A God without Borders

Immigration has long been a point of contention in American politics, and it seems to have come to a head recently with President Obama declaring executive action on the matter. I daresay that at the heart of the bitter dispute between the president and Congress is a struggle for political power having nothing to do with immigration policy, but the constant war and arguing has at least brought the issue of immigration to the forefront of the American political consciousness. Republicans say we should reinforce the border with extra personnel and arms and immediately deport any illegal aliens, sending them back from whence they came regardless of the circumstances which drove them to flight from their countries of origin. Democrats think we should grant forms of amnesty to illegal immigrants, subject to a very specific (and somewhat stringent) set of criteria, and the border, while needing to remain secure against potential terrorists, should still be generally open to those who can cross it without posing direct threats to our national security (extra resources optional). Should a Christian side with one party or the other — or neither?

I think it’s important to begin with what Scripture teaches about the sojourner and the stranger. Abraham himself was an immigrant, called by God to leave his homeland for an as-yet-undisclosed country (Genesis 12). While I don’t recommend passing off your wife as your sister like Abraham did (a nasty habit his son inherited, more’s the pity), I do believe this can be a starting point for this discussion. Abra(ha)m left for a land of promise, passing through multiple other countries and city-states along the way, generally abiding by local customs and laws while doing so. His great-grandson, Joseph, though a Hebrew, became an administrator of Egypt second in power only to Pharaoh himself (Gen. 41). As administrator, he used his authority to care for all peoples who came to Egypt seeking assistance in the famine, including the very brothers who had sold him into slavery years before. In Joseph we have a precursor to the Mosaic law’s care for the Other.

The Torah received by Moses gives a great many injunctions about immigrants. Repeatedly throughout Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, and Deuteronomy, God instructs Moses, “And you shall not wrong a stranger or oppress him, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt” (Exodus 22:21). Immigrants into the land controlled by the Hebrew people are to be treated fairly and justly, regardless of what brought them there. They’re not even required to become part of the community of faith (although, if they do, they are to be held to the same laws and moral code as the worshiping Jews, including mandatory circumcision); they may safely dwell among the children of Abraham as distinct — but equal — peoples. Indeed, the ethic of reciprocity (a.k.a. the Golden Rule) is mentioned expressly in regards to immigrants: “The stranger who resides with you shall be to you as the native among you, and you shall love him as yourself; for you were aliens in the land of Egypt: I am the LORD your God” (Lev 19:34). At no point is the sojourner/stranger/immigrant to be considered less than a “native” Jew. They are to be loved and provided for, regardless of anything else. And at all points, the people are to remember that they, too, were once strangers in a foreign land.

Certainly the New Testament upholds that ethic. Both the Greatest Commandment and the parable of the Good Samaritan teach us to love others as ourselves and to help them in their need, even if they’re of different nationalities, religions, or other criteria. Paul’s missionary journeys, Peter’s visit to Cornelius, and Philip’s encounter with the Ethiopian eunuch show us that our God recognizes no borders. The Gospel is a message to all peoples, all countries, all ethnicities (Mt 28:19-20-; Lk 2:10; Acts 1:8). Any border we may draw and then try to protect is an artificial boundary designed to keep people out — thereby making them not “our problem.”

Yes, borders keep us safe to an extent. And yes, they do protect our standard of living since they prevent people from making demands on our tax dollars. But have you ever considered that we have enough wealth to make Solomon blush, that perhaps we should be inviting people in so we can care for them through sacrificial giving? We are to give freely to everyone who asks of us — but not giving just what they ask for, but going above and beyond (Lk 6:29-31,35). If anyone, immigrant or otherwise, comes to us asking for food, shelter, safety, work, education, or anything else, we are to help them in every way we can. This is a duty which takes no heed of human law.

Should immigrants come to our country (or any other) through the established, legal channels? Yes, they should. There should be a respect for the laws of the nation they wish to make their home, and that begins with adhering to the legal immigration process. But which of us would look at a fellow human being, a brother or sister in Christ, who comes from a country ravaged by war, disease, poverty, and famine, and tell him or her to leave a place of safety simply because they didn’t file the proper paperwork? Who among us would be so blatantly jingoist and xenophobic that we would rather watch people suffer and die without doing something to help them just because it might cost us something?

