Tag Archives: Mexico

What God Gets

                       Psalm 16

Preserve me, O God, for in you I take refuge.
    I say to the Lord, “You are my Lord;
I have no good apart from you.”
    As for the saints in the land, they are the excellent ones,
in whom is all my delight.
    The sorrows of those who run after another god shall multiply;
their drink offerings of blood I will not pour out
or take their names on my lips.
    The Lord is my chosen portion and my cup;
you hold my lot.
    The lines have fallen for me in pleasant places;
indeed, I have a beautiful inheritance.
    I bless the Lord who gives me counsel;
in the night also my heart instructs me.
    I have set the Lord always before me;
because he is at my right hand, I shall not be shaken.
    Therefore my heart is glad, and my whole being rejoices;
my flesh also dwells secure.
10    For you will not abandon my soul to Sheol,
or let your holy one see corruption.
11    You make known to me the path of life;
in your presence there is fullness of joy;
at your right hand are pleasures forevermore. [1]

Christians who feel as if the world, as reported in the daily news, is spinning out of control, feel disoriented and disturbed. They look for a refuge. Psalm 16 talks about the kind of refuge they can have in a strong relationship with God. The psalms often pray for refuge or testify to finding refuge. In the Psalms, to take refuge in God is to cling to him in faith when trouble strikes. The psalmist expresses confidence in God’s protection and fearlessly calls to the Almighty for help. When trouble creates chaos and confusion, the psalmist calls out to God for guidance and seeks to follow God’s way.

Psalm 16 is this sort of prayer. Yet it has a unique perspective that Christians can appropriate to their blessing. Harper’s Bible Commentary says that Psalm 16 points to a time when Israel was falling away from faithful worship, and even Levites were falling away from their calling to serve God in his sanctuary. This view of the situation is expressed in the words, “The sorrows of those who run after another god shall multiply; their drink offerings of blood I will not pour out or take their names on my lips.” (verse 4) Contemporary Christians have every reason to feel the same way about the world around them.  US culture is just as prone to run after other gods as Israel was, and Christians who deplore the millions of aborted babies in the US will feel the same revulsion toward that news as this poet who rejected drink offerings of blood.

Christians share something with the ancient Levites who viewed Israel’s apostasy from a place of religious leadership. Christians are part of God’s kingdom of priests, and Christians have the same responsibilities of leadership that the ancient Levites had. Christians are called by Christ to be light and salt, visible, active agents of God’s kingdom in the world around them, just as the Levites reminded the Israelites of God’s claims on their lives.

Thinking about that image, it is important to remember a major difference between the Levites and the other Israelite tribes. The other tribes all received allotments of land in the Promised Land, but the Levites did not. The Levites, including those specifically consecrated to the priesthood, were to receive all the offerings that people brought to the Lord. Those offerings were their living. The Levites got whatever God got in ancient Israel. If the Israelites were feeling faithful, they gave larger and finer offerings. If the Israelites were on a binge of Baal worship, then offerings to the Lord might be few and far between.

To be a Levite could be a major challenge during times such as the early days of Josiah’s reign. When Josiah became king, the temple Solomon built with such fanfare had fallen into severe disrepair, and people had fallen away from worship of the Lord to such a degree that the discovery of ancient writings about God in the temple created a frightful stir. The Levites who lived through those days must have been quite resourceful, because they would not have been living on any offerings to the Lord. If they got what God got in those days, it was a very large NOTHING.

Christians, called to serve in God’s kingdom of priests, also get what God gets. Recalling how Bonhoeffer invites contemporary Christians to read the Psalms as Jesus’ prayer book, it is easy to see this parallel between ancient Levites and the kingdom of priests when the psalmist says, “What shall I return to the Lord for all his bounty to me? I will lift up the cup of salvation and call on the name of the Lord.” God has made Christians a kingdom of priests, and like the Levites in ancient Israel, we do not receive our “portion” as real estate. We lift up the “cup of salvation” as our offering to the Lord, and it is simultaneously the priest’s portion. We are priests who are live on the offerings to the Lord. We get what God gets.

This is an important point. As God’s priests, we get what God gets. The ancient priests endured some very hard times. We tend to think that if we have fallen on hard times, God isn’t taking good care of us, and we tend to believe that we should ask him to take away our hard times.

