The Sniper and the Cross: When Nationalism Clouds Your Christianity

Warner Bros. Pictures

Warner Bros. Pictures

American Sniper officially made it big at the box office this past weekend, and of course has generated quite a bit of controversy. There’s the fact that the late Chris Kyle was emphatic that he enjoyed killing his enemy and was quite black and white in his whole approach to killing: the Iraqis were evil and deserved to die because they were Muslims and the Americans were good because they were Christians. Such a view doesn’t allow for nuance or complications; part of that might be a defense mechanism for those in combat. After all, no one would want to think themselves responsible for unjustly killing another human being. Regardless, Chris Kyle did perform heroically in many situations (even in unjust wars, even on the wrong side of a war, men can still perform heroic acts) and he has passed on, thus his judgements are his own, drawn on his experiences.

What is inexcusable, however, are the reactions of those seeing the film and coming to the conclusion that “killing for your country automatically makes you a hero.” No war, not even WWII (possibly the most clear-cut case of a “good” vs. “evil” war in history), is ever about the good guys against the bad guys. The idea of a completely good army against a completely evil army only plays out in fiction; in real life, men on both sides of the gun more than likely have families waiting for them back home, have lives that would have been better if left uninterrupted by war, who have dreams and aspirations beyond warfare. Yes, many groups commit evil acts, but no individual is truly and fully evil. All individuals, even those who commit despicable acts, are still made in God’s image. In fact, we recognize their acts as evil because it not only harms another, but those acts are so contrary to who they are.

Thus, it must pain us when such a life is taken. I am not a full-blown pacifist, I do believe there is a time to kill, I think there are times to go to war, but such times should be solemn and we ought not celebrate the deaths of our enemies. Even David mourned the loss of Saul. Yet, in the name of patriotism we have a movie that essentially celebrates and glorifies (at least that’s how it’s been interpreted) the deaths of Arabs and we praise it and the man who killed them. That is not the sign of a healthy country.

There’s a fine line between patriotism and nationalism, but you can never tell that to the nationalist, for he always fancies himself a patriot. For a Christian, it’s okay to be a patriot, it’s okay to love one’s nation. After all, for better or worse, your nation is your broader community and has helped shape you into who you are. The problem, however, is when patriotism becomes nationalism. The biggest difference between a patriot and a nationalist is that to the patriot, his nation is always seeking after an ideal; to a nationalist, his nation is the ideal, and while the government may not represent his nation, his nation exists in perfection and can rise from the ashes of a fallen society.

A patriot in America looks to his nation’s past and sees a complex story. He sees the good things the US has done, but also sees where we moved away from our ideal. To the patriot, there’s still an “American Dream,” it’s just in an ideal that thus far is left unattained. The ideal for the patriot is one that will make his country better – not like it used to be – but better than it has ever been. He will condemn his government and his nation when it goes against the ideal, when it goes against human dignity and freedom, but not out of hatred, yet out of love. To condemn one’s country for it’s wrongs is no different than to condemn one’s parents for their wrongs; it is not indicative of hate, but of true love.

Nationalism, however, does away with the ideal and believes his nation is the ideal. Nationalism is always a dangerous utopia of exclusion. Sadly, every nationalist thinks he’s a patriot, that he’s supporting his nation and all those who do not goose-step along him are not only not patriots, but against his nation. Disagreement is not allowed and all who do disagree or question aren’t loyal to the nation. His country, right or wrong, is his country and he will follow it. For a nationalist, there was once a utopia in which his people lived free, but it was corrupted by the “Other,” by some people group who now stand between his people and attaining their former greatness.

Such nationalism easily co-ops Christianity, as it has in many other nations. One can think of the current conflict between the Ukraine and Russia, where “Orthodox” adherents on both sides claim God is on their side. Or we can look to German Lutherans in WWII and how quick they were to declare that Hitler’s Germany was God’s Will. Or even to our own history and how “manifest destiny” justified the genocide against Native Americans and the enslavement and brutalization of Africans. All of these horrible actions were done with the sanction of ministers and “good, God-fearing” people. The reason isn’t because Christianity actually allows for these things – it stands quite opposed to tarnishing God’s image – but because people wrapped the cross in their nation’s flag, because they filtered their faith through their ideology.

