Tuesday, December 22, 2015

There are no Superheroes

We have this notion of greatness that keeps us from living our lives. Even those people who did great things, the trend now is to humanize them - not to take them down a peg, but to show they are real people. Think about the MLK movie that explored his affair a few years back; I hear there's a Mother Theresa movie in the works exploring the doubt she shared later in life. Yes, these heroes we exalt found themselves in usual circumstances and handled themselves remarkably well, but in the end they were just people - no different from you or me.

I think we latch onto these stories in pop culture as a way of encouraging one another. We hold up heroes and explore them as people to remind each other that we're all capable of great things. I'm not sure that practice is doing us any good - in fact, it might be doing us harm.

Oh, I think it's wonderful to explore and highlight the humanity of our heroes, but it shouldn't be to challenge us to greatness, it should be to challenge us to ordinariness. People who set out for greatness rarely achieve it, but those content to humbly focus on the life in front of them with full hearts often find themselves in the midst of great things.

Now, of course, talent will rise to the top - talented people, coupled with determination, emerge as people who get recognized, but it doesn't make them less human. They aren't superheros.

Perhaps there is a part of us that latches on to such people (or fictionalized superheroes) because we recognize a lack in us - talent, drive, determination that will likely keep us from being "top in our field." If so, then heroes become nothing but an escape, further removing us from the lives we actually lead.

I think there is some underlying drive in each of us to be superheros - we want to be separated from the rest and bathed in applause. Who wouldn't? It gets compounded by millenia of societal reinforcement, celebrating the best and brightest, smartest and strongest - we've come to just accept that some people, fitting particular categories, are just better than everyone else. They're heroes and we should aspire to be them or something like them. In reality, though, this only reinforces the position of power those labeled the heroes enjoy.

I'm not saying, "don't do great things," what I am questioning is how we define greatness. We tend to use exceptional categories, highlighting people who look least like everyone else. There is some merit there, I suppose, but it's easy to fall into the superhero trap working that way. I wonder if perhaps, as we measure greatness, the greatest thing we can do is to simply be present in your own life - and the greatness of this can only really be measured by the people around you (and can't be compared with much of anything).

Using this measure, it's easy to be exceptional, but very difficult to actually be excepted - to be singled out for larger fame. After all, they sell "World's Greatest Dad" mugs at every souvenir stand.*

How many lives get derailed by trying to be "something" - the best lawyer, the best athlete, the smartest guy in the room? When we make those things the focus of our lives, we miss out on our lives. This notion that fulfillment and satisfaction exist somewhere out there rather than right where you are is the key to doom. Peter Rollins often says, "I hope you achieve your dreams... so you can recognize they're not the answer to your problems."

This is seen no more truthfully than in the superhero myth - the notion that some people can do more and be more. It's the justification for a comparison society.* And while it seems like this only works out for those people who fare well in the comparison, we have to recognize it doesn't work so well for them either. We exalt people we admire to superhero status and in the process dehumanize them. They're no different than our super-villains - isn't that the point of these new Batman movies? No one wants to be the Joker, but we don't really want to be Batman either.

The solution is not to ignore great things; we need to see examples of real love, sacrifice, and commitment in our world. The solution is to celebrate greatness for its mundanity. Mother Theresa is all set to be St. Theresa of Calcutta here in a few months. She is a hero of mine. Her life accomplishments seem super-human, in all honesty - but if we look at her that way, we miss out on the real testimony she provides - "not great things, but small things with great love." You can be as successful in life as Mother Theresa and never get one column inch of press - you may not even be fully recognized by the members of your own family.

That's the rub, really. There are no superheroes. There are only humans. We should work to be good ones.

*There's a whole separate conversation here about comparison and how that works - clearly some people are better father's than others, but we really get into trouble when we try to rank everyone. Yes, it's easy to pick out the drunk who skips Christmas to gamble, but it's more difficult to parse rankings of greatness absent these obvious flaws. It's better to judge individuals by the needs of the relationship their in, rather than in comparison to others. Even if he's the only Dad on the planet, a drunk gambler is not going to do well on a performance review.

Thursday, December 17, 2015

The Real Frenemy

It's become pretty clear that part of the narrative of life in the USA right now is fear. There's a large segment of the population singing the praises of fear. We sometimes couch it in fancy rhetoric - risk-management, security, liberty, or what have you (it kind of reminds me of the classic George Carlin bit) - but it's all basically the same, "Watch out!" Whether its guns or terrorists or government intrusion, socialists or immigrants or refugees, we're told to be aware, be prepared. Watch out!

It's a fear narrative and I'm coming more and more to recognize that it's a symptom of fundamentalism - a term we most often associate with religion, but our personal security and political allegiances are basically religion at this point anyway, so it fits. The core of fundamentalism is essentially the holding of a belief as definitively true. It's associated with religion because religion is usually the place people take it most seriously - fundamental religious beliefs have to do with eternity and afterlife, which come off as pretty important things. People take them seriously.

What we see in our world today is a vocal and rabid fundamentalism couched in Islam, sure, but really more about power and control. The fundamental belief isn't really religious as much as "I think I, and people who think like me, should be in charge." Religion, as it has always historically been used, gets people excited to die for fundamentalism, but the fight is not inherently religious.

We're seeing an answer, magnified by the emotional appears and fear-mongering of an election cycle - American fundamentalism, couched in Christianity, which really says, "I, and people who think like me, should really be in charge." This is the largest battle, but as I said earlier, there's fundamentalism rearing it's head everywhere - guns are evil vs guns are blameless, social responsibility vs personal responsibility, etc.

