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).

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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.

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.

Thinking and Feeling

A trend that has caught some attention recently is the increase in “trigger warnings,” which allow people who have been traumatized to know if they should avoid a particular article, lecture, film, course, etc. that might trigger difficult emotional responses or even flashbacks to their trauma. Such trigger warnings are increasingly commonplace, and controversial: some argue that putting warnings on anything that might trigger a negative emotional response sanitizes the world and makes it nearly impossible to talk about anything. This is seen as an extension of the so-called doctrine of “politically correct” or “PC” speech that politicians and talking heads like Donald Trump say is emblematic of a breakdown in society. Some take it as an infringement on their right to free speech, others merely an inconvenience, and others as a sign of weakness.

This post is not about being politically correct. I brought this trend up because it points to another trend, which is that we’re more aware of mental health issues than ever before, and presumably we have more mental health issues than ever before (though that’s hard to tell, if we did not identify them in the past). Put differently, we’re aware of our feelings more than ever, and we’re taking steps to protect them. Counselling was only for the weak when I was a kid, but is commonplace now. Anti-bullying groups and legislation are working to stop playground – and increasingly, online – harassment and assault against kids and teens, and such programs are usually very well supported by the community (unless they are specifically aimed at those who bully gay kids, but that’s a story for another day too).

But not everyone, even among those who support anti-bullying clubs (at least in principle), thinks that this increasing awareness of our feelings and the desire to protect those feelings is a good thing. And not just for free speech concerns either. There is a legitimate argument here: sometimes we’re offended by things that we shouldn’t be offended by, and sometimes being offended can be a good thing. For example, I regularly see Christians get offended by things they feel go against their religion; as a Christian who has studied Christianity extensively over the last dozen years, the things that some Christians take to be anti-Christian often baffle me. I’ve even seen examples of Christians offended by genuine expressions of orthodox, mainstream Christianity, showing their ignorance of their own faith tradition. When that happens, I feel offended by their ignorant backlash, and I’m glad that I haven’t become so cynical as to not be bothered by the way my religion gets absolutely butchered and misrepresented in such situations. I’m offended when people are cruel or cold to others, too, because I see our shared humanity being disrespected. If we cover up all of the things that offend us because we don’t like feeling offended, how can we ever actually address injustice? If survivors of the residential school system hadn’t come forward to tell their deeply unsettling stories, would we ever move toward reconciliation?

But some take the concern further, saying that this awareness of our feelings and desire to protect them undermines our ability to think. I came across this meme a few days ago:

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This is obviously an old quote, but it’s making the rounds on Facebook. I don’t know the original context, but the way it is presented here draws a distinction between thinking and feeling that should not exist. It is somewhat possible to separate them, and the fact that it is possible is evidenced by the way people devalue feeling and elevate thinking when they pass stuff like this around. It is evidenced by the way that an entire generation of apologists value being right more than they value the feelings of those whom they believe are wrong. Me saying so is undoubtedly unfair: most of these apologists are explicitly concerned with the eternal salvation of those with and about whom they debate. But nevertheless, they continue to say and do things that hurt people, and when those people complain about being hurt they resort to this theory that people simply feel too much and think too little, and confuse their feeling with thinking.

Here’s the thing about feeling: it is entirely subjective. We have never had the myth that feeling is objective, like we have with thinking. For the past few hundred years (the “modern” era) we have held the delusion that we can think objectively, that what is obvious to one person ought to be recognized as truth by others because it merely reflects reality. This way of thinking was challenged by postmodern views, which point out that our thinking is almost entirely subjective and that true objectivity is either nearly or entirely impossible. But we’ve always known this about feelings – some people are more sensitive than others. Some people are moved to tears by a sunset, while others have no pity for a puppy with only one leg (remember Strongbad, anyone?). We’ve historically found social uniformity with feelings mostly by making sensitive people suppress their emotions (usually by calling them names like “wuss” and “pussy”), which is probably why it took us so long to realize just how crucial mental health is to a healthy person and a healthy society. We now know that emotional trauma even has physiological effects, and are discovering that many people with physical symptoms like obesity or drug addiction have been using such things to hide/treat childhood trauma. So while the extent and importance of feeling is becoming increasingly apparent, we’ve always known that people feel differently and for different reasons – but compared to the universal objectivity of critical thinking, subjective feelings were deemed illusory, contradicting, and maybe even dangerous.

