Saturday, November 19, 2016

Two Sauls and a Cyrus

There has been a lot of talk lately in Christian circles about whether God can use a very flawed man, an ungodly man, to accomplish God's purposes (the backdrop of these discussions being the election of Donald J. Trump to the U.S. presidency).  The obvious answer is yes, deeply flawed and ungodly people can be used by God.  The more important question is, how do we know when such a person is being used by God?  The answer to that is also simple: We know in retrospect.

Saul of Tarsus was such a man.  A highly educated and zealously religious Jewish Pharisee, Saul went out in 1st century Judea under orders from the theocratic Jewish government to find and imprison fellow Jews who had become followers of the crucified heretic Jesus.  Saul had a nasty reputation and was greatly feared among these earliest Christians.  He was fervent and determined in his mission.  The 17th century philosopher Blaise Pascal wrote "Men never do evil so completely and cheerfully as when they do it from religious conviction," and that is an apt description of Saul of Tarsus.

But on his way to Damascus to hunt down more Jewish Christians, Saul experienced a life-altering visionary encounter with the very Christ whose followered he had been persecuting.  Saul was struck blind and knocked off of his horse.  He was radically transformed and emerged a new man with an entirely different way of seeing things.  Not only was he now a believer in the risen Christ, but he had a mission to take the Good News about Jesus to the Gentiles (whom he would have previously despised as godless idolators).  Saul of Tarsus became Paul the Apostle.  His eyesight never fully recovered and for the rest of his life he referred to himself as "cheif among sinners" and "least among the apostles."  Paul poured out the remainder of his days taking his message of God's love and acceptance to the Gentiles.  He considered it a privilege to endure great suffering in order to walk the new path that he was set upon that day en route to Damascus.  Paul described some of his suffering in a letter to friends in Corinth:

"Five times I received from the Jews the forty lashes minus one. Three times I was beaten with rods, once I was pelted with stones, three times I was shipwrecked, I spent a night and a day in the open sea, I have been constantly on the move. I have been in danger from rivers, in danger from bandits, in danger from my fellow Jews, in danger from Gentiles; in danger in the city, in danger in the country, in danger at sea; and in danger from false believers. I have labored and toiled and have often gone without sleep; I have known hunger and thirst and have often gone without food; I have been cold and naked..." (2 Corinthians 11)  He was ultimately incarcerated and executed by the Roman government.

There is another Saul in the Bible, who lived 1,000 years before Paul.  This Saul is a tragic figure.  His story is told in the book of 1 Samuel.  The Israelites wanted to have a king of their own, like the neighboring nations did.  They were suffering from "king envy" and were also legitimately concerned about the powerful nations all around them.  The people told their religious leader, the prophet Samuel, to appoint a king for them.  Samuel was not happy about it.  He believed God had told him that for the people to appoint a king was tantamount to rejecting God.  Samuel warned the people that having a king would lead to their own oppression:  "This is what the king who will reign over you will claim as his rights," Samuel told them, "He will take your sons and make them serve with his chariots and horses, and they will run in front of his chariots. Some he will assign to be commanders of thousands and commanders of fifties, and others to plow his ground and reap his harvest, and still others to make weapons of war and equipment for his chariots. He will take your daughters to be perfumers and cooks and bakers. He will take the best of your fields and vineyards and olive groves and give them to his attendants. He will take a tenth of your grain and of your vintage and give it to his officials and attendants. Your male and female servants and the best of your cattle and donkeys he will take for his own use. He will take a tenth of your flocks, and you yourselves will become his slaves. When that day comes, you will cry out for relief from the king you have chosen, but the Lord will not answer you in that day.” (1 Samuel 8)

But, chapter 8 of 1 Samuel continues, "the people refused to listen to Samuel. 'No!' they said. 'We want a king over us.  Then we will be like all the other nations, with a king to lead us and to go out before us and fight our battles.'”  Benjamin Franklin wrote, "Those who surrender freedom for security will not have, nor do they deserve, either one."  This seemed to have been the bargain that the Israelites were willing to make.

