Tag Archives: America

Mercy Without Justice?

Tim Tebow and Colin Kaepernick are both well-known former NFL quarterbacks and to some extent, cultural icons in our present-day society. Many people have admiration for one and disdain for the other, and this ying and yang reflects much more about where people land on the social-political spectrum that it does about either former quarterback.

mercy_justice_banner

You may not know this but both Tim Tebow and Colin Kaepernick are professing Christians. Tim Tebow endeared himself to many evangelical Christians and other conservatives for his willingness to express his faith in a public manner, for his pro-life stance, and holding to other traditional Christian values. I have nothing against Tim Tebow and if you’re a Christian, even if you disagree with Tebow on some issues, you shouldn’t either. But on the same hand, you shouldn’t have a problem with Colin Kaepernick either. Yet when Caepernick began protesting the racism and numerous police shootings of black men in America by kneeling during the performing of the National Anthem, many of the Christians that lauded Tebow expressed anger towards Kaepernick. Why?

While the differences between Tim Tebow and Colin Kaepernick might be categorized as a conservative versus liberal difference, I want to think from theological perspective. Specifically I’m thinking about the categories of pastoral and prophetic gifts. The pastorally gifted person comes along encouraging us to live more deeply into what we already believe to be true, which is exactly what Tim Tebow exemplified. There’s nothing wrong with that either, as we all need such encouragement at times. At other times we need the prophetically gifted person to help us see the injustices that exist, injustices that we tolerate and even sometimes accommodate. Denouncing injustice, the prophet calls us to repentance. Whether we like it or not, we need Colin Kaepernick as much, if not more these days, as we need Tim Tebow.

Our challenge is receiving the message of a prophet which is disruptive, certainly not what we want to hear. With few exceptions, only the oppressed seem welcoming of the prophet’s protest. The privileged and powerful become defensive and dismissive of the prophet because the prophetic word is a rebuke calling for the privileged and powerful to repentance. That’s the way it was when God sent prophets to speak his word to Israel and that’s the way it is when prophets speak today.

Consider the case of Botham Jean who was fatally shot in his own apartment by former Dallas Police Office Amber Guyger. After Ms. Guyger was convicted, Brandt Jean, the brother of Botham, chose to forgive Ms. Guyger and give her a hug. The moment was captured on video, a video that instantly went viral (I shared it too) and may prove to the most shared video ever. There’s much to love about that moment and the extension of mercy that Brandt Jean offered to Amber Guyger. It’s a pastoral moment, reminding us of the grace and forgiveness that every Christian believes is right.

However, after Amber Guyger was sentenced to prison, there was a video of Botham Jean’s mother pleading for justice. Her plea was aimed at the underlying racism that played a part in this entire case and has plagued the city of Dallas. In comparison to the video of Brandt Jean forgiving and hugging Ms. Guyger, the video of Botham Jean’s mother was seen and shared by very few people. Why? I believe the answer is that we, the mostly white Christians who have the privilege and power among society, don’t want to hear her prophetic pleas for justice. And it seems like we never do.

The other day I was rereading through Martin Luther King Jr.’s Letter From Birmingham City Jail. Dr. King wrote this letter, in part, as an explanation to the white moderate pastors who have grown tired of his protests, remarks:

“You deplore the demonstrations that are presently taking place in Birmingham. But I am sorry that your statement did not express a similar concern for the conditions that brought the demonstration into being. I am sure that each of you would want to go beyond the superficial social analyst who looks merely at effects, and does not grapple with underlying causes.” (A Testament of Hope: The Essential Writings and Speeches, 1986, 2003,p. 290)

His critics were more concerned with the civil unrest that was taking place in the quest for civil rights than they were for the injustices of racism and lynchings that oppressed people of color. The prophetic voice of Dr. King was too much for too many and we know this because we all know what happened on the morning of April 4, 1968.

I am a minister of the gospel who serves as a pastor with the Newark Church of Christ but I also believe my calling must bear an occasional prophetic voice too. So let me say unequivocally that mercy is a beautiful gift to offer but it should never diminish or neglect the need for justice. The vision of the gospel is one that offers both mercy and justice, not one over the other. But too often in America, where racism and racial injustices still exists, white Christians have clamored for grace and mercy while remaining silent when it comes to justice. It’s time for this posture to end. Mercy without justice must end.

This calls for repentance.

