The Right to Remain Silent

Note: I wrote the bulk of this some time ago and it never was posted. Nevertheless, the sentiments expressed do seem to me to be worthy of consideration and so I am posting it here even though the issues and events referenced are dated.

Men and women facing arrest have the right to remain silent. Preachers, apparently, do not.

For some Christians alarms ring constantly on the cultural front and if preachers do not preach to that alarm we are cowering in fear and shirking our God-given calling.

There are many ways I fail in my calling. I question my fitness for ministry weekly, if not daily. But do I fail as the alarmists tell me I do when I do not speak to every cultural issue or crisis? I don’t think so.

A couple years ago, I addressed this subject, and so to cover the same territory is redundant. And yet the demand that preachers preach “to the current crisis” continues to surface.

There are many reasons to resist that demand, not the least of which is the ignorance that often swirls about issues when they first break onto the scene. Lack of information should breed care. It often does not.

We have this week alarmist fingers pointing at Houston, Texas, where, we are told, government is flexing its authoritarian muscle in subpoenaing sermons from pastors. Russell Moore of the Southern Baptist Convention’s Ethics and Religious Liberties Commission, a man with the ears of many and at times good insight, says that

A government has no business using subpoena power to intimidate or bully the preaching and instruction of any church, any synagogue, any mosque, or any other place of worship. The pastors of Houston should tell the government that they will not trample over consciences, over the First Amendment and over God-given natural rights.

I’m stunned by that. Absent from his post is the reality that the pastors in question SUED the city of Houston, and the subpoena is simply part of the discovery phase of a legal proceeding that the ministers themselves initiated. One may still find the city’s reaction an over reach. But we do no one any favors, and especially those who are looking to our leaders to be thoughtful men, when we leave out pertinent details in our reporting of it.

Just this morning news broke that a city in Idaho was threatening to fine or jail a couple of ordained ministers for their refusal to perform a gay marriage. Again, this is an issue worth watching. The implications could be broad. From some posts (an example is here) one can easily get the impression that the city is going after all Christian ministers. But the couple in question do not pastor a church but a for-profit wedding chapel. They are a business. Again, issues abound, but the alarmists do us a disservice in screaming loudly in our ears and omitting information crucial to the issue at hand.

And if we all do not feed out of their hands and march to their drum, our very credentials as faithful men and women are questioned. That is wrong.

We were told on Twitter this week by one respected evangelical writer, Eric Metaxas (@ericmetaxas), that

Every pastor in America should preach about [the Houston subpoenas] on Sunday. If your preacher won’t, find another church. This is real.

I get that Metaxas’ has a thoughtful perspective on history. Though his book on Bonhoeffer was awful (I seem to be the only one on the planet who thought so), he has thought deeply about how Christian leaders should respond to government’s power. But men of good conscience will disagree on this. To lay down a litmus test of fidelity to my calling on this issue is grossly irresponsible.

Biblical preaching will often intersect with issues of public debate. And it should at times stimulate public debate. But the degree to which public debate influences the nature of one’s preaching will be effected by far more than what the alarmists find alarming.

Often I’m silent because I don’t know enough about the current crisis to speak intelligently about it. But mostly I’m silent because the issues are ones on which good people differ and which do not strike at the heart of my calling to preach the gospel.

Even here, I am told that I am wrong. When World Vision some time ago first agreed to offer employment to partners in gay relationships and then immediately reversed itself, I felt that there were a couple of ways of assessing that decision from a Christian point of view. Russell Moore, however, could see only one way and stated (quoted by Justin Taylor)

At stake is the gospel of Jesus Christ.

Really? That is, quite frankly, absurd. (Sometimes I wish my sense of propriety would lose its grip on me and allow me to use a stronger word. Such a comment deserves a stronger word, an expletive, even.)

