The State of the American Christian Union, Part 1 -Kingdom Confusion
Me early voting – sporting my older brother’s 1968-era patriotic sweatshirt I traditionally wear on voting days (sorry I missed the 68 Democratic Convention – what a rumble!)
Yesterday I went for the early voting day for the mid-term elections in my community, held inside a local church. I expected a sparse crowd in early afternoon, when us deadbeats are available (when we’re not watching Springer). I have to say however, that the old folks were out in force and filled the place, with a grim look of determination in their eyes (even if they did move slow and could not hear when their name was called). I can only imagine what they thought when they saw a non-white, female Democratic state representative candidate Hana Ali campaigning outside – I am sure they thought “Muslim Brotherhood”…(it appeared that I was the only one who actually went and talked to her, and found out that she was a long-time local physician (dunno if she was Muslim, Hindu, secular or another faith) who was sacrificing her lucrative practice to advocate for free health care for returning military veterans, as her central “diabolical” campaign agenda). I asked an older man behind me in line what his generic thoughts were about things going on in our country today, and he ominously whispered to me, “It’s best that I not speak about any of that”.
Given that I was standing in the heart of my “Red Hat” state of Tennessee, I’m pretty sure what was on the mind of himself and the sea of his senior cohorts there, and given the events of the last two years, where a now-sitting president can previously tell a rally crowd beating up a protestor, “Hit him for me – I’ll pay your legal bills!” – and the Christian crowd loves it! – I think everyone can agree with me that things are getting really serious. As I stood in line reflecting on recent events and what was going on in my “hood” on my watch, I kept wondering how we got to where we are today; where a Falwell head of a major Christian university (Liberty) can stand in front of a Playboy cover of Trump as he takes a picture with him, asking him to speak at his Christian university (where Trump declared God would want us to get even with our enemies, but did cite “Two Corinthians” and held up his grandmother’s Bible), only mentioning his envy of Trump’s jumbo jet, and with audio of Trump admitting he molested married women sexually because he was famous and powerful, and lied repeatedly about paying off a Playmate and a porn star for affairs as his wife had a newborn at home (as later became proven), and the Christian crowd does nothing but defend him, because he serves their agenda.
I see that this is not a revelation about Trump himself; to his credit, he has always been an a_s. But it does expose a whole lot about the real nature of the “Moral Majority” crowd I grew up respecting, and a majority of the folks in the pews. Trying to understand their priorities when they enter the voting booth, I have to wonder if they really understand what kingdom they are a citizen of. Do they listen when their preachers preach from the Gospels? Do they really take Jesus seriously in the things He taught?
I have been told by certain readers on this blog (mostly just one) and even family members and old friends that for even asking these questions, I have become the one thing more diabolical than a devil-worshipper – a liberal. I was accused on a Mother’s Day visit with my family this year that I “loved Muslims and the poor”, as a serious vice (I only wish it were more true!). A recent visit with old Christian friends informed me of an additional shortcoming of mine that I did not recognize – in that all “the poor” and those of non-white ethnicities were all lazy and taking advantage of us working whites, mocking us and taking away our jobs and promotions. To my knowledge, I have never extolled the virtues of Hillary Clinton, Nancy Pelosi or even the Democratic Party, but all my talk of “the poor”, “refugees” and being kind to the “stranger”, and even being so bold as to cite the “Golden Rule”, has earned me a status as an “outsider” of dubious motives, progressing from being a “golden boy” in my evangelical circles to (with the exception of a very small circle of friends) being a pariah. It’s just like when a fundamentalist church once shunned me (even as a young member whom they could previously count on to serve faithfully there) when I read Colossians 2 verbatim in their singles group (as I was asked to do) which talked of the “false form of humility” resulting from artificial dress or food restrictions, or another fundamentalist church because I defended the Christian state of charismatics (of whom I am not one).
