Friday, February 5, 2021

Every Nation, Tribe and Language: Mike Pompeo, Multiculturalism and the Project of Redemption

 

 

In his final week as Secretary of State of the United States, Mike Pompeo posted a tweet declaring that, among other things, multiculturalism is not who the United States of America was. Now I understand that multiculturalism can be something of a cipher (as is much of our contemporary cultural and political discourse) however, at bottom multiculturalism denotes the presence of, or support for the presence of, several distinct cultural or ethnic groups within a society.[1] I would suggest Pompeo was referring to the latter, the cultural support for several distinct cultural or ethnic groups within the United States, and was suggesting that cultural and political support did not represent what he understood to be America’s identity. To be fair, we don’t know precisely what he meant because of the fundamental brevity of tweets. In any case, I argue that marginalizing multiculturalism as an expression of a political philosophy of governing is wrong-headed and misguided, and I ardently disagree with Mr. Pompeo; however that opinion is not the reason for this post. The reason for this post is to express why I disagree with Mr. Pompeo’s position. I particularly want to explore the theological roots of my disagreement. I find this particularly important to articulate because I am concerned that Mr. Pompeo’s position may also be influenced by his theology, which I believe must be contested and critiqued by his fellow Christians.

            Why do I believe his position is a reflection of his theology? Mr. Pompeo has connected his official governmental responsibilities and his Christian faith on many occasions. For example, in a speech as Secretary of State addressing the American Association of Christian Counselors in Nashville, Pompeo noted, “I want to use my time today to think about what it means to be a Christian leader, a Christian leader in three areas. First is disposition. How is it that one carries oneself in the world? The second is dialogue, talking. How is it that we engage with others around the world? And third is decisions, decisions that we make.”[2] As a Christian who fundamentally coupled his governmental responsibilities with his faith, it seems Mr. Pompeo may be voicing an underlying theological commitment that is expressing itself in his decision making. Since Mr. Pompeo does not express those theological commitments in his tweet, I will not attempt to parse them here. What I do want to do here, is briefly articulate my understanding of the theological relationship between the Christian, ethnicity and culture, and how I believe that theology diverges from the cultural and political vision cast by Mr. Pompeo.

            I recently preached a sermon on Acts 11:1-18. Interestingly, this blog (in a first for me) almost ends up serving as an addendum to that sermon. I want to start with this passage and the passage that preceded it in Acts 10 as a diving in point. I want to argue that multiculturalism represents a fundamental Christian value that must shape the Christian’s disposition toward both the cultures in which they are embedded, and the cultures that they experience as foreign and unfamiliar to them. In Acts 10 Peter is directed by God to eat foods that the Hebrew Law had declared unclean, an act that was so anathema to Peter that he had to be directed to partake three times before he even began to consider the request. In the meantime, God had given a vision to, as the text describes him, a “God-fearing” Roman military officer named Cornelius to send for Peter, which he did. His men arrived soon after Peter’s vision, and request that Peter come to their master’s compound in Caesarea. Peter and six men followed them to Caesarea, where they shared fellowship and food. In what follows Peter shares the Gospel with Cornelius, the soldiers under his command, and his family. In the following chapter (11) there are many in the Jerusalem church who were upset that Peter had apparently broken the Law’s prohibitions on eating unclean foods. His defense is something to effect of, “yes I did it, but God told me to, and here’s why.”

These chapters make clear that God, to the surprise of Peter and his Jewish brothers and sisters, had included the Gentiles in his project of redemption from the beginning. Part of the take away from this passage is that there can be no such thing as an ethnocentric, culture-centric, or nation-centric Christianity. The call to faith in Christ respects no social, national, political, ethnic, or cultural boundaries. In addition, there is no call in Acts 10 and 11, or anywhere else in scripture, that demands that one’s ethnicity or culture must be entirely left behind in favor of a Christian expression of ethnicity or culture. When one comes to faith in Christ he or she begins the process of reorienting the manner in which they ascribe value to their culture and its values. God doesn’t demand that the Jews adopt a Gentile way of life, and vice versa. Each begins the process of becoming this third thing, inhabiting a new identity that shares the commonality of Christ and an appreciation and even a respect for their cultural and ethnic differences. This multi-cultural, multi-ethnic project of redemption continues through the book of Acts and through the rest of the New Testament. It culminates in the book of Revelation as John records witnessing, “a great multitude that no one could count, from every nation, tribe, people and language, standing before the throne and before the Lamb,” in chapter 7 (and earlier in chapter 5). This is the telos of the church, and it is fundamentally multi-cultural.

I would argue that this is a part of what Jesus is expressing when he declares that “God so loved the world that He gave His one and only son,” in John 3. If I am correct, and this multi-ethnic, multi-cultural gathering in Revelation represents both the church’s telos, and a value bound up in God’s affection for the world and the people God created, then it represents something that God values now as well. The same God that gathers all those differences in Revelation is working toward that end now. God seems to value our nations, tribes, peoples and languages while simultaneously transcending them. It is important to note that nations, tribes, peoples and languages are expressions of culture, and to quote theologian William Dyrness, culture is what humans make of creation. To be human is to make creative use of creation, and thus to participate in and to create culture. While God transcends those cultural differences, we must note that in Acts 10 and 11 and in Revelation 5 and 7 God does not obliterate those differences. God draws them into the project of redemption, to the extent that those differences are present still at the culmination of time.

            We can have a conversation I suppose about the presence of political expressions of multiculturalism in our political life in America. However I am concerned that those who desire to marginalize the manifold and parallel expressions of ethnicities and cultures in our common spaces and in our public square may be doing so because of a misguided theology that does the same; Or perhaps equally as troubling is allowing particular sets of political commitments to produce malformed expressions of Christian theology. I fear one of these scenarios may be coloring Mr. Pompeo’s assertion that multiculturalism is not consistent with the identity of the United States. I make no judgment other than asserting what I already have in disagreeing with Mr. Pompeo’s brief thesis. At any rate, I pray that Mr. Pompeo’s assertion is not who the church in the United States is.


[1] This definition is taken from the Oxford Dictionary

[2] Cortellessa, Eric, “‘My Walk with Christ’: Pompeo Give Contentious Speech on Being Christian Leader,” The Times of Israel, 12 October 2019, https://www.timesofisrael.com/us-secretary-of-state-delivers-contentious-speech-on-being-christian-leader/


Saturday, June 20, 2020

Law, Order and Shalom


Photo courtesy EV on Unsplash.com
Justice is incidental to Law and Order – J. Edgar Hoover

I will make justice the measuring line and righteousness the plumb line – Isaiah

Law and Order has been a hot topic of conversation recently. It has also been a consistent part of the political conversation over the past several years as the present administration has often touted the virtues of law and order. In addition, notions of law and order are not just confined to questions of governance and law enforcement. Many Christians in my life support notions of law and order as it is framed by the current administration, and even understand their support of it to be in direct relation to their Christian faith. Thus law and order has embedded in it something that Christians (and folks of other faiths) understand to be compatible with the tenets and practice of their faith. As I am interested in Christian theology, I want to try to ever so briefly tackle this overlap between law and order and the Christian faith and ask the question whether there exists some compatibility between the two. Should Christians support and advocate for law and order? I want to be up front and note that I will be arguing that I believe Christians should embrace notions of law and order, however they should not be embracing, condoning or advocating for any notion of law and order that is not firmly rooted in the Hebrew concept of shalom. I argue this because as I understand it, shalom represents the notion of law and order as it is framed by God in the Old and New Testaments.

In order to make my case for this I am going to have to lay out what I mean by shalom. I think theologian Cornelius Platinga has articulated my favorite definition of shalom. He describes shalom as, “The webbing together of God, humans, and all creation in justice, fulfillment, and delight... In the Bible, shalom means universal flourishing, wholeness and delight – a rich state of affairs in which natural needs are satisfied and natural gifts fruitfully employed, a state of affairs that inspires joyful wonder as its Creator and Savior opens doors and welcomes the creatures in whom he delights. Shalom, in other words, is the way things ought to be.” To demonstrate this, let me provide a few examples of how the Hebrew word shalom is employed in the Old Testatment. I want to acknowledge first however that I have very little utility in ancient Hebrew, and I am far from a Hebrew scholar. However, I believe this is an important scriptural concept to grasp in our current cultural and political environment, so I will do my best in spite of my limitations.

Shalom of course is generally translated as the word “peace” in the English language, however it is far more than that. In scripture, shalom is framed often as a gift from God (see Isaiah 66.12 and Jeremiah 33.6-8, I Kings 2.33, Psalm 29.11). It is identified as the fruit of righteousness or justice (see Isaiah 32.16-20). Shalom, of course is associated with the absence of conflict (see Deuteronomy 20.10), but it is also the presence of justice and even material prosperity (see Psalm 72.1-7). In fact shalom is consistently associated with notions of righteousness (rightness) and justice (see Psalm 85.10-13), which are consistently and strongly associated with one another in the Old Testament. In fact there are times where the notions of righteousness and justice are interchangeable. In addition, Isaiah 9 frames the coming Messiah as one who establishes this type of just and righteous flourishing (see Isiah 9.6,7)

So if we were to make a collage of these scriptural passages we would have an image of a type of thriving and prosperity, gifted by God, that results from the establishment of just and righteous practices, and perhaps even institutions that administer those practices and that justice. I argue that you see just this type of establishment in the practices associated with provision for widows, orphans, foreigners and the poor articulated in the books of the Hebrew Law (See Exodus 22.21,22, Leviticus 23.22, Deuteronomy 10. 18-19). Carrying this forward to the New Testament, we see the Apostle Paul describing the notion of the Kingdom of God to include just these characterizations as well. He writes in Romans 14.17 that, “the kingdom of God is not eating and drinking, but righteousness and peace and joy in the Holy Spirit.” The Kingdom of God here includes the establishment of justice and shalom (righteousness and peace). This is important because this means that the Kingdom of God and notions of peace are not relegated to one’s internalized experience of God, but, because of the inclusion of notions of justice and shalom, embody active practices necessary to make the Kingdom and thus make shalom a visible, material reality. So what does all this have to do with law and order? I am glad you asked.

If as Platinga articulates it, humans are fundamentally created to be webbed together with their Creator, each other and the creation in justice, fulfillment, and delight, then this image should be the plumb line against which Christians shape their understanding both of order and the laws established to govern that order. Those laws and the practices of enforcement associated with those laws should promote rightness and justice. In the book of Deuteronomy (16.18ff) God instructs Israel through Moses to, “appoint judges and officials throughout your tribes…and they shall render just decisions for the people.”  The Hebrew here literally reads, “that they shall judge the people with just/righteous judgements.” Moses goes on, “You must not distort justice; you must not show partiality; and you must not accept bribes, for a bribe blinds the eyes of the wise and subverts the cause of those who are in the right. Justice, and only justice, you shall pursue, so that you may live and occupy the land that the Lord your God is giving you.” This justice is to be measured against the priorities of the God who values every created person, and who ascribes particular value to those on the social margins of human cultures because humans do a poor job of appropriately valuing them. In the case of Hebrew culture those on the social margins were the widows, the orphans, the foreigners (the ethnic and cultural other), women and the poor. Because of the human tendency to abuse these classes of their brothers and sisters for the benefit of both themselves as individuals and for their group, family or nation, God institutionalizes their protection in the form of the law. In doing so God articulates and institutionalizes God’s priorities which, I argue, are rooted in justice, love, grace and mercy. If as Christians we are to embrace law and order, I argue the law and order we embrace must enact and institutionalize these same principles and reflect our valuation of the people on the margins in the same way God values them.

The founder and long time director of the FBI J. Edgar Hoover is credited with saying that, “Justice is incidental to Law and Order.” In other words, justice is to be measured by order, not the other way around. Here, order is the sole evidence that justice has been enacted under the law. I argue that this construct is the exact opposite of the notion of justice articulated in scripture. I am afraid that Hoover's description of justice, law and order describes the notions of law and order as they are articulated by this administration. I am even more concerned by my perception that many Christians may reflexively go along with these sentiments. I am concerned because these sentiments miss the Divine heart at the center of justice, and the miss the Divine measure of justice as something rooted in the very character of God. They miss the justice, fulfillment, flourishing and delight for which humans have been created. They miss the Divine concern for the flourishing of those on the social and economic margins, and they miss the Divine concern for righteous justice, mercy, grace and love. So yes, Christians should support law and order, so long as it is this law and order that in the words of the prophet Micah does justice, loves kindness and walks humbly with God. Christians should be holding every other iteration of law and order up to this standard, and insisting law and order reflect these priorities. Christians should be dissatisfied with anything other than shalom. 
 

Monday, October 1, 2012

The Undiscovered Country



I know I haven’t blogged in awhile, but I have a good excuse… at least I think it’s a good excuse.  I’ve moved across the country to Pasadena, CA in order to study Theology and Culture at the Center for Advanced Theological Studies at Fuller Theological Seminary.  So I figured it would be good to share why I’ve made this huge move with the lot of you.  So here goes.

As long as I can remember, I’ve always harbored an interest in the reality that exists beyond the edge of our senses.  As a child this manifested itself as an interest in “mysteries” such as Bigfoot, Aliens, and the Loch Ness Monster.  In fact, I was so interested in studying these and other unexplained “phenomena” that I told my grandparents at age 8 that I wanted to be a “phenomenal scientist”; though at the time I didn’t understand why they chuckled when I shared this.  Truth be told, that fascination with mystery has never left me, and has been near the core of my spiritual life.  Over time my interest in these phenomena waned, though I still have soft spot for a good Bigfoot story. My interest in mystery, however, has remained. 

In my teens I was confronted by and came to trust the mystery of God’s love bound up in the person and story of Jesus.  I remember the joy of newness and discovery, and the growing sense that the God revealed by Jesus represented a vast unknown country waiting to be explored.  There’s a sense in which that exploration is an apt metaphor for the manner in which I relate to God.  I’m continually rounding the next bend on the road, hoping to learn something new, while constantly trying to integrate each new insight into my schema and actions. 

Through all of these developments in my spiritual life, my second first love was music.  I would spend hours locked away in my room listening to vinyl.  I wanted badly to play music, but had a hard time learning to play instruments, and was later disappointed to learn that I could not sing.  I did however possess rhythm.  So, holed up in my room, listening to my records, I taught my self to play the drums.  This ability to play music, as it turned out, became another avenue to encounter God.  Up to that point, my connection with music had been largely emotional, but as I learned to play I seemed to stumble upon moments of what I can only describe as transcendence.  As I played with other musicians, I experienced moments when the thin veil that separates the seen from the unseen seemed to become diaphanous, and what followed could be as varied as moments of insight to pure joy.  I came to realize that creative endeavors such as music, novels, film, and visual art were as necessary as reason in my exploration of the Divine mystery.

This leads to the question of what to do with this keen interest in the intersection then of theology and the arts. This naturally leads into the notion of vocation. It seems the exploration of this intersection is something that suits me and I it, which lead me down this path toward doctoral studies.

I believe that my natural curiosity is part of my vocation, and that my drive to learn the manner in which my predecessors and contemporaries arrange and rearrange the conceptual blocks that make up not only theology, but the arts as well serves as a base on which I would like to continue to build.  You could view this as the outermost boundary of three concentric circles.

The second concentric circle is that of a teacher.  Teaching is something I enjoy immensely, and which I see as directly related to the “student circle”.  I enjoy introducing others to the ideas and theologies of those who endeavored to make sense of God in their times and cultural contexts which might help to then make sense of our experiences and the experiences of others, and I enjoy learning from others in that process.  I understand the danger of sounding cliché here, but I do find that I learn much from teaching others that I never would have learned otherwise, which allows me to be useful, and continue to feed my core student. 

The third concentric circle is influence.  I would ultimately like to influence the manner in which the church interprets and manifests its relationship with the culture in which it exists.  I would like to be one drawing the church toward a fuller embodiment of the Gospel of Grace, and I believe the arts are indispensable in both the Church’s interpretation and manifestation to this end.  That however is the BIG goal, and sounds much higher minded than I intend it to.  Really I want to be one voice in the conversation, but hopefully one worth listening to.

At any rate, that’s why my family and I picked up stakes and moved 2700 miles across the country, so that I could more thoroughly explore that undiscovered country, and attempt to share it with others, and allow God to do what God would like with what I offer.