Walk & Wordhttp://www.walkandword.comwalkandword.com RSS feeden-usCopyright (C) 2017 walkandword.com"To do" and "Not to do" with Walk and Word

To do:

*Provide students, former students, church leaders with resources that I have found helpful for thinking and teaching about ecclesiology, Christian ethics, biblical studies, and theology in general.

*Provide up to date links to websites and other resources in John Howard Yoder studies.

*Provide friends, family, and stalkers timely information about what I am doing as far as writing and speaking engagements.

*Provide convenient access to some of my published and unpublished writings.

 

Not to do:

*Share every deep thought that comes to my mind.

*Offer color commentary on every political development, theological fad, stimulating movie, or controversial topic that captures the public eye or Christian heart.

*Make a fortune off of advertising ads, although I will receive a modest kickback from those of you who use any of my links to Amazon.com and then purchase something (anything) there.

*Waste the reader’s time by posting mediocre commentary and resources.

So, hold me to this!

2011-06-04
Why "Walk and Word"?

The first major mistake of my fledgling publishing career was to name the first book I edited Radical Ecumenicity. Apparently, not many people outside of the academy know what “ecumenicity” means and only few people within the academy appreciated the triple entendre I intended with the word “radical” that made the title so irresistible to me. This prompted my brother in-law to design a clever book cover for what he hopes will be a follow-up volume (see image below).

I asked my brother Brian what direction I should go with the website title. Apparently, “Radical Ecumenicity” is not a viable option. He suggested something simple and memorable that would communicate my passion for discipleship, Scripture, and the church. Unable to come up with something like that on my own, I returned to the source of almost every interesting thought I’ve had.

John Howard Yoder wrote an article a while back titled “Walk and Word: Alternatives to Methodologism.” The first half of this title captures exactly what I hope this site will be about. Though it does not always come through in English translation, more than any other New Testament image, Christian faith is likened to a “walk” (Rom 6:1-14; 8:1-17; 13:13-14; 1 Cor 3:3; 2 Cor 5:7; 10:2-6; Gal 5:16-26; Eph 2:1-10; 4:1-3; 4:17-24; 4:25-5:20; Phil 3:17-4:1; Col 1:9-14; 2:6-7; 3:1-17; 4:5-6; 1 Thess 2:11-12; 4:1-12; 2 Thess 3:6-15; 1 John 1:5-7; 2:3-11; 2 John 1:4-6; 3 John 1:2-4). Biblical faith is more than a formative set of practices or an integrated worldview. It is a walk—not a solitary pilgrimage—but a faith journey in community. Not any kind of walking, but walking as Jesus walked, walking after the “Word” who became flesh and walked among us according to the written Word of Scripture.

So, “Walk and Word” it is.

2011-06-03
The Story behind Walk and Word

Two years ago I was invited by former students, now co-laborers for the kingdom, to attend what has become the annual “Outhouse Retreat.” At this retreat, about ten of us squeeze into two small cabins without running water, in Mt. Pleasant Michigan, to discuss ministry and theology. The men who attend share what they are learning in the ministry and I am expected to share what I am learning from the ministry and from the more academic circles that I frequent. These men, who have become good friends, have requested that I develop some sort of website through which I can share helpful resources with them and others throughout the year.

I have been putting this off since last year, partly because I lack the ability to do so well, but mostly because I abhor the idea of attracting much attention to myself (my gaudy doctoral robe notwithstanding). At our second retreat this year, they began to apply more pressure. On top of that, three publishers I have been working with on book projects encouraged me to do the same. Still I stalled. Yet the final straw was the generous offer of my brother, Brian, and his friend Dave to build and design the website for next to nothing. Like purchasing a cell phone and joining Facebook, I finally conceded.

Becoming all things to all people can be exhausting, but if the Apostle Paul can shave his head for some people and eat pork for others (1 Cor 9:19-23), I guess I can stomach a website—only for the sake of the gospel.

2011-06-03
For God So Loved the World He Sent Nahumhttp://www.ekklesiaproject.org/blog/2011/07/for-god-so-loved-the-world-2/

Thanks to Rob Bell's controversial book, Love Wins, the relationship between God's love and God's wrath is once again a hot topic. John Howard Yoder wrote an insightful essay on this topic called "The Wrath of God and the Love of God," but he never published it. It will be included, however, as an appendix to the forthcoming Herald Press collection of Yoder's writings on capital punishment: The End of Sacrifice. This book is in the final editing stages and should hit the press within a few weeks.

Until then, those interested in this topic may want to read a sermon that I preached at GLCC and Delta Community Christian Church and that was recently posted online by the Ekklesia Project. In it I wrestle with the one-sidedly negative tone of the book of Nahum. God appears to have nothing but wrath in store for the Ninevites, the ancient enemies of God's people. Does this not conflict with God's loving patience for Nineveh in the book of Jonah? How does a book like Nahum serve as Scripture for Christians who have learned from Jesus to love our enemies?

To read this sermon, go to the sermonic essays section of walkandword.com or follow this link.

2011-07-30
John Howard Yoder Quoteshttp://www.facebook.com/pages/Walk-and-Word/207091539341865

I have been reading through all of John Howard Yoder's books as part of The Yoder Index Project. Those of you who want to keep up with all the great quotes I encounter along the way can do so by "liking" the "Walk and Word" Facebook page. Here is the first quote I posted there:

"Triumphalism has become the code label for visions of God's victory that shorten its time frame and narrow the circle of its beneficiaries. That 'we shall overcome some day' is simply not true, if by 'some day' we mean tomorrow and by 'we' we mean only ourselves" (Yoder, War of the Lamb, 172).

2011-08-05
The Spiritual Writings of Yoder

It may come as a surprise to some that Orbis Press recently published John Howard Yoder: Spiritual Writings in their Modern Spiritual Masters Series. To be included in this series is to be placed alongside the likes of Henri Nouwen, Thomas Merton, Mother Teresa, and Pope John XXIII. Yet few who have read much Yoder would associate his writings with what is usually termed "devotional reading." His writing tends to be quite dense, he appears to have little patience for sentimentality, and his most widely circulated books scarcely reflect upon spiritually formative practices such as prayer, fasting, and meditation.

Having said that, it is worth noting that Yoder has served as a major conversation partner in at least three books that have been dedicated to mapping out a specifically Christian vision of spirituality: Richard Foster's Celebration of Discipline (ch. 8), David Augsburger's Dissident Discipleship: A Spirituality of Self-Surrender, Love of God, and Love of Neighbor, and Lee Camp's Mere Discipleship: Radical Christianity in a Rebellious World.

Yoder has been so influential not because he has written a standard reference work dedicated to spirituality, but because the vision of Jesus, discipleship, and the church that he casts deeply impacts the spiritual lives of his readers. For this reason, the editors of this volume, Paul Martens and Jenny Howell, are to be commended for creating space in Orbis's collection for Yoder's important voice.

Martens and Howell have also done a fine job of culling from Yoder's writings a representative sampling of several key components of his thought. These snippets are sometimes as short as a single paragraph or as long as several pages. The result is that the reader is not quite able to find a steady reading rhythm and remain in it for long. This is not so much a weakness in this collection as it is a feature of Yoder's writing. He writes in such a terse and provocative fashion that readers often have to reread, process, and sometimes even recover from what Yoder has said before moving on.

Nonetheless, this collection is worth the reading. It rightly begins with the centrality of Jesus to Yoder's though (section 1), which necessarily flows into his understanding of the church (section 2). No specifically Christian spirituality can dispense with this particular center and circumference. The last two sections zoom out to showcase Yoder's cosmic vision and then zoom back in to engage the concrete practices of Christian life. In ending with concrete practices rather than beginning with them, this collection overcomes an all too common weakness of many spiritual writings, which assume that we can talk about what believers should do to develop and maintain their relationship with God without first comprehending the norm of Christian life (Jesus) and the context of Christian living (the Church's God-given mission to the world).

Of course, collections like these will always have to leave out what other readers might deem essential to understanding someone's thought. This collection, for instance, might have devoted more space to Yoder's commitment to Scripture and the practice of patience. But to quibble with this volume on such grounds is really to quibble with the genre of snippet-based anthologies.

At the end of the day I am thrilled that this collection exists and I heartily recommend it to anyone wishing to venture into the vast sea of Yoder's writings. For those less accustomed to academic writing, this collection will be somewhat easier to read than most other collections of Yoder's essays, perhaps second only to He Came Preaching Peace. Be advised, however, that Branson Parler and I have begun to assemble Yoder's earliest and easiest to read lectures and essays, which were originally delivered to college students and other popular level audiences. The resulting volume will be a sort of "Yoder for Everyone" collection. Until then, John Howard Yoder: Spiritual Writings is as good a place as any to begin.

2011-08-23
Christ Did Not Come To Abolish the Natural Law But To Fulfill Ithttp://www.walkandword.com/writings/?cat=1&id=36

Some of you have read the article I posted a while back entitled "With and Against the Grain: Stanley Hauerwas and the Tumultuous Tale of Natural Law." If you didn't know much about natural law, then that article probably was not very interesting to you. In response to several questions some of you have asked about that article as well as several questions that were asked about it at the conference where I delivered it, I decided to follow up with a companion article that helps explain what natural law is, discusses what Scripture says about natural law, and answers other related questions. There should be something in it for both beginners and veterans of natural law conversations.

2011-08-28
Continuing Conversations about "Defending Constantine"

When Peter J. Leithart published "Defending Constantine," the initial response was overwhelmingly positive. Stanley Hauerwas' mostly favorable review was quite unexpected since Leithart sought to overturn what he perceived to be the heart of John Howard Yoder's theological and ethical project. Hauerwas, of course, has championed Yoder's thought more than anyone else. 

It appears, however, that the tide is beginning to turn. Significant flaws in Leithart's thesis are being exposed with greater frequency. My own review has contributed modestly to this conversation. Moreover, this October, the Mennonite Quarterly Review will be dedicating a full issue to engaging Leithart's book. The issue will feature lengthy historical and theological critiques from Alan Kreider and myself (a considerably updated version of my initial review), shorter critiques from Alex Sider and Craig Hovey, and a response from Peter Leithart.

In the meantime, Branson Parler has written a superb review that is sure to inform and perhaps even entertain with its incisive analysis and provocative imagery and rhetoric.

2011-09-08
The End of Sacrifice is Here!http://store.mpn.net/productdetails.cfm?PC=1850

My second book editing project is finally finished, on the shelves, and ready to own! Herald Press just released "The End of Sacrifice: The Capital Punishment Writings of John Howard Yoder." Read the news release here. Check it out on Amazon here. Or read my article about the book which gives you a taste of its content here.

This collection is designed to serve the needs of various readers. Those interested in exploring various Christian perspectives on capital punishment will find a robust and coherent position that is certain to enrich their understanding. Those wrestling with macro issues of church and state relations will find a challenging position that will call them to remain steadfast in their faith convictions without remaining silent as to their social implications. Those interested in seasoned and stimulating reflection on hot topics like atonement, divine wrath, the nature of hell, primeval matriarchy, and God’s nature with respect to human freedom will find much to engage in this collection. And don't neglect the essay on God's wrath and love in the appendix. It is not included at the end because it is less important, but because it less directly engages the topic of capital punishment.

2011-09-24
New Books on War and Enemy Love

For those of you interested in contemporary conversations about war, enemy love, and Christian faith, there are two books you may want to check out.

Lee C. Camp, Church of Christ scholar and author of Mere Discipleship, has recently published Who is My Enemy? In this provocative work he discusses the relationship between Christianity and Islam and suggests that "Christian" just war theory is animated by a logic quite similar to the violent strands within Islam. For several brief interviews with the author, see the three You Tube videos here.

The second work--written by Stanley Hauerwas, one of the leading living theologians--is called War and the American Difference. This equally provocative collection of essays will be available for purchase in October, and a good number of them can be read online at the ABC Religion and Ethics website (you can begin with this article on C. S. Lewis and war and then follow several links to additional articles at the right side of the page).

2011-09-25
Celebrating the Yoder Index

Join Branson Parler, Jason Vance, and I as we commemorate the culmination of more than a year's work to get the John Howard Yoder Index online and functional.

October 18, 2011

4:00-4:30 PM

Kuyper College, Room 211

Light refreshments will be served

* To keep up on the latest Yoder Index updates, "like" the Yoder Index Facebook page.

2011-10-10
MQR Engages Defending Constantine

Almost a year ago, I wrote a lengthy informal review article for the Englewood Review of Books that engaged Peter J. Leithart's provocative book: Defending Constantine. That review generated far more interest than I could have imagined. I was then given the opportunity to revise it for publication in the October 2011 issue of The Mennonite Quarterly Review along with an exceptional historical critique by Alan Kreider, two fine essays by Craig Hovey and Alex Sider, and a substantial response from Leithart himself.

I am truly grateful that Leithart took the time not only to respond to my critique in a thoughtful way, but to carefully read and engage my Journal of Religious Ethics article "The Politics of YHWH." Those who are following the debate will want to get their hands on this well-conceived volume of MQR. Kudos to Editor John Roth for pulling it off!

2011-11-07
My first book is finally in print!http://erb.kingdomnow.org/first-look-exclusive-excerpt-from-john-nugents-politics-of-yahweh/

The Politics of Yahweh, the book that came out of my dissertation, is finally printed and scheduled to be available for purchase later next week! 

Follow the attached link for an excerpt that is available at the Englewood Review of Books website.

2011-11-11
End of Sacrifice Under Reviewhttp://walkandword.com/

The End of Sacrifice has received decent press over the past few weeks. Chris Smith wrote a brief review for the Englewood Review of Books and Scott McKnight used it to start a provocative discussion on his Jesus Creed website. 

2012-03-19
Tribute to the Englewood Review of Bookshttp://www.walkandword.com/blog/?id=324

In my first blog of 2012 I want to thank Chris Smith and the Englewood Review of Books [ERB] for the exposure they have given my work and for the significant service they offer the church.

ERB's instant publication of my article length response to Leithart's Defending Constantine has done more to alert readers to my work than anything else. This article has since been published in the Mennonite Quarterly Review, in a forthcoming book edited by John Roth, and in an additional forthcoming book about John Howard Yoder's work. ERB has also given significant exposure to my first editing project Radical Ecumenicity,here, here and here, and my first book The Politics of Yahweh, here, here, and especially here.

But this blog post is not about my work; it is about that of ERB. So here are 10 reasons why you would be crazy not to subscribe to ERB's free service and why you should really also consider supporting their ministry financially by subscribing to their print journal, which is quite modestly priced.

1. ERB offers the timeliest reviews of important books. Whereas it can take over a year for most print journals to offer quality reviews, ERB often has them out within weeks, if not prior to publication!

2. ERB offers pleasantly diverse content. Not only will you receive reviews of the most recently released important works, but you will receive links to stimulating video and audio footage from folks like Stanley Hauerwas and Walter Brueggemann, lists of must buy books, and leads for discounted works.

3. ERB remains committed to promoting works on important topics of ecological and horticultural concern that intersect with theology on the ground, but seldom make their way into Ivy League journals.

4. ERB cares deeply about everyday practices of living in community, not only with fellow believers but also with the strange neighbors God often gifts us with. ERB therefore resists the urge to traffic trendy, highly marketable, self-help spirituality and church growth books and, instead, alerts its subscribers to books about following Jesus in the muddled trenches of everyday life.

5. ERB engages the top tier theologians most concerned with the intersection of theology and church practice. Though ERB tends to be quite practical, it recognizes that good practice is rooted in solid theology. So ERB pillages the ivory tower for the best theological and philosophical insights of our day.

6. ERB makes its various contributions available through a variety of venues, including E-mail subscriptions, Facebook pages, RSS subscriptions, Twitter feeds, and a quarterly print edition.

7. ERB's archival system makes it quite easy to find old material. For instance, if you are about to begin a study on sabbath and recall seeing a Marva Dawn video at ERB, you can simply enter "Marva Dawn" in ERB's search window and you quickly find what you were looking for.

8. ERB is the product of a local church being the church. ERB gets its name from Englewood Christian Church, a church that exposes the myth that all Christian Church/Churches of Christ have sold out to shallow church growth evangelicalism. Instead, "Pastor" (a term Mike accepts only under protest—just try to find his name on the church website) Mike Bowling and the elders of Englewood are committed to building the ministry of its body with the graces that God has given its body. Since one member is gifted in construction, the church started working on housing and eventually developed a dynamic community development organization (ECDC) that provides low to no cost housing for the neediest in their community. Since another member specializing in accounting, they began a practice that exemplifies kingdom values in how it manages its financial resources. So when Chris Smith expressed a passion for books, they began a modest book store, which led to a modest book review service, which has grown into a ministry with global impact.

9. ERB's book reviews tend to surpass others insofar as they make a solid effort to include a substantial excerpt from many of the books they review. After a while, of course, Amazon will offer previews of books that sell enough copies, but ERB will begin with excerpts, sometimes even before the books hit the press. This gives readers an advanced feel for the book, an essential indicator of whether the book is a good fit for the readers' purposes.

10. Lastly, ERB's online subscription service is free. Now that is a lot of quality service at no cost. What a gift to have discerning eyes sift through the barrage of books that publishers are cranking out at unprecedented speeds! So I hope you will treat yourself to this gift and I hope you will also join me in thanking Englewood by at least subscribing to their print copy or perhaps even donating to their year-end fundraising drive. It is not often that we encounter an organization whose values embody the kingdom. May God continue to enlarge their tent!

2012-01-01
Big discount for my new bookhttp://tinyurl.com/6qljnpo

Yes, my new book is out, and yes it retails for a hefty $30. But the publishers have graciously given me a coupon code that I can make available to people who follow my blog or have befriended me on facebook. Their instructions are as follows:

For a limited time, purchase The Politics of Yahweh on the publisher's website (http://tinyurl.com/6qljnpo) and receive a 40% discount off the retail price by entering the following coupon code at checkout: NUGENT. Offer Expires: 1/31/2012.

 

2011-12-05
A Tolkeinesque Sermon on Hebrewshttp://www.walkandword.com/writings/?id=38

Is the work of Christ truly sufficient to meet humanity's deepest needs? No book of the Bible grapples with this question more than Hebrews. This sermon sets forth and unpacks a Tolkienesque allegory that seeks to capture the essence of this book's urgent message.

This is a sermon I wrote a couple of years ago. I probably enjoyed writing it more than any other sermon, perhaps because it is unlike anything else I have written. A long car ride with Jeremy Kissling was essential for helping me think through the concept and supplying the Tolkeinesque vibe I was shooting for.

2011-12-16
A good way to think about the Restoration Movement?http://www.walkandword.com/blog/?id=325

"It would follow that there is no point at which a renewed recourse to the apostolic writings and their point to Jesus cannot renew us. In every age it is possible that there may be a new and true witness. In every age there lurks the temptation to sell out to conformity to the spirit of the time. In every age there may be renewal through recourse to the irreducible 'thereness' of the Jesus narrative.

