The Prophetic and Political Significance of Jesus’ Natal Announcement

We tend to be aware of the prophetic significance of the angelic announcement of the birth of Jesus to the shepherds in Luke 2. As Christian readers we are likely to grasp how the announcement was directed to Jewish shepherds who (likely) would have seen it as a fulfilment of Hebrew prophecy.

But we may be less attuned to fact that the announcement would have also been heard by Gentile recipients reading Luke’s Gospel as a radical political statement. Both of these aspects are important to understand, so let’s look at them in order. How might a typical Jewish person hear the angelic announcement? And how might a typical Gentile or Greek hear it?

The Prophetic Significance of the Angelic Announcement

First, let’s recall what the angel told the shepherds:

Do not be afraid. I bring you good news that will cause great joy for all the people. Today in the town of David a Savior has been born to you; he is the Messiah, the Lord.” (Luke 2:10-11).

Here I want to highlight four words or phrases from the angel of the Lord’s announcement: 1) Good News; 2) Saviour; 3) Messiah; and 4) the Lord. (2:10-11)

From a Jewish perspective, the four words would likely be received as an announcement of the fulfillment of the prophetic hope of the Hebrew Bible.

Good news – The prophet Isaiah (which has sometimes been called “The Fifth Gospel”) makes repeated mention of “good news.” (E.g., Isaiah 40:9, 41:27; 52:7). Thus, when the angel of the Lord announces that he is bringing “good news that will cause great joy for all the people,” Jewish shepherds are likely to have their minds drawn to these promises.For example, think of Isaiah 40:9 which says,

You who bring good news to Zion,
go up on a high mountain.
You who bring good news to Jerusalem, 
lift up your voice with a shout,
lift it up, do not be afraid;
say to the towns of Judah,
“Here is your God!”

What is the good news? “Here is your God!” It’s no wonder the shepherds went for a look!

Saviour – The word Saviour is derived from the Hebrew name “Joshua” which literally means, “Yahweh is salvation.” When the shepherds arrive at the manger side and find out his name is “Jesus” (the Greek version of Hebrew Joshua), the connection of this baby to Israel’s promises of deliverance embodied in Joshua would have been obvious.

Messiah – This word, of course, is at the heart of Jewish hopes. The Hebrew Scriptures long predicted the coming of the anointed one. And any Jewish person who was even minimally attentive knew that the Messiah would come from the line and house of King David. Of course, that the shepherds were directed to and found their way to Bethlehem, the city of David, well, that just was icing on the cake!

Lord – But just in case the shepherds missed it, the angel of the Lord declared that the baby is “the Messiah, the Lord.” The word “Lord” (Greek, kyrios) here is loaded with significance. As Larry Hurtado points out, the word Lord or kyrios, “had become a widely-used oral substitute for YHWH among Greek-speaking Jews.” I don’t know what language the angels spoke to the shepherds in, but for Luke, there is a clear connection of the identity of the Messiah with the YHWH of the Hebrew Bible.

In short, for Jewish readers of Luke’s account, it is clear that Jesus is to be understood as the fulfillment of Jewish hopes as testified to in Hebrew Scripture. The long awaited Messiah had come, and the shepherd’s did not delay in going to see him. And when they did, they went out, witnessing to what they’d heard the angels tell them about the child (Lk. 2:17). (Notice here that their witness consisted primarily in what they heard. Although they speak both of what they heard and saw (v.20), it is the angelic message which gives content to their witness, not so much what they saw.)

The Political Significance of the Angelic Announcement

But what about for Gentiles or Greek speaking readers? How would Luke’s record of the angelic announcement resonate with them?

Here we need to run through these four words once again, but this time I want to argue that for our Gentile author, Luke, and for what we assume would be in the first instance a predominantly Gentile audience, the words elicit a radical political announcement.

Here we must not miss the connection between the opening line (“In those days Caesar Augustus issued a decree . . .”) and the proclamation of the angel of the Lord in Luke 2:10-12. It is easier to see, as above, how this announcement aligns with Hebrew expectation because we are more likely to be familiar with the Old Testament. But it is a bit less obvious to see the radical political implications of the angelic announcement apart from some extra-biblical information that most readers of the Gospel today do not have immediately at their fingertips. Remember that for most Gentiles reading or hearing the Gospel of Luke for the first time, they would have far less familiarity with the Hebrew Bible than, say, Matthew’s readers and hearers. Thus, when Luke provides his account, it is in the context of the historic figure of Caesar Augustus. Thus, the political allusions would have more likely resonated with Greek/Gentile hearers.

In short, everything that is said about Jesus by the angel as recorded by Luke was previously directly or indirectly attributed to Caesar Augustus himself. So let’s go through these four words again,but this time from the perspective of how Caesar Augustus would have been understood.

Good News – In his book, Divine Honours for the Caesars, Bruce W. Winter draws attention to a decree written by the Proconsul of the League of Asia around 8 BC which extols the virtues of Caesar Augustus—the very same Caesar spoken of in Luke 2:1. At one point, the Augustan decree says, “with his appearance Caesar [Augustus] exceeded hopes of all those who anticipated good tidings [‘euangelia’ – Gospel, good news] before us, not only surpassing those who had been benefactors before him, but not even leaving those to come any hope of surpassing him the future.” (Winter, 37).Historians generally agree that the birth of Jesus took place around 4 BC, which means that the Augustan decree spoken of by Winter had been written just four years earlier. It isn’t hard to see the radical nature, then, of the angelic announcement which declared that the birth of Jesus in Bethlehem was “good news” for “all the people.”We shouldn’t underestimate how this account is a direct  “poking the bear” of none other than the mighty Caesar Augustus which just four years previously had been declared to have been the greatest leader ever and with no hope of any coming after who would surpass him. And yet, here came Jesus on the scene, announced as “good news for all the people.”All this to say: The angelic announcement as “good news” isn’t political subtlety, but a forthright declaration of challenge to the Augustan decree! One simply has to say that this was a statement of political boldness at its best!

Saviour – A year prior to the Proconsul’s 8 BC decree, there is also evidence that this same Caesar August was declared publicly to be a saviour to the people.  On a Priene calendar inscription we find this:“Whereas the Providence which has guided our whole existence and which has shown such care and liberality, has brought our life to the peak of perfection in giving to us Augustus Caesar, whom it filled with virtue for the welfare of mankind, and who, being sent to us and to our descendants as a savior, has put an end to war and has set all things in order” (Emphasis added).

Moreover, an inscription from the city of Halicarnassus declared Augustus to be “saviour of the common race of man” (Cited in Winter, 72) and scholars have commonly noted how he was repeatedly called “the savior of the world” and “the savior of the inhabited earth.”The fact that Augustus was issuing a decree, according to Luke, to the “entire Roman world” (Lk 2:1) and that Luke’s genealogy of Jesus in chapter 3 traces Jesus all the way back to Adam (unlike Matthew who traces all the way back to Abraham) indicates that when Jesus is declared to be “saviour”, in a first century Gentile familiar with the honours accorded Augustus as “saviour of the common race of man,” it is beyond doubt the counter narrative Luke is providing for us. No, Luke’s Gospel says, it is not Augustus who is the Saviour of humanity, but Jesus, the man for all people.

Messiah – English translations of Luke 2:11 (such as the NIV I’m citing from) translate the last clause as “he is the Messiah, the Lord.” The word Messiah is the English transliteration of Hebrew word “Mashiach.” However, Luke, writing in Greek, records that the baby is the Christos Kurios, more directly translated in English as “Christ the Lord.” (I think English translations should opt to translate the word as “Christ” here, given Luke’s Gentile orientation, but I digress.) At any rate, both Messiah and Christ mean “anointed one.”

In Judaism, of course, the anointed one, the Messiah, is clearly associated with the prophetic anticipation of the one to come from the house of David, as noted above. Its noteworthy, then, that Jews were predisposed to be awaiting and looking for the Messiah to come, and in their looking, they were aware that the Messiah was going to be born in “Bethlehem in Judea” (Matt 2:5).

So, when Luke then goes on to begin his account of Jesus (right before the genealogy) by recording a birth announcement, the parallel to imperial power cannot be ignored. Jesus cames as Messiah and saviour for all, including all right back to the time of Adam! But Jesus also comes as the one who will be Messiah and Saviour of all to come.Here Winter points to a lengthy resolution passed by the members of the Koinon of the province of Asia. In that resolution, the birth of Caesar Augustus is viewed as the beginning of a new Golden Age and they declared that Augustus’ birthday should mark the beginning of a new calendar year to represent how with the appearance of Augustus, a new world age had begun. Indeed, an inscription to Augustus read: “the birthday of our god marked for the world the beginning of good news through his coming.” (Winter 37).

An anointing is a marking, a designating, so here again, it is not difficult to see how Luke’s portrayal of Jesus birth is so closely tied to the decree of Caesar Augustus who himself was portrayed as the harbinger of a new age. And yet it is Jesus, the angels announce, who is the anointed one, and the one who “Today” (2:11) (usually a word used in the Bible connected to the announcement of the present day arrival of the kingdom of God) has come as one bringing joy to all people.

