John and the Military

Soldiers also asked John, “And we, what should we do?”
He said to them, “Do not extort money from anyone by threats or false accusation, and be satisfied with your wages.”
(Luke 3:14)

In yesterday’s post I reflected a bit on how John the Baptist’s words to soldiers might relate to present-day law enforcement. Today I want to share a couple of thoughts about the soldier soldier aspect of it. What, if anything, do John’s instructions for Roman soldiers have to do with modern-day militaries and wars?

A few years ago, I found myself talking with a pastor about things like US foreign policy and military violence, and whether or in what ways Christians should or shouldn’t participate in a military machine that has done and continues to do a lot of bad things. The pastor brought up Luke 3:14.

It was my first exposure to what turns out to be a common argument, which goes something like this: when Roman soldiers came to John the Baptist―and we all know that the Roman army did all sorts of bad things―John did not tell them to quit their jobs. He just gave them instructions as to how they should operate within their current roles. Therefore, John did not (and likewise God does not) disapprove of war itself or of the military itself, and it is okay for Christians to participate―as long as they’re good and moral within their roles.

I wasn’t quite convinced by the argument, but I also wasn’t sure how to respond.

Fortunately, though, during my second quarter of seminary, I got to take a whole class called Biblical and Practical Peacemaking, taught by Ron Sanders. And now I know everything!

Just kidding. But the class was really great, and I did learn a lot. I was exposed to different perspectives on things like just war theory―a specific set of standards for determining whether entering a war is just, and for limiting the injustices done both during that war and after it ends―and pacifism―the view that participating in the violence of war is never necessary or justifiable.

One perspective I found really helpful is from a book called Just Peacemaking, edited by Glen Stassen (Cleveland: The Pilgrim Press, 2008). In this book’s introduction, the authors argue that, while debates between just war theory and pacifism are not unimportant, there are actually a lot of peace-making practices that we can all agree on, even though we might still deeply disagree about the high-level question of whether or not war is ever right or moral.

Does the fact that John the Baptist did not tell the soldiers to quit their jobs in the army imply, as some believe, that John was not a pacifist? Maybe. Maybe not. We can debate about it, and there are all sorts of other Scripture passages and experiences and other pieces of evidence we could bring in to fuel that debate.

Stassen et al.’s Just Peacemaking book helped me understand that we do not have to resolve all of these disagreements―we do not have to all be on the same page about just war theory and pacifism―before we seek together to move toward practices of just peacemaking. 

We can debate these things as much as we want―and we can bring John the Baptist into it as much as we want, although I suspect that he would want no such thing―but at the end of the day, the likelihood that we will all convince one another and get on the same page at any time in the foreseeable future seems pretty small.

But maybe we don’t have to. Maybe we can move forward together, as Stassen suggests, by asking different kinds of questions together. Questions like: What practices have been historically shown to actually decrease the likelihood of war and the amount of violence in the world? What are the tangible ways in which we can “promote justice and cooperation in a world whose wars are immeasurably destructive” (p. 17)?

According to Stassen et al., “peace, like war, must be waged” (p. 21). There are proactive peace-making measures we can and must take―both for just war theorists, who, at their best, are committed to trying all other possible conflict resolutions before resorting to war, and for pacifists, who, at their best, are committed not only to refuse participation in war but also to actively pursue peace and justice.

John the Baptist didn’t operate within the categories of just war theory or pacifism. These things were developed later.

What John did want was for the Roman soldiers to know that, within the positions they did hold in the military, what they did and did not do mattered. There were things they could do that would increase the violence and awfulness of war, and there were things they could do that would decrease the violence and awfulness of war.

On an individual level, the soldiers could resist the temptation to capitalize on the power available to them through their position or their weapons to take advantage of others (similar to my reflections on law enforcement from yesterday’s post). 

And, on a broader, societal scale, perhaps the soldiers could consider whether the wars in which they were asked to participate may or may not involve extorting money from anyone by threats or false accusation, and/or involve not being satisfied with your wages. After all, it is not only individuals who extort and threaten and falsify, but armies and nation-states as well. It is not only individuals who are not always satisfied with their wages―or their current level of national wealth―but countries as well.
Nations sometimes wage war for the sake of self-protection or because they hope it will serve larger humanitarian causes in the end; other times, they wage war out of a thinly veiled desire to extort (or otherwise extract) money from other countries, often employing false accusations to justify their aggression and violence, drumming up public support on false premises.

It is no secret that the US has been involved in plenty of these latter sorts of wars. I think of the Bush administration’s appeal to the public’s fears of weapons of mass destruction in order to justify the war in Iraq. I think of the recently released Afghanistan papers, which reveal some of the extent of the falsehoods told to the American public about a war that has proven mind-boggling-ly long and costly. 

I’m still not entirely sure what I would have said to the pastor who brought up Luke 3:14 as an argument that the Bible is not particularly pacifist. I might suggest, though, that we allow John’s words to prompt some deep soul-searching―soul-searching not just on the part of individual members of the armed forces but also for all of us who live in a military superpower nation that does not always use its powers for good. 
I might also suggest that we take some of the energy we tend to spend on arguments about just war theory and pacifism and re-direct it toward proactive practices that help build a more just and peaceful world―a world with fewer threats, less extortion, fewer false accusations, and more contentment with our (personal and national) wages.

John and the Long Arm of the Law

Soldiers also asked John, “And we, what should we do?”
He said to them, “Do not extort money from anyone by threats or false accusation, and be satisfied with your wages.” 
(Luke 3:14)

This third group of people who come to John the Baptist asking, what then should we do? gets an answer that I want to reflect on from two angles.

The first has to do with law enforcement. The second (which I’ll save for tomorrow) has to do with the military.

I imagine Roman soldiers functioning basically as human extensions of the authority of the Roman emperor, into the farthest corners of Roman-occupied territory. The long arm of the law, if you will.

I imagine they had a fair amount of power, and people kind of had to do what they said. I imagine they carried swords―and that if they were here in the US today, they would carry guns.

