The Better Angels of our Nature

Dear Covenant Kin,

First, I am very excited to say that this Sunday is the last Sunday of our 60th anniversary year, and we will be honored to have Jan Butin preaching for us. Also, please arrive a little before worship so that we can seal the time capsule into the wall together, and bring a dish to share for the potluck with Jan afterwards (let’s not seal those in the wall though).

 

Second, Jan picked a very interesting piece of scripture on so many levels for this Sunday! Given the world news of the last week, I think that Joshua 24 is especially interesting, given that it is about a refugee people establishing a homeland in what would become the land of Israel.

 

I am sure that I am not the first to tell you just how complicated the refugee issue is. On the one hand, there are real and serious concerns about national security at play here. Though there are extensive vetting processes for these refugees, there is the valid question of how do you do a background check in a war torn country that probably isn’t primarily concerned with keeping good records. Furthermore, if we can’t even work out immigration issues without the potential threat of violence, what makes us think it will be any easier to resolve these issues now.

 

On the other hand, there are, as Lincoln put it, “The better angels of our nature,” that claim our hearts of compassion and our value for freedom for all peoples. We are good citizens who truly do desire to spread democracy and freedom and care for the oppressed.

 

Putting all of those politics aside for a moment, let’s talk Bible and theology. More than 36 times in the Hebrew Bible, God reminds the Israelites to care for the immigrant/refugee/alien among them, because they were once refugees from the land of Egypt. There is also the fact, that the story of Jesus’ birth in the Gospel of Matthew accounts the Holy family fleeing for their lives to the land of Egypt for fear of King Herod during the slaughter of the innocents. It should not be lost on us, that all of these stories are coming out of the very same land that is torn by war today.

 

Someone reminded me recently, that certainly Jesus was a refugee, but Joseph and Mary were also not strapping bombs to their chests as they fled either. Fair enough. But the Israelites that fled Egypt for the land of Israel were bringing war with them and were displacing the native peoples of the land of Israel. Furthermore, though these care for the immigrant/refugee themes are quite prominent throughout scripture, there are also voices in scripture that speak very strongly against allowing any immigrant to mix with the Israelite community. At the end of the day…it’s complicated. It is a pretty good demonstration of the fact that scripture does not speak with one voice on the issue—it rarely speaks with one voice on any issue!

 

There are also the personal considerations. Let’s say we do open our borders to so many more refugees and a terrorist does slip through the vetting process. Is it worth putting my family at risk or your family at risk? That truly is a tough question.

 

Finally, a look at the bigger picture. Wars in Iraq and Afghanistan have not made the global terrorism picture any less bleak. There is little doubt that if we went in to ISIS territory guns blazing and bombs dropping, we could exercise military might over the estimated 25,000 extremist fighters. However, that would only become the inspiration for another disenfranchised extremist somewhere else to strap a bomb to his chest. Terrorism cannot be tackled by military means alone, because military solutions are arguably what have gotten us to this place to begin with.

 

What if instead, we send the message that when extremists would threaten the lives of people, we take our freedom and democracy so seriously that we put our life on the line to protect them. Arguably, the only way to really reduce the threat of endless terrorism, is to empower moderate voices and find allies who have the authority to speak against such extremist violent acts. As long as this remains an issue of East v. West or Christian v. Muslim, we will not see an end to individuals being motivated by insane extremism to walk into civilian targets and cause mass causalities. This isn’t a war that can be won by force, but must be won by creating new alliances and making room for moderate voices.

 

I say all of this, while not be completely convinced of any of it. Know that your leaders take this seriously, and we had a deep and powerful discussion about it at session on Wednesday night. Wherever you may be on this issue, I encourage you to be prayerful about where you stand; to understand that there are truly good reasons for people to hold the views that they do about this subject; and to make sure this is not simply a political issue, but a faith issue and a humanity issue.

In keeping with the difficult and prayerful reflection on the refugee situation here are a couple of articles to think about. First, there has been a lot of misinformation about this situation, and I found this article to be helpful to elucidate what really is the situation we find ourselves in. Second, on Wednesday night, the session spent time reflecting on this article from Relevant Magazine. If you are unfamiliar, Relevant is produced by the new evangelical movement that isn’t just concerned with typical conservative Christian causes, but is deeply concerned with issues of social justice. Both of these articles force us to think differently and avoid simply toeing the party line on this issue—it is far too complex and complicated for that, and too many lives depend on our faithful reflection on these issues. Please take time to think through these issues and hold our broken world in your prayers.

