Peace on Earth, Goodwill to Men?

#ChristmasinAleppo

image of Nativity Story movie poster
https://en.wikipedia.org/w/index.php?curid=8241723

I wanted to write this post last Sunday, December 11, third Sunday of Advent. During this season, “Peace on earth, goodwill to men,” is practically my mantra. Last Sunday, I came out of church and checked the time on my cell phone. There were three headlines from my newsfeed about bombs around the world: One was certainly in Aleppo, another in Egypt, and another I think was in Turkey but I don’t remember for sure. I felt like shouting to all of them, “Don’t you know this is Advent? Don’t we all want peace and goodwill?”

There is so much going on in the world now that makes you wonder about Advent, which is supposed to be a time of hope and preparation for Christmas. Christmas is supposed to be when we remember the birth of the Christ child, whose birth was announced with angels declaring “Peace on earth, goodwill to men.” And I don’t care what religion you are, you cannot tell me that is not the desire of every human heart.

Syria has been on my mind for a while. The situation there has been called the worst humanitarian crisis in history. And now what is happening in Aleppo is appalling. You see one report on 60 Minutes, and the enormity of suffering is overwhelming. They have been living like this for months, even years. A city thousands of years old, part of the Assyrian, Babylonian, Seleucid, and Roman empires, so very much a part of Biblical history, that in 2011 had a population of two million, now seeing destruction of Biblical proportions. Constant bombardment and temporary cease fires just so they can draw people out of hiding and shoot them down.

What got to me most was seeing mothers desperate to find a safe place for their children, and there is none to be found. In the choir, we were practicing “Breath of Heaven.” Most people call it a Christmas song, but it’s really an Advent song. The music and words together really capture what I can only imagine Mary must have felt in the first days of her pregnancy as she is running away from her hometown to stay with her kinswoman, Elizabeth (Luke 1:36-45). And as I read, heard, and sang the words, I kept thinking of these mothers in Aleppo. Where is peace on earth and goodwill for them? Do I even have a right to enjoy Christmas when there is so much suffering over there?

Religion In a Time of Despair

I know it’s not the only place of suffering in the world. They aren’t the only mothers as desperate as a girl of about twelve or thirteen, pregnant before marriage, who knows no one is going to believe her when she says God is the father of the baby, and wondering how she will care for him in a world that welcomes neither her nor her baby and might stone her to death for impurity and/or blasphemy. But this situation was fresh in my mind. I saw the connection. I felt it. I’m not going to say I understand what they are going through, because there is no way you can know something that horrific if you haven’t actually lived through it.

This is what I think religion can do for us if our hearts are open for it: To see and feel the connection each of us has with all of humanity, even those who are ten thousand miles or whatever away. If I say I want to honor Christ in all I do, what does that mean for them? It means seeing that the story of every mother crying out for the health and safety of her children is Mary’s story. It means seeing the baby Jesus in every baby whose home, family, and life are threatened by powers that view them as a means to an end.

The True Meaning of Christmas

There are two songs specific to the season that drive this home for me. One I’ve already talked about is Amy Grant’s Breath of Heaven. The other is an older, traditional song but with a new twist: I Heard the Bells on Christmas Day by Casting Crowns. The words by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow already told well the struggle between wanting to believe in “Peace on earth, goodwill to men” that Christmas promises and living in a world that seems so bent on violence and hate. The music, however, was boring. Casting Crowns redid the music and adjusted the words just a little so that the mood of both match perfectly. The combination is arguably the most beautifully heartbreaking and hopeful song of the season.

Spiritual Exercise: If you really want to experience the meaning of Christmas,

  1. Stop getting bent out of shape when someone says “Happy Holidays.” With all that’s going on in the world, do you really think Jesus wants you wasting your outrage on that?
  2. Read the scripture in Luke 1:26-40; 2:8-14
  3. Let the words “peace on earth, goodwill to men” sink in
  4. Watch a news story on the plight of the civilians in Aleppo
  5. Then either watch the videos or listen to these two songs.

Amy Grant, “Breath of Heaven,”

Casting Crowns, “I Heard the Bells on Christmas Day”, with lyrics

Below: the original artist, no lyrics

WARNING: BE SURE YOU HAVE TISSUES NEARBY.

But What Can I Do?

Hopefully now you feel some of the compassion Jesus felt when he saw the people were like sheep without a shepherd. What can you do? You can pray, of course. I would recommend making that a part of whatever you do. But if you want to back up your prayer with more substantive action, click here for a link to an excellent article. Here’s a summary.

  1. Educate yourself and stay informed. Add Syria and Aleppo reports to your news feed.
  2. Donate to charities doing the work we can’t. Charity Navigator offers a list of vetted charities actually doing what they say, so you can avoid the scammers.
  3. Show your support and outrage. Write letters to the editor. Attend or organize protests at the embassies of Syria and Russia. Write directly to the governments of Syria, Russia, and Iran through Amnesty International.
  4. Tell your Senators you want them to support the Caesar Bill. It has already passed the House.
  5. Talk and/or post about it
  6. If you have special skills, for example, translator, doctor, lawyer, volunteer with agencies that need those skills
  7. If you’re feeling really bold, welcome a refugee into your home

Grace and Peace to you this Christmas season.

DAA

P.S. If you like this, you might also like…

Previous posts about Syria

Previous posts about Christmas

 

 

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Democrats, you blew it! So next time…

I was going to write this to the Democratic Party leadership no matter who won. Their campaigning was atrocious, and I have to say something about it.

Please, will somebody in the party leadership listen to some common sense?

