Here We Go Again…

So, the Obama administration thinks that mere brand management will change the minds of Islamists or disaffected Muslims across the world:

The Obama Administration has today unveiled another new “anti-terror task force” whose primary purpose is to go online and “push back against online propaganda” from ISIS and other anti-US groups. Details are still scant, but the White House has been meeting with Silicon Valley executives, suggesting major US companies will be involved.

The new task force will be formally under the control of the Department of Homeland Security, while the Justice Department and State Department are also said to be involved. The State Department in particular presented it was planning “social media campaigns” to offer a “positive alternative” to the ISIS narrative.

Which suggests this is just the latest in a long line of administration attempts to establish a rival US propaganda wing on social media, something that’s been tried, and failed miserably, several times already.

So, here we go, another round of “telling America’s story” because, somehow, telling this amazing story — broadcasting it to the whole wide world, and targeting specific messages at Muslims in Dar al Islam and the West — will convince those same people of the moral and material superiority of our ways and means and either end the war or at least drain the recruiting pool a bit.

It won’t work.

It won’t work for several reasons.

First, it’s marketing, an impersonal message. It may have the pretense of caring, but we’ve all been marketed to for so long now that we know exactly when we are being marketed to. The most an impersonal message can do is make people aware of something, maybe spark their interest, let them know of possibilities they might not have otherwise known of. But marketing can only really connect with and foster desires already present within us. They cannot create desire out of nothing.

And who, at this point, on God’s blue and green Earth, doesn’t know the American story? America is everywhere.

Second, those most inclined to fight the West already know the West’s story — and they have dismissed it outright. Take the much younger me, as an example. I knew America’s story from top to bottom. Even believed in parts of it. But I considered enough of that story to be complete lies because of what I had experienced growing up in America. The 9/11 plot was hatched not by Muslims crouching in Afghan caves scrawling down notes by firelight, but by educated and very westernized Muslims who were living, studying, and working in the belly of the very West they sought to attack. They looked at Modernity’s promises — freedom, equality, dignity, progress — and saw those promises denied to them. And people like them. And saw that denial as purposeful — those promises, which claim universality, aren’t really intended for everyone. Some people in Modernity have no dignity, merit no equality, and will never be free.

Europe, North America, and the Middle East are full of such people — people raised in slums and culturally dislocated neighborhoods and homes and in cities and villages that have felt the rampage of western armies, all the while claiming “liberation and freedom.”

For someone, maybe, but not us.

Such people will not be swayed by mere propaganda. They will dismiss it — all of it — as more self-righteous nonsense designed to make the speakers feel better about themselves while they do more violence.

What does appear to work, if anyone really cares, are the efforts of disaffected Islamists themselves. And the relationships they strive to create, one-by-one, with those most likely to idolize the revolutionary violence of Islamist resistance. But it’s a third way, a way that praises neither Modernity nor Islamism, and it is almost entirely dependent on personal relationships.

That’s the only way. Bureaucratic marketing messages won’t stop anything. Only a deliberate, intensive effort to meet individual human beings and minister to them — address their anger, their fear, their hopes, and their desires — will succeed. And as I have said before, none of the institutions of the West (and even few of its people) are ready to really devote lives to meeting broken, angry, hurting human beings, to do the hard work of getting to them as people, and then risking failure. Or even succeeding. Our institutions, our societies, are all on a kind of autopilot, in which individuals are simply expected to adapt, to shape themselves, and the institutions have no real reciprocal obligation to change in response. This cannot last, because we’ve created institutions and communities that increasingly fail to work well for anyone, much less outcasts and the disaffected.

This is why I believe the Gospel is such amazing good news. Because Jesus gathers the lost, the disaffected, the unwanted, the powerless, and makes them into God’s people. This is why the Gospel needs to be freed from the church. Because the church in America has become just another institution, captive to America, unable and unwilling to see outside or beyond what American culture wants and desires. Unable to want more than a just and smoothly functioning system, a more effective liberalism.

Some time ago, while writing for, I came up with a handy little aphorism to describe what I thought ought to be a faithful Christian’s response to the welfare state. But it works here too.

Taxes are not tithes.
Programs are not charity.
Policy is not love.

