Learning to Listen: On Prejudice, Blind-spots, Humility and Repentance

Friday, August 12, 2016

This past week the conservative evangelical website The Gospel Coalition (TGC) published an article entitled "When God Sends Your White Daughter a Black Husband" which resulted in a virtual firestorm of responses, both in comments on TGC and on Twitter from people saying that they found the article deeply hurtful and offensive.

At the request of the author the article has been taken down from the TGC website and replaced by a discussion of the article in which three African American leaders—including one TGC editor—reflect on the article, the ensuing backlash, and lessons to be learned. Definitely worth a listen (the link is above).

What I wanted to draw attention to is the response of the author of the article, Gaye Clark. Gaye had written the article with the intent of celebrating God’s work in her and her family’s life surrounding issues of race and prejudice. She had shown the article to her daughter and son-in-law prior to its publication and they had told her they thought it was beautiful. She was consequently surprised and heartbroken over the negative response and indeed the hurt that it caused,
When asked what she was planning to do now, how she would show fruits of repentance, she responded,

Listening. That is so important. The internet has taught us all how to comment, often anonymously, but learning to listen is much more rare, and deeply needed. It is also rare to see someone respond publicly with humility, openness, and sincere repentance like Gaye has. It's so easy, when we feel attacked, to respond defensively. It takes maturity and empathy to be able to see past that, and instead respond with care for the hurt we have caused. 

To me this is not about pointing a finger at this author or even at The Gospel Coalition. I actually think they are both handling this admirably. What I hope to do instead is use the example of this woman's response as an opportunity to look into my own heart. I hope I can show that kind of maturity and empathy. I hope I can be self-reflected enough to see where I may have hidden prejudices in my heart. I hope I can listen to those of other races, genders, orientations, faiths, etc. -- in short those with different perspective and experiences than my own -- to hear and learn how they see things, to understand their struggles.

Doing that takes conversation and honesty. I feel bad that Gaye has had to have that happen for her in such a public way. She is not a hero or a villain, she is just a regular human like you and me. So what I hope this story can help us to do is look to ourselves and our own hearts. I hope we can take it as a positive example of how we can learn to listen with empathy and humility.

The reason I have moved from being a conservative to a progressive evangelical is not because I have been hurt by the conservative evangelical church. As a straight white male, I fit in pretty well. The shift came for me as a began to listen to others who were being hurt, and realized that the theology I had been advocating for and seeing as "normal" was in part responsible for the structures and belief system that was hurting them. This led me to see how much the theology I had inherited was influenced by those white male blinders. My bookshelves contained reams of books by white male theologians with very few written by women or people of color.

Seminary helped me with this. My professors encouraged us to read those with different perspectives than our own. We read feminist, liberationist, and black theology. I also learned a lot from Sojourners and their focus on issues of social justice and human rights. The white male theology I had inherited from conservative evangelicalism had been primarily focused on personal conversion, as social justice issues are not really front and center concern for a suburban white church member. So the "seeker sensitive" sermons never touched on those issues. 

To see them I had to look beyond my horizon to see the struggles of others from different communities and different perspectives. For example, I had always had a positive view of the police, seeing them as someone who I could call on for protection and help. I was shocked to learn that for many people of color, dads and moms need to fear for the safety of their children, and that they may be killed by the police. As a dad I find that devastating. I read a story this week of how police and security officers assigned to public schools are tasering (mostly black) students, and I am shocked and grieved at how quickly we resort to violence as our first and only response we know, and how our children are suffering as a result. This is not something I had ever heard of happening to my white kids. If it did, I would pull them out of that school in a heartbeat, but that only underscores my point of having privilege (having a car and a flexible work schedule for instance so I would be able to deal with that process). My point here is that we don't have "justice for all," and that is not just an abstract concept, but affecting the safety and lives of people's kids. And that matters to me. Black lives matter, gay lives matter, just as much as my life matters.

