2014: The Year of Civility

I’ve decided to proclaim 2014 as the year of civility here at The Space Between My Ears. I want to highlight examples and writings that display respectful interactions between folks who disagree with each other about topics they deem important. We need to remind ourselves to see our neighbors as our neighbors and not as sub-human because they hold different values than we do. My hope is not to downplay our differences, but to draw attention to folks who find ways to truly listen to what others have to say, appreciate alternative positions, and respectfully disagree. Given that in the U.S. we have a midterm election in November, I know I need a booster shot of civility before the political rhetoric grows even more rancorous.

More than simply celebrating examples of civility, I hope and pray that by focusing on this important virtue, that I will become more civil toward others. I hope that I can truly listen with an intent to learn and first focus on areas of agreement before moving to disagreement. I probably won’t get to be a cable news pundit following this route, but I’m OK with that.

I also plan to read Richard Mouwe’s short book, Uncommon Decency: Christian Civility in an Otherwise Uncivil WorldPerhaps it will be a book club feature at some point so that folks who are also interested in this book can read it in an online community.

I created a category, Civility Project, for easy access to the posts on the topic.

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Francis, the Rorschach Pope

(Filippo Monteforte/AFP/Getty Images)

A satirical blog post on Diversity Chronicle has caught the attention of many people. The post states the following at the close of the Third Vatican Council:

In a speech that shocked many, the Pope claimed “All religions are true, because they are true in the hearts of all those who believe in them. What other kind of truth is there? In the past, the church has been harsh on those it deemed morally wrong or sinful. Today, we no longer judge. Like a loving father, we never condemn our children. Our church is big enough for heterosexuals and homosexuals, for the pro-life and the pro-choice! For conservatives and liberals, even communists are welcome and have joined us. We all love and worship the same God.”

Snopes quickly debunked the article, which wasn’t difficult to do, since if there had been a Third Vatican Council, the world would have heard about it well prior to its close. These councils take years to complete and one would dominate headlines much in the same way that the election of a new pope does. Also, so many of the supposed declarations of the council—ordination of female priests, Catholicism no longer being strictly pro-life, etc.—directly contradict Roman Catholic teachings as well as statements that Francis has made this year.

Still, many people want a story like this to be true and believed that it was. Pope Francis’s shift toward inclusion has many people wishing he will rewrite Catholic dogma. Francis has become a sort of Rorschach Pope in which people see whatever they want to see in him. Because of his dramatic emphasis on compassion and active love, people assume he must believe all sorts of things, usually the things they believe themselves. I am reminded of American politicians who capture the imagination and people put all their views and hopes on these figures. I saw this with Barack Obama in 2008 prior to (and even after) he expressed his platform. Some liberal-minded folks saw him as standing for whatever they believed. I saw this phenomenon again in 2012 with some conservative voters and Rick Perry before he entered the race. Politicians wisely keep their mouths shut during this phase because once they say specific views, they risk alienating some of their supporters.

It has been fascinating to see the same projection placed upon Pope Francis. This projection has been odd as well because unlike American politicians beginning a presidential campaign, Francis has clearly articulated specific views. It’s not as if he’s been playing coy. As pontiff and throughout his vocation as priest, bishop, and cardinal before that, he has fully affirmed the teachings of the Roman Catholic Church. True, he has emphasized the compassionate side of the Roman Catholic Church in ways that stand in contrast to his predecessors. This emphasis is most welcome and we cannot dismiss its importance. But as I argued earlier this year, Francis has not taken the Church in an entirely new theological direction—he has affirmed the Catholic teachings on sexuality, marriage, and ordination, among other things. People rightly see the way he expresses the teachings of the Catholic Church as different. For example, in his interview with America Magazine, Francis claimed God focused on the whole person rather than merely the sin.

A person once asked me, in a provocative manner, if I approved of homosexuality. I replied with another question: ‘Tell me: when God looks at a gay person, does he endorse the existence of this person with love, or reject and condemn this person?’ We must always consider the person. Here we enter into the mystery of the human being. In life, God accompanies persons, and we must accompany them, starting from their situation. It is necessary to accompany them with mercy. When that happens, the Holy Spirit inspires the priest to say the right thing.

