I Used to Know What was Wrong with Willow Creek

I used to know what was wrong with Willow Creek. After my parents separated in 1991, my mom and I attended there. It was massive, and well-produced, and on the whole not a bad place for a recently divorced single mom and her eleven-year-old son. I joined her there for about seven years. We would go both to weekend services and mid-week services. The regular teaching staff included Bill Hybels, Lee Strobel, and John Ortberg. We used to eat in the food court. I played in the orchestra. We made friends. I was baptized in the pond out front.

Willow Creek Sanctuary

Naturally, I began to develop opinions about the place—many of which developed further after I’d left and began to take on some more formal theological education. The language of being “seeker-sensitive” was in the air—we all knew what was going on. Willow was attempting a model of attraction by simplification and production. Simplification meant reducing to the absolute minimum those churchy things that might turn away seekers—hymns, theologically heavy sermons, even the representation of a cross. Production meant controlling the weekly service outcomes—professional musicians and singers, perfect timing, lighting and camera work. Willow both authored and mastered these techniques with immense, almost unimaginable success. By the time we were there some twenty thousand people were attending on a given weekend.

NIV Application Commentary

The image at the bottom is of Willow’s Barrington, Illinois sanctuary. Is the message, “use our commentary and you’ll preach to groups THIS size!”?

Over time, I came to form judgments about the place. Willow was, indeed, successful—and yet it was also shallow. Even as a young man I missed biblical teaching. Even as a young man I could tell that I was being fed diet, Jenny Craig Christianity. There was meat to be had, but I was being offered salad without dressing. Clearly, Willow was also business-like. How else would it be possible to manage 20K people on a weekend without a strong management system? Things moved like clockwork, and it showed. But that same business efficiency masked the ultimately superficial nature of the enterprise. Things functioned, and people were busy, and everybody had a job, and friendships were made—but did it result in greater Christlikeness? Could shallow and superficial teaching generate deep and thoughtful Christians? No, it couldn’t, and my convictions were confirmed a few years back when Willow issued a public apology for being too soft on teaching the Bible. It was an astonishing reversal.

I was troubled, as time passed, at how other churches were eager to ape the Willow Creek model. It appeared that under the influence of Willow’s success they, hungry for their own success, began to implement degrees of simplification and production. The secret to church growth would be programs, lighting, timing, and an ethic of theological laxity. In one of the worst cases, I remember reading about a pastor who attended a Willow Creek leadership summit, and, returning to his home church, announced that he knew just what they needed to revitalize their ministry: theater seats. They would remove their pews and put in theater seats. That would get the butts in the door.

I don’t regret attending Willow for those seven years of my life, and yet I never loved the place. Having moved on, I continued to believe that it served a kind of purpose. A lot of people who wouldn’t otherwise go to church attended Willow. In a church of 20K certainly some—if not quite a few—of its members must be good Christian people.

Hybels bookI could make my peace with Willow Creek because I used to know what was wrong with it. Not anymore. Just a few months ago news began to break about some serious allegations regarding Bill Hybels, Willow’s founding and senior pastor, leadership guru and megachurch patriarch. First in the Chicago Tribune, then other rumors and stories, and lately in the New York Times, we have read how (allegedly, but is seems pretty certain), Hybels has sexually harassed quite a number of his female associates over the years. These were events that took place during my time at Willow. They were happening behind closed doors, and with some frequency, and apparently not a few people knew that Hybels may not be the most safe person to be around. This, the same Bill Hybels who authored the book, Who You Are When No One’s Looking: Choosing Consistency, Resisting Compromise. The irony would be laughable if it didn’t induce vomiting.

Suddenly, there’s much more wrong with Willow Creek than I had anticipated, and my previous critiques, which I could consider somewhat benign, are now more insidious. It’s a rule of thumb that (Protestant) churches carry the DNA of their founding pastors. Was he a gregarious, outgoing preacher? In time that comes to shape the congregation. Was he a reflective, thoughtful counsellor? In time, so also the congregation. Was he short tempered, divisive, and double-faced? So too the congregation. The DNA of Bill Hybels saturates and overshadows the Willow infrastructure. And that’s a frightening thing to realize. There’s now something poisonous running through everything with associations to Willow Creek. The best comparison is to imagine that you found out that MacDonalds, for years, has been grinding up puppies and mixing them into its french fries. Upon discovery of this you might become sick at your stomach. You’d probably never be able to eat them again. Willow has mixed something just as wicked into its brand.


Here’s Brené Brown, speaking (prophetically?) at a previous leadership summit.

Willow Creek’s model promulgated a fundamental expediency about ministry, but with these revelations it appears more than ever that their expediency was influenced by a hunger for power. Willow was eager to be the best, it was quick to believe its own success. To this hunger for power was added protectionism—defending, and even masking Hybels’s concerns because in many ways he was the brand. And, fundamentally, these both reflect a corrupting utilitarianism—if a thing works, we go with it. Hybels worked, and therefore we’ve got to keep going with him. This is the poison that now infects the Willow Creek brand.

In the year 2000, in a move that now screams of incredible irony, Hybels invited then president Bill Clinton to join the global leadership summit, during the Monica Lewinski investigation. The Bills sat across from one another, the pastor offering solace (and… what? acceptance?) to the president. And yet behind the scenes the two were far more alike than we had imagined. Both were using their positions of power to mask corrupt character and decrepit behavior.

