Sunday, August 19, 2012

"Jesus Was A Liberal"

After morning devotions and a 3-mile walk, I make coffee, pour a bowl of cereal and sit down to C-SPAN's Washington Journal call-in TV show. Besides enjoying the hilarious tongue-tied callers who've left their TV sound on (there's a 7-second delay), I find it very instructive to hear average folks hold forth on issues of the day. This Sunday morning I slept in a bit and was still finishing my coffee when WJ got to their first guest segment with author Jeffrey Bell on his new book The Case for Polarized Politics: Why America Needs Social Conservatism. Hearing one particular caller reminded me that I'd promised to do a blog-post about Liberalism's misuse of scripture, when he asserted that "Jesus was a Liberal."
LEFT: Jesus of Nazareth (Zeffirelli); RIGHT: Passion of the Christ (Gibson)
There aren't very many Liberals today advocating for scripture as foundational to their political philosophy. A web-search for Jesus-is-a-liberal yields mostly puerile stuff like this from Jesus Was a Liberal: How the Conservative Agenda Is a Rejection of Christ's Teachings self-published by University of Indiana East Bush-bashing professor of Educational Psychology Jerry Wilde: "I can barely manage my own life and I don’t have the arrogance to think I know what’s best for everyone else. The only power I seek involves the remote control for our television. Actually there is one other thing I’d like to be able to accomplish if I were ever made 'king for a day.' I’d like to pass a law handing out severe punishment to anyone owning a luxury car and also wearing one of those WWJD bracelets." Thanks professor...this must be the "nuance" I keep hearing Liberals talk about.  

There's also a website, which at least has a list of Jesus-quotes on its home page; but no commentary or application or context is given. The site was last updated in 2006, the same year Wilde's book was published...which year was the nadir of G.W. Bush's tenure. In November '06 Harry Reid and Nancy Pelosi won back control of the Congress. By the way, G.W.B. is no role model for young conservatives.

But there are more serious and influential liberal Christians—Canadian Ronald J. Sider (Rich Christians in an Age of Hunger) and Jim Wallis (Sojourners magazine) are probably the two best-known—but given the sharply secular turn in left-wing politics (ie: Obama's "evolution" to same-sex marriage), it's getting really tough to make a biblical case for the abortion party. 

Tough, but not impossible. People who are liberal in their politics are usually liberal in their theology. And that, friends and neighbors, can be a serious problem. Consider this quote from author Scotty McLennan (Jesus Was a Liberal: Reclaiming Christianity for All) "We liberal Christians know in our hearts that there is much more to life than seems to meet the rational eye of atheists; yet we find it hard to support supernatural claims about religion that fly in the face of scientific evidence." You know, minor stuff like the virgin birth, walking on water, feeding 5,000, raising Lazarus and other so-called "miracles." I don't know about McLennan in particular, but I've heard folks with liberal theology question Christ's resurrection.

For the record, I do not claim Jesus was politically conservative—he wasn't political at all, so he couldn't have been liberal either. There are aspects of Christ's ministry that appeal to modern-day liberals: he questioned the status-quo, challenged those holding power, warned about the seductions of money and affirmed the dignity of all persons—notably women and the poor. With their fondness for revolution and upsetting the established order of things, some liberals may think they see in Jesus a kind of Che Guevara. But they'd be wrong: his kingdom is not of this world.

Those features of Jesus' modus operandi and his support for the downtrodden more resemble a T.E.A. party than the storming of the Bastille or an Occupy sit-in. Jesus was restoring the ancient truths from the Torah and the Prophets—and fulfilling them in a whole new way. Though apolitical, his purpose was deeply conservative: reminding individuals of the original purpose for their existence, and offering them a path to restoration.

But I digress. In the next post I shall fulfill my promise. Having covered Jesus' words in Matthew 25 (ie: hungry, thirsty, naked, imprisoned) on July 19th, I will next consider the other four of liberals' Top 5 Proof Texts: 

  1. Judge not lest ye be judged.
  2. It is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter the kingdom of God. 
  3. He that is without sin among you, let him first cast a stone.
  4. The Beatitudes.

