Sunday, April 5, 2015

Repost: Happy Easter!

It was in church on Easter Sunday in 1979 that the 15-year-old me, in the middle of the singing of "Christ the Lord is Risen Today," lifted my eyes to heaven and whispered, "Ok, God, I'll trust You."  Today I'm going to let Peter Marshall, 1950's Chaplain of the US Senate, be my "guest blogger" to help me express what Easter became for me on that day: the day I first let my own life's story become caught up in the Great Story of the gospel, which Dr. Marshall retold so often and so well.  So here is a section I have abridged from perhaps his most famous sermon.

THE GRAVE IN THE GARDEN

Three years before, the Master had called them to become fishers of men.  Now that His fame had died away, they would once more become fishers of fish.

Their King crucified like a criminal.  Their Messiah ending up-- not on a throne, but on a cross, hailed as King on Sunday, and dead like a common thief on Friday.

They remained the despairing survivors of a broken cause, as they stumbled blindly down the hill, their eyes filled with tears they could not stop.
They were the very picture of men without any hope.
Utterly crushed. . . beaten. . .
disappointed. . .
In their faces there was the stark, dreadful look of hopeless despair.

Jesus was a dead man now, very much like any other dead man.  The Roman authorities were satisfied that they had seen the last of this strange, troublesome Dreamer.

Thus they left Him on Friday evening-- just before the Sabbath began, His dead body hastily embalmed,
wrapped in bandages on which a hundred pounds of myrrh had been hastily spread. . .
the tomb closed with a huge stone and soldiers standing guard around it.

Then came Sunday morning.

The first rays of the early morning sun cast a great light that caused the dew drops on the flowers to sparkle like diamonds.
The atmosphere of the garden was changed. . .

It was the same garden. . . yet strangely different.
The heaviness of despair was gone,
and there was a new note in the singing of the birds.

Suddenly, at a certain hour between sunset and dawn, in that new tomb which had belonged to Joseph of Arimathea, there was a strange stirring, a fluttering of unseen forces. . .
a whirring of angel wings
the rustle as of the breath of God moving through the garden.

Strong, immeasurable forces poured life back into the dead body
they had laid upon the cold stone slab;
and the dead man rose up
came out of the grave clothes
walked to the threshold of the tomb,
stood swaying for a moment on His wounded feet,
and walked out into the moonlit garden.

We can almost hear in our hearts the faint sigh, as the life spirit fluttered back into the tortured body, and smell in our own nostrils the medley of strange scents that floated back to Him
of linen and bandages. . .
and spices
and close air and blood.

Then came a group of women as soon as they could, bringing spices and materials with which to complete the hasty anointing of their Lord. 

They came with all the materials with which to anoint a dead body,
and when they came to the grave in the garden, they found that the stone had been rolled away from the door of it, and the grave was empty.

Here is John's account of what followed:

"But Mary stood without the sepulchre weeping. . . and saw Jesus standing, and knew not that it was Jesus.  Jesus saith unto her, Woman, why weepest thou? whom seekest thou?  She, supposing him to be the gardener, saith unto him, Sir, if thou hast borne him hence, tell me where thou hast laid him, and I will take him away.

Jesus saith unto her, Mary.  She turned herself, and saith unto him, Rabboni; which is to say, Master."

There were two names spoken, "Mary," and "Rabboni."
She heard her own name spoken as only one Voice could speak it-- gently echoing in the garden.
And there was her "Rabboni" -- the breathless "Master!" as she saw His face.

Christ had spoken her name, and all of heaven was in it.
She uttered only one word, and all of earth was in it.


Then, what happened?
Suddenly Peter is facing the foes of Jesus with a reckless courage.  Why, this does not sound like the same man.  The truth is, it is not the same man.  He is different--
very, very different.

The disciples of Jesus were scattered
downcast
hopeless
with a sense of tragic loss
and then, in a few days, they were thrilling with victory, completely changed. 

The were all thrilled beyond fear in the stupendous knowledge that Christ was alive,
and they went about rejoicing in a joy beyond pain.


Happy Easter to my readers, wherever you are.  Thank you so much for coming and reading.

Kristen

----------------
Peter Marshall, Mr. Jones, Meet the Master, Fleming H. Revell Co. (1950), pp. 101-114.

Sunday, March 29, 2015

Good Stuff - March 2015

So here's what I thought was eye-opening, mind-opening and/or heart-opening on the Internet this month.  Interestingly, as I look at these posts as a group, I see a thread running through all of them of false dichotomies: the idea that a thing or person must be either A or B, that there is no such thing as C-- and D? Well, that's just silly.

Of Boys and Girls (Good and Rotten) and Climbing Trees at Word of a Woman explores the thinking behind the parable that says girls are like apples on a tree waiting for a boy to come and pick them:
Funny, he says the “good” girls just need to be patient and wait for a brave boy who is willing to climb the tree to the top for them. Forget about whether or not the girls they have judged as being “rotten” and “easy” are actually awesome too. Or whether or not the ones they have judged as “good” and worthy are actually either. “Good” girls he says should wait for a boy to give them validation and approval. Thanks, but no thanks. Instead, perhaps we should teach ALL the girls that they are not some boy’s prize for being brave and not slumming it with a “rotten” girl. They are not an object to be possessed. Their value is not determined by whether boys think they are “good” or “rotten” but rather on the fact that they bear the image of God him/herself. Perhaps we should teach the girls not to compare themselves to each other and judge one another. Perhaps we should teach the girls to love themselves and each other.
The post shows that parables like this one, rooted in and growing out of patriarchy, use a false dichotomy: either you're a good girl, or a bad girl.  But this post, The Impetus of Patriarchy by Greg Hahn at This Brother, shows that patriarchy also uses a false dichotomy for guys: either you're a real man, or you're not, and "real" manliness means having power over women:
You have to be “considered fully creditable as a man”. And the unspoken understanding of many is that you don’t just get that from having X and Y chromosomes and reaching adulthood. You have to earn your manhood, so as to be seen manly by those around you. If you can feel it, all the better, but in the very least you need to be seen that way. . .

And if that’s true, that is ultimately what drives patriarchy: Men living in the pain of not “being the man”, which is believed to be “displaying power to exert control over one’s self and one’s world.” . . .

Apparently the only difference that Piper can see and articulate is that men lead, women follow. So John Piper’s masculinity is inseparably linked to his authority and leadership of women. . . .
 
