“Why Don’t Mennonites Pay Taxes?” And Other Similar Questions…

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Growing up conservative Mennonite and going to a public school opened me up to many questions about my religion. However, while these inquiries were presented in form of a question, they often came off as statements:

“Hey, don’t Mennonites have horse and buggies, where’s yours?”

“Why don’t Mennonites pay taxes?”

Understand, this wasn’t intended as obnoxious, this was in elementary school and these classmates were genuinely curious. They were trying to take what they knew about Mennonites (or thought they knew) with what they observed in me and reconcile the two. I suppose these could be called “micro-aggressions” according to the currently popular terms, but I prefer a more gracious explanation.

Still, while I prefer to be gracious, the presumptions still annoyed me. This exposure might explain my sometimes strong visceral reaction to being pigeonholed in a debate. It might also have contributed to my desire to be a non-conformist in a culture that took pride in being non-conformed and did things a little different from other Mennonites. I’ve always wanted the right to speak for myself and for that reason have tried to give others the same respect and let them speak for themselves.

Anyhow, I’m pretty sure that any conservative Mennonite who spent time outside of their own religious cloister has experienced much of the same thing. The people asking if they are Amish, those inquiring if they ever considered the possibility there is no God, etc. And presumably, this would make us more careful not to do the same others. But that’s not always the case, as I’ve discovered…

Oh No, Not Again!!!

Since becoming Orthodox I’ve encountered the same kind of presumptions in a different form. This time, rather than public school peers, it is Mennonite family and friends. And it is not that I mind the questions either, but when someone starts with “I know a Catholic…” it reminds of those who cannot distinguish conservative Mennonites from Amish or Old Order Mennonites.

So I’ll start with that one…

“Aren’t Orthodox basically Catholics?”

Yes and no.

The word “Catholic” means universal. In the words of St Paul, there is “one body” (Rom 12:5, 1 Cor 10:17, 12:20, Eph 2:16, 4:4, etc.) and that is what universal or catholic means when applied to the Church. There may be multiple denominations, differences, and divisions within the Church, but there is only one universal Christian body of believers and that is what Catholic means. So, yes, all Orthodox Christians believe in a Catholic church, in that they believe there is only one universal Christian Church—that is what Biblical tradition tells us and that is what we must believe is true.

However, no, despite some similarities, we are not *Roman* Catholic. The early church had five patriarchs, one in Jerusalem, one in Alexandria, one in Antioch, one in Constantinople and another in Rome. These were geographic centers and separate jurisdictions of the early church and all were basically in agreement. However, in a similar fashion to how Amish split from other Anabaptists, there was a “Great Schism” in 1054 between the four patriarchs of the “East” and the Roman “West” over a variety of issues—including Rome’s unilateral addition to the creed (called the “filioque“) and the elevation of Papal power.

The Roman side veered towards more authority being granted to “Peter’s seat” in Rome. The Orthodox, by contrast, put more emphasis on maintaining Church tradition both written and spoken (or Orthodoxy) and hold that Peter was the “first among equals” rather than the “Vicar of Christ” in the way that the Romans do. This is a very significant difference of perspective, yet Orthodox and Roman Catholics do recognize each other at some level despite not being in Communion together. Both the Orthodox East and Roman West are Catholic in the sense they are parts of the universal Church, but they are not the same.

“Do Orthodox worship Mary?”

One of the first things a non-Orthodox will notice when entering an Orthodox sanctuary is the many pictures. These are called “icons” (after the Greek word for “image”) and are a visual representation of various saints, scenes, etc. This is a Christian tradition back to depictions in the Catacombs, there are icons of many virtuous Biblical characters, and of those most prominently displayed are those of Jesus and Mary the mother of Jesus. There is also mention of Mary, the mother of Jesus, “with the saints” throughout the divine liturgy and special honor is given to her.

However, Mary, while venerated (or honored) as the mother of our Lord, is never worshipped by an Orthodox Christian. Worship is only for the Trinity (Father, Son, and Holy Spirit) and all others are honored for their various roles. Mary’s role is more significant because her body was quite literally the ark of the new covenant. That is why Mary knew, early on, that “all generations will call me blessed” (Luke 1:48) and why Elizabeth (who were are told was “filled with the Holy Spirit”) loudly proclaims: “Blessed are you among women, and blessed is the child you will bear!” Nowhere in Scripture do we have a similar proclamation made and it is only right that the mother of Jesus is recognized by us in the same manner that she is by Elizabeth.

For Jesus to be fully man he needed a mother and his mother was Mary and that is why we celebrate her role. But that honor is not worship. In Chrismation, one has to make agree and make clear that their recognition of Mary and the saints in form of icons is “not unto idolatry” but for sake of “contemplation” and so that “we may increase in piety, and emulation of the deeds of the holy persons represented.” It is no more idolatry to venerate Mary and the saints than it is to have pictures of your grandparents on the wall or to speak of your own mother glowingly on Mother’s day or to treat your own children or spouse differently than other people. There is a vast difference between honor and worship.

“Why aren’t there Orthodox missionaries?”

This one caught me off guard. First off, every Orthodox Christian is (borrowing the words of Charles Spurgeon) “either a missionary or an imposter” and by this, I mean every member of the body of Christ is sent into the world as his representative. Sure, not every Christian is sent abroad in the manner of Hudson Taylor, but every Christian is called to be an ambassador for Christ (2 Cor. 5:20) and should do this wherever they are in the world. Secondly, Orthodox Christians, from St Paul onward have journeyed physically to spread the Gospel to the four corners of the world. Again, not all traveled to far away places, but every Orthodox believer is a missionary and there are no exceptions.

