While global warming remains controversial among conservatives, something we can probably all agree on is a phenomenon I call, “Washington Warming.” The hot season has come a little early this time around, but as presidential campaigns get underway, the political atmosphere heats up; as it does, Christians need to keep our cool. Allow me to explain . . .
The best way for Christians to contribute to the political life of our country is to keep to the big picture. Faith informs politics, but not the other way around. Faith is bigger than politics, partisanship, and personalities. God’s ways (“faith”) are infinitely higher than man’s ways (politics). That doesn’t excuse apathy and disengagement. Faith propels us towards politics, but not beneath it.
Christians end up beneath politics when we let politicians and political powers drive our thinking, our actions, and our anxieties. This happens when we see the political as the be all and end all. I cringe when I hear Christians say, “If Congress doesn’t pass this law, we’re through,” and, “If the Supreme Court issues this ruling, we’re done!” or, “If the President orders that, we’re finished.” How could any of this possibly be? No earthly, human, limited potentate possesses absolute or ultimate authority over anything, let alone the future of humankind!
There is only, “one Lord.” (See Ephesians 4:5) and, “he will strengthen you and protect you from the evil one.” (2 Thessalonians 3:3) When we assign ultimate and absolute outcomes to the machinations of human actors, we diminish in our own minds the absolute and ultimate power of God. This is a form of idolatry, and it is a sin and a heresy.
Christians need to be engaged in the political process at all levels, from simply being informed, to voting, to attending town hall gatherings, to running for office. In all of this, we must assiduously maintain a faith perspective. Our anchor must be the Bible, the model of Christ, historic Christian moral teaching, and prayerful reflection. These must must be our only ultimate reference points.
The dirty side to politics in unavoidable. After 21 years in Capitol Hill, I know it too well. Voting blocks will be identified, categorized, marketed to, exploited, and manipulated. It’s the nature of the business. Even if the candidate doesn’t approve of this activity, the thousands of businesses and individuals that stand to make millions of dollars off of campaigns will do what they need to do to outshine their competition, and that means yank you and me around.
We must not play their game or let them play us. Instead, we need to be the voice of conscience and confidence at the table. We know the rules, because they were given to us on Mount Sinai and at Capernaum. The Ten Commandments and the Sermon on the Mount, together with all of Holy Scripture, constitute the only ultimate and absolute platform for every part of the Christian life, including the political.
When it comes to the anxieties attendant to the political season, we must remember to, “Never worry about anything. Instead, in every situation let your petitions be made known to God through prayers and requests, with thanksgiving. “ (Philippians 4:6) I love these words of Paul because they’re not only emphatic, they’re optimistic. He tells us to include “thanksgiving,” presumably because God will and does answer, but in His time and in His way.
As this political season continues, we must be informed and engaged, but we must also be cool. In the end, God will have His way, whether we like it or not.
“Your kingdom come, your will be done, on earth as it is in heaven.” (Matthew 6:10)
You know by now I’ve been wary of the growing infatuation with guns in our society. My concern is for those that may face moral and ethical temptations to use them for the wrong reasons. The Christian has a much higher standard to answer to than the Second Amendment ( as important as it is), state gun laws (as good as they may be), and sloganeering by secular political and advocacy groups (as clever as they may be). So, I’ve issued a caution to Christians when it comes to equipping ourselves for deadly conflict.
This past week, though, I got another view of the gun question, when I visited chaplains of the Arizona Army National Guard. Of course, military chaplains are unarmed non-combatants, and for very good reasons. I’ll explore that virtuous philosophy in a future post. Instead, here I want to reflect on the women and men these chaplains serve. They are virtually all remarkably brave and professionally trained bearers of weapons. One soldier, who may have misunderstood my position on the issue, made an emphatic point of telling me, “I’m trained to kill those that want to kill you. I don’t shoot to take life, I only shoot to save life.”
His was a poignant remark, and one I quickly came to fully appreciate as I talked with the men and women in uniform that serve our country at great risk to their own safety and that of their families. Though I’ve been around military people for a long time–and I’ve done plenty of funerals at Arlington Cemetery–for some reason this visit brought the whole thing home to me in a way I hadn’t seen it before.
First, I came to realize just how highly trained, rehearsed, and restrained our military professionals are in the use of lethal weapons. The ones I met were extraordinarily self-disciplined and conscious of the moral gravity of their task. In a conversation with their senior chaplain, I learned how the vetting process goes on whether or not to use lethal force, how it can be done with the least amount of civilian collateral damage. Chaplains advise on these literal life-and-death decisions because along the entire chain of command there is a serious commitment to neutralizing dangerous, life-threatening enemies while protecting innocent non-combatants.
