Saturday, August 22, 2015

Love Your Enemy? How About Just that Person Who Annoys you?

But I say to you, love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, so that you may be sons of your Father who is in heaven.--Matthew 5:43

Richard Wurmbrand was a humble man and a man whose life should humble us. In the Cold War era following World War 2, Wurmbrand was a Lutheran pastor in Romania where he spent 14 years in prison simply for being a believer in Christ and preaching the gospel.

During the 20th century Hitler's Nazi Germany garnered most of the attention as the locus of political evil in the world. All told World War 2 cost 53 million lives, including the 12 million who died in Hitler's concentration camps. But global communism slaughtered over 90 million, mostly hidden in the gulags, shuttered away from the view of the world. Hitler screeched his venom publically. Communism, in every country it enslaved, stealthily and secretly sent nearly double the number of Hitler's victims to their graves, facts that only emerged after communism collapsed across most of the globe.

Of all the communist hell holes on earth, Romania was one of the worst and it was here that Richard Wurmbrand spent 14 years being beaten times without number, nearly starved to death and repeatedly put into freezing rooms barely dressed and left until near death. His communist tormentors tortured him and other prisoners with malicious glee. His wife was also imprisoned for three years of hard labor. Other family members were murdered by communist officials. Years later, after his arrest and emigration to the west, Pastor Wurmbrand testified before the U.S. Senate about his years of captivity, and he shed his shirt to show the committee the terrible scars on his torso from his torture.

Pastor Wurmbrand would have been justified, by most standards, for hating his captors. He would have been justified in longing for revenge, or inwardly delighting in the knowledge that one day they would descend to the fires of hell for their wickedness. By most standards.

But not by the standards of Christ whom Richard Wurmbrand served. So it is humbling that he wrote in his biography, "Tortured for Christ":

There is a human level on which communism must be utterly fought against. On this level we have to fight against Communists too, they being the supporters of this cruel, savage ideal. But Christians are more than mere men; they are children of God, partakers of the divine nature. Therefore, tortures endured in Communist prisons have not made me hate Communists. They are God's creatures; how can I hate them?

He goes on later:

The Christian teaching is clear. Communists are men and Christ loves them. So does every man who has the mind of Christ.

Pastor Wurmbrand describes how his fellow Christians in prison would be returned to their cells after a session of torture and would immediately begin praying for their tormentors. Sometimes the very men who had tortured them were themselves later accused of a crime against the state and imprisoned with Wurmbrand and other prisoners. The Christian prisoners would come to their defense, shielding them from retribution by other prisoners out of their Christ like love for these, their enemies.

These testimonies leave us, cozy Americans, comfortable Christians, with no frame of reference in that we have never even come close to such persecution. We cannot fathom such treatment and so, lacking perspective, we magnify and vilify what is only trivial as though it were heinous oppression. Christians in America view mere criticism as "persecution" simply because they have never faced the real thing.

There are ill winds stirring in America, although what they portend in the near future are still far from the treatment of Christians behind the opaque borders of communist prison-nations and under Islamic regimes. Christian businesses are being penalized into bankruptcy for standing by biblical marriage standards, because they will not participate in ceremonies which violate one of the basic sacraments of the church for millennia. Terrible and unjust, yes, and one could not be faulted for wondering if this is merely the beginning. Yet for now, at least, a far cry from the Soviet gulag.

But Pastor Wurmbrand's story provides an example of how we Christians should respond to our "enemies" in America. Some scenarios come to mind.

The culture wars for starters. For two generations now, conservative Christians have fought battles to uphold moral principle such as protection of the unborn. And certainly a prophetic voice was called for to stand in the gap for justice. Some, in their zeal, have demonized their cultural/political opponents with bombast and hyperbole. But as Dr. Russell Moore of the Ethics and Religious Liberty Council of the Southern Baptist Convention has said:

The Scriptures command us to be gentle and kind to unbelievers, not because we are not at war, but because we’re not at war with them (2 Tim. 2:26). When we see that we are warring against principalities and powers in the heavenly places, we can see that we’re not wrestling against flesh and blood (Eph. 6:12). The path to peace isn’t through bellicosity or surrender, but through fighting the right war (Rom. 16:20). We rage against the Reptile, not against his prey.

