William Friend McMahon is my fifth great grandfather, living from 1776 to 1862. Here is an interesting passage about his conversion from the autobiography of William Stevenson, one of the pioneers of Methodism in Arkansas and Texas.

At length we arrived in the settlement where my brother lived, but did not reach his home before night, but stayed at the house of Mr. [Friend] McMahon, who had once been a member of the Baptist Church in Kentucky. He had greatly backslidden. At the moment, I was introduced to him by my brother, he looked wild and somewhat surprised, and said within himself, Is it possible that God has sent a preacher among us? This I learned of him afterwards. He was kind, fed us and our horses, and his wife also received us cheerfully. All soon became acquainted, conversation free and social; but turning on the subject of religion, he appeared not rightly to understand the gift that had come upon all men unto justification of life. After hearing the word of God read on those points, I saw joy spring up in his eyes; for he had been for several years nearly in despair, and truly it is good news to hear that Christ died for all. Night came on, we proposed to have prayer; all was right and when we knelt to pray, I felt like God was near, for Mr. McMahon cried aloud for mercy; his wife wept, and some of his children, the oldest in particular. Here the work began in this family; they were evidently the first fruits of my labors in that part called the state of Arkansas.

Reforming a Nation

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John Wesley’s political views are documented among pamphlets, sermons, and the works of biographers, but they are not necessarily as well-known as other aspects of his life. Perhaps the most concise summary of early Methodism was to reform the nation, the church, and to spread scriptural holiness. This mission, I believe, is deeply political.

So, what is the best way to reform a nation?

In some general comments on Wesley’s ethics, John Lunn notes that:

In most cases, Wesley appealed to people, either individually or as members of groups, to act out of love for God and for neighbor. He did not urge structural changes in either society or government, and usually did not urge passage of specific legislation… Wesley believed government authority was derived from God rather than from the people, so he supported the constitutional monarchy of Eighteenth Century England. While he was a strong advocate for the poor, he refused to align himself with many of the political reformers of the day. An important exception to this emphasized [in the book John Wesley's Social Ethics]  involves the issue of slavery. Wesley supported the efforts of Wilberforce and other anti-slavery leaders. In general, though, Wesley relied on the efforts of individuals as organized in societies and on the art of persuasion and exhortation to effect change.

I’ve heard it argued that Wesley did not view the government as the keeper of morality, which is something that would be hard to grasp for any contemporary mainstream political party. Even though he personally supported the English monarchy, this was not his central focus for ethics. Instead, the church must act as a holy witness to the world. This is obviously where Anabaptists find great resonance with the Wesleyan tradition. Ecclesiology, or how we formulate the politic of the church, is absolutely crucial for how we Christians live and act in the world. Reforming the nation comes through the work of Christians with strangely warmed hearts, doing odd things like visiting the imprisoned, protesting industrialism, and caring for widows.

A classic question of political theory is how to explain societal ailments. More often than not, this question is answered with an either/or framework: either individuals are at fault, or broken social systems cause the problems. Generally speaking, ideological conservatives will focus on the individual while ideological liberals will focus on the system. Arguments such as welfare just gives a free handout to lazy people and the like fit into these very neat propositions. Laws, reforms, and/or structures are central, depending on where you stand.

I would say that most American Christians hold a trickle-down approach to social ethics that is intertwined with democracy. From the top of our government comes order and good. Either craft an indestructible system or elect highly moral individuals and you will have your problems fixed. Either give tax incentives for this or vote for laws that prohibit that, and true progress will supposedly come.

But Wesleyan theology has long been recognized as a theology for the common, plain person. It was (and hopefully continues to be) a grassroots effort rooted in the conversion experience and witness of laity. Because of his focus on personal and communal acts as a means to transform society, I see Wesley as advocating for a ground-up approach to social ethics. In empowering others to act in neighbor-love, God’s Spirit changes the world around us. The answer comes not from creating righteous individuals or agencies through human-made efforts. Peace and reconciliation spring forth from the ground of the body of Christ.

What does all of this mean given what has been going on this week?

Protests continue to happen across the country over unaccompanied minors at our nation’s borders. Palestinian and Israeli blood continues to flow in an ever-mounting conflict fueled by billions of dollars of firepower and complex social, religious, and historical dynamics. Our world is a mess.

The message we send as a church regarding these conflicts matters. Our witness could lead to the reformation of our world. Will that message be that of the sword? Or will it be of compassion?

