Scripture twisting vs. romantic realism

Posted: Jan 02, 2002 12:00 AM
Just as the last pre-Christmas Sunday brings to church doors some folks unseen all year, so the last pre-Christmas newspaper issues typically include references to Jesus by columnists who show little knowledge of the Bible. In both cases we need to welcome the strangers, because perhaps God will move them to come again at a non-holiday time. But when the visitor or pundit gets up and claims to offer a prophetic utterance, it's important to offer correction. On the last Sunday before Christmas, San Francisco Chronicle columnist Stephanie Salter displayed in her space a purported letter from Jesus to President Bush. In it, Jesus (aka Stephanie Salter) urges pacifism on the president and says that anything else is unbiblical vengeance. Here is a sample of Ms. Salter's writing: "'Blessed are the peacemakers' was not a throwaway line I mumbled to Matthew." Nowhere in the Gospels, though, does Jesus speak out against the use of military force designed to keep murderers from murdering again. He teaches us to turn the other cheek to personal offenses, but if we love our neighbor, we should try to stop the person who would blow him up. When Jesus hasn't said something, we should not imagine what he might say, but should follow Him by seeing what the rest of the Bible does say. The rest of the Bible says early and often that the road to peace is not easy, and it may involve doing what is needed to keep evildoers from acting again on their inclinations. Sometimes military force is needed, as Jesus' ancestor David knew when he went into battle against the Philistines. Surveillance and attentiveness are also vital, which is why Ezekiel offers metaphors about watchers on the wall who can sound the alarm when marauders come in sight. Vengeance is mine, God says, but Apostles Peter and Paul tell us that protection of the innocent is why God instituted government. I was committed to flying around a lot during the two months after Sept. 11, so I had a chance to compare the tense mood at airports and among soldiers potentially heading to combat with the calmness that pervaded Christian adoption agencies, inner city tutoring centers and Bible teaching groups. That's why we fight terrorism, so that ordinary life in those places and many others can proceed not in fear but in love. Columnist Stephanie Salter doesn't seem to understand much about protection: she reports the only choices as pacifism or vengeance. Column-writing necessarily involves some simplification, so none of us should expect to read a full menu of nuanced stances in 700 words. But think of how often, when media or academic trend leaders ask us to make a choice, the Christian choice is excluded. In college 30 years ago, the choice was liberalism or Marxism. In Harry Potter books now, the choice is wizards or "muggles," the boring bourgeoisie. What columnists like Ms. Salter, novelists like Ms. Rowling and professors like those I encountered at Yale have in common is a contempt for ordinary folks. They are purportedly without imagination, trapped in dreams of vengeance or materialistic sugar plums. Christianity has a different view, one fully realistic but also fully optimistic. Jesus turned Simon, who dreamed of fish, into Peter, a fisher of men. The Christian task is to protect the ordinary and make it extraordinary -- through God's grace. A biblical world view in journalism, fiction or professing often expresses itself in what I'd call "romantic realism," an enjoyment of God's everyday, tender mercies combined with a realization of God's transforming power. The choice isn't what Ms. Salter and many other columnists have offered -- either pretending we're in heaven or acting as if we're in hell. Those are two choices, but my New Year's resolution for 2002 is to pursue a third choice: romantic realism. I hope to combine an awareness of living in a fallen world with prayer and work to transform it, one by one from the inside out, starting with a big problem I know well: me.