Whether they won or lost, the Democrats made some horrible blunders. I have realized for years the Democrats have a much better agenda, but they are terrible at selling their brand. Bill Clinton and Barack Obama helped break that rule in recent years, but overall they still haven’t learned their lesson. Two terrible mistakes from the campaigns for Hillary Clinton and The DCCC made the unthinkable possible.

Hillary Clinton: Your slogan was, “I’m with her,” but you ran as if it was “I’m against him.”

You might want to say I’m wrong or I’m exaggerating. I will give you that it was not true of the whole campaign. The Democratic Convention of July 24-28 was conducted brilliantly. You had Michelle Obama saying, “When they go low, we go high.” (Again, you should have followed that advice). You had Barack Obama reminding us why we were so inspired to vote for him (and not just against the other guy) in 2008 and 2012, even if less so the second time. And your candidate, Hillary Clinton, actually gave us reasons to vote for her, not just against him. And it was the perfect antidote to the toxicity of the GOP convention. What a disaster that was. It was like the Republican Party had gone from Reagan’s “Morning in America,” to Alice Cooper’s “Welcome To My Nightmare.” That was why she got such a big post-convention bounce. And then in all three debates, she did great and kept the lead she had in the polls.

But you have to realize after the debates, there are only three ways people hear your message: (1) News media coverage, (2) personal appearances, and (3) campaign ads.

(1) The news media is only going to play sound bites that may or may not accurately represent you and your agenda. You have little to no control over that.

(2) In the homestretch from the last debate to the election, the candidate is going to focus all their personal appearances in the battleground states, and only people who support you are going to those.

(3) For the vast majority of people, especially those who are undecided and still could be convinced, the only chance you have to reach them personally is in your campaign ads. All I heard from her campaign in the homestretch was replays of all the disgusting things Donald Trump said. Well, not all of them. That would have taken way too long. And of course, in those final weeks, whatever ads you run are playing over and over again.

As Election Day drew near, I noticed the ads were having a psychological effect on me. They not only reminded me of my disgust toward him, but they also killed my enthusiasm for her. They were creating a negative association with the act of voting in this election. I felt strongly enough that I could put up with this and still vote for her. However, people who are undecided or who are not excited about voting do not want to participate in an activity they associate with disgust and/or killing their enthusiasm. I know it was tempting to use all the material he gave you against him, but you fell into the trap of sinking to his level.

So next time, remember: A campaign is like a battery. It runs on BOTH negative and positive. I’m not saying forget the negative. I’m saying DON’T forget the positive.

image of two AA batteries

DCCC: Do you really think hopelessness, panic, and giving up is an effective fundraising strategy?

I received regular emails from various Democratic fundraising arms: the National Committee (DNC), the one focusing on the campaigning for Congress (DCCC), the Senate (DSCC), and the Leadership Council (DLC). The DCCC was the worst, not only of that group but of any campaign fundraising I’ve ever seen. Here are a few Subject lines, and these were the rule, not the exception:

  • We’re panicked.
  • All hope is lost.
  • Kiss all hope good bye.
  • We’re going to lose.
  • We give up.
  • Throwing in the towel.

Seriously folks? If the other party is raising more money than you, maybe it’s because no one wants to donate to a panicky party that says it’s giving up weeks or even months before the election. Leaders at any level cannot panic. When we are anxious, you need to calm us down. When we’re panicked, you need to be the voice of reason. That’s why we elect leaders. You need to create a strategy. You need to steady the ship. You need to give us hope. You need to remind us the game is not over, and we need to keep fighting until the final bell. You need to tell us you’re NOT giving up. This is too important to give up before the end. But when we look to you, you’re declaring defeat and running for the locker room.

I don’t know if this would have changed the outcome. You had hoped that Trump would be a drag on down-ticket candidates, and he proved to be the exact opposite. I know the GOP raised more money than you. And I know how important it is to get back a majority in Congress. But the next time you say you’re giving up before the election is over, you are not getting a penny from me.

So next time: Fire the person who wrote your fundraising emails. Find someone who knows how to communicate your vision, connect with voters, and show confidence. Don’t try to guilt us into donating. Inspire us to donate by talking about what a Democratic Congress will mean for us and for America.

What I fear from a Trump Presidency

Game over for the climate. We have just elected a president who says climate change a hoax, just like Pharaoh called the Ten Plagues a hoax. He started out in denial and ended up in de-Nile. The glaciers keep melting, and our coastal cities will be under water. We won’t see it in four years, but we will see more and more extreme weather events like Superstorm Sandy, hurricanes, tornadoes, droughts, floods, days and weeks of record high temperatures. What do you think that will do to the world’s food when more and more farm land is in drought or flood?

Gap between the rich and the poor getting even worse. His policy for growing the economy is cutting taxes on the wealthy and cutting back on public services. You’ve seen this movie before. Did you forget how it ends? It works spectacularly for the wealthiest 1%, but it’s a disaster for the other 99%. Which side are you on?

Losing my health insurance. I am one of over 20 million people who got insurance for the first time in years through the Affordable Care Act. I couldn’t get it any other way because of a long list of preconditions. I understand there are problems with it, but they could all be fixed. They could already have been fixed, but Republicans in Congress had over 40 votes to repeal it. Not one of them involved any plan to replace it. So he wants to repeal and replace Obamacare? I only believe the repeal part. Instead of repealing it and starting over from the ground up, wouldn’t it be easier to just fix what’s already in place?

