Political or Spiritual?

Christians & PoliticsMy last post was my best attempt to explain why Christians have a responsibility to engage in politics and government, and that by doing so we are not diluting the Gospel. I received an e-mail response from a friend who has worked diligently in the public arena for many years now. He pointed out one very significant fact I failed to emphasize, one that I wish I had included. So, with his permission, here is his response. Read for edification:
As someone who is regularly criticized by my fellow followers of Jesus Christ for daring to apply my faith in the political arena, I thank you for your blog post.  It’s not that I need affirmation, but it is always good to read something insightful about what God has called me to do.
 
I would add one comment to your post.  When I am chastised for being involved with “political issues” that “drive people away from Jesus,” I always ask to which issues they refer.  Of course, the common responses are abortion or marriage or both.  To which I respond: No, I asked which political issues. Those aren’t political issues, they are issues of fundamental Biblical principle concerning who God is, who we are, His design for us and for social order.  Yes, they happen to be debated within the political realm, but that doesn’t make them political issues.  I believe Christians fall for that trap all the time.  We allow that which is spiritual in nature to be labeled as secular (or political) only to find ourselves then on the defensive when in fact what we are discussing is spiritual. 
Of course, the dichotomy is in and of itself, for the believer, a false one anyway, since there is nothing “secular” to God.  But good luck explaining that concept to most believers! 
 
Anyway, I say all that to say simply that I don’t deal with political issues.  I deal with spiritual issues that are being debated in the political sphere.  But, of course, if they are “political,” then they are open for debate and compromise.
He is absolutely correct, and I appreciate his amendment to what I wrote. The murder of innocent children is first and foremost a spiritual issue because it is blatant immorality. Marriage, as I noted, is a God-ordained institution, so any tampering with it is tampering with God’s order of things. Both are political only when politicians try to alter eternal right and wrong. Christians, therefore, cannot be silent when moral atrocities become ever more prevalent and accepted by society at large.
 
God simply calls us to be faithful and to take His truth into every corner of the world, even corners we would like to avoid.
 

Christians & Politics: My Statement of Faith

Biblical WorldviewI sincerely hope the thoughts I share on this blog can be seen as coming from a heart of deep concern for the truths of the Christian faith, the edifying of believers, and the instruction of those who may be outside that faith. I skewer whatever deserves to be skewered, seeking to do so in the same manner as Jesus cleansing the temple of those who made a mockery of real worship.

Therefore, I try to be charitable toward those who may disagree with me, and I don’t want to be a source of disunity in the Body of Christ. Yet I must speak up with respect to those things that make us ineffective and/or disconnected to the reality of the political and governmental realm. I’m going to disagree today with some brothers and sisters who don’t like Christians getting involved with politics, but I won’t name any names. This is not intended as any kind of a personal attack on those who are in disagreement.

The spark for today’s commentary is the increasing number of articles, blog posts, and passing comments on social media warning Christians not to be tied to a conservative political agenda. Those of us who write or speak out on political issues are being taken to a verbal woodshed by some, and being accused of putting politics ahead of the Gospel.

God & GovernmentI hope regular readers of this blog will recognize my constant reminders that the basic problem in the world is man’s broken relationship with God, a divide that can be healed only through the cross of Christ. There is nothing more important than leading people to that truth. Neither have I placed any false hope in government; it never will be our savior. Politics is definitely a dirty business, but then so is the running of a corporation at times, being involved in a labor union, or any other human endeavor.

Politics, however, and the potential power of government to dictate our lives, affects us all. It can be a hindrance to the Gospel and to individuals who want to live in accordance with the Lord’s commands. It can penalize believers who want to operate their businesses on Biblical principles. It can restrict the interchange of ideas and beliefs. A climate of intolerance—in the name of tolerance—can seek to make everyone conform to what a government concludes is “right” thinking.

This is why I’ve always contended that Christians need to be involved in political affairs, not to set up a theocracy, but to safeguard the religious liberty bequeathed to us by the Founding Generation.

Whenever I speak to any political group, I make it clear that my political beliefs are grounded on my understanding of the Christian worldview as explained in the Bible. I am a Christian first and foremost; if my views line up with a certain political stance, it’s not because I’m a slave to a political party or movement; instead, I align with a party or movement to the extent that it reflects my Biblical beliefs and values.

One well-known pastor recently said he was concerned that evangelicals are turning people off to the Gospel because of our perceived political stance. What stance does he mean? If he means we are against abortion, so be it. If he means we continue to believe homosexuality is a sin and that there is no valid “gay” marriage, I can live with that. With the former, I am arguing against the mass murder of innocent children. With the latter, I am standing up for a God-ordained concept of sexuality and family. What are we supposed to do—apologize for those views? Run away from them? Hide them so as to not offend people?

