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Can Christians Celebrate Memorial Day?

Memorial Day is the major holy day of American civic religion. More than Presidents’ Day, more than Labor Day and even more than Independence Day, Memorial Day is set apart for a service of commemoration of a particular narration of what has made America America. The power of the saluting rifles, the glory of the roaring F-16s, the waving red, white and blue, and the parading military is public liturgy, evoking worship from each citizen. Although the celebration feeds the acceptance and perpetuation of the largest military the world has ever known, the focus of this worship service is the memorial for the fallen soldiers. My question is: should we as Christians participate in Memorial Day?

A few months ago, I was asked to write a letter to my grandfather to honor him for his service in the army during World War II. As a Christian, I wrestle with the reality of violence and its correlates of war, nationalism and soldiers. This is not a new struggle for we know that the early church debated whether one could be a Christian and still be a soldier. But I do realize that we live in a violent world and that our actions and reactions are not always black and white. Although my views on my grandfather’s military service are certainly different than his own, I wanted to honor him for risking his life, for fighting for something greater than himself, for the suffering he witnessed and experienced in his body and soul. And I honored him for surviving and for living his life as a veteran by trying to honor those who did not survive.

There is something to be said for committing to care for one’s place, to one’s community and to one’s people. E.M. Forster said that if it came to a choice between dying for his country and dying for his friend, he hoped that he would have the courage to deny his country. However, Alasdair MacIntyre criticized Forster, saying that if anyone can formulate such a contrast, they have no country and that they are a citizen of nowhere. Still, a major problem with our commitment to country, to friends, and to citizenry is the increasing tribalism, which grounds its collective identity through the exclusion of others. This is easily visible on Memorial Day as we honor our victims of war but not their victims of war. As a Christian participating in the Memorial Day liturgy, I think the honoring of the victims of our “collateral damage” would be a good start in differentiating ourselves from non-Christian commemoration. After all, we are the “holy people” that is called to love the strangers and even our enemies.

This can be a first step but not the last, as the waters of this strange baptism of the military run deep. A dear Christian lady that I know attaches to the signature of all her correspondence this declaration: “Only two defining forces have ever offered to die for you.  Jesus Christ and the American GI. One died for your soul, the other for your freedom.” Sadly, the enshrinement of soldiers alongside Jesus is not uncommon.

This not only wrongly legitimizes the American military, it is also heretical by projecting salvific power onto the American GI. Here the soldier is not only an American idol; they are also the sacrifice placed on the altar of American claims to power. As Christians, we say that all power, honor and glory belong to a slain Lamb – an image that counters and subverts all worldly idols and their claims to power.

Also, Christians do not understand freedom and conferred by the State but rather by Christ. He whom the Son sets free is free indeed. That is why the heroes of the church are the martyrs: those who are free to lay down their lives for others. It is a little disturbing that many churches set aside time during their worship services to honor the soldiers who have died but do not set aside time during their services to honor the Christian martyrs, who lived and died as examples and witnesses to our faith.

The major irreconcilable difference between the American GI and Christ is that the soldier is commissioned to kill for the American people, while Jesus chose not to kill but rather to die for me and for all peoples, while we were still his enemies.

Ultimately, for Christians, America’s Memorial Day must be subordinated to the Church’s “Memorial Day,” which we celebrate every time we partake of the Eucharistic liturgy: taking the cup and the broken bread in remembrance of him who chose to die for us rather than to destroy us. We remember, ingest and proclaim his death until he comes. That is a Memorial we can truly celebrate.

 

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Advocating for Mary in the Cape Town Commitments

Our community has used the Lausanne Covenant as a statement of faith and has also promoted the Manila Manifesto with our staff. The latest statement of faith from the Lausanne Movement is the Cape Town Commitments. Although all statements of faith have their weaknesses, I am a fan of the Commitments. While the Lausanne Covenant and the Manila Manifesto took as their point of departure Jesus’ Great Commission to go into all the world to make disciples of all nations, the Cape Town Commitments start with Jesus’ Great Commandment to love God and to love our neighbors as ourselves.

The translation of the Cape Town Commitments into Romanian has just been completed by Paulian Petric and published on Danut Manastireaunu’s blog.

With the advent of the translation, I decided to post some of my suggestions for the final version of the Cape Town Commitments. We received a draft at the convention in Cape Town, and I sent my suggestions to a few of the members of the theology working group. Although I never heard back from the theology working group, I did notice that some of my suggestions were incorporated into the final version.

