By Phil Wagler
The collapse of the Kingdom of Judah at the brutal hands of Babylon is honestly footnoted: “Surely these things happened to Judah according to the Lord’s command, in order to remove them from his presence because of the sins of Manasseh and all he had done, including the shedding of innocent blood. For he had filled Jerusalem with innocent blood, and the Lord was not willing to forgive” (2 Kings 24:3-4).
The Living God will give up His own Son. Jesus will shed His blood. But, God’s patience with our shedding of one another’s blood is not inexhaustible.
I write this in the shadow of multiple tragedies besetting North American society in the middle months of 2020. That shadow is lengthening and growing into a fearful storm – like watching ever-threatening blotches slide across a weather radar map.
On February 23, Ahmaud Arbery, a jogging African American man, was shot dead in Georgia. In mid-April, a Nova Scotia denturist, dressed as a police officer, randomly killed twenty-two people during an unfathomable rampage. On May 25, another African American, George Floyd of Minneapolis, died as a police officer held his knee on his neck while Floyd pleaded, “I can’t breathe.” On May 27, Regis Korchinski-Paquet, a black woman, fell to her death from a Toronto balcony while police were present. Now we’re all holding our breath as cities burn, protestors scream, news channels battle and tweets fly.
To hope there is some sweeping solution at this point is a pipe dream. Julian Zelizer, CNN political analyst, says “today’s situation is even worse” than 1968, the year Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated.
Lost in this great swell of sorrows, lesser pandemic evils swirl. A Vancouver woman was punched for being Asian and sneezing. There were two problems with this unconscionable attack: she didn’t have COVID-19 and she wasn’t Asian, but Indigenous. The act was a layered cake of xenophobia and racism iced in ignorance.
Let’s be clear, the novel coronavirus is not the problem. COVID-19 is merely peeling back the splintered, fragile veneer of our collective soul. The pandemic is Nebuchadnezzar at the gates of Jerusalem; his arrival simply the affirmation of a land piling up innocent blood. A few centuries worth of unreconciled relationships, festering disappointments, unforgiven offenses, promises unkept, and unrepented idolatries is catching up to us. We have sown the wind and are reaping the whirlwind. The pipers are piping. Johnny Cash crooned forebodingly, “Till Armageddon no shalom, no shalom.” Queen cried, “It’s the terror of knowing what the world is about. Watching some good friends screaming ‘Let me out!’”
Who can or should speak? We’re all guilty of commission, compliance or omission to some degree. To protest otherwise is denial. The burning of Oakland is a ‘show’ easily watched after a banal sitcom. This enflamed world is absurdly polarized. I am but one middle-aged white man, unsure whether even that unchosen uniqueness inherently disqualifies.
Yet, as one confessing Jesus Christ as my Lord, as a pastor of a Canadian congregation of a few hundred disciples, and as North American Network Coordinator of the Peace and Reconciliation Network of the World Evangelical Alliance, I must place the following on our broken table. What I speak here, I speak to myself first.
Lament and repent.
We must feel this moment. This mess is. Discipline your mind and mouth to cease solutions, criticisms and pompous platitudes for a moment, at least. Stop fuming and looking for who to blame. Just sit in the ashes of it all. See it. We should weep, be speechless and empathic, for once. Confusion, consternation, and compassion should mix in the cocktail of our contemplation. This should slow us down. That we run so quick to shout, “like” and “protest” is a sign we have felt emotion, but we haven’t lamented. We are the lamentably unlamenting age. As our emotions soar, healing slips from our grasp like a coin beneath the waves. We haven’t stopped to sit, grieve, and look one another in our clueless and too-tearless eyes. Then, having lamented, we must repent. And, this repentance must begin with those who know Christ. When police officers knelt in Florida on May 31, a prayer meeting broke out. Humility changes things. Bearing fruit in keeping with repentance is the challenge. We may not have pulled the trigger, kneed the neck or punched the sneezer, but we are people of the Prince of Peace and the fact that we have tolerated, ignored, and amused ourselves at the piling up of blood in the land while whoring after prosperity, comfort and our rights, is what it is: sin. A grievous missing of the mark. I lament. I repent. Lord, have mercy. Come, heal us. And, then, heal our land.
Receive the Gospel.
