The Politics of Epiphany

In the Epiphany (the visit of the Magi, see Matthew 2), the politics must be brought out from the background in order to understand the importance of the event.

First, the politics of the nation: Herod is the king of the Jews, but Caesar is his lord. The Roman Empire’s rule of the region is reinforced by an iron fist, a situation that is sickeningly normal after centuries of rule by the Greek empires. Mary and Joseph come to visit Bethlehem not to visit relatives, but by the order of Caesar (not Herod) to be registered for a census – which is itself a tool of oppression, as it provides the basis for levying taxes and conscripting soldiers.

Into this climate of oppression, Jesus is conceived. And even before he is born, he finds no welcome in his hometown. Jewish culture placed a large emphasis on hospitality, and his family’s inability to find a place to stay is reminiscent of the story of the angels who came to visit Sodom and found only one family willing to take them in for the night. While our common conception of Jesus being born in a stable is not borne out by Scripture (the only correlation is the presence of a manger, which would likely have been present in a house anyway – even up to the industrial revolution it would not be uncommon for poorer families to share their home with their animals), nonetheless Jesus’ birth occurs in a very humble and vulnerable setting. In Sodom, a lack of hospitality served as an indication of the hearts of the inhabitants of the city, which are clearly turned against God and headed for destruction. In this context Jesus’ other name, Emmanuel, is telling: Emmanuel means “God with us”, and we think this is warm presence, but in its original context it is the sign of God’s coming judgment.

So Jesus is born king of the Jews, an oppressed people who look for a saviour-king while they suffer under an existing Jewish king who himself is a puppet of a foreign emperor. Jesus is the saviour they are waiting for, but they do not recognize him – and even when they do, they respond with incredible violence rather than rejoicing. The religious and political elites refuse to recognize, and even work to kill, God’s anointed king from his very birth. Lacking proper recognition from his own, God welcomes it from outsiders, and in so doing judges his own. And they didn’t even notice.

I wonder how many of us notice today when God uses outsiders to do the things he has called us to do. Are Christians in North America conscious of our own lack of empathy for those who do not look like us, for those of other faiths, when those other faiths and cultures outshine us at generosity and hospitality? Are we shamed by unbelievers who, despite not believing in the divinity of Jesus Christ, embody his call to love and serve others? I come from a church that taught me that the Social Gospel traditions were anti-Christian because of their liberal theology, but all the while these churches have outshone us in the way that they serve the poor. And yet we continue to believe that God is only at work inside our doors, or that God works through other people only in spite of themselves, and that we are God’s only real partners.

I’m not sure that’s true. The Magi, whoever they were, were explicit in their aim to worship the king of the Jews. God spoke to them in a way that was true to their own traditions and faith, not to Judaism (which, so far as I can tell, does not have a strong tradition of astrology), and they recognized and served God in their own way, despite recognizing that he is the God of another people. God was bigger than Judaism, and was not afraid to conscript eastern astrologers to provide a proper recognition and welcome of his only son, the king of the Jews, in the absence of the hospitality and respect of his own chosen people.

So to the Muslims, Jews, Unitarians, Jehovah’s Witnesses, Mormons, Pagans, Atheists, and more – to all of you who work hard to serve others, whether as an outcome of your own faith or without any extrinsic motivation – thank you. You challenge me, not as an adversary, but as a foil, an example. I know it can be patronizing to tell you that you are serving or embodying my God, and I don’t want to come across that way, but you do inspire me to serve and embody my God more because I see God in you and your service. To all of you wonderful Magi, I’m happy for the “competition.” 😉

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Christianity Is Not A Belief

Last night at work I had one coherent thought (the Dayquil must have kicked in, however briefly): that Christianity has long been mistaken for a belief. It was one of those things that suddenly seem so embarrassingly obvious.

It is not a revolutionary thought. We’ve all heard the cliche “it’s not a religion, it’s a relationship” stuff, and that seemed revolutionary at first too, but that message didn’t seem to penetrate. These days, I usually hear that line from people who feel comfortable not bothering to engage with a church, or even any other form of Christian community, much less with the much harder work of actually following Jesus. The revolutionary, iconoclastic, non-religious nature of actually being a disciple of Christ, the call to dig down to the difficult and core notion of what it means to relate to the God of the universe, has become a cliche way to justify shedding the outward trappings of religion in favour of a similar level of complacency – now guilt-free!

So that wasn’t what I was thinking when I had my moment of clarity on the factory floor. What I was thinking is that Christianity is not a system of belief; that’s Christian theology. Christianity, or being a disciple of Christ, is an activity of sorts: specifically, an ethical system or approach that presupposes or assumes the content of Christian theology. Simply put, believing Jesus is God does not make me a Christian; acting like Jesus does.

This also is not new or revolutionary. It’s straight from the epistle of James. I think the profundity of the thought, and what makes it worth sharing here, is how easily and repeatedly we miss this. We have to keep giving it new terminology to keep the message fresh. When “faith without works is dead” (from James) failed to prevent hundreds of years of empty piety and emphasis on orthodoxy (right belief) without orthopraxis (right actions) in the name of God’s grace, we went to “it’s not a religion, it’s a relationship,” which itself lasted about ten minutes before it lost any power to actually change our behaviour. How many other warnings, commands, and cliches have there been to tell us that Christianity is something we do more than something we believe or ascribe to?