I want to care about how people of color experience injustice and violence like it was happening to my own child. I want to care about how gays experience injustice and violence like it was happening to my own child. I want to care about how Muslims experience injustice and violence like it was happening to my own child. I believe Jesus and the gospel calls me to do this. That begins by accepting God's love in my heart, but then that love must grow to expressing itself in showing that same love to others. The character of that love is most revealed in how I treat those I regard as "least" and "enemy." I am my brother's (and sister's) keeper. I pray that I can learn to listen.

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The End of the World As We Know It - Part 2: The Time of Crisis

Saturday, August 06, 2016

In part 1 of this series I discussed how we can deal with the reality of an imperfect Bible, and even more how we can find God in that imperfect book. It's about moving away from feeling like we always need to find an explanation to justify things (which even left-leaning evangelical intellectuals have a penchant for), and how it's so hard for us to accept that the Bible -- just like us -- is an imperfect vessel where Christ indwells. So rather than always seeking to explain why that vessel is not flawed, I propose we learn how to find Christ in the middle of imperfection. Isn't that the whole idea of the incarnation?

The specific topic that was the springboard for that discussion was eschatology, and let's face it... eschatology can get really weird with all of its dragons and demons, really yucky with all of its talk of blood and torment, and really flaky with all the doomsday cults. It's not surprising that lots of Christians just politely ignore the whole thing.

While we might wish that eschatology could just be "left behind," (ba-dum-bum), I think if we look hard enough and deep enough, we will find that Matthew's Gospel, with its apocalyptic focus, has something to say about the end times that, far from being irrelevant, contains a profoundly good, life-changing message that we desperately need to hear in our time, right now. 

Matthew is writing at a time of crisis, a time where the people all felt that things had reached a critical mass and something had to give. Many feel that we are in a time of crisis today. Trump's campaign capitalizes on those feelings and fears. At the RNC Trump began his acceptance speech by saying "Our Convention occurs at a moment of crisis for our nation" before launching into a long dark litany of signs of the end that he promised to rescue us all from.

In these times of crisis, it is common for people to say that the morality and values we would ordinarily hold to should justifiably be abandoned. We can see that throughout history, and we can see it now as well. This has been the argument of those evangelicals who support Trump. They are aware that he is morally the polar opposite of a family values guy, and further aware that he is not someone who will promote peace or work to resolve conflict. Quite the contrary, he is someone who they hope will use extreme strongman tactics to "make America great," such as banning all Muslims from the country, killing and torturing the families of suspected terrorists, breaking off our NATO treaty agreements unless we "get paid" by other countries, using more nukes, revoking the freedom of the press to say anything critical of him, and a host of other things one commonly associates with the behavior of a demagogue or tyrannical dictator. Those are considered a necessary evil that is warranted in the present crisis. Indeed these evangelicals do not see these as a problem to be tolerated, but as strength and virtue. They see violence as good and trust in it as the means to being "saved" in the crisis.

This all echoes the messianic hopes people held at the time of Jesus.  Then as now, in a time of crisis people look for a strongman, a savior who will rescue us with his mighty sword. That was the messianic hope, too. They were expecting for the messiah to be a warrior-king who would kill the enemy Gentiles. They did not expect a servant-Lord who would die for sinners and offer salvation to both Jews and enemy Gentiles. The religious leaders did not expect Jesus, and it seems that many evangelical leaders are looking for a different kind of messiah today as well.

In times of crisis, the common response is to feel the need for extreme actions in response to the crisis. As Jerry Falwell Jr. put it in his speech at the RNC, "We are at a crossroads where our first priority must be saving our nation."  Consequently, as he clarified in an interview, social issues, personal morality (not to mention basic human decency) all fall to "the last ones on the list - very bottom." The basic logic here is that these things that we would normally see as immoral and hurtful are all okay in the crisis.

