The violent scenes from Ferguson, Missouri, are not what most Americans expected to see in 2014 America. The simmering tensions in this town, following the shooting of an unarmed teenager, ought to remind the Body of Christ of our responsibility to model reconciliation in Christ.

We don’t yet know everything about what’s happened, or is happening, in Ferguson, but here’s what we do know. Michael Brown was shot and killed by police Saturday. Protests in the wake of this horrible death have been met with a virtually militarized response from law enforcement in the area.

Moreover, we know that the the myth of a “post-racial” America is contradicted by a criminal justice system in which young African-American men are, by almost any measure, disproportionately more likely to be arrested, sentenced, or even killed when compared to white peers. It’s not just the situation in which there’s disparity, but also even in the perception of the problem. A Pew study showed that when asked the question “Do police treat blacks less fairly?” 37 percent of whites said yes while 70 percent of African-Americans said yes.

Whatever the particulars of the horrific situation in Ferguson, racial division is far from resolved in America.

As Christians, we ought to weep for the loss of life in this situation, and we ought to pray for peace in the streets of Ferguson and for justice to be done in this case. The mandate from God to the state in Romans 13 is to wield the sword with impartiality and with justice. As citizens, all of us ought to seek to ensure that this is the case, across the board.

We ought to be reminded though that in a racially divided world, the church of Jesus Christ ought not simply to advocate for racial reconciliation; we ought to embody it. We ought to speak to the structures of society about principles of morality and righteousness, but we also ought to model those principles in our congregations. The quest for racial reconciliation comes not just through proclamation but through demonstration.

That’s because racial and ethnic division and bigotry are not merely historical vestiges still existing in the United States, or in the often even more violent scenes we see elsewhere in the world. These divisions and hatred are older than America, and are rooted in a satanic deception that tells us we ought to idolize “the flesh.” The gospel doesn’t just call us individually to repentance, but also congregationalizes that reconciliation in local bodies of persons who may have nothing else in common but the image of God, repentance of sin, and the redemption found in Jesus Christ.

The church, the Apostle Paul said, is a sign of God’s manifold wisdom, to the principalities and powers in the heavenly places (Eph. 3:10). When God joined together in one church, those who are both Jewish and Gentile, he was doing more than negating the bad effects of ethnic strife. He was declaring spiritual warfare. When those who the world thinks should hate each other, instead love each other, the church is testifying that our identity is in Jesus Christ (Col. 3:11). We cannot be pulled apart from each other, because we are one body, and a body that is at war with itself is diseased.

If we start to see more churches so alive to the gospel that they are not segregated out as “white” or “black” or “Hispanic” or “Asian” or “white collar” or “blue collar,” we will start to reflect something of a kingdom of God made up of those from every tribe, tongue, nation, and language (Rev. 5:9). And as we know one another as brothers and sisters, we will start to speak up for one another, including in the public square.

Ferguson reminds us that American society has a long way to go in healing old hatreds. Our churches are not outposts of American society. Our churches are to be colonies of the kingdom of God. Let’s not just announce what unity and reconciliation ought to look like. Let’s also show it.

Ann Coulter and Our Mission

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In recent days, Donald Trump and Ann Coulter have kicked up a lot of social media dust about the Christian missionaries being treated for Ebola. Trump essentially patted missionaries on the head, saying its great if you go overseas to do stuff, but you pay the consequences. Coulter was, per usual, even worse. She argued that American Christians shouldn’t even be going to Africa. “Can’t people serve Christ in America anymore?” she asked.

Many Christians were horrified because they rightly understood that Coulter’s comments are a repudiation of the gospel and the Great Commission. Many felt betrayed. We should not feel betrayed, any more than we would when Howard Stern mocks us on the radio. The same thing is at work.

Ann Coulter has not suddenly pivoted to saying some outrageous, shocking thing. She’s made a living at it. Donald Trump is not suddenly a boor. He’s been playing this role for years. It doesn’t bother me what Trump or Coulter think about missiology or the Great Commission.

What I do think we should care about is the larger phenomenon. As the church of Jesus Christ, we should be the last people to fall for hucksters and demagogues. After all, we have the Spirit of God, who gifts the church with discernment and wisdom. But too often we do. We receive celebrities simply because they say they are “conservative” without asking what they are conserving.

Too often, our culture identifies conviction with intensity of feeling. And intensity of feeling is marked by theatrical outrage and attention-getting vitriolic speech. We see this in the lost world and, sometimes, lamentably, within Christian culture too. “I can’t believe she said that!” has replaced “Thus saith the Lord.”

