A Palestinian Christian’s view of the occupation

This is part 2 of a series on rethinking the Israeli-Palestinian conflict as a Christian, inspired by the most recent assault on Gaza. Part 1 can be read here.  

When I was a kid, I had a t-shirt with a picture of Snoopy carrying an Israeli flag, trailed by Woodstock marching with an American flag. The caption below read, “America is right behind you.”

So yeah, I guess you could say I was pro-Israel. After all, how could you be an evangelical and not be a supporter of the Israeli state?

The dominant narrative of the American evangelical subculture says the Holy Land belongs to Israel alone. It’s an everlasting inheritance rooted in an irrevocable, unchanging covenant with God himself. (More on that in another post perhaps.)

The establishment of the Israeli state in 1948 is looked on not just as an important event in the life of the Jewish people, but as nothing less than the fulfillment of biblical prophecy, inaugurating the beginning of the end times.

Israel’s defense, then, is America’s sacred responsibility, our first and greatest foreign policy commitment. (That was something both candidates in the recent presidential campaign actually agreed on.) As such, no criticism of Israel will be brooked. Palestinians are, at best, squatters with no rightful claim to the land — and at worst, terrorists who would ignite a second Holocaust, given the chance.

Add to the mix our present-day worries about “radical Islam” and our tendency to paint all Arabs with the same brush, and it becomes far too easy for us to view the Israeli-Palestinian conflict in simple terms of good guys vs. bad guys. Christians and Jews together on one side, presumably, and Palestinian Islamists on the other.

That is, until cracks begin to appear in the façade we’ve created to help ourselves sleep at night.

Like the fact that many of those working hardest for peace among Jews and Palestinians are members of the Jewish community. Organizations like Jewish Voice for Peace belie the supposition, popular in evangelical circles, that Jews and Palestinians are destined to be forever at war.

Or the fact that not all Palestinians fit the radical-jihadist-with-a-bomb-strapped-to-his-chest caricature. Not by a long shot. Not only are most Palestinians nonviolent (whatever their religion); many happen to be Christian. My spiritual brothers and sisters, united by a common faith.

For some reason, in my church we never talked about Palestinian Christians. Oh, we discussed at length the persecution of Christians in other part of the world, but never the suffering of our fellow believers in Palestine. We were oblivious to their existence.

For me, that changed four years ago, during what until this month had been the last major assault on the Gaza Strip. One of my colleagues at the time was a Palestinian Christian who grew up in the West Bank and later moved to America.

One day, she told me about her experience in the West Bank.

She and her family had no freedom of movement, thanks to the 430-mile barrier the Israeli government began building in the mid-1990s. The barrier is rationalized as keeping would-be suicide bombers out of Israel. Yet it doesn’t just separate Israel from the West Bank; it cuts into the West Bank at several points, isolating Palestinian villages from each other.

For my colleague, this meant being cut off from her family in the next village over. Going to church meant risking arrest because there were just too many checkpoints. She wasn’t just deprived of her freedom of movement; she was deprived of her freedom to worship.

Freedom of movement is considered a fundamental human right, as is the freedom to worship. Both are enshrined in our Constitution. If these violations happened anywhere else, we would protest that freedom itself was under attack. We would call it persecution.

My colleague also described the experience of Palestinian children who have to walk past Israeli settlements on their way to and from school, subjected to taunts and physical violence from other children who’ve been taught by their parents to hate the Palestinians. Imagine if this were your daughter’s walk to school:

My colleague told me of Palestinian friends — particularly in East Jerusalem — whose homes were demolished by the Israeli government, usually on the pretext of not having the proper permits. (Never mind the homes and their occupants have been there for years.) In many cases, families have just minutes to gather what belongings they can carry before the bulldozers close in. They have no recourse, no due process.

Finally, my colleague revealed that she had no idea whether she’d ever get to see her family again. You see, if you’re Palestinian and you leave your homeland, the Israeli government (which controls who comes and goes in the West Bank) may not let you back in. Consider this example, reported in the Baltimore Sun a few years ago:

Abdelhakeem Itayem, a Palestinian with American citizenship, was counting on a simple overnight stay when he traveled from the West Bank to Jordan on a business trip. Six months later, he is still there, trapped in bureaucratic limbo.

Itayem, 41, said the long delay has kept him away from his wife, Lisa, and their seven children, who remain in the family’s home near Ramallah. It has also cost him his job as a manager for a Palestinian distributor of foreign consumer goods. “It’s breaking my heart,” he said.

Activists say scores of Palestinians who carry foreign passports, mostly American, have been denied entry this year after Israel moved to close a loophole that once allowed residents to enter repeatedly on renewable Israeli tourist visas.

The policy has created a quandary for the Palestinian Americans who remain: If they leave to get a new three-month stamp, they might not be allowed back. If they stay, their current Israeli visas will expire. Many say their past applications for formal residency in the Palestinian territories were rejected by Israel or never acted upon.

These and other tactics are part of a concerted effort to make life as unbearable as possible for the Palestinians. Then, when they leave, the Israeli government locks the door behind them.

Similar measures have been taken against people in Gaza, arguably the world’s largest refugee camp. Israel controls everything that goes in and out of that tiny, arid strip of land; Gaza’s fishermen can’t even fish their own waters on the Mediterranean coast without fear of being shelled by Israeli warships. In 2006, one advisor to the Israeli prime minister revealed that his country was deliberately trying to impoverish the people of Gaza. “The idea is to put the Palestinians on a diet,” he said, “but not to make them die of hunger.”

