Go Set a Watchman

I just finished listening to the Audiobook of Go Set A Watchman, read very effectively by Reese Witherspoon. The manuscript was written in the 1950s but never published until it was discovered in 2014. The story is set after To Kill A Mockingbird, when Jean Louise (Scout) is a grown woman of 26. Go Set A Watchman was written before the more famous book, the main theme of which is summarized in a brief section.

Mockingbird was a gentler and more effective way of dealing with racism. Had she published the Watchman manuscript in the 50s, it would probably have been banned and its author blacklisted.

Mockingbird is probably a more perfect artistic accomplishment. Go Set a Watchman, though, has its literary moments, with some colorful characters and amusing scenes.  The scenes of the motherless child reaching puberty and the anxiety it causes should be required reading for every teacher or youth worker who deals with middle school children.

The last few chapters resemble a platonic dialog more than a dramatic story and consist of a series of intense exchanges between Jean Louise and those closest to her.  Her angry speeches against racism are countered with genteel defenses of the way things are and why it is necessary to go along and get along. It is this social commentary that we need now.

You remember back in November when everyone warned us to avoid politics and religion at the family gathering for Thanksgiving? Jean Louise’s speeches are the models for what we should have said.

Why I Am a Small ‘c’ catholic

The word catholic comes from the Greek phrase kath’ holen ten oekoumenen, “throughout the whole inhabited world.” To be a catholic Christian means you follow the faith that is accepted and practiced throughout the whole world. The word ecumenical comes from the same phrase. To be catholic and to be ecumenical mean the same thing. It means you share the faith Christians down through the ages and throughout the whole world have followed.

That faith centers in what God has done for the world through Jesus Christ. God sent his son into the world to show us the way of peace and love, to bear our sins on the cross so we can be forgiven and reconciled to God and to one another, to rise again conquering death on our behalf so we can be assured of eternal life, and to give us the Holy Spirit to empower us to live lives of love and peace, anticipating the final transformation of this world into the kingdom of God.

This faith is summarized in a confession known as the Apostle’s Creed. It contains the words, in addition, “I believe in the one, holy, catholic church.”

All followers of Christ belong to that church. It is not perfectly one or holy or universal as we see it now. But because it is claimed by Christ and because he works through those people, it is one, holy, and catholic.

I say small ‘c’ without meaning any disrespect to large ‘C’ Catholics or Orthodox. In fact, I have a growing respect for the Roman Catholic Church and the various Orthodox churches who are also Catholic. I have a lot of respect for the popes I have known in my lifetime, especially St. Francis. Some of his recent predecessors did not do enough to deal with a horrible problem in the church, and I don’t excuse that. But that is a problem the authorities in Rome and in America and other countries will have to deal with.

I keep a copy of the Catechism of the Catholic Church on my desk and receive a lot of benefit from it. The catechism gives better answers than some of my conservative Protestant and Evangelical brothers and sisters (I have to say and sisters, although women theologians are fairly new in those circles) to questions about science, sexuality, economic justice, ecology, world religions, human rights, and the modern historical study of the Bible.

Once I had a student who freaked out when he heard the term “free church catholic” at a conference. I could use that term to describe myself. I remain free to follow my own conscience and hold my own convictions. In other words, I remain free to disagree with the catechism or the teachings of the church. For example, when I say Rome gives better answers on sexuality, I still disagree with its teaching that celibacy is the only option for those who accept a religious vocation, for those who have been divorced and remarried, and for others. But the place for that conversation would be at the Boji Stone (our local coffee shop), in a friendly, respectful atmosphere.

The Reformed theologian Jürgen Moltmann has spent his life engaging in dialogue with Catholics, Protestants, Marxists, atheists–anyone who will sit down and talk to him. He says you don’t have to give up beliefs that are important to you to have a conversation. In fact, he says, if you suppress your differences, you deprive the other person of a genuine conversation partner. Today I am emphasizing what I have in common with all followers of Christ, and why I am a catholic Christian.

And so, I am free to participate in the long-established participation of Ash Wednesday and Lent. To some extent, participating in a season of fasting, self-denial, and reflection also reflects a bit of solidarity with Jews, who observe Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement, and other fasts; and Muslims who fast during Ramadan and other times.

The deprivations we catholics undergo during Lent are pretty mild compared to the fasts the other children of Abraham endure. During Lent we can choose what to give up. I suggest either giving up something you don’t need anyway, or something you enjoy but that is not really essential. I visited with a lady yesterday who told of a friend who gave up smoking every year during Lent. She said he was aware of it every moment, constantly reaching for his empty shirt pocket. But that constantly reminded him of Jesus and what he suffered for us. (I wondered why he didn’t just stay quit–but that is another story).

There is one other kind of fasting, mentioned by the prophet Isaiah. It’s not really giving up something ourselves, but it is thinking of others in need.

Is not this the fast that I choose:

to loose the bonds of injustice,

to undo the thongs of the yoke,

to let the oppressed go free,

and to break every yoke?

Is it not to share your bread with the hungry,

and bring the homeless poor into your house,

when you see the naked, to cover them,

and not to hide yourself from your own kin?

I Don’t Want To Be a Goat (Matt 25)

There is a valley south of Jerusalem that was once famous for being a center of toxic religion—idolatry is the name the Bible gives to toxic religion.  Seven centuries before Christ the place was called Tophet and a shrine was there, where the practitioners of various toxic religions sacrificed their children.  Tophet was in a valley once owned by the son of Hinnom.  Ge-ben-hinnom  is “valley of the son of Hinnom” in Hebrew.  Over time the name of the place was shortened to Gehenna.

King Josiah, the best king Judah ever had, destroyed the shrine of Tophet.  After that, the whole Hinnom valley was used as a garbage dump.  Jesus used the imagery of Gehenna, the rotten, smoldering, stinking center of toxic religion, as a warning.  Those who prey on children, those who slander others in their arrogant self-righteousness, are in danger of ending up in Gehenna.

Matthew 24 and 25 tell about the Day of Judgment, using several parables.  These parables give several disturbing images of the fate of those who fail the judgment.  In one parable a servant who got drunk and beat his fellow servants is punished by being “cut to pieces” and given a place with the hypocrites, where there is wailing and gnashing of teeth.  That one is puzzling.  If he is cut to pieces, it sounds like he is dead–but there is wailing, so it sounds like the hypocrites being punished there are still alive.