This brings me back to another question that’s been rattling in my head for the past week: what really makes someone a Christian? Despite James’ insistence that faith without works is dead, when Pastor Tim Keller was asked this question by the New York Times last week he spent the whole interview talking about the things someone must believe. On the other hand, when Jesus talked to his disciples about who his real followers were, it was all about actions:

34 “Then the King will say to those on his right, ‘Come, you who are blessed by my Father; take your inheritance, the kingdom prepared for you since the creation of the world. 35 For I was hungry and you gave me something to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you invited me in, 36 I needed clothes and you clothed me, I was sick and you looked after me, I was in prison and you came to visit me.’

37 “Then the righteous will answer him, ‘Lord, when did we see you hungry and feed you, or thirsty and give you something to drink? 38 When did we see you a stranger and invite you in, or needing clothes and clothe you? 39 When did we see you sick or in prison and go to visit you?’

40 “The King will reply, ‘Truly I tell you, whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers and sisters of mine, you did for me.’

41 “Then he will say to those on his left, ‘Depart from me, you who are cursed, into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels. 42 For I was hungry and you gave me nothing to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me nothing to drink, 43 I was a stranger and you did not invite me in, I needed clothes and you did not clothe me, I was sick and in prison and you did not look after me.’

44 “They also will answer, ‘Lord, when did we see you hungry or thirsty or a stranger or needing clothes or sick or in prison, and did not help you?’

45 “He will reply, ‘Truly I tell you, whatever you did not do for one of the least of these, you did not do for me.’

46 “Then they will go away to eternal punishment, but the righteous to eternal life.” – Matthew 25:34-46

Serious stuff. After years of study and familiarity with the Bible, this passage still always chills me, fills me with the “fear of the Lord,” erodes my complacency. Because it gets to the heart of the matter, and I don’t know how I measure up.

Nowhere here does Jesus say that people had to acknowledge his divinity in order to be saved. Nowhere does it say that they must “invite him into their hearts”, that they must attend church and tithe, that they must believe theological statements or hold certain moral values or views. In fact, the people he acknowledges as truly belonging to him are mostly ignorant of having served him at all.

Which is not to say that we should not believe the right things; rather, behaving this way, embodying the Kingdom of God through ethical engagement with our communities and society, is only really possible and makes sense if we have a vision of that otherwise invisible Kingdom. Theology gives us that. Worship is not what defines us, but rather what forms us into people who, in our actions and orientation to God, resemble Jesus. Maintaining Christian community is not the goal of discipleship, it is the context of discipleship – it’s where we serve one another, and it is from where we go out to serve other communities. And holding moral codes is not the content of the gospel, it is our defence from the things that can distract us from our service to God and others. None of these things make us a Christian, but they can all help; but separated from actually following Christ, these things can just as easily be stumbling blocks, giving us a false sense of piety and complacency that keeps us from actually becoming Christians. The “goats” in the passage above (and other similar passages – e.g., Matthew 22:1-14) thought they were on team Jesus, but had missed the most important part.

By putting beliefs, morality, church attendance, etc., ahead of ethics we have developed a religion that is “a form of godliness but denying its power” (see 2 Timothy 3).

Minimalism, Purpose, and Focusing on Christ

I finally took the time to check out The Minimalists podcast. It’s a long podcast (90 minutes!), and over that time I got the impression that I was hearing more or less the entire philosophy through a few particular applications, which suggests to me that I might find it repetitive if I listened to it regularly. At the same time, that also shows that they’ve boiled their philosophy down to something clear, and that they’re consistent in their application of it – which is great, because it makes it easy for me to connect it to my own life.

Their philosophy, in a nutshell, is that they want to only have things that they will use and use well; that they get more enjoyment and use out of things that are essential, that reflect their values, when their lives are not also cluttered by all sorts of other stuff that they don’t actually use or enjoy. The great thing about this philosophy is all of the ways that it connects to so many other values and philosophies I have: for example, the episode I just listened to on parenting had a lot of stuff that sounded like RIE, our favourite approach to parenting; and the regular references to Rob Bell (despite the host mentioning that he does not share Rob’s religious convictions) underscored just how much minimalism connects with Christian ethics and tradition.

What really struck me as I was introduced to the minimalist philosophy is how much it is about refining our sense of self: the process of going through our possessions and getting rid of whatever it is that is not essential to our needs, our daily life, and even our character and values, requires that we know ourselves. The process itself also helps us to know ourselves, because when we see what we do not need, or what does not fit with our values, we have a greater sense of who we are without those things.

Things have a way of not only cluttering our lives, but also of cluttering our reality and our very selves. Parting with things can be extremely difficult because of what we have invested in them: sentimental value, a sense of security, or even a sense of self. Getting rid of something, even if you haven’t looked at it or used it in years, can feel like losing yourself. If I lose my childhood teddy bear, am I losing a part of myself, my history? If I don’t have two of everything, will I be safe or prepared if I lose something? Am I defined by having the newest, coolest stuff – and who will I be if I don’t?