The end of freedom of the press. During his rallies, he whined that the news media was unfair to him for basically reporting what he said and did. Especially toward the end of the campaign he started saying, “There’s those horrible people in the media,” and the hostility of the crowds focused on them. People who sold subscriptions to The Arizona Republic were threatened and attacked. Reporters received death threats.

Thomas Jefferson considered Freedom of the Press to be even more important to the flourishing of democracy than government itself. If the press is bullied and intimidated for reporting unflattering news about our leaders, that is the quickest path to dictatorship.

The crushing of dissent. “Knock the hell out of him,” he said about a protester at his rally. He’s talked about revamping libel laws to allow him to sue news channels who report things about him he doesn’t like. And his lashing out encourages his supporters to lash out in kind. That is how dictatorships work, not democracies.

Net neutrality. This means equal access to information. Internet Service Providers should not interfere or regulate information you want to slow lanes. That’s what network neutrality means, but he has threatened to undo protections that are in place now.

Women’s healthcare. Defund Planned Parenthood, the GOP says. Why? Because they perform abortions. Yes, but that is actually 3% of what they do. The other 97% is gynecological exams, prescription assistance, cancer screenings, mammograms, pre-natal care, basically comprehensive health care for women who couldn’t afford it anywhere else. And for that, the GOP has declared war on them. They even pressured John Boehner to step down as Speaker of the House because he refused to shut down the government (again) in order to stop funding for Planned Parenthood.

Trump is a Johnny-Come-Lately to the pro life movement. He used to be, in his own words, “Very pro-choice.” Somehow he has done a 180 and is now pro life, though he never told us his story of how and why he changed his mind. That’s true of just about every conservative issue where he used to be liberal. He certainly has the right to change his mind. But you’d think someone would have asked him to give his testimony. How did you see the light? Why did you change your mind?

At any rate, the new pro-life Trump has given every indication it’s open season on Planned Parenthood, and consequently women’s health. For people who are pro life, I understand why you want to stop public funding for the 3%. But do you really have to do away with the other 97% because of that? If you get rid of Planned Parenthood, what are you going to replace it with?

Wall Street reform gone. Wall Street, big banks, and insurance companies caused the economic crash of 2008. You’d think regulating these folks so they couldn’t do it again would be a priority for the American people, if not the government. Nope. They have the money. They control Washington.
That’s the real reason the system is rigged, by the way. Now, no chance of any meaningful reform. In fact, what reform we have managed, like Dodd-Frank, is now on the chopping block.

Russian tampering. Trump supporters, I know you were happy to get Hillary’s emails. But does it bother anyone that they came from Russian hackers? That Putin supported Julian Assange in putting them on Wikileaks? Not all at once but drip, drip, drip, to keep it front and center on the American campaign scene? That Russia is celebrating Trump’s election? Any other election, Russia’s endorsement would guarantee NOT getting elected. Yet Trump cozies up to Putin and it doesn’t seem to hurt him one bit. And he wants to pull out of NATO, which is exactly what Putin wants from us. It will remove a major obstacle to restoring the Soviet Union, which ultimately is his goal.

ISIS growing. ISIS has said they are going to use Trump’s election as a recruiting point. He said he was going to ban Muslims from coming into the country, and the American people elected him, not in spite of that but because of it. If you are a Muslim outside America and you want to know what America thinks of you, what does this tell you?

Right-wing extremists emboldened. The GOP has been ruled by and catering to its most extreme elements at least since Obama was elected the first time. They can’t get anything done because compromise is a dirty word to them. They shut down the government when they didn’t get everything they wanted. Recently, though, I’ve seen signs that they might be looking for ways to work with Democrats. Now, forget that. The extremists got exactly the candidate they wanted as president, and they are going to push their agenda down our throats.

Finger on the button. A man who can’t let any insult from anyone just go, a man who attacks a former employee on Twitter at 3:00 AM, a man who doesn’t know what it means to rise above petty insults, a man who said “Bomb the s%*! out of them,” even though that’s a war crime, now has his finger on the nuclear button. Sleep soundly, world.

The Supreme Court. We know he will appoint at least one Supreme Court justice, maybe one or two others, so all of this will become codified into legal precedent in the next four years. The disastrous Citizens United decision will not be overturned. Corporations are people. Money is speech. SuperPacs will become even further entrenched in the campaign process. No chance now of fixing the real reason why Washington doesn’t work, big money contributors and lobbyists. You wanted to change Washington? Congratulations, you just made it worse.

So what now?

Okay, I’m starting to sound like a DCCC email now. I’ve given a lot of negative, but to follow my own advice, I will close with some positive. A group of Liberty University students had the courage to say that Trump “does not represent our values as Christians and does not deserve our support as president.”

To the counter-argument if Hillary is elected, she will almost certainly make the Supreme Court more liberal with her appointments, they said,

“Since the birth of Christ, Christians have withstood far more serious trials and tribulations than we face today. First-century Christians faced coliseums filled with lions; today, American Christians face the possibility of a liberal Supreme Court. The Christian message of salvation through faith in Christ has prevailed despite actual threats, from actual tyrants, and it will continue to thrive no matter who is elected president in 2016,” they wrote in the editorial.

If conservative Christians could say this when faced with the possibility of a Clinton presidency, then liberal Christians like me can say the same thing now.

I know there is so much wrong with this, and I’ve only scratched the surface. But look over our 2000 year history as the Body of Christ. We have lived through bad, narcissistic, self-serving, bullying leaders, and much much worse. We will continue to thrive if we remember God is still sovereign. Christ is our savior, not Caesar. We should advocate for good government and just, competent rulers. But if our faith is truly in Christ, we may still grieve, but we will never despair over an election that did not go our way.