Lord – It is as if the best is saved til last with this word. As noted above, the word Lord (kyrios) was clearly associated in Jewish thought with Yahweh, but what about in the Gentile mind?

N.T. Wright makes the claim that at the time of Jesus’ birth, “as far as most of the Roman world was concerned, the ‘divinity’ of the emperor was obvious and uncontroversial” (Wright, Paul in Fresh Perspective, 65)Here the full significance of Luke’s record of the angelic announcement comes into focus. Indeed, Caesar Augustus declared his father a deity, thus making Augustus a “son of deity (or as inscriptions put it, “a son of a god” (Cf. the title ascribed to Jesus: the son of God!).

It is widely known that the Emperors were commonly acknowledged and honoured as nothing less than deities themselves. In fact, it was because of their divine status as deities that eventually Christians found themselves in trouble whenever they found themselves declaring, “Jesus is Lord!”–but that’s for another post some day!

So, the natal announcement plays a dual role for both Jewish and Gentile hearers. For the Jew reading Luke’s account, the angelic announcement encourages them to see Jesus as the fulfillment of all Hebrew prophetic anticipation and as the one to come, the Messiah, the Son of David.

But for Gentile hearers, the natal announcement is shot through with political significance and challenge. Indeed, for many of Luke’s readers, the natal announcement is nothing less than a political counter challenge to the highest political authority of their day, namely, the Emperor himself.

And so Jesus Christ is to us today: the hope of Israel (Jeremiah 17:13) and the desire of the nations (Haggai 2:7).

Remembrance Day for Aliens and Strangers

Briercrest College Chapel November 9, 2015
Text: 1 Peter 2:11-17

It’s September 14, 1938, and my father is on ship somewhere in the middle of the Atlantic Ocean. It’s his 9th birthday (he remembers getting a whole orange to himself!) and he is with his family—his father and mother, his grandfather, and 8 other siblings, and thepoppyy are headed to Canada, leaving their homeland of Poland behind. Rumours of war have been brewing in Poland, and their pastor has encouraged the Guretzki clan to leave for their well-being. Why? That has never been made clear to me, but it may be because the name Guretzki was a common Jewish name, and you only need to be scarcely aware of some of things happening during that time that might suggest the need either to lay low or leave. Indeed, just a few weeks after my father’s family arrived in Canada, on Nov 9, 1938—77 years ago on this very day—that Hitler’s so-called Storm Troopers attack and destroy Jewish homes, businesses, and houses of worship. The terror, Kristalnacht—The Night of Broken Glass—would result in dozens of Jewish deaths, and the arrest of tens of thousands of other Jews who were sent to concentration camps, many of whom never returned home. By God’s providential mercy, my father’s family—the family with the Jewish sounding name—were spared.

But things were far from rosy in the dilapidated farm house north of Edmonton where my father’s family settled after the long journey from Poland. The winter that year was brutal. Water left in a pail in the house would be frozen solid by morning. There was no social assistance, and the family survived on potatoes and cabbages given to them by the folks from the local Pentecostal church. My grandparents wondered if they’d made a mistake in coming. Then on Feb 14, 1939, just months after arriving in Canada, my grandfather fell sick. He was rushed to hospital 40 miles away, which turned into a nightmarish journey because the car kept breaking down along the way in the sub -40 below zero temperatures that day.  That night Grandpa died, leaving behind his young widow and family. Say what we want about Christian hope of the resurrection, but I can’t imagine Grandma took easy comfort that Valentine’s Day. For her, Feb 14 must have ever after been a perpetual reminder of the horrible day she and 9 kids under 14 were left alone, aliens and strangers in a strange new world.

Dan asked me some time ago to provide some reflections on a Christian perspective on Remembrance Day which we will observe this week, so you’ll forgive me if this bit of my own family’s life history may not seem immediately to relate. I hope it eventually will. As far as  Remembrance Day goes, my family hasn’t been involved much in the military. My Dad was too young to serve in the military, and few in my extended family have served. I have two uncles who served, but frankly, I know little of their story. One I didn’t even know and one I visited maybe twice in my life, and all I know of him is that later in his life, the war memories haunted him to his dying days. So I can’t really speak from the perspective of one affected directly.

When I began preparing for today, I start where I usually start: In search of a text. As I prayed, I landed on 1 Peter 2, which we have just heard read. Turn with me again to this text and let me point you first to vss. 13-14: “Submit yourselves for the Lord’s sake to every authority instituted among men: whether to the king, or to governors, who are sent by him to punish those who do wrong and to commend those who do right.” Sure, it would be easy, and indeed, right, to tell you that Remembrance Day, for the Christian, is one day when we should stop momentarily, remind ourselves and one another, that much of what we enjoy today—the freedoms to worship, to move around freely, even to attend a theological school—were won and protected by the blood and scars of many before, especially in those instances in the past when we went to war to fight an evil that seemed to be so clearly Evil, and when the Just cause seemed to be self-evidently Just. My father’s family didn’t know it in their immediate tragic situation, but eventually would see the blessing of having escaped the ravages of the war in Poland. And eventually enjoying the blessings of living in a country like Canada, despite their initial hardships.

And so, I must not fail to exhort you today to obey what Peter by the Spirit has commanded us: Honor the authorities, honor the king. And do this by honoring the ones sent, sometimes voluntarily and sometimes not, to do the king’s bidding. We don’t have to agree on our theology of war or Christian involvement in the military to do this very thing. It is significantly different to honor the king than to agree with the king. Indeed, I can’t imagine Peter agreeing with the King of his day, especially since it was possibly Domitian (Dom-ish-an) who was the Emperor at the time and who opposed all who denied his divinity. But Peter—and Paul in Rom 13—both say: Submit to the authorities and give honor where honor is due. And so on this Remembrance Day, do what you can to honor those who have served, even when those “in charge” have sometimes acted against our own theological convictions. You may attend a Remembrance Day service, or wear a poppy, or not. Or you may say a pray for those who are serving now and those who have served, and especially for those injured in body, mind, and spirit in the midst of their service. You don’t have to agree with individual’s decision to join the services. You don’t have to agree with the all the reasons we have gone to war. But at the very least, a basic sense of common honor should keep us from scorning those who have and do serve in this way.

But if that were all I had to say, I think you should be disappointed. I don’t give the preceding advice tritely, but there is nothing particularly Christian about it. Virtually anyone of any religious or political stripe should be able provide some level of civil honor. You don’t have to be Christian to be civil. But is that all that Peter is saying to us in this text?

As I studied the text more carefully, it was “context” that finally nailed it for me. You know, that fundamental rule of hermeneutics: always read a passage in its context. So as I reflected on Peter’s imperative to submit to authorities, I looked at the larger context. Unfortunately, in lots of Bibles there is a break between vs. 12 and 13, as there is in my NIV. But that break causes us to miss something vitally important, and that is that the way in which we submit to the authorities and honor the king depends in large part in first understanding who it is that we are. Let me explain.

Jump back to v. 9-10. There we discover we are a chosen people, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, a people belonging to God. We also discover that once we weren’t a people but now we are the people of God. Such royal language! We should be proud—and indeed, we can be proud in the Lord. But then Peter does something unexpected in vs. 11. It as if he says, given all that you are, do not be surprised by what I am about to tell you: You are out of your element! Peter says, “Dear friends, I urge you, as aliens and strangers in the world, to abstain from sinful desires, which war [or as some translations put it, “wage war”] against your soul.” Here Peter, under the Spirit’s inspiration, reminds us that though we are a royal chosen people, we are nevertheless aliens and strangers in this world.

I guess when I first read that, I came to realize that really and truly, I don’t have much clue of what it must be like to be an alien and stranger, but as I recalled the stories from my father’s family—of their feelings of alienation and insecurity both in their homeland and in the land to which they have come—that I got maybe just a tiny glimpse of what it means to be an alien in our own world. Maybe there some of you here who can indeed relate firsthand to what Peter says, either now or at some time in your life. You know what it feels like to be the alien and stranger. We could learn a lot from you, I’m sure. But I also know that really, probably most of us really don’t “get it.”

Here’s the thing: Whether you can relate to the experience of being a “foreigner in a foreign land” or not, Peter here reminds us that regardless of the presence or absence of a feeling of alienation, the fact is that we, that strange band of Christ followers called the Church, are indeed aliens and strangers. As followers of the Stone rejected by men (v. 4), we should, therefore, not be surprised to be rejected also by the world.

But something really unfortunate has happened: Christ’s followers, us, have at times become so comfortable in this world that we have forgotten how unlike the world we are. We have forgotten that we really do not fit into the expectations and patterns of this world. And so we find ourselves in a paradoxical state of being strangers and aliens who have forgotten that we are aliens and strangers! As my dad’s family struggled to find their place, I can’t imagine that they had to pinch themselves and say, “Oh yeah, we are strangers in this land!” They knew it and they lived it every day.

