Monday, November 24, 2008

A Rotary Club Prayer

Such is the term I often use to describe ultra-generic prayers that are deliberately non-specific when it comes to whom the prayer is addressed, and what the content of the prayer is. Don't get me wrong, such prayers, while inadequate, are not necessarily out of order in more secular gatherings. While I might hope for something more theologically robust, I'm not sure I should expect or demand such a thing, given the setting.

But Rotary Club prayers become a real problem when they are uttered by professing Christians in a supposedly Christian setting. And when a denomination puts out a prayer on its website that is so watered down that it could have been written and/or uttered even by a borderline agnostic, something's wrong with that picture. I give you the Thanksgiving prayer for 2008, as developed by the PCUSA.

In this prayer, God is mentioned only once, as 'Provider God'. Jesus is not mentioned a single time, either as an addressee, or as a topic of content. In a prayer that purports to give thanks, the PCUSA prayer utterly fails to mention the single-most thing all Christians should be most thankful for - the Incarnation, death, resurrection, and certain return of their Savior. Instead, the PCUSA prayer thanks God for earthly things like friends, family, and church unity (the last item being a depressing joke, given the severe in-fighting that has plagued the PCUSA for decades now). Now again, don't get me wrong. We should indeed give thanks to God for such horizontal blessings, and many others that the PCUSA prayer didn't mention. But are horizontal earthly blessings really the only thing we should be thankful for as Christians? Does a prayer of thanksgiving that doesn't mention or even allude to Jesus in any way still qualify as uniquely Christian in content and even address? Without Jesus, through which all things hold together (Col 1) and work together for good for his own (Rom 8), why should we give thanks at all? Doesn't being thankful for horizontal blessings presuppose and mandate thankfulness of vertical blessings too if one is a follower of Christ? Apparently not, according to the PCUSA.

I will give the PCUSA the benefit of the doubt and conclude that their omission of Christ as the principal and necessary object of the Christian's thanks is just a very poor yet towering oversight, rather than a calculated theological omission. I'm not sure they deserve such a benefit of the doubt, but I will extend it anyway. But it is one more unpleasant reminder of how easily we can all develop tin ears and massive blindspots that severly hamper our eyes and ears to be focused on Christ at all times, and especially when it comes to gratitude for blessings received. When a denomination that is outwardly Christian can't muster a distinctly Christian prayer on its own website, the reasons why it failed to do so start not to matter. I'm not against the Rotary Club, but the church is not the Rotary Club and shouldn't be auditioning for the role.

Wednesday, November 05, 2008

My Unsolicited Advice for President Obama

President-Elect Obama,

I congratulate you on this historic triumph. Your election to the highest office in the land has already been marked as an indelible moment in time, and rightly so. While America's original sin of slavery and racism has not been totally defeated by the vote yesterday, your election does indeed represent a kind of social progress that may enable the entire country to dialogue more constructively on matters that touch on race. This alone carries with it great potential for lasting progress.

I did not vote for you. I generally reject most traditional tenets of political (and theological) liberalism. As I examined your record, I saw too little hard evidence of the kind of post-partisanship your campaign has promised the country. I also saw too much of the old style of politics that your campaign claimed to move beyond. As such, I find myself in the uncomfortable position of celebrating your historic achievement while having to soberly distance myself from the euphoria it has spawned.

Nonetheless, as an American, as a conservative, and most of all as a Christian, I can promise you certain things. First, I pray that you will be a successful president. I would like nothing more than to be able to vote for you 4 years from now as a result of your first-term performance. Second, I promise to give you a sincere chance to fulfill the promises you've made to us, and not automatically question your sincerity or your motives when I disagree with you. Third, like every president before you, I pray for your safety and for your family's safety.

In exchange for these promises, allow me to offer you some advice. The biggest mistake that all recent presidents have made to varying degrees is that they forgot their election night victory speech the day after Inauguration Day. Every president of recent times has pledged to bring the country together, to cut down on the partisanship, to work with the other side to do the people's business, and be a president for all Americans. You hit on similar themes in your victory speech last night. But one reason why the country has grown increasingly polarized and bitter is that many people, rightly or wrongly, feel that their president has no real interest in seriously listening to them. For over 20 years now (and perhaps longer), supporters of the candidate who lost the election have not felt like their voices have been represented or considered when major policy proposals and directions are decided. It is much easier to feel animous toward someone whom you don't feel is taking you seriously enough to sincerely listen to your concerns. Recent presidents have learned the hard way that this creates enemies en masse, and it's not pleasant for them or good for the country. Don't make the mistake of shutting out the nearly 60 million people who cared enough to go to the polls and not vote for you.

