Rainbows Everywhere

Rainbow flagOf late, everyone on the interwebs has something to say about rainbows. All the major tech companies that run our lives and enable us to communicate have done something and millions of us have have leapt onto the band wagon in our various digital incarnations. I decided pretty quickly that I shouldn’t say anything. “My thoughts are half-formed,” I reasoned, “my mind is too easily swayed,” and what’s more, “how Christianity functions in a post-Christian pluralistic society is too complex to reduce into a blog post, let alone 140 characters.”

But I’ve realised that that’s the wrong response so this is my whole-hearted attempt to speak to an issue that demands the whole of our hearts.

The reality of the rainbow

friendsThe reality is that homosexuality is not something that we can address like global warming or terrorism. It is not impersonal and it is not distant or detached from our day to day lives. Unforutnately it’s also not something that is helped by most of our responses; jokes, trite sayings and fear or anger.

As we each consider the sins that most plague us, there is no doubt that shame and remorse are evoked. When that sin is attached to our identity, “adulterer,” “liar,” “gossip” these feelings are even more pronounced. I cannot imagine a way to read the Bible and argue that homosexual practice is okay with God but let’s be fair; the Bible doesn’t justify any of the sins resident in my heart. I am the biggest sinner I know and I’m ashamed to say it.

The truth of the rainbow

I have nowhere to hide my sin and homosexuality is no different. Before God, the US Supreme Court can send a delegation of their finest lawyers and every tongue will hang in silence. So politics will not protect us from the judgement of God. That’s something a lot of Christians seem to think we should remember at this point but let’s not forget that legalism, theological acumen and erudition and, yes, even “being loving” won’t protect us from God either.

noahs ark people drowningThere is a story about a rainbow and a promise in the Bible that is preceded by the most violently destructive event the world has ever known. The flood was God’s response to a sinful world. It was his response to people who lived in rebellion against him. The truth behind the rainbow at the end of that story is that God judges sin whether he’s given you the ten commandments or your conscience or two thousand years of Christian witness. We answer to him and he doesn’t take sin lightly.

The promise of the rainbow

In spite of human sin, after the flood God points to the rainbow and promises never again to flood the world. In other words, from this point on there will be no interim judgement: we await only God’s final judgement.

To my homosexual brothers and sisters in Christ I say, let’s fight the good fight together: I’ll encourage you to fight your desires that are in rebellion against the rule of God and I pray that you will do the same for me.

To those who practice homosexuality, I say what I say to the Athenians in ancient Greece, to the South Africans in 21st century Pietermaritzburg and to everyone in between:

God now commands all people everywhere to repent. For he has set a day when he will judge the world with justice by the man he has appointed. He has given proof of this to everyone by raising him from the dead.

I don’t know what I would do if I ran the world. However, I do know that homosexual practice is sinful and I do know that, along with all those who take advantage of laws allowing gay marriage, I will stand before a holy God in shame. The rainbows I keep seeing remind me that God is patient but certainly not that he will tolerate our rebellion.

Enslaved to our Freedom

Red Light DistrictThe 2010 world cup was around the corner, human trafficking was in the spotlight and the streets of Muizenberg were well acquainted with women plying their trade. The relevance of the question “Should prostitution be legalised?” was thrust upon us. It is easy as a Christian to quickly affirm that prostitution should be illegal on the basis of its immorality and then be finished with the discussion. Do you really believe that though?

Would it be better for a women to starve to death on the streets than to sell her body? Who could answer yes to a question like that? If you want to say the prostitution should be illegal then what hope is there for men and women for whom that is the only option? Sadly, in a country in which unemployment is over 30%, the image of someone choosing between starvation and prostitution is not an extreme example; it’s real life for many. If we say prostitution should be illegal, we need to realise that we are taking away this person’s only form of income and, perhaps, her (or his) only hope.

Statue of LibertyThe less emotional version of the argument is perhaps the more familiar one of supply and demand. We live in an age of liberty. If there’s a willing buyer and a willing seller, third parties shouldn’t be allowed to intervene. If anything, that’s what Western liberty has taught us.

Yet, go back a few thousand years to an arena in Italy and watch human beings kill one another for entertainment and I’ll pose the question again. If there’s a willing buyer and a willing seller should third parties ever intervene? Perhaps you are rebutting your screen with the argument that the gladiators were slaves. But supposing they weren’t, or suppose that today we had a reality TV programme much like the Hunger Games in which people volunteered to kill each other. People are volunteering for one way trips to Mars, I’m pretty sure they’d go wild for the opportunity to kill someone legally. Should third parties intervene?

