Tag Archives: rights

“Unalienable rights” should be normal but not necessary

The Declaration of Independence must be one of the most influential things ever written. It might be the “sacred literature” that influences Americans, including the Christians, the most. I think we need to do better than that, even though the Declaration has changed the world.

You may have memorized the beginning at some point:

“We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.–That to secure these rights, Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed.”

circle of hope, collingswood, non-denominational, rights, Jesus, church, philadelphia, churches in philadelphia, south jerseyHaving just returned from Zimbabwe, I have to say how much I enjoy those lines. My rights in Zimbabwe were subject to the searching gaze of a young soldier, often part of a team with machine guns, stopping our van (at least twenty times) over the 280 miles from Bulawayo to Livingstone. The people of Zimbabwe are so used to looking over their shoulders to see who is listening that they are reticent to say anything meaningful to their friends! It is nice to have rights.

Unfortunately, that rarity among the people of the world is seen as the apex of goodness among Americans. If you have the rights the government should honor, that’s it. After that it is up to you and you should be happy. Of course, as you have noticed, so-called minority people who are given rights don’t automatically enjoy life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. There is much more to life than the government acquiescing and allowing one to exist legally, even when that government thinks it is God’s tool for righteousness, as it seems to think in the U.S.

At least that is what I think Paul teaches. There is much more – so much more that talk of rights seems kind of like spiritual baby talk. The Apostle Paul has some extensive teaching about rights and freedom in his letters. He is talking to people who are generally denied rights under Roman autocracy, and he is talking more specifically to religious people who think following the law of Moses gives them special rights. What he teaches is that we have rights granted by God that don’t depend on anyone. But even more, we have the capacity, just like Jesus, to give up our rights for love. Our right to love is the highest privilege of all.

Listen to him in 1 Corinthians 9

     Am I not free? Am I not an apostle? Have I not seen Jesus our Lord?Are you not the result of my work in the Lord?  Even though I may not be an apostle to others, surely I am to you! For you are the seal of my apostleship in the Lord.

     This is my defense to those who sit in judgment on me. Don’t we have the right to food and drink? Don’t we have the right to take a believing wife along with us, as do the other apostles and the Lord’s brothers and Cephas? Or is it only I and Barnabas who lack the right to not work for a living?

     Who serves as a soldier at his own expense? Who plants a vineyard and does not eat its grapes? Who tends a flock and does not drink the milk? Do I say this merely on human authority? Doesn’t the Law say the same thing? For it is written in the Law of Moses: “Do not muzzle an ox while it is treading out the grain.” Is it about oxen that God is concerned? Surely he says this for us, doesn’t he? Yes, this was written for us, because whoever plows and threshes should be able to do so in the hope of sharing in the harvest. If we have sown spiritual seed among you, is it too much if we reap a material harvest from you? If others have this right of support from you, shouldn’t we have it all the more?

This is like his declaration of independence. He declares his unalienable rights, doesn’t he? (Maybe you thought Thomas Jefferson invented these things!) But he goes way beyond clinging to his rights as he continues.

     But we did not use this right. On the contrary, we put up with anything rather than hinder the gospel of Christ.

     Don’t you know that those who serve in the temple get their food from the temple, and that those who serve at the altar share in what is offered on the altar?  In the same way, the Lord has commanded that those who preach the gospel should receive their living from the gospel.

     But I have not used any of these rights. And I am not writing this in the hope that you will do such things for me, for I would rather die than allow anyone to deprive me of this boast. For when I preach the gospel, I cannot boast, since I am compelled to preach. Woe to me if I do not preach the gospel!  If I preach voluntarily, I have a reward; if not voluntarily, I am simply discharging the trust committed to me. What then is my reward? Just this: that in preaching the gospel I may offer it free of charge, and so not make full use of my rights as a preacher of the gospel.

Perhaps we look askance at his boasting. But what he is saying is that he likes the reward he gets from not exercising his rights. He wants to be deeper than what is normal. He does not want to be tied up with begging and fighting for his rights, even though he deserves them on human and spiritual authority. Jesus did not die and rise to achieve normal. Paul likes relying on the Lord and having Jesus as the guarantor of rights that go far beyond the rights of which humans can deprive him. He explains what that means.

      Though I am free and belong to no one, I have made myself a slave to everyone, to win as many as possible. To the Jews I became like a Jew, to win the Jews. To those under the law I became like one under the law (though I myself am not under the law), so as to win those under the law. To those not having the law I became like one not having the law (though I am not free from God’s law but am under Christ’s law), so as to win those not having the law. To the weak I became weak, to win the weak. I have become all things to all people so that by all possible means I might save some.  I do all this for the sake of the gospel, that I may share in its blessings.

