Three Takeaways from “Exodus: Gods and Kings”

December 30, 2014

Exodus: Gods and Kings is filled with amazing special effects, wonderfully depicts the cultural situation (clothing, geography, architecture), and generally follows the biblical storyline.

Epic “biblical” movies are always imaginative creations. The Ten Commandments with the beloved Charlton Heston used a lot of imagination in telling the Exodus story, though it arguably followed  the biblical “script” more closely than did Gods and Kings.

When telling the biblical story visually, however, imagination is imperative and unavoidable.  Storytellers–whether verbal or visual or cinematic–tell the story in a particular way to make a contemporary point. We might hope that there is some degree of faithfulness to the overt lines of the story (and this is the case with Gods and Kings generally), but the intent is to tell the story in the present for a contemporary audience. In other words, if Exodus had been written last year, how might the story have been told while still retaining the main features of the reality it portrays? I suppose it could look like this movie. Maybe. At least one version of it.

Whatever one might think about the explicit divergences from the biblical story (e.g., the conversation at the burning bush is too limited in the movie, the omission of the opening confrontation between Moses and Pharaoh, absence of Pharaoh-Moses interaction about the plagues, etc.), the story is told to make a point(s) for contemporary audiences.

I heard several points, but here are my major takeaways.

1. Israel wrestles with God. Nun, Joshua’s father, demonstrates a tenacious hopeful faithfulness as he expects divine deliverance though he is uncertain as to when. In the movie, Israel waits for God, prays to God, and hopes in God, even as their suffering abounds and increases.

At one point, Moses–still a prince of Egypt–reminds the viceroy, who supervises the slaves, of the meaning of the word “Israel” (one who wrestles or strives with God). Moses is fully aware of this, and when he encounters God this becomes a prominent theme which grows within the drama.

Moses both argues and cooperates (or even abstains from action) with God. Moses wrestles with God. He objects to God’s decision to kill the children of Egypt (and perhaps we even nod our heads in agreement), but ultimately Moses accepts God’s decision (even when confronted by Pharaoh as to why Moses serves such a God).

This wrestling reflects some of the best of Jewish tradition. We see it in Exodus 3-4 and Exodus 32. We see it in Psalms 30 & 88, as well as in Job 7:7-21 and other places. It is part of the history of Judaism.

Israel wrestles with God. There is tension, and there is faith as well as honesty. God seeks human cooperation and honors the dignity of human freedom. One of the final scenes highlights this when Moses buys into the divine regulations we know as the “Ten Commandments.”

Rather than depicting the God-Moses relationship as a sanitized submissiveness, Gods and Kings reflects the raw reality that the book of Exodus depicts.  Moses wrestles with God, and so do we.

2. Jewish Holocaust Relived.  Forced labor. Burning bodies. Racial slurs. Summary executions. Genocidal pogroms.

The movie allows us to enter into the experience of slavery. We remember not only that ancient slavery, but the Nazi Holocaust as well.  The parallels are vivid. We are incensed with a righteous indignation, and we cry with the Israelites for justice and deliverance.

God expresses this righteous anger more than any other character in the movie. In explaining why the plagues, and particularly the last plague, were necessary, God points to Pharaoh’s arrogance and the treatment of Israel. The plagues are not about vengeance but justice and to secure the release of Israel from the holocaust they were experiencing.

The cry for justice rebounds through the history of the world. The slave conditions remind us that Africans were enslaved as forced labor in the Americas. The movie reminds us that racial slurs, summary executions (lynchings) and genocidal pogroms (mob violence) are part of our own American story.

As viewers sympathize with Israel in their suffering, perhaps we learn to sympathize with enslaved Africans, enslaved women in sex-trafficking, and the injustice pervasively present in the world even now. Perhaps our sense of righteous indignation is renewed.

3. Not by Israel’s sword, but by the Lord’s right hand. This biblical theme emerges in the movie. It is present in Psalm 44:3, Psalm 20:7, and Hosea 1:7 as well as other places.

I wondered early in the movie why Moses carried a sword rather than a staff after the burning bush encounter. Indeed, the staff is absent until after Israel crosses the sea.

Moses approaches the situation as a general who intends to train an army of freedom fighters. (The biblical story highlights Moses’s violent nature–he kills an Egyptian.) Moses will liberate Israel by his own might, ingenuity, and sword. He wages a guerrilla campaign against Egypt.  Of course, this is nowhere present in the biblical text.  This is a place where the script writer takes creative liberties in order to make an explicit point, which is nevertheless a theme in the canonical story and in the history of Israel.

God allows Moses to pursue his ineffective strategy until God decides to assume the reins and effectively move Pharaoh to liberate Israel. The plagues, depicted as natural events (though implausibly explained as such by Pharaoh’s own “scientist”), are divine acts that humble Egypt before Israel’s God. Egypt experiences horrors, and they now know how Israel feels in its horrendous bondage.

At bottom, violent revolution, which Moses chose as his strategy, is rejected. God uses the chaos of nature–a form of uncreation where God turns order into chaos when his creative activity turned chaos into order–to achieve the divine purpose.

The movie depicts human violence in negative terms, and in the biblical story human violence does not deliver Israel from Egypt.

Further, it is a purpose that is frustrated at times by Pharaoh’s own stubborness and idolatry (not only does he serve other gods but also thinks of himself as a god). Pharaoh’s hard heart increases the drama of the plagues. Human sin and rebellion creates further hardship (which is not unlike what sinful environmental practices do as well). Resistance to the will of God has consequences–for the nation, for people, even for children.

God delivers. We do not deliver ourselves. God remembers the promise to Israel and faithfully acts to redeem them from bondage. Moses’s freedom fighter strategy is discredited. Rather, Moses learns to trust in God’s mighty hand, and so we trust as well.



Noah the Movie, Part II

March 29, 2014

In my last post, I offered a reading of the biblical flood story, and now I offer an interpretation of Noah, the movie.

