Where’s the Hope in 2009?
Each New Year holds promise for change and renewal. Anticipating the future has captured the curiosity of folks throughout the ages. Accordingly, Christ’s disciples gathered at the Mount of Olives to ask their Lord what lies ahead. In response, Jesus warned of teaching “precepts of men” that war against sound Bible truth.
Red-Letter Justice: The Divisive Narrow Way
In reading the words of Jesus, highlighted by red ink in my Bible, I have been somewhat taken aback by the severity of the Lord’s words in labeling even religious folks “serpents,” “blind guides,” “fools,” “hypocrites,” “children of hell,” “white-washed tombs” and the like. Believers are not to give “dogs” what is holy, nor are they to cast pearls before “swine”. If I’m not mistaken, Christ’s dog- and swine- analogies likewise reference people (Mt. 7:6).
Given this seeming anomaly, I find it especially curious that progressive Christian activists among the “emerging gang” of evangelical clergy isolate red-letter segments of scripture with the purported, no doubt noble mission of relating Jesus’ words to today’s complex social issues.
In doing so, red-letter Christians assign preeminence to compassion and social justice for the poor. Notwithstanding, Jesus warned that “the gate is narrow and the way is hard that leads to life, and those who find it are few” (Mt. 7:13). Yet in fleshing out issues of faith and politics, red-Letter Christians disparage this “narrow view” and then expand the majority dialogue of America’s Religious Right to embrace hot button issues of egalitarianism and wealth redistribution. They boast an inclusive moral agenda that presumes to unite, rather than divide.
Jesus said: “To you it has been given to know the secrets of the kingdom of heaven, but to them it has not been given” (Mt. 13:11). Said “knowing” stretches limits of what humans consider to be compassionate, civil and just. It stands to reason that not all share equal status in the Kingdom of Christ, for “not everyone who says, ‘Lord, Lord,’ shall enter the Kingdom of heaven” (Mt. 7:21).
Some are simply unworthy. Hence, “if a house [one enters] is not worthy,” Jesus commanded disciples to “shake off the dust from their feet as they leave that house or town” (Mt. 10:14). Fact is, “on the Day of Judgment, men will render account” (Mt. 12:36-37). Jesus questions, “How are [they—i.e., the unworthy] to escape being sentenced to hell?” (Mt. 23:33). No doubt carnal versions of compassion, civility and social justice will pale in that day.
Red-Letter Justice: Emerging Holistic Christianity
A likeable Christian activist among the “emerging gang,” Tony Campolo is professor emeritus of sociology at Eastern University who has teamed up with Mary Albert Darling to produce a book on "mystical Christianity." A Protestant well versed in Roman Catholic mysticism from the Ignatian tradition, Darling is an associate professor of communication at Spring Arbor University.
Appearing on Comedy Central with Stephen Colbert (4 February 2008), Campolo rightly affirmed the inerrancy of scripture and Christ’s indisputable compassion for the poor. However, in their book, Campolo and Darling advance a self-styled "holistic Christianity" inclusive of mystical spirituality, evangelism and social justice. They reason that because mystics experience God in trans-rational and non-empirical ways, all Christians are mystics open to new insights, “I-Thou relationships,” heightened awareness, conversion- and breakthrough- experiences.
Unfortunately, the term “holistic” raises a red flag. You see, it involves evolution into greater wholes (body, soul, spirit). Its goal is the balance of forces in our universe—namely, pantheism—clearly not Christian in concept.
Campolo further compares his brand of mystical experiences with what secularist William James described in his book, The Varieties of Religious Experience (1902). Known as “Father of American Psychology,” James’ pragmatism interpreted truth in terms of practicality. This, of course, begs the question: How practical is a religion in which Christ’s followers are “hated by all for His name’s sake” (Mt. 10:22) and must “endure to the end in fear of him who can destroy both soul and body in hell” (Mt. 24:13; 10:28)?
William James is no mentor to true Christians. You see, as a member of the Society for Psychical Research, he encouraged scientific research into psychic or paranormal phenomena of telepathy, mesmerism, mediums, apparitions and physical phenomena associated with séances. Jesus’ kingdom “prepared for us from the foundation of the world” (Mt. 25:34) makes no room for said practices (Deut. 18:9-12). From such seductions, Christians are to “repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand” (Mt. 3:2).