We have all seen what the rancor of the Clinton and Bush years have done to the fabric of the country and the effectiveness of government to do the nation's business. Simply saying that we are a United States doesn't make it so, and it will not be so if the current tendency of presidents to resist constructive healing action despite their pledges to govern otherwise continues. The biggest threat facing the nation is not from external enemies, but internal strife and suspicion of each other. While the wound of slavery and racism has been alleviated somewhat by your victory, the more recent wound of ideological bitterness and the harmful wackiness that routinely results from it is still very much with us. You have your work cut out for you in trying to improve this threat. Presidents of both parties that have come before you have failed to make things better, and have actually made things worse. The best way to begin to reverse this trend is to make a sustained effort, both public and private, to not just listen to the other side, but make allowance for their views when they do not fundamentally compromise yours.

It's not your job to bring people together who don't want to come together. The Bush years are a depressing testament to this. But at some point, the cycle has to stop, and a truly new direction needs to be undertaken. And while I obviously have some doubts about your ability to do this after examining your record, I will give you the benefit of the doubt now. Not everyone who voted against you will, anymore than the legions that voted against Bush in 2000 or 2004 were ever really prepared to give him the benefit of the doubt either. But my prayer is that enough people will, and that this willingness will be met with a similar willingness by you to seriously engage them. If you do this, your presidency will be successful not just because of its historic significance, but because it will have represented a turning away from the precipice of factionalism to begin a renewed struggle for a truly common national purpose that might heal what's been painfully broken in recent decades. Learn from the mistakes of your predecessors.

I wish you well.

Tuesday, November 04, 2008

Human Kings

On this Election Day in America, it is wise to remember that human kings, while appointed and used by God for his ends, do not save. To put the kind of hope in them that should be reserved only for God is one of the oldest and most persistent sins in Scripture.

One immediately thinks of the people's desire to have Saul rule over them. While the need for a king and the establishment of the monarchy was always part of the plan of God (see Deut 17), the people's selection of Saul in defiance of the warnings of God (1S 8) was an act of disobedience that bore bad fruit. But there are other examples as well. When Pekah of Israel chose to ally himself with King Rezin of Aram to attack Judah (Is. 7), believing that such an alliance was more advantageous than being allied with God the true King, God emphatically predicted and carried out their destruction and exile. And of course, when the people, looking for a nationalistic king to end Roman dominance over Palestine, tried to make Jesus this kind of king (Jn 6), Jesus literally headed for the hills because it was clear that the people didn't understand the kind of king he really was and the kind of kingdom he was ushering in.

Christians are not forbidden from being politically active and being engaged in matters of state. But there is always a danger that such freedom can be abused (or misdirected). Christians are often tempted to become consumed by matters of secular politics and sometimes wrap their faith in political issues, political parties, or particular politicians. Their passion for politics can exceed their passion for Christ, because they wrongly think the two are not only entirely inseparable, but are on an essentially equal plane. Too few politically active Christians (either liberal or conservative) seem to take the time to ask whether their Christianity is framing their politics, or whether their politics is framing their Christianity. Most probably know that the former is the right answer for a Christian. But in my experience, most are really operating in the latter. Too many conservative Christians were too loyal to George W Bush because they felt he was 'one of them'. Too many liberal Christians today are entirely too ga-ga over Barack Obama because they believe he epitomizes their over-realized eschatology of bringing the Kingdom of God to earth primarily through human means. It's one thing for secular press people to feel something akin to a religious experience when they're present at an Obamamania rally and immediately go into worship mode along with everyone else there. It's another thing for Christians to do this, because they really oughta know better.

In both cases, the error of placing too much faith and bestowing too much loyalty on human kings, and the consequences it has wrought, continue to plague us. And btw, this phenomenon all on its own should puncture the balloon of over-realized eschatology, since it's clear we haven't advanced very much when we so effortlessly repeat the same mistakes over and over again. As Paul's letters to Corinth aptly demonstrate, Christians who think they've arrived when in fact they're not even close to arriving can be a pretty dangerous bunch. Paul's attempts to cure the Corinthians of their over-realized eschatology should be required reading for every Christian who's preferred candidate has just won the presidency. Conservatives should have read it in 2000 and 2004, and liberals will need to read and reread it now. Conversely, Paul's letter to the Galatians should be required reading for every Christian who's preferred candidate lost an election. Here, Paul's attempts to cure the Galatian church of its under-realized eschatology can be helpful in maintaining perspective in the face of disappointment.

Christians of all stripes need to reremember who their true King is and put their hope and loyalty in him, and not flawed politicians of flawed parties who's political platforms contain policy positions that run counter to a Christian worldview. If we refuse to get our loyalties straight, not only will we be disappointed in the end, we will also delay rather than speed up the Kingdom of God coming in full power in our midst (2P 3.12).