Fundamentalists pick sides and go to war. When you've got a fundamental belief that must be true there is no other conclusion than the other guy is wrong, probably evil, certainly not worth a lick. When you have two rabid sides with this core belief the only real solution is to charge at each other and fight to the death. There is a meeting in the middle, but one that ends only with one side (or maybe no one) winning.

Compromise gets you lumped in with the enemy, the same way pacifists, for example, were ostracized and treated with suspicion in WWII. If someone doesn't see things out way, they must be misguided; it only helps the enemy.

It's funny, though, that in the midst of these pitched battles, those forces diametrically opposed to one another look so similar. Of course the what of their belief couldn't be more different (usually), but the how is identical. It's fundamentalism. This is how someone you might agree with politically or philosophically, can seem so outrageous, despite advocating things you might support. The ideas themselves are not the difference, but the way in which we hold our ideas.

It also explains how people can find commonality and camaraderie with those who differ politically or philosophically. We are drawn to people who hold ideas in the same way we hold them, even if we disagree with the ideas themselves. In our grand historical perspective we lump Fascist Hitler in with Communist Lenin, even though these two notions of government are as opposed to one another as possible - we link them because they were believed and lived out the same way in Germany and Russia - with a fundamentalist fervor.

I'd argue the counter to fundamentalism is not compromise or weakness. I believe in knowing what we believe, fundamentally, and having strong opinions. The counter to fundamentalism is holding those beliefs with a loose grip. Not that we would easily change our minds (I'd hope any thinking person spends time, you know, thinking, before arriving at conclusions), but that we'd recognize our opinions are just opinions.

This should be easy for Christians to do. We claim a universal religion, which means one that applies and draws all people. We believe God has and does reveal truth to all people at all times and faithfully searching after that revelation will lead all people to truth. Here, disagreement doesn't bring contention, but conversation, where we can seek out the fundamental points at which we disagree and attempt to understand why someone else makes a different choice or comes to a different conclusion.

Yes, I suppose there's a "danger" that the other might prove convincing, but those moments are rare (and should probably be welcomed anyway, right, if we're really after truth). More often it leads us to deeper understandings of our own positions. Somehow, by holding our beliefs lightly, the become more ingrained in our being - rather than being held to tightly we choke all life out of them.

People enjoy a good fight - it's why it's so easy to find one. If we take a fundamentalist position there will always be an opponent ready to do battle. I think this comes from a sense of comfort. We're far more comfortable with an enemy we can completely define than we are with an ally who seems somewhat mysterious. It's almost as if our enemies give us the comfort to continue believing, while our friends scare us with the possibility of unbelief.

Those whom name themselves our enemies do us no favors unless we're willing to entertain the notion that they might be right. Only then can we grow and deepen the very beliefs the other seeks to challenge.

Just some thoughts on a rainy Thursday afternoon.

Tuesday, December 15, 2015

Fundamentalism, Unbelief, and the Nazarenes

I posted the observations below on Naznet last week. They got a lot more praise than I expected. I figured it would be interesting to share them more widely as see how others feel.

As regular readers of the blog (and my Facebook friends) will know, I've been reading a lot of Peter Rollins lately (I've been taking an online course he offers to work through his latest book, The Divine Magician). One of the more interesting things to me has been the way he talks about the importance of unbelief, specifically in communities with a fundamental belief.

He calls these communities Fundamentalist, but not really in the same sense we might - he simply means there's a core belief held to be fundamental to faith. His examples are: if we have enough faith, God will heal us and we don't need doctors; we are better off in the next life than this one; and any of our loved ones who don't clearly express a belief in Jesus are destined for a fiery burning hell.

His point is simply that these communities rely on unbelief to survive. Most people in them, you'll find, do consult doctors if someone breaks a leg, aren;t shooting their children to spare them the horrors of this world, and don't constantly hound their un-professed loved ones into Christian faith.

Now, this is overgeneralization, for sure, and I'd like to avoid debating the specifics on these points. It's overall idea that rings true to me - without some measure of lived doubt, these beliefs become absurd. In fact, Rollins argues the most dangerous members of these groups are the people who really do believe - their sort of irrational behavior in living out these beliefs completely show the underlying fundamental to be hollow if not horrific.

The interesting part for me, in thinking about the Church of the Nazarene, is how this doubt manifests itself in community. He talks about people on the margins feeling the doubt and trusting people closer to the center of the organization - meaning, they assume, people closer to the center of the group don't have the doubt or have less, so they're more comfortable with their own.

The problem arises as people move closer to the center - think a parishioner enters the course of study and becomes a minister, or a minister is elected DS or to some other leadership position, and so on. What they then realize is that no level of commitment to the idea can remove the doubts they have about the idea itself, and it creates a crisis.

I'll quote him here:

Unfortunately, its often the case that by the time someone takes his beliefs absolutely seriously and discovers their impotence, it's too difficult for him to leave. This is most obvious among religious leaders who have jobs within their institutions. For often they find the limits of their beliefs only when they are wholly dependent on their church for material support. Hence it becomes harder to leave at the very point they are most disillusioned.

This is why we often find it true that the closer we get to the inner circle of the church the more we find cynicism, hypocrisy, and repression. A layperson can avoid a confrontation with the impotence of her beliefs by imagining that if only she were more involved, things would be better. But those who are most involved often have no fantasy left to sustain them. They've been to the center and discovered the center is no better than the edges. But now they rely on the center for support, so they give themselves to support it.
Now, it should be noted that Rollins large project is to posit that religious conviction cannot fill the void in our hearts, in fact nothing can fill the void in our hearts and that it's the very attempt to fill such a void that Jesus can to free us from, so this should be read in that light - it's not that a particular belief or way of life is impotent, simply that these are impotent to make us feel completely satisfied.

