School Prayer, School Massacre, and Tying God’s Hands

“It’s an interesting thing. We ask why there’s violence in our schools, but we’ve systematically removed God from our schools. Should we be so surprised that schools would become a place of carnage … ?” (Mike Huckabee).

That statement by a former presidential candidate sparked a fire in both civil and religious circles, and well-meaning people have fallen into it, turning a national tragedy into a political and religious argument.

To be fair, Mr Huckabee wasn’t stating that this massacre was a direct result of prayer being taken out of that school. He’s talking about the overall decline of moral and religious values, of personal responsibility and accountability and an awareness of eternal judgment, brought about by removing God and religious instruction from public discourse. He seems to be saying that this is the inevitable consequence of separating church and state. This is what we get for pushing God out.

I can’t tell you the number of Facebook posts I’ve seen portraying this same sentiment: “Dear God, why do you allow so much violence in our schools? Signed, a concerned student. Dear Concerned Student, I’m not allowed in schools. Signed, God.”

The logic is the same as Huckabee’s. Because some people have rejected God in official government arenas, God has been forced out, powerless. And like a spoiled, petulant child he’s going to punish us now by granting our wish. “Okay, I’ll teach you! See what you get?” It seems silly from the outset.

Why that’s silly …

First of all, bad things happen to good people. All the time. Evil has been occurring since the days when Cain murdered Abel – to “godless” and God-fearing people alike. To say that because something bad happened, it’s God fault or that God allowed it to happen in order to punish us is an argument Jesus himself dispensed with back 2000 years ago. Maybe some of these perhaps-well-intended people out to defend God’s honor should go back to the book before spouting off religious sounding drivel that has the sound of holiness but lacks any of its truth or power.

When Jesus sent out his disciples to “bring God into the public arena” (okay, the New Testament phrases it more like “to proclaim the Good News of the Kingdom of God”), some of the towns absolutely rejected the message. And those disciples wanted to call down God’s judgment on them, destroying them with fire from heaven. If ever anyone could be accused of removing God from their culture, from a Christian viewpoint, it would be those villages.

But Jesus’ response? “You don’t know what Spirit you are of. I did not come to destroy lives, but to save them!” (Luke 9:56). What’s that mean? For one thing, that hostile, retaliatory reaction you’re feeling is not from God. It is not some divinely inspired “righteous anger.” That vengeful spirit is coming from some other place. And second, the Spirit you’re supposed to be representing doesn’t do that kind of thing. That’s not who God is, and that’s not who we are.

Any kind of projecting this attitude back on to God – “You kicked me out, so here you go!” – is actually antithetical to God’s heart.

On a different occasion, some people came to Jesus to get his spiritual assessment of some victims who were murdered by the Romans as they offered sacrifices to God. Surely, this was God’s wrath. They must have done something to deserve this. Jesus’ response: “Do you think that because these Galileans suffered in this way they were worse sinners than all other Galileans? No, I tell you … Or, those eighteen who were killed when the tower of Siloam fell on them – do you think they were more guilty than all the others living in Jerusalem? No, I tell you. And unless you repent, you too will all perish” (Luke 13:1-5).

Catastrophes are not caused by divine judgment – at least that’s what Jesus was saying there. “Don’t be looking for fault, don’t try to make sense of it by blaming the victims or those around them. Do you think you are any better? You’ve all escaped a tragic fate you probably deserved because of God’s grace. Now act like it.”

That kind of spiritual smugness – “this happened because so-and-so did such-and-such,” with the unspoken implication that we live so much more worthily and are undeserving of similar tragedy – just rubs salt in the wound of those suffering. It reflects badly on those saying it, and completely fails to reflect the true heart of God.

And it’s diametrically opposed to the description of God loving a faulty humanity so much that he went to the extreme of letting his Son be crucified just to restore unimpeded connection.