I believe that fueling the reluctance to change or to even look deeply into the issue of male/female equality is, in the heart of many men, fear.

Often people think it’s about selfishness or control, and sometimes it is. But I don’t think most guys in the church are like that. It’s usually not a case that they’re bad men. Quite the contrary, most Christian guys just want to live their life, raise their kids and grandkids, serve the Lord and hear, “Well done, good and faithful servant” at the end. But many men, even the strongest ones, have a deep and abiding fear of not measuring up. 
(Emphases in original)

I think a similar fear motivates people often times towards "America can do no wrong" patriotism. It's another false dichotomy: this time about what it means to love America.  I think President Obama really got to the heart of the problem in his speech Remarks by the President at the 50th Anniversary of the Selma to Montgomery Marches on the White House website.
The American instinct that led these young men and women to pick up the torch and cross this bridge, that’s the same instinct that moved patriots to choose revolution over tyranny. It’s the same instinct that drew immigrants from across oceans and the Rio Grande; the same instinct that led women to reach for the ballot, workers to organize against an unjust status quo; the same instinct that led us to plant a flag at Iwo Jima and on the surface of the Moon. (Applause.)

It’s the idea held by generations of citizens who believed that America is a constant work in progress; who believed that loving this country requires more than singing its praises or avoiding uncomfortable truths. It requires the occasional disruption, the willingness to speak out for what is right, to shake up the status quo. That’s America.

Roger E. Olsen at his blog of the same name, addresses the human weakness at the heart of the attitude behind the kind of patriotism the President was pushing back against. Olsen's post The Sin of Tribalism defines the us-vs-them, we're-in-and-you're-out mentality as fundamentally un-Christian:
“Tribalism,” however appears when a community closes its ranks around an illusion of superiority and excludes others for the purpose of increasing feelings of superiority. A tribe invents “badges” or emblems of superiority that to outsiders are totally illusory. Tribes rarely recognize themselves as tribal in this sense; members really do think they are superior to outsiders. Outsiders, however, recognize that the badges of superiority are false—unless they want in. . . .
Tribalism is sin—from a Christian point of view.

Jesus confronted tribalism among the Jewish leaders of his day. Some of them claimed that they were especially favored by God only because they were children of Abraham. The Apostle Paul also confronted that attitude. But the point for Christians is not to point a finger at any group guilty of tribalism but to examine ourselves. . . .
A wise and mature person is one who is aware of tribalism and resists it. That’s true whether the person is Christian or not. A wise and mature person, Christian or not, holds himself or herself aloof from the rituals of tribalism even when forced by necessity to be present.

And in You Can Count Me Out of Atheist Tribalism, Libby Anne at Love, Joy, Feminism fights the same human tendency in non-Christians:
To put it simply, atheists who are quick to blame terrorism committed by Muslim individuals on Islam and just as quick to excuse atheism from any role in atrocities committed by atheists are using a glaring double standard. . . .

On some level I think I understand what’s going on here. A number of prominent atheists frequently point to religious atrocities and human rights abuses in order to argue that religion is dangerous and that we should work toward its elimination. When Christians or other religious believers respond by pointing to atrocities committed by atheists like Stalin, these atheists can’t respond with “Yes, and we think that’s bad too,” because their argument is that lack of religion is superior to religion, and examples like Stalin make it clear that a belief in a deity is not a required condition for mass murder or oppression. And so they have to find a way to explain away Stalin’s atrocities as not truly a result of his atheism.
 
I didn’t leave one tribe, with its demonization of other groups and tribes, ample use of the No True Scotsman fallacy, and insistence on valuing in-group loyalty above all else, to join another tribe doing the exact same thing.

Another false dichotomy shows up in these two posts about racism and why it's so hard for us as white people to see it or even be willing to look for it in ourselves. Why White People Freak Out When They're Called Out About Race by Sam Adler-Bell at Alternet explains:
For white people, their identities rest on the idea of racism as about good or bad people, about moral or immoral singular acts, and if we’re good, moral people we can’t be racist – we don’t engage in those acts. This is one of the most effective adaptations of racism over time—that we can think of racism as only something that individuals either are or are not "doing." 
In large part, white fragility—the defensiveness, the fear of conflict—is rooted in this good/bad binary. If you call someone out, they think to themselves, “What you just said was that I am a bad person, and that is intolerable to me.” It’s a deep challenge to the core of our identity as good, moral people. 
The good/bad binary is also what leads to the very unhelpful phenomenon of un-friending on Facebook.
If we see racists as only those bad people over there, and never ourselves, we can feel superior (tribalism again).  But seeing racists as those bad people over there also renders it impossible for us to to humble ourselves and admit that we just might be participating in racism unaware. It's just too shameful and horrible for us to face.  So says Understanding the Racial Empathy Gap: the Power of Narratives by Judy Wu Dominick at her blog of the same name.
One of the things the Civil Rights Movement managed to do was inject a keen sense of shame into white America’s collective conscience over its institutionalized abuse of African Americans. It marked a significant turning point in the nation’s history. In the beginning, when shame produced an appropriate acknowledgement of injustice and a desire to make things right, it led to cultural shifts and new legislation that effectively released African Americans from the stranglehold of the Jim Crow era. 
The tricky thing about shame, though, is that it’s a toxic, identity- and value-threatening emotion. and when it’s not processed in a thoroughly redemptive way, it can actually lead to a recycling of our sins instead of a healthy and restorative repentance. . . .
So a new shame-based, reactive narrative set in: Forget the past. We are not racists. We are anti-racists. And we are colorblind. This new narrative unwittingly undermined progress even as progress was being made. First, it imposed a willful forgetfulness on one of the nation’s most traumatic and formative experiences, which desperately required thoughtful, collective, and public debriefing, not consignment to cold storage. Second, it introduced taboo-like sensibilities into the very act of dialoguing about race and ethnicity, which, instead of being helpful, has proven to be very damaging for blacks and other non-whites who wish to have their distinctives recognized, validated, and celebrated alongside those of whites, rather than denied and left unacknowledged.

Folks, this kind of either-or thinking isn't helping any of us.  I'd like to suggest that we start seeing not just A or B as possibilities, but also A and B, and C, and even D.  Who knows, maybe we'll get all the way to accepting and acknowledging Z someday!

And if we do, it will be partly because of the kind of brave people who said these things online this month.

