Your religion can’t save you

If you rest your eternal hope in taking the Eucharist/Lord’s Supper …
If you rest your eternal hope in having once repeated a prayer of conversion …
If you rest your eternal hope in excited feelings when you sing …
If you rest your eternal hope in your church membership or denomination …
You rest your hope in something that cannot help you.
But if you rest your hope in Jesus, including a Jesus you have met in any of these or other ways, then you are my brother or sister.

Sexual depravity and a servant of God—Genesis 19:31-38

One ancient purpose of this passage is to depict the terrible origins of Moabites and Ammonites. Since Ammonites and Moabites are not a big issue today, however, I will focus my thoughts here instead on the tale of horror attached to their origins.

Drunk like Noah (9:21-22), Lot did not choose the sexual encounter the passage describes (19:32-33). He did, however, allow himself to be made drunk. The narrative might partly excuse Lot for anguish and panic in the wake of his wife’s death (19:26), as Judah’s sexual behavior seems partly explained, though not excused, in this way (38:12). The consequences, however, are horrifying. The son of a godly woman I know passed out from being drunk; when he awoke, he stood accused of a rape of which he had no memory. Eventually the accuser retracted the story and he was acquitted, but losing control of one’s senses makes one more vulnerable to unwanted activities from oneself or others.

By ancient standards, a man being manipulated sexually by women would be judged pathetic and humiliating for the man, though the narrative’s chief horror for both ancient and modern culture is the act of incest. (Most acts of incest are also acts of rape, most often from older to younger and from male to female. Yet such actions are terrible in any form.) The daughters name the babies; naming might be ultimately a male prerogative (cf. 5:3; 35:18; 41:51-52; Exod 2:22; 18:3-4; 1 Chron 7:23), but the mother also often named the child (Gen 4:25; 29:32-35; 30:6-13, 18, 20-21, 24; 1 Sam 1:20; 1 Chron 4:9; 7:16). More significantly, the names explicitly refer to their horrible action, meaning that Lot cannot but have learned of it (19:37-38).

Lot’s hospitality may show him righteous (2 Pet 2:7); God seems to have counted him that way (Gen 18:23, 25). How could such a horrible thing happen in his family? Questions of free will aside, his daughters were not the only members of the family who violated God’s standards (19:17, 26). Lot’s daughters grew up in the immoral environment of Sodom where many men of the town could demand guests to gang-rape (19:4-5).

They also grew up in a household where their father had offered to let them be raped instead of the guests (19:8). Aside from questions of whether he considered homosexual rape worse than heterosexual rape (perhaps he did so view it; cf. Judg 19:23-25, a passage also contrasting hospitality with its opposite), he wanted to preserve the sacred honor of hospitality. But despite the terrible circumstances it is difficult to think that offering his soon-to-be-married daughters to gang rapists was an acceptable lesser of two evils. He also risked his own life (cf. Gen 19:9), but his daughters cannot but have been horrified by what nearly happened to them. (The narrative may include his offer partly to emphasize the specifically same-sex predilection of Sodom’s men; perhaps it might also bespeak the physical perfection of the angels, cf. Judg 13:6.)

Lot’s commendable hospitality to the angels continues the same pattern found in Abraham’s hospitality to them in the previous chapter (18:3-8). The key differences in setting, however, underline the differences between the very different environments chosen by Abraham and Lot: Lot had chosen a prosperous (13:10-11) but ungodly (13:13; 19:4-5) place to raise his family. While such an environment may be necessary for mission (cf. Matt 10:14-15; 11:23), it is hardly ideal for raising children if not necessary. The imaginary electronic world that surrounds most of our children (through music, videogames and movies) poses a potent challenge throughout much of the West today, but the influence of the values of real flesh-and-blood people around us continues to matter.

