Where You Begin

Where you begin determines where you end up.  It sounds like a simple enough statement, but it continues to be a pervasive monkey-wrench in human communications and interactions.  Consider this recent statement by President Obama.  He considers Jesus’ statement regarding the reality of continuing poverty to be cynical.  How can this be?

I believe it demonstrates an underlying difference in starting point.  Jesus as the Incarnate Son of God understands very clearly human nature and how deeply it is enmeshed with sin.  As such, our own sinfulness will always ensure that there are poor people.  That sinfulness may be my own sinfulness, my own unwillingness to share what I have with others.  It may be the sinfulness of others who take from me to give to the poor but misappropriate or misapply that aid so that either they are personally enriched or the poor or not substantively helped.  And it might be the sin of the person in need, the choices and decisions they make which ensure that any amount of help they are given will never be enough to substantially alter their state of poverty.  Sin shows up in all places and in all people.

President Obama seems to hold a view of humanity that is fundamentally more optimistic, a view that says that we can indeed eliminate poverty, whether just within our own country or around the world.  In other words, our sinfulness is either non-existent (people are basically good and just need to be shown the good to do) or is not pervasive enough to ensure that poverty is never fully eradicated.  The State becomes the mechanism through which people are shown what the good to do is, and which accomplishes that good either on their behalf or despite their objections.  Any suggestion that this is not possible will be judged as cynical, as it denies the underlying presuppositions about human nature.  Jesus was cynical about human nature and therefore realistic about the results.  President Obama sounds more optimistic about human nature and therefore more optimistic about our potential.

Let’s be clear here – there are Christians who embrace both of these points of view.  There are plenty of people who seek to follow Jesus who assume that sin is not a necessary aspect of our human nature after the Fall in Genesis 3.  The Church has dealt with this assumption for centuries.  In some ways it is an attempt to defend the righteousness of God, by making us capable of choosing obedience or faithfulness on our own, and thereby explaining the pernicious, persistent question of why some people are saved and not others if God is all-knowing, all-loving, all-powerful, and desiring that all should be saved.  The only problem with this defense is that it negates the consistent witness of Scripture.  The fact that President Obama appears to take the issue of human sinfulness lightly in his comments does not necessitate the allegation that he is not Christian.

All that being said, there is a way in which the President’s words are true.  It is too easy for Christians to hear Jesus’ words about the poor as an excuse.  Why bother caring about the poor because they’re always going to be there?  Jesus’ description of our sinful state becomes the excuse for continuing in our sinful state.  And that is hardly Jesus’ intent.  There is a lot that can and should be done, and Christians must continue to be at the forefront of those who make this assertion.  We might disagree about whether it should be the Church or State who leads in this regard, but we must acknowledge that in either case, sin will continue to work in and through us.  Poverty will be eased but not eradicated.  There will always be opportunities for Christian charity, for loving our neighbor through seeking to alleviate their physical or financial suffering.

Where you start makes a big difference to where you end up.  In this case, it determines who or what we place our hope in.  I don’t place my hope in government or any other human institution, no matter how well-intentioned.  I place my hope in the redemption promised in the death and resurrection of Jesus the Messiah.  I place my hope in his continued and present dominion over all things, and in the future revelation of that dominion.  I am commanded – and privileged – to love my neighbor today.  But only in the plan of God the Father will my neighbor and myself be finally healed.

2 Responses to “Where You Begin”

  1. Invisible Mikey Says:

    Well, Obama has to be everyone’s President, not just the “Christian President”. That should be reflected in his public statements. This is as much a problem of how to act ethically as it is an acceptance of the resilience of flaws (sin) in people.

    • mrpaulnelson Says:

      Thanks and welcome, Mikey.

      Agreed – Obama is everyone’s president. His role as President is to draw attention to the problem of poverty and our need to be concerned about addressing it. I agree wholeheartedly with that, whether the speaker happens to be Christian, Muslim, or Buddhist.

      But his actions and words in that regard, his suggestions and approaches, will be shaped by who he is personally – what he believes whether philosophically or theologically. How he approaches the problem of poverty reveals what he believes about reality.

      As such, I presume the choice of wording was intentional. Given the context of Obama’s statements (a Christian leadership conference), he chose to echo Jesus’ statement intentionally, knowing that his hearers would be able to recognize the original in the echo. The curious thing is that he drew on Jesus’ words to contradict them, rather than to uphold them.

      For non-Christians, it’s not a big deal to criticize or contradict the words of Jesus. I don’t expect someone who isn’t a Christian, who doesn’t accept Jesus as the divine Son of God, to accord Jesus’ words any greater power or insight than any other human being. But for Christians – who claim that Jesus is not simply some guy but also the divine Son of God, and therefore possessed of divine wisdom and insight – criticizing or contradicting Jesus’ words is a very big deal indeed!

      The president has the difficult task of being a good president for all the people of the United States. You and I have the difficult task of being good neighbors, sons, fathers, husbands, employees, employers, etc. to the people around us. We have to balance these roles with our personal beliefs, or more accurately, our personal beliefs will direct and determine how we attempt to fulfill these roles – just as with President Obama. Being able to study and try to understand the underlying beliefs a person holds will help us to understand better what they do and what they say. It isn’t only a matter of agreement or disagreement, but rather of analysis. I can disagree with the President’s criticism of Jesus’ words, but I should also seek to understand what beliefs might prompt him to such criticism. This is helpful in the dwindling art of dialogue – not simply gainsaying somebody else but trying to honestly understand what they mean and why, and to both attempt to discern truth and reality through the exchange.

      Which is something I hope to do on a modest scale through this blog. Thanks for participating and I hope you’ll continue to!

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