Skin

When I sat down to write this post, it was with a heavy heart and a weary soul. As I’ve written elsewhere, I am not a violent man. I recognize its occasional necessity, yes, but I still deplore violence, regardless. The last week has seen me an earthly citizen of a violent land. Two men were killed by police, and five officers were killed in a retaliation which ultimately left the shooter dead as well. An additional three people are dead in a courthouse shooting unconnected to the other three. Eleven citizens and police officers dead in a week — and that doesn’t count those who didn’t make the news, the hometown heroes and the innocent victims of racially-motivated violence. Much like the martyrs of Revelation 6, my heart cries out, “How long, O Lord, holy and true? How long?” The violence brings to the forefront of the American consciousness a variety of things: gun control, police brutality, media bias, racism, race relations. Normally I would be hesitant to discuss any of these topics, but these are not normal times. Today, then, I want to run the risk of exposing my own ignorance to talk about race.

Our society seems given to two extremes, both of which are in error (as extremes so frequently are). On the one side, we make too much of race. It becomes our primary identity, the main way we see ourselves and the main way we want other people to see us. Organizations are created to preserve our differences, but they permit only those of the designated race to participate. Skin color becomes the deciding factor in everything from hiring policies to the church one attends. On this side of the spectrum, then, lie the errors of exclusivity and partiality. To make race a “greater than” in any fashion is to ignore the equality of creation as well as the truth of Galatians 3:28: “There is neither Jew nor Gentile . . . for you are all one in Christ Jesus.” The error inevitably devolves into racism in its more violent incarnations (physical, social, and otherwise).

At the opposite end of the spectrum is, well, the opposite error. Instead of making too much of race, we become “colorblind.” Proponents of this philosophy “don’t see color anymore.” Colorblindness takes Gal. 3:28 and similar texts to the illogical conclusion that race doesn’t matter at all just because Christ makes all races equal. Race itself and all its implications are ignored: its contributions to how one experiences life, cultural distinctives, benefits, detriments, all of it. This can lead to racism as well, but in a different way. If an over-emphasis of race can lead to violent racism, then a de-emphasis of race can lead to apathetic racism. Problems are ignored, stories marginalized, beauty and pain both unacknowledged just because they’re connected to race — and, after all, we’re equal, and “I don’t see race anymore.”

I may not be an Anglican, but I still believe we need a via media here. So what would a middle way, a healthy view of race, look like?

For starters, it requires us to admit that race exists, as do racial differences. We are all equal in Christ Jesus, yes, but our fallen world may never see us as truly one. We must work to end racism in any form. Racist institutions must be brought to account. People should recognize the diversity of ethnicities and celebrate it — and them. The media and the justice system must be taught to treat all races with equality and justice. Churches should integrate; truly, we are among the last bastions of accepted segregation. Whites should worship with Blacks, Blacks with Asians, Asians with Latinos, Latinos with Whites . . . you get the picture. This is what eschatological worship will be (Revelation 7:9-11). Shouldn’t we try to bring a bit of heaven to earth?

We should go a step further, too. Whether in church or elsewhere, persons of all races should be free to celebrate who they are, to say, “I am _____, and I ______.” Freedom of expression is beautiful. It can even be godly. So let’s celebrate the wonders of the human race together, taking the gifts offered to each of us by our races and using them in the service of each other and enriching each other’s lives.

To do these things, however, we must back up a step and reclaim a biblical concept so basic it appears in the very first chapter of the Book. Genesis 1:26-27 tells us we are made in the image of God. Each of us, regardless of the color of our skin, bears the image of the divine. We cannot believe others to be less-than or more-than because they don’t look like us — because we all look like God. (The image isn’t physical, but you know what I mean.) All races are comprised of persons who are relational, rational, moral, and commissioned to have dominion over the earth. And if that’s true, then perhaps race is another gift from God, a blessing to be celebrated and enjoyed.

We must learn to love each other. If we don’t, we cannot love God (1 John 4:20). We must end the hatred, the evils of racism. We must work for a world wherein race is seen as a gift, not a curse, a world which sees, yet looks beyond, skin tone and recognizes the image of God in the Other. We can stop racially-motivated violence, regardless of its origin. We can open our hearts to listen and love those who are different than us. Then we can begin healing the broken heart of a broken land.

