"For now we see as if through a flawed pane of glass..." (I Corinthians 13:12)

Tuesday, November 24, 2015

Joe McCarthy Lives!


For years I’ve ranted about the belligerent partisanism that’s dividing and conquering America. In a real sense I’m more afraid of that spirit of adversarialism than the threat of Islamic extremism.

Nikita Khrushchev understood it in the 1950s, and the leaders of ISIS understand it today: America can be conquered without a shot being fired. All an enemy need do is play an effective round of “let’s-you-and-him-fight,” and we Americans will destroy each other. ISIS attacks Paris, and Americans square off against each other!!! And the critical mass of Americans is oblivious—too obsessed with pointing fingers at “the other party!”

This demonic temperament is a growing cancer in the American ethos. Remember the iconic, “I’m mad as hell and I’m not going to take this anymore!” from the 1976 satirical film, “Network?” The movies, “Born Loser” and “Billy Jack”, from the same era, touted the ineptitude of government and police, and flaunted an openly rebellious, vigilante type anti-hero. That genre continues to caricature one antagonist in the adversarial drama that is America.

More than one of my social media acquaintances has implied advocacy of armed rebellion as a way of “restoring our nation” to the way they want it to be. Some proudly advertise their gunslinger mentality while arming themselves against the various apocalypses they anticipate. (And that statement is not about guns or gun ownership or 2nd amendment rights.)

Perhaps it has been present from the beginning; but I trace the current manifestation of it to the understandable fears emerging immediately prior to World War II in response to the rise to power of Adolf Hitler and to the attack on Pearl Harbor.

Gandhi said, “The enemy is fear. We think it is hate, but it is fear.” Some circles acknowledge that anger is a “secondary emotion,” triggered by embarrassment, frustration, fear or other primary perceptions. I think The Scions of Shannara series has the quote: “Fear leads to anger, anger leads to hate, hate to suffering. Travel too far down that road and the way is lost.” Western culture in general, and America in particular, is nearing the infamous point of no return.

The origin is fear: understandable, credible fear. And the cause of the fear was not totally resolved with the surrender of Japan. There followed the cold war, the fear of the bomb and that American travesty called “McCarthyism.”

Whatever drove Senator Joseph McCarthy, be it fear, ambition or a hyperactive need for attention, his drunken, obsessive diatribes exploited the fears of a nation and polarized its people. Lines were drawn and sides were taken. Innocent people and careers were destroyed in the witch hunt, and a new American ethos emerged: paranoia linked to ideological paralysis.

It is the nature of paranoia that when the object of one’s fear is removed the paranoia seeks another object. Like a heat seeking missile, it is indiscriminate in its search, and will lock on to any source of heat (read: any ideology different from mine).

Once McCarthyism was embraced by an identifiable portion of the population, its undergirding ethos was validated. Lines remain in place; sides taken remain virtually inviolate. Topics change and people change, but the polarization at the root of the phenomenon has only solidified.

Take it to the next level. Ideological polarization by definition manifests an “us vs. them” mentality. “Us” is right; “them” is wrong. Period. By extension, “right” equals good, and “wrong” equals evil. The resultant moral dichotomy feeds and justifies the polarization. The assumption of moral superiority is inherently an arrogant stance, and almost always triggers hostile reciprocation. Thus, a self-perpetuating cycle of antagonism is engaged. The subject or object is secondary; it is the fight, itself, that reinforcs the dominant American ethos.

I’ve been part of the problem. I’m working on it.

It’s no secret that I hold strong ideological convictions; but, it is not my intention here to point fingers at anyone at any point along the spectrum. There’s enough ideological paralysis and arrogance to go around, although each of us probably is more acutely aware of those qualities in those who don’t share our viewpoint.

What I observe almost universally is a rigid “I’m right syndrome”. People don’t want to discuss or resolve issues; they just want to “win the fight”—and virtually everything is a fight. It’s discouraging.

