science / God

Something not many people know about me is that I went to a STEM-focused high school. It was called the Math Science and Technology center, and to get in you had to write an essay. Mine wasn’t very good, and my confidence in my math skills was already waning as my pre-high school progressed.

At some point I received a letter – I was on the waitlist! 

This wasn’t awesome news, since my older brother John had already been in the program for a couple years, and he was flourishing in all subjects STEM-related and otherwise. But it wasn’t terrible either, because there was still a chance that I could join my immediate family’s new academic tradition.

Finally, a week before school started, I came home from soccer two-a-days to another letter:  Continue reading “science / God”

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God is Shaking the Hell out of Earth.

Imagining what God will one day do is a compelling thought, is it not? Picturing how God is at work long-term puts our present-tense actions into perspective.

Ultimately, God is ushering in a kingdom that cannot be shaken!

Along the path to this kingdom there are two compelling mountains. In Hebrews 12:18-29, the author contrasts the mountain of fear with the mountain of joy.

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a mountainous overlook deep in the Santa Cruz mountains only severalmiles south of Silicon Valley

The Mountain of Fear:

18 You have not come to a mountain that can be touched and that is burning with fire; to darkness, gloom and storm; 19 to a trumpet blast or to such a voice speaking words that those who heard it begged that no further word be spoken to them, 20 because they could not bear what was commanded: “If even an animal touches the mountain, it must be stoned to death.” 21 The sight was so terrifying that Moses said, “I am trembling with fear.” 

Clearly, there is something terrifying about experiencing God! Moses was terrified at Mount Sinai as he felt God in his bones. He hid his face. According to Proverbs 9:10,

“The fear of God is the beginning of wisdom, and knowledge of the Holy One is understanding.” 

Just like we fear and respect a burning fire or powerful animal, so do we fear [respect] God. We revere God as the creator of the ENTIRE COSMOS as it continues to expand into Continue reading “God is Shaking the Hell out of Earth.”

An Open Letter to our Male Toddlers in the #metoo Era

Silas, Maelin, you’re both asleep as I write. Your tiny eyes are closed, and the blankets you threw off during the night are in disarray around you.

You’re snug, cozy, secure.

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When you’re awake you’re filled with wonder, energy, excitement, curiosity for life.

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Needless to say, I’m a proud dad.

I’m proud of who each of you are. Silas, you’re fascinated with the world. Recently, your big phrase has been, “why daddy, why?” You have got to know how things work in the world. Maelin, you are bold, ruggedly driven to keep up with your brother who is more than twice your age. As a second son myself, I respect your tenacity [and you’re only 1!].

Right now, you’re both concerned about why mommy is away at class [because she’s learning!] or why daddy has to go to work [you’re going on your bike, daddy]. You want to hear our stories about the Gentle Giant, to read books with us, to go on adventures with us.

Eventually, you’re going to wonder new kinds of questions. You’ll begin to ask about what is the source of happiness and deep joy-why people flourish and find contentment in life. Conversely, you’ll want to know what causes unrest and violence in families and communities, what the source of evil is might be.

Mommy and I are going to do our absolute best to walk you each through these questions. We’ll talk about how God is good, how God created each of us-and this beautiful world we live in, and about how God is at work through the Spirit in the church that Jesus initiated-and how the church tries [with the Spirit’s help!] to point us toward the kingdom of heaven, the place where God’s reign is evident.

We’ll also tell you about new creation, the way that Jesus will return to earth and how heaven and earth will one day no longer be separate.

Chances are, there will be some confusion. You’ll wonder if what we’re saying is true. You’ll wonder how the kingdom of God operates. You’ll have doubts, for sure, but also times when you’re convinced God is really at work. Your faith will fluctuate, but your parents will be praying it forward at every step.

Now.

You’ll also have questions about sexuality, and whether or not you voice those questions to us, we are going to be talking through a lot of different things related to relationships and sexuality with you both!

Accordingly, I want to touch on an aspect of our current cultural situation. A lot of women have been recently adding portions of their life stories to a Twitter campaign. Using the hashtag #metoo, they’re letting the world know about how men in their lives have done them wrong.

And there is a massive response. Countless male celebrities and politicians are being called out for their sexual harassment, advances on women, their sexual assaults, their acts of rape. There is power in seeing such powerful men humbled. This happens at church too [#churchtoo], and it’s meaningful to see the hashtag campaign prompting some acts of inner-reformation to the faith community.

The #metoo campaign is giving voice and strength to women who have not felt empowered to share their pain-and we need to listen closely. Recently someone Tweeted about how Christmas is, in part, about believing a woman about her sexual experiences. Indeed, before a holy dream, Joseph had his doubts about his fiancé’s sex life!

When women gain the courage to honestly share their stories, it brings accountability to men who have taken advantage of their powerful positions.

All of that said, there are countless, well-meaning Tweets directed at men saying things along the lines of, “get better, men” or “come on men of America, step up your game.” This is a well-intentioned but sadly unhelpful sentiment, for it offers no pathway forward besides essentially pulling oneself up by the bootstraps.

This “get better” mentality imbues shame while failing to provide resources or direction. Yes, men must get better; but a Tweet won’t fix us. Holy Spirit-inspired, heart-based spiritual transformation will.

With the #metoo campaign happening, I want to offer three ways to not only stay far away from such accusations, but prevent the very conditions that allow for it-to experience heart transformation. The road toward sexual violence has a great many pitstops, from the way a young person observes their parents’ attitudes toward sex, to how they internalize those messages, to pornography or other sexual addictions, to how they approach the place of sex in relationships.

To change the world, we must ourselves be changed. 

To me, sex is to happen in the context of committed marriage, and women [and men too, obviously] are to be respected both relationally and sexually. This may sound odd or old-fashioned, but I believe this is the best way to approach relationships and sex.

The Bible never makes a separation between sex and marriage; they are always part of the same bond. I’m of that same mindset, and there happen to be a great number of resources and research that reveal where the Bible’s ancient wisdom intersects with contemporary life.

Anyway, here are a few admonitions that I want to impart to each of you, just a few steps that will keep you on a path that I pray will lead to relational wholeness. Even if you’re never as famous as Al Franken, Harvey Weinstein, Bill Clinton, Louis C.K., or Bill Cosby, the people you end up in relationship with have much to gain or lose as the women affected by these famous men now caught in their sin [sexual violations of various kinds].

1. Stay anchored in Jesus spiritually, and take his teachings seriously.   

As Christians, we metaphorically participate in the life of Jesus by participating in the body of Christ, the church. Jesus emptied Himself in order that God might fill Him up [Philippians 2:6-11], and in a similar way we, as Christians, learn to imitate Jesus and allow the Spirit of Christ to fill us up.

When it comes to sex, Jesus’s clearest teaching is probably the soaring Sermon on the Mount found in the New Testament’s first book, Matthew, in chapters 5-7. Eugene Peterson translates verses 27-28 like this:

You know the next commandment pretty well, too: ‘Don’t go to bed with another’s spouse.’ But don’t think you’ve preserved your virtue simply by staying out of bed. Your heart can be corrupted by lust even quicker than your body. Those leering looks you think nobody notices-they also corrupt. 

Jesus was talking to Jewish folks who were pretty well-acquainted the laws of the Pentateuch [first 5 books of the Bible]. But some Jewish folks had also gotten pretty good at finding ways around the law. A look into first-century rabbinical literature will reveal varying viewpoints on the permissibility of divorce for various reasons [like when a man’s wife fails to cook a meal to his liking-that’s a serious problem!].

Instead of entering the banter regarding the ins and outs of divorce, Jesus goes straight to the soul. He confronts the heart-attitudes that drive and direct us. Indeed, the heart can be corrupted rather quickly.

And how egregious are the consequences? It’s impossible to overestimate the pain that sexual violence causes. Women are driven to depression, anxiety, isolation, and even suicide. Don’t believe me? Start listening, please, not for me but for people who are affected. Talk to mom about what she has gone through, she’ll be more than willing to share with you. Talk to the [at least] one in three women who has experienced sexual trauma.

An old friend recently posted this picture on Facebook. This isn’t the complete text of what she posted, but it’s the beginning:

Surviving sexual assault is strange.door.prop
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It is so many different things to so many different people.
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It is working downtown and getting out after dark. So, you make sure to take your ponytail out, change into shoes you can run in, activate your emergency apps, make sure not to wear a scarf or visible necklace, put your keys between your fingers, and call a friend who will talk to you on the walk to your car. Making sure to text when you get home safe.

*

*

This is the too-often unspoken reality of sexual assault and abuse. It’s fear that no one should have to experience.

Silas, Maelin, take Jesus seriously! He cares about your soul-yet also about other people in your lives who you affect. Your actions matter. Jesus wants the very best for you and even provides a path to get there. Would you grow into your full spiritual stature and take it? Respecting women and ordering your relationships rightly may take a lot of work, but it’s worth it.

I love you guys.

Ok, on to the next thought.

2. Connect with a local church and be willing to be changed through it. 

Yes, we have raised you guys in church, and by now you have seen the flaws and inconsistencies native to the community of faith.