US President Bill Clinton (R) answers Willow Creek

One of the things we have to be careful about in these matters is assuming that correlation is causation—just because two events can be linked does not mean that one was necessarily the cause of the other. Did Willow’s weak theology lead to pastoral misconduct? Probably not—especially since churches with solid theology also commit pastoral misconduct. And yet what becomes prominent in this present Willow nightmare is the presence of utilitarianism and the love of power. Is it not the case that a culture of expediency unmoored from reflective orthodoxy creates the conditions for other sins of power? But hang on—is it not also the case that sins of power become self-perpetuating, encouraging greater laxity and utilitarianism? Which came first? Moral failure, or bad theological praxis? It’s impossible to say, but one thing is true—utilitarianism gets masked and hidden in the church, masked in particular by the promise of power and success. It is that power and success that Willow has sold to the churches of the world. It is the poison at the heart of the Willow model.

The fallout is disastrous. Willow leadership models have influenced countless numbers of Christians globally. Willow ecclesiological models have encouraged utilitarian approaches to ministry. And now all of it is impacted by this. “Disaster” might be too weak a word.

Paul, writing to his disciple Timothy, commanded the following, “Keep yourself and your doctrine, remain in them; for doing this you will save both yourself and your hearers” (1 Tm 4:16). Keep yourself, Timothy. Guard your life, your holiness, your purity, your sense of identity. Keep also your doctrine, preserve it with the same fervor as you do your bodily life. And by so doing you will save both yourself and those who hear you. Your life and your doctrine save your hearers, Timothy. It’s both. Willow Creek has failed to keep its life, and it has failed to keep its doctrine. The fallout from this is just beginning. May God have mercy on His Church.

The Adventures of Robin Hood—A Book Worth Reading

Robin Hood_CoverIt’s much easier to write book reviews for bad books—it’s easier to find the problem and diagnose it than it is to tell you, “Go read this book.” But I’m not going to do that today. Instead, because The Adventures of Robin Hood, by Roger Lancelyn Green, is such a great, fun little book, I’m going to tell you that you should go read it.

Roger Lancelyn Green was a pupil of C.S. Lewis who later became a friend and sometime member of the Inklings. He was among the first to read the Narnia books, and was an important encouragement to Lewis in continuing to write the books. In his own work, he produced a series of accessible renditions of famous myths and stories—Myths of the Norsemen, Tales of the Greek Heroes, King Arthur and the Knights of the Round Table, and, of course, Robin Hood. His books are readable, entertaining, researched, and each worth your time.

But right now I want to tell you why I thought Robin Hood was so good, and fun, and worthwhile. Perhaps above all else there was a certain wholesomeness to reading it. “Oh, yeah,” I thought as I read, “this is what great young adult books used to be like.” It’s not violent, or scary, or disturbing, or distorted. Instead, it’s a rollicking adventure, full of fighting, and friendship, and oaths, and loyalty, and duty—all the stuff a growing boy needs. You’re probably familiar with the story—Robin of Locksley becomes an outlaw on account of the nefarious policies of King John and the Sheriff of Nottingham, opposing them by stealing from the rich and giving to the poor until King Richard should return from the Crusades. You might feel that the familiarity would make the story not worth reading—not so! The familiarity is part of the fun, and I expect I’ll read and re-read it again. After all, it is the classic good-guys bad-guys story.


Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves, was a surprisingly solid rendition of the story. Also, Alan Rickman was STELLAR as the Sheriff.

And yet it is also is so much more. Often, it seems to me, older stories like this one get accused of being simplistic (as if simplicity were innately bad, and as if somehow moral complexity were innately good—this is a dubious claim!). But it’s not simple, it’s simply clear. When Maid Marian swears an oath to remain a Maid until King Richard returns, she keeps her promise (and so do all those in the forest with her, to keep her from Sir Guy!). When a new recruit joins the Merry Men in Sherwood, he swears an oath, and he means it. When various personages attempt to lie to Robin about the money they carry, Robin takes from them—when they tell the truth, he does not. When Robin bests Little John at staves, they become friends—in fact, whenever Robin bests someone (or is bested, on occasion!) the result is mutual respect and friendship. Throughout it all there is a deeply refreshing honesty about the characters in the story—an honesty you will probably want to emulate yourself. In fact, we can frame the poles of characterization as follows: in the story of Robin Hood honesty is praised, while dishonesty is ridiculed; loyalty is virtue, and disloyalty is unthinkable; friendship is natural, while enmity is irrational; and goodness is, well, good, and wickedness is petty and smallminded.

Here I want to stay for a moment, because Green captures something of the nature of good and evil that I find to be compelling, tragic, and important. (Note: if you’ve not read the book and you don’t know about Robin Hood’s death, and if you don’t want to know until you’ve read it, stop reading now!) Throughout the book goodness is conceived as desirable, and important, and worth fighting for. Goodness is also conceived in ordinary terms—the keeping of a promise, the rescuing of a friend, a meal and wine with your peers. Fundamentally, goodness is so good that sometimes good people must become outlaws in order to preserve the good. By contrast, evil—no matter how grand in scope—is fundamentally petty. King John wants more power, and to get it he robs the people. But what will he do with the power if all the people hate him? What kind of fellowship can he enjoy if his compatriots are dishonest swindlers? He may put out the eyes of a child for killing one of the king’s deer, but the truth is that he can never truly enjoy it himself—not in the way that they do in Sherwood. And so, Robin and his Merry Men fight for goodness, by means of goodness, against the petty and persistent evils of John, the Sheriff, and Sir Guy.


Tight tights.

