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.

Thursday, October 22, 2015

What Sort of Gift is the Present?

So there's this old corny saying you might have heard, "Yesterday is history, tomorrow is a mystery, today is a gift of God, which is why we call it the present." I've seen it attributed to both Bil Keane (who writes/wrote? the Family Circus cartoon) and Joan Rivers (so there you go). It was unbearably cheesy even when I was seven years old. I love a good homonym, but that's not exactly "good." I've honestly not given it a second thought since first hearing it, but it sprung to mind from the ether recently as I was reflecting on the present.

So much of religion seems to be caught up in the future (or maybe the past - here's lookin' at you, Ken Ham*) - people seem drawn to religious experience as a means of escape. Life is hard or inscrutable and spending time focused on something else, something different, something better, makes the less-than-bearable slightly less less-than-bearable. I suspect this is precisely what Karl Marx was talking about when he appropriated a phrase from the Marquis de Sade and called religion "the opium of the people."

I'm not sure Marx was meaning this as derogatorily as he's gotten credit for (certainly not as much as the German Romantic Novalis, who used basically the same phrase 50 years earlier), but it is an apt description. Religion has, in large part, numbed people to the world around them and greatly reduced the value we place on the here and now.

I listened to part of an interview with the musician Derek Webb a few weeks back. He comes from a pretty staunch Calvinist theological background, but he said something I hadn't quite put together from that perspective (at least seriously), although it's pretty simple. He said (and I'm paraphrasing, even though I'm using quotes), "If God has the end already determined. If we're already destined to be saved or not, then why not doubt? Why not ask questions and seek answers and try to figure things out?" I realized as much as I often take issue with the Calvinist position on things - at least here, we might have wound up in the same spot.

I'm a Wesleyan, with a real emphasis on free will - so much so I tend to fall into the camp that says the future isn't knowable at all. I believe and affirm God is capable of handling any eventuality and will bring everything to its intended redemption, but I happily believe the details are still to be determined. It never occurred to me, that despite the very real problems some Calvinists have with how I believe (and vice versa), we both really do affirm the sovereignty and justice of God as deeply as possible.

I'm real fond of saying, "God's got the ends worked out," and I really believe it. I believe the love of God will, in the end, conquer all - not because free will is a facade, but because eternity is a long time, but it's not long enough to outlast God's love.

What that means, though, is that we have to pay an awful lot of attention to the present. It's really all we've got. I suppose if what I said in the previous paragraph is true, I can just sit around doing nothing and eventually it'll all make sense, but, like Derek Webb, I want to ask the questions, mostly because I'd rather not take an eternity to figure out how to live in eternity. If the Kingdom of God is already here, if the way eternity works is already how the world works (even if that's not always apparent), I want to get to livin' that way now.

All of this is really prologue to the one simple thought that arose this week: maybe it's that desire to get things right that's really the problem.

Hear me out. If the end is not the goal, we're only left with the means. That's what I mean by focusing on the present. The end result of our lives is not the point, the way we get to the end is what matters. But once we adopt that philosophy, we've sort of created another end. Now it's not about getting to heaven when we die, it's about getting the next decision right - doing the right thing in the next moment. And that's still an end.

I've always been very envious of people who are comfortable with themselves. You know, those people who don't apologize for who they are? They might come back and make things right with you if they stick their foot in their mouth, but they're not going to apologize for speaking freely. These people own who they are, faults and all. That's really what it is - not that anyone is proud of their faults, just that they've accepted their imperfect people.

I am NOT like this. I'm constantly upset that I'm not more perfect. I want to give my Nazarene upbringing a pass on this, but I'm not sure that's fair. I think our theology is a bit more nuanced than the popular perception of "perfection" we started out with, but the culture and climate sure isn't forgiving. I had this notion of "always be better" drilled into me from birth (mostly without anyone ever saying those words - sometimes even saying the opposite). It's really stuck with me.

I am constantly measuring the me I am against the me I'd like to be. That makes sense, you know, if you're a clock, say, and who you are and what you do are completely linked. It doesn't work as well for a person. My reactions are my reactions. They are me. Now I can catch myself and evaluate those reaction and perhaps head them off, amending my actions to better reflect the person I want to be, but that doesn't change the person I am. I'm still focused on the ends rather than the means. I'm not being present-minded.