But that doesn’t mean it’s not shaping you positively. If we disassociated ourselves with every flawed institution and person we’d be stranded entirely. There is no politician, business, organization, or individual apart from Jesus who is unflawed, who is without sin. And Jesus leads the church. That’s good news.

When we’re around church for long enough, it becomes less a place where we learn new things about God and more a place where we are reminded and empowered to live into what we already know. It becomes less a place where we find new spiritual insights and more a place where we have a community to put those insights into real-world practice.

Our communities shape us.

Be a faithful member of a community that will shape you to know and love and follow Jesus. 

3. Build real, lasting spiritual friendships 

There’s a reason I write this directly after the local church piece, for it is so often through the relationships begun in the church community that spiritual relationships grow.

That said, this particular admonition comes from two places within my life experience: 1. experiencing the power of deep spiritual friendship, and 2. at various seasons, not having those relationships and subsequently discovering what I was missing.

Through spiritual friends, God offers us godself. Created in God’s image, when we are at our best, we can help others experience the reality of God’s kingdom. 

There are parts of every person that reflect not our brokenness but God’s wholeness; not our dis-integration but God’s ordered-ness.

And this is why I want to encourage each of you to seek deep friendships, and to carve out a place for trust, for listening, for confession, for accountability, for support, and maybe all of this for a lifetime.

Silas, Maelin, we want your hearts to be transformed! Not only do we want you to stay out of any kind of trouble, but we want your soul to resonate with Jesus, the author and perfecter of your faith. We don’t want you to live lives that are based on looking good and pretending to be some awesome person; instead, we want to deeply desire the things we were created to desire and to walk humbly with Jesus.

Love, mommy and daddy.

***

Jesus Calls Us to Die. Literally.

Not long ago, a friend of mine challenged me theologically on how the Christian church is to interpret the teachings and example of Jesus, particularly in terms of nonviolence.

Here is my response.

The text in question, primarily, is the Sermon on the Mount, spoken in 1st century Palestine to Jesus’s closest followers, plus an apparent crowd of Jewish folks from nearby villages may have been listening in. Looming large is the question of how Jesus’s teachings relate to Christians living in the 21st century, whether American-or not-and how to receive the radical challenge Jesus gives his Jewish-turned [over just a few years]-multinational audience.

Jesus begins his sweeping homiletic discourse with the Beatitudes [verses 2-12]. Essentially, Jesus insists that we are blessed or happy or in a really good spot when our present conditions are, seemingly, not so blessed.

Already, Jesus is painting a picture of a very different world

Next, salt and light [verses 13-16]: Jesus calls out a special community, a people set apart to flavor the world with a new way of existing [i.e. the Beatitudes!]. They are called also to be a model, an example, a “city on a hill,” a light set on its stand to brighten planet earth with new ways of coexisting, governed by a new law of love.

Interestingly, Jesus goes on to connect his teachings to the Jewish law that came into practice centuries earlier, the ancient code that set the people of Israel apart from the nations as a people who knew the one true God, Yahweh.

What is happening here? Is Jesus insisting all the details of the law must continue? Shall the new converts following Jesus continue wearing clothing consisting of just one fabric, or can they mix it up [Lev. 19:19]? Can they plant two kinds of seeds in their fields now? How about that bacon they have always wanted to try?

Without a doubt, Jesus is underscoring certain aspects of the law while reappropriating other portions of the ancient Jewish code, for as his earth-shaking sermon continues, he casts new light on six categories of human interaction. Each teaching assumes knowledge of the exterior guardrails of the law, the rule-keeping; but Jesus’s words get at the inner motivation contained in the human soul: 

  1. Anger
  2. Lust
  3. Marriage/Divorce
  4. Language
  5. Self-Defense/Retaliation
  6. Loving One’s Enemy

How can Jesus on one hand insist he’s fulfilling the law, and holding followers to do the same, while also re-working it?

I turned to one of my commentaries, searching for quality language and scholarship to help give meaning to how exactly this fulfillment/completion paradoxically radicalizes-and changes-Old Testament law:

It is inadequate to say either that none of the Old Testament applies unless it is explicitly reaffirmed in the New or that all of the Old Testament applies unless it is explicitly revoked in the New. Rather, all of the Old Testament remains normative and relevant for Jesus’ followers (2 Tim 3:16), but none of it can rightly be interpreted until one understands how it has been fulfilled in Christ. Every Old Testament text must be viewed in light of Jesus’ person and ministry and the changes introduced by the new covenant he inaugurated.*

I bolded that last section because it’s important. We don’t see many Christians holding tight to the ancient laws, and this is one of the theological reasons why. Jesus changed everything, so much so that we now observe all of Scripture using the new lens of His teachings and atoning work on a Roman cross.

It’s not that the law disappears; instead, it is seen in new light.

Possibly the strongest example of Jesus radicalizing the expectations of the law follows in 5:38-42. Here, He actually overrules the Torah! Referring to the lex talionis or “an eye for an eye” presented in Deuteronomy 19:15-21. Exodus chapters 21 and 22 codify self-protection norms; for example, a nighttime intruder can be killed, but if they break in during the day, the defender is guilty if they kill.

Not so for Jesus.

Here, he insists even self-defense is prohibited:

 

38 “You have heard that it was said, ‘An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth.’ 39 But I say to you, Do not resist the one who is evil. But if anyone slaps you on the right cheek, turn to him the other also. 40 And if anyone would sue you and take your tunic, let him have your cloak as well. 41 And if anyone forces you to go one mile, go with him two miles. 42 Give to the one who begs from you, and do not refuse the one who would borrow from you.** 

Emphasizing various cultural factors, a number of theologians have attempted to soften the theological force of this passage. And it makes sense why this happens: how could we possibly live like that?

It seemed appropriate to turn to a respected scholar for insight. No matter how we look at it, Richard B. Hays is pretty hard to keep off a top-5 list of theologians of our era. What might he have to say about the Sermon on the Mount? After a thorough defense of how the teachings of Jesus square not only with the Matthean witness but with the whole canon, he offers his perspective on the how the strange pacifist teachings found in the Matthew 5:38-42 work in reality:

“The posture of the community is not to be one of supine passivity, however. The actions positively prescribed here are parabolic gestures of renunciation and service. By doing more than what the oppressor requires, the disciples bear witness to another reality (the kingdom of God), a reality in which peacefulness, service, and generosity are valued above self-defense and personal rights. Thus, the prophetic nonresistance of the community may not only confound the enemy but also pose an opportunity for the enemy to be converted to the truth of God’s kingdom.”*** 

My last blog post was on my own convictions regarding gun violence, and it contained some political questions native to this important discourse. But I didn’t touch on examples that may help some of us rethink our assumptions. By assumptions, I mean the characteristic attitude that I have anecdotally found to be almost universal among a great percentage of Americans: “if someone comes into my house, they’d better be ready to deal with ME and MY GUN.” 

That attitude is as deeply felt as it is widespread. For so many Americans, it is part and parcel of our national framework for seeing all of life.

What might be another approach? Like, an actual example?

How about the 2006 West Nickel Mines Shooting? On an early October day 11 years ago, Charles Carl Roberts entered an Amish school and, after a hostage situation, shot 8 out of 10 female hostages aged 6-13 years old. He killed 6, including himself, and there were 5 non-fatal injuries.

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It wasn’t long before the Amish responded. But it wasn’t with calls for justice; instead, the response was the embodiment of forgiving love. They decisively forgave the shooter, and took it upon themselves to visit his surviving family. They also set up a charitable fund for Marie Roberts, the shooter’s wife.

 

One Amish man held Roberts’ grieving father in his arms for nearly an hour, allowing him to simply let go of his tears and lean, literally, on someone who apparently cared. 

I also think of certain movements, revolutions in the history of the world that feature nonviolent actions. Imagine the work of Martin Luther King Jr. suddenly infused with violence and self-protection? Is not the power removed?

Yes, we know that there were small pockets of violence that erupted among protesters, but this was not characteristic of the Civil Rights movement as a whole. I must imagine that if it had been, America would not have made the same progress.

Going back a bit farther in history, it’s hard not to mention Dirk Willems, an Anabaptist who was imprisoned for his beliefs. After forging a simple knotted rope, he escaped from a window, then fled his captors over the surface of a frozen castle moat. He was thin from prison rations, but his heavier pursuer fell into the ice.

dirk.willems

Gripped with compassion, Willems turned to pull the man out, and was able to save his life. Unfortunately, the man was less than grateful; Willems was imprisoned again, this time in a far more secure facility where the possibility of escape was nought.

 

He was then burned alive.

Such a radical act smacks greatly of the kind of enemy-love Jesus enjoins us to practice. If this isn’t “do not resist the one who is evil” I’m not sure what is.

Unfortunately, we too often attempt to soften the strong words of Jesus in his great Sermon. Instead of recognizing them for what they are and attempting, through the power of the Holy Spirit, to respond with our lives, we theologize about how the commands of Christ are impossible ideals [Reinhold Niebuhr].

We revert the Old Testament lex talionis eye-for-an-eye paradigm that Jesus modified. We talk about how we’re just looking out for our families, a noble cause indeed.

