Come to the Dark Side (we have logic)

There’s a theory in much of the evangelical church in the United States that political liberalism is incompatible with Christianity. Talking to some people (especially where I live in Texas) you get the impression that it’s our Christian duty to support the free-market laissez-faire capitalism promoted by God’s chosen agent on Earth, the Republican Party of the USA.

I apologise for the facetious tone, but that’s often how it comes across. Most of the people I know here who believe in Jesus honestly think that being a political liberal as a Christian is either succumbing to the Dark Side or serving two masters, and that right-wing economic policy is somehow intrinsically godly.

If you’re a capitalist on the ruthless Ferengi-like American model, you’re perceived as a good Christian. If you’re a known liberal, fellow-believers sometimes assume you’re a pagan and want to share the Gospel with you.

Interestingly, that statement about serving two masters and the impossibility thereof was made by Jesus in the context of Mammon, the desire for and worship of wealth and the only false god Jesus ever directly named. I don’t know about anyone else, but to me this is sounding like capitalism’s worship at the altar of gain far more than anything left-leaning.

I don’t believe that the Bible prescribes any economic system as inherently Christian or God-favoured, but with the assumption among so many US Christians that “left-leaning follower of Jesus” is an oxymoron, I thought I’d take a critical look at some of the Right’s assumptions in the light of Scripture.

Personally, I find the right-wing notion that the way to relieve poverty is to slap poor people about the face and yell at them to pull themselves up by their bootstraps to be at best a little humanistic, preaching a “gospel” of self-effort and economic self-salvation that has more in common with Islam or Atheism than with Biblical Christianity. It’s no wonder so many struggle with the theology of grace alone; their right-leaning bootstrap economics both reinforces and is reinforced by the soteriological idea that you have to earn it.

By Republican ideology, it’s your own fault if you’re poor. If you were motivated enough or worked hard enough or invested enough or saved enough, you’d be a wealthy entrepreneur the way God intended. So the best way to help you is to cut off all support from the outside so that you’re forced to rely on your own resources to pull yourself up.

Even discounting the complete ignoring of the idea of systemic injustice and a system that benefits the already-wealthy, I fail to see what human self-effort has to do with the Good News about Jesus Christ. The point of the entire Bible, Old Testament as well as New, is that we can’t do it ourselves. Because of sin, we don’t have the internal resources in ourselves, and whereas all other religions are basically God or prophet slapping us around the face and yelling at us to pull ourselves up by our spiritual bootstraps, Christianity is the story of a God Who stoops down to become like us, in order that He might make us like Him.

In this sense the Gospel is fundamentally leftist; opposed to the Satanic notion that we can bootstrap ourselves into righteousness.

Furthermore, the Scripture lists our internal disposition to sin as only one of our problems. There’s an evil world-system under its false god the Devil, keeping people divided in prejudice and hate, in bondage to oppression and injustice. Satan loves prejudice because God looks at the heart rather than the outward things. He loves injustice and oppression because God is just and the way of God is freedom from oppression. Systemic injustice is characteristic of what we expect to see in a sin-dominated world, and it is our duty and privilege as followers of the One who died to set us free to fight injustice, battle prejudice and work toward the uprooting of systemic evil, much as William Wilberforce worked to outlaw the slave trade.

The battle won’t be finally won until the return of the King, but we still have to seek His Kingdom to come and His will to be done on earth now as it is in heaven.

As far as I can tell, capitalism is always on the side of the rich. By right-wing ideology they’ve earned their place at the top, and we should desire to emulate them.

By contrast, the Bible portrays God as almost always on the side of the poor and the weak: “He has filled the hungry with good things, but the rich He has sent away empty”. “Not many of you were rich, not many of you were of noble birth”. All those psalms that talk about how good the wicked seem to have it now and God’s impending judgment on them for acquiring wealth sinfully. All those proverbs warning the rich to remember compassion and not put their trust in riches; all those other proverbs pointing out that just because you’re wealthy doesn’t necessarily mean that it’s because God blessed you. Luke’s version of the Beatitudes (Lk 6:20f) is practically Das Kapital for followers of Jesus, and declares woes to the rich and those that have everything now. The Kingdom of God is at hand! With economic justice for all.

Scripture warns that the love of money is a root of all kinds of evil. Capitalism declares that the love of money is an unalloyed good and promotes industry and enterprise. We need to be careful here. Biblical Christianity doesn’t have a place for the sanctification of greed for material gain.

Jesus was born to a couple so poor they could only afford the very least sacrifice for a firstborn required by the Law. One of the signs of the Kingdom that John the Baptist was told by the Lord to look for was that the Gospel is preached to the poor. James warns the early church not to idolise the rich or show partiality to them. “It is harder for a rich man to enter the Kingdom of Heaven than it is for a camel to go through the eye of a needle”.

And yet with all this, American Christians nearly universally fawn on business-owners, elect millionnaires to high office (often seemingly simply because they are “successful” – at least in acquiring wealth), and favour policies to take money from the poor and give it to the rich (because they’re presumed to be “job creators”). Exactly the opposite of what Luke’s Beatitudes tell us should happen as the Kingdom comes.

The early church under the leadership of the Apostles and the guidance of the Holy Spirit instituted a communistic-like system in which each one contributed according to his ability and each one partook according to his need. This may be communism without the atheistic and state-dominated elements, but it is communism of a sort, just like an Israeli kibbutz.

No-one is saying that there isn’t a temptation on the economic and political Left to look to the state (or the government, or one’s fellow human beings) to do for you what only God can, but isn’t there just as much of a temptation on the Right to think that we can pull ourselves up to righteousness, that we-don’t-need-no-stinkin’-Saviour? The Right isn’t necessarily any more Christian than the Left is, nor is the Left necessarily any less Christian than the Right. Both are human constructs invented by fallen men. God’s Kingdom, to paraphrase the Apostle Paul, is not a matter of Left and Right, but of righteousness, peace and joy in the Holy Spirit.

I’m not saying that you can’t lean to the right and follow Jesus, but I am saying that it’s at least equally possible for one’s faith to influence one’s politics in a left-leaning direction.

In fact, I’d say there might be more that the Left have closer to God’s way right now than the Right. Concern for the poor, wage equality for women, proper stewardship of God’s world. International relations based on diplomacy and peacemaking rather than threat and military might. Even the desire to allow illegal immigrants some sort of amnesty seems more in line with Jesus’ concern for the woman caught in adultery as a person as opposed to the Pharisees’ heartless legalism and political games with a life at stake.

Like someone who came here illegally, the woman wasn’t an innocent party; she’d been caught in the act. The Law was clear, and she’s on the wrong side of it.

I’m not saying it’s necessarily an exact parallel in all respects, but the conservative tendency to exalt law at the expense of people strikes me as rather Pharisaic.

I’m not fully comfortable with all the positions taken by the American Left on everything, but political morality is far more than the one-dimensional issue of whether or not you favour legal abortion that so many Evangelicals seem to treat it as.

So I put this out there as a deliberate challenge to the assumption that right-wing politics is synonymous with righteousness and the way of God and that the Left is intrinsically opposed to Christ. I’ve been deliberately provocative at some points simply to shake up the false idea that Right=moral, Left=immoral. I hope it provokes thought rather than offence for the sake of it.