Just in light of all the mess that's been (and continues) going on at the center of our denomination, this really struck home. While we might not be fundamentalists, our conception of sanctification certainly holds that place pragmatically in our structure and belief. We theologically nuance things, but at the core is this notion that once we're sanctified we shouldn't be going back to old ways of doing things - sanctified people can be trusted implicitly, our leaders are people of integrity at all times, etc.

I won't argue against holiness; I believe it strongly, but there is a sense of unbelief buried deep that allows us to live with it in our everyday lives. We're learning to express it more and more, but it's going to be tough to do so honestly at the very core of our structure.

I think it's certainly healthy for us to be able to say "yes, we believe in sanctification, but the way it ends up being worked out in real life is more than a little messy." Lots of us are more comfortable doing so these days, but we don't have a structure that can support such statements and perhaps it's taking a real toll on the people we put in the middle of that structure.

I won't say any of our leaders are going through this kind of existential crisis, but in reading the Rollins quote above, it sure brought to mind the events of the last couple years (and maybe longer).

Thursday, December 10, 2015

Beyond One Dimension

This is the second post inspired by a quote my Dad shared on Facebook the other day:*

(I wrote in the first post more about how these types of statements function within societies and individuals. This post will be less deep and more a working out of my own sociological categorization of political positions.)

Guns, for or against, is not the issue. Sin is the issue. Jesus is the answer for all of us. He is the Prince of Peace!

"Put simply, today’s liberalism cannot deal with the reality of evil. So liberals inveigh against the instruments the evil use rather than the evil that motivates them." – WILLIAM MCGURN, The Liberal Theology of Gun Control, Guns are what you talk about to avoid having to talk about Islamist terrorism., The Wall Street Journal, December 7, 2015

This statement is certainly true and descriptive of a certain type of person. We may know people who resemble this depiction, more likely we know people who come really close. Everything is a continuum, right? There are very few instances when people embody an extreme (and when that happens we tend to make them the extreme, even if it's conceivable someone could go beyond - a la Hitler).

That being said, I do think this underlying point can be a good left end of the political spectrum. At it's core, the extreme left comes from a place where the people in power (or those who aspire to power, be it dictators or voters) assume "people are basically good and we just need to provide them with a society that allows them to make good choices." At the other end of such a spectrum, the extreme right can be roughly defined by those in power (or aspiring to power) assuming "people are basically evil and must be constrained in order to behave rightly."

"Wait,!" you say, "I don't like either of those positions."

Right you are, by their very definition extremes are repugnant. This particular articulation of extremes, though, essentially assumes protectionist control over people, either because people need protection from outside forces or because people need protection from each other. This is why talking about a one dimensional continuum is problematic.

For American politics we might add a second axis to the grid. For clarity sake we'll call it Top and Bottom (you'll see why later). The extreme top assumes everyone is basically capable of taking care of themselves and just needs to be left alone. While the extreme bottom believes people are inherently incapable of individual existence and need the larger community to ensure basic needs.

To define the corners of a grid like this is a study in absurdity, but you can generally look at it as more control to the left and right and more freedom to the top and bottom, with varying definitions of how freedom and control work themselves out in relationship to other people.

Like any good, unbiased chart maker, I see myself precisely in the middle. Ultimately, the extremes betray the same fears. Left and right are terrified of being unsafe and fall into the trap of either trying to create a world where no one would think of hurting anyone or a world in which no one is actually capable of hurting anyone. Top and bottom are each afraid of not having enough and fall into the trap of either creating a world where no one will hold us back or one where no one will let us fail.

In every scenario, the system becomes the bad guy, even if that system is to have no system (as the extreme top position holds). To me, the solution is simply to say every system is functional and dysfunctional. People are basically good and basically evil - if left to live in a vacuum, they will continue to do both awesome and tragic things. We're also all inherently capable of a lot and really, really incapable of a whole lot, too; left to live in a vacuum, we'd be both terribly responsible and terribly irresponsible.

I guess this post should've come first, because it's from here you delve into the kinds of things I said on Tuesday. But what I think is more telling is that we can't really stop with two axes either. I mean, there will be an up and down axis and a south-southwest by north-northwest axis and any other conceivable axis until we've got a sphere - which, in my corniest heart of hearts I want to stand for the world on which we all live.

It would be a great illustration for the idea that beyond any system or ideology we might profess, we have to live together, and very likely there's no "right" way to live - or if there is, there's very little chance we'll figure that out. We can only be present with the people and in the places we are present and try to do "right" by them. The one thing I think we really can't afford to do, is create categories of "other." I'm not saying we have to all be the same (that's pretty much the opposite of what I'm saying), what we have to realize, to embody is that no one is entirely different and no one is entirely alike. We have to push back against these inborn desires to categorize and define people as anything other than individuals. We're all beyond one dimension (or two, or three), so we need to stop treating each other that way.

*This should in no way imply I am accusing my father or anything other than having good taste in quotes. I've seen a lot of people use the quote to make various inferences about policy and beliefs that I'm not sure are implicit in the quoted statement above. We all sort of have to deal with our reactions to it honestly.

Tuesday, December 08, 2015

Convenient Excuses

This is the first of two posts inspired by something my father shared on Facebook the other day:*

Guns, for or against, is not the issue. Sin is the issue. Jesus is the answer for all of us. He is the Prince of Peace!
"Put simply, today’s liberalism cannot deal with the reality of evil. So liberals inveigh against the instruments the evil use rather than the evil that motivates them." – WILLIAM MCGURN, The Liberal Theology of Gun Control, Guns are what you talk about to avoid having to talk about Islamist terrorism., The Wall Street Journal, December 7, 2015

As a counter (and for the purposes of this argument), we could also say, "Simply put, today's conservatism cannot deal with the reality of evil. So conservatives inveigh against specific types of people rather than the evil that lies within each of us."

