Sunday, May 23, 2010

Humility and Humanity

Recently the evangelical world in the United States has endured two more embarrassing scandals involving prominent public figures. George Rekers, an outspoken opponent of homosexuality, gay rights and gay marriage was “outed” for hiring a gay “rentboy” to tour Europe with him. His explanation that the young man was hired to carry his luggage was received with a considerable amount to skepticism. Just last week Representative Mark Souder of Indiana, an ardent advocate for morality and “family values” resigned after admitting a long affair with a much younger staffer. Souder was savaged by commentator Rachel Maddow for making an “abstinence only” video with this very woman. I have no intention of adding to the mockery and abuse heaped on Rekers and Souder. Quite the contrary. I have a good deal of sympathy for them. This sympathy is grounded in my own sinfulness and brokenness. I am a fallen and sinful human being, like Rekers and Souder and, for that matter, everyone who reads these words. As my colleague Klyne Snodgrass puts it, “Ain’t none of us straight.”

My problem with many of my fellow evangelicals is that they don’t seem to fully grasp this. Every time put themselves forward as public scolds and the arbiters of moral correctness, they alienate the very people they are trying to reach and set themselves up for a brutal fall. Why, I have often wondered, do they have to sound so angry, so embittered, and so scornful in attacking the many failings of their fellow citizens? Don’t they realize how this goes over? Can’t they grasp how unappealing, how cruel, and how bitter they sound? And, perhaps more to the point are they completely unaware of their own “twisted little hearts” bent toward self indulgence and security? I have reflected many times on how attractive Jesus was to sinners. They flocked to him. They listened to him. They knew he understood their brokenness and loved them anyway. I don’t think many contemporary sinners find American evangelicals attractive. When they think of us they don’t think of love. They rather think of supercilious condemnation and outright hatred.

American evangelicals need a new strategy. This strategy must be founded upon humility, modesty, compassion, and humanity. We need to see our “opponents” as objects of love, however scornful they are of our values; however much they mock our convictions. Too often evangelicals justify their outrageous rhetoric by claiming the role of prophet. But Israel’s prophets for the most part addressed the failings of their own. Evangelical leaders in the United States seem to spend most of their time these days assaulting their own mission field for the sake of their “base” of outraged traditionalists. There is much to criticize in our current culture. There is much to be distressed about and to weep over. But none of it will be addressed by throwing rocks from the moral high ground. None of it will be addressed by pursuing political power and hoping for the right kind of Supreme Court justices. None of it will be addressed by noisy protests in Washington or angry letters to the editor. It will rather be addressed by the most common, ordinary acts of humble, generous love.

I must add that “right wing” Christians have not cornered the market on moral superiority and public scorn. “Social justice” Christians can be just as high minded, harsh, and intransigent as their more conservative brothers and sisters. They can also call “prophetic” what is merely bad manners and simpering arrogance. They can profess love for the “oppressed” while they despise the benighted “fundamentalist.” An angry and hateful “social justice” Christian is no more attractive than an angry and hateful “fundamentalist.” Jesus called us to love the Lord our God and our neighbor as ourselves. He made it clear that neighbor was not just people we agreed with but the irritating liberal at the next desk or the ignorant fundamentalist across the hall. Our public impact as followers of Jesus will continue to wane unless we are able to acknowledge our own sinfulness and love the unlovable—as God as loved us.

John E. Phelan, Jr.

Thursday, May 13, 2010

Privatizing Reconciliation

Yale theologian Miroslav Volf has written widely and well about the challenges of reconciliation and forgiveness. His book Exclusion and Embrace is widely recognized as a classic and Free of Charge is also highly regarded. There is nothing sentimental about Volf’s approach to the challenges of reconciliation. He was raised as a Pentecostal in Communist Yugoslavia and suffered marginalization and abuse for his faith. He also watched his country fall into brutality and genocide in the 1990s. He is well aware of the human capacity for unspeakable evil. And yet, he insists that for Christians seeking reconciliation is foundational. He argues in his aptly titled essay “The Core of the Faith” in Against the Tide that “a vision of reconciliation” is the governing reality of Christian faith. God seeks in Christ to reconcile all things to himself—each broken sinner, every battered society, even the crumbling world.