I look forward to the day when followers of Jesus can rise above their political differences and recognise all who put their trust in Him as sisters and brothers.

Advertisements

…And A New Earth

One of the last ideas communicated by the book of Revelation is the creation of “new heavens and a new Earth”, free from the corruption of sin and evil. We’re treated to the image of Zion, the celestial New Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven, the nations streaming to it, the kings of the world bringing their glory into it. No more crying, no death, no mourning. The tree of life bringing forth its fruit in twelvefold season, its leaves employed for healing the nations. No longer any curse.

But what is it actually like?

Human beings are an active and dynamic creation of God, and even in the very beginning before the Fall were given tasks to do. The painful toil of futility and frustration is the curse of the Fall (along with domination and despair in relationships), but work itself is good, and relationships are good. Human beings would get bored without something to do. So what do we do in the eternal Kingdom? If there’s something to do, if there’s work, what work is there and what is it like?

This is where all of our traditional images of heaven and perfection fall down. All that sitting on clouds playing harps, or strolling about a garden doing nothing… It looks sort of boring. Even the massive worship meeting before the Throne day and night seems in our humanness like it would wear a bit thin after a while. What do people in the new heavens and the new earth actually do?

Bear in mind that this is extremely speculative, but I thought I might try to take a look at what might be, in a world without the taint of sin…

~~~

One of the roots of our contemporary issue with the traditional images of paradise restored is that almost invariably they date to a time when work for nearly everyone literally meant exhausting and painful physical labour. When God says to Adam in Genesis 3 that “by the sweat of your brow you will eat your bread”, that was the literal truth. When your life is a choice to work like a slave in the fields or to go hungry, is it any wonder that heaven was depicted as rest and ease?

Our contemporary world’s expression of painful toil is somewhat different. Shorter on the backbreaking physicality of toil, perhaps, but probably longer on futility and frustration. I ask you, is there much that’s more mind-numbingly futile than data entry or tollbooth-manning or parking attendanthood or any of the other yawnsome mental gruntwork jobs we’ve invented?

If work is going to be restored to its pre-Fall grandeur, it’s going to partake of the characteristics of those original tasks: it’s going to be real, significant, worthwhile, connected and engaging.

In other words, it’s going to become art; it’s going to become worship.

The original commission given to Adam and Eve was to “be fruitful and multiply; fill the earth and subdue it”. They were placed in a beautiful garden as their home, to work it and take care of it, but their mandate was as broad as the whole earth, as challenging and significant as subduing the wild cosmos, and as connected and interpersonal and fun as being fruitful and multiplying, and as intimately in tune with the Lord as walking with Him in the cool of the day.

I’m not certain, but I think one of the important casualties will be the compulsive aspect of work.

No more workaholics, but that’s not really what I’m referring to here. No; what I mean is that no-one will be forced into a job of work, either by other people or by the simple circumstance of needing to earn their daily bread. We’ll be creatures of perfect generosity and without the dark self-centredness that would take advantage of that. It really will be ok. Besides, with the curse of futility and frustration – thorns and thistles when you try to grow grain and grapes – over and done, work will be glorious and significant.

With no sin to pervert hearts and give rise to hostile or criminal behaviour, there will be no need for soldiers or policemen or security guards, when the curse of the Fall is overturned the growing of food will be as simple as reaching out one’s hand to reap the bounty of the new creation, and when the lion lays down with the lamb there will be no need to guard our livestock from predators, but there’s still a lot of human activity and work left open.

There will presumably still be rain and snow and winds and heat, so there will still be a need for houses and other buildings. I’m in luck; my job of construction continues into the New Earth. I’m not going to become unemployed.

But what will vanish is all of the petty tyrannies of “and you’re going to build it this way, because I said so and I’m in charge”, all the untrustworthiness and lack of scruple in cheating and “how much can we get away with?” and sheer blind stupid.

There won’t be any more generic McMansions or buildings so ugly that today they’d win design awards. Every building a work of art, harmonious, well-situated and well-built, with the drains and the plumbing working properly and no stupid petty annoyances like staircases that are just that much too steep or kitchen counters that are too small for all the stuff you want to put on them, or cabinets designed for people 3″ taller than you are.

We’ll build for beauty, but it’ll be a livable beauty maximising function as well as looks. And our public buildings even more so.

With perfected bodies there’s some question over whether we’ll need doctors or medical practitioners. No disease, infirmity or old age will be in a position to affect us, but perhaps there might still be the possibility of accidents? I’m withdrawing judgment on that, but most of the mess of our contemporary pharmaceutical industry with its dubious lists of side-effects and its profiteering from other people’s pain will look very different if it exists at all.

But we’ll still need to eat, and we’ll still presumably need shelter (hence buildings) and we’ll still presumably need clothes at least occasionally.

Without the capacity of the heart to lust or to feel ashamed, nudity loses its status as a morally-questionable state, but if cold and heat and precipitation continue, it’s conceivable we might need clothing to make the bearing of environmental conditions more commodious.

If there are clothes in the new heavens and the new earth (beyond the white robes which might be literal or symbolic) I can’t imagine that they’d be uncomfortable or ill-fitting or be sold only in unflattering shades and cuts simply because that’s the fashion. Entirely probably there will be a lot more individuality and variation in what is worn and what is available to be worn, and just as with buildings, they’ll be created as if each one is a work of art, without the shoddy workmanship or second-rate materials of so much of our contemporary mass-production.

And we’ll still want to travel and get places. If you’re going to live forever and so are the people you’re going to see, in a sense it doesn’t matter that it’s going to take you years to walk from Brabant to Beijing, but I’m sure there are going to be instances in which time really is of the essence and we just have to get there quickly.

There’s that Divine teleportation of Philip the deacon after he baptised the Ethiopian eunuch, travelling over 40 miles by being carried by the Spirit to “appear” at Azotus, but we have no way of knowing whether that will be something we can all access at will (our human wills being perfectly synched to the Divine Will) or whether it was a special act of God for a special purpose.

It’s possible we’ll all be footbound or using Philip Airways, but human beings are vastly more creative than that, and any moyorcyclist will tell you there’s a very real pleasure to be derived from a machine and the open road, and I don’t think the Lord is against that pleasure.

I can’t really see that there wouldn’t be the opportunity of all sorts of modes of transportation, if only for the joy of their operation. Bicycles and trains and motorbikes and cars and trucks on the land, gliders and aeroplanes and dirigibles and helicopters and things we haven’t even invented yet in the air.

I can’t imagine that they’d be polluting, so fitted with clean-burning engines that ought to be no problem for immortal scientists and engineers with Divinely-guided faculties to work out and make efficient.

And the roads! No potholes, for a start! I cannot imagine that the penny-pinching, good-enough attitudes that allow such things here would continue there. When we build roads and railways, we’ll build them properly with good materials, and they’ll be designed for the loads we know they’re going to get, not for the cheapest we can get away with. In the New Jerusalem, gold is a paving material; I don’t believe cost is an issue here.

Rockets? Spaceships? Travel to other planets and other stars? I have no clue, but why not? Maybe “fill the earth” doesn’t just mean the Earth, but the cosmos?