But now that we realize that thinking is not objective, we can no longer make such a separation. We now recognize that we see the world through a unique lens that is shaped by our previous knowledge and experience – the same things that shape our feelings. We are able to think about almost anything, but inevitably our feelings reveal our true beliefs and worldview, which we hold largely subconsciously.

Christians deal with this all the time: we recognize the difficulty of turning our beliefs into actions or a way of life is terribly difficult. In church this morning, the pastor pointed out that Peter really believed that he was ready to die with Jesus and would not abandon him. The scene in which Peter realizes that he has abandoned Jesus so is terribly poignant. Did Peter’s feelings and instincts for self-preservation overcome his belief, or did his actions simply exemplify a level of commitment that turned out to be less than he believed it was? Was it his feelings that were at fault, or his thinking? Did he just lack courage, or did he overestimate the amount of courage he actually had? The answer, of course, is both.

Traditionally, the church has upheld three integrated points of discipleship: orthodoxy, orthopraxy, and orthopathy. The fact that my spellchecker only recognizes the first of these three words goes to show how much we have valued one of these above the others. Orthodoxy, or right belief, has unfortunately taken precedence for I-don’t-know-how-long.  Orthopraxy, or right actions, has been deemed too Catholic by most Protestant churches, which emphasize the saving grace of God over (and apart from) works or actions. And orthopathy, or right “affections”…well, I had to look the term up, and I only became aware of its existence at all halfway through Seminary. The point is, these three things are interrelated: we can say that we have integrity only if our thoughts, feelings (desires), and actions all align, but for at least the last few hundred years we’ve only seen integrity as an alignment between beliefs and actions, leaving affections out of it entirely.

With that in mind, I think it is absolutely fantastic that feeling is in fashion right now. Yes, many people are feeling things that are based on wrong beliefs, and that’s a problem! But the problem is their wrong beliefs, not their wrong feelings; their connection between thinking and feeling is an important one, and while it is totally legitimate to correct wrong beliefs, we must recognize that their feelings are not right or wrong at all. Feelings are objective, in the sense that we cannot choose or change them – they just exist, as a natural response to our experience and beliefs. We cannot criticize someone who is overly sensitive for feeling, nor can we dismiss their feelings without dismissing them as human beings. Our feelings are part of us, and rarely subject to our rational choices.

What we can do instead is recognize a person’s feelings, validate them as a legitimate response to their perceptions and experience, and then address any misperceptions they may have that led to their emotional response. Because not only is it rude and dehumanizing to dismiss or ignore or ridicule someone’s feelings, it’s actually counter-productive – because no matter how much we talk about the primacy of logical reasoning, in a stressful situation our feelings guide our actions more than our thoughts do. When we experience great stress, our prefrontal cortex (the decision-making, logical, rational part of our brain) shuts down and we go into a sort of auto-pilot (often referred to as fight-or-flight mode), and we take actions that are based on things much deeper than thought – but our feelings are still powerfully present even when we can’t think straight. So the next time someone asks for a trigger warning, take it as a sign that they would prefer to remain rational rather than being plunged into the high-emotion low-rationality state of recurring trauma.

My son is a constant reminder to me of the importance of recognizing and validating the feelings and desires of others. Toddlers are experiencing many emotions, sometimes for the first time and always uncontrollably, and it often causes them to act out in ways that they would actually not prefer. When a kid has a tantrum, it’s almost always because they’re feeling something and they don’t know what to do with it; telling them that you know what it is they desire (“I know you want that toy”) is usually enough to calm them down, because they know that being understood helps them to understand themselves. That’s the brilliance of human community: we know by being known, and we deal with emotions by sharing them with others. We call this compassion. All of this is just as true for adults as it is for children.

So be careful with the affections of others, and recognize that their emotions may precede, but certainly inform, their understanding and knowledge. Just as our own integrity depends on the interplay between our beliefs, affections, and actions, so too our health, relationships, and ability to communicate also depend on all three things. So rather than pitting thinking against feeling, recognize that it is only by recognizing someone’s feelings that you can find out what they really think.

Kevin Garcia burst my bubble, and it hurts

Kevin Garcia posted an article today about being in an abusive relationship with his church. It’s good, you should read it. In it, he talks about how difficult it is for a queer Christian to feel truly welcome, loved, and accepted in a church that is not affirming of homosexuality.

