Fear, Fundamentalism, and Moral Development

Saturday, August 01, 2015

There's a great clip from Richard Rohr by my buddy Travis Reed at Work of the People. In it, Rohr discusses how a major problem with the Bible has to do with who is reading it,

"If you put the word of God in the hands of an angry young man, they're going to misuse it, abuse it, distort it, murder the text, to make it fit their own agenda...  The Bible is best put in the hands of mature human beings who are not filled with anger and fear and agenda."  -Richard Rohr
The reason that we will never get to a time where there will not be fundamentalism is because fundamentalism has to do with a lack of human moral development. It is a reflection of  immaturity, and unfortunately, to turn a phrase, you will always have the immature among you. 

The real problem is not with the Bible, but with how we read it -- whether we read it like Jesus did as a vehicle to move us towards compassion, or read it like the Pharisees did in a spirit of unquestioning obedience that leads to hurt. In other words, the problem is not so much with the Bible as it is with people who are at a very low level of moral development which is characterized by black and white thinking and fear.

The theory of moral development, pioneered by Lawrence Kohlberg in the 1950s, observes that as humans we go through stages of development morally. The morality of small children is characterized by black and white thinking and motivated by avoidance of punishment. As we grow older, and our brain develops, we become capable of higher forms of morality such as empathy, understanding the perspective of another, and doing things not to avoid punishment, but because we care for others.  

Little kids exhibit low level moral development because their brains are not developed enough yet to be capable of these higher moral functions (which is incidentally why children should not be tried as adults in our legal system). When adults exhibit low level moral development, this is a problem. It's moral immaturity.
 
It is important to stress here that by the term “fundamentalism,” I am not referring to those with conservative or traditional beliefs (many of which I myself affirm), but rather to a way of approaching belief that is authoritarian, judgmental, self-righteous, and ultimately fear-based. Such a fundamentalist environment encourages people (by means of shame and fear and threat) to remain at a low moral developmental level. Fundamentalism fosters fear, rather than helping people overcome it. It consists of indoctrination that stunts a person's moral development, and the more time a person spends in that environment, the more their moral growth atrophies. 

The same is true with watching Fox News, or spending time in other toxic environments like internet comment boards filled with viciousness. Fundamentalism takes many forms: There's religious fundamentalism (including atheist fundamentalists), political fundamentalism, and so on. Basically, any ideology or belief system can be approached in a morally immature way, characterized by otherizing, fear, and black and white thinking. The more you feed on that diet of fear and anger, the more it stunts your moral growth, the more it shrivels the soul. When they say "you are what you eat" that's not talking about food.

The problem is that, rather than recognize this black and white thinking and fear as indicative of low level moral development, fundamentalism instead upholds this as moral virtue. Compromise is seen as failure, compassion as weakness; hate and judgment become virtues.

We need to recognize these things for what they are, and that is an underdeveloped morality. To the extent that we foster staying at that low level of moral development, we make people less good. That is what a fundamentalist church does. 

But it is not just churches. Our public discourse -- whether this is grandstanding politicians, shouting pundits on the news, or the toxic posts on the comments section of any big internet site -- is characterized by people who exhibit very low level moral development: fear based, black and white, otherizing, incapable of understanding complexity or finding compromise. This moral immaturity is so prevalent that it feels like the norm, but it is not normal to have so many morally stunted adults (let alone is it the ideal), it's very broken.

To put this in typical Christian terms, it is a sin. I don't say that to place shame, but simply to underline that fostering moral immaturity as a virtue is bad. It hurts people because of how it otherizes and reacts in fear, leading to violence -- especially when we have morally immature people in positions of power and influence. Jesus in the Gospels spends quite a bit of time confronting this in the Pharisees. So while it is uncomfortable to be "negative" and to point out the problems, it is important to do so for the health of our ourselves and our society. So I want us to take note of moral immaturity that masquerades as a virtue.

Next time I'll talk about how we can work to move ourselves and others away from moral immaturity and towards higher level moral thinking, based on understanding Jesus' message of enemy love.

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Why I Reject Biblical Infallibility

Saturday, July 25, 2015

I reject the doctrine of biblical infallibility. There. I said it. The more I think about it, the more I am convinced that this doctrine does a lot of harm, and no good at all. I mean, I can see the appeal of affirming the infallibility of Scripture. It sounds like the right thing to say. It's what church people want to hear you say. I can see how it would be appealing to think that I had a clear source of truth that I could turn to, knowing that it is always right, even when it seems wrong. But my experience shows me that this does not work.