That the daughters wanted to preserve their father’s seed (19:32) reflects an element of good intention, but it served an act that all this account’s hearers would recognize as inexcusably evil (cf. Lev 18:6-18; 20:11-12, 14, 17-21, which leaves some relations even too horribly obvious to require specifying). Their concern that no men remained in the land (Gen 19:31; the Hebrew can mean either “earth” or “land”) may also reflect their grief over the deaths of their fiancés (19:14) and their desire for the male security and motherly role expected in their culture. It also may reflect a paranoia shared with their father (19:30).

We can hardly fault any of them for experiencing what we today would call posttraumatic stress syndrome. But father-child incest (as opposed, in some ancient cultures, to marrying a half-sibling; 20:12) was condemned in all cultures in the ancient Near East, as in virtually all cultures in history. The ancient hearers of Genesis could attribute the lack of moral understanding reflected in their incestuous action only to the influence of the Sodom narrative that precedes—and possibly in Lot’s own willingness to sacrifice their virginity to protect the guests.

Lot and his daughters may have raised their new children with the sort of compromised morals with which they had conceived them. In any case, this horrifying background of Ammonites and Moabites offers a stark contrast with a different childbirth narrated soon afterward. Lot’s daughters become pregnant by an “old” father (19:31); contrast aged Sarah’s pregnancy by Abraham in his “old” age (21:1, 7). Abraham and Sarah remained in God’s plan, and God provided them with a miracle. (The miracle was not only of birth in old age, but that it happened at the time that God had spoken—21:2.)

Of course, things do not always work out this way. Godly parents can have ungodly children, and ungodly parents can have godly children (1 Sam 8:3; 2 Chron 21:1-6; 24:2, 17-22; 25:2; 27:2; 28:1; 29:2; 33:1-2; 34:1-2; 36:5). Genesis’s story of Joseph shows that a godly person can often succeed despite a dysfunctional family background. But by and large, some backgrounds are better for children than others (cf. Prov 22:6). The influence of Sodom’s sexually loose morals haunted Lot’s family thereafter.

Do Christians Have a “Persecution Complex”?

Do Christians Have a “Persecution Complex”?

If we care about truth, sometimes we must speak against conventional wisdom, regardless of how one this may result in one being subjected to ridicule in some circles. Those who have not shared an experience are often quick to dismiss it, but their quickness often stems from their ignorance of others’ genuine experiences.

 

Just Because You Haven’t Experienced It …

While some people may indeed have a “persecution complex,” many others have experiences of persecution or prejudice that others dismiss simply because it is not their own experience. This observation applies to various issues.

When in the late 1980s and in the 1990s I learned from my African-American friends the continuing and serious reality of racism, it necessarily changed the orientation of my life. Speaking out cost me some relationships, but truth and justice are not negotiable. When I wrote about extremists slaughtering Christians and moderate Muslims in northern Nigeria, I was accused by even a Nigerian journalist of Christian bias (within a few years, however, Boko Haram became widely known). When I wrote about miracles and (still more controversially) reported experiences with hostile spirits, I was sticking my neck out, recognizing that many fellow academics would scoff. Nevertheless, I was readier to value experiences of actual witnesses—including on some points myself—over arrogant voices of inexperience.

 

In many parts of the world, Christians are facing life-threatening persecution and serious prejudice. This is true for most religious minorities, and perhaps partly because Christianity is a religious minority in many countries, it is true for large numbers of Christians. To deny this would be simply irresponsible; the BBC and other media outlets have many reports. For some compiled reports from Christian sources, survey the content of some of the following works:

  • Hefley, James, and Marti Hefley. By Their Blood: Christian Martyrs of the Twentieth Century. 2nd ed. Grand Rapids: Baker, 1996.
  • I am n: Inspiring Stories of Christians Facing Islamic Extremists. Colorado Springs: David C. Cook, 2016.
  • Marshall, Paul A. Their Blood Cries Out: The Worldwide Tragedy of Modern Christians Who Are Dying for Their Faith. Dallas: Word, 1997.
  • Shortt, Rupert. Christianophobia: A Faith under Attack. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2012. Doyle, Tom, with Greg Webster. Killing Christians: Living the Faith Where It’s Not Safe to Believe. Nashville: Thomas Nelson, 2015.