Not only is this the pattern Christians confess themselves called to (when we read our history since Jesus as a mix of faithfulness to celebrate and apostasy to condemn); this is also what Jesus himself did as in his day he read his people's history. Jesus made no beginning from scratch. He claimed only to renew and fulfill, in the light of the original creation, of Moses and the prophets, what had already been commanded and promised, already betrayed" (JHY, For the Nations, 141)

2012-01-04
Relishing the View from the Foot of the Tablehttp://www.walkandword.com/writings/?id=39

Here is a sermon I delivered at GLCC a few years ago and then again recently at Delta Community Christian Church. It unpacks the abiding significance of Jesus' instruction to assume the lowest seat at the table when invited to a banquet. I was reminded of it again when Aaron Woods preached a fine sermon on the same passage in chapel last week.

2012-02-14
Does Yoder Need a Defense?http://www.walkandword.com/

Branson Parler has recently written a devastating critique of Paul Martens' new book, The Heterodox Yoder. Though I appreciate what Martens has done to publish some of Yoder's previously unavailable material as well as his sincere attempt to expose problematic tendendencies in Yoder's thought, I cannot help but agree with Parler's assessment.

Rather than rehash the debate between Parler and Martens, I will address a particular concern that this debate has surely raised--a concern voiced by several scholars who take issue with those who have defended John Howard Yoder against their criticism.

In Another Reformation, for example, Peter Ochs affirms Yoder's unique contributions to postliberal and Jewish thought, but then bemoans the defensive tone of Yoder scholarship saying, "I do, however, wish that his students and disciples could accord his words no less than the humanity and fallibility we Jews tend to assign our biblical heroes" (163).

Paul Martens seems equally bothered. After stating his intention to upset the apple cart in The Heterodox Yoder, he seeks to ward off potential criticism saying, "I intend to dispense with the defensive gnosis that has governed much of the interpretation to date" (16).

In response to my review of his controversial book, Defending Constantine, Peter Leithart wittily retorts, "If my book suffers distortions because I took up a solicitor’s stance Defending Constantine (not my preferred title, by the way!), Nugent’s review is blinkered because he set out to write Defending Yoder" (my "blinkered" review and Leithart's response are available here).

These scholars worry that the progress of scholarship will be hampered if people in the conversation insist that Yoder can do no wrong and rally to his defense every time someone says anything negative about him. Such a blatant pro-Yoder bias could impede genuine conversation about Yoder's legacy and stunt the theological maturation of his project, which can only happen after it is stripped of all the problematic baggage that Yoder's critics presume to have identified.

On one level I appreciate this concern. Though most scholars stop short of claiming that their interpretation of Yoder or anyone else's work is completely unbiased, they nonetheless want the conversation to proceed in the least biased way. They want all parties to evaluate their argument as objectively as possible on its own terms. It would thus inhibit genuine dialogue should their chosen foil (in this case, Yoder) be deemed immune to criticism by a large number of vocal and articulate sycophants.

Though I believe Yoder's critics are genuine in voicing this concern, I fear that such protestations do not advance the conversation. Rather than robustly engage the secondary literature to show where Yoder's defenders fail to read him carefully, they simply complain that people protect Yoder too much and then go on to state their own theses based on the primary sources.

Without sufficient engagement of the secondary literature, however, this amounts to a mere cheap shot—a rhetorical ploy that casts suspicion on opposing interpretations without actually engaging them. Anyone who challenges a particular criticism of Yoder can now be pegged a mindless toady and ignored. Regardless of whether the defense is accurate, it is suspect on grounds of its apologetic posture.

I realize, however, that engaging the secondary literature is not nearly as interesting and rewarding as engaging Yoder himself. It is much more gratifying to fell a theological giant directly. Moreover, writing anything on Yoder is difficult enough as it is given the sheer volume of primary works you have to wade through before you can be confident that you are not overlooking a highly germane piece that is tucked away in an out-of-print Mennonite magazine.

So the thought of having to engage all the secondary literature as well can be paralyzing. It is no wonder that most mainstream writers choose not to engage Yoder. The motto prevails, "If you can't do it well, don't do it at all." On top of that, if you only half do your homework, the Yoder watchdogs will track you down and quickly identify and publicize any gaps or errors they might perceive.

Indeed, publishing in an internet age is a highly vulnerable enterprise. Anyone with a blog and Twitter account can attack anyone else's work and virally spread their misgivings to an extremely broad audience within days. To ignore such attacks gives the appearance of conceding defeat, but to engage them can become a significant time drain that is not likely to end in an irenic manner. Internet etiquette is in short supply and skilled moderators are seldom employed.

I here offer no solution to that dilemma, though I commend the use of moderators to facilitate online dialogue in ways that respect the dignity and time commitments of the main conversation partners. I have more to say, however, about the kind of dialogue that will best serve Yoder studies.

First, as with all other fields of study, those who truly want to advance the conversation cannot avoid reading carefully and widely in both the primary and secondary literature. My experience reading Yoder parallels my experience reading Karl Barth: you have to read hundreds and hundreds of pages before you begin to acquire the vocabulary and categories necessary for understanding him well, you cannot fill in gaps with common stereotypes about how people from his ecclesial tradition routinely think, and the secondary literature is a mixed bag of accurate and inaccurate portrayals.

With Barth, however, there are two distinct advantages: we have George Hunsinger's masterful work, How to Read Karl Barth, and the bulk of Barth's work is readily available at most research institutions. Those who want to read Yoder will have to do so without a hermeneutical guide and they had better have access to a good interlibrary loan system.

Second, if you don't want to invest the time necessary to read widely among the primary and secondary sources—and who could blame you—then why not be more modest about where you are coming from and what you are seeking to accomplish? Why not admit to being an amateur, submit your work to serious peer review, avoid sweeping away the secondary literature with a caricature, and then go ahead and publish your piece?

Don't claim to be offering any more or any less than you are offering and don't assume that those who interpret the material more charitably must be ignorant, naive, or fideistic in their approaches. Yoder himself wrote a great deal from the perspective of an amateur and was not ashamed to admit it. His work is equally scrutinizable from an "outsider" perspective and any Yoder scholar who is worth his or her salt should recognize this.

But isn't Yoder different, you may wonder? Didn't he intentionally resist systematizing his thought? Wouldn't he rather others spend less time re-presenting and defending him and more time doing what he was doing, namely, proclaiming the implications of Christ's lordship for all of created reality?

I am sure Yoder would have resonated with such sentiments, but I am not sure we are forced to choose between clarifying his thought and extending it in new directions. Yoder scholarship should proceed like all scholarship. Primary works need to be revisited time and again and those seeking to clarify or criticize his work ought to be read carefully and engaged critically.

Since the purpose of publishing a book is to start or join a conversation, authors should rejoice when others take their work seriously enough to engage it at length. Yoder should certainly not be immune from criticism, but neither should his critics.

Nor should those who resonate with Yoder be forced to conform to the artificial pattern of saying one thing negative about his work for every five things positive they say. Authors should present the thesis that they are qualified and motivated to present, and readers should engage what they say without imposing arbitrary restrictions up them or whisking them away with cheap rhetoric on a priori grounds .

One gets the sense that some scholars are weary of Yoder and wish he would just go away. Those antithetical to his theological track long for someone to derail it for good so we may all move on. More sympathetic scholars from his own tradition tire of hearing his name spoken synonymously with Anabaptism and would like to see robust engagement of Mennonite thinkers other than Yoder.

But there is a reason why Yoder will not go away. Many who have read him recognize that he was not a trendy theologian who made a quick splash and will quickly fade into the background. Rather, he articulated a rich theological tradition the full effects of which have yet to be felt. This is a tradition with deep roots and a thick trunk, and it will not tip easily despite the social awkwardness, horrendous marketing savvy, and sexual impropriety of its foremost proponent.

This leads to my third and final point. In Whose Justice? Which Rationality? Alasdair MacIntyre deftly explains how viable traditions survive. Following Aristotle’s concept of a teleologically-ordered community, he holds that a given tradition has its own ends, language, criteria for truth, and web of practices that constitute and institute identity.

MacIntyre then identifies three stages in the development of a healthy tradition: "a first in which the relevant beliefs, texts, and authorities have not yet been put in question; a second in which inadequacies of various types have been identified, but not yet remedied; and a third in which response to those inadequacies has resulted in a set of reformulations, reevaluations, and new formulations and evaluations, designed to remedy inadequacies and overcome limitations" (Whose Justice, 355).

MacIntyre labels the moment when a given tradition begins to falter under such testing an “epistemological crisis.” For a tradition to endure and mature in the face of such a crisis it must locate a solution that satisfies three criteria: (1) it must solve the pressing problem in a coherent way; (2) it must explain what went wrong to render the tradition incoherent; and (3) it must show how its solution stands in continuity with the fundamental beliefs that have sustained the tradition up to this point.  Successful resolution strengthens and perpetuates the tradition; failure leads to its defeat (Whose Justice, 361-366).

So instead of complaining when different individuals speak up to clarify Yoder's thought or defend his position on a particular issue, consider that such persons may be performing the work necessary to refine a theological tradition they perceive to be truthful in the only way a tradition can be refined.

People are not "protecting" Yoder, they are trying to clarify his thought in conversation with others who are trying to do the same (presumably). At what point would honest scholars want others to stop trying to be as clear as possible about what Yoder, Barth, Aquinas, Calvin, and others actually say?

I am unaware of any scholar seeking to defend Yoder by silencing his critics or dissuading them from pointing out perceived flaws. To do so would surely not do Yoder or anyone else any good. It is only through direct criticism that one is able to test the strength of one's position.

Such criticism must be seriously engaged in order to discern whether it is fatal, such that it undermines the integrity of the tradition; off-base, such that it misdiagnoses the tradition and prescribes a useless or noxious remedy; or constructive, such that it calls for adaptations or reformulations that strengthen a tradition and prolong its viability.

Silence is not an option. For any tradition to mature, neither its detractors nor its defenders may be muted. So, may criticisms of Yoder's work continue and may those who are familiar with it continue to engage such criticisms, both affirming what they believe to be right and exposing what they believe to be wrong—albeit with an open mind as to what they, too, might learn. For until someone finds a way to conjure up Yoder's ghost, he will not be able to speak for himself.

2012-03-23
Top 10 Recent Developments You May Want to Know Abouthttp://walkandword.com/

I haven't blogged much this Spring and some of you have asked for an update, so here goes:

1. I received my first royalties check for a book project. That was pretty exciting, especially for my wife, Beth : )

2. The Politics of Yahweh was listed as one of the best books of 2011 by the Englewood Review of Books.

3. The End of Sacrifice continues to receive favorable reviews. See Bob Cornwell's review at http://www.bobcornwall.com/2012/04/end-of-sacrifice-review.html.

4. I am now the youngest consulting editor for the Stone-Campbell Journal.

5. I co-moderated an "Ecclesiology and Social Ethics" study group at the April 2012 Stone-Campbell Journal Conference (Lincoln, IL). Attendance for the group tripled since last year (our first year) and we had phenomenal papers by Brad East (Ph.D. student at Yale University) and Joseph Gordon (Ph.D. student at Marquette University). I am currently working on adding a section to the Walk and Word website that allows me to post papers from this study group and other guest papers I would like to share. Several additional improvements to the website are in the works.

6. The Yoder Index project keeps plugging along slowly but surely. There are several books that have been all marked up and are simply waiting to be entered. This summer should see significant progress toward that end. Our ambitious goal is to have all of Yoder's books indexed by the end of 2012.

7. I am currently co-editing a 3 volume set of popular essays and sermons by John Howard Yoder and hope to have a publisher locked in by the end of summer. This has involved a lot of transcribing from audio tapes, mp3 files, and DVDs. It should prove to be the most helpful resource for non-academics who want to engage the kinds of topics Yoder often discussed. Academics will also be interested in this collection as it contains previously unreleased material on topics Yoder never engaged elsewhere in print.

8. After speaking at a minister's retreat, I am convinced that I need to get something in print about a Christian approach to dating and marriage. I have begun working on this project and hope to polish it up and upload it to the website within a month or so.

9. I accepted my first invitation to write an endorsing blurb for the back of a book.

10. I agreed to write an article on "Nation and Nationalism" for the Oxford Encyclopedia of Bible and Ethics.

I should probably get to work, now!

 

2012-04-30
Bible Resourceshttp://www.walkandword.com/resources/

Whenever people contact me for resources that they remember using in class at some point, I add those resources to the resources tab of the Walk & Word website. Jared Gates, a mid-Michigan youth minister, recently asked for the OT Timeline that we use throughout the core Old Testament classes at GLCC. So I've added it, as well as the rather clunky Old Testament map that we use. If you've never checked out the resources tab, go ahead and do so. I've also posted there the Distinguishing Marks of a Kingdom Reflecting Church and a helpful fill-in-the-blank Bible story worksheet. I am glad to hear when these resouces are used outside of my classes!

2012-05-22
Titles selected for a forthcoming Yoder book serieswalkandword.com

Through facebook and google survey tools, over 100 people (most of whom are probably reading this) helped the editors and publishers select the titles of a 3 volume book series showcasing sermons and lectures by John Howard Yoder that provide practical instruction for Christian living. Based on your valuable feedback, the Herald Press marketing department settled upon the following:

The series title is "John Howard Yoder's Challenge to the Church."

The three volumes are "Radical Christian Discipleship" (to be released this November), "Revolutionary Christian Citizenship" (to be released in 2013), and "Real Christian Fellowship" (to be released in 2014).

Though none of these choices were listed in the survey itself, they grew out of the feedback that many of you provided in the open text box sections of the survey.

I hope you are as please with these results as I am. The marketing department was very impressed with your keen insights. So, on behalf of the editors (Andy Alexis-Baker, Branson Parler, Kate A. K. Blakely, and I), thank you for your help!

2012-05-23
Why theology is tricky and ministers need seminary traininghttp://www.walkandword.com/blog/?id=333

"[Theology is not] a realm of free search where everyone is free to think whatever he or she wants and where the last resort is simply how one feels about something. The last twenty years of American intellectual life have given rather wide currency to the idea that anyone with a moderate degree of self-confidence is free to pass judgment on what makes sense in almost any area, including theology, without needing much homework. This understanding has been futher fostered by such ideas as the priesthood of all believers, the ministry of the laity, and democracy. Without denying the element of truth to which each of those slogans points, it is our duty to come to terms with the existence of a solid and sizable body of tradition: a host of terms whose precise definition makes a difference, a wealth of experience with ideas whose validity is not strictly correlated with whether they happen to turn me on or not, and a story of both intellectual combat and consensus that challenges our capacity for insight and empathy in the most creative cross-cultural research" (JHY, Preface to Theology, 43).

2012-05-29
A tasty sampling from the forthcoming Yoder bookhttp://www.walkandword.com/

I am in the middle of editing the full draft and simply had to share a glimpse with you all.

"How would Christians be different if they truly believed that God is an overpowering reality, as revealed in the work of the Son? We would probably stop trying to measure our commitment by other people’s standards. This is the root of nonconformity. We would not make our day to day ethical decisions about minor matters on the basis of whether anybody is watching. We would not make our decisions about the use of violence and power to accomplish our purposes by calculating what is possible and what the results are likely to be. When the resurrection stands at the center of our message human standards of possibility do not apply. When all the doors are closed, God opens a window or takes off the roof." Radical Christian Discipleship -- to be released this fall.

2012-06-24
Are Gays (as a Group) Still Morally Superior to Christians (as a Group)?http://www.walkandword.com/blog/

Back in 1993, Stanley Hauerwas wrote a provocative essay with the playful title “Why Gays (as a Group) are Morally Superior to Christians (as a Group).” That essay, which is now available in the Hauerwas Reader, engaged the now settled debate about whether it was appropriate for those who claim to be homosexual to serve in the military. As someone who believes nonviolence is normative for Christians, Hauerwas found it interesting that a majority of the U.S. military back then did not think homosexuals would make very good warriors, but they all agreed Christians would.

Those who claim to follow Jesus—the same Jesus who broke down the wall between ethnic groups, who commanded his followers to love their enemies, who taught his followers nonviolent ways to handle conflict, and who demanded unswerving allegiance to a kingdom that transcends national borders—were, and continue to be, deemed perfectly fit for violent combat against anyone the U.S. identifies as an enemy who needs to be killed or otherwise subjugated.

Hauerwas’ point, of course, has little to do with the topic of homosexuality as such. He simply wishes that Christians would be numbered among those who are deemed unfit for violent combat on account of their specific orientation. Since being moral entails, for Hauerwas, refusing to kill people at the behest of the state, he pointedly suggests that homosexuals had a better reputation than Christians in that particular department.

The lesbian gay bisexual transgender (hereafter LGBT) community has since successfully convinced the state of its equal ability to perform whatever tasks the military may request of it. Having done so, they have abdicated the moral high ground Hauerwas attributed to them. Nonetheless, two decades later his essay still informs how Christians might think about the hot topics of our day. In particular, I have in mind the currently debate surrounding the commitment of members and friends of the LGBT community to boycott the Chick-fil-A restaurant on account of recent statements made by its president, Dan Cathy, that go against the grain of their worldview. Two interesting commentaries on this debate are offered by Branson Parler and Chris Smith.

Like Hauerwas, I will entirely dodge the issue of what properly constitutes marriage and what the church’s stance toward certain LGBT practices might be. Instead I, too, see the majority of Christians occupying the moral low ground in comparison with the LGBT community when it comes to aligning its economic and recreational habits with its strongest convictions. If a particular franchise wants to take a strong stance that violates LGBT sensibilities, they are willing to deny patronage to that franchise. By contrast, a majority of Christians have been quite willing to shop at stores whose CEO’s motives are twisted, to eat from restaurants that offer unreasonably low wages or profit from the abuse of animals, and to benefit from cheap overseas laborers who are treated inhumanely.

Of course, not all in the LGBT community care much about who they support by where they shop and what they eat. Likewise, there are plenty of Christians who are quite deliberate about their shopping and eating habits and take note of who is benefiting and suffering from the production and distribution of certain goods and services. That is why the title of this essay, like that of Hauerwas’ essay, includes the important qualifier “as a group.” Neither of us is making an absolute statement about all people who claim to be Christian or LGBT.

I am also bothered that Christians in America keep getting wrapped up in intra-American squabbles about who has what specks of sawdust in their eyes, while that very dispute exposes the logs we have protruding from our own. Christian apathy toward whom we support with our resources is a larger problem for the church than how pagans wish to rearrange the furniture on their sinking ship.