The Kingdom of God is not in our elected leaders. It is in and among us. A congressional election is for two years. A presidential election is for four years, maybe eight if they get re-elected. A Supreme Court appointment is for the rest of the justice’s life, so on average, say, forty years. God’s Kingdom is forever. So if you have a call from God on your life, that doesn’t change because of an election. My calling is to write, and I will keep on writing. And there are some things we are all called to do, for example, Do justice, Love mercy, and Walk humbly with our God (Micah 6:8).

Interestingly, Trump and I belong to the same church. He says he loves God and loves his church, so that is one thing we have in common. I will offer then a letter from a Presbyterian minister that is great advice for Presbyterians, but I think it is also great for the president-elect and the country in general. Here are the main points.

  • Presbyterians treat all God’s children with dignity and respect.
  • Presbyterians work for justice and peace.
  • Presbyterians work for racial justice and economic justice.
  • Presbyterians advocate for the vulnerable.
  • Presbyterians are a reconciling people.
  • Presbyterians are called to act with courage, grace, and love.

My fellow Americans, whether you’re Presbyterian or not, let’s commit to doing that. And maybe next election, we won’t have to choose between two candidates who have more people with negative than positive opinions. May God bless you and God bless America, and crown thy good with justice and brotherhood from sea to shining sea.

Why would anyone curse a tree to death? – Mark 11:12-14, 20-26

I have two fig trees in my back yard, so I’ve been learning all I can about them. Last year, the trees produced enough fruit to share with bugs, butterflies, and birds and still have way more than I could eat,

image of blue butterfly on fig leaf
Caption: Butterfly on fig tree

 

so I did what my grandmother did – made preserves.

Here is part of one peck I picked. No picture of preserves available yet.

image of figs on table

Early in the summer, I could see the figs forming, but they were green. I started looking around the middle of June for ripe figs, maybe even earlier. I couldn’t remember when the season started. Day after day, the figs were still green.

image of green figs
Caption: Should I kill the tree?

And each time, I couldn’t help remembering the story of Jesus cursing a fig tree.

It would never occur to me – or anyone I could imagine – to curse a tree for not bearing fruit out of season. Yet the Gospels preserve a story of Jesus doing just that (Cf. Matthew 21:18-22).

The season is about over now. The leaves are starting to fall. That’s what fig trees do. They go through the same seasons each year. Jesus knows this.

“From the fig tree learn its lesson: as soon as its branch becomes tender and puts out its leaves, you know that summer is near” (Mark 13:28, ESV).

The earth produces by itself, first the blade, then the ear, then the full grain in the ear (Mark 4:28).

To everything there is a season

He knows the cycles grain and trees go through. He knows about seed time and harvest. You can’t pick fresh figs any time of year. It happens in its own time and in its own season. So how can he get mad at a fig tree when it’s not the season for figs (Mark 11:13)? It’s idiotic to get mad at a tree for any reason, and especially for following the same seasons it does every year. If I got mad at my trees because it’s September and the leaves are starting to fall, you’d think I was insane. And you’d be right.

Maybe a little disappointment is understandable. Maybe he just had a hankering for figs at the moment, saw the leaves on the tree, and thought he’d check just in case a few ripened a little early. No figs. Oh well. He should keep moving before anyone sees he doesn’t know the season of figs in this territory like every other Jew who has ever been to Jerusalem for the three major festivals, right?

No, he curses the fig tree so that it withers and dies, dried up at the root (Mark 11:14, 20). It looks not only stupid but mean-spirited in narcissistic fashion. I don’t care what season it is. You’re a fig tree, and I want figs now.

This is another example of why you can’t read everything in the Bible literally. It is a story that is obviously meant to be read symbolically.

It’s a very common theme in the Old Testament. A gardener plants a tree (or vine) in a garden, cares for it, removes weeds, protects it from wild animals, basically does everything you can to keep the tree healthy so that it will bear fruit. When it’s time for the harvest, there is either no fruit or the fruit is rotten. This is a metaphor the Bible uses repeatedly to say the religious and national institutions have become corrupt, and God is about to pass judgment on them .

The Markan Sandwich

Mark connects this story with another in one of his “sandwiches.” This is when he starts one story, interrupts it with another narrative, and then finishes the first story. The story that interrupts this one is The Cleansing of the Temple (11:15-19), when Jesus overturns the tables of the moneychangers and calls out the corruption of the priests. Matthew presents these stories as separate events (21:12-13, 18-22), but Mark deliberately links them together to show the meaning of both these actions is one and the same.

Jesus sees a tree with no fruit and causes it to wither and die from the inside out, indicating God’s judgment on the Temple as an institution. Even though this is not the explanation Jesus gives (11:21-26), no Jew in Jerusalem could have missed the symbolism. Here are a few more examples.

The axe is already laid at the root of the trees; therefore every tree that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire (Matthew 3:10).

Beware of the false prophets…Grapes are not gathered from thorn bushes nor figs from thistles, are they? Every tree that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire (Matthew 7:15a, 18-19).

In these two passages, both Jesus and John the Baptist draw upon on Old Testament symbol of good figs representing the good people and bad figs representing the bad people (Jeremiah 24:1-8; Hosea 9:10).

Each of them will sit under his vine and under his fig tree

Figs were often named with other crops, especially grapes, as a symbol of security and abundance, of the entire promised land being blessed and no one lacking anything. When the fig tree and the grapevine bore good fruit, all the people lived in shalom.

