An Open Letter to my Brothers and Sisters in Christ

Photo from CBC News

A Guest post from Robert Short Sr.

This message is only for those who claim to follow Christ, it does not apply to others as they cannot, and should not, be expected to live like Christ followers.

 

My Brothers and Sisters in Christ,

Even if you have been living under a rock, you have heard about President Trump’s recent actions on immigration. For clarity, I am speaking of the at least 120-day ban on all refugees, at least 90-day ban on all people from seven countries, and the indefinite ban on Syrian refugees. You also likely have your own opinion on this issue, and I will not provide you with any new facts today, however, I hope to provide you with a perspective that you may not have considered.

These Muslims are fleeing countries where it is, either de facto or de jure, illegal for Christians to tell others about Christ, and where people who get saved face death. They are begging to be allowed to come to a country where they can hear about Christ, where they will not have to choose between rejecting Christ and martyrdom. Yes, that isn’t why they want to come, but the woman didn’t go to the well to meet Jesus either. 

We are told that Satan is the father of lies, that he deceives people, and is active in our world. After hearing of the barbarisms of ISIS, I cannot see how anyone doubts this. Yet, the main reasons people in the Church cite for supporting the ban are all based on lies. No refugee has killed a single person in a terrorist attack in the US. The countries that have actively sponsored terrorists that have attacked the US homeland aren’t even on the ban list. Whether other Muslim majority countries allow refugees in or not is beside the point, we are not called to live and act as the world does. In fact, we are commanded to do the opposite, for Christ said, “Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, bless those who curse you, pray for those who mistreat you.”

This is not to mention the fact that we are not called to sit inside our safe zones and worry. We are meant to be taking the fight for the lost to the enemy. As Christ said, “I will build my church, and the gates of hell shall not prevail against it.”, and as an infantry veteran, I can tell you, when you attack you don’t bring the gates.

We are commanded to go into all the world and tell them about Jesus, and part of the world we have been shut off from is begging us to let them come here. Our choice by brothers and sisters cannot be more clear, do we give in to fear and the petty politics of this world, or do we set the concerns that hinder us and run this race that he has set before us, because anyone who is against letting the lost hear the word is not serving the Word.

Remember:

How, then, can they call on the one they have not believed in? And how can they believe in the one of whom they have not heard? And how can they hear without someone preaching to them?

Your yokemate in Christ,

Robert W. T. Short, Sr.

 

R.W.T. Short, Sr. is an accountant and veteran of Operation Iraqi Freedom. He is a civil libertarian and Veteran’s Rights activist. He lives in Covington, Va. with his wife of ten years, their three children, and their dogs. He can be reached via email at Robert.W.T.Short.Sr@GMail.com and on Twitter at @RobertShortSr.

Those Peculiar Anabaptists

While walking to church at RISE United Methodist Church this morning, I thought about yesterday’s events.  Walking often provides a good opportunity to reflect and I strongly encourage you to do so as well.  However, sometimes these walks can be unplanned, such as when you accidentally lock yourself out.  Anyway, as I thought about my visit to a Baptist church last night in Broadway, Virginia, to hear a gospel/bluegrass group, I realized that it had been quite a while since I last visited a Baptist church.  In fact, I couldn’t remember the last time that I had done so.

I thought back to my time in the church of my youth, which, at least for the moment, is part of the Presbyterian Church (USA).  Specifically, I remembered the Book of Confessions, which, along with the Book of Order, governs the major theological and organizational structure of the denomination.  Many of you might think it odd that a rank and file member would read such a book, but I believe that knowledge is valuable and one should strive to learn something new everyday.  Anyway, as I recalled from reading that book a few years ago, the PCUSA didn’t have anything good to say about believer baptism and the Anabaptists.  Although scholars debate the extent of the influence, Baptists churches share some views and history with the Anabaptist movement.  And, there are direct successors to the Anabaptist movement, such as the Mennonites and the Amish.

anabaptistmartyr
One early “solution” to the Anabaptists

Once I got home, I found the Book of Confessions and looked up what was written about the Anabaptists.  You could hardly call the answer conciliatory.  For example, it includes the Second Helvetic Confession, which reads, “ANABAPTISTS.  We condemn the Anabaptists, who deny that new-born infants of the faithful are to be baptized.”  It goes on to add, “…we condemn also the Anabaptists in the rest of their peculiar doctrines which they hold contrary to the Word of God.  We therefore are not Anabaptists and have nothing in common with them.”

