Thursday, October 23, 2014


We've come a long way from the Civil Rights movements of the '50s and '60s. We've moved beyond the necessity of staging protests and sit-ins. Society has finally come to the point where we can judge someone by the content of their character, not by the color of their skin--or their religious beliefs, social status, sexual orientation, etc. Or have we? In light of current events, I think it's safe to assume we haven't come as far as we once thought. Headlines reveal that persecution still plagues the Land of the Free. And if you listen closely, you can still hear the cries of people being persecuted just down the street.

But, there's just one problem! Most of those cries don't seem to be coming from where you might expect. For the most part, it's not coming from the minorities of this country--African Americans, Hispanics, Women, and homosexuals. Rather, throw a rock from where you are standing and you're bound to hit a church claiming they are being persecuted. Their pastors have taken center stage and exchanged preaching the word of God with taking shots at the minority left. Which has incited a mob like mentality within their congregations, with everyone protesting, "What poor, persecuted, people we are!"

So, this raises some important questions. To start with, is persecution a part of following Jesus? You bet! He, quite clearly, informed us that if we follow him persecution will come. One such example (of several) can be found in John 15:20 and 21. During his teaching, Jesus tells those listening that "A slave is not greater than the master. Since they persecuted me, naturally they will persecute you. And if they had listened to me, they would listen to you. They will do all this to you because of me, for they have rejected the one who sent me." While we haven't misinterpreted Jesus' promise that there will be persecution, it seems we have missed the point of what it will look like.

Which leads us to the most important question of all. Are we, Christians in the United States, really being persecuted? To answer that, we must look to Jesus and those who heard him promise persecution would follow. And, when we do, I get the impression that persecution meant something far different  to them than we, in America, perceive it to be.

So, the problem isn't so much of us putting words in Jesus' mouth--that persecution would come. The problem is that we have lost sight of what Jesus meant when he promised persecution. At the risk of sounding insensitive, I have to say that, for those of us living in the United States, the word 'persecution' seems to have lost almost all meaning. That's not to say there aren't Christians being persecuted here. It certainly does happen! I have even experienced persecution myself--in the form of lost opportunities, broken relationships, and shattered dreams. But then again, I'm not so sure we can label all the opposition we face as persecution. An inconvenience? Yes. But, persecution? Maybe not.

What then, did Jesus mean when he promised persecution. As I've already said, to the first Christians, persecution meant something very different. They didn't define persecution as allowing those with dissenting views the opportunity to express their opinions. Neither did being called a bigot by the political left constitute persecution for them (nor does it for us today considering we have degrading labels for those outside the church). Being thought of as intolerant didn't touch on what it really meant to be persecuted. (On a side note, could it be that people call us intolerant because we are, in fact, intolerant?) Allowing those with different beliefs to have the rights, that should be, afforded all humanity didn't constitute persecution either. Nor did things like having prayer removed from school or the 10 Commandments taken off the walls come across as persecution. Not having social or political control was simply the way of life for the minority Christian in the Roman occupied Jewish territory of Jesus' day. So, I submit to you the persecution we, as Christians, face in this country isn't persecution in the sense those first followers of Jesus thought of persecution.

Rather, the speed-bumps and road-blocks we encounter in every day life are all a part of citizenship in this country we call home. They are just some of the give and take that comes with extending the freedom of religion to everyone. The reason, then, we aren't given preferential treatment has less to do with our faith in Jesus and more to do with the fact that we live in a country that believes "...all men are created equal, [and] that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness."

Paul, in Hebrews 11, gives us a great description of the persecution Jesus was alluding to. The persecution those who heard him speak envisioned. "...But others were tortured, refusing to turn from God in order to be set free. They placed their hope in a better life after the resurrection. Some were jeered at, and their backs  were cut open with whips. Others were chained in prisons. Some died by stoning, some were sawed in half, and others were killed with the sword. Some went about wearing skins of sheep and goats, destitute and oppressed and mistreated. They were too good for this world, wandering over deserts and mountains, hiding in caves and holes in the ground." For the original followers of Jesus, this was the ever present reality of life. They understood that persecution would come. They knew that following him would be costly. They realized that, not only would Rome hate and persecute them; but, so would the Jews. If both groups persecuted Jesus, why wouldn't they persecute his followers? Which is why they were told to "count the cost." Because it may very well cost them their life.

And yes, Jesus does give us the same warning today. As a matter of fact, that warning was for everyone who would ever follow him. Since Jesus first drew a crowd, those that followed have been faced with persecution. I just don't think we've quite reached the same level of persecution in the United States. Especially when we look to Christians scattered across the globe today.

