Tag Archives: Politics

The People v. Paul of Tarsus (Part 1)

Several days later Felix came with his wife Drusilla, who was Jewish. He sent for Paul and listened to him as he spoke about faith in Christ Jesus.
Acts 24:24 (NIV)

I and my team at work have had many different business engagements over the years with a number of very different companies. I’m glad to say that our team has had several on-going engagements with clients that have lasted 15, 20, and even 25 years and counting. Others engagements have been relatively small projects that lasted a week or a month. The difference between a long engagement and a short one is often dependent the level of person we’re working with within the organization.

If we’re working with the CEO and/or senior executives of a client company, we have the opportunity to positively influence the client’s entire operation along with the  health and well-being of the customer experience for decades. A middle manager, on the other hand, typically has limited means and influence. They usually bring us in for a moment in time to treat a symptom in their service delivery system.

In today’s chapter, we find Paul in the midst of a tectonic shift in his ministry. For years he has traveled the Roman Empire in Judea, Asia Minor, and Greece. He’s been among the people. He’s expanded the number of believers and followers of Jesus. He’s organized them into local groups. He’s provided for himself by keeping his day job as a maker of tents. Paul has been on a grass-roots, boots-on-the-ground, non-stop mission among the common, everyday people in the streets. Now, like Jesus before him, Paul finds himself in the justice system of the Roman Empire being accused by the leaders of the Hebrew religion who want him dead. Unlike Jesus, Paul is a citizen of Rome, and that affords him the ability to appeal his case all the way to Caesar himself.

The first trial Paul faces against the religious leadership of the Jews is before the Roman Procurator, Antonius Felix, who had authority over Judea. Felix, like many Roman regional authorities of the time, was a corrupt official with a reputation for both cruelty and debauchery. The trial, as recorded in today’s chapter, should have ended with Paul’s release. The Jewish leaders had no accusation that should have stood up in Roman court. They did not produce a single corroborating witness willing to be cross-examined, and they had no evidence. Paul’s defense was persuasive and, as a Roman citizen, he should have been released immediately. Felix, however, was in a tough spot politically.

One of the top responsibilities of Roman provincial leadership was keeping the peace. The Jewish leaders bringing charges against Paul had tremendous political and social influence, and Felix knew it. His predecessor, Ventidus Cumanus, failed to respond to a racially motivated murder of a Jew in Samaria. The result was riots and uprising. Cumanus was held responsible by Caesar and exiled. Felix wants to avoid this fate so he decides to appease the Jewish leaders by keeping Paul in prison. But the Jesus movement has been gaining popularity, as well. Tens of thousands of people had become believers and Paul is one of their leaders. So, Felix can’t just have him killed without potentially igniting a backlash.

The compromise Felix came up with was to keep Paul under a relatively comfortable house arrest within the palace. For two years Felix and his wife (the daughter of Herod Agrippa) regularly meet with Paul to have lengthy discussions. Felix, being a corrupt Roman official, is hoping Paul will offer him a bribe to let him go. Paul is on a very different mission, however. He could have easily stolen Peter’s line: “Silver and gold I don’t have, but what I have I give to you.”

This morning as I read, I thought about Paul’s situation in terms of my own experience in business. For years Paul has been working with the front-line workers of the corporate Roman Empire. Now Paul finds himself invited into the executive suite. Paul has the opportunity to influence an influencer. To convert a Roman official, to even make him aware of the Message of Jesus, could have a tremendous ripple effect throughout the Empire. Paul is fulfilling the very mission Jesus spoke of to his disciples: “On my account you will be brought before governors and kings as witnesses to them and to the Gentiles.” (Matt 10:18)

Convert an Ephesian shopkeeper and you change a life. Convert a Roman official and you might just change an empire (which is exactly what eventually happened two hundred years later with the Roman Emperor Constantine).