Now hold on to that thought for a moment, and let’s move on to the second thing that Peter points out in the second half of verse 11. Having reminded us that we are in fact aliens and strangers, Peter urges us: “Abstain from sinful desires, which wage war against your soul.” Some versions more accurately call these “fleshly desires”, but whatever they are, Peter makes clear how dangerous they are: they are waging war for your soul.

Notice how Peter combines two images: a sociological image—aliens and strangers—and a militaristic—of things waging war. And no doubt Peter combines these images for good reason. Even a semi-honest accounting of human history tells us that war, civil strife, and military action have caused more human alienation and suffering than anything else. Is this not what we are seeing in places like Syria even today?

Peter knows war damages stuff deeply. And not only stuff, but the people who engage in it and the people who involuntarily suffer under it. And yet, he also reminds: there are other things than war itself—things as hellish as war itself—that can and will do great damage to our very being.

At this point, we might cue up images of an ominous battle scene, the Orcs vs. the Dwarfs, Elven and Hobbits, complete with epic battle music! But that is not what happens. We might expect Peter (like Paul?) to say, “Now that you know these things are coming to destroy you, get ready to do battle with every piece of spiritual weaponry and bravado that you have!” But he doesn’t.

Instead he says: Abstain from these things. WHAT? Yes, you heard it. “Avoid those things.” Peter’s response is almost laughable. But indeed, that is all he says. Abstain from them. Simple measures for epic dangers.

Well, ok. But what are these things? Frankly, he doesn’t give us a list. He gives us no indications of what we should be on the look-out for. Why not? Maybe it’s because the things that seek to destroy us, that wage war against our souls, are self-evident when we see them. Sort of like seeing an Orc. You never have to wonder whether Orcs are of the friendly or unfriendly type. We just know they are there to destroy you. And there’s no second guessing the things that are waging war on our souls. Why not?

I think it’s because those of us who are living stones of God’s spiritual house (v. 5) already know full well what those Orcish, hellish, demonic desires are. Peter doesn’t tell us because the Spirit of God is fully capable and faithful of doing just that–in his time and in his way. Sure, we all need instruction of wise teachers and spiritual examples of godly living. But when it comes to the things that could destroy our soul, we already know what they are. We don’t need Peter, and you don’t need me and I don’t need you to tell me because God’s Spirit has already made it plain. You know it. I know it. That’s not the problem. By God’s Spirit you may even be able to name it right now. No, the problem isn’t that I don’t know it. The problem is that I simply don’t want to abstain from it.

And this is where the two images of v. 11 come together. You see, the problem is twofold: On the one hand, we have forgotten that we are aliens and strangers in this world; and on the other hand, we have gotten too comfortable and made false peace with those very things that are destructive to the souls of Christ’s followers. So what then shall we do? How do we show ourselves to be aliens in this world? How do we avoid being destroyed by these evil desires?

Peter gives us insight in v. 12: Live such good lives among the pagans that, though they accuse you of doing wrong (as indeed, they will), they may see your good deeds and glorify God on the day he visits us.” In other words, Peter says, Start living in this world as the aliens and strangers you already are. The world may not like it, and the world may not understand it, and the world may even accuse us of wrong doing. But know this one thing: One day, they will know what is right and that your citizenship is with God, and they will glorify God when Christ returns.

Well, where does that leave us when it comes to Remembrance Day? No, I haven’t forgotten about it. Shouldn’t we be talking about political theology? About pacifism and just war theory? About theories of political engagement? Certainly, those have their place, and those who know me know that I think these are critical issues to work through. But as I looked at this passage, I came to realize that these discussions are finally secondary to the fundamentals we’ve discussed this morning.  No matter your view on military service, 2 things are firm: 1) God’s people are strange, and 2) their strangeness is manifest in their refusal to make peace with the very things which are seeking to destroy us, AND that the things most trying to destroy us aren’t other peoples or nations. That doesn’t mean we don’t honor the King, but it does mean doing so in a way that refuses to allow our strangeness to be domesticated by the King’s demands.  I think this is implicit in the three things that Peter commands to us do in v. 17: Love the brotherhood, fear God, and honor the king.

1) First, love the brotherhood. Peter knows our Lord’s word: “This is how the world will know that you are my disciples, by how you love one another.” It may seem obvious, but it needs to be said: Our primary “love allegiance” is not to the mother or fatherland, not to the flag, and not to the King or Queen. Our primary allegiance is with the King of Kings, our Lord Jesus Christ, and with the Church over whom he is Head. Therefore, we remember well when we remember to love our brothers & sisters in the Lord. (IDOP yesterday). And yet, when it comes to a day like Remembrance day, it is tragically ironic how easy it has been for a Christian pacifist violently to denounce his brother or sister in the Lord for taking a just war stance. And it is equally tragic and ironic how easily a Christian just war theorist can unjustly denounce, and even punish, her or his brother and sister who conscientiously objects, even to the point of labelling them as traitors to the State. Our failure to love another in the midst of our theological differences about Christian participation or abstinence in the military is already to put the allegiance to the Flag or the Country ahead of our Spiritual Communion in Christ’s Church.

The failure to love is the first and most deadly danger to Christians which Remembrance Day presents. Whether our theology permits us to participate or not, may we not grieve Holy Spirit of peace by treating our brothers and sisters with whom we may disagree as if they were the enemy. Practically, that means simple things like not turning your nose down at those who may wear a poppy though you may think you should not.  And vice versa. Or more positively, it might mean taking the time to sit down and listen to those with whom we disagree to get a better perspective. But whatever we do, me must do it with the recognition that we are CHRISTIANS—aliens & strangers—first, and Canadians (or Americans, or whatever) second, not the other way around.

2) Second, fear God. Notice that Peter puts Fear God before Honor the King?  Yet it is an unfortunate reality that so much of our present political climate is based on fear of each other (terrorists, immigrants, politicians, political parties, nation-states, etc.) rather than our fear of God. It is a sad state of affairs that we can so boldly pronounce our favor or disfavor for the State’s foreign policy, in its use of the military, and in its treatment of the foreigners and aliens in our midst, and yet be so timid in boldly pronouncing to one another against those things that battle for our very souls, and against the ways of God. It is, frankly, easier for us to condemn a political platform, or social or foreign policy, than to condemn the greed, laziness, gossip, rage, covetousness, overindulgence, prayerlessness, sexual immorality and plethora of other things that are killing our very souls. But let us recognize that our propensity to advocate for the things that make us safest and most security politically—even if there is nothing wrong to do so—is perhaps evidence that we more often speak and act out of our fear of people than out of fear of God our Father and Maker. On Remembrance Day, and on every other day, let’s not forget that all of us, kings and servants, prime ministers and citizens, men and women, rich and poor, will be called upon to give an account in the Last Day. And the question which we must soberly ask every day: Am I abstaining, even fleeing, from those desires that war against my soul?

3) Third, Honor the king. We do well to heed Peter’s words here. Peter doesn’t make the wrong assumption that fear of God means snubbing our noses at the King. On the contrary, being a follower of Jesus means acknowledging that all authorities in heaven and earth are under his domain. We do not have to dishonor lower case “k” kings in order to honor the upper case “K” King of Kings. But what we must remember is that it is only as children of the King of Heaven that we can honor the earthly kings and authorities. We do not honor God by honoring the king; we honor the king by first fearing the King.

So, on this coming Remembrance Day, let us never forget that first, we are aliens in a foreign world. We will be hated and challenged, whether at home or abroad, and so we should not be surprised when even in our observances of honor, we may be criticized because we haven’t fallen prostrate to the King, or we don’t jump on a militaristic bandwagon. Christians should be the first to realize that the State is Fallen, indeed, it often does evil things. Yet neither should we be armchair rebels and electronic revolutionaries who take potshots on Facebook and Twitter and in the blogosphere at those who have given and served on behalf of their fellow citizens, sometimes even with their own blood. To do so is to exercise a strange form of Christian anarchism that thinks we can live under the authorities without submitting to them, as Peter says, for the Lord’s sake. Indeed, for the Lord’s sake and for his glory, let’s us pay honor to those who have served, to those who are serving, even while remembering that we do so as spiritual expatriates whose kingdom is from above and whose King shall live forever. Amen.

Thinking about Faith and Politics: A Non-Partisan Reflection

IMG_4537Last week, I was asked to participate in a Faith and Politics faculty forum here at Briercrest. We had a good representation of college and seminary students attend. It was a great experience! We were asked to prepare answers to three questions. Although I didn’t end up reading these verbatim, I thought I’d share them with you.

Question #1: Should faith inform our voting? To what extent?

Yes. Fully.