Some of the confusion of my Mennonite friends (who more or less proclaimed that Orthodox lack missionaries) could a product of Evangelical Protestantism and the influence this movement has had on defining their current practice. It seems many under that influence see missionary service as an activity that Christians do rather than an all-encompassing lifestyle. In other words, according to this mindset, one is only a missionary when shoving a tract in the face of an unsuspecting passerby or when they go with a group to do a project in a country that could use jobs more than donated labor. And yet, while that may be a part of what missionary work entails, this too is how we are to proclaim the good news:

“Slaves, obey your earthly masters in everything; and do it, not only when their eye is on you and to curry their favor, but with sincerity of heart and reverence for the Lord. Whatever you do, work at it with all your heart, as working for the Lord, not for human masters, since you know that you will receive an inheritance from the Lord as a reward. It is the Lord Christ you are serving.” (Colossians 3:22‭-‬24 NIV)

And, as far as Orthodox being missionaries in the forms more celebrated, there are many powerful examples of wonderworkers and martyrs for the faith. Orthodox don’t just travel to tropical paradises, do fun projects, and then jet back home again (back to their privileged lifestyles) after a few days or couple years. No, the Orthodox live in some of the most hostile places for a Christian to live and many have become the truest witness of Christ—they have died as martyrs for their faith, in this century as much as any other, and not only in the history books. It was not Protestant missionaries or Evangelicals being brutalized and beheaded by ISIS.

Furthermore, having entertained (very briefly) proselytizers of a sect widely viewed as heretical (even by Protestants) and having considered the words of Jesus about missionaries that make their converts twice as damned as themselves (Matt. 23:15) or those who will cry “Lord, Lord, have we not” when standing condemned in front of Him (Matt. 7:21-23) and listing their missionary works as if that is their salvation, there is something to be said for correct teachings and practice. The Orthodox, while all over the world (including Africa, where a baptism of 556 took place), seem to be more concerned with quiet and sincere obedience than they are with loud and proud professions.

“I’ve heard Orthodox don’t believe in being ‘born again’ experience, is this true?”

Conservative Mennonites, like other Evangelicals, tend to put much stock in a “born again” salvation experience. They take a phrase out of an analogy Jesus used (while speaking to Nicodemus in John 3:1-20) to explain spiritual transformation that must take place before someone can enter the kingdom of God. He likens being born of the Spirit to the wind, it is something mysterious, and then foretells his dying on the cross by likening it to the brass serpent Moses raised in the wilderness that healed those who looked upon it. And, yes, there is an experience, at the foot of the cross, for those who look up to Jesus and cry out for God’s mercy to them as a sinner.

However, salvation is not simply saying something and having an emotional experience attached or a once and done event, there’s so much more. We are told in the letters of St. Paul to “work out your salvation with fear and trembling” (Phil. 2:12) and then also that we are saved by grace “through faith” and as a “gift from God” (Eph. 2:1-10) rather than by our righteous works, which (with many other Biblical texts) could seem to present a contradictory view of salvation—splitting Protestants into competing camps of works versus faith, eternal security versus potentially losing our salvation, or Calvinist and Armenian. Meanwhile, Orthodox Christians avoid this debate entirely with a view of salvation that transcends easy categorization. We are saved, being saved, and will be saved so long as we continue to believe.

The Orthodox see salvation as a direction, not just a destination, as an intentional alignment with God’s perfect will and the choice we make daily in following after Jesus. In other words, salvation is less about declaring oneself to be “born again” or a singular event in time that we look back on and more about taking up our cross. Salvation is not a mere once-and-done transaction for them, it is a continuous relationship and being in Communion together with the body of Christ. So, yes, we should all be “born of the Spirit” and yet we should also be connected to the vine (John 15:1-8) or we will die as spiritual babies and never bear the fruit of salvation. Ultimately salvation is not a past event or a promised future reward, it is something we choose every day in our being faithful to God and living out the commitment to love each other.

“If we make every effort to avoid death of the body, still more should it be our endeavor to avoid death of the soul. There is no obstacle for a man who wants to be saved other than negligence and laziness of soul.”

+ St. Anthony the Great, “On the Character of Men and on the Virtuous Life: One Hundred and Seventy Texts,” Text 45, The Philokalia: The Complete Text (Vol. 1)

“I know an Orthodox and…”

It is one of the most annoying statements. Annoying because it is usually followed by some sort of negative characterization which they then use their anecdote to generalize about the entire two millennia of Orthodox Christianity and a church made up of hundreds of millions of people. It is a statement many Mennonites have encountered as well, which makes it all the more annoying when the same thing in slightly different form comes from the mouth of a Mennonite. I recall a time, broke down while driving truck, when the service technician (who didn’t know I was Mennonite) went on a long rant about some Mennonites he knew and how hypocritical Mennonites are, etc. Of course, his criticisms weren’t entirely incorrect nor are many of those leveled against the Orthodox (we don’t claim to be a church of perfect people) and yet they were definitely unfair to use as a basis to judge the entire group.

This tendency to remember their worse examples and our own best is a human universal. It is something called in-group-out-group-bias which means we tend to recall good examples of our own group (minimizing our bad) and bad examples of other groups (minimizing their good) or, in a word, favoritism. But this is especially true where the perfect church myth is prevalent or there is a lack of contemplation, introspection, and ownership. The smaller a group is, the easier it is to imagine that you are not like those others—those who do not live up to your own personal standards—and forget that a judgmental, divisive and prideful spirit is as sinful as anything else. Pointing out the faults of others is never a good defense. We should recall the story Jesus told about the confident religious elitist who thought only of his own righteousness in comparison to others and the humble man who begged only for mercy in his prayer:

To some who were confident of their own righteousness and looked down on everyone else, Jesus told this parable: “Two men went up to the temple to pray, one a Pharisee and the other a tax collector. The Pharisee stood by himself and prayed: ‘God, I thank you that I am not like other people—robbers, evildoers, adulterers—or even like this tax collector. I fast twice a week and give a tenth of all I get.’ “But the tax collector stood at a distance. He would not even look up to heaven, but beat his breast and said, ‘God, have mercy on me, a sinner.’ “I tell you that this man, rather than the other, went home justified before God. For all those who exalt themselves will be humbled, and those who humble themselves will be exalted.” (Luke 18:9-14)

