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McLaren and Obama: Not So Strange Bedfellows

Oct 27, 2009

Generally speaking, those with liberal theological views tend to also have liberal political views. Conversely, those with conservative theological views tend to have conservative political views. Not always, but in most cases. So religious liberals can usually be counted on to be political and ideological liberals as well.

There are plenty of examples of this. I have written before about emerging church leader Brian McLaren, and some of his problematic liberal theological positions. Here I wish to discuss a recent piece he wrote primarily on political themes, but which also draws on theological concerns.

On October 22 he sent US President Obama ‘An Open Letter on Afghanistan’. It certainly reflects his leftist political stance, and is worrying for a number of reasons. Indeed, his opening line is enough to raise serious questions: “I am a loyal supporter of your presidency. I worked hard in the campaign and have never been as proud of my country as I was when we elected you.”

Now Christianity is ultimately above any one political position, as I have often said. Christians can and do disagree on a whole range of issues, politics included. So there will always be Christians who prefer the left side of politics.

Having said that, to offer such gushing praise and support for a President who has so many obviously unbiblical and anti-Christian emphases is a real worry. This becomes clear if we simply consider Obama’s appalling stance on two key biblical concerns. I refer to the sanctity of human life, especially the abortion debate, and the God-given institutions of marriage and family.

Perhaps no other president in US history has been as pro-abortion and anti-family as Obama has been. Yet McLaren seems to think he is God’s gift to mankind, and almost Messiah-like in his coming into office. Sorry, but I am less than impressed with the President, as are millions of other Christians worldwide.

And then there is the rest of his open letter. It seems McLaren has now become a bit of a foreign policy and international relations expert, and is offering advice to Obama on how we should proceed in Afghanistan. Let us all hope Obama does not take his advice.

It is typical leftist silliness, reflecting political naivety and theological shallowness. So common among religious leftists is a lack of political realism and moral clarity. It shows up all over this letter.

For example, he says “war is not the answer”. That makes for a great bumper sticker, but it offers nothing in the complex and multifaceted considerations over the operations underway in Afghanistan. Such clichés contribute nothing to the realities of the fight against international terrorism, stability in the Middle East, and American strategic interests in the region.

He also seeks to throw a bit of Christian morality into the discussion: “Violence breeds violence, and as Dr. King said, you can murder a murderer, but you can’t murder murder. As the apostle Paul said, evil must be overcome with good, which means that violence and hate must be overcome with justice and love, not more of the same.”

Once again, he achieves nothing here. Indeed, he simply confuses basic biblical teachings. Paul, in the second half of Romans 12, does indeed speak about overcoming evil with good, but he is there talking about interpersonal relationships, and the need for the Christian not to seek revenge.

It has nothing at all to do with what Paul has to say about the obligations of the state. It is a pity that McLaren did not keep reading here. For in the very next seven verses (Romans 13:1-7) Paul lays out the God-given mandate for the state, and its punishment of evil-doers.

The sword (the use of force) is given by God to the state to maintain justice and to punish those who do wrong. Thus the personal ethic taught by Jesus in Matthew 5-7, or Paul in Romans 12, needs to be balanced by the social ethic taught by Paul and others in Scripture.

Both types of ethics are taught in the Bible, and both should be acknowledged. But our friends on the religious left want to ignore altogether the social ethics found in the Bible, and simply refer to those passages clearly dealing with how Christians should personally conduct their affairs.

McLaren goes on to tell Obama that instead of military involvement, we should take “the $65 billion we would have spent there in the coming year and turn it into an aid and development fund”. But this is also foolish and reckless, for a number of reasons.

He implies that US funds either go into military efforts, or into relief and community work. But it is not an either/or, but a both/and. US money is going into both at the moment. It is seeking to weed out the militant jihadist insurgency while also helping to rebuild an impoverished nation.

Moreover, McLaren has bought into the leftist fallacy so often heard that somehow terrorism is really all due to poverty and economic privation, and that if we just helped people in these countries economically, they would all of a sudden stop all their suicide bombing missions.

Sorry, but this is a fundamental misunderstanding of the Islamists. They hate the US and the West, – not because of privations or want in the Middle East – but because of the very values and ideals which America and the West stand for. They hate our freedoms, our pluralism, our separation of church and state, and our freedom of conscience and religion.

Indeed, we know that most terrorists are themselves not poor at all, but have come from the middle and upper classes of their societies. So wealth and poverty as such is not the issue. The issue is, we have a dedicated group of Islamists who want to destroy Israel, the US, and their allies.

No amount of “aid and development” funding will alter that. Sure, we should be – and we are – helping countries like Afghanistan in all sorts of ways, including the rebuilding of the nation, with social, economic and other types of aid.