I do believe in transformation and I believe in planning for it. I'm fully supportive of instantaneous, miraculous transformation through the power of the Holy Spirit. I've seen and experienced enough to know that sometimes what changes a person really does come from outside themselves. Yet I also know that we can work to be different - not in the way I described above, simply assessing the output and altering it to fit the image we want to project. I believe we can alter who we are, over time, given dedication and love.

That's the rub. That's where the present doesn't feel so much like a gift. Because in each moment, we need to love ourselves.

I recognize how flighty that sounds (my wife might say "hippy-dippy"), but I think it's really true. People who are comfortable with themselves may still have a lot of problems (don't we all), but they've conquered one hurdle that constantly trips so many of us up: they don't let their own actions determine their self worth. They love themselves.

That's not something you can pretend or fake (at least not for very long) - and I'm not even sure exactly how to do it (sorry), but it seems vitally important to everything else in life. Maybe that's what takes an eternity for some people - just being able to look in the mirror and be ok with what they see?

After all, what we do in the present doesn't really affect the future - not the real future anyway. If Calvinists and Wesleyans agree, God's got the end figured out, the only thing our present can really affect is the next minute or month or year - which are really nothing in comparison to all of time.

Now, for the mea culpa: I've said all this and to this I give strong intellectual assent. The present should really be a gift. But I'll freely admit, I don't have this internalized well enough to live it out. I spend far too much time thinking about how my present affects my future and it keeps me from doing in the moment what I need to do to get things right. I have real difficulty being me and loving me, because I'm not really sure they're good enough for the future I want.

I have no answer here. No good news and happy ending - other than to affirm the ending is happy and we can start enjoying it now if we can just be ourselves in the present.

*Who I won't dignify with a link.

Tuesday, October 20, 2015

Killing: Abortion and Guns

Lately, since our election season seems to have kicked into full swing more than a YEAR before the actual election, it seems like there's been a rapid increase of both abortion and gun related memes on Facebook. Now a Facebook meme is a great way to further trivialize the already trivial, but it's a terrible place to insult the intelligence and morality of people with whom you disagree on important issues. If people (read: Christians) are really concerned about the increasing divide in the US, the first move is pretty much anything, but demeaning and demonizing those people you believe to be "on the other team."

It seems even more silly to me when it feels like (and granted discerning the tone of a meme is somewhat difficult) everyone is really just talking about one thing: killing.

Now there are of course some gun advocates who genuinely want to preserve the right to hunt and are worried that new gun laws would make that more difficult. However, I don't see much virulent rhetoric from these people, in fact, most of them are pretty confident we're not headed that direction. The real ire comes from those people who are afraid gun restrictions will prevent them from defending themselves in ways they deem fit - while there aren't too many non-crank-wackos who talk about this in the language of killing, it is ultimately the extension that must be discussed when talking self defense - people want the right to kill in defense of their life or the life of a loved one.

And, there are, of course, some abortion activists enamored with the notion of family planning by abortion, contraception after-the-fact, if you will, who make the debate pretty callous and unfeeling - but these, too, are very few and far between. Most people recognize the physical and emotional toll an abortion plays on a woman (and those who love her, if they know) as well as the moral complications of such a decision - and would rather have as few abortions as necessary. Many people would rather not outlaw abortion simply because they're not comfortable making that decision for another person - likewise, you don't see a lot of rhetorical engagement from these people. Again, the rhetoric rarely gets formed in the language of killing, but it is the extension of the debate - even if one doesn't recognize a fetus as a person, it is certainly living tissue that might potentially be forced to stop living.

Ultimately, these are both discussions about in what circumstances killing is appropriate. In the end, such positions are just value judgments - either this "bad" person has done enough to deserve a self-defensive death (self defense, being itself, a value judgement) or the life into which this child might be born will not provide the kind of love and attention each human being deserves (which is, again, a value judgement in itself) and preventing that birth is the best choice.