The average Christian will never have to think about these things, let alone execute decisions that will take human lives, sometimes on a grand scale. Only a miniscule number of us will ever need to process in prayer the affect of the killing of a fellow human being on the soul. One chaplain told me a soldier that mistakenly identified a car on the battlefield as filled with terrorists, but instead he killed an innocent couple and their small children. The soldier was so deeply traumatized by the tragedy that he committed suicide.
These highly skilled, but overwhelmingly compassionate and goodhearted souls, must not only risk their lives, but their consciences and reputations as well. They do it by taking on an onerous responsibility most of us would rather pass on. They must risk incurring guilt, shame, and sin, being labeled baby killers, monsters, and invaders. Worse yet, they risk being ignored by those of us that can’t relate to the otherworldly experiences that have permanently altered their lives.
In my humble estimation, there is a HUGE difference between the men and women in uniform that train exhaustively, operate under strict command and regulation, expose themselves to both grave danger and severe reprimand and punishment because of the use or misuse of their weapons and the rank amateurs like me that may want to empower ourselves like soldiers, but shirk all the taxing demands they willingly endure–again and again–to earn the right to bear arms to protect us and our country.
Pardon me while I say it like it is: Taking on the power of life and death over other human beings with no corresponding demand on our souls, psyches, and mental and physical prowess, cheapens the commitment of the exceptional men and women I spent time with this week.
God bless our military for taking our safety so very, very seriously.
“[T]he one who has been entrusted with much, much more will be asked.” — Jesus (Luke 12:48c)
This past weekend was surrealistic for me. You may have heard I literally walked a red carpet at one of the best-known film events in the world, the Tribeca Film Festival. I never thought I’d walk a red carpet. “Celebrity” was not in my life-plan.
The reason I did the walk, though, was because it’s more or less required of the principals in the major films that debut at this showcase of new and seasoned talent. In my case, I was the subject of the feature-length documentary, The Armor of Light, (titled for a sermon I preached from Romans 13:12). In the film, I ask hard questions of others, but mostly of myself, about Christians, guns, and deadly force. I do not suggest legislative or policy solutions to the problem, but I invite Christians, especially pastors and ministry leaders, into a prayerful, biblically informed conversation about what it means to completely pro-life.
Abby’s film includes several voices along with mine, but she chose to center the film around my search for answers, my discussions with Christians of every opinion, and on my preaching. I hope you won’t jump to any conclusions until you’ve seen it and talked with me about it. I plan to travel the country as the film is shown in churches, special events, and on Christian university and seminary campuses. My prayer is that people will take away from the Armor of Light an open invitation to join this important national discussion on a literal life-and-death subject. You’ll hear me say a lot about that in the film.
Please watch for The Armor of Light to come to a film festival, movie theater, or church fellowship hall near you. And, after you see it, please post your thoughts at our new discussion space, www.narrowtheroad.org. Every comment helps me see this difficult challenge more clearly.
BTW: You’ll see in our photo gallery my hangout with some folks from the very liberal-left. (What else exists in New York City?) You know I’ve never been one to preach to the choir. I like to mix it up—and this film project has given me a beautiful opportunity to do so. Keeping company with people of the opposite opinion not only keeps me sharp, but it also affords moments of very meaningful ministry and unusual friendship. You’ll see that I share my testimony of salvation clearly in the film, something I’m very surprised the editors chose to leave in!
If I had been blessed to live during the time of Jesus’ earthly ministry, I would have been there right alongside him when he was with the tax collectors and sinners. That’s where our message is needed—and often appreciated—the most!
Let’s stay in touch!
Rev. Rob Schenck +
Maybe you saw the adventure comedy-drama The Secret Life of Walter Mitty staring Ben Stiller. It’s the fun story of a very ordinary guy that works for Life Magazine and goes on an unlikely, action-packed, thrill-seeking quest to find a lost film negative he thinks will make the perfect cover photo for the last printed issue of the beloved journal. I watched the movie two weeks ago to kill some time on my 10-hour flight to Istanbul, Turkey for my first visit to that country. How apropos, really, because this trip was my own secret adventure.
You probably know me only for my work as a missionary to government officials in Washington, DC (which has been my most important ministry endeavor for the last 20 years), but there’s a whole other side to what I do. I’ve actually been to more than 40 countries since I was ordained 32 years ago. Most of this travel was for preaching ministry or to supervise Christian humanitarian efforts, but some of it was also to investigate and report on religious freedom crises around the world.
