Disobedient Christians.

by K.W. Leslie, 17 June

1 John 2.1-6.

I’ve known various Christians who get really outraged by the phrase “cheap grace.” Grace, they insist, isn’t cheap!

Well of course it isn’t. But “cheap grace” doesn’t mean we think grace is cheap; it means others treat it as cheap. They take God’s forgiveness for granted. They figure Jesus took out a trillion sins by his death… so what’s one more?

Heck, what’s a thousand more? God’s given us a blank check of forgiveness! We can sin ourselves raw, and he forgives all! So why go to all the bother of cleaning ourselves up and sinning no more? Self-discipline is so hard. Easier to just do as comes naturally—and remain the same bitter, selfish wankers we’ve always been.

But we’re forgiven just the same! And still go to heaven!

Hence the popular bumper sticker:


Or window sticker, or button, or hat, or T-shirt; found at many a Christian bookstore.

Now yes, this message can be used to describe just how expansive and generous God’s grace actually is. You don’t have to be perfect to come to Jesus. He came to treat the sick, not the healthy; Mk 2.17 he saves sinners, not paragons. Taken that way, it’s not a bad message.

But that’s definitely not the way Christians mean it. What we typically mean is, “Yes I’m an a--hole, but it’s okay if I’m an a--hole, because Christians don’t have to be perfect. It’s not a requirement.”

Yes it is a requirement. Stop sinning, dammit!

True, we don’t enter God’s kingdom by first becoming sinless and perfect. We get in through God’s grace. But the kingdom isn’t for sinners! It’s for people whom God makes sinless and perfect. He’s trying to transform us. And either we’re on board with his program… or we have no business calling ourselves Christian. Because we’re not.

Obviously I’m basing this rant on 1 John, so here’s the relevant bible quote:

1 John 2.1-6 KWL
1 My children, I write these things to you so you don’t sin!
And when anyone sins, we have a aide with the Father, Christ Jesus. He does right by us too.
2 Jesus is the solution for our sins.
And not only for our sins, but also for the whole world.
3 We know that we know Jesus this way: We keep his commands.
4 Saying we know Jesus and not keeping his commands:
It’s a lie, and there’s no truth found this way.
5 God’s love is truly completed by whoever might keep Jesus’s word.
We know we’re in God this way.
6 One who says they abide in Jesus is obligated to do this:
Just as Jesus walked, they themselves are to walk like this.

If a person’s not even trying to keep Jesus’s commands, they’re not Christian. They’re not “in God,” not in the light, have no relationship with him. Might think they have a relationship with him, ’cause they go to church and quote bible and said the sinner’s prayer once. But when they treat God’s safety net of forgiveness like a bounce house, they clearly don’t give a wet fart about Jesus. They’re not following him, trappings aside. Not Christian.

So if you’re not keeping Jesus’s commands, repent and start keeping ’em.

Stop exploiting God.

When Christians quote verse 1, they tend to skip the first line and jump straight to the second: When anyone sins, we have Jesus!

1 John 2.1 KWL
My children, I write these things to you so you don’t sin!
And when anyone sins, we have a aide with the Father, Christ Jesus. He does right by us too.

Which is understandable; it’s really good news. But back to the first line: John’s writing these things to his children (i.e. his students) so they don’t sin. Too many Christians in his church were likewise hopping on the cheap-grace bandwagon. They used a thousand loopholes, cop-outs, and misinterpretations to justify living in the dark.

Too many Christians talk about only having a contractual relationship with God. We have a covenant with him, they point out: We said the sinner’s prayer, and in exchange for believing Jesus saves us from sin and death, God has to take us into his kingdom. Has to. ’Cause he said he would. And since God never breaks his own word, we got him by his heavenly short hairs.

Yeah, they’re defining covenant wrong. They like to claim it means “an unbreakable contract”—if we violate its terms, it doesn’t void the covenant; God still holds up his end of it. But most contracts work like that: If you violate the terms of your credit cards, you still owe the bank money! If you defraud your business partners, you’re still partners… until you formally decide you’re not. A covenant is simply a formal relationship: You’re not just casual friends, but have bound yourselves together with various promises… and now you’re family. Like Jonathan and David. 1Sa 18.1-4 Like adoption.

Not that adopted kids don’t sometimes take their parents as much for granted as biological kids. And lots of us treat God like that. Like an indulgent father who lets us borrow the car… and for fun we speed, sideswipe bicyclists, pick up sketchy hitchhikers, and slam into things. And every time he bails us out of lockup, bribes the judge to look the other way, replaces the car, pats us on the head, and says, “Please drive the speed limit. Please stop plowing into convenience stores. Please. I love you.” Gee thanks, Dad; love you too. But tomorrow all his requests are totally forgotten, ’cause our buddies wanna go drag racing.

That’s not love. That’s exploitation.

Relationships involve give and take. But all our contractual understanding does is take. We do nothing but violate God, and he has to suck it up because he loves us so desperately. This turns him into a codependent, and us into his abusers. But we don’t realize we’re his abusers, ’cause we figure he’s almighty, so he can take it.

If we love God, truly love him, we can’t do him like that! We can’t justify our sick behavior by claiming he’s obligated himself to accept the short end of the deal, ’cause that’s just how grace works. It’s absolutely not how grace works.

Grace is a free gift. Gift, not obligation. God’s not forced to grant it. We haven’t forced him; he hasn’t forced himself; his love doesn’t irresistibly compel him. (If it did, he’d save everybody, like he wants to. 1Ti 2.4) He grants common grace, prevenient grace, to everybody: Everyone can come to him, ’cause he won’t turn us away, Jn 6.37 and he grants saving grace to those who do. Jn 1.12 But have those who exploit God’s grace truly come to him? Aren’t we demonstrating by our disobedience that we don’t really have any relationship with him?

See, those who are trying to not sin, trying to follow God, are clearly his. Jesus is here to help, and his forgiveness helps us out whenever we inevitably slip up. But those who aren’t trying: Jesus’s help isn’t yet for them. God’s forgiveness isn’t yet for them. They’re still in the dark. No Holy Spirit within, lighting ’em up. No real relationship with God. They’re not Christian. The behavior on the outside reflects the person inside. Mk 7.23

John knew Jesus personally, and knew what a legit relationship with Jesus entails: The Holy Spirit constantly takes us through a process of redefining and refining our lives to conform to Jesus’s will and teachings. The Spirit reminds us to follow Jesus. He regularly shows us practical ways to apply Jesus’s teachings. He corrects us when we go wrong. He points out relevant bible verses. He encourages us to do better, go farther, love more, grow a backbone, trust him more—and hey, don’t sweat the small stuff, ’cause grace.

Those who don’t really follow Jesus might know some of this stuff. Secondhand, though: They didn’t learn it by experience, but through sermons. Their “relationship” with Jesus is only memory verses, doctrines, enough Christianese for them to sound spiritual, and hypocrisy. They’ve never accepted a single challenge from the Holy Spirit. Why, he’d never challenge us to do such things; he’s a gentleman.

Saying we know Jesus but disobeying him: “It’s a lie, and there’s no truth found this way,” as John bluntly put it. How can Christianity be adequately expressed when we don’t follow Jesus? Well it can’t, and isn’t. Fake Christians provide pest-ridden fruit, and nothing in comparison with what God actually wants to achieve. Instead they offer sucky substitutes: Easy, casual practices. Warm fuzzy feelings of self-worth. “Prosperity,” comfort, and material riches, ’cause Jesus takes away all our problems. They don’t pick up any cross to follow him, Mt 16.24 they needn’t do self-control, Ga 5.23 and it’s all ease, wealth, happiness, sunshine, lollipops, rainbows, and unicorns.

And none of it real. It’s entirely phony. Most pagans can see right through this fraud, and think all Christians are self-deluded con artists like these phonies, and think God’s a fraud too. Phony Christianity turns good news into bad, religion into farce, and spreads darkness instead of light. Watch out for it!

Wanna know you’re saved? Follow Jesus.

Assurance is a big deal, and a real concern, for a lot of people: They wanna know they’re saved. Not just believe it really hard, as if wishing hard enough will make it real. (Although way too many people do actually believe they can do that. But let’s not go there today; it’ll turn into a crazy-long rant.) They want to believe… but they have doubts.

Which is understandable. Look at all the people who are neck-deep in other religions, and are entirely sure their religions are gonna save them. If Jesus is right… man are they boned. And if Jesus isn’t right, man are we boned.

So we’d kinda like some proof. Some evidence. Something other than happy thoughts. (Although, like I said, a lot of people are entirely sure happy thoughts work.)

