Pastoral Letter to Christians About a Divided Nation

A preface to my words: I am friends with many of you on social networks. Delaware is a small place. The church in Delaware even smaller. Inevitably, I am going to say something today that is going to be very personal to you. I cannot state in strong enough terms that the words that follow are not in direct response to anyone’s posts, comments, or conversations in particular.  I have not been stalking social media. But there will certainly be guilt in this room – I know this because it starts right here. I am writing from a position of a shepherd over a congregation of brothers and sisters where I see problems. Just as a father would want to address his kids if he saw problems brewing.

Second, you may have objections to me talking about a current event and “getting political”. As you might expect if you have been listening to me for any length of time, that is not my intent. My plan is to follow in Jesus’ footsteps found in Luke 13. Jesus heard of a tower that had fallen and killed 18 people. Obviously, this was on everyone’s mind. He took it as an opportunity to call the crowd to repentance and the new Kingdom. I plan to do the same with events of this past week.

Dear Christian Brothers and Sisters,

How many of you are old enough to remember the days, weeks, months and year following September 11, 2001? This was a world before social media and widely accessible HDTV. We were still playing the game "Snake" on our phones. Large flats Screen televisions on the wall were not a thing, and any TV over 35 inches would cost you around 2000.00. Netflix was a DVD rental service that helped us to avoid late fees from a thriving Blockbuster store chain. Streaming wasn’t a thing. It was a time when you had to wait about an hour for a movie trailer to download on your dial up modem and that would be a few days after it had already premiered in the movie theaters.

On September 10, 2001 our country was politically divided but relatively stable. George W. Bush had become president even after losing the popular vote. He won the electoral college by a margin of 537 votes out of 6 million cast in Florida and this only after the Supreme Court stopped the recount of votes. Then- Vice President Al Gore conceded to President-Elect George W. Bush and Bush became the next president of our country in 2000.

Then everything changed on September 11, 2001. Terrorists hijacked planes and crashed them into the Twin Towers in New York City, the Pentagon in D.C., and ultimately one other fell to the ground in Pennsylvania as patriot passengers on board heard news of the ultimate plan of the terrorists and overran the pilot. They paid with their lives. 2974 people died in the deadliest attack on American soil since Pearl Harbor.

That evening, a President who did not win the popular vote spoke to the nation and united us. As a result, in the following days, weeks, month and year, President Bush held an approval rating that no other President has ever held before or after. His approval rating pushed toward 90% with all people, while almost reaching 100% among Republicans. Nearly 80% of Democrats approved of President George W. Bush. The country was united in grief, and united in the desire for justice.

That got me thinking as I watched the events unfold at the Capitol this past week while I was preparing a message from Romans for this Sunday's worship gathering. As I watched the events of this past week at the Capitol unfold I thought, “What would happen if 9/11 took place now?” How different things might be. Unlike then, each of us now hold a device in our hands that would have cost more than a luxury car in 2001. Everything we see is in high definition and instantaneous. We can watch Cobra Kai on Netflix while simultaneously tearing our friends heart out on social media with the latest political facts – and there is no need to wait. We have to be first to respond. The news cycle is endless and opinions even more so.

Today, if 9/11 took place in 2021, within 24 hours, we would be told what to think, why the other side was wrong and culpable, and how our vote for one or the other party can only be death to our country. We have no time to decide what unites us. We have no time to put our differences aside. The cycle on social media turns faster and faster as time goes on and with each passing news cycle.

The cycle goes something like this - We see the disaster. Most of the people agree that it is tragic. Then in a matter of hours we take up our positions and we paint our faces for war.

Here we are again. Pick a side. Get on the train. Hypocritical comparisons. Social media war games. Intellectual dishonesty. Talking heads preaching a flawed gospel. And then we get personal with one another. Our relationships are devolving like the boys on the desert island in the Lord of the Flies.

In Lord of the Flies a group of British boys wash up on the shore of a deserted island after their plane crashes. They set up a society with three rules, “have fun, survive, keep the smoke signal burning” so that they can keep the hope of rescue alive.  After one of the boys discovers a conch shell, they decide that anyone who holds the conch holds the floor. They elect a chief, Ralph, that not everyone is happy with and so the boys split into two camps.  A legend of a beast begins to grow among the boys. As tensions begin to build some of the boys discover the body of a pilot hanging in the trees. They believe this pilot is the beast that could kill the boys. The anti-Ralph leader of the beast party offers protection from the beast and things get worse. The boys begin  working off of unproven theories and misinformation. Tensions heat up between the Ralph Party and the Beast Party which lead to the murder of Ralph's friend, Piggy, as another boy pushes a bolder on his head while Piggy is making a speech with the conch.