By this I mean that the American Constitution is a temporary charter for a temporary political configuration that Scripture clearly teaches will be re-colonized by God’s eternal kingdom—a kingdom in which Jesus says there will be no marriage at all.

What, then, should Christians do? Here I employ a typology I’ve culled from John Howard Yoder’s essay, “The Original Revolution.” This instructive typology draws from various groups during Jesus’ time. When Jesus arrived on the scene he was not the only Jew with a position on how to engage issues of public and political significance. The Zealots, Essenes, Sadducees, and Pharisees all advocated distinct approaches that Jesus could have endorsed, but did not.

The Zealots were rebels against the existing pagan order. They wanted to see God’s kingdom come and they were willing to storm the gates of Jerusalem to take the empire by force. They were attracted to Jesus’ message of revolution, but were impatient with his methods and timing.

A Zealot approach to a public institution whose values conflict with theirs would probably include vandalism of the institution’s buildings and threats to the families connected with the organization.

The Essenes took the opposite approach. They believed that all the public institutions were corrupt and built their own self-sustaining segregated community in the desert by the Dead Sea. They were a “make your own Chick-fil-A at home” sort of people.

An Essene approach to rival public institutions would be to avoid them altogether. To participate in corruption in any form would be to compromise their own purity, which would jeopardize their status as the elect community that God will use to reform the world when he comes to establish his kingdom.

The Sadducees had no such qualms about purity. They wanted God’s people to make a positive impact on the world and that meant finding ways to partner with all respectable public institutions. They met the powerbrokers of society on their own terms so they could carve out a place for themselves among them. In Jesus’ day that meant partnering with the Roman Empire so they could at least have their own temple and interests represented in Jerusalem.

Their approach to institutions that conflicted with their values would be to assess the impact that various ways of interacting with them may have on their own aims. If partnering with them would be advantageous, they would get their hands dirty for the sake of the cause. If it would hurt their cause, they would abstain.

The Pharisees, like the Essenes, were also concerned with purity. Yet they were most interested in impacting the masses around them and strove for purity among the common people, rather than separate from them. Since they lived among corruption and were necessarily affiliated with it in one way or another, they took a dualistic stance that distinguished between outer actions and inner dispositions. They could either interact with corrupt organizations bodily as long as their inner thoughts remained pure, or they could abstain from obviously inappropriate outward behaviors, like stealing, while inwardly coveting their neighbor’s possessions.

Modern day Pharisees might outwardly participate in activities of corrupt institutions while inwardly disapproving what they stand for. Or they could abstain from public association with those institutions, while acquiring their goods in a less conspicuous way.

Jesus rejected all four approaches. He knew that the Jerusalem establishment was corrupt, yet he made no attempt to (a) overthrow it violently like a Zealot, (b) align with it strategically like a Sadducee, (c) isolate himself from it altogether like an Essene, or (d) avoid blatant association with corruption like a Pharisee while enjoying more subtle forms of corruption among the common country folk.

Instead, Jesus resisted temptation in the desert, corruption in the city, and manipulation among the masses, all the while spending time in desert, city, and country without getting caught up in the power plays of those various terrains. He refused to play the world’s game on the world’s terms and began forming a community who would embody the wholesome life of God’s kingdom.

Today, Jesus would likely avoid gravitating toward the politically correct positions of the right or left. He wouldn’t get sucked into polarizing options whose shared goal is to rule the masses with their unique philosophy. Jesus rejected the temptation to rule over the masses and chose to serve them by being and doing for each what was in their best interests.

When one Pharisee sought him out sincerely, he had a frank conversation with him. When other Pharisees tried to trap him, he exposed their duplicity. When the Pharisees and Sadducees brought their petty debates to him to suck him into their game, he changed the rules and helped both see how limited their own perspectives were. When instruction was offered in Jerusalem, the young Jesus lingered longer (than his parents) to glean as much as he could from its teachers. But when the temple was turned into a marketing scheme, he prophetically turned the tables and exposed the corruption.

For Jesus, each situation was a unique new opportunity, not a pre-scripted scene with media-induced pre-determined responses. He relied on the Spirit’s guidance to discern how best to engage each new person and situation and he used each opportunity to draw his neighbors closer to a proper understanding of God’s kingdom.

So instead of assuming that Dan Cathy must be right because he is a Christian who affirms the orthodox vision of marriage or that the LGBT community must be wrong because they are morally suspect, are attacking America’s ideal of free speech, and transcending the separation of religion and commerce, perhaps we should take our cues from Hauerwas and Jesus: we should refuse to get sucked in to the world’s debate on the world’s terms. We should allow both sincere businessmen and morally suspect persons to teach God’s people about honoring our convictions and integrating them into the various spheres of our lives.

Will we be bold enough like Cathy to proclaim our convictions at the risk of retaliation? Will we have the integrity of the LGBT community to put our money behind our convictions and to abstain from food we might enjoy as a prophetic statement against values that grate against our core convictions?

Do we affirm that the freedom to articulate our core convictions as a gift granted us by God and sealed by the blood of his son, or do we accept the nationalistic narrative that it was won on the battlefields of America and enshrined in the Constitution?

Could Christians show themselves to be morally superior for a change by resisting the urge to play the world’s game on the world’s terms and by offering them a new perspective that draws them closer to a proper understanding of God’s kingdom?

2012-08-06
One way to pray on election dayhttp://www.walkandword.com/blog/?id=336

My brother-in-law Jamie tipped me off to a neat way some believers have chosen to engage the forthcoming Election Day as Christians and not simply Americans. Check it out at http://electiondaycommunion.org/.

Pray for me, too. I just realized I am preaching in chapel that day--from the Psalms. I'll be sure to post a manuscript shortly afterward.

2012-08-29
Apologetics and Idolatryhttp://www.walkandword.com/blog/?id=337

Stanley Being Stanley

Sojourners online recently posted a quote from Stanley Hauerwas that has me thinking about apologetics again. It reads, “Never think that you need to protect God. Because anytime you think you need to protect God, you can be sure that you are worshipping an idol.” [No source is cited, but I've heard him say this before.]

When I posted this quote on Facebook, I received several questions about what Hauerwas might mean here. So here is an attempt to clarify.

I like this quote because it speaks to our insecurities about God. We’ve learned, perhaps through painful conversations with intelligent unbelievers, that the God of Scripture simply cannot be proven. Faith is actually required.

Sure we can argue through observation that the universe appears to be orderly and presupposes some sort of cause beyond itself, but that does not get us to the specific God of Scripture—the one we have come to know best through Jesus Christ. Observation can only get us to the concept of a generic creator God.

God Being God

 This is not bad news. It seems to be the way God decided to create things. It is a choice God made and one that we are not in a position to second guess. If the God we worship is the God of Scripture, we are in no position to approve of his decisions. To do so is to place ourselves above God, which is idolatry.

We also commit idolatry by judging God according to the standards of contemporary society. Contemporary society is in no position to accredit God. We are not exceptional in this regard. All societies are ill-equipped for divine accreditation. Any system that can be held above God as a sort of standard to which he must be held accountable usurps God’s place and reduces him to a lower level deity.

Fred Being Fred

To illustrate this subtle but very common form of idolatry, I will talk about a famous dead theologian. It is good to talk about dead people because doing so helps us imitate their virtues and avoid their vices. It is especially good to talk about dead people with long complicated German names because they are less likely to be talked about.

In the early 19th century, Friedrich Schleiermacher (you can call him Fred if that helps) sought to make Christianity acceptable to the religious despisers of his day. The Romanticism of that time was known for its rejection of institutional religion. Such religion was perceived to be steeped in religiosity and unnecessarily encumbered with specific traditions and doctrines. They were especially critical of intellectual and ethical approaches to religion.

Sound familiar?

Sharing those sensibilities, yet not wishing to drain the baby out with the bathwater, Fred redefined Christianity along lines that were acceptable to himself and his peers. His most decisive move was to identify the core of religion with the individual’s feeling of complete dependence on the divine, the infinite, or the absolute. This immediate personal experience, which cannot be received from others, stands at the core of one’s faith. This “feeling” became the throne before which all other practices and institutions must bow.

Josh Being Josh

Fast forward two hundred years and listen to the testimony of well-known apologist Josh McDowell. Having grown up in the Church, Josh asks the question that we wish all skeptics would ask, yet few have actually heard from a real skeptic:

“What makes you so different?”

The Christian promptly responds, “Jesus Christ.”

Josh retorts, “Don’t give me that religion crap.” (my paraphrase)

Then Neo-Schleiermacher replies, “I did not say ‘religion,’ I said ‘Jesus Christ.’”

And so begins a saving conversation that ends with Josh entering into a personal relationship with Jesus, complete with doctrines and institutions to fully service his individual experience.

Simply replace philosophical terms like the “infinite,” “absolute,” or “divine” with the name “Jesus Christ” and true religion is back up and running. Put differently, replace German Romanticism with American Individualism and we have a culture-tailored faith with all the necessary supports.

Now the astute evangelical may interrupt, “That’s not fair. Josh McDowell and friends have a high view of Scripture and derive their teachings from it. Fred was steeped in Neo-Platonism. Clearly you are comparing apples to oranges.”

Not so fast. Those who read Fred know that he, too, used Scripture to back up what he said. Only, he was more upfront about the philosophical assumptions he brought to the text.

Just as those assumptions governed his interpretation of Scripture to produce his spin on the Christian faith, so do modern apologists. They are simply less aware of the cultural-philosophical tail that wags their apologetic dog.

“Maybe,” the sympathetic evangelical immediately responds, “But who can deny the genuineness of Josh’s conversion and the hundreds (if not thousands) of people his apologetic conferences and writings have helped convert?”

I do not deny that Josh’s conversion was real and that it has generated really positive results. I, myself, was strengthened in my faith at a young age after reading one of Josh’s books. He helped spark my theological curiosity.

But the fact that God has worked wonders with someone's best or worst attempts at representing him does not absolve us of the responsibility to transmit the life-giving word he has entrusted to us as faithfully as possible.

It remains true that attempts to defend God or make his gospel more attractive by presenting him as someone other than he really is—or by offering us something different from what he actually offers us—border on outright idolatry.

Us Being Faithful Translators

So how might we avoid apologetic idolatry? One way is to use Bible terms for Bible things. Here I am not denying the need for translation. By all means, we must find twenty-first century terms that our neighbors can understand to talk about first century events.

What the faithful translator must never do, which well-intending apologists have been doing since Schleiermacher’s day (really, since second century Gnosticism), is replace Bible concepts with contemporary concepts that conflict with the Bible concepts they are attempting to translate.

It is one thing to take a biblical phrase like “kingdom of God” and translate it as “God’s reign” or “God’s rule.” It is another thing to replace it with “inner feeling of dependence” or “personal relationship with Jesus.” Though there is some truth in both of these phrases, neither adequately translates the core of the Gospel Jesus preached.

Us Being Faithful Witnesses

Another way to avoid apologetic idolatry is to exchange a defensive posture with a witnessing posture. God doesn't need us to defend him or protect him from the harsh words or twisted ideas of others. He is God enough to handle that. He wants us to tell his story and to live our lives as if we believed it.

We must boldly tell the Bible story and testify to how it has impacted our lives. We have good news to tell, not a bad idea to defend. The gospel is God's gift to us. A gift cannot be forced down someone's throat or beat into their brains. It has to be received as a gift.

If your conversations with unbelievers have you feeling less like a herald of good tidings and more like a defendant on the stand, then apologetic idolatry may be lurking around the corner.

"But wait," you might be thinking, "Doesn't 1 Peter 3:15 tell us to that we must always be ready to give a defense (apologia)?"

Yes, but we have to read this verse in its context. 1 Peter 3:14-16 reads,

"But even if you do suffer for doing what is right, you are blessed. Do not fear what they fear, and do not be intimidated, but in your hearts sanctify Christ as Lord. Always be ready to make your defense to anyone who demands from you an accounting for the hope that is in you; yet do it with gentleness and reverence. Keep your conscience clear, so that, when you are maligned, those who abuse you for your good conduct in Christ may be put to shame."

There are three important components to this verse that are often overlooked.

First, it begins by telling us not to fear what unbelievers fear but to remember that Christ is Lord. In other words, our prosecutors are not in the judgment seat, Christ is. Their categories, statistics, or syllogisms don't trump God's story.

Second, we are not told to offer a defense of God in this verse, but an account of our hope. We are people of hope who have hope to offer our accusers. We have a gift to share and an offer to extend, knowing full well that God has given all people the ability to reject that offer.

Third, we must make this offer in gentleness and reverence. We don't run people over with our superior arguments. We don't manipulate them into making forced decisions. We must respect their disbelief the way Jesus respected the disbelief and rejection he encountered in the flesh.

Me Being Concise

In sum, we must not spoil God's gift by watering it down until it is acceptable to our audience or by cramming it down people's throats until they begrudgingly concede just to make us stop. Disciples aren't made that way; slaves are. Since God is not that kind of master, we reduce him to an idol when we represent him that way.

2012-09-04
Politics of Yahweh for Kindlehttp://www.walkandword.com/blog/?id=339

I am pleased to announce that we have sold enough copies of The Politics of Yahweh that Amazon.com converted it to Kindle format.

This means that anyone with a Kindle or a Kindle app for an iPad or other tablet device can download the book for only $9.99. That is $19 cheaper than the paperback ($29).

So if you have been holding out for the price to drop, this might be your best opportunity. Of course, if you'd rather have a hard copy, the cheapest way is to buy one directly from me. I usually keep 5-10 in stock and sell it for at least 25% off.

Happy reading!

2012-09-26
Radical Christian Discipleshiphttp://www.walkandword.com/blog/?id=340

We are one month away from the long-awaited release of Radical Christian Discipleship. This is the first of three volumes that make the brilliant and challenging thought of John Howard Yoder available to a non-academic audience. Read an informative press release here.

2012-10-21
Elections and Idolatry: Part Onehttp://www.walkandword.com/blog/?id=341

Nationalism, Elections, and Idolatry

I have been reluctant to vote in national elections for as long as I can remember. My reasons were not novel or profound: I was paralyzed by the poor options, I didn't want to invest the time it would require to make an informed choice, I didn't want to encourage politicians who already had an over-inflated sense of self-importance, and I wanted to combat the notion that the only or best way to be politically involved is to dedicate 15 minutes every once in a while to checking boxes. This time, however, my reasons are a bit different. After the third presidential debate I began to wonder whether voting for either of the two leading candidates could mean unwittingly participating in idolatry.

Let me explain—but you will have to be patient. To understand my position, you need to wade through some technical material. The payoff, I believe, is worth it. I was recently asked to write an article on the subject of "nation and nationalism" for the Oxford Encyclopedia of Bible and Ethics. My intention with this project was to restrain my strongest convictions about the subject and to state the facts as objectively as possible. I realized that an encyclopedia is no place for sermonic rants. For me this would be difficult; my first book focused on God's approach to politics in Scripture, which changed the way I look at politics. But I knew it would be a helpful exercise.

To curb my passions I thought it best to begin not with the familiar stable of go-to theologians, but with nationalism scholars who write for broader audiences. My findings surprised me, to say the least. They also had the exact opposite effect of what I originally expected.

Modernist Approaches to Nationalism

The first thing that the nationalism literature taught me was that a seismic shift is happening within nationalism studies. For quite some time, the modernist school reigned supreme in the field. As the name suggests, this school holds that the nation was the invention of modernity. Its proponents claim that there have always been "states," by which they mean political entities with some form of government over a group of people that reserve the exclusive right to use force to keep order within their realm. The nation or nation-state is something fundamentally different. It affirms that some kind of bond inherently unites a specific group of people and entitles them to shared rule over a specific territory.

A nation, properly speaking, does not belong to an elite family. It belongs to the people themselves. Before there were nations, kings ruled over territories with the help of hand-picked elite warriors and administrators. Commoners did not give their lives for their countries; the king's favored ones gained prestige by working for the king and keeping his reign secure. The masses did not identify with the king or his realm. They learned to make a living for themselves under the conditions imposed upon them by those who happened to be in charge at the moment.

As the modernist tale goes, industrialization, the printing press, and the breakdown of imperial religion created within the people a sense of having outgrown the confines of the old state pattern. Increased literacy and the rapid spread of ideas made it possible for people to develop an immediate sense of camaraderie that was larger than their local clan or family unit and qualitatively different from the king's shifting realm. Realizing this, according to the modernist account, certain elite persons commandeered the ethnic, linguistic, and cultural resources of specific territories and forged the notion that a certain people exists within a certain land with innate commonalities that unite them and entitle them to shared rule over their land. Since religion was part of the imperial glue that kept former states together and because it had led to excessive warring, some nations sought to establish themselves on the notion of religious neutrality. So they kicked religion out of the political sphere where they believed it did not belong.

In sum, the modernist account holds that nation-states emerged at the same time as modernity and that they delivered Europe from deadly religious wars and outdated monarchical forms of rule. The emerging concept of the nation rescued the state from monarchy and religion and made possible a more humane way of life for all.

Beyond Modernism

In recent decades, the modernist paradigm began to shift. Nationalism scholars began questioning many of its basic tenets. The timing was called into question, the causes were called into question and, most significantly for my purposes, the role of religion was called into question. In particular, they have recognized that nationalism itself is highly religious. It has become a new public religion that has filled the void left by traditional religions, which in turn have accepted demotion to the private sector. To achieve this new sacred status, nations have parasitically drawn from the Christian faith. In other words, the early founders of nation-states kicked authentic Christian faith to the curb and used overtly religious resources to create an alternative national religion.

Let me be clear at this point. I am not here giving my unique revisionist spin on the founding of nation-states. I am summarizing what nationalism scholars themselves have been saying as they survey the historical data and connect the sociological dots. Take, for instance, Adrian Hasting (The Construction of Nationalism, 1997). He observes that nation builders pillaged religion for seven specific resources. Here I will discuss four that are perhaps most salient (omitting the social function of clergy, the spread of printed vernacular, and autonomous state religion).

First, they borrowed the notion of a sanctified starting point. Israel and the church could point to a sacred founding event, like the call of Abraham, the Exodus from Egypt, or the death of Jesus. In the same way, nations identified particular founding events and imbued them with a sacred providential aura. Only an act of God could account for their extraordinary yet humble origins.

Second, they learned from the great religions to mythologize and commemorate great threats to their national identity. Christians can point to Egyptian enslavement, various destructions of Jerusalem, or to the martyrdoms of Jesus, his apostles, and the early church as fundamentally shaping their identity. It has long been acknowledged that the church was founded on the blood of the martyrs. Seeing the powerful unity of a common legacy of martyrs, nation-builders were keen to identify and commemorate with national holidays and monuments those who gave their lives so that all citizens might enjoy the benefits of nationhood.