Well, John pointed the way to it: When you obey Jesus, you know you’re saved.

1 John 2.3 KWL
We know that we know Jesus this way: We keep his commands.

No, not because obedience saves, ’cause it doesn’t. Grace saves. But obeying Jesus causes us to interact with Jesus. If we’re gonna obey successfully, we need the Spirit’s fruit and the Spirit’s power. We can’t do as Jesus does without the same Holy Spirit who guided and empowered Jesus on earth. And once you’ve had those God-experiences for yourself, you’re not gonna wonder any longer whether you’re saved. You’ll know you are.

Those who don’t follow Jesus, or who try to achieve the bare minimum but never ask the Holy Spirit for help—or worse, don’t even believe the Spirit does such things anymore—aren’t gonna have such God-experiences. They’re not gonna know they’re saved. They’re always gonna wonder. Or they’re gonna invent other proofs. Sometimes ridiculous ones, like when they psyche themselves into feeling something because they believe so hard. Or when they memorize the date they said the sinner’s prayer, as if God needs a proper time-stamp before he can let you into his kingdom.

And once they have those other false assurances, they’re gonna presume once saved always saved, and live lives of cheap grace. A disturbing number of ’em even insist we shouldn’t follow Jesus. “That’s legalism.” Or “We’re under grace now.” Or “You’re following the wrong dispensation.” Or “He doesn’t literally mean for us to obey these commands; they’re just ideals he means for us to uplift.” You know, cop-outs.

No no no. If you wanna know you’re saved, your proof is gonna come by following Jesus. By deep enough faith to really do as he said, and see what he’ll do in response. ’Cause he will act in response. Watch.

We sin, and need Jesus’s help.

by K.W. Leslie, 16 June

1 John 1.8 – 2.2.

There are a number of immoral folks who figure if God has a dark side, it justifies them having a dark side. I wrote on this previously: Gnostics and determinists claim God co-opts evil as part of his cosmic plan. So people figure if he’s not tainted by such behavior, there’s no reason they can’t commit the occasional sin… if it’s ultimately for the best.

Funny how often people wind up committing such “occasional” sins. Seems there are an awful lot of these occasions.

But the very idea is rotten to its core. If God has an evil plan, it makes him an evil God. Period. And as John had to point out, God has no dark side. God is light. Not just in the light, like we can be when we follow God: Is light. In John’s other writing, Revelation, he even describes New Jerusalem as lit by the Lamb himself instead of the sun. Rv 21.23 Since Revelation is all apocalypses, I don’t think it wise to interpret that literally, but certainly you get the idea we’re going to live in God’s presence and goodness, where there will be no room for evil. It can’t exist there.

1 John is written as a corrective to people who develop such messed-up ideas. And, as appropriate for Christians, it’s a gracious corrective. If you’ve fallen for this twisted idea and gone wrong, chill out: Repent, be forgiven, accept God’s grace, and move forward!

Or maybe I’ll just quote John.

1 John 1.8 - 2.2 KWL
8 When we say we don’t have sin, we mislead ourselves, and truth isn’t in us.
9 When we acknowledge our sins, God is faithful and does right by us:
He can forgive us of sin, and can cleanse us of everything wrong.
10 When we say we haven’t sinned, we make him sound like a liar,
and his word isn’t in us.
2.1 My children, I write these things to you so you don’t sin!
And when anyone sins, we have a aide with the Father, Christ Jesus. He does right by us too.
2 Jesus is the solution for our sins.
And not only for our sins, but also for the whole world.

God doesn‘t have a dark side, but humanity surely does. I sure do. So do you; so does everyone. And the only solution to this problem isn’t self-deprivation, isn’t noble truths and an eightfold path, isn’t gnostic revelations of how the universe really works, isn’t to find a bad guy to blame for everything, isn’t any of the usual solutions humans invent. It’s Christ Jesus.

Admit we have a problem, and need our Higher Power.

Maybe you already know this, but 12-step addiction recovery programs borrow their steps from medieval Christian discipleship practices. The founders of Alcoholics Anonymous, in order to get pagans to participate without being weirded out by religion, dropped most of the religious language. They had to keep God in, ’cause it doesn’t work very effectively without him, but they renamed him “the Higher Power,” and leave it to people to pursue him… or not. Celebrate Recovery straight-up calls him Jesus. But all groups recognize they can’t recover without him.

Same deal with sin. Step 1 of our process is to admit we have an addiction—to sin—and we can’t defeat sin alone. Legalists invent or borrow rules, and try to follow them, and fail hard. Their efforts to live perfect lives involve a whole lot of judgmentalism, harshness, and hypocrisy to cover up the many inevitable missteps. But we truly trust God to guide your steps, we shouldn’t require so very many of our own rules!

Step 2 is to admit we need our Higher Power. We can’t conquer sin, won’t conquer death, without God.

We find these ideas in 1 John and elsewhere in the bible. John got directly to the idea of living in the light God is: Acknowledge the truth to ourselves (and don’t hypocritically hide it from others!) that though we really shouldn’t sin, we do. Let’s not deceive ourselves. Let’s not invent some fantasy-world fake Christianity where we’re not really sinners, ’cause Jesus abolished all the LORD’s commands for this dispensation, so we can do as we please. Jesus’s solution, his atonement, doesn’t turn sin into non-sin, and doesn’t undo sin. But it does fix the sin problem, and that ain’t nothing.

Lying about our sin problem, and “making God a liar.”

John wrote about Christians who say they don’t have sin, who say they haven’t sinned. And a number of commentators are pretty sure John really wrote about gnostics. ’Cause seriously: Other than hypocrites, what Christians think they don’t sin?

Oh, plenty. Too many. I grew up hearing many a preacher claim once God forgives our sins, he blots ’em out entirely. They’re gone. Deleted from space, time, and God’s very own memory. He said so more than once.

Isaiah 43.25 KJV
I, even I, am he that blotteth out thy transgressions for mine own sake, and will not remember thy sins.
 
Jeremiah 31.34 KJV
And they shall teach no more every man his neighbour, and every man his brother, saying, Know the LORD: for they shall all know me, from the least of them unto the greatest of them, saith the LORD: for I will forgive their iniquity, and I will remember their sin no more.
 
Hebrews 8.12 KJV
For I will be merciful to their unrighteousness, and their sins and their iniquities will I remember no more.
 
Hebrews 10.17 KJV
And their sins and iniquities will I remember no more.

Need more proof-texts? This, these preachers claim, mean God’s deliberately giving himself selective mini-lobotomies. And since they’re no longer in his memory, it’s like we never did sin against him.

But taking these statements literally becomes a really problematic teaching. Don’t we claim God’s omniscient?—he knows all? We can’t very well teach this, and that God suffers from selective self-inflicted amnesia.

It’s more accurate to say God forgives. Yes, he totally recalls our every act. Since he fills time, he’s simultaneously right here, and back there at the point of every sin in our lives. He relives ’em better than someone suffering from post-traumatic stress. But unlike a human, it doesn’t traumatize him. Doesn’t drive him away. Doesn’t make him so hurt he can’t go on… or worse, vengeful. We humans get that way, which is why we usually have to forgive and forget: We can’t get past sins, and forgive people, unless we do so. But God is almighty. And good. And δίκαιος/díkeos (KJV “just”), which I translate “does right [by us],” because nobody deserves grace, but that’s precisely what he gives us: Compassionate, loving grace. He doesn’t do grudges. We’re good. ’Cause God is good.

Okay, so other than weird or heretic teachings about the nature of forgiveness, who claims they have no sin? ’Cause whenever someone foolishly tries it, the rest of us automatically cry foul. “Who d’you think you’re fooling? You ain’t perfect.” Some of us, especially spouses and parents and kids and close friends, can remind us of a bunch of sins; they have a whole list. None of us are so stupid as to claim perfection. Cult leaders will, but that’s only after their followers learn that contradicting them will have terrifying consequences.

But actually lots of Christians claim we don’t sin. We do it by omission: We never confess our sins to one another. You know, like James taught.

James 5.16 KJV
Confess your faults one to another, and pray one for another, that ye may be healed. The effectual fervent prayer of a righteous man availeth much.

We figure our sins are nobody’s business but God’s, so we confess them to him, and only him. Then we act like our lives are just fine; that we never struggle against the darkness—or that every time we do, we totally win.

