catapult magazine

catapult magazine

Vol 7, Num 13 :: 2008.06.27 — 2008.07.11


Just relax

A couple of months ago, I received a very sincere letter over e-mail from Kenyan missionaries who believe Barack Obama is a fundamentalist Muslim who was behind the recent election violence in Kenya and plans to implement a worldwide jihad from the White House if elected in November.  Thankfully, I don’t receive such inflated, vitriolic messages about John McCain, but I’m sure they’re out there.  The election season is, after all, in full swing.

Whether it’s a presidential election or a local school board election, the ability to choose people for leadership too often pumps us up with self-righteous poison.  I’m afraid too many of us would blush with shame if presented with a video or transcript of ourselves during a heated election.  Like a type-A dad at a girls’ softball tournament, some insane survival switch flips on and we’re convinced the world will end if things don’t go our way.  The battle is no longer between factions of human beings, but between the forces of good and evil and our assessment of “the good” must prevail at all costs, even if it means severely dehumanizing other people and embarrassing ourselves.

Such an approach to an election situation is both accurate and misguided.  It’s accurate in the sense that the good does matter and that we are called to be agents of God’s goodness in the world—a serious vocation too often subjected to individualism.  But Jesus brings our egos to a halt with clear words on how we are to conduct ourselves: loving our enemies, rejoicing even in persecution, offering even more to those who would steal from us.   What kind of backwards Kingdom does he expect us to live into anyway?

The sermon at the church I attended last Sunday wasn’t intended to be about elections, but the text struck me as an appropriate reminder.  Acts 5 tells the story of how the Jewish leaders resented what the apostles of Jesus were doing in the name of an unauthorized Messiah, so they arrested them.  Retrieved (again) from the temple after miraculous escape from jail, the apostles were brought before the Jewish council and the elders of Israel to answer for their defiance in continuing to teach.  Again, the apostles openly proclaimed their intent to witness, infuriating the leaders to murderous intent.  Then Gamaliel, the mysterious hero of this story, sends the apostles out of the room to make his case for releasing them:

Fellow-Israelites, consider carefully what you propose to do to these men. For some time ago Theudas rose up, claiming to be somebody, and a number of men, about four hundred, joined him; but he was killed, and all who followed him were dispersed and disappeared. After him Judas the Galilean rose up at the time of the census and got people to follow him; he also perished, and all who followed him were scattered. So in the present case, I tell you, keep away from these men and let them alone; because if this plan or this undertaking is of human origin, it will fail; but if it is of God, you will not be able to overthrow them—in that case you may even be found fighting against God!

Besides simply speaking truth from experience, it’s unclear what Gamaliel’s underlying motive might have been.  Was he convinced the movement would fall apart?  Was he a follower of Christ who secretly hoped to spare the lives of the apostles and encourage the movement to flourish?  Was he a hopeful cynic who was curious what would come of this bizarre little group of people?  The text isn’t clear about Gamaliel’s intentions, but his argument is tight and it worked.  It might still work.

The divisive fear that we see today in decision-making at every level is often unnecessary, particularly for Christians whose core beliefs include the conviction that not even death can kill God.  In the case of the apostles, not even a jail cell could contain the Word of God.  And from a jail cell nineteen centuries later, Martin Luther King Jr. conveyed similar reassurance in tumultuous times:

I hope the church as a whole will meet the challenge of this decisive hour.  But even if the church does not come to the aid of justice, I have no despair about the future.  I have no fear about the outcome of our struggle in Birmingham, even if our motives are presently misunderstood….  If the inexpressible cruelties of slavery could not stop us, the opposition we now face will surely fail.  We will win our freedom because the sacred heritage of our nation and the eternal will of God are embodied in our echoing demands.

In the context of King’s convictions as well as the current state of the world, I don’t see Gamaliel’s speech as a call to apathy, but a call to conscious surrender.  No matter its degree, the passion of our conviction does not enhance or diminish God, who beckons us to enter the Kingdom as a trusting child might enter into the presence of her mother.  Our limited sight and youthful inexperience will cause us to make mistakes, to be sure.  But along the way, we can honor the image of God in all people.  We can serve with love, rather than fear.  I don’t suppose such advice would make a very popular e-mail to forward, but the longevity of the movement Gamaliel defended bears witness to something that encourages far more deeply—infinitely, even.

your comments

comments powered by Disqus