Christian faith, as I understand it, is founded upon the confession of God’s divine sovereignty revealed most fully in his Son, Jesus Christ. For Christians, the fundamental and primal confession of our faith is “Jesus is Lord.” Lordship, as confessed in the first century context, was fully political in its connotations. Roman citizens of Jesus’ and Paul’s day were encouraged to declare, “Caesar is Lord” and so the confession, Jesus is Lord, was undeniably political, and indeed, confrontational to the political powers of the first century. Beyond that, it would be difficult to understand what Christ could have meant when he said, “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me” if political authority was somehow not included in the “all.” Jesus is Lord means that every authority—political, ecclesiastical, familial, cultural, corporate, etc.—is ultimately answerable to Christ.

Although in some sectors of Christianity through history “faith” has been compartmentalized or isolated from public and political life, I believe such privatization of faith cannot be legitimately sustained. So, in my view, not every issue is necessarily directed by matters of Christian doctrine or by Scripture, but no issue can be viewed as being irrelevant or inconsequential to our faith–political issues no less.

When we take these two elements together—the Lordship of Christ and his all-encompassing authority received from God—it seems to me that voting, like every other aspect of our life, needs to be informed by our faith. Paul understands this when he claims that he is seeking to take captive every thought and make it obedient to Christ. If voting is about making an intellectually, morally, and civic decision, then it is about making such a decision in obedience to Christ as part of our discipleship.

[I also made a point that the exercise of voting, of course, would have been foreign to the NT audience. Although I believe that Christians should always consider voting, I also believe that under circumstances, Christians should also be prepared purposely not to vote as a form of protest. I’ve not yet faced that scenario in my voting years, but it isn’t inconceivable that at a local level, I might be uncomfortable voting for any of the members running in my riding, and federally or provincially, I may believe no party deserves even qualified support.]

Question #2: Should a specific area of a political platform take priority in a Christian’s decision in voting? E.g. economy, military, foreign affairs. How much should an individual moral/ethical issue influence a Christian’s vote?

I’m of firm conviction that there are indeed specific areas of attention to political platforms that should have heightened priority for scrutiny in a Christian’s decision to vote. But I am the first to admit that sorting that out can be a very difficult thing to do. Nevertheless, I believe that we have to do our best to sort through the political platforms and promises, and discern what a political party’s fundamental priorities are. Is it about safety and comfort—whether economically or social? Is it about wealth creation? Is it about a sense of fairness? (and don’t assume that fairness equals justice—I don’t think it does, nor do I think the Bible does). And so on.

Furthermore, I believe that Christians need to realize that our own context is constantly shifting and issues that might be the most pressing in a previous election campaign may not be the most pressing issues today, no matter what the parties themselves state. For me, especially in the current election we are about to engage in, I am more interested in what the parties are not saying rather than what they are saying. Silence is more often an indicator of what a platform is either not concerned about or what they may be wanting to avoid or hide.

Martin Luther (supposedly) said, “‘If I profess with loudest voice and clearest exposition every portion of the truth of God except that little point which the world and the devil are at that moment attacking, I am not confessing Christ, however boldly I may be professing Christ.” That means that Christians need to discern, by the Spirit’s help, what issues may need to take priority in an election and push the representatives to speak about those issues and reveal their stances on their issues, even if the party platforms dictate that they would rather talk about other issues.

In practice, I think this means starting with a sense of realism about political parties and making sure that we clearly understand the dangers of seeing political parties as the primary instrument of bringing about Gospel justice or some form of Christian moral ideals. They are not replacement Messiahs. There are no perfect political platforms other than God’s own sovereign purposes, but I do think there are better and worse platforms. Therefore, I think we need to think in terms of a hierarchy of issues facing us and decide which issue is indeed more important—morally, theologically, even politically—than other issues, and then choose to vote for a party (or a person) who best represents that stance.

[Related to the above, one of the panelists made reference to Winston Churchill’s famous quip, “Democracy is the worst form of government, except for all the others.”]

If I may speak a bit more personally, for example, I believe we are in a position in Canada where NO political platform of the main political parties speaks about protecting the most vulnerable lives, the unborn, as a priority. God seems especially concerned for those without a voice, and the unborn are the most voiceless of all. To me, that is simply unacceptable from a Christian point of view. Canada is one of only a few countries in the entire world—we are in same club as North Korea—where protection for the unborn is completely unlegislated. Indeed, I would argue that one of the most dangerous and unprotected places to be in Canada is in a mother’s womb. In that regard, difference of opinion on economic policy or social programs or even medical or employment issues, seem to me to pale in significance. Consequently, we may have to realize that we will need to vote for those who at least are most likely to take a stance, or have taken a stance, where such justice and protection of life itself is most likely to be advocated or protected. Personally for me, that means that I will plan to vote for an individual in my riding that I can count on to take that stance rather than voting on the basis of a political platform of a Party per se.

As for the second part of the question, I suppose I would want to reword it differently. If by “individual” we mean a matter of individual conscience on a disputable area, then I would say, we should not vote primarily on the basis of convictions on issues that Christians can genuinely disagree about, e.g, economic policy; level of  support of business or arts, etc. If by “individual”, though, we mean, an issue that is clearly spoken to by Scripture and which pertains to the sanctity of life or the freedom for worship, then, yes, we may and probably should allow that individual issue to influence our vote.

Question 3: How does our faith shape our expectations of what government should do/what a party should promise? I.e. what is the role of government from a Christian perspective?

I believe this is one of the central questions of political theology because it is asking the question of how we believe God uses the secular state in the outworking of his providential plan. Fundamentally, I think there are really only two main starting points or assumptions by which we can answer this question. Every Christian tradition would agree that the State is under God’s authority, but traditions differ on whether the State is a part of God’s good creation as originally instituted, or whether the State is instituted by God as a result of the Fall of humanity into sin. How you answer that question will answer the question of what you believe the Government should do and what we expect the Government to do, and of course, give us insight into when we think the Government is failing. In the first view, the State is a gift of God to mediate good things to humanity, even while ideally protecting humans from the evils of sin. In the second view, the State is also a gift of God, but is given primarily to protect from the evils of sin, and secondarily and incidently (and sometimes accidently) to mediate good things to humans. These two positions might seem only to be a difference in emphasis, but the end view of what Government should be expected to do has resulted in great differences. Thus, those who see Government primarily as God’s post-Fall means of restraining evil will likely have far less confidence in seeing government doing much more than punishing wrong doers and keeping people relatively safe. Those who see Government as part of God’s original creation, however, believe the Government, fallen as it is, still has responsibility to be doing what it can to bring about common good for all peoples.

I personally believe that State is part of God’s good creation (and here we distinguish between the State and particular governments) and that even mankind had not fallen into sin, there would have been need to “govern” how people lived together in harmony. Indeed, the biblical concept of the Kingdom of God or the Reign of God present in both OT and NT scriptures, indicates that even in the eschaton, things will be “governed” and God will Reign forever. In the meantime, however, humans and Governments and States are fallen, but are nevertheless accountable to God. So it is the Church’s job to remind the State of what it is supposed to accomplish.

Interestingly, in 1 Tim 2, Paul enjoins his readers to pray for all the authorities “that we would live peaceful and quiet lives in all godliness and holiness.” I think that encapsulates the fundamental and central reason that the State is supposed to exist: To ensure peaceable relations amongst all peoples, regardless of their faith stance, and to allow the Gospel of God’s righteousness and holiness to be proclaimed freely to everyone because, as Paul says shortly after, God desires everyone to be saved and to come to a knowledge of the truth of salvation. Thus, where the preaching and promulgation of the Gospel is hindered, the State is, by definition, not doing its job. Thus, for me, the State’s fundamental role is to ensure that all peoples, regardless of religious affiliation (or not) are free to worship (or not), to speak of their faith in freedom without fear of persecution. When the State fails to ensure these conditions are met, the Church is obligated to resist it, and when necessary, obey God rather than men. In that regard, there is going to be tremendous differences of opinion on how best to take care of social issues like health care and employment insurance, how to run the economy, whether to balance the budget or to be in deficit. But I am going to be especially attuned to the question of whether the Church is, in smaller or greater ways, being hindered legislatively to carry out the task of proclaiming and living the Gospel, including restrictions on speech and carrying out good deeds.

Deacons and Public Witness: Hints from Karl Barth

03839F2EF8074D95A7A39246910ADF29_2012_03_16_TheVision_DeaconLogo Yesterday an article I wrote this summer on the diaconate was posted on Comment Magazine, a publication I have grown to love produced by the Hamilton-based think-tank, Cardus,  It’s entitled, “Deacons, Church, and World: Hints from Karl Barth for the Church’s Public Witness.” James K. A. Smith is the Senior Fellow at Cardus and the editor of Comment. 

Personally, I read Comment using the iPad edition.

I’d love to hear your comments. Or better yet, post your comments over at Comment itself.

A Remembrance Day Reflection

This is the text of a talk I delivered at the Briercrest College chapel, November 10, 2011.


I don’t know if you’ve realized it yet, but tomorrow is a pretty cool day as far as calendars go because the date will be 11/11/11. It’s one of those rare dates that when you see it in print, you don’t have to ask, “Now which is the month and which is the day?”