And especially these well-researched works:

  • Marshall, Paul, and Nina Shea. Silenced: How Apostasy and Blasphemy Codes Are Choking Freedom Worldwide. New York: Oxford University Press, 2011.
  • Marshall, Paul, Lela Gilbert, and Nina Shea. Persecuted: The Global Assault on Christians. Foreword by Eric Metaxas; afterword by Archbishop Charles J. Chaput. Nashville: Thomas Nelson, 2013.

 

Prejudice in the United States?

But what about in the United States? Certainly what Christians face here is nothing compared to what Christians face in Iran, northern Sudan or especially North Korea. Nor is there government-sanctioned religious prejudice, despite local cases of hostility toward various faiths, including against Christian groups. To define any prejudice as persecution may trivialize the meaning of persecution. At the same time, those who are too quick to deny all claims of prejudice trivialize others’ genuine experiences.

In response to films such as “God’s Not Dead II,” some critics have been decrying a Christian “persecution complex.” Some Christians may be too sensitive about matters that are not such, but their critics are often too insensitive—in ways that they would never be if it were some different group experiencing the prejudice. Simply because the critics have not experienced a given prejudice—whether religious, ethnic, or some other kind—does not mean that nobody is experiencing it.

Of course, not everything that some Christians claim as persecution really is such. Not being granted special privileges is certainly not persecution. Nor is not being allowed to set policy for the state—so long as the state is not allowed to set policy for the church and Christian organizations. Nor is respectful disagreement, provided (and this is sometimes an issue) Christians and other people of faith are also welcome to express their own convictions. That is, being treated equally with others is not discrimination.

Nevertheless, genuine prejudices and individual and local acts of discrimination exist, and it trivializes such prejudices to decry them as a “persecution complex,” whatever their object. I was shocked to hear my African-American friends’ stories of encounters with racism, though the majority of accounts did not include reports of physical violence or death. Yet I was forced to recognize that simply because I was not a victim of racism did not mean that no one was. I had not experienced it simply because I was white and, to that point in my life, had only rarely been a racial minority in other settings.

Those who dismiss others’ reported experiences of prejudice are insensitive, whatever the reported prejudice. One can trivialize the prejudice by claiming, “It’s not as bad as what some other group experiences.” Yet almost any prejudice could be so dismissed—and by some people is so dismissed—by being placed against harsher realities such as genocides. Nor does belonging to a group that constitutes a majority in society—as statistical Christians are even though very-seriously-practicing Christians are not—prevent one from experiencing prejudice in particular settings in which one is a minority.

 

Some Early Encounters with Prejudice

Because my own experiences are the ones to which I can testify firsthand, these are the primary ones that I recount here, although the early experiences are much less significant than those I will recount afterward.

Here are a few examples; others might easily supply much more serious ones. I was in high school when I was converted from unchurched atheism to Christianity. (For those who think high school is too young to make major life decisions, keep in mind that I was reading Homer at twelve and Plato at thirteen.) Some of my peers did indeed ridicule my newfound faith—though I did not find that experience surprising or very bothersome, since I had faced ridicule from some different peers when I was an atheist. (I was probably more strong-headed in high school and college than any time before or after.)

At least in those days, some elementary and middle school kids, and to some extent high schoolers, made fun of peers for anything—for what they wore, for who their friends were, for their weight, for their names (in elementary school I was a “keener wiener”), and so forth. But because one group is not alone in facing some others’ hostility does not make it any less real or painful to many of those who experience it.

Today we have become more sensitive about some of these matters, rightly considering our young people’s feelings on some points. Yet peer pressure and ridicule remain, often including peers’ faiths (or non-faiths). This may be more true for some faiths than for others, particularly more in some parts of the country than in others, but it is especially hard on young people who have to spend much time among their peers.

