Does USA’s “Characters Unite” Really Divide?

charactersunite01aCharacters Unite is the USA Network’s

“award-winning public service program, [and] was created to address the social injustices and cultural divides still prevalent in our society. Inspired by USA Network’s iconic “Characters Welcome” brand and with the support of leading national nonprofit organizations, the ongoing campaign is dedicated to supporting activities and messaging that combat prejudice and intolerance while promoting understanding and acceptance…”

This annual campaign features actors, athletes, and activists pleading passionately to viewers to stand up against bullying, racism, homophobia, ableism (discrimination against the disabled), violence, workplace discrimination, religious intolerance, sexism, hate, and bigotry. The campaign is driven by the Characters Unite Awards show, the storytelling tour, and a steady flow of public service announcements. Its partners include the American Association of People with Disabilities, the Anti-Defamation League, the Gay and Lesbian Alliance Against Discrimination, the Human Rights Campaign, the NAACP, La Raza, the National Education Association, the General Board of the United Methodist Church, the Southern Poverty Law Center, and more.

While watching the documentaries and impassioned speeches, it is almost impossible not to be swept up into the promise. Just imagine – a world where everyone accepts everyone. No one is mistreated. No one is discriminated against. No one lives in fear or shame. We are all free to pursue our dreams to the fullest. It is a compelling picture.

Characters Unite accomplishes some good ends. Any child helped through bullying, any minority spared the sting of racism, and any homosexual delivered from abuse is good. Yet when the PSAs come to an end, the awards have been handed out, and the tour packs up and heads home, will there be any lasting change? Call me cynical, a pessimist, or a hater, but I’m not so sure. Let me point out some potential problems.

First, this sort of initiative is just the kind of thing our culture loves – lofty goals with little commitment. We love texting donations into celebrity telethons from our armchair and hauling off clothes we never wear to thrift stores. In Characters Unite, almost nothing is asked of the viewer aside from looking down on those who fit into the undefined categories of intolerant, bigot, sexist, bully, etc. We don’t have to change anything about our lives or ourselves, we simply have to demand others change. Because I don’t have to reckon with my own apathy, sins and character, any change will be superficial.

Second, Characters Unite has no foundational truth. How do you determine if someone is being sexist, homophobic, bigoted, or discriminatory? Because these concepts are not defined the viewer is free to label as he or she pleases. Discrimination occurs when elementary schools refuse to hire sex offenders; should we stand against that? If I take a stand against homophobia does that mean I become intolerant of religions that support traditional marriage? Is a 16 year old girl prejudiced if using the bathroom with a transgendered boy makes her uncomfortable? If –as one PSA declares – we should all be free to love whoever we want, does that include a 40 year old man and a 14 year old boy? Or if – as another PSA declares – everyone should be free to believe what they want, does that include sacrificing one’s child to the gods? Because Characters Unite lacks any transcendent truth, it cannot define its own terms or judge conflicting claims.

standupThird, Characters Unite promotes self-righteousness. Each PSA makes it clear that everyone on the screen and watching the screen are righteous – tolerant, fair, loving, accepting, and peaceful. Attractive young people complain about the hate and bigotry of others declaring, “How do people hate so much they can hurt someone, or insult someone’s beliefs, or tell someone what they can do, or who they should love?” The problem is out there, with other people, not with us. The world is divided into the moral – the tolerant, non-judgmental, and accepting – and the immoral – the intolerant, judgmental, and discriminating. Thus, the “righteous” are free to stand against, look down on, dislike, hate, and discriminate against the “unrighteous.” All a good Pharisee needs now is a stone to throw at those who violate society’s new morals.

Could there be a less divisive way to unite us and deal with the hurt and suffering we cause? It begins not with indignation on our couches but a willingness to get off the couch and love other people. Jesus said in Matthew 22:39, “you shall love your neighbor as yourself.” That means paying the bills of the disabled, mentoring the victim of a bully, or extending friendship to the hated. But Jesus also said in Matthew 5:44, “… I say to you, love your enemies…”  That means befriending the intolerant, serving the bigot, and understanding the potentially painful past that created a bully.

It begins not with everyone deciding for themselves what is tolerant and intolerant, accepting and judgmental, right and wrong, but with transcendent truth. Isaiah 59:14 says, “Justice is turned back, and righteousness stands far away; for truth has stumbled in the public squares.” With no fixed source of truth we cannot agree on what is good or bad. So we seek justice based on our own fickle feelings and changing culture. One group grabs justice for itself at the expense of another.  We need truth greater than feelings to give us direction and justice.

