Regarding Glenn Hannigan’s commentary (“Tebow’s faith-sharing breaks unofficial rules,” Dec. 23 Reporter): I appreciate that Tim Tebow appears to have a strong personal faith and is willing to speak publically about his faith.

At the same time, I find that it is important to remember that Jesus spoke about the dangers of prayer constructed for public consumption (Matt. 6:5-8). It represents a temptation both for the one doing the praying and for those observing it. Sinful humans are able to corrupt even the most sacred of acts, making it about ourselves rather than God.

It especially concerns me that a particular posture for prayer has come to be known as “Tebowing.” Who is it that is truly being honored when one takes such a posture? If we were to start labeling Christian activities after compelling exemplars, I would be more excited to see people today “Martin Luther KingKing-ing” or “Mother Teresaing.” Imitating these exemplars may make fewer headlines, but it would more clearly reflect God’s self-giving love into the world.

Originally published in The United Methodist Reporter, January 13, 2012

United Methodism on War and Peace: Embracing the Tension between Optimism and Pessimism

United Methodism embraces an internal tension in its official statements on war.  The United Methodist Discipline both teaches that war is “incompatible with the teachings of Christ” (¶165.C) and professes respect for “those who support the use of force” under limiting conditions (¶164.I).  Such tensions are an outcome of United Methodism’s democratic polity, but they also reflect deeper sources of denominational identity.  To fill out this claim, it is helpful to locate United Methodism on a continuum of denominational optimism and pessimism concerning Christian interactions with “the world.”

Despite their differences in practice, Lutheran and Mennonite positions overlap in their dour views of the world.  Both agree in emphasizing the intractable nature of sin in the world.  Lutherans then accept their responsibility in the divine order to restrain evil in the world by use of the sword.  Mennonites relinquish responsibility for the world and focus upon manifesting the non-violent Kingdom of God in the social life of the church.

Occupying the middle ground on the continuum of Christian optimism and pessimism, the Roman Catholic position accepts that the world is corrupted by sin, but maintains that human reason has only been injured and not fundamentally corrupted by sin.  As such, it is possible in many situations to think through how to deal with entrenched sin.  This tradition has been the driving force behind most just-war thinking.

On the more optimistic side of the spectrum, we find the Quakers.  Quakers are buoyed by belief in the “inner light” of the spirit in every human being.  This light leads the Christian to the imitation of Christ in non-resistant witness.  This witness can be the mechanism for awakening the light in other persons, and thus bringing transformation to the world.  As such, Quakers share optimism both about the inherent quality of humanity and about the possibilities of bringing justice to the world, but only by non-violent action.

Where then should United Methodism be located in this scheme?  While John Wesley thought of himself as an Augustinian, his emphasis upon God’s grace led to a non-Augustinian optimism about humanity.  All of the world, Wesley taught, was caught up in prevenient grace; that grace which returns to humanity the ability to choose against its sinful inclinations and move toward God.  The upshot is that United Methodism is left with a deep sense of optimism about the possibilities for individual and social perfection, and a correlative sense of responsibility for bringing such perfection about.

Methodism does not have the realism of either the Mennonite or Lutheran position.  It does not expect the world to be fundamentally resistant to justice.  Methodism also lacks the rationalism of the Roman Catholic position.  United Methodists tend not to want to think through engagement with evil lest the compromises of perfection required by such engagement come to appear to be rules rather than exceptions.  Of the denominations treated here, Methodism has most in common with the Quaker tradition.  But Methodism lacks the peace church tradition which absolutely prevents recourse to violence.  The upshot is that the Methodist position rapturously embraces “justice with peace” and then, very-reluctantly, accepts violence when it turns out that justice cannot be achieved by other means.

Given this location, it is not surprising that in the 1980s, when the United Methodist Bishops went to address the crisis of nuclear war, they found the most palatable just-war approach to be grounded in “a strong presumption against violence.”  This position was in large part the product of the work of James Childress, the Quaker moral theologian who had been converted from pacifism by the (more Lutheran) work of Reinhold Niebuhr.

It is also not surprising that United Methodists produce tensions in their own denominational statements on war.  These reflect the underlying tension between Methodism’s optimism about what can be achieved through universally grace-touched human nature, and its correlated feeling of responsibility for bringing about justice in the world.

