What is the Greatest Sin?

Sunday, August 31, 2014

Let’s talk about sin. This gets at one of the most basic questions we can ask: What is wrong with humanity, and how can we fix it? What leads to all the hurt in our world? What is the root cause of our problems?

One popular way to define sin is separation from God. This brings out an important aspect of sin that is often overlooked: We can be separated from God, life, and love in two ways. One is by our doing hurtful things, and the other is by hurtful things done to us. In short, we all do hurtful things, and we all have been hurt. A full understanding of sin needs to take both of these into account. That is, when the Bible speaks of “sin” (in the singular), this is a bigger concept than individual “sins” (note the plural). Biblically, sin equals all that can separate us from God, including damage being done to us.

Oftentimes this larger aspect of sin is overlooked in the discussion, and people only focus on individual sins defined as hurtful actions we do. This is of course part of it, but really only describes half of what is going on, and the two often work in tandem. People do hurtful things because they were hurt. That’s the spiral of sin.

An obvious example of this is how retribution leads to more retribution, each time the violence escalating. We see this in the Old Testament story of Lamech who declares “I have killed a man for wounding me, a young man for injuring me.” Already we can see the escalation where in response to being injured, Lamech kills. He continues, “If Cain is avenged seven times, then Lamech seventy-seven times” (Gen 4:23-24).

What is critical to notice here is that this is presented by Lamech as virtuous. This is not something he is ashamed of, but something he is proud of. We still hear this same sentiment expressed by political leaders today who speak of retaliatory violence in terms of “justice.” That payback “justice” is often escalated where we respond to a small attack with a massive assault of “shock and awe.”

This illustrates why the sin of violence is the most deadly of all sins. It is deadly first of all because of the damage it causes. In some cases, as with the above examples, it literally results in death. In others, such as physical abuse, the trauma caused can leave lifelong scars that do far more damage than the physical wounds alone. This aspect of trauma gets at the second reason that the sin of violence is so deadly: The sin of violence masquerades as goodness. When people beat children, they do it “for their own good.” When a nation retaliates against another, they do so in the name of “justice.” Oftentimes it is claimed that this state violence (whether it is war, capital punishment, or torture) is enacting the will of God.

Consider that in churches that speak of “the problem of sin” the focus is almost always on individual sins, and virtually never on the sins of those in authority, let alone do they look inward at the sins of the religious system itself. The focus is exclusively on sins of “missing the mark” (like marital unfaithfulness), and not of sins like beating children, which are seen by those doing this as a virtue done “for your own good.” In fact, in the United States while it is illegal in most states to beat children in public schools, it is legal to beat children in private schools, and the vast majority of those schools who practice this are conservative evangelical ones. So while we are aware as a society how profoundly damaging it is to beat children, the people who are advocating this abuse are the ones who preach every Sunday against “sin”, and yet this rather huge sin is not only overlooked, it is proclaimed as a virtue. It is defended as a “Christian” value to uphold against the stream of culture. To call this a blind-spot in our understanding of sin would be an understatement.

Notice in the Gospels that when Jesus condemns and rebukes, his focus is always on the sins of those in religious authority. He is constantly confronting the Pharisees and religious leaders for how their following of the Law is leading to people being hurt, excluded, shut out from the grace and healing that they need. Notice too that the response that Jesus gives to sin is not punishment, but to heal and forgive and restore people. How is it that we evangelicals have managed to have the opposite emphasis? Our focus is almost entirely on individual missteps (usually focusing on sex), and we are silent to the sins of those in authority that are far more damaging than individual sin, both because they affect more people, and because they claim to be done in the name of God. Have we not read the Gospels? Have we failed to learn the lesson of how religion can be used to justify sin that Jesus points out page after page? Are we still just as blind to the Pharisees of our own time?

