Saturday, January 23, 2021

A Matter of Words

This year, I am reading through the NET Full Notes version of the Bible. If you haven't heard of this translation, it is a work by a team of scholars in which they explain nearly every translation decision they made in a footnote. Some pages of this Bible contain just a handful of verses of the actual text, while the rest of the page is filled with 30 or so footnotes about Hebrew roots, Greek words, ancient manuscripts, and modern language. 

The aim of the translators, as is the aim of most translators, is to create a version of the Bible that is as close to the original reading as we can get but also readable for today's Christian. In other words, they want to stay true to what the Bible says, but they want you to understand it. And of course, for a theology nerd who loves footnotes in general, the work from the original languages is particularly fascinating to me. 

That said, I am just a few weeks into this Bible translation, barely into Exodus, and I already find myself rolling my eyes at some of the decisions that these translators have made in favor of 'readability.' For example, when reading through the patriarch stories and early into Moses, there is a note that explains that they have chosen to say "walking stick" instead of "staff," even when the Hebrew word indicates "staff," because to the modern reader, a "staff" is a roster of employees of a particular person or organization and not, well, a stick in the hand of a shepherd. 

This is just one example of extreme nitpickiness of words that they have noted so far. 

And on one hand, it strikes me that they don't give the biblical reader enough credit. But then on the other hand, I wonder if perhaps I take my own familiarity with words too naturally. After all, I know what a biblical staff is, so doesn't everyone? 

So I catch myself, and I pull back and I wonder if perhaps this isn't a better way. If perhaps these translators actually do have it right and that this sort of clarification is necessary for many readers. Maybe there are a bunch of Christians out there who read 'staff' and think about a roster of employees and so, they need to see 'walking stick' instead. 

And then I find myself wondering if I still agree with the decision if it is only one person who reads the Bible more correctly because of this change of words. If this substitution helps one person better understand the Word of God, then I'm all for that...aren't I?

Then again, am I really? 

Because I also understand that when we're talking about the patriarchs, we're talking about a shepherding people. We're talking about a people for whom the staff was not just a walking stick; it was a tool of their trade. When we read later in Psalm 23, we read that the Lord's rod and staff comfort us, as they would in the hands of any good shepherd. And then, I wonder if the Lord's 'walking stick' is a much a comfort to me as His 'staff,' the tool of His trade. 

Now, I could go off on a tangent here about how if the staff of a shepherd is a mere walking stick, then of course, it's a comfort that God has a means to steady Himself. It means He is trustworthy and stable, that I can lean on and rely on Him.

But that's insufficient, because we know that the shepherd's staff was not just for his own use; it was for the good of his flocks, as well. 'Walking stick' gives the impression that it's just for the man, and not for the flocks, so this doesn't capture the essence of the biblical text. Another note would be needed to explain the use of the walking stick for the benefit of the flock, and, well, if you're going to put in a note to explain the use of the walking stick, why not just keep 'staff' and use the note to explain that? 

It seems like such a simple thing, but it's raised a deeper issue for me in terms of biblical translation and reading. In terms of the ways that we engage God's Word for the masses. 

More on that, tomorrow.  

Thursday, January 21, 2021

What Happens in America

So the question becomes: how, then, does a Christian interact with politics in a faithful manner? How do we live as Christians and Americans? One friend asked me recently, very pointedly, "Do you vote?" 

And the answer is, yes. Yes, we vote. We vote our conscience and our morals and our heart. We vote with our vision for what America is and what she should become. We vote because we know that our founding fathers understood that America would be guided by the faith and the morals of the leaders that she elects, and certainly, there is value to ensuring our voices are in the conversation. We vote because God told us to live in the world that He gave us, to be active participants in this life that He has called us to. 

But we have to vote knowing that our vote, and the outcome of any election, is not the most important thing. It's not even in the top twenty. If we were to make a list of things that matter in our lives, things that we value, things that influence the way that we actually live, politics isn't the top of the list for any of us. We start closer to home, with our family, our friends, our neighbors, our communities, our ministries, our service. When we start to list off what we value in life, donkeys and elephants just aren't up there. And yet, in times like these, we all pretend it's the most important thing in the whole world. 

More important, even, than our faith. 

And some have asked, how can we even keep being Christians, though, if we don't have a government that supports our religious freedoms, let alone our religious views? How are we supposed to keep living a life of faith if the American culture doesn't at the very least support our right to do so? We need Christian politicians, they say, because Christian politicians make our Christian worship possible. 

I think Daniel would have something to say about that. 

