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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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.

A Church Referendum

Last week I wrote elsewhere about how a referendum, while a useful tool of democracy, is only a tool – and one with serious limitations and weaknesses which make it a poor choice for something as complex and important as deciding what type of voting system Canada should adopt. Last month, the church we’ve been attending had a referendum over the question of whether to allow women to be elders; this morning, more than a month later, there was still a lot of talk about the frustration and anger and grief that resulted from the “No” vote. This seemed to me to be a good case to discuss the limitations of a referendum as well as to talk about church governance models in general.

Church Governance and Democracy

I appreciate democratic forms of governance, even in a church. They arose in the church long before European governments gave up their monarchies, largely in response to the oppressive hierarchies of the Roman Catholic church. The Reformation provided a break from the RCC that went beyond theology, especially among the Radical Reformers (the Anabaptists), and among Protestant churches there are a variety of different forms of governance. Some vote about almost anything, while others elect representatives to serve as Elders, sometimes also called Board Members. Some choose a pool of good candidates and then draw lots to see who will be appointed, as in Acts. The powers of the Board of Elders vary from church to church, and Deacons play varying roles with varying levels of power in different churches. At some point, all of these types of governance were justified with Scripture, and were considered important enough to cause division between groups that were theologically very similar – which is in part why there are so many types of Baptist today. But for the most part, governance bodies are dry and boring, mostly only relating to financial matters and building maintenance.

Arguing about church governance models at the Westminster Assembly of Divines.

Until they aren’t. Churches are used to being divided by mundane issues such as what colour the carpet should be or which side of the sanctuary should house the organ, elevating those things almost to the level of theological importance; but what happens when a church Board, or the congregation, has to decide on matters of theology?

That was the case at this church. The issue of women in leadership/eldership has long been a contentious issue of theology, and was contentious enough that the denomination refused to hand down a single position, instead allowing individual churches to decide the matter for themselves. This was presumably to avoid conflict and schism in the denomination, but by passing the buck the denomination only passed the potential for division down to individual churches, which lack the authority to decide upon it.

Elitism and Democracy

I have been accused, in my recent post about the nature of referendums, of making an elitist argument: “you don’t trust the Canadian people to make the right choice,” I was told more than once. And to some extent that’s correct; I don’t trust the Canadian people to have enough knowledge of the complex models of political engagement involved to make an informed choice about which model of electoral reform would maximize the value of each vote. I argued that a referendum is good for deciding on a value or opinion, but not for writing policy, which should be left to experts. The same is true in the church, and we have a long history of saying so.

The reason that the Anabaptists went to democratic models in the first place was because the church had historically been ruled by elites so far removed from the everyday life of the congregation that they could not even relate to, let alone value, the lives of their people. The church had a system of education and worship that actually kept people from reading the Bible for themselves, continuing to use Latin long after the language had otherwise died out among the general population as a way of safeguarding the Bible from misinterpretation (though sadly not from their own misinterpretation). The idea was that biblical interpretation was such a central aspect of life that uneducated people could not be trusted to interpret it for themselves, similar to the notion that Homer Simpson should not be in charge of safety at a nuclear power plant – such things take expertise, and should not be taken lightly. We require a certain level of expertise for all sorts of things in life, especially things with the power to harm others or disrupt lives, so doctrines which relate to the eternal destiny of human beings was left to the elite of the elite.

The Reformation changed this to a large extent, with reformers translating the Bible into numerous languages and printing it so that some people could own their own copy. This surely came at least partially from the revelation that the Catholic hierarchy could also not be trusted to correctly interpret and communicate the Word of God, and that opening it up to the people would not only provide access to this wonderful text to the masses but would also create more room for accountability. But the reformers themselves, and even later Protestants, did not give up the notion that we must be educated before we can accurately interpret the Bible. In Ethics, Dietrich Bonhoeffer (a 20th century Lutheran who certainly urged extensive use of Scripture by all Christians) said “Scripture belongs essentially to the preaching office, but preaching belongs to the congregation. Scripture must be interpreted and preached. In its essence it is not a book of edification for the congregation” (294-95).