Third, nation-builders drew upon Scripture for their model of what a nation could look like. Old Testament Israel, as they understood it, embodied much of what they wanted for their nations. The Israelites had a sense of entitlement to a specific territory rather than a constantly expanding or retracting borderless realm. Israel had a sense of ethnic identity that connected them to their property as well as their own set of laws. Perhaps most importantly, every citizen in Israel had a sense of belonging, even ownership of their kingdom. The king did not own the territory; God did, and he bequeathed it to all the people. The king came from the people and was expected to rule according to a common set of laws to which he was also subject. 

Fourth, nation-builders learned from Jewish/Christian religion that a sense of unique national destiny provides powerful cohesion for a people. For this reason, they sought to identify a particular national destiny for themselves—even better if, like Israel and the church, they could link their unique destiny to God's providential role in guiding world history toward its intended end. They therefore linked the prosperity of their nation to the best interests of all nations. People will kill and die for their nation if they understand their "political" commitment to the nation as a necessary counterpart to their "religious" commitment to God's purposes in this world.

Hasting's striking summary is worth quoting at length: "Once a Christian history has been constructed for a nation from the baptism of a first king and on through great deliverances . . . once the Bible is meditated upon in one's own language with all the immediacy this could bring, once one's own church is fully independent of any other and identified in extent with that of that nation, the more it seems easy to go the final step and claim to be a chosen people, a holy nation, with some special divine mission to fulfill. The Old Testament provided the paradigm. Nation after nation applied it to themselves, reinforcing their identity in the process" (196).

Hasting is not alone in his account of nationalism. The foremost nationalism scholar in our day, Anthony Smith, acknowledges this religious turn by identifying nationalism itself as the religion of the people (Chosen Peoples, 2003). In his estimation, religion provides four sacred foundations—very similar to Hasting's—for nations and nationalism. First, it provides the notion of a community of chosen people. Second, it provides a holy land in which people dwell. Third, it recognizes a golden age that preceded a specific decline that justifies the nationalist reaction that ensued. Fourth, and finally, it furnishes an account of personal sacrifice by national patriots that reinforces the nation's sacred identity. According to Smith, nations sift, reinterpret, and synthesize various elements of religious and ethnic communities in order to cast themselves as the fulfillment of some sort of salvation narrative.

Hasting and Smith are not theologians, ethicists, or exegetes. They are not writing for Christian audiences in order to move them toward any sort of action. They are historians and sociologists. They are writing to fellow historians and sociologists in order to discern where nations came from and where they fit in the wider global historical picture. They are not ashamed of what they have discovered. It does not offend them that nation-builders would overtly co-opt the biblical story and the unique soteriological role of God's people within it. This is history to them. Nations and states have always done this sort of thing.

Why Should Christians Care?

Can followers of Jesus be so neutral? Should it be acceptable to us that nations would usurp the biblical narrative and insert themselves into it? Christians proclaim that Christ alone is Lord, that Christ alone is the hope of the nations, and that Christ's body does not take the form of a single state or nation that is geographically, ethnically, or culturally confined. Christ's body, the church, is a transterritorial, transethnic, and transcultural community. As such it is properly positioned to be a blessing to all nations.

It is only after stripping God's people of their former provincial status as a geographically bound ethnic enclave, which God began doing with the collapse of Israel's monarchy and completed with the work of Christ, that God was able to propel them into global mission by the power of God's Spirit. Under Christ's global reign, states of all stripes have a role of serving particular territories and maintaining a basic level of order and stability. But that is the extent of their jurisdiction. They do not carry out God's saving purposes in this world; they carry out the necessary task of old world maintenance. They are like giant utility companies that provide an important service on behalf of the local community. They don't represent God's kingdom, the new era in world history that was ushered in by the Messiah of Israel. Only the church has been divinely called and equipped to bear witness to God's kingdom. Nation-states are part of the old order that is passing away. Only by Christ's power and Spirit can the new era break into world history. When they are at their best, the nations of the world keep relative peace so God's people can go about their work of spreading the good news of God's inbreaking kingdom. The most significant movement in world history is carried forth by the work of God's people among all nations, not the achievement of any single nation.

It is not hard to find evidence that America has been particularly susceptible to nationalistic idolatry. Take, for example, David Gelernter's recent book Americanism: The Fourth Great Western Religion. Gelernter unashamedly professes faith in the religion of Americanism. Bill Bennett praises his book, saying, "David Gelernter is a national treasure, a patriot-scholar. In Americanism, he explains what America is to him—an idea, a belief, a religion. The City on a Hill has no greater or more powerful an advocate." This endorsement, with its deliberate appropriation of biblical language, is as eerily disturbing as the book itself.

It would be one thing if this position were a marginal one advocated only by fringe groups with little public influence, but it is not, which leads to the point of this essay. In the third presidential debate, Barak Obama claimed that America was "the one indispensable nation." What could this mean, except that either God is not in charge of the nations or that God would not be able to run this world without America's help? This is not just a statement about America; it is a statement about God. Not wishing to be outdone, Mitt Romney, the president's rival, claimed that America was "the hope of the earth."

If these candidates hope to position America as the one indispensable hope of the earth, then they are not running for president, they are revolting against the lordship of Jesus and striving to usurp his position as Messiah. Has it gotten to the point that American citizens are no longer free to vote for a "president" and can only vote for a messiah? How can a Christian vote for that?

 

 [Part two answers the potential objection that nationalistic statements are not idolatrous because they claim to offer political salvation, not religious or spiritual salvation]

[Part three addresses more positively what kind of posture Christians should assume in this world if not to help Caesar rule it]

2012-10-29
Elections and Idolatry: Part Twohttp://www.walkandword.com/blog/?id=342

Answering a Fundamental Objection

In part one, I expressed my increasing discomfort with voting in certain elections. I grounded this discomfort in my growing awareness of the nature of nationalism and its idolatrous pretentions. American nationalists are not content to view America as Scripture does—as one among many powers and principalities that God uses to keep a basic level of order within a defined geographic region. Recent debate rhetoric from President Obama and his challenger, Mitt Romney, provide ample evidence for this. Their bold language is not unique to debate rhetoric. They have spoken this way on multiple occasions. Nor are these men unique in mooching off of the specific status that God accords his people and his Son in Scripture. In his 2003 State of the Union address, George W. Bush claimed that “there's power, wonder-working power, in the goodness and idealism and faith of the American people.” This is an obvious allusion to the Christian hymn, “There is Power in the Blood,” which is speaking about the blood of Jesus.

In Scripture, there are many ways to commit idolatry. The most obvious is to worship a god different from the God we know in Jesus. Another way is to worship the Christian God the same way pagans worship their gods. A third way is to use the God of Scripture to serve one’s own purposes. To do so is to bring God down to our own level or attempt to manipulate him just like the Canaanites did with Baal and Asherah. If nationalism (in the strongest sense of the term) amounts to idolatry, and if the leading candidates for the presidency are self-identifying as nationalists, then why would Christians want to participate in nominating an idolater? Such was the logic of part one.

I can hear the objection now: these candidates are not talking about religious salvation or spiritual hope; they are merely talking about politics. They would never suggest that Christians forsake their faith in order to be good patriots. Yet this objection presumes the nationalist lie that Christian faith is concerned primarily with one’s spiritual life—that is, one’s beliefs about deity, afterlife, personal morality, and inner life transformation. Nationalists claim to care only about public matters like economics, education, judicial affairs, national defense, and international relations. John Locke, whose political and philosophical writings are often credited for many of the ideas contained within the U.S. Constitution and Declaration of Independence, sets forth this framework in his famous "Letter Concerning Toleration." Repeatedly he asserts that the church should focus only on people's souls and the nation should focus on the public life of the commonwealth.

The problem with this division between spiritual and public concerns is that biblical faith unites the two. What God has brought together, humans over the course of history have sought to separate. Ignorance of this history has led many people to misunderstand the nature and role of God’s people, the proper shape of their witness, and the specific ways they should and should not relate to the states in which they live. Another historical overview is therefore in order, beginning with Scripture, moving through church history, and culminating in contemporary nationalism. In essence, we will be zooming out and locating the phenomenon of nationalism within its wider historical framework. This task may seem overly academic to some, but it is necessary. American Christians all too often go back to the founding of America in order to establish their political bearings, when we must go back to God’s founding of Israel and the church.

A Chronicle of Unlawful Separation

In Scripture, God is forming a distinct people whose life together is ordered both by genuine spirituality and a vision of economics, education, justice, and security that stands in sharp contrast to that of world empires. Biblically speaking, Christian faith is an all-encompassing worldview that relegates the state to the margins of the forward movement of world history. What nationalism scholars have taught us is that nationalism, too, is an all-encompassing worldview—only it seeks to relegate faith to the margins of the forward movement of world history. Who gets to relegate whom? The one who relegates the other is the true religion.

For the church to accept relegation to the margins is to reverse the direction of world history as the Bible sees it. Before God called Abraham to form a people, the states and empires of the world integrated all aspects of human life under the corrupt umbrella of self-glorifying kings. Under their jurisdiction, a minority of the people enjoyed the majority of resources. The masses were forced to battle over what little was left behind. In the Old Testament, God’s people are called to be a separate and alternative political entity to that of surrounding empires. It was clear to the Israelites that the Egypts and Babylons of this world stood at cross purposes with God’s vision of human flourishing. It was also clear to them that God called them out of world empires so they could forge an alternative all-encompassing politics that reflects God’s vision. God did not do so in order to play favorites, but to properly position Israel to be a blessing to the world.

In the New Testament, God’s people continued to be a separate and alternative political entity. A noteworthy development, however, is that they are called to do so only as a trans-territorial entity. They were no longer centralized in Palestine. They were a nation without borders. This had to be in order for them to serve and represent God’s global reign. Jesus completed the formation of God’s people, toppled the walls that divided different ethnic groups, empowered them by his Spirit, and sent them into the world as aliens and strangers whose citizenship is in heaven. Jesus did so in order that the separate life to which he called his followers would be visible in every city, state, and empire of the world. Worldly forms of governance continued to be the foil to God’s people, and God’s people continued to see themselves as offering a superior all-encompassing politics. Leading Bible scholars from all over the theological spectrum have been gravitating toward this sort of interpretation for several decades now. If this is news to you, it is probably time to catch up.

Throughout history, various world rulers have observed and appreciated the strength of the biblical vision. They especially admired (and eventually coveted) the sacrificial commitment of God’s people to live and die for their faith. Beginning in the fourth century, the Roman Empire gradually donned the Christian mantle by overtly claiming to be Christian and by acclimating specific Christian practices to imperial life. The empire itself did not convert to Christian faith, which would have required it to adopt God’s economic, judicial, social, and spiritual vision. This never truly happened. Rather—and this is important—what pagan gods formerly did for the empire, the God of Scripture was now "privileged" to do. The emperor called upon God to grant him victory in battle, to legitimate his reign in the eyes of his subjects, to decorate his coinage, to offer transcendent hope when things look bleak, to furnish a system of sacred days and seasons to order the imperial calendar and channel the people’s religious fervor, and to supply a priestly caste that would officiate at important public and private ceremonies. Of course, the emperor would also have to tweak his empire in specific ways to maintain his image as God’s chosen king. Overtly pagan religious practices would have to stop. Pagan shrines would have to be replaced by Christian ones.  Certain laws that don’t detract from the emperor’s agenda or diminish his power would have to be adapted to fit the masses' newfound religious scruples.

Though sixteenth-century Radical Reformers rejected the church-empire merger with its domestication of Christian faith, the Magisterial Reformers repackaged it in different ways. Martin Luther sought to purify the church by separating religious practices from those of the state. Whereas this had the positive effect of purifying certain religious practices, it nonetheless perpetuated the notion that political, economic, and judicial affairs were concerns of statecraft and not church witness. Luther also encouraged Christians to remain active in state governance, albeit not utilizing the specific resources of Christian faith and Scripture, but drawing upon the generic resources of natural law. John Calvin’s approach was slightly different. He advocated a structure similar to Luther insofar as he acknowledged two kingdoms that are governed by two different sets of standards. However, Calvin distrusted natural law. So he encouraged Christians to govern the public sphere using the Old Testament and the private sphere using the New Testament.

The political experiments of the Magisterial Reformers would have been more interesting had the Old Testament or natural law been interpreted as saying something significantly different from what Roman emperors were inclined to think anyway. But they weren't. It all amounted to human reason, so the political fallout was the same. Governing officials continued ruling the world by human standards in God’s name, and the specifics of Christian faith were relegated to the private sphere. The radical political, economic, judicial, and social impact of the gospel was ignored. The people God commissioned to serve the nations by exemplifying his alternative politics chose, instead, to rule over the nations with principles much like their own. The Christian difference was reduced to theology, personal ethics, and ceremonial practices.

The rise of modern nation-states did not fundamentally change things. They continue to marginalize specifically Christian language and practices from the public sphere and they continue to govern economic, judicial, and social matters according to human reason. Realizing the divisive effects of “religion,” however, they are less inclined to allow overtly religious principles to dictate their political structures and policies. As John Locke puts it in his Letter Concerning Toleration, “The only business of the Church is the Salvation of Souls.” God gives humans collective wisdom to determine what is best for public life and he gives them religion to guide their private lives. This does not stop them, as noted above, from attributing religious significance to the collective identity of their nations. Nation-states may not be “religious” entities, but they came into being by God’s providential hand in order to carry out a specific divine calling that requires religious devotion on the part of their citizens. They may not be carrying out Israel or the church’s spiritual commission, but their existence and mission are equally God’s work. As such, they are just as comfortable as the Roman Emperors calling upon God to grant them victory in battle, decorate their coinage, offer transcendent hope, provide a channel for religious fervor, and supply a priestly caste for public and private ceremonies.

How Could Christians Let This Happen?

This survey clarifies how the western world got to the point when a nation may exercise messianic sovereignty over the public sphere while granting Jesus jurisdiction over people’s private lives. Yet, as noted above, this is a far cry from the biblical vision. Scripture is quite clear that Jesus is Lord over every aspect of the lives of all people everywhere. It is also clear that he has called his followers to bear witness to his comprehensive reign by the comprehensive witness of their life together. Nonetheless, many God-fearing Christians have bought into the nationalist lie that nation-states may receive religious accolades and devotion in public matters as long as they give Jesus full reign over people’s private lives. They do not do so, it is important to note, because they wish to intentionally dabble in idolatry. Nor do they do so because Scripture recommends it. They do so because they have inherited from well-intending Christian teachers a faulty mindset that is rooted in the fourth-century merger of church and state. The public dimensions of biblical faith have been domesticated for so long that it seems natural to the most faithful Christian to believe, contrary to Scripture, that God has always willed it to be this way.

Compounding this problem is that several brilliant noteworthy theologians have also been duped and have supported their faulty view with creative exegetical and logical arguments. How could this happen? A definitive answer cannot be given. Different explanations are appropriate to different persons. It is worth acknowledging, however, that when it comes to social issues, it has been difficult for Christians to imagine that things should be any different than they are. After all, with clean consciences, their most faithful forebears have always believed and acted as such. One need only point to the substandard treatment of women and slaves by God-fearing Christians in America—with the full support of leading theologians. Such treatment goes back to the earliest centuries of the church. How could that be? There are a variety of explanations that space does not allow me to pursue right now, but who can deny it? Sometimes the most humble people and God-fearing and insightful theologians simply miss the mark on an issue that seems rather simple in retrospect.

Toward a Solution

I have taken the time to sketch this history because how we got to where we are has everything to do with how we should move forward. Many have recognized that the church is an inherently political institution. Yet there are many paths forward from this recognition. Some seek to retrieve the church’s political nature by tracing our steps back to the modern separation of church and state. They are fond of highlighting that those who advocated separation nonetheless allowed their faith to heavily influence their politics. Such was the case because many who advocated the separation were Christians, and they did so in the interest of spiritual or ecclesial reformation. The separation therefore had a Christian feel. It was difficult to imagine not moving forward in a Christian sort of way. Yet when that same separation is later inherited and enforced by unbelievers, the outcome is quite different. A similar thing happened with the Reformation. Luther could advocate that the state be guided by natural law and be quite pleased with the results because most state functionaries would be Christians and their convictions about what is natural were deeply informed by Christians faith. But later, as nonbelievers begin occupying state posts, what appears to be natural doesn’t seem so Christian anymore.

This has placed Christians who desire to express their faith publicly in an awkward position. They must attempt to reverse a trajectory that their forebears set into motion without realizing how it would eventually backfire. They are right to emphasize how Christian many of America’s forefathers were, but they are wrong to insist that they didn’t mean what they said when they advocated a separation of church and state. They actually created the most “secular” nation imaginable at the time. They just couldn’t imagine that a separate state would ever begin reasoning in ways that were not deeply Christian. It seems to some as if there are only three ways forward: to reverse this separation, to inundate wider society with Christian convictions until they begin to seem natural again, or to strategically infiltrate the upper echelons of public decision-making and to legislate Christian convictions back into public practice. All three of these options seem highly unlikely, although the third may have occasional success in places where Christians still enjoy a comfortable majority.

These approaches are highly problematic, however, because they strive to exercise public influence in ways that are alien to the biblical story. The problematic turning point—away from the biblical vision—is not the modern separation of church and state or the Reformation separation of church and empire. The problematic turning point, although it had earlier roots, is when God’s people decided in the fourth century that their holistic witness to God’s all-encompassing reign could be grafted into the provincial reign of any state. The way forward is therefore not to recover a power that the church may have gained temporarily when it found a way to ally with the empires and states of this world, but to recover a sense of what it meant to have an all-encompassing witness before the Roman Empire began courting the church. Of course, we cannot exactly stuff the cat back in the bag either. There is no retreating to a pristine pre-Christian world; there is only imagining what an unyoked holistic witness might look like in a post-Christian world.

This prospect need not be frightening. Paul’s teaching on marriage to the Christians in Corinth is instructive. Paul is quite clear, in 1 Corinthians 7, that not marrying has advantages for service to the Lord. Those who are married are concerned with everyday family affairs that need not monopolize the time, energy, and resources of God’s people. Moreover, if one must marry, one may only marry a believer. Elsewise, those everyday affairs may become a deterrent, since one’s unbelieving spouse will not want to order family life according to God’s kingdom. Still, Paul acknowledges that, in their ignorance, people may have found themselves married to an unbeliever, whom they would never have married had they known they would soon commit to the Lord. In such cases, Paul encourages believers to hang in the marriage in order to be a witness as long as they can. Once released by the unbelieving spouse, however, they are free to move forward in single-minded devotion to the Lord. They should not insist upon staying together since God has called them to a peaceful witness (vs. 15).

