Perspective

Twenty years today!

Today Andrew and I are celebrating our twentieth anniversary. Our plan: taking our youngest and her friend to see the live-action version of the movie Aladdin. While that doesn’t sound too romantic, it is a bit sweet since watching the cartoon version was one of our first real dates twenty-six years ago. Not only have I been married a really long time now, I’ve recently begun to realize that at forty-seven years old, I am smack dab in the middle of mid-life. If I live as long as my grandparents, I’ve got anywhere from thirty-two to fifty-four more years left. I am at the unique point of having enough time behind me to have a little perspective but enough time ahead to implement some of that perspective and see how it plays out.

The Past Perspective

I grew up in a conservative Christian church. I went to a Christian college. When I graduated, I moved to Ukraine to be a missionary/teacher. As I got to know Ukrainians, I began to hear their perspectives on things like how American politics affected their country. I learned that many people there did not like Ronald Reagan, who was a hero in the part of the US I came from and in my own family. I had hardly met anyone who did not like Reagan at that point in my life, but when I moved to Ukraine, I learned that many of people there blamed his policies for the collapse of the Soviet Union and the political chaos and extreme inflation that hit Ukraine as a result. I learned that the public sentiment toward Mikhael Gorbachev was also negative for the same reason, although people here in the US had favorable attitudes toward him.

Living in a different culture did not just lead me to question what I believed about my country, though. I attended church every week in aUkrainian church similar to my own in America, but as time went by, I noticed some differences. They took communion from one cup, which they passed from one person to the next. I often tried to sit near the front during a service when communion was served in an effort to get the cup when it was still fresh! Not only that, but they used wine in that cup, so I had my first taste of alcohol in church. This differed greatly from my church at home, which taught abstinence from alcohol so thoroughly that they used grape juice in communion. Many of the Ukrainian churches we worked with believed that women should cover their heads in worship, taking that cue from I Corinthians 11. (Look it up and ask yourself why we don’t practice this.)

Luba, my Ukrainian roommate and me. This photo was taken in 2011, so, no, I did not have that much gray hair in my 20’s…although I had quite a bit. And, of course, Luba never changes.

Change of Perspective

Experiences like these pushed me to question things I had always blindly accepted, both politically and spiritually. If these beautiful Christian people I loved believed it was acceptable to drink wine in church and expected women to cover their heads in worship, were they right? What exactly did the Bible teach about these things? More importantly, what was necessary for me to hold fast, and which of my beliefs could I loosen up on? What was cultural and what was essential? My beliefs had not been tested much until that point since I had surrounded myself with people who thought a lot like I did.

When I returned to the US, the same process happened in reverse. Suddenly, I was bombarded by teachings and opinions that seemed mired in American culture. I saw my own people slavishly following cultural norms instead of true Christian principles. To this day, I continue to hear vitriol disguised as piety, and I live perpetually amazed at how this can happen in Christian circles. I see politics mixed so intricately with faith that it becomes almost impossible to tell them apart. I hear independence and freedom preached to the extent that we forget the value of community and interdependence.

Essential Perspective

I have spent much of my adult life trying to discern what is cultural and what is Christian, whether in my own country or another. I have struggled to apply what I do think is essential. Most of all, I have struggled a great deal to love people who do not question their beliefs, people who do not see that their culturally-defined religion often is used to bludgeon those who differ.

What is essential? The very core of my answer I take from the mouth of Jesus himself, when an expert in the Jewish law asked him, “Teacher, which is the greatest commandment in the Law?” Jesus replied, “Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind.This is the first and greatest commandment. And the second is like it: Love your neighbor as yourself. All the Law and the Prophets hang on these two commandments” (Matthew 22:35-40).

I fear even typing this because I know there are some who will chalk me up as one of those mamby-pamby Christians who preaches all love and no truth. However, love is not mamby-pamby. It’s not weak. Love is not a cop-out. Love is fierce. Ask a mother who spends every day, all day sitting at the bedside of a chronically ill baby. Ask a dad whose girl is late for her curfew. Ask a husband whose wife struggles with debilitating depression or a wife whose husband dies unexpectedly. Love is strong; it fights; it holds on forever. Most importantly, it wants the very best for its beloved. That’s the love we need to have for Jesus and for others. That love drives the gospel. That love empowered Jesus to sacrifice everything, and that love can push us to examine our dearly held beliefs.

