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~ What Are We Thinking? ~

In 1963, Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. insightfully noted in his "Letter from Birmingham Jail," "Shallow understanding from people of good will is more frustrating than absolute misunderstanding from people of ill will."

You no doubt can think of people both in your personal lives and those well known in the arena of leadership in politics and religion who maintain "absolute misunderstandings" about yourselves and your world. If they are truly of good will, there is hope they will not act on their embraced misunderstandings to inflict on you harm and suffering. If they are of ill will, then you must prepare for the persecution Christ predicted.

Shallow understanding from people of good will can deepen through time and relationship. Hopefully they will want that themselves, leading to greater relational and personal peace. The angels, at Jesus' birth, proclaimed, "Peace to people of good will!"

Would you not agree that many Christians hold absolute misunderstandings about the denominational affiliations and practices of our own brothers and sisters? Can we then expect to overcome them with people outside our Christian faith and history?

A couple wedges contributing to religious segregation between Christians are economics and culture. The economics and culture of North American slave owners in the southern states grew heavily dependent on the slave trade causing reticence among many to sharing the Gospel with their slaves fearing such knowledge would incite slaves to seeking political and economic freedom. Some evangelicals justified slavery, some endorsed treating slaves as equals in body and spirit, and others propagated a gospel that discounted social justice and reform, teaching slavery to be God's will.

Douglas Sweeney, associate professor of Church History and the History of Christian Thought at Trinity Evangelical Divinity School, hopes that a better understanding of history can cause today's mostly white evangelical movement to confront the sins of its past and soothe the divide between black and white evangelicals. Race relations is only one of many topics covered in his short primer to evangelical history, "The American Evangelical Story: A History of the Movement" (Baker Academic, 2005). In addition to challenging his readers, he seeks to encourage them with stories of repentance, sacrifice, and courage. As he explains in his preface, "My hope and prayer for the chapters that follow is that they…might be a memorial, a compilation of stones selected from the riverbed of our history that testify to God's faithfulness among us."

Evangelicalism eventually began to stretch beyond the US culture about which Sweeney remarks, "Many patriotic Christians who loved the American way of life -- and who prided themselves on the blessings of their nation's 'righteous empire' -- often neglected the crucial task of distinguishing biblical Christianity from the rest of American culture."

Protestant evangelicalism has almost always incorporated US culture and patriotism. "God bless America" is not only a prayer but a patriotic declaration. Last week I was delighted to see a bumper sticker on the car in front of me that read, "God bless all nations, without exception." Indeed, do not all nations and all people need the blessing of our Creator? And did not Jesus tell us to pray for this, including the blessing of God upon our enemies?

Even if we don't like Jesus' injunction, He explained how the Father blesses both the good and the evil with His rain, sunshine and love. "May your kingdom come, may your will be done, on earth as in heaven" includes all nations and people "on earth," not only in North America. Do you not pray this? If yes, we hope and pray for the brotherhood of all humankind in Christ which is His will. If no, I kindly suggest reflecting upon your own ability to distinguish between spirituality, economics and patriotism.

I listened to an apologist's response to the question of why Jewish and Muslim people are the most difficult to "convert" to Christianity. His astute response was in two parts. The first was their difficulty in understanding the Christian paradigm of the Trinity, one God expressed in three distinctive Persons. Jews and Muslims cannot accept that God has a Son, which, in their shoes, I can understand. (Hindus, on the other hand, have no problem with God incarnating into humanity.) But what the resistance of the Jews, Muslims and Hindus to Christianity share are the political and cultural perspectives. 

Part of Christian missionary history includes forbidding indigenous people to use their own language and to dress in white button-down shirts and shorts. Their elders, rightfully so, feared the eradication of their culture. Converting to Christianity became, among many people, to mean converting to the Western European culture, language and mores. The merging of culture and spirituality was a distinguishing trademark of many missionary endeavors, and understandably resisted by indigenous people.

That is one of the reasons for my respect and work of K. P. Yohannan, director of Gospel for Asia. He doesn't permit white, Western culture missionaries to evangelize in Asia. For economic and cultural reasons, Yohannan's staff trains Asian nationals to minister to their own compatriots in their own indigenous clothing and means of travel (bicycles and walking). The people who these missionaries serve are not confused with the mix of Western culture and politics in with the Gospel.

Our U.S. evangelicals should learn from Yohannan. I certainly do not wish to hear the pure Gospel of the kingdom of God ("You are not of this world") contaminated with the political or cultural perspectives of homilists and preachers behind the pulpit. That pulpit is devoted to only one Gospel message, "which does not distinguish between Jew or Gentile, gender or race..."

Absolute misunderstanding is dangerous, whether embraced by good willed or ill willed people. So let us all hear the words of wisdom to guide us:

"Does not wisdom call out? Does not understanding raise her voice?...'I raise my voice to to all mankind. You who are simple, gain prudence; you who are foolish, gain understanding...Counsel and sound judgment are mine; I have understanding and power...I love those who love me, and those who seek me find me...The Lord brought me forth as the first of his works, before his deeds of old; I was appointed from eternity, from the beginning, before the world began...Blessed is the man who listens to me, watching daily at my doors, waiting at my doorway. For whoever finds me finds life and receives favor from the Lord. But whoever fails to find me harms himself; all who hate me love death' "  (See Proverbs 8).

"Live in harmony with one another. Do not be proud, but be willing to associate with people of low position" (Romans 12:16a).

"Do not deceive yourselves. If any one of you thinks he is wise by the standards of this age, he should become a 'fool' so that he may become wise. For the wisdom of this world is foolishness in God's sight" (1 Corinthians 3:18-19a). 

St. Ephrem the Syrian was born around 306, baptized in his early adulthood and later ordained as a deacon. When he was sixty years old, his homeland in Mesopotamia fell to the Persians and the Christians quickly left their communities. Ephrem made his new home in a cave in present day Iraq and relegated himself to monastic seclusion except to emerge to provide aid to people of surrounding environs suffering a devastating famine. When over, the ordeal led to his death a month later. In seclusion he was a prolific writer, poet and musician. Ephrem wrote about wisdom and understanding:

"Be glad then that you are overwhelmed, and do not be saddened because he has overcome you. A thirsty man is happy when he is drinking, and he is not depressed because he cannot exhaust the spring. So let this spring quench your thirst, and not your thirst the spring. For if then when you thirst again you can drink from it once more; but if when your thirst is sated the spring is also dried up, then your victory would turn to your own harm... What you have received and attained is your present share, while what is left will be your heritage."

While some people will practice absolute misunderstanding believing it to be the "truth," Wisdom teaches us to embrace absolute non-understanding, to delight in the mysteries beyond us, to refrain from judgment of our brothers and sisters, and to anticipate the heritage of divine understanding of our brothers, sisters and our selves. When St. Paul wrote, "No eye has seen, no ear has heard, no mind has conceived what God has prepared for those who love him" he was quoting Isaiah 64:4. And that was written about wisdom and understanding.

John S. Hilkevich, Ph.D.
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Spiritual Resource Services  © February 16, 2006

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