The problem, Volf argues, is that we have “privatized reconciliation.” We have made it only a kind of spiritual exchange between an individual and God. Such reconciliation is real and important. Writing of Paul’s conversion, he insists that Paul encountered a God who sought reconciliation with the persecutor, not punishment for his victims. The reconciliation between Paul and God was profoundly significant. But Paul never saw this personal reconciliation as the last word. He spent his life seeking reconciliation between Jews and Gentiles, between urban pagans and his tiny Christian communities, and even between those small groups of Christians and the mighty Roman Empire. In Romans 8 he wrote movingly of the groaning hope and anticipated redemption of the whole creation (Romans 8:18-25). Paul knew that his personal reconciliation with God had corporate implications. He wanted his congregations to seek reconciliation within their communities and without. He wanted them to forgive their brothers and sisters and love their enemies. For Paul reconciliation was not a personal possession but a corporate gift—a gift of the church for the entire world.

In 2 Corinthians 5:18 Paul tells the Corinthians they have been given a “ministry of reconciliation.” We are God’s ambassadors entrusted with a message of peace. We come to our fractured and divided world with God’s offer of cease fire. For Paul the church is about reconciliation. And reconciliation, Volf insists, “has social and political dimensions.” He goes on to say that the Christian church has been hesitant to make this move and “offers very little wisdom on the social meaning of reconciliation.” In fact, one could argue that our inability to get along with each other within the church makes it extraordinarily unlikely that the wider society would look to us to bring about reconciliation between and within nations and peoples. With some notable exceptions, like the South African “Truth and Reconciliation” process, the Christian Church has been ineffective and even reluctant to pursue such reconciliation. Heroic individual Christians have acted to seek peace, but the institutional church has an unenviable record.

As I suggested, even within the church reconciliation seems hard to come by. We evidently love our divisions and relish our demonizations. Consider, for example, the contemporary neo-Calvinists and Brian McLaren. Some of the attacks on McLaren and his ilk are startlingly vicious. If you don’t believe me a simple Google search will suffice. Now clearly there are issues to be addressed and differences to be explored. But there seems little willingness to seek common ground or even acknowledge a common struggle. The same could be said for political differences between Christians. The language used by people on the Christian right of President Obama is frankly embarrassing. But, of course, the Christian left was no less scornful of President Bush. Every day on Facebook I see vicious attacks on the President on the one hand and sneers at the “teabaggers” on the other. I have my own concerns and recognize the temptation to unfairly caricature the “other side” of a variety of issues.

I do not mean to say we should not fairly and firmly differ with one another. But should we, can we, seek reconciliation. Should John Piper and Brian McLaren sit down together? Could Franklin Graham seek common ground with Muslim leaders? Could anti-immigrant activists in Arizona and members of immigration reform groups in Chicago actually hear one another’s concerns? Could liberals recognize the humanity of Glenn Beck? Could conservatives hear the anguish of a Jesse Jackson? Could people on different sides of the “Gay marriage” debate seek reconciliation, if not common ground? Can the Church help with any of this or do we simply shrug our shoulders and say there is nothing we can do?

I have not always been able to disagree gracefully. I have failed many times to be an agent of reconciliation. Undoubtedly I will do so again. But I think Volf is right. Christian faith has a social and political dimension that pursues reconciliation—with God, between persons, within nations, and around the world. It is time the church exercised it commission to be ambassadors for Christ with a ministry of reconciliation. Reconciliation does not always mean agreement. But it does mean respect, love, and hope. Too often we may think that reconciliation means I finally persuade you to agree with me. But perhaps the most important opportunities for reconciliation come when we recognize we will never agree, but we can learn to love.

John E. Phelan, Jr.

Monday, May 10, 2010

The Vexation of Participation

In an article written before President Bush launched the second gulf war, theologian Miroslav Volf argued that on both Christian pacifist and just war theory the war was wrong. The pacifist critic would argue, rather than “turning the other cheek” as Jesus recommended, “President Bush, who claims to be a follower of Jesus says, ‘If you think that Hussein will strike you on one cheek, hit him, along with innocent bystanders.” (“Indefensible War” in Against the Tide, 152-154) For just war theorists, Volf argues, “a preemptive war is unjust for a very simple reason: it cannot be just to condemn masses of people to certain death in order to avert the potential death of an equal or lesser number of people.” Volf goes on to recommend that Christians of all stripes oppose the war in, as it turned out, the vain hope it may be averted. However history judges this war—and historians have to take the long view of things—Volf would judge it from a Christian viewpoint a failure.