So on our twentieth anniversary, Andrew and I will take our thirteen-year-old “baby” to a movie and sit in comfy theater seats eating too-buttery popcorn. We will remember two much younger versions of ourselves who had much less defined perspectives on life and faith and the world and realize how we’ve grown since then and how far we still have to go. Maybe we will remember to let other people mature as well, to let them experience the love of God, the space to grow, the freedom to question, and the power that comes from the knowledge that they are loved.

Context or Heresy?

cross-1314136_640In this tense political season, I struggle to balance my Christian faith with what I see happening in my country. I question how my faith interacts with my culture and when those two things conflict, how to work them out. I know I’m not alone in this struggle.

Contextualization

As a former missionary married to a missions professor, I think a lot about how culture interacts with the gospel. What makes healthy ministry techniques? The concept of contextualization is important in that process. Contextualization of the gospel is what missionaries and pastors all strive to do. It means expressing biblical principles in a way that makes sense to people in the culture. The Bible makes it pretty clear that the good news of Jesus is for every person in every culture, so this is an important endeavor.

Let me give you an example of contextualization. Let’s say you’re in a church in Nebraska, where football is a really big deal. The preacher may include illustrations from football in his sermon. He may talk about the Church being a team with Jesus as the coach or he may talk about how the Holy Spirit brings unity and enthusiasm to our spiritual lives the way that cheering for a particular team brings unity and excitement to the fans. These illustrations help the people in the audience understand the Bible and apply it to their everyday lives by relating biblical principles to something they know about. This is contextualization, and it’s a good thing.

Syncretism

If we’re not careful, we can take contextualization too far and step into heretical teaching. Syncretism is contextualization taken too far. It means that a group binds the cultural expression of the gospel message so closely to the culture that the two parts cannot be separated. A person who wants to become a Christian must also adopt cultural norms in order to be considered part of the faithful. Syncretism is not a good thing because it adds cultural elements to the gospel and makes them necessary for faith in Jesus.

So if we took the example above to the level of syncretism, we’d have a situation where Christians began replacing worship services with tailgate parties in the parking lot, wearing athletic gear to the parties and including team cheers as a part of the worship of God. There’s nothing wrong with  doing those things unless we require that particular dress and activity in order to be a Christian. If someone is unwelcome in the church because he doesn’t wear the football jerseys we require and we say that attendance at a Superbowl party and rooting for a particular team  are essential to the gospel, we are stepping past contextualizing and into syncronizing.

It’s easy to look at the above example and know it’s foolish. We’d never say a person  had to be a football fan to be a Christian. That would exclude many people from the gospel and wouldn’t even make sense since football did not even exist in Jesus’ day.

Nationalism and Christianity

Unfortunately, syncretism has happened in many churches in America. We have intricately bound patriotism with Christianity. It’s now so completely wound together that we sometimes can’t see where one ends and the other begins. This is why we hear people say things like, “America is God’s country,” and, “America is a Christian nation.” (For a good article from the Christian Standard and a quiz to find out if you’re struggling with syncronistic beliefs, click here.)

How did this happen? One history professor who is himself a Baby Boomer and lived through the time immediately following World War II, tells me that after World War II, Christians began hearing stories of how some soldiers had “miraculously” escaped from certain death and about how America led the fight to free people from oppressive leaders. They believed that God used America to bring freedom to the world and to fight evil. Although nationalistic ideas were probably a part of the American church before this, the events during and following WWII fueled the idea that America was a Christian nation, created by God to bring Christianity to the world. Patriotism was necessary to maintain support for the war, and churches began incorporating patriotic themes into their services.

In order to garner support for the war and win elections, politicians targeted the Christian subculture and appealed to this sense of patriotism, further tying it to Christianity. Christians did not know about or overlooked questionable activities that America might have participated in overseas, saying these actions were necessary to keep the peace and prevent another world war and wasn’t that important in keeping a Christian presence in the world?