In another parable the punishment is being excluded, shut out.  Those who are not prepared miss out on the joy of the wedding.  They show up too late, the gates are closed and locked, and they are left outside in the darkness.  In another parable a lazy slave is thrown out into “outer darkness, where there is weeping and gnashing of teeth.”  Then in the parable of the sheep and the goats, the goats are thrown into the eternal fire, the place prepared for the devil and his angels, the place otherwise called Gehenna.

Jesus used imagery and he used hyperbole to make a point.  The point was always serious.  C.S. Lewis said we should be careful about being too certain about the geography of heaven or the temperature of hell.

In the late 1700s and early 1800s revivals swept across the frontier.  There were tent meetings that lasted for days and weeks.  And in the preaching there were always vivid descriptions of hell.  And people were terrified.  And worse, many of the preachers had a theology that said, “You are probably going to hell and there might not be anything you can do about it,” because God has already chosen those who are going to heaven.  Some people got saved and others just got scared.

In the 1800 hundreds, several new religions arose as a way of dealing with the revivalist teaching of Hell: The Seventh Day Adventists teach extinction.  Those who are not saved are just dead forever.  The Mormons teach there are several different degrees of afterlife, some get to live on the earth, and then there are lower and higher heavens that others go to.  The Jehovah’s Witnesses teach that a few will go to heaven, many will be resurrected to a good life on earth in the Kingdom of God, and those who refuse to repent will be destroyed.

The Disciples taught nobody has to go to hell, anyone can be saved.  You are not saved by belonging to the right church but by trusting your life to Jesus.  He has given us easy ways to tell if we belong to the elect or not.  If you are willing to turn from your sins, declare your faith in Christ, and be baptized in his name, you can have confidence that you are saved and on your way to heaven.

Many today are still disturbed by the idea of hell or eternal punishment after death.  What is most disturbing is that it sounds cruel and it seems arbitrary and unfair.

C.S. Lewis said “the Bible is meant for grownups,” by which he meant people who knew how to read literature.  Lewis was troubled by the idea of hell, but he also believed it was important.  He believed it was important to say that the choices we make in this life have consequences that extend throughout this life and beyond, even into eternity.  One of Lewis’s influences was G.K. Chesterton, who taught that “hell is a tribute to the dignity of man.”  Another influence was George McDonald, who was a universalist.  McDonald believed that Hell is a devise God uses to bring the lost to repentance.  It is like the pigsty the prodigal son found himself in. 

C.S. Lewis was a professor of Medieval and Renaissance literature.  He also loved the Divine Comedy and Milton’s Paradise Lost.  The Inferno, the first part of the Divine Comedy, is a depiction of hell.  It is a place God in his mercy prepared for those who chose to reject God’s love.  Sinners get the choices they have made.  The sin one chooses is the punishment for sin.  Those who chose in life to be swept away by passion and lust, are swept off their feet forever in the Inferno, driven by relentless cold winds.  In Milton’s Paradise Lost, again, hell is the result of human choice, God’s gift of freedom.  Satan describes himself as one who brings

A mind not to be changed by place or time.

The mind is its own place, and in itself

Can make a heav’n of hell, a hell of heav’n.

What matter where, if I be still the same?

C.S. Lewis wrote his own book on heaven and hell, called the Great Divorce.  It is a dream about a visit to the “gray world,” a joyless, lifeless place that is either Purgatory or Hell, depending on how long one stays.  A tour bus takes a group of the residents to heaven, which is a beautiful, joyous place; but they don’t like it.  It’s too real.  They are too used to their own alternative reality, they can’t handle true reality.  All but one of the tourists voluntarily get on the bus and go back where they are comfortable.

I think we have to say a few things about Jesus’ parables of judgment.  First, they use imagery.  The imagery points to something real and terrible: exclusion, missed opportunity, living in the land of toxic religion, fire, pain, and weeping.  The imagery points to end result of a life of blind self-indulgence as well as a life deceived by toxic religion.  Hell is “a place with the hypocrites.”  Judgment begins in this life.  The choice of sin is the punishment for sin.  The punishment for selfishness is loneliness, self-imposed exclusion from the joyous celebration God invites us to join.

Second, judgment is a reality.  We are responsible for how we live and we will be required to give an accounting.  The choices we make in life are serious, and we have no guarantee of a  second chance.

Third, God desires the salvation, the well-being and joy of all people.  God is love.  There are several ways Christians have tried to reconcile the biblical imagery of hell with the Love of God.  One way is that hell is the most gracious accommodation God can make for those who refuse his grace.  Hell is the painful refuge.  Rather than destroy his creation, God gives them a place where they can continue in the existence they have chosen. 

Another way is to say hell is redemptive punishment, meant to bring lost souls to repentance.  It is a second chance.  Is there a hint of hope in Jesus’ words, “you will not get out until you have paid the last penny.” 

Another way is to say hell is a warning.  It is a picture of what the hard-hearted deserve, but God has already provided the alternative.  Hell was not created for any human being, God does not desire anyone to be lost in this life or in eternity, and God has provided a way anyone can have the assurance that they are God’s children and nothing can separate them from his love.

There is one more issue that may trouble us.  What about those who have never heard of Jesus?

The parable of the Sheep and the Goats gives us an answer if we reframe the question.  Make it, “What about those who have never met Jesus?”  And the answer is surprising. 

There is no one who has never met Jesus.  It’s just that he comes to us in disguise.

He comes to us in the form of those we consider least important.  He comes to us disguised as the hungry person we meet, or one who is thirsty, or in need of clothing, or homeless.  He comes to us as the refugee, the immigrant, or the one in prison.

You have probably heard that if you want to go to heaven, you have to accept Jesus.  It’s true.  But what if he already came to you and you rejected him or ignored him?  You’ll meet him again.

Jesus is so gracious, he comes to us in many forms.  He comes to us in the word, the word in the Bible or in the sermon.  He comes to us in the form of his body the church.  He comes to us in the bread and the wine.  And he comes to us in the people we meet in the street.  But make sure we understand: If we have prayed to accept Jesus into our hearts–we are missing something if we don’t accept him when we see him in the street.

When the King comes he will separate the people of all nations into two groups: the sheep and the goats.  The sheep are those who welcomed Jesus when he came to them in disguise.  They will have a wonderful surprise.  The goats are those who rejected Jesus when he came to them in disguise.

I don’t want to be a goat.

Why Small Miracles?

