Wednesday, March 26, 2008

Shane Claiborne-Part 3

Although I’ve been giving Shane Claiborne a lot of props for exposing the idols of patriotism and consumerism, I need to shift our attention to a few of his views that have dire theological consequences, primarily centering on his sacramental view of the “least of these.” Taken from the Sheep and Goats passage of Matthew 25, according to this interpretation, not only does Jesus incarnate himself in the poor, but also that his presence within them should act as a motivation for Christians to serve the underprivileged throughout the world because we are in essence serving the mystical presence of our Lord Jesus. It is not surprising that he passionately holds this belief since his two mentors, the late Mother Teresa and Tony Campolo, propagate this view throughout their speeches and writings. While Mother Teresa was alive, she insisted on the belief that the dying, cripple, unwanted and unloved are actually “Jesus” in disguise. Tony Campolo has even called for evangelicals “to develop a theology that Jesus is waiting to be encountered in the poor and the oppressed.”

Consequently, many of my (evangelical) urban ministry colleagues have answered this call because of their sacramental view, including the influential, simple-way voice of Shane Claiborne. Throughout his book Irresistible Revolution, Shane shares stories of God’s grace and mystery when serving the poor, whom he assumed was Jesus. At times, he interchanges the phrase “God’s image in the poor” to communicate the same idea. The phrase “God’s image,” can be a much better term with one major distinction. That is, the image of God in humans was severely broken by the fall, whereas Jesus Christ embodies the perfect image of God because he is God-in-the-flesh. However, because all of us humans possess a depraved, sin nature and Jesus does not, we cannot claim that the presence of Jesus somehow dwells in the poor (or all human beings), unless they have repented and believed the gospel.

Let me share a few stories that might shine some light on this issue. Over three years ago, while driving through my neighborhood, as I paused for a stop sign, a young drug-dealing “thug” on the corner pulled out his gun with a laser scope, and aimed its red dot at my forehead. With a pull of his trigger I would’ve been a dead man, but out of sheer terror my body jolted with fear, which caused him to double up with laughter allowing me to drive away. The man with the gun was not a high-level pusher we see in movies or music videos with flashy clothes, a hummer, a “crib” mansion, and an assortment of scantily clad women by his side. Rather, he was like many other young adult men in our community: jobless, desperate, a high school drop out lacking marketable skills, and most likely addicted to the substance that he was selling. In other words, he also fit the description of being poor. So that begs the question, if, as Shane Claiborne insists, the presence of Jesus mystically resides in the poor, was this drug-dealer, who threatened my life, actually Jesus in disguise? Would Jesus have terrorized me in this manner and then mocked my fearful response?

Here’s another scenario. Fifteen years ago when I was the live-in manager at a transitional homeless shelter for men, I spent some of my time connecting with homeless people living under freeway overpasses, in refrigerator boxes, and along the river. While the homeless population, especially those who are mentally ill, are most vulnerable to physical assaults on the streets, much of the public do not realize that it often occurs by the hands of other homeless individuals. Not only were several of my homeless friends victimized by other homeless people, but also I remember helping break up a fight where one street person was beating another street person half-to-death. Here’s the million dollar question. If the mystical presence of Jesus somehow resides in the least of these, was Jesus as a homeless person actually physically assaulting and beating Jesus as the other homeless person? If we believe the nice “least of these” to be Jesus, shouldn’t we believe the nasty “least of these” to be Jesus as well?

Let’s be honest with ourselves and the Biblical narrative. Sin despoiled all people and all creation, including the poor. Unfortunately, those holding to the sacramental view tend to overlook the sin nature within the “least of these.” Yes, they are vulnerable and victimized. Yes, they often have been and continue to be sinned against. Yet like the rich, the middle-class, or any other human being (however they are classified by the world), at the core of who they are, is a selfish, rebellious sin problem. When we view the least of these as the mystical presence of Jesus, we often come away with a delusional, romanticizing outlook of the poor and oppressed.