It’s not hard to imagine that there probably wasn’t great accountability for those soldiers who decided to abuse their power against civilians. There probably weren’t a lot of checks and balances in place to make sure they didn’t do things like extort money from people by threats or false accusation. If these were the first things that came to mind for John when the soldiers asked, what then should we do, they must have been common practices.

Fortunately for us, modern-day law enforcement officers never abuse their power in these sorts of ways, so we can’t really relate.

Just kidding.

When I think about Roman soldiers making threats and false accusations against people, I think about police officers who frame black and brown people for things like drug possession and send them to jail (often extorting money via bail in the process). A quick Google search for an example brought up this particularly egregious and obvious case―for which there was some accountability, but only slightly subtler things like this happen all the time, often with no accountability.

I think about police officers who make excuses for their own (or their colleagues’) unwarranted, excessive, and often racially-based violence, by defaming the character of the person against whom the violence was inflicted, or by falsely claiming that the person had a weapon, or that there was a good reason to assume they had a weapon. John says, do not make false accusations.

I think about law enforcement officers who betray the people they are meant to serve, by working with, rather than against, organized crime groups. This recent podcast from This American Life tells a horrifying and sickening story about a Central American man who was turned away from the US border upon trying to claim asylum. Along with fellow turned-away asylum seekers, the man was taken to the Mexican immigration office, after which a Mexican immigration officer picked everyone up and drove them all to a bus stop―and then sat in his car and watched while the asylum seekers were picked up not by a bus but by cartel members in a van who drove them to an unknown location and held them for ransom. Later on, when the man’s sister sent money to the kidnappers for his release, she was asked to wire this money to the account number of the Mexican immigration officer. John says, do not extort money from anyone by threats.

Of course, things are complicated, and cartels are terrifying. I wouldn’t want to blame the Mexican immigration officer too easily, or alone. Let’s not forget the complicity of the US immigration agents at the border who, under instructions from Trump’s administration, by default turn away people who are legitimately fleeing for their lives. And, as the This American Life podcast mentions, by releasing people at the border in large groups at a predictable time of day, US agents make these people unnecessarily vulnerable and obvious targets for exploitation.

History and present-day experience are full of people doing normally-unconscionable things, simply because they are told to by their superiors. Stanley Milgram did a famous social psychology experiment in the 1960s with disturbing results to this effect. He had an authority figure (a scientific researcher) instruct participants to administer larger and larger shocks to a person in an adjacent room and found that about two-thirds of participants obeyed the authority figure and administered shocks large enough that (had they been real) they would have likely killed the person in the other room.

Milgram’s intent was to investigate how the Holocaust could have happened, with so many otherwise ordinary citizens participating in it in various ways; his conclusion was that most people will do very bad things if someone else who they believe has legitimate authority is telling them to do it, and if they believe that that person will take responsibility for the consequences.

John the Baptist says, don’t do these things. In the situation you’re in, with the power that you have―and sometimes in spite of all of the other powers you might be under―follow your conscience. Yes, it will be hard. Yes, it might cost you your job (as it did for one of the immigration agents interviewed by This American Life). Do the right thing anyway.

John says, do not extort money from anyone by threats or false accusation. For all of us―and especially for people who, like the Roman soldiers of John’s day, find themselves in situations where harming others is easy and peers and supervisors either turn a blind eye or push them toward doing harm―do good and not evil to the people you are meant to serve and protect.

Do good and not evil, even if you can do evil and get away with it, with someone else taking responsibility for your actions. Even if you can do evil and it doesn’t really feel like you’re causing someone harm, because that harm is indirect, or happens far away from you. Even if everyone else in the department or agency is doing evil. Even if your supervisor specifically tells you to do evil.

I don’t intend this as an anti-law-enforcement post. There are so many law enforcement officers who serve their communities well, and sacrificially, often facing high risks and bearing high costs in their own wellbeing. John isn’t against the soldiers. He doesn’t call them a brood of vipers, or say away from me, you evildoers (Matthew 7:23), or anything like that. He says, bear good fruit―and for you in particular, given your position in society, that means protect people and don’t exploit them.

Hopefully, for those in law enforcement or similar kinds of positions who are already doing these things, John’s words are comforting: you’re doing the right thing. Keep at it. Be encouraged and strengthened in it. I want everyone to do what you’re doing. It is possible.

May we be thankful for the many people in law enforcement who serve their communities well, while also following John’s lead in calling unapologetically for an end to all kinds of exploitative practices, racism, dishonesty, violence, and other evils. 

Evangelical Pastor John

And the crowds asked John, “What then should we do?”
In reply he said to them, “Whoever has two coats must share with anyone who has none; and whoever has food must do likewise.”
Even tax collectors came to be baptized, and they asked him,“Teacher, what should we do?”

He said to them, “Collect no more than the amount prescribed for you.” (Luke 3:10-13)

I’m trying to imagine John the Baptist preaching in a typical US evangelical church today.

John stands under a big hipster-looking cross next to a screen that still shows the chorus of the last praise song, and he starts talking about broods of vipers and fleeing the wrath to come and bearing fruit worthy of repentance and the ax lying at the root of the trees (see Luke 3:7-9, or Matthew 3:7-10). In the awkward silence that follows, someone sitting in a pew near the back yells out what everyone is thinking but is too polite to say: what then should we do?

US evangelical pastor John would probably tell them: “It’s really simple. All you have to do is pray and invite Jesus into your heart.” Or: “You have to confess your sins and ask Jesus for forgiveness.” Or: “Just believe in Jesus and give your life to him.” Or: “Come on up to the front of the church during the altar call.”

The crowd, or the congregation, might then say, “Okay―but all of these things are kind of vague. What does inviting Jesus into my heart mean? And coming up to the front of church and getting prayed for―do I have to? What exactly does that do? And what comes next after all these things?”

US evangelical pastor John might respond: “Okay, great! These are really good questions. I’m so glad you’re asking these things. Let’s get into some of the specifics of the Christian faith.”

