Are You For Us or Against Us?

Joshua 5:13-15
“When Joshua was by Jericho, he lifted up his eyes and looked, and behold, a man was standing before him with his drawn sword in his hand. And Joshua went to him and said to him, ‘Are you for us, or for our adversaries?’ And he said, ‘No; but I am the commander of the army of the Lord. Now I have come.’ And Joshua fell on his face to the earth and worshiped and said to him, ‘What does my lord say to his servant?’ And the commander of the Lord’s army said to Joshua, ‘Take off your sandals from your feet, for the place where you are standing is holy.’ And Joshua did so.”

In our “us vs. them” world, people are eager to appropriate God for their own agendas, but the Lord will not be reduced to a pawn in our battles. He is the Sovereign Lord over human history and He commands His own heavenly army. We should take care to submit ourselves to Him and His cause.

“Are you for us, or for our adversaries?” is not the right question, so the commander of the army of the Lord responds, “No.” He is no mere human soldier involved in a human battle. The question we should instead ask is, “What does my lord say to his servant?” And whatever we hear, we must do.

As brothers and sisters in Christ, let us not get embroiled in partisanship, but in humility and submission inquire of the Lord together. Don’t ask, “How can I use the Bible to support my opinion?” Ask, “Is my opinion Biblical?” Test every opinion you hold with the straightedge of God’s Word, and ruthlessly eliminate everything that doesn’t line up.

Why I’m Not Worried About Donald Trump

Super Tuesday

Tomorrow is Super Tuesday, and as an unenrolled (i.e. independent) registered voter in Massachusetts, I intend to vote in the Republican primary. This year, in particular, my public duty feels invested with particular urgency, as I, like many others in the U.S., feel threatened by Donald Trump’s political ascendancy.

Donald Trump

Not only do many of his policies strike me as unconstitutional and unfeasible, he seems to say and do unconscionable things. Since, “out of the abundance of the heart his mouth speaks” (Luke 6:45), we are rightly alarmed by the outrageous things he says. Even though he claims to be a Christian, his brash and boastful leadership style is hardly reminiscent of Christ, who taught, “let the greatest among you become as the youngest, and the leader as one who serves” (Luke 22:26).

Kingdom of God

Though many Christians have disavowed him, I have been baffled by some believers who support him, and I think this exchange between Jesus and his disciples sheds light on the whole situation:

In Acts 1:6, the disciples ask Jesus, “Lord, will you at this time restore the kingdom to Israel?” As Jews who are marginalized under Roman subjugation, they are looking for political vindication and empowerment, but Jesus speaks of a different power, “It is not for you to know times or seasons that the Father has fixed by his own authority. But you will receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you, and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the end of the earth” (Acts 1:7-8).

Tweet: “Jesus does not promise to make us #winners, but #witnesses to his life, death, and resurrection.” @shawnswoo

Jesus does not promise a kingdom of political power, but a kingdom of spiritual power. Jesus does not promise to make us #winners, but #witnesses to his life, death, and resurrection. Jesus does not promise to #MakeAmericaGreatAgain, but to make his name great among the nations.

Sovereignty of God

So regardless of the outcome of Super Tuesday, or even of the general election in November, I remind myself that I don’t have to worry about Trump, or anyone for that matter. Instead, I say, “Blessed be the name of God forever and ever, to whom belong wisdom and might. He changes times and seasons; he removes kings and sets up kings” (Dan. 2:20-21). God is, and will remain, sovereign.

Ultimately, “our citizenship is in heaven, and from it we await a Savior, the Lord Jesus Christ” (Phil. 3:20). We need no other Savior.

Tweet: “Jesus does not promise to #MakeAmericaGreatAgain, but to make his name great among the nations.” @shawnswoo

Do Christians and Muslims Worship the Same God?

A Controversy In Wheaton

This week, Wheaton College placed Professor Larycia Hawkins on administrative leave for claiming on Facebook that Christians and Muslims “worship the same God.” The administration explained that professors must “engage in and speak about public issues in ways that faithfully represent the College’s evangelical Statement of Faith.” Hawkins also wore a hijab through the entire season of Advent to express her solidarity with innocent muslims being victimized by retaliations against Islamic terrorists.

Of course, expressing solidarity with innocent muslims is to be commended. There have been over 40 documented cases of anti-muslim threats, shootings, and vandalisms in the aftermath of the Paris terrorist attacks on November 13th. These hate crimes should be condemned, and Christians, as always, must promote justice for all.