PersecutionLet’s be clear. Jesus offended a lot of people. He told us that the Gospel message would lead to persecution and would divide families. His message led to His death because He challenged the religious/political establishment of His day. The apostle Paul said that all who desire to live godly lives would most certainly be persecuted.

Who are we? What do we have to offer as a church? Is our goal to make people feel comfortable in their sins?

Here’s what concerns me more than any political chicanery or threat to religious liberty: that the church in our day either minimizes or excuses sin; that we redefine sins such as homosexuality as just another alternative lifestyle and God accepts everyone; that we don’t really call sinners to repentance because we don’t want to damage their self-esteem; that we’re so focused on being liked and accepted in the mainstream of society that we will change the Gospel to fit current trends.

To those who are airing warnings against political activity, let me assure you that most of us on this side of the divide understand the potential dangers. Yes, some people seem to equate patriotism with being a Christian. Yes, some may come close to thinking that there can be a political solution to our crises. But I contend they are a minority.

Can you see the other danger? Too much concern about political involvement may be based upon a dichotomous worldview that separates religious faith from the so-called secular arena. It then allows the ungodly to run those “secular” entities and just hopes for the best. Some may call that trusting God, but I submit that it may instead be running away from a godly responsibility.

Salt & LightI realize some who are sounding these warnings are doing so from a good heart and simply want the Gospel to be primary. I argue that making the Gospel primary means the Good News affects all aspects of our lives and that we take that message into every realm of our society. We are not lights to be put under a bushel; we are not to be tasteless salt. We are to help preserve that which is good in society and shine a light to show people the way out of that which is evil.

Of course that requires a clear understanding of good and evil. We must never change God’s standards. We must stand for His truth even in a culture that is spiraling out of control away from His truth. We need to encourage one another to stand firm and to be the best representatives of His love that we can be. That begins with a strong denunciation of sin, the absolute requirement of repentance, and the offer of unbounded forgiveness to all who will repent of their sin. That is the Good News; that is the Gospel.

Jamestown: The Natives

This my third post this week on the Jamestown settlement. I’m not quite done with it. Next week, I’ll finish this portion of American history with some commentary on why Jamestown is significant. Today, I want to shed some light on the natives who crossed paths with those early settlers. What type of society did these Englishmen find when they arrived?

First, let’s dispense with unrealistic romanticism. All humans are sinful. They have a propensity to treat others badly. This certainly was evident in the New World. The rosy picture of natives living in perfect harmony with nature and then having all that disturbed by Europeans is not very accurate. When the Spanish saw how the Aztecs carried out human sacrifices, they were horrified. That’s not meant to absolve the Spanish from their share of the blame for how things turned out, but we need to have a balanced picture of the past.

PowhatansThe natives in the Jamestown area were part of a broader grouping called the Algonquin. The Powhatan Confederacy that the English came upon was one portion of that larger grouping. They had no written language, so we have no primary documents from them personally. What we have is the English explanation of what they saw and experienced. A one-sided view can be skewed, to be sure, but further research and archaeology have substantiated much of what they told us.

The Algonquin worldview was dark. Only the chiefs and priests had any hope of a kind of life after death; they supposedly were reincarnated. The common people had this life only—no hope of an eternity in the presence of a loving God. The culture was polytheistic, featuring many gods for many different purposes. The one they dreaded the most was Okeus, who had to be appeased continually. Throughout the Algonquin tribes, child sacrifice for that purpose was practiced.

Warfare was a staple of life. Tribes had shifting alliances over time, all for the sake of self-preservation. The natives did not view themselves as one big happy family suddenly interrupted by the English. Their perception of these new settlers was that of just another tribe in the region to be dealt with.

If you were caught in a war by the enemy, you could expect to be tortured in the most cruel ways. They had developed a rather sophisticated method of skinning people alive and cutting off body parts while the victim was still conscious, and even eating those parts while he watched.

If you were a young boy entering manhood, the practice was to give you a powerful drug to erase the memory of boyhood. This was how you transitioned into becoming a man.

Powhatan Receiving TributeChief Powhatan (a title, not his actual name) was already advanced in age when the Jamestown people first encountered him, but he was still vital and strong. He had to be. His confederacy was held together by force and intimidation. Powhatan ruled over thirty conquered tribes: note the word “conquered” here; they didn’t apply for membership. Once in the confederacy, they owed him a tribute of 80% of their crops—in other words, he had an 80% tax rate. So how did they survive? It appears that Powhatan mastered the age-old system of redistribution of wealth. As long as you were trustworthy and obedient, he would, from his bounty, send some of it back to you.