Or we’ll confess mundane sins. It’s no big deal to admit, “Okay, I sometimes lie. Every so often the wife’ll ask me if her butt looks big in some outfit. Come on, am I supposed to hurt her feelings?” We’ll confess to petty, dumb stuff. The bigger stuff?—we keep that to ourselves, and when people ask us what’s new, we tell ’em nothing we’re really struggling with. “Kids doing okay in school?” We’ll say sure; we’ll skip the fact the kids got suspended for swearing at teachers. “Work doing all right?” We’ll say sure; we’ll never mention the fact the boss chewed us out for using the company credit card to buy weed. The big, embarrassing infractions against God go unconfessed.

As a result, all our fellow Christians really know about us is… nothing. All people ever hear from us are positive, upbeat, funny, victorious stories. Nothing about our real problems and struggles. Nothing about how God helps us through the rough times—’cause what rough times? Our lives are perfect. We’re perfect. Yeah, everybody sins, but as far as we’ve clued everybody else in on our lives, we only have little sins. They, on the other hand, are the only serious f---ups in the church.

Justify this behavior all you want: “I don’t wanna be a downer,” or “I don’t want their pity,” or “Every time I tell on myself, all I get from them is judgment, or platitudes and bad advice, and I have had it up to here with that crap.” I don’t blame anyone for tiring of judgmentalism. Even so: If we don’t confess our sins, we’ve created a pious façade of ourselves, and become hypocrites. We’re making our lives look perfect and uncomplicated—and we know they’re not.

And we’re making God look like a liar. Because we supposedly follow God… and we’re liars. And once struggling Christians find out what our lives are really like when all we’ve shown ’em is the façade, how d’you think they’re gonna feel about God? About our church? About Christianity? Plenty of people have quit Jesus over less.

So let’s not. Don’t lie by omission. We sin. Let’s admit that. Then let’s point to Jesus, the solution to our sins.

God doesn’t have a dark side.

by K.W. Leslie, 15 June

1 John 1.5-7.

Gnostic religions have always taught weirdness about Jesus. Some of these ideas leaked into the first-century church; hence John’s first letter, correcting his church. Loads of these ideas are still around. Some are outright heresy.

Others aren’t technically heresy… because heresy is defined by the creeds, and for whatever reason the creeds didn’t get to that particular error. Often because the ancient Christians figured, “Well of course that’s wrong; haven’t you read a bible?” And of course Christians haven’t read their bibles. (Read your bible!) They let their favorite teachers read ’em for them, and blindly follow these teachers without double-checking any of their proof texts. That’s how gnostics have always got away with it.

And one of the more popular errors is about God having dark side.

It’s based on determinism, the belief God is so sovereign, he controls absolutely everything in the cosmos. God’s the “unmoved mover” of Aristotle of Athens, the first cause of everything, and everything in the universe happens because God wants it to happen that way. He’s in control. Really, determinists insist, if he weren’t wielding total control of everything, we couldn’t legitimately call him almighty.

But if God’s in charge, what about sin? Why is evil, chaos, and death part of our universe if God’s pulling every single string of our cosmic puppet show?

If you’re not a determinist—and I’m not, and I would argue the apostle John’s not—there’s a really simple answer: He’s not pulling every single string of the show. He’s not so inept a creator that he built something, but constantly has to fiddle with it lest it go awry. But if it does go wrong, it’s not God’s fault: His creation has free will. It can legitimately make its own decisions—and choose to do what God told it to, or do its own thing. That’s the cause of evil, chaos, and death. Not God.

Determinists insist no, God’d never cede control of his domain like that. (Certainly they never would, were they God.) And since he doesn’t clamp down on the evil (again, not like they would, were they God) it must mean he determined this evil, chaos, and death oughta happen. He wants it to. It’s not the fallout from our bad choices; it’s part of the plan. A plan full of evil, chaos, and death; so much so it’s properly called an evil plan. Which God’ll sort out in the long run, but in the short run, God sovereignly decrees there will be evil, chaos, and death.

You’ve seen this in sitcoms and superhero movies, like The Incredibles: Somebody wants to look like a hero, so he creates a disaster, fully intending to “solve” the problem himself so everybody can laud him as a hero. Well, this is exactly how determinists describe God: He’s gonna solve all the evil in the world, and as a result receive all the glory. But… didn’t he create the problem in the first place?

And y’notice in the sitcoms and superhero movies, the mastermind usually gets exposed as the person who created the crisis in the first place. And universally denounced as a fraud. ’Cause he totally is. Yet for some reason, determinists never get to that part of the plot: They keep insisting no, even though God’s totally behind the evil, he’s not evil. He can’t be; he says he’s not!

Eventually their incredible explanations get a little too incredible for even them to believe. Which is why so many determinists quit Christianity or turn atheist. And y’know, if God really is the way determinists claim, I don’t blame people at all for rejecting him: That’s not a good God!

But I would counter that’s not God. He doesn’t have a secret evil plan. Doesn’t have a dark side. And he’s still sovereign and almighty; just not deterministic.

If God has a dark side, can we have one too?

Here’s a dirty little secret you’re gonna see among many determinists: A lot of ’em legitimately believe the ends justify the means. If something good is gonna come out of it in the long run, it’s okay to sin and commit evil things as part of the plan. After all, in the deterministic worldview, God himself incorporates every last act of evil into his sovereign plan… and turns it into good. So maybe, just maybe, we can do likewise.

Y’might call this a case of “monkey see, monkey do”: If God gets to dabble in evil and not get burnt, maybe we can do it too. At least with small, manageable, non-felonious evils. Only God is mighty enough to mitigate vast evils, like genocide and institutional racism, so we should maybe stick to small evils like white lies and minor frauds. Anything bigger might spin out of control.

And yeah, if you grew up in a church which taught you God has a dark side, this is definitely a case of poisonous fruit taking root. But frequently Christians choose to join deterministic churches. They love the idea God makes all things work together for good, that everything happens for a reason, that nothing in this universe is meaningless. Finally, here’s a church which tells ’em what they want to hear!—what they’ve always suspected or wished was true. And if they’re this willing to choose an interpretation of God which suits ’em best, stands to reason they’re just as willing to embrace a God who dabbles in evil because they kinda think it’s okay to dabble in evil.

Pharisees had a lot of determinists among them, and y’notice they tended to think the very same way. It’s how the head priest’s argument was so able to sway them. (Joseph Caiaphas was Sadducee, not Pharisee, but you don’t become an expert at herding Pharisees without knowing how they tick.)

John 11.47-51 KWL
47 So they gathered the head priests and Pharisees in senate,
and said, “What do we do? This person does many signs.
48 When we let him do them like this, everybody will believe in him—
and the Romans will come and take away us, this place, and the nation.”
49 A certain one of them, Joseph Caiaphas, the head priest that year,
told them, “You don’t know anything.
50 Nor do you realize it’s better for you that one person might die for the people,
instead of the whole nation destroyed.”
51 Caipahas didn’t say this by himself. But as head priest that year,
he prophesied Jesus was about to die for the nation,
52 and not for this nation alone,
but Jesus might gather together all God’s scattered children into one body.

It was okay, Caiaphas figured, to murder one guy than have him trigger a Roman invasion. (Which, y’know, happened anyway.)

Ends-justify-means is a popular mindset among immoral people, ’cause it doesn’t just get them out of tragic moral choices where they don’t think there’s a way out (even though God always grants us one 1Co 10.13): It lets ’em think they’re morally right because they sinned in a way which benefits them or others. They can use the darkness for the greater good. It’s even okay if it quietly, cancerously corrupts them: Other people get to live good, prosperous lives, so it’s okay if they sacrifice their character and soul for others.

Yep, wrong ideas lead to even more wrong ideas. Sometimes much worse ideas.

Christians stay out of the dark.

God is only the source of good in the universe. Not evil.

There are multiple first causes in the universe. Satan, fr’instance, is the first cause of lies. Jn 8.44 Humanity’s the first cause of all the sin in the world. Blaming God for these things, directly or indirectly, may appear to keep all the power in his hands; it gives people comfort to think nothing happens without God’s permission. But God doesn’t permit evil. He forbids it all the time. Not stopping it from happening in the first place, is not the same as permitting it. Inaction isn’t action. (No, not even passive action.)

God’s gonna eventually judge the world for its evil behavior. It’d be pure hypocrisy if he permitted this evil, or suborned it, or manipulated us into committing it for his own purposes. It’d be evil on top of evil. God’d be nothing but darkness.

But as John pointed out, God doesn’t do darkness. At all.

