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?

“Grant To Us Now Those Spiritual Graces…”

These are the words of our current church’s communion liturgy: “grant to us now those spiritual graces that we may live a godly, righteous and thoughtful life…”. Every communion Sunday I’m struck with what a distinctive wording this is, and every communion Sunday I consider once again what an interesting trio of characteristics we are asking to be made manifest in our lives.

Godly and righteous are more or less expected, of course. This is a Christian church with a mainline, Evangelical theology. Or what I take for one, anyway; I’m less than fully comfortable with the political connotations of Evangelicalism as she is practiced in the United States right now. But this isn’t about US evangelicalism, it’s about “godly, righteous and thoughtful”.

It’s that “thoughtful” that always strikes me as so unusual. You might expect “a godly, righteous and Christlike life” or “a godly, righteous and holy life” or “a godly, righteous and powerful life” or even “a godly, righteous and meaningful life”, depending on your personal theological expectations, but no; it’s “godly, righteous and thoughtful”.

The implications are interesting. “Godly” and “righteous” cover a lot of the same ground; they’re practically synonyms, in fact. So if you’re going to make it a nice, aesthetically pleasing triad, something like “Christlike” or “holy”, another near-synonym, would round out the list well. But we have “thoughtful”, which is so startlingly different that it makes me wonder what the perceived difference between godliness and righteousness is.

Godliness isn’t really a word that’s very much in my personal vocabulary. I mean, it’s not a word I actually use.

Part of this is that I find it really difficult to actually pin down: righteousness has a fairly well-defined theological meaning, involved with concepts like justification and the character of God. It includes our relationship with God being properly functional and unmarred by sin – being “right with God” through faith – and doing what is right – “living out our faith” in actions that back up the trust we claim to have in God.

“Godliness” is a lot more nebulous, but if I had to define it as distinct from righteousness I’d probably say something about growing in family resemblance to the Father of our spirits. Being like God in our attitudes and reactions, loving our neighbour as ourselves.

However I’d also say its opposite would be “godlessness”, which my Bible uses as the pithy overarching characteristic of the life of Esau, and the opposite of how I just defined godliness isn’t really the summary statement I’d make about Esau. Rash, wilfully stupid to an insane degree, having no concept of eternal values, yes, but not really failing to love his neighbour as himself or to grow like God except as incidentals.

It’s probably equally possible that I’ve misunderstood Esau or that there’s more to the idea of godliness than meets the eye, but it still seems that godliness and righteousness go together. If you are living a godly life, you cannot help but be righteous: if you are living a righteous life, it will be godly.

It may be that “righteous” is meant more in the legal sense of the Divine courtroom and the theology of justification while “godly” refers more to the process of being remade into the Divine image, but either way, they seem to go together.

And then we come to “thoughtful”.

It’s an especially interesting final component to the triad, because one of my major problems with too much of US public Christianity is the unbearable shallowness and lack of apparent thought involved.

I’ve known people who worried that their offspring were “too smart” and that their intellectual development was threatening to the development of faith.

I’ve seen the sort of drivel we sell ourselves.

I’ve listened to Christian radio.

And so when we pray that we may live a thoughtful life, a large part of me says “yes, please!”. Please let us be people who aren’t afraid to think, who can ask the difficult, squirrelly questions that don’t have easy answers. Please let us be people of enough confidence in the truth to be able to re-examine old certainties in the face of new information. Please let us stop seeming to be afraid of science and knowledge.

But somehow I doubt this is what’s meant. Most people probably aren’t going to jump straight to reason and intellect from the word “thoughtful”. After all, “thoughtful” is the descriptor we put on someone who’s attentive, who is good at putting themselves in others’ shoes and doing something to bring happiness to others. Considerate. Taking others’ feelings into account.

Funnily enough, this is also something the US Evangelical church at large often seems to be dreadful at. Don’t believe me? Go on Facebook and make a comment about how Christ commands us to love Muslims where US Evangelical-type Christians can hear you. You’d be amazed at the vitriol that such an ought-to-be-self-evident statement can provoke.

I’ll also admit that this sense of thoughtful is something I fall down on. It’s not that I refuse to help others, or that I deliberately try to offend; it’s that I just don’t think. I tend to need it announced with trumpets that someone else has a need I might be able to meet, and I can occasionally be hurtful just because I didn’t stop to consider how it might make another feel. Showing mercy doesn’t really show up as one of mine on any spiritual gift inventory, but that’s no excuse, just like the fact that I’m not an evangelist does not exempt me from fulfilling the Great Commission, or the fact that I’m not endowed with gifts of healing that I know about doesn’t mean I can’t ask God to bring miraculous healing to a sick person. Who gives the gifts, anyway? Thoughtfulness in that sense is definitely something I need more grace for.

I don’t know which, if either, of these our liturgical formula means when it invites us to pray that we might live a thoughtful life. Either way, “thoughtful” seems a timely and needful thing to pray for grace to achieve. After all, how many people would give that description if you asked them what Christians are like?

Eyes Off The Waves

It’s already five days into 2017, and I’m still not ready for it.

Christmas was our first Christmas in our new home, and while I was concentrating on that, New Year sort of snuck up on me.