Of course, beyond the coolness of the date 11/11/11 to numerologists and collectors of numerical phenomena, tomorrow is Remembrance Day—an annual national holiday that we have been observing since l919 to commemorate the end of the Great War, World War I. A cascading wave of thousands of people across various time-zones will pause tomorrow at the 11th hour to remember specifically those men and women who have served their country and fellow citizens by seeking to be defenders of the defenseless. Of course, special honour is given to those who lost their lives in the call of duty while serving.

As we draw near to this year’s Remembrance Day, I want to pause to explore two questions. First, “What does it mean to remember?” And, second, “What might this act of remembering mean for us as we shortly come to this Remembrance Day?”

First, what do we mean when we say we are to “remember”? Now, at one level “to remember” means “to recall or bring back to mind.” In the most basic sense of the term, “to remember” is simply an act of brain power in which we mysteriously dig into the reservoir of brain cells or mind (I’ll let the philosophy students decide whether mind and brain are the same thing…), pull out a memory, and temporarily reflect upon it, only thereafter to file it away again deep into our neural filing cabinet. Such remembering, we might say, is a form of selective recall for a particular purpose. When we ask, “Remember that time when we went to Banff for breakfast?” or “Remember when you actually had to ‘dial up’ to get on the Internet?” we are “remembering” for a particular occasion and for a particular purpose. For a moment, we ponder, cherish, or maybe even cringe at the memory. But then, a few minutes later, the memory returns to the depths of our brain where it may never surface again.

That we have to “call up” our memories indicates that we can’t remember and reflect upon everything that is in our brain all of the time. In fact, we are created in such a way that we “forget” more than we remember. If we did remember everything all of the time, we would, quite simply, go insane with information overload. We humans simply could not cope with such all-encompassing, ever present recall of everything we have experienced and everything that we have learned. (We as professors, of course, remind you that when it comes to exams, we do expect you to remember everything. Just don’t ask us to.).

Now there is a right and proper place for this “recall”-type of remembering. And I think there is a sense in which Remembrance Day is at least, in part, an opportunity to exercise this basic kind of recall. Although none of us were personally involved in the World Wars, most of us have learned something about it in school or from parents or grandparents. Having an annual day called “Remembrance Day” allows us a regular occasion to “recall” something that for the other 364 days of the year, we simply may not call to memory. It is important, in other words, to periodically and intentionally “remember” that so many people have served on our behalf in ways far beyond our ability to comprehend and understand.

That said, I am well aware that people in this room most certainly have varying opinions on Christian involvement in war, but there is something important to realize that many Christians and non-Christians alike responded in ways they felt were right and just in the situation. And for that, we do well to be grateful for them, despite the fact that we may personally disagree with their decisions.

But this little discussion of remembering at the first level has, I think, shown itself to be an insufficient, or at least unsatisfying, account of remembrance. For if we allow that there is very likely deep difference of opinion even in this room on the appropriateness of military action from a Christian perspective, there is no way to avoid the reality of history. Men and women have served and died on our behalf, and men and women will continue to serve and die on our behalf. In this regard, we do not simply have the option of “un-remembering” them. Nor is there a way to prevent them from acting on our behalf. They do and they will. Consequently, it seems to me that we cannot merely answer the question of what it means to “remember,” but we have to dig a little deeper and seek to answer the question, “What does it mean to remember rightly?”

In putting it this way, of course, I am assuming—and I hope that you will bear this assumption with me—that there are right and wrong ways to remember. For remembrance, you see, is not neutral. For in one case, remembrance may be practiced to extend honour and to enact justice (the Bible might calls this “confession”, an act which is encouraged), while in another case remembrance may be practiced to heap disgrace and to bring about revenge (the Bible calls this “keeping records of wrongs” and clearly discourages it.) Obviously, then, for Christians who live in a country where Remembrance Day is commemorated, we cannot simply “not remember” but must ask, “How, then, should we remember rightly?” (I acknowledge  the subtitle of Miroslav Volf’s book here: The End of Memory: Remembering Rightly in a Violent World.)

There is probably no people group who have done a better job of reflecting deeply upon what it means to remember (or at least, to not forget) than the Jews. The fact that Jews have had to endure centuries of persecution, the pinnacle of which was the Holocaust of World War II, means that they have had to find ways to ensure future generations “never forget” the horrors of the Holocaust. I am convinced that their ability to think deeply about remembering has come about because of a deep theology of remembrance that echoes throughout the Hebrew Bible—a theology which continues has inform even those secular Jews today who no longer claim to believe in the God of their Scriptures. So in the brief minutes we have, I’d like to outline just two components of a biblically grounded view of “right remembering”—a view of remembrance that I think can be helpful to us as Christians even as we come shortly to Remembrance Day.

Turn with me to the book of Deuteronomy where I will be limiting our focus this morning to a couple passages. First, Deut. 5:15: “Remember that you were slaves in Egypt and that the LORD your God brought you out of there with a mighty hand and an outstretched arm. Therefore the LORD your God has commanded you to observe the Sabbath day.” What might this passage have to say about “remembering rightly”?

 1)      To remember rightly is to speak truthfully of our history.

You will likely recall from your Pentateuch or Old Testament Literature classes that the book of Deuteronomy was written to remind the Israelites of the Law an earlier generation had received from Moses. As this new generation of Israelites was on the cusp of entering into the promised- land, they needed to be reminded of the requirements of the Law that God had set forth to them. As they prepared themselves to enter the land, in this verse God tells them to “remember that they were slaves.” Indeed, God repeats this reminder at least six times in the book of Deuteronomy (5:15; 6:21; 15:15; 16:12; 24:18; 24:22). So as they stood on the banks of the Jordan, ready to receive the rich inheritance God had promised to them, God expected the Israelites to “remember” (or “never forget”) that they had once been slaves in Egypt.

This reminder to Israel does not merely stand alone as a description of her past or as a bare fact of history. Rather, God goes on to remind them that their rescue from slavery was by his hand. You see, God wants Israel to remember that their rescue from slavery was not as a result of Israeli military commandos dropping in to rescue the people, nor was it a result of political diplomacy—as much as Moses and Aaron tried!—but it was as a result of the YHWH’s direct intervention that Israel was freed from her slavery. It was a result of YHWH’s mighty hand and outstretched arm that Israel was delivered. “Don’t forget,” God says, “It had nothing to do with their efforts.”

But God goes on and commands Israel to do something very specific. He says, “Therefore, keep the Sabbath day.” Now what in the world does keeping the Sabbath have to do with remembering that they were slaves and rescued by God? I think the connection is as follows. I think God is saying this: “I want you to remember you were slaves, freed by my hand, and not by your effort. Therefore, as a regular act of remembering this fact, I want you to keep the Sabbath day, for it is on the Sabbath day, when you do no work,  I nevertheless continually provide. As you pause each week from your labour, you remember rightly that I am the God who rescued you. And by keeping the Sabbath day holy, you simultaneously acknowledge, over and over again, that though you were once slaves, by no effort of your own, I delivered you and saved you from your enemies.

I find this particular call of God to remember highly instructive for us. I find it telling that God’s command to Israel to “remember” was one rooted in God’s historical action toward them. And I find it especially telling that throughout the OT, the prophets continually are calling Israel to remember their own story of having been slaves and being freed from slavery by the mighty hand of God. The work of the prophets, in other words, was not only to tell Israel what God was saying, God’s present mouthpiece, as it were, but they also help Israel to remember and speak truthfully of their own history.

But, of course, the tragedy was (and, I think, often still is) how quickly and how often Israel “forgot” this story. Their failure to keep the Sabbath (and therefore their failure to remember rightly) meant that they forgot that their freedom was not won by their own hand, but by the hand of YHWH. Beyond this, how often did Israel attribute to idols that which YHWH alone had accomplished? Even before Moses had come down the mountain when he was receiving the Law, the people were already remembering their story wrongly and bowing down to a golden calf—claiming that it was this calf that had brought them out of Egypt.

So, I think, the first lesson we need to learn is that right remembering is to speak truthfully of our own history. You see, God knows that with the passing of time and due to our own fallenness and human pride, we have a tendency not so much to forget our history as we have a tendency to rewrite our history in such a way as to either emphasize ourselves, our own accomplishments and works, or to emphasize the idols of our own choosing as the most important pieces of our history. But of course, either way is still idolatry and is still a failure to remember our history rightly.

As for us, as we stand on the eve of Remembrance Day, there are two equally harmful ways that we may fail to remember rightly by failing to speak truthfully about our history. On the one hand, it may be tempting for us to ignore our history altogether, to pretend as if our national involvements in the terrible wars of the past century were simply to be forgotten, or worse, to be despised. But such a dishonest non-telling of our history is to pretend that somehow, God had abandoned his people, the Church, in times of great distress. Whatever your personal theology of war and military involvement may be, to fail to acknowledge our forefathers’ and foremothers’ involvement is to inadvertently to insist that for a period, at least, God’s providential hand had been lifted from his people, and indeed, from this world. For in the end, whatever justice was served, however minimal we may perceive that to be, to fail to speak truthfully about our history is to fail to give glory to the God who brought us through.