We are the ones having to be brave, sensitive, nuanced, vulnerable, and accommodating in nearly every scenario. And often times, we’re expected to give a full apologetics on our theological backing for living fully outside the closet as queer Christians.

That’s not relationship or conversation. That’s playing defense.

And it gets super tiring.

I walk into a space, and automatically I’m having to justify my existence. I can’t ever just be. Even with my small group, the place where I’m most longing for that intimacy and connection, there is tension.

This is a great example of the need for what Wendy Vanderwal-Gritter calls “Generous Spaciousness,” or creating a space where people can just be without having to justify themselves. This should be normal in church, a place completely covered by grace so that no sin or perceived sin can place conditions on or otherwise influence our love for one another.

There’s so much in Kevin’s article that I agree with, but I’m having trouble getting past a few things:

It is easy for a straight person or pastor trying to figure out how to love their queer parishoners well to say things like “we need to choose love and relationship over agreement.”  As a heterosexual individual, you don’t have to justify your life or your existence or your marriage or your theology to the vast majority of our culture, let alone the vast majority of Christians.

I get a lot of people who look at me and say, “Well, I’m not sure where I land, I just know that it’s my job to love you and love all gay people. Because at the end of the day, we’re all sinners, right?”

My gut reaction to that? It must be nice not to have to pick a side.

And I bet if I didn’t show up at your church, in your small group, you wouldn’t have had to think about it at all. Sorry to burst your bubble.

And that may sound harsh, but honestly, really, all you straight people out there are so damn lucky.

I really get that it’s much more difficult for gay Christians than straight Christians – that somehow generous spaciousness already applies to me, and not to queer believers. There are no elephants in my room, so to speak. But as much as it may be easier for me, I think Kevin does allies a huge disservice by saying that it’s easy. Please allow me to illustrate with my own story.

I’ve been studying theology formally for the past dozen years. Eight years ago I was pretty staunchly in the anti-gay camp, not in the sense that I wanted to stone anyone, but in the sense that I couldn’t read the relevant texts any other way: homosexuality was clearly a sin in the Bible, and the Bible shaped my whole worldview. I had studied the issue extensively, getting right down to the Hebrew and Greek of the relevant verses, and I felt very secure in my view of homosexuality on that basis. Arguments for different readings were becoming more and more common, but they seemed to me to be attempts to justify or get around what were obviously very unambiguous texts. I was grieved by the negative way many people perceived these texts, but felt sure that the text outweighed any other factors: homosexuality must be a choice in order for it to be sinful, and if it’s sinful it must be a choice, with the subjective perceptions of individual experience by homosexuals being, sadly, just plain wrong.

As I continued to study, my hermeneutic changed. I learned a lot more about the literary nature of the text, and changing standards of morality throughout the Bible. The tension between the prophetic and the priestly. But those particular texts are deeply priestly, and as much as I prefer the prophetic and can recognize the tension, I can’t dismiss the priestly, and I still have trouble with the arguments that dismiss those texts as referring to something else – the evidence for that, even after years of study and better arguments appearing, seems just a little bit too weak. Other arguments have become more helpful: more than ever, I read all of the Bible through the lens of Jesus, and I have a hard time imagining Jesus selectively and aggressively picking on homosexuality over and above other sins; I read the Bible theologically more and more, and my theology is similarly not so selective, and more concerned about systemic evil and God’s identification with the oppressed; and I am frequently comforted by the work of the Holy Spirit in Acts 15, whose presence and empowerment of Gentile believers caused the early church to accept that God loves whomever God chooses regardless of the rules. But those problematic texts are still there, alongside the ones where God commands genocide.

During this period of theological development, I also learned a lot about homosexuality. I’ve watched friends from Bible college come out with enormous backlash from their churches. I’ve watched friends from high school come out and carry on long-term and seemingly very happy and healthy relationships. I’ve had friends who are staunch queer allies correct my assumptions about homosexuality and gender normativity. I’ve read about a gender spectrum, a sexual spectrum, chromosomes, and socially constructed gender. I’ve even had friends confide in me about their own journey of accepting their sexuality in the church. Knowing just a little bit about the depth of their hurt, it became increasingly clear to me that I need to love and serve them unconditionally, no matter what those problematic texts say.

