Hope is a verb

Saturday, September 19, 2020

In these times it is hard to have hope. Ruth Bader Ginsburg died yesterday, and I heard someone say today, their voice shaking, holding back tears, "Hope is annoying because it requires something from us." That rung true, and got me to thinking: 

If it is true that God is love, then perhaps it is equally true that God is hope. 

I know John didn't say it, but I just did. That would mean that hope is a living Someone who requires something from us. Hope asks us to act. 

I've always thought of hope as passively believing in an unlikely outcome. But I'm starting to see that hope comes from our actions, just like love does.

To put it differently, I'm sure you've heard that "love is a verb." While Hollywood thinks of love as a feeling, Jesus saw love as an action. Love is something you do. It is an act.

I'm learning that hope is a verb too. Hope is not a feeling. Hope is not passive. Hope is an act  which is inseparably tied to acts of love, to acts of justice. Adding in justice there brings in a third thing, but really they are all tied together.

Taking this a step further, we are made in the image of God. That means we are made for love, made to be loved and to love others. It is our life blood. 

I feel bad right now. But I don't have to feel good, I just have to keep doing good, and as I act in hope I am moving with God. 

If God is hope, then we are also made for hope. To live in God is to live in love and to live in hope. To move with God is to move in love and to move in hope. So I dare you to move.





Facing Racism

Saturday, August 10, 2019

The Trump era has caused us to face the ugly specter of racism. No one wants to think of themselves as racist. When someone says "that's racist" let alone "you're being racist" or worst of all "you're a racist" our natural reaction is to deny and defend ourselves against the accusation. It's more than an accusation, it's a condemnation. Our response is to want to distance ourselves from people or groups that we see as racist, as if by doing that we could claim to be immune and untouched and pure. 

I recently came across a talk by David Gushee called "In the Ruins of White Evangelicalism" which he gave as the presidential address to the AAR. In the talk he said that the connection between Trump's base being racist and white evangelicals being the demographic most likely to support Trump made it an inescapable conclusion for him that racism was a major problem within evangelicalism. He says he is driven to the conclusion that evangelicals support Trump not in spite of his racism and cruelty, but because of it.

But the part that really impacted me was where he went from there. Although he had distanced himself from evangelicalism, he did not distance himself from its sin of racism. Instead he wondered how he, as a major voice within evangelicalism focusing on ethics, could have been blind to racism for all those years. His talk therefore was one of him confessing and repenting for what he called the sin of racism.

Calling racism a sin is interesting because it opens up a way to see racism that leads to self-reflection and growth. Let me unpack this. As Christians we should be familiar with the concept of confessing that we are sinners. We see this in the catechisms, but also in the Gospels, in the parable Jesus tells of the Pharisee and the tax collector,

The Pharisee stood by himself and prayed: "God, I thank you that I am not like other people—robbers, evildoers, adulterers—or even like this tax collector."

But the tax collector stood at a distance. He would not even look up to heaven, but beat his breast and said, "God, have mercy on me, a sinner."

I tell you that this man, rather than the other, went home justified before God. (Luke 18:11-14)
If we come at sin like the Pharisee, saying "I was a sinner before, but now I've repented and go to church and am saved and chosen. I thank God that I am not like those sinners outside of my church" then Jesus says we don't go away justified, even though we are trying to justify ourselves.  Growing up evangelical I heard statements like that made from the pulpit constantly. "Thank God we are not like those liberals, gays, woman's lib-ers, welfare queens, Muslims out there!" In other words, I heard messages of homophobia, misogyny, xenophobia, and racism constantly growing up evangelical.

Of course as an ex-vangelical it's just as easy for me to say "Thank God that I am not like those racist Trump supporting evangelicals over there." It's easy to write of racism as a problem "over there" in evangelicalsm, or in the South. In fact, it's really common for progressives and liberals in an attempt to "out-woke" each other to condemn others for the sins of racism and white privilege. People will be shamed and ostracized on social media, calls will go out for people to be fired and shunned for some insensitive comment or act. In that atmosphere of self-righteous progressivism, it's really no wonder people react defensively. They act like they are being attacked and condemned because... well, they are. Progressives see themselves as champions of compassion, but boy can they be merciless.

