Monthly Archives: April 2012

No Greater Love: Idolatry in Patriotic Art

Nationalist Christians often conflate scriptures referring to Christ or to the church with concepts about America or her heroes.  Now, this should not surprise anyone.  Christianity is socially powerful; it’s natural that politicians and others who wish to enlist Christians in their cause will cynically twist scripture to their own ends.  What should shock us is how eagerly some Christians buy into this abuse of scripture.  I’ve reviewed before the American Patriot’s Bible, and numerous pieces of kitschy art.  But here’s a piece that takes the idolatrous cake.

This is a piece from, called Armed with Valor

Ironic: The passage the site is named for is John 15:13, “There is no greater love than to lay down one’s life for one’s friends.”  Jesus is being self-referential here.  He is the one who exhibits the greatest love by laying down his life.  What is more, while soldiers certainly make many sacrifices for their friends, loved ones and nations, their goal is certainly not to lay down their lives but to lay down their enemies’ lives.  As General Patton famously put it, “Your job isn’t to die for your country, but to make some other poor bastard die for his.” 

Ironic: The soldier is armed with valor, one imagines, but is also armed with an assault rifle. I imagine it’s somewhat easier to display valor when armed with an assault rifle.  I imagine it’s also much more difficult to demonstrate love while holding one. 

Sad: This piece was not composed by some propaganda department vying for Christian recruits.  It was composed by a sincere Christian, who feels that the U.S. soldier exemplifies the great love of Christ.  He is not referring to the general sense of sacrifice/honor/camaraderie that can be developed in wartime situations, either. He sees America as distinctly embodying Christianity.  Here is another piece by the same artist:

This piece is called The Difference Between Us and Them.  The different manifests itself in two forms: “secular” American images like the flag and the eagle, and “religious” images like the angel wings.  But it’s all religious imagery, of course, and the eagle bridges the gap by being apparently a spiritual being, perhaps a stand-in for the dove of the Holy Spirit.  Doves, of course, are images of peace while eagles are predators, hunters.  The difference between us and them would appear to be that God supports us, and enables us to shelter the weak through our use of force.

What do you think?  Am I reading too much into these images, or do they reflect a sincere conflation of God with country?


Tiny Arguments: Women in Ministry

Tiny Arguments is an idea I’ve had for a while now.  My aim is to create a repository of tiny arguments, expressing a view in as few words as possible, so that instead of establishing the same common ground in multiple venues, I (and hopefully others) can point others here and five minutes later continue the conversation in more interesting and profitable ways.  I will begin with my tiny argument for women in in ministry. I believe that God calls women to all roles within the church and equips women to both pastor to and teach all members of the church.   Why? Scriptural argument:

  1. Scripture shows a general trajectory from women as subservient objects to women as equal participants with men in Christ. The interpretation of any particular passage needs to accord with this trajectory.
  2. Many passages of scripture come directly from women. Inasmuch as scripture is authoritative over all believers, these are clear examples of God using women to preside over and educate men and women alike.
  3. The Old Testament records many examples of God using women to lead men and women alike, particularly in the power of the Holy Spirit. Where we see the spirit moving today, we should not doubt that God will do the same.
  4. The New Testament records several women occupying roles that some churches today would reserve for men: Paul gives equal stature to Priscilla and her husband Aquila in their teaching ministry; Phoebe was a deaconess, Andonicus and Junia are referred to as prominent apostles (the term itself appears in the feminine) and Paul refers to Euodia and Syntyche as “coworkers,” implying they are equal in leadership with Clement and other men mentioned.
  5. In several places Paul discusses gifts of the spirit and ministry roles and never associates gifts like pastoring, teaching or evangelizing with a specific gender or implies that there are any such restrictions, but says that the Spirit “allots gifts to each one individually as the Spirit chooses.”

