Saturday, December 17, 2011

Incarnating Lawful Love 2 – Christian Peacemaking Basics

In my last post, I began sketching some dynamics which followers of Christ can monitor in the midst of conflict, in ourselves & others. I realized, after the post, that many folks don’t have the training and experiences I’ve been blessed to receive in Christian conciliation. So, I want to lay some biblical peacemaking groundwork before I proceed further with describing the dynamics, warning signs and red flags, as well as the encouraging and nurturing signs of God’s activity and presence within the relationships.

The initial step: The basic foundation for any conflict resolution process must be determined. We claim that the foundation for our unity is Christ himself, crucified and resurrected, so that we may inherit the promises of God. That sounds abstract, I know, so let’s give alternative examples of foundations to contrast ours. Secular mediation’s goal is to settle material differences in a dispute by use of laws and regulations which pertain to the matter. If a matter ends up in a court of law, laws and regulations which have bearing on the material differences in that jurisdiction are utilized. Religions have different governing principles than secular courts, and in some countries (including the US) religious judicatories have jurisdiction over those who’ve agreed to abide by the principles & authority of their religious documents in order to be employed, or to engage in business transactions, or to be a member of their organization. Colleges and corporations also have student, professor or employee handbooks which lay out conditions and expectations of enrollment or employment. Families, congregations and cultures have dynamic systems within which conflict is handled as determined “appropriate” by that system’s model. Of course, not all of these systems function in healthy, loving or honoring ways from a healthy & loving foundation! Prejudice is harmful, hard to root out, and will poison every interaction. Prejudice (“partiality” is the word used in Scripture) comes in many forms: favoritism, racism, sexism, ethno-centrism, nationalism, classism, deference to financial or worldly status, superiority according to human wisdom, and any scale by which we judge others rather than serve them (see the grid in the last post, for more examples and a graphic image). 

Secondly, a realistic assessment of the position or the interests from which those in conflict operate is imperative to reconciliation. Our subjective position – where we are, how we perceive ourselves & others in relation to one another, how we choose to use whatever power we may have in that relationship & how we process information according to life experiences, e.g. – and the interests we have in the conflict affect the way we use and abuse concrete, verifiable facts and legal principles. 

Consider one recent news event – Newt Gingrich blasted GOP Rep. Paul Ryan’s plan to balance the federal budget in May as “right-wing social engineering” and too much of a “radical change”. Within a couple of days, he claimed to have been “tricked” by the interviewer, and said, “Any ad which quotes what I said on Sunday is a falsehood.” That statement is self-refuting and self-contradictory, because employing a direct quote cannot be a falsehood. What elicited Gingrich’s blustery response was that he belatedly realized the political context had changed dramatically from his time as Speaker of the House. The current GOP political context altered his position because his interests (being elected) required that shift. Yet, his other interests (e.g., self-protection and countering a public image of untrustworthiness) meant that he could not admit his subsequent reevaluation of his own words; thus, he threatened the news reporters and his political opponents. Belligerence toward and blame-shifting onto others is a mask for failure to face one’s weaknesses and self-contradictions.

Thirdly, power imbalances have to be recognized and redressed. Our secular legal system doesn’t do this well, at all. Yes, Legal Aid attorneys will be provided to all defendants, but no one imagines that overworked and underpaid attorneys are capable of balancing out the power imbalance. The force of deep pockets and political influence too frequently prevails. Police, State and local prosecuting attorneys have much more power than the poor, disconnected, and those discriminated against in our society. Plus, they also are pressured to “close” or “win” cases, and are judged by voters or politicians according to those rates. However, government employees that they are, they have significantly fewer resources in contrast to the financial power of corporations, the wealthy and the numerous higher-paid attorneys they employ to protect their interests, even at the expense of equal justice, appropriate governance, or proportional taxation. The 30-day sentence of house arrest plus 2 years’ probation for Barry Bonds is a sad example of unequal justice. Even worse, the complete dearth of prosecutions of Wall Street financial executives for fabricating financial instruments to defraud unwary investors, while shifting the risk from failure onto the federal government is shocking. Some applaud the penalties assessed to FNMA and FHLMC; however, I’m aware of how those penalties stand in appalling contrast to the absence of penalties to those investment banks and bankers who garnered far more wealth from their unethical and devious actions. That’s not to say that FNMA and FHLMC executives were not malfeasant in financial risk-taking; it is to say that those who were penalized had less power than those who’ve done far worse and escaped penalties, thus far.

In Christian conciliation, the goal of conciliation between fellow Christians includes more than a resolution of material differences; the goal of conciliation between Christians is unity in Christ, loving and serving God, one another and the church. The foundation has to be scripturally-based and held together in love within the Body of Christ in community. A faithful Christian understands that his/her subjective position and interests must be winnowed by the Word and the Holy Spirit’s discernment, informed by their brothers and sisters in Christ. The power Christians should use is found in the cross of Christ. We are called to humble love and service of one another, for the glory of God and the building up of the church members. 

