My father, a man who spent much of his life in Connecticut, asked me a question. It was the same question that thousands, if not millions have asked in the last few days. As his voiced trembled and halted, I knew the question before it rang in my ears.
“Where was God?”
In time of tragedy there is not a single question that can be asked that has such a simple answer, yet is so difficult to accept. Many throughout history have asked this question during their own versions of Newtown, Connecticut. Even the heroes of the Bible were forced to ask the same question. Moses, during a period of slavery and murder, when countless children were murdered simply because a society was threatened by their race, asked God that very question. For the first time in recorded history God gave the answer.
Where God are you?
God was not absent during Israel’s troubles, nor was he absent in Connecticut last week. God was not pushed out of the building, helpless to intervene while one of his creations stalked the halls and mercilessly gunned-downed. God was not stopped because a tremendous evil had appeared from nowhere, an evil never before seen. God was not barred from the building because of legal decisions of the nation. God did not restrain himself from stopping the tragedy because he was mad at us as a town, nation, or planet. God wasn’t absent anymore than the sun or moon were. God was then as God is now and as he shall forever be. God is.
God was there when each child and adult breathed their last breath. God saw the glimmer of life leave their eyes. God saw the anger and pain in the shooter’s eyes each time he pulled the trigger. God saw it all, God felt it all. God experienced the tragedy deeper than myself or my father, more than the survivors and the victims. He stood next to the parents as they mourned their offspring, just as he has done billions of times before. God remembers crafting each of the children in his own hands, giving them the gifts and potential for greatness, knowing full well when their moment of passing would be. God felt the pain that set his child on a course for murder. God listened to the metallic click of each brass cartridge being loaded into the magazines that would soon be emptied in a torrent of fury.
God was there then as he is still now. Mourning with those who mourn, bringing peace to those who are ready, and wiping the tears from the faces of his children come home.
Neither this tragedy, nor any of the countless that came before, have ever driven God away. When his first children chose a course that would one day lead to dozens of kids being murdered in their New England classroom, he let them go. He knew they could do better, but he knew they would not. He chose to let them go anyway. He loved them, he loved them enough to let them live their lives.
For generations his children chose when their lives would end, as if they never even considered that what they had was a gift in the first place. Yet he let them live. Only once did God ever turn his face, only once did choose not to be there. Up on the cross when his own child, his own blood, was dying. Then and only then did he leave, knowing that to do so was the only way to let every child to come experience life everlasting.
God wasn’t gone from Connecticut. God is in Connecticut. God Is.
A bumper-sticker slogan I have seen more than once proudly declares that “Christians aren’t perfect, just forgiven.” This slogan is the cornerstone theological statement of many in western evangelical movement, and it is the problem. Many Christians believe that their sins, no matter how great or small are of no matter because they, being Christian and all, are forgiven. However, at the same time those same Christians are cruelty unforgiving of any who sins in their eyes and is not a Christian.
Christians can divorce at will and still be “stalwart defenders” of traditional marriage. They can also be “staunchly pro-life” when screaming for vengeance and war that kills thousands of children. They can be greedy and hoard up wealth and still attack “godless” forms of economy. The duplicity is mind boggling. In a way, it can appear that what these Christians really want is a world where the non-Christians act better than them. They want the unforgiven to live by “biblical” standards while the forgiven celebrate their freedom to do as they please. Followed to its logical conclusion, Christians want a world where Jesus finds all of those he is about to send to Hell being good people, and his chosen few sinning as they please and boasting of their forgiveness.
If you are deeply entrenched in the Christian culture of America, let me assure you, this attitude looks amazingly and illogically hypocritical. Case in point: Tennessee Congressman Scott DesJarlais. Like many politicians who claim the conservative Christian label and its accompanying political support, he is a complicated man. During the election season, a scandal arose regarding the congressman and his mistress. The staunchly anti-abortion candidate, while practicing as a medical doctor, had impregnated a patient and then pressured her to have an abortion. Conservative Tennessee voters elected him on his promise to “defend traditional marriage” and “protect unborn life.” This was despite the knowledge that the same man cheated on his wife, abused his position as doctor, and pressured a woman to have an abortion so that he would be spared “embarrassment.” This is what some in the Behavioral Science field call cognitive dissonance.