Happy Hanukkah!  Jesus never heard of Santa Claus, but he celebrated the Festival of Dedication (John 10:22), which is what Hanukkah means.  When a brutal Syrian dictator persecuted the Jews and tried to forbid them from worshipping One God and keeping his Law in the traditional way, they finally fought back.  One of the shock and awe weapons Antiochus’s army used was the elephant.  But one of the freedom fighters, at the cost of his own life, ran underneath one of the beasts of burden and rammed a spear into his belly, making the soldiers vulnerable.

The Maccabean freedom fighters won against great odds.  But that is not the miracle Hanukkah celebrates.  After the enemy army was driven off, they needed to rededicate the temple, which Antiochus the mad man had desecrated.  And they needed pure oil to light the lamps for the ceremonies.  Antiochus had made sure he had defiled all the oil in Jerusalem–except that someone had stashed away a small jar, enough for one day.

They lit the lamp and sent a runner to buy more.  The round trip took eight days, but “a great miracle happened there!”  The small supply of oil lasted eight days until the new supply came.

Sonja and I have seen some small miracles in the last few weeks.

But do you ever wonder why God does small miracles but we don’t often see the big ones?

Miracles are signs, not to convince unbelievers, but gentle reminders to the faithful.

When God put humans in charge of the earth, evidently, he was serious about it.  He does not intervene in big ways very often–maybe a few significant times.  How can you believe in God when you see the suffering in Syria, Sudan, a dozen other places?

God didn’t start those wars.  War is man’s business.  It is man who starts it and it is up to man–sorry about the gendered pronouns, but in the history of the world the aggressor is usually male–to end it.  We won’t negotiate to prevent a war; that would be weakness.  But after thousand or millions on both sides are dead, after there is nothing left to fight for, the old men sit down to negotiate an “honorable peace.”

The Maccabees had to fight their own war, which was a brilliant success; then they had to govern, which was much more difficult.  But none of that is the miracle Hanukkah celebrates.  It is the small miracle of light.

God does not intervene often in our world.  He is already there; he is present everywhere.  He is present in the cries of the children of Syria.  He is present in the prayers and the contributions and the good works of people of good will.  Those who believe in him and call ourselves his followers (and maybe some others who don’t think of themselves in those terms) are his hands and feet, eyes, ears, and heart in the world.  For them God does small miracles as signs that their work is not in vain.

Philippians 1:19-20 Confident of Victory

It seems that the date of Paul’s trial is near.  Paul will be led from his rented home where he is serving house arrest and taken to the tribunal to be heard by Caesar himself, where Paul will defend the Gospel and his role as an ambassador for Christ.  At the end of the trial either Paul will be allowed to leave a free man, vindicated by Caesar’s court, or he will be led away to the place of execution.

Paul has no human way of knowing the outcome, and he claims no explicit revelation from God: no vision, no clear inner voice, no word of prophecy.  He does, however, have the confidence of faith.  His faith gives him the confidence that God still has a purpose for his life on earth, in particular encouraging his faith family and especially those who are both friends and brothers and sisters from Philippi.  His hopes will not be realized automatically but through the prayers of his friends and the workings of the Spirit.

Regardless of the outcome of his trial before Caesar, Paul has the hope of final vindication before the throne of Jesus; but his faith is also inspired by the examples in the Psalms of those who expressed their hope for God’s deliverance in this life and on this earth.

Paul’s situation is ambiguous and his hope is ambivalent.  We should expect some ambiguity in his language, and it is present throughout this passage (Phil 1:15-26).  Paul confidently expects his trial to result in his salvation.  Normally he uses the word to express the ultimate consummation of a believer’s faith, which will happen when Christ reveals himself to the world as both Savior and Judge.  You could say Paul is hedging his bets, because he is assured of salvation in that sense.  But he is also using the word in the context of God’s deliverance of the faithful from their temporal and earthly enemies, a context seen so frequently in the Psalms.

If David’s faith could give him the hope of triumphing over his enemies, was Paul not entitled to expect the same result?  He is not seeking personal revenge over his enemies—but he does trust that God will grant him a personal victory.  Paul will emerge from the ordeal as a conquering hero.  Paul uses the language and imagery of a military victory parade.  In fact—here’s where some of the linguistic ambiguity comes in—he uses the terms that otherwise normally refer to the Second Coming to describe his anticipated return to the Philippians, in verse 26.  He speaks of his parousia palin.  Apart from reference Christ’s triumphant return, the expression was used in military and political circles to describe the glorious arrival of Caesar, accompanied by his retinue, to a Roman city.

The word parousia is a compound from a prefix meaning “with, beside” and a the verb eimi, which is a homonymn/homograph meaning either “I am” or “I arrive”.  So parousia can mean either “being with” or “presence” or else “coming to (someone’s presence)” or “arrival.”  It is used in the second sense here, and in the context of a victorious appearance.

Since we sometimes fail to appreciate literary subtlety, irony, and imagery, I should point out that Paul’s militant, triumphal imagery is metaphorical and paradoxical language.  The battle from which he hopes to emerge victorious is a spiritual battle, and the weapons that lead to triumph are faith, love, and prayer.  And the defeat of his enemies may well be that they are brought to their knees in homage to Paul’s Lord and become willing captives to him as Paul himself is.

If Paul’s greatest hopes were realized, and if we were able to see the event, we would not see a conquering hero–except through the eyes of faith.  We would see a little old man with scars on his body, dressed in well warn clothing, being unceremoniously released onto a dirty Roman street, perhaps to be greeted by a handful of friends.  But they would have the eyes of faith and would be quietly rejoicing in Paul’s triumph.

Philippians 1:1

1  Timothy joins Paul in wishing grace and peace to the Christ followers in Philippi.  Timothy is not a co-author (Paul uses the 1st person singular throughout the Epistle and will speak later of Timothy in the 3rd person), but he is a witness and vouches for Paul’s authority and the authenticity of the letter.  He is also a role model for the Philippians (2:19-24) and will be a personal delegate from Paul to them.

Paul and Timothy are servants of Christ Jesus (douloi Christou Iesou), a phrase modeled after the Old Testament expression eved YHWH, which is a position of great honor.  They willingly acknowledge owing their lives to Christ and being owned by him “in whose service is perfect freedom” and therefore though they are servants to all they can never become slaves of men.