Give your pastors the right to remain silent. Give them the promise of your prayers and your support. Pray that they would be wise and courageous. Be there when they preach, love them in their brokenness, and accept their gentle shepherding. But don’t demand that they follow the alarmist herd.

Nostalgia and the Kingdom

To get me to ignore your message, frame it in crisis terms. I’ve become immune to any appeal suggesting that avoiding this movement or embracing that practice is ushering in the collapse of all the we (generally white Americans) find culturally precious. The claims may be accurate. The sky may be falling. But I’ve grown immune to the screaming.

We see cultural collapse when we are gripped with an unhealthy sense of nostalgia. We are persuaded that the 1950s was the height of safe Christian culture (or, for me for a time, 1860) – conclusions which for obvious reasons will be shared by white men far more than others.

Nostalgia links to our sense of shalom. We long for shalom, and sentiment for a time lost is easier to embrace than hope for a time yet unforeseen. Anything which seems to threaten that nostalgic longing is a portent of imminent social collapse. And for many, the harbinger and possible cause of this collapse is pop culture (rivaled only by, and often seen hand in hand with, the ‘other’ political party). The movies and music and media of our day are eroding our national strength and if not stopped or countered will lead to inevitable loss. So goes the argument meant to make me feel guilty if I don’t buy a ticket to Fireproof.

To argue the case one way or the other seems a bit fruitless to me. Lives are won or lost one at a time through old fashioned love and discipleship. Micro-ministry holds greater hope for the kingdom of God than macro-movements.

That said, pop culture does play a role, but it is not universally negative as some too easily assume.Magnolia melora walters john c reilly Signs that pop-culture can SERVE the kingdom and not degrade it are not hard to find. The 1999 movie Magnolia could be seen as evidence of our cultural fall with its sex and drug use and gay lead character. But the biblical themes of judgment are rich and the Christian character is the only one who is not coming undone. There is much positive here.

In 2005 Steven Spielberg directed a version of the H. G. Wells classic War of the Worlds. It was not a particularly good movie, but that’s not what matters here. In an interview Spielberg compared this movie with his earlier Close Encounters of the Third Kind. Both involved families. Both involved aliens. The difference, he lamented, was that in his earlier movie, crisis tore families apart. In this newer movie, crisis took families which were apart and pulled them back together.

Progression toward shalom, and not away from it, should be celebrated. Not all ‘progress’ is retrograde.

Nostalgia can fix our eyes on the past and blind us to the progress of God’s work in the present. Perhaps it is better to fix our eyes on the kingdom and celebrate it wherever we see its fingerprints, in the present, in the past, and especially in our hopes for the future.

Presidents and Kingdoms

At the outset of one of the best expositions of the Bible’s teaching on the centrality of the Kingdom of God (which all Christians are to ‘seek first‘), Richard Lovelace in his wonderfully helpful and concise Renewal as a Way of Life: A Guidebook for Spiritual Growth has a healthy reminder for us during a presidential season.

One of the ruling passions of humanity is the search for a righteous government. The poor and the disadvantaged contend against “the system” with the conviction that another economic order will make the world livable. Every four years the American people elect a new president with the hope that somehow this will make things better. Economic downturns, crop failures, moral declines and worsening international conditions are all blamed on presidents — who in most cases have little control over events. In the hearts of the people is a groping, inarticulate conviction that if the right ruler would only come along, the world would be healed of all its wounds. Creation is headless and desperately searching for its head. (pages 40, 41)

The search is a proper one. To see the solution that Lovelace proposes, you should read the book, or at least its second chapter. His direction is wonderfully captured in this brief revelation:

Every time we come across the phrase “Jesus Christ,” instead of hearing “Jesus, the king who was promised to Israel,” all we hear is “Jesus” followed by a meaningless syllable. For most, probably, the phrase means “Jesus, who saves me from my sins.” This is certainly true, but it falls far short of saying “Jesus, the ruler of a whole new order of life, who has delivered me so that I can be a part of it.” (page 47)