So, anyhow, maybe you know an Orthodox Christian and can only recall bad things about them. But I probably know a few more and can tell you that they are just as sincere as any conservative Mennonite or other Evangelical I’ve met. Maybe you know some Orthodox who do not live to your own religious standards or can point to a historical blemish or two from a thousand years ago? Well, I’ll raise you one pedophile ordained by a Mennonite church in the past decade (here’s a list of some other Mennonite sexual abusers, if that’s not enough) and the Münster rebellion. Every denominational group has their less than celebrated moments and members, I can assure you of that. And if a group is too small to have a history of mistakes, that is not a great strength, it is a weakness, it only means they are more vulnerable. So “let he who is without sin cast the first stone” or maybe we should just take the advice of Jesus to be humble about ourselves and understand our own continual need of God’s mercy?

The Orthodox do not run from their history by starting a new denomination (or ‘non-denominational’ group) every time there’s a failure, they have their greater and lesser examples like every other group. But one thing that can be said is that they have maintained their unity centered on Christ and keeping the traditions of the Church from the time of the Apostles to the present moment. Fr Anthony, the Antiochian priest who served during my Chrismation, can trace his ordination all the way back to Peter and the first Gentile church, the church of Antioch (Acts 11:19-30) where believers were first called Christian. There is a great wealth of history to draw from, some cautionary tales, and many who were faithful until the end. Like the church that Paul preached to, the Church today is by no means perfect and yet, as Jesus promised, the “gates of hell” have not prevailed against the Church he founded.

For all of my non-Orthodox friends, the door is open, all people are welcomed, and there are good answers to questions for those who have them. There is truly a wonderful diversity within Orthodoxy, and a beauty of traditions—traditions packed with deep meaning—that span thousands of years. This is not something that one can begin to summarize in a blog post. There are volumes written and many more yet to be written about the Church.

But the best way to start learning about Orthodoxy is first-hand—to come and see.

Kanye West and the Choice to Be Free

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I’ve been following the career of Kanye West since hearing “Jesus Walks” for the first time in 2004. His lyrics then spoke about the struggle of finding his way in life:

Yo, we at war
We at war with terrorism, racism, but most of all we at war with ourselves

God show me the way because the Devil’s tryin’ to break me down

I could identify with that much of the controversial rapper’s message. And, throughout the song, the memorable hook, “Jesus walks with me” was another point of our shared perspective. He seemed a man much like me in many ways.

However, his antics, particularly his pushing aside Taylor Swift at the VMA’s and his defining a natural disaster response in terms of race, really turned me off to him. Still, I couldn’t be too critical of someone who, like me, was attempting to navigate life as honestly as he knew how and, truthfully, only our specific complaints were different.

Like Kanye, while successful in so many ways in comparison to most people in the world, I’ve also felt marginalized and mistreated. In fact, much of my blogging over the past few years has been to share my frustrations. No doubt many reading my thoughts and perspectives feel I’ve spoken out of turn for daring to share my grievances.

My writing was, in a sense, a prayer “God show me a way because the Devil’s trying to break me down.” I wanted answers. I wanted my readers to tell me that part that was missing from my life and present a solution that worked for me. I did all I could and still was not completely healed.

A story of being paralyzed and so close to the healing pool.

I’ve found parallels between my own spiritual journey (of thirty-eight years) and that of a paralyzed man finally healed by Jesus:

Here a great number of disabled people used to lie—the blind, the lame, the paralyzed. One who was there had been an invalid for thirty-eight years. When Jesus saw him lying there and learned that he had been in this condition for a long time, he asked him, “Do you want to get well?” “Sir,” the invalid replied, “I have no one to help me into the pool when the water is stirred. While I am trying to get in, someone else goes down ahead of me.” Then Jesus said to him, “Get up! Pick up your mat and walk.” At once the man was cured; he picked up his mat and walked. The day on which this took place was a Sabbath, and so the Jewish leaders said to the man who had been healed, “It is the Sabbath; the law forbids you to carry your mat.” (John 5:3‭, ‬5‭-‬10 NIV )

Imagine that. Thirty-eight years of waiting for someone who cared enough to lift him into the pool to be healed. I’m guessing many did notice this man, they might have felt a little compassion, and yet for whatever reason they did not make an effort to help him into the healing waters. Perhaps they lacked the faith he had and didn’t think putting him in would make a difference? Perhaps they were too busy with their own problems?

I do not know why this man had to wait thirty-eight years—so close to healing and yet at a distance impossible for him to cover without help. But we do know about the encounter he had with Jesus. We also know that after he was healed and began to walk he soon encountered critics who seemed to care more that he wasn’t following their rules (by walking on the Sabbath) than the miracle of his new found freedom.

Kanye finds freedom to love as Jesus loves.

Kanye has again found himself in the middle of a firestorm and this time for a comment on Twitter expressing his love for President Trump:

You don’t have to agree with [T]rump but the mob can’t make me not love him. We are both dragon energy. He is my brother. I love everyone. I don’t agree with everything anyone does. That’s what makes us individuals. And we have the right to independent thought.

Given his own brash personality and the Christian themes in his music, it is no surprise that Kanye can find some common ground with Trump—and desires to love him despite their differences. He, like Jesus taught, has decided to truly love all people (including his enemies) and this includes Trump.

West, going a step further, in a recent TMZ interview, shared how he felt bad about a previous attack on another unpopular president:

Even with George Bush, people said don’t apologize. I’m like, wait a second, I just saw George Bush pushing George Bush senior in a wheelchair, and he just lost his wife. Do you know how bad I would want to go to George Bush and say, ‘I’m sorry for hurting you. I was an artist, I was hurting when I went up to the telethon, I said something in the moment but when I look at you as a dad and a family member, I’m sorry for hurting you.

