Jonathan Martin

Archive for November, 2012

On Israel, the Church, and the Politics of Jesus.

I had multiple questions on the relationship of the Church to Israel for our town hall Sunday (during the Politics of Jesus series) we weren’t able to get to.  It would be presumptuous to think I could answer these questions in any sort of a comprehensive way in one blog entry (or really any number of blog entries).  I do not feel qualified to sort through the sociopolitical chicken or the egg debate as to which injustice comes first—the mistreatment of Palestinians or terrorist acts against Israel, etc.  (It is especially interesting these days when both sides accuse the other of a massive media conspiracy to keep “the truth” of the conflict from being reported).  As a pastor, I am well aware that in my context people’s theological beliefs about Israel as a modern nation-state largely shape their approach to these issues.  So I will limit my response primarily to how we should think about these matters theologically–ever mindful that our theology has very real-life implications for real people in the world.

Disclaimer first: I am not bashful about the fact that I have been greatly shaped by people who minister to Arab/Palestinian Christians, first and foremost by my “spiritual grandmother,” Sister Margaret Gaines.  I find that many evangelical Christians are still surprised that they have Arab brothers and sisters in the west bank, given our over preoccupation with Israel as a nation state.  Just last week, I got a beautiful e-mail from an Assemblies of God missionary I’ve never met who serves the Arab population in East Jerusalem and the West bank.  I cried as I read her description of driving through protests full of rubber bullets, rock throwing, fire crackers, and tear gas to make it to Ramallah to teach her four English students a lesson about Thanksgiving–while listening to our Politics of Jesus series.  She said she had listened to each of those sermons twice. I was encouraged, but overwhelmingly convicted as well.   I am able to pontificate on ideas about the Politics of Jesus in relative comfort.  For people like her, living out the Politics of Jesus comes at a great price. Their example demonstrates to us just how high the stakes are in how we think about these global issues.

So with the weight of those stories and the events of recent weeks pressing on my heart, let’s start with this: the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is endlessly complex, and if anyone attempts to tell you it is not, please be suspicious of anything they do tell you about it.  There are forces at work in organizations like Hamas that are willing to do terrible things indiscriminately for their cause.  The rocket attacks into Israel are inexcusable.  And we are regularly reminded of scary rhetoric from different quarters of the Middle East that would like to eradicate Israel altogether.

It is also true that the Palestinian people live in legitimately deplorable conditions that create an inevitable breeding ground for radical voices.  In my travels in the Middle East I have heard first hand accounts over and over from brothers and sisters in Christ there of injustice.  In  the tiny (and historically Christian) village of Aboud where Sister Gaines served, Israeli military would come and do random things to antagonize peaceful villagers, like mow down their beloved ancient olive trees.  Or there was the sweet old Christian couple we traveled with whom we personally saw endure unnecessary harassment at checkpoints.  The aged mother in the Lord had a sister a couple of miles away dying of cancer that she would never see again because of how the boundaries are drawn.  Or there is the Christian family I know now here in Charlotte from Aboud who were forcibly kicked off the land their family had owned for generations (whom are incidentally some of the biggest givers to Christian missions throughout the world that I know).

Yet still for many evangelical Christians, these matters are simple: Israel is God’s side and therefore should be our side, and this about good versus bad, light versus darkness.  Anything less than a ringing endorsement of all Israeli policies is seen as an affront to the living God.  This position is largely determined by eschatological convictions (beliefs about the end of the world), in which Israel (as a modern nation-state) exists as a fulfillment of prophecy.  For some evangelicals, if you send money to an organization that wants to bring Jews from around the world to Israel then you are less likely to get cancer or speeding tickets, or more likely to get a promotion at work.

I have many suspicions about this entire project for many reasons, but I’d start with this simple premise:

a) God is deeply, desperately in love with Israelis and Palestinians;

b) Jesus Christ is the Prince of Peace;

c) God longs to bring His Shalom/peace to the middle East.

