Thursday, March 30, 2006

The Quandary of Church/State Separation

The great British intellectual G.K. Chesterton once said,

"A coziness between church and state is good for the state and bad for the church"
I sometimes wonder if 21st century evangelicals understand that the concept of the separation of church and state was to protect the church from the state and not vice versa. It only takes a cursory study of history to realize that when our churches try to exert their influence through political means that it doesn't take long for our churches to become pawns in the hands of the politicians they hoped to influence.

It's interesting to note that Jesus lived during a time when the Roman empire was at its apex. There was much corruption in government, religious people were discriminated against and there was much immorality in society. But Jesus did not run for mayor of Jerusalem. He did not stump for a "good, God-fearing" guy that wanted to run for governor. Jesus realized that transformation in society would not come through mere political power.

There is much debate on whether a government can legislate morality. My opinion is that I don't think government can legislate morality. For, you see, morality comes from the heart as Jesus so eloquently pointed out in the Sermon on the Mount. The government can punish me if I murder someone one, but it can't stop me from hating someone. It can throw me in jail for raping a women; it can't stop the lust in my heart. The government could make its citizens go to church, but it can't make a person love God with all their heart, soul and mind.

So it does concern me that so many of my evangelical brethren desire to see change primarily happen through the political channels. There is a place for fighting against institutional structures of sin (things like slavery and abortion come to mind), but we need to choose our battles wisely. Nor do I think that Christians should excuse ourselves from running for public office or voting for candidates that hold our values. But I have to admit that I do cringe everytime I hear someone call for a return to our "godly heritage." And when was this? If we're really honest with ourselves, can we really say that America was ever a truly Christian nation?

Were we a Christian nation when we lied to the original habitants of this great land, lied and cheated them, and nearly wiped out an entire population of Native Americans? Were we a Christian nation when we enslaved those of African descent and deprived them of certain unalienable rights like life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness? Were we a Christian nation when we deprived women the right to vote? Were we a Christian nation when we put Japanese Americans in internment camps during World War II? And have we been a Christian nation since the year of my birth when our highest court said that it's alright for mothers to take the life of their unborn children?

Look at what Gregory Boyd, pastor of Woodland Hills Church in St. Paul, Minnesota has to say on this matter:
"I believe a significant segment of American evangelicalism is guilty of nationalistic and political idolatry. To a frightful degree, I think, evangelicals fuse the kingdom of God with a preferred version of the kingdom of the world (whether it's our national interests, a particular form of government, a particular political program, or so on). Rather than focusing our understanding of God's kingdom on the person of Jesus who, incidentally, never allowed himself to get pulled into the political disputes of his day. I believe many of us American evangelicals have allowed our understanding of the kingdom of God to be polluted with political ideals, agendas, and issues."
Read more of Boyd's comments here.
There are many that claim that America began to go down the tubes in 1962 when the Supreme Court said that it was unconstitutional to have state-sanctioned prayer in public school. But do we really believe this? The Supreme Court cannot stop a person from praying! It can stop formulaic, public prayers, but it cannot stop an individual from talking with God. Lori and I have chosen to send our children to public schools and I do not what their teachers leading my kids in prayer or teaching their interpretation of the Bible. I agree that is best left to the home and the church.

Think about it... If you're a Christian, do you really want a Muslim teacher leading prayers for your Christian child? Would you want an atheistic second grade teacher commenting on the Old Testament to your nine-year-old? Remember, the original intent of the separation of the church and state was to protect the church from the state. One of the great things about the United States is that we have the freedom to worship who we want, when we want and where we want. Christian leaders that confuse our faith with political involvement put our religious freedoms at risk. Preachers that use the pulpit as a soapbox on who they think their congregations should vote for not only use bad judgment, but risk certain protections afforded by the government. Jesse Jackson and Jerry Falwell are on two sides of the same coin.