22For Jews demand signs and Greeks desire wisdom, 23but we proclaim Christ crucified, a stumbling block to Jews and foolishness to Gentiles, 24but to those who are the called, both Jews and Greeks, Christ the power of God and the wisdom of God. 25For God’s foolishness is wiser than human wisdom, and God’s weakness is stronger than human strength.
26Consider your own call, brothers and sisters: not many of you were wise by human standards, not many were powerful, not many were of noble birth. 27But God chose what is foolish in the world to shame the wise; God chose what is weak in the world to shame the strong; 28God chose what is low and despised in the world, things that are not, to reduce to nothing things that are, 29so that no one might boast in the presence of God. 30He is the source of your life in Christ Jesus, who became for us wisdom from God, and righteousness and sanctification and redemption, 31in order that, as it is written, “Let the one who boasts, boast in the Lord.” (1 Corinthians 1)

Fundamentally, however, Christian conciliation isn’t possible if either party to the conflict determines
  1. Christ is irrelevant to the resolution (i.e., the person’s goal is not unity in Christ), or
  2. Either party acts as an enemy of Christ, whatever profession they may make (i.e., one party refuses to honor Jesus’ command to love the other in accordance with scripture). 

In other words, all parties to the conflict must be acting faithfully toward one another, “in Christ”, and entrusting themselves and one another to the Lord who is able to make them stand. (Romans 14:1-12) The foundation for Christian reconciliation is Christ himself; we are reconciled through the cross: 

13But now in Christ Jesus you who once were far off have been brought near by the blood of Christ. 14For he is our peace; in his flesh he has made both groups into one and has broken down the dividing wall, that is, the hostility between us. 15He has abolished the law with its commandments and ordinances, that he might create in himself one new humanity in place of the two, thus making peace, 16and might reconcile both groups to God in one body through the cross, thus putting to death that hostility through it. 17So he came and proclaimed peace to you who were far off and peace to those who were near; 18for through him both of us have access in one Spirit to the Father. 19So then you are no longer strangers and aliens, but you are citizens with the saints and also members of the household of God, 20built upon the foundation of the apostles and prophets, with Christ Jesus himself as the cornerstone. 21In him the whole structure is joined together and grows into a holy temple in the Lord; 22in whom you also are built together spiritually into a dwelling place for God. (Ephesians 2)

Basically, if one party or the other party to a conflict determines to be the other person’s enemy, there’s no possibility of moving forward toward unity in Christ. If the God we worship is the God who “so loved the world that he gave his only Son so that everyone who believes in him may not perish, but have eternal life” (John 3:16), then we are called to follow him in our thoughts, words, and actions toward everyone – including those who act as enemies to us. It isn’t possible to act as the enemy of any person created in God’s image while following Christ who died, demonstrating God’s love for us. “…while we were God’s enemies, we were reconciled to him through the death of his Son…” (Rom. 5:8-11)

Tuesday, December 6, 2011

Incarnating Lawful Love among Enemies

A Personal Note: every person has suffered from conflict in his/her life. No one of us is exempted, although some have certainly experienced more destructive conflict than others. Extreme alienation is produced by relentless, destructive and violent enmity. Recovering from a toxic environment which breeds enmity and murderous stress takes a while, and without God’s love, presence and strong support from wise companions, complete healing is unreachable. Whether we’re cognizant of the reality or not, most of us have seen Jesus’ warning in Matt. 12:43-45 manifested in people we have known. Many, if not all, of us have experienced the stress of people who seek to harm us, personally or professionally, and who try to fracture the peace and harmony we have within our families and relationships. These people imagine personal gain to be in others' destruction. Two of my closest genetic relatives have attempted to destroy my marriage, undermine my family, relationships and career for many years & decades. My background is highly academic, and so I’ve wrestled to understand their actions and enmity from the perspective of my faith journey with Jesus Christ, and as a thorough-going intellectual with degrees in politics, economics and theology, with training and work in biblical conflict resolution. (Though I try to write simply, in other words, I frequently fail! This is a looong post. (o: ) As a Christ-follower, Jesus called me to love God, neighbors and enemies in my thoughts, prayers, words and actions. Jesus’ call kills me. Simply put, I don’t want to love these people who actively seek the destruction of my life and family relationships. But, to follow Jesus, my natural self and its demands must die. Sometimes, that death has felt like hell. Forgiving is the biblical process of letting go of our natural self’s demands, and allowing God to judge others in God’s time. Enemies, by definition, continuously trespass healthy boundaries. (Let Christ-followers remind ourselves, again, all of us have trespassed against others!) In Christ, by the power of the Holy Spirit, I have chosen love, not enmity. What I reflect about my journey, below, is meant to encourage others. Perhaps, the patterns observed in those who love and those who hate might resonate with others’ observations, too. May this encourage those who love God to keep following Jesus.  To those who don’t know him, Jesus lives. He is God’s lawful love incarnate – steadfast, faithful, trustworthy, grace-filled and true. God is good. Jesus said,
43“You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ 44But I say to you, Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, 45so that you may be children of your Father in heaven; for he makes his sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the righteous and on the unrighteous. 46For if you love those who love you, what reward do you have? Do not even the tax collectors do the same? 47And if you greet only your brothers and sisters, what more are you doing than others? Do not even the Gentiles do the same? 48Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect. (Matthew 5)
When most of us think about laws, we think about a list of rules external to us, actions we should or should not take based on criteria about which most of us had no influence. The prophets, Jesus, and his apostles, however, clearly indicate that humans already embody laws in our bodies – thoughts, words, tastes, preferences, actions, experiences, reactions and interactions. By our words, actions, and choices we are constantly revealing whom or what we worship. In our bodies, we are constantly judging and assessing whether others measure up to our norms of what is “good”, right, fair, just, moral, appropriate or “tasteful” to do. However, as do speed limits, traffic regulations, societal expectations and criminal laws, human norms are constantly fluctuating, formed, hardened and softened through good and bad experiences, affected by good, bad, persuasive, manipulative &/or powerful people, across cultures, within the course of time. This simplistic (& reductionist) 3-dimensional grid gives an idea of how we naturally embody “laws”. Imagine the diamonds on the grid representing one person measured according to a set of standards, at a certain point in time…

