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Friday, February 17, 2017

People, Not Issues


What happens to individuals after issues are won and lost in the political arena? For instance: when immigration bans are enacted, then put on hold, and then finally settled (Supreme Court?), what happens to the people affected by a ban or lack of a ban?
What do you mean? Either they can come into the country or they can’t.
And then what?
What do you mean, “And then what?” It’ll be over. It’s settled.
For most people, it will be over. The “issue” of refugees being received in this country will, more or less, be settled. The fighting, fundraising, protesting, and legal challenges will be over. There will be new issues to dispute. But… what happens to the refugees? What will happen to the men, women, and children who arrive in our cities? What’s happening to the refugees who are already in our cities? Do you know?

It would be unthinkable to actually receive refugees into our homes, right? Conservatives love to throw this challenge at progressives. “If you want them here so badly, why don’t you take them into your house?!” Conservatives, not wanting the refugees to be here in the first place, would never do such a thing themselves but they raise an interesting question.

A “video prankster,” Joey Salads, recently showed up at Los Angeles International Airport to conduct a social experiment on those who were protesting President Trump’s immigration and refugee bans. Carrying a clipboard and wearing a “Feel the Bern” t-shirt, Salads asks the protesters if they’d be willing to offer shelter to the refugees. He finally finds one protester who’s kind of interested:
“I’m very interested in helping,” one guy answers. “I’m a little apprehensive, and I also have a female roommate who’s, like, a very nervous girl … but I’m very interested.”
“How many refugees will you be willing to hold?” Salads asks him.
The guy says he has only a couch to spare.
When Salads tells him that would be enough — in addition to providing “food and water” — the guy wonders how long he’d have to keep that up.
“Until legislation passes,” Salads replies.
“I don’t know that I could commit to that,” the guy answers.
Of course, this is the result we’d expect. When most Americans say, “Something ought to be done,” we don’t mean us personally. We mean a law should be passed. The government ought to do something. Or a charitable organization. Somebody. Not me.

Conservatives do the same thing. Doing something about abortion means voting for pro-life candidates and maybe giving a few dollars when the representative from the pro-life women’s clinic shows up to speak on Sanctity of Life Sunday.
Abortion should be illegal.
But she doesn’t want the baby. She can’t take care of a baby right now.
Well, put it up for adoption. 
So, you’ll adopt the baby?
What? No, not me. Someone.
The easiest thing we can do about an issue is keyboard activism: let ‘er rip on the internet. Next easiest is voting. You actually have to drive to your polling place for that. But that’s typically where our efforts stop.

As we update our Facebook statuses, Tweet, or even make the effort to show up at a protest, we need to be reminded that the reason “issues” are important is because flesh and blood people are behind these issues. The people remain after laws are passed and bans are enacted or lifted.

