The Cross and the Supreme Court

Happy 243rd birthday, America. You’ve changed a lot in those 243 years. In some ways for the better. In other ways, not so much. But one of the most significant changes is in how the cross is perceived in our culture.

For centuries, the cross has been an undeniable symbol of Christianity. It represents the sacrificial death of Jesus Christ. People who identify as Christians erect crosses on church buildings and in cemeteries. They wear crosses around their neck as jewelry.

So it’s not surprising that those hostile to the cross of Jesus Christ want it removed from public places. What is surprising—and sad—is the rationale for the recent Supreme Court decision.  And many Christians are cheering the decision without realizing the danger of the underpinning argument.

The American Humanist Association (AHA) had asked the Supreme Court to require removal of a 40-foot tall, concrete cross in Bladensburg, Maryland. The cross was originally a private venture to honor local men who died in World War I. The AHA protested the cross’s presence because it is located by a public highway and maintained by a government agency.

The Supreme Court rejected the claim that this was an unconstitutional endorsement of religion. But here’s the kicker…the Court said this cross was essentially historic, not religious.

Justice Alito did say, “The cross is undoubtedly a Christian symbol, but that fact should not blind us to everything else that the Bladensburg cross has come to represent.” He added, “The image of a simple white cross developed into a cultural symbol of the conflict….The adoption of the cross as the Bladensburg memorial must be seen in that historical context.”

They permitted the cross to remain because it was cultural and historical rather than just religious. Let that sink in for a moment.

Judge Alito’s decision did note, “Its removal or radical alteration at this date would be seen by many not as a neutral act but as the manifestation of a hostility toward religion.”

Well, at least we have that. Please don’t misunderstand me. I’m thankful for the supportive Court decision. Yet I’m torn because of the apparently diluted meaning of the Cross of Christ.

Sadly, this is the culmination of decades of nominal Christians going through the motions of religious activity without any heart change. Wearing cross jewelry because it’s fashionable or socially acceptable, yet devoid of association with the substitutionary death of our Redeemer.

Today, many people identify as Christian by default. Because their parents are Christian. Or because they go to church twice a year, on Christmas and Easter. Or because they’re not Jewish, Buddhist, Hindu, or Muslim, yet they still have a general belief in God.

The power of God’s Word, His redeeming work through Jesus Christ, and His ongoing work in believers through the indwelling Holy Spirit all seem to get lost in the default choice. People check one box because the others don’t quite fit. It’s no wonder the meaning of the cross is leaning more and more toward a cultural and historical context than a religious one.

Am I glad the Bladensburg Cross is allowed to stand? Absolutely. But I’m also sad that it’s allowed to stand while being slowly and inexorably stripped of its essential meaning.

When you see or wear a cross, is your understanding of it filtered through a cultural perspective or a biblical one? If it’s just cultural, you’re missing out on both the central meaning of the cross and the Person it points to.

What does the cross mean to you?

Hostility, Rights, and a Sense of Entitlement

Sense of Entitlement

(Warning: This post may not be what you expect!)

A Supreme Court ruling made big news this week. The 9 justices of the highest court in the land ruled in favor of a Colorado baker, Jack Phillips, in a case where Phillips refused to create a wedding cake for a same-sex wedding.

In an interesting turn of events, both sides claimed victory.

Phillips wrote, “The Supreme Court affirmed that the government must respect my religious beliefs about marriage. It welcomed me back from the outskirts, where the state had pushed me.”

The president of the Human Rights Campaign, Chad Griffin, also claimed victory. He said, “Anti-LGBTQ extremists did not win the sweeping ‘license to discriminate’ they have been hoping for — and today’s ruling does not change our nation’s longstanding civil rights laws.”

The reason both sides could claim victory is that the ruling was narrowly based on the state’s “hostility” to Phillips’ sincere religious beliefs. Future cases to be decided by the Supreme Court will be necessary to clarify whether owners of other wedding providers (e.g. florists and wedding venues) will be free to decline provision of their services for same-sex weddings

Which brings me to a sense of entitlement…

No, I’m not referring to a sense of entitlement by same-sex couples.

I’m talking about the sense of entitlement we Christians seem to have developed. A sense of entitlement to practice our Christianity without problems, prejudice, or suffering for our faith.

Yes, the United States was birthed on the principle of religious freedom. But this nation is less than 250 years old. And for much of the past 2,000 years, Christians have not been so fortunate regarding freedom of religion.

Think about Christians during New Testament times. They were beheaded, killed by wild animals, burned alive as human torches, and crucified. Yet, I don’t recall any Bible passages demanding the right to practice religious beliefs in freedom. In fact, just the opposite is true. Even Jesus all but guaranteed we would experience suffering (John 16:33).