The more I think about this, the more I think of the early church. They obviously didn’t live in a consumerist society in the same way that we do; first century Jews, in Palestine or the diaspora, were lucky to have their basic needs met – and Christians moreso, because they were cut off from a lot of the Jewish community that otherwise would have supported them. Early Christians relied on each other in ways that we do not, and that in itself formed the basis for a lot of their community, and the context for most of the New Testament letters. But even in a context of scarcity, the early church was minimalist.

Consider the 72 disciples that Jesus sent out in pairs:

10 After this the Lord appointed seventy-two others and sent them two by two ahead of him to every town and place where he was about to go. He told them, “The harvest is plentiful, but the workers are few. Ask the Lord of the harvest, therefore, to send out workers into his harvest field. Go! I am sending you out like lambs among wolves. Do not take a purse or bag or sandals; and do not greet anyone on the road.

“When you enter a house, first say, ‘Peace to this house.’ If someone who promotes peace is there, your peace will rest on them; if not, it will return to you. Stay there, eating and drinking whatever they give you, for the worker deserves his wages. Do not move around from house to house.

“When you enter a town and are welcomed, eat what is offered to you. Heal the sick who are there and tell them, ‘The kingdom of God has come near to you.’ 10 But when you enter a town and are not welcomed, go into its streets and say, 11 ‘Even the dust of your town we wipe from our feet as a warning to you. Yet be sure of this: The kingdom of God has come near.’ – Luke 10:1-8

Jesus’ instructions strike me as being profoundly minimalist, but they are not minimalist for the sake of being minimalist; rather, they reflect the focused purpose of the disciples. They are sent out into the world with nothing but their message, leaving them with no distractions from their purpose. Where the message is appreciated, their needs would be provided for; where the message was not appreciated, they were instructed to waste no more time there.

Jesus never said that it was wrong to have possessions, but when wealthy people asked him how they might enter the Kingdom of God, Jesus told them that they had to give their possessions away (Matthew 19:16-30). Then we see in the early church in Acts that believers “were one in heart and mind. No one claimed that any of their possessions was their own, but they shared everything that they had” (Acts 4:32). Historically, there has been conflict within the church on the interpretation of this, with some using it as evidence for a kind of Christian communism and others finding ways to dismiss it as a non-binding suggestion for happiness or spiritual enlightenment (often in the context of a defence of capitalism). But seen in the light of the original context (of scarcity), it cannot properly be seen as a mere suggestion for personal enlightenment or happiness; and seen as an expression of the focused purpose of a disciple of Christ, it cannot be seen as a compulsory rule of community (that might be applied today) so much as the basis for that community itself.

The difference between the poor community of early Christians and the wealthy West today is so drastic that it’s difficult to directly apply any “rules” about possessions that we might find in the New Testament. They shared everything they had as a way to survive and thrive as social outcasts; we are all incredibly individually wealthy by comparison, and seek minimalism as a way of finding focus and clarity and peace in a consumeristic world. In both cases, it is an orientation toward possessions that is rooted in our focused purpose and identity in Christ (along with other often neglected disciplines and virtues, such as hospitality). But even back then it was difficult to do, which is why so much of the New Testament is about people looking to Jesus and his coming Kingdom as the example and reminder of who they are becoming. For example:

12 Therefore, since we are surrounded by such a great cloud of witnesses, let us throw off everything that hinders and the sin that so easily entangles. And let us run with perseverance the race marked out for us, fixing our eyes on Jesus, the pioneer and perfecter of faith. For the joy set before him he endured the cross, scorning its shame, and sat down at the right hand of the throne of God. Consider him who endured such opposition from sinners, so that you will not grow weary and lose heart. – Hebrews 12:1-3

Minimalism, in and of itself, is a useful discipline to help us have focus. But it is also a natural outcome of discipleship, if we are willing (as the rich young ruler was not) to seek first the Kingdom of Heaven. God is calling us to the kind of focused purpose that puts all other considerations second to the goal of embodying Christ and his Kingdom, to the type of life in which we do not let any material possessions clutter our houses, our lives, our purpose, and our identity. In a society and economy focused on consuming, this is the most counter-cultural (and difficult) part of Christian discipleship.

Seeing it as something difficult that we’re called to do is not particularly encouraging, so it’s important to see the benefits of this kind of minimalism: in a sense, it can serve as a gateway to better living out other values. For example:

  1. Giving away items we don’t need helps us develop the virtue of charity;
  2. Becoming more aware of our own needs helps us to become more aware of the needs of others;
  3. Living outside of a secure state of self-sufficiency leads us to share more with others, building a community of sharing;
  4. Reducing the things we own and do to just the things that we value most can revive traditional skills and communities, such as food preparation and preservation, repairing items, gardening, etc. – things that we can do rather than buy;
  5. Reducing the things we buy and keep helps us to be better stewards of our finances, which ultimately belong to God, and help us to be more aware of God’s providence;
  6. Similarly, minimalism helps us to lower our footprint on the planet, living lightly as better stewards of the earth and seeing how that duty is central to our identity and purpose as human beings and Christians;
  7. Having a stronger focus on the things we really value, and forming communities around charity and sharing, and having a greater sense of our role as stewards of the earth, also helps orient us to be respectful toward other people; showing restraint in the things we buy helps us to show restraint in how we respond to others; etc.