We as Christians have the hope of New Creation, of heaven being reunited with earth, of rejoicing forever with the family of believers; yet so many of us cling to our guns, our 2nd Amendment *rights*, and our middle-class worries about the safety of our families.

So many Christians are positionally convinced on a great many other ethical and soteriological questions, such as what constitutes a marriage, what salvation means precisely, what loving one’s neighbor means, creation care, and a host of other important questions.

We have verses to back it all up of course.

As an American, I have a great deal of sympathy for those who feel compelled to arm and defend themselves out of fear of attack. I am uncomfortable with passivity when it comes to the safety of one’s family. And I recently wrote about this, in some detail.

I write my position as an invitation and good-hearted challenge, not as the sole way of reading Jesus’s Sermon on the Mount. There are many who see it differently.

I understand that we receive grace and how God’s forgiveness is boundless. At the same time, I am reminded that the same Jesus who insisted we turn our cheek; that we are not to resist an evil doer; that we are to give away our cloak and tunic; yes, that same Jesus [in the same Gospel account!] invites us to take up our cross and follow Him [Matthew 16:24].

He also says, in the next verse, that those who lose their lives for Him will find it. Much of the time, this is certainly metaphorical.

But what if it were literal? 

It was for Stephen, who was stoned to death for insisting Jesus was Lord [Acts 6].

It was for Philip, whose head was bound to a pillar before he was stoned to death.

It was for James, who was thrown down from a great height before being beaten to death with a club.

It was for Simon Cleophas, crucified under Roman emperor Trajan.

It was for Ignatius, torn apart by wild beasts at a Roman circus.

Ignatius_of_Antioch-martyrdom

I want to spark new thoughts on this topic of nonviolence, not get into the weeds on American politics [though I do have some thoughts on that!]. My goal, really, is to encourage a new look at old words.

Friends, Jesus is calling us to great things. He’s calling us to rise with Him in baptism, to walk with Him in new life, to become-with the community of believers-a light on its stand.

And he’s calling us to die to our old self.

Or maybe, every once in a while and in a tragic story that makes no sense this side of eternity…

…to literally die. 

***

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

*Blomberg, C. (1992). Matthew (Vol. 22, pp. 103–104). Nashville: Broadman & Holman Publishers.

**The Holy Bible: English Standard Version. (2016). (Mt 5:38–42). Wheaton, IL: Crossway Bibles.

***Hays, Richard B. The Moral Vision of the New Testament: A Contemporary Introduction to Christian Ethics [San Francisco: Harper Collins, 1996], 326.

From My Cold Dead Hands: God / Guns / America.

I recently tweeted this:

Since my Twitter link to my Facebook page, the conversation continued there. Head to my page in the event that you’re curious, but suffice it to say a *conversation* ensued that has everything to do with what Jesus has to say about violence, self-defense, and killing in general.

Then, today at church we prayed for victims of gun violence:

We cry out to you [God], heal our land from the scourge of gun violence. In the coming days and weeks as our leaders debate solutions, Lord we ask that you grant us the voice to speak truth to power and demonstrate sacrificial compassion to the hurting.

That’s a good summary of the prayer I have mirrored in my soul as I write, so please forgive any sentiment you read that may come across the wrong way.

Now, some biblical background, since I’m a person of faith and since I call Jesus my Savior and my God.

Jesus / Swords

In our discussion, the point was made that Jesus tells his followers to purchase a sword in Luke 22:36. Here’s the ESV version of that verse:

36 He said to them, “But now let the one who has a moneybag take it, and likewise a knapsack. And let the one who has no sword sell his cloak and buy one.

Now we are reminded this is is Jesus talking. When it came up, I was reminded of the more intense moments Jesus has, namely his clearing out of the temple. There are couple Gospel passages that feature this event, so here’s one from John 2:13-22, which includes his use of some kind of whip:

In the temple courts he found people selling cattle, sheep and doves, and others sitting at tables exchanging money. 15 So he made a whip out of cords, and drove all from the temple courts, both sheep and cattle; he scattered the coins of the money changers and overturned their tables. 16 To those who sold doves he said, “Get these out of here! Stop turning my Father’s house into a market!” 17 His disciples remembered that it is written: “Zeal for your house will consume me.”

Do we have the makings of a religious zealot?

Does Jesus actually belong to the radical Jewish group seeking to overthrow Rome through the use of force? Is he a sicarii, a dagger person, who wants to quietly knife centurions and government officials that cause so much taxation and injustice toward the Jewish people?

Reza Aslan thinks so. He makes his case in Zealot: The Life and Times of Jesus of Nazareth [New York: Random House, 2013]. He bases his case in large part on Luke 22:38, where the disciples apparently possess two swords, and Jesus responds by saying, in the ESV translation, “it is enough.”

Ok, two swords is enough? To overthrow an empire? To defend a group of Jewish men against a large armed force that would come to take Jesus?

I think not. 

You can disagree with me, but it seems two swords isn’t quite enough to take on the Jewish temple guards in addition to the Roman legions who really held the regional power.

Jesus confronts Peter just verses later, telling him to put away his sword. Here’s Luke 22:50-53 [ESV]:

…one of them struck the servant of the high priest and cut off his right ear. 51 But Jesus said, “No more of this!” And he touched his ear and healed him. 52 Then Jesus said to the chief priests and officers of the temple and elders, who had come out against him, “Have you come out as against a robber, with swords and clubs? 53 When I was with you day after day in the temple, you did not lay hands on me. But this is your hour, and the power of darkness.

So why does Jesus say “it is enough” in Luke 22:38?

It’s a good thing we can study language, since this is all about how words are being used. In the Bible, the phrase Jesus uses is written in Koine Greek, as is the rest of the New Testament. It looks a bit like this:

Ἱκανόν ἐστιν

Literally, at face value, it means, “it is enough.”

Maybe you’ve said to your kids, or to your partner, or to a friend, “hey, that’s enough!” “That’s enough of that!”

“That’s enough!” is a far better rendering of Jesus’s words, for he clearly insists they put away their swords only a few verses later as the authorities close in to take him to his death. He even goes so far as to heal the gentleman affected by his disciple’s act of defense [the dude lops off an ear].

“That’s enough!” is precisely what the NIV and NLT translations contain, so I guess I’m not the only one who has come to this conclusion.

Various grammatical configurations of that same phrase, Ἱκανόν ἐστιν, can be found in the Septuagint, an early Greek version of the Hebrew Scriptures, and it most often means “that’s enough of that!”

Ok, but what about Jesus instructing his followers to purchase swords in Luke 22:36?

For starts, I thought I’d look into a commentary. This is from the New American Commentary, and the citation is at the end of this post:

And if you don’t have a sword, sell your cloak and buy one. Even if the exact interpretation of this verse is uncertain, it is clear that a new situation is envisioned. The disciples would soon encounter greater opposition and even persecution (cf. Acts 8:1–3; 9:1–2; 12:1–5). The reference to the purchase of a sword is strange. Attempts to interpret this literally as a Zealot-like call to arms, however, are misguided and come to grief over the saying’s very “strangeness.” Understood as a call to arms, this saying not only does not fit Jesus’ other teachings but radically conflicts with them. Also if two swords are “enough” (22:38), war with the legions of Rome was certainly not envisioned. See 20:20–26, “Context.” The “sword” is best understood in some metaphorical sense as indicating being spiritually armed and prepared for battle against the spiritual foes. The desperate need to be “armed” for these future events is evident by the command to sell one’s mantle, for this garment was essential to keep warm at night (see comments on 6:29).*

This author, with his biblical scholarship background, renders the idea of “buying a sword” as a metaphorical preparedness for future suffering and spiritual conflict. Early church history reveals a great deal of death among early Christians; volumes have been written on the subject, and the blood of martyrs has indeed been a source of faith for many.

Other readers, such as my friend and former teacher, Peter Simmonds, take this passage as literal. He thinks Jesus is simply telling his followers to buy swords and defend themselves out on the road. That’s certainly possible.

So, I thought I’d check another commentary, an older tome translated from its original German. The original publishing date was 1872. Here’s the English translation of the commentary on verse 36:

Vs. 36. Therefore He said.—Οῦ̓ν subjoins the opposite of their acknowledgment, that at that time they did not lack the least thing. He that hath a purse, let him take it, ἀράτω: Let him not leave it at home, but take it with him on the journey, in order by so careful a preparation to assure himself against any possibility of a lack. Even so let him who possesses a wallet, hasten to avail himself of it. And he that hath not, neither purse nor wallet, let him sell his garment, which he otherwise would at last expose to robbery, and buy—not a purse or a wallet, but what is now more indispensable than clothing and food—a sword. Self-defence is now not only an urgent necessity, but the first necessity of all. This last word we have to understand, not in an allegorical, but in a parabolical sense. If one understands (Olshausen) the spiritual sword (Eph. 6:17), he is then also obliged to give to the garment, the wallet, and the shoes a spiritual signification. Our Lord will simply, in a concrete pictorial form, represent to His disciples the right and the duty of necessary defence, in order that they may, by the very opposition to the former command (vs. 35), finally come to the consciousness that an entirely peculiar danger shall break in upon them.**

Oosterzee insists we read Jesus’s command in a parabolic sense. He likens the sword to the spiritual sword referenced in Ephesians 6:17, a passage that uses military language to refer to our spiritual defense against the power of spiritual forces within a dark world.

