Because when we speak and act just like the people who belong to the country where we live, there won’t be anything special about us. If we’re thinking and acting just like the Gentiles around us, adapting the teachings of our true nation to the values of our temporary lodging, why would any of them see the need to change their citizenship?

Our good deeds are supposed be evidence to counteract what our opponents will say about us. Imagine living in a country where your motives are questioned, your language is defined as “hate,” you’re accused of being a threat, and your values are so unusual that people will trash you and say bad things about your home country. They’ll slander you because of your foreign ways and values; you won’t talk like them, act like them, you’ll disapprove of things they tolerate, and this will earn you their ire. UNLESS your good deeds outweigh your weirdness. It will be our good deeds that testify to why we sojourners are good to have around, why our King is righteous, and why it’s worth renouncing one citizenship for a better one. As Jesus put it, “Let your light shine before men in such a way that they may see your good works, and glorify your Father who is in heaven” (Matt 5:16).

Fellow Christian, you are part of a multi-ethnic, multi-generational, diverse, chosen, redeemed, holy nation of priests, who are temporarily residing in a foreign country. If you’re pursuing the mission our King has assigned us, expect to be rejected and hated, because His ways will contradict the ways of this land. Nevertheless, live uprightly and do good in this land so that your King and citizenship in His Kingdom will be attractive to others. In the same way that the United States was for two centuries the destination of choice for people around the world because of its freedom and opportunities, let us make citizenship in our true Kingdom a desirable thing.

What does it mean to “be” The Church?

It seems that “being” The Church is cool these days–especially when people claiming to “be” The Church contrast it with “going” to church. But what does it actually mean to “be” The Church? Let’s look at what The Church is, and then what it means to “be” it.

First, what is “The Church”? The Church (in Christianity) is all those who believe in Jesus as the Christ (Messiah), the Son of the Living God. This confession is the rock or foundation on which Jesus declared that he would build his church (Matt 16: 13-18). That means all believers in Jesus Christ as humanity’s Messiah are The Church, and each of them is a “living stone” built upon Christ’s pillars of truth (1 Peter 2:1-5).

So what does it mean to “be” The Church? Webster’s 1828 Dictionary suggests that the verb “be” means “to stand; remain or be fixed; hence to continue; … It forms, with the infinitive, a particular future tense, which often expresses duty, necessity, or purpose.” This suggests that “to be” The Church means to have an existence or presence that matches the purposes for which it was designed and intended.

So what are the purposes of The Church? The New Testament suggests several:

  1. To evangelize non-believers (Matt 28:19).
  2. To disciple believers (i.e, train them in such a way as to produce spiritual growth and maturity) so they can replicate themselves (Matt 28:19-20; Eph 4:11-16; Eph 6:4; 1 Cor 3:5-16; 2 Tim 1:5-14).
  3. To gather together for collective worship, prayer and mutual encouragement, acting in unity for the building of the kingdom of God even while exercising our individual gifts and talents (John 4:19-24; Eph 4:1-16; Heb 10:23-25; Rev 5:9-14; Luke 19:45-46; Matt 21:12-13; Mark 11:15-17).
  4. To minister to and care for those in need within The Church (Acts 6:1-4; 1 Tim 5:3-16; Rom 12:3-13; Mark 12:31; Matt 22:39-40).
  5. To minister to and care for those in need outside The Church (Mark 12:31; Matt 22:39-40; Matt 25:31-46).
  6. To glorify God by prophesying to the surrounding community (i.e., speaking truth into the culture) through our words and deeds (e.g., 1 Peter 2:9-20).

The concerns I have about the way people (whom I love) telling me that they are “being” The Church is that they seem to have a narrow idea of what that means. Usually, friends tell me they’re headed off to “be” The Church when they are going down to serve the homeless or needy. This suggests that the people who are really “being” The Church are those whose focus or action is on #5 (and maybe #6) above.

This service is noble and is one aspect of being The Church, but it is an incomplete picture of what it means to be The Church. Without pursuing the other aspects of being The Church we can’t really achieve God’s stated purposes for The Bride of Christ, can we? Being The Church involves pursuing ALL of God’s purposes for The Church. Otherwise it’s like saying that my bride is only really “being” my wife when she feeds me and praises me on Facebook (thanks for that, though, honey!).

Paul foresaw this problem when he warned Christians to avoid thinking that there is only one really useful set of gifts or activities in The Church. He wrote (1 Cor 12:17-31),

“If the whole body were an eye, where would the hearing be? If the whole were hearing, where would the sense of smell be? 18 But now God has placed the members, each one of them, in the body, just as He desired. 19 If they were all one member, where would the body be? 20 But now there are many members, but one body. 21 And the eye cannot say to the hand, “I have no need of you”; or again the head to the feet, “I have no need of you.” 22 On the contrary, it is much truer that the members of the body which seem to be weaker are necessary; 23 and those members of the body which we deem less honorable, on these we bestow more abundant honor, and our less presentable members become much more presentable, 24 whereas our more presentable members have no need of it. But God has so composed the body, giving more abundant honor to that member which lacked, 25 so that there may be no division in the body, but that the members may have the same care for one another. 26 And if one member suffers, all the members suffer with it; if one member is honored, all the members rejoice with it.