There is an argument about someone who's alive and made choices vs someone not yet born who didn't - and that's certainly a valid argument to have - but it skirts the subject. In both cases, the counter argument is simply speculative: you never know how this "bad" person might respond to being treated with love and care as opposed to violence and death; you never know how this child or this mother or the larger community would respond to the love and life of a new baby. These counter arguments are, of course, equally powerful and valid.

Then there are also the arguments of how these decisions affect the larger society. Do we want to be a part of a society where human life is so devalued that virtually anyone can make unilateral decisions about ending it - whether at the end of a gun or of medical instrumentation? Likewise, do we want to be part of a society that stands idly by while people are threatened or killed or while children are raised unloved or under-resourced?

There are consequences to any action.

That is ultimately my response to discussions of this kind. We need to think more. We need to recognize both the value of life and the necessary interconnectedness of all life. There is no individual life on this planet. We all impact each other in ways seen and unseen. We are all in this together. Life is important and the decision to take a life is equally important. It is not a flippant decision. Too often our debates about such things make it an easy answer, "of course I can shoot someone who break into my home," "of course I can choose whether to have a child or not." And there's strong historical precedent for both.

At the same time, there's also a strong historical precedent that people wrestle not only with the decisions themselves, but with the morality of the decision itself. What does it mean to choose life? What does it mean to choose killing? This plays out in a number of other ways as well - military service, police work, capital punishment, euthanasia - even health care and nutrition debates. Life is a pretty big deal. Ending it, even more so. This shouldn't be something we settle easily... especially when it interacts with reality.

As a Christian, it's pretty easy to take a theoretical stance. Killing is wrong. Jesus makes the case pretty clear - "do not resist an evil person," "love your enemies," "turn the other cheek." The Christian stance is always one of self-sacrifice over killing. But those theoretical answers prove far more difficult when we put them up against real life scenarios - usually scenarios that spring upon us unexpectedly. We just can't say what we would do or even what we should do, because living in the midst of that chaos is part of the process. We can follow the words of Jesus, but in the real world, it is rarely without some reservation (not to mention our various competing interpretations of what exactly Jesus meant).

We can use our beliefs to engage in practices that help form us into the kind of people who will respond as we so choose - but in the end, actually experiencing such a decision makes the difference. Listen, I pray for a world where no one will feel the need to get an abortion and no one will feel the need to own a gun, but until that world comes, I live in this one.

There are sensible gun laws out there to be had. There really are. There are sensible abortion regulations that could exist. We constantly get push back on these issues around the notion of freedom. I believe in freedom. I do think, as much as possible, people should be able to make their own decisions. What I don't believe, though, is that this notion of freedom should supersede the consideration of life. Guns may not be the only way to kill a person, but they make that killing much easier - that needs to be part of the discussion. Abortion may be the choice of a woman (because even when abortion is illegal, it still happens a lot), but it is the ending of, at the very least, potential life. The decisions we make around these topics are not and should not be easy.

I've never heard anyone talk more openly and honestly about the realities and potential of guns than police officers, who face those decisions every day. I've never heard anyone talk more openly and honestly and about the realities and potential of abortion than doctors who perform them. You don't often hear casual definitive statements from these people, because they live lives in the midst of the mess. They see the realities of life on both sides of these decisions. They take killing seriously. They understand these issues are about life and have no easy answers. In other words: they're not meme-worthy - and it's our making them so that is the real tragedy.

Thursday, October 15, 2015

Confident and Mysterious

I'm taking this online course from Peter Rollins in a few weeks (it's a pretty cool deal). So, I'm re-reading his five major books in the five weeks leading up to the class. I finished How (not) to Speak of God yesterday. It was a pretty seminal book for me when it came out. It was 2006, I was still pretty early on in my seminary time and it was just mind-blowing. Looking back on it now, the Peter Rollins who did (and continues to) seem so avant garde and out there and boundary-pushing, in this book now seems pretty squarely inside the typically Christian box. Certainly his ideas were boundary-pushing, but they were pretty limited boundaries to begin with. That's completely beside the point here, but I thought it was cool to see how someone who's been instrumental in my thinking has also changed and grown over the past decade.

But anyway, I was reading this book (which I find stronger and more accessible now) and there's some really great stuff there. I shared a quote on Facebook yesterday - there will probably be at least one more blog post from that re-reading. He hits on this idea that what we consider dichotomies don't necessarily have to be. I don't know if it was one thing in particular (if it was, that location or quote is lost to me already), but I had this realization about myself and my evolution of thought and belief and faith over time.

