Tuesday, December 01, 2015

Our Enemies are Stupid

Yes, this post is late. It's my birthday; I decided not to get up at 5:30.

I'm pretty sure I've talked about this before, but it struck me again this week, so here it is. TIME Magazine had an essay from an American writer living in France, talking about how her 9 year old son understood the Paris attacks. Ultimately, he was too young to really get what was happening and why, but she overhead him telling his friends, "they blew things up because they're stupid." Now that is a fine response from a nine year old. There's not a whole lot more this kid could to do process what's going on. At its core, violence like this is unfathomable. Adults aren't really equipped to process it either. At the same time, we are capable of understanding the people behind such events, if we make an effort to do so. I applaud this kid for making sense of things as best he could, but adults need to do better than, "they did this because they're stupid" (or evil).

We can't just take events or ideas we don't understand and make the people who espouse them "other." We call them stupid or evil. We differentiate them from ourselves, which helps us handle the trauma of an event, but it also makes "those people" easier to dismiss or kill. This very natural response increases the chasm between "them" and "us," rather than moving towards bridging it. We have to get beyond that first reaction - as humans, it's our unique gift to understand and override our instincts; it's what makes us human. Let's all try to be human as we deal with such horror.

Yes, there is a power dynamic behind terrorism, especially with a proclaimed group like Al Qaeda or ISIS. They want power and they're leveraging religion to do it. This is pretty much how religion has been used from it's inception, to manipulate and motivate people in power games.* Islam is not any more inherently violent than any other religion (they've all been used to kill - even Buddhism, which is pretty much built around not killing people) - the sins of explicitly Christian violence are deep and lengthy - but the terrorism we see in the news right now is carried out by some practitioners of an extreme interpretation of Islam. It's true that countries, mainly Saudi Arabia, where this interpretation is supported and revered are not as quick to address this violence as we'd like.

I don't believe this reticence is because they condone the violence (and we can't negate the reality that there's no reason to fight a war if the US will step in and do it for you), rather because they do, in fact, condone the interpretation that underlies it. Even extreme Wahhabism doesn't require violence, at least in the scale and scope we're seeing it from ISIS. It's a difficult proposition to oppose violence without opposing the rationale behind it. It's a tough spot.

I don't think Saudi Arabia wishes the western world didn't exist, but they'd certainly be happier if our culture was less materialistic, sexualized, and attractive. It's reductionistic and unfair to say Saudis don't want their women driving cars because they're afraid of Kim Kardashian, but I do think that statement begins to communicate the fear that fuels the religion that sometimes breaks out in violence.

The violence is wrong. The religion is difficult to understand, but the fear makes sense to me. I'm a parent. I get why freedom is scary. I'm terrified of my daughter making her own choices in the world because I don't want her to get hurt. I'd also be more comfortable with her making the exact choices I'd make, because that would solve a lot of tension in my life. This notion that the world and all its advantages will somehow make her life more painful or less content is terrifying.

We might see Miley Cyrus gyrating around the television and think, "how could her parents allow this to happen," or "what went on in her life that lead to this." But if we had the power to keep that from happening (not the causes necessarily, but the output, the effects) would we do it? And maybe not specifically that thing, but others - people who leave their dogs outside on cold nights or feed their children 68oz Dr. Peppers, what about people who picket abortion clinics or make it more difficult to own a gun? What sorts of freedoms would we curtail if we could. It's a moot question for us, sure, but it's not for the Saudi royal family. They can do just about anything they want. It's a really difficult power to have.

We know people who are ruthless with their children - maybe ruthless with love and grace, but allowing very little freedom and choice. It's certainly easy for me to shake my head at the parents of some of my college classmates, who found even a restrictive Christian college so liberating they made some really terrible choices. But then I look at my own kids and I have a lot of sympathy.