Friday, March 13, 2015

In Memorium: Sir Terry Pratchett

Sir Terry Pratchett has died.  Somehow it falls kind of flat to simply say he was one of my favorite authors.  In fact, Terry Pratchett was one of the wisest, funniest, most insightful and compassionate writers I ever read.  I loved losing myself in his worlds, absorbing his perceptive intelligence and pithy common sense.  

His most famous series was set on the Discworld, a flat planet with waters perpetually pouring over its edge.  It rested on the backs of four elephants who stood on the shell of a great turtle swimming through space.  It was a world of magic, wizardry and witchcraft, trolls and dwarfs and humans and pixies, into which intruded from time to time some of the phenomena of our own world: telegraphs and trains, the movie industry, the banking world and the postal service.  With a cutting, satirical edge that never became cruel or bleak, that never lost sight of the beauty of the universe or the value of the human individual, Pratchett gave us some of the most enjoyable plots and best characters I've ever encountered in literature:  crotchety Granny Weatherwax, honest Commander Vimes, rascally-but-responsible Moist Von Lipwig, and the ever-polite Death with his hood and scythe, endlessly curious about what it was like to be alive.

But Pratchett also wrote a number of other really wonderful, non-Discworld books. Nation is set on an alternate earth where a young islander and a shipwrecked princess cope with the aftermath of a deadly tsunami.  Dodger is about a young entrepreneur in a Dickensian London.  Good Omens (written in tandem with the great fantasy author Neil Gaiman) is about the Apocalypse, the Anti-Christ and the end of the world.  In fact, this author was so prolific that I know there are still some of his books out there I haven't read yet-- and that I will read them someday with the bittersweet enjoyment of knowing there will never be anything quite like this written ever again. 

There are several web posts (like this one) celebrating Sir Terry by quoting some of his funniest stuff. But I'd like to give tribute to him here by quoting some of his smartest stuff: some of the things he or his characters said that has really made me think, that has opened my eyes and widened my horizons.

Sir Terry used humor and fantasy to explore almost every area of human thought, from religion and philosophy to science and invention.  He was not a Christian, but he had a deep sense of morality and a reverence for the beauty of the universe and the preciousness of life.  (The Demaris Film & Bible Blog has a good synopsis/analysis of Pratchett's beliefs if you'd like to read more about them-- but as I have explained elsewhere, I believe that God's grace is over all the world, and that there is nothing to fear from a manifestation of that grace in any person, whether they agree with my theology or not.)

Pratchett understood people as few of us ever do-- and yet despite all our self-induced blindnesses and stupidities, all the things that make us laughable or even pathetic, Pratchett really loved human beings, just for being human.  His character Death never encountered a human that he didn't treat with dignity and consideration-- even the worst of the worst.  Other authors have made Death terrible; Terry Pratchett made him lovable.  

I think that, paradoxically, this is because Sir Terry's books are filled most of all with a zest for living. When he wrote about trains, he wrote with sheer admiration of the power of the engine and the ingenuity of the engineer.  When he wrote about the postal service, that mundane institution suddenly revealed itself as a showcase of the human capacity for interconnection and mutual service. Nothing, it seemed, was mundane to Terry Pratchett.  Everything was fascinating and worth looking at with the fresh eyes of exploration. Perhaps even death was a thing that, when it came, he was curious to explore. 

So here are some of the things he has said that most capture that sense of exploration and insight. Emphases are in the original texts. The title of the source appears after each quote in italics.

On humans and storytelling:
[A]ll men are writers, journalists scribbling within their skulls the narrative of what they see and hear. - Dodger
On death:
[N]o-one is finally dead until the ripples they cause in the world die away... The span of someone's life, they say, is only the core of their actual existence. - Reaper Man
On law and order:
[Y]ou were so worried about legal and illegal that you never stopped to think about whether it was right or wrong. - Snuff
On tribalism and its antidote:
It was so much easier to blame it on Them. It was bleakly depressing to think that They were Us. If it was Them, then nothing was anyone's fault. If it was us, what did that make Me? After all, I'm one of Us. I must be. I've certainly never thought of myself as one of Them. No one ever thinks of themselves as one of Them. We're always one of Us. It's Them that do the bad things. - Jingo
On evil, and how evil happens when the ideology is more important than the person:
Evil begins when you begin to treat people as things. And right now it would happen if you thought there was a thing called a father, and a thing called a mother, and a thing called a daughter, and a thing called a cottage, and told yourself that if you put them all together you had a thing called a happy family. - I Shall Wear Midnight
and
[I]t's true that some of the most terrible things in the world are done by people who think, genuinely think, that they're doing it for the best, especially if there is some god involved. - Snuff
 On fundamentalist, cultic terrorism:
. . . [E]very deviation from the norm was treated as an attack on all that was truly dwarfish. Others had already fled and died, and who could say they knew how many more were left. . . And the trouble with madness was that the mad didn't know they were mad. The grags [leaders] came down heavily on those who did not conform and seemed not to realize that this was like stamping potatoes into the mud to stop them growing. - Raising Steam
 On cognitive dissonance:
Sometimes people fools themselves into believing things that aren't true. Sometimes that can be quite dangerous for the person. They see the world in a wrong way. They won't let themselves see that what they believe is wrong. But often there is a part of the mind that does know, and the right words can let it out. - Unseen Academicals
 On parenthood and commitment:
He'd be home in time. Would a minute have mattered? No, probably not, although his young son appeared to have a very accurate internal clock. Possibly even two minutes would be ok. Three minutes, even. You could go to five, perhaps. But that was just it. If you could go to five minutes, then you'd go to ten, then half an hour, a couple of hours. . . and not see your son all evening. So that was that. Six o'clock, prompt. Every day. Read to Young Sam. No excuses. He'd promised himself that. No excuses. No excuses at all. Once you had a good excuse, you opened the door to bad excuses.Thud!
On cultural assimilation:
"What kind of name is that, I ask you? Who’s going to take you seriously with a name like that? This is modern times, right?" 
He looked at her defiantly, and she thought: and so one at a time we all become human – human werewolves, human dwarfs, human trolls... the melting pot melts in one direction only, and so we make progress. - Unseen Academicals
 On prejudice:
She thought that being foreign was a crime, or at least some sort of illness that you could catch by being out out in the sun too much, or eating olives. - Nation
 and
Everybody knows trolls eat people and spit them out. Everybody knows dwarfs cut off your legs. But at the same time everybody knows that what everybody knows is wrong. - Unseen Academicals
On religion:
[The old man said,] "Everything I know makes me believe that [God] is in the order that is inherent, amazingly, in all things, and in the way the universe opens to our questioning. When I see the shining path over the lagoon, on an evening like this, at the end of a good day, I believe."] 
"In [God]?" asked the girl. 
This got a smile. "Perhaps I just believe. You know, in things generally. That works, too. Religion is not an exact science. Sometimes, of course, neither is science." - Nation
Finally, these two that I can't locate and don't remember what book they came from, but I have always remembered them, at least in paraphrase:
A good ruler doesn't drive; he steers.
and
Stories are how we humans tell ourselves who we are.