But the idea that we can just send the troops home and send in a lot of money, and hope everything will just end up fine and dandy is the stuff of fairy tales, not hard-headed realism. But the religious left has certainly never been guilty of having an abundance of the latter.

The truth is, Obama is already surrounded by plenty of leftists who are soft on terrorism and common sense. Obama has already done far too much by way of appeasing America’s – and Israel’s – enemies, and has been far too cosy with Islam, all the while denigrating Christianity and America. He does not need another religious leader telling him to do more of the same.

www.brianmclaren.net/archives/blog/dear-president-obama-an-open-let.html

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13 Responses to McLaren and Obama: Not So Strange Bedfellows

  • Great insight Bill. I knew I should have gotten to know you better at Heidebeek 🙂

    McLaren reminds me of Jim Wallis Lite. Wallis is totally sold out to the whole Social Justice idea. The social gospel is, IMO, a false gospel replacing God’s provision and sovereignty with man’s.

    Eddie Huff, USA

  • Thanks Bill, I tire very quickly of McLaren and his twisting and obfuscation of the gospel. But what concerns me deeper is that so many Christians are taken in by it. And if he is unwise and even flat-out wrong about basic matters of faith, what chance he knows anything of substance about international politics?
    Mark Rabich

  • I wonder where all the left-wing wowsers are denouncing McLaren and the Catholic Bishop at Parliament House who criticised Rudd’s treatment of Asylum Seekers? Why aren’t they jumping up and down in a bout of moral panic about the separation of church and state and keeping religion out of politics? Of course it’s all a one way street with the Left and in as far as they co-opt the Christian vote they turn a blind eye. However, a more pertinent truth is that much of what is derided as religious belief in the political realm are truths found in human reason and do not require revealed religious belief in order to be held as true. Though I don’t think it a coincidence that people who hold such views are more or less devout religious folk because when man cuts himself off from the source of all truth, grace and love he lowers himself to a lesser law in which he can more readily justify himself when comparing himself to his fellow man rather than to the standards of God (i.e. natural law).

    Francis Kesina

  • Thanks Frank

    Yes you raise a good point about all the double standards here. Imagine if some religious conservative wrote an open letter to the President. The Left would be going ballistic about Christians trying to take over America, about theocracy just around the corner, etc. As I have said before, the secular left in fact does not mind religious influence on politics, as long as it is the leftist variety that they approve of.

    Bill Muehlenberg, CultureWatch

  • “terrorism is really all due to poverty and economic privation, and that if we just helped people in these countries economically, they would all of a sudden stop all their suicide bombing missions” – indeed, and this is all part of the Humanist (should be “Humanist” or inhumanist) myth that people are basically, essentially good, and if they are treated well, and are economically/socially secure, they will naturally behave well. Such a view of human nature, or worldview, is the antithesis of the Judeo-Christian one, of course (and flies in the face of all the evidence).
    John Thomas, UK

  • Thanks for this Bill.
    I have observed over the years that so many of those believers with ‘left-leaning’ ideas ineviably manage to merge their beliefs with politics. I think the underlying myth is then seen. They seem to think that the only way to bring change is through a political agenda. The truth for all Christians of course is that change will only ever come through submission to Jesus and allowing him to change our hearts, something that politics cannot do. However if we don’t REALLY believe that only Jesus can change things then we must impose change through legislation which is what happens with left-leaning governments. They impose law after law to try to change our beliefs and behaviours. Witness the laws on vilification etc.
    However if we step into almost any pub on a Friday night and listen to the conversations we will see that these imposed laws have achieved little as the average pub patron talks with his mates and airs his views on politics, race, homosexuality, etc, etc. Out of his mouth comes the fruit of an ungodly soul.
    Warwick Murphy

  • Yes Francis, Natural Law. Let us put Cicero, Aristotle, and Thomas Aquinas back on the reading list.
    Stan Fishley

  • Thanks guys

    And now we have McLaren’s prayer for the Copenhagen Summit: http://blog.sojo.net/2009/10/27/a-prayer-for-the-earth/

    Bill Muehlenberg, CultureWatch

  • Re McLaren’s prayer for the Copenhagen Summit. I read the said “prayer.” A better prayer would be for God to spare the world’s poor from any attempt to curb the use of fossil fuels. You would think that these religious lefties might be concerned that their policy suggestions could lead to the entrenchment of poverty for millions of people especially in the developing world. I also noted the involvement of one of our own home-grown religious lefties in the composition of that prayer.

    Ewan McDonald.