Imagine if a vastly superior military power had brought you and your community to the brink of starvation in order to teach you a lesson. How would you feel? How would you react? Would you be tempted to fight back?
And even if you believe modern-day Israel is one and the same with the Israel of the Bible …

Even if you believe the biblical covenant that promised the land to ancient Israel is somehow still in force today…

Even if you think Palestinians are outsiders with no rightful claim to the land (despite the fact they’ve been living there for hundreds of years)…

If that’s how you rationalize what’s going on in Palestine today, then surely you accept that Israel is duty-bound to follow the whole covenant, not just the part that supposedly gives them the land?

So what about Leviticus 19?

When a foreigner resides among you in your land, do not mistreat them. The foreigner residing among you must be treated as your native-born. Love them as yourself, for you were foreigners in Egypt. I am the Lord your God.

What about Deuteronomy 10?

You are to love those who are foreigners, for you yourselves were foreigners in Egypt.

Ancient Israel knew what it felt like to be a refugee population at the mercy of a far more powerful nation. They were told by their God never to forget — and never to repeat — the hostility which they experienced at the hands of the Egyptians.

So can it be said the Israeli government truly loves the Palestinians in their midst? Can they claim to have treated the Palestinians as they treat their own? Or have they already forgotten what it feels like to be a refugee?

Because if they have forgotten, then they have broken the very covenant that promised the land to their ancestors.

Global voices of nonviolence (including mine)

Global Voices of Nonviolence (GVON) is a new initiative to share stories and perspectives on nonviolence from around the world. It was started by EthnoGraphic Media (EGM), the film company behind the documentary Little Town of Bethlehem.

This week they republished an old post of mine called “People of the third way,” in which I share how Jesus practiced (and taught) nonviolence against a political backdrop every bit as volatile as the modern Palestinian-Israeli conflict. Rejecting both violent uprising and docile acquiescence, Jesus offers a third way: confronting the oppressor without fighting back. Refusing the be enemies. Subverting evil with love.

I hope to contribute more to GVON in the future. I tend to write a lot about “love your neighbor” and how this idea is central to the way of Jesus. GVON and EGM are putting these words in action, calling the church to recover its rich heritage of nonviolence.

I don’t do many shameless promotions on this blog, but here’s one. Support GVON. Follow their blog. Connect with them on Facebook. Listen to their stories of nonviolence and maybe share some of your own.

On the imminent demise of the Episcopal Church…

I hate it when the wrecking ball arrives just as I’m settling into a new home.

A little over a year ago, my wife and I joined the Episcopal Church. We were confirmed on a Saturday. Our daughter was baptized the following day, Pentecost Sunday.

Last week, Episcopalians wrapped up their triennial convention, and the big story was our denomination’s impending demise.

Over the last three years, nearly 200,000 people have fled the Episcopal Church. The long-term picture is even more depressing. One in four regular worshippers have disappeared from our pews during the past decade.

You can feel it in our more-than-half-empty churches. If this pace continues (and it probably will), in 20 years the Episcopal Church will be half its already-diminished size.

Episcopalianism has been a part of this country for over 400 years. At this rate, we won’t make it another 400. We won’t even come close.

Enter conservative columnist Ross Douthat, who blames the decline on the extreme liberalism he sees in mainline denominations like mine. In a recent New York Times editorial, he asked whether “liberal Christianity can be saved.”

Despite some of the reaction to his piece, I think Douthat asks some important questions. His article  was thought-provoking and nuanced. We should listen, for example, when he urges liberal Christians to come out of their denial:

Both religious and secular liberals have been loath to recognize this crisis. Leaders of liberal churches have alternated between a Monty Python-esque “it’s just a flesh wound!” bravado and a weird self-righteousness about their looming extinction.

Yet Douthat sees no cause for celebration in the demise of liberal Christianity. He warns conservatives — many of whom left denominations like mine years ago — against triumphalism:

The defining idea of liberal Christianity — that faith should spur social reform as well as personal conversion — has been an immensely positive force in our national life. No one should wish for its extinction, or for a world where Christianity becomes the exclusive property of the political right.

Douthat encourages liberal Christians to remember why they exist in the first place — and what sets them apart from their secular counterparts. He laments that most “leaders of the Episcopal Church and similar bodies don’t seem to be offering anything you can’t already get from a purely secular liberalism.”

There are days when I worry about that too. In my tradition, we’ve devoted plenty of time and energy to the ways in which Christianity needs to evolve. But at the end of the day, is there anything left of “historic Christianity” which, to quote Douthat again, we would “defend and offer uncompromisingly to the world”?

I think it’s a valid question.

I believe that historic, orthodox Christianity offers a compelling foundation for many of the “progressive” causes taken up by my denomination (and many other Christians as well). But is our engagement consciously rooted in the reality of the resurrected Christ and his kingdom? Would anyone even know if it was?

For example, are we advocating for the Millennium Development Goals (a subject on which our Presiding Bishop has spoken eloquently a number of times) simply because it’s the cause du jour of the industrialized world? Or is it because the resurrected Christ compels us to labor so that everyone can experience life “to the full” now and in the future?

Are we demanding diversity and equality outside the church only? Or do we also practice it in our churches, acting from the conviction that God is making a new, worldwide family — one where the old barriers are rendered meaningless?

Are we just welcoming gays and lesbians into our congregations, or are we also inviting them (and everyone else, for that matter) to make Christ the center of their lives?

These are questions we ought to be asking as we take stock of our diminishment. If what we have to offer the world is indistinguishable from secular liberalism — if it is not at its core a vibrant, Christ-centered faith that compels us to embrace causes like caring for the poor and the planet — then, well, who needs us?

