A Thousand Starfish

Saturday, February 11, 2017

Watching the news of Trump has been overwhelming, alarming, and frankly exhausting. One of the biggest stories has been of Trump’s Muslim ban. People who had legitimate visas and green cards were held in detention or deported. Families were separated, people were refused their rights to see lawyers, despite direct court orders. It was a nightmare.

That’s why I was so surprised by the perspective of a young student from Iran I know (I’ll call her Zahra). When I told Zahra I was glad to see her here, she replied with a huge grin, “Thank you, and thank you to America!”

I realized that for Zahra, America is not defined by what Trump or the White House does. It’s not CBP or ICE. She sees America in all the people who protested in airports across the country. She sees the thousands and thousands of people who took a stand for her and others like her. That’s the America Zahra sees.

It’s so easy for me to let the deluge of news stories define what America is. It’s easy to feel like my single voice is powerless. That’s why I want to remember Zahra’s perspective. I need it to sustain me through what will likely be a long resistance.

I’m reminded of the story of a beach covered with dying starfish. A man sees a boy, throwing the starfish back into the water one at a time, and says to him cynically, “There are thousands and thousands of starfish. What does it matter?” The boy throws another starfish into the water, and answers, “It mattered to him.”

It mattered to Zahra.

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Evangelicalism’s Two-Faced God

Sunday, February 05, 2017

I recently went to a talk with Science Mike (Mike McHargue) where he discussed his memoir Finding God in the Waves, which I’m looking forward to reading (more on that soon). It was a great talk, and I was struck by something Mike said about neurology. He described how neuroscientists have observed that people who contemplate a loving God see changes in their brains, building their prefrontal cortex (the part of your brain responsible for things like compassion and moral reflection) and lessening the influence of their amygdala (the part of your brain responsible for impulsive fear-based reactions, which are helpful when you have your hand on a hot stove or step on a snake, but not so great when you are trying to resolve conflict in a relationship).

I related to what he said, and can certainly attest to experiencing this in my own life. I talk about this a lot in fact, in terms of moral development and the brain. In one sense, it’s just common sense that people who focus on feeling loved (religious or not) would tend to become more loving people. However, I found myself wondering how it could be that evangelicals (well, I should clarify, American white evangelicals) can be so focused on experiencing the love of Jesus, and at the same time can overwhelmingly support war, torture, the death penalty, corporal punishment of children, and so on. How can they so enthusiastically support policies that completely lack compassion and care of the least?

So I asked Mike, if it is true that focusing on Jesus’ love makes your brain develop the prefrontal cortex, then why is it that white American evangelicals seem to be so amygdala-driven, that is, driven by fear leading to hurtful reactive responses, as characterized by their overwhelming support for the policies of our current President?

It’s something I am genuinely baffled by. Mike stressed that some conservatives are indeed compassionate which I do not doubt, and that liberals can equally lack compassion, which is certainly true. We all can be jerks, we all can let fear lead us to being hurtful, there is no ideological monopoly on immaturity. However, there does seem to be something about white American evangelicalism that seems especially toxic. There seems to be something about white American evangelicalism in particular that makes it ripe for being unreflected, angry, fear-driven, scapegoating, and an enthusiastic supporter of violence and punishment in the name of the good. What is it?

What I took away from Mike’s response was that he suggested that the problem was their belief in a very different god from the God revealed in Jesus – a god characterized by fear and anger, who threatens eternal punishment, and is characterized by wrath. I was reminded of what Brian Zahnd has described as the “monster god” of neo-Calvinism. In short, Mike proposed that the basic problem is that they have not experienced the love of Jesus, and instead know a god of fear and anger.

It’s important to understand that Mike’s story is one that is deeply shaped by his experience of God’s love in the midst of the pain and rejection he experienced in his youth, as well as his experience of that same life-transforming love as an adult atheist. It's really a classic born-again testimony. I have myself been deeply influenced by that same experience of the love of Jesus in my life as a teen. I was born again, but this was not simply a one time event. I was drawn to knowing God's love relationally, and in that "pursuit of God" (to borrow a phrase from A.W. Tozer) I experienced over and over again a love that completely transformed my life. I write about this in my first book Intimacy with God which I chose to make free because I wanted to share this love with everyone. I realize that for many the idea of a “personal relationship with God” may seem sappy or sentimental, but I cannot stress how profoundly experiencing that love first-hand in my life as changed me. For me it is not sappy at all. From hearing Mike speak of his life, I think the same could be said for him. Mike told stories with tears in his eyes of how experiencing the love of Jesus literally "saved" him from committing suicide in his youth. It was a beautiful testimony.