A Sexist Gospel?

In the Women’s Bible Commentary, Jane Schaberg argues that Luke is dangerous because of its portrayal of women. Here’s a brief except from this commentary:

The Gospel of Luke is an extremely dangerous text, perhaps the most dangerous in the Bible. Because it contains a great deal of material about women that is found nowhere else in the Gospel, many readers insist that the author is enhancing or promoting the status of women… The danger lies in the subtle artistic power of the story to seduce the reader into uncritical acceptance of it as simple history, and into acceptance of depicted gender roles as divinely ordained.

St. David’s Episcopal Church stained glass (James Mcgahey)

While it seems as though Luke tells of a radically egalitarian community, Schaberg posits that this is not the case once considering the details of the narrative. Ultimately, men play the most integral roles in the storyline. Disciples such as Peter are well-developed and named. The twelve male disciples are key characters to the gospel. Furthermore, the entire Acts narrative is largely oriented towards the activities and journeys of (male) characters like Paul and the apostles throughout the Mediterranean world.

On the other hand, women are supposedly cast off as secondary and minor characters. For example, while women are included among Jesus’ followers in Luke 8, they are not given names or identities. It appears as though Luke-Acts itself actually affirms the patriarchal system in which it was written in. While women may become followers of Jesus, they are essentially secondary beings and ultimately insignificant in comparison to their male counterparts. Schaberg asserts that women in Luke are praised for being submissive and quiet. In other words, while a “quick reading” of the narrative appears to affirm the dignity and role of women in the mission of Jesus, at closer inspection do more oppressive elements surface.

This charade of egalitarianism carries dire consequences for contemporary times. If this understanding is to be taken as normative, then women today must be nameless, secondary, and even submissive in contrast to the superiority of men. Likewise, Luke is indeed dangerous in that such interpretations may be used to systematically discriminate women.

Schaberg’s argument is quite similar to two other feminist scholars, Esther Fuchs and Elisabeth Schüssler Fiorenza. Fuchs examines how women have been portrayed in the Hebrew bible and ultimately argues that there is a systematic erasure of women. Instead of receiving commendation for their acts of prophecy and heroism (as Moses, Isaiah, and the like receive), the roles of people like Deborah and Miriam are essentially minimized. While Fuchs does not deal with Christian texts in her erasure argument, this directly correlates to the situation and depiction of women in Luke. Additionally, Schüssler Fiorenza, focusing in on early church history, approaches texts through a “hermeneutic of suspicion.” This is especially helpful when considering how patriarchal cultures portray women in their sacred texts. Likewise, there must be a cautionary hesitation on part of the reader when studying a narrative such as Luke-Acts. The supposed message of equality does not necessary result in proper praxis. Instead of unquestionably assuming an egalitarian ideal, Schaberg and other feminist scholars are more critical of this matter. Luke may potentially prove dangerous to contemporary readers with its submissive and silenced depiction of the second sex.

I somewhat agree with Schaberg in her criticism, though her argument must meet further qualification for my support. My partial criticism is twofold:

  • I would like to note that this issue must be considered a significant hermeneutical matter. In other words, criticism of this gospel in-and-of-itself is groundless. This is because texts are inherently flexible. Readers must form interpretation and craft meaning once encountering scripture. Authorial intent and the “real Jesus” or the “real Luke” are ambiguous matters. I think Schaberg constructs a sort of dummy-argument by attacking the abstract essence of “Luke.”
  • This text contains its own historical context. The way in which Schaberg criticizes the nature of the Lukan narrative is cause for hesitation. Holding texts and other cultures accountable to our contemporary westernized understanding of liberal egalitarianism fails to recognize that history and culture are both evolving processes. While some readings of Luke may appear to us modern day readers as potentially sexist, I argue that Luke would read quite differently given a less egalitarian era. Historical insight into the text does prove valuable in this critical issues. In sum, with characters such as Mary, Elizabeth, and Anna, Luke may have actually been one of the most radical messages for its time. One must also beware of a “hermeneutics of paranoia” in this manner.

Once considering my initial hesitation, I would argue that certain interpretations of Luke can be dangerous. While this revised statement is similar to Schaberg’s argumentation, these qualifications are necessary. The danger lies not in Luke itself, but with where our hermeneutics may take us–could this be used to advance complementarianism, or is Luke liberative?