Ephesians 2 reveals a lavishly-loving God who has rescued we who were without hope in the world. In His love and mercy, God sent the Son as the sacrifice for sin. We are not saved by how amazing we are, but how amazing God is. Most churches preach this regularly and faithfully. But, Ephesians 2 describes a more robust Good News. Jesus is more than a Saviour of individuals; He is also our peace. By His broken body, Jesus destroyed the divide between Jew and Gentile (Ephesians 2:13-14). The Gospel invites disparate and undeserving people like us into a new reconciled and reconciling humanity; a new creation. North American Christianity flirts with Jesus, privatizing Him as our spiritual therapist on the one extreme and as the blesser of our protests on the other. We have misrepresented, misappropriated and mismanaged the way, the truth and the life. Ours is a shamefully-stunted Gospel. We must receive this robust Good News and repent of only going half-way. The Church is formed by God’s Good News and exists as the body of God’s Good News. We must receive God’s Gospel and struggle to learn and live it anew as people of the Spirit for such an unreconciled time as this.
Love Jesus more than your politics.
Too many Christians have their politics shaped by their favourite news channel, podcast or preacher and not by Scripture – or only by the parts of Scripture they like best. We love what or who affirms our thinking, prejudices, conclusions, fears and even the world we wish for – or once thought existed. However, what we are not loving first, all too often, is Jesus. Yes, Christians should be engaged in the city and nation. Christians should take responsibility for where we live. But, is Jesus on the political right or left, or is He a centrist? Is our political persuasion infallible? Is there even a biblical political system? Christians would do well to begin seeing their space and place through a different lens than the pundits whose views toss us about and heighten anxiety and anger as they sell commercials. We should be appalled that political views have divided Christians into enemy camps, ended friendships, and become the thing we can’t talk about in order to keep the peace. We are defending turf. Toward what end? Toward whose end? Jesus said it would be the confession of His identity, not our political stripes, that would build His church. It is time to enthrone and love the true King again.
Stop reducing church to a room.
As churches begin to find their way into a new normal where gathering is different, we would do well to focus on disciple-making rather than fearing our fragile rights or that some nefarious scheme is afoot. Yes, gathering is a key element of living faith. But, how is it we produce amazing worship experiences of all shades and flavours yet are silent, divided, and essentially ignored as those with answers to the conflicts? We must disciple people in the footsteps of the radical, disruptive, demanding Jesus and stop being pleased when they show up in a building and assume that’s the most pressing thing we need in order to get back to in a post-COVID world. We need to get back to something much more ancient: go and make disciples of all nations. We are to teach the obedience to Jesus we have learned. Perhaps we need to learn obedience ourselves first. Only this will produce worshippers in spirit and truth that the Father desires.
Live small in a big way.
The Jewish exiles who were plucked from the land flowing in blood and idolatry were called to simplicity in Babylon. “Build houses and settle down; plant gardens and eat what they produce. Marry and have sons and daughters; find wives for your sons and give your daughters in marriage, so that they too may have sons and daughters. Increase in number there; do not decrease. Also, seek the peace and prosperity of the city to which I have carried you into exile. Pray to the Lord for it, because if it prospers, you too will prosper”(Jeremiah 29:5-7). It’s painfully small to live this way. The exiles were to be a community sent by the LORD to build flourishing missionary households where truthful and hopeful Yahweh-centered living shone. They were to labour – literally beat a path – for the peace, wholeness, shalom and prosperity of their conquerors. They were to accept this as God’s decision for their generation. Humble servanthood, not triumphalism was the call. And, they were to pray. In contrast to much of our praying, they were to pray first for the oppressor. Build flourishing households. Labour for wholeness. Pray. Live small in a big way. Are we the generation living the reverse; stretching to live big and proving to be small? I do not live in Minneapolis or Nova Scotia, but I do live somewhere. That somewhere is my place to flourish, labour and pray. The problems are massive; I wonder if the solutions are just too small and too close to home? What matters now is how I live where I live; what I plant and water; what I lend my hand to for the sake of peace where I can make it; and how I pray. Does that seem too small? Such is a mustard seed. Our ambassadorship of reconciliation is proven in small spaces.
The filling up of innocent blood in Judah happened despite wisdom’s cry to speak for those who cannot speak for themselves (Proverbs 31:8). When the powers tempt us – or demand compliance, those who know God still speak truth. But here we all require to be spoken to first. Passion and zeal are not always innocent and pure. To speak requires the discipline of listening, not tweeting. Scripture speaks to us and we must repeatedly be quiet in order to know what to speak. We need the Christian communion of opposites to discern whether what we hear isn’t just the sound of our own voice. Then, having heard God speak, we must speak too. Silence in the face of evil is evil itself. Speech is costly, but silence is a thief; robbing the world of the light that exposes our evil deeds. Where is there injustice and suffering we have been given eyes to see? God speaks to create, call, befriend, correct and save. We must speak too.
Babylon is at the gates. Innocent blood has been flowing for far too long. We are in a moment that will define generations. Will we be Christian in the collapse?
Phil Wagler is North American Network Coordinator of the Peace & Reconciliation Network https://wea.peaceandreconciliation.net (an initiative of the World Evangelical Alliance).
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