From that perspective, it makes sense to think “There is just no way a person could experience love like that and be so angry and hurtful. They must experience God as angry and hurtful.” So when Mike said essentially this, my first reaction was to agree. Then the more “science-y” part of me began to kick in. The fact is, people are very capable of compartmentalizing and showing great inconsistency in different parts of their lives. I’m sure there were many people in the 1800’s who were moved to tears at a revival meeting, and then came home and mercilessly beat their slaves – I can even see them thinking that doing so was good. I’m also pretty sure that many of the people who adamantly support things like war and torture today actually do experience the love of Jesus in their lives. It seems really counterintuitive, but we humans are complex creatures. I strongly suspect that if we were to survey white American evangelicals who support these angry and hurtful policies, we would find that a great many could tell moving stories of how they have experienced the love of Jesus in their lives.

Let me stress here that I don’t mean at all to be critical of Mike’s answer. He said it off the top of his head, and I think it was a great answer with a really important insight. My goal with this post is to help further develop the idea, after having the chance to reflect on it for a while.

There is something going on, and it does have to do with an angry God, but this picture of a God of anger and fear seems to co-exist alongside the experience of the love of Jesus. It’s an odd mix of the love of Jesus for those on the inside of the church, with a simultaneous focus on anger and hellfire for those on the outside – including you, if you “fall away.” The “monster god” is thus not a god who is only angry, but a god who is deeply loving to those on the inside and full of wrath towards those on the outside.

This “two-faced God” (to borrow a phrase from Michael Hardin) means you can go to church and sing songs about the love of Jesus, and then hear a sermon by a very angry white dude about how we should fear our nation being corrupted and destroyed by [insert name of scapegoated minority group here]. In short, we experience love and compassion on the inside, but are taught that those on the outside should be feared and hated. They get wrath. This reinforces people’s natural tendency to feel love for their own family, race, nation, and religion, and to demonize, criminalize, and dehumanize those outside the boundaries. That’s why evangelicals can experience love themselves, and yet lack compassion for others, being instead driven by fear and anger towards them.

People in that environment are therefore not meditating on an angry “monster God” alone. The picture of God they have somehow simultaneously consists of the experience of the love of Jesus (which I do not doubt is genuine) mixed together with week after week of cultivating anger and fear to those perceived as enemies from the pulpit. Sitting in that atmosphere week after week, year after year, shapes your brain. It essentially stunts a person’s moral development. The course of moral development is supposed to go from being loved, leading one to extend that same love towards others, developing socially. This toxic theology however keeps people inwardly focused in a sense of fear-based reactionary self-protection. The neuroscience phenomenon Mike mentioned of building the social and compassionate part of our brain thus does not happen, because this preaching of fear and anger towards outsiders strengthens the reactionary fear-based part of our brain, the amygdala. To put this in more theological terms, while they experience the love of Jesus, they do not follow the teaching of Jesus. Jesus had hard words for people like that, 

I will tell them plainly, ‘I never knew you. Away from me, you evildoers!’ (Matthew 7:23)
Jesus links faithfulness to how we treat others, and this is most seen in how we treat those who we regard the least. John echos this when he writes,
"Whoever says, “I know him,” but does not do what he commands is a liar, and the truth is not in that person."
These are hard sayings, and I hope we are able to hear them. What is being expressed, in the strongest of terms, is that our experience of God's love is not worth much if it does not translate into showing compassion to others. It's like a flower that is planted, but does not grow out of the dirt.

This understanding of evangelicalism’s two-faced God is especially important for the “nicer” evangelical churches to recognize. Here I do not mean the churches where the pastor wears skinny jeans and a soul patch, but underneath still preaches the two-faced God. I mean the genuinely nice churches who only talk about grace and love, the churches that you and I would want to go to. Because evangelicalism is so fluid, those nice churches are filled with people who come from churches that preached the two-faced God. Almost never is it acknowledged in those nice churches that there are people in the congregation who are still carrying wounds from that past church experience. When it is acknowledged, it is almost always in the context of the person having misunderstood. You must have gotten the wrong impression of who God is. It’s always your personal problem, as opposed to us recognizing that this two-faced God of love and hate is very widespread within white evangelicalism, and addressing that. 