I still see a lot of confusion in Christian circles as to what kingdom we really belong to, what is its agenda and our duties in it, and how it affects how we respond as American citizens. I will just cite a few verse and thoughts, of which much more can be said on it from the Bible, which rightfully deserves and entire book or more – of which I will oblige, in time. I admit that it does get a little more confusing today because (a) we live in a Christian era when God has prescribed a kingdom for us that is not the one in which we physically exist, (b) we live in a unique age as a select set of Christians that have a participatory role in the selection of our leaders, and their resultant decisions (and responsibility for them), and (c) we do not live in a theocracy (by design), and must recognize that secular government has a legitimate agenda that is NOT identical with the Kingdom of Heaven, but through which we should non-coercively provide “salt” and light”, and “love our brothers”. However, if a Christian today will set down with their Bible for an evening or two and focus on this topic, they could quickly be a lot more informed and achieve some clarity on the subject. Since we live in the Information Age with a relatively high degree of literacy, there is really no excuse for such darkness of ignorance, other than that the state of being informed on a Biblical opinion on the topic is not a priority for average Christians, and what little time they dedicate to it comprising the accepting of the directives of strangers, such as evangelical leaders in the media, or the unbelievers they listen to on talk radio and cable news.
Even with what little Abraham knew about God, and having been given an earthly inheritance of land with fixed physical demarcations and the respect of his neighbors in the land, he still recognized that he was a pilgrim and nomad in that very same land, and actually looked for
“a city which hath foundations, whose builder and maker [is] God. ..and confessed that they were strangers and pilgrims on the earth. For they that say such things declare plainly that they seek a country. But now they desire a better [country], that is, an heavenly: wherefore God is not ashamed to be called their God: for he hath prepared for them a city…Wherefore we receiving a kingdom which cannot be moved, let us have grace, whereby we may serve God acceptably with reverence and godly fear.” [Heb 11:10, 13-14, 16, 12:28 KJV]
Thereafter Joshua, leading a nation that understood itself to be a sole earthly expression of God’s nature, agenda and presence, fell for the “tribalism” view common in Christian circles today, in that a follower of God is either with their movement and circle, or otherwise an “enemy of God”; in our circles today, it would be in the Republican party, with the “heathen” in the alternative Democratic Party. However, God never felt the need to carry the same “buckets” of our preferred tribes, be they political parties, ideologies (left or right, capitalist, communist or socialist), nation-states, or any other affiliation; in turn, as a “jealous” God, He is not too thrilled when we carry any other identification in our own “buckets” except Jesus, as the “cornerstone” in which whose teachings all other ideologies have to be measured against (given that they may be suited for a secular kingdom without the same agendas as the Kingdom of Heaven), and certainly not when we compromise our most core Christian values from the Kingdom of Heaven taught by Jesus to accommodate and justify such affiliations. In practice, those ideologies who have a veneer of overt “righteousness” are actually the most seductive and dangerous. Here’s what happened when Joshua and the Hebrews confronted another of God’s men:
“Now when Joshua was near Jericho, he looked up and saw a man standing in front of him with a drawn sword in his hand. Joshua went up to him and asked, “Are you for us or for our enemies?” “Neither,” he replied, “but as commander of the army of the LORD I have now come.” Then Joshua fell face down to the ground in reverence, and asked him, “What message does my Lord have for his servant?” [Jos 5:13-14 NIV]
Joshua wisely recovers from this incident, re-orienting himself to humbly ask what direction God now has for him, rather than directing this other servant of God to get in line with his movement. You might ask me if I have difficulty in realizing that God is not obligated to get behind my own “spiritual” direction or ideas at any time, and my answer is yes, I do have a difficulty with that, and it is perpetually humbling to me to realize it; we should continuously be measuring our directions against that of the “Cornerstone” before we get too far down any road.
Daniel served in a pagan kingdom and government, and did not curse them, but humbly and gently tried to help the spiritual condition of his pagan leaders and their people, even when threatened with harm. His denouncements of sin were not directed towards people and cultures different than him (unlike Mordechai), and rather at those of his own culture and faith, and for that Gabriel said he was “greatly beloved” in heaven in Daniel 9, and also “greatly beloved” in a visitation in Daniel 10, possibly by Jesus Himself.