It begins not by putting ourselves on a moral pedestal and demanding everyone else shape up, but by realizing the depths of our own sin. Jesus said in Matthew 7:5, “You hypocrite, first take the log out of your own eye, and then you will see clearly to take the speck out of your brother’s eye.” Only when we confront our own hatred, prejudice, pride, envy, jealousy, intolerance, and bigotry will there be change. We will be able to extend mercy and grace to others instead of extending our own accusatory judgments.

I hope Characters Unite makes a positive difference in our increasingly divided and hostile world. But true change will only come when we work to love both the offended and the offender, are guided by truth, and confront the sin in our own hearts. Only then will we be able to join hands and create a better world.

-Brian

Disclaimer: My favorite part of Characters Unite is the push for adoption and foster child care. This does demand more of the viewer and is a very important, but unfortunately, somewhat small part of Characters Unite. Also, this article is based on the Public Service Announcements on the USA Network and the corresponding website, not on the awards show or storytelling tour – in other words, based on the part that will effect the most people.

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Sheep of Justice: Who Are the Least of These in Matthew 25?

Well, 2011 is at a close and we want to thank all of you who have read, shared, and commented on the articles here at the Entire Gospel! To celebrate the end of this year and kick off the next, we are going to reveal and repost our top 5 most viewed articles of 2011! Coming in at number 5 is “Sheep of Justice”:

Are you sure you know what a passage in the Bible means? Be sure to check yourself before you wreck yourself (and anyone who will listen to you). One Sunday night I planned to teach on the parable of the sheep and the goats from Matthew 25. I was looking forward to the opportunity to do what I had done numerous times before – press my hearers to abandon their selfishness and involve themselves in ministry to the poor and hurting of the world. But as I studied and wrestled with this parable I ran into a problem – that’s not what Jesus was saying.

You know the parable. At the end of time the Son of Man will come in his glory and gather all nations before him. He will separate out the people like sheep and goats based on how they treated the “least of these”. Those who gave them food and drink, who welcomed them, clothed them, and visited them while sick and in prison are the sheep. Those who did not are the goats. The sheep depart to eternal life while the goats depart to eternal punishment. So this is a pretty big deal.

Now for those who think Jesus is teaching we must earn our way to heaven through acts of social justice let me put your mind at ease.  When understanding Jesus’ parables it is important to know who his audience is. In this case, it is his disciples (Matt. 24:1) who are already in the kingdom of heaven. This parable is not telling them how to enter the kingdom but how those in it will live. If this parable was addressed to the crowds it would be a different story, but it’s not (?). It is telling those who are already sheep how sheep will live their lives between Jesus’ first and second coming.

Now for those who think we are off the hook, let me disturb your peace. The reason it seems Jesus sends people to eternal life based on these actions is because he meant it to seem that way. Actions of mercy to the “least of these” flow so naturally from saving faith that if someone does not do them it brings into question whether or not they’ve met Jesus. To put it another way – feeding the hungry and clothing the naked won’t save you; only faith in Jesus Christ and his death and resurrection will do that. But that kind of faith necessarily produces acts of mercy and kindness to the “least of these”. Sheep act a certain way. If you don’t act like a sheep you’re probably a goat.

Ministry to the “least of these” is vitally important for anyone claiming to be a follower of Christ. So who are they? Anyone that is hungry, thirsty, poor, sick, or in prison, right? After all, this is one of the key passages for those claiming Jesus’ message was ultimately one of social justice – not one of personal salvation.

Setting aside Jesus’ overall message, that is not his message in this parable. The “least of these” are not just anyone, but the hungry, thirsty, naked, sick, or imprisoned who are followers of Christ and thus part of His body. While we’re familiar with the phrase “the least of these” we are less familiar with the two critical words that follow it – “my brothers”. Who are Jesus’ brothers? I’ll let him answer from Matthew 12:49-50:

And stretching out his hand toward his disciples, he said, “Here are my mother and my brothers! For whoever does the will of my Father in heaven is my brother and sister and mother.”