My first forays on the religious freedom front came some 10 years ago with my board membership at the Institute for Religion and Public Policy (IRPP), founded by my long-time friend Joseph Grieboski. Joe got me involved in a dialogue between American Evangelical leaders and Moroccan Muslim leaders that would last five years and become one of the most rewarding things I’ve ever done. Joe also talked me into going with him to Sudan to investigate the state of religious freedom in that country, which turned out to be one of the most harrowing things I’ve ever done!
It was another long-time friend and colleague, though, Jay Sekulow, that got me to go to Turkey. I must admit, Turkey was not on my radar screen until Jay brought it to my attention. It happened in conjunction with my acceptance of his invitation to serve as a senior research fellow with the newly established Oxford Centre** for the Study of Law and Public Policy (**British spelling), located at Harris Manchester College, a school of Oxford University in England. My first assignment was to undertake an investigation of religious freedom in Turkey, particularly as it affects Evangelical Christians.
To stick with the “secret life” theme of this blog, my assignment had to do with my other “secret” post as chairman of the Evangelical Church Alliance International, one of the oldest associations of Evangelical ministers, missionaries, and chaplains here in the U.S. and around the world. This leadership position, along with my doctoral work on Evangelicals at Faith Evangelical College and Seminary, qualified me as an “expert,” and, thus, as a candidate for the Oxford fellowship.
Taking on an investigation of this nature is a serious matter. To assist me in gathering data, I recruited three professional researchers. (Two Americans and one Turk doing graduate work here in Washington.) The two Americans traveled to Turkey ahead of me and conducted interviews with 24 subjects spread across the country, including on the Syrian border where they encountered gunfire. I interviewed five church leaders (mostly Turkish of Muslim background) and four government officials, two at the Turkish embassy here in Washington and two in the Turkish capital of Ankara. I submitted a 20-page academic paper to the Oxford Centre before traveling to Turkey, then gave an oral report and defense to the symposium at Harris Manchester College that included the findings of my field research. More than a dozen presentations were made at Oxford on a variety of subjects related to Turkey, so I learned a lot about the country and its culture in the process.
We cannot ignore Turkey or take it for granted. It is hugely consequential both to the stability of the region and to much of the world. Until recently, Turkey was known as perhaps the most moderate of Muslim majority countries. It is officially “secular,” with no singular state religion, but Islam is favored in just about every way and without apology.
What I found surprising was that Christian churches do meet openly throughout Turkey, there are Christian radio and television stations, active Christian social media pages and websites, and Bibles in Turkish are readily available to those that want them. Compared to other Muslim majority countries, the situation in Turkey is remarkably free and open. Still, there are grave problems. Christians do suffer social discrimination and they do not not have confidence that the current government will protect them against acts of prejudice, including violence.
For the next several years, I will be continue my study of Turkey, and will pursue advocacy for Christians there, as well as work for greater U.S. attention to Turkey over all. As the literal bridge between east and west (the country straddles Europe and Asia), and the freest of all Muslim majority nations, not to mention it’s long, albeit stormy, role as an ally to Europe and the U.S., Turkey is a terribly important player on the world stage. It is sophisticated, in many ways exotic, and somewhat socially progressive, but the government’s recent turn towards an Islamist orientation threatens religious minorities and portends its possible global realignment. Please pray for Turkey and its people, especially its relatively few Christian inhabitants.
Before I close, I want to thank Dr. Jay Sekulow and the board of trustees of the Oxford Centre for the Study of Law and Public Policy for their confidence in me. As a senior fellow, I am honored to be in their company. I also want to thank the Reverend Dr. Ralph Waller, principal of Harris Manchester College, Director of the Farmington Institute for Christian Studies, and Pro-Vice Chancellor of Oxford University, for his warm embrace of the Oxford Centre fellows.
This (now not-so-secret) adventure continues–watch for updates. There will also be another installment in the Secret Life of Rob Schenck next week. It may be an even bigger surprise, so, do watch for it!
It’s not easy being a missionary to a place so many people hate. Washington, DC (or at least what I call “Official Washington”) contains one of most unpopular, disliked, and ridiculed population groups in America: Congress. Just about as many Americans hold the current president in contempt, too. And, depending on what they’re doing, federal judges also get lots of raspberries.
Two recent events illustrate how contempt for government figures is universal: When federal judge Judge Callie V. S. Granade ordered Alabama to issue same-sex marriage licenses, conservatives cheered state Chief Justice Roy Moore for challenging that order, while liberals applauded Judge Granade. Less than two weeks later, when a different federal judge, this time in Texas, put a hold on President Obama’s executive order legalizing undocumented aliens, the two sides reversed their criticisms; conservatives applauded the federal court, while liberals decried it.
