Thursday, December 22, 2016

Atonement and Salvation by Eric M Vail

I'll be honest, when I got more than halfway through this book and we were still doing, essentially, preliminary work - setting the stage for a discussion of atonement and salvation - I was a little worried. Yes, because Eric and I had similar theological training (we were even in a class or two together in seminary), much of the important groundwork for his presentation is are things I take for granted. It's not that any of it was unnecessary, in fact I think it makes this book incredibly accessible, it's just that I like to read books for new information, and I was in near total agreement for the first 80 pages. Well, I'm in near-total agreement for the entire book, but you get the idea.

What I needed to do was get out of my own head and read Atonement and Salvation with a little more distance. In truth, it is one the most clear and concise treatments of, really, the whole of Christian theology, I have ever read. While the prose may not be the most elegant you've ever seen, it's clear and insightful - you can tell Vail took great, great care in crafting this book.

What shocked me out of my self-oriented perspective was Chapter 8, where he gets to the real meat of the Atonement and Salvation discussion. Chapter 8 is perhaps the most powerful, important, and accessible chapter of theology I have ever read in any book. It's simply tremendous, maybe not for my personal growth, but as a resource for introducing the average Christian to what has always been a difficult and confusing topic. He builds on all that important preliminary material and crafts a picture of atonement that rings true to experience and reflects the massive, unfathomable love of God, while also taking seriously the whole witness of scripture in really responsible ways.

The final two chapters deal with smaller associated topics, including Christ as peacemaker and a critique of penal substitution theory that both pulls no punches, but also exhibits incredible grace. I began the book wondering who it could possibly be for - it doesn't largely break new ground academically and I couldn't imagine any lay person would want to or be able to work through 141 pages on atonement, but Eric Vail has done it. He presents the theology in an academic and compelling way, but with the deft and simplicity that would allow intent readers of any theological depth to follow the narrative and understand his presentation.

Atonement and Salvation is a real gift to the Church and I'm glad the Nazarene Publishing House continues to cultivate and publish such important material.

Thursday, December 08, 2016

Build Your Hopes on Things Eternal

I spent some time this morning trying to see if I could adapt Hauerwas and Willimon's Resident Aliens for an adult Sunday School class. Scott Daniels is a man of great wisdom who told me he'd tried in once and the book was just too dense for such a setting. I tried to do it anyway, but his advice allowed me to give up the ghost one chapter in. It's a great chapter, though, and I don't want to waste the effort.

The idea of Resident Aliens is primarily that the Church is a "colony of heaven," in the way that conquerors (they might call themselves explorers or liberators) develop colonies in new lands, which are reflective of the home culture, so the Church is called to be a colony of a different world in the midst of this world. A Greek colony in Egypt would've maintained the Greek attitudes towards education, commerce, and social relations, despite those things being at odds with the larger world they find themselves living in.

Christians are called to live differently - not to make the world in which they live more Christian, but to present an alternative means of living - one reflective of God's intentions for the world as revealed in Christ. Christ then becomes the key to all this. The book says that when Christians look a the world, we see something that cannot be seen without Christ - the story of Jesus' life, death, and resurrection provides a lens by which we see the whole concept of life differently.

I was reminded of a song we sung in worship a few weeks back. It's entitled "Hold to God's Unchanging Hand," and contains a line that really caught my attention: "Build your hopes on things eternal," which I imagine has traditionally been looked upon as escapist. There's a long modern Christian tradition of viewing the world as imperfect and temporary, thus the common advice when things go poorly is "don't worry, there's another world out there somewhere; think about eternity."

I see this line more in terms of what Hauerwas and Willimon are trying to say: that there is an entirely different way of looking at this world, an eternal view, a "heavenly" view, something more reflective of what God has in mind, as revealed in Christ.

This difference shows up in the second challenge of Resident Aliens' first chapter: to ask the right theological questions. The authors argue that we typically engage the politics of the world on their own terms - this stretches all the way back to Constantine, the Roman Emperor who first embraced Christianity as a unifying force. Since then we've largely asked "how can we run this world in Christian ways?" It's become a political preoccupation that's gotten us nothing but trouble. Instead, what Willimon and Hauerwas propose is that we ask "What would the world look like if it reflected the gospel?"

This is what I think of when I hear, "Build your hopes on things eternal." We don't have to take the systems and structures we have as inevitable. God calls us to build our lives on a different set of principles and realities, to be a true alternative to the way things seem to work in the world around us. This is the colony concept; the Church's purpose is to be something different, not take the world around us and make it different.

I know the immediate "but" in this is "but if you succeed in building an alternative, won't that just attract 'the world' to join, thereby changing the world into something Christian?" In a sense, yes, of course that leads into conversations about HOW precisely that is done - through an actual attempt to change or through a faithful representation of an alternative - but even that is getting ahead of ourselves, right? We're assuming that living faithfully into an alternative is easy - that establishing and maintain this colony of heaven is a given. It's hard work.

The book goes on to talk specifically about how our politics (in whatever way we've worked them out) have failed us and challenging the Church to a new kind of politics, one that operate on its own system, rather than trying to co-opt the systems around us. There's plenty to delve into there, and I'd love to have those conversations if you want to dialogue about them, but I think this first notion is a really important start.

Build your life on things eternal is not about spiritualizing everything, but it's also not about digging in to physical-ize everything either. We've had quite enough of activist Christianity already. I think rather the call is to have our foundational understandings shaped and formed by the gospel rather than by the world in which we live. We have to stop taking for granted the "realities" we're presented with and imagine our realities in light of God's revelation in Christ.

Well, just some random thoughts on a Thursday. Cheerio.

Tuesday, December 06, 2016

I Love Fake News

Maybe this has cycled out of the public consciousness in the weeks since the election, but I saw another story about it today, so why not wade in, right? I like fake news. I don't think it's a problem for anyone, except maybe actual journalists and their employers. The problem is us. People read "news" looking to have their own ideas reinforced and bolstered, seeking support for their "team" in this political game we call life. No one bother to double check a source or do their own research - we just decide if something makes sense and go with it.

If you really look at this "fake news" stuff, yeah there's some talk that it's being secretly funded by foreign governments to mess with US elections, but for the most part, it's a product of economic disparity in a globalized world. Most of this stuff comes from shops set up in rural Macedonia, where low-level gangsters pay school children to write (or even just copy and paste) stories about the US elections in their off hours. With the advent of online advertising, you don't need any actual substance, just a headline click-baity enough to draw interest. People get paid for the eyeballs on the ads - that's all that matters. Fake news is no different than kitten videos or clever memes - it's just content meant to make someone money.

It might be poor satire, but it's certainly inventive - well, some of it - the best fake news is genuinely creative and clever, people make up stories that other people want to read. We live in a world where almost everyone universally doubts the bias of the press, even historic, well-established journalistic brands - even if a fake news site bills itself as real news, people are conditioned not to trust media. Heck, even fake news sites like the Onion that are overtly up-front about the fakeness of their news still end up getting retweeted by actual elected officials.

The problem is not some masquerading pseudo-journalist who's really a fourth grader in Gostivar (look it up); the problem is us. The great Western Individualism that we've come to know and love (and claim is the reason much of those who hate us hate us) has led us to be self-absorbed egotists, assuming that our common sense is the closet approximation to truth. We're also lazy. It doesn't take much in this internet age to research a story and then utilize that profound common sense with, you know, a basic level of information. It's the same internet these fake news sites mine to figure out what stories we might click on and then provide them to us.

If you listen to any of the numerous reporting pieces on fake news, you can hear interviews with these kids and their bosses. They're not interested in shaping US policy (although they take pride in the fact that they are), they just want to make money. If people click on Trump stories, they'll write Trump stories. It's industrious and inventive and intelligent - all things you need to be to avoid falling for this kind of news.

I hear all this hand-wringing from people lamenting the place fake news held in the recent election and I've heard nothing about the responsibility of a society to educate its people and motivate them to perform basic functions. It's not like you have to drive down to some college library to look up economic charts from the past five years - you type a couple words into google and you click on a few "about us" tabs and then you click on google a few more times to verify the information you're finding.

Yeah, it's not perfect, but the more information one has the better capable we are of making real, informed choices. Not doing the work to be informed is our fault, not someone else's.

I love fake news. If I'd had time and a little more internet marketing savvy, it sounds like a fun way to make some money. I like writing. I'm pretty creative. I'm pretty knowledgeable about the political landscape. I bet I'd be really good at it. About ten years ago, when I had a break from grad school, I'd go onto Yahoo Answers and write long, details answers to questions that were entirely false. For example, one girl was trying to get help with her homework on Romeo and Juliet and I described in 1500 words, the plot of A Streetcar Named Desire (I just used the names Romeo and Juliet instead of Stanley and Stella).

There's really no excuse for believing something just because it sounds good. I imagine it has to do with our aversion to suffering - we only work as much as we have to work, and we try to avoid it as much as possible. Talk to a middle school teacher sometime - one of the most difficult things to teach is research - good research - it's too easy to get into a mindset of "it says this somewhere" and "their opinions is as valid as anyone else's." I don't disagree with the opinion part, but there's a certain level of knowledge that's assumed. Opinions are equally valid when they come from the same level of knowledge. My opinions on the origin of black holes is not nearly as valid as that of Neil DeGrasse Tyson. If I were ever going to disagree with him, I'd have to do a lot of actual work to gain the kind of knowledge I'd need to do so.

That or I could just tweet some fake news at him.

Sadly, in the court of public opinion, that would probably be enough to win the argument. But that's not my fault; it's the fault of all those people who believe me. Don't penalize creative people exercising their gifts for a better economic future. Let's pull the plank out of our own eye before we go after the speck in someone else's. I feel like that's good advice I heard somewhere once.

Thursday, December 01, 2016

The Cross and the Idol

One of the revolutionary things about this YHWH who rescued God's people from slavery, led them through the wilderness, and secured for them a land and a future was that YHWH was always present. Even before what we Christian term "the incarnation," God was incarnated among the Hebrews. God was with them. It's why, when we read the famously accommodated prophesy about Immanuel, we don't have to claim it's foretelling a specific future about a baby in a manger, but that it's describing a constant reality: God is with us. God is present.

Part of the problem in Israel was that they took a God who could not be contained and made a box, called a temple. Pretty quickly, as you might imagine, the God who infused and inhabited all things was confined to the religious. Instead of life being worship in all of its minutia, worship became something people did in a specific place, at a specific time, in a specific way. Oh there was always rituals, but they were rituals pointing and imaging the everyday actions of the people. And no, there's no reason why religion can't still be practiced in that way (and is!), but you have to admit it's a lot easier to keep religion in a corner when the God at the center of it is wrapped up in a neat little box.

This is why it was so necessary for God to be re-incarnated - to show up in a living, breathing person - to explode back into the world that God's people had pushed God out of. No longer would God be segregated to the temple, but would be active and alive in the world. It's no wonder that Jesus seemed to reject the trappings of the temple and the religious system that had built up around it over the intervening years: there were more important things to do. Life was to be lived - lived in the way it had been created to be enjoyed. In Jesus we see a person fully inhabiting his personhood, humanity being truly human - even to the point of giving up that humanity for the sake of others.

What did we do then? Well, for a while we lived into that example. There were lots of people sacrificing and going to their deaths out of love for neighbor and enemy alike. That tradition continues; let's not say it's faded away. But what it means to be Christian, in general, over time, has faded away. We've taken that great sacrifice of love and imaged it - imbuing meaning and honor on the instrument of Christ's death and giving it pride of place in our sanctuaries.

Again, I am not arguing that the cross is misplaced or ill-used or inappropriate. For certainly the reminder of death is key to our lives as God intended them. What is most important is not blessing or survival, but sacrifice - the meaning of life is to give it away in whatever manner we are called. Love, of course, but how much love? The cross reminds us there is no limit to such love.

But we've still contained it in a box. Yes, we may wear it on a chain around our necks or tattoo it on our calves or adorn it on our clothes, but for all practical purposes we've locked it up tight in our houses of worship just as Samuel did all those many years ago. It's a method of control, for one - when God is in our box, we decide how and when and where people experience and respond to God. There's safety and security in that - the same kinds of things the cross challenges us to forsake.

This domestication is also a means of ignoring the creative purpose of our lives: to live freely and wholly into God's future. When the cross is locked up in the church, we can relegate the Kingdom to that place and time we choose to think of it. We no longer have to infuse our lives with the radical, counter-cultural otherness that so characterized the one who died upon that cross, the one who rescued a people from slavery and lived among them as they wandered, poor and helpless in the desert. We can abandon the call of God to be humble when we've made the symbol of that God to important.

That's the catch, though, isn't it. God first told God's people not to make images of worship. We brush off the Muslim desire to keep their God and prophet unseen, but forget that our tradition has the same command. Yes, we're a bit more of a gracious people, at least in paper, but the teaching is the same: do not make idols - images that depict God - because God has made the only image necessary: us. Christ, as Paul says, the very image of the invisible God, is humanity as it was intended. We are God's image. We do not have the right to make another, simply because it better serves our purpose.

The cross is a call for our lives to embrace God's purpose. We must take it up and lay it down in service of God's radical love, not our own convenient agenda. It is not an excuse to make one place sacred and another secular. It is not permission to lie and steal and cheat in our everyday lives, because something better exists in another world. Something better exists, alright, but it's not in another world, it's in the world God created this one to become.

The means by which God is transforming the world God created into the world God intended is love. The path that transformation takes is through our lives and witness, not through our religious rituals and houses of worship. That shouldn't demean or diminish the importance of those things in our lives, but it does radically alter the way we view the cross. It is not an image to be exalted and looked up, but one to be shouldered and carried.

Carried out of the boxes we have created for it and into the world where it - and we - were meant to really live.

Tuesday, November 29, 2016

The Most Wonderful Time of the Year

Advent is my favorite season of the year. I think it comes from my own psychological baggage. I’ve always felt deeply empty – my therapist might encourage me to say worthless. Oh I know I’m a beloved child of God and I’m not out there looking for abuse or anything. I know who I am; I just don’t always feel it.

I heard Ian Morgan Cron speak to Olivet Nazarene University chapel recently – he talked specifically about this lack, this need, this inner sense of emptiness. He called it a universal piece of the human condition and that made me feel better. Perhaps I’m not as alone or unusual as I might’ve thought. I suppose a sanctified Nazarene elder such as myself shouldn’t still be struggling with issues of worth and purpose, but here I am and I don’t think I’m alone.

That’s exactly why I like Advent. Advent is the season that provides impetus for Christmas. Christmas is the celebration of incarnation, of Christ coming to Earth as a cute little baby boy. But that begs the question: why? Love, of course - it’s always love - but more specifically why do we need the kind of amazing sacrificial godly love we see in the birth of Christ?

It’s because we’re in such a sorry spot.

The world is pretty messed up most of the time, and we, the people of God, are far too often in the middle of it. There is pain and violence and abuse and war, depression and divorce and greed and selfishness – and there’s just as much of it in the Church as there is outside. We’re all terribly inadequate, yet deserving of so much more.

It’s that distance, that great divide between who we are and who we are created to be that Christ comes to bridge. That’s Christmas. Advent is about measuring the gap and affirming its impossibility. In Advent we mourn, we lament, we confess, and we beg.

We mourn the great potential of God’s creation and the ways in which we’ve helped to mess it up. We lament the great terrors we human beings have wrought on the world and just how many of them have grown out of control. We confess our inadequacy to tackle even the simplest of tasks without the divine presence of God almighty. And we beg for mercy. Please, Lord, don’t let us go down with this ship!

Advent is the season where we remind each other of how far we have to go, but also of how much God loves us and the absolute, unquestionable salvation that is just around the bend. Yes, we are preparing to celebrate the coming of messiah, but also of his immanent return. We bask in the joy of God’s love – the love spoken of so eloquently in John 3:16 – but we also sit with baited breath, anticipating the culmination of the Kingdom that Christ ushered in with his presence and that we so desperately need.

I love Advent, I think, because this one time of year, in the midst of our holiness culture, there’s permission to be me. I know we like to say we’re not about sinless perfection anymore, but that idea is just such a part of our DNA its shadow always lingers. There’s an unspoken (hopefully) drive to be light years ahead of where we are. Always better. Never satisfied.

Honestly, I don’t think there’s anything wrong with that… in spurts, but we need a season to escape that pressure and be faulty human beings in need of a savior. It might not sound like Advent is a time for rejoicing, what with all the confessing, mourning, and lament, but Advent can be freeing for people who feel obligated to solve all the problems of the world most of the time.

Advent is our season to give up, to recognize the futility of our strivings, and place all the responsibility on God. The early cry of Advent was maranatha, “Come, Lord,” the only prayer possible when we’re at the end of our rope, when our only hope is THE only hope. It’s true that God meets every need, but we rarely see God’s way through the darkness of our desperation.

Salvation comes in unsuspecting ways: like a baby in a manger when it feels like we need an army.

Advent prepares the way for Christmas, like Lent for Easter. We need the struggle to appreciate the miracle. We need to live in the midst of who we really are before we can approach the awesome majesty of who we’re created to be.

Don’t skip Advent. Don’t make it just four weeks of advertisement for Christmas – Walmart does enough of that for everyone. Sit in the tension of the already and the not yet. Create anticipation for the glory yet to come by recognizing the profound sadness of a world not yet complete.

And when you get to Christmas, enjoy the whole thing. Those twelve days are not just an annoying song. The wisdom of our forebears knew we needed more than just one hectic morning of wrapping paper and pajamas to fully pay off the anticipation of our sorrow. We’ll be back in the midst of the world soon enough. Sing carols on New Year’s. Say “Merry Christmas” during the Rose Bowl parade.

It’s a long year and a long life. We need Advent. We need Christmas. They help us celebrate all of who we are: complex, oft-inferior, and entirely messed up; but also beautiful, beloved, lovingly crafted creations, in the very image of God.

The world isn’t going to hell in a handbasket, but it’s ok to think that it is once in a while. That’s called Advent, and it’s my favorite season of the year.

Thursday, November 17, 2016

Visual Comfort Food

Disclaimer #1: Basketball season has begun and thus my often regular blog posts may becomes less regular. I am doing more this year than last (both within and outside the basketball world), so it might be harder to keep the twice weekly schedule.

Disclaimer #2: My recollections here are the impressions of a ten year old, filtered through a quarter century of memory. Please do not use them to judge anyone as they are very likely wrong and almost certainly inaccurate.

That being said, I've found myself really liking the NBC sit-com Superstore. I know, I know, with all the great TV being made right now, why would you spend time with what has to be the most traditional, uninspiring, predictable show on NETWORK TV? Short answer: it's funny. Yes, it's a very cliched premise: a bunch of diverse people work at a Wal-mart stand-in; chaos ensues. It's a traditional workplace comedy - the show is about the characters and their interactions more than it's about any actual thing. The lives of the characters outside the store occasionally enter the story-line, but only as out-of-place intruders that must be dealt with.

I'm not going to make this post about how Superstore has some deeper meaning and overarching lesson for today's society. It is everything you feared it would be - it's typical; it's traditional; it's a set-up you've seen a hundred times before. One difference, though: it's funny. Really funny. The writing is clever and they make sure to pack every episode with two or three interstitial three second scenes where something funny, yet also believable happens in the store with none of the main characters involved. It's inventive within a very rigid box and I appreciate the creativity. It's also super well written (did I mention that?). The jokes are funny. I chuckle A LOT - which is saying something.

All of that to say, one of the best performances (as one might expect) is Kids in the Hall and SNL alum Mark McKinney, who plays Glenn, the store manager. His character is a take off on conservative Christians, with a little mormon love thrown in there. It would be easy for the performance to be hackey; a boss used for mockery and as a comic foil is pretty typical of these typical network shows. Glenn, though, has heart. He's a real person who doesn't at all fit a stereotype (even as the show tends to play into and then subvert typical sit-com stereotypes - dammit, I did end up making the case that there's more to this show than appears on the surface - honestly that was not my intention; I promise).

What I like about Glenn is how comfortable he is to me. I realized this morning that Glenn is like the evangelical Christians I knew growing up, before they were co-opted by the Republican party. He's religiously devout and morally ultra-conservative (in one episode he buys all the store's "morning after" pills to keep them from being used, but then has to sell them from a card table at the front of the store when he realizes how expensive they are and can't return them), but he's not hardened or ideological. Glenn loves people. All people, in every situation, and he repeatedly works to compromise between his deeply-felt convictions and his love for other people.

This is the environment in which I grew up. We were political, only in so far as abortion was concerned. A one-issue community, for the most part. I'm sure people cared about tax policy and whatever else, but none of those things were tied up in their faith. Morality was important (and it is actually important), but in the context of loving and caring for people. I grew up in a worshiping congregation that routinely welcomed people who were left out in the larger world and loved them not only into community, but into a better story for their own lives. When I say routinely, I can think of a half dozen people in a second and probably three times that if I sat down intentionally.

I thought of Glenn this morning at random, but I realized he perfectly embodies that thing so many conservative Christians are known for these days: he is "love the sinner, hate the sin." The guy's got integrity and purpose - he has views that he's pretty up-front about, but never in the context of condemnation. He doesn't disprove of some mistake or choice a friend has made in the moment - he just think the best of everyone and tries to help.

Yeah, it's just a sit-com. It's not a life lesson. But certainly the things we watch shape us in some way - that's why we like deep story and creativity. Superstore is really none of those things, but it does speak deeply to how people who are profoundly different can also be united in common cause. There's no big message there, but it's funny and comforting and well made.

That's all I wanted to say.

Tuesday, November 15, 2016

Policy over People

I've struggled to write this post. I've re-written it entirely at least three times. I even posted it once, very briefly and then took it down because it didn't quite say what I wanted to say. I'm not sure if it does now.

It's been a week since the election. The first day or two were terribly emotional - that's how people react, both positively and negatively. There's been a lot of negative. People aren't coming together the way the United States typically does in these times. I've spent a sizeable chunk of the last week talking with upset people, hurting people, angry people. What I have to say are my words and they are knowingly filtered through the reality that I am an educated, straight, white man. While I can't understand all of what many around me are going through, I do see what they are going through and feel the need to say something.

If you think it's the wrong thing or the wrong time or I'm the wrong person, I apologize; you are very likely correct.

With regards to this election, there are real two levels of upset that don't seem to be speaking to each other. People who held their noses and voted for Trump (those who did so happily and with glee can really stop reading; this is not for you) have often said, "he's not going to do the things he said he would," but that misses the point. That statement is one of policy and policy is not at the root of the anger and discontent.

Don't get me wrong, people who don't like Donald Trump's ideas are apoplectic. He wants to build a wall, perhaps limit who can enter the country in ways some find unconstitutional. He has a tax plan that benefits the rich over the poor and expands the deficit with some vain hope that the third time's the charm for disproven economic theory. People don't like his suggestions for the Supreme Court, for the Cabinet, for how to handle his own personal conflicts of interest.

But in the end, those are just policy decisions. It's not like he's the first politician to suggest any of them. He's not. Not even close. People are upset about that, the same way those on the losing side of any election rue the future their now-empowered opponent will bring about. If this were a typical election, "get over it" would be the call of the day - and it would be appropriate. In a Democracy, the people speak, even if a majority of them spoke in a different direction. The system is not fair, but it is universally unfair.

People might be upset about the things Trump said he would do (even if you believe he won't do them), but people are hurt by the things he said - about women, about minority groups, about the disabled: about people. Trump took aim at all sorts of people and even if he was singling out one woman or one disabled reporter or one particular group of immigrants, many, many, many people saw themselves in those abusive remarks.

People did not see Donald Trump as just some guy with policies they dislike (in fact, a surprising number of hurt people I've talked to this week don't much mind many of his policies), but as a guy who's a mean, abusive, cruel, sexist bully - not a person they can respect, even if they agree with his policies. Too many times I've heard someone say, "I can't believe my mom/brother/friend would choose the Supreme Court/abortion/taxes over me." For the hurting people out there, this election was not political, but personal (even beyond the ways proposed policies might personally impact people).

I understand that those people who voted for Trump did so largely for reasons of policy. Whether is was the Supreme Court or abortion or taxes or corruption, most of the Trump votes were votes for some policy that is more likely to happen with him than with Hillary Clinton. I think those angry friends and relatives out there understand those things, too (even if they disagree with you on them) But, as I said, this is not the issue. In the end, I don't really care what you think about any of these things; I might disagree with you on some of them, but they're not worth getting angry about or damaging friendships over.

What is more difficult to stomach, though, is that people I love and care about found these things, particular issues, policy, so important that it was worth overlooking the vile nature of Trump's words and actions - and, perhaps worse, his patent refusal to apologize for them. Even after the election his justified those words with his victory - as if any means of achieving a desired end are good if they succeed.

No ends, no matter how good, righteous, holy, or important, mean enough to justify the means, if the means are Donald Trump.

That's the quandary. That's the divide which people must now bridge if there is any chance in calming the storm or finding unity. It is NOT about what policy you might approve of that I don't - it's about the guy you voted for to get those policies enacted. As I said, I'm the educated, white male in this room - the outrage is only mine by proxy.* I don't have the deep seated personal hurt that so many women and people of color feel right now.

To me this great pain is a sad illustration of what I've been saying and writing all along - we take this process far too seriously. It's not that elections and governments can't be avenues for us to live well in the world and take care of each other, but they MUST NOT become the only way by which we see paths to do this. Real relationships are in jeopardy - both because some people overlooked serious moral and ethical deficiencies in the name of progress, but also because some people have put such (false) hope and faith in the goodness of this nation that their worth was wrapped up in election results.

That is not to say people shouldn't be mad or hurt, that relationships shouldn't be strained by this election, but that we must be committed to working through them with honesty and humility.

There is an argument that Hillary Clinton is no paragon of virtue - and that may be true - but I don't see people upset that someone didn't vote for Clinton, simply that people did vote for Trump. Whether those votes were in spite of his nasty rhetoric, they enabled it and piled hurt upon the people hurt by it. God may have no hierarchy of sins, but the consequences of such are simply not the same. Lying and corruption are not the same as misogyny and assault - they're just not. They have a different bearing on our relationships with each other.**

Another response is that Clinton's policies would be so corrupt and morally bankrupt that she had to be stopped at all cost. That argument is one of policy and while it might be a good one on its own merits, it skirts the real issue of hurt and harm - because we've seen what "at all cost" actually costs. It costs the emboldening of the alt-right and their white supremacist brethren. It costs fear and abuse for women and minorities across the country. While we can be unified in our opposition to such results (and, as I've said, Trump voters especially need to be more vocal and more frequent denouncers of such things), there is hard work to overcome the very real (if unintended) support a Trump vote gave to these people. "At any cost" has a face and it's a familiar one to many of us: wives, mothers, daughters, friends.

That hurt is real and it's not going away.

It's perfectly acceptable to say "wait and see" or "give him a chance" when it comes to policy. That's the rhetoric we're hearing from all sides and, honestly, I think most of your friends and family who are upset can come around to that idea. The policy stuff hurts, but it'll pass. But those hatemongers showed up within minutes of the election - emboldened by the words of our President-elect (not to mention his subsequent appointment of one of their champions to his White House staff). Donald Trump may say, "stop hurting people," but he's yet to denounce the views represented in these hateful crimes, the same views he espoused on the campaign trail and refused numerous opportunities to take back.

I get that people can't be entirely divorced from policy, 1) because policy is intrinsically linked to words and attitudes, and 2) because people really believe in the ultimate value of the policies they support. I do make the distinction, though, because we must understand each other if there is any hope of peace and reconciliation.

If there's anyway forward we must be able to listen to each other - to hear why some policy was worth electing Trump and to hear why no policy could ever be worth it. As much as we don't like it, we should probably also admit how easily we could be on the other side of this divide, how utterly simple it is to overlook personal failings for what we believe to be a greater good, and how easy it is to demonize someone for it.

That doesn't remove responsibility, though. Its not that your friends and neighbors think you're a racist or a sexist, but people felt personally attacked and when the people they loved had the opportunity to defend them with their votes, they didn't; they chose policy over people. There are consequences to our actions that cannot be covered up with good intentions. When we've hurt people we love, we cannot minimize those feelings. We can't say, "I didn't mean to" or "I meant something different," because even if those things are true, the hurt still happened and it has to be acknowledged in order to heal. I suspect the President-elect will be learning that lesson along with his supporters in the weeks and months to come.

I hope the cost of this victory is not too much for our society and our relationships to bear.

*I'm disappointed in this election for sure - and I resonate with many of the things I outline here, but I'm not surprised by this election. I'm saddened that my tribe, evangelical Christians turned out with a record percentage for Donald Trump, but I've spent my adult life dealing with theology and studying scripture. It's no surprise that the people of God choose power over patience; it's always been that way. What breaks my heart are the people, many of whom I love, for whom this reality is just now dawning. This post is not about me, but I feel I have to say something.

**And if you need proof: ask yourself if you feel towards your Clinton-supporting friends the way they feel towards you. It's not just a personal failing that correlates perfectly with voting record or results. Both sides of the comparison may be rotten, and they may be equally bad when it comes to policy, but with regards to people, it's rotten apples vs rotten oranges.

Thursday, November 10, 2016

A Way Forward?

Paul Harvey told a Christmas story once on his radio program. My father uses it quite often in his Christmas Eve services; I've read it for him at least once. It's called "The Man and the Birds." The basic gist of the story is that a man stays home from Christmas Eve service because he just can't bring himself to believe in the incarnation - that God actually became human. While at home, a storm kicks up and he notices a flock of birds lost and weary in his front yard. The man has compassion on them and tries mightily to shoo them into the warm barn. Exasperated, the man wishes he could become a bird to lead the flock to safety - and the realization ignites within him this spark of faith.

I've been thinking about that story this morning, because I resonate with the desperation of the man. I'm not sure how to say this without coming off holier than thou (anyone who's read my twitter feed in the last 24 hours knows that's certainly not true), but part of claiming the title "evangelical" means one cares an awful lot about proclaimed truth. Instead of trying to herd a flock of birds into a barn, picture a man trying to guide trapped birds out of the barn to safety and freedom.

I believe with all my heart that the Kingdom of God is bigger, bolder, freer, more beautiful, and more expansive than any candidate, country, or campaign. I believe the good news of Jesus is that we don't have to get caught up in the machinations of power, choosing between flawed rulers and making due the best we can. When we're caught in this system is feels like birds bouncing back and forth between the walls of a barn they think encompasses the whole world, but is really a cage. Whatever floundering I do, waving my proverbial hands with exasperated one-liners, sub-par attempts at critique and satire, or wildly irresponsible mock presidential campaigns, is a desperate attempt to get the attention of my people who seem lost and unaware of it.

I know it makes me extreme and radical, but I do truly believe we shouldn't vote - not as Christians and at least not for President. As much as we try to hem and hedge and make excuses (and I'm just as guilty as anyone, see aforementioned twitter feed) our participation in that system is idolatry. It is a statement that the Kingdom of God is not enough for us, we must also have the kingdoms of this world.

When Dietrich Bonheoffer joined the plot to kill Adolf Hitler, he wrote, essentially, that he believed his actions were sinful and that they might earn him an eternity in hell, yet he willingly committed them anyway because he could stomach no other option. I try to take this perspective to heart when dealing with difficult issues (especially the taking of life), recognizing that we do not always possess the "right" solution in every instance. Similarly I recognize my tendency to do nothing over an imperfect something has not and does not always prove beneficial to me, my faith, or those around me.

At the same time, it feels as though Bonhoeffer's position is the only one that makes sense for Christian voters. If you're there, I might disagree, but I can understand. I just think we shouldn't be voting if we can, at all, help ourselves. There's nothing good in our preoccupation with power. It's dirty and messy and wreaks of lack of faith. We can't play pretend, saying we believe in a Kingdom ushered in by the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ, then invest ourselves and our future in kingdoms that operate on an entirely different foundation.

I've written this before, but I know it gets trickier on a local level - since we have to get along with our neighbors. If there weren't a town council, we'd have to invent one, right? Or maybe we really could just live sacrificially for the good of the other? Maybe I'm just as trapped in the barn as everyone else, none of us really believing the door exists, or, if we do, not really believing we can ever find it.

I don't mean not voting for one person or another, but exempting ourselves from the conversation of us vs them (or even them vs them, with some obligation to choose sides). There is just us. As much as we'd like to say we can be loyal to our first allegiance and also take sides as Republicans or Democrats, we're fooling ourselves. Those identities in some way hinder us from being who we were created to be. The same is true for our identities as American or Arabian, Ugandan or Dutch. They seem convenient, but they just get in the way. Paul said neither Jew nor Greek, slave nor free, male nor female (boy, is it hard to let go of that one!), and I'm even starting to wonder if even our identity as "Christians" gets in the way of our identity in Christ.

I don't think I've handled myself well in this flailing attempt to point our attention towards the door. I sure hope I've not come off as demonizing "them" who might think differently than me. My genuine desire is to caution "us" about the dangers we have embarked upon - and they are quite likely the exact same dangers we'd've encountered if 80% of us had voted the other direction.

I think it's an emotional over-reaction to say last night's vote was similar to the ancient Church's embrace of Constantine, but that's how it feels. In the US, people who most overtly name themselves the people of God have sided with amoral people in an amoral system we are desperate to sanctify. No, I don't think the other outcome would have produced a different result. Hence my reluctant call to give up voting.

I recognize the great sacrifices that have been paid to secure voting rights for people - and I admonish us to continue that work. Every person deserves the right to voice their opinion through the ballot box, but, as people following in the wake of Christ Jesus, I suggest we give up those rights in favor of living out an alternative.

That same Bonhoeffer proposed the idea of religionless Christianity, but died before he could flesh out his vision. I believe the most promising path forward, for the Church and for the world, is to explore together what that means: namely a life free of dogma and power and being "right;" a life of love in imitation of Christ, trying, as hard as the Holy Spirit will empower us, to avoid sacrificing our vision of the Kingdom to the kingdoms of the world.

I can't say I've done this well in recent days. Certainly many of you have felt less than loved. I don't know what to say. I'm sorry. I'll try to be better. But I have to keep trying. Somehow, we've got to get out of the barn.

Tuesday, November 08, 2016

There Are More Important Things

This is a very unique election day - mostly because I'm running for President. I am on the ballot in Colorado and available as a write-in candidate in a dozen or so other states. I did this partly as a joke (outlined here), but largely because we take this whole process way too seriously and I thought this "campaign" might highlight that. I made silly videos and t-shirts and I'm really getting votes in more than a handful of states.

More than that, though, I seem to be a safe place for people who don't want to vote for a candidate they dislike, people who don't want to hold their nose and vote just to vote. I enjoy providing that option, but there's a larger message, too. People feel really obligated to vote. We've got people out there encouraging others to vote with words like "its the most important thing you can do today," or "its the responsible thing to do," or even "it's your civic duty." I get those are all in line with the public narrative of an election, but I don't think they're true.

The most important thing you can do today is love your neighbor, or, even better, love your enemy. The way we treat the people we interact with everyday has far more importance and a longer-lasting impact than any vote we could ever cast. Our government was specifically set up for the President to have as little real power as possible. Even in this day and age where the executive branch has more power than ever before, it's not much. Yes, a President can make life a little easier or a little more difficult for people - and voting for one or the other certainly makes sense.

Please, don't take it so seriously. I mean it. This is not the end of the world. In fact, the end of the world may only come when people put their faith in countries and governments to mediate our daily lives. The big lie of history is that power equals security; we are safe when we're in charge. It sure sounds and feels that way when you're scared, but the drive for power just leads to paranoia and the fear you don't have enough.

We live in a world with plenty. Everyone is valuable and there is enough to go around. I've dedicated my life to living into this truth and acting in ways that communicate it to other people. Fear and power and coercion are no way to live. There is always another option. Always. That's why I've tried to create on on the ballot, and I hope to always be a voice for another way in life and in my relationships with friends and neighbors.

Our culture drives us to imbue everything with as much meaning as possible. It's only true if you're trying to win ratings. The most important choices you make are usually the most ordinary. Do you let that guy merge in traffic? Do you bake cookies for the noisy neighbors rather than calling the cops? Do you spend an extra half hour in the midst of a busy day reading to a child or talking to your spouse?

Nothing that happens at the ballot box or in Washington DC could ever rival any of those choices. Even if your worst electoral fears are realized, those everyday decisions will still be more important.

I'm not saying "don't vote." People worked long and hard, sacrificed and sometimes died to provide the privilege. Most people in the world get no say in how their country works. We should use that opportunity as much as it seems valuable to us. But we shouldn't feel obligated. I left more than half the lines on my ballot blank today; there just weren't candidates I was comfortable voting for and there are more important things in this world.

I'm headed to Election Day Communion tonight at 6:30, where we'll gather around the table of God, a place where equality and abundance are joyfully proclaimed for all people, and I'll be reminded, both with words and actions, that there are indeed far more important things in the world.

No one will care about this election in 100 years (do you even know what party James Garfield represented?), what will matter is the kind of community we fostered with our lives and our love. I don't want elections and governments and nations to define that world. I believe there are much more important things.

Tuesday, November 01, 2016

Nothing is Worth That

You should know by now, I'm not on any "team" when it comes to elections. I encourage you to vote for me, where you can. I'm even fine if you don't vote. What I would like you to do is not vote for someone in order to register a vote against someone else. That's not cool.

What's more, it's not ethical, especially for Christians. That's who I hear talking the most about this. I've tried, over the last few months, to figure out exactly what Hillary Clinton did in the '90s to raise the absolute ire of the evangelical right. I know she did something, because I grew up with the impression she was one of the worst people on Earth. I couldn't, though, even at this point, figure out why. I've heard her called a liar a lot, but I haven't found evidence of egregious falsehoods - at least not any more than the typical politician making empty promises kind of way.

Anyway, I'm not here to defend her, just explain that lots of conservative Christians hate her with an inscrutable passion. This is what leads so many to tacitly support Donald Trump this time around. What I hear most often is the old Roe v Wade argument - "we need a republican President to save the Supreme Court." It's a pretty universal reason for Christians to vote GOP.

These Christians need a reason, because the guy is almost universally recognized as unconscionable. He's crass, selfish, mean, and immoral.* I might say he's more amoral, because I'm not sure Donald Trump possesses the typical human ability to differentiate between right and wrong. People don't like the guy; Christians can't excuse or defend him - and points for actually admitting it (for the most part).

It's the power game, though, that's troubling to me. The argument becomes one of power, particularly the Supreme Court and the underlying message of abortion - the single greatest motivating factor for conservative evangelicals. It is the only issue for so much of this particular part of the electorate - and it's giving Trump some life in this election. It's pretty much the only thing. Without that fear, I'm guessing the electorate might look a little more like Utah - with the religious vote largely going to someone with a very slim chance of winning.

I don't much care who someone votes for in this election. Someone will win and someone will lose. Life will get easier for some people and more difficult for others. Life will go on and things will, on the whole, change very little - even if there are some very noticeable differences that make for good headlines. I do care, however, why people are voting.

To be consistent, at least ethically, Christians really can't use this Supreme Court excuse to vote for Trump. If you genuinely like the guy or his policies, please say that. If you just simply don't trust Hillary Clinton and are terrified of her winning, say it. Don't - please, please please don't - say you're voting for Trump to save the Supreme Court.*

What you're saying there is that the ends justify the means and I know I've written the ethical, theological, and real life problems with that idea into the ground. I searched for "ends means" in my blog directory and found a full 15% of my posts at least mention them both. That justification is bad. It's terrible. We can't justify our means by the ends - that is the very antithesis of the life and teaching of Jesus. The whole point of Christian life is to make the good, right, ethical, and loving choice now, regardless of the consequences. We believe in a world without end and thus the ends are decidedly irrelevant.

I believe some important guy once said something about gaining the whole world while losing your soul.

I suspect the religious right in the US has already lost its collective soul by reckless pursuit of power - that's probably a decades old occurrence at this point. It doesn't have to be the future, though. This is why I so strongly oppose the idea that we have some moral or theological obligation to vote. That's a trap set by the powers that be, attempting to force people to choose the lesser of two evils - to put the ends before the means. You don't have to do it. There is more to the world than elections and government and courts and laws. Life is about relationship, specifically the relationships you have with your coworkers, friends, and neighbors - the people you see every day.

There is nothing - no court case, no law, no election, no cause - that is worth the sacrifice of principles, conscience, ethics, or soul. We can't; we cannot allow the means to justify the ends for us who follow Christ or we have been converted away from the gospel we long to live out.

Vote or don't. Don't feel obligated. If you like one candidate or another, please, by all means, vote for them. If you like neither, vote for someone else. If you're in Colorado, you can just fill in the bubble next to my name. If you're in a dozen other states, you can write me in and it will count. I promise, I won't win. I'd probably be a terrible President anyway - but if I were, I guarantee it won't be because I put the ends above the means.

Please, you don't do that, either. The faith we profess is bigger, better, stronger, and more powerful than anything we might win by betraying it.

*Please understand that these arguments equally apply to people pinching their nose and voting for Clinton because they can't stand the idea of President Trump - I just don't know many people in that situation. It's largely my Christian friends using Christian excuses to violate what I see as a core part of the gospel message. If there's a choice between Clinton and Trump, I'd rather have Clinton, but there's never just an either/or choice - there is always another option - that's part of the Good News of Jesus, too.

Thursday, October 27, 2016

Objectivity is Overrated

I ran across this story on NPR today. Essentially, Adam Crapser was adopted from Korea at age 3, by abusive parents, who never filed his citizenship paperwork and then abandoned him to the foster care system, where he continued to be abused until he was 18. After some struggles, which included jail time for theft and assault, he got his life together, got married, has kids... and is now being deported. The article doesn't say for sure, but based on that life story, I'm guessing this guy doesn't even speak Korean, but he'll be living there soon.

Yes, this is the result of laws that deport felons and other violent immigrants without legal status. Those are generally good laws. In this case, a judge had the opportunity to grant a reprieve and found Crapser's story unworthy of such. We all know it behooves reporters to write one-sided pieces and perhaps this guy isn't a model non-citizen. It's tough to be too harsh on the judge when I wrote just last week about the difficulty of making "good" decisions in the midst of a messed up world.

At the same time, I have to wonder if the language we've come to use with regards to undocumented immigrants, even the words we've come to associate people who break the law, aren't prejudicing those entrusted with carrying out those laws, or even the rest of us who form opinions about these things? That cuts both ways. We want some subjectivity in matter like this. A man who's lack of citizenship is not really his own fault is falling prey to laws designed to rid the country of murderers and otherwise violent people. Whether we like subjectivity or not, the law says once violent, always violent. Criminals generally pay for their crimes long after official punishment has ended.

Although, it's this very subjectivity that makes room for dangerous bias* - both being unreasonably lenient and unreasonably tough. Subjectivity leads to discrimination and our society is, despite the calls against political correctness, terrified of discrimination perhaps more than any other domestic issue. We want to be fair.

We want to be fair, so we turn to objectivity. Do everything the same. Treat people the same, no matter what. This is what every corporate lawyer will tell you. Masters degrees in Human Resources are built on this principle. If someone can prove you treated them differently, they can often win, or at least scare you into a settlement.

I live with a teacher - that profession is increasingly obsessed with objectivity, creating automaton teachers who can regurgitate focus-grouped lessons and provide every kid in every class an identical educational experience. The assembly line plan works really well in some areas. Interchangeable parts have kept costs down and expanded innovation all over manufacturing. Of course, people are people, not things.

Outside of all the life and death talk surrounding the notion of "pro-life," it seems the most pro-life thing to do might be to work for a society in which every person can be treated not the same, but as an individual. A teacher should be doing what's best for each student, not the same thing for each student. No one wants a doctor who treats every illness exactly the same, right?

That's the rub, we don't like objectivity when it applies to us, but we're generally in favor of it when we're talking in general terms. We're down with a constitution that proclaims equal treatment for all, but we'd sure like other factors considered if we were in Adam Crapser's position. That's precisely what happens in education when a child is identified as having special needs - the get an individual plan of action, protected by law, to address their specific needs. I'm all for this kind of care and concern, but it sure feels like the kind of thing every child deserves, right?

That's just it, though, right? It's not really that people are opposed to subjectivity, it's that subjectivity in impractical in a nation of our size. The cost and manpower required to address individual instruction to every child would be near impossible, not to mention the complex logistics to actually make it work. The same goes for the law - yeah, it would be great to consider each individual person, their alleged crimes, and the impact of these actions on themselves and others within the context of their own lives, but who's got the time?

What we've tried to do is set up a system that does both. We have judges appointed to, well, judge. They try to make gracious and earnest decisions about individuals in front of them, but we've also got laws that set parameters for their power (for good or for ill). We're constantly arguing over this system, changing it. We're riding the pendulum of subjectivity and objectivity.

It feels like, at least in this moment, the pendulum is way too far on the objective side. I think there're a lot of good reasons for that, but there are also a lot of difficult results. We could look into this particular case a bit, if we find Adam Crasper deserving, we could work to have the crimes pardoned that are keeping him from getting a Green Card. That's a subjective solution to an objective problem, but there's probably dozens, if not hundreds, of other people in the same boat. This is also where we get all these overly specific, convoluted laws - people trying to ran subjectivity into an objective system.

In the end, we control how we interact with the people around us. Our systems and structures may not be perfect, even as we strive to perfect them, but we, ourselves, can be committed to treating people as people, individuals rather than interchangeable cogs in the machine.

*We should not, though, that subjectivity does not cause bias or discrimination, it merely provides a convenient excuse. We have to guard against throwing out something good, because of how it's being used for evil.

Tuesday, October 25, 2016

Assertive Privilege

I think we've all had moments where we desired for recognition. I want the teacher to put my art work on the wall. I want to be on that committee. I want to be considered for that award. Obviously we shouldn't understand our worth based on external recognition, but at times its helpful to place ourselves in the social hierarchy, to not get too big a head (or to further inflate the one we've already got).

I think we're more aware these days of privilege - the notion that straight, white men are more likely to end up getting chosen or recognized or empowered when these choices are made. It's part of the reason why CEO's and politicians and Nobel Prize winners are primarily part of these groups. This kind of self-reflection is often part of the equation when we engage in such decisions - do I belong on this panel? Do I really deserve this recognition? Is there some voice or perspective we're going to miss if I serve here?

It's wonderful progress, even if it is hard, sometimes, to answer those questions in the right way. We do still, generally, want recognition. Sometimes we even deserve it. But the question of who's most deserving or the "right" choice is real difficult to parse. You've got two parties responsible for parsing things out - are the people in charge considering the effects of privilege in the same way I am?

What often trips me up, though, is the second, more often hidden layer of privilege. It's not just that being a straight, white male gives me a leg up; culture and society also teach me to ask without guilt when I think I deserve recognition. If I've gone through all the appropriate mental gymnastics and conclude this is something I should and want to do, I'm far more prone to ask or volunteer than someone who doesn't enjoy my privilege.

I wonder how often we miss out on great contributions because there's a societal expectation for certain people to pursue opportunities and others to be invited. Now this is a little easier for me, since I tend to have a pretty low evaluation of myself and avoid putting myself out there to avoid rejection, but even if I believe that I am the best person for a position - after considering those in marginalized, hidden, or overlooked groups - it's become a discipline (one I don't think I exercise very well) to sit back and, if its going to happen, let opportunities come to me.

Men, particularly educated, white men, are taught to sell themselves. I'm not sure that's a natural inclination, at least not for me. If it's an evolutionary, survival-of-the-fittest quality, I might be in trouble. I think it's far more likely assertiveness is learned, or at the very least, cultivated sporadically. Those with the most privilege are also those who've most been taught to sell themselves. The people who could most benefit from assertiveness are those who are more likely to have it trained or punished or intimidated out of them over time.

I'm not really sure what the point of this post is, other than to highlight something I've been particular noticing recently. For those of us used to this system, it feels so natural it's often hard to notice. It would be very good if we did, though. We need to recognize the ways in which our mores and patterns have been created the benefit some more than others. It behooves us to actively change the way things work rather than expect people primed for an underprivileged place in the system to adapt.

Just because things are the way they are, doesn't mean they always have to be.

Thursday, October 20, 2016

Loving the Unlovable

We've got two really disturbing stories in the news this week that bring some real difficulty when thinking about them theologically. There is this man in Montana who, three times, raped his own teenage daughter and was given a suspended sentence, which will result in just a couple months in jail, provided he completes serious counseling and other treatment plans (and has no solo contact with minors, pretty much ever again). The judge in that case is getting a lot of flack, including a potential impeachment/recall, but he also sites the insistence of the girl's family that having the head of their household gone for, potentially, forever, would be a real detriment to the family, especially the man's young sons.

We've also got a police report out, which details journals and documents from the counseling sessions of NFL kicker, Josh Brown, who admitted to abusing his wife in many ways and on multiple occasions. There was a police incident over the summer that lead to a suspension, but these details show both a lengthy, serious pattern of abuse, but also an equally lengthy, involved process of counseling and recovery.

Our general society like revenge. We say, "do something awful, pay for it forever." That's generally our attitude in public and it's the way most of our laws are written. It's not hard to say, "You rape your own daughter, you're lucky to get to live." Although "life" for a child rapist in prison is probably not preferable to death, but then again, people are often ok with that - whatever punishment we can get for people like that. Spousal abuse used to be something we brushed aside as "private," but lately (and sadly) largely due to the spotlight of the NFL, those attitudes are changing - and perhaps to make up for all those years of neglect, the vitriol with which we approach those situations is as intense as just about any other crime someone could commit - and with good reason; it's pretty sickening.

What we seem to miss in all of this, and what makes it so difficult to really parse, is that despite the inhumane things these men did and the dehumanizing our system of laws, courts, and punishment does to those who commit them, these people are, in fact, still human beings.

I've written before that we take such extreme responses largely to separate ourselves as people from other people who do terrible things. We don't want to think of child rapists or murderers or domestic abusers as humans, because we are humans and it forces us to face the reality that we are capable of entirely inhuman things. Given a specific set of circumstances, that could be us. It's terrifying.

We rightly run from it.

Although I'd argue that people who embrace that notion - that we are all capable of tremendous evil, are the ones most likely to find the kind of health and peace necessary to avoid such evil. Hate is powerful, but it rarely plays out to our benefit. We tend to become that which we hate. In dehumanizing, we become like those we dehumanize. That's a lot of historical precedent for this.

I read, last week, the memoir of Bryan Cranston, who played Hal on Malcolm in the Middle and Walter White on Breaking Bad. He talked about an incident early in his adult life, where he became so afraid of and angry at an ex-girlfriend-turned-stalker that he believed himself capable of killing her, even had a lucid dream of doing the deed so real he believed, for a time, that he'd done it. The rest of the book (which is very good, by the way) illustrates, though, how the realization of that moment, those feelings, his actions, led to a really healthy process of growth and development that shaped his life in profound ways, building a solid foundation that helped prevent many of the mistakes he seemed bound for in his early years.

If we're going to see terrible people as human beings, we have to treat them humanely. Providing counseling and rehabilitation - programs for healing, growth, and recovery make a lot more sense than archiving evil in prisons and jails, ignoring mental illness, or labeling people as hopeless. Is Josh Brown going to be punished because he sought help? Will we eliminate any possible good this Montana rapist might ever do in his life, because of the atrocities he's committed? That's the Bill Cosby question, right?

If you're like me, it leaves you totally confused. I like black and white. Even in difficult issues, I tend to work until I find a path through the weeds - it might not be perfect; it might even need to be altered a time or two, but it's something, a decision. It doesn't work that way here.

A man raped his own daughter, three times! Certainly he should never, ever, ever have contact with her ever again; his name should never be uttered in her presence, unless she initiates it. I believe she earned that kind of respect and protection by what she's suffered. And Josh Brown is not the kind of person anyone would want to employ - and his bosses should have every right to fire him and no one should feel sorry about it.

At the same time, I believe in redemption. I really do. My faith is built on the idea that love changes people - not often quickly or completely, but I've formed my life around the idea that no one should be written off. It creates a real problem - the old punishment vs consequences problem - which is easy to solve in the abstract, but darn near impossible to even fathom in the reality of people's lives.

How do we separate our need for revenge and dehumanization, for distance and escape, from the very real responsibility we have as a society to ensure people don't escape the consequences of their actions. We long to shelter and shield innocent others from the consequences of the guilty, but it's rarely that simple. The pain we inflict on one person necessarily radiates to others - many others - for whom it was never intended.

That is the reality of life.

I'm not going to take a "position" on either of these two issues I brought up - other than to say I think we'd all be wise to consider every perspective with care and genuine concern. I don't think this judge is just trying to let a rapist off; I don't think it's necessarily undue compassion (the way it probably was for that Stanford athlete) - at the same time, it's real hard for me to call what the judge did "right." It's courageous and it flies in the face of what society expects.

Of course, as in any public event, there are a lot of details we don't know that are pretty core to making a learned opinion. And as much as these travesties compel us to speak, act, and react, we can never be in the position of those actually involved. We will never understand or fully appreciate the context. I'd just like for us to consider what our reactions say about what is important to us. I'd like to suggest that perhaps we expand that definition of "important" influences beyond those emotions which immediately spring to mind.

Life is difficult. Life is complex. Life is messy. But, man, is life worth it.

Tuesday, October 18, 2016

Our Place in this World

I was reading TIME magazine today - it's an issue focused on actual policies that our politicians might talk about, if they ever talked about actual issues. In the environment section I ran across an interesting, albeit common, idea. "As a scientist, I am responsible first to humanity." I heard a similar sentiment a few months back, from the head of Zoo Miami, commenting on the killing of Harambe the gorilla. He said, essentially, "humanity comes first."

He actually said something like, "If the last endangered white rhino stood between me and the lives of my wife and kids, of course I'd kill it," which is a little over-dramatic for the point he was making - which is that human life comes before animal life. I suppose, in individual situations I don't disagree - I mean, if the gorilla had really hurt or killed that kid, they'd've had to put it down anyway.

I'm not so sure the sentiment hold true for me as a guiding principle, though - at least as it appeared in the TIME article.* I reject the notion that humanity is the primary concern of the world. Theologically it's all wrong - God created humans to care and tend to the Earth. Yes, one might say that the Earth can't be cared for or tended if it's caretakers are extinct, but this idea seems an extreme argument and, ultimately, someone else's problem. If God creates a universe, puts us in it specifically to care for that world, calls us to live sacrificially in service of creation, then also allows us to do so to our own extinction, that's either poor planning or part of the plan all along.

I tend to think our science and theology pushes us to see humanity as something different than what's been before. Humans are really the only creatures capable of analyzing our own instincts and rejecting our natural inclinations. We're capable not just of making choices, but analyzing those choices, even before they're made. I'd say we're different enough to really affect the whole of creation, either positively or negatively.

Of course, as the "pinnacle of creation" (or evolution) it makes a lot of sense for us to think this way - and we'll probably continue to think this way right up until some other, more evolutionarily advanced creation takes our place and makes us irrelevant (and if you scoff at that, ask your friendly, neighborhood neanderthal what they think... oh, right).

Now I'm not going to argue that we're NOT responsible for humanity - after all we're a big part of this world in which we live - but I would argue that we're more responsible for making the whole work well than we are for maintaining any part within it. Creation is a system - one Christians especially believe humans play an integral part in maintaining - it should be understood and approached that way.

This is sort of what I was saying the other day: are we merely a collection of individuals, or are we individuals who've submitted ourselves to the whole? It sounds like simple talk, but it makes a real difference in how we view our purpose in the world.

Yes, if the world's last remaining white rhino somehow stood between me and my family's life, I'd probably kill it. I hope not, but let's be honest (although I have no real clue as to how one might go about killing a white rhino, especially in an emergency - I don't usually carry around high powered hunting rifles and somehow I don't think my bare hands are going to cut it - or a knife; I'm not sure a knife would cut it -rhinos have very thick skin). Would it be the right thing to do? I doubt it.

Like any issue of life, the question, though, isn't about one moment, it's about setting up a system that addresses the issue well beyond any individual moment. So, as an example, we could say sacrificing acres of rainforest is worth it if lives are saved - some would even argue that faith in science and progress leads them to believe we'll figure out solutions down the road. I'd prefer to figure out the best solution now.

Yeah, I'd rather sacrifice my own life over someone else's - at least then I'd get a choice - but I think the idea of sacrificing our lives for something more noble than just an individual life is pretty important to the way the world works. I believe in non-violence, but making a stand for non-violence usually means suffering violence - often for quite a while - before the message takes effect.

I'm not sure the big issues of environmental stewardship are really life or death for too many of us just yet, but they do call for sacrifice, for giving up pleasures or conveniences or things we might've otherwise considered needs, to create a world that's ordered and sustainable for all.