Like the biblical story itself, the movie is not a children’s movie.  It is about violence, ecological disaster, and the struggles of a man to fully discern God’s intent as the Creator judges humanity.

The movie has clear links to the biblical story–there is an ark, Noah is the main character, the Creator is judging the world, violence has filled the earth, and there is a flood to cleanse the evil–but the movie is not a “biblical movie,” that is, it does not intend to retell the flood story within the boundaries of what is known in Scripture or even how Scripture interprets the story.  The biblical story “inspires” the movie, but the movie is not the biblical story. Nevertheless, it is an imaginative retelling of themes that are part of the biblical story.

The movie functions, existentially (and thus theologically), as social commentary on human injustice against both the creation and humanity itself. It highlights ecological disaster and human violence. These are the great evils that grieved the Creator and for which the Creator will push the reboot button on the cosmos.

Due to human violence, the earth had become an environmental wasteland. The once green and beautiful earth had become a barren rock with little vegetation. The Creator invested humanity with dominion, and humanity used that dominion for its own sake. Humanity devoured the resources of the earth (including eating the flesh of animals), and this spiraled into violence against each other (including cannibalism). Human dominion was exercised through violence and injustice rather than through loving care.

Noah appears in the movie as a defender of the earth, the animals, and of mistreated humans (he rescues a young girl from death and raises her as his own). He lives within the chaos of a barren (rather than “good” earth) as a righteous person who remembers the story of the Creator and passes it on to his children. His family is light within the darkness, but it is threatened by the darkness. And though yet faithful to the Creator, the family wonders whether or when the Creator “will make things right.” When will the Creator put an end to human violence?

The flood is the Creator’s answer. Noah discerns this through dreams, and with the help of some “transformer rock angels” (my wife’s phrase) the family builds an ark for the preservation of the animals and, seemingly, humanity. But this is where the story takes an awkward though existential turn.

The second half of the movie focuses on Noah’s angst that arises from his perception of the divine intent. Noah, thoroughly disgusted with human evil, believes that the Creator intends to annihilate humanity even as the Creator preserves the creation. In Noah’s mind, the creation is more important than humanity, and humanity has not only been dethroned but must also be eliminated as a threat to the creation. Noah believes that God preserves his family only for the sake of the animals, and once the animals are safely in the new world after the flood, then the Creator will watch over the slow death of humanity itself as Noah’s line dies out (Shem’s wife is barren, and the other two sons have no wives).

The moviemaker adjusts the biblical story in order to create Noah’s angst, and this enables the second half of the movie to focus on the drama of mercy over justice. Noah, as the one in whom the Creator has invested the future (as the Creator originally did with Adam and Eve–who failed!), will not fail his Creator. He will complete the task and ensure that humanity will die out. He knows–he thinks–what the Creator wants, and he will obey. He is, after all, from the line of Seth.

As a result, Noah becomes what the flood judges. He becomes an unmerciful and violent man, which is exactly why the Creator is flooding the earth! He leaves Ham’s woman to die, trampled by humanity’s rush for self-preservation. He violently protects the ark from assault. He announces his intent to kill any female child born from the union of Shem and his wife. He destroys any hope that Shem and his wife might escape the ark. Noah has no mercy, which is exactly how he understood the Creator. He thinks he is fulfilling the Creator’s desire.

The climax of the movie is when Noah holds a raised a knife above his twin granddaughters. Here he struggles to do the will of God, as he understands it. And here he defies the Creator. He cannot kill his granddaughters. He ultimately fails to do the will of God; he fails like his ancestors Adam and Eve. Consequently, once upon dry ground where humanity can flourish once again, Noah drinks himself into a stupor and shames himself. He medicates his guilt with wine.

In time, however, Noah realizes that God never intended to destroy humanity. He should have learned this from his own grandfather, Methuselah, who healed his barren daughter-in-law. He should have listened to the different and merciful interpretation of the Creator’s intent that his wife voiced–she thought in terms of both justice and mercy. He should have seen the gift of life in his daughter-in-law’s womb as the Creator’s new beginning rather than a threat to the new creation. Noah was so blinded by the human condition–so blinded by humanity’s inhumanity–that he could not see the Creator’s gracious gift to his own family and the Creator’s merciful intent to preserve humanity.

In the end, however, Noah does recognize this. He renews covenant with his wife, and he invests in Shem the lineage of Seth. Noah now understands that creation has been renewed, and the Creator has graciously offered a new beginning. Noah tells his children to “be fruitful and multiply and replenish the earth.” The Creator has given humanity a second chance!

But as we look at the world humanity has created since that time, have we done any better? I think the movie asks this question. Will human violence against the environment and each other once again call for judgment? Is humanity headed toward an apocalypse, or will we learn to balance justice and mercy? Will we embrace the vision of creation embedded in the film’s storyline? Not a bad question to raise!

Clearly, the filmmaker did not intend to follow the biblical script. That would’ve been a short movie! He made the story more about Noah than the Creator.

The biblical story, however, is about the Creator rather than Noah.  It is the Creator who grieves humanity’s violence. The Creator acts to end human violence. The Creator remembers Noah. The Creator remembers the creation, and the Creator preserves it and renews it. The Creator redeems Noah and his family. The Creator covenants with creation and humanity, and the Creator places the covenant sign of the Creator’s mercy and grace in the sky, the rainbow. And the Creator, once again, rests within the new creation!

While I understand why a filmmaker would focus on Noah’s existential angst, human blindness to divine intent, and the struggle to do the will of God, that is not the focus of the biblical story. In this sense, the film does not tell the biblical story but rather tells the story of postmodern angst. “Noah” may be a way of telling that story, but we should not confuse it with the function of biblical drama itself.

Personally, I did not much like the movie. My dislike is not due to the adjustments to the biblical story (I fully expected that). Rather, I thought the film tried too hard to create a dramatic storyline, which ultimately made it implausible (e.g., Cain-Tubal stealing aboard the ark, Ham aiding Cain-Tubal, the transformer rock angels or Watchers). I was left more awed by the special effects than engrossed in the story.

