Hope in Newtown

Hope in Newtown

INNOCENCE LOST: Flowers and gifts were left at the makeshift memorial outside the high school in Newtown, Connecticut, the location of the interfaith vigil attended by President Obama following the mass shooting of 20 children and 6 adults at Sandy Hook Elementary School on Dec. 14. (Photo: Bill Shettle/Newscom)

In light of the recent tragic events in Newtown, our country has started asking questions. Could stricter gun control laws have prevented this and other tragedies? Has taking God out of school caused Him to go with the “hands off” approach, allowing evil acts to occur? What kind of impact do violent video games have on the psyche of young men and women? Is our nation appropriately dealing with issues of mental health? Where’s the national outrage when kids are killed on the south side of Chicago? All viable questions, but are we asking the right one?

How do we offer hope in a world that becomes increasingly hopeless? President Obama opened his speech in Newtown with a passage from the fourth chapter of Paul’s second letter to the church at Corinth:

“Scripture tells us ‘…do not lose heart. Though outwardly we are wasting away…inwardly we are being renewed day by day. For our light and momentary troubles are achieving for us an eternal glory that far outweighs them all. So we fix our eyes not on what is seen, but on what is unseen, since what is seen is temporary, but what is unseen is eternal. 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.’”

After looking at my Twitter and Facebook feed, one thing was for sure: His words touched a great number of people who tuned in to listen. The president offered words of comfort for a hurting nation. In my Berean zeal, however, I felt like something was missing — the object of our hope. I’m not here to argue the merits of whether or not America is a Christian nation, though increased pluralism tends to suggest otherwise. I do know what hope looks like, though. Hope isn’t some abstract concept. Hope is real; it’s tangible. Hope was wrongly convicted and sentenced to an agonizing death. Hope is found in the Person of Jesus Christ. In fact, that building from God, that eternal house Paul talked about in Scripture the president quotes is built on the chief cornerstone, Jesus Christ. As sermonic as President Obama’s speech sounded, I don’t expect politicians to preach in these instances. But when Scripture is quoted to bring hope, especially in this season, we need to take the opportunity to remind everyone of the object of our hope.

Mr. President, I respectfully submit that a few verses earlier in the text would have helped immensely:

“… knowing that he who raised the Lord Jesus will raise us also with Jesus and bring us with you into his presence” (2 Corinthians 4:14, ESV).

That’s where our true hope lies: in Jesus’ death, burial, and Resurrection. The Scriptural language the president used must be contextualized, or the text loses its meaning. Paul was writing to a people who had experienced similar hurts, heartaches, and pains. As a Gentile nation, other gods the Corinthians served offered little solace. But the small community of believers at Corinth could tell another story. Those hurts and pains paled in comparison to the glory that awaited them in Christ Jesus. They had a God who had experienced the same thing. And THAT’S what brings hope. THAT’S why I don’t lose heart in tragedies like this. Regulations are fine. Dialogue on the danger of video games is probably necessary. But we can’t lose sight of this simple, yet profound truth. Jesus Christ is our only hope. He’s the hope of glory. In a season of Advent (i.e. waiting), I echo the words of John as he closes the canon of Scripture — Come, Lord Jesus!

Left, Right, and Christ

Left, Right, and Christ

CIVIL DISCOURSE: Lisa Sharon Harper and D.C. Innes provide a model for constructive Christian dialogue across political divides.

Left, Right & Christ is a thoughtful examination of the intersection of evangelical faith and politics by two evangelicals who have spent their careers working amidst the tensions of that sometimes-crazy political space. In the book, coauthors Lisa Sharon Harper, a politically progressive Christian, and D.C. Innes, a politically conservative Christian, engage in a constructive dialogue about the issues that are defining the nature of political discourse in our nation today — healthcare, abortion, immigration, gay marriage, the environment. (Full disclosure: I helped research Lisa Sharon Harper’s portion of the book.) A couple months ago, Innes and Harper held a panel discussion and book signing with Jim Wallis of Sojourners and Richard Land of the Southern Baptist Convention’s Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission. Innes, an associate professor of politics at King’s College, offered a construal of Christian public engagement from the right; Harper, director of mobilizing at Sojourners, shared one from the left. Needless to say, it was a lively discussion. Having read the book and attended the launch event, two things merit mentioning here here.

