Sacrifice, Discipline, and Other Things We Don't Understand

Saturday, March 28, 2015

Recently I spoke about what forgiveness means and what it doesn't. It's a great example of how Jesus' hermeneutic of looking at the fruits works. We can observe that when people interpret forgiveness as meaning that you must accept being hurt, swallowing the anger you feel when you are wronged and overlooking injury, that this leads to things like bitterness, resentment, depression, passive-aggressive behavior... in general it leads to a really unhealthy place because rather than working to reconcile and mending hurt it allows it to continue, simply burying it under the surface where it festers inside us. 

We may think we are doing something noble. We may think we are being faithful to follow the command of Jesus to forgive. But when we look at the fruits of how this broken understanding of forgiveness effects our lives, when put it into practice, we can see that those fruits are rotten. That's how we know we are getting it wrong, and why it is so vital that we cannot blindly obey. Rather, we must seek to understand. Because if we don't understand, the result will inevitably lead to hurt -- even with the best of intentions. Unquestioning obedience always leads to harm, because when we do not differentiate between a good and and hurtful application, hurt and abuse are simply inevitable.

There is just no way around that fact. That's why we need instead to have "faith seeking understanding," as Anselm said, meaning we begin with trust in Jesus based on our experience of being loved by God in Christ, and out of that trust we seek to understand how the way Jesus calls us to really does lead to love and beauty and goodness in our lives. Our father will not give us a stone when we ask for living bread.

As I outlined in How forgiveness works (and how it doesn't), forgiveness can be understood and applied in a way that leads to wholeness and healing in our lives. It can produce wonderful life-giving fruit. The key is really getting how it works, and the problem is that so often we Christians simply don't get how forgiveness works, we don't get how turning the other cheek works, we don't get how enemy love works. We may proclaim that we should practice these things, but we either proclaim them without understanding -- simply as commands to be unquestioningly followed -- or we may even proclaim them in a way that is hurtful.

For example, it's common to hear it expressed that the state cannot practice enemy love because the state cannot be expected to "sacrifice" and to be wronged. This is a statement commonly made by well-meaning, loving, and smart people who advocate the way of grace and enemy love. But consider what the implication here is: When we as individuals practice this kind of enemy love, what is being promoted is exactly the unhealthy form of allowing ourselves to be wronged, overlooking injury, and swallowing hurt that we saw was so damaging above. What is being proclaimed here is the broken and hurtful understanding of forgiveness. Indeed, states cannot be expected to practice this, but neither should you.  

What we can do however is observe in our lives how forgiveness does work, observe how it does lead to reconciliation and restoration, and then consider how those same principles could work on a larger scale to genuinely address societal problems. We begin with living it out in our own lives, learning by experience how it works in a deep and complex way, and then we bring that knowledge to larger communal relationships.

This is already happening on many levels. For example, as parents recognize that hitting kids hurts them, and does not produce the desired results of kids who are thoughtful, respectful, and empathetic, but instead harms them, this is translating into our public schools which are gradually moving away from corporal punishment. It is now illegal in the majority of States (31 of 50), the large exception being Southern States. This is a positive move, but we are still far behind the rest of the Western world were it is illegal in every country. The good news is that teachers are learning better ways to teach kids respect, self-control, and empathy, and the reason for this is that they have looked at the fruits and observed what works and leads to the good they desire, and what instead leads to harm.

The sad exception to this is private schools in the U.S., primarily those run by conservative Evangelicals and Fundamentalists, where beating kids with a paddle is still practiced. Why? Because they ignore the obvious bad fruits and instead blindly follow "what the Bible teaches" unquestioningly, detached from understanding, thought, and even conscience. That's the rotten fruit of unquestioning obedience, and why it is so important that we instead learn to read Scripture like Jesus did in a way that leads to love, in a way that makes us better people not worse ones.

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The Heart of the Gospel: Loving the Unlovable

Saturday, March 21, 2015

I have often made the claim that love of enemies was the very heart of the message of Jesus. Understand the way of grace, forgiveness, and enemy love, and you have understood the core message of who God is as revealed in Christ, and how we are to be in the world as his followers. Understand enemy love, and you have understood the message of Jesus, what led him to the cross, and God's plan of salvation in Jesus. Miss it, and you miss everything else with it.

