Should the Church Have Rituals and Traditions?

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Of those traditions kept by my conservative Mennonite church, a foot-washing ritual was one of the more notable. It is a practice based on the example of Jesus who washed the feet of the disciples and then instructed them to follow his example:

When he had finished washing their feet, he put on his clothes and returned to his place. “Do you understand what I have done for you?” he asked them. “You call me ‘Teacher’ and ‘Lord,’ and rightly so, for that is what I am. Now that I, your Lord and Teacher, have washed your feet, you also should wash one another’s feet. I have set you an example that you should do as I have done for you. Very truly I tell you, no servant is greater than his master, nor is a messenger greater than the one who sent him. Now that you know these things, you will be blessed if you do them.” (John 13:12-17, NIV)

So, twice a year with Communion, after a sermon about some aspect of the sacrifice Jesus made, after partaking of some bread and grape juice together and then another short reminder of why we were doing the stuff we did, the men would be dismissed to the basement (leaving the women the upstairs to do their symbolic washing) and on the way down we men would pair up with the guy beside us or another guy that we selected for whatever reason.

We would remove our shoes and socks, then proceed to one of the plastic basins arranged in front of folding chairs, then take turns solemnly splashing water on each other’s feet and dabbing them dry again with a towel provided. Once finished with this ritual procedure most would shake hands (those less inhibited would kiss) and engage in awkward small talk or make a comment about keeping their washing partner in prayer over the next few months.

In our time, this act of foot washing is little more than a symbolic act of service. But when Jesus washed the feet of his disciples it was something of practical value to those traveling the dusty roads in sandals and a task typically reserved for the servants. In that context, it was a very significant gesture and represented a whole new approach to leadership. In the Mennonite context, this practice is sometimes nothing more than a ritual and tradition.

Is reinvention of orthodoxy the answer to dead faith?

People often equate ritual and tradition in the church to dead faith. As a result, those disgruntled with dead faith swing in the direction of innovation and spontaneity hoping to find something authentic and real. Unfortunately, while the first generation of those who discard an established tradition often experience the excitement of something new, their children do not get a temporary emotional bump from the change. It should be no surprise when these children continue down the same path and throw out practices that their parents considered to be sacred and essential.

The idiom, “Don’t throw the baby out with the bathwater,” (derived from a German proverb “das Kind mit dem Bade ausschütte”) is a warning against destroying something good in our zeal to be rid of what is bad. This saying was first recorded in 1512 and right before Martin Luther touched off a revolt against the established church. It is a phrase, frequently used by Luther himself, perhaps worried people would take what he started too far. It remains a very popular expression with Protestants (including Mennonites) who are trying desperately to retain their own children.

There is much in Scripture about the sins of fathers being transmitted to the next generation (Exodus 34:6-7, Leviticus 26:39, Deuteronomy 5:8-10) and seems to apply to our own circumstances today. Children, through genetics or behavioral patterning, often acquire the strengths of their parents. A parent’s good example can lead their children to good habits. And, in the same manner, children often also inherit the defects, blind-spots, and weaknesses of their parents as well. Children build both on the success and also on the sins and/or shortcomings of the prior generation.

So, it should not be a big surprise that the children of Protestants continue down a path of independence, reinterpretation of Scripture and departure from what was established. Protestantism, with the inordinate focus on one’s own interpretation of Scripture, has led to further division, ever-increasing individualism, and significant loss of Christian character. Many Protestants, following the example of their forefathers, assume that the path to spiritual life is found in throwing off of traditions and rituals—but I believe they are terribly mistaken.

Orthodox tradition and ritual is not at fault for abuses of the institutions of the church…

What is the basis for tradition and ritual in the church?

Many seem to forget that Jesus was a Jew and faithfully kept the Jewish religious tradition. Jesus did speak against those who “let go of the commands of God and are holding on to human traditions” (Mark 7:8, NIV) or in other words those who prioritized religious rituals over love for others.

Yet Jesus did not dismiss ritual and tradition as completely unimportant either. Jesus and early Jewish converts to Christianity (while ranking the substance of faith higher than the religious symbolism) did not totally disregard the traditions that had been established.