Personally, I have found the Gospel of Luke to be highly profound, from the traditional focus of Jesus as healer to its truly revolutionary message. Schaberg’s arguments are worth considering, but I do believe that this gospel is a bit more radical than most people expect.

Naive Christianity

This coming Sunday morning, millions of prayers and words of praise will be offered up in worship services. The sacramental church will recite Christ has died, Christ is risen, Christ will come again. The Baptist church will thank God for atoning us through the blood of Christ. The charismatic church will proclaim the powerful, transforming presence of the Spirit in our world.

Words have incredible power. For example, calling a spouse beautiful affirms that individual’s worth. In this sense, naming things creates meaning for our lives. Words create, mend, and sustain our relationships with others. The opposite is true: calling someone worthless can fracture entire worlds and persons. Instead of developing a connection with someone, we can become distant and detached.

More specifically with Christian belief, this word-deed relationship is crucial for how we relate to and experience God and world. Anabaptist theology is particularly profound in this manner–namely that because Jesus lived the way of love, we in the here-and-now are to embrace non-violence in all that we do. Praying in the name of Jesus’ life, death, and resurrection, in my opinion, carries dynamic potential as God begins to shape our lives and actions to look like Jesus. Words are formative, even if they are indeed “abstract.”

But I recognize that this is oftentimes not the case for Christianity. We who pray in Jesus’ name will leave the church service to return our “real-world” lives. Sure, hymns or praise songs provide personalized comfort, but faith is commonly limited to the pews, a Christian radio station, or a daily devotional done by ourselves. We water down the thy kingdom come of the Lord’s prayer, especially considering that right now, tens of thousands of vulnerable children from Latin American countries are caught up in a border crisis, bearing the brunt of political games and apathy.

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There’s a massive disconnect between what may be spoken in the sanctuary on Sunday morning and what we see in our broken world. Whether using the Church as a crutch or simply wanting to distance ourselves from the bad events of the world, naivety can wiggle its way into our thinking.

Lee C. Camp shares this powerful story in Mere Discipleship: Radical Christianity in a Rebellious World:

One winter in the early 1970s, nearing Christmas, my father-in-law was working as a reporter for WSM television in Nashville. Having just completed a story at the state capitol building, he heard a call on his scanner: a “10-52-64,” the “10-52,” he told me, indicating someone had been shot, and the “10-64″ indicating someone was dead. The location of the scene of the apparent crime was but a few miles away, in a public housing complex, where the police had discovered an elderly man dead in his apartment. But as they began to investigate, it turned out that the original suspicion was all wrong. There had been no shooting. Instead, the man did not have electricity, and so had frozen to death. What had originally been thought to be a gun wound was no gun wound at all, but the wound from a rat gnawing on the old man’s body. As my father-in-law exited the apartment complex, he happened to see the glow emitted from a sign, perched for the Christmas holidays atop one of Nashville’s high-rises, announcing “Peace on Earth.”

Such an event serves as a parable for a compartmentalized grace: the heartwarming religious message, “peace on earth,” that somehow never gets connected to the real world of a poverty-stricken old man.

Peace on earth. Jesus is risen. Christ died for you sins. O Lord, make haste to help us. God loves you.

How do these proclamations relate to the poverty-stricken old man? How do they relate to the illegal immigrant fleeing from violence and instability?

Given the reality that we worship a savior who suffered, I think they relate in an inseparable way. These aren’t just words. God can awaken us and shape us to see them become reality, or on earth as it is in heaven, as someone once said.

patriotic worship

I would say that Ephesians 6:12 is one of the most overlooked verses of the entire New Testament:

For our struggle is not against enemies of blood and flesh, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the cosmic powers of this present darkness, against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly places.

Other translations will use word like principalities and powers to articulate what the battle is all about. In other words, this could be interpreted to mean that we must fight against systems and cosmic powers, not fellow human beings.

A primary temptation of patriotism is to make our struggle against blood and flesh. People are heralded as redemptive saviors, like FDR or Reagan. This or that flag or institution gives life to the people, being the objects of our ultimate devotion. Conversely, others are demonized and depicted as the ultimate possible enemy. Divisiveness runs rampant in nationalist sentiments.

American-Jesus

With July 4th this week, I think worship this Sunday can be dicey. Should the American flag be on display? At what point do our “God bless America’s” end up elevating a country over the Kingdom of God? Regarding military service, our respect for veterans usually consists of an attaboy/girl, rather than addressing the chronic problems created by the horrors of war. Of course we may enjoy certain freedoms as citizens of the United States, but are these freedoms the end-goal of faith? Or is there something more?

