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Friday, July 27, 2007

on spiritual warfare

Indeed, we live as human beings, but we do not wage war according to human standards; for the weapons of our warfare are not merely human, but they have divine power to destroy strongholds. We destroy arguments and every proud obstacle raised up against the knowledge of God, and we take every thought captive to obey Christ.

- 2 Corinthians 10:3-5

What struck me as I was reading this passage was not the "spritual warfare" language; after all, this is not the only NT passage that uses that metaphor. What struck me is the explicit contrast between physical warfare ("war according to human standards") and spiritual warfare.

In one sense, this contrast is nothing special: the same physical/spiritual contrast is used in other contexts, e.g. "letters of recommendation" vs. "letters written on our hearts" in 2 Corinthians 3:1-2, or physical circumcision vs. circumcision "of the heart" in Romans 2:26-29. In each case, Paul uses scenes from everyday life to draw analogies about spiritual life.

But underlying Paul's arguments is the (sometimes explicit, sometimes implicit) acknowledgement: Spritual life is not quite like that. In this example, Paul makes it explicit: "We do not wage war according to human standards." [emphasis mine]

The book of Revelation provides a striking image of this contrast:

and in the midst of the lampstands I saw one like the Son of Man, clothed with a long robe and with a golden sash across his chest. His head and his hair were white as white wool, white as snow; his eyes were like a flame of fire, his feet were like burnished bronze, refined as in a furnace, and his voice was like the sound of many waters. In his right hand he held seven stars, and from his mouth came a sharp, two-edged sword, and his face was like the sun shining with full force.

- Revelation 1:13-16

"From his mouth came a sharp, two-edged sword" -- the language is reminiscent of Hebrews 4:12, "Indeed, the word of God is living and active, sharper than any two-edged sword, piercing until it divides soul from spirit, joints from marrow; it is able to judge the thoughts and intentions of the heart." In both places, the two-edged sword is associated not with physical might but with spoken words.

And yet so many Christians throughout the ages have gotten it wrong. From Constantine, through the Crusades, to George W. Bush's invasion of Iraq, Christians have for centuries tried to justify military aggression in the name of God.

Will Christians ever learn to be peacemakers and earn the title, "children of God" (Matthew 5:9)? Or don't we have any good news to offer a violent world?

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Sunday, July 15, 2007

the radical center

Last month Andy Bryan wrote a post, Unclaiming the Center, in which he responds to a friend of his who thinks the solution to divisiveness in the church is for liberals and conservatives to look for common ground in the center.

Andy replies:
Sounds neat, but it doesn’t work for me; I am not in the center, I am liberal. I am an honest-to-God “progressive.” If you are going to label me, label me left wing.

...for me, the solution to the divisiveness in the church is not to artificially move to the center purely in order to find common ground. That would not be authentic to who I am, nor to whom any of us are.

Call him liberal, but don't even think about calling him wishy-washy.

He makes some good points in his post, and I urge you to read the whole thing if you haven't already.

Nevertheless, I tend to disagree with his main point. I think it is vitally important that we do look to reclaim the radical center. But perhaps this disagreement is more in perception than in fact. I may be using the word "center" differently than either Andy or his friend are using it.

As I understand them, "liberal" and "conservative" are political terms that have spilled over into other areas of our lives. In American presidential politics, it is customary for candidates to play up their "liberal" or "conservative" credentials during the primary season, to appeal to the party's "base," then to "move to the center" as the general election approaches, to try to appeal to a wider range of voters.

This can be represented by the following image:

The black part of the line represents the center, and the white parts represent the liberal and conservative wings. Under this paradigm, Andy is correct that liberals (or conservatives) are not being authentic if they try to "claim the center" as a common ground.

But it seems to me that this entire paradigm is missing something.

A few weeks ago my wife took our 4-year-old son to the farmer's market and let him buy something with his own money. He spent a quarter, and got a home-grown peach.

Normally, when he eats fruit from the grocery store, he will eat a little bit from one side and leave the rest. So when they were in the car, and Nicki heard, "I'm done," from the back seat, she didn't expect him to have eaten the whole peach. Yet when she reached back for the remains, he handed her just the pit.

A peach pit is a better metaphor than a political campaign, I believe, for the radical center of the Christian faith.

Here we don't have two fringes at opposite ends, just a solid inner layer with a protective outer layer. The outer, fleshy part of the peach actually provides the nutrients necessary for the seed to grow -- or for a four-year-old boy. One way or another, though, the flesh will be consumed, and only the core will remain.