Or as the apostle Paul put it once, if the tomb is not empty, then what’s the point?

That being said, I think there were a few other factors which Douthat didn’t address. (To be fair, Douthat only had about 800 words to work with). Here are some other lessons I think we should take from the Episcopal Church’s decline.

1. All Christians, liberal and conservative, are in the same boat.

Last week, Gallup revealed that public confidence in organized religion has reached an all-time low. Just 4 in 10 Americans have much faith in the church, down from 60 percent as recently as September 2001.

It’s not just liberal Christianity that’s in decline. We may have been hit with it first, but now others are joining the party. The Southern Baptist Convention, a stalwart of evangelical conservatism, has been declining five years in a row. Their rate of decline increased more than 600 percent from 2009 to 2011. (In fairness, they still have a long way to go before they catch up to us.)

Pundits will offer competing theories to explain Christianity’s decline in the West. Whatever you make of it, though, it’s no longer confined to one ideological corner of the church.

2. You can’t have it both ways.

It’s fascinating to hear some Christians interpret the mainline church’s decline as proof of God’s disapproval. Mark Driscoll, for example, is fond of comparing the growth rate at his church with that of other groups with whom he disagrees.

There are, of course, a couple problems with this approach. First, if numbers are the clearest sign of God’s (dis)approval, then we should all drop what we’re doing and start imitating Joel Osteen. (Mark, you’re gonna need a new hairdo.)

Second, let’s be honest. Most of us only apply this logic when it works in our favor. How many Southern Baptists would countenance the notion that their decline is punishment for some doctrinal error or apostasy? When it’s some other group who’s hurting, we tend to assume it’s because they’ve lost their way. Yet when we’re the ones facing decline, either we go into denial (it’s just a fluke!) or we nurse a martyrdom complex (being right has a cost!), as Douthat rightly points out.

Speaking of martyrdom complexes…

3. Sometimes the right course is the unpopular one.

Within two years of ordaining its first openly gay bishop, the Episcopal Church lost 115,000 members. No one questions why they left. And the debate over that decision is a long way from being resolved.

But when was the last time Episcopalians experienced a comparable exodus? 1967 to 1969.

During that two-year period, the church lost an almost identical number of people — in part because it started speaking out against racial discrimination.

Was the fallout from that decision a sign of God’s displeasure? Was the Episcopal Church capitulating to culture, or was it leading prophetically? (Bear in mind it would be another 25 years before Southern Baptists apologized for their support of slavery and segregation.)

Doing the right thing is no guarantee of success. Nor are skyrocketing numbers always proof you’re doing the right thing.

4. Maybe all our fighting is driving people away.

There’s no question many have left the Episcopal Church because of the national body’s more controversial decisions in recent years. Heck, we’ve lost entire dioceses. So in one sense, the commentators are right. This fight is costing us.

But that’s the point. What if it’s the fight (more than the underlying issues) that’s turning people away?

Most people who’ve left the Episcopal Church have done so because their conscience compels them — not because they’re hateful or mean-spiritied. But in the process, both sides have engaged in a knock-down, drag-out fight — including, among other things, taking each other to court. (Didn’t Paul have something to say about that?) I haven’t followed every sordid detail, but it seems likely to me that both sides have escalated this fight in ways it didn’t need to be escalated.

So what if it’s not just the Episcopal Church (or the congregations who’ve left) that people are staying away from, but Christianity as a whole?

Today, most outsiders define the church according to its worst characteristics: anti-gay (91% say this), judgmental (87%), hypocritical (85%), and too political (75%). Meanwhile, most major denominations are experiencing (or are about to experience) some form of decline.

Is it possible these two facts are related?

Perhaps we should consider the possibility that how we — and I mean all of us, liberal and conservative — handle conflict is driving people away.



That’s democracy for you . . .

Yesterday’s vote in North Carolina has been followed by all the usual (and predictable) punditry, from outrage to triumphalism. Supporters of Amendment 1 have rightly pointed out that in every state where it’s been put to a vote (31 and counting), a clear majority have voted to ban gay marriage. Whereas the eight states which have legalized gay marriage have all done so by judicial or legislative fiat.

The argument being that when democracy is allowed to run its course, gay marriage loses. Yay for democracy . . . right?

Regardless of which side you take in the gay marriage debate, let me propose that this fight-by-popular-vote is dangerous, self-serving, and profoundly misinformed. Especially for those who revere the founding fathers and the Constitution.

The United States is not a democracy. Nor was it ever meant to be one. To be sure, politicians on both sides have exploited and contributed to our national ignorance by hailing the virtues of “democracy” every time they’re in front of the cameras. Which is why we all need a history refresher.

The Constitution, revisited

In the late 1780s, after America’s first attempt at governance under the Articles of Confederation proved a disaster, the founding fathers returned to the drawing board and wrote the Constitution of the United States.

It was a bold, unprecedented, and highly controversial vision of government. In order to sell it to the public, three of the Constitution’s framers — Alexander Hamilton, James Madison, and John Jay — anonymously wrote the Federalist Papers. Their aim was to explain and defend this new form of government, which they insisted was neither monarchy nor democracy but a republic — a system of representative government.

Why is this important? And what does it have to do with a marriage amendment in North Carolina?

It matters because the kind of “majority rule” currently (and, in all likelihood, temporarily) embraced by opponents of gay marriage just so happens to be the exact opposite of what the founding fathers intended for this country.

Consider these excerpts on the perils of democracy from Federalist No. 10, written by James Madison, who is also known as the “Father of the Constitution.”