In the draft, under point number four, the Commitments affirm that “We love God the Son.” Sub-point a) offers a summary of Jesus’ life. However, nowhere did it reference Mary, to whom the church later gives the name “God-bearer.” It might be expected of Protestant and Neo-protestant Christians to exclude Mary, either intentionally or unintentionally, from their statements of faith. It actually seems strange to me that I would be advocating for Mary in light of the fact that I have witnessed many non-orthodox attitudes and practices towards Mary. Still, to marginalize Mary from our theologies and practices means that our own theologies and practices are distorted.

When we affirm Mary as the virgin mother of Jesus, as the Nicene Creed correctly does, we acknowledge that Jesus is situated not only in historical terms (which the Commitments imply by naming Jesus “of Nazareth”) but also in human terms. If Jesus would not be born of Mary, then the Son would not be human. Athanasius and the Church Fathers said that whatever is not assumed by Christ is not redeemed. By assuming all of our humanity, all humanity may be redeemed (1 Corinthians 15:20-28). That is, God didn’t act in human history from an outer realm, and the Son didn’t fall from the sky into human history. Rather, the Son is “born of a virgin through the Holy Spirit”, bringing salvation through and within humanity. Without Mary, our humanity is lost.

Mary has been included in this section of the final version of the Cape Town Commitments.

 

St. Basil on Greed

The harshest form of covetousness is not even to give things perishable to those who need them.  “But whom do I treat unjustly,” you say, “by keeping what is my own?”  Tell me, what is your own?  What did you bring into this life?  From where did you receive it?  It is as if someone were to take the first seat in the theater, then bar everyone else from attending, so that one person alone enjoys what is offered for the benefit of all-this is what the rich do.  They first take possession of the common property, and then they keep it as their own because they were the first to take it.  But if every man took only what sufficed for his own need, and left the rest to the needy, no one would be rich, no one would be poor, no one would be in need.

Did you not fall naked from the womb?  Will you not go back naked to the earth?  Where is your present property from?  If you think that it came to you by itself, you don’t believe in God, you don’t acknowledge the creator and you are not thankful to Him who gave it to you.  But if you agree and confess that you have it from God, tell us the reason why He gave it to you.

Is God unjust, dividing unequally the goods of this life?  Why are you rich, while the other is poor?  Isn’t it, if for no other reason, so that you can gain a reward for your kindness and faithful stewardship, and for him to be honored with the great virtue of patience?  But you, having gathered everything inside the empty bosom of avarice, do you think that you wrong no one, while you rob so many people?

Who is the greedy person?  It’s him, who doesn’t content himself with what he has.  And who the thief?  He who steals what belongs to others.  And you think that you are not greedy, and that you do not rob others?  What had been granted to you so that you might care for others, you claim for yourself.

He who strips a man of his clothes is to be called a thief.  Is not he who, when he is able, fails to clothe the naked, worthy of no other title?  The bread which you do not use is the bread of the hungry; the garment hanging in your wardrobe is the garment of him who is naked; the shoes that you do not wear are the shoes of the one who is barefoot; the money that you keep locked away is the money of the poor; the acts of charity that you do not perform are so many injustices that you commit.

Denouncing the Rapture Heresy

I’ve had it in mind to address some of the wrong-headed, yet widely-held doctrines that have a negative effect on Christians, there’s no better day to start this than a few days after a predicted “end-of-the-world” rapture has passed unfulfilled. Although I’m disturbed by how the prediction of such a small Christian group has received so much media attention, I do give them kudos for putting their money where their mouth is. The organization invested millions of dollars in propagating their message. Some quit their jobs. Some sold their belongings. Some hired atheist companies that guaranteed the care of their pets after their owners were raptured. But, at the end of the day, this event shows us how important theology is – even bad theology – and how it affects our lives and society.

There are some nuances on the idea of the rapture, but basically it is the belief that Jesus will come back and true believers will be taken from the earth to meet Jesus in heaven.

Here I just want to outline some of the major reasons by which the church should name the doctrine of the “rapture” as heresy and denounce it.

Although this heresy has become part of the mainstream evangelical understanding about the return of Christ, the doctrine is relatively new. You can find it in some 18th century Puritan writings, but it was developed and popularized by Mathew Henry and John Darby in the 19th century and by Hal Lindsey in the 20th century. That means that although the church has had different understandings about the Second Coming since the beginning of the church, the idea of the rapture was not held by any of them. For the church, the concept of the rapture is new.

The book in the Bible that speaks about the future of the world more than any other is Revelation. Revelation has no mention of the rapture.