In other words, the problem is not simply that the person has gotten an angry picture of God, and now simply needs to hear of the love and grace of Jesus. They have experienced a God who is both loving and hateful, and as a consequence they have been damaged by that. To the extent that they have preached this non-gospel of “God hates you and has a wonderful plan for your life,” they have hurt others. Perhaps a father severed his relationship with his gay son because his pastor told him that was tough love. Whatever the specifics, many live with the fallout of relationships that they have severed because of this toxic theology when it is lived out.

Simply preaching God’s love is not an antidote to this, because they have been taught that there is no contradiction in God being both loving and hateful, nor is there a problem with their being both loving (to insiders) and hateful (to outsiders) themselves. Instead of their experience of God’s love leading them to follow the teaching of Jesus and caring for the least, this two-faced God theology has taught them to ignore the love they experience, and instead be driven by fear and anger which is pounded into people’s psyches by what they hear Sunday after Sunday, not to mention their diet of angry pundits and media that they consume 24-7.

I know that it is hard to face this, which is perhaps why these nice evangelical churches so often avoid it. But I really hope that the grace-focused evangelical churches can find the courage and humility to address this toxic theology head-on, and help people kick-start their hardened hearts, and move towards growing in compassion. Sometimes to find healing, to find what is good and beautiful, we need to first face the ugliness in ourselves and in our communities.

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Did Jesus Break Old Testament Law?

Friday, January 27, 2017

Did Jesus break Old Testament law? Looking at the Gospels it is clear that Jesus would say "no" while the Pharisees would say "yes." We read repeatedly in all four Gospel accounts that Jesus was accused by the Jewish religious leaders and biblical scholars of his day of being a lawbreaker and sinner.

So did Jesus actually break Old Testament laws? A common conservative response to this is to claim that Jesus did not break any actual biblical laws, and instead only broke "traditions of men" that had been added on top of the Torah. The implication therefore is that there is nothing wrong with the Bible, God's law, but only with the extra "man-made" traditions added on top of it.

The phrase "traditions of men" comes from something Jesus says in Mark regarding the practice of ceremonial washing of hands. As the Gospel writer explains,
The Pharisees and all the Jews do not eat unless they give their hands a ceremonial washing, holding to the tradition of the elders.  So the Pharisees and teachers of the law asked Jesus, "Why don’t your disciples live according to the tradition of the elders instead of eating their food with defiled hands?" (Mark 7:3,5). 
Jesus answers in response, "You have let go of the commands of God and are holding on to human traditions" (v. 9), or more literally, "traditions of men." Jesus then calls the crowds to himself and declares,
"Listen to me, everyone, and understand this. Nothing outside a person can defile them by going into them. Rather, it is what comes out of a person that defiles them... Don’t you see that nothing that enters a person from the outside can defile them? For it doesn’t go into their heart but into their stomach, and then out of the body." In saying this, Jesus declared all foods clean. (Mark 7:14-19).
Note the conclusion made here by Mark: "In saying this, Jesus declared all foods clean." Jesus was not simply rejecting the traditions of the elders in regards to hand washing, he was rejecting the biblical teaching of uncleanliness altogether. This is clearly an example of breaking with the Old Testament law. The Old Testament forbids eating certain foods. Jesus rejects these laws, declaring all foods clean. However, Jesus would not agree that this makes him a lawbreaker. Jesus continues, 
"What comes out of a person is what defiles them. For it is from within, out of a person’s heart, that evil thoughts come—sexual immorality, theft, murder,  adultery, greed, malice, deceit, lewdness, envy, slander, arrogance and folly. All these evils come from inside and defile a person." (Mark 7:20-23)
Jesus is here re-defining the definition of what makes a person unclean or defiled. As always, his focus is on a person's faithfulness not being defined by outward signs (diet, circumcision, dress, Sabbath) but on acts of love and goodness. Jesus consistently taught that the purpose of the law is to lead people to love, and consequently he is willing to break Old Testament laws in order to prioritize love. 

Let's take a look at another example of this, Jesus healing on the Sabbath. We read in John 5 of an encounter between Jesus and man who had been paralyzed for thirty-eight years. Jesus says to him "Get up! Pick up your mat and walk” (John 5:8). The Jewish leaders see the man and say to him “It is the Sabbath; the law forbids you to carry your mat.” (v 10).

Again, here it is typical of conservative commentators to claim that Jesus was not breaking the Sabbath, but was merely breaking the "traditions of men." Indeed, when the Jewish leaders say "the law forbids you to carry your mat" they are referring to the Oral Torah.