Daniel was living in a Babylon that not only didn't support his Christian faith, but they made it punishable by death. What did he do? He went into his room, positioned himself by his window, and he prayed anyway. He refused to bow down to the statute that Babylon worshiped (to the culture of the land where he lived), and he put his life on the line. 

American Christians have gotten so comfortable. We think that our faith ought to be protected from persecution, that we ought to have a pass somehow against the kind of real trouble from the world that God's people have always faced. Read the Bible. Every page is filled with persons choosing faith over all else, choosing God when it's not convenient or easy, putting their lives actually on the line for what they believe is the highest thing. 

And here we are, fighting over politics because we think that somehow, politics threatens our faith. No, my friends. Our entitlement threatens our faith. Our notion that our faith ought to be safe and clean and protected threatens our faith. There is no special provision anywhere for the American church, that she should never face persecution. 

What we have to decide is whether or not we're going to continue to be a people of faith when we do face it. 

The truth is, when it comes to politics, it matters what happens to America, but it doesn't matter that much. It's not the highest thing. It's not the biggest thing. Nations live and die all the time. Boundaries shift and cultures change and human stuff happens, but God remains. And if we have our lives wrapped up first and foremost in Him, then we can let go of politics. We can let go of our fear about what happens if X or Y person gets into power or if this or that party starts making our decisions. Not because its impact on our lives isn't real but because, in the face of faith, its impact on our lives doesn't matter. 

God has called us to be in this world, not of this world. When we take that seriously, we put our feet down on Solid Rock and live with our hands open. Whatever happens, happens. Because Jesus already lived, already died, and yet, still lives again and that doesn't change with the winds. The center of the Christian faith has never been Washington, D.C., and it's never going to be. (Although, let's be honest, how terribly close we are to believing that it is.) The center of the Christian faith is an empty tomb in the shadow of a Cross. 

And if we could all live a little more like that, then we'd start to get a true godly perspective on everything else - politics included. And then maybe, just maybe, we'd understand what He's been trying to tell us about them all along. 

Wednesday, January 20, 2021

Biblical Politics

The Bible actually has quite a bit to say to us about politics, about how to be a people in a foreign land. We looked at some of these ideas on Monday when we introduced the topic - pray for your leadership, submit yourself to the authorities because God has put them in place, and pray for the peace and prosperity of the land where you live, for their good is your good. (Not, we must note, "your good is their good," but their good is your good.) 

But it's not just that. 

We also have a witness of the entire history of God's people in which they completely misunderstood what Jesus meant when He said He was coming to be their king. We have the history of Israel under the kings she appointed for herself because she was tired of waiting on God, and we have the passion of the Jews during the lifetime of Jesus Himself. 

It's no secret that they wanted to make Him their king. It's no secret that they thought He came so that they could overthrow Rome, put their Lord on the power seat, and really start changing the world into a more faithful, more just, more righteous society because finally, finally, the Jewish ethic would be in charge. 

Then, of course, Jesus dies and the whole thing collapses and everyone's pretty much sure it is over - and it is, at least for those who were waiting around with a robe and a crown to put the living God incarnate on the throne of the nation-state. Jesus says plainly, in His death, that's not what He's about. He makes it clear again and again in His life that He's no political figure. 

And yet, here we are, two thousand years later, trying to make Jesus our king (President) and, short of that, trying to elect Presidents that we think will rule us well because we're tired of waiting on God to give us the kind of world that we've been praying for (even though, of course, that world can never fully exist on this side of eternity). 

And yet, here we are, thinking that this time, it's going to work. That this time, we're going to get it done. That now, for sure, we'll get the right guy in office and finally have Jesus running our country for us. 

And yet, here we are, pretty sure that God is finally going to do this for us, that He's going to redeem America and make her a righteous nation by her politics, which would be, we have to confess, the first time He has ever done that for a nation-state. Ever. 

And yet, here we are, talking like the nation-state of America is God's prize possession, His chosen nation, His preferred structure for living. 

You know what the only thing God had to say to His people about the nation-state was in all of Scripture? The nation-state will take from you the allegiance that you owe to God. The nation-state will exact from you the devotion that you once reserved for God. The nation-state will rule your life in ways that God is supposed to rule your life. Everything that you set aside for God will end up going to the nation-state because that's how nation-states work. 

And He was right. 

And then, generations later, He sends Jesus, and the people think...now, we've got it. Now, we've got the nation-state that we always hoped for. Now, we're bringing our worship back in proper alignment. Jesus is going to be our King. 

Then Jesus says, I don't want to be your King. I don't want to be the leader of your nation-state. I will not accept a royal enthroning. I want to be your Lord. I want be the leader of your life. I want to be the guider of your heart. 