If we Americans are anything, we’re fickle. For a long time now, a large majority of Americans have disapproved of congress as a whole, but we each like what our own member of congress is doing. This is both human nature and the way the founders designed the country to work. They put this fickle-factor into the political equation to use it as a check against tyranny. Still, it’s affect is the same: People don’t like the people I’m called to serve.
Of course, loving the unlovely has always been at the heart of evangelism and disciple making. As any pastor knows, the greatest challenge of Christian ministry is to reach beyond the popular inner circle to the periphery, where desperate souls exist in the shadows. It’s not just preaching to the choir—or, worse, to the cheering fans that give you the ovations—but to the marginalized, the alienated, the lonely, and the despised.
It’s easier, of course, when the undesirables are down-and-outers. I started my ministry career in an outreach to drug addicts and gang members. Later I went to the inhabited garbage dumps of Mexico, to the “Pepenadores,” or “garbage pickers.” Raising money to relieve the temporal and spiritual suffering of people deep in the margins is relatively easy; they are the lepers of our day.
It’s harder to recruit support to reach the “up-and-outers,” people with power, influence, and the spotlight. Maybe it’s because we expect these people to know better and do better. I think some of also see these people as doing things that directly harm us. It’s harder to love someone that’s hurting you.
Still, the command is the same. Jesus said so in the greatest sermon ever preached:
“For if you love those who love you, what reward do you have? Do not even the tax collectors do the same? And if you greet only your brothers, what more are you doing than others? Do not even the Gentiles do the same? You therefore must be perfect, as your heavenly Father is perfect.” (Matthew 5:46-48)
According to Jesus, if we only speak well of our own, if we only like those whose actions we like, if we only reach out with kindness to those that are kind to us, if we only speak well of those that do what we think is good, we’re no better than—well—according to Jesus—the IRS agents here in Washington, who are the least popular of the least popular!
All that to say, please pray for those I serve here in Washington—whether you like them or not. You just may find yourself falling in Christ-like love with them, as I have.
Predictably, both sides of the gun issue jumped to conclusions about my statement last week on gun violence in America. I spoke in the context of the National Memorial for the Pre-born and the annual March of Life. My statement was in the form of an Op-Ed essay, published in USA Today, and in my opening remarks at the Memorial service. To set the record straight, below you’ll find my essay (entitled by the newspaper’s editors, “Support life womb to tomb”), my statement to the clergy and attendees at the Memorial, and a follow-up clarification I released on Christian Newswire after my position on the issue was mischaracterized by the conservative blog, Breitbart. If you don’t have time to read all of it, I’ll summarize it here in brief:
I am not anti-Second Amendment. I do believe private citizens should be able to responsibly own and freely use firearms. I am not anti-NRA. In fact, I’m a Life Member. I do believe it is morally permissible for a Christian to kill in self-defense, in war, and for capital punishment. However, the Commandments of God always trump Constitutional Amendments–so, the Christian must be more concerned with what God says than what the Founders said. The question I want to put on the table is how the Christian biblically and ethically approaches the question of gun ownership and use. My family has both a history of mental illness and gun suicide. Both have affected my decision about having a gun in the home. Other questions include: I it always proper for a gun to be used in self-defense? Pointing a gun means readiness to kill; is it proper to point a gun when someone is stealing your car? What about the person with an anger management problem, or an alcohol or drug addiction problem? Should they own a gun? What about families with histories of physical abuse? Should an abuser own a gun? Never mind what the secular experts say, what does the Word of God, the example of Christ, and a prayerful conscience say? As I meet more armed Christians across the country–and as our representatives in Congress wrestle with this issue, the President bears down on it, and the courts rule on it, I think Christians–and pro-lifers in particular–need to weigh in on the discussion. Here’s my two-cents:
Opening Statement at the National Memorial for the Pre-born and their Mothers and Fathers:
Welcome to this, the 21st Annual National Memorial for the Pre-born and their Mothers and Fathers, America’s premier, indoor, interdenominational pro-life prayer and preaching service here in Constitutional Hall, just opposite the White House, in Washington, DC.
I’m Reverend Rob Schenck and I’ve been at this podium since Day One, with Fr. Frank Pavone, my twin brother, Fr. Paul Schenck, and many others on this platform and in this auditorium.
We’ve been through a lot together these more than two decades, and, for some us, for over 30 years, as we’ve struggled with the forces of darkness to expose the light of God’s Truth when it comes to the Sanctity of Nascent Human Life.
We’ve marched (as we will again today), we’ve raised money, lobbied, sued, been sued, rescued and done jail time; a few of us have been roughed up, been spit on, had cigarettes extinguished on our scalps; been kicked and punched; maybe you were with me in New York in ‘92 when we were urinated on as we knelt to pray. And pray we have, ceaselessly, since this journey began.