“27 Now you are Christ’s body, and individually members of it. 28 And God has appointed in The Church, first apostles, second prophets, third teachers, then miracles, then gifts of healings, helps, administrations, various kinds of tongues. 29 All are not apostles, are they? All are not prophets, are they? All are not teachers, are they? All are not workers of miracles, are they? 30 All do not have gifts of healings, do they? All do not speak with tongues, do they? All do not interpret, do they? 31 But earnestly desire the greater gifts.” (NAS)

People who think that they are “being” The Church only when they’re only doing one or two of The Church’s purposes (such as what Paul calls “helps” in verse 28 above) risk developing a tunnel vision of The Church that weakens and dilutes The Church and The Gospel. Each congregation of believers ought to be pursuing all of what it means to “be” The Church—when this happens, we will have the LORD’s desired impact in our world.

Haggai’s Prophecies to Those Rebuilding the Temple

For the last several weeks I’ve been leading a study at my church of the book of Haggai. For a variety of reasons the Lord really laid on my heart that we should study this book carefully. Haggai gave his prophecies when the people of Israel were trying to rebuild their temple after it had been torn down years before, and after they came out of exile but still faced opposition and discouragement.The temple was important to the Israelites because in Old Testament times, God dwelled there (after first dwelling in the tabernacle). Beginning with the New Testament, however, Christians are the Lord’s temple, and the Lord dwells in us (1 Cor 3:16-17; 1 Cor 6:19-20; 2 Cor 6:16; Eph 2:19-22), and Christians are the people of the Lord, His holy priesthood and nation (1 Peter 2:4-6, 9). So my application of the messages Haggai gave to Israel goes something like this: What was Haggai’ message? Why did the Israelites need to hear it? What was their response? What did God do? What do the answers to these questions mean for Christians today? And for me, what does Haggai have to say to those struggling to rebuild their own little corner of Christ’s Church?As a parent, one of the greatest struggles I’ve faced has been explaining to my children why difficult stuff happens. We’ve had our share of this over the last several months, and because some of these problems relate to church, my wife and I have had to shepherd our children’s hearts through these difficulties. Like the Israelites, the congregation to which we belong is in the process of rebuilding our “temple.” I’ve found Haggai to be very encouraging, because this little book is showing me facets of the Lord’s heart for His people that I didn’t understand fully until recently. Well, I still don’t understand it all fully, but I’m getting there. I hope you find these posts and lessons from Haggai encouraging, too, wherever you are.

Introduction

Haggai was a prophet in the time of King Darius of Persia. His prophecies were all given in the year 520 BC, shortly after the Israelite remnant returned to Israel from exile in Persia (they remained under Persian domination). The events of this period were…

Picture

Context: External opposition to the temple reconstructionAfter 70 years in captivity, Israelites are returning to the Promised Land, where they want to rebuild the temple, which had been destroyed by the Babylonians. This begins around 536 BC, and we read in Ezra 3 that the initial rebuilding of the temple in Jerusalem was going very well. Unfortunately, while Israel had been in captivity, Samaritans had settled the land around Jerusalem. When the Samaritans found out that the Israelites were rebuilding the temple, they offered to help, but the Jewish leaders refused because they had nothing common (in terms of their faith) with the Samaritans (Ezra 4:1-3). The Samaritans then sought to delay or stop the temple rebuilding entirely; they first discouraged and frightened them (Ezra 4:4-5), and then hired counselors (lawyers) that interfered with the Jews’ relations with the Persian kings for several years. Finally, in 534 BC Artaxerxes ordered work on the temple stopped by force of arms (Ezra 4:17-23).Fourteen years later, in 520 BC, the prophets Haggai and Zechariah prophesied to the Jews, prompting Zerubbabel (the heir to Judah’s throne) and Jeshua (the high priest)  to begin rebuilding the temple with the Persian King Darius’ permission (Ezra 4:24 – 5:2). In that year Tattenai, governor of the region, wrote Darius, asking whether the Jews had permission to rebuild the temple. Darius confirmed this, and ordered Tattenai not to interfere with the rebuilding and in fact to fund the process with his region’s tax revenues (Ezra 5:3-6:13).Haggai and Zechariah receive and pass on their prophecies in 520-518, and by 515 the temple was completed (Ezra 5:1 and 6:14).

Haggai consists of four prophecies, precisely dated. Here they are with their general themes:

1.       1:1-1:18 (Sept. 1, 520 BC) Your lack of blessing is because you have focused on your own houses and not on the house of the Lord. “Consider your ways!”

2.       2:1-9 (Oct. 21, 520) The temple you are rebuilding may not look like the old glorious temple, but the glory of the new temple will be greater than the former.

3.       2:10-19 (Dec 24, 520) You have allowed unclean behavior to contaminate my people’s work. Set your heart on obedience from this day forward, and I will bless you.

4.       2:20-23 (Dec 24, 520) Zerubbabel will be like a signet ring to the nations.

Next time: Haggai’s first prophesy