Wealth, Part 1: How God Judges the Nations

James, the brother of Jesus, wrote the following in an open letter to the early church:  “…Weep and howl for your miseries which are coming upon you…[Your sin] will be a witness against you and will consumer your flesh like fire.” Was he referring to a) homosexuality, b) abortion, or c) excessive wealth?

The answer is c.

When the Prophet Ezekiel describes why God destroyed Sodom and Gomorrah, does he cite the cities’ a) sexual promiscuity, b) abortion record, or c) excessive wealth/neglect of the poor?

The answer, again, is c. In Ezekiel 16:49, the prophet quotes God as saying:

 “Behold, THIS was the guilt of your sister Sodom: she and her daughters had pride, surfeit of food, and prosperous ease, but did not aid the poor and needy. They were haughty, and did abominable things before me; therefore I removed them, when I saw it.” (emphasis mine)

You don't usuallly get that version in Sunday school.

In his letter to Timothy, Paul urged his young protégé to “flee from these things, you man of God, and pursue righteousness, godliness, faith, love, perseverance, and gentleness…” Was Paul warning against a) homosexuality, b) pornography, or c) wealth?

The answer is c. Paul writes, “If we have food and covering, with these we shall be content. But those who want to get rich fall into temptation and a snare, and many foolish and harmful desires which plunge men into ruin and destruction. For the love of money is a root of all sorts of evil, and some by longing for it have wandered away from the faith and pierced themselves with many griefs. Flee from these things, you man of God, and pursue righteousness…” (I Timothy 6:9-11)

I highlighted the passages above to show how the Bible consistently employs strong language to describe the potential dangers of wealth, and to condemn the neglect of the poor. The “fire and brimstone” tones so often used by evangelicals to judge homosexuality or abortion are actually more commonly used in the Bible to judge excessive wealth and injustice toward the needy…sins that perhaps hit a little too close to home.  

Today I’d like to begin a two-part series on wealth. This is a tricky subject because, (relatively speaking), most of us in America are indeed rich. The first post will focus on the bigger picture – the wealth of our nation. The next post will look at the more personal and the practical aspects of the issue, asking how can we live more simply?  how much wealth is too much wealth? what are our personal responsibilities to the poor?

I can’t tell you the number of times I’ve been warned of God’s impending judgment on America in response to gay marriage and abortion. Attend just about any church event billed as “a time of prayer and fasting for our nation” and the focus will be on these hot-button issues. However, a more serious look at Scripture reveals that the most consistent criteria regarding God’s judgment of nations is how those nations treat the poor.

[Here I must cite Ronald Sider’s  groundbreaking book, “Rich Christians in an Age of Hunger,” which absolutely changed how I thought about myself, materialism, the poor, and the world. I use it often as a reference, and cannot recommend it enough.]

For example, the prophet Amos tried desperately to warn that the northern kingdom of Israel would be destroyed. Why was God going to allow this to happen? Writes Amos, “Alas for those who lie on beds of ivory, and lounge on their couches, and eat lambs from the flock, and calves from the stall…Therefore they shall now be the first to go into exile, and the revelry of the loungers shall pass away.” (Amos 6:4, 7) In Israel, Amos described a kingdom in which the rich “trample the head of the poor into the dust of the earth.” (Amos 2:7)

Isaiah too warned that destruction would befall Judah because of its mistreatment of the poor: “Woe to those who decree iniquitous decrees…to turn aside the needy from justice and to rob the poor of my people of their right…What will you do on the day of punishment, in the calamity that will come from far away?” (Isaiah 10:1-3)

Jeremiah also condemned the wealthy who had amassed riches at the expense of the poor. He writes, “They have become great and rich, they have grown fat and sleek. They know no bounds in deeds of wickedness; they judge not with justice the cause of the fatherless, to make it prosper, and they do not defend the rights of the needy. ‘Shall I not punish them for these things?’ says the Lord, ‘and shall I not avenge myself on a nation such as this?’” (Jeremiah 5:26-29)

You don’t hear a lot of pastors preaching against growing “fat and sleek” while our neighbors go hungry.  And you certainly don’t hear a lot of conservative evangelicals defending the “rights” of the needy. [If I had a dime for every time a member of the religious right has passionately informed me that I’m a socialist for thinking healthcare is a right, I could afford a plane ticket to Denver this week]]

Now, I have a general aversion to slapping down a bunch of verses and using them to make a point, but I really see care for the poor, on a national level, as an important and prevalent theme throughout the Bible. Even at the ultimate judgment, Jesus makes the standard for judging the nations quite clear:  

“I was hungry, and you gave Me something to eat; I was thirsty, and you gave me something to drink; I was a stranger, and you invited Me in; naked, and you clothed Me; I was sick, and you visited Me; I was in prison, and you came to Me.” (Matthew 25:35-36)

And what fate befalls those nations who do differently?