These are equally accurate and equally inaccurate. Accurate insomuch that they describe real positions real people hold, but, of course, inaccurate because they fail to describe the real motivations of everyone a speaker might term conservative or liberal. In short, they're convenient excuses - half-truths we tell ourselves to prevent us from challenging our own comfortable feelings.

I can hear Peter Rollins in the back of my head right now, maybe because I've been reading and hearing too much of him lately or maybe because he's right, but he'd be saying, "of course none of us is comfortable with these strongly held beliefs, but we cling to them strongly in order to avoid the real uncertainty of unbelief."

What he's saying is that many gun control advocates really do respect and covet the notion of personal security, recognize the importance of personal freedom, but don't see an easy compromise, so they cling to an intracted position as a means of avoiding the messy compromise of reality. In the same way, gun control opponents really do recognize the damage guns do in society and struggle with the tension between freedom and safety, but holding to a definitive position is simply easier for the brain to handle, at least on the surface and in the short term.

We use convenient excuses to avoid uncertainty.

Rollins always uses the example of religious belief. Some people believe deeply in faith healing, but will take their grandmother to the hospital when she's having a heart attack, because, despite their genuine and sincerely held belief, there's enough unbelief to act more rationally when the situation calls for it. He argues that the real danger in these groups is not from those who overtly challenge core beliefs, but those who really do believe them without question. It's not the person who laughs at faith healing who's the enemy; the doubter merely helps to bring the faithful closer together. The real enemy is the person who will let grandma die while they pray over here, when there's an ER right down the street. Those people possess no unbelief at all, and they're dangerous.

This also proves the benefit and the danger of convenient excuses. The line above is certainly true of some people - those are the true believers, right? But it put the "other" in a Catch-22. If someone defending gun control as a core belief is faced with this accusation, they likely agree, but can't rightly say, "you're right, this describes some people in our movement," because then they're recognizing the very irrational, true believers, who pose a threat to their position, the ones who might expose it for the horror it is.

Similarly, someone from the gun rights movement can't rightly say "true, this scapegoating is wrong and an easy way out," without betraying the loyalty they have to the underlying message, without exposing the true believers as a problem to the position.

We're seeing this in our political process right now. We've got Bernie Sanders and Donald Trump, each of whom may or may not be true believers, but two men who are certainly convincing others of the fidelity of their ideologies. They representing the true believers that those in the establishment can't rightly denounce and can't rightly support. Most people in both parties recognize the ideological comfort Sanders and Trump provide, but also recognize the untenable reality of either actually becoming President.

The convenient excuses are, at the same time, being embodied like never before, yet are also being unmasked in uniquely real and uncomfortable ways.

I think about how this plays out in my own faith tradition. Despite our best theological efforts to do otherwise, the Church of the Nazarene still largely paints an expectation of perfection in its teaching and preaching. We're at least expected to be getting better as people over the years. This manifests itself in genuine difficulty dealing with regression. An alcoholic is welcome to be a part of the church, even as they are still dealing with their disease, but once they have conquered it (however that's described) and gained sort of full membership in the eyes and inner-workings of the community, any relapse or recurrence creates existential problems. Our learned theology doesn't have a way with dealing well with such relapse. Once a sin is defeated, it's supposed to stay dead.

Now that bears out in reality with the allowance of some sins to remain. If things are unspoken, or the individual in question doesn't take too prominent a role, things can be overlooked. Lots of Nazarene congregations have ashtrays by the back door and lots of people smoke, despite its denunciation. Part of the reason is that we have grace, which is real and genuine, part of the reason is because it's easy to allow some "smaller" problems as a trade off for dealing with big ones.

Now, of course this isn't universal - there are lots of communities who find awesome and graceful ways of handling even the most difficult challenges, but it would be tough to argue they are the majority. At the very least, that argument is a convenient excuse - partly true in fact, but indicative of a larger problem.

I'm sure it stems from our primitive brain functions that want to reduce everything to black and white, right and wrong. We want categorization. This is a good person, that is a bad person. This is a moral act, that is an immoral act. Convenient excuses allow us to do that, because they're clothed in real, actual, undeniable truth. We fight over them because admitting any real truth in someone else's convenient excuse forces us to throw away the convenient excuses we're using to avoid our own messy situations.

Rollins talks about unmasking these convenient excuses (although I'm not sure he uses that term) and how doing so creates high levels of anxiety. Our natural reaction is do push down the anxiety, usually by denying the problem, fighting to defend a convenient excuse (either as right or wrong). He suggests and I'd like to find (help create) a community of people who feel safe enough with each other to get beyond the convenient excuses, who form a supportive enough community that we can faithfully live in the mess of uncertainty and healthily deal with the anxiety it produces rather than running from it.

*This should in no way imply I am accusing my father or anything other than having good taste in quotes. I've seen a lot of people use the quote to make various inferences about policy and beliefs that I'm not sure are implicit in the quoted statement above. We all sort of have to deal with our reactions to it honestly.

Thursday, December 03, 2015

Worship, Life, and Corporate Worship

I read this post by Scot McKnight way back in August and am just now getting around to writing about it. Sorry.

He's got some good things to say there, specifically about how corporate worship has become institutionalized in a specific format that's difficult to change. He begins to suggest some ways to be more diverse and inclusive in how we interact corporately, but I'm not sure he really goes far enough.

I'd start with an understanding of worship. Worship is really everything we do - from the time we spend watching TV to the after school discussions with our kids, to, yes, serving Thanksgiving dinner at the local homeless shelter (oh, yeah, and all that church stuff, too). Worship is our life, because the way we spend our time, the principles by which we actually live, are our expressions of worship.