1 John 1.5-7 KWL
5 This is the announcement we heard from the living word and report to you:
God is light. “Darkness in God” is not a thing.
6 When we say we have a relationship with God,
yet would walk in darkness, we lie. We’re not being truthful.
7 When we walk in the light, like God is in the light,
we have a relationship with one another,
and the blood of Jesus, God’s son, cleans us from all sin.

My former grad school roommate is legally blind. He can see, but not well. The brighter the lights, the better he sees. Our dorm room was dimly lit by 40-watt bulbs, so one day I went to the hardware store and got a 200-watt bulb. You think a halogen torch is bright: This sucker was so bright, when you opened our door it lit up the entire dorm hallway, and the bathroom down the hall. Of course the sun did the very same thing every day, but we were still mighty impressed with this bulb.

God’s the same way. Light wipes out darkness. God beats evil. Gnostics, other religions, and even many Christians make spiritual warfare sound like a tremendous cosmic battle. A Götterdämmrung, to use the German term: The gods fight, the bad gods fall, but the old gods also fall, to be replaced by new gods. In reality there’s no such thing. At the End, the Almighty says, “Kids, we’re done,” and evil stops. It’s no contest. God wins. The end.

I get paranoid email all the time from Christians who are scared witless of one stupid thing after another. The government’s up to something, the president’s up to something, the media are up to something, the Europeans or Chinese or Iranians or North Koreans are up to something, the devil’s up to something. There’s so much irrational fear, and it’s completely antithetical to people whose faith is supposed to be in God. That’s because it’s not in God. They may trust him to save them from hell, but nothing else.

I’m not saying we shouldn’t stay up on current events, and try to fight evil in our communities and nation. But Christians really need to stop flinching in panic every single time we hear of sinners being sinners. How else should we expect sinners to behave? And just because they behave like the pagans they are, doesn’t mean evil is winning. Our God is still infinitely more powerful than evil. To him, their darkness is nothing.

If we believed this, we wouldn’t freak out over every dark and scary thing. Or every semi-dark thing. We shouldn’t see the fruitless, scaredy-cat mania I see so frequently among Christians. Being in the light should make it quite clear these worries are unfounded.

Assuming we’re actually in the light. John made a fairly obvious point: If God’s light, and we have a valid relationship with him, we shouldn’t see dark behavior.

Gnostics used a lot of twisted logic to justify and cancel out their sins. Christians do it too. We argue the Old Testament commands no longer count, ’cause we’re under grace. We argue the Sermon on the Mount doesn’t matter, ’cause that’s how life in God’s kingdom works… but that kingdom won’t arrive till Jesus returns. We’ve come up with all sorts of reasons why sins are no longer sins, ’cause grace. Which isn’t logical. Grace means God forgives us. If sins aren’t sins anymore, what’s to forgive?

John cut through our crap and made it clear: If we claim any relationship with God, yet act like every other pagan, we have no such relationship. Doesn’t matter what we claim. God’s influence should’ve transformed us and borne fruit. If it hasn’t, we don’t have him. Behavior implies salvation. No, we’re not saved by works, but when we lack the works, we have no evidence of salvation. Faith without works is dead. Jm 2.26

Those of us in relationship with God can’t be involved with the dark. We literally can’t: We’re surrounded by his light, which wipes it out. Our close proximity to God means any temptation the dark used to hold, isn’t there. Our focus is on God, only God. We see sin through his eyes: It’s small, stupid, unnatural, and foul.

Note how it’s not sin which hinders our relationships with God. It’s us. In order to be tempted by darkness, we gotta walk away from light. The light’s still there; God hasn’t gone anywhere, and he’s not leaving. He’s like the friend who still texts you even when you never text back. Even though you’re plotting to do all the things you promised him you’d never. Even after you did a few of ’em.

We need to stop reducing our relationship with God to this contractual “I call you Lord and you get me saved” deal. God doesn’t want a business arrangement. He wants children. He wants a real relationship, not an acquaintanceship with frequent name-dropping, where our testimonies consist of God-trivia instead of something we actually did together. (And not something we did together decades ago, ’cause there’s been nothing since.) That’s no relationship. It’s hardly a relationship worth appealing to at the Last Judgment. Yet many of us will try… and sadly for some it won’t work.

Gnostics.

by K.W. Leslie, 14 June

1 John 1.1-4.

Y’ever noticed somebody on the internet who claimed they knew stuff? Secret stuff? Stuff where, if you click on this link and read their blog, or buy this book, or watch this video, or attend this seminary, or buy any their other products, you too can learn these secrets?

  • Better career, bigger income, more money, more leisure time?
  • Better health? Conquering disease, especially without Big Pharma or the healthcare industry enriching themselves at your expense, or even maliciously keeping you sick?
  • Better nutrition? All the stuff the food industry’s replaced with chemicals, or is manufacturing in substandard ways for a quick buck?
  • More freedom?—’cause the government’s not telling you stuff, or big business doesn’t want you to know what rights they’re exploiting?
  • Better sex?—which you don’t know about ’cause of various cultural taboos?
  • Other secrets “they” don’t want you to know?

People love the idea of having exclusive information, of knowing stuff the general public doesn’t. And we’ll get really irritated “they” don’t want us to know such things. “How dare ‘they’ not want me to know about nutrition!” Plays right into all our paranoid fears about class warfare.

But hey, we frequently see Christians doing it too.

  • God’s secret plan for your life!
  • God’s hidden plans for the End!
  • Mysteries of Ezekiel—revealed!
  • Seventy-six promises of God “they” don’t want you to know!

How dare those [LESS-THAN-CHRISTIAN EXPLETIVE]s not want me to know God’s promises!

Okay, calm down there little buckaroo. Again, it’s about playing into people’s fears and the things we covet. It’s about trying to grab our attention with the word “secret,” or suggesting there’s forbidden knowledge which we really oughta have access to. You know, same as the serpent tempted Eve. It’s all clickbait.

And many of these things aren’t really secret. They’re just not widely known. Or they are widely known, but either you’ve never heard ’em before, or didn’t believe them (and still kinda don’t).

Problem is, often Christians will claim to have access to secret knowledge. And if you want those secrets, it’ll cost you.

Well, God’s about revelation, not secrets. He’s about sharing the mysteries of salvation and his kingdom to everyone with ears to hear. God wants everyone to know Jesus is Lord: Who he is, what he teaches, and how to follow him and be saved. Jesus told us to tell everyone: “Go make disciples of all the nations” and all that. Mt 28.19 “All nations” means all. (Of course if your ears are closed, that’s on you.)

Yet throughout human history, even predating the bible, there have been folks who specialize in secret knowledge. The Greek word for knowledge, γνῶσις/gnósis, is where we get our own word “know.” And if you’re someone who knows things, it means you’re a γνωστικός/gnostikós, a gnostic. (The opposite of agnostic, someone who’s entirely sure they don’t know things.) Today’s gnostics don’t always call themselves that, ’cause the word tends to only be used with religion (and agnostic with non-religion). Still, it’s the same idea.

Ancient gnostics.

In the Persian Empire, Greek Empire, and of course Roman Empire, there were mystery religions, founded by gnostics. They claimed they had all the secrets of the universe. They knew how it was created, how it works, and how it could work for you. So if you wanna get your hands on these secrets, they’ll totally give ’em to you: Join their group. Take their seminars. Do their rituals. Unlock your potential!

Once you were in, you’d find there were multiple levels. And they all cost money.

A brand-new member was on the bottom level. Might’ve paid for and participated in a few ceremonies, rituals, and secrets. Whereas a 33rd-level member had participated and paid for a bunch. Of course the sect’s leaders were on the top level, and claimed you might reach their level some day… but they were always inventing new levels, and claimed they were always attaining new levels themselves. It’s like a college you can never, ever graduate from, so you never stop paying tuition and buying books. (And after you complete a course, you aren’t entirely sure about what you just learned.)

Where’d all these secrets come from? Duh; the leaders were making ’em up. But gnostics claimed they came from the gods.

Which gods? They usually liked to pick obscure ones. Greco-Romans had already heard all the myths about Zeus and Hera, Apollo and Dionysus. So gnostics told ’em the secrets of gods they knew very little about. Like Osiris and Set and Isis, or Ahura Mazda, or Rama and Krishna and Vishnu. Or some obscure middle eastern deity called YHWH—who, according to their sect of the Nazarenes, is one God, yet mysteriously three. That paradox, gnostics got an awful lot of mileage out of.

Gnostic teachings are a hodgepodge. Same as today, they borrowed a little of this, a little of that, from any and every religion, plus popular culture. A little Greek philosophy, a little Hinduism and Zoroastrianism and Egyptian religion and Greco-Roman religion and Judaism and Christianity. But once the gnostics got done with it, all the “Christian” ideas were corrupt. (In fact a lot of historians wonder whether Mohammed ibn Abdullah encountered gnostics instead of real Christians, considering what he taught about Christian beliefs.)

