THE ABSURDITY OF CHRISTMAS

--or rather, to be more specific, the absurdity of the early Christian (and our) talk about the babe of Bethlehem.

The early Christians ran around the most powerful empire of the time saying their leader was in charge of the world.

To see the patent absurdity of this claim, just remember that the Roman empire at that time was perhaps more dominant over a huge part of the earth than any empire until  America  after the collapse of the Soviet Union. And this vast overwhelmingly powerful Roman  empire was ruled by the almighty (divine) Caesar. The Romans had the best army in the world and they enforced Roman rule – – ruthlessly!

 But the early Christians said Jesus was in charge. And it was not some other obviously powerful person they claimed was lord. It was a Jew from a tiny despised  minority who lived at the frontier of the Roman empire. This Jew was from one of the small nations the Romans had ruthlessly conquered. And this person had gotten crucified as a dangerous political radical.

But the early  Christians said Jesus, not Caesar, was in charge of the world. When a riot broke out after Paul’s preaching in Thessalonica, the charge was treason: “They are all defying  Caesar’s decrees, saying there is another king, one called Jesus” (Acts 17:7)  And the writer of Revelations put it bluntly: Jesus Christ…is{ i.e. now!}… the ruler of the kings of the earth: (1:5).

That was an absurd claim to any thinking person living in the first century. The all powerful Roman empire clearly ruled the world. The  Roman  military machine was vastly better than any other. They squelched dissent  with crucifixion.

Anybody  with even a modicum of political insight could see that Caesar was in charge of the world. Roman legions ruled. The emperor, a son of the gods, was Lord. Anybody who thought otherwise was either blatantly ignorant or grossly delusional. To say that a crucified Jewish carpenter was now ruler of the world was sheer absurdity.

Perhaps it does not seem quite so incredible in 2019 to say that the Jewish Carpenter is now lord of the world. The people who claim to follow him  have grown from a tiny, almost minuscule minority, to about 2.2 billion people – nearly 1/3 of the total population of the world today. Whole nations, even continents, have been shaped to some extent by people who claimed to be living by Christian values.

But troubling facts remain. People claiming to follow Jesus conquered and destroyed native people, fought devastating wars against each other, defended slavery and destroyed at least 5 million of Jesus’ relatives in the Holocaust.

Furthermore,  just take a clear eyed view of the world today. Any good historian will tell you that military and economic power still rule. The nations with the best guns and missiles prevail and dominate others. If one takes a ruthlessly honest, realistic view of the  contemporary world, it certainly looks like guns and money rule, not the Jesus who said we should love our enemies and lift up the weak. Racism, economic injustice, lies frequently, if not always, prevail.

The early Christian claim that Jesus is now “ruler of the kings of the earth” is still far from empirically obvious. Honest Christians in 2019 still need to feel the “absurdity of Christmas.”

Obviously, I believe there is more to be said. There is another part to Christian history. Many Christians have led in the struggle for justice, peace and freedom for all.

Furthermore, the early Christians believed and said what they did about the crucified Jewish Carpenter because the disciples and others had met the risen Jesus. I believe the historical evidence for Jesus’ resurrection is strong. And as the early church preached that Jesus was now Lord of all, they also taught that his kingdom had already begun but was not yet complete. They thought that Satan was still alive and well, working hard against Jesus’ dawning kingdom.  And they said the final victory would only happen sometime in the future when the risen Lord will return to complete his victory over evil, injustice, even death itself. With them, we live in the hope of that coming day.

This Christmas, as I ponder our contemporary geo-political reality, I still feel the “absurdity of Christmas”. But finally, I am convinced, with the early Christians,  that the risen Lord Jesus has already decisively begun the battle against evil and that someday, in God’s timing, the kingdoms of this world will become the “kingdom of our Lord… and he will reign forever and ever“(Revelation 11:15).