To truly love Jesus means to follow his example and keep his commands. This, according to the words of Jesus, is requisite to the indwelling of the Holy Spirit:

If you love me, keep my commands. And I will ask the Father, and he will give you another advocate to help you and be with you forever—the Spirit of truth. The world cannot accept him, because it neither sees him nor knows him. But you know him, for he lives with you and will be in you. I will not leave you as orphans; I will come to you. Before long, the world will not see me anymore, but you will see me. Because I live, you also will live. On that day you will realize that I am in my Father, and you are in me, and I am in you. Whoever has my commands and keeps them is the one who loves me. The one who loves me will be loved by my Father, and I too will love them and show myself to them. (John 14:15‭-‬21, NIV)

Many church rituals (like Baptism, Communion and foot washing) are directly from the Gospels and given as instruction to the disciples by Jesus. And, it is in the Gospels that we read that Jesus gave authority to his disciples. He told Peter and the disciples this:

And I tell you that you are Peter, and on this rock I will build my church, and the gates of Hades will not overcome it. I will give you the keys of the kingdom of heaven; whatever you bind on earth will be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth will be loosed in heaven. (Matthew 16:18‭-‬19, NIV)

The early church clearly had a hierarchy with real authority and one that built upon the foundation of Jesus Christ. It is the writings of these early church fathers that contain their witness to the life of Jesus and also provide their reader with further divinely-inspired instruction. This is what they said:

So then, brothers, stand firm and hold to the traditions that you were taught by us, either by our spoken word or by our letter. (2 Thessalonians 2:15, NIV)

Scripture didn’t just drop out of the sky written on golden tablets. No, rather it is a collection of inspired writings compiled and later canonized by the authority of a church council. That, the Bible, is the written tradition of the church (or “letter”) and is a source widely accepted as authoritative. However, in Protestant churches, because they reject any authority besides their own, the “spoken word” of church tradition has not been firmly held—it is neglected and forgotten.

The complete disregard for the oral tradition of the church is no different from cutting a chunk out of Scripture. Sure, as a person can refrain from applying the instruction Paul gives in regards to veiling (and not veiling) in 1 Corinthians 11 and still be Christian, these things aren’t necessary to be saved. However, this represents the deterioration of church tradition and a serious problem. At some point, we cannot claim to be following after the example of Jesus and continue to abandon the practices of the church he established.

There is a real loss when the established tradition is tossed in favor of a more ‘contemporary’ program. Moreover, those leaving their religious traditions often continue to benefit from the values it helped to instill in them. Sadly, the full cost is often only felt in subsequent generations who didn’t have the unappreciated benefits of the old tradition—the children raised without tradition have lost the helpful reminders given to their parents and also an important stabilizing tie to the historic church.

What makes tradition and ritual important?

The musical “Fiddler on the Roof” contains the following monologue:

“A fiddler on the roof. Sounds crazy, no? But in our little village of Anatevka, you might say every one of us is a fiddler on the roof, trying to scratch out a pleasant, simple tune without breaking his neck. It isn’t easy. You may ask, why do we stay up here if it’s so dangerous? We stay because Anatevka is our home. And how do we keep our balance? That, I can tell you in a word—tradition!
Because of our traditions, we’ve kept our balance for many, many years. Here in Anatevka we have traditions for everything—how to eat, how to sleep, how to wear clothes. For instance, we always keep our heads covered and always wear a little prayer shawl. This shows our constant devotion to God. You may ask, how did this tradition start? I’ll tell you—I don’t know! But it’s a tradition. Because of our traditions, everyone knows who he is and what God expects him to do.

Tevye’s character is a Jewish father standing at this intersection of religious tradition and compromise in the name of progress. He points to one of the reasons why traditions are formed and that is balance. Traditions and rituals are established to help provide stability and order to our lives.

Rituals also help reduce anxiety and increase confidence even for those who do not believe they are beneficial:

Recent research suggests that rituals may be more rational than they appear. Why? Because even simple rituals can be extremely effective. Rituals performed after experiencing losses – from loved ones to lotteries – do alleviate grief, and rituals performed before high-pressure tasks – like singing in public – do in fact reduce anxiety and increase people’s confidence. What’s more, rituals appear to benefit even people who claim not to believe that rituals work. While anthropologists have documented rituals across cultures, this earlier research has been primarily observational. Recently, a series of investigations by psychologists have revealed intriguing new results demonstrating that rituals can have a causal impact on people’s thoughts, feelings, and behaviors. (“Why Rituals Work,” Scientific American)

At practice and before games my high school football team went through the same “warm-up” routine. Some of the reason for this was to physically prepare us to prevent injury through stretching and get us warmed up. But the other part, perhaps even the larger and more significant part, is what this ritual did psychologically to calm our nerves and get us mentally prepared. This practice and pre-game ritual made us better individually and also helped our cohesiveness as a team.