The role of technology in disrupting consumption and employment

An audience member noted that technology plays an often-overlooked role in reconfiguring labor markets and purchasing patterns. For instance, the advent of automated teller machines — ATMs — marks an improvement in the access and availability of money for consumers. ATMs, however, reduce the need for the traditional function of tellers in local bank branches. As more banks adopted ATMs, consumer patterns shifted and the demand for a certain type of labor diminished.

Neither Innes nor Harper fully integrates this ongoing development — Austrian economist Joseph Schumpter calls it creative destruction — of technology in particular, and capitalism more generally, into their account of the State, the Market, and the Church. To their credit, though, both authors acknowledged the point once it was made. Technology is an existential issue as much as an instrumental one. Phrased differently, it not only alters what we do, but it also radically re-arranges our way of being in the world. I left the panel thinking about this question: What does it mean to be the Church in a world where technology is such a powerful force? To put it crudely, is a proximate cause in unemployment and underemployment from Wall Street to Main Street and our consumption of everything — from the news we read to the Facebook updates on our profiles — is mediated through technology? I’m still pondering this one and I encourage you to consider it as well.

The use of Scripture in political arguments

While reading the book and listening to their remarks, I noticed an interesting difference between the co-authors. Ms. Harper generally constructs her arguments from passages of the Old Testament. Her treatment of Genesis 1-3 distinctively accents the image of God doctrine and shalom theology. It is rather commonplace to hear Christians from the left invoke the Hebrew prophets or the Imago Dei as a resource for biblical claims about justice and human dignity. Harper’s unique turn within that conversation is to take Genesis — rather than say, Amos or Isaiah — as her starting point and then to deepen the appeal to the image of God doctrine by connecting it to shalom — the sense of wholeness and right relationships between people, between people and creation, and between people and God.

Mr. Innes, conversely, places the weight of his arguments in New Testament passages like Romans 13:1-7 and 2 Peter 2:13-17. His vision: God ordains the government to restrain human sin, punish evil, and praise the good. The last point is particularly important for the professor, who draws a distinction between a government that praises the good (i.e. distributing civic awards like the Presidential Medal of Freedom) and a public sector that attempts to provide goods such as housing, healthcare, and so on. Innes’ arguments — in the book and in person — conclude that a State with large public expenditures and direct service programs overreaches the biblical proscribed role for government.

At the event, Wallis and Innes held a brief but interesting exchange on regulation, Wall Street, and punishing evildoers. Wallis agreed with Innes that punishing evil and restraining sin is a biblical function of government. He then challenged Innes with a question like the following: “Why not apply the insight about punishing evil when it comes to Wall Street?” Innes did not offer a response, although in fairness to him, Wallis did not substantiate his provocative inquiry with a specific example. Nevertheless, given the high-profile conviction of Raj Rajaratnam for insider trading — and his eleven-year sentence, the longest ever issued for this type of offense — Wallis and Innes certainly stumbled upon a discussion worth having.

The panel discussion took place with a refreshing amount of charity amidst contrasting perspectives. Despite harboring significant and perhaps irreconcilable differences of political opinion, neither one made the argumentative move of questioning the other’s faith, audibly doubting the “biblical” nature of the opposing argument, or otherwise resorting to ad hominem attacks. Harper and Innes’ book, and their public dialogue, provides a helpful example for Christians from left to right. In a political environment that incessantly caricatures and stereotypes contrasting points of view, a steadfast refusal to bear false witness — and its corollary commitment, telling the truth as we see it — is a distinctive gift of conversational charity that Christians can bring to democratic discourse.

