Truth in pro-life advertising

09192efe-8dfb-4f88-b161-4b17203de8bcMuch to my mother’s chagrin, I’ve always found humor in the biting satire and warped comedy of Rocko’s Modern Life, a long-defunct cartoon from the days before Nickelodeon tried to out-Disney Disney. One episode follows the titular wallaby and his friend Heffer as they set out on a business trip for Rocko’s employer. After an avalanche blocks the route, they decide to splurge by taking advantage of a $5 special at a nearby ski resort. After checking in and requesting skis, they soon find out they’ve been had; every thing is five dollars. Skis. Cutting the skis down to size. Lift rides (including subsequent attempts to catch a lift after missing the first one). Bathroom use. Even the “roaring fire” in the lodge has a meter to feed.

It’s a funny episode that hinges almost entirely on a cruel advertising trick which would drive us to rage in real life. When we buy a thing, we want it to be that thing. Whether its the contents of a food product, the efficacy of a medicine, or the performance of a car, we allow for some spin in subjective claims but past a point we demand truth in advertising. Why don’t we in the conservative church demand the same of ourselves?

Pointing to the anniversary of the Roe v. Wade decision, abortion opponents annually fill this week with events such as Sanctity of Life Sunday a few days ago and the March for Life in DC on Friday. If you don’t reside in the conservative Christian community, you may not know about these events but have likely noticed an increase in chatter regarding abortion as a result of the emphasis.

I hesitate to call these events and most of their supporters “pro-life” because I believe in truth in advertising. If only abortion is being addressed, let’s be honest and call it anti-abortion (thankfully some voices stand out; the Ethics and Religious Liberty Commision under Russell Moore’s leadership comes to mind). How can the content of a pro-life material stop at the decision to give birth? Wouldn’t belief in the sanctity of life look to pregnancy and new parent care? And why only pregnancy? Wouldn’t a pro-life ethic have to include addressing poverty, vulnerable populations (like refugeeswidows, orphans, and those in prison as demanded by Scripture), and even the environment on which we all depend and over which God has placed us as stewards? Unfortunately, such topics rarely come up in events, talks, or literature labeled as pro-life; no wonder others mock this position as simply being pro-forced birth. It seems that it’s easier to make quips about Mary not having an abortion than it is to remember that her Son was a genocide survivor and refugee who was tortured and executed as an enemy of the state.

God, however, is wholly pro-life. This past Sunday I preached from Proverbs 24:10-12. This text contains a stern call to action: “Rescue those being led away to death; hold back those staggering toward slaughter.” I told my congregation that this text should constantly make us ask ourselves, “What am I personally doing to refute the claims of Death?” The story of Scripture (and thus Christianity and even history) is at its core a story of Death making claims it doesn’t deserve and God working to reclaim Creation. We, through Christ, have both been made the subject of this work and invited to be co-laborers in the rejection of Death in all its forms.

A complete ethic of life is not only logically consistent and biblical imperative but also incredibly freeing. As the old aphorism goes, no one can do everything but everyone can do something. Consider the ongoing plight of Flint, Michigan, a city forced to live with abhorrent lead concentrations in its water since 2014. It will take years to fully see the deadly fallout as this toxin slowly destroys lives. Roughly a year ago, hundreds of union plumbers volunteered to install filters for the residents of Flint while the government continued to squabble ineffectually. This, friends, is a pro-life act. These plumbers, Christians or not I do not know, saw a place where Death was laying claim and moved to overcome it using the skills they possessed. Abortion is an incredibly complex issue, as evidenced by the fall of the abortion rate to the lowest level since Roe v. Wade despite the decision remaining in effect. Not everyone can affect abortion, let alone wider yet thoroughly interconnected pregnancy and parenthood issues. But each and every one of us is at the absolute most merely arm’s length away from something or someone being unjustly claimed by Death. Each and every one of us has been gifted to affect the world around us. Being pro-life means partnering with God through Christ to grab hold of Creation and place it under the claim of Life using our gifts. May our pro-life advertising be true. Let’s get to work.

Truth in pro-life advertising

“Not my president”; or, Words both reflect & shape realities

Donald Trump will be sworn in tomorrow as the 45th president of the United States of America, but it was the eras of Barack Obama and George W. Bush through which God taught me how to respond to both the celebrations and protests of today.

