Tuesday, December 05, 2017

Language and Privilege

I'm sure this happens more than I realize (I'm a well-educated, American, straight, white male after all), but two instances of racially charged language have cropped up in recent months that's gotten me thinking about how privilege applies to language.

The first was the leaked quote from Houston Texans owner, Bob McNair, during the NFL protest conversations. McNair said he didn't want "the inmates running the prison." Now, he says he was referring to the NFL office employees dictating policy and procedure to the owners - and, in light of all the detailed reporting by ESPN and others on those meetings, this was a huge bone of contention for the owners and I rightly believe him - however, in a room full of concerned black men, specifically protesting unfair treatment of the black community by police, the phrase itself carried incredible consequence.

The reality of the situation is that African-Americans, and black males in particular, are more likely to get arrested and convicted for actions than white people who do the same things. The sentences are longer and they're less likely to get parole. Skewed numbers exist for interactions with police as well. We've seen scientific proof that there's a cultural and societal bias against dark skin - even by those with dark skin. It's a race problem, but it's beyond even the differences between different groups of people. It's an all of us issue (and one that I've written about here as best I can).

For today, though, the point is that words matter. I can understand what McNair is trying to communicate. I've used that phrase a time or two as a synonym for getting the cart before the horse - to indicate that motivation and control are coming from the wrong places. I tend to say inmates running the asylum, but, honestly, that's just as insensitive. The reason, though, why I or Bob McNair or any other privileged white guy can see that phrase as innocuous is because it's not real for us. I know very few people who've been to prison and the possibility that I, myself, might end up on the wrong side of the law is just so incredibly improbable that it doesn't feel real.

That's just not true, for even the most well-bahved, law abiding man of color in the US. The numbers vary from 1 in 3 to 1 in 5, for the most part, but the odds of a black man in the US spending time in jail is astronomically high - and the stories of unfair or incorrect imprisonment are too common to be taken lightly.

My privilege allows me to use words as analogy that have real meaning to others who don't enjoy my privilege.

I was hoping McNair would use his incident to make a similar statement. Privilege is one of the most difficult concepts to talk about for those of us who have it. It's the most difficult thing to get across to people; it's at the root of the argument around the notion of "all lives matter." Honestly, the conversation around privilege is probably the one our nation needs before we can ever get to a place where real discussion of race can happen.

It bleeds over into the words we use. For people at the top of the social heap, words are just words. They have meaning, but usually just in a representative way. I can say inmates and prison without ever really putting a face, experience, or reality to those ideas. That's just not true for everyone and we've got an obligation to be aware and sensitive to those realities.

Bob McNair probably got a little bit too raked over the coals in learning this lesson, but I do hope he's genuinely learned one and understands his players better than he did before.

The other incident, though, is one that didn't get the same kind of press. A few weeks ago, the University of Tennessee was looking to hire a football coach - Greg Schiano was floated as a possibility (in fact, basically as the choice) - he ended up not getting the job because a lot of alums and fans protested his involvement with Penn State and the terrible child abuse and inaction (if not coverup) that happened there over a period of years.

We can argue about Schiano's real involvement in the process, but it came up in a deposition that a coach had heard from another coach that Schiano had reported child rape during his tenure on the football coaching staff at Penn State and did nothing when nothing was done. He's denied those allegations and there's an argument to be made about the real power a person in his position would've had to change anything - and also an argument to be made about whether that should matter in an instance where a child was being abused.

That's a conversation for another day. My concern was the repeated use of a phrase, "lynch mob," to describe the Tennessee fans who most vociferously opposed Schiano's hire. There were some words of caution, but largely those words went unnoticed.

I get it, from one perspective, if the testimony is true, the guy did barely anything when he knew a child was being harmed, but there's a long way from third-hand allegations to proof or even criminal action. People have the right to make whatever judgments they want, but this one was quick and without a lot of support. That's where the lynch mob analogy makes historical sense - lynch mobs killed black people, without trial, often for very petty reasons or none at all.

Again, though, only white people can use a phrase like that without context. Privilege allows us to say criticism of Schiano looks like the lawless murder of black men. Of course it's not meant literally, but aren't the differences between the two enough to avoid that phrase? For most of my life, I probably would've said (as many have), "Get over it, you're being too sensitive." It's a position privilege allows us to take.

When language is disconnected from our real experience, we fail to recognize it's power. It's not just a racial thing - how often does the word "rape" get used to describe destruction? We might save the word "holocaust" for something truly awful, but is it really as awful, appropriately awful for what we're describing?

I was substitute teaching in an 8th grade class the other day. In an overheard conversation where one African-American kid was talking to the student sitting next to him. He said, "Sometimes, when I get angry, I feel it deep down, like I'm all white inside." Maybe I'm giving him too much credit, but if it bothers you that white is associated with hatred or darkness, perhaps ask yourself why you're only thinking about it now.

(The answer is privilege.)

Words matter - and some words matter more to some people. It might not seem fair, but it's real. It's the price of privilege and it's not much of a price to pay.

Tuesday, November 28, 2017

Lover or Maniac

Here's a story for you:


A woman meets a man (think your typical RomCom meet cute) - he loves her from the first moment. Nothing obsessive, just perfect - the way anyone would want to be loved (again, think RomCom). He cares for her needs and puts her above himself and works hard to make sure she's fulfilled in every possible way. He loves her so much the story becomes literally unbelievable, because the guy just seems too perfect.

Eventually, she wakes up one morning in a state of dread and knows precisely what to do. After dinner that evening, she breaks up with him. "It's not you, it's me," she says, "I literally can't wrap my head around why you love me. I'm just not capable of believing I deserve it. I need time to work on myself and reach a point when I feel worthy of this love."

He responds in the best possible way - not pushy or getting upset, but understanding - he says he'll move away and not contact her, but always be waiting for whenever she's ready. "That's not good enough," she says, "I couldn't live with myself if I knew you were not living your life. Please, move on; find someone new."

For fifty years they don't see or hear from each other. Neither one ever finds anyone else, but she's so fulfilled with the healthy life she builds, she never thinks of him again. He doesn't intend to wait for her - he tries to pursue his life and has other relationships - but he never stops loving her.

One day, decades later, both are going into the same cafe in Budapest. He holds the door for her and their eyes meet. They instantly remember each other and sit down together to catch up. He doesn't tell her all the time he spent loving her from afar, knowing it will only make things difficult. He does suggest they continue to see each other and make the most of their remaining years. She declines again - their life would undoubtedly be great together, but she's had such a wonderful life without his love and she doesn't want to change.

As they get up to leave, he leads her to a back door, with a staircase, where he's prepared a torture chamber for just this moment. Using the best advancements in medical science, he keeps her alive for years and years, indefinitely, really, and all the while he tortures her - painful, brutal torture as repayment for rejecting his love. She pleads for him to stop, agreeing to spend eternity with him if he will, but it's too late - and the torture continues to this day and probably will go on forever.

I know it takes a bit of a gruesome turn there at the end, but it's supposed to catch you off guard. I thought about writing the whole thing up like a movie script, but I think there's enough here to get the idea. I came up with story while I was pondering heaven and hell. This feels like the traditional evangelical conception of God - at least in the way it was colloquially communicated to me growing up.

I know that the woman in the story is perhaps a little to good to be true. There's no way she could really have a happy life without God and all that, but she's not really the point. In fact, she's not the point at all. I'm more concerned with how we talk about God. Is God really someone who would bend over backward for a period of time to express selfless, perfect love only to entirely change personalities at an arbitrary hinge point? It just doesn't make sense - on any number of levels.

It's a bit sacrilegious (in some directly literally sense, in that it's only really offensive to a particular kind of religion) to ask questions about judgement, eternity, and the end of the world as we know it. At the same time, those questions have always been asked and debated, if also suppressed. Things are just not ever as neat and tidy as we'd like them to be.

One thing I don't think, though, is that God would change who God is simply because some new era has begun. I know dispensationalism is pretty popular (even if people don't know they've embraced it), but I don't think it holds mustard scripturally or logically. I hope this story illustrates that in some way. Perhaps it makes more sense (and a better Lifetime movie*) if it ends this way.

