Wednesday, October 25, 2006 

Christians and the Welfare State

Last night I picked up David Kuo's new book Tempting Faith: An Inside Story of Political Seduction. The media outlets have created a firestorm around this book and Kuo has been on every political T.V. and radio talk show from "Bill Bennett's Morning in America" to "The Colbert Report" (see video here). Much of what is being reported is in an effort to do two things: 1) Make George Bush look bad and 2) Make Christians look stupid - so naturally I felt I should pick the book up and browse through it. What I found in the introduction was not the media take, but an honest assessment of Christian political engagement by a serious Evangelical thinker. So I bought the book and hopefully will write a book review/response to it soon.

One thing that has happened in my mind as I reflected on the content of Kuo's book and on this discussion about "Red Letter" and "Black Letter" Christians is that I have continually been reminded of something I heard Tony Campolo say almost 10 years ago. He was talking about poverty and the need for the Church to be proactive in helping those who need it most. He said that for too long we have allowed the government to do what the Church ought to be doing, and that is to take care of "the least of these." We have installed a "welfare state" into our government - one that allows us to stop caring about actually engaging the poor and just allowing our tax dollars to do it for us.

And in that regard, what I am thinking is that both conservatives and liberals have allowed this to persist in our thinking and to undercut the work of the Church. Conservatives have decried the "welfare state" and asked for money through Bush's Faith-Based Initiatives so they can do it themselves, not realizing that money would hang like a carrot over their heads (and not considering if it was indeed ethical to take it at all). And liberals have allowed the "welfare state" to take on some sort of cult status as a fulfillment of the "Sermon on the Mount," thus helping liberal lawmakers to keep a strangle hold on disenfranchised voters, while pushing a morally corrupt social agenda. In this paradigm, both sides of the Christian aisle (so to speak) lose and neither is found to be fulfilling the "Great Commandment" or the "Great Commission."

Jesus did not call the Church to set up secular governments that would take care of the poor. He called the Church to feed the poor and take care of widows and orphans personally. And in doing so, to spread the message that "Christ is Lord," calling men everywhere to repent and believe. A "welfare state" ends up hindering this calling and hurting everyone in the process - the poor who are caught in the cycle of poverty, the low-income families who begin to despise those who use government money while they, themselves, struggle to make ends meet, the middle class who see many examples of corruption in the welfare system and begin to foster bitterness instead of developing compassion toward those less fortunate than themselves, and the rich who can buck their responsibilities to be good citizens because they know they are the ones footing the bill for the welfare state to exist.

This might sound harsh, but I think this is where the Church finds itself in the 21st century. What we must do as a Christian people is to stop letting the politicians do for us what we, ourselves, ought to be doing. For a better, more compassionate take on this, see an excellent article by Brent Thomas at his Colossians 3:16 site entitled, "Pure and Undefiled Politics?"

Sunday, October 22, 2006 

Are You a Red or Black Letter Christian?

Red Letter or Black Letter Christian? Which one are you? If you aren't sure, then you are in good company. "Red-Letter Christian" is a new distinction suggested between conservative and liberal Christians which has been proposed by guys like Tony Campolo and Jim Wallis. My favorite raving Baptist liberal Bruce Prescott picked up on this a while back and now once again has posted on this in response to a well-written critique by Mark Tooney, Director of the United Methodist committee at the Institute on Religion and Democracy in Washington, D.C. Prescott uses the term "Red Letter Christian" in conjuction with another new distinction "Black-Letter Christian" in hopes of showing how much more Christlike these "Red-Letter Christians" are. In Tooney's article, "Red Letter Leftists," which was published by FrontlineMagazine.com on October 18th (and which Prescott has failed to link to in his comments on it), Tooney alleges that "[f]rustrated by the conservative tendencies of most religiously active Americans, a group of liberal religious activists have started "Red Letter Christians" to espouse political themes of the left." So what are "Red Letter Christians"? According to their website, located at Jim Wallis's Sojourner's website, "The Red Letter Christians are a network of effective, progressive, Christian communicators urging an open, honest and public dialogue on issues of faith and politics." They go on to state the following:
We believe and seek to put in to action the red letter words in the Holy Bible spoken by Jesus. The goal of the group is to advance the message that our faith cannot be reduced to only two hot button social issues - abortion and homosexuality. Fighting poverty, caring for the environment, advancing peace, promoting strong families, and supporting a consistent ethic of life are all critical moral and biblical values.
Additionally, under the subtitle, "Why We Are Speaking Out" the group says:

For decades, leaders of the Religious Right have attempted to convince Christians and the American public that people of faith and strong moral values have only one option when it comes to voting. This narrow view continues to overshadow the majority of Christians in America whose faith motivates them to care deeply about a range of ethics and values. Our nation is hungry for an open dialogue on moral values and its role in the public square. God is not a Republican or a Democrat, and candidates should be measured by examining an array of social and economic issues.
Jim Wallis, editor-in-chief of Sojourners Magazine recounted in an article on his website entitled, "Red Letter Christians: Somehow, Jesus Has Survived Even the Church" how this term first came to be used:

“I’m a secular Jewish country music songwriter and disk jockey,” my interviewer on a Nashville radio station said. “But I love your stuff and have been following your book tour.” He told me he loved my “riffs” and would like to spend an evening together just to get some lines for new music. “You’re a songwriter’s dream.” Then he told me he believed we were starting a new movement, but noticed we hadn’t come up with a name for it yet. “I’ve got an idea for you,” he said. “I think you should call yourselves ‘The Red Letter Christians,’ for the red parts of the Bible that highlight the words of Jesus. I love the red letter stuff.”
Wallis goes on to say that,
The truth is that there are many people who like the “red letter stuff,” and many of them are not even Christians. Try it yourself sometime. Go out on the street or to your school or workplace and take a poll. Ask people what they think Jesus stood for. You’re likely to hear things like “stood with poor people,” or “compassionate,” or “loving,” or “he was for peace.”
In another article on the Sojourner's site, Tony Campolo weighs in with a commentary called, "What's a 'Red-Letter Christian'?" (originally published by BeliefNet on 2-27-06). In this article he further explains the motivation to refer to himself and others as "Red-Letter Christians":
In those red letters, He calls us away from the consumerist values that dominate contemporary American consciousness. He calls us to be merciful, which has strong implications for how we think about capital punishment. When Jesus tells us to love our enemies, he probably means we shouldn’t kill them. Most important, if we take Jesus seriously, we will realize that meeting the needs of the poor is a primary responsibility for His followers.
Moving on to "Black Letter Christians", Bruce Prescott says regarding them that they

. . . believe that the words of Jesus are too liberal and utopian for life in the real world. While claiming allegiance to biblical authority, in practice they deny any temporal authority for the words of Jesus. They emphasize the values of the neo-conservative police state -- pre-emptive strike defense, unregulated capitalism, social darwinism and Christian nationalism.
I find that these sort of distinctions only blur the debate that should be the focal point of discussion between moderate, liberal, and conservative Christians - and that is the authority of the Bible. What we have seen throughout history is that the axis upon which all of Christianity turns is the Biblical witness. When Christians have been made to emphasize one aspect of the Biblical record to the exclusion of another, then the Gospel itself has been compromised. So the question remains, "Which group is de-emphasizing certain parts of the Biblical text - 'Red Letter Christians' or 'Black Letter Christians'?" Bruce Prescott seems to indicate that it is the "Black Letter Christians" who are doing so, but since he seems to have invented the distinction, then the burden of proof rests on him to actually prove that what these Christians are doing is ignoring the words of Jesus to act in certain ways politically (which is a whole 'nother topic, given that Prescott blurs the lines here between political action and living out a Biblical worldview). What we can gather from Prescott's article is that it is certain that "Red Letter Christians" do ignore or de-emphasize a portion of the Biblical record in favor of another portion. Notice his words here:
While recognizing the authority of the entire Bible, "Red Letter" Christians believe that the words of Jesus should have precedence when weighing biblical values. They emphasize the values of peace, justice, equality and the common good. They are concerned about poverty, global warming, human rights, and health care.
Ignoring the fact that Jesus never spoke on global warming or heath care (and I say that not because I believe that to be a legitimate critique of Prescott's position, but because I find it a bit interesting given that Prescott must go outside the "Red Letters" to find support for such a position Biblically), what Prescott has done here is to openly admit that he and others who consider themselves "Red Letter Christians" actually do place an emphasis on certain passages. What we have seen in history is that this generally results in causing those who hold this type of view to do so to the detriment and exclusion of other relevant and authoritative Scripture passages (from early on certain figures like the Docetics, the Gnostics, and men like Arius and particularly Marcion, whose opposition to the Old Testament was starkly refuted by Tertullian, flesh out this tendency).