 

One benefit of feeling marginalized at times is that one can become more sensitive to others who experience such marginalization. Thus I soon befriended a Jehovah’s Witness who experienced far more marginalization than I did; our faiths differed, but we understood each other. More influentially in my life long-term, shared commitment to faith regularly transcended traditional ethnic boundaries. But I have written more on these experiences elsewhere (including in Médine’s and my book Impossible Love).

Although some teachers felt no constraints about addressing religion (including negatively) if a student raised the topic, I had much more freedom to speak as a student than teachers generally would. I would give examples of a couple teachers’ fears already in the mid-1970s, even outside school, but I promised to focus here on my own experiences. I mention their concerns in passing simply to illustrate that ambiguities surrounding religious practice have been generating anxieties for some time.

 

More Substantive Encounters

Although ridicule did not bother me too much at that stage, and mere teasing bothered me even less, some of my experiences soon proved more substantial.

As a fairly young Christian I was sometimes beaten for sharing my faith—for as little as saying, “Jesus loves you.” Now you might retort, “It’s your own fault for not keeping your faith to yourself.” But if you were to respond that way, I would be tempted to respond that you are not treating faith the same way that you would treat someone speaking about something else they cared about. If someone beat you up for voicing a political perspective as a Democrat or a Republican, wouldn’t you say that they were violating your right to free speech? Or if someone pummeled you because you blissfully shared about someone you were in love with, wouldn’t you find this abuse offensive?

Years later, one fast-food restaurant where I applied for a job interviewed me briefly, and, discovering that I had attended a Bible college, immediately dismissed my application. “We don’t want any preaching here.” Surely it reflected some prejudice to assume that I would be preaching (especially as a cook, with a primary audience of hamburgers)? Admittedly, in another setting, where a different restaurant owner had more positive experiences with Christian college students, the same background probably counted in my favor.

Even today, with laws against religious discrimination, we cannot know all the intangibles in people’s past experiences that affect their perceptions and consequent decisions. We can only work to counter prejudice—an increasingly difficult exercise in a polarized public sphere where dueling media outlets highlight either the best or worst examples of groups (such as evangelicals, Catholics or Muslims) depending on their supposed political connections.

 

Prejudices in Academia

Despite traditions valuing objectivity (or attempts at objectivity) in the academy, prejudice happens there too. Not always— for example, I had a wonderfully healthy relationship with one of my French professors who was an atheist. One day, he asked me, concerned, if Christians really wanted to eradicate secular humanists. I laughed and explained that some Christians warned that secular humanists wanted to eradicate Christians. The danger of such polarizing propaganda is that it can fulfill itself by mobilizing constituencies against one another. Most of my professors treated me fairly.

Yet hostility does exist. One professor thought that any professor who publicly admitted belief in God should be fired. I have been in public settings where relatively little-published scholars dismissed me from counting as a scholar because they knew of my personal faith, even though I had not introduced it into our discussion or my work in question. I used abundant historical data as a control on my argument to reduce bias; although my critics had neglected such controls, they denied having any biases.

Aside from my personal faith, sometimes I have observed visible disdain from academicians in some other disciplines who do not consider biblical studies genuinely academic. (Never mind the 45,000 ancient extrabiblical references in my Acts commentary, culled from years working in the historical context. For them, my very field of study precludes me from being very smart.)

Moving from personal anecdote to a broader sociological survey, Elaine Howard Ecklund, in her 2010 study published by Oxford University Press (Science vs. Religion: What Scientists Really Think), found that over one third of science professors at elite universities envisioned no “positive role for religious people, institutions, and ideas on their campuses” (p. 91; happily, 42 percent did allow for a positive role, 110). Despite the religious roots of many western universities and divinity schools at their own universities, some professors even maintain that the existence of divinity schools is dangerous, tantamount to endorsing religion and undermining science (97).

Such contempt does not amount to persecution, but it is clear that some critics are openly hostile to faith and that people of faith encountering them will likely have experiences of prejudice.