Consider too the story of Paul: We read in 1 Timothy that Paul came to regard himself as “the greatest of all sinners” (1:15). When we read Paul speak of the struggle with sin in Romans 7 we are likely to imagine a struggle with women or booze, but this was not what Paul’s struggle with sin looked like. Paul tells us that his background was that of a Pharisee, and that he was, as far as keeping the Law was concerned, “blameless” (Phil 3:6). Now, let that sink in: We often attribute to Paul the idea that no one can keep the Law. But Paul plainly tells us that he was able to keep it perfectly. Yet at the same time he can describe himself as the “greatest of sinners.” So what did Paul see as his sin? Paul tells us “I was once a blasphemer and a persecutor and a violent man.” Paul’s great sin, as he saw it, was the sin of violence committed in the name of God. Paul as a Pharisee had seen the Jesus movement as heretical and had attempted to use violence to stop them, thinking he was doing this for God. His conversion therefore was not a conversion from one religion to another (Paul continued to see himself as a Jew), nor was it a conversion of a prodigal returning to religion. No, Paul’s conversion was a conversion from religious violence.

The greatest sin, according to the New Testament, is the sin of violence, and in particular violence that calls itself good.

Now I am not wanting to downplay individual sin. For example, adultery can have devastating consequences to a marriage. What I do want to draw attention to however are the sins that go under the radar by cloaking themselves in a mantle of righteousness.

In the end, what we need is a bigger understanding of sin: One that takes into account the reality of both individual and systemic sin, one that takes into account the reality that we can both be hurt by the bad things we do as well as the bad things done to us, and finally one that recognizes that what we need is not to perpetuate hurt by causing deeper hurt in response, and acting as if this is good, but instead working to restore and mend and reconcile. This is at the very heart of what Jesus came to do. The gospel is all about God acting in Jesus to restore and mend and reconcile sinful humanity. If we call Jesus Lord, then it is our gospel task to join him in working towards that same end.

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Ferguson and America’s love affair with violence

Saturday, August 23, 2014

In Ferguson, an unarmed black teenager was killed by police. In reaction, thousands took to the streets in protest. However, rather than attempting to listen, the heavily militarized police immediately made a show of force with armored vehicles, assault rifles, riot gear, and tear gas. People Tweeted photos and videos more reminiscent of scenes from Baghdad or Fallujah than of a little Midwestern suburb in America.

Is this Ferguson or Fallujah?

Tear gas and rubber bullets were fired into the crowd of peaceful protestors. Multiple reporters were assaulted and arrested. One cop was caught on video screaming “Bring it, all you fucking animals! Bring it!” Another appeared to be indiscriminately pointing his rifle in people’s faces and yelling “I will fucking kill you!”

This raises the question : Is what we have seen night after night in Ferguson simply a matter of a few “bad apple” cops, a local isolated problem? Or is it indicative of a wider attitude of the police in relation to the use of violence and force? Is it an anomaly, or is this what police in fact consider normal and right? In an OpEd piece in the Washington Post, a 17-year veteran of the LAPD police force gives us what he believes to be good advice from the perspective of a cop,

If you don’t want to get shot, tased, pepper-sprayed, struck with a baton or thrown to the ground, just do what I tell you. Don’t argue with me... and don’t even think of aggressively walking towards me. ”

In one sense he is of course right. If a guy has a gun at your head you should definitely not argue, and just do what he says. But one is led to ask how this reasoning is substantially different from saying to a child, “Honey, when dad is drunk and gets mad, don’t talk back, just be real quiet.” That’s probably sound advice, too, but it begs the question: Is this the world we want to live in? Is that as good as we can do?

The police are quick to argue that their use of force is justified, but the real question is not whether something can be justified, but whether it is in fact good. For decades teachers beat children in schools. This was similarly justified, arguing that it was the only way to maintain order in the classroom. Now that the majority of States have passed laws against corporal punishment of children in school, teachers have found other much more effective ways of creating an atmosphere of respect and order without the use of violence. We seem to have learned that lesson with our kids, the lesson that what we once thought was violence “for your own good” was in fact damaging and counter-productive. We seem to have yet to learn that lesson with “good” violence when it comes to the police or guns.

When all you have is a hammer, everything starts to look like a nail. Take away that hammer and you begin to discover that there are a whole lot of tools in the toolbox that are better suited to the task at hand. Looking at Ferguson, it’s easy to observe that the result of a militarized police force was not securing peace and safety. On the contrary, the violent and antagonistic actions of the police in fact acted to escalate and worsen the situation there -- and understandably so: When people feel threatened or violated, our natural human response is one of anger. Our impulse is to retaliate. Neuroscientists refer to this as a limbic reaction. In contrast to this, when the police instead have shown empathy and respect, the results have been strikingly different: The mood radically shifted from hostility to peace.

