A fascinating speech on religious left politics

Here is a selection of quotes from a speech given by a somewhat famous public speaker. I think it would be fun to get through all the quotes before seeing who said them.

Today I’d like to talk about the connection between religion and politics and perhaps offer some thoughts about how we can sort through some of the often bitter arguments that we’ve been seeing over the last several years.

I do so because, as you all know, we can affirm the importance of poverty in the Bible…

[People are saying, he’s] a Christian … and yet he supports a lifestyle that the Bible calls an abomination. … says he’s a Christian, but supports the destruction of innocent and sacred life.

…At worst, there are some liberals who dismiss religion in the public square as inherently irrational or intolerant, insisting on a caricature of religious Americans that paints them as fanatical, or thinking that the very word “Christian” describes one’s political opponents, not people of faith.

…I think we make a mistake when we fail to acknowledge the power of faith in people’s lives — in the lives of the American people — and I think it’s time that we join a serious debate about how to reconcile faith with our modern, pluralistic democracy.

..I was able to see faith as more than just a comfort to the weary or a hedge against death, but rather as an active, palpable agent in the world. As a source of hope. … Faith doesn’t mean that you don’t have doubts.

You need to come to church in the first place precisely because you are first of this world, not apart from it. You need to embrace Christ precisely because you have sins to wash away – because you are human and need an ally in this difficult journey.

It was because of these newfound understandings that I was finally able to walk down the aisle …one day and affirm my Christian faith. It came about as a choice, and not an epiphany. I didn’t fall out in church. The questions I had didn’t magically disappear. But kneeling beneath that cross …I felt that I heard God’s spirit beckoning me. I submitted myself to His will, and dedicated myself to discovering His truth.

…Some of the problem here is rhetorical – if we scrub language of all religious content, we forfeit the imagery and terminology through which millions of Americans understand both their personal morality and social justice.

Imagine Lincoln’s Second Inaugural Address without reference to “the judgments of the Lord.” Or King’s I Have a Dream speech without references to “all of God’s children.”

…Our failure as progressives to tap into the moral underpinnings of the nation is not just rhetorical, though. Our fear of getting “preachy” may also lead us to discount the role that values and culture play in some of our most urgent social problems.

After all, the problems of poverty and racism, the uninsured and the unemployed, are not simply technical problems in search of the perfect ten point plan. They are rooted in both societal indifference and individual callousness – in the imperfections of man.

Solving these problems will require changes in government policy, but it will also require changes in hearts and a change in minds. I believe in keeping guns out of our inner cities, and that our leaders must say so in the face of the gun manufacturers’ lobby – but I also believe that when a gang-banger shoots indiscriminately into a crowd because he feels somebody disrespected him, we’ve got a moral problem. There’s a hole in that young man’s heart – a hole that the government alone cannot fix.

…Frederick Douglas, Abraham Lincoln, Williams Jennings Bryant, Dorothy Day, Martin Luther King – indeed, the majority of great reformers in American history – were not only motivated by faith, but repeatedly used religious language to argue for their cause. So to say that men and women should not inject their “personal morality” into public policy debates is a practical absurdity. Our law is by definition a codification of morality, much of it grounded in the Judeo-Christian tradition.

… during our founding, it wasn’t the atheists or the civil libertarians who were the most effective champions of the First Amendment. It was the persecuted minorities, it was Baptists like John Leland who didn’t want the established churches to impose their views on folks who were getting happy out in the fields and teaching the scripture to slaves. It was the forbearers of the evangelicals who were the most adamant about not mingling government with religious, because they did not want state-sponsored religion hindering their ability to practice their faith as they understood it.

Moreover, given the increasing diversity of America’s population, the dangers of sectarianism have never been greater. Whatever we once were, we are no longer just a Christian nation; we are also a Jewish nation, a Muslim nation, a Buddhist nation, a Hindu nation, and a nation of nonbelievers.

And even if we did have only Christians in our midst, if we expelled every non-Christian from the United States of America, whose Christianity would we teach in the schools? Would we go with James Dobson’s, or Al Sharpton’s? Which passages of Scripture should guide our public policy? … So before we get carried away, let’s read our bibles. Folks haven’t been reading their bibles.