More fire and brimstone – “Depart from Me accursed ones, into the eternal fire which has been prepared for the devil and his angels.”

Whoa!

So I guess the question is, how does America stack up?  No one would dispute that we are a wealthy nation. But how do we treat the needy among us? And how do we respond to the incredible poverty around the world?

When I think about our justice system, which favors the rich, I wonder. When I think about the millions of Americans who cannot afford basic healthcare while insurance and drug companies announce record profits, I worry. When I remember the heartbreaking footage from Hurricane Katrina, or think about the awful situations in so many inner cities and in rural areas across the country, I question whether or not our nation’s wealth is really a “blessing from God,”  as so many people claim.

I’m concerned about raising children in a society so obsessed with materialism that a three-bedroom, 2-bath home is considered modest, and where you can’t turn on the TV or drive down the road or get on the computer without being bombarded with advertisements.

And then there’s the rest of the world.  With today’s technology and continued advances in communication, we know good and well that kids are dying every day from lack of nutrition…and yet our grocery stores are busting at the seams with cereal options. Our clothes are often made by exploited laborers. Our trade restrictions cost developing nations more than the aid that we send them. Our sanctions against rogue nations keep food out of children’s mouths. Are we accountable for those actions? 

At the same time, the U.S. is known as a generous nation. Bush committed $15 billion to help combat the AIDS crisis. America is often the first to send help in the wake of a disaster, and commits more to international aid than any other country.

I’m not sure how literally to take Jesus’ description of His judgment of the nations in Matthew 25, but I often wonder if the U.S. would be a sheep or a goat.  

Your thoughts?

(Remember, we’ll talk about our personal spending habits later. This post is about the national wealth and care for the poor.

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Why I'm Not a "Values Voter"

Today we conclude our discussion on Shane Claiborne and Chris Haw’s fascinating book “Jesus for President.” I’m not the least bit surprised that it has generated some spirited conversations over the past few weeks.

The basic premise of the book is that followers of Christ are to be a “set apart” people, not a political people. In other words, those who commit their lives to the teachings of Jesus are neither dazzled nor intimidated by power. They know that evil cannot be defeated by military force, only overcome with love. They know that God does not build his kingdom among rulers, but among servants. They know that the Church is at its best, not when it is in power, but when it is marginalized and different.

I wish more Christians in America believed this to be true.

Instead, somewhere along the way, Christians in the United States, (particularly evangelicals), decided that they were entitled to a government that reflected their values. So they picked a political party, aligned themselves with power, and lost their credibility.

Now, on the surface, voting one's values seems like a fine idea. 

However, another look at the radical teachings of Jesus shows that it is impossible for His followers to consistently vote their values.

For example, Jesus teaches that we are to value enemy-love. He says we should not resist an evil person but disarm him by turning the other cheek and walking the extra mile. How exactly is this value supposed to be represented in America’s “war against terror”? Jesus teaches that we cannot serve God and wealth. How do we support this value in a capitalistic society? Jesus teaches that we are to value the lives of children. How do we reconcile this with the thousands of civilian children who have been killed as a result of U.S.-led wars?

The point is that no government, and no political party, can ever really represent Christian values. It’s impossible, and it’s not the government’s job.

So when so-called “values voters” announce that they are voting for a candidate because he or she reflects their Christian values, they misrepresent the very gospel they claim to preach. They pick and choose which teachings of Christ they want to make political issues, and then try to force those issues into a platform. 

I wonder if Jesus had politics in mind when he said, “Do not give what is holy to dogs, and do not throw your pearls before swine, or they will trample them under their feet and tear you to pieces.”

Whenever the gospel gets mixed up with power, it loses its flavor. It becomes worthless.

Rather than simply voting their values, Claiborne and Haw urge Christians to live their values. They write, “It’s easy to have political views—that’s what politicians do. But it’s much harder to embody a political alternative—that’s what saints do." (p. 235)

They use the abortion issue as an example: “Those who would like to see abortion grow rarer and become nonexistent had also be ready to take in some teen moms and adopt some unwanted babies. To be pro-life in our neighborhood means we have to figure out how to come alongside a fourteen-year-old pregnant girl. This is why we loved Mother Teresa so much. Mother Teresa embodied her politics. She didn’t just wear a T-shirt that said, ‘Abortion is homicide.’ She loved moms and unborns so much, she could say with integrity, ‘If you don’t want to have the baby, you can give it to me.” Which is why everyone called her Mother..."

