Sunday, July 29, 2012

The Perception of Power

The passage examined is Ephesians 3:14-21.

In "Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade," the swashbuckling archeology professor tells his students that X never marks the spot. The adventure that follows almost immediately contradicts that. In an ancient library, Indy realizes he is looking for an X, or more properly, the Roman numeral for 10. He sees the numerals leading up to 10 on a stain glass window and a column. Where is the X? Then from a balcony he looks down and sees that there is a gigantic X on the floor of the library. He had to change his vantage point to see what was under his feet all along.

That we need to perceive things differently to see them properly is a theme running through the movie. A seemingly impossible leap of faith across a chasm turns out to be a cunningly painted bridge. The Holy Grail is not a beautiful golden chalice but rather a plain cup. And in the end, listening to your father rather than pursuing something the world considers more valuable is the key to being saved.

Our passage from Ephesians is about changing the way we perceive things. Paul is telling the church not to get discouraged because of his sufferings in prison. Paul founded their church. He spent 3 years there, possibly sending out the missionaries that founded the 7 churches addressed in the Book of Revelation. So they knew him well and they were distressed by his imprisonment in Rome. He could be executed there. (Eventually he was.) This didn't seem to be a glorious ending for their apostle. But Paul says it was. How could that be?

Death with dignity is not always an option. Isaac Asimov, a brilliant and prolific author, a polymath who studied and wrote about everything, from science to Shakespeare to the Bible, died of AIDS, wasting away for the last year or so of his life, unable to exercise his brilliant gift for writing. Alzheimer's disease slowly dismantles the personalities of its victims. What faced Paul, as a Roman citizen, was quicker but more disfiguring: beheading. Where is the glory in being slaughtered like an animal?

Of course, Jesus was crucified, a more drawn out and much less dignified death. Yet in his sacrifice for us, we see his greatest glory. The world tends to see glory in displays of power, in those who harm and kill, rather than in those who are victimized and killed. It bugs me that in all the attention the media has paid to the recent shooting, very little has gone to 4 men who died to save people they loved. John Larimer, Matt McQuin, Alex Teves and Jon Blunk each took a bullet, either while throwing their girlfriends to the ground or throwing themselves over them and acting as a shield. We know that coverage of such shootings that focus on the perpetrator encourage equally deranged copycats. Wouldn't those who save lives and those who make the ultimate sacrifice be better subjects for the media spotlight?

Paul sees this mindset and he sees that the church has to change the whole way it sees winners and losers. But it's not enough for him to simply say it. So he prays to God that the Christians at Ephesus "be strengthened in your inner being with power through his Spirit..." The answer to weakness is always strength but not necessarily that of physical might. Gandhi got the British government to relinquish their oppressive rule of India, not by having an army but through the strength of his moral position. By nonviolently facing the wrath the supposedly Christian British Empire, he used the British people's consciences against them. This also worked in here in the US during the civil rights movement. When we see those who represent our government beat up and abuse powerless people who don't fight back, the cognitive dissonance between the kind of people we think we are and who we are as revealed by our actions becomes unbearable. Unfortunately, in the case of military and pagan Rome, it would take nearly 300 years for it to stop persecuting the church. In the meantime, Christians had to find the strength to endure injustice. That could only come from within.

But mere stoicism would not do. After a while, the strongest people reach a breaking point. The power must come from elsewhere, a source that is inexhaustible--God's Spirit. Then Paul puts it another way: "that Christ may dwell in your hearts through faith…" It is not the human spirit, it is not just the will to survive, it is the presence of Christ in our hearts that enables us to undergo suffering. And we must do so through faith, through trust in Jesus who has our best interests at heart. We must trust him as we do our doctor when he says, "This will hurt a bit." Without such faith nothing very difficult or painful would ever be attempted.

"…as you are being rooted and grounded in love." There are those who think the universe is impersonal and indifferent to us. How they endure suffering and loss is beyond me. If there is no loving creator, if there is no afterlife, then there is no justice or consolation for our suffering. But if there is a God and that God is loving, just and merciful, and there is redress in the afterlife, then we can go through any trial. All it takes is faith in God's goodness and in his triumph over any evil that befalls us. That is why Paul starts this passage by reminding its readers that not only is God our Father, he is the ideal that every other kind of father draws upon and tries to live up to. A good father does everything out of love.

