Christian Rights?

In the midst of the debates around social issues of the day, hearing some Christians speak about their right to their viewpoint is quite common.  In listening to and reading various points of view, some Christians seem to think that they have certain rights because they are Christian.  They seem to think that being Christian gives them the right to express their opinion, hold their beliefs or stand up for what they think is right.

Ironically, the notion of individual rights or entitlements seems to be missing from the vocabulary of the New Testament.  In fact, something very different is expected of those who would be followers of and believers in Jesus Christ.  When Jesus said, “If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me,” he was offering a choice, but no rights or privileges.  Denying self and letting go of claims to what one might be due is a starting point for being in relationship with Jesus.  He taught that holding onto life was a sure way to lose it, but not being afraid to lose it was a sure way to gain it.

Jesus offers a number of moral and ethical imperatives, the greatest of which is love — love of God and love of neighbor.  So central is this ethic of love to the life to which Jesus calls his followers, that some might conclude that following Jesus means giving up the right to retaliation and revenge, giving up the right to deny food to the hungry and shelter to the homeless, or giving up the right to bear animosity toward those who are different and treating others in a way one would not want to be treated oneself.  Jesus has a clear expectation of his followers to be salt and light.  Jesus expects his followers to act and to speak in ways that bring to life the values of the Kingdom of God.  Jesus does not expect that such words and actions will be well received by those in authority.  In fact, he expects just the opposite as he preemptively declares those followers blessed who are reviled, persecuted, and lied about on his account.  He admonishes his disciples to not be surprised if the world hates them, since the world has already hated him.  Jesus does not call people to follow him because they have a right to do so, without fearing consequences, he calls them to follow him because doing so is right regardless of the consequences.

Jesus’ conversation with Nicodemus introduces the idea that being in relationship with Jesus is a new birth resulting in a new life.  The Apostle Paul goes further in that the old self is crucified with Christ, and the new self is brought to life in Christ.  The result is a follower whose will is yielded to God.  Paul says he is a slave of Christ.  Christians allude to this transformed status when they pray Jesus’ prayer in the Garden of Gethsemane, “…not my will but yours be done,” as their own. Following Christ is more about surrendering status than claiming it.

Conversely, the height of rebellion for a follower of Christ would be to choose one’s own will over God’s will, and to assume that one’s life is one’s own rather than God’s.

The rights granted to followers of Christ in the New Testament are few and far between, namely to be obedient to the will of God.  Fortunately, for all the Bible does not say about rights, it says much about relationship and God’s continual desire to be in relationship with those whom God has created, and about God’s abundant grace that makes such relationships possible. While following Christ may not come with special rights, it does come as grace freely given.

The discussion of human rights has been, through the centuries, a much more human endeavor. Naturally, humans have a tendency to claim divine origins for matters of great importance.  Our own Declaration of Independence is a case in point.  We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.  Scholars and politicians can debate the source of these unalienable rights and what it means that human beings are created with them.  However, what we know to be true is that before there was a United States Constitution and Bill of Rights, before there was our present form of government, Baptists and others in this country who refused to adhere to the established religion were jailed, flogged and unfairly burdened with taxes that were collected for the benefit of state-sponsored churches.  The Creator has endowed men and women with the right to “. . . life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness,” but without the resolve of a people and a government to secure those rights, what meaningful difference would it make?

People do follow Jesus even under governments that do not allow freedom of religion.  Today, some of the most passionate and devoted followers of Christ had their faith forged in what was the Soviet Union. They endured great suffering because of their commitment to Christ.  There are others who live in countries where it is illegal for them to convert from the religion of their birth to Christianity.  Yet, there are people in those countries who believe in Jesus even though they risk their lives to do so.  We are created by the same God with the same inalienable rights, but we worship in freedom and they worship in fear.  Whatever else, “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof” may mean, it surely means that person ought to be able to worship and believe according to the dictates of his or her own conscience without fear of reprisal from government or neighbor.

For Baptists, religious liberty is both our best contribution to America and a treasured freedom that America has given to us.  We treasure it best by remembering that we were once a minority sect on the fringes of society, and maintaining the resolve of our nation’s first president, “. . . to establish effectual barriers against the horrors of spiritual tyranny, and every species of religious persecution.”

For many faith communities across America, religious liberty has been challenged with deadly and terrifying force in recent days:

A gunman opened fire at a Sikh gurdwara, killing six.