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F.A.Q. #5: What about Other Religions?

We live in a world of many faiths. A basic glance at a world religions textbook (or a night watching T.V.) reveals a plethora of different religions: Christianity, Judaism, Islam, Buddhism, Hinduism, Taoism, Confucianism, Shinto, and Sikhism are just a few of these. And each one has different sects, too. Islam is largely bifurcated into Shiite and Sunni camps; Conservative Jews worship differently than Messianic and Orthodox strains; and Christianity itself is fractured into some 3,000 separate denominations by some estimates. At the end of the day, what do we make of them all? At the end of the world, will everyone be saved equally — or is only one of us right?

Three main view dominate the discussion about the veracity and accuracy of world religions. Exclusivism, probably the most prominent, states that only one religion is correct is any sense (generally the religion of the one espousing said opinion). Only those who follow Allah will gain Paradise, for example. Or those who follow Torah. Or the gospel of Jesus Christ. Or the Eightfold Path and Four Noble Truths (although this one gets you to Nirvana). You get the idea. Generally speaking, Christianity is an exclusivist religion (notable exceptions to follow). Christians look at passages such as John 14:6 — “I am the way and the truth and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me” — and Acts 4:12 — “Salvation is found in no one else, for there is no other name under heaven given to mankind by which we must be saved” — and declare the only path to eternal life with God is the salvation offered by the crucifixion and resurrection of Jesus Christ. Those who do not personally know Christ as savior are damned. On the flip side of exclusivity is the problem of “What happens if the missionary gets a flat tire.” If someone never hears about Christ, are they consigned to eternal punishment by default? Would God really deny them eternal life simply because they remained ignorant of the sacrifice of Jesus through no fault of their own? Difficult questions for the exclusivist to answer. With that said, this remains the dominant view (in my opinion) of most Christians and most persons of other theistic religions.

A bit more “lenient” mode of thought is inclusivism, which states that anyone of any faith will be granted entry into whichever concept of heaven turns out to be correct. If we say Christianity offers the true idea of eternal life, then the pluralist will say devout Christians as well as devout Jews, Muslims, Hindus, etc. will enter the Christian heaven after the end of the age. Christian faith per se isn’t necessary for salvation; all that’s needed is a dedication to some sort of faith. All faith is attributed to being faith in God/the true deity and thus rewarded. People without a religion or who only nominally adhere to any given faith still suffer from whichever schema of eternal damnation as might prove to be true (such as the Christian hell). Inclusivism thus retains the central notions of salvation and damnation, but it broadens the scope to allow anyone with faith to be rewarded appropriately. (A subset of inclusivism allows for multiple eternal destinies: Christians are saved to a Christian heaven, Jews to a Jewish heaven, Buddhists to Nirvana, etc.). Some Christian theologians have gone along with the Christian iteration of inclusivism. Perhaps the most well-known is C.S. Lewis. In the final book of the Chronicles of Narnia series, The Last Battle, Lewis saves all non-Narnians who still served their own religions well (all good deeds being attributed to faith in Aslan and not Tash, for example). Other theologians have followed suit.

The final main view of world religions is religious pluralism (not to be confused with the concept of pluralism which simply acknowledges the reality of a multiplicity of faiths). Pluralists, sometimes referred to as universalists, believe everyone regardless of faith — or the lack thereof — will ultimately be saved and granted eternal life/entry into paradise. A specific statement of faith or salvific experience is not necessary. As long as you’re alive, you’ll make it at the end. This school of thought has gained ground in some progressive/liberal theological circles, but it’s never been the dominant opinion of any theistic religion (that I know of).

I keep saying “theistic religion”; what does that mean? It means any religion which believes in a single god, whether it’s God/Yahweh or Allah. There are polytheistic religions containing a pantheon of gods (think Zeus and Apollo and that lot), and there are pantheistic religions (wherein everything is god — yes, even the lettuce in your salad, you deicidal maniac). Christianity is of course a theistic/monotheistic religion: we believe God is a single God who alone rules the cosmos.