Of course, no one paid more than Jim Pouillon, whom many of us knew. In 2009, Jim was was shot and killed on a sidewalk in Owosso, Michigan, for his prayerful witness to the Sanctity of Life.
If you were around this movement in the 1990s, you also experienced the other side of Jim’s murder, when some among our own did the shooting and killing, taking the lives of those on the other side, violating the very tenet we have all held to so deeply–that every human life is sacred: good, bad, friend or foe, every life is cherished by a loving God, who is the sole Author of Life.
So, today I’d like to issue a new challenge to all who treasure God’s good gift of life and to all that have bravely sought to advance, and to preserve, protect, and promote this fundamental God-given human right.
Let’s take what we have learned during these past decades of our struggle and enlarge our reach, as the famous prayer of Jabez has it in 1 Chronicles 4:10, “Oh that thou wouldst bless me and enlarge my border.” Let’s take this Gospel of Life, as Christ commanded us, “into all the world.”–everywhere life is threatened, disrespected, devalued, and disregarded. Our pre-born brothers and sisters have taught us the meaning of the mandate in Deuteronomy 30:19, to “choose life, that you and your descendants may live.”
The recent events in Paris, and just Tuesday in Boston, brought back terrifying images from the murder and mayhem in places like Newtown, Connecticut, Aurora, Colorado, and Fort Hood; in tragic and avoidable losses of life in Ferguson, Missouri, and Brooklyn, New York. For at least one person on this stage, these are not simply tragic news reports. My special guest this morning is Lucy McBath, whose 17-year old son, Jordan, was murdered outside a Florida convenience store for playing his music too loud. Lucy is pro-life to the core: She fought through a high risk pregnancy to bring her miracle baby to birth, then raised him as a home-school single mom, only to lose Jordan to a man that, because he carried a (legal) sidearm, thought he could end an argument with a lethal weapon.
As pro-lifers, we have long decried the use of instruments of death against the yet-to-be-born, but many survivors of abortion will go on to face the imminent threat of violent death in their own homes, in their schools, and as they walk or drive home.
It’s time for those of us that love and treasure life to loan our voice of conscience to the national debate over increasing gun violence, just as we have to the debate over scissor and suction violence. It’s all of a piece.
Most of you know I’m an evangelical minister and my twin brother is a Catholic priest. I tell my brother if evangelicals ever had a pope, it was John Paul II, the Billy Graham of Catholics. John Paul II won my heart when he confronted Bill Clinton with the Sanctity of Life in Denver during National Youth Day in 1993; He’s still my hero. This brave man, a shooting victim himself, warned of the grave danger posed by the “uncontrolled proliferation of small arms.” Let’s follow that good counsel into the future to ensure the Gospel of Life surrounds every human life, pre-born and born.
Now, let us once again kindle the Light of Life as we begin our service . . .
Now you’ve got the whole scoop!
“I AM THE LORD YOUR GOD . . .
“YOU SHALL HAVE NO OTHER GODS BEFORE ME . . .
YOU SHALL NOT MURDER.”
– The Great Words of Sinai, Exodus 20:2,3,13
The title of this post may seem like a statement that doesn’t need to be made. The brutal slaughter of unarmed civilians by heavily armed gunmen in body armor was a self-evident act of cold-blooded mass murder. Still, the provocative nature of the publication most of the victims worked for may be cause for some confusion. It shouldn’t be, and here’s why:
First, only the One True and Holy God is the judge of humanity. These assailants, whether or not their religion is sincere, took upon themselves the role of God in determining these cartoonists must die for their irreverence. If there was sin in this situation, the greater of it lies with the murderers who committed the ultimate sin, that of self-idolatry. This was, in fact, the first and satanic sin, urged by the serpent in the garden, “You will be like God . . .”
Second, the deliberate taking of human life outside due process of law is a direct violation of the commandment of God, “You shall not murder.” Murder is a flagrant disregard for the moral authority of the Divine and an affront to the Holy One.
Third, the murder of an individual is both a callous disregard for the sanctity of God-given human life and a contemptible dismissal of the sacredness of repentance, because it precludes the victims’ opportunity to repent of their sins and seek mercy from God. Murder essentially robs the sinner of the opportunity to seek salvation.
If these are not enough proofs that the acts of the Paris assassins are unequivocally immoral and reprehensible sins, then consider this: These three boy killers are not the brave martyrs they want to be, but, in fact, are cowards. They hunted and slaughtered unarmed, untrained civilians, then ran away from the scene like naughty school children; that’s not bravery or martyrdom, it’s shameful cowardice.