On the other hand, and this is probably the bigger temptation for many these days, it may be tempting to so glory in the feats of heroism and victories over perceived evil that those who served the military become idols themselves. To tell the history of these global conflicts in such a way that all glory is given to military strategy, to battles, and to individual heroism is itself to remember wrongly. For there is no political authority except as set up and torn down by the hand of the Almighty, Sovereign Lord of Creation. All authority in heaven and earth has been delivered to the Just King, Jesus, alone, and to tell stories of military might as the primary means by which justice is delivered is to remember wrongly.  Just as Israel was commanded to keep the Sabbath day—a day when they did no work—so, too, for us, to remember rightly means that in the midst of, and sometimes despite,  military heroics and dictatorial heinousness, God alone reigns. In our day, to speak of freedom won on our behalf but to forget to mention the God of freedom is already a wrong remembrance. Thus, we remember wrongly when either annihilate from memory those men and women who served, or to set those same men and women up on pedestals as idols to Western freedom. But we remember rightly when we honour the service these men and women played, while continuing to give God glory for any and every justice that was won.

2)      To remember rightly is to exercise yesterday’s justice today.

Turn quickly now to a second passage in Deuteronomy, this time 15:15. “Remember that you were slaves in Egypt and the Lord your God redeemed you. That is why I give you this command today.”

For this verse, it is especially important to look at the immediate context because it gives us further clues about what it means to remember rightly. The verse falls in the middle of a chapter describing the practice of the Sabbath year. Every seventh year, under the Law of God, debts were to be cancelled and slaves were to be freed. The reason? Vs. 4 – “There should be no poor among you, for in the land the Lord your God is giving you to possess as your inheritance, he will richly bless you.” Notice that God wasn’t saying that the Israelites weren’t allowed to lend to one another, nor was he even explicitly forbidding the ownership of slaves. What he is forbidding, however, is a system where the poor and the slave have no opportunity to break out of their poverty or slavery. The Sabbath year (at least in theory) was supposed to free the poor from debt and the slaves from being slaves—and all this as a sign of the generous blessing of God to the Israelites as a whole.

Thus, when we get to verse 12, we find out that if a fellow Hebrew, for some reason, fell into hard times and had to sell himself as a slave to make a go of life, God required that such a state of affairs would be only temporary. Every seventh year slaves were not only to be set free, but also, upon being set free, were to be given a liberal supply of livestock and grain so that he could go and start supplying for himself in the years to come. I want to suggest here that this is the essence of biblical justice—generosity to the disadvantaged and down trodden, to the ones who were incapable of supplying, and dare I say, defending themselves. Justice is not about the government making sure everyone is equal; justice is about making sure that those who have are being generous toward those who don’t. To be just is to be liberally generous to those who have nothing to give in return.

It is in this sense, then, that God finally reminds the people (back to verse 15) that they were to practice the Sabbath year (an extension of keeping the Sabbath in chapter 5) and that this practice of cancelling debts and freeing slaves served as a reminder to them that they, too, had been slaves, and that because the Lord had freed (or redeemed) them, they were to do likewise to their fellow Israelite. So, the Israelites rightly remembered when they passed on justice to their countrymen as an act of participation with the justice they and their forefathers had, in an earlier generation, also received directly from the hand of God. In short, to remember rightly is to exercise yesterday’s justice today. Just as they had been slaves and freed from their slavery, to remember rightly was to participate in the history of their forefathers who had been freed from slavery yesterday and today to free others who were under a different form of slavery. In other words, the principle of extending justice as generosity to others was the same, even though the context was different.

It is a sad thing that during WW2, a war in which the allies sought to battle against the crazed ideologies of the racist actions of a megalomaniac against the Jews, that in North America, Germans and Japanese-though fortunately not taken to the incinerator ovens, were nevertheless sometimes rounded up and put in concentration camps, wrongly accused and mistreated. It is amazing, in other words, how justice served across the seas was justice denied in our own back yards. (For more, see How Silent were the Churches? Canadian Protestantism and the Jewish Plight during the Nazi era.) In the struggle for justice that many were called upon to undertake on foreign soil, it is all too disconcerting to think about the injustices that we stood by and allowed to be perpetrated here on our own soil. This doesn’t negate the fact that there are cases of extreme injustice against which we are called to fight (however you might define “fight”), but right remembering acknowledges that we, too, have a role to play. The danger is that in lauding and remembering justices won in the past, we far too often stand aside and are complicit in the face of our present-day injustices.

As we extend that thought, the historical context in which we find ourselves today is obviously quite different than the context in which our forefathers and foremothers found themselves during the wars of the twentieth century. For us to remember rightly on remembrance day is not simply to recall, as a matter of historical curiosity, what justice our forefathers were fighting for and to give them a virtual “atta boy!” for a job well done. Such a “remembrance” is paradoxically in danger of lulling ourselves to sleep and thinking that justice has already been won. On the contrary, today we remember rightly when we identify justice that has been served in the past and then seek to extend justice to those of today who are defenseless and voiceless, who have either voluntarily or involuntarily given themselves over to slavery of all kinds.

And so, as uncomfortable as it is to ask, we must ask: How many unborn, defenseless, voiceless children will die in Canada and the US today? How many young girls and boys will be sold into the slavery of prostitution on the streets of Moose Jaw, Regina, Vancouver, and Toronto today? How many children without parents or stable homes will need to eke out an existence on the street today? We remember rightly when we not only acknowledge the works of justice won yesterday, but when we participate in acts of mercy and justice today.

So tomorrow, let us not fail to honour the role that our forefathers and foremothers may have played as instruments of God to serve justice against evildoers, as Paul seems to indicate in Romans 13. But in remembering their role, let us not then fail to seek to do today, by God’s help, what is merciful and just and right. For to do so will be to remember rightly that we too were slaves to sin, to corruption, and to injustice, but we have been now freed to be servants of righteousness, in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ. Amen.

Irony in the Wall Street Protests

I am unabashedly Protestant, but I can admit that I haven’t inherited too much of the “protest” part of Protestant. This comes out in my cynical attitude toward the so-called “Wall Street Protests” taking place right now. In fact, it’s hard for me not to see irony in the following picture (originally posted here):

A couple protesters are shown here taking a break in the midst of the protest.

What exactly are they protesting? We’re told “corporate greed.” Ok. I don’t particularly care for many of the greedy practices of multinational corporations and big banks either. But it’s hard for me not to be skeptical about what this particular protest will actually accomplish. (I hear similar protests are being planned in Canadian cities, including Regina and Saskatoon here in Saskatchewan…the fact that this is a different country with significantly different economic practices doesn’t seem to matter–let’s protest anyways!)

Anyways, I simply can’t imagine that some corporate CEO sitting in his lavish Wall Street office tower is sitting there telling his executives, “Hey, guys, look at all those protesters in the street way down there. We better stop being greedy. From now on, it’s Folger’s coffee for everyone–no more triple espresso latte machiatto frappacinos!”

Now look closely at the picture. What are these two doing? Both (one of whom is apparently a “homeless blogger”…?) are enjoying a drag from (presumably) a cigarette produced by some massive corporate tobacco company. Both are catching up on their Facebook accounts (no greed going on at that company, right?) while checking their Gmail, and Twitter accounts, and Googling the latest news of protests in other cities. Thankfully they were able to tap into the public wifi service provided by some such corporate entity like Verizon! Oh, and aren’t we so glad that Facebook and Google and Twitter, at least, are all about doing what they are doing for reasons other than corporate profit? (But I digress…) Of course, this is all accomplished on the latest laptops produced by non-greedy corporate computer manufacturers. (Do a quick count of how many laptops show up in this picture representing no more than 50 square feet…I found 5!) Hmmmm…

Well the good thing is that these two won’t get thirsty. Good ol’ Coca Cola and FIJI bottled water imported direct from Fiji by a US-based company! Ya, the drinks of corporate greed protestors!

Listen, I don’t have a neat answer to how to change corporate greed. It probably has something to do with the propensities of the human heart, one would think, and there’s not many things from a human perspective we can do to change that apart from good ol’ repentance and turning to God. That said, I don’t necessarily want to insist that the Wall Street protests are pointless. Maybe they will have some good effect.

But I do want to insist that I have little hope that these protests can have much effect when they are opposing something as slippery and abstract as “corporate greed.” At least protesters in places like Libya were clear on what they were hitting the streets to protest–the ongoing tyranny of crackpot dictator. It isn’t all that clear, however, in the case of the Wall Street protests exactly what concrete thing is being protested. What is supposed to change, other than some faceless corporate CEO’s and cronies taking a substantial pay cut? Frankly, even if they do take a pay cut, I have significant doubts that the root problem of greed will have been dealt with. Indeed, if the protests actually are able to succeed in concrete reduction of the greed of the corporate leaders, these leaders will likely do so only to retain their customers’ loyalty to their product.