So don’t treat minimalism as an all-or-nothing requirement of Christianity, as if you’re the rich young ruler trying to prove himself to Jesus; like him, I’m pretty sure we’d all walk away under that mindset. Rather, see it as a gateway to greater clarity in your life, your identity, and your purpose as a follower of Jesus, and a practice that supports and enables other virtues to grow and flourish. And look to Jesus, constantly, to renew your sense of purpose and identity: behold what you are, become what you receive.

For other help and ideas, check out The Minimalists podcast, blog, documentary, books, etc.

Reflections on Therapeutic Religion

Therapeutic Christianity is pervasive in the church, but particularly in Pentecostal and Charismatic churches – especially those that lean toward the “health & wealth” phenomenon. According to the health & wealth “gospel”, God wants us to be rich and healthy, so if we are not it must mean that we lack the faith to adequately receive God’s blessings. In such a worldview, God is the source of all good things; finding healing, peace, and success is just a matter of turning to God in the right way, with the right faith, and receiving them.

While health & wealth is the apex of therapeutic Christianity, it is obvious elsewhere too. I live less than a block from a Pentecostal church that, while it is not a health & wealth church, certainly believes that Jesus has the power to heal and that the Holy Spirit embodies that power in believers. I believe this too, but I’m not sure that I appreciate the digital sign out front that rotates through messages such as “Need healing? Come to our healing service!” or “Find inner peace. Sunday service at 10:30” or “Free kids camp! Starts at 10:30 am on Sunday mornings.” I agree that Christ can heal; there are long and deep Christian traditions and practices that promote inner peace; and parents are always looking for ways to stimulate their kids while giving them a few minutes of personal space. But this strikes me as shallow salesmanship, promoting Christ as a product, preaching what Jesus can give you rather than Jesus himself.

At the same time, North American society is almost satirically therapeutic. We live incredibly imbalanced lives, and then look for a simple and easy product or practice that can save us from our own mistreatment of ourselves. We tend to do it in binge doses and fads, drawing a new practice or technique from any source. For a while it was yoga, which was originally a deeply spiritual practice but has since been reduced, in North America at least, to calisthenics and stretching. Meditation is a fad that comes around every few years, renewing its appeal by drawing from a different branch of Buddhism. The religious roots of these practices has traditionally sent conservative Christians into a state of distrust and outright condemnation, because in some circles any therapy that does not come from a Christian source is suspect (though most of us are okay with doctors, of course). We produce Christian versions of yoga, and even devise Christian versions of meditation, completely missing the fact that Christians have been meditating as a religious practice for millennia. The point, though, is that all therapy needs to somehow be connected to Christ.

The craze right now is mindfulness, which is not the same thing as meditation, though meditation produces mindfulness. In our age of technological distraction, digital lives, and stress, we crave things like embodiment, focus, and peace. Mindfulness practices are usually some variation of meditation, but tend to emphasize being present: seeing and hearing the real world around you, noticing fine details, staying in one place for a long period, looking deep into the eyes of another person, hugging or kissing someone for a long period, etcetera. There is incredible value in this kind of emphasis on embodied presence.

In a few minutes I’m going to receive the eucharist, the body and blood of Christ in the form of bread and wine. Christians have a long history of emphasizing embodied presence, not only in our gospel of the embodied presence of God in Jesus Christ, but also in our understanding of vicarious representation, in which we see Christ in each other. The Holy Spirit embodies human beings, as God’s continued presence on earth. This is, at least to me, the most important and foundational notion of Christianity: that God is here with us, sanctifying our very bodies and this physical world with a constant presence. So every week I take a day in which I try to stay offline, I walk to church and enjoy the fresh air on the way, and I receive the body and blood of Christ. It is refreshing, empowering, and wonderfully therapeutic.

The difference between that therapeutic experience and what is promised on the church sign is subtle. I have to grant to the health & wealth movement that their emphasis on the way we receive from God has a bit of truth in it: our intentions, attitude, and even our very posture have an effect on the way we understand and approach God, even if our actions are identical. In the eucharist, I celebrate and consume Christ himself; in therapeutic models of Christianity, I am oriented to the therapeutic consumption, rather than being oriented to Christ himself. Health & wealth gets it exactly wrong: they emphasize approaching God in such a way as to receive/consume, and God becomes instrumental – a blessing dispensary. That’s why some theologians have taken to calling this kind of theology “therapeutic deism”, because the actual distinct person of God in Jesus Christ fades into the background and can be completely replaced by a general idea of a distant God who gives us what we desire or need.