Recently I’ve made an intentional effort—sometimes effectively—to question my own ideological convictions. I’m trying more often to review all the evidence I can find, and to ask, “What if I’m wrong?” It’s a hard sell to most others. If I ask, “What if you’re wrong?” the almost universal response is, “But I’m not.” Doors are locked. An impasse blocks further conversation.

Years ago in my faith struggles I discovered (perhaps by Divine intervention) a concept that has served my peace of mind. My relationship with God is not based upon the correctness of my doctrine, but upon the grace of God. My Scriptural basis is II Corinthians 5:7, “We walk by faith, not by sight.” While I believe in absolute truth, I don’t believe any human, is capable of comprehending truth absolutely. St. Paul writes, “We see dimly, as if through a flawed pane of glass” (I Corinthians 13:12, my paraphrase). The title of this blogsite comes from that verse.

When Americans come to grips with our need to be absolutely right—when we are secure enough in our own identity (both individual and national) to humble ourselves and consider the possibility that I/we may be wrong (at least partially. Nobody is totally wrong—or right—about anything.), the polarization that is weakening America may begin to be healed. It at least would be a step in the right direction.

That’s how I see it through the flawed glass that is my world view.

Together in the Walk,

Jim




Monday, November 9, 2015

Happy Holidays or Merry Christmas?


The recent flap over Starbucks coffee cups seems like a good occasion to drag out my blog from almost exactly one year ago today. Just about then...
...I was reorganizing our entertainment center when we returned from nineteen months in Las Vegas. I found our collection of Christmas DVDs—movies, TV specials, concerts, etc.

The one on top was a copy of a 1955 Jo Stafford Album. The title song, “Happy Holiday,” was Irving Berlin’s 1942 classic that everybody loves. The second DVD was the 1942 Bing Crosby/Fred Astaire movie, “Holiday Inn,” in which that Irving Berlin classic was introduced. It’s a perennial favorite, along with “It’s a Good Life!”, “Miracle of 34th Street,” “White Christmas” and—you can finish the list.

In the same box was our collection of Christmas cards dating back who knows how long. We keep them for decorations and gift wrapping. “Season’s Greetings,” is among the most common phrases on the covers of the several dozen cards in that stack.

Call me a “Christmas Freak.” I love just about everything about it, and in the last couple of years I’ve even been able to endure the crowds at the malls without uttering a single “Bah!” or “Humbug!” And the joyful anticipation doesn’t follow a calendar. For me it begins about the time the leaves start turning.

I think I love it because in my personal history it’s always been the “Most Wonderful Time of the Year”—with cousins and “Granny” either spending the holidays with us or us with them. I associate Christmas with family, presents, wonderful food, beautiful music, beautiful decorations and the beautiful story that holds it all together.

The story is paramount. No matter what else happens or doesn’t happen during Advent and the Twelve Days of Christmas that follow, I’m never distracted from the awareness of that beautiful story. It’s always with me, thanks to the foundation laid in my family—a foundation that included regular participation in the Body of Christ. No matter what symbol is displayed, or when or where, I am reminded that Christmas is about the birth of Jesus, and that through that birth, “God is with us!”

Apparently—and sadly—some are unable to avoid the distractions. Those same phrases that for over a half-century elicited happy smiles, warm feelings and even hugs have more recently become “fighting words” to some people.

A few years ago someone suggested that it would be more “inclusive” to use the phrase, “Happy Holidays” instead of “Merry Christmas”, to acknowledgment that not everyone is Christian and to demonstrate respect for their religious freedom—the same respect we expect and demand for our own religious freedom.

Religious freedom, like every other freedom, must be extended to all, or no one is free, for if freedom can be taken from one, it can be taken from all. Further, religious freedom includes the freedom from having others’ religious faiths inflicted upon us.

The intention was to find ways to include people of other faiths—or at least not to exclude them—in the public celebrations of Christian holidays. Nothing has ever been intended or suggested that would limit religious celebrations shared among family and friends and within specific communities of faith.