I hope you can say “yes” to that. If not, perhaps we’re not as far from barbaric Rome as we imagine. The question is then, “why are we willing to intervene?” It must surely be that irrespective of a willing buyer and a willing seller, some things can’t (or oughtn’t) be bought and sold. Life strikes me as one.

Sex strikes me as another.

Exploitation MousetrapIf someone were starving to death in a gutter trying to feed her family and a rich benefactor came along offering her everything she needed for a comfortable life in exchange for one night with her. We may still be inclined to say that’s alright – who are we to deny it. But imagine the same man offered a similar proposition to the next woman he came to in exchange for her to become a his sex slave – are we still okay with this or is it exploitation?

If that woman in the gutter were offered a loaf of bread in exchange for the night, we would surely say that’s immoral. So is sex something that can be bought? If so, who decides the price? The woman in the gutter says that the price is a loaf of bread – but maybe a third party should say it’s not for sale.

And that’s why freedom is evil. Okay, it’s not evil. But if (and when) freedom allows us to exploit one another; to buy and sell human life and dignity, to swap sex for bread or money or riches or fame, maybe we shouldn’t be as willing to blindly uphold individual freedom.

Maybe in South Africa, it would be good to prevent the introduction of porn channels on StarSat. Maybe it would be good to oppose eTV’s late night movies. Maybe it would be good to do whatever can be done to censor internet pornography (which, interestingly, is what Google is trying to do with child porn and they seem to be broadening their efforts).

Maybe it would be good to curb individual freedom for the sake of the individuals.

Christian Responsibility in the Public Sphere

Dietrich BonhoefferSome time ago I posted on whether Christians should care about politics. The answer I came to was, yes – we should care about the public sphere. The question of what we should do though, was left hanging. I’ve stolen my answer to this question from Dietrich Bonhoeffer. Bonhoeffer was a pastor before and during WW2, he lived in Germany during the rise of Nazism and he fought it’s influence over the church. He’s one of Christianity’s most significant thinkers when it comes to ethics because he had to work out whether it was okay to do what the government said when it started denying equality and oppressing Jews and blacks and homosexuals. He had to figure out whether the church should be rebelling against the state, whether you could lie about hiding Jews in your basement when the Gestapo come knocking and he actually ended up getting involved in a plot to assassinate Hitler (read about Bonhoeffer in this awesome, though perhaps not entirely accurate, biography). So he did a fair bit of thinking about how the church is supposed to relate to the government and he writes the following:

“…there are three possible ways in which the church can act toward the state: First, it can ask the state whether its actions are legitimate and in accordance with its character as state, i.e. it can throw the state back on its responsibilities. Second, it can aid the victims of state action. The church has an unconditional obligation to the victims of any ordering of society, even if they do not belong to the Christian community. “Do good to all people.” In both these courses of action, the church serves the free state in its free way, and at times when laws are changed the church may in no way withdraw itself from these two tasks. The third possibility is not just to bandage the victims under the wheel, but to jam a spoke in the wheel itself.”

Hold the state accountable

Blame CartoonThe church’s first responsibility is to be a watch dog. That is, the church should decry injustice when it arises but also praise the state in its strengths. The SAPS have caught a cyber-criminal network recently that was robbing the Road Traffic Management Council. The government rightly recognised the advantages of hosting a world cup in terms of national unity. For all it’s weaknesses, the state is doing many things right.

This, I think, is where prayer features. Praying for our leaders as Paul exhorts Timothy, “I urge that requests, prayers, intercessions, and thanks be offered on behalf of all people, even kings and all who are in authority” (1 Tim 2:1). These are people acting under God’s authority and when they do foolish things they denigrate God but when they act wisely it is to his glory. So pray for, respect and honour them and when it is time for critique do so in that same spirit.

Often the Christian witness in the public sphere is undermined simply by the fact that we only complain, we never have anything positive to say or anything in defense of the government. Our complaints are not characterised by respect and not actually worthy of being heeded. As much truth as they may contain, they totally lack love.

Aid victims of the state

No matter the political systems, some people are undermined. There will always be minority groups, there will always be poverty, there will always be people to whom the state is blind. Our critique and our prayers don’t absolve us of responsibility towards those people.

