All posts by Dr. Charlie Self

The Way Forward, Part Seven: The Gift of the Jews…and Israel

The recent Hamas-initiated violence against Israel has brought antisemitic voices to the public square once again. Thousands of rockets were aimed indiscriminately against a peaceful, tolerant nation. And for inexplicable, but predictable reasons, Israel was blamed for this latest “cycle of violence.” Though Israel is far from a perfect nation, she is the only multicultural democracy in the entire region and has offered generous peace terms for decades to leaders dedicated to her complete destruction. Calling Israel an “apartheid state” (she has nearly two million Arab citizens) and “Nazi-like” is inverted and perverted thinking of the highest order, especially when Hamas, Hezbollah, Islamic jihad, and Fatah (The PA military wing) all scream for her utter destruction and praise the policies of Hitler.

Before offering some ideas for peace, it is right that we remind ourselves of the positive contributions of Judaism to our world, even as Jews have faced racial and religious persecutions, pogroms, and the unutterable horror of the Holocaust.

Our Jewish neighbors bring three millennia of monotheism and morality, quests for justice and wisdom, and the foundations of individual dignity and socioeconomic fairness to our world. Christianity is built on these foundations and when it is not linked with coercive power, her adherents have shared with the Jews the values of compassion, love, and liberty. Tragically, Christian persecution of the Jews has been (and sometimes still is) an inexcusable part of her history and theology and was a foundation for the mutation of racist antisemitism that emerged in the 19th and 20th century and turned into industrialized murder by the Nazis.

Our Jewish neighbors have lived in the Middle East for over 3000 years. In spite of enforced emigrations, they never left Jerusalem and the surrounding areas completely. “Palestine” was a manufactured term by a vindictive Roman Empire in the 130s AD as they banished the Jews for their resistance and renamed Israel after their historic enemies the Philistines. The land that is now Israel was under Roman, Byzantine, Islamic/Ottoman, and from 1917 to 1947 British rule. There was never a cohesive Palestinian state or national identity – until Jews began to return to the land of their ancestors in the 19th and 20th centuries.

This return – led by a variety of Zionist movements – was not a military conquest. Land was purchased legally from the locals and with approval of the Ottoman Empire. Often the parcels purchased were of little value – desert and swampland, overpriced urban real estate, etc. With the help of global friends and much hard work, flourishing villages emerged and Jewish culture was revitalized. The end of World War I brought a surge of Jewish immigration, with the initial approval of the British and even the welcome of King Abdullah of Transjordan. With both League of Nations and local approval, a variety of plans were made for a homeland. Several Zionist groups agreed to an autonomous Jewish zone within Abdullah’s kingdom in 1922. Alas, the rise of the Muslim Brotherhood and the leadership of the Mufti of Jerusalem shattered such peaceful plans with their calls for violent jihad. From the 1920s to the present, all attempts at peace (including offering a co-capital in Jerusalem and 96% of territories gained by Israel in her victory of 1967) have been rejected. Yet Israel is blamed for her “occupation” and “oppression.”

Peace in the Middle East will only come when Arab leaders acknowledge the right of Israel to exist as the national homeland of the Jewish people and stop questioning her legitimacy and calling for her destruction. It is chic for some Western progressives to demonize Israel and see Palestinians as the oppressed, even to the point of calling Israel (and by extension all Jews) “White” colonizers! Such ignorance of anthropology, ancient and modern history, and the facts on the ground is appalling. The surge in global anti-Jewish violence is a direct result of such deceptive ideologies and narratives.

The enormous contributions of Jewish tradition and the current State of Israel are gifts to our world. Israeli global compassion, leadership in medicine, science, and technology, flourishing cultural expressions and willingness to cooperate with others are signs of goodness that no agitation propaganda can completely erase. Sometimes there are not two equal sides to every issue. In the case of Israel against the world, our Jewish friends have the high ground. Should Israel be criticized for some of her actions? Yes – and there is no livelier public square than Israeli politics! But turning our ears and eyes away from the real issues will not foster lasting peace.

The Way Forward, Part Six: A Public Ethics Primer: What Do We Prohibit, Promote, and Permit?

Common sense and genuine consensus are in short supply in a world on edge and poised for a fight. Objectionable ideas are labeled, ‘triggers” and “violence” when they do not conform to the sensitivities of ever-changing groupthink. Free speech is under assault and critical words about cultural, political, and religious ideas are now “phobias.” Denouncing historical Jewish and Christian beliefs are fair game, however, because they symbolize oppression for the chattering classes untethered to religion.