Polarized Parties, Powder Keg Issues, and Paul

Then Paul, knowing that some of them were Sadducees and the others Pharisees, called out in the Sanhedrin, “My brothers, I am a Pharisee,descended from Pharisees. I stand on trial because of the hope of the resurrection of the dead.”
Acts 23:6 (NIV)

One of the things I’ve observed along my journey is our human penchant for thinking our current events and circumstances are somehow unique in human history. The Teacher of Ecclesiastes wisely said, “there’s nothing new under the sun.” As a student of history I can usually find times and events in recorded history which were much worse than whatever it is that’s happening in the headlines today.

There is no doubt that we are living in a time of polarization in political thought and the results have been tumultuous. The time of Jesus and the following decades of Paul’s ministry that we’re reading about in Acts were also tumultuous times in which there was polarization of both political and religious thought. Conflict, terrorism, and riots were a part of their landscape just as they are in ours today.

In today’s chapter, Paul uses this polarization of thought and the rabid, inherent conflict as part of his chess game with the religious Jewish leaders and their local Roman occupiers. Paul is standing before the same religious council that condemned Jesus to death and he knows they’re just as thirsty for his blood to be spilled. Paul, however, holds a trump card with his Roman citizenship (see my previous post). Standing next to him is a Roman military commander, known as a Tribune. Paul needs the Romans to take over his case.

It’s important to remember that Paul was raised and trained in Jerusalem as a lawyer. He would have known some of the men on this council. He knew their polarized religious beliefs as well as their corresponding hot button issues. Once again I find that Paul is not a random victim of circumstance. Paul is on a mission. He is driving the action.

Paul knows that the two rival parties within the council were the Pharisees and Sadducees. These two parties were just as opposed to one another as the far-right Republicans and far-left Democrats are in the U.S. today. The watershed issue that divided these two religious, political parties was the concept of resurrection, or life after death. The Pharisees believed that there was a resurrection as well as an unseen spirit realm where Angels and spirits dwelt. The Sadducees believed the exact opposite. There was no resurrection, no life after death, this physical life and reality is all there is. When you die there is nothing else. Paul uses this hot-button, polarizing issue for his own purposes.

Paul loudly proclaims to the entire council his pedigree as a life-long, card-carrying Pharisee, and accuses the Sadducees of the council of putting him on trial because of his belief in the resurrection. Resurrection is the powder-keg issue (think Roe v. Wade today). Paul just lit a match and threw it into the middle of the room.

Watch what happens next. A bunch of Pharisees, who moments ago were critical of Paul, now jump up to defend him. As I’ve been watching current events it’s easy to notice that in polarized systems anyone on your team is good and must be defended at all costs, while anyone on the other team is all bad and must be destroyed at all costs. There is no middle ground. Paul successfully diverts the council’s attention from himself to the hot-button issue. In the riot that followed, the Roman Tribune responsible for Paul had no choice but to evacuate him from the situation because he was responsible for Paul’s safety as a Roman citizen and he would be held personally liable (and perhaps executed) if he allowed the Jews to kill Paul, a Roman citizen.

By pushing the council’s political buttons Paul ensured that the Roman Tribune would witness for himself what a volatile group the Jewish council was and the threat they posed to both of them. Not only this, but Paul knows these Jewish leaders. He could easily anticipate that their next move will be a conspiracy to assassinate him. It’s what they did with Jesus. It’s what Paul himself did with Stephen, and Paul himself has been on the run from Jewish assassination attempts on all of his journeys. If there is a plot to kill him Paul knows that the Roman Tribune will have no choice but to place Paul in protective custody and get him out of town. And, that is exactly what happens.

In a few minutes I will join Wendy in our dining room for breakfast and we will read the paper together. It will be filled with news and opinions of current events in our polarized, politicized times. This morning I am reminded that nothing is new under the sun and that I can only control my own motives, thoughts, words, and actions. Reading about Paul’s motives, Paul’s words, and Paul’s actions, I’m reminded of one of Jesus’ more obscure and oft-forgotten commands to His followers:

Be shrewd as serpents; gentle as doves.”