 The horizontal plane gives the subjective measure of how little/much a person has and accumulates, and the vertical ordering gives the ranking a person enacts at any given day or period in life, by priorities of time, energy and resources. If we add the 3rd dimension of the depth of time, the fluidity and inter-relationships of the points becomes more obvious, and we begin to perceive that our life has markers at certain moments (the diamonds), but also assumes a shape and direction over time. Imagine this dynamic continually being enacted in our body and choices, and the dimensions take shape in the person we see in the mirror. The person I am lives within a far more complex developing constellation of people, culture, race, ethnicity and history.

As we naturally interact according to our own & others’ relative positions on the grid of our bodies & human positions, we will fail to meet people on the holy ground of God’s saving grace, mercy and welcome in Christ. We cannot see ourselves, or know what God knows of us. We cannot fully see who others are in God’s sight, where they need God, where they struggle, now, and how they long for healing and wholeness. We’re stuck assessing them and ourselves according to human measurements from our relative scale which is subject to time and our bodies. (Rom. 8:5-7) Just as one person has one view from the floor of a canyon, so another person has a different view when stuck on a cliff, even if both views are reflected “truly” at that moment & immediate context. Every aspect of and each behavioral choice we’ve made in our whole life affects the angles from which we justify, measure and/or condemn ourselves and others. Metaphorically, as soon as we freeze time’s passage to measure and judge ourselves or others, we’ve measured inaccurately and untruthfully.  The Heisenberg Uncertainty Principle provides a physical metaphor for this spiritual truth: the more accurately a scientist calculates the position of a particle in physics, the less accurately the particle’s speed can be measured, and vice versa.

We cannot see the activity of God in our assessments of our own or others’ positions on the grid. We can only perceive the Holy Spirit’s continuing breath & life by maintaining our connection to Godself, and inasmuch as possible from our side, with one another.  We cannot know others’ hearts, yet we should discern developing fruit (or lack) and our own or others’ motion toward light or darkness, toward confessing or hiding of sins, toward growing peace and unity or harboring alienation. 

Maintaining enmity absolutely depends upon the stoppage of time at particular points, so that our human grid positions freeze in our subjective position of judgment/approval, condemnation/release, divorce/affinity, murder, alienation, gossip, slander and perceptions of morality/ immorality. Of course, the judging one claims the “higher” law or principle by which he/she condemns others, permanently. That law/principle, however externally supported (even with scriptural principles), becomes the unrighteous, hammering gavel by which people demand satisfaction, condemn or approve of one another. (Rom. 7:5) The ongoing suffering of people in the land of Palestine/Israel is one manifestation of an ancient “good” promise held sacrosanct to harm others, today.  That shard of time can become a prism of refracted light, or an icicle to stab someone with.

One peculiar manifestation of persons frozen in enmity is an irrational inability to perceive anyone and even time itself from outside of her/his singular viewpoint from a particular past grid position & perspective. S/he continues bringing the past into the present, with human words puffing breath vainly into the past’s rotting glory or shame. All the referents are from within her/his body’s grid, then, and even verifiable, subsequent and superseding facts are ignored, warped, omitted and denied so s/he can maintain that position of self-justified condemnation and enmity. “Evidence” is fabricated out of nothing. Real and imagined “facts”, deliberately isolated from time & others’ perspectives, and deliberately positioned as the scope through which all else is viewed, become the warped weapons by which s/he fight people. S/he will not be reconciled to God, self or others. She or he holds that position in their grid as if life itself depended on it. However, Life is truly lived elsewhere. Sadly, the grid’s triumph, his/her fixed position, and the enmity produced manifests death, not life. The breath humans puff at the past and death is lifeless and without power to create new life. 

Another peculiar manifestation of sworn enemies is that they demand the ultimate word. S/he cannot “lose”; every encounter is win/lose. The only resolution for them is in a declaration of their right-ness, not reconciliation on any other ground but that of the false god of their “principle” within their singular view and story of some “reality”. Her/his view becomes the meta-narrative by which others should live and view all of life. (For philosopher friends, the breakdown of post-modernism is that its denial of over-arching meta-narratives requires the replacement of a common meta-narrative with an individualistic one. “What’s ethical to you is your ‘good’ choice, and what’s good for me is fine, too.”) Such a resolution violates any reconciliation possible in Christ, which is founded on the rock of God’s steadfast love, grace, truth, mercy, justice and redemption. Neither truth nor reality itself has any effect on his/her demand for the offender to return to the ground of his/her enmity, unforgiven. There, on that ground, the offender must bow down to the enemy’s principle, story, demand, and sacrifice their own. That demand is the very crux of idolatry and false worship. Followers of Christ know the forgiveness of God that permeates all of life, present, past and future, in all of its health and brokenness, and they rejoice that the power of God’s love surely triumphed over death in Jesus Christ. Even the Hebrew psalmists knew that our forgiveness is grounded on God’s love:
6 Be mindful of your mercy, O LORD, and of your steadfast love,
for they have been from of old.
7 Do not remember the sins of my youth or my transgressions;
according to your steadfast love remember me,
for your goodness’ sake, O LORD!
8 Good and upright is the LORD;
therefore he instructs sinners in the way. (Psalm 25)