What are these specifics? Maybe: “It’s as easy as ABC. A: admit your sins to Jesus. B: believe that Jesus died on the cross for the forgiveness of sins. C: confess your sins, and confess your faith in Jesus.” (Have you heard that one?)

Or evangelical pastor John might say: “Let me tell you about the Roman road. It’s the path to God.” (As this website puts it, it’s a “well-engineered path to salvation.”) He might say something like, “Romans 1:20-21 says that we are part of God’s glorious creation. Romans 3:32 says that we are sinners who fall short of God’s glory. Romans 5:8 says that, even so, Christ died for us, making a way for forgiveness of sins. Romans 6:23 says that God gives us eternal life through Jesus. Romans 10:9-10 says that we can have this eternal life if we confess that Jesus is Lord and believe that God raised Jesus from the dead.” (How about this one―have you heard something like this?)

Or evangelical campus minister John might say: “Do you know God personally? Let me tell you about the four spiritual laws. 1) God created you and wants you to know him personally. 2) People are separated from God by sin. 3) Jesus’ death on the cross and resurrection is the only cure for this separation. 4) When we individually receive Jesus as Lord and Savior through faith, we can know God and experience God’s love personally.” (Does this sound familiar?)

The crowds ask, what then should we do? And John the Baptist (actual John the Baptist, not hypothetical US evangelical pastor John) says none of these things. There is no ABC, no Roman road, no four spiritual laws in a neat little pamphlet with cute illustrations.

Instead, John the Baptist offers simple instructions regarding what people should do. He talks about what it looks like to bear the kinds of good fruit that God desires. John talks about how we live.

To the crowds in general, John says, whoever has two coats must share with anyone who has none; and whoever has food must do likewise. And to the tax collectors, who often abuse their authority by gathering more than the required amount and pocketing the difference, John says, collect no more than the amount prescribed for you.

These instructions are pretty different from the standard evangelical answers to questions like what then should we do?―which generally involve believing a set of propositions, praying some words of a sinner’s prayer, and then (if we talk about the “and then”) reading your Bible and praying and going to church regularly until Jesus comes back or you die and go to heaven. Oh, and in the meanwhile, try not to swear, or drink too much, or do drugs, or have sex outside of marriage.

Evangelical Christians sometimes have an allergic reaction to anything that sounds like do this or don’t do that (with some exceptions, like swearing/drinking/drugs/sex, which we are often perhaps a little too focused on not doing―or on trying to prevent other people from doing). We look at the elaborate legal system God gave the Israelites in Exodus and Leviticus and think, “I have no idea what’s going on with most of these laws. God must have just given them to show us that we could never live up to God’s perfect and impossible standards, that we’re all sinners and need Jesus’ forgiveness. The Jewish people may have laws, but we Christians just have our belief in Jesus.”

The question of what exactly Christians are to make of the laws in the Hebrew Scriptures is a complicated one (and beyond the scope of this reflection). But John’s prescriptions for the people who come to him wondering, what then should we do, are not complicated. They may not be easy, but they are simple. And they are doable.

For us, as for the crowd, sharing our coats and food and other material possessions, when we have them, is something we really can do. We come up with all sorts of reasons and excuses not to, because we’re selfish―but we can do it. It might involve trying harder to build friendships and community across socioeconomic lines, and there are all sorts of barriers to that―but we can do it. It might require us to fight against deeply ingrained assumptions that we earned everything we have, and we deserve everything we have, and if other people don’t have enough, they must just not be working hard―but we can do it.

And for us, as for the tax collectors, choosing to work with integrity in our jobs is something we really can do. We can choose to say no to all sorts of opportunities to cheat, extort, exploit, and otherwise deprive people of money in order to build more wealth for ourselves. It might not always be easy, and it might mean a smaller paycheck―but we can do it. In the context of a company whose culture and ethos is to exploit others, it might even cost us our jobs―but we can do it.

When John says these things, he intends for people to actually do them. They are not just impossible standards that we can never live up to, meant only to help us understand that we need a savior. John really wants people to live in a way that is more generous and less greed-driven. When people ask what they should do, these are the things he talks about. It’s more than just praying a nice-sounding prayer or believing in the doctrines of the Roman road.

John says, the ax is at the root of the trees. Good fruit matters. What does this good fruit look like? Among other things, it can look like sharing what we have with others, and it can look like refusing to participate in exploitative economic practices.

May we hold these things in our minds and hearts, this Advent season and beyond―whenever we find ourselves wondering, what then should we do?

I Must Decrease…Or Must I? (Part 3 of 3)

After this Jesus and his disciples went into the Judean countryside, and he spent some time there with them and baptized. John also was baptizing at Aenon near Salim because water was abundant there; and people kept coming and were being baptized—John, of course, had not yet been thrown into prison.

Now a discussion about purification arose between John’s disciples and a Jew. They came to John and said to him, “Rabbi, the one who was with you across the Jordan, to whom you testified, here he is baptizing, and all are going to him.”


John answered, “No one can receive anything except what has been given from heaven. You yourselves are my witnesses that I said, ‘I am not the Messiah, but I have been sent ahead of him.’ He who has the bride is the bridegroom. The friend of the bridegroom, who stands and hears him, rejoices greatly at the bridegroom’s voice. For this reason my joy has been fulfilled. He must increase, but I must decrease.”  (John 3:22-30)

Over the last two days I’ve shared two stories that come to mind when I think about John the Baptist’s words, he must increase, but I must decrease. Here’s a third story.

When I was in my early twenties, a friend of mine, another young woman my same age, was invited to give a series of talks at the young adults’ fellowship group that I was a part of. I was on the group’s leadership team when our pastor suggested the idea, and I wholeheartedly supported it. I had known this friend since our freshman year of college, and I knew that she was smart, funny, insightful, sincere, and a gifted teacher. I looked forward to hearing what she had to say and learning from her.