Boats – well, there’s that troubling statement that “there was no longer any sea”, but lakes and rivers still put forth the possibility of boats. Besides, I personally believe that statement’s more than a little symbolic. Jews were even worse sailors than the Romans were, and “the sea” was viewed as a tumultuous, deadly, evil place. It stood for chaos, anarchy, trouble in the world. No more of that. No more national and international chaos out of which demagogues and dictators arise and which evil people use to propel themselves to power. One Kingdom, belonging to the Lord.

This leads directly on to the question of social and political arrangements.

We know that Jesus Christ shall reign on the earth, and we with Him, but over whom, and how in practice?

Frankly, my imagination fails here, and I can no more speculate on what Heavenly political/administrative arrangements will look like than I can conceive what the colour green smells like. Without the fallen craving of power for its own sake, without evil and sin to be restrained or injustice to be combated, how will we be governed if not by general goodwill?

And yet administration is listed as one of the spiritual gifts, so we can anticipate that there might still be a need for some sort of formal human governance.

Similarly, the new earth’s economic system is beyond my personal imagining? Perfect communism with a population that actually works responsibly and with one another’s best interests at heart? It’s possible, despite the assumed equivalence of right-wing political economics with the way of God that’s currently fashionable in America.

Or some sort of Divine capitalism with business owners who always have both the will and the ability to do the right thing by their customers, their employees and their investors, who won’t take advantage or game the system. Much as those of us toward the Left might not want to admit it, that wouldn’t be a bad thing. It’s not capitalism (or communism, purely in economic terms) in and of itself that’s corrupt and anti-God, it’s the darkness in our hearts that it lets loose and enables that is the problem. No more darkness, no more problem.

I’ll tell you one thing, though. This false choice between providing jobs for one’s citizens and not despoiling the planet will be gone. We’ll work out ways to nurture and tend God’s green earth while we do our regular work. We won’t need to choose between affordable and green.

I know that God is concerned about economic issues – there’s more in the Bible about money than there is about preaching – but my imagination simply fails. Can we own anything if “the Earth is the LORD’s, and everything in it”? Will there be such a thing as money or trade?

I suppose so, given its prominence in the Scriptures, but it won’t look anything like the current contemporary abortion.  And it’s entirely possible there won’t be.  There’s enough else in the Bible that’s just instructions for how to live in a fallen world, after all.

And what of the sciences? I don’t believe they’ll be allowed to languish. Those who study the Creation and its physical underpinnings will be truly “thinking God’s thoughts after Him”, and we won’t have any issues about funding or tenure or academic rivalries or deliberate distortions for gain by others, nor yet the dull predation of an ignorant media more concerned with spin and headlines than with the truth of the matter.

Heh, even advertisers will be telling the whole truth, and if their profession survives that stroke then more power to them!

All of this is not to step aside from the very important truth that the new cosmos is Theocentric. I’ve approached the idea of the new heavens and the new earth from a rather humanistic (small “h”, in its old sense of “concerned with the human”) perspective, but one aspect of our society, particularly our Western society, that will have to change is the Humanistic (capital “H”) notion that man is both the measure and end of all things.

God is on the Throne, visibly and acknowledgedly. Our lives will be spent before His face in the contemplation and worship of Him.  This is clear and unquestioned in the Scriptures.

But what is worship? What does it mean to live life coram Deo – before the face of God?

The old monastic communities had at least this much right: labore est orare, to work is to pray. And our modern worship-leaders have rightly reminded us time and again that what happens when we get together in our church buildings every Sunday is not worship – or rather, not the whole of worship. Worship is a heart-response to the Lord God, and it’s no accident that the Hebrew word for it is related to a word meaning “to come towards to kiss”. And that can and should be happening as much in our daily work and interactions with colleagues and friends as it does in our corporate singing on the Lord’s Day.

We don’t see and experience that but here and there, now and then in this world, but then…? Then we shall be before His face day and night, with no veils between us and the Majestic One, knowing fully even as we are fully known.

But even the great multitude before the Throne and the Lamb is not the whole of worship. There will be those who, before the Throne and face of God, build buildings or write poems and stories and music or prepare and serve delicious food or run and jump, sail boats, pilot aircraft or make new scientific discoveries.

These things are part of the image of God as Creator, and I simply refuse to believe that we will be less in touch with that image there than we are here.

The Better Sacrifice

I don’t often make our church’s midweek Bible study, due to conflicts between the time it starts and the time I get home from work.

I did last week, though, entering midway into a study of one of my favourite sections of the Bible: the early chapters of Genesis.

I’d missed the studies on the first three chapters covering the Creation and Fall, and jumped right in with the story of Cain and Abel.

I’m not going to comment right now on the actual historicity or not of this section of primeval history. Whether and how it should be harmonised with what most scientists tell us about Darwin’s theories and all the palaeontological discoveries we’ve made is a separate question, but in a sense, if you don’t treat these chapters as “real” in some sense, you’re going to miss the point of most of the rest of the Bible.

In short, God might have used evolution to create the world and even progressively stamped the Divine image onto increasingly manlike beings, but the theology of salvation and the very underpinnings of the Good News require a Fall of some sort from an original state of grace, otherwise they don’t entirely make sense. The Bible doesn’t tell us that humanity’s problem is that we’re ignorant of the right thing to do or that we need someone to show us the way; it tells us that knowing what is right, we do not do it.

For the Bible to make sense, the first few chapters of Genesis have to be true on at least a spiritual and theological level. Whether they are also true in the sense of being an accurate historical description of real events is a separate question.

But for the purposes of this blog post, I’m going to treat it as a factual account, even if there are some questions about precisely what genre these passages belong in.

The account of Cain and Abel begins some time after the exile from Eden, when Adam and Eve have started having children. The way Cain’s naming is written, Cain might have been their firstborn, but there’s nothing specifically written either way. Eve names him “Gotten”, saying “With the help of YHWH I have gotten (or brought forth) a man”. As an interesting aside, I find it fascinating that this is the first name-giving by someone other than Adam. Adam was the one given the job of naming all the animals in chapter 2, and Adam names Eve, both as to her kind (“ishah”, “woman”; “taken out of ish, man”) and personally (“Eve”, “Breath”, “Life-giver”). Up until this point, it’s been Adam that has told the rest of Creation what it is. Now the focus shifts, and it’s the one Adam calls Lifegiver that gives the names to the next generation.

Many traditions have portrayed Abel as Cain’s younger twin, but all the Bible says is that he was born “afterwards”. There could have been years between them for all we actually know.

Anyway, there’s time in between the notification of their birth (important in the light of the Divine command to “go forth and multiply”) and the rest of this account for them to grow up and become at least young men, and given how much fun God designed sex to be, I don’t expect Adam and Eve were hanging about on the going forth and multiplying. This will become important later, but undoubtedly Cain and Abel had numerous siblings; even without multiple births a pregnancy a year over 100 years of life (Seth, Abel’s “replacement”, was born when Adam was 130) gives 50 offspring from Adam and Eve alone, and those children can potentially start having their own kids at 15-20. This is no Western-style nuclear family with only the named individuals in it.