Justice Definition A while ago I worked through Tim Keller’s Generous Justice with my Bible study. Keller does incredible job of making clear the responsibility of the Christian towards the downtrodden. It’s rooted ultimately in the character of God who comes to us when we are totally undeserving of love and shows us mercy. So mercy in our lives is a reflection of the God who redeems us who shows us unfathomable generosity “he who did not spare his own Son, but gave him up for us all – how will he not also, along with him, freely give us all things?” So now as Christians, recipients of God’s mercy and grace, we need to realise that reflecting the image of God is going to look something like that. The ideal is that no one should live in poverty, no family break-down or perhaps in terms that have been used before, “there will be no more death or mourning or crying or pain”. Yes we wait for the old order of things to pass away but in this order, we show what we look forward to.

Jam a spoke in the wheel

Sometimes the state’s action is irredeemable. It doesn’t attempt justice, it attempts injustice. There is nothing that can be redeemed about killing Jews. Closer to home, there is nothing that can be redeemed about segregation of races so the responsibility of Christians is not just to critique it but to fight it. If that means sitting in non-whites seats so be it, if that means sheltering people who don’t have their passes in your house, so be it. The system itself is evil.

Of course, this is the most interesting response of the church because it’s surprising to find an institution that is normally docile reacting in rebellion but it is rooted in the fact that the state’s authority comes from God. So when the state deviates from God’s rule and calls for injustice – not just inadvertently allows injustice – then the response is to reject the rule of the state because, and this is the way Bonhoeffer argues it, they’ve lost that authority from God, they’ve forfeited it. So it stems also from the fact that our authority is God, and God is a God of justice, and if we promote justice, we will oppose the state’s call for evil.

Should Christians Care about Shower Heads and Red Berets?

EFF Red BeretThe reality is that we live in a country in which our leaders command very little respect and are generally not characterised by their integrity or moral fibre. We are a society far flung from the ideals of a ruler “unbiased, who takes no bribe, who executes justice for the orphan and the widow and who loves immigrants and refugees.” That’s Deuteronomy 10’s description, by the way, of God. So now as Christians living in this morally bankrupt society, what should our response be? What do Christians have to do with politics in a country such as our own?

Perhaps the response is to leave it be. What does this society have to do with us after all? I mean think of Philippians 3:20, “our citizenship is in heaven,” Hebrews 13:14, “here we have no lasting city, but we seek the city that is to come.” If all this is going to burn, then why bother? I am considering exploring a counter argument that looks at the early church but at this point, I am convinced that Christians do indeed have a public responsibility and this is why.

As exiles, if the land prospers, we prosper

Live Long and ProsperThere is something of our situation not unlike the situation of the Israelites living in exile to whom Jeremiah (29:4-7) says:

The Lord God of Israel who rules over all says to all those he sent into exile to Babylon from Jerusalem, “Build houses and settle down. Plant gardens and eat what they produce. Marry and have sons and daughters. … Work to see that the city where I sent you as exiles enjoys peace and prosperity. Pray to the Lord for it. For as it prospers you will prosper.”

This is many generations after David and Solomon. God punishes the rebellious southern kingdom by allowing the Babylonians to invade and take masses of people into captivity (like Daniel and Jeremiah). These exiles get plonked in a new land far from home and far from hope. If I’m an Israelite living in Israel, it’s easy to want everything around me to prosper – it’s the promised land! I care about the land because it’s God’s land and I’m one of God’s people. When I get taken into captivity though, I lose all those reasons to care about what’s happening around me. What’s more, I don’t live under God’s rule anymore – the people in charge are actually my oppressors. So why should I care? God’s instruction however is, “Build houses and settle down. Plant gardens and eat what they produce. … Work to see that the city where I sent you as exiles enjoys peace and prosperity. Pray to the Lord for it. For as it prospers you will prosper.”

There is a sense in which South Africa is not our home. Even so, in the sense in which we are exiles, if the land prospers, we prosper. Just as the Israelites living in exile were instructed to go on with their lives and contribute to their society, I believe so are we.