Additionally, we too often have adopted allies on the basis of their intensity of outrage rather than on their consistency with the gospel. If you are angry with the same people we are, you must be one of us. Jesus just never operated that way. The Pharisees were at odds with the Sadducees; Jesus angered them both. That’s because he didn’t define his mission as first of all anti-Pharisee or anti-Sadducee. His mission was the kingdom of God, that casts judgment on every rival reign.

Rage itself is no sign of conviction. The devil rages, and rages more and more because he knows his time is short (Rev. 12:12). Loudness is no sign of being “prophetic.” The prophets of Baal were frantic and hysterical but it’s because their god was absent and no fire would fall (1 Kings 18:26-29).

In the New Testament, Jesus and his disciples were often thought to be crazy. They were saying strange things. Bloody crosses and empty tombs and Jew/Gentile unity—it all sounded insane. But they weren’t actually crazy. Jesus is the most reasonable voice in the gospels, pointing out that his opponents’ arguments don’t make sense on their own terms (Mk. 3:22-27; 7:14-16).

In Agrippa’s court, Paul is considered mad, but it is because he believes in the resurrection of Jesus, not because he is acting crazed. Paul honors Agrippa and Felix, tells them that the work of Christ has “not been done in a corner” (Acts 26:24-27). He notes that he is speaking “true and rational words” (26:25). He doesn’t mind being seen as crazy, but he keeps the scandal where it ought to be: on the gospel, not on his antics.

The church is built on the rock foundation of apostles and prophets, not hucksters and outrage artists.

Ann Coulter’s and Donald Trump’s comments are none of my concern. The church is to hold accountable those who are on the inside, not those on the outside (1 Cor. 5:12). What is our concern is that we don’t fall into the same pattern as the culture around us, of seeking to be heard with shrillness and demagoguery rather than with the gospel. The kingdom of God, after all, is not a matter of talk but of power (1 Cor. 4:20).

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Image Credit: Gage Skidmore at CPAC 2012

Aborting in the Name of Jesus?

It is one of the most disturbing articles I’ve ever read. The current issue of Esquire magazine profiles the “abortion ministry” of Willie Parker, a doctor who flies in and out of my home state of Mississippi to perform abortions at the state’s only abortion clinic. The word “ministry” isn’t incidental. Dr. Parker says he aborts unborn children because Jesus wants him to.

Parker, the article says, preached in Baptist churches as a young man, before going into medicine. He had, he says, a “come to Jesus” moment where he became convinced that he ought to do abortions. “The protesters say they’re opposed to abortion because they’re Christian,” he says. “It’s hard for them to accept that I do abortions because I’m a Christian.”

The profile portrays Dr. Parker as he prepares women for the abortions he is selling them. He tells them to ignore everything but their own consciences, and then, of course, he informs their consciences that abortion is morally acceptable. “If you are comfortable with your decision, ignore everything from everybody else.”

Apparently, he knows how to ignore everything else, including the conscience. The article quotes him talking a woman through an abortion by telling her that her unborn child is “very small.”

In the most chilling passage of the article, Parker has just aborted triplets, and is sorting through the aftermath. He then points out the body parts of a nine-week unborn child he has just aborted. “There’s the skull, what is going to be the fetal skull,” he says. “And there are the eye sockets.” Parker points out, “That’s an eye.”

The article states: “Floating near the top of the dish are two tiny arms with two tiny hands.”

Parker says that he is not disturbed by these body parts because he is “not deluded about what this whole process is.” It doesn’t disturb him, he says, it just tells him the woman’s uterus is empty, and she’s no longer pregnant. He doesn’t consider the “fetus” a person because the child is totally dependent” on the mother, and “that dependence puts it in the domain of her choice.”

Parker says his “come to Jesus” moment, persuading him of the “call” to abortion, happened when he heard a sermon by Martin Luther King Jr. on Jesus’ parable of the Good Samaritan. By performing abortion, Parker sees himself as the Samaritan, caring for the beaten neighbor on the side of the road.

That would be true, of course, if the Samaritan in Jesus’ story had euthanized the neighbor, to put him out of his misery. Of course, he didn’t. Instead, the Samaritan took the neighbor on as his own kin, nursing him back to health and caring for him, a picture that looks a lot like what many of the pro-life churches and organizations Parker dismisses are, in fact, doing for women in crisis and their babies.

Ironically enough, the one left for dead on the side of the Jericho Road was also totally dependent. Without the embrace of love and the kindness of a passer-by, he was left for dead. He was hardly viable on his own. The priest and the Levite passed on, Dr. King preached rightly, probably because they were afraid. Fear paralyzed them from seeing the humanity of another. The road to Jericho was filled with “choice,” as person after person averted his eyes from the hurting human being in front of them. The one on the roadside was dependent, totally dependent, on one who saw life as better than death.