Jesus said we should remove the log from our eye before we take the splinter from our brother's eye. What if I looked at my own life before I became the progressive moral police of social media? Maybe if I did, I could approach others with the same mercy I know I need. Maybe if I did I could have conversations rather than accusations. Maybe I as a progressive Christian need to take the stance of the tax collector in Jesus' parable and say, "God, have mercy on me, a racist!" What if instead of seeking to prove myself innocent of racism, I assume that just as I am a sinner, just as I know that I can do things that hurt others, I am open to the idea that I have blind spots in me, I have racial bias, and am therefore open to seeing this and becoming sensitized to it so I can do better.

I also feel pulled to look back at my evangelical past and try to make sense of why it is that evangelicals today so overwhelmingly support Trump, as Gushee says, not in spite of his racist cruelty, but because of it. At the same time, evangelicals would all deny that they are racist. I think that's due to a misconception of what racism is. We think of racism as the stereotypical Southern plantation owner in the Hollywood film. We think that if we don't have malicious intent in our hearts, that we are not racist. But the thing is, people who do evil and hurtful things, even horrific things, never think they are doing evil. They think they are doing good. That's why the whole focus of "but I don't have any racism in my heart!" misses the point, and blinds us to the racial blinders that lead to do cruel and hurtful things.

What's behind racism is a reaction to fear that causes us to be tribal, to protect our tribe, and if "they" suffer as a result, well that's just too bad. It comes from perceiving some other group as being a threat, and reacting in fear to that threat. Fear is the opposite of empathy and compassion. As Gushee says in his address, American white evangelicalism today has really become "U.S. white tribalist religion" characterized by "aggrieved white conservatives." That stance of "aggrieved whites" of course is the constant mantra of  Fox News, and it very much echoes what I heard from the pulpit Sunday after Sunday, a message of fear and resentment towards "those sinners out there" who were a threat to our family, our way of life.

That tribalist fear stance is very much tied to the tendency in evangelicalism to justify violence as good and righteous. Evangelicals are more likely than just about any other demographic to support violence as a means to good, whether that's supporting torture, war, capital punishment. When you tie that propensity to justifying violence and cruelty together with demonizing other groups, fearing them, seeing them as a threat, it seems inevitable that when little black boys are shot by cops, evangelicals stress that "blue lives matter" and when hispanic children are traumatically ripped from their parents and held in concentration camps, white evangelicals feel the need to justify and support this.

If you feel threatened, it's a natural human reaction (Paul would call it a fleshly reaction) to justify a harsh, merciless response. 

The two poisons of racism and violence go hand in hand, specifically violence understood as a means to good, and racism as a fearful otherizing and thus dehumanizing of a person or group. Of the two of these, I want to argue the most important one to address is racism. I do not want, therefore, to propose a Christian solution of total abstinence from violence. That is, I am not arguing that the police should not be armed, we should not have an army, or even that a person cannot defend themselves in their home. I say this, primarily because it is utterly impracticable. If we want to take steps towards reducing violence, towards less cruelty, towards more compassionate way I living together, I don't think abstinence from violence is the key.

Rather, I want to argue that the core problem here has to do with the otherizing or dehumanizing of a person or group. When we see a person or group as a threat, as "other" it is easy to justify cruel or inhuman treatment. We see them as a monster, an animal. If we instead saw them as our brother, our sister, our child, as part of us, we would seek to deal with them in more humane ways. This would lead to a reduction in violence, a reduction in cruelty and hurt. We would find other ways because we value the other as we value our own. That's something that Jesus was constantly preaching, widening our circle to include loving the sinner, loving the enemy.