The first thing I thought when I picked up my newborn daughter was, "I'm responsible for this person," it was overwhelming, but it paled in comparison to the overwhelming feeling that came next. The second thing I thought when I picked up my newborn daughter was, "I have to give this person away." Our job as parents, from the very first moment, is to not hold on too tight. Our kids are human beings, individuals, and while we long to shape and form them over time, we have to work, VERY HARD to - gradually, mind you - give them away. We're responsible for making sure they can be self-sufficient, think critically, make sound decisions - but we don't get to determine what those terms mean. They don't belong to us.

This might seem way off course from a post about terrorism, but this is what I think of immediately when terrorists strike. They're trying to play on our fears, because those fears are so real for them. We think "they" don't understand freedom, but I believe they understand it very well, certainly as well as we do, if not more. They get what freedom means and it's scary.

I live in a western world and from my comments above, you can see where I come down on the freedom issue. I think letting go in love is the best way we can run a society (even if our western societies could improve the way we do it). But I've not so refused to examine that choice that I don't understand the other side of it. I get why some societies, countries, religions, people opt for control. It makes sense - it has to make some sense to any parent that's held a child in their arms. It's a tension parents live with every moment of every day.

Yes, this may not have that much to do with terrorism on the surface, but, I believe, deep down this is the divide between the West and the Islamic world. It's about fear. Our society gives the impression we're not afraid of anything - at least in the way we allow such reckless freedom - so terrorist try to instill that fear in hopes we'll change our ways. Perhaps they need to see more of the ways in which we do fear the freedom we allow; it would certainly provide a window into our world that could humanize us enough to prevent violence.

I just hope we can similarly see into the control they live out. It appears heartless and unloving (and maybe for those in positions of power, it is), but at the core I think there is genuine care and love there. No one takes such extreme action out of unfeeling. It's a choice. A different choice than I want to make, but a choice I do kind of understand. It's that understanding that makes truly different people human - and, hopefully, helps us understand enough not to answer violence with violence.

The problem with this back and forth between fear and freedom is that they're not operating on a level playing field. Fear breeds more fear; it's possible to share your fear with others and make them afraid; this is the point of terrorism. It's not really possible to make people free. We can't use force (violent or otherwise) to stop fear, to bring freedom. This is the folly of our "nation building" around the world. It doesn't work that way.

Only love drives out fear. The only effective response to fear is love. And we cannot love that which we consider wholly other. We can't treat people humanely who we've dehumanized. No one is truly stupid; that's just a cop out. People are simply misunderstood. We can disagree without dehumanizing and we can get beyond our fear reactions to love people to freedom. I really believe that. It's the only reason I think this life is worth living.

But we have to get beyond the separation. We have to know each other, or at least make the effort. We can't rely on making someone else evil or stupid to let us off the hook. We may have opponents or adversaries, but we don't have enemies. Life doesn't work that way.

*Now, this isn't the only use of religion, so my statement shouldn't been seen as a condemnation of religion. I do have real concerns about the place of religion in our lives and society and, if you're an avid reader here, am pretty sympathetic to the notion of "religionless Christianity" as expressed by Bonhoeffer and explored currently by people like Peter Rollins - but I don't think the argument that "religion hurts people," so often espoused by prominent atheists makes sense, at least not for the reasons they so often use.

Tuesday, November 24, 2015

What is Truth?

As I've been taking this Peter Rollins course, I've been reading his old books as a refresher. I ran across this seemingly long-forgotten concept that really made me happy. Rollins posits that truth is an act and not a state of being, which isn't so novel until he fleshes it out with examples. He defines the act of truth specifically as one that positively transforms reality. This is in contrast to a typical definition where truth is an empirical description of reality.

The example he uses is SS agents coming to the door of a home during Nazi occupation and asking if there are any Jews present. The owner, knowing there are Jews present, but not wanting to turn them over, faces an ethical quandary. In reality, some people did in fact tell the "truth" and leave those Jews they were protecting in the hands of God. Others "lied" and continued to hide the Jews. Rollins argues that denying the presence of Jews is actually the truer statement, because it positively transforms reality.

Coming from a scriptural perspective, if Jesus is "the truth," then anything resembling Christ or in line with his life and teachings would also be truth. Rollins argues that saving Jews during the holocaust is inarguably true, no matter what factual inaccuracies one must espouse to do it.