Nevertheless, the story has a point. What will humans do with the earth? How will we treat each other? Can we have a new beginning?

The biblical answer to those questions is rooted in God’s drama rather than in the human drama. We can’t, ultimately, find our hope in humanity. Didn’t the 20th century teach us that? Rather, humanity’s only hope is the merciful God who calls us to a story of redemption, justice, mercy, and reconciliation. That is the story of Jesus.

David Lipscomb on Voting

November 5, 2012

David Lipscomb’s opposition to participation in civil government is perhaps well-known. He is, in some ways, a Christian anarchist. This arises both from his experience in the Civil War but also out of his kingdom theology which envisions the kingdom of God destroying all human ruling authorities through Jesus Christ. Consequently, Lipscomb was a pacifist and refused to participate in any human governement. His argument is fully articulated in his Civil Government. 

His position was thoroughly discussed through the pages of the Gospel Advocate through the last quarter of the 20th century, and his position was thoroughly rejected during WWII (with Foy E. Wallace, Jr. leading the way). Ultimtely, the Churches of Christ became almost wholly alligned with the political interests of the ruling majority in the last half of the 20th century with some significant exceptions.

The below piece from the hand of Lipscomb is interesting in several respects.  First, it reflects the ongoing debate and we perhpas hear a strong sectional flavor in it.  Second, Lipscomb’s theology is thoroughly kingdomized, that is, he will hear nothing of any human institution but only a commitment to the kingdom of God. Third, we see Lipscomb’s strong opposition to violence and how his opposition to politics is partly rooted in his conviction that politics always leads to violence in some form or other.

David Lipscomb, “Voting,” Gospel Advocate (1876) 543-546

In response to a letter from N. B. Gibbons of Waxahatchie, Texas, dated May 4, 1876, Lipscomb writes:

This is the first and only request we have had to review Bro. P[inkerton]’s articles. We fully intended to do it before he wrote, but his articles fell so far short of an argument, were so wholly composed of platitudes and generalities that while sometimes true and sometimes not, had no bearing on the question, so abounded in inconsistencies with the recognized and avowed principle of Scripture application and so inconsistent with themselves, and so often not having a remote bearing on the question, whether true or false, that we did not see any necessity for reviewing it. No friend of voting that we saw was willing to accept it as a fair statement of the reasons why Christians should vote, no one opposed to Christians voting thought it needed a reply.

In the quotation made by our brother, the reason assigned for Christ’s not holding office or voting seems to us not a pertinent one. If he came to be an example to Christians, certainly he should set the example in that as in other things.

Preachers, Bishops, Pastors, Elders, Evangelists, and all officers in the church now vote. All members of the church are officers in the only sense the word is applicable to a functionary of the church. Paul says, “For as we have many members in one body, and all members have not the same office, so we being [544] many, are one body in Christ, and members of one of another.” Rom.’s xii:5. That is, as each member of the human body has its office, but all the members have not the same office to perform, so it is in the body of Christ. Bro P.’s argument then would be, if he stated it clearly and logically, Christ had offices in connection with his church, this prevented him either voting or holding office in any other institution or government. The legitimate deduction from this is, as Christ could not vote or hold office in human institutions because he had offices to fulfill in and with reference to his own kingdom, so his members who have offices to discharge in his kingdom cannot vote or hold office in other institutions. This is certainly the logical conclusion, from his premises, all members have their offices to perform in the kingdom, therefore, no member can hold office or vote in other kingdoms. It is true Bro. P. has said there is no voting in those days—and hence might claim that it did not apply to the voting part.  But every school-boy or girl that has read the simplest elements of Grecian or Roman history knows Bro. P. is wholly wrong in this. Greece and Rome both were elective democracies in their beginning. The latter stood as much longer than any modern democracy has maintained itself and even after the substitution of the empire for the democracy, the Emperors themselves were for a long time elected by voting. These elections were not always without fraud, without violence, sometimes the will of the people was set aside by military authority or the violence of the soldiery or the mob. But such things are not unknown in this providentially raised up government for the development of Christian voters and office-holders—with its credit mobilier, salary grab, post traderships almost universal crime and corruption, thrown in. We doubt if there ever was a government among intelligent people more thoroughly honeycombed with crime and corruption and more constantly tempting men to dishonesty and venality than this. It is not the general government alone, nor one party, but the whole body politic, is corrupt. No man can breathe the air of our politics and remain pure. If he can, it is not true that “evil communications corrupt good manners.” Our politics are much like the politics of all democratic governments. When a man enters into them he drinks of their spirit and becomes one with them. Instances of this kind occur constantly. It is an exceedingly rare thing for a man in politics to pay any regard to his religion.

Bro. P. in his argument maintains that as the Bible says nothing about voting, Christians may vote. Does he argue thus about the mourner’s bench and infant sprinkling &c.? Bro. Franklin in his last number of the Review, makes the argument “As the Bible says nothing about voting Christians may vote or not.” In the very same number of his paper he says the Bible says nothing about the organ, therefore Christians should not use the organ. The legs of the lame are truly not equal. When such m en as Bros. Franklin and Pinkerton reason so contradictorily with themselves something must be wrong. [545] They can never satisfy thinking men in this way. It is certain they do not reason and act on the same principle in both cases.

To show the inconclusiveness of Bro. P.’s reasoning, we refer, without re-reading his articles, to the statement, that “sometimes the voice of the people, may be the voice of God sometimes it is not.” This is given as a reason why Christians should engage in politics. But he gives no rule, by which we can determine when their voice is the voice of God and when it is not. The idea that we can ever look to the voice of the people as the voice of God in this indefinite form, not only is of no practical good to any; it is of infinite harm to the world. It is worse than direct Spiritual Influence. Instead of going to the word of God to learn his will they are looking to the voice of the people with no rule to tell when the voice is of God. They find it in the frenzy of fanaticism. In our recent strife each party concluded the voice of his people was the voice of God. And many people of the South under Bro. Pinkerton’s rule thought they did God’s service to kill the hated Yankee and to rob him of his property. It was equally true on the other side. When religious people engage in war, they clothe their strife with the frenzy of religious fanaticism. Then it makes war more bitter, more bloody, more cruel, more vindictive in its character to maintain such an idea. When God has a message for his people, he is able to deliver it, in such a manner that none of those willing to hearken can misunderstand; he can deliver it in his own voice.