I was recently listening to an episode of Note to Self, the tech podcast about being human, in which a former Google guru named Mang talked about why he changed careers from being a tech god to writing and educating people about Buddhist mindfulness as a way of promoting world peace. Mindfulness is all the rage in Silicon Valley, which eats up any therapeutic trend that promises to help maintain the levels of energy and creativity needed to succeed in a fast-paced innovation-driven environment. They pointed out that yoga and Buddhist meditation were once deeply spiritual practices that had been reduced to hollow shells, and I suddenly made the connection to therapeutic deism masquerading as Christianity. It appears that there is nothing unique in the way that Christianity is packaged as a therapeutic product to be consumed: we do it to everything. The distinction is that yoga and meditation are recognized as coming from spiritual practices, but are not generally equated with those spiritual practices, no doubt in large part because North American Christians still want to distance themselves from other religions. We remove them from their contexts and package them into products and classes. Meanwhile, the market for Christian-style therapeutic deism is not so much in DVDs and kiosks, but in actual churches where we put our money into the plate. Our therapy is the performance, our product faith itself (often without referent), and we pay for it like a subscription service – in weekly or monthly payments.

Mang took a minute in the interview to teach a very simple and practical mindfulness technique: focus intently on a single breath. Even driving down the busiest highway in Canada, being conscious of a deep breath was immediately calming and invigorating at the same time. I was also immediately conscious of a little bit of guilt in the back of my mind, because I knew that there are Christian practices that do the same thing and yet there I was taking instruction from a Buddhist. At a few times in my life I have been incredibly blessed by the practice of the “breath prayer”, a traditional Christian mindfulness exercise that combines breathing techniques with a mantra: breathing deeply while mentally reciting a short prayer in time with the breaths. This practice has the calming effect of the breathing, with the centring effect of drawing our focus to Christ. It’s a wonderful practice, but given my epiphany about therapeutic deism only minutes before, it seemed inappropriate.

I want the benefits of these simple techniques, and I’m glad that mindfulness is a craze because I think it’s important. But I don’t want to focus all of my efforts toward mindfulness on Christ because I don’t want to treat him as a consumer product. I know that I will not get the full benefits of Buddhist meditation unless, like Mang, I determine to work hard at meditation; just as doing yoga once or twice a week will not improve my physical fitness significantly. But I don’t really want those things anyway – I don’t want to be a Buddhist or a yogi. Like everyone else, I want quick fixes – and I don’t want to put that on Christ. Perhaps it is problematically colonial for me to be okay with bastardizing Buddhism for therapeutic purposes and not be okay with doing the same with my own faith, but I think it’s still better than the self-worship of bastardizing all things for the sake of my own sense of wellbeing.

I still have a lot to work out in this regard, but in the meantime I want to breathe deep and be present in a generic human way, and actually meet Christ in the eucharist rather than just enjoy the side effects. I don’t think that God desires me to smear Christ all over basic things like breathing, like butter over bread, but rather to consume Christ himself as the bread. I’m in no danger of becoming an accidental Buddhist, even if I appreciate the way that Buddhist teachings and practices help me to become more mindful; and I think that my relationship with Christ is strengthened by removing all temptation to treat him as a therapeutic tool, to seek him for what he can do for me. I believe he can heal me, but that’s not why I love him; I believe he brings peace, but I do not worship peace; and I believe that he blesses people in many ways, but I would love him if he did not. If learning mindfulness from Buddhists and yogis and gurus helps me to keep that perspective, then I’d say that in some sense they help me be a better Christian. This, I think, is much more helpful than the guilty thought in the back of my mind that I’m somehow cheating on Jesus in the way that I’m stretching or breathing.

Critical Theology by Carl A. Raschke

In Critical Theology: Introducing an Agenda for an Age of Global Crisis, Carl Raschke uses the analogy of a black hole to describe how everything we know or think we know approaches an event horizon beyond which we cannot see, but where we know there to be a massive power source of creative destruction. He was using the analogy to describe the disparate field of “religious studies,” but I think it’s an apt description of the book itself.

I enjoyed this book more than I understood it. This is perhaps to be expected from a book that does not intend to describe something as much as to predict the forthcoming emergence of a new philosophical perspective. Raschke sorts through important perspectives and methodologies of the past century, praising their strengths but pinpointing weaknesses, in order to lay out the need for a “critical theology” to properly assess and address the post-secular globalized context we now find ourselves in. He gives excellent overviews of the development of critical theory, political theology, the secular-theological approaches of Zizek and Badiou, and religious studies, showing how each has contributed but nonetheless falls short of being able to understand our current realities. Like postmodernism and postsecularism, Raschke’s agenda is therefore primarily negatively defined, often dealing in nuances so fine that it’s difficult to tell how he hopes we’ll move past an existing theoretical approach. Throughout, and as often happens when I read books that push my comprehension, I experienced moments of elation: brilliant vistas of complex and abstract insight. I really do think he’s onto something here.

The crux of his argument for a critical theology, building on the secular theologies of Zizek and Badiou, is the way in which the incarnation and cross of Christ changes everything, providing the event that empowers existing theories ranging from the semiotic to the psychoanalytic to the political. On that we certainly agree. What he wants to do with that, or how exactly the Christ event changes us by elevating otherness, is only loosely sketched; presumably it will be worked out in an entire era of theory. I look forward to it!