Every so often the news media reports on some recently-discovered gospel. (Often they weren’t all that recently discovered. It’s just your average person—and your average reporter—has no idea there are any other gospels than the four in the New Testament. So when they find out, they react, “Why doesn’t everyone know there are other gospels?” and report it like crazy. Anyway.) There’s the gospel of Thomas, of Judas, of Mary Magdalene, of Jesus’s wife, of Peter and Pilate and Nicodemus and whoever. Every last one of them were written by gnostics: They claim to have secret knowledge about Jesus which we Christians lack. And when you read them, most of the time they make no sense—because to decode them, people need the writings of their sect’s interpreters. Which cost money.

Yes they were all about making money. Not truth. Not a greater relationship with God. They could give a rip about these things. But they’ll sure pretend to.

And yeah, you can likely think of religions today which are likewise all about making money. Including individual Christian churches—if not entire denominations. They promote the fact they’ll teach you stuff none of the other Christians will; that other Christians are even hiding from you, ’cause they’re the ones who are greedy or corrupt. But y’notice every single one of their “unlocked secrets” have price tags: Gotta buy this book, attend that seminar, get tickets for the big conference, pay admission fees… because it’s “truth.” Think of it as your investment in heaven. You gotta give a little, but you gain a lot. Right?

Still, if these “secrets” came from the Holy Spirit, and he gives them to people for free, where’s the “freely ye have received, freely give” Mt 10.8/vs> principle Jesus teaches?

Anyway. Gnosticism, and all the ridiculous untruths and half-truths gnostics peddle, are the primary reason John had to write his first letter.

It doesn’t start the usual way a letter in Roman Empire days was written. Usually they’d begin, as Paul’s letters did, with the author and recipients. And maybe 1 John originally had those things too, but they got trimmed off. Problem is, now we’ve no solid proof John bar Zebedee wrote it. I mean, it reads like John’s gospel (which doesn’t have John’s name on it either) and covers a lot of the same topics, so people figure the two pieces have the same author. Anyway for convenience I’ll call the author “John.”

And if John wrote it, it was written to a first-century church to teach ’em some really basic stuff about Christianity, as opposed to the junk gnostics were peddling. This way the people could accurately identify themselves as Christian, who share a relationship with God and the apostles, 1Jn 1.3 and have life in God’s son. 1Jn 5.13 This church might’ve been John bar Zebedee’s church in Ephesus; and that kinda makes sense, considering all the gnostic groups in Ephesus. But gnostics were all over the Roman Empire… and they’re still around, which means 1 John comes in handy to just about every church.

Revelation isn’t for the select few. It’s for all.

Contrary to popular belief, Christianity isn’t a knowledge-based religion. It’s not about having correct theology. Yeah, theology’s important, ’cause we’re wrong and need Jesus to set us right. But we’re not saved by theology. We’re not saved by having secret knowledge which no one else does. We’re only saved by God’s grace.

The old cliché goes that Christianity isn’t a religion, but a relationship. That’s partly true. It’s definitely a relationship. But if we’re not religious about our relationship it’s gonna suck. If we’re truly serious about God, we gotta be somewhat religious. So Christianity is a religion too. But relationship’s at the center of this religion. It’s not what we know, but whom.

This is why John began the letter, not by appealing to beliefs and knowledge, but personal experience. He had it. We should have it too.

1 John 1.1-4 KWL
1 About the living word: He’s in the beginning.
We saw him with our eyes. We saw him up close and our hands touched him.
2 He revealed life. We saw it, witnessed it, and report it to you:
The life of the age to come which is with the Father, revealed to us.
3 We saw it, heard it, and report it to you all, so you can also have a relationship with us—
and our relationship is with the Father and with his son, Christ Jesus.
4 We write these things so our joy might be full.

Christianity is an experiential religion. We have a relationship with the Father. And John invited his readers to have a relationship with “us,” meaning the apostles who had an existing relationship with the Father. He wanted them to have a relationship with him too. He wanted all of us to collectively see Jesus.

Yes, see Jesus. No, I’m not getting all mystic or Pentecostal on you. This is John’s point. He wrote this “so our joy might be full”: He wanted our experience to be as full, as rich, as thorough, the same, as his experience. It’s not enough for the first apostles to see Jesus and tell Jesus-stories to future generations: They fully expected for us to see Jesus, to have our own Jesus-stories, and share those stories too. (Not to make ’em bible, but as testimonies.) They expected us to see Jesus too—either at his second coming, (which they assumed could be any day now) or in one of Jesus’s many, many appearances in the meanwhile.

John didn’t tell us he saw Jesus to brag, “Look what I saw. And now I have secrets I can impart to you.” He told us so we can seek him ourselves. Experiencing Jesus isn’t limited to the first century, to the few people who hung out with him in Judea, who are all dead now. It’s for everyone.

And by the way: If John bar Zebedee didn’t actually write this letter, it makes this teaching all the more profound. Because it means a whole other guy had a personal experience with Jesus. Not one of the Twelve, not one of the 120 people at the first Pentecost; Ac 1.15, 2.1 this author might not even have been born yet. But he saw Jesus, and had stuff to share with his church.

He’d hardly be the first. Paul experienced him too. 1Co 15.8 And Paul was hardly the last, for we have stories like this all throughout Christian history. Loads of us have seen Jesus. Because he wants a relationship with his current followers, same as his relationship with his first followers. God’s kingdom is coming into the world, so from time to time the kingdom’s people are gonna see our King.

But I’m gonna go back to calling the author “John” now. John, who had seen Jesus, recognized the Son of Man has been revealed to all. You, me, everyone. So get to know him and follow him, and the Spirit will direct us towards the truth and the light.

Relationship before knowledge.

Trouble is, we Christians regularly get this ass-backwards. We think our priority is to get the doctrine right. Then we’ll have an authentic relationship with Jesus. ’Cause once we know our bible really, really well, we’ll know how he works, and that’s just as good as knowing him. Worked for the Pharisees, right? Jn 5.39

Okay, apply this thinking to anyone else, and you’ll realize how dumb it is. George Washington, fr’instance. Let’s say I study the man like crazy. Say I read his diaries, all his letters, all his declarations and presidential statements. (True, Alexander Hamilton wrote a lot of them for him, but then again Jesus didn’t write his own gospels.) Say I read everything others wrote about him; checked out his personal belongings in the Smithsonian and at Mount Vernon; learned loads about him. Do I have a relationship with him? A very one-sided one; he doesn’t know me. And because I’m not interacting with the living man himself, I only know his public façade. Not so much the inner man.

And yet that’s how a lot of Christians claim to know Jesus. True, we have the Holy Spirit in us, but how many of these Christians actually talk with the Spirit, instead of unidirectional prayer? So they study him without speaking to him, learn of him instead of truly following him, learn theology instead of obedience, and don’t actually interact with their living Lord.

John emphasized interaction, relationship, experience, because this informs our beliefs. We don’t know Jesus by reading and studying; we know him by being with him, watching him do his thing, and imitating his example. Without this relationship, it’s so easy to go wrong. Or be misled by gnostics.

And Christians do this all the time. They haven’t experienced Jesus, so they don’t get why he does as he does. They guess. And guess wrong. Way too many people use as the basis of their understanding, “What would I do if I were Messiah?” and project our motives upon him. That’s not following Jesus; that’s putting on a Jesus hand-puppet and following an imaginary friend. We’re not Jesus. We don’t yet have his nature. We’re still self-centered and sinful. Our priority isn’t love; most of the time it’s power. It’s why Christians prefer to emphasize God’s might instead of his love, joy, patience, and grace.

When you experience God, what do you see? Usually his love. His power too, but he doesn’t need to act in power all the time. But he does act in love all the time. He is love, y’know. 1Jn 4.8

When we don’t experience God, we’re gonna drift towards our own motives, not God’s. Yeah, our theology might be orthodox, but our interpretation and practices will be all askew because there’s no fruit of the Spirit in any of it. Both solid Christians and heretics read from the very same bible, but heretics go to outrageous extremes while the rest of us don’t. Why’s that? Well, we have the experiences; we know what God’s love looks like. Heretics haven’t, or confuse it with one of the many other definitions of love. They spin the bible to match their limited experience—and no surprise, go wrong. And when we talk about experience informing knowledge, they object: “We don’t interpret God based on subjective experiences! We only interpret him based on bible.” As if that’s what they’re truly doing.

