Is My God Better Than Your God?

Well, my little post ‘My God doesn’t kill kids’ has attracted a little attention, both here and at the Edmonton Ecumenical Peace Network site. I’m grateful for the positive comments, and have carefully considered the criticisms (expressed mainly on Facebook). There are two main ones.

First, some have questioned my wisdom in titling the post ‘My God doesn’t kill kids’; it smacks of superiority, the idea that ‘My God is better than your God’. To quote one commenter:

As revolted as I am by the massacres in Peshawar, I don’t think we move forward with headlines that say, “My god is better than your god.”

And another says,

We need to steer clear of anything that even vaguely hints at Christianity putting itself above other world religions. Also, our Conservative government has sent F-18s to drop bombs in Afghanistan. How can we be sure that no children have been killed there as a result?

My response is to say that I am of course a monotheist, so I can’t literally believe that ‘My God is better than your God’; I believe there is only one God. You don’t have a different God than I do; we actually pray to the same God, we just believe different things about him. So when we say (as I did not, actually, but let’s assume I did), ‘My God is better than your God’, what I’m actually saying is ‘I think my ideas about God are more accurate than your ideas’.

Now this may sound arrogant and outrageous, but is it actually? Let me be crude for a moment. Surely we would all agree that it is better to believe that God wants us to live lives of love and compassion, rather than that God wants us to fly aircraft into tall buildings and murder thousands of men, women, and children, or bomb abortion clinics, or drop atomic weapons and wipe out hundreds of thousand of people? Can we really say that it doesn’t matter which of these two pictures of God is the right one? Is it really a level playing field, with those who say ‘God is love’ on the same level as those who murder in his name?

And yes, of course Christians have done this too; I freely admit that. I would submit, though, that when we Christians do this, we are being unfaithful to the vision of Jesus, who taught us to love our enemies and pray for those who hate us. I have no idea how that is connected with the idea of the Conservative government of Canada sending F-18s to drop bombs in Afghanistan; as far as I know, the government of Canada does not claim to be a Christian government or to be acting in the name of Jesus (the idea that there is or ever could be such a thing as a ‘Christian country’ is very problematic to me; the New Testament everywhere assumes that Christians will be a persecuted minority!). But crusades? Conquistadores? Abortion clinic bombers? Yes, of course; we have much to repent of.

However, if it’s reprehensible to think that it’s better to follow the way of Jesus (compassion, caring for the poor, loving your enemies, living simply, seeking the kingdom of God) than the way of someone who says God is pleased with the murders of children, then I’m guilty as charged. I do believe it’s better.

The second criticism is related to the first; it’s the idea that Christianity is ‘putting itself above other world religions’. My response would be to say that that pluralism is not the same as relativism. Pluralism means that we live in a society where everyone has the right to believe and practice their own religion, and I am not going to attempt to use force to compel you to go along with my beliefs. Pluralism is a friend to Christianity; it gives me the right as a Christian to follow the way of Jesus, unlike in some other places in the world, where I would be taking my life in my hands to do so.

But it is possible for me to believe you to be completely mistaken about something – to believe that my ideas about God are more accurate than yours, for instance – and not to resort to force to try to impose my ideas on you. This is what the early Christians did. For the first three centuries Christianity got no help from the empire; the Christians had no political or military power, but were a defenceless band of missionaries taking their message all over the Mediterranean world. Yes, they believed that Jesus was the incarnate Son of God and therefore had the most accurate picture of what God is like. They did not believe that he was just another human prophet; they believed that in him, God had come to live among us in a unique way. And they were glad to argue and debate this in any forum available to them, but not on the battlefield.

This is true pluralism, and I welcome it. Of course I believe that where Christianity and Islam disagree, Jesus is right and Muhammad is wrong; if I didn’t, I’d be a Muslim, not a Christian. Muslims believe the same thing in reverse! To state this idea is not Islamaphobia; it is simply to recognize that when one religion says, ‘Jesus is the incarnate Son of God’, and another says, ‘God has never had a son, nor could he’, you have to pick which one to believe in; they can’t both be right.

But pluralism is not the same as relativism. Pluralism says ‘Everyone has the right to believe and practice their own philosophy of life’. Relativism says, ‘All philosophies of life are equally valid’. With respect, no one believes that, not even the relativists! Get them into a political argument and see how quickly they abandon that idea!