Volf’s critique of this particular war does not mean that either for him or for just war theorists there are no wars supportable by Christians. For most Christian theologians throughout the history of Christianity it was deemed perfectly appropriate for Christians to join a war effort as soldiers. Wars in defense of hearth and home may force followers of Christ, perhaps reluctantly, to take up arms. It is tricky, of course. Wars of national aggrandizement were (and are) frequently dressed up as defenses of the fatherland (or motherland). It is wise to peer beneath the fig leaf obscuring the motivations of kings and presidents. All this raises painful questions for a Christian in uniform. What happens when the soldier or sailor considers a particular war unjust? They have sworn an oath to the country, but they have an even more foundational commitment to Jesus Christ. Governments are not normally willing to let women and men in the military choose their wars. They are to obey orders, not make judgments about the justness of the cause. In the Vietnam era there were people who were not pacifists and were perfectly willing to fight a defensive war, but unwilling to participate in what they thought was an unjust war in Vietnam. Their arguments were rejected. For government and military officials letting soldiers decide whether or not to fight on the basis of the justness of a conflict or the appropriateness of its leadership seemed a road to chaos, as a recent officer critical of President Obama has discovered.

Following World War II many interrogators and judges asked German officials and soldiers why they did not refuse to carry out clearly illegal orders and immoral actions in the prosecution of the war. Repeatedly they heard the accused argue that they had no choice. They were simply obeying orders. Both then and now such an answer seems an evasion. The logic of refusing to obey unjust orders, however, is the same as the logic of refusing to fight in a particularly unjust war. The interrogators were quite right to critique those soldiers for not refusing to murder innocents. Even a secular state must recognize there is a” higher law” than the “law of the land.” If a soldier is ordered to rape a woman in Bosnia or butcher a civilian in Rwanda, people throughout the world, whether Christian or not, recognize this is an evil command and should be resisted regardless of the outcome.

Now I understand soldiers in the United States Armed Forces are not required to obey an illegal order. I also understand that it would take an enormous amount of character, courage and discernment to refuse a direct order considered evil. The military women and men I am most familiar with are chaplains. I am quite sure that most if not all of these impressive people would stand against evil acts at the risk of their careers and even lives. Having said all this, I would suggest that Christian’s in the military are not the only ones who face hard choices. They are not the only ones subject to peer pressure and threats to life and health. In fact, every Christian lives uneasily in this society. Every Christian faces seriously ambiguous moral choices. At the beginning of the book of Revelation is a series of letters addressed to the churches of Asia Minor. These letters are largely concerned with the question of the place of Christians in the Greco-Roman society. For John the crucial issues are not raised by Caesar’s military policy, but by everyday life in the cities addressed.

In the letter to Thyatira he blasts a prophetess he calls Jezebel who “misleads my servants into sexual immorality and the eating of food sacrificed to idols.” Without entering a long discussion, I would suggest at issue here is participation in the commercial and social life of the city. John is a rigorist who argues against Christian participation in the various guilds and social groups that made the commercial life of Thyatira possible. On the other side, perhaps, is the more tolerant Apostle Paul who would permit eating meat offered to idols in certain circumstances and thus a certain level of participation in pagan society. John clearly believes there are some parts of pagan society Christians should shun regardless of the economic and social consequences. Paul would agree, but would also insist that Christians must be permitted to live in the real world for the sake of the gospel.

Christians today live between John and Paul—between a rigorist critique of cooperation with the “world” and an insistence that our place is in the midst of this world. As I have said to students, we live between Romans 13 and Revelation 13—between “the powers that be are ordained by God” and “the beast and false prophet.” We must live with this tension. Both Paul and John are right. We must resist and we must participate. We must say no and we must say yes. It will require a great deal of discernment and prayer. And this is why we have the Church, the Scriptures, and the Christian tradition to aid us in seeking answers to such painful and difficult questions.

John E. Phelan, Jr.

Sunday, May 2, 2010

What Are They Thinking in the Vatican?