Sound familiar? Sound rather contemporary?

Powhatan also had approximately one hundred wives, taken from the various tribes under his authority. He would then have one child with each, solidifying the connection with each tribe. One can say without too much exaggeration that he was the “father of his country.” Summary: Powhatan was an absolute despot who ruled with an iron hand.

Neither was Powhatan going to share power. When one of his priests came forth with a prophecy that a tribe coming out of the Chesapeake region was going to topple his empire, he immediately decided to kill off the Chesapeake tribe. He was efficient; they were slaughtered that day. Only when the English showed up, coming from that same region, did he wonder if they were the “tribe” destined to remove him. We have no evidence, though, of any remorse for his “mistake.”

When the Starving Time hit Jamestown in 1609-1610, Powhatan did all he could to withhold any aid, hoping they would all die out. Later, when his daughter Pocahontas married a settler, relations between the cultures relaxed for a time, only to destroyed by the massacre of 1622 that I described in an earlier post.

From the Christian point of view, what I see is a culture devoid of the light of the Gospel. It was a culture desperately in need of hope, that lacked the understanding that the Son of God—the only God—had reached out to His creation through His own sacrifice, which would take the place of human sacrifice. Pocahontas and Chanco, among others, gained that understanding and realized that hope. Most rejected it. In a previous post, I highlighted some of the true Christians who sought to minister to the natives. If there had been more of those type of men, this part of our history would have been more praiseworthy.

Jamestown: The Balance

Yesterday, I wrote about the founding of Jamestown and pointed out that it wasn’t exactly an evangelical enterprise. Most of those involved were nominally Christian—born Anglican—and never had committed their lives to the Lord. I left you with some hope, though. I said there was another part of the story. That’s where I’m going today.

First, the Virginia Company that sent out the Jamestown settlers did have in its ranks some genuine Christians who wanted the new colony to help convert the natives to the faith. The Company also gave some instructions to the settlers that stemmed from a concern for Christian conduct. If you go to historic Jamestown today, the large monument that was dedicated back in 1907, with President Theodore Roosevelt in attendance, sports a comment from the Company. I’ve posted a picture of it here; since it is a little hard to read, I’ll transcribe it below:

Jamestown--Advice of London Council

It says, “Lastly and chiefly the way to prosper and achieve good success is to make yourselves all of one mind for the good of your country and your own, and to serve and fear God, the giver of all goodness. For every plantation which our heavenly father hath not planted shall be rooted out.” This was not only an instruction, but a warning.

The minister who came on those first ships was Robert Hunt, by all accounts a truly godly man respected by everyone. He is credited with helping to save John Smith’s life on the voyage over when others wanted to hang him. Upon landing at what is now Virginia Beach, Hunt erected a cross and held a service of thanksgiving. Smith writes fondly of him and mourns his early death in 1608. At the historic site today is a memorial to Hunt, depicting him officiating the Lord’s Supper.

Robert Hunt Memorial

Other dedicated ministers followed Hunt—Alexander Whitaker and Richard Buck. Whitaker became the primary teacher for Pocahontas as he led her to the Christian faith. A famous painting of the baptism of Pocahontas can be found in the Capitol Rotunda in Washington, DC.

Baptism of Pocahontas

Sadly, Whitaker drowned trying to save the life of another. All indications are he was a genuine Christian. As for Pocahontas, her conversion wasn’t just a show. She took her new faith seriously, changed her name to Rebecca, and married John Rolfe, one of the settlers. She then went to England. Unfortunately, she died there, probably from pneumonia, but the testimony of her death shows she was calm and peaceful, accepting it from God’s hand.

When she arrived in England, Pocahontas had an entourage of natives with her, one of whom, a young teenage boy, was adopted into the family or George Thorpe. The boy died soon after, victim of some disease for which he had no immunity apparently, but his new “father,” Thorpe, took that as his cue to do God’s will by going to America and helping establish a college for native youths, teaching them not only the English language but seeking to lead them to the Christian faith.