Conservatives need to not see liberals and people of color as the evil other, and progressives similarly need to not see white evangelicals as the evil other. Isn't that what "love your enemy" means? That is, it does not mean they are not your enemy, but that you should act lovingly towards them nevertheless. We should see them as a part of us. Again, that does not mean we tolerate people doing or saying hurtful things, but it does mean dealing with them as we would deal with someone beloved, which would lead us to seeking ways to deal with things restoratively and humanely.

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Disarming The Church

Sunday, June 03, 2018

Eric Seibert has a new book out called Disarming the Church which I which I received a review copy of. I've always appreciated how Eric's books challenge readers to really think through difficult issues. In other words, rather than spoon feeding us the answers, his books do the true work of a teacher, which is getting his audience to think, and providing us with the tools to do that. His previous books (Disturbing Divine Behavior and The Violence of Scripture) helped us grapple with the problem of violence in the Bible, and his latest book (Disarming the Church) challenges us to take up the nonviolent way of Jesus.

This is an incredibly important and relevant topic today. We have an epidemic of gun violence and mass shootings in this country, and our elected officials (i.e. the GOP) refuse to pass reasonable gun safety legislation to stop it. If you are looking for a way to reduce deaths due to gun violence and to protect the lives of our school kids, let's vote them out!

As you can probably tell from the above paragraph, my own focus in regards to nonviolence is not so much to see nonviolence as a personal prohibition. Rather what I am looking for are ways to reduce our epidemic of violence, ways for us to break free of this addiction, ways for all of us to disarm. That's why I was particularly drawn to the later part of Eric’s book where he discusses ways in which we can respond to personal assault nonviolently without being harmed, how we can rescue people under attack without violence, and so on. Eric begins this part of the book by quoting Walter Wink, who says,

“Our capacity to discover creative nonviolent responses in moments of crisis will depend, to some degree at least, on whether we rehearse them in our every day lives. If we live in the spirit of Christian nonviolent love in the little things, then in the great things we will be more likely to have something to call upon.”

Eric then proceeds to tell many stories of how people have defused potentially violent situations in nonviolent ways, each time looking at what was going on and what we can learn from these stories. I very much appreciate this, and shared many of the stories in Eric's book with my family. We were inspired by the examples, and talked together about it. One story that I was particularly moved by was of an escaped prisoner who threatened a couple in their home with a shotgun. The woman ended up disarming him with love, and the convict later became a Christian as a result (you’ll need to read the story yourself in Eric’s book for the details!) The take-away of the convict, and my take-away too, was that she exhibited “real Christianity...no fear.” People often view nonviolence as a way to avoid conflict, but it is not. It is a way to address conflict. It requires bravery, fearlessness. Perfect love casts out fear. The kind of Christianity that clings to guns is a faith engulfed in fear. Fear is what must be exorcised from the church, and true love—Jesus-shaped love—is what casts it out.

Eric mentions that his wife is a therapist, and tells how he learned from her how patients who become violent are restrained in a way that does not harm them, either physically or emotionally. This is one example of how the mental heath field has moved in the direction of finding nonviolent ways to deal with conflict and danger that seek to maintain a patient’s agency and dignity. In other words, it’s an example of change on an institutional and systemic level. Mental health professionals have developed policies, protocols, and best practices that have generally moved in the direction of nonviolence.

This is the element that I would like to add to his many helpful personal examples. While I very much appreciate the focus in his book on how we as individuals can practice nonviolence in our lives, I also want to suggest that we also need to work towards systemic change.

In other words, we could learn a lot from looking at how various professionals implement nonviolent strategies in their work to resolve conflict. We could look at how couples counselors or mediators work. We could look to the field of international diplomacy. We could look to the growing study of conflict resolution. We could look at the tools of hostage negotiators.

Speaking of that last one, the tools of hostage negotiators have been shown to help police to deescalate dangerous situations in ways that statistically keep them safe and everyone else safe--if they receive that training. However, that training often does not take place, and as we have seen from the Black Lives Matter movement, police are far too quick to kill people of color, rather than deescalating a situation. In general our criminal justice system functions as if we knew nothing about how humans function from the mental health field, as if we were in the middle ages. As a result, it is, as a system, very prone to violence, in the sense that Eric defines violence in his book as “physical, emotional, or psychological harm done to a person by an individual(s), institution, or structure that results in serious injury, oppression, or death.” We are in deep need of reform in our criminal justice system, taking it in the direction of nonviolence, treating people with love leading to rehabilitation and reconciliation.

