Friday, October 31, 2008

Truth without Grace

Peggy Noonan's column this Friday (today) on the Presidential elections has an air of defeat, no matter that she has been trying her best to present both sides of the argument for some time now, battling her Republican allegience to give Obama credit where he deserves it.

In this column she makes this great point (among several others):

When the press was hitting hard on the pregnancy of Sarah Palin's 17-year-old daughter, he did not respond with a politically shrewd "I have no comment," or "We shouldn't judge." Instead he said, "My mother had me when she was 18," which shamed the press and others into silence. He showed grace when he didn't have to.

As a Christian Obama's only blip in his campaign came at the time when he had some observations to make about the Bible. I think he was mauled by Conservative commentators, in particular Dr. James Dobson (which may be understandable because Obama singled him out and hinted that he was as far Right as Al Sharpton is to the Left). But Dr. Dobson's comments seemed to me lacking in Christian charity. I have listened to his radio program and certainly it is not all about politics. I think he cares about the family and the values that we cherish. But his blindsidedness has affacted him to a point where his comments in response to Obama's do not reflect Grace.

Besides this I have to say I have not seen a political candidate anywhere in the world take on detractors with the finesse that Obama has shown. The great orators among statesmen- Nehru, Churchill, et al showed at least some hints of arrogance in public. To date except for the blip above I have not actually seen Obama ruffle anyone's feathers. That is not the important thing, though- the most significant point is that he still fascinates with his ideas a nation that is used to listening to short, pithy soundbites meant to excite, anger or polarize.

Dr. Dobson's response to Obama in June brings me to another thought. I have seen Christians debating from both sides. Dobson, Robertson, Limbaugh, O'Reilly and others have crossed the line from civility to ungracious behaviour many times in these debates. Other Christians, rooting for Obama, too have followed the world's way of ranting and raving- with a caveat that we will laugh all about it in eternity anyway. While this is true, it reminds me of what a comedian once said about the American Deep South: You can say anything you want about anyone, as long as you add as a suffix, "Bless his/her soul." It is funny because it is actually true to a large extend.
The fact is Christians, whichever side they have taken, have been largely ungracious. You see it in conversations, in blogs, in emails. It seems to me that we may not be evaluated by the unbelieving neighbour so much for our allegience as our attitude. After all if we simply take sides in a debate, we will be considered simply as part of a voting bloc: Conservative vs. Liberal, Pro-life vs. Pro-choice, Capitalist vs. Socialist, Right vs. Left.

When and how do we get counted as Christians? I do not share the opinion that Christians have no role in politics as such. I think our convictions- the Gospel, the saving grace of Jesus Christ- compel us to act in the social and political sphere. All too often, due to the limited nature of the fallen world, we are forced to take sides, often compromising one value for another. We all become single-issue or two-issue voters in most elections, whichevere side we are on. We assign priorities. We sometimes get the label "nutcases" by those opposing our views. This would not matter so much if it had been just the unbelievers on the other side. But the fact is we squabble about it the exact same way as the secular world does. Though the words used are not usually as severe, I have seen words and phrases used by Christians in this debate which should not be on their minds to use at all. Schaeffer's columns (one of which I had commended on this blog) with respect to Dr. Dobson has been peppered with truths couched in language that is hurtful and sometimes (though rarely) inappropriate for a Christian.

From this and my other writings on this blog, I think it is by now clear that I feel that Christian behaviour that does not reflect Grace (as well as Truth) falls woefully short of the Lord's command. Being Pro-Life is indeed being Pro-Truth. Being Pro-Poor is surely being Pro-Truth. But being crude in our conversations about it is being Anti-Grace. Jesus, as the prologue to John's Gospel says, was full of Grace and Truth.