Simply put, we aren’t told how many years elapsed between Cain and Abel’s birth and the first murder, but it was enough for Cain to grow up and become a farmer and Abel to grow up and become a shepherd.

This is the central tension of almost every preindustrial agricultural society there’s ever been, encapsulated right here. Growers of seed and keepers of livestock. I hesitate to say that this is where all the tension comes from, but it’s an interesting observation that Jesus calls Himself the Good Shepherd, not the Good Farmer.

There’s an awful lot in this passage that isn’t said, including the reasons why Cain’s offering was rejected by God, but so long as we keep in mind that we are speculating, it’s perfectly ok to read between the lines a little.

“In the fullness of time,” the Bible says, Cain brought some of the produce of the ground as an offering. This may just mean that in the course of things once the seed was ripe and the harvest was in, but the Bible does often use this phraseology for Divinely-ordained times, appointed times for an aspect of His unfolding rescue plan for humanity. And if that is the intended sense, it might imply a time that God had set for them to bring an offering.

The priestly sacrificial system and Law wasn’t formally codified until Mount Sinai, but this isn’t the only foreshadowing of aspects of the Law’s requirements. Noah had to be able to differentiate clean and unclean animals somehow so he would know how many to take into the ark, Abraham, Isaac and Jacob built altars and made sacrifices, and even God Himself had to kill something to provide the “garments of skins” with which He covered Adam and Eve.

It doesn’t especially matter whether this offering was a spontaneous gift or a commanded requirement, but the difference between Cain and Abel goes deeper than what they offered.

If this is a commanded sin-offering, God had established the pattern that something has to die for your sins to be covered, but the Sinaitic Covenant prescribed other kinds of offering than sin-offerings alone. The short answer is that we don’t know.

However, the language used in each case shows an important difference in attitude between the two brothers. Cain brought “some of the fruits of the earth”; the tone suggests that he didn’t take much time or care over its selection. At best, this reveals a jobbing, good-enough attitude which is going to fulfil the letter of what’s required but will do no more. At worst, it’s a surly passive-aggressive resistance to doing what God has asked for, possibly a heart greedy for “his” possessions that “he” had produced from the ground, perhaps an ugly mistrust of God’s goodness, care and provision.

Abel, by contrast, brings “fat portions from the firstborn of his flocks”, the best of the best. If his offering is a token of the attitude of his heart, Abel is a man whose relationship with God is of the highest importance. Who gives to God first, trusting Him to meet his needs.

Cain’s offering looks like the response of a man who thinks he’s really giving something to God. Here, Lord, have some of this grain that I made grow out of my own land with my own two hands. It may be significant in more ways than one that his name is Gotten. I did it; it’s my stuff; I’m doing God a favour by letting Him have some of what I earned. Cain, we might say, is the original self-made man.

Abel, on the other hand, gives like someone who knows that everything is the Lord’s anyway. He’s unstinting, his is a relationship of trust in God’s ability and willingness to take care of him. The firstborn of his flocks, and fat portions of it – the best part, in a time before the current Western obesity epidemic – coming before YHWH with blood on his hands because he knows he doesn’t have any right on his own merit.

And now we’re foreshadowing Jesus’ parable of the Pharisee and the tax-collector. The one came to God proudly listing off all the things he’d done to earn the favour of the Almighty, the other not even looking up to heaven, pleading for mercy because he’s a sinner.

And just like in Christ’s parable, it’s the man with blood on his hands that is looked on with favour. The one who trusts not in what he can do or bring, but in God’s merciful character.

And Cain gets mad.

Offended that God wouldn’t favour the offering that he’d worked so hard to produce, he reveals the legalistic religiousity of his mindset. Obviously God ought to be pleased, right? He said to bring an offering, and I jolly well brought an offering. I’ve done what He said; I deserve to merit His favour, right?

Sorry, Cain, but grace doesn’t work that way. We’re all flawed, imperfect, ungodly, sinful. We all fall short, and not one of us has anything to offer of our own. God’s favour is unmerited, otherwise grace is no longer grace. It’s gratis, free, not to be earned. God cannot be bought off and will not accept the fruits of the red earth (“Adamah”, ie Adam, that is, man). Truly, “nothing in my hand I bring,” as the old hymn puts it.

And so God lovingly challenges Cain. “Why is your face downcast? If you do well, won’t you also be accepted? But if you choose not to do well, sin is crouching at your door like a demon. It wants to possess you, but you don’t have to give in to it. You must be its master, not be mastered by it.”

Cain, you know I’m not interested in the offering for its own sake. It’s you that I want, not your stuff. Do well, offer to Me what bears My image, and you will be accepted with love and mercy. The offering’s not because I need it, but because I desire relationship with you, and that’s been broken by the sin that came into My world when your father Adam chose to disobey. Something has to die to cover that sin, Cain, and Abel understands this. Come back, Cain. It’s not too late; you don’t have to walk any further down this dark path.

And Cain hardens his heart.

This often seems to be the response of the religiously legalistic when confronted with the righteousness of faith. In a foreshadowing of every act of persecution and religious violence from the Pharisees to the Taliban, via the Crusades and Stalin’s purges, Cain decides that his righteous brother is the problem, and no more brother = no more problem.

And even after he commits the first murder, still God comes after him. Like His incarnate Son, God seems to like asking leading questions; the faux-innocent “Where is your brother Abel?” allows Cain a moment to decide whether he’s going to face up to what he’s done or try to wriggle out of it.

Adam and Eve pointed the finger of blame everywhere but at themselves, but at least they did not contest what they had done. Cain goes one worse. He lies, trying to pretend that not only did he not do it, but that he’s not even sure what’s been done.

“Am I my brother’s keeper?” I’ve got enough to do being responsible for me and my righteousness, now you think I can be responsible for my brother too? He’s an adult, let him be responsible for himself.

But YHWH pierces this self-serving smokescreen, saying “What have you done? Your brother’s blood is crying out to Me from the ground!” I know what you did; I’m not asking because I don’t know, I’m asking to try and help you.

Cain fails even where Adam does seem to succeed. Adam accepts his punishment, watches meekly while God kills something to cover the nakedness of his sin. Cain’s still trying to argue with God, like he knows better than the Omniscient One. “You’re driving me away from my livelihood, I’m going to be a restless vagabond, and anyone who finds me is going to feel no compunction about killing me!”

And so once again, the Lord in His patience and mercy reaches out, putting a mark on Cain so that no-one would kill him out of hand, lest they suffer the sevenfold vengeance God decrees. The form this took is not clear, but the consequence is. God is even concerned not to let anyone else take Cain’s life, just in case he should repent later.

And yet, we see that even then, Cain’s still trying to squirm out of the consequences of his sin. God told him he would be a homeless wanderer on the earth, but not four verses later we read that Cain is building a city named after his son Enoch.

Now, various people have famously fluffed the answer to “where did Cain’s wife come from?”, because “he married his sister” is incest in our modern world and we don’t like the implications.

But this is one of those times at which it only makes sense if you consider all the implications of an act of special creation.

In the beginning, God did not create mankind with a whole host of genetic defects. This is why incest is so categorically a bad idea; it’s one of those commandmemts that has a solid biological basis. Having children with a close relative is so terrible because it doubles the chances of all of the various accumulated genetic weaknesses and defects producing something really catastrophic.

Biologists call this “genetic load”, and it’s one of the subtle problems caused by any population bottleneck.

But Adam and Eve had no genetic load. In all likelihood, incest didn’t become an issue until the Israelites were in Egypt, and the accumulated damage of centuries upon centuries of harsh solar radiation, chemical damage and just general mutational effects was sufficient to make it deadly.