Paul prays that the church is given the power to comprehend just how huge God's love is. That's the problem we often have with God. We put limits on his love. We may preach that God loves everyone and can forgive anything but in our heart of hearts, we have a hard time believing it. Do you believe God forgave Jeffrey Dahmer, the cannibalistic serial killer? Do you think he forgave Captain Mitsuo Fuchida, the man who led the raid on Pearl Harbor? Do you think he forgave Moses the Black, a bandit leader in 4th century Egypt? All of these men repented. Dahmer was baptized in prison. Fuchida became an evangelist. Moses the Black was martyred and became the patron saint of Africa. For that matter, Paul prosecuted many early Christians and was apparently responsible for their deaths. Perhaps this is why he is so aware of God's grace. He knew it firsthand. And he wanted other Christians to experience it as well.

He prays that Christians "know the love of Christ that surpasses knowledge." Now how can we know something that exceeds our knowledge? Two ways, actually. One is to know something well enough to realize you don't know it all. Scientists do that all the time. The hunt for the Higgs-boson particle was predicated on knowing that there was an important piece of information about matter that we did not yet have, namely what gives things mass. They knew what it must be, the way you can see the shape of a missing puzzle piece from the hole it leaves. Now they think they may have found the particle itself. That parallels how we can know that the love of Christ is greater than we currently realize. The apostles thought the gospel was for their fellow Jews only. Then God poured out his Spirit on some gentiles. And Philip in the Spirit baptized a eunuch. And Paul and Barnabas had more success with gentiles than with Jews. And suddenly their perception of the scope of God's love for others changed.

The other way to know something beyond knowledge is experientially. There are things you can only learn firsthand or hands on. Would you want a surgeon who had merely read about your operation to perform it? When I first read the script of "Fiddler on the Roof" I couldn't understand why it was such a popular play. When I saw a production of it, however, it became one of my favorite musicals. Similarly, you cannot say that you really know a person if you have merely read about him or her. Having read the person's words is better. But nuance and inflection and intensity and gentleness and feel and smell and a million other things have to be experienced. And there are things about God you only learn by being in his presence and talking and listening to him. They will not contradict what is written in his word. But they will color it and expand it and give you a better perspective on it. And I think this is really what Paul means when he talks about knowing "the love of Christ that surpasses knowledge." He wants us to know this love firsthand.

"…so you may be filled with all the fullness of God." The Greek verb literally means "crammed." We are to be filled to the brim with all the goodness of God we can contain. If we know firsthand the limitless love of Jesus, we will overflow with the goodness of God. That is how we are supposed to operate. That's how faith gives rise to works. We know and trust Jesus Christ, not merely intellectually but experientially, and that experience is so overwhelming that we must share his love and grace with others.

Indeed, it moves Paul to end this chapter with a beautiful doxology: "Now to him who by the power at work within us is able to accomplish abundantly far more than all we can ask or imagine, to him be glory in the church and in Christ Jesus to all generations forever and ever. Amen." Notice that what accomplishes so much is "the power at work within us." It is by God's Holy Spirit that we can accomplish more than we can ask or imagine. Jesus said we would do greater works than he did. How? By the same power that was in him, the Spirit. But he was one and we are many. We can do great things by the power of the Spirit multiplied by the number of people working together in the Spirit. We are called, C. S. Lewis said, to be little Christs. And together we can accomplish more than one person can. Jesus concentrated his efforts in one small part of the world, training a handful of people. But they were sent out and they trained and sent out others who did the same and eventually the good news spread to every tribe and nation and corner of the earth.