Miroslav Volf’s Allah

However, human solidarity is one thing, theological clarity is another. Hawkins’s assertion was partly based on Miroslav Volf’s arguments in Allah: A Christian Response. Not surprisingly, Volf came to Hawkins’s defense, insisting that “her suspension reflects enmity toward Muslims, taking on a theological guise of concern for Christian orthodoxy.”

Volf contends that saying that “Muslims and Christians worship the same God” is not the same thing as saying “that Christians and Muslims believe the same things about that one God” or “that Islam and Christianity are the same religion under a different name, or even that Islam is equally as true as Christianity.” In other words, describing an object differently is not the same thing as describing a different object. Worshiping the right God is not the same thing as worshiping the right God rightly. Since Christians concede that Jews worship the same God as they, even though Jews reject the Trinity and the incarnation of Christ, Volf maintains that Christians cannot, for selfsame reasons, deny that Muslims worship the same God.

“Allah = God” Is an Unhelpful Equivocation

As Volf’s attempt to clarify proves, for most people, the statement that “Christians and Muslims worship the same God” implies a certain parity that is theologically compromising. In its bald formulation, the statement requires too many qualifications to be helpful, especially in the abbreviated context of social media. It is an equivocation that attempts to build solidarity at the expense of clarity.

Orthodoxy entails right worship. Aaron fashions a golden calf to represent YHWH, the God who rescued Israel from Egypt (Exod. 32: 1-6), yet this is still condemned as idolatry. There is no neat distinction between right belief and right worship.

Strictly speaking, even the Jews do not worship the same God that we do. Our God is Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, Three in One and One in Three. Our God is Jesus Christ, the Word made flesh. Jews reject these foundational doctrines.

God’s redemptive plan unfolded progressively throughout history, and this progressive nature of God’s revelation demands greater accountability from the later generations. “The times of ignorance God overlooked, but now he commands all people everywhere to repent, because he has fixed a day on which he will judge the world in righteousness by a man whom he has appointed; and of this he has given assurance to all by raising him from the dead” (Acts 17:30-31).

“Whoever believes in [Christ] is not condemned, but whoever does not believe is condemned already, because he has not believed in the name of the only Son of God” (John 3:18). “There is salvation in no one else, for there is no other name under heaven given among men by which we must be saved” (Acts 4:12). Stating that “Christians and Muslims worship the same God” obfuscates this reality and hinders mission.

How to Engage Muslims

How, then, should we engage Muslims, Jews, and other unbelievers? Scripture teaches that faithful witness simultaneously corroborates what is right and critiques what is wrong in other religions.

When John declares that Jesus is the “Word” λόγος (logos), he is contextualizing the gospel by co-opting the Greek philosophical notion of “animating reason.”However, he qualifies his use of the term by adding that “the Word became flesh and made his dwelling among us” (Jn. 1:14). In its philosophical usage, the logos could not have become flesh. So John’s use of the word is uniquely Christian.

Similarly, Paul’s sermons use the cultural framework of his audience, but also disabuse his audience of false ideas. Preaching to Jews in a synagogue in Pisidian Antioch (Acts 13:16-41), Paul begins by affirming Israel’s salvation history from the election of the patriarchs, to the time of judges, and later, kings (vv. 16b-25). Then, he cites extensively from the Old Testament to prove that Jesus, whom the Jews had rejected, lived, died, and resurrected to fulfill the Davidic promise (vv. 26-37), and calls them to repentance (vv. 38-41).

When addressing a pagan audience, however, Paul takes a decidedly different course. In Lystra (Acts 14:15-17), recognizing that his audience are polytheists who believed that gods and humans intermingled to produce demigods, Paul begins by delineating the differences between divinity and humanity (v. 15a-c), then proclaims that there is only one true God “who does what is good” ἀγαθουργῶν (agathourgōn). This rare word occurs only twice in the entire New Testament (cf. 1 Tim. 6:18), and invites comparison to καλοκάγαθος (kalokagathos), the title given to Zeus, “the one who does what is good and faithful.” In using the term, Paul simultaneously contextualizes the idea of the one true God and confronts the idolatry of his hearers, insisting that God, not Zeus, is the one who providentially cares for them with “rain from heaven and crops in their seasons” (v. 17).