I’m not dismissing knowledge, folks; not at all. I did go to seminary after all. I’m all for it. But priorities, people. Knowledge is no substitute for relationship, and relationship comes first. Always. It really informs how we read the apostles. And knowing God means we’re far less likely to fall for gnostic bushwa.

When Christians won’t even let you think.

by K.W. Leslie, 11 June

Some Christians get awfully dogmatic.

Dogma is another word for doctrine, Christianity’s fixed ideas or official beliefs. It’s an old-timey word, so you tend to only hear dogma in older churches, or used to refer to that one movie about fallen angels who try to take advantage of a dogmatic loophole. But while the adjective doctrinal tends to mean “deals with doctrine,” dogmatic tends to mean “demands we follow doctrine.” Dogmatists are the doctrine police of Christendom.

And while the older churches have a settled, limited, fixed number of dogmas… certain Christians kinda crank out a new doctrine every week.

Fr’instance this one Texas pastor I know; I’ll call him Alfons. He has a newsletter called “These Doctrines,” in which Alfons goes over all the things he expects the Christians of his church—and really, Christians everywhere—to believe. For the most part they’re typical Fundamentalist principles: God’s a trinity, Jesus is both God and human, Mary was a virgin when she gave birth to him, the bible’s infallible. But Alfons mixes in a lot of other beliefs he considers settled and fixed and non-negotiable. Divorce, in almost all circumstances, is sin. Alcohol is sin. Women who aren’t subservient to men is sin. Hip hop is devilish. The pope’s an antichrist. And so on.

Speaking of the pope: Like a lot of Fundies, Alfons loves to mock Roman Catholics for believing the pope to be infallible. (Which they do only under certain circumstances. But Fundies don’t always know this… nor care.) Yet Alfons claims papal-level infallibility in every sermon and newsletter: He’s right, these are doctrines, and don’t you dare challenge him or you’ll find yourself fighting the God who anointed him pastor. It’s not so much about the pope being wrong, and more about professional jealousy. But I digress.

What’s the difference between Alfons’s church and a cult? Enforcement. How gracious is the leadership of a church when you respectfully disagree with them? (Emphasis on respectfully. If you disagree with them, don’t be a dick.)

  • If they figure okay, you don’t agree; they’ll be patient and over time, win you over: Not a cult.
  • If they figure it’s not okay, and you have to leave before your heretic stank gets on ’em, and they banish you to hell: Totally a cult. Just be glad they let you go, and don’t drag you to the basement to reprogram you. (’Cause some cults will. I’m not kidding.)
  • Letting you attend their services, but debating you every chance they can: That’d be proselytism. It’s not cultish… but it’s not fruitful either. Argumentativeness isn’t of God, and a Christian who thinks they can win you over by wearing you down, still has some maturing to do.
  • Letting you attend, but your beliefs disqualify you from membership and leadership: Not a cult. It only makes sense for churches to have expectations and qualifications for their leadership, and make sure you’re all on the same page. If you’re on a different page, you really shouldn’t join or lead ’em. (But if their qualifications defy the bible, i.e. they’re racist, or you gotta pay membership fees: Cult.)

Alfons’s church isn’t a cult. He’ll totally let you attend his church even when you disagree with him. He will debate you, though; he lacks maturity. He thinks he’ll win you over with clever arguments. He doesn’t let up though. So what really happens in his church, is when the people of his church disagree with him, they hide it. They never let it get back to him. And kinda mock him in private for some of the dumber stuff in his newsletter.

It may not be a cult, but it’s definitely a breeding ground for hypocrites.

Secular debates.

While quite a lot of Americans aren’t control freaks when it comes to religious opinions, quite a lot of us absolutely are when it comes to other opinions. Might be about favorite teams, brand names, or music. Definitely true of politics.

I’ve heard Christians claim this is because these other things—sports, possessions, politics—are the control freaks’ idols. They’re what people really worship; if only they were as zealous about Jesus! Thing is, overzealousness of any sort—even in the defense of Jesus—is fleshly. Paul specifically listed hostility, strife, partisanship, and division. Ga 5.20 Standing up for Jesus with such behavior is wholly inappropriate, and we’d better not see any such behavior among Christians. But when it comes to secular interests, it stands to reason we’ll see a lot of fleshly behavior.

Unfortunately, we bring a lot of these behaviors into the church with us. I regularly, regularly, hear Christians trash-talk one another’s baseball and football teams. They claim they’re doing it in jest, as friendly rivalry, but I’ve seen it cross a line here and there.

I’ve watched Christians debate, sometimes angrily, politics. Or preferences: Which computer is better, which truck is better, which restaurant is better, which phone is better, which Christian worship band is better. Come election years, some Christians straight-up stop talking to one another. I have Christians friends who refuse to be my social-media “friends” because they can’t abide my politics.

And Christians can be just as dogmatic about these secular things. Alfons is convinced you can’t be a legitimate Christian if you don’t support the president like he does. And he jokes he’s not so sure about you if you’re not a Dallas Cowboys fan… but considering his devotion to the team, y’gotta wonder whether he truly is joking.

It’s downright uncomfortable when you’re in a church where everybody, leaders included, loudly praise people you think are awful human beings. People switch churches over this sort of thing. Not that any partisan church is a good thing; the only kingdom a church should ever support is God’s. Anything else is treason to King Jesus. When he returns he’s gonna overthrow those other kingdoms, y’know.

But even well-meaning Christians slip up and treat their idols as if they’re mandatory expectations for fellow Christians. And if anyone says otherwise (or dares rebuke ’em for the obvious idolatry), they’re not welcome in church any longer. ’Cause teams, bands, parties, candidates, and affiliations are among their dogmas.

Freedom in Christ.

Christianity does have certain fixed beliefs. I’m not saying we don’t! I’m not saying Christians are totally free to believe whatever we please, yet still call ourselves Christian. If we’re not Christ-followers we’re not Christian; if we don’t make any effort to reform our thinking so we think like he does, bear fruit like he does, and walk like he does, 1Jn 2.6 it doesn’t matter how we brand ourselves.

And churches are right to encourage Christians to follow Jesus. Absolutely right to go digging through the bible, find out what Jesus teaches, find out what Jesus expects, and hold the attendees (and especially members and leaders) accountable to that. That’s kinda why the church exists! We help one another follow Jesus better.

But does it help when we police one another?

Only to a point. Fr’instance children and newbies: They don’t always know what’s appropriate. I had a newbie friend who swore a lot. I had to remind him more than once: His colorful metaphors were freaking out certain Christians who lack the grace to forgive such behavior. “You gotta watch out for weaker Christians,” I reminded him. “You and I can hear such things and think nothing of ’em, but it’s horrifying them.” Ro 14.13

But I never threatened to penalize him for swearing: That’s not for me to do! He’s gotta learn to govern himself. We all do. Fining him for swearing, or threatening he might lose his salvation over swearing, is cult territory. At most, I can ask him to leave a group till he gets control of himself. That’s it.

In leadership, we always gotta consider grace. The goal is never to punish the wicked and kick people out; it’s repentance and restoration. What’ll get ’em to follow Jesus better, and get back into our group? That should be our only consideration.

And yeah, we also have to give grace to those weaker Christians—the snowflakes who insist we can only share their teams, their politics, their dogmas; that “no good Christian” would wear makeup, drink beer, watch R-rated movies, play cards, listen to rap, or other Christianist taboos.

If Christians can’t practice grace, they’re wholly unsuitable for Christian leadership. Christ is nothing but gracious, and his church should be so too. If your church is led by graceless Christians, who pick apart every stray word which comes out of your mouth, I don’t blame you for not wanting to go to that church. I don’t wanna go there either.

The subtler type of racism.

by K.W. Leslie, 10 June

I occasionally bump into an odd phenomenon; one I briefly mentioned in my article on white Jesus. In short, it’s racism—the type people tend to get away with because it’s subtle.

But first, a big long bit of backstory.

Robert Edward Lee was the commanding general of the Confederate Army of Northern Virginia during the United States Civil War. (The U.S. Army started burying soldiers on Lee’s front lawn during the war, as a way to stick it to him. It’s now Arlington National Cemetery.) Lee was one of the better generals in the war… and arguably it’s because he was such an effective general, the war lasted way longer, and killed more, than it ever should have.

Y’might get the idea I don’t think much of Lee, nor the reputation the American south has granted him in the 150 years since the Civil War. You’d be absolutely right.