Supporting arguments

  1. The ministry of women has bubbled over in the church from time to time.  Often at the beginning of a reform movement women are active in leading and establishing the church in new places and new ways.  Then, as the church is institutionalized and seeks more public approval, women are moved to more socially acceptable roles. This is the case for the church movement where I find myself, the Church of God Reform movement (Anderson, IN, 1890s).  Likewise, in the early Catholic church women occupied positions of leadership over men and women alike, especially in the role of anchoresses who ruled abbeys but also functioned as bishops over church land and (male) priests in their dioceses.  This demonstrates that the church is not bowing to cultural pressure in the ordaining of women ministers, but rather the opposite.
  2. Experience has shown that many women who are beyond doubt Christians, who exhibit the fruit of the Spirit, do feel called to pastoral ministry.  In their calling, they show themselves to be equipped for leadership and ministry.  As such, they call patriarchal readings of scripture into question, as the same Spirit who inspired scripture empowers ministry today.

Responding to objections Several passages attributed to Paul seem to clearly prohibit women from teaching or holding authority over men.  In fact, applied literally these passages prevent women from speaking within the congregation, and I’ve known churches that enforce this rule.  Surely those churches that don’t enforce the silence rule or rules against gold jewelry or braided hair (which come from neighboring sentences to the submission rules) will grant that in principle some of Paul’s admonitions are culturally bound.  What makes it clear that Paul’s statements against women speaking are in this category is the list of women Paul approves for doing just that. Now with those ideas in mind we can exegete individual passages.

  1. 1 Cor 14: Paul here says women must remain silent.  But earlier in the same letter he taught that women could pray or prophesy, so long as they had their heads covered (and of course there are varying positions on what Paul meant by head-coverings as well).  So clearly Paul’s statement about silence isn’t universal, but conditional and selective.  In particular, the passage “If there is anything they desire to know, let them ask their husbands at home” provides a clue. In synagogues in Corinth, the custom was for men and women to sit on separate sides of the aisle. It would be very disruptive for women to ask their husbands about the teaching during the service. That’s a good short-term solution; the long-term solution is to allow women to learn; then they can not only speak, but teach, as Prisca and other leaders in the New Testament did.
  2. In 1 Timothy, Paul restricts leadership offices (overseers, deacons, etc) to men, and tells Timothy he doesn’t permit women to have authority over men.  Again this is at odds with the practice of churches Paul approves, so let’s dig a little deeper. There are obvious cultural reasons why Timothy, in Ephesus, should want to discourage women as leaders in the church.  Ephesus was the home of the cult of Diana, which was a priestess-centered religion. But Paul doesn’t mention Diana; he mentions Adam and Eve, saying that “Adam was formed first, then Eve” and saying “Adam was not deceived, but the woman was.”  This is odd logic to apply across the board, as animals were created first, and then humans, yet we do not give animals authority over humans.  And elsewhere (Rom 5), Paul places the entire responsibility not on Eve, but on Adam.  This puzzle is elegantly solved, however, if we read Genesis the way Paul and other rabbis of his time did.  In the rabbinic understanding, Eve was deceived because Adam did not instruct her fully on God’s instructions for living in the garden.  Again, the short-term solution is not to allow uneducated women to teach in the church; the long-term solution is to educate women so that they are in a position to teach.

So that leaves us with a groundwork for discussion.  What do you think?

Your Beliefs Are Officially Untrue

One commenter on a recent post said that he doesn’t see the state considering the church as direct competition.  I believe this is untrue both in principle and in fact; in principle because for a liberal state the only truth can be that all are free to believe what they want so long as they don’t infringe on the rights of others to believe what they will, and in fact because the political theorists behind modern liberalism explicitly regarded the church as a competitor.*

Bellamy Salute

Standard method of pledging allegiance to the flag until Hitler ruined the gesture.

The perfect illustration is the official policy toward conscientious objectors when the draft was in effect.  Pacifists who applied for conscientious objector status were often tested to ensure that they were really committed to their beliefs (sometimes friends and family were interviewed, church membership demanded, etc.) but could ultimately be deemed conscientious objectors.  Christians who believed in the just-war doctrine and refused to serve on the basis that the current conflict did not meet the just-war criteria could not be deemed conscientious objectors.

Why is that?  Because in this case, pacifism could be regarded as a privately held belief (“I cannot justly engage in violent acts”) that did not intrude on anyone else’s privately held beliefs about violence or justice.  Just-war doctrine, on the other hand, cannot be so regarded; it is necessarily a belief that intrudes upon the public square (“This war is unjust; nobody can justly engage in it”). As such the first is a valid religious belief, and the state will not force you to violate it; the second is out of bounds as a religious belief, so the state cannot exempt you from military service.  The price one pays to have religious rights is to admit that they are officially untrue; what is true is the creed of liberalism, that the public square is transcendent of any or all gods.

