What Progressive Evangelicals can Learn from David

David and Goliath by Guillaume Courois

David and Goliath by Guillaume Courois

As any good little Christian kid, I wanted to be like David when I grew up. Perhaps it was the countless VBS lessons on this charismatic young character and his great defeat of Goliath. In retrospect, however, I think the underlying factor of all this was a strong desire to think in binary terms. Of course there had to be good people and bad people in our world, and these categories were well defined. People like David in the bible were thoroughly good and heroic, while others like Saul were bad. Likewise, I sought to live so as to become one of the good guys.

Jesus once critiqued this binary way of thinking. A rich young ruler once asked him, “Good teacher, what must I do to inherit eternal life?” In response to his question, Jesus raised another question: “Why do you call me good? No one is good but God alone.” But time and time again, just like the young ruler, we cement ourselves in categorical ways of thinking about the world, especially with good and bad people. And this does indeed turn toxic a lot of the time.

Even though the folks of the so-called Emergent church may not glorify someone like David, this kind of Christianity still cultivates binary ways of thinking. Perhaps someone embodies the social justice mindset of a prophet like Amos. S/he is understood as a truly good person. There’s a lot of power, respect, and opportunity to be gained from being a socially-conscious leader.

It’s pretty well-documented that Tony Jones abused his ex-wife, Julie McMahon, and lied to the authorities multiple times. The circumstances surrounding their divorce (re: “Two Kinds of Marriage“) are quite fishy once considering that church leaders advised Julie that it was OK for Jones to take another wife–a “sacramental” one. Even on a more ideological level, Jones tends to neglect pathological realities regarding church abuse. Also, the rise of “brogressive” Christianity, much of which Jones embodies, is often left unscrutinized.

There’s a profound human cost to all of these recent problems. Stephanie Drury’s Stuff Christian Culture Likes community is filled with people who are disillusioned and betrayed by the emergent church’s silence on this. Though people like Rachel Held Evans and Nadia Bolz-Weber may proudly claim progressivism and speak up against abuse, their silence on this particular case is absolutely heartbreaking. And perhaps most importantly, Julie and others like her in similar situations of abuse continue to be silenced by the powers-that-be. Only this time, these powers are not found in Calvinist or fundamentalist churches. The power is in the hands of socially-conscious bloggers, hashtag activists with big followings, and best-selling authors.

I think that right now, Emergent Christianity is in a state of continual contradiction as it becomes more institutionalized. To share a brief bit of my own story, Emergent people like Brian McLaren, Peter Rollins, and yes, Tony Jones, were incredibly influential in my faith formation, especially throughout college. I wanted to be just like these guys. I felt like they critiqued the bland faith of Christian culture and put some meat on the bones of Christianity. (And their theology was much more charitable than John Piper’s!). These emergent folks embraced doubt and argued for it’s necessity. And ultimately, I deeply admired their commitment to social justice and speaking out about oppression. But with Jones’ history of abuse and the deafening silence of his clan, it seems as though emergent Christianity isn’t the most holy, “let justice roll” kind of institution. It’s a contradiction–the same community who may argue against Mark Driscoll or speak up for LGBT rights also blatantly ignores a woman like Julie because of endorsement contracts and personal friendships.

This really does remind me of David, once we dive deeper into the narrative about this well-known character. Past the heroic, optimistic depictions of David so often found in VBS lessons we find a man who is profoundly complex. He’s a great guy sometimes, and absolutely lousy a few verses later. And just as the “good stuff” isn’t limited to the Goliath story, all the “bad stuff” isn’t limited to David and Bathsheba.

  • David is arguably the strongest leader in Israel’s history. During his tenure Israel reached it’s height of power.
  • In the latter part of 1 Samuel, David joins the Philistines against Israel. He plays the political game pretty well to save his own skin. But this is done at cost to his own country. It could be argued that Jonathan and Saul both died because David dabbled in this allegiance fiasco.
  • David’s son Amnon rapes his half-sister, and David does absolutely nothing about it.
  • Several times in 2 Samuel David is given the option (and sometimes even the obligation?) to take vengeance. But often he shows grace to these people.
  • 2 Samuel 22 is a song attributed to David. In it, as well as many of the Psalms, we find some of the most rich depictions of who God is. But within this song, David also espouses prosperity theology. He goes as far as to say that God rewarded him for his clean hands. At best, David is rewriting history here.
  • The last words of David in 1 Kings are actually a command to kill off an old enemy. That certainly wouldn’t make for an uplifting sermon.