After his reelection in November the scandal began to widen and it was learned that when he divorced his earlier wife he had also pressured her to have two abortions. If this were anyone but a “pro-life” Republican congressman, Christians would call him a serial killer. Yet support for him has barely diminished. When asked about all of these things he has done, while at the same time restating he is against them and will fight anyone who thinks they are ok, he answered in a typical Christian manner. “I’m human… I don’t think I ever put myself out there to be somebody that was perfect.”
It his clear from his statements that the congressman from Tennessee has decided it is not his place to be hard on himself, it is his job to be hard on others. His record will prove as much.
Thus we have an illustration of the problem. Christians have convinced themselves that they can be as absolutely wicked as they want, and by some measures worse than the rest of the world, yet remain at peace because of God’s grace. Any sin committed by the in-crowd can be rationalized away as a “simple mistake,” a “stumble,” or dodged completely by blaming it on an attack by Satan.
The world on the other hand, is ripe for judgement. Their sins are deliberate and premeditated. When the world fails to do right; it is because in their evilness they can do nothing but violently attack God and his way. Remember Bill Clinton? He did far less than DesJarlais, yet every Christian leader of note called for his resignation. They claimed that his personal failings proved he was morally incapable of leading.
Ironically the Apostle Paul in his letters, James in his letter, John in his first letter, and at many times the Lord Jesus himself all indicated that they believed the exact opposite. The clear teaching across the New Testament is that Christians are supposed to be better. Yes we are forgiven, but our response to that forgiveness is that we are better. We do not judge the world for the precise reason that we do not believe they can do better without the grace of God. Our view toward the rest of the world should be a sharing of the gospel message of God’s love for them. Our forgiveness should not be an issue of pride on our bumper stickers, but of humility in our prayers.
Once upon a time, people thanked God for what they had. Every day was filled with prayers of thanksgiving and everything they had was cherished and shared with others so that everyone would benefit.
Then, one day, someone told us we could have more. We forgot to be thankful and spent all of our time striving for more than we had the day before. Nations were built and empires spread; we knew we would not have what God gives us, but what we give ourselves.
One day, a great war broke out; the nation was divided. Whenever a battle was won, the victorious side had a day of thanksgiving. Then the president had an idea, “What if we had one day to give thanksgiving as a single nation. Instead of thinking about our blessings from above, we could be thankful for those founders that came before us who built this great nation.” His side won the war, and the whole nation gave thanks to our nation on a single day.
Over the years, people became disillusioned about the country and what they had been told about its greatness. They started to believe again that what they had was not a gift from God or a country, but their own hard work. The companies told the people that they should reward their hard work and the day after declaring what they were thankful for they should go out and buy things that they didn’t have the day before.
People began to get more and more excited about buying things they didn’t need, and hording things things they didn’t know they wanted. All of the things they declared their thanks for no longer held appeal in their eyes.
The people demanded to know what they wanted before they arrived at the stores, so the companies filled their mailboxes and driveways with advertisements on the very day that people were supposed to be thankful. No one had time to pray and think about what they had, their day was now consumed coveting the things they saw in pictures and they dreamed of the day to come.
Then one day, the companies reminded the world that the day legally begins at midnight, and that their time of thanksgiving should end at 11:59:59pm. People now spent their mornings coveting, their afternoons eating, and their evenings sleeping, lest they lose the energy to shop.
As the years went by the companies, and the people, wanted more. Thanksgiving had giving way to coveting, and the people couldn’t wait until midnight to feed their desires. The shopping would now begin the night that was once part of Thanksgiving day, after all, people had formally just been preparing during this time anyway.
So we stood at the dawn of a new century ready to pounce on new things, instead of kneeling for those that we already had.
We bought and we bought and filled our homes with things. We discarded thanksgiving altogether because of our lust for new things. We lined up at the stores and rushed the doors. We trampled anyone who got in our way.
So it came to pass, we traded thanksgiving for materials. We hoarded the newest and the best. We spent all of our money on things we didn’t even need know we needed the day before. We did it all in the name of the holy day to come, the day when we celebrated the birth of He who said, “sell everything you have and follow me.”
