The long and dangerous road of theological tradition

Members of the Westboro Baptist Church hold anti-gay signs at Arlington National Cemetery in Virginia on Veterans Day, November 11, 2010. REUTERS/Kevin Lamarque (UNITED STATES - Tags: POLITICS) - RTXUI58

REUTERS/Kevin Lamarque (UNITED STATES – Tags: POLITICS) – RTXUI58

By Joe LaGuardia

As a requirement for her Master of Divinity degree at the McAfee School of Theology, Atlanta, Georgia, the Reverend Karen Woods wrote a thesis on race relations in the local church.  In it, she argues that slavery, discrimination, and contemporary conflicts surrounding race did not suddenly appear out of nowhere.

Rather, the dysfunction of racism grew out of long theological traditions that manipulated the Bible to justify one race’s subjugation over another.  Sadly, although our ancestors were people of their time, this theological context sat squarely on a certain systemic interpretation of the Bible that dehumanized people.

Woods’ thesis reminded me that beliefs surrounding a variety of issues these days result not from spontaneous decisions or platitudes, but from long-held convictions and traditions that require (consciously or otherwise) theological gerrymandering and interpretative acrobats over a long period of time.

If we are still embroiled in the consequences of racism even today, then it should not surprise us that contemporary debates over other hotbed topics will last well into the next generation of Christendom.

Traditions and experience inform how we read the Bible (if we read the Bible at all), and shaping our reading of God’s Word according to such embedded ideologies threatens to undermine the authority of Scripture.

The worst part is when we declare that God agrees with our positions rather than change our minds when we know some things simply contradict Christ’s or the Bible’s teachings.

M. Craig Barnes, writing for The Christian Century, wrote of the dangers associated with biased interpretations of scripture.  He recalled Abraham Lincoln’s Second Inaugural Address delivered on March 4, 1865, in which Lincoln lamented the toxicity that imbues any theology that forces ideology on humanity’s understanding of God.

According to Lincoln, “Both [the North and the South] read the same Bible and pray to the same God, and each invokes [God’s]aid against the other . . . The prayers of both could not be answered.  That of neither has been answered fully.  The Almighty has His own purposes.”

Lincoln went on to declare that the institution of slavery–250 years in the making–will not come untangled as easily as many people in the Union had hoped.  Yet, it was imperative to “finish the work we are in” so as to bring about harmony to a nation divided by political ideology.

Lincoln hit the problem squarely on the head.  Our debates surrounding the most pressing issues of the day such as gun control, environmental stewardship, war, immigration and refugee policy, and federal budgets must indeed play out in the philosophical and political arenas, but must avoid any declaration that God is taking one side over another.  Otherwise, we too will be embroiled in divisions that rend the very fabric of our nation.

Ultimately, when a Christian surrenders to God, she surrenders her “rights” in this world in order to become a fully-recognized citizen in God’s kingdom.  It is to sacred Scripture that a citizen of the Kingdom submits, not to any man-made document or system of government.

God’s call is a singular mission to march towards the cause of the cross.  This results from self-denial and, sometimes, death, if not physically, then of those embedded convictions that conflict with Christ’s values.

Most significantly, submitting to Christ’s lordship means divesting our theologies about God and social politics that perpetuate some of the more hostile elements of faith that play out in our places of worship, politics, and the public square.  Without this important reformation in our churches, we remain steadfast in the very bigotry that our faith condemns.

Without analyzing the long-held beliefs that shape our worldview, we fail to “be transformed in the renewal of our mind,” as Paul so aptly commands in Romans 12:1-2.

My prayer for the New Year is that we will have robust debates in an otherwise uncommon election season, but that we will not use religion as a weapon to wield rather than a balm to heal, and that we will use Scripture to transform our thinking rather than support our myopic opinions about so many issues we face today.  May Christ, not the fascination with our own interpretations of Him, be Lord over our lives.

 

 

 

The legacy of the empty tomb

Jesus rose from the dead and is free from the tomb. Let's leave Him that way.

It has been a week since we celebrated Jesus’ resurrection from the tomb, and I am still wondering whether we have moved on to live out the Easter story beyond the graveyard.  Jesus overcame death and ascended to His Father, but in many ways we continue to keep him entombed by our very lives.

Although each of the four Gospels tell the resurrection story slightly different, they have some elements in common.  One commonality includes certain questions that the angels asked Jesus’ disciples when they came to the tomb on Easter morning.

According to Luke, an angel asked, “Why do you look for the living among the dead?”  In John’s gospel, Jesus asked, “Why do you weep?  Whom are you looking for?”

The disciples should have expected an empty tomb.  Jesus already told them that God was going to raise him on the third day.  Besides, Jesus was always on the move in his earthly ministry–“The Son of Man has nowhere to lay his head”–so they should have known that He was going to be on the move after his resurrection.

Jesus is still on the move.  He is not in the tomb. Nor is he some archaic historical figure that we can keep locked in a textbook.   Yet, that’s precisely how we think of Jesus sometimes.  Jesus lives and gives us abundant life, but we do not reflect that reality.  Often, our actions, words, and thoughts communicate that Jesus does not exist whatsoever.