A mosque in Joplin, Mo. burned to the ground.

An Arab-Catholic church was vandalized in Dearborn, Michigan.

An Islamic school was hit with an acid bomb in the Chicago suburb of Lombard.

A Texas man was charged with threatening to bomb a mosque in Murfreesboro, TN.

Now is a good time for those in this country who profess to follow Christ to take hold of the rights they cherish, together with Jesus’ command to love our neighbor and strive to be the presence of Christ to those who long for the same freedom we cherish.  If everyone is not free to worship without fear of attack or persecution, then none of us are free to worship.  An attack on the religious freedom of my neighbor is an attack on the freedom of us all.    “And who is my neighbor?” said the lawyer to Jesus.

Advertisements

Seeing Others As We See Ourselves

There are times when fact can appear to be stranger than fiction.  The facts about a recent revelation regarding the ancestry of Csanad Szegedi are strange indeed.  Szegedi represents Hungary in the European Parliament and is a member of his country’s far right wing Jobbik Party.  To fuel his rapid rise to the upper echelon of his party, he has blamed the Jews for problems facing his country.  He has claimed that they were “buying up” the country, desecrating national symbols and having undue influence on the affairs of state.  Evidently blaming a small group of people or singling out a segment of the population for special derision pays political dividends in countries all over the world.

What is not clear is whether or not Szegedi really believed what he was saying about the Jews. In his heart, did he really hate them or was he just saying what he was saying because he knew that it would play well with the voters he was trying to reach? Politicians do that sort of thing from time to time. Whatever the case may be, the antisemitism of Szegedi and his party is no small matter.  This is especially true given the treatment of the Jewish People in Hungary and Eastern Europe in the last century.  Nonetheless, Szegedi, who is only 30 years old, has built his young career on such vile and hateful rhetoric.

That is, until the facts got to be stranger than the fiction. Rumors began to surface about Szegedi’s ancestry. Then there was a tape recorded conversation of Szegedi being confronted with the evidence that his grandmother was a Jew and him offering to pay money to suppress that information. Then he gets in trouble not only for being Jewish, but also for trying to bribe someone to keep that knowledge out of the public eye. When he realized that he would not be able to keep the information from the public, he did what any good politician would do. He shared the information with the public.

Can you image what that would be like? In the twinkling of an eye, you are that which you have blamed for all your problems. Just like that, you are that which you have always seen as being the source of your ills. Without any warning, thought or preparation, you are what you, just moments ago, could not tolerate, abide or stomach.

Charles Caleb Colton, 19th century British minister and writer, said, “We hate some persons because we do not know them; and we will not know them because we hate them.” As Szegedi was coming to terms with the new information about his family origins, he had a conversation with his grandmother. A conversation the likes of which they had never had. She told him about what it was like to be deported. She described for him being imprisoned at Dachau and Auschwitz.  As he learned about the brutal treatment and the deplorable conditions, he began to understand why it was that his grandmother was the only member of her generation of the family that had survived the atrocities of the concentration camps.  He was not only Jewish, but he was descended from a Jew who had endured and survived the very worst of humanity’s inhumanity to humanity.

Now he is changing. He has apologized for anything he said that was offensive to the Jewish People, he has promised to visit Auschwitz to pay his respect and he has visited with a rabbi to discuss his own need to understand what it means to be a Jew. The rabbi is hopeful even while he acknowledges the difficulty and stress of processing such a revelation.

How we see each other makes all the difference.  Csanad Szegedi can no longer look at another Jew and see someone who is all that different from himself.  When we can look at another person and see someone who is something completely other than what we are, that is the starting point for treating them in less than human ways. If we can look at a race of people as being completely other than what we are, then we can justify their enslavement and their status as second-class citizens. If we can look at a group of people and see nothing that we have in common with them, then we can more easily turn an indifferent eye to the treatment they receive from others and the rights and privileges that they are denied.

We miss out as well when we see another human being as someone completely different from ourselves and not as someone who bears the same image of God in which we have been created.  When we look at another and see a human being created and loved by God, then that person can be, just by being a human being, a wonderful gift to us.  In sharing life together with those who are not exactly like us, we open ourselves up to the possibility of receiving the unique giftedness possessed by everyone created in the image of God.  We impoverish ourselves when we fail or refuse to see one another as a person made by God’s hands and dear to God’s heart.