While avidly anti-religious voices in elite research universities account for only 5 percent of the interviewees in Ecklund’s research study, they constituted a very vocal minority (105-6). Happily, a subsequent study appears to suggest that this tendency is less pronounced at many other colleges. And the majority of my own friends who did advanced degrees in physics and other sciences did not report experiencing mistreatment based on their faith or other factors. There have been, however, some exceptions.

Unfair polemic characterizes the internet, however, from some dogmatic new atheists, dogmatic Muslims, dogmatic conservative Christians, etc. This is not persecution, but such misrepresentation can readily set the stage for such, as various anxious constituencies recognize. One generation’s rhetorical target practice can easily become the next generation’s casualties, as Jewish thinkers rightly remind us. (Indeed, Hitler planned to abolish Christian denominations once he had eliminated Europe’s Jewish community, if he won the war by 1945.)

Being aware that prejudice and caricaturization can, under the right circumstances, morph into persecution, is not a persecution complex. It is an observation about history. Yes, many fears are generated by political propaganda to mobilize constituencies; some, however, are recognitions of where such polarization could lead—toward any group that does not hold power—if public discourse continues to degenerate.

 

Dismissing People’s Experiences that You Don’t Understand

Of course, whatever you are, some people will not like it, whether they feel free to verbalize that dislike or not. (At least back in the early 1980s, some people explicitly disrespected me simply because of my bushy beard. Eventually I did give in to such complaints and trimmed it …) And Christians cannot really complain when some people don’t like us for our faith. After all, Jesus warned his followers to be ready for much worse suffering than public ridicule; that was one reason that over the years I often decided to simply shrug it off.

Nevertheless, critics who dismiss Christian experiences of prejudice and sometimes discrimination as a mere “persecution complex” speak too glibly based on their own lack of such experiences. Granted, most religious groups face prejudices from some groups of people; atheists often face this also. (And friendly Christians, Muslims, atheists and others often get stereotyped based on the loudest and most fundamentalistic members of their groups.)

But just as it’s insensitive to dismiss Jewish or African-American or Ahmadiyya or other groups’ reports of their experiences (I deliberately mix both ethnic and religious categories here), it’s also insensitive to dismiss the experiences of Christian individuals or groups. Those of us who’ve experienced prejudice know its reality firsthand. If you haven’t experienced it, I’m happy for you. But don’t dismiss others’ lived reality as a “persecution complex”—or we may be tempted to call you out for your hypocrisy. By being insensitive to others’ experiences of prejudice and discrimination, you simply prove their point.

Good News and Bad News—Genesis 18

New life and imminent death

Genesis 18 offers many lessons. These include lessons about hospitality, about faith, about God’s patience, about God’s justice, about persevering prayer and about God’s sovereignty in answering prayer. These lessons appear in God’s dialogue with Sarah and Abraham.

When three visitors suddenly appear near his camp, Abraham offers hospitality eagerly, running from his shade (18:2) and offering shade for them (18:4). As today in many cultures, including in Africa, hospitality also includes seeing people off, which Abraham does when they are ready to leave (Gen 18:16). Of course, by that time Abraham has a much better idea who his visitors are.

One of the three visitors is explicitly the LORD himself (18:1, 13, 17, 22; cf. 19:1)! He has a shocking message for Sarah: the Lord announces that Sarah will bear a son at that time the next year! In response, Sarah laughs (18:12), just as Abraham had when he first heard it (17:17). Passages we explored earlier have shown Abraham as a man of faith, but after so many years of waiting, at a time of life that was naturally impossible, and after already having settled that Ishmael would be the heir, mustering courage for this further phase of the promise must have appeared difficult.

God’s current promise—his current invitation to faith—was fortunately not dependent on the level of their confidence. God had seen their obedience in years past and was bringing about his purposes. Sarah denies laughing (18:15), but cannot fool God any more than did the earlier evasive response of Cain (4:9).