To do that they had to be so inwardly strengthened by his Spirit, so aware of Christ living in their hearts through faith, so grounded and rooted in his love, so aware of the mind-boggling dimensions of that love, so intimately knowledgeable of that love, so crammed with God's fullness that they wouldn't be afraid of a painful death like Paul's or Jesus' and couldn't help but spread the good news despite the threats and the world's perceptions of power. The world, like the shooter, sees the ability to harm and to kill as the ultimate power. But that's a misperception. The ultimate power is the power to heal and to give life and to give life back again. That is the power of God. That is what God wants to do for every person he created. That's what God wants to do with his whole creation. And it will be more awesome that anything we can ask or imagine.

But you want to know what's even better? He wants to do it through us. Really. And what could he possibly accomplish through us?

We won't know until we get started.

Monday, July 23, 2012

For Lynnette and Mat

A boy goes to Sunday school and hears the story of the creation of Eve out of one of Adam's ribs. And the idea fascinates him. Sounds kind of like cloning to him. The next day he goes to school and in gym class the coach has the boys run laps. After a lap or 2 the boy feels a pain in his side. He's holding onto that side and he starts to slow down. The coach sees the kid dropping back and goes up to him and asks, "What's the matter with you, boy?" and the boy says, "I'm not sure, Coach. I think I'm having a wife."

Bible commentator Matthew Henry said of God's choice of material for creating Eve, "Not made out of his head to top him, not out of his feet to be trampled upon by him, but out of his side to be equal with him, under his arm to be protected, and near his heart to be beloved."

And the Hebrew word God uses of Eve, usually translated "helper," really means someone complimentary, someone who supplies what the other lacks. In a military context it means "ally." So this isn't a relationship of master and servant, though marriage degenerated into that after the Fall, but it was meant from the beginning to be a partnership of equals, each supplying what the other needs; a team, in which each person has the other's back.

God also says that it is not good for a man to be alone. Science tells us married people tend to live longer and be healthier physically and psychologically. Despite all the jokes, married people enjoy more sex, have less stress and, on average, more money. And a lot of this is because, as I've said, it helps to have someone in your corner, someone who makes up for what you lack, someone who is part of you.

That unity is essential. The Bible calls it "becoming one flesh." That doesn't mean you cease to be individuals but it means you should act together, with one mind, as the parts of a body do. We speak of "hand-eye" coordination. When an athlete has it to a high degree, we call it "poetry in motion." When 2 dancers are in sync, we call it grace.

Grace is also a theological term. It means God's undeserved, unreserved goodness toward us. It is also the way we should act toward each other--graciously. But that is hard to maintain. So we need God in each marriage, as the source of the grace we need to live with each other.

Mat and Lynnette have that gift of grace. Part of that is in the form of something a lot of new couples don't have--a history. They knew each other back in high school. They were friends back then and when they met up again in recent years, it was as friends. And God let that blossom into something deeper, stronger, more intimate. And they have decided to invite God into the next phase of their relationship.

That's a good thing because, as scripture tells us, God is love. Which makes sense when you read the first account of creation in Genesis. Where it says, "And God created humanity in his image; in the image of God, he created him; male and female, he created them." Just as the Triune God is not one person but 3 who are one, so too the image of God is not reserved to males alone, nor to an isolated person but to 2 people or more, a family or a community, provided they are one, united in love.

Lynnette and Mat come together here, in the presence of the God who is love, in the name of Christ, who promises that he will be in the midst of 2 or more gathered in his name, and through the power of God's Holy Spirit, God within us, to make vows and promises with their lips that have long lived in their hearts. When you are in love, your heart tells you that you will stick with that person as long as you live, through thick and think, whatever comes your way. The church just dresses those promises up in their Sunday best and offers you an opportunity to declare what is in your hearts before God, family, and friends that they might share in your joy.

We also present these promises in rite and ritual, the time-honored way in which the physical gives form to the spiritual and the spiritual gives meaning to the physical. There is no magic being performed here, just poetry and actions proclaiming what already exists in the hearts of Mat and Lynnette and the love and blessing of God distilled into words, made manifest in joyful ceremony, and symbolized by unbroken circles of gold. As the rings encircles their fingers, they symbolize not merely Lynnette and Mat's love for each other but the other loves that encircle them: the love of their families, of their friends, and of God, whose love encompasses us all.