As they get up to leave, the man vows to himself to change the very fabric of time, to seek out ways to both keep his beloved alive, well, and healthy, but also to stay out of her life, as she requested. He succeeds in his endeavors, spending his life, and eternity thereafter, simply keeping her happy and alive from afar, all the while hoping one day she'll come around.



*Let's be honest, Lifetime would make it with either ending - or maybe with both. They're pretty shameless.

Thursday, November 23, 2017

Mercy Never Sleeps by Jamie Blaine

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

I picked up this book to read because I like Blaine's first book so much. I don't like Mercy Never Sleeps any less, but it does feel very much the same. Blaine is a textbook misfit - an oddball kid who turned into an oddball adult -
he's worked as a DJ, both for events and on the radio, came from a less than ideal childhood situation, and currently (at least as far as the book is concerned) works as the overnight crisis hotline guy in his small southern hometown.

The book is a bit rambly, but in a good way - switching back and forth between trauma hotline stories and childhood memories, with a bit of existential self-reflection mixed in. Blaine is honest and real in ways you rarely see in Christian publishing. He's enamored with the miraculous, but very much steeped in realism, walking the tightrope between faith and reason profoundly and with authenticity. He's not an intellectual, but he's also not blind to complexity.

The stories are great and the writing style makes them more mysterious. You continually wonder if he's going to get life right or fall off the cliff so many of his clients seem poised atop. There's no resolution. That's the takeaway from Mercy Never Sleeps - some people may find peace,
stability, and purpose through Christianity, but perhaps its ok if the rest of us just make it through another day intact. There's a sense in which Blaine captures the context of the gospel in ways that most of us never consider. Jesus was hope for the hopeless, not a get your life together plan.

At the same time, with a second edition of the same kind of material, there's more pause to ask what the point of it all is. According to the bio, Blaine lives in Nashville now, presumably to write for a living. I imagine he'd be a great speak for any number of events. The acknowledgments mention a wife, who's supportive so long as she doesn't appear in the writing. That's both refreshing, but also puzzling.

It leads one to wonder how truly confessional Blaine's stories are and to what level they're crafted to make a point. I'm not sure either reality is wrong or bad, but it's tough to reconcile apparent authenticity with an author who's not as open as he appears. Perhaps this just adds to the takeaway for Mercy Never Sleeps, that we don't get life wrapped up in a nice little package, we just get life, with questions and reflections and lenses that keep us from seeing clearly.

Mercy Never Sleeps feels true, even if it doesn't depict events in a purely historical fashion. It's a modern gospel in the purest sense of the word: one man's reflections on how his life intersected with Jesus. It might not be all we want it to be, but it's a compassionate, genuine,
and sincere portrayal of what it means to face the world unselfconsciously and with open arms.




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

Tuesday, November 21, 2017

Are We Just Actions?

I did a bit of driving this week. One of the conversations that stuck out to me was people starting to analyze this spate of harassment news that's come out, especially surrounding entertainment. People were asking how to respond to Kevin Spacey's work now that he's been exposed as the nasty, brutish dude he's always been rumored to be. You can sort of excuse things as "genius at work," until it proves to be at least borderline criminal. This is the same conversation people have been having for several years about watching The Cosby Show.

Time and again people brought up Alfred Hitchcock - a guy who abused many of the actors (and especially actresses) who worked for him, perhaps partly to evoke a specific performance, but also, likely, because he enjoyed the benefits that come with power and privilege.

I want to posit an idea. I'm not sure it entirely holds up, but it seems to be true from a certain vantage point. That idea is simply that when people are with us, they are more than just the sum of their actions. People are relational; they're good and bad and something more, something intangibly human that makes judgement calls difficult. When they're gone, all we have are our memories, our interactions with them - essentially, we have just the things they've done.

One of the things I repeatedly explain to my daughter - something she probably does not understand at her age and level of development - is that there are no bad people (there's no good people, either, but she rarely ever uses that kind of language), just bad actions. People are people;
they are beloved because they exist, but they do not exist as good or bad, just as people, human.

Our society doesn't like that. I wonder if it's because we're collectively (if not individually) stuck in an earlier stage of development. I've been substitute teaching a lot this year, usually in 7th and 8th grade. I've had a lot of conversations about big issues and current events -
which is cool, because 7th and 8th grade are the years when human beings begin to experiment with the notion that not everything is black and white, true and false. I'm not sure we collectively understand how to express that.

We can say Ty Cobb was a racist jerk and also one of the best human baseball players of all time, precisely because he died in 1961. He is literally just words on a page (and a great Tommy Lee Jones movie sadly almost no one saw). We can say "racist bad; baseball good," and not lose too much sleep.

Harvey Weinstein isn't tough for us because he's only famous for being an ass. The guy browbeat people into giving his movies Oscars, so it's not hard to imagine him being a perverted, bully jerk. It's not as easy when Kevin Spacey is smiling back at us from Baby Driver on demand or we think about Dr. Cliff Huxtable waltzing off the set in his snazzy sweaters only to celebrate by raping a drugged starlet.

I think, in the end, we're all going to make up our own minds. And just because there aren't bad people doesn't mean our views of people are entirely shaped by their actions. I'm not trying to defend anyone or anything, just simply pointing out that nothing makes a person entirely worthless. I think we know that deep down, because we're all a little self-conscious about our own flaws, but we also want to be outraged at things which rightfully provoke outrage.

In the end, we are more than the sum of our parts. However, once we're gone, there are nothing left but parts. Those realities should provide some balance for us as we think about our own worth and try to determine how to judge and characterize others. What we do matters, but it's just not everything, as much as we'd like it to be that way.

Tuesday, November 14, 2017

Real Life and Real Life

So, last week was a crazy busy one. Not only that, but the business required a level of creativity that's difficult to sustain. I feel pretty taxed. So, because I missed last Thursday's post and I've got no time or energy to write one for today, you get my sermon from Sunday.

It was partially inspired by chapter eight of Empathy for the Devil by JR Forasteros, which came out last week (and which I reviewed in my last post). I struggled mightily with how to make sense of the parable of the wise and foolish bridesmaids, but the idea of psyche and zoe that he elucidated so well in the book framed what I was trying to say quite nicely.

Anyway, here's my take on Matthew 25:1-13:


There was a guy, we’ll call him Fred – an ambitious young man with lots of potential. He joined the military out of high school and stayed in long enough to pay for college and an MBA. He got the education he wanted, but when he hit the work force, he was already years behind his peers. So he worked extra hard, burning the candle at both ends – and within five years he was the youngest executive in the history of his company. A great success story.

He got there the right way, too. People genuinely liked him. He was tough, but fair. Fred was everybody’s image of a go-getter. Along the way he’d even managed to marry a wonderful woman, and after five years, they were starting a family – with his new position, they thought it best for her to take time from work and stay at home with the kids.

So Fred just kept going. He continued to work harder than everyone else and now he coached his daughter’s soccer team and made it home for family dinner at least once a week. They took the right vacations to the right places and his wife never felt like an outsider when she got away with her friends. They had anything and everything they wanted.

Fred and his family went to church, too – religiously, even – spent every Thanksgiving at the soup kitchen, serving turkey and eating with folks who just weren’t as fortunate. Will was one of the other volunteers – he and Fred knew each other from church and their families ended up sitting together one Thanksgiving. Will invited Fred to his pick-up basketball game.

“Oh man, I haven’t really played basketball since high school,” said Fred, “It was absolutely my favorite thing in the world; I’d love to come. You said 5:30 on Thursdays? I’ll be there.”

So Fred got up a little earlier, sent his secretary an email that he’d be in late and entered the middle school gym. The guys were going back and forth, maybe a dozen – running up and down the court in a way that was simply nostalgic. The smells, the echoes, the squeaks on the floor.

Fred jumped into the next game and started running. Most of it came back – his shot was a little off, but he hit one or two and no one was really young enough to play defense anyway. By the end, though, his lungs were burning and the lack of sleep couldn’t just be covered up.

As Fred heaved on the sidelines, Will came over. “We won, Fred, we have to play again.” Fred responded, “Sure thing, can I buy some of your stamina.” Will began laughing and started to play along, but then he saw something in Fred’s eyes, “You’re not serious, are you.” “Of course, I’m serious,” says Fred, “I need more stamina to play. I’ve got the money. What does it cost?”

