Reflections on the Embassy Attacks

In recent days we have seen multiple attacks on American embassies or consulates in the Middle East, including those in Lybia, Egypt, and Yemen.  Dating back to the Iranian revolution in the 1970’s we have become accustomed to seeing this kind of violence expressed against America.  In watching the news of these recent attacks, and in light of our recent memory of the eleventh anniversary of 9/11, I was reminded of a book by Bertrand Russell which I read years ago entitled, The Conquest of Happiness.

In that book he makes a very important observation about life.  At one point he is discussing work and why humans spend so much time working.  He argued that work is, in part, based on the desire to build or construct something.  He is not merely referring to carpenters or skilled laborers who physically build things.  He makes the larger point that integral to the human fulfillment is the desire to do constructive things with our lives – building a family, building a business, building an institution, building a movement, building a bridge, and so forth.   He then goes on to argue that construction is, therefore, inherently more satisfying than destruction.

When you destroy something like tearing down the gates of an embassy, killing someone, turning cars over and lighting them on fire, the fulfillment in that kind of activity is fleeting and quickly subsides.  Constructive work, on the other hand, provides an ongoing sense of fulfillment and peace.  In fact, the deepest constructive work is never fully complete, so we have that ongoing sense of building, improving, making things better, and so forth.  With destruction, there is no such lasting sense of accomplishment.  Osama bin Laden came to symbolize one of the greatest acts of destruction in modern times.  However, he was not fulfilled by it.  He ended his life alone in a walled compound, spending his days with a sense of defeat and looking at pornography.

Those who march on embassies, kill ambassadors, burn buildings and turn cars upside down cannot avoid the fact that if their message is to be compelling and bring long term fulfillment they must demonstrate what they will construct once all the destruction is complete.  What is their long-term vision for life, for society, for the world?   The work of destruction is far easier than the harder work of construction.

Christianity, in the end, is not about destruction.  Ultimately, it is the greatest construction project in the universe.  The vision of Christianity is the in-breaking of the kingdom of God which is about reconciliation, peace, healing and the power of God’s love to overcome evil.

So, in the midst of a world of destruction and burning cars in the streets, keep on building, keep on constructing.   Let your capacity to love this world be greater than any force which unleashes hatred on the world.  Let your forgiveness be greater than any force of bitterness.  Remember, the cross is the greatest intersection of the world’s hatred and God’s love.  The resurrection is God constructing once again.  The Risen Lord defeats death.   Construction, in the end, always trumps destruction.

Thanks be to God.

 

Robust Christianity in a Post-Christendom World

One of the great challenges facing this generation of Christians is the successful navigation to a more robust Christianity, finally set free from the domesticating influence of Christendom. Under the sway of “cultural Christianity” difficult theological questions rarely arise, and catechesis declines because people, broadly speaking, see themselves as being “good Christian folk.”  To be an American was to be a Christian.  The longer I live the more I have come to see that the biggest challenge of the church is not the initial evangelization of a culture, but rather remaining Christians once a culture has been evangelized.

From the vantage point of the early decades of the 21st century it is quite evident that the marriage of the Christian gospel to North American culture did not come without serious repercussions.  Christendom always finds ways to sand down all the rough edges of the gospel so its prophetic, radical proclamation gets gradually domesticated.  The result is that, over time, Christianity gets quite removed from the proclamation and experience of the New Testament.  Gradually, being a “Christian” gets domesticated to little more than “being nice to people.”  Sin moves from binding ourselves to the human rebellion against God to an “inconvenient slowing down of our moral development.”  The righteous judgment of a holy God is quietly dropped in favor of the proverbial “man upstairs” who is more like Santa Claus than the God of biblical revelation.  Preaching, over time, becomes bland moralizing and child-like admonitions.  Pastors become endlessly manipulated and coerced into the larger cultural project rather than remembering our prior calling to serve Jesus Christ and to help usher in the Kingdom through the witness of the Church.   Now that Christianity and North America are in divorce court, the underlying issues which were simmering for decades are now openly spewing forth.  It’s not a pretty sight. The signs of this are everywhere. (I will devote another blog to specific examples).

The latest surge of atheism and neo-paganism is not because after 2,000 years someone finally sniffed out the Achilles heel of the Christian message and now our “mask is off.”  Rather, atheism, and half of a dozen other competing world-views, are always prowling around ready to jump into any spiritual void which appears.  We have retreated so far from biblical Christianity you can almost hear the Christian oxygen being sucked out of the culture at every turn.  The church has become one of the most vacuous spaces of all.

The great project of our generation is to reclaim biblical Christianity as the Church.  (Please re-read the last sentence about three times before going on).  This will inevitably involve standing up and articulating with far more precision exactly what Christianity actually is.  It has become almost a trite statement in recent years that our culture has abandoned the Christian faith.  This actually is not my greatest concern.  My greatest concern is that those of us who are pastors and leaders have ourselves forgotten the gospel.  The early church didn’t spend a lot of time wringing their hands over the paganism of Rome.  They took it for granted and set about evangelizing it.  This cannot be done if we are angry (this is not the time to start burning Qur’ans).  This also cannot be done if we are too passive (this is not the time for silence and cultural acquiescence).  The greatest need for conversion today is not the unbelieving world, but the church itself.  After all, doesn’t Scripture teach us that judgment begins in the household of God?  (I Peter 4:17).  We cannot even begin to effectively respond to the godless drumbeat of this generation until we ourselves learn to listen to the gospel with better ears, better hearts, better feet, and a lot more good old fashioned courage.  There are few things more troubling than the quiet surrender of the gospel at every turn while, in the same breath, we blather on endlessly about the importance of making the church more “culturally relevant.”

Christianity in North America has taken quite a few wrong turns.  I am more familiar with the “wrong turns” of mainline and evangelical Protestantism, but my Roman Catholic, Anglican and Pentecostal friends assure me that those movements have wandered off the reservation, too.  There is no point in pressing ahead with all of our so called “plans” if we have taken the wrong turn in the road.  We’ve got to go back and get it right.  Progress doesn’t always mean pressing ahead, it means moving closer towards the goal.  In fact, the greatest progress usually starts with repentance.  Repentance means to turn and go a different direction.  I, for one, have quite a bit of repenting to do.  How about you?