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.