Will’s a little taken aback, “Fred, you have to know it doesn’t work that way, right? We’ll just get somebody else.” He called to another waiting player and they started a new game. Fred was left, breathing heavy, voice sounding desperate, “C’mon guys, let me play. I just need a little energy, a little more oil for the fire. I’ll pay whatever it costs. Please, I need to play.”


I grew up going to church. I heard the parable of the wise and foolish bridesmaids any number of times. They’re all waiting for the groom. It’s getting late. Some run out of oil and ask those with oil to borrow some. I always wondered why they couldn’t just share the oil? If the groom is coming, that means they’re not going to need much more – surely there’s enough to give the foolish ones a little bit to tide them over, right?

The best answer I can come up with is that it’s a parable, an analogy for life and in real life, it doesn’t work that way. Like Fred, we discover there are some things we need we just can’t buy.
I can give you the best running shoes in the world, give you all the water and nutrition and maps you need – professional level marathon support – but if you didn’t train you won’t be able to run the race – it’s as simple as that. Some things in life require preparation.

You might say, like Fred in the story, I’m working so hard, doing all the right things, just trying to find happiness or fulfillment, or to appease my guilty conscience, and it just doesn’t seem like enough. We’ve all been there: desperate for just a little more oil. One more hour, one more dollar, one more prayer, one more date – just one more and I’ll have what I need to be happy.

Satisfaction is always just over the next horizon – and that’s what makes heaven such a hopeful proposition. We slog through life the best we can, then finally, someday, we have what we need.

If you come to adult studies you’ve heard this a whole bunch, but we get heaven wrong. The Kingdom of God is not about the fulfillment of all your desires; it’s about being content without them. The Kingdom of God is not some far off future event, it came with Jesus and while it’s not fully realized yet, we can begin to live into the Kingdom of God right now.

In the parable, the foolish bridesmaids didn’t have what they needed to enjoy the party, because they were waiting for the party, rather than preparing for it. They were looking for some far off heaven, rather than seeing the Kingdom of God all around them already.

It’s a confusing parable for us, because in our world things are reversed. The people we call prepared are the ones doing everything. Like Fred, they’re working hard, taking care of their families, and checking all the boxes of success. Jesus is saying, though, that these are the fools, the people who think they can work their way into the Kingdom by doing everything right.

In the end, though, they just end up desperately looking for more oil, because they never arrive. They never find what they’re looking for, just more pressure to do even more.

That sneaks into the Church as well. Too often we’ve made Christianity about checking off our own list of requirements. As much as we say we can’t earn our salvation, that’s what it sure looks like we’re trying to do. Church becomes a scary, unwelcome place precisely because we greet desperate, overworked, unhappy people at the door and hand them an additional list of things they need to do. Our solution to the problem is to do more of the same.

So it ends up that Christians look no different than the rest of the world. We might have a different checklist, but we’re still running ourselves ragged trying to get it done and desperate for just a little more oil to see us through the day. That’s not really a life any of us wants to live.

The good news of the gospel, however, is that the Kingdom of God is not some far off heaven. It’s not something we have to wait for or work for or discover the secret to get in. Jesus invites all people, the lost and the least along with the best and most prepared. He invites the wise and the foolish alike to enjoy the eternal benefits of true life in Christ. He even says, “my yoke is easy and my burden is light.”

However – and this is the hard part for us – the invitation is not for a destination. The Kingdom of God is not about arriving some place, or achieving some goal. The Kingdom of God is a journey. It’s a path we have to walk. You can join anywhere and at any time – and it doesn’t matter if some people are farther along than others; we’re all in. You can be prepared or you can be totally winging it, but you have to understand it’s not about where we’re going, it’s about how we get there.
You ever wonder about the Sermon of the Mount? We read those chapters from the beginning of Matthew where Jesus teaches us to love our enemies, to give to anyone who asks without expecting anything in return, to not worry about what we’ll eat or wear – we read those chapters and our first response is “wouldn’t it be nice to live in a world like that?” We think, “maybe someday our world can be like that,” and then we go right back to doing things the same way.

These “judgment” parables always scare people, as if Jesus were saying, “Do this, or else,” but really Jesus is saying, “Life is short, here’s how to live it well.”

The wise bridesmaids are the ones who do life differently. They’re the ones who live not for the destination, but the journey. They’re prepared for life if the goal we so desperately seek never comes to fruition. They’re happy in all circumstances and always ready to respond with love and grace. They look like Jesus and there’s no reason we can’t look like them.

Yes, the Kingdom of God requires us to give up our goals, to let go of this desire to feel safe or happy or secure. I think we know, in our heads, those pursuits won’t really bring us what we want, but our hearts still believe they will. Guess what? Jesus is in the business of changing hearts.

Living into the Kingdom of God does cost us something, because we won’t look like everyone around us. We won’t be seeking after the same things. There is tremendous peer pressure in our society to live by a certain set of ideals and values all of which are designed to bring fulfillment and yet never will. People who step out of that life or approach things differently get labeled – and those labels are never good. Why? Because we all want the same things, but most of us are too scared to try a different way.

Some of you here are old enough to remember the Apollo space missions. NASA made those first astronauts huge celebrities. Neil Armstrong and John Glenn and all the rest were all over TV, with their crew cuts and their perfect American families. They didn’t look like hulking superheroes; they looked like regular guys.

It’s easy for us to watch videos of them floating around in space and think, “that looks like fun; I’d love to do that,” and forget the years and years of intense training that went into those space visits and the real, constant, inherent danger involved in every one.

What’s more, we see space as this exotic, attractive destination, where people like us can have the time of their lives. But I’ll tell you what, those Apollo astronauts did not see space as a destination; for them it was just something they had to do in order to get back home.

There’s a blessing I love, although I’m rarely brave enough to say it people: “May all your dreams come true tomorrow, so you can discover they aren’t all they’re cracked up to be and you can get on living.”

We’re constantly in search of more oil to keep the lamps burning, because we desperately want to find peace, solace, comfort, greatness. The message of the gospel, though, is that you’re already home – the Kingdom of heaven is here! The key is to learn to live in the moment, to love the people around you, to give up the search for something great – and surprisingly, unbelievably, impossibly, you find what you’re looking for in the most unexpected of places.

In the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit, amen!

Tuesday, November 07, 2017

Empathy for the Devil

In the first ten minutes of reading Empathy for the Devil, I found myself in the midst of a real therapeutic breakthrough. JR Forasteros's take on the biblical Cain provides a great perspective on anger and the place it holds in our lives. This is just one of the seven biblical villains Forasteros examines - each with a narrative account and a chapter of practical contextualization - concluding with the devil himself. Each section brings to bear the realities of a gray world on characters we almost always view in black and white. By helping us to inhabit the lives and minds of these "others," we see ourselves in them and increase our empathy.

Each chapter contains really deft biblical analysis and the best of professional exegetical understanding, but also viscerally connects the reader to the people and places of the Bible. As a jaded seminary graduate, I'm well accustomed to reading books of this nature - putting a unique twist on an old story - with a bit of skepticism. They're often academically weak or oversimplified; Empathy for the Devil is neither. It's rigorous and challenging, while also providing space for the reader to ruminate and draw her own conclusions.

In full disclosure, I did receive a free advance copy of this book with a real implication (but not an actual request) that I review it. JR Forasteros is someone I know a little bit and like quite a lot - so, as much as I'd like to claim total neutrality, you'll have to take all of this with a grain of salt. I will say that our interactions have been largely online, along with one 90 minute conversation over coffee in the lobby of the Horizon League headquarters in Indianapolis.

That being said, this book provides the kind of practical invitation to conversation that could work well in any setting where people are comfortable enough to be honest and ask tough questions. From Intervarsity Press, it's likely to be marketed to a religious audience, but the cultural traction so many of these characters have even outside Christian faith should make it at least accessible to anyone interested in a hopeful, but sadly atypical perspective.

The final chapter, on Satan, is undoubtedly the best - which is saying something, since I was told as much about halfway through the book and was so enjoying myself I refused to believe it. Forasteros presents a difficult, tension-fraught subject with a calm and rational - even generous -
approach. It is indeed hard to empathize with the devil and not something any of us particularly wants to do. Yet Forasteros earns the benefit of the doubt with the preceding six chapters and narratively weaves a beautiful expression of grace and love into the midst of great tragedy in a way that both informs and engages.

