Friday, February 26, 2010

Roger Williams - A patriot for the rest of us

I've just finished the book Roger Williams by historian Edwin S. Gaustad.  Loaned to me by a friend from church, this brief book is an overview of the life and writings of the man who founded the colony of Rhode Island in the early 17th century.  I recommend it to anyone who, like me, is frustrated by the frequent drumbeat among conservative Americans, as to the intent by America's founders to create a Christian nation.  Though it's true that some were, Williams (along with William Penn some seventy years later) offers a fascinating counterpoint.

Simply put, Roger Williams was one of the guys that the Massachusetts Bay Colony folks persecuted for not toeing the spiritual line.  A devout follower of Jesus, Williams believed firmly in liberty of conscience, and was therefore as offended by the theocratic tendencies of the Massachusetts leaders, as he was by those of the European despots they had fled.  Among his particularly interesting positions:
  • Williams held that the English Crown's grant of land patents was immoral, as the land was already owned by the natives who lived there.  If the colonists wanted land, they should buy it from the Indians, not seek it from the King.  "In doing this, Williams questioned the very foundation of the colony's government and legitimacy.  Williams was especially troubled by the use of the Christian religion to do a very un-Christian deed: namely, depriving the Indians of their own property without due compensation or negotiation. . .Christian kings somehow believe that they are invested with right, by virtue of their Christianity, 'to take and give away the Lands and Countries of other men.'"  (p. 9)
  • Williams also believed that requiring the phrase "so help me God" in an oath in court, was wrong in the case of anyone who was not himself a believer in God.  In fact, he argued that to so require was to force the unbeliever, not only to violate his own conscience, but to break the third commandment (against taking the Lord's name in vain) in the process.
For his unorthodox beliefs, Roger Williams was banished from the colony of Massachusetts, and forced to leave to parts unknown in the middle of winter in 1636.  He wandered for a while in the wilderness, was offered hospitality by the Narragansett Indians, and finally established residence in what would become the town of Providence, Rhode Island (on land he purchased from the Indians).  The colony which grew from these humble beginnings, required as part of its original laws and charters, absolute freedom of conscience in matters of religion.  No anarchist, Williams made clear that citizens were still subject to civil governance, but that in matters of the state, the church would have no voice, and vice versa.

Interestingly, his convictions regarding freedom of conscience led Williams to found the first Baptist church in America in 1638.  Though he himself left the church after a few months (concluding that the true church would only be re-established when Jesus returned to earth and appointed new apostles), he remained firm in his conviction that membership in both church and faith was a choice to be made by deliberate action of the individual--not a result of birth, christening, or residence (he actually wrote a tract "Christenings Make Not Christians" in 1645--though vitriolically anti-Catholic, it's worth a read considering it challenges the Christianity of good Protestant Englishmen).
There's much more, and I encourage you to get and read the book. . .and next time your friends trot out the writings of Patrick Henry to prove that America started out a Christian theocracy, remember the persecution and struggles of Roger Williams.

Thursday, February 18, 2010

"Worship" songs that make us puke. . .

I just have to put in a plug for a blog of a friend. . .Jonathan has just started a thread on awful "worship" music over at his "Ponder Anew" blog.  As he has expressed, it pains me how much content in the stuff we call "worship" is just plain lousy theology.

(Beyond that, I often find it to be bad poetry and sloppy music too, but those are aesthetic considerations and I grant that one person's Picasso is another person's childish scribbles.  Nevertheless I hear good music so rarely--almost never in my church--that just the sound of a truly beautiful song, beautifully done, can bring me to tears of hunger. . .but I digress).

Back to the point, however, we really need to learn what worship is--and isn't--and what really is asked of us in scripture.  Without getting into it right now (I haven't taken the time to study the subject yet), I would wager that gushing about how cool God is and how fuzzy he makes us feel, is NOT part of the Biblical mandate. . .

And meanwhile, I just hope that God isn't as repulsed by our church services as I am, though when I read Amos 5:21-24 I'm not so sure. . .

Thursday, February 11, 2010

The Kingdom of Jesus Christ, Citizenship

Since the language of "Kingdom" implies citizenship and allegiance, it's instructive to see what the kingdoms of this world think of citizenship.  I decided to take a look at the law of the kingdom in which I reside, the United States of America.  The basis for defining citizenship in the United States is the Fourteenth Amendment to the Constitution, the first sentence of which reads:

All persons born or naturalized in the United States, and subject to the jurisdiction thereof, are citizens of the United States and of the State wherein they reside.

Simply, you are a citizen of the U.S. if you were either born here, or naturalized, and are subject to the nation's jurisdiction.  Born is easy, and obvious.  Naturalization is defined by a completely different and much more complex law.  It's also more relevant to our subject of Kingdom citizenship, for the simple reason that nobody becomes a citizen of the Kingdom of God by natural birth.  We are all naturalized citizens of the Kingdom of God, if we are citizens at all.  While I'm not saying that Kingdom naturalization is identical to American naturalization, there are some interesting parallels we can draw out.  You can see the entire Immigration and Nationality Act Title III here, and it's worth a look.  The meat of the law is in section 337, subsections (a) and (b):


SEC. 337. [8 U.S.C. 1448]