Beyond that, it is what Jesus taught and showed by example. Jesus did not entirely do away with his Jewish rituals and traditions. In fact, he added to them, going as far as to give the disciples a template for a simple prayer (given in contrast to the arrogant public prayers of religious elites and “babbling like pagans”) and this “Lord’s prayer” is still practiced—even in Protestant churches. If one understands the value of Baptism and Communion then there should be no argument. Rituals are important to help to pattern, influence and shape our minds.

Traditions provide us with a structure that helps us to navigate our lives. When Paul urges believers to conduct their worship “in a fitting and orderly way” (1 Corinthians 14:40) it is not intended to stifle their freedom or individuality. It is rather to free them from chaos and confusion. We are creatures of habit, we do not do well in a constantly shifting environment, and therefore ritual is even more important in these tumultuous times.

As Tevye said, traditions are reminders of who we are and what God expects from us.

So what to do with dead orthodoxy?

It is fairly obvious that people can continue in religion long after they’ve become spiritually dead. Ritual and tradition, while a benefit to the faithful, cannot preserve faith. Christianity is not as simple as checking the right boxes. As Jesus told the perplexed Nicodemus “you must be born again” and about how the Spirit works like “wind” that “blows wherever pleases” (John 3:1-21) there is a profound mystery in this that goes beyond a religious program and all human rationality.

Protestants, of all people, should know this. Every generation there is a new method that comes along, another “remnant” group shilling their own version of the Gospel, the next author trying to pump the purpose back into Christianity or yet another list of fundamentals, ordinances or doctrines, and all these movements eventually seem to end up in the same place again. Often these re-inventors end up leaving their children even more ignorant of church history and with even less to grasp onto. Some might declare themselves to be the more pure, but they are also void of any tradition with staying power and the proof is in the legacy they leave.

Dead orthodoxy is a result of dead faith. And, in the same manner, that new window dressing won’t help to stabilize a wooden structure weakened by termites, reinventing traditions and rituals will never bring spiritual life back where the church has fallen off its foundation. The foundation of faith is Jesus, his faithful church is constructed upon that foundation—with the traditions it has passed on both in written and spoken form for our benefit—and there is no spiritual life gained in throwing this legacy out.

In fact, it is arrogant to think that we would be better to start from scratch and create our own new orthodoxy rather than draw from the experience and wisdom accumulated over many generations. It is basically to say that we today are better than all those faithful Christians of the past two millennia who kept these traditions and saw fit to pass them on to us.

  • Does the ritual of Baptism ever take away repentance?
  • Can our Communion practice come at the expense of our love for Christ’s body?
  • Should we stop celebrating Christmas and Easter because they aren’t found in the Bible and have been corrupted by American culture?
  • Our ridding ourselves of these established and orthodox Christian practices will not draw us any closer to God.

Yes, the foot-washing tradition practiced at my Mennonite church is worthless if the act does not truly represent our heart. The veiling is often associated with the failures of Mennonite men to lead in the example of Christ and thus the practice of the veil is often discarded by ex-Mennonite women. But both represent cases of throwing out the baby with the bathwater. It is not the ritual of foot washing or the imperfect application of 1 Corinthians 11:2-16 that is at fault. Tradition and ritual should never be blamed for our lack of those things that should come from the heart.

True, faith is not established upon religious rituals or traditions and they certainly can be corrupted. The apostle Paul had to sternly warn early Christians against the abuse of the Lord’s Supper and had to further define the practice in an effort to prevent them from abusing it. But what he didn’t do is throw his hands up and say: “Okay, no more Communion, let’s go back to the basics and just show our love for each other through charitable acts!” No, he urged them to rediscover, not reinvent, and that is what the faithful do.

The solution to dead orthodoxy is not reinvention. The solution to dead orthodoxy is to address the real problem and renew the heart of faith that makes the tradition meaningful and allows the ritual to come alive.

What tradition should we keep?

Every denomination has rituals and traditions. The format of a Mennonite service, for example, intended to be a bit less formal, can be very dry and predictable. The song leader leads some songs, men argue our pet issues in Sunday school class while women sit in stony silence in theirs, the deacon (after pleading for us to think about the meaning of the hymns we just sang) goes through the laundry list of activities and repeat prayer requests, after another song the preacher does his thing as some doze in the pews, and finally, the congregation is dismissed to talk about farming, hunting, sports or politics.

At some point, all-new “movements” end up creating a new ritual and tradition. John and Charles Wesley introduced a radical new “methodical” approach to study and life. This eventually became the “Methodist” denomination. Mennonites take their denominational name from Menno Simons, a Catholic priest that became caught up in the Anabaptist movement, and now are mostly an ethnic church known for a “peace witness” and shoo-fly pies.