Before I continue, let me provide a brief definition of infallibility so we are all on the same page. Infallibility says that when Scripture says something is moral and good, we can trust that it is. This is different from inerrancy which claims that the Bible does not contain any errors. The Bible may have the name of king wrong, or a scientific fact mixed up, or a typo, but the claim of infallibility is that you can nevertheless trust it in matters of faith, salvation, and morality.

That would sound really reasonable, but it just does not work. The most obvious examples of this are the horrifically immoral things we find endorsed in the Old Testament. Consider the appallingly immoral things we see ISIS doing now -- mass slaughtering of men, women and children, taking women as sex slaves, driving people from their homes, fleeing for their lives -- all of this can also be found in the Old Testament endorsed as God's will.

But we don't need to go to genocide to see this. We see it on a more subtle scale when pastors shame and ostracize people in the name of "church discipline" based on Paul's teaching in Corinthians. This leads conservative pastors like Mark Driscoll to kick people out of church for disagreeing with him, telling their congregation to not associate with them at all, cutting them off from friends and community. It similarly leads pastors like John MacArthur  to counsel parents to disown their gay kids.

The reason this happens is authoritarian unquestioning obedience. On its own merit the above is rather obviously terrible advice. It immediately raises red flags of "wow, that seems really cruel and harsh" and it is. The only reason it is followed is because of an appeal to authority, not to merit. The problem comes because we are taught that it is bad to question the Bible. The Bible says we should do this, and so if we question it, we are doubting God Almighty. The Bible is infallible. So parents who love their kids do something deeply hurtful to them because they are trusting that authority.

The result is that instead of helping us to be more moral, this blind trust in a book (or in some authoritarian guy's interpretation of it) leads us to stop thinking morally, to not listen to our conscience screaming at us "Hey, this feels really wrong, be careful here!"


A slippery slope: "If one thing is wrong, it all is"

One common argument is that if we question one thing about the Bible, then we will question all of it, and it will all come undone like a thread you pull on that unravels the whole sweater. 

Consider that this is not true anywhere else in life. If you say one wrong thing, this does not mean everything you say is wrong. If you don't like one song by a band, this does not mean all their songs are bad. The reason this would apply to the Bible is only of we were assuming that we should be able to unquestioningly trust everything and anything it says as good moral advice to be blindly followed. Then it is true that if you cannot blindly trust one thing in the Bible that you cannot blindly trust anything in the Bible. 

That's true, you can't. You need to discern, to think morally as you read. If there is a slippery slope here, it is a slippery slope away from an authoritarian fundamentalist way of reading the Bible characterized by unquestioning obedience. That is, once we begin to ask questions motivated by compassion we will move away from an immoral authoritarian way of reading, and towards a moral way of reading. Yes, that's right, to read the Bible in an authoritarian unquestioning way is to read it immorally. It directly leads to hurting people, and hardening one's heart. So I hope I can jump on a slippery slope away from that.


Picking and choosing (and why it's a moral imperative)

Another common argument I hear is the idea of picking and choosing-- as if this were something bad. Yes I pick and choose. You should, too. That's what morally responsible adults do. That's called discernment. This is not the same as cherry-picking. Cherry-picking does not mean picking the good cherries and leaving the rotten ones. That would be smart. Who wants to eat rotten cherries? Cherry-picking means misrepresenting the evidence to make it look like everything is nice, covering up the bad stuff. Cherry-picking is another way of saying whitewashing. Liberal Christians do that when they act as if the Bible were only about inclusion and compassion and caring for the poor, and obscure the fact that while the Bible indeed does contain all these good messages, it also has some pretty awful stuff as well that they would not endorse. These bad (read: immoral) parts of the Bible are not simply a matter of misinterpretation on our part (that happens, too of course). There really are some parts of the Bible that are just bad and wrong even when you know the original languages and understand the cultural context. Because of this reality, we need to have a way of reading that allows us to differentiate between the truly good and inspiring parts, and the immoral and bad parts. The key here is not learning exegesis (which is just the science of identifying what it being said), but learning to read morally. Unfortunately this is something that is largely neglected if not outright ignored in seminary where future pastors are trained. That's a real problem.


Is Jesus the infallible Word of God? 

This is something I have claimed. But it's important to be clear what this means. People often object that everything we know about Jesus we know from the Bible, so how can we say Jesus is infallible if the Bible is not? 

If we were wanting to claim that the words of Jesus in the Bible were infallible, then this would be a valid point. We might be tempted to think that we could just "read the red letters" of Jesus and this would solve all of our problems. However this is not true. We also need to engage our moral brains as we read the words of Jesus. There is a long history of people using the teachings of Jesus to promote bad things like counseling women to remain in a physically abusive marriage as a way of "suffering for Christ." Now, I do not think for a moment that this is what Jesus intended at all with his teaching on non-resistance, but it underscores the point that if we do not discern, if we practice the way of unquestioning obedience -- even with the teaching of Jesus -- that this will inevitably lead to hurtful applications, because we can only follow something right if we understand it. Otherwise we will, because of our lack of understanding, turn something good into something bad. Faithfulness is not possible without understanding.