By the end of the story, people are dead, relationships are fractured, they have devolved into animalistic and tribal behavior. As the story crescendos into a finale the beast party chases down Ralph, the original elected chief and one of their own, in order to kill and behead him – for they have become so blinded by their fear and lust for power that they now believe Ralph is the beast. The story ends as the forest is burning behind them and an adult British sailor is standing dumbfounded on the beach.  At the sight of the soldier all of the boys snap out of their lust for blood and begin to sob. They can’t believe what they have become when they are confronted with rescue and reality. The tragedy began with small disagreements, was fanned into flame through fear, and ultimately ended in violence because of the demonization of the other side.

The beast party in Lord of the Flies had reasoned themselves into violence. And when finally confronted with rescue and reality, it was too late. In the same way, we often reason ourselves into unscriptural means of retaliation and when we get there, we have no idea how we arrived. When we are confronted with the reality and rescue of the Gospel we are wakened from a bad dream. What does this have to do with how we interpret the siege on the Capitol?

What happened this past week and the events leading up to it were absolutely wrong in the eyes of God. For those that want to respond to this position by alluding to the violence of the rioting and looting of this past summer - the violence, looting, and destruction were also absolutely wrong in the eyes of God.  Peaceful and lawful protest is never unlawful in this land – even if the cause is questionable. But violence and sedition are always unlawful.

There are numerous Scriptures that give us clear instruction on how to handle people that disagree with us, people that have persecuted us, people that have struck us on the face, people that would steal from us, people that would lie to us, and people that lead us. Often times the people that lead us are the very people who lie to us, strike us and steal from us. Nowhere in the teachings of Jesus will you find an ethic of hatred, war, violence, sedition, and insurrection. Nowhere.

Instead, we are called to turn the other cheek to those who strike us, to give more to those who would steal from us, to pray for leaders even if they persecute us, to live peaceable and quiet lives, and to encourage each other all the more as we meet together with the fact that we are foreigners here, citizens of heaven, and that our true King is preparing a place for us and is coming back with justice and wrath in one hand, and salvation in the other.

When I hear many of our leaders speak today, when I hear the propagation of lies or conspiracy theories, whether red or blue, I want to reach through the screen and physically silence them. It is the same feeling I had as a child when I felt a great injustice had been done. Why did my brother get to eat more of the Lucky Charms than I did when we were only allowed one bowl? Why did my younger brother get to do things I wasn’t allowed to do at his age? Why did the jerk in my class get the girl? Why did the guys cheating on the Algebra test with their Texas Instrument TI-84 graphing calculators get the better grade when I spent time at the Tutor’s house and still barely passed? And why is the crowd so enthralled with the cheaters and the liars?

When there is injustice no matter how big or how small we get so angry and fed up because we want to see justice done on the one hand, and because on the other hand we are all hypocrites. Let me explain.

On the one hand, I want to see justice done. We have an innate desire to see justice done because we bear the image of God. God is perfectly just. He is perfectly righteous. We bear that image. So, when we see injustice, whether it be civilians dying on 9/11, a man choked until dead by a police officer, a police officer assassinated in their car for doing their job, innocent men and women losing their lives and businesses during a riot, or conspiracy theorists unlawfully and violently storming the Capitol, or something of far less worth, not getting as many Lucky Charms as we wanted while others eat like it’s the Wedding Supper of the Lamb, we get angry. Injustice, lies, hypocrisy should anger us because it angers God.

On the other hand, I get angry because I am a hypocrite. I ate more Lucky Charms than I was supposed to. I did things my older brother wasn’t allowed to do. I was the jerk who got the girl from time to time. I cheated on a test before – I just didn’t use the TI-84 calculator….first. But still, I wanted those who seemed to get away with their sin (never-mind my sin) to pay. In this way my own hypocrisy was the source of my desire for justice. When I become so focused on another’s sin, that their sin affects my growth in  Jesus and living life by the Spirit, I have become a hypocrite with no real grasp of how my reality without Jesus needed the rescue Jesus offers in the Gospel. In other words, the Gospel ceases to have a real personal impact for me. I begin to live my life pointing fingers at others and screaming, “what about!”

When I watch what is going on in our world, I want the liars, the looters, the conspiracy theory propagators, the racists, the narcissists, the cult members, and anyone else who can’t live peaceably with others to pay. I want the various leaders to answer for their lies and their culpability and I want their followers to admit where they are wrong. But my motives are mixed and never fully innocent.

This dichotomy of wanting justice because I bear God’s image and the stain of sin got me thinking. It got me thinking about the Gospel. It got me thinking about priorities. Because here is the truth of the matter concerning our priorities as followers of Jesus.

The Gospel informs every other philosophy, ideology, politic, relationship, and cause in our lives. For the follower of Jesus, The Gospel isn’t just an item on a list of priorities, but rather it encompasses all of those priorities. We’re not thinking with Jesus’ Kingdom ethic when we view the Gospel as just another item on a list of priorities. For example we often list our priorities this way: 1. The Gospel. 2. Family. 3. Friends. 4. Job. 5. Hobbies…etc. or 1. God. 2. Family. 3. Country.