God, through the prophet Samuel, acquiesced and agreed to give the people a king.  The man selected was Saul, a very popular local hero and "an impressive young man without equal among the Israelites--a head taller than any of the others." (1 Samuel 9)  There is nothing in the text initially to indicate that Saul was a bad guy.  He seems quite humble and is surprised when the prophet anoints him to be the first king of the Israelites.  As king, Saul depended on the prophet Samuel for guidance.  But gradually things began to unravel.  Saul, it appears, was not temperamentally suited to the role of king.  He became insecure and mercurial.  He worried too much about what other people thought of him.  When the young hotshot David came on the scene, Saul's obsessive jealousy drove him to irrationality and paranoia.  Saul conspired (repeatedly) to have David assassinated.  He began to commit atrocities, slaughtering a group of priests who assisted David and then killing their families and even their cattle!  

Ultimately Saul is depicted as a broken man, prone to fits of madness, rejected by God and eclipsed by David.  As Israel's national enemies, the far more powerful Philistines, invade, Saul--the story goes--resorts to visiting a sorceress and having a seance to get guidance from his deceased mentor Samuel.  Samuel's ghost tells Saul that he and his sons will die in battle and will lose to the Philistines.  This comes to pass.  At the decisive battle Saul sees his army routed and his sons fall.  Wounded by arrows, Saul commits suicide by falling on his sword.

One more ancient figure who has been receiving attention of late in certain Christian circles is the Persian emperor Cyrus the Great.  As the Babylonian empire began to crumble in the 6th century BC, Cyrus--the king of the Medo-Persians to the north and east--invaded and took over Babylon, thus establishing the largest empire the world had ever seen. 

Cyrus is remembered as a remarkable ruler.  Among his progressive policies was religious tolerance.  He allowed people of the various nations and cultures within his empire to worship their own gods in their own temples.  One small nation that this policy profoundly impacted was the Jews (Judahites) who had been conquered by the Babylonians and taken into exile from Judah into Babylon.  For roughly 50 years, the Jews in Babylon dreamed of returning to their homeland and rebuilding their ruined capitol of Jerusalem and restoring their fallen temple on Mount Zion.  Under Cyrus, this dream became reality.  Cyrus had a policy of repatriating people back to their homelands under imperially ordained governors who would keep the peace and keep tax revenues and commodities flowing back to the heart of the empire.  Although a great many Jews decided to remain in Babylon--arguably the greatest city on earth at the time--a remnant returned in successive waves to Judea and began the hard work of rebuilding.  The Jews believed, and recorded in their writings, that God used Cyrus to return them to their land.  They came to believe that Cyrus was mentioned by name in a prophecy (in Isaiah 45) which pre-dated the emperor by roughly 100 years and that Cyrus released the Jews from exile after reading the prophecy (see Josephus, Antiquities of the Jews, book 11, chapter 1).  In actuality, most critical biblical scholars recognize the prediction about Cyrus in Isaiah as having been added at a later date--during the time of the Jewish return from exile. 

Each of these historic figures--Saul of Tarsus/Paul the Apostle, King Saul of the Israelites, and Cyrus the Great--were seen by many to have been selected and used by God.  Paul had a profound impact upon the world by giving up all that he had and wandering throughout the Roman empire telling Gentiles that they too were invited into the Kingdom of God.  King Saul showed great promise and was elevated as the people's choice but ultimately failed tragically.  Cyrus the Great was a visionary emperor who's influence echoes down through history. 

Who would have thought at the time that Saul the persecutor would become the apostle of grace?  Or that the other Saul who seemed to have everything going for him would fail so miserably as a king?  Or that the pagan emperor Cyrus would be remembered thousands of years into the future as a great liberator of the Jewish people?  We can only make these types of assessments in retrospect.  Multitudes have come and gone across the stage of human history claiming (or claimed by their followers) to be divinely appointed.  Some did great things.  Some were failures.  Some were monsters.  Some were a mixture of all of these.  Most quickly evaporated into obscurity.  

