Saturday Night Theologian
29 June 2008

Jeremiah 28:5-9

Earlier this week James Dobson said that Barack Obama was "deliberately distorting the traditional understanding of the Bible to fit his own worldview." Last week syndicated columnist Cal Thomas opined that because of some of his beliefs, Obama was not really a Christian. My purpose in quoting these two shills of the religious right is not to defend Obama's credentials as a Christian. He can do that himself. My purpose is rather to call out these two men as false prophets and hypocrites. They have arrogated to themselves authority that does not belong to them, namely, identifying who is and is not a true Christian. Dobson criticizes Obama from wondering why some people advocate using the Bible as the primary source for developing public policy, when the Bible condones slavery and condemns eating shellfish. What exactly is his criticism based on? Obama is right, the Bible in its entirety cannot be taken as a guide for modern living without numerous caveats and apart from a theological reading (for example, one based on Jesus' teaching in the Sermon on the Mount). Cal Thomas goes even further in his evaluation of Obama, saying that he is not a Christian because he (Obama) believes that other religions also offer a path to God. Wake up, Cal, you're the one in the minority, not Obama! A survey conducted by the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life released this week finds that "A strong majority of those who are affiliated with a religion, including majorities of nearly every religious tradition, do not believe their religion is the only way to salvation. And almost the same number believes that there is more than one true way to interpret the teachings of their religion." The (true) prophet Jeremiah was accused of being a false prophet. He was certainly uttering statements that were contrary to those of the government and its religious supporters. When confronted with the accusations of the (false) prophet Hananiah, Jeremiah refused to back down. "Many in the past have advocated peace," Jeremiah said, "and in fact I'd like nothing better. However, the proclamations of the religious and political establishment are wrong, as all will know in the near future!" Sometimes the word God calls us to proclaim is unpopular. Sometimes it goes contrary to the common wisdom of religious leaders or politicians. But if God calls us to proclaim it, we must do so. However, we must do so with humility, recognizing that our personal interpretation of God, no matter how much we may believe it to be right, may not be.

Psalm 89:1-4, 15-18

Is the U.S. really the world's only remaining superpower? Many advocates of American militarism think so, as do many politicians, newscasters, and, apparently, many in the general public. I don't. It's not that I think that there is another, competitive superpower in the realm of military might. Clearly there isn't, and there isn't likely to be a legitimate competitor as long as the U.S. can afford to continue spending as much on its military as the rest of the world combined. There's no doubt that the U.S. is the most powerful country in the world, militarily speaking, but that doesn't make it a superpower. A superpower should be defined as a country that can effect change in the world, through the use of force, moral persuasion, and especially consensus building, for the benefit of all the world's citizens. Of the three forms of power, force is the least important. Yet, ironically, it's the one that the current administration, and many past administrations as well, has leaned on almost exclusively. The psalmist has the right idea. "For you are the glory of their strength; by your favor our horn is exalted. For our shield belongs to the LORD, our king, to the Holy One of Israel." Military might is fleeting and relatively weak, and excessive spending on the military, to the neglect of other national priorities, can actually lead to a nation's downfall, as it did with the Soviet Union. Following divine guidance is a better strategy than increasing one's arsenals. For Christians, divine guidance includes the example of Jesus, who advocated peacemaking as the preferred method for dealing with one's enemies.

Romans 6:12-23 (first published 26 June 2005)

When I teach the book of Job, I often ask my students whether sin was responsible for the calamities that overtook Job's family at the beginning of the story: the Sabeans stole the oxen and donkeys and killed Job's servants, fire from heaven killed Job's sheep and more servants, the Chaldeans stole Job's camels and killed more servants, and a great wind caused the house where Job's children were eating to collapse and kill them (and presumably more servants as well). The usual answer that I get is, "No, sin wasn't responsible for any of these calamities." My response is to remind my students that I didn't ask specifically about Job's sin, just sin in general, and sin was certainly responsible for at least two of these tragedies: the sin of the Sabeans and the sin of the Chaldeans, who stole and killed. On the other hand, natural disasters such as the "fire from God" and the great wind are not the result of sin, though some of the consequences might be (e.g., poor building design or unenforced building codes might have contributed to the collapse of the house probably not applicable to Job's rich family!). The fact that natural disasters wreak much greater devastation in poor countries than in rich suggests that structural sin, often overlooked in modern Christianity's focus on the individual, is at least as important in personal sin in its impact on the world. Paul says in Romans 6:23 that the wages of sin is death. Evangelical Christians quote this verse as part of the "Roman Road" to (individual) salvation (Romans 3:23; 5:8; 6:23; 8:1), but its implications are broader. Individual sin separates us from God, but it often also damages other people. A lie may cause an innocent person to spend years in jail. One person's theft may cause another person to be accused and lose her job. One person taking undeserved credit may result in a deserving person being overlooked and suffering unjustly. On a corporate level, the greed or malfeasance of a small group of executives may rob ordinary employees of their pension plan. On a national level, dishonest intelligence and lust for power or revenge may launch an unjustified war. Yes, sin is a serious matter, and it is vital that today's Christians see the consequences of both individual and structural sin and oppose both, first in our own lives, then in the world around us.

Matthew 10:40-42 (first published 26 June 2005)

A pastor from a poor country was visiting churches in the U.S. asking for donations so that his wife could have an operation she desperately needed. Many people, touched by his testimony, gave money for the surgery. It turned out, however, that the whole thing was a scam. The pastor's wife was fine; he was just taking the money and lining his pockets. We've all heard stories like this (just look at the spam that comes to you e-mailbox for more examples), and we're justifiably wary of pleas for support. Sometimes, though, the reason we don't want to support a good cause has nothing to do with a realistic belief that the cause is unworthy. Sometimes we don't want to give because we have other plans for our money. Sometimes we don't want to give because we don't feel any sense of connection with those who would benefit. Sometimes we don't want to give simply because we don't feel like giving at the moment. Our reading from Matthew reminds us that our gifts, no matter how small, do make a difference. Whoever supports a prophet receives the reward of a prophet, and whoever supports a righteous person receives the reward of the righteous. Every dollar you give to support hunger relief, or medical missions, or water projects, or school or church construction is a dollar well spent. We can't possibly support every worthy cause that comes along, but it is the responsibility of every Christian to participate in those causes that we feel God telling us to support, either through giving, going, or prayer. Then we, too, will be in line to receive the prophet's reward.