Thus I do not believe that people who claim the name of Jesus should pick “a side” in the conflict.  I believe we are the peacemakers commissioned by the Holy Spirit of God to embody Christ’s peace in the world, and that we should pray for, work for, labor for peace, reconciliation and justice on all sides of the conflict.  Ultimately, any approach that leads you to place your hope in Israel rather than Israel’s Messiah is leading you to a dead end street.

This may sound so simple as to be unhelpful, since such basic claims do not begin to address how this might work or what it might look like—and in fact allows for a wide diversity of views on these matters.  But I am convinced that for evangelicals, that simple or not, these claims might be quite radical and in fact would still be an enormous step forward for many of us.

So let’s set a few things straight:

1)  Knowing “the Bible” will not help you at all in these matters if you fail to understand the narrative framework of the story Scripture tells.

I am very aware in advance that a number of sincere Christians are going to attempt to challenge some of the claims of this piece, and will have a literal avalanche of Scriptures at their service.  All you have do, it seems, is do a keyword search of “Israel” in an online Bible, and you can cut and paste hundreds of references that speak of God’s love for Israel.  The problem is that no matter how much chapter and verse you can quote or cite, if you misunderstand the movement of the entire story of God’s activity among humans as told in Scripture, you don’t get very far.  If you don’t understand the fundamental flow, the frame story upon which all of Scripture is hung, “using” Scripture out of context will only bring confusion rather than clarity.  Because what Christians believe about these matters theologically does in fact affect real people in the real world, there is a lot at stake if we get the narrative wrong. With that in mind…

2.  The story of God’s activity in the world does begin with a tribal promise.

God did in fact choose a particular man and a particular tribe in a particular land in a particular part of the world to accomplish His purposes.  He told Abraham he would make him a great nation; he would bless him and his descendants; he would give them a great name; he would bless those who blessed them and cursed those who cursed them.  (Genesis 12.1-3)

3.  The goal of the tribal promise is “the healing of the nations.”

But the ultimate end of this blessing establishes the basic storyline upon which the entire story of Scripture is built: “You shall be a blessing…and in you all of the families of the earth will be blessed.” (Genesis 12.2-3)   The blessing upon Abraham surges through the centuries as God raises up Israel out of Egypt through Moses on through the exile.  The blessing reaches it’s climax when Jesus of Nazareth enters the scene.  He’s a rather impossible act to follow, as in Him all the promises are fulfilled.  Through the lineage of Abraham, God’s light, the light of the world, has finally come to the nations.  It is through Jesus that all the families of the earth will be blessed.  It is through Him that the covenant love of God for Abraham is now extended to the whole world.  This is the story that will culminate with “the healing of the nations” in Revelation 22.

4.  Jesus of Nazareth is now the only hope for any and all people from any and all nations.

Does this mean that God no longer loves or has a special plan for “His people?”  Paul demonstrates great hope and compassion for his fellow Jews in the book of Romans.  God deeply loves the Jewish people.  But the hope of the nations is now no longer the establishment of Israel as a nation-state being reestablished to a particular kind of prominence or power.  Only Israel’s Messiah is the hope, for any and all people from any and all nations.  Only Jesus and Jesus alone.  There are not two covenants or two means of salvation, with apologies to John Hagee.  For Jews and for Gentiles, indeed for all the families of the earth, there is no hope apart from the rightful Lord and Messiah who is Jesus the Christ.

Ironically, the trouble in a lot of evangelical traditions is that for as much rhetoric as there might be about Jesus as the Lord who is worthy of our worship, there is a surprisingly low Christology at work.  That is to say the significance of the life, death and resurrection of Jesus are largely undervalued.  The message of orthodox Christianity is that the world fundamentally changed when God raised Jesus from the dead (which is why His resurrection is accompanied in the Gospel of Matthew with apocalyptic signs–thunder and lightning and earthquakes and dead people walking around Jerusalem).  It is now only a matter of time before His kingdom comes in its fullness and His will is done on earth as it is in heaven.  When Jesus ascended, He was not leaving us to our own devices, but rather ascending to take His rightful place as Lord over the world.  Since we believe that Jesus is Lord over the world already, we do not have to be anxious about helping prophecies along to make sure things work out right in the end.  We are not awaiting Israel or America or any nation to take their proper place on some sort of prophecy chart, as we believe that salvation, hope and restoration is available exclusively through Jesus as the Lord of the world.