And that’s where it isn’t easy. While I’m no longer a biblicist (that is, I now see the Bible as witness to God in Jesus Christ, rather than itself being divine revelation floating down from heaven), the Bible is still fairly central to my identity as a follower of Christ. To count myself as an ally to LGBTQ+ people, believers and non, I live with a dissonance that cuts to the core of who I am. I’ve found a way to keep that dissonance from ripping me apart, and I do that by subordinating the importance of certain texts to the importance of loving and serving unconditionally. I really do say things like “Well, I’m not sure where I land, I just know that it’s my job to love all gay people. Because at the end of the day, we’re all sinners, right?” I don’t usually include the second sentence, or even specify “gay people” rather than just “people”, but my point is simply that saying this costs me.

By saying this, I have chosen a side. I have chosen to be an ally to LGBTQ+ people, even when I feel like I might be encouraging them to sin, might even be working against God. I don’t feel that way often, but those texts nag at me whenever I think about them, so I mostly choose not to think about them at all. I’ve chosen to sacrifice my integrity as a reader and interpreter of the Bible, to stop revisiting the same texts over and over again because resolving them is too hard and comes with too high of a cost. I’ve chosen a cop-out answer to the most difficult texts, even though by doing so I not only feel like a fraud, but I get called on that cop-out by people on both sides of the issue.

What compounds this for me is that I’m trained to be a pastor as well as a theologian. My theologian side is okay with mystery, but still has a lot of pride tied up in my ability to interpret the Bible well. But my pastoral side is subject to denominational faith statements and the views of any church that might hire me. They’re not exactly knocking my door down with job offers, but even if I were in high demand, I have to satisfy both parties (the denomination and the congregation) with clear, unequivocal statements. By being an ally, I have actually limited my influence in church circles where it is perhaps needed most. But while my theological and pastoral training compounds the issue for me, it also gives me the tools to continue to work through the theological and pastoral issues; for the average person in the average church, it must be much more difficult to navigate those difficult texts. For the average believer becoming an ally must be an even bigger deal, because it probably means going against the word of someone in a position of pastoral and theological authority in their lives. Their cognitive dissonance and professional pride might be less of an issue, but their social dissonance is probably much bigger than mine.

So no, it’s absolutely not easy for straight parishioners or pastors to choose love and relationship over agreement. Our identity as followers of Christ is central, and the Bible is central to our understanding of Christ. We do not set aside texts lightly, and we cannot do so without a deep cost. I look forward to a day when I can read the whole Bible without any sense of dissonance and love everyone without reference to the text, and I think that day might actually come. But in the meantime, I’ll continue to feel uncomfortable with the issue of homosexuality in the church, not because I need you to explain yourself, but because I can’t explain myself or feel okay with the fact that I’ve ignored parts of the text that I can’t come to terms with. My room, and the church, are full of our own elephants. It just might be that constantly calling on queer people to explain their theology and sexuality is projection of our own discomfort with the texts, not with you.

Our “unconditional love”, as Kevin’s friend Matthias points out, is rarely unconditional or even particularly loving. We suck at this. I’ve had super awkward conversations with other believers – hopefully not condescending, as he describes – but they were with seniors or people with very different political views more than with any gay believers. There are so many things that divide us, whether it is generations or politics or theology or just plain social awkwardness. I’m not saying any of this to minimize the struggle that queer people deal with in the church – it is so, so real, and we need to hear more about it and be reminded of it. But I’m saying this simply to point out that it’s awkward all around, and not all of it is outward-oriented; very little of my awkwardness is about you, it’s almost entirely about me. And I’m willing to bet that that’s the rule, not the exception.

Sometimes when we feel rejected, we say “what’s your problem?!” or “it’s your loss!” I’m recognizing the truth of those statements more and more. So if you ever feel like an outsider who’s been pushed aside, or feel like your allies offer cheap support, remember that it really is our problem – we’re just exhibiting our own issues, self-consciousness, and sinfulness. I’m sorry that it hurts you; it hurts us too, and we need to be aware of your hurt and ours, because most of us are in denial about it. The more we all realize that, the more likely we are to create genuine generous spaciousness, and give and receive the real grace and acceptance that we all need. So please, keep sharing these stories, they make a difference; I hope mine has too.

On the Sanctity of Life

The Supreme Court of Canada ruled last year that laws that banned Physician Assisted Suicide (PAS) violated the Charter rights of Canadians and suggested conditions under which PAS might be administered so as to prevent abuse. A government committee recently released a report suggesting expanding those conditions, even before any legislation to that effect was proposed.

