Standing in God’s Greatest Commandment

By Joe LaGuardia

This was presented at a Stand on the Side of Love gathering at the Vero Beach Courthouse on 16 August 2017 with neighbors, friends, and concerned citizens.

Here I stand.  I am the third-generation son of Italian refugees who escaped poverty, injustice, and fascism in Europe in order to seek a better life for themselves and their family.  They did not speak any English and their customs differed from many Americans at the time, yet Lady Liberty greeted them all as equals and with dignity as she had in years past and for a people vast.

When my family arrived in America, things were not perfect.  They ventured into ghettoized neighborhoods with other Italians, relegated to deplorable, cloistered tenement houses in New York.  And yet, in that place, they made it.  The American dream had become reality.

It is this type of liberty that defines who we are as American citizens and it is this type of hospitality and love that defined my family and shaped who I am as a minister of the Gospel.

But not all of our citizens had been afforded this kind of liberty.  Though foreign and different, my family had champions and advocates who fought for our rights as Italians—like Mayor Fiorello LaGuardia who represented ethnic communities in Manhattan and shamed a nation bent on spending more money on the military than on feeding poor children in one of the largest urban centers in the US.

And we also had the color of our skin going for us too.  Though I was raised in a family in which everyone, friend and stranger alike, had a place at the table, the stain of racism had reached into my neighborhood.  I grew up in a neighborhood segregated by streets and blocks, and the truth that liberty had not reached into communities of color was something I realized as I matured.  Who advocated for the “other” who were ghettoized and held captive by the projects and a crumbling education system?

For all the talk of statues and history in the news, of “us vs. them” and “who’s right and who’s wrong,” our public discourse largely misses the point: Much of our nation—the very one that welcomed my family with open arms while oppressing large populations of others—was founded not on a faulty democracy, but on a defunct medieval theology that pitted some people against others, declaring that some are superior humans deserving of all the rights afforded by our Constitution while others are only worthy for subjugation, a theology that insisted on a divine mandate that “This is God’s will for us.”

This theology continues to dominate and rear its evil head in the fabric of our communities even today, and it continues to justify inequality in our relationships just as it had for over four centuries by way of imperial-inspired sermons, seminaries, and church cultures that perpetuated colonialism, Manifest Destiny, slavery and Jim Crow, a biased criminal justice system and systemic discrimination in housing, public education, and fair-wage opportunities.

Standing on the side of love means first standing in a position of repentance, for we cannot be united by love—God’s love—without first recognizing our own lack of love, our own depravity as flawed creatures, our silence to push against this defunct theology and its ingrained toxins.  So I am a proud Italian-American, and I am a proud Baptist, and I am proud to serve Christ my Savior—but not so proud that I do not ask forgiveness for the racism and oppression and injustice that reside in my own heart.  I repent of the many ways my mind makes thousands of subconscious judgments against those who are different than I, or who speak differently or think differently or vote differently than I.

When I say “Here we stand,” I do so in humble submission to our Creator and in service to our community.  And I promise to love and respect you more today than I might have yesterday, and hope to love and respect you more tomorrow than I do today.

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We are called to be witnesses. Period.

Photo by Nik MacMillan on Unsplash

By Joe LaGuardia

In Acts 1:8, Jesus unequivocally identified the role his disciples play in the world: “You will be my witnesses…to the ends of the earth.”  But ask any Christian to bear witness (first-hand!) of an experience of God, and you will likely get a blank stare.  Some will recall a conversion experience. Others may solicit a generic answer.  Many have experiences, profound experiences, but do not know how to explain it.

There seems to be a scarcity of witnessing going on these days.  I’m not talking about street-corner evangelism, but of giving testimonies that attract people to Christ.

I’m not sure what the problem is: Do we not experience God anymore, or is it that we do not know how to put our experiences into words in a way that captivates the mind, touches the heart, inspires a sense of purpose, and communicates God’s power in our life (see Acts 1:8 again)?

