Thursday, March 31, 2016

Living Out Our Exiled Citizenship

I've been studying Philippians quite a bit recently. It is becoming one of my favorite letters and has a lot to say about our current ecclesiastical and political environment. I find the central thesis of the letter to be 1:27-29 and later in 3:20.

"Whatever happens, live out your citizenship* in a manner worthy of the gospel of Christ. Then, whether I come and see you or only hear about you in my absence, I will know that you stand firm in one Spirit, striving together as one for the faith of the gospel without being frightened in any way by those who oppose you. This is a sign to them that they will be destroyed, but that you will be saved - and that by God. For it has been granted to you on behalf of Christ not only to believe in him, but also to suffer for him, since you are going through the same struggle you saw I had, and now hear that I still have."

"But our citizenship is in heaven. And we eagerly await a Savior from there, the Lord Jesus Christ..."

Quick history and geography lesson. Philippi was the site of several major battles between Julius Caeser and Brutus versus Octavian (later called Augustus) and Mark Antony. After Octavian and Mark Antony won, they rewarded the entire city of Philippi with Roman citizenship. They also made Philippi a city where Roman military vets could settle down after serving. All of this would make the city one of the most patriotic places in the ancient world (Sprinkle, 153). 

Did you also know that terms like Lord, Savior, and Son of God were applied to Caesar before ever being applied to Jesus? The "peace" of "our Lord and Savior" would more commonly refer to the Pax Romana, or the "Peace of Rome" gained by Caesar through military conquest. They would even send heralds to various Roman cities and pronounce the gospel of military victories. The good news of Rome was spread throughout the land, and certainly would have been ever so present in Philippi where military vets took pride in the freedom they had gained their people (Sprinkle, 155-158). 

This is all beginning to sound familiar, isn't it? 

Nationalism and Patriotism are both the products of pride in one's geographical identity and were ways of life for the Philippians, but Paul calls the church away from such identity and allegiance, and to see themselves as citizens of another kingdom entirely - pledged to a different king.

Paul assures them in chapter 3 that if there is anyone who should take pride in their earthly identity, it is Paul himself. Roman citizen, Pharisee, every reason to have pride. However, Paul considers all of these a loss for the sake of Christ, indeed, he considered them garbage that he might know Christ (3:7-8). That word we translate as garbage is a little stronger than what we can translate without Focus on the Family breathing down our necks. Needless to say, Paul considers all nationalistic identity markers pretty worthless compared to finding identity in Christ. 

He illustrates this completely and utterly with Jesus himself, who modeled something so completely opposite of pride. 

"Who, being in very nature God,
   did not consider equality with God something to be used to his own advantage;
rather, he made himself nothing
   by taking the very nature of a servant,
   being made in human likeness.
And being found in appearance as a man, 
   he humbled himself
   by becoming obedient to death - 
      even death on a cross!" (Philippians 2:6-8)

This is what the Philippians' relationships are supposed to be like, because they are told to live in unity with one another (2:1-5). Christ's humility is given as the reason they are to act selfless, and put others' needs before their own as they seek to be unified.

I feel as though Nationalism and Patriotism are often held up as positive things because they help unify nations. Here though, Paul is writing to a group of people who are not of this world, and so any identity with earthly nations tends to merely get in the way of unity. Nationalism creates "us" and "them" while Christ encourages us to see others as brothers and sisters. Nationalism puts up walls while Christ tears them down. Nationalism creates fear of others and asks for better defense while Christ gives the peace that surpasses all understanding and asks for patient suffering and endurance. 

Perfect love casts out fear, or should I say that it trumps it?

This is not a call to whitewash nationality, ethnicity, and all other cultural background of the people around us. Those things can indeed help us understand each other and appreciate each other as long as they are viewed properly. This is instead a call for us as Christians to view people through a different lens entirely - the lens of Christ. We find unity not through excluding everyone who is different than us but by putting others before ourselves (Philippians 2:3-4) and loving each other despite our differences. 

This also doesn't mean that we don't work for the welfare of the place we live. Jeremiah certainly encouraged the people of Israel to seek peace and do good in the place where God had sent them as an exile (29:7). However, the trick is remembering that you're still an exile, and your citizenship remains somewhere else.

I pledge allegiance to no nation because ultimately, my allegiance is unequivocally pledged to Christ. While nationalism and patriotism create boundaries between us, Christ tears those boundaries down and helps us see each other as we truly are - children of God. Perhaps when we stop seeing lines, we can truly make the world a better place.

*While many translations choose to render this word as "walk in a manner" or "conduct yourselves" - the word itself has something to do with citizenship since the root word is polis (having to do with city) and the overall context of the letter seems to insinuate such a reading.

Works Cited:

Sprinkle, Preston. Fight: A Christian Case for Nonviolence.  Colorado Springs, CO: David C. Cook, 2013. Print.

Thursday, March 3, 2016

How Star Wars Made Me Realize I Was Donald Trump

I was having lunch with my good friend Tyler Parette when we started talking about ethics, politics, and religion, as is pretty normal for the two of us. It was Wednesday right after Super Tuesday and so clearly we had a lot to talk about. 

Explaining our train of thought would be a winding journey you wouldn't want to go down without context, but we ended up talking about how we should stand up to injustice and the things we see as wrong in the world. 

Jesus was a pretty influential dude to Tyler and me, so we naturally brought up the idea of treating others how we would want to be treated. If we were experiencing some sort of injustice, we would surely want someone to stand up for us and help out. However, what does it look like to live by that principle to the one perpetrating the injustice? That's a much more difficult question at times, and it requires compassion for the person that is hard to give compassion to. 

This is where I spouted off - "Star Wars!"

Maybe the greatest moral lesson that Star Wars ever taught me was that the path to the dark side could be accomplished by improperly fighting the bad guy. Darth Vader did not start out being bad. He was corrupted by fighting against the Sith improperly. Despite what one thinks about the series as a whole, it is hard to deny that a pivotal moment for Anakin Skywalker, later to be known as Darth Vader, is when he is convinced to kill Count Dooku. When he chooses to act like a Sith in order to defeat the Sith, his journey takes a turn that leads him to be one of the most legendary villains in all film. 

