Monday, July 4, 2016

Post-Orlando Question #2: How Do We Know When Individuals Truly Represent Groups?

In Part One of Post-Orlando Questions, I began a short series covering three questions swirling around since the tragic shooting in Orlando. The first question was, "Is it fair to attribute the actions of Omar Mateen to a climate of hate created by the Conservative Religious Right"?

This post will address the second question: "Is there a way to make a proper distinction between what is inherent in or necessarily follows from the beliefs and actions of a group vs. what particular individuals or sects do?"

When people do terrible things in the name of their religion or worldview, are they acting consistently? Are they the true ambassadors of the group, or are they the aberrations, the outliers who have co-opted a religion or worldview for their own disturbing purposes?

I won’t attempt to answer for Islam, the faith with which Omar Mateen claimed affiliation. [1] I also won't attempt to answer for all the other political and social groups to whom this question equally applies on both the Right and the Left. [2] My interest lies in offering an answer as a Christian. I obviously won't resolve this in a simple blog post, but I hope it can provoke some thoughtful discussion.

* * * * * * * * * *

People claiming to represent Christianity said some really deplorable things in the wake of the tragic shooting in Orlando.

  • “So the left is having a dilemma of majorproportions. I think for those of us who disagree with some of their policies, the best thing to do is to sit on the sidelines and let them kill themselves.”– Pat Robertson
  • “The tragedy is more of them didn’t die…. I’m kind of upset he didn’t finish the job!” – a Baptist church pastor inSacramento.[3]
  • “God sent the shooter.” – Westboro Baptist Church tweet

These quotes are getting a lot press, and why not? They are inflammatory; they are great click bait; they fit very neatly into a narrative that claims religious people are extremist bigots. But is this narrative true? I am going to argue that these people fail to represent the overwhelming majority of Christians or the heart of Christianity. I will attempt to make my case by working through a series of questions.

Question #1. Do we see anything in the life and teaching of Jesus that would lead Christians to believe that hatred and violent acts against other people are in line with God’s plan for humanity?

The obvious answer is ‘no.’ Read the four gospels. There is just no way to extrapolate this from the life and teaching of a Jesus who came “to seek and save the lost” (Luke 19) and who came “not to condemn the world, but to save it" (John 3).  Jesus insisted that Peter put away his sword, and he told his follower not fight since His kingdom was a spiritual rather than earthly one (John 18). There is absolutely no reason to believe he would have applauded his followers using violence to further his reputation or the cause of Christianity. 

  • Jesus said, "You have learned how it was said to our ancestors: 'You must not kill; and anyone does kill he must answer for it before the court.' But I say this to you: anyone who is angry with his brother will answer for it before the court." (Matthew 5:21-22)
  • Jesus said, “You have learned how it was said: ‘An eye for eye and tooth for tooth.’ But I say to you, offer the wicked man no resistance. If anyone strikes you on the right cheek, turn the other also; if a man takes you to law and would have your tunic, let him have your cloak as well. And if anyone orders you to go one mile, go two miles with him.” (Matthew 5:38-41)
  • Jesus said, "You have heard that it was said, 'You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy'; But I say to you, love your enemies and pray for those whose persecute you, so that you may be children of your Father in heaven; for he makes his sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the righteous and on the unrighteous. For if you love those who love you, what reward do you have?" Matthew 5:43-46

In the context of this famous teaching remembered as the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus was reminding his Jewish audience that it was not enough to outwardly conform to the demands of the Mosaic Law. Their attitudes and their hearts needed to be postured in a way that was kind, generous and loving, and they are to represent God in this fashion to everyone - not just the Gentiles, but even their Roman oppressors. If you are looking for a foundational text of teaching which has shaped the Christian community, this is it. 

Question #2: Do we see anything in the New Testament teachings that suggest hatred and violent acts against people are in line with God’s plan for humanity?

Once again, no. Christians are called to live peaceably with everyone as much as is possible (Romans 12:18) and to pursue peace with all people (Hebrews 12:14; 2 Corinthians 13:11; Galatians 5:22; James 3:17). The barriers of race, sex, and social class that so ordered Jewish, Roman and Greek life were meant to be dissolved in the community of the church (Galatians 3). John, echoing the teaching of Jesus, wrote, “Whoever hates his brother is a murderer, and you know that no murderer has eternal life abiding in him” (1 John 3:15). Other scriptures also remind us that even hating another person is a sin (2 Corinthians 12:20; Titus 3:3; 1 John 2:9-11).[4] Paul reminds the church in Galatia to do good not just to other Christians but to all people whenever the opportunity arises (Galatians 6:10). As a result of this kind of emphasis, the early church offered an oasis of hope and peace in a harsh and unforgiving Roman culture. No wonder the early church grew in both numbers and influence in spite of severe persecution.