“He has told you, O mortal, what is good; and what does the Lord require of you but to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God?” – Micah 6:8, NRSV

Eyes Wide Open: Overcoming the Blindness of a Christless Christianity

Most Christians, and ever Christian I know, including myself, say they believe the Bible is the word of God, inspired of God and authoritative on all matters of faith. Very good! But as a pastor there are many times when what Christians say they believe and what they actually believe are different to some degree.

house-blindness

Earlier this year Mayor Theresa Kenerly of Hoschton, Georgia, was heavily criticized for racial discrimination after pulling the resume of a black man because of his blackness. According to the Atlantic Journal Constitution, the Mayor did not believe that her nearly all-white small town was ready to have a black man as a city administrator. But a few people defended the Mayor’s racism, including City Councilman Jim Cleveland who insisted that he understood the Mayor’s decision because Hoschton is not Atlanta. Mr. Cleveland insisted that he is not a racist but according to the report in the Raw Story, he had an interesting remark. Councilman Jim Cleveland said, “I’m a Christian and my Christian beliefs are you don’t do interracial marriage. That’s the way I was brought up and that’s the way I believe.”

Besides the obvious racism, what I find interesting is that Mr. Cleveland says he is a Christian but then defends his racism by saying that is the way he was raised and therefore the way he believes. In other words, even though he is a Christian, neither the gospel nor the Bible is his moral authority. Mr. Cleveland’s authority is the way he was raised. It’s also not a stretch to assume that Mr. Cleveland is part of a Christian culture, a church culture, that has failed to truly embody the Good News of Jesus Christ—despite the authority of the Bible. That shows also how easily Christians can read the Bible and still fail to see what Jesus and his kingdom really entails, just as the Pharisees and Jesus’ own disciples still failed to see.

In the eighth chapter of Mark’s Gospel is a story about a blind man that is brought to Jesus for healing. So Jesus spits in the man’s eyes and touches them so that the man could once again see and he was able to see then, only his vision wasn’t clear. When asked if he could see, the blind man replied, “I see people. They look like trees, only they are walking around” (v. 24). As Mark is telling the story, the remark of this blind man is really a commentary on the Pharisees and Jesus’ own disciples. Both have seen Jesus do plenty of miracles and heard him teach with authority but the Pharisees are still challenging Jesus’ authority, while the disciples are questioning him as they continue doubting. It’s not just the blind man who needs his sight restored, it’s the Pharisees and disciples who need to see clearly.

Let me push the matter just a little farther. From my understanding, both the Pharisees and disciples were familiar with the story of Israel and her scriptures. In his conversations, Jesus frequently references the story of Israel along with the Hebrew Bible as he engages both the Pharisees and disciples. Yet they still failed to see clearly. The same is true of Councilman Cleveland. I am sure he has some knowledge of the Bible and could teach a few Sunday School lessons to children about the miracles that Jesus performed. Yet he still fails to see clearly.

How about us? Do we read the Bible? If we proclaim the Christian faith, then we should. But… How do we read the Bible? Does the way we read the Bible open our eyes to clearly see Jesus and the Kingdom of God he has inaugurated? Or has our vision become obscured by the way we were raised or by our favorite church traditions? Is whatever cable news and talk radio we listen to or blind partisan loyalty to whatever politician and political platform we side with obscuring our vision?

Jesus touched the blind man’s eyes a second time and as Mark tells the story, the blind man “looked with his eyes wide open, his sight was restored, and he could see everything clearly” (v. 25). He needed to be touched again by Jesus to see clearly. The same is true for the Pharisees and the disciples, then and now.

As we read the Bible, if our reading obscures us from seeing Jesus then we are the blind!

The Gospel of Mark, along with the rest of scripture, is clear that the invitation of Jesus is to come follow him. We are called to follow Jesus, learning to live by the same beliefs and values of Jesus so that we may embody the Kingdom life that he embodied. That’s what discipleship is. But it is increasingly becoming obvious that discipleship is not Christianity is often known for in America. In fact, as the dichotomy between who Jesus is and what Christianity is, it seems more like a Christless Christianity has sprouted.

We can shake our heads at people like Councilman Cleveland, especially those of us who don’t defend racism, but we may be more like Mr. Cleveland than we realize. That we can justify war and violence, freedom of choice over the life of the unborn, national boundaries over mercy for refugees and immigrants, vitriolic rhetoric for the sake of partisan politics, and so forth with the most unGospeled wisdom and logic is revealing. We show that it is very possible to call ourselves Christians and yet fail to see Jesus and his Kingdom clearly. It shows that we can read the Bible and still miss Jesus, still miss what the Bible is all about and the life it reimagines for us to live as people called to follow Jesus.