What is unique about Matthew's Gospel is that he proposes that our response to crisis should be the opposite -- we should not seek to justify extreme and violent responses, we should not seek to justify throwing decency and morality out the door in the state of emergency. Instead, Matthew stresses, over and over again, that the way we will save ourselves from the coming crisis is by exemplifying the way of radical love and forgiveness in the face of evil and oppression. We need to overcome evil, not by returning harm for harm, but by loving our enemies. That's the message we find repeated over and over in Matthew's Gospel. In the crisis we should not justify being less good, rather we must rise to become more good. Michelle Obama summed this up well when she shared the advice she gives to her children, "When someone is cruel or acts like a bully, you don't stoop to their level. No, our motto is, when they go low, we go high."

Viktor Frankl had the opportunity to observe people from a place of profound crisis -- as a prisoner  inside of a Nazi concentration camp. There the psychologist observed that a time of crisis has the potential to bring out the best in people, and the absolute worst. He witnessed people become both angels and demons, ordinary people who in the time of crisis would either show incredible acts of selfless love and kindness or exhibit the most inhuman cruelty. We kid ourselves when we think these were monsters who do these evil things. A mother can show heroic love and "go high," but a mother can also justify unspeakable cruelty in the name of protecting her family. Frankl observed both in Auschwitz. The nature of evil is almost always one where the person committing the atrocity feels justified in their actions.

We do truly stand at a crossroads, a crossroad of the soul. In the time of crisis we have a choice to make. Will we sink to justifying hurt to protect our self interest, or will we rise to show grace, mercy, and goodness in the middle of all the ugliness and fear? In that sense the gospel is deeply personal, but it is not only personal, but also social and political. The central message Jesus preached was the "kingdom of God" -- a term whose meaning is perhaps better conveyed today as "God's politics" that is, God's way of organizing life together. The values and way Jesus showed us do not stop when we get to the political or public sphere. They are not intended to be tossed aside when things get tough. As Jesus says on the Sermon on the Mount in Matthew's Gospel, 

"You’re familiar with the old written law, ‘Love your friend,’ and its unwritten companion, ‘Hate your enemy.’ I’m challenging that. I’m telling you to love your enemies. Let them bring out the best in you, not the worst. When someone gives you a hard time, respond with the energies of prayer, for then you are working out of your true selves, your God-created selves.
This is what God does. He gives his best—the sun to warm and the rain to nourish—to everyone, regardless: the good and bad, the nice and nasty. If all you do is love the lovable, do you expect a bonus? Anybody can do that. If you simply say hello to those who greet you, do you expect a medal? Any run-of-the-mill sinner does that.
In a word, what I’m saying is, Grow up. You’re kingdom subjects. Now live like it. Live out your God-created identity. Live generously and graciously toward others, the way God lives toward you.” (Mt 5:43-48, MSG)

Speaking from a time of crisis himself, Matthew has an important message that we need to hear today in our time of crisis. He calls us to respond in the way of Jesus, a way characterized by grace, forgiveness, and enemy love. When they go low, you go high.

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The End of the World As We Know It - Part 1: Growing Up

Saturday, July 30, 2016

 A reader asks,

“Both Jesus and his followers seemed to believe his return and the last days were imminent. Yet here we are 2,000 years later and no Jesus in the flesh or end of the world. Was Jesus wrong? Is our record of what he taught wrong? If I am honest I can see how people can dismiss Jesus as an end times prophet anticipating a soon-coming final judgment that has not come soon. Growing up shaped by Pentecostal emphasis on the second coming I have heard many explanations of this that just seem to ignore the simple conclusion that Jesus was wrong. And if so, was he in fact divine like no other? And if he was wrong should I treat his teachings as authoritative?”

This is a question I have struggled with too. At its heart is a desire to see suffering and injustice come to an end, to see things made right. Those are good desires. However, it’s pretty hard to deny that 2000 years is by no definition “soon.” So what do we do about that? What do we do about the seemingly unavoidable conclusion that Jesus and his early followers’ hopes and expectations were apparently wrong? This brings us to the broader question of what do we do when we find that any part of the Bible is wrong. Does this cause our entire belief to collapse? Does this invalidate everything else?