Instead of seeing Bush as the face of the enemy as he one did, as a racist (for being a conservative) and someone beyond redemption, he saw him as a dad, as family member and as being a human like him.

Perhaps Kanye, having lost his own mom in tragic circumstances, could more readily identify with the beleaguered and bereaved Bush?

Whatever the case, the motive for his change of heart is clear:

Does God want you to love everyone? … If you start thinking about love and start feeling love and thinking about forgiveness, then you can overcome things…

That is the Gospel in a nutshell. We are to love as God first loved us and forgive others so we will be forgiven. Christians were told to honor each other, other people and even the emperor. Honor does not mean agree. Honor does not mean we do not speak the truth in love and risk losing our heads like John the Baptist did in speaking out against sin either. But it does mean that we see our enemies as people to be loved rather than demons to hate.

Today we must choose not to be bound to our past.

As if telling people to love Trump wasn’t already bad enough, Kanye also made this comment:

When you hear about slavery for 400 years … For 400 years? That sounds like a choice. You were there for 400 years and it’s all of y’all. It’s like we’re mentally imprisoned.

West later explained that he understood that slaves did not come of their own free-will:

[T]o make myself clear. Of course I know that slaves did not get shackled and put on a boat by free will. My point is for us to have stayed in that position even though the numbers were on our side means that we were mentally enslaved.

His point wasn’t that slavery never happened nor to take away from the wrong that had been done to his ancestors. But explains that eventually their slavery became a mental prison and that people should not continue to choose to be enslaved years after the institution of slavery has been abolished.

He continued:

[T]he reason why I brought up the 400 years point is because we can’t be mentally imprisoned for another 400 years.

It is interesting that he uses the 400 years.

Slavery, as an institution in the United States, started in 1619, was legal in all thirteen colonies when they declared their independence from British rule in 1776, and ended formally with the 13th amendment in 1865.

For those of you bad at math, that is 246 years and not 400 years. It seems the suggestion being made is that some are still mentally enslaved despite being legally free.

Kanye’s point resonates with me as one trying to escape my own mental prison. It is difficult to live beyond our past experience. All my expectations were built around being a Mennonite and, despite my free-spiritedness, it was impossible for me to see beyond this past—I was enslaved.

But I didn’t want to spend my next 40 years repeating the same failures. I wanted to overcome, I called on Jesus to heal me and was willing to do whatever it took to be made whole—even let go of the Mennonite identity that meant everything to me.

It is interesting that the paralytic, Kanye West, and myself are so close in age. I guess there just comes a point when the longing for freedom from our enslavement becomes greater than our fears and we are finally willing to break the rules that keep us bound. And, when you do, when you find your freedom, those who choose to remain in bonds will come for you.

Speaking of “mental prisons” comes at risk of being killed by the victims.

I worked in a factory years ago. It was a sort of dead end job with low pay and certainly not where I wanted to spend the rest of my life. However, when I expressed my dreams of life beyond that place my coworkers would laugh it off and tell me that I would always be there with them. They were serious, from all appearances, and their ridicule only gave me more motivation to leave.

It reminds me of Dr. Jordan Peterson’s advice to those who wish to change the world. He says, “clean your room.” But Peterson also warns that, when you do this, there will be those who prefer their disorder and will resist. They will react negativity rather than with happiness. The critics will question: “Who do you think you are? Do you think you’re better than us?”

Those who are in mental prisons prefer to believe that they have no choice and therefore will hate anyone who tries to show them otherwise. The religious hypocrites, seeing the miracles of Jesus, were more concerned that he had broke their rules and eventually killed him. I’m sure there are many who would rather I stopped speaking my thoughts as well. And, likewise, Kanye West will likely face the consequences of breaking ranks with those still imprisoned.

Victims of racism, other multi-millionaire celebrities, have accused West of being a traitor to his race and have made threats against him. One radio station has already stopped playing his music and I’m guessing there will be many other costs. My own popularity as a blogger will probably never recover from my taking a walk with Jesus away from the Mennonite plantation. Many will never understand and will simply cut you out of their life. There are real repercussions for choosing to be free.

If the world hates you, keep in mind that it hated me first. If you belonged to the world, it would love you as its own. As it is, you do not belong to the world, but I have chosen you out of the world. That is why the world hates you. (John 15:18‭-‬21 NIV)

I’ve had many conversations in my life. I have always tried to speak the truth in love and have generally been well-received even by those who disagree. But, my own experience trying to talk about race have almost always left me disappointed—sometimes even resigned to the notion that we will always be ruled by our baser instincts. Some of the nastiest words spoken to me came as a result of my taking a stand for truth as it pertains to race.

Apparently as a white man, to the victims of racism, I can’t possibly have anything to offer besides an apology for my own gender and skin color. No, I could not possibly be a person who, like them, has experienced the pain of prejudice, discrimination and rejection, right?

Ironically or perhaps inevitably, it is often the victims of abuse who become the next generation of abusers. And that is because they are still bound to the abuse, the abuse has become their identity, and they’ve never known freedom.

I choose not to build an identity around my skin color and fears. I choose against being bound to my past failures and present anxieties. I refuse to be a mental prisoner to injuries and injustices. I refuse to live as a victim. I choose to transcend. I choose to love.

Jesus means freedom from our past. Jesus means peace of mind, a secure future, even when presently mocked and persecuted.

To silence me you will have to kill me.

God forgives and I forgive.

I am free.

Should Christians Flee Jerusalem?

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In 1630 John Winthrop, an English Puritan leader, wrote a thesis titled A Model of Christian Charity that described a spiritual vision for the new settlement in America.  He explains an ideal love that if practiced would make them “a city upon a hill” and seen by all people. 

But, Winthrop warns that with this great potential there will be great consequences if and when this ideal is abandoned.  In his words: 


“We shall open the mouths of enemies to speak evil of the ways of God, and all professors for God’s sake. We shall shame the faces of many of God’s worthy servants, and cause their prayers to be turned into curses upon us till we be consumed out of the good land whither we are going.”