So saying that Jesus is the infallible Word of God cannot mean that we can unquestioningly and unthinkingly follow the words of Jesus in the Bible. That is immoral. Jesus wants us to learn to be moral like he was, and that involves learning to question authority in the name of compassion like he did. The goal is to have the mind of Christ, not to mindlessly follow Christ's words. That's the difference between being a disciple and being a drone. 

What affirming that Jesus is the infallible Word of God does mean is that we recognize that there is something about who Jesus was, and his way, that captures the heart of who God is, who we are meant to be, and what goodness and love look like. So we follow in that way, we struggle and stumble and question and seek to grow in the way of Jesus, to grow in our understanding to see and think about ourselves and others like Jesus did, to have our actions be characterized by Christlikeness. 

This involves opening our hearts in faith and trust, but it does not involve shutting off our brains and conscience, but rather just the opposite. It means fully engaging our hearts and minds to the way of Jesus -- not as something we can capture and possess, but as a goal we humbly seek. The Bible can be a vehicle used by the Spirit to lead us into that. Scripture serves a servant function here leading us to a living Christ who wants us to become more human, more moral, more thoughtful, not less.

For all these reasons, I reject the doctrine of the infallibility of Scripture. From what I can see, this doctrine is all too often used to promote unquestioning obedience. That way of reading is immoral and hurts people. When this doctrine does not lead to this, it seems to function as a rather meaningless affirmation that serves no purpose other than sounding like the right thing to say, the thing that church people want to hear you say. I really cannot see a plus side to affirming infallibility. That is, I do not see how anything good or worthwhile or important is lost by tossing it overboard. So I affirm the infallibility of the living Christ who is the eternal absolute Word of God, and reject the infallibility of a book. I want to let that book lead me to Jesus, not replace him.


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Realistic Nonviolence in a Violent World

Saturday, July 11, 2015

Every 4th of July we nonviolent bloggers feel the need to write an obligatory post on American empire. I didn't, and instead enjoyed watching fireworks with my kids that some guys were lighting illegally on the street in front of our friend's house, and baking an apple pie (Mmmmm).

I get the comparison of the United States to the Roman Empire, but one has to ask, what would the alternative be? Would we rather live in a failed state? If our goal is the reduction of violence, it is clear that a failed state is far more violent and unjust than our country. The fact that we have police and a military does serve to reduce violence. That of course does not mean there is no room for improvement, that there are no problems in our country. But it does mean that the direction we need to move is not towards anarchy. That would be naïve.

A big problem, as I see it, is that there is a tendency for both pacifists and patriots to grandstand -- both taking unrealistically romantic positions on opposite sides of the issue. This may make for good Tweets, but it leads to bad public policy. On the one side we have the patriot/hawks who speak of the necessity of violence as a means of keeping the peace. On the other hand we have the pacifists who say we should abolish the police and military, or that as Christians we should not participate in them. Both take extreme positions in reaction to the other's, employing dramatic rhetoric to appeal to their base. Here there is no possibility for a conversation, just a widening of the divide. That is certainly not peacemaking.

I would instead like to propose something different. I think we should begin by all agreeing that peace and safety are desirable, and that violence is not. The question to ask, therefore, is how can we reduce violence while maintaining peace and safety?

One clear example of this is with the many news stories we have seen of police shootings of unarmed black men and women. There is clearly a problem when there are no legal consequences for police who abuse their authority. We've seen this multiple times where Grand Juries will acquit officers who clearly seemed guilty. 

Here it is clear that there needs to be change. Police who abuse authority and commit criminal acts should be subject to the law. But legal punishment cannot be the only response. The problem runs much deeper. That is, the problem is not just a few bad apples, but a system that fosters them. On a more systemic level there is a fundamental problem with the way policing is done in low income neighborhoods, as well as how police interact with the mentally ill. 

This is something that whites like myself generally do not experience.  I feel safe around police. My interactions with them have generally been respectful. I do not feel unsafe around police. But for people of color, that is not the case.

In general, the approach often taken by police in "bad" neighborhoods is a militaristic one of "zero-tolerance." It's the "no broken windows" approach, and it has certainly only been made worse by the recent militarization of the police by the government. As a result of this, over time members of a community come to be regarded by police as "them" rather than "us," and one is either doing nothing or is a problem. If someone is a problem, then they must comply immediately with all orders or else. With such an approach it is extremely easy for things to escalate, often leading to lethal results. 