Pastors decry a lack of biblical literacy in our churches.  What about spiritual literacy?   Spiritual literacy that can define–specifically–the movement of the Holy Spirit on and in our lives.

Historically, people learned how to witness by hearing personal testimonies of others, by exchanging lengthy letters that communicated the spiritual ebb and flow of life, by reading literature that excited the senses and provided new ways of speaking about–and seeing–God.

In a world of Tweets and Facebook posts, we no longer know how to wield the English language for this purpose.  Our faith has become quite rote and boring, really–and who wants to follow a boring faith?  Instead of witnessing in ever creative ways, we complain, bicker, and bemoan.

Last month, I watched two interviews of sorts that inspired my thinking on this:  The first was with the late Mr. Rogers.  In a video that went viral, Fred Rogers argued for the need for public broadcasting funding before a Senate committee hearing.  In his testimony, he discussed the importance of early childhood education.

Mr. Rogers’ words were not explicitly Christian, but they were powerful and bore witness to his amazing ability to wield the language he certainly gained from his training as a Presbyterian minister.  He spoke simply, but movingly.

The second interview was between the Reverend William Barber II and Trevor Noah on The Daily Show.  Barber argued that Christian ethics is not only needed in pushing back against secular politics, but necessary in being a foundation for the type of moral fortitude that combats exploitation and bigotry in all its guises.  “The language we use,” he said of our contemporary religious and political conversations, “is too puny.”

Mr. Noah asked why Barber’s participation in politics was appropriate, and the pastor gave a remarkable testimony of how the church shaped community through the ages.  You may disagree with Barber’s theology, but you would be hard-pressed to argue against the force of his prophetic delivery.  (Notice, by the way, that Barber states, “Remember when I shared with you about the Bible when we were backstage..?”  He testifies on camera and off.)

Watching these two interviews reveal what is needed to revive the art of bearing witness, witnessing that taps into the power and authority of the Jesus about whom we speak.

For one, we need to speak well.  Our testimonies of Christ– our experience of the Risen Savior and the values for which he stood (and stands)– must break through the shallow platitudes of Tweets, posts, and social media banter.

We need to learn how to speak well by wielding and fashioning adequate narratives, by arguing persuasively and speaking substantively about the Gospel.  This cannot be done from our tribes, from the right or the left–it must be done as wisdom couched in the person and character and intentions of Jesus Christ who stands above our political and ideological labels.

A word fitly spoken is like apples of gold in a setting of silver.
Like cold water to a thirsty soul, so is good news from a far country (Prov. 25:11-12, 25).

Speaking well ought to bewilder, captivate, compel, and convict.  After all, we follow a Lord who mustered language in the form of parables to show people what God’s Kingdom looked like.  Jesus never lectured or taught dusty doctrines of yesteryear.  He never offered trite opinions.  Rather, he restored and reconciled and rebuked with compassion, peace, and unyielding intimacy that stemmed from unity with God (“I and my father are one…”).

Second, we must speak accurately.  In a society that fails to agree on facts, Christ’s Church must value accuracy in our presentation of the Gospel, of the justice tied up in God’s reign, and in our understanding of salvation history.

An example might suffice:  Some like to argue that our nation is founded on a Christian heritage, and that is true.  Yet, how people talk about that history–as if our nation is but a large church–is often inaccurate.  Yes, our nation’s founding documents are imbued with certain Christian principles, but we must be accurate when we also bear witness that God detests travesties of our past, such as slavery, racism or genocide of indigenous and minority populations.

Our ideological and tribal rhetoric suffers from inaccurate portrayals of God’s work in the world, bad theology, and partisan positions that have become the very fake news we loathe.

Last, we must speak what is true.  This is different than accuracy.  You cannot begin to speak with truth if you are not accurate with the facts.  If you play loose with the details, then your entire testimony will fail you–you will be a false witness, and your testimony will likely be bad news instead of the Good News Jesus intended the Gospel to be.