I leave it to the reader to research the commandments of God, either by His own voice or through the prophets, for His people and their nation to be kind to the “stranger” of another kind of faith, because “you were once strangers in Egypt” as a religious and ethnic minority yourself, and to take care of the poor, and make sure the vulnerable (fatherless, widows and orphans) are provided for, and to make sure the poor get justice in the courts which are not controlled by money, and that the wealthy and businessmen do not take over the less wealthy with debt or confiscating sources of income (“tools”), and to even forcibly “redistribute wealth” through the Year of Jubilee, and to leave lands fallow (sources of income and provision) for the poor in intervening years, which the Jews never did, and for which God said they were sent to exile for. When is the last time you heard politically-active Christians or media outlets make these issues a priority in the political debates and candidate evaluations, even though God makes it clear it is a priority for Him?
Another way to understand how God intended the secular nations (like our own) and their leaders and decision makers to faithfully fulfill their duties to their people, lets hear how God rebukes the “sons of God” assigned at the Tower of Babel to administer over the “seventy nations” of earth, and how they oppressed their own subjects and became objects of idolatrous worship of their peoples, and how He will judge them in the Last Days:
“God has taken his place in the divine council; in the midst of the gods he holds judgment: ‘How long will you judge unjustly and show partiality to the wicked? Give justice to the weak and the fatherless; maintain the right of the afflicted and the destitute. Rescue the weak and the needy; deliver them from the hand of the wicked.’…I said, ‘You are gods, sons of the Most High, all of you; nevertheless, like men you shall die, and fall like any prince’. Arise, O God, judge the earth; for you shall inherit all the nations!” [Psa 82:1-4, 5-8 ESV]
How many times have you heard these elements of God’s agenda for the secular nations also be the agenda of America’s politically-active Christian leaders today?
A lot of these commands are directed towards the leaders of nations, which gives many Christians a quick “Whew!”, thinking that they are not obligated to such responsibilities. However, the majority of historic believers of God, like all peoples, were subjects of outside reigning powers, or otherwise not able to elect leaders or influence their decisions, and therefore not responsible for their decisions. However, when God brought His children to the Promised land, He set them up as a decentralized federation of tribes, with its leaders chosen by the people, where at the end of the Book of Joshua, “everyone did what was right in their own eyes” – certainly a heresy to control-freak Christians who want to control behavior from the top down, but a libertarian’s dream that God seemed to intend as His permanent plan. However, the Hebrews soon wanted a king to control them, like the other nations had, because it looked “cool” (they were dazzled by strong men and celebrities and “heroes”, like Christians today) and projected power; they gave up their freedom by acclamation, and God explained to Samuel that they had really rejected Him. God gave them what they wanted – a dashing man a head taller than the rest of them, with a shining spear, but reckless in his personal behavior and character – thank goodness God’s people have gotten beyond such short-sightedness and immaturity!
However, the age of citizen-influenced government rose again, this time amongst the pagan Greeks and Romans, since the Jews rejected it. It has been further refined, with setbacks and dormant ages, up to the period of the American experiment. This is relevant to Christians today, I believe, because we now live in a period of alleged “self government” – where we collectively choose ‘representatives” as our proxies to rule based upon our own agendas and preferences, and replace them if they don’t. Thus, we have in effect become our own leaders, which generations of Christians before us, under kings (even “Christian” ones) could not imagine. Therefore, since we are now reportedly have the right to rule ourselves, I believe we have each also earned the responsibilities the Bible has said are the responsibilities of earthly rulers. This includes an obligation to protect the poor and other vulnerable people, and make sure justice is available for all (yes, even “social justice”) – if we take God and His Word seriously. Heaven help those who take our Lord’s expectations lightly! We are in fact “our brother’s keeper”, and that crown of responsibility rests on each of our brows, and in particular toward the “strangers” within our gates, outside the gates wanting in, and the refugees from beyond (but within our reach) who are crying out for mercy from God.