And He was right, too. 

Yet here we are, still getting it wrong. Will the people of God ever learn? 

The only thing the Bible has ever had to teach us about politics is that they aren't nearly as great nor as important as we make them and that we're setting aside so many good things of God out of hearts to make room for the broken systems we think we're finally going to fix when God Himself said that's not what He's interested in fixing. He's not out to change our world; He's out to change our hearts. He doesn't work in the nation-state; He works in the neighborhoods. He works in our homes. 

Imagine how much it would change - about our lives and our politics - if we could take Him seriously on that. 

Tuesday, January 19, 2021

A Christian Nation

One of the arguments that we often hear from Christians when they believe that America is suffering from her own affliction is that America has simply turned her back on God and needs to turn back to Him. If America was the Christian nation that God called her to be, then we wouldn't be where we are right now. 

There are a couple of very serious problems with this thinking. 

First, America is not a Christian nation. America was founded on the idea of religious freedom, and while she was grounded in the Christian (or semi-Christian) understandings of her fathers, the idea was never to make America a Christian nation. The idea was to make America a nation that didn't force her religion down the throats of her people, as was happening in Britain at the time. The idea that the early Americans had any idea of establishing a Christian nation is plainly historically false, even though they understood that their Christian morality was the only thing that would guide them correctly into creating the kind of nation they were hoping for. (We can talk about that later, if you're interested. Here, it's just basically an aside.) 

But second, and the most serious problem that we have with this thinking, is that it's simply not biblical. Not in the slightest. 

There is only one nation of God in the Bible, and it is the nation of Israel. But when the Bible talks about Israel as a nation, it is not talking about a nation-state the way that America is a nation-state; it is talking about a people as a nation of people. It is talking about the collective of individuals who are established on the faith. Even when Israel settles into the Promised Land and becomes a people with a distinct land to call her own, even when they appoint a king over themselves, even when they go to war with other nation-states, the Bible still doesn't talk about them as a nation-state; it talks about them as a people. 

(This is important, too, when we talk about the nature of the nation-state of modern Israel, but again, that's a discussion for another time, if you're interested.) 

So this notion that we somehow restore and redeem America and make her into all the things she was always supposed to be by electing Christians and legislating a Christian morality and humbling ourselves and getting our country to turn itself around and re-commit itself to God...is, plainly, terrible theology. It's really, really wrong theology. God has never had in mind a "Christian" nation-state - not for His people Israel, and not for His Gentiles today. 

And we should also note that not once when God's people have been foreigners living in strange territories has God told them that what they need to do is make the nation where they're living a Christian nation. Not once has He told them to upheave the entire political structure of...anywhere...in order to make it into a nation that lives by the rules they want to live by. Rather, God has always called His people to make righteousness the priority in their own lives. 

Which is what we should still be doing today. 

God's will for this world is never accomplished by having a Christian nation-state. We can't legislate our way into morality or righteousness, and if you don't understand that, look no further than the Bible itself. Israel had the law and couldn't even keep it. And the New Testament tells us that is precisely what a law is for - for people who can't keep it. The law can only do so much. It is the heart - in the New Testament, a covenant of grace - that makes a people into a Christian people. God's heart for this world has always and will always only be lived out in the love for neighbor that His people embrace. 

In other words, if you want America to be a "Christian" nation, you have to focus on getting her people, not her politics, to turn to God. Not in some faraway place where legislation is enacted, but on the street where you live. 

And it starts...with you. 

It starts with you not being the kind of Christian we've been talking about so far this week, the kind of Christian who does nothing but grumble about the state of politics in America and argues for a more "Christian" politic while living in a broken, self-righteous spirit that is antithetical to the entirety of the Christian heart. It starts with you loving your neighbor, even the one who voted differently than you did. It starts with you reaching a hand across your own aisle and declaring that no matter what happens in Washington, you are going to live the kind of life that God has called you to live. Whatever is happening in America doesn't keep you from doing that, unless you're just looking for an excuse. 

So let's stop talking about having a Christian "nation" when we know that that was never what God, or America, had in mind. Instead, let's focus on being a Christian people, real followers of God whose faithfulness starts and ends on our own streets and not simply at the ballot box.  

Monday, January 18, 2021

A Theology of Opposition

As we watch the ways in which American politics and American Christianity have become far too entangled, there are those who seem to be ready and willing to call out Christians for their deeply political affiliations. The problem is, this isn't happening out of a concern for Christian theology (though it is often masked as such), but rather, out of a concern for American politics. 

And that is, well, concerning.