This is why I say many Christians have a surprisingly low Christology: they do not believe resurrection has already changed the world and feel the need then to force “prophecy” toward some kind of fulfillment.  They do not believe that Jesus is Lord over the world, thus they put their faith in human governments or systems to “take their place” in order for God to accomplish His purposes in the world.  Starkly put, they only half-believe in the resurrection of Jesus and the Lordship of Jesus.

5.  Loving people on both sides of this conflict does not make a person “anti-Israel” much less anti-Semitic.

I do not think Christians should be anymore pro-Palestinian than pro-Israel.  The gospel of Jesus Christ is pro-humanity.

But if Christians do not take an explicitly “pro-Israel” stance, they will sometimes be accused of displacing Jewish people.  Some people say that Christians who believe that the promises of God made to Israel are fulfilled in the Church believe in “replacement theology.”  Let’s be clear: the covenant God made to Abraham is not “replaced” by the Church.  There is one covenant God made with Abraham (of which Gentiles now share) that culminated in Jesus, enabling Gentiles like myself to be grafted in.  This is not “replacement,” this is the same covenant and the same promise. The Church does not replace but is now grafted into the same blessing, Jews and Gentiles alike.  But that blessing comes only through Jesus of Nazareth.

It is true that there is indeed a terrible and grievous history of Jewish persecution in some quarters of the Church in both its Catholic and Protestant forms, and that is reprehensible, truly a perversion of Christian faith and doctrine.  Sadly, there are conspicuous examples of this in mainstream Protestant Church history (Martin Luther being a prominent example).  But just because one does not believe that the modern nation state of Israel has enormous prophetic significance, or simply that God deeply loves the people on both sides of this conflict, certainly does not make one “anti-Semitic.”

6.  The best way to love the people of Israel is to love the Prince of Peace and pray/work for His peace among all the people’s of the world.

Christians must repent of our past sins against Jewish people.  But the way we love the people of Israel today is not through an over-correction of sentimentalized, zealous Israel worship, but rather to be the Church for the whole world.  We believe that in Christ, that God’s heart is for reconciliation for Israelis and Palestinians.  Reconciliation is what the whole world is longing for whether they know how to name it or not.  The creation itself is longing for the manifestation of the sons and daughters to God to take their place as agents of the change and peace that is to come.  The best way for Christians to love their Israeli friends is not to take a side, but to take the side of cross-shaped peacemaking in the world.

The really sick truth is that in some of these end-times scenarios, in the name of “loving Israel” some Christians cheer on doomsday scenarios in which many actual Israelis would be hurt or killed.  That’s because they do not love them as people, but as pawns in a prophetic game of chess.  They “love” them not in that they care deeply for their well-being and safety, but only insofar as they help move the ball up the field on a prophecy timeline.

7.  The kingdom of God will not come through the violence of men.

There are still a distressing number of Christians, many of whom citing Scripture as quickly (and as recklessly) as the micro-machine man Jack Van Impe, who believe not only that Israel as a modern nation-state is especially chosen by God, but that the will of God is for us to stand by Israel in war.  In fact, many of them express a perverse pleasure when there is suffering in the Middle East, because these are mere signs that the end is drawing near.  That end is not defined first and foremost as the reign of the prince of peace breaking into the world with healing for the nations, but the vindication of those on the right side of Armageddon by the heavenly godfather.  The means by which Jesus will come to rule and reign will not be the cross (which failed) but a larger sword than that of the infidels.  “With the Bible in one hand and the newspaper in the other,” they sincerely and wrongheadedly expect the reign of God to be manifest in human violence.