It’s not that hard, given some training in de-escalation strategies, not to mention the use of basic people skills and respect. But while there have been some notable exceptions among the police in Ferguson, such as Highway Patrol captain Ron Johnson, looking at the actions of the police in Ferguson as a whole it seems readily apparent that the average police officer is sorely under-educated in these vital skills.

As if to underscore the point, just a few days after the shooting of Michael Brown, and only a few miles from Ferguson, 23-year-old Kajieme Powell was gunned down by police. As a cel phone video released by St Louis police shows, the officers opened fire less than twenty seconds after their arrival, shooting Powell nine times. In a press conference following the shooting, St. Louis police chief Sam Dotson defended their actions, saying,

"The officers did what I think you or I would do, they protected their life in that situation."

The police released the video in the name of “transparency” and also because, as a police union representative put it, they believed the video was "exculpatory."

However, upon viewing the video, many see it as anything but exculpatory. There is no indication that anyone felt threatened by Powell prior to the arrival of the police. He does not charge the officers, but instead walks towards them, his arms at his side.

True, he does ignore their instructions to stop. True, he does say “shoot me” to them, and it is also true that he was armed—albeit with a steak knife. However, watching the video, many have found themselves asking: Was there really no other viable response other than to immediately open fire on this rather obviously mentally unbalanced young man?

Before opening her private praxis as a psychotherapist, my wife worked with institutionalized mental patients. There were times when a patient would get ahold of a weapon, such as a pair of scissors, and threaten the staff and patients. However, because of laws passed which focused on protecting patients rights and dignity, the days of strapping mentally ill patients to a gurney or pumping them full of sedatives and throwing them in a rubber room are increasingly becoming a thing of the past, and were non-existent where she worked. So the staff learned other ways to keep safe and deescalate volatile situations. Given that, I have to ask: If my tiny wife can handle an angry 6-foot paranoid schizophrenic man, shouldn’t cops be able to learn to do the same?

The deeper problem is that the police seem to think that there is no problem, that their actions which so many of us view as unnecessarily aggressive and violent are in fact reasonable and right – whether that means shooting tear gas and rubber bullets into a crowd of peaceful protestors or gunning down anyone they perceive as a potential threat. As Ezra Klein writes in Vox,

“It is easy to criticize. It is easy to watch a cell phone video and think of all the ways it could have gone differently ... It is easy to forget that police get scared. It is easy not to ask yourself what you might have done if you had a gun and a man came at you with a knife.

But there is still something wrong with that video. There is something wrong that the video seems obviously exculpatory to the police and obviously damning to so many who watch it.

The dispute over the facts in the Michael Brown case offers the hope that there is a right answer — that Wilson either did clearly the right thing or clearly the wrong thing. The video of the Powell case delivers a harder reality: what the police believe to be the right thing and what the people they serve believe to be the right thing may be very different.”

Hands up, Don't shoot!
The police’s persistent unjust and violent treatment of press and protestors in Ferguson shines a spotlight on a side of the police that most whites have never seen, but which reflects and amplifies a side of the police that African Americans frequently encounter. As Ryan Herring writes in Sojourners, “For the majority of black people, the police do not represent protection or safety, rather they are a menacing force that terrorize those they are supposed to serve... To be young and black in the United States means to live under constant pressure, something most non-black American citizens know nothing about.”

It can be comforting to think that the police protect us from the “bad guys,” unless of course you are profiled as that “bad guy.” This is otherizing, and it’s effect is to dehumanize. As the angry outbursts of the Ferguson cops reveal, the other is seen as an “animal” to suppress and control, rather than an individual with rights and value. That’s what Jesus meant when he said “As you do it unto the least of these, you do it unto me” (Mt 25:40). The way we treat those we value the least—the ones we fear and demonize and scapegoat, the ones we condemn, the ones we lock up and write off—that’s the way we treat God.