Technically/stylistically, there were a number of errors that made an already dense read a little frustrating. Abstract theory is hard enough without misspellings. I also felt that he could have brought his thoughts together into a stronger conclusion, particularly because a good summary of his thoughts would have made the book much more accessible to the lay reader. That said, if you want a jumping-off point to study critical theory, Habermas, Heidegger, Zizek, Badiou, Lacan, or political theology, this book gets just enough into each of them to spark interest. Perhaps I’ll dig into each of them at some point, and revisit this book with a stronger foundation.

Confronting Christian Hypocrisy

Trump.

It was funny when he entered the race, ridiculous when he got his first Evangelical endorsement, outrageous when they kept coming in, shocking when so-called Christian leaders (apply the so-called to either term) defended his vitriol while he was popular, and downright shameful when, over the last several hours as scores of prominent Republicans abandon any pretence of supporting him, the Christians stand by him.

I feel sick, but I’m also angry. I want to look Franklin Graham, Eric Metaxas, James Dobson, etc. in the eye and say “That’s it, we’re pulling your card. Your claim to Christianity is revoked, you no longer have any right to identify with Christ.” But I can’t, because it doesn’t work that way. At the same time, I can and must call them out. Christians live with the call to offer grace and mercy and forgiveness, as well as the call to challenge injustice and expose hypocrisy. Doing them both at the same time is really hard, but it helps if we understand the situation.

Powers

When the Nazis came to power in a Christian country (yes, Germany was officially a Christian country), and ultimately when the holocaust occurred there, Carl Jung (famed German psychotherapist) described it as a type of “mass possession.” Why would so many otherwise decent people go along with such an awful regime doing such horrifying things? We are susceptible to something unseen, that thing that turns a large group of happy sports fans into a rioting mob, suddenly breaking windows and burning cars. That thing that causes otherwise stingy people to give to charities during disaster relief, leading to record amounts given; or that leads to people who haven’t watched a baseball game in their life suddenly wearing a Jays hat in public.

We’ve long known that we are susceptible to peer pressure, trends, etc., but in some cases even a rational modernist like Carl Jung resorts to religious language of “possession.” These invisible forces not only influence us, but they cause us to do things that we would not otherwise do, even things that go against our own values, and deafen us to the dissonance. Theologians throughout the 20th century picked up on this, and connected it to Paul’s language of the Powers and Principalities.

For our struggle is not against flesh and blood, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the powers of this dark world and against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly realms. – Ephesians 6:12

This kind of language points us to a struggle that is both internal (psychological, involving our will and virtues/vices) and external (social, involving social institutions). In both cases it is a struggle to maintain our freedom against a force that would overcome our very self.

Here’s the thing though: we make the Powers. Think about it: we elect a government, and we grant that government authority over us by consenting to its use of power. Walter Wink, the latest major theologian to write on the Powers, describes them as an emergent spiritual property that arises from groups of people who form social institutions, formally or informally. The Powers are social institutions, but they are also spiritual forces that exercise influence over us – often even more than we have over them! Long-standing major institutions, like governments or political parties or cultural institutions (like the Religious Right) are very powerful forces that demand a lot from their followers, including deep loyalty and obedience – whether they state it explicitly or not.

Walter Wink

Walter Wink

There are two points we can take out of this to apply to Evangelicals who support Trump despite his obviously unrepentant sinfulness and demagoguery:

First, these people are caught up in something that they can’t control. Actually. Which is at least partially why leaders who scorned Trump as a buffoon during the nomination contest later endorsed him wholeheartedly. Sure, we could be cynical and say that they’re all faking it – but you can only say something so many times before you begin to believe it, and I really do think that these people believe what they say about Trump. Surely he believes what he says about himself. (I think Trump is caught up in this spiritual quagmire along with everyone else.)

Second, the Powers we’re talking about are the US government and the two major political parties. Even for non-Americans, we’re pretty much all involved in this. We are a part of this system, part of the group from which the spiritual Power emerges and over which it exudes influence. We are all complicit. Which is why we can’t just point fingers at the most grievous hypocrites and be done with it. We have to follow what Wink called “Jesus’ Third Way” – neither winning nor losing, but instead reconciling.

Solidarity with Christ

The thing about Jesus is that he managed to maintain solidarity with everyone. Not only did he refuse to get involved in partisan squabbling, religious or political, but he also lived and died with and for people in every station. He lived among the poor, and yet still moved among the rich. He died as an innocent victim, in solidarity with all victims; and yet he died a criminal’s death, in solidarity with criminals. We too are called to identify ourselves with the oppressed and criminals, saints and sinners.

Following Christ involves looking first at ourselves – because we are the criminals. As I said above, we are all complicit in this broken system that victimizes people. In that regard we also have to look at how this broken system hurts everyone involved: we are the victims AND the perpetrators, and so we need to recognize that those we tend to see as being the perpetrators are also victims, just like us. Recognizing that we’re all both perpetrator and victim gives us a solid base for solidarity. Because we cannot have real solidarity with Christ if we do not have solidarity with those with and for whom he lived and died.