In Galatians 3:26-4:7 Paul explains why the word “slave” is inadequate to describe our relationship with God.  Jesus also taught that we are “no longer slaves but friends.”  We are heirs and friends having a freedom and authority that slaves could never dream of–this applies to those who are slaves “according to the flesh,” in their earthly, worldly status.

The believers are saints (hagioi, holy people) because they have been claimed by God through Jesus Christ for his own purposes.  Their lives are dedicated to God and their behavior is becoming more holy and righteous day by day. To us sainthood or holiness sounds other-worldly, but to become holy really means becoming authentically human, becoming all we were meant to be, being whole and upright, and wholly motivated by love.  It is holy to embrace the joys of life with enthusiasm and zest; it is also holy to fully experience grief and pain, and to share both experiences, joy and pain with others.

The word hagioi also points to future victory: the saints will come again with Christ when he establishes his kingdom and will reign with him.

At the coming of Christ the righteous dead will be raised and given glorified bodies, and the faithful living on earth will receive glorified bodies and will be visibly “raptured” briefly, caught up in the air to meet Christ as he descends, and then get in line behind him as he returns to the earth in victory, where he will be recognized by all who have ever lived.  The imagery of the second coming of Christ “with his saints” is derived from Daniel’s vision and is expressed in the imagery of a Roman conquering hero’s victory parade.  (See Dan 7:25-27, Jude 14, 1 Thess 5:14-17.)

There is no evidence in the Bible for a “secret rapture” of the saints before a great tribulation on the earth.

Of course the saints will not just sit around in the meantime waiting to escape from the world.  They are called to be a Holy Nation, God’s people on earth who experience and demonstrate the reality of his kingdom here and now.  They live at peace with one another in the presence of God, praying for their enemies, showing compassion to the poor, the lonely, the needy, healing the sick, driving out destructive forces that keep God’s creation from flourishing as the creator intended.  (See Ex 19:5-6, 1 Pet 2:9, Eph 3:10, Matt 10:1, Luke 4:18-19.)

God’s holy people are elsewhere called by a name derived from Athenian democracy, ekklesia (usually translated church) the assembly of free citizens who have an equal right of free speech (parrhesia in Greek).  Each believer has spiritual authority and freedom, and the assembly decides local issues by discussion and consensus, voting or other democratic procedures.  The believers form an egalitarian community (Matt 23:8-12, Gal 3:28).  Paul’s letter is addressed to them, to all the saints; but the saints do have leaders and the leaders are not excluded.

Paul greets the saints with the bishops and deacons.  The English word “bishop” actually comes from the Greek word episkopos.  Drop the initial vowel and the ending, then change the initial /p/ to it’s voiced equivalent /b/, and after fifteen hundred years or so, you get bishop.  The original Greek episkopos, however, did not originally refer to a powerful office (like the chess piece) but to a function of leadership and care giving.  A bishop was one who oversaw or looked after others.

Other evidence from the New Testament indicates that the terms “elders” and “bishops” (presbyteroi and episkopoi) were either synonymous or overlapping.  Those with wisdom and experience in living godly lives were respected as elders, and the elders were appointed to the function of overseers.  In the New Testament, that is in the first century, there was always a group of elders in each church.

By the early second century a distinction was made between the bishop (singular) and the council of elders (still plural), in each church, with the bishop serving in a role identical to that of “pastor” in a local church today.  By the third and fourth centuries, the bishop was the leader of the largest church in a city, then in a region, and exercised authority over all the churches in his region.  By the sixth century the bishop of Rome had claimed to be the “first among equals” over the bishops of the other great cities such as Alexandria, Antioch, and Constantinople.

But in the early church, the term episkopos did not refer to a hierarchical authoritarian office.  The overseers of the congregation provided spiritual care for individuals and families, looked after the sick and needy, taught the congregation and led worship, and helped direct the overall administration of the local church as the members sought to please God and reach out more effectively among their neighbors.

We know that the twelve apostles were men, although women played a prominent role in the ministry of Jesus and were in fact the first to preach the Gospel of the Risen Christ to the apostles.  We know that the bishops whose names were recorded in the second centuries and beyond were men.  But Gordon Fee and others have pointed out that there may have been women in the earliest church who exercised the role of providing spiritual care and direction.  Fee mentions Euodia and Syntyche in Philippians 4:2 and Phoebe in Romans 16:1-2.

Phoebe is described as a diakonos and a prostatis, the latter term having a meaning similar to that of episkopos, one who “stands before” another, giving aid, spiritual or physical care, or leadership and direction.  We know from 1 Cor 11 and 14 that women exercised the function of speaking “for the edification, encouragement, and instruction” of the church, a function described as “prophesying.”

Any group, no matter how egalitarian, needs leadership, guidance, and support.  Leadership in the early church arose in at least three forms:

1) Spiritual maturity and wisdom was recognized, and elders possessing such qualities were appointed to offices called “elder” or “bishop.”

2) Charismatic gifts gave individuals the ability to exercise various roles, including speaking, teaching, and leadership roles.  These gifts were recognized and evaluated by other believers.

3)  Persons who were prominent in the larger (civic) community had means, including houses large enough to host the church, and influence, such as connections with city leaders to provide some protection, legitimacy, and support to the church.  These persons provided a kind of natural leadership in the churches.

Over time no doubt some of these roles faded, some merged, and occasionally there was some conflict among them.

Deacons were servants in the church who took care of the poor, but also became ministers of the word of God.  The Greek word diakonos originally referred to a waiter or server, who served meals in a private home.  The original idea is one who “waits on a table.”  But then bankers also had tables, so sometimes financial managers were called diakonoi.  Those who served the congregation by feeding their souls, bringing them the bread of life, were also called diakonoi.

It seems the first deacons are those described in Acts 6, young men full of the Spirit, of wisdom, and of faith, who were chosen to deliver meals to the widows in the growing Jerusalem congregation.  They no doubt prayed with them, listened to them, encouraged them and were encouraged by them, and grew in their faith as a result.  The first deacons named went on to become ministers of the word and evangelists, including the first martyr Stephen.

The Greek word diakonos (plural diakonoi) gramatically is of common gender, the same form applies to masculine and feminine nouns.  Phoebe is called a diakonos of the church at Cenchrea.

One reason the bishops and deacons are mentioned could be that they were officially in charge of collecting, managing, and sending the offering to Paul.

WFPS 2012

Religion on the American Frontier, 1801-1901.