If we have a faith rooted in authoritarianism and the way of unquestioning obedience, then the answer is, yes, it does. Because of this, many fundamentalist Christians convert to being fundamentalist atheists. That’s one possibility. Another possibility is to double down and argue that we are misunderstanding things and that everything is fine, and the Bible and Jesus are never wrong. That’s another possibility that is widely taken. I’ve heard lots of attempts at doing this in relation to eschatology, and I have to say they all left my heart still longing for a better answer. What my heart wanted was to see the world made right, and so somehow all explanations of why I should accept things as they are just rang hollow.

The way I see it, on a deeper level, this is an issue of growing into adulthood, and that is a painful and difficult passage. As children we idealize our parents and teachers. We place child-like trust in them. When we become parents ourselves, we are faced with the staggering responsibility of taking care of our children. We take on that seemingly god-like role in their lives, all the time painfully aware how inadequate and unprepared we are to live up to that. We try the best we can to keep them safe, but we know we cannot shelter them from everything. We try to do our best, but we know we will fail, we will make mistakes. It’s hard to know that our kids will get hurt in this world, but it’s harder to face that we will hurt them, we will fail them.

The same is true of anyone who is a position of authority in our lives, teachers, managers, mentors, politicians, and pastors... no matter how much they try not to, will all fail us. That can be devastating. Many people, when faced with the moral failings of their pastor, walk away from their faith altogether – just like many people do when they find that the Bible is not a flawless book.

Note that "authority" and "authoritative" are not the same as authoritarian. Adults have people in authority over them, and exercise authority themselves within their lives as parents and professionals. Adults also regard things as authoritative when they deserve to be regarded as such.  But authoritarianism is synonymous with a child-like and developmentally immature approach to life. To the extent that we are nurtured in an authoritarian church, people are conditioned to remain developmentally immature. We need to have a faith that allows us to be morally responsible intelligent adults.

So the question becomes, how can we come to terms with our own imperfections and failings, with the imperfections and failings of those we look up to, and the imperfections and failings of scripture, and still hold on to what is good in ourselves, in our mentors, and in the Bible? That is the core question of what it means to move from childish faith to an adult faith. An adult faith is not one that has all the answers. It is not a faith that is rooted in certainty. That is what a child imagines it is like to be a grownup. Those of us who are adults and parents know full well that the reality of adulthood looks very different.

This new perspective of adulthood does not have the perspective that says if someone is wrong about one thing, therefore we must reject everything. After all, you are wrong sometimes, and that does not mean you are always wrong. The same goes for me, and the same goes for the human Jesus (it’s important that we hold that Jesus was not just divine, but both human and divine!). That means that you cannot blindly and without thinking accept everything I say, or accept everything anyone else says for that matter, including Jesus. We need to seek to understand so we can follow well, not blindly obeying without understanding – which means we will (because we do not understand) follow wrong, leading to hurt.

From what I can see, Jesus was wrong about the timing of the end. He was also wrong in his understanding of medicine, which he (like everyone else at the time) attributed to invisible demons rather than invisible germs. I put all of this to the limitations that Jesus experienced in being a human being, and to be fair, Jesus himself does say “But about that day or hour no one knows, not even the angels in heaven, nor the Son, but only the Father” (Mt 24:36). In the same way that Jesus is both fully divine and fully human, the Bible as a whole is also both divine and human, too. It is possible to encounter God in its pages, to encounter a love and goodness that puts us in direct contact with the divine, the eternal, and the holy. The challenge for us as adult believers is to learn how to find and embrace the good parts so we can get to the holy, so we can get to the heart of Jesus.

Just because Jesus was misinformed about medicine does not mean that there is nothing for us to learn about how Jesus treated the sick. In fact, there is immense, profound, life-changing moral insight that we can learn from how Jesus sees and treats the sick. Similarly, just because Jesus (and Matthew) were wrong about the imminence of the end, if we dig a bit deeper to look at what the Gospels, and in particular the Gospel of Matthew, has to say about the end time, what we find is a life-changing message that we desperately need to hear in our time, right now. I’ll discuss that in detail next time.