Red-Letter Justice: Preeminent Regard for the World’s Poor
Christian activists correctly contend that Spirit-filled Christians must transcend partisan politics to affect social justice. It’s true. God is not a Democrat, Republican or Independent; but neither is He a “respecter of persons.” So-called red-letter Christians beg to differ. Based on their belief that Christ resides in the poor just waiting to be served, they elevate this one class above all. While compassion for the poor resonates with scripture, “red-letter Christianity” came, not from Holy Writ, but rather from a secular Jewish country-and-western disc jockey from Nashville; and this should tell us something!
Back to the red letters: Recall that, while in Bethany, Jesus sat at a table in the house of Simon the leper as a woman poured an alabaster jar of very expensive ointment on his head. Indignant at the insufferable waste, His disciples insisted that the ointment should have been sold for a large sum and given to the poor. Similarly piqued, purportedly non-partisan, progressive Christians go even further by assigning to the U.S. government a global mandate to eliminate poverty altogether.
Jesus saw it differently. In fact, he commended the woman for having done “a beautiful [not wasteful] thing.” “You always have the poor with you,” He explained. “But you will not always have Me” (Mt. 26:6 ff). His message was (and is) that preeminent regard for Jesus surpasses even rightful concern for the poor among us.
Feeding the poor is compellingly noble, but then there exists no red-letter mandate for government to lead the way. In their plan for our world “as it should be,” however, red-letter Christians favor expanded wealth-redistribution programs coupled with a significantly increased minimum wage. Apparently, they skip over Jesus’ parable of talents. Each grantee was given according to ability—be it five, two or one talent respectively. Those who doubled theirs received commendation, but the one who buried his single talent was deemed slothful. Even his one talent was taken, “for to him who has will more be given, and he will have abundance; but from him who has not, even what he has will be taken away” (Mt. 13:12).
Rather than plunder a strong man’s goods, and thereby bind his ability to create additional wealth (Mt. 12:29), Jesus thought it better “to have invested money with the bankers to earn interest” on it (Mt. 25:27). Red-letter text says so!
Red-Letter Justice: Make Love, Not War
In The Secret Message of Jesus, Baltimore Pastor Brian McLaren advances “an emerging new world” distinguished by compassion, justice and world peace. The Irresistible Revolution by Shane Claiborne forges “a creative protest against theological pranks and prophetic stunts” and points toward “The Simple Way” out of allegedly militaristic, right-wing political loyalties.
Where to begin? Apparently, red-letter Christians believe that guns in the hands of law-abiding Americans are more of a threat than nuclear weapons in the hands of Islamic fundamentalists. Never mind that some 22,000 federal, state and local gun laws are already on the books. In their view, reason dictates enactment of even tougher gun laws. Add to this a sizable cut in the military budget and—hey!—we’re good to go. To red-letter Christians, reversal of warmongering social logic is the order of the day—this, despite the fact that it’s virtually impossible to defend against criminal motives without use of force and even military strength, when warranted.
To their credit, progressives advance principles of open dialogue, social justice and reconciliation, yet they accuse their brethren of being too war-like. For good reason, Jesus explains that “the kingdom of heaven has suffered violence, and the violent take it by force” (Mt. 11:12). Scriptures liken the church to a fighting army outfitted with the whole armor of God. Engaged in the good fight of faith, she prevails against rulers of darkness of this world and spiritual wickedness (Eph. 6:13-17; 2 Tim. 4:7; Eph. 6:12).
Jesus came “not to bring peace, but a sword” and “to set a man against his father, a daughter against her mother and a daughter-in-law against her mother-in-law” (Mt. 10:34-35). Rather than prematurely beat our swords into plow shares, we accept that “this must take place”: family member against family member, nation against nation, ethnos against ethnos (Mt. 24:6). When we “hear of wars and rumors of wars,” Jesus commanded that we refrain from alarm. The battle cry of the church triumphant is not the defunct mantra of a bygone era, “make love, not war”; but rather it is “onward, Christian soldiers”!
Where’s the Hope?
If skewed “precepts of men” at war with Bible truth characterize 2009, as they surely do, where’s hope to be found? The answer, of course, is in words of life inspired by God Himself; words that are profitable for doctrine, reproof, correction and instruction in righteousness to the end that believers in Christ, might be thoroughly furnished unto all good works (2 Tim. 3:16-17).