Think about that idea for a moment.  “We condemn…the Anabaptists…and have nothing in common with them.”  Aren’t both Presbyterians and Anabaptists part of the larger Christian community?  Don’t they both desire to promote the message and teachings of Jesus to the world?  And yet here we have the Presbyterians openly denouncing the Anabaptists, declaring that they have nothing in common.

However, you shouldn’t think that this one mention is some outlier of the disdain the Presbyterians have for the Anabaptists.  Similar thoughts also show up elsewhere in the Second Helvetic Confession as well as in The Scots Confession.

Now, to be fair, although I grew up in a Presbyterian Church, I agree with the Baptists and the Mennonites on the issue of infant baptism.  I think that each person should be allowed to make the decision for him or herself whether or not to be baptized.  Baptism, in my mind, is an outward demonstration to the community of a believer’s faith in Jesus Christ.  I admit that I am disappointed that I was baptized when I was a child and thus was not given the opportunity to make this decision for myself freely.

Yes, there are a wide variety of Christian denominations, each with varying beliefs on issues of baptism, communion, structure and leadership of the church, and a whole host of other theological and organizational issues.  On many matters the Bible is either silent or has been interpreted in different ways by a variety of church leaders.  That’s one reason why there are so many denominations in Christianity today.

However, the Anabaptists aren’t alone in earning the Presbyterians’ condemnation in the Book of Confessions.  Included as well are: The Roman Catholic Church, Epicureans, Manichaeans, Marcionites, Pelagians, Jovinians, Stoics, Navatianos, Catharists, not to mention both the Jews and the Muslims.

It should be noted that in the preface of the Book of Confessions, the PCUSA adds, “Specific statements in 16th and 17th century confessions and catechisms in the Book of Confessions contain condemnations or derogatory characterizations of the Roman Catholic Church.”  However, these “condemnations and characterizations of the Catholic Church are not the position of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) and are not applicable to current relationships between the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) and the Catholic Church.”  Nevertheless, I can find no mention of any retraction of the harsh language against the Anabaptists, others who oppose infant baptism, or any of the other listed groups.

Through my studies I have come to reject most of the Reformed Tradition that underpins Presbyterian doctrine.  However, is it useful to wholesale condemn those “peculiar” Anabaptists, those incorrect Presbyterians, or any other denomination?  Although I attend a Methodist church, I disagree with them on the issue of baptism.  Nevertheless, aren’t we all brothers and sisters in the larger body of Christ even when our theology divides us?  How is it helpful to the larger ideals of Christianity to have Christians displaying such rancor toward each other?  Should we be teaching hate over issues that the average Christian probably doesn’t think much about?  And what purpose does it serve to condemn the Jewish or the Muslims?  Is it possible to engage in any sort of meaningful dialogue using such language?  Or is it the desire of some church leaders to keep us in open hostility with each other?  Couldn’t we instead simply state that we have major theological disagreements without all of the condemnation?  One of my best friends growing up was a Mennonite.  Should I have had nothing to do with him or those who share his beliefs as the doctrines of my former church taught?

I don’t know.  Maybe I feel this way just because I don’t neatly fit into a mold; my own beliefs are a rather curious amalgamation of the churches I’ve attended and explored including: Brethren, Presbyterian, Seventh Day Adventist, and now Methodist, but I’d rather speak with and learn from others, including my Mennonite and Baptist friends, rather than condemn them and declare that I “have nothing in common with them”.  After all, none of us is perfect nor should any of us declare that we alone hold absolute knowledge.  People learn, grow, and change, but that process is much more difficult in an environment of condemnation as opposed to one of communication.  Are we following Christ’s example when we either literally or figuratively burn each other at the stake?

Let me close with a few thoughts from the Apostle Paul.

I appeal to you, dear brothers and sisters, by the authority of our Lord Jesus Christ, to live in harmony with each other.  Let there be no divisions in the church.  Rather, be of one mind, united in thought and purpose.  For some members of Chloe’s household have told me about your quarrels, my dear brothers and sisters.  Some of you are saying, “I am a follower of Paul.”  Others are saying, “I follow Apollos,” or “I follow Peter,” or “I follow only Christ.”