Thorpe (for whom no portrait exists) dedicated himself to befriending the natives for the gospel’s sake. He was kind to them, reached out to the chief, Opechancanough, and shared the faith. All seemed to be going well, but Opechancanough deceived the settlers by staging a surprise uprising in 1622, hoping to wipe out all English settlers:

Massacre of 1622

George Thorpe, tragically, was one of the victims that day. Opechanacanough, though, did not achieve his objective for one reason. A plaque on the wall in the Jamestown church tells the story:

Chanco

One of the natives, his life changed by the Christian faith, was the hero of the day. This shows also that the real divide in this world is not between races or ethnicities, but between those who have submitted themselves to the Lord and those who have not.

So, even though Jamestown was not primarily a Christian settlement in the way I would view a Christian endeavor, nevertheless some of the individuals involved were decidedly Christian and helped pave the way for the gospel message in a new land.

Jamestown: A Christian Settlement?

Today I begin that journey through American history I wrote about yesterday. Skipping over Columbus and other non-U.S.-related events, I go straight to the settlement at Jamestown. We often call this the first permanent English settlement in the New World, a correct name if you take into consideration it eventually developed into the colony of Virginia, yet no one lives in Jamestown today. It’s a historic site, but not a permanent residence for anyone.

What lay behind the founding of this settlement? Was there a Christian character to it or was it purely secular in nature? Since this is the first place Englishmen set foot to stay, it is tempting to want to romanticize the event and say it was primarily a Christian endeavor. It would be satisfying to tell the advocates of secularism that a vibrant Christian faith inspired the initial voyage and the society that came about afterward. Satisfying, yes, but not altogether accurate.

Jamestown FortThe Virginia Company’s foremost goal was to establish a trading post in the New World. The first three ships that arrived in 1607 were conspicuous for their complete absence of women and young children. This wasn’t a family affair. While most of the men struggled to erect a fort and find a way to survive in this unknown wilderness, the main task of the captain of the ships, Christopher Newport, was to find a passage to the west so Asia would be more accessible. Others, whose station in life as gentlemen didn’t require manual labor, were more content to search for riches than put their hands to a plow. Research has indicated they weren’t all necessarily lazy, but their status in society did contribute to a certain hierarchy of labor that wasn’t helpful when starting a colony from scratch.

Now, there’s nothing wrong with wanting to find a passage to Asia for trade; neither is there anything inherently sinful about wanting to enrich oneself. That all depends on the motive of the heart. But another criticism of these settlers is one we will come across constantly in our travels through our history: they sought to annihilate the natives.

If genocide really was a goal of this expedition, why did they not uncrate their weapons upon arrival? Why did they not immediately set to work on a fortress for self-protection? Actually, the Company had given explicit instructions to be friendly with the natives for the purpose of trade and for the propagation of the Gospel. I believe that latter purpose was in the hearts of some on the Company’s board, but not so much on the minds of the first settlers.  Yet if they were dead set on genocide, what would be the rationale for a trading post? If you killed all potential trading partners, with whom would you trade?

In fact, as the leaders attempted to carry out the instructions they were given, they were set upon by some of those natives they sought to befriend. The attack was swift, brutal, and would have conceivably wiped out the colony before it even had a foothold. The only thing that saved them was the shooting off of the cannons on the ships, thereby scaring the natives and leading to their retreat. It was only after this incident that the colonists decided they needed to haul out the rest of their guns and quickly build a fort for protection.

John SmithInternally, the leadership was a mess, fighting continually amongst themselves. No true leader emerged until Capt. John Smith was allowed to be the president of the council. He did a lot of things right—forcing the gentlemen to work, maintaining military drill, storing food for the winter, forcefully trading with the natives, developing a worthwhile friendship with Pocahontas—yet making a lot of those under his authority angry with his no-nonsense approach. His commitment to solid principles to save the colony from disaster could be called Christian, but he was no more than a typical Englishman who considered himself a Christian due to the good fortune of being born in a “Christian” country.

Jamestown CrossWhen the real test came, in the Starving Time during the winter of 1609-1610, Christian virtue and behavior seemed to be in short supply. Eating the corpses of recently deceased neighbors is hardly the spiritual thing to do. One man was executed for killing his pregnant wife and eating her. This descent into cannibalism was only one indication among many that the veneer of Christianity that most of the men possessed was exactly that—a veneer.

So does this mean that Jamestown was an utter failure and that Christians should view it as such? Or is there another side to the story? Can anything be said to offer some balance to the account? I’ll come back with additional information on this important American beginning tomorrow.

Interpreting American History

My time off from blogging during June was most welcome. It’s not that I don’t enjoy doing this; I certainly do. A break, though, can be helpful at times. As I contemplated how to proceed with this blog, I realized that even though, as a historian, I have delved time and again into American history on this site, I haven’t done so systematically.

Here’s what I propose to do.