Still more striking is Paul’s speech in Athens. He quotes the Cretan poet Epimenides and the Cicilian poet Aratos, and incorporates various Stoic and Epicurean beliefs (Acts 17:22-31). However, Paul issues an unflinching challenge to their worldview when he asserts that the Creator God is the Lord of heaven and earth who will judge the world with justice through a man whom he has raised from the dead.

Volf proffers Cardinal Nicholas of Cusa (15th century) as an example of “a towering intellect and an experienced church diplomat” who “affirmed unambiguously that Muslims and Christians worship the same God,” but this is patently false.

In his book, Cribratio Alkorani (A Scrutiny of the Koran), Nicholas of Cusa writes unambiguously that “the God of the Koran is not the Great God in whom, because He is the Creator of all things, every rational creature ought to believe” (Kindle Location 2027) and “that the Muhammadan sect … is in error and is to be repudiated” (KL 29). The stated goal of his writing is to prove “even from the Koran, that the Gospel is true” (KL 61), and the way he labors painstakingly to sift truth from the lies is consistent with Scriptural precedent.

Islam, like any other religion that sets itself up against the gospel of Jesus Christ, is a complex mixture of truth, half-truths, and lies. The simplistic statement that “Christians and Muslims worship the same God” does not do justice to this complexity.

What’s at Stake?

What exactly is at stake in this debate? Why is Volf, Hawkins, and others so eager to affirm that “Muslims and Christians worship the same God?” For Volf, the answer, ostensibly, is to preserve future peace, for “two supreme divine beings always means war.” In other words, how you answer the question “Do Christians and Muslims worship the same God?” will determine whether we have “a justification for cultural and military wars” or “a foundation for a shared future marked by peace rather than violence.”

This is essentially what Jean-Jacques Rousseau argued in The Social Contract (trans. H J. Tozer, Wordsworth Editions Limited, 1998, 137-138):

Those who distinguish civil intolerance from theological intolerance are, in my opinion mistaken. The two kinds of intolerance are inseparable. It is impossible to live in peace with people whom we believe to be damned. To love them would be to hate God who punishes them. It is absolutely necessary to reclaim them or to punish them. Wherever theological intolerance is allowed, it cannot, but have some effect on civil life, and as soon as it has any effect on civil life, the sovereign is no longer sovereign even in secular affairs. From that time, the priests are the real masters. The kings are their officers.

But Jesus never forced belief on anyone, and he even rebukes his disciples for wanting to call down fire from heaven to consume those who had rejected their message (Luke 9:52-56).

Moreover, Volf himself challenges Rousseau and contradicts the claim of his article in his book, Flourishing: Why We Need Religion in a Globalized World:

[T]hough it is true that Christian religious exclusivists make a clear distinction between the saved and the damned, the consistent among them also—and without contradiction—reject the distinction between moral insiders and moral outsiders. The Golden Rule, a succinct summary of all Christian moral obligations, commands: ‘In everything, do to others as you would have them do to you’—do to all others, not just to a select few (Matthew 7:12). As the story of the Good Samaritan powerfully illustrates, the command to love one’s neighbors is universal (Luke 10:25-37); it applies to friend and foe, good and evil, saved and damned. To love the damned is not to hate God but to obey and emulate God, who makes the sun to shine on the good and the evil (Matthew 5:45) and who loves those who have made themselves God’s enemies (Romans 5:6-7).

It is this radical love for neighbor demonstrated and fulfilled in the person and work of Jesus Christ that ensures human solidarity and future peace. No facile agreement or superficial identification will do.

Protecting the Personhood of the Preborn

Today (January 22nd) is National Sanctity of Human Life Day, though it has been celebrated on the nearest Sunday since its designation in 1984. Here’s my take on the controversial topic of abortion:

The Bible’s Definition of Personhood

“If people are fighting and hit a pregnant woman and she gives birth prematurely but there is no serious injury, the offender must be fined whatever the woman’s husband demands and the court allows. But if there is serious injury, you are to take life for life, eye for eye, tooth for tooth, hand for hand, foot for foot, burn for burn, wound for wound, bruise for bruise” (Exodus 21:22-25).