I have a confession to make. My faith has been shaken a few times in the course of these political debates- not severely, but shaken nevertheless. This has nothing to do with intellectual charges against the Christian worldview. Intellectually I'm convinced strongly of the truth, grace and beauty of the Gospel. I have listened to endless debates and statements from men who want to rip the Gospel apart- men and organizations like Richard Dawkins,, Swami Prabhupada and so on. Besides the fact that I find their positions intellectually untenable, I derive comfort from Christianity that my research into other faiths and worldviews cannot match. Christianity is Truth, and in addition it is also Good News! The comments that Obama had made in reference to slavery, capital punishment for an erring son, et al in the Jewish law are not mysterious elements to me. Slavery in the Old and New Testament were realities that when read in conext were not supported by God or His Law, but acknowledged as extant among the Hebrews as among the other Semitic peoples. In fact the Hebrews were given clear instructions to be humane towards their slaves- and from history we know that this was a benign form of domestic servitude, unlike the economic slavery that the Roman empire and pre-Lincoln America practised. Paul's writings also tell us how he regarded slaves to be free men in Christ and masters to be slaves to Christ. He considered himself to be a slave to Christ. Jesus calls himself as one who serves- quite literally, a slave. The concept of the slave that the Bible refer to is distorted by Obama's implicit suggestions about it, but we cannot hold it against him as a Presidential candidate simply because of his limited theology. After all, if our standards were so stringent, in some sense the theology of most Christian Presidents have been limited enough to warrant our displeasure. Obama's comments about stoning the errant son are derived from actual words in the Old Testament. It is important to note the distinction that Jesus made about Old Testament Law and what God actually desires. When questioned about divorcing a wife, he said, "Moses permitted you to divorce your wives because your hearts were hard. But it was not this way from the beginning." When questioned about stoning a woman caught in the act of adultery, he said, "Let him who is without sin cast the first stone." Was he contradicting the Law? As He says, "Matt 5:18 "For assuredly, I say to you, till heaven and earth pass away, one jot or one tittle will by no means pass from the law till all is fulfilled." Jesus thus claims to be the end goal of the Law, that He came to fulfill it. The fulfillment of the Law is not found in its penal code, endless requirements, Sabbath regulations, ceremonial cleansing and so on, but its fulfillment in His Person- including his vicarious death and resurrection and the Christ-life that ensues after a conversion event in a believer's life- the gradual folding away of the flesh and the dominion of the Spirit, in which His righteousness becomes manifest.

None of these pronouncements trouble my theology, though it may trouble me that the Bible is being misinterpreted in the public sphere.

But as the Psalmist says in another context in Psalm 73, "But as for me, my feet had almost stumbled;. My steps had nearly slipped." As I watched debates among Christians, my heart sank as disappointment turned to shame and anger that these brothers would be so influenced by the world that they could address each other in the same way. I wondered almost hiding even from myself, if what the detractors keep harping about Christianity could be actually true. Individually their arguments are easily disproven. But the clamour of voices chip away at one's conviction, especially in moments like this, when one is frustrated with those who one has looked up to as leaders and exemplars. The violence over Christ in history, recent arguments about Christ's alleged non-existence, the scandal of the Da Vinci code and other gnostic writings aimed at draining divinity from Christ, the watering down of the Bible, following the cafeteria mentality of picking and choosing what one likes in the Bible while discarding others... All of these are no match for the theologically sound answers that Christians have come up with over the past 2000 years. But when one sees a community meant to reflect Christ reflecting something (or someone) else, one's faith is troubled.

In John chapter 6, when the people who witnessed Jesus' miraculous multiplication of bread and fish to feed them all were offended at his saying that he was the bread of life and that they must feed on his flesh to be saved, Jesus asked his presumably scandalized disciples if they wished to leave as well. Peter's reply finds an echoe in many troubled hearts: "Lord, to whom shall we go? You have the words of eternal life; and we have believed, and have come to know, that you are the Holy One of God" (John 6:68-69).

The secular humanistic worldview offers a cold world with morals justified only by one's Quixotic imagination and ideals with no purpose to live or die for- a barren wasteland that is embraced with zeal by those fuelled more by indifference, misconception or animosity towards religion than those with conviction. Hinduism, with its view of the world as immaterial and illusory as Maya, a view of life as terrifyingly cyclical, only an abstract understanding of salvation that is called Moksha- and that by a lucky throw of dice in which chance, noble birth, Karma, Yoga (in its different spiritual forms), meditation and so on come together. Buddhism with its escape into the inner world so distant and disconnected with the world we live in and its myriad cries for help, with a non-exitent Deity that changes into a Deification of the Almighty Self, Islam with its rules and regulations, strictures and no hope, assurance or certain way (except by physical or spiritual Jihad) to attain salvation.

Forests of tongues, as Chesterton said:

Forests of tongues, like autumn leaves unshed,
Being not unlovable but strange and light;
Old riddles and new creeds, not in despite
But softly, as men smile about the dead.

Then I realize that I have nowhere to go. Nature abhors a vacuum, and so do our spirits. In Christ there is fullness of joy.

Last week in church a ministry resident talked to us about the letter of James, chapter 3, versus 13-18. He made the point derived from this that spiritual ends cannot be achieved without spiritual means. So better programs, management, more resources and so on cannot save a dying church. The church is after all a group of people into whom God has breathed the Spirit of Life, and is thus inspired by that Spirit. Our engagements in the world are not to be governed by earthly means. When we use earthly frameworks such as governments, employers, law and other organizations, let us be mindful that we cannot push our agendas through manipulation, partisanship or out-arguing each other- if indeed our first agenda is to preach Christ and Him crucified.

As Peggy Noonan notes insightfully in her article, Eras end, and begin. "God is in charge of history." Perhaps the era of some Christian leaders have ended as well, but the era of Christ never ends.

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