Watch Aaron in the film Holy Wars

Wednesday, March 13, 2013

Why (American) Evangelicals are Resistant to Climate Change

By Aaron Taylor

First, a disclaimer. Not all evangelicals are resistant to climate change. The root word of "evangelical" is "evangel", which means "good news." Roughly speaking, an evangelical is anyone who believes that God was in Christ reconciling the world to Himself, and that sharing this good news should be a normative part of what it means to live out a Biblically-informed faith. There are about 600 million evangelicals worldwide, and they (we) are found in every major Christian denomination. And while most evangelicals aren't American, the majority of American evangelicals are unique in that they, unlike their counterparts around the world, tend to intertwine Biblical faith with right-wing politics, and in extreme cases, might actually believe that they're one and the same. Even here we have to be careful though, because American evangelicals are not a monolith (there is, in fact, an American evangelical left), and even the National Association of Evangelicals, though socially conservative, has spoken definitively on the need to address climate change.

Disclaimers and stereotypes aside, I'd like to address what comes to mind when the average American evangelical—your next-door neighbor, your boss, your friend or co-worker, the couple that puts gospel tracts in your kids' Halloween buckets—is thinking when they hear the words "environment", "environmental", or "environmentalist."

This is what they're thinking.

As David Gushee, one of the authors of the Evangelical Climate Initiative puts it, for most (American) evangelicals, when they hear anything that smacks of environmentalism, to them it's "Pocahontas talking to spirits in the trees" and "flower-power." Think Betty White in The Proposal dressed in fig leaves and dancing to the universe. Or Steve Martin in Out of Towners hugging a tree while singing Age of Aquarius.

In American evangelical parlance, an environmentalist is an eccentric tree-hugging fruit loop who worships the earth...and is probably a socialist.

To be sure, crass stereotyping isn't the only reason why so many American evangelicals are resistant to the idea of climate change. It may not even be the primary reason. But it is a reason. And as I begin this series for New Mexico Inter-Faith Power and Light on addressing evangelicals and climate change, I think it's helpful to start with the issue of stereotypes, because if we want to reverse the Koch brothers-financed climate denial trend in American evangelicalism, nothing will hinder the cause more than failing to address the issue of stereotypes. We all do it. We all think we're right when we do it. And we all deny that we do it...even while we're doing it.

The problem with stereotyping is that when we engage in it, we fail to see people as individuals. We view them primarily through the prism of what we think they believe because we "know" what people "like" them believe. Stereotyping can also blind us from the reality that giftings, personalities, and interests can lead people to transcend their socio-religious-political backgrounds.

Take my wife Rhiannon for example. My wife's parents (both now deceased) were hard-core Republicans (not that being a Republican necessarily means anti-climate change, but in this case, it did). My father-in-law, Eliot O'Brien, was a zealous student of end-times prophecy, so he was highly susceptible to conspiracy theories suggesting that the U.N. is an anti-Christ organization using an environmental agenda as a ruse for imposing a one-world socialist dictatorship. And, based on my conversations with Eliot, he was 100% pro-fossil fuels. Eliot felt that any attempt to reign in the fossil fuel industry was "job-killing regulations." Based on my wife's background, and the fact that she attends a fairly standard run-of-the-mill evangelical church today, anyone outside the evangelical fold could easily peg her as a climate doubter based on what they "know" about evangelicals.

And they wouldn't be more wrong.

Despite her upbringing, when my wife was a little girl, she was wearing "Save the Rainforest" T-shirts. My wife has always been interested in animals, recycling, saving the rainforest, nature, and conservation. When Rhiannon was growing up, her dream was to be either a veterinarian or a wildlife photographer. She got stuck with me instead.

The lesson: People are individuals with various gifts, talents, interests, and personalities, so don't write people off based on what you think you "know" about "them."

Besides, most American Evangelicals feel that they're a persecuted minority fighting against a culture that barely tolerates them, much less understands them. So even if an evangelical largely resembles a certain stereotype, they still don't like to be called out on it for the simple reason that nobody likes to be reduced to a stereotype. All stereotypes do is reinforce the "us" verses "them" way of worldly thinking, which leads to further stereotyping on both sides of the "us" verses "them" divide.

