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Original Sin

Jason Micheli —  September 23, 2016 — 2 Comments

160921160806-03-adam-rhew-charlotte-protests-large-169According to a congressman in North Carolina black protestors there in the South- in the South (in case you missed the emphasis: in the South) hate white people because white people are successful. That’s the real reason they’re angry. He’s since offered the boilerplate politico mea culpa that in the moment he said something he didn’t really mean, but we all know that it’s exactly in those moments, guard down and heart out, when we’re most likely to say what’s really on our mind.

According to police Keith Scott was carrying a gun and thus his shooting was justified because (dot, dot, dot) we all know a black man with a gun warrants suspicion.

According to social media, Terence Crutcher had his hands up and had his back to police to put his hands on his car when he was manslaughtered murdered so, Facebook friends testify, the officer involved must be a racist.

And then the many memes:

The Donald is a fraud. Hillary is a liar. Obama is a Manchurian President. Michelle hates America. Immigrants are rapists and Republicans are racist.

A third of us want to keep all Muslims out.

Another third want to flee to Canada if that third get their way, thinking about that third how the other third think about 3/3 of Muslims.

We’re everywhere projecting motives onto other people. Drawing lines. Culling into tribes. Rallying the righteous to our side. Pretending to know, by virtue of soundbites and campaign slogans and ticker tape summations and hot am air, who is good and who is evil.

The Christian reading of Genesis 1 is that original sin is occasioned by the tempter’s inducement for Adam and Eve to eat the fruit of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil.

“But the serpent said to the woman, ‘You will not die; for God knows that when you eat of it your eyes will be opened, and you will be like God,* knowing good and evil.”

Christian interpretation typically fixes original sin onto the first clause in that last sentence: “You will be like God.” We fell then because of our desire to ascend. To be like God. To take God’s place. In essence, to not have God over us to whom we’re accountable.

But, lately, I wonder.

As any good writer knows, if you can work it, the main point should always fall last in your sentences (“knowing good evil”). And as any preacher knows, the emphasis should always be on the verbs (“knowing”).

So I wonder.

I wonder if original sin, the sin into which we’re all born, the sin which binds us in captivity and from which Jesus means to save once and for all, is our desire to appraise one another, to know good and evil, to be like God in Christ, separating who we take to be the goats from the sheep. That is, is our base sin our desire to know, like God, who is good and who is evil? Are the “All Lives Matter” memes, the “Blue Lives Matter” tweets, and “colorblind” FB rants just an updated form of picking the fruit from the tree?

I wonder because this morning my good friend Teer Hardy and I interviewed Ian McFarland, author of From Nothing, for our podcast. In it, Ian explained how the Christian belief in creation from nothing is shorthand for the confession that everything in existence owes its existence at every moment of its existence to God.

Everything. Always. Everywhere. At every moment.

Is from God.

Though he didn’t put it into original sin terms as I just did, Ian argued that creatio ex nihilo requires Christians to refrain from regarding anything in creation as nothing or no good or evil. It’s all from God. It’s all sacrament and none of it- no one– is slop or scrap.

If I’m right, then America still has a race problem and a problematic politics, but they’re no longer problems so much as they’re manifestations of original sin. And that’s good news because we (i.e. the Church) have an antidote to that disease: Jesus Christ.

He is the One by whom Adam and Eve and each of us and all that is- all that is- were created.

And through cross and resurrection all of us, good or and evil, are in him. To separate sheep from goats on social media like is to perpetuate a problem for which God has already provided a solution.

 

 

 

 

 

Unknown-1With military action against Syria increasingly looking like a foregone conclusion, I’ve heard lots of chatter on NPR and elsewhere about the separation of powers and what authority the constitution does and does not afford the President when it comes to war- concerns that must have been in hibernation during the previous administration.

When it comes to Syria, I’ve heard liberals making liberal political arguments and I’ve heard conservatives making conservative political arguments. What I haven’t heard much of is Christians making Christian arguments.

While I’ve have substantive problems with the Christian Just War tradition and have been open about being a closet Mennonite; nonetheless, Just War theory remains arguably the most dominant Christian tradition with respect to war.  For that reason, perhaps it’s helpful to outline its parameters and then you can discern how intervention against Syria fits the bill.

Below is a synopsis I wrote with Dr Barry Penn Hollar:

Just War theory was “borrowed” from the Roman Stoic tradition by Christian theologians, like Augustine and Aquinas, who gave it a distinctly Christian orientation. The development of this tradition reflects the changing context of Christian faith and witness.

By the fourth century, the Christian expectation of Jesus’ imminent return had waned. The church was no longer a persecuted minority in a hostile Roman empire. Indeed, soon after the emperor Constantine’s conversion to Christianity, Christianity became the official religion of the empire and, at least nominally, Christian religion enjoyed majority status.

In such a context, it may have been inevitable that Christians came to recognize military participation as a legitimate expression of discipleship.

Now that the instruments of earthly authority were in their hands (rather than dripping with their blood!), they inevitably asked about the appropriate use of those instruments in the service of order and justice.