Going to the Well

In a book full of stories that shape and form our understanding of God, the story of the woman at the well is one that seems to always have something more to say about the nature of God.  The Scriptures and the way they have been lived out and are lived out in our own faith community shape our view of God, our image of God.  They create a picture in our minds of the one we turn to in times of trouble, the one we celebrate with in times of joy, and the one who continually invites us to a deeper love relationship.  What images of God come to mind as you read this story?  What does God look like in this story?  What does God act like in this story?

So he came to a Samaritan city called Sychar, near the plot of ground that Jacob had given to his son Joseph.  Jacob’s well was there, and Jesus, tired out by his journey, was sitting by the well. It was about noon.

 A Samaritan woman came to draw water, and Jesus said to her, ‘Give me a drink’.  (His disciples had gone to the city to buy food.)  The Samaritan woman said to him, ‘How is it that you, a Jew, ask a drink of me, a woman of Samaria?’  (Jews do not share things in common with Samaritans.)  Jesus answered her, ‘If you knew the gift of God, and who it is that is saying to you, “Give me a drink”, you would have asked him, and he would have given you living water.’  The woman said to him, ‘Sir, you have no bucket, and the well is deep.  Where do you get that living water?  Are you greater than our ancestor Jacob, who gave us the well, and with his sons and his flocks drank from it?’  Jesus said to her, ‘Everyone who drinks of this water will be thirsty again, but those who drink of the water that I will give them will never be thirsty.  The water that I will give will become in them a spring of water gushing up to eternal life.’  The woman said to him, ‘Sir, give me this water, so that I may never be thirsty or have to keep coming here to draw water.’

Jesus said to her, ‘Go, call your husband, and come back.’  The woman answered him, ‘I have no husband.’  Jesus said to her, ‘You are right in saying, “I have no husband”; for you have had five husbands, and the one you have now is not your husband.  What you have said is true!’  The woman said to him, ‘Sir, I see that you are a prophet.  Our ancestors worshipped on this mountain, but you say that the place where people must worship is in Jerusalem.’  Jesus said to her, ‘Woman, believe me, the hour is coming when you will worship the Father neither on this mountain nor in Jerusalem.  You worship what you do not know; we worship what we know, for salvation is from the Jews.  But the hour is coming, and is now here, when the true worshippers will worship the Father in spirit and truth, for the Father seeks such as these to worship him.  God is spirit, and those who worship him must worship in spirit and truth.’  The woman said to him, ‘I know that Messiah is coming’ (who is called Christ).  ‘When he comes, he will proclaim all things to us.’  Jesus said to her, ‘I am he, the one who is speaking to you.’

Just then his disciples came.  They were astonished that he was speaking with a woman, but no one said, ‘What do you want?’ or, ‘Why are you speaking with her?’  Then the woman left her water jar and went back to the city.  She said to the people, ‘Come and see a man who told me everything I have ever done!  He cannot be the Messiah, can he?’  They left the city and were on their way to him (John 4:5-30).

What did this women think when she saw Jesus at the well?  What was going through her mind as he spoke to her?  Curiosity?  Concern?  Fear?  Excitement?  Will this man ridicule me as so many others have done and still do?  Will he ask something of me that I cannot do or do not want to do?

These sorts of questions and others like them are somewhat instinctive when encountering a new person or situation.  We have a natural tendency to assess the impact of something new on ourselves from our own point of view.  What does this mean to me?  How does this fit into my world, my life?

We may ask those sorts of questions as we read the story and as we imagine what the woman was thinking as Jesus spoke to her, but we need to think about the other character in this story.  What is God doing in this story?  Given what God is doing in the story, what does this say about God?  What would it mean for us to encounter such a God as this?

In a way, we all sit by our own well in the heat of the day.  We go there when we know no one else is around because it is a hard place for us to be.  Our wells do not provide water so much as they hold our tears, tears that we have cried over failures and disappointments, tragedies and heartaches.  We are startled to see someone at our well; we would rather be alone.  But this one knows every tear we have shed.  In fact, he knows everything there is to know about us.

He does not turn away from us or ridicule us.  He offers us water, living water, from a well that never will run dry.