Luke Skywalker is later faced with the same conundrum. He is told to release his anger against his father, the villain, because in doing so, his path to the dark side will be complete. The Sith win when good men act in Sith ways. This is ultimately where Luke differentiates himself from his father - he refuses to go to the dark side. 

An ethicist I've utilized extensively named Immanuel Kant had this to say about our behavior:

"Act as if the maxim of thy action were to become by thy will a universal law of nature."

The basic idea here is that you should only act in ways where you would want the rest of the world to follow your lead. You don't want to be lied to, cheated, or stolen from so don't lie, cheat, or steal. 

I might've made a mistake on Monday. I love watching John Oliver, and his segment on Donald Trump pleased my political and comedic nature. I shared it along with absolutely tons of other people. For the most part, I appreciate the humor that Oliver brings to the table and the way he is able to engage difficult topics. But admittedly, on Wednesday I realized that I myself had confessed to hypocrisy. When I shared the post by John Oliver, I said that "John Oliver went after Trump in a way supporters may appreciate...somewhat crass and telling it like it is."

When you were a kid, did your parents ever let you slide because you didn't hit your sibling as hard as they had hit you? I really doubt it...if you grew up in a sensible home. 

Was Oliver's segment funny? Absolutely yes. Was it correct in its information? Yes, although who you ask will probably affect that answer. Was it also crass and belittling in at least a similar if not less so fashion as Trump? Also...yes. 

How would you want someone who you disagree with to engage you in conversation? You are then obligated to engage with them in such a fashion, despite what they do. 

Gandhi is attributed with the common phrase - "Be the change you wish to see in the world." This is more of the bumper sticker version, which reads:

"If we could change ourselves, the tendencies in the world would also change. As a man changes his own nature, so does the attitude of the world change towards him. ... We need not wait to see what others do."

There's a story of a Quaker that was going around preaching pacifist beliefs. After one of his lectures, a man came up to him and said - "stranger, if the whole world were of your mindset, I'd gladly turn and follow." The Quaker then replied - "So, you have decided to be the last person in the world to do good, I have decided to be the first and set the example." 

We cannot wait to see what others do. The world may not change overnight because of your personal decisions and transformation. However, if we don't start with surely isn't going to get any better, and we really may just end up going to the dark side.

It is really easy to make fun of Donald Trump. However, I can't be a Jedi if I am acting like a Sith. We cannot reduce ourselves to the actions of those who we desire to change. None of the world's problems will be solved by doing that which is causing the problem. 

When others do things that we find wrong, merely slapping a label on them like misogynist or bigot is more likely to further solidify their beliefs than to change them; and if it doesn't solidify their opinions, it surely solidifies our opinion of them. This does not mean that we don't stand up against what is wrong in the world. However, it does mean that we must do so in a way that calls out actions instead of people. We must grant our opponents the same humanity we wish ourselves to be given. By externalizing problems from people and approaching them with compassion, we move in that direction.

As my friend Tyler so poignantly said, this is a call to civility. If you find yourself thinking "that stupid conservative/liberal" during this truly polarizing political season, you're already in the wrong. 

Finally, lest you write off my thoughts quickly and go back to your daily activities of sharing memes varying in humor and offensiveness, I beseech your consideration with one more all too common quote from Dr. Seuss speaking on conservationism but yet applies to all realms of human action. 

"Unless someone like you cares a whole awful lot, nothing is going to change. It's not."

Saturday, December 5, 2015

Why I'm a Christian Pacifist: We Are Rome

My first post was built largely around the idea that our actions should foreshadow how we want the world to be, setting the example as Jesus did. This was a law of ethical behavior by a guy named Immanuel Kant, and before him, a guy named Jesus (Matthew 7:12). 

For this post, we are going to look at his second major law of ethics: "act as to treat every case as an end withal, never as a means only." A means to an end is something you use in order to get something you want. Your job may be a means to an end. You may not really enjoy your job, but it's the means by which you pay the bills and keep yourself and family well fed. We have become a society that treats people as means to an end. We objectify people daily. 

Have you seen The Hunger Games? I feel as though many have either seen the books, read the movies (jokes) or at least know what they are generally about. Children are basically offered up every year in violent spectacle where they are forced to either kill or be killed, and all of this is televised for the entertainment crazed elite. Most would be right in drawing parallels between The Hunger Games and the Roman Coliseum, as they are essentially the same thing. However, the books and movies also bring criticism to 21st century media, particularly reality television (which doesn't represent a shred of reality). In the coliseums of the ancient world, what was offered was entertainment. Human life (usually slave, criminal, or for a good stint, Christian) is a means to an end of entertainment for the social elite who would sponsor it. Today, we have Jerry Springer, The Bachelor, UFC, Fox News...and basically every shooter video game of all time. I've known plenty of people who know The Bachelor is not a good representation of reality and instead just watch it for how silly or crazy the people are. But aren't we still laughing at their pain? UFC fights have become some of the most expensive televised sporting events out there, and while it is indeed two consenting adults, they definitely get in a head space where the other person is no longer a human but "in the way" of their victory and glory. When have you ever seen two fighters go out afterwards for some molten lava cake at Chili's? They dang near have to hate each other, and we just eat it up. And I'm too often right there enjoying the spectacle with everyone else, lest people see me as on a high horse. 

This is when I realize that We Are Rome. Yet we who are Christians are called to not live as Romans. Go read the entire Sermon on the Mount after finishing this. It still blows my mind how crazy some of Jesus's commands really are. Do you see a theme in them though? 