The core of the Christian faith can be found in the gospels, throughout all of Scripture, and in the ancient creeds. That's not to say that there is nothing more to Christianity than this. The church is one body with many parts, and God calls each of us to fill different roles.

But whether you're anti-oil or anti-abortion, and regardless of how important you personally think those issues are, those are not the essentials of the faith. Likewise, Christianity is not primarily about creationism, fair trade, gay rights, or even a living wage. Our faith may inform us about those issues, but we are almost certain to find ourselves at some point fellowshipping with those who hold different views.

That's when we need to affirm the radical center -- the core -- of our faith. If we cannot fellowship with those who hold differing views on the peripheral issues, we've failed to understand what Christianity is all about.

Unless I'm misreading him, that's essentially what Andy is saying too. So perhaps I don't disagree with him after all.

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Sunday, July 08, 2007

they would not have crucified the lord of glory

The atonement has been a big topic of discussion lately among several blogs I read (I've trid to link to one sample post from each blog, but I'm sure I've missed at least one blog). I don't really have anything to add to the conversation; I'm still trying to absorb all the ideas and piece the puzzle together.

The fact that I've been thinking over all this is probably the reason the following passage jumped out at me in my daily Bible reading:

But we speak God's wisdom, secret and hidden, which God decreed before the ages for our glory. None of the rulers of this age understood this; for if they had, they would not have crucified the Lord of glory.

- 1 Corinthians 2:7-8

Let's suppose, hypothetically, that things had happened differently: Upon hearing Jesus' teaching, the high priest Caiaphas suddenly realized that he was in the very presence of God. Or Pilate, upon examining Jesus, decided that he should set Jesus free no matter the personal political cost to himself. What if they hadn't crucified the Lord of glory?

These two verses are just a side note in Paul's discussion of the wisdom of God, but he seems to have considered it a genuine possibility that the rulers of the age could have recognized Jesus for who he was, and changed the course of events on that fateful Passover week.

If Jesus hadn't been crucified, how much different would our theology be? Did God have an alternate plan for our atonement just in case Jesus failed to get himself killed?

Did the atonement really rest on the dicey possibility that those in power would not recognize Jesus? Or is there possibly something about power that it necessarily renders those who have it unable to see God at work?

Now I know even less than I did before.

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Monday, July 02, 2007

still no living wage

The new Iraq spending bill, passed by Congress last month and signed by President Bush, contains a rider that will raise the minimum wage from $5.15 per hour to $7.25.

It may sound like a big raise, but it will be phased in slowly over three years, and even after the second increase minimum-wage workers will be earning less (adjusted for inflation) than they were in 1997. The third phase doesn't even occur until after the next election, which means that Congress members will be able to boast for two election cycles about how they have helped the working poor, even as they keep the minimum wage below the poverty line.

I, for one, am not impressed. The purpose of a minimum wage should be to lift people out of poverty, not to keep them in it.

I've heard all the arguments about how some work is more valuable than other work, and I think there is some merit in that. But that misses the point. The minimum wage is not a nationwide mandatory one-size-fits-all income for all people. Let the corporate CEOs, the baseball players, and the movie stars make their millions, but give the janitors, the dishwashers, the farm hands, and the administrative assitants enough to take care of a family.

Now it may be true that some of these people don't need to make enough to raise a family. Maybe that administrative assitant is married to that janitor, and with their combined incomes, they can already make ends meet. But there was a time in American history when a family did not need two incomes just to stay out of poverty. There was a time, not too long ago, when even families of modest means could make a choice of whether to have one parent stay home and raise the children while the other parent brought home enough money to cover expenses. For an increasing number of families, that choice is no longer available.

I'm quite aware that some families make comfortably more than a poverty wage, and still choose to have both parents work. That's fine. I'm all for letting people have that choice. I just think that the same choice should be available to those at the bottom of the employment ladder.

Furthermore, a living wage would benefit the growing number of families who, for whatever reason, have only one adult in the household. If a single parent could stave off poverty with a single job, they will have more time to devote to their children.

Ultimately, that's what minimum wage laws are all about: Enabling parents to spend more time with their families. In a nation as prosperous as the United States, a nation whose leaders consistently give bold lip service to "family values," we could afford to keep working families out of poverty if we wanted to.

Do we want to?

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