The spiritual origin of worldly action

Rodney Stark, in his book Cities of God:

the Christianization of the [Roman] empire was not the result of ‘reactions to public calamity,’ but to religious influences per se. That is, religion did not merely offer psychological antidotes for the misery of life; it actually made life less miserable!

…The truly revolutionary aspect of Christianity lay in moral imperatives such as ‘Love one’s neighbor as oneself,’ ‘Do unto others as you would have them do unto you,’ ‘It is more blessed to give than to receive,’ and ‘When you did it to the least of my brethren, you did it unto me.’ These were not just slogans. Members did nurse the sick, even during epidemics; they did support orphans, widows, the elderly, and the poor; they did concern themselves with the lot of slaves. In short, Christians created ‘a miniature welfare state in an empire which for the most part lacked social services.’

It was these responses to the long-standing misery of life in antiquity, not the onset of worse conditions, that were the ‘material’ changes that inspired Christian growth. But these material benefits were entirely spiritual in origin.

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A great nation of righteous laws

Christopher Wright, in the New Bible Commentary, on the 19th chapter of Leviticus:

The chapter is remarkable for its breadth and depth of moral insight. It touches on the thoughts of the heart and the actions of the body, private and public behavior, and almost every major area of social life in a community. The application of some of its legislation would transform the lives of millions in today’s world. And the deeper one reflects on it, the more it seems that many Christians come nowhere near the standards it presented centuries before Christ (let alone Christ’s own development of it in the Sermon on the Mount).

Far too often in the Christian community, the Old Testament law in general, and Leviticus in particular, is dismissed much too quickly as irrelevant (that OT law doesn’t apply to us anymore, right?), impenetrable (how do you make sense of the maze of priestly codes and types of offerings?), and simply, sometimes humorously, random (regulations regarding mildew? commandments regarding the mixing of fabrics?).

Perhaps the best argument against this assumption is simply to get people to read the 19th chapter of Leviticus, which is rich, relevant and wise. Are all the laws found there immediately clear in their purpose and relevance to us today? Of course not. But this chapter is also remarkably clear, and should function as a sign to us that this book is not just some dusty collection of confusing and confused prohibitions. Rather it rewards study, and upon such, (like the rest of the book) shows itself to have both an inner logic, and a theological and social richness that is extraordinary.

That may seem like an overstatement. Yes, big chunks of Leviticus are slow reading and often dry. But if we push through, this ancient culture and more importantly it’s astonishing God, is still there to be found. He is still speaking.

Jesus’ testimony about the law should have pointed us in this direction. Indeed, as Wright notes, Leviticus 19 stands as a clear source behind the Sermon on the Mount. But Moses’ words as well should give pause to any of us who want too quickly to dismiss the law on our way to other things. Moses’ words on the law in Deuteronomy 4:6 – 8 point to it’s wisdom and utter uniqueness:

Observe them [the decrees and laws] carefully, for this will show your wisdom and understanding to the nations, who will hear about all these decrees and say, ‘Surely this great nation is a wise and understanding people.’ What other nation is so great as to have their gods near them the way the LORD our God is near us whenever we pray to him? And what other nation is so great as to have such righteous decrees and laws as this body of laws I am setting before you today?

The vital religious dimension


From Raising Up A Prophet, by Sudarshan Kapur:

“From A. Philip Randolph to James Farmer to Bayard Rustin, earlier attempts to apply Gandhian nonviolence to the African-American struggle lacked the vital religious dimension…

To the extent that Rustin and others did not succeed, their failure was, at least in part, due to the fact that neither their efforts nor their own personal lives were rooted in the African-American church. By planting the seed of the Ghandhian technique of non-violent direct action in the dry bed of secularlism, the pre-1955 experimenters could not fully avail themselves of the potential of the method or the latent energy of the people.”

Justice and Judgment

Preparing for Sunday’s sermon on I Samuel 2:12 – 26, and so was looking again at C.S. Lewis’ thoughts on judgment. In his book Reflections on the Psalms, Lewis notes that Christians often talk about the thought of God’s judgment  as a terrifying reality and throughout history have often prayed for deliverance on the day of judgment. You could add to this, that many in the modern west are disturbed by the very idea of God as a cosmic judge, One who casts judgment and sentences people to the consequences of their sins. Many find it outdated, and the kind of conception of God that makes so many religious people fearful and intolerant. In any case, Lewis notes these kinds of problems, and therefore writes:

It was with great surprise that I first noticed how the Psalmists talk about the judgments of God.

Namely, in the Psalms (and prophets):

Judgment is apparently an occasion of universal rejoicing.

This is true. I’ve been reading through the Psalms and this week I happened to hit Psalms 96 through 101, which all prominently feature the theme of God’s justice and celebrate the theme of God as Judge of all the earth. And I mean celebrate. Most strikingly, the picture given in Psalm 96 and Psalm 98 is one of the whole world breaking into a great, raucous celebration. The forests are filled with joy and sway in anticipation, the rivers burst out of their banks, clapping their hands, and the mountains form a chorus (with what must be a deep, resonate sound). And why all this joy? Why all this celebration? Because the Judge is coming. Not the Savior, not the Redeemer, not the Lover of creation (though these aren’t unrelated concepts) – but the Judge. Judgment is coming – rejoice! Where’s the terror? Why is this such a good thing?

Lewis writes:

The reason for this soon becomes very plain. The ancient Jews, like ourselves, think of God’s judgment in terms of an earthly court of justice. The difference is that the Christian pictures the case to be tried as a criminal case with himself in the dock; the Jew pictures it as a civil case with himself as the plaintiff. The one hopes for acquittal, or rather for pardon; the other hopes for a resounding triumph with heavy damages.

Lewis points to the fact that around the world and throughout history, it has been (and often still is) very difficult for the “small man” to get his case heard; for those without power and without money for bribes to get justice. Altogether too often this is the state of justice in this world: might makes right and the small get squashed. But the existence of a transcendent Judge gives hope of a final accounting in the coming of His perfect judgment. So:

We need not therefore be surprised if the Psalms, and the Prophets, are full of the longing for judgment, and regard the announcement that “judgment” is coming as good news. Hundreds and thousands of people who have been stripped of all they possess and who have the right entirely on their side will at last be heard. Of course they are not afraid of judgment. They know their case is unanswerable – if only it could be heard. When God comes to judge, at last it will.

This is why the great book of worship – the Psalms – rejoices not only in the God of loving kindness, but in the God of judgment. For those who would look seriously at the evil and injustice in the world, only a God of justice is truly worthy of worship.

Now, if the God revealed in the bible is One of absolute justice – and therefore worthy of worship – then He is also necessarily a God who judges impartially, One who doesn’t play favorites, who doesn’t have favorite sins, and who alone upholds the whole absolute standard of what is good and right and just, judging each one accordingly. Which should make anyone who truly looks at his or her life uneasy.

But a God of justice and judgment is good and necessary. And the revelation of such a God is a source of enduring hope and a fact for the whole earth to celebrate – especially the oppressed. And the last word on that should go to Dr. King:

Abortion and the sexual revolution

If I’m on the right track, pro-life arguments are not likely to succeed by simply continuing to stress the humanity of the fetus. The opposition already knows this, as probably do most women who have an abortion. Rather, the pro-life movement must take into account the larger cultural context of the sexual revolution that invisibly but surely sustains the triumphant advocates of abortion.

Dinesh D’Sousa