But the good old American autonomy that built this nation raises its head (unnecessarily in this case) and asserts, “Nobody’s gonna’ tell me what to do.”

I haven’t experienced the slightest infringement of any rights. I am free to say, “Merry Christmas” any time I choose, and as far as I know you are free to do the same. Nor do I feel anything has been forced upon me if others choose to say, “Happy Holidays” in deference to the religious freedom of those who don’t share their convictions. Indeed, I don’t feel “Happy Holidays” is a condescension at all. That phrase is still a “warm fuzzy” that triggers deep nostalgia and reminds me that Jesus was born.

At what point did “inclusiveness” become bad? At what point did inclusiveness become a liberal conspiracy to take away anyone’s right to say, “Merry Christmas?” At what point did respect for someone who is different from me become a concession to some evil plot to undermine truth? And at what point did the melting pot mentality[1] engraved on the Statue of Liberty morph into intolerance and disrespect for diversity?

As Christians, we are called to share of our faith; and there are effective ways, ineffective ways and counterproductive ways to do so. In the last third of the 20th century we saw the counterproductive result when too many mainstream churches shied away from face-to-face witnessing at all.

On the other hand, in more recent years much of what is called witnessing is confrontational and does more harm than good. After all, Christianity is an invitational faith, not a coercive one. Jesus said, “If I am lifted up I will draw all people to me.” Too much of what is called witnessing today pushes people away.

So, I will continue to look for ways to make my witness effective, without trampling the rights and freedoms of those who don’t share it. And if my life is being lived such that others don’t know and respect me as a Christian unless I say, “Merry Christmas,” then my witness lacks integrity and credibility. And I have absolutely no need to inflict my faith vocabulary upon those with other faiths or no faith, and thereby run the risk of alienating them from any possibility of witnessing effectively to them in the future.

That leaves me with more than abundant opportunity within my family, my circle of friends and my community of faith—and in the yard decorations in front of my home—to say, “Merry Christmas!”

And that’s the way I see it through the flawed glass that is my world view.

Together in the Walk,

Jim



[1] Give me your tired, your poor, 
Your huddled masses, yearning to breath free, 
The wretched refuse of your teeming shore,
 
Send these, the homeless, tempest tost to me,
I lift my lamp beside the golden door.
~ Emma Lazarus

Saturday, October 10, 2015

On Finding the Good


I don’t get into TV series very often because there are a lot of evening meetings that, as a minister, I need to attend. It’s frustrating to get interested in a show and then not be able to follow it.

“West Wing” was an exception. I hadn’t intended to get started; but I did, and it quickly became perhaps my all-time favorite series—moving ahead of the original “Star Trek” and the original “Boston Legal”. True to form, however, I missed more episodes than I watched. By the third season I just gave up.

When the series ended, Jo Lynn gave me the DVD set of the whole series. Yesterday morning I finally watched the last episode, and actually found myself grieving that it was done.

Martin Sheen played the part of President Josiah Bartlett, a liberal Democrat from New Hampshire. I, too, am a liberal Democrat; so perhaps that’s why I was so attracted to the show. On the other hand, Aaron Sorkin’s well-written scripts and the “walk and talk” technique of director, Thomas Schlamme can’t be ignored. The whole scenario—the sets, the characters, the plots and the political interplay—came across as believable.

Believable or not; realistic or not, the show has left me with an appreciation for the pressures and the agonizing choices that confront a United States President and his (and someday her) staff. President Bartlett made decision after decision that impacted people and entire nations, and often was forced to make those decisions on a moment’s notice. He then often agonized over whether it was the right decision.

It was that agonizing—that ongoing moral struggle with his own values—that perhaps most endeared me to the character of Bartlett. I hope every President struggles with the moral dimension of his/her decisions as much as did the fictional character in “West Wing.”

I often wondered what my conservative friends thought of the show, and whether they avoided it and condemned it with the same bitterness that some of them often display in reference to real-life Democrats. Then I realized that I was too often reacting toward most Republicans with the same level of bitter condemnation.