Growing up, I felt like the big questions of faith were real mysteries - why are we here, how did God make this world, what do heaven and hell look like, how is the world going to end - typical big question stuff was just beyond me. I mean, I knew the "right" answers to those things, but my understanding of them was far from concrete. At the same time, though, I was pretty darn certain about what the right thing to do was in any given moment. I had this ethical framework that, even if I didn't always live up to it, was very black and white.

It was a sort of marriage of mystery and certainty and really left me empty and unsatisfied.

The real realization, though, that I had whilst reading yesterday, was that I still have a great marriage of mystery and (fairly) certain-ty, but it's the complete opposite of what that looked like as a child (and probably up until about the period where I first read this book). I generally feel like I've got the big questions figured out. I could explain to you how I view the formation, purpose, and future of existence, given the realities of science and scripture and human nature and discovery. Those views might be nuanced a bit over time, but I'm pretty confident I've got a good framework from which to build.

But the mystery these days is about the details, the day to day stuff, choices and relationship and interactions with the world. I'm essentially asking - "So I live in X world, what does that mean for my schedule today?" The answer to that question is really the one that drives my imagination and discussion and passion these days. Now obviously those discussions move backward to the assumptions I've made at the beginning and I'm always looking for good critiques and challenges to those assumptions, but the real meat of the faith mystery is how to live in each moment.

I find this marriage between confidence and uncertainty to be beautiful and life-giving and brilliant. Maybe because a willingness to hold things lightly is sort of built in to that overall structure of understanding, it's just less stressful, I don't know, but it was very interesting to immediately sort of see in my own life how things have been sort of paradoxically melded together in my own journey of belief moving forward.

Perhaps one of the things I like about Rollins is that he's constantly focused on the day-to-day. That first book especially emphasized the importance of relationship and reality to our doing of theology and belief - challenging us to embrace the bias inherent in each of us and use it for the purpose of strengthening our position in the world.

To put it simply - God loves the world; God's love is transforming the world; Love will win - so what?

It's mighty beautiful to say, "I've got it all figured out," and "I have nothing at all figured out." To make it fancy, you might say, I've discovered my epistemological framework to be both radically known and radically mysterious at the same time. THAT is simply beautiful and invigorating and it's what drives me to continue living and exploring such intelligible and inscrutable faith.

Tuesday, October 13, 2015

What is a Martyr?

The deaths in Oregon were tragic. It's a terrible loss. Violence is awful. I am against it. Yet at the same time, using martyr language or even saying these people were killed for their faith sort of sits hard in my stomach. It doesn't feel right.

Maybe it's as simple as our difficult relationship with the word faith. Is it simply something we claim? Do we say the words, make intellectual assent, choose to join - is that all it takes?

Yes and no.

Certainly, being willing to claim Christianity with a gun to your head speaks to the importance of that association. Being identified as a Christian was really important to these people. I can't even begin to imagine the difficulty of that decision. I remember, as a child, being terrified that this might someday be a reality for me. I'm sure it wasn't constant, but it seemed like a constant challenge from people in the church - "is your faith strong enough to stand up to torture." I remember spending significant adolescent time worried about this (Lord, help us be better). I was worried mostly because I was pretty sure I'd wuss out. Now, as an adult, I don't worry. I know I'd wuss out and deny Christ. I'm not proud of it - but if all it took were saying a couple words to save my life - I'm pretty sure I'd say them (and I'm confident God would forgive me).

But it's not about the words, right? That's the whole point.

In Roman times, no magistrate would have to ask the Christians if they were Christian. Being a Christian was a very defined lifestyle - it was obvious to anyone who saw you interacting (or not interacting) in society. Christians did things differently. People knew it. When Christians were being killed, it wasn't for some statement they made or idea they professed; it wasn't even an important identity they assumed - it was a life they lead, choices they made. The original Christian martyrs were killed for a long period of faithfulness over time that rubbed against what was expected in society.

Yes, there might be a broad dictionary definition of "martyr" that includes this occurrence in Oregon, but it's a definition lacking real distinction and context.