This is a deeply compassionate statement and a wonderful challenge to Christians to be more welcoming, but Francis has not rewritten Catholic teaching on human sexuality. I applaud and am deeply challenged by Francis’ compassionate posture toward all people. I see Jesus Christ at work in him. His example compels me to behave similarly.

But I cannot assume because Francis has a more welcoming posture toward women in ministry that he is somehow changing ordination rules, no matter how much I would love to see the Catholic Church ordain female priests. If I were to make such an assumption, I would make Francis into my own image. The danger with such a move is that it renders his deeply prophetic witness mute. If Francis stands for all the things I stand for, what do I have to learn from him? I’m reminded of the quotation from Anne Lamott’s priest friend Tom, “You can safely assume you’ve created God in your own image when it turns out that God hates all the same people you do.” Instead, when we allow Pope Francis to be himself, rather than a projection of our theological wishes, he becomes the gracious man that uncomfortably challenges our consumerism. When he blesses and kisses the disfigured man, he challenges us to cross our boundaries of comfort in order to love our neighbors. When he washes the feet of prisoners, he calls into question our prejudices of which people are worth our love and embrace. And because he does all these things concretely, he challenges our good intentions—intentions that support compassion and inclusion in the abstract but do nothing to drive us out to celebrate our birthdays with people staying in a homeless shelter.

Elizabeth Tenety wrote one of my favorite pieces of commentary on Francis’s young papacy: “Like Pope Francis? You’ll Love Jesus.” In it she articulates the source of Francis’s radical views on grace, forgiveness, and love. That source is Jesus Christ. And if Francis has become a Rorshach test in which we see whatever we want to see in him, then he stands in good company. We’ve been doing this to Jesus for millennia. He gets co-opted for just about any cause, whether it’s free market capitalism, socialism, democracy, feudalism, absolute monarchism, or anarchy. Projecting our causes onto Jesus reduces him. The Jesus we meet in the Gospels is far more challenging and prophetic than any of the projections we have created. It would seem wise to let him and Francis speak for themselves.

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Christmas Cards of the Real Mary

My friend, Carol Joy Lutz, recently delivered a wonderful sermon, “Wisdom from a Teenager: Lessons from Mary.” She reveres Mary for her faith and courage while avoiding sentimentalizing Mary to the point that she no longer resembles the thoughtful young woman we meet in the Bible. In the sermon Carol suggests what Christmas cards could look like if they truly honored the challenges Mary faced because God blessed her with being the mother of Jesus.

I loved Carol’s more honest and raw Christmas greetings that respect the story of a young, pregnant, unwed virgin, whose son will be betrayed and unjustly executed. I decided to make mock-ups of these cards.

These cards might shock people. I do not intend to make light of or diminish the difficulties and tragedies Mary and other parents who share her experiences have endured. My hope is that the surprising words of these cards will prompt reflection on the costs of Mary’s discipleship. I wanted to play up the incongruities between the staid imagery of Jesus’ mother and Carol’s sobering, earthy descriptions of Mary’s experience.

Mary was truly blessed, but let us remember the Bible defines blessing differently than we do. We often confuse being blessed with having an easy life, which is hardly ever the case for the people in the Bible who receive God’s blessing, especially Mary.

As Carol says, “Life is not all neat and tidy, like a dime store Christmas card. Here are some Christmas card sentiments you’ll never find at Hallmark:”

Stinky Manger Christmas Card

Foul-Mouthed Shepherds Christmas Card

Filled with Doubt Christmas Card

I’ll give Carol the final word:

Can we be like Mary? Taking time and care to unclench our jaw, to uncross our arms, to be open to what gifts God wants to give us, even if they may be disguised as suffering?

Can we say a prayer of gratitude in the midst of the struggle, knowing that God can redeem the worst pile of mess in our lives?

Is there something that God wants to birth in you that may have a very long gestation, that may even have a long, painful delivery, but that could bring light to this broken world?

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Generosity in Line, on the March, or: Starbucks Becomes a Thin Place

In our Advent devotional, Embrace the Coming Light, Eddy Ekmekji and I suggest following a spiritual discipline that coincides with each week’s character and theme. This week’s discipline is generosity, following the story of the wise men. My mother’s fiance, Doug, has been reading the devotional and put that discipline into practice yesterday. As he made his daily morning Starbucks run, after paying for his order, he then decided to buy the order of a police officer behind him in line.