Which brings us back to the movie and the actions of Chris Kyle; killing is a necessity in war, but should we celebrate it? Shouldn’t we be somber that another human being was killed, justified or no? From a Christian perspective we are to seek peace in all situations. We are to constantly struggle towards peace and when that peace cannot be achieved, only then do we engage in war, but always with a heavy-heart. Or, if we follow the early Church’s example, Christians ought not engage in war at all. How do we go from forbidding Christians to engage in war to declaring a sniper a holy instrument of God? If we celebrate the idea that all Muslims are evil and that it’s okay that Chris Kyle enjoyed killing them, is not the next logical step to just kill them outright? What is it that prevents us from interning and systematically killing Muslims if we believe them to be so evil? What prevents it, or so I hope, is that even in our nationalistic passion the image of God still ignites within us to tell us that such desires are wrong and evil.

For the Christian, all human beings are made in the image of God and while some war is necessary, all killing is an atrocity and indicative of a fallen world, certainly not something worthy of celebration. We cannot let our love of country surpass or interfere with our love of God and our love of our fellow image-bearers. Perhaps Christians would be better served celebrating films that promote peace, such as Selma (outperformed by American Sniper, which is troublesome), than supporting nationalistic films that promote and celebrate the deaths of the “other.”


Being an Atheist doesn’t make you an intellectual: On Horus and other silly things


Many memes about Christ, specifically linking him to ancient myths such as Horus, is as close to The Walking Dead as we’ll get in this life; it’s a dead thought, empty, that keeps coming at you no matter how many facts you use to shoot it down, feasting on the weak and unprepared, and leaving the survivors confused as to how such a thing can continue to persist on this earth. Eventually it’s nothing more than an annoyance to be dealt with, causing the occasional panic among the hopeless and lazy, but posing no threat to those who know what to expect in such a world.

Let me back up.

The greatest intellectual challenge to my faith ever (and currently) is found in a work of fiction by Fyodor Dostoevsky’s The Brothers Karamazov. Anyone familiar with theodicy or with his work knows where I’m pointing to; the conversation between Alexei and Ivan where Ivan names all the evils that have occurred without reason and Alexei is left without response. It paints a horrific picture of existence, one in where we commit the worst evils against each other, one where we have just cause to question if God is just, or even exists. Of course, Dostoevsky was a devout Christian and even based the character of Alexei off his friend Vladimir Solovyov. Yet, to me this poses a great challenge to my faith.

All that is to say that it’s okay to have challenges to the faith. It’s even okay to not believe. I have friends who are atheists (or agnostics) and have intellectually valid reasons for doubting the existence of God. They are challenging issues, ones without an easy answer, and worthy of inspection. There are others who realize that if God doesn’t exist we have quite a bit to account for (such as, since something exists, we need an ought for that something). They attempt to form epistemological theories, ethical theories, political theories, and so on sans God. While I think there are flaws, it’s a worthy attempt.

Sadly, what I described above does not seem to be the case for most self-acclaimed atheists out there. Most of them see a few youtube videos, see things on Facebook, read some stuff on Reddit, and if they’re really bold will read a book or two by Sam Harris or Richard Dawkins, and conclude from such extensive and scholarly study that God doesn’t exist. Oh, and if you do believe in God? Well you’re an idiot and stupid and have nothing worthy to say. Some “historian” says that Jesus didn’t exist and everyone concludes, “Well duh, of course he didn’t!” Never mind that there’s almost a complete consensus among historians of the time period that Jesus existed (they debate over the details), in this case expertise is dismissed for the words of…Michael Paulvokich. His book and main arguments are almost immediately dismissed by the majority of historians (from various religious beliefs or lack thereof), but it didn’t stop many “Reddit Atheists” from exerting how much smarter they are than Christians.