We’re All Outsiders

Person in Exile for Urban FaithAs Christians, we are exiles who follow an alien, undocumented, migrant Messiah. Shouldn’t we, then, have a more compassionate and unified voice in the immigration debate?

There’s a scene in the film Food, Inc. that reveals the hypocrisy at the heart of U.S. immigration policy: In Tar Heel, North Carolina, Hispanic workers at a Smithfield Foods packing plant are rounded up by ICE agents (Immigration and Customs Enforcement) in a pre-dawn raid. A politician running for office would narrate such a scene by saying that these men and women, while perhaps hard workers, are in the U.S. illegally and if the rule of law is going to mean anything in this country, they must be picked up and sent to a detention center where the legal process can run its course.

But the film tells the true story: After NAFTA caused cheap American corn to flood Mexican markets, putting even prosperous Mexican corn farmers out of business, many fled to the U.S., desperate for work to support their families. Many others were actively recruited by corporations like Smithfield to work dangerous jobs in American factories. Government raids, like the one depicted in the movie, are carried out in collusion with the senior management of companies like Smithfield to “send a message” (to Americans, to the undocumented) while never really interfering with the company’s production line or, more importantly, its bottom line.

The dominant narrative — the one about illegality, rule of law, blah, blah, blah — is persuasive because it provokes and exploits the one emotion that has driven American politics since 9/11: fear. We’re told by critics and commentators that Americans have never been so angry, that our public discourse has never been this strident and dangerously uncivil — all the red-faced name-calling, the ugly race-baiting, the shrill, snarky meanness.

But much of the anger — at least the real anger, not the feigned rage of opportunistic politicians — is symptomatic of Americans’ deep-seated xenophobia. This fear has been carefully cultivated since the 9/11 terrorist attacks. It was crucial in rallying the country to support two insupportable wars. As a political strategy it was brilliant; it worked so well that now many Americans fear their own duly-elected president. They hate him too, of course, and they’re mad as hell at him, but all that hate and rage start with an irrational anger that continues to be stoked shamelessly by that most misnamed of all political groups in a purportedly civil society: the Tea Party.

The anti-immigration bill signed into law recently in Arizona is an unsurprising outcome of this ongoing collective fear of outsiders. When I heard the news, I was reminded of a book published last year, Welcoming the Stranger: Justice, Compassion, and Truth in the Immigration Debate. Authors Matthew Soerens and Jenny Hwang deftly link legislation, work visas, border patrols, ICE raids, and green cards to the Hebrew scriptures’ insistence that “Israel’s very identity was tied to how they treated the foreign born” and to the truth that the New Testament’s “most notable refugee was Jesus himself.”

In a review of the book I noted that Soerens and Hwang challenge any reader who claims to follow Jesus to consider immigration through Scripture’s insistence that we see ourselves as a people in exile: sojourners in a foreign land who live not by claiming “our rights” over and against so-called outsiders, but solely by the mercy and grace of a generous, hospitable God.

We are exiles who follow an alien, undocumented, migrant Messiah. As Edgardo Colón-Emeric notes (in the sermon linked above), “Jesus did not have a valid birth certificate. Mother’s name: Mary; Father’s name: unknown. In fact, Jesus had no papers in his name, no title deed, no rental contract. Nothing. ‘Foxes have dens, and birds of the air have nests, but the Son of Man has nowhere to rest his head.’ ”

A phrase formerly associated with interrogators of the Third Reich — “let me see your papers” — will now enter the lexicon of law enforcement in Arizona. Jesus — in the guise of the brown-skinned “other” — will be asked for documentation he doesn’t have. And unless his followers practice the kind of perfect love that casts out all phobos (1 John 4:18), fear, on both sides of these encounters, will have won the day.

Jesus’ Health-Care Legislation

Jesus' Health-Care Legislation for Urban FaithOur culture’s current brand of political strife is nothing compared to the division and hostility that prevailed in the first century. Yet, despite opposition, the Great Physician boldly demonstrated what it means to welcome and care for “the least of these.”