In the 1960’s people began balking at that because they began seeing news reports with actual footage of the Vietnam war and other American endeavors. They began to see that things the American government did weren’t always virtuous, so they began to rebel and criticize the government. And, of course, many evangelical Christians criticized those who protested and saw protesters as abominations against the Christian nation of America.  Thus began the tension between American culture and Christianity.

The Culture Wars

During the 1980’s, leaders like James Dobson and Jerry Falwell Sr. came into prominence, leading a movement to fight the influence of groups who opposed the American government and this nationalistic form of Christianity. They hoped to do this by fighting what has become known as “culture wars.” I grew up in church and listened to many sermons about the evils of the culture around us, about how we had to take a stand and fight against what we saw going on in America, about how bad rock music or movies were. We were led to believe that we owed it to God to stand up for our faith in a culture that opposed it, that fighting the culture proved our faith.

How many times have I sat in a church service built around 2 Chronicles 7:14 that says, “if my people, who are called by my name, will humble themselves and pray and seek my face and turn from their wicked ways, then I will hear from heaven, and I will forgive their sin and will heal their land”? How many times have I heard the preacher say, “This is a promise to us, America! We were made to do God’s will in the world. Our country has lost its way and now must do what God says in that verse: as a nation we must repent so that he will heal our land and bless us again”? This teaching is heresy. It takes a passage meant for the Israelite people in the Old Testament and incorrectly applies it to America, a country that did not even exist at the time that promise was made.

So we mixed our cultural belief in America with our faith. Influential leaders in the evangelical movement have moved the focus from Jesus to political issues. Those issues are important, but they take second place to the true gospel.

constitution-1486010_1280If what I believe I should do to further American strength conflicts with what Jesus taught, I am following the American flag and not Him. If I believe that God has ordained the United States as a special country to promote democracy and freedom in the world, I have mixed my patriotism and my faith, and I have decided to follow a heretical teaching using a misunderstanding of the Bible as its basis. If I believe that I have a Christian duty to stand up for the United States as an effort to preserve freedom and the Christian way of life, I am living according to nationalism and not Christianity.

Is it wrong to promote freedom, to vote based on your convictions and desire to preserve freedom or eliminate abortion, for example? No! Of course not! Our freedoms are important to us as Americans, and it is important to protect those. However, when I say that I do so because I am a Christian and Christians must vote the same way, that they must support a certain candidate or cause in the same way that I do, I am participating in the syncretism of nationalism and Christianity. If I say that I want America to be a Christian nation so that only Christians are free to live here, I no longer speak as an American or a Christian. I am no longer promoting religious freedom. I am promoting a nationalistic, heretical form of Christianity that seeks to eliminate other religions that I believe may threaten my freedom.

Why Does It Matter?

Why is this even important to me? I spent a lot of years just telling myself it was no big deal, that the old school Christians may be wasting their time talking like they did about the culture wars, but in the long run the idea would die out when the older generations did. Now I see I was wrong.

Lately, that idea has made a resurgence. We see it happening in our country in the form of a political candidate who has stirred up those feelings of angry nationalism and has used the evangelical church’s obsession with patriotism to garner votes, despite the fact that we can clearly see that he displays none of the characteristics the Bible tells us to look for in a leader. On the other side, we see Christians urging us to vote for his opponent out of fear that if the first does become president he will take down America. Both of these views smack of nationalism, a dependence on policies to protect our freedom of religion, and not the Christian faith. I admit that I also find myself trapped in this thinking at times. It is a very strong temptation for someone who grew up in an environment where this type of teaching was common.

cross-1448946_640A Crossroad

This is about more than the election, though. The church is now at a crossroads. We can follow the flag and claim we’re following Jesus or we can step away from our patriotism, our desire to make America into some sort of force for Jesus in the world, and actually become a real force for Jesus ourselves, the way that he taught the Church to do. We can live the gospel message, removing dependence upon nationalism and eliminating our reliance on a particular political platform as a test of our faith, or we can continue to fight these culture wars that push people away from Jesus.  We do not need a free American “Christian nation” to influence the world for Him. In fact, in both Bible times and modern times we see the Christian faith thriving in places where practice of it is illegal.