America was a melting pot, a nation of immigrants who founded a new country because they sought freedom: freedom of religious practice, freedom from persecution, freedom from early deaths after a lifetime of suffering. How quickly we seem to forget that fact when other people want to do the same thing our grandparents and great-great-great-great-great-grandparents did. If it weren’t for immigration, I myself wouldn’t exist (being the blend of Welsh, German, and Irish blood that I am). Why do we fear the Other, the very diversity God created and loves so very much? Why do we forget that people of all nations will worship around the throne of God (Revelation 7:9)? Why are we unable to remember the exact thing Moses and his flock were required to keep in mind: we were once strangers in a foreign land?

And so whenever someone asks me my position on immigration, I’ve decided to simply quote Deuteronomy 26:5-9, something which was to be recited by every Israelite during the presentation of the offering of first fruits:

You shall answer and say before the LORD your God, “My father was a wandering Aramean, and he went down to Egypt and sojourned there, few in number; but there he became a great, mighty and populous nation. And the Egyptians treated us harshly and afflicted us, and imposed hard labor on us. Then we cried to the LORD, the God of our fathers, and the LORD heard our voice and saw our affliction and our toil and our oppression; and the LORD brought us out of Egypt with a mighty hand and an outstretched arm and with great terror and with signs and wonders; and He has brought us to this place and has given us this land, a land flowing with milk and honey.”

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A Trinitarian Perspective on the Family

Any discussion of the theology of the family must begin with and proceed from a Trinitarian perspective. The pre-existent Trinity exemplifies the family system, consisting as the godhead does of three persons united as one by unconditional love. Human beings, created in the image of this triune God, possess inherently a relational aspect. The relationship between the creation and the Creator, as typified by covenants, extends into the relationships between members of a family – and, indeed, to those between states. Finally, it should be recognized that the family is the primary social unit, making it the crucible of Christian discipleship and the first means of fulfilling the Great Commission of Matthew 28:18-20.

First, the Trinity models agape, true unilateral, unconditional love. Even though the godhead is comprised of the three persons of Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, the three form a cohesive unity (Deuteronomy 6:4). This bond evidences itself in the way all three persons have equal status within the Trinity, regardless of their respective roles. For example, the Son is obedient to the Father not out of a filial obsequiousness based in a sense of inferiority, but rather because the Son loves the Father irrespective of any external factor. Unconditional love provides the conduit for the relationships between each of the three persons. It is insufficient, however, to say that the three become one because of loving relationships; it is necessary to say that the Three-in-One is love itself, and the innate nature of that love is what provides for the relationality of the Trinity.

This relational nature is evidenced in humanity being created in the imago Dei. Even though many debate the exact meaning of being made in the image of God, perhaps the strongest contender is that humans are designed for relationships. Just as the Trinity exists in a state of relationship, so, too, must people be in a relationship. Since human beings are born of a mother and conceived by a father, it logically follows that even procreation is designed to create new life in the context of a relationship: the family. God then establishes His own relationship with the family and the individual by means of covenant. This covenant, for Christians, is the means by which redemption and reconciliation is achieved: imperfect people relate to a perfect God through a covenant achieved initially by the atonement of Christ and that is lived by ascribing to the rules and relationship mandated by God.

Covenant plays a large role in family dynamics. A covenant grounded in unconditional love is, in the West, the basis for Christian marriage. The two spouses covenant together to create a new family while vowing to remain faithful to each other to the exclusion of all other possible partners, and the vows are durable throughout any negative life events. The covenant provides a basis for the governing of the relationship. It may be extended to delineating roles and navigating other potential sources of conflicts such as money, in-laws, sex, and time management. As long as the covenant conditions are fulfilled, all will run smoothly. Thus the covenant relationship between God and humanity serves as a model for other relational covenants such as those between family and state or family and church.