The Western Fellowship of Professors and Scholars will explore

the theme of New Religious Movements in the 19th century.  Several colorful and novel religious movements sprung up in America as the country was expanding westward; some promoting new revelations and new practices, and others claiming to return to primitive patterns and teachings.

What was it about this period of history that produced diverse groups such as Mormons, Jehovah’s Witnesses, Seventh-Day Adventists, Christian Scientists, Disciples of Christ and churches of Christ, and Pentecostals?

The WFPS will meet in Manhattan, Kansas, October 19-20, 2012.  Stay tuned for further announcements, and watch your mailbox and email for an official call for papers.

More than a Reaction

Kit-Kat and I read David Bentley Hart’s Atheist Delusions over the weekend.

In some ways, the title is unfortunate, because it gives the impression that the book is merely a reaction to Richard Dawkins and his buddies like Christopher Hitchens and Sam Harris.  I suspect that the work was already underway when pop-atheism books became best sellers.  Hart does make some reference to these authors, mainly to point out their lack of philosophical sophistication as, for example, when Dawkins  asserts that

“natural selection is the ultimate explanation for our existence.”

Hart responds,

The question of existence does not concern how it is that the present arrangement of the world came about, from causes already internal to the world, but how it is that anything (including any cause) can exist at all.

The real point of Hart’s book is indicated by part of the subtitle, “The Christian Revolution.”  The book is primarily a historical essay on the influence of the Christian Gospel.  Hart is not primarily defending the church as an institution or Christendom as an ideal civilization.  He is tracing the influence of the Gospel’s revolutionary ideas that each human being is created in the image of God and is of infinite worth.

Had our ancestors not once believed that God is love, that charity is the foundation of all virtues, that all of us are equal before the eyes of God, that to fail to feed the hungry or care for the suffering is to sin against Christ, and that Christ laid down his life for his brethren . . .

Had we not inherited a civilization based on these beliefs, we would never have come to believe in human rights, economic or social justice, or the basic human dignity.

Hart describes the basic brutality and inequality inherent in the classical civilization that Christianity replaced.  Then he describes the unspeakable horrors brought by the secular societies that replaced Christianity–the more than 100 million victims of mass murder in the 20th century.

In the process of his narration, Hart corrects many myths about Western history, including myths about witch hunts, the ignorance of the middle ages, and the antagonism between the church and science.

One essential difference between the Christian vision of reality and the post-Christian version is the definition of freedom.  In the Christian vision freedom means the opportunity to develop one’s true nature, to become what one is meant to be.  In the secular, post-Christian world, freedom means the arbitrary and spontaneous exercise of one’s choice, free from all restraints.  When secular rulers began to exercise their will uninhibited by the restraints of conscience, the results became genuinely horrendous.

I’d Love to Change the World

So, a Christian is someone who wants to change the world.  Since I’m trying to be clear, maybe I had better add the words “for the better.”  Many people have changed the world for the worse, but I  want to make the world a better place.  Maybe this is obvious, but I can think of three common objections; and I’d like to consider them before going on.

  1. There are a lot of people who want to change the world.
  2. I thought you Christians were only interested in another world.
  3. What does faith have to do with it?

There are a lot of people who want to change the world for the better.  There are a lot of people who care about war, poverty, disease, oppression, injustice, global warming, education.  There are a lot of people who have compassion and are doing something about it.

That’s great, the more the better.  I’m not trying to prove that Christians are better than other people or the only ones who care.  I’m just saying, if you are a Christian you should care.  I am saying among those who care, Christians are included.  In the civil rights movement, in health clinics around the world, in organizations like physicians without borders, engineers without borders, amnesty international, Christians work side by side with people of other faiths and people of no faith.

Christians want to go to heaven when they die, yes.  I recently wrote about my aunt’s passing, and I’m glad my family has the hope that she lives now in the presence of God.  When I think about Jesus’ teaching about the final great judgment one thing stands out.  We will have to give an account for how we have treated the poor in this world, here and now.  Belief that there is a better world coming motivates us to do what we can to improve conditions in this world.

What does faith have to do with it?  When we lived in Memphis I met a woman who had worked in the juvenile justice system for about thirty years.  Trying to make conversation I said,

It must be difficult work.

She agreed.  But then, wanting to say something positive I said,

But it must be gratifying when a young person comes back some day and says, “Thank you, you helped me turn my life around.”

She said,

That has never happened.

I’ve thought about that ever since.  Whatever it was that kept her going–I have to admire it.  For me, I need either to see results or at least to trust that it’s all in someone’s hands who is bigger than me.

Christians believe that changing the world is God’s work.  But he has called us to participate in his work.  A Christian is someone who wants to participate in what God is doing in the world.  Our motto is not pray instead of working but work and pray.

What Is a Christian?

I’m going to start a series on this topic.  I will speak from my own perspective because no one else has authorized me to present theirs.  I’m answering really, what it means to me to be a Christian, or what I desire to be.  I’m not trying to exclude anyone, I am just trying to clarify my own thinking and maybe help anyone else who happens to be looking over my shoulder.

  1. A Christian is someone who wants to change the world.
  2. A Christian is someone who want to be made whole.
  3. A Christian is someone who wants to connect with God and people of faith.

That’s all pretty simple, pretty basic, and also pretty important.  Maybe I need to elaborate a little bit.  I noticed that definitions 1 and 2 don’t say anything about God, and none of them even mention Jesus.  Further, they don’t really distinguish Christian commitment from other religious or nonreligious commitments.  Since I’m not trying to exclude anyone, maybe that doesn’t matter; but since I’m trying to be clear, maybe it does matter.

Alright, I’ll add a little detail to number 1.

A Christian is someone who wants to change the world.

More specifically, a Christian believes that God is working to change the world and that Jesus is God’s agent in changing the world. So,

A Christian is someone who is following Jesus in God’s work of changing the world.

In Memory

My aunt Alice pass away this morning, a few months after being diagnosed with cancer.  My mother and their youngest sister were with her when she passed.

My mother has lost three sisters younger than her (all to cancer), a younger brother and an older sister to heart attacks.  My mom herself is doing fairly well after having bypass surgery just before Christmas.

They used to all get together when one had a birthday–it reminded me of Job’s children in the Bible.   My mom now has one sister remaining in the Kansas City area, one in Chicago, and a brother in Cabool, Missouri.

Aunt Alice was unlucky in love, betrayed by two men in her life.  In between the two brief, unhappy marriages she raised a learning-disabled son, our cousin Brian.  Her life wasn’t easy; yet, she always seemed cheerful; she was always fun loving.