May God have mercy on the families and loved ones of the victims and may He bring the perpetrators to justice and repentance.
Funerals are not strange things to me. I’ve been to plenty of them and I have officiated as clergy at too many to count. Most funerals are basically the same: There are family members, sometimes few, sometimes many. There’s usually a wake—or viewing—followed by a service—and an interment. There are tears, or shock, or relief, or anger. It’s normally painful, but not always.
The funeral I attended over Friday and Saturday of last week, though, was something different. First, it was not for one of my loved ones, or for a friend, or for a parishioner, or even for an acquaintance. It was for a complete stranger. I wasn’t even thinking much about it, except that I was vaguely aware it was scheduled, until I got an unexpected text.
The text simply read, “Slain NYPD officer Rafael Ramos was a student here.”
“Here” meant Faith Evangelical College and Seminary, my alma mater, in Tacoma, Washington. The sender was the school’s president, Dr. Michael Adams.
It’s funny how even a tangential link with another unknown person can suddenly make you feel connected to that individual in some way. If you think about it, it does make sense. Education is complicated, demanding, and idiosyncratic. If someone picks the same educational institution as you do, it probably says you have more than one thing in common with him or her.
In the case of Officer Ramos, I would quickly learn we had a lot in common. More important than anything, he loved the Lord. He was a serious Christian; even more than that, he was an evangelical, born again, Bible-believing, charismatic Christian. Officer Ramos was devoted to his church where he served in a number of capacities—and it was the kind of church I have kept company with for nearly all my Christian life.
There was one more element that drew me toward this brother: he aspired to be a police chaplain. Since my election to the post of chairman of the Evangelical Church Alliance (in part, a chaplain endorsing agency) I’ve come to deeply appreciate the work—and even temperament—of chaplains. Unlike pastors, who mostly minister to believers that adhere to a single expression of Christian faith, chaplains must serve the spiritual needs of believers and non-believers, as well as those of every kind of religion. Chaplains also must navigate difficult institutional and even legal waters. They are generally very capable and adaptable people.
After thinking about Officer Ramos and his connection to my alma mater, I texted Dr. Adams and offered to represent him and the school at the funeral. He called to accept my proposal and told me he had enough support from his faculty and board to proceed with a posthumous award of the B.A. in Religion for the fallen officer, who was just two courses shy of completing it when he was assassinated.
The plan was for me to deliver a letter to his widow, Maritza, at the funeral. After a few phone calls and emails to Christ Tabernacle in Glendale, Queens, the Ramos home church, the arrangements were made for me to make the presentation on Friday, December 26, just before the start of the first of two funerals.
A delegation of several always makes a bigger statement than a single messenger, so I quickly recruited people I thought would compliment the unusual exercise the best. They included my long-time friend and ministry ally, Rev. Pat Mahoney, director of the Christian Defense Coalition, and my newer, but very special friend and colleague, the Reverend Dr. Suzan Johnson-Cook, who not only was the 3rd U.S. Ambassador-at-Large for International Religious Freedom, but is also a retired NYPD chaplain, having served 21 years. I also asked another friend of more than 30 years, Pastor David Hernquist of Bronx, New York, to join, but he was out of town for the holidays, so he sent his very capable assistant, Rev. Jesus Goyco, who had connections to the host church through youth ministry networks.
The four of us arrived at Christ Tabernacle on Friday evening, December 26, at 6 o’clock, an hour before the start of the first funeral, meant mostly for the family and the congregation that knew Rafael “Ralph” Ramos the best. The second day’s service would be for the police family and would feature the Vice President, the Governor of New York, and the Mayor of New York City, among others. Friday night we were there in a more intimate setting, if that’s what you could call a wake that drew thousands, had an expansive platform filled with a large choir and several officiants, and where the sanctuary pews were filled to capacity with nearly 1000 invited guests. I don’t know how many were outside, but I was told it was in the tens of thousands.
Although at first I had planned to request a private room to convey the school’s honor to Mrs. Ramos (who later insisted I call her Maritza), the more public setting was ideal. First, Officer Ramos was laid out in an open casket, which allowed me to turn towards him and present the letter from President Adams announcing the degree would be awarded with honors. I then conveyed the document to his widow who was visibly excited and relieved to read it. She reiterated to us what she had told Dr. Adams in an earlier phone conversation, that her husband valued his pursuit of the degree very highly and eagerly looked forward to completing it. She tightly clutched the folio containing the letter to her heart and thanked us profusely. Meanwhile, her youngest boy, Jaden, held his father’s hand at the casket. We said a short prayer with the family and took our seats.