But then, as the Thursday night fellowship meeting came, and my friend spoke to our group, I was surprised to find that I had a bit of an attitude problem. I found myself feeling like I already knew a lot of the things she had to say. I found myself not being very open to learning from her. I found myself remembering some of the less flattering (and more human) moments we had shared over the years. I found myself sitting in judgment.

Upon reflection, I realized that this attitude had nothing at all to do with my friend―with her teaching ability, or her character, or how much she knew, or anything like that. Instead, it had everything to do with my own jealousy.

I realized that I usually had no problem being happy for the successes of people who have gifts very different from my own. Visual art, for example―I have zero talent for it, but I love seeing things that other people have created. It’s beautiful, and amazing. I don’t really feel jealous, because it’s not something I have tried to do. I can just appreciate their gifts without feeling competitive. It doesn’t feel like their successes take anything away from me.

But with people who have gifts more similar to mine, it’s harder. My friend who spoke at our young adults’ fellowship has these kinds of gifts―things like music, teaching, writing. As she was being recognized for these gifts, it was hard for me not to feel a little jealous.

More so than the last two stories, this one has some similarities to what I imagine John the Baptist might have experienced leading up to his statement, he must increase, I must decrease.

John the Baptist and Jesus had, in some ways, similar gifts and similar senses of calling. They were doing some of the same things. They preached, they taught, they called people to repent, they baptized people.

And now, Jesus is becoming more “successful” than John. So John’s disciples come to him and say, wtf? You baptized him, and now he’s more popular than you…and you’re just letting it happen? Aren’t you jealous? Why is everyone so into him, anyway?

It turns out that John, unlike me, is completely lacking in envy. John keeps his focus on the goal―offering everyone the opportunity to repent and be baptized―and does not let his own ego get in the way. He is happy to do a bunch of baptizing himself; he is also just as happy to hear that Jesus is doing a bunch of baptizing.

John, of course, was a particular human located in a particular place at a very particular time. It is not every day that the son of God has just started his ministry on earth, and you are the special prophet who’s supposed to point to him and prepare the way for him. John was a unique person with a unique mission. Not everyone is the best man of the bridegroom Jesus in the same way John was.

In John’s story, when John said he must increase, I must decrease, he really was turning something over, acknowledging a shift in power dynamics, speaking to the reality that it was time for Jesus’ ministry to start and to gain more attention than his own. In my story, my friend’s opportunity to use her gifts, even though it might have brought up insecurities for me, did not actually mean that I could or would not have the opportunity to use my own gifts.

Sometimes it feels like in order for one person to increase, another must decrease. But it doesn’t have to be like that. My friend’s gifts can be (and are) amazing and beautiful without taking anything at all away from mine. There is―or at least there could be―plenty of space for everyone to use their gifts toward shared goals like healing and building up people, churches, and communities. (God knows there’s plenty of healing and building up to be done!)

So this is what I come away with when I reflect on John’s statement and its implications for us: it’s not at all straightforward, but it is worth asking ourselves some questions.

In this situation, must I decrease? What is my social location, and, given that, what does love and justice look like?

What does it look like for each person to be valued, each voice to be heard, each gift to be offered toward the wellbeing of individuals and the community? Are these goals best served by me taking the lead, following someone else, speaking up, stepping back, etc.?

Where is my ego in all of this? Do I feel threatened by someone else’s successes, and if so, what’s that about? What would it look like to act and interact in ways that acknowledge that, because God sees me, it’s okay if I increase and it’s okay if I decrease?

Where can I rejoice with others in their successes?

Where can I make more room for the perspectives and gifts of someone who has been underestimated or marginalized and does not need to decrease any more?

How can we, as individuals and communities, let go of our petty jealousies like John did, while also refusing to perpetuate cycles of injustice and unhealthy power dynamics by pretending everyone starts from the same place when it comes to increasing or decreasing?

May we wrestle with John’s statement he must increase, I must decrease and allow it to raise questions like these.

I Must Decrease…Or Must I? (Part 2 of 3)

After this Jesus and his disciples went into the Judean countryside, and he spent some time there with them and baptized. John also was baptizing at Aenon near Salim because water was abundant there; and people kept coming and were being baptized—John, of course, had not yet been thrown into prison.

Now a discussion about purification arose between John’s disciples and a Jew. They came to John and said to him, “Rabbi, the one who was with you across the Jordan, to whom you testified, here he is baptizing, and all are going to him.”


John answered, “No one can receive anything except what has been given from heaven. You yourselves are my witnesses that I said, ‘I am not the Messiah, but I have been sent ahead of him.’ He who has the bride is the bridegroom. The friend of the bridegroom, who stands and hears him, rejoices greatly at the bridegroom’s voice. For this reason my joy has been fulfilled. He must increase, but I must decrease.”  (John 3:22-30)

In yesterday’s post, I shared the first of three stories that come to mind when I think about John’s statement, he must increase, but I must decrease. That story was about a situation in which I do not think it was actually right or appropriate for me to seek to “decrease.”

Here’s the second story.

About two years ago, I spent a snowy January weekend in Denver at the annual conference of Q Christian Fellowship (formerly called the Gay Christian Network), along with a handful of college students from the LGBTQ+ affirming Christian ministry where I was volunteering. I went to the conference because I thought it would be encouraging for these students to be able to meet and spend time with a bunch of fellow LGBTQ+ Christians from all over the country.

For my part, I was one of not terribly many straight people at the conference. It was really great. I learned a lot and felt really privileged and grateful to see and (briefly) be a part of an amazing, resilient, beautiful family of LGBTQ+ people of faith.

The weekend left me more deeply aware of the broader church’s impoverishment as a result of its exclusion of LGBTQ+ people. I was also inspired by seeing some of what the church can be when LGBTQ+ people are really free to use their gifts to serve, speak, sing, minister, and otherwise lead. (Would highly recommend the conference, both for LGTBQ+ Christians looking for an accepting community and for anyone willing to sit in and learn.)

At one point during the weekend, I went out for dinner with a group of people from the LGBTQ+ Christian community of the greater LA area. There were maybe twenty or thirty of us.

