Tag Archives: liberty

History and Hope: Renewing the American Promise Part One: Foundations

As the fireworks fade, it is fitting we reflect on America’s founding and future. For the theologically inclined, you will not find any traces of chosen nation status or manifest destiny in this essay. Biblically, there is one chosen nation/people: ancient Israel liberated under Moses and the expanded Israel of the Church established by Messiah Jesus. (See Exodus 19:6 and I Peter 2:9-10). We can, however, reflectively see the hand of divine providence in the affairs of nations. If we were to tour the globe and speak with Christians of all classes, cultures, and communities, we would hear stories of grace and discipline, amazing miracles from God and serious consequences of human rebellion.

America is a unique historical experiment in virtue-based liberty, sharing much in common with other nations, but bringing unique ideas and interventions to our world. In a spirit of gratitude and humility, here are some moments of blessing and tragedy that will help us pray and prepare for a preferred future.

Blessing: In 1620, the passengers of the Mayflower disembarked and discovered an indigenous man who spoke English and knew the Christian faith – his name was Squanto. His story of captivity, Christian instruction, and return to his land over a 15-year period is a drama all by itself. His skills enabled these pilgrims to survive and there was peace for half a century.

Tragedy: Alas, a year earlier (1619) in the Virginia colony, the first African slaves were brought ashore, beginning 246 years of chattel slavery on the North American continent. The need for strong labor to cultivate tobacco overtook any notions of justice and equality. Ironically, it will be several Virginians (Jefferson, Madison, Washington) that composed the finest writings on human liberty and best governance practices!

Blessing: In the 17th century, several colonies were sanctuaries for religious freedom, welcoming people of all backgrounds. Rhode Island was founded by Roger Williams for the expressed purpose of freedom of conscience and faith. Maryland, established by Lord Baltimore, was a haven for Catholics – and all others. Delaware had settlers from Scandinavia, Germany, Wales, and other locales. William Penn’s “Noble Experiment” establishing a sanctuary for Quakers and people of all faiths, was a special moment of divine blessing. Penn’s treaty with the indigenous tribes was the only one not broken by White settlers!

Blessing: Before the American Revolution, there were a series of religious revivals in the 1740s called the First Great Awakening that saw almost an eighth of the colonial population experience conversion. These moments of religious enthusiasm also stated a century of new missionary and social justice movements that would influence many important causes in the 19th and 20th century. Abolition of slavery, universal education, child labor reforms, women’s suffrage, and many other noble causes arose from deeply religious people joining with other people of conscience.

Blessing and tragedy: The Founders of our nation and Framers of our Constitution were a brilliant, idealistic, and wise group of leaders. They created an unprecedented government rooted in freedom of conscience, individual liberty, decentralized governance, and rights bestowed by God and protected by the Bill of Rights. Extraordinary work! But. In the interests of forming an improved national government for a fledgling nation, the Framers failed to inaugurate a plan for emancipation of the slaves. All but a few of these great thinkers knew in their hearts that slavery was unjust, and this failure harmed the integrity of the American vision.

As we will see in Part Two, it will take a Civil War to end slavery, and a century later, Civil Rights to end discrimination based on race. This does not invalidate the greatness of the American experiment, but it reveals the hardness of the human heart and the need for divine mercy. As we look at the second half of our kaleidoscopic history, we will notice more moments of blessings and judgment, all of which are designed to move us toward humility, holy love, and dedication to the common good.

A Vintage Essay on Toleration

Five years ago, I posted these words on Facebook and other locales. All the same problems remain, for reasons enumerated last week. I share this again so we can see that the fight for virtue-based liberty is never done. I want for all others the freedoms I desire for myself. Here is the essay:

Dear California legislators,

In your zeal to condemn conversion therapy and ban resources that suggest LGBTQ+ folks could be led toward “hetero-normative” identity (AB2943), you are creating a less tolerant world. I think many of you mean well, but there are some future consequences if your ideology wins:

Will you ban resources and speech from Muslim communities that welcome converts and encourage traditional roles?

Will you condemn conservative and orthodox Jews for their teachings?

Will you reject other cultural and religious groups that do not share your fluid views on gender?

Oh, one more thing…if one’s identity is chosen and fluid, what can’t someone decide (without coercion) to be straight after a season of gay or bi identity?