And so we are left with a complicated, nuanced picture of David. We find great insight in his songs and life, but we also encounter problematic theology and ethics.

We are already like David. Just as David flip-flops between the Philistines and Israel, so too do we navigate our own political wellbeing. Just as David orchestrated an elaborate conspiracy to kill off Uriah, so too do we carry out our own self-interest at all cost. Just as David refused to punish his son for raping Tamar, so too do we let our allegiances blind us to the plight of the abused. We let all sorts of things get in the way of speaking out about abuse.

But David’s life is filled with many good actions, too. Just as David exhibited decisiveness in so many instances, so too can we live our lives courageously in the face of adversity. Just as David was forgiving at times, we too can stop the cycle of violence in our world. When we read about the life of David, we can see ourselves in his shoes.

We are the cheaters, the liars, the conspirators, and the violent people of this world.

But by the grace of God we can be gracious, determined, and forgiving. We can learn from David when he is aligned with YHWH’s will. And we can especially learn from those times when he strays from YHWH’s path.

We are already like the “heroes” of the Bible. And as we see with the life of David, that’s not always a good thing. I don’t think progressive evangelicalism has a good handle on this kind of ethic. Just as I had once viewed David as entirely good, so too is progressive evangelicalism clinging to this binary way of thinking among their own network.

This kind of approach to ethics will probably not get you a book contract. It would probably make for a lousy conference–after all, most Christian conferences thrive on the larger-than-life cult devotion of a select few authors and leaders. But anytime we taper down our morality because of money, fame, or power, we find ourselves among the goats of Matthew 25–because we likewise “cash in” for ourselves and fail to see Jesus in those who are needy, abandoned, and abused.

“Why do you call me good? No one is good but God alone.” Jesus’ words are undoubtedly worth reiterating to our binary-prone minds.

Suffering like Jesus

Healing of a Bleeding Woman, Roman Catacombs

Healing of a Bleeding Woman, Roman Catacombs

When I think about the Lenten journey, it’s easy to approach the Easter message with tainted eyes. It’s tempting to gloss over Good Friday and rejoice in the promise of Easter morning (especially for us Protestants!). I don’t like suffering–it’s painful to experience and does not necessarily lead to the most uplifting sermon illustrations.

But this aversion to suffering really contradicts the life of Christ. In reading the story of Lazarus in John, we encounter a savior who feels profound sadness. Jesus actually cries from sorrow at the loss of his beloved friend. We also read in Luke about how Jesus is moved with compassion to weep over Jerusalem. Elsewhere, we see Christ dwell with those who suffer. He works in ministry with so many different people who experience chronic suffering–those who are ostracized because they face demons, taboo medical conditions, or disabilities.

Instead of being emotionally detached from the world, Jesus feels the pain of hearing that someone has passed. He cries the tears that both you and I have at loss. Jesus is the kind of guy who knows your deepest sorrow. Jesus isn’t some abstract deity. No, Christ is incarnate with us.

As Christians, shouldn’t we be like Jesus in this way?

Finding Humor in #WhyTony

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Jesus and the Rich Young Charitable Giver

Jesus and the Rich Young Ruler, Armenian icon

Jesus and the Rich Young Ruler, Armenian icon

It’s easy to avoid any sort of conviction with Jesus’ parables or teachings. I think this is natural given our human nature. After all, who in their right mind would genuinely want to be unsettled, disturbed, or left in limbo? Comfort is far safer and it’s easier to assume that other people ought to be the ones convicted.

But nevertheless, such disorientation is incredibly powerful. Let’s take the story of the rich young ruler, found in all three synoptic gospels. This man of great wealth and status gives all the correct “Sunday school” answers while conversing with Jesus. Everything is fine and dandy. Then Jesus, in a climactic moment, tells of something missing for this young man. Take all you have and give it to the poor. That’s what you’re lacking. The young man leaves Jesus, saddened because obtaining treasure in heaven is truly costly.