Not all religious rituals and traditions are equal in history or value. Sunday school, revival meetings, VBS, “sweetheart banquets,” mother’s day celebrations, Bible schools, and church retreats are part of the Mennonite church calendar, but they are certainly not the equivalent of Ascension day, Lent season, Paschal feast or many of the other long-established orthodox practices that some have abandoned in the past few centuries. I would rather we started to look at what was established early and has worked for many generations than try to create a dumbed-down, less historically grounded version.

The tradition of many Protestant churches has become so watered down there is little left to reinvent besides the Bible. As a result, those seeking an emotional high through change are running out of options and when their current experience isn’t satisfying anymore, some decide to toss the Bible next. That is the progressive approach. That is the approach that confuses their own temporal feelings of pleasure with spiritual gain.

In conclusion…

Faith is not created by ritual and tradition nor can it be increased by discarding them. Spiritual life comes through obedience and is also a mysterious work of God. We aren’t saved through our religious devotion. A person can go through the motions of Baptism, Communion, foot washing or any other orthodox Christian practice without ever having a change of heart.

That said, the truly faithful do benefit from the reminders, the structure, and patterns for behavior that orthodox rituals and traditions provide. In my own experience, it has helped me to worship in a manner that has been established over many generations. To join together with that “cloud of witnesses” (Hebrews 12:1) and to worship as Christians did for thousands of years has been a tremendous experience that cannot be duplicated with a new light show and smoke machine.

A person who burns down their house because they don’t like some of the decorations on the walls might be momentarily free. But the enjoyment and empowerment of this newfound simplicity and freedom will soon be a desperate struggle to protect themselves from the elements. And the same goes for those who think they gain through taking an eraser to the rituals, traditions and established orthodoxy of the church. The benefits are fleeting and the cost of trying to restore what was lost is great.

Yes, some necessary structure can be built back in a generation or two after the full loss of the change is felt, but not without slavish effort to restore it and where is the freedom in that?

A life unfettered by any established ritual and historical tradition might seem ideal for the freedom and simplicity that it promises. However, not all is as advertised, the freedom is an illusion and the reality created is often quite complicated. Taking a wrecking ball to an established order often leads to only chaos and more confusion. Worse, it robs the next generation of their religious inheritance and leaves children worse off than their perpetually dissatisfied parents.

Our faith should be founded on Jesus, our religion grounded on the truth of his word, our life lived in obedience to the Spirit, and that means keeping the traditions passed down by his church. Spiritual life is restored through genuine repentance and not by abandoning ritual. Renewed faith comes with our humble obedience and not by reinventing traditions.

Jesus did not discard all rituals and tradition nor should we. There is a place for both in the church. It is a connection that we need now more than ever in the shifting sands of our time. Perhaps it is time for some reflection, rediscovery, and restoration?

The People Want a King…, Part 1

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I felt like the dog who finally caught the car.  I was perplexed with a question: Now what?

My goal in blogging is to make a difference with the ideas that I share.  I know ideas are powerful.  I want to share good ideas and debunk or discourage destructive ideas.  It has been my goal from the beginning to write things worthwhile in hope of creating dialogue.

It was exciting when Good Men Do Not Blame Women quickly surpassed my previously most viewed blog in a matter of hours.  It was also terrifying that my words were being read by hundreds of people rather than just the usual handful of friends and followers.

But, amid worries about if I had proofread enough and given fair treatment to a complex topic, I enjoyed my new found popularity.  I enjoyed it so much that I worried that I enjoyed it too much.

I worried that maybe I was ‘going negative’ instead of sharing something helpful and constructive.  Just a week or so prior I had remarked to a friend that people who criticize other people (not like them) seemed to build a fan club quicker than those who shared good ideas.

I had to think there’s a danger of becoming a different version of what we preach most passionately against.  I do not want to contribute in an overreaction in the opposite direction and abandon what is good in proper order or at the right priority level.

I had a taste of power that I both liked and that I did not like.  It provoked many questions in my mind about what would happen if I gained a following.  Would I be an example of the ideals in my mind of leadership?  Or would I insulate myself from criticism and become arrogant?

“Power tends to corrupt, and absolute power corrupts absolutely.  Great men are almost always bad men.”  (Lord Action)

The good news is that my blogger stardom was very short lived and—besides a few new friends—I’m back to blogging to my usual small audience.  It means less pressure.  I feel I can share again without worrying as much about my imperfections being amplified over a large audience.

