Wednesday, July 18, 2018

Our Evangelical Hypocrisy On 'Social Action'

Mennonite Central Committee and other relief and service organizations are often criticized for being too focused on physically bettering people's lives and not enough on evangelizing them.

Some of the questions raised are, What good is it to educate people and to improve their health and their means of livelihood if we don't help them with their eternal spiritual needs? And while we should of course offer emergency relief to people who are hungry and homeless, shouldn't our primary mission be to change people's hearts and prepare them for the life to come?

Jesus' life and ministry is a demonstration of the fact that both are important.

According to his inaugural address Jesus' mission, and ours, is to "bring good news to the poor, to heal the brokenhearted, to announce release to captives, to bring sight to the blind, and to free those who are in prison." All of this is in fulfillment of our obligation to love God above every other love or allegiance, and to love our neighbors as ourselves.

Here's where our hypocrisy comes in. The fact is that few of us pay attention primarily to our spiritual needs. Rather, most of us spend an extraordinary amount of time and money on the kinds of "social action" that benefit ourselves and our families.

For example, we invest whatever energy and resources necessary to make sure we have the best housing in the best neighborhood possible, that our children have the best education available, that our every health needs are met to the fullest and finest extent, and that we have all of the recreational and entertainment opportunities we can afford.

In short, these are among the many ways we love ourselves and our own families. And up to a point, we should.

But that's where the "as yourself" question comes in. Shouldn't we be equally dedicated to the same kinds of needs in our neighbors around the world?

Of course we can't do everything needed for every one in need. But together, as communities of faith, we should never assume that we deserve better than others, just because we are North Americans, or assume that others' needs are primarily spiritual while ours are by right every bit as earth-based as heaven-based.

It's at the heart of our Bible: "Love your neighbor AND/AS yourself."

Sunday, July 15, 2018

How Much Tolerance Can Christians Tolerate?

Church discipline appears to be a thing of the past.

We place such a high value on being open minded and non-judgmental that we tend to look the other way when fellow members are involved in wrongdoing, either pretending its none of our business, that it isn't really a problem, or that it will just take care of itself.

Everyone's favorite proof text used to support this is the oft quoted "Judge not that you be not judged." Never mind the fact that Jesus certainly never meant this to mean we shouldn't discern between right and wrong, or that we should never confront another when he or she is guilty of a wrong. 

In fact, in its Sermon on the Mount context, Jesus goes on to say that we are to first remove the large log of wrongdoing in our own eye so we can then see clearly in order to help another remove the unwanted "speck" in theirs. He also insists we are to know others by their fruit (their behavior) and later gives instruction about how to confront a fellow member of our congregation when he or she has gone astray (see Matthew 18:12-20).

I do believe there are limits to what even the most tolerant among us consider tolerable. We each draw a line somewhere as to what we would never find acceptable in our community of faith, things like child abuse, bigamy, embezzlement or other criminal behaviors, or such actions as the following:

breaking and entering
lying and other forms of deception
physical, psychological, or other forms of torture and abuse
armed robbery
malicious wounding
organized acts of terrorism
using explosives to destroy people or property
destroying land or other natural resources
stabbing or strangling 
forcing people from their homes or communities
committing mass murder

Without question, most believers would speak out against members of their congregations engaging in such behaviors--and would disapprove of their supporting or belonging to any groups or organizations that do.

But with one huge, glaring exception. 

Most Christians raise no objections to members joining military forces routinely encouraging, training and/or commanding its enlisted members to do all of the above and more whenever commanded to do so.  Thus we are in danger of accepting, on a mass and organized scale, what we could not accept or allow on any other basis. 

Not only do many Christ-followers condone bombing and other forms of destruction in their nation's name, they often pray for the success of its mission, even if it involves actions that reflect anything but love for God and neighbor.

How have followers of Jesus come to tolerate, and even bless, such violations of the most basic ethical codes of our faith? Unlike legitimate police force, necessary in human societies to maintain order within national boundaries (and intended to preserve life and bring individuals to justice under laws designed to protect individual rights), military forces have a long history of plundering and destroying without benefit of such civilized restraints.