The idea of the rapture is read into Jesus’ statements about the end in Matthew 24. Jesus says that as it was in the days of Noah, so will it be in the coming of the Son of Man. People were eating, drinking and marrying until the flood came and swept them away. Likewise, when the Son of Man comes, two will be in a field; one will be taken and one will be left behind. Those that promote the rapture heresy believe that the true believers will be taken and the condemned will be left behind. However, the text says that those taken away, as in the flood, are destroyed; those left behind, like Noah, are “saved” and enjoy life. The rapture heresy is completely backwards.

The main text that causes interpreters to believe that Christians will be raptured is 1 Thessalonians 4:15–7, which says that the dead in Christ and then the living will be caught up in the air at the coming of Jesus. Read outside of its cultural context, one can understand why so many would think that they will be raptured from the world. However, in its cultural context, the text speaks of the consummation of the kingdom of God. When a king, in the ancient world, would come to a city, he was announcing the reign of his kingdom over the city. If the leaders of the city, accepted the king’s authority, they would come out of the city to meet the king and bring him to the city to establish or affirm his kingship. This is the image from 1 Thessalonians. The direction of Jesus’ coming is not from earth to heaven but rather from heaven to earth. The believers go out to meet their King so they can be part of the triumphant procession in the full coming of the kingdom.

This heresy of Christ coming to rapture his church also implies that there will be a “third coming” when Jesus comes to judge and establish the new heaven and new earth. But a third coming has never been held by the church.

The problems with the rapture heresy are not only the ridicule coming from unbelievers or the despair of those who put their trust in false prophecies. Here are a few real world implications that are justified by this heresy:

If God will save an elect (which is us) from the creation, then we are enabled to exploit the earth and enjoy its plunder without consideration for others (which are not us). Practically, that means we can burn so much fossil fuel that we heat up the globe and make hurricanes, typhoons and flooding more likely and more deadly. Rapture proponents believe that when the real tribulation comes, God will take us out of it.

If God will save an elect (which is us) from tribulation, then we are less likely to be involved when others (the non-elect) suffer tribulations. If God is not involved in the tribulation, and His people are not involved in the tribulation in the future, then we (the elect) have no place in tribulation in the present because it is for the damned.

If God will secure an elect (which is us) from tribulation, then we too should secure an elect (which is us) from tribulation. The amount that America spends on “defense” could wipe out global hunger (from which 24,000 people die every day).

If God will save an elect (which is us) from tribulation, then we do not need to consider the affects of our decisions on future generations (which are not us). Economists continue to promote consumption in order to grow economies. The message transmitted is consume the benefits now without worrying about the costs in the future.

If God will save an elect (which is us) from tribulation, then we are enabled to project our view of the end times onto a political agenda. Already in the 19th century, when pre-millennial dispensationalism was being formulated, George Eliot said, “Advertising the pre-millennial Advent is simply the transportation of political passions on to a so-called religious platform; it is the anticipation of the triumph of ‘our party,’ accomplished by our principal men being ‘sent for’ into the clouds.” We see this today when apocalyptic imagery is written into our party politics. But we must ask ourselves, “How are we to be a people of the cross as a prophetic, suffering witness that seeks redemption in the midst of tribulation?”

Walter Brueggemann on the Prophetic Imagination

Watching the Grass Grow

Last September, our community took a number of new kids into our Community Center activities. Since we were away for the past months, I’m only now getting to know them, mainly by playing or working together.

A few weeks ago, I and our Moldova servant team were flattening a section of the garden and raking out the rocks so we could plant grass. Before we started to plan the grass seed, Alin, one of our new boys, arrived from school. He asked if he could help, so I picked up rocks and flattened the dirt. Then I gave him the sack of seed and taught him how to spread it evenly over the dirt and then pack it in. Then I showed him how to water it and told him that he was responsible for the plot. Even when I wasn’t at the Center, Alin remembered to water.

One day as Alin was watering and weeding, he told me that he also helps his elderly neighbor with his garden. He said that his neighbor is too old to dig or to carry big loads, so he helps him out. I was impressed because lots of kids need lots of motivation to work. And I know that this is a way that some of our kids, who have very little, are able to earn a little pocket money. So, I asked Alin how much he gets paid for doing chores for his neighbor. Alin was surprised. He said that he doesn’t do it for money but to help his neighbor. He said, “My neighbor doesn’t have a dime to buy bread. Do you want me to take his last dime? Isn’t it better to help him because he needs it rather than for money?”

After being away from the Center for a week at our community retreat, I greeted Alin at our gate as he came from school and took him up to see the plot where he had planted and watered. His face lit up when he saw the green grass sprouting up.