The church should never have wed itself to the state—yet it did. If there were ever a time when it was appropriate for the church to remain in this marriage for the sake of witness, that time is clearly over. The state in the western world has effectively divorced the church. Now that God’s people are free and still in the relatively good graces of their former mate, the church is in an ideal position to explore what unhindered devotion to its all-encompassing worldview might look like. America has placed few restrictions on the church’s life together. We should not waste that freedom trying to engineer our way back into the illicit alliance. We should use our freedom to explore what God has been calling to us be and do since the beginning. Should the church refuse to let go, should we beg and nag the state to take us back, we might find the state escalating its efforts to send us away. This could lead to bitter blood and greater restrictions on the church’s freedom to be itself.

Furthermore, if the state wants to be the state without the help of the church, then part of the church’s witness is to exhort state representatives to stop co-opting the church’s language to serve state purposes. If the church cannot have it both ways, then neither can the state. As the church renews its identity as God’s set apart chosen people, it must therefore remind the state that it no longer possesses grounds for making this same claim. The hope of the earth is Jesus Christ and his body is the church, not the state. This is good news for the state and its citizens. For it disabuses them of the notion that they will ever find salvation by staring down the edge of the sword, the barrel of a gun, or the face of a ballot.

[Part three addresses more positively what kind of posture Christians should assume in this world if not to help Caesar rule it]

2012-10-31
Elections and Idolatry: Part Threehttp://www.walkandword.com/blog/?id=343

The Power of a Priestly Kingdom

In parts 1 and 2 of this blog series I have sought to locate today’s presidential race in a wider historical perspective. Nationalistic rhetoric does not appear in a vacuum. It has a long and complicated history. My aim was to show that the founding of America happened in the context of burgeoning nationalistic sensibilities. These sensibilities, which have been encoded into America’s DNA, often conflict with some of the church’s core convictions. It is one thing for a nation to claim to be unique; it is another thing to claim exceptional status among the nations, as if they were God’s chosen instrument to bring hope to the wider world, whether spiritual or political.

Such language is eerily similar to Nebuchadnezzar’s dream in Daniel 4. “Upon my bed this is what I saw; there was a tree at the center of the earth, and its height was great. The tree grew great and strong, its top reached to heaven, and it was visible to the ends of the whole earth. Its foliage was beautiful, its fruit abundant, and it provided food for all. The animals of the field found shade under it, the birds of the air nested in its branches, and from it all living beings were fed” (vv. 10-13). Up to this point, this vision recounts Nebuchadnezzar’s view of his own kingdom, the sixth-century Babylonian empire. It certainly does not reflect the standard Jewish view (see Habakkuk 1-2). As the dream continues, he sees an angel command the tree to be cut down, the animals to flee, and the remaining stump to be reduced to animal-like status. The purpose of this leveling is stated in verse 17: “in order that all who live may know that the Most High is sovereign over the kingdom of mortals; he gives it to whom he will and sets over it the lowliest of human beings.” As Daniel interprets the dream he makes clear that Nebuchadnezzar is the stump who will be felled, but only for a short time. He will be restored to the more modest position that God had in mind for him, but only after he has learned that “Heaven is sovereign” (vs. 26).

Nebuchadnezzar has to be humbled not because he worshipped false gods (though he did), but because he entertained the notion that his kingdom was special—he fell prey to political hubris. He began to view all other kingdoms as little birds finding shelter beneath his magnificent wings. Nebuchadnezzar failed to recognize that God alone is sovereign over the kingdoms of the earth and that God has exalted him only a short while in order to accomplish specific purposes for the truly chosen people, which was Israel. Indeed, in Daniel 7, the great empire of Babylon is properly seen as one in a string of beasts that temporarily roam the earth eventually to be replaced by others. The only everlasting kingdom, according to the book of Daniel, is that of the “saints of the Most High” (v. 27). These are the chosen people that God has formed, set apart, and appointed to show all kingdoms what the divine reign looks like.

The book of Daniel is one of many Old Testament books that place the relationship between the kingdoms of this world and God’s chosen people into proper perspective. I fear, however, that this perspective has been abandoned by many Christians in America. This is partly because the notion of God’s chosen people has been conflated with America as a nation, as if the church is the spiritual extension of God’s reign and America is the political extension. We have picked up the mantle of the Puritan “city on a hill,” informed by a lingering sense of Manifest Destiny. American Christians serve God politically by doing all that is in their power to keep America on the right track, especially by electing the right officials. They do so spiritually through active service in the church.

Responsibility and the Constantinian Cataract

For this reason, “American Christians” find it morally reprehensible for believers not to vote. If Christians don’t vote, then the right people won’t get into office, and the wrong people will steer America away from God’s divinely ordained purposes. America will become just another nation. Its favored status before God will be relinquished, and all those less worthy nations will grow in power and influence. The world will be doomed! All of this presumes a logic that is not in the least biblical, namely, that Christians are partly responsible for governing the nations. This notion of responsibility is altogether absent in Scripture.

It is worth noting that whereas the Old Testament law was filled with instruction for how the Israelites were to live, care for, and discipline one another, it gives no instruction as to how they should participate in the civic life of surrounding peoples in order to steer them in the right direction. Furthermore, whereas the prophets scolded the Israelites for a host of social and political oversights, they never rebuked them for not tending to the needs of neighboring tribes and empires. The same goes for the New Testament letters to first century churches. It simply was not on the radar of God’s people in Scripture that their divinely appointed role involved helping the various kingdoms of the world become better worldly kingdoms, Jewish kingdoms, or Christian kingdoms.

Furthermore, the notion of “responsibility” that is often invoked today presumes a certain sociological posture that is alien to the divinely mandated posture of God’s people. Many well-intentioned Christians in America have succumbed to the majoritarian logic of liberal democracy. Only people who enjoy majority status have the luxury of assuming that the best way to serve their neighbors is to use whatever top-down power levers are available in order to dictate how the masses should live, for their own good. With great democratic power comes great democratic responsibility. This is not, however, a Scriptural principle. In fact, we find the exact opposite from Jesus. In Luke 22 he redirects his misguided disciples who were angling for privileged positions of top-down power, saying, “The kings of the Gentiles lord it over them; and those in authority over them are called benefactors. But not so with you; rather the greatest among you must become like the youngest, and the leader like one who serves. For who is greater, the one who is at the table or the one who serves? Is it not the one at the table? But I am among you as one who serves” (vv. 25-26).

The disciples wanted the power and prestige of worldly kingdoms. Jesus warns that they have set their sights too low. Gentiles have that kind of power, and they use it to rule over others while claiming to be doing what is most beneficial for them. Of course, world powers seldom do what is beneficial for the masses. That is why Jesus disarmed and made a spectacle of them (Colossians 2:13-15). He did so by allowing those who purported to be benefactors to crucify an innocent man (himself) because they were threatened by his alternative form of power. Jesus instructed and modeled this alternative for his disciples. He modeled bottom-up service, not top-down power.

If Scripture does not advocate infiltrating the political structures to exercise top-down power over the masses, they why do Christians routinely assume this “responsibility”? The historical survey in part two of this essay points to an answer. Sometime after fourth-century Roman Emperor Constantine began incorporating the church into his imperial project, Christians stopped viewing themselves as a minority group that was uniquely empowered by its Messiah to serve the world with the bottom-up resources with which he entrusted them. It started to develop what Lee Camp, author of Mere Discipleship, calls a “Constantinian cataract” (21)—a new way of seeing the church’s relationship with the world. Yet God never intervened in world history to give his people a new vision of leadership and world governance. They simply assumed that having become a majority they are, by default, responsible for using for good the top-down resources now at their disposal.

But what if the servant posture Jesus instructed his people to assume was not simply a temporary posture appropriate to the subordinate position they occupied in the first century? What if it was intrinsic to the nature of the unique mission of God’s people? If this could be demonstrated biblically, then having the opportunity to exercise top-down power would not automatically translate into being responsible for exercising such power. Instead, it would be a temptation to be resisted, akin to the temptation Jesus rejected in the wilderness, when the devil offered him control of the kingdoms of this world without having to serve it to the point of death, and in the garden, when he faced the temptation to resist those who were coming to arrest him—perhaps with righteous revolutionary violence—rather than submit to God’s will, God’s way.

Service and the Biblical Mission

A survey of the Bible story reveals that a servant posture, distinct from the nations, is what God always willed for Israel and the church. Here I offer a brief summary in terms of ten stages:

(1) In the beginning God creates a peaceful world in which humans live in harmony with God, one another, and nonhuman creation. Had humans never fallen into sin, the sword-backed state and other forms of domineering leadership would never have been necessary for maintaining order and justice. Unfortunately, the earliest humans use their freedom to assert their autonomy over and against God’s will, which leads to their fall from created harmony. Soon after, Cain murders his innocent brother Abel. This lays the foundation for fallen civilization with its vengeance-based state, fear-based society, and unnatural culture. God graciously uses the fear- and vengeance-based human reflexes to protect humans from one another and to maintain basic order in society.  

(2) Nonetheless violence escalates upon the earth to such an extent that God is filled with grief and regrets creating humans. Rather than bring a decisive end to the created order, God washes the surface of the earth clean while preserving a remnant of all living species, including sinful humans. God reaffirms his commitment to life by placing all bloodshed under his jurisdiction and by covenanting with his creation never to destroy it again. In so doing, he places the burden upon himself to find some way to guide creation and deal with sin other than to destroy it.

(3) God solution is to call Abraham out of the heart of Babylon, with its advanced civilization, to become the progenitor of a peculiar people with a particular way of being in the world so that God may use them to bless all nations. Trust in God alone is the test of Abraham’s faithfulness and the foundation for the peculiar people that God is forming through him. Since his descendants needed to multiply in number without losing their distinct identity and because the residents of Canaan were not ready for divine judgment, God relocates Abraham’s descendants to Egypt where they are eventually enslaved.

(4) Though Egypt is an ideal place to grow in number, it proves an unfit place for Abraham’s descendants to order their lives according to God’s intentions. God therefore calls them out of the high civilization of Egypt and into the particular way of life set forth in Torah. Notice that God does not use the Israelites to take over Egypt and to use vast imperially resources to do good. Instead, God delivers the Israelites without their help and instills in them a set of laws that must govern their life together. In so doing, God is forming a people that must depend on their Lord alone for their deliverance, security, and way of life. God is making them an exemplary people whose specific way of life may be used to bless all nations.

(5) After forging a covenantal relationship with Israel, God leads them into the land of Canaan—a land where no truly great empire has ever thrived—and begins to order their lives according to Torah. To make them a witness against the economic oppression and violent nature of empires, God establishes Israel without centralized leadership and a standing army. Instead, God reins over them directly through a plurality of decentralized offices and sustains them with the phenomenon of Yahweh war—a unique form of warfare that relies on God’s strength for victory and not strategic alliances and human military prowess. Without the egocentric aims of a human king, the Israelites would be better positioned to order their lives according to the radical economic, social, judicial, and political vision of Torah.

(6) Shortly after occupying the land, the Israelites forsake the covenant by abandoning Torah. So God stops blessing and protecting them, which leaves them vulnerable to attacks from neighboring tribes. Yet God does not abandon them altogether. Through mighty judges God gives them a taste of what long term deliverance might look like should they renew the covenant. Rather than do so, the Israelites rebel and request a king like the nations around them. This decision launches a tragic detour in the life of God’s people. In choosing a king they essentially renounce Yahweh war, Yahweh’s kingship, and Yahweh’s law. In failing to trust God alone, they reject God’s strategy for forming them to be a blessing to the nations.

(7) Israel’s kings are at their best when they rely on God and at their worst when they rely on their own strength. Overall, the kingship lives up to God’s negative expectations for it and the prophets disparage it. They do not, however, forsake the concept of kingship altogether. In visions of future hope, they depict a truly faithful king who adheres to Torah and whose rule reflects God’s reign. Isaiah goes further than any prophet in remolding the notion of kingship to reflect the kind of posture God always desired for Israel: that of a lowly servant with universal significance (Isaiah 42, 49, 50, 52, 53).

(8) Though Israel’s historians narrate the monarchy in diverse ways, the cumulative canonical effect is a trajectory leading to monarchy’s collapse. Through Jeremiah, God calls the Israelites out of their self-imposed monarchical cul-de-sac and into a dynamic new scattered posture that is conducive to blessing the nations. This scattering is not a temporary hiatus from monarchy but a long-term arrangement that calls for a permanent change in Israel’s self-understanding and paves the way for the impending messianic mission. As strangers in strange lands, they must depend on God alone for their well-being and survival.

(9) God is not, however, finished with Jerusalem. He had chosen this city and its people as the launching point for the forthcoming messianic mission. To prepare them for this, God sends Ezra, Nehemiah, and others back from exile to reorder Israel’s life in the land as a Persian province, lacking political independence and monarchical organization. This community was like the diasporic Jewish communities insofar as it lacked political independence and had to order its life according to Torah under the conditions of foreign occupation.

(10) The ministry of Jesus and witness of first century congregations continue the Old Testament trajectory mapped out by Isaiah, Jeremiah, and the diasporic communities. In all their novelty, they make no attempt to reestablish anything like Israel’s kingship of old. Rather they proclaim a king, kingdom, and Christian community that stand in fundamental continuity with Old Testament strands that push beyond the monarchy, especially the lowly servant vision. Rather than position his followers for top-down political influence in Jerusalem and then Rome, Jesus prepares them to be scattered among all nations as aliens and exiles. They are ambassadors for the kingdom of God, living among all the kingdoms of this world. They had no aspirations for running worldly kingdoms because they knew that God looked after them by various powers and principalities. These kingdoms and their rulers, according to the Apostle Paul, are destined for destruction (1 Corinthians 15:24-26). Knowing this, the early church spent all its efforts filling the world with communities dedicated to God’s kingdom—the only kingdom that will last—and inviting all people to join them in seeking it first.

If this is the basic shape of the biblical story, then God’s strategy has always been to place among the various kingdoms of this world a people who live uniquely and fully under his dominion. The rationale behind this is not selfish. It is in the best interests of all nations that God place in their midst an alternative, independent political community that orders its life exclusively on kingdom principles. God has plenty of agents who are willing to maintain the present order. What is needed is a kingdom community that is willing to order its life even now according to the future order. That unique life is God’s offer to the world. It is God’s pilot project or demonstration plot of the future of all creation. It is the evidence that God in Jesus has changed the course of world history. When this kingdom vision is grasped, it is like a precious pearl or priceless treasure that, once discovered, leads people to forsake everything else they once owned in order to possess it. According to Jesus, Paul, John, and James, part of what is left behind includes old world notions of responsibility, effectiveness, significance, and success.

Priestly Irresponsibility          

How can a set apart people that does not get entangled in civilian affairs make a positive impact on the wider world? Could God possibly be calling us to leave the world alone on its path to destruction? Of course not. God has sent us into the world to help save it. But we must ditch the simple choice between (a) making the world a better place by leveraging democratic power in which a 51% majority get to tell the 49% minority how to live, and (b) doing nothing at all to help the world. In Scripture there is an alternative model for serving the world in such a way that is in the world’s best interest, but not on the world’s terms. I will use the priesthood of Israel to illustrate this model.

When God brought the Israelites into the land of Canaan, he divided them into twelve territories according to the tribes of Israel. Ten of Jacob’s sons inherited one territory apiece, Joseph’s two sons each received one territory, and Levi’s descendants received no allotment. When it came to property, economic, justice, another other civil affairs, each non-priestly tribe was given leaders to divide up responsibility and handle its own affairs. The Levites, on the other hand, were scattered among these tribes to dwell among them in a unique capacity. They focused on studying Torah, carrying out responsibilities connected to the sacrificial system, overseeing cities of refuge, signaling when God was declaring war upon an enemy, leading various festivals, and seeking God’s guidance when their host tribe raised questions for which Torah does not provide clear answers.

These Levites bore a heavy burden. They had much work to do that only they were positioned to do. To free them up to focus on their unique responsibilities, God excused them from tending to the everyday affairs of their host tribes. The Levites were not a part of governing the towns of their host tribes; the elders did that. They did not settle judicial disputes; the tribal judges did that. They did not go to war when their host tribes’ boundaries were threatened, nor did they execute capital offenders. There were many aspects of their host tribes’ life that they did not get involved in—they had to trust that God would meet such needs without their help.

Their relative disconnection from tribal life was not purely negative. Since they were not fighting Israel’s wars, they were able to impartially discern God’s will as to whether a given war was divinely sanctioned. Since they were not the judges, juries, and executioners for criminal cases, they were able to extend hospitality to killers who sought sanctuary in their cities of refuge until the tribe’s officials could determine innocence or guilt. Because they did not enforce tribal laws and were not closely related to the accused, they were objective enough to take ambiguous cases before God for a definitive ruling. Because they had no official territory of their own, they could help settle boundary disputes. Lastly, since the land on which they lived was not truly theirs, they felt free to leave it for extended periods of time in order to serve at the tabernacle.

One would be hard-pressed to accuse the Levites of being irresponsible for not seeking to involve themselves in the everyday affairs necessary for non-priestly tribal governance. It would indeed be quite irresponsible for them to abandon their divinely appointed posts to serve those of someone else. They can best render the service to which they alone have been called only if they can trust that God has other people lined up to carry out responsibilities that lay beyond their purview.

Now I know this analogy breaks down at certain points, some of which are important to my thesis. For instance, both the Levites and the tribes were a part of the same chosen people that God was setting apart to be a witness to all nations. Both confessed God’s kingship over every aspect of their life and adhered to the same Torah. This is why, when the messiah came, he could break down the wall that separated priests from non-priests to create a nation of priests. The church’s relation to their host nations is quite different. Modern nations are not God’s chosen people; they are fallen powers and principalities that God uses to uphold the old order. God’s chosen people, the church, has been called to live according to the new order of God’s kingdom. It could be said that the Levites carried out a chaplain-like function on behalf of the other tribes. They were on the same team but had different responsibilities. But that is not how Scripture portrays Israel or the Church’s relationship to the world. God’s people are set apart from world powers as those who are seeking a different kingdom, following a different Lord, and consequently receiving a different inheritance when Christ returns.

Nonetheless, is there evidence in Scripture that God’s people have a set apart role analogous to that of Israel’s priests? Is it possible that God sent us into all nations as aliens and exiles whose citizenship is in heaven precisely so we would not attach our identity to our host nations and would be properly positioned to serve our host nations in ways that only people who seek first God’s kingdom can? Does not our disentanglement from running our host nations free us up to love and serve those who are a burden or a threat to our unbelieving neighbors? Does it not better position us to bear faithful witness to an alternative kingdom that is here in part and will come someday in full? Could all of this have something to do with why God prefaces his covenant-making ceremony with the Israelites after delivering them from Egypt saying, “Indeed the whole earth is mine, but you shall be for me a priestly kingdom and a holy nation” (Exodus 19:5-6)? Could this be why 1 Peter, the New Testament book that most accentuates the scattered, alien, exiled nature of God’s people, echoes this Exodus passage and affirms the priestly status of the church?