Right – back to Christmas service preparations!

My God doesn’t kill kids

In the light of today’s outrageous attack on a school in Pakistan, I think it’s vital for people of faith all over the world to stand up together and say very clearly, ‘Our God doesn’t kill kids’.

In no way do I judge the whole of Islam by the acts of the Pakistani Taliban, who have claimed responsibility for this act. This year, at the prayer service for peace organized by the Edmonton Ecumenical Peace Network, we were joined by several people from the Muslim community in our city. I know that they are people of compassion and love, who pray and work for peace as much as I do.

But we have to stand up – all of us who claim to believe in a loving God – and say to the whole world, ‘We cannot do this kind of thing in the name of God’. I say this as a Christian, one who believes the things that Jesus taught about God and what God asks of us. Jesus taught us that little children are the greatest in the kingdom of heaven, that the way we treat a little child is the way we treat him, and that the children’s angels in heaven always see the face of his heavenly Father. Furthermore, he called on all his followers to love their enemies and pray for those who hate them, to turn the other cheek, and to imitate God who pours out his love on good and bad alike. To murder a child in the name of God is completely incompatible with these teachings of Jesus.

It is not, however, incompatible with some of the stories in the Old Testament, in which God is purported to have commanded his people to destroy cities and kill all their inhabitants – men, women, and children. I think we Christians have to face those passages honestly and say, “Jesus taught us a better way”. There is a reason why the writer to the Hebrews tells us that the new covenant is better than the old. There is a reason why, in the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus says, “You have heard that it was said… but I say to you” (see Matthew 5:21-48). We Christians believe that the Word of God in all its fulness is found in Jesus Christ; everything else in the scriptures is seen in the light of his life and teaching.

I am not familiar with the sacred texts of other religions in the same way that I know the Bible, but I am aware of many Jewish and Muslim people who say that they, too, interpret their holy books in such a way as to emphasize the love of God for all people. I hope that they will stand together and say, as I want to say, ‘Our God doesn’t kill kids!’ Those who are murdering children in God’s name must stop misrepresenting the God of love who hates nothing he has made, but loves everyone and wants everyone to come to him and live by his love.

My thoughts and prayers are with the people of Pakistan tonight. As my Facebook friend Steve Martens says, ‘I judge a person’s religion by the amount of love they show everyone’. I pray that the people of Jesus will be faithful to the teaching of Jesus, and that the followers of all religions will proclaim the love and compassion of God for all people, and God’s desire that all people learn to live together in peace and justice.

Cross-posted to Edmonton Ecumenical Peace Network

A Witness and a Voice (a sermon on John 1:6-9, 19-28)

I’m not sure which school for aspiring politicians John the Baptist had attended, but he sure had a lot to learn about how to grab the limelight. We can imagine him participating in a modern election and being questioned by journalists at a press conference:

      “So, John, are you the one we’ve been waiting for, the one who will defend our nation from terrorists and keep our streets safe from crime?”

      “I am not”.

      “Oh. Well, then, are you the one who who’ll solve the problem of poverty, who will make our society prosperous again, and do away with excessive taxation?”

      “I am not”.

      “Ah” (awkward silence). “Well, are you the one who will bring our nation back to traditional values? Are you the one who’ll remind us that we’re a Christian country, and enforce Christian standards in government?”

      “I am not”.

      “Well, John, what exactly are you planning to do if we vote for you?”

      “Voting for me isn’t important. I’m the voice of one crying out in the wilderness, ‘Make straight the way of the Lord’. He’s the one you really should be voting for; I’m just here to point you to him. He’s so much greater than me that I’m not even worthy to kneel down and tie his shoes for him”.

      “Ah. So where’s his press conference, then?”

Now you might think this is a far-fetched comparison; after all, John was a prophet and a preacher, not a politician. But the truth is, that distinction would have been lost on the Old Testament prophets. They lived in a world in which religion and politics were completely intertwined, and they regularly meddled with issues like caring for the poor and needy, and trusting in God rather than wise foreign policy.

The Collect for the Second Sunday in Advent, which we used last Sunday, goes like this:

Almighty God, who sent your servant John the Baptist to prepare your people to welcome the Messiah, inspire us, the ministers and stewards of your truth, to turn our disobedient hearts to you, that when the Christ shall come again to be our judge, we may stand with confidence before his glory; who is alive and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and forever. Amen.