Blind Guides

Naming the Powers, bringing them into the light to expose their injustice, is a painful process. After all, we’ve just established that it means looking inward and recognizing our complicity! But that also forms the basis for addressing injustice without becoming hypocrites.

Hypocrisy is the one thing Jesus refused to put up with, and he was in a position to tell it like it is. He addressed the Powers that ruled his world, refused to be complicit in them, and then called out those who blindly continued in their complicity but claimed to know better. We absolutely must address the hypocrisy among us, first in our very selves, and then in our brothers and sisters.

Tonight, James Dobson, who righteously condemned Bill Clinton’s sin of adultery after Clinton came clean and publicly repented, urged Christians to forgive Donald Trump for his sins (despite a non-apology) by way of voting for him. Rachel Held Evans tweeted that this is spiritual abuse, and she’s damn right about that. Should we forgive Trump? Sure. Trust him to represent the interests of women and people of colour? Absolutely not. Using Christian obligation to forgive as a way of directing voters is an egregious abuse of power, of the name of Christ, and of the people who trust you. Dr. Dobson, you are a blind guide, a white-washed tomb, and you need to repent.

That said, you’re always welcome among us. Not over us, but certainly among us. Because like it or not, we’re in this together. I will not follow you, but I hope you’ll join me as we follow Christ together.

The Church’s Mandate

American Christians are more political than just about any people on earth, and I actually think that’s a pretty good thing, so long as it’s well directed. The Church has a political mandate, but it has nothing to do with voting for a particular party or exercising cultural control.

Dietrich Bonhoeffer was probably the most brilliant theologian of the 20th century, and that’s saying something. He was also hung by the Nazis. One of the things he was working on when he died was an essay on the Divine Mandates, which he named as Work/Culture, Government, Family, and Church. Each of these aspects of life is given a mandate by God, a reason for being, and they must all stay in balance with each other. Whenever one of them takes control of the others, the result is an idolatrous Power (using the language above).

Ironically, this is the cover of the biography of Bonhoeffer written by Eric Metaxas. I can't figure out how he doesn't see the dissonance between what Bonhoeffer died for and what he supports in Trump.

Ironically, this is the cover of the biography of Bonhoeffer written by Eric Metaxas. I can’t figure out how he doesn’t see the dissonance between what Bonhoeffer died for and what he supports in Trump.

Each Mandate has its function in society. For example, Government is supposed to keep society safe and ordered, but it should not take on the role of Family (e.g., what kind of society would put all children in government care rather than their parents?). The Mandate of Church is to keep the other Mandates in line, either by using our prophetic voice to signal when one Mandate is over-reaching, or by standing in the gap for Mandates that are being subordinated or are failing to do their duties. For example, when a family breaks down, the Church provides a home and family care; when Work is unavailable, the Church provides food and necessities; and when Government breaks down, the Church provides social services. None of these things are the sole responsibility of the Church, but the Church can be a surrogate to meet needs neglected by the proper Mandates. And the Church is mandated to cry out at injustice and expose the Mandates that exercise their power inappropriately.

Right now in America, the Mandate of Church (in the form of right-wing Evangelicals) is in a very strange position. First, it has attempted to usurp both Government and Culture (via the Religious Right), and has melded with Government (via the Republican Party). As such, it has completely undermined its own prophetic voice, making it unable to expose the systemic injustices of the institutions it has aligned with – or the personal injustices of its candidate. To illustrate how deep this complicity goes, consider this: even as many high-profile Republicans have denounced Trump over the last 24 hours, Evangelical “leaders” have stood by him and glossed over his disgusting, self-centred misogyny. Evangelical Christians are more committed to the Republican Party than the Republican Party is.

That’s demonic. That’s idolatrous. That absolutely has to stop. We’ve lost our way.

Repent

Jesus Christ and his followers have a crucial role to play in our politics. Our job is to see the Powers for what they are, to reduce our own complicity as much as possible, and to raise a prophetic voice against systemic injustice. We need to keep our heads and resist the “mass possession” that has led so many to support a man who is the antithesis of Christ. And we need to call on our supposed leaders who have become blind to their own complicity to repent, and do so with the solidarity of Christ.

If we can do that, the rest of this election season will look very different. I’d like to see that.

Tribe, by Sebastian Junger

Tribe had me instantly hooked, and I think that it’s the most important book I’ve read this year. The scope of this book is amazing: in only 136 pages it covers issues ranging from war and PTSD to social institutions and politics to work/life balance and family to rituals in tribal societies. It seems like everything Sebastian Junger is talking about in this book is directly relevant to me and my thought processes in the last few years, which not only makes it clear why I found it so engrossing but also deserves explanation.

The central premise of Tribe is that human beings have spent most of our evolutionary history as tribal people who live in groups of around 50 deeply interdependent people, and that much of our social and psychological malaise today is rooted in the fact that this is no longer the case. Our wealth and technology have allowed us to become individualistic and self-serving, balancing the benefits of less physical need and disease with sharp increases in mental and social disorder. Money cannot buy us happiness, and in many ways it actually costs us our happiness.