With all that said, though, it does seem that political correctness has run amok at times. What the First Amendent actually says is this,
"Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the government for a redress of grievances."
What the Constitution says is that American citizens should be able to practice their religion freely without government interference and that the government should not make an "official" religion that everyone has to adhere to. So it is ridiculous when a government building cannot have a nativity scene out front or a kindergartener that wants to write a book report on his hero Jesus is discriminated against. But we need to also be respectful of those that come from other faith traditions. If we want to be able to share our faith at work, then we need to afford others the same freedom. If Christians think its absurd that retailers won't say "Merry Christmas" (and I do think it's absurd), then we also don't need to get hacked off when that same retailer says "Happy Hannakuh."

The respect that others have for us will increase when we as Christians can speak with a consistent voice. We need to continue to speak against the horror of abortion, but we also need to continue to adopt and help babies that are born to unwed mothers. We need to continue to lift up the biblical model of marriage, but we also need to be active in reaching out to those living with HIV/AIDS. The world around us looks upon in bewilderment when we spend thousands of dollars on granite statues of the ten commandments, yet we neglect the poor and support foreign policy that results in the killing of innocent children.

I call America to live up to its ideal of being "the land of the free and the home of the brave." I think there is no greater country on earth than the U.S. The gospel can be spread freely within our borders because of the freedoms we possess and the gospel goes to the world because of the wealth that exists here. But one only needs to look at China to see that a government made up of Christian leaders is not necessarily needed to see the church grow rapidly. More than anything, we need people like you and me who are desperately in love with Christ that live lives that are radically different than everyone else because they are characterized by faith, hope and love.

Monday, March 20, 2006

Not Heard From the Pulpit

The following article recently appeared in the religion column of USA Today and is certainly a challenge to what we emphasize and what we neglect. I don't totally agree with all of this, but it certainly does get me thinking...
"Preachers and Sunday school teachers are pulling their punches these days regarding morality. Our nation needs ethical and religious instruction in the basics: honesty, fidelity, humility, sharing wealth, sharing power and sacrifice. Yet those are the last topics one is likely to hear in churches. Instead, for more than a decade, preachers have been grandstanding about such secondary issues as sexuality, Christmas greetings and institution-building.
Consider the day in 2004 when former Enron Corp. chief Ken Lay appeared in federal court to answer an 11-count indictment for fraud, conspiracy and false statements. (Lay is on trial in Houston.) On the way to court, he stopped by Houston's prominent First United Methodist Church to pray. His pastor accompanied him when he turned himself in to authorities. Good gestures, to be sure, but how had Lay, a regular worshiper and lay leader, gotten so ethically challenged? Some ethical guidance clearly had gone unheard or unspoken. His church encourages "disciplines of faithful living," but current Sunday classes sound the bell for self-improvement, not sacrificial giving or courageous honesty in a world growing accustomed to deceit.
When WorldCom chief Bernard Ebbers began to feel the heat of scandal, he stood before his friends at Easthaven Baptist Church, in Brookhaven, Miss., and declared, "I just want you to know you aren't going to church with a crook." A federal jury disagreed and convicted him of fraud. How could a dedicated Sunday school teacher have gotten so off track? His church's mission statement is about the institution's growth potential, not about living decent lives.
Attending church surely doesn't make one immune to ungodly deeds? we are all sinners, after all? But churchgoers should be able to get guidance on how to lead a responsible life, not reminders of church politics, from the pulpit. Jesus devoted roughly two-thirds of his teachings to our need to give away wealth and to value humility and servanthood more than power. Paul condemned "love of money." Hebrew prophets spoke forcefully against greed, bribery and injustice. The Law of Moses is concerned with basic ethics? Respect for persons and property, truth-telling, generosity and mercy.
Yet, in the typical congregation, it is safer to preach about someone else's sexual behavior than about wise and faithful use of money, or on economic dislocation, corporate ethics or widening gaps in the distribution of wealth. That's my conclusion based on a survey of several dozen websites and posted sermons, as well as my experience both as a preacher and listener.
One winning formula goes after themes that are minor in Scripture but big in the culture wars. Consider Tom DeLay, often identified as a born-again Christian, whose indictment for money laundering forced him to resign as Republican leader in the House of Representatives. A recent sermon series at a church with which he used to be associated condemned homosexuality, abortion and gambling. But it ignored Scripture's more basic theme of honesty and mercy as hallmarks of truth, and leadership as requiring people "who fear God, are trustworthy, and hate dishonest gain."
With rare exceptions, preachers of all stripes seem to avoid what Jesus said about wealth and power. Instead, they preach about church politics, upcoming festivals and personal improvement. Despite cascading corporate and political scandals, a widening gap between rich and poor and mounting arrogance in public life, I read hardly a word about honesty, integrity, mercy, forgiveness, generosity, kindness or humility.
I know how dangerous it is to venture into the nuts and bolts of Christian ethics. People will endure sermons about esoterica such as stem cell research or same-sex marriage, but they'll squirm when talk turns to personal priorities, time spent away from family, wealth accumulation, casual adultery or truth-telling. It is safer to lambaste gays than to tout Jesus' model of embracing diversity. It is more profitable to back one political party than to call all leaders to account for their behavior. A dull preacher will be tolerated; an intrusive one will be fired.
Our nation needs better from us. We don't need extremist politics masquerading as Christian morality. We need solid and consistent instruction in the basics of godly living. We can't hold churches accountable for what parishioners refuse to hear. But we can hold them accountable for what they shrink from saying.
Tom Ehrich is an Episcopal pastor, author, teacher and
writer in Durham, N.C.
I remember years ago visiting a fairly conservative church (I won't mention the denomination or city less it contribute to unfair stereotyping). But within this straight-laced congregation, there was only one thing that the pastor said during his 45-minute sermon that got the parishioners off their feet with thunderous applause. Was it when he talked about Jesus being born? No. Was it when he talked about Jesus conquering sin and death by rising from the dead? Not really. Surely it was when he reminded us that though we were depraved sinners, Christ shed His blood so that our sins could be forgiven. Nope. It was when he boldly and defiantly and almost with anger shouted, "Homosexuality is a sin and that's all there is to it." This statement brought the house down.