So yes, Cain, and Seth, and their brothers and sisters and offspring, married close family. It couldn’t be any other way, and it wasn’t the problem many people seem to think it was.

Cain’s descendents seem to have become worse and worse, until Lamech, seventh from Cain, becomes the first polygamist and is so ruled by the idea of revenge that he’s prepared to kill in response to being struck.

And yet there’s hope. “In the fullness of time” Eve bears another son, which she understands as being a sort of replacement for Abel, who was killed. His name is Seth, which means “Granted”, or “Given”.

And that right there says it all, really. The offspring of Cain are the lineage of Gotten, of I-did-it, of humanistic pride and self-righteousness and religious legalism. Seth’s line are the children of Granted, of He-did-it, of the righteousness which is a gift of God and is by faith.

Walls: Getting Your Head Round Nehemiah

Nehemiah is an easy book to get your head around in a lot of ways. The story’s pretty straightforward: royal cupbearer hears sorry state of Jerusalem, takes life in hands by appearing sad before the king. King commissions aforesaid cupbearer to go and do something about it. People rally around said cupbearer and begin work; inevitable opposition arises and is roundly trounced. Cupbearer institutes religious reforms. The end.

But in other ways it’s an odd book to read, particularly as a Gentile.

Over two and a half millennia later, we don’t really get why the wall of Jerusalem being broken down and its gates burned with fire is such a big deal. I at least am disturbed by some of the apparent racism of Nehemiah’s religious reforms, and unsure of why it matters that the people had taken foreign wives.

In the modern world of controversial border-wall proposals, is “building the wall” really the sort of signal we want to send?

All in all, the book is quite Jewish. I have difficulty viewing most of Nehemiah’s religious reforms as anything other than proto-Pharisaism, and several earlier parts of the story, for example the opposition to the building, seem to have lost something in translation.

The earliest chapters of Nehemiah are the least troublesome. Nehemiah hears that Jerusalem’s wall is broken down and its gates burned.

The previous major Biblical event being the fall of Jerusalem and the exile of the Jewish nation, part of me always comes to this and says “well, duh?”. What do you expect? The Babylonians just got done burning it. Aware of later history with the Maccabees, the Romans and Masada, we’re apt to read back onto this the troublesome and rebellious nature of the Jewish province, and think to ourselves that no ruler in their right mind is going to let anyone arm such a dangerously secessionist piece of turf.

This, of course, is telescoping about six hundred years or so of history together. It had been over 70 years since the Babylonians sacked Jerusalem, and under normal circumstances the wall would be the first thing to be rebuilt, because until it was complete, everything you built was vulnerable to every raider or bandit in the region.

In the ancient world, walled cities were the norm. Your city wasn’t more than a large village unless it had a wall, and until it did, it was at the mercy of everyone.

More than mere security, a wall around the city was a mark of identity; a “this is us” statement that distinguished the “safe” area inside the city from the dangerous barbarian wilds beyond.

It’s difficult for us to adjust our thinking enough to cope with this ancient-world truth; in our day it is the inner city that is the dangerous wilderness, and “the countryside” holds an almost mystical reverence. We want wild spaces and pristine landscape; in an Iron Age era where there were lethally dangerous animals living within long bowshot of the city walls, plus raiders and other human predators, the city was the good part. Untouched wilderness didn’t mean “unspoilt”; it meant “unsafe”.

And Jerusalem’s wall had remained in ruins for over two generations, because, so we are told, the local provincial governors had a vested interest in keeping the Jews down.

It seems, on the face of it, difficult to fathom their thinking. Another walled city on an important trade route would mean another safe haven for merchants, and being able to say that your province held 87 walled cities rather than 86 would have been a symbol of status as an important governor. It would even pay for itself eventually in increased trade revenues into the royal coffers.

Sadly, though, not all rulers make decisions on the basis of logic and reason. The governors only had to answer to their Emperor, not to their subjects, so they had less pressure to be reasonable, and even today there are rulers and politicians who make decisions on little more than whatever whim fills their heads that moment. And aggressive war is one of the least amenable to reason of any national decision. In 1939, for example, Germany’s biggest trading partner was France. It didn’t, economically speaking, make sense for the Germans to attack. Similarly, it doesn’t quite make sense to me that there was so much official opposition, but I take the Bible’s word for it that there was.

The wall, then, was a statement of identity. Jerusalem’s wall-less state should be viewed as a physical representation of what was in danger of happening to the Jewish nation. Any other nation in history, once removed from its ancestral homeland, has eventually lost their identity and become subsumed into another. Under different circumstances, the American colonists developed an identity as something other than subjects of the British crown. Away from “home”, “home” begins to be somewhere else, and identity changes. Or is lost altogether.

God had a vested interest in that not happening. These were and are still His Covenant people. Besides, no Jewish nation meant no Son of David, because at the time He was yet to come.

Sanballat and Tobiah’s opposition may not entirely make sense with the limited data we’re given, but we can read onto them every tyrant or oppressor who has ever persecuted one group in order to increase their prestige in a different group. Tomas de Torquemada and the Jews. Tamerlane and the Central Asian churches. Modern far-right groups and Muslims. It doesn’t have to make logical sense. “They” are the real Bad Guys; you go off and hate them, and ignore the tyrant’s rule closer to home.

Maybe walls aren’t a good symbol in the post-Resurrection world, where the end goal is people “from every tribe and nation and people and language”. We don’t want to be putting barriers in people’s way, or decreeing “pagan-free zones” within our churches. This is self-evident. And yet, are we building walls of hatred towards Muslims, or anyone else for that matter?

Christ died for these individuals. He has not given us the right to push them away.

But a metaphorical wall as a token of identity… Yeah, it’s actually important. We should not let go of who we are in Christ, nor of Whose we are. Guarding our heart, as the Proverbs puts it, is a vital duty, because if we lose heart it’s all over.

This wall is built brick-by-brick from the knowledge of God and what He’s done for us.

I still have questions about the sort of signal this wall-building sends, but it’s not at odds with the character of God as revealed by the rest of the Bible.

And then those religious reforms.

This is probably the part of Nehemiah that I’m least comfortable with. It looks rather racist, at least in the Eurasian sense of nationalities rather than the American sense of black and white. And in part it certainly smacks of the birth of the Pharisee movement of Jesus’ day; the idea that doing is what earns you favour with the Lord.

What’s the deal with these other nationalities? Nehemiah seems fully prepared to decimate, or at least exclude, a sizeable chunk of the nation, just because they’ve married foreigners. As far as he’s concerned, the right thing to do is for these marriages to be dissolved.

And I have a problem with that.

What about all those women and children? Where’s the compassion of the Almighty? Why were these foreign marriages so wrong that the pain and trauma of destroying families was preferable?

It doesn’t make a lot of sense coming from the same God that we are told “sets the lonely in families” and Who opens faith in His Son to all who call on Him, no matter their ancestry.

And yet, as I’ve said before, if I’m going to take the Bible seriously, I don’t get to pick and choose which bits I trust. There’s nothing figurative about this, and the tone of the passage is that Nehemiah was acting righteously with the sanction of God. I can’t dismiss it just because I don’t like it. Something makes it fit with what I know from the rest of Scripture about the character of God.