But the main point I wanted to add is the idea of taking the tools from these many fields that are using nonviolent means to resolve conflict and learning from them. While I totally agree with Wink’s above statement, at the same time, as Gene Sharp has convincingly demonstrated, those participating in nonviolent resistance do not necessarily need to have “love in their hearts” (i.e. good will, empathy, etc.) towards their oppressors in order to be effective as a moral force for change. What matters is not their inner feelings, but their actions. This is incidentally a point made by Jesus constantly. While Evangelical Christianity tends to focus on what is “in your heart,” Jesus understood love in terms of action, in terms of what we do: “As you do it unto the least of these you do it unto me,” “do unto others as you would have them do it unto you,” and so on. So when Jesus says, "If you love me you will obey my commands, and this is my command: love each other" he is understanding love in terms of action not feeling. If you love me, Jesus says, you will do what I command, which is to love. Jesus defines love as what we do. Jesus says this to those who call him lord (and I'll add: to those who say they "love Jesus in their heart") but do not do unto the least of these in love: "I do not know you, depart from me into darkness prepared for the devil." He literally says to those so-called Christians, "I do not know you, go to hell!" I really don't think Jesus could possibly make himself any more clear here.  Knowing Jesus is not about loving him in your heart, it is about following Jesus in how he loves. That's what makes you his disciple or not. And if you want to go there, that's what determines whether Jesus will invite you to him with the words "well done by faithful servant" or whether he tells you to go... somewhere else.

What we therefore need is training in how to do, how to act, how to respond nonviolently, and we need to practice that training. That’s true if you are walking down the Selma bridge with Martin Luther King Jr., and it’s true if you are a therapist working on a locked psych ward, and it’s true if you are a hostage negotiator. We could all benefit from incorporating some of that training and tools into our own lives, not to mention incorporating them into institutions that currently lack them.

That’s all for now. I’ll likely have more to say as I continue to read. Eric, let me say that I am grateful for your book, for you sharing your thoughts on how you are working out what it means to follow in the nonviolent way of Jesus. As I try to follow in that same way, your book and your witness are a welcome companion. Our world needs voices like yours, and I hope many people will pick up a copy of Disarming the Church.

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The Point of Hebrews: Further Conversation with Paul Copan

Sunday, February 18, 2018

Paul Copan and I have been having an ongoing conversation revolving around the issue of violence done in God’s name and the corollary issue of violence and the Bible. Although we have very different views on these subjects, I am grateful for Paul’s willingness to engage with me, and also very much appreciate his respectful and kind demeanor. I hope to return that same tone of kindness and respect.

Most recently the conversation has centered around chapter 11 of Hebrews. Referring to Hebrews 11:31 which states “By faith the walls of Jericho fell, after the army had marched around them for seven days” Paul asked me if I thought the author of Hebrews believed that “the battle against Jericho was divinely commissioned and thus morally justified.” It’s worth noting that after the walls of Jericho fell, the book of Joshua states that “everyone charged straight in, and they took the city. They devoted the city to the Lord and destroyed with the sword every living thing in it—men and women, young and old, cattle, sheep and donkeys” (Joshua 6:20-21).

So I think it is without question that the author of Joshua did believe that the battle against Jericho was divinely commissioned. That seems to be the clear point of Joshua 6. Now, there is strong archeological evidence, based on high-precision radiocarbon dating, that shows that Jericho was completely uninhabited at the time of Joshua. So as Robert Hubbard concludes, echoing the current scholarly consensus, “There was no fortified city of Jericho for Joshua and Israel to conquer.” Since it is made-up that Joshua conquered Jericho, it is a very short logical step to conclude that it is equally made-up that God commanded him to.