There are few more controversial labels than “pro-life” and “pro-choice.” Although abstract in their nomenclature, these labels always refer to the same issue, abortion.
In the America we are obsessed with this issue, and why not? How can you not be enraged by the thought of a cute little baby being snuffed out at the beginning of its life? or an entire gender’s right to self-determination cast aside by the other sex? The issue is always framed this way, usually because one of those aspects will resonate with half the country more than the other. It creates a righteousness to each side, while at the same time demonizing the other. This dichotomy is politically useful, but over the past 40 years has proven to be practically useless.
The choice between these two positions is a false in and of itself, as we are told the only battleground this is to be fought on is the legalization of abortion, oversimplifying the issue to the degree of hopeless quagmire. The issue of abortion and women’s’ rights are part of a deeper issue, and unless that deeper issue is addressed, a resolution will never be achieved.
The real issue is this: do we really honor life?
Ask the poor, uneducated, single mother of three if she really has a choice when she finds herself pregnant. Ask her in her moment of decision if she feels that any really cares about her or her children’s’ life. The truth is, neither position is a position of truth.
Advocates on both sides of the divide project a poor understanding of people caught up in the middle. Those who seek to make abortion illegal have little problem watching a poor girl have a child, and that child grow up without parents because one is in jail and the other must work long hours to support him or her. That child grows up without the support of family or community, and only choice for an education is one that doesn’t even provide the basic skills needed to survive. When that “saved” child becomes an adult they are told that they are not qualified for anything but the most menial jobs that pay insufficiently to support themselves let alone family. Eventually the person does have choice, stay in a state of poverty, unable to support a family of their own, or turn to crime and possible rise out of their situation, usually destroying what little life they had.
How is that honoring life? How does that give anyone a real choice?
I am constantly bemused by the Christians who call themselves pro-life and can never understand why anyone would choose to kill a baby. How can you kill an adorable little baby whose parents will one day watch him take his first steps and record the even on their video camera? How can you kill that child before he smiles and gets on the bus for the first day of school, or piles out of the mini van for soccer practice? How can you not want to sit there on graduation day and watch your offspring take their college diploma? Why would you want to prevent yourself from sitting at thanksgiving dinner while your child cuts the turkey for the first time in his own house, while his wife watches with pride as she nurses your grandchild?
The sad truth for many of the children who never make it to birth is that they are not missing any of those things, because they would not have happened had they lived. Few of the women forced to make such a heart wrenching decision would say they had much of a choice.
You may argue that any life is better than no life, however to stand before a woman in such a context is cold, unloving, and definitely not “life-affirming.” A person who screams, “this is your problem, now you deal with it!” while providing no help or love to a woman in crisis has no right to say such things. Only when we bear one-another’s burdens can we rightful give our input.
I have a modest proposal, let’s eliminate abortion, but let’s do it in a truly pro-life way which provides women with real choices. A pro-life way honors life not just from conception to birth, but all the way to the hopefully long-off grave. As a follower of Jesus, I believe his command to me to “love my neighbors as myself” means I have to love not only the unborn child, but the mother as well.
Here is how you do it: Provide medical care and support for a pregnant mother to be, let her know she is loved and cared for. Provide a world where children born to mothers that cannot handle them will not rot away in the foster system, but every child be given a chance to succeed. Give children opportunities to thrive no matter where they are born. Create a culture that never views other human beings as a burden or an enemy, but as valuable children of God.
If we do these things, I predict that abortions for otherwise healthy babies will drop to nil even without legal prohibition. As a Christian, I believe that all these things should be done anyway, because that is the embodiment of loving others. If you want a world where we do not do these things for others, I’m afraid we will never rise above a contentious debate where both women and children are cast aside. I may be wrong, but until we try it we will never know.
You are not God.
That is the declaration that sin makes, yet somehow we seem to have lost that concept. Modern understandings of sin tend to fall on or near one of two extremes.