I am glad that we read the Bible but let us read with eyes to see Jesus and his kingdom clearly. May the Lord come, by the power of the Holy Sprit, to touch our eyes again that we may see with eyes wide open!

Church: Mission or Model?

As a pastor, I serve with the Newark Church of Christ. As a Church of Christ, we are connected with the Stone-Campbell Restoration Movement that began on the American frontier during the Second Great Awakening of the early 19th century. The movement began with the vision of restoring New Testament Christianity which meant, at least in part, restoring the form of the first-century churches. Consequently, the New Testament was read as a blueprint for how people became Christians as well as the organization and worship of the local church.

Our Mission

With this post, let’s think a little more about the organization of the church or the form of the local church and how that relates to participating in the mission of God. Now despite my own history in the Stone-Campbell Restoration Movement, I have come to the conclusion that the attempt at restoring any form is the wrong approach. To begin with, I don’t believe the New Testament presents a monolithic description of the church. Their are several forms or ways that Christians organized in the New Testament and that seems as much a response to their cultural-context and needs as it as response to the gospel. Also, without dismissing any need for form, the New Testament seems more concerned with function.

I say all this just to acknowledge the lens through which I view the challenge of leading churches to follow Jesus as participants in the mission of God. So the issue I am concerned with is the attention given on finding the right form or model of church. Right now I am reading through Francis Chan’s book Letters To The Church (see also Tim Challies review here) who assumes a monolithic church model in the New Testament (house churches) and compares it against the now traditional church model that most churches, including Restoration Churches, have adopted.

While Chan makes some valid criticisms about Christianity in America, his book compares the best of the house church model against the worst of the traditional model. Such comparisons hardly seem fair but there is a bigger issue that needs to be considered, which is the fact that all church models are just that — models, and not churches.

Here’s my point: The church is always the people no matter how they are organized. So regardless of how much idealism we muster up to promote one model over another, the reality is that people are still people and thus same basic challenges will surface eventually. Therefore, rather than advocating one model, a better approach might be to allow the church to form around the Spiritual-giftedness of the people in response to the local context but that’s for another post. I’m just voicing concern I have that when churches, especially those struggling with decline, go mining book for the next best model (remember The Purpose-Driven Church?).

The key to participating in the mission of God is discerning how God is at work among the local church and the surrounding community so that the believers can join in that work as followers of Jesus. Fortunately, the Newark Church of Christ is relearning how to do this. It doesn’t mean we’re perfect but we are beginning to see some of the kingdom-increase as we journey on mission with God.

Be The Church!

Like others, I am tired of turning on the news only to hear that another mass-shooting has occurred. With the most recent shootings in El Paso, Texas and Dayton, Ohio taking place within twenty-four hours of each other, it seems as if such violence has become an epidemic. Maybe that’s more perception than reality but nonetheless what is reality is the fact that more innocent lives were harmed and killed.

It is beyond me to understand how anyone could so maliciously plot and carry out a deadly attack on other people. Yes, I am aware of the anger and extremism, the hatred and racism, the mental health and emotional trauma, and the many other factors that come into play, including the easy access to certain firearms — assault weapons designed simply to kill with efficiency. I’m frustrated that elected officials just keep offering their “thoughts and prayers” without undertaking any reasonable solutions. I’m frustrated that, fifty-one years after the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr., racism still has a grip on America and my frustration doesn’t end there. As a White person, I am also frustrated with many White people who either don’t seem to care about racism or seek to downplay it and even want to disassociate from the racism (a White privilege), failing to see how systematic racism still exists even if they don’t personally discriminate against any person of color. And if the truth be told, maybe I have been one of those White people too. I try not to be but I am a sinner too.

So what can I do?

What can we do?

As followers of Jesus, what must we do?

Be the church!

I know, I know… It sounds simple and even trite because for far too long “church” has been nothing but a place where people gather on Sundays. Our traditional understanding of Church in the west has often become an impotent caricature of the ekklēsia that Jesus called us to be as his followers. It’s the reason why many of the Sunday parishioners “go to church” and then leave an hour later as the same people they were before and as the same people they were when they first started going to church many years ago. Let’s be honest, this understanding of church is a place for people to sing songs about Jesus, hear a message about Jesus, and pray but not necessarily follow Jesus. I’m not against singing, preaching, and praying but such worship loses its way when those gathering for “church” leave only to sound more like an echo-chamber of whatever news-pundit they listen too as they continue pursuing a life shaped more by their own individualistic desires.