There are many people–Christians, pastors, church leaders–who are not bearing witness to a true vision of who God is, what the church is about, and how the Kingdom of God erupts, disrupts, and usurps in our midst.  This has taken a toll on the church.  If you don’t believe me, just look at all the empty pews across America on any given Sunday morning.

Speaking what is true about God means testifying about Jesus’ vision for justice, restoration and reconciliation in the world, most poignantly outlined in Jesus’s explicit mission in Luke 4:18-19, a vision that promises liberation to those who are oppressed and exploited.

This reminds me of Mr. Rogers’ insistence, for example, that children need communities that provide hope and trust, or Rev. Barber’s citation of Luke 4 in his protest against voter suppression laws and political malpractice.

Jesus told us to be Great Commission people, people who attract (not repel or appall) others to Christ by bearing witness to our first-hand relationship and restoration in Christ.  His call in the earliest chapters of Acts still applies today; but it will require some prayer and work to reclaim our long history of being the kind of wordsmiths worthy of the Gospel we are to promote.

We must speak well.  We must speak accurately.  And we must speak what is true.

The violence of Pentecost and the peace of the Gospel

By Joe LaGuardia

Its not everyday that I get to try a new hermenuetic on for size.  Hermenuetics is the study of interpretation.  Like scientists who can switch out microscope lenses to vary magnifications, we Bible geeks can swap out various interpretative lenses in order to read scripture differently.

I stumbled upon a review by Tony Jones of Adrian Goldsworthy’s Pax Romana that offers a new lens.  Goldsworthy claims that we westerners have understood Roman culture and politics through the eyes of the New Testament for far too long.  The review recommends switching the lens, to read the New Testament through the larger worldview of citizens of ancient Rome instead.

Goldsworthy argues that Palestine was quite insignificant to the Roman Empire.  It was too small to call a “true province,” too poor to justify a Roman legion to police the area, and too unwieldy to pay too much attention to policies that affected the area.  Palestine was, in fact, too hostile and violent to create anything other than a modest military presence that quelled protests every now and then.  Jones notes,

“The internal strife in Judaea was among the worst in the empire: Jews hated Samari­tans, Samaritans hated Jews, and they both hated gentiles. Constant civil conflict in the territory vexed the governing Romans.”

In other words, Romans had prejudices against Palestine and its people.  This may be helpful in reading the Bible in general and the Book of Acts in particular.

According to tradition, Luke authored both the gospel and the book of Acts as a two-part work to a mysterious benefactor named Theophilus (although some scholars argue that Theophilus is a community rather than an individual; I beg to differ), who was likely a gentile–Roman, in fact!–who stood on the verge of making a decision about either hosting a Christian church or funding church starts in his community.

The fact that Luke’s Gospel includes more teachings on money, resources, and hospitality than any of the other three gospels combined points to this rhetorical thrust in Luke’s motivation.

Yet, if Theophilus was indeed the gentile that we all assume he was, then it is also safe to assume that his outlook on Palestine, and the Jews that made up this early Christ movement, included the very  same prejudices Rome espoused.  There is little reason not to think that Theophilus, like others in his time, saw Palestine as a place of hostility, conflict, and discrimination.

There is little reason not to think that Theophilus, like others in his time, saw Palestine as a place of hostility, conflict, and discrimination.

The first two chapters of Acts affirms this reading of Palestine in several ways.  In the first chapter, for instance, the disciples are still set on having Jesus–now risen from the dead–to recruit an army and usher in the kingdom of God.  This is not unique to Jesus’ disciples.  Other Jewish movements sought to inaugurate God’s kingdom, which meant funding and recruiting an army, overthrowing the Roman Empire, and establishing a theocracy once and for all with Jerusalem at the center.