Robert E. Lee, 1863. Wikipedia

Idol of Lee on his horse Traveller, erected in Charlottesville in 1925. Wikipedia

When Lee originally joined the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, the man swore to defend the Constitution of the United States. Yet he participated in armed rebellion, supporting a separatist nation whose primary reason for existence, explicitly stated in their new state constitutions, was to perpetuate slavery. Southerners reimagined Lee as a noble man, conflicted ’cause he didn’t want to shatter the union his own wife’s grandfather had created. (Her grandfather? George Washington. Yes, that George Washington.) Despite his moral quandary, Lee simply couldn’t bring himself to fight and kill his fellow Virginians. Marylanders and Pennsylvanians, no problem.

Do I sound harsh? I’ve been accused of that. But even by standards of the day, Lee’s behavior is inexcusable. George Washington had recognized the immorality of slavery and freed his own slaves. His adoptive son, George Washington Custis, had freed some slaves, and the rest of Custis’s slaves also expected to be freed at his death, but that didn’t happen. Hence Lee held these very people, hundreds of them, in captivity. Kept ’em in shacks on his land. Worked ’em without pay. Had ’em flogged when they displeased him. As general, he permitted his troops to enslave any free blacks they encountered. And of course they killed American soldiers so they could continue all these offensive practices. Lee never spent an hour in jail for it; he was graciously given amnesty. If anything I’m being generous too.

Southerners are slowly starting to come round to the fact Lee is an embarrassing part of their history. Not someone to be celebrated.

The reason this process is so slow? White supremacy.

From the end of the war till 1877, white supremacists were suppressed by the Army. That stopped after the Republicans made a deal so they could steal the 1876 presidential election. Back then (before the parties traded worldviews in the 1960s), the Republicans were the liberal equal-rights party and the Democrats the super-racist conservative party. Democrat Samuel J. Tilden had unexpectedly won. Republicans were horrified. Congress had to ratify the election, so Republicans held it up for a bit while they struck a deal with the Democrats: If they conceded the election to Rutherford Hayes, the Republicans would pull the Army out of the south, and let the white supremacists do as they pleased. Whatever happened thereafter, happened.

What happened was Hayes was a useless one-term president. And southern Democrats created racist “Jim Crow” laws which made life utter hell for southern blacks for a century. White supremacists repainted the Civil War as a noble but failed cause, just like Gone With the Wind depicts it: They were just fighting for their slaveholding way of life; for their slaveholding heritage; for states’ rights to perpetuate slavery; nevermind northern states’ rights to not return runaway slaves.

And that’s when all the pro-Confederacy idols cropped up. Yes of course it’s civic idolatry. Racist style.

Including the idol of Lee in Charlottesville, Virginia. It was commissioned in 1917, built in 1925, and added to the National Register of Historic Places in 1997. Currently the state of Virginia is trying to take it down in response to the Black Lives Matter protest—and it’s about time. But white supremacists have been fighting that for years. A judge is currently blocking its removal.

Back in April 2017 the Charlottesville city council decided to sell it, and rename Lee Park as Emancipation Park. So white supremacists threw a big rally in August at the University of Virginia campus, where one of the white supremacists ran a car into counter-protesters. Some of ’em were waving Nazi flags right alongside their Confederate flags. (Nazis are another group white supremacists are trying to repaint as a noble but failed cause.)

Former Arkansas governor Mike Huckabee had tweeted at the time,

I don’t care for everything Huckabee tweets (I don’t share his sense of humor at all), but I liked this one so I retweeted it. Didn’t take long before I got these two responses:

  • “[It’s wrong] for ANY race to think they are superior to another. There are racists on both sides.”
  • “No worse than black racism. Racism is racism. There no runner-up prize.”

And someone who tried to pivot to a discussion of black people’s sins. See, when you can’t defend your own behavior, deflect as best you can.

“Don’t forget there are black racists.”

Of course black racists exist. I’ve met a few. When I went to college in Sacramento, I lived in a predominantly black neighborhood. Worked for a black newspaper. And every so often, someone would come into the office who was a little bothered there was a white guy in there. Shouldn’t the jobs at a black newspaper, they figured, go exclusively to black people?

I tell this story to people and they respond, “Ah, that’s reverse racism.” Nah, it’s just racism. “Reverse” suggests maybe it’s normal for whites to be racist, and I definitely object to that idea.

Some of the racism came from the Nation of Islam. Its leaders have notoriously taught that white people were invented 6,600 years ago by a black scientist named Yakub, who bred people till they turned into white devils. (I’m not kidding.) True, many whites have acted profoundly devilish towards blacks and Muslims, and not just in the past. But their Yakub myth guarantees whites and the NOI aren’t gonna reconcile anytime soon.

And some of the racism came from people who had awful experiences with whites in the past, and didn’t expect me to behave any better. Kind and friendly to me to my face, but I overheard ’em when my back was turned. Sad to say, it wasn’t my first experience with this type of racist: My relatives are just the same. Friendly in public, racist in private. Any people of color they personally know are “one of the good ones,” yet everybody they don’t know is gauged by whatever offensive stereotypes they persist in believing.

Still, Huckabee’s comment is about how white supremacy is evil. Why’re people suddenly bringing up black racists? Yeah they exist; it goes without saying. So why do people suddenly feel the urge to say it anyway?

It reminds me, I told the commentators, of a little kid who’d just been caught disobeying. The parents told him, “Stay out of the cookie jar,” and caught him with his hand in it not two minutes later. As kids do, his defense was, “But the other kids got into it too.” Not too dissimilar from Adam pointing the finger at Eve when God caught ’em eating from the wrong tree. Ge 3.12

I hadn’t accused any of my Twitter followers of white supremacy. I’d simply agreed with Huckabee’s statement. And their response wasn’t, “That’s right, white supremacy is evil.” It was, “Don’t forget not all racists are white.” It’s the reaction of a kid whose hand was in the cookie jar.

Is that the button I pushed? Of course it is. These people identify with white people so strongly, they feel they need to respond to any objection to white misbehavior. They’re speaking up for their race. I never asked ’em to (and certainly don’t recognize them as any such spokesperson). But they felt it necessary.

Pity instead of defending themselves, or joining the condemnation of a sinful fringe group, they chose to point fingers: “Don’t forget their sins.”

Yeah yeah yeah. But let’s return to yours, shall we?

Passive racism.

A lot of racists are entirely sure they’re not racist… solely because they don’t hate other races.

Because they assume hatred is how we define racism. Racists hate. Ergo if you don’t hate, you’re no racist. That’s why the president says racist things, creates racist policies, yet insists he’s no racist: He doesn’t hate other races, so he’s clearly not racist.

These folks don’t love other races either. But all they focus on is how they don’t hate them.

So they imagine they’re not racist. Even as they quietly discriminate between one person and another, for better or worse, entirely based on the stereotypes they hold about different races, ethnicities, nations, religions, and cultures. That’s why my family members believe they’re not racist when they totally are.

At the foundation of all this is total depravity: Humans are self-centered. We primarily think of ourselves, and not so much others. We don’t love our neighbor as ourselves; we love ourselves, and don’t hate our neighbors, and figure that’s just as good. We love ourselves, our own, and however far we care to extend “our own.”

For some Christians, they love their fellow Christians. Or at least their fellow Protestants, or fellow Evangelicals, or fellow conservative Evangelicals. Or pretty much their own denomination. Or not even that; just their church. Or not their church either; just the people in their bible study. Well, a few of them.

For some Americans, they love their fellow Americans. So long that they’re “real Americans,” by which they mean Americans who share their politics. Or who “act American,” by which they mean act like them… or to be blunt, act white. Because white is “normal” and “regular,” and everything else, not so much.

Once we finally define those boundaries, whether they’re wide or narrow, we humans figure we’re in competition with everybody outside the boundaries. Us versus them. Our team versus theirs. Needy versus wealthy. Progressives versus conservatives. Christians versus Muslims—sometimes teaming up with the Jews, sometimes not. Whites versus nonwhites.

Usually we’re competing for power. Sometimes political, sometimes economic, sometimes for attention and resources.

So when white people get accused of racism, they defend the team, and counterpunch at the other team: “What about the black people?” After all, if we’re in competition, we’d better not be the only group getting a yellow card. Black folks have their racists too!

Yep, that’s the mindset behind their slogan, “All lives matter.” It’s their tone-deaf response to the Black Lives Matter movement, which was created to address the very real problem of institutional racism: When a black kid walks down the street, far too often white cops don’t think of him as a pedestrian, but as a perpetrator. They don’t know what he perpetrated, but they take it upon themselves to find out. And way too often it ends with a dead kid. All my life I’ve walked through neighborhoods at night, and never once been questioned by police. But my black friends got questioned as they were waiting for the morning school bus. Police departments need to train this mentality out of their cops, and some do… and some don’t. Hence Black Lives Matter.