Why is it that talk of other people's sin gets a rise out of us, but when someone addresses our own wickedness we want them to just shut up? Don't get me wrong here, part of the church's role is to speak out against wickedness in society and work for justice for those wronged. But why do we speak out so much more about issues outside our congregation, then the sin that is within? Members of our congregations (including yours truly) have more than our fair share of pride, selfishness, greed, lust, prejudice, gluttony and a bevy of other sins. I think Jesus' words from the Sermon on the Mount suffice:
"Do not judge, or you too will be judged. For in the same way you judge others, you will be judged, and with the measure you use, it will be measured to you. Why do you look at the speck of sawdust in your brother's eye and pay no attention to the plank in your own eye? How can you say to your brother, 'Let me take the speck out of your eye,' when all the time there is a plank in your own eye? You hypocrite, first take the plank out of your own eye, and then you will see clearly to remove the speck from your brother's eye."
Jesus just always has a way of putting it, doesn't He?

Monday, March 13, 2006

New Orleans

I just returned with my mom from a few days in New Orleans to help with Hurricane Katrina Recovery efforts and I must say it was a powerful experience. As I initially drove into the city, the damage from the hurricane was visible. Roofs were collapsed. Fences looked like grenades had been set off in front of them. Massive trees were uprooted. There was a catch in my breath as I saw firsthand the devastation that had been caused. And then as we proceeded further into New Orleans, we could begin to see the water lines that still remained on homes and buildings that revealed how much flooding had actually occurred. As I began to ponder the sheer volume of water that it would take to flood a whole city, I was overwhelmed.