The danger, as the tale of King Saul (or David Koresh or Jim Jones) shows us, is in trying to presumptively ascribe divine favor upon an individual before they have had their chance to demonstrate it.  Jesus said, "By their fruit you will know them," (Matthew 7:16) meaning that we have to wait to see what they produce before we can conclude that they are in tune with God's purposes.  It also means that we can look at the fruit they have already produced to get an indication of what to expect, while allowing for the possibility that they may surprise us, for better or for worse.

Friday, November 18, 2016

First they came for the Muslims,
And we said, "No, not this time."

Thursday, November 17, 2016


Last week 81% of white conservative Evangelical Christians voted for a casino owner who not only lacked the experience, qualifications and temperament for the job, but who has a long track record of being crude and graceless; a serial adulterer, a sexual predator, a congenital liar, a tax cheat, a business fraud, a thin-skinned revenge-driven narcissist prone to casting insults (often very publicly via Twitter), a man who mocks the disabled, a man who promoted greed, racism, vengeance, torture, misogyny, xenophobia, homophobia, religious discrimination, and mob violence. 81% of white Evangelical Christians chose a man who promised to take away people's medical coverage, to punish women who have abortions, to cast out immigrants on a massive scale, to ban people entry into the U.S. based upon their religion, to force members of certain religions to register with the government, to take his critics and rivals to court, etc. Trump's words and deeds are not simply un-Christian, they are anti-Christian; they are antithetical to the teachings and acts and values of Jesus.

Someone mentioned to me this week a reminder that the Greek word "apocalypse" means "unveiling"--in other words, revealing that which was hidden. White Evangelicalism seems to be experiencing an apocalypse.

Wednesday, November 16, 2016

"Reality has a way of asserting itself.”

--President Barack Obama, 11/14/16

Tuesday, November 15, 2016

"A primary quality of a life deeply centered in God is growth in compassion.  This meaning is expressed in perhaps the most concise summary of Jesus's teaching in the gospels.  The verse, Luke 6:36, combines theology (what God is like) and ethics (how we are to live) in a few words: be compassionate as God is compassionate.  God's primary quality is compassion; therefore, a life centered in God will be compassionate.

Compassion in the Bible has rich resonances of meaning.  It is linguistically related to the Hebrew and Aramaic word for 'womb' and sometimes refers to what a mother feels for the children of her womb.  Thus naming 'compassion' as God's primary quality means that God, like a mother, is 'womb-like'; life-giving, nourishing, willing the well-being of her children, and desiring our maturation.  So also we are to be like that: centering in God the compassionate one leads to growth in compassion. . . .

But compassion in the Bible is not simply a virtue for individuals.  It should not be confused with kindness, even though kindness is a great virtue and to be much preferred over its alternatives.  Rather, compassion has a social meaning as well--and thus a political meaning.  The social form of compassion--and of love--is a world of justice (of economic fairness and, of course, human rights) and a world without the violence of domination systems and war."

-- Marcus Borg, Convictions: How I Learned What Matters Most

Monday, November 14, 2016

"It is not enough to be compassionate. You must act. There are two aspects to action. One is to overcome the distortions and afflictions of your own mind, that is, in terms of calming and eventually dispelling anger. This is action out of compassion. The other is more social, more public. When something needs to be done in the world to rectify the wrongs, if one is really concerned with benefitting others, one needs to be engaged, involved."

--The Dalai Lama, The Path to Tranquility

Sunday, November 13, 2016

"81% of white evangelicals voted for Trump. Make of this what what you will. But bankrupt is a good start."
—Diana Butler Bass, Christian historian/theologian

"White evangelicals, you could have stood up and said that following Christ and the body of Christ is greater, but you chose to pursue power."
— Soong-Chan Rah, Professor of Church Growth and Evangelism, North Park Theological Seminary

"The evangelical support of Trump will be an indictment against its validity as a Christian movement for generations to come."
— Fr. Richard Rohr

"In Election 2016 Evangelicals lost credibility by electing Trump."
— Tony Campolo