Notice the royal language in that Collect: ‘to prepare your people to welcome the Messiah… when the Christ shall come to be our judge’. ‘Messiah’ is a Hebrew word, ‘Christ’ is Greek, but they both mean the same thing: ‘the anointed one’. It was the custom to anoint kings with olive oil at their coronations as a sign of God’s power coming down on them to equip them for their role, so in a sense every king of Israel was a ‘messiah’. But like us, the Israelites got tired of crooked politicians who only ruled for their own benefit; they looked back to what they saw as the golden age, when David had been their king; they longed for the day when God would send them another king like him, who would rule in righteousness and justice, care for the poor and needy, defend Israel from their enemies, and truly set up the Kingdom of God on earth. This king would truly be ‘the Messiah’.

What were their expectations around his coming? It would be a day when the nations of the world would turn to the God of Israel and come streaming to Jerusalem to learn to live by his laws – a day when nations would beat their swords into ploughshares and there would be no more studying the arts of war – a day when the lion would lie down with the lamb – in other words, natural enemies, like Israel and Assyria, would be reconciled and live together in peace. Israel would be free from tyrants, the land would enjoy peace and prosperity, and orphans and widows and marginalized people would be safe under the Lord’s just and loving rule.

It would also be a year of Jubilee. The Torah says quite clearly that every fiftieth year, there is to be a Year of Jubilee in Israel: all debts are to be forgiven, all slaves set free, and – most importantly – all land is to revert to its original owners. The goal of this was to prevent one family accumulating great wealth at the expense of another; when God originally distributed the land, he did it equally, and every fifty years, it was to become equal again. Of course, you can guess that those who were at the top of the power structures in Israel did not like this law, and in fact there is no evidence that it was ever followed. But it was right there in the Law of Moses, and the prophets reminded people of it regularly. It was right there in our Old Testament reading for this morning. Let me remind you of it:

‘The spirit of the Lord God is upon me, because the Lord has anointed me; he has sent me to bring good news to the oppressed, to bind up the brokenhearted, to proclaim liberty to the captives, and release to the prisoners; to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favour, and the day of vengeance of our God; to comfort all who mourn’ (Isaiah 61:1-2).

Did you hear it? ‘To proclaim the year of the Lord’s favour’. That’s the year of Jubilee, the year when the captives are to be set free and the oppressed are to be liberated.

It was an attractive and compelling vision; who wouldn’t vote for a politician who promised all that! No wonder the crowds were so excited when John the Baptist announced, ‘the Kingdom of God is at hand’! The easiest way to get followers in the time of Jesus was to start using this kind of language. It was such a tempting way to gain power; you can be sure that if someone in those days was asked, ‘Are you the Messiah?” it would be rather unusual for them to say, “No”!

Even today, of course, there is no shortage of Messianic candidates for political office, people who are sure they’re on a mission from God to save the world. Our politicians tend to use Messianic language at election time, and we have Messianic expectations of them. In fact, it would be hard to get elected these days without using that kind of language. Just think about the kind of things that were said when Barack Obama was elected as the first black president of the United States; King Arthur himself couldn’t have measured up to that set of expectations! And even in our quieter Canadian political climate, aspiring governments on left and right constantly imply that if we vote for them, Camelot is just around the corner, but if we vote for their opponents, it’s the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse!

So the first thing John the Baptist wants us to know is this: “there’s only one Messiah, and I’m not him”. The writer of the fourth gospel is very clever about how he uses language, and this is a good example. In this Gospel, Jesus is always saying, “I am”. “I am the Good Shepherd”, “I am the Light of the World”, “I am the Way, the Truth, and the Life”, “Before Abraham was, I am”. People who were familiar with the Jewish scriptures would have seen the significance of this right away; in the Old Testament, the name of God is ‘Yahweh’, or traditionally ‘Jehovah’, which means, “I am”.

But in the Gospel of John, Jesus is the only one who uses this language; he’s the only one who can say, “I am the Messiah”. Everyone else says, “I am not”. John the Baptist says, “I am not the Messiah, nor Elijah, nor the prophet”. The only one who is qualified to be the true Messiah is Jesus.