America has formed into a great nation, an exceptional nation in many respects, and has become the place seen by the world.  Two Presidents (John Kennedy and Ronald Reagan) made reference to the “city upon a hill” imagery and at a time which was arguably the peak of our influence. 

I firmly believe that our lingering greatness is a reflection of the moral character of those who came before us.  However, our end will be as dramatic as our rise when we neglect love for our fellow man that Winthrop envisioned and is the true evidence of faith in God.

There was another city on a hill (seven hills actually) and that being the historical city of Jerusalem described in the Bible.  Jerusalem was a place of great importance to the Jewish religion and the location of their temple to God.  It was an impressive awe inspiring place by ancient standards and also the place where Jesus went with his disciples and made a startling prophecy about the unimaginable destruction that would soon come to that city.

Six days that marked the beginning of the end.

It was the Passover, a significant event on the Jewish religious calender, and what would turn out to be a most pivotal week for Christianity.  Jesus, after having raised Lazarus from the dead, departs from Bethany and continues with his disciples to Jerusalem despite the obvious risk to his life. 

The Scripture describes Jesus coming down from the Mount of Olives towards the great Holy City:

“As he approached Jerusalem and saw the city, he wept over it and said, ‘If you, even you, had only known on this day what would bring you peace—but now it is hidden from your eyes.  The days will come upon you when your enemies will build an embankment against you and encircle you and hem you in on every side.  They will dash you to the ground, you and the children within your walls. They will not leave one stone on another, because you did not recognize the time of Godʼs coming to you.'” (Luke 19:41-44)

This moment of emotion and prophecy marks the beginning of a tumultuous week.  Jesus was greeted as a king and yet simultaneously weeps over Jerusalem.  The week continues with him dramatically cleansing the temple of commerce.  He spends an intimate last meal with his disciples after which he is betrayed by one of them.  He is put on trial, crucified under a mocking “king of the Jews” sign.  But not before making several claims about a destruction coming and an end that was very near at hand.

In a sermon (Seven Woes of Matthew 23) Jesus severely rebuked his religious critics for their hypocrisy.  He told them that they are no better than their ancestors who murdered prophets.  Jesus warns once again of a judgment that would befall their generation, and laments:

“Jerusalem, Jerusalem, you who kill the prophets and stone those sent to you, how often I have longed to gather your children together, as a hen gathers her chicks under her wings, and you were not willing.  Look, your house is left to you desolate.  For I tell you, you will not see me again until you say, ‘Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord.'” (Matthew 23:37-39)

Jesus laments their unwillingness to trust him.  But also uses “desolate” (erémos) to describe their “house” (oikos) which is a strange way to describe a thriving city and is a foreshadowing statement.  He ends the sermon by saying only those who acknowledge him will see him again.

Following that, in the next chapter, we read this account:

“Jesus left the temple and was walking away when his disciples came up to him to call his attention to its buildings. ‘Do you see all these things?’ he asked. ‘Truly I tell you, not one stone here will be left on another; every one will be thrown down.'” (Matthew 24:1-2)

Wow!  Talk about shocking!

Can you imagine?

It would be like being with a group of friends taking in the sights in Manhattan and talking about the beauty of the architecture, but then in response the tour leader tells you that in forty years it would all be rubble. 

It was the temple (according to Luke 21:5) that had the disciples most captivated and Jesus tells them it will soon be destroyed.  Naturally, as we continue to read, this awful prediction provoked more questions from those who heard about when and how:

“As Jesus was sitting on the Mount of Olives, the disciples came to him privately. ‘Tell us,’ they said, ‘when will this happen, and what will be the sign of your coming and of the end of the age?’ 

Jesus answered: ‘Watch out that no one deceives you. […] Truly I tell you, this generation will certainly not pass away until all these things have happened.  Heaven and earth will pass away, but my words will never pass away.'” (Matthew 24:3-5)

Two observations: 1) These words are all spoken entirely in the context of the temple and the Jerusalem that the disciples saw with their own eyes.  2) This is the second time Jesus promises that “this generation” (to the audience with him then) would see these things happen.

So what did happen?

The end of Jerusalem and temple worship came to pass in AD 70.

It is amazing to me that this event, an astonishing fulfillment of prophecy, is not front and center for more Christians.  The destruction of the temple and sacrificial system it represented was so complete that it has lasted until this day.

Furthermore, this total destruction happened (as predicted) in the very generation that first heard the words of Jesus about the end of the age.  It is a well-documented historical event that would seem to completely fulfill the words of Jesus and yet it is hardly acknowledged.

So why is this such a secret?

Well, maybe because it throws a monkey wrench into the eschatology of many modern Bible readers who have been indoctrinated to believe Jesus is speaking of events in our own future?

Who knows?

But we do know that the historical evidence is clear.  The city of Jerusalem was destroyed, the temple of stone at the center of Jewish religion reduced to rubble, and with that came an ending of an age.  Some skeptics may dispute the details, yet one only need to go to the modern city built on the ruins of historical Jerusalem and see for themselves that the temple is gone.

The end of the former age is the beginning of something new and better.

The end of earthly Jerusalem had begun the week Jesus was crucified.  The destruction of the old way came as the beginning of a new and better way.  It is as Jesus promised:

“‘Sir,’ the woman said, ‘I can see that you are a prophet. Our ancestors worshiped on this mountain, but you Jews claim that the place where we must worship is in Jerusalem.’

‘Woman,’ Jesus replied, ‘believe me, a time is coming when you will worship the Father neither on this mountain nor in Jerusalem.  You Samaritans worship what you do not know; we worship what we do know, for salvation is from the Jews.  Yet a time is coming and has now come when the true worshipers will worship the Father in the Spirit and in truth, for they are the kind of worshipers the Father seeks.  God is spirit, and his worshipers must worship in the Spirit and in truth.'” (John 4:19-24)

There is a city spoke of by Jesus in the Sermon on the Mount.  It is a metaphor used to describe a greater reality “You are the light of the world. A city that is set on a hill cannot be hidden.” (Matthew 5:14)  It is also the likely origination of Puritan John Winthrop’s “a city upon a hill” phrase.  