How do we forge a principled middle ground in the wake of the onslaughts from ideologues more in tune with totalitarianism that pluralistic democracy?  How do we ensure that freedom of conscience and religion, speech and government redress, and peaceable assembly remain foundations for our future?

One way forward is robust debate on ethics that affect public policy. We are not speaking about religious diets, dress, or deportment or the beliefs of peaceful communities. We must have civil discussion toward consensus on the values that will guide our experiment in virtue-based liberty. All societies have explicit and implicit values that help them cohere. For example, keeping promises is not only important for personal relationships. The entire (global and local) economy rests on trust: invoices paid, deliveries made, and the diligent efforts all engaged in the choreography of work. So, there is at least implicit agreement that trust matters.

There are three categories that can help order our thinking. First, what actions must be prohibited, without qualification? Most people will stand against all forms of assault or violence, dishonesty, endangerment of others, and theft, among many more. But before we move on, we must debate some areas that were previously obvious. Will we continue to penalize sexual practices between adults and minors? Will we prosecute crimes that we think are non-violent, but hurt the community, such as shoplifting? Several pharmacies serving the elderly in San Francisco closed because the DA would not prosecute thieves. On the other side, are we going to impose Orwellian limits on speech because some folks take offence? Will we continue to intimidate and silence speakers?

Second, what ideals, values, and actions will we positively promote as a society? Most folks would argue that personal responsibility, hard work, educational advancement, professional excellence, family cohesion, and care for others should be part of a consensus values system. But wait. Many of these values are now considered legacies and memes of oppression. If a father wants to support the mother and child of their union that is noble…unless it gets in the way of an abortion. Some Marxist theories remove almost all agency from the individual, making everyone part of the oppressed or oppressing classes. We should debate what virtues are essential and we will not always agree. The challenge is finding shared ideals in a world that thrives on anger and polarization.

The third category gets at the heart of liberty: what will we permit in a pluralistic society? Will we live peaceably with deep differences and debate with civility? We often confuse permission with promotion, and disagreement with intolerance. Here is an example: a deeply religious person believes that sexual intimacy is reserved for heterosexual, monogamous marriage (Most Christians, Jews, and Muslims, as a start). This same person is a good neighbor to gay couples or common-law couples next door. Desiring others change their practices is not intolerance – it is fidelity to one’s code or faith. Our religious friend is not depriving anyone of love – she or he has their particular standards. We do affirm freedom of conscience and religion and thankfully have no coercive state religion (unlike the majority of Islamic nations that prohibit or severely restrict other faiths). Will we allow the free exchange of moral and spiritual ideas, or marginalize groups that disagree with whatever trendy ideas are capturing the public imagination? Conservatives must affirm full liberty and progressives must not assume certain moral stances are intolerant.

May we care enough about others and pursue such dialogues on our pathways toward liberty and justice for all.

The Way Forward, Part Five: Good People, Bad Systems: Steps to Liberation

In our contentious world, it is wise that we pause and examine some of the foundations of our current chaos. We are assailed with ideological inputs from all sides. The moment someone calls for personal responsibility for social ills they are labeled insensitive, racist, or worse. When another utters the words, “systemic injustice” they are branded a Marxist. Dialogues end in both cases and resolutions are far away.

This essay is not about ideological preferences or even specific public policies. My aim is unveiling a phenomenon that hinders human flourishing: we have many good people trapped in bad systems. For decades I have listened to thoughtful women and men offer innovative solutions in classrooms and over coffee, only to go back into their offices and organizations that stifle creativity and promote conformity.

These bad systems almost have a life of their own. They breed fantasies and fatalism – promising the world with just a bit more money or promoting a bureaucratic apathy of hopelessness that hopes next year’s budget includes them. These bad systems are in private and public agencies and recognizing the signs and refusing to submit to the inevitable are the first steps forward toward liberation.

There are three insights that will help us find freedom. First, we must recognize the phenomena of systemic captivity. These include losing sight of the mission, self-preserving activities, and forgetting that all systems are supposed to serve the mission, not become an end in themselves. Second, we must accept that real change is painful and includes many finding new employment or learning new skills. Effectiveness includes new efficiencies. Institutional systems must be nimble. Transitions can be compassionate, but they will not be easy. Third, advocates of systems change will be marginalized, even hated. The purest motives and the wisest pathways will still meet the inevitable resistance to change.