And He will judge between many peoples and render decisions for mighty, distant nations. Then they will hammer their swords into plowshares and their spears into pruning hooks; Nation will not lift up sword against nation, and never again will they train for war. Each of them will sit under his vine and under his fig tree, with no one to make them afraid, for the mouth of the LORD of hosts has spoken (Micah 4:3-4).

So Judah and Israel lived in safety, every man under his vine and his fig tree, from Dan even to Beersheba, all the days of Solomon (1 Kings 4:25).

For the LORD your God is bringing you into a good land, a land of brooks of water, of fountains and springs, flowing forth in valleys and hills; a land of wheat and barley, of vines and fig trees and pomegranates, a land of olive oil and honey (Deuteronomy 8:7-8)

Shaken and Rotten figs

So when fig tree and the vine bore no fruit, or the figs fell because the tree was shaken, troubled times were ahead.

…thus says the LORD of hosts, “Behold, I am sending upon them the sword, famine and pestilence, and I will make them like split-open figs that cannot be eaten due to rottenness” (Jeremiah 29:17).

The vine dries up and the fig tree fails; The pomegranate, the palm also, and the apple tree, all the trees of the field dry up indeed, rejoicing dries up from the sons of men (Joel 1:12).

“I will surely snatch them away,” declares the LORD; “There will be no grapes on the vine and no figs on the fig tree, and the leaf will wither; And what I have given them will pass away” (Jeremiah 8:13)

They will devour your harvest and your food; They will devour your sons and your daughters; They will devour your flocks and your herds; They will devour your vines and your fig trees; They will demolish with the sword your fortified cities in which you trust (Jeremiah 5:17).

All your fortifications are fig trees ripe with ripe fruit – When [the trees are] shaken, the [figs] fall into the eater’s mouth (Nahum 3:12).

The author of Revelation draws upon this as well.

And the stars of heaven fell unto the earth, even as a fig tree casteth her untimely figs, when she is shaken of a mighty wind (Revelation 6:13, KJV).

The Temple is a house built on sand

So this is not about vindictiveness toward a tree. Just as he did when he overturned the tables of the moneychangers, Jesus is taking on the role of a prophet pronouncing God’s judgment on the religious institutions. And troubled times were coming. They are within a generation of a rebellion against Rome that would end with the complete destruction of the Temple. The rebels were not yet born, but the social and political forces were already at work, the same forces exposed in the trial of Jesus. And this fact was uncovered recently: The Emperor Vespasian used the gold, silver, and bronze from the Temple to pay for the construction of the Colosseum.

What was happening in the Temple, in the priesthood, and in the religious life of Judea that made Jesus so angry? Usually when the prophets pronounce God’s judgment in the most dire terms, they are condemning some kind of systemic injustice. Corruption has become so entrenched in the system that the only remedy left is to destroy the institution completely and hope that in the ashes the institutions can be recreated. Hopefully this time, if we start again from scratch, these institutions that are supposed to uphold justice and righteousness for everyone will get it right.

As I write this, I feel afraid. When some people read in the Bible about God’s harshest judgments, they feel justified in dehumanizing certain people. They think God hates all the same people they hate. I know because I used to be one of them. Still a recovering Fundamentalist. I don’t want to stir up those kind of misguided feelings, but in order to get at the meaning of this passage, we need to understand this kind of prophetic tradition Jesus was part of. I have a few ideas that I will discuss in a later post.

The Trial (Mat 26:57-68; Mar 14:53-65; Luk 22:63-71; Jn 18:12-14, 19-24)

I think I’ve mentioned our church is offering the Kerygma Bible study course. It’s 30 weeks total, and we have about 8 or 10 sessions left. After our study on the crucifixion, I’ve decided I want to do a series on the events of Holy Week. If I were normal, I would start with the entry into Jerusalem on Palm Sunday. But when I’m writing a series or novel, I don’t write linearly. I jump from one chapter to another in an order that only makes sense to me. And my sense says to start with the Thursday night trial, so here goes:

Have you heard Jesus was black? Three reasons we know that:

  1. He loved Gospel music
  2. He called all his closest friends Brother
  3. He couldn’t get a fair trial.

Seriously, though, this trial was rigged from the start. They started the trial around midnight. They did not let him have an advocate. They didn’t give him a chance to call in his own witnesses. And in spite of that, Jesus almost beat the system.

After he was arrested he was brought before the high priest and the Sanhedrin, the Jewish ruling council, consisting of 71 chief priests, scribes, and elders. The Torah says no one can be sentenced to death on the basis of one witness (Deut 19:15).

So they brought in several witnesses. Now Jesus had been teaching in the Temple all week. People who had heard him as he toured Galilee would have been there for the Passover festival. The Gospels all provide examples of things he had said that could be construed as blasphemous. All they need is two people to agree on one thing he said. But they couldn’t.

For many gave false testimony against him, and their testimony did not agree (Mar 14:56 NRS).

This shows how savvy Jesus was: Innocent as a dove but wise as a snake. He kept moving from town to town, no fixed place to lay his head, to stay one step ahead of the authorities. He stayed in Capernaum, which was next to the border of Galilee and had bases across the border, so he could easily get away from Herod if he had to. And why did all of the witnesses get it wrong? Because he spoke in parables but only explained what he meant to his friends.

I’m surprised I haven’t heard more people comment on what a brilliant strategy this was. How do you get your message out when you know the powers that be want to silence you? Speak in code and only entrust the key to that code to those you trust.

So for a while, it looked like he might walk. They want to convict him, but they don’t have the evidence. Their own witnesses can’t agree. The high priest got so frustrated he said, “Have you no answer? What is it that they testify against you?” (Mar 14:60 NRS).