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QUESTIONS TO ASK DEMOCRATIC PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATES

It is hard to sort out all the different policy positions of the flood of Democratic Presidential candidates. And I don't pretend to be an expert on all of that.

But here are some key questions to ponder as you study the news. Or if you get a chance, to ask them a question directly 

MEDICARE FOR ALL.

 Bernie Sanders’ proposal is to end all private health insurance and put everyone on a government run single-payer system like Canada. Ask Sanders why he thinks it is not political suicide to tell the approximately 165 million Americans with private health insurance that they must promptly lose that coverage in exchange for a government program.  Also demand that he tell you exactly how he will pay for it.

Elizabeth Warren also embraces Medicare for All (cost: $30 trillion over 10 years). When pushed to show how she would pay for it,  she proposed new taxes on the rich. Then when criticized by Biden and others, she said she would move in two stages: first let everyone who wants to,  buy into Medicare; then, a few years later, introduce a mandatory single-payer system.

Joe Biden, Pete Buttigieg, Kamala Harris, and Amy Klobuchar reject Medicare for All and instead want to let everyone choose between keeping their private insurance or  buying into Medicare.

FREE COLLEGE

Elizabeth Warren and Bernie Sanders want to make tuition free at all public colleges and universities. Ask them: why should children from wealthy families get free college tuition? And why do they totally bias their proposal against private colleges and universities?  Their proposal would probably destroy most Christian colleges and universities.

Would it not be better to give a greatly expanded Pell Grant ( up to the total  cost of tuition at state universities) to students from lower income families and let them choose whether to use it at a state university or a private college?

NATIONAL DEBT

Our national debt is currently at $22 trillion  – that's more than our current total annual GDP which was $20.5 trillion in 2018. The national government spends more than it takes in every year. This year the deficit is close to $1 trillion and current projections  (thanks significantly to President Trump’s tax cuts for the rich) mean it will go to more than $1 trillion every year beginning in 2022. That means adding $1 trillion plus to the national debt each year.  Thanks grandchildren!

In my book, FIXING THE MORAL DEFICIT: A BALANCED WAY TO BALANCE THE BUDGET, I say two things: it is immoral to use our grandchildren's credit card to keep demanding things we refuse to pay for with our taxes; and second it is also immoral to try to balance the budget on the backs of the poor  (as the Republicans keep proposing) by cutting effective programs that empower poor people.

Ask all the Democratic candidates why none of them have a concrete proposal to move toward a  balanced budget. And demand one.

ABORTION

 Most Democratic candidates offer no circumstances where they think abortion should be  restricted by law even though repeated Gallup polls show that about 50% of the US public think there should be some restrictions. Ask them why they disagree with half of the American people.

Amy Klobuchar has said she favors some restrictions in the third trimester. Joe Biden in 2003 voted for a ban on certain late term abortions. Ask both for more details. 

CHARTER SCHOOLS

Elizabeth Warren, Bernie Sanders, and Pete Buttigieg  all want to greatly restrict or even end charter schools even though charter schools are much more popular in the African-American and Latino communities than in white communities.—see the New York Times, Nov 27,2019.  (Cory Booker defends charter schools!)  Ask Warren,  Sanders and Buttigieg why they disagree with Senator Booker.

President Obama embraced charter schools. His vice president, Joe Biden, does not oppose all charter schools, just for-profit ones.

LEGALIZING MARIJUANA

Most Democratic candidates want to do that. (And Gallup says that 2/3 of all voters favor legalization.)

Ask Elizabeth Warren, Bernie Sanders, Pete Buttigieg, Kamala Harris, and Amy Klobuchar why they think this would lead to a better society. And ask Bernie Sanders why he wants to spend $10 billion on a federal grant program to help people start their own pot farm!

Ask Joe Biden why he disagrees with most of the other Democratic candidates and thinks marijuana is a “gateway" to other more destructive drugs.

POLITICAL EXPERIENCE

Ask them all how much previous political experience is necessary for someone to be elected president. And why.