More than a decade ago, a younger me was still deeply convinced of the validity of the marriage of evangelical faith and conservative politics found in Christian neoconservatism. Put another way, God was going to take this country back and blessings would flow…as long as we the faithful-and-historic-moral-majority-yet-persecuted-minority did our part through activism, voting, lobbying, and the like. 2 Chronicles 7:14 was clearly meant for America. Bush was elected, flags and crosses were held on high after 9/11, and it was time to make things happen.

As we moved toward the 2004 Bush v. Kerry contest, however, my shouts of acclamation trailed off as I forced them from a weary throat. The “wins” of the neocon movement rang hollow and cold to my touch. My soul grew troubled, weeping almost imperceptibly at first, as I saw more and more instances in which the means (and even some of the goals!) of my political party did not match the teachings of Jesus, the man we claimed as motivation.

God Bless America

Thus began a tremendously difficult time for me as I wrestled with God and America. By the time I began to emerge, God had trashed my theology, I had changed career aspirations from law to ministry, and Obama was on the doorstep of being elected the first time. Now, this is the part of the story where you might think I joined the push for Obama along with many others exiled from the GOP, but you’d be wrong. Obama and the larger Democratic Party held and still hold many foundational distinctives with which I could not fully reconcile. No party offered the identity my soul sought, or ever could.

As now ironic precursors to today’s left-wing “not my president” sentiments emerged from the right in reaction to Obama’s election, I struggled with how to understand my station when my time of wandering and wondering had shaken me until neither the president-elect nor his opponents, my former allies, could offer me hope or home. I resonated with right-wing Christians who proclaimed, “No matter who is president, Jesus is my King,” but the temporary fallback for which it seemed to be used grieved me deeply. Why does the language of possession and the celebration of Christ depend on whether or not our candidate wins? It was then I resolved to generally avoid referring to Obama as my president but instead simply the president instead. Not just Obama, though, but any president ever again. Authority would be recognized but not ties of allegiance or possession in either direction.

Why would I make such a decision, inconsequential to some and horrifyingly radical to others? Because language matters, and the Kingdom of God matters even more. Words reflect realities, but words also shape realities. The words we choose describe things to others, but these same words also affect how we and the hearer conceptualize the thing described, creating a framework we carry with us into later decisions and discussions.

Consider the words Jesus used to describe his mission. During my time of wrestling, I kept coming back to the extremity of the New Testament’s claims. Jesus’ use of Kingdom language was not simply the toothless metaphor representing a disembodied heaven to which we often reduce it today; rather, it was and is an extreme claim of absolute authority here and now. You don’t just go around calling yourself a king over a kingdom when Rome called itself the only show in town. Using language reserved for the state was liable to get you killed, and Jesus went to his death still holding to the seriousness of his claims. The New Testament letters take up the same claim. The gentile believers in Ephesus are reminded that despite being born as outsiders, they have been joined as citizens in a nation which defies borders and ethnicities. Christ’s earliest followers would submit to Rome (distinct from complete obedience) and pray for Rome, but their allegiance and a citizenship deeper than anything a earthly government could ever bestow belonged to the Kingdom. Given Jesus’ claims and my past tendency to follow earthly kings, I chose to let my speech regarding the president reflect this reality while also reminding me who I am in relation to both earthly authorities and Christ in order to influence my decisions for the better. After previously straying so far into the various Babylons of this world, I needed the ongoing rejection of possessive pronouns to constantly call myself back to the wilderness, for I belong only to Christ.

Christians, the Kingdom is a timeless truth. It is not a now dead rhetorical flourish born out of how brutal Rome was, expiring once we find ourselves in a country with elections and “In God We Trust” on currency. We belong to the Kingdom. We have more uniting us with Christians overseas than we could ever have with those simply born inside the same borders we were.  We are resident aliens temporarily under the authority of those in whose country we find ourselves without giving up our allegiance to our true home, not unlike an American citizen living abroad. Christianity then is not a rejection of earthly powers’ existence or role but rather the decision to give ourselves over entirely to a different authority, a complete authority. One authority and one allegiance will inevitably override the other. Perhaps you don’t join me in using syntax as part of how to live out this truth, but the Kingdom is just as true for you as it is for me.