However, let’s return to the author of Hebrews, who obviously did not know anything about archeology. Do I think that the author of Hebrews believed that the battle against Jericho was divinely commissioned and thus morally justified” as Paul asked?

No, I do not. Given the context of the central point the author of Hebrews is making in this chapter as well as in the following chapter, I would say it is clear that he is not trying to make the point that killing in God's name is morally justifiable, and in fact he is making the opposite point: The point of the entire chapter is encouraging believers who are suffering violent persecution to not resort to violence in their defense but to endure suffering in faith. Indeed, in the beginning of chapter 12 we read the author’s summary conclusion, “therefore, with all these examples before us... keep your eyes fixed on Jesus who looking beyond the shame of the cross, enduring it to get to the joy beyond it.” (Heb 12:1-2)

Paul seems to agree with me that the author of Hebrews is not using these OT examples to persuade his audience to similarly use violence in God’s name. He writes, 

“there is a new people of God who are the interethnic body of Christ--no longer a national entity with civil laws, national enemies, etc. So taking up the sword to rise up against their Roman persecutors in the name of Christ would be misdirected.”

He however disagrees with my saying the author of Hebrews is making the “opposite point” noting that the author of Hebrews speaks favorably of these OT examples who “conquered kingdoms, . . . became mighty in war, put foreign armies to flight” (Heb 11:33-34). The implication is that the author of Hebrews is speaking favorably of war here, using it as a positive example. That’s true. However, I want to point out that in the next chapter this same author writes,

“My son, do not make light of the Lord’s discipline, and do not lose heart when he rebukes you, because the Lord disciplines the one he loves, and he chastens everyone he accepts as his son. (Heb 12:5– 6, quoting Prov 3:11– 12 from the LXX)

The Greek word translated above in the NIV as “chastens” is mastigoō which in fact means “to beat with a whip, flog, scourge.” It’s the same word Jesus used to describe his being flogged by the Roman centurions before the cross (Mt 20:19; Mk 10:34; Lk 18:33).

Now, if we want to conclude that because the author or Hebrews cites being “mighty in war” positively, we should therefore see this as a New Testament endorsement of war in the OT, we would have to equally conclude that because the author of Hebrews cites being “flogged” by your father positively, we should likewise need to see this as a New Testament endorsement of what would unmistakably be regarded today as criminal child abuse in the OT.

This is not how I would read Hebrews 12, nor is it how I would read Hebrews 11. What I try to do is look at what the point is that an author is trying to make, and focus on that. In chapter 12 the point is to hold on to the idea that even when we suffer, we can trust that we are loved by God. The point of chapter 11 is to look to the past and take heart, while enduring suffering in faith. The point of the author is not to endorse violence in the OT, nor is it his point to condemn it. His point is not to make any sort of evaluation of the past, but rather to tell his audience how they should live now. That is pretty much always the point of NT authors. The Apostle Paul has plenty of really critical things to say about the OT, but it is always in the context of telling his audience how to live and love now. So he tells them that if they are under the Law they will be under a “curse.” He compares it to slavery, says it is “death” and gave birth to “sin” and on and on, always doing this in the context of how we should live now. Paul is not concerned with saying whether or not Joshua or Moses were justified, because they are not his audience. Jesus is the same. Jesus says everything with the focus on how his audience lives and loves now. So he breaks the Sabbath to heal, he disobeys the command to kill the woman caught in adultery (even though he is the one without sin who could have cast the first stone) and forgives her instead. He says “You know the law says this... but I say to you now...”

So I will thus concede that the author of Hebrews does say positive things about people in the past killing in God’s name. However, I maintain that it is quite correct to say that his clear point, the take away, the reason he is writing, what he wants his audience to do now is not to kill in God’s name, but to do the opposite: “choosing to be ill-treated with the people of God" (Heb 11:25), "regarding abuse suffered for Christ to be greater wealth than the treasures of Egypt" (Heb 11:26), and even calling his audience “to resist to the point of shedding your blood” (Heb 12:1), rather than to respond with violence. Hebrews 11 is not an endorsement of OT violence, nor is it a critique of it. It is, as the NT authors always are, telling his audience how to live now. That is his point, that is his take-away message.