For the sacramental view of the poor to coincide with orthodoxy, the Campolos and Claibornes ought to address (from the entire Biblical story, not just the red letters) how Christ can somehow mystically reside in the unregenerate poor, especially those who are downright evil. If they don’t, their other alternative might be to swim among the murky waters of universalism.

Saturday, March 22, 2008

Gambling over Jesus' Clothes

A couple of nights ago, I caught two of my students “shootin’ dice” in a corner away from everyone at Berean after our Bible study. Seems they had some unfinished business from playing basketball at Coit Park. On a side note, basketball at Coit Park in Grand Rapids resembles the movie, “White men can’t jump.” Often you have to put up money to play on the court, or you don’t get to play. Anyways, on the eve before Good Friday, they were so desensitized to the passion story of Christ, which J.T. alluded to in his Bible discussion, that they were able to shoot dice without any respect or regard to Christ and his work on the cross, our Thursday Night Hype program, and the church building in which we meet.

As I read the Easter story today, after Jesus was beaten, scourged, and finally nailed to the cross, I was reminded that roman soldiers gambled for his clothes. Like our students, they were callous and hardhearted to the execution of God-in-the-flesh, insensitive enough to cast lots over his garments. Here we have the God of the universe as a man experiencing excruciating torment, suffering physically through beatings from the palace guards, the horrific scourging that ripped apart the skin of his back, and the impact of weighted iron spikes driving into his wrists (which even pales to the untold suffering of having God the Father turn his back on him while deflecting the Father's wrath, taking on the penalty and guilt of our sin so that we could become the righteousness of God). Were the soldiers that anesthetized to death and violence that they would gamble over the clothes of Jesus?

Yet so many times, like my students I play the role of the roman soldier, desensitized to One who has purchased me with His blood. Do I find myself only reflecting on Christ’s death and resurrection during the Lord’s supper and Easter? Here is a song called “Clink of the Nails” from the Cross Movement that visually guides us in reflection of Christ’s atoning death on the cross.

Wednesday, March 19, 2008

Shane Claiborne-Part 2

Confronting the idol of consumerism is another important aspect of Shane Claiborne’s writing that he gets right. Through his unique story-telling gift, Shane points out our materialistic sins without resorting to manipulative guilt tactics. Even more, his simple way of following Jesus actively protests against the social order of materialistic greed that most of America embraces. By living out kingdom values in a communal setting within the “badlands” of Philadelphia, their community resembles the early Christians from the book of Acts. Like the early Christians, these believers (meet) together constantly and shared everything they had. Like the early Christians, they (sell) their possessions and shared the proceeds with those in need. Like the early Christians, they worship together… each day, meet in homes for the Lord’s supper and share their meals with great joy and generosity—all the while praising God and enjoying the good will of the people (Acts 2:44-47.) The alternative community that Shane and his cohorts model is so selflessly contrary to American consumer culture, even the pagans take notice and give glory to God for their good works (I Pet. 2:11-12).

Nevertheless, despite outside comparisons to medieval monasticism, Claiborne’s simple way lifestyle rejects vows of poverty. Rather he and his companions articulate and live out a “theology of enough,” which compels them to redistribute their resources and share them with the poor. On top of that, Shane demonstrates from scripture that a large percentage of Old and New Testament giving was actually devoted to help the poor. However, instead of griping about the twisted stewardship values of American churches that give minimally to help the poor while spending much of their resources on elaborate buildings and extra staff, he and his group model a solution called the “relational tithe.” By pooling together 10% of their income (assumes one giving to the church first and scaling down of their lifestyle), people connected to Shane were able to meet many needs of the poor in their own community and throughout the world.