Anyway, if you've never read anything by Terry Pratchett, I hope you will. And I hope you'll be as amused, as intrigued-- and as deeply touched and moved-- as I have been.

Saturday, February 28, 2015

Good Stuff - February 2015

Here are the best things I've read on the Internet in the month of February:

Leonard Nimoy, the Man Who Gave Star Trek Its Heart by Graeme McMillan on MSN, speaks to me in my sadness that this man who enriched my world so much has passed on:
And even when he, along with the rest of the original crew of the Starship Enterprise, retired with 1991’s Star Trek VI: The Undiscovered Country, it turned out that Nimoy’s Spock lived on, and prospered, making appearances in Star Trek: The Next Generation and J.J. Abrams’ 2009 Star Trek as the character. It was unsurprising, in many ways; a Star Trek without Nimoy felt incomplete, somehow. There was both a gravity and levity in his performance, a humor behind the stone-faced, eyebrow-raised stare of disbelief he so often employed. Star Trek, as a series, is a mixture of tones and genres, as much comedy as drama, and Nimoy managed to embody that in a way unlike any other.

"Young, Restless, No Longer Reformed" a Year Later: Why Calvinism (Still) Isn't Beautiful by Austine Fisher on Roger Olson's blog, gives voice to something I have long felt, that the poet Keats' words "beauty is truth, truth beauty" tell us something real, and that Calvinist doctrine (particularly the doctrine of limited atonement, that Christ didn't die for all humans, but only for some) just doesn't fit into that:
Because God is infinitely good and beautiful, theology must be good and beautiful or else it’s not true. When properly understood, the truth invites not only the mind’s assent but the heart’s affection. The truth should make your heart sing. This notion of the truth’s beauty is not an invention of secular humanism or some other boogey-man, but belongs to the deepest intuition of biblical Christian sensibilities. . .

The New Calvinists attempt to paint a ravishing picture of the manifold excellencies of the self-glorifying, all-determining God of Calvinism, expressed primarily through the doctrines of grace. I say that picture is a false veneer that only works when you ignore the reprobate. I say that picture cannot contain, as its central image, a crucified God who would rather die for sinners than give them what they deserve.

Why I Love Being a Black Girl by Austin Channing, is a horizon-enlarging viewpoint from a perspective I need to listen to:
Though there are many great soul food restaurants, none compare to the smell of my grandmothers dinner rolls wafting through the air, the sweet smell of history filling the small kitchen. We sat on the edge of our seats the night Michael moonwalked across the stage, then we hopped up and did it with him. We couldn't afford to see Whitney in concert, but you better believe we knew every note to every song... even if we couldn't reach it ourselves. The NBA possesses some great players, many of whom were good guys from around the way- taking girls to prom, participating in the school talent show, being cheered on by the brown faces around them. Yes, we do shape culture, but first we live it ourselves.

The Myth of the Absent Black Father at ThinkProgress, shows that things aren't always the way they have been made to look:
Considering the fact that “black fatherhood” is a phrase that is almost always accompanied by the word “crisis” in U.S. society, it’s understandable that the CDC’s results seem innovative. But in reality, the new data builds upon years of research that’s concluded that hands-on parenting is similar among dads of all races. There’s plenty of scientific evidence to bust this racially-biased myth. 
The Pew Research Center, which has tracked this data for years, consistently finds no big differences between white and black fathers.

Holiness Among Depraved Christians: Paul's New Form of Moral Flourishing by Richard Beck at Experimental Theology, shows a way to read and understand some of the main themes in Paul's epistles that really explains a lot:
Paul was setting up these Jesus-communities whose members consisted of, in the eyes of skeptical Jewish onlookers, morally depraved and wicked people. To Jewish onlookers it looked like Paul was handing the keys to the liquor cabinet to a bunch of alcoholics. Morally speaking, this was a recipe for disaster. Paul was hopping around, going from city to city, setting up these communities. And then leaving them! Without the Torah, and the habits of spiritual formation embedded in the culture of faith communities who had been shaped by Torah obedience generation after generation, how were these new Gentile Christians going to lead holy lives? 
This was the great moral experiment of Paul's gospel. Could a new form of moral flourishing emerge among the Gentiles separate from the Torah?'' . . .

In a nutshell this was the heart of Paul's vision for morally forming Gentiles: The Holy Spirit, the Golden Rule, and the Imitation of Christ. This, Paul felt, would be enough to transform depraved pagans into a "holy people." . . .

Specifically, Paul's Gentile churches were moral demonstrations to Jewish skeptics. And I think this explains a lot of why when Paul gets outside the core of his moral vision--the Golden Rule, the example of Jesus--he falls back upon Jewish (and Greco-Roman) visions of moral flourishing. I think this is why, for example, Paul's household codes are patriarchal. That's what Jewish moral flourishing at that time looked like. And given the skepticism Paul faced he was keen to make Gentile households look like Jewish households, seasoned albeit by the love ethic of Jesus (e.g., mutual submission).

The framework of fundamentalist propaganda distorts how we view every religion by Fred Clark at Slactivist, addresses the flaws in the reasoning that insists terrorists like ISIS embody what Islam is really all about, and counters the dangerous idea that all Muslims are evil, and that any Muslim who isn't evil isn't a "real" Muslim:

This framework is pervasive, shaping our perception of every religion, not just Islam. We’ve been tricked into seeing inquisitors and crusaders as a more genuine expression of any religion than that religion’s saints or mystics. We’ve swallowed the idea that the inquisitors must be correct in their interpretation of religious texts, while any who disagree with those interpretations must be willfully ignorant, or sweetly deluded by some irreligious “political correctness.”