The people want a king to lead them…

In the beginning God was sufficient to lead his people.  The patriarchy of Abraham gave way to tribal elders and officers.  Later Moses acted as a prophet and arbitrator in disputes. However, eventually it was too much for Moses, the task was taking all of his time from “morning to evening,” which led to his visiting father-in-law to ask him why:

“Moses answered him, “Because the people come to me to seek God’s will. Whenever they have a dispute, it is brought to me, and I decide between the parties and inform them of God’s decrees and instructions.”  Moses’ father-in-law replied, “What you are doing is not good. You and these people who come to you will only wear yourselves out.  The work is too heavy for you; you cannot handle it alone.  Listen now to me and I will give you some advice, and may God be with you. You must be the people’s representative before God and bring their disputes to him.  Teach them his decrees and instructions, and show them the way they are to live and how they are to behave.  But select capable men from all the people—men who fear God, trustworthy men who hate dishonest gain—and appoint them as officials over thousands, hundreds, fifties and tens.  Have them serve as judges for the people at all times, but have them bring every difficult case to you; the simple cases they can decide themselves.  That will make your load lighter, because they will share it with you.  If you do this and God so commands, you will be able to stand the strain, and all these people will go home satisfied.”  (Exodus 18:15-23)

Moses took the advice, he delegated the task of settling disputes to other capable men and that became the system for hundreds of years. 

It was a sort of anarcho-theocracy.  The prophet was the liaison between God and the people, the messenger of God, but not a ruler per se.  The laws handed down by Moses were the standard for judgment.  Enforcement of the law was carried out by the people rather than delegated to a few people and judges a final arbitrator between parties as needed…

“At that time the Israelites left that place and went home to their tribes and clans, each to his own inheritance.  In those days Israel had no king; everyone did as they saw fit.”  (Judges 21:24-25)

There was a time after the Exodus of freedom from oppression and obligation.  Judges came and went as heroes who did God’s work to save the people from captivity.  Judges were representatives and deliverers of the people, but not rulers like a king.  However, eventually, when a worthy successor could not be found for Samuel amongst his sons, the elders of the people made a fateful demand:

“So all the elders of Israel gathered together and came to Samuel at Ramah. They said to him, “You are old, and your sons do not follow your ways; now appoint a king to lead us, such as all the other nations have.”  But when they said, “Give us a king to lead us,” this displeased Samuel; so he prayed to the Lord . And the Lord told him: “Listen to all that the people are saying to you; it is not you they have rejected, but they have rejected me as their king. As they have done from the day I brought them up out of Egypt until this day, forsaking me and serving other gods, so they are doing to you. Now listen to them; but warn them solemnly and let them know what the king who will reign over them will claim as his rights.”  (1 Samuel 8:4-9)

Samuel went on to warn how kings would take their sons for wars and daughters as workers.  He spoke of how the future kings would take the best of their possessions for themselves and for their own purposes.  Still, despite the warning, he did not persuade them, the chapter continues:

“But the people refused to listen to Samuel. “No!” they said.  “We want a king over us.  Then we will be like all the other nations, with a king to lead us and to go out before us and fight our battles.”  (1 Samuel 8-19-20)

The people were delusional just like their forefathers who begged Moses for a return to slavery and Egypt.  Despite Samuel’s warning of conscription, they apparently had an idea a king could miraculously do all the fighting for them and they ignored all rational concern.

A couple of the kings were good, David and Solomon notable examples, but a majority were more concerned with themselves, they all took special privileges for themselves and loaded the people down with increased burdens.  The prophecy of Samuel became reality—the people traded their greater freedom for a false security and eventual rule of tyrants.  Instead of protecting against oppression the kings became oppressors themselves.

Consequence #1: Increased Burden

“A government big enough to give you everything you want is a government big enough to take from you everything you have.”  (Gerald R. Ford)

Kings and government leaders promise big things to their people.  But what often is forgotten by the enthusiastic crowds is that nothing is free.  When a Pharaoh promised a pyramid for the glory of Egypt Pharaoh, he wasn’t planning to build it on his own time with godlike powers.  No, the people paid the price of a king’s grandeur with their own backs and we still bear the weight of the audacious promises of our leaders. 

The burdens never seems to be lightened either. Consider when Rehoboam took over after his father Solomon and was confronted by the people:

“Your father put a heavy yoke on us, but now lighten the harsh labor and the heavy yoke he put on us, and we will serve you.” … The king answered the people harshly. Rejecting the advice given him by the elders, he followed the advice of the young men and said, “My father made your yoke heavy; I will make it even heavier.  My father scourged you with whips; I will scourge you with scorpions.”  (1 King 12:4-14)

King Reheboam was more concerned with pleasing his young peers than he was in listening to the people or the elders.  As a result some did not accept his rule over them and the nation was divided.  It is interesting to see this same pattern play out today.  Leaders pursue their own vision, they increase the burden on the people without ever easing up, which leads to division and eventual rebellion.

