On Avoiding Default, Fighting Terror and Following Jesus


Jesus said, “I am the way, the truth, and the life … “ (John 14:6).  Christ followers claim to believe it, or him.  In the current climate of tolerance and political correctness followers of Jesus will respectfully but firmly insist that Jesus’ way is the way like no other, that doing it Jesus’ way gets us to the core of what is real and alive, and that following Jesus’ way is not only a good idea but is wise, beautiful, right and the best hope of good for all.  We who follow Christ really believe it.

And yet … do we really believe it?  Is Jesus’ way helpful, saving, game-changing in matters transcending our own immediate  personal living, in matters affecting the future and well-being of more than our own circles, in the issues and concerns that daily appear in our newspapers?   For example …

Currently the U.S. teeters on the edge of default on our indebtedness.  The people charged with overseeing our economic systems cannot agree on what to do.  I think I can understand at least a bit of the level of complexity wrapped up in this crisis and therefore appreciate how difficult any path forward will be.  I do not envy the people who are on the spot and yet must take action that will not only avert disaster but will also lead us to another place altogether.  I have no revelatory word that eases their burden or quickly resolves our problem.

But I do have a burden that whatever is done does not hurt the people already most hurt, or stress people already at the breaking point, or crush people already broken.  However we get our financial house in order we cannot do it at the expense of the poor.  I say this because I follow the one who came as good news for the poor, whose kingdom belongs especially to the poor (and not only “spiritually” poor), who promises to make right the injustices of the world that lay at the root of much of the world’s poverty.  Among those who speak into this crisis, some must speak on behalf of and for the advantage of the poor.  Whatever measures are adopted, they must not further deny those whose lives literally depend on government aid.  Of course, such aid is very costly and giving it occasions abuse and fraud, and all the rest.  I understand that.  Still, following Jesus makes it non-negotiable for me that programs and services that help people must NOT be the primary way we cope with the current crisis.  As if all would be well if only we stopped helping people, as if the only way to protect our way of life is to curtail help for others who  otherwise have no help at all, and the like.

I sent my congress person an email urging that U.S. food programs and aid to the poorest of the poor not be targeted as a way out of the current fiscal crisis.  He sent a very nice letter through the US mail system to thank me for my concern.  He went at some lengths to tell me that the situation was grave, that we have overspent as a government, that we had to get it all under control, and that nothing was sacred or off the table so far as he was concerned.  In other words, the poorest of the poor could not count on that member of congress for protection.  I have thought that the deeper problem was, in fact, that nothing was sacred—not even persons, if a crisis became severe enough.  As a matter of conscience and an expression of faithful following after Christ, my congress person will not get my vote in the next election.

Could Jesus know something we don’t?  Could he have insight into a deeper reality than we even perceive—that loving the least and the most vulnerable somehow syncs us up with the eternal and with wisdom and power transcending the usual, and that to care in ways that God cares offers us a future that can be grasped in no other way, a future we would give anything to welcome?

A second and, I think, related example of how avowedly ardent Christ-followers may not really believe that Jesus’ way is the best way—at least not enough actually to follow— relates to the heightened sense of threat and terror in our world, and our responses to it.  Ever since 9/11 we have been on terror alert.  On that tragic day, the U.S. joined much of the world that already knew the real and present danger of terror attacks.  Quickly, we identified the enemies and went after them.  Ten years and two wars later, neither of which is really over, here we are.  We’ve killed a lot of people at a high cost.  Of course, there is the loss of life—incredibly disproportionate in terms of the numbers of non-combatants killed as collateral damage.  And, of course, there is the enormous dollar cost of waging the wars and maintaining whatever victories and measure of security they have bought us.  These costs have and are sky-rocketing—billions upon billions.

In the face of such costs, what should give us pause as earnest followers of Jesus, as sincere proponents of the way and truth and life Jesus is and offers, is that many accept these costs as inevitable, as the God-given and even God-sanctioned costs of protecting our rights and security.  Even to question this, as I am now doing, strikes some as unthinkable, unpatriotic, and perhaps unchristian.

Yet, the One who embodies the way, the truth, and the life tells us that those who live by the sword will die by the sword—not live but die.  Moreover, he tells us not to return evil for evil, but rather blessing and prayers and tangible good for the evil received.  His first followers, speaking in his name, assure us that caring for the enemies may even have saving impact—which would be good not only for them but those whom they had formerly targeted as enemies.

Our usual habit is to personalize these clear teachings and to invoke a different set of protocols when nations are the key players.  In so doing, it becomes possible to spend ourselves into oblivion trying to secure ourselves, to protect our ways, and make sure “it will never happen again.”   Under such perceived necessities, nations fund the machinery of war without a thought even when doing so contributes to gathering fiscal doom.  And, in responding to the doom, the only recourse appears to be at the expense of the powerless and voiceless poor.