Yes, it's a convenient example - one difficult to disagree with, but I think the larger notion of truth as an action that positively transforms the world helps in a lot of situations.

There's the old trope of a wife asking her husband if a dress makes her look fat. As a husband, you know there are some realities to navigate there. It may very well be that the wife has chosen a dress that is unusually unflattering and she would look (and feel) much better in something else. Saying as much is an important truth in the moment, because there's a potential she'll be embarrassed later on. Now if the wife has simply chosen one of many dress options that all make her look equally beautiful (even if she might actually be overweight), you say as much, because it is also true. There is no other answer you can give which will positively transform reality.

Again, this is a convenient and common example that doesn't always translate to real life - but I imagine you can imagine a lot of scenarios where this is a helpful guide (certainly more helpful than asking yourself, "is this an accurate description of reality?).

Putting our words up against some arbitrary definition of "true" or "factual" is ultimately pointless. The point in life is not to be accurate (especially since we've long entered a period where bias and perspectival error are well accepted and few people believe truth, by that definition, is even possible), it is to positively transform the world.

Of course, this adds a layer for Christians (or really anyone) when debating how to speak truth. It certainly seems easier to say whatever will make our own lives easier and, in a way, one could argue that positively transforms the world from my perspective. Using this definition of truth, though, requires a willingness to submit our own preferences and ease to the greater good. Something we're not always very good at.

Then again, using the standard definition of truth requires much the same thing - only it gives us less room to justify our actions and correct or ethical. This idea from Rollins makes more space for interpretation and disagreement, but we live in a world where that's reality anyway.

In any event, I'm not at a place where I'm adopting this notion of truth wholesale anyway, but I do think it's worth thinking about - or perhaps the larger point it's making about how we approach ethics. I'd love to hear what other people think, though. Chime in.

Thursday, November 19, 2015

There's No Such Thing as Equality

I've been "attending" this online video course by Peter Rollins on Wednesday nights. He's walking us slowly through his latest book, The Divine Magician. I'm really enjoying the experience a lot. Much of the discussion is about Rollins' notion (and certainly not his alone) that our search for fulfillment is really what we need to be saved from; that desire is not really the problem, but the belief that achieving this desire will somehow make us whole.

I asked specifically about the Kingdom of God and the way Christ talks about the Kingdom in scripture. That sure can come off as something to be sought after and it provides a picture of fulfillment. Rollins responded by going back to a dynamic he's spoken of before, but which struck me in a different way this time. He talked about the Kingdom as something that does not exist, but that insists. In other words, the Kingdom is just an idea, a notion - like justice or peace or democracy - that drives us to act. We seek justice; we seek the Kingdom. These concepts bring to mind various ideas about how the world needs to be different. But, Rollins warns, if anyone ever says they've found "the Kingdom" or can perfectly describe it, we'd better be wary of trouble.

I connected this with the old mathematical trope: I can walk half the distance from me to you an infinite number of times without ever reaching you. Of course this doesn't make sense in the real world, but it is mathematically logical. There are an infinite number of numbers between 0 and 1, for example. We can go half the distance 1/2, and then go half again, 1/4. We can do this forever and never, ever get to zero. I think this is analogous to what Rollins meant - that we can move towards justice or the Kingdom or whatever else and do so continually, but we aren't going to reach it. The Kingdom insists; it doesn't exist.

Now there are some eschatological questions raised here - namely, do we think there will ever be a time when the Kingdom is fully realized? That's certainly the traditional Christian hope. I suspect Rollins will address this next week in the course, but I also suspect he'll say it doesn't matter. We should be focused on the now not on the if - that very notion of future completeness can get us right back into the failed self-fulfillment mess that started this post. I'll leave this question for another day (although, personally, I suspect the reality of eternity in Christian thought, that there is no end, probably means there's also no end to the insistence of the Kingdom, but that's just me).