Do I see difficulty with telling people to “to resist to the point of shedding your blood”? Yes I do. I can see how a text like this could be used to justify people accepting oppression. But that is the tight-rope that we need to walk here, we need to work out how we can understand this way, which seems to me to be a very hard way, and put it into practice in a way that brings us closer to a loving and just world.

Paul Copan next addresses a question that I raised, where I proposed that we must not stop at what we can justify, but must go beyond this towards working to reform and repair and redeem. He writes,

“As for your other question, of course, a broader ethical discussion must go beyond justifying difficult moral exceptions. But that isn't the specific point that Matt Flannagan and I are tackling in our coauthored book. We are addressing a specific moral difficulty, and we do go into great detail about the matter of divine commands. In that setting, we raise the question, "Is taking innocent human life ever morally justifiable?" We give, I think, plausible examples (e.g., in the case of an ectopic pregnancy) that lead us to conclude that while it is an objective prima facie duty not to take innocent human life, it would not be morally absolute. (We point out too that this view is not idiosyncratic but is fairly widely accepted.)”

I note that here we are in agreement that there are some rare cases where taking innocent human life could be considered morally justified. I also acknowledge that this is a relatively widely accepted view. Paul then continues,

“Issues of hyperbole in ancient Near Eastern war texts, etc. aside, could it be that under certain less-than-ideal conditions, that an all-wise, all-good God might have overriding reasons for issuing these difficult commands?”

No, it could not. Absolutely, categorically, no. There is no possible reason that would justify going into a city and slaughtering infants and children. None. I dare say that it is universally accepted that killing infants is never ever okay. I strain to think of something that could possibly be more self-evidently immoral than this.

Paul next comments,

“I do think that John Goldingay is on to something when he writes: “Perhaps Deuteronomy [20:17-18] was only being realistic in recognizing the power of Canaanite temptation when Israelite faith in Yahweh was a newly budded flower.”

I cannot help but mention that the reasoning John Goldingay is using here for justifying these accounts is literally the same reasoning that the Nazis used to justify the Holocaust. I hope that gives all of us pause. The logic is that it is necessary to kill an two-year-old child and and six-month-old baby because otherwise they will grow up to morally corrupt the chosen people, making them impure. That is a truly horrific kind of logic. As we know from history, that kind of logic has led to many genocides.

I do not know John Goldingay, but I would not be surprised to find that he is a fine, loving person. I do know that Pastor John Ortberg has said something very similar, writing that “The beliefs of the Canaanites were a cancer that had to be removed from the land before the people of God could live there with any hope of health.” John Ortberg is well known for his commitment to care for the poor and the oppressed. So here’s a guy who is actively working to help the poor and the oppressed, a person who is exhibiting compassion and care, a person who is likely a much better person than I am. Yet they are calling people a “cancer.” I had the opportunity to speak with John Ortberg about this, and he graciously agreed that this was a fair critique.

I want to emphatically stress here that my point is not to claim that John Ortberg or John Goldingay or Paul Copan are bad people because of such comments, but just the opposite: I wish to underscore how easy it is for all of us as Christians— even the most loving among us— to feel the need to justify violence in the name of defending the Bible. In doing so we find ourselves seeking to justify things in the Bible, which in any other context we would without question wholeheartedly condemn.

I note again that the New Testament author’s focus was always on how people should live now. I would like to propose that this is how we need to read the Bible, too. That is the task of discipleship and also the task of ethics. While we can perhaps make ethical evaluations of things in the past, we cannot stop there. The most important question is to ask how we should live out the teachings we find in the Bible. I maintain that when we do this in a way that promotes acting in love towards others and ourselves we are reading the Bible rightly, and when we read it in a way that promotes harming or hurting others we are reading it wrong.

Paul, thank you for bearing with me as I work through this. I wish you God’s grace, peace, and loving care always.

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