All the rights claimed by various tribes of people are fine with Paul. He has those too, on several counts: he is a Jew and a Roman citizen; he is under the law and a notorious lawbreaker; some see him as strong others as weak. But for Jesus’ cause and because of the love that’s been poured out on him and through him, he does not need to get stuck in any of those sub-Christian categories.

circle of hope, collingswood, non-denominational, rights, Jesus, church, philadelphia, churches in philadelphia, south jerseyWhen he writes to the Galatians about similar things, he warns them about getting stuck.

 You, my brothers and sisters, were called to be free. But do not use your freedom to indulge the flesh; rather, serve one another humbly in love.  For the entire law is fulfilled in keeping this one command: “Love your neighbor as yourself.” If you bite and devour each other, watch out or you will be destroyed by each other.

When we talk about the politics of the U.S. these days we can almost immediately get stuck in whatever someone’s “unalienable rights” means to them about “freedom.” Mostly, it appears to mean we are all free to bite and devour one another, and the leaders are the prime examples of that freedom! In the church, people often think that protecting the rights of minorities is the apex of morality when it is just the beginning. Whole denominations divide up over power struggles about individual identity and rights. Many unbelievers think it is characteristically Christian to bite and devour people — mainly because they fight for power all day! I don’t think the Bible writers taught them to do that. There is so much more than that! Paul is not waiting to get his rights straight in the eyes of others before he loves them and reveals Jesus to them. That former preoccupation has passed away.

I am glad I have, as an American, the basic political rights that all people should have. As a white male, I have privilege that gives me special, if unauthorized, “rights” that are backed up by the domination system for whom the Declaration of Independence was intended to begin with. I think that Zimbabweans and all people who are oppressed and denied their identity as free individuals should be liberated politically. But, even more, I am glad I know that none of us will be free until we quit fighting for our rights and start receiving them from Jesus. Jesus is the true liberator. There is more life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness available in the Kingdom of God, whether I have governmental rights or not, than any gun-toting soldier can give me or take away.

Do you agree that there is another way? It begins with seeing things with a new lens. When we look at the group in the picture at the top, do we automatically see them from the perspective of who has rights and who doesn’t? Who is up and who is down? Who is labeled this and who that? Or are we determined to serve one another in love as a people who are one in Christ?

Maybe a good way to explore another way would be to consider who you think is biting you or devouring you. Maybe it stung to hear the sexist language in the declaration. Maybe it is irritating to hear talk about rights from a so-called white man. Maybe this theology doesn’t match what you grew up with in your Pentecostal church. Maybe someone did something bad to you and now you don’t feel you can trust Circle of Hope. Maybe you will need to assert your rights. But once you win that battle, what will you do to follow Christ into what is next? Maybe you could just skip the battle and go straight to love and service (and even boasting in it), like Paul.

Jesus — and five basic assumptions that inform dialogue on sexuality

The other day a distant acquaintance accused our church of not talking about sex enough  (in the neighborhood gossip column, at least). It was right after we enjoyed an open forum about our theology of sexuality attended by over 100 people! It never ceases to surprise me that the more one does something, the more excuse it gives a few people to criticize you for not doing it!

If anything, Circle of Hope has been a good place to work through the trauma of our over-sexualized society. As our forum uncovered, a lot of people have had painful sexual experiences, and not just because the powers that be limit their sexual expression (since they don’t really do that anymore). Sex is painful because they are confused. And it is painful because they get run over by the wave of immorality that is surging through the culture. (Maybe using the word immorality even made you uneasy, since who could say what that is?). It is painful because sex has become an incessant demand and a constant source of scientific study. And it is painful because a lot of people can’t figure out what Jesus says about it.

He wept over it
Enrique Simonet, 1892

Listening to people lately has helped me collect a few of the assumptions I often share when people want some spiritual direction about what to do with what they feel and how they are acting. When you only have your own impulses and a lot of societal pressure to work with, things can get confusing – and painful. So here are five things about Jesus that I think should inform how we have a dialogue about sexual behavior (among other things, of course). These five things will not solve everyone’s problems, and I’m not speaking from a place that has been processed by the leaders of the church, but I hope to name some basic things that guide life in Jesus and that apply to how we continue the dialogue about sexuality.

Continue reading Jesus — and five basic assumptions that inform dialogue on sexuality

Four reasons people might not care to be radical Christians – Part 1

Who are radical Christians? They may not look as wild as you might expect, or be famous for being “out there.” But they will have some basic characteristics. For instance:

  • They are devoted to being at the heart of the kingdom and to having the kingdom at the heart of them.
  • God is not trying to get them to do things with moderate success; they are trying to get God to do things.
  • Following Jesus is not a side job, it is their vocation.
  • The church is not one of many options; it is their tribal identity.
  • Mission is not a leisure time activity; they will use their money-making work to make it happen.
  • Believing is not exhausting for them; it is exhilarating.