Why should he answer? He knows your case is falling apart.

Then the high priest asked him directly, “Are you the Messiah,
the Son of the Blessed One?”
(Mar 14:61 NRS).

At this point, Jesus had the case won. He said, “Messiah? Son of the Blessed One? Come on! I’m just a carpenter from Nazareth. These crowds have been following me. They get a little crazy. I can’t control everything they say. I mean, you saw here. Everyone’s saying something different, things that I never said. Tell you what. Just let me go. I’ll run off to Egypt, and you can say anything you want about me. Tell them I was just another phony Messiah like everyone’s seen before. They’ll believe that, and I won’t be here to refute it. You’ll never see or hear from me again. That’s really what you want, right?”

Oh wait, that’s what I would have said. What he said was…

“I am; and ‘you will see the Son of Man seated at the right hand of the Power,’ and ‘coming with the clouds of heaven'” (Mar 14:62 NRS).

Jesus, what are you doing??? They would never have been able to pin anything on you if you hadn’t confessed! I thought you knew that because you were exercising your right to remain silent! Earlier, he told Peter if he wanted, he could call on his Father, and He would send 10,000 angels to rescue him. Forget the angels.
All he had to do was not confess, and they would have had to let him go. A lawyer’s worst nightmare of a client. Even after I got him off, he just couldn’t keep his mouth shut.

What happened next is really remarkable. The high priest tore his clothes and said, “Why do we still need witnesses? You have heard his blasphemy! What is your decision?” All of them condemned him as deserving death (Mar 14:63-64 NRS).

Why did the high priest tear his clothes? In Biblical times, this was a sign of great emotional distress, especially associated with grieving for the dead. And the high priest was forbidden from tearing his clothes! He was actually forbidden from showing any signs of mourning, even for his immediate family (Lev 21:10; also 10:1-7). And yet he broke the law he claimed to be upholding.

It may seem like a small thing, tearing his clothes. But was it any smaller than what Jesus had done? The high priest and the Sanhedrin plotted to kill him for healing on the Sabbath, for making a snack on the Sabbath, for eating without washing his hands, for eating with tax collectors and sinners, and perhaps most of all, for calling the whole crew out on their hypocrisy (Mat 23): Tithing even their herbs and ignoring justice, mercy, and faith (Mat 23:23; Luk 11:42). So concerned about purity they strain a gnat but swallow a camel (Mat 23:24).

I used to be a fundamentalist. There are many reasons I am not now, but one of the biggies is the hypocrisy. Fundamentalism focuses in on one or a few rules, watches everyone with a critical eye and points fingers at people who don’t follow their laws. But it misses the big picture.

The high priest tore his clothes while condemning Jesus for breaking the Law. The Sanhedrin beat him and trumped up charges to get him executed, breaking the sixth and ninth commandments. Evangelicals rant and rave about gay marriage, yet surveys have shown a majority of them favor torture. They also tend to vote for candidates who say “Greed is good” when the Bible says greed is the root of all evil (1Tim 6:10).

To all of this, I hear Jesus saying, [I]f you had known what this means, ‘I desire mercy and not sacrifice,’ you would not have condemned the guiltless (Mat 12:7 NRS).

Condemn the guiltless they did. I just hope we can learn from their mistakes.

Grace and peace to you.

Between Two Flags

What does it mean to be a Christian nation?

In our church, as in many, there is the church flag on one side and an American flag on the other. I would prefer there not be an American flag in church. I think it’s easy to turn the flag into an idol, especially when it is in a space of worship. Conflating American heritage with Christianity I think is dangerous. I feel it in many ways but perhaps most acutely when I hear the phrase “Christian nation” thrown around with little or no resemblance to the teachings of Christ. Is that the meaning of the two flags in church? We are a Christian nation, and if you don’t believe it “get the hell out”?

My pastor once asked whether it was possible to speak of a Christian nation when Jesus said so little about politics. Let’s say it is possible. If we want to be a Christian nation, he thought that would mean we do not go to war, we forgive the wrongs done to us, and we marshal the vast resources that God has blessed us with toward helping the poor. This includes helping provide for their everyday needs – food, clothing, water, shelter, health care, education – and empowering them to lift themselves out of poverty, both in this country and around the world.

Now if I may add, while Jesus said very little about politics, he had a lot to say about how we treat the poor, the widow, the orphan, the homeless, and anyone who is a victim of injustice. If you’ve forgotten, read Matthew 25:34-46. He had a lot to say about violence, and he led a nonviolent movement long before Gandhi and MLK. Before the Anabaptists and Amish. Remember the Sermon on the Mount? Turn the other cheek? Love your enemies? Forgive your brother and sister seventy times seven? He even forgave the people who crucified him.

What does all that mean in regard to wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, drone attacks, torture of prisoners, indefinite detention, deporting children, spying without warrants, women’s health, mass incarceration of African-Americans, and shutting the doors on refugees? What does it mean when candidates talk about bringing back waterboarding and worse? They tell us we have to do this to protect the American way of life. Maybe so, but is it consistent with the Christian way of life?

The American flag on one side, the church flag on the other. They may represent unity of purpose. Or they may represent divided loyalties. Are we serving Jesus Christ or what Eisenhower called the Military-Industrial Complex? If we follow Jesus Christ, we should feel at least some tension between the two flags. If we ever stop feeling that tension, we have most likely turned our nation and its flag into a golden calf.