To illustrate this, I leave you with a video of Jon Stewart's Daily Show correspondents at the 2012 Democratic convention. Stewart's correspondents discovered that many people at the convention prided themselves about being non-prejudiced against everyone but....well, you can probably guess.

If you want to reach evangelicals for the cause of climate change, then—for the love of polar bears—don’t be like the people in this video!

Saturday, March 09, 2013

Book Review: Muslim, Christian and Jew

Review by Aaron D. Taylor

On the cover of Dr. David Liepert’s book, Muslim, Christian and Jew, renowned religion scholar Karen Armstrong writes, “An honest and wholehearted attempt to fulfill a task that is incumbent upon us all….make our traditions speak with compassion and respect to our dangerously polarized world.”

Throughout the pages of Muslim, Christian, and Jew, Dr. David Liepert attempts to do just that. As the subtitle of the book suggests, “finding a path to peace our faiths can share”, Liepert spares no rhetoric in declaring his ambitions. Liepert wants nothing less than to put an end to the centuries-old tradition of Muslims, Christians, and Jews killing each other in the name of God, and the manner in which Liepert attempts to achieve that in this book, is as unique and nuanced as the author himself.

As an adult convert to Islam who grew up in evangelical Christianity, Liepert could have taken the path that many Anglo-Saxon converts to Islam from Christianity seem to take—embracing a radical form of Islam that hates Christianity and all things Western. That Liepert chose to adopt a moderate to liberal form of Islam—which Liepert  would probably say is the true Islam—makes him an interesting person, which in turn, makes Liepert's book interesting to read, especially for Western Christians who are used to the image of radical converts to Islam joining the Taliban or decrying the evils of democracy. Liepert is not a long shot.

It’s not that Liepert doesn’t have his beefs with evangelical Christianity. He does. And he makes them very clear in this book. But because Liepert spends so much of the book decrying extremism in his own tradition—Islam—when Liepert singles out the issues that lead to extremism in other traditions, like evangelical Christianity and some forms of modern-day Judaism, he has a built-in credibility that makes him worth listening to. Liepert is not a selective critic that sees flaws in every other faith tradition but his own.

Having said that, the effectiveness of Liepert’s arguments depends more on the reader and his or her background than on the author’s persuasiveness. For example, as a Christian from an evangelical background, I found Liepert’s use of the Bible to disprove the deity of Christ unconvincing.  And while I was delighted that Liepert gave a credible basis for accepting the crucifixion of Jesus as a Muslim, I found it odd that he then relegated the crucifixion to a minor issue of passing interest , as if the issue could go either way and it wouldn’t really matter (Christians find this reasoning bizarre. There’s no ambiguity whatsoever on the crucifixion in the New Testament, so when Christians hear Muslims say, “We accept previous revelations, including the gospels”, but then deny the crucifixion—or relegate it to a passing interest —the claim that “we accept your revelation” appears shallow and suspect).  And while Liepert gives with one hand by accepting the crucifixion, he takes away with the other by denying it’s cosmic saving significance. This puts Liepert in the awkward position of using the New Testament—even the epistles—to bolster his arguments, while having to backtrack by writing off the entire Book of Hebrews.  As a New Testament believer from an evangelical background reading this section of the book, I was preoccupied with the nagging question: If Liepert can accept the crucifixion as a Muslim, then why not mine the New Testament to explore it’s cosmic significance? One doesn’t have to accept the doctrine of penal substitution—a non-starter for Muslims—to do this.

The point I wish to make with this criticism is not to reignite a doctrinal debate, rather it’s to address what I think is the primary structural problem with the book. Because Liepert attempts to chart the historical and doctrinal path of each of the three religions, and to show how each of them have gone astray, he often goes off on unnecessary rabbit trails that could alienate him from the very audience he’s trying to reach, whether Muslims, Christians, or Jews.  For example, if a Muslim doesn’t agree with Liepert’s analysis of where and when Islam went astray (according to Liepert, it has something to do with the Ummah not accepting the authority of the Caliph), then he or she might not be willing to accept the central thesis of Liepert’s book. And that would be a shame, because Liepert’s central thesis is really worth listening to.

The central thesis of Muslim, Christian, and Jew is that when religions become overly obsessed with right doctrine at the expense of right practice, it leads to extremism, and the reason why Liepert is able to make this point so well, is because he is an equal opportunity offender.

