2.2.09

Culture War or Revolution

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I thought I would share a passage from Divine Intention. I intended to post this in the days leading up to the election. And then... I forgot about the post. Tim's recent "Purpose-Driven Centrist" post got me thinking about the culture was issue again.

Paul was accused of "attempting to destroy the world." In this chapter I looked at Paul's career to see if he engaged in culture war or something more powerful. This piece doesn't answer the question of how a Christian should go about being a Democrat or a Republican. Instead its an attempt to imagine a post-culture war reality. Here we go...

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I’m sitting down to revise this chapter as I deal with recent revelation that a prominent pastor has just stepped down from his pulpit at a 14,000 member church and from his position as the president of the largest evangelical organization in the United States under allegations of gross moral failures. The story is literally just days old and facts haven’t been established.

Sadly, the notion of a pastor breaking his marital vows isn’t unimaginable. What’s making this news story different is that this particular pastor was actively lobbying for controversial legislation in his home state which he felt would protect the definition of marriage. Election day is less than a week away and the political din caused by this flap is deafening. Proponents of the bill point to the timing of the accusations and accuse their opponents of using the situation for political gain. Meanwhile, opposition to the “marriage protection” bill points to the pastor’s hypocrisy as evidence the church needs to stay out of politics.
I’m not mentioning this to castigate the pastor or to stake out position on the marriage bill. By the time this book gets into your hands, the news cycle will have played out and every pundit and blogger on the planet will have registered their opinions. My concern is to point out how much polarity the culture war metaphor has created in our society.

“Culture War” rhetoric takes us back to the problem with partitions. War rhetoric requires us to build high walls that delineate “us” from “them.” With military precision we categorize the people we meet into binary categories of “allies” or “hostile combatants.” Those on the wrong side of our wall are considered dangerous people with agendas. Sociologists remind us that during times of war we’ve used labels to dehumanize our opponents to alleviate the discomfort of taking human life. In our metaphoric culture wars, we don’t dialogue with intelligent people who have differing opinions. Instead we fight “godless liberals”, “radical right wingers”, “ditto heads,” or “pagans.” We imagine “them” to be less loving, less thoughtful, and incapable of morality or spirituality. “They” must be responsible for global warming, reality TV, boy bands, infomercials, and a football season that lasts only a few months. “They” must be stopped.

The church, when caught up in war rhetoric, experiences mission drift. Instead of taking Jesus to those on the other side of our partitions, we content ourselves with launching interpersonal missiles over the wall at our enemies. How quickly we forget Jesus dined with the very people we war against. The disciples, on the other hand, at times contented themselves with the knowledge that they were on the correct side of the partition; so they commodified God and attempted to stockpile his love on their side of the wall.

The ultimate problem with our war rhetoric is that it only reinforces the culture that is. We hunker down on our side of the wall and make demands and accusations that force our “enemies” into a defensive posture, and then they regroup and do the same to us. Both sides entrench themselves more deeply in their views. A culture war cannot transform society because it has nothing to do with love, forgiveness, or grace. This is exactly why God never asked us to wage a culture war. Rather, God requires us to carry Jesus across every partition and to allow Jesus to love those people, through us, until culture is transformed person by person.

Paul, perhaps because he enjoyed both Gentile and Jewish descent, wasn’t limited by the nationalism and bigotry that made it difficult for the other apostles to want to take Jesus beyond Jerusalem. The greater part of Acts chronicles Paul freely moving throughout the Mediterranean region and sharing Jesus. Surprisingly, even though Paul didn’t traffic in war rhetoric, many of his visits to the greatest cities of his day weren’t peaceful. Scripture records six of these visits ending in city-wide violence, rioting, or spontaneous court hearings. Paul didn’t wage culture wars but revolution seemed to breakout wherever he went. The Thessalonians accused Paul and Silas of attempting “to destroy the world” [MSG].

How were Paul and Silas attempting to destroy the world? Through a quick survey of the six urban outburst we see that the disturbances weren’t resistance to a culture war but to Jesus. At Lystria and Derbe, Paul presents Jesus forgiving Jews and Greeks alike, effectually destroying the spiritual partitions the Jews erected (Acts 14:8-19). In Philippi, Paul brought Jesus’ liberation to a slave girl oppressed by a demon and a heartless owner (Acts 16:17-24). Paul presented Jesus the sovereign ruler who demanded allegiance (Acts 17:1-10a). In Corinth, Paul demonstrates Jesus as a law unto himself, not bound by the expectations of our religion (Acts 18:1-17). Demetrius initiated Paul’s persecution because he realized Paul’s Jesus demanded their exclusive love (Acts 19). In Jerusalem, the riot that led to Paul’s trial in Rome, was caused by Paul presenting a Jesus who gives his love to anyone he wishes. (Acts 21:27-Acts 22:30).