There is absolutely nothing in the New Testament that can be interpreted as a call to Christians to indulge in hatred or violence against others. There are, however, abundant texts that call Christians to a lifestyle of love and self-sacrifice in which loving their neighbor - and that includes everybody - was a necessary corollary to loving God. 

Question #3. Do we see anything in the early church that suggests hatred and violent acts against people are in line with God’s plan for humanity?

  • “We ourselves were well conversant with war, murder and everything evil, but all of us throughout the whole wide earth have traded in our weapons of war. We have exchanged our swords for plowshares, our spears for farm tools…now we cultivate the fear of God, justice, kindness, faith, and the expectation of the future given us through the Crucified One….The more we are persecuted and martyred, the more do others in ever increasing numbers become believers.” ~ Justin the Martyr (100AD – 165AD)
  • “We who formerly hated and murdered one another now live together and share the same table. We pray for our enemies and try to win those who hate us.” ~ Justin the Martyr (100AD – 165AD)
  • “To those who ask us whence we have come or whom we have for a leader, we say that we have come in accordance with the counsels of Jesus to cut down our warlike and arrogant swords of argument into ploughshares, and we convert into sickles the spears we formerly used in fighting. For we no longer take ‘sword against a nation,’ nor do we learn ‘any more to make war,’ having become sons of peace for the sake of Jesus, who is our leader, instead of following the ancestral customs in which we were strangers to the covenants.” ~ Origen (185AD – 254AD)
  • “It is absolutely forbidden to repay evil with evil.” ~ Tertullian (160AD – 220AD)
  • “Christians, instead of arming themselves with swords, extend their hands in prayer.” ~ Athanasius of Alexandria (293AD – 373AD)
  •  “Above all Christians are not allowed to correct by violence sinful wrongdoings.” ~ Clement of Alexandria (150AD – 214AD)
  • “The Christian does not hurt even his enemy.” ~ Tertullian (160AD – 220AD)
  • “It is not lawful for us to hate, and so we please God more when we render no requital for injury…we repay your hatred with kindness.” ~ St. Cyprian, Bishop of Carthage (died 258AD)
  •  “We Christians are a peaceful race…for it is not in war, but in peace, that we are trained.” ~ Clement of Alexandria (150AD – 214AD)
  • “We who formerly treasured money and possessions more than anything else now hand over everything we have to a treasury for all and share it with everyone who needs it. We who formerly hated and murdered one another now live together and share the same table. We pray for our enemies and try to win those who hate us.” ~ Justin the Martyr (100AD – 165AD)
  •  Christians “are reviled, and they bless; they are insulted, and are respectful.”~ Epistle of Mathetes to Diognetus (late 2nd Century)
  • “Say to those that hate and curse you, You are our brothers!” ~ Theophilus of Antioch (died around 185AD)
  •  “For the Gentiles, hearing from our mouth the words of God, are impressed by their beauty and greatness: then, learning that our works are not worthy of the things we say, they turn to railing, saying that it is some deceitful tale. For when they hear from us that God says: ‘No thanks will be due to you, if ye love only those who love you; but thanks will be due to you, if ye love your enemies and those that hate you’—when they hear this, they are impressed by the overplus of goodness: but when they see that we do not love, not only those who hate us, but even those who love us, they laugh at us, and the Name is blasphemed.” ~ The 2nd Epistle of Clement (140-160AD)
  • “It is the Christians, O Emperor, who have sought and found the truth, for they acknowledge God…. They show love to their neighbors. They do not do to another what they would not wish to have done to themselves. They speak gently to those who oppress them, and in this way they make them their friends. It has become their passion to do good to their enemies…. This, O Emperor, is the rule of life of the Christians, and this is their manner of life.” ~ Aristides (written around 137AD)
  • “Christians appeal to those who wrong them and make them friendly to themselves; they are eager to do good to their enemies; they are mild and conciliatory.” ~ Aristides of Athens (2nd Century)
  • “We have become sons of peace for the sake of Jesus, who is our leader.” ~ Origen (185AD – 254AD)
  •  “This is the way of life: first, thou shalt love the God who made thee, secondly, thy neighbor as thyself: and all things whatsoever thou wouldest not should happen to thee, do not thou to another. The teaching of these words is this: Bless those who curse you, and pray for your enemies, and fast on behalf of those who persecute you: for what thanks will be due to you, if ye love only those who love you? Do not the Gentiles also do the same? But love ye those who hate you, and ye shall not have an enemy.” ~ The Didache, also known as The Teachings of the 12 Apostles, is an early Christian document written between 80AD – 90AD.