As we sat around a long table at Yard House, there was a moment in the conversation when one person shared an observation he had made about tendencies in gay relationships. Other people laughed and agreed.

I, however, was not at all convinced that his observation was unique to gay relationships. I felt like it applied to a lot of straight couples I knew as well.

So, I said something along those lines…and then instantly regretted it. I saw immediately from people’s faces that the comment was not appreciated.

Reflecting on this moment, I don’t think my comment was necessarily wrong or bad, but it was out of place. In that moment I was a straight person surrounded by LGBTQ+ people who had worked so hard and given so deeply of themselves to create, in this community, one of just a very few truly safe spaces―anywhere, really, and especially in the Christian world―to be openly gay. One of just a few truly safe spaces to reflect on and laugh about some of the things that might characterize gay relationships.

The people sitting at that table with me had graciously welcomed me to join them in this space. But when I, as a straight person, spoke up with something contradictory to say―and something that was about straight people rather than gay people―I was trampling on a sacred moment. 
I can talk about straight relationships anywhere. I see straight relationships modeled everywhere, all the time, from TV shows and movies, to friends and mentors, to church. I can reflect on straight relationships and make observations about them however and whenever I want.

But this was a space where gay experiences and relationships were actually, for once, centered and considered important. And when I brought my own straight-person judgment into it, I was turning the attention away from their experiences and back to my own.

In that moment, I really didn’t need to speak up. In that moment, I needed to decrease, making room for other people to be able to share perspectives that often get trampled on, or just aren’t safe to share in the first place. Or, if I had spoken up, it could have been to ask questions and learn something, not to judge and contradict.

I don’t mean to make too much of a brief moment that passed quickly, or beat myself up over a well-intended but (understandably) poorly-received comment. I just share this story as an example of a moment when I needed to decrease. I needed to step back and let others shape the conversation.

I also share this story as a counterexample to yesterday’s story. Taken together, I think the two situations illustrate just a little bit of how complex things can get when we think about John’s statement that he must increase, but I must decrease, and what it might mean in our lives and contexts.

Tomorrow’s story will offer one more angle on all of this.

I Must Decrease…Or Must I? (Part 1 of 3)

Finally moving on from Matthew 3!

Here’s a story about John the Baptist from the book written by another dude whose name was also John:

After this Jesus and his disciples went into the Judean countryside, and he spent some time there with them and baptized. John also was baptizing at Aenon near Salim because water was abundant there; and people kept coming and were being baptized—John, of course, had not yet been thrown into prison.

Now a discussion about purification arose between John’s disciples and a Jew. They came to John and said to him, “Rabbi, the one who was with you across the Jordan, to whom you testified, here he is baptizing, and all are going to him.”

John answered, “No one can receive anything except what has been given from heaven. You yourselves are my witnesses that I said, ‘I am not the Messiah, but I have been sent ahead of him.’ He who has the bride is the bridegroom. The friend of the bridegroom, who stands and hears him, rejoices greatly at the bridegroom’s voice. For this reason my joy has been fulfilled. He must increase, but I must decrease.”  (John 3:22-30)

I’m going to sit on this passage for a minute―and by a minute, I mean this post and the next two as well. I particularly want to stew on the last sentence. John the Baptist, speaking about Jesus, says, he must increase, but I must decrease.

I could probably spend a while waxing poetic…or just preachy…on the virtues of humility, of decreasing our own power and need for control so that Jesus might increase, of laying down our own rights and needs and very lives so that the gospel might go forward and flourish.

I could say these things, and I wouldn’t necessarily be wrong.

But I also think it’s very complicated. And so, over the next three days, I want to share three personal stories that relate to John’s statement and (I hope) might help draw out some of the complexities that come up as we think about it.

Here is story number one:

I used to lead the college ministry at the church that I was a part of for a long time in the Bay area.

At this church, there is a pastor―whom I like, respect, and look up to a lot―who sometimes makes self-deprecating comments and jokes, in staff meetings or otherwise. I appreciate his quick wit and his humility, and I think others do too.

This pastor is also male, about ten years older than me, and much more well-established in the structures of institutional power at the church. Given all this―his social location, if you will―I think his self-deprecating humor helps people feel comfortable around him rather than intimidated. It helps people see that he is relatable and human.

At some point, I realized that sometimes I would make similar kinds of comments and jokes―but for me, they weren’t really working in my favor.

I was young, female, and not at all well-established in the church’s leadership structures. And I had to deal with things my male, well-established pastor colleague didn’t have to deal with.

For example, I would be surprised if my colleague has ever had a conversation with a male stranger in the church parking lot that went like this:

Male stranger (seeing me getting food out of my car, about to head toward the college breakfast meeting): “Hey, could you tell me, who’s leading the college ministry these days?”

Me (with a friendly smile): “I am!”

Male stranger: “No, no. Who’s leading the group?”

Me (the smile starting to fade a bit): “Right, that would be me.”

Male stranger: “No, I mean, who’s the college pastor?”

Me: “Oh, well, Scott is the pastor who supervises me, but I’m the one responsible for leading the college group. Did you have a question about the group or anything?”

Male stranger: “Ah, okay, it’s Scott. Great. Thanks!”

My unfortunate reality was that, no matter how much I might have wanted to make self-deprecating jokes, and how appropriate they might have been for my colleague, it wasn’t the same for me. When I said self-deprecating things, people would take them at face value. I knew that I was more capable than I was speaking about, but that wasn’t always obvious to others. 

As a young woman, fairly new to my job, with a lot of responsibilities but without the title of pastor―and all this in a church that did not fully approve of women in leadership―I was in a situation where I didn’t really need to “decrease” any more. I didn’t really need to be any lower than I was already.
I needed to step forward and step up, bringing the best of my talents and passions into a challenging role. I needed to confidently embrace my own belonging and appropriateness in that role. I did not need to try to “decrease” myself by downplaying my gifts or abilities. Doing so―through self-deprecating humor or otherwise―only hindered my ability to do my job, using my gifts fully and freely to lead the college ministry.