That’s why Jesus used that Old Testament reading from Isaiah as his text in his first sermon in Nazareth. Do you remember it? Luke tells us that he stood up in the synagogue in his hometown, the scroll of the prophet Isaiah was handed to him, and he read these words:

“The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to bring good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favour”. And he rolled up the scroll, gave it back to the attendant, and sat down. The eyes of all in the synagogue were fixed on him. Then he began to say to them, “Today this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing” (Luke 4:16-21).

In other words, he is the one who can truly say he has come to change the world.

Back in the 1970s Bruce Cockburn wrote a song called ‘Laughter’. One of the verses went like this:

Let’s hear a laugh for the man of the world
who thinks he can make things work.
Tried to build the New Jerusalem
and ended up with New York.

The ‘man of the world’ has always done that – tried to build the Messianic Kingdom without the true Messiah – tried to build the Kingdom of justice and peace by using injustice and war. The true Messiah is too demanding, so we need to find someone else who’ll do the job in his place, someone who won’t demand that we sell our possessions and give to the poor, or love our enemies and pray for those who hate us. But it’s a very rare leader who has the courage to say, “No, I’m not the one. Let me point you to the true Messiah, the one you really need to be following; his way is the only way that’s really going to change the world’.

We Christians are called to follow the example of John the Baptist: to insist that there is only one Messiah, and it’s not us or any other earthly leader; it’s Jesus. John was not the Messiah: he was a witness, and a voice. Look at what he says about himself in today’s gospel reading; quoting from Isaiah 40, he says,

I am the voice of one crying out in the wilderness, ‘Make straight the way of the Lord’ (John 1:23).

Earlier on in the chapter we read,

(John) came as a witness to testify to the light, so that all might believe through him. He himself was not the light, but he came to testify to the light. The true light, which enlightens everyone, was coming into the world. (John 1:7-9).

John was a voice crying out in the wilderness, and he was a witness to testify to the light of the world, Jesus himself.

So we go back to our collect for last Sunday: ‘Almighty God, who sent your servant John the Baptist to prepare your people to welcome the Messiah’. That’s what we’re being called to do this Advent, and every Advent: to welcome the true Messiah. We do this in three ways.

First, we refuse to listen to false Messiahs who propose alternative ways to find peace and happiness. The truth is that war and politics won’t solve the problems of the world. Those problems will only be solved by love in action, and that’s not a political program, it’s a program of transformation that asks every one of us to change our hearts toward God and our neighbours. That’s what Jesus taught us.

At this time of year we are bombarded by the voices of economic messiahs telling us to buy, buy, buy, because that’s the way to be happy. But it’s our role as Christians to say ‘no’ to this enormous commercial hoopla. This is not the way Jesus taught us! How did we get the idea that the way to celebrate the birth of the one who told us to sell our possessions and give to the poor was to go out and participate in an annual festival of extravagance and greed?

So we refuse to listen to these false Messiahs. Secondly, we give our obedience to the true Messiah, Jesus. By his life and teaching, he has shone a brilliant light into the darkness of the world. Our role as his followers is to let that light transform us, because the same Jesus who said “I am the light of the world” also said to his followers “You are the light of the world”. He taught us to quit concentrating on things, and to seek first the Kingdom of God instead. He taught us to forgive those who sin against us, love our enemies and pray for them. He taught us to live simple lives with only a few possessions, and to give generously to the needy. He taught us to speak the truth, keep our promises, love God with all our hearts and be a neighbour to all in need. This is the program for us disciples of Jesus. To become a Christian is to enrol in a school of discipleship. The gospels, and especially the Sermon on the Mount, give us the curriculum. Do you think there’s enough there for us to work on? I think there is!

So we refuse to listen to false Messiahs, and we give our obedience to the true Messiah. Lastly, like John the Baptist, we give our witness about Jesus to others.

He came as a witness to testify to the light, so that all might believe through him. He himself was not the light, but he came to testify to the light. The true light, which enlightens everyone, was coming into the world. (John 1:7-9).

My witness to you today is that the only way I can make sense of life in this crazy world is to follow Jesus. In his words and his example, I find the light of God. And so I want to share his story with others and encourage them to come to his light as well. That’s my role as a disciple of Jesus. Jesus says, “Follow me, and I will send you out to fish for people”. The first part, ‘follow me’, leads inevitably to the second part, fishing for people; it’s an integral part of being a follower of Jesus.

I am not the Messiah, neither are you, and neither is the Church. The only Messiah is Jesus. So let’s give our allegiance to him, live by his light, and spread it to others. Amen.