That sounds great. So why wouldn’t everyone want to be radical Christian? Thank God, many people do! But let’s be honest, Christians are feeling on the defensive. They’ve lost their home field advantage in the society. The “cultural” Christians who used to give a high five to Jesus are changing to the “nones” the Pew survey is tracking. Christianity is no longer first choice among many seeking spiritual meaning. You don’t have to identify as a Christian to be accepted in society like you used to. If your faith is squishy, it is better to identify as “spiritual” — Ed Stetzer is an optimistic church expert guy, but even he admits that.

Do I look like a radical?
James 1:22-25

Circle of Hope was founded on the premise that we could find a group of radicals in the Philly metro who would form the next church as the old one died around them. It is totally amazing that we’ve managed to get together nearly 700 of them and have touched the lives of 1000s of others who have received compassion or just passed through and taken away something good. But being a radical is tough, over the long haul. And these days, it seems like finding more radicals is even harder than it was to begin with.

I think there are eight big reasons people don’t want to be radicals. I don’t enumerate them to be critical, just honest. And, I admit it, I am trying to get God to do something – I want him to draw together the next 700 people God is calling to reveal the kingdom in the Philly metro as they band together as the next church.

What is in the way of that? Here are the first four reasons. The other four will show up next time.

1) People worship at the altar of scientism these days

Ronald Miller says: “We have scientific (psychological) experts giving us moral guidance not because their science allows them to know what we should be doing with our lives but because they cause so much less harm than their religious and political predecessors. Of course, for this moral disarmament to work effectively the scientific experts must be convinced of the truth of their message and the consumer assured that no better advice is available. These are two conditions that are rather easily met. In the presence of oppressive forces stifling individual freedom, self-exploration, and self expression, scienticism as a moral system had a balancing effect within Western society” (in Facing Human Suffering, p. 101-2).

After 100 years of this, the new “priests” of science are firmly in place and have new laws to back them up. But the religion of science has de-moralized the populace and become a spiritual problem, itself. Nevertheless, most 19-year-olds are committed to it and it is hard to convince them to change their no-religion religion.

2) People believe the narrative of human rights

The Jesus story is the ultimate story of human freedom. But the church allied itself with all sorts of colonial enterprises, endorsed slavery, oppressed minorities and women and started wars. The Vatican is a kingdom, for pity’s sake! Much of the church sold its birthright for a mess of pottage. People noticed.

The United States’ narrative is about how political rights bring salvation; it is the gospel of democracy. This philosophy supposedly guarantees freedom to succeed and freedom from oppression. People believe it, even when they don’t succeed and are enslaved! When the church comes through with another narrative based on God, not human freedom, following a suffering servant, not one’s desires, there is an argument.

3) Sex is unleashed from the sacred and from community

For many people, these are the unspoken truths they live by: “If someone will love me, I will trade Jesus for them. If something threatens my orgasm, I will sacrifice that something.”

Too bad the image of sex in Christianity is celibate priests who aren’t celibate and dour Puritans telling everyone to “just say no!”  Paul’s teachings on sexual purity and marriage were adopted as liberating in the pornographic, sexually exploitive Greco-Roman culture of his time, which especially exploited slaves and women, who men valued mainly for their ability to produce children and provide pleasure. Faith in Jesus worked a cultural revolution, restraining and channeling male drives, elevating the status of both women and of the human body, and infusing marriage, and sex, with love. Christian marriage was as different from anything before or since as the command to turn the other cheek.

“Christendom” did not bring in a golden age of social harmony and sexual bliss. But Jesus reformed sexual instinct, embedded it within a community, and directed it in positive ways. The younger one is, the more likely they are to view any restraint or direction as oppression, especially in regards to sex. Even talking about sex probably violates the right to privacy they invented last century. People are done with Christian meddling. The main thing they are getting rid of is Christian nonsense, but they are throwing out the baby with the bathwater.

4) Radicality takes a time commitment

I’m drifting into the more personal and less philosophical area that I will explore next time, but not completely. Questions of time are economic questions, and the people of the world have been forced into “economies” for some time now by the powers that be. We are expected to find our meaning in what we do: what we produce and what we consume. We sell our time for money. Time is money.

Not conforming, Christians do what they do for God’s glory as carriers of that glory. The abiding metaphor is that we were ransomed from sin and death and set free in a safe place under a loving regime. This reality puts Jesus followers in direct opposition to the powers that demand all our time — now machines can contact us and track us 24/7!  Being and building the alternative to that life-sucking regime takes time. Compassion is demanding. Relationships take effort. Mission is preoccupying. Commitment means we do not save our lives in the present system at the cost of our true selves. It is harder than that last sentence might make it seem.

So there are four big reasons why people might be daunted when it comes to being a true Christian. The Bible writers are always quite frank about the problem of being at odds with the powers that be: “Our struggle is not against flesh and blood, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the powers of this dark world and against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly realms” (Ephesians 6). We’re honest about that, too.