Last month the United State House of Representatives voted to pass health-care reform, thus affording millions of medically uninsured Americans the opportunity to secure basic health-care as a civil right. This historic legislative act is an attempt for America to become a more civil society (with regard to “the sick and poor among us”) — similar to most other first world (and some third world nations) like Canada and parts of Western Europe. During my four-year stint in England to work on my doctorate at the University of Manchester, my family and I were under the National Health Care system (NHS) whereby every citizen and resident was assigned a general practitioner in the area. Quite a paradigm shift from what we’d known in the United States.

Despite the significance of such a major legislative passage in our nation, a partisan dispute continues. The reform measures were largely supported by Democrats, the uninsured, and sympathetic others. But Republicans and some among the privileged class argue that the legislation will bankrupt America in various ways. They also resent the fact that their tax dollars will be used to help pay for the coverage of less-privileged individuals in our society.

Contention over this legislative act has sparked volatile tension and a curious rash of narcissism: seemingly ordinary citizens (protesters) have reacted with a sense of barbarism, hurling racial slurs and other derogatory epithets at members of Congress. Reports of Congressman Emanuel Cleaver of Missouri being spat upon by angry protesters are now well known. Likewise, Congressmen John Lewis of Georgia and James Clyburn of South Carolina were heckled and called “nigger” as they passed protesters outside the House chambers.

It’s enough to make one recall the violent emotion and political chaos that set the scene for Jesus’ arrest and subsequent trial before Pilate:

Now the chief priests and the elders persuaded the crowds to ask for Barabbas and to have Jesus killed. The governor again said to them, “Which of the two do you want me to release for you?” And they said, “Barabbas.” Pilate said to them, “Then what should I do with Jesus who is called the Messiah?” All of them said, “Let him be crucified!” Then he asked, “Why, what evil has he done?” But they shouted all the more, “Let him be crucified!” So when Pilate saw that he could do nothing, but rather that a riot was beginning, he took some water and washed his hands before the crowd, saying, “I am innocent of this man’s blood; see to it yourselves.” Then the people as a whole answered, “His blood be on us and on our children!” So he released Barabbas for them; and after flogging Jesus, he handed him over to be crucified. Then the soldiers of the governor took Jesus into the governor’s headquarters, and they gathered the whole cohort around him. They stripped him and put a scarlet robe on him, and after twisting some thorns into a crown, they put it on his head. They put a reed in his right hand and knelt before him and mocked him, saying, “Hail, King of the Jews!” They spat on him, and took the reed and struck him on the head. (Matthew 27:20-30, NRSV)

Similar to modern America, the late Second Temple Judaic period (the period in which Jesus lived and ministered) was as diverse, volatile, and politically charged as our world today. Under Roman rule, heterogeneity with regard to philosophical thought and religious sentiments set the backdrop of first century Palestine. In Palestine, the Israelites maintained a sense of religious Judaic tradition. As an imperial province, new ideas were viewed with suspicion, especially if they challenged traditional thought and the status quo.

Although Judaism by no means was a unified monolith, certain fundamentals were foundational (the function of the Temple, observance of the Mosaic Law or Torah, embracing monotheism, and the expectation of a prophesied Messiah). As a result of tradition and the law, many in the society, especially the sick, were prohibited full inclusion in social-civil-religious life; this led to legal disenfranchisement and marginalization.

As recorded in the New Testament Gospels, Jesus both lived and functioned in this type society. Throughout the Gospels, he went about engaging and healing many who were sick. Jewish purification laws first outlined in the Pentateuch set social-civil-religious policy against persons considered impure: the leper, those with bodily discharge, the lame, and even the Gentiles. The acts of Jesus were contrary to the current policy. In Mark 5, Jesus interacted with a demon possessed man (who dwelled among corpses), was touched by a woman considered impure with bodily discharge, and touched the corpse of a young boy. In all three cases, Jesus enacted legislative health care (healing that went contrary to current policy), thus restoring these individuals back to full participation in the society.