To see what real persecution looks like, we need only turn to the LGBT who are denied the legal right to a civil marriage (afforded to them by this country--not the church--which is a different discussion altogether). The Native Americans in our own state who are struggling to find their identity. The African Americans who are still being treated poorly and unfairly in certain parts of this country. The Muslims (or in some instances, non-Muslims of a Middle-Eastern descent) living within these borders who are being called terrorists and/or are beaten to death. Granted, that's not Christian persecution. To see that reality, we have to travel across the ocean. We need to look at volatile places like the Middle East where people are killed because they have claimed Jesus as savior. Or Sudan, China and Korea where Christians live in fear. All because belief in Christianity will deem you apostate resulting in imprisonment, torture and/or death. Sometimes not just you, but your whole family as well.

Perhaps, when we look at others, we will gain a new perspective on what it truly means to be persecuted. Maybe then we will stop labeling the trials we face, in this country, for our beliefs as persecution. Because it's a huge disservice to Christians across the world, facing real persecution. Not to mention how weak and lacking in love it is. It certainly doesn't edify the body of believers. And it certainly doesn't encourage a positive image for those outside the church.

The next time you think you are being persecuted, stop and ask yourself some telling questions. Do you own a Bible? Or two? Or three? When was the last time you were hindered from going to church? (And I'm not talking about getting pulled over for going 5 over the speed limit on your way to church). Is the sign on the building you gather to worship in each and every week visible from the street? Were you ever called a terrorist by a stranger? Have you been denied service at a local business? Has anyone refused to perform your wedding ceremony? Did anyone chain and torture you for uttering the name of Jesus? Were you ever killed for what you believe?

Wednesday, October 1, 2014


To tell you the church is pro-life isn't shockingly new information. Had you spent your entire life living in a box (in this country), you would still probably know this to be true. It seems that some religious organization is always battling the government when it comes to this topic. Most recently, the organization to take a pro-life stance and file a lawsuit challenging the federal government was Hobby Lobby. Or perhaps your daily commute takes you by places like Planned Parenthood where protesters hold poster board signs displaying disturbing images of aborted babies. Of course, you are reminded of this every election when one of the candidates jabs the other for their stand for or against the pro-life movement.

Why has the church taken this stance? Because, as Jesus' followers, we have read Scripture and, somehow, discerned him saying "I am pro-life." While this is true--Jesus is very pro-life--we seemed to have added a caveat, "...but only when it comes to babies."

How do I know this? Partly due to the fact that I've been involved in the church for the past 25 years of my life. Given that length of time, I think it's safe to say the impression I get--that death, sometimes, is perfectly acceptable--has at least some validity. I've heard enough sermons based on the Old Testament passage of "an eye for an eye," to justify their stance on topics like capital punishment and war. I've sat in board meetings where decisions were made to ban people from serving in or even attending the church because of their criminal background. But these aren't the only reasons I know this to be so.

Just a couple weeks ago, every local media outlet informed the Sioux Empire that a death row inmate had committed suicide. He was found dead, in his cell, overnight. Although the penitentiary staff tried to revive him, their efforts were unsuccessful.

For a day or two, the talk of the town seemed to revolve around his apparent suicide. Everyone had their two cents to add to the discussion. Customers came into the office informing me that justice had finally been served and the victim's family would get the closure they had been waiting for. Comments on various news source articles ranged from "he took the easy way out," to "hell has a special place reserved for him." Others gave a sigh of relief because, according to them, "he would no longer be a drain on tax payer dollars." The discussion even spilled over to social media--no surprise there. I read numerous twitter updates (and I don't even have twitter). And my feed on Facebook was hijacked with friends sharing the articles and posting their opinions on the entire situation.

Given his long criminal record and the nature of his crimes, these comments aren't that big of a shock to me. He had, afterall, killed another human being--an elderly woman, whose vehicle he stole in order to drive to the capitol and assassinate the president.

I'd be lying if I said those same sentiments didn't cross my mind at first. Truth be told, I have spent far too much of my life making similar remarks. Rejoicing when enemies of America are killed. Breathing a sigh of relief when another murderer breathes his last breath. All because I am an individual who highly values justice. Like most of you (I assume), there is something deep within me that finds solace when people get what they deserve--unless it's me of course. So, you see, I, too, had bought into the lie that Jesus is pro-life, but only for babies. All of that was to, hopefully, get you to see that I'm  not here to cast judgment; because that's the last thing on my mind. However, this whole situation raised some important questions for me.