A brother of Jesus is his disciple who does the will of his father; in other words, a Christian! Nowhere in the Gospels does Jesus call anyone a brother if they do not believe in him. Now the parable begins to make more sense. The people in prison sheep are to visit are probably persecuted Christians. The reason meeting the needs of the “least of these” is like ministering to Jesus himself is because they are part of the body of Christ. Craig Blomberg in the New American Commentary explains the phrase “the least of these my brothers” this way:

Who are these brothers? The majority view throughout church history has taken them to be some or all of Christ’s disciples since the word “least” is the superlative form of the adjective “little ones”, which without exception in Matthew refers to the disciples, while brothers in this Gospel when not referring to literal biological siblings, always means spiritual kin.

The parable of the sheep and the goats shows Jesus’ followers the critical importance of caring for our brothers and sisters in Christ around the world after his first coming and before his second and may be the fuel behind the radical sharing of the early church in Acts 2:45.

Two questions arise. First, can’t we go on applying this parable to all of the needy in the world? We can’t because it would be a lie. We would be misrepresenting Jesus Christ and using the Bible for our own purposes. Second, won’t Christians lose their passion for the starving and suffering of the world? No they won’t because Jesus addresses the needs of those outside the faith elsewhere. While they may not be our brothers, they are our neighbors who we are commanded to love as ourselves as seen most clearly in the parable of the Good Samaritan.

Just because the Bible teaches something, doesn’t mean it teaches it in every passage. Let us faithfully teach each passage of Scripture without having to bend it to our agenda. At least that’s probably what a sheep would do.

-Brian

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It’s Getting Scary Out There for Religious Freedom

America has not always enjoyed freedom of religion. In 1773 Isaac Backus wrote his Appeal to the Public where he detailed religious oppression going on in Massachusetts. The legislature required each town to maintain pedobaptist (infant baptism) worship. The minister was elected by a majority of the people and paid by taxes levied on the whole population. Backus’ complaint was that truth should not be decided by a majority vote – since Christ said there were few on the narrow way (Matthew 7). Those whose consciences would not allow them to support the minister were often imprisoned or had their property seized.

When Thomas Jefferson was elected President, the Danbury Baptist Association wrote him concerning religious liberty in 1801:

Our Sentiments are uniformly on the side of Religious Liberty – that Religion is at all times and places a matter between God and individuals – That no man ought to suffer in name, person, or effects on account of his religious Opinions – That the legitimate power of civil governments extends no further than to punish the man who works ill to his neighbor.

They were concerned the new Constitution was not specific on religious liberty and needed to know if Jefferson would support their freedom or allow their oppression. Jefferson wrote back to the Danbury Baptists his famous separation of church and state letter:

Believing with you that religion is a matter which lies solely between man and his God; that he owes account to none other for his faith or his worship; that the legislative powers of the government reach actions only, and not opinions, I contemplate with sovereign reverence that act of the whole American people which declared that their legislature should ‘make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof,” thus building a wall of separation between church and State.

Jefferson did not banish religion from the public arena. He wrote to assure Baptists they would not be taxed, imprisoned, or maligned for failing to support a religion in which they did not believe.

In the 200 years since Jefferson wrote his letter, religious liberty has thrived in the United States. While America’s record has not been perfect, it has arguably been one of the best. However, in our own time, Christians may be watching the slow death of religious freedom.

On December 9th, the Wall Street Journal reported the case of Chuck and Stephanie Fromm who were fined $300 for hosting Bible studies in their home. The city of San Juan Capistrano claimed they had violated a city ordinance which prohibits groups of three or more from gathering without a permit. The cost obtaining such a permit can be as much as $150,000. Similar cases have appeared in San Diego, Florida, and Michigan. So far these permits have not been enforced on football parties or book clubs.

The Christian Legal Society lost its recognition as a student group at UC Hastings College of Law because it failed to abide by the school’s anti-discrimination policy. In 2004 the group declared they would not accept gays, lesbians or any members not adhering to Christian beliefs. They lost funding, meeting spaces, and their spot on the school’s website. The case went all the way to the Supreme Court which ruled 5-4 against the Christian Legal Society because they did not accept “all comers.” Justice Alito, in the dissenting opinion, noted the school’s policy had been used against only 1 out of 60 student organizations – the Christian Legal Society – and that public institutions now have “a handy weapon for suppressing the speech of unpopular groups.”

This fall Vanderbilt University decided to ban Christian organizations including Beta Upsilon Chi, Graduate Christian Fellowship, Christian Legal Society, Intervarsity, and Fellowship of Christian Athletes. The school adopted a policy that prohibits student organizations from holding members to any standard of belief or behavior. The issue ignited when Beta Upsilon Chi dismissed an openly gay leader. School administrators are remaining firm on the ban; no word yet if their policy of not holding student organization members to a standard extends beyond Christians. Fifteen Intervarsity Christian Fellowships have faced similar difficulties with school administrations in the past year.