Red-Letter Justice: Death by Design
Generally speaking, hate is a monstrous word. Even so, the Lord Himself hates conceit, lies, hands that shed innocent blood, a conniving heart, mischief-making, perjury and discord among brethren (Pr. 6:16 ff).
In contrast, Jesus loves children for “of such is the kingdom of heaven” (Mt. 19:14). “Whoever offends one of [them], it would be better for him to have a great millstone fastened round his neck and to be drowned in the depth of the sea” (Mt. 18:5-6). Surely death by “baby pesticide” or by a physician’s “hands that shed innocent blood” qualifies as “offense.” Taking no pleasure in death, God’s clear command is to choose life (Ezek. 18:32).
While it is acceptable to hate what God hates, red-letter Christians go so far as to hate a practice sanctioned under Old- and New- Covenants—that being, capital punishment. Be they rapists, murderers, child molesters, terrorists and/or brutal dictators, criminals themselves are thought to be victims of poverty, homelessness, failed public education, discrimination, arrogance and capitalistic greed. But, then, Christ was homeless with “no where to lay His head”; Peter was an uneducated fisherman; and Paul learned to abound and abase—being full and being hungry—but none made excuses. Nor should we.
In the red-letter worldview, death for egregious criminal behavior is wrong; but death for infants by “hands that shed innocent blood” is no more than “a personal choice.” Never mind that “whosoever receives one such child in [Jesus’] Name receives [Him]” (Mt. 18:5). On the issue of abortion, red-letter Christians apply no litmus test. “Choice” is their mantra. Some choose life; some not.
Christians best heed our Lord’s warning of a time when “most men’s love will grow cold” (Mt. 24:12). Fact is, “the Son of Man will repay every man for what he has done” (Mt. 16:24)—not according to his excuses. Consider Matthew 21. Despite his reluctance, the son who actually went to the vineyard and worked, not the one who said he’d go, but didn’t, pleased the father (verses 28-31).
Red-Letter Justice: Gay Rights
In the words of Jesus, “If any one comes to me and does not hate his own father and mother and wife and children and brothers and sisters, yes, and even his own life, he cannot be my disciple” (Lu. 14:26; Mt. 10:37; 19:29). In this context, use of “hate” is understood hyperbolically. That is to say, a disciple of Christ esteems his Lord to such a degree that it’s as if all others are disdained, but only in comparison.
Similarly, in postmodern culture “hate” has taken on special meaning. Defined by political correctness, to hate is to read, assimilate, embrace and preach, as written, the following biblical references: Gen. 19:5-11, 24, 25; Lev. 18:22; Deut. 22:5; Deut. 23:17; 1 Kings 14:24; 22:46; Jdg. 19:22; Rom. 1:26-32; Lev. 20:13; 1 Cor. 6:9, 10; 1 Tim. 1:10 and Jude 7, 10.
Jesus blessed those “who take no offense” at Him” (Mt. 11:6). Indeed, the chief virtue of diversity, known as selective tolerance, is not to offend. Unfortunately, the above scriptures do just that. Progressives blow over or otherwise spin them so as not to hurt whom red-letter clergy embrace as our “gay brothers and sisters.”
True, “both [the wheat and tares] grow together until the harvest,” at which time reapers “gather the weeds first and bind them in bundles to be burned, but gather the wheat into [the] barn” (Mt. 13:30). In Jesus’ parable, the harvest represents the close of the age, the reapers are angels and the field is the world. Jesus further identifies the good seed as “sons of the kingdom” and the weeds as “sons of the evil one” (Mt. 13:36ff). Clearly, “sons of the kingdom” are those who obey God’s commands (even politically incorrect ones). Yet these are the very sons whom red-letter Christians finger as hate-mongering oppressors.
Red-letter clergy hold further that churches should decide who may marry and who may not; but it is “what God [Himself] has joined together” that no man, church or institution may “put asunder (Mt. 19:4-6). “He who made them from the beginning made them male and female. For this reason [two different sexes made one for the other], a man shall leave his father and mother and shall be joined to his wife, and the two [male and female] shall become one”—this, in the legal sense. Even red-letter clergy are not authorized to relax “one of the least commandments.” To do so, and then teach others to follow suit, is to be “least in the Kingdom of Heaven” (Mt. 5:19).