There is no humanly accessible life, truth, grace, love, justice and mercy outside of time, because we ourselves live subject to time. Mercy requires ongoing love; we needed the self-emptying incarnation to see the living God-beyond-time, truly, here, now, in future hope, and then. We worship the LORD God, “I AM, I WAS, and I WILL BE”; we serve the Alpha and Omega, the first and the last Word full of grace and truth. This helps explain why reconciliation is improbable with certain people. The true law of love which reflects the living, changing and moving reality is subjected to and falsified by his/her demands that everyone see through his/her scope of a frozen interpretative grid. As Proverb 29:9 clarifies,
If the wise go to law with fools,
There is ranting and ridicule without relief.

Paul didn’t allow his weaknesses (1 Cor. 15:8-9) or his strengths (Phil. 3:4-6) to determine how he understood himself or others; rather, all believers are “crucified with Christ”. Paul refused to judge himself or relate to believers according to his legalistic flesh.
Yet whatever gains I had, these I have come to regard as loss because of Christ. More than that, I regard everything as loss because of the surpassing value of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord. For his sake I have suffered the loss of all things, and I regard them as crap*, in order that I may gain Christ and be found in him, not having a righteousness of my own that comes from the law [my position on any human grid], but one that comes through faith in Christ, the righteousness from God based on faith. (Phil. 3:7-9)  [ *lit. Greek, BDAG]

Paul clearly interpreted life, reality, other people and himself from the foundation of and through God’s grace revealed sufficient in the cross and resurrection of Jesus Christ. He focused on the continuing work of God in Christ for them and called them to live by the power of the Holy Spirit being revealed in them. “And this [batch of sinners] is what some of you used to be. But you were washed, you were sanctified, you were justified in the name of the Lord Jesus Christ and in the Spirit of our God. (1 Cor. 6: 11)

The lens through which faithful Christians read life, people and scripture is God’s love incarnate in the life, death and resurrection of Jesus. We who follow him have chosen, by grace in the Holy Spirit, to receive the death which our sins have wrought, and now rejoice in our deliverance through death into new life. As we are being conformed to God’s law of love, we bear Christ and one another, we continue to be set free from our own and their human legalistic grid – free to see others with God’s loving eyes as the Holy Spirit enables us, apart from our sins and their sins, and free to call them to the freedom and life we celebrate “in Christ”. We seek to be conformed to him by the power of the Holy Spirit, so our embodied law evidences God’s steadfast love, eternal life and super-abundant grace. (Rom. 5:15-21)

When we freeze our viewpoints and our human actions of justification or judgment outside of time’s and others’ reach, we have elevated ourselves to an unmerciful, unforgiving, condemning, self-justifying false and frozen idol.
1 Not to us, O LORD, not to us, but to your name give glory, for the sake of your steadfast love and your faithfulness.
2 Why should the nations say, “Where is their God?”
3 Our God is in the heavens; he does whatever he pleases.
4 Their idols are silver and gold, the work of human hands.
5 They have mouths, but do not speak; eyes, but do not see.
6 They have ears, but do not hear; noses, but do not smell.
7 They have hands, but do not feel; feet, but do not walk; they make no sound in their throats.
8 Those who make them are like them; so are all who trust in them. (Psalm 115)

As Christians, we call on one another to worship, love and honor the one and only living God whose very redemptive love is grace-filled incarnate Word. God lives! Jesus lives! This God continues to sanctify, to speak, to guide, to wash, to conform us to Christ, by the power of the indwelling Holy Spirit and to make us holy in the course of life, in this time. We await this God’s advent, we seek his kingdom come, now. May the church be the Body of Christ, building up and encouraging one another to persevere in picking up our crosses and following Jesus. Even so, come, Lord Jesus!

Monday, November 28, 2011

Speaking Truth to Worldly Power in the Feminine Voice

Please consider these three women who were in positions of speaking truthfully about inherent risks and dangers to the US and international financial systems: Elizabeth Warren, Brooksley E. Born and Christine Lagarde. All of them have consistently, wisely and courageously held to the truth revealed by their experiences, education,  and informed understandings, even at the risk of being sidelined and dismissed. Most women and men would give up in the face of such relentless pressure, but we should be grateful for whatever familial and professional support these women have had that has encouraged them to persevere. 

Godly, strong women in scripture are depicted in the roles of judge, prophet, warrior, queen, spiritual leaders, and economic providers. All of us who summarily dismiss the feminine voices in our lives which speak truthfully endanger ourselves and others. The voice of Wisdom in Proverbs is feminine. The voice of Proverbs' Alien or Strange woman is also feminine. (Proverbs describes her by her unrepentant actions of promiscuity, adultery, and her misleading of others while being blind & deaf to the truth.) Spiritual maturity necessitates the discerning of whose voices to listen to by attending to the fruit of their lives. Some of the wisest voices in my life have been/are women's, and yet, some of the most threatening, divisive, violent and abusive voices I've ever heard were also female - and one was a close relative! Hearing well and wisely heeding may mean the difference between life and death. Proverbs certainly indicates so. (cf. Prov. 7-9)

One of the major contributors to the dismissing & ignoring of godly women's voices in the US, in business and other spheres, is an attitude that can prevail unchecked in any male-dominated environment, among them religious circles (not only Christian, but including them). From my perspective and training, it seems to be the metaphorical "fruit" of "reading" reality as one might read Genesis 3:17 erroneously as literalistic, in a way that self-justifies, self-elevates, and promotes a "rule over" mindset. (I read Genesis 3 as a metaphorical, poetic and theological description of the status quo and the results we observe in the human actions and interactions around us. It describes "what is".)