Violence is most dangerous when it masquerades as good. In the past people sought to justify violence against children, claiming it was “for their own good.” Today we hear the argument from law enforcement that their use of violence is for our own protection. However, as we are increasingly seeing, the actual result is that we are all less safe. Violence has long been our country’s national savior. It’s time we recognized it for the empty idol that it really is. It’s time we found better ways of dealing with our problems. Rather than finding reasons to justify violence, we need to be looking for better and more effective means for addressing problems. We have lots of hammers. It’s time we learned to use the many other tools at our disposal.

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Is There a Nonviolent Response to ISIS/ISIL?

Thursday, August 14, 2014

(Note: This article originally appeared on the Huffington Post and Sojourners)

Alarm and outrage has been growing over the mounting humanitarian crisis in Iraq at the hands of the Islamic State (IS) also known as ISIL (Islamic State of Syria and the Levant) or ISIS (Islamic State of Iraq and Syria).

Christians in the region are being forced to convert, pay tribute or die as the al Qaeda-breakaway group sweeps into predominantly Christian villages and Hamlets in Iraq, sending tens of thousands fleeing for their lives. Other non-Muslim groups, in particular the Yazidi, who practice a faith that predates Islam, are reportedly considered as infidels by the fanatic Islamic State and targeted for extermination in what many are calling a genocide. The UN is still gathering numbers but it believes that hundreds of Yazidis have been killed while others, primarily women, have been abducted and taken into slavery. Around 40,000 Yazidis have fled into the mountains of Northwest Iraq where they face the prospect of starvation on mountain or massacre by the Islamic State militants below.
The news is devastating and overwhelming. The suffering and acts of brutal violence staggers the imagination. What would a nonviolent response look like?

Traditionally the question has been to ask under what circumstances war and violence are "justified." From such questions comes what is known as Just War criteria. The problem is that Just War often focuses on justifying violence, when what we should be focusing on is asking how we can work to reduce violence in our world, rather than justifying it.

On the flip side are those who argue for pacifism, taking the stance that they cannot participate in war or killing, regardless of the consequences. However, in light of what is happening in Iraq it is understandable that many insist that we have a moral obligation to protect the vulnerable from harm, and cannot simply stand idly by with a clean conscience while others suffer.

Let me therefore begin by saying that I agree that we cannot stand by and do nothing. The practice of nonviolence and enemy-love cannot entail accepting abuse. It cannot entail neglecting to protect ourselves or our loved-ones from harm. This is where we must begin. The goal of nonviolence is to stop violence and abuse, not tolerate it.

What's crucial to understand is that nonviolence is not simply a refusal to add to harm (whether that harm is physical or spiritual/emotional), but more importantly it involves acting to restore, heal, and make things right. So in the case of the Islamic State, the question we need to ask is: What can we do to make things right? What can we do to protect the vulnerable? What can we do to stop the violence?

Jeremy Courtney, who started the hashtag #WeAreN -- which became a symbol rallying cry worldwide for Christians to express their solidarity with their brothers and sisters in suffering Iraq -- had this to say in an interview with with Huffington Post's religion editor Paul Rauschenbush:
We need a long-term plan, not just a short-term fix. There are agencies helping Christians, Yezidis, Turkmen, Shabak and others, and those services are necessary. But this isn't only about what Obama or Maliki must do now. The Christian church needs to reconsider its relationship with violence; that is part of what has landed us and others in this dire situation. We cannot carp about Christian persecution and not talk about violence and our use of violent solutions. We need a 40- to 50-year plan so that when the time comes to overthrow the next dictator, we are not as blind to our own complicity and stuck with short-term gains.
The fact is, there may not be a good short-term solution to a situation that has gotten so out of hand that people are describing it in terms of Frankenstein monster, but what we need to face is our complicity in creating that monster. The fact is, violence has not only failed to create stability, in many ways it has acted to exacerbate the situation of instability and injustice which fuels terrorism. Violence does not stop violence, instead it causes it to escalate like a wildfire burning out of control.
So what can we do?

In some ways, the situation is perhaps comparable to a person who has been chain-smoking for 50 years, and is diagnosed with stage-four terminal cancer who asks how doctors can help them. The answer is: They probably can't at this late stage. That does not mean that medicine does not work, it means it needs to begin earlier. If we truly wish to find a way out of the escalating cycle of violence we are caught in, we need to start at the roots and we need to think long-term. We need to deal with our complicity in creating the mess, and work towards making it right. Not with bombs and drone strikes, but by working long-term towards humanitarian goals such healthcare, poverty, and education which work to create stable and safe societies.

