Archive for March, 2009

Obama, Jesus, and Heroism

Recently, a new Harris Poll was released ranking the people Americans “admire enough to call a hero.”  The top five are Barack Obama, Jesus Christ, Martin Luther King Jr., Ronald Reagan, and George W. Bush.  As part of the results, Harris Interactive also listed the top five criteria for considering someone a hero:  “Doing what’s right regardless of personal consequences;” “Not giving up until the goal is accomplished;” “Doing more than what other people expect of them;” “Overcoming adversity;” and “Staying level-headed in a crisis.”

While the articles covering the poll were moderately interesting, the comments following the articles were absolutely fascinating.  The hero poll of course raised the ire of many people.  Some bemoaned the fact that Obama was President.  There were multiple tasteless references to drinking the Kool-Aid, cyanide, and Jim Jones.  One commenter proclaimed emphatically that Barack Obama was not his President, and another said the poll confirmed his suspicions of Obama as the anti-Christ.  Several people took a more positive approach arguing vehemently for Christ as hero par excellence.  All of the fervor over the issue raised two important questions:  1. Does it matter that Jesus was not first on the hero list?  2. Should Jesus be on the hero list at all?

When one reads the given criteria for being a hero two things are clear.  First, The working definition of hero is a very base definition.  Second, one could easily argue that almost anyone has met the given criteria to one degree or another.  In other words, the Harris Poll is a glorified popularity contest.  So, does it matter that Jesus was not first on the hero list?  Absolutely not!  Whether or not Jesus is well received by the general population does not in any way affect the truth of the person and work of Christ.  If the validity and strength of our faith is based on how well received our savior is, we would do good to pick a religion that had enough constituents to quell a mob and keep its messiah alive.

Should Jesus be on the hero lists at all?  Merriam-Webster offers the following definition, among others, for hero, “a man admired for his achievements and noble qualities” (www.meriam-webster.com).  The criteria given in the Harris Poll on heroes certainly fit within Webster’s definition.  In addition, one could include emulation.  Often, we view heroes as people whose lives are to be copied.  We see what our heroes do, and we say, “I want to be like that.”  Admiration and emulation are key to our working definition of and response to our heroes.  In attempting to answer our second question, “Should Jesus be on the hero list at all?” we must answer another question.  Is Jesus to be admired and emulated by people? 

Admiration is in some ways akin to worship.  However, admiration is typically quite different from the biblical understanding of worship.  One may admire President Obama for his willingness to endure the pressures that come with making history as the first black president of the United States of America, while at the same time be unwilling to stake his life on the Obama presidency or the policies it is producing.  Jesus Christ demands more than our simple admiration.  Simply admiring Jesus as only a good moral teacher, or an advocate for the socially oppressed is to exalt Christ as something he did not claim to be and deny the very thing he did claim to be, the Son of the living God, the Messiah, the Savior.  We cannot rightly admire Christ without, by faith, staking our very life on him and his work.  If Jesus is to be admired at all, then he is to be exalted and worshipped as the true and living God who came to Earth as a man in order to save his people from their sins (Matthew 1.21).

Is Jesus to be emulated?  Yes and no.  Peter writes regarding suffering, “For to this you have been called, because Christ also suffered for you, leaving you an example, so that you might follow in his steps” (I Peter 2.21, ESV).  Clearly, this and other passages teach believers to follow in the steps of Jesus Christ.  However, this passage is addressed to believers.  Followers of Christ are to follow Christ, but only by faith and in light of what Christ has accomplished on their behalf.  If we look at Christ and then simply set out trying to be like him, we have utterly missed the point.  Jesus Christ is perfect, without sin in any form or fashion; he is holy.  Holiness is what is required to stand before God.  Jesus came precisely because we are not holy and cannot be holy on our own.  If we could walk in Jesus’ steps on our own, we would not need Jesus.  The point of Christ work was to do for us what we could not do for ourselves.  We are dead in sin (Ephesians 2.1).  We cannot emulate Christ, which is precisely why we need Christ.

Should Jesus be on the hero list at all?  Jesus Christ is different from all others.  If our definition of hero allows other men and women to stand alongside Jesus, then we degrade our Lord by including him and lead people astray with the false hope of emulating the One who came to do what they necessarily could not do. 