But if "love your enemies" is something Jesus only specifically said once (recorded in the Sermon on the Mount in the 5th chapter of Matthew's Gospel, and in the parallel account in Luke 6), how can it be said to be the very core of his message?

The key here is understanding how everything else Jesus says, every parable, every paradoxical statement, every act of healing or caring for the poor, all culminates in the way of enemy love. So let's step back and take a look at the bigger picture and context of Jesus' message. 

Jesus begins his sermon, both in Luke's and Matthew's accounts, with a list of beatitudes that turn our normal values and expectations of what is desirable, fortunate, and good on their heads. Both our culture and theirs would normally say "blessed are the wealthy," but Jesus instead provocatively declares "blessed are the poor." 

Matthew adds to this "... in spirit" which can make this easier to relate to if you happen to be a middle class American. But the original statement made by Jesus, found in Luke's Gospel, is simply "blessed are the poor."

In the time of Jesus the poor were regarded as cursed. They were seen as sinners who deserved their suffering. Similarly today the "American dream" is to make it and become rich, and all it takes is "hard work." So those who are poor obviously are not working hard and consequently are derided as freeloaders, deadbeats, entitled, and welfare queens. Cursed are the entitled. Cursed are the deadbeats. That's the assumption of our culture, and it leads to our idealizing obscene wealth while despising those in need. That is the opposite of Jesus' message of compassion and care for the poor.

Similarly when Jesus proclaims,

"The Spirit of the Lord is on me, because he has anointed me to proclaim good news to the poor.
He has sent me to proclaim freedom for the prisoners and recovery of sight for the blind, to set the oppressed free" (Luke 4)

We can take this to refer metaphorically to "captivity to sin" or "bondage to destructive patterns of behavior" but the original context of what Jesus is saying is to people who are literally in chains, literally prisoners.

If you have read Victor Hugo's Les Miserables, you will know the story of how Jean Valjean is imprisoned for stealing a loaf of bread, and that upon his release after 19 long years he is unable to get food or a place to stay because of a card he must present that identifies him as an ex-con.

That's the story from pre-revolutionary France, but today in America it is little different. People, especially black and brown people, are regularly imprisoned for years for trivial offenses, or even for no offense at all. Upon release, just as Jean Valjean was turned away with his card, they too are required to "check the box" identifying themselves as felons on forms for housing, benefits, and job applications. Systematically denied housing, jobs, education, and public benefits for life -- the very things they need to re-integrate into society --  as a result, many become homeless or return to jail.

If we as a nation despise the poor, this is doubly so with those labeled "criminals." As Michelle Alexander puts it in The New Jim Crow, blacks labeled as criminals "are perhaps the most despised minority in the U.S. population... Criminals, it turns out, are the one social group in America we have permission to hate."

As Alexander documents,  this is not simply a matter of attitudes and mindsets, but takes the form of policies of systematic oppression. It translates into laws that are "tough on crime" and result in rampant discrimination and injustice as well as widespread patterns of "law enforcement practices that violate the law and undermine community trust, especially among African Americans." That quote is from the findings of the U.S. Justice Department's investigation of the Ferguson Police Department.

The message of Jesus, over and over, is focused on caring for "the least of these." That is, the way we treat the person who is seen as the least deserving, is the way we treat Jesus. This is not about romanticizing a problem. The poor are often poor because of destructive patterns, abusive and hurtful patterns. Jesus was not naive to this, and neither should we be. We are talking about people who are broken, and that is not the pretend picture of Oliver Twist with rosy red cheeks and an innocent heart.

Nevertheless, Jesus calls us, over and over, to love the unlovable. He calls us to compassion for the poor, the sick, and yes, for the sinner and criminal, too. His focus was not on punishment and law, but on restoring people who were broken, on freeing people from bondage, and a huge part of that is about being valued and honored and loved.

This re-humanizes a person, and that leads to their restoration and redemption. Punishment and condemnation -- which is the focus of our broken criminal justice system -- does the opposite, and is the reason for the "revolving doors" of our prison systems.

If we want to learn to love our enemies, the place to start is where Jesus starts. He begins by having us learn to care for the poor, to recognize our own brokenness, and also to develop compassion for others who are less fortunate than we are. This carries over into recognizing that those caught in the cycles of crime should not be hated as enemies, but also need help to reform. Jesus calls us to practice forgiveness and reconciliation in our lives.