People are precious. People are more important than issues.
Then God said, “Let us make humankind after our image, after our likeness, so they may rule over the fish of the sea and the birds of the air, over the cattle, and over all the earth, and over all the creatures that move on the earth.” God created humankind in his own image, in the image of God he created them, male and female he created them. (Genesis 1:26-27)
Humans are created in the image of God. Therefore, people enjoy inherent worth and dignity beyond that of any other created thing. Even with this reminder and re-affirmation, there is still the temptation to allow “people” to remain a nameless, faceless, fuzzy concept. Sort like doing something “for the children.” We have to push ourselves toward another degree of intimacy. People must become neighbors.
Now when the Pharisees heard that he had silenced the Sadducees, they assembled together. And one of them, an expert in religious law, asked him [Jesus] a question to test him: “Teacher, which commandment in the law is the greatest?”  Jesus  said to him, “‘Love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul, and with all your mind.’ This is the first and greatest  commandment. The second is like it: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’ All the law and the prophets depend on these two commandments.” (Matthew 22:34-40)
But who is my neighbor? I’m glad you asked. A young lawyer once asked this of Jesus. Stick with me; their discussion bears repeating in full:
And behold, a lawyer stood up to put him to the test, saying, “Teacher, what shall I do to inherit eternal life?” He said to him, “What is written in the Law? How do you read it?” And he answered, “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your strength and with all your mind, and your neighbor as yourself.” And he said to him, “You have answered correctly; do this, and you will live.”
But he, desiring to justify himself, said to Jesus, “And who is my neighbor?” Jesus replied, “A man was going down from Jerusalem to Jericho, and he fell among robbers, who stripped him and beat him and departed, leaving him half dead. Now by chance a priest was going down that road, and when he saw him he passed by on the other side. So likewise a Levite, when he came to the place and saw him, passed by on the other side. But a Samaritan, as he journeyed, came to where he was, and when he saw him, he had compassion. He went to him and bound up his wounds, pouring on oil and wine. Then he set him on his own animal and brought him to an inn and took care of him. And the next day he took out two denarii and gave them to the innkeeper, saying, ‘Take care of him, and whatever more you spend, I will repay you when I come back.’ Which of these three, do you think, proved to be a neighbor to the man who fell among the robbers?” He said, “The one who showed him mercy.” And Jesus said to him, “You go, and do likewise.” (Luke 10:25-37)
A neighbor has compassion. Not just the emotional feeling of compassion but the act of compassion. How? By showing mercy. A neighbor shows mercy by being willing to interrupt the normal routine of their day-to-day lives for the sake of someone else, particularly those in need. A neighbor gives their time (he saw him and he went to him), their practical resources (he bound his wounds, he set him on his own animal), and their money (he took out two denarii and a running tab).

Christians are to follow Christ. We follow his teachings and commands and his example. Jesus said, “You go, and do likewise.” He did not say, “Pass a law.” We follow him whether Caesar acts or doesn’t act. Caesar’s gonna do what Caesar’s gonna do. We follow Christ whether the President is Democrat or Republican (or Libertarian?!). We don’t have to wait for laws to be passed or bans to be lifted.

This is a message I had to preach to myself. I watched as President Trump enacted a 90-day ban on people entering the country from seven countries, a 120-day ban on all refugees, and an indefinite ban on refugees from Syria. I continued to watch as protesters arrived at airports and judges began to weigh in. I thought to myself, “I don’t know how this is all going to turn out, but I know there’s got to be refugees in my city right now.”

I just recently moved back to Oklahoma City so I began to familiarize myself with what the Church was already doing here. Of course, Catholic Charities has a very active and wide-ranging operation. Much credit to them. However, I am not Catholic so I kept searching to see if anything else was going on. My local church is affiliated with the 405 Center (“connecting the people of our city together, for the good of the needs of the people in our city”). I signed up for 405 Center training so my family and I can be better equipped to serve. I learned about The Common, a program of The Spero Project (“mobilizing the Church on behalf of international refugees who have become our neighbors in Oklahoma City”). I’m going to attend one of their upcoming sessions to learn more about the OKC refugee community and how their network operates. I’ll also be joining El Camino del Immigrante (“a prayer pilgrimage in solidarity with immigrants and refugees who are suffering in our community and around the world”) on March 4th. Come join us if you live near Oklahoma City!

However things turn out politically, I can act now and so can you. Chances are there is ministry already taking place in your city that you can join. If not, talk to your church elders. Begin to pray. Perhaps you are the one to spearhead a new effort.

For those of us who are Christians and libertarians, it is imperative that we act. Why? Libertarians are the ones who are always saying that the State shouldn’t be involved in just about everything. What if we actually got what we wanted? Would the Church be ready to step up? Would you? More importantly, it shouldn’t really matter what the State does or does not do. All the law and prophets hang on the Bride of Christ loving the Lord our God with all our heart, soul, and mind and loving our neighbors as ourselves. Let’s be good neighbors and care about people more than we care about issues. We don’t have to wait. Regardless of what Caesar does, let the Church be the Church.