Sunday, July 8, 2012

What's Essential is Enough

It was a Sunday night nearly 30 years ago. I turned on the local PBS station to watch "Monty Python's Flying Circus" at 10:30. Instead, Channel 9 presented a science fiction show that in many ways felt as if it were written by the Pythons. It was about a humanoid alien who traveled in time and space and called himself the Doctor. While this eccentric character with his ridiculously long scarf looked and sometimes acted like Harpo Marx, he thought like Sherlock Holmes. From that moment on I was a fan of "Doctor Who."

The show will celebrate its 50th anniversary next year, one day after the 50th anniversary of the deaths of President Kennedy and C.S. Lewis. Even taking into account the gap between 1989 when the original series was canceled and 2005 when it was relaunched, it is the longest running science fiction show ever. And it has gone from a cult show (at least in America) to a big international hit. But the funny thing is that its most enthusiastic fans are found in the United States, not in its native United Kingdom. It's not that there aren't British fans of the show; it's just that they have a different attitude there. The original series was badly funded and most fans joke about the wobbly sets, risible special effects and the monsters with the clearly seen zippers running up their backs. The series made up for this with thought-provoking scripts and good actors. But even in regards to the new series with its higher budgets, British fans seem much more prone to criticizing any and every aspect of the show, including the writing, the music and whether the show has become too popular and mainstream or too complicated and fannish. They get downright mean as if the people who make the show are either too stupid to understand what they should be doing or else are deliberately sabotaging it. They seem to not so much delight in the show as delight in tearing it down. Other fans have noticed this and so do the actors who often seem to prefer American fans and their conventions to those of their home-grown base. It's as if the British fans treat the show as many a little girl treats her Barbie: she can pull off its head and cut off its hair and scribble on it with crayons because it is hers to do with as she wishes.

Jesus must have felt like that Barbie when he returned to his hometown after his well-received tour of Galilee. Instead of celebrating their local boy doing well, they have a hard time believing the words he preaches are his. "Where did this man get these things? What is the wisdom given to him? How are such mighty works done by his hands?" They go on to say, in effect, "we knew you when you were a snot-nosed kid and we know your whole family and we're onto you. We don't know where you're getting this stuff but it ain't coming from you, buddy boy."

Now the Pharisees, to give them credit, at least realized that Jesus was channeling supernatural power. They misattributed it to Satan, which showed how desperately they were trying to rationalize what they could not deny. The folks of Nazareth didn't even go that far. They just couldn't believe anything good could come from that strange carpenter, the one whose mother got pregnant before she was married (and rumor had it he wasn't really Joseph's son), the one who came back from Egypt with whatever odd accent he had picked up there, the one who was always showing up the other boys and sometimes the rabbi in Torah school. "You telling me God speaks through the likes of him? Yeah, sure."

What's odd is that they aren't denying the wisdom of his words. But maybe it isn't so odd. I once corrected an error of fact made by an anti-theist commentator on a Huffington Post article on the Bible. "Well, somebody's been studying their Bible!" he retorted. Which struck me as bizarre. He was insulting me for knowing what I was talking about. The only thing I could conclude is that he thought most Christians were ignorant and stupid and he was counting on that to score points off of them. (To be fair, some so-called Christian commentators do come off that way.) When I said, in effect, you are entitled to your own opinions but not to your own facts, he was stung by being shown up as someone whose point of view was unfounded. He couldn't deride me for being wrong so he did so for my being right. It's like the phenomenon seen in some schools where kids don't want to do too well lest they be attacked by their classmates for being "stuck up" or "the teacher's pet" or for "thinking he's better than us." I swear it seems like certain politicians are afraid to appear knowledgeable about some issues for the same reasons.

What you think informs how you act and the biggest shock about Jesus' homecoming visit is that, as Mark puts it, "he could do no mighty works there…" Now how is that possible? Did Jesus lay his hands on people only to have them leave unhealed, still prisoners to their illnesses? I don't think so. Mark does say "…except that he laid his hands on a few sick people and healed them. And he marveled at their unbelief." I think the significant words there were "few" and "unbelief." If the townspeople did not have faith in Jesus, if they didn't trust him to be a prophet sent by God, much less his Son, then they probably wouldn't go to him to be healed in the first place. Jesus could only heal a few because only a few trusted in him enough to present themselves for healing.