On page 10, chapter 2, Liepert writes:

“When Western editorials and commentators call for moderate Muslims to condemn Muslim terrorists, the vast majority of us agree. But we would be able to respect your advice more if you hadn’t killed almost fifty times more of us than we have of you.”

I thought this was the most brilliant line in the book, and the reason why the statement has so much force is because Liepert goes on to criticize Muslims for killing each other. Liepert makes an interesting broad historical point that, percentage-wise, the body count perpetrated by members of Christianity and Islam are the same, but the difference is that Christians tend to kill members of the opposite faith, while Muslims tend to kill members of their own faith.

Liepert’s target audience is members of all three Abrahamic faiths, and while his criticisms of each faith might be off-putting to some of his target audience, Liepert also points out the best in each of the Abrahamic traditions, and because of that, when Liepert does criticize, it feels fair and even-handed.

And on this note, I feel that there are two things that Liepert does extraordinarily well in this book:

1.     Criticizes the obsessive focus on doctrine in Christianity.

2.     Defends Islam from accusations of promoting violence and anti-Semitism.

Liepert’s criticism of Christianity (especially evangelical Christianity) as obsessively focused on doctrine at the expense of right practice deserves some serious thought and reflection. I would even go as far as to say that a symposium on soteriology (the doctrine of salvation) is in order. There are too many passages in the New Testament that link salvation to loving thy neighbor and feeding and clothing the hungry and the naked for evangelicals to go on as if the only way to witness to the faith is to ask the question, “If you died tomorrow, do you know where you’re going to go?”  and then—buzz, wrong answer!—when the response has a hint of “works.” At some point, evangelicals are going to have to ask the question of whether reducing salvation to passing multiple choice test questions needs to be reexamined.

Lastly, I think that the most persuasive part of the book is the section where Liepert lays to rest the notion that the Qur’an promotes anti-Semitism.  In my opinion, chapters 20, 21, and 22—the ones that expound an Islamic theology towards Jews, Judaism, and the Holy Land—are the best chapters in the book.  For these chapters alone, Muslim, Christian and Jew is well worth the read.

This article originally appeared on Middle East Experience.

Friday, March 08, 2013

The NRA, Big Government, Israel, and Jesus

By Carl Medearis

Cross-Posted from

I like that title.

I confuse people. Sometimes I say that’s my spiritual gift – Confusion. Not sure if that’s in the 1 Corinthians or Romans 12 lists, but if it’s not – it should be. I have the gift of Confusion.

It’s a good gift, to be honest, since most people are not confused, I can help them! They know exactly what they believe and why they believe it. Just ask them. I grew up surrounded by a world who knew what they believed – and I gladly joined them. in this world, which, of course, was fully supported by ample Biblical texts – God loved Israel. He also liked Guns quite a bit and so did I. And naturally He was Conservative. You have to be Conservative if you’re God. Think about it. He sticks to his guns (pun intended – after I wrote it). He doesn’t change. He’s the same yesterday, today and forever. If that’s not Conservative, I don’t know what is. And the reason God is for small government is because we all know that Big Government (notice the capitol letters) replaces God.

So that’s how I grew up. I can’t remember my parents ever telling me I should believe all those things, but I did. And most of my friends did. We all belonged to the NRA. I had a patch on my jacket. We were Republican because they had morals – the other side didn’t. We were pro-life (at least when that life is not yet born), and we were pro-Israel since they were God’s chosen. Life was simple. Clear. And pretty dang good!

Then I started daring to venture out into the rest of the world. Where I met d…d…democrats who seemed to love God and their neighbors at least as much as I did. And people from Chicago (like my dear Chris) who only knew guns as killing tools for bad guys – she was horrified when I first showed her my closet full of guns. I met Palestinians who claimed that God’s Chosen weren’t treating them well. And I realized that many poor people (who loved God) almost seem to need the government for a time. Odd.

Unfortunately these debates are quickly polarized by both sides into simplistic sound-bytes in order to paint a black and white picture – if you’re not 100% with us, then you must be a ________.