I don't like to do these reviews without some critique, but there's not much really to pick at in Empathy for the Devil. If anything, though, this is the kind of book that requires a certain kind of audience. You could use it in a congregation, but you'd need an exceptionally open-minded, secure group of people to embrace it well. You could also bring it to book club, but it might dredge up some difficult subject matter if people don't know each other well enough (although, appropriately, one of the chapters talks about the different levels of interpersonal intimacy and how to navigate the awkward growth of community) - at the same time, it's just too rich and pertinent to ignore.

One of the most insidious problems in our world is the tendency we have to create "us" vs "them" dichotomies; Empathy for the Devil works against that it the most honest and grace-filled ways. I don't think there's any higher praise I could give it.

Tuesday, October 31, 2017

Is the Reformation Worth Celebrating?

I can't imagine I'm the only one writing this post this week - fortunately, though, I'm generally out of the loop on contrarian click bait. Still, the Reformation always makes me a little uneasy. Part of it probably comes from having attended a hardcore Presbyterian high school where we got out of class each year to watch a plodding green and white version of some Martin Luther movie (probably from the 50's). It was a bittersweet experience for all the reasons you might think.

More than that, though, I wonder if the Reformation really did us any good. No one will argue the Roman Catholic Church was utterly corrupt in 1517 and needed some serious help. All of the things Martin Luther proposed to do were good (well, most of them, at least; confession: I haven't fully vetted all 95 theses) and even though the narrative goes that he didn't do what he set out to do (reform the Church), that may have been what we ended up with.

While many of my fellow Protestants will claim we liberated the faith from its bureaucratic, stale, and limiting tendencies, what we replaced it with was basically the same. The Church was still an institution.

I'm enough of a historian to know that, given the era, institutionalism was probably inevitable. However, the Church - no matter how corrupt and un-Christlike it became - always had radical factions, witnessing with their lives to the true gospel of Jesus Christ. Yes, they were often brutally hunted and killed off, but they were also always followed by another movement doing basically the same thing.

What I'm thinking is that the real reformation of the Church comes not with a changing of the gatekeepers, but with a changing of the life and practice of faith itself. I've been working a lot with Jesus' Kingdom motif lately - most of the parables begin as an explanation of the Kingdom - and I've found a recurring theme I hadn't noticed before. Most parables involve not the separating of saint from sinner, but the separating of the saints into faithful and otherwise. It's as if one message of the Kingdom, consistent throughout Jesus' ministry and thereafter, was that practicing the faith in the established institutional way is no guarantee of entry to the Kingdom of God.

We know that, of course; I can recount many a Sunday School lesson that stressed the very Lutheran notion of salvation by faith over works - that we can behave our way into the Kingdom - but I'm not sure we ever make the full connection to worship. We can't worship our way into the Kingdom either - at least in the way the institutional Church has come to define worship. Merely participating in the practices established by the community is not enough if there is no real transformation.

This is the message of Jesus' parables. The people of the Kingdom are noticeably different, not in habit or confession, but in being. The core of who we are is transformed by love and while may never act as perfectly in-line with "Christian" expectations as we'd like (or to the liking of some who share our pews), we may very well be experiencing and living into the Kingdom of God in ways those others don't yet understand.

When I think about the Reformation, I don't doubt the sincerity of its heroes or the core of its convictions, but I do wonder if the net result was just to change the expectation the institution places on its adherents, rather than a real testimony to the gospel of Jesus Christ.
We have a long history of truly counter-cultural, prophetic movements - mostly small and unorganized - who witnessed to this great power.
Maybe we would've been better off with one monolithic Church that continually battled the prophets of its own conscience than to have 10,000 different perspectives on what the monolith should look like, each claiming to be radical and prophetic?

Now, perhaps, instead of one corrupt organization in need of salvation, we've got 10,000 and the work of the prophets is all the more difficult.
It is the converted who need to be converted, continually and for all time. Maybe, just maybe, in the grand scheme of things, the Reformation really didn't do much to further that cause?

Thursday, October 26, 2017

God, Evil, and Excuses

I received an actual stranger comment on one of my old posts - and one that's not trying to sell me counterfeit pharmaceuticals or infect my computer with a virus. It references a post on "Atheism and the City" addressing the failure of traditional theism to properly address the problem of evil. I wrote a response to that post that I thought might be good to share.



I found this piece because of a comment on my blog post about never having been born.

I appreciate the valid critique this post gives to a certain theistic perspective on evil, although I do tend to see some flaws in the analogy. First, the bag of money - the notion that there is an end or reward, while very common in religious circles, isn't something I'd associate with the teachings of Jesus (my only real frame of reference, religiously speaking). At the very least, I'd argue he says the means are the end - whatever "reward" or "goal" is in the process, not the conclusion. Therefore the gifting of a bag on money, in this sense, doesn't really represent my understanding of how the world works. I do grant that it's a very common religious (and especially Christian) perspective - but I have just as many problems with it, as someone trying to take Jesus and the Bible seriously, as you do as an atheist. This is the kind of critique of which we need more.

I'd also point you toward theist philosopher Thomas Jay Oord, who's recently been writing a lot about the problem of evil, especially as it comes to determinism. He works with principles of Open and Process Theology to challenge the notion of God's omnibenevolence. I can't say I'm totally on board with the direction of his work, but I do agree with him (and you, apparently) that those "omni" claims are more problematic for Christianity and theism than most people want to admit.

My personal views are that we're too quick to individualize everything in the modern western world. While I do recognize the place, worth, and value of individuals, I tend to see existence itself as more of a coherent whole and advocate the necessity of evaluating individual participation in the whole through that context.

I don't find as much need for addressing the problem of evil as many others - it just doesn't keep me up at night in the same way - I tend to see evil as a reality in the world and I just don't have much impetus to ask why. I do tend to ask "what should I/we do about it," and my answer is generally "love."

I don't think it's a complete answer, but I do find a certain beauty in redemption (the reconciliation of warring or aggrieved parties) that simple isn't possible without pain. I know there's a sometimes-distinction made between pain and evil (cheating on your wife vs genocide, for example), but I'm less inclined to believe in it. I feel like a poor philosopher saying it so simply, but I find great peace in the notion that pain breeds pain and love breeds love. I have great hope that the latter can eventually defeat the former - or that, if I'm wrong, a life lived with that expectation is worthwhile even if it's ultimately futile.

Tuesday, October 24, 2017

Some Things Aren't News

Indulgence is a double-edged sword. We're tantalized by the notion of "too much of a good thing." You don't want to eat chocolate until you're sick, but you do want to eat chocolate long after you should've stopped. We fantasize about indulgence so much it's become our de facto picture of heaven, paradise; we want a place where we can do whatever we want with no repercussions.

This isn't a post about our conceptions of heaven, but needless to say a place of unlimited, consequence-free indulgence might not be all it's cracked up to be. Indulgence just isn't good for us. I'm terrified of ever going on a cruise, because it takes all my willpower (and usually I don't have enough) just to maintain a below-average modicum of discipline. It's terrible difficult to get back to a normal sleep routine after a vacation. I just can't imagine what life would be like coming off the week of pure indulgence that those boats seem to embody. It's scary.

You may wonder how all this ties in with the title of the post, but it's really indulgence that drives the ridiculous "news" coverage we all publicly lament and secretly enjoy. TMZ is my guilty pleasure. Talking about the private lives of total strangers seems odd, but it's really a firehose of false intimacy that costs me nothing. It's indulgent and it's fun.

This is what the news has become. There's no more journalistic curation - what's news is what gets ratings. We can all pinpoint some "moment" where it started - whether it was Elvis's death or the royal wedding or OJ's car chase, but the reality is it's always been this way. TMZ is no more than the modern, digital version of the gossip at the town well you could've experience in 2,000 BC.

Granted, it seems as though this gossip has become mainstreamed with just about every "media" outlet signing on for the circus - that's new - but it also fits with the times. We're an indulgent people dominated by the idea of more. More information, more false intimacy, more purposeless pleasure. We want what we enjoy - and we want as much as we can get. It's indulgent.

I shouldn't be surprised by the traction this Trump phone call to the soldier's widow is getting, but I am surprised. Maybe it's a sign we've moved beyond all propriety when it comes to other people. Maybe empathy is truly dead. That's what it feels like.

None of this is our business. That congresswoman with the hat shouldn't have brought it up and the White House shouldn't have responded. Even if the President had a dispassionate, awkward, offensive conversation with the widow of a soldier, it's not news. It's not something that should be covered. It's private correspondence about dead loved ones. We should all know better than to be interested, but of course we don't.

It's not as though this is even news, in the proper sense. It's not new information. It doesn't change anyone's perception of Donald Trump. It's not as thought he was some suave public speaker, beloved by the masses for his compassion and empathy and this particular phone call were dispelling common perceptions. Even his most ardent supporters know the guy doesn't do words very well and he's even worse with the feels.

No matter where your conclusion resides on the spectrum, no matter if this was deliberately disrespectful, a sign of sociopathic incompetence, or the guy just can't talk to people very well - heck, even if he made a perfectly normal, well-intentioned phone call with proper decorum, nothing about this story presents any information people didn't already know. It's useless fodder for the indulgence machine.

At some point, we have to just stop. It's not news and it's more than a little unseemly.


While we're on the subject - most of what Trump says isn't news, as in "not worth covering." From the very beginning we've known that he says outrageous things on purpose, to stir up a firestorm of angry coverage and distract from substantive policy issues. We've known it and we've said it; it's been widely reported. Yet we still play into it.

The week before he made the comment on NFL players kneeling, just six - enough to be counted on one hand by about 1 in 1000 human beings (look it up) or Count Rugen (I hope you don't have to look it up) - were kneeling during the anthem. The week after? Hundreds. Guess what? Now we've got a giant mix of protest. Were they kneeling to speak up for free speech or to oppose Trump or were they actually speaking out for the original protest - the continued disproportionate killing and mistreatment of young black men in society? Who knows?

What's more, since those comments, we've heard very little about racial injustice and a lot about patriotism and free speech. The narrative has been completely overwhelmed with stuff that just isn't news - and the real news, the shootings and brutality, the sentencing and prison imbalance, the real, actual problems that need to be addressed don't seem to be news at all anymore.

Why? They're less indulgent. They affect the lives of each of us on a near-daily basis. It's not abstract conversations about the hypothetical, about the mindset of strangers, about issues that play into our desperate need to emote. Yeah, we can make real news black and white, yes and no, hard line opinions, but most of us still have a conscience that recognizes the grey. Those things don't get ratings unless people are yelling at each other and, in general, the public doesn't like watching the yelling when it's about an issue that hits home.

CNN tried to run the middle ground for a brief time there. They ceded partisan bickering to Fox on the one side and MSNBC on the other. Their ratings tanked and they became the media scapegoat of a scapegoating President anyway. We can bemoan the lack of principle all we want, but a principled CEO in that moment would've been fired for not making shareholders any money.

No, the real responsibility lies with us. Some egotistical hotshot somewhere decides what goes on TV, but we, the viewers, decide what stays.
I've never been in the majority on that account (RIP Trophy Wife) and maybe I'm not now, but it feels like something worth saying.

We need to take responsibility for our indulgence. No one is force-feeding you media comfort food. You can say no. It feels good to pound donut after donut on a Saturday morning, especially when the week has been stressful and life seems unfair, but we all know it's not good for us.
The current state of "news" is like a free donut machine someone installed in our living room. It's got an endless supply of sugary goodness just waiting for us to consume - and it's even socially acceptable to do so.

In the end, though, some things aren't news. We need to be focused on the real events that really shape the real people who live real lives all around us. Maybe that's the rallying cry when we see something interesting pop up as click bait on facebook or scroll across the TV screen -
does this have anything to do with people I know and love? Should I care more about the people this story involves? If the answer is "no"
to both of those questions, just turn it off. Even if the whole world is consumed with fighting about it - it still might not be important.

Thursday, October 19, 2017

The Taking of K-129

I picked up this new book mostly for the subtitle: How the CIA used Howard Hughes to steal a Russian Sub in the most covert operation in history. Non-fiction is non-fiction. Hopefully it's informative and engaging, but rarely is it earth shattering. I loved this book, though. This isn't one I was paid to read and it doesn't offer any real insight into life and purpose - it's just fun.

Rarely do you find a piece of history so interesting that's not already in the common knowledge. A few books have been written about Operation Azorian, but it was all new to me. In 1968 a Russian nuclear sub had an accident and sunk, mostly intact, in 17,000 feet of North Pacific water.
The US wanted to recover the nukes and any coding information on board and thus concocted a crazy scheme to essentially invent a whole slew of new technology and build a huge, experimental ship, strictly for this purpose.

We could get caught up in the follies of war or the economics of spending $250m in 1970s dollars for such a project, but I'd rather just focus on the well-written, enthralling history of this unlikely mission. Josh Dean gives detail, but not so much as to bog the story down. He gives background that's interesting and mostly leaves out what's not. It's a pretty dense 450 pages, but they fly by with great anticipation. Chapters are short, and it reads like a novel.

Being a real story, the ending is a bit of a letdown, but there's great joy in discovering and learning about a really fascinating piece of history. I didn't really have a blog post topic for today I was excited about, but if even four or five of you pick up this book, the time and space will be worth it. I think a lot of my regular readers would really appreciate The Taking of K-129.

Tuesday, October 17, 2017

Click Bait with Depth

So, I've been sitting on this for a while. I clicked on some click bait a while back - I do that occasionally, I'm sad to admit. It was about a man who refused to take off his Marine Corps hat for his driver's license photo. You may have seen it around. Essentially, the story was that an older gentleman was asked to remove his hat for the photo, as is general practice, but he refused, pointing to a man allowed to keep his turban on. When told the only exemption is for religious items worn daily, he claimed his hat was such an item and, after a flurry of phone calls, was allowed to wear it for the photo.

We have no real way of knowing if this is true. Even Snopes says it's anybody's guess, although the details are plausible. I believe the quote from the story is that his marine corps oath was "to one nation under God, which makes it as good as religion." Whether fabricated or not, it's a pretty telling statement about the perception of nationalism and the ways in which Christianity has been distorted to serve powerful and violent interests. We've essentially sanctified "common sense," when the gospel is foolishness to the wisdom of the world.

What's more telling, perhaps, is that this was designed to get people clicking. It's popular. It's the kind of feel good story people are willing to read and share. I sure hope my Christian friends are uncomfortable with it, but I've also seen plenty defend this kind of analogy. I've long heard people say you can serve God and country as long as you have them in the right order. Those are often the same people who say its un-American to welcome immigrants, for example - without much thought to Biblical teaching on the matter; who choose war over peace.

It's a broad brush and perhaps the characterization doesn't fit you - for that I'm glad - but it's been true in enough of my conversations to warrant comment. We simply can't combine nationalism and Christianity - even if there is some purported "right" order of allegiance, in any conglomeration of the two, Christianity always loses. Power is a wily foe - it's why Jesus says a man cannot serve both God and Mammon. We typically take that to mean "money," and greed is probably the best translation, but it's not always about money. Greed speaks to accumulation, typically at the expense of others. This is a power game.

When we seek to be "the best country in the world," there's tacit implications that this means others are less good. Perhaps we could be the best country in the world while also helping the rest of the world to achieve what we have. However, our typical fallback for maintain "greatness" is not magnanimous generosity and sacrifice; it's military might, force, and power. We hoard those things and in doing so, give worship and honor to Mammon.

The guy in the click bait, if he really exists, has nobly given his life to a certain set of principles and assumptions. They're "noble" in every sense of our vernacular, but they're not Christian values and the Church can't continue to strain between two pillars moving in opposite directions. That edifice, of God and country, is simply unstable. Better for it to fall and us pick up the pieces than to kill ourselves in an unwinnable task.

That's not to say nationalism or American patriotism doesn't have elements of true virtue embedded within it - just that they're in service to a worldview that's dead and dying. The sooner we cut the cord, the better we're all going to be.

I still don't advocate giving in to the clickbait - it's the surest way for your to spread fake news or contract a computer virus - but here's one, at least, that speaks volumes beyond simply the words on the screen. Our lives are telling; they reveal information about us we may never have intended or known. Let's serve God and keep Mammon out of it.

Thursday, October 12, 2017

Navel Gazing

My denomination, the Church of the Nazarene, has a PR wing, for lack of a better term. It's called NCN News and generally they put out some really good stuff. The people there work hard and I appreciate their effort.

Way back in the dark ages, when I was in seminary, I worked for Nazarene Compassionate Ministries, another arm of the denomination that coordinates all kinds of community ministry around the world. It's also the entity that helps directly in times of disaster (and we've had a lot of disasters lately, so if you still have more to give - www.ncm.org - is a great place to do it). Anyway, I found myself in a position to exorcise a pet peeve of mine.

When NCN News covered a disaster event, the accompanying story usually just described the Nazarenes and Nazarene congregations affected by the disaster. This makes sense on one level, since its news specifically for Nazarenes about Nazarenes - however, in the burgeoning internet age, Nazarenes were certainly not the only audience. It struck me as a bit short sighted to not include the total number of displaced, dead, or injured people along with our Nazarene numbers. Others agreed. It was a quick fix and I think it helps us keep focus on the larger picture of need and response in a disaster (after all, most of the people NCM helps aren't Nazarene anyway).

In a related case, over the past few years there's been no small amount of controversy over a directive from the President regarding salaried employees and working-hour requirements. I don't want to bog us down in detail, but the basic gist is that some companies were giving people titles and putting them on salary in order to work them more hours with no real responsibility that might traditionally accompany a salaried position - think assistant manager at [insert fast food chain here] working 80 hours a week for $30,000 a year (which is about $7.50 an hour).

The new rule raised the minimum salary for exempt employees (workers not eligible for overtime) to somewhere around $48,000 a year - meaning people making under that amount, even if they are salaried, are still owed overtime pay. Now pastors are always overworked and underpaid, but the federal government has always assumed those ridiculous working conditions come with the job (since it is a divine calling and all) - so clergy haven't been included in any of these rules.

A court recently knocked down the raise in minimum salary and the battle will undoubtedly continue.

My beef was with how the Church of the Nazarene talked about this rule and it's journey through the legal system. It's obviously of import, since congregations are typically cash strapped and do often rely on salaried employees, even beyond clergy. I'm not entirely sure if this was something NCN News covered themselves or relied on the pensions or finance departments to keep tabs on - regardless, whenever the subject came up, it was always as bad news. The raise in minimums will hurt churches! Look out for this new rule! It may not have been so overt, but the negative coverage was always right there under the surface.

When the rule was halted by the courts, we got this piece: http://www.nazarene.org/article/overtime-rule-could-have-affected-us-churches-struck-down - a reflection of relief, if nothing else. It just struck me as a little self-interested, especially for a denomination built upon work with and among the poor, that the end of a rule that would bring much needed financial help to hard-working, but low income people would be met with relief.

As I said, this wouldn't really apply to clergy, so those affected would be office staff or custodians, perhaps daycare staff (I'm not entirely up on the specifics). I can't imagine the population of people who are both salaried employees AND regularly putting in more than 40 hours a week as non-clergy in the employ of a Nazarene congregation is all that big. It's certainly dwarfed by the many people this rule was designed to help. (And it avoids entirely the question of why congregations would be upset paying low-income employees for overtime they earned anyway!)

I feel a little bad using this as an example, but I do think it's a good one. One of the great problems for Christians is just how insulated we tend to be. We get so caught up in the programs and inner-workings of our congregations and our denominations that we're not engaged (or not as engaged as we should be) with the world around us. I know employees of a denominational headquarters are far more involved with the inner workings by necessity, but there's also a responsibility for leadership, for pointing us out of our bubble and towards the needs of the world.

We get too caught up navel-gazing and we miss the world we're called to be deeply invested in. We spend our time trying to be different, but we end up just being separate. We can do better - all of us - and I hope we will.

Tuesday, October 10, 2017

Football, Respect, and Assumptions

Last week there was more than a little hubbub about Cam Newton, Carolina Panthers Quarterback and all-around mercurial dude. He answered a question about the routes one of his receivers was running - asked by a woman - by saying it was "funny" that a female was asking about routes.

It was a terribly awkward thing to say, made worse by the accompanying body language that came off as more than a little dismissive of someone just trying to do their job. The reporter said as much in a statement following the press conference - she was insulted, both personally, and on behalf of women and female sports journalists everywhere.

I think it's very likely Cam Newton is a sexist - or at the very least, felt like one in that moment - sexism is the devaluing of a person because of their sex, in our society, it's women, valued less than men for no real reason whatsoever. However, the actual words the man spoke merely expressed his feelings receiving that question in that moment - the interpretation of their meaning is left up to the beholder.

We know how the reporter felt - and rightly so - it seems most of the world agreed with her, again, that is their right. But the way in which this "story" was covered in the media took a slightly different tack. Instead of discussing what those words could mean and having opinions on those various meanings, most outlets I saw, heard, or experienced, decided that Cam Newton meant that women shouldn't be covering sports and proceeded to fill their time arguing against that point.

It may be a slight difference - and one not worth really arguing about since almost no one is giving Newton the benefit of the doubt here (although, in subsequent statements, Newton both admitted the reporter's interpretation of his words was correct and argued she didn't understand what he was trying to say). There's a large cultural point at play here, though: namely that we've reached a point where almost everyone is comfortable treating their own opinions as fact.

We don't really know what Cam Newton meant. In fact, in statements since the incident he's apologized for saying exactly what everyone thought he said and also defending himself, claiming he was merely commenting on how rare it is, still today, to see a women covering sports and that his comment was intended to be a complement.

The proper response to all this is to argue what should be the interpretation of the comments and explain why. We just didn't do that - we extrapolated meaning from the words and then claimed that meaning as fact.


It then happened again, in a different way, on Sunday - when the Vice President of the United States and the owner of Dallas Cowboys made statements that equated kneeling during the national anthem with disrespect of the flag, the country, and/or the military. These echo the comments of the President, but as we all know, in the current administration, the words of the President don't count until someone else repeats them.

Equating the various protests taking place at NFL games during the anthem with disrespect is certainly a valid opinion, but, of course, stating that opinion works against the direct statements of most of those very players - and, indeed, with Colin Kaepernick, the originator of the protest, who moved from sitting on the bench to kneeling specifically because he wanted to avoid the kind of disrespect Mike Pence and Jerry Jones happen to see.

Now I get that someone could mean no disrespect, but have their words or actions perceived as disrespectful anyway. Both parties, in that case, have a right to their intentions and opinions. But it is a far cry from fair to simply state your opinion as fact and cluelessly defend it. It's the kind of behavior you might expect from a twelve year old, whose brain development hasn't yet let them truly grapple with the reality of a non-binary argument. It's not the hallmark of mature individuals.

Yet here we are.

This is the world in which we live.

I find it particularly interesting that we're quick to call out those who devalue others. Sexist, racist, traitor - yet we seem to do it in such a way that we devalue those we accuse of devaluing others. If people are indeed people and worthy of respect simply because of that fact, then we should probably treat them that way.

That's not to say we don't oppose those ideas, actions, words, and opinions we deem to be wrong - but we need to do it in a way that honors and values the person who said, did, thought, or expressed them. People come up with the stupidest, most inane, illogical, and all-around terrible ideas out of great earnestness of thought. Not that every idea is a well-wrestled achievement, but many of even the stupidest truly are.

We should be able to say to or about Cam Newton: the words and actions he used the other day really make it sound like he doesn't think women should cover sports without automatically making our interpretations truth. The frickin' Vice President of the United States should be able to say, "your actions during the anthem bother people who love this country," and those players should be able to say to the Vice President of the United States, "the inaction of the country in the face of injustice bothers people (like me) who love this country," without having to denominze, devalue, and denude the dignity and respect of those who disagree.

I guess it's better radio, better tv, better click bait, to just make the most outrageous claim possible and wait for the fireworks. We can excuse it as business or marketing or entertainment all we want, but most people don't see it that way; they see it as life and death or at least a matter of honor. It's not just in good fun when its so pervasive and half the audience isn't in on the joke.

We've engaged the post-modern post-truth world in exactly the wrong way. Instead of coming into every conversation holding our facts and opinions lightly, willing to have our minds changed, we enter in combat mode, willing to denigrate the different and deny the validity of anything but my own ideas. One of the biggest problems we have right now in this country is that everyone thinks everything they think is a fact. When in reality, we could all use a little bit of humility...

...or maybe a lot.

Thursday, October 05, 2017

Christians and Guns

The Ten Commandments say "Do not kill;" Jesus said "turn the other cheek" and "love your enemies," and then he went out and did it - even when it cost him his life. We can parse all the various real-time possibilities where one might agree killing is the least bad of many terrible options, but those possibilities, in the grand scheme of things, are few and far between - far fewer and less likely than the attention we give to them - all so we don't have to feel the guilt of falling short of the ideal. There is a difference between justifying our weakness and apologizing for it. We need more of the latter.

I tell people my position on life is simple: it's precious; we should protect it. Don't kill. Don't do things that might endanger the lives of people. Be willing to give up your own life rather than take the life on another. The what ifs and the maybes are simply unlikely to matter in my life or yours. Thought experiments are far less important than real people - even enemies and those whose actions might make it harder to love and protect their lives.

Our typical answer to the problem of violence and killing is to make more laws. I'm not opposed to laws, especially when your job is to make them. A Congress doesn't do any good if it sits on its hands. Maybe you're one of those who'd rather they do nothing - which is fine by me - but then let's disband the system rather than stacking it with gridlock.

I don't believe laws will solve anything, though. Forcing people to do something will only result in rebellion. Radical freedom is the way to go. Some call it anarchy - where a society rises and falls on the health and strength of relationships between people. That's a scary proposition, but it's what the gospel of Jesus Christ is all about (I wrote about this the other day). When it comes to guns and violence, you can't outlaw them with integrity - as I tweeted after the Las Vegas massacre, who would enforce a ban on guns?

We've got to get beyond the notion than power and control are the way to run the world. If you want to stop something from happening, you need to stop doing it and let your example be the evidence for others to see and follow. Jesus' solution to violence was to not be violent. His solution for the abuse of power was not to use it. His very words were to take that slap in the face and then turn your cheek for another. If it takes your death, my death, to condemn the violence of another - so be it. A violent response to violence justifies the violence.


My denomination, the Church of the Nazarene, was founded on some basic principles - one of them, strangely and tangentially enough, was the prohibition of alcohol. Many early Nazarenes worked among the poor - drunks and prostitutes, among others - and knew firsthand the dangerous of alcohol. Many of them were caught up in the prohibitionist movement - a movement so forceful and persuasive that 2/3rds of the US House and Senate (with vast majorities in both parties) along with the legislatures of 46 states approved an amendment to the Constitution to that effect.

It was ultimately a practical failure and later repealed with another, similarly overwhelming series of votes - but the root causes of alcohol prohibition remained dominant in the Church of the Nazarene. My forefathers and foremothers saw the perils of alcohol use - not for every individual, of course, but for society as a whole - and moved strongly and willingly to abstain in solidarity and out of love for those hurt by alcohol.

It's still an issue for our denomination. Personally, I would love for us to have maintained the historic position - that we're simply a people who choose not to drink out of love for others. Christians can certainly make different choices and be just as obedient and faithful as us, but the Church of the Nazarene is a place where we don't - not because it's against the rules, but because we've made a particular choice.

We'd be a lot smaller if that were the case. At some point along the way we decided being bigger was better and went a little "don't ask, don't tell" on the alcohol thing. So now, we've got a lot of faithful Christians who choose to love and serve God and neighbor while also drinking responsibly from time to time that call themselves Nazarenes. And we've welcomed them into membership and ordained them and I certainly wouldn't want us to get rid of them.

Personally, I'd love for us to be clear and united and small - but we're not - at least on this issue - so we move forward together and in faith. We maintain our position of abstinence, because that's who we are. I hope we can do it with grace and freedom - not making rules, but choosing to abstain out of love for our brothers and sisters. I even authored a change to our official statement to that effect last summer - it wasn't passed, but it wasn't killed either. I have hope.

The key, I think, is the emphasis on freedom and grace. Prohibition is a bad idea. It's why laws will only ever control "bad" behavior and never eradicate it. People bristle at being told what to do. The Church of the Nazarene calls its members to abstain from alcohol - with lots of good, sound, biblical and theological support and a grand historic narrative that stems from our profound belief in self-giving love.

We do the same thing in other areas as well. Gambling is a big one. Maybe one I can speak to better, because I enjoy it. I'm an ordained minister in the Church of the Nazarene, so, for integrity's sake, my gambling days were over a long time ago - and were never much to begin with, because I'm inherently risk-averse and incredibly cheap. Still, a good poker game is a lot of fun. We abstain - and I join in - not because there's something wrong with gambling in the abstract, but because there's no real way to disconnect my actions from the larger gambling environment that ruins families and destroys lives.

We might say "there's nothing wrong with alcohol or gambling; it's the addiction that'll ruin you," and that's a true statement, but there's no such thing as the abstract in the real world. The five bucks my friend wins off me might end up being lost to a lottery or a casino when he's having fun over the weekend - that money used to entice the gambling of someone else who can't afford it or can't stop. As much as we third or fourth or fifth generation Nazarenes like to talk about the over-eager prohibitions of our past (which included, officially, movies, dancing, mixed-bathing, and circuses - along with unofficial prohibitions on jewelry, playing cards, and, sometimes, wearing the color red, among others) - the logic and the theology are sound.

We're called to give up good things that might harm others. I've spent several weeks studying, teaching, and preaching from Romans 14, and I've yet to figure out exactly where the line is - how much should I be willing to sacrifice for the good of others? I don't know the limit of my sacrifice, but I know there was no limit to the sacrifice of Jesus Christ and I'm certainly not better than him.


All this to say - whatever the lawmakers decide about gun laws (or alcohol or gambling) is their business - but what I'd like to do is call my fellow Christians, and especially my fellow Nazarenes, to just give up the guns - not because of some rule against them or even because they're bad on their own, but simply because our society can't handle guns responsibly and we're connected to that, whether we like it or not.

I'm not going to make it a campaign or a crusade and I won't (or at least it's not my intention to) shame anyone. People who make a different choice than me should have the same grace we show to people who make different choices about gambling or alcohol or anything else we tend to avoid. I'm just saying, for me, and I hope for others, this is an issue that's taking on a different tone.

It's a bit tricky for me, since I've never been a gun guy and don't own any. I do think, though, that hunting for food is a near universal good - something we should have more of, not less. I believe deeply we'd all be better off getting our meat at the end of a gun than out of a slaughterhouse. As much as I'm not a gun guy, the loss of that positive indeed feels like a sacrifice. I don't think guns are bad - any more than I think alcohol is bad (or gambling or marijuana or movies or the NFL, for that matter).

We draw lines all the time about when to do things responsibly and with limits and when to avoid them altogether. We make choices about our health and habits. For Nazarenes, we've sworn off gambling and alcohol for a long time. I'd like to suggest we add guns to that list - not maniacally or forcefully or with shame, but of our own free will, out of love for our neighbor.

Laws can control behavior, but they cannot eradicate problems - only sacrificial love can do that. I'm not opposed to the former, but I'm deeply committed to the latter. In fact I think it may be the only truly gospel means of responding to the tragedy of gun violence in all its forms: senseless murder, police shootings, war and whatever else we do to each other.

It may be more than we "should" have to sacrifice, but the world certainly doesn't work the way it "should," and there are no limits to what we're called to sacrifice out of love for each other.

Tuesday, October 03, 2017

Alternative Politics

The problem with having theological discussions of governance issues is that American Christians often feel a responsibility to govern. This is the toll participation in a democracy takes on us. When everyone gets a vote, when it's government by the people, we feel responsible for having a governing solution. This is why I'm so convinced we have to reclaim Christianity as an alternative politic. My responsibility, as a Christian, is not to a nation or a government (or even a form of government), it's a responsibility to love -
to love the people around me, to love my enemies, to love the whole of creation.

Christianity is an alternative form of politics that exists within, contrary to, and separate from the political machinations of the world. When I say, "all people deserve healthcare" or "borders and citizenship shouldn't dictate how people are treated," often the response is "how do we make a law to ensure that" or "how can we fit that within the constitutional framework." A Christian response really is - and should be - who cares?
It's not our responsibility to ensure the United States of America functions properly - or even exists. We're here to live into the Kingdom of God. To love people, to suffer patiently, to act like Jesus.

This is ultimately why I'd argue a Christian perspective on governance is anarchy. It's not the anarchy of Purge movies, but a place in which people aren't forced to do anything, but challenged to sacrifice for the other.Governments and forms of government come and go - there are always attempts by people to gain, seize, exercise, and maintain power. Christians are called to avoid power games - to renounce them and condemn them.

The Church is an alternative politic where those who have give willing to those who don't - where there is a race to the bottom, so to speak,
where people are glad to do with less and less so our neighbors can have enough.

I'm not sure you could ever run a government that way, but it's not really my concern.

I can say, "there should be no borders," because there shouldn't. All people are equal - race, creed, nationality, none of it matters - that's truth. People should have access to healthcare, food, education, work, a loving community. If that messes with your constitution or causes problems with your government, so be it - it doesn't make the truth any less true.

Governments are, at their core, attempts to isolate "us" from the problems that exist elsewhere. Christians are called to immerse themselves in those problems, to suffer with those who suffer. When we allow ourselves to be constrained by the laws or Constitutions of the governments in which we reside, we are putting those things above the core tenets of our faith.

Too often American Christians (and perhaps Christians around the world) really expect their faith to inform a reformed version of government -
this is certainly the perspective of many evangelicals who run for and/or are elected to office - but really Christianity was designed to be a way of life outside those manufactured human institutions. The gospel of Jesus ends religion itself; it ends government.

Our core belief is that the Spirit of God can and does change people, that God's love - expressed in and through us - can and will overcome whatever inevitable ugly reaction we get from sharing it unconditionally. The road isn't easy - Jesus said as much, if the whole crucifixion thing didn't prove it - but it's the only one worth living and suffering and dying for.

We need to reclaim the gospel as a true alternative and not the magic elixir that will fix the world we've created.

Thursday, September 28, 2017

Value and Validation

I was reading an interesting article about the place of Macklemore in the cultural conversation.* The article included a video from his new album - a song featuring Kesha. I thought the song was below average, in fact the only parts I enjoyed were the parts Kesha sings. It got me to thinking that she, herself, just put out a tremendously well-received album that I hadn't yet listened to. So I listened to it.

It's tremendous, by the way, ranging over a bunch of different styles and musical genres, all of which are pretty good. Kesha, herself, has an improbable story - the daughter of a semi-successful songwriter, she came to prominence as her family hosted Paris Hilton and Nicole Ritchie during their ill-fated reality show The Simple Life. She was soon after handpicked by mega-producer Dr. Luke and signed to a record deal. The Song Machine - a book about the manufactured pop sound of the last two decades - makes it seem like Dr. Luke (not a doctor) chose Kesha specifically as part of a project to literally create a pop star from scratch; it depicts her as more of a tool, from his perspective, than even an artist.

This all came to an ugly head when Kesha accused Dr. Luke of sexual and financial abuses and sued to be released from her recording contract. This request was denied and it was ruled that the statute of limitations on the rape allegations had expired. She was left to release her newest album, the one I listened to, through Dr. Luke's label, even though he had nothing to do with its production.

Kesha's carefully curated persona through most of her career had been as a drugged up, sexually adventurous, party queen - her songs were generally about drinking and laughing off disastrously bad decisions in a way that makes teenagers excited and parents concerned. Typical pop music to the extreme. With the new album Kesha is being more personal, exploring the depths and breadth of her actual reality, and dealing with all the crap in her life (of which the above description is just a tiny fragment).

We went from seeing this Kesha



To this one




It's a little jarring, both to see how pop culture is manipulated and to see what it can do to real people. Kesha's new album isn't polite - there are a bunch of tracks marked explicit and while there are some potential Top 40 hits there, it's mostly about an artist expressing herself. In other words, it's real art. I recommend the whole thing - it's not too long and it's insanely real, especially if your aware of Kesha's journey to making it.

One of the songs that really caught my attention is called "Hymn." I tend to enjoy music that uses religious language or overtones, especially the songs that challenge the staid assumptions of religiosity. This one, in particular, talks about being a "hymn for the hymnless," a song for "kids with no religion."

I got it, immediately; it really resonated with me. She's not talking about religion persay (and you can read a longer description of Kesha's thoughts on the song here), but about people who feel left out. It's a song for people who don't fit in.

I wouldn't say I've been an outcast in my life; I've rarely felt alone. I have, however, often felt like I don't fit in. I tend to challenge the status quo, mostly because I believe deeply that somebody should. I also tend to think differently. I like this song in particular because of the religious language. Christianity, a movement of outcasts, specifically designed to include and accept everyone, has become one of the most exclusive, homogeneous movements around. Even in the midst of our deep Christian divisions, we tend to be people who like to congregate with people like us.

I love that the very fact this song includes explicit profanities, it'll be rejected by many Christians as bad or troublesome or dangerous, when, to me, it seems downright prophetic. I get that it sounds like an unapologetic apology for all things hedonistic and sinful. It's got overt celebration of selfishness and individualism - generally things Christianity frowns upon. I think, though, above it all, "Hymn" is a declaration of human worth - that's something the Church could use more of.

We have theological statements about how grace and salvation is a free gift from God, but we tend to supplement those statements with actions that show we really do expect a specific standard of behavior to really belong. A lot of the things Kesha has done or sung about are not the kinds of things I want for myself or my children; they're not things I'd condone - and not because they're inherently bad, just that they tend to be harmful. However, when we hold the ideal up as the standard, we all end up falling short. It produces shame and guilt that only lead to a devaluation of self-worth and, often, a devaluation of someone else's worth in our eyes.

Yes, there's a balance between judgement and grace, especially when we actually have the kind of relationship with people where they can hear hard truths as love. The problem we run into is that almost everybody already knows their guilty, but almost nobody really believes they're loved (and lovable). The balance can't be 50-50, because we don't need to hear judgment in equal measure with love. We need a lot more of the latter. It is love and acceptance that's truly transformational.

I believe that. More lives are changed, more positive, healthy decisions are made, because people are loved and accepted in spite of their faults, than will ever be changed because those faults have been highlighted and condemned.

People aren't perfect and they certainly aren't all the same. The expectations we have for each other might be made with the best intentions, but if they're not true to who people are, they're not expressing the kind of value and validation we need to be loved - to be truly human. Just this week I heard and friend and mentor of mine say some powerful words. They perfectly express the reality of this seeming paradox and they fit perfectly with this post, that I'd already been constructing.

He said, "I don't mind the 'I'm okay, you're okay' culture we're in" - this is not what you'd expect from a pastor, for sure - "because what it's really saying is that I'm valuable and so are you."

This culture of acceptance - "I'm okay, you're okay" that's so often decried in religious circles is not meant to be a discussion of the individual merits of an opinion or action or belief - it's meant as the validation of someone's humanity. We're saying, "You are a human being, with experiences and insights that come from real living; you have the right to believe what you believe, even if we disagree."

There's no ability to even get to a discussion of our various views, until I accept your right to come to your own conclusions. That kind of fearless freedom is, truly, at the heart of human life as Jesus understands and explains it. It should be at the heart of Christianity - although it so rarely is - and it's definitely at the heart of Kesha's new album.

I may not agree with the content and substance of the words in these songs, but they express a fierce determination to prove personhood and value in the face of inexplicable tragedy. For someone who's been dehumanized and devalued in ways we can't fully understand to be able to stand up and produce such a strong statement in defiance of those circumstances is entirely worth celebrating.

This new album, Rainbows, is a triumph of the human spirit - and there's a particular, if unintentional, gospel lesson there, if we've got the ears to hear it.

May it be so.





*It's a pretty intriguing topic - a white rapper comes to prominence with culturally conscious and often challenging lyrics and takes the world by storm, winning Grammys with solid, but inferior material over a black rapper (Kendrick Lamar), who's essentially a better, more credible version of the archetype Macklemore was chosen to fill. It wasn't really a position Macklemore asked for, but one he really struggled with.