A little background may be helpful here: Jews at the time of Jesus believed that both the Written Torah and the Oral Torah were transmitted directly from God to Moses on Mount Sinai.  This belief is still today a central tenant of faith for Orthodox Jews, while Conservative Jews, and to a greater extent, Reform Jews today see themselves as empowered to formulate their own interpretations -- much in the same way as Jesus did.

The Oral Law was put into writing between 200-220 AD and is known as the Mishnah. The Mishnah, in the tractate Shabbat, defines how the Sabbath is to be observed, and specifically forbids carrying things on the Sabbath -- like, for example, mats. The Mishnah also contains the instructions on ceremonial hand washing that we discussed earlier. While these are additional ceremonial practices added on top of biblical cleanliness laws (and as we have seen, Jesus breaks with both this added tradition and with the cleanliness laws), the Sabbath regulations found in the Mishnah are, in contrast, an example of how Judaism understood and interpreted the Sabbath law. 

We might compare this to how the Supreme Court interprets the Constitution. We do not simply look at the Constitution alone, but at how it has been interpreted in these Supreme Court rulings. This dictates how our laws are practiced. In the same way the Oral Law or Mishnah defined how the Sabbath was to be practiced, and Jesus would have been well aware that telling this man to carry his mat was clearly a violation of this. Jesus does not do this because he was unaware or even indifferent to the Oral Law. He does this to provoke. That is why he healed on the Sabbath in the first place. He could have easily waited one day to heal the man. In response to this, the Jewish religious leaders then confront Jesus. 
In his defense Jesus said to them, "My Father is always at his work to this very day, and I too am working." For this reason they tried all the more to kill him; not only was he breaking the Sabbath, but he was even calling God his own Father, making himself equal with God. (John 5:17-18)

Note here that Jesus does not even attempt to make the argument that he was not doing work on the Sabbath. He instead argues that God is always working, and that in faithfulness to God, he is working, too. It's quite provocative to use the word "work" here, as the reaction of the religious leaders being so outraged that they wanted to kill him makes clear. Further, John does not frame this as a misunderstanding, nor does he differentiate between the Written and Oral Law. Rather John flatly declares that Jesus was "breaking the Sabbath" (v18). Again, we have another example of how Jesus prioritized caring for people over observance of law, and even went out of his way to be seen as breaking biblical laws in the eyes of the religious leaders of his day in order to make this point.

On another occasion Jesus pointedly asked the Pharisees, "Is it lawful to heal on the Sabbath or not?" (Luke 14:3). Luke reports that they did not answer. However, we know from the Mishnah what their answer would have been. As Strack and Billerbeck state, 
"The unanimous answer of the Pharisees would have been that healing on the Sabbath is allowed in the case of an immanent life-threatening illness, but is otherwise strictly forbidden." (Kommentar zum Neuen Testament aus Talmud und Midrasch, vol I, p 622, my translation from the German).
In other words, you must keep the Sabbath unless this will kill you. So while Jesus believed it was a duty to heal on the Sabbath -- because it was God's will to do good -- the Pharisees and religious leaders of Jesus' day would have clearly seen Jesus healing a man on the Sabbath who had been paralyzed for 38 years as a sinful act. As Eduard Lohse writes,
"While the rabbis could at most allow that the Sabbath could be desecrated as an exception in order to save a person's life, Jesus reversed this thinking: No longer was Sabbath and following the law seen as primary, rather people and their needs were placed above the Sabbath commandment." (Lohse, "Jesu Worte über den Sabbath" in Die Einheit des Neuen Testaments, p 63. My translation from the German)
Again we see that the priority of Jesus is always on people's needs and on acts of love. These supersede biblical laws and commands.  If Jesus sees a person in need, he heals them, and he does not give a flip if that is a violation of the biblical law because the whole point of the law as Jesus saw it is to lead us to loving action. Jesus is not willing to wait one single day, and does not care that doing this makes people mad enough to kill him. In fact, he repeatedly seeks out this confrontation.

So the answer to the question of whether Jesus broke with concrete biblical commands is clearly, "Yes, he did so repeatedly." In addition to those mentioned here, Jesus also declined to participate in the execution of a woman caught in adultery (which the law commands), and instead forgives her. Note that there is no possibility for forgiveness for intentional sins in the Torah and its sacrificial system. 