Jeff Wright, Jr. is a Chaplain in a "city of lost souls" and holds a Master of Theology (ThM) from Dallas Theological Seminary. His other areas of interest include the kingdom of God, American evangelicalism, the ministry of the local church, obstacle course racing, and all things Star Wars. He blogs at JeffWrightJr.com and the Libertarian Christian Institute. You can also find him @jeffwrightjr.

Monday, December 19, 2016

The Prophetic Voice of Libertarian Christians

The election of Donald J. Trump as the 45th President of the United States will be a catalyst for various sorts of changes in America. One political adjustment is already occurring. This can be seen in the millions of Americans who opposed specific actions and policies of Barack Obama and the Democrats. Now that Trump and the Republicans have control of both the White House and Congress, many of those actions and policies will begin to be applauded by these same people. Alternatively, other Americans who approved of Obama’s agenda will now begin to oppose some of these agenda items once Republicans claim them as their own. We, as libertarian Christians, must be on guard to avoid this trap and remain principled no matter who controls the State.

Some Christians are said to be speaking “prophetically” when they offer opinions contrary to the prevailing views of the political party currently in power. I say “some Christians” because the complimentary label “prophetic” is typically reserved for members of the Christian left when they are denouncing Republicans and conservatism. Jim Wallis of Sojourners is one typical example. In an ad for a speaking event earlier this year, Wallis was referred to as “One of America’s Greatest Prophetic Voices.” Acting and speaking “prophetically,” however, is best seen as a non-partisan, equal opportunity affair. When someone is said to have a prophetic voice it means, simply speaking, they are consistently willing to clearly speak truth to power no matter who is in power and despite the consequences.

Jim Wallis used his prophetic voice during the Bush administration to speak against the war in Iraq, American imperialism, torture, and the “money changers of the temples of Wall Street” among other things. However, Jim curiously came down with a case of prophetic laryngitis during the years 2008-2016. I wonder why. Coincidentally, these just so happen to be the years Barack Obama served as President.

This silence was emblematic of the left as a whole. Gone were the concerns over the ever-growing surveillance state, the exponential expansion of drone warfare, and imperialistic ambitions abroad. No more protests against the wars in the Middle East. No more calls for the closure of Guantanamo Bay prison.

As it turned out, prophetic voices were needed more than ever during the Obama administration. As Gene Healy of the Cato Institute put it in April of this year, “By the time Obama hit the dais at Oslo to accept the Nobel Peace Prize in 2009, our 44th president had already launched more drone strikes than the 43rd carried out during two full terms. Since then, he’s launched two undeclared wars, and—as Obama bragged in a speech last year defending the Iran deal—bombed no fewer than seven countries.” Healy adds, “instead of ‘breaking the war mentality,’ Obama has institutionalized it.” Many on the Christian left were content to either ignore or give outright sanction to what they once condemned in order to protect one of their own. The prophetic voice became a rubber stamp.

The prophetic voice of the Christian right was tested prior to the 2016 election. “Never Trumpers” came down with a strange case of conscience during and after the primaries. By and large, these were individuals who had a long track record of supporting the least conservative, most “establishment” GOP candidates for President. When most conservatives were saying “anyone but McCain” and “anyone but Romney,” future Never Trumpers were telling everyone to get in line. They ridiculed fellow conservatives for considering a third party candidate or simply not voting.

Then in 2016 when establishment candidates, Jeb Bush followed by Marco Rubio, were unable to secure the nomination, the Never Trumpers all of a sudden became very interested in writing in protest votes, not voting, or supporting an independent candidate, former CIA agent Evan McMullin. Falling in line behind the nominee was not an option now that roles were reversed. Never Trumpers even went so far as to begin referring to “the Religious Right” as if they were not a part of the Religious Right themselves. This epithet was now reserved only for the evangelical supporters of Donald Trump. However disingenuously it may have begun, the Never Trump movement may perhaps represent the beginning of a new willingness among some conservative Christians to stand up to the Republican Party when it contradicts their deeply-held beliefs. Will they begin to represent a prophetic voice during the Trump administration?