We finally got to the place where we'd be staying, the Good News Camp which was meeting in City Park. The camp has housed and fed thousands of volunteer workers since the hurricane. We joined with several hundred Impact Movement and Campus Crusade staff and students who were also working during their spring breaks. Shortly after our arrival, we dropped off our stuff at our "home" for the next few days - a massive tent filled with dozens of cots. We located the on-site porta-johns and the limited showers available for our use. We then sat down for our first dinner where we got to meet several Campus Crusade students that had driven over 30 hours to serve the residents of New Orleans. I am continually amazed at the volunteer spirited exhibited by this generation of students.

That evening I helped to pick up a bunch of supplies that would be needed for our workers -- shovels and safety goggles. What an eerie feeling it was to be driving in a major city at night with almost no traffic on the road. Most street lights were out and had been replaced by 4-way stops at nearly every intersection. After a long day of driving and adjusting to New Orleans, I snuggled into my sleeping bag for a short night's rest.

Up early the next morning before 6 a.m., I ate a meager breakfast and joined the work team that I'd be with that day, students from U. of Virginia, Virginia Tech and N. Carolina State. We went to a house in the 9th Ward and what we witnessed was shocking. Houses had been torn from their foundations and floated to other spots. There was debris, trash and vehicles everywhere. It literally looked like a war zone. We eventually got to our destination on Nelson Street. An older lady in her early 60's greeted us in the street. Her name was Miss Gerri and we would be gutting her house out that day.

She told us that she had lived in the house for 36 years and was planning to re-build it. Her neighbor, an elderly man confined to his home, didn't make it out of the flood and was killed. After a time of prayer, we went to work. We tore down wood, drywall, trim & baseboards, and ripped out everything with mold on it. Essentially, all we left there was the frame of the house standing since all the furniture and applicances and personal belongings had been ruined. From inside the house, you could see that the water had risen to a level of about 7 feet and had rested at about five feet.

Miss Gerri shared with us that she had received an estimate of $5,000 on the work that we had done that day. It was quite humbling to see how God had used us to serve this dear women. She mentioned to our team how encouraged she was to see a group of African American students serving her community. She said that she had seen a number of volunteers who were mostly white, but had yet to see a predominately African American group there. It wasn't the only time that our students heard this said and it was motivating for our students to hear how God is using The Impact Movement to serve the black community in very tangible ways. Check out this article on that comments on our efforts in New Orleans.

On our second work day, we traveled to a church that needed some work done. We helped to paint the walls, clean out trash and remove a bunch of larger items that would be picked up by FEMA. I was so impressed with the team of students that I worked with. I heard little (if any) complaining from them. They were working hard, enduring crummy nights of sleep, cold showers and less than tasty meals. But they willingingly identified with those that have suffered for months as a result of Katrina.

And after completing another exhausting day of manual labor, we traveled to the lower ninth ward to see the worst hit section of the city. I really wasn't prepared for what I saw. Full city blocks where flattened. The houses that remained had water lines up to the roofs. Cars were turned over everywhere. It literally looked as if bombs had been dropped on the city. It was quite sobering as we thought about those whose lives had been turned upside down as a result of all that had happened. As we stood less than a hundred yards from the levee that had broken and caused the water to flood this area, we prayed for those residents who had once called this home. For God's strength, comfort and peace in the midst of true suffering.

This experience was a tremendous reminder of what is truly important in life. It is not things and possessions. Being there made me miss my wife and kids even more than when I'm typically traveling. When you see what it's like for people to actually lose everything, it makes you realize that our "stuff" isn't important. The priority that we place on homes and cars and clothes and stereos is not what life is about. Life is really about relationships -- our relationship with God and with each other. Unfortunately, it usually takes tragedy to remind us of this.

I'm thankful to have had this experience. I'm proud to be identified as a Christian knowing how we've responded to these efforts in the gulf region. It is followers of Christ who are leading the way in caring for the people there. We are not getting paid to do this. We are actually paying to get down there and for having the privilege of serving of others. For those that argue about hypocrites in the church, I think this is a great example of God's people faithfully living out His admonishment in Micah 6:8 to "do justly, love mercy, and walk humbly with our God."

Here's another great article about Campus Crusade's efforts in the gulf region.