True, we pacifist Christians must repent of the many "beams" of self righteousness, materialism, and cowardly indifference that impair our own moral vision. But remove them we must, all of us, lest history write off the church as having been irrelevant and mute in one of the most pressing moral issues of all time.

The regenerated do not go to war, or engage in strife. They are the children of peace, who have beaten their swords into plowshares and their spears into pruning hooks, and they know no war. Since we are conformed to the image of Christ, how then can we kill our enemies with the sword? Spears and swords made of iron we leave to those, alas, who consider human blood and swine’s blood as having well nigh equal value.
- Menno Simons 16th century reformer

Friday, July 13, 2018

Opportunity To Sponsor A Deserving Inmate

Charles Zellers, a 50 year-old inmate friend of mine, is seeking good Christian friends from Virginia to sponsor his reentry into society. 

Charles was incarcerated in January, 1993, when he was only 24,  charged with felony murder and sodomy. He insists he is not guilty of either of these crimes as charged, but was advised by his attorney to accept an Alfred Plea with the assurance that with good behavior he would be released on parole in a matter of a few years.

Instead, he has been incarcerated for over 25 years. Since then he has demonstrated that he has become a responsible and competent adult who should be eligible for parole release and not continue to be a financial burden to taxpayers of Virginia.

Charles says that he would love to be a trained tractor trailer operator, but would be fine with any job that would give him the opportunity of being a model taxpaying citizen. He is currently a lead man in the VCE metal and wood working shop where he works, and has taught himself computer programming for business and personal purposes. He has also had experience in cooking, home repairs and yard work. 

Charles has many plans to be a helpful citizen in whatever community he lives in, including volunteering to help elderly citizens and ex-offenders. He also has a variety of practical skills, and has no history of alcohol, drug, tobacco or other addictions. 

If you and/or members of your congregation are willing to accept Charles for who he is today and not for what he was accused of over 25 years ago, please contact him at:

Charles Zellers, Sr. 1036758
BKCC - N3-301-Top
P.O. Box 430
Dillwyn, VA 23936

- OR -
contact him through Email at
(list his name, state, DOC number)

P.S. Also contact Ms. Adrianne L. Bennett, Chair, Virginia Parole Board, 6900 Atmore Drive, Richmond, VA 23225 to notify her of your willingness to find Charles a place to live and help him gain employment.

Here's a link to more information about Mr. Zellers: 

Tuesday, July 10, 2018

My Top Ten Ways To Relieve Depression

Depression is a condition over which we may have little control. The brain, like any organ of the body, is subject to disease, and some of us may be more genetically prone to clinical depression than others.

But no matter what triggers this plague of emotional darkness and despair, depression not only affects our feelings, but our functioning, i.e., our sleep, appetite, energy, and motivation. Fortunately, there are ways we can at least limit its impact, as follows:

10. Anti-depressant drugs can be helpful for some, in spite of their occasional negative side effects, and the fact that many have been proven to be only only slightly more effective than placebos in clinical trials. Some people also report feeling better from taking over the counter medications like St. Johns Wort and certain herbal products or natural food supplements. But sometimes the line between reputable fish oil and questionable snake oil is not as clear as we would like.

9. For persons with severe and prolonged clinical depression, older therapies like electroconvulsive treatment (ECT) or newer variations like Transcranial magnetic stimulation (TMS) are producing positive results for some.

8. In cases of Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD), a move to a more sunny climate appears be helpful, or the use of light therapy.

7. A positive placebo effect can also be a part of any therapy for depression. Whatever increases a sense of hopefulness in any of us can result in increased dopamine, serotonin and endorphin production in our brains.

6. Some people find journaling helpful as a way of expressing their laments, naming and externalizing their distresses and writing down some of their own best wisdom for dealing with their condition. see

5. Avoiding being sedentary, getting plenty of good physical exercise is a proven way for the body to produce mood enhancing endorphins.

4. Avoiding being solitary by nurturing good relationships with others is extremely important to mental health. Depression often makes us want to withdraw from others, which inevitably makes the condition worse. Seeking help from friends and from members of our faith community as well as from professional counselors and medical professionals can make a major difference.