She was a believer and follower in Jesus.  As our family celebrates Good Friday and Easter, we will remember the promise, “This day you will be with me in paradise.”

No Compromise? (part 2)

Our political climate is intolerant of compromise.  Two people who tried to bring people together are finding out how hard it is to do.

Richard Cizik tried to lead evangelical Christians to compassionate action on a broader range of problems than abortion and traditional marriage.  For example, he believed that if Christians believe in creation, they should be more concerned about preserving God’s good creation than in trying to caluculate how long ago the world was made.  He also led in efforts to fight AIDS and human trafficking.

Some of his critics thought he was leading the faithful away from “moral issues”–as though issues that effect the life, death, and dignity of all people are not moral issues.  Two years ago they tried to oust him from his job as leader of the National Association of Evangelicals due to his embracing of “Creation Care.”  The plan backfired.  It turned out most evangelicals are fond of this planet.

This week, they finally got him.  On an interview with Terry Gross on NPR, he said he was opposed to same-sex marriage–but maybe civil unions weren’t a bad idea.  His enemies demanded–and got–his resignation.  Nicholas Kristoph called Cizik a “huggable evangelical” and said his resignation made for a sad day.

On the other side of the fence, supporters of gay rights are furious with president-elect Obama for asking Rick Warren to give the invocation at his inauguration.  Why?  Because Warren is opposed to gay marriage and abortions that are not medically necessary.  Obama’s stated position is that he does not favor same-sex marriage, but he does favor civil unions.

Rick Warren has raised millions of dollars to fight AIDS in Africa, and has encouraged the faithful to support progressive causes.   In fact, he helped get Obama elected when he invited both candidates to a forum at his church.  The president is returning the favor and strenghtening the personal friendship and political alliance he has made (more).  What some would call compromise and bringing people together, others would call betrayal.

Give Your Possessions to the Poor and Drink the Best Wine First

Those two sayings sum up the life of following Jesus.  Jesus told a young rich man who wanted to follow him, to sell all his possessions and give the proceeds to the poor.  Why did he say that?

First, because the poor needed it.  The rich man wanted to sign up to assist Jesus in his mission, part of which was to proclaim good news to the poor.  Think about that–if you are poor, what better news could there be?

“Some Wall Street wizard cashed in all his chips just before the crash–and he wants you to have the profits.”

Second, the young man’s possessions were dragging him down. What Jesus was really saying to him was

“Right here and now, I’m setting you free.  You don’t need all that.  Let it go.”

The second saying, “Drink the best wine first” wasn’t said by Jesus; it was said about him.  Jesus attended a wedding, maybe of one of his sisters, and when they ran out of beverage, he turned water in to wine.  If you’ve ever been to a wedding, no doubt you heard the preacher say, “Our Lord adorned this manner of life with his presence and first miracle at a wedding in Cana of Galilee. ”

The caterer said, “Woah!–everybody else serves the best wine first, but you saved the best wine for last.”

I’m not a connoisseur of wine–I didn’t grow up in California or France–I grew up in Carrie Nation territory; but I take turning water into wine as a metaphor.  Jesus wants us to enjoy life.  His presence is a celebration.  He didn’t tell people to give up their possessions because he wanted them to live an austere, ascetic existence.

He knew that possessions can possess us and keep us from enjoying life to its fullest.

Dobson and Obama

Dobson from MSNBC

Dobson, Photo from MSNBC

It used to be common for ministers to neglect their wives (ministers used to be mostly men in most denominations) and children while they were out doing “the Lord’s work.” James Dobson taught a generation of evangelical men that attending to the need of their wives and children was the Lord’s work, their first responsibility.

Dobson was a professor of Pediatrics at the medical school at USC before he began his career as an author and lecturer, and eventually founder and head of Focus on the Family ministries. His first book Dare to Discipline came out in 1970. In it he advocated gentle but firm and consistent discipline in raising children. He taught a generation of evangelicals the importance of nurturing self esteem in children. He taught that the goal of raising children is to prepare them to be independent and to make responsible decisions.

When the song “Cats in the Cradle” came out, Dr. Dobson heartily endorsed it. That song and Dr. Dobon’s teachings taught us to take time to be involved in our children’s lives–or at least to feel guilty when we neglected to do so.

One of Dobson’s other popular books was What Wives Wish Their Husbands Knew About Women. In it he encouraged men to be responsible, considerate, thoughtful, and romantic. In addition to Dobson’s books, Focus on the Family ministries has produced video series, magazines, conferences, and a high quality talk-show format radio program.

Dr. Dobson bristles when he is referred to in the media as Rev. Dobson. Although he speaks in churches, he is not ordained and has no formal theological training. That–the lack of theological training–is one thing Dobson has in common with Oprah Winfrey, and also with a man he has recently criticized, senator Barack Obama.

Faith and theology are two different things. Faith means trusting in God, keeping one’s commitment, being confident in the ultimate triumph of God’s will, continually depending on the mercy of God in awareness of one’s shortcomings. Theology is the systematic articulation of the content and meaning of one’s faith. One may have a strong faith and a weak theology. I assume that Dr. Dobson and senator Obama each have a strong faith.

But I’m getting ahead of myself. Back in the 1970s Dobson and the directors of Focus on the Family decided that teaching in the churches and on the airwaves was not enough. The family was under attack from powerful cultural forces, so Dobson decided to fight back and to enter the cultural wars. He became associated with other leaders in the religious right, Jerry Falwell and D. James Kennedy (both of whom have lately gone to their eternal rewards) along with others.

Dobson has been a staunch opponent of pornography, “radical feminism,” abortion, and “the radical homosexual agenda.” Dobson also sees the military as modeling positive family values and considers a strong national defense to be a pro-family issue. Likewise, he sees keeping taxes low, keeping business free of onerous regulations, and debunking the “myth” of global warming as pro-family issues. Dobson has always been surrounded by successful professionals: university and professional coaches, colonels, business executives, and physicians.

Barack Obama got his experience in grass roots organizing with a different clientèle. Naturally, his experience has led him to see different sides of the problems facing American families.

The alliance between Dobson and other conservative evangelicals helped elect George W. Bush president twice. To be precise, I might say their votes got him close enough to allow the election to be decided by the courts–but regardless, Bush’s policies and Dobson’s politics mirror each other perfectly.

