The Offensive Gospel

warbBy Joe LaGuardia

In a society where people seem so easily offended, there is no surprise that few call themselves Christians.  Christianity is an offensive faith, there is no way around it.

Unfortunately, for too many, it has become offensive for the wrong reasons.

Several weeks ago, controversy surrounding a seasonal red Starbuck’s cup flooded social media with tirades against the “removal” of Christmas from the public sphere.  Christians were ready to offend others and throw political correctness to the wind if there was so much as a threat to “take Christ out of Christmas.”

The Starbucks controversy, however, was no controversy at all.  Yet, the confusion revealed the power of Christian imagination and the swiftness to which Christians will play victim in an increasingly secular society.

The “red cup” controversy also revealed the great sensitivity that Christians feel towards notions of religious liberty.  We no longer fight legal battles over prayer in schools or the right for clergy to claim housing deductions on taxes, but over whether Christians should be forced to serve pizzas to same-sex couples or share church campuses with organizations that refuse to discriminate according to sexual orientation.

That this comes off as offensive rather than noble is not besides the point; it is the point.  It’s a “if we can’t beat them, we’ll offend them” type of campaign in the name of Christ that has become none other than a religious badge of honor.

Many Christians find biblical support for this attitude towards secular society in a handful of New Testament scriptures, all too often taken out of context.

It was St. Paul, after all, who claimed that we are not to please people but serve God, all the while claiming that persecution results from the offensive cross of Christ (Galatians 1:10; 5:11).  In Paul’s first letter to the Corinthian churches, he writes that the message of the Gospel and the cross is but “foolishness  to those who are perishing” (1:18).

Why would Christians not use the language of persecution and offense when describing these various interactions with a more inclusive, secular society?

A closer reading at the Bible, however, paints a very different picture when it comes to Christian persecution.   St. Paul did not have the world in mind when he wrote about the “offense of the cross,” but the very religious leadership who excluded people based on ethnic and ideological differences.

Later, when St. Paul carried this message into the gentile church, he argued that people did not have to become Jewish in order to believe in Christ and be saved.  Those offended by this radical message of liberation and inclusion were not pagans in Roman society, but Jewish Christians who placed doctrine and tradition over the people whom God had called them to bless.

This was a radical, offensive gospel precisely because it valued inclusion, avoided discrimination and hate-speech, and served all people regardless of their belief.

Paul was not a rogue in this mission.  He learned it from Jesus, who offended priests and Pharisees alike by eating with tax collectors and sinners, welcoming children, touching lepers and talking to women, and telling parables that shocked the imagination rather than affirmed the status quo.

Both Christ and Paul served outsiders and affirmed each person as a child of God.  Theirs was a mission to build up and embrace rather than demonize and exclude, and in every instance they regarded their lives as something to lose rather than something to defend, sustain, or bolster–even at the expense of welcoming strangers into their lives and sacred spaces.

In a world in which people of faith are beheaded and massacred by radical extremists, some of the things that concern us within our homeland should not qualify as persecution.  Instead, we should be so adamant in our love for others–rather than a swiftness to offend others–that the only people we turn away are the very ones who have no room in their hearts for people different than they.

Despite writer’s block, God still shows up

Confession: It’s overwhelming to write an article every week for the newspaper, especially when the writer has several lofty goals, like:  The article is not a simple rewrite of a sermon preached the week before.  Every article must be relevant and well-researched.

 

Though I don't smoke or drink, there have been many times that I thought smoking might make me a better writer. After all, in all of those 1940s movies, all writers are smokers. And William Faulkner had the coolest pipe.

 

Honestly, though, it is so daunting sometimes that writer’s block sets in.  I should not complain–at least one writer for the Rockdale Citizen submits two opinion pieces a week.  I feel bad for that guy.

The truth is, we all have our moments of silence in which we ca not find our voice.   There are times when we confront God’s silence and have trouble hearing His voice too.

Here’s what happened when I got writer’s block earlier this week:  About thirty minutes of starring at a blank computer screen, I emailed one of the Citizen’s editors to mention that I did not have anything to submit for the upcoming weekend.  I graciously apologized and explained that I could not get any coherent words on a page and that I would submit something next week.

I wrapped up the email with a blessing.  Then I emailed my sister–an editor-in-chief in New York–about my woes.  Then it hit me:  Why not write about what I think about when writer’s block strikes like the plague?

Every week I hope to inspire, if not inform, readers, many of whom I know and meet around town.  I believe in a “Creator God, creating still,” so I rely on a God who is an eternal source for quality, wholesome material.