Of Mobs and Motives

The assembly was in confusion: Some were shouting one thing, some another.Most of the people did not even know why they were there.
Acts 19:32 (NIV)

While I was in high school there was a large education bill making its way through the state legislature. The teachers in my school began wearing “Save Our Schools” buttons. Some teachers spoke to us over a series of weeks about how important this bill was and predicted doom, gloom, and the end of education as we knew it were the law not to pass. Extra-curriclar programs would go away, athletics programs wouldn’t have the funding they needed, and students would suffer, we were told.

A short while later it was announced that on a certain afternoon any student who desired could take the afternoon off of school, ride a bus to the state capitol, and participate in a rally of teachers and students to march on the statehouse.

Afternoon off of school? Are you kidding me?! I’d go on a tour of a sewage treatment facility if it meant getting to skip English, Algebra II and American History.

And so it was I found myself in a mob of students and teachers from all over the area chanting “Save our schools!” as we marched up Capitol hill. We filed into the Statehouse and up into the gallery of the legislature where debate was taking place on the floor regarding the school bill. There I listened to the debate between legislators regarding the bill and found out that the bill was put forth by the teachers’ union and was primarily about teacher compensation. Now, I’m all for teachers being paid well and funding public education, but the more I listened to the debate and the particulars of the bill were revealed, the more I realized that the legislation itself wasn’t really about the things I had been told.

I will never forget sitting in that gallery and the sudden realization that I’d allowed myself to be a pawn in a political rally simply to get out of school for an afternoon. I even remembering watching the evening news and how the rally and the issues were described. The truth is, I hadn’t truly known what the issues really were, or why I was there. I vowed that day never to participate in anything like that again without being fully versed in the issues at stake and fully believing in the cause for which I marched.

In today’s chapter a riot breaks out in the city of Ephesus because Paul and the Jesus movement became a threat to the local trade union who made idols. Suddenly the Jews and the Tradesman, who would normally be antagonists (for what good Jew would support idolatry?) had a common political foe in Paul and the Jesus movement. A mob breaks out and  everyone in Ephesus runs to the local amphitheater to find out what’s going on.

Then Luke makes an astute observation: Most of the people did not even know why they were there.

Along my life journey I’ve observed just what lemmings human beings can be. My experience at the school rally and my studies of mass media have made me discerning regarding what I’m told and shown in the news as it relates to political rallies. Even as I worship among my local gathering of believers, I sometimes wonder how many truly come because they believe and how many are there because it’s what they were taught they should do by the family or societal systems that raised them.

Of course, I can’t control or even really know the motives of others, but I know and am responsible for myself. This morning in the quiet I find myself thinking about the things I do each day, each week, and the events to which I give my time.

Do I even know why I am there?

 

The Prophet and The Politician

He is in your hands,” King Zedekiah answered. “The king can do nothing to oppose you.
Jeremiah 38:5 (NIV)

Not long ago I ran into an old school friend from my middle school and high school years. In casual conversation about where our respective journeys have taken us, she asked if I was ever going to run for political office as had been my plan and passion back in the day. I was taken aback that she remembered, and I laughed to myself as I realized how long ago I tossed that childhood dream by the wayside.

Along my journey I’ve known some individuals in politics. Being an Iowan, I have occasionally involved myself in the election process and rubbed shoulders with a few of the small army of candidates who come campaigning for President every four years. I believe that there are really good people in politics who do their best to do good for our country. Yet, here’s what I have observed:

Politics is a game. Power is the prize. A politician says what people want to hear just to get elected. They then say and vote as the power brokers of their party demand in order to get ahead. Both parties pull identical political stunts (depending on their power position in the moment) then point the finger at the opposing party and scream accusations as if they’ve not done the same thing a few years before.

While I’m sure it’s somewhat different at a local level, I learned long ago that I’m not wired to play that game. It would slowly drain all Life from my spirit.