Paul was met with violence, not because he declared a culture war but because he offered Jesus. The person of Jesus—his love, his lordship, his forgiveness—runs contrary to the very fiber of our society. Jesus’ presence and intention of establishing a kingdom that embodies his ethos threatened the old order (1 John 2:16-17). The beatings and stoning Paul endured wasn’t the result of “godless pagan’s” in their attempt to take out the mouth piece of Christianity; they were warring against Jesus himself.

Examining Paul’s travels conflicts are not only valuable because they reveal an absence of war rhetoric but because we are able to begin building a positive model of how to engage our surrounding society with Jesus message…

We are not expected to engage in a culture war with a society that hasn’t encountered Jesus.

Paul’s travels led him to share Jesus with pagans whose moral systems didn’t conform to God’s will by any stretch of the imagination. Some of the neighboring religions relied on the use of temple prostitutes to help worshippers experience God through ecstatic means. Idols to a pantheon of gods filled the homes and groves of every urban center Paul visited. The sexual mores of the pagan were looser than the standards of marital purity that God had prescribed in his word.

And in spite of this there’s no record of Paul using war rhetoric against the any of these cities. Paul doesn’t campaign against the Corinthian’s immorality as a threat to traditional marriage. Paul never organized a boycott against Demetrius and his fellow idolaters. There’s not one word from Paul that suggests that the godless pagans were a threat to the fledging movement of Christ followers. We have no letters from Paul complaining to government officials about the dangers of the Cretans always being “liars, evil brutes, and lazy gluttons (Titus 1:12).”
Instead, Paul reserved his combative language for two groups. He was ruthless with those of his own Jewish faith who had attempted to add Jewish ceremonies and male circumcision as prerequisites for becoming Christ followers. Paul once wished out loud that those who had attempted to reduce abundant life to a system of rules would emasculate themselves.

A second group of people who earned Paul’s disdain were those who willfully attempted to embrace abundant life in Christ and old sinful patterns of behavior that were destructive to both the individual and the community of faith.
“I have written you in my letter not to associate with sexually immoral people— not at all meaning the people of this world who are immoral, or the greedy and swindlers, or idolaters. In that case you would have to leave this world. But now I am writing you that you must not associate with anyone who calls himself a brother but is sexually immoral or greedy, an idolater or a slanderer, a drunkard or a swindler. With such a man do not even eat.

“What business is it of mine to judge those outside the church? Are you not to judge those inside? God will judge those outside. "Expel the wicked man from among you.”
1 Corinthians 5:9-13 [NIV] Emphasis added

Paul expressed a clear lack of interest in judging those people who had not yet come to faith. He was obsessed with presenting them with the Jesus who had come into this world, not to condemn, but to save (John 3:17). This focus on Jesus leads us to our second observation…

Our mission is to introduce our culture to the author of morality, Jesus.

Paul was consumed with presenting the person of Jesus instead of systems of morality to the Gentile word. In Pisidian Antioch Paul presented the picture of a man who willingly died to provide for the forgiveness of sins. At Philippi Paul presented the picture of a man who liberates people from the power of their sins. In Thessalonica, Paul presented Jesus as the leader who would guide his followers out of their moral confusion. In Corinth, Jesus used Paul and Gallio to exert his sovereignty over dead religion and ritualistic systems. In Ephesus Jesus used Paul to assert his unwavering claim on our complete love and affection. In Jerusalem, Jesus used Paul to demonstrate that he does not ask anyone for permission regarding whom he will love.

When Jesus was on Earth he summarized morality in relational language: “Hear, O Israel, the Lord our God, the Lord is one. Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind and with all youth strength. The second is this: Love your neighbor as yourself. There is no commandment greater than these.” Mark 12:30-31 [NIV]

Paul understood that he had not been tasked with exporting moral systems, even if the systems reflected God’s moral standards. Paul’s mission was introduce lost people to a relationship with Jesus. Paul trusted Jesus to love and overwhelm individuals along the way, the same way that Jesus had ambushed Paul on the road to Damascus.