I do not have time in a short treatment here to say all I’d like to about what’s wrong with these systems.  But at heart is a fundamental misreading of the Book of Revelation.  The apocalyptic language and imagery can easily be misinterpreted.  Revelation is a book about how God overcomes the evil of the world through the cross of Jesus.  It is through the blood of the Lamb that God wins in the end.  His people do not share in His victory by beating their enemies with bigger weapons, but by sharing in the sacrifice of the Lamb, “following the Lamb wherever He goes…loving not their own lives even unto death.”  The subversive victory of love and sacrifice over the forces of the evil make a mockery of the so-called principalities and powers of the world, from the Roman empire to every tyrannical and oppressive empire in our own time.

The cross is not just the message of the kingdom, the cross is the means of the kingdom.  The trouble with a lot of popular eschatology is that it assumes Jesus did not win through the cross and resurrection, and will have to resort to something other than the way of the cross to accomplish His purposes in the world.  There is of course much language of judgment in Revelation.  But judgment does not come through guns—“Out of his mouth comes a sharp sword with which to strike down the nations.”  God will judge His creation by the same means in which He brought it into existence—by His word.

8.  The response of the people of God to conflict in the Middle East is not to take a side but to take up a cross.

Don’t get me wrong: Jesus Himself said that the days to come would be full of wars and rumors of wars.  But the manifestation of the sons of God will not be through us being on the “right” side of any of those wars, but on the side of radical enemy love.  We want to be on the side of the one who, even on the cross, said “Forgive them Father for they know what they do.”  There are no other sides besides the way of the kingdom and the way of the world, the way of the cross and the way of the sword.  There are no middle ground alternatives.

No matter what your persuasion or how you interpret the sociopolitical dimensions of this conflict, all authentic followers of Jesus should be able to agree that “God so loved the whole world that He gave His only begotten Son;” and that God’s desire in and through Jesus Christ is for all people in all parts of the world to be blessed and whole.  I think to simply get the people of God together on these handful of basic assumptions could make all the difference in how we learn to be the Church for the world.

The world tells us to take sides; we are told to take up our cross.  We are called to bear witness to the kingdom of God by living our own lives as peacemakers.  We pray for peace, we work for peace.  We learn as much as we can about our brothers and sisters in the Middle East and we support kingdom work among them–from the preaching of the gospel to caring for the poor, the marginalized, the orphan, the widow and the oppressed.  We refuse any options that are presented to us other than the cross–which means we look for ways to sacrifice our own comfort for the sake of hurting people all over the world.

Reconciling my views on “the politics of Jesus” with MLK’s social justice.

Sunday was the conclusion to the politics of Jesus, and I had a blast answering your questions for Town Hall Sunday!  I did regret, however, not getting to all the questions, and wanted to answer as many as I could here on the blog.  So in the next few days, I’ll be posting some of the great questions we missed along with my responses.

Here is today’s, via @ThomasMarlowe: Reconcile your political sermons with your support of MLK’s social justice (strongly advocating the legal system to effect change).

(Note: I am presuming Dr. Marlowe is referring to the way I have emphasized living out life in the Kingdom in our community, more so than overt activism in the American political process here.)

This is a question that often haunts me.  I’ve told before about my “accidental” trip to Memphis 2 years ago, where I unexpectedly found myself at the Lorraine Motel where King was shot (now the site of the National Civil Rights Museum).  The holiness of the ground itself stunned me, another story for another time (I share it in Prototype).  But one of the significant revelations both on that trip, as well in the year prior when I had been doing a lot of reading on King, was that while King was largely venerated by the American public by death, just how much his message was marginalized both before and after his death on the topics most pressing him in his later years—economic injustice and the Vietnam war.

It would seem that nothing could get you into more trouble than challenging people’s long held prejudices, but there may in fact be nothing in this life people are more protective of than their wallets and their wars.  The fastest way to be rejected in American society is to raise difficult questions about how people spend their money or why they fight.  As Chris Hedges demonstrates so potently in his book War Is a Force that Gives Us Meaning, nations are largely ordered around the way we narrate our wars.  Our money and the mythology created by our wars are often what society holds to be the most sacred.