I own guns and would like to continue owning guns. I might even buy some more guns. I like to hunt. Kill animals and eat them. But I never ever need more than 3 shells in my gun – neither in my shotgun (for bird hunting or shooting clay pigeons) nor in my rifle (for big game hunting). When I go target shooting, I also don’t need more than just a few shells in my gun. Ever. When I buy a new gun, I will be delighted to have a background check – actually that might be interesting in my case. Anyway…I’m still happy to do it!

I prefer small government. I think people of faith ought to take most of the responsibility that government now does. So…whenever they (we) start doing that – it’ll be better. I’m a fan of the free market system. No bailouts. None. Not of banks or businesses. If they fail – we rebuild. The hypocrisy here is that my friends who supported Bush’s bank bailouts, are all furious over Obama’s. Wonder why that is?

I still love Israel. Actually more now than ever before. As I get to know Israeli Jews, I am encouraged to find out that they are exactly like the Arabs I love so much. Imagine that. After all, they are half brothers. I’m even happy for them to be “chosen.” Personally, I enjoy being “chosen,” so why can’t they!

And, as always. I come back to the way Jesus seemed to engage difficult and controversial issues. He was pretty clever about it. He somehow stood firm without being clear which side he was supporting. He consistently put the question back to the questioner. He went to the heart while often dodging the issue brought up. I wonder if I could be more like that? I’d like to be.

To be a demo-repub-pro-life-all-the-way-careful-gun-owner-lover-of-the-poor-IsraePal-lover-of-God and Follower of Jesus, person. A gifted Confuser who brings people back to the ultimate Answer of all confusion – Jesus the Messiah.

Thursday, March 07, 2013

A Prison Letter from a Modern Day Apostle Paul

Below is a letter from a man named Jose Dilson. I met him briefly while I was living in Senegal. He's been imprisoned under false accusations, the real reason being for preaching the gospel.

I think it's good to read letters like this from time to time. It teaches us that there are still people suffering for their faith, and that faith can sustain us in the worst of situations, especially in situations similar to what the Apostles experienced in the New Testament.

Read it and weep.


Thiés, Feb 25, 2013

Dear brothers and sisters,

God is great and merciful. He does not change or stop being what He is, because of the problem or difficulties that I may be experiencing. The circumstances of life, no matter how difficult they may be, do not diminish God's glory or goodness. I cannot in any way keep from looking to my Lord and putting my confidence in Him, my eyes and hope are fixed on Him.

It's now two o'clock in the morning, and I cannot sleep. All the nights are hot, without space to turn over, extremely uncomfortable. In spite of all this, I know that Jesus is at my side, and this comforts me. I see my colleagues all asleep, and I keep imagining that Jesus wants to have some time with me for us to talk a little. These are the moments when I have freedom to express my frustrations, my feelings of anguish, my fears - what a dear friend, how I love Him!

During these nights I experience battles you can't imagine. I also feel the presence of the enemy close by, whispering in my ear, saying that God does not care about me. What a fight I wage against self-pity, against the feeling of despair, loneliness, injustice, anger, and so many other feelings that seek to dominate me. I rebuke those mental battles in the name of Jesus, the One who shed even His last drop of blood for me. He is infinitely good, and His mercy endures for ever!

Those battles are fought not just at night, but also during the day. One needs to have a lot of courage, along with humility, and overall the Lord's grace to resist the insults, the acts meant to humiliate us, the arrogance and disrespect. A while back a muslim man approached me and began to verbally attack me saying: "You are nothing. You know nothing. And nothing you teach is worth anything. You are less than the little toe of anyone here." And with many other words he tried to humiliate me more and more. The words he spoke were hard and terrible.

And all I said to him was: "Yes, you can continue. Yes, I am listening. Continue!" He became even more impassioned and poured out a flood of insults trying to drown me in his hellish words. After a brief silence, I asked him: "Have you finished? Have you said everything you want? If so, can I speak now?" With a stern voice he replied: "Speak!", expecting I would reply in a tone of arrogance and anger.

So, I began by saying: "You're right. I really am nothing. I am less than a grain of dirty sand. I am dust. I am a worm. I am a filthy rag. I am a dead dog. And, almost crying, I added: "But I want you to meet someone who was everything, who was the creator of the universe, full of glory, the sovereign Lord, who in spite of all that, loved me so much He gave up his life to be insulted, broken and shed his blood for me. But not only for me, but for you, too. You are important to Him, and He loves you. He died for your sins and rose from the grave so that you could have eternal life."