If anything, the Bible confirms again and again that we will suffer for our faith. Consider the following sampling:

  • John 16:33 ESV – “I have said these things to you, that in me you may have peace. In the world you will have tribulation. But take heart; I have overcome the world.”
  • Romans 5:3-5 ESV – “More than that, we rejoice in our sufferings, knowing that suffering produces endurance, and endurance produces character, and character produces hope, and hope does not put us to shame, because God’s love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit who has been given to us.”
  • 2 Timothy 3:12 ESV – “Indeed, all who desire to live a godly life in Christ Jesus will be persecuted.”
  • James 1:2-4 ESV – “Count it all joy, my brothers, when you meet trials of various kinds, for you know that the testing of your faith produces steadfastness. And let steadfastness have its full effect, that you may be perfect and complete, lacking in nothing.”
  • 1 Peter 4:12-16 ESV – “Beloved, do not be surprised at the fiery trial when it comes upon you to test you, as though something strange were happening to you. But rejoice insofar as you share Christ’s sufferings, that you may also rejoice and be glad when his glory is revealed. If you are insulted for the name of Christ, you are blessed, because the Spirit of glory and of God rests upon you. But let none of you suffer as a murderer or a thief or an evildoer or as a meddler. Yet if anyone suffers as a Christian, let him not be ashamed, but let him glorify God in that name.”
  • 1 Peter 5:10 ESV – “And after you have suffered a little while, the God of all grace, who has called you to his eternal glory in Christ, will himself restore, confirm, strengthen, and establish you.”

We’ve been spoiled by the freedoms we’ve had in this nation. And yes, of course we have the right to seek redress according to the rule of law. But if and when that fails, are we also ready to suffer for our faith?

As Christians, before we complain about the sense of entitlement held by those who disagree with us, perhaps it’s time to examine the sense of entitlement hidden in our own heart.

We might be surprised by what we discover.

What do you think?

Walking a Tightrope

The first time I watched a tightrope act at the circus, I was terrified…not for myself, but for the tightrope walkers. I was afraid they would fall, despite the safety net below them. Little did I know then, that fifty years later, a tightrope would be in my future, too.

The tightrope is our culture—a society that has decided to redefine what is right and wrong, moral and immoral. The tightrope walkers are Christians.

In 1973, the Supreme Court of the United States (SCOTUS) attempted to redefine life in Roe v. Wade by essentially determining that a baby in the womb may be discarded because it is not a life. Forty-two years later in Obergefell v. Hodges, the Supreme Court attempted to redefine marriage as something other than between a man and a woman. I use the word attempted because in both cases the Court redefined something they had not originally defined. God is the One who creates and defines life. And God is the one who defined marriage in Matthew 19:4-6 (NIV), when Jesus said “At the beginning the Creator ‘made them male and female,’ and said, ‘For this reason a man will leave his father and mother and be united to his wife, and the two will become one flesh’…So they are no longer two, but one flesh. Therefore what God has joined together, let no one separate.”

The Supreme Court cannot rightfully redefine life and marriage when they did not establish the definitions to begin with. But they have established these redefinitions as the new legal norm.

Which brings us back to the tightrope…

Regardless of whether you ever wanted to join the circus, these two SCOTUS decisions have forced every committed Christian to become a tightrope walker. We struggle to find a balance between standing on the Word of God without compromise and also simultaneously loving those who need Jesus Christ even while they are in open rebellion to Him.

Hatred and name-calling are not the answer. How can we hope to reach out to offer the salvation needed by our desperately sin-sick world if we respond with animosity? Or if we respond with joy at the prospect of their judgment?

Neither is silence in the face of sin the answer. Silence implies consent.

Isolation isn’t the answer, either. What good does it do to keep our salt in the salt shaker?

Finally, agreeing with these redefinitions simply because the majority—or the government—proclaims it to be true is also not the answer. “Do not follow the crowd in doing wrong” (Exodus 23:2 NIV).

The biblical response is to refuse to compromise, but to do it without arrogance. To stand firm without belligerence. To love the perishing, whose minds have been blinded by the god of this age (II Corinthians 4:3-4 NIV).

There will be a cost for standing firm. As our society becomes more and more emboldened in rebellion to the Creator, Christians will pay the price for a perceived lack of tolerance. The cost may be manifested in relationships, in finances, perhaps even in physical safety.

However, history tells us this isn’t the first time Christians have been out-of-step with society. If anything, we should be out-of-step. If we are no different from the world, then what have we to offer?

God has not changed. His plans have not changed. He is still sovereign and He is not surprised by these recent events. How will committed Christians—His children—represent their heavenly Father to a watching world?

Sigh. That circus tightrope act doesn’t look as difficult as it once did, at least not compared with the tightrope before us today. Pray that we seek the Holy Spirit’s help to speak the truth in love – or as the motto of Dallas Theological Seminary summarizes: “Teach Truth. Love Well.”

Good words to follow…for our sake and for the sake of those we desire to reach.

What are your thoughts?