Has Christ been divided into factions?  Was I, Paul, crucified for you?  Were any of you baptized in the name of Paul?  Of course not!

1 Corinthians 1:10-13 NLT

Palin’s “Baptism”

Image from Gage Skidmore on Wikipedia
Image from Gage Skidmore on Wikipedia

This weekend, 2008 Republican vice presidential candidate spoke at a gathering of the National Rifle Association.  During her talk she stated, “If I were in charge, they would know that waterboarding is how we baptize terrorists.”  That line was met with considerable applause from the crowd.

Although I have a lot of areas of disagreement with Sarah Palin’s former running mate, Senator John McCain of Arizona, one position that I did appreciate was his steadfast opposition to torture.  Having served in Vietnam, we have been told that he experienced horrible treatment at the hands of his captors and thus knows firsthand of these loathsome practices.  As such, McCain believes that America should not embrace the inhuman tactics of torture.  Regrettably, it seems that Sarah Palin thinks otherwise.

Palin’s viewpoint seems to harken back to Senator Lindsey Graham of South Carolina who famously declared that anyone suspected of being a terrorist, whether proven or not, should not be afforded due process or legal protection under either the U.S. Constitution or international law.

Also, Sarah Palin doesn’t seem to understand that although torture can sometimes provide useful information, it can also be wildly unreliable as “people will say anything when subjected to intense pain“.

Not only are Palin’s comments on Saturday disturbing from the perspective of constitutional liberty and human rights, they also indicate a troubling theology.

Does she believe that we ought to forcibly baptize non-Christians?  Are her thoughts a nod to the idea of conversion by the sword, the same practice that many on the right condemn some Muslims for enacting on their non-Muslim neighbors?

And shouldn’t most Christians be offended by the idea of comparing baptism, which many of us believe holds deep theological significance, to the loathsome torture of waterboarding?  Do we honestly believe that baptism ought to be held up in the same light of simulated drowning?

Therefore, as they are an affront to both civil liberties and to Christianity, Sarah Palin’s comments regarding baptism by waterboarding must be completely and utterly repudiated.

Mainstreaming Mormonism

One particularly interesting development regarding the 2012 Presidential Election is the possibility that Americans could elect a member of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, better known to many as a Mormon.  Personally, I’m quite surprised that the issue of Mitt Romney’s religious faith has not played a larger role in public discussions.

If we turn back the clock a few decades, when John F. Kennedy ran for president in 1960, the fact that he was a member of the Catholic Church was a cause for concern for many citizens throughout the nation, sparking fears that he would owe his greatest allegiance, not to the United States and her people, but rather to a pope in the Vatican.  Recently, in response to this potential 2012 Mormon controversy, the perhaps best-known evangelist, Billy Graham, tried to defuse the situation, offering some tactic support of Mitt Romney’s candidacy and his church.  This news was a bit of a shock to many, given Graham’s previous declarations that the Mormon Church is a “cult”. 

I assume that there is generally little widespread knowledge regarding the Latter-day Saints, also known as the LDS Church.  Before spending considerable time learning about the religion and meeting many Mormons while living in Charlottesville, VA, in the mid 2000s, I’ll confess that Mormonism put me at unease; this concern did not stem from a reasoned theological disagreement with the church, but rather a lack of understanding and general widespread prejudice.  Now, I won’t claim to be an expert on the subject, but I’ll start off by saying that there are a number of issues that set Mormonism apart from what is generally regarded as traditional Christianity.  Some of the best well-known distinctions of Mormonism include the Book of Mormon and the church’s previous support of polygamy.