The notion that all Christians have equal understanding of Scripture simply because we all have equal access to it is more of an American evangelical idea that really proliferated through the 20th century. Fundamentalists in particular largely believe that “God said it, I believe it, and that settles it.” The idea is that the Bible is written directly to us, for our salvation, and is therefore perfectly understandable without interpretive models. Face-value readings are all that is required to know exactly what God meant in a book written thousands of years ago in a different country and language. This view ignores the fact that we really do have interpretive models whether we recognize it or not, and it also gives the impression that anyone, regardless of their training, can interpret the Bible just as well as anyone else. It throws out experts altogether.

I’ve studied theology formally for eight years, and have continued to study it on the side since graduating with my MA. I get irritated sometimes when long-time church attenders with no formal study of Scripture under their belt take a know-it-all tone with me, as I’m sure people with PhDs and long teaching experience sometimes are irritated at my more passionate assertions that turn out to be incorrect. “Knowledge puffs up,” sure, but we can get pretty puffed up without any real knowledge too, and I know my irritations are minor compared to some of the issues that come up when we throw out our theological experts in favour of a model of interpretation wherein expertise means nothing. I’ve seen Bible and Theology professors have to ask for professional courtesy from their colleagues from other departments who disagree with them about interpretations of texts – something, it was suggested, that would probably never happen in the other direction. A theologian, no matter how accomplished, would probably defer to a trucker or mechanic about how to install a drive shaft, but I’ve been in Bible studies where truckers and mechanics scoff at educated people before sitting down to interpret ancient texts.

A Referendum on the Facts

A referendum is useful for matters of values or opinions, but when it comes to deciding issues of policy or theology there need to be experts involved. A referendum can never decide what the facts themselves are, as if reality is decided by vote. In the case of women in ministry, it is a theological issue concerning the reality of what Scripture is saying. It is a matter of determining exactly what Paul was talking about in a few key texts, and why. It is a matter of facts, not opinions.

When facts are in dispute, informed opinions about them are relevant. If we have no real respect for expert opinions, and believe that the text is equally understandable by someone with an advanced degree in the subject and someone who just picked up the text and read it at face value, then all opinions can be considered informed opinions, and a referendum is a fine way to resolve disputes about contested facts. But if there is a reality that doesn’t depend on the opinions of people who may or may not have even reflected on the relevant texts before, or understood their own cultural and systemic biases, or explored the original context and interpretive history of the texts, then perhaps we should rely more on the views of those who have studied the matter in depth.

I don’t think that this church holds to a strong fundamentalist view of interpretation, nor do I think that it is well-stocked with Bible scholars. Instead, it is a normal church stocked with average people: teachers, tradesmen, truckers, gardeners, marketers, engineers, etc., who read their Bibles about as much as any other Christian and have about as much theological education as most (usually limited to a few church Bible studies). They are not inherently misogynistic, but they have deep cultural roots, and for many this issue is a canary in the coal mine, a sign that liberal values are overtaking their own. This does not make them bad or stupid people (they’re quite lovely, so far as I know them), but it should give a general sense that they are not those who are best qualified to decide this issue of biblical interpretation. Their elders are representative of the church, and are similarly unqualified to weigh in with expert opinions on the relevant passages; again, this does not imply anything bad about them, but merely that they are not career scholars on this subject (and nor should they be – that’s not their function as Elders).

The only person in the church who is reasonably expected to have a strong enough credential to weigh in on the issue is the pastor, and if I understand their church governance structure correctly, he doesn’t have a say in this, though he can make recommendations. The denomination is adequately stocked with pastors and professors who could weigh in on this, but they declined to do so as a body, again likely because of the politics that comes with it. But the fact that church politics can get in the way of biblical experts clarifying a biblical text in a Bible-believing church shows how deeply flawed this notion is that we can all read the Bible and be experts enough that our opinions can settle disputed facts of deep interpretation. Some issues are so contentious that they undermine not just the very notion of expertise, but even the authority of an international denomination.

Conclusion

Some people are quite upset. I don’t blame them; I can’t imagine being told that I’m a second-class citizen in the Kingdom of God, or that my God-given gifts are inappropriate for service to the church because of my gender. As a newcomer and non-member of this church, it’s not my place to say anything (and I don’t get a vote anyway); but as a theologian and someone who analyzes systems and institutions, this is a great example of a falling power. An institution becomes fallen when it undermines its created purposes in order to maintain its own power or self-perpetuation. A denomination that shirks its role in providing expertise and authority in theological matters is shooting itself in the foot, and forcing churches to decide matters of biblical interpretation by vote rather than by determining truth. In the process, more than half of the church population is made unavailable for service to the church as elders, and the theological implications of this decision for women have yet to be worked out. The message this morning, from a series of elders in announcements, sermonettes, and prayers, and then from the pastor in the sermon, and from the choices of songs, was a resounding call for unity; the subtext was “can we all just move on now?” That’s the thing about a referendum, though; they always come back around. This issue won’t go away until it’s resolved, and a referendum isn’t capable of resolving it.