Ask Pete Buttigieg why he thinks someone who's only political experience is running a small city is ready to be president. Buttigieg was elected mayor with only 8515 votes! 

DEFENSE BUDGET

The US spends more on national defense than China, Saudi Arabia, India, France, Russia, the United Kingdom and Germany – – combined! This year the US defense budget is $716 billion 

and President Trump wants to increase it.

Elizabeth Warren, Bernie Sanders, Amy Klobuchar, and Kamala Harris all want to reduce the defense budget significantly.

Ask Joe Biden and Pete Buttigieg why they want to increase it.

FUNDING OF ELECTIONS

Most Democratic candidates want to overturn the Supreme Court's 2010 decision (Citizens United) which allows virtually unlimited spending on elections. Ask Mike Bloomberg  (worth about 55 billion) why he thinks it would be good for democracy for him to spend a few billion personal dollars to seek  (purchase?) the presidency.

Well enough questions for one day. Maybe later I'll have some more.

 One of the best places to get details on the platforms of all the Democratic candidates is to go to https://www. politico.com/2020-election/candidates-views-on-the-issues.

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UPDATE ON JEWISH MONOTHEISTS AND JESUS

A very good long-time Jewish friend wrote to me with concerns about my last blog, "Why Would Jewish Monotheists Start Worshiping a Carpenter from Nazareth?”

I was reminded that for centuries, Christians ghettoized and killed Jewish people using  the general charge, "The Jews killed Jesus”. I was also reminded that there has been a large increase in anti-Semitic attacks (verbal and worse) on Jews in the last several years. The slaughter in the Jewish synagogue in Pittsburgh on Oct 27, 2018 is just the worst example.

Several things are very important. First the sweeping statement that "the Jews killed Jesus” is very wrong. It is an evil, abominable thing to say or imply that all Jews (past and present) are responsible for Jesus’ death. It is wrong historically to say that "the Jews in Jesus day killed Jesus.” It was only a few Jewish religious leaders who urged Pilate to crucify Jesus, not the vast majority of Jews at the time. 

Second,  only the Romans had the  authority to carry out capital punishment at this time in Palestine. So it was only the Roman leader and Roman soldiers who actually killed Jesus, although a small number of Jewish leaders at that time did urge Pilate to do that. 

Third, in my blog,  I said "the Jewish and Roman leaders killed him [Jesus] to prove that he was wrong.” I certainly did not say or  mean that  all Jews of Jesus’ day, much less all Jews of all time,  killed Jesus. But because of the terrible history of Christians using this much broader phrase (“the Jews killed Jesus”) in terrible anti-Semitic ways, we must always be very careful to guard against anything that would in any way suggest  that terrible idea.

Anti-Semitism is surging both in this country and in Europe. So is prejudice against Muslims. Tragically,  our president makes statements that nurture rather than condemn these evils. Christians must take the lead to denounce and work against this growing  evil of prejudice against Jews and Muslims.

That does not mean Christians should abandon central Christian ideas (e.g. the Jew from Nazareth is God incarnate and is the only way to salvation). But it does mean that we believe and will live out the truth that God loves every person (Jew, Hindu, Muslim, atheist, Buddhist, Christian) equally. And it also means  that we will work for  a civil society where people of all religions and none have full civic freedom.

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WHY WOULD JEWISH MONOTHEISTS START WORSHIPPING A CARPENTER FROM NAZARETH?

Every time I think carefully about what strict Jewish monotheists began to say about the Nazarene carpenter, I am dumbfounded.

The Greeks and Romans believed in lots of gods and goddesses who would, they said,  sometimes show up  on earth. But the Jews knew better! The center of Jewish faith for centuries, and certainly in the time around the birth of Jesus, was a strict monotheism. There is only one God.

At this time in history, these Jewish monotheists expected this one God to do dramatic new things. They waited eagerly for God to send a military Messiah who would defeat the Roman oppressors and establish Jerusalem as the center of a free nation. This expected Messiah would be powerful but certainly not divine.