I am intrigued by the idea of a local church voluntarily tithing an extra portion of their income (besides what they normally give to the church) to redemptively help the poor. Maybe it would dispel the stereotype that one student of mine articulated at Thursday Night Hype last week of an inner-city church in the neighborhood (not Berean). He spoke of a neighborhood church pastor lining his pockets with cash from poor single mothers in the church, while the church did nothing significant about the condition of these poor people within the church and in the community. To him, why should he stop stealing stuff “to get his” when this certain pastor “steals” from the poor “to get his?”

In the end, Shane Claiborne helps us remove the blinders so we can finally see the idol of consumerism that holds sway over our lives.

Wednesday, March 12, 2008

Tony Campolo's Illegal Alien Proposal

Given that the brawling between the political left and right over our country’s illegal immigrant problem has accomplished virtually nothing, I get excited when someone proposes something that actually makes some sense. Tony Campolo, a Christian evangelical who polarizes the heck out of my emotions (I either strongly back his views or come out strongly against them), has carved out a middle-of-the-road argument that embraces both law and grace.

Click this link to read his entire article.

He proposes that the United States have a “high-wall but a wide gate.” In other words, we need to do everything we can, including the idea of a high wall, to protect our borders from potential drug dealers, criminals and potential terrorists, yet widen the gate so that the poor have every opportunity to come to America regardless of their income status.

Moreover, he proposes some practical solutions for those who are already here without sending them back. “When it comes to dealing with those who are already here, I agree with those who claim that amnesty is not a good idea. These illegal immigrants did break the law, and amnesty would likely invite others to do the same. Law breakers should be dealt with seriously. Allow me to suggest some solutions to this predicament. I propose that undocumented entrants be granted green cards as soon as possible, but they should be required to pay a hefty fine for having broken the law. Also, they should be required to pay back taxes on their past earnings. But, knowing that it would be unlikely for them to have the money to cover these expenses all at once, I suggest that they have as much as 10% of their income deducted in the years that follow until such time as these fines and back taxes are paid off. Those who earn the higher salaries would pay off what they owe sooner, while those with lower salaries would have to take longer to fulfill their obligations.”

For those of us who take the Bible’s commands to help the poor and the alien or stranger seriously, yet understand that we need a solution that discourages law-breaking, Tony Campolo’s proposal brings together the best of both worlds. Let the public discourse begin!

Saturday, March 8, 2008

Dr. Grier

Since I am somewhat ADD with my thought processes, if I am doing a series on a subject, that does not mean that I can't interrupt it to post something different-like putting on hold my Shane Claiborne series to blog about something else. Although I represented UTM at a ministry conference yesterday, more importantly I had the chance to reconnect with one of my former profs from Grand Rapids Theological Seminary (also the former dean of the seminary as well), Dr. James M. Grier. He's been retired for some time now, but maintains a rigorous preaching and teaching schedule throughout the world.

I attended the two workshops that he taught, both of which intersected with post-modern thought and the emergent church. The first one, Certainty about Uncertainty, dealt with the ongoing conflict in Evangelical circles about the certainty, assurance, and confidence of truth. Dr. Grier has a unique gift of rising above all the noise of the debate, pointing out both the veracity and the errors that each side is making, and then presenting the orthodox position with a fresh new viewpoint. In this presentation, he tore down the modern idols of rationalism and empiricism that permeate Foundationalism, but steered away from replacing them with the post-modern idols of social relativism and pluralism, which regrettably, many emergents have allowed to seep into their epistemology. Even as Dr. Grier pecked away at more of the enlightenment's cancerous influences of the late 20th century and early 21st century (non-emergent) evangelical church, he makes clear God's self-disclosure as through nature, the scriptures, and the incarnate Son, Jesus Christ. In fact, he makes Scripture the central aspect of our Epistemology and ultimate standard of truth demonstrating how it can interpret and give significance to all of reality around us. If you are interested in hearing a longer, drawn out version of this presentation, download it from his website.