"If this is evangelicalism—I am out."
--John Fea, Professor of American History, Messiah College

"You are the salt of the earth; but if salt has lost its taste, how can its saltiness be restored? It is no longer good for anything, but is thrown out and trampled under foot."
-- Jesus (Gospel of Matthew 5:13)

Saturday, November 12, 2016

"Several reliable, well-informed sources confirmed the idea that Hitler's anti-Semitism was not so genuine or violent as it sounded, and that he was merely using anti-Semitic propaganda as a bait to catch masses of followers and keep them aroused, enthusiastic, and in line for the time when his organization is perfected and sufficiently powerful to be employed effectively for political purposes."

-- The New York Times, November 21, 1922

Friday, November 11, 2016

Steer your way through the ruins of the Altar and the Mall
Steer your way through the fables of Creation and the Fall
Steer your way past the Palaces that rise above the rot
Year by year
Month by month
Day by day
Thought by thought

-- Leonard Cohen

Thursday, November 10, 2016

Ring the bells that still can ring
Forget your perfect offering
There is a crack in everything
That's how the light gets in.

--Leonard Cohen, RIP

"I think the evangelical turnout for Mr. Trump signals several fatal weaknesses in the movement.

First, the movement has surrendered any claims to the moral high ground in electoral politics....

Second, the movement has abandoned public solidarity with groups who considered Mr. Trump an existential threat to them. I’m speaking here of the many groups who expressed reservation regarding Mr. Trump’s racism, religious bigotry, misogyny, isolationism, and nativism....

Third, the movement failed to escape its partisan bias in favor of more principled and biblical stands....

Finally, the movement has made its evangelistic mission more difficult with many it wants to reach....

And all of this was wrought by the bulk of evangelicalism itself. No one forced this on the movement. An 81 percent return will not allow us to discard these voters as 'not truly evangelical.' At the moment, that’s exactly who evangelicalism is....  I’m not alone in seeing serious problems with evangelicalism’s witness at the moment. I fear the fate of the movement may have been in some measure sealed with this vote."

4 Problems Associated with White Evangelical Support of Donald Trump - Thabiti Anyabwile, Pastor, Anacostia River Church, Washington, DC, council member of The Gospel Coalition

Tuesday, November 08, 2016

Election night, 2016

Well, needless to say, I'm stunned. I was sure Hillary would win handily and I was wrong. My confidence was based on two things: 1) Analytics-driven sources like Nate Silver's FiveThirtyEight and Sam Wang's Princeton Election Consortium, which have been so accurate in the past; and 2) Faith in my fellow Americans to do the right thing. Both let me down.

At this point it appears that either we will have a contested election--in which case if Clinton wins it will be by a very slim margin--or Trump will have won by a very slim margin. Even the best case scenario is nothing like what I expected.

If Donald Trump becomes our president, here's what I'm going to do: I'm going to do my best to be inclusive and kind and to advocate and be present for those who are now (rightfully) feeling very vulnerable. If Hillary Clinton becomes our president, I'm going to do the same. 

And if Donald Trump becomes our next president, here's what I'm *not* going to do: I'm not going to expend time and energy over the next four years bitching and moaning (and posting) about it.

Who knows, Trump and Pence may surprise us. I doubt it, but who knows... (See, I'm an eternal optimist)

I find politics fascinating to watch, and I've enjoyed this election season--although I wish it could have been less ugly. As a theology-minded person, the aspect of this election cycle that has fascinated me the most has been how it affects people of faith (and how people of faith affect it). In particular I've been trying to discern how this election cycle plays into the well-documented current trend of Christianity losing influence (and adherents) in North America. Here's what I've concluded:

1. It is indisputable that Christianity on the whole is in decline in the U.S. But it seems to me that in the midst of that overall decline, progressive Christianity is finding a clearer voice. I think that this progressive, inclusive (and, I would say, Christ-like) voice will become even clearer and more winsome now. I was somewhat amazed by how religious the Democratic National Convention was--how much visibility faith (not just Christianity but Islam, Judaism, etc.) was given; the high point being the powerful message delivered by Rev. William Barber ( it might be good to re-watch now. The personal faith of Hillary Clinton (a Methodist) and Tim Kaine (a Catholic)--and how that faith shaped their politics--was prominently featured in this election season. In the days ahead, Progressive Christianity has an opportunity to articulate an authentic and passionate way of following Jesus in the 21st century (for more information on Progressive Christianity, go to: That's what I intend to focus on.