However, as noted earlier, Jesus would have adamantly insisted that in all of this breaking of laws, he was keeping Torah. Here it comes down to our approach to Scripture. Jesus is by no means a legalist, and therefore sees no problem with breaking particular commands so long as people's needs and love are being promoted. Doing this is how Jesus understood the fulfillment of Torah. The Pharisees in contrast had an approach to Scripture that assumed that the law should be kept, and that even if people seem to be hurt by this, Scripture should still be put first. Their view is basically, "The Bible says it, so that settles it."

In a great many ways, the way many of us have learned to read the Bible is a lot more reflective of the approach of the Pharisees than it is of Jesus (and somewhat ironically, Reform Judaism has an approach to Scripture that is quite reflective of the approach of Jesus, and not of the Pharisees). The reason I object to the argument that Jesus was only breaking with "traditions of men" and not with the Bible itself is because this strongly implies that all we need to do is find the right source -- the Bible -- and then we can just blindly trust it. That is categorically not what we see Jesus doing. We instead see him continually questioning and challenging Scripture and how it was interpreted and practiced, always doing so in the name of love.

We need to learn from Jesus how to do this ourselves. This is of course not easy. Making moral deliberations, deciding right from wrong, is hard work -- especially if you have been taught in church that you are incapable of doing so, as many of us have been. Fleshing out how to do this well is of course far beyond the scope of a single blog post. That's why I wrote Disarming Scripture, to help walk people through how to do that well.


What I will say however is that we must learn to approach Scripture in the way that Jesus did. We need to learn to appreciate how radical that is. It's right there, quite plainly in the Gospels. We just need to have eyes to see it. So when we see Jesus doing or saying something that is scandalous (which he does quite often), instead of attempting to argue why this is in fact not scandalous at all, ask yourself why Jesus might be doing this, and what we might be able to learn from it.

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Can A Feminist Be Pro-Life?

Sunday, January 22, 2017

With the Women's March there's been talk about whether one can be a feminist and pro-life. The answer to this depends a lot on how one defines pro-life. Pro-life is often associated with acting to create laws which restrict women from access to abortion. Those laws frequently dis-proportionally effect lower-income women, and result in making abortion less safe, but not less frequent.
So if the goal is to reduce the amount of abortions, these laws appear to be very ineffective, and at the same time they also appear to hurt women. That's why I am pro-life, but not pro-law. Being pro-life for me means that I am pro-life across the board: It leads me to oppose the death penalty and torture. It leads me to support Black Lives Matter and believe we desperately need to reform our police and criminal justice system. It leads me to support LGBT rights and marriage equality. It leads me to feminism because feminism is about human rights. All of these are the direct consequences of my commitment to being pro-life, not simply in regards to abortion, but as an all-encompassing social ethic.

I do hope to see abortion become rare, but not at the cost of hurting women. As a consequence, I generally do not support what I see the majority of pro-life organizations doing, which is to focus on laws. I see this approach as ineffectual, and worse, hurtful. As a study by the World Health Organization concluded, abortion rates do no decline in countries where abortion is illegal, but what does increase is the risk to a woman's health. In other words, anti-abortion laws don't help reduce abortions, but they do harm women. That cannot be an acceptable outcome for someone who is pro-life.

I have increasingly come to see that with many issues, punitive laws don't seem to do much good, and often make things much worse. This has led me to move away from conservatism, and towards progressivism, motivated by my pro-life stance and desire to see people made whole and flourishing. One example is our prison system, which has become a factory for hardening inmates, rather than healing them. Because of this the alarming repeat offense rate is sadly not at all surprising. Locking someone up in the hell of prison life naturally breeds violence, not reform or repentance. People do not learn empathy by being shamed and dehumanized. Being "tough on crime" gains popular support by appealing to our most primitive impulses, but in the end results in a broken system that perpetuates hurt and cycles of violence.
So if laws restricting access are not the answer, what is? One rather obvious way to reduce abortion rates is by making contraception readily accessible and affordable. After all, women who do not have unplanned pregnancies don't get abortions. That means funding Planned Parenthood and keeping the Affordable Care Act should be supported by pro-lifers.
To be sure, it's a complicated issue, and I certainly do not have all the answers. But I do think there is room for conversation among progressives on both sides of the issue. I do believe that in the politically polarized state our country is in, we progressives, we feminists, we who share in common a commitment to justice and the value of human lives and human rights need to move away from the long history of both sides stigmatizing and demonizing the other, retreating into ever more polarized positions.

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