When Doug returned to that same Starbucks this morning, he learned from the barista that his act of generosity set off something truly amazing. The police officer whose coffee he purchased then bought the following customer’s order. That person then bought the next order. This chain of generosity continued for over eighty people and lasted from 7:15am, when Doug paid for the cop’s coffee, until 9:20am.

I find it astounding how God can use one act of grace to offer serendipitous gifts to people as well as to form their characters. For one morning, the Holy Spirit made over eighty people more generous. A busy Starbucks, full of cold, tired people wanting their caffeine fix on their way to work became a thin place, where the boundary between Heaven and Earth was more permeable and the goodness of God was more easily experienced.

Embrace the Coming Light

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Jesus, Santa Claus, and Race

A video has been popping up in my news feed on Facebook that shows Fox News’ Megyn Kelly asserting both Santa Claus and Jesus were white men.

Kelly’s assertion is strange and in many ways this is a silly topic, but we can let it spur on an interesting discussion of race, ethnicity, and the Christian faith.

Let’s first address the historical matters. St. Nicholas was of Greek descent, born in the late 3rd century in Patara, in Asia Minor, or what is now modern day Turkey. The likelihood is slim that he had the white skin and rosy cheeks of popular depictions of Santa Claus. His skin was probably somewhere between the olive tones of Mediterranean folks to the brown hues of the Middle East. (See here for an estimated reproduction of his face.) One can argue, and some have, that Kelly is wrong for making such a strong statement that Santa Claus is white because the Santa who lives at the North Pole is a fictional character who has little connection to the historical St. Nicholas, who acted as bishop of Myra. Either way, Kelly’s assertion about Santa’s race falls apart.

Jesus, we know was born in Ancient Palestine and was of Jewish descent. He probably looked like an average Galilean Semitic male of his day. That is, he probably didn’t look like the fair-skinned, blue-eyed, soft-haired person portrayed in so much Western art. His complexion and hair were likely darker than those of most ethnic Europeans.

Some forensic anthropologists say this image is probably a better representation of what Jesus looked like

These historical matters make us question our preconceptions and depictions of Jesus’ appearance and race. Our ideas of Jesus’ appearance come to the front during Advent and Christmas when so much art representing his family is on display in Nativity scenes, or crèches. My family has several Nativity scenes throughout our home. They come from different cultures and depict the Holy Family in a variety of ways. We have a crèche from Senegal that portrays the Holy Family as Africans. We have one from Mongolia that comes with a yurt. We have another from America with the figures looking generally Caucasian-ish. In portraying Jesus and his family as Sengalese, Mongolian, or Caucasian, these Nativity scenes contain dramatic historical inaccuracies and thus limits their value as representations of what actually happened in Bethlehem over 2,000 years ago.

Senegalese Nativity

These multicultural crèches, however, contain enormous worth as theological mnemonics for the meaning of Jesus’ birth and incarnation. (Please don’t read that I’m making a Jesus of history, Christ of faith dichotomy.) The crèches from around the world show us Jesus is Emmanuel, “God with us,” in our very specific circumstances. Jesus is present with the Senegalese on the plains and with the Mongolians in their yurts. I am therefore not so upset with depictions of Jesus and his family as northern Europeans. I think it is appropriate and necessary to have depictions of the Holy Family in which they look like northern Europeans, just as we need Nativity scenes in which Mary and Joseph look like Māoris or Peruvians or Sri Lankans to remind us of Jesus’ presence with us in our cultures and peoples. These cultural specific crèches can be wonderful tools for mission as well as a way for a culture to embrace the story of Jesus as their own.

Czech Nativity

The danger comes when we take these cultural specific representations and tell other cultures this is what Jesus looked like. This is what has precisely happened with the northern European Jesus with the flowing locks of sandy blonde hair and blue eyes. It has become the dominant image of the historical Jesus and a symbol of colonialism. Imposing this historically incorrect image on other cultures does not allow those people to experience the Palestinian Jewish man who wandered the Galilean shore speaking Aramaic and Greek. Further, it hinders their ability to experience Jesus’ incarnation in the midst of their language and traditions.