The answer is well known by the police and to the US Department of Justice. Part of it involves what is known as "community policing" where police work to build trust in the community, acting as a part of it, rather than as an occupying force. Another critical element is police training in how to deescalate a situation, rather than making it worse with threats, screaming, and a show of force. 

The result of such deescalation training makes things safer for everyone, including safer for police. So it's a win-win. Such training programs are readily available to police departments, but officers often do not participate. Perhaps such training should be a mandatory part of their qualification as police officers. That's a bigger issue, and hopefully as more light comes on to the issue, we will see needed reform here.

Let's take a step back through, and return to the broader picture: What I want to propose is that those of us who advocate for Christian nonviolence should not be calling for people to withdraw from politics or societal engagement. We should not be proposing a utopian Christian society without violence. Rather, we should be the ones training police in how to deescalate potentially dangerous situations. We should be in the middle of our messy world, offering practical and realistic means to reduce violence and actively promote justice. 

A poignant example of this is how Mennonites have worked to introduce principles of restorative justice into our judicial system. I find this remarkable because Mennonites have traditionally been the ones who have sought to separate themselves from society and politics. But now they are in the middle of that system, working to reform it.

That's where I want my nonviolence to take me as well. I am not interested in ideals that are cut off from the realities of our current world. I want instead to have ideals that actually work here and now to help make our broken world a little less broken, and a little more humane.


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The President Sings Amazing Grace: A Song About "Our Nation's Original Sin"

Monday, July 06, 2015




President Obama delivered an emotional eulogy for Reverend Clementa Pinckney and the other victims of the AME church shooting in Charleston. If you have not yet heard it yet, you can it watch above, as well as read the full transcript of the President's speech.

Offering thoughtful reflections on themes such as institutional racism, gun control, and the epidemic of mass shootings in America, what was perhaps most remarkable about Obama's speech was that it was not delivered as a political speech at all, but as a gospel sermon

The central theme that the President kept returning to was the subject of grace. Grace as a gift of God. Grace in the face of loss and pain. Grace in the face of evil and hate. 

The President spoke of the grace that opened the church doors and invited a stranger in. The grace the families of the fallen showed when they saw the alleged killer in court, and in the midst of unspeakable grief, met him with words of forgiveness

The sermon reached a crescendo when the President paused. 

It was a long pause. 

Then President Obama began to sing in a low baritone the words to the familiar gospel hymn Amazing Grace.
Amazing grace how sweet the sound
that saved a wretch like me.
I once was lost, but now am found.
Was blind but now I see.
Amazing Grace is a song we all know well. It has been called our country's "spiritual national anthem," and has become a song that inspires hope in the wake of tragedy. But there is a significance in the words of this song that are particularly significant in the immediate context of the AME shooting, and its connection to the continuing effects of what Obama referred to as "our nation's original sin." 

Amazing Grace was written by John Newton in 1779. When he penned the words "that saved a wretch like me" he was not expressing remorse for some personal failing - such as intemperance or infidelity. John Newton came to see himself as a "wretch" because of his participation in the African slave trade. This was Newton's great sin. When the words of this song exclaim "I was blind, but now I see" Newton's blindness was specifically to the damage of systemic racism, and his participation in it for economic gain. This was what his eyes were opened to, leading to his conversion and outspoken advocacy for abolition.

Amazing Grace is a song about repenting of systemic sin. We typically think of "sin" in individual terms, as personal failings. Systemic sin is often not on our radar at all, but it needs to be. They say "all sins are the same in God's eyes," but that simply isn't true. Newton's involvement in the slave trade clearly affected and damaged more lives than any of his individual failings could have. What makes it all the worse is that systemic sin often hides under the mantle of political or religious authority, claiming as the system to represent "the good." That is the nature of systemic sin, and it is indeed wretched. 

In recent years there has been a move to soften the words of the hymn, replacing the line "that saved a wretch like me," with more palatable verse, such as"that saved and strengthened me" or "that saved and set me free." While it's easy to understand the desire to move away from the song's negative theological roots of self-loathing, at the same time, there is a power in those words that perhaps we should seek to face, even if that's hard to do, even when it's hard to face and own up to.

Even now, in a time when we have become almost numb to the news of yet another mass shooting, weary of all the vitriol, tired of nothing changing -- as we stare into the depths of our nation's addiction to violence, and its deep scars of racism -- perhaps especially now we need to rediscover as a country, as a community, the kind of grace that John Newton did.

Amazing Grace is a song about one man's real and ugly sin. The sin of slavery. At the same time it is a song about the power of forgiveness, a song about looking into the depths of very real evil and, even there, especially there, finding grace that is bigger than all the hate.
That light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it.

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