Again, could Jesus know something we don’t?  That the terror we have most to fear lurks in places other than normally targeted, that enemies might still become friends, that caring for people and meeting common human need (at home and abroad) may yet win hearts that, in turn, could bring a peace never ever achieved through weaponry and brute force?

What might happen if nations could become “poor in spirit” in relation to God and others, mourning the losses and deficits common to life everywhere in our kind of world, devoted to mercy-giving and peace-making, insistent on what is right for all, even to their own loss and hurt, and especially for those most often ignored?

Or, more modestly, what might happen if a few more within nations of the world, in response to the Way, the Truth and the Life, really believed and followed?  Followed enough to insist that governments explore other ways to fix broken economies and respond to the fearful prospects of terror—other ways than to keep throwing money to buy protection, or the illusion of it, that effectively denies that very protection to the worst off among us.

How better might the poor benefit and the fear of terror be relieved if we embraced tenaciously the Way, the Truth, and the Life?

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    Thank you, Bishop Kendall. Yes, you have pointed out the way that our national leaders should go. I am reminded that we are but stewards of the resources of the earth, and to those who have much, much will be required as responsible stewards.

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    A worldly way of caring for the poor is to enlist them in the armed forces to fight for our national ends/means at great personal cost.

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    Peter, you may be right about enlisting the poor in the military, in some cases. I’ve heard that statement over and over. A few years ago our son enlisted. In his basic training photo there were perhaps less thatn 10% minorities and because I asked I know that there were a high number of college grads. Your point may be true in some cases, but not in all.

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    September 4, 2011

    Dear Bishop Kendall,

    I just finished reading your commentary regarding the ‘Christian’ response to the debt crisis and the various foreign threats to the security of the United States. Although unstated in your homily, it appears that you accept the political principle that the Federal Government of the United States has the responsibility for protecting the economic well being of its citizens via various social welfare programs. You have further attempted to surround this assumption in Christ’s admonition to His believers to care for the poor in their midst.

    There is a second assumption evident but unstated in your message; that the United States government must surrender its ability to employ deadly force in the interest of Christian love.

    I challenge you to show me any scriptural support for your assumption that the United States should surrender the use of deadly force to protect the citizenry from foreign threats. The Apostle Paul clearly acknowledged the power of the sword (deadly force) is granted to government by God to deal with evil in the world (Romans 13:1-7). On what scriptural authority do you claim otherwise? Are you arguing that the attacks carried out against this nation on September 11, 2001, by Al-Queda and the various terroist organizations linked to Al-Queda do not constitute evil actions of evil men? Do you think that if a war or military campaign is not successfully concluded in what you consider a reasonable time, it should be abandoned?

    Further, Christ clearly stated in John 18:28 that His kingdom was not part of the political system of this world, but resident in the hearts of the believers. If this is the case, why do you insist the government of the United States must impliment concepts of Christian love and Christian responsibility in its policies? Even more important, what is the scriptural authority for your unstated assumption in this regard? To put it another way, just where did Christ direct His followers to use governmental means to fulfill His command to love one another, to care for the less fortunate, to extend forgiveness for evil actions?

    Your homily does raise the important question of the role of government in societal life. However, you do not address this issue. Until you are willing to directly address the issue of the role of government you have no real basis for claiming that governmental policies must conform to the demands made by Christian love.

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    Dear James,

    Thank you for good feedback and questions. At the least, such helps to reveal where you may not have communicated as clearly as you intended.

    Just a few comments to at least offer some important (at least to me) clarification. My main point is simply that followers of Jesus are just that, followers. They have embraced Jesus as the way, the truth and the life–not just in personal so-called spiritual matters but in all matters. They would love to share the wisdom and way of Jesus with everyone, and they live to position themselves in order to do just that. Sadly, however, my observation is that many followers restrict the clear teachings of Jesus to their personal lives and simply assume that other ways are more appropriate when it comes to matters of society, culture, and public policy. As if Jesus is smart enough to get us to heaven or to help us in our personal difficulties, but doesn’t have much or anything really to say about these larger arenas. I believe this is a serious misreading of the gospel and of what Jesus in fact said and did. His primary message was, repent for the Kingdom of Heaven/God has come near. He meant it and called people to follow him into a Kingdom way of life. His first followers offered their world a very different way to live their lives. I would observe as a matter of historical record that the way of Jesus, as lived out in the lives of his followers, has had more profound and lasting impact than all the other worldly kingdoms that have come and gone. When Jesus said his kingdom was not of this world, in John’s gospel, he was not suggesting that his kingdom had one way and the world another and both could operate on their own terms. He was saying, to Pilate, that what God was doing in his life and mission which included his arrest and eventual death was on a totally different path than those taken by worldly kingdoms. He was also implying that it would be his way that eventually triumphs, not that of Caesar. I believe the very same kingdom message and ways apply today. And I believe it is the responsibility of Jesus’ followers today to follow, to embrace Jesus’ way as offering wisdom that applies in all the major arenas in which life unfolds.