And in this related post at Slacktivist, Clark makes this profound observation:
This kind of separatist/exclusivist, prideful fundamentalism will always be schismatic. That’s its nature. That’s true whether we’re talking about Real True Christians or Real True Muslims. Their entire self-concept is driven by the need to confirm their own authenticity by condemning the inauthenticity of others — or, rather, by accusing others of inauthenticity and seeking or inventing new ways to support that accusation. And they can never stop doing that. . .

Real True Christians do not base their identity on their devotion to the Bible or to the Creeds, but on finding ways to elevate themselves above other Christians they can denounce as false, apostate, liberal and inauthentic. Real True Muslims do not base their identity on their devotion to the Koran or to the pillars of their faith, but on finding ways to elevate themselves above other Muslims they can denounce as kuffar.

What this means for the rest of us is that we cannot hope to learn anything about the substance, character or meaning of any religion, belief system, or fandom, by looking to those who proclaim themselves the Real True believers. They may be the ones talking the loudest about “authentic” Christianity/Islam/fandom, but they are bound to be the least reliable examples of what such “authentic” belief might entail.
 
The idea that those whose religious practices are gentler, more loving, kinder and more accepting are somehow less sincere, less authentic in their faith than those who are harsher, more judgmental and intolerant, is something this blog continually strives to counter-- and not least by sharing these various links today.  As I've said many times, to follow Jesus's teaching and "do unto others as you would have them do unto you" includes listening to others with an open heart and mind.  And when we do that, it can't help but make us gentler, kinder and more accepting.

And I think that's what following Christ will lead us to in the end.

Saturday, February 14, 2015

If We Say We Have No Sin...

If we say that we have no sin, we are deceiving ourselves and the truth is not in us. If we confess our sins, He is faithful and righteous to forgive us our sins and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness.… 1 John 1:8-9
This is a basic principle of Christianity: that we as human beings are prone to sin and error and should admit as much.  "Confession is good for the soul," the old saying goes, though our natural inclination is to deny error and not admit to wrongdoing.  This inclination seems especially prominent in politics, as this Washington Post article details:
No one likes to admit that they made a mistake. We have an ingrained reticence to do so, a near-primal response that little kids learn probably before they can speak. Admit your mistake, get punished. Don't, and maybe you can wiggle your way out of it. 
If your job involves being judged and evaluated by people, that instinct is almost certainly worse. And if your job involves being evaluated and you have a group of people committed to defending you on an ideological basis no matter what you say, admitting error becomes all but unthinkable.
Christian grace, on the other hand, is all about the freedom to admit wrong in ourselves and accept others in spite of their faults, knowing that God loves and forgives and wants us to do the same.  And I think this goes not just for our individual sins and errors, but for group ones too.  Humans don't just sin individually.  We sin as groups-- as nations, as communities, and yes, even as churches and religious communities.

So why are so many of us Christians involved in vigorous denial of any such thing?  Why are we more interested in defending ourselves than examining ourselves?  And why, when someone does point out how our group sins or how we might have participated in sin in the past or present, do we attack that person as if the only real wrong was the perceived insult to us?

The main thing that's bothering me is the reaction of prominent Christians against President Obama's remarks at the National Prayer Breakfast, when he said:
So how do we, as people of faith, reconcile these realities -- the profound good, the strength, the tenacity, the compassion and love that can flow from all of our faiths, operating alongside those who seek to hijack religious for their own murderous ends?

Humanity has been grappling with these questions throughout human history. And lest we get on our high horse and think this is unique to some other place, remember that during the Crusades and the Inquisition, people committed terrible deeds in the name of Christ. In our home country, slavery and Jim Crow all too often was justified in the name of Christ. Michelle and I returned from India -- an incredible, beautiful country, full of magnificent diversity -- but a place where, in past years, religious faiths of all types have, on occasion, been targeted by other peoples of faith, simply due to their heritage and their beliefs -- acts of intolerance that would have shocked Gandhiji, the person who helped to liberate that nation.

So this is not unique to one group or one religion. There is a tendency in us, a sinful tendency that can pervert and distort our faith.
The response to this has been really troubling, as detailed in this Slate article, as prominent Republicans and conservative commentators (largely professing Christians)  "reject the suggestion that Christianity has anything to apologize for."  They claim that the Crusades were justified and were the fault of the Muslims (the same article claims the Church had "almost nothing to do with the Inquisition").  They claim that Jim Crow laws were over thousands of years ago instead of being part of  reality for the Baby-boomer generation.  They claim that Obama was wrong to claim Christians have any responsibility for racism. And they accuse the President of not being a real Christian because he would dare admit that yes, Christians and Christian communities have sinned.

And yet it's the person they're claiming isn't a real Christian who is following the Christian principles of humility and confession which they seem to have lost sight of.  I can't help thinking that politics are partly to blame.  I'm not saying Christians shouldn't get involved in politics or shouldn't vote their consciences-- but that's different from practically turning Christianity into a political movement. And when we do that, it's not surprising that we end up acting according to political "admit no wrong" wisdom.  However, President Obama is a politician and a Christian, and this time (possibly because he's not part of that movement) he got it right.  It's too bad that his Republican Christian opponents can't see wisdom when it comes from someone on the other team.

I think, actually, that defensiveness against any admission of racism is actually one of our biggest problems even today.

Racism is still very much a part of our reality today in America, and most, if not all, of us white people have imbibed racist attitudes to some extent just by being born, growing up and living here.  And yet we have also been taught to believe racism is some archaic evil from the past-- so what upsets us most is the idea that someone might think we're racist in some way, or call us a "racist" because of something we said or did. The Agabond blog calls it "the R-Word":
The r-word is the word“racist”. It is in effect the n-word for white people:they get upset when you call them that and lose all sense of reason. Even on the Internet it pretty much ends any fruitful talk about race. . . Two things are going on here: 
1. Many whites seem to think “racist” means joining the Ku Klux Klan, flying the Confederate flag, using the n-word, stuff like that.The old Jim Crow sort of racism that was common in America before 1970. Most white Americans born since then are colour-blind racists. It is this subtler racism that most people of colour have in mind when they use the word “racist”. 
2.  White Americans have a self-image of themselves as fair and just, of not being racist. So when you say they are racist it threatens their self-image. That is why they get so upset. 
But that self-image stands in the way of any further progress.
It is like the kind of patriotism where people feel threatened when you say anything bad about their country. It is a false patriotism that stands in the way of making their country better.
It's interesting to me that Agabond equates the same two things I've been talking about-- denial of racism with do-no-wrong Christian patriotism-- because I think they're both rooted in the same thing. We're being "conformed to this world," as Romans 12:2 says.  We're following our natural, human desire to exalt ourselves and our causes, and our natural unwillingness to admit to wrongdoing.  But Christ would have us humble ourselves, be assured of grace, and let go of our fear of being found in the wrong.