Now that Trump is headed to the White House, conservatives are already showing a willingness to change their tune as the left did under Obama. Donald Trump is being widely applauded for convincing Carrier Corp. to keep over 1,000 jobs in America rather than sending them to Mexico. Trump utilized his “art of the deal” skills to pledge a $7 million tax break to Carrier. Success! He’s already making America great again! But just a few short years ago conservatives were blasting President Obama for “picking winners and losers” by extending millions of dollars worth of federal loan guarantees to companies including Solyndra and Fisker Automotive.

Obama considered these loans “investments” but critics such as House Speaker Paul Ryan complained, “Picking winners and losers in the economy through spending, through tax breaks, through regulations does not work.” In one of his presidential debates with Obama, Mitt Romney quipped, “You don’t just pick the winners and losers, you pick the losers!” Obama wasn’t supposed to interfere, he was supposed to let the market work. Now, rather than reducing taxes for all businesses (which may soon be around the corner) Trump has given a tax break to one specific company. He picked a winner. This is what Republicans used to call “crony capitalism” during the Obama administration. I guess the market needs help now and then just so long as a Republican is in charge.

What might a prophetic voice look like moving forward? For the Christian left, it’s now safe to rejoin the anti-war effort. Or is it? Trump has indicated a desire to be far less interventionist than his predecessors. If this is the case, Democrats may play the foil and embrace a more hawkish agenda. Even if the party most sympathetic to their views presses for the expansion of the war state, progressive Christians ought to refuse to play along. They can regain their voice rather than remaining silent as they did during the Obama years even if it means undermining the Democrat Party. On the other hand, if neo-conservatives have their way and are able to convince Trump to continue foreign interventions, regime changes, drone warfare, and worldwide arms sales, the peace movement could enjoy resurgence.

Conservative Christians face a great challenge. The temptation to grow silent will become strong as Republicans now control the White House, Congress, possibly the Supreme Court, and an ever-growing number of state governments. Many of the criticisms against George W. Bush went away during the Obama administration even when Obama continued or even expanded the same policies. Will conservatives do the same thing now that (arguably) one of their own is in charge? If it was wrong for Obama, it ought to be wrong for Trump.

At the time of this writing, the New York Times has just published an op-ed from the NeverTrumper’s candidate, Evan McMullin, entitled, “Trump’s Threat to the Constitution.” McMullin warns, “We need a new era of civic engagement that will reawaken us to the cause of liberty and equality. That engagement must extend to ensuring that our elected representatives uphold the Constitution, in deed and discourse — even if doing so puts them at odds with their party. We cannot allow Mr. Trump to normalize the idea that he is the ultimate arbiter of our rights.” Agreed! Will “upholding the Constitution” now include repealing unconstitutional mass surveillance programs and police state powers, reversing the trend of perpetual (undeclared) war, and an unending list of property rights violations? Donald Trump is not the arbiter of our rights but neither is Evan McMullin, Paul Ryan, or whoever the next favorite of conservatives turns out to be.

Of course, the best thing progressive and conservative Christians can both do is reconsider their ways and take a long, hard look at the most consistent expression of Christian political thought!
So, what about libertarian Christians? Some libertarians refuse to vote on principle, others voted for the Libertarian Party candidate but privately breathed a sigh of relief when Hillary Clinton lost, and others would have gladly had Hillary forced upon us rather than Trump. The message of liberty ought to remain consistent regardless of who wins and loses elections. We continue to renounce aggression and coercion. We continue to uphold the value of each individual made in the image of God and peaceful interactions with our neighbors. We continue to embrace persuasion and education, education, education. Moving forward, we can renew our efforts to join God in what he is doing to build his kingdom regardless of what the State does.