Let’s be honest, this new type of atheism isn’t so much about being an actual atheist as it is just about hating Christianity, or more, about feeling smarter than everyone else. I’m always perplexed that when I speak to people about philosophy, science, political theories, and so on, most people guess I’m an atheist. They either start to smile and go, “You’re an atheist, aren’t you? You’re really intelligent.” Or they frown and begin to witness to me (apparently Christians think people who are educated are atheists). It shocks people to learn that I’m not an atheist. It’s an outright scandal when I go further to say that I believe Jesus was born of a virgin, performed miracles, died, and rose from the grave. A lot of atheists I run into who discover this will just stop talking to me, saying that I’m not as smart as they thought I was. This new-found atheism is more about trying to say, “I’m smarter than you” than it is about discovering any actual truth.

Consider the following image I pulled from Facebook:  Continue reading

Transforming Our Culture From the Bottom Up (Part One)

Our culture is changing and many say for the worse.  Studies show that the general population is beginning to change its attitude towards organized religion and Evangelical Protestantism in particular.  Unlike past generations, people are growing increasingly suspicious and even ambivalent towards Christians.  In the mean time, our government and, in fact, all of our social institutions  are becoming increasingly secularized.  Organized prayer has been removed from schools, the Ten Commandments have been taken down from public spaces, and the push for same-sex marriage is growing stronger than ever.

Conservative Evangelicals look upon these changes, along with the atheism and skepticism pervasive among our universities and the rampant materialism and immorality propagated by the media, in horror.  Filled with indignation and fueled by fear they have, for years, waged a ‘cultural war‘ in an effort to stem the rising tide of secularization.  Through political maneuvering, legal battles, boycotts, public demonstrations, radio shows, and a host of other devices, Evangelicals have attempted to reclaim American culture for Christ.  It seems, however, that no matter how loud they cry or how forcefully they push, the tide will not be pushed back.

Young Evangelicals are growing dissatisfied with the religion of their parents.  Many are leaving the church and embracing the plethora of experimental, ‘post-modern’ expressions, of Christianity which are far more liberal and, therefore, less resistant to the political and ethical stances of secularism.  Some are rejecting religion outright, joining the ever increasing ranks of the ‘New Atheists.’  On top of this, advocates for Gay-Rights are growing increasingly more powerful and influential.  Mortified by this, Evangelicals are pushing back even harder–continuing to utilize the same political/social methods to “save America from moral decay” as they have for the past thirty years.

The tragedy in all of this is that these ‘Top-Down’ methods–the political maneuvering, the legal battles, the boycotts, the public demonstrations, the petitions-will never transform our culture.  You simply can’t transform a culture from the top down.  You can’t cultivate virtue, engender faith, or change hearts, through legislation; but these are precisely the things that need to happen in order for our culture to change.  Cultures develop within communities which are, in turn, built upon individuals.  When individuals change, the community will change, and eventually, so will the culture.  Cultures are transformed from the bottom up.

Before his Ascension Jesus told his followers to, “go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you.”  This Great Commission is the key to real cultural transformation and is, coincidentally, the very mission of the Church.  Until Evangelicals begin to take this seriously, they shall continue to wage a futile battle for our culture.

A Southern Baptist and a Lesbian Couple Walk into a Bar…(Part II)

After my friend told me his story, I started thinking about how we approach the world. The one passage I keep coming back to is John 12:47, the famous, “I did not come into the world to judge the world, but to save the world.” The context around this passage is what’s most fascinating because it deals with salvation; in other words, John 12:47 and its surrounding context seemingly tell us that Christ doesn’t judge sinners, He merely lets them engage in the natural consequences of sin.

But the deeper view is that everyone knows we’re sinners, everyone knows they sin. Only the most ardent of narcissists would deny they are sinners. To function in society we have to acknowledge that we’re sinners; anytime we apologize, admit a mistake, try to change our lives for the better, or feel bad about something we did (have a conscience), we’re acknowledging that we sin. What good would it have done if Christ simply came into the world to harp on and on about how we were lost? He didn’t need to do so because deep down we know we’re lost.

The world already knows it’s in darkness. Every religion and philosophy that has existed has acknowledged that we’re in darkness. Even the ones that deny sin or deny darkness always say that the only problem we have is that we think we have a problem; thus, in denying that we have an overall problem, they still acknowledge we have a problem. Prior to verse 47 Jesus says He came into the world to be light, so that whoever believes in Him will not remain in darkness. Think about that for a second; Christ is the light to our dark world. Why do we need to convince people they are in darkness? Just show them the light and they’ll realize it all on their own.