If I were to go back even further, to early church manuscripts on the subject, they would reveal similar things. To be sure, one could probably dig up scholars who have come to a different conclusion on the topic, but the point stands Jesus is concerned here about spiritual self-defense, not about promoting sword ownership in the 1st century or gun ownership in the 21st century.

It’s noteworthy that Jesus’s disciples were almost all killed for their allegiance to Him.

Indeed, every time we read Scripture, we take it into context; a text without a context is a pretext! In this context, I agree with the commentary in reading the command to purchase swords as metaphorical, for Jesus commands his disciples to put away their swords so immediately. Jesus so radically condemns violence elsewhere in the Gospels that this command to buy swords sticks out like a sore thumb. When taken literally, doesn’t square theologically with Jesus’s central teachings.

One more thought on that matter. Most American Christians would not read Jesus’s strong moral injunctions as literal. For example, the whole bit about a camel going through the eye of a needle and how that’s about how challenging it is for a rich person to enter the kingdom of God [Mt. 19:24/Mk. 10:25/Lk. 18:25]. That subject hits a bit close to home, so we tidy it up as metaphorical. Point made?

Even a cursory glance through the Sermon on the Mount forces one to reconsider how we are to approach violence and even self-defense. Don’t murder, and don’t even call someone a fool! Forget an eye for an eye; turn your cheek! Love your enemy and pray for those who seek to harm you!

If Jesus’s encouragement to buy swords in Luke 22:36 is to be taken literally, it’s a theologically frail case, and it doesn’t hold water when taken alongside the rest of Jesus’s words-or with early church history. There have been volumes written on Christian non-violence, and this post only alludes briefly to some of the highlights. There exists a lively debate on the subject, of course, and I would enjoin you to be a part of it.

But I do join a host of others who are on similar biblical and theological footing, so if you want to read more, here is a great list to get started.

Now, about the land of the free.

Our American Context / Politics / 2nd Amendment

All of that said, I am a 21st century American. It’s no longer a sword debate; it’s a gun debate. Now let me put my cards on the table. I’m a white guy from the American Midwest-Northwest Michigan in particular; I grew up reading the NRA magazine which featured [I’m guessing it still features this, though I no longer read the magazine] personal stories of how guns helped people defend themselves in their homes and businesses; I also went to a primarily white, evangelical church, which contained plenty of NRA supporters as well as many who held to an opposing viewpoint on guns.

I even owned a gun for about a decade, a Mossberg 12 gauge shotgun.

I grew up hunting with my dad, and given the chance, I’d hunt tonight [opening day in Michigan for rifles was four days ago!]. I wholeheartedly support gun hunting, and I especially appreciate how hunting is local, and how the meat is organic, grass-fed-and typically really cheap when you put together all the factors.

I digress.

My Personal Journey

Anyway, hunting aside, let’s get down to the nitty-gritty that everyone loves to philosophize about: that hypothetical moment your house is suddenly invaded by a hostile enemy seeking to kill you and do terrible things to your kids and wife.

It’s a very unusual scenario for most NRA members and law-abiding gun owners, but it’s an important ethical question nonetheless. As I reflect on this question, I consider my own experiences, which can be excellent teachers.

The first of which comes from sometime in my college years, when I learned in-person that one of my uncles had received his concealed-carry license, which allowed him to carry a small weapon in most public places. I remember asking him, “would you really shoot someone if they broke into your house?”

He replied, “yes Ben, I’d shoot them, and I’d shoot to kill. I have it from good sources that it’s a legally bad idea to simply maim someone; they could sue the shirt off your back. I’d shoot to kill and not ask questions.”

I was taken aback. I cannot imagine the moral weight of killing someone, especially with no questions asked. I’m sure there is another home-defense ethic that departs from my uncle’s view, but hey, a lot of people agree with him.

Fast forward a few years, and I’m living in sub/urban Grand Rapids. It was urban yet suburban, you see? Anyway, I walk home from work one day and there’s caution tape across my sidewalk. I asked the cops if I could return to my house, and they let me through. I soon discovered, through my roommate, that he had heard gunshots just minutes prior.

The story was ghastly.

My next-door neighbor, Gary, and his estranged adult son became involved in a dispute. Four shots later, he killed him in his own living room.

Dead. 

The gravity of the act set in for me a couple weeks later when I noticed Gary moving new couches in. Maybe it was coincidence and Gary needed new couches, but it certainly seemed as if they had been soaked in his own son’s blood. Did Gary have to kill his son? Was there another option? Maybe so, maybe not. I don’t think I’ll ever know the answer.

Fast forward again. I’m married now, living in true urban Grand Rapids. One night we notice some things out of place, and Kaile is freaking out about whether someone had come into our house. We locked the doors, called the police, and nothing came of it.

That is, until a few weeks later. As we returned from church, I saw my young neighbor climbing down a ladder. He was in a real hurry, and I confronted him. “Hey, where are you going with that?” “Oh, the other neighbor said they needed the ladder!” I didn’t buy it, so I asked a few more questions and promptly went inside to call the police.

Sure enough, our home had been entered, at least once and probably several times. And it was almost certainly the same group of kids both times.

A few months later, I finally decided since my hunting career appeared to be going nowhere and my convictions about shooting someone-even in self defense-had slowly changed, I decided I’d sell my gun [responsibly]. I simply cannot read Christian Scripture and square the act of shooting someone, even in one’s home, even in self-defense.

That’s just me, mind you.

Now, let’s reverse to when I was finishing up 8th grade. There’s an NRA catchphrase and bumpersticker that originates in the mid-seventies:

“I Will Give Up My Gun When They Peel My Cold Dead Fingers From Around It.”

Charlton Heston later re-popularized it during a pro-gun speech in May 2000 [8th grade for me]:

“So, as we set out this year to defeat the divisive forces that would take freedom away, I want to say those fighting words for everyone within the sound of my voice to hear and to heed, and especially for you, Mr. Gore: ‘From my cold, dead hands!‘” 

NRA.Heston

Unsurprisingly, it showed up on the NRA I read in my home not long after the speech.

There’s a real connection in our country to the 2nd Amendment, and not without some compelling arguments. It’s treated almost as a sacred text in some circles. Among the primary examples is this: if fair gun control laws are extended, criminals won’t obey anyway!

Well if that’s our logic, let’s not have speed limits either, since criminals [and many of us!] routinely disobey those too!

I grew up around a community that embraced this cold-dead-hands attitude. And though I challenge aspects of this mentality, I have respect for those who done the ethical work and searched their conscience to conclude that they would indeed use a gun, in an extreme circumstance. Though I disagree and have lots of reasons for my own beliefs, I respect their conclusions.

They have the right, after all.

Gun Control / Research / My Conclusion

That said, I posit the politics related to taking a closer look at how guns are sold and the 2nd Amendment is carried out [remember, its’ phrasing begins with “A well regulated militia…”!] is a different thing entirely.

There is research that correlates the total number of firearms with total deaths. Go do the search, please don’t take my word for it; but it’s real. Where there are more guns, there are more deaths. I recently got some pushback for making this observation, and the line of thinking was this:

“That is undeniable, but it is little different than saying there is a correlation of drowning in countries with higher proportions of pools, lakes or ponds. I think it’s a red herring. …The real question would be: is there a correlation between the total number of guns in a city/state/country and the violent crime rate? Or the total suicide rate? If guns kill people, it should follow that there would be more killing where there are guns, and less killing where there aren’t guns. Similarly, there should be less violent crime where there are less guns. I posit that talk about gun deaths and gun suicides doesn’t tell us nearly as much as we’ve been told to believe.”

These are some great points. To take it piecemeal, at least we are in agreement about the essential facts of the matter. More guns=more gun deaths. But is there higher homicide? Well.. yes, there is, at least according to a study conducted between 1980 and 2010. Read it for yourself.

There’s more pushback, to be sure. There are plenty of stories, as I mentioned earlier, about responsible citizens defending their homes and businesses. It is true that guns can be used responsibly, and this does happen regularly. But that does not outweigh the deaths. This gets interesting, because it is politically charged, and there are agendas at stake. Here’s an article to get some conversation going.

But that’s, you know, “liberal media.” 

Let’s try putting on our thinking caps and seeing this from another angle. Let’s say, hypothetically, we all get our concealed permit licenses and .38s or 9mms or .45s. Pick your style, revolver or modern semi-auto, whatever floats your boat. Would crime decrease? Or would criminals simply arms themselves more heavily and plan a bit better? Would communities come together and begin to trust one another more? Or would society begin to splinter more, even, than what we see presently?

According to the research to which I have alluded, this hypothetical society with at least one sidearm per person would actually have more crime than our current setup. And I dare to say there would be a lot less trust of one’s neighbor.