Bruce Clemenger has since written numerous editorials in Faith Today that see the Supreme Court ruling, which overturned a previous ruling that had prohibited PAS, as the triumph of personal autonomy over the sanctity of life. The Evangelical Fellowship of Canada, of which Clemenger is president, is campaigning against PAS, and the implication is that they do so based on Christian values. So I’ve been thinking about this, and wondering about where we get our Christian notion of the sanctity of life. Let’s take a look.

The Sanctity of Life

sanc·ti·ty
ˈsaNG(k)tədē/
noun
noun: sanctity; plural noun: sanctities
  1. the state or quality of being holy, sacred, or saintly.
    “the site of the tomb was a place of sanctity for the ancient Egyptians”
    synonyms: holiness, godliness, blessedness, saintliness, spirituality, piety, piousness, devoutness, righteousness, goodness, virtue, purity;

    “the sanctity of St. Francis”
    • ultimate importance and inviolability.
      “the sanctity of human life”
      synonyms: inviolability;

      importance, paramountcy
      “the sanctity of the family meal”

When we talk about the sanctity of life, particularly in relation to life and death issues such as PAS and abortion, we tend to mean “inviolability” as the definition above suggests. Life, we hold, is of ultimate importance – it is inviolable, trumping every other consideration.

Now, aside from the fact that we violate this all the time with war, the death penalty (thankfully not in Canada), and how we allocate foreign aid (yes, we have the resources to prevent millions of deaths annually, but find it too expensive), I’m not entirely sure where we get this from in the first place. So I did a search for “what does the Bible say about the sanctity of life?” and found a list of 19 verses that are held, at least to the crowdsourced views of openbible.info, to support the concept of the sanctity of life. While they seem to affirm the God-given nature of life, that’s not the same thing as sanctity or inviolability.

The Bible most certainly affirms that human life is good, and even that life in general is good. The first chapter of the Bible describes the creation of the world, and at every stage God declares that it is good, declaring at the end that it is even very good. But note that God said that light and darkness were good, as were land and water. God declares his creation good because it is his creation, not necessarily because it is alive.

There are many verses that talk about the way that God has created human beings, knitting us in our mother’s womb, etc. Indeed, God has created us (at least indirectly), and that speaks volumes about the importance of our lives. There are also verses that talk about children as being gifts from God – as a father, I affirm this. There are verses that talk about God’s interest in our lives, that he knows everything we do and say, has counted the hairs on our heads and values us more than sparrows. This is all good and true, and shows that God values human life. But that’s not the same as holding it to be inviolable.

Because even though God created us, and gives us life, God also takes life. A lot. The Bible is full of instances where God kills people, and tells people to kill people. And death is still sad, and God even mourns, but that doesn’t stop death. God can stop death, but doesn’t. Life, to God, is a good thing, but far from inviolable. God does prohibit people from murdering each other, but the penalty for murder is death.

I will demand an accounting for the life of another human being.

“Whoever sheds human blood,
    by humans shall their blood be shed;
for in the image of God
    has God made mankind.

Genesis 9:5-6

Knowing that death happens, and that it’s unfortunate and even terribly grievous, is a powerful thing. However, it does not stop God from taking lives, nor does it stop God from telling people to take other people’s lives. To help keep this in perspective, remember that even though God does not stop death, God does have the ability to give life, and plans to resurrect us all (the righteous and the wicked alike).

Where, O Death, is your victory? Where is your sting, Hades?

I want to clarify that I think that God takes death very seriously. God doesn’t say “meh, I’m going to resurrect them anyway – no big deal.” God mourns death, and even hates it, working to overturn it on a more permanent basis. It is in the first sense of sanctity, then, that I think God views life; not that it is inviolable, but that it is holy and inherently good. But there are also times in the Bible when people recognize that death may be better than life: Job notes that it would be better if he had not been born than to live with the calamity and illness he was experiencing, and several prophets (I think of Elijah and Jeremiah, off the top of my head) wished for death; Jesus tells hypocrites that it would be better for them to have a millstone tied around their neck and thrown into the sea than to mislead children and make them into hypocrites; and for Paul “to die is gain.” Each of these are very different contexts, with Job and the prophets emphasizing the terrible nature of their current reality, Jesus revealing the unrealized yet still terrible nature of the hypocrites’ current reality (and actions); and Paul pointing to the glory of resurrected life to come. So life is not just violable, but sometimes worse than death, at least in our perceptions and sometimes even in reality.