Rather than a priority item, the Gospel is the lens which we see all other priorities through and the filter that reminds us of our first need of rescue. The Gospel encompasses and oversees every aspect of our life. We develop priorities because of the Gospel. We Love our family more than our success, money, or career because the Gospel compels us to do so. We love our brothers and sisters in the church who disagree with us because the Gospel compels us to do so. We cherish our friendships over the almighty dollar or our political party because the Gospel compels us to do so. We pray for those who persecute us because the Gospel compels us to do so. We have a list of priorities in the first place because we worship and follow Jesus. The Gospel informs the way we live life, the decisions that we make, and the way we interact with the people in this world.

My desire for justice also got me thinking about Jesus himself. I want the people who have caused harm and injustice to pay. But I am not Jesus. How did Jesus deal with injustice?

Jesus, the only perfect man ever, stood trial and was accused of being a conspirator against Rome. His accusers developed conspiracy theories that were motivated by their own fears that he would cause problems with Rome and consequently that he was going to cause problems for them. This is why they were able to wrongly assume, “Better that one man die than a nation perish.” During his trial they laid these accusations against him. They said he was seditious. They said he was a heretic. They presented false witnesses who couldn’t even agree with one another or get their story straight. When Jesus refused to speak, they beat him, pulled his beard out, cursed at him, and delivered him over to those that had the power to kill him.

Jesus had every right to put all of them in their place and he had the power to do it in a way none of us could imagine. And he didn’t.

Like a lamb, he was led to the slaughter. He could have called down angels and he could have brought Armageddon right then and there without any hope of salvation for his accusers in those moments. But he didn’t. Instead, he died for the ones who gave him no reason to do so. He forgave them. He had compassion on them as they pierced him, beat him, crushed him, and ultimately killed him. He could have reigned down true justice in those moments and condemned all of them. Here is the real kicker, he is the only person in the world who would ever be righteous enough to do it. For where I (and you) only bear the stained image of God, Jesus is the radiance of the glory of God, and the exact representation of his being and image.

Even on that dark day on Golgotha there were several who looked at the beaten body of Christ and had a Lord of the Flies moment of rescue and reality. The thief who was cursing at Christ just moments before now confessed Christ as Savior as he was overcome with the rescue and reality of the Gospel. The Centurion who had overseen the crucifixion and proceedings in Pilate’s court, and perhaps driven some of the nails himself was overcome with the rescue and reality of the Gospel as he beheld Christ. These two men knew in that moment that they were the ones who had burnt down the forest. They were the ones who had murdered the innocent. They were the ones who had believed a lie about the beast and gave into their depravity. They woke up!

This same Gospel apprehension of the rescue and reality that we have in Jesus is the only hope that we have. It is not just a hope that is future, it is a hope of reconciliation, rescue and new reality – right now. In other words, if we have apprehended the rescue we need from the reality of who we are outside of Christ, we become merciful servants with an earthly purpose. We keep our mouths shut even when we have the right to open them if no good will come from it. We seek the betterment of those that would oppose us. We wake up to the reality of our sin and the perfection of Christ! We wake up to the justice due to us for sin and grace that has been given to us in Christ! We live as those no longer condemned but those who have been set free to live life!

I have been hearing in the news and on talk stations, “This is not us. This is not how the citizens of this country behave. We are better than this.” I understand the sentiment. But this is us. This is who we are, and it has always been who we are. We are not fundamentally good people. That is not our starting point. We are fundamentally flawed, and if given over to our true desires, we are the boy on the island who is throwing boulders on Piggy’s head, we’re chasing former friends through burning forests until they admit their wrong, we’re putting Jesus on a cross because he’s too confrontational. This is us. This is the message of Romans when Paul says, “there is no one righteous, no not one.” But it’s not the only message of Romans.

For if you have come to Jesus it is because God had revealed to you by His Word and Spirit the reality of your place without him because of sin. It is because God has revealed to you his perfect righteousness and holiness. It is because God had confronted you with the reality of the rescue we have in Christ by faith in Christ and our union with Christ. This too, is the message of Romans. God did not leave us in sin, misery, and despair, but instead, at just the right time, while we were enemies allowed His son Jesus to die for us.

This is the reality in which we are to live. For central to the message of Romans is, "Therefore there is now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus. For the power of the Spirit of life has set us free from the power of sin and death." This is our new reality. Free from the penalty of sin and free from the bondage and power of sin - this is life in the Spirit.

The next time we want someone to pay, we must first look to the debt that has been paid for us by Jesus, because God loved us. We must continue to condemn what is wrong, but we must do it as those who were once condemned, but now by grace, are living free. Let our love and gratitude for what God has done for us be the impetus for how we engage with the world.

Your Pastor, Friend, and Brother in Christ,

Pastor Dan Betters

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