This foundational relational – and foundationally human – social system functions as the first means of disciple-making. As children are born into a family, they enter a covenant community of unconditional love geared for a relationship. It is necessary for the family to teach those children their religious beliefs in order to aid them in attaining a relationship with the Trinitarian God. The earthly, nuclear family of the child is under special obligation to see to it that the child receives instruction in the faith. Discipleship begins in the home when parents begin the indoctrination of their children. It is true that the church plays a critical role in disciple-making, and children receive age-appropriate discipleship instruction from the church through various programs such as Sunday school and youth programs. If these lessons are not reinforced in the home, however, it is possible (and perhaps even likely) that church teachings will fall by the wayside. Children learn by observation; if the parents do not exhibit a behavior in the home, then their children are less likely to exhibit it themselves. The family who displays Christian virtues and the unconditional love of the Trinity will raise children of similar beliefs and behaviors.

This has implications on how families view the social order. The family as basic social unit also comprises the basic Christian unit. Indeed, the family serves as a ready metaphor for the Church: all believers are brothers and sisters and share a common Father, God Almighty, the creator of heaven and earth. Ideally, this relationship between Christians is patterned after the pre-Fall intent of Creation: a world free of conflict that is defined by healthy sexuality, mutual empowerment, and Trinitarian relationship. All of these aspects were damaged by the Fall. Human sexuality has been twisted to become, in popular opinion, little more than a means of personal gratification; families are marked by power plays made by parents and children alike; and love is always contingent upon what someone can do for someone else. The role of the family, in both the church and the world, is to model the pre-Fall creational intent in order to remind society and the community of believers of the Trinity’s plan for the world.

The doctrine of the Trinity, then, has many implications for the family in society. Its model of relationship and unconditional love serves as the first example of how families are to conduct themselves. It also speaks to how family life should be grounded in covenant and how parenting is also a means of disciple-making. The Trinity shows us the pre-Fall intent of Creation, and this state is the true objective of the contemporary church in society, accomplished by espousing the values and relationality of the creational intent.

F.A.Q: Can We Trust the Bible?

One of the foundational principles — perhaps the foundational principle — of Christianity is that our book, the Holy Bible, is reliable. It is a true record of historical events, poetry, and prophecy which should be treated as authentic and authoritative. Its truths are absolute, not relative. The information contained within its pages serves as the final word on matters of faith, and any practice which contradicts Scripture should be reformed or abandoned. All of this is based on the premise the Bible is accurate and inspired by God. So . . . is it? Can we trust the Bible?

Most common claims against the reliability of the Bible seem to center on its composition. After all, the people who are said to have written most books were probably illiterate, and at the very least, the stories had to survive many, many years as oral history before being finally written down as a manuscript. Then one has to consider how those manuscripts have changed across millennia. Didn’t they break down like a game of Telephone? One guy writes down something, another guy copies it but makes a mistake or a change, the next guy does the same thing, someone else didn’t like what it said and so rewrote it according to a private agenda, and on and on throughout the centuries?

Well, no. That’s exactly what did not happen. I personally believe most of those questions are based on a really arrogant view that we, modern women and men, are inherently intellectually superior to anyone who came before us. We wouldn’t make those mistakes, but the poor benighted souls in ages past just weren’t so bright, bless their hearts, and so they made mistakes. Rubbish — as we shall see.

Let’s begin with oral history. It’s true that the New Testament wasn’t completely finished until the 90s AD (most date Revelation around 96, and it was the last book to be completed/written down). Most were probably codified between 60-80, with the synoptic gospels (Matthew, Mark, and Luke) finished before 70. Even so, detractors say, that’s still at least a thirty-ish year gap between the death of Christ and written history about his life. (Let’s not even talk about the Old Testament with its books written across a span of around a thousand years by some estimates.) Could people have accurately told and retold the story of Christ and his church for decades before anyone (also accurately) wrote it down? Yes, they could have. It was common practice among ancient philosophers and historians to assess their students via recitation. You were not said to have truly learned from your teacher if you could not repeat what you had been taught verbatim. Some stories have the great Pythagoras (of theorem fame) not allowing his students out of bed until they could recite, word-for-word, everything learned the previous day. The rabbinic tradition of NT times did much the same thing: a disciple would be forced to memorize his lessons as spoken by his master. This included scripture, too; the Torah would have been completely memorized verbatim by age thirteen (at the latest). Memorization of orally-learned material was essential for the knowledge of the day to survive. (Similar methods are used among oral cultures even today.) It’s entirely possible — even highly likely — that the events recorded in Scripture happened exactly as they’re given to us.