Let’s start with the Book of Mormon.  According to Mormon theology, Joseph Smith, the founder and first prophet of the LDS Church, through the assistance of the angel Moroni, discovered a number of golden plates on a hill in upstate New York.  With the aid of “seeing stones”, Smith translated the writing on many of these plates into what is now known as The Book of Mormon.  The text describes the ancient people of America as a lost tribe of Israelites and explores their history and theology.  In addition, after his death in the Middle East, Jesus appeared to these early Americans to impart teachings, many of which are similar to the concepts found in the Bible.  Some time later, two factions within these ancient peoples, the Nephites and the Lamanites came into brutal conflict.  The last Nephite, the then human Moroni, wrote the final portion of the Book of Mormon and buried the text only to be discovered by Smith about 1500 years later.  Besides the Book of Mormon, the LDS have additional extra-biblical texts including the Pearl of Great Price and the Doctrines and Covenants.

Polygamy, (more specifically polygyny, the practice of a man taking multiple wives), was an early custom in the Mormon Church.  Joseph Smith had a number of spouses as did Brigham Young, who led the Mormons on their trek to what is now the state of Utah.  Perhaps not surprisingly, polygamy caused considerable tension with the non-Mormon population and the United States government, which was one compelling reason for the Mormons to move westward, away from the established American communities.  Perhaps not surprisingly, Utah was not admitted as a state in the union until the Mormons renounced polygamy, which they did in the Manifesto of 1890.

Besides the Book of Mormon and early support for polygyny, there are a number of other aspects of the Latter-day Saints, which set them apart both in theology and in practice from traditional Christianity.  For example, there is baptism for the dead, where a member of the Church can, by proxy, be baptized for a deceased person.  The reasoning in doing so is to allow the deceased person an opportunity to enter into heaven, which would previously be denied to someone who had not participated in this rite while alive.

Most people consider a fundamental element of Christianity is the idea of Trinitarianism, the belief that God exists simultaneously in three separate but united persons, the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. However, Mormons believe that God, Jesus, and the Holy Spirit are three separate gods.  In addition, Mormons believe in the concept of eternal progression where men and women can become like God.  As former LDS President Lorenzo Snow stated, “As God now is, man may be.”   This theological distinction could lead some to claim that Mormons are not monotheistic, but rather either polytheistic or henotheistic.

Interestingly, I have found that many socially conservative Christians, like Billy Graham, who, all things being equal, I would assume would reserve the greatest criticism for Mitt Romney’s Mormon ties, are some of his more ardent defenders.  Then again, I’ve also heard some of these very same people use the line that it is better to elect “a Mormon than a Muslim”; playing upon the fear that Barack Obama is secretly a Muslim and threatens to subvert our national interest to Islamic terrorists.  Do they dislike Mormons still, but reserve a greater distrust of Muslims?  For some people, is it simply another case of choosing the “lesser of two evils”?

One overarching question that needs to be asked is what makes a person or a church Christian?  It is simply holding the belief that Jesus is the messiah sent by God for the redemption of mankind and that following him is the only path to salvation?  Does it require a literal or figurative understanding of the Bible?  What about acceptance or rejection certain texts like the deuterocanonical portion of the Bible, also known as the Apocrypha, or the Book of Mormon itself?  Is baptism required and, if so, how and when should it be done?  Must Christians adhere to follow the leadership of a certain spiritual leader?  So, are Mormons Christians?  How about other groups often labeled as cults such as Jehovah Witnesses, Christian Scientists, or Unitarians?  Given their veneration of Mary and other differing beliefs, are Catholics Christian?  Does supporting predestination preclude calling Presbyterians Christian?   And can a person be a Christian even if the church to which he or she belongs is outside the traditional definition of the term?  What about those who have no official church membership?  Is there one simple answer to this question and can it be universally applied?

Anyway, as mentioned at the beginning of this article, it is quite possible that, like the 1960 election, this contest will re-define the American perception of what it means to be a Christian.  Mormons, like Catholics before them, once viewed with suspicion and hostility, might slowly be welcomed into the larger Christian fold.

Although I appreciate the chance to improve religious dialogue, I am disappointed that this conversation seemingly arose, not from a desire to promote understanding, but rather as an afterthought to advance a particular candidate.  Do conservatives, like Billy Graham, honestly now believe that Mormonism is simply another branch of Christianity and not a cult?  Or are they willing to cast aside their longstanding beliefs for political gain?  If the answer is the first, then I’m hopeful that this change will permit more people in this country to openly practice their religious convictions without fear of societal persecution.  However, if the answer is the second, which I worry is the case, then the state of organized religion and politics in America is in a much more sickly state than I previously imagined.