Consequence # 2: Increased Corruption

“Our country is now taking so steady a course as to show by what road it will pass to destruction, to wit: by consolidation [of power] first, and then corruption, its necessary consequence.”  (Thomas Jefferson)

Kings and government leaders represent a consolidation of power and with consolidation of power comes increased opportunity for corruption.  Many leaders rise to power on their idealistic vision, but once they have power the vision fades and the desire to hold or increase power becomes the bigger priority.  We may call it “special interests” and political pandering today, but here’s how the Bible describes it:

“See how the faithful city has become a prostitute!  She once was full of justice; righteousness used to dwell in her—but now murderers!   Your silver has become dross, your choice wine is diluted with water.  Your rulers are rebels, partners with thieves; they all love bribes and chase after gifts.  They do not defend the cause of the fatherless; the widow’s case does not come before them.”  (Isaiah 1:21-23)

Described above is the chipping away of principles.  Many institutions of men are founded with good intentions but become corrupted over time.  Corruption is a natural product of consolidation of power.  When power is given to one person (or a small body of people) they seem to inevitably try to use that power to secure more power for themselves.  There is no system of external controls that seems to be able to keep it in check.  Those in power have the tools to manipulate the rules for their own gain.

Consequence #3 Loss Without Gain

“If the people cannot trust their government to do the job for which it exists – to protect them and to promote their common welfare – all else is lost.”  (Barack Obama)

Kings and government leaders are established to protect the people against harm.  But, not only do they fail to be able to protect a people from harm, they themselves often another source of harm.

The strength of a king is not in themselves as much as it is in the strength of their people.  As Samuel had warned, a king takes and can only give back what is taken and thus a corrupted people produce corrupt leaders:

“You are destroyed, Israel, because you are against me, against your helper.  Where is your king, that he may save you?  Where are your rulers in all your towns, of whom you said, ‘Give me a king and princes’?  So in my anger I gave you a king, and in my wrath I took him away.”  (Hosea 13:9-11)

Installing a king ultimately did not solve anything.  The people still ended up taken captive by other nations as they had before, they also endured the abuses of power hungry and corrupt leaders when not in captivity.  They gave away freedom for security and got captivity because they were corrupted themselves.

People want a king to blame…

The paradox of kings is that kings need strong people to maintain power—but strong people don’t need kings.  Weak people turn to leaders to do their work for them, but a man wearing a fancy crown and holding a scepter is only empowered by those who do his bidding.

It feeds a vicious cycle.  When things go wrong people blame the king.  As a result the king is driven to take more power upon themselves or risk losing power they already have.  Of course, since their power is derived from other people this means taking more from the people who are able to give.  It can only last so long as their are enough strong people to take from—when the weight of dependents comes closer to outweighing those able (or willing) to provide there is nothing a king can do but manage the decline.

Only, it is worse than that, because as already mentioned, consolidation of power is like a petri dish for corruption.  So, not only do these kings give a convenient scapegoat, they also are too often the goats among the sheep and motivated by their own gain rather the good of all in the herd.  In other words, if a couple sheep get thrown to the wolves and it saves a goat from an undesirable outcome and nobody notices, what sheep, right?

It is exactly what king David did to Uriah.  David goofed, he got Uriah’s wife (Bathsheba) pregnant.  He evidently didn’t want to suffer the political repercussions and attempted to hide the adultery.  So plan ‘A’ was urge Uriah to spend some quality time with Bathsheba and thus disguise the origin of the pregnancy.  Unfortunately Uriah, a true warrior, would not go home to his wife while his comrades were still fighting and David needed another plan.  Plan ‘B’ was to deliberately set Uriah up to be killed in battle.  It worked, except the prophet Nathan knew and he confronted the king with a story about a wealthy man who killed a neighbor’s pet sheep.

And David was one of the good kings and probably mostly because he could admit his sins…

This post is about faith, not kings…

My point here is not purely political or just historical.  I am using kings and government leaders as a metaphor for anything (be it an institution, a system of philosophy or theology, a man, etc) that replaces our own obedience to God. 

We cannot expect the world to be good if we continually delegate the tasks of our own conscience to others.  Faith is about being the solution ourselves and not sending others (who we can conveniently blame for the eventual failure) to do what is impossible for them to do alone.  We cannot expect the fullness of God’s blessing when we look to men to lead us.  If God is alive in us then we must be the agents of good in the world with our own abilities and be faithful to our calling.