Measures are too often decided, not according to the rules of justice and the rights of the minor party, but by the superior force of an interested and overbearing majority.

To secure the public good and the private rights against the danger of [majority rule] is then the great object to which our inquiries are directed.

Either the existence of the same passion or interest in a majority at the same time must be prevented, or the majority . . . must be rendered, by their number and local situation, unable to concert and carry into effect schemes of oppression.

Pure democracy . . . can admit no cure for the mischiefs of faction. Hence it is that such democracies have ever been spectacles of turbulence and contention; have ever been found incompatible with personal security or the rights of property; and have in general been as short in their lives as they have been violent in their deaths.

In Federalist No. 51 —famous for its exploration of the doctrine of checks and balances, or “separation of powers” — Madison also addressed the importance of protecting minority rights against the tyranny of majority rule:

It is of great importance in a republic . . . to guard one part of the society against the injustice of the other part. Different interests necessarily exist in different classes of citizens. If a majority be united by a common interest, the rights of the minority will be insecure. In a free government the security for civil rights must be the same as that for religious rights.

Justice is the end [i.e. goal] of government. It is the end of civil society. In a society under the forms of which the stronger faction can readily unite and oppress the weaker, anarchy may as truly be said to reign as in a state of nature.

Whereas under the form of government laid out by Madison’s Constitution . . .

Even the stronger individuals are prompted, by the uncertainty of their condition, to submit to a government which may protect the weak as well as themselves; so . . . will the more powerful factions or parties be induced to wish for a government which will protect all parties, the weaker as well as the more powerful.

In other words, direct democracy or “majority rule” was not what the founders had in mind because they knew that left to its own devices, the majority would invariably oppress and deprive the minority of its rights.

Traditional marriage advocates celebrate their string of ballot victories, including the latest in North Carolina, as if a simple majority vote is all the proof needed that gay marriage is bad for society.

But there’s a reason things like slavery, civil rights, and women’s suffrage weren’t put to a popular vote. There’s a reason why the U.S. Senate is structured so a minority of senators can thwart the legislative agenda of a simple majority. (There’s also a reason why senators weren’t directly elected by the public until the Seventeenth Amendment was ratified in 1913.)

In all likelihood, the founding fathers would have been horrified at the prospect of gay marriage.

But they would have been equally horrified at the way in which gay marriage opponents have advanced their agenda. “That’s democracy for you,” such opponents might say after their 31st ballot victory.

To which Madison and the other framers of the Constitution would say: “But that’s exactly why we didn’t give you direct democracy.”

What goes around . . .

There’s an even bigger consideration, to which Madison alludes near the end of Federalist No. 51. Majority rule is a fickle thing, as Republicans learned in 2006 and Democrats in 2010.

It’s in the majority’s best interest not to use their power to oppress the minority — if not for more virtuous reasons, then for the simple fact that they may not always be the majority.

Public opinion is shifting on gay marriage. Maybe not everywhere at the same pace, but it’s shifting all the same — and not in favor of “traditional marriage,” despite some overconfident claims to the contrary.

Today, the country is evenly split on gay marriage, with 50% in favor and 48% against. The National Organization for Marriage makes much of the fact that support is down three points from a year ago. But the larger trend is clearly not in their favor. Fifteen years ago, only a quarter of Americans supported gay marriage. That number has doubled in half a generation.

Opposition to gay marriage will almost certainly become a minority view by the end of this decade, if not sooner. Which should give pause to traditional marriage advocates who are currently using the brute force of majority rule to impose their will.

Someday, opponents of gay rights will be a distinct minority in this country, and they may suddenly find the tables turned. They may find their views (and their right to hold them) being put to a referendum.

Which, let me be clear, would be every bit as much a trampling of the Constitution as what they’re currently doing.

The Constitution was designed to protect the rights of the minority — whether it’s the gay couple who just wants to have access to the same rights and benefits as heterosexuals, or the evangelical who believes homosexuality is a sin against God and nature.

Either way, this “battle by referendum” is a lose-lose proposition.


Side note #1: I believe the Federalist Papers should be required reading for every American student. I’m grateful to my political science advisor in college, Philip Loy (who’s retiring this year), for making us read these important founding documents.

Side note #2: Another perspectives worth reading can be found here: “How to Win a Culture War and Lose a Generation” by Rachel Held Evans.

Ordo creatio (or, why every Christian should be a radical environmentalist)

Sunday’s Gospel reading from the Revised Common Lectionary was Mark 1:9-15, the story of Jesus’ baptism and testing. Mark includes one detail about Jesus’ wilderness sojourn not found in the other Gospels: Jesus “was with the wild animals.”

Our priest made this the focus of his homily on Sunday. He argued it’s not (as widely assumed) a foreboding statement, as if to portray the animals as a threat to Jesus. Instead, it points to the whole-earth implications of Jesus’ redemptive mission. He didn’t come simply to “save souls.”

Jesus “dwells harmoniously with the wild animals,” signaling the restoration of our relationship not just with God, but with God’s creation. “There is no getting right with the world without getting right with God,” our priest said. “But there is also no getting right with God without getting right with the world he made.”

Tree hugger and proud

Environmentalists often meet their fiercest opposition within certain corners of the church, even when environmentalism is rebranded as “creation care.”

This is partly a reflection of an impoverished eschatology — the belief, fueled in part by the wildly popular Left Behind books, that God will dispose of this world in the end and evacuate the faithful to a spiritual realm. The world is going to burn someday, so why bother saving it? It’s funny how we’ve reimagined God to imitate our compulsive habit of throwing stuff away.