Mongolian Nativity

On the other hand, I believe our faith can grow immensely by reflecting on Nativity scenes from different cultures, just as our faith matures when we sing praise songs to God in different languages. We begin to see just how universal and intimate the God of the Bible is. Jesus came in a very specific time and place and he continues to meet us in specific times and places. My understanding, appreciation, and experience of God only deepens as I witness other cultures encountering Jesus. I love it that in a few days I’ll be celebrating the birth of God incarnate at the same time as my brothers and sisters in Korea, Sweden, Zimbabwe, Canada, Australia, and Bolivia.

As we celebrate Advent and Christmas, let us remember the historicity of Jesus’ birth in Bethlehem as well as the theological truth of his ongoing incarnation in our wonderfully diverse and beautiful world. May our Nativity scenes reflect both of these realities.

Check out the site, World Nativity for beautiful, culturally-specific Nativity scenes from third world and developing countries.

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Would We Accept C.S. Lewis Today?

While the general American media remembered both the assassination of John F. Kennedy and the news coverage of the event fifty years ago, the evangelical Christian world observed the fiftieth anniversary of the death of one of its own heroes: C.S. Lewis. Like Kennedy, Lewis passed away on November 22, 1963—as did Aldous Huxley, oddly enough. Lewis achieved a level of appreciation among different Christian denominations and a following in the general populace that hasn’t been matched since. His popularity in both spheres remains high. Mere Christianity ranks every year among best selling books on Christian theology and schoolchildren still read The Chronicles of Narnia series.

Every so often Christians look at the gap Lewis left and dream that someone might be able to fill it. Christopher Mitchell published an essay along those lines titled, “Still Looking for C.S. Lewis.” Mitchell recounts Lewis’s unique gifts, most notably his ability to clarify the Christian faith in evocative and simple terms without dumbing down the traditions. Lewis had the special ability to explain mystery without explaining away mystery. He was not afraid to ask hard questions of the Christian faith and those who did not agree with Lewis’s conclusions often found themselves enjoying his intellectual rigor. Mitchell also rightly points out that Lewis remained unapologetically committed to Christian orthodoxy and tried to describe “mere Christianity.” That is, in his writings Lewis tried to defend a faith all Christian traditions could accept and he set out to avoid the particular debates that separated denominations. Though he wasn’t entirely successful in that endeavor.

Where is the next C.S. Lewis? Some writers have tried to take that mantle. N.T. (Tom) Wright most immediately comes to mind. His writing style is breezy and engaging. He communicates deep concepts in understandable terms. His scholarship is respected by conservatives and liberals. Plus, he’s British, so he has that whole aura of refinement that comes with his accent. Still, Wright hasn’t reached Lewis’ level of acceptance. Part of this has to do with the fact that he doesn’t write across genres that Lewis did. Wright has written theological, historical, apologetic, and exegetical books for various audiences, ranging from the general population to academia. As creative and prolific as Wright has been, however, I can’t imagine he’s going to publish a science-fiction trilogy or a collection of narrative poems anytime soon.

Instead of asking where is the next C.S. Lewis, we should ask would the next C.S. Lewis gain a similar foothold if he or she existed? Even more to the point, would we accept C.S. Lewis today? Lewis lived just as the last vestiges of Christendom’s dominance in the West were fading. Christianity still held importance and acceptance in the general population of Britain at the time. In his apologetic, Lewis defended Christianity to an audience that had some basic knowledge of the faith. It’s now unlikely that the major media outlets are going to give space to anyone to explain Christian beliefs as the BBC and major newspapers gave Lewis. Further, with the larger plurality of religions and spirituality in the general public, it’s unlikely that such an unabashed Christian would capture the general population’s attention.

The landscape within Christianity has also changed so much that I doubt if Lewis were publishing his works for the first time today that he would have broad Christian acceptance. The different camps would wonder aloud if he was conservative or progressive enough to be accepted.