A church deacon, who was charged with hosting our delegation, spoke effusively about his close friendship with “Ralph,” as his church family called the New York native of Puerto Rican descent. He said Ralph was a “godly man,” “a man of prayer,” “a beautiful guy committed to the Lord.” The deacon choked up several times trying to express his feelings about the tragedy. We were also told by others that Officer Ramos was busy “doing ministry” until the very day—almost the very hour—of his murder. One man said Ramos had sought out a fellow officer in crisis who was a non-believer, offering a prayer for him, just an hour or so before the attack that took his life.
It was clear from what everyone said at the funeral, both publicly and privately, that Rafael Ramos was an extraordinary individual. He was a father praised by his two sons as the “best dad ever.” The boys were remarkably articulate, poised, exceptionally well groomed, and mature beyond their years. His wife, Maritza, who clearly loved him passionately, stood for hours greeting literally thousands of visitors, including many high-level dignitaries. And his pastors, who also struggled emotionally while conducting the services, couldn’t say enough about his service to the church.
Rafael (as he was known to the school) was, Dr. Adams told me, a hard-working, diligent, serious, and very good student. He had already completed a non-accredited Bible school diploma and Faith Evangelical College had made special accommodations to accept many of those credits because they could see he was unusually gifted and committed to his educational career, even while balancing his demanding personal, professional, and church responsibilities.
“I just think it’s right that we award the degree,” Dr. Adams had said on the phone. “He deserves it and it’s the right thing to do. After all, it’s Christmas, and this is a gift to him and to his family.”
The news of the school’s intention had spread rapidly and other feature stories began to appear in the media, noting that Officer Ramos had hoped to become a police chaplain. He was not only studying as a distance student at my alma mater in Tacoma, he had also taken courses locally at New York Divinity School and was to be commissioned a lay chaplain by the New York State Chaplain Task Force on the very day he and his partner, Officer Wenjian Liu, were shot in their patrol car.
Several journalists interviewed me about the Officer’s pursuit of the chaplaincy. As chairman of the Evangelical Church Alliance International, an endorsing agency for chaplains in military, law enforcement, and institutional settings, I’ve grown to understand and appreciate the unique aspects to this complex field of ministry. By the time the very large police funeral for Officer Ramos was underway on Saturday, I felt I knew him personally and professionally. It was an honor for me to be seated on the platform with the NYPD chaplains he admired and emulated.
Many luminaries spoke at the second service, including Vice President Biden, New York Governor Andrew Cuomo, and New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio. They all gave very moving tributes to a humble servant of God and of his city. But I nearly lost my composure when New York City Police Commissioner William Bratton posthumously appointed Rafael Ramos to Chaplain of the 84th Precinct that he served. It was as if I was connected in some way to this spiritual odyssey that included the divine call on Brother Ralph, his pursuit of that call through his training at my school, Faith Evangelical College and Seminary, his service to the great city where both my parents were born and raised, the impact he had on the lives he touched, and now, the fulfillment of that life’s mission in his appointment to the chaplaincy.
In the VIP recessional from the church onto Myrtle Avenue where the hearse, the bagpipe corps, 400 motorcycle escorts, and some 25,000 officers waited to accompany the casket of Officer–now Chaplain–Ramos to its final resting place, I leaned over to Maritza, his widow, and her two boys, Justin and Jaden.
“Thank you for sharing Chaplain Ramos with us,” I said with my hand over my heart. “He’s a good chaplain and a gift from God to all of us.”
We will see, you dear Brother, before that magnificent altar . . .
When he opened the fifth seal, I saw under the altar the souls of those who had been slain because of the word of God and the testimony they had maintained. They called out in a loud voice, “How long, Sovereign Lord, holy and true, until you judge the inhabitants of the earth and avenge our blood?” Then each of them was given a white robe, and they were told to wait a little longer, until the full number of their fellow servants, their brothers and sisters, were killed just as they had been.
— Revelation 6:9-11
The college where slain officer Rafael “Ralph” Ramos was an online student preparing to be a chaplain will grant their student his degree posthumously.
“It’s only right,” said President Michael Adams of Faith Evangelical College and Seminary, located in Tacoma, Washington. “Officer Ramos was a very good student, earnest, dedicated. He was just two courses away from completing his program and he deserves to finish.”
Officer Ramos, who already possessed a non-accredited diploma, had been working toward an accredited B.A. in religion in order to meet requirements for the chaplaincy. His long-term plan was to enter full-time pastoral ministry after retirement. He and his wife, Maritza, were actively engaged in their church’s marriage ministry among other places of service to the pastors and congregation at Christ Tabernacle on Myrtle Avenue in Glendale, NY.
President Adams will be represented at the Ramos funeral by a delegation led by Washington, DC based minister, Rev.
