MLK and Human Life: A Divided Church on the Third Sunday of January

This tells us an inconvenient truth about American Christians: that every one of us has some group of individuals whom we designate as other.

We’re just through the Christmas season (and our fellow Anglican and Orthodox Christians celebrate a bit longer than the rest of us do). Winter break is over for schools. Most of us are trying to get back to normal and deal with holiday debt. Congregations begin to look ahead to Easter, which comes a bit later on the calendar this year.

Then we come to the third week of January and an interesting juxtaposition of events.  The third Sunday of the month is Sanctity of Human Life Sunday with an annual pro-life march in Washington, DC and events that call attention to the destruction of human life through abortion. The third Monday of January is the Martin Luther King holiday, a national holiday signed into law by President Ronald Reagan to call attention not only to Dr. King and his work, but to the stark reality that for most of our national history, African-Americans were brutally treated through chattel slavery and the horrendous discriminatory practices through what came to be termed “Jim Crow laws.” And our fellow citizens who are African American continue to face the generational impact of that brutality.

One or the other?

I could go on about both of these hideous practices. However, my purpose is to think with you about something curious that I find in American Christianity when it comes to these two events. I have observed that most congregations will call attention to one of these commemorations but not the other. Most predominantly white churches of an evangelical bent will commemorate Sanctity of Human Life Sunday with special sermons and participation in anti-abortion events designed to call attention to the thousands of human lives brutally ended through abortion. But I’m willing to bet that few of those same congregations, especially in the American South where I live, even mention the King holiday despite that Dr. King led a deeply Christian movement to end the disenfranchisement of an entire people.

Not to be outdone, most white churches of a more liberal bent often commemorate the King holiday with similar activities—special sermons that call attention to the brutality of racism and participation in activities that invoke the need for continuing the struggle for full inclusion of African Americans (and other persons of color) in the mainstream of our society. And there is little doubt that racism has morphed into something more subtle but just as pernicious. At the same time, I’m happy to wager that in most of these congregations, little if any mention is made of the Sanctity of Human Life Sunday, despite the reality that the Christian faith places human life at the center of its Christian ethic. I wonder if the discomfort those folks feel when abortion is mentioned is the same discomfort their forebears felt when the topic turned to slavery. (My African American Christian friends mostly care about both, and they don’t draw bright lines between them.)

Who is the other for American Christians

Yale theologian and ethicist Miroslav Volf has written a profound book titled Exclusion and Embrace (Abingdon, 2001). In it, Volf demonstrates how in any society there are always those we see as other. Those classified this way by the larger group are the ones who are bullied on the school-bus, the ones whom we think nothing of killing with drones, the ones for whom we find excuses to deny full humanity. We do it in our day and time through vehicles like politics and theology. You have heard it before. The ones who embrace Dr. King’s work are the liberals and liberals deny the essence of the Christian faith. Or, the ones who protest abortion on Sanctity of Human Life Sunday are nothing more than narrow-minded fundamentalists who want to tell everyone else how to live.  Our political and theological ideologies shape whom we see as other.

This tells us an inconvenient truth about American Christians: that every one of us has some group of individuals whom we designate as other. My guess is that this is true for almost everyone, Christian or not, around the globe. It is as true for the movers and shakers gathering this week in Davos, Switzerland. It is true for many of those who want to outlaw almost all immigration in this country. It is true for many evangelicals who want to pretend that we fixed all of the civil rights problems in the 1960s. It is true for theological liberals who deny humanity to those children waiting to be born.

I think Christians, no matter their persuasion, need to reach beyond these ideologies. We start by identifying who is other for us as individuals and as communities. That does not mean we always agree with how they see the world, but it does mean that they are individuals for whom Christ died and who need to hear of his forgiving love. I’ve been asking who is other for me, and I must confess that the answer I hear is one that I don’t necessarily like. But, my Lord Jesus Christ did not tell me to love everyone else except for those I see as other. I think the gospel is for people of a variety of political persuasions—Democrats, Republicans, Independents, Socialists, Libertarians, and the list goes on. We now live in a world so fragmented that many see those who disagree with them as other.

We will not address this overnight, and I don’t pretend that this is easy. But here is a way that we might start. How about next year, January 2020 as the presidential primaries begin, we mark both the King holiday and Sanctity of Human Life Sunday in our churches. Some folks will get mad, but that is fine because oftentimes our anger is an important first step toward unmasking our idolatries.  That leads to conviction of our sinfulness in this matter. Why don’t we use both to address this matter of the other and the overt and covert ways we dehumanize those whom we categorize this way. Both events teach us that throughout American history, groups of human beings have been denied their full humanity as people who (imperfectly, as with all of us) reflect the image of God. Wouldn’t be great if on the third Sunday of January next year we would mark both of these events by using Martin Luther King’s haunting words from Memphis on the night before his death to call attention to the work we have to do as the people of God?

Now that would be something I think the Triune God would bless.

Jesus, the Fullness of God’s Glory

“In the beginning…” With those words the Apostle John links Jesus Christ to the creation of heaven and earth described in Genesis One. Jesus Christ, the very Word of God, was “with God in the beginning,” and through Christ “all things were made.” Moreover, Jesus Christ, the very word of God, “became flesh and made his dwelling among us.” God has taken on human form through Christ, and through him not only do humans have opportunity to see the very nature and character of the Triune God, but “grace and truth [come] through Jesus Christ.”

Note how John 1:14-18 parallels Exodus 33-34. First, God’s word is revealed through the Torah, and then even more fully in Jesus Christ. Second, Moses tells us that God dwelt among his people in the tabernacle (Exod 33:10-16). John teaches that Jesus Christ, the very word of God, “tabernacled” among us (Jn 1:14). Moses beheld the glory of God. Jesus disciples beheld the glory of the Son, and in both instances that glory was full of grace and truth. While no one can see all of God’s glory (Exod 33:20), it has been fully revealed in Jesus Christ (John 1:18).