This is not a call for a return to anarcho-theocracy and judges either.  Kings and governments rise in prominence because the people aren’t doing their jobs.  Therefore, the solution is not to reform government, the solution is to reform people and make government irrelevant.  If we were taking care of the widows and fatherless as we ought, for example, what need would there be for corrupt welfare programs?  If fathers weren’t leaving their sons to be raised by the brutal streets, what need would their be for police as brutal?

“Every country has the government it deserves.”  (Joseph de Maistre)

It is a collective problem when the people demand a king.  It becomes an individual problem when the people finally empower a man to do their dirty work.  There is always someone all too willing to seize power—those with an appetite for power—who will take the glory for themselves and then delegate responsibility for failure to others, exploits position, etc. 

It is a spiritual problem.  It is often only our own sloth, envy, pride, mistrust, fears, poor judgments and overreactions that are reflected back to us in the immoral whims of our leaders.  We delude ourselves when we abandon accountability to God for kings that are no better than us.

Now, enough said for now, back to chasing cars for me…

Religions of Peace and of Violence

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Okay, I’m breaking a rule here, I’m going to mention a political figure and have tried to avoid politics on this blog.  Still, I do feel inclined to weigh in on a recent furor over something President Obama recently said:

“So how do we, as people of faith, reconcile these realities — the profound good, the strength, the tenacity, the compassion and love that can flow from all of our faiths, operating alongside those who seek to hijack religious for their own murderous ends?

Humanity has been grappling with these questions throughout human history.  And lest we get on our high horse and think this is unique to some other place, remember that during the Crusades and the Inquisition, people committed terrible deeds in the name of Christ.  In our home country, slavery and Jim Crow all too often was justified in the name of Christ.

The President continued on to talk about religious violence in India.  (Click here for the transcript)  But, it is the remarks highlighted in bold above that are the center of controversy, it has offended some of my Christian friends and initially annoyed me for various reasons.  Obama has this propensity for lecturing or condescension and I’m not sure he’s earned the right to speak about high horses.  However, on second thought, after reading some of the commentary in response and what seems to be either ignorance or denial of history, I am reconsidering my first impression.

There is, among my Christian friends, widespread denial or downplaying of violence done in the name of Christ.  That alone would be excusable, but that coupled with harsh judgments against Muslims and demands they denounce terrorism, seems a bit hypocritical.  Many Americans do not want themselves to be associated with the foreign policy of present and past US Presidential Administrations, let alone told they themselves need to apologize personally for every misdeed an American has done.  So why do we ask others to do what we don’t do?

What is the/a religion of peace?

One of those litmus test questions I see frequently asked as it pertains to terrorism and Islam, is “do you think Islam is a religion of peace?”  The phrase “religion of peace” is also often used sarcastically or to parody government leaders who use that phrase as part of trying to distinguish between terrorists and other Muslims.  But one place I don’t see that question asked is as it pertains to Christian history and Biblical religion.  Would Christianity pass the same test and be considered a “religion of peace” to an objective observer?  The answer might change depending on perspective.

Is Christianity a religion of peace?

Many Christians will claim that the Bible is their ultimate authority.  But then I have to wonder if they have ever actually read their Bibles when they recoil in horror at the mention of Sharia law.  The Christian Bible is full of bloodshed in the name of God.  There are instructions to kill every inhabitant of conquered lands, specifically every man, woman, child, sometimes even the livestock, and often times sparing the virgin women as war brides.  You can read this for yourself in the books of Numbers 31 and 1 Samuel 15.  By Biblical law disobedience to parents, picking up sticks on the wrong day of the week, adultery and blasphemy merited a death sentence by stoning. 

I can anticipate, because of prior experience in discussions, that the paragraph above could elicit howls of protest and that Jesus marked a change.  Yet, if we look at Christian history after Christ, it is evident many did not get the memo and the it is hard to even know where to begin.  History like the Salem witch trials, Gnadenhutten massacre, Manifest destiny, Jewish persecution, Anabaptist persecution, countless bloody wars between Christian people groups and many other examples besides the Crusades and the Inquisition or slavery and Jim Crow could be cited as Christian violence.  Much of it, from slavery to antisemitism, justified by Biblical passages and perspectives.

For those who would argue this use of Scripture is wrong and that Jesus taught peace rather the sword, that too could be questioned.  Christian theology is not very tolerant of unbelievers.  The Gospels teach that one must repent of sin, they must accept Jesus as Savior and Lord or they will be condemned for eternity.  Beyond that, consider Matthew 10:34 where he says: “Do not suppose that I have come to bring peace to the earth. I did not come to bring peace, but a sword.”  That doesn’t sound very peaceable. 