Bro. P. seeing the utter incongruity of Christians striving against each other in politics, suggests that to avoid this the church shall call a convention to determine what shall be done, how they shall all vote. Well what law will govern them? What rule for deciding? Will they dare decide where God has given no direction? To do it would be to make assumptions worse than papal. Then again, what shall they decide? Whether the church shall vote for Tweed or Belknap? Whether they shall contract or expand the currency? How can a church decide such questions? Where is the rule? But suppose they conclude that Christians cannot support the corrupt men of either party and put men of their own in nomination and become a third party? Then there will be a distinctly religious party in politics, a political party on religious grounds. The most corrupt and corrupting of all parties. But he wishes these conventions confined to single congregations, not to a multiplicity of churches. That is a church in one State will decide in one way, a church in another another way. Christians will then form political parties based on sectional grounds.  These lead most surely to war and violence, and Christians, children of the Prince of Peace, foment war and murder and destroy each other as the result. These are some of the impractical and antichristian absurdities in which he involves himself. We are sure there can be no necessity in reviewing such fallacious reasoning, involving absurdities so glaring. Bro. P. conjures up men of straw to demolish, in the shape of conclusions he supposes are [546] involved in the opposite position that no man, woman or child ever did believe, and that are not in the least involved in the position. It is much easier to explode a man’s position when he state if for him than when he states it himself.  It is usually regarded somewhat more in accordance with fair discussion to accept a man’s own statements of his position. But we are not surprised that Bro. P. finds it more convenient to meet positions of his own framing than of those who believe it wrong for Christians to engage in politics. They are so much more easily disposed of.

In the particular positions to which our brother refers, certainly Christ was only prospective King and Priest while on earth. But he was an active Savior from the day he was recognized as the Son of God, and anointed with the Holy Spirit. He was a Christed Savior. His work of saving was not perfected until his blood was shed, he was buried resurrected ascended and crowned a king and made a priest.

But the sacrifice was as much a part of the work of the Savior as the offering of the blood as a High Priest at the right hand of God. He set the full example for the Christian to follow, and if he refrained from political affairs it was because he desired Christians to do likewise. So far from Bro. Jones’ or Pinketon’s articles convincing any one that Christians can go into politics, we are certain they confirm all thoughtful Christians there is no ground for it. Brethren, let us get clear of our partisan prejudices for human institutions and look plainly at the teachings of God and learn of them the truth as it is in Christ.

David Lipscomb’s “Thoughts Suggested by the Political Contest”

January 12, 2012

In 1896, the people of the United States elected William McKinley (Republican) over William Jennings Bryan (Democrat). McKinley lead a voting block of wealthy business people, skilled factory workers, large farm owners and professionals located mainly in the Northeast, Midwest and West coast that defeated Bryan’s Southern and Rocky Mountain constituency. McKinley defeated Bryan 51% to 47% in the popular vote and 271 electoral votes to 176.

Below is David Lipscomb’s editorial comment on the election in the November 12, 1896 issue of the Gospel Advocate. Lipscomb saw this election as a victory for the wealthy and in injustice to the poor. Siding with the poor and the laborer, Lipscomb calls Christians to act justly and remember the poor.

Christians “have duties to fulfill with reference to all questions that arise in society—that is, to stand on the side of right and justice, to study the moral questions that arise in the affairs of the world, and warn as to the principles of right and justice.  These, in the end, must prevail; and he who teaches these benefits humanity.”

 Christians can exert a moral and restraining influence upon the ungodly by teaching moderation and unselfishness.  It is not only their duty to teach right; it is also their duty to teach that persistence in wrong must bring ruin to the wrongdoer. Wrong may run a smooth course for a time, but destruction is sure in the end.  Wrong and injustice cannot permanently prosper….

Jesus taught the dignity and honor of labor.  He would be greatest of all, let him be servant of all.  His sympathies were with the poor, the laborer, those humble in station, not with the rich or exalted.  In the end the dignity and honor of labor must prevail and its rights be vindicated.  Those possessed of riches may deal justly and cease to legislate for capital and help labor.  That is Christian, and would be wise policy, and would prevent violent conflict.  If they pursue a selfish course, then a violent convulsion must be the end.

Christians may do good to the world not by entering into strifes and conflicts over the questions that arise in this contest, but by teaching justice and right and by impressing the lesson that the selfish accumulation of money or the selfish exercise of power, without regard to the rights and needs of others, but lead to a violent end.  Things will be righted.  God gives us the invitation to right them and be blessed.  If we do not right them, he will.  He rights wrongs often by making wrongdoers destroy each other.  Wickedness destroys wickedness.”

Lipscomb is not apolitical in the sense of disengaged from the world. Rather, Christians are to engage the culture in which they live and promote good wherever possible.

Lipscomb’s “Things will be righted” sounds very similar to N. T. Wright’s “put things to right.” They share a similar eschatology, especially about new heavens and new earth. Lipscomb, however, does not think this is simply about eschatology in the sense of a “one day this will happen” (any more than Wright does). God calls us to right wrongs along side of God’s own work. God is active in the world to “put things to right” even now as God permits “wickedness” to destroy “wickedness.”

Lipscomb on Communism and Government

January 5, 2012

In 1878 Lipscomb was chastised by George W. Hanlin, a fellow-Tennesean, for his views on civil government.  The writer doubted whether we would have the freedom to worship God if the “good, truly pious mean of 1776″ had not framed our government. Christians should participate in politics because “laws were made to restrain bad people, and should only be made and administered by the best, most intelligent Christian men.”