But what of autonomy? Clemenger holds that personal autonomy has triumphed over the sanctity of life, and many argue that this is a shift toward liberal values (usually contrasted with Christian values). But what does the Bible say about autonomy?

Autonomy

A search for “what does the Bible say about autonomy” doesn’t come up with a nice list of verses like my previous search did, however misdirected those verses might have been. Instead, it comes up with scores of articles about “the horrendous sin of autonomy” and “the corrosive effects of autonomy and individualism.” These articles refer to the fact that autonomy, in the sense of choosing for ourselves, was the original sin, and that Christians subject themselves to God’s will.

What those articles miss about the “sin” of autonomy is that the sin involved as abuse of that autonomy, not the autonomy itself. God was the one who placed the forbidden fruit in the garden (for no revealed reason) and instructed Adam and Eve not to eat it, seemingly for the purpose of testing them. Human autonomy is not only God-given, but it’s crucial to fulfilling our God-given purpose as stewards of the earth. It is so important to God that we be co-creators rather than drones that God gave us the autonomy to disobey and refused to revoke it even when we disobeyed. In fact, rather than retract our autonomy in order to protect human life, God instead wiped out all life except that of Noah and his co-voyagers. At least in Genesis, God pretty explicitly values human autonomy over life.

But why does God value autonomy so highly? It has to do with the nature of love and genuine relationships. Chosen relationships are better than forced relationships, and love itself cannot be forced. God desires a loving relationship with all of creation, but human beings are (or at least appear to be) the only creatures capable of loving God back in a way that involves actively choosing to love God. Other creatures embody many features of love, such as the loyalty and devotion of our pets, but humans have the ability to direct their loyalty and devotion, in spite of everything, toward God if we so choose.

Those who say that autonomy is sinful, then, are not referring to our autonomy itself, but rather to our choice for autonomy over God. When God gives us commands to obey, we can choose to obey and thereby to love God, or we can choose not to. By choosing not to love God, we are in some sense choosing our own ability to choose over the one who gives us that ability. Theologians sometimes differentiate between “freedom from” and “freedom to”, noting that a more positive understanding of freedom is not to focus on what we are free from (which may include the will of God, should we choose to disobey), but rather to note that we are free to do the good things that God asks of us. The point of “freedom to” is that we are not coerced to be good, but we can choose it, and that choosing to do what we are asked to do is not at all the same thing as being coerced. The sin of autonomy, then, is to focus on “freedom from” without the balance of “freedom to.”

In regard to PAS, there are elements of freedom from and freedom to. People want to be free from pain, confusion, and slow but inevitable decline, and knowing that death will come sooner or later, like Job want it to come sooner. Unlike Job, most people do not experience a supernatural windfall of God’s blessing at the end of their lives, and we’ve gotten very good at prolonging the duration of people’s lives without actually enhancing or maintaining the quality of those lives – so people in chronic pain or dementia suffer longer before they die. People in those types of situations, like Jeremiah, want their suffering to end; and Christians in such situations, like Paul, look forward to a better future (and sometimes want it to hurry up). At the same time, we now have the technology to end people’s lives “safely” (that is, with no chance of screwing it up and without inflicting suffering). This allows us to control the time and method of our death. The question is, does this give us the freedom to die?

Good Question

I don’t know. I have incredible sympathy for people suffering from chronic pain, mental illness, and dementia – things that can not always be cured or even properly controlled by modern medicine. I also wonder at the wisdom of prolonging life past our ability to live well, and shake my head at the lack of proper palliative care available in Canada to help people make informed decisions with real alternatives about how their final years will go. I think we need to be clear that human beings have an inherent and inalienable right to life, but not a responsibility to live it, at least in any laws that I’m aware of in the world today.

Christians need to be careful about where our values come from: I value life, and I’m even okay with saying that life has incredible sanctity. I may even be okay with life being inviolable, I’m still working that out. But if our values are labelled Christian, they should reflect Christ and the Bible – and at least in this case, we may have gotten it wrong.

Planks in our Eyes: Hypocrisy and Foreign Policy

I went to a new church today, and heard a good sermon on Matthew 7 – a passage that, oddly, I don’t think I’ve heard a sermon on for a very long time:

“Do not judge, or you too will be judged. For in the same way you judge others, you will be judged, and with the measure you use, it will be measured to you.