In my travels around the world, I encounter two Catholic Churches. One is the rigid, all-male Vatican hierarchy that bans condoms even among married couples where one partner is HIV-positive. Yet there is another Catholic Church I admire intensely. This is the church of the nuns and priests in Congo, toiling in obscurity to feed and educate children. Lepers, prostitutes, and slum-dwellers may never see a cardinal, but they daily encounter a truly noble Catholic Church in the form of priests, nuns, and lay workers toiling to make a difference.

Nicholas D. Kristof

During my time as President and Dean of North Park Theological Seminary I have met many rectors, deans, and faculty members of Roman Catholic Seminaries. Because of our affiliation with the Association of Theological Schools I have been able to work alongside these men, and yes, women at workshops, business meetings, and accreditation visits. To a person I have been impressed with their deep commitment to Christ, their compassion for their students and the world and their humanity. I have never felt they considered me any less a Christian for being a Protestant. They have been patient with my questions, interested in my concerns, and curious about my experiences. Now I realize that not all leaders in Roman Catholic seminaries are like this—any more than all Protestant or Evangelical seminary presidents and deans. We are all, after all, subject to original sin. Nevertheless, I have not experienced the rigid and paranoid hierarchy Kristof refers to, but an open and compelling community.

The same is true of the Roman Catholic members of the North Park University faculty. For several years I have interviewed prospective faculty members. My interviews are concerned with “mission fit.” I want to know if the applicant is a follower of Jesus. I want them to understand the ethos and commitments of North Park University and the Evangelical Covenant Church. As a result of these interviews and my work with University faculty, I would observe that most of our Roman Catholic faculty members are as deeply committed to our Christian mission as anyone on our faculty and staff. Many, in fact, are among the most committed to that mission. Worshipping, serving, and teaching with Roman Catholic faculty and staff has given me a deep appreciation for the Roman Catholic Church at its best, whatever my theological questions and concerns.

Nevertheless, having observed the Vatican’s response to the sexual abuse crisis over the last few years I am bound to say that seldom has a community been more ill served by their leadership than the Roman Catholic Church. I have been perplexed by their slowness to respond, their mulishness and defensiveness. I have been shocked that the hierarchy has appeared more concerned for their abusive priests than their victims. The Christian faith, if nothing else, is, or should be, a champion for victims. It seems that for many in the Roman Catholic hierarchy the victims are a problem to be dealt with rather than wounded to be cared for. I know this is not true for everyone in every case, but it has been true in enough cases to raise questions. Why does the Vatican and Catholic leadership in general seem so tone deaf about this issue?

I would suggest that Pius XII provides some clues. Pius was the Pope during the devastation of World War II. He was faced with an unprecedented threat to European civilization. The Roman Catholic Church faced the challenge of both Fascism and Communism. Priests and nuns suffered in the hands of Hitler’s Germany as well as Stalin’s Russia. Any critique of Pius must take seriously the threat the church faced. We have the benefit of hindsight. We know the allies won. For Pius the outcome of the war was at certain points very much in doubt. Pius despised the Nazis. And yet he has been accused of being “Hitler’s Pope” because of his hesitancy to speak out regarding the fate of the Jews. I have read a good deal about Pius and I am not convinced he was anti-Semitic. Nevertheless, it cannot be denied that he did not speak plainly on behalf of the Jews when he had the chance. His reticence perhaps explains the contemporary failures of the Vatican.

Pius was concerned about the survival of the church as an institution. He was concerned about preserving the structures, facilities and agreements forged with governments around Europe, including Germany. He feared the Germans would pillage the Vatican and slaughter its inhabitants if he spoke openly in criticism of Hitler. He had good reason for such a fear. Nevertheless, I would argue that Pius’ failure to speak out for the sake of preserving the church as an institution is one of the great moral failures of the 20th century. I would suggest that the failure of the Roman Catholic hierarchy today to speak out plainly and consistently on clergy sexual abuse is based in the same concern for the preservation of the institutional church. Although this is not another holocaust, it is, in my opinion, a moral failing of the same order. It also reflects a stubborn refusal to let “outsiders” tell the church how to do its business. I believe this is at the very least incredibly shortsighted and a severe disservice to deeply committed and compassionate followers of Christ. One can only hope that something will change, but I fear that a Pope John XXIII only comes along once in a century. There are some signs that some in the leadership are finally “getting it.” I hope it is not too late.

John E. Phelan, Jr.