Scapegoating in a Globalized World

I’m powering through the five-part podcast series “The Scapegoat” on CBC’s Ideas. It was originally aired in 2001, but was re-released recently in the wake of Rene Girard’s death last Fall. It explores Girard’s thought in a series of interviews with Girard and a few other scholars.

Tonight I listened to part 4, which brought up the fact that there are two types of mimetic rivalry: external, and internal. But first let’s talk about mimetic rivalry in general.

Girard’s central insight is that human beings are inherently mimetic: we imitate each other, particularly when it comes to desire. I desire what you have, imitating your desire for what you have. You then see that I desire what you have, and your own desire for it becomes all the stronger. But this shared or mimetic desire therefore leads to mimetic rivalry: we both want what you have, and begin to compete with one another for it. But as I compete with you for what you have, you then imitate my competition, so that eventually the mimesis is not about the object of the initial desire at all, but rather about each other. We each call upon the other to imitate ourselves, while also seeking to imitate the other, and in so doing get in each others’ way. Girard holds that this tension and rivalry is the root of human violence, and that religious sacrifice of a scapegoat is a way of channelling that violence onto a common enemy of the community to discharge the tension that threatens the peace of the community. The incredible contribution of first Judaism and then especially Christianity is that it exposes religious sacrifice for what it truly is, a system of controlling and discharging that violence, and that the victim or scapegoat is in fact innocent.

In part four of this series, Girard talks about two types of mimesis: external, and internal. External mimesis is when we imitate someone with whom we cannot compete, and therefore it is imitation without rivalry. We cannot compete with this other person because of a distance between us, whether that is physical distance (in space or time, such as when we imitate a hero from the past or from another country) or social distance (as when we imitate a parent or a person from another social class with whom we could not effectively become a rival). Girard holds that the course of history is toward more and more internal mimesis, and therefore more rivalry; and while his theory of why this is has primarily to do with psychology, I see a different cause – not that they are mutually exclusive, but sadly, probably cumulative.

Globalization is a complex social process by which the world becomes more and more economically interdependent, socially smaller, and culturally integrated. Globalization, then, has reduced or removed the social and physical distance that keeps some mimesis external, allowing for much more internal mimesis.

As we become more democratic, the social distance between different classes disappears: if a hundred years ago a blue collar worker wanted to imitate a banker, they would have tremendous difficulty doing so, whereas now there are social forums in which their different levels of wealth and connections are to some extent set aside, allowing mimetic rivalry where before none was possible. Further, the American Dream is mimetic: a Donald Trump explicitly invites competition with new rivals, and uses the mythology of the American Dream to level the playing field with would-be rivals in order to better induce their mimesis, using their imitation and perceived competition as a way to gain their identification with him, and therefore to gain their support for his presidential nomination. Democracy and cultural shifts have removed the social distance element of external mimesis, making internal mimesis with those to whom we are physically close more possible and likely.

But globalization has also reduced physical distances, not only through transportation (because you can fly around the world in a day), but also through the internet (a new place that is easily accessible from almost anywhere in the world), and through immigration and cultural integration (or lack thereof). For example, let’s say that I want to imitate Tony Robbins, the self-help guru: we’re both enormously large people (he’s much bigger, which just makes me want to surpass him in other ways even more!) who speak in public and write (hopefully) inspirational things. In fact, his whole schtick as an inspirational speaker is largely inviting mimesis: he invites our imitation explicitly, and also implicitly by modelling success and linking it to the principles he preaches. So if I were to take some of those principles and start preaching them in my own words, perhaps even initially giving him credit, I would eventually run into conflict with him when it turns out that we are each holding super-exclusive conferences in the same city on the same weekend! My imitation of him has now become rivalry with him because of our physical proximity, because these days guys like Tony and I just fly around to new places all the time. Of course, it would likely turn to rivalry much sooner, probably as soon as I first published a blog post on a website that competes with his. A hundred years ago if he was in the US and I was in Canada, our paths would likely never cross and if they did it would be non-confrontational, but in the internet age we are in immediate rivalry.