“Why do you look at the speck of sawdust in your brother’s eye and pay no attention to the plank in your own eye? How can you say to your brother, ‘Let me take the speck out of your eye,’ when all the time there is a plank in your own eye? You hypocrite, first take the plank out of your own eye, and then you will see clearly to remove the speck from your brother’s eye.

The pastor did a good job of pointing out that this passage is not saying that we should not exercise good judgment, but that it is instead suggesting that we should examine ourselves for faults before condemning those same faults in others. As usual in our individualistic society (and I think this is especially true of evangelical churches), the sermon focused on personal sin, but all I could think about were collective issues: cultural racism, and foreign policy.

Why Facebook is a Terrible Place

For the last few months, social media has been awash with debates about Muslims, refugees, and security. Social media has a way of reinforcing what we already believe: Facebook curates our newsfeeds in order to show us the posts that it believes are most relevant or interesting to us, based on our past browsing history. So if you hold strongly to a particular viewpoint and tend to read articles that confirm that viewpoint, in time that’s almost all that you’ll see – until you run across your friend who holds to the opposite viewpoint. Often, by the time this happens your two views of reality are so far apart that they almost don’t resemble the same story, and it’s nearly impossible to find common ground. If it seems like Facebook is a nasty, polarizing place, this is part of the reason why.

Media are increasingly making their stories friendly to social media, recognizing that this is the fastest way for any story to spread. As such, speed is of the essence: better to get a story out quickly and update it later than to wait for all of the facts to come together in a cohesive narrative. At the same time, the blogosphere has turned most people into pundits, and even mainstream news sources have almost as many opinion and editorial pieces now as they do actual news, so the facts we receive are already interpreted for us, more than ever.

The combination of these two phenomena has led to all sorts of viral posts, some from major media sources and some from average joes, that both feed off of public sentiment and feed that sentiment further. In this case, while security concerns about bringing 25,000 Syrian refugees into Canada as quickly as possible may have been legitimate at some point, they have become a justification for racism for many: I’ve had people tell me sincerely that racial and religious profiling is a “no-brainer”, and that we should not allow any Muslims into North America. Take a moment to surf through twitter hashtags like #refugeeinflux and you’ll see some lovely comments, and some terrifying ones – and the comments usually match the tone of the article they’re attached to.

To counter this, some on social media are posting articles that try to bring perspective to the issues. For example, faced with post after post about Muslim terrorists, many have been posting about the white and highly armed militia that has taken over a government building in Oregon to suggest that not all terrorist groups are Muslim; or in the face of floods of posts about US gun control, either being for or against it, some have started posting articles about Black Panthers celebrating Texas’ new open-carry law (as presumably the gun-toting Texans who celebrate the 2nd Amendment aren’t as thrilled about a Black Power terrorist movement also being able to legally and openly arm themselves in public). Posting this type of thing instead of adding to the already ubiquitous posts about Muslim terrorism is a deliberate way to undermine the feedback loop of social media and, hopefully, calm some of the fears and cool some of the heat surrounding the topic. Unfortunately, it does not always have that effect: it has caused many to suggest that political correctness (podcast link), interpreted as refusing to speak the truth for fear of being labelled a racist, has undermined good sense and put us and our national identity and values at risk. So we remain polarized, with some posting blatantly racist things, some refusing to even comment on major issues for fear of feeding that racism, and most of us somewhere in between but probably only being fed half the story by our social media feeds. Most of us don’t really know what’s going on, but we have very strong feelings, thoughts, and comments about it. We’re the blind fighting the blind.

While all of the finger-pointing and name-calling happening online should be a sufficient example of the kind of hypocrisy Jesus was talking about in Matthew 7, there’s an even bigger hypocrisy behind it, something those posts about the Oregon militias only scratch the surface of: the role of our governments in the “war on terror”, and their refusal to address the ways that we’ve exacerbated the situation abroad and ignored the situation at home.

Foreign Policy, Domestic Terrorism

Recently I listened to a fascinating podcast that asks “is there a better way to fight terrorism?”(podcast link) One of the insights they note is that suicide bombing, perhaps the action most associated with terrorism, is almost never a religious act (though it is often dressed up in religious language), and is almost always in response to military occupation. That is, suicide bombings happen in the Middle East primarily because either Westerners have invaded there, or because we have set up governments there as our proxies (or at least, that’s how people who live there perceive those governments). In other words, the number one cause of terrorism in its most extreme form is our anti-terrorism efforts abroad. Once again, this should not surprise us: the Parliament Hill shooter told us that this was precisely what motivated his attacks.