Human responsibility & accountability require that we hear and discern Truth in the male and female voices that constantly clamor for our attention. In this world, men's voices have to soften and welcome women's voices to be heard, and women's voices need assertiveness and confidence to continue speaking despite the ongoing opposition to the feminine voice for being feminine. As Christians, we believe in the God who reveals Godself to us as grace and truth, incarnate Word in the Son, Jesus Christ, and present with us in the indwelling Holy Spirit, through all members of Christ. We receive the words of those who tell truth and whose lives evidence godly ways and wisdom. Any person's repeated and stubborn denial of evident, revealed and living truth should be a warning sign for each of us to walk cautiously when in their presence. Truth, holiness, grace and light journey hand in hand. When men and women, together, reflect God's image faithfully, we more clearly see the world we live in. 

For more on Brooksley Born and her gutsy confrontations of men in power, cf. this Washington Post article from 2008.       

Friday, November 18, 2011

Honor Your Father & Your Mother

“For we are God’s handiwork, created in Christ Jesus to do good works, which God prepared in advance for us to do.” (Ephesians 2:10)

God adopted me into the family of Christ when I was 17 & finishing my first year of college. My believing Mom “bequeathed” me, so to speak, into the care of her best friends Marty & Marv, when she died. I was 26, then. They’ve been my parents-in-Christ for half my life, and encouraged me to live, work and rejoice in Christ. God has blessed me through a continuity of parents, mentors, brothers- &-sisters-in-Christ; they’ve been humble, trustworthy and wise people whom I trusted to reflect faithfully to me who I am, according to their (imperfect, but loving) perceptions, to support, build up and encourage me to follow godly paths. Thanks be to God!

One very complicated part of the ongoing journey has been reconciling my heart and life in Christ to the family into which I was born. Understanding that every, single one of us is “God’s handiwork”, first and foremost, is central to being healed. God has said, we are his children, and the family into which we are born may support, damage, affect, harm or strengthen us in that knowledge, in varying measures. Knowing we are God’s handiwork, though, holds each of us responsible and accountable to God in our actions, reactions, choices and words. In the Day of God, we are accountable to the LORD, our Judge, not to our parents, our siblings, our neighbors, or our enemies. (Rom. 14:12) Jesus commanded us to love God, neighbors and enemies. Paul also continued to say, “Let us therefore no longer pass judgment on one another, but resolve instead never to put a stumbling block or hindrance in the way of another.” (Rom. 14:13)

My birth family was a broken family, and both my birth parents are now long deceased. Our parents had a terrible marriage, and all of us suffered from their conflict and divorce. My decision not to frame life according to their sins and mistakes reflects my decision to worship God who lives, loves, and offers grace and mercy. The foundational question is whom do we believe tells us the truth about ourselves, God or people? Insofar as people fail to reflect God’s incarnate Word of grace & truth to us, we must distrust and disbelieve them. Following Jesus Christ, I could not judge my parents, but will love, forgive and give grace to them. God presented many opportunities and the power to serve them in offering grace and forgiveness, over the years. As I matured in Christ, I humbled myself, loved and served them more, but earlier, there were too many times when I failed to love them and God because I held onto (justifiable, to my mind) anger, bitterness, resentment or pride. Over the decades and years, however, the truth of Jesus’ wisdom has been manifest in choosing love over judgment. Even in memories, the daily choice to love and forgive them has redeemed the blessings and memories of good & joyful times we had together. I know, now, that both my parents loved me as best they knew how to love, and parented me with the goal of my good, in mind: to raise me to be a truthful, wise, ethical, scholarly & hard-working woman. I thank God for the gifts given to me in Mom and Dad. I know that each of them, as every one of us, failed God, themselves, one another and us. Only by grace, with thanksgiving toward God, may we truly receive, honor and rejoice in God’s gifts to us in one another. Otherwise, we easily fall into the trap so clearly described by the Psalmist in Psalm 50, in the italics.