Jesus taught his followers to live within their society and to be different from it. The New Testament tells us that the world will know we are Christians by our love, not by the way we promote our causes. Looking at the gospel without clouding it with cultural nationalism, we see that pushing our political agendas as essential to the faith makes about as much sense as incorporating team cheers into our worship services.

Religious Freedom and Jesus

picA few months ago, I had a conversation about posting controversial conservative viewpoints on Facebook. In the conversation, the other person said that she felt compelled to stand up for her beliefs and her rights as a Christian on Facebook and in other public forums. She said that this was her duty as a Christian. Since then, my home state of Indiana has passed the infamous religious freedom law that has brought them to the forefront of the nation’s attention and has flooded my Facebook feed with all sorts of opinionated talk.

Growing up in the Bible Belt in a conservative home, I was faced with this stand-up-for-your-rights point of view quite a bit. I saw a lot of loving, kind people reject anyone different. I saw people hide their real beliefs because they were different from what other Christians believed and they didn’t want to rock the boat. I saw my friends pushed away from Christianity because of differing points of view. I am convinced that church people did this out of a sense of conviction that good Christians did not support anything sinful and out of a lack of understanding of how to accept people who are different while allowing those differences to exist. People feel that in order to love someone they need to reject the things about them that they think are bad and this will somehow show them the error of their ways and turn them to the path toward godly behavior.

In the Gospels I read about Jesus’ ministry and how he did not stand up for his rights at all. In fact, he didn’t stand up for his rights so much that he let people murder him. I think there’s one major passage in the Bible where he does talk about Christians standing up for their rights, and that’s in the Sermon on the Mount. There he says that his followers should give up their natural rights in order to love other people. You want revenge? You have a human right to revenge. However, as a Christian, give up that right and love your enemy instead. That over-the-top love is what turns people toward Jesus and not away from him.

In the controversy over religious freedom laws, it seems that there are actually two separate things happening. There is a desire for freedom as Americans. As an American, I want my freedom to worship, my freedom to believe whatever I want to believe, and my freedom to tell the world about that belief. That is my right as an American, as long as I’m not putting someone else’s life in danger.

However, I feel the tension between demanding those rights and the second idea–showing the love of Christ. I must be careful not to mix my freedom as an American with my faith. I may have a right to turn someone away based on my religious beliefs, but is rejecting them the best way to show the love of Christ to them? What if I decided that I would pay particular attention to the gay community and provide fantastic service to them in an effort to show love to a group of people who has been rejected repeatedly by those who follow Christ? I’m not saying anything at all about whether I agree with them, but as human beings I care about them.

I see the focus in this religious freedom issue shifting away from Jesus and onto our rights. From the viewpoint of the non-Christian segment of America, we Christians spend more energy advocating for our right to refuse service than we do on loving other people the way Jesus did. We get caught up thinking that part of our duty as Christians is to stand up for God, as if our willingness to be outspoken for our faith is a test of our spiritual maturity. In reality, our faith is tested by our willingness to love like Jesus did. The New Testament says “they will know you are Christians by your love,” not by your right to religious freedom.

So in this case where Christians are faced with serving people who are different from rainbow cakethem and live in ways they think are wrong, maybe the way to deal with those situations according to Jesus’ teachings is to make sure they have the best service possible. If you’re a wedding photographer and a gay couple asks for your business, make sure you give them the best photos ever. If you’re a baker, make the most beautiful cake. People who don’t and who reject the business of the gay community lose the rather rare opportunity to show extravagant Christlike love to a group of people who has only been repeatedly hurt by the Christians they know. This may mean a loss of support from your Christian friends, but, hey, those are people who have experienced God’s love before. If we care about reaching those who do not know Christ, maybe it’s time to stop focusing so much on our rights as American citizens and start focusing on loving the ones Jesus loves.