But that is not what I mean when I say “Be the church!” What I mean is hopefully a little more profound because it is about following Jesus and serving as a living embodiment of the gospel Jesus proclaimed. That means living as a people who gather, in the name of Jesus and by the power of the Spirit, with others, including people of other colors, nationalities, social-political viewpoints than our own. As we gather together, we do so as people learning to be practitioners of the Jesus way (discipleship) in which we embrace each other with love. This is a love that is full of the grace and truth that opens space for us to confront our sin with repentance and forgiveness so that we all may journey forward as reconciled brothers and sisters. This love is a fellowship in Christ that we have pledged ourselves to in baptism and that we continuously acknowledge together in the Eucharist. This vision of church, which Jesus has called us to be, is one that bears witness to an alternative kingdom — the reign of God — and becomes the beacon of light in a society shrouded in darkness.

This is the kind of church we are called to be and it is this kind of church that I believe God is working among to offer hope in the midst of despair and peace in the midst of violence. That’s why I posted on Facebook the other day this word for pastors, saying:

Pastors, the best response to a society boiling over with hatred and violence is for you to cultivate a living embodiment of the gospel among the church you serve so that there will be a community bearing witness to the way of peace in Christ.

This kind of church doesn’t effect change like a tsunami crashing upon the shore. Rather, it is a patient approach that doesn’t force its way of life on others but becomes such a beautiful portrait that others are captivated by it and want to become a part of this life. It is a life that flows from the prayers of those who are committed to living. So I leave us with the Peace Prayer attributed to Saint Francis of Assisi…

Lord, make me an instrument of your peace:
where there is hatred, let me sow love;
where there is injury, pardon;
where there is doubt, faith;
where there is despair, hope;
where there is darkness, light;
where there is sadness, joy.

O divine Master, grant that I may not so much seek
to be consoled as to console,
to be understood as to understand,
to be loved as to love.
For it is in giving that we receive,
it is in pardoning that we are pardoned,
and it is in dying that we are born to eternal life.
Amen.

The Church: God’s New Future Unleashed

It isn’t any secret that Christianity in the United States is facing some challenges. In a post-Christendom society churches are getting smaller and even closing. There are likely many reasons for this but that is also why there continues to be a market for books on growing churches, connecting with the unchurched, and reaching the next generations (Millennials, iGeneration, etc…).

Now I love reading and have nothing against such books per se. However, when we open our Bible up to the book of Acts, what we have is a summons to receive the Spirit so that we may fully live life as a follower of Jesus. That’s what repentance and baptism is (Acts 2:38). Nothing said about growing churches, reaching the next generation and so forth, just a summons to repentance and baptism. That’s because the way we participate in the kingdom and journey on mission with God is by the power of the Spirit under the authority of Jesus Christ. That is, we submit our lives to Jesus and are formed by the Holy Spirit to live life as Jesus lived.

Luke gives us a description of what happened with the community of believers in Jerusalem when they responded to this summons. Acts 2:42-47:

The believers devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching, to the community, to their shared meals, and to their prayers. A sense of awe came over everyone. God performed many wonders and signs through the apostles. All the believers were united and shared everything. They would sell pieces of property and possessions and distribute the proceeds to everyone who needed them. Every day, they met together in the temple and ate in their homes. They shared food with gladness and simplicity. They praised God and demonstrated God’s goodness to everyone. The Lord added daily to the community those who were being saved.

I believe we should read this as a description rather than a prescription. In other words, rather than trying reduplicate or mirror everything we read exactly as we think it was done then, Luke’s description is meant to evoke our own imaginations. What might happen when we allow the Holy Spirit to (re)form us as people living in the name of Jesus?

The answer to that question will vary from one local community to another, though I do believe that there will be some commonalities. Commonalities like remaining committed to apostolic teaching, fellowship, breaking of bread, and prayer, as well as demonstrating the goodness of God — loving God, loving neighbor — to everyone. The result will always be putting into motion the kingdom way of life that Jesus proclaimed and faithfully lived, even to the point of being put to death on the cross. It is a way of life shaped by the cruciform-character and kingdom-oriented life of Jesus.

Bottom line, what we read in Acts is what happens when we are formed by the Spirit to live as faithful followers of Jesus. As a church on mission with God, we become the new future that God has unleashed into the present.

Let’s be this church! 