Those who died in this most recent shooting certainly died because their Christian identity was important to them, but it wasn't martyrdom, it wasn't a religious killing. The shooter had no way of knowing the faith of these people, he could only ask how they identified. These people certainly showed more courage than I'd be able to muster in that situation and I hope they all died with the confidence of knowing God's peace and love, but this simply wasn't a religious statement. This was the terrible action of a sick man who'd clearly been hurt by Christians in his life.

We could say these victims died not for their faith, but for the lack of faith shown by others.

It doesn't undermine the faith of those who died - I don't know then anymore than the gunman did, so it's impossible to even speculate. It doesn't put into doubt their faith claims or the value of their lives. It doesn't even reduce the impact of such courageous testimony. I'm just not sure it qualifies as martyrdom. Martyrdom takes more than a moment.

The priest who's gunned down by gang members because he's pulling their runners off the streets and into afterschool programs is a martyr. The woman, beaten and killed for helping prostitutes to freedom is a martyr. Their words might be the impetus for the trigger to be pulled, but it was their actions that got them killed.

The other element that seems important is society's response. A martyr's death is typically cause for celebration or indifference among the general population. A martyr doesn't die to collective horror. Christians were martyred as entertainment in Rome, people bought tickets to cheer as they died. Many martyrs toil in obscurity around the world, giving their lives for a moment of solace amongst the suffering of the world's poor.

When that gunman opened fire on the Sikh temple, it wasn't because of the faith of the adherents. They died because some guy confused them with Muslims. Even if they'd been actual Muslims, it still wouldn't have been a death for their faith, but a death because someone else, somewhere else represented their faith in ways they wouldn't agree with.

If some Roman were hauled before the authorities by mistake - he'd be shouting at the top of his lungs, "I'm not a Christian," but those words certainly aren't enough. He'd have to prove his identity and he'd do it by pointing to his actions. This is what I do because I'm not one of those Christians. He'd get off, if he got off, because he proved his life looked differently than the Christian lives they were out to end.

Peter Rollins has a great, harrowing short story in his book, The Orthodox Heretic, where a man is acquitted of being a Christian and robbed of martyrdom despite his admission and attempts to prove his faithfulness. He's acquitted because his lifestyle doesn't show anything but church attendance and Bible reading. There's no evidence of a specifically Christian lifestyle.

What if the first person asked in Oregon hadn't been a Christian, but thought saying "yes," would save his life? Would that claim have made him a Christian? Likewise, what if the second person asked, knowing what answer meant life, had said, "no," despite a long life of faith and Christian action, would it have somehow invalidated her claim to Christ?

There's got to be something more.

This shouldn't discount the tragedy of events, but it, perhaps, should be an avenue of challenge for Christians. It does indeed take an incredible amount of courage to claim Christ, knowing it could mean your immediate death - in some ways, though, it takes as much, if not more, courage to live out your faith over the course of decades - to love the unlovable, to be on the side of the rejected, to move against culture and be labeled an oddball.

I'm not sure I have the courage to do either one. I do, know, though, I wouldn't want to be known as a martyr if I happen to die for the words that I say (or write). We need to be careful about how and when we use words like "martyr," because there really are people in this world who continue to face the kind of situation first century Christians faced - where their actions equate to a death sentence - their whole life is lived in danger.

We live in a world, specifically in a culture, that's become increasingly obsessed with masking political maneuverings in religious language. The evangelical subculture seems even more bent on using the language of religious war. We really need to push back against it, naming an condemning power games cloaked in religious language.

A shooting, like Columbine, like the one in Oregon, is tragic. It is a senseless loss of human life, a great tragedy for those families who lost loved ones and for the community and nation as a whole. It's a detriment to creation and something that should spur us to live differently. I'm just not comfortable calling it martyrdom. Making it religious seems almost a distraction from the realities involved. Let's call all killing tragedy and work to prevent it moving forward.

Thursday, October 08, 2015

Kings and Presidents by Tim and Shawna Gaines

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 I would relish the chance to give a bad review in exchange for a free book. If I've failed to do so, it has nothing to do with the source of the material and only with the material itself.