Through many years of study and ministry, I am convinced that objectification is the base of almost all sin. Human life is seen as an object to be used instead of as a person to be loved. We are supposed to use things, not love them. We are supposed to love people, not use them. Think about it. Objectification always involves treating people as the means to an end. The bully objectifies the bullied in order to relieve themselves of some repressed anger or a bad home life. The lustful objectify the opposite sex and see them more for their physical bodies than their inner qualities. The gossiper treats some unfortunate soul as the means by which they can have a good laugh and get that next bit of fun information. What you say when you stub your toe is of little consequence compared to how we often curse and degrade other people with words that aren't even considered vulgar (stupid, idiot, freak). Many wars have been fought where human life is seen as the means to an end such as land or resource acquisition (kingdom expansion; oil). Still, it must be admitted that even if we don't see these as justified, war and violence still treat life as the means to an end of justice or security. I would go out on a limb and challenge you to look at what is considered sin in the bible and not find some pattern of either reducing another person's intrinsic value or your own value. Surely, we are often told by the world what is to be valued and then devalue ourselves based on such overwhelming narratives. 

In subsequent posts, we will deal with alot of Scripture in great detail, but for now, just think about Jesus's command to love our enemies (Matthew 5:44). If there is anyone that is easy, if not necessary, to objectify in times of conflict, it is enemies. I can still remember people who claimed Christ celebrating the death of Osama Bin Laden when the news broke. "We Got Him!" was all too common of a phrase. Now, I am not defending Bin Laden's actions in the least, for surely he and his followers have built an ideology around objectifying people as well. However, Jesus says that we were to love and pray for Osama Bin Laden. Now, some might feel that he still needed to be punished, and I can understand such sentiment. However, if we are to even remotely live out this non-objectifying enemy love that Jesus talks about, it should not be a celebration, but a tragedy.

Even if you feel as though such retaliation was perhaps necessary, it should still be a mourned event. Even if you feel that there are times for killing and war, it should be with an incredibly heavy heart and sense of sadness that such decisions are made. Let me illustrate with a quote I've used before by Arthur Holmes.

"War is evil...its causes are evil...its consequences are orphans and widows and horribly maims the cheapens life and morality...wars that are intended to arrest violence and injustice seem only in the long run to breed further injustice and conflict. To call war anything less than evil, would be self-deception" (117).

Arthur Holmes was not a pacifist, but a Just War advocate. He believed war was necessary and justified at times, but this was his view, and I think that being a Jesus follower hearkens us to at least admit how objectifying our society has become and how evil violence really is - even if some still think it is necessary at times.

Like my first post, I'm not trying to say that this is in and of itself a strong argument for complete pacifism. I think Scripture makes the argument, and I surely want to get there. However, in and of itself, this is not all that is needed.

However, it is a starting point because of how far I see we've fallen. War and violence have become games...literal games. Now, I know there is research that shows violent video games do and don't have a great impact on our brains. However, what does it say about us that we are entertained by war (Call of Duty) and violence (Grand Theft Auto)? What does it say about our society that so-called Christian political leaders like Sarah Palin claim that waterboarding is how we baptize terrorists? What does it say that so-called Christians like Phil Robertson think the solution to ISIS is "convert them or kill them"? What does it say that the president of Liberty University, one of the most influential Christian universities in this country, encouraged the student body to get their concealed carry permits so that they could "end those muslims before they walk in and kill us" and "teach them a lesson if they ever show up here." We have slipped back into thinking like Charlemagne who converted the nations by essentially saying "be baptized or we will kill you."

Even if you end up in a place similar to Arthur Holmes and think things like war and violence are sometimes necessary, can we not agree that they are evil and tragic? Can we not agree that Jesus loves even the most loathsome of this world and that beckons us to at least move away from the objectifying views we too often hold against our enemies in this world? 

The way of Jesus calls me to see every single person in this world as a child of God with intrinsic value before I see them as anything else. Addicts, criminals, terrorists, and even those Christians I feel do not represent the name of Jesus well are all loved and cherished individuals, and no matter how much I may disagree with their thinking and action, I am called to love them and not objectify them. 

When in Rome, don't do as the Romans do, but instead try to see every single person in this world through the eyes of Jesus. 

Dear reader, I have been reading through some writing from an ethics and theology professor I had in my graduate program, Vic McCracken. He is also writing on this type of topic and is writing from a different perspective than I am. I strongly suggest you go and enjoy some very well informed contrasting viewpoints. Click here!

Works Cited:

Arthur Holmes, "The Just War," in Robert G. Clouse (ed.), War (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity, 1986), 117-135 (117). 

Wednesday, November 11, 2015

Why I'm a Christian Pacifist: The Way Things Should Be

I've been about as blatant about my views on the use of violence by Christians while still tiptoeing around the "P" word as I probably ever could have. You can talk about Jesus loving people all day long and get hardly anything but praise. However, when you drop the word "pacifist" - people become uneasy. That doesn't mean I'm alone. I've shared many conversations with people who believe basically the same things that I do throughout the years and have been surprised in some ways. However, it yet remains a rather taboo word, and in part, for good reason.

I'm honestly not crazy about the word pacifist. To the generations before me, it even might bring up some negative images of hippies protesting the Vietnam War and throwing tomatoes at veterans returning home. Let me be clear that such behavior towards anyone is appalling to me, and is also far from the teachings of Jesus in my perspective. This is not about hating veterans or burning flags. This is about dealing with the words of Scripture in a meaningful way and really wrestling with what they say. There are also 20+ forms of pacifism out there, and so that does make it confusing. For this reason, I tend to also use terms like Christian Nonviolence, since the term is less culturally loaded, depending on my context. But, Christian Pacifism is what I believe in - specific pacifism that comes from reading Judeo-Christian Scripture.  

Desiring to be open and honest while wrestling with Scripture has prompted me to do a series of posts on why I am a Christian Pacifist. I want to start the conversation and challenge your worldview. But by all means, as we go through this, don't just believe everything I say. Study, have conversations, and only after diligently seeking, make any adjustments you feel you may need to. 

I want to first clearly define what I am talking about. Violence in and of itself is not easy to define. After all, it's not all about force. Slipping poison into someone's food is violent, but a surgeon cutting a person open with a knife is not. So, what we will go off of is the way that two ethicists named Glen Stassen and Michael Westmoreland-White define violence:

"Violence is destruction to a victim by means that overpower the victim's consent" (18).