Table Manners: Tomáš Halík and Cultivating Culture

Everyone knows that American society as a culture is undergoing massive changes. Like it or not, the social-political, religious, and economical landscape of America is different than it was twenty years ago and the end of this metamorphosis taking place appears nowhere in sight. The one certain descriptor is that America is a pluralistic society with a wide-ranging set of beliefs and values. Our understanding of the Christian faith and the sort of life that defines for us is just one understanding among many. So what shall we do?

I’ve been reading Night of the Confessor by Tomáš Halík, an ordained Catholic Priest in Czechoslovakia who once worked as a psychotherapist. In the tenth chapter, titled “God Knows Why,” Halík is getting at the different and often complex questions that people are asking. In response, he writes:

“We shouldn’t let banal questions (or only seemingly banal questions?) provoke us into giving banal answers. The self-assured gesture of evangelical Christians who place a Bible on the table in response is rather tawdry in its theatricality. The old saying “It says it in the Bible so it must be true” is not so easy to apply in this case. We are confronted by a whole set of specific questions that did not confront the people of the Bible, and if we substitute our problems for theirs, and relate answers to other questions to our own problems, then it is not the ‘Bible itself’ that speaks from our words, but instead our all-too-human manipulation of God’s word — and such manipulation is unavowed, unthinking, and often simpleminded. Such overuse and ab-use of the Bible is irresponsible not only vis-à-vis Scripture, but also toward those with whom we still have sufficient credit for them to invite us to dialogue and joint quest.

…There is only one realm that can, to a certain extent, be formed and influenced by the decisions of parliamentarians and individual consciences, and that is the ‘moral climate’ of society, which is a somewhat broader concept than “public opinion” (that other pretender to the throne of infallibility). The moral and spiritual climate of society can cultivate public debate — but again only to a certain extent. That is where believers should be involved, as competent partners respecting the rules of dialogue and conscientiously using all the resources at their disposal: Scripture and reason, tradition and the study of present-day sources of knowledge, awareness of responsibility before God and people, and the thoughtfulness that prayer and meditation confer on human reflection and behavior. (pp. 134-135)

Now if you’re scratching your head and wondering what he is saying, don’t fret. I had to read this again very slowly and think about it. What Halík is saying is that society is asking questions and as we enter into conversation with these questions, we should avoid offering cheap and simple responses. Society is asking questions today that were not necessarily asked in Jesus’ day, so we can’t simply impose the questions of Jesus’ day upon the questions of today and then apply the answers to the questions of Jesus’ day to the questions people are asking today. Doing so is disingenuous and simply saying something like “The Bible says, I believe it, that settle’s it” is an abuse of both the Bible and of those who raise difficult questions.

Rather than resorting to the “banal,” Christians must use the resources of knowledge available to reflect and critically engage in dialogue with these complex questions. The resources that Halík has in mind are scripture, tradition, reason, and culture (what he calls “present-day sources of knowledge”) which kind of makes him, a Catholic Priest, a good Weslyian too. However, most importantly, is the manner in which we engage the dialogue as Christians. We enter the dialogue not just prayerfully, which every Christian would agree with, but we also enter the dialogue “as competent partners respecting the rules of dialogue…”

For sometime I have imagined this dialogue as a large table conversation taking place. Fifty years ago in America it was a given that almost everyone at the table had the same basic worldview that the God spoken of in the Bible is the only God and his word, the Bible, was the ultimate authority on all matters of life. Today, things have changed and the conversation partners at the table are not just Christians, they also include Muslims, Bhuddhists, Hindus, Atheists and Agnostics, Secularist Democrats and Republicans, a wide-variety of social-political activists, and so forth. Some of these partners would even be happy if we Christians would just get up and go off to our own table (and some Christians would be happy to do so as well) but that isn’t an option if we are to participate in the mission of God.

So how do we enter into this dialogue taking place at the cultural round-table? We need to learn good table manners, which includes respecting the rules of dialogue. This means entering the dialogue with a posture of humility that listens to understand before speaking and it certainly excludes any sort of posture that demands others listen to us. Shouting at and ridiculing others we deem to be wrong won’t help at all. Furthermore, when we come as humble yet “competent” conversation partners willing dialogue about complex questions, we are able to have a say in shaping “moral and spiritual” climate of culture. That opens space for God to work through his Spirit, slowly cultivating a new culture as others make decisions about the direction of life. That is the keys to the kingdom!

Grace and Peace,

K. Rex Butts