The immigration aspect of rivalry is a bit scarier, and it incorporates another important sociological and theological concept: representation. For decades now, the “clash of civilizations” model has been prevalent. The basic idea is that Eastern (i.e., Muslim) and Western civilizations cannot coexist, and will eventually come into direct conflict. This is of course not at all necessary or inevitable, but many believe that it is. This idea goes back for ages, but it has taken on a large following in the last few decades because globalization has put East and West in close proximity: a comment on the internet or in the press today can lead to international war tomorrow. While it is common for the scapegoat to come from among us, in cases of war the scapegoat comes from a rival group or clan – in this case, from Islam.

There are enormous tensions in our society (economic inequality, race issues, environmental issues, gender and sexuality, etc.) that can be overcome by giving us a common enemy, the scapegoated Muslim. On the other end there are enormous tensions as well, many of them legitimately linked to the Western military and economic domination of the Middle East for the last 40-50 years, but many internal too – poverty, clan warfare, religious ideological divides, etc. While the West tends to scapegoat a leader (Saddam Hussein, Osama Bin Laden) or a faction (the Taliban, Al Qaeda, Daesh) and use it as pretext for an invasion, angry Eastern militants lack the military power for such tactics, and instead declare war on the West in general and then gruesomely execute individual westerners.

This is where representation comes in. Daesh doesn’t particularly care who they execute, so long as they’re a white westerner, the more prestigious the better. To them, each one of those people is representative of the West, of American military oppression, etc. They are symbolic representatives of their enemies, and therefore symbolic victories. Typically, it is the only type of victory they can achieve against superior military rivals.

For the West, the representation goes the other way: to attack a single person, we invade a nation and kill hundreds of thousands of people. Let that sink in: Daesh kills individuals in order to achieve a type of victory over a massive enemy, while we kill masses of people to achieve victory over individual enemies. (This in no way justifies what Daesh does, but we need to keep our own actions in perspective.)

But with immigration, representation goes the other way for us too. Daesh kills individual white people largely because white people are hard to find in their part of the world – usually only Western soldiers or journalists, perhaps some aid workers. But meanwhile, while we are at war with a foreign group like Daesh who claim to be motivated by Islam, there are millions of Muslims in North America. It is very easy for us to scapegoat those Muslims who live among us for the crimes of Daesh half a world away, and we’ve seen that in an increase in violence against Muslims and vandalism toward mosques in the past year.

So while the fight against Daesh can serve as a scapegoat for all of our internal pressures and politics, relieving the tensions we carry about race and sexuality and other hot-button political issues, the tension we carry about fighting Daesh gets relieved by attacking the individual Muslims or other immigrant outsiders in our own midst. Our scapegoating is now serialized.

This type of serial scapegoating will only increase because of the smaller world created by globalization. Once upon a time, having a common enemy on the other side of the world provided an ongoing release of internal tension by setting up a rivalry that could not be consummated due to the physical distance and sheer cost of doing so – so we could feel free to hate, say, the Chinese, because we would never actually meet them. Once upon a time we could dream about a class revolution, when we would finally get what was ours from the rich bankers and elites who barely knew we existed, but not yet, so we’ll get back to work for now until we have the means to launch that revolution. We could scapegoat without actual violence, because social and physical distances kept us separated from our would-be rivals, and therefore no actual rivalries or violence ensued. Now, it would seem, violence is always available to us, always there to funnel the internal tensions created by our ever-increasing rivalry (which has become the basis for our economic systems), allowing us to drop bombs in Iraq to keep from exploding into civil war or murder at home.

More than ever, we need Christ, who is the anti-scapegoat. Christ not only reveals the innocence of all scapegoats, but also the ignorant participation of all of us in putting them (and him) to death. Girard says that becoming a Christian means acknowledging that you are a persecutor of Christ, recognizing your role in scapegoating, and following Christ in the way of defusing this cycle of rivalry and institutionalized murder. So when someone you know is ranting about Muslim immigrants (or homosexuals, or Mexicans, etc.), first be cognizant of your own status as a participant in the scapegoating and murder of Christ and so many others, and then self-consciously address the scapegoating you see. Like Christ, identify with the scapegoat and absorb that rivalry (and if necessary, that violence) into yourself willingly – not seeking it or stirring it up, but not shrinking from it either, like Christ before Pilate. While representation can lead to scapegoating, it can also undo it if we choose to represent the other, to represent the scapegoat.