That definition can be an important one, because I feel that there is room to still respond to aggression nonviolently (even if we still need to "wrestle" with it in our own minds to be sure we are in alignment with Christ). Do you know some sort of weird Jujitsu arm-bar-lock-hold-thing from your days in martial arts? Maybe there is indeed a way that such could be put to use yet. We call those things "nonviolent" means for a reason. Destruction is more specifically what we will look at.  

So, the first issue I want to address as to why I'm a proponent of nonviolence requires that we go back all the way to the beginning of Scripture - to a garden. Now, whether you take every detail of the Eden account literally or not, it still has truth to teach. One of those primary truths involves God showing the way things should be. The one word that truly summarizes this is the Hebrew word "Shalom" which is the word for peace, but carries the idea that nothing is missing and nothing is broken. Now, Eden is also on earth. Creation is good, and not something to be written off. We don't get to say "Ah well, we're just going to die and go to heaven, so what we do here doesn't matter." It does matter. We have too often anticipated heaven and yet have failed to live it out here on this earth.

One of the reasons that Jesus came to earth was to create a thinner space between here and heaven. The church is a divine institution that's primary mission is to continue and create this thin space, bringing God's kingdom to this earth. This is why we feed the hungry and heal the sick. We believe that one day, there will no longer be hunger or disease. We bring clean water to the underprivileged because we believe that there will be a day when living water is available for all. Many scholars even hold that Jesus did the miracles that he did in order to foreshadow God's kingdom. Andrew Root writes that the miracle stories of Jesus "are not stories of magic but [are] rather stories which preview God's future. Jesus proclaims in word and act the future of creation in the future of God" (141).

This brings me to this first and simple assertion: Peace is to be desired over violence. 

We live in a broken world. Violence is a very present reality in this broken place, but that doesn't mean that it should be what we want and desire. This is one of the most troubling things to me about how far some Christians have come in their view on violence. It truly seems as though some do not even see peace as being better. Rather, it is almost mocked as some "hippy" value. This cannot be our view, and I hope that we can share in this assertion together. Peace is more desirable. 

I once read a story about a Quaker (a group who are notably nonviolent in their beliefs) who was going around teaching his pacifist beliefs. After one of his talks, a man came up to him and said, "Stranger, if the whole world were of your accord, I'd gladly turn and follow." The Quaker replied to the man, "Then you have decided to be the last person to do good, I've decided to be the first and set the example" (Camp, 43) I hold that being a Christian means truly living out the good we want to see in the world, even if the world is not yet good. I've written about this before (See The Golden Rule). 

Our brains have not developed to a point where this comes natural. Our instinct is going to be to freeze, flee, or fight. However, I don't think instinct is always best. Paul very much contrasts the Flesh from the Spirit. In many ways, I feel as though this is a call to transcend our human experience. To fight and use violence against a perceived threat is definitely not out of line with our biology. However, the person who nonviolently chooses to love in the face of opposition transcends all of this. Part of becoming a mature human being (even according to our cultural norms) is to make choices that go against what comes natural. 

Now, I'm not saying that idealism is...well...ideal. Even some amazing Christian pacifists (or at least with pacifist leanings) have given up on their nonviolent beliefs in the name of Christian realism. Alot of this happened because of World War II. Dietrich Bonhoeffer and Reinhold Niebuhr are both examples of this. All of this to say, the idealism I speak of is not a hard and fast rule, nor is it without problems. However, it is where I choose to start.

On the topic of WWII and problems with pacifism, let me be clear that I'm still searching for some answers. 

Firstly, White Christian Pacifism has come under some scrutiny, and I feel it is valid to a point. To be a young, white, male, and American conscientious objector during WWII while millions of Jews are being persecuted and even dying can definitely mess with even the most convicted pacifist. I am, statistically, one of the least likely groups to ever experience any type of violence or oppression. It's easy to be a pacifist whenever you will likely never even be compelled to fight for any dire reason; I fully admit that. However, I would like to think that if I were of an oppressed group and knew what I did about Scripture, I'd still hold my beliefs. 

Second problem I must fully admit to is that I'm a single man with no children. I have been called out for this time and time again. I have not experienced what it is like to have a child or wife that you feel so compelled to protect at all costs. However, I do have family and friends who could not be more dear to me, and once again, my reading of Scripture makes me at least desire to maintain a nonviolent stance in such an unfortunate situation. 

Third problem: There is real evil in this world that makes this all more difficult. We can see that after this past weekend with the attacks all around the world. I do think that Jesus speaks to how to respond to such evil, but I do not for a second think that it is an easy answer.

I've come to this position very reluctantly.  I have not always thought this way, and instead probably thought along the opposite lines. However, I've been convicted by Scripture and especially by the words of Jesus that my thinking needed to change, and this is the result.

In summary, do you think that peace is better than violence? Then I challenge you to keep reading over the next several blogs, no matter what your stance is. At least engage these ideas and see what I believe Scripture has to say on the subject. We will hit it all - OT and NT. I truly believe this issue is vital to Christian faith because it is one of the very defining aspects of Christ, who I believe came to show us how God intended things to be...and how to live that out even when the world isn't playing along. I'll likely retouch on a number of things I've previously written about, but oh well, it's fun.

Got questions of your own? Hit me up either in the comments or in a message and I will do my best to either address your questions in subsequent posts or simply have a conversation if that is what's needed. 

Until then, Shalom Y'all. 

Author's Disclaimer: Much of my own thoughts come from other people, especially a guy named Preston Sprinkle. I suggest strongly that you read his book - Fight: A Christian Case for Nonviolence

Works Cited

Camp, Lee C. Mere Discipleship: Radical Christianity in a Rebellious World. Grand Rapids: Brazos Press, 2003. Print. 

Glen H. Stassen and Michael L. Westmoreland-White, "Defining Violence and Nonviolence," in J. Denny Weaver and Gerald Biesecker-Mast (eds.), Teaching Peace. Lanham, MD: Rowman and Littlefield, 2003). Print. 