Anyway, it seems to me that I, as a white person, can't really understand what black people go through as well as they do themselves, and certainly not without listening to their side of things. But when I first started reading Agabond's blogsite, I had to quell my defensiveness and my sense of injury at this word "racist," and learn to say, "God's grace is with me, even if I'm racist in some way and don't know it-- so am I? Because God can help me change, but only if I admit the problem!"

The fact is that being so defensive against the word "racist" and "racism" is keeping us from seeing where we might need to confess and repent.  And this isn't the Christian way to live.

Dr. Beverly Tatum on the By Their Strange Fruit Website puts it so well:
I consider myself a racist in the same way that I consider myself a sinner in need of forgiveness (see post Basically Good). People bristle at both characterizations (“I’m a generally good person, I don’t need Jesus”; “I’m not a racist, I’m color blind”). But to me, these terms simply identify the latent issues that I know I still have to work on, which is better than pretending the issues aren't there at all.
 As Christians, we ought to be the first to admit that Christians have done (and still do) wrong.  We ought to be the first to examine ourselves, the first to confess our errors and faults, and the errors and faults of our group, our nation, our community. The fact is that many times our faults are visible to the observing world anyway-- and when we act blind to them, we only come across as hypocrites.

Gregg Easterbrook in a 2011 Reuter's editorial encapsulates what most people probably really think when we do that:
Just as lying about what you did may be worse than what you did, refusing to admit an error may be worse than the error itself. 
All human beings occasionally are wrong — trust me, I’ve had plenty of experience! Honest admission of error makes a person upright and sympathetic. Refusing to admit error, by contrast, suggests deviousness or even megalomania.
We aren't enhancing either our own reputations, or God's, when we refuse to even open our eyes to our wrongs, much less confess and apologize. And we're not doing Christianity any good by pressing it into the service of a political agenda.

It's just making our Christianity look less and less Christian.

Saturday, January 31, 2015

Good Stuff - January 2015

Here are some of the best things I've seen online this month.  I've given a little taste of each post below the link.

Epiphany: Jesus Wept by Fred Clark at Slacktivist:
“Life seems pretty unfair and bewildering to us humans,” Job says. 
“Well,” God replies, “you’re just going to have to trust me.” 
“But you don’t understand what it’s like to be us,” Job says. “You don’t understand how all this looks from our point of view.” 
“Yeah, well, you don’t understand how it looks from my point of view, either,” God says. “One of us loosed the cords of Orion and laid the foundation of the earth and the last time I checked, it wasn’t you. So just trust me, OK? I’ve got this.” 
And that’s the end of the conversation. . . .
When Job learned that his children had died, he wept. But God did not weep. 
Jesus wept. 
That’s famously the shortest verse in the Bible, but there’s an awful lot packed into those two words. . .  
And when Jesus saw Lazarus’ sisters weeping, “he was greatly disturbed in spirit and deeply moved.” And then God Almighty — God who laid the foundation of the earth, who determined its measurements when the morning stars sang together, God who commands the morning and causes the dawn to know its place, God who bound the chains of the Pleiades and loosed the cords of Orion — wept. 
That’s an epiphany. That’s the Epiphany we celebrate today.

I Came to Your Bible Study by PerfectNumber at Tell Me Why the World is Weird:
I came to your bible study, and you talked about Jesus, and I felt so lonely. Do I just nod along in agreement, or do I mention that I disagree with some parts? It's okay with me that we disagree; the important thing is we are both Christians and we love God. But I need to know if it's okay with you. 
I mentioned that I view it differently, and you flipped forward to Acts, to give an explanation supporting your point of view. But really, I don't need you to teach me. I already understand what you said. I just need to know if you can accept that I believe differently. . .

I want to know if you can believe that I am a Christian, even if I disagree with you on some topics. But more than that, I want to know if you can believe that the reason I hold those beliefs- the reason I don't believe in hell, the reason I said love is more important than reading the bible- is because I am a Christian, is because I love God, is because I have studied the bible.
 
Can you believe I am a Christian, but not a Christian who is innocently confused about these topics and needs someone to teach her the correct Christian view? Can you believe that at the points where we disagree, my opinions are rooted in my own study of the bible and my own deep love for God? I believe that about you, would you believe it about me?

Post-Evangelicals and Why We Can't Just Get Over It by Rachel Held Evans at her blog of the same name:
Like it or not, our religious traditions help forge our identities. The great challenge, the one that took me a book to articulate and which I suspect will take me a lifetime to work out, is to hold every piece of my faith experience in love, even the broken bits, even the parts that still cut my hands and make them bleed.

We are all post-something.

We are all caught between who we once were and who we will be, the ghosts of past certainties gripping at our ankles.*

There’s no just getting over it. There’s no easy moving on. 
So I ask for grace—from the communities that now receive me and from the one that first taught me what that word means.

Ask a Womanist Biblical Scholar (Response) by Reverend Wil Gafney, also on Rachel Held Evans' blog:
Womanism is black women’s interpretation but it is not only for black women. Womanist biblical interpretation enriches every person and every community’s understanding of the biblical text. There are things you will never see in the text without reading in the company of black women. In the post-colonial, post-Atlantic slave trade world, it is crucial that peoples who have historically benefited from the sale and plunder of black women’s bodies, justifying those practices with their readings of scripture learn to hear and the scriptures in our voices and through our eyes.

And another from Rev. Gafney's own blog:  A Gospel of Policing: Serve with Integrity:
Integrity is a difficult path. It means acknowledging and dealing with your own individual racism and that of the system in which you live and work. It means taking a hard look at your own arrest statistics and those of your department. It means coming to terms with the way your own biases shape the way you see, respond and police. It means operating against your biases against black bodies – seeing black boys as men, black girls as promiscuous, black women as prostitutes and black men as thugs. Serving with integrity means holding yourself, your sister and brother officers and your department to a higher standard.