In particular, Hanlin was appalled by a recent office-seeker who pledged the following:  “God made this earth large, beautiful and free for all men. It is owned by comparatively few. Now, if the people will send me to the Legislature, I will endeavor to have a law enacted dividing it equally among us.” Hanlin argued that Christians must vote to keep such people out of office.  Sound familiar?  :-)

Lipscomb responded that the men of 1776 were not as godly as Hanlin thought they were (e.g., Jefferson was a Deist), and then wrote (Gospel Advocate, 1878, 488-89):

     I am to-day, more afraid of the preponderance of religious parties in the government than I am of the irreligious. The bane of the government has been religion in politics. The great source of corruption in the church has been its members mingling in the associations of the world, and in its mixing into the spirit of the worldly government. The best, most intelligent Christian men, generally become as corrupt in politics as those not Christians. This is nothing to the discredit of the Christian religion either, because the religion of Christ only proposes to save and purify those who remain faithfully under its influence. A good Christian man was murdered in our city a few days ago, because under the political influence he had taken a pistol to vindicate his father’s character.

     I had just as soon to-day live under the government of Great Britain as under the one I do live under, so far as religious influence is concerned.

     The chances are that the lawless communist of whom you speak is himself a professed Christian. If not he will be supported by men professing Christianity, just as freely as by others. We frequently hear Christians express just as bitter feelings against the rights of others as this man. That we are doomed to be cursed with Communistic tendencies, we think sure. Extremes beget extremes. This has been an age specially devoted to money making and money hoarding. This would naturally beget in the idle, the vicious and those who will not work, a disposition to prey upon the labor and toil of others. But the oppressors who gave the impetus to this communistic spirit and suggested the weapons to be used, are the wealthy themselves. While the country was at war, numbers grew rich off the misfortunes of the country. They bought government bonds at a low value; the war ended, the masses were poor–the few made rich. Not contented with the wealth thus gained, they used their riches to corrupt legislators, and by legislation to double their gains. They did it at that expense of the already impoverished tax-payers of the country. There never was an act of more high-handed robbery than the increasing of the value of the bonds of the United States to gold bearing bonds, thus doubling their value by legislation. To the extent that the bonds were increased by legislation, other taxable property was depreciated, rendered valueless.  That is, the property and its value, and the citizen’s right in his property were destroyed by legislation to the extent of its depreciation, to benefit another class. That retaliation would come, no man, not blinded by self-interest, could doubt. We are not saying a Christian ought to retaliate. But the popular doctrine is “Fight the devil with fire.” That means, if the devil steals, you steal, too; make yourself as mean as the devil. A Christian ought not to do this. But the world and its governments will do it and when Christians go into them, they imbibe of their spirit and will do the same thing that they do. The bondholders first set the example of legislating to increase the value of their property at the expense of the masses; the masses, in turn, say that we have the same right to legislate to increase the value of our property by depreciating yours. Hence a crusade in our United States to destroy the property of the bondholders by legislation. It is an easy step when the bond-owners and others have attacked the rights of one kind of property, for the bondless to attack the rights of men in another kind of property. This is Communism.

     The principle of communism was acted on when the bondholder’s property was doubled in value at the expense of others. Every man’s right in his property was destroyed to the extent it depreciated by legislation to the benefit of others.

     Every man who urged or helped the legislation to increase the value of his bonds at the expense of others, was aiding in communism. He was showing others how they could ge other people’s property without rendering a just equivalent for it. He was a communist with the rights and property of others when he was securing legislation to destroy the property of others, that his own might be increased.

     Every man now urging the repudiation in whole or in part of bonds, State or National, that his own property may be increased, is a communist. He is urging principles that may be turned against all property. He is placing a weapon in the communist’s hand that he will turn against all property right.

     In all these differing parties, maintaining and practicing communuistic principles, Christians are to be found as well as others. Christians voting will not alter results on this question a particle. Christian bondholders just as freely as others used their money to induce Christian legislators to increase their property by destroying that of others. Just a many Christian legislators. as those not Christians voted for this, for the sake of gain; just as many Christians as of others, are no destroying the property of others in bonds for their own benefit; just as many Christians will engage in the cry for the destruction of all property of others for their own benefit as of others.

     The Christian religion proposes to save men from dishonesty and sin by keeping them from dishonest, sinful associations and temptations. When they will go into these associations and temptations, they will steal and sin just like others. Don’t mistake me. This has been tried enough certainly to convince the most incredulous, if God’s word did not teach it. We think it infinitely better for the State, that a body of uncorrupted individuals should maintain morality and honor and act as a conservatory of morality and religion than that all should go into politics and be corrupted. Who could ever name the man that went into politics that did not become more or less demoralized and lose more or less of his religions and moral character and influence. Thousands make complete shipwrecks of their faith–all are demoralized. When one who is strong goes into politics and fails to become a castaway, he encourages others weak to go in who are ruined. “And through thy knowledge (strength) shall the weak brother perish for whom Christi died.” “But when ye sin so against the brethren, and wound their weak consciences, ye sin against Christ.” If one human soul is worth more than the world, what earthly good can compensate for a course that leads man to death.

     God always gave his people good government, good rulers when they trusted him and were willing for him to govern them. When they set up to govern themselves, choose their own rulers and manage their affairs after their own wisdom, instead of trusting God to govern them, he sent rulers to wast their substance, enslave their children and oppress their land. The people of the United States are not God’s people–his faithful disciples are his children. If they will trust him, be governed by him, he will give them a good ruler in the person of his Son. He permitted the disobedient nations to form governments and choose rulers that oppressed, overthrew, and destroyed their subjects. He overruled this wickedness that destroyed the wicked to his honor and his children’s good. “Surely the wrath of man shall praise thee. The remainder of wrath thou wilt restrain.” Psalms lxxvi:10. God ever rules the wrath of man to promote his honor and the good of his children, and restrains all beyond this. The civil governments of earth do not grow out of or succeed to God’s government of his people under Moses. The church of Christ succeeds, grows out of and is the antitype of God’s government of the Jews. The civil governments of earth are the successors and outgrowth of the rebellious in the days of Moses.

