Unification News for October 1996


What Promises Are Necessary Today?

Reflections on Two Weekends with Christians Whom I Respected Highly from a Distance

As readers are aware from my essay last month, I recently attended the National Christian Coalition conference. The next weekend I attended a goodly part of a Promise Keepers conference, at Shea Stadium, New York. These are organizations which I have praised, which I have believed God is raising up. After my experiences of those two weekends, I still believe God is raising them up. But it is a bit harder to praise them. And a bit easier to feel God's grief and frustration with His people.


The most obvious shortfall of both meetings had to do with racial composition. There were virtually no blacks at either event, and very minimal numbers of Asians and Hispanics. And this was with the main theme of the Promise Keepers this year being racial reconciliation, and an aggressive campaign weeks in advance to invite blacks to the conference. In fact, we at HSA HQ received our invitational materials through Rev. Daryl Clarke, our pastor in Harlem, to whom the Promise Keepers had mailed them.

As I've written elsewhere ("Voluntary Association, Intermarriage and the 'World of the Heart'," in Thompson, ed., Unity in Diversity), I do not believe the problem of race can be solved on the level of culture, society and religion. It can be solved only on the family level. The PK has not reached that level; it is clueless about the entire issue. Marriage, after all, is the world's most racist institution and is the very institution which perpetuates racial separation. This is one point recommending God's plan for arranged marriages.

Faith and Football

The Promise Keepers (far more than the Christian Coalition, but this applies to them as well) was a praise meeting which attempted to bridge denominational barriers. Admirable as that may be, it is self- defeating if it uses the name of Jesus Christ to gloss over doctrinal and theological differences and as a rallying cry. In fact, the Promise Keepers meeting struck me as a grand pep rally for Jesus. The most impressive speaker I heard there (I did not hear them all), hands down, was Bill McCartney, the founder of the Promise Keepers. His virtue was his passion for Christ; that's all. He called for fasting, for self-denial. He was an unapologetic lover of God; a medieval mystic appearing as football coach.

Millions of men attend football games in stadiums across America. It has ritualistic characteristics, and in fact I once heard of a group which applied for tax-exemption as the Church of Monday Night Football. The Promise Keepers tap that energy for Christ. There is energy there to be tapped; there is, at its best, a spirituality to football. There is for every sport, but no other sport moves a mass of American males to catharsis as does football. On the good side, there are wonderful elements: teamwork, obedience to the coach, self- sacrifice, perseverance and striving for excellence, to be champions. That was what "the coach" brought to us at Shea Stadium; he has distilled the best of football and dedicated it to Jesus. The spirit of a football game--but even better, because we are all the team, in the locker room with the coach! Culture-religion-which celebrates not the image of God but the images of the culture-at its best (which may be human beings at their worst, depending upon how you view these things).

Which culture is the Promise Keepers faith? We were slightly better dressed than the fans at a football game, but not much. We were a good deal more segregated than the fans at a football game, I imagine. The Promise Keepers is white, suburban culture in its apotheosis, crying out for men to behave themselves. A worthy goal, one characteristic of American evangelical Protestantism since the early nineteenth century. Domestication of the male via Christian rebirth is a wonderful accomplishment, and the opening speakers did make the point more than once of how many men were there because of the prodding ("heel marks on their behinds") from their wives.

And there was another element of American popular culture: lots of music, good music, hypnotic and throbbing, with the sound system of a rock concert. As Dr. Glen Martin told us one of his congregants said, "I want to feel God this morning: turn up the bass."

But here's the problem: at the end of the twentieth century, do we have the luxury to express Christian triumphalism? I mean, what do these guys have to feel triumphant about?

Why do I call it Christian triumphalism? I do so because they are about uniting Christians under the name of Jesus as in itself a victory. The Christian Coalition declared they are on the road to victory irrespective of the political outcome this November. There are even those who foresee the next century to be the Christian century, and may well declare it so irrespective of who controls the earth.

Well, I agree wholeheartedly, Christians should unite. But I do not believe it can possibly come about under the banner of the content of the past 2,000 years, because we will get the same results we have had for 2,000 years. There are big differences among Christians today, and there have been such from year one of the Christian dispensation. The spirit of Promise Keepers, and of the Christian Coalition to the extent that it makes religious claims its foundation, is: put those differences aside, we've got work to do and we can be brothers based on no other name than Jesus.

That phrase brings life to many Christians, and brings shivers to the bones of some non-Christians, and not because the devil is convicting them of their sin, but because of the arrogance (and implicit threat) with which the statement is imbued. For who among Christians are even worthy to speak the name of Jesus, much less claim they are all brothers (not only of each other, but supposedly of all God's children) on the basis of their closing their eyes and uttering "Jesus, Jesus, Jesus"? The problem is not Jesus, who is the rock of salvation; the problem is the huge space the appeal to his name creates for a racist, nationalistic, culture-religion to rise up and do what such creatures tend historically to do.

Yes, We All Agree

But under the emotional power of the coach, and buoyed up by throbbing gospel-rock, chanting "yes, we all agree," or "let the walls come down!" (a motto useful to everyone from Bolsheviks to beatniks, so why not Christians?), it sure can feel good to be saved. But if the saved cannot even get black Christians into the stadium, then what, for heaven's sake, are they going to say to the Muslims? and all the other religions? Well, I can hear them echo the 2,000 year strain: Jesus will settle that when he comes back.

And when will he come back? Soon, very soon. And how? That's up to you to decide, but, hey, don't worry, every knee will bow; just like the songs say, and hey, brother, don't it feel good to be a Christian?

Peter Kreeft, in his critique of liberal Christianity, turned a marvelous phrase, "the bland leading the bland." Clever, and telling.