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Beyond Justifying: How To Read the Bible For All It's Worth

Sunday, July 17, 2016

There are two basic ways we can approach living out the teachings of Jesus and our own spiritual and moral growth and development. One is by seeking to justify the morals we have now, and the other is by seeking to grow deeper. While you can probably guess that I’m going to advocate for the second, the first approach of “justifying” is far more common among evangelicals – and that’s true for both conservatives and progressives.

A common example of this “justifying” approach can be seen in how many Christians seek to deal with parts of Scripture that they find problematic. Let’s say for example you read somewhere in Paul’s writings something like “women should shut up because men are better” (or something that sounds like that to you anyway), and you think “what the hey!?” The justifying approach will look for a way to justify your not following this. For example you might say “many scholars believe that Paul did not actually write this book, so therefore I can ignore it.”

Or to take another example you might read Jesus saying something that sounds to you like “Do not protect or defend yourself or your loved ones when they are hurt by someone. Blessed are those who passively tolerate injustice” (again, I’m expressing more how the verse feels, rather than what it actually says). Again, the approach of justifying might seek to say something like “When Jesus spoke of turning the other cheek he was not referring to personal self-defense” or if seeking to defend the military one might say the opposite “When Jesus spoke of turning the other cheek he was only referring to personal self-defense, not to the state.”

This is not to say that the justifying approach is incorrect. It may very well be that Paul did not write such-and-such book, and it may be quite true that Jesus was not specifically referring to the particular situation we have in mind today – indeed literally everything you read in the Bible was said to a different people in a different situation in a different time in a different language. However, the goal we have with the Bible is to ask “How can I apply this to my life?” and more specifically “How can I apply the way and teachings of Jesus to my life?” That’s kind of the whole point of following Jesus. That’s pretty much the main reason we bother to read the Bible at all. The approach of justifying, however, instead seeks to do the opposite of that. It seeks to find ways to justify not applying it. That’s why as a general approach I think it not a good one, or at least I think there is another approach that is much better.

I also want to stress that I am not saying that the justifying approach is illegitimate. If you as a woman don’t want to be quiet and submit, I can totally relate. I also relate to wanting to defend myself and those I love. To take it even further, I can certainly understand why a person who is attacked could respond with violence. I feel the moral drive as a parent to defend your family. I think one can legitimately claim that it is justifiable, in certain circumstances, to use violence in order to protect. We can make similar arguments with many things – for example we can say it is justifiable to get a divorce in certain circumstances.

The point is not to deny that it is legitimate to see this as justifiable. But what I want to do is ask if we can go beyond this, if we can do something better. I’d like to sketch out what that might look like.

First of all I begin with a simple rule of thumb: If the way I am interpreting the Bible seems wrong and bad and hurtful to you, then I stop right there. Don’t do something that you feel is hurtful. That means that in the above examples where you hesitate because it seems wrong to not to defend yourself, that’s a good instinct. Pay attention to that. Your life matters. Injustice is not okay. That is perhaps not where we will end, but it is certainly where we need to start.

The next step is to entertain the possibility that if it seems to me that Jesus is saying something that seems foolish, naive or even bad, that just maybe it is not the case that Jesus is naive and dumb and wrong, and quite possible that actually he is saying something that is morally over my head. So I need to seek to get to the place of actually understanding how I could take what Jesus is saying and apply it to my situation in a way that leads to moral transformation. That is, in a way that takes me out of the typical loop I get stuck in, and brings me out of that, above it. In other words, I need to appreciate how Jesus is showing me a better way, and really get how that could work in my life. If we can begin to ask this question as we immerse ourselves in the teachings of Jesus and the New Testament, if we can have this question on our lips as we open our hearts to listen to the leadings of the indwelling Holy Spirit, then we open up a whole world of possibilities to walk in the way of reconciliation and peacemaking that Jesus embodied and calls us to as his followers.