Also this is the last time we see Jesus preach in a synagogue. He is getting so much opposition from the Pharisees and experts in the law that he starts preaching outdoors. Thousands flock to him. But the respectable people quit inviting him to preach on the Sabbath. And perhaps Nazareth, hearing all of the negative talk about Jesus, didn't want to look like it was coddling a heretic. They let him speak, as a courtesy, and then dismissed what he had to say. And perhaps some of the people who were sick, sensing the general disapproval of Jesus, hesitated to go to him for healing. They traded a chance to be healed for a show of community solidarity, or at least, they didn't want to be targets of social censure. I've seen people turn down healthy options for sillier reasons.

So why does our gospel reading include the commissioning of the apostles to preach and heal two by two? I think it's because of what Jesus tells them not to bring. They aren't to bring food. No bread, no bag to carry fruits and nuts and cheese. Furthermore they aren't supposed to bring money. So no buying food or other necessities on their mission. And while they may take sandals, they aren't to wear a second tunic. This would often act as a blanket at night. So Jesus is leaving them to rely on the kindness of strangers. Middle Eastern hospitality was a highly regarded virtue. But it might be hard to come by when you're preaching repentance and doing so in the name of some preacher so controversial they aren't letting him into the synagogues anymore. So what was left for them to take with them? Faith in God.

If they couldn't rely on having any physical necessities, they would have to rely on God to supply their needs. They would have to trust that he would open people's hearts to the good news and not be too disappointed that Jesus wasn't with them himself. If they didn't trust God, they might freeze up with anxiety and fear. The scariest day on a new job is when the orientation training is over and the boss says, "You're on your own." Now you have to call the client cold. You have to speak into that mic and tell the world you're going to entertain them for the next few hours. You have to go into the patient's room and give that injection. You have to go down into general population and tell the inmates you're the new chaplain.

Of course as Christians, we know we're not alone. But that doesn't mean you won't have butterflies in your stomach. Just as being brave doesn't mean you don't have an undercurrent of fear in you, faith doesn't preclude the presence of doubt. As the father of a sick child said to Jesus "Lord, I do believe; help my unbelief." The vital thing is to have more faith than doubt. You have to realize that feelings don't matter at some point. You decide that God is trustworthy, no matter how you feel, and you take the next step. Some critics crowed when Mother Teresa's diaries revealed she fought with great doubt. Yet she continued to pray and obey Jesus, taking care of the sick and dying. That was a greater display of faith than if she had no obstacles at all.

On June 15th of this year, Nikolas Wallenda walked 1800 feet, less than a mile. I go farther than that on my morning walk. But he was walking across the widest point of Niagara Falls, 200 feet above the water. He was the first person to walk a tightrope directly across the Falls themselves. Would it have diminished his accomplishment to know that at age 12 he said he wouldn't go into the family business of being a high-wire artist? That he told a reporter, "It's just not worth it. We're risking our lives out there. We could die."? That he had a significant slip on a tight-rope walk just before his Niagara feat? If anything, it makes what Wallenda did even more impressive.

Wallenda doesn't use a safety net because it gives you a false sense of security. One of his uncles actually died despite having a safety net. And that's what Jesus was doing with the disciples. He wouldn't be there if they forgot a key point to the gospel. He wouldn't be able to step in if they botched a healing. And if by nightfall they found no one willing to take them in and feed them, they knew they would be sleeping on the ground, shivering and hungry. With nothing to fall back on, they had to trust God.

When you get stripped of everything, that's when you learn what's really necessary, what's absolutely essential. At Nazareth, Jesus learned that the folks back home didn't support him. They wouldn't have his back. On the road, the disciples learned that they wouldn't be able to fall back on something they had on them. Both Jesus and the apostles know they will have to do God's work relying only on God's help.