But it’s also reflective of an impoverished creation theology. It’s said we were made to “have dominion” over the earth — to “subdue” it. It’s said that in the order of creation, we are the apex — God’s final creative act in a story where the created elements are introduced in order of importance. We humans top the list.

Except that we don’t.

The problem is, we stop reading at the end of Genesis 1. But the first three verses of Genesis 2 are actually part of the story from the previous chapter. The very first chapter division in the Bible is a perfect example of why chapter and verse divisions are such a bad idea. The interrupt the story at random intervals.

When we read the first creation story in its entirety (Genesis 1:1 – 2:3), we see the making of humanity is not the apex of creation. God’s act of resting is the high point.

By the seventh day God had finished the work he had been doing; so on the seventh day he rested from all his work. Then God blessed the seventh day and made it holy, because on it he rested from all the work of creating that he had done.

I mentioned in yesterday’s post that the first creation story envisions the cosmos as one giant temple. In ancient Near Eastern mythology, temples are where deities went to rest. The earth is God’s intended dwelling place.

We are not the apex of creation. We are not the point of it all. The earth is not ours to exploit and do with as we see fit. The earth is not first and foremost our dwelling place. “The earth is the Lord’s, and everything in it.”

Because he’s a generous God, he invites us to share it with him, to dwell here with him. He invites us to rule on his behalf. That’s what it means to “have dominion” over the earth. We are tending it on behalf of God. We are caretakers. Tenants. Stewards.

Once we see our proper place in the creation story, there is no good reason why Christians shouldn’t be the most impassioned environmentalists of all.

Foreigners among foreigners: Israel’s journey out of Egypt

I’m blogging my way through the first several books of the Old Testament, sometimes known as the “historical books” or the Covenant History. Today’s installment is the second from Exodus, covering the Hebrews’ escape from Egypt and one of the more distinctive features of the covenant law they’re given… 


God has led his people out of Egypt, but he’s got some unfinished business with Pharaoh. Shortly after the Hebrews’ escape, he tells them to turn back. God baits Pharaoh into going after his former slaves. By downing Pharaoh’s army in the sea, God asserts his supremacy over the watery abyss so widely feared in the ancient Near East.

After dealing with the Egyptian army, God closes the waters behind the Hebrews. There’s no going back to Egypt.

Emigration, immigration, or all of the above?

There’s something surprising about the people who leave Egypt. They’re not all Hebrews. According to the text, “many other people went up with them.”

From the beginning, there were “foreigners” in Israel’s midst. Which might explain why the Torah repeatedly addresses how they are to be treated.

The first of many regulations concerning foreigners comes right on the heels of the exodus. Foreign households are to be included in the Passover — as long as their males are willing to be circumcised.

In addition, foreigners are not to be deprived of justice. They are not to be mistreated or oppressed. They are to enjoy the benefits of a Sabbath rest, just like their Hebrew neighbors.

The Hebrews are told to remember what it felt like to be foreigners living in a foreign land. They’re forbidden to treat others how they were treated in Egypt.

Even in the embryonic stages of Israel’s existence, we get a glimpse of how God wants to use them to bless “all nations.”

The Torah’s mandated compassion toward foreigners should be kept in mind when we come to the conquest passages later in the story. They might also be worth meditating on before we as Christians speak into the modern-day immigration debate.

An open letter to my friends in the pro-life movement

Dear friends (yes, I count you as friends), I deeply admire your commitment to being a voice for those who don’t have a voice of their own. Christians have long taken it upon themselves to stand up for the marginalized and vulnerable in our midst, and this is precisely what you seek to do. One doesn’t have to read the Bible very long to see where this idea comes from.

You’ve often compared yourselves to some of the great emancipatory movements of the past — namely, William Wilberforce’s long battle to abolish slavery. And the parallels are justified. The pro-life campaign can arguably be characterized as a social justice movement, even though the term might send Glenn Beck into a conspiratorial fit.

At times I wish you showed the same zeal for other marginalized populations at home and abroad, but that’s not what I’m writing today. Your commitment to the unborn is something to admire, period. As someone who believes Christian discipleship is a call to promote justice and defend life in all its forms, I have some advice for my friends in the pro-life movement. Please take it in the spirit it’s intended: from a friend. You’ve won some important legal victories in the years since Roe v. Wade. The abortion rate actually fell in the late 1990s and early 2000s. Even though the economy was arguably the strongest correlating factor, that’s still something to celebrate, even as we mourn those whose lives are ended prematurely. Still, you’re not much closer to achieving your ultimate goal. You’ve yet to persuade a majority of Americans of the rightness of your cause. With this in mind, I’d like to offer two suggestions.

1. Don’t forsake the power of persuasion for the power of legislation.

Like many contentious issues, the abortion debate is often reduced to a naked power grab — a no-holds-barred effort by both sides to rack up the most legislative victories and favorable court rulings. Yet in the never-ending battle to score the next political win, it’s easy to forget that while a slim majority of Americans now call themselves “pro-life,” 3 in 4 still believe abortion should be legal in some or all circumstances.

You haven’t convinced the public that your position is the right one. To be honest, I’m not sure you’ve tried hard enough. Waging a political battle without adequately engaging the public conversation is like putting the cart before the horse. Since you see yourselves as heirs to Wilberforce’s legacy (and with good reason, as I said before), it would be wise to remember his example.