Here are two applications that can change history. The first is commitment to a balanced federal budget and more local administration of vital programs. We need the universal ethics of federal influence (to ensure fairness) and the efficiencies of local systems for many public programs. Of course, there will be many job changes if we get serious about this. A second application more fun: non-profit and for-profit partnerships that help further flourishing with each bringing the best of their ethos and systems to the particular causes they are working on together. Good ethics and best practices apply to both kinds of organizations.

Before we label or libel leaders, let’s pause and look at the systems in place and see if we can find common cause in reform that leads to better results.

The Way Forward, Part Four: Sanity about Being Human

We are in an anthropological crisis. What does it mean to be human? Do male and female identity have any meaning? What does “the science” say about human identity? Is the biological family still the key unit of society or do children belong to “the collective?” For people of faith, how do truth and toleration unite for a peaceful world?

In coming essays, I will speak to the issues of sexual identity and practice in more detail. For this work, I want to offer three guiding principles for a sane way forward regarding human identity and how we see “the other.” I am writing as a Christian, and as a public thinker desiring for all others the liberties that I claim for myself. Having firm theological convictions is not intolerance.

The first step toward sanity is love and respect for every individual we meet. Love means that we desire their best. Respect in this context is seeing identity and potential, not necessarily instant trust. The reason we love and respect each person is that they are created in God’s image. Every person possesses inherent value, regardless of class or culture, gender or race, ability or social situation. The Bible’s opening chapter contains the most dignifying words about being human (selections from Genesis 1:26-28):

“Let us make humankind in our image, after our likeness.
And let them have dominion over the fish of the sea
and over the birds of the heavens
and over the livestock and over all the earth…

God created humankind in his own image,
in the image of God, he created him,
male and female he created them.”

And God blessed them. And God said to them
“Be fruitful and multiply…”

Notice the order of the poetry. We are created in God’s image. We are given work to do: overseeing (not exploiting) creation. And thirdly, we do this as male and female, equally bearing God’s image/likeness. Identity, purpose, gender…the order matters! From the earliest moments of recorded history to the present, people of all cultures and faiths and have found ways to misinterpret, rebel, and subvert this beautiful passage. We allow blood and soil to lead to subjugation of other groups. Sinful structures define male and female in ways that oppress the latter and pervert the former. The church has mostly failed in her history of welcoming men and women as equal partners and inviting all classes and cultures into a beautiful community of love and justice. There is hope…and it is found in the second principle.

The second step in the path forward is understanding that the person and work of Jesus Christ creates a new humanity liberated from the unjust ideologies and systems created by power-hungry sinful people. The Christ Event includes:

  • The divine affirmation of the goodness of being human – in body and spirit – for in Jesus Christ, God is forever one of us! (John 1:1-18)
  • The joy of Jesus as he willingly offers himself as the ransom of liberation and reconciling sacrifice, atoning for the sins of the whole world. (Mark 10:45; Romans 3:21-31; I John 2:1-2) Everyone we meet is worth Jesus’ sacrifice.
  • Jesus’ resurrection announces victory over death and hopelessness, and offers a preview of our future. (Romans 8:28-30; Colossians 1:15-22). Everyone we meet can receive the gift of salvation and be part of a new community anticipating the future.
  • The Holy Spirit is God in and with the church, empowering her for worship and witness, comforting and convicting of sin, and giving gifts to all, regardless of past transgressions or particular identities. (Acts 2-4, 11-15; I Corinthians 12-14; Ephesians 1:13-14)

The third guiding insight for sanity about being human is the biblical hope of a new community of joy and justice, embracing all cultures and empowering worship and work on a renewed earth. The poetry of Revelation offers these visions for all who believe (Revelation 5:9; 7:9; 21:3):

You are worthy to take the scroll and open its seals,
Because you were slain,
And with your blood you purchased for God
Persons from every tribe and language and people and nation.
You have made them to be a kingdom and priest to serve our God,
And they will reign on the earth.
And there before me was a great multitude that no one could count,
From every nation, tribe, people, and language,
Standing before the throne and before the Lamb.
And I heard a loud voice from the throne saying,
“Look! God’s dwelling place in now among the people, and he will dwell with them.”

This destiny is not automatic, for this future rests on people freely saying yes to the good news of Jesus Christ. This said, we have a beautiful trifecta of truth guiding our relationships. Everyone we meet is made in God’s image. Everyone we meet is worth the sacrifice of Jesus. Everyone we meet can enjoy a destiny that is anticipated today in community.

