Believing We’re Serving God

Believing We’re Serving God February 28, 2019

Today, as the #BUDayofGiving (actually 1855 minutes of giving) for 2019 draws to a close, I’ll emphasize another possible reason for giving to support Butler University. Its founder, Ovid Butler, believed that he was serving God in founding the school so as to enroll students equally regardless of race and gender. You can give to support the NetVUE Social Justice and Diversity Vocation Fellowship initiative which will help get a new core curriculum requirement focused on Ovid Butler’s values off up and running.

He was standing in opposition to some other people with diametrically opposed views on race, gender, and the Bible, among other things. And so today seems like a good day to explore this topic.

To get us started, Vance Morgan has been reading a book about Hitler, and he shared some insights from it in a recent blog post, which included the following:

I find Goebbel’s insight about the human tendency to believe whatever we want to believe, then find ways to establish it as “truth,” to be more disturbing than any parallels between Adolf and Donald. Thinking is hard, so much so that each of us frequently seeks for a “get out of thinking free” card in various areas of our lives. This card can be a matter of not questioning authority, laziness, chosen ignorance, or any number of other tactics that each of us can become far too skilled with…

This resonated in interesting ways with the focus of my Sunday school class the morning before I read the post. And not just because we had branched off from John 15 (yes, pun intended, and yes, I did make the pun in the class) into questions about eternal punishment and redemption.

In that part of the Gospel of John, Jesus is depicted as warning his followers about things that presumably the author of the Gospel and his community had experienced: being put out of the synagogue, but more than that, being killed or threatened with being killed. Had anyone experienced this at this point in the history of this emerging Christian community? Had many experienced it? It is hard to say. But what is most striking is the way it says that those who do this will believe that killing Jesus’ followers is service to God.

It is easy for Christians reading this to focus on Christians as victims of persecution – often real, sometimes imagined. But the more challenging element is what it highlights about our moral sense as human beings: we can be doing something evil and not only fail to recognize it as evil, we can actually be persuaded that we are doing good, and serving God through our evil actions.

That’s challenging stuff, if we are willing to avoid simply assuming that it applies to those terrible other people out there, rather than ourselves. How do we check to make sure that we are not the ones to whom this applies? Sure, we might not be inclined to kill anyone. But do we persecute anyone? Do we oppose and even harass them?

The challenge when it comes to reading the Bible well is to not immediately assume that we are the “good guys” in whatever scenario the text depicts. When we can do that, it offers profound challenges that we can learn a lot from.

In the wider context of the Farewell Discourse in the Gospel of John, there is an emphasis on the Holy Spirit teaching Jesus’ followers, and on remaining in his teaching about love. These two things – keeping love central and engaging in introspective exploration of and reflection on one’s own aims and values – do indeed seem to be crucial if we are to avoid pursuing a path that seems good to us, and yet is in fact evil.

We also talked about whether all sins are equal, a widely held belief in conservative Evangelicalism. Richard Beck blogged about that recently, and since it came up in my Sunday school class, I thought I’d mention it here and direct readers to his post.

But returning to the main theme of this post, I think a crucial insight relates to the theme of a post at the Episcopal Cafe:

Jesus invites us to view the world differently, to treat your sin as my sin. Your success as my success. Life is not a zero sum game equalling 100%. Love enemies. Do good to those who hurt you. Lend expecting nothing in return.

Love of enemies. Can one do that and persecute, kill, harass, expel, ostracize, discriminate, and do any of the other things that narrow religious people have sometimes done, even among those who claim to be followers of Jesus? The answer should be obviously “no” and yet time and again people in general, and Christians in particular, have seemed determined to provide counterevidence. Yet those who take love seriously, and love for enemies seriously, cannot so easily turn evil into good and inflict harm on others while believing they are serving God. The problem is that this teaching of Jesus is often paid mere lip service or not made a focus of attention at all. As Chuck Queen writes,

I want to focus today on the initial command: Love your enemies, do good to them, bless them, and pray for them.

I don’t know of any text that is more ignored by Christians than this one. Of course, no matter how much we ignore it, it won’t go away. Having grown up in church, I can’t ever remember a sermon on this text. The Baptist church I attended didn’t follow the Lectionary so it was easy for the preacher to pick the texts he liked and were easy to preach. However, if we are followers of Jesus we cannot ignore this text, because this text gets at the very heart and core of the gospel of Jesus…

Loving our enemies does not mean we surrender to injustice. We must fight injustice. We must contend for what is right and good and just. But we do not fight hate with hate. We do not meet violence with violence. We love our enemies so God might have a little window to shine God’s light into the darkness of fear and prejudice and hate…

There were a lot of good and decent people – a lot of pastors and Christian leaders – who never spoke against Dr. King, but they never spoke for him either and against the injustice of segregation. They were silent. They may have been good people, but they were not followers of Jesus. There are many Christians who wish I wouldn’t speak up against the injustice this President and his administration are perpetrating by spreading hate for and fear of immigrants. They have separated thousands of children from their parents, and we now know that in all probability many of those children will never be reunited with their parents. They severed these families without any plan or thought, which amounts to an attack on humanity and an attack on God. Now, I can be a good pastor without saying a word against this injustice, but I cannot be a follower of Jesus and be silent. I hope you understand that. But here’s the flip side. I cannot hate the President and the people who are carrying out these unjust policies. I hate what he is doing, but I cannot hate him, and be a follower of Jesus. I have to love him. I have to pray for him. I have to pray for his ultimate good, even as I oppose this injustice. I have no choice if I am a follower of Jesus.

Click through to read the rest of that post, which is in fact the text of a sermon. If one is committed to following Jesus in this way, one might well still end up on the wrong side of things. None of us will ever be so beyond self-deception as to exclude this possibility entirely. We may still do things that are evil – or at least indifferent – and mistakenly believe we are serving God in doing so. But we won’t kill our enemies.

That’s not saying much, if I’m honest. But we have to start somewhere.

Of related interest:

Claiming to Follow God’s Guidance in Politics

This also can be related to the debates currently taking place in the United Methodist Church and elsewhere. On that subject, William Willimon wrote, “The UMC’s response to declining membership is to spend millions deciding who else we can exclude.” Fred Clark used candy bars to illustrate missing options and unnecessary binaries and dichotomies. Read it and let me know whether you think that Jesus, if he were teaching in our time, would tell the parable of the Mounds and Almond Joy bars rather than the sheep and the goats.

If you appreciated this blog post, please do express your appreciation to Butler University, which encourages and supports my blogging (even though opinions expressed here are not necessarily those of the university). By supporting the university, you’re supporting me and all the work I seek to do to get not only students in the classroom, but the wider public, thinking about, wrestling with, and discussing serious issues like these. Thank you!

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  • One of my friends has pointed out that “love” does not mean “tolerate.” It’s much more active than that. I think sometimes we wiggle out of the commands to love by assuming we fulfill them when we aren’t actively trying to harm someone.

  • Al Cruise

    “human tendency to believe whatever we want to believe, then find ways to establish it as “truth,” I agree. I find this quote by Albert Einstein to be more disturbing. ” Unthinking respect for authority is the greatest enemy of truth.”….. Albert Einstein.

  • Nick G

    I’m inclined to think that the proportion of people who are actually capable of loving their enemies – as opposed to taking proper account of their interests and preferences – is minute. If this is so, the injunction to do so is worse than useless, because trying to do what is impossible generally leads either to despair or to self-deception.

    But we won’t kill our enemies.

    But sometimes it is right to do so – and not just our enemies. I am among those who say it was unequivocally right to resist the Nazis with violence, even though this inevitably resulted in many innocent people being killed.