Then a carpenter from Nazareth came preaching, healing and announcing that the long- expected messianic kingdom was actually arriving. In fact, he claimed to be the expected Messiah.

But the carpenter astonished his fellow Jews by presenting a very different picture of the messiah. He taught his disciples that they should love their enemies. Instead of killing the Roman imperialists, Jesus told his disciples that as messiah he would die at the hand of the Roman oppressors.

That even Jesus’ disciples did not understand or like this message is clear from Peter. When Jesus asked the disciples who they thought he was, Peter said: the Messiah. But when Jesus immediately explained that he must die rather than kill the Romans, Peter rebuked Jesus (Mark 8:27-33). Like most Jews of his day, Peter knew the Messiah was supposed to kill the Romans, not get killed by them. Jesus’ response to Peter? “Get behind me, Satan”.

And Roman soldiers did crucify Jesus. Every Jew in Jesus’ day knew that if someone claimed to be the messiah and then got killed by the Romans instead of conquering them, that person was a fraud, a fake-- and certainly not the expected Messiah!  The New Testament scholar N. T.  Wright points out that there were messianic claimants at this time but there is not a single instance where the disciples of a messianic claimant continued to believe in him after he was killed. On the day after the crucifixion, the disciples knew Jesus was a fraud.

So why did Jesus’ disciples soon start telling everybody that the crucified Jesus was truly the Messiah?  Their explanation: Jesus’ resurrection. The risen Jesus met with them, talked with them, and ate with them.  (See Wright’s 800 page THE RESURRECTION OF THE SON OF GOD for the historical evidence.)

After that, they did not just call him Messiah. They started using even more amazing titles. After he met the risen Jesus, Thomas is reported to have blurted out: “My Lord and my God” (John 20:27-28). At Pentecost, Peter said Jesus was “both Lord and Christ” (Acts 2:36). The Greek word Lord (kurios) is the word used in the Greek translation of the Hebrew Old Testament to translate the word Yahweh-- the word for the one God.

The disciples remembered that the carpenter from Nazareth had claimed the authority to forgive sins-- to the great annoyance of the religious leaders who considered this blasphemy because only God can forgive sins (Mark 2: 1-7). And at his trial, Jesus acknowledged that he was “the Son of the Blessed One”. The Jewish leaders promptly denounced this as blasphemy ( Mark 14:61-64).

The story of Saul of Tarsus is most amazing. A brilliant student of the best Jewish scholars of the day, Saul was a strict monotheist. So it is not surprising that he considered the early followers of Jesus to be heretics who should be imprisoned and killed.

Then he met the risen Jesus on the way to Damascus. And this strict Jewish monotheist became the most successful evangelist for Jesus, traveling throughout much of the Roman empire urging everyone to embrace Jesus as Messiah and Lord.

Paul, this highly trained strict Jewish monotheist, began to call the carpenter “kurios” (Lord, God).Paul  actually took words  from Isaiah where  the monotheistic prophet has Yahweh, the one God, mocking the idols and asserting that” before me every knee will bow, by me, every tongue will swear”( Isaiah 45:23) and applies them to the carpenter from Nazareth:  “God exalted him to the highest place and gave him the name that is above every name that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord [kurios]” (Philippians 2:9-11).

Nobody knew better than Saul of Tarsus that it was blasphemy to call Jesus the carpenter kurios (Yahweh).  Unless it was true. But that was the only way to make sense of what these first century monotheistic Jews had experienced.

 The carpenter from Nazareth had claimed to be the Messiah. He even made seemingly blasphemous claims. But then the Jewish and Roman leaders killed him to prove that he was wrong. And that would have been the end-- except that he was alive again on the third day. That and the dramatic outpouring of the Holy Spirit and many resulting miracles demonstrated that something utterly unexpected had happened.