Yet as those who bear the name of Christ, as the kingdom of priests who receive whatever God receives, we are clearly called to share the opprobrium the culture heaps on God. If we are priests, we must endure. We get what God gets.

Jesus said, “If the world hates you, be aware that it hated me before it hated you.” (John 15:18) When we get what God gets, we get the hate of the world. In many countries, that hatred means that Christians are driven out of their homes, their husbands, wives and children are murdered, they are fired from their jobs, and even refused public utilities. They are deprived of any way to fill the basic human needs for food, clothing and shelter. This very thing could be in the future, the near future, for Christians in the USA, if we get what God gets.

When that happens, will we have the kind of faith the psalmist had? Ask yourself, Will I, in want and misery, be able to celebrate God’s presence in my life and say, “The boundary lines have fallen for me in pleasant places.”

This is not a hypothetical question. In Mexico, 26 Christian families were driven out of their home town when the local government cut off their utilities. Christians had refused to contribute money or goods to local festivities that worship pagan gods. In Nigeria, Muslins who belong to Boko Haram followed a pastor to his home, then shot him dead in front of his wife and children. In Tanzania, a Christian pastor was assaulted with a machete by an angry mob. His injuries were so serious that he spent days in ICU. When the police chief was asked to come and rescue the pastor, the police chief responded, “I cannot protect every pastor.” These countries all theoretically operate by the rule of law, and theoretically have religious liberty for citizens, but violent activists in these and other countries either overwhelm available law enforcement or else officials collude with the cultural pressure and turn a blind eye to violence.

The same attitudes appear closer to home. In the USA, a family recently sought asylum when their home country threatened to take custody of their children. The reason? The family was teaching the children moral values different from those taught by the government. The family was homeschooling their children and teaching biblical morals. The parents wanted their children to be taught Christian values and morals. The US Department of Justice argued in court that the law the family had fled applied to everyone, not just to them, and because it applied to everyone, it could not be considered persecution. At the same time, business after business is suing the federal government because of the requirements of the Affordable Care Act which do not exempt Christians from the employer mandate to buy insurance that includes the so-called “preventive” service of abortion or abortifacient drugs.

Whether persecution is mounted by a foreign government or by the US federal government, God’s kingdom of priests gets what God gets. If God is not respected and obeyed, then Christians are not respected and treated with courtesy. The Psalmist expresses the victorious mindset that prevails and endures in the face of persecution.

You make known to me the path of life; in your presence there is fullness of joy; at your right hand are pleasures forevermore.  (Psalm 16:11)

 


[1] The Holy Bible: English Standard Version. 2001 (Ps 16:1–11). Wheaton: Standard Bible Society.

Why Don’t Christians Just Try to Fit In?

Human beings share many common traits. One of those traits is that human beings like to be around other humans who share their own traits. It is the basis of tribalism and clubs and nationalism. It isn’t a bad or a good thing, but it can be expressed in bad or good ways. One of the historically bad ways of expressing this trait is religious persecution. As far back as human history exists, humans who worshiped one god persecuted humans who worshiped other gods.

Religious persecution is a natural outgrowth of both the yearning for a common identity and the conviction that one’s own gods are superior. For much of history, people integrated their religion tightly with their social and political structures. In fact, they believed that religion was a crucial element of political power. This tight integration resulted in terrible persecution of unbelievers, because their lack of faith was perceived as an affront to the community god or gods which might very well cause the gods to take vengeance on the whole community.

At the time of the founding of the USA, the men who brought this country to birth believed that religion ought not to be blended into the political structures of the new country. Many colonists had fled persecution provoked by their own unwillingness to participate in the community/national religion. They believed that every individual had the right to choose his religious beliefs, because they believed that that right was granted by God himself at the creation of each person. They expected that the people elected to the government would act consistent with their own religious principles, but they chose not to embed any particular religion into the structure of the government. Today, there are other countries where the absence of a state religion is coupled with constitutional protection of the individual right to choose and express his faith, but this freedom is by no means universal.

In recent news are three examples of what might be viewed as small scale examples of Christian persecution rooted in very local expressions of the integration of the community and its religion.