But here’s the sting—in the end they lose. Richard returns, sets things aright, and Robin marries Marian. All well and good. But then Richard dies, and no sooner is he gone than King John, now lawfully king, takes up his vengeance. He locks Robin in a tower and runs off to capture Marian once and for all. Robin escapes, but falls and wounds himself. He is able to take Marian to a nunnery and entrust her there, but he must run off. On the run for a long time, he returns to the nunnery to find Marian. In the meantime, King John has promised that if Marian ever leaves, he will destroy the entire nunnery. The Prioress, knowing who Marian is, and knowing that if Marian is a widow she will inherit Locksley estate, has convinced her that Robin is dead so that she will take her vows and so that her property will be added to that of the nunnery. When Robin finally shows up, weak and ill, the Prioress performs a bloodletting, but in the process, knowing who Robin is, intentionally lets too much blood. She murders him, in fact, so that she can take his estate.

Roger Lancelyn Green

Roger Lancelyn Green

Pause to think about the tragic irony of this. Robin, who loves the church, loves his wife, loves his King, and who has tirelessly served the poor, is in the end destroyed by the petty evil of an acquisitive nun. This is the pettiness of evil in action. It is stupid. Its fruits are vapid. It is self-destructive. It destroys good things. And in view of this, we are reminded that, indeed, the fight for good is very often boring, and pedantic, and fundamentally draining because it is a constant war with the petty proclivities of average people. Evil only seems nice because it cheats its way to some other good; the reality is that evil inevitably corrupts the goods it achieves. And therefore, to fight for the good is the most important, and yet most mundane, activity that the average human will ever perform.

To my mind, this is precisely why we need heroes like Robin Hood. We need reminders that goodness is good and that evil is stupid, and we need to be jolted, sometimes painfully, with the knowledge that even though we might lose, goodness was worth fighting for.

What’s in a Name?

It wasn’t long ago that my newsfeed was graced by two provocative image macros, each shared by a variety of different people. I want to share them with you today in order to reflect, critically, on what they mean, and to comment on a way that they are strikingly similar. The first image features a description of the “real” meaning of the Confederate flag. The second features the image of a priest describing a nonthreatening use of “Allah” in Christian worship. Here are both images now:

Confederate Flag Meaning

God-is-Allah_Palestinian Christian

You may be wondering why it is that I think these two images are strikingly similar, and the reason lies in the logic they utilize to make their case, a logic I find deeply troubling among many of my fellow Christians. There are two components to their similarity.

1) Both images consciously ignore the fact that names have history. There is a reason, today, why we don’t name our children Adolf or Judas. There is a reason why Chernobyl and Hiroshima continue to make us shudder. These names, for varying reasons, carry with them the baggage of their narratives—baggage which distinctly inflects the meaning of the names. And herein lies the key we must remember—names point to a history, point to a heritage. The history of a name is the unveiled history of its character. They don’t exist in abstract; they carry narrative baggage.

This is what is so very crucial about the unveiling of the name of God in the Old Testament. Previously, He was a kind of idea—an El, a God, possibly among other gods. But after Moses He was known by His own self-designation, YHWH, I am that I am, I cause to be what is. From that moment on the dealings of the Israelites with the being named YHWH constituted a developing narrative of character. No longer would general terms be as suitable, because God had taken control in a striking way of His own self disclosure. Want to know about god (el) generally? You’re going to have to get to know YHWH.

Burning Bush

So, when our priest claims that “Allah is just our name for God” there is a two-way sleight of hand. On one side, he is consciously neglecting the importance of God’s self-revelation in time through the narrative of YHWH’s actions. On the other hand, he is consciously side-stepping the narrative identity of Allah. Allah may have once meant ‘God’ in a vague and nondescript sense, but it can do so no longer, for in the machinery of Islam it has gathered to itself its own narrative baggage. Allah no longer means simply ‘god’ anymore than Baal means simply ‘god.’ As soon as it became a name it took on an accretion of historical data.

2) Both images consciously ignore the fact that symbols have a life beyond their etymology. I can describe in great detail the etymological meaning of the word Negro. I can talk about its links to the colour ‘black,’ how it represents a basic description of encounter between Caucasian and non-Caucasian persons. But no amount of explanation can overcome the fact that, within living memory, the word “negro” was used to exclude and marginalize, often visibly on signs like this one.

No Dogs Negroes

Decoding symbols and defining terms is important, crucial work, but we mustn’t neglect the fact that their use and application in history adds levels of meaning and determines their interpretation. No matter how one describes the Confederate flag (and, for the record, the description in the image macro is false), its use in rebellion, in the defence of slavery, and in the narratives of white power, render it ultimately reprehensible. The flag, like the word “negro” is an object of thought that, whatever its origins, now carries a symbolic weight beyond its ‘meaning.’ It is irresponsible, if not dishonest, to ignore that symbolic aspect.

The flag has a history, a narrative, and an accretion of symbolical significance. Allah has a history, a narrative, and an accretion of symbolical significance. No amount of equivocating can sidestep these difficulties. And yet both these images operate from the same basic premise: if I explain a thing a certain way, all its troubles disappear. The rhetorical claim is something like this, “Here. This is what this thing really means. So relax, it’s no big deal, right?” Formally, this is logical fallacy called “Cherry Picking”—it’s where you point to one data set (favourable) and consciously ignore or neglect the rest of the data (unfavourable). In the cases above, the authors point to certain data sets (re: Allah, Confederacy), and neglect significant other ones (history, symbology).

Muggeridge5For me, this takes on an even more grievous slant, because in the hands of Christians—who are supposed to love the Word and what it means—it becomes a form, if you will, of exegetical abuse. I am reminded of something once said by Malcolm Muggeridge,

In the beginning was the Word, and one of the things that appalls me and saddens me about the world today is the condition of words. Words can be polluted even more dramatically and drastically then rivers and land and sea. There has been a terrible destruction of words in our time. (Muggeridge, The End of Christendom, 2)

Muggeridge’s words haunt me, echoing through my mind as I read, and listen, and observe the world. And nowhere do they grieve or astonish me more than when the Church, that great steward of the Word, participates in the destruction of its own sacred trust. Granted, it’s hard work to be faithful to the Word. The truth is that there’s enough cherry picking and equivocation in the world that, very often, the Christian message must begin with a proper definition of terms. But when we participate in these kinds of equivocation we discredit those places where we really do have a point to make about interpretation and misinterpretation. Abuse in one rhetorical field discredits us in others.