Or, in more explicitly religious terms, so long as you are willing to sacrifice the truth of your beliefs on the alter of the common good, the liberal, tolerant, rational state will accept and protect you from illiberal, intolerant, irrational religions like Islam.  And if you will not lay your religion on the alter of liberalism, you are setting yourself up as the enemy.

*Hobbes integrates both church and state into his Leviathan; for Hobbes the state is the church, and must legislate both law and doctrine.  Hence for Hobbes there are precisely as many churches as states and no transnational church.  Rousseau and Locke, on the other hand, create the liberal private/public distinction by disentangling church from state to precisely the opposite degree.

Aspects of being “Pro-Life”

Peter Kreeft is the professor of philosophy at Boston University.  He is Catholic, and therefore often associated with the pro-life movement.  (He has written a Socratic assessment of the pro-life/pro-choice debate, which may contribute to the association as well.)  Recently he wrote a book based on a journal he kept, recording his general life advice for his children to read after he dies.  

In this book, called Before I Go, he describes what it means to be pro-life.  Here is what he says:

“Life” means much more than just biological survival. It means all the levels of human life, from the biological to the psychological to the interpersonal to the religious.

Therefore, to be “pro-life” means:

  1. loving and caring for your bodily health and the health of the planet that nourishes it
  2. loving and caring for play, that up-rush of life that we share with the higher animals but not with the lower (that’s why we play with dogs, not with worms)
  3. loving and caring for other human biological lives, not killing them by abortion, euthanasia, suicide, or starting wars
  4. loving and caring for other human psychological and spiritual lives as you care for your own, loving others as you love yourself
  5. loving the moral law that tells you how to do that
  6. knowing and loving nature and the nature of everything: man, woman, animals, God, and even sister death; not acting against their natures but “painting with the grain”
  7. loving the source and inventor of all life wherever He comes to you: in nature, in conscience, in the Bible, in the Mass, in children, everywhere, even in death.

He summarizes by saying, “See?  Being ‘pro-life’ is bigger than #3 alone.'”

What do you think of this account of what it means to be “pro-life”?  Is this an account of the “pro-life” perspective that makes sense to those who call themselves “pro-choice”?

Political Space and Nation-Worship

I have long contended that liberal nations like the United States by their nature demand a kind of worship.  William T. Cavanaugh, in his essay From One City to Two offers U.S. Flaga simple indictment of why this is true by contrasting the nature of the church with the nature of liberal polity.  For any sized group, the problem of the one and the many needs to be resolved.  In a group of pure individuals, there is no “group” to speak of; only a collection of persons.  In a group where individuality cannot be expressed, there is again no “group,” only a collective.

For Cavanaugh, the church overcomes the problem of the one and the many through mutual participation the unifying head of the church: Christ.  But how can a nation founded on the doctrines of liberalism (basically: you can do whatever you want except impede on others’ rights to do whatever they want) overcome the problem of the one and the many?  Cavanaugh writes,

In the body of Christ, the many are gathered into one by means of each one’s participation in the head of the body, who is Christ. The body of Christ has a transcendent reference, which, according to Paul, allows for diversity within unity (1 Cor. 12), since the interval between each one and God allows for a diversity of ways of participation in God’s life. How will the modern liberal nation-state resolve the question of the one and the many in the body politic if participation in Christ is no longer the common goal? Liberalism is said to allow for a greater pluralism of ends: there are no longer two cities – the followers of Christ and the “world” – but one city with a diversity of individuals, each with the freedom to choose his or her own ends, whether to worship no god, one god, or twenty. But the longing for unity persists, along with the fear that diversity will produce conflict and tear the body politic apart. In the absence of a transcendent telos, plurality is not simply a promise but a threat, one that must be met by an even greater pull toward unity.  But what could be the source of unity in a nation-state of diverse ends without a transcendent reference to participation in any single god? It can only be that the nation-state becomes an end in itself, a kind of transcendent reference needed to bind the many to each other.