To meet the lost as Jesus met them requires hands, and hearts, and heads, requires we follow lost sheep and get dirty while we look. It requires taking risks — including the possibility of staggering loss and spectacular failure. It requires, right now, in this moment, that we stop worry about making the world a better place, or stop worrying about trying to end this or that horror or injustice, and love. Truly love as only God loves, without fear of the consequences to ourselves. One lost soul at a time.


I love the story of Paul’s conversion, his encounter with Jesus while he is riding to Damascus with warrants in his hands to persecute the church. I love that Saul is struck blind and is left to be cared for by the very same people he came to persecute. (I love this so much it’s the subject of a short story I wrote that was included in this anthology.)

This story is, I think, the gold standard of conversion stories, of meeting Jesus and having one’s life changed utterly and completely. Luke tells it once, in Acts 9:1–19, and then has Paul tell the story twice — in his testimony to soldiers (and others) who have detained him (and have apparently mistaken Paul for an Egyptian rebel) Acts 22 and then later, with a few additional details not in Luke’s telling, to King Agrippa in Acts 26.

And there’s an interesting detail I never noticed was missing from the story before:

Jesus never forgives Saul.


In all versions, Jesus simply calls Saul, and then instructs him where he will go and what he will do. He tells Ananias more, that Saul has been chosen to preach to the gentiles, and that he will suffer much for “the sake of my name.” When Paul relates his story to King Agrippa, when he preaches the Gospel, he speaks of forgiveness, not for himself, but for the “gentiles” (εθνος):

14 And when we had all fallen to the ground, I heard a voice saying to me in the Hebrew language, ‘Saul, Saul, why are you persecuting me? It is hard for you to kick against the goads. ’ 15 And I said, ‘Who are you, Lord? ’ And the Lord said, ‘I am Jesus whom you are persecuting. 16 But rise and stand upon your feet, for I have appeared to you for this purpose, to appoint you as a servant and witness to the things in which you have seen me and to those in which I will appear to you, 17 delivering you from your people and from the Gentiles— to whom I am sending you 18 to open their eyes, so that they may turn from darkness to light and from the power of Satan to God, that they may receive forgiveness [ἄφεσιν] of sins and a place among those who are sanctified by faith in me.” (Acts 26:14–18 ESV)

Forgiveness — ἄφεσιν — literally remission, setting free, discharge of debts, a letting go, or a dismissal. The gentiles, the people who are not Israel, are to receive this. Because Israel has received it too.

But Christ did not say to Saul, “I forgive you.” Christ simply calls him, on the assumption that once called, Saul would have no choice — no choice — but to follow.

Just as Peter and Levi and the other disciples followed when Jesus called. Peter falls at Jesus’ feet (Luke 5:8) and confesses both his sinfulness and his unworthiness. “Depart from me, for I am a sinful man, O Lord.” Jesus does not reply with “you are forgiven,” but instead says

“Do not be afraid; from now on you will be catching men.”

There is much talk of forgiveness in Luke and Acts, but as with Paul’s writings, it seems to focus mostly on how to live as Christians together. Only twice does Jesus actually forgiven anyone in Luke-Acts.  The first is the paralytic in Luke 5 who is lowered down through a hole in the roof by his friends, and then in an oddly passive voice. “Man, your sins are forgiven you,” which then prompts an argument from Pharisees hanging out with Jesus and his disciples. Jesus proclaims he has authority on earth to forgive sins (Luke 5:24) as well as command the paralyzed to walk — to set them free.

Second, from the cross, Jesus prays for those killing him: “Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do.”

In Luke, Jesus speaks mostly of the mutuality of forgiveness — forgive each other, forgive others as God forgives you, and forgive your brother and your neighbor as often as needed.

Still, I find it odd that Jesus doesn’t forgive Saul. After all, Saul is off to Damascus “breathing threats and murder against the disciples of the Lord.” He understands the need to be forgiven, and he knows that Christ does forgive sin.

The call itself is, I think, forgiveness. It is a freeing, a dismissal, a letting go — of old lives that had little meaning and less purpose. Of lives that were devoted to pointless and brutal toil, of lives devoted to a stale and violent law. Saul didn’t have to be told he was forgiven — he understood from the moment he was struck blind, from the moment Jesus spoke to him, took control of his life and commanded him, that he was forgiven. No words were necessary. No words were capable.

He was no longer his own. He belonged to Christ, to be used as Christ saw fit for ends only Jesus could make sense of. There is no understanding, no experience, of forgiveness greater than that.