Most years I’ve spent some time in prayer and have some idea about a direction for the New Year, but this year, nothing. When my wife asked me on New Year’s Eve what I wanted from the upcoming year, I thought about all the craziness of 2016 and said “to survive it”.

Surviving is a pretty low bar, though. And if I’m honest with myself, I want more than mere survival.

But as for more precise direction? Not a clue.

The New Year feels a bit like standing at the top of a precipice; political weirdness in both my country of origin and my country of residence make the future a decidedly uncertain and unresolved thing. Hope seems in short supply. All bets are off; anything could happen. Look at the past year.

Maybe that’s the focus. Developing the sort of Divine confidence and expectation of God’s goodness that really does laugh at circumstances.

It would be easy to get disheartened. The less said about current politics, the better, but I have to say that I worry about the anti-reason, anti-fact, anti-truth nature of what appears to be current politics. And it’s conservatives who claim to believe in absolutes like truth I mean at least as much as liberals who claim to believe in relativism.

As someone who places a high value on truth, I find this disturbing. Fact is the least form of truth, and if we can’t even agree on what the facts actually are, then Pandora’s box is standing open and all the demons that have ever troubled Mankind are loosed upon the world.

In that kind of environment, Biblical Hope is a powerful weapon. The confidence that God is still good and hasn’t dropped the ball, regardless of my personal situation.

Like the Apostle Peter, here we are in the unnatural position of standing on the water in the middle of the storm. The winds are howling, the waves mount up like jagged cliff-edges. The other followers of Jesus are back in the limited safety of the boat, afraid of the storm themselves and even more afraid of doing what Peter did. The invitation to fear is everywhere. It’s reasonable to be afraid; that’s what reason tells us to do.

But there’s Jesus, holding onto my hand as I call desperately for salvation. Eyes off the waves, son, back onto Me. I’ve got this. I’ve got you.

The One who raises up kings and dethrones them – as messy as that gets when rule is for life and dynasties matter – is still Sovereign of the universe. The One who promised to build His church with no people or empire on earth to provide shelter and support for us – and then did so – is still Lord of all the earth.

These aren’t even very big waves compared to what the early church experienced. The persecution still hasn’t begun in America, despite the occasional rumour to the contrary.

I talked a good line through 2016 about God’s Kingdom being our paramount concern, about how these light and momentary trials reveal how small our view of God is, about how vital it is for us to act like followers of Jesus towards Muslims and other people who do not trust Him for salvation.

Now it’s apparently time to prove it.

I need to keep my eyes off the waves and on the Lord enthroned over the flood. I need to act with kindness and grace even to those believers who I deep down think are bringing the name of my God into disrepute. I need to have a large enough and Biblical enough view of my God that it puts these momentary troubles into proper perspective.

Thankful

As disturbed as I have been at the prospect of a Trump Presidency and as saddened as I feel at the Evangelical community who voted for him in battalions, thankfulness seems to be thin on the ground this year.

However, thankfulness is one of those rare things whose true extent we only discover as we give voice to it, so the current political state of affairs seems like all the more reason to discover the true depth of my gratitude.

Here goes…

I’m thankful first and most of all for the fact that my Lord thinks I’m worth dying for. I am in awe of the value He sets upon me, and I have become conscious this year of just how high that value is.

I am thankful for my beautiful wife and lovely children. I’m thankful for our continued good health, especially when so many people I know are wrestling with long-term illness, cancer, diabetes, and so on. Thank you, God!

I’m thankful for the new home that we moved into this year, thankful to no longer be beholden to landlords and tenancy agreements for a place to live. I’m thankful for the provision of the Lord to make this possible and for the comfort in the present and the potential for the future that our house represents.

I’m thankful that we still live in a country in which we are free to worship God (or not) in the way we believe He wants. I’m thankful that Jesus Christ’s church in America is not undergoing persecution – no-one is denying us the right to worship or requiring that we do so in certain ways; no-one is throwing stones at our children just because we believe, or denying us employment to try to force us to give up our faith. We have complete freedom to trust in the Lord and to tell others about Him. That’s pretty wonderful, when you think about it.

I’m thankful for the opportunity to put my money where my mouth is. I talk a lot about not putting faith in the political process to bring about God’s Kingdom; now I get to live it out. I’m thankful that the Kingdom of God truly is bigger than what manner of man sits in the Oval Office, greater than the course of a nation and stronger than my fears of how this might turn out.

I’m thankful that grace and truth really are stronger than hate and fear. I’m thankful that we don’t have to fight our battles according to the flesh, even more thankful that the battles we’re called to aren’t really ours to fight, but the Lord’s.

I’m thankful that God has not given up, that He is still at work through even the darkest of circumstances to bring people into the Kingdom of His wonderful light. I’m thankful that I get to be a part of that, and thankful that the results don’t all depend on me and my effort.

I’m thankful for the opportunity to celebrate this wonderful holiday, which is not only more resistant than most to being commercialised and ruined, but which gives me a whole four day weekend to spend with my family. Given that I normally work six days a week, this is not something to take for granted.

Happy Thanksgiving, everyone!