To get to the subject of the title, though, it made me immediately think of our current social battles for equality, particularly this battle between #BlackLivesMatter and #AllLivesMatter. I think what we're seeing is the insistence of the latter. All lives do indeed matter, at least we all (or most of us) affirm as much. It's an intellectual truth. At the same time we do not exist in a world where it's an actual truth. Life is thrown around and thrown away all the time. Particularly, the lives of minority and historically disadvantaged groups more than others. Essentially the tension is between those saying, "just because we don't see the reality of our belief doesn't make our intentions less sincere," and those saying, "the very fact that our beliefs are not reality speaks to the insufficiency of our resolve."

In the end, though, I think the first step for both parties to acknowledge is that equality is not possible. I think, deep down, we know that #AllLivesMatter will never be a physical reality, but we might hope for a world in which arbitrary factors like race or gender don't predispose one life to matter more than another. No one is really expecting utopia, just a sort of flawed yet unbiased world.

Perhaps we need to take a step further and recognize that equality is not a possible result either.

That is not to say equality can't be insistent in its non-existence, because it has to be. We must be pushed toward equality with constant fervor and impassioned commitment. We're just not going to get there.

The very fact that we're different means we'll be treated differently. Now we can certainly improve the lot of those who are left out or left behind, certainly, but we're not going to get there. And, if for some reason, we DO get there, we create a society in which every individual is seen as equal to everyone else, we're still not going to be equal. Why? Because we're all different, with different abilities, actions, feelings, beliefs. We're different people; we're not capable of treating different people in the same way.

Say we have an unemployed factory worker with three kids and a mortgage in rural Ohio. If the person in question is male, he's going to have an easier time navigating his situation than if he were female. If the person is white, he's going to have a more difficult time than if he were black. This is not good. No one thinks it is, but it is reality.* We can work to make the differences expressed here less different, and that would be great, but we're not going to eliminate them.

This notion, that equality is impossible could seem to undercut the very power of the movement for equality, but I'd argue it may actually strengthen that power. Now, instead of chasing an impossible dream, we are empowered to chase an intermediate one. Does anyone think Martin Luther King believed equality would happen if all people had fair and equal access to the ballot box? Not a chance, but he understood the massive move toward equality it represented. He recognized as much in his speeches, "I may not get to the mountain top with you..." None of us is going to get to the mountain top, but we need that mountain to motivate us. We need the concepts of justice and equality to insist on something different than what we have.

From the perspective of power (as an educated, white, American male) its an extremely helpful statement to make - that equality is impossible, because it removes the burden of fairness. We powerful people are suckers for fairness. We're allergic to anything that might make our lives more difficult. We're the first to call "reverse discrimination" if it seems like the equality train is moving too quickly. Recognizing that equality is not an exact science, not a true reality, moves the discussion from, "will this change harm anyone (namely, me)," to "will this change improve the lot of those who've been disadvantaged (namely, someone else)?"

Power will continue to be power and people like me will probably continue to oppose moves toward equality that minorly inconvenience us just because we can, but the ethical bargaining position from which we operate will not be nearly as strong. We will no longer be able to say, "this solution doesn't produce equality," because that's not the goal. Incremental steps become the only acceptable steps and much more difficult to argue against.

I've rambled on far longer than I planned, so I'll leave it there. This doesn't just apply to equality, but across the board with so called societal virtues. This way of thinking undercuts the perverse ideology that so often bogs down our societal systems and helps us focus more on the moment. I think it is a genuine path forward and something important for everyone to consider.

*I recognize that there are people who would refuse to agree this disparity exists. Rollins has some thoughts on this as well - namely that this is a subconscious form of denial. Likely the believe so greatly in the goodness and rightness of the system that they refuse to see its flaws. Often we are incapable of facing the real brokenness in our systems and relationships, even when they're right in front of our face. You see this played out sometimes when a man is accused of sexually abusing children, often the wife is the most resolute believer in his innocence simply because recognizing the obvious truth is truly too much to bear. Our national narrative of equality and freedom is often so ingrained in us any challenge to it is unbearable and must be denied, disproved, and destroyed.

Tuesday, November 17, 2015

Do We Really Believe?