The anti-slavery movement in Great Britain was first and foremost a campaign of persuasion, not a forcible imposition of political will. The abolitionists spent the better part of five decades raising awareness, informing the public about the evils of slavery and demonstrating that, contrary to popular opinion at the time, blacks were not inferior to other human beings. The abolitionists were, generally speaking, not adversarial. They engaged in civil discourse with friend and foe alike, inviting the public to imagine a reality different from the only one they had ever known.

In the end, the abolitionists won the battle for public opinion, which led to victory in parliament. The turnaround was stunning. The first time Wilberforce introduced his bill to end the slave trade, it was defeated 2-to-1. Twenty-seven years later, it passed by a 17-to-1 margin.

Ask yourselves: have you done all you can to articulate the most winsome, compelling case possible for your position? Have you engaged in spirited but civil debate—respecting your audience regardless of their political views, seeking to persuade rather than demonize or score rhetorical points at someone else’s expense?

If, like many in the pro-life movement, you think the best way forward is to inflict gruesome images of aborted fetuses on unsuspecting Super Bowl viewers this weekend, then the answer is probably no.

Still, you have reason for hope. You have compelling arguments to make. There are many of us who wonder, for example, how a 7-inch journey down a birth canal earns someone a “right to life” they didn’t already have. Surely even those who reluctantly favor abortion in some cases can see the absurdity of such an arbitrary distinction.

Plus, for the first time since Gallup started measuring attitudes on abortion, a majority of Americans are calling themselves “pro-life.” As I said previously, this turn of events probably indicates the rhetorical appeal of the term “pro-life” more than anything else (since a strong majority still believe abortion should be legal in at least some cases). But hey, it’s a start. You can build on small starts.

There’s also some indication that younger Americans — though they are more liberal on a host of social issues, from the environment to gay marriage — are also more likely to be pro-life than other age groups.

So make the case.

2. Put the “pro” back in “pro-life.”

When I was growing up, there was a heated argument over what to call each side in the abortion debate. You bristled at the term “anti-abortion,” preferring “pro-life” instead. The other side rallied around the “pro-choice” moniker, though you preferred to label them “pro-abortion.”

Names carry a lot of weight, so this debate was hardly an arbitrary one. But surely “pro-life” means more than opposing a procedure that terminates pregnancy. All of us should take a page from Gabe Lyons’ book. Ten years ago, Gabe and his wife found themselves parents of a child with Down Syndrome. Lyons was rightfully bothered by the fact that approximately 90% of Down Syndrome pregnancies end in abortion. But rather than picket or protest, he chose to help others in his shoes envision an alternative to abortion.

He teamed up with a group of writers and photographers to create a booklet called Understanding a Down Syndrome Diagnosis, highlighting the positive aspects of raising a child with this condition. A major doctors’ association now plans to distribute the book to every OB/GYN office in the country.

“Create instead of criticize,” Lyons likes to say. Help others imagine another reality, as the abolitionists did. And be prepared to walk alongside those who make the difficult but courageous choice to carry an unplanned or unexpectedly complicated pregnancy to term. As I said in another post, 50 million abortions since Roe v. Wade represents a significant tragedy. But it would have taken more than a modest token of personal goodwill to care for these children—many of whom would have been born into abject poverty—had they not been tragically aborted.

If we are serious about preventing the next 50 million abortions, then we need to be just as serious about the sanctity of life outside the womb. You have the opportunity to change the conversation about abortion. You have the opportunity to make an even more persuasive case and show with more than just words what it really means to be “pro-life.” I hope you’ll take it.

50 million abortions later, the question we still aren’t asking…

Last week was the 39th anniversary of Roe v. Wade. Some pro-life commentators marked the occasion by pointing out that over 50 million pregnancies have been terminated since the Supreme Court’s landmark ruling.

I believe in gender equality. My wife and I have an egalitarian marriage. I support equal pay for equal work. I believe women are every bit as capable of leadership as men—in every sphere of life, from the boardroom to the church.

I also consider myself pro-life, though I like to think that “pro-life” means more than just opposing abortion. For me, neither Roe v. Wade nor 50 million abortions are cause for celebration.

Still, as we mark this tragic milestone, I find myself wondering:

What if these 50 million unborn children had been allowed to live? What kind of life would they have had?

Consider the fact that many women choose abortion out of economic necessity, perceived or real. More than 40% who had an abortion in 2008 lived below the U.S. poverty line ($10,830 for a single woman with no children). The claim often made by pro-life groups that most abortions are “elective” doesn’t take into account the realities of being a single woman trapped in poverty.

Imagine trying to get by on less than $11,000 a year. Now imagine trying to raise a child on that.

By even the most conservative estimate, up to half of these 50 million kids would have grown up in dire economic circumstances, with severely limited access to nutrition, health care, education, and economic opportunity.

Please don’t take this as a chilling attempt to rationalize abortion. It’s not. What I’m asking is, would those of us who call ourselves “pro-life” have taken care of these kids? Would we have insisted that we as a society make sure they experience the very best life has to offer?

Pro-lifers argue (convincingly, in my opinion) that it’s unfair to penalize a fetus simply because it was “unplanned.” But if that’s true with respect to whether that fetus is allowed to be born, isn’t it equally true with respect to what kind of life a child has after he or she is born? If a child who results from an unplanned pregnancy is innocent, doesn’t that child have the right not just to be born, but to have a decent life, too?

Now imagine another 25 million children had been born into poverty over the last 39 years, as would have been the case if Roe v. Wade had never happened. There would have been significantly higher demand for government assistance — ironically, at a time when many conservatives who rightly lament the tragedy of abortion are also insisting on deep cuts to these very programs. The increased demand on private charity would have been substantial as well.