Today I listened to an interesting podcast that talks about home-grown US white terrorism, and how the US government has deliberately focused its efforts on Islamic terrorist threats(podcast link) both abroad and at home. The guest on the podcast used to work for Homeland Security studying white supremacists, freemen on the land, and other anti-government or racist militias. His department had been asked to research the possible response to a black president before Barack Obama ran in 2008, and they continued to research after he was elected. When they released a report, the Republicans spun it, saying that Obama was getting Homeland Security to spy on all conservative Americans. The department was reassigned to focus on Islamic organizations, which were less politically problematic, even though it is estimated that there are around 100,000 members of anti-government or racist militias in the US.

To bring this into a Canadian perspective: I’m very proud of our government’s current stance on pulling out of our bombing missions. Every bomb we drop is a recruiting tool for ISIS, particularly because our bombs don’t always hit their mark. This is just a first step, though. Accepting as many refugees as possible is a second step – 25,000 is a good start, but we should continue to bring in refugees, especially from Syria, Iraq, and other nations fighting ISIS, and offer whatever aid we can to those who are unable or unwilling to relocate. We should also offer aid to legitimate governments in the region to maximize their aid impact, and I suggest this as an alternative to offering military support or training, or at least in addition to it: we could be offering training and resources for emergency relief programs, medical training and personnel, and even educational resources (if local governments invite and allow it) throughout the region. Finally, if we maintain any military involvement it should be to push toward de-escalating conflict rather than eliminating the enemy – because an ISIS without war is simply a local government, and we may actually have the power to limit their capacity to wage war, in large part by refusing to fight. If we are able to empower the nations around ISIS while at the same time dialing down the polarized worldview that we’ve been reinforcing in that region through decades of war, we may be able to cut off the streams of support that feed ISIS. At least, that’s how I understand the situation: I should be clear that I’m not a military tactician, but I have spent quite a bit of time studying the way people respond to violence on either end of the gun, and I’ve become convinced that nonviolent conflict resolution holds greater promise for ending conflict than violence does.

Hypocrisy, Self-Examination, and When to Keep Our Mouths Shut

So there’s rampant racism, xenophobia, and political correctness on social media, and the same things are affecting our government’s ability to address terrorism effectively. Make no mistake, we should not be afraid to criticize certain groups or actions simply because they are representative of a racial or religious group: we must be able to distinguish between people and their actions, and judge actions based on the ethics of those actions rather than on the race or religion of the people involved. “Political correctness” interpreted as the refusal to speak out against injustice because of fear of being perceived as prejudiced against the minority committing the injustice is wrong and dangerous – but we must always remember that our words have an impact.

Words spoken on Facebook seem benign to us: our brains perceive us to be alone at our computer, rather than in a public forum, so we’re more likely to say things that we would never say in front of other people. But those words get repeated, and the more we repeat something the more we believe it. And the more we believe something, the more likely we are to act on it. They say that if one person takes the time to write about something, one hundred people are thinking it; I think the reverse is also true to some respect. If a thousand people write (or re-post) something, one person is probably going to do something about it. A few months ago someone in Peterborough Ontario burned down a mosque; last week someone in Vancouver pepper-sprayed refugees at a welcome party. “Lone wolf” terrorists like Anders Breivik may act alone, but they are supported by the words of others.

But words don’t just inspire attackers, they also inspire politicians. Would Donald Trump, Ben Carson, and Ted Cruz all be trying to out-xenophobe each other if there wasn’t widespread support for xenophobic policies such as building a wall to keep out Mexican migrants or refusing to allow Muslims into their country from any source? Politicians pander to our worst impulses as well as to our best impulses – and it’s often easier to pander to the worst in us. Western foreign policies that incite violence against minorities also incite terrorist responses.

But the key to all of this is that we’re blind to the negative role that we play. The preacher this morning held a two foot length of 2×4 to his eye to illustrate Jesus’ words in Matthew 7 and show how ridiculous the example is, and in the process he almost hit a child in the head with the plank as he turned to look around. The point, he said, is that our own attitudes not only blind us, but we can also inadvertently hurt people even when we’re trying to help, or simply when we’re looking around. Our self-righteousness destroys any good that might come of pointing out the faults or crimes of others, and we often end up hurting more than we help.

So before posting anything on the internet or invading another country to impose democracy, take a look at yourself. It might change what you have to say, or make you decide to say nothing at all.