So thinking long-term, what can we do to prevent the next ISIS or al Qaeda from being born out of the soil of violence? Erin Niemela proposes these three commonsense pathways to peace:

1) Immediately stop sending funds and weapons to all involved parties. This is the easiest of the three. Ten years of terrorism-making and we still think our guns aren't going to fall into the "wrong" hands? The hands they fall into are already "wrong." If you need a good example, take a look at our darlings, the Free Syrian Army, and their blatant human rights violations, such as using child soldiers, documented by Human Rights Watch in 2012 and 2014.

2) Fully invest in social and economic development initiatives in any region in which terrorist groups are engaged. In his 2004 book, Nonviolent Response to Terrorism, Tom Hastings, Ed.D., professor of conflict resolution at Portland State University, questions: "What if the terrorists - or the population base from which they draw - had enough of life's necessities? What if they had secure jobs, decent living standards, drinkable water and healthy food for their children? Do we seriously think they would provide a recruiting base for terrorism?"

ISIS gained some of its current strength from economically providing for the families of fallen fighters, promising education to young boys (and then handing each a weapon), and capitalizing on grief and anger in Syrian communities. If we want to weaken ISIS and any other group engaging in terrorist activities, we have to start focusing on the needs they fill in those communities. Local communities in the region should be self-sustainable and civilians should feel empowered to provide for themselves and their families without taking up arms or using violence.

3) Fully support any and all nonviolent civil society resistance movements. Whoever is left - give them whatever support is needed the most. Erica Chenoweth and Maria Stephen, in their 2011 groundbreaking study on civil resistance, "Why Civil Resistance Works," found that "between 1900 and 2006, nonviolent resistance campaigns were nearly twice as likely to achieve full or partial success as their violent counterparts." In addition, successful nonviolent resistance campaigns are less likely to descend into civil war and more likely to achieve democratic goals.

We should have fully supported the nonviolent Syrian revolution when we had the chance. Instead, we gave legitimacy to the violent rebel factions -- those same groups now fighting alongside al Qaeda and ISIS. If we send our unconditional support to whatever nonviolent civil society actors are left on the ground in Syria, Iraq, Afghanistan and Libya, we might just find that the best remedy for terrorists has been right in front of us the entire time -- civil society.

As Niemela concludes, these above three steps represent a sensible path to decreasing hostilities, preventing the emergence of new terrorism recruiting environments, and empowering local communities to engage in nonviolent conflict resolution strategies.

This is not to categorically rule out the use of violence in the short-term. The immediate priority needs to be on protecting life. Although, if we are to employ violence in the short-term through military action, we certainly need to be careful that in using violence we do not act to make things worse than they are. The U.S. has begun sending heavy weapons to Iraqi Kurds to fight the Islamic State, uncritically repeating its longstanding policy of arming groups that often become the terrorists or oppressive regimes of tomorrow (it's worth noting the irony that the reason the U.S. needs to arm the Iraqi Kurds is because the Islamic State is fighting with hundreds of millions of dollars of U.S. military equipment seized from the Iraqi Army who abandoned it).

Thinking in the long-term however, it is high time that we explored other options, rather than repeating and cheer-leading for the mantra of the war-culture of our country that violence is the only option, the only response to evil. It's time that we all became aware of other solutions to resolving conflict besides immediately and only resorting to violence, and calling that "good."


Gungor and the Two Faces of Evangelicalism

Monday, August 11, 2014

(Note: This article originally appeared on Red Letter Christians)

This past week the Christian corner of the internet has been somewhat abuzz with headlines like: Gungor drifts from biblical orthodoxy (World Magazine), Dove-Award Winning Gungor Rattles Christian World, (Christianpost) and Singer to Answer for Controversial Views (Breathecast). These articles then go on to accuse the band of “unorthodox theology” leading them to pronounce the band’s “departure from traditional Christianity” and their “wandering away from a biblically defined Christianity."