As a Christian who was groomed to vote as a good Republican through my upbringing, which I did until the last few national elections (having voted third party), I understand how Christians were seduced by them with a veneer of righteousness and Christian virtue, which was backed by Christian leaders I used to trust, but led to make a priority not the unborn or other issues of Christian mercy, but rather tax cuts for big businesses and business handouts, and paying for the “warfare state” (and the windfall of profits and welfare for defense contractors) rather than for the poor and medically needy, or the refugee. A classic example is President Trump, who suckered people into a tax plan “for the middle class” which increased the standard deduction (which people who itemize for home mortgage or charitable gifts cannot use) while taking away their exemptions, and only giving temporary deductions, while making permanent the almost halving of business taxes, with the huge increase in the annual deficit and adding national debt to necessitate a further reduction to programs for the needy – all with Christian support. His first act as president – mere minutes after his inauguration – was to sign an executive order to eliminate the need for financial advisors paid for by individuals to act in their fiduciary interest, or disclose that their recommendations serve the best interests of the financial firms and their products rather than their paying client. I see Christians today primarily concerned with what they think is their own pocketbook (not necessarily a bad thing, to keep in check a gluttonous government budget spent on cronies and businesses rather than the needy), and in the end get fleeced by the far-savvier business scoundrels they put in office or advisory roles they greedily trusted to “get rich quick”, while further adding to the suffering of those less fortunate, which is not even part of the conversation. They are not worried about the people better off than them getting their money; they are only concerned about those worse off than them getting their money. Jesus of Nazareth, whom American Christians reportedly say they follow and heed His commands, had the following advice for them:
“‘Do not store up for yourselves treasures on earth, where moths and vermin destroy, and where thieves break in and steal. But store up for yourselves treasures in heaven, where moths and vermin do not destroy, and where thieves do not break in and steal. For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also…No one can serve two masters. Either you will hate the one and love the other, or you will be devoted to the one and despise the other. You cannot serve both God and money’. The Pharisees, who loved money, heard all this and were sneering at Jesus. He said to them, ‘You are the ones who justify yourselves in the eyes of others, but God knows your hearts. What people value highly is detestable in God’s sight’.” [Matt. 6:19-21, Luk 16:13-15 NIV]
Jesus made clear to the secular government official Pilate that His movement was not about seizing the “seven mountains of culture” or government, or overcoming those who think differently than them, or any rule here whatsoever, but rather laying the groundwork for a future kingdom, based in another sphere, that poses no necessary threat to secular powers in this age. He said,
“Jesus said, ‘My kingdom is not of this world. If it were, my servants would fight to prevent my arrest by the Jewish leaders. But now my kingdom is from another place’…the reason I was born and came into the world is to testify to the truth. Everyone on the side of truth listens to me.” [Jhn 18:36-37 NIV]
Sadly, most professing Christians today don’t listen to Him.
Paul understood this. He also understood that God’s people could not only fight physical “holy wars” to try to overcome secular governments (like the Zealots, or the Maccabeans before them), but even “culture wars” against their fellow citizens outside the church, as moral crusaders. He had to address this regarding sexual immorality inside the church, which many Christians tolerate or overlook today in their Christian leaders if they are charismatic enough. He writes:
“I wrote to you in my letter not to associate with sexually immoral people – not at all meaning the people of this world who are immoral, or the greedy and swindlers, or idolaters. In that case you would have to leave this world. But now I am writing to you that you must not associate with anyone who claims to be a brother or sister but is sexually immoral or greedy, an idolater or slanderer, a drunkard or swindler. Do not even eat with such people. What business is it of mine to judge those outside the church? Are you not to judge those inside? God will judge those outside. ‘Expel the wicked person from among you’.” [1Co 5:9-13 NIV]
The Christian “culture wars” are the exact opposite of Paul’s admonition.