For a “serious injury” to either the pregnant mother or the preborn child, the Scripture prescribes a punishment commensurate with the injury. This means that the preborn child is a distinct person created in the image of God for whom Genesis 9:6 applies, “Whoever sheds human blood, by humans shall their blood be shed; for in the image of God has God made mankind.” Therefore, abortion is an assault on God’s creative work (Psalm 139:13).

A Scientific Expert’s Definition of Personhood
Dr. Dianne Irving, a professor of biochemistry and biology at Georgetown University, writes:

“To begin with, scientifically something very radical occurs between the processes of gametogenesis and fertilization—the change from a simple part of one human being (i.e., a sperm) and a simple part of another human being (i.e., an oocyte—usually referred to as an “ovum” or “egg”), which simply possess “human life,” to a new, genetically unique, newly existing, individual, whole living human being (a single-cell embryonic human zygote)” (Dianne Irving, “When Do Human Beings Begin? ‘Scientific’ Myths and Scientific Facts,”

There’s a world of difference between sex gametes with 23 chromosomes and a living human zygote with 46 chromosomes. A zygote is a distinct person (with unique genetic coding) that cannot be compared to lesser living organisms such as insects or plants.

Moreover, after just eight weeks of gestation, the baby has a brain, heart, lungs, intestines, bones, arms, legs, eyes, ears, hands, feet, and fingers (National Institutes of Health, “Fetal Development”). It is troubling that more than a third of abortions take place after eight weeks of gestation according to the Centers for Disease Control.

S.L.E.D. Are Irrelevant for Defining Personhood 
(Stephen Schwarz, The Moral Question of Abortion, pp. 17-18).

  1. Size is irrelevant for determining personhood. I weighed in at 4.96lb at birth, but does this mean that I was somehow less human than a newborn that weighed in at 10lb? I am now a fully-grown adult, but still measure only at 5’4” and 135lb. Does this make me somehow less human that someone who is 6’4” and 235lb? Of course not. This would make men, who are on average physically larger than women, more valuable human beings–a very non-feminist idea (Scott Klusendorf, Five Bad Ways to Argue About Abortion).
  2. Level of Development is irrelevant for determining personhood. A newborn does not develop rational faculties until a few months after birth (Ronand O’Rahilly & Pabiola Muller, Human Ebryology and Teratology, p. 8), does this legitimize infanticide? Of course not. It is no more right to kill a one-week-old infant than a more developed one-year old. This argument also applies to cases of birth defects. If it’s wrong to kill newborns with confirmed developmental retardation, it’s wrong to kill preborns with presumed birth defects.
  3. One’s living Environment is irrelevant for determining personhood. Are bedridden elderly no longer human because of their confined location? Of course not. A preborn nurtured through the umbilical cord in a mother’s womb is no less human than a newborn suckling in a mother’s arms.
  4. Degree of Dependency is irrelevant for determining personhood. Is a person in a coma breathing through a respirator no longer human? Since newborns are also unable to survive without their mothers, are they not human? Of course not.

Women’s Equal Right to Reproductive Freedom
But, the heart of the issue is not the personhood of the preborn, but the women’s equal right to reproductive freedom. Disputing the “personhood” of the preborn, or referring to difficult cases such as pregnancies resulting from rape or incest, is simply a red herring that alleviates guilt.

We know this because 38 states in the U.S. (including Massachusetts) have fetal homicide laws that prohibit taking the life of the preborn when the mother wants the baby. If the mother does not want the baby, however, the preborn have no legal protection (John Piper, We Know They Are Killing Children–All of Us Know). This is clearly duplicitous. A mother’s wish cannot justify homicide.

Right to Life vs. Right to Reproductive Freedom
I believe that the preborn’s right to life is more fundamental than the mother’s right to reproductive freedom. Except in rare cases where the life of the mother is at risk due to the pregnancy, this is not a choice between the life of the baby and the life of the mother. (Only 2.8% of abortions are performed due to the risk posed to maternal “health,” which itself is defined more broadly than “life.”) The mother can give her baby up for adoption and carry on with her life. It doesn’t have to “ruin” her life.

Certain restrictions on individual freedom are appropriate and necessary. For this reason, we do not have the “freedom” to libel or drive while intoxicated, let alone, kill someone. So the response, “I’m personally against abortion, but I don’t support legislating morality” simply shirks responsibility. Abortion infringes upon the preborn’s right to life.