3. Changing our vocabulary, purging them from habitual words like 'terrible', 'horrible', 'awful', is also very important, along with avoiding too many generalizations like 'never', always', and forever'. And its always a good idea to replace the over-use of 'I can't' with something like 'It's really hard, and I haven't found a way yet'.

2. Observing regular mini-sabbaths from life stresses, but especially from the stress of worry, is vital. Or setting aside an hour a day for some serious worrying, then declaring the rest of the time as a sabbatical from worry and anxiety, is sure to help. see

1. Taking time to meditate, pray, sing, reflect on the goodness of God and of all creation, and on all the blessings we can possibly record on the assets side of our memory ledger needs to become a priority. And then to reach out to share those blessings with others as we are able.

Sunday, July 8, 2018

The Sword In Romans 13 Is For Protecting, Not For Plundering

Police are to protect and serve.
"Be a good citizen. All governments are under God. Insofar as there is peace and order, it’s God’s order. So live responsibly as a citizen. If you’re irresponsible to the state, then you’re irresponsible with God, and God will hold you responsible. Duly constituted authorities are only a threat if you’re trying to get by with something. Decent citizens should have nothing to fear."
Paul, Romans 13:1-3a, the Message

In the apostle Paul's first century setting Roman soldiers were often in peacekeeping roles in the lands they occupied. Trained in pillaging and killing, they nevertheless often functioned as local police officers. In reality, they were guilty of a lot of police brutality, but the above text describes how God ordained police to function.

It is to these public officials the apostle Paul urged believers to show respect and compliance. This was not because he was advocating for unquestioned allegiance to Rome, but because he believed in a strategy of subversive submission toward enemy occupiers. 

Believers were to see themselves as resident aliens in their society, an outpost of the heaven-headquartered, worldwide, eternal government of God who operate by the agape love code, as in verses 8-10 of Romans 13. 

Don’t run up debts, except for the huge debt of love you owe each other. When you love others, you complete what the law has been after all along. The law code—don’t sleep with another person’s spouse, don’t take someone’s life, don’t take what isn’t yours, don’t always be wanting what you don’t have, and any other “don’t” you can think of—finally adds up to this: Love other people as well as you do yourself. You can’t go wrong when you love others. When you add up everything in the law code, the sum total is love.

Showing respect to civil servants operating by an earth-based law code is simply another demonstration of love for all, including enemies (Romans 12:19-21), but according to one early church manual, the Didaskalia, the church was not to receive gifts"from soldiers who behave unrighteously or from those who kill men, or from executioners or from any magistrates of the Roman Empire who are polluted in wars and have shed innocent blood without judgment."

Here are some of the clear differences between a God-sanctioned kind of police force, involving magistrates who maintain law and order in secular society, and a military force engaging in killing enemy combatants and trained in destroying other nations' population and property:

1) Police officers are to use force within the bounds of their local jurisdiction, not across national boundaries.

2) Police officers are trained to limit the use of force and to cause the least amount of harm to life and property as possible, whereas armies are often called on to inflict the greatest amount of damage possible in order to bring an enemy nation to its knees. 

3) Police forces aim to bring individual offenders to justice--to be tried in a court of law, offered legal counsel and have a jury of their peers determine guilt or innocence. Military forces obey whatever orders they are given, including attacking an entire city or neighborhood, and are not subject to the same kinds of laws and limitations.

4) Police do not normally use grenades, bombs or other explosive devices capable of mass destruction.

5) Police officers are not trained to demonize lawbreakers or label them as enemies.

Here are some words from 16th century reformer Menno Simons:

Love compels us to respectfully and humbly show all high officials what the Word of God commands them, how they should rightfully execute their office to the glory and praise of God... to punish the transgressors and protect the good; to judge rightly between a man and his fellows; to do justice to the widows and orphans and to the poor, to rule cities and countries justly by a good policy and administration, not contrary to God’s Word but to the benefit of the common people...
    We who were formerly no people at all, and who knew no peace, are now called to be a church of peace. True Christians do not know vengeance... Their hearts overflow with peace. Their mouths speak peace, and they walk in the way of peace...
    The regenerated do not go to war, or engage in strife. They are the children of peace, who have beaten their swords into plowshares and their spears into pruning hooks, and they know no war. Since we are conformed to the image of Christ, how then can we kill our enemies with the sword? Spears and swords made of iron we leave to those, alas, who consider human blood and swine’s blood as having well nigh equal value.