Were God’s hands tied in this Newtown school because some politicians made it illegal for schools to force students to pray? Did God stand by helpless as a gunman mowed down 26 people in a Connecticut elementary school all because they weren’t allowed to post a copy of the 10 Commandments on the wall? Or worse: did he allow it to happen as punishment?

Not according to Jesus.

To give Mr. Huckabee a little credit, he did say something that was spiritually accurate. “God wasn’t armed. God didn’t go to that school.” Finally, truth. God did not cause this. “But God will be there in the form of a lot of people with hugs, and with therapy, and a whole lot of ways in which, I think, he will be involved in the aftermath.”

God’s hands are not tied

The divine promise, “I will never leave you, never forsake you,” is not restricted because “activist judges” separate civil government from faithful practice. “Even though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil, for you, God, are with me.” That is the correct perspective. The people rushing back into the building, to rescue and support the injured – these are the hands and feet of God. The comforting presence, both human and divine, that will be there to pick up the pieces of these shattered lives – that is the act of God.

We may never be able to make sense of this tragedy – or of any other, for that matter. Hurricanes that flood cities, tsunamis that destroy villages, earthquakes and fires, plagues and diseases … all the calamities that befall this troubled earth. They are part of our existence, part of our “fallen creation” as some theologians explain it. God, for some reason, chooses not to intervene sometimes. He sometimes allows events to occur that shake us to the core, make us question his love, question even his very existence. And in this life, we may never get the answers we’re looking for. But we cannot start pointing fingers at each other, laying blame for “divine wrath.” It serves no one, and certainly does not reflect the heart of God. It is “not the Spirit we are of.”

Instead, let’s be more focused on bearing fruit of our true spirituality. We need to put on more love, more joy, more peace, more patience and tolerance, more goodness, gentleness, faithfulness and humility. Let’s be the hands of God reaching out to help, the lips of God offering words of consolation and encouragement, and the strength of God by helping to restore and rebuild broken lives. That’s something more worthy of us. That’s really the heart of God, and that is the spirit we are of.

 

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STEVE SCHMIDT serves on the pastoral staff of Expressions Church in Oklahoma City. He is a graduate of the seminary at Oral Roberts University in Tulsa, OK, and holds two masters degrees in Biblical Literature and Divinity. He did his doctoral research at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem and at the Jewish Theological Seminary of America in New York. He blogs at CafeInspirado.com, and you can always find him skulking on Facebook.
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Politics in the Pulpit?

[dropcap style=”font-size: 60px; color: #e10069;”]M[/dropcap]ore crazy preachers on T.V.

Why does that thought occur more and more frequently in my head?  Maybe the American election season has something to do with it.  And with Election Day looming closer every day, the impulse for preachers to push their people in one direction or another will likely only increase.

I was kind of disheartened—shocked, actually—the other day when I read a Facebook comment by a ministry “personality” I really respected. He’d earned his name as a heavy-weight by talking about miracles and the Kingdom of God in real life—and I like that. Real life stuff.  But out of the blue, he made a comment about fiscal policy in democracy, and how once a people realize they can vote benefits to themselves from the public treasury, the democracy will collapse leading to dictatorship. Granted, this wasn’t directly pointed at either political party. At least not overtly.  But the fact that he was even making a political comment at all …  I just stared at the screen in disbelief.  No. Freakin. Way.

Yes way. In fact, just a few nights ago, Stephen Colbert featured a pastor on his Colbert Report whose expressed goal is to be allowed to make political statements from the pulpit. The group he represents is encouraging pastors across America to deliberately violate the law by endorsing one of the presidential candidates and then send recorded copies of their sermons to the IRS.  They hope the IRS will take them to court so they can challenge the law which now forbids political endorsements from tax-exempt churches.  Their argument is that there should be no government intrusion in the life of the church whatsoever. But obviously, they do not feel the reverse is also true. The church may, perhaps even should, intrude in the affairs of government. They seem to be arguing for the “separation of church and state”—but apparently want it to be a one-way street.