In the end that's the only thing we can really count on. Physical things break down, wear out, get lost or stolen. Safety nets may fail. People die. Our relationships change. I found out that as many as 55% of inmates have their families desert them while they are in jail. When things get really tough, you find out whom you can rely on. You can always rely on God. When wealth is worthless, when material things cease to matter, when family and friends flee, when your body breaks down, God is still there for you. As Paul wrote to the Philippians from his prison cell, "In whatever situation I am, I have learned to be content. I know what it is to live humbly and I know what it is to live with more than enough. In any and every circumstance, I have learned what it's like to be well-fed and to hunger, to have plenty and to be in need. I can do all things through him who empowers me."

You know what Nik Wallenda was doing that night as a billion people watched him walking with no net on that 2 inch diameter cable over that roiling chasm? He was praying and praising Jesus Christ. The Guinness Book of World Records will say that he walked across Niagara Falls alone.

But he and we know better.

Sunday, July 1, 2012

God and Country

Breathes there the man with soul so dead
Who never to himself hath said,"
"This is my own, my native land,"
Whose heart hath ne'er within him turned
When wandering on some foreign strand?
If such there be, then mark him well,
For him no minstrel raptures swell,
High though his title, proud his name,
Boundless his wealth as wish can claim.
Despite those titles, power and pelf,
The wretch, concentered all in self,
Living shall forfeit fair renown,
And doubling dying, shall go down
To the dust from whence he sprung,
Unwept, unhonored and unsung!

I wrote that from memory. Not bad for something I had to learn more than 45 years ago in elementary school. I don't know why I remember this one rather than, say, the one about daffodils. But I remember it being about patriotism. I grew up in the 1950s and 60s when it seemed that some people lacked a sufficient love of country. I personally never encountered anyone, no matter how "radical," who hated this country. I have met lots of people who have wanted to improve this country, make it match its ideals more closely. In that way, it's like the church. We never completely live up to the principles laid down by our Lord but we continually strive to do so.

Next to religion, one's country is the most important allegiance most people acknowledge. But often religion and politics clash. Despite the popular idea that during the Dark Ages and Middle Ages religion dictated everything, in fact, princes and popes often clashed during this period. For instance, the downfall of the Knights Templar on charges of heresy was really engineered by the French King Phillip the Fair. By that time this militant order was primarily a lending institution. Phillip owed them a lot of money. He was powerful enough to bully Pope Clement V into disbanding the Templars. 200 years later, Henry VIII couldn't get his first  marriage annulled because his wife's nephew was Holy Roman Emperor, who like Phillip was able to control the Pope.

If you are disgusted by the idea of politicians dictating what religion says and does, then you have to admit that the people who set up our government were brilliant. And one of their most brilliant ideas was to separate religion and government. They did it to maintain our religious freedom. Imagine if the president or the governor or even an elected body determined whether your religion or denomination was legal. Before the Constitution was ratified, you could not hold elected office in several states if you were Jewish or Catholic. Maryland was created to give Roman Catholics a place to worship freely. The framers of the Constitution wanted to prevent restrictions on how people worshiped and how people of all faiths are treated.

They also did not want the churches to be corrupted as they were in countries with state churches. The traditional role of such a religious establishment has been to bless whatever the state does. King Ferdinand and Queen Isabella asked for permission from the Pope to run their own Inquisition. They found that the Spanish Inquisition was not only a good way to go after heretics but also to neutralize political enemies. Declare an opponent a heretic and you could seize his wealth and property. The Pope actually tried to shut down the Spanish Inquisition because of its abuses but the Spanish monarchs wouldn't let him.

There is another problem with having a state-sponsored church. People drop out of a church that is too closely tied to political power. Today some of the most secular countries, such as Denmark, Norway and the UK, have official state churches. When you give people little or no choice in how to worship, people are apt to opt out of religion altogether.