I want to go through American history from the beginning and offer my take/interpretation of people and events. This will be a long process because there’s so much to comment on. I propose to intersperse these interpretations of our past with commentary on current events, as I’ve always done, and as developments require. So for those of you who are more inclined to read about the present than the past, be assured that won’t change. However, I will have more posts dealing with the past than I’ve had previously. Perhaps I’ll do a couple per week, as events allow.

What I hope to do with these historical posts is provide a basic Christian framework for understanding our history. As regular readers know, I consider myself a conservative who believes the roots of our nation do lie within the Christian faith, to a great extent. I will differ, though, with some conservative Christians on certain points. For instance, I cannot, with integrity, try to make non-Christians into Christians, nor can I wink at those aspects of our history that violated Biblical principles. I must be honest with my sources. As a practicing historian who has read extensively on American history, I believe I have greater depth of knowledge than those who dabble in it, yet I seek to remain humble about my knowledge, always staying open to new information.

I can be wrong.

American History SymbolsYet I want to share the conclusions I’ve reached on a wide variety of subjects. Did Jamestown begin with a Christian worldview? Were the Pilgrims and Puritans people to be admired unconditionally? How great was the Great Awakening of the eighteenth century? Was there a proper Biblical basis for the American Revolution and how Christian was it? Were key individuals in our Founding grounded Biblically? Is the Constitution a document with Biblical origins? What about western expansion? Was it carried out in a Christian manner? How do we deal with the treatment of the natives? Naturally, I’ll have to tackle slavery and the Civil War. How should a dedicated Christian understand those?

After the Civil War, did the rise of big business push us in a positive direction as a nation or negative? Was immigration beneficial or harmful? How did progressivism affect our view of government? Along the way, I’ll need to offer my evaluation of key presidents such as Washington, Jefferson, Madison, Jackson, Lincoln, both Roosevelts, Wilson, Coolidge, Kennedy, Johnson, Nixon, Carter, Reagan, and others. Which ones remained tied to our Founding principles and which did not? What about their policies? Cultural changes are just as important as political programs. In fact, the culture may have more of an impact on the policies than vice versa.

I was planning to do this anyway, yet I received another confirmation of the importance of this series when I watched the new Dinesh D’Souza film America on July 4. It was an appropriate day to view it.

America Poster

I loved virtually everything about this documentary—the visuals, the quick pace, the thoughtfulness, the music. What’s more, D’Souza’s approach was excellent. He allowed detractors of America to have their say and proclaim their critiques first; then he answered those critiques most effectively in the last half of the film.

I will do the same, in one sense. I will tell you what others think about these various people and events in American history, then give my response. I hope to be fair; I hope to make you think. I will start tomorrow.

Insights from Tozer

A. W. TozerNormally, on weekends, I draw from C. S. Lewis and Charles Finney for some thoughtful quotes. I’m not home this weekend, and therefore don’t have my usual sources to use. However, I have a habit of collecting quotes from all sorts of people who have offered wise and sound insights. One of those is A. W. Tozer, a Christian and Missionary Alliance pastor whose books have encouraged many and have guided them into a closer relationship with the Lord.

Let me just offer some of my favorite Tozer quotes for your pondering on this Lord’s Day. As much as I value correct theology, Tozer issues this warning to all of us:

You can be straight as a gun barrel theologically and as empty as one spiritually.

Whenever we fall into the error of thinking that all that is necessary is proper theology, we miss the mark. If our life doesn’t exemplify that theology, we are deceived.

In our day, with many churches preaching an “easy” gospel that doesn’t require a true change of heart, another of Tozer’s admonitions hits home:

The idea that God will pardon a rebel who hasn’t given up his rebellion is contrary both to Scripture and to common sense.

God gave us both—Scripture and common sense—and they confirm each other. Tozer brings that common-sense approach to the subject of prayer also:

To pray without expectation is to misunderstand the whole concept of prayer and relationship with God.

Prayer is not just a discipline we practice for our own good. It should be offered in the expectation that God actively listens and wants to respond. He looks to our hearts to see how genuine they are, and we need to understand that what we should have with Him is a relationship and not merely head knowledge of how to get one’s sins forgiven. That distinction is significant. It echoes the cry of Tozer’s heart:

There are rare Christians whose very presence incites others to be better Christians. I want to be that rare Christian.

That’s where the Lord wants to lead all of us.

One final Tozer quote worth pondering:

A. W. Tozer Quote

That’s where I seek to be: firm on the truth, yet gentle and inviting enough to draw others to the truth. Take these few thoughts with you today. May they make a difference in how you handle life.