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Thursday, March 30, 2006

expecting persecution

Then they will hand you over to be tortured and will put you to death, and you will be hated by all nations because of my name. Then many will fall away, and they will betray one another and hate one another. And many false prophets will arise and lead many astray. And because of the increase of lawlessness, the love of many will grow cold. But anyone who endures to the end will be saved.

- Matthew 24:9-13

In the early years of Christianity, when the Roman Empire still controlled much of the known world, Christians often faced persecution because of their refusal to bow to earthly powers. Today, some American Christians feel they are facing similar persecution.

In the same week in which Abdul Rahman of Afghanistan faced possible execution for his trust in Christ, the War on Christians Conference looks like a pale imitation, a cheapening of the word 'persecution'. The conference was nothing more than a gathering of 400 people who have the freedom and the means to travel across the country to spend a couple days whining about their lack of influence. That they can even claim to be persecuted shows how far we are removed from the culture in which Christianity was born.

One of the great ironies of the War on Christians Conference is that, included among the speakers were Representative Tom DeLay and Senator Sam Brownback. Surely they don't fear persecution by those in power: They are the ones in power.

In theory, putting power in the hands of followers of the Prince of Peace should make for a better world. In practice, it has not always been so. The Crusades and the Spanish Inquisition are just two examples of Christian leaders embracing the corruption influence of power.

Today's oppressive Christian leaders take a more subtle approach. They keep poor people poor by tweaking tax policies and labor laws to benefit the wealthy elite, who provide campaign contributions to keep the powerful in power.

Adjusted for inflation, the minimum wage is at a historic low. And while millionaires are getting huge tax breaks, the working poor are getting shafted.

By the most conservative estimate, the cost of living has risen 18% since 1997. During that time the minimum wage has risen 0%. A job that didn't quite cover living expenses back then does not even come close today. Meanwhile, Congress has made it more difficult to file for bankruptcy.

Furthermore, in the summer of 2003 when Congress passed a child tax credit increase to $1000 per child, the final form of the bill specifically excluded the lowest income families. When this became public knowledge, many representatives had an attack of conscience, and drafted a bill to make the tax break available to all. But Tom DeLay announced, "Ain't gonna happen," and used his influence to prevent the bill from coming to a vote. This same Tom DeLay, now indicted on money laundering charges, has the gall to claim that he is being oppressed. The truth is, Tom DeLay is the oppressor.

Jesus said his followers would experience opposition and even persecution, not because they favored capital gains tax cuts and opposed gay marriages, but because of the radical message of the kingdom of God:
The Spirit of the Lord is upon me,
   because he has anointed me
     to bring good news to the poor.
He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives
   and recovery of sight to the blind,
     to let the oppressed go free,
to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favour.

- Luke 4:18-19

Jesus' mission was to take care of those who are marginalized and/or vulnerable, and he expects the same from his followers.

Then the king will say to those at his right hand, “Come, you that are blessed by my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world; for I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me, I was naked and you gave me clothing, I was sick and you took care of me, I was in prison and you visited me.” Then the righteous will answer him, “Lord, when was it that we saw you hungry and gave you food, or thirsty and gave you something to drink? And when was it that we saw you a stranger and welcomed you, or naked and gave you clothing? And when was it that we saw you sick or in prison and visited you?” And the king will answer them, “Truly I tell you, just as you did it to one of the least of these who are members of my family, you did it to me.”

- Matthew 25:34-40

And when Jesus warned his followers about the world's hatred, it was in contrast with the love his disciples were to show:

This is my commandment, that you love one another as I have loved you. No one has greater love than this, to lay down one’s life for one’s friends. You are my friends if you do what I command you. I do not call you servants any longer, because the servant does not know what the master is doing; but I have called you friends, because I have made known to you everything that I have heard from my Father. You did not choose me but I chose you. And I appointed you to go and bear fruit, fruit that will last, so that the Father will give you whatever you ask him in my name. I am giving you these commands so that you may love one another.

If the world hates you, be aware that it hated me before it hated you. If you belonged to the world, the world would love you as its own. Because you do not belong to the world, but I have chosen you out of the world—therefore the world hates you.

- John 15:12-19

As you go, proclaim the good news, ‘The kingdom of heaven has come near.’ Cure the sick, raise the dead, cleanse the lepers, cast out demons. You received without payment; give without payment. Take no gold, or silver, or copper in your belts, no bag for your journey, or two tunics, or sandals, or a staff; for laborers deserve their food. Whatever town or village you enter, find out who in it is worthy, and stay there until you leave. As you enter the house, greet it. If the house is worthy, let your peace come upon it; but if it is not worthy, let your peace return to you. If anyone will not welcome you or listen to your words, shake off the dust from your feet as you leave that house or town. Truly I tell you, it will be more tolerable for the land of Sodom and Gomorrah on the day of judgment than for that town.