It's a rough morning (quite honestly, it's been a rough few months, since I started this post in June and am just getting around to finishing it, yet it seems as timely as ever.* The truth is, I'm having a hard time believing these days. It's not really a crisis of faith - at least not faith in God, that's pretty secure for the most part. What I'm having trouble believing is that all these Christians around me really have faith. I mean, I know they do. Intellectually. I see the fervency with which they live and, being in some measure of relationship with many of them, I get it. You don't have to convince me. I have a sincere belief that people deserve the benefit of the doubt when it comes to faith. Nobody's perfect - we're all great big hypocrites in some way (or many). At the same time, as I'm understanding in my head, my heart struggles; it hurts. I see a lot of words and actions that confuse me, that send a message that doesn't quite make sense - words and actions that, frankly, break my heart.

So much of our actions in this world (and by that I mean, human action) come from a place of deep fear. In the end, we're scared that someone will take what we have. Even if it's not something tangible, we live in this delicate balance where, in an instant, it could all be gone. Call it, "there, but by the grace of God, go I," syndrome.

And it's not as though that phrase isn't true. There really is nothing separating my relatively mild (or non-existent) suffering from those people and places where suffering seems unbearable - nothing except grace, or maybe just dumb luck. The problem is not that the phrase is untrue, but that we don't really mean it.

We more often mean, "there, but by the amount in my savings account, go I," or "there, but by the loaded gun under my pillow, go I," or "there, but by my obedience to God - or there, but by my cunning intellect - or there, but by my good job, go I." We talk a lot about blessing or grace, but we don't really mean it. Many of us overtly.

If we let these refugees in, they'll bomb our churches and take our jobs. Society doesn't have any right telling me what to do with my money or my guns. Sure, I could help that guy out, but what if he takes advantage of me - I might lose my home or my car.

So much of our fear is about control. We're afraid we won't have any. Without control, we can't protect those things we hold most dear. Rarely, rarely, rarely, is one of those things we're afraid of losing our faith. We're scared of losing comfort, security, possessions, money, family - and none of those are impossible scenarios. They're probably pretty natural fears. The difference, though, is how Christians face them. How do we deal with the thought of losing what we have, or, more fearfully, how we deal with having those things we love taken from us.

We buy into the myth of scarcity. That there isn't enough. "If we tried to give everyone what they need, we'll all be poor." "I have to look out for myself - or at least for the people I love."

Not only are these individual actions challenged by the words and life of Jesus and the historic tradition of the Church, but they betray a larger denial, the one I have trouble understanding sometimes. do we not believe in a God with the ends under control? I recognize that things might be a bit chaotic now, but do we really believe that love will win? That my suffering today is part of that victory, the very means by which it comes about, in imitation of Christ?

Maybe we really don't believe. That's my doubt.

That's my doubt when I see such hateful rhetoric addressed toward any group of people. We are not called to love some people more than others. I think the Luke passage says as much - everybody loves their friends and family; everybody loves those who are nice to them. Some people are even moved with compassion towards those who suffer. That's not really the challenge of Christianity, though.

I'm not saying we shouldn't be afraid (although God does say that a lot) - I'm saying we can't let that fear dictate what we say or how we act. I don't understand how people can claim the power of the cross and also advocate the power of the gun, or the army, or the law, or the power of some big-ol' freakin' wall.

And I don't mean to say we should just be able to believe unconstrained (I have a bank account and a mortgage and locks on my doors). I am saying we should be honest. We have to say either, "I'm scared of __________ and I'm reacting out of fear," or "I'm not convinced this will work in the short term, but ultimately it's the right thing to do." Faith and love and grace and peace will not save us from pain or suffering or heartbreak or death - in fact they'll likely invite more of each. But warmongering and mistrust and self-protection will never get us what we desire.

There's no such thing as a regrettable means towards a glorious end. That's a lie we tell ourselves when we're scared to justify doing what we know is wrong.