Easter has passed, but we still find ourselves back at the tomb as if Jesus will be there.  We go back to the tomb of architecture–expecting Jesus to be encapsulated in our church structures, without any ability to move beyond those heavy, stone walls.

We entomb Jesus in our ideologies and our opinions, as if Jesus remains in the stagnate thoughts of humanity’s limited understanding of God.  We treat him like some file-folder we can pull out whenever we need Him.  Jesus makes a convenient appearance now and then when we are fighting a culture war or debate.

We entomb Jesus in our worship preferences, assuming that He is only pleased with one style of worship or another.  We assume that we find Jesus only when we sing certain hymns or sing praise-and-worship or preach the lectionary or have Mass.

We entomb Jesus in our foreign policy, always arguing that Jesus is on the side of just war and liberty.  That tomb is very important because as long as He remains there, we can ignore the myriad of verses in which Jesus talks about forgiving our enemies.

Don’t forget our tomb of domestic policies as well.  When we return to this tomb, we realize that Jesus looks like the rest of us and cares about the things that we care about:  the American Dream, a Cadillac, and an air-conditioned home filled with trinkets and appliances made in China.

Why do we look for the living among the dead?  Perhaps its because we forget that Jesus is living in the first place.  “Do not hold on to me,” Jesus told Mary Magdalene on Easter morning.

This Lord is not someone whom we can hold or control, pin down or predict.  Jesus is always on the move and breaking out of the tombs that we often establish; Jesus works in places, people, and ideas where we least expect it.

In at least two Gospels, the angels tell the women that Jesus went ahead of the disciples to Galilee.  Jesus was not at the tomb because he was alive, and he went to Ground Zero–the beginning–where all things began.

May our hearts and minds also be where Jesus is, at the source of God’s very divine purpose for humanity rather than at the tombs that we construct from our limited perspectives.

What kind of public witness do you want your church to communicate?

Although our nation sets aside one day—July 4—to celebrate our freedom, a Christian’s ability to participate in civic government without fear of persecution is cause for celebration throughout the year.

This is especially the case in a time of legal fundamentalism, in which a variety of nations are tightening religious freedom.  In France, a bill threatens to ban Muslim burqas; in Iran, a newly-signed law regulates men’s haircuts (this applies to Christians, too).  In Britain, hate-crime laws limit street evangelism; throughout Asia and Africa, persecution of Christians and Muslims is still commonplace.

We in America take our freedom for granted all too often.  We should consider how to engage politics with a sense of gratitude and humility.  One informative scriptural text on the subject comes from Romans 13.

On the surface, a reading of Romans 13 seems to simply advocate obedience to the government.  Paul writes, “Let every person be subject for the governing authorities, for there is no authority except for God.”  In isolation, this text seems to be pretty cut-and-dry.

Our church history reveals, however, that when Christians apply Romans 13 without considering the larger context of Paul’s letter to the Romans, the text can be misused.   In the early Church, Romans 13 motivated Christians to fight in Rome’s army and the crusades, which led to bloodshed and senseless violence.  In Nazi Germany, Hitler’s clergy used Romans 13 to sanction injustices towards Jews, justifying Holocaust.

Romans 13 is not as clear as we might think.  Whenever Paul wrote about a Christian community’s engagement in the political sphere (Romans 13 included) there was one goal in mind—to inspire churches to be a witness to the governing authorities, not to simply follow the government blindly.  Paul wanted Christians to remind the authorities that God is really in charge of everything.

The alternative rhythm of church life, the unique beat of the Christian journey declares that the Lordship of Christ is real and active even when our political leaders don’t believe it to be so.

But if local churches are called to be a witness, then what is the nature of that witness?  What testimony is a church supposed to communicate?

Every church communicates a public witness and civic ethic.  Churches that are “not political,” for instance, communicate that the Gospel has nothing to say to public policy and social justice; other churches tackle issues that are important to those particular congregations.

In my home church in South Florida, we were big supporters of marriage enrichment and the pro-life movement.  Our church almost went bankrupt while paying legal costs incurred by our many protests.  Other churches in the area, meanwhile, invested heavily in HIV advocacy, a major issue in Broward County.  Many churches took up a cause.

The question, then, is this:  What kind of testimony do you want your church to give?  Is it a testimony of hate, fear, punditry, or partisanship?  Or is it a testimony that voices God’s power and compassion in all creation?   The Bible says that “God so loved the world”; and we pray, “Thy will be done on earth, as it is in heaven.”

Again, Romans 13 is informative.  A closer look reveals that Paul couched Christian political engagement in the larger ethic of compassion.  Note the verses littered throughout Romans 12: “Let love be genuine” (v. 9); “extend hospitality to strangers” (v. 12); “Bless those who persecute you” (v. 13).  Romans 13:8 says, “Love one another, for the one who loves fulfills the law”; and 14:7 declares: “We do not live to ourselves…If we live, we live to the Lord.”

So it seems that the Bible tells us of what tune to sing when it comes to providing a public witness.  Last week at the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship General Assembly, Baptist historian Bill Leonard reminded us, “Don’t ask whether your church is thriving or in decline, growing or dying.  Instead, ask whether your church has a witness and a call to conscience.”   Don’t take this witness for granted; your freedom allows you to participate in it fully.