Before we can begin to practice love of enemies towards those outside of our borders, those who have declared themselves our "enemies," we need to first begin to practice love of enemies at home in our own communities. We need to develop open hearts of compassion for the poor, seeking realistic and wise ways to help and care for those in need. We need to likewise seek to help rehabilitate those labeled as criminals in our country, being driven again by open-eyed wise compassion rather than by fear.

Jesus' message culminates in the idea of enemy love. But everything he says leads up to this. It begins with having compassion for ourselves, and spills over to having compassion for others. Understanding the larger context of how we are to practice compassion, reconciliation, and restoration of broken people and broken society gives us the larger context to understand that enemy love is not simply about prohibiting violence, but far more substantially is the culmination of  a way of working to make things right in our world that we desperately need today.

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How forgiveness works (and how it doesn't)

Saturday, March 14, 2015

Those of us who promote Jesus' way of peace and enemy love often speak of things like "self-sacrificing love" or echo Paul's vocabulary of the "foolishness of the cross" and Jesus' radical call to "lose your life to find it." We speak of this way as being "counter-intuitive" and part of an "upside-down kingdom."

This all makes a great sermon. Lots of vocabulary from the Bible. It sounds radical and inspiring and right. But there's little discussion of what this looks like practically. How do I walk this out in my day to day life? How do I tell the difference between the kind of "self-sacrificing love" Jesus wants me to have, and an abusive or hurtful understanding?

If we really want to walk this out, we need to go beyond saying the right stuff, and really get down to what a practical application looks like. Because we simply cannot obey if we don't know how. Faith seeking understanding means saying "Lord I want to follow, show be how to do this well." As a theologian I see part of my task as helping to articulate what that looks like.

Take forgiveness for example. Forgiveness is an idea that almost everyone is familiar with. Much more so than the idea of enemy love. It's common to hear people speaking of the need to forgive for the sake of our own health. If we hold on to unforgiveness, they tell us, this will eat us up inside. So it's not just a Christian value but a value shared by our general culture.

This is all true. However, I'd like to suggest that there is a healthy form of forgiveness and an unhealthy form, and it's critical that we understand the difference. As with anything good, it is possible to do forgiveness wrong. How can we tell the difference? Our culture values forgiveness, just as it values love, but it often has messed up understandings of both, and so do we.

Many times, people simply try to ignore the hurt and “just move on.” They choose not to confront the offending person and continue the relationship as if nothing happened. The problem with the noble-sounding approach of “taking the high road” is that it doesn’t allow a person to legitimize and work through their authentic feelings. 

We've all been there: You'd like to leave the issue in the past, but it keeps coming back—sometimes years later—sometimes hidden in the disguise of feelings of low self-worth or depression, or as anger seemingly “out of nowhere.” 

On top of this, if you never speak up, the other person is likely to continue doing the same things that hurt you. You may also find yourself in a similar situation with another person.

Like Bonhoeffer's "cheep grace" this is cheep forgiveness. Genuine forgiveness needs to start by honestly facing the hurt. Forgiveness is not conflict avoidance. Forgiveness is not saying "that's okay" when it's not okay. Real forgiveness is about getting past real hurt. 

There are basically two ways to do this: reconciliation or acceptance. 


Reconciliation involves the other. They need to be open to listen to your perspective and is willing to change their behavior, possibly leading to a full restoration of your relationship with them. For you, it means being willing to release the other from the weight of their offense against you, being open to allow the person to change, being willing to love again.

What makes this different from cheap forgiveness is that this process requires admitting to yourself, as well as to the other, that you have been hurt. It requires that the other asks for your forgiveness (or at the very least acknowledges the hurt they have caused) and takes sincere steps to prevent a repetition.

In the case were you have hurt or wronged someone it's important to remember that asking for forgiveness is something you do for them, not for something for you to feel better. This may seem obvious, but is often difficult for Christians because asking for forgiveness is often synonymous with our seeking assurance of God's love. When "forgive me" means "make me feel less guilty" this does not feel so great to the one who has been hurt. A better approach is to express to the other that you care about them, recognize that you have hurt them, and want to make it right.