Not surprisingly, they came to feel a sense of responsibility that was not theirs before and to question whether prayer was an adequate Christian contribution to the welfare of the empire as they had believed earlier.

What developed over the centuries was a set of criteria for determining when it is appropriate for those in authority to go to war (just ad bellum) and what moral restraint should be shown in the waging of war (jus in bello).

The starting point for thinking about when it is appropriate to go to war was the idea of legitimate authority.

Only those with authority (from God?) for public order could wage war. Private violence, or violence in the service of individual interests continued to be condemned, but war as instrument of those charged with responsibility for public order and justice was recognized as morally appropriate.

Prior to the democratic revolutions and the development of democratic ideas about legitimacy, there was a strong presupposition of individual obedience to the authorities.

The authorities decided when war was just; individual citizens obeyed.  Matters are complicated somewhat by modern ideas about governmental authority arising from the consent of the governed.

In a democratic society, broad public support for war is not just a practical matter; since the legitimacy of the government depends on the consent of the governed, some would argue that war without broad public support is not waged with legitimate authority.

The just war tradition insisted that war could only be waged for a “just cause” and not simply to protect and promote the interests of some party or even of the nation as a whole.

Surely, war cannot be waged for the purpose of building or expanding an empire.  In the words of the U. S. Conference of Catholic Bishops “force may be used only to correct a grave, public evil, i.e., aggression or massive violation of the basic rights of whole populations.”

As well, the tradition insists that a nation can only wage war with a “right intention,” that is, motivated by the just cause and with the goal of achieving a just peace.

War fought out of hatred for the enemy and when expressed justifying causes are merely a mask for ulterior interests and motives is ruled out.

A legitimate authority with a just cause and right intentions must engage in further moral reflection before going to war.

It must be certain that war is a “last resort.”

Put differently, if there are other means (diplomatic pressure, boycotts, embargos, etc.) for defending the just cause and achieving a just and stable peace that could reasonably be expected to work, they should be tried before going to war.

We must also ask whether there is a “reasonable chance of success.”

It is not right to go to war—that is, to pursue a policy that inevitably involves death and destruction—if one has little or no chance of winning the war and, more important, achieving the just peace one seeks.

Finally, one must ask the question of “proportionality.”

Even if we win, will we have done more harm than good.

These final three critieria all involve great wisdom and prudence. They are not matters about which one can have mathematical certainty; they are matters of moral wisdom about which well-meaning people will disagree. This is especially true of proportionality.

Imagine one has a just cause (saving the citizens of Dafur, for example) and the military might necessary to defeat the forces promoting the evil injustices that appropriately cause moral outrage.  “Proportionality” suggests that it might still be wrong to go to war because the harm one would have to inflict to achieve the cause outweighs the good one could do.

The just war tradition also places moral limits on war.

Its two traditional criteria are “discrimination” and “proportionality” (with a slightly different meaning than before).

War is moral, says the Christian just warrior, only if civilians are never intentionally targeted.

Extreme care must be taken even to avoid “accidental” civilian deaths, what in contemporary parlance is euphemistically called “collateral damage.”  (Remember, hidden behind that phrase are the dead bodies of children, women, and old men killed “accidently,” but dead nonetheless!)

Proportionality in this context points to the just war claim that even in a justified war fought discriminately, one should use only the level of force necessary to achieve one’s legitimate objectives.

Even enemy soldiers are neighbors who must not be killed unnecessarily.

 

Yesterday, as President Obama was sworn in, the Brooklyn Tabernacle Choir sang ‘Battle Hymn of the Republic.’
As catchy as is the chorus of that hymn, I’ve never enjoyed singing it in church. Whenever you conflate the Second Coming of Christ with the justness of an American war you’re on dangerous theological ground. Anyways, more on that later.

This weekend we conclude our Razing Hell sermon series talking about the Second Coming. Perhaps no other Christian doctrine is so fraught with popular misunderstandings and willful, fanciful misinterpretations of scripture.

van impeYou know what I’m talking about: guys like Jack Van Impe making dire predictions about current events, identifying politicos like Obama with the Antichrist, interpreting Middle East Politics according to the coded schema of Revelation. And don’t even get started on the rapture.

These ways of reading Revelation, popularized in our own day by the Left Behind novels, are actually quite new and modern ways of interpreting, beginning with the rise of the modernist movement in the late 19th century.

These readings distort John’s original hope. Typically, such movements join visions of cosmic, final warfare with political action, divide the world into good and evil, demonize all who disagree, and are convinced of the rightness and righteousness of their view.

Such groups differ in the extremity of virulence of their views but all of them see present world events as fulfillments of biblical descriptions of the end time and as heading, by God’s predetermination, toward the cataclysmic end of history.

There’s a reason this way of reading Revelation is appealing. It gives gravity to the events of our own day. It makes scripture ‘exciting’ in that Revelation becomes like a treasure map or crystal ball, and it raises the stakes of my own individual belief.