Paul would remind us that we are citizens of another Kingdom, where our real interests lie, and with a Great Commission to be “fishers of men” and to demonstrate our love for our neighbors, and of which our necessary political participation is an element, while not certainly the main agenda, but geared towards an expression of love toward the downtrodden, and not the control of others. We are indeed “ambassadors” of a foreign nation, as Paul writes:
“For we know that if the earthly tent we live in is destroyed, we have a building from God, an eternal house in heaven, not built by human hands…Since, then, we know what it is to fear the Lord, we try to persuade others. What we are is plain to God, and I hope it is also plain to your conscience…For Christ’s love compels us, because we are convinced that one died for all, and therefore all died…So from now on we regard no one from a worldly point of view. Though we once regarded Christ in this way, we do so no longer. All this is from God, who reconciled us to himself through Christ and gave us the ministry of reconciliation: that God was reconciling the world to himself in Christ, not counting people’s sins against them. And he has committed to us the message of reconciliation. We are therefore Christ’s ambassadors, as though God were making his appeal through us. We implore you on Christ’s behalf: Be reconciled to God.” [2Co 5:1, 11, 14, 16, 18-20 NIV]
Does this sound like our Christian politically-active leaders today, and their front-burner agendas? It is an agenda with the world, which will always have a political component in any social interaction, based upon compelling love, gentle persuasion, lack of worldly judgment, and far-reaching forgiveness and reconciliation, in its emphasis, tone and overall spirit, as opposed to judgement and adversity, much less selfishness.
Paul set a good example for us American Christians. He was privileged to have Roman citizenship, as well as citizenship at Tarsus. He did not use his rights to feather his own bed for financial enrichment or other privileges, to oppress others, or change Rome for his own group’s agenda or betterment. He did use his legal rights to facilitate a heavenly agenda to preach the Gospel in Rome, and along the way, rather than die short of the goal in Jerusalem and the hands of Romans and Jews. His rights of citizenship were not a tool for his own personal use, but only to complete his Kingdom of Heaven assignment, which did not restrict (for the Golden Rule still applies) but only blessed others.
Paul gave one other similar admonition to “keep our eyes on the prize”, and also warning that there will be those around us who don’t “get it” (probably even some professing Christians in our circles, whose recent elected official choices may show that “their god is their stomachs” and embrace leaders who, with them, do “glory in their shame”):
“All of us, then, who are mature should take such a view of things. And if on some point you think differently, that too God will make clear to you. Only let us live up to what we have already attained. Join together in following my example, brothers and sisters, and just as you have us as a model, keep your eyes on those who live as we do. For, as I have often told you before and now tell you again even with tears, many live as enemies of the cross of Christ. Their destiny is destruction, their god is their stomach, and their glory is in their shame. Their mind is set on earthly things. But our citizenship is in heaven. And we eagerly await a Savior from there, the Lord Jesus Christ.” [Phl 3:15-20 NIV]
I will leave my thoughts on this topic at this, but thinking of being “ambassadors” of another kingdom, maybe we should consider Christ’s teachings of the Kingdom and the Sermon on the Mount, and the amplification of the Apostles, to love our enemies and be a neighbor to those of other faiths and cultures in need (like the Good Samaritan), and exhibiting mercy and forgiveness as “agents of reconciliation” to “rescue the perishing”, and eating with “sinners”, as our Christian “foreign policy” (also seen in our politics as well as personal behavior and interactions), while exhorting our fellow Christians to lives of love, purity, holiness, prayer, faithfulness, encouragement, wisdom, learning, and body ministry as our “domestic policy” of the Kingdom, devoid of outside political parties or ideologies (or evolved doctrines) and their influence, or any other Kingdom we should otherwise not owe any allegiance to.
Having said that, many Christians have spent uncountable years in innumerable sermons and heard Christian teaching, yet typically do things far counter in their public statements and political activity than what we just discussed. So what leads them to proudly take opinions and views demonstrably counter to the clear teachings of Christ? That will be covered in the next part of this series.