The first extreme is growing in popularity but is still the most easily dismissed. That is the view that there is no sin. This view is usually held by people who are more “progressive” or “liberal,” labels which they carry proudly. They tend to view sin as an archaic concept from an ancient time of absolutes. Adherents to this idea tend to argue that “good” and “bad” are relative. However the hypocrisy and ultimate defeat of this theory is that even the staunchest “live and let live” liberal has in their mind a list of sins, some of which are unforgivable. Examples may include oppression, pedophilia, rape, etc. I have still yet to find a person who truly holds to this view, even if they idealize it.
The more insidious misapplication of sin is when people think of sin as a heavenly list of dos and don’ts. This view is often held by self-identifying “conservatives.” These people believe that committing one of these forbidden acts earns a person a one way ticket to Hell. Conversely, there are things that one must do in order to avoid hell. People create lists which they believe are universally applicable in all places and every situation. Ironically, these lists vary from one person to the next, casting doubt on the legitimacy of any particular list. Often using the Bible as source material, they tend to handpick certain “sins” (to outsiders this will appear random in nature) and elevate them to special pinnacle of evil. The sins chosen for this tend to be plucked from the Bible without any regard for historical or cultural context, yet tend to conform more to the culture and context of the modern individual creating the list. Nuances such as “good and vs holy and common” or “biblical Israel vs all peoples,” tend to never even be considered. Examples in the United States include Christians’ opposition to Capitalism in the 19th century, and seeming reversal to opposition to any hint of Socialism in the 21st, the mid 20th century war on racial integration and mixed-race marriage. and most recently the obsession with what civil rights should be granted or withheld from homosexuals. In every aforementioned instance, biblical verses were found to support their position, and verses that opposed such views completely dismissed.
Both of these views have something in common. Both are used to declare that the self is God. Let me explain. In the first view, the self is allowed to view the entirety of the world and declare that there is nothing morally wrong (please remember I stated that I don’t believe anyone actually holds this view). In the second view, the self is allowed to declare what is and is not acceptable, and clothe that list in divine authority. In both these instances, humility has been removed and there is no room left for the divine.
The Christian Bible does not speak of sin this way. Jesus repeatedly told his followers and detractors that human effort is never sufficient and often the most religiously “law-abiding” people are the ones furthest from God. See how Jesus condemns the publicly righteous man who “thanks” God he is so able to be sinless, in favor of the humble sinner who recognizes his need for a savior. One man judges himself as only God can, and judges himself great. He has deluded himself into believing that he is divine, that he is perfect. The other man is humbled by sin, does not condemn others because he knows he has earned plenty of condemnation himself.
After Jesus, the Apostle Paul speaks of the universality of sin, placing us all in the same “celestial boat.” James, the brother of Jesus, reminds the church that if they break one part of God’s Law, they have broken it all, because the same God who gave one law, gave us the other. Yet today the glutton condemns the adulterer, and the greedy condemns the thief. In their minds their sin is of lesser severity. The trouble is only God can make that judgement, and they of course are not God.
Jesus said the whole Law of God is built upon the command to love God with your whole being, and love everyone else as much as yourself. All sin is a failure to do this. To use the concept of sin to degrade others is to sin against the very law you are invoking.
Sin has one purpose, and that is to loudly declare that we are not God. We are far from perfect. We often fight against perfection that we encounter. Sin is powerful in that it affects every person on earth. You cannot rank sinners. Osama Bin Laden and Adolf Hitler are not worse than you, they just had more opportunity and motivation.
To walk around as if you are better than anyone is to declare to God that your sins don’t count as much as the next guy’s. To make that declaration you must be only one of two things: God or an imposter. You are not God.
You are not God.
And Satan took Jesus up and showed him all the kingdoms of the world in a moment of time, and said to him, “To you I will give all this authority and their glory, for it has been delivered to me, and I give it to whom I will. If you, then, will worship me, it will all be yours.”
The Gospel of St. Luke
As the United States draws ever closer to electing its leader for the next four years, Christians everywhere are making their opinions known. The majority of those who call themselves “Bible Believers” stand firm with Mitt Romney, the first major party candidate that explicitly states that he is of a religion that is not Christianity. The former Governor of Massachusetts is a man who believes the social services and collective welfare of the nation are not the responsibility of the peoples’ government, and that those who have become the wealthiest on earth should pay even less tax than they did when they accumulated their vast wealth, even if it comes at the expense of those who work hard yet have little to show for it.