Thursday, July 5, 2018

José And María At The Southern Border

Graphic courtesy of button-maker Dakota Bawden.

Our singer-song writer son Brad, based in Pittsburgh, recently wrote the following lament. 
You can listen to it here (accompanied by a ukulele instead of his usual guitar) as you read the words below.

Joseph and María

When Joseph and María tried to slip across the border,
Immigration stopped them at the line,
‘cause Egypt’s president said “we don’t want no immigrants,
Trust me, they don’t send their best from Palestine…”

Joseph and María knew they had to flee their country
King Herod meant to do their baby harm,
But soldiers cut them off, and refused to let them cross,
Then they ripped young Jesus from María’s arms,

            Holy, holy, holy are the ones who run for safety,
            And holy, holy, holy are the poor,
            So if you see fit to tear the Holy Child from His Mother,
            Tell me, what exactly is a Christian for?

Joseph and María didn’t ask to be in danger,
And they did not ask to raise God’s blessed Son,
They fled as refugees from a tyrant’s death decrees,
Hey, does that remind you, friends, of anyone?

            Holy, holy, holy are the ones who cry for mercy,
            And holy is their knocking at your door,
            But if you're OK with separating children from their parents,
            Tell me what exactly is the scripture for?
            Yes, if you can justify taking Jesus from María,
            Tell me, what exactly is God’s mercy for?...

by Brad Yoder all rights reserved. Listen to it here:

Tuesday, July 3, 2018

A Mandate To Provide Sanctuary For Refugees

Our neighbors from far and near are in dire need of our help.
Terrified refugees fleeing violence and desperate immigrants on the run due to famine and economic hardship are not a new phenomenon. In the seventh century BC the prophet Isaiah urged his nation to provide welcome to neighboring Moabite asylum seekers:

"Oh, how I grieve for Moab!
    Refugees stream to Zoar
    and then on to Eglath-shelishiyah.
Up the slopes of Luhith they weep;
    on the road to Horonaim they cry their loss.
The springs of Nimrim are dried up—
    grass brown, buds stunted, nothing grows.
They leave, carrying all their possessions
    on their backs, everything they own,
Making their way as best they can
    across Willow Creek to safety.
Poignant cries reverberate
    all through Moab..." *

Moabites, descendants of Abraham's nephew Lot, were neighbors to Israel, but the relationship between the two countries was anything but peaceful, marked by frequent conflict, even war. And yet Isaiah urges his people to provide refuge to the displaced men, women and children pillaged by raiding armies from the north.

The towns and people of Moab
    are at a loss,
New-hatched birds knocked from the nest,
    fluttering helplessly
At the banks of the Arnon River,
    unable to cross:
‘Tell us what to do,
    help us out!
Protect us,
    hide us!
Give the refugees from Moab
    sanctuary with you.
Be a safe place for those on the run
    from the killing fields.’” *

It's not hard to draw parallels today to refugees fleeing gang and other forms of violence in neighboring countries like Guatemala, Honduras and El Salvador, as families with children ("newly hatched birds") reach the banks of the Rio Grande ("the Arnon River") unable to cross.

Aside from urging his fellow Israelites to offer help to their needy neighbors, Isaiah dreams of a day when a new government of shalom will bring an end to the violence that results in people being driven from their homes.

“When this is all over,” Judah answers,
    “the tyrant toppled,
The killing at an end,
    all signs of these cruelties long gone,
A new government of love will be established
    in the venerable David tradition.
A Ruler you can depend upon
    will head this government,
A Ruler passionate for justice,
    a Ruler quick to set things right.” *

Meanwhile, may our response to those in desperate need be guided by Isaiah's vision of the future rather than by inhumane policies of the past.

* Above quotes from Isaiah 15 and 16 are from Eugene Peterson's The Message, published by NavPress, Colorado Springs, CO, 2002.