See, I am sending you out like sheep into the midst of wolves; so be wise as serpents and innocent as doves. Beware of them, for they will hand you over to councils and flog you in their synagogues; and you will be dragged before governors and kings because of me, as a testimony to them and the Gentiles. When they hand you over, do not worry about how you are to speak or what you are to say; for what you are to say will be given to you at that time; for it is not you who speak, but the Spirit of your Father speaking through you. Brother will betray brother to death, and a father his child, and children will rise against parents and have them put to death; and you will be hated by all because of my name. But the one who endures to the end will be saved.

- Matthew 10:7-22

Do Tom DeLay and Sam Brownback really believe they are being persecuted? If so, God help their delusional souls. If, on the other hand, the War on Christians Conference is just a diversionary tactic to scare voters into giving these folks even more power, then God help us all.


Sunday, March 26, 2006

search queries

I almost never have a problem finding something to write about. In fact, even now I have twelve posts in a state of partial completion. But I'm suffering from a writer's block that will not let me finish any of my thoughts. So, strictly in order to post some new content here, I present a list of unusual search queries that have led people to It Seems to Me.... I seem to attract stream of consciousness thinkers (or just people with really bad grammar) here:

  • quote don't say how ever, it's just a fancy word for but

  • homeless guy poem i learn

  • jesus said about a mountains in the bible

  • the name of the rope is love lyrics

  • floating barge jail in the Bronx

  • because he was a good king book temple

  • how much money is giving to low income familes in a year?

  • Who do you say I am Jesus borg

  • point of the immense journey by loren

  • how did the light bulb change the world

  • blessed are the meek but they don't get into harvard

  • worst blog ever

I'm not especially proud of that last one. Still, I guess as long as they spell my name right, I shouldn't complain. It could be worse.

Update 3/30/06: Here's a new one that I just have to add to the list:
  • Where in the Bible is the phrase bite me?


Sunday, March 19, 2006

microlending update

Steve Odongo's Gracious God Butchery received a loan of $500 in early February. Since then, Odongo has been able to expand his business. Before the loan he was able to buy three animals each time he went to the village market. Now he can buy five. He has already begun repaid $30 of the original loan.

In the United States, where even $500 does not go very far, it can be hard to imagine what a difference a small loan can make to people living in poverty on the other side of the world. If you'd like to make a difference in someone's life, check out Kiva's Businesses in Need page.


Tuesday, March 14, 2006

whose god?

The web site identifies twenty-two religions with at least half a million adherents. There are thousands of smaller religions throughout the world. Furthermore, many of the major religions are split into several factions. Christianity alone has hundreds of denominations.

To an outsider, the choices must be bewildering -- all the more so because many believers have simply followed in their parents' footsteps, or accepted the common beliefs of their communities. Is that any way to pick a religion? Is there an objective way to determine, from all the options, which one is the correct God? If not, is it perhaps better just to vote for none of the above?

That certainly seems like the rational way to approach the situation. Yet, that line of thinking suffers from a serious flaw. It assumes that God is a commodity, that we can evaluate God like we evaluate a new refrigerator. The truth is, we can't know God rationally, we can only know God relationally -- and that changes the equation significantly.

Understanding faith as a relationship changes the parameters. To draw one analogy: Out of the billions of people on the earth, which one would make the right spouse? If there were only one correct answer to that question, most of us would end up alone. Or: Who is the best friend? It depends on who you ask.

The analogy breaks down in the fact that we are not actually choosing among several competing gods. (If we were, we'd probably have a reality TV show about it... brings a whole new meaning to American Idol.)

But faith as relationship does suggest another analogy, one that might be more appropriate, and that is how people relate to us. My wife has one idea of what type of person I am; my two year old son has a different idea. Their perceptions of me are quite different, but that doesn't mean either one is wrong.

I'll take this analogy further. Many of the people who know me in real life think I'm shy. I'm not, but their perception is based on something very real. I often have trouble finding the words to say what I want to say. My brain simply does not supply the words when I need them. My thoughts more closely resemble abstract art. In order to communicate, I have to describe the picture that is in my head. I hesitate, I stutter, I fumble for the right words. In large groups, I usually don't have time to translate before the conversation has moved on to other subjects. Likely I have a mild form of Asperger Syndrome. It takes tremendous effort for me to interact with other people, although it does eventually get easier as I get to know people better.

If you only know me through this blog, you'd never know any of that. You can't see me struggling to find the right words; you only see the finished product. You probably have a much different image of me than my coworkers do.