On a practical note, libertarian Christians can best express a prophetic voice by getting our hands dirty in kingdom mission. As theologian Scot McKnight puts it in his wonderful book, Kingdom Conspiracy, “At the very heart of kingdom mission are kingdom people, the church of King Jesus. In one short expression, then, kingdom mission is first and foremost church mission.” Yes, church mission. When is the last time we sought to “do something” about the world’s problems we like to talk so much about as an expression of the love of our local church? What if the time, attention, passion, angst, frustration, hope, volunteering, and maybe even money we devoted to the presidential election and “politics” as a whole this past year were dedicated to the politics of kingdom mission as and through our local churches?

Libertarian Christians are good at talking about the superiority of the kingdom of God over the State and the temporal kingdoms of humankind. Do we do anything about this truth? In an interview about his above-mentioned book, McKnight declares, “God’s mission is the church, that is, God’s mission is the Body of Christ, that is, God’s mission is to rule in Christ over those who submit to Christ’s rule. Those who submit to that rule are kingdom people, that is, church people. God’s mission is the church.” The most prophetic voice we could express is living and loving as the church in the world. If we can’t begin to live this out in the tangible context of our local churches, how can we expect to speak prophetically in the ethereal context of “the world”? My encouragement for us as libertarian Christians in light of this last election, or any election, or if there were no elections, is to creatively and constructively devote ourselves in practical ways to our King’s mission together with his kingdom people, the church.

Jeff Wright, Jr. is a Chaplain in a "city of lost souls" and holds a Master of Theology (ThM) from Dallas Theological Seminary. His other areas of interest include the kingdom of God, American evangelicalism, the ministry of the local church, obstacle course racing, and all things Star Wars. He blogs at JeffWrightJr.com and the Libertarian Christian Institute. You can also find him @jeffwrightjr.

Friday, October 21, 2016

“We” Don’t Know Who “We” Are

I recently attended our city council’s monthly public meeting. My daughter needed to sit in and take notes for a school assignment so I went with her. The meeting was well-attended, no doubt, due to this project. A local Boy Scout troop opened the meeting with a presentation of the colors and the Pledge of Allegiance. Then a local pastor came forward and prayed an invocation. It was standard fare but I took notice of how he concluded his prayer with, “And bless our efforts here in this meeting tonight.”

“Our efforts”? The pastor wasn’t trying to make a theological point with his prayer. By “our” he may have innocuously meant his fellow residents in the community. The “efforts” at hand this night, however, was the business of the city government. Tweaking a zoning issue here, approving a municipal works project there. Mundane stuff, for sure, but this was local government business.
This pastor’s prayer is a small-scale representation of a widespread and significant problem for the church in America: “we” don’t know who “we” are. When a pastor steps forward to offer prayers on behalf of an assembled group of people and refers to this gathering as “we,” what is the common denominator that makes us “we”? What is our identity? Christians have become too comfortable using “we” to primarily mean America. This confusion becomes especially apparent when the question becomes, “What are we going to do about ________?”

Professor Lee C. Camp raises this issue of identity in his book Mere Discipleship. When asked if our fundamental identity is that of citizens of the nation-state or citizens of the kingdom of God, most Christians would strongly affirm that our primary allegiance is to the kingdom of God. However, as Professor Camp explains:
Our debates often reveal that the fundamental identity, the primary lens through which we must make decisions about how to act in our world, is that of the nation-state. One might find ample evidence by simply examining the questions we often ask: “What should we do about terrorism?” The we in that question is most often, one may safely assume, the United States.
Camp goes on to offer other examples of challenges “we” need to do something about and adds, “And so the questions go, always assuming that the all-important we is the nation-state.” At this point the reader may be thinking, “Yeah, so? Of course it’s the government that needs to do something about terrorism.” Many other examples could be used: poverty, racial injustice, immigration, abortion. The common assumption goes unchallenged: these are matters for our elected officials to sort out.