So let’s be critical of what we post and read, and let’s use our sacred trust—the treasury of the Word—wisely, faithfully, and with piercing clarity.

Orientalism–A Fifth and Final Response (on Islam)

I very much enjoyed my read of Edward Said’s Orientalism. It is an important book, and it has helped me to form my thoughts on quite a number of subjects. In my series of responses, I have appropriated his central concept broadly, but it is important to note that Said’s focus throughout is with reference to the Orient as Egypt and the Levant, and with special attention to Islam. No negotiation of his book is complete without some coming to terms with his thoughts on Islam. This final reflection on Orientalism will attempt to do just that. I’ve got four things to say.

Orientalism_Reading1) The Orient, for Said, is the Islamic world. I noted this a moment ago, but it is worth stressing. As an historical fact, the Orient, when the concept of the Orient was invented, and Orientalism, when that concept was emerging in Western usage, both had for their initial reference points the Islamic East. Historically, we here refer to Napoleon’s conquering of Egypt, and of England’s presence in Palestine and the Levant. We also note that the original journey of the Orient Express was from Paris to Constantinople—i.e., the Orient. Said, of course, as a Palestinian author, is keenly aware of this history in a personal sense, and that awareness colours the whole of the book.

2) If Orientalism is true, then it follows that Islam has been injuriously misread by the West. Orientalism, I have stated numerous times in various ways, is an intersection of knowledge and power where the gaze of the West has fallen on the other in such a way that the other loses agency, is flattened, and is fetishized (among other things). Each of these has clearly been in effect when the West has encountered Islam. Islam has been othered. It is viewed, first, as an outsider element, one which reflexively gives fresh self-definition to the Western eye. In that process, the West has held the power of definition in discourse—the conversation has been dominated by Western categories of what constitutes Islam, and Islam is made to answer to those Western categories. Consequently, Islam has been flattened—both ideologically and individually. Ideologically, textures and complexities in Islamic belief are treated reductionistically (they all want Jihad and nothing else), and individually each Islamic individual is viewed as a carbon-copy of a radicalized caricature (they all want Jihad and nothing else). Said stresses this clearly,

The point I want to conclude with now is to insist that the terrible reductive conflicts that herd people under falsely unifying rubrics like ‘America,’ ‘The West’ or ‘Islam’ and invent collective identities for large numbers of individuals who are actually quite diverse, cannot remain as potent as they are, and must be opposed, their murderous effectiveness vastly reduced in influence and mobilizing power. (Orientalism, xxii)

In addition to this, Islam has been subjected to a number of fetishizations—historically, sexual ones (Said notes these), but lately subjected to a fetishization of violence and bestiality. The West is able to imagine, again for its own benefit, all manner of violences and evil perpetuated by an Islamic world.

Islamic Agressors

If these are the only images we see, we are bound to draw certain conclusions about the Islamic world.

Once again, if Orientalism is true (and I believe it is)—that is, if Orientalism accurately describes a mental process by which the West has ‘come to terms’ with the non-West in Islam—then this is cause for a serious re-evaluation of how the West and Islam interact. Wrongs have been done, and are being done, which inhibit fruitful communication, and which perpetuate worldviews of dehumanization which fall well beneath the values of the West. We can, and must, do better.

3) And yet, it seems to me that Said overplays the innocence of Islam in his book. Repeatedly, Said hammers the West for its treatment of Islam. Doubtless many of his assertions are correct. Doubtless also, he is sounding a corrective note against historic abuses. In charity we can certainly read the book with those considerations in mind and account for what we might consider to be his excesses. And yet, it is also historically the case that not all Western encounters with Islam are based on Orientalism. For example, when Islam emerged in the 8th century, no such thing as “the West”—as a modern concept—yet existed. And Islam’s emergence on the Arabian peninsula meant that it’s first encounters with Christianity were in the Christian East—in places such as Constantinople, which is, by definition, the Orient. Those first encounters, then, were not encounters where knowledge and power othered the foreigner, but rather battles where truth claims were examined. Chief among them was this: is Jesus Godin-the-flesh, or was he merely another prophet on the way to Mohammed? (It is worth observing that, on some accounts, Islam looks a great deal like a kind of radical Arianism—a rejection of Christ’s divinity and preservation of the holiness of the Father-God.)


There’s lots of information about the history of Islamic expansion/aggression. It’s worth your time to read up on it or watch a helpful video.

In addition to this, Islam—beginning with Mohammed as its leader—from the very first engaged in a war of conquest with the Christian world (note: neither East nor West, but entire). That period of conquest involved aggressive violence, invasion, and a real threat to the Christian way of life. All that to say that when the West considers Islam, while certain intellectual abuses are undoubtedly at play, there is also a deeper history which informs their engagement. That history cannot be reduced, or explained away, by means of Orientalism.

4) Orientalism, then, is both a blessing and a liability. It is a blessing because of the attention it calls us to pay to the history of knowledge where that knowledge intersects with power. It is a blessing because it places a beneficial hesitation on Western claims about the non-West. It is a blessing because it seeks to restore agency to non-Western persons. And yet the liability of Orientalism is that as a compelling theory of understanding it oversimplifies—or even simply underplays—valid truth claims and vital historical incidents. The label, as always, does not an argument make (see the previous post on Bulverism).