What do we do, then, when we have seemingly conflicting reports? Not even the synoptics tell every story exactly the same way. Sometimes one leper is healed, sometimes ten; sometimes the tree cursed by Jesus on the way into Jerusalem withers immediately, and sometimes it happens much later. Can we reconcile these different accounts, or is this obvious evidence not even the authors can get their stories straight? Two considerations to take into account here are genre and private agendas. The gospels are ancient biographies, and they’re written as such. That is, they focus on the adult life of the main personage (Jesus Christ) with special attention to his death, outstanding circumstances surrounding his birth, and his teachings (especially when the main character can outsmart other teachers). Ancient biographies aren’t in chronological order; instead, they’re arranged either more topically or in the way that best presents the narratives. This is one reason, for example, the synoptics have the cleansing of the Temple just before the crucifixion, thus presenting it as a proximate cause, but John’s gospel places it at the beginning of the book, thus showing the zeal and authority of the Son of God. Agendas of the authors play into this, too. In my last example, John sets out to prove the divinity of Christ, so he highlights events showing exactly that: cleansing the Temple, the miracles/signs, the “I am” statements, etc. Luke is a historian/physician concerned with the plight of the poor and marginalized, so he includes the story of the Good Samaritan and other sayings of Christ featuring our duty to care for our neighbors. Matthew is a Jewish author writing to a Jewish audience, and so he focuses on the continuities between the covenants and how Jesus fulfills Old Testament prophecies regarding the Messiah (the reason his book is first in the NT and thus closest to the OT, as a matter of fact). This isn’t to say that the texts are so agendized they destroy the truths they contain. Nothing is distorted or falsified; it’s simply presented in such a way as to promote a specific point or highlight a specific facet of Jesus’ life (or the life of Moses, or the Israelite monarchy).

Alright, so the original manuscripts were alright. What about how they’ve changed since then? For the continued accuracy of the manuscripts, we thank the Irish. Irish monks during the so-called Dark Ages worked tirelessly to preserve any documents they could find; they truly saved the bulk of human knowledge from being utterly lost. They also kept copies of biblical manuscripts, preserving them verbatim. There are differences, of course, in some manuscripts. The story of Jesus and the woman caught in adultery in John 8 doesn’t appear in most of the earliest copies of the gospel, for example. Do we chuck it out? No, even if a monk somewhere down the line thought, “You know, people should know about this, and since it’s in this copy, I’ll put it in that one, too.” Most of the differences/changes are discussed in the comments on the margins of the copied texts (marginalia). Marginalia, incidentally, is hilarious. You can read comments from copyists complaining about their bosses, how hard their chairs are, how bad their hands are cramping, and just about anything else (in addition to “added vv. 3-7 because of inclusion in MS P35” and the like).

So we see the original texts were solid, and the copies passed down through history are pretty legitimate, too. But how do we know we have the books we needed? Wasn’t the Bible decided by popular vote, anyway?