So, what shall United Methodists do?  I will close with two pieces of advice.

First, be good United Methodists.  The impulse to bring justice by peaceful means is a powerful one.  It is this impulse that leads Methodists to take to just-peacemaking practices like ducks to water.  The world needs people with the motivation and the means to advocate and act for justice prior to the outbreak of conflict.  United Methodists are built for this, and should throw themselves into the work of spreading social holiness to avoid conflict.

Second, United Methodists should learn something from the realism and rationalism of their more pessimistic brethren.  Too many Methodists begin their ministry with grand hopes to change the world only to be crushed when the world resists their efforts.  Methodism must maintain its passion for progressive justice, but it must do so while recognizing that it must steel itself for frequent failure and must think through long term engagement with recalcitrant evil.

Originally Posted at: http://www.politicaltheology.com/blog/united-methodism-on-war-and-peace-embracing-the-tension-between-optimism-and-pessimism/

Justice and the Holy Land: Some Christian Reflections on Israel/Palestine

For the Christian there is no place like the Holy Land. Not only because this is where Christ was born, but also because, if you look beyond the usual tourist destinations, it is a place to see the human suffering Christ came to address. I have traveled to Israel/Palestine multiple times. In December of last year I made my most recent trip. While there, I met with Muslim scholars from Bethlehem and Al Quds Universities, discussed religion and politics with political figures, and met with Imams, Rabbis and other religious leaders who are eager to share the histories and religions of their peoples. Perhaps the best vantage point for what I learned, however, came from the site where God entered the world.

I was invited to Bethlehem to participate in a joint Muslim/Christian Christmas celebration sponsored by the Arab Educational Institute. The living nativity that began the ceremony was placed next to the ominous, 26 foot tall concrete barrier that separates Israeli from Palestinian territory. Israelis argue that a drop in terrorist attacks since the wall was built indicates the wall’s effectiveness in securing Israel. Such benefits, however, come at a severe cost to Palestinians. The barrier cuts into Palestinian land and disrupts the economic and social fabric of Palestinian society. While in Bethlehem, I asked the head of a Christian school in Ramallah how long it takes to get from where we were to his school. “For you,” he answered, “it would take 30 minutes. For me, with checkpoints and detours around Jerusalem, it could take up to 3 hours.” The difference? My American passport allows me to travel across Israeli territory.  As a Palestinian Christian, he is bound to circumnavigate. In Bethlehem one can find souvenirs which feature political cartoons of the three magi unable to enter Bethlehem due to the wall that bars their way.

The barrier, which, in one form or another, stretches across the length of the passable portions of the Israeli/West Bank border, would be easier to justify if it only served security purposes. The wall is also a means of shifting the situation on the ground. The barrier often veers onto the Palestinian side of the ceasefire line established at the end of the Six Day War in 1967, it is deployed to protect Jewish settlements which are constantly expanding into Palestinian territory, and it surrounds East Jerusalem, which Palestinians view as their future capital. Across from “shepherd’s field” near Bethlehem, one can clearly see the Israeli settlement of Har Homa built at least partially on what was previously Palestinian land resting, securely behind the barrier.

Israel is clearly not the only problem in the region. Hamas’ charter continues to call for the return of the entire territory of Israel/Palestine to Muslim control, and the rockets that fly haphazardly out of Gaza toward Israel testify to the will of many to achieve this goal by violent and indiscriminate force. Even amongst more moderate actors, there is plenty of racial, cultural and ideological prejudice to go around. Further, everyone who looks to participate in negotiations takes positions at the beginning that are impossible to fulfill. Still, Israel is clearly the dominant power in the conflict. The Palestinian Authority, which governs the West Bank has renounced terrorism, lacks a standing army, and does not control its own borders.

Among responsible Israeli and Palestinian parties there is no disagreement that the best option is to achieve a peace settlement that establishes two viable states (one Palestinian and one Israeli), the boundaries of which would reflect (very roughly) the ceasefire lines after the 1967 Six Day War. Despite the vociferous criticism of Barack Obama for publicly stating this truth earlier this year, he was merely restating the position that the United Nations has officially embraced since 1967 and the position which has been the de facto starting point for every peace negotiation with Israel since that time. This starting point leaves a great deal to be sorted out, but until recently there was not much incentive for serious Israeli participation in the negotiation. While continuing to demanding unconditional peace talks, Israel was free to simultaneously expand its own footprint in Palestine.