In each of these posts I’ve tied these thoughts into the mission of the Church. As I close these reflections on Orientalism, the note I want to highlight is that of listening. It seems to me that these kinds of discussions often get scuttled by debate. Facts get thrown back and forth, names and labels get applied, and little progress is made except in the growth of contempt. Sometimes I feel that my fellow Christians fear that to practice listening will mean having to give up on truth. But this isn’t the case. To listen well doesn’t mean to give up, it means to try to hear a matter from the other’s perspective as clearly as possible. Listening makes us smarter, and more empathetic, and when we listen well we become better at articulating those points which we feel are truly salient to a discussion. For Christianity to listen to the Islamic world does not mean the same thing as for Christianity to capitulate with it. It is just such listening, I believe, that we most need—on both sides of the divide.

Survey Says…

Dear Reader,

I have a favour to ask. If you’re a recipient of my (usually) weekly blog posts, would you mind taking five minutes to fill out the following survey? It asks five questions about readers, post frequency, and whether or not I ought to podcast the contents of Mustard Seed Faith.

Here’s the link: https://jeremy479.typeform.com/to/pVtSpT

Suffice it to say, I’d absolutely love your feedback!

All the best,


An Uneasy Conversation, Concluded: The Boundaries of Solidarity

For the past three weeks I have been reflecting on the uneasiness I feel with regard to Christianity and immigration. I’ve felt uneasy about American politics, about the use of Scripture, and about what our actual Christian perspective ought to be. I began with the question of how we ought to treat the stranger, and concluded that, yes, the Scriptures command us to be hospitable. In the second post I reflected on the role and boundaries of the nation-state, and there I concluded that, yes, states have the right and responsibility to defend their borders. Throughout, I have highlighted the necessity for Christians to align themselves with the Kingdom, rather than their preferences or nation-states. Today, I want to conclude with one final reflection: on the nature, the duties, and the boundaries of solidarity.

To get us started, I want to highlight three evocative image macros, popular in recent discourse about Christianity and immigration (we’ve looked at two of these, already). The first is an icon of Christ, imaged as a refugee behind barbed wire.


The second is the icon of the holy family, imaged as Hispanic refugees:

Immigration_Holy Family as Refugees_Kelly Latimore

The third is Christ, gathered with Hispanic children at the border:


While previously I have highlighted other elements in these images, today I want to focus on an element that is present in all three—namely, the suggestion that what you do to these, you have done to God. By putting a refugee behind barbed wire, you have put God behind barbed wire. By treating refugees poorly, you are treating the Holy Family poorly. By treating children at the border poorly, you are treating Christ poorly. Now—and as I think I’ve made abundantly clear already—our duties to the stranger necessitate that we care for and treat hospitably all immigrants, whether legal or illegal. There are no conditions under which we are permitted, as Christians, to advocate for cruel conditions for any persons who are “strangers.” However, when we do act toward them (in whatever fashion) is it in fact that case that we are indirectly (or directly!) doing things to God?

Let’s frame this problem another way—is it the case that God stands in such a position of solidarity with the poor, the suffering, and the downtrodden, that whatever you do, or don’t do, to them, is something you have done, or not done, to God Himself? Do suffering, poor persons—irrespective of faith, nationality, goodness, or Kingdom identity—do they by virtue of their poverty have a privileged position in God’s sight?

Che as Jesus_This claim is a form of what is sometimes called the “preferential option for the poor,” a strain of Catholic social teaching with its roots in Latin American liberation theology. In turn, it anchors its claims, chiefly, on interpretations of Matthew 25 and of Matthew 5:3. It also divides Christians into two broad camps—one the one hand are believers who think that the Gospel is summed up in social action; on the other hand are those who think that the Gospel is chiefly a preached word. Let’s take a moment to examine these texts and then return to the question of solidarity and the gospel.

Matthew 25:31-46—The Judgment of the Throne
In this well-known passage, Jesus speaks about the judgment at the end of time—the separation of the nations into sheep and goats—and moreover lists distinctive criteria for why and how persons (nations?) are going to be judged. For some, Christ was hungry, thirsty, naked, sick, and imprisoned, and we fed, watered, clothed, visited, and joined them. For others, Christ was in those conditions and we did not. The concluding verse in both situations is the same, “Truly I say to you, to the extent that you did it [or did not do it] to one of these brothers of Mine, even the least of them, you did it [or did not do it] to Me.”

Sheep and Goats_Mosaic

Sheep on the right, goats to the left. Move along, now.

There’s a great deal to say about this potent and important passage. It falls within a triad of warnings about the end times, each presenting clear instruction on how we are to live while we wait for Christ’s return. The Ten Virgins parable instructs us to wait in a prepared way. The Talents parable instructs us to work with the gifts God has given us until his return (and accounting!). And the Judgment parable instructs us to be attentive to the social needs of our community while we wait for Christ’s return. But this summary highlights our question—what are the bounds of that ‘community’? According to the text, it appears that the boundary falls with “the least of these my brethren.” Is “my brethren” everyone? Is it humanity in general? Is it, drawing from Matthew 12:50, that “whoever does the will of My Father who is in heaven, he is My brother and sister and mother”? Or is this, according to some interpretations I have heard, an appeal for Christian believers to care for Israel? So that Christian treatment of national Israel is the crucial determining factor in our salvation?