Christ is the ultimate imitator, imitating God the Father and asking us to imitate him. This is the ultimate external mimesis, a mimesis without rivalry in which we imitate him who refuses all rivalry. As the conditions for internal mimesis grow, it is more crucial than ever that we imitate Christ, and in so doing, defuse rivalries – starting with our own.

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.

Neither A Liberal Nor A Conservative Be

I should start by pointing out that I largely reject the terms “liberal” and “conservative”. I think that they are terribly vague terms whose highly nuanced meanings evolve so quickly that most of the time when two people use them in discussion they each have very different assumptions about what they mean at all. But they’re also terribly common terms, and it’s difficult to avoid them. I’ll leave their precise meaning up to you, as most of the time I’ll be focusing on the many things in their semantic range that do not apply to me.

You see, I always thought that I was a conservative.

The first church I really remember was Baptist, I don’t know what kind for sure. Fellowship, maybe. Then I went to a Christian Missionary Alliance church, and eventually a Pentecostal church, all the while knowing very little about the differences between them (if there were any), but knowing that they were different from the “liberal” churches – you know, the United Church, and by association any liturgical churches that weren’t Catholic. (I didn’t know where the Catholics fit in the liberal-conservative divide, but I was pretty sure that they weren’t on the field at all.) Anyway, all of my music and movies had to be approved by Focus on the Family (Plugged In), liberals were undermining the moral foundations of society and didn’t even believe in Jesus (yes, even the Christian liberals didn’t believe in Jesus), and even though we didn’t use the term much I knew through and through that I was conservative.

When I was 18 I voted Conservative. I voted for Darrel Stinson, who wore a cowboy hat and sometimes yelled in the House of Commons. He was there to remind all of those Liberals back east that the West (with a capital W) wouldn’t be pushed around, or at least that’s how I saw it – he’d been my MP since I was 9, and all I really knew is that he stood up for us. I’d heard talk of the western provinces seceding, along with Washington and Oregon, and making a new country, and that sounded alright to me because by the time we even get to vote out here the Liberals in Ontario and Quebec have already decided the election.

Looking back, my family didn’t talk politics and rarely talked religion. We didn’t use the word “conservative” at all, but I remember other people talking about “liberals”, and I sure knew that wasn’t us (for all I knew of my parent’s politics or theology).

Then I went to a Pentecostal Bible college, and learned that there were two ways to apply the terms “liberal” and “conservative” – politically (which I knew) and theologically. There was a tremendous amount of overlap between those two realms, it seemed, but I became focused on theology, and it was more clear than ever that I was a conservative: liberals don’t believe that Jesus existed in a literal sense OR that God created the world in six days in a literal sense or even (or perhaps especially) in pre-tribulation, premillennial eschatology.

As I progressed in my studies I learned that there was a lot of nuance in all of these things, and my views around them shifted tremendously, gaining depth and changing in perspective. Some of them I discarded altogether, but I never doubted that I was a conservative; once again, my conservatism was assumed rather than stated. I had heard about an exciting theologian, whom some had labelled as a “liberal”, named Brian McLaren. When I asked the president of my school about him, he snorted: “he’s a heretic.” That was all. So while I now had nuanced views of eschatology (I was pretty close to fully adopting an amillennial perspective in spite of the premillennial views of my denomination), creation (I was an Intelligent Design guy at that point), and I wasn’t fully sure that Jonah was an actual guy, I knew I wasn’t a heretic, so therefore I couldn’t be a liberal. I had been wondering for a little while, but with that snort my status as a conservative was assured.

