Friday, December 31, 2010

National Pride

King Nebuchadnezzar, supreme ruler of the Babylonian Empire, employed Daniel the faithful Jew as chief of magicians in his court as well as ruler of the province of Babylon.  Daniel gained such position via his accurately interpreting the king's most baffling dreams.

One such dream warned Nebuchadnezzar that his pride would bring him judgment and discipline from Daniel's God.  Daniel proclaims in 4.27, "Renounce your sins by doing what is right, and your wickedness by being kind to the oppressed.  It may be that then your prosperity will continue." 

Nebuchadnezzar did not heed the warning and the consequences were significant (Daniel 4:28-37):

All this happened to King Nebuchadnezzar. Twelve months later, as the king was walking on the roof of the royal palace of Babylon, he said, “Is not this the great Babylon I have built as the royal residence, by my mighty power and for the glory of my majesty?”

Even as the words were on his lips, a voice came from heaven, “This is what is decreed for you, King Nebuchadnezzar: Your royal authority has been taken from you. You will be driven away from people and will live with the wild animals; you will eat grass like the ox. Seven times will pass by for you until you acknowledge that the Most High is sovereign over all kingdoms on earth and gives them to anyone he wishes.”

Immediately what had been said about Nebuchadnezzar was fulfilled. He was driven away from people and ate grass like the ox. His body was drenched with the dew of heaven until his hair grew like the feathers of an eagle and his nails like the claws of a bird.

At the end of that time, I, Nebuchadnezzar, raised my eyes toward heaven, and my sanity was restored. Then I praised the Most High; I honored and glorified him who lives forever.

His dominion is an eternal dominion;
his kingdom endures from generation to generation.

All the peoples of the earth are regarded as nothing.

He does as he pleases with the powers of heaven
and the peoples of the earth.

No one can hold back his hand
or say to him: “What have you done?”

At the same time that my sanity was restored, my honor and splendor were returned to me for the glory of my kingdom. My advisers and nobles sought me out, and I was restored to my throne and became even greater than before. Now I, Nebuchadnezzar, praise and exalt and glorify the King of heaven, because everything he does is right and all his ways are just. And those who walk in pride he is able to humble.

Mighty King Nebuchadnezzar is struck with some manner of deep psychosis by the hand of Most High and he lives the next seven years as some demented feral goat in the wilderness.  I cannot imagine that he had too many friends during his little meltdown!
Perhaps Nebuchadnezzar had an epiphany.  Perhaps the curse had simply run its course.  Perhaps he finally tired of living in his private hell and just let go of his arrogant pride.  For whatever reason or combination thereof, he finally lifted his eyes toward heaven and away from himself, and his sanity was restored.
Isn't that a universal Truth?  When we tire of playing king or queen in our own lives, or in the lives of others, and simply acknowledge that our perceived power is meaningless and really offensive to Most High, we are freed to live in real prosperity under the benevolent, omniscient headship of God Almighty.

Nebuchadnezzar, following his mental and spiritual awakening, praises Most High, implicitly acknowledging his place well beneath the Deity.  Then Nebuchadnezzar lays out the coup d' grace of this whole story: he testifies to the essential differences between Most High's Kingdom and all other human kingdoms.  Most High's kingdom lasts forever.  All human kingdoms come to an end.  They are nothing before Him - they do not impress Him in the least.  In fact, He gives them power and then retracts it at any holy whim (vv.32b, 36).

Nebuchadnezzar fades from biblical history as one who acknowledges the King of heaven and earth.  He recognizes that he has no power that has not been given to him by the true King.

The Jewish people must have found great joy and vindication in this story.  Though Nebuchadnezzar and his peerless army had destroyed their holy city, autonomy, place of worship, and carted many of them off to an unfamiliar pagan land, he was nary more than a puppet of Most High, and the powerful, greedy nation of his would soon come to an end.
It seems appropriate to view Nebuchadnezzar (and Babylon) as an archetype for all mighty rulers and all great nations.  All nations - including America - are ruled by principalities and powers that drive them to greed, self-aggrandizement, and all manner of wickedness.  They are motivated by seemingly innocent factors :self-defense and self-preservation.  Spinning these motives for their citizens, great nations seek decent ends even if the means are bathed in wickedness.