Was this something particular for the Jewish nation and not specifically for Gentile Christians? Was there something specifically wrong with the nationalities involved? Was this just something like God making sure of the bloodline of the Messiah? Was this a particular instruction for that time and place, a part of God’s national Covenant with Israel?

Certainly I think that probably plays into it. In the Covenant with Israel, God works nationally, with the entire 12-tribe nation. Involved with that are several uncomfortable things, like apparent genocide and the waging of aggressive wars of conquest. Things that don’t fit well with our modern sensibilities trained in multiculturality and the fact that God loves everyone.

Tribalism in the Bible is something we have to reconcile with. I personally am more or less of the opinion that it was a fact of ancient life that God worked with and through even though it wasn’t His best will, rather than an end in itself, but passages like this do challenge that opinion. At least where the Jewish nation are concerned, perhaps there’s more to the seemingly-tribalistic “Jews good, foreigners bad” mindset than simple Iron Age-ness.

The Jewish nation were the nation through whom God had promised to send Messiah, and no Jewish nation at that point would have meant no Messiah. There’s a prominent strand of Scriptural interpretation that seems to view most of the difficult passages of Old Testament Scripture through this lens, and it does make a sort of sense. I believe there’s more to God’s Covenant faithfulness to Israel than the mere preservation of the Messianic bloodline, but I suppose it’s possible that if the Jews had been permitted to intermarry willy-nilly with surrounding nations that the line of the House of David might have become so diluted that the prophecies of Messiah would have been rendered meaningless.

This seems like a nice, neat explanation, but I’m still uncomfortable with it. I feel like it implies unpleasant things about God’s character: effectively, that He’s a rather Macchiavellian Deity more concerned with His plans than with people.

I know this isn’t so, which is part of why this interpretation sits so poorly with me, but how else do you reconcile the apparent righteousness of Nehemiah’s actions with the character of a loving God who accepts everyone regardless of their background?

Thinking about it, I believe we have to remember that the Jewish nation wasn’t defined primarily by ethnicity. It has never been a closed set; to this day it’s possible to go through a certain process including the covenant act of circumcision (for males) to bind oneself to the national Covenant of God and become a Jew.

It’s true that God will accept anyone into His Kingdom regardless of their background, but there are steps you have to take to be added to the Kingdom. You have to believe in Jesus the Messiah and His finished work of salvation, trusting Him with your life to the extent that He’s in charge. You have to renounce sin – all the destructive self-centred behaviours and attitudes that separate us from God and from one another. You have to become a citizen of His Kingdom.

The fact that these were characterised as “foreign” marriages tells us that these people hadn’t bound themselves to God and His Covenant. If the Jewish nation was (and is) defined first and foremost by its Covenant relationship with God, there literally cannot be any “foreign women” that are married into the nation but retain their own gods and practices.

Religiously speaking, you aren’t allowed be half a Jew and half something else. It’s an all-or-nothing deal. Similarly, you can’t be half a Christian. Either you have a New Covenant relationship with the Lord, or you aren’t actually in His Kingdom. He doesn’t grant citizenship privileges to those who are still foreigners.

If anyone ought to know this, it ought to be me. I live in the United States as a legal permanent resident, but I’m not a citizen. I don’t get to vote in US elections, I don’t get to stand with my hand over my heart during the singing of The Star-Spangled Banner. I’m not a citizen.

It’d be convenient to become one, but I’m still in the place where I cannot in good conscience swear an oath that includes renunciation of allegiance to “any other nation, prince or potentate”. And in my heart I’m still loyal to my Queen and my Country, and I don’t see that changing.

Similarly, citizenship in God’s Kingdom is one thing or the other. As Jesus said, you can’t serve God and Mammon both, neither can you hold onto the old things you pursued and reverenced: beauty, strength, worldly power, fame or whatever your personal idols are.

And now I believe I get the point. It looks harsh. It’s unpleasant. But there’s no other way. God will not allow people who won’t be His into His Kingdom. Ethnicity or nationality as we think of them today are not the issue. Look at Rahab, Ruth, Bathsheba, Naaman… No; the issue is “Who are you going to worship?”

I am not a label; I am a free man!

There are some blogs I still seem to follow even though I seldom agree with very much they have to say.

That fact seems especially apt when I come to this post, purporting to expound the reasons why liberals and conservatives (or Muslims and Christians, or whoever and whoever else) can’t “just get along”.

The author’s contention seems to be that because it is impossible for people who hold different values to have any real fellowship, liberals and conservatives exist in a natural state of undeclared war one with another. A liberal cannot have conservative friends, nor vice versa, because they want and value different, opposing things. Referring to the popular bumper sticker, she calls the idea that we can all get along the “COEXIST fallacy”.

While I take the point that “Can two walk together unless they have agreed to do so?” (Amos 3:3), I have to take issue with what seems like an astonishing amount of missing the point and unreasonable pigeonholing.

Maybe I’ve read too much into what she’s saying, but the implication that rather than friendship, the proper response of liberals and conservatives to each other is hostility sets my teeth on edge. There is a large field existing between the sort of fellowship she rightly says is unlikely if not impossible and the sort of ongoing conflict that she seems to imply is the only other possible alternative. For example, I’m constantly amazed at how well I get on with my father-in-law when we have such different basic approaches to the world. His political priorities are often worlds apart from my own, yet we both love and serve the Lord Jesus. We share the values of truth, justice, mercy, peace, faith and integrity. We don’t talk politics, because neither of us really approve of throwing our pearls before swine, metaphorically speaking, and our relationship is too important to jeopardise by meaningless arguments about peripheral issues like economic policy.

And this leads neatly on to what I was saying about unreasonable pigeonholing.

Throughout the post, the author maintains a very rigid idea of “Christians don’t want abortion”, “Muslims want Sharia law”, “liberals hold these values”, “conservatives hold these values”. I have a big problem with this monolithic understanding of different groups. In the real world, people are usually more complicated than that.

As a defining trait of the followers of the Saviour I claim, I have to say I find “Christians don’t want abortion” to be a very limited summary statement. Is that truly what we think defines a Christian? Even politically? What about “doing justice, loving mercy, and walking humbly with your God” (Micah 6:8)? Nope, apparently what defines “Christian” politics is whether you oppose abortion or not.

Now, your understanding of what “doing justice and loving mercy” looks like in practice may very well lead you to oppose abortion-on-demand as a matter of motherly convenience (in fact, I’d say that it had better!), but the same values of justice and mercy ought to move you to stand for “liberal” causes like wage equality, treating God’s clean earth with respect and raising up the poor as well.

I can get along with my father-in-law even though he’s an arch-conservative while I lean left, because we do hold the really fundamental values in common. We only differ on the outworking of those values.

And that’s the thing. Every human being is a mixed bag of different values, and not everyone that’s a “conservative” is exactly the same.

For some conservatives, their Second Amendment rights are the really important thing, for others, it’s keeping the government out of as much as possible, or the issue of abortion, or opposition to the supposed “organised liberal attack on traditional family values”, whatever that really means. “Conservative” as a political category in a monochromatic political spectrum like America is of necessity a broad term, and people vote for conservative politicians for all kinds of reasons. Someone for whom Second Amendment rights are the big end-all issue is going to look upon someone who might be in favour of rational enforcement of reasonable measures to make it more difficult for criminals to access firearms, for example, as insufficiently conservative or even downright liberal, even if that person favours Republican laissez-faire capitalistic economic policy, opposes abortion with a vehement passion and believes wholeheartedly in what are called traditional family values.