That's why my doubts are just doubts, not beliefs. I don't believe these people I see saying and doing things that make me sigh and shake my head are really without faith. They are merely human, doing what comes natural. If we were the kind of people who could act entirely on our beliefs, well, we wouldn't need each other, would we? We wouldn't need to meet each week and remind ourselves of who we are and what we're called to do. We just wouldn't need that bread and that cup, because we'd already be transformed.

Do we really believe?

Of course not. It's darn near impossible, but the very fact we still ask the question means there's hope somewhere. I think.

*Seriously. I didn't change a bit of it after the events of this week, just cleaned up the language some, made it a little more readable. It was all there.

Thursday, November 12, 2015

It's Not What You Think by Jefferson Bethke

Disclaimer: I was given a free copy of this book for the purpose of review. My integrity is not for sale. Those who know me well are aware a free book isn't enough to assuage my cutting honesty. If I've failed to write a bad review, it has nothing to do with the source of the material and only with the material itself.

I had never heard of Jefferson Bethke when I picked up his new book, It's Not What You Think. I had heard of the title of his first book (Jesus > Religion - which, by the title, sort of seems more interesting to me than this one). He is evidently a youtuber, although I was unaware (which is understandable since this week I also found out my own cousin has 5 million subscribers - I am decidedly NOT a youtuber). It seemed like an interesting title nonetheless - I'm a fan of anyone challenging conventional notions of anything.

It's a great book. It's really good. Bethke does indeed, as the title (and my intro) suggest, challenge some basic assumptions of Christian thought in ways that encourage people to make their faith more a lifestyle than an accessory. This is good. He has clearly done a lot of study and reading to inform his position and writes with the freshness and excitement of youth. The book is lifegiving and graceful. It's good for people to know that love is at the core of all creation, that people and relationships are foundational to life, that the Kingdom of God and the narrative of sacrificial love embodied in Jesus Christ are present realities that both counter and defeat contemporary notions of right and power. Just about anyone would benefit from reading this book.

Based on the suggestions for further reading in the back, Bethke and I have read a lot of the same books and thus it's not surprising he's arrived at many of the places I've arrived in faith. You won't see a lot different in this book than you see on this blog. Bethke is a young man, and one clearly interested in learning and development. His thinking will continue to evolve. Because of that, critique seems less than helpful. Instead I'd like to offer a challenge.

Throughout It's Not What You Think, Bethke shows great willingness to question and challenge traditional interpretations to better capture the free and expansive grace of God in the human story. In the same way, I'd challenge him to look past some traditional assumptions that have arisen to support particular interpretations of creation, humanity, and sin - particularly in the first few books of the Bible. For example, he refers to the notion of a six day creation, to the idea Moses wrote the Torah, even the concept that heaven is a return to some Edenic paradise. Now, these are not really central to the arguments made in the book, but one's perspective on them does have far reaching implications that, I think, would dovetail well with the direction his faith and thought seem to be progressing.

Overall, it's a great book. I think it's immensely accessible and could in now way harm someone's faith (which sounds like a backhanded compliment, but being non-threatening while talking about God, especially while challenging traditional beliefs, is pretty impressive). It's not something advanced faith thinkers will really find groundbreaking, but that's not the target audience. I look forward to seeing what contributions Jefferson Bethke will make in the future. I pray he avoids the trapping of evangelical celebrity and continues to focus on relationship and theology - there's a real gift there to share with the world.

*Although, because I just have to be a little nit-picky, I'd challenge the editing team to spend a little more time on the theological review - after a stellar, concise explanation of baptism, the comment is made that "of course Jesus didn't have to be baptized." That's certainly a legitimate position to take, but not in light of the description of baptism preceding it. Also, there's one reference to Israel "worshiping Baal because Moses took to long on the mountain." Israel made a golden calf, yes, but as representative of Yahweh. There's some pretty important theological distinctions (not to mention worship lessons) there.

Disclosure of Material Connection: I received this book free from the publisher through the BookSneeze.com® book review bloggers program. I was not required to write a positive review. The opinions I have expressed are my own. I am disclosing this in accordance with the Federal Trade Commission’s 16 CFR, Part 255: “Guides Concerning the Use of Endorsements and Testimonials in Advertising.”