Then I went to an evangelical Seminary, where I was taught by Anglicans, Baptists, Anabaptists, Reformers, Pentecostals, and Evangelical-Free-ers, and talked theology around the water cooler with Pentecostals (even an American!), Evangelical Covenant-ers, Mennonites of several varieties, Anglicans, a Catholic, and even a Lutheran or two. I no longer had any assumptions about which denominations were conservative, because we were all at an evangelical Seminary – clearly we were all conservatives. Not that we used those terms, but again, this was part of my largely unexamined self-concept. I still knew that the United Church didn’t really believe in Jesus, and though I now had a stronger sense of the theological traditions that brought them there, I still knew that wasn’t for me. Though I was now certain that Jonah was a work of theatre, the primeval prologue of Genesis was written in the genre of myth and Adam and Eve were merely representative of early humanity and probably not real people, the conquest of Canaan probably didn’t happen anything like it was recorded in Joshua, Jesus wasn’t a teetotaler, Revelation is largely representative of the genre of apocalypse and is not predicting the future, and Hebrews wasn’t even written by Paul – still, I knew I was a conservative.

But in my first year of seminary I took a course in Christian Ethics, and was hooked. The course texts were by John Howard Yoder (The Politics of Jesus) and Dietrich Bonhoeffer (Ethics), and they helped draw out my Pentecostal pragmatism: I realized just how important it was to me that theology mean something, and by mean something I mean take up space in the world. The rubber always has to meet the road if you want it to take you anywhere, and I wanted to ride good theology to the New Jerusalem – Jesus, B., and me on a road trip through life, the universe, and everything. So I became intensely interested in the texts that tell us what to do, and the implications of the texts that only hint at it: how should we then live? I became more and more politically engaged, and took a course in sociology. I started an annual social justice fair, debated about globalization and capitalism, and gradually became aware that although I was clearly still theologically conservative (but not a fundamentalist any longer), politically…

…I was a liberal. *Gasp* A flaming liberal! When did that happen?

Of course, I wasn’t a big L Liberal, as in the Liberal Party of Canada. I knew enough about political and economic history at this point to know that the LPC is both socially and economically liberal, while the Conservative Party of Canada has a reputation for being both socially and economically conservative but is actually economically neo-liberal and socially doing nothing at all. I was always attracted to the Green Party, probably because of their pragmatism and their refusal to play the liberal-conservative game. When I ran for the Greens in 2015 I maintained the line that we’re a fiscally conservative party, not only because it’s true and because the word “liberal” in my riding is a cussword (it’s a good Christian riding, after all), but also because I still have a self-concept that includes being conservative, for whatever reason, even though I no longer believe the term means much of anything at all.

Which is my point. How can it be that conservative Bible study led me to so many so-called liberal beliefs? I still believe in the Bible as being authoritative, though not handed down from the sky, and I believe that Jesus Christ is not only a real person but that he’s the son of God, a member of the holy trinity, and alive today. It is that belief and his teachings that inspire my interest in ethics and politics, and my so-called liberal political views stem directly from my understanding of Scripture and my pragmatic understanding of the best ways to go about accomplishing the ethical demands of Christ.

What does it mean that I can hold conservative and liberal views, both theologically and politically, at the same time – and even have them be inspired by each other? I’m fiscally conservative because I believe that the government needs to have its house in order if it’s going to be able to sustainably maintain the welfare state; and I believe in the welfare state because it is an effective way for us to collectively serve the poor and promote justice, which I learned to do from Jesus’ teachings and I take seriously because I believe he’s really real. Given the polarization between so-called conservatives and so-called liberals, both in the church and in politics, you’d think my head would explode.

The terms “liberal” and “conservative” have maintained their popularity because they’re handy umbrella terms: they cover a lot of ground. That makes them useful, so long as we don’t care about nuance or accuracy and don’t mind lumping things together. Mostly, they’re useful as umbrella terms for everything we disagree with someone else about; it’s tribalism in a neat package, and we’ve found ways to distort the meaning of those terms by throwing in all sorts of other things we don’t agree with, or finding a new sense of the word by applying it in a new or more nuanced way, which of course only makes the whole thing more confusing.

Let’s just stop. Rather than insisting on calling people, or ourselves, “liberals” or “conservatives”, let’s use words that are actually descriptive of what we do believe. We might discover that our views aren’t that different from others, or that the heroes we’ve claimed (e.g., Dietrich Bonhoeffer and C.S. Lewis are both often claimed by evangelicals) have many views that we would ordinarily dismiss. But perhaps more than anything else, we might discover that other people’s ideas are not as dangerous as the labels we place on them, and that maybe serving Jesus together is more important than agreeing with each other.