That same person may view the first hypothetical individual as dangerously liberal becayse they believe that in certain circumstances abortion might be the least worst option. They’re both considered “conservatives”, but their priorities, while both lying in the general sphere of values labeled “conservative”, are different.

The same is true of liberals. If conservatism is not a monolith of identical clones espousing one single constant viewpoint, neither is liberalism. I lean left in terms of economic policy. I live and move closer to the bottom of the economic ladder than the top, and I see conservative economics as more than a little unjust, unfairly favouring the already-wealthy and with nothing in place to protect the little guy from large businesses’ predation and economic bullying. But that doesn’t necessarily mean I encourage homosexual practice or support abortion-on-demand or favour policies that deny Christians the right to the free expression of their faith or whatever else it is you think this monolithic thing called “liberals” believes.

I know plenty of Muslims that favour Western-style democracy and don’t want Sharia law. I’ve met people who styled themselves Muslims in the former Soviet Union who didn’t believe in God. Yeah, Muslim atheists. I’ve encountered Buddhist monks in Thailand who were more interested in the Soccer Football World Cup than in the practice of their religion.

What the “COEXIST” bumper sticker is saying is that we’re all human beings, complex mixes of values and beliefs, some of which conflict while others mesh. I share with Muslims a belief that there is only one God who exists as a Person, not an impersonal Force or spirit, I share with atheists the understanding that pagan gods aren’t real gods, I share with Hindus the understanding that ultimate reality is spiritual and there is more to life than the material world.

Labels are a convenience, not an absolute defining parameter. Particularly ones like “liberal” and “conservative” which exist on a spectrum and define two general areas of it. Witness current political difficulties between the Republican establishment, the Freedom Caucus and the White House, or look at the clashes between the supporters of Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders on the Democratic side. People aren’t their labels, when you vote Republican you aren’t immediately stamped into the “correct” shape like a coin taking on its imprint. With all due respect to the American Green Party and the Libertarians, they aren’t going to be forming a government any time soon and many people who might have a lot in common with their party outlook are going to see a vote for them as a waste. The political establishment on both sides has a lot invested in maintaining the dual-party status quo, because they fear the loss of their members to other “fringe” parties.

“Liberals” and “conservatives” can get along and even be friends, if they remember their common ground. As a more-or-less liberal-leaning centrist in Texas (or in other words, anyone even slightly to the left of the Ferengi from Star Trek: The Next Generation), I find my nose constantly ground in the fact that most people around here don’t share my political priorities. And yet that doesn’t mean I have no friends. There are people at my church with whom I can’t have a political discussion without feeling myself concerned about their faith, and I’m sure the feeling is mutual. And yet I know they love and trust the Lord, even if it doesn’t look the same as my own faith’s political outworking.  We have that much in common.

Labels encourage divisiveness, an “us against them” mentality which sees another person not as a human being lovingly created in the image of a good God, maybe flawed and fallen and sinful and mistaken, but bearing that divine imprint nonetheless, but as a thing, a collective, with values utterly opposed to ours. There can be no compromise or coexistence; neither’s beliefs can exist without the destruction of the other. To quote an obscure sci-fi television series, “the classic pattern for war”.

And yet, aren’t we all flawed and fallen and sinful and mistaken? And aren’t we all loved by God nonetheless, even in our unregenerate state, dead in our sins? We none of us earned our way into God’s favour; we have no call to be waging metaphysical total war against other people He loves.

There isn’t some monolithic construct called “Islam” any more than there’s a monolithic construct called “Christianity”; as Christians we believe the same body of core doctrines, but within that we are free to have differing viewpoints about non-core issues like whether it’s possible to genuinely believe and then fall away or which English translation of the Bible is best.  Individual Muslims vary a lot in their actual functioning beliefs depending on where they are from, how educated they are, lots of factors.

Let’s get past the labels, and particularly past the tendency to treat the label as a uniform undifferentiated mass. As Christians we should know better: the Christ-following community is after all described as a body. Bodies are made up of organs, different types of cells doing different jobs to make the whole thing function. A mass of uniform undifferentiated tissue is what we call a cancer. And people aren’t cancers.

Kum Ba Yah

Syria. Egypt. Afghanistan. Russia. The illegitimate so-called Islamic State. North Korea. European nationalism and neofascism. Resurgent American militarism. It’s a dangerous world out there, and full of violence and potential violence.

The song “Kum Ba Yah” has come down to us as the epitome of head-in-the-sand hippie flower power, a sort of desperate “give peace a chance” denial of reality while all around the bullets are flying. The modern equivalent of “‘Peace! Peace!’ when there is no peace”. A milquetoast refusal to confront evil combined with an unrealistic appraisal of the likelihood of everyone putting down their guns and just being nice to one another. Hello; this is the real world calling.

In our modern cynical age it’s fallen distinctly out of favour, but it actually started life as a Christian song.

“Kum ba yah”, as I was told in ye olden days when we occasionally sang it at school, is some kind of African dialect for “come by here”; the song is a prayer for God to show up and do something. Someone’s crying, Lord. We need You.

There’s injustice happening. People with needs unmet. Prayers apparently going unanswered. Danger, famine, nakedness, sword. We need You, God; You’re our only hope.

Someone’s singing, Lord. Things are good right now, but we still need You. But for Your grace it all falls apart.

Oh Lord, kum ba yah.

And really, it sounds hippie and unrealistic, but what’s actually wrong with people and nations being nice to one another for a change? Couldn’t we all do with a bit more niceness in the world?

People that don’t just try to get whatever they can for themselves. Institutions that don’t act like the problem you’ve gone to them about is a real pain in the arse? Nations that act based on justice, respecting their neighbours and trying for a win-win solution to international problems. People the same, with their interpersonal problems.

Niceness may be underrated as a rallying-cry, but we all appreciate it when we encounter it.

Kindness. Peace. Patience with our weaknesses and failures. Not bringing the hammer down for something we may not have been fully able to help. Love, in the broad sense, not necessarily sexual or romantic.

And now this is looking a little more like the fruit of the Spirit and less like a Sixties hippie commune. Maybe – no, probably – that’s why the hippie movement failed; trying to gain peace, love and understanding by human effort rather than the Spirit of God; but you can’t deny that the impulse is a good one. Give peace a chance. Put down the sword and the gun and the tendency towards violence and oppression. Let’s all just try to get along.

Oh Lord, kum ba yah. We can’t do it without Your help. What we’re longing for in our dealings is the evidence that You’ve been at work. We confess that we’ve been infected enough with the cynicism of the age that we don’t hold out much hope for peace and justice in international affairs, but we believe You are the King of kings. You overrule the nations. The movers and shakers aren’t actually in control of world events; You are. You’re the Prince of Peace; extend Your influence not just in our lives but among the nations.

Kum ba yah.

Palm Sunday has just come and gone; the annual celebration of Jesus’ triumphal entry into Jerusalem on the incongruous mount of a donkey. It was a fulfilment of Scriptural prophecy of the Messiah, but more than that: the donkey symbolically stood for humility and peace, counterpointing and opposing the martial pride of a stallion or chariot. Your King comes to you, gentle and riding on a donkey. The world was pretty messed-up if you were a Jew back then, just as it seems to all of us now. Evil pagans oppressing God’s people. Where are the Godly leaders? Who can make our nation great again? It wasn’t for no reason that the people shouted out “Hosanna!”