As Christian theists, then, what do we do about other religions? Do we take the exclusivist, inclusivist, or pluralist stance? Which one most accurately reflects biblical truth?

My seminary philosophy professor summed it up well: we need to avoid denominational leanings and side with historical, ecumenical truth. In this instance, historical truth and interpretation reflects the exclusivist view. Scripture promises all will have a chance of salvation, and Paul speaks of creation itself as a general revelation of the existence and character of God. And even if the missionary gets a flat tire (in my own view), God will grant unreached peoples a chance of the salvation made possible through the cross of Christ. Other religions will ultimately fail and be exposed as false. In our contemporary society, this isn’t a particularly popular view, and many well-meaning Christians (and others) will attempt to remake God to suit their own convictions to allow for inclusivism or universalism. Historic orthodoxy, however, will continue to refute these claims, even if it means exclusivists are made out to be hateful, vengeful villains.

What makes other religions false, then? First of all, they fail to acknowledge the gospel of Christ. We live in a post-Incarnation age, and since Jesus has been born, dead, and resurrected, the Torah is insufficient for salvation. The Quran fails to recognize the true nature of God. (Allah would never condescend to have a son, for example. For this reason and others, I do not — and scholars of Islam agree — equate God/Yahweh with the Islamic Allah.) Since they do not mandate faith in Jesus Christ and acceptance of his offer of salvation through the Holy Spirit, other religions cannot save; they cannot be true. Speaking personally, a second reason other religions are false are because of their origin. I consider them all works of Satan, as he is the father of lies. Any deity set up over against the Judaeo-Christian God is a false god — and quite possibly a demonic entity trying to get people to worship it on the one hand and prevent them from worshiping God on the other. Nothing born of hell is beneficial to humanity.

I do want to note, however, that I’m not saying they cannot possibly hold truth. They can, and that truth comes from God. But they then veer from or pervert said truth, creating a false religion. Or a cult. Or both.

Ultimately, how you choose to view other religions is up to you. And we should always be open to dialogue between faiths, sharing truth across religious boundaries to better serve the one True God. In all things, we show the love of God towards those of other faiths, respectfully inviting them into a relationship with the only personal Savior on the market.

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.”

On Humanity

Whenever we engage culture, we interact with systems and artifacts which are inherently human. The trappings of culture are human constructs, and they reflect the humanity of their creators. We often think of this as true especially in regards to art. “Art imitates life,” we say, and it’s largely true. Music, visual art in all media, literature, and dance all serve as external projections of our internalized human-ness. We wouldn’t write horror stories or watch people of dubious intelligence make really questionable decisions in horror films (does anyone really make sound choices when being chased by a chainsaw-wielding maniac?) if some part of our human nature didn’t possess a penchant for the macabre — and violence, blood, gore, and the rest of it. The inverse is also true: the good guys (almost) always win in all of our stories because we value goodness, courage, and self-sacrifice. Artists create surreal images and breathtakingly graceful sculptures because of the human desires for both the grotesque and the beautiful. Culture is both the result of human nature and a lens through which we view it.

Scripture has much to say about humanity, about who we really are. (We’ll tackle art in later posts.) Beginning in Genesis 1, we find we are beings created in the image of God (the imago Dei). This is restated in Genesis 2, most poignantly in vv. 7ff. To be human, then, is to bear the imago Dei. In some fashion, we all share in the divine. To be fair, the exact nature of the imago Dei we bear can depend on how one views the creation narratives. Proponents of evolution (theistic or otherwise) may see things differently than a kind of creationist, young earth or otherwise. Regardless, theologians can readily point to several key aspects.

The first is a relational nature. Genesis 2, in explaining the creation of Eve and purpose of marriage, simply says, “It is not good that the man should be alone” (Gen. 2:18a). Humans are relational, gregarious creatures. We weren’t designed to spend our lives in isolation, never loving or caring for anyone else. Humans were created to get outside of themselves, to seek community and live lives connected one to another. In this way, we mirror the nature of God. As Christians, we believe God exists as a Trinity: three distinct Persons, coequal in power and majesty, forming one God. The word theologians use for the relationship between the Persons of the Godhead is perichoresis. If you look closely, you’ll notice the same root we use for “choreography.” The Trinity dances with Itself, eternally existing as a relationship. And because God is a relationship seeking a relationship, we are made to exist in relationships. The first relationship is that between mortal and deity, but it extends to the connections between mortal and mortal as well. Part of the image of God is relationship.