    I do not assume that the government should do what Jesus’ commands his followers to do–such as assume total responsibility for the economic well-being of people. But today, in the USA and to some extent also in other places, government is by the people, of the people, and for the people. Government is us. We are the people. Our officials represent us and in principle are accountable to us for their decisions and policies. In such a nation as ours with such government, followers of Jesus will want to use their position and influence and opportunities to shape governmental policy and responses so that they correspond as nearly as possible to the ways of Jesus. The government is accountable to God. God will judge the nations, no less the U.S. than other nations. And God will do so with respect to Jesus Christ. What is right and good and true is embodied in Jesus. So, yes, we must seek to ask how can we influence our government and its leaders to use their power/authority in ways that correspond to the way and the wisdom of Jesus.

    In our current situation, the government faces serious financial challenges, on the verge of default. The only way to deal with this is to stop spending on some things and/or increase revenue. Probably we will need to do both. I am simply pleading that we make decisions to deal with our mess in ways that demonstrate the heart of Jesus, as much as we can. His followers must care about that as much as they care about other things. We already do support many programs to help the needy and already seek to address issues of global poverty and need–issues that clearly are dear to the heart of Jesus and that seek the right ways of His kingdom. The government already does this. Also, the government spends billions on its military support and supply systems and its various defense/military policies here at home and around the world. Again, the government already does this. I do not question whether the government has authority to use force, even lethal force. Clearly it does, and as you note, it does by God’s design, as a means of restraining evil. That is not in question in anything that I wrote. Because the government has such authority, however, does not mean it is free to use it whenever without question. Just because it can doesn’t mean it must or should. And just because our government uses its military might to respond to a crisis doesn’t by virtue of that fact make it right to do so–just because it can. Whether the use of force is justified and wise and helpful to legitimate ends is another matter altogether.

    In the current fiscal mess, we must do something. And everything must be on the table–programs that seek to help the needy should be under review and also our military and defense programs as well. Usually, because we must defend ourselves, the military gets a pass. Usually, because we do not have to care for the poor, or the urgency to do so doesn’t press on us the way the threat of terror does, such social support programs are easily targeted.

    I am advocating for decision making that reflects the priorities of the kingdom. I do so because I am a follower of Jesus. And I do so because I believe that Jesus knows best, that he is truly wise, that his way is the best way period. When Jesus says we should not seek vengeance, he knows best. Most of the conflict in the world traces back to vengeance and the generational cycles of bitterness and counter acts of vengeance that it spawns–this represents stunning evidence to me that Jesus points to another, wiser way, that Jesus if fact knows better than the politically savvy do! So, we should oppose any policy that does this, that expresses vengeance or simply seeks to retaliate. Of course, I realize that not all would agree that a particular policy does this, but when we believe it does we should oppose it. I also believe that seeking to respond in kind–might with might–though sometimes unavoidable and necessary, often is both avoidable and unnecessary, and often there are other responses that would prove more effective and powerful in bringing understanding, peace and just outcomes. Clearly, Jesus teaches that we should not respond to evil with evil, but seek to overcome evil with good. I believe that Jesus’ way of responding if taken will accomplish more than the obvious and worldly ways. I believe that as followers of Jesus we must pursue the way of love as the rule for our lives and for everything around us that we can influence, because Jesus is the image of the invisible God and God is love. Love does not mean force is never used. But love does mean that force will be used in careful, measured, and just ways. Love does mean that even the use of lethal force when necessary must not simply be for the sake of destroying or killing, but for protecting and caring for the weak and vulnerable and innocent.

    I do not have all the answers. In many of these situations others have more wisdom than I, but it is my responsibility as a follower of Jesus to seek to respond to every situation in ways that reflect his spirit and his way. That’s the main point of the blog.

    I agree with you, I think, when you suggest that Christ-followers and the Church, have special responsibility to care for the needy and the poor, and to address the glaring needs in the world. No question about this. Once upon a time, it was the church that served the towns, cities and regions in this way. For many reasons, this no longer occurs, but I am encouraged to see many churches rediscovering a sense of mission that includes these forms of service and ministry. Again, however, in a democracy where we have a voice, we must raise it as followers of Jesus, we must voice his priorities and his passions, even or perhaps especially when they seem counter to the ways of the world.

    James, we probably do not agree on all these matters, but I do hope that you have a better understanding of what I was trying to say, and perhaps more importantly, I hope you know that my heart seeks to beat in tune with God’s and with His good and wise ways for these challenging times.

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