And when this man heard me say that, it was as if he had been shocked with 50 thousand volts. He never expected that reaction. He expected I'd pay him back with equally harsh words. Then, with a soft voice he told me: "I have been trailing you and watching your movements over the past month. I was sent to test you, to see if you really are a man of God. And I can say that you are the man of God that everyone says you are. For a man of God, when humiliated, is exalted by God. Starting today, you have my respect!"

I was overwhelmed to hear this man recite the Word of God! Now he is one of my best friends. He has not come to Christ, but he has never again opposed my sharing Christ!

My dear brothers and sisters, I want to remind you that your life is hidden in Jesus, regardless of where you are or in what circumstance you find yourself. You might find yourself being humiliated, misunderstood, sad, anguished, sick, facing many needs. I want to encourage you today: "Cast your care upon Him, for He cares for you." Don't let the enemy receive any glory, for the Lord is present, even though He's not solving your problem in the way you had hoped. He will give you grace to endure and to be more than a conqueror.

Some days ago another man, to whom I've been ministering since I first arrived in prison, asked me: "How can I be a Protestant?" I answered: "I'm going to answer your question in way that's different from what you're expecting. I'm going to imagine that you are asking me: "How can I receive Jesus in my heart and become converted to Him?" I then showed him some Bible verses, especially Rom 3:23, Rom 6:23, Rom 10:9-10. I told him about the expulsion from paradise, the condemnation to eternal death, the plan of redemption through Jesus and his death on the cross. I told him that it is necessary to believe in Jesus and obey him, and after sharing a few other things I asked him: "Do you want to give your life to Jesus and become one of his disciples, believing and obeying him? He answered: "I do. I want to give him my whole life. I want to live for him." This man is French, 55 years old. The Lord has given me the opportunity of sharing His love with such a diverse audience: catholics, atheists, muslims, christians. Alleluia!

We need to remember that our life belongs to Christ, and since the one who owns us is the Lord, he has the right to use us however he desires, and wherever he desires, to fulfill his perfect will. He is God, the creator. In Him we live, and move and have our existence. What a privilege to be chosen by Him to be in this place and at this moment, in order to be his arms, his feet, his mouth in order to embrace, help and show the way to so many here, who besides being prisoners, are so needy in every imaginable way.

I want to thank all of my brothers and sisters who have been with me in this prison. I can honestly say that my biggest desire used to be to leave here and rejoin those I love. However I have been praying the prayer of Mary: "May your will, Lord, be fulfilled in me." And if it be his will that I stay longer in prison, in order to bring freedom to those who really are captive (physically and spiritually), then may it be. He will give me grace to handle it, as He has so far. And He will give grace to the brothers and sisters who have been giving us the necessary support here.

I do cry and lament over being imprisoned, for I would rather be with my family, my wife, my children, whom I love deeply. Freedom is priceless. How it is precious! I had it for so many years of my life, and I didn't realize how important it was; how I should have taken more advantage of it to spend time with the people I love. But at the same time I rejoice in being a prisoner for the sake of the Gospel.

After the latest hearing (dealing with a man we had hired who claimed to be a lawyer, but really was not), the judge told me: "My work as judge has finished, the only issue that remains now is the fact that you converted children (minors)." He has seen that all of the other charges are false. The judge himself said that we are not "gang leaders" and he sees we are innocent of the enemy's accusations. The judge even told Zeneide that she was unjustly imprisoned.

All of this confirms what I've said from the beginning: I am a prisoner of Christ, and God is my judge. When the moment comes, He will release us from here, and I want to leave with the feeling that I was faithful to the Lord during my journey through this place.

The moments of pain and need, the times of illness, discomfort, loneliness, tears … everything will be rewarded when we shake the hand of hundreds of people there in glory. When I assisted in the funeral for Amadu (a Christian from Liberia who died here in prison on Christmas day), I thought: "One day I will embrace him in glory, and together we will give praise to the Lord for His salvation". May our Lord and Savior whom we have the privilege of serving receive glory!

I would like to thank you for every email and message of encouragement, posts on Facebook, contributions, prayer meetings and times of intercession for us. Only God can really reward you.