Red-Letter Justice: Progressive Social Theory
In seeking to establish social justice in the here-and-now, emerging church clergy bypass the proverbial narrow way for a broader, more palatable way of political correctness. Their new-fashioned, revolutionary perspective unites under shared causes of civil, gender and sexual orientation rights.
Noticeably lacking in the politically correct, red-letter theological grid is a fully developed, circumspect Bible mandate devised “precept upon precept, line upon line, here a little-there a little” (Isa. 28:13). For example, Jesus affirmed that “it is not fair to take the children’s bread [benefit to the lawfully entitled] and throw it to the dogs” [i.e., the lawless and therefore un-entitled], Mt. 15:26.
Nevertheless, red-letter justice demands that Christians offer sanctuary and sustenance to all illegal aliens. “Illegal,” of course, is the operative word, as illustrated by the expanded context of this telling passage. For Jesus to reference out-of-covenant lawbreakers as “dogs” may sound harsh to an enlightened progressive; but doing so is His prerogative. It is no wonder that we who embrace Christ’s politically-incorrect values “will be hated by all for [His] name’s sake” (Mt. 10:22).
By emerging church standards, Jesus appeared uncaring and even outright rude when He commanded followers to “leave the dead to bury their own dead” (Mt. 8:22). In my view, these are not the words of one obsessed with providing universal health care to all. They are the words of a man on an even higher spiritual mission.
It’s true, the Great Physician “bore our sicknesses” and to this day reaches out with compassion to heal the infirmed. Even as believers have “received without pay,” they likewise “give without pay.” Accordingly, Jesus empowers Christians to exercise faith and thereby “heal the sick, raise the dead, cleanse lepers and cast out demons” (Mt. 10:8).
Even more important than physical health and well-being is Jesus’ call to “fear him who can destroy both soul and body in hell” (Mt. 10:28). In Jesus’ own words, it is better to pluck out a sinning eye, or cut off a sinning limb, than to experience physical wholeness out of covenant with the One who alone offers everlasting life in the Kingdom of Heaven (Mt. 18:7ff; John 3:16).
Red-Letter Justice: The Tried-and-True Lord’s Prayer
Biblically sound Christian prayer requires no props, special posturing or audience. One engaging in its practice avoids “vain repetitions” that often accompany religious ritual. Rather, s/he releases the measure of faith God has given while offering fitly chosen, honest expressions of worship, praise, petition, intercession, confession, or the like.
Punctuated in Jesus’ Name, for His glory and according to His will, effectual Christian prayers (whether silent or audible, eloquent or childlike, sung or spoken) consistently align with biblical principle. One may employ human tongues (understandable to men) or “tongues of angels” (intended for God alone); but to the Christian, prayer is a two-way street. Mindful meditation on scripture (not to be mistaken for altered states of consciousness) invites God’s interactive response.
Jesus warns that “not everyone who says, ‘Lord, Lord,’ shall enter the Kingdom of heaven” (Mt. 7:21). It behooves Christians, therefore, to examine their hearts and practices in light of God’s Word and to be mindful that holistic, red-letter Christians encourage believers to reclaim and practice suspect ancient disciplines unique to Catholic mysticism.
For one, centering prayer (more often than not associated with Transcendental Meditation) is a popular method of contemplative prayer. Placing strong emphasis on interior silence, similar to that achieved by “yoking with Brahman” (yoga), centering presumes to facilitate union with one’s personal deity and is achieved by abstract meditation. Next, the prayer of examen, ancient reflective exercise developed by St. Ignatius of Loyola, brings to mind what New Age guru Eckhart Tolle calls “presence power.” The idea is to align with the presence of God so as to develop related faculties of discernment.
While the study of prayer is exhaustive, and its practice highly personal, Jesus taught us to pray according to this simple model: “Our Father who art in heaven, hallowed be thy name. Thy kingdom come; thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven. Give us this day our daily bread, and forgive us our debts as we also have forgiven our debtors. And lead us not into temptation, but deliver us from evil” (Mt. 6:9ff). Devout believers do well to follow Jesus’ lead.
Red-Letter Justice: Cosmic Consciousness
Although Tony Campolo distances red-letter Christianity from New Age mysticism, he nevertheless brandishes esoteric buzzwords and advances cosmic consciousness. To perform “a rite of atonement for the sin of excess” may well resonate with Protestant underpinnings of colonial history—and with the global civic ethic espoused by a leading Catholic voice, Hans K?ng—but this so-called rite aligns more with the holistic mindset than it does with biblical Christianity.