This story absolutely fascinates me. We can obviously fiddle with what it means to be wealthy in various contexts. If you’re reading this blog, you’re wealthy compared to so many others who do not have access to the internet, leisure time, or the disposable income required to maintain the two. Even if you make minimum wage in America, in some ways (but not all) you are still better off than others in extreme, chronic poverty across the globe.

Of course we can spiritualize this teaching. Perhaps Jesus calls us to abandon anything that has hold of our heart. For some it’s pride or self-image. For others it’s material possessions like cars or houses. But hopefully it’s not money–abandoning that would be quite a task (surely it’s not money for me, right?). Having money while others do not is not intrinsically bad, we may argue with spiritualized hermeneutics, but the rich young ruler probably obsessed over money so it became problematic.

Even if we are more literal and see this story as a warning against habitual wealth accumulation, what is our typical response? How do we avoid being like this young man? We give a percentage of our money to charity, of course. It’s admirable and we might even be recognized for our generosity. This is our response to Jesus’ command to “give to the poor.”

Note that Jesus does not say “give money to a well-established international non-profit organization that  uses no more than 25% of funds for administration costs and at least 75% for programs and services.” But this is exactly how we interpret this message in the modern day. As capitalist consumers, our vision of “ending poverty” almost always involved giving countless dollars to yearly campaigns, child sponsorships, and food drops. More partnership-oriented programs like micro-lending, though rising in popularity, pale in comparison to the amount of money given to massive relief organizations. There are times and places for relief work, but I’m a bit uncomfortable about evading Jesus’ conviction while shifting the blame to others who may not donate money to the charity of our choice.

I don’t think Jesus’ response would change much if he were around today and witnessed youth groups sponsoring Compassion kids, bloggers promoting Kickstarter campaigns, or even socially-conscious adults giving away 10% of their income. Christians can be incredibly generous, but there’s more to working with poverty than simply funding programs. I imagine he’d say something along the lines of:

Give all that you have to the poor. Don’t just write a check and call it quits. Don’t assume that giving money is the most effective response to a problem. Think critically about how you work to liberate others. What about your time, vocation, what you’re chasing in life, and your own self? Truly giving to the poor will change the way you live.

Dismissing Evil vs. Genuine Theology

calvin-hobbesProblemOfEvilOne of the problems I’ve seen with analytical philosophy of religion is its tendency to treat the problem of evil as a sort of topical issue. I suppose this makes sense to some degree. After all, there are a wide variety of areas to explore when we talk about God, humanity, creation, etc. Why not throw in a category called “the problem of evil?” Likewise, anthologies and Sunday school lessons could feature a specific chapter or section on this potential problem area.

Systematizing one’s theology is obviously not the core problem here. It becomes troublesome, however, when we treat the problem of evil as a sort of secondary issue. God’s existence and salvation are usually the most important theological tenets for most Christians. Is there a God out there? Can that God give me eternal life? Many assume these two questions to be absolutely foundational. I think this is why Christians usually get the most upset when someone either publicly challenges God’s ex nihilo creative power or advocates for any form of universalism. Folks get fired up when you claim God doesn’t exist or that all religions can lead to truth.

I think that many non-Christians aptly note that Christians do not sufficiently address the question of evil’s existence. Theodicy falls utterly short. When reflecting on the coexistence of an all-powerful God and worldly evil, many bible-believing Christians simply dismiss any paradox with the assertion that either (1) God ordains all, or (2) God will eventually work through tough times. Calvinists are more prone to #1 and Arminians to #2. Doing theology from this positioning presupposes that evil is a regrettable anomaly, although it’s one that can supposedly be answered. After all, God’s existence and our personal salvation have utmost importance, right? Why would we deliberately focus on such a downer-topic like evil? Likewise, I would say that we often craft our picture of God and subsequently address theological counterarguments about the Holocaust and other instances of great, seemingly gratuitous evil.

What if we were to reverse this process? Instead of abstract theorizing about who God is, what about starting with the reality of evil, namely the evil that Christ endured? I personally think this would be a more genuine way to do theology. It would not dismiss the intense reality of evil, and whatever we say about God would have more evidential and experiential credibility. Here are three people I believe root their theology at the foot of the cross.