I don't mean this as a guilt trip - that you should be doing more "worthwhile" stuff with your life, because frankly I don't know and the last thing I'd want to do is badger people into being busier. We don't usually need that help. I am saying that our actions determine our beliefs, not our minds or our mouths. Those actions are worship. It's not something we set aside specific time to do. Worship is life.

That's not to be confused with the specific times people set aside to worship together. Those are intentional (usually, the church stuff) and important. For Christians, specifically in the West, but I imagine almost anywhere, those times look remarkably similar, both to everyone else and to the last 500 years (or more) of Christian tradition.

We gather together, sing some songs, pray some prayers, hear scripture and a homily of some kind. We usually collect money. Very often eating is involved. McKnight suggests some ways to include other elements in that basic structure, but the post referenced above sort of leaves it at that - as if this form of corporate worship is simply a given.

For all the fights that have been fought over the years on style (what kind of songs, prayers, and sermons to hear; how we dress or where we sit), the actual structure of our corporate worship is largely unchanged and near universal. I'm not wondering if, more than changing elements of an existing system, we shouldn't be exploring alternative ways to structure the corporate worship events themselves?

The late, great Phyllis Tickle wrote the seminal, The Great Emergence, around the notion of 500 year (give or take) epochal changes in the structure and function of Christianity. We're certainly in the midst of one of those right now, but it's still very unclear exactly what kinds of reforms and changes will emerge.

There's a lot to be said there (and I likely have and will continue to do so), but I wonder if worship and our perspective on worship won't be one of them? My family and I moved to Middletown, Delaware with a sort of crazy dream. We wanted to move into a community to just be good neighbors. We want to live our worship out in the midst of a people, try to love and serve those around us, and see what happens. It was all sort of based on a different notion of worship - that the acts we're doing to live out our beliefs (that all people are important, that we HAVE to live together and sacrifice to get along, that community is important, etc) are worship and become corporate worship when we do them together.

So far it's been less than explicit. The dream was to have one or two other families make the same move, so there'd be a specifically Christian core of people with the same idea of worship and mission. It would allow us to do corporate worship differently, but intentionally - sharing meals together, helping with child-rearing, sharing our stuff and abilities. To do life together.

It didn't work out exactly that way (there's a lot of "great idea, but not for me," which is cool - but, seriously, it's a great town if you still want to come), but we have found great neighbors in this place. It doesn't look anything like my lofty visions, but it looks like what it's supposed to. We do dinners and parties in our shared back yard, we try to organize community events, we share cars and lawnmowers, we take care of each other's pets and homes and kids.

I see all of this, in some sense, as corporate worship. It's not as fully developed as I'd like, but it's starting from the right place, I think - an understanding of life as worship. There's no need to worry about right beliefs or who has to believe what - it's a relationship of action, caring for one another, learning to develop trust. We trust that our neighbors will come through for us and that we can expose our flaws and weaknesses to them; they won't take advantage of us.

I get the sense in which others will say this isn't specifically Christian, because it's not - at the same time, though, it is. This is the care for others that God challenges us to. It's also fair to say, "this doesn't look much different than any other neighbor relationship out there." Yes and no. I don't think people know or trust their neighbors too often in our world; what's more I'm not sure people even really want to all that much. Yes, it certainly happens some places and we see these kinds of relationships thrive - maybe that's corporate worship, too - even if nobody knows or says that's what's happening.

Now, I'm working on how to do this a little more overtly. I want to have a gathering where we can get together and talk about beliefs - not to argue over which ones are right, but to seek out why our friends and neighbors believe what they believe, to figure out how my beliefs impact my actions, to see things from different perspectives and for each of us to grow deeper in our own journeys towards doing life well.

I think that'll be a lot more specifically religious (if not Christian), but I hope it's not Christian in the way that turns so many people off. As McKnight says in the post above, the way we've done things - what's come to be the standard definition of corporate worship for everyone, whether they participate or not - doesn't work well for everybody; it has a kind of bad reputation, mostly as something unhelpful (at least to those people who don't go, and even some who do). I'd like whatever gathering we manage to put together to be Christian in the sense it looks like Christ - people who are genuinely interested in each other, seek to be life-giving and encouraging, to love and trust one other as we do life together.

I'd love for everyone to be doing this in whatever communities you find yourself a part of, but if you want to come do it here, let's talk.

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.”

Tuesday, November 10, 2015

Narratives and Results

I read Ta-Nehisi Coates' Between the World and Me this weekend. He's an influential thinker in matters of race and society (although that seems to limit the kind of things he thinks and writes about), come to greater prominence in the last year specifically addressing policing and prisons in the country. Obviously, I'm white, so it's difficult to process everything in the book, which is written as a series of letters to his 15 year old son, but reads much like a memoir.

I appreciate his statement that the white struggle to deal with issues of race in our past and present is not a struggle someone else can do for us. It's not a sentiment you hear often, but something I resonate with - that there is not one struggle, but many, from every perspective and position. It's challenging.

Perhaps more challenging, though, is his assertion that the brutality and violence we often rue in our police and prison system is not a regrettable anomaly, but the natural output of our society. Yes, race is mixed up in this pictures because race is mixed up in everything we've ever done as a society, but by presenting the large picture of "you act as you are," Coates addresses a bigger picture that should concern even those deniers of race disparities.

He argues we have a militant and aggressive police force because we are a militant and aggressive country. We might outsource most of that over seas, but it still represents the core of who we are as a people (and if it truly doesn't, then we need to act differently toward the rest of the world). This argument has given me pause to look at all those things we decry in our society:

We hate that our political leaders have entrenched themselves in intractable positions, unwilling to talk or make real progress because they perceive it as some kind of moral or ideological defeat. Yet we have a nation that blunders blindly into war just about anywhere we can frame an ideological message and keep throwing money at problems long after it makes any sense (I'm thinking Syria, but there are a lot of foreign policy moves that would fly here).