Rob Schenck, D.Min., a distinguished alumnus of Faith Evangelical College and Seminary and president of Faith and Action in the Nation’s Capital. Dr. Schenck is a civilian chaplain on Capitol Hill and chairs the Evangelical Church Alliance headquartered in Bradley, IL, an endorsing agency for police, military, and institutional chaplains.
Other members of the delegation include the Honorable (Rev. Dr.) Suzan Johnson Cook, who was the first NYPD black female chaplain and, most recently served as 3rd U.S. Ambassador-at-Large for International Religious Freedom, Rev. Patrick J. Mahoney of the Christian Defense Coalition, and other New York pastors.
“Officer Ramos and his partner, Officer Liu, represent the very best among us,” said Rev. Schenck. “They cared deeply about their city, their families, and their comrades. Officer Ramos also cared deeply for his church community and was actively engaged with it. He felt a special calling to be a chaplain but it was never to be realized because of a senseless act of violence. I’m honored to represent one of the institutions that worked with Officer Ramos to help him reach his goal.”
“The chaplaincy would have been enormously complimented by an officer like Rafael Ramos,” said Ambassador Johnson-Cook. “He had the call, the commitment, and the courage to be an excellent chaplain, wherever he would have served. We are all poorer for his absence, but we know Officer Ramos rests in peace having done his duty to love God and to love his neighbor.”
“This is especially tragic because Officer Ramos was scheduled to graduate a chaplain training program on the day he was brutally killed,” said Rev. Mahoney. “His family was so proud of him and he was admired by everyone that knew him. We are calling on Christians all over the country to remember these fallen heroes as we gather to celebrate the birth of the Savior whom Officer Ramos served above all else.”
And suddenly there was with the angel a multitude of the heavenly host praising God, and saying, “Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace, good will toward men.” – Luke 2:13-14
Peace is always a theme of the Christmas season, sometimes in sermons, sometimes on doormats, often on greeting cards. There are wonderful accounts of literal Christmas-time manifestations of peace, like the famous one about World War I German and Allied combatants laying down their arms, exchanging cigarettes and rations, and singing carols together—only to resume their barbarous warfare on December 26.
I am not a blithe peacenik. Conflict is natural among human beings and will be until God institutes a new order in the universe. Wars will continue and physical violence will persist on every level of human relations. Still, this angelic pronouncement is not the wistful fantasy of a Pollyanna, but the express mandate of the Creator of all things, including of humankind, and it is a central tenet of the Gospel.
How then do we reconcile the ideal of God’s intention for peace and man’s rejection of it? How does the prayer for peace on earth jibe with the horrors being perpetrated by ISIS, the death of a teen in Ferguson, a 12-year old in Cleveland, an asthmatic in Brooklyn? For that matter, the hammer-beating of a St. Louis man, or the looting and arson of stores in protest of “police brutality?” None of this comports with peace or the pursuit of peace.
When I contemplate these seemingly irreconcilable realities, my mind often goes back to a simple and very human story. It was the early 1960s. One of my early ministry heroes, Rev. David Wilkerson, had arrived in New York City as a naïve young preacher with an outlandish vision to win violent street gangs to Christ. His first convert was a knife-wielding punk named Nicky Cruz. After Nicky gave his life to Christ he assisted “Brother Dave” in his frequent evangelistic rallies. During one of those rallies, one of Nicky’s rival gang members, Israel Narvaez, was present. A brawl ensued and Nicky had Israel on the ground with a blade to his throat.
“Say ‘Praise God’ man,” Nicky threatened. “Or I’ll cut your throat!”
Israel complied, crying, “Praise God, man! Praise God!” Nicky relented, got himself back in order, and led his rival to the altar. Israel went on to become an evangelist, like his nemesis.
What I love about this story (whether it’s embellished or not), is that it illustrates how peace and violence can coexist in the same person, often in the same moment. That’s true of the world in general. The presence of God brings peace, and the future plan and purpose of God results in eternal peace. These are points of ultimate hope and the means toward realizing true, lasting, spiritual, and temporal peace—even while, in the moment, the fullness of that peace eludes us.
The great gift of the Gospel is in its proof that peace is not only possible; it’s inevitable. The Gospel—manifest in the peaceful Christ Child at Bethlehem—is the cure for man’s hopeless surrender to violence. Of course, that peaceful birth was met with violence, too, as Herod unleashed his infant-murdering hoards. So, while our peace is disturbed in the moment, it’s assured in the future—the not-so-distant future.
This CHRISTmas my prayer for you is for you to know the hope that is Peace on Earth—and Good Will toward men . . .
Merry CHRISTmas to you and all yours.