So would we have risen to the occasion?

Would we have considered it a fair tradeoff? A bit more government welfare, a bit more charitable giving — in exchange for fewer (or no) abortions?

Ruins of Ephesus

In ancient Roman cities like Ephesus, it was common to discard unwanted children (usually girls), leaving them to die in the local dump or to be picked up by slave traders. It’s been reported that some Christians would comb the dumps, rescuing unwanted children. They didn’t just work themselves into a fit of righteous indignation; they gave of themselves, bringing life where death had previously reigned.

I’ll never forget the day in college when my political science professor, a registered Democrat, stunned his mostly conservative students (myself included) by saying, “You want to be pro-life? Fine. But put your money where your mouth is. Instead of spending it all lobbying against Roe v. Wade, use some of it to give that teenage girl who’s pregnant and scared another option.”

I know there’s a lot of debate over the effectiveness of government welfare at discouraging abortion. Still, the question remains:

If those 50 million children were alive today, would we as a society have expended ourselves to give them a real shot at a decent life?

Have we been just as pro-life outside the womb as we are in it?

You don’t have to “hate” religion to critique it

Jefferson Bethke’s enormously successful viral video “Why I hate religion” has spawned a number of in-kind responses—most of which aspire to imitate his unique style. Here’s one example:

PRO TIP: If the name of your video series is “Worldview Everlasting,” do not attempt freestyle rap and/or slam poetry.

PRO TIP #2: Please don’t make me watch a 13-minute rebuttal to a 4-minute video.

The truth is, I’m appreciate what Bethke has to say—even if, like others who’ve weighed in, I wonder whether “religion” is the right target.

Kevin DeYoung (who mercifully chose not to respond in poetic form) took issue with Bethke’s question, “What if I told you ‘Republican’ doesn’t automatically mean Christian?” DeYoung writes: “I doubt that putting right-wingers in their place is the most pressing issue in Seattle.”

The implication being that people in the Pacific Northwest (where Bethke lives) are liberal enough already.

But the dominant view of Christianity—not just among Seattleites but across America—is that it’s synonymous with a particular political ideology. Bethke is right to say this is a problem.

Gabe Lyons has done a lot to identify the church’s image problem. Here’s what came back when he asked emerging adults to share their top perceptions of Christianity:

  1. Anti-homosexual (91% said this)
  2. Judgmental (87%)
  3. Hypocritical (85%)
  4. Sheltered (78%)
  5. Too political (75%)

I would argue that dealing with these perceptions IS a pressing issue—and not just in in Seattle.

But I’m more inclined to agree with DeYoung’s response to the first line in Bethke’s video: “What if I told you Jesus came to abolish religion?”

The problem—depending on what we mean by “religion”—is that Jesus appears to have taught the opposite:

Do not think that I have come to abolish the Law or the Prophets [which for his Jewish audience was synonymous with “religion”]; I have not come to abolish them but to fulfill them.

This problem has been articulated in yet another video response—which, I’m sorry to say, also uses spoken word poetry, this time from a guy who Mark Driscoll would accuse of wearing a “dress.” (Thanks to Cognitive Discopants for sharing.)

The key takeaway is this:

You can’t have Christ without his church [warts and all].

You can’t have the King without his kingdom.

Again, it may be more a matter of semantics. Jesus had plenty of harsh words for the religious establishment. In fact, most (if not all) of his judgment diatribes were aimed at corrupt religious leaders, not outsiders. To put it another way, if Jesus were physically present today, he would probably say many of the same things about “religion” that Bethke said in his video.

But we mustn’t forget that Jesus operated from within the system, even as he was prophetically critiquing it (sometimes by throwing tables around).

He still worshiped at the temple, even though the high priests were in bed with imperial Rome. He still wanted religious leaders, along with everyone else, to embrace the kingdom of God (as can be seen in Luke 7).

Five hundred years after the Protestant Reformation, evangelicals have grown accustomed to fragmentation. For all the good it did, part of the Reformation’s enduring legacy is the myriad of denominations we have today—some of whom split from each other for the most ridiculous of reasons.

Some reject denominationalism altogether, opting instead for a loosely affiliated “network” of churches. Some don’t even want that, priding themselves on their independence and autonomy.

What gets lost after 500 years of fragmenting is that Martin Luther, father of the Reformation, never set out to break from the church. He wanted to reform it from within. And he didn’t stop trying until he was finally kicked out.

Yes, the church is broken. Yes, it’s constantly in need of reform. But there’s a danger of cutting our nose off to spite our face. Like it or not, the church is still God’s best plan for inaugurating his kingdom. Religion is not a dirty word.

Yes, lots of bad things have been done in the name of religion. And when people like Bethke remind us of this, we shouldn’t shrug them off. We should listen.

But we should also take to heart these words from James, the brother of Jesus:

Religion that God our Father accepts as pure and faultless is this: to look after orphans and widows in their distress and keep oneself from being polluted by the world.

But mostly, we should call a moratorium on spoken-word poetry responses to Bethke’s video.


Update: I got to interact briefly with Bethke on Twitter after this post when up. It says something about a person when they make a video that generates 17 million hits but can still take a moment to interact with the thoughts of someone whose blog has, well, nothing like 17 million hits.

It’s clear there’s more nuance to Bethke’s perspective than what can be squeezed into a 4-minute video. Besides, whether you like everything in the video or not, he’s started a conversation about who Jesus really is. He’s got a lot of people talking. And you’ve got to admire that.

So, who’s up for a little theocracy?

