Top 5 Posts of 2013

I’ve learned a lot in my first few months of serious blogging. I have been writing for a while now on an old blog, but the first post on this list was viewed more in the first 72 hours than my old blog was viewed in the first 72 months. I’m definitely learning a bit more about what people want to read and learn about. I’m looking forward to 2014 being the first year that I write consistently. I hope you enjoy!

Here are the top 5 posts of this year, ranked by number of pageviews. Which is your favorite? Why?

1. 4 Reasons Why Ordaining Women Is No Longer An Option

2. Christian, Please Read This Before Christmas Shopping

3. Double Standards, Women, And The Church

4. To the Parents of a College Freshman: An Open Letter From Their Chaplain

5. How N.T. Wright Saved My Faith: A Call for Theological Complexity

If you like what you have read on this blog, please follow via e-mail or Facebook at the bottom of this post or via RSS feed from my home page.

What does a "just" war mean?

I have heard some pretty positive comments come back from Obama’s speech in Oslo at the Nobel Peace Prize ceremony.  I don’t disagree that it is basically a good speech.  But there are two important things that need to be said.  First, nothing he said there should surprise anyone.  Second,  he did not address the most difficult concerns with his own proposal.

Now I think that my Christian identity calls me to a different kind of life that precludes supporting war under nearly any circumstance including threats to me and my own family and country.  On the other hand, I don’t know that I could ever truly live up to what God has called me to in the midst of the most striking challenges to this ideology.  Pacifism is, by all means, more difficult than responding with war and takes more courage.  I’m just never sure that I can do it.  Something that goes deep down inside of me, placed there by God when God spoke life into creation, is a desire for justice and the will to fight for it. But this post is not about me.

I don’t think that a nation can ever live by this Christian calling, though I would hope that ours could entertain it at the very least.  Nations are formed on the basis of protecting their people.  As Obama says in his speech, Ghandi and King may be great thinkers but their peaceful protests would not have stopped the advancing Nazi armies.  Darfur. Rwanda. Congo.  I don’t think peaceful protest will be effective at stopping these atrocities, even if my Christian faith tells me that peaceful protest is the right thing to do.  Nations must protect from these injustices. 

The rules for engagement are and always have been the rules of “just war.”  Obama’s speech should not surprise us because all he did in the first half of his speech is reinforce the principles of just war: proportional response, just cause, combatant distinction, last resort, legitimate authority (which Obama aludes to by referring to leadership being tempered by not being a lone ranger). 

Now those may surprise us now because they are talked about rarely.  But they have been implicit in all but the most recent American war.  (Danger must be imminent.  Bush presumably thought there were WMD’s which would POTENTIALLY constitute imminent danger.  I happen to think that even the presence of WMD’s would not have legitimate a preemptive war according to just war criteria, but that is debatable.)  Obama is simply calling us back to adherence to these criteria.  No politician present at his speech would have missed what he was doing. 

Now, the weird thing that we heard from the media here is that this was some kind of defense of just war.  I know PhD students are not supposed to be simple-minded but the only answer I can come up with is “Duh”.  Every nation worth it’s salt would make a defense of just war, because that is the best alternative that can include war of any kind (thanks for the inspiration Switzerland).  Defending just war is not a shift in government policy.  In fact, just war criteria being followed will mean that we are in less wars, not more.

Now the problem is that just war doesn’t work in the postmodern environment.  He doesn’t really address this at all except to say that we will need to rearticulate it.  Well, to Mr. Obama I say, “Duh”.  It is recognized among just war scholars that the criteria are outdated in the contemporary setting. 

How do you have legitimate authority when your opponent is a terrorist cell?  How do you have combatant distinction when your enemy is primarily civilians or dressed like civilians or using civilians as shields as in most urban warfare?  Terrorism is, by definition, founded on ALWAYS placing the notion of imminent attack at the fore.  Yet, you can never identify when a real threat is imminent (except in periodic CIA type operations but never in war operations). 

One of the key proposals which Obama suggests for a “just peace” falls prey to a similar problem.  How does he plan to sanction these types of cell groups?  Can you starve out the small number of people with enough ammunition to steal the food they need and no concern for the health of their neighbor?  I doubt it.  

Obama’s proposal is not a total bust.  The just war proposals and the peaceable solutions he advocate may actually work with North Korea and Iran.  Let’s hope so.  These are the kinds of cases that the rules were made to address. 