The same thing plays out across society. We hate that our attention span is so short, that our people don't seem to care about real issue or knowledgeable arguments. We prefer sex and violence to plot and narrative in our entertainments. Our most vocal and consistent support in sports is for a game in which grown men (and sometimes children) literally kill themselves and each other on the field, then we pat our backs for being mildly outraged when they do the same thing off the field (although not so outraged to stop employing them).

Coates takes an interesting tactic, though. He advises his young son to stick to his own struggle. He doesn't advocate trying to change the system or change the world, but to deal with the situation he's found himself in (as an advantage black man in the 3rd generation since the 60's) and address the world as best he can from that position - even if its not enough to change things, it is the very best that he can do.

You read Between the World and Me searching for glimmers of hope. There's a sense in which Coates has hope, even though he can't rationalize it. There are certainly no words of hope, other than the thankfulness of having one generation in a slightly better position than the last. There is, however, an undercurrent of expectation - something I'll label latent hope. Coates acts as though he expects things to improve, even though there's no real evidence to have such faith, simply because there's not much option outside nihilism, and no one wants to pass nihilism on to their children.

As a Christian, it's a challenge, partly because, while Coates respects the place of faith in Black American history, he doesn't believe in a god. I do see a Christian response in his advice to focus on one's situation to make a difference that might count. Nothing pains me more than Christians who adopt the persona and narrative of conservative and liberal, those who take on the mantra of Republican or Democrat and play the partisan game of our nation. I say that with intention. Nothing makes me more upset. Poverty, rape, slavery, addiction - those things are far more terrible, for sure, but in playing the political games of nations, Christians are, whether consciously or not, giving up on the Church as the hope of the world.

I've said it before; I'll say it a lot more. The message of Christ was for anyone who has any respect for his life or teaching to live as an alternative to the narrative of nations and power. It is only through a alternative lifestyle that we could ever hope to tackle the horrors of poverty and injustice in any meaningful way. The message of Christ is essentially the same message Coates gives to his son at the end of Between the World and Me: live your own struggle. The narrative of the world you've been given will not resonate with the narrative that speaks truth to your soul. Don't get fooled. Skip that national narrative and struggle with the one in your heart.

Coates and Christ might not preach the same narrative (then again, they might be closer than were comfortable with), but it's good advice. We need to speak into the world, with our words and, more important, with our actions, from our own narrative, not adopting one of the positions made available to us by the narrative of power. Participating in the society we have will only continue to produce the results we're unsatisfied with. Playing the game means we've already lost.

The great myth of power is that there exists no alternative; the challenge of the gospel is to live into that non-existent alternative and, through our lives, make it real.

*And I fully admit, Coates will likely be as disappointed with what I've gotten out of his book as he is with all the other people who seem to miss the point. I'm thankful either way and highly recommend it.

Thursday, November 05, 2015

Loving Victims without Condoning Abuse

In 2014, the San Francisco 49ers lost their All-Everything LB, Patrick Willis to injury. Coming in to replace him was a rookie from Wisconsin, Chris Borland, who ended up playing better than Willis for the rest of the season. At the end of the year, Willis decided to retire - seemingly leaving a huge space for Borland to fill. A week later, at 24 years of age, owing $600,000 back to the team, Borland also retired. He was just too scared of future brain damage.

ESPN Magazine does a fantastic job of laying out the conflicting nature of Borland's decision and life. He was all about football and he doesn't necessarily want to take that away from anyone - he won't tell you not to let your kid play - simply that his research and experience scared the heck out of him. At the same time, it also explores his difficult relationship to the game.

Borland is often asked to speak at symposiums about football safety. Mostly these conferences are designed to make the game safer for people. Borland, though, doesn't believe the game can be made safe - that people who think it can be freed from these long term serious medical problems, are just hurting people in the long run. After one rally in support of a paralyzed former player that felt more like a pep rally than anything else, Borland was scratching his head at the whole thing, "You don't have to promote the game to help people who've been hurt by it."

This really hit home for me in a different context.

I don't like war. I don't believe war ever accomplishes anything positive - what may seem good is always overwhelmed by the less visible bad. Fighting puts out society back a step, rather than moving us forward. I pray that all soldiers everywhere, no matter what side they fight for, would simply lay down their arms and refuse to fight. If that happened, there'd be no more war.

At the same time, there is a great need to care for those who've been affected by war. Those who suffer and, perhaps, those who don't realize they suffer. I want to be involved in taking care of veterans and their families - but that cause always seems draped in the flag, like its a patriotic effort in support of war. I know it is for a lot of people, but certainly it doesn't have to be that way.

As a Christian, I should worry more about caring for people than how people perceive my actions, but I do still worry. I'm not sure I can help that. Peace is something I take very seriously; it's at the core of my faith. I wouldn't want someone to get the wrong idea about what I support and condone, especially at a time when my tribe, evangelical Christians, seems so ready and willing to support blasphemous violence in the name of Christ.

At the same time, as much as I believe in peace, I believe it happens because of love. I believe that love shown to someone, even if the reasons are unclear or obscured, will have an effect on people, drawing them more into a life of love. I believe that supporting veterans unconditionally can and will lead people away from fighting simply by the example of love.

In the end, I resonate strongly with the conflicting position Borland finds himself in - both as a respecter of football and someone afraid of its effect on the world (and the individuals who play). He talks about it as dehumanizing, but doesn't want to violate those people who deeply love the game. He's trying to care for people while not caring for the thing they love.

I get it. I wish we had more space for this kind of tension in our society.