·    Lactantius, an advisor to Constantine, wrote:
 “If we all derive our origin from one man, whom God created, we are plainly all of one family. Therefore it must be considered an abomination to hate another human, no matter how guilty he may be. For this reason, God has decreed that we should hate no one, but that we should eliminate hatred. So we can comfort our enemies by reminding them of our mutual relationship. For if we have all been given life from the same God, what else are we but brothers?... Because we are all brothers, God teaches us to never do evil to one another, but only good—giving aid to those who are oppressed and experiencing hardship, and giving food to the hungry.” 

Question #4: Do we see anything in the next 1700 years that suggest hatred and violent acts against people are in line with God’s plan for humanity?

Starting when Constantine legalized Christianity in 315 - and at odds with his advisor quoted above - we begin to see the church/state hybrid increasingly use violence to further the power and influence of both. The killing of pagans began shortly after Constantine’s ill-advised move. Then the killing of heretics. The Inquisitions. The Crusades.[5] The execution of witches in the Middle Ages.[6]  A quick google search will show current organizations classified as Christian hate groups. Clearly, not every Christian engaged in or supported the violence, thought or rhetoric; however, the historical record is undeniable. Plenty of them did. 

Here’s the dilemma: if you look at Jesus, the New Testament church, and the first 300+ years of the historical church, you see the foundation and the heart of Christianity.[7] There is clear teaching and practice against hatred and violence. The distortions crept in over time, thanks in no small part to the unhealthy (and confusing) mingling of church and state. It's one reason there was a Reformation in Western Christianity (interestingly, Martin Luther recognized that the church/state co-mingling was a huge problem. Karen Armstrong claims he was the first European to propose they separate). It's also the reason mini-reformations are ongoing.

Jesus’ teachings do not leave Christians the option to be indifferent, callous, or cruel to people. Jesus’ teachings demand that we speak truth and show grace as we display a radical, self-sacrificial love for everyone. The early church insisted that Christians are to be “ministers of reconciliation” (2 Corinthians 5) who share the good news of the gospel and live in such a way that we consistently represent the life and message of Jesus. When we see hatred and violence begin to creep into the life and teaching of those claiming to be followers of Christ, we are seeing the distortion of faith, not the genuine expression of faith.

Here is a summary of how I believe we can distinguish between what is inherent in or necessarily follows from the teachings and actions of a religion or worldview vs. how particular individuals or sects interpret or abuse it.

  • Look at the teaching and life of the founder
  • Look at the foundational writings
  • Look at the lifestyle and teachings early in the movement, and
  • Look at which attitudes, teachings and actions most consistently build on these things and which do not.

If I apply this to Christianity, it looks like this:

  • Look at the teaching and life of the founder (Jesus)
  • Look at the foundational writings (the New Testament)
  • Look at the lifestyle and teachings early in the movement (see the early writings such as the Didache), and
  • Look at which attitudes, teachings and actions most consistently build on these things and which do not. [9]

So do Robert Dear, Pat Robertson and the pastors in Sacramento and Westboro display actions and attitudes that consistently build on the foundations of Christianity? No. They carry on the distortion, the terribly damaging misrepresentation of it. Thankfully, they are not the only ones who have found a way to make their voices heard after the tragedy in Orlando. You may not recognize every name on this list, but they are people of significant influence in church circles in the United States (and for some of them, influence around the world).