Wednesday, August 8, 2012

What Is Sovereignty?

Folks who don't go to church will mostly hear the word "sovereignty" in political or geographic news items: "CIA drone strikes violate Pakistan's sovereignty" or "World Bank opposes Palestinian sovereignty." The word was cobbled together to describe the autonomy of individual nations—conveying a sense of rightfulness and legitimacy. The idea of national sovereignty was kicked off in 1578 by Frenchman Jean Bodin's influential Les Six Livres de la République, leading to Thomas Hobbes' Leviathan, the Peace of Westphalia and the Divine Right of Kings.
The King of Tonga, August 2008
Churchgoers, especially protestants, are often reassured that "God is sovereign." Which is odd in the case of evangelicals, who purport to hold a high view of scripture. Despite being commissioned by a King (James), the 1611 Authorized Version of the bible does not contain the word "sovereign", nor does its final 1771 edition. And the word was still missing from the 1885 Revised Version, widely regarded as the first "modern" bible translation. Only in the mid-20th century, when kings had all but vanished from the earth, did "sovereignty" slowly creep into English bibles:
* 1952 Revised Standard Version (UK) = 3 instances
* 1971 New American Standard Bible = 1 instance
* 1984 New International Version = 295 instances

But there's less here than meets the eye. Fully 290 of those NIV instances are in the Old Testament—60% in Ezekiel alone—and, except for Daniel, the word always appears in front of "Lord." As in "O Sovereign Lord." Before the introduction of this word, previous translations had simply said "Lord", sometimes "King" or "ruler" or "potentate" or some other such designation of high authority. 

And about Daniel: his usages were spoken to—or about—a King of Babylon, describing God as "sovereign over the kingdoms of men." After seeing what God did with Pharaoh, this is hardly a controversial point. Then what about the five instances from the New Testament? Yep, you guessed it: they are all connected to "Lord" (ie: Simeon holding the baby Jesus and calling out the honorific "O Sovereign Lord"). I note with interest that none of the five NT instances comes from the pen of the Apostle Paul—writer of the letter to the Romans (which includes a 9th chapter).

All of which gives us exactly zero insight into the "doctrine" of sovereignty, which A.W. Pink wrote " the centre of gravity in the system of Christian truth—the sun around which all lesser orbs are grouped." Pink is still revered among those holding Reformed Theology, or Calvinism. A non-biblical word, first used to justify absolute power for 16th century kings, sovereign has become Calvinism's central premise. To wit, that God's primary, defining attribute is power. The raw, brute exercise of Divine Will. 

The usual context in which I hear the phrase "God is sovereign" is right after somebody makes an assertion about God which casts him as an ogre. Statements like "God made you without a free will" or "God made most people specifically to go to hell." When somebody says to me that "God is sovereign," I hear this: "Shut up." It's the theological equivalent of a Triple-Dog Dare—plucking Paul's famous rhetoric out of Romans 9: "Who are you, O man, to answer back to God?" 

Well. First up, I'm not dissing God, I'm answering back to John Calvin and his speculative, Augustine-flavored theology. Secondly, sovereignty isn't a biblical term or concept. And thirdly it is by no means clear what people even mean when they use the word. Is it an adverb or an adjective? Do they mean omnipotent or arbitrary? 

Look, I can empathize with theologians who fail to construct an airtight container to hold God. And I agree that there's a lot going on in the heavenly/spiritual realm that strikes us strange. So it is entirely appropriate to try and comprehend God, based on what he has revealed to us through scripture...accepting that his ways are not our ways and that we only see dimly in this world. And then reach a point where we say "I don't know." But to flatly contradict whole swaths of scripture in order to cling to a man-made TULIP, saying God is not primarily Love or Truth or Mercy, but is to enthrone a whole new king.