     We now, as in the days of Judaism, are unwilling to let God guide us, govern us or direct us. We must manage our affairs to suit ourselves; we sow the seed of communism, and we must expect to reap the fruit. But should even communism in its wildest fury sweep over the land as a bosom of destruction, God will bless and protect all that are faithful and trustful of him. If I could only be as trustful of him as I ought, none of these things would move or trouble me. Christians trusting to human governments are the antitype of the Jews trusting the Egyptians and Babylonians. They whom they trusted destroyed them. Read Isaiah 30 and 31.

Voting More Evil than Dancing, says David Lipscomb

January 2, 2012

In 1875 David Lipscomb was asked a question about whether one should exclude those who voted from the local congregation as a test of fellowship, just as some advocated should be done with those who participate in dancing and drunkenness.

Below is Lipscomb’s response in part (Gospel Advocate, 1875, 399-402).

     We suppose we have done as much to excite an investigation of this question as any one in the land. But a few years ago, because we did not advise some brethren in Arkansas to excommunicate every man that failed to see as they saw, they charged us with being a mere time server with no independence, and disgusted with our cowardice and infidelity to truth, as they called it, they quit taking the Advocate as an unclean and unholy thing. Well we were sorry for their course, but we think we can quietly bear opposition, both front and rear, when we know we are right.

     We are satisfied that voting does much more harm to the church than dancing does. And we are no apologists for dancing. We believe it is lust exciting and is a fruitful promoter of lewdness and other sins.

     The evil and wrong of voting is a matter of much stronger faith with me than the evil of dancing. Show me the passage on which the evil of dancing rests and we will show you a score, equally as plain, that voting is wrong. The whole organization of the kingdom of God is based upon the fact that every other institution in the world is of the evil one, is against God–must be destroyed, must be prevailed over by the gates of hell.

     While saying this much, we are yet unwilling to say that we think a church ought as yet, to withdraw themselves from one for voting. (The brethren will excuse us for not using the word exclude. It is not a Scriptural word, nor does it convey a Scriptural idea.) The reason for this is, the brethren have not been sufficiently taught upon the subject. The Scriptural means for correcting an evil has not been sufficiently used to resort to this extreme measure. We have spoken upon the subject, written upon the subject talked publicly and privately upon the subject, have come as near making a hobby of the subject as any one, (expect to do it more in the future and have no dread of being called a hobbyist), yet we have never to a single individual taken the pains to present the subject in such fullness and with such earnestness, as to be ready to give him over to Satan for rejecting it.

……To give force to the truth on this subject, it is much more needed that those who believe that Christians ought not to sustain, uphold and participate in human institutions, should teach the truth to others, by every means in their power to force an investigation. When we have access to papers to discuss the question through the papers (when they refuse the discussion, make them feel we regard they have outraged truth), do it in public teaching, do it private conversation.  Do it kindly, persistently, earnestly, as believing truly that the kingdom set up by the God of Heaven ‘shall break in pieces and destroy all these kingdoms but it (alone) shall stand forever.” If it destroys the kingdom it must destroy all those in those kingdoms. All supporters and upholders of these kingdoms, must share their fate. We must teach it in all our relationships, we must make all who know us feel that we believe, the gates of hell shall not prevail against the church which Christ built. But that they will encompass within their destroying vortex every other church, organization, kingdom in the universe. In prevailing against these kingdoms, the gates of hell will prevail against all that are component parts of these kingdoms, against all work performed in and through them.  No child of God ought to do work where it will perish in hell. We have not a doubt that all work done in any other congregation, organization, church or kingdom will be engulfed in hell….

One gets a sense of how important this is to Lipscomb.  The kingdom of God stands in opposition to all human institutions, and the most powerful, violent and coercive of institutions is civil government.

In this article, Lipscomb notes how the Christian Standard, the American Christian Review, and the Apostolic Times — all papers located in the north or border states — oppose his position and treat him as a traitor to democracy. Lipscomb’s position was characterized by the Apostolic Times as the position of a “stingy soul-sleeping Dutchmen and sore-eyed, whiskey drinking Irishmen.” Some ethnic stereotypes are embedded in that comment. They essentially say that Lipscomb is simply anti-authority when he is actually pro=kingdom of God.

Osama bin Laden

May 2, 2011

“Got him!” The headlines fill our papers, newsrooms and social media. Osama bin Laden, the mastermind of 9-11 is dead.

What should I do? Dance? Party? Shout “U-S-A” over and over?

What should I feel? Pride? Joy? Satisfaction? Patriotic? Gratitude?

I have mixed feelings. “Justice has been done,” says our President. Maybe so. One function of government is to execute jusice. God uses governments for that purpose though not everything nations do is necessarily just.

On the other hand, the celebration, joy and partying that litters our television screens from around the nation disturb me. I could understand if peace had arrived, if the war was over. That would be something to celebrate. But that is not what happened.

In Ezekiel, God spoke into the evil of the world with justice, but yet also said “I take no pleasure in the death of the wicked” (33:11).

Joy is not what I feel. I feel sad that the cycle of violence continues, and it will continue as violence breeds violence. I don’t feel like celebrating.

I feel like praying….

  • praying for all combatants in this conflict, this nation’s military as well as others.
  • praying for the victims of 9-11 as they re-live their loss today
  • praying for the enemies of this nation
  • praying for the family of Osama
  • praying for this nation
  • praying for peace
  • praying

What a Difference a Century Makes

November 7, 2008

Whatever your political allegiance–or non-allegiance, like me–the election of an African American to the Presidency of the United States is a historic event, and that is an understatement.