  • Al Mohler: “The Bible honors weeping with those who weep. A lot of our LGBT neighbors and their families are weeping now. Christians must weep with them.”
  • Ravi Zacharias: “"It is with deep sadness I read of the heartless and cold-blooded killings planned and implemented in Orlando, Florida by a cruel mind. How can any rationalizing justify that in any mind? How tragic for the parents, how ruthless of the killer. As a nation we mourn this loss. All of them are in our prayers at RZIM. We stand with the families in this time of grief. 'Lord please help us to be wise on how we speak of or treat our fellow human beings! We need You more than ever.'"
  • Richard Land, president of Southern Evangelical Seminary: “Our hearts and our prayers go out to the loved ones of those who were killed and wounded in what appears to be a terrible act of Islamic terrorism."
  • Russell Moore:“We don’t have to agree on the meaning of marriage and sexuality to love one another and to see the murderous sin of terrorism.”
  • The president of the Florida Family Policy Council, John Stemberger: "The people shot by the Islamic jihadist were sons and daughters, mothers and fathers. They were citizens and workers. They were precious souls. Most importantly, they were people who were made in the image and likeness of God himself. There were image bearers of the Creator and worthy of dignity, value, and respect."
  • Kevin DeYoung: “"While politicians debate guns and terror, the church can be clear on this: there is a Savior, and he calls us to love our neighbors."
  • The First Baptist Church of Orlando: “"We know God values and loves all people, as do we at First Baptist Orlando. We condemn this horrible and unjustified act of violence against the Orlando community. We hurt and pray for our friends and neighbors, especially in the LGBT community, and we extend our deepest expressions of sympathy to all the loved ones experiencing grief today." Gordon Robertson, the CEO of the Christian Broadcasting Network: "There is no justification for this terrible act of violence. All people, regardless of sexual orientation, have the absolute right to be secure and live safely in the United States of America … We also commend the Orlando Police and the FBI for their swift response, ending this nightmare and saving the lives of those they could."
  • John Piper: “"Let it be said again. Through tears. Followers of Jesus lay down their lives to save others, not to slaughter.”
  • The Archbishops of Canterbury and York: Christians must "love without qualification. The obligation to object to these acts of persecution, and to support those LGBTI people who are wickedly and cruelly killed and wounded, bereaved and traumatized, whether in Orlando or elsewhere, is an absolute call on our Christian discipleship.”
  • Matt Chandler: “What a horrific act of evil. Christians your Muslim friends & neighbors woke up this morning wondering how they will be viewed. Love them."
  • Christian rapper Lecrae: “So much hate and violence. Hopefully we can respond with love and compassion."
  • Erwin McMannus: “Orlando: Our hearts are broken. The human heart was never intended to be a vehicle of hate. Praying for all who lost someone they loved.”
  • Franklin Graham: "My prayers are with the many victims and family members who lost loved ones in the senseless shooting—now being called an act of terrorism—at a gay nightclub in Orlando early this morning. Life is precious, and we only have one chance to live our lives here on this earth."
  • Rick Warren: “Heartbroken by what has happened in Orlando. Join me today in praying for the families and victims of this tragedy.”

These voices represent the attitude and voice that honors the life and teaching of Jesus. You see this in millions of Christians around the world; you also see it in the overwhelming majority of leaders and spokespersons. We in the Christian community don't handle every situation perfectly. That's abundantly clear. However, our own personal and communal commitment to Jesus demands that we strive as individuals and as a group to represent Him faithfully in our actions, words and attitudes.

I anticipate an objection I have heard quite a bit recently: "Too little, too late. This sounds good, but you Christians have been so bigoted and mean that this kind of stance now rings hollow." If that accusation is true, I can see why any defense of Christianity would feel that way. I will explore this in the next post:

When it comes to the creation of a ‘moral climate,’ is there a proper difference to be made between disagreeing, criticizing, discriminating, oppressing, dehumanizing,and killing, or is this all one thing on a continuum?


[1] Alan Sheldon at Stand To Reason has offered a careful and balanced perspective on this. He is not Muslim, but he was raised in the Middle East, has studied Islam formally for decades, and travels to the Middle East regularly to engage Muslims on questions of faith and practice. Check out a podcast he posted after the Orlando shooting, “Mourning The Loss Of Valuable Human Beings.” 

[2] Almost all of the discussion focuses on the Republican Right. It would be fascinating to see someone from the Democratic Left explain the rise in violence among those who claim affiliation with them. Is there something systemic that is creating an environment that implies permission to use violence and law-breaking to protest the rich, or to physically attack political opponents and groups (even despicable ones) who have the right to freely speak and assemble? I'm not saying there is a necessary correlation. I am wondering why this question is not being asked more aggressively.

[3] The most popular incident to challenge this notion is recorded in Matthew 10:34, where Jesus says,"I did not come to bring peace, but a sword." This is obviously figurative language describing the dividing effect that faith in Jesus will have. The only people I know who interpret this literally do not claim an affiliation with Christianity. 

[5] What do we do with violence in the Old Testament, the wars as well as laws which included the penalty of death for some sins? That discussion is beyond the scope of this post, but I will note this about the Law: Jesus said he was the fulfillment of it; therefore, how Jesus lived and what he taught is intended to show us how the Law was meant to be understood and applied. The following links on wars and laws in the Old Testament may provide helpful starting points for thought and discussion.
[6] For an excellent overview on this topic, see “Does The Bible TeachNon-Violence?”

[7]While deserving of criticism, the role of the Church in the Crusades have been unjustly villified. The church engaged in the Crusades as an act of defense, not aggression - which is not to say the people were above reproach in how they conducted themselves.  It’s worth reading a well-rounded perspective if you have not done so. Start with Christianity Today’s “The Real History of the Crusades” or Rodney Stark’s book on the subject.

[8] Like the Crusades, it’s worth knowing the historical facts.

[9] Here's an interesting article comparing Islam, Judaism and Christianity's founders, texts and history concerning violence.  I think there's much more to say about the context in which violence in the Old Testament occurred (see [5] in the footnotes), but it's a generally insightful overview.

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