All authority is delegated by God

CrownIt’s pretty easy to poke fun at our leaders – as Zapiro so masterfully illustrates. And honestly, that’s because our politicians do pretty stupid things pretty regularly. The problem is that frequently it’s not just stupid things that get done but malicious things and they aren’t just the kinds of things we ridicule, they’re the kinds of things we mourn. Children don’t get textbooks that tax money has paid for, presidents get ostentatious houses while millions live in shacks, grant money vanishes. Very often our response to our leaders is ridicule and disrespect. It’s not a surprising response but it is the response of a people who don’t recognise a biblical truth.

Consider Daniel who we normally remember because he interprets Nebuchadnezzar’s dream. Just as a reminder: Nebuchadnezzar; evil enemy king who has just dragged the cream of Israel off into Babylon. Typical Israelite response: “what has happened, obviously the gods of the Babylonians are more powerful than our God.” Yet, God reveals the meaning of Nebuchadnezzar’s dream to Daniel and here is Daniel’s prayer (Daniel 2:20-23),

Praise be to the name of God for ever and ever;
wisdom and power are his.
He changes times and seasons;
he deposes kings and raises up others.
He gives wisdom to the wise
and knowledge to the discerning. …

Daniel recognises that God is sovereign; “he changes times and seasons.” What does God do with that sovereignty though? “he deposes kings and raises up others”. Daniel, in exile from Israel, no longer living with one of the descendants of David as his king, realises that God has deposed that king and has set up Nebuchadnezzar.

Consider Paul’s injunction to New Testament believers living under Roman rule (Romans 13:1-7),

Let everyone be subject to the governing authorities, for there is no authority except that which God has established. The authorities that exist have been established by God.

Imagine reading those words a few years later when Nero is in power. Paul carries on though,

whoever rebels against the authority is rebelling against what God has instituted, … For the one in authority is God’s servant … Therefore, it is necessary to submit to the authorities, not only because of possible punishment but also as a matter of conscience.

So Paul’s conclusion is, “pay taxes” – give whatever you owe, taxes, revenue, respect, honour. Why? Because all authority is delegate by God.

It’s true that sometimes those in authority abuse their power and misuse their authority. But by virtue of the fact that they rule because God has established them, we owe them honour and respect. Everything they institute that is not immoral – i.e. contrary to the will of God – is not something we can oppose on theological grounds. So if the ANC decided to use their majority to make the country communist, we must recognise that communism is not inherently evil and so although we can argue that it’s unwise, we can’t say that they have forfeited the right to rule under God’s authority.

We need to be very careful when we want to demean or ridicule our leaders because their authority comes from God. When Israel wants a king God says to Samuel, who is leading them at the time, “do what they want; they haven’t rejected you, they’ve rejected me.” And there is always the possibility when we turn against our leaders that we are rejecting God.

We aren’t really exiles

mrfredricksenOne profound truth underlies our responsibility to our country and to the world. We are not really exiles. The surprising and often neglected teaching of the New Testament comes from the understanding that God is working with this world, right here. 2 Corinthians 5, “In Christ God was reconciling the world to himself.” Colossians 1, that amazing section about Jesus’ divine nature (the fact that Jesus is not just a man, that he is God), culminates in verses 19-20 “For God was pleased to have all his fullness dwell in him [in Jesus] and through him to reconcile all things to himself, things on earth and things in heaven [by the cross]”. The cross is about the reconciliation between God and this fallen world. So yes we’re citizens of heaven but that’s because God’s plan for this world is to bring about his kingdom on earth. Matthew 5:5, “the meek will inherit the earth” is not a particularly enticing promise if God is planning on wiping everything out. Consider Revelation 21 right near the end of the book, John writes,

Then I saw a new heaven and a new earth, for the first heaven and earth had passed away … And I saw the holy city – the new Jerusalem – descending … And I heard a loud voice from the throne saying: “Look! The residence of God is among human beings. He will live among them, and they will be his people, and God himself will be with them

There is a sense in which we are exiles that’s why it makes sense to say “be in the world but not of it”. But at the same time it is profoundly true that we are residents, the true residents, the rightful heirs of God’s world.

The restoration of the world is what is foreshadowed in God’s giving Israel the promised land. In the promised land, God is marking out an area for his people. The difference is that now we aren’t just hoping that evil will be wiped out of the land, that we won’t need to go looking for another leader, that we won’t need a priesthood to maintain our relationship with God. He is restoring the entire universe and the dwelling of God will be among human beings. You see we are just waiting for that reality to come to fruition. So in a very real sense, we are the true residents. This world is the inheritance of the people of God. I care what happens to it.