Regardless of the circumstances and any particular personal preferences, as a result of the 2012 elections, Mormonism is being mainstreamed.  Whether you adhere to a more traditional Christian tradition, you are a Mormon yourself, or you chart a path separate from either, this development does make for a lot of important theological and political ramifications in America today.

So Much For Religious Freedom?

You know, I was under the impression that citizens and businesses were allowed at least some measure of religious freedom.  After all, along with the freedom of speech and the press, isn’t that one of the primary purposes of the 1st Amendment?  Well, according to our unelected masters at the Federal Reserve, that right can be revoked.

Until late last week, a small bank in Perkins, Oklahoma displayed crosses, had a Bible verse on their website, and their tellers wore “Merry Christmas” buttons without any reported trouble.  However, having learned of this religious display, the Fed stepped in to trample upon the freedoms of the bank.  Worried that all of this imagery and holiday cheer would offend someone, it had to go.

Now, I believe that any person should have the freedom to express their religious beliefs as they see fit (assuming, of course, it doesn’t hamper the liberty of another).  If a bank wishes to display a cross, a menorah, a crescent moon, or a statue of Shiva, isn’t that their right?  Concurrently, whether they choose to celebrate (or not to celebrate) Christmas, Hanukkah, Kwanzaa, or anything else, shouldn’t they be allowed to?  If I don’t care for their display, as a customer, I am free to take my business elsewhere.  Is your faith (or lack there of) so weak that even the smallest of mention of a contrary opinion is damaging?  Do we live in a land of religious freedom and toleration…or a land forcibly wiped clean of religion, especially Christianity?

Fortunately, after considerable public demand, the Fed countermanded their original orders…at least for the moment.  I wish I could say that the issue has been resolved permanently, but such a claim would be extremely naïve.  This incident further illustrates that in the mad scramble for political correctness and overreaching government control, our rights can be quickly swept away if we are not constantly vigilant and willing to stand up for them.  I’d like to leave you with one question.  Would the Fed had acted in the same manner if the displays were Jewish or Hindu instead of Christian?  I really doubt it.

I want to send out thanks to the Shenandoah Valley Tea Party for bringing up this issue.  The original stories from the KOCO News of Oklahoma City can be found here and here.

Conversion by the Sword

Recently, I thought back to an event here in Harrisonburg with Dinesh D’Sousa.  At one point during the speech, he mentioned how it was a good thing that his ancestors were converted to Christianity (presumably not as a result of their own wish) as it resulted in his faith today.  Regardless of whether or not I remember this moment and its implications correctly, I wanted to discuss the issue of conversion by the sword.

Some people claim that when it comes to Christianity, it is perfectly acceptable to convert people using any and all methods possible, including force.  I completely disagree.  Although this tactic may, on the surface, appear to accomplish your goals, such an act actually damages both the convert and the faith as a whole.  Where, I ask, does it recommend the use of threats and/or force to spread the Christian message?  Can anyone find me a quote from Jesus advocating such a plan?  Shouldn’t one’s religious choice be made through spiritual desire as opposed to duress?  Now certainly, as a Christian myself, I believe that Christianity is the one true faith, but far too many have committed wicked acts to supposedly advance the cause.  History is replete with examples of supposed Christians forcing their beliefs on others through compulsion.  The Crusades, the Inquisitions, colonization, and imperialism all spring to mind.  Even Christian groups violently fought each other: the Thirty Years War, the Huguenots against the Catholics, the Spanish versus the French, and Northern Ireland, just to name a few.  How, as Christians, can we condemn the radical elements that advocate violent conversions and executions in Hinduism, Islam, and other religions when we do not reject the practice in Christianity too?  But wait, Joshua, it’s ok because we know that we are right!  Really?  What would Jesus say?  More importantly what would Jesus do?  Did he tell his followers to convert by the sword, or did he say, “Those who use the sword will be killed by the sword”?  (Matthew 26:52 NLT)  If one of the two most important commandments is supposedly, “Love your neighbor as yourself” (Matthew 22:40 NLT) how can you justify persecuting your neighbor and promoting bodily harm should he or she either not be Christian or happen to follow a differing denomination?  Would you do the same to yourself or your own family?  Is killing adults so that you can raise their children as Christians acceptable?  How about kidnapping or starvation?  Is perverting the original message through violence right if it swells the ranks of the faithful?  When it comes to Christianity, do the ends justify the means?  Although one can point to numerous examples of such behavior in the past, I cannot condone violence done in the name of Jesus.