The truth is that no nation is all bad or all good.  The Lord continues to use nations for His purposes.  For instance, American government has been the standard-bearer for worldwide governments to treat their citizens with respect, equality, dignity, and to give them a voice in the development of policy.  That has the fingerprints of Most High all over it.  The American government has also responded quite generously when other nations have experienced catastrophes and needed aid.

On the other hand, the default setting for all nations is always arrogant, unrepentant self-centeredness as witnessed in Nebuchadnezzar, “Is not this the great Babylon I have built as the royal residence, by my mighty power and for the glory of my majesty?”  All national leaders utter this same blasphemy - albeit with different words - and do it without qualm or recognition that they are living under a satanic illusion.

The rhetoric of nation and leader eventually take on religious significance.  Remember: Nebuchadnezzar erected a monument to nation that was to be worshipped (3.1-6).  The repercussions for not bowing down to the nation-god was death in a fiery furnace.

Fortunately, we Americans live in a nation where we are not required to bow down to Nation-God.  Perhaps if we were required to, we would be less likely to actually do it, however.  Though we are not mandated to worship Nation-God (Pseudo-YHWH), we sure have no qualms doing it.  We are like the masses that bowed down to Nebuchadnezzar's ninety foot visage on the plains of Dura.  We are unlike Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego who could tell the difference between the real God and a real counterfeit.

Do we really think that Babylonian rhetoric was of any different substance than American rhetoric?
  We are the greatest nation in the world!
  We are the most powerful nation that has ever existed!
  Our military might is unquenchable!
  Our values are superior to those of others!
  We should die and kill for our great nation!
  God bless Babylon/America!

Like Babylon, we even have a symbol of worship: the flag.

It does not seem to me that Daniel is all that interested in critiquing the national religion.  Pagans will worship who and where they will worship.  He is interested in showing that powerful and wealthy people who revel in these things will be removed from their power.  He is also interested in showing that a national religion is not for God's people, however.  It is just as idolatrous as bowing down to Baal or Asherah or Vishnu.  People who belong to YHWH Most High do not bow to Nation-God of Babylon nor to Pseudo-YHWH of America.

The American government is not Christian.  Our nation is only Christian insofar as there are more self-identified Christians than there are say, atheists, Muslims, Hindus, and Wiccans.  One might argue that our American way of life is indeed Christian because it was founded on some Christian principles.  A few Christian principles become quickly irrelevant, however, when other Christian principles must compromised for the sake of self-preservation or continued prosperity. 

The only government and nation that is Christian is the one that has as its head Christ Jesus and follows Him in selfless obedience.  The only Christian nation is the one that lifts its eyes to heaven and renounces its pride.  I'm having trouble seeing that in our nation or any other.

To love one's land and people is perfectly appropriate and respectful.  To work for her well-being out of a call to discipleship is a divine call.

To bow at her altar because of her wealth and might, and to drink her poisonous rhetoric at the expense of the Gospel of Christ is the sin of Nebuchadnezzar.  We should expect that God's response to our sin will therefore be no different than His response to Babylon's.  They are no more.

We all must decide.  Will it be the glory of Pseudo-YHWH I choose or will it be the suffering and self-sacrifice of the true King, Jesus Christ, to whom I bow down?  We cannot choose both.

Tuesday, August 17, 2010

Clean or Unclean

I am contemplating this morning these words: "Do not call anything impure that God has made clean" (Acts 10:15).  A voice offered these to Peter amidst a vision in which unclean animals were being lowered on a sheet from heaven.

In Peter's case, the Lord was communicating to him that Gentiles were no longer to be reviled and excluded but now pursued and included in the Lord's advancing kingdom (Acts 10:28).  Jews and Gentiles would be sisters and brothers amongst the Lord's people: the Church.

In the OT, external factors contributed to one being unclean (contact with blood, a dead animal, a skin disease, etc.).  Temporary separation, sacrifices, and rituals were necessary in order to restore a person to wholeness and community.  Since Gentiles were not given to following Jewish purity rules, they had to be considered, of course, unclean.