Let’s ground our thinking and actions in God’s design, deliverance, and destiny instead of our preferences and prejudices and we can foster foretastes of a beautiful future.

The Way Forward, Part Three: An Ancient-Future Posture: Holiness and Hospitality

“You are invalidating and rejecting people with your narrow-minded intolerance.” “The Bible is full of ideas that are outdated.” “You preach about loving everyone, but where is your call for justice?” “Yes, abortion is bad, but it is not the only issue.” “You keep wrapping the cross in the American flag.”

Biblical Christians and their communities are attacked daily with the above accusations, and much more. On one hand, rejection and even persecution are expected for Christians. On the other hand, Jesus said we were blessed when persecuted for righteousness’ sake, not our self-righteousness or religiosity. Recent events have uncovered the church’s deep need to reckon with and repent of many historical and contemporary hypocrisies and injustices. No one and no institution are immune to the trappings of false idols and ideologies, the lure of power, and the temptations of narcissism and pleasure-seeking.

From a posture of humility and fidelity to the gospel, what is a way forward for Christian witness and the Church in our era of accusation, cancellation, and rebellion?

Mining the riches of Scripture and history, there is an “ancient-future” (thank you, to the late Robert Webber and Pastor Dan Kimball for this term) posture that can transform the life of church, improve the credibility of her witness, and open doors to spiritual seekers. The criticisms above are sometimes the words of rebellious enemies of the gospel. More often, they reflect the heart-cries and confusion of those that desire to know Jesus and be in community, but cannot reconcile the chasm between declaration and demonstration, preaching and practice.

The private and public posture for the path forward is uniting holiness with hospitality. There is no need for doctrinal and moral compromise and the doors of relationship and grace are wide open for all. Sounds great in theory, but what do these terms mean in practice?

Holiness begins with reverence for the Almighty, surrender to his will, and finding our identity in Christ before any other loyalties of blood or soil. Holiness is not a “holier-than-thou” attitude – just the opposite. It is fidelity to the covenant and community through the Cross and Resurrection and a continual conversion of life away from self and sin toward service rooted in love for God and neighbor. Holiness means the ways of God are not optional, yet life is not reduced to rules. Holiness is more than particular deportment and discipline regarding sex or lifestyle choices. Holiness touches all dimensions of life. We worship the Lord God, not our idols. We are becoming whole, not living for self. We have healthy relationships, and do not see people in merely utilitarian ways. We have a sense of calling that is more than our current work, and our work is offered to God as worship. We desire all come to Christ, and that people of all faiths or none share in the common good we help create. A holy life is one of integration, where joy and justice, generosity and liberty, truth and toleration, and open-handed leaning and service are brought together.

With holiness as both passion and practice, hospitality is the natural companion. Jesus ate and conversed with both religious leaders and the marginal, exposing hypocrisy and delivering from destructive patterns. Hospitality has been a hallmark of the church from here earliest moments of fellowship in Jerusalem (Acts 2-6) to learning to live in community with diverse people (I Corinthians 10-14; Galatians 3; Colossians 3), and inviting seekers to hear the gospel and join the Church (Acts 13-28).

Christian hospitality helped create the first hospitals and hospices, hotels and homes for orphans. I am not claiming a Christian exclusive on compassion, just noting the goodness of persecuted believers who cared for plague victims in the 3rd century and have pioneered the private and public institutions we take for granted today.

On a more personal and practical level, hospitality means welcoming seekers struggling with sin into the community, and walking with them as they consider the claims of Christ. Unconditional love and uncompromising holiness unite as we call everyone to submit to Christ and befriend and care for others. If our friends desire baptism and membership in the church, they are agreeing to learn to walk in the ways of the Lord and conform their lives to Scripture. This does not mean instant perfection nor should standards be changed. Business leaders must bring their daily ethics to the Cross. Addictions need counsel and healing. Lifestyles contrary to Christ are gradually abandoned in favor of pleasing God. Greed, classism, racism, sexism all yield to the Cross. And when we fail, there are friends and leaders ready as agents of forgiveness and restoration.

Keeping holiness and hospitality in divine balance will restore credibility and community. Loving God will open our hearts to repentance and loving our neighbors will create a receptive atmosphere for healing and hope. Knowing we are loved by God will help us confront personal iniquity and systemic injustice. Relativism yield to true righteousness and intolerance becomes inquiry. May we have the courage to take this pathway forward.