They Say the Church is Too Feminine by Kate Wallace at The Junia Project:
The Barna Group has been studying Church trends over the last 20 years and they have found that women actually represent the biggest shift away from the Church. They also found that the gap between unchurched men and women is no longer a significant one. “It remains true that churchless people are somewhat more likely to be men than women, but the gap is not huge and has been steadily closing…the gap between men and women has plummeted from 20 points in 2003 to just 8 points currently.” And this is not just in protestant churches. . . . 
Women may indeed make up the majority of people in the pews (for now), but they do not make up even half of the people who make decisions about church services or experience. If men really aren’t going to church, it doesn’t seem to be the fault of women. Perhaps the Church leaders who are making these claims should stop shaming the faithful, and start asking them for help. 
Do I care that men aren’t going to church? Of course I do! I also care that women are leaving the Church! We should be concerned about everyone in the Church and how we can better minister to and disciple them. Instead of playing the gender blame game, let’s use our critical thinking skills to better analyze the situation. 
Yes we need men in our pews. We also need women in our pulpits, on our elder boards, at the communion tables, on the worship teams, and in our denominational leadership. 
The Church is “too feminine”? No. I’d say the Church isn’t feminine enough.

The King James Version of the Bible was completed in 1611. The first African slaves were imported into Jamestown in 1619. “Biblical” Christianity and the idea of “biblical civilization” grew up alongside slavery. The latter shaped the former, and the two things have been inextricably intertwined ever since.

The invention of “biblical” Christianity and of the idea of “biblical civilization” was for the purpose of accommodating slavery. That may not have been its exclusive purpose, but it was an essential function of the thing. It was a concept shaped and designed and tailored so that it could and would defend and perpetuate slavery.

______________________________________

*Best-written sentence prize goes to Ms. Evans!

Note: all emphases are in the originals.

Saturday, January 17, 2015

Christian Cliches: "Do Not Deny One Another"

"Do not deny one another" is a misquoted fragment of a passage in 1 Corinthians 7.  Here is the whole passage, from the New American Standard Version, with the words in question in italics:
Now concerning the things about which you wrote, it is good for a man not to touch a woman. But because of immoralities, each man is to have his own wife, and each woman is to have her own husband. The husband must fulfill his duty to his wife, and likewise also the wife to her husband. The wife does not have authority over her own body, but the husband does; and likewise also the husband does not have authority over his own body, but the wife does. Stop depriving one another, except by agreement for a time, so that you may devote yourselves to prayer, and come together again so that Satan will not tempt you because of your lack of self-control. But this I say by way of concession, not of command. Yet I wish that all men were even as I myself am. However, each man has his own gift from God, one in this manner, and another in that. But I say to the unmarried and to widows that it is good for them if they remain even as I. But if they do not have self-control, let them marry; for it is better to marry than to burn with passion. 1 Corinthians 7:1-8.
This passage is often used to shame marital partners (and particularly women) for refusing sex to their spouse.  He has authority over her body, and though concessions are usually given for her ill health, she is expected to not only consent, but to joyfully desire sex with her husband at all times. Although under this verse the same would apply to the husband, it is usually the wife who is made the primary subject of this teaching.

This Christian website illustrates what I'm talking about.
Paul advocated marriage as a way to avoid sinful sex.
Because this is one motivator for marriage, it becomes ridiculous to enter into marriage and then deny your spouse the very thing that helped drive him or her to marriage. . . Sex is to be exclusively available between a husband and wife to quench their desire for sex. But what sense is it to have a well and then refuse any to drink from it? Hence, Paul stated in I Corinthians 7 that neither the husband or wife have authority over their own bodies. When they married they gave themselves over to each other.
The result is to argue that there can be no such thing as spousal rape.
With the arrival of feminism came the idea that a woman has full control over her body. . . If she doesn't want to have sex, then a husband does not have the right to request sex from her. However, these ideas are in direct contradiction to the plain teachings in I Corinthians 7. It views the husband and wife relationship as independant and perhaps advesarial [sic] instead of a union work toward the benefit of both. . . At the root of feminism is drive to separate husband and wives. . .
The act of marriage includes consent to sex. A husband can abuse his relationship by forcing sex on his wife, and such abuse is sinful, but it should not be labeled "rape." By labeling such abuse "rape," a fundamental view of marriage is changed to state that consent to sex is a moment-by-moment decision that can be granted or denied at the whim of the spouse. Yet the biblical view (and the view held by civil law until recently) is that consent is a part of the marriage relationship. It doesn't come and go at either spouse's whim. "Let the husband render to his wife the affection due her, and likewise also the wife to her husband. The wife does not have authority over her own body, but the husband does. And likewise the husband does not have authority over his own body, but the wife does" (I Corinthians 7:3-4). A husband or wife claiming to withdraw consent to sex during marriage is violating a term of the marriage covenant and, therefore, in sin.
Julie Anne over at Spiritual Sounding Board quotes a similar website:
We believe the teaching on marital rape is a poison in the well of women’s hearts and minds towards their husbands and marriage & does much damage. However, we also do not condone a husband taking his wife against her will and strongly state that a man should not do so. In situations of repeated and enduring refusal, professional help and Matthew 18 need to be worked through & not force to be used. 
We also believe that denying a spouse sex is just as much abuse as forcing sex upon a spouse. [Emphasis added.]
The sad thing about this is how (in a society where power was concentrated in the hands of the man) Paul's careful wording throughout this chapter makes the husband and the wife passages parallel, of equal weight and balance.  Paul said (in a society where marriage was generally required) that followers of Christ were under no obligation to marry. However, if they did marry, each should fulfill their marital duties to one another .  It's interesting to note how, in contrast to our current age where the emphasis would have to be placed on not demanding sex, Paul writes in terms of not withholding sex.  But the whole emphasis of this passage is mutuality and equal consideration.  To use it as a way to bend one spouse to the other's will flies in the face of the teaching as a whole; it is simply opposite to the way it was intended.  And to use it to claim that saying "no" is "just as much abuse" as marital rape is harmful in the extreme.