God has another issue to raise with Abraham before he is finished. God had been seeking to turn humanity back to himself since the garden and since the flood, but most people had remained alienated from him. God chose Abraham partly for how he would raise his children (18:19), to start a new line that would call humanity back toward the one true God. God called Abraham to this task even though God would give him just one son to directly fulfill this purpose, and it would only be later that this son’s descendants would make this God known to other peoples. That is because God knows the future. God did not need for Abraham to have a lot of extra sons “just in case.”

Yet in Abraham’s time most of humanity remained alienated from God, some as wickedly as the generation of the flood. Their wickedness was contagious, and God would destroy them rather than allow the moral cancer to corrupt others. We will look further at Sodom in the next chapter (when addressing Gen 19), but here it’s important to note Abraham’s response to the announcement of judgment on Sodom, and why he responds this way.

Abraham’s nephew Lot and his family lived in Sodom. On their behalf, and on behalf of the (wrongly) presumed other righteous persons in the city, Abraham pleads with God to spare the city. We too should join in prayer on behalf of God’s children in difficult places. In 18:22-32, we see a model of persistence in prayer. God shares the matter with Abraham to begin with because he wants Abraham to intercede. God wants us to care about others, and God himself looks for an occasion to show mercy; even if Sodom did not merit it, perhaps Abraham would merit it.

Abraham knows enough about Sodom to recognize that God’s justice means that Sodom is doomed unless God shows mercy (18:21-23). Thus he offers arguments based on God’s character, seeking to reason with God in prayer yet all the while recognizing that God’s reason is greater than Abraham’s own. Abraham recognizes that before God he is just dust (18:27)—like Adam (2:7; 3:19). Ultimately, there are fewer righteous people in Sodom than Abraham presumes; even Lot’s own family has been corrupted. Yet while Sodom did not merit sparing, Abraham did, and Lot is spared for Abraham’s sake (19:16, 21-22, 29). God destroys Sodom and yet fulfills the spirit of Abraham’s prayer. Abraham sees the smoke of Sodom the next day (19:27-28), not yet knowing that God spared Lot for Abraham’s sake (19:29).

How often does God meet our need, yet in ways different from what we supposed necessary? How often does God say, “I will see you through this,” and yet he sees us through in a different way than we expected? And how many places are spared because of the righteous, though they might be despised in those places, as Lot was?

The problematic polarization of public rhetoric

An example

Tom A. Toe, senatorial candidate from the red party, recently waffled on a reporter’s pointed question about food preferences, thus conspicuously displaying his hatred of bananas.

Although reds complain that bananas are largely starch, recent studies widely tout the health benefits of bananas. By contrast, tomatoes, which the reds feel contain more vitamins, are likelier to cause indigestion, have some of their reported health benefits only when cooked (unnecessary with bananas), and grow closer to the ground where they are more susceptible to rabbits. Tomato skins also can contain pesticides, whereas these are easily removed with the peels on bananas.

Toe’s obvious sidestepping of an explicit question underlines his status as a banaphobe. Bananaphobia is a form of rhetorical violence, comparable to the hatred of geese, and should be banned from public discourse. That some members of the red party have denounced Yellows as tomatophobes, based on a few extreme voices, simply demonstrates the depths of falsehood to which banaphobes stoop. This state will be much safer and more respectful for everyone if banaphobes, the party of extremism, are silenced, banned, and reformed so they can participate more helpfully in our free and open society.

Good cultural backgrounds helps us trust Scripture

Lots of skeptics today criticize the Bible, oblivious to the cultural setting that it was addressing. Instead of seeing how biblical texts improved values of their surrounding culture, skeptics condemn the Bible for not promoting twenty-first century values that (whether we agree with those values or not) no one had heard of in biblical times. When Christians read the Bible in an ahistorical way, ignoring the cultural settings that it originally addressed, we play into skeptics’ hands. Just as God communicated the divine message to people in their specific languages, God also communicated to them in concrete cultural settings. Recognizing those settings helps us reapply the Bible’s message more concretely and appropriately in our often different situations today. If you want to apply the Bible rightly, knowing the first situation helps you recognize what kinds of situations are and are not analogous today.