As a result of his universal health-care plan, as well as his controversial declaration that he was the incarnate Son of God, Jesus was persecuted, spat upon, and mocked. James 5:14-16 sums up the kind of health-care plan that Jesus enacted:

Are any among you sick? They should call for the elders of the church and have them pray over them, anointing them with oil in the name of the Lord. The prayer of faith will save the sick, and the Lord will raise them up; and anyone who has committed sins will be forgiven. Therefore confess your sins to one another, and pray for one another, so that you may be healed. The prayer of the righteous is powerful and effective (NRSV).

Our newly passed health-care legislation is a good start and will likely help many who are in need. Nevertheless, it’s still an imperfect plan, the patchwork result of much political squabbling and strife. But the health-care plan of Jesus is something altogether different. It is comprehensive, unfailing, and truly universal.

Scripture in the Present Tense

Scripture in the Present Tense for Urban FaithAccording to Christian counselor and teacher Michael Emlet, reading the Bible “back to front” can help us better apply it to our lives today. In this excerpt from his new book, CrossTalk: Where Life & Scripture Meet, Emlet shows the importance of reading God’s Word in an active fashion. PLUS: Keep reading to find out how you can receive a FREE copy of CrossTalk.

The books of the Bible are meant to provoke a response in God’s people, whether it be worship, joy, conviction of sin, deeds of justice and mercy, praise, prayer, or concern for the lost. All Scripture invites a response to God.

When we read the Bible, we are not merely listening to a conversation God had with his people several thousand years ago, trying to extract some benefit for our own lives. We are a part of the same story line. Israel’s Messiah is our Messiah. The apostles’ Lord and Savior is our Lord and Savior. That’s why it’s critical to see the Bible as God’s unfolding story of salvation that centers on Jesus Christ.

If the Bible is one story with Jesus and his kingdom as the focal point, how should this impact the way we interpret and use Scripture in ministry? Here are some thoughts.

Back-to-Front, Front-to-Back

To interpret and apply the Bible wisely, we should develop the habit of reading Scripture “back to front” and “front to back.” What does it mean to read the Bible back to front? It means rereading any text (particularly Old Testament passages) in light of the end of the story — the coming of the kingdom in Jesus Christ.

I wrote portions of CrossTalk on the eve of the much-anticipated release of the final book of the Harry Potter series. I knew that when I finished that book, Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, the ending would forever change the way I read and understood the details of the earlier books. Sure enough, details that seemed so significant were no longer so once I knew the entire story. Details that had been easy to overlook now grew in their significance in light of the story’s end. “So that’s what it meant!” “So that’s what was really going on in that scene.”

We can have this back-to-front experience watching movies as well. Have you watched A Beautiful Mind, the story of mathematician and schizophrenic John Nash? I remember thinking early on in the movie, If I were John Nash, I would be paranoid, too, given all the stress and secrecy of his government intelligence job! Of course, we later come to learn that his hiring by the government, the code-breaking work he was doing, and even some of his friends (e.g., his college roommate) were fabrications of his mind. What seemed so real, even to the viewer, were actually hallucinations. The end of the story forced me to see earlier parts in a new light.

Similarly, knowing the end of the biblical story means we can never read the earlier parts in the same way. That’s certainly true for the way Jesus and the New Testament writers read and interpreted the (Old Testament) Scriptures. Knowing how the story ends, we ask, “What difference does the death and resurrection of Jesus make for how I understand this passage?” The death and resurrection of Jesus Christ is the climax of redemption initiated in the Old Testament and the sure foundation for the life of the newly formed church. The New Testament writers consider what the reality of the new creation (ushered in by Christ’s death and resurrection) should look like in the life of the church, even as they anticipate the ultimate end of the story, the return of Christ. So, whether we find ourselves in the Old Testament or New Testament, we expect to discover an organic connection to the person and work of Christ, with multifaceted implications for the lives of God’s people.