There's more. Back in my sports-crazed small town hometown, I'm remembered mostly for having been on the track team. "Do you still run?" is the first question they ask when I go back. People from my church see me as one of the songleaders for the Saturday night worship. Some of them have commented that they are too shy to stand up in front of the crowd. Those who know of me only through my travel writing have a different picture entirely. And yet, none of these images is wrong -- just incomplete.

Our images of God are similarly incomplete, it seems to me. I'm nowhere nearly as complex as God, so I can only imagine how limited is my mental picture of God. (Yes, it's an abstract picture, in case you're wondering.) I'm sure other people see other sides of God, and as a result have different ideas about what God is like. Are we all wrong? Yes, in a sense, but we are also in some sense right as far as we understand God, even if we don't see eye to eye.

But, some may object, we can't all be right because we contradict each other. Perhaps, but then again, some of the contradictions may simply be a result of limited perspective. Again, using my own life as an analogy, it may seem like a contradiction that some people know me as someone who struggles to put together complete sentences, and others know me as a published author. Some think of me as an athlete, yet I don't pay attention to sports (except college basketball and the Olympics). Some people think I'm shy, while others see me performing in public. Do they all know the same person? Yes -- and no. I'm a multifaceted person, and most people will only see part of me. How much less do we see of God's multifaceted personality.

For now we see in a mirror, dimly, but then we will see face to face. Now I know only in part; then I will know fully, even as I have been fully known. And now faith, hope, and love abide, these three; and the greatest of these is love.

- 1 Corinthians 13:12-13

That's what it really boils down to. Our knowledge is limited. Our intellect won't lead us to God, but perhaps love will.


Friday, March 10, 2006

a simple prayer

Grant us, Lord God, a vision of your world as your love would have it:

  • a world where the weak are protected, and none go hungry or poor;
  • a world where the riches of creation are shared, and everyone can enjoy them;
  • a world where different races and cultures live in harmony and mutual respect;
  • a world where peace is built with justice, and justice is guided by love.

Give us the inspiration and courage to build it, through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.

From Prayers for Justice and Peace


Monday, March 06, 2006

the united states of christianity

As if last week's story of Thomas Monaghan's plans to create a Catholic town in Florida weren't bizarre enough (hat tip: Richard at Connexions), now comes news of a proposal to make Christianity the official religion of the state of Missouri (hat tip: Dwight at A Religious Liberal Blog).

I can understand the desire to make a safe, wholesome place. As the father of a two-year-old, I would love to live in a perfect world where parents would never have to worry about what their kids might be exposed to. But the real world is not perfect, and any of our attempts to perfect it will inevitably end up missing the mark.

I can see two ways in which these attempts miss the mark.

First, both the Missouri legislation and Monaghan's plans seek to use the rule of law to promote Christianity. However, if there's one thing the apostle Paul makes clear throughout his writings, it is that Christianity is rooted in grace, not in the law. Granted, he was talking about the law of the Torah, but it seems obvious that he would not have thought any more highly of man-made laws. Jesus certainly didn't.

Second, both of these are attempts to promote a sort of cultural Christianity. Monaghan wants a community where Catholic values will predominate. The Missouri legislation seeks to "protect the majority's right," believe it or not. By giving official state (or municipal) sanction to Christianity, they have taken the first step along the road so many have traveled through the centuries, ever since the emperor Constantine decided to Christianize Rome. Whenever those in power are prepared to bless Christianity, it is a sure indicator of a Christianity that has lost its prophetic voice. Any church that has an interest in maintaining the status quo -- and in a "Christian" community or state it certainly would have such an interest -- is a church that will eventually find itself compromising its principles in order to keep the authorities pleased.

It seems to me that we have enough cultural Christianity in the United States already. We don't need to officially sanction it.


Friday, March 03, 2006

the lesson

My mom, a retired teacher, sent me this.
The Lesson:

Then Jesus took his disciples up the mountain and gathered them around
him. He taught them, saying,

Blessed are the poor in spirit for theirs is the Kingdom of Heaven.
Blessed are the meek.
Blessed are they that mourn.
Blessed are the merciful.
Blessed are they who thirst for justice.
Blessed are you when persecuted.
Blessed are you when you suffer.
Be glad and rejoice for your reward is great in heaven.

Then Simon Peter said, "Are we supposed to know this?"
And Andrew said, "Do we have to write this down?"
And James said, "Will we have a test on this?"
And Phillip said, "I don't have a pencil."
And Bartholomew said, "Do we have to turn this in?"
And John said, "The other disciples didn't have to learn this."
And Matthew said, "Can I go to the bathroom?"
And Judas said, "What does this have to do with real life?"

Then one of the Pharisees who was present asked to see Jesus' lesson
plan and inquired, "Where is your anticipatory set and your objectives
in the cognitive domain?"

And Jesus wept.