For some reason, it seems perfectly socially acceptable to promote the ideals of democratic governance through force as well.  In World War I, we were supposedly fighting to make the world “safe for democracy”.  In the civil wars in Vietnam and Korea, we were fighting to preserve a democratic government from the forces of Communism.  In a more recent example, the conflict in Iraq, we were fighting to promote freedom and democracy in the Middle Eastern nation.  As George W. Bush stated in 2005, “So it is the policy of the United States to seek and support the growth of democratic movements and institutions in every nation and culture, with the ultimate goal of ending tyranny in our world…America’s belief in human dignity will guide our policies, yet rights must be more than the grudging concessions of dictators; they are secured by free dissent and the participation of the governed.”  Although Americans would likely agree that democratic government (or, at least, what we think of when we say democratic government) is the best form of government, how should we go about promoting this belief?  Early in our nation’s history, we thought that leading by example was the best method.  John Quincy Adams, while Secretary of State, echoed American thought when he stated in 1821, “She has abstained from interference in the concerns of others, even when conflict has been for principles to which she clings, as to the last vital drop that visits the heart….Wherever the standard of freedom and Independence has been or shall be unfurled, there will her heart, her benedictions and her prayers be. But she goes not abroad, in search of monsters to destroy. She is the well-wisher to the freedom and independence of all. She is the champion and vindicator only of her own. She will commend the general cause by the countenance of her voice, and the benignant sympathy of her example. She well knows that by once enlisting under other banners than her own, were they even the banners of foreign independence, she would involve herself beyond the power of extrication, in all the wars of interest and intrigue, of individual avarice, envy, and ambition, which assume the colors and usurp the standard of freedom. The fundamental maxims of her policy would insensibly change from liberty to force.”  Unfortunately, American leaders began to break free of this historical mooring and fought not for their own freedom, but sacrificed her children for the sake of others.  For examples, one need not look further than the conflicts mentioned in the early part of this paragraph.  Promoting democracy aggressively became a sort of religious zealotry.  Did, as Wilson suggested, the world need to be made safe for democracy?  If we had not entered World War I, would our government and way of life been either constantly imperiled or destroyed?  We held the same mistaken beliefs during the struggle against Communism with the Domino Theory.  Despite the logic of some leaders, the rise of Communism in some far eastern country would not necessarily lead to Communism in America.  After all, less than twenty years after losing the Vietnam War (or achieving “Peace with Honor” if you prefer), the entire Soviet Union collapsed.  And yet, this downfall did not come with some great and heroic military victory over the Red Army, but rather through the inherent weaknesses of the Communist system coupled with the desire for freedom from many of the nations and citizens trapped under such a regime.  Rather than learn from history, our leaders, such as President Bush, prefer to repeat past mistakes.  Although I would agree that a democratic government in the Middle East would be of value, some people pushed for war to establish such a government.  They pointed to the murderous atrocities committed by Saddam Hussein as justification, and then created a conflict that took the lives of about a hundred thousand Iraqi men, women, and children.  When we push our government on others (especially the unwilling ones), do we not lower ourselves to the level of tyrants, dictators, and imperialists?  Is democracy so great that an outside power can create it militarily and not create resentment regarding its bloody birth?  I certainly think not, though history shall prove the final judge.

In closing, I would just like to reiterate my earlier points.  Even though there are many differing viewpoints in this world of ours, and the prevailing trend is to remain silent, one should not be hesitant to properly promote and articulate one’s own thoughts.  Nevertheless, when it comes to the issues of both personal and state religion and politics, one should not and must not resort to the temptation to use the sword to convert one’s neighbors, be they either foreign or domestic.   To do so would be a gross perversion and betrayal of the original principles of both Christianity and American democracy.  Can’t these pillars stand upon their own merit or should we drag them through the mire of coercion, tainting them and their adherents further?  Don’t the notions of freedom, liberty, and love teach better?