In Acts 1:6, the disciples asked Jesus, “Is now the time that you will restore God’s kingdom?”  It is the “now” and the “restore” that tip us off to the violent intentions of the disciples.   John Polhill quoted R. Pesch when he wrote that Jesus did not reject restoration; rather, Jesus “depoliticizes it,” moving an agenda of restoration out of the purposes of the disciples and into the providence of God.

Let me put it another way: Even if the disciples didn’t have violent intentions, there is good reason for us to assume that Theophilus likely surmised as much.

In God’s economy, Jesus flipped the coin on its head.  Just as Jesus argued in Luke’s Gospel, Jesus here posited that the reign of God is neither bound by region nor vested in the violent protest of an army with sword and spear.  Judas’ failed attempt at trying to force Jesus’ hand was in the past–his replacement in Acts 1 points to the fact that Judas’ own motivations stood firmly on the forefront of the minds of the disciples.

In addition, Luke clearly utilizes the rhetoric of violence, hostility and discrimination to reinforce Jesus’ peaceful and non-violent gospel message in a way that further turns violence on its head in Acts 2.

Acts 2:1, for instance, describes the advent of the Holy Spirit as a “violent” or “mighty” wind.  This is not accidental or a mere poetic word choice; it is a purposeful rhetorical device that calls into question the type of violence that God’s reign enforces.

Second, the Spirit fell on the disciples like a fire.  Fire was a common weapon of war that would have certainly been used to raze villages and incite destruction and intimidation (see Joel 1:19-20; 2:3).  If the symbol was there merely to reflect the life-giving nature of the Spirit, why not use water  (Joel 2:23) or another natural element more fitting for the birth of the church?

Third, the Spirit empowered the disciples to cut across lines that Jewish discrimination would have perpetuated.  The disciples spoke in languages shared not by their families or villages, but by regions that Jews would have perceived as enemies, the Parthains, Medes, Cretans and the like.

Pentecost is an assault on nationalism, racism, sexism, classism–every way in which we separate one another…It is a surge of the Spirit that pushes the church out of the building and into the neighborhood.  –Rev. Dr. Brett Younger, Plymouth Church, Brooklyn

Acts 2 recalls that a crowd gathered as a result of what appeared to be the formation of a violent uprising in an upper room in Jerusalem during a high holy day.  Certainly, Pentecost, like other Jewish holidays that attracted pilgrims, created a hot bed for violent protests.

Peter spoke with brilliance not common among illiterate fisherman in the first century, and he quoted Joel to articulate the kind of movement for which Christ’s church will become known.  It was neither violent or hostile; rather, it was an inclusive message in its embrace, and peaceful in its purpose.

The words of Joel’s poetry reinforces what Jesus preached all along: God’s reign would not be defined by the prejudices, conflicts, and violence for which Palestine was known.  Rather, it would be a reign that disrupted status quo, turned the world upside down (a blood moon!), and broke down gender, generational, and socio-economic, class boundaries.

From Joel’s point of view (see Joel 3:9-10), this is a call to war as a result of God gathering nations for the purpose of executing judgment.  Peter’s rhetoric, combined with Jesus’ vision of salvation and community, declared different terms for peace– a peace brought not by weapons of destruction, but by life-giving proclamation, visions, dreams, and “portents”.

Judgment was on its way, but not before the work of the church was fulfilled.  Pentecost was a “day of the Lord” in which the church was born to reach across all boundaries, to communicate with urgency the coming of another “day of the Lord” in which God and Jesus would administer justice upon the earth.

Luke wrote his gospel and Acts to a Roman audience, an audience that held certain prejudices towards Palestine, the Jews, and, naturally, Christ-followers who made their way out of Jerusalem and Galilee.  It is no wonder that Luke utilized the rhetoric of conflict and violence, not to perpetuate a caricature of a violent Jewish community, but to redefine Christ’s Church and its mandate according to the peace, hope, love, and joy that resulted from being a follower of Christ, a Savior who knew–and knows–no bounds, who longs to save all who are both near and “far away” (Acts 2:39).