It long has been my belief that between me and any other person there are infinitely more similarities than differences. We all want pretty much the same things for ourselves, our families and our nation. We just disagree about how to actualize those desires.

But, if there are more similarities than differences between us, then there must be some good, even in those whom I least admire and with whom I most bitterly disagree. So back in September of 2012 I launched a research project to look for the good in the Presidents I least admired.

I started with President George W. Bush. By golly! The man did a lot of really good things while in office! My previous image of him basically as a buffoon mellowed, and I came to appreciate his vision for our nation. I still disagree with his strategy for realize his vision; but I came to admire and respect the vision, nonetheless.

Long story short: I ended up doing the same research on every President beginning with President Harry S. Truman. It was a worthwhile project for me, and I commend it as a worthy challenge for all Americans. The final results of my research were summarized in a blog (connect here) I posted September 10, 2012. Each President has positive accomplishments to his credit.

Anyway, yesterday morning as I finished watching the final episode of “West Wing,” I thought of that blog and looked it up. In the thoughts that followed my review of the blog I wondered what might happen if a large number of us would devote significant time and energy to looking for the good in everyone.

I passionately believe that no person is totally good and not person is totally bad. There is good in each of us, if we but seek to find it. For that matter, how many of us really know and acknowledge the good in ourselves?

What might happen if we identify and affirm the goodness we see in each other, and then work together to pool that goodness? We seem to have no qualms about identifying the bad in everybody, and hammering away at it. If violence breeds violence, is it possible that mutual respect and affirmation might reproduce itself?

What if?

Together in the Walk,
Jim

Thursday, October 8, 2015

On Choosing to Be a Part of the Solution


It’s time for confession and repentance. I am under conviction from a new reading of Ephesians 4:29 (RSV) “Let no evil talk come out of your mouths, but only such as is good for edifying, as fits the occasion, that it may impart grace to those who hear.”

I enjoy my Facebook friends; but I am perhaps too vulnerable to being drawn into the negativity to which a few of them seem passionately committed.

While I still refuse to “unfriend” anyone on Facebook (anti-censorship is a personal core value), I have started blocking (hiding) all websites that promote negative, blaming or scapegoating messages emerging from either side of the conservative/liberal spectrum.

I further have decided (and I hope I can stick with the decision) not to respond to posts from any Facebook friend that promotes negative, blaming or scapegoating messages or perspectives on any subject.

One reason for my decision is that posts on Facebook, if intended to persuade or change anybody's mind on controversial political, moral or religious topics, are exercises in futility and are totally ineffectual. For the most part they do nothing but drive the wedge of division deeper, precisely at a time when our nation needs healing.

But a more important motivation is my recognition that, to the extent that I have not contributed to the solutions, I have been part of the problem; therefore, the conversations I enter in the future regarding any of the controversial issues will be restricted (1) to responding affirmatively to any effort to promote healing, restoration and respectful collaboration toward a solution, or (2) making statements that hopefully will lead to healing, restoration and respectful collaboration toward a solution.

I pray that my Facebook friends and blog readers will affirm and support my pledge to try to become a positive influence, and that my words will be “good for edifying, as fits the occasion, (and) may impart grace to those who hear.” And I pray for endurance, so that I may not “backslide” once again into the negativity that overwhelms our nation.

Together in the Walk,

Jim

Thursday, September 10, 2015

Lives That Matter

Any time a single group is singled out for anything, a backlash of indignation erupts from other groups. And yet, from time-to-time some specific group—religious, ethnic, cultural, generational, gender—needs special focus for valid reasons. Such special focus usually (sometimes validly and of necessity) becomes relatively exclusive in order to call attention to the specific and critical concerns of that group.

Most recently the “Black Lives Matter” emphasis has caused a stir of backlashes, which in reality confirm the issues that motivated the movement in the first place. The movement is about racism, which for many of us is an undeniable structural reality that is pervasive in America today. The backlash more or less proves that reality.