“Abortion Is Only A Symptom, We Need to Tackle Its Causes.”
Yes, we should target the problems of teen pregnancy, support low-income women, and initiate adoption reform, but we need to distinguish the context of an act from its cause. Societal ills certainly contribute, but society is not responsible for a mother’s decision to have an abortion.

Such an environmental determinism is untenable, moral nonsense. Reductionistic and behaviorist rationales do not nullify the fact that “the Bible locates the core motivational dynamic in covenantal space, not in psychological, physiological or psychosocial space” (David Powlison, “Questions at the Crossroads,” in Care for the Soul, ed. Mark R. McMinn and Timothy R. Phillips, p. 47).

Poverty and unemployment may be the context of a person’s theft, but his sinful heart is the cause. Imagine if we did not have laws against theft, a 0% unemployment rate will not be enough to rein in our greed! Not all thieves are like Jean Valjean, many are like Gordon Gekko.

Final Exhortation

Ultimately, abortion is, more than anything, a failure of love. Will we love these most vulnerable members of our population, or will we sacrifice them at the altar of self-love? The first Christians were primarily responsible for abolishing abortion, infanticide, and child abandonment in the Roman Empire (Alvin Schmidt, How Christianity Changed the World, p. 51-59). Christians today should be at the forefront of the battle against abortion.

How to Eradicate Racism (In honor of Martin Luther King, Jr. Day)

As our first black president takes his second ceremonial oath of office with his hand on Dr. King’s personal Bible, let’s reflect briefly on the issue of racism in honor of Martin Luther King, Jr…

The Fight Against Racism
Did you know that Abraham Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation actually did not free a single slave? It declared slaves in the Confederate territory to be free, but this could not be enforced since the Confederate states had already seceded.

Similarly, Martin Luther King, Jr. and the Civil Rights Movement accomplished much: Brown v. Board of Education abolished segregation, and the Civil Rights Acts of 1964 and 1968 legally banned many discriminatory practices. However, none of these eradicated racism.

This is not to downplay the accomplishments of the Civil Rights Movement, since laws do affect our attitudes and redefine normativity. The election of our first black president is evidence that we have made great strides. However, racism lingers on, because in order to truly eradicate racism one must not merely change laws, but change hearts.

Racism Lingers On
Many bemoan the unfair advantage given to ethnic minorities in Affirmative Action, but the same people rarely protest the fact that minorities generally receive an inferior education because their public schools (which are generally located in poorer neighborhoods) lack resources, because they are funded largely by the relatively meager local property taxes.

Racial profiling is another issue. Many reports have confirmed that Latinos and African-Americans are stopped and frisked with disproportionate frequency, even when they are no more likely to be engaged in criminal activity than white Americans.

For a more local example, Os Gemeos’ mural in Boston of a boy with a shirt wrapped around his head sparked a heated debate, with many denouncing the mural as a depiction of a terrorist. While placing the art near the central railway station of a city from which Al-Qaeda’s hijacked jets originated may be malapropos, it is not malicious. The automatic labeling of the art as “terrorist” betrays racist assumptions.


Christ Is the Cure for Racism
But for Christians, “there is neither Jew nor Gentile, neither slave nor free, nor is there male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus” (Gal. 3:28). Here’s the cure for racism. As Jonathan Edwards writes, “private affection, if not subordinate to general affection, is not only liable, as the case may be, to issue in enmity to being in general, but has a tendency to it” (Jonathan Edwards, The Nature of True Virtues, pp. 20-21).

In other words, if our highest allegiance is to ourselves, then naturally, it will be to the exclusion of the interests of others. If our highest allegiance is to our family, then naturally, we will care less for other families. If our highest allegiance is to our class, race, nation, or gender, then naturally, we will be classist, racist, jingoistic, or sexist. Therefore, “only if God is our summum bonum, our ultimate good and life center, will we find our heart drawn not only to people of all families, races, and classes, but to the whole world in general” (Timothy Keller, Reason for God, p. 166).

This is why the second greatest commandment, “You shall love your neighbor as yourself,” is rooted in the greatest commandment, “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind” (Matthew 22:35-40).

Thus the only way to uproot racism is to ground ourselves in the gospel of Jesus Christ, which tells us that all humanity is created in the image of God (Genesis 1:27), and that Christ died for us to restore this image that has been marred by sin (Colossians 1:15). When we enter into this all-embracing love of Christ, our hearts are transformed to love people of all races.