Reconciliation is wonderful when it can happen. When you can work through real pain and hurt, and come out on the other side with a stronger and deeper relationship, this is a beautiful thing. But what if the other person is not willing or able to admit any wrongdoing? What if they are completely out of the picture or no longer living? How do you forgive an unrepentant person?

Like reconciliation this includes an acknowledgment of the full extent of what happened, but unlike it acceptance is something you can do without their cooperation. Acceptance does not just mean "letting go" of a wrong. On the contrary, it requires that you validate what happened to yourself and the impact it has had on your life. This is a painful and often lengthy process. Revisiting an injury or loss is very unpleasant, but it is necessary in order to deal with the difficult feelings effectively so it doesn't spill over into other areas of your life. This involves looking at the painful event from every angle possible, including trying to imagine the other party's perspective. Acceptance means developing empathy for both you and for the other, and it means giving up the “hope for a better past” or for what “could have been.” 

None of this is easy. Cheap forgiveness or holding on to anger may seem like easier solutions at first, but the price you pay can be your physical or mental health when hurt is buried or allowed to fester in bitterness. Reconciliation is of course the most desirable option when possible, but you simply have no control over the other party's willingness to share your burden. The concept of acceptance allows one to independently process what happened and therefore to heal. Acceptance is therefore a kind of a reconciliation, too -- one that does not depend on the offender, but is a peace-making with your past. 

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Militarization: The sin of our nation and our need for repentance

Sunday, March 08, 2015

If we are called to forsake violence and instead unconditionally love and forgive others, does God also do this or does God instead act to violently punish the unrepentant? What does the New Testament teach us about this? We are supposed to be like Jesus, but is God like Jesus?
In a recent interview with Brad Jersak I explained that we see a clear movement in the NT towards an understanding of God's justice as acting to make things right, i.e. restorative justice, or as Paul calls it in Romans, "the justice of God" (dikaiosune theos). At the some time, we also find some NT authors who retain an understanding of God's justice as violently punishing and harming evildoers. The term the NT uses here is not "justice" (which is understood throughout the NT as restorative rather than retributive) but "judgment," which is destructive.

I then said that I think we need to move away from the view of God as violent and punishing, recognizing that the trajectory the NT puts us on should move us to a more Christlike image of God who acts through goodness to overcome evil rather than using violence and harm as a means to bring about the good.

In response, a reader pushes back on that idea. Here's the comment:
"Loved the discussion...brought more stuff into focus and clarified and stabilized more that I read from your book. But I'm not on the same page with you when it comes to forgiveness. If we refuse to repent from un-forgive-ness how can God forgive us? The NT makes it clear that we who hear the good news need to repent and believe on Jesus if we want to be saved. The Lord's Prayer comes to mind on how we are forgiven as we forgive"
In other words, God will not forgive us if we do not forgive. If we do not repent of our unforgiveness, we can expect God's punishment and judgment.

Let's consider this. When we think about this today, it is often in the context of our suburban lives, and so forgiveness revolves around interpersonal conflict. So when we think of who we are forgiving, what typically comes to mind is forgiving someone for hurting our feelings, rather than forgiving a person for, say killing a loved one or for putting us in prison unjustly.

The context at the time of Jesus was quite different. This audience was of a persecuted minority suffering violence and oppression, and the consideration was how they should respond. Should they take up the sword and kill their oppressors? The message of Jesus is that instead they should seek to overcome evil and oppression with love.

So when the NT authors speak of the stakes involved, and frame it in life-and-death terms, this is quite literal. That's why many have suggested that when they speak of judgment, they are speaking of the very real here-and-now consequences for taking up the way of the sword. They also saw the oppression of Rome as ripe for judgment with all of its violence and oppression. It was about to implode.

I can see this increasingly in my own country. We are becoming more and more violent, more militaristic -- both in how we deal with conflict abroad through drone strikes, torture, assassinations, and so on, and also in how the police a home have become increasingly militarized -- frequently using SWAT teams for routine situations and quickly reaching for their guns when there are much better ways to deal with a situation. This has led to protests across the country, and one thing is clear to me, we have here a huge problem that stems from America's tendency to glorify and put their faith in violence.