Addendum – Matthew 25:34-46

34 Then the king will say to those at his right hand, ‘Come, you that are blessed by my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world;

35 for I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me,

36 I was naked and you gave me clothing, I was sick and you took care of me, I was in prison and you visited me.’

37 Then the righteous will answer him, ‘Lord, when was it that we saw you hungry and gave you food, or thirsty and gave you something to drink?

38 And when was it that we saw you a stranger and welcomed you, or naked and gave you clothing?

39 And when was it that we saw you sick or in prison and visited you?’

40 And the king will answer them, ‘Truly I tell you, just as you did it to one of the least of these who are members of my family,1 you did it to me.’

41 Then he will say to those at his left hand, ‘You that are accursed, depart from me into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels;

42 for I was hungry and you gave me no food, I was thirsty and you gave me nothing to drink,

43 I was a stranger and you did not welcome me, naked and you did not give me clothing, sick and in prison and you did not visit me.’

44 Then they also will answer, ‘Lord, when was it that we saw you hungry or thirsty or a stranger or naked or sick or in prison, and did not take care of you?’

45 Then he will answer them, ‘Truly I tell you, just as you did not do it to one of the least of these, you did not do it to me.’

46 And these will go away into eternal punishment, but the righteous into eternal life.”

 

Compassion and caution

David Anderson

If you read my last post, you might be thinking some of these refugees might really be terrorists, the proverbial wolves in sheep’s clothing. And I would say we all should know the vast majority of these people are legitimately in dire straits. We’ve seen the images of the children washed up dead on the shores. How desperate do you have to be to undertake a journey you and your children might not survive? They are running from ISIS. They are victims of terrorism themselves. Still, I am as concerned as any American about keeping terrorists out. So I understand we need more than just, “Love each other, and it will all work out.”

Current policy inadequate

We talk to them. If any part of their story can’t be verified, we don’t let them in. That’s the current policy. A Republican state house representative I happened to meet at a cocktail party said we “dodged a bullet” on the refugee issue when the governor said we won’t accept Syrian refugees. “We don’t know who these people are,” he said. “They live in the stone age. How are we going to verify they are who they say they are?”

I’m not sure “stone age” is accurate. But he actually showed why this policy is inadequate for meeting this need. When people are running for their lives or coming from refugee camps, do they think about collecting their documents? How are we going to be able to confirm every detail they tell about the circumstances that led them here?

Wolves among the sheep?

That’s the worry that’s making people push back against doing more to help. I wish I could dismiss it as right-wing paranoia, but a report on CNN said that one of the attackers in Paris did in fact enter the country by posing as a refugee. So it appears ISIS has figured how to infiltrate groups of refugees. What can we do then with so many people in need, the vast majority of whom are refugees but may have a few terrorists sprinkled in? For what it’s worth, I have an idea….

Vet them, and monitor them

Vet them as much as we can, with the understanding because of circumstances, verifying each and every detail may not be possible.  If I were as desperate as the Syrian refugees, I would not mind it at all if that’s what it takes for you to let me into your country. Go ahead, put an ankle bracelet monitor on me, put a tap on all my phones and computers, put a GPS chip under my skin, assign me a probation officer  – whatever it takes for you to feel safe enough to let me in. If I go back to my country, I’m dead. Just give me a place where I can live like a human being. That’s all I want.

Recruiting Opportunity

In my last post, I appealed to Deuteronomy 10:19 – You shall also love the stranger, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt. That may make me sound altruistic and naïve. Full disclosure, I have selfish motives as well for letting in more refugees.

I’ve said for years if we are going to defeat terrorists who call themselves Muslim, we need friends in the Muslim world. If we rescue them when they have nowhere else to turn, how likely are they to be recruited by people who call us the Great Satan? “The Great Satan” saved my life and my family’s lives, Dumbass!

Those who we let in and are found to be trustworthy through vetting and monitoring, why not recruit some of them to help gather intelligence on ISIS, Al-Qaeda, or any other Muslim extremist group that threatens us? They already look like they belong there. They speak the language – and without an American accent. Perfect spy material.

But what do I know? I’m just a Bible scholar.

 

Strangers in the Land

David Anderson

Most of us have read or heard the story of the Pharisee who asked Jesus what the most important commandment in scripture is. He responded that the greatest command was two-fold: Love the Lord your God with all your heart, all your soul, all your strength, and all your mind. And also, love your neighbor as yourself. How important are they?

On these two commandments hang all the law and the prophets. (Matthew 22:40 KJV)

The neighbor, though, is not the only person we are commanded to love.

You shall also love the stranger, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt. (Deuteronomy 10:19 NRS)

Would it surprise you to know that the command to love your neighbor appears only once in the Old Testament, but the command to love the stranger appears 34 times? Is that because it is 34 times as important to love the stranger as it is to love the neighbor? Is it because we should love the stranger 34 times as much as the neighbor? I don’t think so. I think the constant repetition of this command indicates how much harder it is to love the stranger – different race, different nationality, different language, different ethnicity, different culture, different religion – than people we know and who are like us.

Coupled with the command is the reason: because you were strangers in the land of Egypt. The reason is expanded in this command regarding the offering of first-fruits to the LORD.

4 When the priest takes the basket from your hand and sets it down before the altar of the LORD your God, you shall make this response before the LORD your God: “A wandering Aramean was my [father]; he went down into Egypt and lived there as an alien, few in number, and there he became a great nation, mighty and populous.

 6 When the Egyptians treated us harshly and afflicted us, by imposing hard labor on us, we cried to the LORD, the God of our ancestors; the LORD heard our voice and saw our affliction, our toil, and our oppression.