To get a feel for what’s happening in today’s chapter of Jeremiah’s story, you’ve got to read the political situation that’s present between the lines. First of all, the ancient practice of siege warfare was a slow, brutal process. The Babylonian army had surrounded Jerusalem and cut off all supply lines into the city. As the supply of food and fresh water diminish, fear and anxiety grow to unprecedented levels among the population. Power structures break down and those in power desperately try to stave off anarchy.

King Zed finds himself between a rock and a hard place. His political rivals, sick of listening to Jeremiah’s incessant prophesies of defeat, ask the King for Jeremiah’s head. The King grants it (because that’s what you do when you’re a politician trying to hold onto power). Jeremiah is thrown down the bottom of a muddy well to die. The King’s eunuch then asks the King (in private) if he might rescue Jeremiah. The King tells him to do so in secret (because when you’re a politician you secretly work back channels to accomplish what you want).

Jeremiah is summoned by King Zed who asks the prophet to give him a Word from the Lord. “Give yourself up to the King of Babylon and you’ll live,” Jeremiah tells him. Zedekiah, however, is afraid that those citizens who have already surrendered themselves to the Babylonians will turn against him if he gives himself up (and a politician is always worried about maintaining his/her power, popularity, and position). Jeremiah assures the King this will not happen.

Upon conclusion of their private conversation, King Zed warns Jeremiah that he will be asked what they talked about. Being a politician, Zed tells Jeremiah how to “spin” his answer so as to avoid political trouble for both of them (because a politician is always looking for a good win-win).

This morning in the quiet I find myself thinking about the contrast between Jeremiah the prophet and Zedekiah the politician. The prophet suffers for speaking the truth and being true to the Message, but beneath the suffering the prophet seems to exemplify a certain spiritual peace that comes from being true, steadfast, and faithful. The politician, on the other hand, enjoys the position and creature comforts afforded by his power, but beneath the surface lie fear, anxiety, worry, and the mental chaos from constantly navigating political minefields in the endless desperation to survive.

I am thankful this morning for the good people I know doing their best to serve in the political arena (on both sides of the aisle). I’m also thankful that God led my journey down a different path than the one I’d desired when I was a wee lad. I’m wired to be more prophet than politician, I think.

Though, I confess that I’d prefer not to get thrown into a well.

Building Silos

This is what the Lord commands for Zelophehad’s daughters: They may marry anyone they please as long as they marry within their father’s tribal clan.
Numbers 36:6 (NIV)

Almost every morning Wendy and I meet in our dining room for our requisite cups of coffee and tea. We read the newspaper together and start each day catching up on current events and solving the worlds problems. Over weeks and months and years we begin to see patterns that you can count on. For example, no matter what piece of legislation is presented by Congress here in America, all parties will get out their crystal balls and predict either blissful utopia or utter apocalypse depending on which side of the aisle they butter their womb-to-the-tomb pension and benefits package. The same clichés will be used like worn-out rags for the public while behind closed doors congressional staffers will be hammering out appeals and deals.

Along life’s journey I’ve observed that there are always unintended consequences to virtually any law. Laws may benefit the majority but will typically have unintended negative effect for others. Laws always get amended, altered and changed by additional legislation or by interpretations and clarifications from the judicial branch. It’s just the way the system works.

In today’s chapter we finish our journey through the ancient book of Numbers with a rather odd, anti-climactic story. A few chapters ago the unmarried daughters of a guy named Zelophehad approached Moses and argued that their father’s inheritance should pass to them, even though they were women. Women in near east cultures of that day could not own property and, in fact, were typically considered the property of their fathers or husbands. In a law that was incredibly progressive for the time, Moses agreed with the orphaned daughters and set up a new law granting unmarried daughters of a dead father the father’s inheritance. The inheritance would then pass to their husband if/when they eventually married.

Today we have an appeal to the original law. The ruling men in the tribe begin to ask themselves “What ifs.” It would not surprise me if multiple men from various tribes were lining up in an ancient version of The Bachelorette. Marrying Zelophehad’s daughters and getting your hands on Zelophehad’s inheritance would be a lucrative deal. “Mazel tov!”