We also know, in the writing of Paul, that he says the church is collectively and together is the temple of God:

“Don’t you know that you yourselves are God’s temple and that God’s Spirit dwells in your midst? If anyone destroys God’s temple, God will destroy that person; for God’s temple is sacred, and you together are that temple.” (1 Corinthians 3:16-17)

It is a funny thing how so many who claim to be Biblical literalists read that and still await a third temple built of stone.  Paul says that his audience, believers, are the temple and God dwells in them.  Believers, according to Scripture, are literally the temple of God and yet some wait for the constitution a third temple?

Perhaps those still waiting for a third temple have also missed out on the promised second coming of Jesus as well? 

Read this assurance that Jesus left for his disciples:

“‘Very truly I tell you, whoever believes in me will do the works I have been doing, and they will do even greater things than these, because I am going to the Father.  And I will do whatever you ask in my name, so that the Father may be glorified in the Son.  You may ask me for anything in my name, and I will do it.  If you love me, keep my commands.  And I will ask the Father, and he will give you another advocate to help you and be with you forever—the Spirit of truth.  The world cannot accept him, because it neither sees him nor knows him. But you know him, for he lives with you and will be in you.  I will not leave you as orphans; I will come to you.  Before long, the world will not see me anymore, but you will see me. Because I live, you also will live.  On that day you will realize that I am in my Father, and you are in me, and I am in you.  Whoever has my commands and keeps them is the one who loves me. The one who loves me will be loved by my Father, and I too will love them and show myself to them.’    

Then Judas (not Judas Iscariot) said, ‘But, Lord, why do you intend to show yourself to us and not to the world?’  

Jesus replied, ‘Anyone who loves me will obey my teaching. My Father will love them, and we will come to them and make our home with them…'” (John 14:12-23)

So there we have a new city, a better temple and a greater coming of Jesus—each of these iterations being far better than the ones replaced.  If we believe we will be the fulfillment of Scripture in the same way as Jesus and do even greater things as he promised we would.  We will not be looking forward to a new version of the old way and instead be bringing the better kingdom into our reality.

Why then do some amongst us still wait for another physical fulfilment rather than live in the fullness of the kingdom promise today?

Perhaps it is because they, like those who rejected Jesus in his first coming, do not have the truth in them and need to repent?

So, anyhow, cutting to the chase, why is the fall of Jerusalem relevant to us today?

The point of this blog post is not history or eschatology, those can be topics for another day, but it is to discuss the choice we have to learn from history or repeat it again.  We can look at the future as something set in place and beyond our own influence or we can consider that Jerusalem had a choice and that is contained in the last words of the Old Testament:

“See, I will send the prophet Elijah to you before that great and dreadful day of the Lord comes. He will turn the hearts of the parents to their children, and the hearts of the children to their parents; or else I will come and strike the land with total destruction.” (Malachi 4:5-6)

Do you see the option A and the option B?

John the Baptist, while not literally Elijah, came in the Spirit of Elijah, preaching “repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near” (Matthew 3:2) and yet was rejected by those who expected a literal return.  Because of their refusal to repent they choose the “or else” of option B  and we too face that choice: Will we repent and bring the Lord’s prayer “thy kingdom come” to life or will we continue waiting for fulfilment on our own terms and be destroyed?

The American church today is not much different from Jerusalem.  We face an uncertain future, we have been divided into competing political factions, there are angry zealots ready to run amok railing against foreigners, oppressors, etc.  We too have become woefully arrogant and blinded by our ambitions.  It is very much the same climate Jesus lived in two millennia ago.  It is the attitudes that Winthrop warned against nearly four hundred years ago:


“But if our hearts shall turn away, so that we will not obey, but shall be seduced, and worship other Gods, our pleasure and profits, and serve them; it is propounded unto us this day, we shall surely perish out of the good land whither we pass over this vast sea to possess it.”


We are at a crossroads as a people today.

The next forty years will probably hold dramatic changes.  How we respond to opportunities today could very well define the future of our nation.  America will need to choose repentance or it will continue to slide further away from greatness and towards destruction. 

Our end as “a city upon a hill” may not be as spectacular as the fall of Jerusalem, we might simply fade from prominence like other great nations before us, but be ready.    

Be ready for the fall.

Keeping Things In Perspective

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The problem with writing about a complex topic is that anything I write often feels incomplete. 

Good writing is succinct.  However, some ideas are hard to reduce to a few words.  The difficulty of writing for me is often knowing what to include in an explanation and what to leave out.  A writer can simultaneously say too little and too much.

When I finished my post last night I felt I had rambled a bit.  Part of the problem is that I’m writing on a smart phone.  I write between distractions and editing is not my forte.  I know I have more I could say, but that post was already long and I could probably have left stuff out of it without losing much.

Besides that, I worried about alienating parts of my audience by speaking about a political figure and would rather not lose one of the handful of readers.  I was dissatisfied with the result and enough that I nearly removed the post, but then I do not want to be a coward who only says what will win him the approval of peers or takes positions where he is most comfortable.

One of those things I did leave out was context.  The history I mentioned of Christian and Biblical violence needs to be understood in the context of the times it took place.  For example, the Crusades were not inexplicable or unusually brutal for the time, they were a response to the rapid expansion of another religion.  Likewise, in Bible times, things like child sacrifice, slavery and exploitation of women were the norm—even more than today.  Lest we forget, crucification was used by the ‘civilized’ Romans to punish crimes like theft. Torture was not a crime for much of human history.