And I’ll add this: do we really want to live like that? Do we want do distrust our neighbor with such vehemence that we all carry weapons? I get that there are particular situations where this kind of distrust follows logically. Some of us live in unsafe areas. However, of the many responsible gun-owners I know, every single one lives in a safe area. This whole vigilante-justice/defend-my-family scenario rarely happens.

I’ll take that a step further. I often hear suicide-related conversations going this way: “if someone wants to kill themselves, they’ll find away; even if they don’t have access to a gun, they’ll use pills or jump off a bridge.” Yeah, there is some truth to that; the human will is a powerful force indeed. Guns make it easier, but if the will is there, it’s insuppressible.

But let’s use that same they’ll-find-a-way logic in the case of someone like Adam Lanza, the perpetrator at the 2012 Sandy Hook Elementary shooting. He killed his mom, then proceeded to use her gun, a Bushmaster XM-15 semi-automatic assault rifle, to kill 20 kids between 6 and 7 years old, plus 6 adults, not including his mother.

Hopefully that point is sinking in: the people-kill-people/they’ll-find-a-way-if-they-want-to logic works both ways. Adam wanted to kill, so he found guns to do it. If we ignore the link between the total number of guns and the total number of deaths, we miss an important point: access to guns makes a difference, even if we’re the good guys. For those of us with kids, the Sandy Hook shooting was terrifying. I didn’t have kids at the time, but I do now, and I cannot imagine the horror involved.

All of this said, I continue to respect the gun owner who keeps their arsenal under lock and key, and who is careful about gun-related security. And as I have also said, I do agree that guns can be a perfectly useful tool. Some part ways with me on this point, but while I don’t particularly enjoy the phrasing of the Second Amendment as a “right,” I have no problem with responsible gun ownership.

It’s just a bit jarring when so much of our world has no access to food or water and we Americans are quibbling about owning guns as a “right.” So many have not the “right” to even drink water while we insist on the “right” to have guns. Maybe we could think of it more like a privilege.

And I do question the necessity of such powerful guns as were possessed by Adam Lanza’s mom. Semi-automatic assault rifles? Is that a real need for the typical hunter? Well, no, it’s not. And I understand they will not be peeled from anyone’s cold, dead hands anytime soon. Shooting guns can be can be lots of fun, I have enjoyed trap shooting and target practice as much as the next person. But that does not mean they are not a liability.

Consider the story of a friend I went to high school with years ago.

He is a veteran, gun enthusiast, and fierce supporter of the 2nd Amendment. That said, his service in the military has for him, as for many, come at a cost. He wrote courageously in a social media thread about his responsible use of firearms during dark seasons in his life:

“…I will say this, personally the times when I’ve felt on edge, when I’ve felt the severe urge to end myself, I’ve given my firearms to a friend until I get back to a better place. And that just goes with good training and knowing oneself. Did getting rid of my firearms for a couple nights make the problem go away? Fuck no. Because I knew there were any number of ways I could still take my life.”

I really appreciate the honesty. And I’ve expressed my sincere gratitude for the sacrifices of veterans in this very blog; my concerns are not about that.

Yet, though I am thankful my friend gave his guns to a friend during a trying time, I fear there are many who share not the same restraint. For example, Devin Kelley, the shooter in the Sutherland Springs church massacre who took the lives of 26 people ranging in age from a mother and her unborn child, a toddler, teens, adults, and elderly.

Yes, many of us know that a gentlemen shot at and wounded Kelley then pursued him on the freeway before he crashed his SUV a few miles later. Yes, maybe if people in the congregation were carrying, they could have stopped him.

So let’s all beat our plowshares into swords and our pruning hooks into spears and kill that next attacker..? That is the response of so many, and I see why. There is a potential to save some. But my concern is that what we may gain hypothetically will be lost in reality. 

Despite our concealed carry laws and the staggering 310 million guns owned in our country, not a single mass shooting in the past 33 years has been stopped by a responsible gun owner. Not even Sutherland Springs-they were close, but still too late.

Continuing the vigilante/defend-my-family conversation, here’s something I recently saw on Twitter:

Now this, at least in my experience, is the typical mentality that so often goes into a typical philosophy of self-defense. Rarely is it, “oh goodness, I hope never to have to make the decision to kill, even if it’s in self-preservation.” So often it’s what you see here. So often the American philosophy is, “oh, just wait until I get my chance to show ’em who’s boss.” 

Just like driving a car [especially a powerful one] gives us a sense of control and aggression [consider our problem with road rage], carrying a gun also gives us a feeling of power. And according to a 2014 FBI study, it also makes one 8 times more likely to be shot and killed in an argument than be killed trying to stop a crime.

I guess real life isn’t quite like the movies.

Even Christians have this smug I’ll-stop-the-bad-guy mentality, and as you read above, even pastors. “They better know God because they would be meeting Him that day.” Thanks for capitalizing Him, pastor, that’s grammatically respectful of God. But what’s with the egotistical attitude?

Would that it were not so common.

And I’m not saying he is outside his rights whatsoever. As I said, I respect those who have come to the conclusion that they would, under extreme circumstances, shoot to defend themselves. But I am saying this kind of smug self-confidence fueled by a firearm has absolutely no place among the people of God. 

My hope for the average non-Christian American is to consider the research and go about the conversation thoughtfully. So many are already doing this. My hope for my fellow Christians is to do the same, but to go further by considering the example of our teacher, mentor, and Savior, Jesus, who laid down his life for ours. Keep your guns, if that’s your honest conclusion, but please put away the smug attitudes and remember the false sense of power guns can grant their owner.

Picture Jesus carrying a Smith and Wesson .45 and you have to admit it’s a strange image.   I admit that I wonder what the world might be like if we were as devoted to Jesus’s teachings in the same way we’re devoted to 18th century constitutional literature.

Now let’s go back to personal experience. Maybe you’re reading this thinking, “wow, this guy doesn’t even care about his family, he wouldn’t defend them.” That would be a logical thing to wonder. Well it’s not something I have glossed over. True, I have done pretty well over the years. We have only been broken into twice, and it was just kids. I was pushed off my bike a while back, but verbal deescalation did the trick. But I guess I honestly haven’t been in a life-threatening situation.

I’ll gladly answer the age-old hypothetical question by telling you the conclusion I’ve come to based on my convictions and life experience. I’d first do my best to help my family escape a life-threatening situation. I’d try to deescalate verbally. I’d phone law enforcement if possible. I do not keep much cash around or valuables. I’m no Schwarzenegger, but I can grapple and I am trained to physically restrain another person, and in the unlikely event of an attack I have no problem using the physical agency I have been given.

Though all of this is helpful, it wouldn’t help me if I was cornered with my family in my apartment without a phone. If that were to be how I would meet my end, I guess I’d pray in my soul while shielding my wife and our two toddler boys, and do my best to absorb the bullets with my physical body.

And if I didn’t make it, emergency services would have to peel my family members, alive or otherwise, from my cold, dead hands. 

***

 

 

 

*Stein, R. H. (1992). Luke (Vol. 24, p. 555). Nashville: Broadman & Holman Publishers.

**Lange, J. P., & van Oosterzee, J. J. (2008). A commentary on the Holy Scriptures: Luke. (P. Schaff & C. C. Starbuck, Trans.) (pp. 342–343). Bellingham, WA: Logos Bible Software.

“People of Color” as a Phrase :: Helpful or Not?

I first mulled over the phrase, “people of color” in 2005 when I was beginning undergraduate college.

This phrase is a current politically correct attempt at succinctly encapsulating the breadth of non-white groups. While some whites have come to find the term problematic because it appears to tacitly suggest whites do not have culture or skin tone [wait-I have a color too!], I do not think this is much of an issue.

The issue is deeper; it’s about the complexity of human culture. I have pulled together five reasons we can find new ways to speak more articulately and-dare I say-freely on these complexities. 

My goal is not to erase the phrase, but to give some nuanced thought on the subject and offer some alternatives that may be helpful. Oh-and it should be noted that I speak from the American context, and this will be evident throughout.

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thanks, Shutterstock [art cred]
1. People of color encapsulates far too many unique human experiences to be a useful phrase. 

Not long ago I attended a conference, and during one of the breakout sessions a woman I know stood up at a conference and begin saying something with the disclaimer, “as a woman of color, I notice that…” She went on to make a great observation on something or other. Now, a word about the woman and her various intersectionalities. She is married, very educated, and quite stable in every external category. And yet, with the phrase people of color, she categorically rolls herself in with African Americans and Latinos.

Did I mention she’s Chinese?

I cannot speak with too much precision on how someone from a background that is significantly more disadvantaged than this particular woman might respond. But it is categorically odd to roll together people groups as diverse as Chinese, Latino, and African American.

In no way was the woman politically incorrect to speak as she did. And I am quite sure she has experienced various forms of exclusion and marginalization, both as a woman and as someone of Chinese descent. But I question how helpful it is to continue using this phrase that is currently in vogue-and so terribly convenient [like on Twitter, where POC is the abbreviation]. People of color is a current attempt to remain politically correct as a society, and respectful of people groups. I grasp the overarching goal, but if deep unity is our agreed [albeit challenging] goal, I am convinced we need something different.