In recent years a debate regarding the meaning of the atonement has emerged among Western Protestants. Some Christians have emphasized older theories of the atonement. Wright is a good example of this as he has reinvigorated the Christus Victor model of the atonement among Protestants. Other Protestants have argued the penal substitution model is so necessary that the whole message of Christianity itself crumbles without it. Lewis never seemed to have much time for the penal substitution model. In Mere Christianity he writes,

Now before I became a Christian I was under the impression that the first thing Christians had to believe was one particular theory as to what the point of [Jesus'] dying was. According to that theory God wanted to punish men for having deserted and joined the Great Rebel, but Christ volunteered to be punished instead, and so God let us off. Now I admit that even this theory does not seem to me quite so immoral and so silly as it used to; but that is not the point I want to make. What I came to see later on was that neither this theory nor any theory is Christianity. The central Christian belief is that Christ’s death has somehow put us right with God and given us a fresh start. Theories as to how it did this are another matter. (57-58)

(Lewis then goes on to argue for the ransom theory, which was clearly his preferred understanding of the atonement and the one he used to describe Aslan’s death in The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe.) Some Christians within the contemporary debate have argued for a kaleidoscopic understanding of the atonement in which we need a number of theories to explain the grandness and mysteriousness of what Jesus’ death and resurrection did and means. To this end, they would seem to agree with Lewis that these theories, while important and helpful, are not Christianity. But for the view that says penal substitution is the primary explanation of what happened, Lewis’s view is lacking. It’s not enough for penal substitution to be seen as one appropriate theory—it must be held as the best view and even the only view describing what actually happened. The other theories are viewed more as metaphors, whereas penal substitution is understood to be a concrete historical exchange.

Or, take the example of Lewis’s view of who gets to be saved. He held an inclusive view of salvation, that is a view that says all who follow Jesus will be saved, but Jesus may also save some who were unable to hear the gospel message or who never confessed he is Lord. This position is most clearly seen in the character Emeth in The Last Battle, who fights against the forces of Aslan, but is welcomed into Heaven anyway. In The Great Divorce characters freely travel from Hell to Heaven and residents of Hell are even welcome to stay in Heaven, opening the door for a possible universal salvation. Though Lewis makes the point most of the residents of Hell choose to stay there. Granted, Lewis states in his opening disclaimer he doesn’t intend to present what the afterlife looks like, but it does not seem beyond reason to think the book contains some of his guesses and hopes. In recent years Rob Bell made some claims that salvation might be open to people even after they die and he was widely criticized for the view and even seen as leaving Christian orthodoxy.

I do not mean we have to accept Bell’s or Lewis’s positions or that we cannot critique and even reject their views. I bring up Bell because he was criticized for his views in ways we do not criticize Lewis, even though Lewis held some views about salvation that do not have wide acceptance within Christianity, especially in evangelicalism. I know plenty of people who wrestle with Emeth’s salvation, but I am not familiar with people saying Lewis was flirting with heresy. (I know I shouldn’t hold my breath. I’m sure a Google search would produce numerous websites that throw Lewis under the bus.)

We do not find gatekeepers in only one branch of Christianity. Plenty of people who currently appreciate Lewis’s writings would likely reject him if he were publishing for the first time because of his views on women, which some have called misogynistic. I also doubt Lewis would be allowed to avoid the controversial topics of the day no matter how hard he tried to say he sought to present a Christianity that had broad acceptance. I could easily imagine if Lewis were on a promotional tour today for The Screwtape Letters that he would be constantly asked about his views on same-sex marriage and people on both sides of the debate would use his answers as their litmus test of whether they would accept his ideas or not.

We accept Lewis largely for his great gifts to the Christian faith, not the least of which were his incredibly accurate and evocative illustrations he used throughout his writings. He loved imagination, which seems to be a virtue that is on the wane in much of Christianity, including evangelicalism. Lewis may not have had  a lot of original ideas about the Christian faith—I think he would say he decidedly wasn’t trying to formulate new ideas—but he could explain those established traditions in new and generative ways. The Church deeply needs people who develop their imaginations like Lewis did. (One of my favorite illustrations of his was his defense of theology and the need to balance it with personal encounters with God.)

I think we also accept Lewis because he was given to us. That is, the previous generations who passed the faith down to us handed us Lewis’s books and said, “Read this. You’ll learn something important and good.” We believed them and when we may have encountered something in Lewis’s writings that didn’t sit well with us, we knew people whom we trusted appreciated what he had to say and we were willing to put our concerns to the side, or at least not pay as much attention to them. We weren’t given Lewis’s books to look for what was wrong with them, but to look for what was right with them. That is a reason why, I think, conservatives, liberals, evangelicals, mainliners, charismatics, etc. today still read Lewis and still find much in his writings to appreciate. If Lewis were publishing for the first time today, I imagine books, articles, blog posts, and tweets would be flying back and forth, assessing his works, debating whether he contributes to Christian orthodoxy or harms it.