The Arab Spring has complicated the situation. Popular uprisings around the Middle East have upended the tacit peace between Israel and its neighbors which had been established by authoritarian Arab governments. These developments have succeeded in putting more pressure on Israel. This could be taken by the Israelis as a reminder of the long term untenability of their position as an occupational force in Palestinian territory. Unfortunately, the current government in Israel is more prone to use the chaos created by the Arab Spring as a reason to increase efforts to secure Israel by brute force.

The vast majority of Palestinians in the West Bank, I was repeatedly told during my visit, have no appetite for another intifada (violent uprising), but they also do not know what to do in order to proceed in attaining justice. It is in this context that the Palestinian government launched its effort to gain United Nations recognition as a de jure independent state. This effort has not been carefully thought through, and the likely outcomes will not bolster the Palestinian cause. The effort is, however, also one of the most creative non-violent political maneuvers in the history of the Israeli/Palestinian conflict. In the light of the status quo, where the continual creep of Israeli settlements continues unabated, where there is no real political route to statehood through negotiations, and where the Palestinian government is under extreme popular pressure created by the Arab Spring, one can understand why the Palestinian leaders have risked so much on this gambit.

The greatest barrier between the Palestinians and United Nations recognition is, of course, the United States. Despite the Israeli government’s flagrant disregard for American interests, and its public rejection of American calls for ending settlement expansion, the Government of the United States is still the most stalwart (and about the only remaining) advocate for Israel in the international community. When Democrats and Republicans can agree on nothing else, they can come together unanimously to condemn Palestine’s non-violent effort to gain recognition as a state. Barack Obama has risked his international celebrity status by standing against Palestine at the United Nations, and domestically the loudest complaints he receives are from Republican’s who claim that he has failed in being enough of a friend of Israel.

The Palestinian effort to gain international recognition is deeply problematic. Most likely the effort will run aground on a United States veto. Palestine will be denied recognition, the United States will look hypocritical to the Arab populaces which it has encouraged in the Arab Spring, and Israel will become more isolated than ever from the international community. There is, however, a small possibility that, if all of the parties can come to recognize the severe downsides of such a path, they could find this to be an opportunity to turn more seriously toward a negotiated settlement which would bring greater justice to the whole region. It is often only when the pride of nations has been broken that they are ready to make the moves necessary to a more harmonious world.

Dealing with the problems of the Palestinian/Israeli conflict requires a good deal of realism. Sustainable progress must take account of the continuing influence of sin on all participants in the conflict. But proceeding with the peace process also requires hope in order to maintain the morale required to continue efforts to achieve justice with peace. Diplomacy in Israel/Palestine today has been called “the art of the impossible.” This is an area in which we Christians have some experience. After all, when I was in Israel/Palestine, I visited the birthplace of God come into the world.

Originally Posted at http://www.politicaltheology.com/blog/justice-and-the-holy-land-some-christian-reflections-on-israelpalestine/

Christian Politics in a Domestic Cold War

During the nuclear standoff with the Soviet Union, Richard Nixon famously embraced the “madman strategy.”  According to this strategy, in order to achieve one’s goals in a high stakes gambit, it is often beneficial to convince the opponent that you are irrational.  If it appears that you are willing to sacrifice anything (including your own good) to defeat the opponent, the opponent is unable to calculate your next action, and is much more likely to fold in order to save whatever good is possible.

This was exactly the kind of stance that deeply concerned Christians during the Cold War.  In order to maintain a doctrine of nuclear deterrence, the participants in deterrent strategy had to threaten, and possibly intend, acts of war that would produce more evils than the possible goods achieved.  Thus, the participants were either lying in saying that they would launch a retaliatory nuclear strike, or they were actually intending to carry out immoral acts under some circumstances.  In the most extreme versions, the success of deterrence depended on the threat of Mutual Assured Destruction (MAD), wherein the whole civilized world would be destroyed by the nuclear exchange that would inevitably follow any nuclear attack.  Participation in the Cold War thus required some level of irrationality (a willingness to commit to the destruction of one’s own good) and some level of immorality (either the appearance or the actuality of intending evil).