Can we love, say, Planned Parenthood officials peddling baby parts, or other of our spiritual and cultural opponents, knowing, as Pastor Wurmbrand did, that Christ Himself loves them and died for them as he died for us? Can we love like the family members of those slain in the recent South Carolina church massacre and declare that we forgive like they forgave the killer of their loved ones?

Let's consider a milder scenario of someone who has not killed or maimed anyone, but perhaps someone amongst family, friends, co-workers who may have done us wrong: slandered, cheated or taken something precious from us. Do we have the capacity to see them as Christ sees them and to love them? When we are wronged at this level, can we, as Christ did from the cross, forgive them?

Too difficult still? Well then one more scenario. Can we love the neighbor who leaves his garbage cans out long after trash day? Or who lets his dog bark continuously? Can we love and forgive the family member who makes unthinking remarks that bring hurt unintentionally? How about the co-worker whose incompetence makes our work more difficult or has annoying habits or an obnoxious voice that scrapes a nerve? Or the guy who cut us off in traffic? Maybe not technically our enemy, but can we love them, the seemly unlovable who are simply annoying, not menacing?

Of course we can't, at least not with this woefully inadequate carton of flesh in which we all dwell. Rather, the power to love at this supernatural level comes from the indwelling presence of the Spirit of God in our relationship with Christ. Our role is to be in submission to His leading, to desire to have the mind of Christ, and for that we must be willing to let the Spirit soften and humble our hearts.

Only then can we respond to provocations in Christ likeness, with patience and kindness, not returning invective with invective but with gentle love. Our reply can be firm, but tempered with compassion because we see the need in them rather than the offense in us.

All of this is not to say that there are not times when, because of abusive relationships, we should not separate ourselves from those who harm us or our loved ones. We do not have to volunteer ourselves for abuse. Nevertheless, even in the separation, we can pray for and have compassion for those who are captive to their fleshly passions and to the will of him who is the enemy of all humankind.

If we are to carry out our mission as ambassadors for Christ as Paul described us, we must love more than just those who are easily lovable. We must love the unlovely and unlovable, even those who persecute us, just as Christ did. Our battle is not with them, but as Russell Moore points out it is with the principalities and powers at work that manipulate them. Seen with those eyes, our attitudes and actions in love will win more hearts for the Kingdom of God than combativeness on issues big and small.

Saturday, August 15, 2015

A Mighty Butler is Our God?

The BBC series Downton Abbey has taken Western Civilization by storm with a period piece soap about the lives of British nobility. I will admit I'm all in. My favorite character is Carson, the burly butler who harrumphs from scene to scene, scolding the household staff as he serves the needs of the fictitious Grantham family. Carson provides a handy metaphor for illustrating the health of the Christian culture in America today.

There are many teachings and practices within the Christian church in America that I believe are the result of superintending American culture over an authentic biblical world view. Certainly every generation and locale of Christians see the world through lenses influenced by both the Bible and aspects of the culture into which they were born and live. But to what extent are they influenced biblically and what extent culturally?

Ten years ago in 2005 sociologists Christian Smith and Melinda Lundquist Denton published their book "Soul Searching: The Religious and Spiritual Lives of American Teenagers". Based on the results of a study funded by the Lilly Endowment, and followed up with additional surveys by the National Study of Youth and Religion at Notre Dame University, the authors concluded that American youth collectively had cobbled together a spiritual worldview from moral principles found across several religions not particular to Christianity. Among protestant rooted homes, teens who came from households involved in conservative Christian denominations tended to hold more to traditions inherent to Christianity than those from more mainline protestant or from Catholic and Orthodox, but no group was completely free of mixing beliefs.

What emerges from the study is a patchwork belief system where God is the creator of all, wants us all to be nice to one another but otherwise doesn't put many expectations on us--can't risk hurting self-esteem--and who is available to help us with needs for which we ask. The authors coined the term "Moralistic Therapeutic Deism" to describe this belief system. Moralistic: it posits a God who is himself good and wants us to be generally good. Therapeutic: God wants us to be happy and feel good about ourselves. Deism: God generally doesn't meddle in our lives other than to help us with the needs we put before him.

