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."