Additionally, what I think is happening here is exactly what began transpiring in the Southern Baptist Convention many years ago and eventually was brought to a head during the Conservative Resurgence (*note: this comment is not meant to endorse all the actions that took place during that time period in SBC life, but merely to point out that this sort of debate regarding the authority of Scripture provided a spark that resulted in the the conservative, moderate, and liberal in-fighting during those years). And so over the next week or so I hope to publish an article or two that deals with the idea of whether certain points of Scripture ought to be emphasized above other parts and on whether or not "Black Letter Christians" do in fact de-emphasize the words of Jesus, as Prescott has charged. Meanwhile I welcome your thoughts about the validity of such a distinction.

Wednesday, October 04, 2006 

Guns and The Amish School Shooting

I am tired of not writing. I have spent plenty of time away from my blog. I needed to get some perspective, be challenged, and consider writing some more relevant pieces than I had been previously. Hopefully, my blog will be marked with a tone that is both challenging and accepting and I really desire that those with whom I have intellectually sparred over the course of the past couple of months will visit and engage me as I have them. So with that, let me address a subject that I am tired of hearing about over the last couple of days . . . GUN CONTROL.

Before I begin, let me clearly state that I personally don't own a gun. I never have and I probably never will (except maybe my father's 9mm police service pistol that will never be shot nor loaded -- it still has the protective orange clip in it, which will remain there). I am not a big fan of guns and I have never shot one. I would go hunting, except I don't own land and no one has ever invited me, but I don't think I would keep a gun in the house even then. On a trip to Toronto I was impressed at how few gun deaths that city has had because the nation of Canada is generally handgun free. And I have always been in favor of legislation that does not violate the 2nd Amendment, but does stop criminals from obtaining guns.

Having said all that, let me clearly state that I am tired of all the blogs and editorials talking about gun control in the wake of the Amish school shooting in Pennsylvania. The gunman, Charles Carl Roberts IV, obtained all of his guns legally and to my knowledge no legislation has ever been introduced that would have denied him access to any of the weapons he brought to the school that day. Many people would like to blame the NRA or the Republican Party for voting down potential laws that would have stopped such an act, but the truth is NO ONE has tried to enact legislation that would have even curbed the possibility of such an action one bit. If these people want to blame someone they are going to have to settle with writing commentaries denouncing the Founding Fathers who inserted into the Constitution the Second Amendment.

Now, does that mean I don't support legislation like the Brady Bill, which went into effect in 1994? Of course not! As I said above, I fully support government action that keeps guns out of the hands of criminals and away from children. But while the Brady Bill probably did help to curb some violence, it was powerless to stop Charles Carl Roberts IV from entering into a school in Pennsylvania and using his weapons to viciously kill children. And I believe those who are bringing this subject up right now ought to be honest about that. Instead of harping about how bad the NRA is or how much the Republican party is contributing to violence, why not talk about the real source of evil in the this situation - SIN.

The sinful condition, brought about at the Fall, is what motivates men to act in evil ways. In these last days we have seen an increase visually in what has always been present in the heart of man. Nothing man-enacted will curb violence. The only thing that will stop violence is a repentance of sin and a turning toward the one and only Savior, Jesus Christ. The one thing that I have heard over and over again during the televised coverage of this massacre that we can all rejoice in is the attitudes and actions of the Amish people during this difficult time. The humility and Christlike grace that these people have shown in the midst of tragedy is compelling and glorifying to God. Never has the reality of the peace that Christ brings so dominated the news than in the last few days. And that is what I would like to see more Christian bloggers - left and right speaking out about. Let's talk about the reality of sin and the forgiveness extended to us by our Heavenly Father, not about legislation that will never change the impact of either of those two.

About me

Paul was not interested merely in the ethical principles of religion or of ethics. On the contrary, he was interested in the redeeming work of Christ and its effect upon us. His primary interest was in Christian doctrine, and Christian doctrine not merely in its presuppositions but at its centre. -- J. Greshem Machen.

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