Monday Update

Hello everyone. I have no sermon for this Sunday because I didn’t preach and Jennifer and I were busy moving. To a tiny little cabin in a place called Elizaville, much closer to where I work! We are renters, for the first time since late 2014! We can afford to pay rent! Things are looking up!

As soon as my schedule settles down, blogging will resume in earnest.

The History That Matters

There’s actually an interesting discussion going round some conservative parts of the Internet about the meaning of history, and whether anyone can talk meaningfully — as President Obama frequently does — about being “on the right side of history.”

Near as I can tell, the conversation (if we can call it that) began here with this essay by Eliot Cohen over at The American Interest (which I cannot quote because I ran out of my three free articles for the last 30 days and didn’t save the actual text anywhere) and is taken up by this essay at The Atlantic by David Graham:

Barack Obama has always evinced a fascination with history. He announced his candidacy in Springfield, Illinois, recalling Abraham Lincoln. He modeled his own cabinet after Lincoln’s “team of rivals.” He has compared his own accomplishments to his predecessors, and he invited historians to the White House for private conversations about where he might fit within the pantheon of American leaders.

If Obama’s interests run toward history, so does his rhetoric. “It’s the answer that led those who have been told for so long by so many to be cynical, and fearful, and doubtful of what we can achieve to put their hands on the arc of history and bend it once more toward the hope of a better day,” he said the evening of his first election. Since then, the president has repeatedly deployed a series of phrases—especially “the right side of history” and “the wrong side of history”—that suggest a tortured, idealistic, and ultimately untenable vision of what history is and how it works.

Obama is not unique in this. Graham notes that both Bill Clinton and Ronald Reagan also invoked “the right side of history” on more than one occasion, and I recall George W. Bush’s entire foreign policy predicated on the idea that there is a right side to history — American ideals and government — and a wrong side — everyone else.

Obama’s own fresh contribution to the genre is his invocation of “the arc of history.” It’s his adaptation of an older phrase, “The arc of the moral universe is long but it bends toward justice,” which was popularized by Martin Luther King Jr. but coined (evidently) a century earlier by Theodore Parker. Obama has mentioned “the arc of history” a dozen times since his election.

The problem with this kind of thinking is that it imputes an agency to history that doesn’t exist. Worse, it assumes that progress is unidirectional. But history is not a moral force in and of itself, and it has no set course. Presuming otherwise embraces the dangerous tendency that the great English historian Herbert Butterfield dissected in his 1931 essay, The Whig Interpretation of History. Butterfield was writing about the inclination among certain historians to see the Reformation as a unalloyedly positive force—a secularizing, liberalizing movement that led inexorably to liberal democracy in the 20th century. Butterfield objected that this wasn’t at all how things worked. It was just a retrospective reading.

The discussion continued as Graham considered a response from Mark Tooley over at Juicy Ecumenism and Providence magazine (to which Rod Dreher contributed a bit):

Christmas is the ultimate reminder that Christians and all who pursue decency and humanity in a corrupt and vicious world are on the right side of history. We know He will make all the rough places smooth, and every valley shall be exalted. He came to us originally as a child, yet the government will be upon His shoulders. To align with the Baby Jesus is decidedly to be on the right side of history.

Tooley effectively, I think, describes what I consider to be the problem a little further up in his essay:

Most of American civil religion, borrowing partly from Whiggery, and mediated by once robust Mainline Protestantism, has assumed that constitutional democracy prevails against dictatorship in the world, with America spiritually and politically the model and champion. Supposedly recent USA military interventions, ostensibly contrived by neoconservatives, have discredited this metaphysical confidence. But the assumption of American democracy’s transcendly innate superiority is deeply embedded in our national soul. It wasn’t reduced, at least not for long, by the Vietnam War, or countless other mishaps across our history. For America as a whole, a largely unarticulated but heartfelt confidence in providential destiny persists.

Traditional Christians abandon the language of history at their peril. Scoffing at or dismissing appeals to the “right side of history” will only marginalize our cultural voice. It also ignores the dictates of our own faith. Isn’t God the Lord of history? Aren’t all designs against His plans doomed to failure? Won’t justice and truth, as cornerstones of His Kingdom, inevitably prevail, despite sin and human failure?