Of course, the separation of church and state makes it possible, if not probable, that some churches and the government will disagree on certain issues. I'm not going to talk about those issues. I'm not a political scientist. Nor am I going to talk about other religions because that's not my specialty. I'm just going to point out that because sometimes secular government agrees and sometimes disagrees with the church, the relationship between the 2 is complex. And I'm going to suggest that the 5 paradigms that Richard Niebuhr set out for the relationship between Christianity and culture work equally well in describing the various ways that Christianity can relate to government.

Niebuhr gave both Biblical and historical examples of each of the 5 ways church and state interact. They are: Christ against culture, Christ of culture, Christ above culture, Christ and culture in paradox and Christ transformer of culture. Since government is part of culture, this offers us ways of looking at how Christians have and can relate to secular powers.

The "Christ against culture" position can be seen in the New Testament and the first 3 centuries of the church. Jesus and the apostles came into conflict with the ruling powers of Judea and the Roman Empire. Jesus of course was executed by order of the Roman governor. What got him killed was his claim to be the Messiah, God's anointed prophet, priest and king. Pilate, quite in character, resisted doing Caiaphas the High Priest any favors but caved when accused of treason should he not crucify a self-proclaimed king and therefore rival of Caesar. Government likes tame religion. It likes a religion that knows its place. It is uneasy when people say God comes before the state. "King of kings and Lord of lords" was a title claimed by the emperor. This meant those who said Jesus is Lord must be shut up. The apostles' response to this, as recorded in Acts 5, was "We must obey God rather than men." Most of the 12 apostles died as martyrs. Under Nero, all Christians became targets of the government and were persecuted periodically until Constantine made Christianity a legal religion. For 300 years, Christians had no choice but to find themselves in opposition to the government, at least on matters of freedom of religion. And again, during the Third Reich, many Christians realized that they could not reconcile Nazi ideology with Christianity. Many Catholics and Protestants hid Jews and otherwise disobeyed the Nazis. They often ended up in the camps, as did Corrie Ten Boom and her family, and were often executed, like Lutheran pastor Dietrich Bonhoeffer. Separatist groups, such as some fundamentalists, use the Christ vs. culture model, seeing it as a radical either/or choice.

The "Christ of culture" position existed in the Eastern Orthodox church from the time Christianity was made the official religion of the Roman empire. Its Biblical analogy would be the theocratic Kingdom of Israel. The idea was to meld Christianity and the culture, so they speak with one voice. Obviously it helps if this union of church and state means that Christian ethics will be practiced by the government and thus influence government policy. Christian monarchs created hospitals and universities and built churches and gave us the some of the best of their culture. But as we've seen the danger is that political considerations will influence the church rather than vice versa. It is because of this risk that our government was designed to separate church from state.

This separation can lead to a position of "Christ above culture." In other words, the church is separate from but superior to the government. This position recognizes a hierarchy of values and puts Christ above the state. This was the ideal that the medieval church was going for. Some things fall into one realm and some into the other but in a conflict, the church should be given top priority. Popes usually did not try to micromanage kingdoms but wanted kings to defer to them in certain matters. It's nice in theory but as we've seen a powerful prince could resist a pope and if powerful enough, even control him. In what was called "the Babylonian Captivity of the Church," the French king got the Papacy moved from Rome to Avignon, France and for nearly 70 years, the popes were the puppets of the French royalty.

So how does one recognize the reality of the 2 realms and yet live in both, as we must? The "Christ and culture in paradox" position tries to do that by recognizing that a Christian has 2 competing loyalties, to the earthly kingdom in which he lives and to the Kingdom of God. Living within the tension of the 2 doesn't mean the conflict extends into everything. There is no Christian reason to, say, deny the authority of traffic laws. But at times a Christian may find himself pulled in different directions by his duties as a citizen and his duty as a follower of Jesus. The chief reason for this is sin. If we weren't sinful, we wouldn't find human culture in a conflict with Christianity. But because sin touches and taints, even if only slightly, all we do, even our best efforts to govern ourselves and our society aren't going to be perfect. But since we do not, at this time, have an alternative perfect society, we have to live in this tension. Niebuhr felt Paul was a good example of one who saw Christ and culture in a paradoxical relationship. He emphasized Christ as the Creator, Redeemer and Judge of this world as well as the one who reconciles it with God. Government has a God-given role to play in the world and so we should support it, especially when it comes to order and justice. As Paul writes in Romans 13, "For this reason you also pay taxes, for the authorities are God's servants, devoting themselves to this very thing." But Paul also found himself and the churches he founded prosecuted by the government unjustly for their beliefs. He spent the last years of his life imprisoned for his faith and he was beheaded in Rome after appealing to the emperor.