Baptists, Catholics and Birth Control, part 2

“We do not exaggerate when we say that this is the greatest threat to religious freedom in our lifetime. We cannot help but think of the words attributed to German pastor Martin Niemoeller, reflecting on the Nazi terror: ‘First they came for the Socialists, and I did not speak out, because I was not a Socialist. Then they came for the Trade Unionists, and I did not speak out, because I was not a Trade Unionist. Then they came for the Jews, and I did not speak out, because I was not a Jew. Then they came for me, and there was no one left to speak for me.”

These words were written by Charles Colson and Timothy George, two Baptists leaders, in response to recent Health and Human Services guidelines that require health insurance companies to provide birth control to women without a co-pay or additional payments. Because some of these women work for religious institutions (hospitals, schools, but not churches) Colson, George and other religious leaders believe these women should be denied this coverage. They believe this so strongly that they grab history’s most heinous example, Hitler’s Germany, and cobbled together one of the most irresponsible paragraph’s that I have ever read.  Since they have already gone there, it is worth pointing out that there are legitimate reminders of Nazi Germany in this current debate.  For the Nazis, the role of women was defined by three words: Kinder, Kirche, Kuche – kids, church and kitchen.

For American churchmen and politicians who still share this Nazi vision of womanhood to cloak their agenda in one of our most treasured freedoms, religious liberty, does an enormous dishonor to people around the world and throughout history who have truly suffered religious persecution not the least of which is Martin Niemoller.

Yesterday there was a congressional hearing regarding this provision to provide birth control to women. Two women were invited to testify. How can you talk about women’s health without inviting at more women or even mostly women to the conversation? Catholic Bishops testified. Southern Baptist Theologians testified. There are certainly no women in either one of those groups as Catholics and Southern Baptist do not trust women to do much leading or thinking.  No women were invited, but two religious groups that have an expressed commitment to discriminating against women were invited.  What is wrong with this picture? Do women not have a voice? Do women not have brains capable of thinking and reasoning?  For them to be excluded from leadership in so many churches is bad enough, but for them to be excluded from the halls of the government elected to represent them is a travesty of justice.

Former Southern Baptist pastor, Mike Huckabee, might have said it best when he said, “We are all Catholic now.”  Who new when Southern Baptists approved a resolution in 1984 pointing out that “. . .the woman was first in the Edenic fall” that their ultimate goal was to reunite with Rome, at least in terms of how women were viewed and treated.  They get together in a room spouting pious phrases in order to decide what women should and should not have and they call it defending religious freedom.

The real violation of religious freedom in this case would come if the regulations were changed to suit the desires these two and other religious groups. If such a turn of events were to occur, the government would in effect become an enforcement arm of the church, enforcing doctrines they themselves have no way of forcing their members to adhere to.

Nothing in the Health and Human Services regulations forces any individual to take birth control, but they are granted access. That access is a good thing according to the Institute of Medicine. It is a good thing according to American College of Obstetrics and Gynecology. However, it is a good thing mostly because it puts the decision about birth control where it should be, in the hands of women, not in a room were they were not wanted.

Stop the Hate

Thank you to Ethicsdaily and to the Knoxville News-Sentinel for sharing the love I tried to write about in Using God to Bully.

“At some thoughts one stands perplexed, above all at the sight of human sin, and wonders whether to combat it by force or by humble love. Always decide ‘I will combat it by humble love.’ If you resolve on that once and for all, you can conquer the whole world. Loving humility is a terrible force: it is the strongest of all things, and there is nothing else like it.”

– Fyodor Dostoyevsky, from
The Brothers Karamazov

Sadly, so many today see love not as a strong force for transformation, but as a weakness. Dostoyesky’s words are a helpful reminder that love is more powerful than we realize.

Baptists, Catholics and Birth Control

Today the White House announced a broader exemption to the Health and Human Service’s rule requiring religious institutions to provide contraception coverage to their employees. Basically it says that religious institutions who object don’t have to buy it, but the insurance company will have to provide it free of charge.  The Baptist Joint Committee for Religious Liberty sees this as a positive move that protects the freedom of religious institutions and provides for the health care needs of their employees.

Hopefully, this compromise will quell the concerns of those who felt the previous rule provided to narrow of an exemption for religious institution.  I do wonder though if it will be sufficient. In part because I am not sure that religious liberty was their primary concern.  The two religious groups that were most vocal in their criticism of the previous rule were the Roman Catholic and the Southern Baptist Convention.  These are two groups who always have the subjugation of women on their unwritten agenda for engaging the world.  Catholics do not allow women to serve as priest nor do Southern Baptist approve of women serving as Senior Pastors.  One wonders if these two groups would have a different theology about birth control if more women were involved in their theological conversations.