But the original is more to the point, and more devastatingly humbling: the blind leading the blind. That's what Jesus called the Pharisees. How is the messiah to come? The first-century Jew was probably no more sure than the twentieth-century Christian, but would be sure that he would be counted worthy when he did come. It is not that the scribes and doctors of the law ignored Jesus; far from it. They examined him well, and found him lacking. Not just lacking; dangerous, deluded, false.

Christians, thus, do not know how Jesus will return, but they do know how he won't return, apparently, although this in itself is rather illogical. Namely, he will not come looking like or speaking or acting like Reverend Sun Myung Moon. Why? What disqualifies Reverend Moon, in the eyes of Christians? Apparently, here is how Jesus is NOT going to return: 1. He will not disagree with our theology (i.e., Jesus will agree with Christian traditional theology, including the traditional interpretation of the Bible); 2. He will not be accused of crimes and imprisoned (i.e., Jesus will receive the approval of governments, media and established religious institutions); 3. He will not gain a dedicated following (i.e., Jesus' followers will be lukewarm); 4. He will not be Oriental (i.e., Jesus will have blue eyes, white skin and Lady Clairol hair).

I'll offer an observation, borrowing in part from Rev. Kevin McCarthy, on the psychological aspect of the rejection of Christ 2,000 years ago. The chosen people were self-conscious of being so. They thought, if nothing else, that the Messiah would recognize them. He would acknowledge their honoring the Mosaic Law (well done, faithful servants).

Jesus didn't do that. In fact, he judged them by the fact that they claimed to be followers of Moses, but if they truly were followers of Moses they would recognize him. The Law increased their guilt, not, as Paul stated, for sin in general, but rather as Jesus stated, for the sin of rejecting the Messiah when he came. Jesus died not for sin in general, which he could forgive on earth, but for the specific sin of rejecting the Messiah (i.e. the Holy Spirit), which he could not forgive except through the cross. Jesus could not forgive them if they did not recognize him as having the authority to forgive. Therefore, the sin for which he died was only one sin: the sin of failure to recognize him. This unites religious and secular truth, doesn't it? He died because they killed him. It's not complicated.

They were not exposed as false followers of Moses; rather they at that moment became false followers, because the purpose of the Law was to lead the chosen people to the Messiah. They expected the Messiah to recognize them, when in fact the issue was not his recognizing them, but their recognizing him. They never, as McCarthy puts it, turned their faith of expectation into a faith of recognition. And similarly, Christians today surely expect Jesus will recognize them.

We long for the day when those calling on the name of Jesus, whom we might term nominal Christians, will call on Jesus himself. Especially in light of Jesus' frequent references to his "new name" in Revelation.

What was Jesus himself doing at this meeting in that stadium? The speakers practiced very well the power of positive thinking on the crowd, proclaiming from start to finish that "Jesus is here, Jesus is here with us, hallelujah!" The first time it was proclaimed, at the exact moment the speaker let us know that Jesus was there present, the closed circuit, big-screen broadcast flickered and went dead for a couple of seconds. It was the only time I saw that happen during the event.

Coincidences, in Perspective

Such coincidental occurrences must be taken in perspective. Taking them in perspective still means to take them. I spent an entire afternoon with a friend, twenty-five years ago, beside a brook. We spoke for hours, and the conversation came around to Jesus, and the instant I said the word, "Jesus," and only at that moment in the entire afternoon, a big fish leapt high out of the water. Take it in perspective, but do not ignore it. The emcee at Shea Stadium had just finished telling us, as I recall, how no one was there by accident. Well, if no one was there by accident, would the screen have gone on the fritz by accident? Okay, okay, perspective " it's no big deal.

But I can't help but feel that it is not the time for Christians to congratulate themselves in front of Jesus. We should be ashamed in front of Jesus, for the state of America. Christians separate themselves from the problems of society, saying, "we, as Christians, must go in there and solve these problems by living the way Jesus taught us to live." Christians have forgotten, or are in denial of, the fact that recently this was a Christian nation, as good as they get; that this nation was once ruled by the churches through the voluntary consent of the people, by the Christian way of life, with power, prestige, finances, and intelligence unparalleled in human history, and this is the Christian culture itself, the fruit of Christianity itself, rotting from within. If Christians again gain the cultural dominion they enjoyed over the past two centuries in America, what will they do differently? Have louder bass?

It means that Christianity itself has a problem, or, may we go the next step: is the problem. The returning Christ cuts to the root. He tells Christians that they have made some fundamental errors about who he is and what he came to do. Until now he could forgive them, for they knew not what they were doing, and were babies and children, but when he comes back they will see face to face, if they care to look. Look at the world Christianity has given us! Retreating into materialism (ideological and physical). Retreating into the mythological "original autographs" of the Bible. Retreating into the golf courses.

Deaf and Dumb

I lost hope in American Christianity in four stages:

1. When I perceived my liberal Presbyterian church in Berkeley, California, to be deaf and dumb to the existence of black people (1964).

2. When I perceived my small-town Presbyterian church in Red Bluff, California, deaf and dumb to the existence of sex (1966).

3. When I perceived my Catholic friend deaf and dumb to the existence of guilt (1968).

4. When I perceived my evangelical friends deaf and dumb to the existence of fundamental intelligence (1971).

I'm sad to report that, despite the political and rhetorical power of the Christian Coalition, and the enthusiasm and righteousness of the Promise Keepers, Christianity has not gone beyond where it was twenty- five years ago or 2,000 years ago. As Kierkegaard and John Nelson Darby said, in their own unique ways, it's all been a parenthesis. All the critiques of 2,000 years are valid. The Christian Coalition and Promise Keepers are in danger of being just the same old same old, a new generation doing a good job marketing the brilliance and errors of the past. It's time to wake up, in the name of Jesus.


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