America First or Not my Problem

Mark 9:37

For a couple of weeks now, I have been preoccupied with the perception that the public discourse influences even believers toward stridency, rigidity, and lack of compassion. Oddly, at the same time, I have been hearing again and again in my mind’s ear the lyrics of a children’s hymn I learned to sing in Vacation Bible School:  “Jesus loves the little children/ All the children of the world/ Red and yellow, black and white/ They are precision in his sight/ Jesus loves the little children of the world.”  The hymn paraphrases Jesus’ teaching that, “Whoever receives one such child in my name receives me; and whoever receives me, receives not me but him who sent me” (Mark 9:37 RSV).  Moreover, Jesus stands in the biblical tradition that God requires God’s people to recognize in all other human beings the image of God; that God requires God’s people to exercise particular care for orphans, widows, and immigrants (cf. Deut 10:18-19, passim); and that God does not settle for quid pro quo transactions, calling instead for God’s people to love even their enemies (Mark 5:44).

Jesus repeatedly asserted that true discipleship transcends giving assent to a definition of who he is.  He called upon people to follow him; to join him in bearing the cross of sacrificial love; to attend to the lost, the sick, and the sinner; and to love (not just our friends, family, and fellow-believers, but also) our enemies.

Baser human nature, of course, following the “law of the jungle,” prioritizes the needs of the self, often extending such concerns to family, and sometimes even to village or tribe, but not to the outsider, the foreigner, the other.  Everyone else must fend for themselves, at best, or are objects of suspicion, to be excluded or controlled, at worst. Nation-states, including the US, represent artificial incorporations of these “natural” human inclinations on a grand scale. The first responsibility of nations, according to dominant political theory, is to protect itself against enemies, real and potential. Even internally, the state seeks to regulate the selfish competition among its citizens expected of individuals and groups seeking first their own advantage. A society based on rights trades in establishing and policing boundaries between individuals and groups because it anticipates that individuals and groups will otherwise, naturally, seek to dominate other individuals and groups.  Compassion, self-sacrifice, and kenotic concern for others have no place in nation-states, per se.

I spent all day yesterday with a group of area pastors studying “Humor in the Bible.”  Among other things, we discussed the comically pitiful prophet Jonah, who sought to restrict God’s grace for fear that the merciful God of Israel would likely leap at any opportunity to forgive even the hated Ninevites. These pastors reported their perplexity and frustration over similar attitudes held by their parishioners with regard to minorities already in the country (especially non-Christian groups), to immigrants, and to refugees.

I repeat my contention that this moment is a time of testing for the church and for individual believers (see “A Time of Testing”).  It will not be a test primarily of our ability to mobilize successfully to influence the political apparatus; it will not be a test of the extent to which the nation is “Christian.” It will be a test of whether we identify ourselves first, and if need be only, as disciples of Jesus; it will be a test of whether we seek first the sovereignty of America or the kingdom of God. It will reveal whether we believe, contrary to Jesus’ teaching, that we can serve two masters.

This morning, the news media features accounts of the discovery of the bodies of seventy-four refugees, drowned in the Mediterranean Sea as they fled from desperate and dangerous circumstances in their homelands (see  Authorities expect to recover scores more victims of the same tragedy:  men and women, boys and girls, fleeing the chaos and destruction of war.

Are they not my problem?

Get Thee Behind me… (Mark 8:33)

“Hadst Thou taken the world and Caesar’s purple, Thou wouldst have founded the universal state and have given universal peace. For who can rule men if not he who holds their conscience and their bread in his hands? We have taken the sword of Caesar, and in taking it, of course, have rejected Thee and followed him.”  The Grand Inquisitor, Brothers Karamazov, Fyodor Dostoevsky

President Trump has dangled the forbidden fruit before the church with his promise to “destroy” the Johnson Amendment that prohibits non-profit organizations, including the church, from taking overtly partisan political action Trump has complained that the effect of the amendment on religious institutions is that “their voice has been taken away.” To many, especially evangelicals and fundamentalists, the prospects of entering the political arena on an equal footing with Political Action Committees seem irresistible.  In fact, it is a siren song.

First, of course, one should understand the legislation, which, I dare say, few have heard of until recently.  Named for then-Senator Lyndon B. Johnson, it passed both Houses of Congress in 1954 with no debate and no discussion – a rarity even in those days.  It applies to 501(c)3 institutions and churches.  It allows donors to such organizations to deduct contributions from their taxes. Political contributions, on the other hand, are not deductible. Since the institutions covered by the amendment enjoy tax-exempt status, prohibiting them from engaging in partisan politics prevents individual contributors from making tax-exempt political contributions through non-profits. Further, it extends tax-exempt status to churches without requiring them to file the paperwork that 5019(c)3 organizations must submit.

As implied in President Trump’s statement, opposition to the amendment typically argue on first amendment free speech grounds.  Such arguments are specious, however, for at least two reasons. First, under the Johnson Amendment, churches may address political and social issues, take positions on political issues, engage in voter education on such issues, and conduct voter registration drives. The only probation pertains to partisan politics. Second, since it does not apply to individual church members, including ministers who may speaks freely as private citizens under the provisions of the law, the argument that it restricts free speech can only be made with respect to institutions.  As such, it would apply only if the problematic trend in the law regarding the grant of “person” status to corporate bodies were extended to churches. Such a doctrine would, of course, potentially have unforeseeable consequences in other areas of the law (discrimination, libel-slander, torts, etc.)