There's nothing wrong with making humans a big part of our sacrificial environmental actions, but we need to make sure we've got a more generous end in mind.

*It was called "Engineered food holds our future" by Hope Jahren, but it doesn't appear to be online anywhere yet.

Thursday, October 13, 2016

Outlaw Christian by Jacqueline A Bussie

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.

In many ways, Outlaw Christian is part of a recent trend - mainstream Christian books emphasizing the importance of doubt to faith. Don't get me wrong - this is a wonderful development, certainly better than the alternative. At the same time I'm a little skeptical when a challenging position becomes mainstream, almost as if the system is embracing the danger in order to denude it. I don't believe this is the author's purpose. Her writing is deeply personal and heartfelt; she is genuinely interested in sharing "good news" with people who might otherwise have given up on faith. At the same time, I'm not sure if the publisher has the same pure motives.

There are really two halves to Outlaw Christian - almost as if there are two books in one. The first half is very wordy, in many ways. There is a lot of explaining - about anger and doubt and theology and scripture and the ways in which Christian culture has tended to rob life of its complexity and joy. It's honest and I agree with it, but it sounds an awful lot like every other book about doubt and faith. This first half gives the impression of fighting a battle between co-option and co-operation in naming the relational sins of this culture and presenting alternatives. It's also wordy in that there are too many words. The writing is dense, a bit awkward, and repetitive; it was hard to find motivation to keep reading.

When you get about halfway through, though, it's a joyful ride to the finish. The second half of the book is less formulaic and more built around narrative. Bussie tells stories - her own, those of her students, and those of people around the world. The second half personalizing the more esoteric conversations of the first half into powerful examples of the kind of "outlaw" life she wants for those who need it. It is powerful, emotional, and vulnerable in ways that signify her authenticity and connection to the material.

I struggle with how to rate this book or even how to recommend it. I really did not like the first half - even though I agreed with most of what she presented and find it important information for Christians (and anyone else) in the world, it was boring and impersonal. It wasn't fun to read. The second half, though, was brilliant, poignant, and important in a whole different kind of way.

Maybe that's the point of a review, then - to present the whole picture and let the reader make up their mind. Do with this what you will (but if you start on chapter 5, I doubt you'll have any complaints).

Disclosure of Material Connection: I received this book free from the publisher through the® 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.”

Monday, October 10, 2016

Locker Room Talk

Donald Trump was caught saying some really outrageous, disgusting things ten years ago. Most telling, though, is his response. Time and again, even when given 48 hours to prepare to comment on them at the debate, he answered with "it was locker room talk." Essentially, he's saying "this kind of things is, of course, embarrassing and unseemly in public, but it's how people talk in private."

There are a lot of people who would never dream of saying something like that, and I think those people are justifiably expressing outrage. Let's be honest, though, a lot of people do talk, or at least passively participate in such talk. Maybe it doesn't rise to the graphic (and potentially criminal) level we heard in that video, but the objectification and sexualization of women is far too common in regular conversation. I have personally heard things from the mouths of people (people who were openly and vociferously opposed to Trump on social media this weekend) that troubled me in similar ways. I've usually said nothing, although I know my inconspicuously uncomfortable looks have betrayed my feelings more than a few times.

I certainly have plenty to apologize for. I can't say I've ever said something so crass as Trump did and, even wracking my brain, I can't remember any conversation I've ever heard where anyone said anything so shockingly vile in vocabulary, but I've certainly viewed people as objects. I don't know if I'm normal or profoundly sociopathic, but one of my greatest struggles is to value people as people and not as tools to be leveraged for my own selfish ends.

We live in a society that tells us to value people, especially women, but demonstrates the exact opposite. We teach our children not to judge on appearance and then spend the rest of our lives doing just that. There is a real disconnect between what we believe and what we'd like to believe. There is objective truth and there is painful reality.

One thing I haven't heard in all the clamor and denouncement is a collective mourning about just how correct Trump's statement was. "When you're a star, they let you do it." Shoot, they got off the bus and the first thing Billy Bush does is pressure that poor woman into hugging this creepy old guy - why? Because he's famous and she's supposed to be ok with it.

Now, I know many athletes have come out to refute that this kind of thing is even really "locker room talk," but this whole Derek Rose lawsuit proves that even if the rich and famous keep it out of their place of business (which I'm skeptical of to begin with); it is certainly a part of their lives.

I'm even willing to go so far as to believe that Trump was lying; that despite his colorful language, he hasn't actually done any of the things he says. Well, I don't believe it, but it's certainly possible - the guy has proven, over the course of a lifetime, that he's willing to say literally anything that will make himself look better in the moment. There's no reason to think he wouldn't lie so outrageously and offensively if he thought it might make him look cool.

The issue really isn't what he said or did; it's Trump's firm position that there is a place for this kind of talk. Man, even if he said it and was embarrassed about it, I might have some small measure of sympathy - but he's doubled down. He only feels bad that people found out, something he's admitted over and over again. "This is how people talk."

Enough has been said about all of this already, so I don't need to go into more detail. Excusing this behavior is worse than committing it. I firmly believe that. Even worse, that so many Christians were willing to put up with it just to win a political war. The very worst parts of Christianity are those birthed from an "ends justifies the means" mentality. It's so pervasive in US evangelicalism it might as well be synonymous.

As a Christian, I'm not even sure what those ends are anymore! Is it the belief that through enforcing a specific moral code, some internal switch will be triggered in people that will automatically make them intellectually assent to the basic tenets of Christ worship? That sentence doesn't even make sense to me... and I wrote it! Is there some placation of guilt if one can criminalize sin? Even if the Supreme Court were made up of James Dobson, Jerry Fallwell Jr, and Franklin Graham, what end, exactly, would that accomplish and how would it remotely relate to scripture?

I must admit, I am thoroughly confused.

But perhaps most difficult for me, is how we, as a country, respond to ideas we dislike. Be they racist or sexist, objectifying or consumeristic - we tend to make anathema the holding of an unpopular opinion. This is all fine and good until we are the ones with the unpopular opinion; then it suddenly seems tragic. The world has turned upside down and no longer makes sense.


Because we all hold the positions we hold because we think their right - or at least, as right as we can get at the moment. A person does not contend that black people are mentally inferior by virtue of their DNA simply to get a rise out of you. Well, I suppose some people do, but they are few and far between and almost always obvious. For the most part, people make statements like that because they really believe them. When we create a climate where saying that sort of thing gets one shouted down, at best, and physically threatened or assaulted, at worst, we do everyone a disservice.

When someone is smacked down for expressing an unpopular opinion it does not change their opinion, it simply tells them they shouldn't talk about it. Yes, I know there's an election involved here - and it's fine for us to reject a candidate for the positions they take, appropriate, even. And yes, people should express counter arguments and contrary opinions freely and with vigor.

At the same time, we have to be careful to do so with grace and humility. The purpose of challenging someone's opinion or idea should be to create dialogue, not shut it down. I know, most people don't change. That's very true. Unpopular opinions usually die out because the people who hold them die out. I get it.

That doesn't help the people who are still forming opinions, though. The kid who apes his father's objectification of women doesn't see rebuke as a reason to doubt his father, he sees it as evidence people don't want to hear the truth. It's an issue of authority. "My pastor said it," or "My political party said it," or "I read it in this book by an author I really like." We form our opinions in all sorts of ways, but it all comes down to those influences to which we ascribe authority in our lives.

Yes, Trump's kind of language may be popular in the locker room or the board room or the country club, but we must willing to have enough conversation to ask deeper questions. Why is this the language of those circles? Why are the customs and expressions of these people important to you? What might cause someone to be offended by that opinion? This is the kind of conversation that actually moves people to change.

If we don't, we're just ourselves engaging in this "means to and end" business. If my end is proving myself right and him wrong, then, yes, let's just shout down Trump, thrown him on the trash heap and be done. In that, though, we're objectifying him as the enemy. He's just an opponent to be consumed and discarded. We're defeating ourselves. There's no care or concern for my opponent as a human being.

Yeah, you might say, "that guy just isn't worth it," and I'd respond, "what influences have lead you to that opinion," and maybe, just maybe, we might have an enlightening, productive, and world-changing conversation.