Morality, then, would be born out of new believers attempting to follow Jesus. Donald Miller, in his book Searching for God Knows What, describes the connection between the person of Jesus and morality:

“Morality, then, if you think about it, is the way we imitate God. It is the way we imitate the ways of heaven here on earth. Jesus says, after all, to know Him we must follow Him, we must cling to Him, and imitate Him, and many places in Scripture the idea is presented that if we know Him, we will obey Him.

“If you look for this relational concept of morality, you see it all through Scripture. Paul connects the idea of morality to Christ in the books of Ephesians and Romans, and the author of Hebrews directly connects our morality to our relationship with God in several places in the text. John the Evangelist, in all three of his short books at the end of the Bible, keeps saying if we know God will love our brother, and if we know God we will obey.”[1]
Culture, then, will transformed by sharing Jesus and not by declaring war on those who are not like us.


Presenting Jesus to our culture will feel more like dieing than war.
Engaging in a culture war offers the promise of power. Listen to the average culture warrior on the radio, Christian or secular, and you’ll be invited to “take back” America and our families. We’re told we need to “protect” our society from a variety of enemies. Sharing Jesus with someone is nothing like this. It certainly isn’t consistent with Paul’s personal experience. On five occasions Paul provoked city-wide violence. Courts ordered him to be beaten publicly. When he was stoned at Derbe, his attackers hadn’t bothered performing the ritual outside of the city limits as was customary; they only drug himself outside of the city after they thought he was dead.

Many culture warriors cite Paul’s famous passage in Ephesians about the armor of God as a primary text to justify their endeavors. But somehow Paul’s admonition that “our fight is not against flesh and blood” is ignored. Instead of warring against spiritual realities time is spent recasting lost people as enemy combatants. For the sake of argument let’s allow for this and say that our fight is against flesh and blood. What would this look like?

Pastor D. Martyn Lloyd-Jones wrote what is considered to be one of the classic commentaries on the book of Ephesians. He dedicates two of his five volumes on Ephesians to Paul’s discussion of spiritual warfare. Lloyd-Jones uses careful scholarship to make the case that the armor of God is a metaphor for how Jesus protects us. Jesus is like a helmet that protects our thoughts; like a belt that keeps us from being tangled up in untruths. The armor of God is a brilliant word picture that depicts how our relationship with Jesus is a shield that protects the spiritual life he implanted in us.

If Jesus is our armor, and his word our offensive weapon, then warring against our culture should look like Jesus. And what did Jesus do to war against the forces of hell and death? He humbled himself and assumed the form of a man; he suffered with us and then suffered at our hands. Then he hung on a cross and died.
Spiritual warfare, then, should feel more like dieing than conquest. Jesus’ love does something that a culture war can never accomplish--it challenges the sinful order of society. Cultures, like individuals, operate under sinful natures. The warmth of Jesus’ love threatens the inward bent of society and this often provokes a violent reaction from a world untrained in the feel of divine love. When this violent reaction occurs, we have the opportunity to show our world what it might have looked like for Jesus to lay down his life for them.

Jesus’ Great Commission did not include cultural warfare; he commanded us to carry his message to those people who are dieing on the inside because they are not nourished by his love. Jesus commanded us to teach them how to walk in his ways.

This is how we love our neighbor…

We present a man who generously forgives and overturns tables filled with counterfeit religious currency.

We present a man who liberates a world bound by soulless conformity.

We present a man who moves independently of the machinery of religion when the world only sees hollow traditions and superstitions.

We present a man who wants exclusive rights to our hearts in a world used to hedging its bets—you know, “just in case.”

We present a man who makes his love available to all who seek it in a world that hordes and withholds moth everything it has from one another.

We present a man who in the end is the only one capable of starting a cultural revolution.

We present Jesus.

Divine Intention: How God's Work in the Early Church Empowers Us Today might be the worst titled book on the planet, but is worth a read. It's available at Amazon, BN.com, and countless other book sellers.

4 comments:

  1. I know larry and he wrote a great book. but this post is way too long and uninteresting. sorry.

    -k

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  2. Insightful and filled with crucial distinctions. Thanks, Larry.

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  3. Anon.,

    You're a real champ. I mean that. Thanks for bringing this to my attention. You are right. I should have broken this down in to smaller pieces and released it in three installments.

    My punishment for the long post is dog sitting Athena, the BWC pit bull. She's been bred to bemoan the excesses of the evangelicalism. After three hours of that I'll be begging her to maul me.

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  4. Thanks for your honesty, Anon. We appreciate that sort of feedback.

    @Larry: Just don't bring up the Pentecostal Cats movement. You'll never hear the end of it.

    ReplyDelete