(a) A person who has applied for naturalization shall, in order to be and before being admitted to citizenship, take in a public ceremony before the Attorney General or a court with jurisdiction under section 310(b) an oath (1) to support the Constitution of the United States; (2) to renounce and abjure absolutely and entirely all allegiance and fidelity to any foreign prince, potentate, state, or sovereignty of whom or which the applicant was before a subject or citizen; (3) to support and defend the Constitution and the laws of the United States against all enemies, foreign and domestic; (4) to bear true faith and allegiance to the same; and (5) (A) to bear arms on behalf of the United States when required by the law, or (B) to perform noncombatant service in the Armed Forces of the United States when required by the law, or (C) to perform work of national importance under civilian direction when required by the law. Any such person shall be required to take an oath containing the substance of clauses (1) through (5) of the preceding sentence, except that a person who shows by clear and convincing evidence to the satisfaction of the Attorney General that he is opposed to the bearing of arms in the Armed Forces of the United States by reason of religious training and belief shall be required to take an oath containing the substance of clauses (1) through (4) and clauses (5)(B) and (5)(C), and a person who shows by clear and convincing evidence to the satisfaction of the Attorney General that he is opposed to any type of service in the Armed Forces of the United States by reason of religious training and belief shall be required to take an oath containing the substance of clauses (1) through (4) and clause (5)(C). The term "religious training and belief" as used in this section shall mean an individual's belief in a relation to a Supreme Being involving duties superior to those arising from any human relation, but does not include essentially political, sociological, or philosophical views or a merely personal moral code. In the case of the naturalization of a child under the provisions of section 322 of this title the Attorney General may waive the taking of the oath if in the opinion of the Attorney General the child is unable to understand its meaning.

(b) In case the person applying for naturalization has borne any hereditary title, or has been of any of the orders of nobility in any foreign state, the applicant shall in addition to complying with the requirements of subsection (a) of this section, make under oath in the same public ceremony in which the oath of allegiance is administered, an express renunciation of such title or order of nobility, and such renunciation shall be recorded as a part of such proceedings.

Of interest here are several points.  To become a citizen of the United States, you must swear to:
  • Suppport the Constitution of the United States;
  • Renounce the allegiance and claim of any other nation, state, or sovereign;
  • "Support and defend" the Constitution and laws, and "bear true faith and allegience" to them;
  • Serve the United States either by bearing arms or noncombatant military or civilian service, when required (note that religious conscientious objection to military service is permitted, but does not excuse the citizen from civilian service)
  • If you have any title or nobility in your  previous citizenship, you must renounce that as well (I never knew this!)
As for analogs to the Kingdom of God, I note that we, too, have a constitution.  Though Christians can and do argue about what that constitution actually is (see my series on Biblical inspiration), I would submit that in Jesus' kindgom the Sermon on the Mount is a pretty good candidate.  It is also certainly true that we must renounce the claims of other sovereigns if God is our king. . .for Jesus pointed out that we cannot serve two masters (Matt. 6:24), and that no one who throws his lot in with Jesus but turns back is fit for the kingdom (Luke 9:62).  While I would argue (and have written) that one cannot take up arms for the Kingdom of God, we are certainly required to serve the King, and Matt. 25:31-46 gives us a pretty good clue what that will look like.  It is finally also true that earthly rank is meaningless in the Kingdom of God (Luke 22:24-30 and elsewhere). 

Monday, February 8, 2010

The Kingdom of Jesus Christ, Introduction

I have alluded in various posts up to now, about the notion that Jesus is our king, that he was anointed the same by God the Father, and that we are called to follow and obey him rather than merely to give intellectual assent to some list of propositions about him.  In the next few posts I want to ruminate a bit about what this means, and why, even though the majority of those who call themselves "Christians" would agree with what I just said, they actually have very little understanding of what it means.

Strange as it may sound,  I'm going to look to earthly nations and kingdoms for some help on the concept.  I'm doing this, not because these nations have any similarity to the Kingdom of Christ (heaven knows), but rather because nations DO give us some helpful clues on what concepts like "sovereign," "citizen," and "nation" (or "kingdom") actually mean.  For though the kingdoms of this world acknowledge the wrong sovereign, they do know what a sovereign is, and what a citizen's role is vis-a-vis that sovereign.  All analogies break down, and these will too, but before they do, I think we can glean some helpful insights.

Just to establish a little foundation, here, we start by acknowledging that Jesus Christ is, in fact, a king.  He was prophesied as King of the Jews at his birth (Matt. 2:2), alluded to himself as the ultimate king under the Father (Matt 25:34), was acclaimed king by the people of Jerusalem (Luke 19:38), and he acknowledged the title before Herod (Matt. 27:11) (note that each of these passages have their parallels in the other synoptic gospels).  He is finally acknowledged as King of Kings and Lord of Lords in Rev. 17:14 and Rev. 19:6.

Perhaps more importantly, Jesus spent a huge amount of his ministry on earth teaching about the "kingdom of heaven."  A quick search in my electronic ESV shows 118 occurrences of the English word "kingdom" in the gospels alone, and a quick glance down through them shows that the vast majority are referring in some form to the "kingdom of God" or "kingdom of heaven."  I may unpack those words with a more careful word study at another time, but for now, let us be satisfied that, whether Jesus was referring to himself or his Father as the sovereign (and there are plenty of each), his teaching was rich with the term.

So what's a kingdom?  The simplest possible definition I can think of, and one that certainly fits the biblical paradigm, is that a kingdom is a group of subjects or citizens who, along with their property, goods, and territory, are subject to a sovereign.  This is a concept we in the democratic West, don't entirely comprehend.  As I have discussed before, we live in a nation where, at least in theory and doctrine, it is the collected people who are sovereign, and to a certain extent the individual who is his own sovereign.  It's understandable, therefore, that we don't fully grasp the notion that anyone else--even God--has in his very nature the right to command our submission.  But he does.  And when we acknowledge and submit to his sovereignty, it sets in motion a collection of realities that we need to confront far more directly than most of us have done.  It is these realities to which I will turn in future posts.