Which brings me back to Carson of Downton Abbey. Carson, like any well trained butler, must maintain a delicate balance of dedicated service to the family, yet remain detached and discrete. He is a faithful presence never far away, standing just to the side of the dinner table or downstairs in the servants' work areas, where he orchestrates the necessary household duties to satisfy the needs of each member of the Grantham household. He oversees a staff of cooks, maids and valets there to accommodate the smallest whim of the family members. He holds strong opinions and occasionally shares them with Lord Grantham when asked, but only when asked. He grumbles at the new fangled ways of the changing times but is powerless to stop them. Carson is the portrait of the God of Moralistic Therapeutic Deism.

Blend the ingredients of fierce individualism, ebbing influence of traditional Christian values, unbridled materialism and "look at me" narcissism of the social media era and you have the recipe for an Americanized cultural theology where God is but the Cosmic Concierge to our demands. We have reduced God to little more than the purveyor of our capricious desires.

Were we to glance back into ancient history when people carved idols to display in their homes, idols of fertility gods, rain gods, ancestors and other talismans meant to please a pantheon of deities so as to grant favor to the worshipers, we would find such superstition mildly amusing in our modern sophistication. Yet in our imaginations we have done the same: we have carved a mental image of the one true God as a deity reduced to what we suppose Him to be, Carson at our service, and not what He is in reality.

Yet this reductionism did not originate in the Millennial Generation. Rather, it's roots lie in the "Me Generation" of their parents...my generation, born after the sacrificial generation of the Great Depression and World War Two. We built this mighty economic engine but also plunged headlong into materialism, consumption and debt. With our fierce work ethic we provided well materially for ourselves and our children, but along the way we tapped into private and public debt to such a degree that any hiccup in the economy is magnified inordinately by debt obligations falling into default.

My generation fought for civil rights, opposed unjust wars, faced down communism, built some of America's greatest businesses. But we also piled government debt obligations on our children and their children to a shocking and shameful degree.

We went all in on a feel good, sexual revolution that now has borne bitter progeny: abortion, the "hook up" culture and rapidly disintegrating marital relationship boundaries.

So shall we preach to our millennial kids about their vapid projection of God as a valet to their whims when it is we who sowed the seeds of that world view?

From all of this sowing of the wind a whirlwind is stirring, although the changes wrought will be wrenching before they becomes redeeming. The financial and economic shanty we have erected teeters every closer to collapse. We just simply cannot sustain the debt path down which we have been careening financially and economically, so many notable experts are predicting unprecedented financial reckoning. Yet from the rubble a responsible economy can be rebuilt. The SCOTUS decision on same sex marriage will bring with it real, not supposed, persecution of biblical orthodox (small o) Christians, and also even more bitter social fallout, yet will force the Body of Christ in America to return to their mission to win people to the gospel of Christ, not win arguments on volatile issues. The Obergefell decision may be the best thing that could have happened toward restoring the church to the gospel mission driven force it was meant to be.

America is headed for dramatic change and the way will be perilous and painful. There is no way to avoid it. But painful change can either bring destruction or rebirth. There is a roll to play for my generation not only in national but generational and individual redemption. It will start with admitting our faults, then learning and turning from them. But then the virtues that produced good during our generation...work ethic, resourcefulness, traditional family values...will fuel and sustain the rebirth.

Our children who followed our example into decadence have a role to play in the redemptive work as well. The millenials harbor a virtue toward standing up for the oppressed and needy, even while seeking their own self gratification, and in that budding virtue lies the seeds of rebirth, the chance to turn fully toward selflessness and personal sacrifice.

Sitting sovereign over it all is not Carson, the grumbling yet powerless butler, but El Shaddai, the omnipotent YHWH God, Author of all things who will bring the discipline in order to bring the redemption. The disciplining hand of God is meant to bring repentance and restoration, not simply retribution.

Ultimately comes the fulfillment of that which the Bible calls the Kingdom, God's restoration of things as they should be, a Kingdom that brings glory to Him. The road between here and the ushering in of that Kingdom is the rocky ride that lies just ahead.