Meanwhile, Catholic charities are losing funding for their adoption, foster care and human trafficking operations because they refuse to provide abortions and contraceptives and to work with homosexual couples. Rather, funds are diverted to other agencies despite the superior effectiveness of the Catholics.

In New York, over 60 churches will lose their meeting space in public schools next year after the Supreme Court refused to hear their case. While the majority of these churches maintain excellent relationships with the schools, paying rent on time and cleaning up after worship, they will have to leave because officials fear the presence of churches will influence public school children. As one Brooklyn city official commented, “It’s ironic that the Ku Klux Klan can meet freely in public schools but churches….are not allowed.”

There is probably not an all out war on religious liberty in America. What we see are the effects of a shift in the way the culture – especially elites such as politicians, professors, and pundits – views the world. For them, truth is not ultimately found in sources such as the Bible or science but in the individual who determines what is true for him or her. Thus, judgments religion makes about behavior or belief are seen as harmful and destructive; even if those beliefs are not forced on others but merely shared. While religion doesn’t force itself on Americans (no one is forced to believe) the opinions of the culture are being forced on religion. Believers are told their views are unacceptable and find their meeting spaces, funding, and positions being stripped from them.

Christians must obey Jesus in Mathew 10:16 where he told us, “I am sending you out as sheep in the midst of wolves, so be as wise as serpents and innocent as doves.” We must be wise and stand for religious liberty. We cannot thoughtlessly cast votes but must inhabit places of cultural influence and use political and legal means at our disposal. We must be innocent, at times turning the other cheek and accepting injustices against the church for the sake of our witness. Jesus says later in Matthew 10:32, “So everyone who acknowledges me before men, I will also acknowledge before My Father who is in heaven.” Therefore, we must not compromise what we believe for the sake of changing cultural winds.

Liberty doesn’t disappear overnight; it is slowly stolen away piece by piece. Christians need to wake up from college campuses to Capitol Hill. We dare not compromise and we must guard our witness in our communities but like the Danbury Baptists, we need not go quietly.

-Brian

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Christ, Poverty, and the Goals of Occupy Wall Street

Occupy Wall Street began as a small gathering of protestors on September 17, 2011 in Manhattan’s financial district. Thirty days later, the movement has drawn thousands of protestors to New York and has expanded to draw tens of thousands across the U.S. and the world. At “Occupy Denmark”, 3,000 gathered to demand money be taken from the 1% and be given to the 99%. In Rome, vandalism erupted as the initially peaceful protests against corruption got out of hand. Protestors gathered at the European Central Bank in Germany while Wiki-leaks founder Julian Assange led thousands of protestors in chants in front of St. Paul’s Cathedral in London. The central site for the international movement claimed protests in 951 cities in 82 nations on October 15. Meanwhile, the protests in New York press forward. While protests raged around the world last week, the movement marched into Times Square and police arrested 90 demonstrators.

What do these protestors want?  No one is really sure. Occupy Wall Street organizer Beka Economopolous is quoted as saying, “Meaningful change doesn’t happen overnight. At this time, we are only interested in impossible demands.” A major website for the movement claims the goal is to “restore democracy” and to “no longer… let corporate greed and corrupt politics set the policies of our nation”.  Pollster Doug Shoen surveyed protestors and wrote in the Wall Street Journal, “it comprises an unrepresentative segment of the electorate that believes in radical redistribution of wealth, civil disobedience and, in some instances, violence” and that protestors are “bound by a deep commitment to radical left-wing policies.” Two slogans that rise above the rest are “people over profits” and “we are the 99” – in reference to the movement’s claim to represent 99% of humanity versus the richest 1%. Media interviews with protestors have revealed different agendas: some want to tax the rich, some want to abolish money, some want to topple capitalism, some want government jobs, some simply want to pay off student loans. All of them are mad at the evils they perceive from the unity of Wall Street and Washington that led to enormous bailouts.