Dr. Parker could be that Good Samaritan. Instead, he looks into the sonogram screen and says, “And who is my neighbor?” (Lk. 10:29).

Let’s pray and work for an end to the injustice of abortion. Let’s pray and work for better solutions for women in crisis. But let’s pray for doctors like this as well.

There is no one living who is beyond the call to salvation, and there is no sin that cannot be overcome by the redeeming blood of Christ. Jesus confronted Saul of Tarsus on the way to commit violence, and turned him around, using him to carry the gospel to all of us. And the Lord can do the same now. The gospel can even save one who is so far gone that he believes he is aborting in Jesus’ name. That’s good news for all kinds of sinners. We can pray that this abortion doctor hears and receives that sort of mercy that transforms the direction and purpose of his life. We can pray for a “come to Jesus” moment that puts him on the right side of the Jericho Road.

N is for Nazareth

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Christians around the world are changing their social media avatars to the arabic letter “n.” In so doing, these Christians are reminding others around them to pray, and to stand in solidarity with believers in Iraq who are being driven from their homes, and from their country, by Islamic militants. The Arabic letter comes from the mark the ISIS militants are placing on the homes of known Christians. “N” is for “Nazarene,” those who follow Jesus of Nazareth. Perhaps it’s a good time to reflect on why Nazareth matters, to all of us. The truth that our Lord is a Nazarene is a sign to us of both the rooted locality and the global solidarity of the church.

Jesus is from somewhere. Yes, the eternal Son of God transcends time and space. He was with the Father and the Spirit in love and glory “before the world was” (Jn. 17:5). But in his Incarnation, Jesus identified with a tribe, with a genealogy, with a hometown.

He “went and lived in a city called Nazareth, that what was spoken by the prophets might be fulfilled: ‘He shall be called a Nazarene” (Matt. 2:23). Some of Jesus’ contemporaries rejected him because of where he was from. Nathaniel infamously asked Philip, “Can any good thing come out of Nazareth?” (Jn. 1:46). His question is entirely sensible. Nazareth was a powerless backwater, not the sort of urban, elite center that we are told drives cultural change. Philip’s response wasn’t an argument about Nazareth; it was simply to say, “Come and see.”

For some, the issue wasn’t just Nazareth particularly but rootedness itself. “But we know where this man comes from, and when the Christ appears, no one will know where he comes from” (Jn. 7:27). They were quite mistaken. It is “the Beast” who is from nowhere, “rising out of the sea” (Rev. 13:1), representing humanity in its origins-denying self-exaltation (Rev. 13:18). Our Lord Jesus, on the other hand, is from “the land beyond the Jordan, Galilee of the nations” (Isa. 9:1). We know where this man is from.

Nazareth, though, reminds us that God’s purposes are global, transcending our tribal and national categories. When Jesus preached in his hometown synagogue in Nazareth, he was received with joy and awe, until he told his fellow villagers that they really didn’t understand what he was saying. Jesus demonstrated that God’s purposes had always gone “outside the camp.” He showed how God had raised a Gentile woman’s son, and healed a Syrian leper. (Lk. 4:24-27). In Nazareth, Jesus was setting the stage for the Great Commission, as the Spirit drove the church to all of the nations (Acts 1).

God embedded us with a need to love home. When that’s absent what fills its place is pride and ingratitude, as though we came from no one and we are dependent upon no one. When a hurricane warning is issued for south Florida, I pay attention. But when one is issued for the Gulf Coast of Mississippi, my hometown, I’m riveted. That’s the way it’s supposed to be.

In Christ, we have been brought into the life of Jesus. We are hidden with him, joined to him as a body to a head (Col. 3: Eph. 5). This means that, in a very real sense, Nazareth is our hometown. We belong to Jesus, and Jesus belongs to Nazareth. We are connected then to everyone who is also in Christ, not simply because we believe the same things but because we belong to the same Body.

We are “one new man,” and “fellow citizens with the saints, and members of the household of God” (Eph. 2:15, 19). That’s why Christians in America and Australia and Nigeria ought to care, and to pray fervently, for persecuted Christians in Iraq, in Sudan, and everywhere else in the world where they are endangered.

The Islamic militants mean it for evil when they mark homes with “N” for “Nazarene.” They assume it’s an insult, an emblem of shame. Others once thought that of the cross. But in that intended slight, we are reminded of who we are, and why we belong to one another, across the barriers of space and time and language and nationality. We are Christians. We are citizens of the New Jerusalem. We are Nazarenes all.

The church may be hounded and jailed and even crucified. But the church can never be beheaded. The Head of the Church is alive, and engaged, and on his way back. In the meantime, there will always be those who will ask, “Can any good thing come out of Nazareth?” Our answer, from now until the Eastern skies explode should be simple: “Come and see.”

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