In other words, if  Dell and Coca Cola leaders, for example, made a public announcement that they were going to cut salaries of the top 10% of salaries in their company, wouldn’t it finally be in hopes that the two individuals in the picture noted above would choose a Dell for their next laptop and to drink Coca Cola, in good conscience, at the next protest?

Seven things Christians can do during a Majority Government

This week Prime Μinister Stephen Harper steps into the 41st Parliament with a majority government of 166 seats. The NDP, of course, begins its first session as the official opposition with 103 seats elected to Parliament. This is new ground for both.

It’s been a while since Canada has had a majority government. What can we expect?

Given the fact that the official opposition has lost their beloved leader who brought them to this point, it will be fascinating to watch how both Government and Opposition function in coming days. Will the Government take advantage of this moment and ram through a bunch of bills that have been difficult to pass in past years? Will the Opposition come out, (registered) guns a-blazin’, with new found confidence in the force of their numbers? It’s too early to tell, but stay tuned!

But here’s another question. What should Christians be doing as this new session of Parliament begins? Is there anything we can do to become actively involved in the political process? Or is all we can do is sit back and let the cards fall as they may? I hope readers opt for the former rather than the latter. But to encourage a more active and responsible Christian involvement, no matter what one’s political stripe, here’s seven things we can do as Christian to keep from becoming politically apathetic in between now and the next federal election some four years hence…

1) Pray for our MPs.
Scripture doesn’t give us direct insight into the kind of political stances we are to take on many issues as a Christians, but it is very clear on one thing: We are to pray for those in authority over us (1 Tim 2:1-3). Indeed, Paul tells us that to do so is “good” and that praying for our leaders “pleases God our Saviour.” How much more direct political instruction do we need?! Praying for our leaders also has the added benefit of keeping the edge of cynicism out of our voices when we speak about politicians. It’s pretty hard to pray for a politician one moment and then mock her or him the next.

 2) Find out who your MP is.
I am amazed at how regularly I meet someone who doesn’t know who her or his own Member of Parliament is. Given that our MP is supposed to be our representative in Ottawa, it seems a bit odd that we wouldn’t know to whom we are supposed to turn when we want to be represented. So, if you don’t know who your MP is, and you know what your postal code is, go here to find out.  Once you’ve found out who your MP is, why not pray for her or him, too?

Oh, and if you’re interested, you can also find out where you MP sits in Parliament here. While it doesn’t tell you everything, you may be interested to know how far away from “centre” (Prime Minister or Party Leader) the Member sits. This may suggest the level of influence the Member has toward the Leader.

3) Find out what’s on the docket for the next Parliament.
While there are always matters of discussion that come up unexpectedly in Parliament, there is nevertheless a basic plan for what it going to be covered. You can find the proposed bills here. It is worth taking a few minutes scan through the titles and see what catches your eye. I did a quick scan and found Bill C-233 entitled (somewhat optimistically), “A Bill to Eliminate Poverty in Canada” (!).  While you’re in the area, you might want also to head over to the Parliament of Canada home page that gives a lot interesting information, including some great educational resources for teachers of primary and secondary students.

4) Do some research on a legislative Bill of your interest.
Whatever your bent, you are sure to find something in the parliamentary docket that piques your interest (or raises your hackles!). Do a bit of reading on the bill to see what is going to be proposed. Are you in favour of this approach or not? Outline two or three things that makes you want to support, or signal opposition to, the proposed legislation. Oh, and while you’re at it, as a Christian it would be good to find out what Scripture has to say on the issue! Scripture doesn’t, as previously mentioned, always give us direct instruction on how we should view any particular piece of legislation. But surely as Christians we would be remiss if we didn’t at least try to discern what the Bible might have to say.

5) Write a letter to your MP supporting or opposing an upcoming piece of legislation.
I think it would be disheartening to know how many people have ever contacted their MP about anything. I suspect the percentage is rather low. This despite the fact that MPs tell us regularly that they consider one letter equivalent to the opinion of several hundred constituents. Indeed, MPs are often asked what their constituents are thinking about a matter, and the communication received from their constituency is one of the main ways they gather this information and pass it on to the party leaders.

So, using the address of the MP you found above, take the time to write a brief letter expressing your opinion. Yes, you heard me correctly–write a letter, not an email.

Now for some of us, we probably haven’t written a letter in years so you might want some tips on how to do this effectively. I’d suggest a couple of sites that describe effective letters here and here.

Why not an email? It isn’t that emails aren’t appropriate, but email is a less formal medium and a letter, complete with an actual envelope and actual paper, communicates just how seriously you take an issue. Oh, and the good news about writing a letter your MP–you don’t have to put a stamp on it! Canada Post guarantees delivery of letters to Members of Parliament and Ministers without the need for postage.

No matter what, don’t be afraid to identify yourself as a Christian in your letter. You have a right to be heard not simply as a citizen in Canada, but as a Christian. Just remember, though, that what you say in the letter will also influence, rightly or wrongly,  the MP about what he or she thinks about Christians. Be honest, in other words, but remain polite and respectful.

6) Write your MP a letter of encouragement.
This is a bit different than #5 above, so let me explain. A few years ago I attended a session in Ottawa to listen to several Christian MPs from various parties speaking on their perspective of the intersection of faith and politics. I’ll always remember what Bill Blaikie, a highly respected New Democrat MP who served the House of Commons for many years, said. He spoke of how rarely he had ever received letters of encouragement from constituents. That is bad enough, but worse yet was that he said that the most hurtful–indeed, hateful–letters he ever received were penned by self-professed Christians. How sad!

It is easy for us to criticize and blame at a distance, and we surely shouldn’t automatically agree with everything our MP does on our behalf. But surely as Christians we can remember that we should be the aroma of Christ (2 Cor 2:15), or to use Jesus’ metaphor, salt and light (Matt 5:13-16), toward our political leaders. Remember that once you’ve identified yourself as a Christian, you are also acting as a representative of Jesus Christ himself itself. Make sure your witness is Christ honouring and faithful to the Good News of the Gospel.

7) See #1 one above!

So there you have it. Seven things Christians can do during a majority government. But now that I think of it, these are things we can do no matter what kind of government we have! So don’t wait for the next minority!

The Politics of Idolatry

While working my way through 2 Kings recently, I came across a recurring theme, mainly, “the sins of Jeroboam.” Repeatedly throughout 1 and 2 Kings, we find out that the kings of Israel who did evil in the sight of YHWH were often lumped together with the “sins of Jeroboam.” For example, in 2 Kings 3:3, we find out that Joram, though not as evil as his father Ahab (who, we find out, was one of the worst), nevertheless, “clung to the sins of Jeroboam son of Nebat, which he had caused Israel to commit.”

Or, take the case of King Jehu. Though he was obedient in killing all of Ahab’s family (2 Kings 10:17) and in destroying Baal worship in Israel (2 Kings 10:28), nevertheless “he did not turn away from the sins of Jeroboam son of Nebat, which he had caused Israel to commit” (2 Kings 10:29). (For some other places where the “sins of Jeroboam” are spoken of, see 1 Kings 16:31; 2 Kings 3:3; 10:29, 31; 13:2, 11; 14:24; 15:9, 18, 24, 28; and 17:22).

So what is this all about?

First, we need to remember that Jeroboam was the first king of Israel in the divided monarchy. He was a contemporary of Rehoboam, Solomon’s son, who was King of Judah. The narrator tells us that Rehoboam and Jeroboam were at war continuously (1 Kings 15:6). This alone tells us that Jeroboam was, at the very least, constantly under political pressure.

Second, we need remember what the sin of Jeroboam  actually was. We find the account in 1 Kings 12:25-33 and it is remarkably simple. Jeroboam’s sin was that he set up two golden calves and he told the Israelites, “Here are your gods, O Israel, who brought you up out of Egypt” (1 Kings 12:28). (It is sadly ironic that the language used here is exactly the language used by the people when Aaron brought them a golden calf in Exodus 32:4b). After Jeroboam’s reforms, the people of Israel went either to Dan or Bethel to worship one of these golden calves rather than Jerusalem in Judah–where Solomon’s temple of YHWH was and where the people were supposed to worship.

In light of these things, it should be clear that the actions of Jeroboam were not simply religious but overtly political in intention. The setting up of the calves (along with other liturgical reforms such as building shrines, having an alternate festival day, and installing non-Levitical priests – 1 Kings 12:31-33) was not mere religious reform (though that it was). Rather, it was both a political reaction to the heavy-handedness of Rehoboam (1 Kings 12:13-14) and a political means of rallying the people of Israel in rebellion against Judah. Indeed, Jeroboam’s reforms pale in religious significance relative to their ultimate political objective. Jeroboam may have been religiously naive, but he was no political fool! Thus, Jeroboam’s action should be characterized as nothing less than an attempt to use religion as a means to a political end.