Why don’t we consider the church when we ask these questions? Turning again to Camp, “What might happen if we took such questions seriously from a biblical viewpoint? For instance, what should we – as the body of Christ – do about homelessness…What should we who bear the name of Jesus do about inner-city poverty and the plight of single mothers? What should followers of The Way do about abortion? Does the word of God incarnate in Jesus Christ not have something to say to the injustices and oppression of our world? Or are the people of God simply to accept the claim that the only appropriate response to injustice is the ethic of nations, the ethic of power checking power?”

Followers of Christ relegate responsibility to the state because we have uncritically accepted the notion that “religion” is a private, individual matter merely concerned with issues of the interior soul. Like fish oblivious to the existence of water, we aren’t even aware of another way to perceive of faith. Politicians are more than happy to perpetuate this notion. When politicians speak of religious liberty (the verbiage has now subtlety shifted to “freedom of worship”), they mean the freedom to worship as you see fit within the confines of your church/house of worship. Therefore the state thinks things like: How could abortion or the contraceptive provisions of Obamacare violate the religious liberty of a business owner?! They’re still free to worship as they see fit at their church but this has nothing to do with how you run your business! We’ll let you do what you want in your church (for now), just keep it private.

“This ‘privatization of religion,’ this move to make religion a ‘private’ matter, results in a profound change of thought: when we ask the ‘what are we going to do about…’ question, we of course assume that the we is the nation or government, because we have long been trained to think of the church as having no social or political significance,” writes Camp. I would add the church has no social or political significance regarding taking responsibility for direct action. Christians still think they have political significance, of course, but this significance is merely that of a pressure group hoping to nudge the state in the right direction. Conservative and progressive Christians have different aims but they both share the notion that positive social change comes primarily by state power. Our task is simply to get the right people in charge of the state. Lost in all of this is the proper calling of the disciple of Jesus the Christ. Camp: “Consequently, discipleship – defined as taking seriously the way of Christ in all our affairs and concerns – gets shelved as irrelevant to the real concerns of the world.”

One of the reasons the church has allowed itself to be maneuvered into this position is because we have accepted the false notion that the life and teachings of Jesus have nothing to say to societal and political matters. The ethics of Jesus are beautiful and useful for the inner dimensions of individuals but nothing more, or so the theory goes. This assumption ought to be rejected outright if we acknowledge Jesus as “King,” “Lord,” and “Son of God” in any meaningful way. The question is not, “Is Jesus political?” but “How is he, and therefore his disciples, political?” [It is not my intention to prove this assertion in this brief post. See John Howard Yoder’s The Politics of Jesus for a primer on the political nature of Jesus and Christian discipleship].

What about that poor pastor and his invocation at the city council meeting? If disciples of Jesus use “we” in reference to the nation-state (including even its most local levels of government, as harmless as it may seem) then we are allowing the name of Christ be used to baptize and bless the actions of the state. We give the appearance that the work of the state is sacred. We give support to the notion that the nation-state is the primary vehicle for societal change. We give sanction to the opinion that the church ought to give up “political” work in order to focus upon the interior spiritual life of individuals. But this is not who “we” are. Jesus Christ does have something to say to the injustices and oppression of our world and so should those who claim to follow him.

Constantly focuses on getting the “right” people into position of power is not the answer. Jesus told his disciples, “The kings of the Gentiles exercise lordship over them, and those in authority over them are called benefactors. But not so with you. Rather, let the greatest among you become as the youngest, and the leader as one who serves…I am among you as the one who serves” [Luke 22:25-27]. Servanthood is the church’s alternative way of “being political” in the world (as opposed to, say, trying to get others to vote for our favorite candidate to exercise lordship over society). If “we” is to mean “disciples of Jesus Christ” than we must seek to follow him and act of his body as we engage society.

Jeff Wright, Jr. is a Chaplain in a "city of lost souls" and holds a Master of Theology (ThM) from Dallas Theological Seminary. His other areas of interest include the kingdom of God, American evangelicalism, the ministry of the local church, obstacle course racing, and all things Star Wars. He blogs at JeffWrightJr.com and the Libertarian Christian Institute. You can also find him @jeffwrightjr.