It’s also true that we must read the Bible front to back. This means we take seriously where a particular text falls in the historical outworking of the story for at least three reasons. The first reason has to do with the idea of the Bible as “practical theology,” introduced in the previous chapter. The Bible is, in fact, an evolving practical theology by God’s design. God reveals himself personally to his people in specific contexts over time. God shapes his Word to the evolving needs of his people. This prompts us to ask, “What does God reveal about himself in this book or passage that helps the recipients of his message?” How wonderful to realize that God does not reveal himself “generically” but in multifaceted and specific ways! Sitting with the details and historical context of a passage primes us for application as we observe God’s Word matched to specific human need. Further, it encourages me to ask how I might step into a particular story and see how God’s particularized grace connects to my situation.

Second, in a related way, reading front to back guards us from oversimplifying the plotline of Scripture. The coming of the kingdom in Jesus as the climax of the story doesn’t mean that you “shoehorn” him artificially into every text. In our zeal to acknowledge the redemptive-historical character of Scripture, we don’t want to insist that every passage is about Jesus explicitly. Rather the themes of each book, tailored to its historical context, contribute implicitly to our understanding of the kingdom. Each passage or book adds its distinctive voice to a swelling chorus that says, “New creation has come through King Jesus!”

Third, details matter. Think about an accident scene investigation. The end of the story is clear; the debris lies on the road to prove it. But the details of the story matter. One driver fumbling for his cell phone. Another driver checking on her kids in the rearview mirror. The overlooked turn signal. Exceeding the speed limit. All these details contribute to the total understanding of the story. These details lead somewhere and are important in and of themselves.

In reality, the ending of a story only makes sense in light of what has come before. The more captivated we are by the details, the more glorious will seem the story’s climax. The more puzzled we are by the details, the more clarity (and perhaps surprise!) comes with the climax. The more we understand the significance of the details, the more significant the climax.

Crockpot Redemption

If Jesus is the fulfillment of Israel’s story in his first and second comings, we need to pay attention to the ways the redemptive story builds up to Christ and then flows out from him through the Spirit. We will appreciate what God has done that much more. We should keep in mind that ours is a “crockpot redemption.” God slowly, patiently works out his redemptive purposes over thousands of years and only “when the time had fully come” did God send his Son (Gal. 4:4). We would do well to pay attention to this gradual unfolding of his character and work so that we might savor his amazing grace and mercy even more.

To summarize, we need to begin our interpretation by thinking first of what it meant for its original audience — reading front to back. We ask the question, “What might the first readers have understood this text to mean at that point in redemptive history? ” This reminds us that there is a progressiveness to God’s revelation and we cannot ignore the specific context into which God’s Word first comes.

Next, we reread the text in light of the end of the story — reading back to front. We do have to “go back to the future”! Ultimately, what is that future? The book of Revelation — the return of the King and the consummation of his kingdom — shows where history is going.

This “bidirectional” reading does justice to the unity and diversity of Scripture. We will listen for the particular voices and themes of individual books, but we also will pay attention to the ways they fit into the Bible as a whole and, more specifically, into the progressive plan of God’s redemption.

The Centrality of God’s Mission

Ultimately, seeing the Bible as a unified story of God’s redemptive mission helps us avoid introspective, individualistic application. The endpoint of redemption isn’t a redeemed and transformed individual life (your own or another’s) — it is the restoration of all things!

Have you caught that immense vision? Does it saturate your life and ministry? We can settle for too little in our use of Scripture, even when we genuinely look to the Scriptures to guide our lives.

If we view the gospel in shortsighted and individualistic terms — “Yeah, I know Jesus died for my sins, but what has he done for me lately? ” — we are more tempted to grow cynical and self-absorbed. But if we view this life as co-laboring with our King as “ministers of reconciliation” (2 Cor. 5:17-20), we are strengthened to press onward and outward, expressing our love for others in sacrificial ways.

Excerpted from CrossTalk: Where Life & Scripture Meet by Michael R. Emlet, published by New Growth Press.
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