Toleration does not mean agreement. I do not want a return to any prior eras and I will defend liberty of conscience/religion, lifestyle and speech for those I disagree with. It is easy to attack the religious traditions that birthed the liberties we enjoy.

It is more virtuous to keep the public square open for real debate and learn living with our deepest differences with civility and respect. Building a future of friendship and cooperation across cultures and ideologies requires love and patience, humility and openness.

Let’s choose full inclusion instead of creating new echo chambers.

America: An Experiment in Virtue-Based Liberty

As we celebrate our nation’s 246th birthday, it is a good time for reflection on our historical and contemporary strengths and weaknesses, and rededicate ourselves to best ideals of the founders and framers.

Trigger warnings: If you regard America as the source of most of the evil in the world, you will be provoked by the essay. If you regard America as a divinely-chosen nation, you will be unhappy. OK, time for reflection.

American history has a few saints and many sinners. The founding of colonies such as Plymouth, Rhode Island, Maryland, and Pennsylvania with freedom of religion baked into their identities are a highlight of our history. The intolerance found in 17th and 18th century Massachusetts, Connecticut, and Virginia is tragic for liberty.

Slavery came crashing to our shores in 1619 and affected all American colonies, even where it was not widely practiced. The de facto and de jure oppression of million due to race violated everything later enumerated in the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution. This is why African Americans rightly speak of three American founding moments: the “promissory note” of 1776, the Emancipation of Juneteenth, 1865 with the passage of 14th and 15th Amendments, and the Civil Rights and Voting Acts of 1965. We are still overcoming the systemic evils of slavery and Jim Crow, but progress has been made.

Religious and social awakenings have helped the cause of justice throughout our history. Abolitionist movements, educational and labor reform, 70 years of work by the Suffragettes, and many more private and public initiatives have cleared the way for millions to enjoy a better life. We must celebrate these moments of progress and well as lament the evils they sought to overcome.

We have opened and shut our gates to immigrants during our 246 years. Like all Empires (yes, we are an empire, with the conquest of a continent and acquisition of oversee territories), a dominant tribe begins opening citizenship to others. For the USA, White Protestants have haltingly welcomed women and men from all cultures. From the despised Irish to the isolated Chinese, to a huge Central and Eastern European influx in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, along with the variegated hospitality to Hispanic/Latino neighbors. At times we fulfilled the words of the Statue of Liberty and welcomed the “huddled masses.” At other times, xenophobia overtook justice and Fortress America with all its toxic narrowness took over. Such evil kept thousands of Jews from finding refuge during the Shoah. Other times it was non-European groups that were systemically kept out. Ironically, the current non-policies for immigration allow foreign money to buy influence and open our doors to whoever can pay, while denying many hard-working folks opportunities and pathways to citizenship.

America is a land of economic opportunity, and, in the last half-century, a generous benefactor to those who struggle. We are still the land of promise for millions, while we struggle to reform bad welfare policies and poor educational systems that keep too many citizens from flourishing. Once again, a mixture of greatness and deep flaws.

Finally, our treatment of the Indigenous Peoples from the 17th century to the present was uniformly unjust, with only a few exceptions led by missionaries and visionaries. Exploitation was unnecessary – we could still have fashioned our free land without breaking every treaty, forcible conquest and exile, and maltreatment of cultures quite divergent from the European imports. Only repentance, economic repair, and humility can begin repairing this history. Yes, the Indigenous were not all virtuous, and one can argue that there were moments of violence perpetrated on colonists and settlers that were evil. But the proportionality is clear, and the Christian and Enlightened ideals of the (mostly) White conquerors were subverted by greed and racism.

Finally, our history has been punctuated with marvelous religious and social awakenings that further the cause of liberty, and enshrining freedom of conscience/religion in the First Amendment has made all religious communities stronger and self-sufficient. We remain one of the few nations in the world where anyone can peaceably start a religious community without permission from the government (unless you desire tax-exemption). Right now, we can assemble and practice our faiths with no interference from the state. Yes, there are complications and exceptions, but this remains the most enduring legacy of our American Experiment.

So, let’s raise a toast, and fall to our knees. Let’s celebrate opportunity and lament injustice. Let’s labor so all can flourish, and humbly ask for divine help. Happy Birthday, USA!

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 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.