Nope! This is probably the greatest urban legend regarding how the canon became the canon. Rumor has it that the first Council of Nicaea (called by Emperor Constantine in 325) set out to establish what writings would and would not be included in the Bible. They didn’t. What they did do was affirm what had already been selected. The worshiping church until that time used only certain of the texts floating around based on a few rather strict criteria: the Jewish Tanakh became our Old Testament, and New Testament books had to be written by an apostle, suitable for preaching/use in worship, and it had to agree with the regula fidei (the rule of faith — that is, it couldn’t contradict known doctrine or practices as handed down by the apostles). Even so, different people came up with different lists of what they thought should be included. The church father Irenaeus came up with the first real listing in ~180: the OT according to the Greek translation (the Septuagint, a.k.a. LXX), four gospels, and the letters of Paul. Origen (~250) and Eusebius (~325) omitted some of the epistles. The Muratorian Canon was the first list widely circulated (in ~200). Nicaea then affirmed the books already in use, and some years later (367), the 39th Festal Letter of St. Athanasius gave us the listing we have today. Thirty years later, the Council of Carthage officially closed the canon in its current form.

Since then, the canon has changed for Protestants. The Roman Catholic Church and Eastern Orthodox Church still count as canonical the Apocrypha, other books or parts of books originally included in the Tanakh. The Jews largely abandoned the use of those bits in 90A.D., and, building upon that fact as well as legitimate questions regarding content and authorship, Martin Luther moved them to reside between the testaments in the Bible. Luther also wanted to chuck other books from the NT, but he refrained. In any event, in the 1700s, a revision of the King James Bible removed the Apocrypha completely, leaving Protestants with the now-standard sixty-six books we have today.

The composition of the Bible is solid from start to finish, regardless of how many centuries it spanned in order to come to us in its present form. Modern scholarship is certainly up to the task of making new translations in any number of languages, each as accurate to the original Greek, Hebrew, and Aramaic as the earliest translations were (or even more so [sorry Vulgate fans]). The last real question of reliability, then, is whether we treat the Bible as inerrant (totally free from error in the original manuscripts in any fashion) or infallible (totally free from error in matters of faith and morals/dogma). The inerrancy debate has raged for centuries, and I’m not going to even attempt to solve it here. To me, it comes from whether we treat Scripture completely as literal history or if we take into consideration matters of genre. I doubt, for example, every event mentioned in poetry is 110% historically accurate, and the book of Revelation has so many different ways to read it most people give it a miss entirely. Regardless of one’s stance on if every Israelite king truly reigned during the given timeframes, we can all readily affirm the Bible lacks any error whatsoever when it teaches us the story of Jesus Christ, his teachings, the story of the church, and all manner of Christian doctrine as the church has understood it, always and everywhere.

I realize this doesn’t deal with what is, to most post-Enlightenment readers, the impossible: miracles, spiritual warfare, etc. But that’s another post for another day. This one is already long enough, but I hope it demonstrates to you the reliability and authenticity of the Holy Bible, God’s inspired word.

 

Political Theology: Ideologies

One of my major interests in the field of public theology is political theology. It’s exactly as it sounds: the theology of politics. Political theology encompasses everything from whether or not Christians should vote to just war theory and back again: political engagement, running for office, separation of church and state, voting preferences, pacifism, civil disobedience, you name it. I intend for these topics to take up several posts here at the blog, so don’t expect to get all of my thoughts on these today (unless you buy me caffeine and chocolate chip cookies). Today’s post is going to be a general overview of ideologies and the theology behind them.

It’s election day here in the States, so let’s start with democracy. As Winston Churchill once famously said, “Democracy is the worst form of government, except for all the others” (or something like that). And it’s true: democracy is far from perfect, but at least it’s the least of the evils. People have voices in the government and the power to mold public policy by proxy (in theory). No single individual can drive the government into wanton corruption, and the government has checks on its own power. Individual freedom is promoted, just as God gave us free will. Which all sounds pretty good, right? So what’s the problem with democracy? It can turn the public into nothing more than an amalgamation of disinterested, selfish voters who promote only their own agendas. Instead of cheering for the common good, people start cheering only for themselves. This is particularly true when democracy is utilized together with capitalism (as it is in America). The free market economy may be the most competitive in every way, and it may yield amazing profits for the successful, but it absolutely fails to care for the marginalized. The limited role of the democratic government shifts responsibility solely onto the shoulders of individuals — and individuals rarely accept the added burden of caring for someone else as they should. (“It’s my money; I earned it; he’s not even working; why should I pay for his medical bills?”) That sort of selfishness/defensiveness leaks over into voting practices: I vote for the candidate who will do the most for me and promote my personal agenda, not the one who will ignore my own desires and do what’s best for the nation as a whole. Definitely not a Christian view of loving one’s neighbor, but at least people are free to try, whether they actually do or not.