Fine. That may perhaps even be a valid constitutional position.  But the church has a long, and very ugly, history when it’s dabbled in politics and attempted to influence government—Crusades, Inquisitions, witch hunts, burnings at the stake.  And I find nothing particularly “Christian” about that at all.

As Americans, everyone has the right to voice his or her opinion about social issues and to try to influence legislation. But should any of this come from the pulpit?  I can understand how some pastors may feel the compulsion to protect their flocks by taking action against what they perceive to be immoral forces at work in the world—I understand the pastoral instinct to protect.  I can also understand the compulsion to stir up your people to combat an injustice.  But I do not understand the motivation, the hostility, the provocation in stirring up dissent, and dividing people against one another.  As though people who have different cultural or political views are somehow less American or less godly.

It may be true that religious leaders have often played important roles in the great social movements of history. Faith can be a catalyst for positive change in society. But the fact that in each of these movements men and women of faith and integrity arduously fought on opposite sides of the cause, shedding innocent blood and quoting Scripture and the divine will of God as their defense, ought to make us question the legitimacy of mixing faith and politics. Politics was never described in the Bible as a means for achieving spiritual goals. As the Apostle Paul said, “we wrestle not against flesh and blood, but against … spiritual forces”. And Jesus himself stated at the very birth of Christianity, before his death, that his Kingdom was not of this world, that if it was, his followers would fight—and indeed the angels themselves could be enjoined to battle for the cause. But this is not who we are. This is not what we are to be about. Especially as pastors and shepherds of God’s flock.

Did Jesus speak out against the decadent Roman culture? Did Peter or James or John or Paul stir up the flock for political action, or call for change in the social order?

“I must be about my Father’s business.”

“My food is to do the will of Him who sent me, and to finish his work.”

“This is my commandment: Love one another.”

“Jesus of Nazareth went about doing good, and healing all who were oppressed by the devil.”

“Go, therefore, into all the world and make disciples, teaching them to observe everything I have commanded you.”

“These signs will be the mark of those who believe: in my name, they will cast out devils, they will speak with new tongues … they will lay hands on the sick for healing.”

THIS is our job, this is our mission.  To make disciples. To love. To heal. To set captives free from the bondage of sin and death. To proclaim the FAVOR of God.  To call for repentance, that all people should return to God, and then announce that holy reconciliation has occurred: Mankind brought back into full fellowship with God by the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ.

Anything else for a minister is a distraction. A waste of time. A hindrance to the purposes of God. And if I may speak boldly, it is prostitution.  Men and women of God are called to higher purposes: the salvation of humanity, and the maturity of the saints.

As citizens of a great republic, we may well have the right—even the civic duty—to voice our convictions and to vote according to our consciences. But as pastoral leaders, we must never dare to place the divine stamp of approval on a political position or platform. Jesus never authorized us to act for him in this arena.  Not once.  His instructions are clear.  And they are already more than we can handle, already more than enough for us to do.  The pulpit is a sacred space and the pastorate is a holy calling. When we step behind a pulpit, we are now acting as messengers of the Living God, charged with proclaiming life-giving words to His people. Puny human politics have no place there.

Let congregations—even pastors—march on Washington when their consciences compel them. But don’t wave the banner of the Cross in your crusade.  Endorsing one political candidate over another is not a holy fight.  And, as shepherds of His flock, commissioned with a sacred trust, if that’s where our energies and efforts are devoted, then we have lost our first love. We have gone A.W.O.L. from our duty, and abandoned our calling. We walk in two worlds, and we must never confuse the two.

Does Jesus endorse one political party over another? Do politics belong in the pulpit?  Not according to my reading of Scripture—or my understanding of ministry.

 

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STEVE SCHMIDT serves on the pastoral staff of Expressions Church in Oklahoma City. He is a graduate of the seminary at Oral Roberts University in Tulsa, OK, and holds two masters degrees in Biblical Literature and Divinity. He did his doctoral research at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem and at the Jewish Theological Seminary of America in New York. You can always find him skulking on Facebook.
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Christian Politics ?