 

 

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A Gross Irony

Recently, I read an article with the following headline, “16 arrested in fight at nonviolence concert.”  The story was straightforward and could be almost entirely inferred from the headline.  There was a concert to promote nonviolence and to remember a 14-year-old kid who had been shot to death.  Toward the end of the concert, a fight broke out in the audience.  Police arrested several people on assault and other charges.  That was it, perhaps the most ironic story I have ever read. 

So, what went wrong at the concert?  Well, I suppose there are a few options that could explain this gross irony.  First, there could have been a group who were just slow to receive the evening’s message.  Second, there could have been a group who particularly love violence and showed up to crash the party.  Third, man’s heart could be deceitful above all things and desperately sick and in need of a total overhaul.  In other words, men could be slaves to sin and a well-meaning concert could be unable to change that.  In reality, the third reason is also the best explanation for the first two. 

Both the Old and New Testaments clearly teach that man is wickedly corrupt, enslaved to sin and death.  One of the clearest statements on the sinfulness of man is in Romans 3 where Paul draws together several quotes from the Old Testament to make his point of universal and total depravity.  Paul writes,

“None is righteous, no, not one;
     no one understands;  
     no one seeks for God.
All have turned aside; together they have become worthless;  
     no one does good,  
     not even one.”
“Their throat is  an open grave; 
     they use their tongues to deceive.”
“The venom of asps is under their lips.”
“Their mouth is full of curses and bitterness.”
“Their feet are swift to shed blood;
     in their paths are ruin and misery,
and  the way of peace they have not known.”
“There is no fear of God before their eyes” (Romans 3.10-18, ESV).

Reading Paul’s words about the condition of man bursts our bubble of shock and surprise regarding headlines such as “16 arrested in fight at nonviolence concert.”  The problem of violence is not due to our lack of awareness or due to the fact that we may have forgotten a friend who was tragically murdered.  The problem with violence is due to the fact that all of our thoughts, words, and deeds stem from a wickedly corrupt heart, a heart that is set against the creator and toward the prideful exaltation of a particular part of the creation, namely ourselves. 

According to Paul, the problem is two-fold.  On the one hand, we do not pursue what is right, and on the other hand, we cannot pursue what is right.  Paul makes several statements about our actions.  We do not understand.  We do not seek for God.  We do not do good.  He also makes several statements about our nature.  We are not righteous.  Our throat is an open grave.  We are swift to shed blood.  We have no fear of God.  All of these statements about what we are imply that we not only do not pursue good and God, but also that we cannot pursue good and God.

Now, lest we rest in our arrogance, we must admit that we do not have to crash a nonviolence concert in order to prove Paul right, we just have to be honest about the thoughts of our heart.  We prove Paul right with our murderous thoughts of anger and hatred toward people who disagree with us.  We prove Paul right with our lustful thoughts about the pop-culture sex symbols that are plastered on the covers of the magazines in the checkout lines.  We prove Paul right in our refusal to acknowledge the God of the Bible as the true and living God.  We prove Paul right in our distrust of someone based on his or her race.  We prove Paul right in our self-centered pride.  We prove Paul right with our refusal to live within the means that God has provided for us. We prove Paul right in our total inability to do what we absolutely must do, obey God perfectly in everything. 

Paul goes on to write in Romans 3, “For by works of the law no human being will be justified in [God's] sight, since through the law comes knowledge of sin.  But now the righteousness of God has been manifested apart from the law, although the Law and the Prophets bear witness to it – the righteousness of God through faith in Jesus Christ for all who believe” (Romans 3.20-22, ESV).  When we organize concerts and rallies and events and tell people, do not be violent, do not have an abortion, do not be racist, or any number of other messages, we are at some level reestablishing the law in order to seek righteousness.  However, seeking righteousness through any law will never work. 

If we are to pursue righteousness with any hope of success, we must pursue righteousness through faith in Jesus Christ.  If we are to be changed from those who do not and cannot to those who can and do, our hearts must be changed.  We must be born again in Jesus Christ, the one of whom it is written, “For our sake, [God] made him to be sin who knew no sin, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God” (2 Corinthians 5.21, ESV).  At the cross as our substitute, Jesus took the fights we pick at concerts for nonviolence and suffered for them, satisfying God’s awful wrath and credited his righteousness to us that we may stand in the judgment.

 

 

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