There are a number of Christians right now claiming the moral high ground for calling out - and condemning - other Christians for their Christian support of a particular political figure. They throw out commentary on things like personal character and public demeanor, and they declare, self-righteously, how can you claim to be a Christian and support someone like this, no matter what his policies are? 

They claim some kind of righteousness in this, as though they are 'more' Christian or 'better' Christians for hating this man and condemning everything about him. As if the Christian thing to do is to denounce our duly elected leader and throw all of his supporters (everyone who voted for him, no matter how active or inactive their ongoing support) into one caricaturized category and dismiss - and denigrate - all of them. They claim they are standing up for the church and for her witness in the world, wanting to show the world that this man, this support, this politic isn't what Christianity is all about and begging the world not to do the very thing that they're doing - not to lump all of Christianity into a conservative politic that leans toward this particular candidate. 

Where do we even begin?

Let's start with the fact that these Christians are using hate as a justification for righteousness. Hey, we hate him, too. Hey, we hate everything he stands for and everyone who stands with him. Look at us, the church, calling someone out because we can't stand him. Uhm, I'm not sure what Bible these folks are reading, but the defense of Christianity can never be hate and condemnation. It can't. For too many years, the church was known for what it objected to, and here we are with a bunch of Christians claiming a new righteousness for political objections, which is a double error - the error that we are what we object to and the error that Christianity is somehow deeply entertwined with politics. 

They ask how you could have voted for and supported a man with such poor character, even when the policies of the other candidate were clearly antithetical to the Christian morality, and they can't believe you haven't condemned him yourself yet. They can't believe you continue to see him as anything but complete and total evil. 

And yet, we have a theology that believes in brokenness and redemption. Do we not? We have a theology that sees all of us as flawed human beings, doing our best to navigate through a broken world. We all have our things that make us distasteful, at times, to others. Should we all be written off? Or should we look for something redemption-worthy in everyone? Are some sins so great that we should never forgive them, especially when the Bible tells us there is only one unforgivable sin (and spoiler alert: this isn't it)? 

We've got this whole sect of Christianity that is ready to stand with culture and try to put the church on the 'right' side of politics (or rather, the 'correct' side, since their trouble seems to be that American Christianity has too firmly associated itself with the political right), and to them, this is a correction to the error of politics and theology becoming too enmeshed. 

But here's the truth: this is the enmeshing of politics and theology, too. Those who are voicing this movement are guilty of exactly the same things that they are decrying and condemning. Exactly the same things. They are claiming that there is a real "Christian" politic and that what it seems to be isn't it. They aren't telling the church that they've got politics wrong; they're telling the church they've got the wrong politics. Yet still, we have to come back to a Bible that tells us how politics and faith truly live together - and neither side is getting it right. 

There's no righteousness in being on 'correct' side of culture. There's no righteousness in being on the side of popular opinion (which, by the way, is a misnomer, since our information channels are skewed by the ways that we filter them). You don't get to claim that "Christians" are getting it wrong and misrepresenting the faith by doing exactly the same thing you're condemning them for, and you don't get to claim that 'real' Christianity would do two of the things that Christ Himself was never known for - hate and condemn a man that you're currently scapegoating for all of the problems of a broken system. 

And listen, because I know this is going to come up: this is not a defense of that man. This is not one of 'his' people blindly following and blah blah blah and all the stuff you hear thrown out at someone who tries to take a middle road and who doesn't wholeheartedly condemn him as thoroughly wicked. Humans are complicated. We're complex. We're broken in ways that others sometimes don't understand, and we do things that seem...inconceivable. All of us. Some of us have bigger platforms than others, so the lights shine brighter, but we're all guilty of this kind of stuff. And you think, yeah, but I'm not a racist, bigoted, arrogant son-of-a, and yet, the minute you think that...you become one. The minute you put a label on someone else and make an 'us' and a 'them,' you're just as guilty of the very thing you claim to hate. You've caricaturized someone else and lost the essence of what it means to be human. 

I get that that's not a popular view, but it doesn't make it any less true. And we can condemn acts and attitudes without condemning persons. No one is saying we should let racism, where it truly exists, get a pass. No one is saying we condone the things that are antithetical to the kind of righteousness that God calls us to. But there's a big difference between condemning a behavior and condemning a human being, who, by the way, is made in the image of God. See, grace is a complex thing, too. It's complicated. It's hard. But it's beautiful. And if you find yourself in a position where you're feeling defensive about all of the things that others assume of you because of the way that certain others act, then you, of all persons, ought to be in a position of grace. For you stand begging for it yourself, do you not?