So what are these “unorthodox” and “controversial views” that put Gungor outside of the bounds of “traditional Christianity” and has thus “rattled the Christian world”? Apparently they don’t believe in Young Earth Creationism (that the earth is only 6000 years old), and they don’t believe that all of the stories in the Old Testament should be taken literally (for example the story of Noah and the flood). 

Really? That’s it? This is what makes them not Christians? 

As Michael Gungor writes in a blog post entitled What Do We Believe

“Over the last year, I have had so many questions asked of me about what I believe. Just tonight I had a conversation with someone extremely close to me that said that he wouldn’t consider me a Christian anymore.


Not because of my life. Not because my life looks like Jesus or doesn’t look like Jesus. But because of my lack of ability to nail down all the words and concepts of what I exactly BELIEVE.”

This gets us into bigger question of what it means to be a Christian, what it means to call Jesus our Lord and savior, what it means to be Christ’s disciple? Is this defined by our holding certain doctrinal formulations like the Trinity or the deity of Christ? Or is it about a relationship with God in Christ shaping our life inside and out, so that we come to treat others with the same grace and mercy that we have known first hand in Jesus? Put briefly, is Christianity about creeds or deeds? 

Growing up Evangelical, the understanding I learned was always focused on having a “personal relationship with God” centered around a “born again” experience where a person would “give their life to Jesus.” Being in that living relationship, as we pray, worship together, and read our Bibles devotionally, the result was to grow to care about what Jesus cared about, and to have that shape our lives. That experience of God’s love turned my whole world upside-down, and like so many others it made me want to share God’s love with others (evangelism), and to express my love and gratitude to God in worship. Singing songs like the ones Gungor writes from the top of my lungs each Sunday.

That is the face of the evangelicalism I knew, and it is one I still deeply relate to. At the same time there was another face of evangelicalism known as the Neo-Reform movement. This “New Calvinism” is focused on correct doctrine (from the perspective of a 5-point Calvinist) and is often characterized by an embattled, belligerent tone. Think of John Piper or Mark Driscoll and you get the idea. This group focused on declaring who was “in” and who was “out” based on these hyper-Calvinist doctrinal markers (I add the qualifier “hyper” here as there are many Calvinists who disagree with this brand of Calvinism, let alone Wesleyans like myself who certainly do).

Now there are two important points to glean from this: First of all, even within conservative evangelicalism there is quite a bit of diversity in regards to what is considered “orthodoxy.” Wesleyans (who were by the way the driving force behind the revivals of the Second Great Awakening that gave birth to American Evangelicalism as we know it today) disagree doctrinally with the Calvinists, and the majority of Calvinists disagree with the New-Calvinists. So the whole idea of being outside of “traditional Christianity” depends on what tradition that is exactly. The fact is, a whole lot of evangelicals, perhaps most even, do not believe in a 6000 year old earth, and never have. I certainly never did. I don’t recall that being part of the sinners prayer or in any of the historical creeds either.

Secondly, and more importantly, doctrine can’t be the most important thing about the Christian faith. Love is. Do I believe in the Trinity? Yes. Do I believe in the deity of Christ? Yes. But what really matters is how these beliefs translate into my actions and my life. For example, how does my belief that Jesus reveals God’s character and heart translate into how I love others? That’s why correct doctrine matters, and why when we divorce doctrine from love it is neither correct nor Christ-like. 

When you get down to it, this isn’t about whether Gungor (or the rest of us) believes in a literal Adam and Eve or in the story of the flood. It’s about something much bigger; it’s about how we define our faith, about whether it is characterized by reflecting Jesus or focused on believing the right stuff even if we do this in a hurtful and unloving way that looks nothing like Jesus. Correct belief is important, yes, but it is primarily important in how it leads us to love like Jesus did. If it does not lead to Jesus-shaped love then it is simply wrong. Michael Gungor sums this up well when he writes, 

“There are lots of people that have all sorts of beautiful ‘beliefs’ that live really awful lives. If I’m on the side of a road bleeding, I don’t care if the priest or the Levite have beautiful ‘beliefs’ about the poor and the hurting. Give me the samaritan. The heretic. The outsider who may have the ‘wrong beliefs’ in words and concepts but actually lives out the right beliefs by stopping and helping me. That’s the kind of belief I’m interested in at this point.