People of color is marginally helpful in its attempt at drawing together people who are marginalized. The goal of being honest about marginalization is excellent! However, I conclude there are better ways to achieve that goal. Assessing intersectionality along with one’s felt position within culture are the more precise and helpful tools for assessing marginalization.

How does a white muslim’s experience the world? Where does a wealthy self-made Korean woman experience exclusion? How does an poorly educated white man from a poor family experience life in 2017? These questions take us on a journey that moves us closer to the root of why and how we feel separated from one another, for they integrate factors that include yet go deeper than one’s phenotype.

Race, class, and gender are the classic sociological lenses, but there are so many more.

2. People of color sounds eerily similar of its etymological predecessor: colored people.

It is incredibly disrespectful to refer to someone as “colored.” We have, as a society, rightly judged this language to be not only arcane but offensive. But our replacement term is, in my view, a stopgap measure on the journey toward greater progress. 

One big pushback to questioning the term is how embedded it is within our language and within culture. Yes, the phrase is popular. It’s quite useful a lot of the time. But that does not mean it’s the best or most uniting phrase for speaking on race.

Interestingly, institutions like the NAACP have preserved the phrase in their title, certainly not because they embrace an attitude of exclusion [this is what they fight against!] but simply because the en-double-a-cee-pee has a familiarity within the American consciousness.

I am not the first to notice the strangeness of the progression from colored people to minorities to people of color. Other observers have seen the same pattern and support people of color as a helpful phrase. And while some seem to resonate deeply with my viewpoint, others are ambivalent. The biggest pushback tends to come not from whites who find the term easy or helpful, but from blacks and Latinos.

And I suppose that’s why I’ve taken time to reflect on the subject and make my case from the white cultural standpoint.

3. People of color places an unnecessary dividing wall between whites and non-whites while propagating a subtle myth of whiteness as superior.

This is where my white perspective and experience speaks directly into the narrative. To insist on using people of color essentially draws a massive line down the center of human relationships, and separates anyone who appears to have primarily European ancestry from every other ethnic group.

I have observed the phrase people of color essentially split a room of people. I have felt it myself! It falsely rolls together disparate ethnic groups and separates them from the general amalgam of white folks. While making white people into one large, monolithic entity, it forces together various ethnicities with essentially no commonalities apart from non-whiteness.

This leads to a subtle Euro-centrism that has unfortunately permeated everything from international politics to colorism, especially within communities of African descent [essentially, the lighter the better]. If white features are seen as preferable, our system is flawed-and people suffer on account of it.

And this leads to the next point.

4. Just like any other ethnic group, not all whites share a similar cultural experience. 

People of color could theoretically be helpful in a context where the population consists of a large white majority and a few pockets of Latinos, Asians, and folks from African descent, but I would suggest that it is becoming increasingly unhelpful if our goal is an integrated society where culture is treasured and differences are appreciated.

Consider a case example.

There is a significant Russian and Eastern European presence in my little corner of Silicon Valley. Plenty of times I have shown up to a playground where I am the only native English speaker, but I share a common skin tone with a pretty decent percentage of fellow tired toddler-chasing parents. There are Asians, Latinos, then… Russians. Or Latvians. Or Belarusians.

This is another situation where people of color, as a phrase, falls flat.

I have very little cultural commonality with a Russian or Latvian, apart from one paternal grandparent who emigrated from Slovenia. Because of a great uncle, I know a couple Slovenian words.

Oh-and I have a similar skin tone.

But that’s it.

Whites tend not to enjoy being rolled together with every other person who looks similar any more than minority groups that are rolled together with other people groups who don’t even look similar.

So think about this: we wouldn’t call a Russian a person of color. And yet, they are indeed linguistically and culturally a minority.

There is a great deal of diversity within the world that lacks melanin. In my own American context, there are WASPs with a massive cultural and economic inheritance from generations; there are poor, under-educated whites who trace their heritage to less-privileged forbears; there are the white persons who are entirely new to the United States, who have strong accents from places as diverse as Paraguay, Russia, France, Argentina, Georgia.

5. There are more accurate and honest ways to communicate one’s identity 

Might it be easier to just get specific?

Hispanic/Latino…

African descent/West African/African American/black…

Italian/Southern European…

Anglo/European descent/white…

Filipino/Korean/Chinese…

Indian/East Asian/Pakistani…

I do not believe it is so difficult to simply get specific. As a culture, our world is primed to embrace differences; in no way should we make it a goal to somehow become colorblind or indifferent to our differences. It is quite the opposite, really-why gloss over the very differences that make our world so fascinating to inhabit? 

Rolling together the experiences of such diverse groups as Asian, African/African American, Latino [and others!] into one simple catch phrase is just…

…lazy.

6. [Bonus!] As a Christian…

I am reminded of a soaring portion of Christian Scripture [Revelation 7:9-10] that speaks on the eternality of cultural differences. Christians anticipate an eternal future that celebrates and includes all peoples:

After this I looked, and there was a great multitude that no one could count, from every nation, from all tribes and peoples and languages, standing before the throne and before the Lamb, robed in white, with palm branches in their hands. They cried out in a loud voice, saying,

“Salvation belongs to our God who is seated on the throne, and to the Lamb!” 

 

Christians have no excuse for glossing over cultural differences, for in this text we discover that the new creation God is ushering us into includes all the differences we experience right now! Nor do we who are white and following Jesus have an excuse to secretly prefer sameness to the intricacies of diversity. Instead, we have the great joy of coming together, from every nation/tribe/people/language to extend the kingdom of God.

Whatever our cultural background or color, our eternal future as God’s people includes it.   

An Open Letter to an Unknown Soldier

I came across a WWII helmet at a local shop here in San Francisco, and I bought it.

Then I gave it to someone I love. 

And today it’s July 4th, 2017, the United States’ 241st birthday. It seemed like a good time to write you.

Was this helmet yours?

[I know that would be wild, right? What are the chances?].

If not, does it at least bring back memories?  

Where did you fight? 

Did you live a post-war life filled with the painful memories that went unprocessed?

Did you struggle to reconnect with the civilian world when you go home from war?

Are you hispanic?

Are you descended from one of the people groups already living in this patch of land when Europeans showed up out east?

Are you descend from African parentage?

Are you white like me?

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Now I need to be honest for a minute.

I’m not the most patriotic American. For a long time I have been pretty critical of the United States. In fact, I have gone so far as to write, at length, on how I actually disapprove of a huge portion of our this nation-state’s decisions. I agree with some, sure, but I’m outraged by others. I have boldly critiqued the president, and spoken out using the rights and privileges that became my own when I was born into a American family in South Bend, Indiana.

And, getting honest, I’m a situational pacifist.

[There. I said it].

I grew up with guns, then sold my 12 gauge hunting piece a few years ago to buy baby gear.

[We have two tiny boys in our house whom we love dearly].

Actually, WWII is the only war I have found to be historically necessary amidst the many wars America has fought over the centuries. With the history I have studied, I can’t figure out another way around it.

If I had been forced to serve, I would have hoped to have served as a chaplain or medic. My training is within the world of Christianity; I went to a Christian college and completed a Master of Divinity program at an Evangelical seminary. During those years, I learned that my allegiance is not primarily to a nation, but to Jesus. And the call of Jesus is all-inclusive! It goes beyond the internal life of a person.

But that doesn’t mean at all that I don’t appreciate you, and I hope you understand that. You gave up so much. And it might not have been your idea at all to serve! You may have been just like me-a pacifist forced to do something they would never have wanted to do.

So… are you a pacifist?

Were you drafted?

Or did you sign up willingly?

And what did you do, sir, if I might ask?

Were you in the Pacific theatre, or Europe?

I guess if you’re still around you were probably in the Pacific.

Did you drive an amphibious tank?

Did you storm a beach and duck bullets?

Are you one of my two grandfathers?

I have so many mixed feelings about our country, I do; we have a deep history of oppression and segregation, of displacement and exclusion. Goodness, African Americans couldn’t even vote until my parents’ lifetimes, in the mid-20th century! And women only gained the right at the beginning of your lifetime.

Progress is slow!

And yes, other countries have plenty of maladies, and every nation-state has evils to renounce and genocides of their own to confess. The world is full of evil. Comparing the sins of the United States to other nations may have its place, but for now I guess we can conclude that we can critique our own because of the kind of democracy we set up in the beginning.

We can speak freely because we set up our system that way.

We can critique and protest because this is how our Constitution was designed.

A couple more questions for you, if I might.

Did you have to pull a trigger?

If so, did you regret it?

Are the memories painful?

[I’m so sorry if I’m digging too deep, I just want to know what you went through].

Did you wonder if God would forgive?

[My answer is a big *yes* to this one, even though I would never want to kill].

Did your kids suffer from post-war difficulties?

If so, was it hard to see that?

I’m sorry, I’m done. I know this is tough stuff to talk about.

You gave up a lot, and you may not have even signed up to be in the military. That’s wild. You sacrificed your time, energy, family [did you have a wife at home? kids? I do, and I’d never want to leave them].