Those who call themselves Progressive Christians, or even “Red-letter Christians” tend to stand with the incumbent, Barack Obama. The incumbent is a man whose first term was noted by ongoing wars, summary executions, and a failure to address the economic inequities that he constantly links to his opponent. His foreign policy has allowed and even applauded events which have replaced one oppressive regime with another, justifying it by prioritizing abstract notions of democracy over the real welfare of the people affected.
Most Christians across the entire political spectrum readily admit that they will vote for their respective candidate in an effort to choose the lesser of two evils. Using such a philosophy is a tacit admission that they will indeed choose an evil. As in every one that has preceded it, this election viewed as more pivotal than all others.
The truth is that it doesn’t matter who is elected in November. Next year, when January turns into February, and the President sits comfortably in the White House, nothing will have changed. America’s economy will still be completely dependent upon enabling humans to kill other humans. We will still occupy other nations despite the majority opinion in those nations. We will still hold an arsenal capable of destroying the entirety of humanity many times over. We will still be the largest supplier of deadly arms across the globe, many of which we will destroy ourselves in future conflict. We will do these things and call ourselves a nation of peace.
We will still incarcerate more of our citizens by proportion than any other nation on earth. We will still murder each other by willful homicide and neglect at a rate shocking compared to other industrial nations. We will still have an infant mortality rate surpassing all other nations with our wealth, yet at the same time spend more money on healthcare than most. We will still allow people to die in the streets because they cannot afford healthcare. We will still snuff out millions of potential lives because of the burden (real and imagined) they will place on our lives. We will do these things and call ourselves a nation of life.
We will still incarcerate at one time or another one third of an entire race. We will still incarcerate the desperate throngs yearning to be free, who come to this nation like every race before them, with nothing more than the clothes on their back. We will still enslave the majority of our citizens in debt by convincing them to want things they do not need, and inflating the price of those things they do. We will do all these things and call ourselves a nation of liberty.
We will still suffer from depression, anxiety, and a host of other lifelong mental ailments. Our children will still kill themselves in ever increasing numbers. We will still spend billions of dollars on drugs, legal and illegal, that will keep us addicted for the rest of our lives. We will still walk away from our families when we no longer are fulfilled. We will still dehumanize one another in a desperate attempt to feel valuable. We will do all of these things and call ourselves a nation of happiness.
We will still not feed the hungry, clothe the naked, or heal the sick. We will still boast with a prideful arrogance unmatched on the planet. We will still abuse the orphans, the widows, and the aliens. We will still believe that greed will drive us forward. We will still murder, steal, lie, commit adultery, covet, and invoke the name of God to advance our own desires. We will still worship things created and turn our back on the Creator. We will do all of these things and call ourselves a Christian nation.
When the polls close and the votes are counted, America will once again have elected the status quo. We will admit that things have gone wrong but we will be too afraid to fix them, lest we lose our comfort. We will still accept “what is” and never strive for “what could be.”
We will gleefully follow the road that Babylon, Rome, the modern European empires and every other “great” people has gone down. We will march toward our own destruction having convinced ourselves that we are the exception to the rule, that we are special, that we are blessed. We will march with intent and purpose toward that end, holding fast to the false knowledge that God would never be so pretentious as to abandon us. We will declare ourselves to be the true divine nation, and invoke the promise that God’s people will endure forever. We will carry deaf ears to those in far off places who sing hymns and praises. We will turn a blind eye to those poor nations who practice grace and mercy. We will never entertain the notion that God may be bigger than us, and we are but a tiny people to him. No, we will not consider that. We must not believe for even a second that we may be wrong. We must do our civic duty and once again choose the lesser evil to guide us.