Ironically, both secular and Christian opponents to the Johnson amendment appeal to another element of the First Amendment to the Constitution, specifically the “establishment of religion” clause. Secular opponents argue that the tax-exempt status granted the church under Johnson is tantamount to requiring tax-payers indirectly to subsidize churches. In Walz v. Tax Commission of the City of New York 397 U.S. 664 (1970), Chief Justice Burger, writing for the majority, concluded that, since Johnson applies to non-profits generally, it does not represent an unconstitutional “establishment of religion.” The same reasoning pertains with regard to the claim that, by restricting churches’ participation in partisan politics, Johnson discriminates against religion.

Legal issues aside, three considerations suggest that churches should regard Johnson as a convenient protection for the church from itself. First the church must remember that, in the wilderness, Jesus resisted the temptation to political power. God calls believers to do good in and for the world; engagement in the political arena is inevitable and even necessary.  Political power, however, brings with it all the dangers associated with impersonal institutions and convenient compromise.

Second, Christianity already presents itself to the world too much as a divided and divisive body.  Should churches fully enter the partisan ring, society will unavoidably identify them to some degree with political parties:  First Baptist Church (Republican), Memorial Baptist Church (Democratic).  Moreover, society will identify churches with the entire agenda of the pertinent political party or candidate. Neither party ‘seeks first the Kingdom of God’; neither deserves such wholehearted endorsement.

Finally, as the Baptist Joint Committee on Religious Liberty has warned, “[Repealing Johnson] would usher our partisan divisions into the pews and hart the church’s ability to provide refuge.” The difficulties that arose in the early Corinthian church and its Paul, Apollos, Cephas, and Christ parties should be warning enough.  The Republican party was not crucified for you; you were not baptized in the name of Democrats (cf. 1 Cor 1:12-13).

Confusion: Rights or Love

For God is not a God of confusion but of peace. (1 Cor 14:33 RSV)

Last week’s blog included the sentence:  “Let the cacophony begin.” It has.

I have not intended to focus this blog on politics, but, like Moses’ experience with the burning bush, the current din of confusion in the political realm beckons me to turn aside to listen.  When I do, I hear that a significant component of the confusion involves the mistaken identification of national interests in self-protection with Christian motivations. Continue reading Confusion: Rights or Love

Go to Shiloh (Jer 7:12)

“Do not trust deceptive words, saying ‘The temple of the Lord, the temple of the Lord, the temple of the Lord are these [stones]’.”  Jer 7:4, my translation

Sometime in the outgoing seventh century BCE, God sent Jeremiah to the temple in Jerusalem to warn the Judeans that, unless they changed their behavior, God would unleash the Babylonians to conquer. The venue for Jeremiah’s message proved to be as significant as the words themselves. Early in the sermon Jeremiah apparently quoted a Continue reading Go to Shiloh (Jer 7:12)

Tireless Exertions

A generation goes, and a generation comes, but the earth remains forever. Eccl 1:4 RSV

Human progress is neither automatic nor inevitable… Every step toward the goal of justice requires sacrifice, suffering, and struggle; the tireless exertions and passionate concern of dedicated individuals.  Martin Luther King, Jr.


I was born in February of 1957, when the union still had only forty-eight states, three years after the US Supreme Court handed down the historic Brown v. Board of Education (347 U.S. 483), and just a few months before the first nine black students enrolled in Little Rock Arkansas schools implementing the ruling.  Local sit-in campaigns began at a Woolworth Continue reading Tireless Exertions

What the world needs now is hesed, sweet hesed…

Matt 5:44-47

I “love” chocolate and I “love” my wife.  Clearly, the word “love” is almost too multivalent to be useful sometimes.

Two days ago, my phone rang at just after 5pm.  It was my youngest son.  He began, “Dad, I’m OK, but….”  My heart sank to my stomach, my pulse quickened, my mind simultaneously imagined possibilities and braced to hear the actual.  He had been rear-ended by a tractor-trailer truck at highway speed on the interstate; his car had rolled and Continue reading What the world needs now is hesed, sweet hesed…

Hermeneutics, Consistency, and “Christian Values”

The concept of “Christian values” is playing a prominent role in the public arena today, but my Facebook® feed lately suggests very little agreement among those who call themselves Christian concerning the identification of these values or the definition of them individually. No one should wonder that people outside the church view it with suspicion Continue reading Hermeneutics, Consistency, and “Christian Values”

Two more

Ellen’s introduction:

“On the 11th day of Christmas, I channeled my inner Grinch. 🙂 Continue reading Two more

Catching up

I was very busy yesterday and did not make good on my promise to catch up on Ellen’s musical offerings, so there will be two today. Continue reading Catching up

Two Today

Ellen started this project a couple of days before I was able to figure out the technology.  I will post two selections today and tomorrow so that I can catch up by Christmas day (and the bloopers she mentions, which I dread to see and hear). Continue reading Two Today