I am going to have to get over my prejudice. I've been a Nazarene all my life and been using products from the Nazarene Publishing House for pretty much as long. Deservedly or not, it's often been pretty bland. I know this is an issue with many publishers - in an attempt to market to the widest possible audience there's a hesitation to say something challenging or difficult. I'll confess I've come to have pretty low expectations of NPH.

This is a new NPH, though. With all of it's turmoil in the last several years, a new publishing house has emerged with the same name, but new priorities. I've reviewed two books this year - Theology of Luck and now Kings and Presidents - both are evidence of new thinking and new doing at NPH.

Any evangelical book on politics is a dicey proposition, but Tim and Shawna Gaines do an admirable job navigating those treacherous waters. Emerging from an election season sermon series in 2012, they uniquely look at our political perspectives, rather than tackling specific issues. This might seem a cop out, at first, but ultimately Kings and Presidents pushes deeper into the assumptions and foundations upon which we've built our political ideals and invites us to real self-reflection that could very well lead to real transformation. I know it brought out some new depths in my own thinking (that I've outlined in another post).

I want to reiterate I'm blowing smoke here. I went to seminary with both Tim and Shawna and while I always think they provide quality depth and content, the focus and presentation of their writing in past books has never really impressed me. This book is different, though. They really seemed to find their stride in important ways. The introduction and opening chapter can drag a bit and sometimes feel repetitive, but the conclusion of each section shows strong unity with the whole and provides a sense of satisfaction upon reading.

These early section are difficult if only because there is a need to be gentle in introducing such a fragile topic without stepping on toes too early. These introductory chapters, which really outline the larger frame of reference for the book, more than adequately set the stage for the deep, probing, and challenging material to come. They're looking at politics with an eye towards comparing two worlds - the world of kings and the world of the kingdom - in other words, how humans have organized the world and how God is organizing the world. The book attempt to draw the distinction between these two and help readers discern how each is impacting their lives and thought.

It's done uniquely by looking at some of the stories in 2 Kings (the old testament book, not some unmade prequel to David O Russell's fantastic movie). By bringing us so far outside any cultural or historical familiarity, the authors are able to address very pointed and specific political points without necessarily addressing contemporary political landmines.

That being said, there are some points of critique. While I applaud Tim and Shawna for mentioning actual contemporary political issues where appropriate, I think they could've done a better job challenging the Church in the book's conclusion. I heartily agree that the purpose of Christian politics is reconciliation, a further, deeper purpose than the secular political aim of tolerance. At the same time, there could have been greater emphasis on the importance of tolerance as a necessary step to reconciliation and kingdom life. Sadly, we live in a time where many people (and many Christians) view intolerance as a means to finding the kingdom of God. There could have been a stronger statement about the path by which Christians achieve their aims in the world.

Likewise, while Kings and Presidents deftly highlights how both major US political parties fall short of kingdom vision, there is a place, especially in this book, to highlight the specific difficulty we often have in associating with one party or the other. Tim and Shawna effectively make the case for seeing the world and its political problems through a specifically Christian lens, but stop short of challenging the potential incompatibility of this with a party-centric lens. We can differentiate the tendency to align with one party or another from affecting a party allegiance; this could have been outlined better.

At the same time, Kings and Presidents far outpaced my expectations, mostly refusing to avoid difficult challenges and presenting some truly deep and insightful exegesis in original and unique ways. I generally give four stars in a book is well written or if it's content is especially important or useful. This book gets five stars because it's both - and maybe bonus points for the degree of difficulty. Kings and Presidents is a book that definitely will help any Christian or congregation better address politics and life through the eyes of Christ.

Tuesday, October 06, 2015

Political Assumptions

I've been reading this great little book lately - Kings and Presidents (there will be a review in this space on Thursday). It's surprisingly deep and challenging for a book meant to be accessible and about politics for a largely evangelical audience. It came at a good time for me. I've been involved in a couple of discussions about politics with people who don't always agree with me. It's pretty clear we're coming at this from different places and it always feels like their assumptions and not the same as my assumptions, but I've lacked a real language for expressing this difference (especially a language to do so without condescension, which is easy for me to do).

So they have a little section addressing something similar that's helped to form my understanding of these assumptions and why we differ sometimes. These are the words of Tim and Shawna Gaines highlighting an idea they got from the great William Cavanaugh.