Psalm 50
1 The mighty one, God the LORD,
speaks and summons the earth
from the rising of the sun to its setting.
2 Out of Zion, the perfection of beauty,
God shines forth.
3 Our God comes and does not keep silence,
before him is a devouring fire,
and a mighty tempest all around him.
4 He calls to the heavens above
and to the earth, that he may judge his people:
5 “Gather to me my faithful ones,
who made a covenant with me by sacrifice!”
6 The heavens declare his righteousness,
for God himself is judge.
7 “Hear, O my people, and I will speak,
O Israel, I will testify against you.
I am God, your God.
8 Not for your sacrifices do I rebuke you;
your burnt offerings are continually before me.
9 I will not accept a bull from your house,
or goats from your folds.
10 For every wild animal of the forest is mine,
the cattle on a thousand hills.
11 I know all the birds of the air,
and all that moves in the field is mine.
12 “If I were hungry, I would not tell you,
for the world and all that is in it is mine.
13 Do I eat the flesh of bulls,
or drink the blood of goats?
14 Offer to God a sacrifice of thanksgiving [Make thanksgiving your sacrifice to God],
and pay your vows to the Most High.
15 Call on me in the day of trouble;
I will deliver you, and you shall glorify me.”
16 But to the wicked God says:
“What right have you to recite my statutes,
or take my covenant on your lips?
17 For you hate discipline,
and you cast my words behind you.
18 You make friends with a thief when you see one,
and you keep company with adulterers.
19 “You give your mouth free rein for evil,
and your tongue frames deceit.
20 You sit and speak against your kin;
you slander your own mother’s child.
21 These things you have done and I have been silent;
you thought that I was one just like yourself.
But now I rebuke you, and lay the charge before you.
22 “Mark this, then, you who forget God,
or I will tear you apart, and there will be no one to deliver.
23 Those who bring thanksgiving as their sacrifice honor me;
to those who go the right way
I will show the salvation of God.”

Divorce and alienation from one another reflect human judgment; divorce is an ongoing separation carried out upon one another – “I refuse to be ‘with’ you.” We usually use “divorce” only in reference to marriage, but in Scripture, the Greek and Hebrew words describe separation, abandonment and cutting off.  Attempts to hinder one another, to cause others to stumble, to throw obstacles in their ways, to gossip about or slander men or women, to threaten people with punishment, to lord it over them by making one’s words, laws and reasoning a false judge/god, are sinful ways using human laws to defy God’s Law of love. The goal of human laws is to separate and divide ourselves from one another, to manufacture a deceitful, death-producing and punitive hierarchy within humanity (cf. Psalm 62). 

God’s covenant is the power and light-filled antidote to the creeping death that revels in divisions, divorce and alienation. The goal of God’s covenantal law is unity in love, in Christ through his broken body and shed blood, which is reflected through us as we confess our own brokenness and failure to love. While laws may resemble one another, superficially, human essence is revealed in our love, words and actions toward one another. When we love one another well, we increasingly conform to Christ’s image, becoming beautiful in holiness and relational righteousness.  The psalmists and Scripture’s authors wrote of the unrelenting alienation within families which grows out of wrongly applied laws and unloving legalism. Most children of The Great Divorce and the smaller divorces (secular or spiritual), today, suffer from the inability to turn from the faulty foundation which broke humanity as a whole, and their families, in particular. They elevate themselves above and justify continuing enmity toward siblings. Their path evidences unremitting divisiveness and self-justification. They seek to break up unity, to harm what is good (cf. vv. 17-20, above). They simply cannot discern healthy from harmful outcomes, and that which is whole, loving and fragrant of Christ infuriates them so much that they seek its destruction.

To leave those paths of death, we humbly accept the God who loves us and them, the Creator of our earthly father and mother, the Lord who knows our families and ourselves thoroughly, the one who brings light and life from darkness and death through self-giving service. God brought our life out of our parents’ unity (however temporary and flawed), and God calls us to choose life and love, carry our crosses, share one another’s burdens. Empowered by the Holy Spirit, humbled by God’s grace, I offer thanksgiving to God, and I will honor and love my father and mother. I cannot love God, in truth, if I fail to love them and others created in God’s image. As James noted, when we’ve broken one part of the law, we’ve broken the wholeness of it (James 2:10). We all fall before God’s holiness and righteousness, but God’s steadfast love and mercy in Christ Jesus enables us to stand – in order that we may embody the mercy and love of the indwelling Christ toward others.

[Mortals] say of some temporal suffering, "No future bliss can make up for it," not knowing Heaven, once attained, will work backwards and turn even that agony into a glory. And of some sinful pleasure they say "Let me have but this and I'll take the consequences": little dreaming how damnation will spread back and back into their past and contaminate the pleasure of the sin. Both processes begin even before death.
(C.S. Lewis, The Great Divorce)

Philippians 2
7But whatever were gains to me I now consider loss for the sake of Christ. 8What is more, I consider everything a loss because of the surpassing worth of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord, for whose sake I have lost all things. I consider them garbage, that I may gain Christ 9and be found in him, not having a righteousness of my own that comes from the law, but that which is through faith in Christ—the righteousness that comes from God on the basis of faith. 10I want to know Christ—yes, to know the power of his resurrection and participation in his sufferings, becoming like him in his death, 11and so, somehow, attaining to the resurrection from the dead. 12Not that I have already obtained all this, or have already arrived at my goal, but I press on to take hold of that for which Christ Jesus took hold of me.
13Brothers and sisters, I do not consider myself yet to have taken hold of it. But one thing I do: Forgetting what is behind and straining toward what is ahead, 14I press on toward the goal to win the prize for which God has called me heavenward in Christ Jesus.

Friday, August 19, 2011

Malfunctions of the Christian Faith

Miroslav Volf speaking on A Public Faith in this YouTube video gives a wonderful distinction between a coercive faith and an idle faith. His words reminded me strongly of Paul's words to the Corinthians recorded in 1 Corinthians 15. Paul gave a smidgeon of his own coercive religious history from which he was redeemed in v. 9, but plainly questioned whether the Corinthians behavior revealed their own faith to have been "in vain".  (Cf. the first 14 chapters for that behavior!)