“When the Son of Man comes in his glory, and all the angels with him, then he will sit on his glorious throne. Before him will be gathered all the nations, and he will separate people one from another as a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats. And he will place the sheep on his right, but the goats on the left. Then the King will say to those on his right, ‘Come, you who are blessed by my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world. For I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me, I was naked and you clothed me, I was sick and you visited me, I was in prison and you came to me.’ Then the righteous will answer him, saying, ‘Lord, when did we see you hungry and feed you, or thirsty and give you drink? And when did we see you a stranger and welcome you, or naked and clothe you? And when did we see you sick or in prison and visit you?’ And the King will answer them, ‘Truly, I say to you, as you did it to one of the least of these my brothers, you did it to me.’ “Then he will say to those on his left, ‘Depart from me, you cursed, into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels. For I was hungry and you gave me no food, I was thirsty and you gave me no drink, I was a stranger and you did not welcome me, naked and you did not clothe me, sick and in prison and you did not visit me.’ Then they also will answer, saying, ‘Lord, when did we see you hungry or thirsty or a stranger or naked or sick or in prison, and did not minister to you?’ Then he will answer them, saying, ‘Truly, I say to you, as you did not do it to one of the least of these, you did not do it to me.’ And these will go away into eternal punishment, but the righteous into eternal life.”
While Jesus speaks volumes about God’s grace, we cannot ignore the fact that he will also judge. It seems paradoxical for a message of grace to also include a future warning of judgement, but it all makes perfect sense if we truly understand what grace is.
First we must understand that grace is God’s intervention in our world. Our world is defined by sin, suffering, and death. God promises that through the sacrifice of Jesus Christ, these three painful realities will be banished from reality. This is God’s grace. Christians often focus on the aspect of grace that means they will go to heaven, but we sometimes forget the fact grace alleviates all suffering. Put simply: God will remove the bad.
Second, we must understand our call. When asked what is most important for people to do, Jesus responded that the sum of God’s teaching is to love Him and love your fellow humans. Jesus often spoke of what such love meant, and how to differentiate it from normal human religion. He told stories to the masses to illustrate what such love looked like, and he always reminded people that the greatest example of such love was what God is doing on the earth through him. Above all else, people are called to live as if they believe evil will be wiped away from earth, and to model (even in our feebleness) the reality of grace that God is bringing. Put simply: We must act like God’s grace.
Finally, we must consider our present reality. By and large we humans do not practice such grace. Although we produce enough food to feed the world, a billion do not have enough to eat. Despite our ability to live in peace, millions die from war every decade. Despite the vast wealth of the world, over 2/3 of the world’s population live in poverty. Although it easy to point out the macro forms in which grace is not present within humanity, we cannot dismiss the individual responsibility we all share. Very few of us actually have the opportunity to oppress millions, like the great monsters of history we often invoke to ease our own conscious. We do have the opportunity to ignore injustice and even profit from it when our leaders call for it. We also have the opportunity to act in the same selfishness when we encounter or even cause the suffering of others. We are all guilty of gracelessness. Put simply: We often reject God’s grace.
This is not a world of grace. The sad truth of it is, many of us like it that way.
For God’s grace to be real on this earth, justice must be served on behalf of all those who suffer. Orthodox Christian theology believes that because Jesus died without sin, he was able to take on our collective sin and pay the price to satisfy justice. In other words, Jesus’ willful undeserved suffering paid the price owed for every bad thing that has occurred, is occurring, will occur in the future, as well as that which would have occurred had we had the chance to carry it out. This is the gospel and this is the working of God’s grace.
That last proposition though is subject of some controversy. Many people simply don’t believe it. Many people object to the necessity of righting the wrong or the insinuation of their own guilt. Even when Jesus spoke to people in his own time, people who saw Jesus in the flesh, many rejected it. Still many more reject it today.
The good news is that, as the apostle Paul put it, “where sin abounds, grace abounds.”
Grace most definitely judges, and it has already condemned. Jesus offered himself to stand in our place and all he asked in return is that we accept his grace. To accept grace is to live grace. It is to accept a reality where needs are met and suffering is banished. When Jesus told his followers that he would return and separate the peoples of the earth, he was telling them that those who accept grace show it radiating from within and those who will not accept his grace show it by the lack of grace in their own lives.
The judgement of grace is therefore a judgement of acceptance. There is no persuasion other than what has already been seen and what many have an earnest hope for. Regardless of man-made religious distinctions we have all witnessed grace, even if it was never defined in those terms, and we all have an opportunity to accept or reject it. But there is coming a day when there will only be grace, those who wish their own gain through the suffering of others will not accept such a place, and God will respect their decision.