 

Myths vs. Facts in the Syrian Refugee Issue

What the Bible Says About How to Treat Refugees

Circumcision, Homosexuality and Stewardship–Yeah, That’s Right!

Let’s have a deep and meaningful talk for a minute about circumcision! Now that I have your attention, let’s talk about what Paul was really getting at when he filled up pages of the book of Galatians with talk about circumcision—church conflict and how to live a meaningful life of faith.

You see, circumcision became the central issue in a much bigger cultural fight between to wings of the early church. On the one side were the leaders of the Jerusalem church, James and Peter, who felt that what they were called to be as disciples of Christ was a continuation of the Israelite religion that came before, but a reformed version of that religion. This meant that people who wanted to be Disciples of Christ still needed to carry out the basic tenets of the law of Israel if they were to become a part of the Christian community. On the other side were Paul and many of his evangelists. Their contention was that Christ was doing something completely new, and it wasn’t about carrying out the law, it was about living by the Spirit.

In a very real way, Paul was advocating for a new ethical system. The old Israelite system was a system of Nominal ethics, which basically meant you lived by the law, because it was the law. It was the law because God said so, so stop asking questions. The problem with this ethical system was that it was ripe for abuse—just think of all the gotcha moments between the Pharisees and Jesus. This kind of legal system also meant that people didn’t really think about what they were doing and why they were doing it, they just did it, because you don’t ask questions.

However, Paul saw the problems with this system, and saw how Jesus exemplified another way of living. In Galatians, Paul proposes another way to live—by the Spirit. What he means by this is a kind of hybrid ethical system that has its roots in a Nominal ethical system, but also suggests we actually have to think about the law and its outcomes—a kind of utilitarian ethical system. When there are times that the law would lead us to set up divisions, exclude people, etc. we are to instead think about what would lead to the greatest good—i.e. The Fruits of the Spirit. Instead of just acting out the law because it is the law, Paul says we ought to look at our actions and ask ourselves, “If I do this or don’t do this will it lead to peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control?” In this case, if following the law led to fornication, licentiousness, strife, division, impurity, idolatry, etc. then we should not live out that part of the law.

For instance, you might be wondering how the law could lead to fornication. Well, given that Biblical marriage was really about a property exchange between a man and the father of the woman he wanted to marry, many men engaged in a kind of serial monogamy that allowed them to accrue wealth from a woman’s family for marrying her, use her up, and then cast her aside. This is one of the reasons Jesus spoke so vehemently against divorce—it was a great injustice to women. Even though it was technically legal for a man to do this, in the eyes of most, it was a kind of fornication—“repetitive, loveless, cheap sex” as The Message puts it. In this way, living by the letter of the law, still led to brokenness. Whereas, Paul advocates for a different way of living—trying to maximize love and kindness.

Paul thinks it is time to move on from that kind of law, and for him, circumcision is the perfect representation of doing something that lacked true meaning just because it is the law. Peter and James, on the other hand, saw the value in the tradition and advocated for a continuation in the old system. One thing to know here, is that this was a big and nasty church conflict. This was about doing away with long standing traditions because they had become dividing lines within the community, but others felt that these traditions were a huge part of their identity. In the end, Paul wins out, and certain Israelite law requirements go by the wayside.

All this is to say, that their fight back then is no different from our church fights now. Sure, there was value to the actual argument about circumcision, but at the end of the day, there was a lot more behind that fight—doing away with traditions and instituting an entirely new ethical system. Frankly, we are in the same place now. So many of the church fights about homosexuality, are not just about homosexuality—they are about tradition, identity, and a new way to live out our faith. That is part of the reason these fights can be so nasty! The feeling is that there is a lot more at stake than just the church’s position on homosexuality.

As we turn this Sunday, our final Sunday of the Stewardship season, to Galatians; it is important for us to keep this backdrop of Paul’s world in mind. We are in a day and age where things are changing at a frenetic pace, and there is certainly great value to holding on to tradition. However, we also must have the courage to follow the Spirit and look for the fruits of peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control instead of mindlessly following tradition.

Last week, I preached about the concept of tithing—giving 10% of your income to the church. I told you that I don’t tithe, but instead, our family gives at a rate that means we have to make careful decisions about how we live. I really do think that is what careful reflection on the fruit of the Spirit—generosity— means. We give in ways that change ourselves, how we live, and hopefully, the world around us as well. I want to encourage you to really prayerfully think about your pledge this year—don’t just look at the checking account and decide what is left over at the end of the month and that will go to the church. Think about how this is an opportunity for your giving to shape your faith.