Root, Andrew, and Kenda C. Deen. The Theological Turn in Youth Ministry. Downers Grove, IL: IVP Books, 2011. Print. 

Monday, November 2, 2015

God of the Gaps

When I look at history, I notice that religious people go through waves of polarization with culture. Now, I do not necessarily have a problem with Christian culture going against the grain. After all, we do live in an upside down kingdom and the ways that the world devalues and destroys should indeed be contrasted by how the church values and builds up. However, I see this polarization happening in a different way, and it is far less appealing. In fact, it is troublesome. 

The church has trended towards two things. At times, we have denied scientific and social advancement because it does not appear to line up with Scripture. There are even those that tend to hijack poor science and loose history to try and validate Scripture in some form of weak apologetics. Others have appealed to what men like Neil DeGrasse Tyson, Richard Bube, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Charles Coulson, and Henry Drummond call the "God of the Gaps" - which can be defined as primarily invoking God in the mysteries of the universe. Isaac Newton helped explain many things about how the world operates, but when he was at the edges of where his equations could go, he said that perhaps it is there that God steps in. We do this a lot, as we come across something that is hard to explain and say - "That's got to be God." In days past, we accredited everything good and bad to God in one way or another. Ancient societies have had numerous ideas about how gods were involved in the world (to the point of natural occurrences being considered the direct result of gods and their shenanigans). Even Jesus runs into this when he is asked whether it was the parents or the man who sinned so that the man was born blind (John 9:2). However, now we can explain weather anomalies and blindness, so our language has changed and we have moved away from using language about God. 

Now, there are a great number of mysteries in the world and I by no means want to take away the awe that is due them as it concerns God. However, one thing I know is that if we try to put God in the gaps of our understanding, we will be sorely disappointed. As humankind progresses and our knowledge of the world increases, those gaps will become smaller and the mysteries will shrink. Such will happen to your idea of God if that's where you put him. After that, you might even be forced to deny what the scholastics of this world discover. Granted, a healthy skepticism is not a bad thing, since surely we are finite beings with a limited understanding.  

I do not think that either of these things are the way we should look at the world. Something we must understand about the world is that we make sense of it and create meaning through language. We discussed this above. Whenever something happens in the world, we try to make sense of it and give it meaning through our language - for better or for worse. We make meaning out of death with our language we give either in affirmation or denial of afterlife. We give people that we may never have met before special significance and meaning by applying the term "family" to them. Words like friend and loved one give significance to our relationship with certain people. All meaning is done in language. 

For this reason, we sometimes are not able to judge the work of the people who have been considered world-shakers until after their death, whether in theology, philosophy, or any other thing. These people would use language or another communicative medium like art to communicate a rather novel idea. Only after our society has advanced and we have used language to create more meaning does their work begin to be utilizable for us, and we realize that they were geniuses.     

This is where things get tricky - what can we say about God and it be accurate? We use the term "he" to refer to God for the most part in Judeo-Christian realms (at least for the sake of simplicity), but does God have gender? "He" carries a good deal of meaning in our culture, meaning that doesn't even span the entire region. What it means to be "he" is likely very different in Oklahoma than in Oregon. Even asking if God has gender is to put this omnipresent being in a very earthly box. Theology (God Talk) is always a step behind, simply because we are trying to use finite, human language to describe a very infinite, non-human God. 

Jesus illustrates this struggle because one of his favorite phrases is - "The kingdom of heaven is like..." and then proceeds to use parable and metaphor to speak to truths about God. We know that we aren't supposed to take those stories as absolutely literal, but rather they teach us truths about other things. John gets super crazy in the language he uses to describe his visions because how on earth are you supposed to put such grand visions of God into earthly words? We know that much of Revelation is not to be taken literally, but rather it is written to speak truth about God and how he ultimately wins. 

We run into this kind of problem when we read Genesis. When the book was written, humans simply did not have the language to describe the scientific processes behind the beginning of the world. In fact, the language is that of narrative rather than description. It tells a truth about God and his creation, but that does not mean that every detail of the story is true in and of itself. The point of Genesis is not to teach you what scientific processes the world was made through, but rather that God created, and considered it good. 

We run into this problem later when we are trying to translate scripture from an ancient language to our own. Ask someone who speaks another language and has immersed themselves in that culture and they will tell you that translating a concept or idea that they have made meaning of through a word in their language might not easily translate to our own language. They literally created meaning in their own language that might not exist in our language. Example. We translate the word φίλος (philos) as "friend" in James 2:23, but the ancient idea behind that concept is rooted deep in their social context of patronage. It denotes a business-type relationship where one party takes care of the other party's needs completely in exchange for dedication of some sort. That's not really the meaning that our word "friend" carries. It gets even trickier though, because just because a word might mean one thing in one place of scripture, that does not mean that it means the exact same thing in another place in scripture. Each book, each author, and really every different story carries its own context and give meaning to the words there. 

So what kind of take-away do we have from this? Well, firstly, it is important for us to realize that due diligence is necessary in our study of Scripture if we wish to apply it well. The phrase "well, what that means to me..." should slowly be replaced with the process of truly trying to understand what things meant to their original audience and then seeing how that might then be applied to us in our own context. Whenever you pull a classic "what does everyone's version say" with a particular passage, take note of the differences and realize that it's not all about synonym usage. Take this seriously. When something doesn't make sense, dig deep! When you've just assumed something makes sense or that you understood it, however, this thing is being questioned by society or the church, dig deep! Truly, there are parts of Scripture that simply won't carry the exact same meaning to us as it did to the audience it was written to. That doesn't mean it's not beneficial to us in one way or another, but reading material written to Israelites in exile simply won't mean the same thing to us today. We will indeed create some of our own meaning, and such is a very tricky process that should involve diligent study and faithful community.

Secondly though, I hope we can all move away from the polarizing effects of either an "anti-science" or a "God of the Gaps" stance. And here is how I think we can do that.