I do think that just war is a viable dialog in the era of postmodern war.  I don’t know what that would look like.  I do know that Obama has not gotten to the heart of the concerns.  I also know that the church is called to help politicians think through these issues.  For generations she would have been looked to for help.  Those days are no more.  And this is one of the times when I can only be dissatisfied with pacifist friends (am I a pacifist?).  That cannot help the government think through just war when government needs them the most.  Maybe they will weigh in with a word about how or if they imagine themselves serving the government with guidance.  Of course, she is always called to prophetically speak peace and justice.  But can she also share wisdom on war?  If she is Catholic or Lutheran I suppose she can.  If she is Mennonite then I doubt she can. 

The New Art

The people of Caedman’s Call have always been among the more brilliant artists in the Christian community. But Derek Webb has gone to a whole new plane after leaving that band for a solo career.

Now he has created some of the best art the Christian community has seen in some time.

Here is my short narrative of how the thing developed.

Several months ago, Webb wrote an e-mail to his e-mail list saying that his latest album was simply too controversial for his record label. He hinted at how he was going to have to do something risky and off the radar. So then he sends out another e-mail with the address of another website coded into the message. When you went to www.paradiseisaparkinglot.com you found a set of instructions to chase down little 2 second stems of the song that apparently got him in so much trouble with his record label. These song stems were on flash drives at coffee shops and such all over the country. When they were found, they were uploaded to the website for everyone to see. My friend, Chris Marchand, managed to get one of the ones that went to Chicago. They just released the last stems, which are available at shanebertou.wordpress.com in there completed form…give it a listen. Along the way, there were other links coded into the website and other places for people to download a few songs. All in all, it was giant easter egg hunt that took people literally all over the country and all over the WWW to find his music in what he said was a giant attempt to thwart his record label.

If you ask me, it is beautiful. Webb has done the marketing genius thing once before. His first album was shunned by many radio stations and Christian bookstores because he referred to himself and the Church as the whore of the book of Hosea. Clearly a traditional biblical allusion, but it was too much to use the word “whore” for the “Lord, I lift your name on high” crowd of CCM’ers. Later he released one of his albums for free download if you gave him the e-mail address of five friends that might also want to download for free and give him five more addresses. After about a month of that, he sold his album in stores. Sales of all his albums shot up from basic obscurity and he was getting interviewed by newspapers in Nashville for the stunt. Of course, other artists have done it since then. But Webb was among the first.

Personally, I think the whole thing was a hoax. If you listen to the song, it is clear why his Christian label did not want to sell it. He is touching on some hot button issues and calling some people “sinner” that aren’t ready to be called that. But, I have a hard time believing that releasing the album for free via little 2 second flash drives and Internet downloads is any more legal than just releasing the album independently. Shane Bertou’s blog (linked above) called it performance art, and I would have to agree. We should not be surprised that someone who is such a good artist musically is also a great marketing person. Marketing is the most prolific form of art in our generation.

The more pressing question that will arise will be from the controversy and the discussion in the blogosphere about this song.

The gist of it is this:
Out of the heart, the mouth speaks. Too many Christians only speak about homosexuality. They don’t speak about the tens of thousands dying of malaria and AIDS every year. They must not be real Christians because sexuality matters more to them than people dying.

On one level, I agree with him. A whole host of other emerging church types think that this kind of judgment is at the heart of the whole movement. Two things are in play here. First, we should not be letting far right politicians set the Christian agenda. These politicians have ignited a nearly dominate evangelical movement by making Christianity about who you sleep with. Don’t get me wrong, Christianity has a great deal to say about who we sleep with, but that isn’t the point of Christianity. We cannot let the agenda of a particular political group set the mission of the Christian Church, which is primarily about proclaiming and working towards the coming Kingdom of God.

Secondly, even though Christianity has some things to say about proper sexual relationships, the way that some Christians have been saying it is not helpful to Christianity or the people they are speaking to. The medium is the message. Many have made the medium of communicating the Christian way of life a hate-filled string of thunderous accusations and fear-mongering. And, the same group of people seem to assume that this is a really easy issue and the lines are black and white. I don’t think very many of them have had actual relationships with homosexual people who are trying to be faithful Christians. There are a great deal of them, though most of them eventually give up on Christianity or join churches that are so leftist and marginally Christian that there homosexuality is a non-issue or even a cause for martyrdom or sainthood. That isn’t all of them. I have several gay friends who have refused to give up their evangelical form of Christianity, and can’t see themselves giving up their homosexuality either. I think they would all agree that this can be a torturous place to be (though I haven’t asked them this specific question).