I love you, dear friends, and even those I've not yet met personally, but who now are part of our lives, who have demonstrated so much love and affection for me and for Zeneide, as well as for Marli (my beloved wife) and my family (Jonatas, Debora & Zucki). May the Lord continue to shower your lives with blessing.

Christ's prisoner,

José Dilson

Please pray for Jose and his family.

Saturday, March 02, 2013

Django Jesus, Evangelical Peacemakers, And what I've (maybe) been doing wrong all these years

By Aaron Taylor

Yet once again, the item that was in my head has turned out to be starkly different than what I've chosen to write down. I was planning on writing a post today about why I think it's hypocritical that so many pistol-packing,"Christian" Zionist, neo-conservative, right-wing Christians are up in arms over last week's SNL sketch Djesus Uncrossed, a spoof of Quentin Tarantino's revenge fantasy movie Django Unchained. The SNL sketch depicts Jesus blowing off the heads of his Roman enemies. I was even going to post a photo of a dead Palestinian child in Gaza, and then say something like, "If you're upset with me for raising a moral objection to children being blown to pieces by cluster bombs, then behold your Django Jesus"....ending with a You Tube video of the offensive SNL sketch.

The point would have been obvious, at least to me. You can't raise a moral objection to something that you yourself practice, namely, turning Jesus, our Lord and Savior and Prince of Peace--into a pistol-packing militant that hates your enemies as much as you do.

Here's the problem with the article I was intending to write: It would have communicated a giant *&^*&^*^* YOU!....To everyone that doesn't think like I do.

I got gobsmacked today by an article in the Jakarta Globe entitled Engaging Extremists is the Key to Peace.

In his excellent article, Indonesian author Sumanto Al Qurtuby tells the story of Rev. Paulus Hartono, an Indonesian Mennonite pastor that befriended the leaders of the militant Islamic extremist group Hizbollah (not the same Hizbollah as the group in Lebanon), and how the friendship resulted in lasting change in the community, even to the point of Islamic militant leaders working together with Christians to rebuild mosques and churches after the 2004 Tsunami that devastated the region. The article concludes with these words:

After years of collaboration and friendship, one day the commander suddenly sobbed. His tears dropped down moistening his cheeks. In front of Rev. Paulus Hartono, he said, or, perhaps more precisely, confessed: “When I reflect on what we have talked and done to you and Christians, and then I see and witness what you and Christians have reciprocated [with love and compassion], my heart has melted within me. Now, I have realized and discovered that you Christians are good infidels.”

Their work for peace and humanity continues to this day.

This short story is a reminder that engaging extremists can be a fruitful way to boost interethnic or religious peace and integration. The peace-building pioneer John Paul Lederach reminds us: “One cannot build a bridge starting from the middle.” This statement is a strong critique to those working for peace and dialogue who focus on strengthening moderates while neglecting extremists.

It is time to change our lens.

While the point of the article is that engaging extremists is more effective in terms of peacemaking than getting a bunch of moderates together to "dialogue", the article also provoked a different, yet related thought: Maybe I've been doing things wrong all these years.

In a lot of my writings--including the beginning of this post--I've been very critical of what I see as hypocritical unJesus-like character reflected in the evangelical community that I'm (reluctantly) a part of. My criticisms have often (understandably) provoked an angry response, especially from people I love and care about. I'm starting to think that maybe I could be a better advocate for evangelical peacemaking if I stop cursing the darkness and start shining the light. Instead of pointing out all the things that I see wrong in my community, maybe I should start showing the way by profiling the people that are doing it right.

The article mentions David Shenk, who I think is one of the most Christ-like evangelicals on the planet. I've seen David Shenk speak. I've also talked to him on a couple of occasions. Each and every interaction I've had with him has been nothing short of soul-stirring, and I think that's because the stories that David shares are usually positive examples of Christ-like Christians getting the message of the gospel right, and living it out before others.

Maybe that's what I should do.

Focus on the positive.

Focus on the people who get it right.

Inspire. Not condemn.

Gobsmacked moment over.

What do you think?

Is it better to let your community have it (I guess that's what Jesus did with the Pharisees...calling them broods of vipers and all), or is it better to tell positive stories to encourage the better angels inside?

Or is it both?

A version of this article has also appeared on the Huffington Post.