Imagine people born in a cave. Their entire lives they roam in darkness, so they don’t understand what true light is. While walking along they come along pockets of light from holes in the roof of the cave, holes that allow a little light to come in, but they still never experience true light. They only experience enough light to know they’re in some form of darkness. What is needed, then, is not to convince them that they’re in the dark or explain that there is a light, but to show them that there is a light. Once they see the light and experience the light, they are then left with the choice to accept the light or to remain in darkness.

I say all of this to point out that many Christians, conservative evangelicals in particular, would feel uneasy with my friend’s approach to the lesbian couple. After all, he didn’t tell them they were going to Hell, he didn’t tell them they were sinners lost without hope, he didn’t emphasize their sin. He didn’t treat them as any well-trained Christian would treat them. Yet, if we look to the example of Christ and how He dealt with sinners, I have to wonder where modern evangelicals get this idea we must emphasize that we are sinners.

My friend pointed out the woman at the well and the adulterous woman. In both instances, Jesus confronts two people stuck in sin. While he recognizes that they are in darkness, He doesn’t perform some Socratic dialogue with them until they come to the conclusion that they are lost without God and need to repent. Rather, He reveals who He is to them, He reveals Himself as the true light. By doing so, by seeing the true light, they automatically recognize they are in darkness.

The problem, at least as I see it, is that we’re too focused on saying the right things. We’re attempting to get people to intellectually accept Christ when they haven’t seen Christ put into action. But if Christ came to show us the light, then shouldn’t we do the same? Certainly words are involved, but there has to be content behind those words. And what speaks louder – going on and on about how someone is engaged in a sin, or loving the person and demonstrating Christ to them, to the point that your light reveals their darkness?

We should also remember that if Christ didn’t come into the world to condemn the world, then we are in no position to do so either. We are in no position to look someone square in the eyes and say, “Yeah, you’re going to Hell” because we just don’t know. If Christ does not condemn the world, then how can we?

This is not to say that we can’t speak out against sin, especially when that sin is extremely destructive to both individuals and society as a whole. It doesn’t mean that we can’t talk to people about their sin – but it does mean we need to put sin in its proper context when dealing with those outside the body of Christ. Rather than going on and on about how fallen we are – something Christ never does in the Gospels (not on an individual level) – we should bring to light a person’s sin by being the true light they are seeking after. We don’t use the light to point out how dark it is in a room, we use the light to eradicate the darkness entirely.

Does Jesus Save: A Rant (but with a purpose and a hope, or so I hope)

A friend of mine who waits tables recently told me of an experience he had the other night. To increase their tips servers attempt to strike conversations with guests and will use anything they can. When a server’s guests have kids the conversation gets easier. My friend saw that one of the kids kept leaning up against his dad and falling asleep throughout the meal, so my friend joked about getting more rest. The dad, in a very understandable fashion, explained that his son had just finished another chemotherapy treatment; the kid couldn’t have been more than seven or eight.

Sometimes we need to focus on the beauty of creation. Sometimes we need to focus on building our society. But sometimes we should remember that this is still a world in which children suffer and die. The preacher with perfect hair and even more perfect teeth tells us that Jesus wants us to “have our best life now.” But how do we look at the father who’s child is fighting cancer and say, “Oh no, I promise you that this is the best Jesus wants for your kid.” We have cool, hip pastors with Hawaiian shirts telling us that Jesus wants us to live a purpose-driven life. But how do we explain to the parents who just lost their newborn child that Jesus has a purpose for his life? What life? He came into this world only to be snatched away, his only experience of this life being a hospital room.

If someone (from the “outside”) were to judge the Christian religion off our best selling books, some might conclude that Christianity is hateful, others might think it has somewhat of a point, I think one could justifiably sum up Christianity with one word, an adjective: naive. We’ve ignored the realities of this world. We preach that the world is fallen, but then shocked to discover that what we’ve preached is actually true; we are like the medium who claims to speak to the dead, but become afraid when the dead actually speak.

