?And the child grew and became strong in spirit and he lived in the wilderness until he appeared publicly to Israel.? – Luke 1:80
This verse describes the childhood of John the Baptist. The footnote to this verse in the NIV version of the Bible says this of the passage:
?By living in the desert, John remained separate from the economic and political powers so that he could aim his message against them. He also remained separate from the hypocritical religious leaders of his day. His message was different from theirs and his life proved it.?
I think there?s a message in there for us all, at least metaphorically speaking. John the Baptist lived his early life in isolation so that he could block out the distractions of the day as he developed his message and his mission. As Christians, we?re not called upon by God to be prophets, but we are called to be a priesthood of believers (1 Peter 2:9). Isolation is overkill in our cases, but a certain amount of detachment may be absolutely necessary.
If you doubt this, consider Jesus? prayer for his Disciples and for all believers:
?I have given them your word and the world has hated them, for they are not of the world any more than I am of the world. My prayer is not that you take them out of the world but that you protect them from the evil one. They are not of the world, even as I am not of it.? – John 17:14-16 (Emphasis mine)
As believers, we often get a little too deep into the world, and do it in a way that can not only compromise our witness, but even create a negative witness, the kind that turns people away from the faith. Consider the possibilities.
Christians and politics
A few years ago I was standing in a grocery store checkout line, making small talk with the cashier and a couple in front of me. The guy in the couple talked about one of those End Times/Rapture books. He excitedly told us how during the Rapture in the book, all the believers were pulled up to Heaven, including George W. and Laura Bush.
Now if you?re a Republican or a conservative, you won?t give that much thought ? you?ll think that?s as it should be. After all, the Bushes were publicly declared Christians.
But what is the witness of that book ? or of the believing readers of it ? when it comes to Democrats, liberals, independents or even Libertarians? It could actually be a negative witness.
Such a book has an obvious faith component, based on the Olivet Discourse and the book of Revelation. But putting the Bushes into the storyline is interjecting a certain very definite political position into an otherwise very Christian understanding. How does the reader or listener who isn?t Republican relate to that book? Either he feels excluded in the story, or he sees the obvious political slant of the author and dismisses everything else written in the book.
And that?s really the point. The world desperately wants to reduce everything to politics. It wants to believe that there?s a political solution to every dilemma facing humanity. But from a spiritual standpoint, politics has a very real potential to become a false idol. We know from Scripture that humanity will never ?get it right?, that the only path to salvation is vested in God alone. When we mix politics with faith, we?re really mixing a gospel of men with the Gospel of Jesus Christ.
No matter how we may see this as either acceptable or normal from a human perspective, it?s pure heresy as a matter of faith. Sometimes as Christians we get so caught up in politics that our public pronouncements are little different from those of our secular friends, neighbors, family members, and coworkers.
For what it?s worth, I?ve seen and heard Democratic Christians do the same thing. No matter what political persuasion you are, as a Christian, you are foremost:
- A child of God,
- desperately in need of salvation through Jesus Christ alone, and
- ultimately a citizen of Heaven.
It?s fine to vote and to do your civic duty, but we must be especially careful that we are not blending politics into our faith. When we do, we’re behaving exactly the way the world does, and we have no faith witness.
Christians and criminal justice
Maybe it?s because I live in an area that has a large population of fundamentalist Christians, but I?ve noticed the unmistakable trend in many Christians to enthusiastically support the criminal justice system. I often wonder how this appears to nonbelievers.
This support includes passing more and tougher laws, building more prisons and the imposition of the death penalty. But in Matthew 9:13 Jesus said following:
?But go and learn what this means: ?I desire mercy, not sacrifice.? For I have not come to call the righteous, but sinners. (Emphasis mine)?
Now I realize that there are different opinions in regard to criminal justice, but recognizing that we are all sinners ? and called to extend mercy to other sinners ? how do we square this with support for greater levels of incarceration and for the death penalty?
It seems to me that if we?re believing Christians, we should struggle in this area much more than we often do. We should find both aspects of criminal justice ? the commission of the crime and the administration of justice – to be deeply sad events. I think that God grieves all of it, and we should do the same.
The next time that you see or hear someone arrested, don?t assume their guilt. Don?t jump on the media bandwagon of wanting to see an accused or convicted person ?fried? for their crime. Criminal justice in America has turned into a sick, modern-day form of entertainment, not entirely unlike the administration of Roman justice 2,000 years ago. If you doubt this, just turn on your TV and watch the litany of criminal justice shows, as well as the heavy focus on crime that your local TV news programs offer up. Yes, people and organizations are quite literally profiting from the public obsession with criminal justice. How much do we want to feed that?