Whatever direction your vote went last Tuesday we can all rejoice that another ethnic and racial barrier has been breached.

A century ago, when Jim Crow laws were in full force, very few African Americans could even vote much less hold governmental office.  A half-century ago, when segregation still reigned, an African American President was unimaginable. A decade ago, the only African American in the United States Senate–Carol Moseley Braun of Illinois–was defeated in her re-election bid.

Change, indeed, has come to America!

Change has come to Churches of Christ as well.

In 1902 an author (initials G.P.O.) in the socially progressive (by comparison with other journals among Churches of Christ) Christian Leader (November 11, p. 3) opined that given their ignorance, emotional immaturity, and general idleness “the repression of the negro vote in the South may even prove a blessing in disguise by turning the negro’s attention towards self-improvement and the necessity of making a living by toil.” With historical hindsight–and recognizing that had I lived at the time I probably would have agreed–I can only say, Wow! Plus, this appears in the only journal among Churches of Christ that had a regular column by an African American preacher and educator, Samuel Robert Cassius.

Fifty years ago Churches of Christ were silent about segregation and if they were vocal, they were usually defending the status quo (see Bobby Valentine’s blog for an illustration of such in 1957). The silence of our major periodicals in the late 1950s and early 1960s during the birth of the Civil Rights Movement is deafening and chilling. One would only need to read through some of the articles from the 1950s and 1960s at Don Haymes’ anthology to get a feel for how deeply Churches of Christ were embedded in their southern culture. Listen to just one example: “The good, honest and sincere Negroes do not want integration as is attempted today. They know that they are happier and can serve God and their fellowman by remaining as God intended them to be and the purpose for which he created them.” Patronizing and self-serving; another (hindsight) Wow!

Last Tuesday, many within Churches of Christ voted for Obama, especially those who have come to see that voting for social justice is just as important as voting against abortion–both are pro-life orientations. Deuteronomy, for example, is just as concerned about just wages, fair treatment of aliens, and protection for the poor as it is protecting innocent life. Unjust wages and abortion, I believe, are both murder (read James 5:1-6, for example).

In my estimation neither candidate in this election was without flaw on the question of life. But I will leave that issue to the conscience of each reader and voter.

The deed is done. Whatever the political and policy ramifications, the racial witness here is a welcome one. It is a step in the right direction as far as race relations are concerned in this country.

Whether Obama will implement good policies is a different question and one upon which I will not comment. For now, I think we can enjoy the particular change that the election of an African American represents just as I would have also enjoyed the change that the election of a woman to the Vice Presidency would have represented as well. Either way would have been progress.

As for the future….in God we trust; I neither trust Obama/Biden nor McCain/Palin.

Marx, Paul, and Obama? A Comment on “Spreading the Wealth”

October 28, 2008

From each according to their ability, to each according to their need.”

                 Karl Marx

At the present time your plenty will supply what they need, so that in turn their plenty will supply what you need. Then there will be equality [fair balance, NRSV; or, equity], as it is written ‘He who gathered much did not have too much, and he who gathered little did not have too little” [quoting Exodus 16:18].

                  Apostle Paul, 2 Corinthians 8:14-15

The former quote has become quite popular in some circles since Barbara West quoted it when she asked Joe Biden a question about Obama’s supposed Marxism.

There is something quite healthy about Marx’s point. Indeed, there is something quite biblical about it…sort of. 

Paul writes something similar and even grounds it in God’s distribution of manna in the wilderness. When God distributes wealth (manna), he intends to supply the needs of the impoverished and those who have too much share what they have with those who have too little. God provides every blessing in abundance and blessed people scatter those gifts to the poor (2 Corinthians 8:8-9, quoting Psalm 112:9). God’s creative intent did not design poverty and the kingdom of God–whether Israel (Deuteronomy 15:4) or the Jesus community (Acts 4:34)–should have no needy among them.

Within the community of God this sharing is voluntary. Giving to the poor in both Israel and the Jesus’ community was a choice. It was not violently coerced. Marx, however, was willing to employ violence in his pursuit of economic justice.  In addition to the quote that heads this post, Karl Marx also said, “The last capitalist we hang shall be the one who sold us the rope.”

The kingdom of God, hopefully embodied in Jesus’ church, willingly and generously gives so that there is equity. This does not mean there is no private property or that some will not have more than others. Rather, it means that everyone has what they need. Disciples of Jesus share their wealth, sell their possessions to give to the poor, and announce good news to the poor. They do this out of the riches of the grace God has supplied rather than out of duty, threat, or coercion. Unfortunately, and admittedly too true of me, disciples often do not trust God sufficiently to share their abundant resources with the needy so that those who have too little have enough.

But we move too quickly when we say that it is purely voluntary. The Torah regulated Israel’s treatment of the poor.  It did not coerce lending to the poor, but there were legal protections for the poor and legal provisions for the needy that hindered and even restricted the open-ended growth of wealth. 

The law required the cancellation of debts every seven years.  This hindered the wealthy from exploiting the poor through interest rates and permanent indebtedness.  I wonder how many credit cards college students would receive in the mail if every seven years their debts were wiped clean. This legal provision regulated financial predators.  The return of the land to original families at Jubilee prevented the rich from unlimited wealth through the acquisition of property.  Generational wealth based on land ownership was limited. The Jubillee regulation was partly intended to hinder the acquisition of land to limitlessly enrich a particular family.

Israel’s example of how government can regulate wealth and protect the poor provides some fodder for discussion.  I tend to think unrestrained capitalism is a problem, but neither do I find socialism or Marxism particularly beneficient to the poor or a discouragement to elitist luxury.  Humanity is “naturally” (“by nature” through our sarx) evil, covetous, and greedy whether in a capitalist or socialist society.  

Yet, government, according to Romans 13, is ordained by God to protect the innocent and punish evil. Economic injustice, as the prophets of Israel make clear, is an evil. Given the systemic evil and greed within the structures of society (whether capitalist or socialist), I think government should play a role in restraining greed, pursuing economic justice [e.g., protecting the poor from predatory practices that prey upon their circumstances], and assisting the poor.