We become so wrapped up in the implications of the gospel, we spend so much time reading about the gospel, we debate over what exactly composes the gospel, that we’ve forgotten about the Gospel, the Truth, the Person, the Word.

When faced with the burdened down, the weary, the hurting, the victims of a life gone awry, Jesus does not lecture them on what His atonement accomplishes. Instead, He tells them, “Come to me, all who are wearied and overburdened, and I will give you rest (refreshing rest). Take my beam of balance (“yoke”) upon you and learn from me, because I am gentle and humble at heart. And you will find rest in your souls. For my yoke is easy and my burden is light.” (Matthew 11:28-30, my translation). That is the atonement, that in Christ we receive rest. Does Jesus save? Yes, if we let Him. Does Jesus save? Yes, if we seek rest in Him.

What is the atonement? What does it mean that Christ saves? It means this: Christ is the rest that the weary seek after, He is the hope that the hopeless long for, He is the lover of the unloved, the father to the orphans, the spouse to the widowed. He is strength for the weak, sight for the blind, sound to the deaf. He is light in our darkness, a companion to the lonely.

Never, ever, ever forget that this is the essence of the Gospel. It isn’t found in ceaseless debates or in an empty theology of self-betterment. The essence of the Gospel is that Christ came as the answer to the problem of evil. Christ didn’t come to give us some truth on how to live a better life. Christ didn’t come to point us to some way of living that would make us better. Christ didn’t come to bring us methods on how to have a better marriage. Christ came as THE way. Christ came as THE truth. Christ came as THE life. He came to teach us about Himself. That is the essence of the Gospel.

At some point, we Christians need to wake up and realize that we’re in a world that is stuck in winter. The darkness of this season penetrates the souls of all. We are left outside in the snow as the sun sets, attempting to find a fire to warm us. Many people find these fires of false philosophies, fires that provide a temporary warmth. But even these fires cannot last throughout the winter or even the night. The role of a Christian isn’t to put a blanket on those stuck in this frigid winter and tell them that Jesus gave them the blanket. The blanket is nice, it provides temporary warmth, but it ignores the bigger issue. Our role is to bring these people out of winter and into summer. Jesus saves? Then let us save people by gently helping them to migrate to warmer lands rather than protesting them for being cold.

We must tell them, we must show them, that Jesus is the warm summer heat to the frigid winter in our souls. Anything short of that and we have failed.



Searching for My Moment or Rebecca Black and the Vanity of Western Culture

If you haven’t heard already, Rebecca Black is “about to blow up” and she wants everybody to know about it.  All of you “haters” out there who said, “see you later,” are, in fact, total losers and she wants you to bemoan the fact that she is doing things you never dreamed of.  What’s the secret to her success?  As she explains it: she just “trusted herself” and forgot everyone else, and, as a result, she is now having her moment . . .

The egotistical lyrics of overnight sensation Rebecca Black’s new song, My Moment, are simply a reflection of the vanity of Western culture and the yearnings of a superficial generation.  Now, more than ever, our youth desire to have “their moment”–to be famous, to be glamorous, to be sexy, to be the locus of everyone’s attention–and they will stop at nothing until they do.   In fact, today’s youth feel that their life is somehow incomplete or unimportant without some sort of material or “social” success.

This self-centered mindset is a direct outgrowth of our tendency to teach children that maintaining a high level of self-esteem is the primary goal of life.  Unsurprisingly, our children now believe that they are, in fact, the center of the universe and will stop at nothing to attain life experiences which reinforce this. Our obsession with self-esteem, coupled with the rampant materialism pervasive in our culture, has given rise to a generation of narcissistic hedonists whose sole purpose in life is to have “their moment.”  “Surely I will be happy with myself,” it is believed, “ if I had a voice like her or a sexy body like him or an expensive new car or money or power or success . . . if I could just have my moment!”

The question is, what happens if you never have “your moment?”  What happens if you never become the next American Idol, or make music videos, or attend parties with famous celebrities?  Do these things really have anything substantial to do with your value or worth as a person?