His second presentation, The Missional Church, really stepped on some toes. Since much of the emergent church has been associated with the term missional, he begins by identifying several characteristics of the emergent church, taken from Bolger and Gibbs book, Emerging churches. As he walked through these characteristics of the emergent church, he took aim at some of the sacred cows that exist in the typical evangelical church of today. For instance, while describing the characteristic, transforming secular space, Grier bemoans the fact that churches throughout North America have locked their resources into building programs and buildings that they use only a couple times a week. However, by transforming secular space, emergent churches free up more resources for the kingdom. At the same time, he feels that much of the emergent church has capitulated itself to post-modern culture, which is just as wrong. Instead, he proposes the church as an alternative community living out Missio Dei as a sign, instrument and foretaste of the kingdom of God.

Interestingly enough, Dr. Grier exposed the same idols as Shane Claiborne when explaining the church as an alternative community. With indignant disgust, he exhorted our group to get the American flag off the platform and out of the church so that people don't confuse kingdoms. He also exposed the idol of consumerism, including a modern day story of the rich young ruler. A man requested Dr. Grier as an accountability partner in the areas of purity, marriage, and devotions. Dr. Grier responded by asking to trade 1040 tax forms and the man retorted that his finances was his private business and thus withdrew his request of accountability.

Finally as Dr. Grier fleshed out a kingdom theology of the church, he took the evangelical church to task for their lack of commitment to God's mission in our nation's urban centers. Of course I was shouting Amens to that until the people around me gave me more than a few dirty looks.

Thank you Dr. Grier for continuing to articulate a scholarly, Biblical theology of these different issues in such a way that refuses to bow down to either the modern idols nor the post-modern idols.

Wednesday, March 5, 2008

Shane Claiborne-Part I

During the fall of 2006, I was introduced to the writing of Shane Claiborne through his book, “Irresistible Revolution.” As I scrutinized the ideas behind his story, I found myself at times shouting “Amen and Halleluiah” at the top of my lungs in agreement, while other times I was throwing it against the wall, voicing my opposition. Even though irresistible revolution generated such conflicting responses within me, I am convinced that its story and message needs sharing with the evangelical church-at-large through out America. I will begin by pointing out areas where I believe Shane Claiborne is right.

First, he exposes the idol of patriotism. By sharing experiences spanning the globe (from evangelical churches in America to the cities and churches in the war zone of Iraq), Shane brings to light how our recent misplaced allegiance to country, especially during war, has harmed the reputation of Christ and his church. While I am at odds with his pacifistic stance, he does make a compelling argument. Christian evangelicals allowed patriotism during our nation’s crisis to shape our worldview rather than a seeking a Biblical view of social-political issues (such as war) that centers on the person and work of Jesus Christ. Much has been made of how the evangelical church as a whole in America wholeheartedly supported the recent invasion of Iraq and to "stay the course." Perhaps our devotion to the interests and values of our country played a part in diverting our attention from objectively viewing the war from a Biblical and Christological lens.

I know I am guilty as charged. For instance, right after 9-11, I proudly displayed a “Go get’em George!” bumper sticker on the back of our family’s mini-van. In response to the terror attacks, I was ready to support any action the president made, even if the end justified the means. However, once we invaded Iraq, I realized I needed to develop a theology of war because several of my students were questioning its biblical rationale. In my study, I not only examined the scriptures, but I also read Yoder’s “the Politics of Jesus,” which argues for the pacifist position. Yet I did not stop there. I delved into Darrell Cole’s recent defense of just-war theory, “When God says War is Right,” and then unpacked “War and Christian Ethics: classic readings on the morality of War,” which highlights two-thousand years of writings from philosophers and theologians pertaining to war. Although in the end, I do hold to a just-war position, I am convinced that certain aspects of the current Iraqi conflict cannot be justified by just-war theory (torture, pre-emptive strike, etc…). At the same time, certain aspects of the war could coincide with a just-war position, such as the liberation of a severely oppressed people. However, it is suspect…because only when our government could not find weapons of mass destruction that they began to articulate a “liberation” rationalization for the war.