I think this is a common tension, and an important one. John the Baptist’s words about decreasing and increasing don’t always apply in our lives and communities in straightforward ways. In fact, the ways in which they do or don’t apply has a great deal to do with social location and power. And, on top of that, the amount of power and kinds of power each of us has can be very different in different contexts and situations.

Tomorrow I’ll share a second story that keeps exploring these kinds of thoughts, from another angle. 

Fire Baptism

I baptize you with water for repentance, but one who is more powerful than I is coming after me; I am not worthy to carry his sandals. He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire. His winnowing fork is in his hand, and he will clear his threshing floor and will gather his wheat into the granary; but the chaff he will burn with unquenchable fire.  -John the Baptist (Matthew 3:11-12)

I still remember the baptism song we would sing at the church I grew up in, even though it has been thirteen years or so since I have attended there regularly.

Baptized in water, sealed by the Spirit, marked with the sign of Christ our king. Born of the Spirit, we are God’s children, joyfully now God’s praises we sing.

It’s a lovely song. I like it.

I also think it’s interesting that in this song, and just in general, we like to think of baptism as baptism with water, but we’re not as comfortable with the image of baptism with fire. But baptism with Holy Spirit and with fire is what John the Baptist says that Jesus will do.

Literally speaking, baptism with fire seems a bit dicey. I’m picturing, I don’t know, singeing a couple of a baby’s hairs with a candle instead of sprinkling water on her head, or having an adult run across hot coals instead of dunking him in a baptismal tub.

I’m not saying we should do these things in church…although it could make for an interesting service. But I do think it’s important to ask some questions. Questions like, why is John talking about baptism in fire? What does baptism with fire even mean?

Of course, I don’t have all the answers…or much at all in the way of answers…but I do suspect that it has something to do with what John says next: Jesus’ winnowing fork is in his hand, and he will clear his threshing floor and will gather his wheat into the granary; but the chaff he will burn with unquenchable fire.

The image is one of separating good from evil, healthful from poisonous, useful from useless.

In our world as we experience it, wheat and chaff are all jumbled up in one big pile, and it’s often hard to tell what’s what. Weeds and wheat grow side by side, and you can’t really root up one without destroying the other as well (Matthew 13:24-29). Evil things are hidden in darkness and smoothed over with nice-sounding language, and people love that darkness, not wanting who they really are and what they’ve really done to be exposed (John 3:19-21).

Yes, Jesus came to offer forgiveness. But that image―the image of forgiveness of debts, like having someone pay off your student loans for you―is only one image the New Testament offers us as we try to wrap our minds around who Jesus is and what Jesus does. As we see in this passage, Jesus came not just to forgive debts, but also to winnow. To clear. To gather. And to burn.

Jesus came to sort out and clarify what’s good and what’s evil. To name these things as such, in a way that’s completely right and accurate―which proves elusive for even the most discerning of humans. Jesus came to bring light that exposes the things done in darkness, so that justice is no longer obstructed, and people no longer suffer under oppressive systems and leaders.

We like to think that no one is above the law; unfortunately, and often tragically, again and again, that proves not quite true. But no one―really, no one―is able to avoid Jesus’ cleansing fire, no matter what kind of political office or other sources of earthly authority they might hold.

In Greek, the words used in this passage for “clear” and for “burn” are very strong. We might say that Jesus will “thoroughly cleanse” the threshing floor, and that the chaff will be “burned up completely,” or “utterly consumed.” Powerful people get away with doing evil things for now, but, in time, Jesus will bring judgment, with clarity and thoroughness―a judgment that is, finally, fully complete, and entirely good.

Of course, in our more honest moments, most of us can easily see that the line between good and evil does not run between Judean peasant and Pharisee, or between regular citizen and corrupt dictator or president, in any kind of straightforward way. We know, as Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn famously wrote, that the line between good and evil runs through every human heart.

And so, John’s statements about Jesus―that Jesus baptizes by fire, that Jesus comes to cleanse the threshing floor thoroughly and burn up evil completely―offer both a hope that Jesus will judge people with power who do not do right by others and a hope that Jesus will cleanse each of us from the evil within us. The suffering we bring to ourselves and to other humans through our own selfishness will not last forever. Jesus is making us new and will make us new, burning up completely all of the chaff within us.

May we, like John the Baptist, see and welcome Jesus’ chaff-burning, baptizing-with-fire work, both in and around us.

Making Good Fruit

Make fruit worthy of repentance…already the ax is laid to the root of the trees; every tree therefore that does not make good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire. -John the Baptist (Matthew 3:8,10)

When I think of a truly repentant person (myself or others), I tend to think of someone who feels really badly about something. Maybe there are heartfelt words of apology (not a halfhearted, duplicitous, or otherwise unsatisfying apology!). Maybe there are tears.

When the Pharisees come against John’s baptism, and John calls them a brood of vipers, John is not primarily looking for heartfelt words, or for tears. I’m sure these would have been reasonable signs that the Pharisees were starting to realize their wrong, but they are not the main thing John talks about.

John says he is looking for fruit worthy of repentance. For fruit that is good and healthy, not rotten or poisonous (like a brood of vipers).

He is looking for the Pharisees not just to say, “oh wow, the ways I’ve been drawing lines around who can and can’t experience God, and where God can and can’t be experienced, are really bad, I feel really badly about that,” but also to make a real change in their actions.

When I think about Christians repenting and making good fruit, I think about what feels to me like a growing awareness among white people that racism is still alive and well and hideous and horrifying. Repentance, here―at least for white people (the only people I can speak for)―means not just admitting the reality of racism and feeling sad or angry or guilty or whatever we might feel about it, but also actively seeking to root out racist attitudes and policies, both within ourselves and in our communities and spheres of influence. Seeking to make good fruit, fruit worthy of repentance.