This analogy should also not be read as suggesting that the church’s only contributions to wider society are in the spiritual realm. If churches around the world are living out kingdom economics, for example, they will be helping poor people within the body and in their surrounding communities to make ends meet that would otherwise be a greater drain on the broader economy. It also means they will be discipling them as to good stewardship, helping them find good work so they can join in helping others, and warning them against lying and cheating on their taxes and elsewhere in such ways that robs the wider community of resources to which they are not entitled. Believers may additionally take the godly economic practices they have learned from Scripture and apply them to the extent possible in their jobs, many of which will have public ramifications. It is not top-down influence on the wider economy, but it is a substantial influence that makes a positive contribution to the wider economy.

Similar things can be said about other aspects of public life. The church didn’t wait for a majority vote before starting up the first hospitals and Sunday schools when they realized that only the well-to-do were privy to quality health care and education. They began serving their immediate communities by offering what services they could with the resources of the Christian community. This witness had a positive impact on wider society. It raised awareness of various needs and got unbelievers thinking of ways that they, too, could contribute to the health and education of all people. This is what it means for the church to be salt, light, and leaven. We do what we do because God has called us to do so. We serve with the bottom-up power that Christ infused within us and we trust God to cause the seeds we plant to grow.

The above sketch of the Bible story and priestly analogy should suffice to demonstrate that Christians who choose not to get deeply entangled in the political affairs of their host nations are not simply lazy, unloving, or irresponsible. They are not dishonoring the blood that was shed by early Americans to establish the nation we live in today. They are honoring the blood that Christ shed and the Christian martyrs who have followed in his steps. These martyrs traded kingship like the nations for the reign of God and, in so doing, made possible the transterritorial eternal kingdom of which we are privileged to be a part. Since the mission of God’s people in this world entails forming faith communities among all nations that embody Jesus’ alternative all-encompassing politics, for the world’s sake, then focusing on this particular mission is not lazy, unloving, irresponsible, or ungrateful. It is rightly ordered energy, love, responsibility, and gratitude. It is God’s strategy of blessing all nations, which means it is the best way to preserve whatever is good and worth dying for in this world. Those who reject God’s strategy or who seek to merge it with the world’s strategies by making yet another pointless run at “kingship like the nations” are the ones who are acting irresponsibly, if not idolatrously.

“To Him who loves us and freed us from our sins by his blood, and made us to be a kingdom, priests serving his God and Father, to him be glory and dominion forever and ever” (Revelation 1:5-6)

2012-11-02
3 Reasons to Buy Radical Christian Discipleship Nowhttp://www.walkandword.com/blog/?id=344

1. It's on sale nearly 33% off at the publisher and on Amazon, and it almost Christmas!

2. The publisher has created a wonderful free study guide, which makes it perfect for study groups.

3. You don't have to take my word for how great it is, but can read the introduction and, more importantly, chapter one online.

2012-11-11
Elections and Idolatry: Afterwordhttp://www.walkandword.com/blog/?id=345

I really wanted to be done with the Elections and Idolatry series, but my wife Beth didn’t like the way it ended. She did not think I clearly communicated my stance on voting. She’s right, of course. Some of the feedback I have received indicates that at least a few people heard me say something that I don’t believe and didn’t intend to say. They heard me say something to the effect that all who vote in presidential elections are idolaters. They felt that I wrote this series in order to bash Christians who vote. They are wrong, but I am partly to blame.

My intention was not to fault those who do vote, but to give believers a reason to stop faulting those who don’t. I was weary of watching believers brand one another as lazy, unloving, and irresponsible for not seeking to do their best to influence the direction of the American government. I wanted to help people see that it is quite inaccurate to lump all non-voters into a single category and then dispatch them all with one fell swoop.

In retrospect I realize that I made this motive more clear in part three than in parts one and two. As a result, those who never got around to part three, or jumped to conclusions before reading it, did not have the benefit of reading it as one piece, like I originally intended. But things got too long and I needed to break it up some.

As a general principle, however, I strive to avoid as much as possible the ethical legalism of determining in advance what is always the timelessly right or wrong answer to a specific ethical question. The reason for this is that the meaning of an ethical question usually changes when it is asked in a different time and place. I say "as much as possible" because some questions can only be answered affirmatively or negatively, regardless of the time and place.

I suspect that this is one of the reasons why Jesus spent more time providing the disciples a general vision of what the kingdom is like than he did answering what it looks like to bring that vision to bear in the concrete life situations of first-century Palestine. He gave a general vision because he would later send the Holy Spirit who would guide his followers to implement his kingdom vision in ways that are appropriate to the diverse times and places in which they would later find themselves.

So if someone were to ask me whether it is timelessly wrong to vote, I would say no. And then I would quickly add that it is not timelessly right either. Each election should be evaluated on a case-by-case basis in light of the host of complex factors that are involved in each one. We should also be open to the possibility that it may be right for one person to vote in a specific election and not for another person.

In one part of the country, Christians may have a properly sober perspective on the limitations of government. They may also have avoided getting sucked into rampant nationalism with its misplaced hopes and fears. In such a context, it may well be appropriate for Christian leaders to quietly go about their business and to vote for a candidate that they believe would do less damage.

In another part of the country, Christians may be helplessly embroiled in rampant nationalism. They may have misplaced their hopes and fears in governing authorities, and they may be divided among themselves in ways that mirror the division in Washington. In such a context, God's Spirit may direct Christian leaders to take a different sort of stand—one that intentionally minimizes the importance of the powers and principalities.

In the second scenario, leaders may choose to respond in a variety of ways. They could choose not to vote, they could choose to intentionally vote against two parties who exercise a monopoly of power, or they could choose to write in their own nominee—someone who will certainly lose. The options are not as simple as vote or no vote.

This does not mean that voting is an entirely neutral practice. Christians should be open to the possibility that conditions could emerge—even in America—that would make participation in voting (among a variety of other practices) a form of idolatry. In Scripture, idolatry is not a purely religious matter. Governments and politicians are certainly caught up in it.

The book of Daniel gives some indication of this. In fact, I originally thought I might blog simply on the book of Daniel rather than give the topical, historical, biblical survey that I ended up giving. Here is another terribly simplified sketch that is more easily appreciated when some of the key verses are read in the original languages. If all of this seems alien to you, I recommend you read John Goldingay and Paul Lederach's wonderful commentaries on Daniel. I don't think I argue anything here that they don't help clarify. (Anyone who wants further clarity on the biblical portrait I painted in part three can consult “The Politics of Yahweh,” a book where I go into much greater detail to explain that particular way of interpreting the grand narrative of Scripture.)

In chapter 1, Daniel and friends refuse the "king's portion" and chose to eat water and "seed-based food" instead. There are many reasons to think that this is not about health or unclean food laws or idol feasts. I won't bore you with the details. The key issue appears to be identity. To eat the king's portion is a statement of loyalty. This passage anticipates 11:26 where Antiochus Epiphanes is betrayed by those who "eat of the king's portion." It is the same word in Hebrew. The irony is that Antiochus is betrayed by those whose diet indicates that they are among his loyal companions. There was no rule in Torah against eating meat and wine. Indeed Daniel has to later fast again from eating them in 10:2-3, which indicates that the chapter 1 diet is temporary. Daniel discerned that in that time and place to eat of the king's portion was to communicate that he was about something that he was not truly about. He was willing to put his neck on the line rather than simply blend in with the brain-washed masses and in so doing defile himself.

In chapter 3, all the king’s subjects are told to pay homage to his statue when the music plays. This statue is not necessarily a god. In light of the identification of Nebuchadnezzar with the gold head of the statue in chapter 2, and in light of the specific dimensions and gold composition of the statue in chapter 3, it is probably a replica of the king himself. The wider citizenry is not commanded to confess that the statue is a god. That was not the nature of Babylonian king veneration—even though religion and politics were intricately intertwined and could hardly be separated (v. 18). They are simply supposed to show loyalty and respect in a culturally appropriate way: to prostrate themselves and pay homage. These practices were not overtly religious, although they could be. King Nebuchadnezzar pays Daniel respect in the exact same way in the previous chapter (2:46). Yet the three Jews cannot go along because this act signals that the king is developing a disproportionately large estimation of his own importance. So they would rather face the furnace. Nebuchadnezzar's humiliation in chapter 4 reinforces the notion that his over-inflated sense of self importance is the key issue.

In chapter 6, Darius has the same hang-up. For only a short while he demands that people pray only to him. This is not about the king's divine status; it is about the king's desire to assert himself as the prime benefactor of the people. There is nothing in Torah that forbade Jews from taking a short sabbatical from praying. There is also nothing that would have prevented Daniel from praying silently while lying in bed at night. This edict was extremely easy to break without being seen. But Daniel could not go unnoticed. The king is saying things about himself that ought not be said. So Daniel flung open the shutters and began praying his way into the lion's den.

These short vignettes paint an interesting cumulative picture. None of the focal actions, in and of themselves, constituted idolatry. One can imagine times, places, and ways in which doing what the kings had asked could be carried out with a clean conscience. But the perfect storm was brewing in exile. A certain sort of religious-political momentum had built up that rendered acquiescence to the king's beneficence a quasi-idolatrous act. If it could be demonstrated that a similar storm was brewing in America, then a practice as simple as voting might trip Daniel's rather sensitive idolatry wire.

Lamentably, American nationalism is replete with idolatrous tendencies. As time marches on, more and more tiny tributaries begin feeding and strengthening a rather large idolatrous subterranean stream that few Christians recognize. Every once in a while it bubbles to the surface, as it did in this year's third presidential debate.

Christians who care for this country and would like to see its best values exert a positive influence in the world should be eager to identify and criticize such pretensions. The worse evil is not that the candidate who will likely do more damage gets elected, but that God chooses to judge this nation for its idolatry and that several of God's people are also swept up this judgment.

The prophet Ezekiel teaches that God's judgment is not poured only upon those who participate directly in idolatry. It is also poured on those who fail to "sigh and groan over all the abominations that are committed" (Ezekiel 9:4). The church in America has many abominations to lament. Foremost among them, perhaps, is our in-house division. Not only are we hopelessly divided along political party lines, but if the hostile feedback and ad hominem attacks I have received from this article are any indication, we are deeply divided as to what it means to be witnesses to the lordship of Jesus Christ.  

2012-11-13
Christmas for Israelhttp://www.walkandword.com/writings/index.php?id=41

What do the birth stories mean when they announce that Jesus came to "save his people from their sins"? Back then, "his people" did not mean all future Christians. The prayers of Zechariah and Mary both indicate that "his people" refers to the offspring of Abraham and Sarah. Here is a Christmas sermon that explores why Christmas can only be Christmas for us because it was first Christmas for Israel. 

2012-12-23
The Cross and Martin Luther King Jr.http://www.walkandword.com/blog/?id=347

Below are two excerpts from a sermon John Howard Yoder preached the day after Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated. The first is short and makes an extremely important point about King’s approach to oppression. The second is much longer and discusses some of the often overlooked reasons why Jesus had to die on the cross and how that relates to King’s death.

Excerpt 1 (Radical Christian Discipleship, 133)

Mohandas Gandhi and Martin Luther King Jr. always said that they were not against the oppressing race. Gandhi was not against the British government and Martin Luther King Jr. was not against white people. Instead, they appealed to the oppressor’s better self, trying to get you, the oppres­sor, to see the injustice of what is happening. Gandhi and King tried to help the oppressors stop, think, and change course. This is what Martin Luther King Jr. died trying to do. He was not, first of all, trying to obtain certain rights for African Americans. He was trying to bring white America to its senses. When in Birmingham, a few years ago, white America saw itself using dogs, fire hoses, and cattle prods on people, white America was called to self-awareness.

Excerpt 2 (Radical Christian Discipleship, 136-38)

Whatever else we can say, we have to begin by saying that there had to be a cross because Jesus had frightened the authorities. Crowds followed him. He was identifying social evils and getting a hearing. There had been a parade into the city. There had been the cleansing of the temple, interference with people’s ordinary religious rituals, interference with their economic life by setting loose all those sheep and bulls. He had let himself be called king, and later in John we are told that the label on the cross made it clear that the legal reason for his execution was that he was “King of the Jews” (19:19-22). Roman law required that when somebody was being put to death the reason should be explained publicly. Even today the theory behind the death penalty is that it will deter people. For the death penalty to deter crime, however, you have to say what crime it is that gets punished in this way. Therefore, when Jesus was put to death, the authorities said his crime was being “King of the Jews.”

All too easily we might say today, “They had him all wrong! He did not want to be king. The kingdom he was talking about was not that kind of kingdom. They should not have felt threatened.” Jesus did not say that the authorities should not feel threatened by his teaching. Jesus said that he had committed no crime and had done no wrong. But he didn’t say that he was trying to get out of trouble. He didn’t say they misun­derstood him when they thought that he was going to bring about a revolution. He could have said that, but he didn’t. He would not have been crucified if he had made clear, as we often try to make clear, that he was not a troublemaker.

Second, whatever else Jesus’ death means, there had to be a cross because Jesus said he was doing all of this in God’s name. He did not say that the cross was a good idea for improving Palestinian society. He did not say that the cross follows logically from some things we read in the Old Testament. That was the way the rabbis would have gone about it. He said simply, “In God’s name: These things must not be. These things must be. This is the kind of life I must lead. This is the kind of life you must lead if you follow me.” This rocked the boat because he did it in God’s name.

Third, whatever else Jesus’ death means, there had to be a cross because when this trouble came upon Jesus, he did not defend himself. He did not stick up for his rights. He didn’t even demand a fair trial. He knew he would not get one. He was ready for injustice. He was ready to meet injustice forgivingly, sufferingly, nonviolently, and nonresistantly. He could have tried to escape. He could have staged a revolt or waged a holy war. He could have set the place on fire. But instead he went to the treatment that hateful people held out for him, and he did so without complaint.

Lastly, there had to be the cross because Jesus made no compromises. He didn’t time his death so it would work. He didn’t wait until he earned a hearing. He didn’t choose a way of working that would not offend people. He didn’t wait until the atmosphere was right and people were looking for what he had to offer. He didn’t try to speak a language that people could accept without knowing how novel it was. He was uncompromising in the way that he stated God’s judg­ment upon his society and God’s promise to people in his society…

If that is what the cross meant for Jesus, what does it mean when he says that his followers will bear a cross and do the same? What does it mean that whoever is not ready to bear a cross is not worthy to be called his follower? What were his followers then to do?

We use the word cross in our hymns, in our piety, in our prayers, and in our pastoral language. But we use it too cheaply. We say that a person has to live with some sort of suffering in his or her life: a sickness that cannot be cured, an unresolvable personality conflict within the family, poverty, or some other unexplainable or unchangeable suffering. Then we say, “That person has a cross to bear.”

Granted, whatever kind of suffering we have is suffer­ing that we can bear in confidence that God is with us. But the cross that Jesus had to face, because he chose to face it, was not—like sickness—something that strikes you without explanation. It was not some continuing difficulty in his social life. It was not an accident or catastrophe that just happened to hit him when it could have hit somebody else. Jesus’ cross was the price to pay for being the kind of person he was in the kind of world he was in; the cross that he chose was the price of his representing a new way of life in a world that did not want a new way of life. That is what he called his followers to do.

That is what happened to Martin Luther King Jr. He represented a new way of life in a society that did not want that way of life.

2013-01-21

John Howard Yoder speaks about the Cross and Martin Luther King Jr. at http://t.co/tZP0Q4vD

2013-01-21

A sermon about why Christmas can only be Christmas for us because it was first Christmas for Israel. http://t.co/8nUyO9gJ

2012-12-23

I added a brief Afterword to the Elections and Idolatry blog that clarifies my intentions and what I was not saying: http://t.co/SSYrOKwN

2012-11-13

Three reasons to buy Yoder's brand new Radical Christian Discipleship book today! http://t.co/wzS42Np6

2012-11-12

For a compilation of all 3 parts of my "Elections & Idolatry" blog, see http://t.co/Z7GfRuC2 Part 3 is most important!

2012-11-05

Here's a link to the third and final part of my "election and idolatry" series: http://t.co/umH1Xc8Q

2012-11-02

Here's a link to part two of my "elections and idolatry" series: http://t.co/XoQ1RPSK

2012-10-31

I just posted a blog about elections and idolatry. If this interests you come check it out at http://t.co/f06WejQV

2012-10-29

The Politics of Yahweh is now available in Kindle format for only $9.99, almost $20 cheaper than paperback. See http://t.co/QaC9u8Ee

2012-09-27

Are Gays (as a Group) Still Morally Superior to Christians (as a Group)? My thoughts on the Chick-fil-A debate, here: http://t.co/v019Y3CJ

2012-08-06

Why theology is tricky and ministers need theological training, a quote from Yoder: http://t.co/DGysCqjt

2012-05-29

A link to the final results of our quest for appropriate titles for the new 3 volume Yoder series. http://t.co/xOroVALb

2012-05-23

Some of you have asked for an update of recent developments, so I give one at http://t.co/JnVyyscM

2012-04-30

Does John Howard Yoder need people to defend him? Read my blog for more at http://t.co/2QGFYA7C

2012-03-23

The End of Sacrifice is starting to gain some broader exposure. Read more at http://t.co/rxOK8ZJp

2012-03-19

Read "Relishing the view from the foot of the table" a sermon I preached recently at http://t.co/Sqx68zRS

2012-02-14

2 more days to buy "The Politics of Yahweh" at a 40% discount. You must follow the link [http://t.co/qmtNsyhR] & use the coupon code: NUGENT

2012-01-29

Added a long overdue tribute to the Englewood Review of Books at http://t.co/tYKxNe4W

2012-01-01

Politics of Yahweh nominated by ERB as one of the best 10 books of the year: http://t.co/vifOpyuv

2012-01-01

Added a Tolkeinesque allegorical sermon on the book of Hebrews to Walk & Word. Check it out at http://t.co/oIvPfSV2

2011-12-16
Recent Progress in Yoder Studieshttp://www.walkandword.com/blog/?id=368

It has been a while since I’ve blogged, but a lot has been happening in my work in Yoder studies. Here is an update and as a bonus I’ve included a neat quote I came across today.

First, we are wrapping up phase one of the Yoder Index. This means that within a week or so, each of Yoder’s books will be painstakingly indexed and available for your searching pleasure.

Second, the completion of phase one of the Yoder Index means that phase two has begun. Phase two entails indexing all of Yoder’s published articles as well as any new books that continue to be released. For instance, we are now working on indexing Radical Christian Discipleship, which was released after we capped our phase one book list. Soon IVP Academic will be publishing another book by Yoder called Theology of Missions.