Maybe the better response for a Christian in witnessing the prosecution of an accused criminal should be found in the saying, ?But for the Grace of God go I.? I think that might be a more effective witness than enthusiastic support for prosecution.
Christians and world affairs
Too many Christians today see war through the lens of eschatology (the study of the End Times as prophesied in the Bible). This is particularly true if the conflict occurs in the Middle East, involves the nation of Israel, or the global heavyweights, such as China and Russia.
But if you study eschatology, it?s about the conflict between powers beyond this world, in which Jesus Christ will ultimately triumph. To many Christians, any time there?s a war, Armageddon is at hand, and the United States of America is leading the forces of Jesus, marching to vanquish the enemies of God. Few state this publicly (though some well-known televangelists are more honest about it) and for many it isn?t a conscious thought. But it seems to have become a convenient way for believers to wrap their faith around the ancient human art of war.
I believe that the appeal of war from a Christian standpoint – much like that of criminal justice – is that it seems to a play on the good-versus-evil theme, but on a grand scale. The human side of us likes that kind of conflict. It?s a time when right and wrong seem to be as clear as day. But that?s not a faith position ? it?s human one. Humanity is all about conventions, which are beliefs and assumptions that we make that enable us to simplify complex problems.
When it comes to war, the good and evil that seemed so apparent at the start of the conflict often become meaningless when things get ugly. And history has shown that most conflicts occur for reasons that were much different than the stated purpose at the outset (usually it?s rooted in economics).
War is ultimately a messy affair in which people are killed, wounded, mistreated, and often displaced. It is also a time in which land and other assets change hands at the point of a gun. As much as we may think that our country is in the right, and the opponent is completely wrong, war is not something we should ever celebrate or advocate lightly. Soldiers will go off to war and never come back, wives and husbands will be widowed, and children will lose a mother or father. And in virtually any war, innocent people are killed – and some of them are our Christian brethren. This should not be viewed as acceptable simply because such people live in ?enemy territory?. War is a massive, orchestrated human tragedy.
Except in very rare instances, when Christians get caught up in a war frenzy, we may be digging into the world a little bit too deep. It is often said that truth is the first casualty of war, but if you?re a Christian, then faith is most likely the first. That?s when we trust in our leaders, our soldiers and our weapons, and when the voice of the Holy Spirit goes soft in our hearts.
Please visualize this outcome?
Many Christians oppose anti-war movements, often labeling them as ?pacifists? and even ?un-American?. But let?s step back and view the development from afar. On the one hand we have ?left wing, anti-American pacifists? calling for peace, and on the other, we have the followers of Jesus Christ advocating for support of war. (We?ve now softened that position with the widely popular Support our Troops motto).
As a Christian, do you see a conflict in any of that? Have you considered how non-believers might perceive it? Does it look at all hypocritical? And most important, what does it speak of our witness to the world?
On Wednesday we?ll continue with Part II of this series, discussing popular Christian positions on morality, people who are somehow different, and my personal favorite, worry. We?ll also discuss what might be the better approach to dealing with all of these issues – one that might be more effective in the course of evangelism. Please come back.
Good questions. There’s lots of stuff here to be commented on,and I’ll try to get back to it. For now, let me just say that two overriding things come to mind here: Jesus often trumped Old Testament teachings with his own (certainly wrt violence), and He commanded us to love others *indiscriminately* (yes even crazy conservatives and progressives).
Hi Chaz – I think we often forget (or don’t realize) how much of a revolutionary Jesus really was. I’ve often thought that if we don’t see His teachings as conter-intuitive (to human thinking) then we’re in danger of not getting it right.
We enjoyed reading this two part series on the importance of keeping a sense of detachment.
Throughout history there have been achievers, in all realms, who contributed greatly to the advancement of mankind by not being afraid to exit the mainstream. They didn’t exit the mainstream, as an end unto itself, but rather for the purpose of liberating their minds from institutional momentum. It is very difficult to soar like an eagle when weighted down with an earthbound ideology so common to institutions who’ve outlasted their usefulness. The Wright Brothers were heavily ridiculed for their idea of the airplane and the mainstream press was still denouncing the feasibility of their ideas long after they were successfully demonstrated. Thankfully, the Wright Brothers didn’t listen to their critics.