I think about climate change, and I wonder if perhaps now the evidence is so strong that (at least some) people who previously wrote it off as liberal fear-mongering are taking a second look. Repentance, here, means not just feeling afraid or sad that we have all done this to our world, but actively seeking ways to work toward healing our earth, and trying to limit our own contributions―and the contributions of our companies and communities―to climate change. Seeking to make good fruit, fruit worthy of repentance.

I think about churches’ postures toward LGBTQ people. A lot of Christians recognize now that gay conversion therapy is harmful rather than helpful―poisonous rather than healthful―as exemplified by (the ex-gay nonprofit) Exodus International’s closure and its president’s apology a few years ago. Repentance, here, means not just feeling bad about the harm caused by conversion therapy, but actively seeking ways to make churches into places that are actually safe and healthy for LGBTQ people. Seeking to make good fruit, fruit worthy of repentance.

I don’t mean to say that God doesn’t love us or forgive us for these sins (and others) unless we do something different, but rather that good fruits naturally grow in the soil of real repentance.

Confederate General Robert E. Lee’s descendant Rob Lee preaches and writes about addressing racism in faith communities (check out Andre Henry’s podcast). Christian ethics professor David Gushee, who formerly defended the so-called “traditional” sexual ethic of marriage between a man and a woman but then changed his views upon being part of a Christian community that included a lot of LGBTQ people and gay couples, wrote a book about it (Changing Our Mind) in the hope of helping the church more broadly re-examine its attitudes and policies. This is good fruit, fruit worthy of repentance.

May we wrestle with God about what good fruits, fruits worthy of repentance, look like in our lives and communities.

Brood of Vipers (Part 2 of 2)

But when John saw many Pharisees and Sadducees coming for baptism, he said to them, “You brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the wrath to come?” (Matthew 3:7).

(Same verse as yesterday, new thought.)

It must not have been very fun to be called a brood of vipers―the offspring of a venomous snake. I don’t know about you, but I have felt offended by words several shades more diplomatic than that!

A Christianity that tries to make people look more like some (not-particularly-biblical) image of a gentle Jesus―meek and mild and perhaps a bit anemic―has no place for harsh words like these. And yet, John says them. And, later on in the book of Matthew, Jesus says them. Twice. (See Matthew 12:34, 23:33).

I wonder where, or whether, there is a place for harsh words like “brood of vipers” in our world and in our faith communities today. Are we supposed to be nicer than that? I usually am―at least to people’s faces. It’s easier to say harsh things about someone than to someone.

When I think about harsh name-calling from Christians―things not entirely unlike John’s “brood of vipers”―I think about this recent article by Peter Wehner in The Atlantic. Wehner thoughtfully addresses statements recently made by (author and radio host) Eric Metaxas and (evangelist and Samaritan’s Purse CEO) Franklin Graham, in which Metaxas and Graham agree that there is a demonic spiritual power behind opposition to Trump. They don’t exactly call people who oppose Trump demonic, but it kind of feels like it.

Wehner’s piece is worth reading, I think. He takes issue, and rightly so, with Graham and Metaxas’ implication that everyone who supports Trump is on God’s side, and everyone who opposes Trump is on the side of the devil. For Wehner, this is a “dangerous” worldview that “leaves no room for the democratic virtue of compromise” and “makes makes learning from others who hold different views all but impossible.”

Wehner has some pointed (and very fair) critiques of Graham and Metaxas’ harsh words about Trump’s opposition. But Wehner seems hesitant to use harsh words in return. Among the strongest things he writes, he accuses Graham and Metaxas of “acute political tribalism” and says that they are “acting irresponsibly and unwisely.” He specifically does not want to say that either of these men is “wicked, malevolent, or at the mercy of demonic powers.”

Wehner has no interest in doing what I think he would see as stooping to Graham and Metaxas’ level and arguing that people who oppose Trump are actually the “Children of Light” and that people who support Trump are actually the “Children of Darkness.”

Wehner wouldn’t say these things. I wouldn’t say these things. Most Christians wouldn’t say these things. But if John the Baptist were here in the US today, would he? Would he call Trump and his cronies a brood of vipers?

I don’t know the answer to that, but I am wary of assuming too quickly that he wouldn’t. 

(Of course, in a case like this, I don’t know if there would even be a way to call out broods of vipers without the conversation devolving into a shouting contest of “you’re the brood of vipers.” “No, you’re the brood of vipers.” Brings back memories of “You’re the puppet!”)
I don’t know whether using words like “brood of vipers” is actually helpful in our context. It seems worth noting that John called the Pharisees and Sadducees―the religious leaders―broods of vipers, not the people who followed them or lived under their authority. So, if John were to call someone a brood of vipers, I imagine it would be Trump and the powerful people in his inner circles rather than every regular American who supports him.

There is also a difference, I think, between John’s “brood of vipers” and Graham and Metaxas’ “demonic influence.” While a viper, being a kind of snake, may bring to mind the devil (who is often called a snake in the Bible), the Greek word Matthew uses for “viper” is actually not the same word that the devil is called. “Viper,” as opposed to “snake,” seems to be more about the venomous or poisonous nature of the snake than about demonic powers per se.

It seems that John is saying that the Pharisees’ and Sadducees’ opposition of his baptism is poisonous. It works against the health and wellbeing of individuals and the community.

Perhaps in this light, we are not to demonize our every opponent, but we are to discern and name what is healthy and what is poisonous. This discernment can be complicated and involves hearing both from the Bible and from a diverse group of people’s stories and experiences.

Even if the demonizing impulse is to be avoided, though, I don’t think it’s necessarily helpful to just meet accusations of demonic influence with an “oh, well, people like Graham and Metaxas are mistaken, but that’s okay, no big deal, we’re all part of the same Christian family and we just need to be nice to each other and have unity.” (I don’t mean to accuse Wehner of doing this; I’m just reflecting in general on the state of things.)

John the Baptist did not meet the Pharisees’ and Sadducees’ opposition with “oh, well, I think you’re mistaken, but that’s okay, no big deal, it’s chill that you’re here trying to keep people from being baptized, all that matters that everyone’s nice and we all get along and no one gets upset.”