Recently, I’ve been trying to wrap my mind around a staggering reality: that the God of the universe became a human being, lived among us, died, and was raised to life so that each of us would have the possibility of reconciliation with our Creator. When we embrace that reality, nothing can ever be the same in our lives, in our relationships with others, and how we live in the world. The New Testament scholar Ben Witherington suggests that the entire New Testament can be seen as its writers struggling to come to grips with this reality.

I wonder if this has become so familiar to us that it no longer amazes us. So many evangelicals live their lives as if God doesn’t exist, or if he does, that he needs lots of help from us to accomplish his purposes. Perhaps we need to step back and once again ponder what it is we claim to believe and teach. Perhaps we need to consider what God desires for his followers, and that is simply that we learn to participate in his Triune life as his adopted daughters and sons. That is a journey that begins now and will stretch through all eternity.

Antisemitism and “Replacement Theology”

Last summer, the murder of eleven Jewish people while at worship in a Pittsburgh synagogue stunned so many of us, not just because it represented an assault on religious freedom in the United States, but because it served as an ugly reminder that Antisemitism still lurks in the shadows of American life. In the last ten years, we have seen horrible Antisemitism manifested in Europe and the Middle East, but beginning with Charlottesville and the alt-right “tiki-torch” march through the campus of the University of Virginia in the summer of 2017 we were shocked to see it expressed in such hateful ways in our own country.
All of this has caused me to reflect on subtle ways that Antisemitism can shape even movements that I identify with, like American Evangelicalism. I had never heard the term “replacement theology” until I heard it used several years ago mostly in contexts related to forms of Dispensationalism. So at first, I was unsure of what those who used the term meant by it. I have heard a similar idea expressed as “succession” in terms that the church succeeded Israel as the people of God (something I have never ascribed to). Roman Catholicism sees the visible church centered in Rome under the Bishop of Rome as being the visible successor of Old Testament Israel. Luther and Calvin (and the movements they established) identified the church as primarily invisible made up of all Christians both past and present. Hence for many who identify as Protestants, this invisible church was the successor to Old Testament Israel.
My view is framed by the olive tree analogy that Paul uses in Romans (as well as Jesus’s description of the vine and branches in John 15)–there is one people of God made up of both Jews and Gentiles. Jewish followers of Jesus represent the true Judaism and are “natural” branches on the tree. Gentile followers (probably most of you who are reading this) are the “wild” branches grafted onto the same tree. So we have a tree (representing the People of God) with a strong trunk rooted in the Triune God with natural branches (Jewish followers) and wild branches (Gentile followers). Jews and Gentiles retain their distinctiveness but are one new people.
When Paul wrote Romans (I think around AD 55 or so), Christianity had begun its transition from being mostly Jewish in its first two generations, to mostly Gentile in the aftermath of the destruction of Jerusalem in AD70. In reading Romans, I think Paul is writing this to a church in the midst of this transition. He had spent the first eight chapters describing the essence of the Gospel and how it was available to Jew and Gentile alike through faith in Jesus Christ. So the question emerges among the Roman Christians, both Jew and Gentile, as to God’s intention for the Jewish people. And Paul was adamant that God was not yet finished with the Jewish people. Personally, I think that Paul is referencing Jewish Christians in Romans 9-11, and despite the shrinking number of Jewish believers for a variety of reasons, God will bring the gospel to bear once again among them.
I find it fascinating that in our day and time, we see two trends among those who trace their ethnic heritage to Judaism. First, so many Jews in Europe and America, and even in Israel, have become atheist or agnostic in their religious beliefs. I attribute much of this to the aftermath of  the Holocaust. When I read Jewish writers like Vicktor Frankl, I hear deep pain in their words as they wrestle with what they perceive as the absence of God in the midst of the horrors of Nazi Germany and the Antisemitism from which those horrors emerged.  And there is little doubt that those who have claimed Christianity over the centuries have contributed significantly to Antisemitism becoming such a force in the world. The Holocaust raises theodicy to whole new levels–not simply intellectual but deeply personal. One cannot be a Christian and blow off profound questions regarding suffering and evil in the modern world.
But the second current gives me great hope. Today there are more Jewish followers of Jesus than at any time in human history. While still a small portion of the 13.5 million ethnic Jewish people in the world, the number of Messianic Jews is now in the thousands. And this even with the legacy of Antisemitism that has permeated much of the Western world and too large a portion of Catholic and Protestant Christianity. In one way, I hope that my dispensationalist friends are right, and that there will be a major movement to Christ among the Jewish people as we approach the end of history.
I am one who believes that the primary signal of the return of Christ to earth will be the preaching of the gospel worldwide. Even while society continues to become increasingly bound to sin and lawlessness, I think that God will bring revival like we have never seen before as the gospel is preached and people respond. And this great revival before the end of history will include a move of God among Jewish people, something that I think has already started in earnest.
For now, understanding that God is still at work among Jewish people must cause us to reject all forms of Antisemitism. We should never be afraid to speak in opposition to anti-Semitic attitudes and actions. We should recognize and repudiate the Antisemitism that characterized many who claimed Christianity throughout the past nineteen centuries. As the late Edith Schaeffer titled one of her books, “Christianity is Jewish.” The one whom we claim to follow as Messiah was a Jew as were almost all of his followers during the initial years of the Jesus movement.
Holy Scripture allows no room for Antisemitism. Neither should any of us who claim to follow the Messiah Jesus Christ.