In October, 2012, there was a report from Laos that three pastors and some other Christians were jailed by a community for their unwillingness to participate in a traditional village ritual. The ritual involved drinking water sanctified by a shaman and signing a pledge of allegiance to the village gods. This episode was only one of several such incidents reported recently, and in some cases Christians were asked to sign papers renouncing faith in Christ. When the Christians refused, other villagers considered them to be inviting retribution from the traditional village gods. Even though the national government of Laos technically protects religious liberty, local officials felt quite free to imprison the Christians and beat them without fear that the national government would do anything about it.

In January, 2013, 52 Christians were arrested in Mexico and kept in prison for three days without food, water or sanitation. One pastor was tied to a chair. All the Christians were asked to sign statements renouncing their faith. These Christians, and others in similar incidents throughout Mexico, have left local Catholic churches where indigenous native religious practices are blended with Catholicism and have, over time, filled the spot once held by native American rituals and religions. In some cases local Catholic priests have supported or at least turned a blind eye to the abuse. Many Christians have left their homes and abandoned their farms, even with crops in the ground, due to the violence.

In February, 2013, five families in a highland village in Vietnam were assaulted in their homes by villagers irate that they had converted to Christianity. The villagers took issue with the refusal of the new Christians to participate in community sacrifices and other rituals associated with the local religion. The homes of the Christians were severely damaged and many of their possessions were destroyed. Viet Nam’s national government is Communist, but even though the government officially does not sanction persecution of any religion, in practice local Communist officials freely permit and even participate in such actions. In some instances local officials have hired thugs to assist in the destruction.

We are accustomed to hear reports of Christians persecuted because of state religions, but these three reports show that states with no official religious connections nevertheless sanction persecution of Christians. This evidence leads to a conclusion that most persecution is likely a response to the refusal of Christians in any culture to try to fit in locally with practices that conflict with their faith in Christ. Many of the colonists who founded the USA had fled Europe precisely because they could not fit in with the state religious expectations in Europe. This is precisely what is happening with Christians in the US who reject the employer mandate of the Affordable Care Act.

In the Affordable Care Act, the US government has created a spectacularly narrow definition of religion. According to that definition, religions practiced by native Americans, for example, might not even be religions. This narrow definition is consistent with the way secular thinkers in general define religion. The federal government has not established a state religion; it has established a state definition of religion. This definition does not bode well for the freedom of any sort of religious expression. According to the federal definition, only worship and religious education would be expressions of religion, and only if expressed in a non-profit organization recognized by the IRS. This definition has the effect of stating that the most fundamental teaching of Christianity, Christ’s call to a life of discipleship, is not religious expression. If it is not religious expression, then it is not protected by the First Amendment.

This definition of religion means that the federal government can suppress any religious expression that does not fit its definition of religion. Christians can say that they are called to live faithful lives consistent with the teachings of their religion, and they can prove that their religion has taught that contraception, abortion and sterilization are sin for two thousand years, but if the government’s definition of religion stands, then the Christian definition of discipleship is not protected religious expression.

When Roman emperors created an expectation that Roman citizens would worship them, the politically sophisticated Romans smirked and went along with the game, because they did not want to fight lions or gladiators in the Coliseum. They didn’t think the emperors were very god-like, but they wanted to live. A lot of people in the USA are like the ancient Roman citizens. They don’t like the employer mandate of the Affordable Care Act, and they may even think it is outrageous, but their sense of outrage does not extend to an agreement that Christians with religious objections to it should be exempt. In fact, at the root of it all is the fact that many Americans are so disconnected from whatever faith they claim in polls and surveys that they are willing to accept the federal government’s definition of religion. Many Americans of all “faiths” really don’t consider their faith to be normative in their lives. They can’t imagine why a few Christians are making such a fuss.

The local villagers in Laos and Vietnam and Mexico feel very much the same way. Like secular thinkers in endless comment threads in the US, they think Christians are being awfully high and mighty when they insist on their right to be different. They wonder, just like the President of the United States and the Secretary of Health and Human Services: Why don’t Christians simply try to fit in?

Read about the culture wars in the US and the persecuted church worldwide. Read Living on Tilt the newspaper.