Saturday, June 27, 2009

Repost: Conflict and Consensus

A time for war and a time for peace…

                        Ecclesiastes 3.8

Whoa There, Christian Soldiers!

Reading the Old Testament as linear history one finds relatively little peacetime. Israel’s at war, preparing for it, or rebuilding after it. A jittery peace holds during the New Testament’s time frame. Rome occupies Palestine along with most of the known world and military stories involve police actions—false arrests and executions. Still, war is never far from mind for early Christian writers as a metaphor their readers easily get, given the centurions on every corner. The challenge for modern readers—especially Americans—is reading these passages as metaphors, not dispatches of ongoing conflict. Yet many today interpret them as jingoistic battle cries: Get out there and win! If we read them closely, however, they ring truer to their times. They reassure believers of their power to withstand, rather than their duty to initiate, unprovoked attack.

Inevitably, apostolic battle references seeped into Christian culture, more notably in Protestantism, since many breaks with the Vatican led to literal warfare. Over time the image of “Christian soldiers” got so lodged in the collective mindset it’s not going anywhere. What’s currently troubling, though, is how many have seized on it to inflame believers’ animosity toward anyone who doesn’t conform to their beliefs—including other Christians. Visiting a church several years back (at the height of the Bush madness), I was stunned by what I heard. The first 10-15 minutes of “praise and worship” were nothing but bellicose rock anthems about “destroying false witness” and “taking the Enemy by force.” (Someone didn’t do their homework; in Matthew 11.12, Jesus says we take the Kingdom by force.) Has Christianity come to this, being “in it to win it?” Haven’t we already won? Didn’t Jesus say, “I have overcome the world”? (John 16.33) When did He ever rally us to fight one another? How can believers bitterly, angrily, and publicly oppose each other on political and social issues—marital equality, freedom to choose, gay rights, capital punishment, creation, etc.—and even pretend to obey John 15.12: “My command is this: Love each other as I have loved you”?

Know Our Enemy

God’s Word confirms a state of war exists between good and evil. But with increasing regularity, wide swaths of believers have misidentified the enemy. There’s no excuse for this, as Paul names our adversaries outright in Ephesians 6.12. They’re not flesh and blood, he says, but “rulers, authorities, and powers of this dark world and spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly realms.” So why have some Christians declared war on each other? If the world is out of control, shouldn’t we unite against spiritual wickedness run amok? Shouldn’t we call for peace within our walls? The discord weakening the church comes because we don’t know our enemy. We’re consuming all our time and energy on doctrinal conflicts when we’d be better served by building consensus—agreeing to disagree, if need be—to join the real battle with a solidified resolve.

Twice Defeated

Religious infighting leaves us twice defeated. It hands victory to the enemy and creates conflict between God and us. Isaiah 1 gives us a vivid picture of this. It shows God’s people and Him in a virtual standoff. They’ve abandoned His truth for their ideas and pounded each other into bloody pulp. “From the sole of your foot to the top of your head there is no soundness—only wounds and welts and open sores, not cleansed or bandaged or soothed with oil,” Isaiah says. Blinded by arrogance and enslaved by tradition, they keep going through the motions, completely oblivious to how far they’ve strayed from their meaning.

Finally, Isaiah steps aside so God can tell them how angry He is for Himself. “Your sacrifices—what are they to me?” He asks. “Who has asked this of you, this trampling of my courts? I cannot bear your evil assemblies. They have become a burden to me.” He tells them to shut down their controversies, cease their pious displays, and return to basics: “Learn to do right! Seek justice, encourage the oppressed. Defend the cause of the fatherless, plead the case of the widow.” Having got their attention, God lowers His voice. “Come now, let us reason together,” He says, offering to purify them of their sins. “If you are willing and obedient, you will eat the best from the land; but if you resist and rebel, you will be devoured by the sword.”

We’re no better than Israel. We’re engaged in too many imaginary battles on too many fronts while our real adversaries have a field day and our responsibilities go untended. Instead of working together to do what God says, our presuming to speak for Him has turned our faith into a minefield. Aggressive pride and self-righteousness have twisted following Jesus—by far the safest, sanest way to live—into a dangerous, maddening pastime that scares people. It’s time to reason together, with one another and our God. He offers two options: resolve our conflicts and prosper or become casualties of war. It’s time to reach consensus. Because we live in wartime, it’s urgent we make time for peace.

Our arrogance and self-righteousness have turned our faith into a minefield.

(Tomorrow: Anniversary Post: Every Word Heard)

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