 The only possible explanation was that the carpenter from Nazareth was much more than just a very good, very wise man. He was also truly God in the flesh.

It took the church several centuries to try to think through this reality of who Jesus was and fit it with their agreement with the Jews that there is only one God. Eventually they articulated the doctrine of the Trinity: one God in three divine persons.

We will never fully understand that mystery. But it is what strict Jewish monotheists actually experienced that led to that understanding.

At the center of the largest religion in the world today is the astounding claim that their founder, the Carpenter from Nazareth is true God as well as true man. No other major religion today makes that kind of claim about their founder. That claim is either the worst mistake in the history of religion. Or it is true. Because of the witness of strict Jewish monotheists, we know it is true.

 Utterly dumbfounding! Utterly wonderful!

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ABORTION AND THE DEMOCRATS

In my November 6 blog, I discussed the way Democrats fail to take seriously important concerns of both evangelicals and Catholics. There I talked about religious freedom. Today I deal with abortion.

Even if you think (as I do) that on a majority of issues, Democratic proposals (e.g.,  on racial and and economic justice, healthcare, taxes, climate change) are closer to a biblical vision than that of Republicans, still the ever increasing refusal of Democrats to take seriously the pro-life concerns of Christians and others is a problem.

Former President Bill Clinton told a good friend of mine that the reason his wife Hillary Clinton lost Pennsylvania( and therefore the presidency) was because of her radical stand on abortion. In 2008 when she ran for the Democratic nomination, she said abortion should be” legal, safe and rare”. In 2016, she no longer said it should be rare. The head of the Democratic National Committee recently told another good friend of mine that in  his circles, one did not dare even  use the word  “reduction” when talking about abortion.

For years a number of congressional Democrats supported the Hyde amendment which prevented government using our tax dollars to fund abortions. That action respected the beliefs of pro-life people. But Democrats no longer support that provision.

There  used to be dozens of  pro-life Democrats in the US Congress who supported  some restrictions on abortion. Today only five are left.

The powerful, well-funded national association of Democratic state attorneys-general has recently announced that they will refuse to endorse anyone who does not support abortion and favor expanding abortion services. In the first national debate for Democratic candidates for president, one questioner asked if there was any circumstance where abortion should be restricted. Not a single Democratic candidate named any restriction.

This rigidity is politically foolish. The Gallup Paul repeatedly has shown that about 25% of Americans think abortion should never be legal.  25% think it should be legal in every situation. And about 50% think abortion should be legal ONLY in certain circumstances. 

One would think the Democrats would ponder the fact that Democrats very recently won the race to be governor in two very conservative states ( West Virginia and Louisiana) where Donald Trump won by  huge margins in 2016. And both successful Democratic governors endorsed a pro-life agenda that would place some restrictions on abortion.

Former Democratic senator Heidi Heitkamp is right; “There are very principled people who are Democrats, who feel very strongly about this issue  [abortion] for religious reasons and when you say you’re not welcome in our party I think it is exclusionary”(New York Times, Nov. 18, p. A11). 

And politically stupid!

Faithful religious people differ on what exactly the right legislation should be. Almost 75% of the American people think abortion should be legal under some circumstances. So there is no chance that all abortion will become illegal.

 But is it too much to ask Democrats to say it should be rare? That our tax dollars will not pay for it? That universal health insurance and less poverty will substantially reduce the number of abortions and that that is good?  And that people who describe themselves as pro-life and support some restrictions on abortion are welcome in the Democratic party?

One final point. I do NOT think that abortion trumps all other issues. Universal healthcare is a pro-life issue. So are capital punishment, climate change, racial justice and effective poverty reduction programs here and abroad. One must evaluate the entire platform of candidates and decide which set of proposals on balance is better.  People who seek a biblically balanced agenda in their politics will not be “one issue” voters.

 But it would sure help if Democrats welcomed (with words and legislation) people who think  that initiatives that promote fewer abortions would be good public policy.

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