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.

Rohingya Muslims: Among the most persecuted groups

Source: NPR.  Click on the picture for original link and photo.

Source: NPR. Click on the picture for original link and photo.

By Joe LaGuardia

For all of its bad ratings, the movie Waterworld with Kevin Costner had a creative premise.

Costner plays the Mariner who fights for survival within a (literal) sea of villains and mercenaries.  The story takes place in the near future, when melting polar ice caps result in all of earth’s existing land being covered by water.

What might life be like at sea for that length of time?  Just ask one of the most persecuted minority groups in the world, the Rohingya Muslims of Myanmar.

The Rohingya represents an ethnic minority group who migrated to Myanmar around the eighth century.  Through a history of infighting, war, and eventual persecution, this small group found itself without any place to settle within a nation made up of 90% Buddhists.

The Myanmar government denied them citizenship in the 1990s, and conflicts came to a head in 2012 when ethnic violence erupted between Muslim and Buddhist gangs in the Rakhine province.

Since then, Buddhist nationalists have incited further violence against the Rohingya, forcing the group to live in ghettos or refugee camps.

Thousands of Rohingya Muslims have fled the country on makeshift boats, while others sought refuge with human smugglers.

Nearly 25,000 people made it safely to other countries; an undocumented number of people have been kidnapped into human trafficking rings (139 graves containing refugees were found, believed to be the result of smugglers killing people that families could not afford to ransom).

Nearly 1,000 refugees have settled in the United States since 2006, according to NPR.

Recent voyages from Myanmar’s coast have not been so fortunate.  Many countries, including those that are majority Muslim in the region, want nothing to do with the refugees.  A reported 3000 – 6000 people are currently stranded at sea with no place to go.

Some reports claim that United Nations humanitarian aid is on its way; but, like a scene right out of Waterworld, many refugees are running out of food and water.   The U. S. State Department is encouraging Myanmar to grant citizenship and access to food, shelter, and water to remaining Rohingya people groups.

The migration to surrounding nations is only the beginning of a threat they fear will worsen:  Government officials in New Dehli surmise that the combination of persecution and poverty make the Rohingya people prime candidates for radical terrorist recruitment.

As Baptist minister without a political science degree, I do not have answers, but I do agree with this assessment.

Earlier this year, Trinity Baptist Church hosted an interfaith dialogue with a Muslim activist, Kemal Korucu, who stated that terrorists, no matter the religion, are not born but bred.  The poor, uneducated, and displaced are susceptible to aggressive recruitment strategies perpetuated by ISIS, Boko Haram, and other terrorist organizations.

The Rohingya fit this caricature.  As people without citizenship, Rohingya children have been denied formal education.

Poverty is an every-day reality that many U. S. citizens cannot comprehend.  And lack of “place”– no more pronounced than ever as some are abandoned at sea — will only lead to people trying to find belonging.

If countries cannot band together to save these people now, I fear that young Rohingya men in particular will find belonging with our nation’s fiercest enemies rather than with friends.

For a people so far removed from this conflict, we cannot do much in turning the political tides of this crisis, but we can pray that governments and agencies will aid these lost people.  Pray that humanitarian relief efforts will meet those in need.

We can also pray for our missionaries who are laying deep roots in changing hearts for Christ, that many will not become susceptible to terrorism but, rather, bear witness to the Gospel that has the power to change all our lives for the better.

They say, “Peace, peace,” when there is none to be found

By Joe LaGuardia

This Christmas Eve, as Trinity and so many other churches gather for candlelight services to celebrate Christ’s birthday, we will likely sing about the peace that accompanies Christmas.

The song, “Silent Night, Holy Night,”will woo our beloved baby Jesus to “sleep in heavenly peace.”  And “Hark! The Herald Angels Sing,” will encourage us to rightly “hail the heaven-born Prince of Peace.”

The next morning, as my children open their long-awaited gifts and I cook my lasagna for the mid-afternoon meal, it will be a memorable time of celebration and joy.

Yet, in the midst of such celebration, we cannot forget that we live in a world ridden with conflict.  In fact, many Christians around the world will not enjoy the same kind of Christmas experience as we.

Take Nigeria as just one example of a place in which hardships are facing Christians.

Nigeria is a diverse nation that has long enjoyed some semblance of peace among neighbors and inter-faith communities.

One of the largest Christian communities there is the Ekklesiyar Yan’uwa of Nigeria (EYN), a contingent of the Church of the Brethren (a small, Germanic-born Protestant movement as old as the Reformation).

For years, the EYN have opened grade-schools, seminaries, clinics, social service organizations, and other relief communities.

In the last year, however, the EYN, among other Christian and Muslim communities, have come under attack by the radical Boko Haram movement, which made the news recently for kidnapping some 200 school girls.

According to the Church of the Brethren website, some 500 Brethren women and children have been kidnapped, over 3000 members have been killed, and nearly 100,000 have been displaced.

According to another report, Boko Haram seized the EYN headquarters and a partnering seminary as of October.

Many refugees are finding solace in Jos, Nigeria, the location of one of our local missionary’s place of ministry (missionary, Melanie Martin, once taught at nearby Honey Creek Elementary School) .  They are regrouping there in search of relief, shelter, and medical supplies.

This means that while I am figuring out how to perfect my lasagna on Christmas day, thousands of families will have nothing to eat.

No one likes getting bad news on Christmas.  Even relief organizations in our own country provide “the least of these” with enough resources to have a blessed Christmas.

And we should.  But we also should not deny that our privilege as a people sometimes blinds us to the needs beyond our borders.

We don’t know what its like to have our children kidnapped or our families displaced.  We don’t know what its like to lose our land and make a pilgrimage across country without adequate drinking water.

The birth of the Prince of Peace in our lives does not deny this fact.  Rather, the Prince of Peace’s birthday shines a spotlight on the plight of humankind and confronts our response to it.

God gave us Jesus to have life, but God also gave us Jesus to provide light and life to others who are in need.  Unfortunately, we spend so much time complaining about what we don’t have or what we want, we forget that much of what we do have is taken for granted.

This Christmas do not neglect the needs of people around the world who have yet to experience true peace.  We may sing about it, but it will take a commitment from all of us–be it through giving money or serving overseas–to make peace a reality where peace is hard to find.

In related news: Praise God for Discover Point Church and so many other churches who are providing meals to needy families in our county this season.  DP is feeding hundreds of families on Christmas day, challenging volunteers to spend Christmas serving others rather than serving themselves.  We are proud to partner with DP in providing kitchen facilities necessary for accommodating the crowd.

If you are interested in helping with the Nigerian Brethren crisis, please contact Roy Winter at rwinter@brethren.org or visit the Brethren website for more information on how to serve or to give.