Sometimes God is silent.  Other times, I have so many ideas, no single one really flows well on paper.  Take this Saturday’s column for instance: I could have addressed numerous topics.

One topic relates to the recent allegations made against Bishop Eddy Long.  Subject matter: the abuse of pastoral power in light of the Prosperity Gospel.  But do we really need another article about that one?

Then there was the Pew Forum results from the “U.S. Religious Knowledge survey” that came out last week.   I imagine that my headline would have read like an apocalyptic threat, “Atheists Score Higher on Bible Questions than Most Christians.”  Granted, among Christians, evangelicals scored the highest; just over 72% of  questions were answered correctly.  (So, nanny-nanny-boo-boo, Mr. Atheist!)

A third thing could have been related to a devotional-oriented topic from the Bible.  You know: Something that included a good illustration or two, followed up with a Biblical insight, and then practical application.

I did something like that last week, though.  I used a text from 1 Samuel to reprimand bullying in the workplace.  It was a straight-up devotional piece, and to do another this week would not have sufficed.

Then there are topics that are things political (about four more weeks to mid-term election day, folks), as well as controversial.  Writing about politics and controversy just to fill a quarter page of the newspaper for its own sake is not what God called me to do.

That begs a question: What did God call me to do for this column?   Upon reflection, I believe God called me to simply tell my story about what it’s like to experience writer’s block.  More importantly, He wanted me to share about the human condition–As humans made in God’s image, we too are ever-creating, but flawed still.

I hope that my confession will help you see that we all suffer from God’s silence once in a while.  You’re not alone when you feel uninspired, and all of us have our moments of clarity as well as times of utter melancholy.  It goes with the territory of being a writer; but, more so, of being human.

Strive for unity in the midst of diversity

In one of his more passionate letters, Paul encouraged the Corinthian church to “be in agreement…that there be no divisions among you” (1 Cor. 1:10).   The Bible makes clear that Christians are to find agreement in the midst of diversity.  Paul’s contention with the Corinthian church was not that diversity existed—indeed that’s what made the churches in Corinth special—it was that diversity was not to distract from the type of unity that provided a clear, Christian witness of the Good News to unbelievers in Corinthian culture.

In recent years, we have seen a fragmentation of the Christian church rather than intentional movements toward the vision of unity that Paul expressed so long ago.  Three stories that ran in the news lately attest to divisions in the Christian Church.

The first came earlier this year when a new Lutheran denomination—the North American Lutheran Church—vowed to split from the Evangelical Lutheran Church of America.  This came after the ELCA started allowing openly homosexual clergy to participate in church leadership.

Another story that made national news was the Georgia Baptist Convention’s decision to break historical ties with Druid Hills Baptist Church in Atlanta because the church had a female co-pastor.  Never mind that the pastor, Rev. Mimi Walker, had been on the SBC pastorate role since 2004; and never mind that the church had given millions of dollars and hours of labor to the SBC since its founding in 1914.

And of course, there is the whole Catholic sexual abuse debacle that is making the news for the umpteenth time.  How many Catholic brothers and sisters will the Vatican offend before the Church takes some serious actions to avoid future violations and confront past abuses with some sense of transparency?

With countless other churches fighting over a variety of issues, it seems that the fragmentation Christ’s Body is the order of our day.  That’s not to say that the topics that cause divisions make for small squabbles in the first place.  Homosexuality, women in ministry, and clergy accountability require intense debate and examination.  Certainly, the debates will inevitably be heated and common ground hard to come by.

But have we, the global Christian Church, ever once considered that our witness is compromised due to such divisive conflicts?  Do we ever think how our rhetoric and public persona might fail to communicate the compassion that the lost severely need?  After all, Christianity is first and foremost about people and their need for eternal life, not about having all the answers to every theological conundrum that comes our way.

It would be naïve of me to think that every Christian is going to get along.  A plurality of denominations is a healthy asset to the global Church because we are a diverse people; however, does our own unique biblical interpretations, church polities, clergy callings, and worship styles have to alienate us from other churches in such polarized assaults?

I am not sure if I have an answer to that question.  Gosh, this article may even garner some heated emails from fellow Christians.  I do know, however, that our witness to the world does not negate our God-given niches in the Body of Christ.  It does demand some sense of unified compassion, grace, and mystery in a world of turmoil and uncertainty.

Frankly, I think that many people are tired with the Christian conflicts and controversies that pervade our churches.  In this age of punditry and bickering, I can do nothing other than repeat some heart-felt lyrics by Harry Emerson Fosdick: “Cure Thy children’s warring madness; bend our pride to Thy control.”