If you are a minority today in America, you might feel like they did in the time of Jesus under Rome. The message of the gospel has then a relevance in that context of oppression and injustice that it simply does not for those living in a sheltered and privileged environment. We live in Rome, and just as was the case in Rome there are those who lived in relative comfort unaware of the suffering of those in the lower classes. Jesus calls us to open our eyes to their need, and to break away from our tendency to look down on those who are less fortunate -- the poor, those in prison, and so on. It's about empathy and compassion, and our country seems to be moving away from that.

When the New Testament calls for repentance it is calling for a repentance from the way of violence. It is not simply addressing the personal and individual spheres, but the social sphere. It is saying that if we want to see change we cannot take the way of Rome (or the way of America) and instead must take a different way characterized by restoration, forgiveness, and love of our oppressors and those who wrong us. If we instead stay on the path of violence, this will result in tears and hurt for us. 

The point here is not to describe God's character, but to describe how we need to act in the world if we wish to end oppression and bring about justice. This is not a matter of God forgiving us. God has already loved us "while we were still sinners" in the incarnation (stooping down among us in our brokenness), the crucifixion (giving his life for sinners), and the resurrection (paving the way for us to overcome death and sin). God is willing to love us, and was before the cross. It's not about God being reconciled to us, but us needing to be reconciled to God, and that has to do with us being good, being loving, with us stopping the spiral of hurting and being hurt. Those who love as Jesus loved are the ones Jesus calls his "mother and brothers." Those who care for the poor are the ones Jesus says "well done" to.

So we absolutely do need to turn from having faith in violence. We have made an idol of our firepower, and trust in it instead of trusting in Jesus and his way. We need to repent of that. Especially those of us who are in positions of power and privilege. We call ourselves a "Christian nation," but we do not follow the way of Jesus and instead are the worst among Western countries when it comes to things like guns and prisons and money spent on war. If we want to look for sin in the land, this is it. This is our sin, and it is huge.

What I don't believe is that God calls us to seek the way of restorative justice, radical forgiveness, and enemy love while himself using the way of violent punishment and torture. After all, how else can you understand conscious eternal torment in hell other than as torture? This is to me an understanding of God that legitimizes the idea that those in authority can use harm and hurt to bring about justice. It is a very easy move to go from a picture of God punishing evil to a claim that those with the authority of the state can wield violence in God's name themselves, "For rulers do not bear the sword for no reason. They are God’s servants, agents of wrath to bring punishment on the wrongdoer" (Romans 13:4). So we begin with the idea of God punishing, and it's a quick jump to "Christian" nations taking up the way of violence. That's where we are at now. This is our nation's sin. It is the sin of Rome.

At the time of the NT they believed, as did everyone else at the time, that beating people made them better. So they beat slaves, they beat children, they beat lawbreakers and rebels. Today we know that abuse does not make a person better, it makes them worse. Punishment, i.e. inflicting harm and suffering, is a way that simply does not work if our goal is reform and restoration, if our goal is to make things good and right. It does not work because it is based on an incorrect understanding of how humans function, and what leads us to repentance and reform. It makes things worse, not better. It does not bring about justice, it just perpetuates harm. Hurting people is not good, it is hurtful.

I can see how being hurt is the natural consequence of our hurting others. That's judgment, that's karma, that's sewing and reaping, but it is decidedly not the gospel. The gospel is about acting to reverse that course by the means of love and good. That is the way we are to follow in, and it is the way God demonstrates for us in Jesus.

So we do need to take up the way of forgiveness and love. We do need to repent. If we instead continue on the path of militarism and violence this will lead to hell on earth. However God in Jesus does not model that way of force and violence, but models for us the way of overcoming hurt with love. That is what God revealed in Christ looks like. God in Christ undoes the image of the God of war.

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VIDEO: My interview with Brad Jersak about Disarming Scripture

Sunday, March 01, 2015

This week I had a conversation with my friend Brad Jersak about my book Disarming Scripture for the inaugural broadcast of CWRlive.  It was a great conversation, and we were able to cover a lot of territory, wrestling with the problem of violence in both the Old and New Testaments, discussing what inspiration means, and how we can read Scripture as scripture, and finally what being faithful to Jesus' call to practice enemy love looks like in our world today.

All in all it's an hour-long video chock-full of good stuff that I hope you enjoy watching.

Can't see the video above? watch on Youtube

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