They go on to say, "Nor have we seen a political platform with a consistent ethic of life—and by that we mean not simply being pro-birth but being pro-life, and recognizing that life doesn’t begin at conception and end at birth.”

The truth is, neither John McCain nor Barack Obama is truly pro-life. When a follower of Christ says, “I’m voting for John McCain because I’m a Christian,” it’s like saying, “I’m voting for John McCain because Jesus Christ values unborn babies, but not Iraqi civilians.” When a follower of Christ says, “I’m voting for Barack Obama because I’m a Christian,” it’s like saying, “I’m voting for Barack Obama because Jesus Christ values the lives of the sick and uninsured, but not the lives of the unborn.”

We must be more careful with how we talk about our Lord!

Now, I’m not saying that the teachings of Jesus should have no effect on how we vote. The teachings of Jesus should influence everything that we do! When I put my little check mark next to the Obama/Biden ticket in November, I’ll do it with the sick, the poor, and the war-torn in mind. However, I will cast my ballot knowing that it’s not up to Obama/Biden to represent my values. It’s up to me. I’ll do it knowing that I’m not a democrat or a republican, but a follower of Jesus Christ…whose footsteps lead in a very different direction than those of earthly powers.

Thanks to Claiborne and Haw for reminding me of this, right when I needed it the most!

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Your Spiritual Journey: Send Me a Postcard!

So recently I’ve been bumping into a lot of old friends on what was once a lonely and frightening path away from religious certainty. While most of us share a common starting point, we are often headed in different directions. I’ve talked with some who have given up on faith altogether, others who have shifted allegiance to another religious tradition, and a lot who (like me) are still a little uncertain about which road to take next. We’re an eclectic troupe of misfits, doubters, and explorers…and I’m delighted to have the company.

My hope is that this blog serves as a safe place for fellow travelers to stop and take a breather, to perhaps share a few stories and exchange some traveling tips. As I continue to work on my book and plan for future posts, I’d love to hear from you.

In what ways has your faith changed over the years? What life experiences triggered these changes? Have you encountered any life-changing books or influential people along the way? Have you found a religious denomination or tradition that feels like home? What sort of issues/ideas would you like to see addressed more often on the blog?

If you are a blogger yourself, you may want to take the opportunity to invite us to your site.

If you’re uncomfortable posting your ideas publically, (or if there’s simply not enough room to tell your story), feel free to correspond via the “contact” feature on the blog. I’m more interested in making connections and building relationships than racking up a bunch of comments here.

T.S. Elliot wrote, “We shall not cease from exploration, and the end of all our exploring will be to arrive where we started and know the place for the first time.”

Sometimes I feel like the harder and faster I run away from Christianity, the closer I get to something that resembles the gospel of Jesus.

The other day a friend asked me if I’d “gotten over” my faith crisis, if I was done asking all those obnoxious questions. All I knew to say was, “Well, I certainly hope not.”

Keep exploring, friends!

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Defeating Evil and Getting Rich: Why the Religious Forum Struck a Nerve

Well, I guess Jesus for President by Shane Claiborne and Chris Haw is really starting to rub off on me, because I was surprised by how passionately I reacted to something that was said at the religious forum on Saturday night.

The forum was held at a Rick Warren’s enormous Saddleback Church in California, which has over 20,000 members. During a question and answer period with the pastor, presidential candidates Barack Obama and John McCain were asked to clarify their views on religion and public policy.

My understanding is that the audience was full of evangelicals, people who say they follow the teachings of Jesus Christ.

I watched with only mild interest until Rick Warren, (who I like very much), asked John McCain an excellent question.

 “How should we respond to evil?” asked Warren, "Should we ignore it, negotiate it with it, contain it or defeat it?"

John McCain responded forcefully, “We defeat it!”

The room erupted into a roar of cheers and applause.

McCain then vowed to “chase Osama Bin Laden to the gates of hell” if it were necessary. The crowd went wild.

The enthusiastic response of the audience really struck me as out-of-place in a church that claims to teach the Gospel of Jesus.

Jesus said this:

“But I say to you who hear, love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, bless those who curse you, pray for those who mistreat you…Love your enemies, and do good, and lend, expecting nothing in return; and your reward will be great, and you will be sons of the Most High, for He Himself is kind to ungrateful and evil men. Be merciful, just as your Father is merciful.”

And the Apostle Paul taught this:

“Never take your own revenge, beloved, but leave room for the wrath of God…Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good.”

