Monthly Archives: May 2007
If there is one thing that separates Western thought from non-Western thought, it is the concept of individualism. As Americans, we are products of Western culture. Our cultural icons are John Wayne and Frank Sinatra, men who did it “their way.” We admire those who do what they think is right regardless of the opinions of their family and their communities. This is why young people in our nation are constantly searching to “find themselves” and to “be different” even though they end up looking like nearly everyone else in the same struggle. In short, the Western mantra is-to thine own self be true. The concept of individualism also leads to concepts of equality and human rights. We believe that all people should be treated fairly and equally.
As Westerners, we tend to think these ideas are obvious to everyone, but they are not. In terms of world history, individualism is a very recent development and to this day is not the assumption of the vast majority of people living in non-Western societies. When we say that all people should be treated equally, they see this as a sign of disrespect to established authority. Non-westerners see individualism as leading to materialism, feminism, sexual immorality, the breakdown of the family-and just plain disrespectful to established institutions.
When my wife and I led a young man named Jean Pierre to Christ while we were missionaries in Senegal, Jean Pierre payed a price. His family rejected him and tried to place a curse on him to kill him. Jean Pierre’s faith did not waver and now, although his family is not converted, they all respect him. What is remarkable about this is that Jean Pierre lives in a society that values conformity. The Senegalese like to eat from the same bowl and drink from the same cups during meal time to emphasize their unity as Senegalese. Their is no such thing as an individual hairstyle because everyone actually wants to look like everyone else. To embrace evangelical Christianity for Jean Pierre was to go against the grain and assert his ability to make a free choice over his culture’s expectation of conformity.
Individualism can be great, but it also has its drawbacks. Communities break down when people care only about themselves and not about the group as a whole. My question is: to what extent does Christianity promote individualism? Jesus did not seem all too concerned about the fact that His message would divide families. In fact, He even said that was exactly what He came to do!(See Matthew 10:34-39) Is individualism merely a product of Western culture or is it explicity a Christian virtue? Furthermore, is it possible to separate individualism from Christianity? If so, how do we cultivate a godly individualism without equating Western culture with Christianity? Or better yet, is that even necessary?
Once again, discuss!
I found another verse in the Psalms that has an interesting parallel in the New Testament. Psalms 11:6 says,
“Upon the wicked He will rain coals; Fire and brimstone and a burning wind shall be the portion of their cup.”
Notice the similarity between this verse and Romans 12:20 which says,
“If your enemy is hungry, feed him; If he is thirsty, give him a drink;For in doing so ;you will heap coals of fire on his head.”
The New Testament context is obvious. Paul quotes from Proverbs 25:21-22 to make the point that Christians are not to repay evil for evil, but to leave vengeance up to God. In agreement with the teaching of Jesus to love your enemies, both Paul and Solomon believed that kindness to an enemy afflicts the conscience of the enemy (and in some cases, will cause the enemy to repent). The coals of fire, therefore are coals of conscience.
What is striking about these three passages is the use of fire and coals. In the verse in Psalms, the words fire and brimstone are used. Could it be possible that these three verses are talking about the same thing? Namely that the coals and the fire and the brimstone, terms often used to describe the punishment of the wicked, primarily refer to the torment of a guilty conscience? If so, then how does this relate to a literal interpretation of the Bible?
Questions! Questions! Questions!
I came across an interesting verse today in Psalm 9:18.
“For the needy shall not always be forgotten; The expectation of the poor shall not perish forever.”
The implication seems to be clear. The needy and the poor are often forgotten and mistreated in this life, but there is coming a day when this will not be so. Notice that this verse says nothing about the spirituality of the poor person or to their relationship with God, it simply teaches that there is coming a day where the poor will receive justice. A parallel is the story of the rich man and Lazarus. The rich guy goes to hell and the poor man goes to Abraham’s bosom. In this story as well, nothing is mentioned about the poor man’s relationship with God nor to the virtue of the poor man. Here are my questions.
When will the poor receive justice? At the end of days? If so, who will be the beneficiaries?
Perhaps one of the most famous parables of Jesus, besides the parable of the prodigal son, is the parable of the Good Samaritan. Even non-believers who have never picked up a Bible are familiar with the term Good Samaritan as someone who helps another in a time of need. We have organizations honoring the famous Samaritan (such as Samaritan’s Purse) and laws as well (such as the Good Samaritan law). The most obvious meaning is that all of us should be willing to lend a hand when we see someone in a desperate situation.
This was not, however, the primary meaning to the original hearers of the parable. What would have shocked the first century Jewish audience the most was the fact that the hero of the story was, in fact, a Samaritan. What seems to us like a simple help your neighbor story was acutally a very clever literary device by Jesus to condemn one of the most prevalent sins of his era (and our own I might add). The sin Jesus was referring to was, of course, racism. Jews simply didn’t like Samaritans because they were half-breeds, racially impure.
Given that the majority of my readers are Christians with a similar background as myself, I am reasonably sure that what I have written so far should come as no surprise. All of us have heard sermons on racism at one time or another and, thank God, most of us realize that racism is a sin. What may come as a surprise is that the parable of the Good Samaritan was not only a slight against racism but also against another sin that I feel is far less talked about, and that is the sin of religious bigotry.
The Samaritans were not just racial half-breeds between ethnic Jews and Assyrians. They were also apostates from Judiasm. They believed in the God of Abraham and yet, they mixed their belief in God with pagan idolatry. The Samaritans were the descendants of the 10 tribes of Israel who broke away from Judah and Benjamin and set up their own version of temple worship complete with their own priesthood-something they had no authority to do under the Law of Moses. Not only that, when they were finally taken captive by the Assyrians, they interbred with them and adopted some of their religious beliefs as well.
And the hero of the story is a Samaritan? Impossible! In the story of the Good Samaritan, Jesus cut to the heart of religious pride to teach us that individuals should be judged on the content of their character, not on their race or, yes, even their religion.
If Jesus were giving this story today on a pulpit in one of the thousands of mega-churches that dot the American landscape, I wonder if He would tell the story of the Good Muslim? Furthermore, I wonder what kind of reaction He would get if He did.
I’m back and ready to blog. First things first. No, Pete, I wasn’t ignoring your question on the gun control issue. I just don’t have a clear opinion one way or the other. I do think it is rather strange however, that so many Christian groups lobby for the NRA, as if the view of protecting people’s rights to purchase semi-automatic weapons is distinctively a Christian issue. I also think it odd that so many conservatives support Rudy Guliani, even though he is pro-abortion and doesn’t take a strong stand against gay marriage, based solely on his performance for cleaning up crime as the mayor of New York City and his subsequent post 9/11 leadership. One of the things that Guliani says is that he was able to reduce crime in New York largely through tougher gun control measures.
As far as the issue itself from a biblical standpoint, I think it has to do with living with what is permissable and what is ideal. Defending oneself with a gun, or any other type of self-defense where the potential victim harms or takes the life of the aggressor may be permissable (clearly in the Old Testament this is the case), but is it ideal? Given the pacifist nature of the New Testament, that is the real question in my book.
Here is an article that covers this issue from just about every possible angle. The author is a pacifist, but a lot of the comments on his article take the opposite position. The dialogue is amazing. Hope you enjoy reading it.