Tuesday, November 03, 2015

Reincarnation and the Meaning of Life

Perhaps the underlying notion of reincarnation deserves additional consideration. I don't mean the notion that our spirits are somehow reborn over and over again until we get life right, but the notion that the purpose of life is not to be the best person you can be, but to embrace life itself (which, in turn, leaves you to be the best person you can be). Reincarnation ends when striving ends, when balance is achieved. We westerners sometimes think of reincarnation as the move up a ladder - be more and more perfect until you get it right, but that's not how the teaching works. Enlightenment comes not by doing life right, but by doing life, being at peace with simply living. The notion underlying reincarnation is that there's something transformative about not seeking transformation.

That's the kind of paradox a good Christian can get behind.

Our tradition looks at eternity the same way (at least our theology does; common practice may be a different story). Jesus talks about a never-ending kingdom - this is what scripture means when it talks about heaven, not a fantasy world up in the clouds, but real life done right. There's no end to the kingdom of God, no "point" to heaven. This is pretty much the same thing Buddhists call Nirvana - a place of enlightenment, peace.

But Christians continue to seek after heaven as some sort of goal. Scripture teaches pretty plainly that there is no end (death is just a bump in the road); resurrection means life goes on - it may be a changed life, a transformed one, but it's a life everlasting. We need to stop thinking about "this life and the next." There is just one life and the good news of Jesus' gospel is that we can live into this life now; we can have access to God's never-ending Kingdom right now, before we die. This really is like reincarnation - at least the underlying principle. It's not about dying and coming back (although that happens once), it's about living well as an end in itself. That's how we find purpose in life, it's how we encounter Christ's kingdom, it's how we discover enlightenment. It's how we get to heaven, even if we're not yet dead.

Even the concept of purgatory plays on the same theme. Purgatory is this limbo state in which people wait out or work out or suffer through all the sin and junk that keeps us from being the people God created us to be. The end result of purgatory is heaven. In some sense, we could say the Christian belief is that all life is purgatory. This process by which we live and love and grow and learn is a process by which we discover our purpose: to live - and, in doing so, find transformation.

This is the reason Jesus is so important - because in Christ you find not only the words of life, but the example of life. This embrace of living (even unto death) is how we figure out what it means to live into this eternal kingdom. In Christ we see the fulfillment, the coming together of everything God has revealed from the beginning of time - life lived rightly, embodied in one man.

I think it's easy to pick these connections out across all human beliefs, because I strongly believe that God has been revealed to all people in all times. By that I don't mean all roads lead to God, but that all roads come from God. I also believe all roads lead to Christ, even if you never know the name of Christ or the story. All truth is God's truth and discovering the truth means discovering Christ. Now, as a Christian, it seems especially helpful to have a whole body of teaching laid out to direct and challenge us to right living; it seems preferable over a couple millennia of essentially trial and error - at the same time, I think it's really valuable to have such diverse perspectives on truth. To me, it's even more evidence of a God involved with creation when we see the same core notions of life and eternity emerging from different cultures and locations.

I affirm Christ as Truth and the only means by which we find God. But I'm also not willing to dent the possibility that while all roads may not lead to God, they all, if pursued honestly, lead to Christ, or, more specifically, the Truth Christ embodies.

In the end, it is not the Christian culture that sets the standard for others, but God's creative purpose in the world that transcends all cultures and religions. This is the message of Christ, who came no to start a new religion, but to put an end to all religion - to unify all people in the transformative power of love and to shift our focus from the ends to the means: living life well, for it's own sake.

It's there we find heaven, and life everlasting.

Thursday, October 29, 2015

The Irony of Batman

None of these ideas are my own - this is entirely the doing of Peter Rollins in his fabulous book, Insurrection. I just felt like this analogy was too good not to repeat. I'm not quoting it directly, but here's the idea:

Rollins challenges the notion of Batman - a billionaire who devotes his life to ridding his beloved city of street crime, largely due to the trauma of seeing his own parents murdered before his eyes. He diverts huge sums of money from his hulking family business to make this possible. Rollins wonders if, perhaps, Bruce Wayne might've made more of a difference in Gotham City if he'd simply used those vast sums of money to develop social institutions, like schools and public service organizations, to actually create the structures that support a stronger city.

Then Rollins then goes a step further, positing not only that Batman uses altruism as an excuse for pure revenge, but that Bruce Wayne doesn't really want a better city, since a city in which the poor have access to resources and education (and hope) is likely a city that will challenge the hegemony of his own business and ultimately affect his billionaire playboy lifestyle.

It's just classic - a great example of what I often call the machine analogy. If society is like a machine, Batman is devoting his time and resources to change what's coming out of the machine - Rollins wonders whether those resources would be better spent fixing the machine so it produces a product more to his liking, rather than trying to constantly alter the product that comes out. The extra step, recognizing that Wayne's own monopolistic interests and likely part of the cause for the problems in the machine in the first place. True transformation always costs us something; that's why we're so terrified of it.

Tuesday, October 27, 2015

Solving Social Problems

I read a description of a liberal this week - it's simple and elegant and, I think, very accurate - "a liberal is someone with a deep belief in the power of government to solve social problems." I think I'll hold on to this one for those times people insist on calling me a liberal, because I, in no way, could agree with that description.

Now conservative, I think, is a more difficult position to nail down using the same terminology. I know few conservatives who think government (as an idea) is completely worthless, even if that is the stereotype. In that sense, I share with conservatives, the healthy skepticism that government can really solve social problems. At the same time, I tend to butt heads with many conservatives who seem to believe that government will inherently make any social problem worse. For the most part, I sense a belief that government is a necessary evil. I'm not sure I'd go that far.*

I tend to see government as a tool, not a solution. Just like the free market or private enterprise or non-profits or human responsibility, government is a tool society has at its disposal to address problems we see around us. I don't think it's always the most effective tool to use and its often simultaneously the easiest and least efficient, but it is a tool nonetheless. Because I hold this view, I don't see "government" in and of itself as good or evil any more than a hammer or a saw is good or evil - it simply is; judgement comes once we use it for something - AND, it must always be evaluated in context.