Senator McCain has not been conservative enough for Dobson, so he announced he might sit this election out–at least as far as the presidential vote. Voting for a democrat was out of the question. Senator Obama has been appealing to people of faith and to moderate conservatives. The right wing doesn’t believe him, doesn’t trust him.

Obama says faith will have a role in his presidency, but that doesn’t mean the imposition of any particular religious interpretation on the nation. He illustrated by referring to laws in the book of Leviticus that no one follows today. He was not ridiculing Scripture but pointing to the difficulties in interpretation and the need for a historical awareness. On the historical matter, he was right. The commandments in the book of Leviticus were given to Israel as part of God’s covenant with them and as part of their law while living in the Land of Israel.

The commandments never were given to Gentiles or Christians as such. One can find expressions of universal principles in these laws, such as “You shall love your neighbor as yourself.” But one also finds laws against blending two kinds of fabric in a single garment, for example. An individual is free to follow his or her conscience in the choice of fabrics, even free to meditate on the spiritual meaning–for example, one’s heart should not contain a mixture of contradictory motives–but it would be divisive to try to make it the law of the land.

I don’t see Obama’s remarks as being a “fruitcake interpretation.” I see his comments as being in line with sound principles of biblical interpretation and the American heritage of freedom of conscience, speech, and religion.

C. S. Lewis, who was an expert on literature, once remarked that when Sigmund Freud ventured into literary criticism he was “quite ignorant.” Lewis said he should have stuck to what he knew best, curing neurotics. Maybe it’s time for Dr. Dobson to get back to doing what he knows best: teaching parents how to raise children with self esteem and teaching husbands and wives how to understand each other. Maybe it’s time for him to retire from politics.

Summer of Love

The Summer After

(British Library display remembering 1968)

As the saying goes, if you remember it, you weren’t there. I was young enough in 1968 that I remember seeing the news on TV.

1967 had been proclaimed “The Summer of Love.” I remember hearing the song on the radio, “Are You Going to San Francisco? Be Sure and Wear Some Flowers in Your Hair.” Young people (many of them teenage runaway as young as 13 or 14) from all across the country came to the Haight-Ashbury district to “make love, not war.”

1968 was a horrible year: the assassination of Martin Luther King in April, followed by riots in the streets, and then in June the assassination of Robert Kennedy. Protests against the Vietnam war turned ugly. Instead of blaming the politicians who made the decisions to continue the war, protesters turned against the soldiers.

The young who were turning on, tuning in, and dropping out didn’t vote; and the older generation who were tired of the hippie war protesters elected Richard Nixon president. In 1969 the musical “Hair” proclaimed the dawning of the Age of Aquarius when harmony and understanding would prevail. In May of 1970 four students were dead in Ohio in the Kent State Massacre.

The flower power generation had some noble ideals. They wanted peace and love; they wanted to end poverty and racism. But they made some tragic mistakes.

1. They thought they could expand their consciousness by using chemicals. Many did not survive the drugs they experimented with. Other old hippies are still stumbling around today with their bodies and brains weakened by drug abuse.

2. The looked for love in all the wrong places. The “free love” they celebrated was often exploitive or abusive. There was a lot of talk about love, but not much commitment. Some learned the lesson, “It’s cheap, but it ain’t free.”

3. They directed their energy in the wrong places. Cursing and spitting on young soldiers returning home from Vietnam did not help bring the war to an early end. Dropping out did not bring about positive social changes.

By 1972 there was a new movement breaking out all along the beaches of California and spreading east from there–the Jesus movement. It turned out that the man from Galilee who wore sandals and long hair, who said “learn from the flowers,” and “love your enemies” offered an alternative both to the drug culture and the establishment. His followers learned the secret of a natural high.

There are a lot of us old Jesus Freaks still around. Most of us got respectable haircuts and jobs somewhere in the 80s. We raised families and got involved in traditional churches. But some of us haven’t completely lost the vision of an alternative to materialism and empire, a world of peaceful and beautiful communities inspired by the teaching and the presence of Jesus.

Traveling Mercies

Anne Lamott

If you have ever walked out on a speech by Tony Campolo, this book is not for you. Anne Lamott’s Traveling Mercies is one of the reading selections I brought along.

Anne grew up in San Francisco in the 60s and 70s with secular parents who were devoted to progressive causes. She did have some adopted “moms” who told her she was beautiful and God loved her. Later in life when she eventually admitted she was an alcoholic (but before she admitted she had an eating disorder) she started attending an African American church. If C.S. Lewis was was England’s most reluctant convert, Anne eventually became America’s most reluctant convert.

Somebody forgot to tell her some things, e.g.: Christians don’t cuss; Christians don’t believe in abortion; true love waits; and God is a republican. In a chapter dealing with forgiveness, she includes Ronald Reagan and George Bush (the elder; the book was published in 1999) among those who have hurt her personally and whom she finds it hard to forgive.

The portrait she paints of her self is not always attractive. You see her making the same dumb mistakes over and over again. One thing I admire about Anne Lamott, though, is that she remained loyal to all her friends whether they were atheists (most of them), Buddhists (a few), alcoholics (most of them), or whatever–I don’t suppose she ever had any republican friends; but she does describe one attempt to forgive one who happens to be the mother of a classmate of her son Sam.

If you can get past her personal failings, the book has something important to say: namely that people like Anne Lamott are the very people Jesus came to call as his disciples. She is a pretty good example of the kind of people the “emerging church” (or is it “emergent”? I sometimes forget) movement is trying to reach. She is a pretty good example of what Bonhoeffer’s nonreligious Christian might look like.

F. F. Bruce

FFBruceMap NE Scotland
F.F.Bruce

I am about 17 miles from Elgin (hard ‘g’ as in again), the hometown of the world famous biblical scholar F. F. Bruce.

I am tempted to write an epic poem about “Frederick the Bruce.”

If my grasp of Gaelic and Doric advances at a miraculous pace, and if the Muse of history visits me–I just might do it.

I might tell how Frederick the Bruce as a young loon, after gaining his footing in auld Aberdeen, ventured south among the treacherous English, and took degrees from Cambridge; thence to Vienna, and on Leeds where he relieved many an oor of wartime tedium commentatin on the Wondrous Acts of the Auld Apostles; how he met the Tübingen critics, the McBaur clan, on their own turf, wresting the Scriptures from the academics and returning it once more to the kirk; how he returned to his own land, crossing the Firth of Forth (an ay, the Firth of Fyvie) to pass his mantle to young Howard the Marshal, to whom young William the Baker, sailing the rough Atlantic, came seeking Aberdonian wisdom, and returned to the barbarous land of the North Americans, where he has gainit glory for himsel.