This brings me to my second point. Democracy demands that the religiously motivated translate their concerns into universal, rather than religion-specific, values. … I have to explain why abortion violates some principle that is accessible to people of all faiths, including those with no faith at all.

…Politics…involves the compromise, the art of what’s possible….religion does not allow for compromise. It’s the art of the impossible.

… If God has spoken, then followers are expected to live up to God’s edicts, regardless of the consequences. To base one’s life on such uncompromising commitments may be sublime, but to base our policy making on such commitments would be a dangerous thing.

…Having voluntary student prayer groups use school property to meet should not be a threat, any more than its use by the High School Republicans should threaten Democrats.

…It’s a prayer I think I share with a lot of Americans. A hope that we can live with one another in a way that reconciles the beliefs of each with the good of all. It’s a prayer worth praying, and a conversation worth having in this country in the months and years to come.

–Barack Obama, June 28, 2006

http://www.obamaspeeches.com/081-Call-to-Renewal-Keynote-Address-Obama-Speech.htm


Woman Washing – An attempt at a harmony

In the Gospels of Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John, the world is presented with 4 perspectives on the life and ministry of Christ. Many of the stories of his life are told in multiple gospels, and just a few are told in all 4.

One such apparent event is the washing of Jesus’ feet by a woman. I took interest in this story and its chronology and took to doing an independent breakdown of it’s key events.

I found this story unique in that the gospels that seem to be in the most agreement are Matthew, Mark, and John, whereas usually Luke is the one in agreement with Matthew and Mark (see here some nerdy stuff on the Synoptic Problem). That’s not to say Luke disagrees here, but I’m getting ahead of myself.

What all 4 stories have in common is that Jesus goes to someone’s house as a guest, reclines at a table, and a woman comes in with very expensive perfume and anoints Jesus. The response of those in the house is a general complaint about the waste of this costly perfume to which Jesus responds by defending the woman’s actions.

While those things are in common, Luke’s story has some significant differences including the events the story is sandwiched between. Luke places his story in the earlier half of Jesus’ ministry. In Luke’s account, the woman is an unnamed sinful woman who is thankful for the forgiveness she has received. In this gospel, it serves as an example of how the proud have the wrong priorities while the humble recognize the worth of Jesus.

In Matthew, Mark, and John the event occurs in the week leading up to Jesus’ death. All mention that he is in Bethany; Matthew and Mark say they’re at Simon’s house while John says that Martha served with the (recently-raised) Lazarus there. While Matthew and Mark leave her unnamed, John points out that it is Mary, Lazarus’ sister who is performing this action. This fits the apparent purposes of these Gospels. While Matthew and Mark aren’t too detailed about who gets angry, John specifies that it was Judas who was angry because he wanted the money for himself. In all three, Jesus concludes with the statement that “you will always have the poor with you, but you will not always have me.”

What is strange to me are the times that the Matthew-Mark-John versus Luke connection doesn’t hold up. Matthew, Mark, and Luke say that the host is Simon, though in the former 2 he is a (former) leper, while in Luke he is a Pharisee. John doesn’t name the host, just that Martha serves. It is Matthew, Mark, and Luke that mention an alabaster flask, while Matthew, Mark, and John mention Nard as the type of perfume. Matthew and Mark put the perfume on the head; Luke and John have it on his feet. Only Mark and John mention the potential sale price of 300 denarii, or 1 year’s wages.

I don’t ultimately see any issues with saying that we have 2 separate stories here: one in Luke and one in the others. Simon the Pharisee hosts Luke’s story while Simon the Leper hosts the other (with the Martha family helping out). In both stories an alabaster flask of nard is poured out on Jesus head and feet, and it was “unnecessarily” expensive.

In each Gospel, the author’s intent is apparent. John is pointing out the personal nature of Jesus’ ministry to this family while demonstrating Judas’ evil motives. Matthew and Mark quote Jesus saying that “she has prepared my body for burial,” showing their emphasis on his soon-coming death. Luke wants to point out the hypocrisy and pride of the group of Pharisees in the house.