What if Rebecca Black had never been invited to perform her song Friday on the Today Show?  What if her music video had been deleted from youtube?  What if she never had “her moment?”  Would she then have no value or worth as a person?  Would she have no purpose or shot at true happiness?  Would the “haters” have won?  It is when we ask these questions that we begin to see the utter futility in attaching all of our value and worth to finite things.

The fact of the matter is, the things of this world are transitory; they do not last forever.  Fame is fleeting, beauty eventually fades, pleasure lasts only for a season, we grow old, we die . . . Besides, there are only a few of us who will ever experience a “moment” like Rebecca Black anyways–I am quite certain that I will never  know what it is like to dance in a music video or attend a celebrity ball.  Does this mean my life is empty?  Does this mean I have no value as a person?  Does this mean my existence is totally meaningless?

The answer, of course, is a resounding “No!”  Our value and worth, as human beings, is rooted in the fact that we are made in the image and likeness of God; and nothing in life will ever change this amazing fact about our nature.  No level of material success, or lack thereof, will ever add to or diminish the fact that we are all intrinsically valuable and unfathomably loved by our Creator.  No amount of fame or fortune could possibly outshine the deep, infinite, and self-sacrificing love demonstrated by our Creator who became incarnate for us and suffered and died for us.  No amount of power or fame or sex appeal will ever work as a substitute for the relationship with God that we all yearn for.

When all is said and done, the only “moment” that we truly need or which will bring us eternal satisfaction is the moment we recognize that we need Jesus.

75 Years Ago Today…

The great Christian writer and thinker G.K. Chesterton passed away. Chesterton is easily one of the most quotable authors of the 20th century, possibly of all time. He was simply a master of the English language, but his quick wit and ability to see through hype also aided him in his writing endeavors.

I find it appropriate that on the 75th anniversary of the passing of Chesterton that I came across something Al Mohler wrote concerning Kirby Godsey. Some have decried Mohler’s post as excessive and mean-spirited. Mohler points out that Godsey has denied Christ’s divine nature, denied that we should worship Christ, and rejected the authority of Scripture. I have yet to read Godsey’s book, so I will withhold all judgment on Godsey’s work.

I will say, however, that if Mohler is telling the truth (and we have no reason to believe he’s lying, seeing as how others have taken the same opinion of Godsey’s work) then Mohler is correct. Mohler is not being bigoted in his response, rather he is drawing a line in the sand, or rather recognizing a line in the sand that has been drawn, and pointing out that crossing the line means that one had deviated from historical Christianity. In fact, pointing out such a line is what Chesterton did for most of his adult life.

The problem that Mohler points out is the same problem that Chesterton dealt with, namely that when we have no foundation then we have nothing. If Christianity is simply a giant collection of people who want to see social change in the world and take care of the poor, but a “Bring Your Own Doctrines” policy, then Christianity will die. We’ve seen this in mainline denominations and we’re seeing it now in many evangelical denominations (even conservative ones). In Christianity, our central truths are found in a Person, so when we deny the Person or attempt to deny the idea of central truths, we lose everything that makes Christianity unique. When we bow to the world and abandon our doctrines and abandon the mystery of Christianity, we cease to follow what was set forth by God. When we bow to the world and offer flashy churches that are meant to fit a certain niche, we cease to follow what was set forth by God.

Today, Chesterton is more relevant than he was 75 years ago or even 100 years ago during the primacy of his writing. We have many Christians who are abandoning the central tenets of Christianity with the claim, “Well it’s okay to ask questions, right?” But they go further than asking questions. It would seem that Godsey has gone further than asking questions and Mohler has called him on the carpet for this. It is okay to ask questions, it is okay to doubt, but it is never okay to deny. Some might declare this as arrogant, but I would ask them why it’s okay to question my creed, but not the creed of others. Or, as Chesterton once wrote, “These are the days when the Christian is expected to praise every creed except his own.”

So in remembering the passing of Chesterton 75 years ago, I also applaud Al Mohler for standing on the authority of Scripture and Christian tradition in upholding one of the most central doctrines of Christianity (the Incarnation). We should never abandon orthodoxy, but pursue it and get lost in it.