  • Hi Bill,

    I agree that sloganeering and theological shallowness are not the answers. To simply say that “war is not the answer” sounds awfully sophomoric and reduces a very complex issue to a series of simplistic platitudes. Thankyou for pointing out this particular mistake that leftist Christians regularly make – and I say this as one who often leans towards the “left” side of politics (despite the inadequacy of the terms “left” and “right”).

    However, I must respectfully disagree with your interpretation of Matthew 5-7, and the distinction between that passage and Romans 12. Of course, in a short essay such as yours, it is impossible to cover all the nuances and complexities of a particular portion of Scripture. Nevertheless, I don’t know that the Sermon on the Mount simply constitutes a personal ethic, without any communitarian, political or institutional implications. If you’ll indulge me, I would like to draw your attention to the passages that precede Matt. 5-7 (a caveat: at this point, I take my cue from Richard Hays). You’ll notice that in those passages, Jesus is baptized by John the Baptist, before being led into the desert to be tested by the Satan for 40 days. Here, Matthew is intentionally presenting Jesus as Israel’s Messiah – the representative of God’s people – who recapitulates Israel’s experiences during their liberation from Egypt and sojourn through the wilderness. Note the parallels: Jesus passaes through the waters when he is baptzied; Israel passes through the waters when it escapes Egyptian bondage. Jesus is tested in the wilderness for 40 days; Israel is tested for 40 years.

    Now for the punch line. Moses gave Israel the law from Mount Sinai; in Matt. 5, Jesus teaches from a mountainside. The parallel is unmistakable. Moses was giving the nation of Israel a covenant document, by which they would live in order to be a light to the world. In a similar fashion, the Sermon on the Mount constitutes a new covenant document for the people of God who are to be led by their Messiah out of captivity and into freedom.

    What are the implications? Well, the Sermon on the Mount is not simply a personal ethic; it is meant for the entire community. More than that, when we as the redeemed community live out the ethical ideals of Matt. 5-7, we do so not only as individual disciples, but as members of God’s new family who embody and anticipate his new world – a world that lies beyond violence, war and brutality. It is a world we should strive for now, embodying it together as God’s people.

    Does that mean we should be pacifists? It’s hard to say. How the ideals of the Sermon on the Mount are to be applied to real-life situations and issues is difficult. At this point in time, I would struggle countenance complete pacifism. However, I think we need to grapple with texts such as Matt. 5-7, and engage with their implications (whether they are confined to the individual or not), and take note of their radical demands.

    Scott Buchanan

  • Thanks Scott

    Yes, I did not mean to imply in those brief remarks that a passage such as Matt. 5-7 is only about individual ethics, with no corporate or communal application or relevance. Much of NT ethics has to do with the Body of Christ as a whole, not just individuals. This is certainly true of Paul as well – he tends to write more in terms of the collective (the church) while we tend to read Paul more in individualistic terms.

    So yes in that sense I fully agree with you, and what I wrote appears to be misleading in this respect. And yes Hays, and Tom Wright and many others are right to see the story of Israel recapitulated in the ministry of Jesus, especially as presented in Matthew’s gospel.

    But we still must be aware that God has also ordained the institution of the state. Thus a passage like Matthew 5-7 must not be read in isolation, but in relation to the rest of biblical revelation. And of course how we read and understand the Sermon on the Mount is far from settled, with a wealth of differing interpretations. But most careful commentators and scholars do acknowledge that what Jesus says there must be read with passages like Romans 13 in mind. So a rough distinction between a social ethic (what God does in and through the state) and a personal ethic (what God does in and through the individual believer) can still be maintained.

    And yes I too like Hays, but I do not agree with all that he says. We can all profit greatly from his 1996 work, The Moral Vision of the New Testament. I think he is very good on sexual ethics, but I find him less than convincing on issues of violence and war and peace. Thus he and I – and perhaps you and I – may have to agree to disagree on some of these points. But thanks for sharing.

    Bill Muehlenberg, CultureWatch

  • Thanks Bill,

    Yes, your final remarks in the above reply may have to suffice! But you are right – the state has been ordained to guarantee the order and justice that God desires to see in all creation. And of course, we need to achieve a synthetic, integrative treatment of the entirety of Scripture. Thanks again for indulging my thoughts.

    Scott Buchanan

  • Hi Scott,

    But God gave the Israelites the law on Mt Sinai before the 40 years in the desert, not after. The corresponding event after Jesus’ tempting is not Sinai, but Moses’ re-giving of the law to the people just before they were to enter the promised land in Deuteronomy. This correspondence makes the case for a parallel between the Sermon on the Mount and Exodus much weaker, however, because here it was Moses repeating the law to the people, not God giving it Himself, and the Bible has the location not on a mountain or hill but a desert, plain or wilderness.

    Mansel Rogerson

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