Based on the coverage, the protests appear to be the latest incarnation of the old struggle between the haves and the have-nots. The have-nots believe the haves achieved their wealth by unjust, unethical, or illegal means. The haves believe the have-nots made poor choices, are lazy, or simply want a handout. So what does a society do with the persistent reality that some have resources while some do not? Before the Great Depression it was largely the task of private individuals and charities to care for the poor. Beginning with President Roosevelt’s New Deal and finding full expression in President Johnson’s Great Society, many came to believe the government would have the means to bring about justice and put an end to poverty. So far, neither private charity nor government intervention has been able to eradicate poverty.

The above statement by the Occupy Wall Street organizer – that the protests are interested in impossible demands – may be truer than she realizes. Jesus said in Mark 14:7, “For you always have the poor with you, and whenever you want, you can do good for them.” Was Jesus right? Will we always have poverty among us? Yes, because at the root of poverty is sin – both the sin of the wealthy, powerful, and influential and the sin of the poor, weak, and oppressed.

Progressives tend to believe poverty is a result of systems and structures that oppress the poor; an unjust economy, racial prejudice, exploitation, lack of educational opportunities, or inadequate resources. This is certainly true. A child born in an impoverished neighborhood, who grows up in a single-parent household, attends a struggling school system, is victimized by criminal activity, and lacks the nurture, health care, and resources of wealthier kids experiences injustice beyond his or her control. Social structures prevent a person like this from receiving the fair pay, affordable loans, and decent housing they need to succeed. The sinful greed, selfishness, and oppression of the wealthy and powerful keep the poor down.

Conservatives tend to believe poverty is a result of poor choices, family breakdown, moral failure, or laziness. This is also true. Consuming addictive substances hurts one’s chances of success; the Department of Health and Human Services estimated that in 2010 8.9% of Americans were using illicit drugs. Anyone who has worked in poor neighborhoods has been disheartened to see children wandering the streets in the same clothes day after day while their “impoverished” parents choose to spend their limited resources on a smart phone, satellite television, and tinted car windows. The National Institutes of Health reports single mothers are twice as likely to be in financial hardship as married mothers making single motherhood still one of the surest roads to poverty. The sinful selfishness, neglect of family, and laziness of the poor can work to keep them down.

The Bible has a more balanced view than either of these perspectives. Poverty can be the result of the rich and powerful exploiting the poor (Amos 5:11-12) through unjust wages (James 5:1-6), partial judges (Lev. 19:15), or unfair loans (Ex. 22:25-27). The solution to this injustice in the structures of society can come from the government or the community. For example, the Law mandated gleaning; the practice of leaving some crops for the poor to gather for themselves (Lev. 19:9-10). A year of Jubilee cancelled debts, freed slaves, and restored land – the most important economic asset – to families every fifty years so each generation wouldn’t be stuck with the financial failures of past generations (Deut. 15).

The Bible also teaches poverty can be a result of personal sin and laziness. Proverbs 6:6-11 teaches laziness and poor choices lead to poverty and Proverbs 23:21 claims substance abuse will do the same. Second Thessalonians 3:10 says if some will not work then neither shall they eat. Poverty can also be caused by natural disasters such as famine (Gen. 47), by disability (Acts 3:2), by crime (Ps. 12:5), family breakdown (Zech. 7:10), by a lack of friends (Prov. 14:20), a lack of resources (Is. 41:17), and a lack of education (Jer. 5:4). The solution can come from individuals taking responsibility for the poor among them (Luke 14:12-14) and sharing resources (Is. 58:7) and for the poor to walk with integrity (Prov. 19:1).

Tim Keller summarizes the Bible’s view of poverty in Generous Justice,

“Poverty, therefore, is seen in the Bible as a very complex phenomenon. Several factors are usually intertwined. Poverty cannot be eliminated simply by personal initiative or by merely changing the tax structure… Any large scale improvement in a society’s level of poverty will come through a comprehensive array of public and private, spiritual, personal, and corporate measures.”

The complex nature of poverty comes from the complex nature of sin. In this life, we will always be fighting sin and we will always be fighting poverty. We may not be able to eradicate poverty, but we can help those in need among us by addressing their personal needs and the social structures that keep them down.

Even if the Occupy Wall Street protestors have all of their demands met it still won’t fix their problems. Even if family breakdown and substance abuse ended and everyone worked 60 hours a week it wouldn’t fix the problem. The hope for a sinful world wrestling with the reality of poverty is Jesus Christ. His death on the cross deals with the sin that lies at the root of poverty, gives hope to the poor (Luke 4:16-21), and empowers His followers to engage all of the factors that cause poverty – personal, spiritual, and social.

-Brian

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