Each of the influential political philosophers understood humans as completely autonomous individuals first, linked only loosely by the idea that we must be fair to one another, usually by making contracts with one another. As they understood it, humans were not closely knit creatures of relationality but those for whom violence against one another is only a few short steps away, making contracts (such as governmental constitutions) necessary to maintain the rights of these unrelated individuals.

Yes, this is a pretty basic summary of western political theory, but it's framed in a way that's helpful for Christians mostly because it sets up an easy dichotomy between conservative and liberal approaches.

You can see then how conservatives tend to be conservative with these relationships, only engaging in contracts with others as much as they have to, with the expectation that more contracts equals more harm - mostly because they recognize people are selfish. Liberals, on the other hand, tend to be more liberal with these relationships because they see outside forces as most responsible for engendering selfishness in human beings.

I have to be reductionistic, but it's essentially "people are basically good" vs "people are basically evil." It's essentially political philosophy as a battle between optimism and pessimism. Liberals tend to say, "if we can only align these outside forces properly, everything will run smoothly;" while conservatives tend to say, "interactions between people are inherently messy, so let me have as few as possible and things will run smoothly."

There's no real mystery why these philosophies are at odds.

I think I get into trouble in my political discussions because my friends are trying to put me in one box or the other, when I don't really see myself in either. I try to take a specifically Christian approach to politics (and politics in the broader sense: every interaction people have with one another, not simply the machinations of government). As I see it, this Christian approach is not an either/or proposition, where I'm choosing one of the above options. It's a both/and situation, where I am affirming the correctness of both.

People are inherently selfish, and even if our most sincere desire is to be otherwise, we're still going to act in our own interest a lot of the time. But people are also inherently interconnected - you can no more isolate yourself and remain human than a caterpillar can refuse to become a butterfly. You can refuse to build the cocoon, but you're going to end up dead.

So a conservative might say "X is not the place of gov't," and liberal might say, "X is the responsibility of gov't." I say, "who cares?" It really feels like arguing over how to get peas from the plate to your mouth. You like a spoon; he likes a fork; that other guy prefers chopsticks. I'm far more concerned that the person gets to eat.

Yes, that still means we have to figure out how to do it - but that discussion (at least with me) will be based around practicality and not some preconceived notion of what government is or should be. I don't have a political philosophy (at least not in the traditional sense of the term).

I'd just ask that we talk about the merits of some issue or problem, rather than how it lines up with some overarching political ideal. I don't believe in political ideals, so it'll be hard to have that conversation with me. I'd never thought about assumptions in quite the way the Gaines' and Cavanaugh put it above - perhaps others haven't either. Maybe this will help all of us talk together more civilly in the future?

One can hope anyway.

Thursday, October 01, 2015

Cynicism Keeps Hope Alive

So, last night I took a few minutes to listen to my college roommate preach at our alma mater. His introduction talked a lot about cynicism and hope. He used the example of Debbie Downer, a Rachel Dratch SNL character he's been known to enjoy. He's also been known to associate her with me, enough that I was legitimately worried I'd come up in the sermon (I didn't). It did start hitting a bit close to home, though, especially as he defined cynicism (he might have quoted the dictionary) as something like "the belief that all human actions are fueled by selfishness."

At first I wanted to be upset (even though, it should be pointed out, there was no direct or indirect condemnation of me, that was all in my head), but I just couldn't muster it. I'm not embarrassed by my cynicism. Maybe I should be (at least my brain thinks that might be true), but I'm not. I don't have a heavy conscience over it and I could (and will - keep reading) defend it.*

That whole process took a very short amount of time to work its way through my nervous system and psyche, mostly shaped by his explanation of cynicism and hope as opposites. If cynicism sees the world shaped by selfishness, hope is the belief that things don't (and won't) always have to be this way. Hope sees the truly selfless moments that do exist as speaking to some greater truth about the world, while cynicism sees these moments as anomalies.

I am certainly a cynic, absolutely. I think it's a realistic was of looking at the world around us. People are, in fact, pretty selfish, myself included, most of the time.