Perhaps we can start to view God as the God of everything. Not simply the unexplained phenomena in this world, but rather every single thing. When we ask if this is a physical, worldly process or a spiritual, Godly process - our answer can be yes. It's both. Rain isn't God crying and sneezes aren't demons trying to be released (yes, that was an actual thought), but they are both God. Let me illustrate. Throughout the OT and NT, God is shown as speaking to people through dreams and visions. This was one way that he condescended himself to humans. The fact that God was willing to lower himself to use human language is incredible, even if that language can never truly capture who God is. In our modern understanding of neurobiology, we have discovered that we owe our dreams at least in some capacity to N,N-Dimethyltryptamine (N,N-DMT) that is released from the pituitary gland (as far as my study has shown). It's a hallucinogenic drug that causes us to not really be able to distinguish reality from fantasy, even if our dreams are sometimes incredibly odd and illogical. What's fascinating though is that this chemical gives us potential for incredible creativity, connectedness, and spiritual experience. Now, I could spend a good long while talking about this (ask me about it sometime), but for now, simply understand that we have possibly quantified what is going on when authors experienced these dreams and visions. However,
 many friends and mentors of mine have privileged me with testimony of absolutely phenomenal consequences of their dreams. This shouldn't sound too crazy. We get a thought or a feeling that ends up having life altering consequences for either ourselves or others, and those of us who are people of faith know that it was something spiritual. We can maybe begin to explain what is going on with them, but we cannot quantify why that something happens. Essentially, the gaps of our understanding have been closed to a point and we can explain the "what" of spiritual experiences with help from neuroscience, but that doesn't mean that there is not a "why" as well. Science answers how and what, but faith begins to try and answer who and why. I personally have found great spiritual gain in engaging in things like meditation, as it allows me to physiologically fuel my God-given creativity.

Can everything in this world likely be explained at least in some capacity by scientific explanation? Probably. That doesn't mean that we will, because we are finite, but they probably indeed can. Does that mean that God is not involved? Absolutely not. When Jesus healed the sick, we could probably look at any one of those people and explain what healing processes took place. However, that doesn't explain why. Jesus being the Son of God explains that. 

When sickness happens to people and natural disasters occur, did someone sin or was that a natural and scientific process? Yes. Sin happened a long time ago and ever since, we've been living in a fallen world where bad things happen. It is at once completely physical, explainable, and unbiased as to who it affects while still being completely spiritual and ultimately redeemable. 

Perhaps the way to view the world is not by choosing a number on a scale of 1-10 that ranges from "completely physical to completely spiritual" but rather saying that all things are explained by both 1 and 10. This puts God not in the gaps, but rather over all.

Let us not polarize ourselves from the world, but let us engage it in meaningful ways. We may not be "of the world," but we should not become some sort of evangelical ghetto because of that. We are "in the world" and figuring out how to make that work can help us make the most impact we can. 

Monday, October 5, 2015

Pride, Legalism, & Dialogue

What do you think the most common sin amongst all of our generations is? Surely there are things that are often seen as young people's problems and others that older generations seem more prone to, but what about everyone? 

I would posit that one particular problem that every generation in our churches face is pride. We are finite beings, but we often act as though our way of doing just about everything is the way for all. We exalt our finiteness. 

There has been an incredible amount of conversations within churches over the last few years concerning legalism. Just googling legalism brings up this kind of definition: "Strict adherence, or the principle of strict adherence, to law or prescription, especially to the letter rather than the spirit. [Within theology]: The doctrine that salvation is gained through good works. The judging of conduct in terms of adherence to precise laws."

The thing is, I don't think this is limited to a "conservative" issue. Even terms like that are becoming less appealing to me because I don't think they are helpful distinctions. I think that legalism is a people issue, because pride is a people issue. Let me illustrate.

My generation is known for being a rather liberal generation. Story goes that there was a female, liberal, feminist professor at a university in Oregon (can't remember which) who was speaking out on her personal take of a common conversation. What's interesting is that her take on the issue was not the common liberal, feminist perspective. Some students responded very negatively to her ideas, and acted as though they were emotionally traumatized by her words. The university even responded to the event by allowing students to skip her lectures and even created "safe rooms" that included ambient music, soft lighting, plush chairs, playdough, and even lava lamps that these students could retreat into if they didn't want to hear the "offensive" ideas of the professor. With all that was done for these more liberal students, you'd think that some incredibly conservative person had come to campus with his or her bag of different ideas, but once again, it was a liberal, feminist professor with whom the students agreed on probably 95% of every other major issue out there.

I am not saying at all that it is fine and dandy to offend people or that we shouldn't work towards being sensitive with our speech. Racism, sexism, and every other "ism" out there are surely things I would love for us to move away from. However, in our attempts to become better people who are more sensitive to others, are we reaching other extremes where we cannot even hear other people's ideas? 

Let me offer another example. Alot of people seem to really like Pope Francis. I myself find that he is quite an interesting voice and really enjoy alot of what he is doing. His positions on ecology, economy, and a number of other social issues have really been favorable amongst more progressive people. Then, news stories were released about him meeting with Kim Davis (the woman who refused to issue marriage licenses with her name on them after the Supreme Court's ruling) and giving her some form of approval. All of a sudden, people were commenting "He was so good until now," "I guess he really isn't that great after all," and many others of such a nature. Basically, as long as people agreed with everything he said, he was cool. Once he seems to have a slightly different opinion on something, he's a bigot. Now, new stories are emerging that seem to downplay any type of meeting with or approval of Kim Davis's actions at all, but still, the dramatic switch in support and opinion was incredible. 

Go back and read that definition of legalism once again, and tell me that it doesn't apply to these situations as well. Whether your law falls on the side of conservatism or liberalism, it doesn't matter, legalism is still alive and well. It's kind of like how fundamentalist Christians have tried to force religion off on others, even sometimes by force. In response, New Atheism has kind of been exactly the same, just for the opposite side. The extremes of many spectrums share many of the same ideological methods and tactics, and simply disagree on the content of what they are discussing. 