For starters, all of this makes me wonder if we, the church, are truly pro-life. You see, we have certainly created a culture in the church that is pro-birth, but it seems to fall short of being pro-life. And there is a vast difference. To mourn the loss of one life and celebrate the death of another strikes me as inconsistent, at the very least. This is not what I see when I look to Jesus. I don't recall a single occasion in which Jesus celebrated the death of another human being, even a convicted criminal. He never seemed to condone the concept of casualties of war--indicating that their death was necessary for the greater good. Which brings me to the topic of justice. Namely, are death and justice synonymous? Ever?

It seems to me, here is another example where Christian beliefs have been hijacked by the political right. Where the lines between faith and politics have been blurred. Where we have taken the easy road and failed to holistically approach this idea of pro-life. Because, while Jesus seems to be pro-life, I get the impression it's much more than a stance against abortion.

So, what needs to change about our, the church's, understanding of being pro-life?

To begin with, just as Jesus affirms ALL life, so must we!

If we believe what the book of Genesis tells us about humanity, we have no choice but to believe that all of us were created in the image of God. Male. Female. Gentile. Jew. Muslim. Rich. Poor. Law-abiding citizen. Convicted criminal. While the sin living in each of us tarnishes that image; it doesn't negate the fact that somewhere, somehow, all of us speak to the grandeur of God. That if we look close enough, we are still able to see his imprint on our lives, no matter what state it's in. This is why death, in any form is wrong. Period. Abortion. Euthanasia. Casualties of war. Capital punishment. Not only do they all go against everything Jesus talked about concerning life--which, it seems to me, he talked about an awful lot. But they also suppress the very image of God that resides within each of us. To celebrate their death makes us not only less human, but less like God.

For this reason, according to Shane Claiborne, "We need to be pro-life from the womb to the tomb." And " talk about being pro-life," says Cardinal Bernadin of Chicago,  "it has to be a seamless statement of life that reaches all the way from abortion to war to caring for the poor." Obviously, these two gentlemen are more in tune with what it means to be a pro-life follower of Jesus. Which leads me to believe that, we, the church, need to revoke the lines we have drawn. That value the life of the unborn over the born. That view foreign life as less significant. That prefer legal justice over divine justice.

Which brings us to justice. Because that's what we're really talking about, isn't it? When death is and isn't just. But this approach fails to take into account everything Jesus taught us about mercy, forgiveness and loving your enemy.  

Demonstrating his Mercy, Jesus lamented "O Jerusalem, Jerusalem, the city that kills the prophets and stones God's messengers! How often I have wanted to gather your children together as a hen protects her chicks beneath her wings, but you wouldn't let me." (Luke 13:34). And this deep seeded desire to extend compassion to Jerusalem, was only the beginning. Even though Jerusalem wouldn't let him offer the help (and hope) they desperately needed, Jesus still laid down his life for them.

Speaking on forgiveness Jesus tells Peter (and us), to forgive "...not seven times, but seventy times seven!" (Matthew 18:22). Scholars all agree Jesus isn't talking about a literal 490 times. The point Jesus seems to be making is that, as his followers, we should actually follow his example. That example is to not keep score. Not in the church. Not in our relationships. And not even with those who commit atrocious crimes.

Giving us examples on what it looks like to truly love, Jesus says "You have heard the law that says, 'Love your neighbor and hate your enemy. But I say, love your enemies. Pray for those who persecute you! In that way, you will be acting as true children of your Father in heaven. For he gives sunlight to both the evil and the good, and he sends rain on the just and the unjust alike." (Matthew 5:43-45). And, just in case this one wasn't clear enough, he offers other examples, just in like: "turn the other cheek," "if a soldier demands that you carry his gear for a mile, carry it two miles," or "if you are sued in court and your shirt is taken from you, give your coat, too."

So, you see, this Old Testament attitude of "an eye for an eye" will not do anymore. Gandhi seemed to recognize this truth so easily, admonishing us that ,"An eye for an eye leaves the whole world blind." This is not justice. At least, not according to Jesus. Perhaps it's time we read the Bible, not through the lens of retributive justice, but restorative. Because when we understand justice from this perspective, it takes on a much different meaning. I assert that, to Jesus, justice speaks of our failure to embody God's concern for the well-being of all people. Justice requires that we turn back to God and away from the injustices society finds acceptable--that favor the wealthy, powerful over the vulnerable, poor. Jesus' call to justice is not for judgment, but the way to overcome it.