Don’t get me wrong, the Catholic Church has provided the world with some brilliant and beautiful thinkers. I try to read something from Henri Nouwen and Richard Rohr everyday.  St. Francis, Mother Teresa and Dorothy Day still provide as good of an example of what it means to follow Jesus today as they did when they were alive.  Yet in recent years we have seen that there are problems in the church when it comes to human sexuality.   This is true among Catholics and Baptists as well.  Unfortunately, each group has its share of predators waiting to exploit. Each group has resisted acknowledging the problem and addressing the issue. They have chosen rather to hide behind their theological priorities and ecclesiastical language.  That has left us all a little less comfortable than we might have been when it comes to talking about sex.

A friend pointed out the other day how refreshing it would have been to see the kind of moral outrage from Catholic bishops over children being sexually abused as they demonstrated over the thought of having to provide birth control to their female employees.  In fact, the former Archbishop of New York went in the opposite direction last week by recanting a previous apology he had made on behalf of the church to the victims of sexual abuse and their families. Catholics and Baptists alike seem to prefer telling others what is and is not acceptable rather than having open and honest conversations about sex and why God made us the way God made us.  t.

In a world that is grossly overly-sexualized, the church must find a way to help families and individuals have a calm conversation about what it means that God has made sex apart of our human experience.  To that end, I wish that I could be at A [Baptist] Conference on Sexuality and Covenant this April 19-21.

Church being Church

You may have heard the saying, “hard times don’t build character—they reveal it.”   That saying was much on my mind this week as you, the body of Christ at Ball Camp, walked with the Lethgo family during their time of grief and loss.  There are few times in our lives more difficult than when we face the loss of a loved one.  Watching you be the presence of Christ to a family facing just such a loss was truly a blessing.

Your ministry to them to them was a wonderful answer to the question of what the church is and what the purpose of Ball Camp Baptist Church is.  The news came to us Sunday morning and we started to pray for this family.  Someone was already talking with the family helping to answer questions and make arrangements.  The sanctuary was made available for the funeral service as it always is when a member or friend goes to be with the Lord.  The choir loft was full for the service and there was room there for friends and family who wanted to join in the singing.  Every time I hear our choir sing How Great thou Art at a funeral service, I grow more confident in the promise of heaven.   More than that, I long for it more when I hear them sing.  Somehow it just seems closer when they proclaim it with such power and beauty.   Dr. Leonard Markham’s willingness to return to Ball Camp to preach Gibby Lethgo’s funeral is testimony to the reality that once you have been a part of Ball Camp, experienced the working of God in this place and with our people, it stays with you even when life moves you to other places.  Many of you were here during the receiving of friends and for the service, and by your presence you reminded this family of the promise and presence of Christ.  Of course, on the day of his burial you continued to speak love and support to this grieving family by graciously and wonderfully feeding them when they were hungry.  So like Christ to meet such an everyday, ordinary need in the midst of difficult times.

For many different reasons, we do not always have the opportunity to minister in so many ways to a family suffering the loss of a loved one.  This week, you did and it was a beautiful sight to behold.  No definitions, no explanations, and no words could provide a better understanding of what the church is supposed to be than seeing you and what you have offered to, and been for, this family as they have walked through the cold, dark valley of the shadow of death.  You have been rod and staff to them.

As people of God, saved by God’s grace and made a part of the family of God by God’s unconditional love, we are able to be in constant conversation with that loving and gracious God.  That love and grace shapes our living so that we proclaim with word and deed the truth of it.  Today as we pray, “lead us not into temptation, but deliver us from evil” we are reminded that we do not face our trials alone.  God has brought us together: “Lead us not,” “deliver us.”  By God’s grace, what we face, we face together and as we do that we see clearly the substance and depth of Christian community.

More than that, we bear witness to the truth of the Gospel.   Jesus told his disciples that he would never leave them nor forsake them, but that he would be with them until the end of the age.  When followers of Christ act and minister in the ways that you have this past week these words of scripture come to life before our very eyes.  They take on flesh and bone as you seek to be the presence of Christ to one another.

Thank you for your faithfulness to the teachings of scriptures and to the commands of Christ.