We live in a world full of monologuing. More than often when two people get up to give a debate, this is what you end up seeing. Rarely does anyone in a debate say - "You know what, that was a really good point, I'm going to have to think about that more."

This is why we must learn how to dialogue, and I have a few things that might help us get there. For even more, look into the work of Dr. Carol Hughes. 

The first step in creating dialogue is Mirroring, which is "the process of accurately reflecting back the content of a message from another person" - a paraphrase perhaps. Essentially, to have any hope at a meaningful conversation, you have to first understand exactly what the other is saying. To do this, you have to show that you understand it by mirroring back what is said. This allows the person to clarify anything that may be misunderstood and also keeps the listener accountable for not casting some sort of emotional interpretation onto what is said. On a more macro level, this would include being well informed as to the other side's position, preferably from the other side themselves.

The next step is Validation, which is "the message to a speaker that the information received and mirrored 'makes sense.' Validation is a temporary suspension or stepping outside your way of looking at things in order to allow the speaker's perspective to be shown as having value. To validate the other's message does not mean that you agree with his/her point of view or that it reflects the way you see things." All behavior makes sense in context. If a person behaves in a certain way, there is a reason for it, and it makes sense. That doesn't justify the behavior and it certainly does not mean there is never a better or at least more helpful way to think about things, but it does make sense. Validation says - "It must have really hurt you that I didn't show up on time for dinner when you worked so hard to prepare it; it makes sense that you are upset." Once again, this doesn't mean that you agree, as much as you can step outside your opinion to see why it makes sense to the other person or group.  

These two things lead us Empathy, which is "the process of reflecting or imagining the feelings that the speaker might be experiencing about the event or situation being discussed." Empathy is what makes the world a better place. Once again, I am not trying to say that nothing out there is offensive, because some things truly are. However, if we are operating out of a position of empathy, I am fairly certain that we will be able to disagree in ways that are respectful and loving. 

If the young, the old, and all the generations in between can create dialogue and arrive at a place of empathy together, I do believe that legalism on any side will not be an issue. I hope that we can strive for this. 

After all, I can truly think of no greater example of empathy than Jesus. It was He who said - "Forgive them, they do not know what they are doing." It is easy for me to feel empathy for the homeless, LGBT, and other oppressed communities. What is harder is feeling empathy for those systemically infected with hate like Al Qaeda and The Westboro Baptists. I'm not sure any one of us, as finite beings, completely know what we are doing. I surely don't. But I know that Jesus looks down from the cross and says "forgive them" - and as long as we seek to be more like Jesus, I think we can figure the rest out just fine.

Saturday, August 1, 2015

Social Responsibility & Freedom in Christ

Just how free can we responsibly be? I have been thinking about this a whole lot recently, and am honestly baffled by the question. One thing I can promise, we aren't going to figure it out here. However, I'm hoping we can acknowledge that there are lines we simply aren't readily aware of and that we often cross them in one way or another. 

What do I mean by responsibility? I am referring to social responsibility or community responsibility. We all agree with this to a point, because we agree that there should be laws in place that promote the welfare of the general population. Some things may not be issues of law necessarily, but still are tenets of Christian behavior. Let me illustrate in a few ways. 

Our taxes are one form of social or community responsibility. We pay our taxes and governments create programs and other things that promote general welfare. Infrastructure, poverty alleviation, and other things all come from our taxes. So, paying our taxes is indeed a way that we contribute to the general welfare of our society. However, we all pay for things we probably don't enjoy paying for. I see many complain about paying taxes that go towards poverty alleviation, granted, some of those programs could certainly be run better (although I certainly think some would either do a horrible job or simply promote injustice if they truly had it their way). I personally don't enjoy that my tax dollars...or at least the tax cents...can contribute to funding the housing and upkeep of nuclear weapons. So, there seems to be a line, doesn't there? Really hard to define though.

Another example. The carbon footprint we are leaving on this world is beginning to take its toll. To what extent should an individual be free to drive around in a gas guzzling truck that looks great to those who love that type of thing, but only gets 5 miles to the gallon, pollutes the air, and serves no real purpose for that individual that a smaller and less environmentally destructive vehicle could not? We obviously are pretty freedom oriented here in the U.S. about this type of thing, and I see people drive around vehicles all day long that are completely impractical for their daily purposes. When do we say though that a person is socially responsible for reducing their carbon footprint and NOT destroying our shared living environment, and should not be free to trample over all ideas of environmental stewardship (a Biblical value if you remember back to the beginning of that Genesis book)? 

Just look at California right now. They have some sincere water restrictions regarding their water use, such as restrictions on lawn watering and being asked to reduce shower times. This is necessary if they are to make any impact in their current water crisis. Corporations should also be held accountable since things like fracking are using up incredible amounts of water (something like 70,000,000 gallons in 2014 in the state of California alone). There is most obviously a line between freedom to do what you want and the social responsibility to our world. Where is that line? I don't know, that's tough to say, but surely we can agree that we all could do a little better in this area and see our world truly as "ours" and not "mine." 

Other examples. We all kind of believe to an extent that consenting adults are free to make decisions, even poor decisions, as long as they are not hurting other people. This is why, as a society, pornography seems to be socially accepted, even if individuals refrain for their own moral reasons. However, even that industry is regulated because of injustices and oppression that often occurs. We also see the negative effects of children having access to pornography when they are of a young and impressionable age. My Christian value says that objectifying people is wrong and I certainly see huge issues within the industry in terms of how people are treated and the effect it has on people, but as far as the societal ability to exercise such freedom, things become messy.

This leads into a whole other intensely difficult topic for me: modesty. I believe greatly that a man's lust issues are his responsibility, and women have been blamed and shamed for a long time as basically being the offenders while men have been seen as the victims. This is far from being the case, and yet I wonder what Christian social responsibility says about the issue? Yes, the way we've approached this topic has largely been skewed, but I also believe that walking around completely naked is a wrong thing to do. Exposing oneself to children and other non-consenting persons is a punishable offense, and I'm glad that it is. So, what is the line? To what extent do I understand that a sense of community responsibility does impact what I wear, even as a man? I definitely don't think we've been fair on this issue towards women, but I definitely don't think that eliminates the line completely. I surely am grateful when my sisters in Christ don't put unnecessary temptation out before me. This is truly a difficult issue for me to find the line. It's not easy. 