But while I wait for my muse to appear, I will have to trim my sails and speak plain prose.

F. F. Bruce was respected among historians, classicists, and biblical scholars of all stripes; but it is in particular the tribe of evangelicals, British and North American especially, who are most greatly indebted to him. He showed that faith and scholarship are not mutually exclusive. He showed that a believing Christian could undertake a historical interpretation of the Bible.

He began his academic career as a teacher of classical Greek, and received his first university appointment as a professor of Biblical Criticism and Exegesis after completing his commentary on the Greek text of Acts.

The Buckie library is just across the street from my back door. The librarians treated me with great kindness and extended a library membership to me, complete with a card and a permit to use their computers. I found on their shelves an autobiography of one of Morayshire’s favorite sons, from which I will be quoting or reporting in days to come.

The thing that impressed me most about professor Bruce was his broad and gracious spirit. His example of taking his graduate degree (an M.A. from Cambridge) in classics influenced me to follow in that path. I didn’t make it to Cambridge, but the training I received in classics at the University of Kansas has given me a good foundation for the study of the Bible, as well as introducing me to a world that is fascinating in its own right.

Easter Wishes from Bonhoeffer

Dietrich Bonhoeffer writes an Easter letter to his parents during his first month in prison. He is allowed to send one letter every ten days. He refers to his fiancée, Maria von Wedemeyer, who was about 19 at the time. He was about 37 when he wrote the letter.

Easter Sunday, April 25, 1943

Today the tenth day is finally here again, so that I may write to you. How glad I am to let you know that I am celebrating a happy Easter here. The liberating thing about Good Friday and Easter is that one’s thoughts turn far away from one’s personal fate toward the ultimate meaning of life, suffering, and everything that happens, and one clings to a great hope.

Since yesterday it has been amazingly quiet in this prison house. The only sound heard is “Happy Easter,” as everyone calls to each other with no envy, and no one begrudges the fulfillment of their Easter wishes to those who labor here in these difficult conditions.

Good Friday was Maria’s birthday. In the past year she bore the death of her father, her brother, and two especially beloved cousins with such a firm heart. If I didn’t know that, I would worry about her. Now Easter will console her, her large family will stand by her, and her work in the Red Cross will keep her completely occupied.

Greet her warmly, tell her that I long for her very much. Tell her not to be sad but brave as she has been til now. She is so very young! That is the hard part.

Urban Legends

(Pictures from Snopes.com) Kennedy with hat

You gotta’ love urban legends. They make life so much more interesting. The problem is that most of them turn out to be false. Urban legends show how easily we accept as true anything we have heard–as long as it makes an interesting story and explains something.

Another habit many of us have is repeating a word or phrase without ever thinking about what it actually means. I have heard of the “hat trick” in hockey all my life, but I never gave much thought to what one was. I have to admit, though that I’m not much of a hockey fan.

Still, when my wife asked me, I said–“uh, mmm, —- uh, I don’t know.” So I looked it up.

(A hat trick is when a player scores three goals in one game–the fans throw their hats on the ice in tribute; a natural hat trick is when the same player scores three goals in a row in one game with no one else scoring an intervening goal.)

There are various legends about the etymology and origins of the name and the custom. Some of them sounded a bit fishy, so I turned to the famous debunking site Snopes.com.

I didn’t find hat trick–but I did find an interesting article about a “hat” urban legend. The legend–which I admit, up until a few minutes ago, I believed–is that President Kennedy destroyed the men’s hat industry when he became the first president to show up for his inauguration hatless.

Snopes disproved this legend very easily and convincingly: The article showed photographs and quoted newspaper articles from the time that described the event. The photograph above is one of the many that show the president wearing his top hat on inauguration day. The photograph below shows him giving the speech, with his hat removed (as was the custom) just before speaking; it is visible on the seat behind him.

The Greek historian Thucydides complained at “how averse people are to taking pains” to research history to find out what really happened in the past. So Thucydides became the first “modern, objective, scientific” historian–or so we are told. Actually very few take the effort to check the facts of Thucydides history.

Jostein Gaarder, in the book Sophies World mentions that for over two-thousand years everyone excepted it as a proven fact, on the authority of Aristotle, that women have fewer teeth than men. Gaarder suggested, “Aristotle could have easily learned the truth by asking Mrs. Aristotle to open her mouth and counting her teeth.” Any reader of Aristotle could have done the same thing.

Without bothering to check on what Christians actually believe, there are a lot of people out there who give the definition of faith as “believing something for which there is absolutely no evidence.” That’s not what faith is, and I don’t know many believers who believe that’s what it is.

Kennedy hatless

Idolatry 1

I want to begin a series of posts on the topic of idolatry. The fact that idolatry is considered a sin in Judaism, Islam, and Christianity–maybe in some forms of other religions too–raises several interesting questions.

First, I want to point out what monotheism and the rejection of idolatry does not mean, at least in the religion of the Bible. It does not mean intolerance.

A few years ago, in an address at Harvard, Gore Vidal made this remark: “The great unmentionable evil at the center of our culture is monotheism.” Why? Because, in his view, monotheism is responsible for intolerance and therefore war and strife among nations.

The world has seen it’s share of religious intolerance, hatred, and war. The point I want to make, though, is this kind of intolerance is not based on the teaching of the Bible.

First, in the Hebrew Bible, the Christian Old Testament–the commandment against idolatry is given to people who have voluntarily entered a covenant relationship with the God of Israel, who is also the universal God of all people. When Israel is unfaithful to the covenant with God, God sends prophets to call them back to faithfulness. These prophetic indictments against unfaithfulness and idolatry are not given to other nations.

When the prophets speak to other nations, they call them to universal standards of justice and human rights. The prophets do not condemn other nations for practicing the wrong religion, but for war crimes and crimes against humanity.

The New Testament does portray the mission of the early church with the apostles calling people from all nations to turn from “vain idols to the living god.” They use persuasion, not force to proclaim the good news. The Gentiles who worship their own gods defended the apostles: “These men are not blasphemers of our goddess.”

I am not saying that the Bible teaches tolerance for idols in the sense that serving idols is just as valid as believing in the God of Israel and of Jesus Christ. I am saying that it does not encourage violence against those who practice other religions.