Another proponent of the "Christ and culture in paradox" model was Martin Luther, who wrote of the 2 kingdoms in which Christians simultaneously live. It parallels his teachings on law and grace and resembles the paradox of the Christian being simultaneously sinner and saint. God rules the world in 2 ways. Physically the Christian is under the jurisdiction of earthly kingdoms, whose chief function is to keep peace and order. Spiritually, he is under the Kingdom of Heaven. The government is necessary to curb and restrain sin. But the Christian obeys the laws not because he is compelled by law but because of his gratitude to God for his love and the grace to love others. Luther thought the Christian both can and should be involved in government.

Niebuhr liked the realism and honesty of this approach. It recognizes the tensions and the effect of sin. It bravely rejects simpler solutions and offers the freedom to creatively respond to the paradox without neat, rigid or prescribed answers. He did feel that an overemphasis on freedom could lead Christians to feel they need not obey laws and an overemphasis on law could stifle criticism of the government or recognizing that sometimes one must defy human authority.

Lastly Niebuhr delineated a position called "Christ transformer of culture." This holds that despite the pervasiveness of sin, cultures can be transformed. Niebuhr held that St. Augustine was a representative of this model, though some feel Calvin might be a better one. Calvin did work to transform Geneva into a model Christian city, using the law not merely to turn a mirror on sin or to curb it but also as a guide. Niebuhr, who obviously liked this model best, did not critique it but it is hard to see how this is much different in practice from other models of working in tandem with government. The same problems of a state sponsored church remain, including corruption, while the new danger of believing we can through our efforts build a utopia presents itself.

Different situations have given rise to each of these models. And all can provide some triumphs. The purity of the original message of Christ was preserved by the church living through times of persecution. The "Christ of culture" and "Christ above culture" left vast legacies of good as well as ill effects. The "Christ transformer of culture" is certainly a good goal, which led to a lot of social reform. William Wilberforce, motivated by his Christianity, worked his entire career as a Minister of the British Parliament to abolish the slave trade and then slavery itself.

But I have to agree with Angus J. L. Menuge, whose online paper I consulted, that probably the most useful position is that of "Christ and culture in paradox." Because the church at different times can find itself in any of these paradigms, because no government is perfectly aligned with God's will on every issue, Christians can find themselves simultaneously in agreement and in disagreement with governments. Most times we obey government, as Paul advises in Romans 13. We render unto Caesar what is his and unto God what is his, as Jesus said. But when a government demands Christians go against Christ's explicit commands, forbidding us to worship God or preach the Gospel, or requiring us to act contrary to his command to love all others, as the early Roman Empire and the Nazis did and certain regimes today do, the Christian must obey God and not men.

James Madison, who drafted the First Amendment, explicitly cited Luther as the inspiration for the idea of 2 spheres, the civil and the ecclesiastical. It made it possible for different Christians to worship according to their own traditions, for people of other religions to worship as they wish, and, yes, for some people not to worship at all. That is freedom. That is one of the reasons we celebrate our nation's birth this week. That freedom is something other countries are just discovering. That freedom is also what some countries are fighting against. Because freedom allows people to choose not only how to worship but also how to think. Not every government allows its people to think and choose. But our God does. He gives us the freedom to choose him or not, to love him or not, to follow him or not. Which means we should do the same to our fellow human beings. Love and goodness can only be true if they are freely chosen. As C.S. Lewis pointed out, "You cannot make men good by law; and without good men you cannot have a good society." It's a paradox. Like our being both sinners and saved. Like our living both in the physical realm and the spiritual realm. Like a God who hates sin but loves sinners…enough to die for them.