How Generous is the American Church?

Over the past few weeks, I blogged about the vast income disparity between the rich and the poor – even within the U.S. – and about the meager aid given by the U.S. One could argue that the burden of the problem lies with the very rich. While this may be true, I don’t understand why someone would be motivated to be generous or philanthropic – someone, that is, who is not a Christian. Christians are called to love, to respond compassionately to the needs of others, and to share what they have with others. This is one of the main mandates Christ gives to his church. So, the important question isn’t “how generous is the U.S.?”, but rather, “how generous is the church?”

The church in America is the wealthiest church in the history of the world. In his book, The Hole in Our Gospel, Richard Stearns tells us that the total income of American churchgoers is $5.2 trillion. It would take just a little over 1% of the income of American Christians to lift the poorest 1 billion in the world out of extreme poverty.

American Christians, who make up about 5 percent of the Church worldwide, control half of global Christian wealth.

If tithing is defined as giving 10 percent or more of one’s pretax income to the church or to nonprofit ministries, only about 5% of American households tithe. The number of those called “born again” Christians in America who tithe is higher: 9%. Of those who call themselves “evangelical Christians,” 24% tithe. That still leaves 76% who are not tithing!

If we are not giving 10%, how much are we giving? The average giving of American church members in 2005 (pre-economic recession) was just 2.58 percent of their income, about 75% less than the oft-promoted 10%. Sadly, as our incomes have increased, our giving has significantly declined. In 1933 at the height of the Great Depression, giving averaged 3.3 percent, 27 percent more than what we gave in 2005.

If we look at where the money goes after it is received by the churches, we find that just about 2% of it goes to overseas missions of any kind. The other 98% stays in the U.S., within our churches and communities.

American Christians, the wealthiest Christians in all history are making to the world is just about 2 percent of 2 percent – actually about five ten-thousandths of our income. That amounts to 6 pennies per person per day that we give through our churches to the rest of the world.

If American Christians gave 10 percent of their incomes instead of the 2.5 percent we currently give, we would have an extra $168 billion to spend in funding the work of the Church worldwide!

Promotion without Self-Promotion

We’ve had a sad experience in the last few months with two of our kids, a brother and a sister, Florin and Eleni, with whom we have been in close relationship since they were 2 and 4 years old. They have been in and out of two foster care families and ended up in the city’s Center for Minors. This is a rough environment in which dozens of kids from troubled contexts are shuffled in and out. Visiting the Center you feel like you’re in an out-of-control romper room. And this is where our two kids lived for the past five months. They’ve tried to do their homework in the midst of the noise. They’ve felt unsafe in the presence of some of the older kids and even some of the staff.

Yet, when Vali, our program director, went to first visit the kids in the Center for Minors, the director met Vali and congratulated her for our ministry. Although the director had never been to our Community Center and had never heard of our organization previously, she saw the impact of our work in the lives of our kids – even in this troubled environment.

We found out that Eleni couldn’t stand the disorder, so she started to implement the methods that we practice as the Community Center, like connecting discipline to positive and negative consequences. She had such an effect on the kids that the director from the Center for Minors wants us to partner with us and asked us to come and train their staff.

When we started our community in Romania in the late ‘90s, we discussed our ideas for building relationships in the city and helping others learn about who we were. We decided that we would resist self-promotion and would promote, rather, good, committed, long-term, relational service to Jesus among the vulnerable. Although it has taken a long time, we are starting to become known, not for our name and not for our logo, but for and through our practice.

Correcting Our Capitalist Reading of the Talents

My friend Jonathan Starkey has drawn this diagram based on Ched Myers and Eric DeBode’s interpretation of Jesus’ parable of the talents in Matthew 25:14-30.

While interpreters from capitalist economies have invariably interpreted the absentee lord as God, the talents as good investments, and the reward as heaven, Myers and DeBode show how the hero of the story for Jesus’ listeners was the “evil and lazy” slave, who chose not to participate in an exploitive economic system.

Oțelul Galați Enters the Champions League

Last night we returned from the mountains to find the streets of Galați filling up with football fans. Oțelul (Steelers) played Timișoara and by beating them 2-1, they became champions of the Romania league – the first time a team from the Moldova region has ever won the title. With the victory Oțelul enters the Champions League.

The 13,500 capacity stadium stands next to our apartment. Each time Oțelul scored, the screams resounded through our apartment and down the city streets. When the time ran out, the fans covered the field, and then the poured out into the streets. Tens of thousands marched and shouted and celebrated into the night.

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