The problem was that tribal inheritance in the promised land was to be set in stone and absolute. Land was not to pass back and forth from one tribe to another. The case of Zelophehad’s daughters created a problem. Their father’s land would go to their future husband. If they married outside the clan then their tribes land would be owned by another tribe. Moses quickly amends the original law stating that Zelophehad’s daughters must marry inside their own tribal clan.

Of course, when you follow the news long enough and acquaint yourself with human history you begin to see patterns. Today’s amendment will have its own unintended effect. When human tribes isolate and insulate themselves socially it creates “us versus them” mentalities. Eventually the tribes would turn against one another in a protracted civil war.

This morning I’m thinking about tribes and clans. In the business world we often speak of “Silos” in which departments and divisions of corporations operate within themselves and largely function in exclusion to the corporation as a whole. In the world of institutional Christianity we see this same paradigm in silos we call denominations. Across the U.S. I see silos in politics and in my own community I see silos culturally among groups with different ideas and interests. Silos we build with the best of intentions to shore up the identity and cohesion of certain groups become exclusionary protectorates that eventually contribute negatively to the whole.

The further I get in my life journey the more inclined I am to stop building silos and to start tearing them down.

 

 

Human Manipulation Present and Historical

While Israel was staying in Shittim, the men began to indulge in sexual immorality with Moabite women, who invited them to the sacrifices to their gods. The people ate the sacrificial meal and bowed down before these gods. So Israel yoked themselves to the Baal of Peor. And the Lord’s anger burned against them.
Numbers 25:1-3 (NIV)

One of the reasons that I enjoy being a student of history is that it so often affords me the wisdom to put current events into historical context. In the 24/7/365 world of network news and social media it is fascinating to watch people getting whipped into a frenzy by every trending story of the moment. In this past year the story about Russian interference in American elections has driven an incredible amount of airplay. The truth is that countries attempting to effect the outcome of foreign elections, or the opinions of a foreign people, has a very long and rich history around the globe and including my own government here in the United States. There are always slimy political agents willing to play both sides, or any side, for profit.

Today’s chapter is an ancient case in point.

Balaam the Seer may have appeared to be a faithful follower of God in the previous few chapters. Balaam knew God’s voice and he knew enough that it was not profitable for him to curse Israel if God was on their side. Balaam was also the prototypical double-agent. If military victory against the Israelites was out of the question, perhaps a campaign of religious and moral subversion would introduce chaos and disruption to weaken the Israelites.

So, women were sent to seduce Israelite men into joining them in the rather depraved sexual fertility rights of the local fertility god named Baal (Btw, men being easily seduced sexually for political or personal advantage is another well-documented historical pattern). It was not just a one night stand, but the narrative says the men “yoked” themselves to the Canaanite deity, which is a word picture of servitude. The disruption worked. The spiritual, moral, political, and religious struggle between God and Baal would continue for nearly a thousand years and eventually become part of the recipe that divided Israel into a long civil war.

What is fascinating is that the shadowy political operative manipulating things behind the scenes was none other than Balaam the Seer. In a few chapters (31:16) we discover that it was Balaam who instigated the Moabite women to seduce the Israelite men into Baal worship.

This morning I’m thinking about manipulation. I can be manipulated so easily. I live in a world in which the microphone on my cell phone can pick up my conversation and feed marketers the ads I’m likely to be interested in. I live in a world in which I may see only what the cameras of my news program of choice want me to see. I live in a world where relatively few inflammatory social media posts, strategically placed, can disrupt the collective thought of a nation. This isn’t new, it’s just old spiritual, commercial, political, and social paradigms discovering new and more powerful tools.

As I enter into a new work week, I’m reminded over Jesus excellent advice to His followers:

Be shrewd as a serpent; gentle as a dove.”

Have a good week, my friend.