Volf's new book, A Public Faith, is reviewed here, and I appreciate that the reviewer picked up on some the ramifications also addressed, below.

Volf's thoughts in the video inspired my own tangents. (I'm looking forward to reading the book, in its entirety!) Whether humans want to identify themselves as religious, irreligious or atheist really isn't central to the question of "faith" or "trust" which is manifested by how one lives life. If I should believe that my way of living is superior to any other, then I should choose whether to commend it to others or not. If yes, I might then employ all sorts of subjective variables to govern when/ where/ with whom/ if/ how I commend my way. To use coercion or not is one such variable. If coercion is a possibility, what type of coercion is permissible - verbal, intellectual, legal, financial, persuasion of rank or status, psychological, physical - then, which methods with whom?

You may be able to see that the variables are as infinite as the people and circumstances in which they find themselves.

If I choose not to commend my way to others, then I would have one form of idle faith. I trust in no one, except in my self, the singular, limited view from within that self, and the limited experiences of one person. My way works for me, alone, and for no other. Perhaps I simply would have no aspirations to understand why one would live my way or choose their own way. That might sound appealing to many folk, today, because choosing a particular way is perceived to be offensive to all who might choose otherwise, according to their own variables. However, sooner or later, my way will come face to face with other people, and then my idle faith will be challenged by their way of their own version of idle faith or coercive faith or other choices of what/who to trust... Then, what happens?

Religion forms as a concert of people believe that these ways promote life, peace and harmony in community. Explained so, it should be obvious why laws and religious beliefs conjoin so readily in public life. There are as many religious beliefs as there are self-affirming groups. Many definitions of "religion" incorporate the supernatural. Historically, the supernatural has been perceived to be the commendation and the imprimatur of god(s) upon these ways. If God (or gods) exist then these ways are more than the sum of humanity's thoughts. Anthropomorphic gods are those whose ways are obviously as flawed as humans are flawed, devious, unethical, greedy, ambitious, lustful, self-serving, demanding of obsequious approval, unquestioning obedience, & rejection of all other ways, and prone to rage when not satisfied, etc. There are also religions whose god(s) follow ways other than human ways.

When asked why he believed the Biblical message of God-in-Christ, Eugene Peterson's response was simple and forthright; as I recall, he said, essentially, "because I can live what I believe." If a religion's God is other than merely human, the ways commended need to be fulfillable internally and externally, as it were. Christian belief is that by God's grace, when we face the truth, acknowledge our weaknesses, and confess our wrongs and broken ways, we welcome God to transform our lives from the heart outward, so that we may obey God. The God who embodied Love-with-us, who comes in grace and truth to both friends and enemies, is beyond merely human, as we confess we are.

There are also people who commend and try to coerce others toward certain ways which they themselves have not lived. Current news reports recount heightened public anger against politicians, religious figures, attorneys, and others entrusted with authority who have privately failed to honor whatever patriotic, God-honoring or people-honoring "higher" principles they've publicly professed. We viscerally recognize that such people's commendations are inevitably hypocritical, and if we have sufficient courage and self-awareness, we acknowledge that human lack of moral character clouds discernment, because whatever actions we excuse in ourselves skews our perceptions. Sound judgment proceeds from a life embodying wisdom and knowledge.

For Christians, perceiving that Jesus' anger was directed against such hypocrisy and legalistic obfuscation informs our understanding of Jesus' harsh words recorded in Matthew 23. Matthew described an escalating succession of attempts to entrap Jesus beginning at 21:23, and ending with the lawyer's questioning him in 22:34-36. Entrapment, by definition, only serves the ambitions and interests of the trapper. When the selfish goals of the hunters are exposed in the light, as Jesus exposed the Sadducees, Pharisees, lawyers and scribes, the hunters seek to hide from the truth and destroy the messenger(s), rather than face public ridicule and themselves. Hypocrisy - literally, judging others to standards while living below standards oneself - is the most dangerous form of idle faith. Hypocrites seek to destroy those who can see through their smoke and try to dissipate it.

Hypocrites lack, or merely pretend to have, an essential attribute of integrity: humility. We, humans are more persuaded by people of integrity who serve others than by any disembodied information. There are hypocrites who attain great wealth and/or power in this world, people whose arrogance and narcissism preclude ever admitting errors, flaws or wrongdoing, even - or, especially - in the face of truth. However, we can be thankful that there are also humble people who have become great, freely admitting that we all need one another, that no human can know all truth, that no single person can be an expert at all things, that we accept correction and responsibility for our errors - deliberate and unknowing. The humble wield what power they have in service of others. Humility is the antithesis of human presumption to "know" better than others; the humble listen, serve and love, even though they honor virtues which counter others' ways. The ways (i.e., faith) of the humble will withstand the assault of arrogant self-interest. Coercive faith, of any stripe, is inherently presumptuous. Embodied humility cannot be coercive because humble people serve and consider others' best interests. John Dickson's book, Humilitas, was inspired by his participation in an academic project of Macquarie University in Australia which explored the historical origins of the virtue of humility. In ancient Greece and Rome, humility was scorned and derided as servitude, perceived only as appropriate for lower classes toward superiors, while pride (arrogance) was celebrated as a virtue among men. However, once there was humility incarnate, the willing sacrificing of an innocent and holy person for the guilty, who then rose from death - "and was declared to be Son of God with power according to the spirit of holiness by resurrection of the dead, Jesus Christ our Lord" (Romans 1:4), followers were inspired, humility was transformed, serving others redeemed, true power was revealed, and humanity could see by the love of God incarnated that love of neighbors was united with love of God.