I’m not a fan of any notion of “right side” or “wrong side” of history. Cohen wrote, at length, of the faith many had in Marxism, and Nikita Kruschev’s confident assertions that the Soviet political and economic system will consign the liberal state to the dustbin of history.

I am especially critical of what Tooley describes as American Whiggism, or what might be otherwise called providence, and I think it’s important to remember this idea of providence — God at work in the secular history of the world in such a way that we can discern the will of God for the world in who wins and who loses political struggles — was primarily a deist idea. Where is God at work if the church itself no longer matters?

I have written before that history, in so far as we are talking about the history of nations, of peoples, of governments, and of struggles, is meaningless. (Don’t ask me where, I can’t find it easily today.) For Christians, this is true. History as we understand it — a story that tells us who we are — came to an end with the resurrection of Christ. We are a people formed by THAT story. Or we should be.

But Jesus didn’t stay good and safely dead. He also didn’t simply rise and disappear solely with a promise to come again someday. He has messily intervened in the life of his people. He struck Saul blind on the road to Damascus, appeared to Ananias in a dream, commanded Peter to eat, and dictated letters (and gave an incredible vision) to John in his island exile. He commanded Constantine, “In this sign you shall conquer!” He spoke to me at The World Trade Center on 9/11, telling me in the midst of fear, suffering, uncertainty, and death: “My love is all that matters, and this is who I am.” (Read the book!)

So, Christ intervenes in history. As Tooley notes, God is still with us, still acting, still inserting himself into the life of his people, into the lives of human beings.

As much as I hate to say it, history does, in fact, matter.

But which history?

The mistake believers in providence make — and perhaps Tooley is one of them — is looking upon our political struggles and seeing God at work, seeing God’s discernible, purposeful will for mankind. In ideological conflict, in national conflict, in war, is social and economic progress. It is an easy thing to do, especially if one looks at scripture as sees Israel primarily as a nation, then it is easy to believe God cares about the fate of nations.

I have long believed we need to take seriously the very likelihood Jesus did, in fact, command Constantine to conquer. It is, in some ways, no more at odds with Jesus than his commanding Peter to kill and eat. Biblical faith teaches us that God generally (though unpredictably) uses what God has at hand. God does not, as a rule, remake the world, or create ideal substance out of nothing, but constrains himself (mostly) to using no more and no less than what the world gives God to work with. Israel demands a monarchy, God laments Israel’s faithlessness, and then through Samuel warns Israel about that monarchy. God then gives Israel the very monarchy God said Israel should not want and would come to regret, and then makes promises of salvation and redemption through that monarchy.

Using Constantine to further the aims of the church — because Constantine was what was at hand — is perfectly in line with how we know Jesus (and God in Old Testament) faithfully works. (Such as when he chose Cyrus the King of Persia to be “the anointed one” or המשׁיה, to deliver Israel from exile.)

Where we go astray is thinking in terms of empire, rather than church, or nation, rather than church.

Because as the body of Christ, the church is the only moral actor whose deeds and fate in history matter. The history of this people Christ has called to follow, to preach and teach and baptize and make disciples, is the only history that tells us anything meaningful about God’s purpose for the world. Israel isn’t an εθνος, Israel is an εκκλησια1.

It also has to be remembered that the history of Israel in scripture is the history of faithlessness, failure, defeat, conquest, and exile. Christ’s church will have a Christ-Shaped story and an Israel-shaped history. It will have moments of glory, but it ends with the promised work of God — New Heaven and New Earth upon which a New Jerusalem is placed — and not the works of man. Providence is the story of nations, of the works of man — particularly the liberal-democratic, Anglo-American nation-state and the firmly believed in triumph of its government and governing promises — and as such is a theology of glory that cannot find meaning in set-back and defeat, much less conquest and exile. Providence has no idea what to do with a crucified savior, and thus cannot figure out how to make sense of a risen one.

I do believe there is much to be learned from human history, from the struggle of nations and ideals and movements. This history tells us much of folly and wisdom, of sin and even a little of kindness. It tells us some important things about who we are as human beings. But this history cannot tell us anything meaningful about what God wants or desires for us. It cannot tell us who we are as God’s people. It cannot tell us how we are redeemed, or how to live as God’s redeemed people. It is not the history that matters.

  1. Yes, I appreciate εκκλησια has political overtones. ↩︎