Israel_Support image

Lots of people believe that Christ in Matthew 25 is speaking about Israel. For one example, see this post at http://www.graceandpeace.org/israel-the-apple-of-gods-eye/

When Jesus uses family language—brothers and sisters, fathers and mothers, My Father, Our Father—he seems always to be appealing to the family of faith. That family, according to Matthew 12:50 (and other passages) is one defined by faith, not by genealogy, or blood, or by other marks of heritage, nor by a kind of general humanity. This suggest that if we are going to contextualize Jesus’ language of “brother and sisters,” the commands to feed the hungry and thirsty, to clothe the naked, and to visit the sick and imprisoned, are commands directed at members of the Church to one another. It is difficult to make a coherent case for how these verses would apply, in one case to Israel alone, or in the other case to the entirely of humanity.

Matthew 5:3—Blessed are the Poor
“But what,” I hear you ask, “about the Beatitudes, and the blessing of the poor?” Of course you are right, and many people have taken Jesus’ statements about the blessing of the poor as the ground for their understanding of God’s preferential option for them. But is it a blanket blessing? Does poverty become its own justification for blessing? Consider momentarily the two texts which record this blessing. In Luke 6:20 we read that Jesus says, simply, “Blessed are you who are poor, for yours is the Kingdom of God.” However, Matthew 5:3 adds a few words, saying, “Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the Kingdom of Heaven.” There’s lots that can be said about this (and if you’re interested, I treat these two passages extensively in my book Ordinary Prayer). For the sake of brevity let’s assume that Jesus doesn’t mean two different things in these two passages, but one thing which he’s used slightly different language to get at. It seems evident that the clarifying language of Matthew’s version helps us to understand that poverty, as poverty, isn’t what Jesus is really on about. It’s something different—a poverty of spirit. It isn’t the case, moreover, that wealthy people have no place in the Kingdom—they have lots of places (providing homes [Col 4:15], selling fields [Acts 4:36-37], supporting ministries [Luke 8:1-3], etc.). What seems crucial is that such persons—and this extends to all who would call themselves Christian—refuse to depend on material goods for their satisfaction. We each, in coming to God, must come as one who has nothing, one who is poor. By contrast, those who have their hands full with material wealth have a hard time coming to Jesus. (I note that a danger in reading this beatitude as only directed at the poor is that we miss its piercing application to all of us.)

Camel_Needle Cartoon

Can we get from this passage to a “preferential option for the poor”? Not without some exegetical gymnastics. God values poverty of spirit, He appears to desire a certain disposition in all His followers. But it also seems to be the case that wealth—or relative wealth—is immaterial to the condition of the heart, and the poor can live as much in the grip of Mammon as can the rich.

Can we get from passages like these to a belief that God is meaningfully embodied in the suffering of others, by virtue of their humanity? Does God stand in a position of total-human-solidarity with the poor? I don’t think so. And interestingly (to draw from last week’s post) in the same way that those who advocate for laxity in borders appear to be advocating for the removal of nation-states, those who advocate for this kind of total-human-solidarity appear to be advocating for universalism. Think about it—if God is in perfect solidarity with humans by virtue of their human poverty, then a state of being other than faith in Christ is a condition for salvation. Here we have salvation by social status (which certainly taps into some of the Marxist roots of Liberation theology). By extension, Heaven itself appears to have no boundaries, no doors, no in and out (except, possibly, for those who oppress the poor or advocate for heavenly boundaries!).

No Human is Illegal

By extension, there can be no borders, no boundaries, no trespassing. Taken to extremes in theology, there can be no limits to accessing heaven.

Rightly or wrongly, the Kingdom of Heaven is a place that establishes boundaries. In Christ the nation-state is redefined, the family is redefined, and the person is redefined. In each social sphere we are re-orientated toward the Kingdom, with new allegiances, duties, and criteria of judgment. As Kingdom citizens we stand in perfect solidarity with Christ crucified and resurrected, and it would seem that we bear chief responsibility while we wait for his return to wait attentively (Virgins), to wait industriously (Talents), and to wait caring for our brothers and sisters in faith (The Sheep and the Goats).

However—and this is an enormous however—one of the responsibilities we inherit is the charge to practice hospitality toward strangers, especially since we might by our deeds entertain angels unawares (Heb 13:2—a la Sodom and Gomorrah!). In this respect, and critically, our practice of social hospitality—how we treat the poor, the hungry, the imprisoned, the sick, the destitute—is both a hallmark of our status as Kingdom Citizens and an instrument of our evangelization. In view of this, I want to note Romans 5:8, that “God demonstrates His own love toward us, in that while we were yet sinners, Christ died for us.” The love of God for us preceded our Kingdom status. In the same way, it seems fitting that our love for the poor of the world might precede their Kingdom status. Christ died for all—his death makes sufficient provision for all persons. And yet not all will receive his loving work. In the same way, ought we not to be lavish in our love for the world, irrespective of the world’s acceptance of the meaning of that work?

So, is it the case that Jesus stands in embodied solidarity with every refugee? No, it is not. Can we reduce the Gospel to social action? No, we cannot. But we must remember that Christ might be with some of them. And until we visit, and clothe, and feed, and care, we will never find out if He was.

An Uneasy Conversation about Immigration, Continued.

I remain uneasy. Despite last week’s foray into the questions surrounding Immigration and Christianity, I am keenly aware of how much more there is to say—and of how uncertain a great deal of it is. Last time, I concluded that Christians do indeed bear clear ethical responsibility to the immigrant/stranger in the land, but I noted that the bounds of this responsibility are made unclear on account of the uncertain nature of our relationship to the state. In today’s post, I want to return to the question of the state, and to bring that to bear on the question of “illegal” immigration. I anticipate more uneasiness.