There are things that are in fact demonically influenced, like racism, and misogyny, and homophobia. Not in the sense that every person who says or does something racist, for example, is demon-possessed, but in the sense that racism is something God hates, something the forces of evil love. Racism, in all of its personal and structural forms, is evil, and there is no good that comes from beating around the bush and pretending otherwise.

To me, saying that there is demonic influence involved does not free us from responsibility for our own racism, misogyny, homophobia, etc. Rather, it acknowledges that part of why evil power structures like these are lodged so deeply in our experience and prove so difficult to root out is that their roots are not entirely merely human.

“Brood of vipers” may or may not be the best word choice for us in our time and place, but reflecting on these words that John chose reminds me that there are higher values than playing nice and trying not to make waves. There is real evil, real poison, that needs, with careful discernment, to be named as such.

And in the areas where well-meaning people disagree about what makes for poison and what makes for health, let’s talk it through, even if it means that uncomfortable words are exchanged. The cost of pretending poisonous things are healthy is too high.

Unsatisfying Apologies

And they were baptized by John in the Jordan river, confessing their sins. (Matthew 3:7)

Confession can be a vague thing. It might sound like someone is confessing to a crime, or confessing their love. It might conjure up images of a confessional booth in a Catholic church, where a priest listens through a little window as someone talks about their sex life or how they haven’t been to church in a while. It might bring to mind a moment in a Protestant service for silent, individual soul-searching and prayer. (For me, this moment is often too short. I’m just starting to bring my mind back from wherever it was wandering and maybe just beginning to think about asking God to reveal my sin to me…and then the too-chipper pastor moves the service along to brighter and happier things.)

Confession can mean a lot of things, but at its core it just means to name something, and to do so openly. The Greek word translated as “confessing” in Matthew 3:7 is a conglomeration of roots that mean something like “out,” “together,” and “word.” (The meanings of Greek words, like English ones, are not always exactly equal to the sum of their parts, but the parts usually still provide some useful clues.)

A close relative of this word, which is made up of just “together” and “word,” is used more often in the New Testament. It is what Jesus uses when he says, whoever acknowledges (confesses) me before others, I will also acknowledge (confess) before my father in heaven (Matthew 10:32). It is what Paul uses when he writes, if you confess with your lips that Jesus is Lord and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved (Romans 10:9). Jesus wants to be named and acknowledged before others, and Paul wants people to speak and believe that Jesus is Lord.

Similarly, the people who confessed by the Jordan river were just naming their sins. They were acknowledging the wrongs they had done, in all of the ugly, awkward, painful specificity of these wrongs. I don’t know exactly how public these confessions were. I don’t know if people mumbled under their breath, ashamed, or if they shouted out so that the whole crowd could hear―or maybe some of each, depending on things like personality or perceived gravity of sin―but the confessions were put out there in some way. It was not just a silent time of personal prayer but, in some way, a shared communal experience.

When I think about these people being baptized by John in the Jordan and confessing out their sins―braving acknowledging and bluntly naming the specific ways they had failed to love God and people―I think of the courage it takes to do that. And, in contrast, I think of confessions I have heard, or heard about, that are not at all brave or blunt. Attempts at apologies that are in fact completely inadequate and unsatisfying.

I think of the various “apologies” high-profile men have offered when confronted with their actions over the course of the #metoo movement. Things like “I’m sorry if you took my comment that way,” or “I’m sorry if so-and-so didn’t think that what we did was consensual.”

I think about Matt Chandler, who is the lead pastor at an influential megachurch in Texas called The Village Church. A few months ago, Chandler addressed fellow Southern Baptist church leaders regarding his church’s gross mishandling of a woman’s accusations of child sexual abuse by a church leader, saying that The Village Church is “an imperfect church with imperfect people,” and “I’m not sure what we could have done different” (quotes are from this article).

These kinds of statements are so distant from any sort of real confession. They don’t actually name any wrongdoing. The people who speak and write them care much more about trying to clear their own public image and avoid legal repercussions than about taking ownership, understanding how they hurt someone, changing their ways, and, in the cases where it makes sense and is possible, seeking actual reconciliation and restoration of relationship.

By the time I read Christine Pohl’s book Living Into Community, I had heard of―and experienced firsthand―enough confession-avoiding, truth-bending, misleading, manipulative communication from churches and church-y leaders that I was struck by Pohl’s emphasis on truth-telling as one of four key components of Christian communal life. (The other three are promise-keeping, hospitality, and gratitude. It’s a good book.) 
Pohl’s words were refreshing and healing for me: We do not need to save face for God by ignoring certain relevant but problematic aspects of truth or reality (p. 136). Lies, small or large, undermine integrity, discipleship, and fidelity to God’s word (p. 144). It is wrong and irresponsible when colleagues, supervisors, or congregations allow a leader who has been involved in some form of grave misconduct to leave quietly and go to another congregation and continue ministry (p. 134).

These might seem like some very basic, obvious things; but in a world teeming with examples of just the opposite, they need to be said. Where there is no real confession, no real naming of the wrong and acknowledgment of the trauma it has caused, there is no integrity, no discipleship, no fidelity to God’s Word―none of the things Christians and churches and Christian leaders say they are all about.

The little faith community that formed around John the Baptist by the river did not require anything from people, but invited them to confess―really confess―and experience the joy and relief that comes from naming sin and facing up to it. Even, and perhaps especially, when confession might have held real and significant relational or social consequences, setting some of these people on a difficult path.

Some confessions might have continued in the form of hard conversations back in people’s villages, or on the journey home with friends and family. But they started there at the river. John’s announcement of the nearness of the kingdom of heaven (Matthew 3:2) brought brave words out of his listeners: words of truth, words of justice, names of hidden sins that were now no longer swept under the rug as if they didn’t hurt people.

God is still near to those willing to speak these kinds of brave words. The kingdom of heaven still comes near.