Third, just today we submitted to Herald Press volume two of the “Yoder’s Challenge to the Church” series. This is a three volume series making available Yoder’s easiest to read material for a wide audience. Radical Christian Discipleship, which has sold more copies than anything else I’ve published, was volume one. Volume two is titled Revolutionary Christian Citizenship.  

This new volume is pretty sweet. It focuses on how Christian should live as citizens of heaven and residents of ordinary nations. It is "revolutionary" because believers to not allow the state to muzzle them but boldly live out and proclaim their Christian convictions whether the wider citizenry approves of us or not. It has potential to become the non-academic go to text for thinking through church-state relations. I haven’t received an official publication date, but I suspect this volume should be available no sooner than this summer and no later than this fall. I can’t wait!

I will leave you with a tantalizing morsel from Radical Christian Discipleship that grabbed my attention today: "Worldliness is not a special sort of depravity. It is the normal behavior of worldly people. It is any thought or behavior whose first concern is not God’s kingdom and God’s righteousness. And since worldly people can be quite respectable, there are also respectable forms of worldliness . . . It is a pleasant form of recreation and food for self-righteousness to meditate on other people's sins. Thinkng about how much other people spend for cosmetics, alcohol, tobacco, and amusements creates a happy feeling in the breast of those who spend just as much for unnecessarily new automobiles, household appliances, vacationing, and bank accounts. Before the judgment of Christ, the fact that one sort of worldliness is more respectable than another seems to make little difference" (59...64).

2013-04-16
Stop Trying to Bring the Kingdomhttp://www.walkandword.com/blog/?id=369

Kingdom language is back on the map as a way of talking about the gospel and the church’s mission. It is now time to tighten up our language and speak more precisely about the relationship between church and kingdom.

I often hear people say things like:

"We must be the kingdom"

"We are the kingdom"

"We must bring the kingdom"

"We must build the kingdom"

But God's people and God's kingdom should not be equated. God's kingdom is bigger. In Jesus' words, it is God's will being done "on earth as it is in heaven." It is the fulfillment of Israel's hope that God would usher in a new era in world history, or a new world order in which all things are properly ordered according to God’s life-giving intentions for creation.

Sometimes when I put the church’s mission in a nutshell, I say that our task is to "Advance God’s kingdom by living it and leading others into it."

Yet, I wonder if the language of "advance" is too strong. Unlike the classic social gospelers (to whom we owe a great debt for reminding us of the centrality of the kingdom to Jesus' work and the church's calling), the kingdom is not the culmination of human progress in this world. We do not make the kingdom come. Rather, it is a gift and accomplishment of God in Christ. John Howard Yoder puts it this way:

"Before we can set out toward the New World, it must have—and by God's goodness it has—come to us. We can only be on our way because of that prior coming. We do not go out to find it or to build the kingdom but only meet it. It is already on the way, and our common confession . . . is the 'first fruits' of that promise's being more than a promise, of its being real good news because it has already begun" (Royal Priesthood, 104).

If Yoder is right that the kingdom is something that God has brought, continues to bring, and will someday bring in its fullness, then we ought to be careful with our words. We must not give the false impression that we are the primary agents of God's kingdom. We are indeed its witnesses and promoters, but we are promoting and bearing witness to something that God has, is, and will do—not something that we accomplish.

My first attempt to place the church's mission in a nutshell sounded something like "we must bear witness to God's kingdom by living it and leading others into it." I think that is more precise. I was told, however, that the phrase "bear witness" is too abstract and confusing to the average person. For this reason, I switched to "advance." That term is broad enough to include "bearing witness" and "promoting" and it also acknowledges Jesus' claim that the gospel will be proclaimed to the ends of the earth before the kingdom comes in its fullness (Matt 24:14). Since we are the kingdom’s primary proclaimers, it seems that we at least have some influence on the timetable of when God brings the kingdom. Yet it is also broad enough to suggest that we are the primary agents of God's kingdom, which is to say too much.

Regardless, the connection between the church and kingdom is real and important. I was first introduced to its significance by Phil Kenneson. In Life on the Vine and Beyond Sectarianism, he states that the church has been called to be a sign, foretaste, and herald of God's kingdom (I have since seen this language used by earlier writers, including Yoder and Leslie Newbigen). We are signs to the extent that we point others to God’s kingdom, but we are not the kingdom itself. We are foretastes to the extent that our commitment to living out kingdom principles means that those who are in our midst will at least partially experience kingdom principles. We are heralds to the extent that we proclaim the kingdom to our friends, neighbors, co-workers, and the powers and principalities of our day. We need not choose between speaking about the kingdom and modeling it with our lives. The early church was committed to both and so should we.

It is refreshing to see the gospel message break out of the narrow box to which it has long been confined. The gospel of "escaping hell and ascending to heaven" is finally being eclipsed by a more robust and biblically-based alternative. But let us be careful not confuse matters by sloppily equating church and kingdom or by describing the kingdom as the church's accomplishment and not God's gracious gift to the world.

For more on the kingdom, see Jon Robinson's recent contribution and my old Christian Standard article.

2013-05-23
Getting to Know the Just War Traditionhttp://www.walkandword.com/blog/?id=370

In his May 23 speech on national security, President Obama claimed that America’s current war against al-Qaida is a just war. Here’s what he said:

"Moreover, America’s actions are legal. We were attacked on 9/11. Within a week, Congress overwhelmingly authorized the use of force. Under domestic law and international law, the United States is at war with al-Qaida, the Taliban, and their associated forces. We are at war with an organization that right now would kill as many Americans as they could if we did not stop them first. So this is a just war, a war waged proportionally, in last resort and in self-defense."

Many Christians have a fuzzy notion of what just war is about, but few have really studied it in depth. So when a politician or church leader claims that a particular war is just and it seems to be fought for a good cause, we assume they are genuinely adhering to this tradition.

My point in this blog is not to evaluate the President’s claim, but to briefly introduce readers to the just war tradition.

There are four common approaches to war:

1. Blank Check – I must support whatever war my government wages.

2. Holy War – God wants his people to wage war against a particular unholy people.

3. Principled Pacifism – war is wrong no matter what.                        

4. Just War – whether a war is right or wrong needs to be evaluated according to specific criteria.

The Christian tradition has a long history of affirming the ongoing relevance of positions 3 and 4. Although many God-fearing folk have adopted approaches 1 and 2 in recent years, most scholars and educated church leaders have pretty much rejected them. Although some admit that God is free to wage holy war whenever God wills, they often clarify that some sort of dramatic divine revelation would be necessary to ensure that such is the case.

President Obama is therefore being quite strategic in claiming to stand within the widely respected just war tradition. He would not have been elected president if he was a pacifist. He wants to clearly distance himself from the religious extremism that is associated with Holy War. And he doesn’t want people to have the impression that he can do whatever he wants on account of being president (blank check). He wants us to think that he is carrying out the people’s will.

So he presents himself as one who submits to church-approved criteria (which originated outside of the church and is still affirmed by many unbelievers) for discerning when a war is just. He also shows that he is familiar with this longstanding tradition by citing a few of the criteria. For the sake of convenience I list below some of the most commonly recognized just war criteria. This list varies somewhat and its meaning has evolved over time, but it should add a bit more depth to your understanding if you are new to this topic. I have adapted this list from a chapter on just war from John Howard Yoder’s forthcoming book (of which I am co-editor) Revolutionary Christian Discipleship. The most robust defense of this tradition is Paul Ramsey’s The Just War. For an insightful critique, see Yoder’s When War Is Unjust.

1. The intention must be good. Intention may sometimes mean the long-range goal. A war must be undertaken for the peace of the world and not for some less worthy cause like hatred or selfishness.

2. Only a just authority can wage a just war. A bandit or private citizen cannot wage a just war. Only a legitimate governmental agent can do that.

3. The cause must be justified. That could be broken down into many subcases and depends largely upon the specific cause in question.

4. The means must be limited. This has to do with how you wage a war. The means must be limited by the rights of some people not to be harmed. That would include immunity for noncombatants, as well as neutral or third parties. The means are also limited by stated rights, such as the modern treaties on the conduct of war that have been signed by most civilized nations. Limits are imposed also by the inner logic of proportionality: the war must not do more harm than good.

5. The war must be winnable. If there is no reasonable likelihood of winning, then it is wrong to wage a war even for a good cause.

6. It must be a matter of last resort. If there is any other way to obtain a goal without the use of war, then the war is not justified.

I leave it to you to judge whether the war on terror meets these criteria or whether or not it is the best Christian position. I for one do not identify with any of the four positions on warfare listed above. Scripture’s stance toward war and the calling of God’s people is more complicated—though blank check certainly has no place in Christian thought!

I do, however, believe that it would be great progress for any state to genuinely submit to these criteria. It is worth noting, however, that no state that has ever wanted to wage a war has ever publicly withdrawn from one on the basis that it did not fit these criteria. That does call into question how useful it is in practice. If it is only used to rubber stamp a war after it has already been waged on other grounds, then the tradition is not being respected at all and people of good will are simply being duped.

I also think that those who are opposed to war in principle and who work hard to develop skills at reconciliation and peace-making should be considered extremely helpful resource persons for just war advocates who are trying to determine whether they are, in fact, in a “last resort” situation. In other words, you don’t know something is a last resort until you have worked tirelessly to exhaust every other alternative.

That being the case, true pacifists (peace warriors, not “passivists” who do nothing) and just war advocates should desire to work side by side together with the same convictions and motivations up until the very point that it has been determined by the just war side that war is the only step that remains. The fact that pacifists and just war advocates are seldom found working together testifies that many pacifists are not committed to peacemaking and that many just war proponents are equally uncommitted to peace and the “last resort” criteria. Without these two commitments, the just war tradition has no backing from serious Christian thinkers.

2013-05-28
God's Promise to a Violent Worldhttp://www.walkandword.com/writings/?cat=2&id=43

Why would a loving God flood the earth? How could a God of peace sanction such widespread violence?

I just added the sermon I preached yesterday at the Ekklesia Project conference (Chicago), which focuses on the topic of peace. It draws considerably from my book, The Politics of Yahweh, especially the epilogue. 

Reading this will give you a sense of some of the things I do in that book and might even help you place the flood account of Genesis in its biblical context.

If you would prefer to listen to this sermon, a podcast of it may be found here.

2013-07-12
Practical Resources from the Ekklesia Projecthttp://www.walkandword.com/blog/?id=372

The Ekklesia Project has posted on their website podcasts of all sessions from last month's conference ""Practicing the Peace of Christ." You can listen to speakers as well known as Stanley Hauerwas and as little known as me.

My sermon "God's Promise to a Violent World" is available there, prefaced by 5 minutes of eloquent Scripture reading by Heather Bunce. If you would like to read along, you can pull up the text of my sermon here.

You will also want to check out some of the excellent free Ekklesia Project pamphlets on a wide variety of topics. Two of my favorites are "Preparing for Christian Marriage" (a wonderful resource for pre-marital counseling) and "Practicing Ecclesial Patience" (a must read by Phil Kenneson, who never disappoints).

2013-08-13
New School Year, New Resourceshttp://www.walkandword.com/blog/?id=373

Many of you have made use of the fill-in-the-blank “Story of the Bible” resource that I use in class and share on my website. I have made multiple changes to it that make it a stronger resource. For example, I added section titles that match my OT Timeline resource and I simplified the language a bit to make it more accessible to those less familiar with Christian language. The new versions are available here.

Those of you who were tracking the Leithart debate a while back may be interested to know that Wipf & Stock published a book of essays that engage Defending Constantine. The name of that book is Constantine Revisited. It is edited by John Roth. The collection begins with my essay, “A Yoderian Rejoinder to Peter J. Leithart’s Defending Constantine,” and contains several additional essays by people smarter than me like Branson Parler, Mark Thiessen Nation, William Cavanaugh, Alan Kreider, Stephen Long, and others. Stanley Hauerwas wrote the foreword and Leithart offers a thoughtful afterword. This book exemplifies gracious dialogue in an age when Christians are losing the ability to disagree strongly while respecting their conversation partners. I’ve written an exegetically based response to Leithart’s response (in the Mennonite Quarterly Review 85) to my article (in the Mennonite Quarterly Review 85) that also appears in this volume. It will soon appear on the Englewood Review of Books website. I will certainly inform you when this is released.

I’ve also done some writing for ThinkChristian.net. These are the sorts of things I would normally write about on this website, so I wanted to give those who frequent my site, but not ThinkCristian, a couple of links in case you would like to see what I wrote there. Some of you will be happy to know that ThinkChristian only gives me about 500-600 words to work with, so these pieces are shorter than my usual posts.

The first piece engages Reza Aslan’s new provocative biography of Jesus, Zealot. Read it here. I have much more to say about this interesting book. Hopefully I will find time to post about it here on Walk & Word.

The second piece engages Antoinette Tuff’s testimony of disarming a dangerous man with Christian love. Read it here. More importantly, click on the links I include in that article and listen to her live conversation with the gunman and police dispatcher during the crisis and her powerful testimony after things settled down.

Also, in case you missed it, phase one of the Yoder Index is now complete. This means that every Yoder book has been entered into the database and the website has received a cosmetic touch up by my brother Brian. Of course, this database will have some catching up to do when Revolutionary Christian Discipleship (vol. 2 of the Yoder for Everyone series) is released in mid-September, and Theology of Christian Mission is released in January. Phase two is well under way. We are about a third of the way into indexing through Yoder’s published articles. Some tweaks still need to be made to the website to allow you to search through them.

Finally, I have begun working on a commentary on the book of Genesis for the new Polis Bible Commentary series. Each volume will be co-authored by a Bible scholar (me) and an urban missiologist (Kyuboem Lee). My focus will be on what the text meant and means for the God’s mission in this world. Kyuboem will focus on its practical application in urban mission contexts. I am honored to be working with a man with such energy, experience, and intelligence on this project.

2013-08-26
Top 10 Books & Whyhttp://www.walkandword.com/blog/?id=374

These are the top 10 most influential books in my life.

1. Phil Kenneson’s Life on the Vine (discovered ~1999)

* I’ve recommended this book to more people than any other book

2. John Howard Yoder’s Revolutionary Christian Citizenship (discovered ~2013)

* My favorite collection of my favorite theologian’s writings

3. Genesis (discovered ~1980)

* Nearly every time I read it, I am struck by something new and profoundly important

4. Dr. Seuss’s How the Grinch Stole Christmas (discovered ~1978)

* If you don’t get it, it’s already too late

5. Gerhard Lohfink’s Jesus and Community (discovered ~1999)

* Helped me appreciate the indispensable centrality of the church to God’s kingdom purposes and to the life of a believer

6. N.T. Wright’s New Testament and the People of God (discovered ~1999)

* The first academic work to begin the complete renovation of my biblical worldview

7. Karl Barth’s Church Dogmatics 1.1 (discovered ~2005)

* Saved me from the worst forms of systematic theology and directed me toward more disciplined speech about God

8. Alasdair MacIntyre’s Whose Justice, Which Rationality? (discovered ~2001)

* Opened my eyes to the value of philosophy and the pretentiousness of the biblical studies guild

9. Greg Boyd’s Letters from a Skeptic (discovered ~1994)

* Gave me hope that theology could be useful for the Church

10. Richard Hays’s First Corinthians commentary (discovered ~1998)

* Best all-around commentary on a single Bible book

2013-12-18
Review of Slow Churchhttp://erb.kingdomnow.org/john-pattison-chris-smith-slow-church-feature-review/

This is a book review I wrote about Chris Smith and John Pattison's Slow Church (IVP 2014). I liked the book a lot because it provides a refreshing alternative to church growth books that push quick growth through strategic programming in business world fashion. This book is more faithful to God's strategy for forming and growing communities that bear witness to his kingdom. It's not a quick read and it does not offer a quick fix, but we need a lot more books like this because it is, above all, truthful.

2014-06-02
Our Gift to Everyonehttp://www.walkandword.com/blog/?id=376

Those of you who have kept up on my writing projects know that I've been working on a three volume series of easy to read material written by John Howard Yoder, one of the most important Christian thinkers of the 20th century. 

I am pleased to announce that volume 3 is now complete and ready to buy!

I am so pleased because this four year project has truly been a labor of love. With three editors per volume and a publisher, there is not much money to be made here. Nor does publishing someone else's work bring anyone much prestige. 

I speak on behalf of the editors when I say that we have all invested so much time into this project because we want to be a blessing to you! Yoder has been challenging scholars for decades to follow Jesus more faithfully in all things and to take seriously, really seriously, perhaps for the first time, the crucial role of the Church in God's mission.

The problem has always been that Yoder's writings are so difficult to read that only scholars can really handle them. So our goal in the "Yoder for Everyone" series has been to make accessible to all readers Yoder's best insights that are sure to turn your faith upside down--for the good--should you taken them to heart.  

Reader response has been very positive. Family members, church members, and college students all agree that we have succeeded in finding Yoder's most accessible material and making it as easy to read as possible.

So if you haven't yet taken the time to buy or borrow and read them, now is the time! All three volumes are finished. There are no excuses. 

Vol. 1 Radical Christian Discipleship

Vol. 2 Revolutionary Christian Citizenship

Vol. 3 Real Christian Fellowship

Like my mom, many of you will buy these books to support me. For that I am grateful. But I really want you to buy these books because you are ready to be challenged to grow in your faith.

2014-06-30
Genesis - A Missionary Manifesto?http://www.walkandword.com/blog/?id=377

I've begun writing a commentary on Genesis for a new series: Polis Bible Commentary. This series pairs a Bible scholar with an urban mission specialist to offer an engaging missional commentary on each book of the Bible. I am please to be writing with Kyuboem Lee. 

To keep you all in the loop with this project, I've decided to post excerpts from my writing for this project. These are pre-editing excerpts, so they may not even make it into the final project, but I think you will find them engaging and informative.

This first excerpt may or may not end up in the introduction section. In it I explore whether it is even proper to consider Genesis a missionary document:

Is Genesis a missionary Manifesto?

It is tempting to say that Genesis, indeed most of the Old Testament, is not a missionary document. After all, most of its authors thought they were simply preserving their family history. They thought they were special by virtue of being chosen as God’s holy people, and they may never have thought they would become missionaries to the Gentiles. It is common for scholars to undercut the missionary impulse of Genesis by observing that its key missionary passage, “You will be a blessing to all nations” (Gen 12:1-3), is more properly translated as “all nations will bless themselves by you.” Thus the Israelites did not view themselves as “go ye therefore” type missionaries but as people with their own localized agenda. It is only by their own initiative that Gentiles would find a way to capitalize on Israel’s prosperity. This is supported by other Old Testament passages that envision the nations streaming to Israel, learning God’s ways, and then returning home (Isa 2:3; Mic 4:1-2).