To get started, consider the following image, in which a cartoon of Jesus with children highlights Matthew 25:40 and suggests that the language of “least of these” applies specifically to undocumented immigrant children:


This is a potent, evocative image. It raises questions (not entirely subtle) about national sovereignty, about where Jesus ‘stands’ in relation to nation-states, and about the extent of solidarity. It suggests explicitly that if we are truly Christian, we should be allowing these children (and by implication their parents) unrestricted access to America. In fact, it asks a fundamental question—one that is implied in a great deal of the discourse around American immigration and Christianity: Do nation-states have the right to exist?

To you, that may seem like the wrong question—it may seem like an exaggeration, or even a distraction. But I think it really captures the heart of the present debate. In one camp (let’s give a charitable account) are a group of Americans who want to preserve a form of national sovereignty. They want to do this, specifically, by clarifying the land border between Mexico and the Southern US. Many (but not all of them) want a physical wall. Now, however you may feel about this camp of citizens, if you are in the other camp and are going to oppose them, you’ve got to ask about the alternative. If we don’t enforce the border, for what are we advocating? Note that this is (at the moment) completely irrespective of the merits or demerits of a given immigrant—this has nothing to do with questions of “deplorables” or escapees. If we oppose the establishment of a clear border, aren’t we in fact advocating for no border at all? And if, upon reflection, we are advocating for no border at all, aren’t we tacitly arguing that nation-states shouldn’t have borders? Isn’t this bound up with desires for unrestricted travel, free trade, deregulated immigration, and a kind of “global citizenship” unbounded by certain premodern conceptions of the state?


This, then, is our question: do nation-states have the right to exist? And how will we answer this question from a Christian perspective? The answer is: with difficulty. Firstly, and as I mentioned last week, there is no instruction whatsoever in the Bible on the management and establishment of foreign nation-states. We’ve got examples of states gone wrong (Canaanites, Egypt), and states under judgement for having gone wrong (Sodom, Gomorrah), but no ready-made Scriptural management techniques which we can apply to the Southern American land-border with Mexico. Instead, we’ll have to intuit a few answers and then draw some conclusions. To me there seems to be four sets of clues we can draw from: property laws, hospitality laws, the Kingdom of God as a State, and modern examples of anti-property, anti-border states.

Property Laws
First, property laws. The Bible has lots to say about property—it is enshrined, in fact, in no less than two of the Ten Commandments (we are commanded neither to steal, nor to covet). Property laws are then worked out in a host of case studies, relative to oxen (Ex. 21:32), donkeys (Ex 21:34-34), slaves (Dtr 15:17), children (Ex 21:22), and so forth. Among other things, this indicates that the category of things called “property” covered a significantly broad and varied assortment. It also points to the fact that, in the ancient world, the master of a household bore responsibility for virtually everything in the household. We must remember that in that world the horizons of economics and household management aligned. Within this extremely broad set of passages, there are also clear stipulations about the role of land rights. We are warned not to move ancient boundary stones (i.e., stealing property—Dtr 19:14), and we are commanded to return property to its hereditary owners after fixed-term leases (in this sense, no property was ever really ‘sold’ in Israel—see Leviticus 25 in full).

How can we connect these passages to the question of nation-states? Quite simply, if individual households have the right to exist, to preserve property, and to be managed according to just governance, then it is reasonable to expect that nation-states are subject to the same conditions. In short, as the household, so the nation-state. As households are judged (scripturally) on the merits of their masters, so nation-states are judged on the merits of their governors. As households have boundaries and door locks, preventing unrestricted access and protecting their assets (containing all the variety of ‘property’ within), so nation-states have boundaries and borders, similarly preventing unrestricted access and protecting its assets (containing all the ‘property’—its citizens—within). From this perspective—if our logic is sound—then nation-states possess the right and duty to establish and enforce a border. To fail at this appears to be, at minimum, a negligence of management.

Korean Rock Wall_Jeju_batdam

A rock wall separates farmland in Korea.

Hospitality Laws
However, and alongside each of these property laws, there is also a clear set of instructions regarding hospitality. Primarily, these are the laws of the stranger that I discussed last week. But in addition to these laws, there are a few key Scriptural examples to consider. The first is Genesis 19, where Sodom and Gomorrah are destroyed. It is extremely important to note that while immorality (esp. in a form of violent homosexuality) is in play during this story, the primary reason for their destruction appears to be the violation of hospitality. The angels appear at the gates of the city, and Lot—the only righteous man in town—displays his righteousness by offering them hospitality. The test of the city appears to be in how it treats the stranger. Sodom and Gomorrah’s response is disturbing: we rape strangers. Lot attempts to save the angels (not knowing they are angels) at the expense of his daughters’ lives, but before they can be subjected to this horror the angels begin their saving and destroying work.

Another case in the Old Testament is found in Numbers 20. There, Israel seeks Edomite permission to pass through their land—a desire for a kind of national hospitality. They even offer (astonishingly!) to drink no water, and pass through no crops. The Edomites refuse, and we note that to refuse water to a desert dwelling people is to desire, tacitly, their death. This is a source of future enmity between Edom and Israel. It is a violation of hospitality.

Note that we are not released from these hospitality laws in the New Testament. Most evocatively, and perhaps with Genesis 19 in mind, the author of Hebrews (13:2) admonishes us to show hospitality to strangers, “for by this some have entertained angels without knowing it.” In each stranger, he argues, we may be offering hospitality to an angel of the Lord. Hospitality remains a fundamental test of our civic virtue.