I am not a specialist in economics. In fact, I have no doubt that my ignorance is much greater than my knowledge. I wish I knew how to pursue economic justice in American culture. I know I don’t have the answers. I tend to think a restrained capitalism is the best system and can accomplish the greatest good for the poor, but I don’t feel myself qualified to determine whose economic policies, McCain or Obama, are best. I wish I knew though I believe both have a heart and interest in protecting the poor from exploitation.

I do not intend my blog to become a place for political partisanship. My interests are larger than the election of a particular President. I am not advocating for either on this issue. I can see it both ways and I am uncertain about which economic policy is best for the poor and growing the economy.

I am bothered by those who seem to think that only Obama cares for the poor or middle class.  I am bothered by those who will vote for McCain simply because they want to keep their money. I tend to think that McCain and Obama are fighting over a middle ground of some kind–protect the poor, assist the poor, but do not punish the wealthy simply because they are wealthy. 

I am not even an economic specialist when it comes to my own lifestyle.  I “tithe plus,” but it still seems inadequate to me.  I drive cars over 100,000 miles and don’t buy new cars.  I shop first at Goodwill.  But it still seems inadequate to me. I am rich…and I certainly don’t make anything near $250,000.  :-)

I suppose my point is this.  Disciples of Jesus share their wealth. Government has a function to punish evil, including restraining the evil of economic greed and injustice.  How that should play out is uncertain to my mind. I simply don’t know, but I don’t have to know.

What I think I know, however, is that disciples of Jesus spread their wealth around and give their gifts from God to the poor. This is my point, a reminder to myself and perhaps to others.

Whoever is elected, McCain or Obama, my allegiance to the kingdom of God means I will share my wealth with the poor. Whoever is elected, McCain or Obama, God will accomplish his will and continue to introduce his kingdom into the world. Whoever is elected, McCain or Obama, has little to nothing to do with the in-breaking of God’s kingdom.

P.S. Charitable giving by the candidates according to tax returns (where not all charitable giving is recorded, at least for my family).

McCain personally gave 26% of his income in 2007 and 18% in 2006 plus donating his book royalties since 1998 which totals almost $2,000,000.

Obama and his wife gave less than 1% from 2000-2004 but 5% in 2005 and 5.7% in 2006 (book deals gave the family increased income in the last few years).

Biden and his wife gave .03% in 2007 and .01% from 1998-2007.

Palin and her husband gave 3.3% in 2006 and 1.5% in 2007.

Lest We Fear….

September 22, 2008

It is better to take refuge in Yahweh than to trust in flesh.  

It is better to take refuge in Yahweh than to trust in rulers.

Psalm 118:8-9

Middle class Americans are worried about their stock portfolios, retirements, and home mortages.

Others are worried about what they will eat today, what they will wear as winter draws near.

Republicans wring their hands in worry over a future Obama administration and Democrats are terrified that McCain-Palin might actually win.

Others suffer under oppressive regimes without freedom of speech or religion.

Americans worry about the escalating cost of health care and the inconvenience of waiting roooms.

Others watch their children die from polluted water and the inaccessibility of medical care.

In whom or what do we Americans trust? Our economic investments–our treasures laid up on earth? Our political leaders–human counsel and direction?  Our military–in our “horses and chariots”? Our constitution–human wisdom and governance?

Trusting in our own resources and rulers generates fear because our resources and rulers are feeble and fallible.  When we trust in ourselves, fear will ultimately arise because we know our own faults and have seen enough of our own history. We, therefore, are either uneasy with ourselves or we are self-righteous in our confidence. Life ultimately reminds us that we are powerless over our futures. We are not in control.

Trusting in God, however, roots out fear. Trusting his love removes the shame of past failures and the fear of future realities, whatever they may be. Recognizing God’s sovereingty–his power over all things–roots out fear. Such trust is a process–never perfectly embraced but hopefully progressively learned and lived.

Believers who become so emeshed in political and economic worries, so emeshed that their hearts are filled with fear over the future and their words are peppered with derision, believe in something other than the God of the Story who loves, rules and wins.

Lest we fear, let us remember that our Father is in heaven–he is the transcendent sovereign lover, and he knows the way we take–he “knows” not only in the sense of cognition but in the sense of care, empathy, and compassion. This is the God we trust.

At the same time, while we do not trust in our own resources or rulers, we also recognize our call to co-rule this world with God and co-create the future with him. We are not isolationists but participants.  We pursue mercy, justice and faithfulness, but we leave the results with God.

Do not put your trust in princes, in mortal humans, who cannot save…

Blessed are those whose help is in the God of Jacob, whose hope is in Yahweh their God.

Yahweh reigns forever.

Psalm 146:3, 5, 10

Suggestion: Read the whole Psalm to see the hope!  :-)


Here it is just in case you don’t have the time to search for it…..Praise the LORD!

 1 Praise the LORD. 
       Praise the LORD, O my soul.

 2 I will praise the LORD all my life;
       I will sing praise to my God as long as I live.

 3 Do not put your trust in princes,
       in mortal men, who cannot save.

 4 When their spirit departs, they return to the ground;
       on that very day their plans come to nothing.

 5 Blessed is he whose help is the God of Jacob,
       whose hope is in the LORD his God,

 6 the Maker of heaven and earth,
       the sea, and everything in them—
       the LORD, who remains faithful forever.

 7 He upholds the cause of the oppressed
       and gives food to the hungry.
       The LORD sets prisoners free,

 8 the LORD gives sight to the blind,
       the LORD lifts up those who are bowed down,
       the LORD loves the righteous.

 9 The LORD watches over the alien
       and sustains the fatherless and the widow,
       but he frustrates the ways of the wicked.

 10 The LORD reigns forever,
       your God, O Zion, for all generations.
       Praise the LORD.