As you’ve probably been exposed to before, contemporary apocalypticism predicts an exact timetable leading to the awful end ordained by God and predicted in the bible. It sees the beginning of this end ushered in by the modern state of Israel and it will culminate in a final battle of Armageddon. The faithful, however, will be ‘raptured’ to the Lord, escaping the tribulations and destruction. Evangelization before the final destruction will be done by 144,000 converted Jews. This will happen in our lifetime, according to such groups.

The problems with this way of reading Revelation are many and it departs from an authentic hope in Jesus Christ in significant ways:

1) It depends on and feeds fear.

2) The ‘rapture’ is based on a solitary biblical text (1 Thessalonians 4.17).

3) The notion that the faithful will be exempt from tribulation or suffering is alien to the Gospels.

4) It elevates the power of Evil to almost godlike proportions.

5) The timetable is deterministic. God’s set it in stone from the beginning. There’s nothing we can do to change history nor does our faithfulness effect it.

6) The world is divided between believers and infidels.

7) Jews are not sisters and brothers in the covenant nor are they people whom God loves and we must love too. Israel is important only for the role it plays in a timetable towards Armageddon.

8) Reconciliation of sinners is impossible.

9) The real object of hope is not Christ or New Creation but rapture.

10) Most importantly, the life, death and resurrection of Jesus are secondary, in this view, to the apocalypse. The Cross is less decisive than a final, cosmic war. Armageddon is more significant than Golgotha. Christ’s work on the cross was not ‘finished.’ Moreover, the Cross is no longer the full disclosure of God’s character or nature. In the Cross, we see a God who suffers wrath in our place: ‘while we were yet sinners Christ died for us.’ By contrast, contemporary apocalypticism sees it as ‘while we were still sinners Christ smote us in a cosmic battle.’ What emerges from this view is an almost schizophrenic Jesus.

1358799163252.cachedRachel Held Evans has a list of points for Christians to remember today. Here are two I think are spot-on:

As Christians, we are reminded today that our ultimate allegiance belongs not to a political party or even a country, but to the Kingdom of God, where the first is last and the last is first, where the peacemakers and the poor are blessed, where enemies are forgiven and slaves are set free, where our King washes feet, where abundant life grows from a tiny seed into a tree—not by power or might but by the Spirit. If this Kingdom can flourish under the Roman Empire, it can flourish under any government, in any country, and in any circumstance. We are never without hope.

There is no place for followers of Jesus to be consumed with either hate or adoration. Jesus teaches us to love even our enemies, to bless and not curse, to reserve our adoration for God alone, and to humble ourselves in the face of power. Responding to today’s events with either despair or unbridled glee communicates to the world that our trust is in the government, not in Christ.

You can check out the others here.

Who I’m Voting For…

Jason Micheli —  November 6, 2012 — 2 Comments

Yeah, sorry for the tease, but I don’t think so.

I posted this last week but the WordPress analytics tell me not enough of you took a gander. So with the polls closing soon here’s some pastoral, Kingdom-focused wisdom from yours truly….

 

Every now and then I flirt with the belief that Christians should opt out of campaigns and elections, let the chads and voting booths, the empty soundbites and inane talking points lie fallow for a season.

It’s not that I don’t think certain issues are important. It’s not that I don’t think Christians should be engaged in the concerns of their given context. It’s that I suspect a mass Christian opt-out on Election Day might be a helpful and cleansing reminder to our politicians that A) the means by which they engage political conversation couldn’t be more divergent from our faith convictions and B) the notion that the teachings of Jesus fit perfectly into either party is what the Church has usually referred to as heresy.

After all, issues and elections may be important, but only Jesus will bring the Kingdom and Jesus’ plan to heal the world is neither the Democratic or Republican platform but the Church. The extent to which that notion scares you or strikes you as naive exposes both Jesus’ unreasonableness and your own lack of faith.

Every election year when well-meaning Christians either ask me voting advice or just post their silliness about ‘voting the bible’ on Facebook, I’m reminded of Martin Luther’s maxim that he’d rather have an effective pagan leader than an incompetent Christian at the reins of government.

When it comes to me, I’ve got conservative Tea Party types convinced I go to sleep at night beneath a portrait of Che, Mao and Jesus arm-in-arm. And I’ve got liberal Democrats who think I’m raging right-to-lifer. There are military folks who think I’m a Mennonite in name only and left-leaning activists who think my reluctance to believe in ‘rights’ language is proof I’m a backwards fascist.

Without trying to sound self-congratulatory, such ambiguity makes me, I think, a Christian. Or at the very least, a pastor.

As examples like Pope Benedict and Archbishop Rowan Williams point out, Christian convictions do not easily lend themselves to party affiliation despite those parties’ drooling eagerness to adopt ‘God language’ into their platforms.

Which is to say, as a follower of Jesus, you shouldn’t really care for whom I vote just as I, frankly, do not care for whom you do.

As Jesus might say, ‘render unto Caesar …’ or maybe he would say…’the law and the prophets do not hang on…’ or maybe he would say…’put away the sword…’ or how about ‘the Kingdom of God is like a tiny-not-as-significant-as-your-paid-advertising-mustard seed…or might he warn ‘you cannot serve God and Mammon…’?

This screed was prompted and brought to you by Jonathan Martin’s Election Day Communion meme: