23 December 2008

What Is Christian About Democracy?

Over at the Huffington Post Robbie Gennet has made some interesting remarks about the impossibility of a democracy being Christian. In his words,
“There is no such thing as a Christian…Muslim… or Jewish Democracy…(or a solely Heterosexual one, for that matter).”
“True Democracy,” he says,
“Means True Equality and no religion sees itself as equal to all the others (and they feel especially unequal to secularism and atheism)...In this country, the vast majority of them (the religious) feel that the USA was founded as a Christian nation and should be run like one, which is anathema to the true Democratic ideals of our founding fathers.”
The truth is we actually could have a Christian democracy. We don’t have one now, we never have had one and if the opportunity arose to establish one I would vote against it in a heart beat. There isn’t much difference between a Christian Democracy and a religious state. But, even though we are not a Christian democracy I am not so sure Mr. Gennet is correct in suggesting our nation is not Christian. A nation is very different to a democracy. One can be Christian even if the other is not. In fact, one should definitely be Christian while the other should definitely not be and that is what our fore fathers understood.

Mr. Gennet also got the term “Christian” confused with the term “religion.” He freely quoted our fore fathers, who denounced religion, obviously implying they were also anti-Christian. The men who wrote our constitution, however, understood that being Christian and being religious are two very different things. It is possible to be one without being the other and some of those who framed our constitution were exactly that, Christian but not religious.

And, in fact, "religion" can mean anything. There are many different kinds of religion and many different versions of certain kinds (particularly Christian - for a read on that go here, Which Religion Is Right). History records a lot of conflict occurring between different religions and even different versions of the same religion.

Religious political abuses were committed regularly for centuries before the birth of our nation. We study these events in a sterile non-threatening setting but our fore fathers were eye witnesses. States driven by religious sentiment had maligned their names and threatened their lives. These same States, the larger number of which were Christian monarchies (a curious combination), regularly abused their citizens and fomented war against each other all in the name of religion. Our fore fathers were victims of these abuses. They learned firsthand that individual freedom was directly proportional to the distance maintained between church (religion) and state. But, much to the chagrin of those who don’t understand the difference, they did introduce Christian ideals into our system of government not the least of which is democracy.

Democracy is, by nature, flexible and at the same time Christian. It is God’s grace applied to the political process. Democracy doesn’t encourage pluralism but it allows for it and provides a peaceful process by which compromises can be reached and peace can be maintained. This is quite necessary in a multi-religious culture. But be warned! Democracy is only Christian as long as it is not used as a vehicle for establishing a State religion.

On a philosophical level, democracy encourages fairness and makes allowances for the inalienable rights of every individual.

On a practical level, democracy maintains a system of laws designed to protect individual freedom, even when personal choices involve destructive behavior. If you wish to smoke, eat too much, engage in promiscuous behavior or worship the devil that is your right.

Only when one person’s personal liberties impinge on the rights of others are courts required to decide where the line must be drawn. The courts uphold the free choices of others even when those choices are wrong (by Christian standards) as long as the liberties of others are not violated thereby, which by the way, is not the same as having your personal religious views offended.

The laws of a democratic state are designed to protect individual liberties not reflect morality in the absolute sense. Mr. Gennet implied this without saying it exactly and in that regard he and I agree.

Even the Old Testament, which seems a bit harsh for some, revealed some very democratic flexibility. Polygamy, because of its prevalence, was regulated in the law of Moses rather than “run out of town.” The same could be said for divorce. God’s absolute moral code did not agree with the cultural reality but He did flex enough to manage it graciously. This observation is very confusing to those who take a heavy handed approach to governance.

The system of government God levied on Israel was very strict in many ways but it was not absolute and, as already mentioned, it was flexible on some very questionable issues. It was much more idealistic than democracies today and much more firm in exacting penalties but it never worked and, therefore, should make us wonder. Maybe God implemented a government of strict religious and moral laws to show it can’t be done not to teach it should be tried.

Society will always be comprised of fallen humans none of whom is naturally agreeable to moral standards, all of whom are inclined toward trespasses, Christians included. Being Christian in a democratic society means graciously responding to the abuses, excesses and transgressions of others as long as they are democratically processed. Once we have argued the point and possibly lost the vote we must be able to focus on people rather than politics.

And for those who worry about being contaminated, democracy allows each person to be different as long as they are not disagreeable. That is to say, even though democracy allows lifestyles contrary to Christian standards it never imposes them on anyone. Democracy allows me to be fully Christian when everyone around me is not and vice versa.

Democracy is the political equivalent to grace. Moral truth is very fixed and exacting and society is never fully in line. Democracy is how we manage the difference even when the differences become unbearable to some.

To be a member of a religion you must agree to all the rules even when you fail to live up to them on occasion. Being an acceptable member of a democracy isn’t so demanding and the two are not the same. The only time a Christian’s religious views will parallel their political reality is when the State is controlled by a religion and then we have to wonder which religion will win out.

Mr. Gennet and I disagree on several things but when it comes to the nature of a democracy we have a lot in common. Because these concepts require serious consideration I would encourage you to ThinkAboutit.

10 December 2008

Christmas - Occasion To Make Peace

You can look through the Bible diligently, reading it from cover to cover, but you won’t find anything there about Christmas as we celebrate it today. No gift giving, cheerful decorations, carols, special prayers or late night vigils. In fact, Christmas didn’t become a popular religious or social event until the fourth century AD and the date on which we celebrate Christmas, 25 December, is highly questionable. I won’t argue the date either way. Most of the reading on the topic is boring, in the extreme, and there is really no point.

But, even though there is no “Christmas” in the Bible you will definitely find the spirit of Christmas leaping from its pages. On the night Jesus was born the heavenly host proclaimed, “Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace, good will toward men.” At the heart of this statement is an issue which is also central to the entire Bible, Peace. Peace, unfortunately, is one very important but sometimes overlooked (or marginalized) point to the Christmas story. God wants us to have it and Jesus, the Prince of Peace, came to make it possible.

Not only did Jesus come to make peace possible He became our greatest example. He didn’t always avoid trouble but He tried to and when debates couldn’t be resolved He managed to slip away quietly. In addition, He didn’t take charge and “force” peace on us. If His intention was to “make peace happen” then Christmas would be a yearly reminder that He failed.

Jesus came to make peace possible and statements like... “Love your enemies, bless them that curse you, do good to them that hate you, and pray for them which despitefully use you, and persecute you,” are clear indications that we are the ones to make it happen. When Jesus said “blessed are the peacemakers” He was addressing Himself to us. Obviously, He was hoping we might catch on.

If you haven't been much of a peace maker in the past, not too worry. You can start anytime and there is no better time than Christmas. The opportunities to practice are endless. When rude drivers in heavy traffic cut you off, make peace. When you get caught standing in long cues due to inefficient service, make peace. When your neighbors have noisy parties long hours into the night, make peace. When wading through crowds of inconsiderate people in public places, make peace. On the odd occasion when you absolutely have to confront problem people, do it peacefully.

This Christmas, as with all others, think “peace.” “Keep” the peace where you have it and “make” it where you don’t: with family members, neighbors, fellow employees, those with whom you recreate, the public at large and, yes, even with God.

In the process, don’t show favoritism. Make peace with the ones you love and the ones you love to hate.

There is no better way to honor the birth of the one who made peace possible than by making a genuine effort to encourage it in every direction. But be warned. You might have to throw out your “eye for an eye” theology and adopt a more “turn the other cheek” approach. If you do, you will save yourself a lot of stress in the moment and contribute to genuine peace in the long run. It’s Christmas. Give it a try. ThinkAboutIt

05 December 2008

God Speaks To Us - Abraham

Abraham is usually recognized as the founding leader of the Jewish religion and he definitely was one of the more prominent contributors. The interesting thing is, much of what he did religiously he received from his ancestors and there were only two new developments in this religion during his lifetime.

He didn’t wear different clothes or “move his affiliation” or modify his diet. The only additions were the institution of circumcision and the naming of Canaan as the geographical home of those who were followers. Together these additions don’t add up to massive religious changes but both were an inconvenience to Abraham, especially the land issue. Circumcision wasn’t too difficult to manage but living in the land was a constant source of irritation. On a religious level, not much changed during his life but on a personal level, his world was turned upside down.

Admittedly, choosing Canaan as the future home of Israel was significant to us but for Abraham it wasn’t very gratifying. He never owned any of the land other than the cave in which he buried Sara and living in Canaan was not a treat for him or his family. The spiritual environment and most of the residents were a constant source of grief.

To follow God, Abraham made many personal sacrifices and there were few positive outcomes to validate his troubles. When he died, the religion was still barely noticeable and his family was divided. So, we must ask, how did Abraham know with certainty he was where God wanted him to be, doing what God wanted him to do? How did God direct him in the first place and how did God encourage him to endure these troubles?

His Experience
In order to appreciate his sacrifices you need to know the problems he faced.

Journey Problems
To start, he travelled hundreds of miles from Ur to Canaan, a place he had never been and about which he knew nothing. He didn’t even know where he was going when he started.

To say this journey was “comfort challenged” is an understatement. There was no “modern” means of transport and he travelled with his family, a large number of servants and a large number of animals all of whom had to be fed and protected.

Family Problems
Abraham’s family situation was often discouraging. Sara went along with his plans but she wasn’t always sympathetic. Given his indecision, we can understand why.

His father died in Haran (halfway between Ur and Canaan) and his nephew, Lot, fought with him over rights to grazing land. Eventually the two separated never to be restored. The rest of his family stayed behind. He never saw them again.

Assimilation Problems
Even though Abraham’s “household” was a large contingent (his personal militia included 318 men) he never got established in the land. He was nomadic. He gave the appearance of being unsettled, even unstable. He moved several times within the land (on one occasion out of the land) and related to the locals only at a distance. “Untrusting” and “disconnected” would be the best words to describe his relationship with his neighbors. He was never close friends with anyone in the area.

When Abraham moved to Canaan it was a step down socially and culturally. He gave up everything when he left Ur: name, relationships, lands, influence and most of these things were never recovered in his lifetime. Many generations passed before any of his descendants took possession of the land. Even more generations passed before he was recognized for the greatness of his faith.

We are not being unreasonable to ask, “how did God communicate with this man?” How did He convince Abraham to go in the first place and how did He encourage him to stay once he arrived? Well, on a technical level, the answer is easy. He used spoken words, established principles of truth, circumstances and people to convey His message.

The Spoken Word
There were several times when God spoke audibly to Abraham over a span of at least 30 years:

• When He instructed him to leave for Canaan and after he arrived (Gen.12)
• When He promised him the entire land of Canaan (Gen 13)
• When He assured him he would have a biological heir (Gen 15)
• When He instituted circumcision (Gen 17)
• When He was about to judge Sodom and Gomorrah (Gen 18-19)
• When He encouraged him to send Hagar and Ishmael away (Gen 21)
• When He tested him with the sacrifice of Isaac (Gen 22)

These messages were specific and personal. They required a very special means of communication, such as the audibly spoken word and the information is pertinent for us also.

Some would suggest that God still speaks in this way today. If so, then we would expect the message to be very personal and to have huge implications for the greater population. That was the case with Abraham.

We could say more about this but it isn’t the point of this post. We will leave it for later.

Established Principles of Truth
Abraham did many things in Canaan, which he no doubt had previously learned about in Ur. All of them were well represented in Bible history.

He offered sacrifices and worshipped. In fact, every time he moved within the land he built an altar as a matter of course. He also practiced tithing (Gen 14) which is a bloodless offering.

He was socially guarded. For the most part Abraham was civil toward the surrounding communities but he kept a safe distance. He interacted with them when necessary and was always fair but he was never “close” to any of them.

He understood monogamy. Abraham did commit adultery but not easily or without consequence. We are certain he understood monogamy or there wouldn’t have been a tense discussion between him and Sara over having a child with Hagar.

The practice of having children by concubines was widespread in those days. It was a matter of protection. There is power in numbers. If Abraham didn’t live by a different standard he and Sara would have adopted this practice long before they arrived in Canaan.

He displayed honesty, courage and self-sacrifice. Abraham led the way in defeating a confederate army of five different kings only because he wanted to save Lot and his family from captivity. When the battle was over, he confidently and publicly refused any of the spoils which were associated with Sodom.

Grace. The same man who was honest and courageous on one occasion also lied twice to different kings (dishonest). He did so to protect his life (cowardice) and he put Sara’s life in jeopardy when he did (selfish). The truth is, Abraham made a lot of mistakes but he never gave up on himself or God. There was a thirteen year period following the birth of Ishmael during which God said nothing to Abraham. His relationship with Sara was strained during that time and he probably never touched Hagar again but he knew something about the grace that God gives. Instead of running he patiently waited.

In the story of Abraham, God never restated any of these principles. He never told Abraham to worship, offer sacrifices, be socially guarded or be monogamous. They were well established principles and God neither repeats nor defends Himself. He doesn’t retell each successive generation everything He established before. Abraham was aware of these principles and when he failed, God was silent not noisy. Fortunately, even God’s grace was an established principle which sustained him through the failure. These are principles we can bank on even today.

We have much more Bible than Abraham and far less reason to need individualized instruction. Therefore, if you want God to speak to you, the best place to start is the written Word. The more Bible you read the more God you hear.

Sometimes God used the consequences of Abraham’s actions to communicate with him. This happened more than once.

When Abraham lied, God spoke to the kings, in both cases, not Abraham. In return, the kings reprimanded Abraham publicly. They were echoing God’s sentiments. God didn’t need to say anything.

When Abraham committed adultery, God said nothing to anyone. Sara, however, had a lot to say. The friction was a constant reminder that adultery is a no-no. God needed to say nothing more.

Abraham's Resolve - The Real Issue
There were two details in Abraham’s life that kept him off balance. One was living in the land without socially integrating and the second was having a child by Sara. The question for Abraham, in both cases, was not "did God speak," but "did God mean what He said." No one has received instruction more clearly or specifically than Abraham. The clearness of God’s communication was not the issue. Abraham’s ability to accept it was.

When he arrived in the land and experienced famine, he was confused. When he remained childless for years, especially after he arrived in the land he was frustrated. When Sara suggested he have a child by Hagar (doing what they knew was questionable) he was uncertain. But, through all of these situations Abraham learned that God not only speaks, He means exactly what He says.

Abraham lived a hundred years in Canaan and survived famines, family conflicts, war and God’s judgment on neighboring cities. All of those problems, however, were incidental. The real lesson for Abraham was learning to overcome his indecision. Getting to Canaan was difficult. Staying there was even more difficult. His resolve was constantly tested. What we learn from his experience is not “how” God speaks to us but that He doesn’t repeat Himself and He really means what He says.

When God told Abraham to sacrifice Isaac, the Bible clearly says it was a test. A test of what? A test of his resolve to take God at His word. God never changed His instructions to Abraham but He did change Abraham’s ability to live with it.

For now, if you want to know what God is saying to you, read your Bible. Do what it says. ThinkAboutIt.