Yesterday, N.T. Wright rounded out the January Series at Calvin College by proving he doesn’t mind saying things that would make most people squirm.

The theme of his talk was “Why we’ve all misunderstood the gospels.” For him, the gospels are, at their core, a proclamation of theocracy, the news that God has actually become king.

Most of us don’t care for the word theocracy, and for good reason. You only have to pick up a history book (or visit Wikipedia) to see what happened last time the church held that kind of power. And before you think, Thank God that’s all in the past, take a look at the movement known as “Christian reconstructionism” or “dominionism” in America (as represented by groups like WallBuilders). Or the controversial anti-homosexual bill still being considered by Uganda’s parliament.

But Wright means something different by theocracy. He unpacks this by identifying four key themes from the gospels, and he says most of us have only heard two of them.

He starts with one of the overlooked themes: Jesus as the climax and fulfillment of Israel’s story.

If this sounds familiar, that’s because it’s also a major theme of Scot McKnight’s The King Jesus Gospel. (No wonder these guys endorsed one another’s books.)

All four gospels connect Jesus to the Old Testament narrative in their own way. For example, Matthew presents Jesus as leading a new exodus. Luke connects Jesus to God’s covenant with Abraham.

Many Christians connect the Old Testament story to Jesus only insofar as the OT prophets predicted something, which Jesus then fulfilled, thus proving the accuracy of the Bible. That’s all well and good, says Wright, but the bigger point is that “the ancient story of God and God’s people hasn’t come to a stop.” The story that Christians regard as our starting point is also the continuation of Israel’s story. Israel’s story is our story.

Most Christians are more familiar with Wright’s second theme: the story of Jesus as the story of God incarnate. Belief in Jesus’ divinity is embedded in our creeds, and most Christians (Wright included…and myself, for that matter) would agree the story doesn’t make sense without it.

But Wright insists we’re emphasizing the wrong note. The gospels aren’t so much concerned with making the point that Jesus is God (rather, this seems to be assumed), but with how Jesus, being divine, reveals the next chapter of God’s story.

God has a story?

Yup, says N.T. Wright.

That story reached its low point in the story of Israel, when God became fed up and departed the temple in Jerusalem (Ezekiel 10). From then on, God is missing in action. He is notable mainly for his absence. The temple liturgy becomes empty ritual because the priests are kneeling before an empty throne (so to speak).

But the gospels announce that God has come back in the person of Jesus. This is why Mark begins his story with God’s spirit — the same one that departed the temple centuries before — descending on Jesus like a dove. It’s why John opens with, “The Word became flesh and made his dwelling [literally tabernacled or, as Wright says, pitched his tent] among us.”

According to Wright, Jesus shows who he is “not by striding around, being divine all over the place” (BEST quote of the afternoon), but by acting out the part of the ancient covenant God — the God who has come back to be king.

Third, many Christians read the gospels as the story of how Jesus founded the church. To which Wright responds, “Jesus wasn’t founding a church, because the people of God had been going ever since Abraham.” (Second best quote of the day.)

Again, if we listen to the first theme (Jesus as the resolution of Israel’s story), we see that Jesus isn’t forming a new people so much as he’s creating a whole new identity for God’s people. And if we pay attention to Israel’s story, we realize this was the plan all along, because God’s promise to Abraham included all nations of the world.

The redemptive agenda is, as Wright puts it, “an agenda for a renewed humanity and for a renewing humanity through which God renews the world.”

Finally, there’s the fourth (and generally ignored) theme: the story of how Israel’s god defeated the powers of the world.

It’s no accident Luke mentions Caesar Augustus near the beginning of his story.

It’s no coincidence Matthew depicts a hapless Herod (Israel’s “king,” installed by Rome), desperately trying to kill the infant Jesus, whom he regards as a threat to his rule.

It wasn’t just to prove Jesus’ divinity that Mark has the centurion at the cross confess that Jesus was “the son of God” even though (as Wright points out) every coin in his pocket said otherwise. (Roman coins from that time bore the image of Caesar, along with the inscription “son of God.”)

And it’s no accident that John features a dramatic confrontation between Pilate, Caesar’s authorized representative, and Jesus, God’s authorized representative — debating their competing notions of truth, power, and kingdom.

God is becoming king, Wright says, but crucially:

The gospels demonstrate not only an alternative king, but an alternative mode of kingdom. We’re going to do ‘power’ in another way.

God reveals how he’s becoming king in the Sermon on the Mount:

God doesn’t send in the tanks; he sends in the meek, the brokenhearted. . . . God doesn’t bring about his kingdom with superior power of the same kind, but with another kind of power altogether.

In other words:

Kingdom and cross cannot be separated. The kingdom is launched in Jesus’ life and ministry, but established in his death and resurrection. The cross is the victory of the kingdom-bringer.

Which means that we are “called to be kingdom people AND cross people.” You can’t have one without the other.

The prophet Isaiah anticipated both a triumphant king returning in power AND a suffering servant, sacrificing himself for his people. Because we read about one in Isaiah 52 and the other in Isaiah 53, we tend to think of them as separate categories. But the chapter numbers are an artificial division, in this case obscuring the fact that Isaiah 52 and 53 are part of one poem. (Which, incidentally, is why we should read the Bible without chapter and verse numbers.) The triumphant king and the suffering servant are one and the same.

Theocracy, as seen through the gospels, isn’t about self-righteous Christians competing for power, working the system, and imposing their will on others. It’s about creating an altogether different system where the meek inherit the earth, the hungry are fed, and broken hearts are mended.

Wright’s next book, How God Became King, releases in March.