The hymn “Onward, Christian Soldiers” may obviously rub people the wrong way, especially considering rhetoric to underwrite military conquests–whether with the crusades or recent global conflicts. I do recognize that militant imagery can potentially create greatly murky theology. But the third verse of this hymn contains a great deal of truth:

Crowns and thrones may perish, kingdoms rise and wane,

but the church of Jesus constant will remain.

Gates of hell can never gainst that church prevail;

we have Christ’s own promise, and that cannot fail.

Our hope is not in a flag or a government. We may benefit from political organizations, but these rise and fall. Only Christ’s church remains. Only Christ is worthy of our worship.

I’ll leave you with some words from Greg Boyd, who has written extensively over these kinds of political issues:

I appreciate that America recognizes my rights to ‘life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness,’ but there is nothing distinctly Kingdom about these rights. They’re nowhere to be found in the Bible. To the contrary, as a follower of Jesus I’m called to surrender my rights to life, liberty and happiness, and instead submit to the will of God. These rights are noble on a political level, but they can get in the way of my call to seek first the Kingdom. I’m grateful America extends these rights to people, for most countries throughout history have not. But my sole allegiance is to the heavenly Kingdom that calls me to surrender my rights. If I get too concerned with an earthly country that frees me to pursue my rights, my healthy patriotism becomes idolatrous. I’ve put my country’s ideals before God.

Protestant Stereotypes: Southern Baptists, Gospel Coalition, Anabaptists, Methodists, and Episcopals

Here is a humorous graphic inspired by another created by Saji George and St. Thomas the Doubter Church (click to enlarge):

Capture

Helpful links:

  • Methodists seen by Gospel Coalition: Pelagius, every Calvinist’s favorite straw man
  • Episcopals seen by Gospel Coalition: Rachel Held Evans, writer extraordinaire and every Calvinist’s favorite straw woman
  • Methodists seen by Anabaptists: Reinhold Niebuhr, the patron saint of mainline Christian politicians
  • Episcopals seen by Anabaptists: Henry VIII, meddler with the kingdoms of this world
  • Gospel Coalition seen by Methodists: Hank Hill, “Reborn to be Wild” King of the Hill episode
  • Methodists seen by Methodists: Nelson Mandela, possible Methodist
  • Gospel Coalition seen by Episcopals: Mark Driscoll, hard-hitting MMA aficionado
  • Methodists seen by Episcopals: Fake UMC District Superintendent, “competent” leader and relevant with the young folk

Bonhoeffer on Authority

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‘Whosoever will be great among you, shall be your minister’ (Mark 10:43). Jesus made authority in the fellowships dependent upon brotherly service. Genuine spiritual authority is to be found only where the ministry of hearing, helping, bearing, and proclaiming is carried out. Every cult of personality that emphasizes the distinguished qualities, virtues, and talents of another person, even though these be of an altogether spiritual nature, is worldly and has no place in the Christian community; indeed, it poisons the Christian community. The desire we so often hear expressed today for ‘episcopal figures,’ ‘priestly men,’ ‘authoritative personalities’ spring frequently enough from a spiritually sick need for the admiration of [people], for the establishment of visible human authority, because the genuine authority of service appears to be so unimpressive. There is nothing that so sharply contradicts such a desire as the New Testament itself in its description of a bishop (1 Tim. 3:1ff.). One finds there nothing whatsoever with respect to worldly charm and the brilliant attributes of a spiritual personality. The bishop is the simple, faithful [person], sound in faith in life, who rightly discharges [his or her] duties to the Church. [His or her] authority lies in the exercise of [ministry]. In the [person] there is nothing to admire.

Life Together: The Classic Exploration of Christian Community

This jumped off the page for me the other day when thinking about servant leadership. It’s easy to assume domineering qualities as a logical necessity for church leadership, whether seeing church as a “business” or developing a cult-personality around a particular pastor. Dietrich Bonhoeffer observed this years ago, and I still think this rings true today. Cult-devotion seems to be more indicative of our surrounding culture than what we find in the New Testament.

Sure, we may profess that God uses, shapes, and transforms us for ministry, regardless of personal stature. But do we really believe this? Or do we assume a co-divinity of episcopal figures, priestly men, and authoritative personalities?