But the King being lauded isn’t a proud warrior lord, a rebel who will overthrow the evil government oppressing us and return everything back to the way it was in the good old days; He’s a Prince of Peace, humble and gentle, who will give His life to save us from the evil within us and return us to how we were meant to be in the very beginning.

Hosanna. Save us. Kum ba yah. Come, Lord.

We need You. You’re our only hope.

Christians are required to love Muslims

Christians are required to love Muslims.

And with those six words, I’m probably starting a riot among my friends on social media. Especially the Americans.

Yes, 9/11 happened. Yes, the perpetrators called themselves Muslims. Yes, a large number of Muslim or Muslim-majority nations of the world actively persecute their national Christians in one form or another. Yes, Iran’s leadership consider America (and by extension the West in general) to be their enemies. Yes, all of that.

Even so, Christians are required to love Muslims. What part of “Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you” did you think was optional? Did you think the parable of the Good Samaritan was told the way it was because Samaritans were really great people who loved the Jews?

Unlike most of the people spewing anti-Islamic rhetoric into my Facebook news feed, I’ve actually lived overseas in a Muslim-majority nation. I’ve been in a mosque. I’ve had Muslim friends. I wouldn’t consider myself an expert as such, but I can talk about what I’ve seen and experienced.

The country in question was in no way without its problems, but the people were almost without exception courteous and hospitable to this Western Christian in their midst. Hospitable to a fault, actually; the local tradition basically considered guests to be an expression of Divine trust and favour. You can be trusted to take care of guests properly.

I was there when 9/11 happened. I saw it through television reports in a majority-Muslim country.

No-one celebrated. The news coverage wasn’t “see how the Great Satan has fallen”; it was shocked disbelief that anyone could be evil enough to do such a thing.

Over the next couple of months, the streets around the US embassy filled with flowers for blocks in every direction.

My American wife (only she wasn’t yet my wife at the time) only had to let it out that she was an American for the sympathy to pour out.

-We are so sorry.

-Did you lose anyone?

-Are your family ok?

-We hope you find the evil people who did this.

-We are with you.

-We are all Americans today.

They weren’t doing this because someone told them to. They weren’t doing it because they were rebelling against some kind of Islamic tyranny. They were doing it because they were decent human beings and it’s what you do.

I’ve seen the clip that always gets played when people want to tell me the Muslim world was celebrating at 9/11. And I mean “the clip”; I’ve only seen just the one. It was somewhere in the Middle East, not where I was. And what I noticed about the clip was not that people were celebrating and dancing, but how few in number they seemed to be and who exactly it was that was celebrating.

What I saw was a group of no more than 50, and probably around 20, composed entirely of little old ladies and children. People who, not to put too fine a point on it, probably didn’t know any better. And only ever that one clip, which has somehow entered the American public consciousness as “the Muslim world were all partying in the streets”.

Well, I never saw them doing that, anyway.

Every time I make a comment about Christians needing to show love and respect to Muslims, I get a barrage of comments telling me how “they hate us”, “they want to kill us”, “they hate Israel”, “you hate your wife and daughters”, etc. I’ve seen people posting ignorant memes that “Muslims have contributed nothing at all to world civilisation”.

Enough.

Yes, there are Muslim fanatics that hate America and/or Christians. Tell me there aren’t Americans and Christians that hate them. And we have far less excuse, because their religion does not command them to love their enemies. Ours does. In my experience, most of them just want to get on with their lives and don’t hate Americans at all.

But they can read, and they can see, and they can hear. They hear our claims that Christians love everyone, and they can see America emplacing entry bans on people from Muslim countries. They’ve also heard our claims that “America is a Christian country”, which reinforce their pre-existing beliefs shaped by the fact that places like Iran and Saudi Arabia really are Muslim countries in terms of the national and legal structures of the state being Muslim. That’s the way they tend to interpret our claims of Christian countryhood; they think that there’s no difference between the actions of the USA as a nation and the actions of the Christian church.

Many of them get frustrated by the church’s apparent blinkered support for the State of Israel. This is a thorny issue replete with biases and half-truths and unclarity on all sides including mine, and I don’t want to say a lot about it right here, but the fact is that many Muslims think we believe that the State of Israel can do no wrong, ever.

That’s all I’m going to say on the matter. Note that I didn’t say that was an accurate belief, just that that’s what they think.

I’m not even going to dignify “you hate your wife and daughters” with a proper response. It’s a deliberately contrary-minded, ignorant comment that equates loving Muslims with support for the fanatics’ agenda. I’m a Christian and I love my sisters and brothers in Christ, but that does not mean I support the perverted agenda of every cultist who’s ever claimed to represent the True Church.

And “Muslims have contributed nothing to world civilisation” is, if possible, even more ignorant. In the period of the Crusades, the Muslim world were far more advanced than the Christian nations, particularly in science, astronomy, mathematics and medicine. While the Christians were struggling to do simple arithmetic using the unwieldy Roman numerals, the Arabs had a place-notation that we still use today in modified form. It’s not for no reason that we call them “Arabic numerals”. Muslim astronomers like Avicenna (ibn Sina, to use the proper form of his name) made observations of the heavens that wouldn’t be equalled in Europe for hundreds of years. And well into the 1600s every European court had its Arab or Moorish (ie black North African Muslim) physician, because the Christians were dangerous incompetents more interested in bleeding you than healing you. Most of what Western Christian and post-Christian scientists have discovered about science builds off of work done by Islamic scholars in the Middle Ages.

But even if they were just as ignorant and stupid as we are, still we would be required to love them.

It is, after all, one of the commands of Christ. How can we claim to be obedient servants of the Lord Jesus if we obey everything except the bits we don’t like? If we love only those who love us, how are we better than demon-worshipping pagans?

We’re commanded to love our enemies. There’s no listed exception clause that says “but if they hate your country then you don’t have to”. There’s no exemption for people that don’t believe that Jesus is the Son of God; in fact, the focus is specifically on those who do not believe. The ones who were persecuting and spitefully abusing when Jesus said those words were pagan Romans, many of whom thought the Jews were too troublesome to live, and the Christian sect of Judaism was even worse.

If we are going to call ourselves His followers, we do not get to pick and choose who we love.

We don’t have to support the agenda of the radicals. We don’t have to decide that they’re right in what they believe. But we do have to love them.

This begins with being respectful. Being friendly. Taking the time to get to know the alien and stranger in our midst, about whom even the Old Testament Law was quite firm: “do not despise an alien, for you yourselves were aliens in Egypt”. Find out what help they need. Act like a good neighbour. It’s not rocket science.

They aren’t robotic avatars of The Islamic Threat, or whatever you think is driving them. They’re just people, like you and me. They have kids that they want a better life for, they have sports fandoms and hobby interests, they mistrust the secularising influences around them just like many Christians do. God made Selim just like He made Simon, in His image and likeness. God loves Aisha just as He loves Alice. Muslims really aren’t that different from you and I. Just people whom God loves and wants to come to a better and deeper knowledge of Him, made in His image just like me.

And Jesus commands us to love them. Hadn’t we better be about it?