I am also (or at least try to be) a person of hope. I have a strong belief in the ultimate consummation of the world - that this world, birthed and nurtured in love, will eventually find the fulfillment of that love in the end. I've dedicated my life to that notion. So even if (and I do agree) cynicism and hope are opposites (a really great way of juxtaposing those things, by the way) - they are not mutually exclusive. It's part of the fun in living among the intersection of two worlds.

Christians profess that Jesus Christ changed things - that the world before his life, death, and resurrection was different than the world after. In my view, this doesn't mean there was a total sea change, but rather that the influences dominant in the world have shifted. Selfishness has been overcome by the selfless love of God. Not that it has been defeated, but that it has begun to die. So we live in a world, yes, birthed and nurtured in love, but also sewn with selfishness - and while that love is purging the selfishness from the world, it's power and affect** remains.

We need both, of course. We need hope to sustain us in the midst of despair. We're pretty good about doing that, though. You can google all the pictures of flowers growing up out of sidewalks to get the intimate human connection to hope. But we need the cynicism, too - especially in culture of denial. My comfortable, white, American existence insulates me from a whole lot of the effects of selfishness in the world. I rarely have to see poverty, homelessness, mental illness, or violence (outside of maybe tv), I don't generally have to deal with addiction or hunger or true anguish. My society has constructed itself specifically so I'll forget the ills of the world and be content to consume and be entertained.

That atmosphere kills off hope, but it also kills of the effect of hope. Without real examples of pain hope is less of a motivator. It becomes denuded, inert - at least it can feel like that to me.

That's why I need cynicism. It keeps the emotional receptors alive. Cynicism and hope together build compassion. Too often it seems, our insulated world of complacency removed the ability to feel. When people are confronted with starving children on some unwise commercial appeal, their gut reaction is horror, but their actual reaction is ignorance - we pretend the pain doesn't exist because we're incapable of either cynicism or hope.

Apathy. That might be the real enemy.

It certainly seems to be what I'm afraid of. I've not ever thought about it this way until right now, but it makes sense. I want to keep feeling. I need to feel deeply to maintain hope. It's so easy in this world to give up the notion that things can be better (especially because they're already pretty good for me and most of the people I see everyday). It would be very easy for me to lose hope. So I remain cynical. It's my way of reminding myself that the world in which I culturally occupy isn't the world I physically occupy.

This might not be the best way to accomplish this task, but it is effective. I'm not saying it's right or recommending it to you, but this means does, in fact, serve a very important end. Regardless of what means you pursue it, the end is vitally important. We have to keep feeling - and feeling deeply.^

I appreciate my cynicism. Not all the time, of course. I don't really enjoy being Debbie Downer (although there's something deeply comforting to me in those sketches, which is itself probably worth three years of therapy), but at the same time, I think this healthy*** dose of cynicism, I think, is what helps me see terrorists and child molesters as human beings. Cynicism is, in large part, contrarian. Yes, it's a bit of a downer to see pain in what everyone else sees as joy - but it's kind of a blessing to see love in the midst of communal anger, to see hope when others see selfishness and cynicism.

Of course there are total cynics - people who see despair and greed and selfishness even when everyone else sees those things - but those people are straight nihilists - they might even be insulted by the label "cynic." That's much deeper than Debbie Downer and her ruining of birthday parties and Disney World. That's something completely devoid of hope - although, the cynic in me has managed to keep alive a robust understanding that nothing - no person, no situation, not even that depressing nihilist - is truly devoid of hope.

*It should also be noted that Jeremy took this sermon in a slightly different direction than this post. There's nothing he said that would directly contradict what I'm saying here and this isn't at all a rebuttal. I just got thinking about this because of that. Nothing more.#

**I know "effect" makes more grammatical sense there, but I wanted to emphasize that both the result and influence remains and I wasn't exactly sure how to best communicate that without making the sentence ungainly long - thus a reference only the best theologically trained grammarians might hope to understand.

***Healthy as in robust, not necessarily as life-affirming.

^Incidentally, this is why Lent and Advent are so important - they help us wallow in the reality of our situation, so we can better appreciate the joy and hope of Easter and Christmas.

#That being said, he very well may disagree with what I wrote here, so don't construe the last statement as somehow expecting an endorsement of this post from him.