ChristianProtesers2A friend and I were having lunch yesterday when he announced that he was creating a list of thought-provoking questions to challenge Christians to rethink some of their conventional and comfortable positions. The topics ranged from “who can be a Christian” to “must a Christian tithe” to social and political agendas in the church.

This morning, I read an article about a group of conservative ministers who went to Washington DC to protest against the recent expansion of hate-crimes legislation to include crimes committed against people based on their personal sexual preferences. The ministers actually WANTED to get arrested, to prove that Christianity was under attack and that Christians were being persecuted and prevented from exercising their faith.  The article left a foul taste in my mouth. I am an American, and more importantly, I am child of God, touched by His grace and filled with His Spirit. And nothing in their behavior represented me, my faith, or (from my perspective) my Lord.

As Americans, everyone has the right to voice his or her opinion about social issues and to try to influence legislation. I understand that conservatives may feel that their traditional values are being eroded in 21st Century America. And I can understand how some pastors may feel the compulsion to protect their flocks by taking action against what they perceive to be immoral forces at work in the world — I understand the pastoral instinct to protect. But I do not understand the motivation, the anger, the hostility, the provocation in stirring up political dissent.

In American history, great social movements have been lead by church leaders: the Quaker abolitionists fighting against slavery in the 1800s, hard-line Protestant preachers calling for Prohibition to combat the evils of alcoholism, leaders on both sides of the issue shouting over the rights of women to vote, or protesting for and against segregation of whites and blacks. Even in our own romanticized American Revolution, preachers played a significant role in urging the people to action (again, both for and against). But does that make it right? The fact that in each of these cases men of faith and integrity arduously fought on opposite sides of the cause, quoting Scripture and the divine will of God as their defense, ought to make us question the legitimacy of mixing faith and politics. As the Apostle Paul said, “we wrestle not against flesh and blood, but against … spiritual forces”. And Jesus himself stated at the very birth of Christianity, before his death, that his Kingdom was not of this world, that if it was, his followers would fight — and indeed the angels themselves could be enjoined to battle for the cause. But this is not who we are. This is not what we are to be about.

Did Jesus speak out against the decadent Roman culture? Did Peter or James or John or Paul stir up the flock for political action, or call for change in the social order?

“I must be about my Father’s business.”
“My food is to do the will of Him who sent me, and to finish his work.”
“This is my commandment: Love one another.”
“Jesus of Nazareth went about doing good, and healing all who were oppressed by the devil.”
“Go into all the world and make disciples, teaching them to observe everything I have commanded you.”
“These signs will be the mark of those who believe: in my name, they will cast out devils, they will speak with new tongues … they will lay hands on the sick for healing.”

This is our job, this is our mission. To make disciples. To love. To heal. To set captives free from the bondage of sin and death. To proclaim the FAVOR of God. To call for repentance, that all people should return to God, and then announce that holy reconciliation has occurred: Mankind brought back into full fellowship with God by the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ.

Anything else for a minister is a distraction. A waste of time. A hindrance to the purposes of God. And if I may speak boldly, it is prostitution. Men and women of God are called to higher purposes: the salvation of humanity, and the maturity of the saints.

As citizens of a great republic, we have the right — even the civic duty — to voice our convictions and to vote according to our consciences. But we must never dare to drag the name of our Exalted Lord into this worldly effort. He never authorized us to act for him in this arena. Not once. His instructions are clear. And they are already more than we can handle, already more than enough for us to do. Let congregations — even pastors — march on Washington. But don’t wave the banner of the Cross in your crusade. It is not a holy fight. And, as shepherds of His flock, commissioned with a sacred trust, if that’s where your energies and efforts are devoted, then you have lost your first love. You have gone AWOL from your duty, and abandoned your calling. We walk in two worlds, and we must never confuse the two.

Is there such a thing as Christian politics? Not according to my reading of Scripture.