The Kingdom of God as a State
“But wait a moment,” I hear you object—doesn’t the New Testament church do away with property? Don’t the believers share all that they have? Isn’t it the case that none had needs in the early church? Yes, and no. Yes, there was a radical new sharing among the people of God. Yes, it was the case that members of the early church exchanged earthly goods so that members of the fellowship could eat. But it was not the case that all members divested themselves of property. First of all, we must remember that the Church continued to meet in homes. To meet in a home you have to own a home. To own a home in the ancient world you had to be wealthy. The early church had quite a few wealthy members who did not sell all they had. They maintained their property. But wait—didn’t Ananias and Sapphira get the axe because they didn’t sell their property? Not quite—they were killed, primarily, because they lied about it. They sold the field not in order to bless the people, but in order to make themselves look good. They kept the money because their hearts weren’t in the gift. They died because, like Achan in Joshua 7 before them, their corruption could not be allowed to sully the new conquest of the new Israel in the world.

Furthermore, it was not the case that money was redistributed in toto in the early church. There are rules about widows and orphans (they must be genuinely helpless—1 Tim 5:3-7), there are rules about working and eating (if you can work but don’t, you are not going to get help from the church—2 Thess 3:10). There are admonishments for the wealthy taking advantage of the weak (1 Cor 11:17-22). These passages indicate that the early church was not a kind of proto-communist utopia, but a place of fulfilled and glorified biblical economics. All who can work must work, those with an excess give, those who are desperate are cared for by the church.

There is more. The Kingdom of God is here, but not yet fully. The Kingdom—that is, God’s reign, invading the earth—is an entity that actively rejects national boundaries. It includes people from every tongue, tribe, and nation, and in every case citizenship in the Kingdom trumps that of individual nation-states. My identification with other Christians in China, Peru, Namibia, and Honduras sits in clear priority over my identification with any particular nation state (whether the US, Canada, or the UK—the three where I’ve lived so far). Without regard to my individual nation-state, I bear an ecclesial responsibility to Christians first. They are part of my household. And yet, this reality of Kingdom-citizenship still has its own boundaries. There is an inside, and an outside; there are those who are part of the kingdom, and those who are outside of it (see Matthew 25). The Kingdom itself maintains (and defends?) its own boundaries, its citizens, and its values (see, for example, Eph 5:1-13).

Colorful World Map

The Kingdom transcends all borders.

Nation-states that have abolished property
From what we can tell so far, it seems reasonable—on Scriptural grounds—to infer that yes, nation-states have a right to exist. They are an extension of the household and are governed (at least in part) by the Scriptural laws of property and hospitality. Is there ground, then, to make a case for the abolition of nation-states? Not from Scripture. Even the Kingdom is conceived as a place of boundaries and property management under the governance of justice, hospitality, and identity. By contrast, in the modern world where governments have attempted the abolition of property the consequences, in human terms, have been disastrous. Ironically, the effect of removing property reduces all persons to the property of the state. Outsiders—those who do not participate in the communist project—are viewed as assets to be added to the collective (very literally, what’s mine is mine and what’s yours is mine). A lack of borders becomes an invitation to the overriding of the borders of other nations. Nationalist, ethnic, and ideological holdouts are subjected to “re-education” (which is a word that should strike fear into any person educated with respect to 20th century history). In a strange turn, the abolition of property results in dehumanization.

Many Christians—historic and modern alike—have advocated for degrees and forms of socialist/communist economic structures. They have argued for these structures on the basis of their reading of the New Testament Church. However, it seems clear that they are guilty of an over-realized eschatology—what may work in a perfected world cannot work in this present, imperfect world. And in each case where this has been attempted such borderless projects, while promising heaven, have in fact delivered only hell.

Re-education in Vietnam

These images are from Vietnamese re-education camps, and are mild (i.e., they’ve been staged). Most of the other images are too disturbing to post.

Further Uneasy Ethics
Now what? And how does this help us with regard to the question of “illegal” immigrants? Here are five, further conclusions to consider.

1) Nation-states do indeed have the right to exist.

2) Nation-states are judged (by God) with respect to their management, specifically concerning utilization of property and hospitality.

3) Nation-states have a household responsibility to care for their citizens and maintain borders.

4) The Kingdom of God is the nation-state to which Christians belong, and may not be identified with any earthly nation-state. “My Kingdom is not of this world.”

5) Christians within nation-states possess a dual citizenship—the first, primary, to the Kingdom; the second, relative, to their nation-state.

Obviously, this creates an uneasy ethical tension. On the one hand, I am subject to the laws and regulations of my nation-state, which has a sovereign responsibility to defend its own boundaries. On the other hand, I am subject to the laws and regulations of the Kingdom of God, which transcends those boundaries and makes difficult demands of me.

So how do we address the question of the illegal immigrant? It seems that he or she falls squarely between the boundaries of earthly states and the Kingdom. We are bound to acknowledge that national borders are important—i.e., we admit that we all lock our doors at night for the sake of the residents of our homes. At the same time we bear a transcending Kingdom responsibility to be hospitable to the stranger. In the crush between the laws of our land and the commandments of Scripture, we are left with two questions: How shall we exhibit hospitality, and shall we err on the side of legality, or on the side of mercy?

First, hospitality. We don’t have to admit every immigrant who comes to a nation, but we ought—under God’s own command—to treat them each with dignity and hospitality. This will be costly, but the cost of ignoring it is too great.

Mother Teresa_pew

Second, mercy. Laws matter. And yet they are not all—especially when we follow Christ. And on his account it is clear that no amount of law-keeping will make us righteous if in the process we have become, and are, unmerciful. He even says this explicitly, quoting Hosea, “I desire mercy, not sacrifice” (Matt 9:13, Hosea 6:6). Christ seeks from us a heart of tenderness, more than a heart that has kept all of the rules.

In all of this, I have still left out one, final, looming question: What responsibility does the Church have toward outsiders? What are the boundaries of solidarity? To that question I will return, and conclude, next week.