Israel is a Land

The land of Israel has gone through many names and forms over its history. In prehistory it was inhabited by various nomadic groups including Abram, Israel’s grandfather. When Abram was on his journey from Ur of the Chaldees (near the coast of the Persian Gulf) toward Egypt, he had a conversation with God while in the land of Canaan. There, God tells Abram that all that he can see will belong to his descendants forever. However, God gets more specific later. On 4 different occasions, God specifies the boundaries of this land. To Abram He says, “To your descendants I have given this land, from the river of Egypt as far as the great river, the river Euphrates.” Five hundred years later, after Abraham’s descendants are enslaved in Egypt, as he was forewarned, God tells Moses, “I will fix your boundary from the Red Sea to the sea of the Philistines, and from the wilderness to the River [Euphrates].” Forty years after this, when they were about to actually enter this “promised” land, God further clarifies these borders to Moses using over 20 specific geographic references. There is also a specification made to the prophet Ezekiel some 1000 years later about the return of the 12 tribes to these ancestral boundaries. There is no little debate about what this section of Ezekiel’s prophecy exactly describes. (For example, it also mentions a new river flowing out of the east gate of the temple and turning the Dead Sea into a freshwater lake.)

Despite all of these promises, Israel as a people never filled out the entire boundaries of the land, though they often thought they had covered it enough. The general story of Joshua, Judges, 1-2 Samuel, and 1-2 Kings is that the people, judges, and kings generally grew exasperated with conquering their neighbors because they found their neighbors’ practices quite appealing. The largest the nation ever became was under the reign of Solomon, son of David. His son’s foolishness caused a division in the kingdom that was never healed. The land has gone under many governments since that day, and what God promised about the future of this land fills volumes of debate.

There are two things that drive me as a teacher: making the complex simple and giving context to controversy. I realize this doesn’t answer much in the modern conversation, but I hope this provides some ancient context to our modern conversations.


Israel is a People

In our previous study, we saw the background of the person named Israel. Israel was the younger brother by a few minutes. He went from being a deceiver to one who wrestles with God. Apart from any good deeds of his own, God decides to bless him and his descendants with some of the best territory known to mankind of his day.

Israel’s family had some issues though. As any good rendition of Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat will remind you, there were not good feelings between his sons. It starts when Israel plays favorites with his wives (a good start to any dysfunctional marriage). After having 10 sons with his second-favorite wife and two maidservants, he finally has a child with his favorite wife. This child, Joseph, is later sold by his brothers to their distant cousins. Joseph ends up in Egypt and rises in the ranks. Ultimately he saves Egypt and its neighbors (including his relatives in the land of Canaan) from famine. Pharaoh honors Joseph by inviting Jacob/Israel and his descendents to take some of the best land in Egypt.
A generation later, the Egyptians weren’t so happy about Israelites living in their best territory, so they enslaved them. Four hundred thirty years later, God delivered those Israelites out of Egypt into the land he originally promised Abraham: Canaan. This nomadic nation that had never possessed a permanent homeland was on its way to its final(?) destination.
Why make them wait over 400 years? There seems to be one practical reason and one theological reason. First, there were 70 people in Israel’s family when they went into Egypt–hardly enough to occupy a country. When the Exodus occurred, there were 600,000 men, or probably 2-3 million people. (By my math, that’s 5 kids per couple for about 12, 30-year generations.) That would fill a small country nicely in those days. The theological reason comes in when God is making his covenant with Abram. God tells him that his descendants will be enslaved but that it won’t be permanent. Then Abram is told the reason: “the iniquity of the Amorite is not yet complete.” The Amorites were one of the nations in the “Promised Land” of Canaan. My understanding of this statement has been: The Canaanites aren’t bad enough to deserve losing their homeland yet… but give it 400 years.
These descendants of Israel come out of Egypt, spend 40 years having their faith tested in the wilderness, then they spend several generations trying to wrest control of Canaan from the Canaanites, only to cave in to their ways of living in worshipping. The rest of the story of the Old Testament is a struggle between a few God-fearing people who hate idol worship and a majority who would rather be just like the Canaanites. The books of Joshua thru Malachi trace the story of those few who stand against the majority and sometimes cave in themselves.
The trough of Old Testament story comes with the fall of most of Israel’s descendants to the Assyrians. This was followed within a few generations by the fall of the dominant tribe of Judah to Babylon. The next 70 years that Israel spends in exile in Babylon became the defining moment in its identity. For the first time in 1000 years, the nation didn’t have a land of its own. From that point until this day, there have always been Jews (hear the name in Ju-dah?) outside of the “land” of Israel. God had a lesson in humility to teach to this nation. Several, like Daniel, Esther, Nehemiah, and Ezra passed the test. God restored Judah to their ancestral land in former Canaan, and they began to rebuild.
This people group re-established its nation in the Levant slowly with the permission of the Persians (who had supplanted the Babylonians). However, it never had complete sovereignty for more than a few years here-and-there. These remaining Israelite descendants who held to their “promised” land lived under the rule of Persians, various forms of Greeks, and finally Romans. Rome had enough of their monotheistic ways and obliterated this Jewish land once more, exiling its inhabitants in 70 A.D. Jews would not live in this land again in any significant numbers for another 19 centuries.
Describing the history of a people that covers this much time will always do injustice to the nuances, but I hope you can see the trajectory of Israel as a people through its ancient history. Next, I hope to uncover what it means to say Israel is a land.