Jesus reframed what constituted uncleanness.
What goes into a man's mouth does not make him 'unclean,' but what comes out of his mouth, that is what makes him 'unclean.' " ~ Matthew 15:11
Nothing outside a man can make him 'unclean' by going into him. Rather, it is what comes out of a man that makes him 'unclean.' " ~ Mark 7:15
He went on: "What comes out of a man is what makes him 'unclean.' For from within, out of men's hearts, come evil thoughts, sexual immorality, theft, murder, adultery, greed, malice, deceit, lewdness, envy, slander, arrogance and folly. All these evils come from inside and make a man 'unclean.' " ~ Mark 7:20-23

Preventing and circumventing uncleanness, said Jesus, was not about performing the right rituals. It was instead about a commitment to avoiding sinful thoughts, words, and practices. It was about fearless and truthful self-assessment.  It was about receiving forgiveness for sins when committed.

Jesus' harshest critiques were reserved for ones who presented themselves as ritually clean because they did all the right religious things but who were in actuality unclean due to their abominable behavior toward others. 

I wonder what parts of my life are unclean in the Lord’s eyes that I myself have not recognized. I wonder what I call impure that the Lord has made clean.

Have any ideas about this?

Thursday, August 5, 2010

Immigration 7

As I've studied and drawn on what I've learned previously, a few truths are apparent to me in regard to immigration:
1. It was often part of the experience of God's people (see Abram & Sarai, Jacob & sons, the Israelites in Egypt).
2. When the tables were turned and God's people were the ones who possessed the land, God recognized the vulnerability of other aliens and insisted that His people love and care for these immigrants.  They were to do this because they themselves were once vulnerable immigrants.
3. God's people are not to fear losing place, privilege, or property.  Everything belongs to God.  We can trust Him to take care of us.
4. One characteristic of wickedness is oppressing aliens.  One characteristic of righteous behavior is caring for aliens.
5. The spiritual ancestors of Mennonites, the Anabaptists, were perpetually aliens, chased out of one territory after another because of their beliefs.

When it comes to immigration, regardless of whether you live in the US, Canada, Paraguay, Kenya, or Indonesia, people who belong to Jesus are to treat strangers with kindness and hospitality.  It is the Lord's will.  We should, therefore, do just that.

It is time for us to hang up on political rhetoric in regard to immigration.  It is time for us to take courageous action as followers of Jesus not the stances of Democrats, Republicans, or Tea Party-ists.  It is time for us to surrender our cushy, smug place of believing this or that about immigration.  It is time for us to practice hospitality.

Saturday, July 31, 2010

Immigration 6

Those who are wicked display certain behaviors that define them thusly.  I am wicked if I deny and hide my own sins.  I am wicked if I murder my neighbor or seek to seduce his wife.  I am wicked if am unable to follow the Lord in faith alone or if I turn to idols.  I am wicked if I do not care for the needs of widows and orphans.  And I am wicked if I oppress aliens.

Psalm 94:1-8
O LORD, the God who avenges, O God who avenges, shine forth.

Rise up, O Judge of the earth; pay back to the proud what they deserve.

How long will the wicked, O LORD, how long will the wicked be jubilant?

They pour out arrogant words; all the evildoers are full of boasting.

They crush your people, O LORD; they oppress your inheritance.

They slay the widow and the alien; they murder the fatherless.

They say, "The LORD does not see; the God of Jacob pays no heed."

Take heed, you senseless ones among the people; you fools, when will you become wise?

The wicked are proud, aggressive, violent, and show no apparent concern for those amongst them who are vulnerable.
Compare this to what we find in Psalm 146:7-9:
He upholds the cause of the oppressed and gives food to the hungry. The LORD sets prisoners free, the LORD gives sight to the blind, the LORD lifts up those who are bowed down, the LORD loves the righteous.
The LORD watches over the alien and sustains the fatherless and the widow, but he frustrates the ways of the wicked.