In this day and age, simply turning off the television might be a good start to insulating ourselves from institutional momentum. Most television programming, advertising, and news doesn’t appear to be designed to stimulate our thinking but rather appears to be designed to control our thinking, shape our behavior, and make us cheerleaders for their agendas.
Searching, thinking, and questioning our paradigms is what feeds our spirit and makes it stronger. When we turn that critical process over to others, our spirit shrivels up and dies and we become slaves to the mind of someone else.
The problem is, however, that we are often afraid to think. Many are even terrified to think. We may even desire others to think for us and tell us what to do. Worse yet, we may put other people and institutions up on pedestals and worship them. When people and institutions fail us and don’t live up to our expectations, our spirit is brought even lower because it has atrophied due to lack of nourishment and exercise. That is the reason it is important to be grateful for the mental faculties our Creator has blessed us with by using those faculties in a manner commensurate with the gift.
You stated, ?The world desperately wants to reduce everything to politics.? We wholeheartedly agree with that statement. That statement, however, begs the question of why. Why does the world desperately want to reduce everything to politics? Is it perhaps that politics generally gives us an easy out when things go wrong? Doesn’t politics provide us with ‘someone’ to blame other than ourselves? Doesn’t it usually make for more happy thoughts when we can conveniently blame others for the chaos and uncertainty we may be experiencing?
We feel that the reason the world desperately wants to reduce everything to politics is because it seemingly frees the individual from any personal responsibility for outcomes. The outcomes or consequences are still endured, but it is someone else who is tagged with the blame. We sense, however, that people around the world are beginning to tire of this arrangement. We’ve seen numerous uprisings and civil unrest around the globe that the mainstream press is attempting to portray as an East v West cold war phenomenon when, in actuality, it may be more representative of people simply sickened with political corruption. It’s an old story. People trust others to protect them, that trust is betrayed, and the seeds of revolution are sown. What is interesting, historically, is that this cycle of trust, betrayal, and revolution took place in relative isolation. Today, however, we see evidence of an autonomous grassroots global revolution taking place.
Politicians and the ruling class in this country are most likely terrified of the civil unrest they see right now going on in Ukraine and they are hoping that the mainstream press will be successful in spinning this as being an East v West conflict. Because if they can, they will be able to rally their unquestioning followers around the flag, along with another expensive war, and take the spotlight off the global corruption issue. We’ll see if these people take the bait or not.
We agree, wholeheartedly, that our actions and example have the most influence over others, whether for positive or negative. In Part II of your series you talk about Christians and morality. There is definitely a moral message to be found in scripture. Loving and treating our neighbors as we would wish to be loved and treated is probably one of the greatest challenges we face, on a personal level, and has been our major failing. Whatever our mission statement is, our actions either lend support to that statement or negate it. And, whenever we attempt to legislate morality we end up filling our jails and prisons with nonviolent offenders we have to house, clothe, feed, and secure at tremendous cost. The greatest risk and potential cost, however, is the undermining of our own liberty. When coercion (the political/ legislative sword) is the model we’ve chosen to live by, we must be prepared to die by it. What goes around, comes around.
Thanks for writing this very thought provoking series.
Steven & Debra
Hi Steven and Debra – Thanks for your comments, they’re always thoughtful, and go beyond surface factors that so many accept so easily.
Not to make politics the central feature of the article, my own speculation is that the reason so many people want to believe that politics is the answer is that it is the human process of fashioning our own god, but one of our own design, and so we think – one under our own control. That’s the Big Lie.
Government is a power unto itself, and beholding to the people only until it has enough time to marshall resources to take charge. Along the way, people want government to have more power so that it can be fully omnipotent. I don’t think most people really have a problem with the power grab, any more than they do with the practice of printing money. After all, a government with unlimited resources can do anything, and that completes the god creation cycle.
I hope you’re right that people around the world are tiring of the arrangement, but I’m not convinvced. Yet that isn’t what worries me.
What really worries me is when Christians start drinking that kool aid with everyone else. We might reason that we can use the power of government to enforce greater moral behavoir, or that we’re sided with the “good guys” (the Dems if your liberal, the Reps if you’re conservative). All of it misses the point because it largely ignores the bigger picture, which is the creation of a false idol.
When Christians get on this bandwagon, it’s a natural extension to blend our faith with our politics. I’ve seen too many believers do this while not having a clue that they are.
That’s why I recommend a sense of detachment for believers. Only when you’re detached are you free to consider the broader implications of the Christian faith, namely that it transends EVERYTHING.
We really need to believe that, and drop the various earthly doctrines that are dimishing our witness.