This line of interpretation presupposes a narrow view of God’s missionary people. It assumes that mission work is inherently centrifugal in nature—that is, that proper missionary movement always emanates from the center until it reaches the outermost regions. Genesis and the Old Testament in general, however, exhibit a centripetal movement that prevents objects from drifting away by keeping them close to the center. God’s people are at their best when they strive to keep separate from the nations and at their worst when they mingle with them. This being the case, it appears as if the Old Testament cannot truly be a missionary document.

Though this interpretation has some merit, if one presupposes that the Bible presents a coherent story with movement and direction, then it becomes clear that God’s mission has both centripetal and centrifugal moments. As with parenting, there is a time for keeping children safe at home and a time for sending them out into the world. Also in parenting, there are times early on when children do not fully grasp the future freedom and mobility that awaits them. Such is the case with Israel. Scripture preserves the partial realization of God’s people during different phases of their formation for mission.

Taken as a whole, the Bible culminates in the church carrying forth God’s mission all throughout the world. But God’s people did not and could not have started out that way. They started small—with one man, Abram, and his wife, Sarai. From this modest beginning they had to:

* First, become a numerous people with a distinct identity.

* Second, become a numerous people with a distinct identity that reflects God’s intentions for all creation.

* Third, become a numerous people with a distinct identity that reflects God’s intentions for all creation and is scattered throughout the world and therefore positioned to bless the world.

* Fourth, become a numerous people with a distinct identity that reflects God’s intentions for all creation and is scattered throughout the world and therefore positioned to bless the world by the power of God’s Spirit, having been redeemed, reconciled, and restored by God’s son, Jesus.

It is customary to identify only the final phase with God’s mission. Yet this phase is not possible without the previous three. They are all integral to God’s mission and one does not quite fully grasp phase four without understanding God’s long and patient work in phases one through three.

In light of this wider biblical trajectory, we can begin to grasp what a missional reading of Genesis might entail. It may not contain the whole mission, but Genesis represents the backstory to the mission and its initial beginnings. In particular, Genesis 1-11 discusses why God needed to form a people with a distinct identity that reflects God’s intention for all creation, and Genesis 12-50 discusses how God began to form that people.

Since God’s mission in this world requires the active participation of a people, the formation, backstory, and self-understanding of that people is critical to God’s mission. This is especially so because the identity of God’s people is tied to their mission and not incidental to it. For example, if the mission of an organization is to put flyers in every mailbox within a mile radius of a given business from 9 to 5, Monday through Friday, then the diet, sexual practices, and recreational habits of its workers over the weekend may not matter much to the fulfillment of their mission. As long as they show up each weekday and carry out the assignment with excellence, their employers will likely be pleased. This changes when the mission itself requires its missionaries to be a specific kind of people, which is certainly the case within the Bible story. As John Howard Yoder says in various places, “the first task of Israel is to be Israel” and “the first task of the church is to be the church.” To understand the truth of this maxim and its relevance to a missional reading of Genesis, we need to understand why it is important to the biblical story that the identity of God’s people reflects God’s intentions for all creation.

The easy answer to that question is that, according to Genesis 1-11, God’s original intentions for creation were severely compromised by sin. But that is not enough. We must add that God’s primary strategy in Scripture for overcoming the disastrous consequences of sin is to use a people as a witness, role model, and demonstration plot of how rightly ordered creation functions. God is not simply using a people to tell others what God wants from them; God is using a people to show others what God wants from them. And Scripture makes quite clear that God has little use for telling that is divorced from showing.

Most believers are familiar with New Testament statements to this effect. Jesus begins the Sermon on the Mount by reminding his followers that they are called to be bright light and savory salt and that failure to be so renders them useless for God’s purposes (Matt 5). Jesus did not pioneer this image. Hundreds of years earlier, when the Israelites were undergoing the identity crisis imposed upon them by the exile, the prophet of Isaiah 49 instructs God’s people that they will not have the kind of power required to right the ship of world history. They will be powerless to punish the ruthless Babylonians and to restore those Israelites that Babylon had devastated.

That poses no problems, however, because God had already announced that the Persian ruler, Cyrus, would accomplish this task (Isa 44:24-28; 45:1-7, 13). Indeed any powerful world leader can be used by God to keep in check other world rulers who abuse their power. Likewise, any wealthy royal benefactor can finance the Israelites’ return from exile and reconstruction of the Jerusalem temple and city walls. Leaving these important tasks in God and Persia’s hands, the prophet has to remind the Israelites of their higher calling, saying, “It is too light a thing that you should be my servant to raise up the tribes of Jacob and to restore the survivors of Israel; I will give you as a light to the nations, that my salvation may reach to the end of the earth.” Persian cannot do that; only a numerous people with a distinct identity that reflects God’s intentions for all creation can do that.

Still this vision of Isaiah has deeper roots. When Jesus stood on a mountain and called his followers to be savory salt and bright light he was echoing Moses’ famous mountain speech in Deuteronomy 4:

"See, just as the LORD my God has charged me, I now teach you statutes and ordinances for you to observe in the land that you are about to enter and occupy. You must observe them diligently, for this will show your wisdom and discernment to the peoples, who, when they hear all these statutes, will say, 'Surely this great nation is a wise and discerning people!' For what other great nation has a god so near to it as the LORD our God is whenever we call to him? And what other great nation has statutes and ordinances as just as this entire law that I am setting before you today?" (vv. 5-8)

God did not call Israel to obey Torah simply to stay on God’s good side, earn their salvation, or realize their inadequacies and need for a savior. Rather, God called Abraham’s descendants to live out Torah so the nations might catch a glimpse of God’s good intentions for creation and might be drawn to God through their witness and example.

This may be why, immediately after delivering them from Egypt, the first thing God has Moses tell the Israelites is that they are "a priestly kingdom and a holy nation" (Exod 19:6). Though the whole earth belongs to God, this people is set apart in a manner analogous to priests. This image can mean many things, but since it is given to the Israelites who would soon receive blueprints for their own priesthood, it should at least mean that they will function for the nations like their own priests functioned for them.

Though Israel’s priests did many things, it is somewhat unfortunate that they are mostly remembered for their role in the sacrificial cult. Yet the Aaronic priests who served this function constituted but a small sampling of the wider group of Levites who served God’s people in unique priestly ways. Other Levites hosted cities of refuge to protect innocent slayers, exemplified what it means to live as guests in the land of others and, perhaps most importantly, became Torah experts who could instruct Israel’s tribes as to the common life to which God has called them all as a witness to the nations (Deut 17:18; 31:9; 33:8-10).

The first task of God’s people is to conform their life to God’s intentions because that is how they accomplish their role in God’s mission. Since their specific identity is central, the book that lays the foundation it—Torah as a whole and Genesis more specifically—is of vital missional importance. This is no more so whether Genesis was written by Moses in the 14th-13th centuries or by a priestly or non-priestly editor, compiler, or preservationist in the 6th century.

A missional approach to Genesis, or any other book for that matter, does not mean using or not using a particular hermeneutical method. Rather, it means interpreting Genesis as part of God’s wider mission that spans the entirety of Scripture. It presumes that God’s mission is central to the biblical canon and it uses whatever interpretive techniques shed light on that mission. It need not read God’s mission into every passage regardless of whether it is already there, for it operates with the conviction that each passage on its own terms is already part of the wider missionary fabric of Scripture.

2014-07-01
The Christian Declaration of Dependencehttp://www.walkandword.com/blog/?id=378

A timely excerpt from John Howard Yoder:

“All men are endowed by their Creator with certain inalienable rights,” according to the Declaration of Independence. Among these rights is liberty. The American and French revolutions, whose anniversaries both fall in July, made “freedom” their rallying cry. By “freedom” they meant the end of submission to a king, taxes that they deemed unfair, and control of thought and expression. They understood freedom as liberation from outside influence. They believed that if outside hindrances could be removed, their freedom could be achieved.

One of the major gear shifts involved in learning to think like Christians involves recovering from this revolutionary idea of freedom. The notion of being left alone to do as one wants, “free” of any outside influences or controls, is not Christian. Christian freedom is not freedom from something as much as freedom to and for something.

The Bible is more realistic than the revolutionaries of 1776 (America) or 1789 (France). It tells us that our choice is not between freedom and unfreedom, but between two kinds of slavery. We cannot be our own masters. Being one’s own master is the worst form of unfreedom because then one has the most demanding of masters and the least submissive of servants. Still, God gives us the freedom to choose whom we will serve.

It is the feeling of many, especially young people, that freedom means having no rules to follow, no one to give account to, and no one whose wishes have to be considered. In short, it means “being one’s own boss.” But the Bible tells us that if we do not obey God, we have no choice but to obey sin, which is not freedom at all.

Already in the story of Adam and Eve we see this fatal mistake. They were led to believe that if they really wanted to be free, they would have to disobey God. It was too late before they learned that they were actually making themselves slaves of sin and losing their freedom to live in fellowship with God. They had confused freedom from with freedom to, and freedom from God which, again, is not freedom at all.

(Radical Christian Discipleship, 96)

2014-07-04
Think Christianhttp://thinkchristian.reframemedia.com/

Tired of browsing social media and failing to find something that actually engages and enriches your mind? 

Think Christian stands out among free digital magazines for providing substantial Christian reflection on contemporary issues. Film critic and newspaper writer Josh Larsen has done an excellent job of keeping things fresh and high quality.

Thanks to a generous grant, Think Christian is able to pay their writers and for that reason they attract educated and thoughtful people.

I have published several articles with them over the past year and have been impressed with the extra effort they put into improving the contributions of their writers and steering them away from topics that are old hat.  

Here are a few pieces I have written for them:

Time for Another Purge?

A Truly Biblical Wedding Feast

Antoinette Tuff and Romans 12:21 in Action

Embracing a Zealous Jesus

2014-07-22
The witness of Selah Brielle Applehttp://www.walkandword.com/writings/?cat=2&id=50

I am honored to be close friends with a family that loves the Lord enough to welcome a child into this world who had no chance of surviving. Ryan and Darcie Apple preached the gospel in word and deed for several months as they enveloped Selah in the abundant life of Jesus, even in the womb.

They exhibited a faith strong enough to receive Selah's short life as a precious gift from God. Their story needs to be told and told again. God displayed his mighty power through their obedient weakness. 

So, with their blessing, I posted the sermon I preached at Selah's funeral. I post it because it tells the story of Selah's amazing life, God's constant goodness, and the Apple's uncommon faithfulness.

Reflecting on their story has strengthened my faith, and I hope it does the same for you.

Read the sermon here.

2015-04-15
Baptism and the Formation of Youthhttp://www.walkandword.com/writings/?cat=1&id=51

At the July gathering of The Ekklesia Project I presented a paper about baptism and how it impacts how churches disciple their youth. This paper is available both on Walk & Word and The Ekklesia Project website.

This paper was part of a conversation between the believers baptism tradition (credobaptist) and the infant baptism tradition (pedobaptist). I presented on behalf of credobaptists and Debra Dean Murphy presented on behalf of pedobaptists. I strongly encourage you to read both sermons together. You can also access a podcast of the entire conversation and most of the other conference presentations.

Debra and I were pleased with how the session went. It was an important witness to the unity of the Church despite differences in core practices. The highest compliment we received after the session came from someone who some time ago switched from a credobaptist to a pedobaptist congregation. He said that he came into the session with “claws out” – expecting a fight. But the longer he sat through the presentations, he explained, the more his claws retracted. Praise God!

We are so pleased with this outcome because the kind of unity we most often experience between different church traditions is maintained by ignoring the tricky issues that divide us and focusing on our points of agreement. That is a great starting point, but greater unity and reconciliation can be achieved when we head into potentially volatile conversions with an openness to truly hearing one another and learning from one another as brothers and sisters in Christ. We believe that began to happen for several people at this year’s conference.

Check out these presentations here or here.

2015-08-27
There Is No Hostility

It’s been 16 years and The Matrix is still my favorite movie. One of the most memorable scenes is Neo’s encounter with Spoon Boy:

Spoon boy: Do not try and bend the spoon. That's impossible. Instead... only try to realize the truth.

Neo: What truth? 

Spoon boy: There is no spoon. 

Neo: There is no spoon? 

Spoon boy: Then you'll see, that it is not the spoon that bends, it is only yourself.

I like The Matrix because it captures so well how two alternative visions of reality can exist simultaneously—one being true reality and one being a veil that has been pulled over our eyes. I take this to be a deeply Christian idea.

The Apostle Paul captures it succinctly in 2 Corinthians 5:14-17:

"For the love of Christ urges us on, because we are convinced that one has died for all; therefore all have died. And he died for all, so that those who live might live no longer for themselves, but for him who died and was raised for them. From now on, therefore, we regard no one from a human point of view; even though we once knew Christ from a human point of view, we know him no longer in that way. So if anyone is in Christ, there is a new creation: everything old has passed away; see, everything has become new!"

Let’s apply this truth to something we are all familiar with: conflict. What does the death of Christ truly mean for hostility between humans? We are fond of the idea of Jesus dying for us. It is a comforting thought. It gives us hope. It means inward renewal, a fresh start, and victory over death. We want that for ourselves, our loved ones and, when we are at our best, all the world. We love that Jesus died for us, but it is not clear that we are equally fond of allowing him to kill for us. Yet this is exactly what Ephesians 2:13-16 speaks about:

"But now in Christ Jesus you who once were far off have been brought near by the blood of Christ. For he is our peace; in his flesh he has made both groups into one and has broken down the dividing wall, that is, the hostility between us. He has abolished the law with its commandments and ordinances, that he might create in himself one new humanity in place of the two, thus making peace, and might reconcile both groups to God in one body through the cross, thus putting to death that hostility through it."

Put simply, Jesus killed hostility. In this passage, the Apostle Paul speaks about how Jesus killed the hostility between Jews and Gentiles back in the first century. But that was only the beginning. Jesus has killed once and for all whatever hostility may arise among his followers for all generations. According to Romans 6:10, 1 Peter 3:18, and Hebrews 10:10, Christ died for sins “once for all.” What he accomplished on the cross wasn’t temporary and it wasn’t incomplete. Our sins were forgiven once and for all, death was defeated once and for all, and the hostility between us has been vanquished once and for all.

If on the cross Jesus truly killed the hostility between people groups, and if we have identified with that victory by dying and rising with Jesus, then we must accept and live into the new reality that no hostility remains between us and others. If we allow it to continue—if we secretly relish it and thrive off of its negative energy—then we still view one another from a human point of view. Creation is not new for us. The old world is still the most fundamental reality in our lives. We are still “without Christ…strangers to the covenants of promise, having no hope and without God in the world” (Ephesians 2:12).

Of course we know that hostility still exists between people in this world—even believers. So this may sound fanciful. But this would have seemed no less fanciful to the Ephesians. They had experienced real hostility between Jews and Gentiles in Asia Minor in the first century. Still, Paul asked them to accept that Jesus’ death put all such hostility to rest and commanded them to live into that new reality. He doesn’t let them off the hook in the name of how the world really is. He really believed in a new world—and so must we!

To the extent that we choose to inhabit the old world that is passing away, we will continue to live in a world of hostility. To the extent that we identify with Christ’s defeat of death and slaying of hostility, we enter the new world of peace that he pioneered.

When Neo truly realized that “there is no spoon,” everything began to change.

Let us embrace the gospel truth that “there is no hostility,” for in Christ everything has already begun to change.

2015-09-15
Endangered Gospel

Many of you know I wrote a book over my sabbatical last Spring. Well the book is finally in the hands of the publisher and should be available sometime later this year. The tentative title is Endangered Gospel: How Fixing the World is Killing the Church. As a teaser, here's the 200 word summary that I submitted for the back cover:

For centuries, Christians sought to rescue people from this world. Today, we’re trying to fix it. While this shift is helpful in some ways, in other ways it can be quite dangerous.

Endangered Gospel flips the script on this conversation by stressing the core gospel truth that rather than ushering in a new world through social activism, God’s people already are the new world in Christ. It’s not our job to make this world a better place, but to be the better place God has already made in this world. That's good news!

If we let go of this truth, we become servants of the world and not God. We also lose the great joy and abundant life that God intended us to have in community. Jesus himself said that the world will know we are Christians by our love for one another—not the fervor of our activism.

Social action makes us feel relevant and alive, but it can’t be the center of our new life in Christ. Endangered Gospel explores how we might enthusiastically embrace the social dimensions of the gospel without divorcing them from the church or forcing them on the world.

Read this book, hear the gospel story afresh, and embrace the good news of God’s kingdom!

2016-02-01
Beyond Pacifism and Militarismhttp://www.walkandword.com/writings/index.php?id=52

How should Christians really think about war? Too often we are led to believe there are only two options:

* Pacifist Idealism: war is always evil, so Christians should always actively oppose it

* Just War Realism: war is necessary, so Christians should always support it when the cause is right

Neither of these positions is biblical--nor are positions that base their case mostly on one thing, whether the Sermon on the Mount, OT warfare, veterans they know, Hitler, or war's terrible track record. 

In this essay, I present an approach to Christians and war that is rooted in the full story of the Bible. 

My hope is that it will draw closer together people who have been pulled apart by the two false choices I mention above.

2016-04-05
New website for Endangered Gospelhttp://www.endangeredgospel.com/

I have a new website up to promote the forthcoming "Endangered Gospel" book. It includes a blog that I will contribute to somewhat regularly, especially once the book's out. It also has a section where people can post book related questions and receive timely answers. The purpose of it all is to keep proclaiming the gospel and giving churches helpful resources to embrace, display, and proclaim God's kingdom.

You can subscribe to the page if you want to be notified by email of important updates and posts.

 

2016-05-24
Endangered Gospel is available to purchase!http://wipfandstock.com/endangered-gospel.html

With an official publication date of May 31, Endangered Gospel is finally here!

You can purchase a copy from the publisher and even read the first 39 pages here.

2016-06-09
A New Wave of Restorationism?http://www.walkandword.com/writings/?cat=1&id=57

This November, Great Lakes Christian College hosted its first annual Restoration Appreciation Week. The event was designed to foster awareness and appreciation for the Restoration Movement also known as the Stone-Campbell Movement. 

To our delight, it was very well attended by students, alumni, and members of churches throughout the state. Lloyd Knowles kicked it off by speaking on "What's So Great about the Restoration Movement." Our students got together for a Restoration trivia night and had a group conversation with three pastors currently serving within the Restoration Movement: Jordan Kellicut, Sarah Johnson, and Todd Jones. I offered message on "Why We Need a New Wave of Restorationism," and we concluded with a conversational lunch with students, guests, and our speakers.

I served as part of the planning team, which means of course that I ended up having to speak : ) We made a video recording, which is available here. But the sound is terrible, so many people have asked for a manuscript. I lightly edited the orginal and made it available on my website for your convenience. I've also been asked to re-record it in podcast form. I'll keep you posted if that happens. 

2016-11-10