It is a sad statement about U.S. society that we have now achieved a parallel situation in our domestic politics.  Given the resolution, it may be tempting to write off the recent fight over the debt ceiling as simply another act of political theater in Washington.  In reality, it represents something much more sinister.  For some time, political pundits have been throwing around the metaphor of a “nuclear option” in partisan clashes, but it has never fit as well as in this debate.  The recent argument in congress was over whether or not the U.S. ought to be allowed to fulfill its economic obligations.  Failure to raise the debt ceiling would result in a downgrade in America’s credit rating, an unpaid military personnel, a failure to provide social security payments, and so on.  The American economy, and with it the global economy, would have faced collapse if the debt ceiling were not raised.  It was in the context of this argument that a significant number of Republicans decided either (1) to embrace delusion and deny economic reality, or (2) to embrace the “madman strategy,” or (3) to actually intend the collapse of their own economy rather than accept compromise of their ideological priorities.  Domestic politics had entered the realm of Cold War irrationality.

In such a situation, what is the Christian to do?  Some Christians have traditionally opted out of politics at this point, and there certainly is a valid argument for this move.  If participation in worldly politics entails evil, should not the Christian find some alternative?  Other Christians, however, have found reason to maintain political participation, even under “Cold War” conditions.  Ideally, they claim, it would be best to keep our hands clean of the evil required in politics, but, unlike Christ, we are not able to manifest absolute perfection and at the same time bring about the conditions for human fulfillment.  In the interim between Christ’s incarnation and the general resurrection, we must act to defend the peace of Babylon, where we live in exile, even if this requires getting our hands dirty.

It was in this spirit that Paul Ramsey, in War and the Christian Conscience, proposed that Christian participation in nuclear deterrence during the Cold War ought to be understood as a matter of “deferred repentance.”  Unlike individuals, he argued, political structures must be allowed time to turn away from evil.  Living in full recognition of the wrongness of the deterrent strategy, the Christian should yet participate in politics, even participate in deterrent strategy itself, while working to change the situation to make rational inter-state conflict possible again.

If my diagnosis of the situation above is apt, it seems that Christian participation in domestic politics today may also be a matter for deferred repentance.  As Reinhold Niebuhr often argued, relative justice in a sinful world often depends upon the balancing of powers amongst sinful human groups.  Republican willingness to dive into the politics of irrationality in the debt ceiling debate has successfully undermined the ideological balance of power in Washington, and as such has come to threaten the common good of the nation.  The best solution to the United States’ debt problems would come in the form of negotiations ending in a balanced agreement to raise revenues (taxes) and cut spending.  Unfortunately, the Cold War climate seems to have made progress in such negotiations impossible.  In order to restore the balance of power, and thus achieve some semblance of the common good, it will be necessary for Democrats to participate in the Cold War climate while they push to move back to a more rational and civil political process.

In the short term, this may mean embracing suggestions like that laid out by Ezra Klein, who contends that the Democrats should use the threat of a full expiration of the Bush tax cuts (including an expiration of those on the middle class) in order to bring about a meaningful reform of the tax code that includes significant increases in revenues.  Like the Republican gambit on the debt ceiling, this strategy requires a certain amount of irrationality and or immorality.  A full expiration of the tax cuts would probably lead to another major recession, and might cost democrats the presidency and a fair number of seats in Congress.  Still, if Democrats are not willing to threaten such a possibility, and to threaten it convincingly, they have very little standing to defend the common good against the current Republican position.

As Ramsey noted, however, repentance cannot be deferred forever.  As such, all Christians should work to return sanity to Washington.  Like resolving the problem of nuclear deterrence, finding a route to success here is far from easy.  Americans must figure out how to reclaim the nominations process from extremists in each party, and the culture of Washington needs to be changed to encourage legislators to see one another as people rather than simply as representatives of opposing ideologies.  How to bring about such changes is far from clear.  Ramsey never was successful in his attempts to rationalize deterrent strategy.  Ultimately, it was the collapse of the Soviet empire that allowed the world to step away from the precipice.  As Christians who believe that the United States still has some good to do in the world and in the lives of its own citizens, we do well to hope that the other superpower need not fall in order to restore the possibility of rationality to our own society.

Originally Posted at: http://www.politicaltheology.com/blog/christian-politics-in-a-domestic-cold-war/