Posted by: Mark Nielsen | February 26, 2012

Lions & Lambs, Hawks & Doves, Asses & Elephants

 “The wolf will live with the lamb, the leopard will lie down with the goat, the calf and the lion and the yearling together; and a little child will lead them.” (Isaiah 11:6)

In the introduction to the book Generous Justice, Tim Keller gives a brief but effective overview of the history of what have come to be called the “social gospel” churches (many of them branded as “mainline”). He also mentions how 20th century Western evangelicals generally went in another direction (more toward individualistic salvation), and why this false two-gospel dichotomy needs to be outgrown.

I have personally seen this false dichotomy, even within people I respect, and I have attended churches and denominations on both sides of the divide. It is a gap that I grieve to this day. Maybe I even give in to this tendency as well, I don’t know.

I confess that I find it hard to see how the divided Christian church will ever come together again on this debate (social vs. personal gospel), especially in an age where so many seek to profit by increasing the divisions and making the tone of the debate more extremist than ever.

(Mr. Limbaugh, step away from the microphone and come out with your hands up! You too, Mr. Olberman!)

With regard to our human propensity to perpetuate injustice, Keller includes a biblical passage from Psalm 146 early in Chapter 1:

7 He upholds the cause of the oppressed
   and gives food to the hungry.
The LORD sets prisoners free,
 8 the LORD gives sight to the blind,
the LORD lifts up those who are bowed down,
   the LORD loves the righteous.
9 The LORD watches over the immigrant 
   and sustains the fatherless and the widow,
   but he frustrates the ways of the wicked.

 (Psalm 146: 7-9, NIV… except for the word “immigrant”, which Keller rightly uses instead of “foreigner” to help us connect more directly to the text)

Keller’s intention with this scripture is to continue to make a case for a just and merciful God, and I do agree (well, duh!). That’s the parental nature of God in its most basic form.

But I have bolded out that last phrase about God frustrating the ways of the wicked, because personally I find it very hard to believe that. I don’t see it. I can’t gloss over it, just accept it at face value. As I’ve implied above, it seems more common to me that wickedness works out pretty well, at least for the wicked. It’s just easier to be bad (selfish, bullying, shortsighted, unjust, …call it what you will, on a personal and global level), and often it’s quite profitable. The monetary compensation and relative ease enjoyed by so many people with bad intentions (or even mixed motives) frustrates ME, not the wicked.

Sex sells.

Wall Street’s Big Banks and major players are allowed to continue their game-playing with no criminal investigations, even after getting caught red-handed.

Petty dictators don’t seem to have too much trouble rising to the top, especially if their country’s hard assets are limited and thus under the radar of the so-called democracy-minded larger nations.

On a personal level, this is not even a Christian or New Testament theological point to struggle with. The famous Rabbi Kushner book When Bad Things Happen to Good People springs to mind, for example.

Meanwhile in my lifetime, at least in middle-class America, we’ve witnessed the individualization of faith to such an extent that the community-minded Christian is the exception now, instead of the rule. “Conscience” and the “common good” are not a frequent part of current dialogue among those who profess to believe in Jesus.

Concurrently, whether to fill the compassion vacuum left by church people focusing on themselves, or out of necessity, the 20th century saw the surrender of most social services to management by secular entities and the government. And shoddy, underfunded management, at that.

All these developments, as we Christians perhaps took our eyes off the ball, have served to marginalize the genuinely needy. And we’re not even talking yet about the explosion of drug accessibility (both legal and illegal) for people from all walks of life, and the role of medicine and big business in keeping the poor poor, the ignorant ignorant, and the buzzed conveniently blissed out.

I know I shouldn’t blame the church, because we didn’t in most cases cause these social problems. We are also victims of them, in plenty of cases. Plus we’re the ones working hard within those secular institutions, to “heal the nations”, in many other cases.

I just don’t see “frustrating the wicked” as the norm. Has it ever been the case?

So WHERE IS that God who frustrates the wicked, now that we need Him? (or Her, … but that’s another topic)

Side note: I spotted an interesting, comparable discussion at the CNN Belief Blog this morning, on our tendency to “nice up” or clean up some of the messier, more crude or more confusing parts of the Bible, to gloss over what makes us uncomfortable. Jesus didn’t do it… so why are we doing it?


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