Biologically speaking, Dan Siegel has alot to tell us about social responsibility (2011). Our brains are mechanisms that allow us to think. However, the ways we think, our minds, are part of a relational process. The human mind is largely determined by energy and information flow. What kind of information you receive growing up determines in many ways how your mind operates. This makes sense to us to some extent. Why do we often say "they are truly a product of their culture?" Because our context and culture define how our minds work. Try and think of a single thing you thought that wasn't influenced by something else you learned from other people.

Unfortunately, our western society has defined this idea of the mind or self as a singular entity. We are truly one of the most individualistic societies in the world. However, we can't even learn to be individualistic if we weren't made and crafted by our context and relationships. If this is the case, we have to admit that I am plural. I use this quote from Dan Siegel often - "I am more than me, I am connected to you, and I am a member of we." There's a difference between this being the case and people actually embracing this idea over the individualism promoted by our modern conceptions of freedom. Everything about how our minds operate speaks to our shared reality, and of being made to live in community. We have to change our language surrounding freedom, because I do believe it is creating societies that only care for the self and define the self as a singular noun. We must move towards a plural definition, otherwise our society will only become more dark and our world will only become more polluted both literally and figuratively. (For a more thorough look at this topic of the mind, check out this incredible video - )   

We often talk about our freedom in Christ, and Romans 14 usually comes into the conversation. We talk about not causing our brothers and sisters to stumble, and yet there are definitely times we've used this to make victims out of perpetrators and perpetrators out of victims. However, do we have to see it in this way completely? Can we instead see ourselves as contributing to problems? As a family therapist, a classical systems approach to this would be to say that we all contribute 50% to every interaction and therefore every problematic interaction. I'm not sure this accurately represents all situations. Certainly with issues of abuse, there's a need to see issues of power as playing a huge role in who has control - yes, we all probably contribute with some sort of behavior, but that doesn't mean that victims of abuse are responsible for their abuse or that abusers are less responsible all of a sudden. However, basically speaking, can we admit that in most cases - it takes two to tango? Or, as my great grandfather used to say, "It's a mighty thin pancake to have only one side."

There are two wrong ways for us to read Romans 14. The first would be that we are free and do not need to worry about anyone else, since they are the weaker person. The other wrong way to read it though is to take a reductionistic stance where we are guided by the most narrow minded of us. Our freedom certainly grants us some individual liberty in making decisions in our own faith. However, we also must think and act with a sense of community responsibility.

Now hear me right - I do not think that others can cause us to sin. So, modesty advocates out there, we should get away from this line of thinking. After all, very few of us believe in the idea of "original sin" and thinking that someone can cause you to sin is yet another thought along that line. It was indeed Jesus who looked at the woman caught in adultery (who was likely wearing little to no clothing) and did not sin. It is possible to not sin even when presented with the most obvious of opportunities; we can still grant people their humanity and not objectify them. Reinhold Niebuhr (1964) had an interesting view of original sin in that he didn't think we were born with sin, but rather born into contexts that inevitably lead us to sin. I can get on board with this idea, and I think perhaps this is a more helpful idea. We should create contexts for each other that help and do not hinder. You probably would be better off not drinking in front of your struggling alcoholic friend, even if you believe that your freedom allows you to respectfully enjoy such. You can't make your friend sin, but you surely are a part of creating contexts that either help or hinder.

Perhaps this kind of thinking can bring to our minds the true definition of freedom in Christ: service. We are set free from our sin, but made slaves to righteousness. We may hold a freedom that allows us to execute a certain behavior, whether it is the first century example of eating meat or any number of behaviors that might fall under this category today. However, we should also remember that being free in this area of life also means that I balance it in a way that shows I care deeply about my community. In Christian community, no one is seen as "other." Enemies are loved, others are welcomed, and neighbors come from the most unexpected places. We are indeed responsible for serving those in this world. We should not use our freedom as an excuse for sin.

We make our freedom an excuse for sin quite a lot, it would seem, when we deny our responsibility to our community: we drive the pointless gas guzzler, we wear what we want, and we in general just do what we want, when we want, and how we want. Freedom is an American value, but that doesn't mean that the Americanized definition of this term represents the kingdom value within the concept of Freedom in Christ. I love the fact that we are free in so many ways, but I think we've crossed lines in many regards. 

But that doesn't mean that I have determined the line. I am struggling hard. The balance between freedom, individual responsibility, and community responsibility is one that is causing my head to hurt if I get to thinking about it too long. A huge part of this is that it is incredibly hard for me to think about institutional applications like what laws should be; that is the biggest headache. However, that perhaps makes it all the more important to us as Christians. No matter what the policy makers of this world say is acceptable to do to the environment, to each other, and in other areas of life, Christians should be modeling the best behavior in all regards. What if we helped the poor so much that it was the church who set the example for how to do so? What if we were the absolute best environmentalists out there and set the precedent for taking care of our shared home? What if we modeled righteousness in our behaviors while still enjoying our freedom in Christ? And what if we did all of this while still being gentle to those who do not share our opinions or sense of community responsibility?

The line to be found in modesty is probably somewhere between hippy nudist colonies and puritan style wardrobes. The line in nature conservation is probably somewhere between hoarding and destroying the earth's resources and imprisoning someone who occasionally trashes a coke can instead of recycling it. Not sure where it is, but I am certain that if we love people enough, we'll move towards better stances.

I hope this starts conversations with those around you. I surely don't have all the answers, but I know that we certainly won't get any closer to answers if we don't ask the questions. 


Niebuhr, R. (1964). The nature and destiny of man: A Christian interpretation. New York, NY: Charles Scriber's Sons Publisher.

Siegel, D. [GarrisonInstitute]. (2011, March 8). The neurological basis of behavior, the mind, the brain and human relationships [Video File]. Retrieved from