The more I thought about this, the more it bothered me.  Everyone loves a martyr.  Even people who hated King ultimately came to accept him as an icon in matters of race.  Yet King’s critique of our economy and war would not be much more palatable after his death than before.  If death brought vindication, speaking his heart on those matters had long brought marginalization.  I began to wonder, as a preacher, what this means for me.  Will people be willing to tolerate anything that I say about Jesus and His Kingdom—as long as I stay away from the temples of money and war, where their idols sit?  It is of course impossible to critique money and war without political critique.  When you are speaking to matters that are central to how people order their lives and society, politics is the name of the game.  Thus, it would seem that to assert the Lordship of Jesus in these issues would entail political claims that would threaten the principalities and powers today as much as it did before King’s death.

Indeed, I do believe that calling Jesus Lord is a political claim that has real implications for how we approach real issues of life and society—so I would not want to say that there is no place for Christians to articulate their concerns in the political arena, much less the public square.  But I would add this—it seems that since King’s time, our two-party political system has become more broken and more polarized, not less.  Hence, while progress in those arenas is not impossible, it is treacherously difficult.  And for many followers of Jesus, like myself, the alternatives offered between right and left simply are not comprehensive or radical enough to encompass the scope of our concerns.

I suppose my goal, then, would not be to completely marginalize the role of Christians in American politics, but to minimize it, or at the least, relativize it.  People interpret King’s legacy differently, but my own reading of his life and work is essentially this: when King was being educated in liberal seminaries, the faith of his childhood was deconstructed in a way that made it at least tempting to abandon it altogether in favor of the bourgeois liberalism of his time.  I think the further King got away from the academy and the more invested he became in the actual work of the Kingdom, the more disillusioned he was becoming with having the faith of his forefathers co-opted by bland liberalism, and the more he relied on the explicit nature of Christian faith to shape him.  He was still speaking in the public square, but the older he got, the more he did so as a preacher of the gospel.

Here is the really interesting thing: while, indeed, King made great progress in his lifetime politically, and that side of his work was vitally important—it was ultimately the message of the cross embodied in his own death that changed the world.  Think about it: as it was for Jesus on the cross, as it is for the two witnesses in the book of Revelation, change could only come through death.  His life would have be to offered up, tapping into the intrinsic power of the cross, for there to be a resurrection of King’s dream in the world.  While the political activism was important (fair wages for black sanitation workers, etc.), King’s death became the spiritual center for the cause of racial justice in America.

So to come to the question, I feel like the best thing I can do as a pastor is to form people in the shape of the cross and the hope of the resurrection.  This will have political implications, but they do not come first.  It may be that God works through us to an extent in the sphere of American politics, but that will be an extension of people shaped and formed by the message of the Kingdom of God and cannot work the other way around.  If we do impact that political world, my sense is that it will also come as it did for King—less through lobbying and more through sacrifice, less through legislation and more from not loving our own lives even unto death.  I also think as it was for King, it will come from power exercised underneath the established powers rather than from on top of them.

So I would want to draw people deeper and deeper into the heart of the Kingdom and even more so, the heart of the King.  Ultimately, the witness to the world that will be most powerful (from the New Testament Church to the “beloved community” King loved to speak of) is the creation of an alternative community.  To put it bluntly, I think we, on the whole, been far too unsuccessful at creating such an alternative community to the structures of the world to be overly concerned with trying to tell the world how to live.  It seems to me the time is right to invest ourselves in Christian communities that truly demonstrate to the world that another kind of life is made possible by the resurrection.  In our own cultural climate, it is hard for me to envision any project more important than showing the world a community where the poor, the alien, stranger and the widow (no matter where they come from or what they’ve done) can receive the transforming love of God through the touch of human hands.

At the end of the “Town Hall Sunday” we did this weekend to close out the Politics of Jesus, I interviewed Jyothi Reddi, a powerful Church of God pastor and overseer in India, specifically talking about the profound work he is doing through the orphanage he runs in caring for the most disreputable people in their society.  The government in his country is not interested in helping them, nor are the wealthy in his country.  Truly Jyothi is showing the world a radical alternative to the systems of the world in his own care for the broken and marginalized.  It was a stark reminder to all of us that all this language about the Kingdom of God is not and cannot be abstract—this is real life; Kingdom come.