Regardless of your position whether you support the current Iraqi conflict or not, what makes Shane Claiborne’s message significant and right about the idolatry of patriotism is that he compels Christians to question where their loyalty and allegiance ultimately lies. May it always be with our Lord Jesus Christ.

Saturday, March 1, 2008

Events of Steve's Funeral

Steven and his daughter, A'zharia

Well, I am delaying my Shane Claiborne posts again for a little while longer, due to unforeseen events. Yesterday, I went to the funeral of one of my former students, Steven Ivy, whom I mentioned was gunned down last Friday. Last week I didn’t know much of the details, only that Steve, who was the cousin of a student that I mentor, was shot and killed in the house next to my church, Berean Baptist. However, after doing a little bit of research, I realized he was one of my former students when I ran the after-school program at Coit School for Camp Fire Boys and Girls about ten years ago and at the Rock when he was around sixteen or seventeen. Having worked with over two-thousand inner-city youth with the Grand Rapids Parks and Recreation, Camp Fire Boys and Girls, Servants Center and Urban Transformation Ministries during the past fifteen years, sometimes I mismatch a few names and faces.

About four hundred people packed themselves into Pilgrim Rest Baptist Church. At least thirty of them were either current or former students of mine. During the first hour, people paid their last respects to “Coo.” Since his father shared Steve’s testimony as someone who believed and had a relationship with Christ, his wish was to celebrate his life rather than mourn for him. Sadly, there was a lot of mourning and wailing among his friends, especially from his baby’s mamma and another girl that Steve knew well.

There was one very tense moment during the service. One of his friends wrote a poem about Steve, celebrating his life. The majority of the poem was very moving, speaking of who Steve really was as a person. However, the last part talked about “poppin’ bottles” which refers to partyin’ and drinking, which some knew was a part of Steve’s life, albeit a small one. Steve’s Grandmother went hysterical on his friend yelling, “I didn’t raise my grandson like that! “Who does he think he is?” And so on as she was accompanied out of the service until she calmed down. Pastor Jones, who resided over the funeral, used the “poppin’ bottles” as an illustration of what not to be or do, and then pointed young people to accept Jesus. Since almost half of the people in the service were teenagers and young adults, Reverend Jones also took advantage of the opportunity several times to rebuke young folks for thinking that they know everything, that they do not listen and obey their parents, and that they live for money and pleasure rather than for Christ.

As I observed the nodding and obvious vocal support of the forty and older crowd for what Pastor Jones was saying, and then observed the stone face response of the teenagers and twenty-somethings, it reinforced a reality that among African-Americans there is a noticeable gap of worldviews between the older and younger generations. The civil rights or soul generation valued the authority, and therefore the message of this larger-than-life saint, Reverend Jones, who has pastored for some sixty or so years (give or take) at Pilgrim Rest Baptist church. However, the hip-hop generation seemed more in tune with the poet friend of Steve’s, who not only looked like an MC, but who also kept it real by juxtaposing the glory of God and “poppin’ bottles” without seeing any conflicting message between the two.

Perhaps the most ironic aspect was an old Helen Baylor song sung at the funeral, “Can you reach my friend?” To me it represents the desire of one generation who has the answer in Jesus, but has lost touch with its younger generation.

I got a call from an old friend. We laughed about how things had changed.
But I could tell things weren’t going as well as he claimed.
He tried to hide his feelings, but they only gave him away.
The longer I listened, the more I kept wishing that I had the right words to say.

Can You reach my friend? Bring his searching to an end.
Lord, I know you love him, Help him understand.
Can You reach my friend? You’re the only One who can.
Help him give his heart to You.

We talked for more than an hour, I smiled when he mentioned Your name.
I said that I knew You.
I told him the difference You made, but he never though he would need You
But may he’s changing his mind, As we said goodbye Lord
He told me that I had found something he’d like to find


Maybe he’s ready tonight. Lord, he said that he might need to call You
Help him give his heart to you.