Junger begins by reflecting on the fact that early European settlers in North America ran off to join indigenous tribes with alarming frequency, and even prisoners of war who had been taken by the tribes often refused to be repatriated into settler society, sometimes even sneaking back to join their former captors. Meanwhile, there was no traffic the other way: nobody was lining up to join “civilization”, even with all of its technological advances. Indigenous culture was very egalitarian and free; European culture was based on strict rules and laws that regulated every aspect of life under hierarchical structures of authority. Tribal life had relatively little work, while the pilgrims worked exhaustively. European settlers almost invariably held the notion that they were better off than the “savages” – but those who had experienced tribal life tended to never come back.
Junger goes on to talk about war and disasters. As a war reporter over the last 30 years, he’s seen a lot of war zones and noticed that soldiers, and even civilians in war zones, often miss the war. This is because they had such close and intimate bonds with the people around them during those difficult times, when common needs and the drive to survive tear down all social divisions and hierarchies. In the wake of an earthquake, or when a city is besieged, people look out for each other in ways that they don’t in good times. That social cohesion has an incredible psychological effect. During the Blitz of London, for example, the government had expected people to break down under the strain in large numbers, but the reality was that admission to mental hospitals went down. In a study of child soldiers, those children who returned from war to socially integrated societies mostly recovered, sometimes completely; but children who returned from war to socially stratified villages remained traumatized. Chronic PTSD, he suggests, is an issue of disordered recovery, not an automatic result of trauma; short-term PTSD is a normal response to trauma, but chronic PTSD, which is increasingly common even among troops that see relatively less action in war, has a lot to do with the fact that soldiers are unable to properly integrate into our individualistic, materialistic society where the close bonds they had with their unit no longer exist.

Why is this relevant to me? Aside from thinking a great deal about war and peace, trauma, social psychology, and policy, I have also recently made very large changes to my life because I have become disillusioned with the way that we live and work in our society.

Less than a year ago, I had a career. I had reached the Director level in my profession, and was making plans to pursue a PhD. I was doing everything right: at 30 years old I was moving upward, had a Master’s degree, had built my first house and had no other debt, and was married with one child. If I carried on that trajectory, “success” in life was virtually guaranteed. Except that in order to get that Master’s degree and that job, my wife and I had to move very far from our families; to pursue that PhD we would need to move farther still; and that my passions were only incidental to my career, so even if I could get a job in my field of study it would be low-paying and obscure, which meant that I would probably always be pursuing my passions at the expense of either my career or my family or both. My passions, then, took a backseat to family and career; and eventually, family took a backseat to career too.

No career is worth losing your family. It seemed that in order to pursue work that seemed meaningful, we had to be willing to be separated from our tribes. This seemed okay at first, when it was just the two of us, but as time wore on we missed our parents, siblings, and cousins. When I was growing up I was very close with a lot of my cousins, but at this point I haven’t seen some of them in over 5 years, and I’m not sure we’ve all been together in 15. Now we’re spread over three provinces, going where the work is or getting pushed out of places with high living costs. I miss them with a depth that shocks me to acknowledge. My parents come to visit, but their ability to travel is not unlimited, and video calls are no replacement for a tribe. Once we had a child of our own, the lack of close family bonds and support became so much more apparent; we felt we couldn’t be good parents without having grandparents around too. Because my son deserves his grandparents, and they deserve him.

So at the beginning of this year we moved away from our careers (my wife was also at the Director level in her department) and settled in my wife’s home province. Crashing on your in-laws’ couch for months, unemployed, is a far cry from working overtime at an “important” job, but it was surprisingly fulfilling. We had moved based on the instinct that our “successful” life wasn’t what it seemed, and even while my self-worth plunged on the basis of being unemployed and homeless, I found a growing sense of connection with my own little tribe, my wife and son, that was deeper and more powerful than any sense of purpose and self-worth that I had gleaned from my career.

My priorities have completed shifted this year. My goal is to find a job that allows me to be at home as much as possible, and I’m just starting a job that allows me to work only two days per week. I’ve been thinking about the need for jobs like that quite a bit over the past year: in an information economy in which information is cheap, producers of information either need a Guaranteed Livable Income (Mincome) or part-time work that pays a living wage but still gives them time to be productive in their own field. I’ve unexpectedly come across the latter, and I’m looking forward to being a family man five days a week and writing during nap times.

A few days after I was hired for this incredible new job packing cheese two days per week, and as I was still coming to terms with how that would reorient my life away from being centred on work and toward being centred on my family, I picked up Tribe and suddenly every hard choice we’ve made over the past year made sense. This book has given me a conceptual framework within which to understand and express why I was so dissatisfied with a seemingly successful life, why we were so motivated to put family first, and why, somehow, our society needs to find a way to help other people to make that priority shift if we want to address the growing social and psychological problems we face.

Tribe is a short, page-turning read about a host of pressing issues, translating anthropological and psychological research into a very accessible and concise narrative. Five stars.

You can listen to Sebastian Junger talking about the book here.