What do I believe? Look at my life. That’s what I believe. And that’s the kind of belief I’m interested in for my friends as well. I don’t care so much about what their words and unconscious assumptions are (even though that can make for some enjoyable pub conversation). I care about what kind of lives they live … Do they believe in loving their neighbor or do they believe by loving their neighbor?”

Jesus demonstrates this focus on love as the aim of Scripture (and doctrine) when he declares that the “greatest commandments” are to love God and others. The apostle Paul echoes this as well, saying that the entire law can be summed up in the command to love. Jesus said this in the context of his repeated conflicts with the Pharisees. Paul, himself a former Pharisee, again echoes this same conflict in his contrasting of the “spirit of the law” characterized by love and the fruits of the Spirit with the “letter of the law” which kills. 

The Pharisees of Jesus time have a lot in common with the New-Calvinists of today. So if we believe that the message of Scripture should be applied to our own lives today, it would behoove us to pay attention to what Jesus criticized about the Pharisees. 

The Pharisees prided themselves on their “orthodoxy” i.e. on their correct application of the law. Jesus did not fault them on this. What his critique was focused on was that the Pharisees had done this at the expense of mercy and justice. They had shut out the very people who were in need of God’s love. The fruit of their doctrine was not love. 

It isn’t hard to recognize these same patterns playing out among the New-Reform today—focusing on correct belief with a seeming disregard for whether in doing this they are hurting others, often disparaging ideas like compassion as weak, and speaking mockingly of love. When told that their actions and words are hurtful, rather than repenting they frequently turn to the Bible for a justification of their hurtful actions. These are a group of people who are afraid of being wrong, yet ironically they are deeply wrong in the most important way—in divorcing their doctrine from love. If you look at all the times that Jesus warned people about hell, it is never about false doctrine, and instead always focused on their failure to show love. So if they want to be afraid of judgment, if they want to focus on being “right” then according to Jesus the place to focus is on love. “A new command I give you” Jesus says, “love one another as I have loved you.” That’s how we are “right” with God and Jesus.

Now, I do believe it is important to lovingly correct those who are in error for the simple reason that it is not okay to stand by while others are being hurt, especially when that hurt is being done in the name of God. But frankly it is not Gungor—as they wrestle through their own doubts and struggles trying all the while to cling to Jesus and to love—who needs to be corrected. If anything we should thank them for being real. No, the ones who need to be corrected are the “Pharaseevengelicals” of our day who have forgotten that what matters most is love. It is the angry preachers and pundits spreading an anti-gospel of fear and hate who need to be rebuked, rather than passively tolerated to the point where being evangelical has become virtually synonymous with being judgmental and embattled.

Some of us are still hoping that the word "evangelical" can again be known for its focus on love and grace centered in a vibrant and life-giving relationship with God. Others have given up on the "evangelical" label and are instead focusing on following Jesus and the way of grace, identifying as "progressives" (or as I do, landing somewhere in the middle, as a "progressive evangelical").

Whatever we call ourselves, it is high time for those of us who desire to live out Jesus-shaped lives to stand up and say to these self-appointed doctrine police that it is simply unacceptable for a follower of Jesus to act in such an un-Christlike manner. Because if we really read the New Testament we can clearly see that a “biblically based Christianity” as it is understood by Jesus and Paul is one focused on the fruit of love. As Paul says, without love, all our doctrine is just worthless noise.

In doing this, my hope and prayer is that we could do so in a way characterized by grace, recognizing that as hurtful as their actions may be, these are nevertheless human beings loved by God, and therefore seeking their redemption and good as our beloved brothers and sisters in the faith. Again, the words of Gungor are instructive, 

“It would be easy and just as destructive for me to write off all THOSE people who believe those things as something less than beautiful, complicated and intelligent human beings … So be careful of labels. Be careful who you judge as ‘in’ or ‘out’ of your camp. It’s a destructive way of seeing the world.”

With that in mind, let me open this up for discussion: How can we take a stand against people’s hurtful actions, while at the same time doing so in a way characterized by grace and focused on the good of the other? Let’s see if we can practice that in the comments section here.

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