Conversely, when our only response to Jesus is to seek to justify our hurtful actions, to say “Yes, but what about...” (fill in the blank with whatever horror scenario gets you emotionally triggered, so your amygdala is flooded, and all rational conversation is completely shut down). When we do that, we close the door to finding any other possibility besides the one where we justify hurting someone else. That results in moral stagnation. It means we close the door to learning another way. We close the door to doing better, to growing morally, to making our world more into the kind of place that Jesus prayed for “your kingdom come, on earth as it is in heaven.”

So how can we move towards doing that? The first step is to get past seeking to justify not doing it. Rather than continually rehearsing all the emotionally upsetting scenarios where we think we are justified in being violent, rather than continually asking “but what about...?” what if we instead spent our energy trying to figure out how we could apply the way of Jesus in our own live contexts and situations? When groups like the Mennonites have attempted to do that, they have come up with really groundbreaking, society-transforming ideas like restorative justice. That’s exciting, and I want to be doing that. I want to be morally innovating and creating, rather than spending my time seeking to justify why I am not.

I think I get to say that. After all, I’m the guy who wrote a book on how it’s okay to “pick and choose” what parts of the Bible will shape and guide us morally, and which parts do not. So one could think that I would be all for the justifying approach. After all, I am, to an extent, providing a justification for not following certain teachings which we determine are hurtful (or at a minimum, certain interpretations of those teachings). Again, those justifications are legitimate. They are a good place to start, but a bad place to stop. So I maintain that we must go beyond this. In fact, the only reason I still read the Bible is in the hopes of going beyond this. I read in the hope that I can connect with the Spirit who will lead me into a deeper understanding of the way of Jesus that can transform me and my world.

That’s the attitude, and it’s a critical starting position. But let’s get to the practical. What does it look like? On a very simple level it begins by simply asking “How can we do better?” and “What are ways to reach the goal we have without harming anyone?” or at a minimum “How can we work to reduce harm?” Yes, we can justify divorce for instance. But is there a way to save the marriage, restore the relationship, and keep the family together? If there is, shouldn’t we seek to do the hard work to get there? Yes, we can justify violence used in self-defense, but if there is a way to resolve conflict peacefully, shouldn’t we seek to learn how to do that? If there was a way to reduce the amount of deaths due to guns in our country – whether from suicides, mass shootings, gang violence, or police shooting unarmed people of color – shouldn’t we seek to do everything we can to learn how to do that?

Yet so often, rather than working together to do that, what we find are people who feel the need to instead justify keeping things the way they are, and as a result actively block others from working to make it better. What I want to state is that this is not a good way to “defend” morality because it ends up in stagnation and status quo, and prevents growth and development and healing. We need to go beyond justifying things, and instead learn how to seek to make things better. That is where Jesus was trying to take us when he said all of his “I know it says... but I say to you” and “don’t even the unbelievers already do that?” statements. He wanted us to go beyond status quo religious morality, and “be perfect” which in Hebrew means to take something to completion.

Why is it that we gravitate towards seeking to justify, rather than seeking to improve and go deeper? A big factor is the feeling that we need to defend ourselves from blame. Every child does it. You could almost say it comes hardwired into us. “He started it!” we learn to say. Yes, I absolutely am implying that justifying is an immature response because it absolutely is. I’m guilty of it, too. We all are. But I don’t want to justify that (see what I did there?). I want to instead seek to follow Jesus, who calls us instead to the way of repentance and humility, rather than the way of justifying ourselves. That’s just Gospel 101, people. Moreover, Jesus calls us to be at the forefront of working to bring about peace in our world, to be ambassadors of reconciliation, to demonstrate the same kind of love Jesus did. That’s our calling, our mission.

I think that’s an exciting possibility, to be in the place of moral innovation, to be active in pushing ourselves and our world towards being more humane, more loving, more like Jesus. I also think it opens all sorts of doors into really encountering the divine in the Bible, allowing us to read in a way that deepens and challenges us. I hope you find that as exciting as I do, and will join me in going beyond justifying ourselves. Let’s stop asking if there is a way for us to justify not applying the way of Jesus to our lives, and instead seek to find how we can. Jesus tells us that way is life. Let’s not rest until we understand why that is true.

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