This leads many social commentators to label Christianity as “dangerous” to the liberal social order, to the degree that Christians refuse to allow such a liberalism to underwrite their own beliefs.  Cavanaugh here cites Martin Marty’s recent text Politics, Religion, and the Common Good where Marty examines the case of Jehovah’s Witnesses in the 1940s who were violently abused by nationalists for refusing to salute the American flag.  Oddly, Marty uses this story to illustrate the dangers of religion in the public square, rather than the dangers of nationalism.

For liberals like Martin Marty, religions are divisive because they ask for a loyalty to something outside the one, in this case the U.S. itself.  The same critique could be applied to a local loyalty that values state or town over country; the same intractable debate we have between federal and state governments.  The same critique could be applied to indigenous tribes, who value their tribe loyalty (understandably) far above loyalty to the U.S. government.  But all of these critiques depend on a specific understanding of the “political space.”

In this arrangement, America consists of on nation-state, with one “public square” and one “common good” (48).  Again, the many are subordinated to the one.  Marty quotes with approval, “A republic prospers when many voices speak,” and of course Marty believes religion is important as one such voice.  However, when it comes to the common good, the many voices must give way to the unifying consensus.

Cavanaugh summarizes, “When space is configured this way, the unity of the one city will tend to overtake the multiple commitments of civil society, and the division of goods between eternal and temporal will not hold. The nation-state itself becomes a kind of religion.”

In an upcoming post, I will examine Cavanaugh’s alternative construction of social space.  For now, I’ll leave off with a couple of questions.  Do you agree with Cavanaugh that the problem of the one and the many demands that the state install itself as an object of devotion?  What real-world examples can you cite?  How else could we understand public space, if not as a single public square, with a single common good to which all mediating points of view must be subordinated?

John Calvin on The Call to Salvation

In commenting on Jesus’s statement that many are called but few are chosen, Calvin distinguishes between the general call that God issues to all people, and the special call which cannot be resisted, which is issued only to the elect.  Because this special call cannot be resisted, if it were issued to all then all would be saved.  This shows that the Calvinist understanding of salvation and the gospel allows – in theory – for universal salvation.  However, God does not entirely will all to be saved, and so the special, irresistible call is only issued to some.

In Institutes 3.24.8 Calvin states:

[T]here is an universal call, by which God, through the external preaching of the word, invites all men alike, even those for whom he designs the call to be a savor of death, and the ground of a severer condemnation. Besides this there is a special call which, for the most part, God bestows on believers only, when by the internal illumination of the Spirit he causes the word preached to take deep root in their hearts. Sometimes, however, he communicates it also to those whom he enlightens only for a time, and whom afterwards, in just punishment for their ingratitude, he abandons and smites with greater blindness.

This is a remarkable passage for a couple of reasons. The first thing that jumps out is the statement that the general invitation to salvation is held out to some specifically to be a “savor of death, and the ground of severer condemnation.”  Indeed, it seems the non-elect would be better off if they received no invitation to the gospel than they are after receiving this general invitation; before they were as guilty of sin as anyone, while now they’re also guilty of rejecting this invitation, despite that this invitation was offered without the possibility of their accepting.

But the second thing that jumps out is even more remarkable.  For the special call is not exclusively given to the elect.  “For the most part,” Calvin writes, it is only for believers.  But “sometimes” God enlightens individuals but does not “cause the preached work to take deep root in their heart.”  And then, because of their ingratitude (which they could not have, since God did not cause the word to take deep root), God abandons them and blinds them even further than they were originally!

Note that Calvin is not saying that these people merely seemed to be enlightened or accepted by God.  They are genuinely enlightened, as much so as any believer.  God does not only seem to abandon them; he held them up for a time, yet did not enable them to express gratitude, and for that reason abandons them.  Any Christian could be in this position today.

To me, this is one of the most challenging passages in Calvin.  I think a moderate Reformed perspective would do well to abandon Calvin at this point, even while holding to the general sentiments of the Westminster Catechism.  Perhaps Calvin oversteps himself here; Calvin is being hypercalvinist.  The alternative, I’m afraid, derails pastoral counseling, and forces the reformed advocate to be either deceptive or to tell parishioners that God may not love you with the kind of love necessary to enable and encourage your spiritual well-being.