Maybe this all sounds overly harsh or divisive. What you’re feeling is the rejection logically necessary to choose instead something better, the best news that can be heard and the best path that can be chosen. In order to unite with your spouse, you have to choose not to join with other potential spouses. Some have used Jesus’ teaching on taxes to justify a Christian mandate for a robust sense of obligation to country. “Give back to Caesar what is Caesar’s, and to God what is God’s,” as many of us have heard. But consider Jesus’ wording when he asks what’s on the coin. Caesar’s image is on the money, so he gets to claim it. But God’s image is on us and the Lord has claimed us as a holy people. When we give to God what is God’s we are free from the whiplash of having our allegiance hinge on whether or not our electoral preference wins. We are free to live out our purpose as a blessing to all people without wondering if doing so violates our allegiance. We are free to live out a rich life of citizenship in and ambassadorship for a country without borders in which all immigrants are welcome and called, ourselves included. As John Piper has said, “One day America and all its presidents will be a footnote in history, but God’s kingdom will never end.” We are freed from worrying if history’s inevitable political turmoil can end our country and its purpose of love. Our faithful foremothers and forefathers, the patriots of God’s country, achieved changes and blessings for others the likes of which kings and presidents can’t even dream. Some of the greatest such feats occurred without the backing of worldly power with its marble halls and mic’ed lecterns. They, like Jesus, did so by acting politically yet doing so from outside the world’s systems, speaking truth to power. You and I are freed and empowered to do the same, imagining infinitely and prophetically without the constraints of a world desperately clinging to the status quo. The Kingdom in which we’ve found a home is not of this world but has come into this world, our King has promised to be with us always, and his Kingdom is without end.

“Not my president”; or, Words both reflect & shape realities

Christmas is over. Christmas isn’t over.

No matter your tradition, we have by now arrived at the end of Christmas. Some take down the decorations just as soon as the 25th has expired and the family has left. Others let the light and fragrance (whether real or added synthetically) linger a few days longer before being claimed by the boxes and the attic for another year. Still others, myself included, refuse to let Christmas end until Epiphany on January 6th, the proper end of the twelve days of Christmas. Past this point, one risks becoming the butt of “permanent decoration” jokes which seem to haunt my Deep South homeland in particular.

Perhaps, however, there’s a little gospel hiding in those out-of-season lights and garlands. After all, some of the most famous entrants in our nativity scenes were horrifically late to the Christmas party. Matthew’s gospel tells us that magi, most likely practitioners of what many today would call astrology or even sorcery, learned of Hebrew prophecies concerning the expected Messiah and come to pay homage. Today, Epiphany, is the yearly celebration of the magi’s visit. Despite their (woefully inaccurate) inclusion in nativity scenes, the logistics of ancient travel and a few details afforded to us in Scripture indicate that the magi arrived anywhere between forty days and two years after the birth of Jesus. “Fashionably late” had long since come and gone.

The singular devotion of the magi fascinates and inspires me. They likely knew full well that they would substantially miss the “newborn” window,and yet they continued anyway because this Christ was that important. The celebration of the Messiah was so reality-img_3635shifting as not to be bound in by a calendar, warranting an arduous and possibly life-threatening journey long after Jesus was actually born. Though I have no clue where the magi stood on what we today call social justice issues, the magi seem to share the same heart as African-American theologian and civil rights leader Howard Thurman in a litany found in his The Mood of Christmas. Thurman’s words and the magi’s journey both preach the same message: the expiration of Christmastide does not signal an end, but a beginning. Reality has shifted forever, and our lives must change accordingly.

It is at this precise moment where we will find ourselves in conflict with the world. This is why late Christmas decorations carry more truth than we know. The world is fine with Christmas as long as it stays in its bounds and doesn’t interfere with the status quo. Break out the tinsel all you want during the season but leaving it up in February is a swift ticket to a Jeff Foxworthy joke. Dabbling in divinity and studying the prophecies of a strange foreign people could lead to power and respect as a magi in a culture that celebrated such practices. But show up to actually pay homage to the King you’ve been reading about and innocents will be slaughtered in order to protect those in power while you take a different way home to avoid the same fate. Saying, “Merry Christmas” instead of “Happy Holidays” will earn you the praise of culture warriors, politicians, and even the president-elect, but live it out the rest of the year and they’ll call you all manner of ugly things. But no matter, for the work of Christmas begins today.

Christmas is over. Christmas isn’t over.