Now there are ideological arguments that arise - specifically "government is an inappropriate tool for that job." Some are willing to give up pragmatism in search of ideological purity. I applaud that notion; I might even share it in some instances. However, when it comes to government, I'm entirely practical.

If my choices for pounding in a nail are the blunt side of a wrench or my own hand, I'm gonna give the wrench a go and not worry too much about the appropriateness or efficiency of the choice (which seems to be a conservative tactic). Now I'd also rather not be so content with my ingenuity that I never buy a hammer or even look for a better wrench (which is often the liberal move). There's some sense of desiring an ideal solution so thoroughly that it paralyzes our system - either too stubborn to admit the solution we have is imperfect or too stubborn to admit a bad solution is better than none at all.

Now, I'm always the one screaming "there's never just two choices," so it's not as simple as I outlined above - creativity is good - but that also illustrates my complaints with the typical ways we handle government - it's either a solution or a problem. I'm not willing to call it either. I'd like us to see a more expanded society, in which we use whatever tools at our disposal to address needs. We can ask not, "should the gov't be involved in this or not?" but "in what ways and to what degree does gov't make sense to address this?" The answer might be, "a lot," or, "not at all," or something in between - I'd just rather we figure out something that works, not be satisfied with that answer and also not reject it out of hand for ideological reasons.

I read another lengthy piece about the problems of our prison (and court) system this week. It's an issue that needs addressed (and won, thankfully, members of both major parties want to address). So here, as part of the solution, I'd be fine with private companies and free market forces running the prison system, so long as the government incentivizes (ie, pays) them based on how few prisoners re-offend. I'm fine with prosecutors holding the reigns on prison sentences (as they do now), so long as their judged by crime rates, not conviction rates (and thus invested in long term solutions). To me, that's pragmatic and it makes use of every tool at our disposal, rather then fighting over one.

Portugal decriminalized all drugs for personal use and usage rates dropped (and drug-related health problems plummeted). They've given free methadone and clean needles to addicts in Switzerland for years - and outcomes continue to improve. It works. I'm all for stuff that works. Ideology be damned.

Of course, we can't actually remove ideology from the equation. Everyone believes something about the world and we all use these beliefs to inform our actions. We all have an ideology. We can't divorce our ideology from our participation in society. The point I'm more trying to make is that our government is a shared tool; it can't be governed by any one ideology. It's got to be pragmatic.

Some people believe individual freedom is the highest aim of society; others believe providing for the common good should be ideological aim of humanity. Those people are not likely to be reconciled, but they do have to live together. Thus we have government - the messy attempt to keep everyone from killing each other. People aren't going to agree on ideology, so government must be kept clear of adopting one - it's got to be pragmatic.

This disagreement, though, is also why we must work diligently to remind people that government is not the end-all and be-all of our interactions with each other.

The Church has a unique place in this process. The Church is called to be an alternative community, living out an example of how people can get along with each other in love and sacrifice. The Church should never be involved in running government - it's certainly not a Christian duty to impose beliefs or actions on anybody.** If there are problems the Church believes should be addressed ideologically (and, for the Church, all problems should be addressed that way), it's the duty of the Church to do it, not worry about trying to make the government do it. Yes, government can make the efforts of the Church to be faithful to its calling easier or more difficult, but government certainly can't prevent the attempt.

Any other ideological group is free to pursue the same alternative community. If someone wants to found a collective based entirely on individual freedom, they are, of course, free to do so. Yes, government might make that more difficult than we'd like, but if the ideology is strong enough, people will see the truth in it. That's the belief of the Church anyway; I find it odd anyone would believe in something they don't think could ultimately win people over without coercion.

The government can't be that avenue for ideology - mine or anyone else's - precisely because it's an involuntary organization. People could, I suppose, up and leave, if they were really fed up, but it's an unrealistic solution for most and, ultimately, if it's not this government it will be another.

I don't think it's wrong for people to voice their opinions - that's sort of the whole point of government in a democracy. We express our views on how things should work, hear competing views and try to figure out some compromise. It's this whole business of treating government like something we can win that's driving the problems. Ideology can only win out on its own merits. It can't be enforced.*** When there are different people involved, the opinions will be different.

Government is a tool. We can (and maybe should) have strong beliefs about the appropriate use of that tool, but, in the end, we're going to have to come to some agreement about how to actually use the tool. I might eventually convince you and you might eventually convince me, but it's not going to happen through argument and law, it'll happen through providing a credible example.

Let's use the wrench to drive nails for now, and work on a better hammer as we go along.

*Although I do see government as unavoidable, which is sort of like both "necessary" and "evil" in a different context. You're always going to have someone telling you what to do - whether it be an elected Congress or a guy with a bigger gun; whether you see them every day or just once every couple years, none of us will ever be left entirely alone. There's always going to be some type of government. I suspect, given that reality, it'll also always been seen by people as a means of power, rather than, as I say here, a tool. I tend, from this context, to look at government's necessary-ness and evil as simply a given and worry more about its function - pragmatically - as I outline here.

**There's still this undercurrent running through Christianity (even when it's not outrightly claimed) that our nation should be a Christian nation, governed by moral laws, informed by Christ. I wrote a lot about this last month, so I won't rehash it here - just to say I think this idea is a horrible corruption of the gospel of Jesus Christ as should be opposed as strenuously as possible.

***Unless your ideology is "everyone should do what I say without questioning," then, you know, I guess, good luck, Hitler.