  1. Nicholas Wolterstorff is worth mentioning because he’s a great example of how analytic philosophy doesn’t always have to fall into this systematic trap. He argues that Christ was broken for all humanity and that when we are broken, God Godself knows and has experienced that pain, too. He writes the following in Lament for a Son: “How is faith to endure, O God, when you allow all this scraping and tearing on us? You have allowed rivers of blood to flow, mountains of suffering to pile up, sobs to become humanity’s song–all without lifting a finger that we could see. You have allowed bonds of love beyond number to be painfully snapped. If you have not abandoned us, explain yourself. We strain to hear. But instead of hearing an answer we catch sight of God himself scraped and torn. Through our tears we see the tear s of God.”
  2. James Cone’s concept of a black Christ in God of the Oppressed is rooted in the recognition that Jesus and the oppressed are inextricably linked. In modern times the black community has suffered great systemic marginalization. Cone draws some powerful parallels between crucifixion and modern day lynchings. To say that Jesus is black is not a historically revisionist presupposition, but a profound theological and Christological claim.
  3. Greg Boyd recently preached a sermon called “God in the Gallows.” In it he asserts that for any kind of Christianity to have legitimacy, it needs to address the reality of Auschwitz. Pay close attention to Greg’s own testimony regarding his atheism and an intense conversion experience.

MLK Day and the Modern Church

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Michael Emerson and Christian Smith have a fantastic sociology book about race and evangelicalism in America. Through a lengthy survey about white evangelical perceptions of race, they argue that religion often legitimizes the continual division and racialization of America. I’ve written about this book before, but I think it is important to highlight the following quote in light of Martin Luther King Jr. Day. Here the authors talk about the inevitable ethical dilemma of group loyalty–namely that with in-group dynamics, members of a group rarely understand the needs and experiences of those on the outside who are marginalized. The same is true for white evangelicals and African Americans:

We see [the ethical paradox of group loyalty] in white evangelicals’ assessment of the race problem and racial inequality. Although they can perhaps talk with empathy about a black friend’s situation, when they assess the group, they speak in ways, as we have seen, that largely justify division and inequality. They know that most of their friends and relatives–who are predominately white–are not hate-mongering racists bent on keeping blacks down. And they know this much better than they can know the experiences of black Americans. So, when they must assess the “race problem,” given their cultural tools, they conclude that it must be blacks exaggerating, or to the advantage of some to claim their is a race problem, or that the race problem is but individual problems between some individuals of different races. In short, they speak in ways that support their own racial group and the American system. Almost no white evangelical suggests that inequality between groups is immoral and ought to disappear, for example. And, largely isolated in their own racial group, they fail to see their advantages. The exceptions are those white evangelicals so immersed in black social networks that they appear to identify more with black Americans than white Americans.

Emerson and Smith found that many of the people they interviewed used religious grounding for their responses, even when they sounded antagonistic towards blacks as a whole. Christian congregations are typically racially homogenous, with little focus on intentional diversity.

I of course believe it is a positive thing that most white Christians are not hate-mongering racists. But race issues in our world are not limited to the stigmatized things–the racial slurs or Donald Sterling-type instances. There’s a deeper, more systemic issue when we examine what it means to be white or black in our world. Emerson and Smith argue that the only lasting solution to all this would be to address the issue of divisive identity and social networks, both individually and collectively. In other words, congregations need to integrate and address racism on an institutional scale.

In many ways I think we water down MLK’s “I Have a Dream” speech. But King’s concept of joining hands is a truly revolutionary idea:

I have a dream that one day the state of Alabama… will be transformed into a situation where little black boys and black girls will be able to join hands with little white boys and white girls and walk together as sisters and brothers.

[…]

With this faith we will be able to work together, to pray together, to struggle together, to go to jail together, to stand up for freedom together, knowing that we will be free one day.

It is easy to interpret this concept of togetherness as a sort of kumbaya idea where we simply ignore our problems. In doing so, Martin Luther King Jr. is a safe hero. After all, who wouldn’t want that? But what if you were to truly join hands across racial lines? Genuinely working, praying, going to jail, and standing up together are certainly not isolationist activities. With this in mind, the problems Emerson and Smith found in their survey could indeed be cured through solidarity and this struggle for liberation. But a major barrier to this reality is our idolatrous worship of the in-group, which simultaneously leads many to keep their hands in their pockets instead of joining them with black sisters and brothers.