[Here commentators are somewhat divided on the question of whether Jeroboam was being portrayed as a radical or a conservative. If he was a radical, it was because he was decentralizing worship away from Jerusalem–a kind of rebellion against the tribe of Judah. If he was a conservative, it was because he wasn’t intending for the people to worship anyone but YHWH, but was using the calves only as a pedestal or means to worshipping YHWH. But either way, the narrator of Kings consistently recounts the action as reprehensible–whether it was a politically radical or conservative move alike.]

Clearly, readers are supposed to realize that Jeroboam broke the first and second commandments–and encouraged the people of Israel to do the same. “I am the LORD your God, who brought you out of Egypt, out of the land of slavery. You shall have no other gods before me. You shall not make for yourself an idol in the form of anything in heaven above or on the earth beneath or in the waters below (Ex 20:2-4).

The consequence of Jeroboam’s action is that he not only makes a significant religious blunder and misleads the people into explicit idolatry against God’s own command, but in so doing, he leads the people toward forming a new (misguided) political identity. Remember: The people of Israel were constituted, under YHWH, as an elect nation called and led by YHWH. But Jeroboam, in one fell swoop, divides the nation and demotes YHWH into yet but another pair of localized tribal deities in Dan and Bethel, rather than the one LORD God of Israel. YHWH, creator of heaven and earth and deliverer of Israel, now, under Jeroboam’s “religious reforms,” takes a mere place alongside the other Canaanite deities. All in the service of political expediency!

I’m reminded here of the temptations we are constantly faced with in the Canadian political scene. There are at least three (though there are surely many more):

1) We are constantly tempted to isolate religion in such a way that God is worshiped as  a “tribal deity.” These days we don’t call it that, but instead, constantly are told that “religion should be a private affair only.” It may not have been Jeroboam’s intention to privatize Israel’s deity, but the practicality of his decentralization of worship was indeed the “privatization” (as we would call it), or at the very least, “tribalization” of Israel’s religion.

2) We are tempted to use religion as a means of achieving a political end. It is terribly unfortunate when Christian Churches or Christian organizations succumb to the temptation to alter their practices or even their theological convictions in light of political pressures or in the service of an ultimate political end. In this regard, it is not that the Church should have no interest in politics (for religion and politics, though not the same, cannot be extricated), but rather to be constantly aware of how subtly political power or political goals can alter the substance of our theological convictions or even the missional goals of our organizations.

3) We are tempted to blend the religious and the political in a kind of theopolitical amalgam. We need to look no further than the situation the church faced in Nazi Germany when, in an attempt to maintain its status in the society, the church capitulated and created a strange syncretist version of Christianity and National German Socialism. Perhaps in Canada we may even allow secular versions of “tolerance” or “justice” to slowly and imperceptibly mold our theological convictions into an image of the State. In such cases, the work of the Church and the work of secular organizations can eventually look no different from one another. We need prophetic insight and discernment here to be sure.

Whatever Jeroboam’s intention was, and however innocent or radical he may have been, the Kings narrative gives us at least one important lesson. The repeated reminder to Israel of the sin of Jeroboam in the Kings account seems to indicate that a political end is never sufficient reason for religious reform. In other words, beware of making religious and theological compromises simply to accomplish a political objective. For in doing so, we can be sure that we have fallen into a form of political idolatry in which the political goal has taken its place alongside, or over, the true worship of God. As the prophet Isaiah puts it, “I am the LORD [YHWH]; that is my name! I will not give my glory to another or my praise to idols.” (Isa 42:8)

Governing Authorities as Servants

I found the following paragraph to be an especially helpful way of debunking the idea that Paul, in Romans 13, was telling Christians to obey the government absolutely. The author also hints at just how radical Paul’s notion of “governing authority as servant” was in his context.

Some Christians interpret Romans 13 to suggest that Christians are to give total and unconditional obedience to the state: “Let every person be subject to the governing authorities; for there is no authority except from God, and those authorities that exist have been instituted by God” (Rom 13.3:1). However, a closer understanding of the text suggests our obedience to the state is not unquestioning in nature. A few verses later Paul adds that government is “God’s servant for your good” (Rom 13:4). Thus in Romans 13 Paul recasts the prevailing understanding of the Roman political order by insisting that governments are servants—a fairly remarkable thing to argue at the time of the Roman Empire. Paul thereby relativized the Roman imperial order by refusing to accept the emperor as the ultimate authority and arguing that the emperor was under God—a servant with a particular task to do. Roman emperors (and government leaders more generally) were not gods, not lords, but servants; the emperor was not the only or the final sovereign entity.

Corwin Smidt, “The Principled Pluralist Perspective,” in Church, State and Public Justice. IVP Academic, 2007, p. 143.


How do (Canadian) evangelicals vote?

A new article from the online journal Church and Faith Trends examines Canadian evangelical voting “intentions” from 1996-2008. (The author notes that the data being used is taken from pre-election polls that indicate “voter intention” rather than actual “voting practice.”  i.e., We do not have access to data of for which parties evangelical voters actually end up voting, but pre-election polls about what a voter intends to vote surely tells us something important, even if some people change their mind in the voting booth!)

Among various observations, at least three in the study are worth noting:

  1. Canadian evangelicals vote very much in accord with the larger regional trends, with only slight preferences given toward “right of centre” parties. The article breaks down voting preferences from four national regions (Western, Ontario, Quebec, and Atlantic) and shows that by and large, the evangelical vote is proportionally distributed amongst the major political parties relative to larger voting preferences.
  2. The Liberal Party of Canada has seen a significant drop in evangelical support in the last four years, but not necessarily for reasons one might expect. That is, the author of the article argues that loss of evangelical support for the Liberal Party probably has more to do with ways in which the Liberals have alienated evangelicals than what right of centre parties (such as the Conservatives) are doing to gain evangelicals’ confidence.
  3. Evangelicals who have left their support for the Liberal Party behind do not automatically go the Conservative Party, despite the fact that much of the mainstream media would like us to believe this. In fact, many evangelicals have thrown their support behind the NDP, Green Party, and in Quebec, the Bloc.
  4. As one might expect, evangelicals do place “moral issues” (like abortion and same-sex marriage) high on their list of priorities as an election approaches. However, it is also true that, for example, in 2008 50% of evangelicals polled cited the “economy” as being one of the most important electoral issues.

So what do we make of all this?

On the one hand, this study clearly demonstrates that generalizations about Canadian evangelical voters at large are difficult to make. As the author notes, “Canadian Evangelical Christians do not vote as a bloc.”

On the other hand, the study also indicates that evangelicals vote pretty much like the rest of the populace, with only a small measure of them voting with greater preference for the right of centre parties. I don’t know whether that says something about the heterogeneity of evangelical political perspectives, or whether that says something about the homogeneity of the political platforms of the major Canadian political parties, all of which are, at the end of the day, clustered pretty much at the centre of the political spectrum. Evangelicals, in other words, vote across the whole spectrum of political parties because they are, after all, so much alike.

Of course, there are alternative parties for evangelicals to vote for. The Christian Heritage Party (CHP), for example, claims to be “Canada’s only pro-Life, pro-family federal political party.” Yet that does not seem to be enough to persuade evangelicals to vote enmasse for them. Why? It’s hard to say for sure, but I suspect that it is at least because most evangelicals would view it as nigh unto impossible ever to see a government formed under such a platform as the CHP. Or it might simply be that evangelicals, by and large, as interested as they might be in the so-called “moral issues” are also interested in the broader economic, international, health, and environmental issues. True, a party like CHP does in fact have a platform on some of these issues, but again, I suspect most evangelicals are wary of voting for these candidate because they are unconvinced that their vote would actually result in elected MPs, let alone a government.

The greater point, I think, is that evangelicals vote much like the general populace because we all have, to one extent or another, been duped into thinking that the best way to enact political change is accomplished through the exercise of political power. It seems to me that “getting elected” is the number one priority of every major political party these days. Their platforms are designed, in other words, first to get elected, and only secondarily to accomplish political ends. In this sense, we have actually moved backward in our political understanding toward a more hierarchical monarchist view of government. That is, the monarch traditionally “ruled” and had a council of advisers who were an extension of the accomplishment of his or her political political agenda. Similarly, it seems that much political maneouvering in Canada (and I suspect in an even greater way for our neighbors to the south) is about forming a government that can be a political extension of the party, rather than viewing parliament as a government and opposition which is meant to be a forum of what Oliver O’Donovan calls “public deliberation.”

All this is to say that perhaps we (evangelicals and Canadians at large) have to be re-taught about why it is that we elect a government, and politicians need to be recalled to be reminded that their role is not ultimately to gain power, but together as government and opposition to deliberate political proposals in light of fundamental questions about the public’s common good. As long as politicians and political parties have as their main goal the attainment of political power, evangelicals (and all Canadians) will continue to vote on their perceptions of which party will serve me as an individual best, rather than on the basis of which political party and candidates are most likely to do a good job of critically assessing and judging political options in order to enact those measure which are truly best for the country’s citizens.