2. Regardless of who ultimately wins the election, in the long run I believe the biggest loser will be white fundamentalist Evangelical Christianity. I think ultimately this will be one of those "won the battle but lost the war" scenarios. By aligning with Trump, 70-80% of conservative Christians very publicly sold their collective soul for the hope of anti-abortion Supreme Court judicial nominees. What the world has seen is a religion not of grace and love and compassion but of cynicism and gullibility and fear. This has discredited Evangelical Christianity, especially in the eyes of Millennials--the next generation. By supporting Donald Trump, white conservative Evangelical Christians lost any claims to moral authority. In the aftermath of this election--regardless of who becomes president--it won't be forgotten that so many white conservative Evangelical Christians supported a crude and graceless man who was a serial adulterer, a sexual predator, a congenital liar, a tax cheat, a business fraud, a thin-skinned narcissist prone to casting insults instead of forgiveness, and a promoter of racism, misogyny, xenophobia, homophobia, religious discrimination, and mob violence. White conservative Evangelical Christians in the year 2016 will be remembered for lining up behind that, and even calling his victory (if he wins) a miracle from God. If Trump's presidency (assuming he wins) is as damaging as about half of Americans think it will be, white conservative Evangelical Christians will own that too.

3. Despite the setback of this election, I believe it is a momentary blip in a grander trajectory of progress that God calls us to, which continues to incrementally nudge the moral arc of the universe toward justice.

I was thrilled to have had the opportunity to vote for and see our first black president 8 years ago (who I think history will record as being one of our better presidents, despite the unprecedented obstructionism he encountered) and I was just as thrilled to have had the opportunity to vote for Hillary Clinton this time around.

And now, there is much work to be done.

Monday, November 07, 2016

“Cynicism masquerades as wisdom, but it is the farthest thing from it. Because cynics don’t learn anything. Because cynicism is a self-imposed blindness, a rejection of the world because we are afraid it will hurt us or disappoint us.”

--Stephen Colbert

Friday, November 04, 2016

"In the broader sense, theology refers to 'what Christians think.'  In this sense, all Christians have a theology--a basic, even if often simple, understanding--whether they are aware of it of not.  In this broader sense, theology does matter.  There is 'bad' theology, by which I mean an understanding of Christianity that is seriously misleading, with unfortunate and sometimes cruel consequences.  But the task of theology is not primarily to construct an intellectually satisfying set of correct beliefs.  Its task is more modest.  Part of its purpose is negative: to undermine beliefs that get in the way of taking Christianity seriously.  Part of its purpose is positive: to construct a persuasive and compelling vision of the Christian life.  But being Christian isn't primarily about having a correct theology by getting our beliefs right.  It is about a deepening relationship with God as known especially in Jesus."

--Marcus Borg, Convictions: How I Learned What Matters Most

Thursday, November 03, 2016

“I want to be cured
Of a craving for something I cannot find
And of the shame of never finding it.”

—T.S. Eliot

Wednesday, November 02, 2016

“Without fear, we are able to see more clearly our connections to others. Without fear, we have more room for understanding and compassion. Without fear, we are truly free.”

--Thich Nhat Hanh

Tuesday, November 01, 2016

"The religion that is afraid of science dishonors God and commits suicide. It acknowledges that it is not equal to the whole of truth, that it legislates and tyrannizes over a village of God's empire, but it is not the universal immutable law. Every influx of atheism, of skepticism, is thus made useful as a mercury pill assaulting and removing a diseased religion, and making way for truth."

-- Ralph Waldo Emerson