Sunday, July 10, 2011

An Over-arching or Under-girding God or "Philosophy"?

I had a conversation with an atheist last week on a blog, and I "heard" something curious in the way we each thought of religion, philosophy, God or not-god.

When he thought of religion, he thought of an over-arching philosophical system. Essentially, it seemed he thought of Someone or a (self/group-sanctified) Group of someones telling other people what to do, when to do it, and how to live in almost every aspect of life. He's not off the mark of many "religious" folks - in every religion, and irreligion, including Christianity. There are many, many people who become religious or irreligious, and many people who become religious or irreligious leaders who are really masking a deep narcissism that wants other people to listen to them as they want to listen to "god."

However, there are also many religious people who start from a foundation of God. They think the best of God, and they trust in God's sustaining creation and love. Do they have tough times, lament, mourn, experience oppression & heartache? Read the Psalms, and you'll find your answer, there, as I did.

What I've noticed as a fairly uniform pattern of the type of person my atheist dialogue partner disliked is that those with over-arching views begin with an assumption of distrust in those who are different than they are, or behave or choose differently. They want to change others, they want to make them into their own image of who "perfect" people should be, they want to tell others that they know best how to do everything, and they want others to believe that their view of the world & every experience is the only "true" view. There is no other story which is allowed to interfere with their "superior" understanding. They will use all sorts of means - some seemingly "good" and others downright ugly - to manipulate or dominate, connive or threaten, cajole or coerce others into compliance. This atheist and I are in agreement, here. We both think those people's beliefs and methods are wrong-headed and unproductive of shalom. (He'd state that differently, though.)

As I've mentioned before, "belief" or "faith" is defined in the doing of life. I don't share the same "faith" as people who have these over-arching views, because I don't arch my own views other people's lives.

Psalm 136 gives the heartbeat of my faith in the continuous refrain:

Psalm 136
1 O give thanks to the LORD, for he is good, for his steadfast love endures forever.
2 O give thanks to the God of gods, for his steadfast love endures forever.
3 O give thanks to the Lord of lords, for his steadfast love endures forever;
4 who alone does great wonders, for his steadfast love endures forever;
5 who by understanding made the heavens, for his steadfast love endures forever;
6 who spread out the earth on the waters, for his steadfast love endures forever;
7 who made the great lights, for his steadfast love endures forever;
8 the sun to rule over the day, for his steadfast love endures forever;
9 the moon and stars to rule over the night, for his steadfast love endures forever;
10 who struck Egypt through their firstborn, for his steadfast love endures forever;
11 and brought Israel out from among them, for his steadfast love endures forever;
12 with a strong hand and an outstretched arm, for his steadfast love endures forever;
13 who divided the Red Sea in two, for his steadfast love endures forever;
14 and made Israel pass through the midst of it, for his steadfast love endures forever;
15 but overthrew Pharaoh and his army in the Red Sea, for his steadfast love endures forever;
16 who led his people through the wilderness, for his steadfast love endures forever;
17 who struck down great kings, for his steadfast love endures forever;
18 and killed famous kings, for his steadfast love endures forever;
19 Sihon, king of the Amorites, for his steadfast love endures forever;
20 and Og, king of Bashan, for his steadfast love endures forever;
21 and gave their land as a heritage, for his steadfast love endures forever;
22 a heritage to his servant Israel, for his steadfast love endures forever.
23 It is he who remembered us in our low estate, for his steadfast love endures forever;
24 and rescued us from our foes, for his steadfast love endures forever;
25 who gives food to all flesh, for his steadfast love endures forever.
26 O give thanks to the God of heaven, for his steadfast love endures f

We note how differently Jesus tells us to treat others with whom we disagree - even if that disagreement is across every level of life, personal, familial or national. When Jesus tells us to "Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect!", Jesus is telling us to love the evil and the good people, just as God does. Jesus came to serve others, not to "over-arch" or lord it over others.

Matthew 6:38-48

38“Here’s another old saying that deserves a second look: ‘Eye for eye, tooth for tooth.’
39Is that going to get us anywhere? Here’s what I propose: ‘Don’t hit back at all.’ If someone strikes you, stand there and take it.
40If someone drags you into court and sues for the shirt off your back, giftwrap your best coat and make a present of it.
41And if someone takes unfair advantage of you, use the occasion to practice the servant life.
42No more tit-for-tat stuff. Live generously.
43“You’re familiar with the old written law, ‘Love your friend,’ and its unwritten companion, ‘Hate your enemy.’
44I’m challenging that. I’m telling you to love your enemies. Let them bring out the best in you, not the worst. When someone gives you a hard time, respond with the energies of prayer,
45for then you are working out of your true selves, your God-created selves. This is what God does. He gives his best—the sun to warm and the rain to nourish—to everyone, regardless: the good and bad, the nice and nasty.
46If all you do is love the lovable, do you expect a bonus? Anybody can do that.
47If you simply say hello to those who greet you, do you expect a medal? Any run-of-the-mill sinner does that.
48“In a word, what I’m saying is, Grow up. You’re kingdom subjects. Now live like it. Live out your God-created identity. Live generously and graciously toward others, the way God lives toward you.

Let us "Grow up!"