Mysteries Within Mysteries

Son though he was, he learned obedience from what he suffered and, once made perfect, [Jesus] became the source of eternal salvation for all who obey him and was designated by God to be high priest in the order of Melchizedek.
Hebrews 5:8-10 (NIV)

The further I have progressed on this life journey the more I have come to understand that I must embrace mystery if I am going to progress spiritually in certain places. This flies in the face of a system of reason in which I was raised and educated. Our culture is one that places what I have come to understand as an undue premium on knowing. Theories are stated as certainties quite frequently whether they come from the institutions of religion, education, politics, or science. I find that our culture has lost sight of the value of embracing the knowledge of knowing that we do not know or cannot know.

I have found that the desire to try to replace mystery with false certainty is a fool’s errand. I see this repeated over and over again in history. It leads down all sorts of silly and hurtful paths. Minor issues become major battlegrounds, honest exploration is sacrificed on the altar of exclusionary social litmus tests, and institutions make all sorts of embarrassing mistakes (sometimes with deadly consequences). Embracing mystery, on the other hand, has pushed my heart and mind to new avenues of possibility, exploration, discovery and faith. I love how Catholic mystic Richard Rohr puts it: “Mystery is not something we can not understand. Mystery is something we can endlessly understand.”

The letter to Hebrew believers has always been shrouded in mystery, not the least of which is the identity of the author. Two centuries after it was penned we are still not certain who wrote the letter. My fundamentalist Bible professors taught me that I must believe it was Paul who wrote it. Textual critics in education laugh at such a claim, telling me it certainly couldn’t be Paul. Arguments have been made for a host of first century figures (i.e. Luke, Apollos, Barnabas). More recently, some scholars have argued that it was most certainly a woman, Priscilla, who was among Jesus larger circle of 70 disciples and travelled with Paul. I find this possibility fascinating and stimulating. It has led me to discover more about this amazing woman through whom God did amazing things. I know, however, at least one of my fundamentalist professors would have said it most certainly wasn’t Priscilla and would certainly have marginalized and subtly punished me educationally had I steadfastly held to the possibility in his class.

I do not know who wrote the letter to the Hebrew believers, and that’s perfectly fine for me. It is a mystery that has much for me to discover in its exploration of possibility.

In today’s chapter we encounter yet another mystery in the revelation of Christ as eternal High Priest. The Hebrew believers who first received this letter would have intimate knowledge about how the Hebrew priestly system worked as prescribed by the Law of Moses. Only descendants of Aaron (Moses’ right-hand man) were to be priests, and the High Priest could only come from those genetic ranks. According to the prophets, however, the Messiah was to come from the tribe of Judah and the house of David as Jesus did. Remember Christmas? Mary gives birth to Jesus in Bethlehem, the “City of David.” Joseph and Mary had to go to Bethlehem for the census because they were both descendants of David in the tribe of Judah.

But now the mysterious author of Hebrews lays out a claim that Christ is our eternal “High Priest,” the cosmic conduit between God and man. But the Hebrew readers would know that Jesus was not from the line of Aaron, so how could He be High Priest? The author reveals Jesus as High Priest “in the order of Melchizedek.” In Genesis 14:18 Abram (who would soon be known as Abraham) meets a mysterious King of Salem named Melchizedek who was “priest of God Most High.” He serves Abram bread and wine (remind you of anything?) and blesses Abram. Abram in return presents the priest Melchizedek an offering of a tenth of everything.

That’s all we know about Melchizedek. This mysterious person was “priest of God Most High” before Abram was Abraham, before Israel was a people, before the Law of Moses was given, before the Hebrew priesthood was defined as descendants of Aaron. It’s a mystery, and the author of Hebrews attaches the mystery of Christ the cosmic High Priest to the lineage to the mysterious Melchizedek who appears within the Hebrew tradition but outside the system of Moses.

This morning I’m once again perplexed, stimulated, and inspired by the mystery of Melchizedek, of Jesus, and of Hebrews. As I humbly embrace the mystery I push deeper into that which can be endlessly understood and so take another step forward on the path of faith and Spirit.