The Lord, in direct contradiction to the ways of the wicked, shows preference for those who are suffering and being mistreated by others.  And He despises the behavior of people that causes such suffering.  He wants us to be about what He is about.
The Prophet Malachi records the Lord's words of judgment in this regard (3:5):
"So I will come near to you for judgment. I will be quick to testify against sorcerers, adulterers and perjurers, against those who defraud laborers of their wages, who oppress the widows and the fatherless, and deprive aliens of justice, but do not fear me," says the LORD Almighty.

The way we treat others and give them opportunities for life is clearly important to the Lord.  He desires for us to live by His standards, not by our cultural common sense, not by personal deductions informed by ruminations.
Anything less is wickedness.

Tuesday, July 27, 2010

Immigration 5

God commands His people to treat aliens with respect and love and to care for them because the Israelites themselves knew oppression and slavery.

Is there any other reason that He would command such?

Absolutely.  God's command to treat aliens justly is a reminder to His people that what they possess by God's grace, they do not own.

The Lord reveals this fact to His people when they are tempted to cling too tightly to what the Lord has granted as a trust: "The land must not be sold permanently, because the land is mine and you are but aliens and my tenants" (Lev. 25:23).  The land does not ultimately belong to anyone but the Lord.  It is therefore not to be horded or regarded as a personal possession to the exclusion of others.

This certainly seems to be an attempt by the Lord to help His people reframe their conception of property.  If I own my property, I can do with it whatever I please.  If the Lord owns it and I am just a tenant, I need to care for what I have been lent, share it, and remember that Lord encourages me to be generous with what He has provided.

Pharaoh, as he impeded the Israelites from leaving Egypt, needed to be reminded that the earth belonged to the Lord and not to him.  Ex. 9:29b - "The thunder will stop and there will be no more hail, so you may know that the earth is the LORD's."

David reflected on this reality in Psalm 24:1, "The earth is the LORD's, and everything in it, the world, and all who live in it..."

We see this understanding in the NT, within the Spirit-led church of Jerusalem, even practiced in a radical way, "All the believers were together and had everything in common. Selling their possessions and goods, they gave to anyone as he had need" (Acts 2:44-45). 

Jesus Himself was critical of the impact that possessions had on the lives of His followers, "Watch out! Be on your guard against all kinds of greed; a man's life does not consist in the abundance of his possessions" (Lk. 12:15).  At the heart of this is surely the understanding that God's dominion is all-encompassing.  Our possessions really aren't ours.  If we insist that they are and hold fast to them, they end up possessing us.

So what does any of this have to do with immigration?

Behind any resistance to aliens living in a given land is fear from natives that what they now have will be taken away or diminished.  If there are aliens receiving the good of the land, that will mean less for them.  Instead of seeing the Lord as a God of abundance and blessings, we too often see God as one who is miserly, providing barely enough for survival, therefore we must cling tightly to our "possessions."  Ironically, this seems to be a phenomenon more common in rich countries than in poor ones!

The Word of the Bible flies in the face of this ungodly selfish attitude.  Instead, it constantly encourages trust  in God and selfless generosity, and seldom encourages us to take care of what belongs to us.  This is the radical, unrealistic, challenging Word of Truth, and it should shape every one of our attitudes and beliefs.

Next: What does it mean to oppress an alien?

Immigration 4

So far we have examined the matter of immigration during the age of the patriarchs from the perspective of God's people, noted the impact of being aliens on God's people, and briefly inspected the experience of Anabaptists as aliens in practically every setting they have ever found themselves in.

Let's focus now on the reality that aliens were an expected, normal part of Israelite culture.

At the institution of the Passover recognition, the Lord uttered these words to Moses (Ex. 12), "For seven days no yeast is to be found in your houses. And whoever eats anything with yeast in it must be cut off from the community of Israel, whether he is an alien or native-born."  The assumption is that aliens (non-Israelites) will be living amongst the Israelites.  The consequences of consuming foods containing yeast pertains to both the kin of Abram as well as those who are strangers.

This assumption is confirmed in Leviticus 24:22, "You are to have the same law for the alien and the native-born."  Israelites will have aliens amongst them and if they are living as a part of the Israelite culture, are to be come under both the privileges and responsibilities of God's Law.