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The Perplexing Questions of the Gettysburg Address

As you probably know, today marks the 150th anniversary of Abraham Lincoln delivering the Gettysburg Address at the dedication of the Soldiers’ National Cemetery in Gettysburg, PA. It is one of the finest speeches on the American idea. The way Lincoln reclaimed the Declaration of Independence as the founding spiritual document of the US set the nation on a new trajectory. At that point in the US, the Declaration did not hold its current prominent place in the public mind since it had little ongoing legal application. (The Declaration had fulfilled its functional purpose in separating the US from Britain. It does not give shape to the government like the Constitution does.) One wonders if Martin Luther King, Jr. would have referred to the Declaration in his “I Have a Dream” speech if Lincoln had not first rejuvenated its conceptual importance. The Gettysburg Address is also an exemplar of succinct oratory. One marvels that Lincoln could cover so much ground with such depth in just 272 words.

In recent years I’ve reread the speech several times—granted, its brevity encourages return trips. Like many children I had to memorize the speech in grade school, but back then its meaning remained largely out of my reach, except for perhaps its famous closing line: “And that government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth.” Last year I was at the Lincoln Memorial in Washington, DC, and read the speech engraved into the marble walls of the Memorial.

While in Washington, that final line struck me and unsettled me, particularly as a Christian. Perhaps the overtly religious atmosphere had something to do with it. Architect Henry Bacon’s design for the building follows a Greek temple—in fact the epitaph above Lincoln calls the memorial a “temple” and says Lincoln “saved” the nation. Daniel Chester French’s statue of Lincoln demands parallels to the Statue of Zeus at Olympia. Though I will admit I was under the spell of the majestic architecture and design of the National Mall.

It was not the notion of “a government of the people, by the people, for the people” that unsettled me. I believe that is a fine ideal to seek. Lincoln’s call and hope that this government “shall not perish from the earth” caused my discomfort.

When we think historically and consider the fate of just about every nation that has ever existed, Lincoln’s statement comes across as delusional or hubristic. All nations and empires eventually fall. Today’s states are merely waiting their turn to end. That fact does not mean nations are unimportant or we shouldn’t seek to make our country more just. We simply shouldn’t think the US will somehow escape the life cycle that every nation experiences.

Even more troubling for the Christ followers, Lincoln’s hope for an imperishable government and nation seems to run counter to the Christian belief that God’s kingdom alone is eternal. Take Psalm 145.13a, “Your kingdom is an everlasting kingdom, and your dominion endures throughout all generations” (NRSV). I wonder if or to what extent we should celebrate Lincoln’s dream, for if we were to put our hopes in the US lasting forever, we will eventually find great disappointment.

The questions must also be raised as to who is responsible for the nation’s perpetuity and to what extent are they to protect it? Lincoln knew better than most the terrible human cost to keep the Union together. It is in the willingness—necessity, perhaps?—for a democracy to engage in violence to protect its existence that we also see the contrast with God’s kingdom, which is established and grows through love, self-sacrifice, and the defeat of death.

I believe as an American Christian I am something of a resident alien. I do not think it is entirely contradictory to work for a “more perfect union” in the US while keeping my hopes and commitments ultimately with Jesus Christ. I see being a good citizen of the nation where I reside as part of my Christian duty, though with the disclaimer that my allegiance will primarily lie with God’s kingdom, even if that allegiance conflicts with the demands or values of the US.

As I reflect again on the Gettysburg Address, I wonder how as a Christian I should engage Lincoln’s beautifully articulated ideals. I support shaping this nation into one where we can truly celebrate all people being created equal. This is certainly “unfinished work” that requires “increased devotion,” though I believe we must place such devotion in the right context. I cannot place my hopes in our government never perishing from the earth. That comes too close to idolatry. I will instead place my hopes in an actually eternal kingdom and work to pursue the values and purposes of that kingdom. It is in striving first for God’s kingdom that I believe the US will actually become more like a nation where all people are created equal.


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