Read on for some more personal reasons in Part 2.

Well-centered hope: The alternative to a new oppressive holiness

Circle of Hope is among the co-conspirators behind Conspire magazine, brought alongside by our covenant-pal, Shane Claiborne. I like the passion. An article in the first issue by Nate Buchanan gives me an opportunity to talk about something I have been meaning to work on for quite a while.

While I like the direction Nate is taking when he is working on participating with God’s liberation of the oppressed, I am wondering about the theology of one of his statements. I am not rebutting his article, as much as he is allowing me to think out loud about something that has been troubling me. He says:

“Sadly, our communities often mirror ‘the powers that be’ in the dominant culture. While we profess to be counter-cultural, we are most often represented, spoken for, and led by white, heterosexual, educated males – despite the large numbers of intelligent and capable women, persons of color, and GLBT members of our communities. If we seek to follow a Messiah who, by Luke’s account, silenced a male priest and had a pregnant teenage girl proclaim the greatness of his coming, this is a crucial issue.”

Democracy does not equal righteousness

I think our communities (Nate’s and Circle of Hope’s) do often mirror “the powers that be” in the way Nate describes and that needs to keep changing. But I also think there is an even deeper change that needs to happen. We need to give up thinking that democratic rights = righteousness.

In the U.S. the dominant culture (and I am talking about the culture at its semi-God-fearing best) fully believes that when everyone is given their rights, when the marginalized are given their share of the power and wealth, when everyone is free to be their self-actualized self, then the kingdom will have arrived — or, at least, that must be what God is working on. Whether Bush is “liberating” Iraq or Obama is easing the situation of the oppressed, political “freedom” is the goal.

While I think having whatever passes for “democracy” or “human rights” in our day is better than being subject to some other philosophy — like the Taliban destroying schools, I still don’t think Jesus came merely to give teenage girls the aspiration to be president one day, as if getting one’s share of the power will save you. And I think people who believe in such aspirations so fervently should admit that they generally think it is a good thing to deprive the Taliban of their religious duty to oppress.

One Nation Under God
One Nation Under God by Jon McNaughton

Does Jesus rule or the founding fathers?

I doubt that anyone is interested in being that consistent. But I do think people unwittingly assume Jesus would have written the Declaration of Independence, if he’d had a chance. Among the Circle of Hope we have a cadre of people who spend an inordinate amount of time judging themselves and others for how well they or we meet the criteria the insubordinate-to-Jesus-world places on society for what is right these days.

The genuinely oppressed and the so-called white males, alike, (the latter who are still generally clueless about their privilege, in my opinion) end up seeing themselves through the eyes of some bureaucratized sociological definition, not the eyes of Jesus. Even in the church, somehow, Jesus does not have a right to rule the community, but the last guilt-ridden professor who assessed someone’s status, does — “If my household or church is not balanced properly, I am living in sin!” It is a strange new holiness. I don’t think it was great when the Christians were a bit like the Taliban and they thought it was holy for men to avoid women, to segregate people of color and to invisibilize GLBT folks, but I’m not sure it is that much better to live out a reaction to that and be damned if you don’t. Better to err on the side of the latter, I think, but can we skip the damning?

Our former lenses need to pass away

If we are really going to live in the kingdom, the definitions we had for ourselves when we lived in league with the passing-away world need to pass away, so we can be named and empowered by Jesus, not by our cultural status or by our rejection of cultural status. I keep thinking of these verses from Colossians as I mull over what I am being taught by the new holiness teachers:

“So then, just as you received Christ Jesus as Lord, continue to live in him, rooted and built up in him, strengthened in the faith as you were taught, and overflowing with thankfulness.  See to it that no one takes you captive through hollow and deceptive philosophy, which depends on human tradition and the basic principles of this world rather than on Christ. (Col. 2:6-8)

Obviously, that is just what Nate is talking about, since the church has been the lapdog of the system for centuries and it should be appropriately countercultural! My problem is that I keep getting taught a new “hollow and deceptive philosophy” to replace the previous one. I need to test out what I am hearing to see whether I am depending on Christ and not becoming dependent on the most attractive “basic principle of this world” I can find.

I fully respect people who are on the front lines of liberation, undermining the powers that be. I see myself as among their number. I was working on it last night when we were talking together about how to make a covenant of love with one another as the body of Christ, a circle of hope. In our group of thirty or so there were people of color, women and men, younger and older, professional and not so much, wealthier and poorer. I did not have all the sociological elements I prize in full bloom, although I thought we were getting closer. But I did have my hope well-centered, I think. The new humanity I long for won’t arrive merely as a result of my tireless attempts to bring it in — even through my power to give up my power! Jesus needs to reign.