What do you think?  Is there a better option for Reformed pastoral counseling?  Can Calvinism be detached from this passage, or is it a necessary corollary to Calvin’s other doctrines?  Does it stand in contradiction to the doctrine of perseverance of the saints?

The Jewish Legacy and Christian Nonviolence

John Howard Yoder is well known for articulating a Christological nonviolence – that is, an account of nonviolence that cannot be separated from from Christ and
his cross.  I follow Yoder in maintaining that “pacifism” as a self-contained ideology is insufficiently nuanced to be fit for the discipleship community.  In continuity with Yoder, I would argue that “pacifism” in its liberal forms is inherently founded on ideologies flatly contradictory to Christian faith.

Nonetheless, Yoder examines nonviolence in many logics and sources outside the church.  Some of these sources he examines and leaves to one side; some he intentionally sets himself against.  But one in pa

rticular entered into and influenced his reading of Christological nonviolence: the nonviolent resources of Rabbinic Judaism.  This makes a great deal of sense if you think in sweeping historical terms.  Following the destruction of the Second Temple in 70 CE, the Jews were scattered globally, but maintained their distinctive religio-ethnic identity.  Sometimes individuals and communities influenced regional or national politics; often individuals and communities were persecuted and segregated.  But the scattered Jews never mustered armies, and did not generally join in the armies of others.  The last fifty years have seen a glaring exception in Zionism, and many today cannot disassociate images of border guards with AK-47s from Jewish identity.  But this exception is a remarkably isolated, though quite major, case.

So how does Rabbinic nonviolence relate to Christian nonviolence?  Yoder observes,

Since the Middle Ages, Christians are so accustomed to considering their origins in contrast to Judaism that we often ignore the great extent to which the early Christian attitude toward the Roman Empire was simply the attitude of faithful Jews.

Yoder goes on to identify five points of convergence.

  1. The sacredness of life. Blood in particular is treated with special esteem in Judaism, as can be seen from the Cain and Abel story to the sacrificial system and the kosher laws.  Any bloodshed is seen as sacrifice, either rightly or wrongly made.
  2. God is sovereign over the cosmos – over our oppressers just as much as over us.  This has several implications.  (a) This means God can defend justice without our help.  Pragmatic calculations about how to ensure a more just world don’t lesson Torah’s claims. (From certain perspectives, Moses was quite justified to kill the Egyptian master beating the Hebrew slave. Yet Torah condemns this act.)  (b) We cannot know God’s ways when God functions as cosmic sovereign. (c) God may be using the actions of our attackers to chastise us; if we defend ourselves we may be rebelling against God’s intentions for us. (d) It is possible even for those under the odd restrictions of Torah to be useful to pagan societies, as in the cases of Joseph, Esther and Daniel.  But we do not disregard Torah in order to be useful.
  3. There is the understanding in Rabbinic Judaism that God may choose to use our faithfulness unto death as a sacrifice to his holiness.  The Christian concept of martyrdom is analogous to the Hebrew concept of sanctifying God’s name.
  4. The expectation of the coming Messiah.  For Christians this obviously transmutes to the expectation of the returning Messiah, but in both cases we await a day when God’s anointed will bring true peace; all attempts to bring about peace now through violence are signs of faithlessness and presumption.
  5. Finally, Yoder identifies a sort of general reasonableness that can be located in Hebrew writings that lend themselves to the general nonviolence of Rabbinic communities.  He points to biblical sayings like “A soft answer may turn away wrath,” and Rabbi Meier’s oft-quoted statement that “the way to destroy an enemy is not to kill the person but to destroy the sin that makes him an enemy.”

No doubt, much of this convergence has been lost to the Christian church, so much so that many Christians could not even see this as a rough sketch of a Christian point of view.  Nonetheless, these are deeply Christian perspectives, and they raise several questions for the church.  Particularly impressive to me is the concept of identity.  Rabbinic Judaism has a clear identity, clearly related to Torah observance and their understanding of being in covenant with Yahweh.  While some Christian groups have such public identity (the Amish come to mind), Christians at large tend to be defined along cultural lines drawn up by others – Republican/Democrat, etc.  This is a jarring contrast.