A second aspect is that of authority. After creating humans, God gives what is called the Creation Mandate or Dominion Mandate: the newly-formed humans are to exercise authority over the rest of creation, caring for it and tending to its needs as benevolent rulers. Genesis 2 expands on this after detailing the Garden of Eden: “The Lord God took the man and put him in the garden of Eden to work it and keep it” (2:15). Among other implications (the significance and holiness of work, the need to care for the environment, etc.), we see Adam (later joined by Eve) as being a caretaker. Humans weren’t tasked with being tyrannical despots bent on consuming everything for their own gain; we were created as gardeners, not soldiers. We exert authority in the context of relationship as stewards. And so we have the second part of the imago Dei: just as God rules us with grace, we take care of the earth in love.

Other aspects of the image of God appear as well. Rational thought and free will are perhaps the most noteworthy, and I think they stand on their own without additional explanation. All of these (and perhaps others) combine to reveal to us a species which is a partaker in the divine. We were good and holy, having no barriers between us and God.

Then someone let a snake into Paradise.

Theologians have battled for centuries (if not longer) over the exact consequences of the Fall. When our first parents sinned, they destroyed the perfect peace which had existed between a sinless God and His sinless children. But what does that look like? Most Christians agree on the doctrine of Total Depravity: we have been horrifically marred by sin in such a way we can’t know God without His direct intervention. We have no way to pull ourselves up out of sin without help. The image of God granted to us is distorted — but it can be fixed. Calvinists call it common grace, and Wesleyans dub it prevenient grace; call it what you will, it is the universal grace given to all humanity which repairs us enough to be able to know God. Some of our damage is patched up, and we can respond to God’s offers of salvation. We may still be in the gutter, but (to paraphrase Oscar Wilde), we can turn over on our backs and look at the stars. The “grace that goes before” repairs the imago Dei so that the effects of original sin are mitigated to an inherent predisposition to sin and an inability to save ourselves; it doesn’t remain a total brokenness.

Knowing who we are, how should a Christian think about being human? Do we embrace a fully humanist stance which is focused on the dominance of the self to the exclusion of some less-than-desirable realities, or do we realize the value of humanity even as we acknowledge our fatal flaws? I believe Scripture points us to the latter. We can’t pretend everything we do is good and right simply because we thought of it. We remain fallen creatures who create fallen cultures (and no, not even “church culture” is perfect in any sense of the word). We can’t be afraid to label evil as evil, nor can we sit on the sidelines with an “anything goes” attitude. To do so is to gravely misunderstand the true nature of humanity and human freedom.

We must constantly evaluate who we are and what we do, letting our identity rest in Christ and not some external relationship. We are beautiful creatures who bear the image of God Almighty. Because of this, all human beings have inherent worth and dignity. Everyone is worthy of respect, and everyone possesses both good and bad qualities. No one is worth more than anyone else, and God doesn’t love anyone more than anyone else — and (let’s be clear), He hates no one at all. Christianity calls us to value the worth of our brothers and sisters, recognizing they will never be perfect — and neither will we.

Imperfections and flaws are fundamentally different from diversity, and, as Christians, we are to value, not merely tolerate, the grand diversity of the people around us. Rather than seek to eliminate cultural differences, why can’t they be celebrated as simply alternate solutions? We must prize what makes us British, American, Rwandan, Argentinian, and Korean. At no point are we called to dismiss others as irrelevant or inferior; at all points are we called to display unconditional love and tolerance. This is the sort of love which recognizes no boundaries: all races, all genders, all sexual orientations, and all nations are comprised of people of inherent worth in the eyes of God, and each individual still bears His image.

Do we lovingly critique cultures and individuals running counter to God? Yes; true love offers corrections and seeks the eternal good of all people. But never do we make someone feel less than a beloved child of God simply for being different. We’re just as broken as they are. Respect, love, and tolerance. Respect people for who they are; love people where they are; and tolerate them for the beautiful diversity they bring to the common table of humanity.