The Lord knew that aliens were going to be naturally vulnerable living within Israelite parameters.  He therefore set up guidelines to aid His people in relating to these folks.  Check out this three-verse stretch in Exodus 22: "Whoever sacrifices to any god other than the LORD must be destroyed. Do not mistreat an alien or oppress him, for you were aliens in Egypt. Do not take advantage of a widow or an orphan."

In between a very strong admonition for the Israelites to stay away from false gods and a command to not abuse widows and orphans, the Lord instructs the Israelites to avoid mistreating aliens amongst them.  Why?  Because the Israelites themselves were once aliens themselves and were oppressed and enslaved by a tyrannical people.  The Lord is making it clear that such behavior is not in keeping with the ways of righteousness and His people are to behave differently. 

This command is so important to God that it is repeated in the very next chapter, "Do not oppress an alien; you yourselves know how it feels to be aliens, because you were aliens in Egypt" (Ex. 23:9).  For good measure, take to heart the words of Deuteronomy 24:17-18.  Notice how the words of the OT often place widows, orphans, and aliens together.  "Do not deprive the alien or the fatherless of justice, or take the cloak of the widow as a pledge. Remember that you were slaves in Egypt and the LORD your God redeemed you from there. That is why I command you to do this."

Not only are God's people to avoid mistreating aliens, they are also to make special provisions for their well-being and are to love them.  Such behavior leads to blessings from the Lord. 
  •   Lev. 19:10, 33-34 -  "Do not go over your vineyard a second time or pick up the grapes that have fallen. Leave them for the poor and the alien. I am the LORD your God."  "When an alien lives with you in your land, do not mistreat him. The alien living with you must be treated as one of your native-born. Love him as yourself, for you were aliens in Egypt. I am the LORD your God."
  • Dt. 10:18-19 - "He defends the cause of the fatherless and the widow, and loves the alien, giving him food and clothing. And you are to love those who are aliens, for you yourselves were aliens in Egypt."
  • Dt. 14:28-29 - "At the end of every three years, bring all the tithes of that year's produce and store it in your towns, so that the Levites (who have no allotment or inheritance of their own) and the aliens, the fatherless and the widows who live in your towns may come and eat and be satisfied, and so that the LORD your God may bless you in all the work of your hands."
The OT message in regard to aliens is clear.  They will be a normal part of life.  They are to be treated with dignity.  God's people are to make sure aliens have what they need to live on.  They are even to be loved because God loves them.  And all of this because God's people knew full well what it was like to be oppressed aliens at the mercy of a mighty and rich people.

But that is not the only reason...

Thursday, July 15, 2010

Immigration 3

As I wrote in Immigration 2, the Israelites of yore knew full well the severe challenges of being constantly nomadic.

So did our spiritual ancestors, the Anabaptists. Anabaptist groups emerged in Europe in the early 16th century amidst a hostile world. Because their doctrine differed from that of both Protestant and Catholic state-churches, they were persecuted in practically every locale. For instance, Anabaptists of the 1520’s were relentlessly hunted in their native Austria and mercilessly killed if caught. Many had no choice but to flee to the much safer Moravia and genuinely hope for religious liberty (Dyck 51-2). There they lived as tolerated aliens - at least for a spell.

For the next 200 or so years, Anabaptist groups were on the move. They relocated when the persecution they experienced in a particular setting became too severe to tolerate. This culminated with eventual mass migration from Europe and Russia to North and South America in several waves.

It was a group of Amish-Mennonites worn by petty persecution, the militarism of Europe, and poverty that made the voyage from Switzerland and France to the United States in 1834, eventually settling and subduing the wilds of early Fulton County, Ohio. These German-speakers were welcome to make their way as aliens in a land formerly lightly inhabited by Native Americans. For many Central Mennonites these settlers were direct blood kin.

The relationship between these Mennonites - who eventually dropped the Amish identity - and their neighbors was often uneasy in the past, particularly during war-time. As pacifists, they refused to enter military service for reasons of conscience. As a result, they were at times deemed cowardly and almost always seen as unpatriotic; less than ideal citizens.

This was a reminder to the NW Ohio Mennonites that though their families had lived in this nation for 100 years, they were yet revealed to be theological aliens during times of national conflict.

Next: God teaches Israel about aliens