Even more so, you sacrificed your God-given instinct that told you it isn’t right to kill. You set aside that intrinsic sense to preserve life because the world is a messed up place to be. Forces much bigger than you or I had joined hands, and you were part of an enormous resistance to the united Axis powers.

Was there another way? Maybe. Maybe not. It can’t be changed now, I guess.

Regardless, you still sacrificed-or were forced to sacrifice-a LOT.

I hate that the 20th century was soaked in blood, genocide, exclusion.

I hate that this new century contains the same.

I pray for a world that is different.

I am trying to be a part of that.

It’s often difficult.

Ok, anyway, I just wanted to say thanks. I know it’s a round-about way to say it, and I felt like I had to get honest about where I’m coming from. Again, please know that I’m not thankful that people died. I lament all of the loss. But from me to you, for all that happened that was or wasn’t right or good, you objectively gave up a lot.

I pray you find rest and contentment in your old age, that you find hope in the resurrection of Jesus and how God’s making all things new.

Jesus said there’s no great love than when someone lays down their life for a friend. Did another solider do that for you? Did they take a bullet for you-or shrapnel? I’m sorry, I’m doing it again-it’s a lot of questions. Forgive me. War is so absolutely hellish, yet you endured it, not knowing what would come in the years that would follow.

I’m done with my questions, and I’ve tried to make sure you know how it is that I’m saying this [as a pacifist Christian who isn’t super supportive of US policy and who is fairly critical of our history].

But all of that aside. Please hear me.

From me to you,

Thanks.

***

American Christians vs. Christian Americans

A number of years ago, I was chatting with a friend about the military. Even then, I was a pacifist, but I still admitted that if I were forced to enlist via a hypothetical draft, I’d comply. I’ve become even more of a pacifist since then, but I’ve been mulling over what it means to be an American Christian.

There’s a wide chasm, I think, between American Christians and Christian Americans. Recently someone I follow on Twitter compared the “America First” brand of American Nationalism to an alternative kind of worship, an alternative to the worship of Yahweh, the God who we know best through the Son, Jesus.

There are Americans who baptize their unwavering nationalism with Christianity, seeing at as a means to support American ideals. Conversely, there are Christians like me who try to somehow make sense of their nation-state in regards to their faith. I realize this is a gross oversimplification of the matter, but it’s a starting place nonetheless.

With the premise that every nation-state is merely a construct, an invention, and that the red/white/blue flag represents a narrative that means very different things to different people groups-allow me to attempt to navigate the intricate link between Christian faith and identity and one’s sense of place within the world as it is currently divided into continents, countries, and districts.

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I remember one Thanksgiving when we went around the table, naming one thing for which we’re thankful. Various siblings, aunts, and uncles, named things like freedom, enough food, a solid job, education.

When it got around to my  grandmother, her answer came without pause: “I’m thankful to be an American.”

I was not yet twenty at the time. Now I’m 30. And yet, as I relive the moment, her words strike me in a very similar way. How many people sacrificed for her to be able to be thankful to be an American?

Native Americans immediately think about a long history of displacement.

African Americans may think about slavery and the civil rights era, and maybe about police violence toward young black men, or about the centuries of marginalization that underlines their American experience.

Japanese Americans might think about the not-so-distant American internment camps where Japanese families were sent during WWII.

Mexican Americans may think about the 8 US states that were formerly territories of Mexico, then again about the irony of “crossing the border” to get “into” the United States. I’m typing this article in formerly Mexican land.

European Americans‘ thoughts might drift naturally and ethnocentrically toward Washington, Jefferson, JFK, Lincoln, or other celebrated American leaders who happen to be white.

Any one of these people groups could recall family members who served in the military at any stage of American history. This applies to my own family, and I’m thankful for the sacrifices both my grandfathers made to serve during WWII-an important war even from the vantage point of my pacifist sensibilities. But that is only one dimension of the multitudinous sacrifices made by numerous ethnic groups.

If we’re really honest, we might all be just a teensy bit ethnocentric-and that can be just fine or it can really fog our vision. But my point in bringing up the various ways various ethnic subgroups might understand American history is simply to note how much has happened in this swath of land over the millennia.

So many people have lost their rights, their dignity, their lives in the long journey toward America becoming the nation it is today. So many have gained unfathomable riches from the systems that exist in our nation-state. And yes, of course, the United States has participated in some very good things too-of this there is no doubt at all.

In full disclosure, I benefit greatly at a personal level from the personal and systemic losses of many other people groups. I benefit from the gains too. But at this point, I’m trying to figure out how to be thankful for what I have inherited while rejecting oversimplification and glamorization of the American story.

It’s in only seeing one side of the American story that we become complacent, self-righteous, and unhelpfully angry.

Now, I want to attempt to make a connection. How does allegiance not to country but to Jesus calls us out of this slough of ethnocentrism and national identity? How do we quell the tandem voices of racism and xenophobia? How can live and participate in the world’s unfolding narrative as Americans even as we’re confronted with the bloodshed that laces our history?

I believe transformation comes when we hear our deepest identity: we are sons and daughters of God [Galatians 3:26], made in God’s image [Genesis 1:26-28], sisters and brothers with Jesus himself [Hebrews 2:11]. More than Americans, more than members of a particular demographic, more than members of a particular orientation, we are united in Jesus. 

Whether or not we believe this matters, I think. It’s too easy to get swept up into the push and pull of nationalist political rhetoric if we lack a deeper spiritual foundation. We Christians believe God has extended us a massive amount of grace and that Jesus has paid an extremely high cost-his life-to conquer death, create reconciliation between God and humanity, and atone for sin.

If we genuinely believe God is at work in the world, and that God invites us to partner with him in renewing the earth, matters of American identity quickly fade in terms of importance.

This isn’t to say our national stories are unimportant or trivial. There are very meaningful narratives that can give Americans a sense of togetherness and build bridges of solidarity.

Just a couple weeks ago I was at the DeYoung museum here in San Francisco. On the second floor, there is a room filled with American art. One piece is especially moving to me. It features John Brown, a radical abolitionist who was on his way to execution for leading a slave rebellion, kissing a child, presumably his own.

That day a couple, presumably from another country [they were not speaking English], were observing the piece. I certainly could be wrong in my language-based assessment. Ostensibly, they misunderstood the gravity of the painting, for they proceeded to take smiling pictures in front of it. As they continued taking smiling pictures, the woman backed right into the painting, her hair and shoulders brushing up against it, moving its frame against the museum wall.

Soon, the museum security was on the scene, firmly admonishing her to maintain at least 24 inches between herself and the art.

Of course they gently complied.

The feeling within me as I observed was a mixture of incredulity and frustration. It seems that a middle-aged couple would know typical rules for an art museum. Much more, taking these kinds of pictures in front of a painting that features an execution is simply disrespectful. And the content of the painting made the picture-taking even more unnecessary.

All of that aside, the narrative of John Brown reminds us Americans of the suffering endured by generations of African American slaves. Yes, John Brown was violent, and we can sit comfortably and have a conversation about how he could have responded, but history is history and this is the desperation Brown felt. Some vilify him as an unthinking terrorist; some consider him a hero and martyr. But regardless, he is an important character in the drama of our nation-state.

In that moment, I felt very American. But I didn’t sense that American sentiment because I’m adoring the image of a country that stands as a shining beacon of hope for the rest of the world to see. I felt American because I have a unique personal connection to the people, places, and experiences of this country; I have lived here, loved here, and am raising my family here. And I don’t think I should be faulted for appreciated the country that has shaped me so deeply.

It’s romantic, this grouping of mountains, rivers, plains, fields, and deserts! The contours of my childhood included the vast forests, fields, and rivers of Northwest Michigan. I remember family trips to Colorado, Washington, Pennsylvania, and the Carolinas. I dated an African American for a couple years and felt the tangible difficulty of the American story as our relationship eventually faltered. I live in an area now where one can procure food from just about any remote corner of the world including Eritrea [and there are numerous Eritrean restaurants, not just one!]. This reminds all of us that America can indeed support and include people groups that differ from the earliest European settlers that have culturally and governmentally stayed in power.

As the current political season wanes on, as we do our best to shape our country into the kind of place we think it should be, I pray we remember our long and violent history. And there is no need to compare America’s violent history to other nations, this is unhelpful. Looking past our nation’s many sins can quickly lead us to an unchecked and one-dimensional nationalism that turns us into automatons who worship at the feet of the leader with the most braggadocio. Focusing too much on America’s many problems, on the other hand, can overwhelm us and turn us into self-righteous sidewalk prophets with no sense of gratitude for the good that is, by default, mixed with the bad.

It’s better to know the American stories of heartache and loss, of overcoming and transforming, commending them to honest, realistic memory while searching for true and lasting hope from our Lord, Savior, Brother, and Teacher: Jesus. 

 

 

 

My Post-Election Thoughts

Well, as it turns out, I’m a bit naïve. And apparently so is the media-no one warned me about this election’s possible results.

Wow.

Trump won.