 8 The LORD brought us out of Egypt with a mighty hand and an outstretched arm, with a terrifying display of power, and with signs and wonders; and he brought us into this place and gave us this land, a land flowing with milk and honey.

 10 So now I bring the first of the fruit of the ground that you, O LORD, have given me.” You shall set it down before the LORD your God and bow down before the LORD your God. (Deuteronomy 26:4-10 NRS)

So every time they brought first-fruit offerings, they reminded themselves,

  1. Their ancestors wandered with no land to call their own
  2. They settled in a foreign nation and prospered there, despite being aliens
  3. The Egyptians treated them harshly and oppressed them
  4. They cried out to the LORD, and the LORD heard them
  5. God delivered them out of bondage in Egypt and gave them a land flowing with milk and honey
  6. Now that they are settled and established in the land, they offer to God the first-fruits of what the land produced for them.

The Syrian refugee crisis is on a scale we have seldom seen in human history. The command of the LORD is clear: Love the stranger, for you were once strangers in a foreign land. Isn’t that the American experience as well? Unless you’re Native American, your ancestors came here as strangers. Why is it so hard now to obey God’s commandment?

There has been so much fear of immigrants in the last several years, mainly since 9-11. If those immigrants are Muslim, forget it. We don’t want them. Fear of the stranger coupled with fear of terrorism. While that is understandable, I don’t think it excuses us from taking in refugees.

Look at the scriptures above again. The Israelites recited these words repeatedly. They made sure to pass them on to each generation, so they would remember it. We were oppressed in Egypt. The LORD delivered us out of bondage and brought us into this blessed land. Notice, in each generation, they don’t say, “Our ancestors were oppressed…” They say, “We were oppressed…and the LORD delivered us.”

Hear the word of the LORD. Love the stranger and welcome him or her. You were strangers once in this land. I am the LORD who blessed you and gave you a home here. Don’t EVER forget that.

 

Why are you acting irrationally?

David Anderson

In writing my novel manuscript, there was a scene where I knew my main character and his wife would have sex with each other. I worried about whether or not I should show it. One of my reasons in the “Not column” was that being in prison would make them self-conscious about it. A man in my critique group shot that down. He had been in prison, and he said when you are there, this rational restraint I thought my characters had would not exist. You are so overwhelmed emotionally you don’t think of the consequences. You just react.

I have a friend – I’ll call him Frank – who says when he was twenty, he got pulled over by the police. He made some belligerent comment, and the police officer drew his gun. I was really surprised to hear this from him, because I’ve always known him to be a peace-loving and compassionate person. This seems to be both against common sense and against what I know of his character. Looking back, he knows it was a stupid thing to antagonize a police officer. But in the moment, he lost all sense of what was wise and dangerously foolish.

In these two situations I see a common thread. Two men, who are normally smart and responsible, acted foolishly in confrontations with law enforcement. I know enough about brain science to know the frontal lobe is the part of the brain where inhibitions live. Wikipedia says,

The function of the frontal lobe involves the ability to project future consequences resulting from current actions, the choice between good and bad actions (or better and best), the override and suppression of socially unacceptable responses, and the determination of similarities and differences between things or events.

So that voice that tells you not to do it because it will only make things worse, that comes from the frontal lobe. Under certain conditions, the frontal lobe can shut down, and the mind responds emotionally rather than rationally. Apparently, for these two friends, extreme emotional distress caused their frontal lobes to shut down, and they reacted in a “fight or flight” mode of thinking, and they reacted irrationally.

I am not saying this to exonerate them or anyone from bad behavior. “Hey, my frontal lobe shut down. What could I do?” I’m talking about this in an attempt to understand why people – even smart, good-hearted people – sometimes behave irrationally. We have seen a lot in the news lately of police encounters starting bad and escalating into deadly situations. It’s been just a little over a year since the shooting of Michael Brown in Ferguson.

Some people talk about how the victims talked back or didn’t follow instructions. In other words, the police may have overreacted, but Michael Brown, Eric Harris, Darrius Stewart, etc., acted aggressively, so it’s their fault. And I have to admit, when I watch, there’s a part of my brain that says, “For God’s sake, he’s got a badge and a gun [not to mention a nightstick, a tazer, pepper spray, etc.]! Just do what he says!”

Normally, I respect law enforcement. Those who do their job correctly are worth their weight in gold. We could not have anything resembling civilization without them, and I for one am a big fan of civilization. And no officer should ever be punished for legitimate use of force. Unfortunately, police officers are human too. They can make mistakes. Legally, we hold people responsible if they commit an unjustifiable level of violence, even if they were under extreme duress. Because they have a badge and a gun, it is all the more important that police officers be held to that standard as well.

If someone talks back to them, the gun or a choke hold should not be the first resort (In fact, the choke hold should not be a response at all). If someone is actively resisting arrest, they may need to use strong force. Strong force, however, does not include continuously beating a helpless suspect. Deadly force needs to be an option only when his/her life or the lives of law abiding citizens are immediately threatened, and I don’t see immediate threat in these videos. That’s the problem. The beating, tazing, or shooting was excessive.

You can talk all you want about how these victims were not angels, but neither was my friend Frank. Since this issue is more personal for Frank than for me, I offer these observations from him to reflect on.

  1. We have only seen these incidents because they were captured on video. How many more incidents occurred that were not on video?
  2. If it was happening in your neighborhood, you would have either seen it or heard about it, but the world outside would know nothing of it – and perhaps not care. How would that make you feel?
  3. To this day, Frank cannot help but wonder if he were black, would he still be here?