If the Bible and Christian history is so awful, why be a Christian?

I think that would be the next good question after all I just described.  After all, if I value woman’s rights, oppose genocide and slavery, shouldn’t I be looking elsewhere for my answers?  The simple answer is that I do look elsewhere.  I am not a Biblical fundamentalist, in that I do not see the Bible as the ultimate authority and instead look to the Spirit of God that was found in Jesus.  It is true, Jesus, as I quoted, did not promise peace on earth, but Jesus did set a different example to be followed:

“Jesus said, “My kingdom is not of this world. If it were, my servants would fight to prevent my arrest by the Jewish leaders. But now my kingdom is from another place.”  (John 18:36 NIV)

Jesus gave a different kind of leadership model to his followers:

“Jesus called them together and said, “You know that the rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them, and their high officials exercise authority over them.  Not so with you. Instead, whoever wants to become great among you must be your servant, and whoever wants to be first must be your slave— just as the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many.”  (Matthew 20:25-28 NIV)

Jesus did not just build off of existing traditions or reform Hebrew religion, he changed the entire paradigm of faith and turned the established system upside down.  He supersedes the law of Moses with a standard radically different, in the ‘Sermon on the Mount’ he goes beyond retributive “eye for an eye” justice of Biblical law and totally rewrites the script:

“You have heard that it was said, ‘Eye for eye, and tooth for tooth.’  But I tell you, do not resist an evil person. If anyone slaps you on the right cheek, turn to them the other cheek also.  And if anyone wants to sue you and take your shirt, hand over your coat as well.  If anyone forces you to go one mile, go with them two miles.  Give to the one who asks you, and do not turn away from the one who wants to borrow from you.  “You have heard that it was said, ‘Love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’  But I tell you, love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you,  that you may be children of your Father in heaven. He causes his sun to rise on the evil and the good, and sends rain on the righteous and the unrighteous.  If you love those who love you, what reward will you get? Are not even the tax collectors doing that?  And if you greet only your own people, what are you doing more than others? Do not even pagans do that?  Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect.”  (Matthew 5:38-48 NIV)

This was not just an amendment, it was a radical departure from the law of Moses and the establishing of a completely new system.  Christianity was never intended to be built on institutions, hierarchies of men or religious texts and any other form of top down power.  It was to be defined by grace, forgiveness, servant leadership and respect for all people, as Paul explains:

“Bless those who persecute you; bless and do not curse. Rejoice with those who rejoice; mourn with those who mourn. Live in harmony with one another. Do not be proud, but be willing to associate with people of low position. Do not be conceited.  Do not repay anyone evil for evil. Be careful to do what is right in the eyes of everyone. If it is possible, as far as it depends on you, live at peace with everyone.”  (Romans 12:14-18 NIV)

And goes further…

“So in Christ Jesus you are all children of God through faith, for all of you who were baptized into Christ have clothed yourselves with Christ. There is neither Jew nor Gentile, neither slave nor free, nor is there male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus. If you belong to Christ, then you are Abraham’s seed, and heirs according to the promise.”  (Galatians 3:26-29 NIV)

In light of everything else Jesus said and did, I doubt his comment “I did not come to bring peace, but a sword” was to inspire Christian use of the sword. He was sharing a message that was a threat to the order of the day. His message split Judaism into two and changed the world.

Why did Christianity become so violent?

“There is a history of Christianity: the first three centuries of Christianity; it was a radical pacifist religion, which is why it was persecuted, it was the religion of the poor and the suffering, and Jesus was the symbol of the poor and the suffering…” (Noam Chomsky)

My faith is simple.  History is complex.  Christianity started as “a religion of women, children and slaves,” according to an early critic, but somewhere along the way it was corrupted (or “hijacked” in the words of the President) and became another excuse for violence.  To me the corruption begins whenever the leading of Jesus through the Spirit is replaced by anything, be that a charismatic leader, a dogma, a committee, and even the books of the Bible themselves.  If Jesus (what he represents) is not the center of Christian faith, then what is left is nothing but a ritual, a dead religion and a reasoning that soon becomes an excuse for violence.

So, President Obama, while I disagree with him on many things, does make a legitimate point and it would be biased for him to exempt those who have corrupted Christianity for their own “murderous ends” from his critique.  I am not personally offended, because my own faith is not violent and therefore I know those who used the name of Christ as their justification do not represent me. 

I likewise do not judge Muslim individuals by what others do in the name of their religion.  It is not my job to judge, it is my job to show the true way of Jesus and bring forgiveness and love to all people.