Clinton, Trump pick up big wins

Photo credit: Nigel Perry

For as long as it appeared Mrs. Clinton and Mr. Trump would eventually square off, I’ve been calling it a win for Clinton. Yeah, naïve, probably. Yet I am not the only one; many of us are caught off-guard. Not all headlines, but many, seem to say similar things: “it’s a shocking victory” or “surprise win for Trump.”

I’m thankful for Mrs. Clinton’s graceful concession speech, and I’m doing my best to be optimistic about the potential upside of Mr. Trump’s transition to the White House. It’s just really difficult for me right now as a Christian, as a citizen, and as a dad to see much potential after listening to the debates and hearing about the rallies.

Over the past several months I’ve dedicated my fair share of time tracking polls, blogs, the Twitter feed, and chatting with others about the eventual outcome. Since the results are in, I am searching for us all to thoughtfully move forward. I’m absolutely rankled by Trump’s hateful speech, his recorded bus conversation degrading women, minorities, Muslims, and the host of other woes toward about every demographic I can think of.

As a white middle-class guy, I’m sad and disappointed, and I can only imagine the response of women, minorities, LGBTQ folks, anyone less privileged than myself. With a net worth of 3.7 billion, we now have the richest president-elect ever waiting to take office on January 20th, and he arrives in office with promises of helping the everyman. Maybe he will indeed make America great [again], though I am personally unsure of the era to which he refers and for whom he intends to make the nation great.

To be fair, I do think Hillary has some egregious issues and untruths that polluted her reputation. And her inability to apologize sincerely did not help her leading up to the election. But I, like quite a few Americans, saw her problems as less significant than Trump’s. It’s a good thing we are allowed to disagree here in America.

All of that said, and now that you’re either bored or incensed, I want to offer some thoughts that will hopefully unite and focus us as we move into a new political era.

Here are my thoughts for moving forward:

1. Listen well

My friend Chris said this yesterday on his Facebook feed:

As I see the results coming in, it’s clear to me that I do not understand the experiences, values, needs and ideals of the majority of my country(wo)men. I have failed to listen deeply enough to stories whose hopeful ending appears on the horizon. Time to open my ears and take better care of those with whom I disagree. 

Wow, Chris. You nailed it. He and I have similar reflections of the events, and wherever we fall on the political spectrum, we all have at least 60 million people who see things quite differently than we do, since that’s about how many people voted per side. In reality, the numbers are much higher and the political gap much greater than that seemingly large number. With each side feeling quite strongly about their own position, it’s that much more important to listen.

Progressives, listen to how Trump voters substantiate their vote. Conservatives, consider why a great many people are concerned about the president elect.

Listening doesn’t mean agreeing, but it does build empathy. Here’s a brief quote from an anonymous someone with whom I personally disagree:

Feeling pretty conflicted this morning. Extremely happy that Hillary lost, but pretty disappointed at the same time that Trump won. The left has gone so far left, that I could never vote for a Democrat at this point. However, now the right has shifted to a place where they no longer represent me. I woke up this morning with an easier life and a president that caters to me as a late 20s white male, but, did my wife, daughter, minorities, etc wake up with that same feeling? Like I said, I’m feeling very torn on this election… 

I personally take plenty of issues with, well, nearly everything Donald Trump stands for, but the hardest thing is understanding how other people have arrived at a different conclusion. But again, it builds empathy and allows for dialogue.

As a Christian, here is something I’m bound to, from the 1st century writer, James [who many scholars understand to be the brother of Jesus]:

My dear brothers and sisters, take note of this: Everyone should be quick to listen, slow to speak and slow to become angry, because human anger does not produce the righteousness that God desires. James 1:19-20

As a Christian, I need to get better at listening.

2. Pray

First, what I’m not talking about. I’m not talking about God-bless-America kinds of prayers. Clearly God is interested not only in blessing America, but in caring for all the people of the world, and nation-states are our invention. I would have to burst anyone’s bubble, but God is not American. Too often we conflate appreciation and support for our country with a sort of civic religion that subverts uniquely Christian concepts to praise soldiers that are serving the nation state. You’ve heard it before. “Their blood has made a way for us.” “Greater love has no one than this, than that a person would lay down their life for a friend; and these soldiers have done that…”

It is wonderful to be thankful for safety and grateful to soldiers for doing such difficult work, but let’s not conflate serving our country and serving God; those two things are often dramatically different, and they’re one of the factors dividing America internally.

When I say pray, I mean pray for people. Pray for people who are different than you. Pray for courage and strength for people who feel nervous and scared. Pray for renewed vision for people who are smug about election results and uncaring about how others may see the news. Pray for the peace and unity of all people, and certainly not just Americans. Pray for minority groups, whether you’re a significant part of one or not. If you are, pray for other marginalized people who share different concerns. If you’re white and male like me, pray that you can come to understand perspectives from other groups, then seek to live in solidarity with them, to give up power as Jesus gave up his power.

Pray.

3. Move Slowly, and Move Toward Those Who Hurt

I received timely wisdom on writing about the election and all its trauma. A friend encouraged pastors and other folks who want to write about recent events to pause and take some time before firing off a blog post or article.

I’m trying to take that advice. As I do, I look out the window, and thousands of high school students are pouring through the streets of downtown San Francisco in protest of the president-elect. It’s impossible to argue with their passion; they can’t even vote, as one of my colleagues noted, and they’re trying to live in solidarity with people groups who are struggling with what Trump represents. Surely there are other parts of the nation experiencing a far different response to the news, and that is part of the equation as well.

Wherever we find ourselves, my prayer is that we move slowly.

But we also have the opportunity in this season to move toward those who hurt.

I was speaking with one of my neighbors and her friend [they’re both 10 or 11] just before the election, and he was telling me that a young African American boy was crying at school that day. He was worried about the election and what it might mean for his family.

There were no words for that; no one can argue with a feeling.

I remember fumbling with my response, trying to be as optimistic as I could. Looking back, I realize I should have simply listened and sat with my 10 and 11 year old neighbors. I should have moved toward the hurt instead of trying to offer trite optimism. Oh, the things we learn as we look back.

Maybe you read about the young black child who cried about Trump being president and you think, “oh good grief, that’s preposterous.” Well, he was crying, and maybe he has some pretty good reasons to be crying. Maybe his sadness can be a reminder of how someone from a different demographic responds quite differently to the same results.

In the footsteps of Jesus, who moved toward pain in every step of his ministry and who advocates and prays to the Father on behalf of the hurting people of the world, may we too move toward those around us who hurt.

And, despite my many failures and foibles during this election cycle…

…may these changes start within me.

Two Powerful Questions [and Mike’s Profound Answers]

Recently I shared on Instagram about a guy I met at Civic Center Park here in San Francisco.

Mike.

Maybe you’ve met someone before who tugs at your heart strings. Earlier in life, I found it almost impossible to describe the feeling I get, and it’s still hard; but I’ll try. Mike was the kind of guy who, if he was being ridiculed or mistreated, I would want with all my heart to stand up for and defend. He’s the kind of guy who has clearly been through so much; no doubt he doesn’t have a place to hang his hat. Mike’s wrinkled skin, bad teeth, and dirty clothes masked a beautiful soul.

I was inspired to listen in to local wisdom and happenings in the wake of a “listening project” our church is doing. Find it on Twitter and Instagram with this hashtag: #wearelisteningsf. I’m not very good with chance or one-off encounters, to be quite clear, but my occasional personal awkwardness sometimes makes other people feel more comfortable. Our toddler son also helps, needless to say.

Whenever I’m out with Silas [19months] on a walk, I feel about 924.3 times bigger than I am. I’m not just another white 20something face-I’m tied to toddler, connected to a child with a bright and beautiful personality.

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Anyway, it required an intense mental dialogue, but I finally got myself to introduce myself to someone new, and I interacted with Mike quite a while, starting with a couple powerful questions. They’re not at all original to me. To be honest, I have no clue as to their provenance.

I ask my students [I’m a youth pastor] these kinds of questions all the time, and they work for just about any conversation:

What was the best thing about today? And what was the worst thing? 

Mike’s answers perplexed and astounded me. First, he told me the best thing about his day was how he was able to get up in the morning and see the beautiful world around him. Ok, wow. He’s already exploding everything one might imagine about the underprivileged.

His response to the next question was equally powerful. I had to repeat the question because he didn’t seem to have an answer. And, sure enough, he didn’t.

Ben: “Mike, what was the worst part about your day today?”

Mike: “Well you know, there isn’t really anything to say. It’s been a good day. I don’t have much, but I’m doing alright.”

As I listened, I realized how much I have to be thankful for, how I can creatively practice an attitude of contentment and thankfulness in my daily life. Mike’s words were a massive gift to me. His words put contemporary meaning to a piece of biblical wisdom found in I Timothy 6:6. It reads, “But godliness with contentment is great gain.”

Here, the author is writing to an audience who seems to be under the impression that religious practice leads to financial security [read I Timothy 6 for details!].

Mike gets it. He understands contentment. And he gets, at a deep level, the God-given wisdom of seeing everything as a gift.

And he’s helping me to get this concept too, as I listen to his experiences.

…Even though I’m not there yet.