But let’s look (briefly) at the alternatives. Socialism has always been highly stigmatized in America, but Europe seems to have embraced it in major ways. It generally allows the public to retain voting rights and a voice in government, but the government is far more extensive than a federalist republic’s take on democracy. The free market is scaled back as the government takes on additional responsibilities as a service provider: health care, transportation, media, etc. It’s true that a socialist government eliminates any sort of competition when it assumes control of these areas, and it’s also true that the overall quality of each of these has the potential to suffer greatly because of the lack of competition. On the flip side, however, this means the public has unfettered access to the services they need and receive (largely) unbiased news programs, newspapers, etc. (Or at least they do in the best instances.) The government therefore provides the care we should each be showing our neighbors, giving them medical care, shelter, food, and other life necessities. It’s not holy, but it’s a step in the right direction.

Communism and fascism are two sides of the same coin, two ideologies so far apart on the spectrum of political thought they almost meet each other as they go around the circle. Communism demands the government take full control of every individual’s life, providing for it (as best it can, which is to say, not at all). Fascism does much of the same, but only for its preferred demographic (and tries to systematically remove everyone else from its populace). Even though these do provide, in limited ways, for their people, neither one does so with the measure of human dignity, freedom, and love deserved by those who bear the image of God. Their governmental provisions and care are nominal at best, and they can hardly be described as meeting the Christian ideals, particularly given communism’s historical hatred of religion in general and fascism’s misappropriation of the same.

Each ideology (almost) has good and bad, then. Democracy does well in its promotion of freedom and public involvement, but it lacks any sense of responsibility for taking care of the Other. Socialism scales back those freedoms to a degree while stepping up its care for its citizens. What solutions do we have, then, for establishing a Christian political ideology working in the constraints given us?

Let’s be clear on one thing, first of all: a theocracy is not the answer. You can attempt to legislate morality, but at the end of the day, people will either a) completely ignore your ethos or b) follow them without truly believing in them. If it’s the former, then no one is behaving morally, and your theocracy has failed. If it’s the latter, then people are religious in name only and not true believers, and your theocracy has still failed. And a theocracy gone bad was the beginning of sorrows for many, many people: the Anabaptist martyrs (murdered by Catholics and Protestants alike during the Reformation), Servetus (slowly burned at the stake by order of John Calvin during his reign of Geneva as high theocrat), innocent colonists accused of witchcraft (hanged, burned, and pressed to death by their Puritan brothers and sisters) . . . the list goes on. Earthbound theocracies simply won’t work.

What do we do as Christians, then? We operate under our respective forms of government and live Christian lives promoting Christian values. Political involvement aside, we should bear the burdens of our sisters and brothers and take steps to care for those who cannot care for themselves. In a democracy, we’re free to do so — and we need to, since the government will offer only very limited assistance at best. A socialist government may do more, but I’m not convinced it should. The Church needs to step up to the plate as she has throughout history. Why do so many hospitals have affiliations with religious groups? Because the people of God recognize our duty to care for the sick. We as Christians built the hospitals; why don’t we run them, working to make healthcare affordable to the ones who so desperately need it? Why can’t we provide transportation assistance for those who simply need a way to get to where they need to be? Why don’t we provide food to the hungry and homes for the homeless instead of relying on government aid programs? I believe a government, whether democratic/capitalistic or socialist, has a responsibility to care for its people in material ways, but I don’t believe it should be the primary caregiver. The primary caregivers are the people of God who can care for soul as well as for body. We as Christians have a duty to promote these things in our churches, in our personal lives, and (as needed) in our governments. (We’ll tackle advocacy in a later post.)

Since it’s election day here, I want to leave you with this thought. The words of John Wesley should still be heard even today as we cast our ballots for the candidates of our choice.

JW on voting