Israel is a Person

Israel is a frequent focus of attention in American Christian circles, but I suspect that a lot of people don’t have a good “big picture” idea of the role of Israel in the world according to the Bible. I would like to take you on a quick flyover of Israel’s history so that we can better understand what the Bible says about Israel’s role today.

(I pray you would consider this series for its own merits without assuming I’m going to fit in a certain niche. I’m going to try to avoid making conclusions that Scripture itself doesn’t make.)

First, we need to know who, (not what,) the “original” Israel was. Israel is a person, and for him, we need to go to Genesis. The Old Testament (i.e. Old Covenant) is a series of covenants that God made with man, and Genesis tells us about the first two. Noah gets the first one, sealed by a rainbow, including the promise that God will never again flood the whole earth (with water, that is).

Abram

The second covenant is given to Abram (Noah’s great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great grandson). Here, God promises that Abram (a 75-year-old man whose 65-year-old wife, Sarai, is infertile) that he’ll be a “great nation”. Abram, whose name means “father,” is told to leave his homeland, move across the known world, and settle among strangers. Once he arrives, he’s told that his (non-existent) descendants will inherit the land of the Canaanites. (I’ll talk about them, and their land, in a later installment.)

This is a real problem for “Father” Abram. If he died childless, the whole “nation” thing wasn’t going to happen. After 10 years of waiting for this promised child, Abram and his wife thought it would be a good idea to for him to have a child with their servant Hagar. It works, and God does indeed bless that child, Ishmael, with several children himself later on, but it wasn’t exactly what God was indicating in his promise to Abram.

Fast-forward to a 99-yr-old Abram, 89-yr-old Sarai, and 13-yr-old Ishmael. God appears to Abram, changes his name to “Father of many nations”–Abraham, and promises that Sarai (now, Sarah) herself will have a child. God specifically promises that this child, Isaac, will be the recipient of Abraham’s covenant. Isaac is born within a year.

Isaac

Isaac doesn’t get as much “air time” in Genesis compared to his dad and sons. For our purposes, we need to focus on the birth of his twin boys, Jacob and Esau. Isaac and his wife, Rebekah, struggled to conceive for 20 years, but God answered their prayers and gave them twins. In a day before sonograms, Rebekah was wondering why the baby was kicking so much, so God told her:

“Two nations are in your womb;
And two peoples will be separated from your body;
And one people shall be stronger than the other;
And the older shall serve the younger.

Esau gets his red head out first, Jacob literally pulling his leg. In later years, Esau, like Ishmael, is blessed with wealth and a large family, but not with the unique covenant given to Abraham and Isaac.

Jacob

So, where does Israel come into the story? One day, preparing to meet his estranged brother, Esau, Jacob wrestles a guy. This guy may in fact be God. This guy tell Jacob (which basically means “deceiver”, a fitting description for Jacob so far) that his name is now “Wrestles-with-God”–Israel.

Earlier in his life, Jacob/Israel was taking a nap in northeast Canaan when God told him, “the land on which you lie, I will give it to you and to your descendants.” Later, God also says, “The land which I gave to Abraham and Isaac, I will give it to you.” As a result, God later calls this his covenant with Jacob, Isaac, and Abraham.

Israel

So, before we proceed with the series, we need to know first who Israel, the person, was. His story covers a lot of family conflicts, but results in a strong, powerful group of people. We’ll talk next time about how Israel is a people.


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