The “All lives matter” slogan would make sense if all kids were hassled by the cops. They aren’t, so it doesn’t. It’s really just white idiots who don’t understand the issue at all… but they still want equal time. If it’s not about them, they wanna shoehorn themselves in there somehow. It’s more selfishness than racism.

But it does stem from racism: The passive stuff. The subtle racism. Closet racism. Whatever you care to call it: When people don’t love their neighbors enough to identify with them, come alongside them, love them, and surrender their power and privilege if only it might help them.

It confuses people because they realize something’s wrong with this mindset, but they can’t pinpoint the problem. They figure since they tend to see it among conservatives, it must be a form of conservatism. It’s actually not; I’ve known liberal and progressive racists who are insultingly condescending towards nonwhites. The jerkish behavior has nothing to do with politics, although it becomes painfully obvious when politics come up. It has to do with the absence of love. They don’t love their neighbors.

So call it what it is. Out it whenever it’s practiced. Rebuke it.

If Christians find ourselves in any position of privilege whatsoever, we’re meant to use it to help others So do love your neighbors. Speak out. And, in case you don’t figure these people legitimately are your neighbors, love your enemies and opponents too. That’ll work just as well.

Worship. (It’s not just music.)

by K.W. Leslie, 09 June
WORSHIP 'wər.ʃəp noun. Reverence and adoration suitable for a deity; also often demonstrated to a certain principle, person, or institution.
2. Feeling or expression of such reverence and adoration; the acts or rites which make up a formal expression, such as religious ceremonies.
3. verb. To perform acts and rites of worship.
[Worshiper/worshipper 'wər.ʃəp.ər noun, worshipful 'wər.ʃəp.fəl adjective.]

When Christians pray, frequently we worship God at the same time.

The ancients defined worship as acts of reverence and devotion, same as we do. Middle easterners would usually get in the “downward-facing dog” yoga pose, putting their heads to the floor before before their gods and kings. That’s how they showed obeisance, an old-timey word for ceremonially humiliating yourself in honor of somebody else. Kings got off on that.


From the Black Obelisk of Šulmānu-ašarēdu 3: Northern Israeli king Jehu ben Jehošafat of Samaria worships Assyrian king Šulmānu-ašarēdu bar Aššur-nasir-apli, to whom he paid tribute. Probably took place in 833BC; the stone dates from 827. Wikipedia

For convenience (and partly out of pride), westerners simplified this: You could kneel and bow, but head to the floor isn’t necessary. Or you needn’t go all the way down to the ground. Or at least bow or curtsy. Whatever satisfies the person you’re worshiping… and isn’t too difficult a posture for you to get into.

Westerners also added another definition to worship: We might feel worship. That is, we feel like someone’s worthy of reverence and adoration… but we don’t assume the position before them. This meaning was also invented for convenience; somebody might get caught not performing the appropriate acts of worship, but could claim they certainly felt worship, and shouldn’t this count just as much?

The United States banned nobility in our Constitution, so most Americans have the attitude we don’t worship anyone but God. Yet we still stand when presidents, governors, judges, or mayors enter the room. Some of us bow to visiting royals… and rock stars. We don’t always identify this as worship, but that’s exactly what it is.

But this wouldn’t be enough for ancient middle easterners: They expected you face down on the ground, doing obeisance to the king or gods. Or you’d suffer consequences. And in the case of the LORD, doesn’t he totally merit this level of respect? It’s why Muslims still get down and put their heads to the floor five times a day: God is most holy, most worthy.

Some of us Christians pray the very same way: On the floor, face down, honoring God. Posture’s important.

Worship versus service.

Christians figure bowing or prostrating isn’t the only form of worship. We figure service is a form of worship. When we do good works on God’s behalf, and love our neighbors like he commanded us, that’s worship too.

Well… we might’ve added that definition to worship, but the scriptures didn’t. They distinguish between worship and service.

Luke 4.8 NIV
Jesus answered, “It is written: ‘Worship the Lord your God and serve him only.’”

And no, this isn’t just Hebrew poetry, where we’re repeating the same idea with different words. Because there are plenty of instances in the Old Testament which contrast the two. Namely how people worshiped the LORD, but insteada serving him, they served pagan gods. The Samaritans, fr’instance:

2 Kings 17.33, 41 NIV
33 They worshiped the LORD, but they also served their own gods in accordance with the customs of the nations from which they had been brought.
 
41 Even while these people were worshiping the LORD, they were serving their idols. To this day their children and grandchildren continue to do as their ancestors did.

The New Testament too. Jesus pointed out the hypocrisy of people who worshiped the LORD in temple and in public, but privately bent his commands beyond the breaking point, and taught it was okay to do so.

Mark 7.7 NIV
“‘They worship me in vain;
their teachings are merely human rules.’”

Y’know, kinda like certain Christian hypocrites do: They’ll perform acts of reverence and honor to Jesus, but outside the church building they’ll only serve Mammon.

True, if we worship God we should likewise serve him. And prioritize our service to him instead of prioritizing our jobs, bosses, family members, public approval, our finances, our convenience, or our comfort. One should follow the other, just like good works is the Spirit’s fruit, and evidence of salvation. But they’re not the same thing—same as good works don’t save.

Good deeds and obedience aren’t worship. They’re the result of worship. If we worship God, if we truly revere and adore him, we’re gonna want to obey him; we’re gonna want to be good like he is. These things prove we’re not just going through the motions of worshiping God, but that we authentically worship him. “In spirit and in truth,” as Jesus put it; Jn 4.23 it’s not half-hearted or hypocrisy, but full-hearted and real.

Worship versus music.

Christian music which praises God, usually which praises him second-person with a lot of “you” statements (“You are holy, you did such-and-so, I love you,” etc.) tends to get called worship music, and for a lot of Christians it’s called “worship” for short. The unfortunate side effect is Christians, particularly newbies, get the idea worship music is worship: We worship God by singing Christian songs.

And it can be. Worship’s about acts of reverence and devotion, and of course the feelings of reverence and devotion—and few things trigger feelings like music. Some of us are easily gonna get whipped into a lather for God with some really rockin’ worship music.

Others not so much. Which is why they hate worship music; they see it as emotionally manipulative. And let’s be blunt: It is. Is this a bad thing? Depends on why music pastors wanna make us emotional, and since most of ’em simply want us to worship God, I don’t see this as a problem whatsoever. (Now if their goal is to make us think they’re awesome musicians, or want us to lower our defenses so they can preach bulls--- and heresy without question, big problems.) You want people to adore and revere God, music’s a useful shortcut. One God is fully aware of—and endorses! Didn’tcha notice the five-volume book of Psalms in the bible?

But again, music isn’t worship. Music inspires worship. People sing about how awesome God is, and it reminds us and gets us to love and honor him. If it’s good music, performed well, people won’t be distracted by the music and musicianship itself, and can solely focus on God. If the words are good content, and accurately describe God instead of naïvely distorting him, we’ve got a good picture of God in our minds instead of the usual pop-culture junk, and love him for who he is instead of what we project upon him.

And if you wanna do it facing the floor, or waving your hands in the air, praising Jesus like y’just don’t care—hey, do whatever honors God.

Ritual worship.

Obviously the bible describes a bunch of ritual acts of worship. Like ritual cleanliness, ritual sacrifice (largely stuff we as Christians needn’t do anymore), and various sacraments. When pagans think of worship, that’s generally what they think of: Us doing weird church rituals.

And yeah, we can do rituals as part of our worship. But back to Jesus’s idea of worshiping in spirit and truth: Do we practice these things in reverence and devotion to God, or are we doing them because “that’s just what we do”? (Or, in the story where Jesus spoke of worship in spirit and truth, “that’s where we oughta do it”?) Yeah we should do sacraments, ’cause God thinks sacraments are important. But more important is our attitude during these sacraments. We’re doing ’em out of love, not duty; with grace, not with nitpicking how other Christians don’t do ’em the same way we do ’em.

The core of our worship, the spirit and truth of our worship, should always and only be our love of God. It’s the whole point. Otherwise why do it? Why go through the motions? Why get on the floor, go to singalongs on our day off, eat tasteless crackers, or otherwise make these efforts?—and it’d better not be to make others think we’re holy or superior. If we love God, we worship him.

And from there, all else follows.