Jesus stayed true to this message to the point of death on a cross. Even under one of the most repressive regimes in history, Jesus did not start a rebellion. Even when His people called for a warrior for a Messiah, Jesus did not resort to violence. Even in the face of the worst evil ever committed—the slaughter of the innocent Lamb of God—Jesus did not resist, but said, “Father forgive them.” He was showing us that this is how it’s done.  He was showing us what “turn the other cheek” and “love your enemies” looks like in real life. This is how God’s will is done on earth as it is in heaven, and this is the only way that the world will ever change.

Now, let me clarify:

I understand that the role of the government is to protect its people. And I understand that protecting its people may sometimes require force.  I probably would have felt better if McCain had said, “My role as president will be to protect U.S. citizens from evil as best as I can. But as a Christian, I know that evil cannot ultimately be defeated by military force. It must be overcome with love.”

(Obama gave an answer that was more along those lines.)

 I wasn’t bothered so much by John McCain’s answer to the question, but by the audience’s response.  I seriously cried for about an hour. I felt so alienated from the evangelical culture at that moment, so frustrated by the way the very essence of the gospel was cast aside for the seductive temptation of “ridding the world of evil,” one dead terrorist at a time.

 It seems to me that as a set-apart people, Christians should be wary of cheering on violence as a means to defeating evil, when we know good and well that no amount of killing will ever make evil go away.

Again, maybe it’s just the Shane Claiborne influence, but I felt really uncomfortable with the politics and religion mix.

Later on, I reacted to another statement.

In talking about taxes, John McCain said, “I don’t want to take money from the rich. I want everyone to get rich.”

The audience of Christians erupted into thunderous applause.

But Jesus said this:

 “Blessed are you who are poor, for yours is the kingdom of God. Blessed are you who hunger now, for you shall be satisfied….But woe to you who are rich, for you are receiving your comfort in full.”

He also said:      

“No servant can serve two masters; for either he will hate the one and love the other, or else he will be devoted to one and despite the other. You cannot serve God and wealth.”

And then there’s this:

“Truly I say to you, it is hard for a rich man to enter the kingdom of heaven. Again I say to you, it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle, than for a rich man to enter the kingdom of heaven.”

It seems to me that if Christians took Jesus seriously, we would approach wealth with great trepidation, seeing it not as an entitled right, but as a potentially dangerous impediment to the gospel.  It seems to me that the last thing we would want is for everyone to get rich!

Again, it wasn’t really John McCain’s answer that bothered me. Most Americans think of wealth as a right. It was the response of the audience that depressed me so much. Followers of Christ aren’t supposed to be like most Americans. We should be different.

(Let me add here that I struggle A LOT with the whole wealth thing. I love a closet full of cute clothes and a shelf full of books as much as anyone. In this country, it is very very hard not to be seduced by materialism. I am most certainly guilty of it...probably every day.)

At the end of the day, totally understand why evangelicals are pro-life. This makes sense to me. I guess I'm still a little unclear as to why they are pro-war and pro-unrestricted capitalism.

So I guess this “Jesus for President” book has made an impression!

What did you think about the forum?

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Five Things Obama Needs to Say Tonight

Even though Shane Claiborne has me convinced that Christianity’s preoccupation with politics is misguided, if not idolatrous, I can’t bring myself to quit cold turkey…so I’m taping tonight’s big religious forum, hosted by evangelical pastor Rick Warren.

Still an Obama supporter, (albeit a bit less enthusiastically), I’d like to see him make a good case for why evangelicals can vote for a democrat. This is mainly because I’m getting really tired of my evangelical friends asking incredulously, “How can you call yourself a Christian and vote for a democrat?”

I encourage you guys to watch tonight, and let me know how you think it went. Did the forum address issues that are important to you? How do you think the candidates did? Who won the night? Has your attitude toward politics changed since reading/discussing “Jesus for President” by Claiborne and Chris Haw? Was the forum too slanted toward traditional evangelical issues (like abortion and gay rights), rather than issues that are important to those of us who fall more into the mainline Protestant/Emerging/or whatever way of thinking?

Feel free to comment on whatever struck you as interesting.

Here are five things I think Obama must communicate to make the forum worthwhile for him:

1. “I’m a Christian.” (Some people still don’t know.)
2. “I do not support gay marriage; I support civil unions.”
3. “Republicans have had the chance to overturn Roe. v. Wade and have not. Most experts agree that this law is not going to go away. A better strategy for combating the number of abortions that happen in America is to address the root causes of abortion—like poverty and lack of health care—which I will more effectively address as president than John McCain.”
4. “Religion should not be used as a wedge.” (I guarantee you he will say this at some point!)
5. “Followers of Jesus Christ cannot claim to vote their values unless they factor into their voting decision care for the poor, the sick, the hungry, the displaced, and the war-torn both here and abroad.” (I doubt he will actually say this, but he should!)

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