Reflecting Native American spirituality (i.e., animism), trendy bio-centric thought assigns greater intrinsic value to the planet’s eco-system and its wild life than to humans for whom Christ died. While red-letter Christians believe relationships between men and animals represent separate “beings,” not persons and “things,” Jesus contends to the contrary that humans are “of more value than many sparrows—or sheep” for that matter (Mt. 10:31; 12:12).
That we are commanded not to “give dogs what is holy” or “throw pearls before swine” similarly underscores mankind’s exalted position in Creation (Mt. 6:26; 7:6). Catholic eco-theologian Father Thomas Berry nonetheless warns that guilt-free human dominion over earth, as commanded in scripture, spawns environmental crisis. To make amends and, then, solve the phantom crisis of global warming, progressive red-letter Christians prod the U.S. to enforce the Kyoto Protocol.
Said to be biggest threat ever to our nation’s sovereignty, this U.N. global-warming treaty takes a giant step toward global governance. In subjecting developed nations to drastic cutbacks in energy (all the while releasing India and China from severe, costly restrictions to which our country is destined to be bound), the treaty essentially dismantles industrialized civilization and thereby redistributes global wealth.
Yes, Christians are called to be scrupulous stewards of God’s creation in tending, keeping and subduing the earth for life’s necessities; however, Jesus warns against “vain worship”—i.e., cosmology. The fact remains that heaven and earth, as we know them, are destined to pass away (Gen. 1:28; 2:15; Re. 21:1). Until then, it’s untenable that God’s creation is somehow unsustainable and inadequate to support human life. To believe otherwise is to “teach as doctrines the precepts of men” (Mt. 15:9).
Red-Letter Justice: Palestinian Politics
As a Muslim Egyptian (now a Christian), Nonie Darwish was indoctrinated early on about Jews’ alleged killing of Arab children and pregnant Arab women. For good reason, Jesus warns of “blind guides” who “lead the blind to fall in a pit” (Mt. 15:14). With tears running down their cheeks, Nonie’s young classmates recited stirring poems that pledged jihad.
Be sure, Islam’s global charge is “one Arab nation with an eternal mission” to elevate to the status of divine mandate the spirituality and culture of 7th-century Arabia. Simply put, it’s forced “submission” to Islamic fundamentalism that drives global terrorism.
Nonetheless, progressive red-letter clergy insist that the U.S. curtail the War on Terror, pull out of Iraq and Afghanistan and create a Palestinian state. This, they mistakenly believe, will address terrorism’s root cause of poverty. Not so. Jesus teaches that “persecution and tribulation—terrorism included—arise on account of the word” (Mt. 13:21). Contrary to sincerely held beliefs of red-letter Christians, poverty is no more the root cause of terrorism than creating a Palestinian state is its solution.
Be sure, the Near East conflict transcends a heated contest over land. What progressives fail to understand is that, in the fundamentalist’s mindset, Israel has no right even to exist—nor does the Great Satan. Both are “hated by all for [His] name’s sake,” Mt. 10:22. Indeed, HAMAS’ founding document proclaims the war to be open against infidels “until Israel ceases to exist and the last Jew in the world is eliminated.”
Unfortunately, red-letter justice overlooks that Jesus “was sent to the lost sheep of the house of Israel”; and He instructed His disciples to go “to the lost sheep of the house of Israel and preach ‘The kingdom of heaven is at hand’” (Mt. 10:5; 15:24).
Jesus’ heart for Israel was clearly demonstrated when He lamented, “How often would I have gathered Jerusalem’s children together as a hen gathers her brood under her wings” (Mt. 23:37). Even more, God so loved the world that overspill from Israel’s bounty remains freely available to Gentile believers who exercise the great faith of the Canaanite woman whom Jesus memorialized in Mt. 15:21 ff.
Where’s the Hope?
If skewed “precepts of men” at war with Bible truth characterize 2009, as they surely do, where’s hope to be found? The answer, once again, is found in words of life inspired by God Himself; words that are profitable for doctrine, reproof, correction and instruction in righteousness to the end that believers in Christ might be thoroughly furnished unto all good works (2 Tim. 3:16-17).