The fact is that this passage cannot be construed as commanding marital sex, because it explicitly says marital sex is granted as "a concession, not a command."  Jesus had taught that marriage was not a requirement of God's kingdom, and thus, neither was sex:  "[T]here are those who choose to live like eunuchs for the sake of the kingdom of heaven. The one who can accept this should accept it [Matthew 19-12, NIV]." In the 1 Cor. 7 passage, Paul declares himself as one of these when he says "I wish that all men were even as I myself am."  According to Robin Lane Fox (Oxford New College, Ancient History) in his book Pagans and Christians, celibacy became a definitive Christian virtue very early in Christianity's history:
From its very beginnings, Christianity . . . considered an orderly sex life to be a clear second best to no sex life at all. It has been the protector of an endangered Western species: people who remain virgins from birth to death. [p. 355]
This trend continued until Martin Luther and Protestantism reversed it, extolling the virtues of married life, hearth and home and advocating the destruction of monasteries and convents. But the reason Paul emphasized "do not deprive" rather than "do not force" was probably because the tendency in the early church was to resist having marital sex, rather than trying to get it more often! Fox tells us that by the second century after Christ, this concept had grown to the point where sexless marriages, far from the tragedy they are viewed as today, were held up as the virtuous ideal:
[T]he idea of sexless cohabitation was urged, and practiced, by married Christian couples. p. 356. 
Though orthodoxy opposed this extreme and eventually defeated it,[Pagans and Christians, p. 358], the celibacy of Christ Himself must have provided a strong incentive for imitation, and this is probably why Paul (himself celibate) had to write in terms of sex as a marital obligation which should not be shirked, rather than as a marital pleasure which should not be demanded or forced.

Today, however, 1 Corinthians 7:5 often becomes a weapon to shame a married partner (and especially a wife) for saying "no," and 1 Corinthians 7:4 is used to disclaim the existence of marital rape-- as if having "authority" over one another's bodies didn't include the authority to tell your spouse's body, "Stop!"

It's also interesting the way the word translated "deprive" above often gets changed to "deny" when quoted as a cliche.  The Greek word there is "apostereo," which is translated "defraud" in the King James version.  Vines Expository Dictionary defines it as "to rob, despoil, defraud" -- which implies permanently taking something away from someone. The Scripture4All online Interlinear translates it as "depriving," as many translations also do.  The word certainly does appear to mean something much stronger than "Not tonight, honey."

Sheila at To Love, Honor and Vacuum puts it this way:
Deprive is not the same as refuse. I believe many people interpret this verse to mean refuse. Are women obligated to have sex every time a man wants it? Are we ever allowed to refuse?
Well, let’s look more closely at deprive. 
If I were to say to you, “do not deprive your child of good food,” what am I implying? I’m saying that your child should get the food that is commonly recognized for good health: three healthy meals a day, with some snacks. I am not saying that every time your child pulls at your leg and says, “Mommy, can I have a bag of cheetos?” that you have to say yes. You are not depriving your child of good food by refusing a request for Cheetos.
Deprive implies that there is a level of sexual activity that is necessary for a healthy marriage. . .

But it does not mean that it is every single time a person wants sex. 
The fact that the preceding verses in 1 Corinthians 7 say that the husband’s body is the wife’s, and the wife’s body is the husband’s, implies that one person cannot and must not force himself or herself onto the other person. And by force I’m not talking about just physical force. There’s emotional blackmail, there’s shutting down, there’s telling someone, “you’re just not good enough”. . . 
Let’s assume that it’s the wife with the lower libido for a minute (though it certainly isn’t always) and look at it this way: 
If her husband’s body belongs to her, then she has the ability to also say, “I do not want you using your body sexually right now with me.” 
If she feels sick, or is really sad, or is exhausted, then her having ownership of his body also means that she can say, “I just can’t right now” without needing to feel guilty–if she is at the same time not depriving him. 
I believe that the admonition “do not deprive each other” refers to the relationship as a whole, not to each individual moment.
So if, in the relationship as a whole, you are having regular and frequent sex, then if one of you says, “not tonight”, that is not depriving. That is simply refusing for right now. [Emphases in original.]
I would not go so far as this author does, to equate "authority" (Greek word "exousia," meaning, "having rights/power of choice over") with "ownership," but I think the rest of what she says is spot on. It seems to me that to require your spouse to have sex with you any time you want it, regardless of your spouse's feelings on the matter, is the attitude of--let's face it-- a jerk.  Only six chapters later, in 1 Corinthians 13, Paul sets forth how love is patient, not self-seeking, and how it doesn't dishonor others.  Having sex with someone who really doesn't want to have sex with you, but just gives in because she's not supposed to say no, is not only unloving, it's unhealthy. The Love, Honor and Vacuum blog linked above posted a comment by "Kelly" that says it so well, I'd like to close with it here too:
Yep, some of the comments you read by men on these marriage websites are precisely why Christian women are beginning to advise each other not to risk marrying a Christian man! (I’m not kidding). Look, guys, here’s a quick lesson in the blindingly obvious: there’s no quicker way to make sex unappealing to your wife than by demanding it, regardless of how she feels. No better way of making yourself unattractive and frankly repellent than by sexual coercion. No no effective way of losing your wife’s respect – she wants a real man, not some oaf (because if you can enjoy sex knowing the other person isn’t enjoying it, there’s something very wrong with you). And really, no one past the age of 14 should need telling that. Of COURSE, a sexless marriage has problems that need addressing. Of COURSE you should ask if you want more/different sex to be happy. Of COURSE you can explain to her why sexual rejection hurts. But here’s a little clue (again from the ‘stating the obvious’ files): why do I enjoy nothing more than making love with my husband? Why can I not keep my hands off him? Why am I keen to give him pleasure even if I’m occasionally not in the mood or unable to participate myself? Because, while making it obvious he finds me desirable, he also wouldn’t WANT to have sex with me unless I was an enthusiastic participant. Because he can’t stand the idea of it being a one-way experience.
So if you're one of those who has been on the receiving end of biblical coercion like this-- I hope you'll find a way to let go of the shame and manipulation, and be free.  God never intended the Bible to be used as a set of regulations that turns fun into duty and intimacy into a burden.  If you need sexual counseling in your marriage, I hope you go get some.  If you're a victim of marital rape or abuse, I hope you'll begin to take steps so you don't have to subject yourself to that.

But if you and/or your spouse are just laboring under a heavy burden of "Don't deny one another," placed on you by religious people who don't know you, your marriage or your spouse-- Christ said His yoke is easy and His burden is light.  Lay down that burden and enjoy one another, and the good gifts of God.