I do believe, in context, the treatment of women, slaves and children was improved vastly by the teachings of Jesus.  I believe Christian thought, despite the corrupted use of the religion, is a large part of why we in the west are experiencing the long peace that we are.  That’s how movements work, results aren’t instant, there are relapses, counter movements and yet it is the long term trajectory that matters.

The more I study history the more I feel privileged to live in the world I do.  In times past, even many places in the world today, I would have little time to fret about my writing skills or lack thereof.  If it wasn’t shortage of food to worry about it would be the constant threat of being killed by the rival tribe or clan across the river.

Progress, like my writing, is always incomplete, but hopefully it is headed in the right direction and there are some things in the world worth celebrating.  That these words could potentially reach someone on the other side of the world one of them.

God bless!

Religions of Peace and of Violence

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Okay, I’m breaking a rule here, I’m going to mention a political figure and have tried to avoid politics on this blog.  Still, I do feel inclined to weigh in on a recent furor over something President Obama recently said:

“So how do we, as people of faith, reconcile these realities — the profound good, the strength, the tenacity, the compassion and love that can flow from all of our faiths, operating alongside those who seek to hijack religious for their own murderous ends?

Humanity has been grappling with these questions throughout human history.  And lest we get on our high horse and think this is unique to some other place, remember that during the Crusades and the Inquisition, people committed terrible deeds in the name of Christ.  In our home country, slavery and Jim Crow all too often was justified in the name of Christ.

The President continued on to talk about religious violence in India.  (Click here for the transcript)  But, it is the remarks highlighted in bold above that are the center of controversy, it has offended some of my Christian friends and initially annoyed me for various reasons.  Obama has this propensity for lecturing or condescension and I’m not sure he’s earned the right to speak about high horses.  However, on second thought, after reading some of the commentary in response and what seems to be either ignorance or denial of history, I am reconsidering my first impression.

There is, among my Christian friends, widespread denial or downplaying of violence done in the name of Christ.  That alone would be excusable, but that coupled with harsh judgments against Muslims and demands they denounce terrorism, seems a bit hypocritical.  Many Americans do not want themselves to be associated with the foreign policy of present and past US Presidential Administrations, let alone told they themselves need to apologize personally for every misdeed an American has done.  So why do we ask others to do what we don’t do?

What is the/a religion of peace?

One of those litmus test questions I see frequently asked as it pertains to terrorism and Islam, is “do you think Islam is a religion of peace?”  The phrase “religion of peace” is also often used sarcastically or to parody government leaders who use that phrase as part of trying to distinguish between terrorists and other Muslims.  But one place I don’t see that question asked is as it pertains to Christian history and Biblical religion.  Would Christianity pass the same test and be considered a “religion of peace” to an objective observer?  The answer might change depending on perspective.

Is Christianity a religion of peace?

Many Christians will claim that the Bible is their ultimate authority.  But then I have to wonder if they have ever actually read their Bibles when they recoil in horror at the mention of Sharia law.  The Christian Bible is full of bloodshed in the name of God.  There are instructions to kill every inhabitant of conquered lands, specifically every man, woman, child, sometimes even the livestock, and often times sparing the virgin women as war brides.  You can read this for yourself in the books of Numbers 31 and 1 Samuel 15.  By Biblical law disobedience to parents, picking up sticks on the wrong day of the week, adultery and blasphemy merited a death sentence by stoning. 

I can anticipate, because of prior experience in discussions, that the paragraph above could elicit howls of protest and that Jesus marked a change.  Yet, if we look at Christian history after Christ, it is evident many did not get the memo and the it is hard to even know where to begin.  History like the Salem witch trials, Gnadenhutten massacre, Manifest destiny, Jewish persecution, Anabaptist persecution, countless bloody wars between Christian people groups and many other examples besides the Crusades and the Inquisition or slavery and Jim Crow could be cited as Christian violence.  Much of it, from slavery to antisemitism, justified by Biblical passages and perspectives.

For those who would argue this use of Scripture is wrong and that Jesus taught peace rather the sword, that too could be questioned.  Christian theology is not very tolerant of unbelievers.  The Gospels teach that one must repent of sin, they must accept Jesus as Savior and Lord or they will be condemned for eternity.  Beyond that, consider Matthew 10:34 where he says: “Do not suppose that I have come to bring peace to the earth. I did not come to bring peace, but a sword.”  That doesn’t sound very peaceable. 

If the Bible and Christian history is so awful, why be a Christian?

I think that would be the next good question after all I just described.  After all, if I value woman’s rights, oppose genocide and slavery, shouldn’t I be looking elsewhere for my answers?  The simple answer is that I do look elsewhere.  I am not a Biblical fundamentalist, in that I do not see the Bible as the ultimate authority and instead look to the Spirit of God that was found in Jesus.  It is true, Jesus, as I quoted, did not promise peace on earth, but Jesus did set a different example to be followed:

“Jesus said, “My kingdom is not of this world. If it were, my servants would fight to prevent my arrest by the Jewish leaders. But now my kingdom is from another place.”  (John 18:36 NIV)

Jesus gave a different kind of leadership model to his followers:

“Jesus called them together and said, “You know that the rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them, and their high officials exercise authority over them.  Not so with you. Instead, whoever wants to become great among you must be your servant, and whoever wants to be first must be your slave— just as the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many.”  (Matthew 20:25-28 NIV)

Jesus did not just build off of existing traditions or reform Hebrew religion, he changed the entire paradigm of faith and turned the established system upside down.  He supersedes the law of Moses with a standard radically different, in the ‘Sermon on the Mount’ he goes beyond retributive “eye for an eye” justice of Biblical law and totally rewrites the script:

“You have heard that it was said, ‘Eye for eye, and tooth for tooth.’  But I tell you, do not resist an evil person. If anyone slaps you on the right cheek, turn to them the other cheek also.  And if anyone wants to sue you and take your shirt, hand over your coat as well.  If anyone forces you to go one mile, go with them two miles.  Give to the one who asks you, and do not turn away from the one who wants to borrow from you.  “You have heard that it was said, ‘Love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’  But I tell you, love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you,  that you may be children of your Father in heaven. He causes his sun to rise on the evil and the good, and sends rain on the righteous and the unrighteous.  If you love those who love you, what reward will you get? Are not even the tax collectors doing that?  And if you greet only your own people, what are you doing more than others? Do not even pagans do that?  Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect.”  (Matthew 5:38-48 NIV)

This was not just an amendment, it was a radical departure from the law of Moses and the establishing of a completely new system.  Christianity was never intended to be built on institutions, hierarchies of men or religious texts and any other form of top down power.  It was to be defined by grace, forgiveness, servant leadership and respect for all people, as Paul explains:

“Bless those who persecute you; bless and do not curse. Rejoice with those who rejoice; mourn with those who mourn. Live in harmony with one another. Do not be proud, but be willing to associate with people of low position. Do not be conceited.  Do not repay anyone evil for evil. Be careful to do what is right in the eyes of everyone. If it is possible, as far as it depends on you, live at peace with everyone.”  (Romans 12:14-18 NIV)

And goes further…

“So in Christ Jesus you are all children of God through faith, for all of you who were baptized into Christ have clothed yourselves with Christ. There is neither Jew nor Gentile, neither slave nor free, nor is there male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus. If you belong to Christ, then you are Abraham’s seed, and heirs according to the promise.”  (Galatians 3:26-29 NIV)

In light of everything else Jesus said and did, I doubt his comment “I did not come to bring peace, but a sword” was to inspire Christian use of the sword. He was sharing a message that was a threat to the order of the day. His message split Judaism into two and changed the world.

Why did Christianity become so violent?

“There is a history of Christianity: the first three centuries of Christianity; it was a radical pacifist religion, which is why it was persecuted, it was the religion of the poor and the suffering, and Jesus was the symbol of the poor and the suffering…” (Noam Chomsky)

My faith is simple.  History is complex.  Christianity started as “a religion of women, children and slaves,” according to an early critic, but somewhere along the way it was corrupted (or “hijacked” in the words of the President) and became another excuse for violence.  To me the corruption begins whenever the leading of Jesus through the Spirit is replaced by anything, be that a charismatic leader, a dogma, a committee, and even the books of the Bible themselves.  If Jesus (what he represents) is not the center of Christian faith, then what is left is nothing but a ritual, a dead religion and a reasoning that soon becomes an excuse for violence.

So, President Obama, while I disagree with him on many things, does make a legitimate point and it would be biased for him to exempt those who have corrupted Christianity for their own “murderous ends” from his critique.  I am not personally offended, because my own faith is not violent and therefore I know those who used the name of Christ as their justification do not represent me. 

I likewise do not judge Muslim individuals by what others do in the name of their religion.  It is not my job to judge, it is my job to show the true way of Jesus and bring forgiveness and love to all people.

Well, predictably it has happened, two Brooklyn police officers are dead…

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What happened today in Brooklyn, with two NYPD officers gunned down simply for their existing, is a predictable result. It is the very thing I was trying to prevent from happening by challenging simplistic and presumptive narratives.

In the wake of tragedies in Ferguson and later in Staten Island, events widely (and quite recklessly) framed in terms of race, I have tried to make the point (in multiple blog posts) that all forms of prejudice can have tragic consequences.  I wrote to urge people not to judge by mere appearances (blue, black or white) and to consider each individual case separately.

Unfortunately that effort to add perspective to a complex issue did not stop today’s events.  Calling for reason seems to make little progress against the reactionaries with rationales that eventually turn whole categories of people into privileged objects of contempt to be removed.

It seems everybody already knows that it is the other guy’s tribe that is at fault. They know that their own tribe always plays the part of the innocent victim and thus always has no responsibility for their own part.  It is this kind of mentality that justifies gunning down random people from the ‘other side’ in retaliation.  A continuing cycle of increasingly senseless violence is the predictable result.

This sadly could be easily solvable if we would change the vengeful tribe versus tribe thinking that presumes guilt, innocence or privilege on the basis of skin color and only remembers the sins of others:

“The victims of a conflict are assiduous historians and cultivators of memory. The perpetrators are pragmatists, firmly planted in the present. Ordinarily we tend to think of historical memory as a good thing, but when the events being remembered are lingering wounds that call for redress, it can be a call to violence.” (Steven Pinker, “Better Angels of Our Nature,” page 493)

Holding onto the past, making assumptions based in historical grievances, and treating individuals as a part of a group to be judged wholesale is the actual problem. 

Prejudice is the problem and we are all responsible in part.  Recognizing the folly of judging individuals based on the uniform they wear or the color of their skin, taking each case on the individual merits, that is a start to healing old divides.

But, who’s listening anymore, we all know everything we need to know about the ‘other’ side, right?

Will anyone see past their own prejudices and demands for blood from the ‘other’ side long enough to see a better way?

Jesus gave the better way…

“You have heard that it was said, ‘Love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’  But I tell you, love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, that you may be children of your Father in heaven. He causes his sun to rise on the evil and the good, and sends rain on the righteous and the unrighteous.  If you love those who love you, what reward will you get? Are not even the tax collectors doing that?  And if you greet only your own people, what are you doing more than others? Do not even pagans do that?  Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect.”  (Matthew 5:43-48)

Hopefully those employed by the NYPD officers are quicker at forgetting their own presumptions based in appearances. Hopefully they transcend the man who shot two of their colleagues in cold blood and who apparently could only see in terms of tribe and history.  There is hope when we stop seeing people in terms of color groups and see each as an individual worthy of being judged by their own behavior and not as categories based in appearance or profession.

We need to listen to Jesus and end the cycle of violence in our own response to events like this and others.  We need to be better at empathizing across tribal lines and less mindful of the perceived injustices against our own.  We need to become a people more concerned with higher ideals and less with our own superficial features.  Start now, start in yourself in your own heart first and the world can change.