And yet, there is some validity to the concerns behind the backlash. I don’t have the data, but I sense those concerns are about comparisons and perspectives: how many lives (of any gender or ethnicity) were ended by a peace office shooting an unarmed person, compared to how many peace officers’ lives were ended in the line of duty? And how many lives (of any gender or ethnicity) have been ended by a peace officer validly defending his/her or other lives?

Racism is undeniable (although many continue to deny it, anyway). I struggle daily with the residue of my own racist upbringing. Although I name it as sin, confess it, repent of it and reject it almost daily, I cannot deny that it impacts the way I react internally. I pray that my actions and my words reflect the path I choose, rather than the sin that weighs heavily on my soul. I choose to be active in community efforts to confront racism and to raise awareness; and I pray that my chosen actions and words will not be perceived as paternalistic.

Having confessed the reality of racism, however, I sense an additional demon at work in the testimony/counter-testimony surrounding “Black Lives Matter”. I think there is as general insecurity within Western culture that too often is manifested in a world view that says “The only way I can feel good about myself is to ferret out the shortcomings of others.”

Thus, “Black Lives Matter,” triggers a backlash litany of other lives that also matter. The litany is designed to point out the ethical and moral omissions of a movement that singles out one socio/ethnic group. In a sense it is that insecurity raising its head and whining, “Where’s mine?” At the infamous bottom line, of course, the backlash is a smoke screen devised to distract attention from the racism that is endemic within most human cultures.

The weakness of both the movement and the backlash is that each is reactive rather than pro-active. “Black Lives Matter” is a necessary response to a national crisis; nevertheless, it is reactionary in nature, and thus its effectiveness will be limited at best. The backlash is a predictable, but indefensible reaction that also will be ineffective, if not counterproductive.

What we lack at a national level is a proactive approach to countering racism. I have no illusion that my own ingenuity will produce the ultimate solution; but perhaps I can plant a seed that will be watered and fed and weeded by others who can nurture it to fruitfulness.

How about this as a basic proactive platform from which to deal with human life: “Every Life Matters!” To say that a life matters is not the same as affirming that life; nor is it necessary first to demand that it conform to one’s own standards of right/wrong, good/evil, etc. before it matters. To say that a life matters is not to deny that every life also lives out the consequences of its own choices. 

To say a life matters is to affirm that it has intrinsic value and potential.

To say “Every Life Matters” means, ontologically and a priori:
·         Black lives matter
·         The lives of Police and their families matter
·         The lives of Fire Fighter and their families matter
·         The lives of Emergency Medical Technicians and their families matter
·         The lives of Military personnel and their families matter
·         The lives of Conscientious Objectors matter
·         The lives of medical professionals and paraprofessionals matter
·         LGBT lives matter
·         Heterosexual lives matter
·         Heroic lives matter
·         Cowardly lives matter
·         Native American lives matter
·         Hispanic lives matter
·         Asian lives matter
·         Caucasian lives matter
·         Male lives matter
·         Female lives matter
·         Old lives matter
·         Middle-aged lives matter
·         Young adult lives matter
·         Children’s lives matter
·         Unborn lives matter
·         The lives of children born into poverty matter
·         The lives of the poor matter
·         The lives of the wealthy matter
·         The lives of the educated matter
·         The lives of the uneducated matter
·         The lives of the responsible matter
·         The lives of the irresponsible matter
·         The lives of the employed matter
·         The lives of the unemployed matter
·         The lives of the unemployable matter
·         The lives of employers matter
·         The lives of the healthy matter
·         The lives of the ill matter
·         The lives of the mentally ill matter
·         The lives of the differently abled matter
·         The lives of the strong matter
·         The lives of the weak matter
·         The lives of Pro-Life advocates matter
·         The lives of Pro-Choice advocates matter
·         Politically correct lives matter
·         Politically incorrect lives matter
·         Politically ignorant lives matter
·         Lives representing Free Enterprise matter
·         Lives representing Capitalism matter
·         Lives representing Socialism matter
·         Lives representing Communism matter
·         The lives of the innocent matter
·         The lives of the guilty matter
·         Christian lives matter
·         Jewish lives matter
·         Muslim lives matter
·         Hindu lives matter
·         Shinto lives matter
·         Buddhist lives matter
·         Baha’i lives matter
·         Tao lives matter
·         The lives of Democrats matter
·         The lives of Republicans matter
·         Tea Party lives matter
·         The lives of Libertarians matter
·         The lives of Independents matter
·         Your life matters
·         My life matters

This list of Lives That Matter is offered as a conceptual starting place. I feel relatively certain that other life categories could—and should—be added to the list; and I’m sure that there are those who are poised to pounce upon the list and judge it on the basis of its omissions. So, can we work together to complete the list, so we can get on about the business of building a world of peace, justice and love in which Every Life really Matters?

That’s how I see it through the flawed glass that is my world view.

Together in the Walk,

Jim

Thursday, May 21, 2015

Let's You and Him Fight

Between me and any other human there are infinitely more similarities than differences.

That’s a bold statement, especially in a culture that has become obsessed with eliminating differences—in a culture that is persuaded that differences and disagreements are bad and assumes that conformity is good (as long as I am the standard to which everyone must conform)—in a culture that does not recognize or accept the enrichment that emerges out of diversity—in a culture in which defenders of differing ideologies demonize each other.

Nevertheless, I maintain that we agree much more than we disagree—about almost everything.

We all agree that justice is better than injustice.

We all agree that good is better than evil.

We all agree that right is better than wrong.

But we don’t always agree on the definitions of justice, good and right.

Christians generally agree on the reality of God, and agree that God is the Creator of the Universe, the Redeemer of all that is broken in creation, and the Sustainer of all that is eternal. If we humans could leave it there and simply stand in awe before that reality and respond in adoration and praise and in commitment to live in harmony with the redemptive, sustaining work of God in creation, life would be as God intended life to be.

Moreover, Christians generally agree that Jesus of Nazareth completely manifested the redemptive work of God.

But (and you can pick almost any other point in Christian history as a starting point), within the first generation of Christianity somebody said, “This is specifically how God accomplished redemption through Jesus, and you must agree with my assessment or you’re wrong.” And immediately there was established the dichotomy of orthodoxy vs. heresy.

The need to identify heresy is an act of insecurity, and manifests a need to be in control of our eternal destiny. It's the fruit of the tree of which, when we eat it, we will know the difference between good and evil (Genesis 3:1-5). When we know what we have to do, then we won't have to trust some mysterious creator deity. If we obey the rules, that deity will be obligated to favor us in our eternal destiny.

Orthodoxy replaced the pure response of awe and adoration and praise and shifted the focus from the awesomeness of God to human works; and no matter how high we fly the grace flag, the message we send with our lives is "you've gotta' jump through my hoops or you're out". The focus shifted from relating to God to being right and demonizing those who don't affirm my perception of right. And we've been fighting ever since.

“In the beginning, God created the heavens and the earth…” (Genesis 1:1). That should have been enough. But somewhere along the way somebody decided to limit the possible ways God could have accomplished that task, and orthodoxy and heresy were created: “There’s only one way God could have done it, and you agree with me or you’re out.”

So to this day we square off and fight over “creationism” vs “intelligent design” vs “evolution”, and God gets shoved into a corner and essentially forgotten in the preoccupation with being “right.”

And in the process of eliminating disagreements, the larger arena of our agreements, upon which we could work together collaboratively to fulfill our divine calling to build a more just, good and “right” world (“…on earth as it is in heaven…”), gets lost in the shuffle. And God is neither adored nor praised—nor impressed.

"And I will show you a still more excellent way.  If I speak in the tongues of mortals and of angels, but do not have love, I am a noisy gong or a clanging cymbal" (I Corinthians 12:31-13:1).

That’s how I see it through the flawed glass that is my world view.

Together in the Walk,


Jim

Saturday, April 18, 2015

In God We Trust?

“In God We Trust.” But we trust more in our guns and in our violent ways of enforcing our ways. It’s been that way consistently, regardless of the governmental or economic system in place, in every culture since human history has been recorded.

We trust in violence and we persecute those who advocate any alternative in dealing with social and interpersonal disagreements and problems. Even our films and television shows constantly rehearse the necessity of violence as the only effective way to bring about “justice” (retributive justice) and to ensure our safety.

Even our Scriptures proclaim violence as a way of maintaining order. The Holy Writ attributes violent jealousy and vengeful wrath as a part of God’s character and nature.

Well, at least part of the Scriptures do.

Many of the Hebrew prophetic writings project a compassionate God whose love engenders faith and loyalty in those who seek Him (sic). But most readers of Scripture and practitioners of Christianity choose to ignore those parts, or at best to privatize them. The most common (almost unanimous) assimilation of that message is that God offers love and compassion only to those who are faithful to Him and who jump through His hoops. God’s love is conditional; and that message continues to leak through even our loudest pulpit-pounding about God’s grace.  And those who are outside God’s grace are still doomed to violent retribution by this “loving” God.

The greatest tragedy is that so many of us use Scripture to justify our trust in violence. We have approached the Scriptures on a legalistic all-or-nothing basis, when the Scriptures themselves are not presented as such. Too often we have seen the Scriptures as self-contradictory, and then proceeded to “protect” the Holy Writ from itself by inventing all sorts of incongruous rationalizations and justifications to avoid what we see as contradictions.

But, instead of contradictions, the Scriptures present an ongoing courtroom-like debate among God’s people. On one side is the testimony of those who see God as a hero/warrior who competes with other gods over people and territory. Even after Judaism—or at least most of the religious leadership of Judaism—had become monotheistic, that God image persisted.

On the other side is the counter-testimony of those who understood God as one whose love is universally inclusive. They called upon Israel to be a “light to all nations” (Isaiah 60:1-3, et al).

The reader is the jury, and must decide which testimony to believe. Historically, God’s people consistently have chosen to reject the vulnerability of love in favor of the seemingly more secure use of violence and retributive justice.

Jesus made the unpopular choice. He chose to reject the violence in the Hebrew Scriptures and chose instead to lift up love: compassion, restorative justice, reconciliation and enemy love. And the power people of his time found his message so confronting to their own lives that they killed him. Power people still persecute all who challenge them.

At best, again, we privatize those words of Jesus that call for restoration and healing and love, and we wrap them in conditions. As a society we still trust in violence. We think it keeps us safe; we think it makes us strong.

The problem with a system built upon strength and power is that eventually somebody stronger always—ALWAYS—comes along. Love does not need power, for love is the strongest force in the universe. God is love (I John 4:8).

For all these reasons, it will not be enough simply to point out the harm that comes from violence. That harm will simply be called “unfortunate-but-necessary collateral damage.” We will need to demonstrate to the world that there are viable nonviolent alternatives to dealing with societal problems—“ways that are not only effective, but in fact are more effective than violence at resolving conflict and keeping us safe.”[1]

There are numerous historic manifestations of effective non-violent confrontation of injustice and evil. Even in my own life-time names like Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Martin Luther King, Jr. and Nelson Mandela come to mind. Yes, Bonhoeffer’s and King’s non-violent strategies, like Jesus’, cost them their lives; nevertheless, their effectiveness in weakening the evils they confronted is unquestionable. I know no one who denies that love is risky. And those who have challenged violent defense and retributive justice continue to be persecuted.

Maybe we’ve been asking the wrong questions: instead of asking, “How can we be safe and protect ourselves?” maybe we should be asking, “How we can be loving as Jesus was loving?”

That’s the way I see it through the flawed glass that is my world view.

Together in the Walk,
Jim



[1] Derek Flood, Disarming Scripture: Cherry-Picking Liberals, Violence-Loving Conservatives and Why We All Need to Learn to Read the Bible Like Jesus Did (San Francisco: Metanoia Press, 2014), Kindle edition, Location 2289.

Sunday, April 12, 2015

Spiritual Fruits, or Just Religious Nuts?

“By contrast, the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control. There is no law against such things.” ~ Galatians 5:22 (NRSV)

The sermon ended with a simple question: “What fruit does your life bear?” Afterward, she confronted me in the narthex: “You totally omitted all the context that goes before that verse—that stuff about the fruit of the flesh and all that sexual immorality.”

Never mind that of the fifteen listed fruits of the flesh, only three made any reference to sexual immorality. Of the dozen remaining fruits (idolatry, sorcery, enmities, strife, jealousy, anger, quarrels, dissensions, factions, envy, drunkenness, carousing), most of which she (and I) commit regularly, if not daily, eight relate to animosity in human relationships.

We tend to specialize when it comes to sin; and I suspect it’s the sins we don’t regularly commit that show up most frequently on our list of “worst” sins. I want forgiveness and pardon for my jealousy, factionalism, strife, enmity, etc.; but throw the book at him for his sexual immorality.

And never mind that the New Testament is abundantly clear that there is no hierarchy of sins. Sin is sin, and “the wages of sin is death.” The breaking of one law—one sinful act—makes us sinners. How fast do you drive in a 65 mph zone? If you drive 66 mph you are a law-breaker.

Yeah but…

So, out of a list of 15 fruits of the flesh, she picked out the three that relate to “all that sexual immorality.” She wanted me to damn the sexual sinners to hell.

My response was, “Yes, I recognize that there is a list of fruits of the flesh. My question for us today is, ‘Do our lives bear fruits of the Spirit?’”

“But, what about those sins of the flesh?” she countered. 

“Don’t do them.” I responded. “If your life produces Fruits of the Spirit you won't have to worry about fruits of the flesh?”

“But aren't we supposed to rebuke and correct sin?” Now I was beginning to get it. She felt safe in her righteousness; so, she wanted the bad guys to "get theirs."

“I’m wondering if you’re confusing the task of Scripture[1] with our task. Our task is to bear fruits of the Spirit.”

She persisted, “Well, we can’t be soft on sin,” and turned on her heels and left in a huff.

It’s been my observation that in a culture smothered in the residue of Puritanism and Victorianism, most people already know all about sin. But threats of hell and other fear tactics never seem to make a dent in the preponderance of sinful behavior. Fear tactics, however, do produce a lot of guilt and self-justifying behavior; and one of the easiest ways to justify oneself is to condemn others: “his sin is greater than mine.”

Among the prophetic writings of the Hebrew Scriptures, far and away the most frequently named sins of Israel were idolatry/unfaithfulness toward God and injustice toward the poor. Jesus most frequently condemned the hypocrisy of the religious leaders and their unjust treatment of the poor. Yet in many Christian circles today injustice toward the poor has become a scripturally sanctioned institution by blaming the poor for their lot. 

The obsession over "welfare fraud," [you don't work, you don't eat (II Thessalonians 3:10)] justifies the withholding of all assistance in all forms from all people. Yet it is documented repeatedly that welfare fraud accounts for a minuscule portion of monies spent on public assistance. Administrative embezzlement accounts for much more.

The strategy I infer from the confrontation in the narthex is, “Don’t let anybody get away with anything!” It’s a diversionary tactic to focus attention away from my own brokenness.

We are not responsible for the sin of others (Ezekiel 18:3, 17, 19). Our calling is part of “the more excellent way” of I Corinthians 12:31. Love calls us to bear faithful witness—with integrity of words and actions—to the Love of God. And Jesus was crystal clear: we will be known by the fruit we bear. But by emphasizing the sin of others, we risk neglecting the orchard.

That’s the way I see it through the flawed glass that is my world view.

Together in the Walk
Jim 




[1] A reference to II Timothy 3:16, “All scripture is inspired by God and is useful for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness…” The reference apparently was wasted on her.