I understand what Webb is saying. Most of the emerging church types are saying the same thing. My question is whether this is an either/or proposition. Do we have to change our sexual ethics if we are going to fight against poverty and sickness in Africa? It doesn’t seem to be a necessary choice. Furthermore, it doesn’t seem obvious to me that the only way to love homosexuals well is to suggest that this is how it is suppose to be. Perhaps the Church could love them better by journeying with them in their day to day trials. In fact, it may be that this is all we are to do in the struggle against disease and poverty and every other social ill. We are to be friends of those who are hurting. Sometimes this may mean bringing antibiotics to a malaria stricken nation. Other times this may mean we have to defend our gay friend’s right to be in the hospital room when their long time partner needs them most.

I pray that I might be called a friend of sinners, just as Jesus was. If that means I am accused of being friends with homosexuals or even Derek Webb, then I am ready for that. Somehow I have to hope that means that people will see something of Jesus in me and they will point and say, “That is what God is like. That is what it means to be fully human.” That is the incarnation of the Body of Christ.

Back to Mr. Webb: He is a brilliant artist. He happens to read a lot of the theologians that I read, and I like that. But, I am not sure that the either/or choice he implicitly presents us in this song is anything like the third way that Jesus proposed. Maybe it is just one more start to a leftist politics. Certainly the current strain of leftist politics is just as bankrupt as the current strain of the politically right. Maybe we can still understand God’s design for humanity to be sexual love between a man and a woman, and yet be willing to honestly stand with our gay and lesbian friends in solidarity. Maybe we don’t have to yell and hate in the process. Maybe those of us of a Pietistic bent can get motivated to make a difference on societal sin in the same way we do personal sin. Certianly the Pietists and early Methodists from whom most of us have inherited our spirituality had no problem putting away alcohol for themselves and trying to teach the poor how to read and write.

Enough for today. I challenge you all. If you want to see good modern art, then trace out some of the Derek Webb links I have given here…and see what has happened in the last few months. Fascinating. And give your comments back here. I would love to hear what you think.

Mission

One of the things that has been most on my mind is the mission of the church. Most Assemblies of God people are very focused on the preaching mission of the church. I like this part and I think it is very important, but I think it misses the point. The lectionary reading that most protestant churches did this week was the story of the sheep and the goats from Matthew’s gospel. Now, that story makes it clear that the way we will be judged on the final days has little to do with what we think and alot to do with how we treat others. I guess I need to learn a new way to live.

What does this mean for the church? To investigate, I will look at the Great Commission for a moment. Matthew 28:19-20 gives us our “marching orders.” This verse is often mistranslated where I come from. I have even heard some preachers joke about how the Greek word for “go” in this verse should be translated “go.” This is simply a failure to look at the text. Going, baptizing, and teaching are all participles. These are things that are done in order to accomplish the verb in the sentence: disciple (make disciples, NIV). Discipling is the point. In fact, I think I would even argue that “discipling all nations” is the point, but this nuance is the work of more able interpretors. In any case, I think the going is something that is just a part of life. As I walk through life, I encounter people who need discipling. I will baptize some of them into the name of the Father, Son, and Spirit. I will teach some of them about the things He has commanded me to do. In any case, these works shall disciple them. The point seems less about going, teaching, and baptizing as it is about discipling.

If disciple making is the point, then I think one of the ways I will fulfill that call is by living in the community and forming a community within the larger community that will give witness to God’s good work in the world. Now this seems pretty simple. This seems like what the church was always called to do. We are to live in the world, but differently from the world. How is this productive?

I think we would have to live it out to understand. If someone observed me giving all that I have above my basic needs to people who need it more than me…if they saw me finding a sense of purpose in this act of kindness…if they saw me truly finding pure joy in that moment…would they be changed. I don’t know. Would someone be changed by the witness you provide for the world? If someone observed your life, would they think “I wonder if that is what it was like in the Garden of Eden?” Would they think, “I bet that is what Heaven is like.” I hope so.

Jeremiah